What should she do?
She glances down at the pup beside her. He is on alert, too, sniffing the air. She touches his soft fur and feels the tremble in his body. He is wondering the same thing: Would Him be back?
Always before Him was gone a moon or two at the most. But everything had been changed when Her got dead and gone. When Him left, he actually spoke to Girl.
She doesn’t understand all of the words, but she knows Or Else.
Still, it is too long since he left. There is nothing to eat. She has freed herself and gone into the woods for berries and nuts, but it is the darkening season. Soon she will be too weak to find food, and there will be none anyway when the white starts falling and turns her breath into fog. Though she is afraid, terrified of the strangers who live Out There, she is starving, and if Him comes back and sees that she has freed herself, it will be bad. She must make a move.
The town of Rain Valley, tucked between the wilds of the Olympic National Forest and the roaring gray surf of the Pacific Ocean, was the last bastion of civilization before the start of the deep woods.
There were places not far from town that had never been touched by the golden rays of the sun, where shadows lay on the black, loamy soil all year, their shapes so thick and substantial that the few hardy hikers who made their way into the forest often thought they’d stumbled into a den of hibernating bear. Even today, in this modern age of scientific wonders, these woods remained as they had for centuries, unexplored, untouched by man.
Less than one hundred years ago, settlers came to this beautiful spot between the rain forest and the sea and hacked down just enough trees to plant their crops. In time they learned what the Native Americans had learned before them: this was a place that wouldn’t be tamed. So they gave up their farming tools and took up fishing. Salmon and timber became the local industries, and for a few decades the town prospered. But in the nineties, environmentalists discovered Rain Valley. They set out to save the birds and the fish and the eldest of the trees. The men who made their living off the land were forgotten in this fight, and over the years the town fell into a quiet kind of disrepair. One by one the grandiose visions of the town’s prominent citizens faded away. Those much-anticipated streetlights were never added; the road out to Mystic Lake remained a two-lane minefield of thinning asphalt and growing potholes; the telephone and electrical lines stayed where they were—in the air—hanging lazily from one old pole to the next, an invitation to every tree limb in every windstorm to knock out the town’s power.
In other parts of the world, in places where man had staked his claim long ago, such a falling apart of a town might have dealt a death blow to the citizens’ sense of community, but not here. The people of Rain Valley were hardy souls, able and willing to live in a place where it rained more than two hundred days a year and the sun was treated like a wealthy uncle who only rarely came to call. They withstood gray days and springy lawns and dwindling ways to make a living, and remained through it all the sons and daughters of the pioneers who’d first dared to live among the towering trees.
Today, however, they were finding their spirit tested. It was October seventeenth, and autumn had recently lost its race to the coming winter. Oh, the trees were still dressed in their party colors and the lawns were green again after the brown days of late summer, but no mistake could be made: winter was coming. The sky had been low and gray all week, layered in ominously dark clouds. For seven days it had rained almost nonstop.
On the corner of Wheaton Way and Cates Avenue stood the police station, a squat gray-stone building with a cupola on top and a flagpole on the grassy lawn out front. Inside the austere building, the old fluorescent lighting was barely strong enough to keep the gray at bay. It was four o’clock in the afternoon, but the bad weather made it feel later.
The people who worked inside tried not to notice. If they’d been asked—and they hadn’t—they would have admitted that four to five consecutive days of rain was acceptable. Longer if it was only a drizzle. But there was something wrong in this stretch of bad weather. It wasn’t January, after all. For the first few days, they sat at their respective desks and complained good naturedly about the walk from their cars to the front door. Now, those conversations had been pummeled by the constant hammering of rain on the roof.
Ellen Barton—Ellie to her friends, which was everyone in town—stood at the window, staring out at the street. The rain made everything appear insubstantial, a charcoal rendering of town. She caught a glimpse of herself in the water-streaked window; not a reflection, precisely, more of a feeling played out momentarily on glass. She saw herself as she always did, as the younger woman she’d once been—long, thick black hair and cornflower blue eyes and a bright, ready smile. The girl voted homecoming queen and head cheerleader. As always when she thought about her youth, she saw herself in white. The color of brides, of hope for the future, of families waiting to be born.
“I gotta have a smoke, Ellie. You know I do. I’ve been really good, but it’s reaching critical mass about now. If I don’t light up, I’m heading to the refrigerator.”
“Don’t let her do it,” Cal said from his place at the dispatch desk. He sat hunched over the phone, a sheath of black hair falling across his eyes. In high school Ellie and her friends had called him the Crow because of his black hair and sharp, pointed features. He’d always had a bony, ill-put-together look, as if he wasn’t quite at home in his body. At almost forty, he still had a boyish appearance. Only his eyes—dark and intense—showed the miles he’d walked in his lifetime. “Try tough love. Nothing else has worked.”
