Black Dawn (Chapter 2)

Beside her, Jake growled again, but Maggie only heard it distantly. No one else even lookedtoward them.

I can't believe how well I'm taking this, Maggiethought. Something's wrong with me. I'm not hysterical at all.

Her mind had gotten hold of the idea quiteclearly, but there was no reaction in her body, no terrible feeling in her stomach. An instant later itswept over her, exactly what she'd been afraid of. A wash of adrenaline that made her skin tinglepainfully and a horrible sensation of falling in her stomach. A numbness that started in her cheeksand spread to her lips and jaw.

Oh, please, she thought stupidly. Please let it notbe true. Maybe he's just hurt.That would be allright. He had an accident and he's hurt-but notdead.

But if he were hurt her mother wouldn't bestanding there screaming. She would be on her way to the hospital, and nobody could stop her. So thatdidn't work, and Maggie's mind, darting and wheel ing like a frightened little animal, had to go back

to Please don't let this be true.

Strangely, at that moment, it seemed as if theremight be some way to make it not true. If sheturned around and sneaked back to her bedroombefore anyone saw her; if she got into bed and pulled the blankets over her head and shut hereyes…

But she couldn't leave her mother screaming like this.

Just then the screams died down a little. Her father was speaking in a voice that didn't sound at all like his voice. It was a sort of choked whisper."But why didn't you tell us you were going climbing? If you left on Halloween then it's been sixdays. We didn't even know our son was missing…."

"I'm sorry." Sylvia was whispering, too. "Wedidn't expect to be gone long. Miles's roommatesknew we were going, but nobody else. It was justa spur-of-themoment thingwe didn't have classeson Halloween and the weather was so nice andMiles said, hey, let's go out to Chimney Rock. And we justwent…."

Hey, let's go.He used to say that kind of thing to me, Maggie thought with a strange, dazed twinge.But not since he met Sylvia.

The male sheriff was looking at Maggie's father."You weren't surprised that you hadn't heard from your son since last Friday?"

"No. He's gotten so independent since he movedout to go to college. One of his roommates calledthis afternoon to ask if Miles was here-but hedidn't say that Miles had been gone for almost aweek. I just thought he'd missed a class orsomething…." Maggie's father's voice trailed off.

The sheriff nodded. "Apparently his roommatesthought he'd taken a little unauthorized vacation,"he said.

"They got worried enough to call us tonight-but by then a ranger had already pickedup Sylvia."

Sylvia was crying. She was tall but willowy, fragile looking. Delicate. She had shimmering hair sopale it was almost silvery and clear eyes the exactcolor of wood violets. Maggie, who was short andround faced, with fox-colored hair and brown eyes,had always envied her.

But not now. Nobody could look at Sylvia nowwithout feeling pity.

"It happened that first evening. We started up,but then the weather started turning bad and weturned around. We were moving pretty fast." Sylviastopped and pressed a fist against her mouth.

"It's kind of a risky time of year for climbing," the female sheriff began gently, but Sylvia shookher head.

And she was right, Maggie thought. It wasn't thatbad. Sure, it rained here most of the fall, but sometimes what the weather people called a high pressure cell settled in and the skies stayed blue for amonth. All hikers knew that.

Besides, Miles washt scared of weather. He wasonly eighteen but he'd done lots of hard climbs in Washington's Olympic and Cascade ranges. He'dkeep climbing all winter, getting alpine experience in snow and storms.

Sylvia was going on, her voice getting more jerkybreathless. "Miles was…he'd had the flu aweek before and he wasn't completely over it. Buthe seemed okay, strong. It happened when we were rappelling down. He was laughing and joking andeverything…. I never thought he might be tired enough to makea mistake…." Her voice wavered turned into a ragged sob and the ranger puthis arm around her.

Something inside Maggie froze. Amistake?Miles?

She was prepared to hear aboutasudden avalanche or a piece of equipment failing. Even Sylviafalling and knocking Miles off. But Miles makinga mistake?

Maggie stared at Sylvia, and suddenly somethingin the pitiful figure bothered her.

There was something odd about that delicatelyflushed face and those tear-drenched violet eyes. Itwas all too perfect, too tragic, as if Sylvia werean Academy award-winning actress doing a famousscene-and enjoying it.

"I don't know howit happened," Sylvia was whispering. "The anchor was good. We should have hada back-up anchor, but we were in a hurry. And he must have …oh, God, there must have beensomething wrong with his harness. Maybe thebuckle wasn't fastened right, or the carabiners might have been upside down…:'


Suddenly Maggie's feelings crystalized. It was asif everything came into focus at once.

That's impossible. That's wrong.

Miles was too good. Smart and strong and anamazing technical climber. Confident but careful. Maggie only hoped she'd be that good someday.

No way he'd buckle his harness wrong, or clip his 'biners upside down. No matter how sick hewas. In fact, no way he'd go without a back-upanchor. I'mthe one who tries to do things like that,and then he yells at me that if I'm not careful I'm going to have an adventure.

Miles doesn't.

So it meant Sylvia was lying.

The thought came to Maggie on a little wave ofshock. It made her feel as if she were suddenlyspeeding backwards, or as if the room were receding from her very fast.

But why?Why would Sylvia make up such a terrible story? It didn't make any sense.

