Marlee’s adventures and misadventures continue in Ablaze, which releases this Thursday, February 25. I want to give you a sneak peek of the beginning of the book. (Side note: I thought the phrase sneak peek sounded cliché, but in looking for synonyms, I just didn’t think titling this post Preliminary Study was attention-grabbing enough. I also considered writing Sneak Peak to allude to mountain peaks, but as you can see, I opted to stick with the cliché.)
Back to the story, here’s the prologue and chapter one. Who doesn’t need a break from real life for a few minutes? Enjoy!
I yawned and shifted my parents’ SUV into Park. I cast an annoyed glance at the clock and muttered, “1:18.”
I waited about a minute, and then my long-time friend Braelynn Gunderson opened the passenger door, wordlessly sat down, and buckled the seatbelt with no ‘Thank you,’ or ‘I knew I could count on you, Marlee.’ Okay, so Braelynn and I had been really close ever since we were five and her mom unjammed the zipper on my snowsuit at the playground by our house for me. Braelynn asked to play with me, and we hit it off that day. Over the years we spent tons of time together – until six months ago.
We never exactly had a falling-out, but we had definitely drifted apart. My schedule got busier with training for the summer’s backpacking trip and hanging out with my younger sister Lydie. Braelynn found new kids to hang out with – mainly her boyfriend, Owen. I did not vote for Owen and Braelynn to get together. Lydie and I agree that he has shifty eyes and is conceited. Plus, anybody can see that he does not bring out the best in Braelynn. Since Owen takes up all Braelynn’s time these days, I feel like she doesn’t need my friendship anymore.
I was very surprised when she called me – at 1:00 am. It took me a few minutes to wake up and another few minutes to sneak outside and pray that my parents would sleep through the sound of the SUV’s engine starting. I don’t think Lydie heard me tiptoe down the stairs, and since my parents hadn’t called me yet, I doubted they had heard me leave either. This could be easy. I just needed to drop off Braelynn, go home and park my parents’ car, sneak back in, and return to the comfort of my bed. And try to forget about Braelynn – try to forget that my oldest friend ditched me for a drinking party and a boyfriend who engages in way too much PDA. Super gross.
Even though the situation irritated me like wet socks, I guess in a way I was glad she called me. Even if she wouldn’t say it, maybe it meant she knew she could count on me. I peeked at her as we turned onto the next street. She looked like she’d been crying. If it hadn’t been 1:21 a.m. I would have felt bad for her. I quietly asked if she was okay. She gave a half-shrug.
“So,” I wanted to break the weird silence. Over the years silence had been uncommon when Braelynn and I were together. “It’s good to see you again.” I tried not to sound cheesy.
Braelynn let out an angry huff and said, “My mom said to tell you hi.”
“Really?” I asked, aware of the hopeful surprise in my voice. I’ve always liked Mr. and Mrs. Gunderson. Once they let me tag along all the way to California for a week-long camp. Even though it was a lot of sitting in the minivan, I had good memories, mostly of making up goofy songs with Braelynn. The camp had been a blast, and we had shared it all together. That was six years ago, and now that I hadn’t seen her parents in months, I longed for the good old days. “That was sweet of her!”
Braelynn cut in, “Well it was like a month ago that she told me to tell you hi.”
“Oh.” I tried to hide the deflation in my voice, “Well maybe next month you can tell her I said hi back.”
Braelynn made another huff and said, “I don’t need a lecture right now, Marlee.” Ha, that was NOT a lecture, but whatever.
“Just drop me off at the corner of my street. And please don’t tell anyone about this.”
“Oh, I get it,” I said, anger rising, “We’re not friends anymore, but you can call me to sneak around and give you a ride when your jerk boyfriend gets drunk? Feel free to leave a tip in the cupholder. You’re welcome.”
“Marlee,” Braelynn hissed through gritted teeth, “I know you’re disappointed that I’ve made some mistakes lately. Just get me home, give me time to sort it out, and please don’t tell anyone about this. I’m not exactly proud of the way tonight went.”
I saw a pair of headlights approaching us in the other lane and vaguely wondered who else was out at 1:26 a.m. I wished I was still asleep. I knew my voice was snarky, but I couldn’t help it. “Not much to tell. You know you can count on me to keep this rendezvous a secret.” I was so mad that I meant it. I shouldn’t have answered her call. I wouldn’t be sneaking around like an undercover taxi driver, and she could figure out her own mess.
