I love all the characters I write about, even the bad ones, in a perverse sort of way, but I love Rabbit most of all. This plucky little boy was so much fun to bring to life, and his journey out of the wilderness and into Sarah and Mac’s cozy life spoke to my heart every step of the way. Rabbit looks at life with a unique perspective, and I hope readers will find him as adorable, clever, and completely compelling as I did. He has a lot to share with all of us, including the most important lesson of all: giving and receiving profound love is always, always worth the risk. Here’s the prologue to Book 2 of my Wake-Robin Ridge series, A Boy Named Rabbit.
FEBRUARY 26, 2013
DEEP IN THE NORTH CAROLINA MOUNTAINS
“Gran? Gran, wake up. Wake up, please?”
The little boy reached out a timid hand and shook the bony arm of the woman on the cot. “Please, Gran? I got tea here. I made it the way you like, an’ all. With honey.”
“I’m awake, Boy. Stop shakin’ me, now. Help me up.”
He set the tea on the apple crate, and pulled his grandmother into a sitting position. She was growing more and more frail every day, weighing hardly more than he did. That wasn’t a good thing. She was a grown up. Grown up women should be much bigger than he was.
Propping her up on the cot, he wrapped a worn army blanket around her narrow shoulders, as the wracking coughs started again. This was the longest spell yet, and when she choked to a stop, the sound of her wheezing scared him.
“I wish Grampa was back.” He handed her the mug of hot tea, being careful not to spill it .
“Wishin’ won’t make it so. You know that.”
“But we need him. He’s bringin’ some of that stuff what makes you feel better.”
“He’ll be here directly, don’t fret, Boy. I’ll be okay ‘til then, good Lord willin’.”
She took a sip of tea. “Perfect. You done good.”
The boy’s straight, black brows lifted, and some of the fear left his enormous, dark blue eyes. “You need to get better, Gran. Grampa says we gotta move camp, ‘fore the weather gets any colder.”
“He’s right. Mild winter, so far, but worse is on the way. We done fished this little stream ‘bout out, anyway. Maybe time to head back to the caves.”
His gran had a way of knowin’ just when the weather was gonna change, but he didn’t care for the idea of moving back into the caves. They were dark and close, and made him uneasy. “Snakes in them caves, Gran.” He shivered. “I don’t like snakes much.”
“They don’t like you much, neither. Don’t worry. Grampa’ll clear ‘em outta ever which cave we pick, ‘fore we set up camp. They’ll den up in another one durin’ the winter, and stay outta our way.”
He studied her face. She was worn out, and he sensed she might not make it through another winter. She was bad sick, this time—worse than she’d ever been—and it was hard work, livin’ out in the wild like they did, but he accepted that she’d never leave these hills. She’d told him many times she’d live and die free, under the trees and the stars, breathin’ clean air, and beholden to none, so he didn’t talk to her about living any other way. And his grampa was even worse. No point in askin’ questions about towns nor other people, neither, unless he wanted to set Grampa to lecturin’.
“We got no truck with them others, Little Rabbit,” he’d say, and ruffle Rabbit’s tangled hair with gruff affection. “We’uns do just fine out here on our own. People cain’t be trusted. They ain’t honest, nor kind. Best we live here, under God’s roof, surrounded by animals what live just the way the good Lord made ‘em to. A bear might be dangerous…might even turn on a man…but you can understand the why of it. There ain’t no understandin’ people.”
Once in a while, the boy would question the logic of that. “But Grampa, ain’t we people, too?”
“Not the same at all, Rabbit. You just listen to me, now, and don’t never have no truck with other folk. Nuthin’ but trouble comes of that.”
So the years went by, and the little boy called Rabbit knew only the mountains as home. Midnight sky for a ceiling at night, rusty-green fallen leaves and ferns for a floor. They had an old tent they lugged with them from camp to camp for Gran, and when they weren’t in the caves during the coldest part of winter, they would sometimes patch together a rough lean-to beside it, for the men. Most nights, however, found Rabbit and his grampa sleeping in the open, under the silvery moon and stars.
