Sometimes people vanish for a reason…
Spending three weeks of her summer at the Foxwoode Riding Academy in northern Michigan should have been one of the happiest times of sixteen-year-old Brynlei’s life. But from the moment Brynlei arrives at Foxwoode, she can’t shake the feeling she’s being watched. Then she hears the story of a girl who vanished on a trail ride four years earlier. While the other girls laugh over the story of the dead girl who haunts Foxwoode, Brynlei senses that the girl–or her ghost–may be lurking in the shadows.
Brynlei’s quest to reveal the truth interferes with her plan to keep her head down and win Foxwoode’s coveted Top Rider Award. To make things worse, someone discovers her search for answers and will go to any length to stop her. As Brynlei begins to unravel the facts surrounding the missing girl’s disappearance, she is faced with an impossible choice. Will she protect a valuable secret? Or save a life?
Targeted Age Group:: 12-18
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I always wanted to write a mystery that was set against the backdrop of a horseback riding academy/summer camp. I thought to myself, what if a girl went out on a trail ride and her horse came back without her? What if no one ever knew what really happened to her? I couldn't stop thinking about that scenario, so I knew I had to write a book about it!
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
My characters developed as I wrote them. The main character, Brynlei, is a Highly-Sensitive Person, meaning she has the ability to sense energy and things in her surroundings that other people might miss. Although she is quirky and socially awkward at times, her love for animals and nature makes her so likeable.
Footsteps pounded faster, closing in on her. Brynlei darted off the rocky path and squeezed between the trees, her arms outstretched to feel through the darkness. A stray branch sliced into the side of her face, but she forced her way through the brush, no longer certain what direction she was heading. She clamored down a steep embankment, her knees buckling and hands pushing away the wet earth, willing herself to get back up. The truth dangled in front of her like a low-hanging star, but the odds of her living to tell anyone about her discovery were shrinking with every footstep crashing behind her.
Just before the hands grabbed her in the dark and wrestled her to the ground, a cyclone of thoughts reeled through her mind. Her cabin mates sleeping comfortably in their bunks. The void of Anna’s absence beside her. The golden notes of music floating from Rebecca’s violin. The buttery-sweet scent of her mom’s oatmeal cookies baking in the oven. Her wonderfully boring life back in Franklin Corners. Lastly, she pictured each word printed in the glossy pages of the Foxwoode Riding Academy brochure and almost laughed at its false advertising, its glaring omissions. Nowhere in the crisp twenty-page packet was there any mention of Caroline Watson, the fifteen-year-old girl who went out on a trail ride four years earlier. And never returned.
* * * *
Eighteen Days Earlier
Brynlei pressed her back against the leather seat of her dad’s Ford Explorer as fields, trees, and cars flitted by outside her window. The journey to Foxwoode Riding Academy began over four hours ago. The summer riding camp she’d dreamed of attending for years was now only minutes away.
She tried to ignore the quickening of her pulse and the film of sweat building across her skin. Her parents sat in front of her, her mom tipping her head back, and her dad tapping his fingers against the steering wheel to the beat of a song that played on the radio.
Brynlei pinched Foxwoode’s brochure between her fingers, the cold paper brushing against her lap. She flipped through its pages for the thousandth time. The brochure felt fancy and important, with its spiral binding and heavy-duty cardstock. Not like the flimsy catalogs that arrived daily in the mail. She had memorized every page, as if she’d taken a picture of each bit of information and filed it away in her brain. Each photograph, paragraph, sentence, and word was ingrained in her mind’s eye. She could also remember courses she’d jumped three years ago in riding lessons and pages of books she’d read, word for word. She’d heard people refer to her memory as “photographic”, but she wasn’t sure she had that ability. She could only keep mental pictures of things that were important to her. Although she could view the catalog in her mind, she couldn’t stop herself from looking at the real thing again.
