This novel is written in memory of the 20 children and six women who went to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, and never came home.
CHAPTER 1 -- LAKES OF THE CLOUDS
Nicole Janicek beamed, her glowing face a lighthouse beacon for the sea of silent, stony summits surrounding her in the late summer twilight. Undistracted by the long, fine strands of light brown and dyed-blue hair whipping around her in the gusty mountain air, the teenager's spritely blue eyes danced from peak to peak as they faded into silhouettes. The moment itself was a fully conceived poem, but Nicole was too consumed by the blackening White Mountains to bend down, reach into her pack and pull out her journal.
Then she heard her best friend's boot steps traversing the rocks to her left.
"The hut is filling up," Candace Cooper informed her as she approached, "but at least they have a decent bathroom. Wow, it's getting dark fast up here."
"And cold," Nicole added. "Hug me already, girl."
Candace leaped over both of their packs and landed on Nicole's rocky perch. The soon-to-be high school seniors embraced warmly beside alpine flowers and a glassy blue pond -- one of several tarns on the beautiful broad shoulder of Mount Washington. The Lakes of the Clouds, as they are known, sit at about 5,000 feet between the summits of Mount Monroe (5,200 feet) and Mount Washington, the highest peak in New Hampshire's Presidential Range at 6,288 feet.
"Look," Nicole said, pointing to the purple northeastern sky. "Venus."
"Yes, the goddess of love," Candace said, her long, auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail as the wind buffeted them again. "I saw a few young men in the hut who could help keep us warm tonight and perhaps Venus is our sign."
Nicole gasped and pulled back from her slightly taller friend in semi-mock outrage.
"Don't even think about chickening out on me now, Candace," she said.
"They're going to catch us, Nikki. You know the rules -- no camping above the tree line. They can almost hit us with a stone from the hut," Candace replied, her green eyes pleading for a wooden roof instead of a nylon tent at such an exposed position. Despite the mercifully clear and hospitable conditions on this 55-degree night, the wind made it feel much colder and the girls weren't used to it after a long, hot summer.
"So what. I came here to sleep under the stars and that's what I'm going to do," Nicole said, her hands on her hips. "Are you with me or not?"
Candace gazed up and found more planets and stars shining back at her.
"God, they should call this place Lakes of the Cloudless tonight," she finally said. "If it weren't so damn clear, I wouldn't, but ..."
"Good, then let's hunker down and very quietly start setting up the tent ... like almost in slow motion," Nicole said, bending down and reaching for the folded up tent inside her navy blue pack. "Every minute that it gets darker and they don't see us works in our favor."
"OK, but I'm blaming it all on you if they catch us or a bear eats us," Candace quipped.
"I can live with that," Nicole said. "The bears live in the woods and we're above them here. Besides, some things are worth taking a risk for."
Dressed in a powder blue fleece, black wind pants and sand-colored hiking boots with red laces, Nicole took the lead in setting up the green nylon tent and spreading out a foldable cushion inside it for added support. They made camp on a stony patch of ground because they didn't want to risk getting in trouble for trampling the fragile alpine flowers. When Candace joined her friend inside the tent and stretched out her long, athletic body against the cushion, she immediately grimaced.
"Ouch, Nikki, this is most definitely gonna suck," she said, causing them both to laugh. "I really do hope we get caught now."
"Stop it," Nicole protested, punching her friend playfully in the shoulder. "We're roughing it for one night. That's all. It'll make you appreciate every other night when you have all the comforts of home."
"I swear I'm gonna start howling like a she-wolf until they find us and make us sleep in the hut," Candace threatened with a grin.
"Uh, no you won't, C.C. I'll tape your mouth shut."
"Duct tape? You brought duct tape?"
"Of course," Nicole said, tossing Candace a power bar from her pack as they now sat Indian style across from one another inside the cozy tent. "I also brought this," she added, grabbing a small head lamp and strapping the black band around her bi-colored hair so she could see as darkness descended on the ridge. "Cheryl used a head lamp just like it on her trek."
"You and your Strayed," Candace said.
"You should finish it," Nicole advised, referring to Cheryl Strayed's book, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" (Knopf, 2012). "And you know she'd break the rules and make camp right here."
"I read enough of that book to know Cheryl would walk right over to that hut tonight and hook up with the first guy she met," Candace said, her mischievous grin returning.
"You make a valid point," Nicole said, nodding and taking a sip from her water bottle. "She was a real slut back in the day, but I do admire how honest she was about that in the book. I'm ..."
A flashlight suddenly shining against the tent made both girls flinch and freeze in place. Then they heard boot steps against a nearby rock.
"Oh shit, Nikki, I told you," Candace whispered, before smiling and adding, "I'm saved!" as she whimsically thanked a higher power with prayerful hands.
