Lost in the Never Woods by Aiden Thomas


CHAPTER 1


Falling Stars


As Wendy Darling pushed through the door, all conversation died and every eye focused on her. As she stood there, files stacked in her arms, the whispers started in hushed tones. The hairs on the back of Wendy’s neck prickled. As a lowly volunteer at the only hospital in town, Wendy had spent her day in the basement copying files. That part of the job was boring, but Wendy wanted to become a nurse. It probably wasn’t the ideal way for the average teenager to spend their eighteenth birthday, but Wendy wanted to lie low and avoid attention.

And she was failing spectacularly.

The nurses’ station was packed with people in scrubs and officers in uniforms, and they all watched Wendy as she hesitated in the doorway, trying not to drop her stack of papers.

Her sweaty hands were making the plastic folders harder to hold on to, so, even though her nerves told her to get out of there, Wendy hurriedly crossed the room and dumped them behind the desk. Curious eyes and the incoherent crackling of police officers’ radios followed her.

“Lord, did you finish already?” Wendy started at the sudden appearance of Nurse Judy at her elbow.

“Uh—yeah.” Wendy took a quick step back and dragged her hands through her short, blunt haircut. Nurse Judy was a small woman with a large presence, dressed in Snoopy scrubs. She had a booming voice that was perfect for talking over the sound of busy waiting rooms and a loud, unabashed laugh that she often used while teasing doctors.

“Dang, girl! You’re making the rest of us look bad!” She took no nonsense and usually spoke her mind, which was why her tight-lipped smile and fidgeting hands made Wendy’s stomach twist.

Wendy forced a small laugh that quickly died in her throat. Standing behind Nurse Judy, on the other side of the U-shaped nursing desk, was Officer Smith. The pale fluorescent lights bounced off his bald head and he stood with his chest puffed out and his thumbs tucked into the straps of his Kevlar vest. He stared at Wendy, mouth in a straight line as his square jaw worked on a piece of gum. No matter what time of year it was, Officer Smith always had a sunglasses tan framing his sharp eyes. He had a way of looking at you that made you feel guilty, even if you hadn’t done anything wrong. It was a look that Wendy had been on the receiving end of many times over the past five years.

“Wendy.” Her name always sounded gruff coming from him, like he was annoyed at the mere mention of her.

Wendy’s head bobbed in an uncomfortable greeting. She wanted to ask what was going on, but the way everyone kept looking at her—

“There you are!” A sharp yank on Wendy’s arm had her spinning around to Jordan’s beaming face. “I was looking everywhere for you!” she said. Jordan Arroyo had been Wendy’s best friend since middle school. If Wendy did anything outside her comfort zone, it was because Jordan was there cheering—and sometimes pushing—her along. It was Jordan who had talked her into applying to big-name colleges, and rejoiced with screaming and dancing when they both got into the University of Oregon. When Wendy worried that it was too far from Astoria and her parents, Jordan promised they’d make the four-hour drive back home together whenever Wendy wanted.

Wendy felt a small bit of relief. “I—”

“Are you done for the day?” Jordan’s dark eyes cut to the stack of files. She was tall with warm brown skin that never broke out and had dark hair that usually framed her face in tight curls but was currently tied back in a ponytail.

“Yeah—”

“Great!” Before Wendy could object, Jordan snatched up their bags with one hand and pulled Wendy down the hall with the other. “Let’s go!” Wendy half expected one of the three police officers to stop her, but even though they watched the two as they left—especially Officer Smith—no one said anything.

When the door closed behind them and they were alone in the hall, Wendy sucked in a deep breath. “What was that all about?” she asked, glancing quickly over her shoulder to see if anyone was going to follow them.

“What was what?” said Jordan.

Wendy had to take quick steps to keep up with Jordan’s long, determined strides. “The cops and everyone.”

“Pft, who knows!” Jordan said with a jerky shrug as she punched the code on the door to the nurses’ break room.

Wendy frowned. Jordan never missed a chance for gossip. Any time anything interesting happened in the hospital—like a local boy shooting off his friend’s toe when they were illegally hunting in the woods or a doctor making one of the medical assistants cry—Jordan was all over it. She bounced from person to person, poking for details and prodding for information, before finding Wendy and divulging everything she found out.