Authors: Lurlene McDaniel
“You’re braver than me.”
“No … I was just more desperate.”
“We’re here!” Amanda’s voice interrupted their conversation. “We’ll have to leave the horses and go the rest of the way on foot.”
“It’s about time.” Lacey dismounted, rubbing her backside. “I think it’s gone to sleep permanently.”
“It’ll wake up,” Katie assured her as she tethered her horse to a tree and helped Chelsea off her mount.
“Come on,” Amanda called. “It’s just a little bit farther.”
Walking very slowly and holding Chelsea’s arm, Katie climbed the last fifty yards. The trees had thinned, and above she saw only a rise in the land that seemingly met the blue sky. When she and Chelsea crawled over a hump, the rise flattened out, and Katie saw that they were standing on a bluff, a
flat, jutting chunk of granite that seemed suspended in space. In the distance, as far as she could see, was the deep hazy blue swell of mountains. They reminded her of waves rolling across the land, silent giants as old as time. The bluff dropped off, and hundreds of feet below were woods and trees dressed in the green hues of summer.
Above, the sky was dome-shaped and the sun hovered like a ball over the crests of the Great Smoky Mountains. For a few breathless minutes, the four of them stood staring across the gorge.
Katie was the first to speak.
“Isn’t it fabulous?” Amanda asked, like a kid showing off an unexpected Christmas gift.
“It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” Chelsea said, breathing hard from the small exertion.
“Pretty awesome,” Lacey added.
“How did you ever find it?” Katie wanted to know.
“Exploring. Sometimes I take a horse for a ride and go exploring on my own.”
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll get lost?” Chelsea asked.
“Course not. The horse knows the way home. If I get confused, I just give him free rein, and he heads straight back to the stables.”
“How many times have you come up here alone?” Katie asked.
“Three—not counting the time I discovered it. I tied little scraps of ribbon to mark the trail. Didn’t you notice them as we were riding?”
Katie shook her head. “I was talking.”
“If you follow the ribbons, you’ll get here.” She grinned. “I felt like an Indian scout when I did it.”
“Indians followed animal tracks,” Lacey said. “But I’m impressed, so we won’t argue the fine points.”
Katie ventured to the edge of the bluff and peeked over. Her gaze tumbled over rocks and trees on the underside of the mountain. “It sure is a long way down.”
“Come sit over here.” Amanda motioned them to a few rocks gathered in a circle. When they had settled, she said, “I’ll bet these rocks were put here by fairies so that they can dance in the light of the full moon.”
She giggled, and for an instant, Katie caught her fairy-tale vision. She imagined tiny winged beings sprinkled with gold dust, darting like fireflies around the rock formations.
“I’d prefer someone a bit more life-size up here with me in the moonlight,” Lacey declared. She didn’t sound sarcastic, and Katie wondered again about Lacey’s private life. Katie thought of Josh and realized it would be fun to be with him up here in the moonlight. A summer breeze brought the scent of pine forests and the sweetness of some wild mountain flower, making her miss him all the more.
“But it’s just for us,” Amanda said. “You’ve got to promise that you won’t show it to anybody else. Not ever.”
“Why?” Lacey asked.
“Because I just want it to be for us. Sort of like our private place. A secret that nobody else knows about.”
Katie could understand Amanda’s wishes. Jenny House seemed to belong to everybody, but the bluff,
with the view and the sense of solitude and peacefulness, was unique. Out here, the world looked majestic, ageless, bigger than their problems. She felt dwarfed and insignificant, but not in a negative way. Up here, the rhythms of life merged into a single stream. “I think we can keep this place our secret,” she said, looking from face to face.
“No problem by me,” Chelsea said.
“I like the idea of not sharing,” Lacey added.
“Then it’s settled. This belongs to us alone.” Amanda grinned. “And any fairies who want to play here.”
They sat quietly, listening to the chirp of birds and the silver whisper of the wind. “What now?” Lacey asked.
