The hot sunlight has melted away most of the snow, leaving the sparse white patches in the shadows hopelessly struggling against the growing warmth.
Elspeth is furious at Taïga for interfering in her life. Everything was just fine before she showed up, drawing Derek’s attention away from her, Elspeth. Now that everybody knows that Derek isn’t about to become a dad, her status has somewhat regressed.
Even Chase confronted her the other day, asking her why she made them all think she was preggers with Derek’s child.
‘Gnananananan… And it’s all that green eyed bitch’s fault… Hmm… It must be here somewhere, I’ve seen her writing in it when she thought I was asleep…’
She rapidly continues going through Taïga’s drawers in search of her diary, but it isn’t there.
The bedside table only contains the usual girl’s clutter. She tries to pull out the drawer under the bed, but it’s stuck on something. Annoyed about coming up empty handed, she throws a quick glance towards the closed door…
… and in spite of her swollen belly, she dives under the bed.
It’s not the diary, but it’s almost as good. She takes what she found into Chuck Hobbles office and throws it onto his desk.
‘Just look at this! It’s a voodoo doll and it’s Taïga’s. I’m sure she’s trying to hurt me with it.’
‘Whooa… Take a seat Elspeth, and next time I’d prefer it if you knocked before barging in.’
He looks sternly at her and she mumbles, ‘I’m sorry, Chuck,’ before sitting down on the chair next to his desk.
Chuck turns off the screen, and scrutinizes the ugly doll. He scratches his chin, leaning back into his chair. ‘OK. It sure is a darn ugly… doll. But why do you think it’s a voodoo doll?’
‘It’s pretty obvious! Just look at the needles…’ Elspeth starts to explain, and after hearing her, he picks up his phone and calls Johnny.
‘Can you tell Taïga to come to my office? Yeah. Right now… OK. Thanks.’
Elspeth smiles to herself.
‘Now, Elspeth. If you’re accusing one of your friends-’
‘She’s NOT my friend!’
‘-there will be consequences…’
Elspeth nods happily. ‘Right. Friggin’ bitch had it coming!’
‘Elspeth! Language.’ Chuck admonishes and Elspeth bites her tongue, refraining from answering back.
Taïga is helping Teddy pack for their outing in the mountains, when Johnny passes on Chuck’s message. Concerned, Teddy tags along, picking Derek up on the way.
‘Don’t worry. I’m sure it’s nothing very important.’
Taïga wrings her hands. ‘I wish you were right, Ted. I just hope nothing has happened to Granny…’
Derek frowns. ‘I don’t think this has anything to do with Granny, I can hear Elspeth in there.’
After a little while the door opens on a beaming Elspeth. She stops and rubs her belly, throwing a sideward glance at Taïga. Taïga doesn’t say anything, just knocks on the door, waiting for Chuck to call her in before entering the small office.
‘Have a seat.’
Taïga sits nervously in the armchair which is still warm after Elspeth.
Chuck fiddles with some documents. ‘Do you know why you’re here?’ He looks expectantly at her.
Taïga just shakes her head. ‘Not exactly.’
‘I know you and Elspeth aren’t getting on very well.’ He waits, but as Taïga doesn’t say anything, he continues, ‘She has got her share of trouble, being pregnant is just one of them.’
Taïga crosses her arms, she doesn’t like were this conversation is headed.
Chuck pulls out a drawer. ‘Is this yours?’ He is waving her voodoo doll in front of her face.
Taïga didn’t expect this. Thoughts are racing through her head, but she knows that lying isn’t an option. She nods, clearing her throat. ‘Yes, it’s mine. But how come you have it?’
‘Elspeth brought it here, rambling about voodoo and you wanting to hurt her. The poor doll is sure nasty looking, but we can skip the voodoo bit, we’re not superstitious at APYR!’ He winks at her and gives her the doll back.
Taïga forces a smile. ‘Thank you.’ She hasn’t used the little doll, even though the thought has crossed her mind more than once.
‘But I have to be sure you two aren’t pushing things too far. You’re not trying to hurt her, are you?’
