Julia reluctantly joins her cousin Nikki and her friends for a night of partying. Climbing into the hills, they spot Heath, a strange guy from school, and they chase him into a dilapidated cabin. Julia watches, horrified, as Nikki’s friends set fire to the old building and wait for Heath to run out in terror. He never appears, and the cabin burns to the ground.
Julia knows she must go to the police. But Nikki and her friends threaten to kill Julia if she tells anybody what happened. But then Julia receives the note that changes everything: “You tried to kill me. For that you will die.”
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Back from the Dead
By Carol Gorman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Carol Gorman
All rights reserved.
It was nearly dark as we climbed into the hills that night. Nikki had said we were there "looking for adventure," but I couldn't imagine what kind of adventure we'd find. Five of the six of us were plastered.
I had no idea that before the night was over, somebody would be dead.
I didn't want to be here any more than Nikki wanted me. She and I had barely spoken since we'd left the house to pick up the others.
She and Matt led the way, stumbling through the brush and tangled weeds. They each carried a can of beer in one hand and a six-pack in the other. We all had backpacks stuffed with fireplace logs and blankets.
"Look at the moon!" Nikki said, gazing at the huge orange orb hanging in the eastern sky.
Matt threw back his head and howled, and the others laughed and howled with him.
Nikki took a drink from her beer can. "I've heard that people get crazy under a full moon. More murders are committed during that time than any other."
"Maybe there's a murderer in these hills," said Randy Shaw. "He'll find our campfire and bludgeon us all to death."
"Or one of us will go insane and kill the rest, and all that'll be left is a bloody mass of bones, hair, and denim," said Matt.
"Shut up." Nikki turned to me, smirking. "We don't want to scare poor Julia."
They all looked back at me and sneered, including Sean Wallace, my so-called date, who was more drunk than anyone. Nikki had picked Sean especially for me tonight.
Bless her heart.
Nikki Stott hates me. I'm not too crazy about her, either, even though she's my cousin. I'd moved in with her family just before school had started two weeks earlier. Mom and Dad needed some time alone, they'd said, to work on saving their marriage. They'd promised it would be just for one semester.
This morning I'd heard Nikki arguing with her mother about me. "Why do I have to drag her with me every place I go? I didn't ask her to come here and wreck my life. She doesn't fit in. All she cares about are her grades and being perfect. I'm sick of her!"
"She's my sister's only child," my Aunt Helen had said. "I owe it to her to help. I'm sure Julia's upset about the trouble her parents are having, and she doesn't know anyone else in Franklin Heights. She must feel lonely, so you should include her when you go out with your friends."
"Poor Julia," Nikki had said, her voice filled with contempt.
Aunt Helen had sighed. She didn't understand that I didn't want to be a part of Nikki's social life. I had nothing in common with Nikki or her friends. In fact, most of the time, they either bored or exasperated me. All they thought about were their parties and beer. And football. Matt, Sean, and Randy were heroes in town because they were on the football team.
There wasn't much else to do in Franklin Heights for entertainment.
"This is the perfect place for a mass murder," Matt said. "Lonely and deserted."
Sean laughed. "No one would hear the screams."
"It'd be cool if it happened to somebody else," Nikki said, grinning slyly. "We'd read about it in the paper and try to figure out who the murderer was."
I'd been so stupid to let Aunt Helen talk me into going with them. I knew it would be like this.
A movement in the brush about twenty yards to our right caught my attention.
"What's that?" I said.
"What?" Sean said, loping along at my side. "I don't see anything."
I could've pointed out that he was in no condition to see an elephant stampede right in front of him but decided Sean might not care for my sarcasm.
A face peered out of the deepening shadows. A guy.
He scrambled out of his hiding place and ran into the moonlight. He paused a second and stared at us. He had a dirty face and wore clothes that were soiled and torn. His mouth hung open.
Matt picked up a stone and threw it at the man. "Get out of here, man! You're crashing our party!"
"Cut it out, Matt," I said. "Leave him alone."
The man scurried across the clearing and tripped at the far end where the woods began. He scrambled to his feet and disappeared into the woods.
