Chapter four – the Fear Trial
ZE EAGLE HAS LANDED!
Right, sorry for that. I couldn’t resist.
Hey, guys! There’s still some things missing, including Evelyn’s braids, Bobby’s hairdo and Nikola’s earrings, but I’ve tried to work around that. To commemorate the end of ze long absence, I’ve made this chapter a bit longer than normal. Please enjoy! =)
The relationship with my parents inevitably changed after that.
We didn’t start disliking each other, or anything that extreme. Dad still made comments about my haircut. Mum still made me breakfast every morning, and I still thanked her for it. On the surface, everything had returned to normal. Just everyday life for the Nelsons.
But anyone that really knew our family could see that something had changed.
‘I’m off,’ I announced to the two people in the living room, as I opened the front door. ‘Remember that I’m taking Angus with me. Don’t think he escaped from the meadow or something if you don’t see him outside.’
Dad shouted something back, but I was outside already and didn’t hear it.
With swift, determined strides, I walked over to the wooden fence. Angus saw me coming, trotted up to the gate and greeted me by burying his big nose in my stomach. I could feel him feeling around for snacks in my pockets.
‘Sorry, boy. Today you have to earn it.’
It did not take long to saddle Angus, and within ten minutes we were on our way. Surprisingly, Evelyn only lived a hilltop away. Far enough from the town center to be able to take the bus to school, but not far enough into the countryside to see the horses of Appaloosa Plains up close.
I’d just have to bring the horses to her, then.
She had been waiting for me.
As soon as Evelyn spotted me, a large grin appeared on her face. She put up her hand and waved at me, enthusiasm radiating off every inch of her body. The girl was almost jumping with joy. The girl also had a completely different head of hair than the previous day. Shorter. It didn’t missuit her, although I preferred the braids for some reason. I made Angus trot up next to her, then quickly dismounted.
‘Wow! Is that your horse?’ Evelyn asked. ‘It’s so big!’
‘He is. But don’t worry. He is also the softie of the two. Angus is gentle as can be, so you can have your first day of riding without worries.’
I spoke the truth. I’d very deliberately picked Angus, and not Brink, to give Evelyn her first lesson on. My other horse had a habit of storming off on his own without warning, jumping over fences, chasing after the mailman… it was great fun if you knew how to handle him, but not for a beginner. Couldn’t have her falling off on day one and nearly breaking a limb because of me… again.
‘So… what do I do now?’
I was still holding the reigns. Evelyn was looking at me with great anticipation on her face.
‘Is this the first time you’ve been near a horse?’
‘Yeah. I’ve seen them from a distance, but never this close. He’s a bit scary, actually.’
‘You’ll be fine,’ I smiled at her. ‘Let’s have you two get used to each other first. Do you want to try feeding him?’
‘Feeding?’ Evelyn repeated, her smile faltering a bit. ‘But he’s so big… won’t be bite me?’
‘Not if you hold the food in front of him with our hand flat. Plus, all Angus would probably do is lick your fingers. Here, watch me.’
I’d brought snacks with me in advance. Even if I hadn’t, there were always some long forgotten snacks in the dark depths of my pockets. I took out an old carrot, waved it in front of Angus’s nose and watched as he picked up the vegetable from my hand. I barely felt his lips. Evelyn must have noticed his gentleness too, because her expression turned back into a smile.
‘Tempt the horse with food. I’ve got to remember that.’
It was a completely innocent sentence. Anyone at any time could have said it. But as Evelyn took a second carrot from my hand and brought it up to Angus’s head, the world around me suddenly blurred. For a second, I couldn’t see anything anymore.
And then I heard a voice. It was a man’s voice, and one that I had never heard before. But for some reason, it sounded… familiar. A scene unfolded in my mind. A sun-bathed square in a big city. Two people, that I wasn’t supposed to know. But the scene was so familiar that I responded to it without hesitating.
‘Tempt the horse with food. I gotta remember that one.’
‘Not calling it names will help, too.’
I blinked. The sun-bathed square suddenly turned back into Appaloosa Plains, and Evelyn looking at me with a puzzled look on her face. It took me a moment to make the switch back.
‘I wasn’t calling it names,’ Evelyn spoke, her eyebrows raised. ‘Why’d you say that?’
It took me a moment to register what she was saying, after which I frowned slightly. Yes, why did I? I had absolutely no idea myself. It made no sense. The closest I could come to an explanation was a sense of déja vu, but I had never experienced a scene like that. I had never even seen those two people before.
So why were they so familiar?
It was just a daydream. Better not to dwell on it too much.
‘Sorry, I got distracted for a second,’ I quickly said. ‘Let’s get started on your riding lesson, shall we?’
