I HAD NEVER BEEN ON A ROAD SO DARK AND LONELY. THE car's headlights drilled through a deep tunnel, illuminating only the pavement ahead. Trees and scrub that lined the roadside shifted into grotesque black shapes, looming, hovering, then disappearing into the night.
My father's aunt, Glenda Hollister, leaned forward, gripping the steering wheel. Without taking her gaze from the road, she said, "I didn't think to tell your father that I've got a bit of night blindness."
I stiffened in my seat. "You can't see where you're going?"
"Oh, it's not that bad," she scoffed, but she squinted, straining to see ahead, so I didn't believe her and stared at the road myself, as if there were something I could do.
"I just meant that it would have been easier if your plane had come in during the day," she added. "At best, Rancho del Oro is a good two-hour drive from the San Antonio airport."
We were spotlighted in a sudden yellow glare as a car came up behind us, then zipped past. For the first time I was glad that Aunt Glenda wasn't driving very fast, because she swerved, bumping along the gravel edges of the road, then steered back into the right lane. "I have a license. Why don't I drive?" I asked.
"It's sweet of you to offer, Julie," she said, "but you don't know the way. Now that we've passed Kerrville, the entrance to the ranch isn't far, and finding it is tricky."
She suddenly hit the brakes, and I braced myself against the dashboard. My heart pounding, I managed to gasp, "What happened?"
"This darned entrance," Aunt Glenda snapped. "I almost missed it myself." Without even a glance into the rearview mirror, she backed up about twenty feet, then swung out in a wide arc to face a barred gate that was fastened between two brick pillars, set back within a grove of mesquite trees. Over the gate was a rustic, dimly lit arch with the words rancho del oro burned into the wood. Beyond lay an even narrower road, fading into a dark hole. Aunt Glenda pressed a button on a device that was fastened to the sun shield on the driver's side, and the gates opened, slowly and silently swinging apart.
"Almost home," she said wearily as the car bumped and shuddered over the boards of a cattle guard. "We're on El Camino Vista. It's a little winding, but it will take us right up the hill to our house."
I tried to see what we were passing, but I couldn't. There was a heavy cloud cover, and it was much too dark. "Where are the streetlights?" I asked.
She gave me a quick look. "You're a city girl, Julie. There are no streetlights on Texas ranches."
I couldn't help shivering. Barred gates, a night as black as a puddle of tar spread over a pothole, not a streetlight in sight--what in the world was I doing here?
Yesterday my father had said in his firmest voice, "We're counting on you, Julie. You're the only one who can help."
As he spoke Mom kept nodding, which flipped the turned-up ends of her short, dark brown hair, cut so much like mine. I know she was trying to emphasize the importance of what Dad was saying, but I wasn't in the mood to hear their point of view. And it didn't help that my younger sister and brothers, Bitsy, Hayden, and Trevor, were watching from the doorway--Trevor with a big grin on his face. I was furious. "You're telling me I have to give up the swim team?"
"It's not that we don't think the swim team is important," Mom said. Then her cheeks grew pink and I knew she was embarrassed as she added, "I mean, you don't have Olympic goals or great plans like that. It's just a swim team, so we all feel it's expendable, Julie. I hope you understand."
"The swim team is more important than you think," I told her. I tried not to ruin my argument with tears, and it was difficult to do. "Everyone on our team has worked hard, and this year, for the first time, we have a chance to make the Interstate Sweepstakes!"
"Please be reasonable." Mom was not quite begging. "I'm working on one of the biggest legal cases of my entire career. And your father has promised to lead that six-week seminar at UCLA. There's no way either of us can spend the summer with Aunt Glenda and Uncle Gabe."
I tried to keep my temper. I was not only angry, I was hurt because they didn't think what I wanted to do was important. "Why me?" I demanded of Dad. "Why should I spend the whole summer with your aunt and uncle? I hardly know them. I haven't seen them since they came to your family reunion four years ago. Why can't your brothers or your sister go?"
Dad shook his head, then stared down at his toes. I couldn't help noticing how the little bald spot on top of his head reflected the lamplight, and for just an instant I felt a strange jolt of sorrow, as if part of Dad were slowly slipping away.
"We discussed this problem thoroughly," he explained. "Ellen's going to be a grandmother any day now and has to be on hand to help Shelley with her twins. George and Samantha are leaving in two days for Europe, chaperoning George's high school choral group. And Richard is recovering from bypass surgery." He let out a long breath and went on. "It's just awful timing for everyone. So no arguments, Julie. The family thought it over and made the only decision we could make. You're the one family member who's available to stay with Aunt Glenda and help out when Uncle Gabe gets released from the hospital."
"Couldn't they get a nurse? She'd be more help to someone with a broken ankle than I would. It's not life or death. It's just an ankle!"
"Aunt Glenda wanted someone in the family to come," Dad explained. "As a matter of fact, she insisted on family. When I spoke to her, she actually sounded a little shaken, a little frightened. She needs someone she can count on, not a stranger."
I was beginning to hate the word family! With Dad and his brothers and sisters, family was all-important. I was sick of too many family dinners and picnics and gossip and opinions and nobody minding their own business. The family had decided that my summer plans were the least important, so I was stuck with having to do a job none of them probably wanted.
"Why couldn't Uncle Gabe have been careful? Why'd he have to fall down the stairs and break his ankle?" I muttered to myself.
But Mom heard. "It's just lucky that's all that happened," she said. "Glenda was thankful that he hadn't been killed." She turned to my father. "Michael, why don't you go onto the Internet and buy Julie's ticket, and I'll help her get ready to pack."
It wasn't my choice. I didn't even have a vote in what was happening to my life. I had only one day to resign from the swim team, tell my best friend, Robin Norwich, that I'd keep in touch by e-mail, wash everything in my closet that Mom thought ought to be washed, and pack.
Aunt Glenda wasn't kidding when she said the road was winding. I clung to the armrest on the door and tried to brace myself against the swerves and bumps. I could tell we were climbing higher and higher. At one point the car dipped and we drove through shallow water. I could hear it splashing against the underside.
"That's our creek," Aunt Glenda said. "It's usually not even ankle deep, except after a big rain, when it's swollen. Then no one can drive in or out."
Excerpted from The Trap by Joan Lowery Nixon. Copyright © 2002 by Joan Lowery Nixon. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.