Book I in the Children of Hathor trilogy
Jason Hunter has never piloted a spacecraft before. He has never faced bizarre and deadly creatures or had to escape from a toxic region of space called the Vuhndalac Pit. Nor has he ever had to evade capture by a powerful alien leader intent on destroying him. But if he is to rescue his kidnapped parents and prevent aliens from invading Earth, he must do all these things — and more!
Hidden somewhere in the galaxy is an ancient talisman that he must find — before time runs out. If he is the Heir of Elam, the one person in the entire universe who can claim this talisman, he will save his planet. If he is not, touching it will be the last thing he ever does!
Go below the trailer to read the first five chapters!
THE TALISMAN OF ELAM
Children of Hathor – Book II
When the Freaks came out of the woods, a few minutes after midnight, Jason Hunter was waiting. From a window in his upstairs corner bedroom, he watched them slink through the shadows at the edge of his yard. Suddenly they both stopped. Jason squinted into the darkness. It looked like they were arguing. Then the man bolted across the lawn, toward a large oak tree next to Jason’s house. When he passed behind it, Jason shifted to his front window. With one finger he parted the curtains. Directly below, Mr. Freak was kneeling in the grass next to Jason’s bike.
Jason mentally kicked himself for forgetting to put it in the garage, and he wondered if the man was going to steal it. Instead, Mr. Freak pulled a small, round object from his pocket and slid it across the handlebars. The device clicked and the man held it up to study a small, lighted display. Jason leaned forward, frowning. What is he doing?
Next, the man passed the object over the bike’s seat. After studying it again, he put it into his pocket and stood. Jason pulled back to the edge of the window. He needed to go wake his parents! His dad would have to believe him now! The guy was right there in plain sight!
He was about to make his move when the man looked up. Jason ducked out of sight. He stood still, barely breathing, expecting any moment to hear a door or window forced open, but the only sound was his own heartbeat. When he finally risked another peek. the man was running across the street to join Mrs. Freak, who was waiting near their house. They both slipped around a corner and out of sight.
Jason backed away from the window and dropped to the edge of his bed. His heart was still pounding. What was that all about? He glanced at his door. No point in waking his parents now. The Freaks were gone. His dad would just yell at him and tell him he was dreaming again. Better to stick with the plan. Then again, maybe I should wait. What if the guy comes back?
His hesitation lasted only for a second. He’d been psyching himself up for this all day. He wasn’t going to chicken out now. Moving as quietly as he could, he pulled his fire escape ladder from under the bed, slid the side window open, and attached the ladder to the sill. He fed it out, cringing every time it scraped against the side of the house, until the last rung dangled just above the ground. After listening to make sure his parents hadn’t awakened, he backed out the window and climbed down.
Crouching behind the big oak, he scanned the neighborhood. All the houses were dark. A streetlight at the end of the block cast a small circle of yellow light on the road. His eyes fell on his bike. Then a faint flickering in one of the Freaks’ windows caught his attention. He ran across the street and around the side of their house, where the two of them had disappeared only moments ago. Moving from window to window, he tried to see inside, but the blinds were all tightly drawn. He stuck his head around the corner. The back lawn, like the front, was overgrown and weedy. Hedgerows of low bushes separated this yard from the ones on either side. A brick retaining wall formed a narrow, raised garden that ran along the back of the house, but all the plants in it were dead.
Light flickered in two windows here, and in one of them there was a small gap in the blinds. He stepped up into the garden and peered in. The Freaks were standing in an empty room with their backs to him. In front of them was a cube-shaped, brightly lit display. But it wasn’t a screen or monitor or any- thing else solid. It just floated in the air, like a hologram. The side facing him was covered with strange symbols.
The man reached out to touch one of them and the hologram rotated to show another side, this one covered with charts and graphs. None of it made any sense to Jason. With another touch, the display rotated again. Jason’s eyes widened and he stifled a gasp.
It was him!