And that’s exactly what we did. Even though Evelyn was a beginner in every sense, she was quick to pick up the basics. I spent the entire Saturday morning with her, teaching her how riding on horseback worked. What to do, and what to look out for. In the beginning, her expression was fearful. But that quickly changed and soon, she was smiling at me the whole time. She was having a blast. I guess, in a way, so was I.
But morning ended, and with it, my time with Evelyn.
‘That’s it for today,’ I spoke, as the red-haired girl trotted back to me. She’d figured out how to let Angus pick up speed, and was beaming with joy. Her happy smile was quickly replaced with disappointment as she processed what I had said.
‘Aw, already? I’m just getting the hang of it!’
‘I’m sorry, but I promised the boys I’d let them come over tonight. Have to prepare for that. You know, find food, get some drinks, clean up the stables so I have a place to put them in.’
That made her laugh. Evelyn slowly lowered herself off the horse, until both feet were on the ground again.
There was something about her eyes. The way their shape changed when she wanted something. They reminded me of my dog, Jake. Maybe it was bad to compare a girl’s eyes with a dog, but that’s what it made me think of. That was the saying, wasn’t it? Puppy dog eyes. Either way, they made me feel uncomfortable, and I quickly caved in.
‘You can come too, if you like.’
‘Are you sure?’ Evelyn asked. ‘I won’t be a bother?’
‘Nah. I’m sure that the boys won’t have anything against you joining us.’
As if, with the way that they were all drooling over her before.
‘Thank you!’ the red-haired girl beamed. She really seemed to be over the moon with my invitation. It made me smile, but also a bit weary. She seemed to be over the moon with just about anything I did for her. There was no challenge in that. I pushed that thought away, however, as I nodded to Evelyn and took the reigns from her.
‘Okay, then. The guys are coming over around 9, so you can keep to that time too, if you want. You know where my address is, right?’
‘Good. Then see you tonight.’
As I climbed onto Angus, I could see Evelyn’s face from the corner of my eye. Her gaze was fixed on me and for a moment it seemed as if she wanted to say something. Her mouth opened, then closed again, as if she’d changed her mind halfway. The same thing repeated once more, after a sentence came out that was probably not the one originally intended to be spoken.
‘Thank you for the riding lesson, Chase. I really enjoyed it.’
Without another word, I turned Angus around. I sent a quick wave to Evelyn and a second later we were on our way back into the countryside.
I’d made all the necessary preparations by myself. Drinks were in the fridge, snacks were stored away in the hallway closet, and drinks were safely hidden away under my bed, far from my mother’s eyes. It had been a busy few months since my group had turned into teenagers, and none of us had tried alcohol yet. Or at least, so my parents believed. In reality it had taken a mere two days for Jamie to get his hands on a few bottles, and we’d all been eager to try. New experiences were rare in the countryside, after all. We’d enjoyed it immensely.
But my parents did not need to know that. They had promised to stay out of our way for the night. They’d kept true to their word, even leaving the house to visit one of dad’s colleagues. It was especially sensible, even for them. Part of me realized that the bigger reason for doing this was not to give me space, but to make up for what had happened with the letters. Either way, they were gone, and I did not have to worry about them catching us with alcohol just yet.
It did not take long for my guys to come over. Around nightfall they were there already, knocking on my front door enthusiastically. Or, more specifically, Luke was banging on the door like a lunatic, while Bobby, Tristan and Jamie watched. Afraid that his bony fist would leave a dent on the wood, I quickly let them in. Luke wasted no time in getting to the point. He got right in my face, like a giddy puppy (I really should stop comparing people to my dogs), and opened his mouth.
‘Is it true?’
‘Is what true?’ I replied, knowing full well what it was that Luke wanted to know.
‘The redhead, dude! Jamie told me that you invited her over. Is it true?’
I gave a single nod. A broad smile appeared on Luke’s face, one that was mimicked by Tristan.
‘Sweet! We should totally get some booze, man. Do you have any?’
‘Of course I do, but not for that, got it? We’re going to give her a nice evening to let her get used to the group. Lay off for tonight.’
He seemed disappointed. So did Tristan. Bobby merely shrugged.
But Jamie had a whole different expression going. A mischievous sparkle appeared in his eyes. Before I could ask him what was up, he already laid it out.
‘Actually… what would you say if we gave her a real introduction to school life in Appaloosa plains? The traditional way?’
‘You mean the Test of Courage, that freshmen have to take?’ Bobby asked. Jamie nodded, his grin widening.
‘Those tests are taken by groups, not on your own. She can’t fetch the Trial Item by herself.’
‘We don’t have to make it exactly the same, dude,’ Luke chimed in. ‘She’s just a girl, so we can make it easy. You know, take a picture of this and that building at midnight, or something. This place is as safe as can be. Heck, toddlers can walk around by themselves without anything happening.’
