It took Ru a while to understand what was bothering her about the park. She walked along the edge just as the sun was sinking behind the trees, a weak orange that reminded her more of a lone streetlamp than a star. The sky today was pale and hazy, boring in Ru’s opinion, and it would stay that way for a while. The trees still had full leaves; only a few were beginning to decay into yellow and red. A long shadow echoed her movements.
As she passed the entrance to the Cardinal Street parking lot, it finally clicked. Two days until October, Quarterhill’s busiest month for tourism, and Tanager Park was deserted. There wasn’t a single car in the lot. Empty swings hung straight as the poles that held them up. No robins foraging under picnic tables, no locals walking their dogs. Dust blew off the baseball diamonds, chalk lines faded.
It could have been just like this when her father disappeared. No witnesses. He’d never come home from his maintenance job here at the park. He’d known the paths and the woods better than anyone. He was usually the one to recover lost tourists.
Vince Faraday’s father had been one of his friends. Ru sometimes pried more information out of him when she visited the arcade. “Your brother looks just like him,” Mr. Faraday said, “Except for the eyes. You have his eyes.”
“I know,” Ru said. “I’ve seen pictures.”
“Did your mother tell you he was studying to be an astronomer?”
Ru shifted and fastened her eyes on the prize counter. “I don’t ask Mom about Dad. She cries when she talks about him.”
“She misses him,” Mr. Faraday said gently. “They knew each other for a long time. People ask too many questions, I think. Do you still get strangers at the door asking about the Blue Star?”
“Not that I know of,” Ru said, surprised. “People really did that?”
Mr. Faraday nodded, frowning. “When your father disappeared, the tourism board wanted to use the case to bring in more money. I think Eric would have loved it, but your mother was against it. You almost grew up in another city.”
Ru wondered if that old man that lived across the street from the park had a similar story. Maybe someone from his family disappeared one night. He did shout about the tourism board a lot. “Do you think it could have been the Blue Star?” she asked.
Mr. Faraday laughed, then moved to the counter to take a fistful of tickets from a younger boy. “I really don’t know what happened to him, Ru. What I do know is that there have been people who have gone into the woods and never come out.” A serious light came into his eyes. “Don’t ever go there alone, all right?”
Earlier, Ru had gone to the park with Nathan and Kenna. Now she wished they were still around. She shivered, despite the mild breeze. She was just about to move on when a flicker of light caught her eye. She squinted. An afterimage from the sun, probably.
No. There it was again, a spark like a firefly, but blue instead of green. North, not west.
Ru shook her head, blinking rapidly. It was a camera. Someone playing with a flashlight. Despite her mind throwing out all sorts of rational solutions, she soon found herself standing at the edge of the trees, peering in. She could return with Kenna after dinner, but by then whatever had caused the light could be gone. She compromised with her curiosity and conscience, and went down a woodchip path.
The air dampened under the trees, though the leaves across the path were dry. They skittered and crackled in the wind. Ru started at a loud rustle, then noticed a puffy gray tail wind out of sight behind the trunk of an oak. She kept her head up and her ears and eyes open, barely blinking. Little else moved.
Her father had last been seen near the woods, along with Colleen’s parents. It had been a strain on the girls’ friendship a few years ago. Joe Stalvey said the Amundsens kidnapped Eric Hadley, or possibly killed him. It was “obvious,” Joe said, because Colleen’s parents had arranged for their daughter to be cared for, but Eric’s disappearance had been a complete surprise to Ru’s mother. Most people believed Joe in cases like this, with his father being a police officer and all. It had taken Ru a few weeks and a teacher to understand that even if Joe’s suspicions were true, none of it was Colleen’s fault.
Ru took another step and felt something yank on her foot. Arms wheeling, she tumbled and landed face-down in the mulch. Whatever tripped her still had a hold on her leg, digging through her jeans. She thrashed with a yelp, then rolled over and groped at her ankle.
Her fingers caught under a loop of blue string. Furious, she wrangled the string away from her foot and threw it at the ground. Why was this here? A prank? She followed it with her fingers to where it was buried in the dirt under the woodchips. A few handfuls of soil aside freed the string from the ground.
The string’s anchor was a crystalline pendant. It was a deep cobalt blue, in the shape of a soaring eagle. It looked like a Carmody pendant, possibly sapphire, but more likely glass if it was held by a string rather than a chain. Still, even the glass Carmodys were expensive. Some tourist must have dropped it, but how did it get buried far enough to trip her? And with the string sticking up like that? Besides that, it seemed in good shape. Each feather on the wings was in perfect delicate detail, no cracks or chips, and there was hardly any dirt left on it at all. She brushed the last crumbs off its tiny talons and tail.
A head rush nearly knocked her back to the ground. Static flew in front of her eyes. She wanted to lie down, but she staggered to her feet and nearly froze. This wasn’t a normal feeling. It had happened before, in that dream with the aliens. Her head swiveled, quick as a bird. Was she dreaming now? She didn’t think so.
Her feet moved on their own, light as air. She barely had the mind to pocket the eagle pendant before it slipped out of her fingers.
The woodchip path ended in rounded bricks. Light shined over a hedge fence, which opened into a garden filled to the brim with brightly-colored flowers and small plants, each labeled with tiny bronze plaques on plastic stakes. At last, there was another person. It was a man in a green polo shirt and khakis, the uniform of the parks department. He caught sight of her and smiled, a welcoming smile that was a stark contrast to the energy that had drawn Ru forward. “Hello,” he said, “Here to see the Quarterstone? Just so you know, the garden closes in fifteen minutes.”
She nodded and moved on. Despite being one of the most solid pieces of oddity in town, the Quarterstone wasn’t very popular and there were relatively few myths attached to it. Supposedly attempts at vandalizing it had failed; blades broke on its surface and paint melted off. That was no mystery, though. Ru had heard of coatings that would be able to protect the stone in such a way, and she didn’t know of many stones pocket knives could carve. Still, there were no stones nearby that matched its composition, and the only markings on it were two crossed lines that divided it into quarters. Like Breckenridge, it was more a place for historians than thrill-seekers.
The Quarterstone sat at the end of a hedge tunnel, under a dome formed by a hedge fence and trees. What was exceptional about the stone was its size. The flat, circular stone could easily fit a pair of cars on its ivory surface. It seemed luminescent in the glow of sunset, the lines barely noticeable shadows.
Suddenly there was a flash, seen briefly through the hedge. Definitely blue. The memory of the windsock people lurked somewhere in the back of her head. In haste to find the source of the light, she searched the hedge for a way through, but it had long been sealed from people who would try to get in without going through the garden. The park worker questioned her as she ran out of the garden, but she was barely aware. Right out of the gate, she left the path and wove her way through the forest towards where she had seen the blue flash.
Her crunching footsteps echoed. She stopped. There was a rapid shuffle, behind her. She was not alone, and whatever it was following her did not want to be seen. It was harder to see now that the sun was down, and her eyes went as wide as they could go, searching between the dim trunks of trees.
Ru screamed right along with the figure that had jumped out from behind one of the thicker oaks. Then laughter rang out. Ru recognized a head of thorny red hair. “Randy!” she screeched.
Jayson was behind him, doubled over. “You should have seen your face,” he howled.
“What are you doing here?” Ru demanded.
“Could ask you the same thing.” Jayson wiped his eyes. “You aren’t supposed to be here by yourself.”
“She wasn’t alone,” a grating voice said. It had come from above.