Authors: Brian Freeman
“So what happened?”
“On my twenty-seventh birthday, Danny showed up at our door,” Lisa said. “He’d quit his job and moved back to Thief River Falls. He’d begun training to be a firefighter, which was what he’d really wanted to do since we were in high school. A few months later, we were engaged. We rented a house next to my parents, and we moved in there. I don’t suppose I’ll ever be that happy again.”
Purdue had a child’s gift for picking up on emotions. “Don’t be sad, Lisa.”
“Oh, I’m okay.”
“Danny’s father must have been mad.”
“Yes, he was,” Lisa agreed. “He was unhappy with Danny, but mostly he was angry at me. As far as he was concerned,
was the one who screwed up his plan. The fact that Danny never wanted it didn’t matter to him. Danny came back here for me, so that meant it was my fault. Everything that happened afterward was my fault, too. He blamed me when Danny died. In his mind, I’m the one who killed his son.”
“Why would he think that?”
She closed her eyes, feeling haunted. “Because I let Danny go.”
Lisa smiled. If she didn’t smile, she would cry again, even after ten years in between. She could still picture that last morning with Danny so clearly, in the little bedroom in the house next door to her parents, with the sunlight making a dusty stream through the window. They’d made love in the middle of the night, with their bodies moist from the sticky August air and the crickets keeping time with their rhythm. She remembered him getting out of bed. He’d let his golden hair grow long, and she liked it that way. She could see the definition of his muscles, the ripples in his chest, the flex in his arms and legs. He was in the best shape of his life. Strong. Ready for anything.
“There was a fire in California,” Lisa explained. “Danny volunteered to help.”
“Was it dangerous?”
“Were you scared?”
“I was terrified,” Lisa said.
She thought about the video of the fires outside Bakersfield. The towering flames as tall as dragons. Ash falling over a thousand miles. The scorched trees, the wreckage of homes, the blackened hillsides. Fire was a wily, malevolent enemy. The love of her life was getting ready to strap on his gear and head into an inferno.
“If you were so scared, why did you let him go?” Purdue asked.
It was such a simple question. Why?
She’d asked herself that same question a thousand times. It would have been so easy to make him stay. Two words, that was all she’d needed. Two words, and he would never have left her side. She’d been so close to telling him:
. But he was determined, he was excited, and she wasn’t going to stand in his way.
“I was scared, but Danny wasn’t scared at all,” she said. “He told me not to worry. He said the time would fly by. I’d be busy with the plans for the wedding. We were getting married two months later. He was sure I’d be busy with publishers, too. My first book was out with an agent, and he was convinced I’d get a deal soon. He was so supportive of my dreams. He believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. So I had to do the same for him. I couldn’t take him away from something he really wanted to do.”
“He left? He went to fight the fire?”
“Yes, he did.”
She saw their last moments together in her head. She remembered him coming back to bed and sitting next to her on the rumpled sheets. Lacing his fingers tightly with hers. Kissing her, a soft kiss that became long and passionate. They’d both smiled, but their smiles were fake. And then he’d walked away from her. Letting go of him was the hardest thing she’d ever done.
Two words. She should have made him stay.
“What happened to him?” Purdue asked.
“Danny was in California for a month. He could have gone home, but he volunteered to stay when a new fire broke out. People said it was growing like a monster. It was bearing down on this neighborhood in the hills, and he stayed in the area longer than he should have to make sure that everyone got out. Everyone did, because of him. But not Danny. The fire jumped ahead of him and trapped him.”
Purdue frowned. “I’m really sorry, Lisa.”
“Yeah. Me too.” She felt her eyes fill with tears again; she couldn’t hold them back. “Danny’s father barely spoke to me after that. He blamed me for losing him. He said I could have stopped him from going, and he’s right. I let him go.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“No. But there’s a lot I would have done differently if I had the chance. While he was gone, my agent called. Danny was right. She’d sold my first book. And I didn’t tell him. I didn’t want to give him the news over the phone. I wanted us to be together. I had so much to tell him when he was back, and I wanted to make it a big surprise. So I waited. That’s what I have to live with. I waited, and I never got to tell him about anything.”
