The headaches came back the day I returned to Big Bear. If I’d known they were coming, I would’ve laid low at my dad’s house, but ten minutes after I arrived, Molly Blount showed up with a plan. My best friend hauled me off to Minder Field, where my high school team, the Big Bear Grizzlies, were facing off against their rivals from Rim of the World, a town about thirty miles from here.
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.” I pushed the door to Molly’s old Honda Civic shut, not wanting to let go of the handle just yet. Peering over the car toward the football field, I heard a collective roar come up from the crowd.
“Trust me. Better to get this reunion deal over with. By the time Monday rolls around, the shock of seeing you back at school will have worn off.” Molly swung a thick red scarf over her white sweatshirt and wrapped it snugly around her neck. I was a shadow next to her in my gray on black sweater and jeans combination.
I took a steadying breath and wiped my damp palms on my jeans before shoving them into the pockets of my over-sized jacket. Two years ago, I would’ve acted as if I’d owned the place, even as a freshman.
That was before the accident.
“You know I’m right. I’m always right when it comes to my best friend.” Molly beamed with confidence. “Now, let’s walk.” And by walk, she meant strut. She linked elbows with me and dragged me to the field.
Overhead, the lights were on, even though it wasn’t dark enough to need them. They gave off an eerie glow that blended with the evening’s fading light. As we headed toward the crowd, I was comforted by the familiar sight that greeted me. Parents, decked out in Big Bear’s red and white school colors, sat up in the stands with one eye on the game and one on their kids. Butcher-paper banners hung along the fence, with sketches of our Grizzly Bear mascot cheering on the team. Below the stands, girls were giggling, flirting with guys who were pretending not to notice or maybe actually didn’t notice. What did I know?
I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply. The brisk autumn air tasted of licorice and stale popcorn. The faint smell of cigarette smoke drifted past us. Underneath it all, though, was the scent of pine. It was everywhere in Big Bear. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it. It was the one good thing about my dad bringing me back here. That and Molly.
“Two Cokes,” she said as we approached the frazzled woman in charge of the snack stand. Poor thing looked as if she were still recovering from the half-time rush. “My treat.”
Molly paid for the drinks, raised her soda and toasted, “Welcome back, Mick.” We clinked cups and sipped.
When we got to the stands, she picked up the pace, her hips swinging a little more now that we were making the rounds. I tugged on her arm.
“Would you stop?” I begged. “Or, at least slow down a little? My hips can’t keep up with yours.” My limp came out when I was rushed or super stressed-out.
Molly ignored me, flipped her sandy blond hair over her shoulders, and kept moving. I managed to keep up with her confident stride by taking quick shuffling steps.
As we launched ourselves into the throng of teenaged spectators, I kept my eyes lowered, avoiding eye contact. I didn’t want to see the look on everyone’s faces when they saw me. I mean, what do you say to a girl who lost her mother in a car crash, was in a coma, and had to drop out of school to recover?
I so didn’t want to be the subject of next week’s gossip. Worse, I didn’t want their pity.
Too late, I realized and held my breath as I was jostled between one group of kids and the next.
“McKenna!” shouted a girl I recognized from middle school. She gave me a quick hug. “I heard you were back. I’m so sorry.”
Her words trailed off as we moved on. The voices around me became garbled, fading in and out as if someone were turning an old-time radio dial back and forth, unable to lock in on a station.
“McKenna, I heard what happened,” another voice boomed above the static. Tyler, from my freshman P.E. class, clapped me hard on the shoulder, sending a jolt of pain from my low back into my right thigh. I half-smiled half-grimaced. “Hospitals suck. I had my appendix out last year.”
Not quite the same experience, but whatever.
I didn’t do well with crowds anymore. My vision blurred into a swirl of colors from the blood-red scarf draped around Molly’s neck, the dark green pine trees beyond the field, and the yellow crescent moon hanging low in the cold sky.
“McKenna.” I picked out my name from whispered conversations in the stands, but no one met my eyes.
McKenna, the smooth voice of my therapist slid uninvited into my head. A dream as vivid as yours can seem quite realistic. Tell me, how does it make you feel?
I felt like screaming. Then and now.
Instead, I checked out. Molly dragged me through the chaos like a mannequin on display, my body stiff with a tense smile plastered across my face.
I was surprised at how many people were expecting to see me here. I guess I shouldn’t have been. Big Bear was a small community. Sure, zillions of flatlanders, from Southern California and beyond, visited our mountain every year. They skied our slopes, hiked our trails, and fished our lakes, but their lives were a mystery to us.
