Ever since Alyssa Barsky was six years old, she’s been hearing a voice. This mysterious voice saves her life not once, but twice. But what she doesn’t know when she begins to trust this voice, is that doing so will put her on a collision course with the one boy from school with the intent to kill.
If Alyssa Barksy had the kind of mother who read Bible stories at bedtime, maybe she wouldn’t have thought that hearing voices was all that unusual. Moses had his burning bush, little Samuel was awakened in the night and Father Abraham moved his whole family far away because of messages from a strange voice he’d never heard before. Knowing about all that might have made what happened to her seem normal. For Alyssa, the voice came for the first time as she walked home from school on a Tuesday afternoon. She was six years old.
She walked along the mill road, keeping to the gravel shoulder, chanting to herself the poem Mrs. Crowley had taught the class that day, “Alligator pie, alligator pie, if I don’t get some, I think I”m gonna die.”
She didn’t usually walk home from school alone. Usually, she was with Cory Nyland. Cory lived two rows over in the trailer park. He and his family had arrived in Clifton the previous summer, just like Alyssa and her mother had. Cory was eight years old, and the two found each other almost immediately, playing all those sunny afternoons in the apple orchard next to the trailer park. But then school had begun, and enforced that unwritten code that children should play only with other children the same age, in the same grade, and Cory’s eagerness to join her in her games had worn off.
Nevertheless, they still walked to school together every day. For Alyssa those walks were bathed in sunlight—moments she could slice from her day and revel in later to help the bitter ones go down more smoothly. Away from the eyes of the other children, just Cory and her, he was the same boy he always had been, and they would talk and laugh, imagine and play.
But today, Cory was sick—at least that’s what Alyssa supposed—because he hadn’t stood in their meeting place this morning. And after a few moments waiting around nervously kicking at gravel, she’d struck off for school on her own. Her mother had been having one of her days, so she wasn’t there to tell Alyssa what to do, and Alyssa knew that Mrs. Crowley didn’t like her students to be late for school.
She knew the way. It was early November. She’d been walking that same route to school every day since the first week of September. Through the break in the fence, across the apple orchard, out on onto the mill road, turn left at Green Road, another quarter mile, and the school building stood on the right. She arrived early enough to join the girls skipping rope at the front of the school. No one noticed she arrived alone.
“Alligator pie, alligator pie. If I don’t get some, I think—“
Don’t go through the orchard.
She spun around. Gravel skittered along the road.
“Who’s there?” she called, hand on her hip.
A red-winged blackbird sang his song in a tree beside the road. There were no other sounds.
She took a step, looking warily around her. “Alligator pie, alligator pie. If I don’t get some—“
Within minutes, she reached the edge of the orchard. An eight-minute trek through its rows, and she’d be home. Maybe her mom’s mood had improved. Maybe she’d bought groceries. Maybe there’d be cookies or something to snack on. She’d packed her own lunch that morning: a bologna sandwich and some stale potato chips she found in a crumpled bag on the kitchen counter. Her stomach had been growling since two-thirty. She stepped into the long, itchy grass of the ditch. “If I don’t get some—“
Don’t go through the orchard.
She spun around again. “I said, ‘Who’s there?’” she yelled. “Cory, is that you?”
She bit her lip and her fingers curled around the handle of the lunch box and the skipping rope she carried, bunched up, in her hand. She stared up the long road ahead of her. She didn’t know what was going on, but if she didn’t walk through the orchard, she’d have to walk an extra mile and a half: up the road to the distant corner, now out of sight, turn left and walk along the highway, then left again into the trailer park entrance.
Her mother didn’t let her walk on the highway alone. The road ahead of her stretched long, with a hill between her and the corner. Her stomach growled again. If there was a cookie waiting at home, she’d have a lot longer to wait for it. She stared regretfully at the bare branches of the apple trees that reached up into the crisp blue sky. There had been no apples there for weeks. The grounders had long ago turned sweet and pungent and mushy. She could really use an apple right now. Just imagining them made her jaw ache and the saliva begin to run.
Down the long, grassy trail between the trees, she could almost see their trailer from here. Through the break in the fence, curve left down the main trailer park road and left again to their row of homes. So close—
She turned resolutely and took a step down the long road to the highway.
Five minutes later, the silence of her journey was broken by a whining sound. Louder and louder it screamed until a flash and a tremendous bang and then an explosion shatters the silent afternoon.
She stood on the road and stared at the spot where already flames licked angrily at the sky. The apple orchard. Right about where she would have been if—“
“Don’t go through the orchard,” she murmured.
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