Chapter Eight

            Absurdly, I felt as though I’d taken advantage of Penny in his emotionally tenuous state. It wasn’t like Penny and I had never had sex. Far from it, in fact. Hormones were one thing, but our previous relationship had been tinged by a sense of the forbidden, making it only natural that we would end up losing our virginity to each other.
            You see, we weren’t friends in public. I didn’t have any friends. Everyone thought I was insane after “claiming” my two best friends, Clarissa and Lindsay, were killed in a vampire attack. Penny was the most popular boy in our freshman class thanks to a mid-summer growth-spurt and his talent on the baseball field. Even though he believed me about the vampires, he couldn’t publically support the girl everyone called “Psycho Spencer” without losing his social standing. High school politics are ridiculous.
            He ignored me at school, but he’d climb the tree outside my bedroom and sneak through my window. At first we watched Netflix or did homework, but that morphed into ever more exploratory make-out sessions, until we were having midnight trysts almost twice a week.
            I didn’t try to quantify our relationship. It wasn’t fair or easy, but after the night Laura and Clarissa were killed, I no longer expected life to be either. Plus, I was too busy saving the town from the forces of evil to care much.
            Everything changed the summer before our junior year.
            We saw each other less in the summer. Baseball practice, games, and camps occupied most of his time, while I was totally fixated on monsters (there was always more supernatural activity between June and August).
            Our last night together was a typical one in the lives of Penny and Caro. I often played the memory out in my mind, wanting to hold on to that small moment of simplicity.
I was curled up in bed, reading The Daughter of Smoke and Bone, top front teeth chewing absently at my bottom lip, when the distinctive tap-tap-tap came at my window. It was a common enough occurrence that I didn’t bother looking from the book, just nodded my head. The window shushed in the frame as it opened; soft thuds coming from that corner of the room as a large body was forced through a small opening.
            “What brings you here, stranger?” I asked.
            “’The Exorcist was on. It got me thinkin’ of you,’” he said.
            I snorted, closing the book. “I have a soft spot for boys who climb in my window and quote Scream.”
            He smiled, skin around his eyes crinkling with pleasure. “That’s why I said it,” he crossed to the bed, nudging me to scoot over, and squishing himself next to me.
            “Really, what’s up?” I asked.
            He shrugged, his arm slipping against mine. “It’s been a few weeks. And the varsity team is going camping at Lake Bartlett this weekend.”
            “And you wanted a melodramatic good-bye?” I put one hand over my forehead, the other over my heart, and pretended to swoon.
            “I really just wanted to make sure you were still alive,” he said.
            “Ah, so Aubrey was busy.” I said.
I didn’t expect him to respond. We didn’t discuss his girlfriend, but he said, “Shopping.”
            “I’m surprised you aren’t there, carrying her bags.”
            “Actually, I’m not allowed to go anymore. She says I just get in the way.”
            I hit him on the arm with a chubby stuffed dragon. He snatched it out of my hand by its wing, using it to bop me on the forehead.
            I laughed, swatting the toy away. “What do you want to do?” I asked.
            An eyebrow rose, and just when I thought he was going to mock me for assuming we were doing anything other than sex, he reached into the pocket of his zip-up hoodie and pulled out a movie.
            “Billy Madison?” I asked.
            “It was in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart. Couldn’t pass it up.”
            I grabbed my laptop, and we adjusted to rest lower against the headboard. Penny squirmed to get under the comforter, wrapping an arm around my shoulders.
            I woke up several hours later, computer asleep on my legs, head resting on Penny’s chest. I closed the laptop, lowering it to the floor. My movements brought Penny back to consciousness.
            “Fuck,” he said through a yawn. “What time is it?”
             “3:30,” I said.
            “Damn,” he laughed, wiggling out from under the blanket. He checked his phone for messages, and then smoothed out his sleep-wrinkled clothes.
            “I’ll see you when I get back,” he said, leaning over the bed, kissing me hard and quick before disappearing out the window.
