* Greengale, USA *
Terri Henderson made her way down the stone stairs that led to the basement in her house. It was much hotter than the previous day and as a result, the unfinished basement was sweltering due to the summer heat. Despite being appropriately dressed for the warm weather in her green shorts and white crop top, Terri was sweating after only a few seconds. She quickly pulled her wavy, dark-blonde hair up into a messy ponytail to keep it off her neck before venturing further into the oppressively stuffy lower level.
“Jandor!” she called in an agitated voice, though she knew he wouldn’t be able to hear her over the sound of loud rock music playing in the distance.
She rounded a corner to find a tall, fair-skinned boy, shirtless and dripping with sweat as he hit a large red punching bag mounted on a stand. As always, Jandor Mason was completely engrossed in his workout routine. His brown eyes were focused on his target as he punched and kicked to the rhythm of the music as a large fan blew air in his direction.
Terri took a moment to admire the dedication and determination of her older sibling. Jandor was very disciplined when it came to training, something his father had instilled in him at a young age. Joshua Mason was an avid collector of swords, staves, and other weapons and he trained his son with all of them to the point where he could even fight in competitions. As a result, Jandor was proficient in several fighting styles and his toned physique was a testimony to his daily workout regimen.
“Jandor!” she called finally, and this caused him to turn, clearly surprised she was there. “It’s almost time to go. The meeting’s at one; remember?”
“Oh, right.” He toweled sweat from his short, brown hair. Then he went to a corner and turned off the fan and the small, portable speaker that was blaring music before grabbing his phone and shirt and following Terri back upstairs.
Twenty minutes later, Terri and a freshly showered Jandor were on their way to the Guardman household. Wayne’s family only lived a few streets over, so they walked. The tree lined streets helped block the oppressive heat of the sun, but Jandor still felt hot in his black and red tank top and black cargo shorts.
“I don’t know why Becky insisted we have this meeting,” he said grumpily. “We could’ve handled something like this over messenger. We’ve been talking about this trip for months; I’m sure everyone’s on board.”
“Maybe,” Terri nodded, “but there are a lot of other things to discuss, you know. You have to start taking this stuff more serious. A&A’s gotten really big and you’re in charge of it all,” she chastised lightly.
“Yeah, I know, but it was really a fluke the way it all started. Who’d have thought me helping my dad out at the adventure park would turn into all this? Now it’s almost like we’ve got our own business.”
Jandor’s father, Joshua Mason, and Ace’s father, Calvin Eastman, had been best friends and owned a few businesses together including a small indoor adventure park. When Jandor was twelve he started helping his father out, first with simple things like selling tickets, but soon he started becoming actively involved in the business, even coming up with new activities geared toward kids and teens.
His ideas took off which prompted the business-savvy Calvin to encourage Jandor to expand. Jandor started recruiting his friends to work with him, and together they designed a myriad of fun and adrenaline-fueled activities for the kids of Greengale. It was very successful since the area had little in the way of fun, and this even brought in children from surrounding towns. Jandor and his team called themselves the Action and Adventure Club, or A&A for short. Now, six years later, they were sixteen members strong, with some teens recruited by the teens and others brought in by Joshua or Calvin.
Jandor smiled at this legacy his father had helped him create, but that smile faltered when he thought of the fact that it might all end.
Though her green eyes were fixed on the path ahead, Terri was still acutely aware of his change in demeanor. “What’s on your mind?” she asked as they rounded the corner.
“Dad’s gone, and I’m going to college in a couple of months along with Becky, Wayne, and a few others. I don’t see how A&A is going to last, let alone become a real business. I’d hate for it to just…die.”
“I don’t think Mr. E. is going to let that happen,” Terri reminded him. “He likes making money, and you’ve really got something with A&A. He’ll help keep things together, just like he did with all the stuff he owned with your dad. You’ll see.”
Jandor seemed to perk up at these words. “Yeah, you’re right. Well, let’s just focus on the trip then,” he added excitedly as they walked up the driveway to the Guardman house.
Only a few seconds after ringing the doorbell, Veda Guardman appeared. The brown-skinned woman with long, black microbraids was shorter than the two teens and she beamed up at them before giving them both long hugs.
“Jandor, I think it was really good what you arranged with the others yesterday,” she said after she released him. “Spending time at the memorial is one of many things that will help everyone with the healing process.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Jandor said politely as he and Terri stepped inside.
“I think Amber’s still in her room, but Becky and Wayne are already downstairs.” Mrs. Guardman pointed to the door that led to the basement level of the house.
