Spontaneous hiking trips are the best. Warm weather? Epic best friends? Plenty of snacks? Count me in!
(I’m the girl in the middle, by the way. Stephanie Atkins. The redhead in the colorful clothes is Xena Fletcher. Blondie over there is Claire Fairfax. They’re my best friends.)
My best friends and I were trooping through the forest near our neighborhood. I was carrying the snacks. Xena’s ever-present camera was clicking every few minutes. Claire was engaging us in interesting conversations. And everyone was having a good time, which is all you need to make memories.
“I dunno,” I said to Xena, shrugging. She’d just asked me which character I’d like to play in the action movie she was planning on making. To be honest, I hadn’t read the script — which Xena had given to me two weeks ago — so I couldn’t choose who to be. It would have been extremely helpful if Xena could recite the names of her characters, so I could pick someone based on how cool their name was.
“What about Perri?” she suggested. “She’s the athletic one who goes about saving people’s lives and stuff.”
I nodded. “Sure, Xe.” (“Xe” was Xena Fletcher’s nickname. Like the letter Z. But with an X. Makes sense, right?)
“What about you, Claire?” Xena asked, turning to my other best friend. “Who do you want –” She cut herself off with a horrified gasp. Her turquoise eyes were huge, and an expression of scared disbelief was on her face.
My heart skipped a beat. “What –?” I started, turning to look in Claire’s direction. Then I gasped, too.
Claire was gone.
“Claire! Claire!” Xena began screaming. “Claire, where are you?”
“Shh!” I ordered, my sharp eyes scanning the forest around us. “She probably just fell behind. I bet she’ll catch up in a minute.” But if we’re being honest, I said it for myself as much as for Xena. Because if I knew one thing about Claire, it was that she had amazing stamina. Claire Fairfax never fell behind.
Xena obviously didn’t believe me, as she began hyperventilating. She was silent for all of about three seconds before she began shouting Claire’s name again. “Cla-a-ire! CLAIRE!”
I grabbed Xena by the arm and stared at her. “Listen to me, Xena! Claire clearly isn’t nearby. If she was, she’d have answered us by now. We need to split up and search for her.”
Xena took a big gulp of air and nodded. “I’ll go that way?” she said meekly, pointing back the way we’d come.
“Do that. I’ll head off the trail,” I told her, jerking my thumb over my shoulder to indicate which way I’d go. “Meet back here in twenty minutes.” I darted into the trees, searching for our missing friend.
Panicking, Xena dashed off. “Claire! Claire! Answer me, Claire!”
Twenty minutes later, I trekked back to the trail. Xena was already there, waiting by a huge pine tree. She’d been crying; her eyes were red, and her wet cheeks glistened in the sunlight.
She shook her head sorrowfully. “I couldn’t . . . couldn’t find her,” she choked out, her voice hoarse. “Steph, what are we going to do?”
I sat on the ground beside the tree. I put my head between my knees, my long, dark braids ticking my cheeks. I didn’t have an answer.
We sat in silence for several minutes before Xena asked in a halting, trembling voice, “What do you think — I mean — what do you suppose . . .” A deep breath. “Stephanie, what could’ve happened to her?”
I looked away. I had no clue, and no idea what to do.
Suddenly, Xena exclaimed, “Call her! Call Claire. We can ask where she is!” My best friend danced around eagerly.
I sighed heavily. “We can’t. She didn’t bring her phone with her.”
“Oh.” Xena stopped prancing around the tree. “Oh. Well, then, call your mom! Or 9-1-1. Or something.”
9-1-1! Of course. They could send out a search-and-rescue team to find her. I whipped my phone out of my backpack and began dialing. A message flashed on the screen: No signal.
Xena was peering over my shoulder. “No signal?” she whined. Then she grabbed my backpack and heaved it onto her shoulders. “Come on, then, Steph — we need to run! Onward, to your house!” And she took off, back down the trail.
I scrambled to my feet and sprinted after her.
When we arrived at my house, Xena and I were both breathing hard. We pounded up the front steps and burst into the house.
“Mom!” I shouted. “It’s Claire! She’s missing!”
Mom was sitting at her desk in her pajamas and a sweatshirt, sipping her coffee. Papers were spread out on the cluttered desk before her. Mom was a history teacher at the local high school, and she was grading homework — just how I’d left her when my friends and I had set off forty minutes ago.
Mom looked up from her work with a slightly confused smile. “Back so soon, Stephanie? Is everything OK?”
“No! Claire’s missing,” I repeated urgently, hurrying over to her desk. I flapped my hands around animatedly. “We were just hiking — and we turned around — and Claire — she was gone!” I bit my lip to keep from crying.
Mom reached up and adjusted her glasses. “Slow down, honey. I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
“Claire is missing!” Xena and I yelled at the same time, exasperated.
Mom put down her coffee mug and rose to her feet. She placed the back of her hand on my forehead. “Stephanie, honey, are you feeling alright?” she asked, obvious concern in her voice. “I don’t understand what you’re so worked up about. Who is Claire?”
And that concludes episode one of Serpents! I hope you enjoyed it. There’s more to come soon!