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Josie, responsible beyond her age, is helpful around the house, takes good care of her younger sister, and always follows the rules.
This is not enough to prevent her from being abducted by a madman. Making it her mission to fight back, she gives everything she has to outsmart her abductor.
With the help of an unexpected ally, she learns how to keep herself alive long enough to come up with a plan. But, will the plan work?
Will she die at the hands of her captor? And if she survives, will she make it back to her family?
Recommended for 13+
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
The crisp November wind chilled my fingertips as I tightened the oversized hoodie around my face. I held my tongue out to the sky, plucking the falling snowflakes from the cold, dense air as Mom put Em down for a nap.
There was no sound but the crunch of grass beneath my feet. Tomorrow is my 13th birthday, but I’m not expecting much. I know better. Mom and Eric have fallen on hard times. It’s one of those things kids don’t understand, or so I’m told.
I learned early on not to ask too many questions. The mail comprised of countless yellow and pink envelopes. That alone was enough to keep me quiet.
I moved on from the snowflakes, noticing the slick driveway before me. I coasted from one end to the other, grappling my arm around the light post, pivoting myself around and back again.
The ominous sky darkened, but it was not yet evening. In the dreary, cold darkness, I shivered. The wind whipped through the trees; the remaining leaves dove as if hiding from the fierce cold. I ducked into the porch to avoid the cutting chill.
A fire truck siren squealed in the distance as a car drove by, then another and another. After blowing warm breath onto my fingertips, I hopped off the porch and spun in circles with my head held back and arms outstretched, mouth open, taking in the cold snow. The peace I felt wouldn’t last long. I shuffled my feet, slip ‘n sliding across the driveway, forming tracks in the light, powdery snow.
The unmistakable sound of Eric’s Chevy rumbled from a distance. I picked up speed and slid across the driveway and back to the porch as he whipped over the curb, clipping the garbage cans before coming to a stop. Ducking into the shadows, I spied Eric’s angry demeanor as he slammed the Blazer door with force, failing to notice my presence. While he leaned over the car, he mumbled to himself as his thumb and middle finger massaged his temples.
I escaped into the house. Awaiting my punishment for tracking in the wet, sloshy snow, I cringed. Mom briefly looked up from drawing large red circles on the newspaper. Feeling invisible, I mentioned wanting tacos for dinner, almost hoping she’d notice my tracks so her focus would turn to me. She nodded as she drew her eyes back to the paper.
My lungs filled as I closed my eyes, willing myself to stay silent. Somehow, I knew that I should leave them in private. Em was still napping, so coloring seemed to be the best activity for the time being.
I colored, alone with my thoughts, hearing only Em’s rhythmic breathing and the creaking of the house; the wind punished the rattling windowpanes with its brute force.
The door slammed. A long dark line of Jazzberry Jam inspired color jutted beyond the edge of the page as I jumped at the noise of the heavy door. I heard the heavy boots hit the doorframe from being thrown in anger. Em stirred and I hushed her back to sleep.
With my ear pressed against my bedroom door, I held my breath. They began using words I’m not allowed to say. His voice raised an octave as Mom dissolved in tears.
She yelled, her voice shaking, yet firm, “You have to stop and think! Don’t you get it? We’re drowning here! It’s the third time in six months you’ve been under review!”
His maddening voice bellowed, “Angie, don’t you think I know that?” His clattering feet paced the kitchen. “I don’t see you making any changes! For just once, I wish you could be in my shoes. I am working my ass to the bone at the freighter for you and those kids!”
With a tone of regret, she answered, “You made me believe in you – made me believe this is what you wanted! Those kids are everything to me so if you’re out, then GET OUT!”
One moment later, I heard the door as Eric stormed out again.
I rushed to Em’s side as she continued to stir. I held her tight, not knowing if I was subduing her fears or my own. Through it all, I heard Mom’s muffled sobs.
Her shadow blocked the light at the base of my door. I pictured her hesitating, taking a deep breath with her hand on the doorknob. The door opened and red, swollen eyes peered in.
I asked with hesitation, “Did he get fired?”
“No, Josie, he just had a rough day.”
I knew that was a half-truth, but I didn’t press her.
