Read Thief River Falls Online

Authors: Brian Freeman

Thief River Falls (3 page)

BOOK: Thief River Falls
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And yet something about this man didn’t feel right. His arrival made her uneasy.

She knelt beside the wall until she was stretched out flat on the ground, and then she crawled forward to spy through the bottommost corner of the window. She still couldn’t see the deputy’s face, but she saw something else. In the shimmering moonlight, she could see his hand, as bone white as the hand of a skeleton.

He was holding a gun.

He had his gun out
of its holster.

A second voice cut through the nighttime quiet. “Is she there?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

She watched another deputy join the first, emerging from the overgrown field on her land. The low brim of this man’s hat, too, covered his face. Their voices were unfamiliar. She didn’t know them.

The second man had his gun in his hand, too.
Why?

“Check the garage,” the first cop instructed his partner. “See if her truck’s inside.”

Lisa watched the other cop approach the door of her garage. He tugged on the door handle, but it was locked and wouldn’t open. She found herself grateful that the garage had no windows that would let the man shine a flashlight inside and see that her truck was parked there. She didn’t want them to know that she was home.

“I can’t tell,” the second man called. “Did you check to see if the front door’s open?”

“I will.”

The other police officer headed back to the porch. Lisa heard the thump of his footsteps, and she gasped quietly. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt her whole body tighten into knots. She couldn’t remember if she’d locked the door when she got home. Half the time, she forgot.

Directly below her, she heard the rattle of the doorknob and the thud of someone pushing heavily on the door from outside.

Then the cop called to his partner again. “No, it’s locked.”

“What do you think? Should we break in?”

The first police officer didn’t answer immediately. Lisa felt her breath coming faster, and she sweated in the warm, humid bedroom. She tried to grasp what was happening. Two cops, two strangers, both with guns in their hands, were debating whether to
break into her house
.

She heard footsteps descend the porch steps and scrape along the gravel again. When she peered into the yard, she saw the two police officers meet near their squad car. They were both solidly built, one taller than the other. Their faces were invisible.

“Should we break in?” the second cop repeated.

“No, not right now. We’ll come back when it’s light.”

Under the white moonlight, both men holstered their weapons. She watched them climb into either side of the SUV, and the engine roared to life, and the headlights came on like two shining eyes. The
cops turned around in her yard and drove to the highway. The vehicle headed south.

South toward Pennington County. South toward Thief River Falls.

Lisa felt a sickness in her gut, driven by fear. She hadn’t eaten in hours, and she felt acid bubbling up out of her empty stomach, burning her throat. She scrambled to her feet and ran to the bathroom, where she threw open the toilet lid and retched through a series of dry heaves. Nothing but yellow liquid came out of her mouth. The effort of throwing up exhausted her. She rested for a while with her head leaning against the marble counter on the sink, and then she got up and rinsed out her mouth and walked unsteadily back into the bedroom.

She tried to decide what to do.

Call the police.
That was her first instinct.

But the police were the ones who’d been here. From the wrong county. With their guns out. Searching her property, testing the locks on her house, debating whether to force their way inside. No, she wasn’t ready to call the police yet, not until she knew what was going on.

Call Laurel.

Laurel March was her best friend.

It was the middle of the night, but Laurel wouldn’t care about being awakened. Laurel was the calm head whenever Lisa found herself in the midst of a panic attack. Lisa didn’t think she would have survived the last two years of the Dark Star without Laurel’s help. She couldn’t count how many times she’d gone to her friend to talk, cry, scream, and pray.

Call Laurel. Together, they would figure out what was happening.

Lisa grabbed her cell phone from the nightstand beside her bed. Before she dialed, she went back to the tall bedroom windows. She didn’t bother hiding now. Her eyes checked the highway to be sure the police were gone and hadn’t come back. Then she turned her stare down to the ground.

She wasn’t alone. Right there, under the bright, bright moonlight, someone was standing in her yard. Looking up at her.

It was a young boy. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old.

When their eyes met, he turned and ran.

Lisa rushed outside from the house, and the night air assaulted her. The storm was over, but the ground was wet, and cold wind blew down from Canada across the flat fields with the speed of a train. She shoved her hands in the pockets of her cream-colored trench coat. Her long brown hair swirled around her face in tangles.

“Hello?” she shouted, trying to make herself heard over the wind. “Are you there? Do you need help?”

No one answered.

She had a flashlight in her hand, and she used it to examine her yard through a cone of white light. She walked completely around the perimeter of her house and did the same at her detached garage. She hiked all the way down the driveway to the rural highway and looked for a child on the shoulder, but the road was deserted in both directions. There were no other houses close to hers and no lights to be seen anywhere.

“I won’t hurt you,” she called. “I want to help. Where are you?”

The boy couldn’t have gone far. She’d grabbed her coat and dashed out of the house immediately after seeing him. And yet there were hiding places everywhere. He could be sheltered among the evergreens, crouched in the tall weeds, or taking cover inside one of the outbuildings.

Lisa walked back from the highway, dodging silvery pools of standing water from the rain. She went to the place where her green lawn ended and the wind rippled across acres of open fields. The beam of her flashlight lit up only a small area around her. She listened, but the rustle of brush and branches drowned out every other sound. She shivered as another gust of northern wind almost lifted her off her feet.

“My name is Lisa,” she called. “I’m a friend.”

Nearby, metal banged sharply against metal. She swung the flashlight in that direction and saw the aluminum door of her machine shed swinging back and forth in the gales. She headed toward the shed across the wet grass, not knowing if the boy had taken refuge inside or if the police had opened the shed to search it.

Search for what?

