Most kids in town started out pretty normal, writhing and kicking, same as they do anywhere. Their behavior was tolerated, probably because there was a dim understanding, subliminal though it may have been, that it was necessary to tolerate it. Something to do with the survival of the species. But in due time each generation of Sitwell's children learned the lessons of life, and each successive generation seemed to need less training, as if the lessons were becoming fused into the genetic material of their hosts.
And who could say if it was due to genetic quirks, or maybe stubbornness, or even just plain thick-headedness, but some kids never did learn these lessons. It seems there have to be some in every generation. But it was a tough head that could keep out the constant reminders that control equals happiness, conformity bliss. And it didn't take a genius either to make the connection that those that did all the disappearing were those that never quite caught on. Not that people often came right out and said as much, but the connection was there to be made if you were paying attention.
Nicky Dalton was paying attention, it just wasn't making any sense. She sat on the stoop at the Texaco station straining to read the front page of a newspaper that lay in the jagged rainbow of a puddle of greasy water. She dragged it closer with her foot, watching, predictably, as the wet pulp stuck to the pavement. She stood up and crouched over it, screwing up her nose like she always did when she was trying to understand something, and wiped her stringy brown hair back out of her eyes with her forearm. None of it helped; she still couldn't read it. All she could tell was that three people from Sitwell--thirteen-year-old Christie Gunn and her parents--were missing. Their house was found abandoned last week and from what she could glean, no one knew where they were. The last sentence noted that there hadn't been an unexplained disappearance of more than one person in thirty years--not since May of 1927. She lifted what remained of the soggy front page from the pavement, folded it carefully, and tucked it in her shirt pocket.
She leaned back on the soda machine and let its cool vibrations run a shiver up her spine. Some older kids were coming down the street from school and she wished she could run, hide, but even at the age of ten she was wise enough to know how foolish she'd look. Cold though it was, she pulled her body in close to the soda machine, thighs clutched to her chest, and rested her chin in the space between her knees. If she sat very still, maybe they wouldn't notice her.
She loved watching the older kids, especially the boys. Something about the way they looked in their white T-shirts, particularly in late spring like this when they'd been outside--tan skin pulled tightly over developing muscles--muscles they flexed at every opportunity. Watching them set off movies in her head; she could hear every word, feel every heavy breath. Sometimes she got so caught up in it she almost called out her part of the dialogue to them, but then she always stopped herself, just in time. She didn't want them to think she was crazy, although sometimes she had her own doubts about that. Besides, she knew they wouldn't pay attention to a ten-year-old. They were too busy pretending not to be interested in the older girls who were pretending not to be interested in them.
With the older kids safely past, she stood up to watch them round the bend in the road. She shrugged, hands in her pockets, and turned to look at the deep green of the woods on the other side of the river. Early May, but still a few patches of snow clung stubbornly to small hollows in the ground on the far side of the trees, and shelves of thin, hoary ice crackled and broke as the mountain water trickled beneath them. She headed out across the footbridge and up into the woods, fixated on how an entire family could vanish without a trace.
From Winterkill by Karen Wunderman. Copyright 2002 Karen Wunderman, all rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the author.
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