The rusted Chevy pickup truck clanked to a stop, and when Lauren Huntsman's head thumped the passenger window, it jolted her awake.
She managed a few groggy blinks. Her head felt strewn with broken memories, shattered fragments that, if she could just piece them together, would form something whole. A window back to earlier in the night. Right now, that window lay in pieces inside her throbbing head.
She remembered the cacophony of countrymusic, raucous laughter, and NBA highlights on the overhead TVs. Dim lighting. Shelves displaying dozens of glass bottles glowing green, amber, and black.
She'd asked for a drink from that bottle, because it made her dizzy in a good way. A steady hand had poured the liquor into her glass a moment before she'd thrown it back.
"Another one,” she'd rasped, plonking the empty glass down on the bar.
She remembered swaying on the cowboy's hip, slow dancing. She stole his cowboy hat; it looked better on her. A black Stetson to match her itsy-bitsy black dress, her black drink, and her foul, black mood-which, mercifully, was hard to hang on to in a tacky dive like this, a rare gem of a bar in the noses-up, la-di-da world of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she was vacationing with her family. She'd sneaked out and her parents would never find her here. The thought was a bright light on the horizon. Soon she'd be so tipsy, she wouldn't remember what they looked like. Already their judgmental frowns streaked in her memory, like wet paint running down canvas.
Paint. Color. Art. She'd tried to escape there, to a world of splattered jeans and stained fingers and soul enlightenment, but they had yanked her back, shut her down. They didn't want a free-spirited artist in the family. They wanted a daughter with a diploma from Stanford.
If they would just love her. Then she wouldn't wear tight,
cheap dresses that infuriated her mother or throw her passion into causes that offended her father's egoism and stiff, aristocratic morals.
She almost wished her mother were here to see her dancing, see her slinking down the cowboy's leg. Grinding hip-to-hip. Murmuring the wickedest things she could think of into his ear. They only paused dancing when he went to the bar to get her a fresh drink. She could have sworn it tasted different from the others. Or maybe she was so drunk, she imagined the bitter taste.
He asked if she wanted to go somewhere private.
Lauren only debated a moment. If her mother would disapprove, then the answer was obvious.
The Chevy's passenger door opened and Lauren's vision stopped seesawing long enough to focus on the cowboy. For the first time, she noticed the distinct crook in the bridge of his nose, probably a trophy from a bar fight. Knowing he had a hot temper should have made her like him more, but oddly, she found herself wishing she could find a man who exercised restraint instead of reverting to childish outbursts. It was the sort of civilized thing her mother would say. Inwardly lashing herself, Lauren blamed her irritatingly sensible attitude on tiredness. She needed sleep. Stat.
The cowboy lifted the Stetson off her head and returned it to his own crop of messy blond hair.
"Finder's keepers,” she wanted to protest. But she couldn't get her mouth around the words.
He lifted her off the seat and balanced her over his shoulder. The back of her dress was riding up, but she couldn't seem to command her hands to tug it down. Her head felt as heavy and fragile as one of her mother's crystal vases. Bewilderingly, the very moment after she had the thought, her head miraculously lightened and seemed to float away from her body. She couldn't remember how she'd gotten here. Had they driven in the truck?
Lauren stared down at the heels of the cowboy's boots tracking through muddy snow. Her body bounced with every step, and it was making her stomach swim. Bitterly cold air, mixed with the sharp smell of pine trees, burned the inside of her nose. A porch swing creaked on its chain and wind chimes made soft, tinkling music in the darkness. The sound made her sigh. It made her shudder.
Lauren heard the cowboy unlock a door. She tried to pry her eyelids open long enough to get a dim sense of her surroundings. She would have to call her brother in the morning and ask him to come get her. Assuming she could give him directions, she thought ironically. Her brother would drive her back to the lodge, scolding her for being careless and self-destructive, but he'd come. He always did.
The cowboy set her on her feet, grasping her shoulders to balance her. Lauren glanced sluggishly around. A cabin. He'd brought her to a log cabin. The den they stood in had rustic pine furniture, the kind that looked tacky everywhere but in a cabin. An open door on the far side of the den led to a small storage room with plastic shelving along the walls. The storage room was empty, except for a perplexing pole that ran from floor to ceiling, and a camera on a tripod that was positioned to face the pole.
Even through her haze, fear gripped Lauren in a vise. She had to get out of here. Something bad was going to happen.
But her feet wouldn't move.
The cowboy backed her against the pole. The moment he let go, Lauren sagged to the floor. Her stilettos twisted off as her ankles slid out from under her. She was too drunk to scrabble back onto her feet. Her mind whirled, and she blinked frantically, trying to find the door leading out of the storage room. The more she tried to concentrate, the faster the room spun. Her stomach heaved, and she lurched sideways to keep the mess off her clothes. "You left this at the bar,” the cowboy said, dropping her Cardinals baseball cap on her head. The hat had been a gift from her brother when she'd been accepted to Stanford a few weeks ago. Their parents had probably put him up to it. The gift had arrived suspiciously soon after she'd announced she wasn't going to Stanford-or any college. Her dad had turned so red, so stopped of breath, she was positive steam would blow from his ears like a cartoon caricature.
The cowboy lifted the gold chain hanging around her neck clear of her head, his rough knuckles scraping her cheek.
