24 May The Progeny: Chapters 1-4
We’ve established I’m horrible at waiting and keeping secrets, right? So here are the first four chapters of my new novel, The Progeny. Please enjoy, leave your comments, and share this preview with your friends!
The Progeny by Tosca Lee
No one speaks when you enter the Center for the last time. There’s no need. You’ve gone through the counseling, tests, and a checklist of preparations to get the plastic bracelet you wear the day of treatment. The one that saves a life. They don’t need to know why you’re doing it any more. Or that you lied about it all. Just the scratch of the stylus as you sign your name on the screen one last time.
A nurse takes me into a room and I lie down on the table. I give her the sealed packet—the only thing I brought with me. There’s cash, meds, and an address inside, the one for “after.” It’s a thousand miles away. She’ll pass it to the companion assigned to me. No point meeting her now.
I’m 21 years old and my name doesn’t matter because it’s about to be erased forever. I’m choosing to forget the ones I love, and myself, in the process.
They say your life flashes before your eyes when you die. But they don’t tell you that every detail comes screaming back to life. That you taste each bite of every meal you savored, feel the shower of every rain you walked in… smell the hair against your cheek before that last, parting kiss. That you will fight to hold on to every memory like a drowning person gasping for poisoned air.
Then everything you knew is gone. And you are still alive.
There’s a figure standing by the window. Arms crossed, outlined against the fuchsia sky, looking out at what must be a spectacular sunset. When her chin lifts I wonder if she’s seen something in the trees.
I push up from the cabin’s lone sofa. An afghan with a giant moose stitched on it is tangled around my legs. It in no way coordinates with the moose valance in the kitchen or the fixture in the bathroom. Despite the name of the lake—Moosehead—I’ve yet to see a real moose anywhere since arriving here four weeks ago.
“You’re awake.” My caretaker, Clare, turns from the window. Her blonde hair is pulled back in the loose ponytail she’s worn every day since we arrived and she set up house. Going into town for groceries as I slept, taking me through two-hour assessments in the afternoon, complimenting my recent attempts at dinner including the under seasoned chicken casserole I made last night. It was the first time I’d tried it, I said, but I don’t know if that’s true.
My name is Emily Porter. I’m 21 years old and I am renting a tiny cabin in the north woods of Maine for reasons I no longer remember.
I go through this mental routine each time I wake, if only to assure myself I didn’t get the lobotomy I joked about yesterday before sleeping—what, fifteen, twenty?—hours until just now. I don’t even remember going to sleep. Nor do I remember where I lived before this, or where I went to college, or the name of the high school with the blue lockers and squeaky gymnasium floor where I graduated. Including what happened to the garnet ring on my index finger as I accepted my diploma, or the name of the woman who gave it to me other than simply, “Mom.”
Names, identifiers, faces up to age 19 and everything in the two years since. All gone.
“A certain amount of post-procedure depression is normal. That will change, in time.”
I slide my hand to the curve of my skull just above my left ear. To the stubby patch concealed by the longer hair above it. Not so stubby anymore. It could almost qualify for a military cut.
“As will that.”
“Not fast enough.” I flip the afghan off my legs, pop two pills from the bottle on the coffee table, already trying to decide what culinary disaster I’ll create tonight. “Caretaker” is a misleading word; as soon as I reached the two-week observation and recovery mark, Clare has seen to it that I cook, do laundry, find a job and my way around town as though I were already on my own.
“I’m thinking I should stay away from casseroles for a while. How do you feel about tuna quesadillas?” I get up and pad toward the kitchen, wash my hands. When she doesn’t respond, I look at her and say, “That good, huh.”
That’s when I realize she’s wearing the same blouse and skirt she wore the first day, the wooden tao cross hanging just below her collar. It looks like a capitol T, which is what I thought it was the first time I saw it, for her last name: Thomas. And then I see the suitcase by the door.
A surge of panic wells up inside me.
“Today was my last day, Emily.” She says quietly. “I was just waiting for you to wake.”
“Oh.” I put down the dishtowel, finish drying my hands on my sweatpants. Look around me, lost.
Clare tilts her head. “We talked about it when you got up for a while this morning—remember?”
No. I don’t remember. But I don’t need to turn to see the calendar hanging on the fridge behind me, to follow the line of Xs through each day in September to today—the twentieth—to know she’s right.
“Are you sure you want to go now?” I say. “I mean, it’s almost dark.” I gesture to the window, already in shadow.
I’m not ready for this.
She comes to stand in front of me and lays her hands on my arms. Her left brow is angled a few degrees higher than her right. But instead of making her appear asymmetrical, which all faces are, it animates her eyes.
“You’re doing fine, Emily. Your procedure was a success. You have your fresh start. It’s time to live.” A fresh start. A weird concept when you don’t know what you’re starting over from.
She gives me a squeeze and shoulders her purse. “I could, however, use a lift to shore and into town.”
“Right. Of course.” I glance around, lost in my oversized sweatshirt, looking for my jacket. I knew this day was coming. Then why do I feel like I’m being abandoned?
I lace my boots and grab my keys, but the questions that came at me like a hoard of insects those first few days—before Clare firmly counseled me to trust my decision—have come swarming back, louder than ever. I push them way but when I get to the door there’s something in her hand. An envelope.
