Starting #ExcerptWeek with the opening pages of my current WIP, Harbinger, book three of my #WakeRobinRidge series. This is a totally unrevised or edited draft, and will probably be shorter and tighter by the time it makes the book, but I thought it might be fun to share something no one else has seen (except my wonderful beta readers). Enjoy!
Early June, 1994
North Carolina Mountains
With a loud whoosh, the doors on the big, yellow bus pulled closed, and it rumbled away down the graveled, two-lane highway, leaving the shrieks and laughter of the last few kids hanging on the air behind it. Sissy Birdwell stood on the dusty berm, waving goodbye to friends she wouldn’t see again until the fall, and watched the bus disappear around the curve.
Reluctant to start the mile-long trudge up the narrow, red dirt road toward her home, she kicked aimlessly at a few pebbles and twigs. Part of her was happy her mother had finally agreed she was old enough to walk home alone. After all, she was eight years old now, and certainly able to find her way to their house, which sat at the very end of the uphill track. But part of her shivered at the thought of the lonely, winding road ahead, which curved up and up through the thick woods until it reached their clearing near the top of the ridge.
She would never tell her mama this, but in her heart, the dark beneath the trees scared her. She was afraid of bears. And coyotes. And snakes. And lots of other things that might decide they wanted to share the road with her on an early June afternoon. But nobody in the whole Birdwell family would understand that. Not even the women. They’d been part of these mountains forever, and she was sure nothing scared them at all.
Squaring her shoulders, she scolded herself soundly. You’re the one who said she was a big girl. Mama woulda been here to meet you, if you hadn’t begged. Standin’ here bein’ scairt, is dumb. Dark’ll catch up with you, if you poke along too much, an’ that wouldn’t be no fun at all. Even for a big girl.
With that thought in mind, she trudged up the drive toward home, refusing to look at the dusty trees and bushes that crowded close on either side. Instead, she pictured the litter of sweet, new pups their hound had presented them with last week, and tried to guess if any might have opened their eyes today.
Thinking about cuddling those precious little babies with their sweet puppy breath warm on her face made Sissy walk a bit faster, kicking up small puffs of reddish dust from the dirt road. As she rounded the first broad curve, she saw a lone figure ahead of her, also kicking up dust. Even from a distance, the way the sun glinted on his light red hair told her it was just Cadey Hagen, and no cause for alarm. As she watched, he turned around, something having alerted him to her presence behind him.
Waving, she called out, “Hi, Cadey,” and saw him wave in response, retracing his steps in her direction, and meeting her halfway.
“Hey, Sissy. You just gettin’ home from school?”
“Yeah. Sorry you missed the last day party.”
He snorted. “Who needs them ol’ cupcakes, anyway, ‘specially if you gotta eat ‘em in a room full of stupid little kids.”
“Wasn’t all little kids, Cadey. All the grades were there, an’ the cupcakes were pretty good, too. Why’d you skip it?”
He looked down, scowling as he kicked the dirt. “Didn’t skip it. Ol’ Lady Bratton suspended me for the last three days, just cuz she found me smokin’ behind the washroom.”
“Oh. Didn’t know you got suspended. I heard you were in trouble, though. Only I heard it was because you had you a knife at school, and then you smart-mouthed Miz Bratton when she found you.”
“Well, she deserved it. Dang ol’ biddy. Was only an ol’ Buck knife. Everybody carries ‘em. It don’t matter none to me, though. She’s the one gonna be sorry.”
Sissy wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but she knew better than to say anything. She’d heard the bigger kids say Cadey was a boy you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of. Oh, he looked innocent enough, with his gap-toothed grin, freckled face, and jug ears poking out from under a thatch of hair that was more red than blonde. He reminded Sissy of Opie Taylor, from the old television reruns of the Andy Griffith Show, except older. Maybe twelve. She didn’t really believe he’d hurt anyone. Still, something told her not to ask any questions.
They walked on, not saying much for a bit longer, then Cadey stopped. “I got a secret,” he said with a smug look. “I’d tell you, but you ain’t old enough to trust with it.”
Of all the things he could have said, implying she was still a little girl was the one guaranteed to get a rise out of Sissy. “Am so old enough! Ain’t nobody can make me tell a secret, Cadey Hagen. Why’re you grinnin’ like that? I wanna know.”
“Just thinkin’. How old are you, anyway?”
“I’m eight, an’ I know how to pinkie swear, an’ everything. I ain’t gonna blab your old secret. Probably isn’t all that good, anyway.”
Now, Cadey was insulted. “Is so. Might be the best secret I ever had. You’d be pretty surprised, I bet.”
They stood indignant in the middle of the dirt road, hands on hips, glaring at each other. Finally, Cadey’s need to brag won out. “What’s your real name, anyway?”
Frowning, she answered, “Cecelia Ann Birdwell. Why?”
Cadey walked around her in a slow circle, looking her over like a prize pony at the county fair. The two of them were a study in contrasts. She watched, uncomfortable, as he took in her long black braids, tied with red cotton bows, and her smooth, tan skin, so different from his pale, freckled complexion. Even her tip-tilted black eyes, which clearly showed the Cherokee heritage in her family, contrasted sharply with his bright blue ones. She didn’t like his inspection, but she stood still until he finished.
“Well, Cecelia Ann Birdwell, do you swear you’ll never tell? Hope to die? Lightnin’ strike you in the eye?”
She huffed out a breath. “Yes. I swear I won’t tell nobody, hope to die, an’ lightnin’ strikes, an’ all. Now what’s your big ol’ secret?”
“Come with me, then, an’ I’ll show you.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Sissy Birdwell took Cadey Hagen’s outstretched hand, followed him into the woods . . . and never came out again.