"Valuable?" he asked her, examining the heart-shaped locket closely.
"Mine,” she said, suddenly very defensive. He could take back his smelly Stetson, but the locket belonged to her. Her parents had given it to her the night of her first ballet recital, twelve years ago. It was the first and only time they'd approved of anything she'd initiated. It was the one reminder she had that deep down, they must love her. Outside of ballet, her childhood had been governed, pushed, and molded by their vision.
Two years ago, at sixteen, her own vision had raged to life. Art, theatre, indie bands, edgy, unscripted modern dance, rallies with political activists and intellectuals (not dropouts!) who'd left college to pursue alternative education, and a boyfriend with a brilliant, tortured mind who smoked weed and scribbled poetry on church walls, park benches, cars, and her own hungry soul.
Her parents had made their distaste for her new lifestyle clear.
They responded with curfews and rules, tightened their walls of confinement, squeezed life's breath from her. Defiance was the only way she knew to fight back. She'd wept behind locked doors when she quit ballet, but she had to hurt them back. They didn't get to pick and choose pieces of her to love. Either she was theirs unconditionally, or they lost her completely. That was her deal. At eighteen, her resolve was steel-like.
"Mine,” she repeated. It took all her concentration to push the
word out. She had to get her locket back, and she had to get out of here. She knew it. But a strange sensation had stolen into her body; it was as if she were watching things happen without feeling emotion.
The cowboy hung her locket on the doorknob. His hands free, he looped scratchy rope around her wrists. Lauren winced when he jerked on the knot. He couldn't do this to her, she thought, detached. She'd agreed to come with him, but she hadn't agreed to this.
"Let-go me,” she slurred, a sloppy, unconvincing demand that made her cheeks burn with humiliation. She loved language, each word tucked inside her, beautiful and bright, carefully chosen, empowering; she wanted to pull those words from her pocket now, but when she reached deep, she found snipped thread, a hole. The words had tumbled from her muddled head.
She threw her shoulders forward uselessly. He'd tied her to the pole. How would she get her locket back? The thought of losing it made panic scratch inside her chest. If only her brother had returned her call. She'd left a message about going drinking tonight, as a test. She tested him constantly-almost every weekend-but this was the first time he'd ignored her call. She'd wanted to know that he cared about her enough to stop her from doing something stupid.
Had he finally given up on her?
The cowboy was leaving. At the door, he tipped the black Stetson up, his blue eyes smug and greedy. Lauren realized the enormity of her mistake. He didn't even like her. Would he blackmail her with compromising photos? Was that the reason for the camera? He must know her parents would pay any price for them.
"I've got a surprise waiting for you in the toolshed around back,” he drawled. "Don't go anywhere, you hear?"
Her breath came fast and erratically. She wanted to tell him what she thought of his surprise. But her eyelids drooped lower, and each time, it took longer to snap them open. She started crying.
She'd been drunk before, but never like this. He'd given her a drug. He must have slipped it in her drink. It was making her exhausted and leaden. She sawed the rope against the pole. Or tried to. Her whole body felt heavy with sleep. She had to fight it. Something terrible was going to happen when he came back. She had to talk him out of it.
Sooner than expected, his form darkened the doorway. The lights in the den backlit him, casting a shadow twice his height across the storage room floor. He was no longer wearing the Stetson, and seemed larger than she remembered, but that wasn't what Lauren focused on. Her eyes went to his hands. He yanked a second rope between them, checking that it would hold.
He walked toward her and, with shaking hands, fit the rope around her neck. He was behind her, using the rope to pull her neck back against the pole. Lights ruptured behind her eyes. He was tugging too hard. She knew instinctively that he was nervous and excited. She could feel it in the eager tremble of his body. She heard the choppy panting of his breath, growing more charged, but not from exertion. From adrenaline. It made her stomach roll with terror. He was enjoying this. A foreign gurgling noise filled her ears, and she realized with horror that it was her voice. The sound seemed to scare him-he swore and tugged harder.
She screamed, over and over inside herself. She screamed while the pressure built, sweeping her toward the edge of death.
He didn't want photographs. He wanted to kill her.
She would not let this horrible place to be her last memory. Closing her eyes, she went away, into the darkness.
One year later
If I died, it wouldn't be from hypothermia.
I decided this as I crammed a goose-down sleeping bag into the back of my Jeep Wrangler and strapped it in, along with five duffels of gear, fleece and wool blankets, silk bag liners, toe warmers, and ground mats. Satisfied nothing was going to fly out on the three-hour drive to Idlewilde, I shut the tailgate and wiped my hands on my cutoffs.
My cell phone blared Rod Stewart crooning, "If you want my body,” and I held off answering for a moment so I could belt out the "and you think I'm sexy" part along with Rod. Across the street, Mrs. Pritchard slammed her living room window shut. Honestly. I couldn't let a perfectly good ringtone go to waste.
"Hey, girl,” Korbie said, snapping her bubble gum through the phone. "We on schedule or what?"
"Tiny snag. Wrangler's out of room,” I said with a dramatic sigh. Korbie and I had been best friends forever, but we acted more like sisters. Teasing was part of the fun. "I got the sleeping bags and gear in, but we're going to have to leave behind one of the duffels: navy with pink handles."
"You leave my bag, and you can kiss my g-ass money good-bye."