“Students ride up to four hours a day with instruction from expert riders at the top level of the sport,” boasted page two. Vibrant photos pictured professional-looking horses and riders jumping over a variety of colorful obstacles. Page three highlighted amenities, including “access to the crystal blue waters and sandy beaches of Lake Foxwoode, a dining hall with gluten-free and vegan meal options, a tennis court, and hundreds of acres of riding trails.”
She had read the brochure so many times in the last few months that the edges of the pages were ripped and worn, despite the high-quality paper. Page nineteen of the brochure stated that each year Foxwoode awarded a “fully-paid scholarship to one deserving equestrian who was in need of financial assistance.” Finally, page twenty outlined Foxwoode’s strict code of conduct, assuring parents that their daughters would be safely returned “with new friends, improved riding and horsemanship skills, and summer memories from northern Michigan that will last a lifetime.”
“Did you say goodbye to Rebecca?”
Brynlei looked up, her mom’s voice pulling her eyes from the brochure.
“Yeah.” Her best friend, Rebecca Adler, was leaving for her own summer adventure–off to violin camp for two weeks. They’d been best friends since the first day of second grade at Birchwood Elementary. She had often wondered if their teacher, Mrs. Miller, was aware that her random seat placements would result in a lifelong friendship. Brynlei remembered the first day they met, sitting in their assigned seats next to each other. Her freshly-trimmed bangs and crisp blue jeans had suddenly felt plain next to Rebecca, with her cascading auburn hair, violet dress, and sparkling silver shoes that matched the glistening buttons on her sleeves. The glittery girl had taken an immediate interest in Brynlei, perhaps also noticing their contrasting styles.
Rebecca had passed two beaded bracelets over to her. “You can keep them,” she whispered, an earnest look in her eyes. Brynlei couldn’t help but feel flattered.
She and Rebecca had been inseparable ever since. Sometimes, she relied too much on her friend. Rebecca could glide through any social situation like a butterfly flittering from flower to flower. When Brynlei froze up in front of people, cotton balls filling her mouth, Rebecca stepped up and shot out one-liners that invariably made people laugh or, at least, back off. Most importantly, they knew everything about each other.
Leaving for Foxwoode without Rebecca felt like someone had chopped off her right arm just before hurling her through Foxwoode’s front gate. She wanted to focus on riding and not waste all of her energy trying to make friends. Rebecca knew about her diagnosis from the psychologist. Brynlei didn’t feel like explaining to people she didn’t know why she wore synthetic riding boots instead of leather ones, or why loud noises sent her running for cover. It was all so exhausting. It would be so much easier to let her friend forage through the tall grass ahead of her, as she’d always done. Rebecca would make the introductions, crack a joke, and spark new friendships while Brynlei remained safely in her shadow. But Rebecca didn’t ride. She didn’t even like horses. Brynlei would have to quiet the voices in her head and try to fit in with the girls at Foxwoode on her own.
Several minutes later, they’d exited the highway and traveled down a curving two-lane road. A crooked plywood sign nailed to a tree appeared in the distance. She would have missed the sign altogether, except for the word Foxwoode scrawled across it in peeling white paint. The sign resembled a kindergarten art project.
Brynlei strained against her seatbelt, pointing.
“There it is! Don’t miss the turn!”
Her dad slammed on the brakes.
In truth, she had expected a more stately entrance to the riding academy. The hidden dirt driveway looked nothing like the fancy gated entrance pictured in the brochure. Yet, sure enough, the sign said Foxwoode.
“Is this right?” her mom asked. “It’s not very well marked.”
Her dad slowed the car. “I’ll just turn and see where it takes us.” He steered off the two-lane country road past the homemade sign and onto a narrow rural road enveloped by towering pine trees. Clouds of dust surrounded the windows as the SUV ambled over rocks and potholes.
Her mom clutched the armrest while she bounced in her seat. “This can’t be right.”
Brynlei searched through the murky dust for any sign of horses or cabins or girls, but only trees surrounded them. Then she spotted another lopsided wooden sign with the same white lettering.
