“Race you to the bottom!” Jason punched his subway card into the slot of the turnstile, proclaiming the hundredth race of the day.
Laney rolled her eyes and conceded, knowing her card was crammed under her notebook and multiple other items at the bottom of her bag. She stepped to the side and crouched by the wall to dig for her card, avoiding the flow of commuters heading home in Boston’s midweek rush.
“Come on, Turtle!” Jason called from the bottom of the steps. “The train’s here!”
Laney cringed at the nickname Jason had pinned on her when they were kids. She didn’t want him to look at her as a turtle, or as an eight-year-old girl. Not that she did anything to change his view of her. Her brown hair still hung down her back in a ponytail.
Jason’s transformation, on the other hand, was dramatic. He let his dark hair grow out from the crew cut his mom subjected him to every summer. When he was the quarterback in high school, his body changed into a man’s before Laney’s eyes, and she wasn’t the only one who noticed. Jason had a magnetic field that attracted any teenage girl with a pulse in a one-mile radius.
Subway card in hand, Laney merged into the sea of humanity trying to keep her eyes focused on every step until she reached Jason.
“I’m not playing anymore.” She elbowed him and kept walking to the platform. “Besides, we’ve got three more things to find on this list before we’re supposed to be back at the park. We’re going to lose because you want to do anything besides what you’re supposed to do.”
“Disobedience is the only way things get done in this world. Didn’t you learn anything on our tour of Boston about tea parties and that Samuel Adams dude?”
“Yeah.” Laney laughed. “The only thing you know about Samuel Adams is what type of beer he makes.”
Jason Harrison’s smug attitude drove Laney crazy. Besides going to parties in high school with his football buddies, he followed the rules: class president, valedictorian, and attending church most Sundays. Responsibility didn’t come naturally to Jason—it was forced on him when his dad died from a sudden heart attack. He had to take care of his mom.
The screech of the wheels on the green line echoed through the tunnel before the subway light shone in the dark abyss.
Jason took Laney’s hand to pull her back from the thick yellow line delineating the danger zone. “Besides, you’d be mortified accepting your prize in front of all those people. There must be a hundred freshman playing this stupid, mixer game and I end up with you. I think I know you better than I know myself.”
“You don’t know everything about me.”
The train doors opened, Jason took her hand, and they squeezed in with the commuters, content to hold on to a silver pole. Laney moved against the wall of the train, blocking out the hordes with Jason’s body. Being this close to him should feel natural, like breathing, but she felt her nerves tense.
She glanced around the car at the other travelers. Some were families heading home after a full day in the city—little ones fast asleep in their mother’s lap or fussing from a case of being overtired. Others were couples ready to have a night out on the town. Then there were the outcasts who rode alone. Some scrolled through their phone, read a newspaper, or had an engaging conversation with themselves. A large man sat in the corner diagonal from Laney. He was big enough to intimidate, but it was something else that made her eyes rest on him. His hair hung past his shoulders entrenched in grease, and he wore period clothing from the 1700s. Was he part of a reenactment? Something nagged at her because he appeared familiar. The man raised his head and looked directly at her, so she quickly set her eyes on her backpack.
She held it protectively between her legs. Jason didn’t know about her writing. The journal nestled safely in the bag. The story she wrote, near and dear to her heart, and no one, not even Jason, would get a glance inside.
Jason stared at Laney for a few moments before their eyes locked, his usual smart remark trapped momentarily behind his lips. Of course, he knew everything about her—she had an overprotective father, was a bookworm and a master of the Scrabble universe, had legs that could outrun most boys and a sarcastic wit that saw the truth in most situations. She was the most amazing girl he’d ever known. Laney Holden was the girl he took for granted. The popularity that came with being Derry’s hometown football hero had its privileges: girls, parties, preferential treatment at the Burger Barn—but through those distractions Jason missed something. His best friend grew up, and just looking at her drove him crazy. She was beautiful. Not the high heel, short skirt, plastered on make-up, I’m all that type of beauty he usually dated, and nothing like Jennifer, his current girlfriend. Laney was striking, and she didn’t even know it.
“Maybe we need to catch up on the time we missed.” Jason looked down at Laney’s hand in his own. It wasn’t like they never touched growing up, but he suddenly felt on edge. The thought of her rejection overwhelmed him, and he could tell his touch made her uncomfortable. He let go of her hand and brought it up to his mouth to fake a cough.
Laney picked up her backpack and held it to her, making it impossible for Jason to hold her hand again. Of course, she wouldn’t want to hold his hand. Jennifer followed Jason to Madison and Laney probably thought that made him off-limits.
