“Garrett! Wait! Come back!”
Natalie’s cackles slowly faded as Aspen sped up. She could just make out the shape of Keeva’s tawny fur vanishing into the distance, her yellow leash still flying behind her like a rope. Her sneakers slammed rhythmically on the asphalt, the sound echoing through the silence and eclipsing her jagged breathing. Keeva’s barking sounded farther away, like a faint lullaby in a dream. She groaned in annoyance. Don’t mix yourself up with that loser. He’ll get you killed before you even know it. Natalie’s voice echoed through her mind, like the lyrics of a dreadful song. What does that even mean anyway? She’s such a bully! Aspen made a right turn and stopped.
Garrett and Keeva were nowhere to be seen. “Garrett?” she called through heavy pants.
No answer. She sighed heavily. She had lost them. “Where did you go?” she wondered and looked around the vacant streets.
“Garrett! Garett, where are you?” She cupped her hands around her mouth and called out again. “Garrett! It’s Aspen! Where are you?”
There was no answer. Her body sagged forward in hindrance.
“Don’t bother looking for him. You don’t want to get mixed up with that loser,” a familiar voice advised. “He’s not someone you should be concerned for.”
Aspen spun around and found herself face-to-face with Natalie again. She scowled at her. “Why did you do that?”
Natalie rolled her eyes. “Do what? Save you from total loserfication?” She looked at her through narrowed eyes. “You’re welcome.”
“Loserfication?” Aspen repeated. Her eyes grew wide in aghast. “That doesn’t exist! You were mean to him! Why?”
“You’re new, aren’t you?” Natalie questioned. “I’ve haven’t seen your face around here.”
Aspen glared at her. “That’s doesn’t matter!” she snapped. “Why were you so mean to him? He didn’t do anything to you!”
“Pipe down, little girl!” Natalie retorted. “You don’t know who you’re messing with or even why nobody likes that kid anymore. You’re new here. You have a lot to learn about how things run here. You don’t know Gay-rett Kennedy like us Chagrin Heights kids do. Everyone he gets close to gets hurt.”
“I may not know who you are or what he did, but he’s a nice guy! He was going to show me around! He didn’t do anything to me!” Aspen claimed. “Leave me alone!”
Natalie glared at her with so much intensity that Aspen took a step back.
“Listen to me, Little Red,” Natalie hissed through clenched, her tone dark with menace. “I’m doing this for your own good so if you’re smart, you’ll listen to me.”
Aspen said nothing. Natalie continued. “You just got here and you have no friends right? I can change that for you. You see, I am the girl that everybody wants to be in this town. So what I say, people will listen to every word like they would the Holy Bible. What I do, these losers automatically do it. Because I’m doing it. What I think, this pathetic town will think the same thing. Why? Because I’m thinking it. If you’re interested in being a part of the winning team—if you want to know what it’s like to have people look up to you like you’re standing on the clouds rather than look down on you like you’re scum on the bottom of their shoes—you can stick with me and I might let you hang with me and the girls.
But if you insist on hanging out with losers like Kennedy who deserve to be hung from a tree by their necks and beaten with two-by-fours, then go ahead. But know this. You won’t receive so much as a glance in this town if you do. You know why?” Natalie cupped a hand around her ear and leaned forward expectantly, waiting for an answer.
Aspen’s throat suddenly felt dry. She opened her mouth, but no words came out.
Natalie sighed and shook her head. “Because I don’t want that!” she said, as if the answer was so obvious.
Aspen averted her eyes. Natalie sighed and tossed her pale blond hair over a shoulder. “Think about it, kiddo. Nobody wants to be a loser right? If you hang out with that kid for too long, then you’ll become one.”
Be a loser in this town? She felt the doubt start to sink into her mind, drowning her thoughts in indecision. You just got here and you have no friends right? I can change that for you. Aspen bit her lip in hesitation. Can she do that? Can she just make people not want to be your friend? Is that what she did to Garrett? Why? What did he do that was so bad that he can’t have friends anymore? Natalie yawned and tapped her foot with impatience. Aspen swallowed loudly. But she’s a bully! She made him feel so bad! She didn’t have to do that! But I don’t know that’s she lying either. What if she’s right? What if Garrett really is a bad boy?
“I’m not going to stand here and wait for you to make up your mind!” Natalie griped. “Either you say yes and come with me or say no and enjoy being a loser until you go off to college!”
Aspen’s heart skipped a beat. Natalie turned away and started walking. A loser until college? I don’t want to be a loser!
“Wait!” Aspen cried and hastened her steps to catch up with Natalie. “I’m coming!”
Natalie shot her an unimpressed grin. “I thought as much,” she said with a pompous toss of her head. “Come on. We’re going this way.”
Aspen nodded and fell into step beside her. “Where are we going exactly?”
Natalie giggled. “To an acquaintance’s house on Pine Bough Avenue. Where else would I go? The girls are already waiting for us!”
