Read Thief River Falls Online

Authors: Brian Freeman

Thief River Falls (35 page)


The train whistle screamed in the distance. It was time. This was the end.

Lisa could feel the vibration under the floor of the church, the earth trembling as tons of steel drew closer, and she knew that Purdue had to run. He had to get away, and she had to protect him as he did. She could draw their fire, the way Madeleine had. She got to her feet with the AR-15 loaded and ready in her arms. She extended a hand to Purdue, but the boy didn’t move from where he was. He sat there, staring up at her with his big blue eyes.

“Purdue, you have to go now,” she told him. “You have to run and get on that train. This is your way out. You’ll be safe in Canada. I told you, it’s so beautiful up there. I want you to see it.”

“I really have to go?” he asked.

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Like the boy in the book?”


“But he didn’t get on the train. He came back for Madeleine.”

“Yes, but only to say goodbye. Then he had to leave. He went to Canada, and he was happy there. That’s the end of the story.”

“But Madeleine died,” Purdue complained.

“I know.”

“That’s too sad. I don’t like that. We need to change the ending.”

“Life doesn’t work that way, Purdue. I wish it did, but there are some things we can’t change.”

The train whistle sounded again, so loud it made Lisa cover her ears. She held out her hands again for the boy to take them. He needed to get up. He needed to run. But he sat on the floor like a statue. His eyes were wide and curious, staring back at her.

“Please,” she urged him. “You need to run for that train. Go. I’ll protect you. I’ll make sure you’re safe.”

“By dying?” he asked.

“If that’s what it takes.”

The boy shook his head. “No.”

You can’t worry about me. That’s not your job. I’m the one who has to rescue you. Don’t you understand? I didn’t get us this far only to lose you. I made a
. I’m going to save you.”

The boy smiled from the floor as he looked up at her. His smile was blinding. She felt utterly lost in the warmth of that smile and in the love that radiated from his eyes. All the cold went away. The church glowed around them.

“But you can’t save me,” he said to her.

“Yes. Yes, I can. I have to. That’s my job. That’s my responsibility. That’s the only reason for me to be alive. If I can’t save you, there’s no point to anything. Your life is more important than mine.”

“You can’t save me. Don’t you see? I’m already gone.”

Lisa’s headache throbbed behind her forehead, and she squeezed her skull with her hand as if she could force out the pain that way. “What are you talking about?” she asked the boy. “What are you saying?”

“You know.”

“No. I don’t. I don’t know anything at all. All I know is that you have to get on that train.”

“That was in the book,” Purdue told her. “This isn’t the book. The book is just in your head, Lisa. This has all been in your head. You have to let go of it now. You have to let go of

“I don’t

“Yes, you do. You know. You’ve always known.” The boy scrambled to his feet and tugged on her sleeve. “Who am I?”


“Who am I? Tell me my name.”

“You’re Purdue,” Lisa said.

“No, I’m not. I have a name.”

“I don’t know what it is. You never told me. You kept it from me. You hid it from me. You wouldn’t tell me your name.”

“Because you already know,” the boy said.

“No.” Lisa sobbed. “
I don’t.”

“What’s my name?”

Lisa wrenched away from the boy and backed up among the pews. She pointed to the rear of the church. “You have to go. Go now. I have to save you. We’re running out of time.”

“Who am I?”


“No. You know my name. You know who I am. Just say it. Please? What’s my name?”

Lisa stared at him. She stared at this perfect boy in front of her. Ten years old. His whole life in front of him. Cities and rivers and mountains to explore. Smart as a whip, always able to make her laugh. Fascinated by everything. Jumping in the backyard while Lisa worked on her books. Playing hide-and-seek with Noah. Sitting in her lap as Lisa read to him.

“He’s the most beautiful baby in the world,” Madeleine had said ten years ago, a grandmother holding her grandson for the first time.

This perfect boy. The spitting image of his father.

The father who had never met him. The father who had never even known he was going to have a son.

Lisa thought,
Oh, Danny, I’m so sorry. I should have told you. I never should have let you go to fight that fire. I could have stopped you. Two words,
and you would have stayed at my side. Two words would have changed everything.

