Traitor, she thought.
The school bus slowed, and a young girl stood and lurched down the aisle. Her heavy backpack swung wide with every step, swaying into alternating seats. There was no one left to clobber (hers was the last stop), but today she wouldn’t have cared anyway. She gave an extra stutter-step and grabbed a seat’s metal frame to keep from stumbling when the bus finally stopped.
“Have a good weekend, Rachel,” the bus driver said, opening the accordion door with a screech that cut through the rumble of the diesel engine.
The girl stared down at the treads of the steps as she exited, staying to the right to avoid stepping on gum. “Goodbye, Mr. Dewey.”
At the bottom, she took the final long step to the ground in a big hop, landing decisively on both feet. It was, after all, Friday. Even if Evie had betrayed her.
Rachel paused just long enough to free her long, dark hair from a backpack strap, then started up the hill, hunched forward like a turtle. There were three homes on the dirt road—a trailer, followed by Evie’s house and Rachel’s house—then a long stretch of nothing but vegetation until the route looped around and joined up with another back road. The steep incline and the few leaves remaining on the trees (some orange and yellow and red, but mostly brown) still shielded Rachel’s house from sight. She kicked stray bits of gravel from the road as if they’d insulted her, until the breeze caught a cloud of the roused dust and sent it toward her eyes.
Well, booger butt.
Rachel didn’t stop, just ducked her head even more as she rubbed at her eyes. Would she have gone to Melanie’s sleepover—without Evie—if Melanie had invited her instead? No. Because Rachel and Evie were best friends, and best friends don’t do that to each other.
Except… if Rachel were honest with herself, she knew she would have gone, too. And she knew Evie would tell her all about it tomorrow, with funny stories of who said and did what, stories that would make Rachel feel better, that would remind her that she was better off with Evie than with Melanie and her friends any day.
Rachel also knew that she’d be lost without Evie. She’d be eating lunch alone, sitting—
Evie’s dog was barking. A lot.
Rachel opened her mouth to yell at Trooper to stop (he listened to commands), but when she lifted her head, there was a man. Standing right in front of her.
Tall and old like her teachers, he didn’t speak. Just stared at her with a funny expression that wasn’t quite a smile.
Rachel tried to smile at him, but she couldn’t get her face to move. She couldn’t speak either. She knew she should, that there was something wrong, but she was so scared, she couldn’t make a sound. Except the noise of her breath starting to whistle in her chest. She reached toward her jacket pocket.
Suddenly the man moved in a blur, slapping a hand over Rachel’s mouth and throwing her under his arm in one quick movement, as if she were a football. An eleven-year-old football.
Rachel’s backpack bounced painfully. She wanted to scream for help, to bite his hand or kick him, but more than that she wanted to breathe. She needed to breathe.
The man was in no particular hurry now that he had her in hand, but spots appeared in front of her eyes and she couldn’t see where he was going. Was there a car? Her chest grew tighter.
I can’t breathe! she screamed inside her head.
Trooper was going crazy. She couldn’t see him either, but she could hear him snarling, lunging against his chain and pawing at the ground.
Help me, Trooper.
Then the spots in front of Rachel’s eyes disappeared in blackness and a roaring sound filled her ears, so loud she could barely make out the man’s voice when he spoke.
“Well, that was easy,” he said, bruising Rachel’s ribs as he hitched her higher on his hip. “And so it begins again.”
The girl looked at him with wide, scared eyes, the white sclera visible even in the fading light.
He twisted in his seat, his sleeve making a synthetic whisper against the seat cover’s cheap, gray fabric as he stretched past the girl for her backpack. She recoiled from him, curling into a fetal position as best she could with her hands and feet secured, while whimpering through the gag.
“Relax,” the man said.
Not that it made a difference.
There was no one to see her, or hear her, for miles. Nothing but silent trees, as far as the eye could see. Well, almost nothing.
He reached into the girl’s backpack, only to quickly jerk his hand back with a gasp.
He carefully pulled out the offending item—a spiral notebook. The sharp, bent end of its coiled wire had caught his finger. With everything else they were paranoid about, how was it that parents never saw the dangers in front of them?
He emptied the rest of the pack on the bench seat next to him—a couple of thin, hardcover textbooks and a zipper pouch full of goodies. There were the usual pens and pencils, a plastic compass she might use once all year, a tiny ruler, a key ring, and some kind of school ID card. He looked at the ID card… twisted to look at her… closed his eyes… looked at the ID card again.
And then he howled.
No other word could describe the inhuman, snarling frustration that tore from his throat while the girl trembled in the seat behind him, unnoticed. He slammed his hands into the steering wheel, then squeezed it hard, imagining it was someone’s throat. Imagining it was his throat. But he would come later.
The man took a deep breath, then sighed it out. It didn’t matter. Who the kid was didn’t matter. What mattered was that he had her. He returned the girl’s belongings to her pack, except for a couple of items. These he took outside, and placed strategically in the spot he’d chosen earlier. The echo from his slamming door had barely faded when he finished.
Back in the vehicle, he hardly spared a glance for the girl, except to wonder how much she weighed. They had a long way to go. The engine started on the first try, as he’d known it would, and he reversed until he felt his tires hit asphalt again.
A long way to go, indeed.
Adam Rutledge was cold.
He leaned forward, peering into the narrow tunnel his headlights cut through the dark. The forest crowded the two-lane road, helping to disguise the rise of the mountain on one side and the occasional precipitous drop on the other. Branches of the mostly leafless deciduous trees crept toward the center line from above, while the conifers kept their distance, upright sentinels. Adam squeezed the steering wheel hard to quell the trembling in his hands.
