Seconds Away Page 39

Ema said, ’’Come on, let\'s hurry up.’’

We did. I let her lead the way. She took a right and then a left, and I knew where she was headed. A few minutes later, we were at the end of Bat Lady\'s street. The house was gone, burned to the ground. Only a few beams remained upright. After all these years, after all the stories to frighten children, the legendary haunted abode of the Bat Lady had been reduced to ashes. Fire marshals stood in the front yard, jotting notes on clipboards. I thought about that old record player, the old vinyls by the Who and HorsePower and the Beatles. I thought about all those photographs the ones of Bat Lady as a hippie in the sixties, of Ashley at Kasselton High, of the sad-eyed boy with the curly hair, of all the rest of those rescued children.

All gone up in flames.

So where was Lizzy Sobek, aka the Bat Lady? Where was Shaved Head, aka I Have No Idea What His Name Is? For that matter, where was the phony Butcher of Lodz, aka the San Diego Paramedic/Arsonist?

Ema stood next to me. ’’Do you think it\'s over?’’

’’What?’’

’’The Abeona Shelter. Did the Butcher destroy it?’’

I thought about that. ’’I don\'t know. I don\'t think it\'s that easy to destroy a group that\'s been around so long.’’ I moved a little to the left, so that I could look into the woods in the back.

’’What are you doing?’’ Ema asked.

’’The garage in the back. Remember?’’

’’Oh, right,’’ she said. ’’That\'s how Shaved Head would enter.’’

’’And that\'s how he brought me into the house to see her through a tunnel running underground. There were corridors and other doors.’’

The woods were too thick to see the garage, especially from this distance. That, I had figured, was intentional. It was supposed to be hidden.

’’We need to check it out,’’ I said.

’’What? The garage and the tunnels?’’

I nodded. ’’We obviously can\'t do it now. Maybe tonight when the fire marshal isn\'t here and no one can see us.’’

I looked at her and again something started to bother me.

’’What?’’ she asked.

’’There\'s something different about you.’’

I spotted a dark smudge on her arm. She saw me staring and pulled down her sleeve.

’’What was that?’’ I asked.

’’Nothing.’’

But I kept thinking about the rumors Spoon had told me, about her living in the woods, about her father being a possible abuser. ’’Was that . . . was that a bruise?’’

’’What? No.’’ She stepped away, grabbing at her sleeve again. ’’I gotta go.’’

’’Don\'t do this again, Ema.’’

’’I\'m fine, Mickey. Really.’’

’’Then how come you never invite me over?’’

Her eyes, usually meeting mine, found a tree in the distance. ’’My parents aren\'t big on company.’’

’’I don\'t even know where you live.’’

’’What difference does it make? Look, really, I have to get home. Let\'s text later. If we can both get out, we can come back here and try to find those tunnels.’’

Ema started to hurry away. When she reached the edge of the woods, she looked behind her, as though making sure that I wasn\'t following her. Then she vanished into the thick. I wasn\'t sure what to do, so, as was my way, I did nothing. I just stood there like a dope. Something kept nagging my subconscious. I started combing through my mind, through recent memories, trying to figure out what it was, when I realized something.

Have you ever seen those games where you have two seemingly identical pictures and you have to find six differences? It worked a little like that. I closed my eyes. I pictured Ema from a few days ago. I pictured her from today. What was different and why was it bothering me?

Difference One: The possible bruise on her arm.

Did I really need a Difference Two?

I stood there. Ema had been pretty clear. I should mind my own business. But that didn\'t mean I had to listen. Ema, despite her young age, seemed to get out a lot late at night. So did I, but my situation was pretty grim. She also had a lot of tattoos. What parent allows that at such a young age? Sure, that wasn\'t proof of anything. It was barely suspicious. But then you add in the secrecy, the woods, the possible bruise, the rumors . . .

Sometimes the loudest cries for help are silent.

I decided to follow her. Now.

Ema would have a head start, but she wouldn\'t be running. If I kept my cool and moved quickly, I would be able to catch up. I tried to guess what direction she had gone in, but there really was no point. I wasn\'t a tracker. Instead I ran straight ahead, looking for any signs of . . . what?

Ema, I guess.

That six-difference picture game came back to me as I moved through the thickening brush. I thought about the tattoo on the back of her neck. I remembered that there had been the tail of a snake in that area. The snake had been green . . . and now, wait, is that even possible . . . today it was more like purple.

Huh?

I kept running. Could that be it? I started to think about her tattoos and realized that they had somehow . . . changed?

But so what?

A few days ago, we had gone to Tattoos While U Wait and met with Agent, her tattoo artist. He was offbeat, sure, but I liked him. He had helped us too. So maybe she had gone back for some touch-up work.

But didn\'t that usually require bandages and time to heal?

I was just mulling that over, hurrying through the brush, when I heard a sound up ahead. I ducked behind a tree and peered out. There, in a small clearing maybe fifty yards ahead of me, was Ema.

I\'d found her.

She had found a small path in the woods and was following it in what I thought was a western direction. I didn\'t have a compass and I wasn\'t much of a Boy Scout and, really, who cared what cardinal point she was heading toward?

I stayed as far back as I could while keeping her in sight. This wooded area was actually part of the Kasselton reservoir. There were signs that you weren\'t supposed to be here, but the woods were also pretty huge and unpatrolled. Because Uncle Myron can\'t help but share, he told me how every fifth-grader in his day, including, of course, my father, had to collect wildflowers, identify them, and press them in a book. Most of the students found the flowers in these very woods. For some reason, Myron thought that I would find this fascinating.

Then again, why was I thinking about it now?

At first, I expected that Ema would eventually arrive at some kind of rusted sheet-metal shack hidden deep in this brush, but now I realized that probably didn\'t add up. Yes, I had never seen these woods patrolled, but that didn\'t mean that they weren\'t. This was a reservoir area. There was no way you could really build a house in here, even a dilapidated one. You\'d have to move around. You\'d have to maybe live in tents and keep a lookout or something.


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