The Bones Beneath My Skin: The First Chapter

Over the past few weeks, I’ve made my sales pitch to you, the reader. I’ve told you what went into The Bones Beneath My Skin, how crazy it is, how it turned out to be the most hopeful thing I’ve written. I believe in the good in people, and even though things can seem dark these days, I have hope that we’ll find our way through.

This story contains my hopes for the future, and what we can all achieve if we work together.

Instead of trying to tell you more about the hows and the whys, I’ve decided this last post before the book releases on October 26 will be to show you what lays ahead. I am so pleased to present to you the entire first chapter of the The Bones Beneath My Skin.

It’s time to let the story speak for itself.

tj

Pre-order:

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chapter one

He sang along with the radio.

Something about taking a sad song and making it better.

After, he laughed until he could barely breathe.

 

 

He crossed into Douglas County just before another song ended. There was a news break at the top of the hour, every hour.

A singer named Selena had been shot at a hotel in Texas. He’d never heard of her before.

TAROM Flight 371, leaving Bucharest and heading for Brussels, crashed shortly after takeoff. All sixty people on board died. An investigation was underway. Terrorism was not suspected at the moment.

The comet discovered last year, Markham-Tripp, was getting closer. Already it could be seen if you knew where to look, but no worries, folks. It’s going to swing right by us before heading back out into the great beyond.

And there was still no official word on the helicopter that went down outside of the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Northern California last week. The cause was still under investigation, though it was implied it was related to that big storm that blew through the area. Officials weren’t saying if there were any fatalities.

And now for the weather. It’s gonna be a beautiful day, would you look at all that sunshine, can you just believe it?

It was March 31, 1995.

He continued south.

 

 

The air outside grew cooler the farther he went into the mountains. The sun warmed the hand he hung out the window. The blue sky stretched on and on. There were clouds, but only a few.

Nice day, he thought. Of course it is. That’s the way things go.

He hit the town in late afternoon. There was a sign, old and faded. It’d been there since he was a kid and his parents had taken him up to the cabin for a few weeks during the summer. It said:

 

Roseland, Oregon

Pop. 827 Established 1851

Elevation 2345 ft.

Gateway to the Cascades!

 

He passed by a diner. A church. Shops on either side. Some of them were open. The town wouldn’t hit tourist season for another month or two, but they’d be ready. People driving up from the bigger cities looking for an escape from the heat and grind would spend their money, take their photos, and then disappear back from where they came.

The air was filled with the scents of pine needles and earth. It was like he was ten years old again and his mom and dad were still in love, love, love. They would laugh and sing along with the radio. They would play road games. I Spy. Twenty questions. The license plate game where you’d try and get all fifty states. He’d learned early on that that was impossible. The most he’d ever gotten was seven. That had been a good day. One had been Maine, an impossibly faraway place.

He saw the sign for the gas station before the gas station itself. It spun lazily, but not before he caught the words BIG EDDIE’S GAS AND CONVENIENCE. He breathed a sigh of relief. It was good to see that some things remained the same. Even after everything.

He pulled in, the tires of the truck hitting the thin black cord. A bell dinged somewhere inside the station as he stopped next to the pump. He turned off the truck, listening as the engine ticked.

He ran a hand over his face before opening the door, setting his feet on the ground. He stretched his back, hearing it pop. He was only twenty-seven years old, but gone were the days when he could sit in a car for hours without a problem. His muscles pulled. It felt good.

The glass door to the gas station swung open and a large man walked out, wiping his hands on a rag. If it wasn’t for the smile on his face, the man would have been alarming. He’d never seen anyone that size anywhere else. Must have been the mountain air.

“Well, look who the cat dragged in,” Big Eddie Green said, his voice a deep timbre. “Nate Cartwright, as I live and breathe.”

Nate forced a smile onto his face. “Big Eddie. Good to see you’re still running this dump.”

“You watch your mouth,” Big Eddie said, but he was still smiling, his teeth a little crooked but endearingly so. He held out a large hand streaked with a bit of oil. Nate didn’t mind. He held out his own. Big Eddie’s grip was firm, but he wasn’t trying to be an asshole about it. He wasn’t like that, at least not that Nate knew. He hadn’t seen Big Eddie since he’d turned twenty-one, the last time he’d been up to the cabin. And it wasn’t like they were friends, though Big Eddie could make friends with just about anybody he set his mind to. There was something about the way he smiled that put Nate at ease. It was familiar, this. Heartbreakingly so.

