After the Woods: New Excerpt

After the Woods by Kim Savage is a thriller that follows the aftermath of a traumatic two-day kidnapping in the woods, and when someone turns up dead in those same woods a year later, the two friends must relive the tragic event (Available February 23, 2016).

“Statistically speaking, girls like me don't come back when guys like Donald Jessup take us.”

Julia knows she beat the odds. She escaped the kidnapper who hunted her in the woods for two terrifying nights that she can't fully remember. Now it's one year later, and a dead girl turns up in those same woods. The terrible memories resurface, leaving Julia in a stupor at awkward moments-in front of gorgeous Kellan MacDougall, for example.

At least Julia's not alone. Her best friend, Liv, was in the woods, too. When Julia got caught, Liv ran away. Is Liv's guilt over leaving Julia the reason she's starving herself? Is hooking up with Shane Cuthbert, an addict with an explosive temper, Liv's way of punishing herself for not having Julia's back? As the devastating truth about Liv becomes clear, Julia realizes the one person she thinks she knows best-Liv-is the person she knows least of all. And that after the woods was just the beginning.

ONE

353 Days After the Woods

Statistically speaking, girls like me don’t come back when guys like Donald Jessup take us.

According to my research, in 88.5% of all abductions, the kid is killed within the first four hours. In 76% of those cases, it’s within the first two hours. So when they found me alive after nearly two days, the reporters called it a miracle.

They liked it even better when they found out Donald Jessup didn’t want me at first. He wanted Liv. But I took her place. Not only did they have a miracle, they had a martyr. In the eleven months since the abduction, more than half of theShiverton Star’s stories (so, thirty-two of them) have been about us. And Paula Papademetriou, who lives right here in Shiverton and anchors the evening WFYT News, still won’t leave us alone.

Liv says we must move on.

It had rained a lot that November, and everyone’s basement got water, and the high school gym flooded. The track warped in places where the water underneath forced it up, so the track team had to run in a pack all over town. Off hours and against coaches’ rules, we trained in the woods.

I think Liv reminded Donald Jessup of a deer, all knees and angles and big brown eyes. In his sick mind he thought he was the Greek hunter-god Zagreus, his avatar in Prey, which he played 24/7 in his mother’s house. Zagreus is the ancient Greek word for a hunter. My theory is Donald Jessup couldn’t get enough of virtual Prey and decided to bring the action to life.

Liv doesn’t let on that she used to be a bit of a gamer. Liv would never cop to knowing more about Prey than I do. It doesn’t fit the perfect-girl image, the maintenance of which is her mother Deborah’s full-time job. What little I know about Prey comes from my research—research that Liv wants me to stop. If Liv had her way, I’d have spent the last eleven months forgetting the woods ever happened.

Dr. Ricker, on the other hand, wants me to remember. Ricker is my new therapist, for better or for worse. The jury’s still out on that one. Mom secured my first appointment the day we got home from the Berkshires. The trip started out as “a little time off” and lasted through the second half of sophomore year and the whole summer. I felt like one of those nervous Victorian ladies hustled by my mother to the English countryside for a rest cure. Less than a week after the woods, and as soon as the cops gave us permission, Professor Mom announced a sabbatical, pulled me out of school, and closed up the house. We hightailed it out of Shiverton in time for Thanksgiving for two at the vacation home I hadn’t seen since I was nine due to Mom’s workaholic tendencies. Mom said holing up 135 miles away from Shiverton would allow the media frenzy to die down. Also, it would give me time to get myself together: stop melting down at the sight of trees and such (for the record, Western Mass was the last place I should have been. So. Many. Trees.). But clearly it was a reflexive act. She was verging on a breakdown of her own, and needed to feel I was safe. After a while, between the homeschooling and our mutual lack of any friends, I actually looked forward to my visits with Patty Petty, RN, MS, CSW. Dr. Petty (Call me Patty!) was supposed to cleanse me of the trauma that I don’t totally remember. Her expertise is expressive arts therapy, which involved staging interpretative dances of my feelings about Donald Jessup (I refused). We mostly ended up making masks out of paper and chicken wire, and drawing in what she called my art journal. I went along with it, mainly because Mom, in a weak moment during one of my crying jags, gave me her word this would be the extent of my therapy. But her word is weak. Because here I sit, as I have for all of September and October, on Elaine Ricker’s cliché of a couch, deciding how to screw with today’s template for Fixing Julia.

At least Patty Petty didn’t make me play with dolls. “Seriously?” I groan as Ricker reaches for the basket under her desk.

Ricker is convinced Donald Jessup did something to me that I can’t talk about, so I’m supposed to show her. That’s where the anatomically correct dolls come in.