The handwriting on the outside is mine.
She holds it out. “You wrote this before your treatment.”
I take it slowly. It’s sealed, my initials scribbled across the flap where it’s stuck shut.
“Most patients choose to write a letter to reassure their post-procedure selves. You can read it when you get back.”
I nod, but a part of me wishes she hadn’t shown it to me at all. I slide it onto the counter. “Okay.”
Outside, we climb into the john boat and I start the outboard motor. It takes all of five minutes for me to guide us in to the dock two hundred yards away. I grab the flashlight from the boat, knock it with the heel of my hand when it sputters. The owner’s beat up Ford Bronco is waiting near the slip.
I ask what time her flight is as we turn onto Lily Bay Road, make small talk about the magnificent foliage around the lake. Finally ask if she ever saw a moose. No, she says, she never did.
Twenty minutes later we pull into the Food Mart at the top of the hill—the same place I caught my breath as the lake first appeared below us the day we arrived. There’s a black town car waiting in the parking lot, and she directs me toward it.
I put the truck in park, wondering what one says in a situation like this. I’m glad it’s nearly dark out.
“I’ve got it,” she says when I start to get out. After retrieving her suitcase, she leans in through the passenger door.
“You’re going to be fine, Emily. It’s a brave decision to go through something like this.”
It doesn’t feel brave, to want to forget.
“Read your letter. Trust yourself. But just in case—” She pulls the tao cross over her head and presses it into my hand. “If you ever find yourself in need of answers.”
Impulsively, I lean across the seat to hug her.
And then she’s gone.
Maybe I don’t want to waste the trip to town, or maybe I just don’t feel like getting the crap scared out of me by the stuffed taxidermy bear in the bedroom that has managed to freak me out every time I try to sleep in there like a normal person. As soon as that black car disappears up the road, I hang the cross from the rearview mirror and decide to pick up some supplies.
But the truth is I’m not ready to read that letter. I don’t know what I’ve left behind—my mind has run the gamut from childhood molestation to abusive boyfriends and post-traumatic stress—but part of me is both dying and terrified to hear from that person before. Afraid of any indication of the thing that landed me on an island the size of a Dorito in the back woods of Maine with roots five shades lighter than the rest of my hair.
Inside the Food Mart I distractedly fill a basket with deli cuts, bananas, microwave popcorn, tampons. The grocery is connected to the Trading Post—a camping, fishing, hunting store—making it the type of place you can buy vegetarian nuggets and a rifle, all in one trip. Or, in my case, wool socks and flashlight batteries. I stop in the wine aisle last. It seems fitting to toast my past as I hear from my former self. Who knows, depending on what’s in the letter, I may even need to get drunk.
I’ve just picked a cabernet with a cool label off the sale shelf—because what else do you go by when you don’t know one from the other—when I sense someone staring at me farther down the aisle.
I look up to find a guy in a green Food Mart apron frozen on a knee where he’s been stocking a lower shelf. For a minute I wonder if he thinks I’m shoplifting, or, more likely, not old enough to buy booze.
I deliberately slide the bottle into my basket. As I start to leave, I hear quick steps behind me.
I turn reluctantly. Not only because I already wish I had just gone home, but because, now that he’s closer, I can see the chin-length hair tucked behind his ear, the blue eyes beneath thoughtful brows. And I’m standing here with bad roots and tampons in my basket.
He grabs something from the shelf. “We just got this in,” he says, eyes locked on mine. The couple days’ stubble on his cheeks is the color of honey, a shade lighter than his hair.
I glance at the bottle of non-alcoholic cider. “Thanks,” I murmur. “I’m good.”
“It’s organic,” he says, not even looking at it. He’s got an accent so slight I can’t place it, but it isn’t local.
By now I just want to get out of here. The letter sitting on the table back at the cabin has launched a march of fire ants in my gut. If what’s written in that envelope is meant to be reassuring, I need that reassurance now, because I was doing a lot better with my questions before Clare and her level counsel left and I ever knew the letter existed.
I put the wine back and grab a bottle of tequila on my way to the register.
There’s no one there. I swing the basket up onto the conveyer belt and look around. A moment later the same guy comes over and starts to ring me up.
“Hi again,” he smiles. I look away.
Halfway through checkout, I realize I can’t find my debit card. I pull out my keys and dig through my jacket pockets. And then I see it lying on the counter back at the cabin, right next to the grocery list of all the things I just bought.
“I forgot my card,” I stammer.
He shrugs. “No problem. I can set them aside or have them delivered if you want. You can pay for them then.”
“No,” I say quickly, stepping away. “That’s okay.” By now two more people are waiting in line behind me. “Sorry.” I turn on my heel and hurry to the door and the evening outside, leaving the stuff on the conveyer belt.
Outside, bugs swarm the lone parking lot light. I get to my truck, grab the door handle… and then drop my forehead against the window with a curse. My keys are back inside on the little ledge old ladies use to write checks.
I peer through the dark window like the truck is going to come unlocked by sheer force of will. It doesn’t. And there’s the flashlight with the nearly-dead batteries lying between the seats.
“Hey!” The voice comes from the direction of the mart’s automatic door. I push away from the truck.
It’s the guy, holding up my keys. “You forgot something.”
“Yeah. Like my mind.”