“Bite me,” Peanut snapped.
Ellie sighed. They’d had this same discussion only fifteen minutes ago, and ten minutes before that. She put her hands on her waist, resting her fingertips on the heavy gun belt that was slung across her hips. She turned to look at her best friend. “Now, Peanut, you know what I’m gonna say. This is a public building. I’m the chief of police. How can I let you break the law?”
“Exactly,” Cal said. He opened his mouth to say more, but a call came in and he answered it. “Rain Valley Police.”
“Oh, right,” Peanut said. “And suddenly you’re Miss Law and Order. What about Sven Morgenstern—he parks in front of his store every day. Right in front of the hydrant. When was the last time you hauled his car away? And Large Marge shoplifts two boxes of freezer pops and a bottle of nail polish from the drugstore every Sunday after church. I haven’t processed her arrest papers in a while. I guess as long as her husband pays the tab it doesn’t matter. . . .” She let the sentence trail off. They both knew she could cite a dozen more examples. This was Rain Valley, after all, not downtown Seattle. Ellie had been the chief of police for four years and a patrol officer for eight years before that. Although she stayed ready for anything, she’d never processed a crime more dangerous than breaking and entering.
“Are you going to let me have a cigarette or am I going to get a doughnut and a Red Bull?”
“They’ll both kill you.”
“Yeah, but they won’t kill us,” Cal said, disconnecting his call. “Hold firm, El. She’s the patrol clerk. She shouldn’t smoke in a city building.”
“You’re smoking too much,” Ellie finally said.
“Yeah, but I’m eating less.”
“Why don’t you go back to the salmon jerky diet? Or the grapefruit one? Those were both healthier.”
“Stop talking and answer me. I need a smoke.”
“You started smoking four days ago, Peanut,” Cal said. “You hardly need a cigarette.”
Ellie shook her head. If she didn’t step in, these two would bicker all day. “You should go back to your meetings,” she said with a sigh. “That Weight Watchers was working.”
“Six months of cabbage soup to lose ten pounds? I don’t think so. Come on, Ellie, you know I’m about ready to reach for a doughnut.”
Ellie knew she’d lost the battle. She and Peanut—Penelope Nutter—had worked side by side in this office for more than a decade and been best friends since high school. Over the years their friendship had weathered every storm, from the ruination of Ellie’s two fragile marriages to Peanut’s recent decision that smoking cigarettes was the key to weight loss. She called it the Hollywood diet and pointed out all of the stick-figure celebrities who smoked.
Grinning at Cal, she placed her hands on the desk and pushed herself to a stand. The fifty pounds she’d gained in the past few years made her move a little slower. She walked over to the door and opened it, although they all knew there’d be no breeze to suck the smoke away on such a wet and dismal day.
Ellie went down the hall to the office in the back that was technically hers. She rarely used it. In a town like this, there wasn’t much call for official business, and she preferred to spend her days in the main room with Cal and Peanut. She dug past the signs from last month’s pancake breakfast and found a gas mask. Putting it on, she headed back down the hall.
Cal burst out laughing.
Peanut tried not to smile. “Very funny.”
“I may want children someday. I’m protecting my uterus.”
“If I were you, I’d worry less about secondhand smoke and more about finding a date.”
“She’s tried everyone from Mystic to Aberdeen,” Cal said. “Last month she even went out with that UPS guy. The good-looking one who keeps forgetting where he parked his truck.”
Peanut exhaled smoke and coughed. “I think you need to lower your standards.”
“You sure look like you’re enjoying that smoke,” Cal said with a grin.
Peanut flipped him off. “We were talking about Ellie’s love life.”
“That’s all you two ever talk about,” Cal pointed out.
It was true.
Ellie couldn’t help herself: She loved men. Usually—okay, always—the wrong men.
Peanut called it the curse of the small-town beauty queen. If only Ellie had been like her sister and learned to rely on her brains instead of her beauty. But some things simply weren’t meant to be. Ellie liked having fun; she liked romance. The problem was, it hadn’t yet led to true love. Peanut said it was because Ellie didn’t know how to compromise, but that wasn’t accurate. Ellie’s marriages—both of them—had failed because she’d married good-looking men with itchy feet and wandering eyes. Her first husband, former high school football captain Al Torees, should have been enough to turn her off men for years. But she’d had a short memory and just a few years after the divorce she married another good-looking loser. Poor choices, to be true, but the divorces hadn’t dimmed her hopes. She still believed in romance and was waiting to be swept away. She knew it was possible; she’d seen that true love with her parents. She lifted the gas mask and said, “Any lower, Pea, and I’d be dating out of my species. Maybe Cal here can set me up with one of his geek friends from the comic book convention.”