A giant picture of Jason now filled the center of the display. The woman moved closer to the hologram, blocking Jason’s view. He shifted to get a better look and his foot dislodged a brick that clattered to the ground. He ducked as both Freaks spun around. Desperately, he looked for a place to hide. The bushes! He bolted toward them and dove behind the largest one just before the back door opened. Through the leaves, Jason watched Mr. Freak step out, glance at the fallen brick, and slowly scan the yard.
Jason held his breath. If I can see him, can he see me? A sharp rock was digging into his knee, but he dared not move. An airplane droned in the distance. Mr. Freak tilted his head, as though listening for something. A large beetle crawling across a twig in front of Jason fluttered its wings, like someone shuffling a tiny deck of cards. The man turned toward the sound and Jason tensed. For a long moment, Mr. Freak stared at the hedge. Sure he’d been discovered, Jason got ready to run. But the man just turned and stepped back inside.
Jason pushed away from the bush and rubbed his knee. Was he imagining it, or did he see a faint smile cross the man’s face before he closed the door? Brushing aside the impression as a trick of the shadows, he looked toward his house. No way could he run straight home now. The Freaks were alerted and might see him when he crossed the street. Instead, he crouched and ran across the adjacent yard.
With frequent glances back, he worked his way up the street, darting between trees, until he reached the end of the block. Then he crossed the road and ducked into the woods. Staying just inside the tree line, and occasionally tripping over an exposed root in the dark, he made his way back to his own yard. When he was certain the Freaks weren’t watching, he sprinted across the lawn to the dangling ladder.
After stowing it under the bed and locking his door and windows, he searched his darkened room. His surfboard was propped in a corner, its whiteness dulled to gray by the gloom. A skateboard leaned against his bureau, where T-shirts hung out of an open drawer. He spotted what he was looking for in his closet—his baseball bat. He placed it on the floor next to his bed. Then he crawled under the covers and stared at the ceiling. His heart was still racing.
That was close, he thought, but now he knew for certain. The Freaks were stalking him. They were even taking pictures of him! But…why? Who are they? What do they want?
He had to learn more, and right then he decided what he was going to do.
When he went downstairs the next morning, his dad was sitting at the table with his face buried in the newspaper. His mother was clattering dishes in the kitchen. Jason dropped his backpack on the floor and slid onto a chair.
“‘Experts debunk recent UFO sighting,’” his dad read aloud. “I wonder what that’s all about?”
Jason paid no attention. He stared at the back of the paper, wondering if he should say anything. Well, he decided finally, it was worth a try. “Dad, one of those creeps across the street was in our yard last night.”
His dad lowered the paper and looked at him. “Don’t start that again.”
“I saw him!”
Jason’s mom came in and placed a bowl on the table in front of him. “Saw who?” she asked.
“Imaginary neighbors,” his dad replied.
Jason clenched his fists under the table. “They’re not imaginary! I saw him! He was doing something to my bike!”
His dad dropped the paper to his lap and held up a finger. “First, watch your tone of voice.”
Jason looked down briefly. “Okay, I’m sorry, but—”
“Second, there’s no one living across the street. We’ve established that.”
“Is the ‘For sale’ sign gone? Has anyone seen a moving van?” He shook his head. “It’s not going to work, Jason. We live in New Hampshire now. You might as well get used to it.” He held up the paper again. “I can’t believe you thought inventing imaginary bogeymen would get us to move back to California.”
Jason scowled and looked away.
His mom smiled sweetly. “Eat your breakfast, dear.”
He glared at her before looking into the bowl. Then his shoulders slumped. “Mom, why do you keep doing this?”
Jason raised his hands in exasperation, then used them to point at his bowl. “This! Mom, no one eats Cheerios with blue cheese dressing!”
“You’ll eat what’s put in front of you and be thankful for it,” his dad said from behind the paper. His mom just looked confused.
Jason shoved back his chair, stormed into the kitchen, and began rummaging through cupboards.
“What are you looking for, dear?” his mom asked.
“I’m hungry! I’m looking for something to eat!”
“You’ll eat what’s put in front of you and be thankful for it,” his dad repeated.
Jason yanked open the refrigerator and pulled out a half-empty jar of peanut butter. “When are you going to go shopping? There’s no food!”