They nodded and started down the stairs.
Unlike Jandor’s house, the lower level of the Guardman home was fully finished and furnished. At the center of the main room was a large, oval, wooden conference table surrounded by twenty black, high-backed rolling chairs. The table alone took up most of the space but there was also a fireplace along the back wall with a TV mounted above it, and a large recliner in the corner.
Becky and Wayne were seated at the conference table. Becky sat at the head, a stack of papers in front of her. Wayne was next to her, staring at a laptop.
Wayne was the only one of the two to look up from what he was doing when Jandor and Terri arrived. “Hey guys, welcome to the madness.”
Jandor chuckled at this. “Hard at work as always. I feel bad that you guys are always the ones handling all this paperwork stuff. I don’t seem like much of a leader.”
“We’ve all got our strengths,” Wayne shrugged, returning to the laptop in front of him. “After all, you plan and lead most of the activities and design all the competitions. My job’s easy compared to that, especially since Becky handles most of the logistics. Not much left for me to do.”
Becky snorted at this, though she still didn’t look up from the paper she was reading. “You keep us straight and hold the group together.”
“All three of you are amazing,” Terri said as she took her assigned seat at the conference table on the opposite side from Wayne. “Jandor’s the brawn, Becky’s the brains, and Wayne’s the heart. You’re basically the golden trio.”
Wayne pulled a face at this. “I don’t know about all that.”
Terri gave a huff of exasperation. “Everyone looks up to you three.”
“Everyone looks up to Jandor,” Wayne corrected pointedly.
“They look up to all three of you,” Terri reiterated. “It’s because of you three that A&A even exists.”
Becky and Wayne were Jandor’s closest friends and the first two he asked to help him with A&A. As a result, the trio were seen as the leaders of the group. Jandor’s ideas and vision, Becky’s meticulous ways, and Wayne’s affable personality all played a role in its success.
Jandor leaned on the back of Becky’s chair. “All the more reason to make sure we have a way to keep things running after we leave for college.”
Becky finally tore herself away from the paperwork in front of her. “I’m already working on a plan for that.” There was a proud look in her hazel eyes.
Jandor smiled at this. “Of course you are.”
“We’ve got a few minutes before the meeting begins. Let’s talk through this,” Wayne said.
Terri grabbed her phone and mentally zoned out as the three A&A leaders started discussing the future. Though she was a member of the team, she knew they didn’t need her input. Whatever Becky was planning was sure to work out. Terri only hoped she would be able to play a significant role since it would be another year before she started college, which meant she’d have more time to devote to A&A than her stepbrother. More than anything she wanted to be useful to him.
Though not bound by blood, Terri and Jandor regarded themselves as true siblings. They’d been a family since his father married her mother when Jandor was ten and Terri was nine. Terri’s real father died when she was three years old, so she’d never had much in the way of male role-models prior to her mom’s remarriage. Terri quickly grew attached to both Jandor and his father, and the attachment to Jandor only grew after Joshua’s death.
She’d joined A&A specifically because her brother started it, and she wanted to be a part of the psudo-business that he ran, but so far, she only helped with some of the weekend programs and did little more than babysit younger kids who were dropped off. She hoped that she could be tasked with more this coming year so she could prove to her brother that she was truly an integral part of the team.
Terri had been so engrossed in her thoughts that she hadn’t noticed another person enter the basement. It wasn’t until the short, stocky, pale-skinned boy dropped down into the chair between her and Becky that Terri even realized he was there.
She gave a start. “Oh Danny, you scared me.”
Daniel Mindmon raised an eyebrow at this. “I said ‘hi’ when I came in. Are you just so used to tuning me out during tutoring sessions that you do it all the time now?”
Terri rolled her eyes at this. “Maybe,” she huffed.
Tutoring had been one of the reasons why Terri hadn’t been as active in A&A as she wanted. Her grades in math and science had been low her first year of high school, so her mother had insisted on a tutor going forward. It was Mr. Eastman who’d suggested Daniel, since he’d tutored his daughter, Tonya, previously.
Terri hated tutoring in the beginning. Not only did she feel dumb being taught these subjects by someone the same age as her, but Daniel was a pretty strict instructor. Still, his methods worked, and Terri’s grades improved in her sophomore year. Because of this, Mr. Eastman invited Daniel to run an official tutoring program as part of A&A’s after school offerings. He saw it as a great hook for parents who might otherwise be reluctant to let their kids participate in the group’s after school activities.