Sylvia had a hand half covering her eyes now."I looked for him, but …there was icefall…a crevasse…"

No body. She's saying there's no body .

With that, a new wave of heat swept over Maggie.And, strangely, what made her certain of it was Sylvia's eyes.

Those violet eyes had been turned down for mostof the time Sylvia had beentalking, fixed on theSpanish tiles in the entry hall. But now, as Sylviagot to the last revelation, they had shifted toward Maggie. Toward Maggie's feet. They fixed there,slid away, and then came back and stayed.

It made Maggie glance down at her own feet.

My socks. She's staring at my socks.

One red and one blueand she's noticing that.

Like an actress who's said the same lines oftenenough that she doesn't even need to pay attention to them anymore.

All at once, hot anger was burning through Maggie's shock, filling her so there was no room foranything else. She stared hard at Sylvia,whoseemed to be very far away but very bright. And inthat same instant she knew for certain.

This girl is lying.

She must have done something-something terrible. And she can't show us Miles's body – or maybethere isn't a body because he's still alive.

Yes! Maggie felt suddenly lifted by hope. It is alla mistake. There's no reason for Miles to be dead.All we have to do is make Sylvia tell the truth.

But nobody else in the room knew. They wereall listening asSylvia went on with her story. Theyall believed.

"I didn't get out before the weatherhit….I hadto stay in the tent for three days. When I got out Iwas so weak, but I managed to signal to some climbers. They saved me, took care ofme….Bythen it was too late to look for him. I knew there was no chance he'd made it through thatstorm…."

She broke down completely.

The ranger began talking about weather conditions and recovery efforts, and suddenly Maggie'smother was making strange gasping noises andsinking toward the floor.

"Mom!" Frightened, Maggie started toward her.Her father looked up and seemed to realize for thefirst time that she was there.

"Oh, Maggie. We've had some bad news."

He's trying to take care of me. But he doesn'trealize…I've got to tell him….

"Dad," she said urgently." L isten. There's something-"

"Maggie," her mother interrupted, stretching outa hand. She sounded rational, but there was something wild in her eyes. "I'm so sorry, baby. Something awful has happened-"

And then she fainted. Suddenly Maggie's fatherwas staggering under dead weight. And then theranger and one of the sheriffs were brushing pastMaggie. They were holding her mother up, and hermother's head was lolling, moving around on aboneless neck, and her mother's mouth and eyeswere part open and part closed. A new kind ofawful feeling came to Maggie, making her weakand giddy. She was afraid she would faint herself.

"Where can we-" the male officer began.

"There's the couch," Maggie's father said hoarselyat the same time. There was no room for Maggie.She could only stand out of the way and dizzilywatch them carryher mother.

As they did, Sylvia began murmuring. It tookMaggie a moment to focus on the words. "I'm sosorry. I'm so sorry. I wish there was something …I should go home now."

"You stay right here," the female officer said,looking toward Maggie's mother. "You're in no condition to be walking anywhere. You'd be in the hospital now if you hadn't insisted on coming herefirst."

"I don't need a hospital. I'm just so tired..:'The officer turned. "Why don't you go sit in thecar?" she said gently.

Sylvia nodded. She looked fragile and sad as shewalked down the path toward the squad car. It wasa beautiful exit, Maggie thought. You could practically hear the theme music swelling.

But Maggie was the only one with the chance toappreciate it. She was the only one watching asSylvia reached the car … and paused.

And then turned away from it and continued ondown the street.

And the end credits run, Maggie thought.

Then she thought, she's going to her apartment. Maggie stood frozen, pulled in two directions. She wanted to stay and help her mother. But something inside her was utterly furious and focused and it was screaming at her to follow Sylvia.Instinct had always been Maggie's strong point.She hung there for a moment, with her heartpounding so hard that it seemed to be coming out-of her mouth. Then she ducked her head andclenched her fists.

It was a gesture the girls on her soccer teamwould have recognized. It meant that Steely Neelyhad made up her mind and was going to rush inwhere smarter people feared to tread. Look out,world; it's stomping time.

Maggie whirled and dashed back down the hallinto her bedroom.

She slapped the light switch on and lookedaround as if she'd never seen the place before.What did she need-and why did she always keepit so messy? How could she find things?

She kicked and pulled at a pile of bath towelsuntil a pair of hightop tennis shoes emerged, thenshe jammed her feet in them. There was no timeto change her pajama top. She snatched a dark blue jacket off the floor and found herself, just fora moment, nose to nose with a photograph stuckinto the frame of her mirror.

A picture of Miles, on the summit of MountRainier. He was grinning and giving the thumbs upsign. His hat was off and his auburn hair was shining in the sun like red gold. He looked handsomeand a little wicked.

Scrawled in black marker across white snow was"For the bossiest, nosiest, stubbornest, BEST little sister in the world. Love, Miles."

With no idea whyshe was doing it, Maggie pulledthe picture out of the mirror. She shoved it in herjacket pocket and ran back down the hall.

Everyone was gathered around the couch, now.Even Jake was nosing his way in. Maggie couldn't see her mother, but the lack of frantic activity toldher that there wasn't any crisis going on. Everyoneseemed quiet and restrained.

It'll just take a few minutes. It's better for me notto tell them anything until I'm sure. I'll probablybe back before they even realize I'm gone.

With that jumble of excuses in her mind, sheslipped out the front door to follow Sylvia.