Taïga stares at him. ‘Hurt her? Of course not!’ Taïga bites her tongue, there’s so much she could say about Elspeth, but she wants to take care of this her way.
Chuck smiles at her. ‘Just have a little patience with her, will you? Her hormones must be raging, making her hyper sensitive. She still has a couple of months to go before giving birth… Oh, and don’t let your things lie around…’
Chuck continues talking and talking, and Taïga listens politely, holding on tight to her little ugly voodoo doll. She’s so happy that Granny’s all right, nothing else matters. But Elspeth has to stop snooping. Thank god she didn’t find her diary…
Derek can’t help himself. Having overheard what was being said, he hails Elspeth who smirking retraces her steps.
‘Are you serious? You can’t just go through her things like that!’
‘Eff off, Der!’ Elspeth spits, ‘I can do whatever I want! She’s evil, and you can’t see it!’
They are interrupted by Johnny passing, his arms laden with stuff for their trip. ‘Stop arguing and come give us a hand loading the truck!’
‘What for? I can’t lift heavy stuff anyway.’ Elspeth whines.
Derek and Teddy gives her sour looks before following Johnny. Derek can’t help but hiss loud enough for Elspeth to hear, ‘Being pregnant is just an excuse, she wouldn’t have helped out anyway!’
Teddy adds acidly, ‘Yeah, she might have ruined her hair or her nails or whatever!’
Elspeth flips a finger at them behind their backs.
After talking to Chuck, a relieved Taïga hurries back to her room to put away her voodoo doll and change into something more appropriate to help out. Everyone’s on the parking except Jupiter, VJ and, of course, Elspeth.
Derek is throwing the heavy tents onto the pickup, while Thomas seems to have some trouble with the BBQ set. ‘I can’t find the charcoal!’
‘There ain’t any – we’ll collect our own firewood.’
When Teddy sees Taïga coming, he hoists a tent up in the air to show off how strong he is.
‘Oh my Gosh! Is there enough place for all this stuff!?!’ Taïga looks around her at all the gear spread out all over the place.
Chase smiles at her. ‘There better is…’ She looks at Taïga’s backpack. ‘Have you thought about warm clothes, and a hat?’
‘Jeez, you sound like my Granny! But yes, I have.’
‘Remember, “Pack It In, Pack it Out” is the standard rule to follow,’ Chuck adds cheerily as he jumps onto the truck to help loading the camping gear.
‘Yeah, yeah…’ Lil Bling sighs. ‘VJ’s supposed to check all the vehicles’ spare tires, so where is he?’
‘Can somebody pleeease tell me where to put this!’ Teddy insists, his arms trembling with the weight of the tent.
‘There are lightweight tents now, you know!’ Thomas adds, ‘You just throw them in the air and…’ he snaps his fingers, ‘Done!’
Chuck pushes back his hat, ‘Yep. We’ve given it some thought. But then again, these are more adapted to what we’re gonna do out there in the wilderness.’
Chuck jumps down from the truck again. ‘Hey, Taïga! Have you seen Elspeth?’
‘No, I bumped into her outside your office, that’s all.’
‘Where can she be?’ He scratches his chin. ‘Well, Chase can show you where the food and water is. Check if there’s enough drinking water, at least two gallons per person per day!’
‘It’s already done, Chuck!’ Chase calls from behind the 4×4.
‘Oh, go and see if Johnny needs some help with the horses? And would you mind riding with him in the horse trailer?’
Taïga lights up. ‘Of course I won’t mind!’
Elspeth shows up as Taïga heads for the stables, waving a paper in the air, ‘I’ve got the checklist, Chuck.’
‘Thanks. OK, listen up. Eight tents, eleven sleeping bags, water, first aid kit. Check. Axes… and cutlery. Check. Who’s got the plates? Nobody?’
‘I saw VJ stacking a crate.’ Elspeth says.
Jupiter comes strolling, nonchalantly carrying two packs of TP.
‘I can see you brought the essentials, Jup’!’ Teddy calls out to him, making everybody laugh.
Chuck claps his hands, ‘Well then, I think we’re good. Let’s load up.’