“Marlee, STOP!” Braelynn shrieked. Wow, let’s not overreact. I wasn’t half as rude as you.
A car’s horn blared. My mind only saw fragments of what happened next. A blur of deer hide flew at us. Headlights careened through the dark. Tires squealed. My ears filled with crashing sounds. Airbags exploded. The deer crushed the hood of the SUV and shattered the windshield mere inches from our noses. The other car melded into ours. My head slammed into the headrest, and my hands flew up to shield my face. My breath was shallow and shaky, and I whispered, “Braelynn?”
The other driver climbed through the passenger door of his crumpled car and ran over to Braelynn and me. “Are you okay?” he shouted. “I’ll call 9-1-1!”
So much for keeping this a secret.
Mrs. Gunderson came to our house the next morning and hugged me. I was exhausted and overwhelmed with guilt that I only had a headache, but Braelynn was sitting in the hospital with a concussion and a broken arm. “You’ve been a good friend to Braelynn. I’m so sorry she pulled you into her mess. You’re a natural leader, and I’ve prayed so much that she would do her part to rekindle your friendship. She needs you. She acts mad, but please go visit her at the hospital.” Then she broke down in tears. Was it my turn to hug her?
Braelynn’s parents were disappointed in her and proud of me. Talk about an awkward predicament! My parents weren’t even too upset at me for sneaking out since I actually had a good reason. I think they were just glad that I was safe, and Braelynn’s injuries weren’t any worse. They wouldn’t say it in front of the Gundersons, but I knew they were relieved that I hadn’t been at the party. Even if I was cool enough to be invited, I wouldn’t have gone. It’s not a path I want to go down.
I didn’t want to face Braelynn, but since Mrs. Gunderson was so gracious, I visited her in the hospital later that day. I tried to be nice, but it spiraled into a Let’s Blame Marlee Campaign. In Braelynn’s eyes the car accident was totally my fault. Right, like I planned it all with the deer. Like I would’ve been driving then and there if not for her. Besides, accidents happen. But according to Braelynn, her parents found out that she was at a drinking party because I crashed that night. I decided that my headache was more from her meanness than from the accident itself.
I didn’t get a ‘thanks for saving me from my creepy boyfriend and his drunk friends,’ just “Marlee! Were you drinking too?! I needed you, and all you accomplished was getting us in an accident! So I made a mistake and went to that party. I was fixing my mess until you crashed. Then my parents got a call from the hospital, and the blabby newspaper people showed up, and now everyone knows I was at a drinking party. No way am I calling you again. Maybe you fit in with your hiking friends, but you do not fit in with me or my friends. You’re nothing but a big embarrassment. Some leader you turned out to be.” Ouch. Did she know Mrs. Gunderson called me a natural leader? Did Braelynn purposely say that to hurt me worse? Might as well give that dagger another twist in my heart.
She acted as if she thought her parents were so dense that they would not have figured it out on their own. Anyone who knew Braelynn at all could see she’d changed a ton over the past few months – and not for the better.
She yelled at me that I needed to leave her alone. A nurse hurried in, and I walked out, biting back tears. I knew a good friend would pray for her, but I was so exasperated and hurt as I left her hospital room that I just sighed, rode my bike home, and went to bed early. Actually I was so upset that out of habit I went to Lydie’s room. Lydie and I had shared the room for years, and even though I moved into Ellie’s room, Lydie’s still feels like mine. I curled up on her bed and took comfort in the familiar view from her window. I always liked listening to the silver maple’s leaves in the breeze with the window open. It felt like home and helped me calm down, and eventually I fell asleep.
Before Ellie moved to Idaho, I also spent a lot of time with her in her tidy bedroom, but without her, it’s kind of lonely. The only reason I moved into her room with posters of inspirational quotes and a pineapple print bed skirt was because Lydie’s best friend Emma spent a lot of time at our house lately. Emma’s parents are divorcing, and she’s shaken to the core and battling resentment at her parents for throwing in the towel on their marriage. My parents say Emma is always welcome, so she’s been at our house a bunch in the last year.
