Unearthly Page 55

Happy Birthday, Clara.

My cheeks are suddenly unpleasantly warm.

Tucker doesn’t answer my swimming question. I guess the surprise is supposed to be part of the experience. He gestures back to the stairs. I smile and run upstairs to agonize over which of my California beach bikinis would be the least humiliating in this situation. I settle on a deep sapphire-colored two-piece, only because it covers the most skin. Then I hurriedly throw on my jeans and the flannel shirt, grab a towel from the linen closet, and go down to meet Tucker. He tells me to put on the boots.

After I’m outfitted to Tucker’s liking he walks me to his truck and opens the door for me before crossing around to climb in himself. We bump along the dirt road away from my house in silence. I’m hot in my flannel shirt. It’s a full-blown summer day, the sky a perfect cloudless blue, and while it isn’t as hot as California, it’s shorts weather. I wonder if we’re going to have a long hike.

“Does this thing have air-conditioning?” My shirt is already starting to stick to my back.

Tucker shifts to a higher gear. Then he reaches across me and rolls down the window.

“I could have done that,” I say, sure he did that just so he could jostle me. He smiles, an easy, relaxed smile that somehow puts me at ease.

“That window can be tricky” is all he says.

I put my arm out the window and let the cool mountain air pass through my fingers. Tucker starts to whistle softly, a song I eventually recognize as “Danny Boy,” which Wendy sang at the Spring Choir Concert. His whistle has a nice, full quality to it, perfectly in tune.

We turn on the highway toward the school.

“Where are we going?” I ask him.

“Hoback.” I’ve heard the word mentioned at school, and seen it on the road signs along the highway. There’s a Hoback Canyon, a Hoback pass, if I remember it right, and a Hoback Junction. Which one we’re going to, I can’t tell. We drive past the school, down the highway for about a half hour where the buildings disappear and it’s mountain and forest again. Suddenly we come into a tiny, one-stop-sign town, Hoback. The road splits into a Y right after the Hoback General Store. Tucker takes the road on the left, and then we’re cruising back up toward the mountains, and on our right is a fast-flowing green river.

“Is that the Snake River?” I ask. With the window still down, the air rushes at me as the truck picks up speed. I pull my arm in.

“Nope,” he replies. “That’s the Hoback.”

I smell the river, the smaller pine trees crouched on the hillside, and the sagebrush that stretches on either side of the road.

“I love the smell of sage,” I say, breathing in deep.

Tucker snorts. “Sage is a fighter. It spreads over the land like wildfire, sucking up all the water, the nutrients in the earth, until everything else dies. It’s a hearty little plant, that I’ll give it. But it’s gray and ugly and ticks love to hide in it. You ever seen a tick?” He glances over at me. The look on my face must be pretty appalled because he suddenly gives an uncomfortable cough and says quietly, “Sage does have a nice smell.”

Then he swerves off the road into a small grassy turnout.

“We’re here,” he says, turning to me.

We park along a weather-beaten log fence right next to a big orange sign that reads, PRIVATE PROPERTY. TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. Tucker lifts his eyebrows at me like he’s double-dog-daring me. He swings himself through a gap in the fence and holds out his hand. I take it. Tucker threads me through the fence. Once we’re on the other side, the hill drops down to the river at a steep angle. Beer cans litter the sagebrush. Tucker keeps hold of my hand and starts on a path winding over to a huge tree right at the water’s edge. I’m suddenly grateful for the sturdiness of the boots.

At the bottom Tucker sticks his towel at the base of the big tree and starts shucking off his clothes. I turn away, then start to slowly unbutton my flannel shirt. It’s a cute swimsuit, I reassure myself. I’m no prude. I take a deep breath and slide the shirt off my shoulders, then make quick work of the jeans and boots. I turn back toward Tucker. To my relief, he’s watching the river, although he could be raking my body over with his peripheral vision for all I know. His red-and-black swim trunks come to his knees. He’s golden brown all over. I quickly look away from his body and put my clothes and towel in a pile next to his.

“What now?” I ask.

“Now we climb the tree.”

I gaze up into the branches, which sway slightly in the wind. A series of boards have been nailed to the trunk as a kind of ladder. On one of the biggest branches, which leans way out over the water, someone has fastened a long black cord.

We’re going to jump off that cord, into the river.

I look at the river again, which seems impossibly high and fast.

“I think maybe you’re trying to get me killed on my birthday,” I say teasingly, hoping he doesn’t see the flash of fear in my eyes. Angel-bloods can drown. We need oxygen as much as regular humans, although we can probably hold our breath longer.

His dimple appears.

“Why don’t I go first?” Without another word he’s climbing the tree, his hands and feet finding the places they’re supposed to go like he’s done this a thousand times before, which is mildly reassuring. When he reaches the higher branches I can hardly see him anymore, just a flash of his tanned legs now and then or a glimpse of his hair against the leaves and the sun. Then I can’t see him at all, but suddenly the rope jerks.

“Come on up here,” he directs. “There’s room for two.”

I start awkwardly up the tree. I manage to skin my knee in the process and get a deep sliver in the palm of my hand, but I don’t complain. The last thing I want is for Tucker Avery to think I’m a baby. Tucker’s hand appears in front of my face and I grab it and he hauls me up to the highest branches.

We can see a long way down the river. I look for a place where it flattens out or slows, but there isn’t any. Beside me, Tucker grasps the rope, which looks stretchy like a bungee cord. He turns his face up toward the sun and closes his eyes for a minute.

“They call this the Solarium,” he says.

“This, like where we’re standing? The top of the tree?”

“Yeah.” He opens his eyes. I’m close enough that I see his pupils contract in the light. “Kids from school have been coming here for generations,” he says.

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