ONCE UPON A TIME IN BELGIUM
They have never seen the cave before, though they often come to the woods to play. It burrows into the hillside, hidden away among the undergrowth.
“No! Me first! We agreed!”
Cheeks flushed from running, Sophie fixes Hannah with an indignant glare. A sulky girl in a red T-shirt and dungarees, her hair scraped into pigtails. Hannah has told her so many times she’s lost count: Those pigtails have got to go. Not that it makes any difference. Sophie does whatever she wants and now she is stamping her foot on the ground.
Hannah shrugs. “Okay then, you first. See if I care.”
Sophie marches over and peers into the black mouth of the cave. Feeling her way along the damp rock with one hand, she edges inside. Chin up, back to the wall, a miniature special agent Dana Scully caught up in her very own X-File. Hannah can’t help laughing. All this fuss about a hole in the rock. Alien life-forms have better places to hang out than a Belgian wood. Sophie looks back: Shhh! Then she disappears into the dark and everything goes quiet.
Hannah leans her tall slender frame against a tree and ruffles her hair, bleached almost white by the summer sun. She looks much older than Sophie, but there is only a year between them. Hannah is twelve and Sophie still eleven, though the wild and willful way she acts sometimes you’d swear she was only nine.
Cradling their penknife in her hand, Hannah opens the blade and clicks it shut, as her eyes find the bark where they carved their initials. Last summer, Sophie brought the penknife to Hannah’s house as a token of their friendship. At first, Hannah had been shocked, then Sophie explained how all the boys cherish their knives, how she had read about it in her books, so why shouldn’t girls as well?
The penknife was in fact a pretty thing: shiny with a gracious black antelope painted on the handle. As Hannah folded her hand around it she suddenly sensed a mysterious sort of power; as she clicked the blade out of its sheath she felt a spark, a strength, right there, within her reach.
From then on the knife switched from Hannah’s pocket to Sophie’s and back again: a knife to share, their secret weapon. Carrying it around felt exciting and adventurous and although they never talked about it, they each knew the other felt exactly the same way.
Now Hannah hardly ever thinks about the knife anymore. The whole idea seems silly, awkward even. And who knows what Sophie feels these days? She pushes it back in her pocket, zips her brand-new jacket up to her chin, and looks around. The sun has gone and a chill is descending. She’d rather not be here at all. There was a party at The Sloop, the last before the end of the school holidays, but Sophie insisted they come to the woods. What’s keeping her? Dark clouds close in above the treetops. Oh great, now her new jacket will get wet. She picks her way through the bushes to the entrance of the cave.
“Come on, Sophie,” she yells. “It’s going to rain.”
The first drops tap her on the shoulder. A sudden gust of wind sends the sorriest leaves spinning from their branches.
“Sophie? It’s raining. Get a move on.” Not a sound. Only the wind.
“That’s it! I’m coming to get you.”
Reluctantly, Hannah ventures into the shadows, trips over a stone, and steadies herself against the slick wall. The cave is deeper than she thought, growing darker with every step. No sign of Sophie. Up ahead she spots another opening, smaller but just wide enough for a young girl. She hesitates, glances back toward the mouth of the cave, a fading patch of light. Reaching the opening, she wriggles out of her brand-new jacket and squeezes through the gap, brushing the brown streaks from her top before putting her jacket back on.
No answer, only more trees. The rain is falling steadily now. At the edge of her vision a shadow flits beneath the branches.
Hannah hears rustling and walks toward the sound, feels her anger rising. Her new jacket is already wet. Much more of this and she won’t be able to show it off at school; the fabric will wrinkle and it will barely be recognizable as the prized possession she saved up for months to buy.
“For God’s sake, Sophie!”
Raindrops fall thick and fast. Hannah runs past trees and under branches, pushes her way through the bushes. The woods seem vast now, the houses of the village more distant than ever. She could scream and no one would hear. Suddenly Hannah thinks of the missing children, the four young girls the whole country has been searching for all summer.
She tries not to listen when her parents talk about the girls: It feels awkward, wrong, a horrible secret she’s not supposed to be in on. But what if it’s real? What if Sophie has been abducted or is lying somewhere among the fallen leaves, wounded and unconscious? What if she wants to cry for help but can’t? What if she never comes back? Hannah feels a stab of panic deep inside.
A crow caws in reply. Then a scream pierces the air and a shape shoots through the leaves. Before Hannah can spin around, a sudden force hits her from behind, sends her sprawling. A figure looms over her, face streaked with brown, hands caked in mud. A wild-eyed warrior who has been crawling through the dirt, who gives a triumphant laugh and yells, “Scared, eh? Ha ha! Boy were you ever scared!”
“Damn it, Sophie!” Hannah gets up and shakes her clothes, brushing dirt and rotting leaves from her jacket with firm strokes. To Sophie, every stroke feels like a slap in the face. She sinks to the ground and squats motionless, a pose Hannah knows all too well: eyes blank, lips sealed, frozen. Wild and willful one moment, fragile the next. Hannah melts inside. “You really had me worried, Sophie,” she whispers, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Don’t do that again, promise?”
Sophie shakes her head so hard that her pigtails brush against her cheeks. She opens her arms and Hannah surrenders to her warmth, to the perfect fit of two small bodies. Softly, Sophie runs a finger down the bridge of Hannah’s nose.
The rain begins to ease off. The woods have shrunk to normal size and the houses are peeping through the trees again. Hannah takes off her jacket and holds it above their heads. Untouched by the raindrops, the girls laugh and together they walk back through the drizzle, out of the sodden wilderness toward the broad lane lined with houses and the safe smell of freshly mown lawns.
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