“We watch the sun go down. It’s so beautiful, and after I saw it, I knew I had to bring you three and let you see it too. You’re my very best friends in the whole wide world.”
Looking around, Katie saw that the others were as touched as she by Amanda’s confession. “I feel the same way,” she said.
Chelsea asked, “Will it be too dark to get back down?”
“You know how long it stays light in the summertime,” Amanda assured her. “We’ll be back in time for dinner. Now if you sit tight and watch, you’ll see a fantastic light show.”
The four of them crowded together, facing west. The great ball of the sun began to dip lower, and the long shadows of afternoon crept along the earth below. The sky flamed crimson and melted into confectionery
pink, turning the few clouds into cotton candy puffs. The distant trees began to resemble licorice sticks, and the leaves sweet green icing. When the sun turned scarlet and slid between two distant mountains, Katie was reminded of a cherry resting on mounds of dark ice cream. She watched as the brilliant red ball sank lower, until its rim became a sliver of shimmering light, then disappeared from view.
The sheer beauty of the sight left a lump in her throat. It made no sense. She’d seen hundreds of sunsets, but somehow this one had touched her deep inside and chased away some lonely darkness. Maybe it was because the others were with her. Others who had no promises that they’d see other sunsets. She cleared her throat. “That was beautiful. Thanks for sharing it, Amanda.”
Each of them stood, glancing away self-consciously, unable to put her feelings into words. “We should be getting back.” It was Lacey who spoke. She started quickly for the horses, but not before Katie saw that her eyes were damp with tears.
Katie thought about chasing her down and finding out what was wrong, but Chelsea took her arm, and Katie knew that the younger girl needed help to return to her horse. Whatever Lacey’s problem was would have to wait. The foursome remounted their horses and wound their way back down to Jenny House without speaking.
Over the next two days, the staff and kids talked constantly about the big Fourth of July blow-out. Mr.
Holloway announced plans for a swimming party and picnic at the lake, followed by fireworks. “These are special fireworks,” he told them at dinner one evening. “For your eyes only. There’ll be a barge in the middle of the lake and plenty of action.”
Katie found herself looking forward to it. Ever since their experience on the bluff, she’d felt closer to the other three. And she knew the others felt the same. It was if the rays of that incandescent sinking sun had wrapped them in ribbons of light and bound them together in some unique way. Chelsea acted less fearful. Lacey became friendlier. Amanda was more enthusiastic than ever.
Amanda practiced putting on makeup borrowed from the other three. Katie thought she looked especially adorable on the morning of the picnic, even though she’d had to use a coverup for dark circles under her eyes. “Jeff’s got to notice me today,” Amanda whispered to Katie.
“If he doesn’t, we’ll send him up on one of the firework rockets,” Katie whispered back.
The intercom buzzed, and Lacey pressed the button. A voice from the front desk said, “Katie, can you come down to the lobby? Something down here needs your attention.”
She gave the others a bewildered shrug and bounded out the door. She was halfway down the stairs when she stopped cold and stared wide-eyed at the foot of the carpeted staircase. There stood Josh Martel, looking as if he hadn’t slept all night.
ATIE FLEW DOWN
the remaining stairs and threw herself into Josh’s arms. “It’s you! It’s really you!”
“Were you expecting someone else?” Josh teased after he kissed her.
“I wasn’t expecting
. Why are you here? How did you get here? Are you alone?” She fired questions at him while hugging him tightly.
“Let’s go outside,” Josh said.
Katie glanced around and saw that their reunion had attracted a small crowd. Kids passing through the lobby had stopped to stare, and even staff members had stepped out of their offices to see the source of the commotion. “Hurry,” she said, dragging Josh out onto the porch, down the walkway, and into a nearby stand of trees.
Once they were alone, she threw her arms around him again. “I can’t believe you’re here,” she repeated.
“I couldn’t stand being away from you for one more day,” Josh told her. He swept his hands through her hair and raised her chin with his thumbs.