“You’ll eat what’s put in front of you and be—”
“Dad, you sound like a robot!”
His dad dropped the newspaper and knocked over a glass of water. He stared at Jason’s mother. Neither one said anything. Jason came out of the kitchen and looked back and forth between them. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” his mom said.
“That’s right,” his dad added. “There’s nothing wrong. Why would you think that?”
Jason studied them for a moment. Water from the knocked-over glass dribbled from the table onto the hardwood floor, but neither parent seemed to care. “You know, you guys have been acting pretty weird since…”
His mom stared at him, a faint smile on her face. “Since when?”
Jason looked at her sharply. Was she trying to pretend the argument had never happened? He turned the peanut butter jar around in his hands. “Forget it,” he said. He shoved the jar into his backpack, slung the pack over his shoulder, and headed for the door.
“Come back here and eat your breakfast,” his dad said.
Jason slammed the front door behind him. He stood on the porch, hungry and confused. He used to think he had his parents figured out, but he didn’t know anymore. They hardly spoke to him now, didn’t ask him about school, and didn’t even seem to care if he was hungry. He was sure that somehow this was his fault, but he didn’t know what to do about it. There was a hollow ache deep inside of him that had nothing to do with a lack of food.
He realized he was staring at his bike and troubled thoughts about his parents vanished. He glanced at the house across the street. There was no sign of activity. He dropped his backpack on the lawn and got down on his hands and knees to study the bike’s handlebars and seat. Except for a few drops of dew, nothing looked different. Then he noticed a small, metallic object in the grass near his hand. It was a thin, black wafer about the size of his iPod. He reached over to pick it up, but the thing pulsed with unexpected energy and Jason dropped it like it was on fire.
He was wondering what to do next when he saw movement in a window. Two small, dark gaps had appeared where the Freaks had pulled the blinds apart. Acting like nothing was unusual, he pulled his backpack over, removed his notebooks, and placed them on the grass near the object. After pretending to dig around in the pack for a minute, he picked up the wafer with the notebooks and shoved everything back in. Then he shouldered the backpack, jumped on his bike, and headed to school. He could feel their eyes follow him until he rounded the corner.
Jason had always been good at math, but he wasn’t surprised when he failed a pop quiz in first period algebra. All he could think about was the strange object. He ached to look at it more closely, but he didn’t want anyone else to see it. So he left it in the bottom of his pack, reaching in every once in a while to touch it and make sure it was still there.
Kevin Hayashi must have noticed, because he came up to Jason after the bell. “What’s in the backpack?” he asked, using an index finger to push his thick, wire-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose.
“Nothing,” Jason said, looking around nervously. There were still too many people in the classroom. “Tell you later.”
Kevin leaned closer and whispered, “Something to do with the Freaks?”
Jason nodded. “See you at lunch.” Then he ran off to Language Arts. Kevin was his only friend so far at the new school—and that was only by accident. It wasn’t that Jason was unfriendly, but he’d only been at this school for a couple of weeks, and so far he hated it. Not because it was a bad school. For all he knew, it might be a fine school. But it wasn’t his school, the school he had left behind in California, the school where his friends were.
His bad attitude must have been obvious, because no one seemed anxious to be friendly with him. Except Kevin. Which was very odd, Jason thought, since Kevin wasn’t exactly the kind of guy Jason would normally hang around with. In fact, Kevin was the kind of guy Jason and his friends back home would have made fun of.
When the lunch bell finally rang, Jason hurried to the cafeteria. Kevin was sitting alone, as usual. He was pulling a sandwich out of his lunch bag when Jason slid onto the bench across from him. Jason tried not to stare at the sandwich, but his eyes kept drifting back to it. His mouth watered, and his stomach hurt. He’d long ago finished off the peanut butter left in the jar.
Kevin paused with the sandwich halfway to his mouth. “Where’s your lunch?”
“Huh? Oh…uh…I guess I forgot it.”
Kevin hesitated for only a moment. “Here, take my sandwich,” he said, holding it out. “I’m not that hungry.”