Tears began to emerge. Unsure whether they were tears of relief, fear, or longing, I turned my back to her and allowed them to spill over my cheeks. I longed for things to be happy again. Eric had never been the most loving father figure, but things were okay. I was no longer angry with my dad for leaving, but secretly still awaited his return. I wanted to tell my mom that things would be different if Dad was here, but I remained silent.
“Come on, it’s time to set the table for dinner,” she said as she made her way to Em’s crib.
The savory smell of chicken potpie engulfed my room as I swung the door open. It wasn’t tacos, but it would do. Mom was trying to make everything seem normal, and chicken potpie was comforting, the best we could ask for when needing normalcy. Em reached out as Mom pulled her from the crib. I stood, waiting for Mom to say more. I looked at her as she turned from Em’s crib and headed for the door. I followed her, shuffling my feet as I made my way to the kitchen.
We sat down to dinner. Em was playing in her potpie as Mom and I stared ahead. I lifted the top layer of my potpie to allow steam to escape. I looked up to see the wavy image of my Mom beyond the hot steam’s path.
I broke the silence, “Mom?”
“Hmm,” she answered.
“If he didn’t get fired, why are you fighting?”
She looked at me with sad eyes and with her hand placed over mine said, “Josie, it’s something you’ll understand someday. He has troubles – grown-up troubles. There are things he does that you don’t understand yet. He is under a lot of pressure providing for our family.”
“Oh,” was all I could muster.
I had more questions. I remembered what I heard Mom say to Eric, You have to stop and think! I wondered to myself what Mom was talking about. Did he get in trouble? Did he get in a fight? What is going on?
Dinner ended in silence. After clearing the table, I went to my room to finish my homework when I heard the door open again. Eric was back. He had flowers, I’m sure. Daisies, was my guess, since that was Mom’s favorite. I quietly peeked my head around the door to see him standing at the door with his arms outstretched offering his version of, “I’m sorry.” Mom continued with the dishes, refusing to look at him. “Good,” I thought to myself before returning to my books.
Moments later, as he planted himself in front of the TV, with his chicken potpie, Mom returned to her paper. To avoid the thick tension, I gave Em a bath. Being unaware of what had transpired, she brought much-needed comic relief. As she popped each of the bubbles, I grinned. I pulled her hair into a mohawk, and before rinsing, I grabbed a mirror from under the sink and held it up for her to see. She clapped, splashing water with delight.
I pulled Em out of the bath, keeping her towel tightly wrapped so as not to drip on the floor. I knew that would be too much for Mom to handle. The straw that broke the camel’s back, as she’d say. As Em squirmed free, I realized she had no clean pajamas. I unearthed the pile of laundry sitting atop of the hamper. The sour aroma caused my stomach to revolt and my eyes to water. I wondered when the last time Mom had done laundry was. She was so busy picking up the pieces of Eric’s mistakes that she had forgotten daily chores. I re-entombed the stench, piling the laundry back on top of the hamper. I struggled to put a pull-up on Em’s bare bottom and suggested we read a story.
Em scribbled with crayons while I read the Peanuts book “Happiness Is” to her. This was Mom’s favorite book as a little girl. It had “Angie Hawthorne, Age 6, KLM 0065” written in the cover with a barrage of hearts and smiley faces adorning the page. I wondered what had happened to make her life veer so far from that carefree little girl of the past. I teared up as I read out loud “Happiness Is… a Warm Blanket.” I reached over for Em’s striped baby blanket and folded it warmly into her arms. She smiled and said, “Blankey!” before nuzzling into its soft fringe.
I cuddled her for just a moment and put her in bed. I buried my face in my pillow as the tears came, silently praying.
The morning sun streamed into the room as my alarm hollered, alerting me that six o’clock had arrived. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I squinted, wishing for just a few more minutes. I could hear Em playing in her crib, so I peeked my eyes open just a little bit. Her gaze landed on me and she giggled. I couldn’t help but smile.
I rose from my bed and stretched my arms to the ceiling before dropping to my knees and placing my hands on the bars of the crib. Em squealed with delight as I made funny faces at her through the bars.
Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I crept out the door. I saw my Mom and Eric eating breakfast holding hands across the table. I tentatively stepped forward.
Mom jumped up, “Josie! Happy Birthday, Baby!” She ran over to give me a hug and kiss. For a moment, I had forgotten it was my birthday.
Mom smiled and said, “Things are going to get better, Josie. I know we had a rough night last night, but Eric is really sorry. He loves us and wants us to be a family.”