Sean laughed. "Look at him go!"
"And don't come back!" yelled Nikki.
"What a spooky guy," said Brandi. "I bet he was a hobo. Maybe he jumped off a train at the bottom of the hill."
"Have you ever seen anyone so dirty and ugly?" Nikki said. "He couldn't have been much older than us."
"Maybe he's a mass murderer," Randy said.
"Julia didn't like it when you threw that rock," Brandi said to Matt.
"Well, you know where Julia can go." Matt mumbled it, but I heard what he'd said.
"She can go wherever she wants to go," Nikki said. "Just so it's out of my life."
"Okay, look," I said. "Why don't you guys just take me back to town?"
"Oh, right," Nikki said. "And you'll tell my mom we dumped you! Forget it."
"Drop me off at the library," I said. "I'll read till they close and then walk over to the Doughnut Palace. You can pick me up there later."
"I'm not driving you clear back to town!" Nikki said. "So just quit whining."
Sean laughed. "That's good." He looked at me unsteadily and peered closely into my face. "Quit whining, woman."
His beer breath turned my stomach. Yechk.
"Terrific," I said, turning my head away from Sean.
"Come on, let's go," Nikki said. She started off into the clearing.
We followed her to where the man had vanished.
"We have to walk through the woods to get higher into the hills," Matt said. He pulled out a flashlight. "I'll lead the way."
We followed Matt into the woods. It was very dark, and I wished I'd thought to bring a flashlight. If Sean had been sober, I could have held onto his arm. But he was more likely to fall than anyone else, and I didn't want him to take me down, too. He was a linebacker, six-three, and probably over two hundred pounds; I'd get squashed if he fell on top of me.
"Isn't there a path we could follow?" Nikki asked.
"We're following it," Matt said. "It's hard to see." He shone the flashlight on a faint path at his feet.
A couple of times a small animal scrambled through the underbrush to get out of our way, and each time Nikki screamed and grabbed Matt's arm.
"Relax, will you?" Matt said. "It's just a rabbit or something."
It took about twenty minutes to make our way through the woods and into a clearing. Coming out of the darkness among the trees, the clearing appeared bright and silvery under the moonlight.
A figure was crossing the clearing ahead.
"Hey, there's the hobo again," Brandi said, pointing.
"No," Nikki said. "The hobo was wearing dark clothes, and this guy's wearing a light-colored jacket."
"Man, this place is becoming Grand Central Station," Matt said. "I thought these hills were deserted."
"Hey, isn't he that weird kid at school?" Brandi said, peering into the distance.
"Yeah!" Randy said. "Look at him limp. That's Heath Quinn."
"It is Quinn!" Nikki said. "He's got on that ratty, beige jacket he always wears."
I knew who Heath was. He was in my lit class. He sat in the back of the room and had only spoken during one discussion.
We'd been assigned to read Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" in the first week of school. Most of the students hadn't done their homework, so the half-dozen or so people who had read it did most of the talking.
"I think Poe should have said what this Fortunato guy did to deserve getting buried alive inside the brick wall," said April Briar. "I didn't know whether to feel sorry for him or not."
"Does it matter?" asked Ms. Cater, our teacher. "Should Fortunato have to die this hideous death because he had made Montresor angry?"
Ms. Cater looked down at the list of student names on a sheet of paper. "Matt?"
Matt slid down in his seat and folded his arms. "I dunno."
"Did you read the story?"
"No." He looked around the room, grinning.
Most of the kids—especially the ones who also hadn't read it—snickered.
"Well, how do you feel about revenge?" Ms. Cater asked.
Matt continued grinning. "I believe in it."
"I think April's right," a blonde said from across the room. "It depends on what the person did to you."
"Why do you think the viewpoint character doesn't tell us what Fortunato had done to him?" Ms. Cater asked. She looked down at her student list, then up at me. "Julia?"
"Maybe it wasn't important," I said. "Maybe we're supposed to wonder about revenge in general and not about whether Fortunato deserved to die."
"Do you think most people believe in revenge?" Ms. Cater asked. "Heath?"
Her question was met with silence.
I turned back to look for the student named Heath.