Service Road – Employees Only.
“Looks like we turned a little early,” her dad said. Sweat glistened on his scalp through his thinning hair.
Her mom clucked and shook her head. “I knew this couldn’t be right. Find a place to turn around, Dan.”
Brynlei held onto the door handle and tensed her muscles every time the SUV lurched and knocked her off-balance. They ambled along the one-lane path, searching for a place to turn.
“It’s too narrow for a U-turn,” her dad said. “I have to keep going until the road widens.”
Her mom let out a deep, disapproving sigh.
Her dad’s fingers clutched the steering wheel as they nailed a pothole. “Someone needs to pave this sucker.”
Sometimes Brynlei felt sorry for her dad, always having to balance out her mom’s expectations of perfection. She had been shocked by photos she’d seen of her parents in their younger days, before her brother, Derek, was born. They appeared carefree and happy, like they were on a never-ending quest for fun. In one photo in particular, her dad was almost unrecognizable. She could only describe him as shockingly handsome, with thick dark hair and tanned skin. Her mom posed next to him showing off her perfectly trim body in a mini-skirt and high-heels. They smiled at each other in the photo in a way that Brynlei didn’t see much anymore, as if they shared the punch-line to an inside joke. Did her parents remember how they’d felt at that moment? She wouldn’t be surprised if they had forgotten.
With no other option, her dad continued driving down the narrow dirt road. Brynlei hoped a wide-open area would appear as they rounded each bend, but each time she was disappointed.
“This is ridiculous,” her mom said. “How do they expect people to turn around?”
A small cabin materialized through a mesh of trees. Brynlei squinted toward it. No, it wasn’t a cabin; it was more like a shed that was being used to store tools and equipment. The shadowy figure of a person hovered next to the shed, head tilted toward the ground. A wave of static electricity jolted through her, constricting her throat and making it impossible for her to breathe. She wasn’t sure why she was picking up on this sudden surge of energy. She tried to get a better look to see if the person was an employee or a maybe another riding student, but the dense trees passing outside the car window obstructed her view.
She leaned forward, pointing. “There’s someone over there, by that shed. We can ask them how to get out of here.”
Her mom pursed her lips. “I don’t see anyone.”
Brynlei looked again. The person she’d seen just moments ago was gone. She lowered her window and craned her neck outside to get a better view, but still could not see anyone. She scanned the trees, dumbfounded. Maybe the person was behind the shed? Or inside it?
“Here we go,” Brynlei’s dad exclaimed.
A grassy meadow crisscrossed with tire tracks appeared on the side of the road. Apparently, they weren’t the first ones to turn around here. As they headed back down the narrow dirt road in the other direction, Brynlei peered through her window hoping to catch a glimpse of whomever she had seen. However, the only activity in the woods came from a couple robins flitting about and a chipmunk scurrying up the massive trunk of an oak tree.
Ten minutes later and two miles down the country highway, they arrived at Foxwoode’s proper entrance. She recognized the impressive gated entrance flanked by limestone pillars from page two of the brochure. A wave of competing emotions rushed through her—excitement, nervousness, fear of the unknown. She squeezed her hands into fists and drew in her breath while her stomach flopped around like a fish caught in a net.
“This looks more like it,” her dad said.
Her mom pulled a compact from her purse and patted the shine off her nose. “We’ll never make that mistake again.”
* * * *
They checked in at the office where a gregarious woman directed them to Cabin 5. The sun reflected off the silver Explorer, as Brynlei’s parents unloaded the last of her bags. The cabin appeared exactly as the cabins pictured in the brochure, with its rustic log walls, high ceilings, and a narrow hallway leading to a communal bathroom. The smell of cedar, granola bars, and lemon-scented cleaning product swirled in the air as they entered the lofted bunkroom. Four of the six beds had already been made up and a few suitcases lined the walls, their owners nowhere to be found. Brynlei eyed the one remaining bunk and tossed her stack of sheets on the lower bed.