That was true. But nothing happened to toddlers because everyone in the village kept an eye on them. Plus, that was in broad daylight, not the middle of the night. But Jamie was right, it was tradition. If Evelyn really wanted to be part of our school, then she would have to go through the Test of Courage either way.
‘Think of the looks Charmaine and Maisy gave her,’ Tristan spoke. ‘Theirs won’t be easy.’
Normally, guys were in charge of the trials for freshmen boys. Girls were in charge of the freshmen girls. The only two other girls in our age class had not given Evelyn kind looks the other day, and ever since then, they’d seemed especially hostile. Their test would not be fun. Taking over would, if anything, be merciful.
Plus, it would be interesting to find out what she was made of.
I gave in.
‘Fine, then,’ I nodded. ‘Let’s do it. Jamie, this is your show. Come up with something neat, and we’ll make it happen.’
Jamie beamed. I could see his eyes starting to sparkle from the ideas in his head, and suddenly wondered if letting him be in charge of Evelyn’s trial had been a very bad idea. It was too late to take it back now, though. And Jamie wasn’t stupid. Evelyn would not like it, as no freshmen did, but it would not be too bad.
It did not take long for Evelyn to arrive. She was exactly on time, at nine ‘o clock sharp. I’d warned my guys (especially Luke) to be courteous, but as they were teenage boys, I did not hold any hopes.
However, the four of them surprised me. Instead of jumping her with impropriate questions as I’d imagined, they were gentlemen. Respectful, even. Especially for Luke’s standards. They greeted her calmly when I led her into the living room, and stayed that way for the first part of the evening. I’d expected all sorts of questions from them that would cause her to look away in embarrassment whenever she saw us in the future. But what she got was almost docile:
“How do you like the Plains?”
“Where’d you go to school before moving here?”
“Do you have any siblings? Are you the oldest one?”
“We’ve all got pets here. Are you planning on getting one?”
It almost made me a little proud of my guys. They were actually maturing past the pre-teen-stage, after all. Or at least they finally had some social dignity. Either one was good enough for me. Like this, it was fine.
At least, until I’d bring out the alcohol. Maybe buying an entire crate hadn’t been the best idea after all.
“Dude! You ate everything already?!”
My mind had been on the booze upstairs under my bed, and so I’d failed to notice what was happening with the snacks. Tristan, who had tried grabbing some chips out of the bowl, instead grabbed hold of nothing but thin air. He looked at Bobby angrily.
“Leave it to the chubby to eat everything by himself!”
The old Bobby would have cringed from that, maybe even cried about it later. But he’d changed from being that boy. Instead, Bobby looked at Tristan calmly before nodding in the direction of Luke.
“You’d be a sucky detective. If you weren’t so busy interrogating Evelyn you’d have seen that the stick wolfed down the whole bowl while we weren’t looking.”
“It was you?!” Tristan yelled, immediately switching his target from Bobby to Luke. Tristan didn’t get ticked off easily- unless the food was gone. I chuckled at Luke’s sharp reply. After making eye contact with Evelyn and smiling for a second, I slowly got up from the couch.
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch, ladies. There’s more in the shed. I’ll be back in ten minutes, so try not to break down the house in the meantime.”
“Bring the booze too, man!” Jamie cheered. He knew all about the stash under my bed.
“Do I look like I have four arms to you? Go get it yourself while I’m out.”
With that, I left through the front door. It had already gotten dark, and only light outside came from the run-down street lights. Not even the moon was out. It was a good thing that I knew my way around the grounds. If I didn’t, getting to the shed would have been very hard without light. The storage was at the very edge of our land, behind the stables and with a much weaker lock than the building that locked up the horses. The simple explanation for that was that a stolen horse would be much worse than a stolen wheelbarrow. Even so, the lock was rusty, and it took me a good two minutes to finally fit the key in and turn it. The doors unlocked with a loud click, finally letting me inside.
“Now where is the… oh, damn it.”
Mum had a bad habit of ‘rearranging’ the contents of the shed every once in a while. Apparently today had been one of those times. The bags of snacks had been moved from the down most shelf to directly below the ceiling. That would not have been a problem, had I been a life stage further. Unfortunately as a teen, I was still not a very tall guy. It was humiliating to have to stand on my toes and reach for the top shelf, and I was immediately happy that no one had come with me. I reached the shelf, pulled down the bags… and almost everything else on the shelf with it.
It came down all around me, hitting the floor with a loud clattering. For a second, I cursed my short stature. The next second I decided that I was not going to be cleaning this up today. Not without light. I left the shed like that, the floor littered with whatever had been stashed next to the snacks, and re-locked the doors.
