Say That Again (The Faderville Novels: Book #2)
chapter 1: Hannah
Hannah McHugh placed one small foot in front of the other without knowing exactly where it was that she was going. Her purple sneakers left barely visible imprints in the damp clay of the path as the airy trilling of the bluebird beckoned her onward. To Hannah, the notes were like a song sung only for her. It filled her with happiness. Lifted her heart, all the way up to heaven.
Every now and then, she saw a flash of bright blue feathers, flittering against a glass-blue sky.
Laughing, she followed the bird. Down a steep slope littered with loose slabs of stone. Up a long incline through a towering stand of trees. Along a narrowing trail that wound between boulders bigger than her sister’s school bus.
The bird danced from limb to limb. Higher, faster. Happy, singing.
Follow me, it said. This way. Over here. Hurry!
Her steps quickened. Her breaths came in puffs, her heart pattering against her sternum as she lifted her knees and pumped her tiny arms to keep up. Her stuffed giraffe, Faustine, swung in her grip, its yarn tail tattered and one beaded eye missing. Part of the stuffing in Faustine’s neck had long since been compressed into her slender body, and so her head flopped helplessly at the end of her too long neck whenever Hannah carried her about, or leaned precariously to the right when Hannah set her on all fours, as if the little giraffe had a question she was always waiting to ask.
Just as Hannah topped a hill, the bird dove into a tangle of branches in the valley below, its song muted. Hannah stopped, peered intently at the place where it had disappeared, saw nothing.
Patiently, she stood at attention, eyes and ears keened. But there was no more sign of the bird. Nothing but silence. Deep, empty silence all around. Not even a breeze to rustle the last of autumn’s papery leaves.
Then it occurred to her that she had no idea where her family was. Or how far she had come. Or from where.
Panic constricted her ribs. She’d get in trouble for wandering off from their cabin. Her daddy would frown at her and cross his arms. Her mommy would shake a finger in her face and speak to her sternly. She wouldn’t be allowed to watch her princess movies or go to Gramma’s. Maybe for a whole week. It would be boring sitting in her room alone.
A tear squeezed from the corner of Hannah’s eye, tracing a trail of regret as it slid down her cold-kissed cheek. She shouldn’t have wandered away from the cabin before everyone else had woken up. They would be worried to find her gone. Frantic. And mad.
But she had only wanted to see what was beyond the little clearing. To search for one of them. Her older sister, Maura, had told her there were fairies in the woods and that they took naps beneath mushroom caps and bathed on leaves dappled with morning dew and made their homes in the hollowed trunks of giant oak trees. From a distance, Maura told her, they looked exactly like little white butterflies.
Yet she hadn’t seen any fairies. Or butterflies, even. Just the bluebird. And trees. Lots and lots of trees. Millions, maybe gazillions.
She had to get back. But to where? And how?
As she turned in a circle, searching for a familiar sight, fear crept up her spine. She clutched Faustine to her chest and held her tight. This place looked different, not at all like the forest clearing where their cabin was. They had come to the state park for Hannah’s fifth birthday. She hadn’t wanted a party with lots of other noisy children. Or a pile of presents. Or a fancy restaurant dinner, where waiters wearing sombreros would sing and clap for her, drawing everyone’s attention. Those things were all too much, too noisy. She had only wanted this: a weekend with her family, just the four of them, in the faraway woods of southeastern Kentucky, where she could watch the birds and look for wild animals.
What she’d really wanted, though, was a dog of her own. But they had told her she was too young for that and would have to wait, probably until she was Maura’s age. And so she’d settled for a camping trip. Now that they were here, she wasn’t sure why she’d wanted to come in the first place. It had sounded like fun, but there really wasn’t much to do.
Christmas was only a week away and although it was still cool, the weather promised to be good. So Daddy had thrown their suitcases in the truck he used for his veterinary business and put Maura and Mommy in charge of packing the food. Hannah had only been responsible for her own things. But when she went outside this morning, she’d forgotten to grab her coat off the peg by the door and now she was shivering so hard that her teeth clacked. It hadn’t felt that cold when she first stepped outside.
Far off, a sparkle caught her eye. She looked down below and noticed, amid a drifting sea of fog, a shimmering silver ribbon. A big creek. What her daddy called a river. Beyond it, the ground rose up again to more hills, bigger hills, taller and broader than those behind her. Hills embraced by wispy clouds.
Hannah started downward, toward the water. She was thirsty. And hungry. She hadn’t had breakfast yet, and although she doubted she would find food anywhere near here, she could at least get a drink of water before she tried to find her parents and Maura.
She raced downhill, her short legs wearying not halfway down. She stumbled, falling to her knees. Undeterred, she stood, brushed the dirt from her leggings, and continued on. The ground flattened out. Leaf-littered dirt gave way to winter-dead grass, anchored in the mud of a recent rain.
At water’s edge, she knelt and made a scoop with her hands. The water froze her fingers when she dipped them in. She brought the cool liquid to her mouth and sipped, then spat it out. It tasted icky. Like sand.
Farther along the bank, an animal with a black mask and a ringed tail winked at her. It waded into the shallows. Hannah recognized it as a raccoon, the same kind of animal that tipped their trashcans over and made her daddy angry. She smiled and waved. It chattered in response, then plunged its front paws into the water, up to its elbows.
Bit by bit, she scooted closer. The raccoon eyed her curiously and went back to washing its face. Careful not to get too close and scare it away, Hannah sat, crossing her legs. She would try to find her way back to the cabin in a little while. After she was done watching the raccoon. She couldn’t be that far away. Maybe if she stayed here, they would find her.
But what if they went the wrong way? What if they searched and searched and just gave up?
No, they’d look. They’d find her. They would.
Hannah kissed Faustine on the head and noticed a dab of mud there. If she dipped Faustine’s head in the river, maybe it would rinse away the dirt. Holding Faustine’s back legs, she stretched out on her tummy and leaned out from the bank, reaching toward the water.
She wiggled forward a few inches and Faustine’s head flopped into the water. She held her there awhile, giving the dirt time to wash away. As she began to pull Faustine back, a flurry of chirps sounded above her. She looked up to see the bluebird alight on a branch on the other side of the river.
You should listen more closely, it said.
Hannah didn’t understand. She was sure she’d heard the bird, but what was it talking about? Listen to what? To whom?
Fast water. Bad.
“But I need to give Faustine a bath, silly bird.”
The bird burst skyward. Hannah tilted her head up to watch, but as she did so, she felt Faustine slip from her fingers. The stuffed animal fell with a splash, floating on the surface a few moments before an eddy engulfed it and pulled it under. Then, a surge pushed Faustine back to the top.
Hannah flailed a hand outward, stretching far. Her body, small though it was, tipped over the edge of the bank. She gasped in shock as her hands hit the cold, cold water. Then as her head plunged beneath the surface, she captured a final gulp of air in her lungs and shut her eyes tight.
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