As for Terri, after two years of working with Daniel, they’d actually become somewhat friends, though they would never miss an opportunity to verbally jab at one another. Terri was much better in math and science now, and she knew it was thanks to Daniel, but she made sure not to let that go to his head.
Daniel was used to Terri’s snappy retorts, so he simply smirked and changed the subject. “Anyway, I heard what you guys did at the memorial park yesterday. How’s everyone doing?”
Terri was about to respond but at that same moment, Ashley and Tabatha arrived.
“Becky, I think I forgot the notebook you gave me with all you’re A&A stuff in it,” Tabatha said as she rifled through a messenger bag that was hanging from her shoulder. She swore in frustration.
“That’s fine, I have my spare copy.” Becky waved a small green spiral notebook.
“Don’t curse. You know how my mom feels about that,” Wayne admonished from behind his laptop.
“Sorry,” Tabatha said automatically. “Becky, you’re so…freakin’ organized.”
Becky smiled knowingly. “I keep telling you: I always have a backup plan.”
Ashley rounded the table to sit next to her best friend. “Why didn’t you answer your phone earlier?” she asked in a partial whisper.
Wayne looked up and there was the slightest flash of panic in his brown eyes. “I’m sorry. When did you call?” he fished his phone out of his pocket, keen to examine it. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” she said with a shrug, “I just wanted to talk, that’s all.”
“Apparently I’m not good enough,” Tabatha said with clear implication in her voice, making it obvious she’d overheard the conversation, even from where she was seated at the other end of the table.
“It’s not that,” Ashley said, clearly flustered.
“You’d rather talk to your boyfriend; I get it.” Tabatha rolled her eyes.
“He’s not my boyfriend!” Ashley said defensively.
Wayne only chuckled as he returned to the laptop in front of him. “She’s just baiting you, Ash.”
Tabatha stuck her tongue out and gave a harsh laugh before propping her feet up on the table. “Poor little miss sunshine; so easy to rain on your parade,” she teased.
“Shut it.” Ashley folded her arms but couldn’t manage a stern look, which only made Tabatha laugh again.
Soon others began to arrive in small groups, and they gathered around the table, each already having an unofficial assigned seat. The A&A teens always met in the Guardman house. It was mostly because it had the old wooden conference table in the basement, a relic from one of Mrs. Guardman’s former business endeavors.
Despite having extra chairs, Jandor never sat during meetings, preferring to pace around the room. Becky sat at the head of the table and ran the meetings for the most part. Though A&A wasn’t a real business, Becky seemed determined to run it like one. Because of this, they’d developed a very set way of doing things over the years and they rarely strayed from their norms. The meticulous nature of how the group operated was a direct result of Becky’s influence.
Shortly after the last few members arrived in the basement, Mrs. Guardman entered with a large tray of crackers, various cheeses, grapes, and apple slices. She placed it in the middle of the conference table before taking a seat in the large recliner and settling back to observe, which she usually did.
Mrs. Guardman taking her seat seemed to signal to Becky that it was time to start the meeting and she called everyone to order. For the next hour, Becky went over how A&A had done from a profit standpoint, according to Calvin Eastman’s figures; Wayne talked about how they would run events and activities over the summer; and the group discussed what they would do next school year since many members would be going to college, including the three leaders.
Jandor mostly paced around the table during this part of the meeting, preferring to let Becky and Wayne take care of the business aspects of A&A. When they were done, he stopped and stood behind Becky’s chair.
“So, as you all know, Mr. E. likes to reward us each summer with a trip for all the hard work we do, and this time he’s going all out, probably because of how much money we pulled in this past year.” He smiled broadly at this. “So, he gave us three options, but the one I think we’re all excited about is Adventure Isle.”
There were murmurs around the table. Mr. Eastman had floated the idea of sending them to Adventure Isle earlier in the year. It was a massive adventure park resort located on an island in the Caribbean that had state of the art facilities designed to satisfy even the most daredevil of adrenaline junkies. They made catered packages based on the desires of the individual patron, and their website advertised that they could satisfy any request from simulated astronaut training to lion taming.
“This would definitely be our biggest trip, and since many of us are going off to college soon, it could be the last time we do this together,” Jandor continued. “I just want to make sure we’re all still on board. Do we really need to discuss any of the other options?”
Everyone started muttering among themselves, but the chatter sounded positive.
“Okay can I just be the one to point out the big freakin’ problem with all this,” Tabatha said harshly from the opposite end of the table. “We’re talking about this trip as if nothing happened!” She slammed her small fist on the table. “Half our parents died last year when we were gone.”
There was silence as many at the table stared around uncomfortably. Mrs. Guardman sat upright, paying closer attention, but did not interject.