“This place isn’t too shabby.” Her dad lugged a large pink suitcase through the cabin door. “It smells kind of funny, though.”
“You mean like horses?” Brynlei said. She’d thought her dad’s jokes were funny when she was younger, but they didn’t have the same effect anymore. That didn’t stop him from trying, though.
His searching eyes revealed his disappointment at the cabin devoid of girls and their parents. Dan Leighton was most comfortable chatting up total strangers about the Tigers or the weather before angling the conversation toward his business. He was the head of his own consulting company and found it difficult to turn off his quest for new clients. Apparently, he’d arrived on this earth innately wired to network with people. She guessed her dad had been the head of a consulting company in his past life, too. She couldn’t think of anything she’d want to do less.
Her mom smoothed out the sheets and blankets and tucked them under the foot of the bunk bed. In one swift motion, she sealed up everything tight with crisp hospital corners. Then she fluffed the pillow and centered it on the bed. Brynlei would have been sure her mom had been Martha Stewart in a past life, except that Martha Stewart was still alive.
“There. Just like at home.” Her mom pressed her lips into a thin smile. “Remember to wash your sheets at least once.”
“I know, Mom,” Brynlei replied.
Her mom pulled a Tupperware container from her bag, peeling back the lid. “I brought some extra scones for you and your friends.”
Brynlei inhaled, the ingredients hitting her nose in layers. First the lemon, eggs, sugar, and lavender, and then a hint of something else. Maybe coriander? She’d read that dogs smelled things in much the same way. Her heart lurched for their golden retriever, Maverick, who they’d left at home. She wished she could have brought him with her.
She took the container, pressing the lid closed. “Thanks.”
A full-length mirror hung on the cabin wall, and Brynlei caught a glimpse of herself. In contrast to her mom’s polished exterior, she sometimes startled herself with her plainness. Not that she was unattractive. Her shoulder-length hair was somewhere between light brown and dirty blond, but it was smooth and shiny. Her dark eyes were large and round. Girls at school often hinted at her redeeming features, but they usually said it in a way to suggest she could do more. “Your hair is so pretty. You should try wearing it in a braid sometime.” Or “You have beautiful eyes. A little bit of eyeliner would really make them pop.” They didn’t understand that she’d rather blend in. Things were easier that way. Besides, the horses didn’t care what she looked like.
“Let’s go find some of your cabin mates so you can introduce yourself,” her mom said.
Her dad clapped his hands together, giving her a wink. “Great idea. I’ll try not to embarrass you.”
“No, that’s okay. I’m fine. You guys have a long drive home.” She didn’t want to be rude, but she wished her parents would leave her alone so she could get accustomed to her new surroundings. By the end of their lengthy drive to northern Michigan, their talk about the weather, the neighbor’s overgrown shrubs, and suggestions for ways to make new friends had begun to suffocate her.
“We should probably start heading back before Derek burns the house down.”
Her brother had opted to skip out on the long drive to nowhere. He remained in Franklin Corners playing video games with one of his buddies. As was the rule with older brothers, Derek knew exactly how to get under her skin. “It’s an art form, really,” he liked to say about his ability to drive her up the wall. Yet she knew another side of Derek, too. The one that cared deeply for others, the one that made a point to leave money in the tip cup at Dairy Queen, even when no one was looking. If it weren’t for her brother, she would be one hundred percent positive she was adopted.
Her mom stepped closer to her. “You can use the phone in the office to call us whenever you want. Be sure to call us at least once a week to check in.”
Brynlei cringed, remembering page eight of the brochure, which had warned about the lack of internet access and cell phone reception in Foxwoode’s remote location. Texting and emailing wouldn’t be possible.
“I know, Mom. I’ll be fine. I’m surrounded by horses, remember?”
“At least all this time apart will be good practice for college.” Her mom squeezed her so tightly that Brynlei worried her ribs might crack.
