It could have been the thunder. Or perhaps the gust of wind that shook the house as if it was a misbehaving child. Something had jerked Madison Wade awake with her breath locked her in her chest and her heart racing. Perhaps it had been Mrs. Quigley’s Tom cat romancing the Persian that spent her mornings on the sun porch next door. But it didn’t feel like any of those things. It felt, heavy … dark, and stifling. She hadn’t suffered from this kind of anxious awakening for months, not since she’d moved to Tennessee.
She forced herself to draw a deep breath and release it slowly. Everything was fine. Her son – she’d finally grown accustomed to thinking of Ethan as such — was far away from the dangers in Philadelphia, safe from the people and circumstances that had threatened to pull him under. Things were good. She glanced toward the window. No rain pattered against the pane. Although the new day did not creep as softly as it usually did upon Buckeye, the approaching storm seemed respectful and subdued, as was accorded by the early hour. That was one of her father’s idyllic boyhood stories that had proven true – one of the few truths that had ever passed his lips — here the days rolled gently one into the other. They were not announced with brittle light and a blare of car horns, or the sharp banging of Dumpsters dropped noisily to the ground. Here in Buckeye people respected the quiet of early morning. The day fell gently, as if delivered by a feather drifting from an awakening sky.
She arose and looked outside. The view from most every window in this house was spectacular, contrasting in every way from the gray cityscape she had inhabited for most of her life. Even after the passage of four months, she couldn’t help but pause each morning and take in the seemingly endless reach of the verdant wilderness. The setting was the main reason she had chosen this particular house. She wanted everything in Ethan’s life to be new, untouched by the cruel bleakness of his childhood.
Clouds hung low over the rolling green mountains; the valleys and draws cradled thick blue-gray mist. Had she sent warm enough clothes with Ethan? The nights could be chilly up there, even though it was only September.
She shook her head. When had she turned into such a sap? Ethan would really let her have it if he knew. That was part of what made the two of them work — love and honesty without the pretty bows and wrapping paper. It was a deal they’d struck early on; no bullshit.
Besides, her stewing was ridiculous. When she’d first taken Ethan in as a foster child at thirteen, he had spent more nights sleeping in the elements than any child should. He’d reminded her before he’d left – when he’d caught her surreptitiously checking his supplies, looking at the tag for the weather rating of his sleeping bag and throwing in extra batteries for his flashlight – he was fifteen now. Which he said translated into something like twenty in regular suburban-kid-years. “Besides,” he’d said, “It’s a whole lot safer sleeping on a mountain with a few bears than it had been sleeping on the streets in Philadelphia.”
She’d looked into his wide blue eyes and nearly cried. Crying … now that would have sent him into orbit.
Luckily, these days his past was just a distant echo that she occasionally saw in the depths of his eyes. He was safe and loved; her responsibility … her son. The adoption had been finalized the week before they’d moved to Buckeye.
Thunder rumbled again in the distance. She hoped the boys made it back down the mountain before the rain hit. With the threatening weather, surely Mr. McPherson would pack up and head back early.
Jordan Gray’s stepfather took groups of boys camping once a month. The first two times Ethan had been invited, she’d managed an excuse – although she couldn’t say why she’d been so reluctant to let him go. This time he’d called her on it. Honesty … without the pretty packaging. He went.
She should have been happy that Ethan, a newcomer, had been asked. It was a great opportunity for him to bond with other boys of his own age. Of course, those were logical arguments, not the illogical fears of a mother who wasn’t truly comfortable with her new role as such. She attributed her heightened worry to her vast and intimate knowledge of how dangerous this world could be; up until a few months ago, she’d made her living writing about missing children, gang violence, and internet predators.
Madison turned from the window and chafed her hands over her chilly arms. She’d lived alone throughout her adulthood, preferring a solitary life, relying on the only person she knew she could count on – herself. Dedication to her work had filled her days; she’d never felt lonely. But now, as she stood in her bedroom listening to the wind, she suddenly realized how starkly empty the house felt without Ethan.
