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Summer of Fear

Lois Duncan

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  Table of Contents

  Copyright Page

  Q&A with the Author

  For Louise

  It’s summer. Summer—again.

  I go out this morning to get the paper and although it’s still early, barely eight o’clock, the sun is warm on my hair and on the back of my neck, promising the heat of the coming day.

  I pick up the paper, roll off the rubber band and begin leafing through, standing there in the front yard with the thin rays of the sun on my back and the dew on the grass already drying beneath my feet.

  I find it at last on page seven of section C. Usually, if I look long enough, it’s there—a story that fits. Sometimes it’s only a few lines, one of those filler items they use when the big stories aren’t long enough to reach the bottom of the page. Other times it’s a real article with a photograph, like it is today.

  A family—parents, their teenage daughter and an unidentified girlfriend—are missing, believed lost in the San Andres Mountains west of Alamogordo. They went for a weeklong camping trip and now, ten days later, they haven’t returned. There’s a picture of the family—the couple, handsome, outdoorsy-looking people about the age of my own parents, and the pretty, laughing daughter. It evidently was taken just before a hike, because they’re all wearing backpacks, and there’s a camper in the background. Did the “girlfriend” who accompanied them take the picture? That only makes sense since she’s not in the photo.

  “We found the camera at a picnic area at the foot of the mountain,” a state trooper is quoted as saying. “We believe the family may have been camping there. However, there is no sign of the camper, a truck or of any of their other belongings. It’s very strange.”

  It seems strange to me that the girlfriend is “unidentified.” Why hasn’t her own family reported her missing? Maybe she has no family, nowhere she belongs? Where did she come from and how does she fit into the lives of these beautiful people? Is she with them now, sharing their ordeal, or is she somewhere else, alone, thinking back on them and smiling a little as she drives a camper along the highway? Why wasn’t she in the picture?

  Standing here on the lawn, I look at the photograph and read the article. I read it again. So often, when I pick up the paper on sweet summer mornings, I find an article such as this one, and I can’t help asking myself . . . who is this person? Could it be . . . ? Is it . . . ?

  It’s been four years now since that summer. It’s still with me. Maybe it always will be. Thinking back, I can even place the beginning of it all, the very day. It was June second. School was just out and spring just over and the real summer hadn’t yet started.

  On that June morning I lay in bed, watching the sun slant between the slats in the venetian blind, feeling lazy and a little guilty because the rest of the family were up and downstairs already. I could hear them and I could smell the coffee. The odor of frying bacon drifted up the stairwell and seeped through the crack under the bedroom door.

  If it had been a weekday, Mom probably would have gotten me up even though it was summer. She liked to get breakfast over with and the kitchen clean so she could use the sink for rinsing her photographs. But on Saturdays she was more relaxed and, if we were lucky, we got to sleep in.

  I stretched and yawned and closed my eyes and opened them again, reveling in my laziness. Then the phone rang.

  It rang twice more and was silent. Suddenly alert, I waited for the sound of footsteps on the stairs and somebody’s voice calling, “Rachel? It’s for you!”

  When moments passed and no one came I yawned again and swung my legs over the side of the bed and got up.

  My jeans were tossed across the back of a chair by the window. I put them on along with a tank top and, reaching over, pulled the cord that adjusted the blinds so I could look out at the yard below. The grass was soft and green, almost long enough to be mowed. Until this year the mowing had been Peter’s job, but now that he was eighteen and working, the job had trickled down to Bobby. Bobby was eleven and small for his age. It was hard to imagine him pushing the old rotary mower over the whole length of the yard.

  Along the back fence the roses were beginning to bud, and on the far side of the fence I could see Mike Gallagher watering his mother’s vegetable garden. Leaning close to the screen, I pursed my lips and let out a long, shrill whistle. Mike started, lifted his eyes to focus on the window, and raised a hand in a gesture of greeting. Then he pointed toward the sky, and I nodded vigorously, hoping he could see me. The pool at the Coronado Club had just opened for the summer and the day before we had talked about going swimming if the weather was good. Now, in sign language, Mike was saying, “It looks perfect!” and I was answering, “Great! Let’s go!”

