A high school student experiences a series of events that lead her into a mystery.
The Tree on the Dike
A cat, with fur as black as a shadow, bounced through the main doors of the Horton High School. She's here, he thought, I can smell her. Sniffing the concrete floor, his paws traveling across the black and white surface, he searched for his target. Sneezing, he lifted his head from the floor. Too many conflicting odors.
Scanning the many faces that traversed the locker-lined hall, he searched for the face his master had shown him. The face of the enemy.
Farther along the hallway, Susan walked out of math class clutching her test paper.
"This mark will send my grades straight to the bottom of the class," said Susan, fidgeting with her favorite white T-shirt, which bore a cartoon cat on the front. If she grew any taller, the shirt wouldn't even cover her belly button. She towered over everyone else in the tenth grade. It was too bad her grades were headed in the opposite direction.
Jill reached up and put a small hand on Susan's shoulder. "Don't be so hard on yourself." Adjusting her glasses, she tucked her short black hair behind her ear. "I didn't do much better."
"I'll never understand trigonometry." Susan glanced down at her sneakers. It looked like she was going to have to ask her mother to get her another pair. She enjoyed running to school every day, but it meant she needed new sneakers every few months.
"I spent a week studying in my room, and I still don't fully understand it." Jill leaned against a gray locker and brushed lint off her beige slacks.
"Really?" Susan looked at Jill in surprise. She usually had little difficulty with math. "No wonder I find it so confusing."
"Mom tried to help me with some of the sample problems. She won't be very happy when she sees my paper." Jill pulled a hair off the sleeve of her tan shirt.
"Yeah, I'll be in trouble when --" Susan jumped as a hand suddenly landed on her shoulder.
"Sorry sis." Brad gave Jill a polite nod, and then faced Susan. "Look, I'm going to be late getting home today."
"Brad!" Susan looked him over, noticing the ripped knees on his jeans and grass stains on his muscle shirt. "Have you been fighting again? Wait until I tell Mother."
"Hey, I was only defending myself." He ran a hand through his dark brown hair in an attempt to straighten it out, but only succeeded in making it worse. "Tell Mom that I went to Frank's house and will be home for supper. I'll change clothes over there after my detention. I'm sure he has a shirt I can wear."
"Okay, I guess. If you're going anyway, it's not really a lie."
"Thanks Sis. See you later." Brad headed toward the main entrance.
"I'm getting hungry." Susan reached into a front pocket of her faded jeans. "You want to head to the cafeteria?" She pulled out a five-dollar bill. Her mother woke early every morning to go to work at a meat packing plant and was often too rushed to make lunch. Susan didn't mind; she preferred a hot meal.
"Give me a minute to put my books away and get my lunch bag."
"I'll throw my pack in my locker and meet you there." Susan stuffed her test in her backpack and headed down the hall.
* * * * * * * *
A mixed aroma of cooked food and perfume assaulted the friends as they entered the cafeteria. The noise of dozens of students talking at once made conversation difficult. They walked past rows of wooden tables and steel-framed plastic chairs until Jill spotted two seats that were together.
Susan tipped one of the chairs over so its back was resting against the table. "Do you want anything?"
"Maybe a bran muffin." Jill sat on the other chair and began removing her juice pack and sandwiches from a cloth bag.
Susan returned carrying a tray containing meat loaf, mashed potatoes, peas, a glass of milk, an apple, and a muffin. She handed the muffin to Jill. "Is that all you're going to eat?"
Jill set her half-eaten sandwich on a napkin and swallowed. "I'm fine. In fact, you can have half of the muffin."
"Why if it isn't my old friend, Susie." The massive form of a bleach blonde girl stood over the two friends. "Looks like you finally made it into Horton."
Susan placed her fork back on her plate. "Hello, Fiona." Fiona Keeler had towered over the other girls in grade school and enjoyed pushing them around. Susan stood up to her one day and Fiona made her life miserable for several months afterward. Eventually, Fiona graduated to Horton High, leaving Susan with two years of peace. Now she was in school with Fiona for another whole year.
