It was after midnight, and Mike Kowalski was driving fast--too fast--down County Line Road. He glanced at the dashboard clock and groaned.
He was late.
His phone rang. It didn’t take ESP to know it was his mother. “She probably wants to get a jump start on her griping,” Mike muttered to himself.
Earlier that evening, she’d told him to be in by midnight “or else.”
“Midnight?” Mike had complained. “But I’m a junior!”
His mother had rolled her eyes. “After the stunt you pulled this week, you’re lucky to be allowed out at all, so I’ll reiterate--midnight, or else.”
Mike didn’t even want to think about what “or else” meant.
Ignoring the call, he mashed down the accelerator. Maybe if he was only a little late . . .
That was when the girl appeared in his headlights.
One minute there was nothing but country road flanked by the thick woods of the Cook County Forest Preserve, with its one-lane bridge over Salt Creek just ahead; the next minute there she was, stumbling down the center line.
Mike slammed on the brakes. The tires squealed as the car skidded.
But the girl never flinched. Eyes wide, unblinking even in the glare of the headlights, she raised her hands palms up, pleading . . . but for what?
Mike stuck his head out the driver’s-side window. The girl’s skin glowed marble white, and her long, dark hair, soaked, lay plastered against her skull. Her simple cotton dress was wet, too. Mike saw water dripping from the hem. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“I’m cold.” Her voice was a whisper. “I need a ride home.”
Mike glanced at the clock again and grimaced. He’d rather have a root canal than experience the torture his mother was sure to have in store for him. Then again, what difference would a few more minutes make? He was already in trouble. Besides, he couldn’t leave her out here alone, could he? He leaned across the front seat and opened the passenger door. “Climb in.”
Wordlessly, the girl settled into the seat, and the car filled with the smell of lavender and wet leaves. Mike watched as she slipped off her shoes--a pair of old-fashioned black-and-white saddle shoes--and neatly laid them side by side on the floor of the car. “They’re brand-new,” she said. Then she folded her hands in her lap and waited.
“Where to?” asked Mike. The girl’s strange behavior was beginning to freak him out a little. Was she sick, or suffering from a concussion, or amnesia, or something? “Do you need a doctor?”
She pointed behind them.
Mike turned the car around, driving more slowly this time. “What’s your name?”
She looked straight ahead. “Carol Anne.”
“I’m Mike. Mike Kowalski.” Eyes still on the road, he extended his right hand.
She didn’t acknowledge the introduction, didn’t even look at him.
Mike drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, curiosity getting the best of him. “So, what happened back there?”
She let several long minutes pass before answering. “I was canoeing. On Hawthorn Lake.”
“After midnight? In October?”
She acted as if she hadn’t heard his question. “My canoe tipped. I couldn’t right it, and it was a long way to shore, too far to swim. All I could do was cling to the side and pray someone would find me. No one did.”
“So how’d you finally get to shore?”
She looked at him then, and in the green glow of the dashboard she appeared even paler, her skin almost translucent in its whiteness. “The current carried me in,” she answered, her voice sounding colder than the October lake. “I was in the water for a long, long time.”
Mike swallowed hard. “That’s awful.”
“Yes,” she said. Then she pointed. “Turn here.”
Mike made a left onto a narrow gravel road. The car bumped along for a few miles, tree branches scratching at its paint, rocks skittering beneath its tires. It never ceased to amaze him how rural some parts of the Chicago area could be. It was like cruising through the Wisconsin wilderness or someplace.
His phone rang again.
He ignored it.
They drove deeper and deeper into the woods.
“Here,” said Carol Anne at last. “Stop here.”
Mike braked. In the darkness, his headlights picked out a mailbox. It read MORRISSEY. Beside it he could just make out the start of a dirt driveway.
“Is this where you live? Is that your last name? Morrissey?”
“I’ll get out here,” said the girl. She opened the passenger door.
“But why?” argued Mike. “It’s dark. Let me drive you down to your house, make sure you get in all right.”
“You know my story now,” she said, climbing from the car. “But it’s not the only one. There are many of us.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Mike.
But she had already vanished.
“Carol Anne?” he called into the darkness. “Hey, Carol Anne?”
No one answered.
Reluctantly, he headed for home.
He was already back on County Line Road when he noticed her shoes--that perfect pair of saddle shoes--sitting in a puddle on the floor mat.
Impulsively, he turned the car around and raced back toward the narrow gravel road and the even narrower dirt driveway with the mailbox marked MORRISSEY.
He found himself in front of a tired-looking farmhouse with a sagging front porch and peeling paint. In his headlights, long shadows from the surrounding trees gripped the colorless house. Every window was a dark hole, the family obviously asleep.
Excerpted from On the Day I Died by Candace Fleming. Copyright © 2012 by Candace Fleming. Excerpted by permission of Schwartz & Wade, 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.
Why did I write Clever Jack Takes the Cake? Mostly for fun, but also because I wanted to try my hand at writing a fairy tale. I do that a lot as a writer—challenge myself to try new things—and tackling a fairy tale was definitely a new thing. So how to begin?
I knew I wanted my story to have a classical feel, incorporating such wonderfully delicious fairy-tale elements as four-and-twenty blackbirds, enchanted forests, and hairy trolls. On the other hand, I wanted it to be totally original, a story like no other. I began writing, and within a few weeks had a tale. But let me tell you a curious truth about writers—they are the stories they write, the fictions they spin. And when I read back what I had written, I realized I had created a fairy tale about . . . me. Weird, but true! The story is filled with my favorite things—journeys and birthdays and cake. The princess, taking after my son Scott, is allergic to strawberries. And Jack? Just like me, he good-naturedly follows life’s road, gathering experiences he can spin into tales.
Spinning experiences into tales is what I did with The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School, too. I visit lots of school, and there’s nothing I like better than talking with kids, watching them in the lunchroom or on the playground, reading their essays and stories, listening to them tell jokes. And all the while I’m doing these things, I’m thinking about how I can use them in a book. Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I was visiting a school in Tennessee when a fifth-grade boy came up to me and said, “Look what I can do.” He stuck out his tongue, crossed his eyes and wiggled his ears – first the left one, and then the right one. I was impressed—but I hadn’t seen anything yet! Within seconds, the rest of the fifth graders surround me. Everyone, it seemed, had some special body trick to show me—double-jointed fingers and toes, eyelids that folded, lips that could be pulled up over noses, knuckles that cracked to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” It was absurd and wonderful, and I knew I had to write about it. The result? Chapter five titled, “Hyper . . . Um . . . Hypermob . . . Um . . . Weird Body Tricks.”