And as bad as I feel for Emma, I kind of feel bad for myself, too. I know that sounds kind of selfish since I totally have it made with a loving family and fridge full of food, but what I mean is that I feel lost and unneeded. For instance, when Ellie announced that she was moving to Idaho, she presented me with her pineapple rug and lime-green bean bag chair in a mock ceremony where she inducted me as Big Sister and invited Lydie to have late-night talks with me. It was a big deal, because Ellie is a fantastic oldest sister, and she knows it. To pass the baton to me was like an inauguration. At first Lydie and I did continue the late-night sister talks, but then Emma needed her best friend’s listening ear more and more, and I was no longer needed. I like the extra space in Ellie’s old room, but it’s pretty lonely with just me and the inspirational quotes and the empty bean bag chair.
The next two weeks of the early summer passed uneventfully, but the sun didn’t look as bright as usual, and I felt like a cloud hung over me. The doctor said feeling down and extra tired was to be expected after the car accident. I was thankful that I was able to walk away physically from the accident, but Braelynn’s words crushed my spirit. Some leader you turned out to be. I could still see the fire in her face when she had hissed those demoralizing words. I hadn’t talked to her since. Mr. and Mrs. Gunderson had brought me flowers and again acted like I was a heroine. I can’t figure out why. What kind of heroine doles out concussions and broken arms?
“Please don’t give up on her,” Mr. Gunderson had said. I didn’t know what to say. Mom and Dad exchanged hugs and handshakes with Braelynn’s parents. Lydie put her arm around me and said she was glad I was okay, and that she hoped our parents could use the insurance money to get a purple SUV. I knew she was trying to lighten the mood and look on the bright side, but I lamely asked if deer avoid purple vehicles. She squeezed my shoulders and left me alone. Alone again.
The following week we started to pack for our annual summer backpacking trip with the Miles family, which would be coupled with a new kind of adventure this year. We planned to drive to Montana with Mom and Dad (in Grandpa and Grandma’s spare vehicle). Once there, we’ll meet Ellie who is on a short summer break from her super cool wildlife vet tech internship in Idaho. The Miles family will also meet us in Montana. My parents and Mr. and Mrs. Miles, whom we affectionately call Mr. Caleb and Ms. Julia, will backpack while Lydie, Ellie, and I join Sawyer and Marshall on a three-day trek with an outdoor youth program led by Ranger Douglas and Ranger Rose.
Rangers Douglas and Rose hold dear places in our hearts since they rescued us last summer from a lunatic with handcuffs. Seriously – he was crazy! After rescuing us, the rangers asked if they could interview us to supplement their lessons for a new outdoor youth program they were starting. They told us to let them know if we were ever back in the beautiful area. Since the forest is relatively close to Ellie’s wildlife vet tech program and Sawyer’s Professional Outdoor Guides School – POGS – we all agreed that it was an ideal destination. When we called to reserve our backcountry permits, the rangers asked if we would participate for the first few days of one of their groups. They even offered to give us transportation stipends, which was a strong deciding factor in the unanimous choice to backpack in Montana again.
Since I knew that Thad, the crazed guy who chased us and handcuffed Sawyer and me to a tree, was in prison, I wasn’t too concerned about returning to the same forest. The plan was to hike a full week with our families after the three-day trek with OutPro, the rangers’ youth program. I was so ready for our combined family backpacking trek. I hoped that the time in nature would lift the fog I had felt since the car accident. I was excited to hike with Ellie again and to joke with Marshall and Lydie. I even silently wondered if Sawyer would propose to Ellie on top of a mountain or some other amazing setting, so I planned to keep my camera handy at all times.
I really did look forward to the adventures, but I couldn’t relax until I got past the first 20 minutes. I was super nervous that we five had been asked to give speeches to kick-off the OutPro trek. I’ve dreaded my few experiences with public speaking, and I just wanted to be finished. But this week I decided that even giving a speech would be better than all our neighbors asking me for details of the accident everywhere I went. My speech was written, and I’d read it over the phone to Marshall who applauded. Marsh and I have been pretty good friends ever since the avalanche, and we talk often these days.
After the car accident, Marshall was a great listener. Even though he was very worried, he didn’t totally freak out like Ellie had when we called and told her. He just listened and said that Braelynn must have had brain damage to be so mean to me. I’m not sure if the thought of Braelynn having brain damage made me feel better or worse about the accident, but I knew he meant to encourage me.
