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Holding her breath, nine-year-old Tess DeGraff ascended toward the shimmering green light, sparkling strands of bubbles streaming in her wake. She broke the surface and let out a shriek that was half yelp of pain, half pure exultation.
"Tess, Phoebe, swim closer to the dock," Dawn DeGraff called out to her daughters from where she sat on a blanket on the grassy bank. Dawn was cradling her youngest, three-month-old Sean, and talking with another couple who had arrived at the lake, their toddler in tow. But her attention never wandered far from her children.
Tess looked around and caught the eye of her thirteen-year-old sister, Phoebe. Phoebe's wet blonde hair was plastered to her head. The bliss in her eyes mirrored Tess's. They exchanged a conspiratorial glance and both began to dog paddle ineffectually in the direction of the dock.
All of a sudden, Tess felt something tugging her ankle, dragging her down, and she screamed. The tug gave way, and her father surfaced beside her with a wide grin.
"Dad, you scared me!" Tessa cried, pummeling his broad chest with her small fists. Rob DeGraff laughed and caught both of his slippery, squealing daughters up in his arms. For a moment the three of them clung together, suspended in the cold waters of the peaceful lake. Tess could see gooseflesh on Phoebe's downy arms, and the pink beginnings of a sunburn across her nose. Phoebe smiled, keeping her lips together to cover her braces. But her eyes gleamed and danced.
"My beautiful fishies," Rob said.
Phoebe, too old at thirteen to linger long in a parental embrace, wriggled free and began to do the backstroke across the dark surface of the lake. Her long blonde hair floated around her like golden tentacles.
Tess redoubled her grip on her father's neck and surveyed the mirrored surface of the icy lake waters, reflecting the jagged, deep green trees of the forest on the mountainside. Above them the August sun was bright and the air as hot as it ever became in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Her gaze traveled the shoreline and came to rest on a group of teenagers, girls in bikinis and boys in swim trunks or blue jean shorts, clustered on boulders at the water's edge. They all seemed to know one another except for one, goodlooking, muscular young man, Tess's sixteen-year-old brother Jake. A beautiful blonde girl in the group gasped with delight, and an overweight, red-haired kid led the jeers as Jake swung out over the lake on a rope tied to a tree branch, let go with a whoop, and pulled off an aerial somersault before plunging into the sparkling water. On the other side of the lake a few fishermen in boats floated on the placid surface. Otherwise the whole beautiful expanse of Lake Innisquam seemed to belong only to her.
"I love it here," Tess whispered in her father's ear.
"Me, too, Tess," Rob said contentedly as they hung linked together in the water, their legs treading.
They had left their apartment in Boston early that morning eager for the journey. They were a family with more energy and curiosity than money, and camping was their travel and vacation solution. Rob and Dawn had married when they were both students at Boston University. Now Rob was an assistant professor of physics at MIT. The family still lived in the sunny, book-filled, rambling apartment on Commonwealth Avenue that the couple had once shared with an assortment of roommates. Dawn had her own business making whole-grain baked goods for a university co-op, and the children were used to negotiating city life, but they were also experienced campers.
Today they had arrived at their National Forest campsite a little after noon and set up their area with an efficiency born of experience. This year Dawn was occupied with the baby but the girls were able to take up the slack. While Tess and Phoebe pumped up air mattresses and gathered wood for the campfire, Rob enlisted his grumbling sixteen-year-old son to help him set up the tents. Jake had reached a rebellious age. He showed no interest in his studies, despite the fact that academics were so important to his father, and he could hardly be persuaded to come along on this trip. He had a summer job on a constuction crew and he insisted that his boss couldn't spare him. Only Dawn's pleas that he come with them on one last camping trip had finally elicited a begrudging grunt of acquiescence.
Rob and Jake pitched two tents alongside each other.
"Why do I have to sleep with those two?" Jake had complained.
"So that Sean won't wake you kids in the night. And so that the girls will have you there to look out for them."
Jake continued to grumble, but his father did his best to ignore the mutterings.
By the time Dawn had pronounced their campsite homey and served lunch on the red cedar trestle table, everyone was tired, sweaty, and in a hurry to get to the lake. They tramped through the woods to the lakeshore together, but as soon as they arrived, Jake spotted the group of teenagers and boldly headed in their direction.
Tess looked over again at the boulder that Jake was scrambling up, wresting another turn at the rope from a pale-skinned boy with black hair. "How come Jake's over there with those kids?" Tess asked. "He doesn't even know them."
