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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Killing Lessons

A Novel

Valerie Hart (Volume 1)

Saul Black

St. Martin's Press



The instant Rowena Cooper stepped out of her warm, cookie-scented kitchen and saw the two men standing in her back hallway, snow melting from the rims of their boots, she knew exactly what this was: her own fault. Years of not locking doors and windows, of leaving the keys in the ignition, of not thinking anything like this was ever going to happen, years of feeling safe-it had all been a lie she'd been dumb enough to tell herself. Worse, a lie she'd been dumb enough to believe. Your whole life could turn out to be nothing but you waiting to meet your own giant stupidity. Because here she was, a mile from the nearest neighbor and three miles from town (Ellinson, Colorado; pop. 697), with a thirteen-year-old son upstairs and a ten-year-old daughter on the front porch and two men standing in her back hallway, one of them holding a shotgun, the other a long blade that even in the sheer drop of this moment made her think machete, though this was the first time she'd ever seen one outside the movies. The open door behind them showed heavy snow still hurrying down in the late afternoon, pretty against the dark curve of the forest. Christmas was five days away.

She had an overwhelming sense of the reality of her children. Josh lying on his unmade bed with his headphones on. Nell in her red North Face jacket standing, watching the snow, dreamily working her way through the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup she'd negotiated not ten minutes ago. It was as if there were an invisible nerve running from each of them to her, to her navel, her womb, her soul. This morning Nell had said: That guy Steven Tyler looks like a baboon. She came out with these pronouncements, apropos of nothing. Later, after breakfast, Rowena had overheard Josh say to Nell: Hey, see that? That's your brain. "That," Rowena had known, would be something like a cornflake or a booger. It was an ongoing competition between the two of them, to find small or unpleasant things and claim they were each other's brains. She thought what a great gift to her it was that her children not only loved but also cagily liked each other. She thought how full of great gifts her life was-while her body emptied and the space around her rushed her skin like a swarm of flies and she felt her dry mouth open, the scream coming ...

don't scream ...

if Josh keeps quiet and Nell stays ...

maybe just rape oh God ...

whatever they ...

the rifle ...

The rifle was locked in the cupboard under the stairs and the key was on the bunch in her purse and her purse was on the bedroom floor and the bedroom floor was a long, long way away.

All you have to do is get through this. Whatever it takes to-

But the larger of the men took three paces forward and in what felt to Rowena like slow-motion (she had time to smell stale sweat and wet leather and unwashed hair, to see the small dark eyes and big head, the pores around his nose) raised the butt of the shotgun and smashed it into her face.

* * *

Josh Cooper wasn't lying on his bed, but he did have his headphones on. He was sitting at his desk with the Squier Strat (used, eBay, $225, he'd had to put in the $50 his grandma sent for his birthday three months back to swing it with his mom) plugged into its practice amp, laboring through a YouTube tutorial-How to Play Led Zeppelin's "The Rain Song"-while trying not to think about the porno clip he'd seen at Mike Wainwright's house three days ago, in which two women-an older redhead with green eyeshadow and a young blond girl who looked like Sarah Michelle Gellar-mechanically licked each other's private parts. Girl-girl sixty-nine, Mike had said crisply. In a minute, they go ass-to-ass. Josh hadn't a clue what "ass-to-ass" could possibly mean, but he knew, with thudding shame, that whatever it was, he wanted to see it. Mike Wainwright was a year older and knew everything about sex, and his parents were so vague and flaky, they hadn't gotten around to putting a parental control on his PC. Unlike Josh's own mom, who'd set one up as a condition of him even having a PC.

The memory of the two women had made him hard. Which was exactly what the guitar tutorial had been supposed to avoid. He didn't want to have to jerk off. The feeling he got afterwards depressed him. A heaviness and boredom in his hands and face that put him in a lousy mood and made him snap at Nell and his mom.

He forced himself back to "The Rain Song." The track had baffled him, until the Internet told him it wasn't played in standard tuning. Once he retuned (D-G-C-G-C-D), the whole thing had opened out to him. There were a couple of tricky bastard reaches between chords in the intro, but that was just practice. In another week, he'd have it nailed.