They drive the whole night on soft clay roads that have become slippery and sometimes unpassable due to the melting snow. By the morning they set up camp on the ridge. They gather around last year’s huge fire place to get their instructions and afterwards they play a game of charades to loosen up after the long drive.
The teens settle down, eating their sandwiches for lunch in the warm sun and reading their documents about wild horses.
‘Hey, listen to this: “The wild horses are protected! Chasing or capturing them is against the law.” So are we outlaws now?’
‘No, Chuck and Johnny have got a special permit.’ Derek explains.
‘Yeah, we’ll only catch 4 or 5 horses, which will be put up for adoption later this summer. It’s all very legal.’
Night falls on the small camping ground, bringing frost to the grass.
The three girls share a tent. But even though the sun’s rays warm up the air during the day, the nights are still very cold. Taïga is glad she brought along a headband to keep warm and Chase hugs shivering her Teddy Bear. Elspeth is the only one who’s not freezing as she’s sweating due to her pregnancy…
Taïga is up first the next morning, and takes a hot shower. She can’t wait to go scouting for the wild horses! Being the first one up, she takes care of the breakfast…
Putting out the fire, Chuck calls out: ‘We’re leaving in a half hour! Backpacks and sneakers everyone! We’ll be gone the whole day!’
Teddy adds, ‘We have sandwiches in the fridge, two each, ham and chicken!’
‘Yeah, and two bottles of water each! Don’t forget.’
Johnny disappears behind the tent, his arms full, while the teens sit down around the wooden table.
‘Gosh, you smell, Chase!’ Elspeth pinches her nose.
‘Yeah, take a shower!’ Lil Bling adds, wrinkling his nose.
Chase is offended, ‘The water’s too cold! And you don’t have to sit next to me!’
‘There’s still some hot water left.’
‘OK OK!’ Chase wolfs down her cereals and hurries off to wash…
But there’s only one shower.
‘Hey bro! Don’t use all the warm water!’
‘Get in line, Teddy! It’s my turn anyway after him.’ Thomas adds grumpily, ‘I can’t see why we have to shower anyway, we’ll get dirty again soon enough…’
‘Hey, don’t go all smelly like Chase!’
‘Don’t worry about the warm water, guys!’ Derek snorts, ‘The girls already spent it all!’
Elspeth has taken her time, getting ready for the trek. Make-up in place and her hair suitably dried, she trips on a tent peg and falls right into the arms of Lil Bling.
‘But you can’t wear high heels in the woods!’ Lil Bling steadies her, looking at her feet in bewilderment.
‘Why not? And why do you bother? I don’t force you to wear them!’
‘Sure! But I won’t be around to pick you up every time you fall.’
Elspeth stomps of, flicking a finger at him.
Chuck finally makes her change shoes before setting off…
They spend the day in the woods, only stopping for lunch. They are lucky to see some of the region’s wildlife – a badger, marmots, some deer, eagles circling the blue sky and even a lone wolf in the distance. No trace of the mustangs though.
The progress is slow as Elspeth has to stop every once in a while to pee…
“I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream,
I know you, the gleam in your eye is so familiar a gleam…
But if I know you, I know what you’ll do
You’ll love me at once, the way you did once upon a dream”
Taïga is singing in the shower, and Derek smiles to himself, humming along to the refrain.
She really has an incredible voice… Even the old Disney tune gets a dark sexy edge when she- ‘What the fuck?’
A movement in the bushes has caught his eye. Lil’s spying on Taïga – again…
With a low growl he throws himself at the intruder, who turns around just in time to see the danger coming at him.
They fall to the ground with a loud crash, but Derek is back on his feet immediately, pulling Lil up to face him before punching his fist into Lil’s jaw with such force blood spatters through the poor boy’s mouth.
He tries to fight back, kicking and waving his arms, but Derek’s fist is slamming into his face again and again, drawing blood each time.
Lil sinks to his knees only to be pulled back up again.
High on adrenalin he lifts the other teenage boy, shaking him like a puppet.
‘I. Told. You. To. Leave. Her. Alone.’ he hisses.