             I didn’t think to worry about him out camping, and really, I didn’t have the time. All day Saturday was spent tracking and losing what I thought was the bull-like gallu demon of Sumerian mythology. I got in late (or early, depending on how you look at it); needless to say, I would have happily slept until Monday, but my phone bleeped a siren like alert, jerking me awake a little after noon on Sunday.
            I fumbled for the squawking phone—if I didn’t view the message, it wouldn’t shut-up. I swiped my finger against the screen to see another Amber Alert. Blah, blah, blah, I thought, skimming the details.
            Sixteen year old Jeremy Penrose and Seventeen year old Isaac Smith went missing from their Coleman Island State Park campsite at 3:30pm Saturday. Penrose is 6 ft. 2 in tall, 165 pounds, dark brown hair, blue eyes, clean shaven. He was last seen wearing a blue Nike hoodie, and black Nike shorts. Smith is 5 ft. 9in tall, 170 pounds, curly blond hair, brown eyes, clean shaven. He was last seen wearing a white t-shirt, blue shorts, and sandals. If you have any knowledge of their whereabouts, please contact…
            My mind was heavy, half-formed words and images swirled, disappearing before I could get a handle on them. The words “Jeremy” and “Penrose” floated up to the surface, and the confusion shattered. I re-read the text of the Amber Alert, concentrating on each word. Jeremy, my Penny, was missing.  
             I jumped out of bed, making the trip to the closet in one giant lunge. I banged open the sliding door, snatching out clothes and what I thought of as my emergency duffle bag, filled with protein bars, a flashlight and extra batteries, a small hand gun and bullets, vials of holy water, wolfsbane water, wooden stakes, and a first aid kit.
             I dressed and sprinted out the front door without saying good-bye to anyone.
            I made the fifty minute drive to Lake Bartlett in thirty. The lake was enormous, spanning 50,000 acres and four counties, but I drove straight to Coleman Island.
            Though it was labeled as one big island, it was actually a chain of three, connected by a series of bridges. I crossed onto the first island, and was greeted with the sight of two cop cars, lightbars flickering in the late afternoon sun, sitting parallel to the empty admissions booth. A county officer, one that I knew, came from behind the booth, indicating with a flick of his hand that I should stop.
            I pulled up to him, rolling down the window.
             He rolled his eyes when he saw me. “Should’ve known you’d show up,” he said, corners of his mouth dipping downward.
            “Will you let me through?” I asked.
            He straightened up, eyes focused on something far off in the distance. “Can you promise me you’ll stay out of trouble?” he asked.
            I didn’t respond, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel.
            “Of course not,” he sighed, taking off his hat and rubbing at the sweat beading along his forehead. “Just stay out of our way. The search headquarters are set up on the second island. Try to blend in.”
            “Will do,” I said. “I appreciate it, Officer,” I tipped my head at him before rolling up the window and driving on.
            The parking lot by the Coleman Island general store was packed, most cars having Pine Grove High School stickers on the back window. I skirted the milling volunteers by picking out a path along the woods to the pavilion where orange ribbed water jugs, thin silver coffee carafes, an assortment of cups, and at least four dozen doughnuts were set up. Groups of people stood around chattering, giving the entire affair the feel of a company picnic, and not a search-and-rescue effort. Then again, we weren’t exactly new to missing persons.
            With my skillful eavesdropping, I learned that the team had camped at Osprey Point, the tent camping area located at the eastern edge of the island, and that the police didn’t have much to go on. They’d found a Nike sandal with blood pooled in the heel. That was it.
            I circled back to the parking lot, heading to the foot bridge that led to the third island. It was a little over a mile to Osprey Point. I jogged along the road, not seeing any sign of the search parties spread all over the island.
            The campsite was cordoned off with yellow police tape. Three five-man tents were set up in a semi-circle around a firepit. A dozen multi-colored folding camp chairs were situated around the still glowing ash pile, while other camping paraphernalia (coolers, cooking supplies, roasting sticks) were spread around the area. It was obvious by the churned state of the dirt around the fire that the site had been thoroughly searched and abandoned.
