I’m super excited to share this prequel to my new YA book, Bronte’s Thunder. Strange connections to thunderstorms have always surrounded sixteen-year-old Bronte Monroe. Her grandmother claimed she was born under the sign of Blue Lightning and has the gift of barter—mysterious exchanges that change fate.
A whoosh and a tock.
Whoosh. Tock. My eyes flutter open to everything white and foreign with strange, pungent odors spinning around me. A clear tube runs to my face and into my nose. If I wasn’t so weak, I’d scream.
The ventilator pumps like a medieval monster. I’ve never been in a hospital before. The only good thing about my captivity—at last, I can breathe.
A figure appears in the doorway to my room. Backlit from a window across the hall, the dark silhouette pauses for a moment. He approaches the bed with stealthy footsteps.
Nick. Nick Ford.
He’s come for revenge.
My heart races, the organ threatening to burst from my chest. All he has to do is rip the tube from my nose or yank the ventilator’s electrical cord from the outlet. I’ll stop breathing.
I’ll die like his brother.
I bolt up in bed, hot sweat beading my forehead like condensation on my mother’s glass of whiskey. The walls of my bedroom reassure me I am no longer in the hospital. I’m no longer eight years old.
Dishes clang from downstairs, the familiar sound of Aunt Flo preparing breakfast. The slate sky outside the window does nothing to brighten my spirits. I rub sleep from my eyes and stretch my legs. Throwing back the covers, I wiggle my toes. Hot-pink polish brightens each nail. Today is my first day of school as a junior.
Sitting on the edge of my mattress, I picture Nick Ford sneaking into my hospital room all those years ago, the image as vivid as yesterday’s junior orientation.
At eight, I believed he intended to kill me. An eye for an eye. At my bedside, Nick extended his arm, and I cowered, convinced he’d strike me. He brushed an errant strand of hair from my eye, his touch as light as butterfly wings, surprising for an eight-year-old boy.
He tilted his head and studied me. “Are you okay?”
I nodded, though a lingering fear shot into the pit of my stomach. We were in the same class in third grade, but we had never actually spoken. With my senses on high alert, I stared at him, his blue eyes captivating. Then he did something I couldn’t believe. He reached for my hand and gently held it. His voice came almost in a whisper, “My grandma had pneumonia once.”
Marching footsteps approached. A woman stood in the doorway, her hair disheveled, her eyes red and swollen. In a low, almost menacing, tone, she said, “Get out of there this instant.”
Nick obeyed his mother and followed her from the room. In the doorway, he glanced over his shoulder. I couldn’t tell if I saw pity or disdain in his eyes.
At that moment I morphed into a leper like in the Bible story told in Sunday school, flesh decaying, someone everyone stayed clear of. Worse than that, Nick’s little brother had been killed that day by my mother.
Aunt Flo’s shrill voice snatches me from my dark memories. “Bronte! Breakfast will be ready in five minutes.”
“Be there in a moment.”
For years Nick’s kindness in that hospital room baffled me. I finally gave up trying to understand it. Thunder Moon is a small town, and news travels fast. He must have heard I was admitted to the hospital. Yet how could he have been so caring when his little brother lay lifeless and cold?
A year after Johnny’s death, the Fords moved away. Grief probably drove them from Thunder Moon.
In my attic bedroom, a low roll of thunder rumbles through the rafters and sends shivers down my back. Thunderstorms never did me any favors, at least none that didn’t leave me feeling guilty.
Two hours later, I stride through the halls of Thunder Moon High, a disturbing sense of unbalance hanging over me. Am I unhinged from the dream that morning and the memories the nightmare brought back? Maybe the threatening clouds on my way to school triggered my mood.
Girls’ chatter in the high school restroom pricks my attention.
“New guy alert.” A girl giggles. “Nick Ford’s so hot.”
I turn to stone behind the stall door.
“Heard he’s trying out for the football team,” another said. “Hand me my lip gloss.”
“I could drink that tall glass of water.”
Riding a cloud of choking perfume, laughter fills the room.
My stomach clenches. After all these years, I still can’t face Nick. Just the news that he moved back brings the horrible event to life. That was the day my mother disappeared.
I remained behind to carry the shame of Johnny Ford’s death.
My stomach turns sour. Maybe I can talk Aunt Flo into homeschooling me. Highly unlikely, my instincts warn.
I hurry past the cliquish girls and escape into the hall. A hundred yards down the corridor, I turn a corner and run face to face into Nick Ford. His eyes widen. I almost don’t recognize the boy from the hospital room all those years ago, except for those smoky-blue eyes. How has that skinny little boy grown into such a good-looking guy? The girls were right. He is hot. On the other hand, he probably thinks I look as plain as an unbuttered pancake.
I stand frozen. As I stare, the image of little Johnny Ford rises from all the nightmares I’ve had over the years. Johnny Ford, pale and dead, lips blue. The misty specter of Johnny haunting my dreams like in Dicken’s novel, his boney finger pointing at me, always pointing at me.
I rush past him, lungs tight, membranes burning, once again unable to draw a breath. Farther down the hall, I gasp, air rushing in as I remember to breathe. Through the school’s cinderblock walls, a thunderclap sounds, the explosion a warning of things to come.
* * *