An eager grin spread across Aspen’s face as they headed off to their destination.
“Okay, so Justin Timberlake or Channing Tatum?” Natalie asked and poked at an ice tube in her lemonade glass with a red fingernail.
Aspen raised an eyebrow questioningly. Who in the world is Channing Tatum?
“Definitely Tatum,” Esmeralda Gonzales answered. She brushed her curly, chestnut brown hair out of her eyes and leaned over to pluck a grape off the bowl at the center of their circle. “Lock me in a room with that guy for thirty seconds and I’d…”
She squealed with delight and popped the fruit into her mouth. Natalie rolled her eyes and turned to the next girl, Sharon Dupree. The blonde dropped her gaze to the grape bowl and anxiously picked at the fabric of her pale blue sweater. Her voice was hushed and soft when she finally answered.
“I… I mean I don’t… Timberlake is cool and Tatum is pretty cute, but…” She trailed off and returned to picking at her sweater.
“Next,” Natalie said with a jaded flap of her hand. “Savannah. Go.”
The perky brunette smiled broadly. “Justin Timberlake of course!” she chirped, her voice as high and light as a chime. “Tatum is hot and all, but Justin brought sexy back and who can resist that awesome voice of his?”
Natalie nodded in satisfaction. “Now you, Ashlee. Are you on Team Timberlake or Team Tatum?”
It took Aspen a few seconds to realize that she was now Ashlee. She frowned. “I don’t know who either one of those guys are.”
The bedroom was suddenly quiet. Esmeralda’s hand stopped midway to her mouth.
Sharon stopped picking at her sweater and shot her a horrified look. Aspen furrowed her brows in confusion. They had been here for what felt like an eternity, endlessly discussing topic after topic of attractive celebrities. Cody Simpson or Jaden Smith, Shakira or Paulina Rubio. Even Miley Cyrus or Hannah Montana. Weren't they the same person?
“Did I say something wrong?” she squeaked and retreated into the pile of silk pillow thrown against the wall beneath the bedroom window, suddenly feeling self-conscious.
Natalie raised a perfectly arched eyebrow at her in inquisition. “Are you serious?”
Savannah clamped her mouth shut and giggled. “She’s, like, ten, Natalie. Her mom probably doesn’t let her watch any Tatum movies or Timberlake music videos.”
Aspen scowled. “I’m twelve!” she snapped. “I’m turning thirteen in two months!”
“And you don’t know who Tatum and Timberlake are?” Esmeralda questioned, her dark brown eyes wide with astonishment. “And you said you moved here from New York?”
Aspen nodded. “Manhattan,” she said. “But what does that have to do with anything?”
“Uh, everything!” Natalie replied with a loud snort. “He-llo? They’re two of the hottest guys on the freaking planet and you don’t know who they are?”
Aspen said nothing. She dropped her eyes to the soft tangerine orange carpet beneath her socks. Sharon smiled sympathetically and patted her knee.
“Do you know who Hugh Jackman is?” Savannah asked.
Aspen shook her head. “Do you know who Russell Crowe is?” Esmeralda inquired.
Again, Aspen shook her head. The girls all gasped in unison. Sharon sighed and rose to her feet, empty grape bowl in her hands.
“Well, I’m going to get more grapes,” she announced and crossed the length of her bedroom to the door. “Anybody coming with me?”
“I’m in!” Savannah and Esmeralda chimed in unison. They bounced off the bed and skipped across the room, following Sharon out the door.
“I’ll go too,” Aspen offered and climbed to her feet.
Natalie shook her head in disapproval. “You have a lot of homework to do!”
She pointed to the glowing computer monitor across the room and waltzed out the door, slamming it shut behind her.
Aspen sighed glumly. Channing Tatum? Justin Timberlake? Hugh Jackman? Why should I know who they are? What are they so famous for anyway? She looked around the now empty room, as if searching for an answer. The walls were hot pink and decorated with a wild disarray of sighed posters of flirty boy bands and unfamiliar female singers. Fifth Harmony, The Weekend, Jessie J, Adele, Nicki Minaj. A bed was pushed up against the western side of the garage-sized room next to a pink nightstand, walk-in closet, a wooden dresser, and a desk with a desktop computer sitting on top. A wide window sat on the east side of the room with the window swat stripped of its decorative cushions, which were gathered on the floor.
Aspen approached the window and pulled the curtains aside. A choked scream escaped her throat.
There, perched on the branches of the leafless tree standing on the side of the house, was the mysterious bird with the golden key hanging from its neck on a metal chain. Its eyes were smooth and shiny like obsidian and its feathers glistened like glass in the pale light of the day. Aspen went perfectly still. She felt rooted in place, unable to turn away from her winged stalker. The bird cocked its head to the side and seemed to lean forward, the tip of its dark beak pressing against the glass.
Aspen’s heart skipped a beat. She raised a quivering hand and placed it against the glass in front of the bird’s pointed beak.
The bird leaned forward again, pushing its beak harder against the glass in a failed effort to break through.