* * *

Nell Cooper wasn't on the porch. She was at the edge of the forest in deep snow, watching a mule deer not twenty feet away. An adult female. Those big black eyes and the long lashes that looked fake. Twenty feet was about as close as you could get. Nell had been feeding this one for a couple of weeks, tossing it saved apple cores and handfuls of nuts and raisins sneaked from her mom's baking cupboard. It knew her. She hadn't named it. She didn't talk to it. She preferred these quiet intense encounters.

She took her gloves off and went into her pocket for a half-eaten apple. Snow light winked on the bracelet her mother had given her when she turned ten in May. A silver chain with a thin golden hare, running, in profile. It had been her great-grandmother's, then her grandmother's, then her mother's, now hers. Rowena's distant family on her maternal side had come out of Romania. Ancestral lore said there had been a whiff of witchcraft, far back, and that the hare was a charm for safe travel. Nell had always loved it. One of her earliest memories was of turning it on her mother's wrist, sunlight glinting. The hare had a faraway life of its own, though its eye was nothing more than an almond-shaped hole in the gold. Nell wasn't expecting it, but on the evening of her birthday, long after the other gifts had been unwrapped, her mom came into her room and fastened it around her left wrist. You're old enough now, she'd said. I've had the chain shortened. Wear it on your left so it won't get in the way when you're drawing. And not for school, OK? I don't want you to lose it. Keep it for weekends and holidays. It had surprised Nell with a stab of love and sadness, her mother saying "you're old enough." It had made her mother seem old. And alone. It had, for both of them, brought Nell's father's absence back sharply. The moment had filled Nell with tenderness for her mother, who she realized with a terrible understanding had to do all the ordinary things-drive her and Josh to school, shop, cook dinner-with a sort of lonely bravery, because Nell's father was gone.

It made her sad now, to think of it. She resolved to be more help around the house. She would try her best to do things without being asked.

The doe took a few dainty steps, nosed the spot where Nell's apple core had landed-then lifted its head, suddenly alert, the too-big ears (they were called mule deer because of the ears) twitching with a whir like a bird's wing. Whatever the animal had heard, Nell hadn't. To her, the forest remained a big, soft, silent presence. (A neutral presence. Some things were on your side, some things were against you, some things were neither. The word isneutral, Josh had told her. And in any case, you're wrong: things are just things. They don't have feelings. They don't even know you exist. Josh had started coming out with this stuff lately, though Nell didn't for one minute believe he really meant it. Part of him was going away from her. Or rather he was forcing a part of himself to go away from her. Her mom had said: Just be patient with him, honey. It's a puberty thing. Another few years, you'll probably be worse than him.) The doe was tense, listening for something. Nell wondered if it was Old Mystery Guy from the cabin across the ravine.

Old Mystery Guy's name, town gossip had revealed, was Angelo Greer. He'd shown up a week ago and moved into the derelict place over the bridge, a mile east of the Coopers'. There had been an argument with Sheriff Hurley, who said he didn't care if the cabin was legally Mr. Greer's (he'd inherited it years ago when his father died), there was no way he was taking a vehicle over the bridge. The bridge wasn't safe. The bridge had been closed, in fact, for more than two years. Not a priority repair, since the cabin was the only residence for twenty miles on that side of the ravine and had been deserted for so long. Traffic crossing the Loop River used the highway bridge farther south, to connect with US-40. In the end, Mr. Greer had driven his car to the west side of the bridge and lugged his supplies across from there on foot. He shouldn't be doing that, either, Sheriff Hurley had said, but it went no further. Nell hadn't seen Mr. Greer. She and Josh were at school when he'd driven out past their house, but it couldn't be much longer before he'd have to go back into town. According to her mom, there wasn't even a phone at the cabin. When Sadie Pinker had stopped by last week, Nell had overheard her say: What the hell is he doingout there? To which Rowena had replied: Christ knows. He walks with a stick. I don't know how he's going to manage. Maybe he's out there looking for God.

Nell checked her pockets, but all the nuts and raisins were gone. The doe sprang away.

A gunshot exploded in the house.

Copyright © 2015 by Glen Duncan