She held the shed door tightly as it shuddered in her grasp. With her other hand, she lit up the interior with her flashlight. She saw her riding lawn mower, its blades stained green; the snowplow attachment for her truck; a pegboard with saws and drills hung on hooks. Bags of fertilizer were stacked on wooden shelves, giving off a sweet smell and leaching orange dust onto the metal floor.

No one was inside.

Lisa closed the door and relatched it. She kept a rusty padlock for the latch hung on a nail by the door, but she’d never bothered to use it.

The next place to search was the old barn. She rarely went inside the barn because the interior was unsafe. Sooner or later, she assumed she would wake up to find that it had collapsed under the weight of winter snow. It was situated deep in the fields, almost a hundred yards from the house. The rutted access road was still visible, although the weeds of two seasons had grown across the dirt. Because of the rain, the road was like a river, and she had no choice but to hike through the water, which was deep enough to get inside her shoes. She tucked in her chin as she marched into the cold wind.

Halfway to the barn, where a swell in the ground left a stretch of mud that hadn’t flooded, she saw footprints reflecting the white of the moon. They were small, definitely belonging to a child. The boy had come this way. The footprints were far apart; he was running. Lisa ran, too, wanting to catch up with him. The barn loomed ahead of her. The red paint on its walls had faded and peeled, and the shingles on the rounded roof were black with dirt. Some of the crossbeams had warped, and storms had broken many of the windows, making the field around
the barn a minefield of glass and nails. The two-panel door hung open, and more small muddy footprints led inside.

“I’m coming in,” she called. “Don’t be scared.”

She walked carefully through the barn door into the darkness. The wind whistled through open cracks in the walls. She shined her flashlight on the floor and saw dead leaves, cut straw, and rusted tools. Amid the dust, she also saw a few fresh drips that were bright red.

Blood.

“Are you hurt? Let me help you.”

The flashlight cast shadows behind the tall wooden posts that supported the roof. A row of stalls with metal gates divided the long wall next to her. There had been horses kept here once upon a time. She moved down the corridor, checking each stall, and her flashlight lit up dead things decaying inside. Birds. Rats. Snakes. Huge spiderwebs drooped from the rafters. The roof leaked, and puddles glistened on the floor. Green moss spread up the walls.

“Where are you? I know you’re here.”

In the stall ahead of her, she heard a noise. She came quickly around the half door and lit up the interior, and the light made a devilish red reflection in two animal eyes. A black cat, its back arched, its fur pricked up, unleashed an angry hiss from the corner of the stall. Lisa screamed as the cat leaped at her, scrambling over her shoulder and tearing panicked scratches with its claws. She stumbled backward and spun around as the cat jumped down and stampeded into the shadows.

Her heart raced. Her shoulder stung. She closed her eyes to settle her nerves.

When she opened her eyes again, she had to stifle another scream by squashing her hand over her mouth. “Oh!”

In the white beam of the flashlight, a young boy stood like a soldier at attention with his back against one of the barn’s support posts. He wore only a T-shirt and jeans, both of which were soaking wet against his skin. He shivered, freezing. His mouth hung open, and his blue eyes
were wide with terror. He had fair blond hair, but it was hard to tell, because his head and face were matted with dirt and blood. He eyed the open barn behind her and looked ready to run, just like the cat.

Lisa recovered from her own fright and took a step away to give the boy space. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. I want to help.”

The boy didn’t say a word.

“I’m a nurse. When people are hurt, I help them get better. Can I take a look at your head and see if you’re hurt?”

She reached out a hand, but the boy recoiled. He shut his eyes and twisted his face, as if the slightest touch would be torture.

“That’s okay. We don’t have to do that right now. The thing is, I’m really cold, and you look really cold, too. My house isn’t far away. It’s nice and warm there. I can even make a big fire in the fireplace for us. Wouldn’t you rather go inside instead of staying out here?”

The boy opened his eyes. There was a tiny softening in his face as he looked at her, the first small glimmer of trust. As scared as he was, he was also tempted by the promise of a warm house and a crackling fire. Lisa squatted down until they were eye to eye and gave him the biggest smile she could.

“Listen, you’re probably thinking, this woman’s a stranger. And we all know you’re not supposed to go anywhere with strangers, right? That means the first thing we should do is get to know each other. I’m Lisa. Can you give me a ‘Hey, Lisa’? Can you do that for me?”

She won a shy smile from him. His lips moved, and he murmured, “Hey, Lisa.”

“Look at that—you can talk! There we go! Now what about you? What’s your name?”

He was silent again.

“Please?” she said. “Just tell me your name.”

The boy shook his head over and over. Then he spoke again, and his voice was even softer than before. Like a whisper.

“I don’t know,” he said.

3

The fire cast a warm glow throughout the rustic den at the back of Lisa’s house. The wall surrounding the fireplace was made entirely of rough flagstones, and varnished log beams filled the other walls and stretched overhead across the ceiling. A faux fur rug was spread in front of the hearth, and the boy sat there, wrapped up in a quilt that Lisa’s mother had made several years earlier.

His blond hair shone almost white. His skin was scrubbed, pink and clean after his shower. His clothes were in the washing machine. She’d found a cut behind his ear but concluded that the injury itself wasn’t deep or serious, just a flesh wound that had bled profusely. However, the boy couldn’t tell her what had actually happened to him. He had no identification on him, nothing that would tell her who he really was.

Lisa watched from the doorway without letting him know that she was there. He seemed entranced by the flames, and he hummed, which was a comforting noise like the purr of a cat. His blond hair was wavy and unkempt and needed a cut. He had beautiful blue eyes, the kind of eyes that would make him a heartbreaker when he grew up. He was still scrawny like a little boy, all knees and elbows, his wrists as thin as matchsticks. His teeth were a little crooked and would need braces eventually.

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