“We’ll miss you, Bryn.” Her dad enveloped her in a bear hug. “Don’t fall on your head.”
She smiled at her dad’s corny joke. “Thanks, Dad.”
“We’ll be back for your horse show,” her mom promised.
She watched from the steps of Cabin 5 as her parents buckled themselves safely inside their SUV, waved to her out the windows, and disappeared back to their suburban life in a cloud of dust.
All at once, the reality of her situation hit her like a sucker punch to the gut. They were gone. She had been itching to get rid of them, but now that she stood all alone in her unfamiliar surroundings, she desperately wanted them to come back. She pinched her lips together, determined not to cry. Her face grew hot and tears welled up in her eyes. She took a deep breath in through her nose and exhaled through her mouth, just as the psychologist had taught her. She looked around. The sun illuminated her pale skin like a spotlight, alerting everyone to her solitary status.
A group of girls already in their bathing suits walked easily down the dirt pathway toward the lake. One of them laughed loudly and tried to steal the other girl’s towel. In the other direction, dozens of horses grazed in rolling pastures framed by white fences. Brynlei breathed in the sweet scent of pine, grass, hay, and dandelions. A bee buzzed past her ear like an oncoming train. She shooed it away and decided to walk toward the horses.
* * * *
Beyond the white fence that lined the pasture, horses grazed in a rolling meadow surrounded by a lush forest. The scenery appeared too perfect to be real. She couldn’t believe she was really here. It had been her dream to attend Foxwoode since she was ten years old. Now, six years later, she had finally made it.
Her parents had thought her love of horses was a phase that she would outgrow, like playing Barbies or dressing up like princesses. “Maybe when you’re older,” they told her when she was twelve. However, much to her parents’ dismay, Brynlei only grew more obsessed with riding the older she got, and she was good at it.
“You have natural talent,” her riding instructor, Terri, told her after the first time she saw her jump a course. “I’m sure you’ve heard that before.”
“I don’t know,” Brynlei replied, looking at the ground and smiling.
The truth was, no one had ever actually said those words to her, but she’d always known she had a special connection with the horses she rode. She could feel their next step before they took it. She could see the tricky distances before jumps that others missed. She instinctively knew when to pull back and collect or to let the horse lengthen and do its thing. These were skills that could rarely be taught.
“Foxwoode is expensive,” her mom told her when she turned fourteen. “If you go, you won’t be able to take riding lessons for the rest of the year.”
Brynlei chose the riding lessons over attending Foxwoode. She finagled opportunities to participate in a few horse shows, too. Blue ribbons adorned her bedroom walls.
When she turned fifteen, she chose the riding lessons again. After all, she couldn’t go the whole year without riding. That was like giving someone the choice between an all-expenses-paid vacation to Hawaii or air to breathe. She had to choose the air.
On her sixteenth birthday, her parents surprised her—not with a car like some of her friends had recently received, but with a three-week summer session at Foxwoode Riding Academy. No strings attached. She knew the gift cost almost as much as a car. She leaped up and screamed, bouncing up and down as if their hardwood floor had transformed into a trampoline. Her tears flowed freely.
“Thank you! Thank you!” She’d sobbed and hugged her parents.
Her dad had flashed a wry smile. “Just remember, don’t fall on your head.”
Now that she was finally here, Brynlei wanted to reach out and pet some of the grazing horses, but an electrified wire ran along the inside panel of the fence. It was intended to keep the horses in and the people out, and she wasn’t one to break the rules, especially on the first day. She would have to be content to view the horses from a distance until tomorrow.
Page three of the brochure stated each girl who didn’t bring her own horse would be assigned an appropriate horse to ride during her three-week stay. Which horse would be hers? They all looked so beautiful. She really couldn’t go wrong.
