Katrina woke with the feeling of being watched. Slowly, she opened her eyes. A pair of blue eyes above a sprinkle of freckles stared solemnly back at her. With a sudden jerk and a muttered oath, she sat straight up, wondering how long she had been asleep. The sun percolated through branches and leaves of the tree, and into the pane-less window of the wooden tree house. Through its open window, she could hear the shrieking laughter of children, the barking of a small dog, and the muted hum of adult voices. The smell of meat sizzling on a barbecue reminded her she hadn’t eaten since dinner last night.
So much for getting a head start on Gavin.
Her eyes took in the whole face that belonged to the freckles and blue eyes. The boy, sitting cross-legged on the floor beside her, looked to be about ten or eleven. She held her breath as they just stared at each other for a few moments, his look somber…old, almost, for a ten-year-old.
"Who are you?" he asked her, the serious look never wavering.
"I'm…ah…Katrina." Her throat was so dry, she could hardly make any sound. "Who are you?" She tried a small smile. He didn't return it.
"I’m Donny. What are you doing in our tree house? Are you one of my Mom's friends and you're hiding from the dumb party, too?" There was a bit of disgust in his voice, but his eyes never left Katrina's face, and were still big and round.
For a split second, Katrina was tempted to take the easy excuse he had just given her, but then she changed her mind. She’d always been honest, especially with children. She looked at Donny. Could she trust him? She knew most children were basically honest, and could often tell when they were being lied to. Besides, she really had very little choice in the matter. She needed to trust him. Katrina prayed he would not disclose her.
"Can you keep a secret?" she asked.
His eyes never even blinked twice before he took his index finger and made an X on his chest then raised his right hand. “Cross my heart and hope to die,” he proclaimed, his face completely serious.
She took a huge breath into her lungs, held it momentarily, and expelled it. "I’m hiding. Some people were holding me prisoner, but I got away. When it gets dark, I can go away to where I'll be safe. Can you help me?" She watched as Donny's eyes got bigger.
"Did the bad people beat you up? You got a black eye like my big brother had after he was in a fight.” His brows drew together with his concern, his eyes never leaving her face.
“Other bad people did that.” She’d forgotten how bruised she looked.
“Does it hurt?”
“Not so much today.” She swallowed hard. “Will you help me, Donny?”
“Do you want me to call the police? That would sure make the party less boring." For the first time, there was a hint of a smile playing tag with the corners of his mouth.
"Does anyone else know I'm up here?" She studied his face carefully, trying to figure out how much he could help her and how far she could trust him. She watched him shake his head.
"Good. The best way to help is to not let anyone know I’m here. Will you do that for me?" She watched his face cloud.
"Can I just tell Denny? He won't tell anyone else, I promise."
“He’s my twin, and he’s smarter than I am. He'll know lots of ways to help. And he's good at keeping secrets!"
"Well-l-l-l," Katrina hesitated. She knew if the boys acted the least bit conspiratorial, an adult may want to know what was going on. She was afraid of being questioned, or that they would want to get the police involved.
Would Carew and Beals find out? How could they if they worked for Charleston? But, if they were real police and on the take or whatever it was called, she could end up being in an extremely difficult situation, and in more danger than before. She bit her lip as she thought.
"Please? Donny pleaded with her.
"It isn't right for me to ask you to keep secrets from your brother or your parents, Donny. but I'm so scared; I don't want anyone else to know I'm here. Can you understand that?" She watched his face fall as she said it.
Just then, there was a slight noise behind Donny. He turned his head and shoulder, and Katrina's eyes followed his motion. A head appeared in the hole in the wall. It had to be Denny; the boys’ faces were too much alike for him to be anyone else.
"Hey! I found you!" he said, a grin splitting his face. Quickly he scrambled the rest of the way into the tree house. Donny looked at Katrina and smiled, relief plain on his face.
Denny looked with interest at Katrina, sitting on the pillows beneath the windows.
"Who are you?" he asked, staring at her, his blue eyes big with their curiosity.
"This is Katrinker," Donny stated baldly, "and she's just escaped from some bad guys who wanna hurt her. She’s gonna stay up here 'till it gets dark, and then sneak away and get to where she'll be safe, and I'm gonna help her. Now that you're here and I don't hafta keep the secret from you, d’you wanna help her, too?"
Denny turned his blue eyes to Katrina and surveyed her, his interest showing plainly on his face. Katrina returned his gaze, not saying anything, hoping they would keep her secret. Denny startled her with his next words.
"Did the bad guys give you the scratches and that black eye?" he asked, his freckled face full of concern.
“Diff’rent bad guys did that,” Donny blurted out. “I already asked and she toled me.”
Denny looked back at her. “How many bad guys are there after you?”
“I…I’m not sure exactly,," Katrina said realizing that of the two, this one was the leader.
"Where are the bad guys now?" Denny’s questions seemed surprisingly mature for his age, Katrina realized.
"Close by, I think. I hope they won’t think to look for me in your back yard," Katrina answered seriously. She didn’t dare think about what would happen if Jason realized he’d seen her at the pool. Gavin would probably pitch a fit, too. How thoroughly would he search the neighborhood? A shudder slid down her spine, lifting the hairs on the back of her neck.
The boys were silent for awhile, watching her. Suddenly, a male voice came up through the door opening, interrupting her thoughts.
"Denny! Donny! If you want your lunch, you'd better come down right away!"
