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"Dang it," he mumbled, rolling over into a sitting position. In the darkness, the blood on the skinned palms of his hands didn't look that bad. He peered down at the sc.r.a.pes for a minute, cursing again as he picked dirt and tiny rocks out of the cuts. As bad as it hurt now, it was going to hurt worse tomorrow.
His eyes burned as he regarded the moon, hanging in the steel blue sky. It was then that pain from another part of his body cut through his fogged brain. His khaki pant leg had a lengthy tear in it. Mick rolled up the fabric and noticed a gash in his right knee. It was oozing blood, but in the gloom it looked like motor oil.
"Oh man," he scowled, still not fully aware of the throbbing wound. He blew on it, like his mom used to do when he was a kid.
He sat in the darkness, his arms crossed against the cool air, knowing he needed to get back to the cabin where he was staying with his parents and his younger sister Ellie, but he couldn't find the energy. And it wasn't just from the fall.
It was three o'clock in the morning, the moon was heading on its journey over the horizon, and he had been partying with his friend in an abandoned mine shack over the ridge from Taylor Crossing. He had snuck out at midnight, the sounds of his dad's snoring echoing throughout the cabin, and he knew he was safe because his father was nearly comatose when he slept, and his mother, who couldn't sleep with all that racket right next to her, would have her earplugs in. He and his friend Nicholas had trekked out to the mine, where they didn't have to worry about making too much noise. They had smoked a lot of really good marijuana he brought with him. Combined with a case of beer that he purchased using a fake ID earlier in the day in Nederland, and the two of them got pretty wasted. No matter that the beer was lukewarm or that it was the 3.2 c.r.a.p that Colorado had.
Mick knew he could have stayed out for a couple more hours, but he didn't want to get caught, so he had decided to head back to the cabin. His dad was an early riser, and he didn't want to surprise him by showing up at dawn, stoned, smelling like pot and cheap booze.
He finally got up, ran his fingers through his closely cropped brown hair, and meandered down the trail, still cursing the root that caused his fall, and for good measure, cursing his parents as well. In his mind, he wouldn't have fallen in the first place if it hadn't have been for them. In the twisted, egocentric way a teenager's mind works, he would never have been out at this time of night check that, he would've been out at this time of night but he wouldn't have needed to be clandestine about it if his parents weren't so fricking rigid about their rules. He was eighteen after all, had just graduated valedictorian of his cla.s.s from a prestigious prep school, was cla.s.s president, and had achieved just about everything that a high school senior could achieve. He'd even gotten a full ride academic scholarship to Harvard, so you'd think his parents would get off his back. If he'd had his way, he wouldn't have a curfew, and he wouldn't have to be home by eleven, cooped up in that stupid little cabin with his parents and sister, instead of out partying with his friend.
Mick stopped on the trail, aware of moisture on his shin. He sat down again and rolled up the pant leg, and saw that the bleeding was worse than he thought.
"Great," he mumbled. "Darn thing probably needs st.i.tches. How am I going to explain this?"
He could see his parents now, hovering over him in the emergency room in Boulder, wondering how he could've been so stupid as to wander the dark mountains in the dead of night. What was he thinking, he could hear his father asking, while his mother would wring her hands, tears on the verge of cascading down her cheeks. All because he'd snuck out and gotten hurt.
If they only knew that their precious son, the apple of their eyes, the Harvard-bound overachiever, smoked dope and drank. He knew they wouldn't believe him when he said he had it under control, that he'd only been doing this for a little while. It was just a way for him to release some of the pressure he'd been under lately.
Another thought made its way into his muddled brain. What if the hospital did a drug test on him? Would they do that for a simple cut on the knee? He banged his fist on the ground, immediately regretting it as the torn skin on his palm ached more.
"Aw, man!" He cursed loudly. The sound of his voice carried off into the darkness.
He didn't move for several minutes, unaware of time pa.s.sing as he contemplated his state of affairs. Nicholas was probably already back in his own bed. He wouldn't be stupid enough to fall flat on his face.
As Mick sat there, a sudden sense of uneasiness washed over him, and it wasn't from the possibility of getting caught. It was as if a shadow had swept through the trees and settled on him. He glanced over his shoulder, but only saw aspens, gray and gnarled. The leaves on the trees whispered lightly in a swift gust of wind, and he felt another wave of apprehension course through his veins.