She smiled at him before averting her eyes to a small boy in the seat next to her playing with a toy car. That was the thing that was difficult for Jason. The girls he knew were easy to read. He knew what they wanted, and they laid it all out there, but with Laney it was different. Jason knew her better than any other girl he’d ever known, but there were parts of her that were a complete mystery to him.
The subway pulled into the Park Street station just below the Boston Commons. Laney removed the scavenger hunt list from the back pocket of her jeans to review the last three items. They walked with the masses of people until Laney sat down on a graffiti-covered bench to go over the list once again.
“You still wear that old thing?” Laney touched a tattered bracelet on Jason’s wrist.
“I never take it off.” He stretched his sleeve over the bracelet. Laney handpicked the colors based off a chart she found on the Internet when she was twelve. She made his purple and yellow. The purple was a school color, but she told him she entwined yellow because it reflected his personality.
“I think we should find the Make Way for Ducklings statues and then head to the swan boats.” She put the list into her pocket before readjusting her ponytail and swinging her backpack onto her shoulder.
Jason told her that it was ridiculous to bring her bag with her when they were planning to eat out in Faneuil Hall. She put on her stubborn pout and ignored him.
“Race you to the top!” Laney shouted over the next train pulling in, taking a two-stride head start. Jason rolled his eyes and chased after the girl who was so far from a turtle.
When he reached the stairs, Jason stopped to let Laney have her glory. She was halfway up before she turned around.
“Give up already, Turtle?” she taunted and flashed that beautiful smile of hers. Jason wanted to race up the stairs and kiss her.
But before Jason could do anything, a man ascending the stairs to the right of Laney, wearing some type of strange Revolutionary War get-up, grabbed her arm and pulled her bag off her back. She swung around and slugged him in the jaw, just before he pushed her backwards down the concrete stairs. Jason’s heart stopped as her body tumbled into an unconscious heap several feet in front of him.
When Laney first awoke, she didn’t know where she was or why her head felt extremely clouded. A constant beeping sound and hushed whispers filled her ears. She opened her eyes and tried to focus on the source.
“Delaney!” Her father’s voice made her head hurt, but she was glad to hear it. Adjusting her eyes to the light, she saw both of her parents leaning over her. She shut her eyes again, knowing she was safe and hoping to avoid a conversation.
“We’re here, Laney.” She felt a soft hand on hers. It was her mother.
Laney kept her eyes closed, not quite ready to deal with the barrage of questions she knew her parents were dying to ask. And if this were a normal situation with a normal, everyday, garden-variety thief, she’d be more than happy to divulge any information they cared to know about the incident. The problem was that it was so far from normal.
A knock on the doorframe kept Laney’s eyes shut, afraid of any further intrusion into her spinning mind.
“Doctor.” Her dad’s hand moved off the bed as he stood up to greet her physician. “She opened her eyes a few minutes ago. Does that mean she’s going to be alright?”
Laney rolled her eyes beneath the lids.
“I’m happy to see she’s awake. I told you before that it’s a simple skull fracture. While we take all head injuries very seriously, I assure you that your daughter will be fine.”
Laney tensed up inside wondering if she was fine, or safe for that matter. Images flashed through her head of her attacker—dark, greasy hair, piercing brown eyes, the penetrating smell of alcohol on his breath, and his hand on her shoulder. If the thief got away with her backpack, then he had her book. If she told the truth, she knew her parents and the doctor would diagnose it as delirium from a head injury.
When the doctor left the room, she opened her eyes to face her parents. Tim and Shelly Holden owned an antique shop in downtown Derry, New Hampshire. They had closed the business for the day to rush down to Boston. Although she was an only child, it was expensive for them to send her to a private college, but her mom wanted her to have more to look forward to than taking over the family business.
“Delaney, baby, how are you feeling? Do I need to call the doctor back? He could check your head again, or give you some more pain medication.” Her dad brushed back her bangs like he did when she was young, avoiding the bandage on the left side of her head. The momentary feeling of safety smoothed out the jitters that still ran through her body.
“No, don’t bother the doctor.” Laney pushed back with her hands to prop her body up on the pillow.
“Let me help you.” Her mom fluffed the pillow to support her lower back, which ached from a fresh bruise. Sore spots sprouted in other areas of her body making her head fracture feel less severe.
“Shelly, I told you if she went to a school close to Boston something like this would happen. The city is full of murderers and thieves.” Her dad bent over and kissed her head as he said the last words. “Hardly a place for my princess. I’m sure it’s not too late to transfer to the University of New Hampshire.”
“FYI, Dad,” Laney spit the words out, “I’m a grown-up! You’re just going to have to get used to it. Besides, I would’ve been fine if it weren’t for . . .” The words stuck to her tongue. She’d already said far too much.
“If it weren’t for what?” His dark blue eyes pierced through her and for a moment she was afraid he could hear her thoughts.