All three of them jumped at the sound. The boys looked at her, their eyes slightly widening. Denny called out, "Okay, Uncle Randy! We'll be right down!" He turned to look at Donny. "We'd better go down and get our lunch. If we don't, he’ll come and get us, then he’ll see Katrinker."
"Yeah, he will," Donny agreed and headed for the opening.
"Boys," Katrina whispered urgently. "Please don't let anyone know I'm here. Please?"
The twins looked at each other, an unspoken communication flashing between them, and then looked back at her and nodded.
Denny grinned and said, almost in a whisper, "Don't worry, Katrinker, we'll help you!" and followed Donny out of sight and down the ladder.
Katrina turned back to the window, a small smile on her face at the corruption of her name both boys used.
She sighed, knowing there was nothing she could do now, other than pray. She was effectively trapped…at least until the party ended. She couldn't even get out of the tree house, much less the yard, without being seen by members of the family below.
Katrina took a deep breath and let the air escape slowly. She moved back over to the pillows, pushing them into a pile. She sat on some, tucked others behind her and leaned back against the wall. Massaging her temples lightly to ease the pain of her throbbing head, she winced as her fingertips came into contact with the lump from her fall at the zoo. She bent her knees up to her chest and hugged her legs to her, careful of the scrapes there, as well.
Tears came to her eyes as she reviewed all that had happened to her this past week…had it only been a week? It seemed more nearly a lifetime ago that Gavin had first called, interrupting her peaceful life.
Gavin. She wondered again where he’d been all day yesterday. Would she ever see him again? She didn't know. Katrina wondered if she'd even see another full day. It depended on how cleverly she got out of this mess, and if the twins would keep her secret.
A hand clutching a hot dog and bun sloppily wrapped in a bright paper napkin suddenly appeared in the door-hole. The smiling face of one of the twins followed it.
“Sorry I couldn’t get you a plate, too,” he said.
“It’s okay,” Katrina took the food from him. “Thank you, I haven’t eaten since dinner last night.”
His lips made a sudden O as a thought occurred to him. “I bet you haven’t used a bathroom since then, too.”
“As a matter of fact, I haven’t,” Katrina said. “And I don’t dare climb down now with all the people in the yard.” With his words, she felt the need strongly. She marveled at the power of suggestion, supposing fear had stifled the call of nature up to that moment of acknowledgement.
“That’s okay,” the twin said. “We have a chambered pot up here you can use.” He pointed to the corner where an antique looking pot sat awaiting its traditional duties, a half-empty roll of tissue beside it. “We use it when we have sleep-overs out here. Me and Donny can clean it out later when you’re gone.”
“Thank you.” Katrina was touched by his thoughtfulness, and his willingness to clean up after her.
Denny’s face disappeared, and Katrina looked around for a clean enough place to put her hot dog before taking care of her other personal needs. Finding none, she ate it quickly, instead, the slightly air-dry bread tasting delicious, even though there was no liquid to wash it down.
Not wanting to be seen by one of the boys if they should pop in again, Katrina wrapped one of the blankets securely around her before using the chamber pot. Within a few minutes, she was feeling much more comfortable, and sprawled across the pile of sleeping bags and pillows once more.
Turning her thoughts to the future, she began to figure out her best course of action.
Number one: find a place to hide out tonight. It wouldn’t be safe to go home, much as she might like to…both Charleston and Gavin knew where she lived.
Number two: get to the bank tomorrow morning and withdraw all her savings.
Number three: buy a bus ticket to a far-away place—like Florida—and start a new life all over again.
Wait a minute…her brain interrupted her mid-thought. Her bank book was at her house. It was in the living room, between two books on the table that she used as a desk. Well, then, that changed the priorities. Number one had to be going to her house and picking up her savings passbook. She never could remember her account number, and she was certain they wouldn’t let her close out the account without the book. Katrina knew she would need every penny she had in order to get away.
Number one also became the most dangerous. What if the house was being watched? What if the bank was being watched? But who would know which bank—or which branch—she had her money in? Watching all the banks would be just about impossible. Okay, no need to worry about that part, but there were still plenty of other items to worry about. What if Charleston caught her? What would he do to her?
What if…what if…what if! Katrina realized she could 'what if' herself right into a full panic. "Okay," she whispered to herself and took a deep, steadying breath, "then let's say none of the 'what if's' are going to happen. The first thing I need to concentrate on is getting out of here and getting home. If I only worry about each step as I need to do it, I won't drive myself crazy!"
A dripping wet bottle of ice cold water came hurtling through the doorway hole, startling her. A gift, no doubt, of one of the twins. Instinctively she ducked as it arced and landed with a slight thud on the pile of sleeping bags. Straightening, she snatched it up and guzzled the first half, washing down the dry hot dog bun she’d just eaten. Then she replaced the lid, saving the second half of the bottle for later. If there was a later.
Judging by the accuracy of the toss, they probably threw water or soda cans up to each other frequently. She was grateful they were good shots. If they’d missed, and the parents had heard or seen their efforts of trying to toss the bottle into the tree house, they may have come to investigate and she’d have been discovered.
Suddenly Katrina started to giggle. She could just see herself, trapped in the tree house for years while the twins took it in turns to toss food up to her and empty the chamber pot. The more she thought about it, the more the giggles came, despite her efforts to bury them in a pillow, lest they be heard by the parents below. Tears streaming down her cheeks, Katrina slowly regained control of herself. Somehow, the laughter had helped, as it always did; she felt a lot better about herself and the world around her and, with a final hiccup, she became silent once again.