The springtime sun was beginning to melt into the dense shrubbery as I ran through the trees, sneaking quick glances over my shoulder. Eleven months after Dan Bradford hid in these woods, my property behind Masonville High, then stormed the school with two rifles on his back and a demonic army by his side, there was still no fence line to keep people off my land. No barrier to stop trespassers, human or otherwise.
I had to get off the foot-worn trail fast. Find a secluded hiding spot and stay there.
I darted behind a thick oak and pressed my back against the bark. I worried that my heavy breathing would give me away, so I shut my eyes, working to calm my nerves by focusing on a familiar mental image. My all-time favorite . . .
Ray Anne's sweet face, inches from mine, smiling up at me. Her captivating blue eyes, so full of life. A snapshot style memory that time could never erase.
It had been 321 days since she'd offered up her life to protect another. Two others, actually—Jess and her unborn child.
I heard someone approaching, jogging toward me on what was becoming a popular trail. My eyes flashed open. I couldn't help but hope it was the glowing old man in overalls, coming to find me and teach me something vital and profound. But I knew better. There'd been zero trace of him or his white vintage pickup since my senior year. Besides, I could hear that whoever was headed my way was dragging chains. Even after months of hearing it everywhere, the clanking sound made me cringe.
The jogger passed, unaware I was there. Also unaware that a shackle groped his neck.
A hush settled over the woods again, inviting me to return to my thoughts. Ray Anne's image came right back to me. As much as I admired the courage she'd shown on the day of the shooting, I was just as impressed with her bravery every day since. Multiple surgeries and an exhausting, painful recovery—through it all, she stayed strong. She'd even made up her mind to try to start jogging, even though walking was enough to make her wince at times.
My legs were getting as stiff as the tree trunk behind me, but I didn't budge. If Ray Anne saw me or any trace of the golden glow that surrounded my feet, it would ruin my plan. Any minute, she'd pass down this winding trail just before dusk like she did most days lately, praying and willing herself to keep going. And she'd see my sign—a neon orange poster board I'd nailed to a moss covered tree arching over her pathway. Surely she'd stop when she noticed the photo glued on there, a picture we'd taken the night we skipped out on our senior prom.
I'd used a ruler and a fat black marker to draw a left pointing arrow under the picture, directing Ray Anne to a less traveled path through the rustling trees, where she'd soon discover another sign, then another—and more pictures of us with mysterious arrows.
Any second now, she'd round the bend, no doubt dressed in one of her crazy bright exercise tops, with running shoes to match. And I'd hear her labored breaths, the battle cry of a determined young woman.
That's when Custos interrupted.
I wasn't surprised that the familiar armored Watchman showed up—he did that most days. It was his timing that concerned me. If Ray Anne spotted him, he'd completely steal her attention away from my sign, and also, she'd know I was nearby.
This particular Watchman, with blond hair, tan skin, and piercing light eyes, came around me so often that some months ago, I'd figured he needed a name. When I asked him what it was, his only response was a polite grin. A Watchman had spoken to me the night I shed my shackle, but after that I'd never heard one utter a word, so I had no choice but to name him myself. I decided on Custos—Latin for "keeper."
And right now, that keeper was in the way. I knew better than to ask him to move, though. Who was I to boss him around?
I heard the steady sound of shoes pounding the dirt—no metal. As if on cue, Custos disappeared. That was the one and only time I was grateful he left me.
A smile crept across my face as I leaned out and sneaked a glimpse of Ray Anne, out of breath and walking now, bracing her abdomen. The glow emanating from her made a perfect circle of light on the path, highlighting her neon orange running shoes. She glanced up at the arching tree, did a double take, then stood still, peering up at my handiwork.
Her jaw dropped, then she giggled. I grinned. Sure enough, Ray followed the arrow.