“Heading up the mountain?” Big Eddie was already moving to the pump. “Unleaded okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine,” Nate said, leaning against the truck. He glanced inside the gas station window. There was a kid inside bent over the counter, scribbling furiously on something, his tongue stuck out between his teeth like he was concentrating really hard. “Jesus, is that Benji?”

Big Eddie laughed. “Yeah,” he said, and Nate could hear the fondness in his voice, rough and sweet. “Sprouting up like a weed. His ma and me can barely keep up with him. More than a handful. Crazy, right?”

“It is,” Nate said because he was supposed to agree with it. That was how conversation worked. That was how people talked to each other. He wasn’t so good at that. And now that he was running away to the middle of nowhere, he didn’t think he’d get much more practice at it than this.

The gas pump hummed.

Big Eddie whistled as he looked in the bed of the truck. “Quite a few supplies you got back here. Planning a long stay?”

Nate shrugged. “A while, anyway.”

The smile softened. “Real sorry to hear about your folks. That… well. I don’t know much else to say beyond that. Must have been tough. I can’t imagine what that’s like, so I won’t insult you by pretending to.”

Nate wasn’t sure what to say to that. Tough, sure. Oh yeah, it’d been tough. Murder-suicides usually were. His father had come to his mother’s house, feeling hurt and ornery like he usually did when he drank. There’d been a fight. Neighbors said they heard shouting but thought it was the TV or just a regular old domestic that they couldn’t find the wherewithal to get involved in. Nate didn’t blame them, especially when his father had gone out to the very truck Big Eddie and Nate were leaning against, grabbed his shotgun, hoofed it back inside, and blown his ex-wife away before turning it on himself.

It’s hard to do, the detective had told him, sounding soft and worn. Committing suicide by shotgun. But Nate’s father had found a way. Sat in a chair, propped it between his legs. The barrel had gone under his chin, and he’d used his big toe, of all things, to pull the trigger. It’d been a mess.

At least Nate assumed it had been. He hadn’t been inside his mother’s house after. His brother had taken care of all that. There are services, his brother told him over the phone. It was the first time he’d spoken to his brother in years. They come in and clean up crime scenes. They charge you out the ass, but they take care of what they can. They can’t get it all, of course, but that’s what contractors are for. They’d fix up the house before it got put up for sale.

And later, they’d spoken one more time. Dad left you the truck, his brother said. Mom left you the cabin.

Oh was all he could say. Oh.

What he’d wanted to say was how could this have happened? How did it get this far? Sure they’d had their problems—they were divorced, for fuck’s sake. But his father had never raised a fist. Not to anyone. He hadn’t been the nicest guy, but he’d never hit them. Or her. Not once. That wasn’t who he was.

“Yeah,” Nate said to Big Eddie. “Tough.”

Big Eddie nodded. “You get the water turned on?”

“Called a couple of days ago. They’re supposed to come tomorrow. Generator will take care of the rest. Shouldn’t be too cold. Not for long.”

“Oh yeah. Snow’s gone. Mild winter this year. Christmas was sixty degrees, if you can believe that. I take it you’ll want me to fill the gas canisters you got back here.”

“If you could.”

“Will do, Nate. You been up there since—”

“No.”

Big Eddie nodded slowly as he lifted the empty canisters out of the truck. “Your ma was out here. Last September, I think. Brought one of her girlfriends. Josie? Is that right? Josie?”

“Joy.”

“That’s right. Joy. They were cackling like a pair of old hens. Stayed up there for a couple of weeks. Didn’t see them when they came back down. Your ma was happy, Nate. In case you needed to know.”

“Thanks,” Nate managed to say because wasn’t that the consolation he was looking for. She’d been happy. She’d been laughing. He hadn’t heard from her in years, but hey, she’d been having the time of her life. Fucking good for her. “That’s… nice. Thanks.”

“She talked about you, you know,” Big Eddie said like it was nothing, like they were shooting the shit. “Said you were big-time. Living in Washington, DC. Reporter or something.”

“Journalist,” Nate corrected by force of habit.

Big Eddie took the pump from the truck and put it down into one of the canisters. “Journalist. That’s right. A journalist. Working for the Post. She seemed awfully proud of that.”

Nate wanted to laugh. He wanted to scream. He wanted to smash his hands against the truck and demand Big Eddie shut the fuck up about things he didn’t know about. Sure, maybe his mother had been proud, maybe she’d been talking out her ass, but what gave her the right? She’d done nothing when his father had told him to get the fuck out, that he wouldn’t have a fucking faggot for a son. She hadn’t spoken a goddamn word in his defense while his father had shouted that he’d get fucking faggot cancer like all those other queers. She’d done nothing when he’d looked at her, begging for her to say something, anything. Her eyes had been wide and shocked, her bottom lip quivering. But she’d stayed silent, so she’d stayed complicit.