“I’m pregnant.”

The boy said it again. “What’s my name? Tell me my name. You can do it.”

Lisa broke apart, like ice breaking into sharp little diamonds. She struggled for breath. Her shoulders shook with the pain. Her head was in a vise, the pressure threatening to crack through bone. She didn’t want to say it, but she had to say it. The name flew from her chest like a bird freed from a cage.


“That’s right. I’m Harlan.”

“Oh my God. Oh, no, no, no, no. You’re my boy. My baby.”

“And what happened to me, Mom?”

Lisa shook her head. She couldn’t face it. She couldn’t go back to the hospital, with her arms around her child, feeling his body go slack as she held him. There was a monster here in the church, folding her into darkness. The strange whiteness of the past two days had fled, but what it left behind was pitch black. “No.”

“You have to say it, Mom. You have to say it.”

“I can’t.”

“It’s okay,” Harlan told her. “Say it. It’s okay.”

“You died.”

“Yeah. That’s right. I’m really sorry.”

“Sorry? No, no, Harlan, you can’t be sorry. It was my fault. I failed you. I should have been able to save you.”

“You couldn’t. No one could. Not the doctors. Not anybody. It’s not your fault, Mom. But I have to go now.”

Lisa felt it all coming back. All the memories, all the agony, all the tears, everything she had put in a box and hidden away for two days. Harlan was in her arms again as she carried him out of the hospital, still and somehow weightless. She remembered the rain as she dug down
into the wet ground to bring her boy to his father. Danny was the only one who could protect him now, not Lisa.

And since then—nothing. Since then, she’d lived a different life. She’d disappeared into a world she’d created. She’d lived out the story of Thief River Falls.

Lisa clamped her eyes shut. The afterimage of Harlan’s face shone in her head like a photograph. Her son, alive, standing in front of her, the way he never would again. Her son, saying goodbye.

She opened her eyes.

Harlan was gone. She was alone. She’d been alone for two days.

“No,” she wailed, drawing out the word in all its finality.

The book was done. Purdue was back inside its pages. All that remained was her grief, which was a wide, deep canyon, sinking so far down she couldn’t see the bottom. The only thing she could think to do was jump. She cared about nothing, least of all herself. Harlan was gone, and she had no purpose left in life. There was no one to save anymore. No one to rescue.

This was the Dark Star in full eclipse.

Lisa walked toward the church doors in a daze. She still had the rifle in her arms. She wrenched open the doors and was immediately bathed in the glow of spotlights. She was at the center of a whirlwind. Dozens of police cars. Dozens of people. Dozens of guns pointed at her.

And one man standing in the snow, apart from all the others. She held up a hand and squinted into the bright lights, trying to see who it was. Then she knew.


“Lis, put down the gun,” he said.

She was paralyzed. There was a hush over the scene, chaos freezing into complete silence. No one spoke. No one moved. The snow had stopped falling, and even the wind held its breath.

“Lis, it’s me. It’s Noah. I know about Harlan. Laurel told me everything. I know your heart is broken. I know your whole world is broken.
But we’ll get through it. We’ll put everything back together. You and me, like when we were kids. Just put down the gun.”


Noah, who’d run away. Noah, who’d left her alone. Noah, who’d abandoned her. She hated him. She hated her brother. Most of all, she hated that she could see herself reflecting in his eyes. It was like staring into a wretched mirror of all her own weaknesses.

Lisa raised the AR-15 and pointed it at her brother’s chest. All she had to do was pull the trigger.

Noah screamed at the police. “Nobody shoot, nobody shoot, hold your fire, do not hurt her!”

And then to his sister: “It’s okay, Lis. You want to shoot me? Shoot me. I ran out on you. Both of you. I wasn’t there for you or for Harlan. But I’m here now.”


Noah, who’d grown up in the bed next to hers. Noah, who could read her mind and whose thoughts she could hear when she lay awake at night. She’d never admitted it to him. She’d never told him he was right. He was always with her. Noah, who’d introduced her to Danny. Noah, who’d been with her in the delivery room when Harlan was born.


“If you’d stayed, you’d be dead, too,” Lisa murmured.