He hands me my keys and two plastic grocery bags. I look at them, bewildered.
“On me,” he says.
“Oh. No, I can’t—”
“Already done. Besides, that tequila looked pretty important,” he says with a slight smile.
“I’ll pay you back.”
“It’s no problem.” He hesitates, and then wishes me a good night.
I pass a whole five cars on my way up Lily Bay and none on the road to the lake. Six houses tucked in the trees along this mile-and-a-half stretch of gravel called Black Point Road share the dock where the boat is tied beneath a motion-sensor light. Modest homes of normal people living lives full of details they might like to forget, but have somehow learned to live with.
The water is black beneath the boat and I’m glad for the cabin’s wan kitchen lights, relieved even for its parade of moose above the window, the bear waiting in the bedroom.
I dump the bags on the counter and sit down on the sofa with the letter, not bothering to take off my boots. After a long moment of staring at my name, I slide my finger under the edge of the envelope and tear it open.
Emily, it’s me. You.
Don’t ask about the last two years. If everything went as planned, you’ve forgotten them along with several other details of your life. Don’t try to remember—they tell me it’s impossible—and don’t go digging.
Start over. Get a job. Fall in love. Live a simple, quiet life. But leave the past where it is. Keep your face off the web. Your life depends on it. Others’ lives depend on it.
By the way, Emily isn’t your birth name. You died in an accident. You paid extra for that.
I look up from the letter and take in the tiny, eco-friendly cabin with new eyes. No computer. No phone. No cable television. I’m twenty minutes from the nearest town, population sixteen hundred, where people are outnumbered by invisible moose.
I didn’t come to start over.
I came to hide.
I wake the next afternoon beside an empty shot glass. I stumble to the kitchen to find the groceries put away, flashlight waiting by the door, batteries swapped out. There’s a notepad on the table with a wobbly spiral scribble where I attempted to get a pen to work. Apparently it never did.
The letter I re-read at least fifty times is nowhere to be found. I finally find a piece of it in the ashes of the living room’s wood-burning stove. The bear in the bedroom is turned toward the corner.
At least I had the sense to cork and put away the tequila. I find it shoved to the back of a cabinet, only an inch of it gone. Whatever I did in my prior life, heavy drinking was obviously not a part of it.
Burned to ash or not, I can recite every word of the letter, picture each determined arch of the script. Whether I ran from the mob (my latest theory, given the almost alarming amount of cash I brought with me to Maine), or stole drug money from that abusive boyfriend, I was resolute by the time I wrote it. And though I remember only unhelpful details—that I grew up in a yellow house and had a high school friend who lost his a finger in a tubing accident—I know for sure I was no idiot.
Your life depends on it. Others’ lives depend on it.
So this is what it is to be dead: afternoon breakfast of cold cuts and a banana. Maintenance on the composting commode. Boat to shore to take in the trash. Head an hour out of town to purchase three boxes of hair color and cheap shades. Drive back to town to the local fly shop for supplies. Return to cabin, dump everything on kitchen table. Dye roots so the scrubby patch looks far less conspicuous. Eat dinner in front of the first season of teenage alien drama Roswell because it’s the only DVD set in the cabin’s tiny library I haven’t seen yet.
Work at the table until dawn.
All this time, the letter is running in an endless loop through my head.
Two days later, I am out of cold cuts and sick of bananas. I need to make a run to the fly shop and pick up gas for the boat.
I grab my bank card and driver’s license and then pause. Who is that girl in the picture? Is she a victim? A criminal? I try to see her in each light. I can’t. But what else is there, when you’re living a false identity?
I flip the license over. It was issued in Maine, though I know for a fact the center I woke up in is in Indiana. My identity might be fake, but the license itself is not, despite the suspiciously good photo. I wonder for the fiftieth time if I’m in a witness protection program. And for the forty-ninth time, I hope to God if I am that I’m living far enough away from whatever it was I witnessed.
Trust your decision, Clare said more than once to me. But it was so much easier to find peace in that mantra when she was here.
Entering town, I drive slowly by the tiny library. I tell myself I should see if they have a DVD collection. But I’m really thinking about the computers inside. It’d be an easy enough search to look for a fatal car accident earlier this month.
An easy trace, too.
Don’t go digging.
I stop instead at Citgo to fill the Bronco and the boat’s plastic gas tank before heading to the Fly Shop.
My case of flies—streamers, olive mayflies, beetles and Caddies—is light, but full. The owner’s wife, Madge, who can no longer tie them since her stroke, inspects a full fifteen of them before squinting up at me.
“How long did you say you been tying flies?” she says.
“As long as I can remember.”
“Well, you didn’t lie when you said you were good. I’ll give you that.”
No. But I’m pretty sure I lied more than once about how I learned. I don’t remember whose hands I watched weave thread and feathers into colorful nymphs and midges, but I never forgot the patterns.
I convince her to lower her commission if only by five percent—it’s not like either one of us is going to get rich at any rate—and ten minutes later, I’m out the door with some cash in my pocket. Not that I’m strapped.
The Food Mart is busy in the middle of the day, no less than five people waiting in line at the deli counter. I scan the register and then the produce section on my way in, an empty five-gallon water jug in each arm. I drop the jugs in the bin, and walk along the ends of several aisles.