Days were spent fishing, setting snares, hunting, and foraging, in a constant search for food, and if Rabbit’s thoughts turned to other worlds, other people, he wisely kept them to himself.
Now, he sat on the cot beside his gran, tense and worried. Grampa provided most of their food with his snares and fishing lines, but Gran was the glue holding their world together. Rabbit knew she was the one who tempered Grampa’s black moods, and kept the three of them from turning as wild as the animals they hunted. Life without Gran would be very bleak, indeed, and he kept up a silent string of prayers that Grampa would soon be back with medicine to help her breathe easier.
Long hours crept by, his gran’s coughing and wheezing worsening all the while. Afraid to leave her side, he huddled in silent misery, straining his ears for the sound of his grampa grumbling his way into the clearing. He always flatly refused to take Rabbit along, so he wasn’t sure how or where Grampa went when they needed supplies they couldn’t find in the woods. It didn’t matter, though. The man purely hated having to deal with other people, and Rabbit was all too familiar with the temper he’d be in when he returned to camp.
As dusk settled in, panic rose in Rabbit’s chest, a tight bubble of anxiety he could barely breathe around. Something was wrong. For all his moods, Grampa would never leave them alone at night, unless something had happened to him.
With reluctance, the boy slipped out of the tent and built up the fire they kept banked to low embers during the day. He tried to convince himself his grampa might be lost and need the light to find his way back to them through the gloom. But in his heart, he knew perfectly well that Grampa could find anything he wanted in these mountains, day or night. Still, he reasoned, he and Gran would need the fire soon, anyway, to ward off the chill and light the campsite. And it felt better to be doing something other than waiting and listening.
“BOY! Boy, where are you?”
His heart jumped into his throat, and he hurried back to the tent.
Gran struggled to sit up, her face moon-white, and covered with a sheen of perspiration. She reached for him, holding him close with a fevered strength that surprised him.
“I’m here, Gran. I was just tendin’ the fire, so Grampa might find us better.”
“Shhh. Listen to me, Boy…Listen close, ‘cause I don’t think…I have breath…to repeat all of this.”
She patted the cot, and he climbed up to sit beside her.
“You know something’s wrong, doncha? Your grampa wouldn’t stay gone all day if he could help it. Now, don’t cry…don’t you dare cry! You’re gonna have to be a man today, Little Rabbit. Change is comin’…an’ you gotta be strong. There’s somethin’…I gotta say to you…an’ when I’m done…you need to remember it. Okay? Promise me.”
He would promise anything if it would help her breathe better again. Her gasping and wheezing was frightening. “I promise, Gran. I’ll remember.”
“Good. Your mama charged we’uns…with lookin’ out for you, an’ we…did the best we could. It might be we done it wrong…but it’s too late to change any of it. What you gotta do now…is find your people.”
“My people? But you and Grampa are my people. Grampa told me so, lotsa times.” His lip trembled.
“I mean your new people, where you need to be now.” She coughed long and hard, holding a scrap of rag to her mouth. When she was done, blood stained the rag, and in spite of her warnings, Rabbit’s tears fell.
“Shh, shhh….stop cryin’ now…listen sharp. I gotta tell you the rest…while I can still talk. You hear me? Listen now. Okay?”
Fighting back his tears, Rabbit nodded, and his gran continued, struggling for every word.
“You gotta…leave this mountain…come daylight.”
“No!” Terrified, he shook his head. “No, Gran! Grampa said never leave the mountain! He said people was bad, and I was to stay here, always. Safe from them!”
She patted his hand, catching her breath again. “He’s right about that…and wrong, too. Some people are bad. Your grampa knew…a lotta them kinds. But I was wrong…not to tell you this before, Boy. Some people are good…and kind. You got to…find those people, your new people…the good ones. And you will.”
“How do you know? What if I only find the bad ones, Gran?”
“I know…because I seen it. Look for the man…with eyes like winter skies. I seen him last night.”
“You had a Seein’ Dream?”
“I did. I saw you…with a man with winter blue eyes…an’ hair like…a crow’s wing. He’s the one…you gotta find.”