  The Gallaghers had lived next door for as long as I could remember, but it was only during the past year that Mike and I had become aware of each other as more than just neighbors. Now, gazing down at the blond head bent again to the watering, I found myself smiling.

  He needs a haircut, I thought with a happy feeling of possessiveness. It wasn’t a criticism. I liked his hair a little long.

  Turning away from the window, I paused in front of the mirror that hung over the dresser so I could run my fingers through my own short tangle of reddish hair. It bounced back immediately into a mop of uncontrollable curls. With the trend of smooth, straight hair, those curls were the bane of my existence. I wrinkled my nose in disgust and decided not to bother trying to improve myself further. What was the use of putting on makeup if I was going swimming?

  I left the room and went downstairs to breakfast.

  To my surprise, there was no one in the kitchen. They had been there recently, I could tell, since the coffee was dripping and bacon lay draining on a paper towel on the countertop. Eggs and bread sat out in preparation for the usual Saturday meal of French toast, and the morning paper was spread open to the sports page on the kitchen table.

  “Mom?” I called. “Dad?”

  Then I became conscious of sounds from the living room—a soft, choking noise and my father’s voice, low and consoling. Hurrying through the kitchen, I shoved open the door that led into the next room.

  They were there, the four of them. My parents were seated on the sofa, and Mom was crying, her hands over her face. Dad had his arm around her, and my brothers were standing awkwardly, looking down at them, not knowing what should be done or said.

  “What is it?” I cried as panic hit me. I couldn’t remember ever having seen my mother cry.

  It was Bobby who answered.

  “It’s Aunt Marge and Uncle Ryan,” he said. “They’re dead.”

  “Dead!” I caught my breath at the word. My stomach lurched, but it was more from shock than grief. I had seen my aunt and uncle only once when I was little and it was too long ago for me to remember. Since my early childhood they had lived in a series of strange places, and in recent years they had made their home in an isolated area of the Ozarks, where Uncle Ryan wrote his novels and Aunt Marge worked at her painting.

  “All these years,” Mom sobbed, “and we never visited! We should have insisted that they come last Christmas!”

  “You can’t insist on something like that,” Dad said gently. “Ryan was tied up in his writing. You couldn’t have budged him from that mountain wilderness for anything, and Marge never wanted to be anyplace that he wasn’t. As for our going there—we weren’t invited.”

  “We could have invited ourselves,” Mom said “We were family, the only family Marge had. It didn’t matter whether Ryan wanted us or not.”

  “It did matter,” Dad said. “Ryan didn’t want people around when he was working, and Marge went along with him on everything. To have arrived on their doorstep uninvited would have been unthinkable. Beside
s, we expected to see them this summer.”

  “What happened?” I asked, unable to withhold the question. “How were they killed?”

  “In a car wreck,” Peter told me. He stood hunched forward, his hands in his pockets, and I could tell from the unaccustomed gruffness of his voice that he was as shaken as I was by the suddenness of tragedy. “It happened yesterday. They were driving the woman who worked for them back to her home in the village, and the car went off the side of a cliff. It burned.”

  “That’s terrible!” I gasped. I tried not to envision the scene, to make it be just words in my mind instead of a picture, but this was impossible. A car burning at the base of a cliff, my aunt and uncle and another woman inside it—

  “Terrible,” I whispered and went to sit by Mom. “Did you say we were going to see them this summer?”

  “We were hoping to,” Dad said. “Marge wrote at Christmas that when Ryan’s new novel was completed they planned, as she put it, to ‘come back to civilization for a while.’ Marge wanted to have Julia with them for her senior year instead of off at boarding school.”