“Can I help you find something?”
I whirl around and come face-to-face with a friendly-looking man in his fifties. Tanned face, white bushy brows, sunspots on his forearms.
“Yeah. There’s a guy who works here—he helped me with some wine the other night.”
“Wine’s this way,” he says, gesturing for me to follow. “Do you know what you’re looking for?”
“Actually, no. He made a recommendation and I forgot what it was. I was wondering if he’s working today.”
“Was it Dave?”
“I, uh, didn’t get his name. About my age… brown hair?” Blue eyes.
“Oh, Luka. I’ll see if he’s gone to lunch yet,” he says.
Luka. Definitely not from around here. I loiter near a display of saltines, canned tomatoes and chili beans. A moment later a familiar form strides toward me down the aisle. I shove my hands in my pockets and hope my smile is friendly enough to have warranted his kindness the night I was an ass.
“Bronco!” he grins. The stubble on his cheeks is gone. He’s got a nice mouth and really great jawline and with that hair I wonder why he’s not teaching ski school in Utah or modeling underwear or something.
“Yeah,” I give a little laugh. “Keyless Bronco girl.”
“I hear you’re back for that cider.”
“No, I just came to get some water and,” I dig three twenties out of my pocket, “pay you back. Thanks, by the way.”
I hold the money toward him, but his eyes are searching mine. I slide my fingers up to the hat covering my stubby patch of hair. His gaze follows. I drop my hand. “Here.”
“That’s too much.”
“Actually it’s thirty-eight cents short, but I don’t have change.”
“I never gave you a receipt.” His gaze is leveled on mine.
I shrug. “I remember what everything cost. Take it.”
He slowly folds the bills and slides them into his pocket. “You need help with that water?”
Ten minutes later he’s following me out of the Food Mart, a jug in each arm. After loading them in the back of the truck, he says, “So, Bronco. I have an idea.”
“You’re obviously not from around here—”
“Speak for yourself.”
“Okay, yeah,” he laughs a little. “You been to the Mad Moose yet?”
“I’ve been pretty much nowhere.”
“I thought I’d go into town and grab a sandwich. Join me.”
I bite my lips together. I had been planning to head back, but it’s not like I have a full afternoon planned. And aside from the Fly Shop, Food Mart and gas station, I’ve never been anywhere in town.
I shrug. “Sure.”
His face lights up and I decide there must be some woefully slim pickings around here to warrant a smile like that.
He unties his green apron on the way to his Cherokee, and then gets the door for me. It’s a whole three-quarters mile to the restaurant on the public dock where resident feral ducks dart between outdoor tables fighting over the intermittent dropped french fry. It’s warm enough that the place is half full. He pulls my chair out for me, and as I sit down I realize this is the most people I’ve been around since my arrival over a month ago.
“Were you really coming here before I showed up?” I glance up at him over my menu.
“Nope,” he laughs.
We order and he sits back and regards me. He’s the kind of ruggedly pretty that makes me wonder if I went for his type before—and if that’s what landed me here. I remember exactly one date from my past, if it can even be called that, when some kid’s mom dropped us off at the mall with thirty dollars to see a movie in sixth grade.
“How do you like Maine?” he says.
“You live in town?”
“I’m renting a studio over Charlie’s down the street. It’s not bad. I can listen to whoever’s playing at The Dropfly on the weekend for free. So, Bronco, do you have a name?”
“Emily. Porter,” I add.
“Emily,” he says, trying it out. And then he leans forward, hand extended. It’s warm, his grip firm. “Luka Novak.”
“What brought you to Greenville?” I ask, fiddling with a straw wrapper.
“No,” he laughs, though it sounds more ironic than anything. His eyes have turned grey as the drifting clouds. “A fresh start, I guess.”
My skin actually prickles.
It’s then that I begin to notice a few people at the next table over staring in our direction. Mine, specifically. I reach toward my ear, checking the scrubby patch of hair covered by my ball cap. It is. I tug the hat a little lower.
“Hey,” Luka says quietly. “Everything okay?”
“I feel like people are staring,” I say, wishing I had the menu back.
“It’s because you’re pretty,” he says.
When our food arrives I busy myself spreading mayo on my burger, my fingers glad for something to do.
Luka offers me some of his lobster roll, but I’m suspicious of anything that looks like a scorpion, no matter how good it tastes. He eats with relish, shaking his head with appreciation after each bite. “You don’t know what you’re missing, Bronco.”
I’m just happy to be eating something that isn’t made of cold cuts or my cooking. And to be socializing like a normal person, the sun shining on the parts of my face not obscured by my Red Sox cap.
I glance up when I realize he’s stopped eating.
“What are you doing Saturday night?” he says.
“On a Saturday?”
“Pretty much every night.”
“I um, tie fishing flies.”
I drag a french fry through some ketchup, flick another onto the ground, and immediately regret it because it incites a stampede of feral ducks—not to mention several more gazes our way. “Yeah. I guess I’m kind of a night owl.”
“Come catch a band with me for an hour or two.”
“Wow. Groceries, lunch, band on Saturday…”
“I just got in last month and haven’t had a chance to make many friends yet. I’m guessing you haven’t either.” He smiles when he says it, though there’s a tension in his posture that doesn’t match his offhanded shrug. I don’t get it. A guy this good looking and outgoing just can’t be that desperate.