As soon as Lisa turned off the highway onto the main street in Lake Bronson, she felt eyes watching her from every direction. There were no secrets and no strangers in a small town. Two older women at the doors of the Covenant Church leaned in and whispered to each other as they spotted her pickup. A farmer standing outside the town’s grain elevators took a cigarette out of his mouth and twisted his whole body to follow her as she drove by. Across the street, a man pumping gas at the Cenex station tapped his baseball cap with a nod of recognition. She didn’t know any of them, but they knew her.
That’s Lisa Power.
It wasn’t just because of her books. People knew her because of the Dark Star, too. She was a local celebrity stalked by tragedy.
“I need to get some cash,” Lisa told Purdue. “I’ll pick up drinks and sandwiches for us at the market. Do me a favor, and stretch across the seat while I’m inside, okay? I don’t want anyone to see you.”
Her truck bumped across two sets of railroad tracks. She saw the sign for the town grocery ahead of her, just a small building with the word MARKET hung over the door. She’d visited the store once before on a last-minute quest to buy Betty Crocker mix for a chocolate birthday cake. Four cars were parked on the street outside, practically an
overflow crowd for the tiny market. She pulled past the building and parked near an open patch of land adjacent to an auto repair shop.
She whispered to Purdue. “Remember what I said. Stay out of sight.”
Lisa climbed out of the pickup into the cool late-morning air. She shivered a little in the wind and brushed her brown hair away from her face. She blinked nervously as she peered at the quiet neighborhood. In the doorway of the auto garage, a teenager in grease-smeared overalls looked up from the engine of a Ford Explorer. He gave her a salute with the business end of a wrench.
“Hello. You’re Miss Power, aren’t you? The writer woman?”
Another stranger who knew who she was.
She hoped her smile didn’t look as awkward as it felt. “Yes, hello.”
Lisa hurried away, uncomfortable with being under a spotlight. She stole glances around her as she walked, but didn’t see more spies. A young woman unloading packages in front of the post office didn’t notice Lisa. The local bar down the cross street was deserted except for an empty white Chevy Malibu parked outside. She saw two old men near the American Legion building, but they were in the midst of a loud argument and didn’t look in her direction.
She ducked inside the small market, where the jingle of a bell on the door drew everyone’s attention. Her arrival shut down the conversations at the cash register. The heavyset, bearded man behind the counter, who wore a blue-checked apron over his sweater and khakis, stopped as he was scanning the price on a can of soup. His customers stared at her with uncomfortable looks of surprise. Lisa felt a flush rise in her face.
“You’re Ms. Power, aren’t you?” the cashier asked, smoothing his thick beard. “Anything I can help you with?”
“I just need a few things. Do you have an ATM?”
“It’s at the back of the store,” he told her.
“It’s nice to see you here, Ms. Power,” one of the women in the checkout line added. She carried a two-year-old toddler in her arms, who squirmed to get free and run around the store. “I’m sure you hear this a lot, but I’m waiting impatiently for your next book.”
“So’s my publisher,” Lisa said, bending her lips into another tentative smile and disappearing down an aisle stocked with cereal boxes and bags of tortilla chips and pretzels.
Behind her, the silence erupted into whispers. The talk was all under their breath, but Lisa pricked up her ears and could hear fragments of words near the counter.
The police were here.
Did you hear about the boy?
Maybe she needs help.
She was shocked to realize that they knew what was going on, and then she remembered that it was her own fault. She’d told Mrs. Lancaster about Purdue, which was enough to start rumors racing around town like a 5G wireless signal. They were all good people with good intentions, but Lisa knew where good intentions typically led. Soon the whole town would know exactly where she was, and she didn’t like that.
Lisa stopped in front of the ATM machine. She reached into her pocket for her wallet, but as she took it out, she found that her hands were trembling so badly she could hardly function. It took her several tries to pry the bank card from the slot in her wallet, and when she finally got it out, the card slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor. She picked it up, inserted the card into the machine, and then managed to key in the wrong security PIN and had to start over. When the machine spat the card out, she dropped it again, and she felt like a fool, as if everyone were watching her go to pieces.
