Green Valley bonus story: Keeping Secrets

 

 

Warning: This story contains minor spoilers for The Tiger Next Door (book 2) and Bearly Together (book 4). New to the series? You can start with the Green Valley Shifters Collection 1.

Keeping Secrets

Zoe Chant

Clara Montgomery was seven. She was nearly eight, just a few weeks from her birthday, a fact that she managed to bring up in nearly every conversation that she had.

“I’m going to have a Halloween birthday party,” she told everyone. “There will be spiders and pumpkin pie with candles. You have to wear a costume.”

“I’m going to be Flash!” Aaron said enthusiastically, when she gave him his card. They were in his backyard on a sunny Saturday morning, while the grown-ups did something boring inside involving paperwork and Mr. James’ burnt-down car shop. “Miss Shelley is making me a costume!”

Trevor was lying back in a pile of dry leaves, damp from overnight frost. It was the biggest pile of leaves the neighborhood had ever collected; Abby and Devon from next door had added all of their leaves, and Marta had brought by a big wheelbarrow that was filled with even more.

“I don’t know what to be,” Trevor confessed, then, confusingly, “I don’t know what I am.” Aaron’s dog, Bingo, was writhing on his back next to him, kicking leaves everywhere and growling.

“Well, you’d better figure it out,” Clara scolded him as she put his invitation in his bike basket. “I won’t let you come to my party if you aren’t dressed up.” She tucked the remaining invitations back into her fluffy pink unicorn purse. They were splendidly fancy cards, with gold lettering that said, “You are cordially invited to my birthday celebration.” They didn’t really match the Halloween theme, but those options had all been silly and cartoony, and they didn’t mention her birthday at all.

“Abby, next door, says she’s not going to dress up or go trick or treating,” Aaron said, tearing open the perfectly-sealed envelope of his own invitation so carelessly that Clara wanted to pinch him. “She says it’s for babies.”

“I don’t want to grow up if I can’t trick or treat,” Trevor declared.

“I want to grow up,” Aaron declared. “I want to be able to change into a—” He got suddenly silent, and Trevor sat up with a warning look and they both looked incredibly guilty and suspicious and Clara wasn’t sure if she was more irritated because they weren’t talking about her birthday at all, or because it was clear that they were keeping some kind of secret from her. They’d been doing this for weeks now.

“I’m going to be a ballerina scientist president,” she declared. “Or a teacher.”

“You can’t be all those things at once,” Aaron scoffed.

“I could, too,” Clara said stubbornly. Already, she was the best in her class at science, and she had all the Magic Test Tube books. Twice a week, Miss Patricia drove her to Madison for private ballet lessons, and her teacher said she was as graceful as a swan. She wasn’t really sure what being a president entailed, but she was confident she could handle that, too.

“I’m going to be a firefighter,” Trevor said thoughtfully. “And a doctor.”

“You can’t be a doctor and a firefighter,” Aaron said skeptically. “The hours are incombat-incombable.”

“I could do it,” Trevor said, throwing a fistful of leaves at him. Bingo ran and jumped and tried to catch the falling leaves in his mouth, tongue lolling.

“You’re going to be in a circus!” Aaron declared, bending to get his own handful of leaves. “I’m going to chase you around the ring with a chair!”

That precipitated a leaf fight that Clara desperately longed to join in with…but she was wearing her best white shoes and she didn’t want to have to brush leaves out of her hair…

She turned away to pout, and then gave a sputter of surprise as the boys crept up behind her and dumped armloads of rustling leaves right over her.

After a good wail of protest, Clara turned on the toe of her best white shoe and tackled the closest one, Trevor, knocking him straight over into the pile. Bingo came bounding after, determined to be a part of the excitement as Aaron heaved another scoop of leaves over them and then dove in after.

It was exactly what autumn ought to be, Clara thought, as they wrestled in the huge pile of crunchy leaves and Bingo barked and everyone laughed and she didn’t even care if her shoes got scuffed.

She wasn’t sure exactly how it happened, later.

Someone’s foot hit her shoulder, and she accidentally elbowed Trevor harder than she meant to and Bingo, who was so excited by now that he was throwing himself bodily into the fray, bit down on her foot and immediately let go. Clara knew the dog didn’t mean to hurt her, but she was already trying to scream and struggle away and for a moment there were leaves over her face. She inhaled a big handful of them and had a terrible moment where she couldn’t tell what was up and what was down in the endless mountain of leaves and she was absolutely terrified and couldn’t breathe.

For a moment, she thought it was Bingo diving into the leaves after her, and she clung to his furry body like he was some kind of rescue dog saving her from a snowy avalanche.

But it wasn’t Bingo, she realized as she coughed up her lungful of leaves and tried to open her eyes.

It was Trevor, he wasn’t furry at all, and for some bizarre reason, his shirt was half ripped off.