“You sure?” Jason asked, but he didn’t wait for an answer.
“Man, this food thing your parents are doing is really weird.” He watched Jason wolf down the sandwich, then leaned forward. “So, what’s up with the Freaks?”
“Freaks?” a female voice said. “What freaks?”
A slender girl dropped a lunch bag and camera on the table and sat down next to Kevin. She was taller than Kevin, with sandy brown hair that spilled out from under a blue Boston Red Sox cap. Jason had seen her around and knew the cap was always there, except when teachers made her remove it in class. He also knew she wore only jeans and T-shirts—never dresses—and was never without her camera.
The girl dug into her lunch bag and pulled out a cup of yoghurt and a spoon. “Who’re you talking about, Kev? Cooper?” She motioned with her head. “That jerk and his sleazeball friends are right over there, but I don’t think they can hear you.”
“Well, not exactly…” Kevin began. He looked at Jason.
The girl took a bite of her yoghurt and looked at Jason, too. For a brief moment, her eyes studied his. “I’m Amelia Reis,” she said. “You’re that new kid. Jason, right? Kevin told me what you did.” She nodded approvingly.
On his second day at the new school, Jason had stopped a bully named Wade Cooper from beating up on Kevin. He didn’t like to talk about it. “It wasn’t anything,” he said.
“Hmph. That’s not what I heard. So, what’s this about some freaks?” She opened a can of apple-cranberry juice and took a drink.
Jason hesitated. He’d overheard someone talking about Amelia Reis in the hallway a few days ago, something about her growing up overseas and speaking a bunch of languages. But the main thing was that Mr. Reis was Jason’s English teacher, and Mrs. Reis was the school nurse. He wasn’t sure about telling Amelia anything.
Kevin’s eyes met his. “You can tell her,” he said. “She’s cool.”
Amelia raised two fingers. “My lips are sealed.”
Jason hesitated for a moment, then he shrugged. “All right.” He told her how the two people had mysteriously appeared a week ago, and how they were always watching him.
Amelia frowned. “That’s your big secret? So what? What’s the big deal?”
“I mean, like, all the time. Every time I go outside. They even watch my house when I’m inside. I can see them from my window. It freaks me out. That’s why I call them the Freaks.”
“Okay, so what do they look like?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I know it’s a man and a woman, but they don’t come out during the day. All I ever see is their eyes looking at me through their blinds.”
Amelia’s eyebrows went up. “That’s creepy enough.” She leaned on her elbows and spooned yoghurt into her mouth, looking thoughtful.
“Tell her what else,” Kevin said.
“Well, almost every night they sneak into the woods behind my house and—”
“What are they doing in there?”
Jason’s shoulders went up. “No idea, but when I went in to look around, I found this clearing where…” He hesitated.
“Well, I don’t know how to explain it. The whole area was all mixed up. It was like, I don’t know, kinda like someone stirred the ground with a spoon.”
Amelia stopped with her spoon halfway to her mouth. “You’re joking, right?”
Jason shook his head. “And listen to this.” He told them about the incident with the bike, but left out the part about him looking through the Freaks’ window.
“Holy moly,” Kevin said. “What was he doing?”
Before Jason could answer, Amelia asked, “Did you find anything on the bike? Like, any liquids or powders?”
Jason shook his head again.
Amelia tapped her spoon against her lips then pointed it at Jason. “They’re criminals. Or maybe they’re spies.”
“Spies for who?” Jason asked. “And why would spies be interested in my bike?”
“Don’t know.” She thought for a minute. “When I was living in France, I noticed these two men hanging around near my school every day. One time I followed them instead of going right home. Got in trouble for it, too, but I got pictures of them getting into their car, license plate and all. When they ended up kidnapping some rich Arab’s daughter, the police were able to catch them the next day. They did an article on me in the paper.” She said it like it was no big deal, but her chin went up just slightly. She took another sip of juice.
“Wow, Amelia,” Kevin said. “You did that? That’s cool!”
“What does that have to do with me?” Jason asked. But he was already beginning to worry that kidnapping was exactly what the Freaks had in mind. Why else would they be stalking him?