Staring into the depths of his eyes made Katie feel weak in the knees. She’d known she missed him, but until now, she hadn’t realized how
she’d missed him. “You look tired.” She touched creases around his eyes.
“I drove all night.”
“You must be wiped out.”
“Not anymore.” He kissed her hungrily.
Reluctantly, Katie pulled away. “Come on, there’s a bench farther down.” Tucking herself under his arm, she walked with him through the hot, green afternoon toward a sitting area farther back in the cool woods. “Tell me everything,” she said. “How’s everyone back home? And your job? How’d you get off?”
“It’s Fourth of July weekend. I asked for two extra days so I could make the drive, nonstop. I left Ann Arbor yesterday morning at six.”
“When will you have to leave?”
“I figure I can cut out Monday noon and still make it to work by noon on Tuesday. I’m working the afternoon shift at the paper.”
“So we have almost two whole days together. There’s a big party tomorrow night. A picnic out at the lake with fireworks.”
“Am I invited?”
“I think I can persuade Mr. Holloway to let you stay for it.”
“Then the trip was worth it. I get you
Katie shoved his chest playfully. “You should have told me you were coming.”
“I wanted to surprise you.”
“You sure did that!” Katie snuggled against him when they reached the wrought-iron bench. “You’re a wonderful surprise.”
“Your folks send their love. Your mom says you should write more often.”
Katie felt a twinge of guilt. “I’ve been so busy around this place, I hardly have time to write. If I do, I write you.”
“Good thing. That’s all that’s kept me going this summer.” Josh pulled away and peered down at her. “I’ve really missed you, Katie.”
“Same here.” She hugged him. “You should get some sleep.”
“Who needs to sleep?”
“You do. I can find a bed where you can crash at Jenny House. Maybe Jeff’s room—”
“How’s all that stuff going between him and Lacey and Amanda anyway? You’ve written me so much about them, I feel as if I know them.”
“Don’t ask. Jeff still pines for Lacey. Amanda longs for Jeff. And Lacey is clueless. Fortunately, Amanda hasn’t figured out Jeff’s infatuation with Lacey. If she knew, she’d be heartsick.”
Josh grinned and shook his head. “And you’re playing Ann Landers.”
“Don’t laugh. This is serious stuff.”
“No, this is serious stuff.” He leaned down and kissed her until she felt light-headed.
“We’d better go talk to Mr. Holloway,” Katie said, when her head had cleared. “He’ll have to okay your stay.”
“I hope he lets me. The closest motel is a good half hour away. Jenny House is really set off by itself.”
“It’s a fabulous place, Josh. I’m glad I came.”
They walked hand in hand back to the big lodge, and once inside, Katie led the way to the director’s office. She could tell by the expression on Richard Holloway’s face that news of Josh’s arrival had already reached him, and although he was courteous, Katie realized he wasn’t too pleased. “I know Josh has come a long way to see you, Katie, but Jenny House isn’t for outsiders,” Mr. Holloway said, affirming her suspicions.
Clinging to Josh’s hand, Katie said, “Josh isn’t just my boyfriend on a two-day vacation, Mr. Holloway.” Quickly, she told him about how she and Josh had met.
“Katie was given your brother’s heart?” Richard Holloway looked incredulous.
Once everything was explained, the director agreed to let Josh remain for two days and join them on the picnic. After they’d left his office, Katie told Josh, “I’ve got group rap session in thirty minutes.”
“I wrote you about groups. Rapping is when anyone who wants to can sit around with special counselors and talk about their illnesses. Everyone’s been
to a rap session. Everyone except Lacey. She says talking about it won’t make it go away, so why bother.”
“She’s right, you know.”
“Not true! Talking about it, getting your feelings out into the open, really helps you feel better. But Lacey refuses to believe it. She’s taking her insulin shots regularly, but otherwise, she refuses to admit she’s got a medical problem.”