Eric’s eyes pointed toward his plate of eggs. With his fork, he drew through the eggs, leaving trails of yolk behind.
“Ok,” was all I could think of to say.
Mom continued, “Eric is going to be getting some side-work and things will start looking up soon.”
Eric sat still, staring into his eggs. He wore a black jacket around his shoulders. Hunched over his plate, his black hair fell over his eyes and stubble adorned his jaw. I wondered why he didn’t say anything if he was so sorry, but said nothing.
Something about the way he was dressed and the dishonesty over his face made me feel on edge.
“Don’t you have something you’d like to say to Josie?”
“Happy Birthday, Kid,” he muttered as he grabbed his brown bag lunch and made his way out the door. His work boots were still lying on the floor as he stepped over them. Mom didn’t notice.
“Sissy!” Em exclaimed as I poked my head around the door in peek-a-boo fashion. She gleefully giggled as we played this game. Finally, knowing I had limited time, I jumped in and yelled, “Surprise!” She jumped up and down in her crib, barely able to contain her excitement. I untangled her from the many blankets and snuggled my face in her neck. I set her down and she toddled in to greet Mom.
While Mom made eggs for us, I gathered up my homework, making sure it was all completed. I tossed it in my backpack and threw on my clothes.
I scarfed down the overly runny eggs and gave Mom a thumbs-up. The grumble and growl of the bus barreling down the street behind my house caused me to throw down my fork and jump up, knowing it would be in front within a minute; I hurriedly brushed my teeth and scrambled out the door. I made it to the curb just as the bus rounded the corner.
I hopped on and bumped through the elbows and backpacks to find a seat next to Jessie. Upon dropping my backpack next to me, a nudge prompted me to look up at her. She nodded her head toward an older guy at the front of the bus.
“He’s the bus driver’s son. He’s kinda cute, huh?” She said without taking her eyes off him.
I quickly glanced at him, realizing he was older and replied with a slight smile. He was cute, but Jessie always went for older boys. The bus driver, Jeanie, had her eyes locked on him, as worry crept along her face.
“I wonder what he’s doing on the bus,” I said to Jessie.
“Shelly thinks he got kicked outta high school,” she whispered, “but she doesn’t know. She’s all talk.” Just then, Shelly interjected, “That’s what my mom’s friend said. That he was caught in the girl’s bathroom and they kicked him out.”
School isn’t too far from my house. Our town is small, with everything you need in one spot, but go 5 miles in any direction, and you’ll hit a highway, forest, or farmland.
At the last pickup, a classmate named Lacey hopped on the bus with headphones on, throwing out the hip-hop vibe. Her ponytail swung as she bounced down the aisle. The stranger on the bus eyed her as she moved.
Lacey liked attention and it was apparent she noticed the new face on the bus as well. She was the kind of girl all the boys like and all the girls want to be like with all the best clothes and newest trends. She doesn’t talk to me much. She’s never been mean to me, but she is friends with the popular girls. I realized as I stared at her, that I was jealous of her home, her family, her clothes, and the hip-hop spraying out of her headphones.
I was ripped from my daydream when the bus screeched to a halt, horns blared, and backpacks launched to the floor. I looked out the window as a white truck rolled ahead, ignoring its near miss.
The day went by slowly. I had a lot on my mind, wondering and worrying about Eric. Uneasiness crept into my activities that day. I was nominated to be hall monitor recently, which is really more a job in which you help the teachers than it is of monitoring anything. I was so distracted by things at home that I nearly plowed into the janitor, only it wasn’t our usual janitor.
“Uh, Sorry,” I said too embarrassed to look at him for more than a second.
“It’s okay, Babe” he said in a deep voice. He smelled like cigarettes.
Babe? I thought to myself, How Weird.
I continued without looking back. I delivered our lunch count to the office and returned to our classroom in time for math.
My mind was in a cloud for the rest of the day.
At lunch, I said to Jessie, “Mom and Eric were fighting again last night, but then today everything was weirdly perfect.”
“Don’t you hate when parents act like everything is fine? Like we’re stupid or something,” Jessie replied as she unwrapped her sandwich.
“No, it’s not like they were trying to keep something from me. The weird thing is that I think they both believed it. Like they know nothing is good, but putting on a smile and saying things are getting better will make them better.” I countered.
