Sammie Sanders didn’t know what to be afraid of. This sometimes made her brave, other times foolish. Her mother was a single mom who didn’t pay much attention to Sammie or her younger sister, Jeannie. Her mom was in a sort of perpetual motion to find the perfect man. From what Sammie could see, they were in limited supply.
In the summers, Sammie would spend Saturday mornings with her sister picnicking and playing in the front yard of their small house. But they could just as easily slip out of view, unnoticed, like they did that day—the day Sammie’s mind starting telling her what to do to prevent disaster. Sammy was eight and Jeannie six. This voice in her head was like a spirit guide if you believe in that sort of thing. Which she didn’t.
Sammie felt fortunate, almost blessed in a peculiar sort of way, that she had found a way to change the course of events. However, she couldn’t prove this to anyone. Who can prove that going right instead of left prevented getting in that deadly car crash? So she kept this ability to herself.
That Saturday, as her mom cruised the Internet for available men, the girls took their picnic out of sight to her secret spot. Sometimes she just had to get away. Through a restored prairie that bordered railroad tracks, stood a circle of white pines. It was about a ten-minute walk, picnic basket in hand, to get to the prairie. As they walked, the tips of tall grasses grazed the two young girls’ sides and chins. The path they made quickly disappeared behind them.
Halfway up to the pines, the girls heard a motorbike veer off the road as it slowly crackled and crunched its way through the prairie toward them. The bike came to a stop, humming behind the girls. The rider looked at them and they at him. Sammy noticed an awkward curve to his upper lip, which twitched. He was handsome–and a bit creepy, like a lot of men.
“Want me to make a path?” the stranger said.
“Huh . . . ?” Sammie replied. What she felt inside, she could only compare to receiving a “like” on her Facebook page from a popular boy at school.
“You having a picnic?” the stranger asked, nodding toward the chapel of white pines.
“Yes,” Sammie answered. “We’re going to have a picnic,” she said, restating the obvious. Sometimes she just didn’t know what to say to boys.
Sammie found herself caught up in curiosity about the stranger while excitement and caution unraveled within her like a sweet dark song.
“I’ll make you a path with my bike,” he offered. Not waiting for a response he drove around them, heading slowly toward the pines.
When they reached the trees, the stranger turned and stopped, but remained on his bike, legs straddled on each side.
“I have a sister,” the Stranger said. He talked only to Sammy.
Sammie’s head pounded a warning as if something tried to get her attention, as if there were a secret room inside her and something was knocking from the other side of the door. She realized that she and her sister should not have followed him into the pines.
Knock, knock. The insistent pounding continued.
Knock, knock. Knock, knock.
Sammie kept her eyes on him, taking in as much as she could without moving her head. She decided to count the trees: sixteen. She noticed that the eight larger ones formed a leaky roof over her head. She counted the pine needles that had landed on her right foot. Eight. Eight needles; eight big pine trees and eight plus eight made sixteen, sixteen pine trees, she thought. She had always liked the number eight. Sixteen makes a double eight. The pounding went away. Good, her mind said. Eight is good.
The stranger put the kickstand of his bike down but kept the motor running.
Jeannie shuffled, kicking a few more pine needles onto Sammie’s shoes, changing the count to ten. Not good. Not good.
The trees hogged the air and Sammie had difficulty catching her breath. Without taking her eyes off of the stranger, she recounted the eight large pines that made a canopy above. Count them again. She freed the extra pine needles from her foot by gently shaking it. Good. Eight is good.
“Would you take off your clothes for me? It’ll be okay, I just want to see you naked,” the stranger said. It was his calmness that disturbed Sammy the most. He knew what he was doing. All the handsomeness she saw earlier was eaten up by this request.
Sammie found a way to speak, her voice stirring the cramped air. “Why?”
Her mind continued to whisper: eight plus eight makes sixteen.
“My sister won’t let me look at her in the shower . . . I just want to see what a girl looks like, that’s all,” his voice was gentle, his words still eerily convincing.
Eight pines, eight plus eight is sixteen . . . Sammie continued to count. Good, her mind said.
A stream of light broke through the canopy of pines dividing the girls and the Stranger.
“I’ll take off my clothes. But my sister’s scared. She doesn’t get it.”
Sammie kept her gaze on the Stranger while she continued bargaining.
“I can take off my clothes. But I need to take my sister home.”
The Stranger shut off the motor. The quiet woke up more fear in Sammie, she knew she had to act fast.
“I’ll come back tomorrow and take my clothes off for you. I promise.”
She took a hold of Jeanie’s hand and both girls took a step. All the pine needles on Sammie’s shoe fell to the ground.
The Smoky Stranger sat further back on his bike and looked up at the patch of blue sky.
Sammie noticed the stranger look up and then heard the rustling of what she thought was a mouse, but she didn’t turn her gaze from him. And then the rustling stopped.
She held tight to her sister’s hand and made a new path through the prairie without looking back.
On the way home, Sammie counted the cracks in the sidewalk as she stepped over them, starting over at eight. Good, good. He can’t follow you now.
The next day the neighbors planned to take all the kids down to the local beach for a swim. Sammie and her sister sat in the back of a truck, dangling their feet out over the end, waiting for one of the families to get back from church. They were in swimsuits with towels wrapped around their little bodies. Sammie counted the number of times her foot hit the truck as it swung. She went up to eight, paused, and then began again. Eight and eight is sixteen. Good.
“He’s probably waiting for me now,” Sammie whispered into Jeannie’s ear. They both giggled as they imagined the Smokey Stranger standing in the pines alone, motor running . . . waiting.
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