Wayne was the first to speak. “Tabatha, I understand what you’re saying, but it’s not like our leaving caused the accident. Believe me, I know how you feel.”
“You know how I feel?” Tabatha retorted, trying to fight back the tears that were threatening to fall from her green eyes. “At least you still have a parent. I lost my family, my home, everything!”
“So did I,” Amber said in a flat tone. Though her voice was soft, it seemed to cut across Tabatha’s. “I lost everything too. You weren’t the only one.”
This caused the redhead to falter. She slumped down in her chair as if drained.
“I don’t like the idea of celebrating the death of our parents by going off to the Caribbean either,” Amber continued, “but Wayne’s right. You going last year didn’t cause their deaths. If you stayed, it still would’ve happened, and going this year doesn’t change that.”
“So, what are you saying, you want to go?” Tabatha asked as she glared across the table at the younger girl.
Amber shrugged. “If the choice is between that or staying here and sulking…” She glanced down the table at Wayne. “I’ll go for the trip I guess.”
Ace put his hand on Tabatha’s, and she flinched but didn’t pull back. “It might be good to get away for a bit,” he offered.
“Tabatha, I don’t want to make you, or anyone, go if you don’t want to,” Jandor said. “If you want to opt out completely, you can.”
“No.” Tabatha took a deep steadying breath. “I’m sorry, you’re right. Not going on the trip isn’t going to do anything, and I definitely don’t want to sit and sulk all summer.” She thought about what it would be like to be stuck in the Summerson house while all her friends were away.
“I lost my dad too,” Jandor reminded her, “but I know he, and all of our parents, were really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. We started A&A as kids and now we practically run our own business. I know my dad would want us to continue with our trip this year. I think your father would too.”
Tabatha nodded, though she thought he was wrong on that point. Her father had always been very strict, wanting her to focus on her studies and pushing her to excel academically. It was her mother who had encouraged her to join A&A and had been supportive of her working with Jandor and the others. Her father had thought it a waste of time until he saw that she was earning significant money from it. She smiled at the thought. Her father had always been high strung, almost comically so. It was most likely where Tabatha got her temper.
Jandor took her smile to mean that she was coming around. “So does that mean we’re all agreed on Adventure Isle?”
“Hands!” Becky called.
All hands around the table rose, a couple with a bit more hesitance, but in the end, it was a unanimous vote.
“All right then. Becky, Wayne, let’s do this!” Jandor said excitedly.
Becky turned to Wayne. “I’ll figure out the flights and hotel, can you take care of the rest?”
“You got it,” Wayne said without looking up from his laptop.
The two worked on so many projects together, that Wayne automatically knew what Becky needed and how to help her, even when the instructions were vague.
“If there’s nothing else—” Becky started, but Ace waved his hand.
“It’s our last meeting before the trip, so I’m thinking party at my house tonight, like always,” he proposed.
Everyone cheered at this.
“All right then, on that note, meeting adjourned. We’ll see everyone tonight at Ace’s,” Becky said.
Everyone stood and began to converse among themselves. Mrs. Guardman rounded the table to reach Tabatha, who was chatting with Ace.
“Yeah, I’m positive; I talked to mom and dad last night and they both agreed. You just have to talk to your aunt and uncle.” Ace was saying as Mrs. Guardman approached.
“That’s such a relief,” Tabatha said with a sigh.
Mrs. Guardman laid a comforting hand on her shoulder, interrupting their conversation. “Tabatha, I just wanted to see if you were okay.”
“I’m fine ma’am.” She smiled warmly. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to make a scene.”
“It’s okay dear.” Mrs. Guardman wrapped her arms around her now. “I just hope you know that I’m here for you if you need anything.”
“Thank you,” Tabatha said as she tried to hold back tears again. “I really appreciate that you’ve always been there for me even before all this happened.”
“Of course, and I hope you and I can have at least one more lunch together before the trip,” Mrs. Guardman said as she released her from the hug.
Tabatha quickly wiped her eyes and gave the matriarch a soft smile. “Absolutely, but I get to pick the place this time.”
Mrs. Guardman moved a stray strand of red hair from Tabatha’s face. “You’ve got a deal.”
Tabatha turned back to Ace. “Can I just hang at your place until the party? I really don’t want to deal with the Summersons right now.”
Ace nodded. “Yeah, might as well.”
Mrs. Guardman watched the duo walk up the stairs. She shook her head. It bothered her that Tabatha might never know the truth about what happened to her parents, but she knew there was nothing she could do about it.