As a crow flies, it might be a five minute bike-flight to the Old Mill from their cottage. But Nate figured it would probably take at least twice as long to get there on the ground. You had to follow Hillside Road past his cottage, then make a left onto Mountain Road and stay on that road for a while. He’d only been by the turn off for the Old Mill in the car when his father was driving.
He overheard his older brothers talking about riding their bikes there when he came into the barn to put air in his tires.
“Can I come too?” he asked.
“Nope, you’re too little and it’s too far,” they'd told him.
But he followed them anyway. Nate peddled as fast as his legs would go to keep close enough to hear them, but far enough back that they couldn’t see him. They always left him out; he’d just turned eight and they weren’t that much older at eleven and twelve.
Trees rose from the ground on both sides of the road, one after another, only inches from the pavement, and formed a canopy over-head so thick the sky was blocked from view. Nate wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and wished he’d brought his water bottle.
When Nate rounded the next bend, he saw them turn onto a gravel road. Stopping his bike, he glanced around, taking a deep breath and stepping from one foot to the other. This was the farthest he’d ridden from the cottage and all he could see in every direction were trees.
He turned down the gravel road hoping they hadn’t gotten too far ahead. The Old Mill came into view after a few minutes and as he got closer, he saw their bikes leaning against the building by a set of double doors that were ajar.
The old building looked like it was ready to fall down. It listed to one side, rustic old boards and wood chips littered the ground around it, and the two windows he could see had no glass.
Leaving his bike by the water wheel he crept forward and cautiously peeked inside the doors.
“Hey, what’re you doin’ here?” Chris said, spotting him. “You weren’t suppos’ ta follow us.”
“I ’m old ‘nuff,” he replied, lifting his chin a notch higher.
“Hey Chris, maybe he wants to see the kittens we found in the back room,” Sam said, elbowing him.
“Oh, yeah. Nate, there’s some kittens back here. Come and see,” Chris said giggling as he led Nate to the small room at the back of the building.
Nate stepped into the storage room and his brothers slammed the door and locked it.
“That’ll teach ya’ to follow us.”
“Hey, lemme’ out,” Nate said banging on the door.
He could hear them laughing. “We’re leavin’ now. Bye.”
He looked around the small room. There were no kittens. He saw a window, but it was too high for him to reach. Nate sat down and tried not to cry, but it was no use. Big fat tears slid down his cheeks and he gulped great breaths of air as he looked around and tried to think of a way out. Surely they would come back for him.
Hugging his legs to his chest, he put his head down on his knees. Then he heard her.
“Look around you. See the boxes. If you stack them, you could reach the window.”
He looked around. There was no one there. But Nate closed his eyes tightly and in his mind he could see her. Long dark hair pulled back with a ribbon, about his age, in a long blue dress with ruffles at the sleeves. The same girl that had helped him when he fell out of the apple tree and broke his leg. She had sat with him then until his grandfather found him. He couldn’t see her, but had felt her presence beside him. Just like now.
He stood and pushed the wooden boxes next to the window, then stacked them one on top of the other. He’d stopped crying, but was shaking as he moved two more boxes next to the three, then another box beside that, making stairs to the window. He rubbed his leg before he started climbing.
Balancing on the top box, he could reach the window sill. He found a smooth place and pulled himself up, climbing with his feet on the wall, got one leg over the sill and brought himself up to a straddle position. There was no other way than to fall to the ground outside. Nate gave a shove and pushed himself away from the wall, falling on his backside in the wood chips below.
“You still there, girl” he said out loud, brushing the chips off his legs. “Hey? Girl? Well, thanks.”
There was no answer.
He ran to where he had left his bike. He’d been afraid they would hide it from him and then he’d have to walk all the way home, but it was still there.
Nate peddled as fast as he could to the end of the gravel road, then screeched to a stop. Which way should he go? He was turned around. He looked at the ground and saw the bicycle tracks heading left, so he turned in that direction and rode like the wind. It seemed to take forever, but he finally saw the turnoff from Mountain Road to Hillside Drive and home.
Boy, were his brothers ever going to get into trouble for this. Nate grinned as he went in search of his mother.