Your Worst Nightmare
“You don’t have to wait, Mom,” Kristi Chen said firmly. “I’ll be fine. Just drop me off like it’s a regular school day.”
Mrs. Chen pursed her lips. “Are you sure, honey?” she asked. “It looks like the other parents are staying until the buses leave.”
“But don’t you have an important meeting?” Kristi replied. She actually couldn’t remember if her mom had a meeting or not, but it was safe to assume that she did.
“Yes,” Mrs. Chen admitted with a sigh. She glanced at her watch before she could stop herself. As one of the busiest lawyers in the state, Mrs. Chen was always rushing off to a big meeting or a court date.
“So go!” Kristi exclaimed. “Seriously, why waste your
time standing around breathing in bus fumes?”
“Okay,” Mrs. Chen finally gave in. She wrapped her arms around Kristi for a big hug. “Be careful, Kristi. Don’t go off by yourself; listen to your teachers; stay safe. I’ll be out of town starting tomorrow for a deposition so I won’t see you until Wednesday, but I told Tanya to pick you up at eight o’clock tomorrow night. Just call her if the buses are running late.”
“Okay, Mom! Love you! Bye!” Kristi cried. She grabbed her overnight bag and backpack and bolted from the car before her mom could change her mind.
The rest of the seventh graders at Jefferson Middle School milled around the two buses that were idling by the curb. Kristi had never seen her classmates so excited to be at school on a Monday morning. She adjusted her backpack as she moved toward the crowd, looking for her best friend, Olivia Papas. But, as usual, Olivia found Kristi first.
“Kristi!” Olivia shrieked. “Are you psyched? I’m so psyched! I can’t believe we’re finally going on the field trip!”
“I know!” Kristi replied with a grin. Then she heard a familiar voice call out.
Olivia’s smile immediately disappeared. She grabbed
Kristi’s arm and dragged her around to the other side of the bus. “Oh no. It’s my parents . . .”
“Pretty bad this morning?” Kristi asked sympathetically.
“The worst ever.” Olivia groaned. “They brought the video camera and they’re interviewing kids about the trip. I’m gonna die of embarrassment.”
Kristi couldn’t help laughing. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That’s rough. But look on the bright side—at least they’re not chaperoning.”
“Shhh!” Olivia said, her eyes wide. “Don’t jinx it. Besides, I won’t believe that until the buses are moving and I know they’re not on them! How’d you get rid of your mom?”
Kristi shrugged. “She had a meeting. The usual.”
“Lucky,” Olivia replied. “I wish my parents had a life . . . outside of ruining mine.”
Just then the girls heard a loud whistle. “Attention, seventh graders,” Mr. Tanaka, their social studies teacher, called above all the noise. “Please join me by the flagpole.”
Everyone hurried over toward Mr. Tanaka. Ms. Pierce, the science teacher, stood next to him.
“At last, it’s the day we’ve all been waiting for,” Mr. Tanaka announced. “The annual seventh grade overnight field trip to Ravensburg Caverns is finally here!”
All the kids started cheering. Mr. Tanaka smiled indulgently for a moment before he raised his hands to quiet them.
“If you haven’t already done so, please leave your luggage by the side of the bus so Mr. Carlson and Mr. Reed can load it. Remember, you can keep your backpack with you, but no eating or drinking on the buses,” Mr. Tanaka continued.
“I’d like to remind everyone that even though we’ll be away from school for two days, the regular school rules are still in effect,” Ms. Pierce added. “If you break those rules, you will be sent home immediately.”
Mr. Tanaka eyed the kids sternly for a moment, then he smiled. “Okay! If you’re on bus one, please follow me. If you’re on bus two, go with Ms. Pierce. And let’s get this show on the road!”
“Hurry,” Kristi said to Olivia. “I want to get a good seat. In the back.”
The girls pushed their way through the crowd to bus one—but Mr. and Mrs. Papas stepped in front of them.
“One more hug!” Mrs. Papas cried as she reached for Olivia.
Olivia rolled her eyes as her parents squashed her in a giant bear hug, but only Kristi could see.