Braelynn had been my first friend, other than sisters or cousins. I don’t remember meeting the Miles boys until I was six, and Braelynn and I met when we were five. Plus, during our first trip with the Miles family, Marshall spent most of the days making dirt bike engine sounds. He puttered a slow idle when we rested, and he revved obnoxiously loud when we went uphill. It was so embarrassing when we passed other hikers. Our parents laughed and said they’d love to have his energy. I plugged my ears and thought he was terribly annoying, so I didn’t think of him as a friend until the next summer when his small engine obsession had given way to a pair of camouflage walkie-talkies, which he shared with me. In the early years of our family backpacking trips, there was a lot less hiking involved since “little legs make for little hikes,” as Dad used to say, so we had more time to play at each campsite. When Marshall brought his walkie-talkies and invited me to play, we were everything from undercover agents to stage managers at a circus. It was a blast, and we played until the batteries died.
Unfortunately, for the next two summers, once the batteries died, Marshall reverted to his dirt bike engine ruckus. I begged Mom to bring extra batteries to keep the walkie-talkies going longer. Playing with Marshall was fun, but trying to ignore the revving and idling got old in a hurry. Sawyer teased Ellie relentlessly back then, so for a while I agreed with Ellie that ‘spending time with those Miles boys makes for a character-building week.’ Those were her exact words when she was eight. Fast forward to the present, and she and Sawyer are dating, so I think it’s hilarious to throw her words back at her. She usually laughs and says, “Just wait. Someday you’ll be smitten with someone too. Besides, Sawyer has obviously grown up since then.” He’s not the only one, dear Sis. I couldn’t keep a straight face. She rolled her eyes and laughed.
Some of my best childhood memories were made during our summer backpacking trips. The physical challenges of hiking together really strengthened our family, and we’ve had opportunities to see such beautiful places with each other. I was definitely craving mountain air. Plus, I hadn’t seen Ellie in person for months. Texting and webcam chats had sufficed these past months, but I was so ready to be with Ellie again.
I also knew that another reason I wanted to escape to the mountains for 10 days had to do with Braelynn. Was it cowardly of me to want to leave town and cell phone service? Or would vacationing in nature help me to be transformed by the renewing of my mind like the Bible says in Romans 12?
For years I could’ve asked Braelynn what she thought about it. When we were little, we usually sat by each other at church and attempted (unsuccessfully) to be quiet. She had a knack for drawing cartoons that made me giggle, and then we’d get “the eye” from our parents. Over the years we listened more and got scolded less. We matured and had meaningful conversations about the Bible – okay, the first half of our talks were meaningful, and then she usually steered the conversation to boys. She’s what my dad calls “hopelessly boy crazy,” and he once claimed that “a main reason we started backpacking with the Miles family was to prevent the boy crazy hullabaloo in our house. You’ll spend enough time with Sawyer and Marshall to see why you won’t want a boyfriend until you’re 35.” Mom laughed and playfully rolled her eyes. We all knew that Dad and Mr. Caleb were longtime best friends who couldn’t wait to share backpacking with their wives and young kids. But his ulterior motive made us laugh.
Anyway, Braelynn and I stayed pretty close from age five until 17. She started to act distracted and annoyed when I tried to talk to her before church, like she would rather be anywhere other than talking to me. Then a few months ago her boy craziness honed in on Owen, who is neither friend- nor parent-approved. At that time Lydie and I were getting used to life without Ellie under our roof, and Braelynn and I continued to drift apart. I hadn’t heard from her in weeks – until 1:00 in the morning right before we hit the deer. So it’s no surprise that I haven’t heard from her since I left her fuming in her hospital room.
It’s not the first time Braelynn and I have been at odds, but it’s the first time she had funneled so much anger at me. She’s always had a hard time with the “a soft answer turns away wrath” concept. I’ve known for ages that Braelynn struggled with that. In the past when she was upset with me, she was a little brash, but nothing like yelling at me to leave her hospital room. I’d never been the sole target in her line of fire, but now that I had experienced it, I felt extra sympathy for the people I had seen her lash out at over the years.