"He just wants to be with kids his own age," Rob said.
"How come he's screaming like that?" Tess asked.
"Cherchez la femme," Rob said, smiling.
"What does that mean?"
"I think he's trying to impress the girls," said Rob.
Tess frowned disapprovingly at the shrieking teenagers. She glanced up at her mother on the hillside, her tanned legs extended in front of her as she chatted with the woman on a neighboring blanket while the woman's husband, looking pirate-like with long black hair, stood nearby, watching their toddler play at the water's edge. "Who are those people Mom's talking to?" Tess asked.
"I don't know. Probably some other campers. Hey, what do you say we give Mom a chance to get in the water?" Rob suggested.
Tess nodded, and she and her father pointed themselves toward shore and began to swim.
On the blanket, under the shade of a maple tree, Sean was dozing while Dawn and the other young woman, a fair-skinned blonde, chatted. Tessa and Rob came up the grassy bank to where they sat.
"Hey, you two," said Dawn, her broad smile lighting up her face. "Annette, this is my husband, Rob, and my daughter Tess. Annette and her husband, Kenneth, own that inn we passed near the entrance to the campground."
"Oh really," said Rob, reaching out to shake her hand. "You run the place yourselves?"
"I run it, mainly," said Annette. "Ken's trying to write, so when my parents left us the inn, we decided to move up here so he could have more time to work."
"I think that's everybody's fantasy, to own an inn like that," said Dawn.
"It's a lot of work," said Annette with a small sigh.
The black-haired man strode to the water's edge, swung his protesting toddler up in his arms, and climbed the grassy hill to rejoin the adults. "Kenneth Phalen," he said, setting the toddler on the ground and extending a hand to Rob.
"And Lisa," his wife reminded him, pointing to the little girl.
"Nice to meet you both," said Rob. "Your wife says you're a writer. What do you write?"
Ken shook his long hair back. "Well, I've had a couple of short pieces published in magazines. But now I'm working on a novel."
He seemed ready to launch into a long explanation but Annette interrupted, turning to Rob. "Dawn tells me you're a professor at MIT? That's impressive."
"Assistant," Rob demurred.
"Still," she said.
Bored with their grown-up conversation, Tess was watching the pink-cheeked Lisa as she began to lurch, in the toddler's side-to-side gait, across the grass. Tess wished she had her camera to take a picture of her. She was cute as a doll, her ringlets shining in the hot afternoon sun. Tess squinted up at the puffy clouds gathering in the sunny afternoon sky. Soon the beautiful day would be over. She looked over at her mother beseechingly and caught her eye.
"What is it, Tess?" she asked.
"Will you come in the water, Mom?" she pleaded.
Dawn smiled at her, bemused. "Is it cold?"
Tess shook her head, wide-eyed. "No. Really."
"Go ahead, hon," Rob said. "I'll keep an eye on Sean."
Dawn was not the sort of person who needed to be coaxed to have fun. As Rob toweled off and flopped down on the blanket beside his new son, Dawn took Tess's hand. "Okay, let's go," she said, tucking her dark brown hair behind her ear and smiling. " 'Scuse us."
Tess waded back into the water, leading the way. Phoebe stood up, waist high in the lake, and began to splash.
"Honey, don't splash me," said Dawn. "It's going to take me a minute to adjust."
Phoebe shrugged but desisted. Tess slipped back into the cold lake like a seal, but her mother entered more gingerly, rubbing her arms and saying "brrr" until suddenly she inhaled a deep breath, extended her arms, and dove in, emerging a few moments later out past where Phoebe stood, laughing. Dawn waved to Rob and the other couple on the shore and they all waved back.
Tess swam to her mother's arms. Dawn glanced over at the group of teenagers. Jake was seated among them on the boulders now, loudly joining in the chatter. The pretty blonde was seated right beside him.
"Dad says he's trying to make the girls like him," Tess informed her mother.
Dawn smiled a little wistfully. "He's growing up on us."
"Well, I think he should stay with his family," Tess said.
"Oh, it won't be long till it's you over there," Dawn said.
"Not me," Tess insisted. "I'd rather be with you."
Dawn gave her a kiss on the forehead. "Hey, come on. Let's catch Phoebe. Pheebs," she cried, "we're coming to get you."