“Um . . . if it weren’t for that step I tripped over. You see I was racing Jason, and the step just reached up and tripped me. It gave that guy time to grab my backpack.”
“We know what happened.” Her dad sighed, leaning back in his chair. “Jason told us the whole story when we arrived at the hospital.” Tim ran his hand through his dark hair. “It’s all his fault, you know.”
Laney’s dad had never liked Jason. Maybe he did when Jason was young, but once he hit high school he was never good enough for her, despite his academic and athletic achievements. Because Jason’s mom was Shelly’s best friend, Laney’s mom loved him as her own.
“Oh, Jason’s out in the waiting room, I’m sure he’s worried sick.” Shelly stood up and headed toward the door.
“Jeez, Shelly. Why do you have to get him?” Her dad’s face was sullen. “It’d do him good to worry about someone else for a change.”
“He saved her life. He ran after that guy and almost stopped him.” Shelly walked out the door, refusing to even entertain an argument with her husband.
After her mother left the room, Laney’s father reached over to the nightstand and picked up a long chain with a pendant on it. “The nurses took this off when you entered the hospital, so I held on to it.”
Laney took the sapphire necklace from her father and quickly latched it behind her neck. She wore it like a favorite pair of jeans. The inlaid golden spider sparkled in the light. The necklace never came off, and the realization that she didn’t have it on suddenly made her feel naked and exposed. Her father found it at an estate sale in Connecticut when she was ten-years-old. Although he put it in his antique store to be sold, Laney took it out of the case to hold it at least once a day. Her parents gave it to her as a present for her high school graduation and from that point on it had never left her neck. She closed her eyes again, hoping to avoid any further pressings from him about her attacker.
Laney heard her father stand up and the bathroom door close before she opened her eyes to stare up at the grid pattern of the ceiling. An ominous feeling reached its tentacles into the depths of her stomach. Before she could explore the feeling further, the door opened and Jason poked his head in through the crack.
“Where’s your dad?” He slipped his shoulder into the room but kept one foot in the hallway.
She pointed to the bathroom door feeling a sharp pain along her ribcage as she raised her arm. Laney tried to hide her wince, but Jason was by her side in an instant.
“I’m so sorry.” He sat on the doctor’s stool next to her bed and rolled close to her. The safety she felt with Jason there allowed her to push all thoughts about her attacker to the back of her mind. The glow of the lamp felt warmer, the hospital sheets were comfier, and the traffic outside on the Boston streets became a melodic symphony. The thing was, it had nothing to do with romance, but a feeling of home and safety that she felt whenever Jason was around. She smiled.
“Can I get you anything?” He put his hand on hers.
“Yeah, you can get the hell out of here.” Laney’s dad came storming out of the bathroom on a mission. “And you can take your hands off my daughter!”
“Dad, stop!” Laney protested trying her best to sit up straight. The anger boiling inside her rivaled her father’s and she wasn’t going to make Jason leave without a fight. “Right now, I actually want you to leave.”
“And leave you alone with him! I don’t think so. You should know more than anyone else what he’s like.” He moved closer to Jason, and for a moment she thought he might punch him.
Jason stood up, and Laney reached for his hand not wanting to lose the comfort he brought to her room. “I wasn’t going to stay long. The doctor says you’ll be released tomorrow, so I’ll come see you at school. It’s just that I wanted to bring you this.”
He bent down and picked her backpack up off the floor.
Her heart leapt. She’d lost all hope in ever seeing it again. “But how?”
“The man watched you fall down the stairs. He stood there like a statue. Maybe he thought he killed you. So, I took that moment to run up the stairs and grab him. He must’ve felt really bad because he dropped the bag.” Jason unzipped the large pocket revealing the contents inside, the essentials all being there. “Either that or he was afraid that I’d beat the crap out of him.”
“You don’t know how much this means to me.” Laney beamed, and even though it hurt like hell, she pulled him into a hug. She regretted her actions after seeing her dad’s face turn a strange shade of purple and Jason’s to red.
Jason backed toward the door and fumbled for the handle. “I’ve got to go. See you tomorrow.”
Later, as Laney lay in bed, alone in her hospital room, the ominous thoughts and feelings began to grow again. She knew her imagination lost control every now and then, but her gut told her this was not her imagination. The man on the subway and the thief who stole her backpack were the same man, and he wasn’t a stranger. Maybe he was a stranger to every other human being on planet Earth, but not to Laney. She used her words to create a fictional world, a place to escape when the pressures of this world seemed to crash down on her. The book she was writing, her world, was in that backpack, and for some reason Jonas Webb, her antagonist, wanted the book. She’d know him anywhere and he was here to find her.