With my arms full of bags of snacks, I entered the living room. I didn’t have to set a single step further to realize that something had changed. The red-haired girl was no longer there. Evelyn had vanished. As I set the snacks down on the table, I shot a questioning glance to Jamie, who was looking unusually smug. His face broke into a big smile when he saw me looking.
“We did it, dude. She’s actually going.”
“The Test of Courage, remember?” Luke chimed in, grinning as well. In fact, the entire group of boys had the same smug grins on their faces, save for Bobby. Bobby looked tense. I directed my focus to him and, with a strict voice, asked:
“What are they talking about? Where did Evelyn go?”
“The Test of Courage that we talked about earlier, Chase,” Bobby spoke. “They- we, figured that tonight was as best a moment as any. We came up with the idea a few minutes ago.”
“What idea?” I asked. “What did you do?”
I had a bad feeling about this. Jamie was looking way too smug for this to turn out being a good thing. Did they make her do something embarrassing in my house?
“Come on, man. Out with it. What did you make her do?”
“You know that old jogging trail, near your backyard?” Jamie grinned. “It ends at a lake. We told her to follow that trail, make a picture of the lake and come back. Easy enough, right?”
“She was really eager to go, too,” Luke added proudly. “As soon as we said it was part of being part of our group, she went off all determined. I recon she’s shaking in her boots about now. Right, Jamie?”
For a moment, I let their words sink in. They’d sent her out alone. Deep into the forest. At night. They’d sent her out alone, with nothing to guide her way, onto a path that you were never supposed to walk after darkness had sunk in.
The two exchanged glances and laughed, proud of their achievement. Tristan grinned as well, already munching on the snacks I’d brought. Only Bobby did not partake in what was seen as a victory. Tensely, he looked up at me to see my expression- and flinched.
“I’m looking forward to when she gives up,” Luke laughed. “We told her there’d be a penalty game. I’m totally going to make her go out with me. What do you think, Chase? Chase?”
Rage took over. I threw the remaining bags in their faces, hitting Luke square in the eye.
“You FUDGING IDIOTS!”
Without awaiting their reaction, I stormed back outside. I sprinted down the porch and back the way I came, stopping in front of the stables. My mind was taken hold of by two emotions: a red-hot anger and a sense of fear, of cold dread, that was even stronger than the anger and was digging straight into my heart.
They’d made her go into the woods at night.
You never, never, left the main roads after dark.
It wasn’t just a warning to keep kids from getting lost. I’d spent enough time with the gypsies to know that this danger was real. But it was more than that. Call it instinct, but somewhere deep inside I knew that the darkness around our village was dangerous. My group of friends, however, did not share that belief- and they’d sent Evelyn in there by herself. Alone.
I threw the stable doors open, not bothering to call Brink out and instead charged straight to his stable. The stallion neighed nervously when he felt my mood. While still in his box, I jumped unto Brink’s back and buried my heels into his sides.
Instantly, Brink shot forward. I grabbed hold of his manes, physically steering him in the direction of the gate. He dashed out, after which I steered him to the white picket fence that marked our yard. The stallion did not hesitate. With a single burst of energy, Brink leaped over the fence with a meter to spare. His hooves hit the ground with a loud thud, but I did not give him time to get spooked. Again I buried my heels into his sides, willing Brink to speed up to his limit. The wind slammed in my face as I lowered myself to Brink´s neck, my eyes fixed on the darkness ahead.
I had to catch up to Evelyn before she strayed from the path.
If not, the red-haired transfer student would be dead before morning.
Holding nothing but her cell phone for light, Evelyn slowly made her way over to the jogger’s trail. She’d never been here before, but Jamie had explained everything in detail. On a five minute walk from here, the path would split into a fork. The path going right would end in a small pond, guarded by two large maple trees. She couldn’t miss it. Evelyn was to reach that pond, take a picture of both trees and come back.
It felt… wrong. The moon had come out, but the darkness between the trees had not reduced in the slightest. A bad vibe radiated off those trees. Something inside there… was wrong. Evelyn gulped and clutched he phone, her only source of light, a little tighter. For a second, she thought about giving up.
But then Chase’s face appeared in her mind. The scene from a few days ago. She’d told him her doubts, her fear of not being accepted in the group because she was from a different town. He had smiled at her reassuringly, setting her heart aflutter.
“Don’t worry. In my group, we accept kind people like you easily. It’ll be fine. You’ll see.”
It would be fine. Chase had said so, and Jamie had assured her that Chase knew of this trial as well. Evelyn steeled herself, brightening her phone to the maximum and gripping the base of her vest tightly before, slowly, stepping onto the jogging trail.
It would be fine.