Look up! Hide!
But it's too latehe sees her, too.
Nessa stumbles, her mouth open, and a gasp escapes. Her head whips left, then right. The man probably thinks she's searchin' for an escape route, but I know my little sister better than anyone, even God. Jenessa is tryin' to find me.
Makin' my own careless leaf sounds, I rise, my eyes on Nessa, who sees me immediately and flies across the forest into my arms. Our heads crank in the direction of new movement, this time in the form of a woman thin as chicken bones, her gait uneven as her heels sink into the soft forest floor.
Jenessa clings like a leech, her legs wrapped round my waist. The scent of her hair, sunbaked and sweaty, is so personal, it aches in my belly. Like a dog, I can smell her fear, or maybe it's mine. I shake it off fast as my face smoothes into stone and I collect myself, because I'm in charge.
Neither the man nor the woman moves. Don't they know it's impolite to stare? Bein' city folk and all? She looks over at him, her face unsure, and he nods at her before goin' back to starin' at us, his gaze unwaverin'.
"Carey and Jenessa, right?" she says.
I nod, then curse myself as my attempt at a "Yes, ma'am" comes out in a squeak. I stop, clear my throat, and try again.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm Carey, and this is my sister, Jenessa. If you're lookin' for Mama, she went into town for supplies. Can I help you with somethin'?"
Nessa squirms in my iron grip, and I command my arms to relax. At least I'm not shakin', which would be a dead giveaway for Nessa, but truth be told, I'm shakin' inside.
Maybe the church folk sent them. Maybe they met Mama in town, beggin' money for her next fix. Maybe they talked some Jesus into her, and came out to drop off some food.
"Are you Jehovah's Witnesses or somethin'?" I continue. "Because we're not interested in savin' by some guy in the sky."
The man's face breaks into a smile, which he covers with a cough. The woman frowns, swats at a mosquito. She looks mighty uncomfortable standin' in our woods, glancin' from me to Ness and then back again, shakin' her head. I smooth down my hair, releasin' my own musky scent of dust and sunbaked head. The woman's nutmeg brown hair, unsprung from her bun, makes me think of Nessa's after a hard play, with tendrils like garter snakes crawlin' down her neck and stickin' there. It's pretty hot for fall.
Even from here, I can tell the woman washed her hair this mornin'. It probably smells like fancy flowers, unlike the heels of soap we use to wash ours.
"There's a table over there, if you want to sit awhile," I say uninvitin'ly, hopin' she don't. But she nods and I take the lead, cartin' Nessa to the clearin' by the camper, past the fire pit poppin' and smokin' as the kindlin' catches on, past the canned goods locked in a rusty metal cabinet nailed to the trunk of a tree, and over to a battered metal foldin' table surrounded by mismatched chairs: two metal, one wicker, and two large stumps with cushions that used to cling like puffy skin to our old rockin' chair.
The man and woman sit, him in a metal chair, while she chooses the large stump with the cleanest cushion. I plunk Nessa in the wicker and keep the table between us and them. I stay standin', with plenty of room for a fast getaway if need be. But they both seem normal enough, not like kidnappers or drug dealers or crazy church folk. She looks important, in her store-bought tan suit. This fact makes me nervous more than anythin' else.
They watch quietly as I put my violin away in its case and then fill three tin cups with a stream of water from the jug. I want to tell them I boiled the water first, and that the creek is clean, but I don't. Dolin' out the cups, I cringe when I catch sight of my nails, ragged and uneven, a ribbon of dirt stretched beneath each.
Excerpted from If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch. Copyright © 2013 by Emily Murdoch. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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