It was just so cold, too cold for this time of year.
Yeah, right. That’s why my hands are shaking.
By now, Ruthie would have found the note on the register. She’d be cursing, probably taking out her frustration on whoever she’d found to cover Adam’s Friday night shift. Maybe she’d fire Adam. He’d grabbed his duffle bag and blanket from the back room, just in case. And because he didn’t know how long he’d be gone. Or, let’s be honest, if he’d be back. He’d lasted longer at Ruthie’s than he’d ever have thought he would, but it was probably time.
What the hell do you think you’re doing?
That’s what Ruthie would have asked—yelled at him—if she could have.
And Adam wasn’t sure how to answer.
He felt wide awake for the first time in… well, a long time. A very long time.
It must have rained recently. The asphalt reflected shiny black in his headlights. Adam braked more suddenly than he should have, approaching the familiar sharp turn alongside Dead Hollow. The metal guardrail there was deeply dented, but still technically intact. He held his breath until he’d made it through to the other side without sliding on his bald tires. Thank God the road wasn’t yet cold enough to freeze.
Adam geared down as he approached the next steep incline, and the car’s engine whined. His beater hatchback got good gas mileage and was handy for sleeping rough, but it definitely was not made for mountain roads. The last hill before JJ’s house was going to be a doozy. Worst-case scenario, he could pull over and walk it.
Adam felt as though he had been to the Tulley house as many times as he’d taken breath, and he was shocked to suddenly realize that he’d never driven there. Hopefully, Mr. Tulley wouldn’t shoot him before he could identify himself. Eighteen years was a long time.
The lights from the car’s console seemed too bright, and Adam squinted at the road, wondering if he’d missed his turn already. The high, bright headlights of a large pickup in his rearview mirror didn’t help, reflecting in his eyes even with the mirror flipped up. A glint of red appeared ahead to the left, and Adam tapped his brakes. The glint wasn’t eyes shining—just a simple bike reflector mounted on a pole—but Adam’s relief was tinged with anticipation, and more complicated emotions he didn’t have time to consider.
The little car bounced as Adam made the turn onto the dirt road over uneven ground. He blinked as the pickup turned left as well, its lights a blinding, mad strobe. Not many people lived up this way. Adam felt a prickle on the back of his neck: was he being followed?
Adam downshifted even more, but his hatchback still crept up the hill. Maybe the truck could give him a push. He flipped his rearview mirror back down to get a sense of how close the truck was, just in time to see a second pickup following the first. Wait… a third pickup.
Frick. Why were they following him? Did they know who he was?
The pickup on his tail laid on the horn. Beeeeeeeep… beep-beep.
There was nowhere to pull over—the road was little more than a single lane—and it should be obvious that Adam was driving as fast as he could. What did they want from him?
The truck behind him accelerated, its engine roaring and its headlights looming larger until they filled the back windshield. Adam weaved the car as best he could on the narrow road and braced himself for impact.
I never should have come back.
The truck fell back for a moment, until a couple of car lengths separated them. It paused, then sped forward again just as the first residence appeared on the right—a trailer with lights shining from every window. Adam veered toward its driveway and felt the barest tap against his bumper when his car lurched back to the center. He struggled to bring the vehicle under control.
His heart pounded as the truck slowed again. The world was a kaleidoscope of harsh white light and black sky, with tree trunks flashing gray between, but he knew JJ’s house was coming up next. Or at least, where JJ’s family lived two decades ago. For the first time, it occurred to Adam that they might not live there anymore. What if it was a house full of strangers? Or worse, what if it was empty?
Adam goosed the gas pedal until his tires spun on the dirt road. The hill leveled out a bit and he sped ahead, catching sight of JJ’s driveway.
The pickup behind him accelerated, too, and Adam’s stomach rolled as the truck blasted its horn again. The hatchback fishtailed as Adam swung into JJ’s driveway. A porch light flashed on about a tenth of a mile ahead, and he raced toward it like a beacon, gaining a little ground on the trucks when they slowed for the turn. The house was smaller than Adam remembered and oddly silhouetted, front-lit by the porch light with the slightest glow of sky above and behind. The car slid toward an old oak tree, stopping well short of the front steps.
Adam yanked the emergency brake, threw the car door open and bolted toward the house, just as the first pickup rolled to a stop behind him, blocking his car in. The other two followed suit, spreading lengthways to form a barricade as far as the trees on either side. The porch light reflected from a picture window to the right of the house’s entrance, making a glassy mirror that showed a man with a rifle climbing from the first truck. Adam slowed, now afraid to run, as if he were sneaking past a predator.
He made it as far as the first step when a deep voice rang out behind him, cutting through the sound of a dog barking, “Stop right there! Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
It wasn’t the words that stopped Adam, but rather the tone of voice, the arrogant confidence that came from holding a gun on someone. Adam slowly raised his hands, but didn’t turn around. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a couple more men rolling out of the last pickup, pulling rifles from the rack in the back window as they did.
The air rang with silence as a dog abruptly stopped barking, followed by the sound of protesting springs on the screen door of the house. The squawk was as reassuring as it had been all through his childhood.
A woman stepped through the door, letting it bang shut behind her. She wore jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. Her long, dark hair hung loose, bits of it caught up in the hood. Taller than Adam expected, shadows hid her face, but the shotgun in her hands was clear enough.
Despite everything, Adam felt a grin sneaking in as it always did, pulling up the corner of his mouth, even though it was the last thing he wanted to do.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she asked, her breath clouding the cold air.
He wished he could say.