Chapter 1 – The Plan
On the first truly glorious day of the summer, Dimitri elected to keep me indoors.
I assured him I was perfectly fine, but my word was long past good enough. Instead of indulging my persistant thirst to frolick about our spread as I had been hankering to do ever since the weather had begun to clear, he set to minding the house until the babysitter arrived.
Before he left, he visited me in the loft. I sat upright under the covers, still in my pajamas, a worn paperback between my hands, smiling ruefully when he ascended. He felt my forehead.
"Still a bit warm."
I didn't bother protesting. This seemed to surprise him, but he did a good job holding it back. Little did he know I had already fashioned an escape plan. "You know I'll be gone for a few hours."
I nodded, playing up my drowsiness. Dimitri ofted saved his hunting excursions for dusk, but it was cloudy enough to allow him ample time and energy to feed in peace. That was all I knew. He never went into details, and I never asked.
He seemed shocked still at my persistant lack of argument, pausing a moment before he continued. "Don't give the babysitter any trouble."
"Yes, sir," I nodded a bit more vigorously.
"Alright," he reaffirmed, more for himself than for me. He kissed me on the forehead and stood. "Damien's been about the property this morning. He knows you're sick, but if he comes around wanting in, he's welcome."
I had counted on this. I smiled. His move.
Nodding once more, he descended the stairs. I went back to my book, but my eyes were still and my ears open for the sound of his italian leather shoes pacing evenly down the steps, crossing the landing, and halting at the threshold. Final instructions for Jessica I couldn't make out, and then, finally, the door shut with a definitive click.
I shot out of bed as quietly as I could, hurrying to my window and pressing my hands against it. Dimitri was three stories below, tossing some plastic bags into the back of the Porsche and disappearing inside the sleek red body, driving up the trail that disappeared behind the wrought iron gate and and wound through the forest ten miles into town.
A knock on the glass gave me a fright. I peered through and quickly unlatched it, grabbing a handful of Damien's t-shirt to help haul him inside. He straightened up in a stretch, shaking like a dog and pulling bits of ivy out of his tousled mop.
"Are you crazy? He could have seen you!"
He shot me a look. "Had to cover myself in those vines until he was gone."
"How long have you been there?"
"Saw him come up. You sure didn't take long talkin.'"
"I think he's starting to trust me."
Damien was something of a quiet wonder. He was perpetually dirty, parts of his face always caked in sand, fingers bleeding and brown with earthy clay. All I really knew about him was that he was the son of a servant family that attended one of the other manors on the lake. He liked to come around when I was doing chores and piddle around in the patches of grass had given up growing some years ago. Just by looking at him - all soft, tanned flesh the color of teacakes stretched over the skeleton of a boy - you'd know he could not be older than I, but there was something old in his murky green eyes, between the flecks of blackened dirt that made his pupils appear as though they were constantly fragmenting. They reflected a kind of sorrow for himself, the way a wild thing looks when all the wild has been tamed right out of it. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more he reminded me of Dimitri, or how I imagined Dimitri to be as a child.
The closer to fresh earth he was the more jovial he seemed, but indoors he was like a ghost. It wasn't that he seemed always to be in some sort of trance, only that he was alone on every occasion I happened to glance at him across yard, at bedtime when he stayed the night, at the end of the table during supper. He didn't go to school. At least, not with me.
Anyway, the plan went as follows: Damien left once more to fetch a mutual friend of ours from a neighboring farm. His name was Claudius, and I had known him from school. He didn't know I was sick but for half my trading card collection and ten dollars I'd saved he agreed to play my decoy while Damien and I went for a swim in the creek. We'd worked it out to be back long before Dimitri returned. I doubted if Jessica, my babysitter, would catch on in time, but as a backup plan I'd set up a blazing streak of good behavior, more to earn Dimitri's trust than hers.
Part of me felt sorry for taking advantage of her, but the bigger part knew no one would be the wiser. The plan was sure fire, but no sooner than Damien and I had packed a small back of supplies for the hike than my cough started up again.
"Are you sure you are okay?" He stopped me just as we were clambering out the window. Claudius was tucked beneath my covers in my little bed on the other side of the room.
"I'm fine. It's just a cough."
He looked skeptical. "Maybe we shouldn't..."
"What? We're not going to get caught."
"It's not that. What if you get more sick?"
I waved him off. "I won't. Come on, I'm dying for a swim."
He sighed, looking around as though we ought to stay.
We splashed and our laughter reached flocks of birds unsettled from the treetops. They fluttered away in formation, leaving openings in the canopy for the sunlight to stream over the creek and dapple our bare torsos with its rays. We were without shame there – neither of us had hit puberty yet. The water was cool and pleasant, the dirt soft and warm. We did laps for a while, diving in and out from the pointed rock that jutted out above the deepest part. As the afternoon waned, Damien set to work contructing a couple of fishing rods from twine and our walking sticks and came to rest on the rock, dangling his line in as I waded in the shallows, perusing for freshwater shells. I pushed a couple choice ones into the pocket of my cut-off trousers and sat down in the water.
"It's gettin' late," Damien pointed out. I scowled, but he was right. The sunlight had gone without notice of farewell. Thankfully, the clouds that had covered the sky the past few weeks had faded, as well, leaving it clear and unmarked. I loved the rain, but I could only take so much. Unfortunately, the arrival of the sun meant a speedier return trip for Dimitri.
I began to stand when my cough returned. Easy, at first, but then strong and harsh. Damien began to rise with a start, ready to come to my aide when it suddenly subsided.
"Are you alright?" he called down.
Unable to speak, but not wanting to worry him, I nodded, clearing my throat. It was very quiet, all of a sudden. No birds, even the sound of the creek flowing was muted. I fingered my ear but it was free of water. I glanced down with a peculiar look, but nothing seemed abnormal. It was just quiet. Like my ears were full of cotton.
When I looked up, Damien's mouth was moving, but no sound came out. He gestured wildly behind him, motioning for me to get out of the water. I followed his outstretched hand to the wall of cascading white water heading straight for me.