They’d been standing in the doorway to the cabin, hadn’t they? They weren’t even supposed to be up there. They’d already told him they were getting a divorce months before, so the fact that they were together at all was confounding. He’d been frantically trying to cover himself and his boyfriend at the time, their skin slick with sweat, his heart racing. He’d felt ashamed for reasons he couldn’t quite understand. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was an adult. He was allowed to be in the cabin with whomever he wished, but he’d felt bad at the look of disgust on his father’s face, at the way his mother’s eyes were wet. He’d felt awful.

He and the guy left after that. Hastily, overnight bags stuffed but not zipped up. His parents hadn’t even looked up at him from where they sat at the kitchen table. He’d forgotten one of his hiking boots. It’d been sent to him in the mail two months later. No note, no return address, but he’d known it’d come from his mother.

He’d thrown it away.

The boyfriend hadn’t lasted long after that day. Another couple of weeks. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t serious. A distraction, that’s all it’d been.

He’d gotten the cabin.

He’d gotten the truck.

That was fine. They were dead, and he’d gotten two things that were essentially useless to him.

Maybe he’d burn them both. He had time now that he didn’t have a job.

How wonderful for her that she’d been proud. How fucking grand.

“Great,” he said, voice even. “I’m glad to hear that.”

Big Eddie hummed under his breath. The first canister filled up, and he moved to the second one. “You got a phone hooked up there?”

Nate shook his head.

“Got a cell phone?”

He did. “Why?”

“Give you my number. In case you need something. You being up there all by yourself, things could happen, Nate. Just being cautious is all.”

“Doubt it’d work up there.” His service was already spotty as it was, being this far into the mountains. It probably wouldn’t work at all by the time he got to the cabin.

“Still. Better to be safe than sorry.”

Right. Nate went back around to the driver’s side door. The phone was sitting on the bench seat, a red Nokia, the screen cracked down the middle from where he’d dropped it on a sidewalk while trying to juggle a couple of coffees. Big Eddie spouted off his number, and Nate dutifully typed it in, saving it under EDDIE.

Big Eddie hoisted the gas cans back into the bed of the truck before he wiped his hands on the rag he stashed in his pocket. He glanced at the pump, then said, “That’ll be $36.50, unless you need anything else from inside. Last stop before all that nothing.”

Nate shook his head, pulling his wallet out and finding his debit card, something he’d only gotten a few months ago. They were new, and it boggled his mind a little how much easier it was than cash or a check.

Big Eddie grinned at him again. “Be right back.”

Nate watched him go.

The sun was low in the west. It’d be dark in another couple of hours, and he was itching to get back on the road. He had another hour to go, the last half of which was on bumpy dirt roads that weren’t great to navigate in the dark. He should have gotten an earlier start, but his hangover was harsh this morning, his tongue thick in a mouth that felt stuffed with cotton. Even now he had remnants of a headache, the last little gasps of something that had dug deep into his brain for most of the morning.

Big Eddie was inside the gas station, saying something to his son. Nate watched as he ran a hand over Benji’s head. Benji knocked it away, and Big Eddie chuckled. He said something else, and Benji glanced out the window. Nate gave a little wave. The kid waved back, his arm thin, his whole body shaking. Big Eddie laughed over his shoulder as he came back out and didn’t see his son scowling at his back.

“Math,” Big Eddie said as he approached. “It’s not going so well.”

“Sucks,” Nate said. “Never understood that much myself.”

Big Eddie handed him his card and receipt. “He doesn’t get why he needs it if he’s going to be running the station. I told him he needs to set his sights a bit higher than Roseland. He wasn’t too happy about that.”

“Sometimes you need to let them do what they think is right.” Nate instantly regretted the words.

“Yeah.” Big Eddie rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I suppose. I just—it’s being a parent, I guess. You want the best for your kids, to see them spread their wings and fly. He’s going to do great things, I think. One day. I just don’t know if he can do them here.” He shrugged. “You’ll know one day. When you got kids of your own.”

That wasn’t going to happen. Nate didn’t have the patience for kids. He didn’t like them, and they didn’t like him. It wasn’t in the cards. But he said “Sure” because that’s what he was supposed to say.

“I better let you get on, then,” Big Eddie said. “I know you’ve still got a ways to go. I could stand out here jawing all day. That’s what the wife says. And her sisters. And Benji. And most of the town.”