"Man, I must really be high," he muttered, standing up and shaking his head. "I gotta get more of this stuff."
He started on again, this time with his eyes scanning the woods around him. Trees and shadows melted together ominously, and occasional rock outcroppings seemed like giant monsters protecting the forest. He stepped on a branch and it cracked loudly. He jumped.
The wind whistled in the trees again, but he thought he heard something else, far off. He slowed and listened, unable to tell if it was the echoes of his own feet stirring the dirt, or something else. He tried to tell himself that it was Nicholas heading home, but his cabin was in the opposite direction, so he wouldn't be nearby. The sounds continued, but he didn't want to stop to find out what they were. Fear was taking over.
He started to walk faster, unaware that he was hurrying, that an unacknowledged urgency was clawing at him. He pictured the safety of his tiny room with its double bed, his parents in the next bedroom, his sister sleeping in her room across the hall from his.
Out in front of him, something moved over the trail. He wasn't sure what he saw was it just a hallucination caused by the drugs? It was shapeless, formless, and yet somehow tangible. Just as quickly, it was gone.
Then he felt it, beside him.
Mick would never know if the scream he let out was real, or just in his head, but he did know that his legs had never moved faster, that he ran like the demons of h.e.l.l were chasing him. He didn't care who heard him or if he got caught. He wanted to be home, now.
He stumbled once, quickly got to his feet, and tore down the trail. It seemed to take forever, but he finally staggered over a small rise, and his cabin came into view. He hurried to his bedroom window, gulping for air. He eased through the opening and crashed to the floor, sucking in his breath. He froze, listening. He was prepared for one or both of his parents to come barging into the room, but nothing happened. Over the sound of his pounding heart he heard his dad snoring. He waited a minute more before he decided that they hadn't heard him sneaking back in.
He pulled himself up to the window and peeked over the sill. The trees stood calmly swaying in a gentle breeze, and between the branches, Taylor Lake shimmered in the waning moonlight. He looked, but no specters appeared, no evil forces. Nothing.
He heaved a sigh. Dang good drugs, he thought to himself.
He tiptoed into the bathroom, where he cleaned up the cuts and abrasions as best he could. In the light of the single bulb over the bathroom sink, the gash on his knee didn't look as bad. A lot of blood, but he didn't think it needed st.i.tches. A couple of band-aids did the trick. He figured he could wear pants in the morning and later in the day make up some story about falling and cutting himself. His parents would never know the difference.
He heard his dad cough and begin snoring again. Mick turned out the bathroom light. He walked softly back into his bedroom and stripped to his underwear, purposely not looking out the window. Knee hurts like h.e.l.l, he thought as he crawled under the sheets and fell into a heavy sleep.
Myrtle Hester awoke at dawn, just like she'd done for most of her sixty-some-odd years. She swung her legs over the side of the bed, slid her feet into slippers, and stood up, pulling on her white terrycloth robe to guard against the early morning chill.
"Come on, Boo," she said. The dog was sleeping in a large, pillow-filled wicker basket on the floor. Almost as old in dog years as Myrtle was in human years, Boo got lazily to his feet and ambled after Myrtle, his tail wagging.
Fall's coming quick, Myrtle thought as she padded into the kitchen. She let Boo outside for a few minutes, and when he came back inside, she dumped food from a bag in a metal bowl for him, then pulled a coffee can out of the cupboard and got the old percolator running. Serve her coffee hot and black, and made the old-fashioned way, thank you very much. She'd had the old pot for thirty years, and it worked just fine, without all the bells and whistles of these new coffeemakers. And it made about the best cup of coffee you could find she didn't hold any account with all the new fancy lattes and mochas.
She went into the s.p.a.cious living room where she could look out on Taylor Lake and watch the sun rise, listening to the sound of the coffee bubbling in the pot, waiting for its rich aroma to fill the entire place. As the eastern sky turned rosy, she sat in the silence with her thoughts, absent-mindedly petting Boo, who had parked himself near her feet.