A guy with greasy, dark hair slicked straight back gazed up from his desk. I saw something in his eyes that set off alarms in my head. He looked haunted.
"Heath?" Ms. Cater repeated.
He stared at the far wall, not at Ms. Cater.
"Everyone believes in revenge," he said. His voice was soft and without expression.
"It makes the world go 'round."
Eve Lenhart, who sits next to me, turned to face him. "I thought it was love that makes the world go 'round," she said.
"No," Heath said. "Hate and revenge are the most powerful forces in the universe."
There were more snickers, but this time the laughter was directed at Heath.
"What a dweeb," Matt said, snickering.
The discussion continued, but I couldn't get my mind off that dark-haired guy in the back with the haunted eyes. I wondered about his pain and his anger, and I wanted to know more about him.
I wished I could turn and look at him again, but I didn't.
That was the only time he'd spoken in two weeks.
"Hey," Nikki said now, "let's follow him! I want to see where he's going."
"Yeah," Matt said. "What's he doing up here, anyway?"
"Looks like he knows where he's going," Brandi said. "Even limping, he's going pretty fast."
"Don't get too close," Matt said. "I bet he doesn't even know we're here."
"We'll sneak up on him," Randy said. He imitated Heath's walk, and the others laughed and limped, too.
We headed toward Heath and followed him at a distance.
"We can't get too far behind or we'll lose him," Nikki said. "I want to see where he goes."
Seconds after she'd said it, Heath disappeared into a stand of trees.
"I told you not to get too far behind!" Nikki said.
"Let's keep going," Matt said. "We'll catch up."
We walked to the trees and stopped.
"Hey, look, there's another path!" Brandi said.
We followed the path through the trees and climbed higher and higher, past rocky outcroppings and more woods. We glimpsed Heath ahead of us as he reached the far edge of the trees on top of the hill.
Heath had to have known we were following him by then. Nikki, Matt, and Brandi were talking in loud voices about him as if he couldn't hear us.
"He's so gross!" Nikki said.
"He hardly ever says a word to anyone," Brandi said.
"He lives with his mom and dad in a crappy house at the edge of town. His dad's drunk all the time," Matt said.
At the top of the hill, we followed Heath into a clearing. There, squatting among the weeds, was a small, dilapidated cabin. Heath climbed the wooden stairs onto the sagging porch, pushed open the door, and disappeared inside.
I stared at the little building. I suppose I felt a kind of bond with Heath since he didn't fit in with these people any more than I did. Why had he come up here?
"Hey, Heath!" Matt yelled. "Come on out! We're having a party!"
"We've got lots of beer!" Nikki hollered. "The more the merrier!" She laughed and Brandi giggled, too.
There was no response or movement at the door or windows.
"I don't think he wants to come out and play," Sean said, pretending to be disappointed.
"Come on, let's go find a spot for a campfire," I said.
"I think this is a good spot for a campfire," Sean said.
Matt laughed. "Yeah, he'll come out for sure if we set a campfire on his front porch!"
Nikki grinned. "It'll scare him to death!"
They began unpacking their backpacks, taking out the logs and gathering up brush on the ground.
"Are you kidding?" I said. I couldn't imagine that they were serious. "You aren't really going to set a fire on the porch, are you?"
"Shut up, Julia," Nikki said. "You ruin everything."
"You can't do that!" I said.
"Just watch us," Matt said. He piled the wood on the porch and stuffed some newspapers under it.
I ran onto the porch and kicked at the logs, shoving them off the porch. "You jerks," I screamed.
"You're all drunk! Stop it! Heath!" I yelled.
"They're starting a fire on the porch! You'd better come out!"
Nikki bounded up the steps and smacked me across the mouth. "I said, shut up!"
White lights flashed across my eyes. I shoved Nikki hard to the side and banged on the door.
"Heath!" I yelled again. "Come out! They're going to set fire to this place."
Matt grabbed me and threw me off the porch. I fell backward on my butt in the weeds.
Matt took out a lighter and set fire to the newspapers under the logs.
"Heath!" I shouted. "Heath!"
Still there was no response from inside the house.