Lil throws a sloppy kick but hits home and Derek is surprised by the intense pain blazing through him. With a grunt he doubles over, letting go of Lil who crashes to the ground, gasping for breath.
Lil tries to scramble away on his back but Derek catches his leg and straddles him. His hands closes around Lil’s throat in an iron grip, making him struggle for breath.
The camp finally wakes up, responding to Taïga’s cries for help.
Together, Chuck and VJ, succeed in pushing Derek away from Lil Bling.
Chuck, VJ and Teddy have to put in all their force to keep a raging Derek away from Lil Bling.
Elspeth immediately falls on her knees beside the fainted boy, ‘OhMyGod! OhMyGod! He doesn’t breathe!’
But she quickly pushes him away as he starts puking.
‘OhMyGod! It’s disgusting!’
And then she throws up too.
‘What the hell got into you!?!’ Chuck is furious. So are Johnny and Teddy.
‘You almost killed him!’
‘What will happen if his family presses charges against you?’
‘Your scholarship will be in jeopardy!’
But Derek isn’t listening to them. He’s trying to understand how come he lost control like that. How just imagining Lil’s eyes on Taïga’s body makes him feel the rage building. Again…
Chuck, Johnny, Derek and Lil Bling spend a good hour discussing what happened. After Lil Bling presented his excuses to Taïga, life at the camp seem to get back to normal again.
By midmorning they get a visitor.
‘Guys! This is Tate Curley, from Appaloosa Plains’ native community. He’s here to help us out, first to find the mustangs, then training them.’
Derek smiles and stretches his hand out, ‘Nice to meet you, Sir. We need all the help we can get.’
Lil Bling nudges Thomas. ‘How’s that old geek gonna help us with anything?’
Taïga and Derek are putting away the leftovers after their barbecued lunch.
Smelling her hair, she mumbles to herself, ‘Gosh! I smell like a fire pit! I think I’ll go wash my hair.’
‘I’ll come with you.’ Derek volunteers. ‘To keep watch,’ he adds.
‘But you don’t have to keep watch when I shower, Derek. I think Lil has learned his lesson, he won’t be able to leave his tent for a couple of days.’
Derek leans against the fridge, a serious expression on his face. ‘I’m sorry…’ Taïga raises an eyebrow. ‘… I got carried away.’
‘Carried away? You almost killed him, Derek…’ Derek looks at his feet. ‘And you scared the wits out of me! They were three to tear you away! Three!’
‘He spied on you again.’
‘That’s not a reason to kill somebody!’ She stares angrily at him.
Derek doesn’t know what to say. He doubts she’ll understand the blind fury that came over him when he saw Lil watching her, touching himself.
Taïga continues, ‘Would you have? Killed him?’
He snaps out of his thoughts and looks up at her, an icy expression on his face. ‘What do you want me to say? I already told you I’m sorry if I upset you. But I’m not sorry I beat the crap out of that piece of shit!’ He clenches his jaw. ‘And I’ll do it again.’
They stare at each other.
Taïga picks up the tray of sausages. ‘Can you just move over so I can put this back into the fridge. Please?’
Derek moves away, opening the fridge for her. ‘It’s not about Lil’.
‘No, really. I better keep watch, Chuck heard on the radio there’s a mountain lion prowling this area.’
Taïga can’t disguise the excitement in her voice. ‘A mountain lion? I’d love to see one!’
‘Me too… But not feeding on you!’
‘Brrrr… The water’s freezing!’ Taïga shivers under the onslaught of ice cold water. Derek smiles to himself, fighting an urge to turn around…
‘So what’s the program today?’ She continues, trying to break the uneasy silence.
‘I think Mr. Curley is taking Chuck and Johnny up to the ridge to try to find the mustangs. I guess they’re already gone, it’s a long trek.’
‘Why didn’t they bring us?’
Derek tries hard to concentrate on the ants working their way through last year’s dead grass. ‘It’s a long trek on horseback. No trucks can pass.’ He hesitates and throws away the grass stick he’s been chewing on. ‘… And we’re on foot.’ He changes the subject. ‘We’re hiking up to Cinnamon Crest Falls this afternoon, with Teddy. To do some fishing. And… Maybe you want to come?’
