* Greengale, USA *
It had been nearly a year since the tragedy that rocked the small town of Greengale; a freak gas explosion that took the lives of seven people. It had been on all the local news stations, even some national, as something like this had never happened in the quiet, usually unnoticed town.
Now, nearly a year later, a memorial garden had been erected on the plot of land that was the scene of that tragic accident. The garden was a hodgepodge collection of various flowers, bushes, and small trees, a simple, man-made pond, several benches, a winding footpath, and a large, polished stone in the center naming those for whom the garden had been dedicated:
Greengale Memorial Park
Established in Honor of
A red-headed girl stood silently in front of the memorial stone, her eyes scanning its words. Her name was Tabatha Wright, and it was her home that had once stood here. Reading the names was enough to elicit tears from her green eyes. She’d lost not only her home, but both parents in the explosion. Left and orphan, the seventeen-year-old girl now stayed with her aunt and uncle who lived nearby.
As Tabatha started crying in earnest, an arm wrapped around her shoulder. She flinched at the touch but relaxed again almost instantly. After a few moments, she allowed herself to be pulled into the arms of the tall boy standing stoically next to her.
He waited for her to stop crying before he spoke. “Are you okay?”
Tabatha stepped away and wiped the remaining tears from her eyes. “Yeah, I just needed to let it out. Thanks for coming early with me, Ace.”
The boy’s name was Alex Calvin Eastman, but everyone called him by the nickname “Ace.” The two had been dating for over two years, but even after that much time, Tabatha still felt small around him. Ace was smart, popular, and the son of the wealthiest man in Greengale. He was also very good looking with his fair skin, short, neat black hair, hazel eyes, and toned physique. Tabatha never felt like she could measure up to him. Even now, she avoided looking up at him, not because of her tears, but because she felt so unworthy of all that the Eastman family had done for her.
Ace could sense her unease. “I understand; I know this was your home. I hope you’re still okay with this.”
Tabatha came out of her own thoughts and finally looked up, a reassuring smile on her face. “It’s fine; it really is. Thank you for everything you’ve done.”
Ace returned the smile. “Don’t thank me. I didn’t really do anything; it was all my dad. Besides, what’s the point of having an army of lawyers if you can’t put them to use.”
Ace’s father, Calvin Eastman, had used his considerable influence and resources to make sure Tabatha was taken care of. Now money from the various insurance policies sat in trust for her for when she turned eighteen. He also bought the land that the house sat on and built the memorial garden. The tragedy had affected the entire town, and Ace’s parents had either known or been friends with everyone who died.
After several more minutes of silence between the two, Tabatha heard the crunch of rocks underfoot. She turned to see three others heading toward them, walking down the gravel footpath toward the memorial stone. She recognized them immediately. The tall boy in the center was Jandor Mason, and he was flanked on either side by his stepsister, Terri Henderson, and his close friend, Becky Gabbie. All of them had lost someone in the explosion the previous year. For Becky, it had been her mother, and for Jandor it had been his father, who was Terri’s stepfather.
It wasn’t by chance that the trio had arrived when they did. This had been the plan all along. Jandor had organized the get-together as a way to honor the memory of their deceased parents. Tabatha had come early because she wanted a few moments alone before the group gathered. She knew she was going to be emotional and didn’t want to cry or make a scene in front of the others.
Ever since the accident, she’d gone through a whirlwind of emotions. Having been out of town at the time, she had no idea what happened leading up to the explosion, but for some reason she couldn’t articulate, Tabatha felt like there was something more to the incident, something the other adults, especially her aunt and uncle, weren’t telling her. No matter how often she brought this up though, the others dismissed her, even Ace. They assumed she was grief-stricken or perhaps felt guilty since it was her home their parents had died in.
In truth, Tabatha wondered if deep down her friends did blame her family. Though none of them treated her differently, she’d been on edge for much of the past year. She didn’t even want to come to the meetup Jandor arranged, but Ace finally convinced her and even joined her when she wanted to come early in order to have some time before the others arrived.