The next table over is talking about a bear one of them shot on a hunt the day before, and orders a round of celebratory shots. I was envious of the couples and groups seated around us when we first sat down. Now, as laughter erupts from the table and a few more stares bypass them to turn my way, I feel jittery and more isolated than before. I told myself to live a quiet life, to fall in love, even. Obviously, the former me didn’t think this through; I might make friends, might even be attracted to a guy like Luka. But I’ll never be able to tell the truth. And what kind of friendship—let alone relationship—is that?
“It’s the fall spawn and the weather’s good. There won’t be much demand once it gets cold.” I’m not exactly desperate for money, but he doesn’t need to know that.
“I’ll tell you what. I’m going to be at The Dropfly at eight—”
“I thought you could hear them from your place for free.”
“I can. But I don’t have Guinness on tap.”
“So if you can, come by. If not, we’ll do it another time.”
He asks for the check and I try to pay—he bailed me out the other night, after all. But he waves me off and lays one of the twenties I gave him on the table.
As we return to the Cherokee, I notice a guy in a pair of khakis and a black jacket standing near the small crowd outside the ice cream place, staring in our direction. What is it with people here? I glance at Luka, but he’s getting my door. When I get in and look over again, the man is gone.
By the time Luka drops me off at my truck, I’m relieved to head back up the hill. But I keep one eye on the rearview mirror all the way.
Sunlight is slanting through the windows of the living room by the time I wake on the sofa. I shield my eyes and squint at the clock in the kitchen. After four pm.
That can’t be right.
I shove up, clammy beneath the down comforter from the bedroom. But when I twitch it aside and drop my feet to the rug, I pause. My legs are bare. So are my arms. I glance from the clock to my legs with rising confusion.
My name is Emily Porter… I am in a cabin on a lake in the north woods of Maine. I stayed up late making—I glance at the table—nymphs and streamers, by the look of it. It’s September 25th. It was warm yesterday and the day before, when I went into town. Warm days translate into very cool nights this time of year. Hence the comforter, which gets too warm with my sweats. No wonder I threw off my clothes.
I drag the comforter off the sofa to carry it back to the bedroom, but my foot tangles and my knee hits the coffee table. I stumble away and gather up the comforter before I trip on it again. That’s when I notice something blue sprawled beneath the edge of the table.
A faded towel from the bathroom. I lean down and pick it up. It’s damp.
I drop the comforter back onto the sofa and take the towel to the bathroom. After hanging it on the rack, I grab my toothbrush and root around for the toothpaste. At sight of myself in the mirror, I stop. Tilting my head, I slide my fingers into the thick side of my hair. It, too, is damp. And now I’m chilled.
I glance around me, walk into the bedroom, for once ignoring the bear. The floor and bed are empty. I pad out to the kitchen. The table is filled with multi-colored bits of feather, glues, thread scraps and an impressive array of flies. The spool on the bobbin is empty. A half-finished lure is still in the vise.
I don’t remember running out of thread. Granted, I’ve also woken up more than once to find the mustard on the counter after a forgotten pre-dawn sandwich—further proof that my meds are off. But if I showered sometime this morning, where the heck are my clothes?
In the tiny laundry room just off the kitchen I rifle through the basket, peer in the washer and dryer. In the living room again, I shake out the comforter, check beneath the sofa. Hands on hips, I take in the DVD case sitting open on top of the TV, a stack of board games on a listing double shelf just to the right of it, the wooden coasters on the coffee table next to the year-old copy of Discover Maine magazine…
Clare’s tao cross is lying on top of it.
I know I left that hanging in the truck.
I rush to the bedroom, pull on jeans and a t-shirt. Not bothering with shoes, I hurry out the front door, barefoot. Outside, the sun has dappled the water gold against the pebbly shore. The john boat is beached, the rope tied to a nearby fir exactly the way I left it. But there—at the end of the floating swim dock: a rumpled pile of clothes.
What was I doing? Swimming in my underwear in broad daylight? It’s somewhere in the 60s. Not exactly swimming weather. And I have never once had the urge to jump off that wooden platform.
I walk to the beach and drop a foot ankle-deep in the water. It isn’t freezing, but it’s cold enough to wake a person up.
Or merit a comforter after getting out.
I spend the next couple hours trying to retrace my steps. I can’t imagine that I drove into town in dripping wet underwear. What did I do—swim to shore just to retrieve Clare’s cross? Why?
But it’s impossible to retrace what you can’t remember. I begin to wonder if my activity the other evening had nothing to do with tequila.
Back inside, I sit down with the tao cross, turn it between my fingers before looping the string over my head. And then a thought makes my hands go cold. It’s not possible that I had company—is it? No. I never told Luka where I was staying and no one followed me home. Even Madge at the Fly Shop has only my box number at the post office. Still, I clasp the cross so hard that the string digs into my neck—and then goes slack as the pendant slides right off its bale.
I sigh, pull the string over my head and move to the kitchen table. Taking a seat in one of the wooden chairs, I grab my bottle of head cement and brush some on the end of the thick wire bale. I’m just about to push it back into the hole at the top of the cross when I pause… and reach up to turn my work lamp on.