Foxwoode’s owners, Tom and Debbie Olson, spent their winters in Wellington, Florida, finding show horses to buy and bring back for their students to ride and, sometimes, buy. Most of Foxwoode’s horses were offered for sale at the end of the summer. That wouldn’t be an option for Brynlei. Her parents had made it clear there was no room in their budget for a horse. Yet sometimes she let herself dream.
She strolled along the fence line to the main barn, pausing to peek through the barn door before stepping into the first aisle. It took a second for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, but the familiar musty scent of hay and leather embraced her. The clip-clopping of hooves on cement echoed through the barn.
“Back up, Bentley,” a high-pitched voice said from the next aisle. “He’s such a brat.”
“He’s doin’ good,” a man’s gruff voice said. “Bentley’s in stall nine.”
Brynlei peeked around the corner. A gorgeous gray thoroughbred still wearing his shipping boots was being led down the aisle by a tall blonde in a bright pink polo shirt. Her cut-off jean shorts gave way to impossibly long, tan legs. Brynlei’s muscles constricted, her body absorbing the girl’s negative energy. She instantly disliked the bossy girl. A shiny black Hummer idled at the end of the aisle beside a deluxe four-stall horse trailer. The vehicle’s fumes filled her mouth, choking her. She turned her head, exhaling and struggling to stay quiet.
A burly man in dirty jeans and leather work boots slid open a stall door. Brynlei gasped. The box stall was almost as big as her bedroom at home.
A woman who looked like a slightly older version of the tall blonde stepped into the aisle. “Alyssa, honey, do you need help?”
The girl threw back her head. “Obviously, Mom. Take off his shipping boots. He doesn’t like them.”
Brynlei envisioned her own mom slapping her across the face if she ever talked to her that way.
“We need some hay in here,” Alyssa barked at the man.
The man lowered his eyes, his voice slow and steady. “Be right back.”
Despite his enormous stature, the barn hand seemed like someone who was used to being ordered around. He trudged down the aisle toward Brynlei and nodded at her without any change of expression. A black barn cat darted out in front of him and tried to weave itself in between the man’s ankles. He picked up the cat and placed it gently on a hay bale.
“Hi,” Brynlei squeaked out, a prickle of sweat forming over her skin.
As the man turned the corner, she ran her hand over the cat’s smooth coat, and slipped over to the next aisle to look at the horses. Most were out in the pasture, but a few privately-owned horses were getting acclimated to their new spacious stalls. A sleek bay mare stared at her through the metal bars of her stall and calmly munched hay. Alyssa and her mom whined from the next aisle. Brynlei tried to tune them out.
“Did you see that blue-haired freak in our cabin?” Alyssa said.
“OMG! What’s her deal, anyway?” Another girl laughed loudly. “She totally doesn’t belong here.”
Brynlei pressed her back against the wall, not wanting them to discover that she was eavesdropping on their conversation. She didn’t know who they were talking about. She hadn’t seen anyone with blue hair.
“She’s probably one of those scholarship people. Did you see her riding boots? They’re not even real leather.”
“That’s sad.” More laughter.
“Bentley had a better stall last year,” Alyssa complained.
Brynlei inhaled a sharp breath. The girls’ shrill voices sounded like cats fighting. It would be quieter back in the cabin.
She scurried out of the barn and past the Hummer. A man in a button-down shirt and sunglasses sat inside staring at his cell phone, cursing its lack of reception. Alyssa’s mom tried to get his attention by knocking on the window, but he waved her off. Brynlei smiled, realizing her dad was right about one thing—the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Laura Wolfe writes psychological suspense for adults and young adults. Her YA mystery, Trail of Secrets, was named as a Finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards—First Novel category. The second book in the series, Barn Shadows, was shortlisted in the 2018 Chanticleer Paranormal Book Awards. Laura holds a BA in English from the University of Michigan and is an active member of multiple writing groups, including Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers. She lives in Michigan with her husband, son, daughter, and one spoiled rescue dog. When she’s not writing, she enjoys hiking through the woods, playing games with her energetic kids, and growing vegetables in her garden.
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