Phoebe, who was floating on her back, gazing at the brilliant blue sky and the puffy clouds, righted herself in the water. The sun flashed off the shiny surface of the "Believe" medallion, which she always wore on a silver chain around her neck. It had been a birthday gift from their godmother, and Tess had one exactly like it. She never wore hers swimming, however, for fear of losing it. "What?" Phoebe said.
"We're getting you," Tess threatened.
Phoebe's laughing eyes widened and then she screamed and began frantically to paddle away.
Jake returned to the campsite shivering as the sun was setting, and changed into dry clothes as Rob started the campfire and Dawn managed to find everyone a stick long enough to toast marshmallows after their skillet dinner had finished cooking on the camp stove. Their faces burnished by the lantern light, they ate their dinner hungrily, agreeing that the food at home never tasted this good, the same thing they said on every camping trip. After dinner they huddled around the campfire while sparks flew up like a cloud of orange bees, and the mountain evening air grew chilly. The kids sat on logs and tree stumps, their parents on folding camp chairs, and they all toasted their impaled marshmallows over the campfire.
Rob told a couple of ghost stories so familiar that the girls' screams anticipated the punch lines. Afterward, as the fire died away, there were good-night kisses all around. Phoebe and Tess wore socks, sweatpants, and fleece hoodies because of the cold night air. They ducked into their tent and crawled into sleeping bags, propping their long-handled flashlight on the ground between their air mattresses.
Tess reached into her backpack and fished around until she pulled out the camera she had begged for, and received, on her ninth birthday. She turned the lens on Phoebe, who was brushing out her tangled, golden hair.
"Pheebs," she said.
Phoebe looked up at her sister and Tess snapped the photo.
"Put that down," Phoebe commanded her. "I hate having my picture taken."
"But you look cool with that big shadow behind you," said Tess, gazing at her sister's silhouette, large and dark as a thundercloud against the tent wall.
"I don't care. Stop doing that."
In response, Tess snapped another picture and Phoebe threw her hairbrush at her younger sister, hitting her in the forehead.
"Ow," Tess yelped, lowering the camera.
"Put it away," said Phoebe.
Tess stuck out her tongue, but placed the camera carefully back into her knapsack just as Jake entered the tent. He had wide shoulders, even features, and beautiful, golden brown hair that was curly again now that it was dry. He crouched just inside the door of the tent wearing boots, jeans, and an MIT sweatshirt.
"Hurry up and take your boots off and get in your sleeping bag," said Phoebe. "So we can turn out the light."
Jake pulled back the flap on the tent and peered out at the quiet campsite, the embers of the fire still glowing. He began to chew on his thumbnail absently. "I'm going to go out for a little while," he said.
Tess stared at him in disbelief, but Phoebe sat up and protested. "Go out? Where?"
"I'm going to walk into town. Into Stone Hill. There's a dance tonight," said Jake.
"You can't leave here," Phoebe protested. "Does Dad know about this?"
Jake glared at her. "No. And don't you tell him, you little brat. I'll be back in a couple of hours. It's no big deal."
"If it's no big deal, why don't you ask Dad if it's okay?" Phoebe insisted.
"I don't have to get his permission for everything I do," said Jake irritably.
"He'll be so mad if he finds out," Phoebe warned.
"If you two keep your mouths shut, he won't have to find out, will he?"
Tess and Phoebe exchanged a glance, Tess looking frightened, Phoebe looking angry. "You're supposed to stay here with us," said Phoebe.
"Don't be such a baby. You're two feet from Mom and Dad. I'll be back before you know it."
Phoebe was shaking her golden head.
"Besides, I'll give you each five bucks if you keep quiet," he said.
Tess's eyes lit up, thinking of the film she could buy. She was almost out. That seemed like a pretty good deal to her. Phoebe glared at her older brother. "If you don't pay up, I'll tell them. And you will get in trouble."
"I'll pay. I'll pay. Now go to sleep," said Jake disgustedly, turning his back on them and leaving the tent.
Tess clutched the stuffed dog she had brought with her and snuggled down into the warmth of her sleeping bag. She wondered if she would be able to sleep without Jake in the tent. Before she could finish the thought, she was already into her dream.
* * *
The noise that awoke her was a ripping sound and then a rush of cold air seemed to smack her in the face. Tess struggled to open her eyes, still groggy. The flashlight was still on and she could see that Phoebe was already sitting up. Suddenly Tess's eyes focused on what she was seeing and her heart gave a sickening thud.