Tilting the cross this way and that, I see it wasn’t a trick of the light; there’s something curled within the tiny opening. I pick up my needle and press the tip against the lining, slide it upward until I can grab the edge of it with my tweezers. I pull slowly, turning the cross as I do. The paper comes out in an elongated spiral half the length of the cross.
I spread the tiny scroll open on the table with the tweezers and a fingernail. A series of miniscule numbers is written on the inside.
Twelve digits. No sequence I recognize or can make sense of, but then again, I do remember not being great at numbers.
This was Clare’s cross. Did she know this was here when she gave it to me? I don’t recall seeing a number like this associated with anything religious. Was this series, this code—if it’s even that—intended for her or someone else before her?
Or for me?
I squint at the numbers. Too many for a phone number. A bank account, then. A tracking number. A ticket number. A bar code. A serial number. Latitude and longitude. I rifle through every series of numbers I can remember—even in reverse order—but I have never seen this sequence before. If I had a computer, I could search for it, but out on the Dorito I don’t even have a landline.
I try it as a number with commas. I try adding them together. I try finding the difference between the first two, then the second two, and so on. I add up the occurrence of the digits.
By now the sun has dropped low enough across the water that the cabin is getting dark. I retrieve the notepad from the counter, tear off my latest grocery list, find the roll of tape in the drawer. Spreading the tiny scroll on the top page, I carefully fix it to the pad.
I glance at the clock. 7:43. The library is long closed by now on a Saturday. The Center in Indiana, my only access to Clare, is closed now as well.
A thought itches the back of my mind.
I bolt up and throw a jacket over my X-eyed smiley face Nirvana t-shirt, shove my feet into sneakers. Hurry to the bathroom to brush my teeth and smooth my hair. Three minutes later I’m in the boat with the flashlight, headed toward shore.
I find the Bronco just as I left it—minus Clare’s cross—and drive toward Lily Bay Road just slow enough not to die on the off chance I actually encounter a moose.
It’s a quarter after eight by the time I pass the Fly Shop and turn onto the town’s main drag. Pritham Avenue is lined with sandwich, sweet, and ice cream shops interspersed with tourist traps and a handful of restaurants, all centered around the public dock on the south side of the lake. I drive two blocks to The Dropfly, across from the small high school.
I park on a steep side street. Before I even cut the engine I can hear muffled music and people talking outside—a town turned out for the last gasp of Indian summer as the tourists leave just in time for winter.
The entrance, on the opposite side of the building from where I parked, is crowded with smokers. I duck my way through a carcinogenic cloud to the steps, show my ID to the bouncer on the landing, pay the cover, and shoulder my way inside.
The press of bodies inside the small pub is packed against the hewn-log bar. Those fortunate enough to have snagged a stool are penned in place by people standing in groups behind them. A band is wedged into the corner of the adjacent dining room, the singer barely a foot from the nearest table. The entire place smells like hot wings, beer and body odor.
I search the tables and then worm my way toward the middle of the bar, craning to see around a really tall woman in boots and a denim skirt—probably the most dressed up I’ve seen anybody around here. A few people glance over their shoulders at me and I check to make sure the stubby patch behind my ear is covered, wondering for the second time this week if there’s a stamp on my forehead marked “Not From Here.” If I had something in my hand I’d at least feel less awkward.
“You want to order something?” a guy in front of me with a better view of the bar offers.
“Guinness,” I say, loud enough for him to hear me. He leans between two stools and calls down to the bar tender.
All this time I haven’t seen one head of dark honey hair resembling Luka’s. Did he take off when I wasn’t here right at eight?
A minute later the guy is handing me a beer. I try to give him six bucks, but he waves it off.
“Thanks,” I say, glancing around as I take a long pull off the top, wrecking the clover in the foam.
I scan the group near the door. Not a single familiar face. Not that many faces around here are familiar to me. But even though it’s packed and some chick to my right is wearing a perfume that knocks the smell of fried food right out of my nostrils and a part of me feels lame for being here by myself, new energy is jittering up from my stomach, making me wonder why I haven’t wandered into town—even alone—at night before.
Because you’ve spent the last month moping around like a depressed, sleep-walking convalescent. And then you learned your life was in danger and faceless others were depending on you.
And maybe I shouldn’t be here. As good as it feels to have waded into the human current for a brief swim, maybe sticking out—alone—in a crowd doesn’t qualify as the quiet life.
But I also came here for something.
The girl with the perfume is telling some story to a guy and when she laughs she falls away and almost crashes into me. She grabs my arm to steady herself. Beer sloshes over my hand. “Sorry!” she says, but then she smiles and I think she’s more sober than I gave her credit for.
“I’m Keri,” she says, leaning toward me so I can hear her, and offers me her hand. I shake it as the guy she was talking to takes me in over the rim of his beer.
“This is Nate, that’s Joel,” she says, and I spend the next ten minutes making small talk. Which basically amounts to lying when they ask where I’m from and what brought me to town. I say something about taking a semester off from U. Mass to write a novel.
“I knew you seemed wicked cool!” she shouts. She pokes Joel in the chest. “Did you hear that? She’s a famous writer!”
I was wrong. She’s drunk.
Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure I’ve been bonafide stood up. I tell myself I shouldn’t be surprised; if Luka comes on that strong to everyone with his intense gaze and stormy eyes, he’s probably back at his place with some girl he met before I got here. Nor do I care, even if my ego is bruised. But it does throw a wrench in things… until my gaze drops to the wristlet dangling from Keri’s hand.
“We’re going to the The Limit after this drink,” she announces over the music, looping her arm through mine. “You should come with us.”
“I would,” I half-yell into her hair, “But my friend was going to meet me here, and I don’t have my phone.”
Keri hands her beer to Nate, unzips the wristlet and presents her phone with an inaudible “viola!” I flash her a grin and signal that I’ll be back.
I glance toward the door, no longer in the mood to run into Luka if he shows. Instead, I weave my way toward the back where I assume I’ll find a bathroom. I find the line first—leading midway down a short hallway toward the kitchen. I slide past the line and the men’s room just beyond it, stop outside the kitchen door. Peer through the window. A man in his forties is delivering plates to the pass-through in the bar as a cook mans the grill. There, to the right, is the side door.
I take a breath, pocket the phone, and then lunge into the kitchen, hand over my mouth.
“Hey!” the older man says, pointing. “Get outta here!”
“Sorry,” I say. “I feel really sick.” My fourth lie in the space of thirty minutes. I am so going to hell at this rate. The man yells at me again and I shove through the door as though I might spew any instant. Never mind that I’ve still got a beer in my hand, sloshing over my fingers.
Even with the waft of stale cigarette smoke clinging to the bricks outside the kitchen, the air feels crisp and clean. I kneel behind some trash bins, wait to see if the man comes after me. He doesn’t. Apparently I’m not the first person to drunkenly wander through the kitchen.
With my back to the building, I set down the beer and take out the phone. Dim the brightness. Pull up a private browser. Enter the numbers. 3… 8591…157… 1269. I can picture each one as I tap it, written in tiny script taped to the pad in the cabin.
Not a single result comes up.
I stare at the screen, wondering how that’s even possible. I check the numbers, but they’re correct. I try searching tracking numbers—UPS, DHL, the post office—and then bar codes. Bank routing numbers. Latitude, longitude.
I wipe the history and close the browser, mind churning. But I’ve been gone too long already.
I grab my beer and head toward the back of the building where I can circle around to the entrance on the other side unseen from the sidewalk—or the apartments across the street. I have no intention of staying here or migrating to The Limit. As soon as I give Keri back her phone, I’m out of here.
Just as I round the corner I stop short. Two men stand in hunched conversation less than fifteen feet in front of me, barely illuminated by the lone light on the back of the building. Great. I’m inadvertently within range of a drug deal.
The one facing away from me is talking too low for me to hear. But his gestures are quick and emphatic, the dark jacket stretching with each movement across broad shoulders.
The other is Luka.
So he’s not at his place with some chick but scoring weed instead—from a guy he owes money, by the look of it. I’m tempted to walk right past them, let him know I see what’s going on. But the last thing I need is trouble.
Just then Luka’s eyes meet mine. What am I supposed to do now? I have no desire to talk to him. But if I stalk off, I’ll look like I actually give a crap.
Rather than register surprise, however, his gaze returns to the guy as though he never saw me. A few seconds later he says something and gestures over his shoulder, and then loops an arm around the guy like they’re old drinking buddies and walks the other way.
I watch them disappear around the corner.
Meanwhile, I’m standing with a beer in one hand and Keri’s phone in the other, trying to figure out how I’m going to get it back to her so I can leave.
I stride around the building to the entrance, past the clot of smokers socially bumming cigarettes off one another. Just as I reach the short steps to the door, I spot Luka near the sidewalk. He’s jerking his thumb toward the street, hand still on the other guy’s back. It’s like he’s trying to steer him out of here, and can’t do it fast enough.
Fine with me.
I’m just nudging my way up the short steps to show my stamp to the bouncer when I see, as much as feel, a stationary figure watching me from the corner of my eye. What is it with people staring in this town? Fed up, I turn and glare—and then falter.
It’s Luka’s companion, standing at the curb. And when I see his face, I know it’s the same man I saw in front of the ice cream shop yesterday. He’s a few years older and a little taller than Luka himself, who is starting to strong-arm him toward the street. A jealous lover perhaps? My gaydar is usually better than that. But I can’t think of any other reason for the look he’s giving me now or Luka’s hauling him away.
After a moment the guy relents, but not without a backward glance at me.
I am so ready to get out of here.
It takes me five minutes to work my way to Keri, where she is draped around Nate’s shoulders.
“There she is!” Keri beams, opening an arm toward me.
“Big line for the bathroom,” I say, handing her the phone. And then I give her lie number five: my friend is sick and I need to go check on her. Joel looks a little crestfallen and Keri insists we swap numbers. I give her the digits to the Fly Shop. And then she’s hugging me goodbye and I’m trying to find a place to put the stupid beer that’s been glued to my hand this whole time.
By the time I finally push my way out of there, I cannot get to my truck fast enough.
Speeding up Bay Lily Road, my mind returns to the numbers in Clare’s cross, and whether I should call the Center, my only contact for her, on Monday.