Of the four cabins that Myrtle owned, this one was the biggest. It had three bedrooms, a nice large bathroom, the living room with a grand old fireplace and a huge bay window that faced the lake. She could've rented it out for a pretty penny, like she did with the D'Angelos and the Hulls, but this was the cabin that she and Les, her husband, had always used. It was the most familiar, and it had the most memories. Myrtle may have been getting on in years, but she wasn't ready to give up yet. Besides, her daughter liked to visit a couple of times during the summer, bringing her three girls, and then she needed all the rooms.
Thank goodness her daughter finally dropped that no-account husband of hers, Myrtle mused as the horizon above the trees took on a fiery tone. Her daughter had enough with raising the children, and her nursing job. She didn't need to support a deadbeat as well.
A slice of sun broke over the treetops and the darkness grew weaker. Myrtle didn't watch the sunrise when she was in Denver, but up here, she relished each morning, and she usually took in the beauty of the dawn the same way each day, with a bit of breathtaking awe, some grat.i.tude to still be alive to enjoy it, and a hint of guilt that too often she took this daily phenomenon for granted. But today she felt different. A little bit depressed, not her usual self.
Got to stop thinking bad thoughts, she chided herself as she went back into the kitchen and poured herself a steaming cup of coffee. She sat at the table and finished reading a book, unable to shake a vaguely upsetting feeling.
When Anna opened the general store at eight, the dry air inside the building felt hot and cramped. Odd, she thought. It's been almost unbearably hot the last week or so, so unlike mountain weather. Travis Velario had been joking that the weather was much like it had been when the town disappeared over a hundred years ago, hoping to scare her with the town rumors. Please, she thought. I've heard it all before. But goose b.u.mps rose on her arms even as she turned on a small rotating fan by the cash register in the hopes of stirring away some of the heat as well as a faint sense of dread that whirled within her. Sunlight filtered through the front windows, catching the dust in the air to create luminescent beams from the gla.s.s to the floor. As she bustled around the shelves and racks, preparing for a day of customers, Anna's thoughts again turned to Rory Callahan, and the anxiety went away.
When she was showering earlier that morning, she found herself hoping Rory would show up at the store again. She'd heard he was going to be around for at least a month, and the excited feeling she got about this surprised her. Maybe she should flirt with him, she thought as she straightened the magazine rack. But oh, it had been a while since she'd been attracted to someone. Not since Paul's death. Maybe I'm finally moving on, she thought with a smile.
"You need anything, Dad?" she called, poking her head out the door, where her father was sitting in his usual spot on the porch, watching cars go by on their way to the lake or to other businesses. It was Sunday, one of the busiest days of the week at the Crossing, so Jimmy should be kept entertained all day.
"You notice a coolness in the air?" he asked.
"No," Anna replied. It was hot outside, too. Any early morning chill in the air had made a hasty retreat, but he had a blanket draped around his shoulders. She worried that her father's health was failing faster than she realized.
"Something peculiar in the air," he said.
"Like it was then," he muttered.
"Then?" She hesitated, her hand on the doork.n.o.b.
"It didn't feel right then, and it doesn't now."
She knew what her father meant. He always talked about the accident in the same way. "Let's not discuss it." She was abrupt, more so than she meant to, but she didn't want to talk about the past right now. Especially that piece of the past.
"I'm not trying to make things harder." Jimmy pursed his lips at her.
"Uh huh." Anna held the door open for a couple of customers and followed them back into the store.
Ten minutes later, Rory Callahan walked in, his face gleaming with sweat.
"Whoa, it's getting warm out there," he said, smiling at her. Then he winked and held her gaze, his eyes dancing.
"Sure is." She smiled back, pleased that he was paying attention to her.
"Need to pick up a few things." He went to the back of the store and grabbed a few miscellaneous items, humming softly to himself.
Anna watched him retreat behind a row of shelves, but then had to focus her attention on helping some fishermen. She rang up their items, thinking about what she would say to Rory when he came up to the counter.
"You sell maps here?" a hiker poked his head in the door.
"Yes." She pointed to a rack next to a gla.s.s-faced refrigerator that held cold sodas and water. The hiker came in and began browsing. Two women came in after that, then Travis Velario.
"Hey, babe," he leered, as he grabbed a package of Little Debbie donuts from a display. He handed her a couple of bills.
"Travis, stop it," she hissed at him, slapping his change on the counter. She glanced over his shoulder at Rory.
