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"It's time," said Oscar, flinging off his comforter. Despite the fact that he was in bed, he was fully dressed. All he had to do was put on his shoes and fleece jacket. That, and open the window and jump out.
Luke felt the blood rushing to his head. Was it really time? He glanced at his phone to be sure: almost two in the morning. Unlike Oscar, he'd been too nervous to sleep. Instead, he had done his history homework and studied for next week's Spanish quiz. Then he'd watched a bunch of College Humor videos before collapsing in his faded armchair with a copy of Field and Stream magazine.
A brisk October breeze dragged scratchy tree branches across their window. The moon was full and bright, but at this hour it was pretty much a given that everyone on campus was sound asleep — everyone except the two girls who were preparing to meet them outside. All Luke and Oscar had to do was sneak out of their dorm and make it to the woods without detection.
Easier said than done.
St. Benedict's — their boarding school, nestled in the heart of Connecticut — treated sneaking out of the dorm after hours as a serious infraction of the honor code, so if they got caught, they'd be up for a Disciplinary Committee hearing. If they were lucky, the D.C. would be in a good mood and simply put them on probation, but if the members were feeling cranky they could just as easily rule it a strike. One strike equaled suspension; two was expulsion. Oscar already had one strike — due to his habit of skipping classes and illegally signing out — and even if Luke got off with probation, it would be a big problem. Colleges, not to mention parents, cared a lot about that stuff.
Of course, Oscar would take it in stride. Hell, he'd probably go down in a blaze of glory. He'd brush his dark hair out of his eyes, smile lazily at the members of the D.C. and move on, as if getting kicked out was all just part of some grand plan. Luke was the opposite; if he got expelled he might as well go straight to the tattoo place in town and ink the word "failure" across his forehead, because that's what he'd feel like.
"Dude, come on, let's bolt," Oscar said.
To outsiders, they were an unlikely pair. Oscar was ornery and aloof and had the reputation of being a rebel. He excelled at sports but was not necessarily a team player; he participated in no extracurriculars other than what was required, and had no problem challenging authority. That attitude, coupled with the self-confident swagger of someone who knows he is good-looking, made him the kind of guy who would give any parents pause when he showed up to take their daughter out on the town. Not that Oscar would even bother getting out of his car to knock on the door; girls went to him, not the other way around. Luke, on the other hand, was the all-around good guy: clean-cut, a great student and athlete, a Student Rep, a dorm prefect, president of the Outdoors Club, and a member of STEAM — St. Benedict's Environmental Action Movement. Luke knew some people viewed him as some sort of perfectly packaged college-app striver, and it bothered him, but what could he do? He liked doing those things and he wasn't about to change just to avoid conforming to other people's perceptions.
Luke was certain he and Oscar would probably have steered clear of each other had they not been placed together as roommates freshman year. But they both fell out of their public roles when they were in the quiet of their own room, and they'd become best friends.
"Come on, Chase. Hurry up."
"Okay, okay. I just need to stuff my bed." Luke moved his pillows under the covers so that it looked as if he were still in it, sleeping.
Tonight, Oscar had arranged to meet Kelsey, a preppy blue-eyed blond who giggled a little too much for Luke's taste. Luke, in turn, had invited Pippa, a recent transfer from England.
"If I were you, I'm not sure I'd risk keeping Pippa waiting. But sure, by all means go ahead and arrange your bed perfectly."
Luke made one last adjustment to the comforter. "You don't like her, do you?"
"What's to like? She's totally stuck-up and she's not even that hot."
"I think she's hot," Luke countered. He pictured Pippa in his mind: she was tall, with very blond hair and nearly translucent skin. There was something almost otherworldly about her. She had really smart things to say in American Lit — ideas that were distinct from those of all the other kids in the class. She made him think. Plus, it was unusual for St. Benedict's to accept any new students junior year, so that gave her an extra layer of allure.
"I guess I shouldn't be surprised. You have a thing for 'different' girls," Oscar said, using air quotes the way he always did when this subject came up.
"Come on," protested Luke, even though he had to admit that it was partly true. All his friends expected him to only like girls who resembled him, as if couples should pair off like a set of matching salt-and-pepper shakers. Just because he had a preppy, all-American sporty vibe didn't mean that's what he looked for in a girl. In fact, he was attracted to girls who were a little unexpected.
"Sure you do. Different girls are totally your thing, man. This girl's got a posh accent and no one really knows anything about her. She's a mystery, and you love that stuff." Oscar snapped his fingers. "Hey, you know what? I think it's because if you took off her omnipresent beret she looks like Daenerys from Game of Thrones. You've got that whole fantasy world fetish going on, right?"
"Fantasy world? Me?" Luke rolled his eyes.
"You know, Mother of Dragons, and all that?" Oscar thrust out his chest and clasped his hands in front of himself like a princess.