“Are you okay, Clara?” he asked anxiously.

“Clara!” Aaron called, climbing over the hill from the other direction. “Are you hurt?”

For a moment, spitting out leaves, Clara continued to hold on to Trevor, trying to make sense out of the idea that he’d been covered with fur just a moment before.

Then she let go, shoving him away. “I’m fine,” she sputtered. “What happened to your shirt?”

She was watching his face when she asked, and his eyes got wide with alarm.

“Nothing!” Aaron said, entirely too loudly. “Nothing happened!”

When Clara looked at him suspiciously, Aaron clapped his hand over his mouth like he’d said too much.

They both looked as guilty as Bingo, who was lying on the ground with his nose pressed into the grass, quite aware that he’d crossed a terrible line.

“Fine,” Clara said angrily, feeling tears sting her eyes. “Keep your stupid secrets. I don’t care!”

The grown-ups had come out of Aaron’s house, her papa, Aaron’s dad Dean, Shelley, Trevor’s dad Shaun, and Miss Andrea. Miss Patricia was trailing behind, bouncing a fussy Victoria. Clara wasn’t sure if they’d been summoned by her leaf-smothered scream, or if they were just done with whatever they were doing, but she stood up and wobbled over to meet her papa and throw her arms around him.

He obligingly swung her up into his arms. “What’s wrong, cub?”

“Did you do this, Trevor?” Shaun asked in horror so stark that Clara had to look down. Trevor was clutching at his pants like they would fall down if he let go of them.

And her best white shoe had very obvious teeth marks in it.

“No,” Clara said, puzzled. “Bingo bit me.” Why would they think that Trevor could have done that to her shoe?

This led to a whole flurry of worried confusion. Dean yelled at the already sheepish Bingo, who fled the yard with his tail between his legs to wedge himself underneath the porch, and her shoe was carefully removed.

“No damage,” Miss Andrea cheerfully reported. “That’s the value of good shoes.”

Trevor and Aaron vanished while Clara was being inspected, and she told herself she didn’t care. “Can we go home now, Papa?” she asked plaintively. She had itchy leaves down the back of her shirt and up the legs of her pants, and her best white shoes were dirty and scuffed, on top of the teeth marks.

“Sure, cub, we can go.”

Miss Patricia started gathering up all the things that the baby required, and Clara went to sit in the car by herself.

* * *

She wasn’t sure if Aaron and Trevor were even going to come to her birthday party, and Clara told herself that she didn’t care. Not one bit. They ignored each other at school, as much as possible, and Clara played with the girls during recess.

There was plenty to be distracted by, especially her party.

It was going to be the prettiest, creepiest Halloween birthday party in the history of the world. Papa had turned an entire wing of their house into a haunted house, with spiderwebs and doors that actually creaked. Her pumpkin pie had three tiers, decorated with licorice spiders and striped with white webbing. There were cupcakes for people who didn’t like pumpkin pie: red velvet like blood, chocolate, and vanilla for the really boring people.

Clara spent three whole days putting together the party favors, decorating paper bags trimmed in white lace filled with toys and treats and labeled with her guests’ names. She almost hadn’t put together bags for Trevor and Aaron. If they wanted to keep secrets from her, they didn’t need her party favors.

She finally did, though, stuffing Aaron’s full of the most candy of all, and Trevor’s with extra practical joke toys. They each got matching decoder rings so that the three of them could write in code. If they ever wanted to write in code with her again.

To her surprise, they arrived separately, and glared at each other across every game and event. Trevor came as a pirate, and Aaron was Iron Man. There was bobbing for apples (which Clara didn’t want to do because she didn’t want to get her dress dirty), and ring tosses, just like a real Halloween carnival, and the grown-ups made sure everyone won prizes, and she blew out all the candles on the cake, wishing with all her heart…

Then there were presents, but they all blurred together after a while: new dolls, jewelry, dance-themed movies and books, a pink tutu with glittery crystals on it that made every girl in the room sigh in envy, hair clips, stuffed animals, sweets, a real baking kit, and a microscope.

After that, everyone broke into little clusters, to marvel over their favor bags and nibble at their slices of pie and cupcakes while the grown-ups tried to coax them to eat the healthy snacks, too.

“Happy birthday,” Aaron said, when he caught up with Clara at last. She had escaped the chaos to go out to the back and sit by herself on the porch swing. It was bitterly cold, despite the sunshine, and Clara wished she’d brought out her coat.

She considered snubbing him, but she had missed him at recess. “Thanks,” she said shyly. She was wearing her best white shoes again. The scuffs had been rubbed out and the bite marks had been filled with one of Papa’s special leather repair creams. They looked as good as new.

“Are you mad at Trevor?” she finally asked.

