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Halfway to the Sky

Written by Kimberly Brubaker BradleyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

· Yearling
· eBook · December 18, 2008 · $7.99 · 978-0-307-52971-8 (0-307-52971-1)

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March 1 3326 Holston Drive, Bristol, Tennessee Miles hiked today: 0 (so far) Total miles hiked on the Appalachian Trail: 0 Weather: bright, mid-50s, very windy

I went through my pack one more time.

Sleeping bag, pad, tent, stove. Fuel, food bag, toothbrush, towel. Extra shorts, shirt, tights, fleece jacket, one each. Extra socks, sock liners, underwear, two pairs each. Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap. Maps for the first leg. One small notebook, a few handwritten lists, and a photograph of Springer.

I tightened the drawstring and lifted the pack carefully onto my shoulders, then fastened it around my hips and across my chest. Fully loaded, the pack weighed 33 pounds on the bathroom scale. Fully dressed, I weighed 115. That was counting my boots, which were nearly a pound apiece.

It was a Wednesday. I should have been in school. I looked around my room. Pink walls--we painted them when I was seven. Flowered bedspread, the bed neatly made. My soccer ball, the only thing I wished I could take but couldn't, and the trophies and the posters and the dolls. Everything painfully neat, dusted, wiped clean. I looked around and thought, It should not be so easy for a twelve-year-old girl to run away.

But it was.

I clicked the door shut and went across the darkened hall and down the stairs. Sometimes our house seemed like a museum, full of stuff but not a place where people actually lived. The kitchen was antiseptic. Mom scrubbed when she couldn't sleep at night. Lately that was most of the time.

I paused in the foyer and hit the Record button on the answering machine. I cleared my throat. "Look, Mom, it's me, Dani," I said, in what I hoped was the right sort of voice, half angry, half sulky. I'd picked a fight with her the night before on purpose to give me an excuse to sound like this. As usual, she had left the house before I woke. She worked strange hours these days, and not because she had to, either. Who ever heard of starting at seven in the morning at a bank? "I don't want to live with you anymore, okay?" I said to the machine. Sulk, sulk. "I'm going to Dad's for a while. Maybe forever. So don't call. Bye."

I hit the button again, and the little light started blinking. Messages--1. Two nights before, Dad had told me he couldn't see me this weekend because he was going out of town. So when Mom did get around to calling, he wouldn't be there. I figured I'd have a whole week to get away. I didn't think they'd guess where I'd gone. The Appalachian Trail was a legend in our family, but my parents had quit telling the stories about it long ago.

I went to the front door, opened it, hesitated, went back. Springer's room on the first floor was dark and stale-smelling, the curtains drawn, the hospital bed shrouded with a plain white sheet. Clean vacuuming lines ran up and down the carpet, untouched. No one had stepped inside for weeks. I didn't either. "Hey," I said softly, "I'm leaving now. I'm doing this for you, too. Okay?"

It shouldn't be easy for a thirteen-year-old boy to die. But it was.

I locked the door on my way out.

The Greyhound depot was in the middle of town, a twenty- minute walk away. I had already bought my ticket to Gainesville, Georgia, and no one asked me questions. I'd thought they would. I'd thought someone would wonder why I was alone, why I was carrying such a heavy pack, why I wasn't in school. There were six other passengers at the Bristol stop. None of them paid any attention to me.

In a car it would have taken less than five hours to reach Gainesville, but on the bus it took all day. We stopped, and stopped, and stopped again. Once, I got off to pee in a dingy station, but other than that I stayed put with my pack wedged in the space in front my knees. When I got hungry, I ate some of my raisins. I didn't get thirsty or tired. I looked out the window and tried not to think about anything.

The Appalachian Trail runs 2,167 miles from Georgia to Maine, mostly along the ridgelines of mountains. It's a high-up kind of place. It ends on the top of Mount Katahdin, in Maine, and begins on the top of Springer Mountain, in Georgia. Each year about three thousand people try to hike the whole Trail from beginning to end in a single year. The ones who make it are called thru-hikers.

My parents had been thru-hikers fourteen years earlier. They met for the first time their first night on the Trail. They got married partway through, and by the time they reached Katahdin, Mom was pregnant with my brother. They named him Springer because he was part of the Trail. When I was born a year later, they named me Katahdin, to match, but everyone calls me Dani. When Springer couldn't walk anymore, my parents put their memories of the Trail away.

Dad still hiked. He went away by himself for long days every few months in decent weather. "I need an escape, Dani," he'd tell me. "I need to be alone." He bought me hiking boots and took me for walks in the park near our house. He taught me some things, but not much.

Mom never hiked. She never did anything but go to work, take care of Springer, and run three miles every morning while I made breakfast by myself.

Springer, Springer. I found myself tracing his name on the grimy window with my finger. An old woman sitting across the aisle glared at me. I wiped the window with my sleeve and folded my hands.

There's a trick to not thinking, and I'd learned it.

From Gainesville I took a taxi, the way the guidebooks suggested. The driver tried to talk to me, but I shut my eyes and he left me alone. When I opened them, I saw a strange ugly forest, hills that looked different from the ones we had at home. It was evening, and I was hungry.

"Here we go," the cabbie said. He swung right and stopped. A big wooden sign read amicalola falls state park. "I'm not going through the gates," he said. "Have to pay a park fee if I do. Drop you here, okay, sis?"

"Okay." I paid him, dragged my pack out of the backseat, and watched him drive away. I looked at the park entrance again. I was here. The books all say it takes five million steps to walk the entire Appalachian Trail. I took my first one, breathed deep, and smiled.

March 1 Amicalola Falls State Park Shelter (Georgia) Miles hiked today: 1 Total miles hiked on the Appalachian Trail: 0 Weather: clear, getting cold

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from Halfway to the Sky by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley Copyright © 2002 by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.