            The end of Coleman Island was marked by three peninsulas; Osprey Point was located in the middle, while the one to the right of the Point was the site of a two mile hiking trail, and the one to the left was a private camping area designated for Boy and Girl Scout troops and church youth groups. The trail had been closed for the last few months, the sign on the barrier saying that “essential repairs, necessary for the safety of our guests” were needed. I had a feeling, based on the general ineptitude of our police forces, that neither area had been searched. For some reason, the cops always failed to take into consideration that a laminated “No Trespassing” sign wouldn’t keep anyone, especially teenage boys, out.
            The private camping area was well-tended and boring, but there was a spot off the trail that I thought Penny might have visited. Anyone out on the lake could see it, but few people were brave enough to make the journey. It was a ledge, six feet above the water, just wide enough for two people. Getting down to the ledge was a matter of dropping and hoping the earth didn’t give way beneath your feet; going up required some climbing.
            I went over the barricade that blocked off the trail, which, despite the warning, wasn’t too difficult to navigate. There were some large tree branches on the path, and wild grasses were overgrown in spots, but it wasn’t impassable. As I got further down the trail, though, parts of it were washed away, and branches were replaced by small fallen trees. Thickets of thorny bushes seemed to spring up in random patterns, making navigation difficult.
            I was sweating and breathless by the time I veered off the trail, heading toward an outcropping on the north-western side of the peninsula. I thought the path was bad, but the woods were worse. Thickets of bramble bushes and vines closed the small spaces between the trees. I forced my way through, thorns snicking against my jacket, stinging my hands.
            Fifty feet from the lake, I stepped down without checking where I put my feet. Tightness gripped at my right boot. I was unable to move, foot jammed between roots. I bent down to tug myself free, noticing a clump of vines hanging, listless, from a tree. I freed myself, scurrying to examine the fallen vegetation. The leaves and stems were crushed to green pulp; hidden under one edge of the broken plant was a skidded shoe print, toes pointed toward the lake.
            I followed the direction of the print, focusing on every plant along the way. I made it a few yards before coming to a tree missing a large swath of bark. I touched the exposed meat, rubbing my fingers along the grooves scratched into the surface.
            A movie was forming in my mind. Penny grabbed by someone (or something?) and dragged along the ground. He attempted to get away; first, by grabbing the vines, and when that didn’t work, just digging his nails into a tree, struggling for purchase.
            I walked forward, slow now, checking every inch of forest around me, but my forward momentum was halted by another bramble thicket, blocking the way.  This bush, however, was crushed; branches burst open, leaves crunched to bits. A large piece of slick polyester basketball shorts, the tail of the Nike swoosh just visible, clung to a thorn.
            Dodging the errant hedge, I ran ahead, knowing I was close. Penny’s zip-up hoodie, the one he wore the last time he snuck in my room, lay in a clump at the edge of the tree line. The blue sweatshirt was spotted with rust colored stains and striped with dirt. I picked it up, loosening a flood of thorns and pine tree needles. One sleeve hung on by a few sagging threads, and the teeth of the zipper were bent to hell.
            I took three steps out into the open, cradling the hoodie in my arms. Sunlight glinted off the smooth lake, obscuring my view. I cupped a hand around my eyes, cutting down on the glare and—
A body sprawled across the grass, t-shirt a bloody, tattered mess; shorts ripped clean up one leg.
            I sprinted the short distance separating me from Penny, fearing he was dead despite my earlier confident knowledge to the contrary. His name came from my throat, alternating between Jeremy and Penny, anything to make him look at me. There was no response.
            I sank to my knees, grabbing at his wrist, waiting for a pulse. It was weak, slow, but it was there.  
My phone slid in my sweaty palm, almost falling to the ground, but I managed to notify 911 that I had found one of the missing baseball players.
            I was elated. I was horrified.
            Long bloody scratches marred his left side, with a matching mark on his chest. Shallow cuts and purple bruises striped his face. And while those injuries were bad enough, it was the deep, ripping bite marks on his arms and legs that had me terrified.
            It might have been better if he were dead.

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