But Braelynn’s not all bad. Once when I was sleeping over at her house, her cousin’s tennis team was scrambling to find people willing to help with a fundraiser car wash. I did not volunteer. I was voluntold. The idea was fun – get soapy and wet on a hot summer day – but I was unprepared. I only had a thin white t-shirt, and after scrubbing two cars my shirt was transparent enough that I prayed nobody from church would support the tennis team that day. Without a single embarrassing remark, Braelynn texted her mom who brought me a swimsuit and a dark shirt. Braelynn was awesome then, and there have been many times like that over the years.
Like right after Ellie left home, I was really lonely, and Braelynn invited herself over to cheer me up. She spent the night and we made popcorn and orange smoothies. We danced to our favorite tunes from when we were about 12. They sound corny to us now, but we laughed until our sides ached. Later when I decided to move into Ellie’s room to give Lydie more space, Braelynn brought over cute bedroom accessories and helped make Ellie’s room feel like mine. But all that was before Owen and his arrogant friends trapped Braelynn in their web of unsavory activities.
I was foolish to think that going to get her from the party would build a bridge and repair our friendship. It was unrealistically hopeful of me to think our old friendship could just be dusted off. I needed to come to terms with that, but it was hard to do. My oldest friend was no longer a friend. She pretty much hated me. And frankly, she had changed so much that I didn’t like her very much anymore either. Lydie tried to cheer me up with a braided dandelion crown and a note that said, “Sisters are forever.” It did make me smile, and it warmed my heart. But I was bummed when the dandelions wilted, and the dewdrops smudged the note. At least God is forever.
The week before we departed for Montana, I spent a lot of time reading my Bible. My sisters and I had been going through Bible verses about the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Whenever we can arrange it, Lydie and I call Ellie on speakerphone and have a discussion. It was Mom’s idea to help us stay close even with Ellie living in Idaho, and it was actually cool.
This week I was finding scriptures for goodness, but I was struggling to fully understand what was good. Mr. and Mrs. Gunderson told me I was a good friend to Braelynn, but was I? Was sending her a ‘miss you – we should catch up soon’ text every few weeks good enough? Was it good of me to sneak out to pick her up? I’d been rude to her and had ignored her ever since she kicked me out of her hospital room. I wanted to be good, except that in this case, I didn’t know what constituted goodness. One afternoon I just needed to let my mind chill, so I closed my Bible after a few minutes of reading and headed to our piano in the living room.
I had just begun playing when Marshall’s name popped up on my phone. I smiled and answered the video call. “Hey Marlee!” Marshall said with a grin.
“Hey! How are you?”
Marshall nodded, “I’m good. Does your head feel any better?”
“Thankfully it’s a ton better.” The week-long headache after the accident was finally fading.
“You still seem down though,” Marshall observed with concern. How can he tell?
I gave a half-smile. “I guess I am, but I’m trying to be positive.” Trying to be positive about losing my oldest friend.
“I know what to do. When we’re together next week I’ll let you beat me at arm-wrestling,” he said with a grin.
I laughed and said, “I do not need another scar on my face, but thanks.” Last summer I totally embarrassed us both when I fell into a rock while we arm-wrestled.
“Your facial scars are cool! You have awesome stories for them.” He must remember when Sawyer encouraged me by saying that scars are tattoos with better stories.
“You’re just saying that because you were there when I got both of them!” I teased.
“Can you blame me?” he chuckled.
“So what’s up?” I was glad he called but wondered if there was a specific reason. The thought that maybe he had called just to say ‘hey’ gave me a tiny flutter in my stomach.
“I see you’re already at your piano, and Flynn’s here,” he panned his phone’s camera across The Band Room in his house to the drumset in the corner. Flynn gave a tap on the cymbal to greet me.
“Hey Flynn,” I called.
The screen went back to Marshall’s face, and he said, “We’re working on a new song idea. Can you play something in E major? Here’s the rhythm we’re working with.” I listened to his strum pattern on his electric guitar and nodded, but only halfway knowingly. I had resumed piano and violin lessons, but I knew that Marshall’s musical abilities outshone mine. He was either really nice about that fact, or he actually thought I know more than I do. At least I knew E major – four sharps, and I knew that some of my favorite songs were in that key. It’s a lively key and would sound perfect with Marshall’s strum pattern – if I didn’t mess it up, that is.
