I was supposed to ride the bus, but I didn’t.
I guess Mom was going to kill me, but right now I could care less. I just had to know where that Cora girl went every day after school. She always walked towards the forest, slapping away branches to make a path, and then she would disappear behind the tall pine trees.
Nobody lived in the forest. It was way too dense to walk through, much less build a house. When I was little, people used to tell the story of Opal McMillians, an old witch that lived in a treehouse deep in the forest. If you came too close, she would send green vines after you, and then once you were trapped, she would eat you. After I got older, I realized it was just a story to keep kids from touching all the poison ivy, but part of me still believed there was something in there.
Cora had moved to the school in the middle of the year. Nobody knew where she was from because she never talked. Never. Not even to teachers. Cora was as silent as the trees in the forest.
Her hair was so blond, it was almost white. Her eyes were the bluest I had ever seen. She was as skinny as a pencil, and her hands were ice-cold. I knew because once in the lunch-line, her hand had brushed against mine. I cringed, trying not to pull away.
I had watched Cora disappear into the forest since she first came here. I had always wanted to follow her, but had been too scared.
Not of Opal McMillians, of course. Obviously.
But now I couldn’t sleep not knowing where Cora was going every day. I stood at the border of the forest and before I could even tell myself, July Baily, what in tarnation are you doing? I was in, remaking the trail Cora had made not ten minutes before.
Branches clawed at my face and hands. I winced as a twig scratched me above my eyebrow. I tripped over a million roots, and stepped over miles of poison ivy, my eyes fixed on the ground, following the soft footprints of Cora.
I trudged through the bushes for about five minutes before I came to a small clearing. The poison ivy covered the trunks of the trees, reaching up from the ground. I itched just looking at it.
But one tree to the left of me had no ivy. Walking closer, I realized there were steps leading up the rough bark.
Oh my gosh.
I looked up. High in the trees was a small wooden treehouse. A trapdoor was open in the floor.
Oh my gosh.
I froze in fear! Suddenly a head poked through the trapdoor, crazy white hair surrounding it like a halo.
Oh my gosh.
Opal McMillians! I was dead! I screamed and ran towards the center of the clearing, but realized I had no idea which way I had come from! I scrambled in one direction before –
“Wait! Don’t go! Here, I’m coming down!” Opal McMillians yelled from the treehouse. I knew I was a goner – she was coming down to eat me!
Bracing myself for my inevitable demise, Opal McMillian climbed out. She wore a white dress and… pink Vans? Okay, so she had some kind of fashion sense considering she was a witch…
She neared the bottom and turned around. I almost fainted until I realized that Cora was standing in front of me, smiling.
“Oh, hi. Sorry for scaring you.”
“You… you’re not Opal McMillians?” I stammered.
Cora laughed. “What? Who’s that?”
I suddenly felt incredibly stupid. “Oh, nothing,” I said quietly.
Cora scratched her arm. “You’re July, right? I was hoping you’d follow me,” she said. “I’ve noticed you watching me come here for a while now. Well, here it is! Welcome to my treehouse,” she giggled.
“You just found this?” I asked.
Cora nodded. As she climbed up the steps to the treehouse, I guessed she expected me to follow. When we got to the top, I looked around.
The treehouse was small. A table and chair sat in the corner, covered in papers and books. Cora’s backpack lay on the floor. It looked pretty empty, but what amazed me were the keys handing from the ceiling. There were all kinds, big and small. It felt almost fairytale-ish, with the light coming in through the windows. “What’s with all the keys?” I asked, wishing I could swallow back my question.
Cora didn’t seem to notice. “Oh, I collect them,” she answered.
“Why haven’t you told anyone about this?” I asked. “Why don’t you talk at all?”
Cora blushed. “I’m shy. Moving schools was hard. I guess I should talk more. It would be good for me. I just have trouble. Plus, no one ever talks to me,” she said. I felt a pang of regret. What a jerk I was! I never talked to her! “Also, my Mom would keep me from coming here if she knew I went through the forest. She thinks I go to the library every day.” Cora looked at me from the corner of her eye. “It’s a necessary secret,” she said mysteriously.
I laughed. “Well, maybe it can be our necessary secret,” I said.
Cora grinned. We sat in the treehouse together, talking and joking around. Cora was fun, not weird like I had previously thought. She actually made pretty cool kind of friend.
From then on, almost every day after school, Cora and I went to the treehouse. We even hung out sometimes at each other’s houses. Cora started to talk more at school, gaining her new friends, but she still stuck with me. She was different and unique. I liked her a lot.
She was no Opal McMillians, that’s for sure.