My face was mostly buried in Emmie’s hair, but I could see the light change, and I lifted my head. The shadow moved toward us with the lantern held low to the ground. Its bouncing light flashed up, blinding me, and then swung down again leaving me squinting into darkness. I couldn’t make out any details. The shadow seemed to shift from side to side as it walked.
“Hey, girly girl,” said a gritty voice, and the shadow lifted the lantern so I could see his face. I squinted again at the sudden light and tried to focus on the shape in front of me. Dark waves of oily hair tumbled to his shoulders and framed a face with angular features. A sharp nose stuck out above a thin mustache, and a half grown beard dirtied his cheeks and gathered into a wedge of hair on a pointy chin. His eyes were as dark as his hair, but the lantern light glinted off of them and made me feel like he was looking right through me.
The man looked me up and down in a way that made me want to pull my arms in across my chest and look down toward scuffling feet. He looked at me with the same contempt I’d often seen on the disapproving faces of adults in town, but along with it came the uncomfortable feeling I’d get when the boys at school stared too long.
“Hey, Bets. This is Seth.” Emmie’s cheerful voice didn’t match the person she gestured toward. Emmie’s letter to me said she was heading to Woodstock with a friend. I’d either forgotten that or had decided it wasn’t important. Or I guess maybe I’d assumed Emmie’s friend would be another girl—a girl like Emmie, and like me.
“Nice to meet you, girly girl.” Seth stuck his hand out toward me in a sudden movement that seemed to throw him off balance for a second. He shifted his feet to stay upright, and the movement rippled through him, reminding me of a snake.
I tried to convince myself that Seth was like the darkened houses I’d passed on my ride out to the river and Emmie’s campsite. Intimidating in a way that caught you off guard, but as harmless as any of the houses I rode by every day. But I couldn’t brush off the eerie feeling. Instead, the longer Seth stood in front of me, the more I thought that the dark house was frightening after all. The bushes weren’t hiding flower beds, they were tangled with poison ivy. The comfortable rocking chairs had been smashed and shoved off the edge of the porch in a heap, their cushions gathering mold. A dead animal smell hung in the front yard, and I shuddered to think what I’d find if I stepped through the front door.
But I gathered my courage as best I could and planted my feet the same way I’d done in the middle of the street in front of the dark house. “My name is Elizabeth,” I said in as firm a voice as I could muster. Seth’s immediate response was a cackle that filled the dark around us. The hand he’d extended to shake mine went to his chest as he clutched himself in uncontrolled laughter. He sauntered off, his feet following a curved and staggering path as the lantern swung beside him.
Emmie looked at me embarrassed. “Seth’s okay when you get to know him, really.” She could see the doubt on my face and added, “He’s okay when he’s not… well, he’s okay most of the time.” Emmie’s standard “cool” was conspicuously absent from her assessment of Seth, and I couldn’t help feeling like she was trying to convince herself along with me.
“He’s one of my roommates,” she continued. “Well, sort of a new one actually. He came to the house about six months ago. He’s dating one of my friends.” Then she paused like she was figuring out how to say what came next. “Or was dating, I guess. She dumped him, and then decided not to go to Woodstock with us. Which is where the extra ticket came from.” None of what Emmie was saying took away the sinking feeling I’d gotten from meeting Seth.
“He calls me girly girl. I am anything but girly,” I said with a huff. What he called me was the least of all the things that bothered me about Seth, but the nickname he’d immediately adopted for me was the easiest to articulate. It didn’t matter. Emmie saw the concern on my face.
“Look, Bets. He’s annoying and weird, but he’s not dangerous. He’s... just... creepy.” Yes, he was creepy, but not just creepy. Creepy. I wanted to agree with Emmie, to nod and go along with everything she’d said. Emmie was friendly and optimistic, upbeat and cheerful, and I wanted to be like her and think like her. But I’d known Seth for less than five minutes, and I already didn’t want to be around him. I didn’t want Emmie to be around him either, but I needed to trust Emmie. I’d just snuck out of my parents’ house and was getting ready to cross the entire country, and I desperately needed to trust someone. Emmie was it.
I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms on my chest in a gesture that told Emmie I thought she was crazy and completely stupid to be going anywhere with Seth, but the smirk on my face gave me away, and she could tell how happy I was to see her and that I’d go absolutely anywhere with her
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