Luke pulled his pillow out from underneath the comforter and tossed it at Oscar's head.
"Yeah? Well, I'd rather go out with a badass dragon girl than silly little Kelsey."
"Now it's official," Oscar said, catching the pillow and spinning it in the air. "You are actually trying to make us late, aren't you?"
Luke held out his hand for the pillow and Oscar threw it back.
Luke finished with the bed and stepped back to look at it critically. In the dark and without a close look, it might look like a person was actually in there. Right now, not so much. But it would have to do.
Time to go. Luke opened the window and reached for the thickest tree branch. It shook a bit, weakened by his weight, but it was secure. Luke had spent most of his summers climbing trees at his grandparents' farm in Virginia, and nowadays he spent a few Sundays every month camping and climbing in the nearby Berkshire Mountains with his club. Always pushing himself, he had taken a month-long outdoors course at the Appalachian State Park last summer to pick up new skills.
He didn't have a choice; he had to push himself. Those skills were way more than just a hobby: they'd actually saved his life three years ago.
He laughed to himself. It was sort of funny to think of where he was now, using some of those lifesaving skills to sneak out to meet a girl. Mac, his group leader from the Appalachians, would actually be proud. He was always urging Luke to go further, push himself harder, in every way. Luke was doing that tonight, all right. Pushing his rule-abiding self right over a disciplinary line he had never crossed before.
Luke reached down and dove for a lower and thicker branch, working his way down the tree easily and landing smoothly on the ground. Oscar followed less gracefully, hitting the ground first and then falling backward with a thud. His backpack — holding the orange juice they'd snuck out of the dining hall at breakfast and a water bottle half-filled with vodka — landed a few feet away.
"Careful with the goods!" Luke warned.
"The way back, we're going through the basement," whispered Oscar, standing up and wiping dirt off his jeans before picking up his backpack.
The central campus of St. Benedict's was scattered with brick buildings and the occasional white clapboard or modern structure, all clustered around a man-made pond with a small fountain in the center. Just beyond the pond was the chapel, its enormous lit steeple piercing the sky. The entire campus was big: four hundred and sixty acres. To the north, through the playing fields, was Everett, the gigantic athletic center where all the indoor sports took place. On the front side of campus was Route 443, which cut through the town of Southborough — a blink-and-you'll-miss-it village. On the opposite side, to the west, where Oscar and Luke were now headed, the extended terrain was hilly, heavily forested and crisscrossed by narrow river valleys, stretching all the way to the Berkshire Mountains.
Their dorm, Wilcox, was the closest one to the woods. That meant they could go out the back and hide in the shadows and survey the scene until they found a safe time to rush across a clearing of about a hundred yards up a hill into the woods. The girls' journey was a little trickier because their dorm, Hadden, was farther away.
Luke scanned the scene, and gave the all-clear signal. "Go!" Once they had run through the clearing and made it to the tip of the woods, Luke felt a rush of accomplishment. Sneaking out of the dorm in the middle of the night was basically a rite of passage at boarding school.
"Yes! Chase, you finally did it!" Oscar tackled him, wrapping his arm around Luke's neck in an affectionate chokehold. "You're not an after-hours virgin anymore. I'm so proud."
Luke ducked out easily. He didn't really want Pippa to see them messing around.
"Now, where are those girls?" murmured Oscar, straightening up to scan the darkness. Their designated meeting place, on a hill right at the edge of the woods, afforded a good view of the campus below, but there was no sign of any movement other than waving tree branches. It was windier than Luke had expected. He was glad his hair was cut short; Oscar kept having to shake his out of his eyes.
"Maybe they bailed," Luke said.
"Well, Pippa may not be coming but Kelsey definitely is."
"How can you be so sure?"
"She texted me before we left the room."
Luke regretted not checking his phone one last time before leaving the dorm; there wouldn't be any signal here. Would Pippa bail? He had asked her to join him impulsively the night before. They were talking after study hall, both waiting on line at the vending machines, and she was complaining about how prudish the school was compared to her old school in England. So almost on a dare, he had asked her to meet him at the Dip, knowing that Oscar was planning to hang with Kelsey. He didn't think she would say yes, but she'd eyed him coolly and grabbed her bag of potato chips from the vending machine with a casual I suppose so that had made Luke's stomach flip.
"Hey, look," Luke said. Below them two figures were running across the clearing, brightly illuminated by the moonlight. Pippa wasn't wearing her beret, which Luke was grateful for after Oscar's earlier comment, but if any girls should have worn hats or hoods it was those two: the moonlight practically reflected off their fair hair. Not exactly the best camouflage.
Two minutes later, the girls arrived at the meeting spot, breathless.
"You made it," Oscar said, pleased.
"Of course we did," said Kelsey with mock offense, adjusting her ponytail. "I told you I was coming."
