Chapter 16

The backpacker had been here, Flaky thought.

But when he left, he didn't take his prosthetic with him.

Why not?

Bending over again, Flaky tugged on the strap she'd grabbed before she fell. Mattered leaves and mud shifted. She yanked, and the strap came free in her hand. There was some material clinging to it. Nylon. The kind that backpacks were made from.

He hadn't taken his backpack, either.

Why?

He'd camped here, the weekend Giggles fell.

Maybe he'd never left. Maybe he'd done something that Giggles knew about.

What crime was this?

He could have done something terrible. And then left his things here. Buried them, so everyone would think he was gone.

He might be hanging around somewhere, to make sure Giggles didn't tell.

But he couldn't know she was trying to tell. Unless he's found some way to watch.

Nervously, Flaky tightened her grip on the hook and looked around. She thought she was alone in the woods.

Maybe she wasn't.

She had to keep going.

She took the hook with her. She might need something sharp.

The woods seemed darker than ever. Flaky wished that she'd taken the policeman's advice and called the house. Or at least walked back to the road where her car died.

The smell was better, though. Only a few minutes away from the clearing, she hardly noticed it. She could smell damp leaves, but the other smell was almost gone.

The other smell. The sweet, sticky smell of something rotting.

Flaky stopped walking.

She remembered some lines from the book, lines that Giggles had tapped on: "This common-place, quiet stranger- how had he become involved in the web of horror? He moaned so, and looked so weak, wild and lost, I feared he was dying."

Flaky looked back in the direction of the clearing. There had been a campfire there.

"I was now able to concentrate my attention on the group by the fire, and I presently gathered that the newcomer was called Mr. Mason."

In Jane Eyre, the stranger named Mason got hurt. He looked as if he were dying, but he lived.

But what if the stranger named Russell hadn't lived?

Flaky was sure Russell had buried his hook and backpack on purpose. She'd been sure he was hanging around, scaring Giggles. What if she was wrong?

What if Russell had been buried, too?

Flaky looked down at the hook. There was a roaring in her ears like wind. She felt dizzy, sick.

The hook belongs to a dead man, she thought. A man who is buried somewhere near it, along with his backpack.

Flaky had fallen on his grave.

She had to get out of here. Had to get to Giggles!

With a cry, she plunged into the trees, jumping over vines, and using the hook to tear away low-hanging branches.

It doesn't have to be true, she tried to tell herself. The backpacker didn't have to be dead.

But then she remembered the smell, and she ran faster.

The vines snagged her clothes and tore her skin. Flaky tried to step around them, or trample them down, but they were everywhere. Her side started to ache, and she gasped for breath.

Finally, she had to stop, just for a few seconds.

When her breath was nearly back to normal, she raised her head and looked around.

And saw something shiny hanging from a narrow branch only a foot away from her eyes.

It was a thin gold chain with a gold heart on it. A necklace. Giggles' necklace, the one Cuddles looked for but couldn't find. The one he thought Flippy took.

But Flippy didn't take it. And Cuddles couldn't find it where Giggles fell because that wasn't where it came off. It came off here, in the woods. A tree branch snagged it and ripped it off, leaving an ugly red mark around Giggles' neck.

Flaky reached out and pulled the necklace from the branch. The chain was broken. It must have hurt when the branch caught it and pulled it tight against her neck. Why hadn't Giggles stopped?

She must have been running. Like Flaky. Running from something.

Or somebody.

Flaky shoved the necklace in her pocket and took off again. Questions tumbled through her mind, but she didn't try to answer them. Only Giggles could answer them. She had to get to Giggles.

After a little while, Flaky realised she wasn't swinging the hook at branches so much. And she wasn't stopping so often to untangle vines from around her ankles. The path had cleared up a bit.

She was getting close.

She took one running step and tripped on a root. The hook shot out of her hand and went flying ahead of her. Catching her balance, she went to pick it up, but she couldn't see it. She pushed through some branches.

And stepped into a void.

With a scream, she reached out, just managing to wrap one arm around a tree trunk.

Slowly, carefully, she eased her feet onto solid ground.

She was standing right at the edge of the cliff. A deep gash in the earth about fifteen feet wide. And much, much deeper. Tree limbs and rocks had tumbled down the sides into the bottom. That's where the hook had fallen.

If she had fallen with it, she might be dead. Or paralyzed like Giggles…

With a shudder, Flaky took another step back and looked across the deep ravine. Through the fine mist, she saw a dim light, and the hazy outlines of a house.