“Ace, I didn’t know you’d be here,” Jandor said by way of greeting.
“Tabatha asked me, but I can go if you guys want some time to yourselves,” Ace offered quickly.
Jandor shook his head. “No, I’m glad you came. If it weren’t for your dad, we…” he trailed off as his eyes fell on the large memorial stone.
Despite not finishing his thought, Tabatha understood what Jandor meant. It wasn’t just that Calvin Eastman had built the memorial garden; he’d been an integral part of their lives in other ways. The main reason all the teens were close was because of the Action and Adventure Club, a group that organized activities and events for kids of all ages. Jandor was the one to start the group, but Calvin had been a huge champion of the teen’s endeavors and helped fund its explosive growth.
It was through this group that Tabatha had met Ace and the others, and it was something she was truly grateful for. It had given her a sense of belonging she hadn’t had before, and it was one of the few things that kept her sane over the past year. Though she didn’t always get along with everyone, being a part of something that she really enjoyed was great.
Just as she was starting to bask in the warmth of these pleasant memories, something happened to throw cold water on her entire mood. Three more people were arriving. Again, it was a boy flanked by two girls. The brown-skinned boy in the middle was Wayne Guardman, and to his left was Amber Young. Both had lost a parent in the accident and for Amber it was her last living parent which left her an orphan, much like Tabatha. Amber now lived with Wayne’s family.
Tabatha had always gotten along with Wayne, and though she didn’t know Amber that well, she empathized with her as they’d both had lost more than the others. It was the other girl that Tabatha wasn’t happy to see.
The blonde-haired girl on Wayne’s right was Ashley Summerson, Tabatha’s cousin, who she was now forced to live with.
Why is she even here? Tabatha thought to herself as the trio made their way to the group already standing in front of the stone.
While the others were dressed in relatively subdued colors, Ashley seemed to stand out in her light-blue sundress. It was most likely not on purpose, if anything the dress’s color was more muted than many she owned, but it still irked Tabatha. Though they were cousins, Tabatha had never really gotten along with Ashley.
The girls were only a few weeks apart in age and lived down the street from one another, but rather than this making them close, Tabatha always felt like she was being compared to her slightly older cousin, especially by her father. What made things worse was that people always doated on Ashley, and the girl seemed to radiate an aura that made everyone like her. Tabatha found it annoying, especially since Ashley did nothing to earn this special treatment.
Tabatha wanted to protest her cousin’s inclusion, after all, Ashley hadn’t lost a parent in the accident, but she knew it would be pointless. First, how could she object since she’d asked Ace to join her. Arguably, Ashley had even more right to be there since she was family. Still, it was clear she wasn’t there to support Tabatha.
Even as Ashley gazed around the memorial garden, a pensive look on her face, it was Wayne she was clinging to. Wayne and Ashley were best friends and the two were nearly inseparable. If anything, Ashley was there because of him, though as Tabatha watched them, it seemed more like he was comforting her than the other way around.
“It really is pretty,” Ashley offered after several seconds of contemplative silence. “I mean, they did a good job setting all this up…” her voice faltered as if she wasn’t sure she was even saying the right words. She shuffled awkwardly, fidgeting with her long blonde hair as she tried to blink away the tears.
Wayne silently wrapped an arm around her, and she leaned into his side and sighed. He was a full head taller than her, and his brown skin clashed with her pale ivory. He wore a black baseball cap that had belonged to his father. It hid his short, black hair and, at the moment, also shielded his brown eyes from view, which made it hard to see that he was tearing up as well.
“Yeah,” Wayne agreed after a few seconds. “I’m glad you came, Ash.”
As always, it’s all about you, Tabatha thought spitefully. Wayne can’t even grieve his own father’s death because he’s too busy taking care of you.
She never understood Wayne and Ashley’s relationship, but it frustrated her, mostly because the two were closer than siblings and seemed to have an unbreakable bond. Tabatha desperately wanted that kind of connection with someone. Though she was dating Ace, she’d never felt the type of closeness with him that Wayne and Ashley had as just friends. For some reason, this made her incredibly jealous.