The basket rests on her lap. There are girl dolls and boy dolls.

“I know this is an unorthodox approach for someone your age. But I’m asking you to be open-minded,” Ricker says.

“Open-minded means willing to play with dolls?” I ask.

“Uncovering lost memories is key to developing a plan for treatment. It may take a long time, and it may be painful. This is a marathon, not a race.”

I want to ask if she’s ever met a cliché she didn’t like. But I stuff it, deep into my bowels, feeding the thing I think of as the black in my belly. I don’t want to rouse the black because I actually like Ricker, with her glossy bangs, funky glasses, and big man hands. But that’s not for her to know.

Best simply to remind her who’s in charge.

“So I’ve been thinking about Newton’s Third Law. Of Motion. You know: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” I say.

Ricker tucks the basket under her desk. “You can’t touch without being touched.”

“Exactly. Here’s the thing. Two people, call them X and Y, are pushed by another person. Call him … D. No wait: call him Z.” I smile and continue. “We’ll call the push ‘force A.’ If person Z exerts force A on persons X and Y, then persons X and Y exert an equal and opposite force A back on person Z. Axz = −Azx. And, Ayz = −Azy. You get pushed, you push back. Follow me?”

Her mouth parts, then shuts.

“Cool. So according to Newton’s Third Law, how can Person Y not exert an equal and opposite reaction?” I say.

“You cannot compare individual responses to trauma,” Ricker says.

“Work with me here.”

She exhales through her nose. “Y wasn’t pushed with the same force as X.”

I sigh, throwing my boots up on the couch. “If you’re more comfortable with dolls…”

“Let me be clearer then. Only one of you was abducted.”

“A psychopath dropped into our lives. Mine and Liv’s. It was worse for me, I get that. But is it healthy to just go on, with no questions? Que sera, sera?

“There is no useful outcome for comparing your recovery to Olivia Lapin’s.”

“I’m not talking about recovery. I’m talking about basic, everyday behavior.”

Ricker scans her desk and settles on a small legal pad and a pencil. Her mouth twists as she scribbles for a second, then two.

I lean over my knees. “Are you sure that’s how you spell ‘que sera, sera’?”

I am a monster. She is trying to help me, and is probably the only person who can. Gosh knows I have a better chance talking with her than by mask making with Patty Petty, with her silver ponytail and turquoise and Wellies that smelled of manure.

“The most important thing to remember is that when an evil act is committed, the shame belongs to the perpetrator. Donald Jessup’s shame is not your shame—”

“And my strength is my survival. I covered that with Patty Petty,” I interrupt.

Ricker folds her swishy pant legs and leans back until her chair creaks. Dramatic leg swoops signal a change in tactic.

“It might help our progress to put a name on what you’re experiencing. The clinical term is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.”

“That happens to me every month. I bloat and break out. One word: Motrin.”

Ricker doesn’t blink. “When a person experiences a physical threat, and the person’s response involves intense fear, helplessness, or horror, certain side effects can result for that person. I’d like to explore if you’re experiencing any of these side effects,” she says calmly.

“As a person?”

Her face is blank.

“Just checking.”

“Sometimes, the traumatic event is re-experienced over and over, in the form of dreams, or during the day, as intrusive thoughts. Do you have thoughts, Julia?”

“Never. I never think,” I say, grinning.

“Another feature is avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma.”

Liv thinks I have the opposite problem.

“Julia?”

“Still here. Not thinking.”

“Perhaps it would help if I gave you a specific example. Because the abduction happened during track practice, you might avoid running.”

“I still run. Like a madwoman. Like someone’s chasing me. Doh, bad joke. And in case you’re keeping count in your little notebook of the PTSD markers that I don’t have, that’s like the tenth negative.”

The cell phone on her desk buzzes.

“Restricted range of effect? That means you’re unable to have loving feelings where they previously existed,” Ricker says.

“Are you going to pick up? It might be one of your kids.”

She holds my eyes and turns the phone facedown. “Are you having difficulty feeling affection, Julia?”

“I’m as loving as ever. Ask my mother. You, I’m not so sure about, seeing as your kid might have an emergency and you’re not answering your phone.”

She pretends to write words, but draws small squares. “Irritability? Outbursts of anger?”

“Zen as ever. Ask my therapist.”

She blinks at the phone.

“Maybe I’m projecting my own experience, but you are freaking me out by not answering that phone. Answer it. Seriously. I don’t care.”

“Normally I would never allow an interruption on our time. But that was my emergency ringtone. I promise this will only take a second.”

“I won’t tell,” I stage-whisper.