“Maybe you should follow them into the woods.”
“What, in the middle of the night? No way! My parents would kill me.”
“Yeah, what about your parents? Haven’t you told them all this stuff? Aren’t they doing anything?”
Jason looked away. “Nah, they don’t believe me.”
Amelia’s jaw dropped. “They don’t believe you when you tell them someone is poking around your house in the middle of the night?” She glanced at Kevin, then back at Jason. “That’s kinda weird, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, well, the thing is,” Kevin said, “his parents are a whole ‘nother story. I don’t know if he wants to…” He looked at Jason, who pretended to study the edge of the table with his finger and said nothing.
“Okay, whatever,” Amelia said. She waved to someone across the room. “Gotta go.” She rolled up her lunch bag and stood. “Say, what woods are you talking about? The ones off Pine Meadow?”
Jason looked at her warily. “Yeah. Why?”
“Just wondering. Okay, see ya later.” She slipped her camera strap around her neck and grabbed her lunch.
“Hey, remember. You promised.”
Amelia slid a thumb and finger across her lips and walked away. But there was a look in her eyes that made Jason nervous. “Are you sure about her?” he said. “She’s a friend of yours, right?”
Kevin nodded. “Oh, yeah. One time last year when Wade was hammering on me, she started taking pictures, and that made him stop.”
“What’s up with the camera?”
“She’s a photographer for the school paper.” Kevin must have noticed the look on Jason’s face, because he hurriedly added, “Don’t worry. If she says she won’t tell anyone, she won’t. She’s cool.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “So what’s in the backpack?”
Jason glanced over his shoulder. The cafeteria was packed, and a teacher was talking with a group of students two tables away. “I can’t show you here. I’ll come to your place right after track.”
The worst part of after-school track practice was that for the first time that day Jason’s backpack was out of his sight. Even though it was locked in his gym locker, he still worried about it. So much so that it threw off his stride. He turned in his worst times since the beginning of school. The coach didn’t say anything, but he gave Jason a look that he understood. Jason didn’t care. All he wanted to do was get to Kevin’s house. He threw on his street clothes and a few minutes later was rolling his bike into the Hayashi’s wide, circular driveway.
The Hayashi mansion was less than a mile from Jason’s house, but it seemed like it belonged in another state. The driveway led to a marble-columned porch with huge double doors that opened into a spacious foyer. The grounds (as Kevin called them) held an apple orchard, tennis courts, and an Olympic-sized pool. It still amazed Jason that he was welcome here whenever he wanted.
He supposed he had Cooper to thank for that. When he saw Wade and his two buddies shoving Kevin around, he reacted without thinking. He pedaled his bike straight into the group, forcing everyone to scatter and causing one of the bullies to stumble backward and fall. Then he jumped off his bike and faced them.
“Leave him alone,” he said.
The boy who had fallen scrambled to his feet. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Yeah, who do you think you are?” the second boy said.
Wade stepped forward. He had buzz-cut brown hair and narrow eyes, and he was thick around the middle. “Butt out, jerk,” he said, but his eyes shifted with uncertainty.
“We’re just talking to him, anyway,” the first boy said. “Isn’t that right, Kevvy?”
“Yeah,” Wade added, “about some money he owes us.”
They all laughed.
“I said leave him alone,” Jason repeated.
The three boys glanced at each other and at Jason, sizing him up. He didn’t flinch. He was at least as tall as Wade, and two years of surfing had made him strong. Besides, his dad had taught him that bullies were usually cowards. It was all about the perception of power. If you stood up to them, the power evaporated. Wade made some threats, and one of his friends kicked in the spokes of Jason’s tires, but in the end they backed off.
For his trouble that day, Jason made three permanent enemies and one earnest friend, though at first he wasn’t so sure about the friend. Kevin was short and skinny, with glasses that magnified his dark eyes. Limp, black hair hung over his ears. To top it off, he wore a Star Wars T-shirt. Serious nerd, Jason thought, no doubt about it. He started walking his broken bike home.