Get a grip. He’s only been gone since yesterday morning. She’d always thrived on independence and respected it in others. Never in her wildest dreams had she thought she’d be inclined to stew and worry while her child was off living his life. What had she known?
Certainly not how quickly a person became used to hearing overgrown feet thudding on the floor overhead; or how not finding a dirty cereal bowl in the sink seemed to make a person’s chest feel hollow.
As much as she didn’t want to admit it, she was glad she’d agreed to have breakfast with Gabe Wyatt this morning. It wasn’t a date; she didn’t date. Not now that she was the working mother of a teenage son. Both her and Ethan’s lives had been upturned enough without adding the complication of a new romance. But Gabe’s friendship was becoming difficult to keep at that casual level. He’d subtly insinuated himself into her life; often serving as a sounding board concerning adolescent male behavior (being an only child, her only first-hand experience with the teenage male before Ethan had been her own pubescent dating). Gabe had also done his best to help her learn which toes were the most delicate in this new small town. Since she was editor of the local daily paper, more often than not those lessons went unheeded. They were appreciated nonetheless.
Up until yesterday, she’d managed to resist his repeated invitations to dinner and movies – no easy feat. From the very first time she’d heard him speak, his smooth southern voice had a nearly hypnotic effect on her Yankee heart. She now understood the power of those called “whisperers” — people who could calm animals with only their voices. It was certain, Gabe Wyatt’s voice called to something primal deep inside her. She had no business getting involved. But he kept asking in that voice…
When the invitation had been breakfast, she’d justified that breakfast was different. Colleagues and friends met for breakfast. Breakfast was innocent, noncommittal. Breakfast wasn’t a date.
She glanced at the clock. If she didn’t hurry, she was going to be late.
At seven-thirty she turned onto High Street. With a gust of wind, the first fat drops of rain hit her windshield. Gabe’s Jeep Cherokee with “SHERIFF” printed plainly on the sides and back gate was parked at the curb in front of the Smoky Ridge Cafe. She parked next to it.
She felt more relaxed just seeing he was here.
Relaxed. Relaxed — not bubbling with joy.
She tamped down that ripple of pure pleasure and wondered when she had started lying to herself — something as foreign to her as these hills had been on her first day here. She’d always been as pragmatic in her personal relationships as she was in her work. She wasn’t sure what to think of this new aspect of herself.
She stopped asking questions she didn’t really want to answer and hopped out of the car. The second she closed the door, the clouds cut loose. Holding her purse over her head, she made a dash for the cafe.
The door swung open just as she reached it. Gabe held the door and hurried her inside. For a long moment, he just stood there grinning at her. “What?” she asked. “Never seen a drowned rat before?”
“Mermaid.” The warmth of his voice poured over her, banishing the chill. “I was thinking you look like a mermaid.”
“You Southern boys, always let your good manners get ahead of your good sense,” she said, breaking eye contact.
“You Yankee women, never can gracefully accept innocent Southern flattery.”
She looked up at him with a half-grin. “Thanks.”
“For the compliment?” he asked. “Or for calling you on your Yankee ways?”
“Oh,” she feigned a surprised look, “I thought they were both compliments.”
He rolled his eyes. “Here we go again.”
“You started it.” She walked toward an empty booth, her heart fluttering in a most unpragmatic way.
Gabe slid into the booth beside her and picked up a menu.
She gave him a sideways look and cleared her throat.
“Yes?” He turned innocent green eyes her way.
“Are we expecting someone else?”
“Not that I know of.”
She pointed across the table. “Then get your ass over on the other side of the booth before people start talking.” With a heavy sigh, he moved.
Madison looked around the crowded café and saw knowing grins, raised eyebrows, and a few lips pursed in disapproval. The damage had already been done. She leaned across the table and said in a hushed voice, “Everyone thinks we spent the night together.”
Gabe glanced around, then grinned at her and whispered back, “Of course they don’t. What man in his right mind would be out of your bed at this early hour on a Sunday morning?
Titling her head, trying to appear sweet and Southern, she drawled, “Why Gabriel Wyatt, I declare, I should slap your face for such a shamefully inappropriate remark.”