Ricker says a deep hello, pressing the curve of her hand into her top lip as she listens. She sets the phone down and stares at it for a second.

“I was just yanking your chain about your daughter. Is everything okay?” I ask.

She smiles tightly at her lap, and when she looks up, she’s the composed Ricker again. “I apologize. Where were we? Oh yes. We know for sure that you have the final symptom: inability to recall aspects of the trauma. That said, I’d like to hypnotize you.”

“Whoa! What?”

“It will be like falling asleep. When you’re fully under, I’ll regress you to those lost moments.”

“Can’t we just wait for my memories to return?”

“It doesn’t always work that way. Repressed memories can stay repressed for a lifetime. They’re not like seeds. Shoots won’t rise from the ground without some nurturing,” she says.

“I’m not so sure of that. Ever hear of the yellow tansy? It’s the worst invasive plant in North America, and it grows better when ignored. Pretty, fragrant, and totally poisonous.”

“Once we understand the past, we can move forward.”

My master plan—to humor Man Hands while secretly rejecting her textbook dogma—suddenly seems wrongheaded. If she wants to understand what happened in the woods, we’re on the same page.

“I’m all for understanding,” I say.

The secretary’s light tap at the door signals Ricker’s next appointment is waiting. I lean across the couch, reaching for my bag on the floor.

“Julia,” Ricker says suddenly. “The reporters. They’ll be back.”

I sit up slowly, frowning. “Why would you say that?”

“Slow news cycle.” Ricker rushes over her words. “Or they might try to make a big deal out of the one-year anniversary. It’s less than two weeks away.”

“I’m aware.”

“You need to be prepared to reject them completely.”

“You make it sound as if I actually like the attention.”

“I simply want to be clear about where you should put your energy in the days ahead. The media is in the business of selling stories. Our business is healing you.”

I consider pointing out that, unlike the media, not one of the persons supposedly concerned with my healing has used the word brave to describe what I did. As in, Brave Teen Saves FriendBrave Girl Fights Off Predator, or Lucky Teen Escapes Attacker Because of Brave Friend. Nor do they take advantage of the delightful wordplay my name affords: Meet Julia Spunk, a teen whose name suits her perfectly.

“If your business is healing me, then isn’t it in your interest that I stay broken?”

“Maybe I’m not being clear. I’m advising your mother that you should stay away from all press.”

Deep in my belly, the black thing shifts. “I can handle it,” I insist.

“When it comes to the press, it’s your mother’s job to handle it. I know it’s hard to hear this, but the work we have to do is here, in this room.” She sits back and sweeps her hand in front of her head—“Here”—and her chest—“And here.”

She’s losing my favor fast. I roll my eyes so hard I see stars. “We’re done, right?”

Ricker nods, tucking her lips. I scramble off the couch and yank my cuff down to cover the metal doorknob, one of many tricks for never being cold again. The door opens and there is Mom, a shudder through her springy, dark curls.

“I apologize! It was me knocking,” she calls to Ricker, then leans in and says in her shrink-shop undertone: “I need a few minutes to catch up with Dr. Ricker, and I wanted to make sure she had time for me before her next appointment.”

“Sorry I used every minute. I won’t do it again,” I say.

Her smile falls. “You can’t think I minded.”

“I didn’t. I was teasing.”

“Oh!” She reaches to smooth my hair, then stops. “I won’t be long.”

I watch Mom slide through the door, a sliver of a woman, birdlike, with a small head and hollow bones. I take over her chair, feeling ungainly, stretch my legs, and scan the room, daring someone to say something. A fat kid with emo hair and a mole on his cheek points his phone at my head and takes a photo.

“For real? I’m right here!” I lean over my knees. “I. Can. See. You.”

He jams the phone into his jacket and rises, shuffling over to a receptionist talking into a headpiece. He begs her for the men’s room key, which she shoves through a glass arch. The last thing I need is this loser posting my photo for his pals to ogle. I trail him into the bathroom and kick open the door.

“Give me your phone.”

“This is the men’s room, freak!”

The black thing in my belly flicks. “Give it or I’ll send that mole to the other side of your face.”

“Here.” He holds it up. “Look, I’m deleting it.”

I swipe the phone from his doughy hand and pitch it over the stall wall. His eyes widen at the porcelain clatter, followed by a plop.

“What the…?”

I harden my gut. “Now it’s deleted.”

His mouth opens and shuts soundlessly. Finally, he stalks into the stall, reappearing with his dripping phone. “What do you even care if I send your picture to a couple of my friends?” He pulls paper towels from the holder on the wall. “It’s not like your face isn’t going to be back all over the news by the end of the day.”

I remember Ricker’s weird warnings. What are she and this dork talking about? I squint at him.