“Last year. You were going to kill yourself.”

“I didn’t think you knew that.”

“I felt it,” Lisa said. “I felt you put the gun in your mouth. I thought,
I’m going to come home and find your body on the floor.
I knew it. Instead, I came home and you were gone. I was glad, Noah. I was glad you ran away. I hated you for it, but I didn’t want you to die like the others.”

“I’m home, Lis. I’ll never run away again.”

He walked toward her through the snow. She watched him come. He climbed the wooden steps of the church and stood there with the barrel of her gun jabbing into his stomach. Gently, not rushing, he reached for her hand and peeled away her finger from the trigger and took the rifle from her. She let it go. She let everything go. He put the gun down next to him where it would harm no one, and as he did, she could hear the silence break into the thunder of footsteps as people ran toward them, the eruption of cheers, the blessings to God. Noah put his arms around her and held on, and she put her arms around him, at first stiffly, then as tightly as she’d ever held anyone in her life.

They stood there together like that for a long, long time.

Far away, from the railroad tracks behind the church, she heard a mournful whistle and felt the earth tremble as a train lumbered toward the heart of town on its way to Canada. And then, when the whistle went away, there was only silence.


Sunlight streamed through the window into the hospital room, which was brightly colored by bouquets of flowers. They’d come from around the world. So had cards, e-mails, and messages online. Thousands of strangers had sent prayers and condolences to her. It was easy to forget sometimes that a book went out into the world and touched people’s lives, and Lisa was overwhelmed by the many readers who had reached back to her in the past week. They were like her family.

She sat patiently as Laurel checked her blood pressure and her pulse and listened to the beat of her heart. Everything was normal. She was on antianxiety medication and would be for a while, but the psychosis had receded. She was back in the real world, dealing with the loss of her son. There was a hole in her heart that would never be filled, but she had learned something in these days that she’d never understood before. She wasn’t alone.

“It’s odd,” Lisa murmured. “I almost miss them.”

“Who?” Laurel asked.

“All the characters from
Thief River Falls
. People like Mrs. Lancaster. Tom Doggett. Even a terrible person like Liam. They’re all back in the book, but for a little while, they were real to me. They were alive. They’d been in my head for years, and suddenly they were actually there in front of me.”

“It’s a strange kind of gift.”

“Everything got mixed up in ways I don’t understand. The real world and my fantasies.”

“How so?”

“Well, Fiona Farrell was just a character in the book. She doesn’t exist. And yet in my head, she was Danny’s sister, even though Danny was an only child. I don’t know why my mind put it together like that.”

Laurel smiled. “I guess you can probably thank Denis for that. He was a part of both worlds. He’s real, but you put him in your book, too. So your brain blended reality and delusion.”

“I guess so.” Lisa was quiet, and then she added, “I kept seeing white.”

Laurel’s brow crinkled with puzzlement. “What?”

“Everything my head made up had something white in it. That was what made it different from the things that were really there. After a while, it seemed like everything became white as I went deeper and deeper. I wonder why.”

Laurel tugged on the shoulder of her coat. “Lab coats would be my guess. Masks. I suspect that to your brain, white became the color of doctors. You began to associate white with the hospital. This is where you lost Harlan. Everything your mind invented was taking you right back here.”

“The brain is a scary thing.”

“It can be.”

Lisa calmed herself with a slow breath. “Did you tell Curtis I was sorry for whacking him?”

“I did,” Laurel replied with a grin. “He’s fine now. I think he actually enjoyed being a bad guy. You may have to write him into your next book.”

“I can do that.”

“Me, too, in fact. I wouldn’t mind seeing the name
Laurel March
in one of your novels.”

“Okay, but no villains for you,” Lisa said. “Maybe a slinky, sexy spy or something like that.”


Laurel squeezed her shoulder. She headed for the doorway of the hospital room, and as she left, she had to make way for Noah, who was burdened down with more flowers and a bag stuffed with cards. Noah gave Lisa a smile, and she could see Madeleine in the curl of his lips and the twinkle in his eyes. And her father. And their brothers. And Harlan. Everyone who was gone was really still here.

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