He gave her a wink. “Now that’s how to take a compliment.”
Madison made a point of not lingering over coffee after breakfast. Lingering was too date-like.
“I really need to get home. Ethan will be back from camping,” she said, wiping her lips with a paper napkin. Now she was lying to other people as well as herself; Ethan wasn’t due home until around noon. But she couldn’t stay here listening to Gabe’s voice and looking into his moss-green eyes any longer. Not when her own mind had begun to follow the pattern of the other patrons; several times now she’d caught herself wondering what it would be like to spend the night in Gabe Wyatt’s bed.
She reached for the check; the cash register was by the front door and Gabe paying was one step closer to this being a date. Gabe put his hand firmly on top of hers. “Apparently you still have a lot to learn about living in the South.”
She liked the way his calloused palm felt against the back of her hand – too much.
“All right then.” She pulled her hand from beneath his. “I’ll just use my money to buy myself something frilly that smells of gardenias.”
He laughed. “Now you’re talkin’.”
With a dramatic huff, she got out of the booth.
He was still chuckling as he followed her to the front.
He paid, then she thanked him, painfully aware of dozens of eyes on them.
“My pleasure. How about dinner Saturday?”
His gaze held hers as his voice worked its magic. “I … I–”
“I’ll take that as a yes.” He opened the door and pushed her out into the rain before she could say anything else.#
Once home, Madison opened her laptop and began working on the duties of her new career, editor of the local daily newspaper. If someone had told her four years ago that she’d be content working at a newspaper with a circulation of less than 10,000, editing stories about the mayor’s plan for parking meters and the debate over replacing the bridge on the north side of town, she’d have laughed in their face. But here she was, miles beyond content. All because of Ethan. And perhaps — a little voice whispered, trying to keep her honest — a little because of a certain smooth talking Southern sheriff, too.
She’d never let a man railroad her into a date like that. Really, she had to stop reacting to that voice…
“Enough of that foolishness,” she muttered. She’d just cancel … later. Right now, if she finished proofing these articles for the Buckeye Daily Herald, she could do some research for a freelance article she was contemplating.
She opened the file her reporter had emailed her and started to read.
The work did not hold her attention. She caught herself watching the clock instead of concentrating on the article in front of her. If she hadn’t been so stubborn and hurried off after breakfast with Gabe, she wouldn’t have this long lonely stretch of time before Ethan came home.
She thought about how they would spend the rest of the day after he returned. Since it was cool and rainy, maybe she would take him to Augustino’s for pizza. She imagined the blast of warm moist air, redolent of yeast and spices that always hit her when she opened the door to the little restaurant. Her mouth watered. She’d thought she’d miss national chains and five-star restaurants when she moved to this little town. Again, what had she known?
At twelve-fifteen, she started making trips to look out the rain-streaked front window for the approach of Mr. McPherson’s white van. At one o’clock she called Jordan Gray’s mother.
“Hello, Mrs. McPherson, this is Madison Ward. I was wondering, have you heard anything from the boys?”
“Please, call me Kate.”
“Of course, Kate.” She’d only met Kate McPherson in person once; usually it was a wave from the car as they picked the boys up at each other’s houses. “Is Jordan back?”
Kate didn’t sound in the least concerned when she said, “No, but don’t you worry now, hon. Steve gets carried away up there. He’s probably showing the boys thunderstorm survival skills or something.”
“Oh, well, okay then, that’s good to know.”
“Keep in mind, with this rain and all, it could take ‘em longer to get down the mountain. It’s not like hopping on the bus in the city you know.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s right.” This wasn’t the first time she’d had to be reminded that time moved differently here than in Philadelphia.
Kate said, “I promise I’ll give y’all a call if I hear from them. But really, don’t worry.”
After hanging up, Madison made herself a cup of tea and tried to stop thinking of Ethan with a broken leg after a misstep on the muddy slope of the mountain.
At two-thirty she picked up the telephone again. After only a moment’s hesitation, she dialed Gabriel Wyatt’s cell phone.
