Excerpt from Valor

by Taylor Longford

I eyed the contents of the crate. Although swathed in several layers of bubble wrap, it appeared to be some kind of stone sculpture. Bubble wrap! I could have killed the step-person for transporting it so carelessly. And I didn’t even know what it was yet! But whatever it was, it was bound to be valuable or Greg wouldn’t have…appropriated it. And, considering how anxious he was about its safe delivery, it was probably something quite a bit more valuable than usual. Hopefully it wasn’t anything as important as a winged victory or a venus de milo, nothing that would send the International Police breathing down our necks.

Stretching my arms upward, I tugged the plastic bubble wrap apart along a seam, reached inside to the next layer and pulled that apart as well. With a sharp gasp on my lips, I took a swift step backward.

And stared.

I was looking at a statue of a young male. From beneath the shadow of a sharply jutting brow, two eyes gazed intently out at me. Several strands of hair fell across his left eye and I couldn’t help but marvel at the skill required to chisel the impossibly slender strands out of solid rock. Looking closer, I saw that each eyelash was carved with the same incredible precision—out of the smoothest gray stone I’d ever set eyes on.

If my mom had been there, she could have told me what kind of stone had been used to create the amazing sculpture. She’s a geological engineer and she knows her rocks. But it would have been hard to grow up in my home without the occasional geology lesson, and the fine-grained stone looked like a flint or chalcedony to me.

At that point, I’d pulled away enough bubble wrap to expose the statue’s upper body. His shoulders were wide and stretched with muscle, his arms cut with a lean strength unlike anything I’d ever seen on any of the jocks at school. It didn’t look like the sort of physique that had been developed through long hours in the weight room. Instead, it looked like the sort of raw power that was earned from a hard life full of physical demand. His arms were crossed over his chest and he wore a slight scowl on his face, the intensity of his gaze making me feel like he was watching me.

A shiver traveled down my spine but it wasn’t because I was creeped out. It was more like a shiver of excitement, like the way you feel when you know something good is about to happen—like a Christmas morning feeling or a first kiss feeling. Not that I’d ever been kissed but you get what I mean. With a soft snort, I shook off the strange sensation and returned my attention to the job at hand.

After I’d worked more of the bubble wrap away from the statue’s shoulders, I could see the beginning of wings spreading out behind him. Apparently, the sculpture was some kind of angel, though probably the avenging sort if his expression was anything to go by. But his wings weren’t feathered or shaped like the sort of wings normally associated with angels. Instead they were like the wings of a bat, with flat spans of thin stone stretched between narrow spines.

He was magnificent, though. And not only as a work of art. I’d thought the yearbook editor, Josh Saxon, was good looking. But Josh had nothing on this guy. I’d never seen a more beautiful creature in my lifetime. With my finger, I traced a vein that tracked the length of his forearm then reached up to the delicately carved strands of hair that fell across his face. For some reason, I felt compelled to brush them out of his eyes. Satisfied that the strands were indeed stone, and they weren’t going to budge in this lifetime, I stepped back with my hands on my hips and raked my gaze over the fabulous sculpture.

I didn’t know how old the sculpture was but I’d have given anything to travel back to the time when guys looked like he did. “They don’t make guys like you anymore,” I murmured, and lifted my face to meet his stern gaze.

It was dark inside the windowless garage, even with the lights on, and I wanted a better look at Greg’s stolen treasure, so I put my hip against the crate and tried to angle the opened side toward the sun. The box was heavy and it didn’t budge much.

Hooligan reappeared and took an unexpected interest in the sculpture. He lifted his front paws to its shoulders and looked it in the eye before giving a soft bark. I was surprised. Hooli’s usually pretty dignified. He doesn’t like to do anything that makes him look silly.

“Out of the way, boy,” I said, ready to start work on the bottom panel. I didn’t make much headway this time; the nails seemed determined to hang on, so I headed back to the tool chest for something a little more substantial. I was pretty sure I’d seen a crowbar in one of the drawers before. Naturally, it was in the last drawer I pulled out, which just happened to be the top one.