‘I’m not particularly fond of fishing…’
‘But I thought you liked fish?’
‘I like to eat fish, but I don’t like to catch them.’
‘I guess you can bring a book then, and just spend a lazy afternoon while we guys see to it we have food for tonight!’
Shivering, Taïga turns off the water and wraps the towel around herself. ‘As long as it’s warm and sunny I’ll follow you anywhere!’
Derek jumps off the rock. ‘It will be! Sunny, I mean.’
After walking in companionable silence for about an hour, they finally arrive at a wonderful still lake surrounded by steep hills and a waterfall.
Taïga draws her breath. ‘Such a cliché, I couldn’t imagine a place like this really existed. I wish it was summer. I have never swum under a waterfall,’ she says wistfully, scanning the surroundings.
‘We could always come back…’ Derek says.
‘You know we won’t. It’s too far. I mean, we can’t just hike here on a whim.’ Teddy gestures widely around him.
‘You’re a real joy killer, bro.’
‘C’mon guys, you’ll scare all the fish away, arguing like that.’
‘Yeah. Should I remind you we’ll have hot dogs again tonight?’ Teddy looks around him. ‘There. Look at the rings on the water – let’s fix some grilled fish!’
Teddy is eager to start fishing, setting up his gear and starting to go through the little jar filled with fat worms.
‘Over there!’ Taïga points to a large pine tree in the sun on the far side of the little lake. ‘I’ll just sit over there and watch you. From afar so I can’t see those disgusting little things,’ she adds under her breath, avoiding to look at the jar with wriggling worms.
‘Looks like a nice spot.’ Derek shades his eyes and follows her gaze. ‘I’m not sure I wanna fish anymore…’
Derek settles with Taïga under the large pine tree. With a contended sigh he lays down in the sun, his hands behind his head, while Taïga self-consciously sits, her back against the trunk.
‘Read for me,’ he asks, eyes closed. ‘Please?’
‘I don’t know if this book will interest you…’
‘Try me.’ He squints against the sun and she quickly looks away.
Fiddling with the pages, she starts to read. But the steady sound of the waterfall and the singing birds soon make her yawn and put the book down. She glances at Derek but he seems to be sleeping. Sighing she leans her head against the sap smelling trunk of the big pine.
‘Here, I can be your pillow.’
She jumps at the sudden sound of his low voice. Derek pats his flat hard stomach and Taïga hesitates. ‘I won’t eat you,’ he teases, searching her eyes for rejection.
‘Should I be afraid? Do I need to run?’ she banters, but follows his invitation nevertheless.
Shyly she lays on her side, resting her head against him. She can hear his heart beat, a steady rhythm not matching her own galloping heart at all. She closes her eyes and breathes in his familiar perfume mixed with the special forest scent of resin, needles and sun-warmed wood.
Derek tilts his head toward the sky, feeling the heat of the sunlight. His fingers are tentatively drawing circles on Taïga’s back, making her shiver. ‘Are you?’ He hesitates. ‘… Afraid?’
She opens her eyes, meeting his ice blue, worried gaze.
‘Hey guys! Check this one out! A rainbow trout!’ Teddy raises his catch towards Derek and Taïga, before putting it in the cooler at his feet. ‘It must weigh at least 8 pounds…’
Happily he puts a worm on the hook and throws the line out again. He glances towards his brother and Taïga, torn between the feeling of happiness that those two are friends again and something more hurtful, darker.
Taïga hesitates, her skin still tingling from his touch, ‘No. I’m not afraid…’ His intense gaze is unsettling, so she sits up and changes the subject. ‘Do you think there’s a cure? Is it magic? Because if it is, maybe Granny could help…’
Derek doesn’t answer, he just frowns.
‘Or… maybe you don’t want to be cured?’
Derek suddenly sits up straight, pushing Taïga away from him.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-’
‘Shhh… Listen.’ He cocks his head to one side and closes briefly his eyes in an effort to concentrate. There it is… a low rumbling only he can hear. He shoots up on his feet, scanning the edge of the forest on the far side of the lake.