Kevin followed, suggesting Jason come by his house and use his gaming setup, as a way of thanking him for what he had done. It was better than anyone else’s on the planet, Kevin told him. “If I’m wrong, I’ll give you the money they were trying to steal.”
“I don’t want your money,” Jason said, offended. He’d never been that excited about video games, either. Why sit around shooting up imaginary monsters when he could be shredding a six-foot wave? But Kevin insisted, and his place was sort of on Jason’s way home. He agreed to stop by for a couple of minutes—and ended up staying for over two hours.
Now, just like that first time, Kevin’s mom met him at the door with a plate of fresh cookies and sent him up the big spiral staircase to Kevin’s room. A hundred airplane and spaceship models dangled from the ceiling. Posters of the space shuttle and the Starship Enterprise hung on the wall, along with pictures of flying saucers and photos of planets and galaxies. A telescope sat in the corner, next to the home entertainment system and wall-mounted, 90-inch, high-definition TV. The gaming setup was even better than Kevin had described. It had a special seat with hand and foot controls that adapted to any game, from Space Annihilator to Air Combat Simulator. Everything else was a toy by comparison.
When Jason walked in, his mouth full of chocolate chip cookie, Kevin was sitting in the seat. Starships were zipping across the giant screen in front of him.
“Hey, Jason,” he said, without looking. “Just a sec. I’m almost there.”
Jason stood behind him. With his hand on a joystick, Kevin guided his craft with calm, practiced skill—back and forth, up and down, weaving around mines, laser blasts, and enemy vessels. Alien ships darted this way and that, firing constantly, but they couldn’t touch him. He fired back, vaporizing them one after the other. His score kept ticking higher, until it flashed bright red and the phrase “Level 12!” appeared on the screen.
He hit the “pause” key and turned around. “I made level ten yesterday,” he said. “I think I’ll be able to make sixteen by the end of the week.” Then he rolled his eyes at the ceiling. “Okay, I know. So what, right? Anyway, what do you have to show me?”
Jason dug into the bottom of his backpack and pulled out the black wafer. Kevin reached over to take it, but dropped it on the carpet as soon as he touched it.
“Whoa!” he said.
“Yeah,” Jason said, picking it up and handing it back. “I did the same thing.”
“Where’d you find this?”
Jason told him.
Kevin nodded. “It must have fallen out of the guy’s pocket.” He turned it over in the light, then held it close to his face and looked at it over the top of his glasses. “Wow, this is wicked cool. It’s almost like it has some sort of force field around it.”
“What do you think it is?” Jason asked.
“No clue,” Kevin said. “But I could show it to my dad. He might be able to tell us.”
Jason shook his head. “Not yet.” He took it back and slipped it into his pocket.
“What if your neighbor comes looking for it?” Kevin asked. “He’s bound to notice it’s missing.”
Jason shrugged. “How’s he going to know I have it? Anyway, I’ll worry about that later.” He glanced at Kevin’s open door and lowered his voice.
“I’m going to follow them into the woods tonight.”
“I thought you said you wouldn’t do that.”
Jason waved a hand. “That’s because I didn’t want her to know.”
“Okay, but —”
“Are you in?”
Kevin was reluctant, but Jason convinced him to come along. He said he’d call when the time was right.
Jason awoke with a start. He was sitting in a chair next to the front window and must have dozed off. Rubbing his neck, he looked out. The house across the street was dark and still. He crossed to the other window and looked toward the woods. Everything seemed quiet there, too. A crescent moon cast a dim, silvery light over the treetops.
A flash of light came from somewhere in the forest. At the same time, his thigh tingled. “What the…?” He pulled the black wafer out of his pocket. There was another flash of light and this time his hand tingled, as though a slight electric shock had run through it. Trembling with excitement, he jammed the wafer back in his pocket and dialed Kevin’s cell phone number.
It rang four times before there was an answer. “Yuh,” Kevin said. He sounded half asleep.
“Let’s go!” Jason whispered. “They’re in the woods!”
“Oh, man,” Kevin yawned. “What time is it?”
“It doesn’t matter! Just get over here!”