Unfortunately, as I reached for the heavy bar of metal, the tool chest tilted toward me. Too late, I realized I shouldn’t have pulled out all the drawers; the chest had overbalanced. I tried to back peddle out of harm’s way but wasn’t fast enough. The chest crashed down on me, taking me to the floor. My head hit the concrete so hard I’m surprised I didn’t crack my skull. I was probably only saved from permanent brain damage by the thick wad of hair stuffed into my knitted hat.

Have you ever tried to get out from under two tons of red tool chest? In case you’re wondering, it can’t be done. After like a dozen attempts to free myself, I started to panic. All ten of the open drawers had slammed into me as I fell and I hurt in too many places to count. My ribs ached horribly but my main concern was my right ankle. It felt like the bones were going to snap unless I got out from under the weight of the chest. I needed help but I’d left my phone on the hood of my car.

Hooligan licked my face, his troubled whine telling me that I had his full sympathy, for all the good that would do me. He turned and barked at the crate that held the statue. “Don’t bark at the damn statue,” I moaned. “Get the phone, Hooligan.”

He looked at me and tilted his head inquiringly.

“The phone Hooligan! It’s on my car.”

He turned and barked at the crate again.

Clearly, Hooligan didn’t have much potential as a rescue dog. I lay there panting, trapped against the chilly concrete, trying to come up with a plan. I figured Mim might eventually wonder why I wasn’t answering her calls and text messages, but she didn’t have a car so she couldn’t just run over to check on me. My mother wouldn’t be home for ten days, but she’d probably send somebody to the house when she couldn’t reach me on the phone later tonight. I just hoped she’d try Whitney or Mim first, before she called the police because the incident would probably be reported in the local newspaper. And everyone at school reads the “police calls” column when they want a good laugh.

The prospect was just too horrifying to even think about.

Although it hurt to breathe, I wasn’t going to suffocate before help arrived—but by the time it did, my ankle might be broken. When the sun went down, the temperatures might drop and hypothermia wasn’t out of the question despite the fact that we were having a mild October. Of course, I might be able to count on Hooligan to stay close and keep me warm. On the other hand, if he got hungry he might be forced to eat me.

With another troubled whine, he licked my face and wagged his tail. Okay, I was overreacting. Hooligan wasn’t gonna eat me.

Other than the tree-slayer next door, the nearest neighbor was about four acres away and wasn’t likely to hear my screams for help. Tree-slayer would probably hear me if I waited for a pause in the chain sawing, but the thought of having to deal with him made my skin crawl.

Trying for calm, I looked around. The tools had fallen from the chest and were scattered across the concrete floor of the garage, the crowbar just out of reach. It was a fairly long piece of metal. If I could jam it between the floor and the tool chest…

I strained my hand toward the crowbar and tried to get my fingers around it. No luck. I found the claw foot hammer beside my shoulder and tried to use it to drag the crowbar closer. But I couldn’t reach the curved end of the crowbar and all I managed to do was slide the straight end around on the floor.

With a groan, I stopped struggling and tried to decide what to attempt next. When the distant snarl of the chain saw puttered to a stop, I knew it was my best chance to call for help. Still, I hesitated, tears of pain and frustration wetting my eyelashes.

Hooligan lifted his huge head and barked again, then gave up his vigil at my side and loped off toward the front of the garage.

With my hand wrapped around the hammer’s red handle, I prayed for help and hesitated a little longer. Eventually, I took a deep breath and got ready to shout.

“Hang on,” growled a young male voice. “I’ve got you.”

A large hand caught the upper edge of the tool chest. Then the chest was back on its wheels. It bounced a little and traveled a few feet before coming to a halt. Strong hands gripped my waist and lifted me to my feet but I couldn’t see my rescuer’s face because my knitted hat had slipped forward, blocking my vision. Reaching up, I shoved the hat back…and looked up into astonishingly blue eyes that were filled with concern.

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