Why does she always get everything? Tabatha mentally griped.
Tabatha’s mood had soured so much that she thought about leaving; after all, the group had been there for several minutes already. Some were quietly whispering among themselves, and it didn’t seem like Jandor or any of the others had plans to say anything formal. Just when she was thinking of how to extricate herself, Wayne spoke again.
“Hey, where’s Stephanie?”
Tabatha looked around. She’d been so focused on Ashley that she’d forgotten that one of their number hadn’t arrived yet.
Stephanie Jameson stared down listlessly at her phone. From the clock displayed on its screen, she knew that she was running late to meet her friends, but she hadn’t moved. It wasn’t that she was anxious about visiting the site of her mother’s death. Her anxiety had more to do with her father, her last remaining parent.
Kevin Jameson had barely been home in the past nine months. He was a sales rep for a major materials company, so he’d often had to go on the road to visit clients, but lately he spent far more time on the road than he did at home. She’d only seen him once in the past two months and even then, they barely interacted. Now, it was her birthday, and Kevin had promised he’d call her at a certain time so they could talk, but as the minutes ticked by, it became clear he’d forgotten.
Undaunted, Stephanie had tried calling and texting her father, but she’d received no answer, and now, over an hour later when she was supposed to be meeting her friends at the memorial park, she was still waiting for his call, even though she knew it would never come.
Tears splashed down onto the phone, unbidden. Was her father avoiding her? Was he angry at her? Why had he become so distant? She knew it must have had to do with her mother’s death. Of course he was grieving, but so was she, and now it was like she’d lost her other parent as well. She felt so alone and isolated.
Stephanie sighed and stood. She didn’t want to sit and sulk alone; at least at the memorial garden, she could be with friends. Opposite her was a full body mirror, and she couldn’t help but examine herself in it.
Aside from the slight puffiness in her eyes, she looked stunning as always. Stephanie, with her long auburn hair, bright green eyes, and hourglass physique, could have easily been a teen model, and in fact had actually done some catalog modeling in her past. Even now in her distressed jeans and loose-fitting t-shirt that hung off one shoulder, she looked the picture of carefully curated beauty.
She scowled when she saw herself. Even when she wasn’t trying, she always looked the part of the perfect teenaged girl, not a hair out of place. She hated that she seemed unable to break away from this façade.
She was popular, a straight-A student, a cheerleader, and the envy of most girls in her school, but she was miserable, and she couldn’t confide in anyone. How could someone who seemed to have everything complain about her inner turmoil? The only ones who might understand were the others who’d lost a parent in the accident last year, but even then, they had their own grief to deal with; she couldn’t saddle them with her problems.
The one thing that brought her comfort was her passion for nature and animals. Greengale was surrounded by woods on its northern and eastern sides and as a child, Stephanie spent nearly every weekend exploring it, much to her parents’ chagrin. After joining the Action and Adventure Club, she parlayed that love of nature into part of the group’s activities, leading forest hikes for the younger kids. It served as a distraction from what was weighing her down, and even now, the thought of it wiped the scowl from her face.
Things aren’t so bad, she told herself.
Sure, she missed her mother and her absentee father, but she had friends and things she liked to do. She couldn’t let herself get dragged into despair.
As she turned to leave her bedroom, her eyes fell on a small black case sitting on the edge of her vanity. Smiling now, she realized that there was one other thing that brought her joy these past several months. After a moment’s hesitation, she grabbed the case and rushed out of the room.
Once she left her house, it took Stephanie only ten minutes to reach the plot of land that once held the Wright house and was now the site of the memorial garden. Even from far away, she could tell that all of the others that Jandor had invited were already there. She broke out into a trot and quickly reached the other teens.
“Sorry, it took me a while to get stuff straight,” she said vaguely as she approached her friends.
“Had to make sure your hair was perfect,” Tabatha muttered.
Stephanie heard the comment but ignored it. “Also, I brought my flute. I thought maybe I could play something, you know, for my mother.” She opened the case and carefully removed a silver instrument.