Just then, two boys came to our table and sat down. Jessie turned her attention to them. With a bat of her eyes and the flip of her hair, she was no longer interested in my problems.
I gathered my trash and said, “Well, I’ll see you later. Gotta get to class.”
I managed to keep the troubling thoughts to myself for the rest of the afternoon. After computer class, Mrs. Cambrio sent me to the office with schoolwork for a sick classmate. On my way there, I slipped and nearly fell before feeling a grip on my arm.
“Be more careful there,” a voice said. I took my arm from his grip and overwhelmed with embarrassment, picked up the books from the floor and walked into the office. I looked back. This janitor was younger than the other one we referred to as Smiley. He stood, still looking at me with his squared-off jaw, dark complexion, and spikey hair. Twice now, I had been in a daze and knocked into this guy. What was wrong with me?
I had just two minutes before the final bell would ring, and hurried back toward the classroom, stopping by my locker on the way.
As the final bell clanged in my ears, I gathered my books before being abruptly knocked off kilter. It was Lacey.
“I’m sorry, Josie!” It was weird hearing her say my name. We had never really talked to each other, but I smiled back and answered her saying, “Wanna sit together on the bus?” Immediately regretting my response, I was sure she would look at me as if I were a weirdo.
“Sure,” she said.
Really? I thought to myself.
I knew Jessie would be mad when she found out I had given up her seat next to me, but this was Lacey Stewart! I wanted to be one of the popular girls, or at least noticed by one of them.
Lacey and I walked together to the bus and found an open seat.
“What kind of music do you listen to?” she asked excitedly.
“Anything on Hot 97,” I answered, figuring it was a safe bet. I didn’t have a CD player of my own, though, much less an MP3 player, so I mostly listened to my mom’s music, which consisted of Journey and REO Speedwagon.
Her eyes lit up as she stretched the headphones over to my ears so I could hear, too. It’s brand new. My dad got it for me.”
“Cool.” I smiled. My head bobbing to Nickelback’s, Far Away, I closed my eyes and let the music fill my thoughts. When the song ended, I opened my eyes to see her looking at me with eager eyes. I took the headphones off and asked, “What?”
She giggled and said, “I asked you if you could come over today.”
“I can’t. It’s my birthday. I have plans with my family.” Fearful she would change her mind about me, I added a quick, “How about tomorrow?”
Her smile returned as she exclaimed, “Hey, it’s your golden birthday! November 13th. You were born in 1993, same as me, right? You turn 13?”
I answered with a smile and a nod.
The bus came to a stop and she jumped off with a bounce in her step. Turning back to find me looking out the window, she gave a signal with her pinkie pointing toward her mouth and her thumb toward her ear, as if to say, Call me. As I waved out the window, I caught a glimpse of a grey Blazer as it nearly backed into another car in the parking lot of Kramer’s Pharmacy. It looked like Eric’s truck, but it couldn’t be him because he wouldn’t be off work yet.
“That would have really broken that camel’s back,” I said under my breath.
Jessie took the spot where Lacey had been sitting. With her mouth drawn down, her eyes wordlessly asking why I hadn’t sat with her.
I shrugged and told her, “I’m here now,” with a smile. Jessie asked questions about Lacey during the rest of the bus ride. She was as interested in the life of Lacey Stewart as I was, though I could tell she was jealous that Lacey asked me over instead of her. Before arriving at my stop, Jessie wished me a happy birthday before getting off the bus. This made me feel even worse about not sitting with her. Having Lacey interested in talking to me, befriending me, was too tempting.
A few hours later, I was setting the table when I heard the key in the door. Mom welcomed Eric home with a kiss as he came through the door. He looked better than he had this morning. He was clean-shaven now; his hair combed back, though still too long, falling past his collar.
He was smiling and said, “Birthday Tacos? Was that your choice, kid?” I smiled and nodded.
“How about Kid’s choice out instead?” Although this changed seemed odd, I looked at my mom who was beaming. I smiled and got my coat while Mom scooped up the taco meat to save for later.