“We’re going to miss you so much, Poodle,” Mr. Papas said.
“Dad. You promised you would stop calling me that,” Olivia said through gritted teeth. She glanced around to see if anyone besides Kristi had heard him. The nickname had been stuck to Olivia since second grade, when she used to wear her curly dark hair in two enormous, fluffy pigtails. Everyone at school already knew about it.
“Sorry,” Mr. Papas apologized as he gave Olivia’s hair a little tug. He turned to Kristi. “Take good care of each other, okay, Kristi?”
“Absolutely, Mr. Papas. You can count on me,” Kristi said, trying not to laugh. “But we’d better go.”
“I’m so bad at good-byes,” Mrs. Papas said, wiping her eyes. “I love you, sweetie. Please be careful in the caves. I’m going to be so worried about you.”
“Come on, Mom, I’ll be back tomorrow night. You won’t even notice I’m gone,” Olivia replied. “Bye!” Then
she hurried off to the bus, dragging Kristi behind her.
On the bus, Kristi spotted an empty row of seats that was almost at the back. Best of all, it was right in front of Julia Morales and Destiny Ryan, the most popular girls in seventh grade. Maybe she and Olivia could lean over the back of the seat and talk to them for the whole ride.
“Kristi, Kristi, wait,” Olivia said, pulling Kristi over to a row on the opposite side of the bus—and right near the front. “Let’s sit here.”
“Here? In the front? Why?”
“Because my parents are taking pictures on the other side,” Olivia explained. “They won’t be able to see us if we sit over here. Please, Kristi? Please?”
Kristi sighed as she followed Olivia into the other row. Now they would be sitting just two rows behind Mr. Tanaka. It seemed pretty dumb to Kristi to pick a seat for the entire bus ride just because Olivia’s parents wanted to take a couple of pictures of the bus leaving. But she knew how sensitive Olivia was about her parents, and how smothering they could be.
Olivia dug around in her backpack and pulled out her bright pink hairbrush. “Want me to do your hair?” she asked.
“Yes, please,” Kristi replied. She twisted around in the seat so that her back was facing Olivia. Kristi closed her eyes as Olivia started brushing her long hair.
An obnoxiously loud voice rang through the bus. “Hey, look at that! Usually the poodle is the one being groomed!”
Kristi didn’t need to open her eyes to know who was talking. She’d know that voice anywhere. “Hi, Bobby,” she said.
“Actually, what she meant to say was, ‘Shut up, Bobby,’ ” Olivia said.
But Bobby Lehman had never shut up in his life, and he wasn’t about to start now. He threw his backpack into the seat in front of Kristi and Olivia. “Ooh, Olivia, will you do my hair next? Puh-leeease?” Bobby cooed in a high-pitched, squeaky voice.
Olivia shot Bobby a dirty look as she put down her hairbrush and started playing around with her phone. Almost immediately, Kristi’s phone buzzed with a text from Olivia.
K, u were so right about the seats. I wish we weren’t stuck behind Bobby. UGH!
Kristi gave Olivia a little smile, but she didn’t text her back. She knew Bobby could be really annoying. He was the youngest of four brothers and he always tried so hard to make everyone laugh. He was so desperate to be the center of attention all the time that it often backfired, and Kristi felt a little sorry for him. He didn’t seem to have a lot of friends; even now, he was the only kid on the packed bus who was sitting all by himself. And Kristi never would have admitted it—not even to Olivia—but she actually thought Bobby was cute. Kinda. Sorta. And sometimes he was actually really funny. And when he wasn’t trying to show off, Kristi thought he could be really nice, too.
“So are you guys looking forward to exploring the caves tomorrow?” Bobby continued as the bus pulled out of the school parking lot.
Olivia put on some headphones and started listening to music from her phone. There was no way that Bobby could’ve missed the hint, but he ignored it completely.
“I’m not,” Bobby answered his own question. “Those caves are scary. Not fun scary, really scary.”
“What do you mean?” Kristi asked curiously.