“I never knew you played,” Terri said in awe.
Though not the closest of friends, Stephanie and Terri had become friendly over the past few years as they worked together in the Action and Adventure Club. Still, even if they had been best friends, Stephanie doubted she would have confided in Terri. It was only today, completely on a whim, that she decided to share this part of her life with anyone.
“I didn’t,” Stephanie said quietly. “My mom really wanted me to. She pestered me about it since I was nine, said it was a family tradition, but I never wanted to learn. I thought…” she hastily wiped away a tear. “I thought it was stupid. I didn’t care about tradition or anything like that. I figured maybe when I got older, I’d have plenty of time to let her teach me.”
Terri put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay.”
Stephanie nodded and wiped the tears from her eyes before taking a deep steadying breath. “For the past year, I’ve been teaching myself. Wouldn’t you know; I guess I’m a natural at it,” she said with a stiff chuckle. “So, I wanted to play something. I think it was my mom’s favorite song; she played it all the time.”
“That’s a great idea.” Jandor said and the others murmured in agreement, even Tabatha who seemed to regret her earlier snark.
“Thanks,” Stephanie said, her composure returning as she put the flute to her lips and began to play.
The melody echoed across the silent streets of Greengale. It was late in the day on Friday and as was common for this time, there really wasn’t anyone out and about, which was why Jandor picked this as a good time for them to gather. The song had a sad, but also slightly hopeful feel, which seemed to fit the occasion perfectly. Everyone was silent, almost entranced as she played; even the squirrels and birds seemed to stop what they were doing to watch the young flutist.
It took only a few minutes for Stephanie to finish her song, but the teens remained quiet for several minutes after. The melody had invoked many emotions, but ultimately a sense of calm fell upon them.
It was in that moment of clarity that Tabatha seemed to have a revelation. She turned to Ace. “Can I go to your place for a bit? I want to talk to you about something.”
Ace gave a start but then seemed to realize what she’d asked. “Sure. Hey guys, we’re going to take off,” he said to the others before taking Tabatha’s hand. Though she flinched slightly at the unexpected touch, Tabatha allowed herself to be led off.
Ashley leaned her head against Wayne’s shoulder. “I’m hungry.”
Wayne chuckled. “Well, your home is right there.” He gestured down the street where Ashley’s house sat across from his own.
“Can’t we go somewhere and get something to eat? I don’t really want to go home,” Ashley said, her tone slightly sad.
“Wow, you’re really spoiled,” Wayne said, though there was no admonishment in his voice. “Let’s head to Main and see what places have a short wait. Anyone else want to come?” He immediately looked to Amber first.
The olive-skinned girl gave a noncommittal shrug. “Whatever, fine.”
Wayne tousled her sleek black hair with a playful grin. “Don’t sound so excited.”
She slapped his hand away. “Stop that; I’m not a dog.”
Ashley chuckled at this. The two had a very sibling-like relationship, especially now that Amber had been adopted by Wayne’s mother.
“I have to get home,” Becky said. “There’s a lot of stuff I need to do before tomorrow’s meeting.”
“Terri and I are having dinner with Henrietta,” Jandor said, referring to his stepmother.
Wayne turned to Stephanie but before she could offer an answer, a sudden realization hit him. “Oh that’s right; it’s your birthday today, isn’t it?”
It wasn’t completely unexpected for Wayne to remember her birthday, but Stephanie was still caught off guard. “Uh, yeah.”
“It is?” Becky said in shock, looking at her phone to confirm the date.
“I’m sorry, Stephanie; if I’d known, I’d have set this up on a different day,” Jandor added.
Stephanie waved away the apology. “It’s fine, really.”
“Do you have plans with your dad?” Wayne asked.
“Well, he had a business trip so…” Stephanie muttered, trailing off.
Wayne understood immediately. It wasn’t hard to read between the lines of Stephanie’s discomfort, so he quickly moved on. “Oh, so you guys are going to celebrate another day. Well, if you’re not busy, let us take you out,” he offered. “We’ll go wherever you want since it’s your big day.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” Stephanie said, slightly embarrassed.
