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by Susan Thogerson Maas

Twelve-year-old Abbie Keegan loves spending time in the woods behind her house and watching the silly-looking baby robins as they grow. The woods are a retreat from her parents’ constant bickering and from her sweet, but needy, little brother.

Then Abbie sees two boys breaking bottles in the pond. She refuses to allow such harm to “her” woods. However, every attempt she makes to stop the boys only provokes them to greater destruction. Her retreat becomes a place of fear instead of peace. A feud is born, and Abbie feels helpless to stop it. At home, her parents seem close to divorce and her brother’s asthma is getting worse. How can Abbie protect the people and places she loves?

Chapter 1: Danger in the Woods

I stumble out the back door. My parents’ voices echo in my head like two starlings fighting over a pile of birdseed. I flee across the lawn past a tall Douglas fir to the sagging split rail fence that marks the end of our property. Leaning against it, I wipe one eye. Home should be a peaceful place. Why can’t ours be?

The breeze pushes a strand of curly red hair across my face, and I brush it back. In the woods beyond our fence, a robin chirps. I draw a deep breath in, then let it out. Like they taught us in gym class. In and out, letting my muscles relax. Focus on the robin’s song and forget the voices back in the house. I close my eyes and suck in the fresh air.

When my eyes open, things seem a little brighter. I slip between the rails of the fence into the woods and step onto the faint trail, quiet as a sparrow. This is where I belong. My special little bit of Oregon woods. Summer break has arrived—extra time to spend with the flowers and birds. An end to long days cooped up in that noisy, sweaty sixth-grade classroom. If only it didn’t also mean more time at home.

A pebble I accidentally kick skitters along the path. Sunlight filters through the tall maples onto lacy ferns, making patterns that change with the breeze. Coming to a patch of sour grass, I stop and pick a bright green, clover-like leaf. A quick check for bugs—nope, it’s good—and I pop it in my mouth, enjoying the tart taste. Not everything sour is bad.

A little farther along the robin’s song becomes louder, calling to me. I pause and look up. As he sings, the robin’s breast glows bright orange against the deep green fir needles.

“Hi, Daddy Robin,” I whisper.

Nearby another fir holds a secret, a nest made of twigs, grass, and mud sitting on a lower branch. Motionless, I wait. Moments later a female robin, pale-breasted and silent, lands by the nest. A worm dangles from her mouth. Open beaks pop up from the nest, squawking their hunger. Such silly-looking baby birds. Mother bird drops the worm to the waiting mouths and flies off. Gradually the nest quiets.

“Good work, Mama Bird.” All is well in the robins’ home.

I backtrack to a side trail by a hilltop and half-walk, half-slide down the dirt path to the little creek at the bottom. Water bubbles gently over smooth stones and under elderberry branches and fern fronds. I step carefully over rocks at the edge of the creek, moving toward the pond ahead. Its green, dank smell hits my nose as I approach.

A splash in the pond makes me freeze. Loud, laughing voices break the stillness. I duck behind a patch of ferns and crouch low.

What’s going on out there?

Staying behind the brush, I creep closer, fingertips on the ground to steady myself. I find a place where a hole in the bushes is just big enough to peek through.

Two boys—one tall and the other shorter and younger-looking—stand by the shallow pond. Behind them, near the street above, a pair of beaten-up bicycles lie on the ground.

Brock. That’s Brock Tolman in front. The seventh grader who got in trouble at school for punching a boy in the stomach and refusing to apologize. Some kids said he was kicked out of a northeast Portland school, so his parents had to move to a new district. Great. Just the kind of person I want hanging out in my woods.

Brock leans over and picks up a handful of small stones. Straightening, he pushes the shaggy black hair from his eyes with the back of his hand, holding the rocks against his dingy T-shirt. Tanned arms and face bear witness to many hours spent outdoors.

Brock cocks his head and stares out over the pond. Like a wolf, proud and free, but strangely out of place.

“Hurry up, Colin,” he snaps.

Colin doesn’t look familiar, but then he’s got to be in grade school. Too young for middle school. He rushes over to Brock, something in his hand. “Okay. I’ve got it.”