Nate bet he could. Big Eddie was just the type—friendly and open. Nate wasn’t like that. Not at all. He put his wallet back in his pocket. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

Big Eddie shook his hand again. It was a little tighter this time, like he was trying to tell Nate something without actually saying the words. “You need anything, you give me a holler, you hear? Those supplies won’t last you forever. You need something, let me know, and we can meet halfway. Save you a bit of a trip.”

“You don’t have to—”

“Nate, just take it for what it is. Kindness. Sometimes people need it, even if they don’t know how to ask for it.”

Looking away, Nate cleared his throat. “Thanks. I will.” He turned for his truck.

Before he pulled out, he glanced back into the gas station. Big Eddie was bent over the counter next to his son, frowning down at the paper. Benji was doing the same. It was strange how obvious it was they were related. Like father, like son.

Nate pulled out and left Roseland behind.

 

 

There was a sign, barely visible behind a gnarl of greenery, trees and bushes growing wild. If you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t even see it, or the turnoff. Nate almost passed it by accident, distracted by a deer moving off in the trees to the left. He hit the brakes a little sharper than he meant to, the seat belt digging into his hips. The tires squealed against the pavement, and he looked in the rearview mirror to make sure he hadn’t just pulled that asshole move in front of another car.

There wasn’t one. He hadn’t seen another vehicle since he’d left Roseland.

HERSCHEL LAKE, the sign said. 15 MILES.

An arrow pointed toward a dirt road.

He sat there on the road, in the middle of the forest in the mountains, for far longer than he should have.

And then he hit the blinker and turned the truck onto the dirt road.

 

 

It was smoother than he expected, which meant Big Eddie had been right about the mild winter. If it’d been normal, there would have still been snow on the ground. It wasn’t surprising to see spring snowstorms come ripping through, the air different than the winter squalls. It always felt more electric in the spring, the snow falling on blooming flowers, the reds and violets almost shocking against the white.

But it was easier this way. He hadn’t thought to put chains on the truck’s tires when he’d set out from Eugene after meeting with the estate attorney. He’d flown in from DC. The attorney had picked him up from the airport, given that his brother had been busy. Or so he’d said. Nate knew better, and he could tell the attorney wanted to ask questions (whywhywhy), but somehow, he’d minded his own business. He’d been balding and talkative, saying how sorry he was about Nate’s parents in one breath, and then talking about the Trailblazers in the next.

“Didn’t see you at the funeral,” he’d said at one point.

“Don’t expect you did,” Nate had replied, staring out the window.

“No money,” the attorney said later. “People always want to know how much money they’re getting. Just be up front with you about that now. Everything went to your brother’s family. His kids. College ain’t cheap.”

He didn’t want their money.

He didn’t even want the cabin or the truck.

But he’d taken them anyway because there was nothing else left for him.

“Sign here,” the attorney had said. “Sign here, initial here, and here, and here, and would you look at that, you’re the proud owner of a 1974 Ford F100 and a cabin on four acres in the middle of nowhere. Congrats. Shelly, would you make copies for Mr. Cartwright.”

His secretary had popped her gum loudly and done exactly that.

He’d been given keys. Front door. Back door. Shed. Two for the truck.

He’d been given copies of all the paperwork.

He’d been shown the door.

“Let me know if you need anything,” the attorney had said, both of them knowing this would be the last time they’d ever speak to each other.

The truck had been sitting in the parking lot, dropped off by his brother a couple of days before.

It was white with green trim. The tires looked a little bald. There was a gun rack against the rear window, the same one that had held the shotgun his father had used on his mother and then on himself. Nate had stood in that strip mall parking lot, staring at the gun rack for a long time.

He’d stayed in Eugene for a few days, making phone calls from the room he’d rented at the Motel 6. Calling for the water to be turned on. Paying for a few more months at the storage locker back in DC. His mail was forwarded to a PO box that he could check monthly.

And just like that, Nate Cartwright’s life was all wrapped up in a neat little bow.

He’d stayed one more night in the Motel 6, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the trucks out on the highway passing by at three in the morning.

The next morning, he’d been at Walmart as soon as it’d opened, buying everything he needed to stay away for a long while. He hadn’t even winced at the amount he’d spent when it was read to him. It didn’t matter.

He hit a pothole.

The truck’s frame shuddered.

He slowed. He didn’t want to get a flat tire this far up in the mountains. He didn’t have a spare.

Herschel Lake had once been a popular tourist destination in the fifties and sixties. Where there’d once only been a handful of cabins, there suddenly were dozens. Vacation rentals, second homes, all set far enough away from each other to feel just out of sight from the rest of the world, Herschel Lake and the forest around it would echo with people on picnics or kids in the lake, jumping off docks or rope swings.

