THEY HAD TOLD HER what to do if the police ever came. They had run drillsfirst thing in the morning; in the middle of the night; halfway through a mealuntil she could get to the trapdoor in the closet from anywhere in the house in under a minute. She was an agile kid, and fast, and she practiced. When her father clicked the stopwatch and gave her a proud nod, she felt a heat of happiness burn in her chest.
She knew that he did it all for her. She saw the toll the stress took, the creases at the corners of his eyes, the gray strands in his gold hair; the pink of his scalp showed through where his hair was thinning on top. He was still strong. She could still count on him to protect her. Their property was in a rural county, miles from the nearest house, and he said he could hear a car coming as soon as it turned onto the gravel lane. This is where he had taught her to shoot. How to plant her feet so the .22 would feel steadier in her hands. He told her that if the police ever came, and he wasn't home, that she should shoot anyone who tried to keep her from getting to the trapdoor. He had walked her around the house, showing her where every gun was stashed, making her say the location of each out loud so she would remember. "Under the kitchen sink." "Dining room buffet drawer." "Behind the books on the bookshelf." She wasn't scared. Her father was always home. If anyone needed shooting, he'd do it for her.
Rain battered the fragile farmhouse windows, but she felt safe, already dressed for bed in her cotton nightgown with the giraffes on it, a quilt wrapped around her shoulders. The smell of jar spaghetti sauce and meatballsher favorite mealstill hung in the air, along with the burning wood crackling in the fireplace. The dining room table had been cleared. Her mother had disappeared into the kitchen. The Scrabble board was set up and she and her father studied their tiles. They played every night after dinner. It was part of her homeschooling. The fireplace in the living room flickered with a warm, orange glow, but they played at the dining room table. Her father said it was better for her posture. He picked up a wooden Scrabble tile and moved it onto the board. C. He grinned at her, and she knew that look, knew he had a good one. He put another tile down. A. He was putting the next tile down when the sound of someone pounding at the front door echoed through the house. She could see the fear on his face, the way his eyelids twitched. He dropped the tile. K.
Her mother materialized in the kitchen doorway, a yellow dishrag still in her wet hands. Everything went still. Like the moment when a photograph is takenthat pause when the whole world waits, trying not to blink.
"It's Johnson," a familiar voice shouted from outside. "Storm put a tree down on my power lines. Phone's down. Everything. Can I use yours to call the sheriff?"
Her parents exchanged a tense glance and then her father tightened his fists on the table and leaned over them, not even noticing as he knocked over his Scrabble rack and all his tiles skidded across the tablecloth. Her mother had embroidered that tablecloth with bluebells and lupins. The K tile from her father's rack sat right there, on a bluebell, right in front of her. That tile alone was worth five points.
"I want you to go to the side window by the piano," her father told her. He said it in the serious whisper voice he used when she was to follow his instructions and not ask questions. His eyes darted toward her mother and then he put his hands through his fine fuzz of hair, so different from her own thick dark mop of tangles. "You should be able to see the Johnson place down the hill just past the lake," he told her. "Tell me if you see any lights on."
This was different from the drills. She could see it in the way her parents looked at each other. She wondered if she should be frightened, but when she inventoried her body for signs of fear, she found none. Her father had taught her the importance of preparation.
Excerpted from One Kick by Chelsea Cain. Copyright © 2014 by Chelsea Cain. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. 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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