Nicole frowned, stuck out her tongue at Candace and then stuck her head out of the flap of the tent.
"Hello?" she said, squinting toward the flashlight.
"Hi, I'm Will from the hut crew," a handsome young man in his early 20s said as he squatted beside their tent with the flashlight on them.
Candace nudged Nicole aside and stuck her head out of the flap, too, causing Will to shuffle his squatted legs, lose his footing momentarily and nearly fall into the tarn. Clearly, he wasn't expecting to see two teenage girls camping in this spot. Nicole and Candace both managed to stifle their laughter.
"Sorry to disturb you, ladies," Will said, quickly recovering and remembering why he was there. "But there's no camping permitted above the tree line or anywhere within a quarter mile of Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Do your parents know you're out here?"
"Yes," Nicole replied, her blue eyes defiant. "We may be young, but we're seasoned hikers. We're practicing to do the whole Appalachian Trail, maybe even the Pacific Crest Trail. We're not starting a fire and we're not trampling the flowers."
"Still, rules are rules," Will said with earnest hazel eyes and short brown hair. "We have a couple of bunks not filled at the hut so why don't you join us there. It's not far at all. "
Candace was attracted to the man and saw an opportunity to help her friend get Strayed in her way while possibly getting Strayed herself in an entirely different way.
"I'll make you a deal, Will," she said slyly. "I'll join you at the hut if you'll look the other way and let my friend Nikki here live out her dream of sleeping under the stars just this one time. How does that sound?"
The young man smiled and shook his head, but clearly he was entertaining the offer. When all of Candace emerged from the tent and she bent over to pull out her pack, Will just stared and had no words.
"You'd really do that for me?" Nicole asked Candace.
"Gladly," she replied, pulling her hair out of its ponytail and flipping it around in the wind for full effect.
"No fires, no ...," Will said, finally regaining his voice only to be cut off by Nicole.
"No trampling the flowers, got it," she said with a smile. "Thanks, the both of you ... I really mean that."
"I'll be back to check on you early, Nikki, or join us in the hut if you come to your senses. Otherwise, just call me if you need anything ... we do have working cell phones up here at least," Candace said.
"Anything else, mom?" Nicole asked as they began walking away.
"Yes, don't roll into the pond and drown," Candace yelled back.
"You be careful, too," Nicole shot back with a loaded smile that she hoped Candace saw in the glare of her head lamp.
When they were gone and it was certain she had been given the green light to camp under the stars 5,033 feet above sea level, Nicole climbed out of her tent and jumped for joy. She launched all 5-foot-6 of her toward the heavens and tried to grab a piece of the Milky Way as it cascaded above her. Though her boots crashed back onto the rocky ground, she felt her heart leap into space.
Adam Upton surprised his younger brother when he suddenly veered the half-red, half-rusted pickup truck off the road and into the empty high school parking lot.
"What the hell are you doing?" Brody asked. "School doesn't start until next week."
Adam brought the truck to a screeching stop facing the large, open practice field on the left side of the sprawling brick school building.
"I'm about to give you your most important assignment for the school year," said Adam, who at 17 seemed nearly double the size of his 13-year-old brother. "And you're gonna do it when I tell you to do it because that's what freshmen are supposed to do -- kiss the asses of the upperclassmen."
"That's total bullshit," Brody protested.
Adam punched his brother in the left arm and laughed. Brody grabbed his arm in pain and hung his head. He was tired of being ordered around, overpowered and pummeled by his UFC-loving brother.
"Get used to it, son. Life is bullshit," Adam said with a nasty edge to his husky voice.
"You ain't my father," Brody said hesitantly, not looking at him and fully expecting another punch at any moment. "And whenever you start calling me 'son' something bad is about to happen."
Both boys had messy, wavy brown hair and brown eyes, but Adam was 6 feet tall, stocky and stubbly faced. Brody, whose growth spurt hadn't started yet, was only 5-4, fairly thin and didn't even sport peach fuzz on his cheeks yet.
"I'm the closest thing you got to a father, son, and you're gonna pull a prank for me sometime very soon," Adam said menacingly, his whole face boring into his brother, leaving no room for argument.
"Ok, ok ... what the hell do you want me to do?" Brody asked, practically whining for mercy.
"You're gonna pull the school fire alarm for me," Adam said flatly, shifting his weight back toward the steering wheel.
"Why?" Brody asked after pondering the assignment for a moment.
"You'll see," Adam replied, his eyes now focused on the grassy field in front of the truck. "And if you're smart, you'll hide in the bathroom after you pull it. You really don't want to get caught up in a turkey shoot."
"What?" Brody asked, utterly confused.
"It's just a hunting expression, son," Adam said.