It’d fallen off in the late seventies, the company that owned most of the cabins going under. Things had fallen apart. The BLM had come in and purchased most of the land, but nothing had been done with the rental cabins. They’d been left to rot.

Nate’s parents had come up in 1980. They’d fallen in love with the area and found a cabin for sale, farther away from all the others. An elderly man was being moved into a retirement home by his kids, and they wanted the cabin sold. A couple of months later, the Cartwrights had a cabin in the woods.

He’d been thirteen the first time he’d come to Herschel Lake.

The quiet had scared him.

He’d gotten used to it after the first week.

Going home after had always seemed so loud.

It’s what he wanted now. Quiet. Room to think. To figure shit out. He needed to decide what was going to happen next.

His first glimpse of the lake came twenty minutes later, a flash of sun on the water. He blinked away the afterimages that burned in his eyes.

He thought about stopping. About taking off his old pair of Chucks and putting his feet in the water. It’d be cold. The lake was fed from streams that came from farther up the mountains. The air was already considerably cooler than it’d been even in Roseland. Maybe it would shock him. Cause his brain to reboot.

But the sun was getting lower, and the sky was starting to streak. He wanted to make it to the cabin by dark. He still needed to get to the other side of the lake.

He drove on.

 

 

The first stars had appeared overhead by the time he reached the long driveway to the cabin. He’d turned on the truck’s headlights ten minutes before, the thick trees blocking out much of the dying sun. He’d rolled up the window too, telling himself the chill on his skin had only to do with the mountain air.

He used the signal again as he turned onto the road to the cabin. Force of habit. There was no one else out here.

The driveway was a little rougher than the main road. The truck rattled and groaned. The beam cast by his headlights jumped, bouncing through the trees. He kept the speed low, listening to his meager belongings bounce around the bed of the truck, the gas canisters scraping loudly.

And there, as it had been fourteen years ago when he’d first laid eyes on it, was the cabin.

It wasn’t anything grand. Single story. A small porch. Two bedrooms, one slightly larger than the other. Two bathrooms, both of which had showers where the water was either scalding or ice. A perfunctory kitchen with a stove and an ancient refrigerator. A living room with a couch his mother had insisted upon, saying they weren’t going to live like savages out in the middle of the woods, could you imagine? And that had been an ordeal, having that thing tied down to the back of the truck with bungee cords, bringing it up the mountain only to find it didn’t fit through the front door. There’d been a moment of panic, his parents getting those looks on their faces, the ones that said someone was going to start yelling, but then Nate’s brother had pointed out the rear doorway was larger, and they’d made it work. A cushion had torn and the paneling around the doorway chipped, but they’d finally made it in, all of them laughing, sweat dripping down their faces.

Nate’s favorite part of the cabin, however, had been the books.

The cabin had been sold as is. The elderly man’s children had taken everything of sentimental value but had left other things that Nate couldn’t believe. The head of a deer—an eight-point buck—mounted on the wall in the living room, its eyes shiny and black. (“Take it down,” his mother demanded almost immediately.) Dozens of cans of Spam. (“I don’t think it ever expires,” his father muttered, squinting at the pantry.) Two packs of cigarettes, both opened and missing a few. (“Don’t tell Mom,” his older brother warned. “I’m going to smoke the shit out of these.”)

And the books. So many books.

They lined the old set of shelves on the far wall in the living room. Hundreds of them, most of them Westerns by Louis L’Amour (The Burning Hills and High Lonesome and Hanging Woman Creek and Under the Sweetwater Rim). There were a few books he’d barely gotten to look at before his mother had snatched them away from him (Teacher’s Pet and Perversity and Anything Goes), the women on the covers half-dressed and posed salaciously, the covers promising to tell the story of how Judy stayed after class and earned her diploma through special tutoring or how a love-starved temptress gave in to her insatiable desires. Those books were gone quickly.

But the rest were fair game. And his summers became Westerns, frontier stories of cowboys and Indians and red plateaus under the scorching sun. He’d take a book or two and disappear into the trees for the day, eating blackberries for lunch, his fingers and lips a tacky purple, the pages stained by the time he headed back toward the cabin.

He’d been happy here. He’d been free.