  “Julia,” Mom said softly. “That poor child.” She lowered her hands from her face and turned to my father. “We’ll have to go get her immediately. Imagine her being there all alone through all of this!”

  “The sheriff said in his call that she was staying at the house,” Dad said, “and since they don’t have a phone I don’t suppose there’s any way to get in touch with her except by e-mail, which she probably won’t be reading.”

  “She must just have gotten back from boarding school,” Mom said. “Marge was so looking forward to having her come home. She must have been lonely, living so far from everyone, with Ryan buried in his work.” Her voice shook, threatening to break again. “She had no one, you know. No one but me. We were the last on our side of the family.”

  “How old is Julia now?” Dad asked. “Fifteen or sixteen?”

  “A little older than that,” Mom said. “I remember when she was born Peter was just a toddler. She’s seventeen, two years older than Rachel.”

  “You’re right about our needing to get her,” Dad said. “I’ll check the flights and then call this Sheriff Martin and ask him to get a message to her. I suppose our best bet would be to get a plane to Springfield and rent a car there. Do you remember the name of the village nearest to where they lived?”

  “Lost Ridge,” Mom said. “That’s where they got their mail, but their house must be quite a way from there because Marge wrote once that they only drove down to pick up their mail once a week when they did their grocery shopping. Call now, Tom, please. There’s no time to waste.”

  My father got to his feet and went into the kitchen to use the phone. I reached over and patted Mom’s hand.

  “Should we all go?” I asked.

  “No, dear. I don’t think so.” Mom shook her head as though trying to focus her thoughts. “It’ll be an exhausting trip, especially if we have to drive from Springfield, and there will be so much to be done so quickly. It’ll work best if you and your brothers stay here. You’ll have Mrs. Gallagher to call if there are any problems.” Her voice shook. “I can’t believe it! Margy—dead! We had a tree house once.”

  I squeezed her hand. At least she wasn’t crying anymore.

  Bobby said, “Are you going to bring that girl home with you?”

  “Your cousin Julia? Yes, of course, if she’s willing to come. I can’t imagine where else she would go. There are no other relatives.”

  “Should I remember her?” Peter asked. “I’ve got a feeling I saw her once.”

  “You did. It was the year you started first grade. Ryan was off somewhere getting interviews for some articles he was writing, and Marge came to stay with us for a couple of weeks with Julia. She was a darling little thing, and as I remember, you teased her a lot. She had a toy rabbit, and you took it away from her and gave it to Rachel, and she chewed a hole in its ear.”

  The memories kept coming, flashing across the screen of my mother’s mind, filling her voice with grief. We stayed there close to her, the boys and I, listening. That was the only comfort we knew how to give.

  Finally, Dad came back into the room.

  “We can get a noon flight,” he said. “I made reservations one way. We can rent a car and drive back. That way we can bring  Julia’s personal things with us. We’ll have the furniture and other large items put in storage. There’ll be plenty of time later for her to decide what she wants to do with them.”

  “I’d better go pack,” Mom said. “Bobby, will you get my overnight bag down from the attic? Peter, you’d better leave for work; you’re already late.” She paused, refocusing her mind with effort. “Oh, god, nobody’s had breakfast!”

  “Don’t worry about that,” I told her. “We’re not hungry. If anyone wants anything, there’s cereal.”

  Mom and Dad went upstairs and Peter left the house and Bobby went up to the attic. I went out to the kitchen and put away the eggs and bread and took the bacon, cold and dry on its greasy towel, and put it in the plastic food bowl for my dog, Trickle. I poured coffee into two mugs and took them up to my parents who were in their room taking things out of the dresser. Then I went back downstairs and wandered from room to room, feeling useless because there was really nothing else to be done.

  Finally I went outside.

  Mike was coming up the walk. He was wearing his swim shorts and a T-shirt and had a towel tossed over his shoulder. He grinned, and I was shocked at his happiness for a moment until I remembered that he didn’t know.