Phoebe's blue eyes were wide with fear, a dirty hand with ragged fingernails covering her mouth. Pressed against Phoebe's neck was a knife that made a dent in her skin. There was a giant tear in the side of the tent beside Phoebe's bag and a large, ugly man in a filthy, army green jacket crouched there, filling up the hole, clutching Phoebe close to him. He had black hair pulled into a messy ponytail and big glasses with black frames.
Tess's heart pounded and she rubbed her eyes, wondering if she was really awake or in a nightmare. Phoebe made a pitiful noise and her eyes entreated Tess over the knuckles of the hand that gagged her.
Tess looked square in the face of the man who held her sister. "Hey..." she protested.
"Shut up," he growled. "Don't make a sound."
Tess was shuddering from head to toe.
"You listen to me, little girl. If you make one peep or tell anybody, I'll kill your sister here. Do you understand me?"
Tess felt as if a trapped bird was flying madly around her rib cage, flapping its wings.
"Do you?" he demanded, poking at Phoebe's throat with the knife. Phoebe made a plaintive gurgle in her throat.
"Yes..." said Tess.
"Not one sound. Don't tell anyone. I'll kill her if you do."
Tears rose to Tess's eyes and her chin trembled. "I won't," she said.
She was not prepared for what happened next. In front of her eyes, Phoebe was jerked from her sleeping bag and pulled out through the hole in the side of the tent. One minute she was there and then...she was gone.
Tess's mouth dropped open and she covered it with her small hands. All she could see through the jagged hole was blackness, darkness. She heard rustling sounds outside, into the woods. As if monsters were moving among the trees, able to hear if she made the smallest sound. She did not dare to move or speak. She kept thinking, Phoebe! She kept seeing the look of terror in her sister's eyes, the man's knife glinting against her pale throat.
Tess needed to pee, but she did not dare budge. Even if she wanted to go, she wouldn't know the way in the dark to the dimly lit latrine on the campground path. Besides, she knew not to go there without Phoebe. They always used the buddy system. That was the rule. And she and Phoebe were buddies. They went together or not at all. Tears began to run down Tess's cheeks at the thought of her sister alone in the woods with that man with the knife. She wept, she waited. She felt pee soaking the legs of her sweatpants but she did not move. She sat like a statue for a long time.
"Jesus Christ. What the hell...?"
Jake appeared, wild-eyed, at the hole in the tent. "Tess. What the hell happened?" He looked around the tent. "Are you all right? Where's Phoebe?"
Tess stared at him, wondering if she should tell. "Where is Phoebe?" he shouted at her.
Before Tess could decide to answer, Jake withdrew from the tear in the side of the tent. "Dad!" he yelled. "Mom. Dad, help!"
In an instant, the campsite was a chaos of flashlights, lanterns, the cries of the baby. Tess's father, his eyes frantic, scrambled into the tent and grabbed her by the arms, pressing her to his chest for a moment and then squeezing her upper arms, searching her eyes. "Tess, what happened here? Tell me. What happened to Phoebe?"
Outside the tent, she could hear her mother moaning and Jake pleading in a small voice. "I'm sorry, Mom. I'm sorry."
Tess began to sob. "I can't," she said. "He said not to. He said not to tell."
"Who said that?" Rob DeGraff choked out, his voice shaking, the whites showing around his eyes. "Tell me, Tess. This instant."
Tess's small body was trembling. Her words came out in a whisper, sloppy with tears. "The man who ripped the tent with his knife. The man who took Phoebe."
"What? Rob, what happened? Is Tess all right? Where is Phoebe?" Dawn was screaming from outside the tent.
Rob gasped and doubled over, as if he had been stabbed with the ugly man's knife himself, and then he groaned. "Oh my God! Oh no."
Her father's groans made her feel sick to her stomach and gave her bad goose bumps from head to toe. She had never before heard a sound like that coming from her father. He was the one who was always laughing and saying that everything would be all right. But not this time. This time he sounded like an animal howling in pain. She wondered if he was mad at her. She couldn't bear for him to be mad at her. She had to make him understand. Her voice was pleading. "Dad, I had to do what he said. He told me to keep quiet after he left, or..."
"What, Tess?" he cried. "What?"
Tess hung her head. Her voice was a whisper. "Or he was going to kill her."
Copyright (c) 2007 by Patricia Bourgeau