And maybe that’s why he was here again. Maybe that’s why he’d come back. Nate Cartwright hadn’t been happy in a long time. Things had been simpler when he’d been thirteen or fourteen or fifteen years old, his body changing, zits on his forehead, voice cracking, hair sprouting in places where it hadn’t before. He’d been an awkward kid, all gangly arms and legs, perpetually pushing his glasses back up his nose. His brother had bitched and moaned about being away from his friends and girlfriend again, his parents were already checked out mentally, but Nate had just grabbed the books and gone away for hours, sitting at the base of a tree, sometimes reading, sometimes pretending he was a settler on the frontier, that he was in the wilds, the cabin he’d built somewhere behind him, and he was alone, truly alone, just the way he liked it.

Maybe that’s why he’d come back here. To be alone.

It wasn’t because he was trying to find some last connection with the two people who had cut him out of their lives. Of course not. He’d gotten over that a while ago. The fact that they’d left him the cabin and the truck hadn’t meant a damn thing. Maybe their guilt had gotten the better of them. It didn’t matter. Not now. Not anymore.

The cabin was dark.

He was exhausted.

If his mother had been here in September, it wouldn’t be too bad inside. He’d open a couple of windows to air it out, maybe wipe down the thin layer of dust that had settled. But it wouldn’t be much. For that, he was thankful.

He turned off the truck. The headlights went dark.

The stars blinked above as he opened the door.

The sky was red and pink and orange.

The surface of the lake looked as if it were on fire.

He heard birds in the trees, the lap of waves against the shore.

He stepped out of the truck.

Gravel crunched under his feet.

The door creaked as he closed it behind him, the sound echoing slightly.

He went to the back of the truck and grabbed his duffel bag. In the side pocket was a flashlight that he’d put there earlier after his shopping spree. He clicked the button on the side, and the beam flashed on. He shined it in the bed of the truck until he found one of the canisters Big Eddie had filled for him. He reached in and grabbed it too, shirt lifting slightly, a line of thin skin pressing against the cold metal of the truck. He shivered as he pulled the canister out of the truck.

He walked toward the cabin, trying hard not to think about the last time he’d been here. The guy had been sucking on his neck as they stumbled toward the porch, one hand in Nate’s back pocket, the other under his shirt and rubbing against the hair on his chest. He’d always been on the lean side, but at twenty-one, he’d been making daily trips to the gym. He’d been harder then, more defined. His dark hair had been newly cut, tight against his skull. He’d been groaning at the teeth sinking into his neck, the tongue dragging along his skin. They’d lost most of their clothes as soon as they got inside, the guy on his knees, Nate’s pants around his ankles, his cock being swallowed down into wet heat as he leaned against the door, head back and eyes closed.

His parents had shown up unexpectedly two days later.

“Give me the key,” his father had snapped, eyes blazing. “Give me the key, and don’t let me catch you here again.”

He was a shadow now. Thinner, his hair shaggy. His shoulders were a little bony, sharp. He was softer, too. He hadn’t had time for the gym like he’d had before. It’d all been cups of coffee and sitting in front of a computer, working the phones or shouting questions at some senator who tried to walk as fast as he could, a thin smile fixed on his face as if thinking that affair he’d had or the money he’d embezzled would just fade away if he ignored the kid demanding to know why, an electronic recorder held toward his face, cameras flashing again and again.

Nate had caught his reflection in a store window not that long ago and wondered who the man staring back at him was. The man with the sharp cheekbones, slightly sunken cheeks. The man whose blue eyes looked faded and cold. The man sporting three-day-old stubble on his face that made him look dirty and tired. The man with the wrinkled shirt and purple lines under his eyes and no job because he’d fucked up big-time and did something he never thought he was capable of, and here he was, a useless degree and six years on the street beat, chasing down stories that didn’t matter while daydreaming of breaking something wide open, a scandal that would rock the city to its very core. He had Pulitzer dreams on a lower-middle-class salary that barely kept him afloat in a city that bled red, white, and blue, oozing in time with the beat of a diseased heart.

It had been killing him.

So yeah. His brother had called him again. He’d been spinning his wheels. He’d heard cabin and truck and thought why the fuck not. He had some savings, enough to get by for a little while. He broke his lease on his tiny apartment, packed up his shit and sent most of it to storage, and headed west.

Best damn idea he’d had in a long time.

He’d figure things out. He’d take a few days, clear his head, and then he’d sit down and figure things out. He always did. He was good at it when he allowed himself to be.

He walked to the side of the cabin, heading toward the back where the generator sat inside a small storage shed. He fumbled with the keys, the flashlight slipping slightly, the beam pointing at his feet. The gas canister sloshed against his leg. His footsteps were soft in the grass.