"Gee, you don't seem happy to see me. I thought you enjoyed being chased around the schoolyard." Fiona smiled widely, showing all her teeth; it was not a pleasant sight.
"I enjoyed it when you didn't catch me." Susan looked at the monkey icon on Fiona's T- shirt to avoid looking into her eyes.
"You won't be able to outrun me anymore," said Fiona, "I've been in training for the last couple of years." She placed a hand on her chin. "You know, I could use some real competition in the tryouts for the regional championships on Saturday. Why don't you come, if you're not too chicken?"
"Maybe I don't want to race in the championship." Susan turned away and took a deep breath, trying to relax her stomach.
"What's the matter? Did you quit running once I wasn't around to chase you?" Fiona put her hands on her sides and flapped her arms a few times. "Or are you chicken?"
"I'm not chicken!" Susan stood up to stare Fiona in the eye, and was surprised to find Fiona no longer towered over her.
Fiona took a couple of steps backward and looked Susan up and down. "My how you've grown. You're still as skinny as a rake, and about as smart, too. Come out on Saturday, and we'll see if you can run with those chicken legs of yours." She turned and headed for the lunch line.
Susan sat back down, put her elbows on the table, and placed her head in her hands. "What do you think I should do? I don't train like the girls on the track team. What chance do I have of beating Fiona? Besides, I need to concentrate on my studies. I really don't need the extra headache."
"You love running. Don't let Fiona frighten you. If you make the regional team, I'll help you keep up with your school work."
"Thanks, Jill." Susan finished her apple and set the core on the tray. "Maybe I will run. I'll show her I'm not chicken."
"I know you'll beat her, too."
Susan placed her hands on the table. "You bet I will." She took a deep breath and relaxed. "Besides, I don't care if I make the team anyway, so it doesn't matter how I do." Susan got up and put her tray in a rack. On her way back to Jill, the bell rang. "Well, I guess we better head off to English."
"I hope Mrs. Eagles doesn't give us a pop quiz like last time." Jill threw her empty juice box in the garbage.
"I'm in trouble if she does. I haven't looked at my book since yesterday. Come on, I'll race you."
"No fair, you're faster than I am." Both girls giggled as they hurried down the hallway.
* * * * * * * *
After the final bell rang at 3:30, Susan headed to her locker and transferred her homework to a smaller backpack. She needed to travel light for the long hike home, so she chose her books carefully. Running gave her a chance to think about the day, and it was also good exercise. Besides, her mother didn't get home from work until after four, and Susan didn't like being in the house by herself.
"I'll see you tomorrow." Jill waved as she walked by, heading for the main doors. Since the school was situated between three towns, most people took the bus home, including Jill.
Susan waved to her friend as she disappeared in the crowd. Most of the students couldn't wait to leave, and the building emptied quickly.
Susan went to a wooden bench, on the opposite side of the hall from her locker. She placed her English workbook under the light of the evening sun and worked on some problems. If she finished some of her homework here, there would be fewer books to carry home.
While reading over a paragraph in her book, Susan was startled by the sound of a door slamming and the sound of metal on concrete. She looked down the hallway and saw a black cat sitting on the floor, staring at her. When she stood up, the cat ran into the girl's washroom. Strange, how did a cat get in here?
Upon reaching the washroom door, she noticed that the door was held open with a steel wastepaper can. She scanned the room but didn't see the cat. Opening the door of the closest stall, she found nothing unusual. She reached for the second door.
Suddenly the wastepaper can flew by Susan's head and hit the paper towel dispenser on the back wall. Standing in the doorway was a giant of a man with shaggy black hair. Using his muscular arm, he pushed the door closed. She only realized the washroom light was off when everything went black.
Continued in "The Tree on the Dike - chapter 2"