Not true for those of us who grew up here. Keeping secrets in Big Bear was practically impossible. Everyone was always up in everyone else’s business–whether they wanted to be or not. Big Bear High was the worst. I’d known some of the kids at school practically my whole life. They remembered every stupid thing I’d ever done and wouldn’t let me forget either. No matter how hard one tried, secrets always had a way of coming out–usually in painful, agonizing ways.
I hoped I’d be the exception.
Somehow, Molly and I kept in touch when everyone else faded out of my life. About once a month, she’d make the long trip down the mountain to visit me at my aunt’s home in Redlands. She kept me linked to my old life. You know, the life I had before when the biggest problems I faced involved things like deciding whether to go the movies or go bowling (movies), having ice cream or popcorn for dessert (ice cream) or finding the perfect color of lip gloss to go with my bikini (pink satin).
My priorities had changed since then. I planned on muddling through school, fading into the background, and counting down the days until I could leave Big Bear for good.
But first, I had to get through tonight.
“Oooo!” Molly nudged me in the ribs with her elbow. “Looky who we found.”
At the top of the bleachers, in the far corner, stood a twosome that I’d known almost as long as Molly: Josh Tanner and Scott Wexler. I recognized them easily enough, the four of us had hung out since forever, but there were subtle changes that I couldn’t quite pin down. It was as though I were looking through a thick plate of glass made wavy with time, so it distorted my view. Maybe it was just that they’d grown older without me, had memories that didn’t include me, and I really didn’t know them anymore.
Once upon a time, there might have been something between Josh and me. He’d always been popular. No doubt he still was, with his friendly blue eyes and thousand-watt smile. Combine that with being a star soccer player with brains, and it was easy to see why every mother wanted her daughter to date him. Josh was probably the only thing a teenaged girl and her mother could agree on.
They were laughing when someone I didn’t recognize joined them. Josh held out his fist, and the new guy pounded it with his own. Then Josh glanced in our direction, and his face lit up. I smiled back automatically.
Molly and I continued making our way toward the end of the bleachers when Josh’s friend turned around. His eyes mirrored the darkening sky behind him and trapped me in place.
I’d like to say this was love at first sight. I’d read enough books to know a we-stared-into-each-other’s-eyes-and-knew-it-was-meant-forever moment. This was not one of those.
Even from a distance, there was something frighteningly familiar in the way he cocked his head and stared at me. The air swirled around me, humming with electricity. It lifted tiny goose bumps on every inch of my skin. It was as if someone had recited the last verse of an ancient curse, and it stripped away a protective layer that surrounded me, a second skin that bound and constricted me without my realizing it. Until now.
I felt bare. Vulnerable. As if a spotlight were shining down on me for everyone to see. No. Not everyone.
He blinked, breaking the connection.
The new guy was tall. He had a good two inches on Josh, who, according to Molly, had hit six feet this past summer. He wore dark jeans that hung loosely around his hips and a navy blue hoodie. When he reached up to run his fingers through his wavy black hair, I realized my heart was hammering in my throat.
Was there such a thing as lust at first sight? If that was what I was feeling, I was not a fan.
Molly spun around when she realized I was no longer walking next to her. She took a few steps back to me and followed my gaze, sighing. “Yum.”
“Who’s that?” I barely got the words out.
“Right?” She waved a hand in front of her face to cool herself down. “So hot.”
I instinctively folded my arms around myself, careful not to spill my drink. I had a hard time believing it was just this guy’s hotness that had my stomach jittering like a live wire. I mean, not that he wasn't hot … it was just … okay, he was hot.
Molly snapped her fingers in front of my eyes, pulling me out of my trance. “That’s Luke Owens.” She searched my face looking for a sign of recognition. “I told you about him.”
“I think I’d remember someone like that.”
Luke’s eyes flashed to mine, blasting away any coherent thoughts I had left in my brain. His eyes glowed like an animal’s when the light hits them just right. It must’ve been some weird reflection from the stadium lights. Somehow, I pulled my gaze back to Molly just as she was lifting up her hand.
“What are you doing?”
“Duh, clueless. I’m waving, hello,” said Molly.
“Don’t you dare,” I demanded.
“Whatever,” she huffed and dropped her arm. “You do know you’re going to have to have real conversations with people again. You might as well start with Josh and his band of merry men.”
“Molly, I’m trying. But it’s not like I can pick up where I left off two years ago. It’s different now. I’m different.” At least, that was what they told me in all my therapy sessions.
I looked up, willing Molly to understand when Lexy Graham rammed her way past us. She knocked me into the girl walking with her.