“Grab the van keys, Angie. A guy from work is borrowing the Blazer tonight,” Eric said, as he pulled his coat on and shuffled out the door. Em was toddling toward me, shoes in hand, asking to go bye-bye, too. I slapped on her shoes and threw a coat on her before zipping it up and closing the button tightly against her chin. I noticed Mom was wearing lipstick and mascara when she emerged from her bedroom ready to leave. I hadn’t seen Mom out of her over-sized shirt, pajama pants, and her hair pulled tightly in a ponytail for a long time. I actually believed there may be a change on the horizon.
We jumped in the van and after buckling Em in her pumpkin seat, we were on our way to Pizza King.
Over pizza, Eric told Mom that things were going to be different.
“Angie, we aren’t going to have to worry anymore. Things will get better. I’m back on at work, and there’s tons of overtime.”
Mom looked in my direction. With tears in my eyes, I gave a slight smile.
When we arrived at home, there were three packages wrapped in the weekend funnies on the coffee table. I was shocked to open two books and a sweater, believing I wouldn’t get anything this year. I knew Mom and Eric were struggling, so when our electricity was shut off last month, I prepared myself for a gift-less birthday.
“Wow, Mom, I didn’t expect this at all!” I ran to try the sweater on. It fit and was so comfy! I slid my hands up and down my arms feeling the plush turquoise yarn as it fluffed against my fingers.
“Josie, you look beautiful!” Mom said, “Do you like it? How does it fit?”
“I love it Mom, it’s perfect!” I said as I turned, modeling the sweater.
I blew out my birthday candles and remembered my plans for the following day.
“Hey Mom, can I go to a friend’s house after school tomorrow?”
“I don’t see why not, Jo.” Mom shorted my name to Jo from Josie or Josephine when she was in her best moods. “Who is it? Do I know her? Will her parents be home?” She questioned in triplicate.
“I’m sure they will be, Mom,” I answered, adding, “It’s a girl named Lacey in my class. She lives a few miles away by car, but it’s not really that far if you cut through the neighborhoods. She even rides my bus.”
“Is she in the Buzz Book? I’ll call her mom to confirm,” she added.
“Ok, I’m sure she’s in there – last name Stewart,” I said while pulling out the Buzz Book. I opened it to “S” and handed it to my mom.
I took my plate to the sink and skipped to my room to plan my outfit for the next day. I picked out my best jeans, setting my new turquoise sweater on top.
I looked over the clothes as they lay across my floor, beaming.
“Josie….” Mom called from the living room.
“Yeah,” I answered, as I turned the corner approaching the hallway.
Mom was sitting on the couch writing on a sheet of paper. “I was able to reach Lacey’s parents. They said you were welcome to come over after school. I wrote a note to let the office and bus driver know you’ll be getting off at Lacey’s stop tomorrow afternoon.” She said while handing me the folded slip of paper.
I reached down to retrieve the note, slipping it into my backpack slumped against the nearby wall. As I started back toward my room, I heard her say, “Wait, one more thing.” I turned on my heels and looked at her, my face inquisitively awaiting her reply.
She smiled as she placed her hands on her lap, poised to rise. Looking up me, she stood and said, “There’s something out here, too,” as she walked toward the garage.
I slowly walked toward the garage door. “What is it?” I inquired with a hand on the doorknob. I turned the knob, curious as to what I would find. Sitting in the garage was a blue 10-speed bike. I ran my fingers over the blue paint, stunned by the turn of events. I had hoped for a new bike for the last two Christmases. I mounted the seat, placing my right foot on the pedal and resting my palms on the handlebars.
“Smile!” prompted Mom, as I sat, stunned, on my new 10-speed. I looked up and smiled, allowing the grin to spread across my face, capturing the excitement of the moment forever as she clicked away on the camera.
“It’s from Eric,” Mom said. He got a bonus and decided it was time to get you a new bike!”
“Thanks!” I exclaimed. He barely looked at me, but said, “Sure thing, Kid,” with a smile creeping on his face.
“Can I ride it for a few minutes?” I begged.
“I don’t know… It’s pretty dark,” Mom answered.
Noting my anticipation, she looked up in thought. Chewing on the inside of her cheek, she paused a moment before relenting saying, “Just a few minutes.”
I nudged the kickstand up and sped out of the garage toward the road. As I descended the hill, I felt the sensation of butterfly wings kissing my cheeks. Even in the cold air, I felt warm. I felt free as the wind carried with it my flowing hair. I heard Mom yell, “Don’t go far!” as I pedaled my way past the nearest cross street.
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