He picked up on the first ring. “Sheriff Wyatt.”
“Hi, Gabe, it’s Madison. Do you have a minute?”
“Well hello, Maddie. If you’re calling to cancel our date, no, I don’t.” His teasing knocked the sharp edge off her tension. She didn’t even take him to task over calling her Maddie – only her father called her Maddie, the bastard.
On Gabe’s smooth Southern tongue, the nickname seemed to lose the capacity to annoy.
“I’m calling about Ethan,” she said.
“Well, it’s probably nothing…”
“Get on then and say it.”
“He’s not home from camping with Mr. McPherson yet.”
“If you can trust anyone with your son on that mountain, it’s Steve McPherson. He spends more time up there than he does here in town.”
“Yes, but … two hours–”
“Is nothing when you’re hauling camping gear and teenage boys off a mountain in the rain.”
“You think so?”
“I do. But if it’d make you feel better, I suppose I could drive up to the trailhead where Steve parks his van and check things out.”
“I hate to impose…”
“No problem.” After a short pause he added, “How about if I pick you up and you can keep me company?”
It would make her feel better to be doing something proactive, rather than sitting around imagining all sorts of horrible things. And, she rationalized, it’d give her a chance to cancel their date.
“What if they show up here?” she asked.
“Does Ethan have a key?”
“Leave him a note. He can call your cell phone if he gets home. Besides, it’s a two lane road, we’re sure to spot them going the other way.”
“Maddie,” he sighed. “The boy survived alone on those Yankee city streets. An hour alone in your cozy little house shouldn’t be a huge challenge.”
“You’re right.” She heard the lack of conviction in her own voice. “Of course, you’re right. I’ll check back to make sure Jordan’s mom hasn’t heard anything.”
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
“Okay.” She started to hang up, then said, “Gabe!”
“I know I’m probably being silly. Thank you for humoring me.”
“Believe me, it’s my pleasure to humor you.”
She heard him chuckling as he hung up.#
Sheets of rain slashed against Gabe’s SUV. Gusts of wind buffeted the heavy vehicle as if it was made of cardboard. Although the wipers thumped back and forth on high speed, looking through the windshield was like trying to focus through textured glass. Madison found herself leaning forward, straining to see where the winding narrow unpaved road gave way to rocky, tree-filled ditches on each side. Her cold hands blanched white as she gripped the passenger door handle.
Gabe’s Jeep was several years old and took the bumps about as gracefully as a log wagon. More than once, the tires momentarily slipped on the muddy incline.
Driving in the mountains on a clear day made her insides pucker; she’d be nauseous driving in this weather; she wasn’t doing much better as a passenger. Daring to take her eyes away from the road long enough for a quick glance at Gabe, she saw he had a relaxed grip on the wheel. His face bore no sign of strain, in fact, he was smiling.
“You look like you’re enjoying yourself,” she said.
He turned to face her fully, his smile widening. “I am.”
“Hey!” She pointed ahead. “Keep your eyes on the road, Mister!”
With a chuckle, he obeyed and said, “How can a guy not have a good time with a woman bossing him around like that?”
“I just want to come back down off this mountain whole and unbroken. Smile at me later.”
He turned that innocent-yet-oh-so-suggestive smile her way again. “It’ll be my pleasure.”
“The road,” she ordered. Mule trail would have been a more appropriate term. It had narrowed so much that the undergrowth was nearly scraping the sides of the car.
A few seconds later, he slowed. The Jeep bounced through the shallow ditch and he pulled through a break in the vegetation that Madison hadn’t even seen. They stopped in a small, relatively flat area that was a quagmire of mud and flattened weeds. Gabe called it a cove. The mountain took a serious thrust upward from this spot.
“There’s Steve’s van,” he said.
It was the only vehicle there. “I see he’s the only one crazy enough to still be out in this weather.”
“Never seen Steve McPherson daunted by a little weather.”
She glanced at the steep path that headed into the woods and up the mountain. “We should go up after them – something might be wrong.”