“Watch it!” Lexy’s friend shoved me out of her way.
The shock of pain in my back knocked me off balance. I staggered to my left before steadying myself. Molly offered her hand to help. I ignored it.
“Look who’s back. Lucky us.” Lexy’s voice was slick with sarcasm.
“Hey, Lexy. Wow. I barely recognized you. How are you?”
I remembered her with long, dark-brown hair. She’d wear a headband that matched whatever outfit she was wearing. Tonight, Lexy’s hair, now bleached white-blond, was pulled into a chic updo showing off her thin neck. Her burgundy sweater and black jeans couldn’t have fit more tightly if they’d been made of plastic wrap. Somehow, she pulled it off, unlike her friend, who looked more slutty than stylish.
“Better than you, obviously.” She peered down her perfectly straight nose at me. “Weren’t you paralyzed or something?”
“Yeah. I heard you were dead,” her friend chimed in.
I stared at Lexy, dumbfounded. I couldn’t form a response. When she first moved here, we’d hung out. Maybe we weren’t best friends or anything, but still.
“Seriously?” said Molly without missing a beat. She skewered the two of them with a uniquely Molly look, then grabbed my arm to pull me into the stands. I ignored the cramping in my back and climbed up, unable to keep my boots from clanging loudly on the metal steps.
“What was that about? Lexy was always so sweet.”
“Until last year. I don’t know what happened over summer, but she came back and–” Molly gestured to Lexy down below “–Voila.”
Lexy was leaning over the fence, fluttering her long fingers at the players on the sidelines. I rested against the cold railing and tried to wrap my head around this new Lexy. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who’d changed.
Molly looked around to find our next destination. We were halfway up the stands when she stopped. “Well, what do you know?” She looked back at me, and I raised my eyebrows. “Luke’s watching you.”
“That’s not funny,” I said, unable to ignore the hot chill trickling down my spine. Or the headache that followed.
It felt as if two gnarled claws had reached through my eyes to rip apart my brain. The sensation was horrible. I dropped my drink, cringing behind the pain, and pressed my hands to my forehead as those claws dug in deeper.
Molly jumped up a step to avoid the splashing soda. “Mick? You okay?”
“Yeah,” I managed through clinched teeth. I tried to look at her, but the light was excruciating. I squinted and gasped shallow breaths. I wanted to convince myself it was just a migraine. But it was worse than that. I began to lose the feeling in my legs and grabbed the railing for support. Hold it together. The last thing I needed was to pass out on the bleachers while Josh and Luke watched from above and Lexy from below.
I managed to swing myself onto a small space at the end of the bench. The man next to me was too busy yelling at the referee to notice. With my elbows on my knees, I squeezed my head between my hands and fought the urge to vomit. Moments later, the pain faded into an achy throb that settled over my eyes.
“Mick?” Molly was squatting at my side.
“Killer headache.” I mimed a gun with my index finger and thumb, held it up to my temple and pulled the trigger.
“Do you want me to get your dad?” Molly asked. She stood up and scanned the crowd.
Hello–worst suggestion ever. My dad left for the game ahead of us and was already here somewhere. He’d probably whisk me off to the ER for a mosquito bite let alone for a headache like this. Him dragging me away was the last thing I needed on my first day back. “No. I’m fine. I just need a minute.”
Molly looked around for a place to sit, but the bench was full. Besides, I knew where she really wanted to be. “Go on up. I’ll catch you in a bit.” Something in my voice convinced her I was okay.
I watched as she bounced her way up the stands. She reached the top at the same time I felt someone’s eyes on me. The sensation was heavy. Suffocating.
I ducked my head and tried to be inconspicuous as I glanced at Luke Owens from the corner of my eye. The explosion in my head was instantaneous. It was as if someone were mining for gold in my head and had blasted my brain away to find it.
I bit back a scream and folded in half. My hands covered my head, and I rocked back and forth, begging for the agony to stop.
When it did, I leaned my head back and exhaled. No one seemed to have noticed or cared that my head had just been blown to bits, which was fine by me. The pain was already starting to fade. I wondered what the docs would have to say about it, wondered what my therapist would make of it. They probably wouldn’t believe me.
Overhead, the sky was black. I’d forgotten how fast night came and captured this town, holding us prisoner until daybreak. I searched the trees beyond the field, the shadows momentarily held at bay by the yellow glow of the stadium lights. I’d talked about those shadows with my shrink. I didn’t care if she thought I’d made it all up. Because, crazy or not, I knew those shadows were hiding secrets of their own. I’d seen them.
And they were waiting for me.