“My brothers told me all about it,” Bobby said loudly.
“They said it should be criminal to take kids into the Ravensburg Caverns. After what happened there.”
Kristi raised her eyebrows. She was pretty sure that Bobby was about to tell one of his over-the-top stories. But even so, she couldn’t help asking, “What? What happened?”
“It was a long time ago,” Bobby began as kids in other seats stopped chatting and started listening in. “Almost a hundred years ago, actually. Well, the caves were a really big deal even back then. Like, every day people lined up for a chance to go inside and see the wonders of the Ravensburg Caverns. And schools—just like our school—sent kids there on field trips.”
“So?” yelled Evan Hollis from a few rows behind Kristi.
“So . . . ,” Bobby said, pausing dramatically, “so . . . one time a class disappeared in the caves. Twenty-one kids. Vanished. Gone without a trace.”
Now it seemed like just about everyone on the bus was focused on Bobby. Even Mr. Tanaka had shifted in his seat, like he was listening with one ear.
“The townspeople searched for months,” Bobby said, leaning over the seat back. He had everyone’s attention
now and he was determined to keep it. “Even after they had lost all hope that the kids would be found alive, they kept looking. They brought in search-and-rescue dogs and they searched, and they searched . . . and they found nothing. Not a footprint. Not a fingerprint. Not a sweater. Not a hair bow. Not a body. Not even a bone. Twenty-one kids vanished off the face of the earth, as if they had never . . . even . . . existed.”
“But what . . .” Kristi swallowed; her mouth was suddenly very dry. She tried again. “But what happened to them?”
Bobby shrugged. “Nobody knows. Most people think that they must have fallen into, like, an abyss or something. Some of those drops in the cave . . . Even now, they don’t know quite how far they go down. But I don’t think so.”
“How come?” asked Olivia. Kristi wondered when Olivia had taken off her headphones.
“Come on,” Bobby said confidently. “How would twenty-one kids all fall down the same hole? I mean, sure, two or three. Maybe even five. But wouldn’t the ones at the back be able to save themselves? They weren’t, like, babies. They were our age. So whatever
happened to those kids was worse. Way worse. And my brother says . . .”
“What?” Kristi and Olivia exclaimed at the same time.
“My brother says that if you listen really carefully in the caves, you can still hear the echoes of their cries for help. Please . . . please . . . please . . . help . . . help . . . help . . . meeeee . . . meeeee . . . meeeee . . . ,” Bobby said, raising his voice to a shrill whisper as he imitated the echoes.
The sound of Bobby’s echoes made chills run down Kristi’s neck. But apparently she was the only one who responded that way: Everyone else on the bus burst into laughter. It was definitely not the response Bobby was hoping for. His whole face darkened.
“Okay, okay, save it for Halloween, Mr. Lehman,” Mr. Tanaka said sternly. “An excellent tall tale . . . but not a true one. You’ll all learn about the real history of the Ravensburg Caverns on our tour tomorrow.”
“It is true,” Bobby said stubbornly. “I know a lot more about the caverns than you do.”
“Watch it, young man,” Mr. Tanaka said, and there was no mistaking the warning in his voice. “And face forward, please. No turning around in your seat while
the bus is moving—you know better.”
Bobby slumped down in his seat. Kristi couldn’t see him any longer, but she could imagine the frustrated look on his face. Just then her phone buzzed with another text:
Lame story, right?
Kristy half-smiled, half-shrugged at Olivia. “Hey, I downloaded some new songs last night,” she said, changing the subject abruptly. “Want to listen?”
“Definitely!” Olivia exclaimed, plugging her headphones into Kristi’s phone. Kristy cued up the first song and stared out the window while Olivia listened to it.
She couldn’t stop thinking about the story that Bobby had told. The thought of being lost in the caves . . . lost forever . . . made her wish that she was in second-period Spanish class instead of heading straight for the Ravensburg Caverns. Because you could use a lot of words to describe Bobby—he was definitely a loudmouth, a bragger, an attention hog—but Kristi knew one thing: Bobby Lehman was no liar.