He wraps his phone inside a mealy towel wad, shaking his head. “Who would ever guess that in person, you’d be such a bitch?”

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, if anything, I’d expect you’d be super happy. Grateful, even.”

“Grateful?” I hiss, my breath hot behind my teeth. “That’s rich.”

“Yeah, grateful. Most people would feel lucky they got out alive.”

I snort, an ugly noise that echoes off the stalls and lingers. “Thank you so much for putting everything into perspective for me, Moleman. What am I even seeing Elaine Ricker for? I could just come see you! But here’s the thing.” I poke his soft shoulder. “Dr. Ricker isn’t a fan of her patients showing up on the Internet. Pictures of them at her office and whatnot. It’s a violation of patient confidentiality. I wonder how she’ll take your little transgression. Drop you as a client, I imagine.”

He jabs his sausage finger in the air at me. “Oh man. Now I get it.”

“Sorry, too harsh? You prefer your abductees with cream and sugar?”

“You haven’t seen the news, have you?”

“I’ve been the news, Dough Boy. And I can tell you, it sucks. So no, I don’t watch much of it these days.”

The mole slides toward his ear in a sickening grin. “Then you don’t know about the body.”

*   *   *

The video is at the top of the WFYT Web site. I tap Play on my phone’s touchscreen. Hometown gal–slash–glamorous ladyanchor Paula Papademetriou ticks her voice down a notch, the way she does when she’s talking about Nor’easters, school shootings, and Liv and me: “A couple out walking their dog early this morning stumbled upon a body police believe to be eighteen-year-old Ana Alvarez, who went missing while jogging in the Sheepfold section of the Middlesex Fells Reservation in August of last year. Many are wondering about the involvement of a man arrested for an attack on two local girls in these same woods nearly one year ago.”

The cold and nausea come at once, like they sometimes do, and prickles erupt on my chest. I jam my phone deep in my pocket and take the back stairs one floor up, duck into the women’s room, and lock the door. I tug my cuffs down before pressing my palms against the chilly walls, and sway over the toilet, willing the black, or lunch, or anything to expel itself so I will feel better. Nothing comes.

Get ahold of yourself, Julia. A body in the woods is just another fact.

To normal people, researching facts about abductions, and then your own abduction, labels you all kinds of morbid. But research soothes me. The methodical ordering of gathered facts is a beautiful thing, especially when I order them in ways that make me feel safe. If I put my hand over my heart while I reread the facts I’ve collected in my Mead wide-ruled black marble composition notebook, my heart beats slower. I sway out of the bathroom and down the stairs, leaning outside Ricker’s waiting room. I slide down the wall. The carpet smells of cleaning chemicals and mud from shoes, but it’s not a totally unpleasant spot to sit. “You are good,” I whisper to myself, rubbing my knuckles across my chest with one hand and feeling through my messenger bag with the other. I touch my notebook’s hard taped spine, then a pencil. On a clean page, I draw a circle. Next to it, I draw a second overlapping circle of equal size.

My shoulders fall. I bury my head in the notebook, ignoring passing shins and murmurs.

In the the first circle, I write JULIA. In the second circle, I write LIV.

The seed shape in the middle stares back at me, no longer a seed, but the pupil of a cat’s eye. I draw a third circle above the first two, overlapping. It bisects the cat’s eye. Inside the third circle, I write BODY. The three of us share a space, the bisected cat’s eye, and it is small, but there’s still room to write.

I wriggle my hand into my pocket for my phone and click on Paula Papademetriou’s live feed. I’m too impatient to listen to her, though her perfect aubergine lipstick transfixes me for a second. Besides, I’m a faster reader than listener. In the transcripted story below, I scan for the word pit, but it’s not there. In Ionian Greek, the word zagre means a “pit for the capture of live animals.” The important word here is live. You can debate back and forth whether it’s better to be killed or kept, but either way, a body popping up in the Sheepfold means old Zagreus was tweaking the mythology.

Liv is alive. I am alive. The body is irrelevant, Liv would say.

At the bottom of the page, I write PROBABILITY.

The probability of Liv and me stumbling across a deranged maniac in the woods was low: 1 out of 347,000. And stranger abductions are the most improbable, at 24% of all abductions, versus 49% by family members and 27% by acquaintances. So Liv’s right when she insists what happened in the woods was a fluke, just a forgettable, little thing.

But if Paula Papademetriou is right, and Donald Jessup killed before? That makes us part of a big thing.

After PROBABILITY, I add a question mark.

 

Copyright © 2016 Kim Savage.

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Kim Savage lives north of Boston and writes psychological thrillers for young adults and beyond.

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