There, nothing is as it seems. Behind a surface
appearance of normality, danger closes around the
children as they seek to solve the mystery of Toni.
When a winter storm cuts off any hope of outside
help, they are engaged in a battle of wits and
endurance as they struggle to survive.
As they begin to uncover secrets, and the people
behind the secrets, the children are as good as dead
. . . unless they can think more cleverly and act
more bravely than those who seek to kill them.
CHAPTER ONE: THE DISCOVERY
“Come on, Jane!” called John, looking back at his younger sister. “Alec, hold on a minute. Jane’s way behind.”
Alec, at sixteen the oldest of the three, stopped his skis and looked back. The hard New England landscape had been only slightly softened by the heavy snowfalls of recent weeks. Alec looked upon an expanse of white hills and stands of snow-covered pines. A gray sky threatened more snow later. He saw his brother John skiing back to where Jane was making very slow progress. Alec’s breath clouded the air as he called, “I’ll wait for you by those trees up ahead.” Usually he would have been impatient with his twelve year old sister, but they were taking extra good care of each other right now.
“What’s up, Janie?” asked John, as he pulled up beside his sister. He could see that she had been crying.
“Oh . . . the usual,” she sniffed. “You know . . . Mom and Dad . . . wondering what’s going to happen.”
John nodded. “I’m trying not to think about it,” he said. “And who knows? Maybe it’ll turn out all right.”
“It doesn’t look like it will,” she said. “And how can I not think about it? There’s nothing else to think about.”
John could not answer that. The truth was, Jane was right. The possible divorce of their parents, coming on top of the near-certainty of their father’s bankruptcy, filled his own mind for most of the time. And what was there to take their mind off it? Here they were, cross-country skiing just to get away from Uncle Joe and Aunt Mary for a day; and there was nothing in the monotonous miles of snow to take their minds off things.
“Alec’s waiting up ahead by those trees,” he said. “Maybe it’s time to have some food.”
“You mean the feast?”
John was glad to see his sister making the attempt to smile. “The feast” was a standing joke among them. It was the name they gave to the meager rations grudgingly given by their aunt and uncle.
“Maybe it’ll be super-special good today,” he grinned as he turned his skis around. “Maybe the bread won’t actually be stale.”
The fourteen-year old brother and twelve year old sister made their way together to where Alec was waiting on the fringe of some woodland.
“I guess it’s time to eat,” called John to his brother as they drew up.
“I’m way ahead of you,” replied Alec. He had already shrugged off his backpack and the others did likewise. “There’s not much wind, but it’s good to be out of it,” he said.
They pulled out the plastic cartons that held their lunches and, before opening them, paused to pray their blessing. Then they turned their attention to the food.
“We might have been a bit optimistic, giving thanks for these,” observed John, prying the lid from his carton and observing the contents with a glum expression.
Their lunches were as disappointing as they had expected. The sandwiches were slabs of bread with slices of cheese and nothing else between them. The bread, however, was not actually stale.
“We should be thankful for small mercies,” Alec observed dryly.
“The coffee’s a small mercy for sure,” complained Jane. “A very small one.”
“It couldn’t have been warm even when she put it in,” agreed John.
“A feast fit for a king,” muttered Alec. “I’m getting seriously fed up.”
“I wish we were all back home again,” said Jane in a small voice.
“I’m cold,” said John after a while. They had all had to take off their gloves to eat, and the slight but persistent wind was finding them even though they were sheltered by the woodland.
“Maybe we should head back,” said Alec.
This suggestion met with silence. Everybody had a picture in his head of Uncle Joe and Aunt Mary’s house: cold, comfortless, on an old and not well-managed farm in the middle of nowhere. None of them was anxious to hurry back. Wasn’t that the reason why they had gone skiing cross-country, to spend a day away from that place?
“I need to go to the bathroom,” announced Jane, wrapping up the remains of her lunch and putting them back into her backpack. Alec and John gazed morosely in the other direction, back the way they had come, while Jane made her way further into the trees.
“I wish we could go back home,” John muttered to Alec, while Jane was out of earshot.