Oscar leaned over and kissed Kelsey, taking her by surprise. Luke looked away in embarrassment and his eyes met Pippa's. She gave him a look of disapproval as if to say, Don't even try that on me. Or maybe she was merely grossed out by PDA.
"Glad you came," said Luke, moving to Pippa's side.
She shrugged. "No worries."
Luke smiled. Oscar had been right: that accent did him in every time. "Did you have any problems sneaking out?"
Pippa motioned toward Kelsey. "Other than waiting for her for twenty minutes? No."
"I told you, I had to wait until Mrs. Chester went to sleep. She's an insomniac and her apartment is right next to my room."
"It just seemed like an overly long time, that's all."
"Well, I'm sorry," said Kelsey in anything but a remorseful tone. "But I really don't want to get busted for this. Coach Rosenberg just gave us a huge lecture last practice about risking our recruitment. She hasn't done any of my college intros yet and I don't want to give her a reason not to put in a good word for me with the field hockey coach at UVA."
Pippa looked irritated. "We all have something to lose, don't we?" Luke had never seen Kelsey shrink from anyone — she was usually at the center of any group — but she held back from making a comment and edged toward Oscar.
Pippa turned back to Luke. "It's quite odd. Once you get out of the dorm, it's amazingly simple to sneak out. My school in Devon had alarms on the doors, but there's no security here whatsoever."
"Which is insane, considering the crime history in this area," Luke joked, trying to lighten the tone.
"Yeah, we'd better watch out for the Southborough Strangler," Oscar added. "They never caught him."
"Don't freak me out," Kelsey begged, holding tighter to Oscar's arm.
Luke saw Pippa roll her eyes. It was clear that Pippa and Kelsey were not the best of friends. Actually, now that Luke thought about it, despite having been at school for almost two months it didn't seem like Pippa really had any friends. That didn't really deter him; he liked to make up his own mind about people. Still, it was interesting to note.
"Come on, let's get going," Oscar said. "We're too exposed here."
Luke watched as Oscar effortlessly, almost carelessly, took Kelsey's hand and started walking deeper into the woods. He wanted to take Pippa's, but she had folded her arms firmly across her chest.
They fell in line as a pair behind Oscar and Kelsey.
"So what will we do when we get to this mythic spot in the woods?" asked Pippa.
Luke pointed toward Oscar's backpack, slung casually over one shoulder. "We may have brought some refreshments."
Pippa smiled, and Luke gave a silent prayer of thanks that Oscar and Kira Matthews had only had a few shots from their stash last weekend after the dance, leaving enough to bring tonight.
"Luke Chase, Mr. Rule Follower, living on the edge tonight," Pippa said, teasingly.
"Uh oh. I see my reputation has preceded me."
"It has indeed," Pippa said. "In more ways than one."
Oscar turned around. "Hey, hey. No talking about reputations. Mine'll be next and I don't want Kelsey here to get second thoughts."
Kelsey swatted him playfully, and even Pippa smiled. The girls thought the banter was just a joke, but Luke and Oscar exchanged a glance. Oscar was a good wingman, always able to block people from digging into Luke's past, and he was pretty sure that was where the reputation talk was headed.
They continued deeper into the woods, carefully maneuvering over errant twigs and rocks as they headed into the autumn darkness. In the moonlight, branches and trees took on more sinister aspects. Random wildlife noises made them all look over their shoulders more than once. They were jumpy, but in a fun kind of way. Luke understood why so many students took the risk to sneak out. He was feeling the same run of emotions that made horror movies worthwhile: fear and dread, mixed with anticipation and relief.
Their place of debauchery had already been selected for them, because students of St. Benedict's had stolen away for years to the very spot where they were headed. "The Dip," as some unknown alum had christened it, was at the base of the remains of a hand-laid rock wall of mysterious origin. Rumors about the wall abounded: witches were burned there in the old days; it was part of the Underground Railroad; it was a farmhouse that had burned and the whole family had perished, and so on. The forgotten partition jutted out of the gravelly earth in the middle of nowhere, and ended just as abruptly ten yards later. It would look innocuous to most, except that on one side there was a deep drop-off mostly shielded by saplings and birch trees. Shadowy figures could hide in plain sight (and leave their vodka bottles and cigarette butts behind). Luke had passed by often enough during his daily runs but had never been there at night.
Suddenly a rush of memories from three years ago flashed in Luke's mind like a series of snapshots. He shivered involuntarily, and shook his head as if to clear his mind. That was weird. He'd spent tons of time outdoors in the three years since that episode, never once thinking about it. Why tonight? Maybe there was something about the danger of sneaking out that echoed his ordeal three years ago, bringing it all back to the surface.
Excerpted from "Sneaking Out"
Copyright © 2018 Chuck Vance.
Excerpted by permission of Dunemere Books.
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