He found the key he needed for the shed, thankfully marked S in the tape that wrapped around the top. There was FD for front door, BD for the back. There was one marked BH for boathouse, the wooden structure next to the dock on the lake. They’d never had a boat and had ended up only using it for storage. He’d have to take time to clean it out later. To see what had been left behind.

The shed was—

He stopped.

The metal of the gas canister’s handle dug into the skin of his folded fingers.

The padlock hung open on the shed door.

The door was open slightly. Just a sliver, really.

That wasn’t—

He shook his head.

It was fine. His mother had forgotten to latch it all the way when she’d been here last. An honest mistake. Hopefully nothing had happened to the generator in the interim. The winter had been mild, but there had been snow. And rain.

He went to the shed door, setting the canister in the grass.

He reached, and just to be sure, he closed the padlock. It clicked. Locked. He slid the key into the keyhole and turned it. The padlock popped open.

Honest mistake. She probably had been distracted. Maybe Joy had been calling for her and she just hadn’t slid it closed before turning back toward the cabin.

Except when he opened the shed door, he was hit with a wave of warm air. As if the generator had been running. Recently.

He frowned.

He stepped inside the shed. Reached out and touched the generator. The metal was hot to the touch. Not a fluke.

Had she left it on this whole time?

But that couldn’t be right. Even if she had, it would have run out of gas months ago. Even with all the lights off in the cabin. It wouldn’t have—

There was the unmistakable click of a gun being cocked.

Something hard pressed against the back of his head, digging into his scalp.

A voice said, “You’re going to set the flashlight on the ground. And then you’re going to bring your hands up slowly. Lace your fingers on the back of your neck. If you try anything, if you reach for something I cannot see, or if you don’t do exactly as I’ve said, I will put a bullet in your head. Without question.”

Everything felt sharp around Nate. His vision narrowed. His heart thumped wildly in his chest. There was blood rushing in his ears. His mind was utterly blank, bathed in a sheet of white.

He’d been mugged once. In Bethesda, down in the Metro. There’d been a small knife and a look of desperation on the man’s face, eyes darting back and forth. He’d demanded Nate’s wallet. “Now,” he’d chanted. “Now, now, now, man, I swear, you need to move, give it to me now.”

It’d felt the same. There was fear, sure, and it was causing his muscles to freeze, his brain shorting out with what felt like an audible pop. The knife hadn’t been anything to sneeze at, a pigsticker with a sharp blade, and somehow—somehow—Nate had managed to hand over his wallet. The man had snatched it from his hand and taken off.

People had kept walking around him as if nothing had happened.

He’d stood there for a long time.

Eventually he’d moved. He’d found a Metro cop and filed a report. “Probably won’t ever see it again,” the cop had told him. “It’s a pain in the ass, but just cancel your cards and get a new license. It won’t ever turn up.”

He’d done exactly that.

His wallet had never been found.

It’d been leather, a gift. Nothing extravagant. And he’d had twenty bucks in it. But that was all.

But for months after, every time he’d gone down into the Metro, he’d kept an eye out. He didn’t know what he’d do if he found the guy again, if he saw him on the train. Confront him? Say, hey, remember when you held a knife to my stomach and took away my sense of security?

Of course he’d never seen the guy again. It’s not how those things happened.

But it was that same fear. Like he was outside of himself. He felt separate. Mechanical. He knew it was cold, but he didn’t feel it anymore. He knew the inside of the shed was warm, but that was a thing of the past.

Now it was only the gun against his head.

The deep, hoarse voice at his back.

He bent slowly, the press of the gun barrel never leaving his head. He dropped his flashlight. It bounced on the floor of the shed with a wooden thunk.

He stood again, moving as though he were underwater. He brought his hands back up behind his head as he’d been told, the keys pressing against his neck.

They were taken from him before he could lock his fingers.

They jangled somewhere behind him.

The gun barrel never wavered.

He gripped the back of his neck tightly.

He said, “I don’t have much money. My wallet is in my back right pocket. You can have whatever’s in it.”

“You have anything else on you?” the voice asked again.

“No.”

“Who do you work for?”

And that—that was not a question he was expecting. He couldn’t process it. He didn’t understand. He said, “I don’t work for anyone.”

“Bullshit,” the man growled, sounding angrier. “Are you alone? Who else is with you?”

“No one.”

“Who knows you’re here?”

He blinked rapidly. “Uh—Big Eddie. From the gas station in Roseland. My brother probably.” He swallowed thickly. “The attorney who gave me the keys. That’s it.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“You asked who—”

“You came from the Mountain?”

“I drove up the mountain, yes. It’s how I got here.”