“Where? Where is he? How far do I gotta go? Can’t you come with me?”
She was wracked with coughing again, fighting for every breath as though it would be her last. “Let me lie down, Boy…just for a minute. Let me lie down…and catch my breath.”
He pulled the covers over her as she closed her eyes and sank back onto the cot.
“I’m not leavin’ you, Gran. I’m not.”
“No,” she breathed out on a faint sigh. “You can stay a while, yet…but I won’t make it through this night, Little Rabbit…and when I’m gone…promise me you’ll leave …you’ll find the man.”
His tears fell in earnest, and he sobbed in fear. “Aww, Gran, don’t leave me! Please don’t leave me here.”
But Gran was asleep again, and Rabbit’s tears went unheeded.
The morning birdsong woke Rabbit just before daylight. He had cried himself to sleep on the tent floor, and when he sat up to check, his gran was lying still and pale, her shallow breath the faintest whisper. Not gone yet.
“Gran?” He kept his voice low, wanting to know she was still with him, but sorry to disturb her rest. When she didn’t move, he tried again, louder. “Gran? Are you okay? Please be okay…”
Her hand shot out and caught his in an iron grip, pulling him close. “Boy? Is that you?”
“Yes. I’m here, Gran.” Her voice was so faint, he had to strain to hear.
“Evil’s comin’, Boy…comin’ fast. Remember, find the man with…winter blue eyes. He’ll keep you safe… from…bad people. You have to…find him…” The last words slid out of her on a long, rattling sigh, and she went still as stone.
Rabbit had seen death many times, but never the death of a person. And never the death of someone he loved, one of only two faces he’d ever known. He was stricken speechless, too shocked even to cry. Instead, he sat beside the cot, holding her hand until it grew cool, then he roused himself and walked outside.
My gran is gone. She’s gone. And my grampa isn’t coming back, neither. I’m alone now. I gotta be strong. That’s what she said. I gotta be strong, and leave the mountain. I gotta find the good people. Grampa says there ain’t any, but maybe I should believe what Gran said. We can’t be the only ones who ain’t bad. I gotta find the rest. And I gotta hunt for the man with eyes like winter skies and hair like a crow’s wing.
He repeated those words to himself over and over as he gathered up his scant belongings and put them in a battered backpack his grampa had given him years ago. He had fishing line, a simple snare, and an old canteen he filled at the stream. His grampa made fire with a piece of flint and tinder, but his gran had a small metal tin with matches in it. He tucked the tin into his backpack, too, and strapped on his hunting knife.
For an hour or so, he was too busy preparing to leave to think about the enormity of what might lie ahead. He cooked the last of yesterday’s fish for breakfast, washed the small pan, and tied it on top of his backpack. Last, he tied his little bedroll on the bottom of the backpack, and he was done. There was nothing else he could think of to take. With his extra pair of jeans and a flannel shirt squeezed into his pack, he tied the sleeves of his heavy jacket around his waist, and decided he was as ready as he would ever be, to do something he didn’t want to do at all.
After tending to the fire, making sure every ember was doused and cold, he went back into the tent and said goodbye to his gran. “I know you shouldn’t oughta be left like this, but I don’t know what to do with you, Gran. You told me once before, a body goes empty when a person dies, and isn’t much important, but if you’re lookin’ down at me, I promise I’ll try to come back with help, so I don’t have to leave you here forever. You was always good to me, and I know you loved me. I loved you, too, Gran, and I’ll miss you every single day, and even though I don’t know how I can find one man outta a whole world full of them, I promise I’ll try. Thank you for all you done for me.” He tucked the old army blanket around her, and kissed her forehead, blinking back tears.
No time for tears now. I gotta get as far as I can today, before dark. Maybe I’ll cry then.
The little boy called Rabbit walked out of the tent where he’d been raised, picked a direction at random, and headed downhill to the west, hoping he’d find the Good People instead of the Bad, and wondering where he should look for the man with the winter eyes. The rugged wilderness of the North Carolina Mountains swallowed him up in minutes, as though he had never been there at all.
On his own for the first time in his life, Rabbit was only ten years old.