“Now that would be crazy. You don’t just take off in this terrain with no preparation, no one knowing where you are, especially in this weather.” He pointed to her feet. “You don’t even have on decent shoes.”
She looked down. “I’ll have you know these boots were the envy of all of my co-workers in Philly.”
With a crooked, knowing grin he said, “No doubt. They’re sexy as hell. But those heels are guaranteed to cause a broken ankle within the first hundred yards.”
Again, she felt oddly out of her depth. How could she be so unprepared for a safer, simpler life?
“Can we call a park ranger or something?”
He shook his head. “This isn’t park land – even so, a call for a search is premature. Steve knows what he’s doing. Maybe he’s waiting it out. Some of the trail is pretty steep.”
“Does he always camp in the same place?”
“Same general area. He knows that helps … just in case we have to go looking for him.”
“I feel so stupid. I didn’t ask half of the questions I should have before I let Ethan go. Jordan’s mom said her husband takes Jordan all of the time. I just assumed…” She shook her head at her own naivety. The rain drummed on the Jeep’s roof. She shivered. “I had no idea it was so — rough. I had in mind the kinds of camping areas I’ve seen in small state parks, you know, easy access, lots of people around, permits required. Nothing like this.”
He patted her hand. “See why a couple of hours late doesn’t alarm anyone?”
Madison left her hand beneath his and nodded, keeping her eyes on the inclining trail that was quickly swallowed by dark woods. Contrasting to her feelings as she’d viewed it from the warmth and safety of her home, the thick forest suddenly seemed more menacing than tranquil. And Gabe’s logical argument for the group’s delayed return didn’t quell her rising panic. Something had felt off since she’d awakened this morning.
Gabe suggested, “We can wait here until they come back.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She bit her lip. “I mean, how much razzing will Ethan get if his mom’s waiting for him?” And how would she explain herself to him and keep with their no bullshit pact?
“Maybe it’s not Ethan’s mom who’s waiting. Maybe it’s Sheriff Wyatt fulfilling his county duties.”
“Oh sure,” she said. “The only way that’s going to work is if I hide in the back seat and they don’t see me.”
“Works for me.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Climb over and you can duck down at the first sign of them.”
Turning sideways in the seat, she said, “I’m not going to climb over–”
“Too late. There they are.”
The instant she laid eyes on the four boys emerging from the forest, the bottom dropped out of her stomach. “Something’s wrong.”
Gabe was already out of the car and striding toward the boys. He moved so quickly, he left the driver’s door standing open.
With her heart in her throat, she threw open her door and jumped out. Cold rain slapped her in the face. With her second step, her foot twisted on a rock. Pain sliced her ankle and shot up her leg, but she didn’t break stride as she ran toward Ethan.
The boys looked like the final scene in a slasher film. None of them had on jackets. In defiance of the downpour, dark smears of mud refused to let go of their clothes and skin. Fishbelly white. It was a term used by her grandfather. She’d never realized what it meant until now. Their lips, darkened by the cold, contrasted grotesquely to the pasty, translucent whiteness of their faces.
Jordan’s arms were slung around the necks of Ethan and another boy. Jordan’s head hung low, his steps dragged in a shuffle.
By the time she caught up with Gabe, he was scooping Jordan into his arms. She looked beyond the boys, no one followed on the trail. “Where’s Mr. McPherson?”
Relieved of their burden, Ethan and the other boy swayed weakly, but didn’t take another step forward.
Jordan, very small for his age to begin with, looked frighteningly frail in Gabe’s arms. His lower lip was slightly swollen, oddly blue-purple against his translucent skin. Inanimate as death, the boy didn’t even blink the rain out of his eyes.
The fourth boy, a kid built like a future linebacker, sat heavily on the ground, heedless of the muddy-brown puddle he landed in. He buried his face in his grimy hands and sobbed. It was a sound teetering between relief and devastation.
Madison wrapped her arms around Ethan; their unspoken ban on sappiness be damned. “Where is Mr. McPherson?”
Ethan pulled back and looked up at her with hollow eyes. “Dead.”