Eventually, she managed to take out two hundred dollars and shove it into her wallet. With the transaction done, she exhaled with relief and embarrassment. Then she turned around, and a little cry shot from her mouth. She jumped back in fear.
She wasn’t alone.
A man stood behind her, way too close.
Lisa heard words tumbling out of her mouth, but she wasn’t really sure what she was saying. “Oh! Oh, I’m so sorry, are you waiting for the machine? I was taking forever. You must think I’m an idiot. Anyway, I’m done, it’s all yours—sorry about that.”
The man had fire-red hair, and his hard face was devoid of expression. Lisa realized that she was still blocking the ATM.
“I guess it would help if I moved!” she exclaimed, as she shoved her wallet back in her pocket and headed for the next grocery aisle. The man had his bank card ready in his hand, and he pushed it into the machine slot without another glance at her.
Lisa lingered in an aisle stocked with canned vegetables, and she cast a discreet eye at the man at the ATM. He was medium height and strongly built, probably in his thirties. He had pale skin that was almost ivory white and wore his blazing red hair cut very short, with matching stubble on his chin and upper lip. Tiny circular sunglasses with auburn lenses hid his eyes. She could see an array of odd scars on his forearms, like cuts made by a razor blade. Despite the chill of the day, he wore jeans and nothing but a tight-fitting white T-shirt.
He never looked over at her. Not once. And yet his presence enveloped her like a cloud of menace.
Lisa rushed to gather up what she needed. She chose a couple of prepackaged sandwiches from the refrigerated deli area and a bag of spicy chips and two cans of Coke. Balancing all of it in her hands, she ducked back to the end of the aisle again for another quick glance. The man at the ATM was gone. She checked the next aisle, and the next aisle after that, but she didn’t see him anywhere. He’d disappeared, but she hadn’t heard the jingle of the market door.
Where was he?
Out of instinct, as the hair on the back of her neck stood up, Lisa spun around. There he was, not even six feet away, staring at her from
behind his sunglasses. As soon as he saw her turn, he switched his gaze to the shelves, focusing on diapers and baby formula. But he didn’t strike her as a man with a baby. No, he was watching her, and now he knew that she was watching him, too.
Lisa brought her items to the cash register. The people who had been there when she came into the store hadn’t moved, and their conversation died away again as they saw her. They cleared a path for her to check out, and as the cashier scanned her items, she glanced over her shoulder to see if the man in the auburn sunglasses was following her. She didn’t see him, but she knew he hadn’t left the store. She paid in cash and waited impatiently as the bearded cashier bagged what she’d purchased.
“Here you are, Ms. Power,” he said. And then, as he watched her look toward the back of the store for the tenth time, he asked, “I don’t mean to pry, but is everything okay?”
“What? Oh, yes.”
“Are you sure? I mean, we heard that—”
“Everything’s fine!” she said lightly, interrupting him, because she didn’t want any mention of Purdue with the ginger-haired man hovering within earshot. “It’s just one of those days where I feel like I’ve forgotten something. I don’t want to have to make another trip back here later. Anyway, this is a very nice store. I’m sorry I haven’t been in here more before now.”
“Well, we’d love to see you anytime.”
Lisa bunched the plastic bag in her fist, smiled pleasantly at the other customers, and pushed through the door with another clang of the bell. She ducked her head into her chest and walked quickly down the sidewalk toward her pickup. She was almost at the truck when she heard the bell jingling again, but she didn’t look behind her. She knew who it was. She knew it was him. She practically ran for her door, climbed inside, and fumbled with the key to start the engine.
Next to her, Purdue began to get up, but she hissed at him. “No, not yet, stay down, stay down!”
She swung the wheel and pulled away from the curb. As she did, she stole a glance into the truck’s rearview mirror. She could see the ginger man in front of the market door, following her truck as she drove away. He had something in his hand. A phone. She didn’t want to seem in a hurry, but as soon as the road curved and the market disappeared from sight, she accelerated hard. At the next intersection, she made a sharp right turn.