“Me too,” agreed Alec. “But it seems like home’s not home any more. Mom’s moved out. Dad’s drinking like a fish. The house is up for sale…..what a mess.”
“A good Christian home. That’s what Mom and Dad always called it.”
“Yeah, I know. Sounds kinda hollow now, doesn’t it?”
“Mom would say, ‘Keep praying,’” said John.
“Mmm.” Alec looked over at John and met his eyes. “Hasn’t done a lot of good so far, has it?”
“I’m going to keep praying anyway.”
“You’re right,” said Alec, after a short pause. “Yes, you’re right. I’m going to keep at it.”
“Still, if Mom and Dad do divorce . . .”
“We’ll have to pick sides,” said Alec. “Or spend half the year with Mom, half the year with Dad . . .” Sixteen years old as he was, the eldest, his voice was shaky.
“What will you do?”
“I dunno. I try not to think about it.”
“We should all stick together.”
“Yeah. I . . .” Alec broke off and cocked his head to listen. “Was that Jane?” They both turned around. It was Jane’s voice, but they could not see her. She called them again.
“Alec! John! Over here, quick!”
“Where are you?” called Alec. “What’s up?”
“There she is.” John pointed to where Jane’s red ski jacket stood out amid the trees. “Why did she go so far?”
“What’s up?” called Alec again.
“You’ve got to see this!” shouted Jane. “Over here! Come and look.”
“What is it?” The boys made their way towards Jane as quickly as they could, though they were impeded by snow-covered bracken and fallen wood.
“It’s an airplane!” called Jane.
“Look over there.” As the boys got closer, they looked in the direction of their sister’s outstretched arm.
“Man!” breathed Alec. “It is an airplane.”
Ahead of them, angled downward amid the dark tree trunks, was the white fuselage of a small airplane. The tail-plane was still attached, but they could see right away that the ends of both wings were missing. The remains of each wing protruded from the fuselage to a length of just five or six feet.
For a few moments the boys stood beside their sister while they took in the scene. Then, without anyone saying anything, they all began to move closer.
It was an eerie scene. The day was overcast, and the tall pine trees shut out much of what light there was. The upper surfaces of the wrecked plane were covered with snow. Just visible were the bottom parts of the black registration numbers on the sides of the fuselage. When they were right beside the plane, they halted.
“I think I see one of the wings back there,” said John, squinting into the gloomy recesses of the wood. The others thought they saw it too, a twisted unnatural object jammed high among the branches.
They turned their attention back to the wreck in front of them. The front of the airplane was almost on the ground, but the fuselage was sloped at about forty degrees, leaving the tail-plane about twenty feet off the ground. The whole thing was jammed amid three trees and supported by a tangle of branches. The cockpit area was covered in snow. It looked as though the front of the windshield had caved in, but it was hard to tell. There was a side window facing them that was partially snow-covered but, in any case, made opaque by ice. It was also above them, so they could not see in.
Jane voiced the thought that had occurred to each of them. “I don’t suppose,” she said, “that there is anyone inside . . . ”
“There won’t be anybody in there,” said John. “This plane has been here for a while. Look at all the snow on it. They must have checked it out.” By “they,” he meant the rescue services.
“Let’s go round the other side,” said Alec.
The other side proved to look much like the first, except that on this side they saw the door into the cockpit.
“I think I can get up to that door,” said Alec, eyeing the tangle of branches which supported the fuselage.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” cautioned John.
“I want to see inside,” said Alec. With that, he clambered up onto the lowest of the supporting branches and began gingerly to make his way towards the door. “It’s quite safe,” he said after a few moments. “The branches are hardly moving at all. This thing is wedged in real tight.” After climbing a little further he added, “In a minute, I’ll be able to see inside.”
He inched his way right up to the door. Then John and Jane saw him stiffen. He stood as still as stone, perched awkwardly on the branches, staring into the airplane. Eventually, John called to him.
Alec did not reply. He continued to stare at the cockpit window. John called a second time. “What’s up?”
Alec tore his eyes away and looked down at the other two. His face was shocked; even horrified. He whispered, “There are people in here.”