“You’re lying. How did you find us?”

“I didn’t find anyone.” He was starting to sound a little hysterical. He couldn’t help it. His throat was starting to close, and panic was clawing at his chest. “My parents died and left me the cabin, and I drove up here to get away, okay? That’s all. That’s it. I had nothing else, and this is it. This fucking cabin. That goddamn truck. It’s all I have left and—”

Another voice. This time female and younger. “I think he’s telling the truth.”

The barrel pulled away slightly. “I told you to stay inside the house.”

Nate closed his eyes.

“I know,” the girl said, and Christ, she sounded so young. “But here I am anyway.”

“He’s lying.” The barrel was back. “What did I tell you about this?”

The girl sighed. “That there’s no such thing as coincidence. Everything happens for a reason.”

The man coughed. It sounded painful. “And now he’s here.”

“Maybe he’s meant to be. Maybe he’s—”

“Don’t.”

“You’re still hurt. You should be resting.”

“I told you, I’m fine. We need to figure out who he’s working for. They could be—”

“Is he going to piss himself?” The girl sounded far too curious. “Isn’t that what happens when you get really scared? I read in a book that you can lose control of your bowels and—”

“Art. Get. Inside. Now.”

“No. I won’t leave you. You promised.”

The man made a noise that sounded pained. “God. I know. Okay? I know I promised, but we can’t take chances. There’s no such thing as coincidence. If he’s here, then it’s for a reason. And we need to—”

“She’s right,” Nate heard himself say. “I’m not lying. I swear, I’m not—”

The gun barrel was back. “Don’t you talk to her,” the man snarled. “Don’t you ever talk to her. Tell me how you found us. Tell me who else is coming.”

“No one,” Nate croaked. “There’s no one. This is my parents’ cabin. They’re dead. This is my only home now. I can’t—”

The gun barrel fell away.

Nate heard the man step back away from him.

He gulped in a deep breath. It hurt his throat.

“Keep your hands where they are,” the man said. “And turn around slowly. I will shoot you if you don’t do what I say.”

Nate almost laughed hysterically.

Instead, he turned.

There in the dark was a man with a very large gun pointed in his direction. The man himself had short black hair that was almost a buzz cut and dark eyes that watched every move Nate made. He was older, lines around his narrowed eyes and mouth. He had stubble across his cheeks and jaw. His skin was pale, and his hand was shaking slightly. He had an arm wrapped around his waist, a big hand holding on to his side. He wore jeans and an open flannel shirt. Nate could see the skin and hair on his chest and stomach, and what looked to be a thick bandage on the man’s side.

And next to him was a little girl.

She wasn’t scared. Not like the man whose leg she stood next to, a hand wrapped in the hem of his shirt. She wasn’t angry like he was either. Instead she looked merely curious. Her hair was blonde and pulled back into a loose ponytail, with escaped tendrils hanging around her ears. She had big eyes and a little upturned nose. She wore a shirt that had a Care Bear on it. It swallowed her small frame.

The man was large. He had a few inches on Nate. He seemed almost as wide as he was tall. He dwarfed the little girl, the top of her head barely coming past his waist.

“Howdy, partner,” the girl said. “My name is Artemis Darth Vader. It’s nice to meet you, I reckon.”

“Art,” the man growled down at her.

“You said I have to act normal, Alex,” the girl said, staring up at the man. “Normal people introduce themselves. I read that in a book.”

“What the fuck,” Nate said faintly.

“I also told you that you need to not talk to strangers,” the man—Alex?—snapped at her. The aim of the gun went off to the left. He looked as if he was swaying.

“He’s not a stranger,” the girl said, suddenly looking down. “His name is Nathaniel Cartwright. He lives in Washington, DC.”

“How the hell did you—is that my wallet?”

She glanced back up at him. “Yes. This is your wallet. Very astute.”

“How did you—” He hadn’t even felt her take it.

“You said we could have it. Oh boy. You were right. There’s not much money in here. That’s too bad. I like money. It smells weird.”

“Art!” the man barked again. “Get inside the house. Now.”

And then, just because Nate’s night couldn’t get any stranger, the man’s eyes rolled back up in his head and he collapsed to the ground.

The gun fell from his hand.

“I told him not to push it,” the girl who’d introduced herself as Artemis Darth Vader said. “He needs to listen to me more.” She looked up at Nate. “Nathaniel Cartwright of Washington, DC. I’d sure appreciate it, hoss, if you could mosey on over here and help a fellow cowpoke out. Need to get this guy into the cabin over yonder.”

Nate did the only thing he could.

He passed out too.