“It’s fine; it’ll be my treat,” Wayne assured.
“Yeah Stephanie, come on,” Ashley added brightly. “I’d rather you pick the restaurant than Wayne anyway. He’d just get pizza again.”
Ashley’s invitation seemed to be the deciding factor for Stephanie. “All right, I am kind of hungry.” She left with Wayne and the two other girls, a slight grin on her face.
“I can’t believe I forgot Stephanie’s birthday,” Becky said as soon as the foursome were out of sight. “It’s just been so crazy this week.”
“I didn’t even know,” Jandor admitted. “I’m glad Wayne did.”
“It was a good idea to have this get-together,” Becky said as she walked down the gravel path with Jandor and Terri, “but do you think it’s enough? Things are so different this year and after everything that’s happened…”
Jandor shrugged. “I know, but this will probably be the last year we’ll all be together like this. I’m not sure what will happen once me, you, and Wayne head off to college, so I really want to make this summer count. After this, everything will change.”
Unknown to the teens, at the same time they were having their small, informal get-together at the memorial garden, another meeting, far more secret, was taking place only a few doors down.
“I think they’re handling it well, all things considered.” Ace’s father, Calvin Eastman was peering out of the Guardman house’s large bay window. From his vantage point, he could see the teens down the street at the memorial park. He ran his hand through his black hair before turning to the other parents in the living room, over a dozen in all.
“All things considered,” Maggie Summerson repeated scathingly. “You mean considering we’re lying to them.” She started pacing nervously.
“Maggie,” Veda Guardman said in a reproving but also comforting voice. “I know this has been difficult but—”
“Difficult!” Maggie scoffed again. “I can barely look my girls in the eyes; and Tabatha, what if she ever finds out?” Adam, her husband, put an arm around her, causing her to falter.
Calvin peered out the window again. “I don’t see Becca or Tonya or any of the younger siblings.”
“I think Jandor only invited the ones that were going on the trip.,” Veda explained. “I know there was some concern about doing the trip this year since it happened while they were gone last year.”
“I don’t understand why we’re letting them do that stupid trip,” Maggie said. “It’s ridiculous. We should be telling them.”
“We’re going to tell them,” Calvin assured, “but we need to let them do business as usual until we’re ready. We’ll go and make sure everything’s okay, then when they get back, we’ll tell them everything.”
The other parents in the room looked uncertain at this plan, but no one said anything.
“What do you think, Veda?” Maggie said after several seconds of awkward silence.
The two were extremely close, which was one of the reasons why their children, Ashley and Wayne, were also close. But their friendship wasn’t the reason she posed the question. She knew that ultimately, Veda Guardman’s decision would sway the rest of the parents.
Veda didn’t enjoy being the deciding factor in these conversations, but ever since the death of her husband and the others, the group seemed to lean more and more on her for leadership.
“I don’t know,” she said with a sigh, trying to be neutral. “It’s probably a good idea that you guys go down there first—”
“But what about your vision?” Maggie interrupted. “You said the kids were going to somehow end up finding out on their own if we didn’t act soon.”
Calvin rolled his eyes at this. “Vision? Come on; it was just a dream.”
“I think we’re past the point of saying they’re just dreams,” Adam admonished calmly.
Veda felt the tension rising and decided to finish her thought. “I’m just as concerned as all of you. The last thing I want is for another one of these visions to come true. Still, we can’t overreact either. We shouldn’t take this lightly. We’re going to be changing their whole world soon and some of them aren’t even eighteen yet. I say we give them the trip. They can’t find out anything while they’re gone, and it’ll give us a chance to prep and make sure everything’s okay.”
“I guess,” Maggie said leaning into her husband.
“Then it’s decided,” Calvin returned to watching the teens from the Guardman’s bay window but by now they were already dispersing to their separate destinations. He sighed as he thought about what they were about to do. Soon a whole new world would be opening up for their children, and with all that had already happened, it was a much scarier prospect than even he wanted to admit.