Giggles' house. She was standing right across from it, where the cliff edge cut back into the woods. She'd finally made it.

Giggles never had. She'd been running back to her house that night. Running in terror. Her necklace caught on a branch, but she didn't stop to take it off. She kept running. But it was dark, and she didn't see the cliff edge until it was too late.

Giggles hadn't been as lucky as Flaky.

Carefully, Flaky crept close to the cliff again. There was no way she could cross here. She looked back and forth, wondering whether to go toward the front of the house or the back. The back, she decided. There was just more cliff at the front.

It took a few minutes, but finally the gap narrowed and became a shallow ditch. Flaky jumped across it, then headed for the house.

When she stepped out of the woods, she was at the far end of the yard. Straight ahead, she could see the terrace and the French doors at the back of the library.

She looked toward the garages. No cars were parked outside. Good. Giggles didn't have any visitors. Flaky only had Mrs. Joy to worry about.

When she was halfway up the driveway, the back door opened.

Cuddles was standing there.

Cuddles or Flippy, Flaky thought. Until she talked to Giggles she couldn't trust either of them.

"Flakes," Giggles said. He pushed his sunglasses up on his head and peered at her. "What happened to you?"

Flaky looked down. Her jeans and jumper were covered with mud. Her hands were crisscrossed with scratches. Her fingernails were black.

"I… there was a mud slide," she said. Her throat felt raw. "The police told me a tree was down and I couldn't drive up. So I walked."

Cuddles said with surprise, "You look like you crawled."

Flaky looked down at her clothes. "I fell."

"You okay? You've got blood on your face."

Flaky stared past him. "Where's Mrs. Joy?"

"She went to pick up Mr. Joy from the airport," Cuddles said. "She left before the road was closed, but she called a little while ago and said the plane's delayed because of the fog."

"So you're staying with Giggles?" Flaky asked. "I didn't see your car. Did you walk up too?"

Cuddles shook his head and his sunglasses slipped back down. "I got here before the slide and put the car in one of the garages," he said. "It's got a problem in the rain. When some of the wires get wet, it won't start. I'm hoping it'll dry off in the garage."

"Speaking of getting wet," Flaky said. "Can I come in?"

Cuddles stepped aside. "Sorry about that. I was just telling Giggles you probably wouldn't make it because of the road," Cuddles said. "I thought you'd call."

"I probably should have," Flaky said. "Listen, point me to a bathroom, will you? I've got to wash."

There was a bathroom across the hall from the library. Flaky quickly washed her hands and face, wincing as the soap stung the scratches. Cuddles was right, she thought, glancing into the mirror. She looked like she's crawled up here. Right now, she had to talk to Giggles.

She gulped down some water, then hurried into the library.

Giggles was facing the windows. Cuddles was sitting in front of her on the same ottoman Flaky used.

Was he going to stay here the whole time? Flaky wondered. She wanted him out. She didn't trust him. She didn't trust anybody but Giggles.

"Ah, the reader!" Cuddles said, standing up. "I think Giggles is glad you're here, Flaky. Probably bored with me by now."

Flaky crossed the room. "Hi, Giggles."

"Flakes had some problems getting here," Cuddles explained to Giggles. "I was telling you about the road, remember? You won't believe what she did- she hiked up here."

"I didn't want to disappoint you," Flaky said.

Giggle stared back, her eyes wide. Then her glance shifted to Cuddles.

"Oh, right," Cuddles said. "It's reading time. Don't mind me." He walked over to the couch near the side windows and stretched out on his back. "Couldn't do this if Mrs Killjoy was here," he said with a grin.

Flaky had to get rid of him. She couldn't talk to Giggles with Cuddles in the room. "Are you going to stay here while I read?" she asked.

"Sure," Cuddles said. "I won't interrupt."

"Maybe not, but… it'll make me nervous."

"Really?"

"Yes." Flaky made herself smile. "It will."

Cuddles uncrossed his legs.

Good, Flaky thought. He was going to leave. She looked at Giggles again. And felt her mouth go dry.

Giggles' finger was tapping on the chair arm. Tapping frantically.

Giggles was terrified.

Flaky looked back to the couch.

Cuddles was just sitting up. As he moved, the lamp next to the couch reflected off the lens of his sunglasses. The flash of light only lasted a second. But that was long enough.

As Flaky stared at the big, black sunglasses, the words from Jane Eyre flew into her mind.

"And dangerous he looked: his black eyes darted sparks."

Cuddles, Flaky thought.

Cuddles is the dark-eyes stranger.