‘Don’t move from here!’
‘Just stay where you are, OK?’ He squats in front of her, holding her upper arms in a tight grip, only letting go when she hesitantly nods.
And suddenly he’s off, sprinting towards Teddy on the other side of the lake, shouting his brother’s name as he runs.
She stares after him at Teddy, trying to figure out the danger lurking in the woods behind her friend. A little shakily she stands up and starts walking toward the edge of the lake to have a better view.
‘TEDDY! GET OUT OF THERE! TEDDY!’
Teddy raises his eyes towards his brother and hesitates, the fishing rod taut in his hands, a giant trout on the other end of the line.
But now he can hear it too, a low rumbling that makes the earth shake under his feet. He turns around as the first wild horses tear out of the forest and blindly charges towards him. Throwing himself on the ground, he tries to protect his head as the whole heard follows.
A scream stops Derek in his tracks. He whirls around just in time to see a stray horse come tumbling down the steep slope. Half falling, half running, the wild horse stumbles, bringing Taïga down with him.
The mustang fights to get his balance and stops short at the edge of the lake, but it’s too late, Taïga’s body is already swallowed by the ice cold water. Derek doesn’t hesitate, he throws off his T-shirt and dives into the dark water without blinking.
The cold seizes him and he can’t see far in the murky water. Coming up for air, he dives again, and again… and there she is! Grabbing her dark braids he kicks forcefully to bring her up, up…
Teddy comes running as fast as he can. Falling on his knees beside Taïga’s inert body he asks out of breath how she is.
Derek is already giving her mouth-to-mouth, but Taïga doesn’t respond. He looks up at his brother, his wet hair dripping water down his cheeks – or are they tears?
But suddenly Taïga coughs, spitting water. ‘Wh-wh-what… ha-ha-ha-happ-p-p-pened?’
‘You fell into the lake.’ Teddy fills her in. ‘Or rather you were run over by a wild horse!’
Derek doesn’t say anything. He just sits on his knees, feeling totally exhausted and grateful.
Taïga looks up at him and tries to smile with bluish lips. ‘Th-th-th-th-ank-k-k-k-k y-y-y-ou-ou-ou.’
Her clattering teeth make the words almost inaudible.
‘We have to get you out of those wet clothes,’ Teddy mumbles, rushing off to retrieve Derek’s T-shirt.
‘We have to get her warm.’ Teddy has brought Derek’s T-shirt back with him. ‘Here take this.’
‘Did you bring the satellite phone? We have to call the camp to get a fire going and send someone here with the truck.’
Teddy digs in his pockets, giving the satellite phone to Derek who turns his back on Taïga to make the call as she quickly strips off her shirt and pulls on his large T-shirt. Teddy throws her his pants with an awkward smile.
‘I guess they’re too big, but they’re dry.’
Gratefully she pulls off her wet jeans and replaces them with Teddy’s. But the cold is inside of her and she hugs herself trying to keep her teeth from clattering.
‘Come here. I’ll warm you.’ Teddy opens his arms and Taïga gratefully walks into his warm embrace.
‘The truck’s on its way, it should be here in about twenty minutes.’ Derek turns off the cell, finishing the conversation just in time to see his brother pull Taïga into a bear hug. ‘Hey!’
‘C’mon over here. Let me check if you’ve got a temperature.’ He glances at his brother with a warning in his eyes.
Reluctantly Teddy lets go of Taïga and Derek takes his place, pulling Taïga in for a chaste and tender kiss on her forehead.
Trembling, Taïga melts into his arms, resting her cheek against his chest and letting his warm skin slowly heat up her body. Derek is holding her close, gently rubbing her back, hushing softly. Gradually, the steady beating of his heart and the warmth radiating from his skin, makes her stop shivering.
She sighs, trying to speak. ‘I… I’m…’
‘Shhhht… Don’t talk…’ Derek murmurs into her dripping hair. ‘I thought I had lost you.’
Part II – End of Chapter 11