Instead of a wolf, Colin acts more like a golden retriever squirming eagerly before his master. Dirty blond hair, but the same torn jeans and old T-shirt as Brock.

“Come on,” Brock orders. “Throw me a target.”

What? Oh, no.

Colin pulls his arm back and flings a pop can out over the pond. It lands with a soft splash. Brock fires stone after stone in the direction of the can, and repeated clangs testify to his aim. When he finishes, Colin hurls a few rocks. Either the can already sank, or he has horrible aim. Not a single clang, only splashes.

I frown. I’m going to have some cleanup to do when they leave. Stupid boys.

Moments later Colin lofts a glass bottle into the air. Before it even hits the water, a rock smashes into it. Broken glass sinks into the pond.

I clench my fists and clamp my mouth shut to keep from screaming. Now they’ve gone too far. They can’t do this to my pond.

I grab two smooth stones. As Colin turns away and Brock crouches to pick up more ammunition, I rise and pitch my rocks into the water at Brock’s feet. I wait long enough to see Brock jump up, eyes wide and mud splashed across his shirt. Yes. Take that, you jerk.

“Hey!” he screams. “Who did that?” His eyes scan the woods.

Yikes. Can’t let him see me. I take off, dodging bushes to find the shortest route uphill.

“Who threw those rocks?” Brock yells.

“I see someone,” Colin cries. “Over there.”

I reach the top of the hill and pause, heart pounding. The shouts behind me draw closer. Not enough time to reach home. I push back into the brush to a faint path that leads deeper into the bushes. Past some prickly Oregon grape, around a fallen fir, and I slip into my hideout. Panting, I drop to the ground.

Thick fir branches, placed between the fallen tree and two standing firs, hide me from view of the trail. Ferns and hanging branches camouflage my secret place. I sit as motionless as I can with my heart pounding through my chest and my breath coming in ragged gasps. Slow, breathing, slow. Can’t let them find me.

“Where did he go?” Brock cries, as he thunders past on the main trail.

Good. They think I’m a boy.

“Let’s check this way,” Colin says. They pound along the trail, first one way, then the other. Finally they stomp back toward the pond.

“He’d better watch out, whoever he is,” Brock grumbles. “If I get my hands on him…”

“You’ve got mud on your face,” Colin says.

“Shut up!”

I cover my mouth to keep from laughing and lean back against the rough bark of a fir tree. After a bit, bikes clatter up the incline to the Springwater Trail.

I close my eyes and take deep breaths until my heart slows down. The mossy ground is soft under me, the smell of fir needles all woodsy and nice. I rebuild this hideout every so often, whenever winds bring down fresh branches to cover it. Hidden away here, I can read, draw, or just sit quietly and listen to the birds. Sometimes I even pray. It seems like the kind of place where God would want to live. And lately, it’s a sanctuary from Mom and Dad.

After a few minutes I crawl out of my retreat. I plod down the trail, past a huge blackberry thicket spotted with white flowers that will one day be juicy berries. Down another trail to the pond, now deserted. I stare into the still water, marred by pop cans and broken glass. What a mess.

Nearby a pop can pokes out of a white plastic bag. At least they didn’t have time to use them all. I roll my jeans legs as far up as I can and grab the bag. Time to get to work. What if some innocent raccoon or frog steps on the glass shards now at the bottom of the pond?

Muddy water oozes through my sneakers as I wade into the water. Carefully I pick up cans and pieces of glass and drop them into the bag. When finished, I slosh out of the water and turn to look at the pond. All better for the moment. But it likely won’t last. Those boys will be back. And what will they do next time?

Well, they’re the ones who had better watch out. I glare at the path to the Springwater Trail. These are my woods, and I’m not going to let them destroy them.

Chapter 2: Family and Friends

Slipping through the fence onto our property, I lean against the tree. No hurry to get home. Mom and Dad are probably done arguing for now, but the tenseness in the air after a fight chills me worse than diving into a cold mountain lake. And it doesn’t refresh like a swim. Still, I need to get out of these soggy shoes.

I plod toward the house.

“Hey, Abbie!”

Kerry Miramoto leans over the rail fence between our yards, her long black hair shimmering in the breeze. Like a black-capped chickadee, full of energy, she bounces up and down.

