The halls were crowded with laughing, talking students as we headed back to our classroom, Johan in front of me. He stopped so suddenly I slammed into him, and Claire barely stopped herself from knocking us both over.
“What’re you doing?” I hissed as I grabbed Claire’s arm to steady myself. But then I saw what Johan was looking at. The door to his locker had been twisted off, the lock still intact. Papers were strewn all over the floor. Pencils and pens lay crushed as if a giant boulder had rolled down the hall.
Mrs. Mills stood beside the mess, her arms crossed, glaring at us. “Did you do this to cover up the fact that you can’t find the book, Johan?” she demanded.
“No, ma’am. I was in the gym the entire time,” he babbled. “Ask Katie. She was right beside me.”
“That’s right, he was,” I said, looking at the twisted metal. “Besides, no offense, but I don’t think Johan’s strong enough to do that.”
Johan started to say something, then stopped.
Mrs. Mills narrowed her eyes and pressed her lips together, then waved us past.
“I’ll speak to the principal and see what we can do about this,” she said.
Johan, looking even paler than he had in the gym, took my arm as we entered the classroom.
“Katie, I don’t know what’s going on, but I think it has something to do with that book,” he said in a low voice. “I’m going to go home and make sure it’s not there. I’m a little worried.”
“Can’t you wait until school’s out? It’s only 15 minutes,” I said.
“No, I’ve got to go now. Cover for me,” he said as he slipped into the hall.
I looked at his retreating back, wondering what I was supposed to say. Because, hello, Mrs. Mills wasn’t an idiot. It was pretty much guaranteed she would notice he was gone. And sure enough, here she came, marching toward me with a severe look on her face.
I stared at her, my mind a blank.
“He, um, was upset about his locker so he went to see Principal Puckett,” Claire said.
I threw Claire a look of thanks as Mrs. Mills said, “Good, because that’s where I was sending him.”
She turned away from us and clapped her hands. “Now class, sit down and be quiet. We have just enough time to finish turning in books before the bell rings.”
As Mrs. Mills began calling out the names of students, Claire leaned toward me and hissed, “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered back. “But I think Johan’s in some kind of trouble. Something to do with an old book, like that makes any sense. When the bell rings, we need to go straight to his house.”
She nodded and sat up straight in her seat as Mrs. Mills threw us a sharp look.
My feet danced under my desk as I watched the clock tick off the last few minutes of my junior year. When the bell rang, a cheer went up from the direction of the seniors’ homeroom. Claire and I made our way quickly through groups of students who were hugging, exchanging phone numbers, promising to stay in touch.
Claire and I broke into a trot as we reached the sidewalk and turned toward home. I live on Elizabeth Street, and Johan lives around the corner on Mary Street (get it? My mom’s name? Mary Elizabeth? My grandparents had a weird sense of humor). Moving fast, it would take us about 10 minutes to get there.
As we reached the head of Mary Street, we slowed to a walk. Oak trees draped in Spanish moss shaded the yards and sidewalks. Johan’s neighbor, old Mrs. Ellis, watered the brightly colored zinnias that grew in the beds around her front porch. A couple consulted a guidebook before heading toward East Bay Street and the shops and restaurants that could be found there. I could hear the clip-clop of horses’ hooves as a carriage full of tourists listened to the driver’s patter of history mixed with jokes.
“Come on,” I said to Claire.
As we got closer to Johan’s house, I could see the front door was wide open. That wasn’t right. Nobody in Charleston keeps their doors open in the summertime. Air conditioning could only do so much. I put my hand out, warning Claire. We went up the front steps and across the porch as quietly as we could given that the house was more than 200 years old and the boards creaked with every step.
Cool air blew out of the open door into our faces. We could hear the hum of the air conditioning unit as it struggled to keep up with the hot, humid air that was pouring in from the porch. The house was silent.
“Johan!” I called. “Are you here?”
No answer. We walked into the foyer, closing the door behind us. The house was a mirror image of mine. Stairs ran up the wall on the right to bedrooms upstairs. A hall straight ahead led toward the kitchen on the back of the house, and double doors opened onto a parlor on our left. The ceiling was high, and the wide pine boards of the floor gleamed with wax.
Looking down the hall, I could see the back door was open, too. As I took a step toward the back door, I caught a glimpse of a long black coat in the backyard. That guy again? This time I was going to catch him.
I broke into a run, bursting into the backyard in time to see the tall blond man exit Johan’s yard through the rear gate. He looked back at me, then took off in the same direction the tourists had gone — toward East Bay. Like he was really going to blend in with all the people in tank tops and shorts wandering around down there.
I was about to follow him when I heard a groan coming from the bushes on my left. Johan was lying in the dirt, his arm bent at a strange angle underneath him.
“Claire, call 911,” I yelled as I knelt down beside him.
“Johan, what happened?” I asked as I took the empty book bag off my back and put it under his head as a pillow.
“I’m not really sure,” he answered, taking a deep breath. “When I got here, the front door was open. There was nobody downstairs, so I decided to look upstairs. When I got to the top of the stairs, I heard a noise in my room.”
Johan paused to breathe, wincing as he tried to straighten his arm. Claire came out carrying a bag of ice and a can of tomato juice for Johan. She placed the ice on his arm and helped him sit up enough to take a sip of juice.
“Why didn’t you call the police as soon as you got here?” I asked.
“Well, um, I thought I knew who it was,” he said.
“And did you?”
I waited, expecting him to go on. But he was silent.
Finally, he looked at Claire. “Did you call 911?” he asked.
“Good,” he said.
“What? Why not?” I cried. “Your arm …” My voice trailed off as I realized that Johan was moving his arm normally, if a bit stiffly. It wasn’t bent the wrong way anymore.