“Still no job?” Keith passed the basketball across the court behind my building.
He’d been hounding me for a pick-up game for weeks, anything to get me out of my apartment and into the sun. So when he’d knocked on my door with a ball balanced on his hip, I’d relented. “The interview last week sounded promising,” I said. I curved my fingers along the textured orange surface as I lined up another warm-up shot. When it bounced off the rim, I wasn’t surprised. Over the past two months, my game—and my life—had gone to shit.
Keith scrambled to rebound and then paused to squint at me. “You know,” he said, “I still need an assistant for the lab at home.”
I scowled. “Didn’t you hire someone?”
“He didn’t want to get his hands dirty. Too much bitching and moaning.” Keith grimaced. “You’re good with animals, though. I’ve never even seen you flinch at handling snakes. You’d be perfect.”
I doubted that. When Keith’s family had moved to town when we were kids, we’d become thick as thieves, but where Keith was a brainy veterinarian with delusions of scientific grandeur, my aspirations were more mundane. A job making a livable wage. A wife and maybe a few kids someday. A job. A house down the road from my parents.
Cleaning cages sounded like a lower level of hell, but I’d done worse for a paycheck.
“It’s only for a month, a private research project, very hush-hush.” Keith dribbled the ball. “But if I win the grants I’m expecting, this could stretch indefinitely.”
I wrinkled my nose. I was almost desperate enough to take him up on the offer, except . . . “You still live on the lake?”
Keith snorted. “Since the second grade. Right next to the lab you helped me build last year, remember?”
Sure, I’d built the addition onto his house. “In the summer.”
As usual, Keith ignored my misgivings. “C’mon, man. Working for me, you’d be away from town gossip about Trisha and your boss.” He winced. “I mean ex-boss. Has she returned the engagement ring yet, at least?” He finally lobbed a shot from the three-point line. Nothing but net.
Still, Keith had stood by me when other friends had faded. “No,” I said. “She hasn’t returned the ring.”
“I bet you’re still making payments on that marquis solitaire Trisha had to have, and I know you blew your savings on deposits for the dream wedding her family couldn’t afford.” Keith frowned. “You have to stop hiding from this. Let me help you.”
“I’m okay for money for a little longer,” I lied because I couldn’t take more of Keith’s pity. Or the embarrassment. “Besides, Dad said I could go back to work at the store if I needed to.”
“Camden’s only grocery? You’d be center stage for the rumor mill and I’d never pry you out of your apartment again.” He loped across the court for the basketball. “This isn’t healthy, Danny. If you don’t want to work for me, fine, I’ll accept that. But I think you should go away for a while. Take a break from the gossip and stress.” Keith took his next shot.
Hard not to hate the guy.
Keith scrambled for the ball.
“I’m not broke enough to take a job at Dad’s store.” Or handouts from friends. “But that doesn’t mean I have money for a vacation.”
Lazily bouncing the basketball on the cracked asphalt, Keith arched an eyebrow. “You don’t need money to hike the lake. Plenty of spots to camp for free.”
When he lifted the ball to chest level and passed, I caught it with steady hands. My stomach jiggled, though. “Pitch a tent near the lake? In October?” I shook my head.
“You still believe the old stories, don’t you?” Keith snickered. “I’ve lived near the lake for twenty years. Don’t you think I would’ve noticed something weird if there were genuinely anything to see?”
I forced out a brittle laugh. Pretending I wasn’t uncomfortable, I shot the ball again, satisfaction swelling my chest when the ball sank through the net. “Nobody camps this late in the season, anyway. It’s too cold at night.”
Keith gaped at me, leaving the ball to bounce toward the fence. “You do still believe the monster stories!”
I didn’t. Mostly. Tall tales about the creature in the lake and its regular appearance every autumn had been around for generations, told and retold like campfire ghost stories. Funny how some of those stories had a kernel of truth, though. “I just don’t want to freeze my balls off.” I jogged to the fence to grab the basketball, then dribbled to center court, focusing on the sagging basket attached to the backboard instead of meeting my friend’s incredulous stare.
“Bullshit. You climb tree stands to wait for deer every hunting season.” I’d bagged a buck every year since puberty, a point of tension between Keith and me since I didn’t eat the meat. “You’re a seasoned camper and it’s supposed to be warm this week, too.” When I didn’t answer, Keith chuckled evilly. “I can’t believe you’re going to let an old wives’ tale keep you from a relaxing week taking in the fall colors. No Trisha. No cell phones or internet. Just you and the woods.” He heaved an exaggerated sigh.
The wild urge to organize my gear and hit the closest trail tripped my pulse. Fresh air. The crackle of crisp leaves under my feet. Scurrying animals in the undergrowth. A shiver of dread worked up my spine at the legends warning locals to stay away from the lake once trees began shedding leaves for winter. But after months of hiding in my apartment to avoid the scandal of my fiancée leaving me for my boss and said boss firing me soon thereafter, I craved the freedom of the outdoors. “I’ll think about it,” I finally said, but in my head, I was already stuffing supplies into my backpack.