  “Hey, Red,” he said. “You’re not ready.”

  “I can’t go,” I told him. “There’s been a horrible accident. My aunt and uncle were killed in a car wreck.”

  “Oh, god—that sucks.” The smile left his face and his blue eyes lost their sparkle. “I’m sorry, Rae.”

  “Aunt Marge was my mother’s only sister,” I said. “My parents are leaving this afternoon. It happened in Missouri.”

  “Tough,” Mike said. “Your mom must be really broken up.”

  “She is,” I said. “She and Dad are going to go there to take care of things or—well, whatever you do with something like this. They’re going to bring my cousin back with them. Her name’s Julia.”

  “Julia,” Mike repeated. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk about her. Is she going to live with you?”

  “I don’t know,” I said. “For a while, I guess. She’s seventeen; that’s still too young to be on her own.” Until he asked, I hadn’t thought about Julia’s living with us in a permanent fashion, only visiting for a while until other plans could be made for her. But what other plans could there be for a teenage girl with no other living relatives?

  “It’ll be like getting a sister, won’t it?” Mike said. “It’s crazy, isn’t it, thinking you’ll never have anything but two brothers and then finally, at your age, getting a sister?”

  “Crazy,” I echoed with a faint stirring of uneasiness. What would it be like to share my home and my family with a ready-made sister I didn’t even know?

  Julia. How many times I would repeat that name to myself in the days that followed, before my parents’ return from their sad errand to the Ozark Mountains. Julia. It would come into my head at the strangest times—when I was folding a T-shirt—dumping spaghetti into boiling water—sitting with a book in the lawn chair in the backyard. Who is Julia, really? What does she look like? What kind of person is she, this girl who is going to be my almost-sister?

  Peter thought he could remember her a little. I couldn’t remember her at all. Since her mother and mine had been sisters, I wondered if she would have some sort of resemblance to Mom. Mom was little and freckled with an animated face and curly, carrot-colored hair that would never go the way she wanted it. Peter and I had inherited that hair. Bobby, on the other hand, though he was slightly built, had the smooth blond hair and handsomely featured face of our father.

  Julia. It was a p
retty name. I tried to remember the things I’d heard about Julia over the years. I knew, of course, that she went to a boarding school in New England because there were no good public schools in the area of her mountain home. I had a feeling that she was supposed to have a talent of some kind. What was it she did—sing? Paint? Write poetry? To tell the truth, I had never been interested enough to make note of it, or of anything else from the dull family chitchat in Aunt Marge’s annual Christmas letters.

  But now I did want to know. I wanted to prepare myself.

  “Why do you have to be prepared?” Mike asked logically. “She’ll be what she is, period. You’ll find out soon enough.”

  We were sitting in the backyard, eating ham sandwiches and playing with Trickle. Somehow eating out in back with the sunlight falling in patches between the branches of the elm tree made it seem more real that summer vacation was here. Trickle was rolling around on his back, pretending to ask to have his stomach rubbed, but actually waiting to see if a piece of ham might fall out of one of the sandwiches.

  “I’ll have to share my room with her,” I said. “I’ve always had my own room, you know. It will feel weird, having a stranger living there with me.”

  “She won’t be a stranger for long,” Mike said. “Maybe you’ll like it, having another girl around. It’ll make one more voice when the gaggle gets together.”

  By the “gaggle” he meant me and my best friend, Carolyn Baker. He liked to tell us that when we started chattering we made as much noise as a gaggle of geese.

  “I hate that word,” I told him irritably. “There’s nothing goosey about us. Carolyn and I are friends because we picked each other. We have things in common. It’s different just to have somebody dumped on you. What if she giggles all the time and spits through her teeth when she talks and likes to go to bed at nine o’clock?”

  “I don’t think she’ll have anything to giggle about,” Mike reminded me, and I felt my face grow hot as I realized the stupidity of my statement.