The rhythm wasn’t too tricky this time, so I managed to play a few chords that mostly aligned with what he played. It was always fun to watch Marshall play his guitar because his face lit up when he made music, and he looked super cool at it. We played for a few minutes, and Marshall nodded thoughtfully, wrote something down, and then said, “Let’s try that again from the top. Count us off, Flynn!”
I heard Flynn’s drumsticks crack out four beats and we all began. This was how our remote jam sessions usually went. We’d had a few opportunities to play together in person, and of course that was even more fun, but this was pretty great, too. Marshall and Flynn had a variety of songs they had written. Some were thought-provoking, a few were sentimental, and some, like this one, were just plain fun.
It was an upbeat ditty about lemon-lime, but Marshall made it a play on words. It tells about two characters named Lem and Lime. They compliment each other in funny ways, like mustard and relish and franks and beans. In one verse, Lem battles heartburn, so Lime tells the chilies that their battle must adjourn so they don’t wind up in the urn. The lyrics were silly enough to make me laugh and laugh some more, and it was the most fun I’d had in ages. Before I knew it an hour had flown by and my parents said it was time to come to the supper table. Good thing it wasn’t my night to cook!
“Thanks for your help, Marlee,” Marshall said. “Flynn and I will work on chords a little more and get back to you. Let me know if you come up with better rhymes than what we’ve got. You’re our lyrics girl.”
“Sounds good,” I said, suddenly feeling disappointed that maybe I was just a band member in Marshall’s eyes. But on the other hand, it was kind of cool to think that I was an honorary member of Marshall’s band. Our lyrics girl.
“Uh, hey, don’t go yet,” Marshall murmured, stepping out of The Band Room.
“Here it comes!” I heard Flynn cheer. Here what comes?
I could see that Marshall stopped walking in the hallway by their kitchen. He looked back at me. He visibly swallowed and then said, “Uh, I’ve been praying that you feel better. You know, with your headache and the Braelynn Fallout.” It warmed my heart that he had prayed for me, and I was amused by the term Braelynn Fallout. Maybe he’d write a song about it.
“Thank you,” I smiled.
He nodded and then quickly said, “And I’m really excited to see you next week. Don’t tell Flynn, but you’re pretty much my best friend, and I can’t wait for another adventure together.”
“I heard that!” Flynn’s voice called in the background.
I raised my eyebrows and said, “Seriously? Thank you!” Braelynn acted like nobody wanted to be my friend anymore. Was Marshall really excited to see me? Did he not think I was a loser? He looked a little confused by my response, so I said, “I mean, cool. Um, I mean, it’ll be super good to see you, too.” I meant it, but I don’t know why it was so hard for me to say it – probably because I had never said anything like that to Marshall.
We smiled again and said our good-byes. I ended the call and caught Lydie’s eye, and I felt my cheeks blush. “Well wasn’t that sweet?” she teased.
“Aren’t you excited?” Why does my voice sound defensive? Get a grip, Marlee.
She giggled. “Seriously Marlee, it wasn’t that long ago that you were teasing Ellie about Sawyer, and now look at them! You like Marshall, don’t you?” she asked with a hopeful lilt in her voice.
“Um, I really don’t know right now,” I said. “I’m so stressed about Braelynn and the car accident and packing for almost two weeks on trail.” It was true. I mean, even before Braelynn ditched me for her new friends, Marshall and I were pretty close. I didn’t know if he liked me as more than a friend anyway. I might just be the lyrics girl. And between talking to the police and the insurance adjuster and my post-accident doctor appointments and packing, I was having a hard time squeezing in bike rides with Lydie, much less thinking about anything or anyone else. Marshall hadn’t exactly filled my mind. But at times like this, when my stomach fluttered, well…I bit my lip. Admit it, Girl. No way. Why would he like me back? After all, I’m a big embarrassment.
But supper was ready, and a lengthy to-do list was waiting for me. If I could just get my upcoming speech finished, I could truly look forward to 10 days of hiking with my family and best friends – that is, my only friends.
Digital copies of Ablaze are still on pre-order (which translates to discounted price!), and paperback copies will be available Thursday. If you’d like to grab your pre-order copy, snag the bargain at Amazon or Books2Read. Paperback copies will be available Thursday on Amazon.