Flames leaped up from the logs, crackling and popping. A lick of fire crept along the edge of the brittle wooden porch. Flames jumped higher and set the porch roof on fire.
Nikki and Matt whooped.
"Heath!" I yelled. "Please come out!"
"Would you look at that place go!" Sean said, grinning.
"Too bad Heath won't join our party," Randy said.
"Just watch," Matt said. "He'll come running out here any second."
"And if you think he walks funny," Nikki said, "wait till you see him run!" Everyone laughed.
Matt held up a beer can. "To you, Heath! I dedicate this party in your honor!"
The others raised their cans and echoed. "To Heath!"
Now the entire cabin was engulfed in fire. Heavy smoke heaved upward into the night air.
There was a long moment before anyone spoke.
"Why isn't he coming out, Matt?" Nikki said. She pushed a strand of hair out of her face.
"How should I know?" Matt said.
"Maybe he's hurt," I said, "and he can't get out."
"You wanna rescue him, Julia?" Nikki said. "Go get him. We won't stop you."
By now, though, that was impossible. The front door was burning wildly, as was the whole front wall of the cabin.
I ran around to the back. There was no door. There were two screenless windows; one was open about six inches, but too high for me to reach.
"Heath!" I screamed. "Heath! Can you hear me? You can get out through the back window!"
The only response was a lick of fire that whipped out the window above me.
I ran around to the front of the cabin.
Nikki, Matt, Brandi, Randy, and Sean sat in silence, watching the inferno before them. They had to be thinking what I was thinking—there was no way Heath Quinn could survive this fire.
The heat of the blaze was unbearable.
"Let's get out of here," Nikki said.
One of the side walls gave way, and the entire roof of the cabin collapsed in on itself.
Nikki cried out and buried her face in her hands. "I want to go home."
"He's dead," Brandi said. "Heath's dead."
"Don't say that!" Nikki cried.
"Why not?" I said. "It's the truth."
"Shut up, Julia!" Nikki screamed. "Don't ever say that again!"
"Let's get out of here," Matt said. "But first, pick up everything we brought. Don't leave any evidence that we were here!"CHAPTER 2
"I swear, if you tell anybody, Julia, I'll say it was your idea. And everybody will back me up. You know they will."
Nikki sat on her bed. She clutched her pillow over her stomach and glowered at me.
We'd arrived home a few minutes ago. Aunt Helen and Uncle Jim had just disappeared into their bedroom for the night. We'd managed a curt yes to Aunt Helen's question, as to whether we had a good time.
Then I'd followed Nikki to her bedroom.
"Nikki, a guy was killed tonight. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
"We don't know he was killed!" she said. "Maybe he escaped somehow. Maybe he got out the back way."
"That's possible, but I don't think so. The cabin was sitting in a clearing. We would've seen him if he'd run in any direction. Except maybe straight back. But it's probably a half mile to the trees. He didn't have time to run that far."
"We still don't know that he died!" Nikki said. "We don't know anything!"
"Chances are very good that Heath was killed, and the fire caused his death. You know that."
"Get out of my room," Nikki said. "I don't want to talk about this anymore."
"We have to talk about it! You can't pretend it didn't happen! This was murder!"
"I hate you, Julia! You've ruined my life."
"I've ruined your life?"
"Why did you have to come here!" Nikki cried. "Everything was fine until you showed up!"
"Get out of my room and keep your mouth shut about Heath Quinn. You'll be up to your neck in trouble if you tell. I'll make sure of that!"
I knew she meant it. She wasn't going to change her mind about going to the sheriff. She and her friends would stick together, keep quiet, and never tell what happened.
And if I went to the sheriff, all five of them would say it was my idea to set fire to the cabin.
We had a conspiracy of silence.
To hide a murder.
I hurried down the hall from chemistry on Monday morning and arrived early to my lit class.
Heath wasn't there, of course. I knew he wouldn't be, but I'd hoped that he'd miraculously survived that awful fire. Maybe he'd surprise me and come and sit silently in the back of the room as always.
Excerpted from Back from the Dead by Carol Gorman. Copyright © 1995 Carol Gorman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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