“Aren’t you glad the school year is over?” Kerry says in a bubbly voice as I get closer. “I’m a middle schooler now.”

“Middle school isn’t so great,” I answer. “Like grade school but with twice the boredom and three times the drama.”

Kerry rests her chin on the top rail of the fence and looks up at me. “Well, at least we’ll be in the same school. We can ride the bus together.”

Good point. Maybe the older girls won’t throw gum and candy wrappers at me if Kerry sits with me. Everybody likes Kerry.

“Yeah. That’ll be nice.”

Kerry looks at my feet and frowns. “You forgot to take your shoes off when you went wading.”

“I couldn’t take my shoes off. There was broken glass at the bottom of the pond.” I hold open the bag to show Kerry the muddy debris. “A couple of jerks were breaking bottles in the pond. But I took care of them.”

Her eyes widen. “How?”

I grin. “Let’s just say that one of them got a nice splash of muddy water on his face.”

Kerry gives me a high five. “All right! That’ll teach ’em.”

I glance at the woods. “I hope so.” But probably not. “I’d better go now. It’s almost dinner time.” I look at our house, and a weight settles on my shoulders.

“Your folks still fighting?” Kerry asks.

I nod.

“You can come over here any time.” She sways back and forth behind the fence, mouth tight. “Maybe you could spend the night on Friday.” Her face brightens. “You could get away for a while.”

Kerry’s mom and dad are fun to be around. It is tempting. But…

“I can’t leave Patrick alone too long. He’s such a little kid.”

“He’s seven years old. That’s no baby.” Kerry pleads with her eyes.

“The fighting really upsets him. But I can usually get him thinking about other things.”

 “Okay. Maybe next week.” She twirls around like a ballerina, then trips over a rock. She hits the ground with a thump and bounces right back up, sighing and shaking her head.

“Just call me Grace.” She shrugs, brushing the grass out of her hair. “See you tomorrow?”

“Of course, Grace.”

She sticks her tongue out at me and dances away.

I trudge on toward our little blue house, muddy water still squishing out of my shoes. At the back door I open the sack and check the contents. Two clean cans and one clean bottle, along with the muddy, broken ones. I throw the smashed ones in the garbage. Inside the porch I drop the others into the proper recycling boxes.

The smell of spaghetti sauce drifts out from the kitchen, giving me one good reason to enter. I stash my muddy shoes and socks in a corner of the porch and roll down my pants legs. Maybe nobody will notice their dampness.

“Hi, sweetie,” Mom says as I enter the kitchen. Her face is pink from the hot stove, and dark curls cling to her forehead. A few tiny wood shavings decorate the top of her head. Of course. She always retreats to the shop after a fight.

“You’ve got sawdust in your hair,” I say.

Mom drags one hand through her hair, catching some of the sawdust. She wipes it on a pant leg, stirring the spaghetti sauce with the other hand. “The library needs a new display shelf, and they can’t afford to buy one.”

“So you volunteered to make it,” I add. Of course. Always trying to help. And it gives her an excuse to get out of the house.

“Maybe if I help enough, they’ll give me a raise.” She tries to smile at the joke but doesn’t quite pull it off and turns back to the stove.

The floor is cool on my bare feet as I leave the kitchen, but the mud is drying and itchy. Time to clean up. I wash my feet and legs, change my pants, and slip into a pair of flip-flops. Then I knock on Patrick’s door.

The door opens, and my little brother smiles at me. His eyes are red.

“Are you okay?” I step inside and close the door.

“I was outside, but the grass got to me.” He frowns. Stupid allergies—and the grass is full of pollen this time of year.

“What’re you doing now?” I plop onto his bed, and he sits next to me.

“Nothing. Just waiting for dinner.” He looks up at me, big blue eyes sad. I can’t resist those eyes…or the curly red hair…or the freckles that splash across his face. I put an arm around him and pull him close.

“Dinner’s almost ready. Why don’t we go set the table?”

He glances at the door and then back at me. “Is it safe now?”

I swallow a lump in my throat. Poor kid. “Yeah, everything’s quiet. It’ll be fine.”

I muss up his hair and give him a push toward the door. Gotta keep believing.