“What do you want?” Aspen whispered. “Where did you come from?”
As if to answer, the bird turned its head and pointed a long, slender wing in the direction it had come from.
Aspen gasped. “You… understand what I’m saying?” she asked. “But how?”
Her eyes dropped down the key sitting against the bird’s fluffy body. The bird turned its head back to look at her.
“Is this key… is it for me?” she whispered. “What do you want me to do with it?”
She dragged a finger down along the window glass until the tip of her fingernail rested against the bow. She ducked down and squinted at the insignia etched into it: the symbol of two fish, one swimming after the fin of the other. A tingle of familiarity ebbed at the corners of Aspen’s mind. She frowned in concentration. A small message was engraved onto the shank of the key is a sophisticated, cursive script as it wound around it and stopped at the key wards. It’s definitely not English, she concluded. This is the same key from the door! Why would this bird have it with it—?
She jerked away from the window as the key suddenly began to hum and vibrate visibly. It shook as it slowly rose into the air above the bird’s feather head and slammed itself against the window, leaving a small thin crack in its wake. Aspen gaped in horror. How in the world did it do that? She met the bird’s unwavering gaze and let out a small scream.
Its dark eyes suddenly lit up with the same crimson of before. The key buzzed once more before it fell back against its body.
Caw! The bird leaped into the air, its wings flapping robustly, before it reared back and slammed its head against the cracked window glass. Aspen dove for the floor and threw her arms up over her head in defensive. The bird let out another cry before it circled around in the air. Its red eyes glared directly at her as it swooped down and slammed its body against the glass again.
“Somebody help!” Aspen shrieked as the window shattered with a loud crashing sound, showering her in its sharp fragments like snowflakes.
The bird flew through the opening and circled the ceiling in a large, loose circle. Aspen quickly rolled over onto her knees. Her body was trembling again and her eyes watered at her winged enemy swooped down once more and aimed a claw in her direction. This isn’t real! She crouched down and grabbed her head with her hands, her heart drumming loudly in her ears. I’m imagining this! She bit back the wave of hot tears threatening to fall from her eyes. Snap out of it Aspen! This isn’t real! This is all in your head!
Caw! The bird plunged down, the red glow of its eyes growing intensely, and dug its outstretched claw into her shoulder. A bloodcurdling scream escaped Aspen’s mouth as she fell to the door, grabbing her burning shoulder in her trembling hand. She was sobbing as the bird circled around once more, its claw already bared for the next assault.
“Aspen! Aspen, what’s wrong?” the chorus of voice grew louder as they approached the bedroom door, heavy footsteps following closely behind.
With a call of farewell, the bird escaped through the broken window and flew away into the darkening afternoon sky.
The door burst open than, Natalie standing in front with a specula positioned high over her head in both hands like a sword. Sharon flattened herself against the wall as she gawked at the broken window, letting Savannah and Esmeralda brush past Natalie to her aid. They both dropped down on either side of her and helped her sit upright.
“Aspen!” Esmeralda cried, her voice trembling in fear. “What happened?”
“T-t-the b-bird!” Aspen stuttered as she clung desperately to Savannah’s arm. “I-it b-broke the w-window and a-a-attacked m-me!”
She pulled her hand away from her shoulder and gasped.
Like before, there was nothing. No rips, no blood. Nothing. Even the sheering she felt in her shoulder moments before was gone. Aspen turned her watery eyes to Esmeralda, who frowned in return.
“I swear it w-was h-here!” she insisted, more tears drizzling down her frightened face. “I p-promise! It broke the window and f-flew away!”
Savannah rubbed her back soothingly. “It’s okay, Aspen. Don’t cry okay?”
Natalie scowled. “So if a dumb bird attacked you, then why are you bleeding? How come your clothes aren’t ripped or stained?”
Aspen didn’t answer. Instead, she let her shoulder sag forward in defeat. They don’t believe me, she moaned inwardly. The bird attacked me a second time and nobody believes me!
“How am I going to explain this to my parents?” Sharon demanded, her cheeks crimson with anger. “Seriously Aspen? You break my bedroom window and say a bird attacked you when you’re now even hurt? Why would you do that?”
“For attention obviously!” Natalie snarled. “That’s totally lame, Ashlee!”
“I’m telling the truth!” Aspen insisted. She looked from Savannah, to Esmeralda, and back again. “You believe me, don’t you?”
“Let’s get you cleaned up okay?” Esmeralda offered as she climbed to her feet. She offered Aspen her hand.
Aspen stared at her in shock. “Savannah?” she said in a small voice.
Savannah looked away as she helped her to her feet. “You should go home, Aspen. You might get in trouble with Mr. and Mrs. Dupree if you stay here. If you want, I’ll go and walk with you—”
Aspen let out a wail and anguish as she shoved past the girls and scampered down the stairs in search of the exit. She ignored Natalie’s disapproving head shake as she flung herself outside and slammed the door behind her.