Aaron climbed onto the far end of the porch swing, causing it to sway lopsidedly. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “It’s just…we don’t want to keep secrets, Clara.”

“Then don’t,” Clara said crossly.

“We’re not allowed to tell!” Aaron wailed. “We’ll get in trouble! They might take Trevor away.

“Away where?” Clara wanted to know. She wasn’t sure she exactly believed Aaron, but he certainly was agitated about this.

“Clara, honey?”

Aaron scrambled off the swing and it swung crazily. Clara clung to her handle.

“Oh here you are!” Miss Patricia said. “The Hendersons are leaving. I thought you’d want to say goodbye to Vanessa and the twins!”

Clara went to dutifully say her goodbyes, and ran headlong into Trevor when she returned to her party.

They stared at each other awkwardly.

“It’s a nice party,” Trevor finally said.

Clara considered snapping that it had been until he got there, but that was really too mean, and she wasn’t actually mad at him anymore.

“Thanks,” she said instead. “I’m glad you came.”

When Trevor didn’t volunteer anything else, Clara went on. “Did you have pie or cupcakes?”

“Vanilla cupcake,” Trevor said, because he was apparently the most boring person in the world, except for the secrets. “I liked the party favors.” He was toying with the decoder ring.

“I thought we could write in code, with the decoder rings,” Clara said desperately. “Are you mad at Aaron?”

Trevor shrugged. “I guess not. It’s just…kind of complicated.”

Clara dragged the toe of her best white shoe along the floor. “I wouldn’t want them to take you away,” she said.

Trevor’s eyes got very big and he frowned, like maybe Aaron shouldn’t have told her that much.

“You know what…!” she started, feeling like she did when Miss Patricia called her over-wrought. She reined in her frustration with effort and heaved a sigh instead. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”

“I want to show you,” Trevor blurted. “I will. Where can we go?”

“My room?” Clara said. She was feeling equal parts elated that she would finally know, and guilty that she might be making Trevor do something wrong. “You don’t have to,” she said reluctantly.

Trevor very suddenly grinned at her, a slow, rare smile. “I want to,” he declared. “C’mon!”

He dragged her by the hand up the stairs to her room. “Turn around. Promise you won’t look.”

“What are you…?”

“Promise!” Trevor said.

“I promise!”

He went into the closet anyway, leaving the door cracked, and Clara wondered if he was secretly a superhero and he had to change his costume. But in that case, wouldn’t he just have worn it to the party? She was really confused by this whole thing and wondered if Miss Patricia wasn’t right about eating too much pumpkin pie without healthier food in her stomach.

Then the closet door gave a creak and Clara turned to look before she could remind herself that she’d promised not to look.

There was a cat walking out of her closet.

Not just a domestic cat like she’d been begging her papa for, but a big cat. Half-grown, she thought, with long legs and big paws and spots that looked like they were fading to a seamless tawny gold. A lion.

“You’re a lion,” she breathed, and she sat down very hard right where she was, her princess skirt poofing up all around her.

The lion—Trevor!—walked straight up to her, silent on his soft paws.

She was at eye-level with him and she stared into his golden eyes like she could see one of her best friends there.

“You’re a lion,” she repeated in wonder. Then she clapped her hand over her mouth because she wanted to shriek in delight and the people downstairs were probably already wondering where she’d gone. She whispered, “You’re a lion!”

The lion’s mouth lolled open in delight and Clara almost reached for him when there was a knock on the door.

Trevor swapped ends like only a cat can and scrambled back into the closet as Clara stood back up. “Who is it?”

“Who’s in there with you?” her papa’s voice demanded.

“Trevor!” she replied. She could hear Trevor hastily dressing in her closet, and when the door opened, he was standing beside her, adjusting his eye patch over one eye.

Papa was standing with a smiling Miss Patricia, and he gave them a very skeptical look indeed. “Your party guests are starting to leave and you should be saying thank you. What are you doing up here?”

While Clara was still trying to come up with a reason that wasn’t “Trevor is a lion!” he cleared his throat and said, “I wanted to apologize to Clara for keeping secrets from her.”

The two grown-ups blinked at him in surprise and exchanged a look that Clara couldn’t read.

“That’s very kind of you,” Miss Patricia said sweetly. “But you don’t want to keep your guests waiting.”

“Okay!” Clara took Trevor’s hand and pulled him out into the hallway.

Behind her, she heard her papa groan and quietly say, “I’m not ready for this.”

Miss Patricia said something even quieter that had the words perfectly innocent in it.

They met Aaron at the bottom of the stairs and he looked anxiously between them, and then slowly smiled. He was wearing his decoder ring from the favor bag.

Clara fished hers out of her silver princess purse and put it on her finger.

Trevor dug into a pocket and found his.

None of them said anything, but they all shared a big, secret smile before Clara ran off to say goodbye to all her guests.