"What?" He followed her gaze. "What's this?" he said, drawing the words out. "My compet.i.tion?" He hefted his jeans up around his bulky waist.
She grimaced at him. "If that'll be all?" she asked, dripping with mock politeness.
"Sure," he said. "I'll come by later to chat." He whistled as he left the store.
Anna let out the air she'd been holding. Thank goodness Travis left, she thought. She wanted to talk with Rory, and she didn't want Travis around when she did.
She frowned as Ed Miller, one of the year-round locals and the proverbial town drunk, entered the store. He set his fishing pole and tackle box by the door and sauntered up to the counter.
"Get me a pack of those," he grunted, pointing at the cigarette rack hanging from the wall behind Anna. He was a scrawny man of average height, his skin sallow, coal-like eyes too close together and sunk into their sockets. A strong odor of smoke mixed with stale sweat emanated from his worn jeans and tattered shirt.
Since Ed was in every day for a pack, she knew exactly which brand he wanted: Camels. No filter. Anna got the pack and slid it across the counter. Ed dropped a couple of bills at her and pawed the cigarettes with a grubby left hand that was missing the index finger, a mangled section of skin remaining where the digit once was.
"Keep an eye on your father," he said. "This heat's hard when you get older." Even though he was generally cantankerous, Ed still had a soft spot for the locals, especially for Anna and her father. And the locals liked him as well, as long as he wasn't too drunk.
"Yes, I'm watching him," she said, but Ed was already gathering his fishing gear and heading out the door, mumbling about the tourists and how hot it was. If it had been anybody else, Anna would've given him a lecture about the dangers of forest fires, but Ed Miller, although often smashed, didn't need to be told. For all his foibles, he was the consummate outdoorsman, and would never be so stupid as to start a forest fire with a carelessly tossed cigarette b.u.t.t.
The hiker came up to the counter with a map of the area. Behind him, Rory approached with a bottle of c.o.ke, and flour, sugar, and baking soda. He stood patiently while Anna rang up the hiker's bill.
The hiker paid and stepped past Rory, who sauntered up to the counter, set his groceries down, and grabbed a paper from a bin on the floor. "Look at that," he said, pointing at the cover photo. A picture of Mars took up most of the page, with a headline in big bold letters: Closer Than Ever.
Anna turned the paper sideways, her hand brushing his. A bolt of electricity pulsed through her. She pulled her hand away and looked up. He was gazing back at her, his eyes deep and mysterious. She drew her hair out of her face and started to total his bill.
"I thought I'd bake some cookies," he said.
"Do you like chocolate chip cookies?"
"Yeah, sure," she answered, smiling.
Behind them, one of the two women who'd come in earlier cleared her throat. Anna hadn't noticed that they were waiting to pay for their stuff.
"Excuse me," Rory said. He pulled out his wallet and paid her, but instead of leaving the store, he stood off to the side, pretending to be engrossed in the selection of canned vegetables while Anna helped the women.
"Finally," she said, the store now to themselves.
Rory moseyed back up to the counter and leaned against it. "I think I have everything I need to make the cookies."
"If not, we're open until five," she said, then immediately felt like she'd just put her hand in a basket and pulled out the lamest response she could've found.
"Well, if I've missed an ingredient and they don't taste good, it's chef error."
Anna chuckled. "I know what that feels like."
Rory played with the grocery bag, rustling the paper in the silence between them. Anna opened her mouth, ready to fill the awkward void, when Rory spoke.
"Hey, this might be forward of me, but would you like to go to dinner with me, and maybe to the movies? I'm not sure where we'd go since there's no theater here, but..." He held up a hand. "I promise I'm the perfect gentleman, and I'll have you back at a reasonable hour."
Anna stood there, willing her open jaw to close. She had been so caught off guard that she was momentarily speechless.
"I guess you're busy," he said, deflated. "I was hoping to get to know some of the locals, learn more about Taylor Crossing's fascinating past."
"Yes," Anna finally found her voice. "Dinner and a movie would be great. I'd like that. We could drive down to Boulder."
"How about if I pick you up after work?" He grinned.
She nodded. "Five-thirty? You can come by my cabin." She gave him directions.
"I'll be there."
"All right, then." She smiled back.
How do you like that, she thought after he left the store. He must be attracted to her, just like she was to him. It felt good. Really good.