What had she said when she gave it to me? In case you find yourself in trouble. What could possibly help me if I’m in trouble? I don’t even know what I’m running from. What propels a person to leave their life, fake their death, and start over in tiny-town Maine? And if it’s that bad, why didn’t I relocate to Greenland or, better yet, Fiji? The packet with my driver’s license and letter to myself contained nearly eighteen thousand dollars in cash. A person can do a lot of disappearing with enough money.
It’s got to be a bank account.
Then why didn’t I put something about it in my letter? How am I supposed to find it if I don’t even know where to look?
Or maybe that’s not it at all and Clare never knew it was there, and all she meant about trouble was something concerning prayer and God.
I’m so busy cycling through these thoughts that I nearly miss my turn. Luckily the closest car is a quarter mile back when I brake so fast my flashlight flies onto the floor.
I drive a mile past three mailboxes belonging to houses far enough in the trees that I can barely make out their lights. Within a few weeks only one of them may be occupied as the other residents leave for warmer climates. I don’t look forward to winter, when it gets so cold that Madge says logging rigs drive right across the frozen lake. When I’ll be forced to drive to the Dorito or, much more likely, hole up until a thaw.
Maybe that’s what I had in mind all along.
The moon’s full, sending a streak of serrated light across the lake when I park near the end of the point. I unhook the seatbelt and fish for the flashlight on the passenger side floor, the edge of the console digging into my ribs.
I hear the vehicle before I see it, the crunch of tires on gravel road driving far too fast. When I straighten, my rearview mirror nearly blinds me as headlights barrel down the drive.
There is only one person I know aggressive or desperate enough to have followed me here—presumably to explain himself under the misguided assumption that I care.
A familiar vehicle skids to a stop, barely missing my back fender. And now I am pissed.
I shove out of my truck before he can even cut the engine and storm to the driver’s side door as it opens.
“You have ten seconds to leave before I call the cops!” I yell. I don’t own a cell phone, but he doesn’t need to know that.
That’s when I realize—too late—that the SUV I mistook in the darkness for a Cherokee is actually a Pathfinder. And when I shine my flashlight right in his face, it isn’t Luka who emerges from the vehicle. It’s the man I saw with him.
Two thoughts slice through my mind at once: That there was indeed a drug deal and he now knows I saw it. Or that he really is Luka’s jealous boyfriend and has followed me home to accuse me.
Either way, this isn’t going to be good.
“You need to leave,” I say, backing several steps.
He raises his hands as though confronting a wild animal. He’s taller than I thought, with a military build and short hair to match. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Yeah, because that’s exactly what people say when they aren’t thinking about it.
“You’re trespassing. Get back in your car and go.” My hands are shaking, the beam of my flashlight jagging around his head.
“You’re in danger. You need to come with me. Now.”
The instant he moves toward me, I drop the flashlight and bolt for the Bronco. He’s too fast. Before I can yank the door open he grabs me by the arm, spinning me back. My fist connects with his nose.
He staggers and I run, but I haven’t stopped him. I hear the crunch of his steps behind me, gaining speed. I veer for the trees, toward the lights of the closest house, shouting for help.
When he tackles me, I go down hard. He rolls, pulling me around to stare at the sky, but even as I claw at him my lungs have turned to iron. My vision prickles over.
“Breathe,” he says. I can’t. I kick my heels into his shins in fits, slam my head backward. I connect, but not nearly hard enough. He’s got at least sixty pounds and half a foot on me and at this point, I genuinely believe I’m on the verge of getting kidnapped or worse.
“Listen to me,” he hisses when I’m finally sucking air.
I can’t fight him, so I go limp. If he’s going to get up and try to get me to the car, he’s going to have a hundred and twenty-five pounds of dead weight on his hands until I can find a tree to grab, some leverage—anything—to get away.
“Luka isn’t who you think he is!”
“I don’t even know him!”
“No. But you did.”
I go completely still, heart banging against my ribs.
“I know what you’ve done,” he says, urgently near my ear. He’s got an accent heavier than Luka’s, European, but different. “Your memory’s gone and now you don’t even know who to trust! Don’t you wonder why he’s here? Or why he was in such a hurry to leave before I saw you at the bar?”
He’s not making sense. Nothing he’s saying makes sense.
“He knew you were in the area. Why do you think he’s working at the grocery? Because he knew you’d show up there eventually!” He shakes me a little with each statement. “Why do you think he’s trying so hard to draw you out, get you alone?”
“I don’t know!” I shout. But his last words strike something inside me. The offer to deliver my groceries. Paying for them, knowing any decent person would come back to reimburse him. The spontaneous lunch and weekend invite, each interaction assuring another. I took them for come-ons—aggressive, sure, a little desperate, maybe… but only marginally creepy.
Faintly, from up the road: tires on gravel. I feel him tense against me.
“We have to go. Now.” His hold on me loosens. I instantly roll but before I can get my feet under me he grabs me and shouts in my face.
“He’s going to kill you, Audra!”
I blink at him in the darkness. There’s a dark trickle beneath his nose.
“You really don’t know who you are, do you?” he says with an incredulous exhale.
“No!” I lash out, as much from fear as anger. “I don’t know anything you’re talking about!”
A car is speeding down the gravel drive, skids around the last turn to the point. He grabs my wrists.
“Your real name isn’t Emily Porter,” he says, inches from my face. “It’s Audra Ellison. You didn’t die in a car crash. But if you stay here you’ll be dead by morning.”