After Kevin promised to come right over, Jason hung up. Moving as quietly as he could, he again attached his fire escape ladder to the windowsill and lowered it to the ground. The air outside was cool and there was a breeze, so he threw on a jacket before descending to the lawn. He darted across his yard to the edge of the woods and crouched behind a tree, where he waited, fidgeting impatiently. Finally, after what seemed like hours, Kevin rolled in on his bike.
“Over here!” Jason hissed. “What took you so long?”
“Every stair in my house squeaks!” Kevin whispered. “You don’t notice unless you’re trying to be quiet. I thought for sure I’d get caught!”
“All right. Well, come on.” Jason started to move into the woods.
“Wait! I was thinking on the way over. What if they have guns?”
Jason stopped. He hadn’t thought of that. The two boys stared at each other in the darkness. Then Jason shook his head. “Why would they have guns? Look, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”
“Hey, I’m here, aren’t I? I’m going.”
“Well, c’mon, then. And keep your flashlight off.”
They moved along the edge of the woods to a path, then into the forest. The moon and stars provided only dim light, and the trees blocked most of it. Jason led the way by memory as much as by sight. Their feet rustled through the dead leaves that covered the ground. He hoped they hadn’t waited too long. He didn’t know what he’d do if they ran into the Freaks on their way back.
They came to a fork in the trail. Jason ducked under a low hanging branch to take the left fork and sticky threads suddenly covered his face. He dropped his flashlight and flailed his arms, as though fighting off an invisible enemy. “Get it off!” he cried. “Get it off!”
Kevin backed away. “What? What is it?”
“There’s a spider on me! Get it off!” He clawed at his head and face, trying to dislodge the webbing that clung to them.
Kevin let out a sigh. “Geez! You had me worried for a minute!”
Jason’s skin crawled. He was certain spiders were climbing all over him. A whole army of the horrible things. “Don’t just stand there!”
“All right, all right,” Kevin said. He shined his flashlight over Jason’s head and neck. “Well, hold still, will ya?”
Jason shivered. For a fraction of a second, he was five years old again and waking up in the middle of the night to find a giant, hairy spider crawling into his open mouth. Its bite had put him in the hospital for a week. “I hate spiders!” he said between clenched teeth.
“I guess. Ah, here it is.” Kevin flicked the spider off Jason’s shoulder.
“Only one? Are you sure there aren’t more? Check again!”
“Nope,” Kevin said, studying Jason’s back and arms. “Just one. I didn’t know you were so afraid of spiders.”
“I’m not afraid of them!” Jason said, wiping the last of the webbing off his face. But he couldn’t stop himself from shivering again. “I just don’t like them!”
“Okay,” Kevin said, switching off his flashlight. “Whatever you say.”
A twig snapped somewhere down the right fork of the trail. The boys froze.
“Someone’s coming!” Jason whispered. “Quick! Hide!” He picked up his flashlight and pulled Kevin behind a clump of bushes. The two of them watched the trail through a gap in the branches.
A moment later, a shadowy figure came into view. It was hesitating every few steps, as if searching for something. Then it stepped into a dim shaft of moonlight and Jason saw a ball cap on the head and what looked like a camera hanging from a strap around the neck.
“It’s Amelia!” Kevin whispered.
Amelia spun around and flicked on a flashlight. “Who’s there?” she demanded, backing up.
“Hey! Get that out of our eyes!” Jason said. He and Kevin stepped out of the bushes.
“What are you guys doing here?” Amelia hissed.
“What do you mean, us?” Jason replied, trying to keep his voice down. “What are you doing here?”
“I was following your creepy neighbors to see what they were up to.”
“That’s what we’re doing!” Kevin said.
“What gives you the right to—?” Jason began, but Amelia interrupted him.
“Hey, you just asked me not to tell anyone. You didn’t say anything about not trying to find out what they were doing.” She looked around at the dark woods. “Trouble is, I lost ‘em.”
Jason was about to tell her that his neighbors were none of her business, when a flash of light came through the trees.
“What was that?” Kevin whispered.
“It’s them,” Jason said, forgetting everything else. “Let’s go.”