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I lifted the curtain flap. Twilight was one of my new favorite things; an extended time here in my new neighborhood in Alaska before and after real sunrise and sunset. As we came upon the end of October, twilight in Benedict lasted about forty minutes at each end of the shorter days. We only had about nine hours of daylight now, and for whatever reason, I’d come to count on looking at, or maybe just noticing, the twilight bookends. It was comforting to look out there; it filled me with a sense of peacefulness I craved, particularly in the mornings.
I’d been working on peaceful.
We’d had a little snow—just enough to make the view pretty, but not daunting. We’d also had plenty of rain and a few surprisingly warmer-than-normal temperatures. The combination had caused a mudslide somewhere on the edge of town, but, though it seemed to be a main topic of local conversation, it hadn’t hampered anything I needed to do. I’d heard Viola, my landlord, wishing for more snow and colder temperatures just to keep the mud from sliding farther. She’d be pleased by last night’s freeze.
I took a deep breath, focusing on a shadow inside the trees. I didn’t see anything unusual, nothing and no one looking back at me. I took another breath. It was as if I were perched on the edge of calm and comfortable, but couldn’t quite dive in. Peaceful was hard work, and I hadn’t been totally successful at acquiring it. But I wasn’t going to stop trying.
I closed the curtain and gathered my laptop and the two burner phones I still had from my escape from St. Louis five months earlier. I used my satellite hot spot here in my room, but it wasn’t as reliable as the internet and phone signals at the Petition’s shed, which I pilfered from the nearby library’s signals. The librarian, Orin, had invited me to use whatever I wanted.
The Petition, the local newspaper I ran—I was the only employee—also gave me a place to work my other job, the one that, of my new neighbors, only Gril, the local police chief, knew about.
It was my job as a novelist that had garnered me the attention of a stalker, one who’d taken me from my front porch and kept me in his van for three long days. I still couldn’t remember many details. And since he hadn’t been found, I still didn’t know who he was. Or where he was. So I’d stayed in Alaska, hiding, and trying to enjoy this primitive new world.
I put my things into my backpack and swung it over my arm. I wore good hiking boots, good socks, a great coat, and gloves that sometimes actually made my hands too hot. I was good at winter gear now.
I slipped a hat over my newly blond hair—the color change a result of the trauma of being kidnapped—and the scar that announced I’d had brain surgery to clear a subdural hematoma. The haircut I’d given myself in the hospital bathroom with blunt-nosed scissors had grown out a little, but the scar might always be noticeable.
I didn’t care in the least about how I looked, except that I didn’t want to look anything like novelist Elizabeth Fairchild.
Mission accomplished, little lady. I smiled as I remembered the words being spoken in a different context, by the pilot of the plane that had brought me from Juneau to Benedict. Hank Harvington, with the help of his brother, Francis, ran the local airport and flew the planes, and both were my friends now. Friendships were formed quickly in this part of the world. You had to learn who to trust. Mother Nature could be brutal. I suspected we were closing in on the time when I’d really see what she was made of, but for now, I was enjoying the light snowfall and the milder temperatures. And that smoky twilight.
I slung my pack over my shoulder, left my room, double-checked the door lock, and made my way out to the lobby. I was surprised to come upon my landlord, Viola, and another woman.
“Beth, this is Ellen,” Viola said. “She’ll be staying with us, probably through the winter.”
I tried to be cool, not let Viola see that the introduction had unsettled me. There hadn’t been a new resident at the Benedict House since June, when the three who’d been there had been sent away—only one of them to supervised freedom. The other two had been in some trouble, though I hadn’t received an update as to exactly how much. But it looked like we were going to have more company.
The Benedict House, my home away from home, was a halfway house, a place for parolees to spend some time under Viola’s watchful eye and loaded revolver before they went to live on their own. I’d gotten a room there somewhat by accident, in my hurried planning. When you have only a few minutes to find a place to hide, details can get overlooked.
At first, I’d been thrown by the news that I’d be living with possible criminals, particularly after escaping from one, but I’d accepted it, and then enjoyed the reprieve when those first three had left. It was a place for female residents only, after all. And supposedly nonviolent ones at that, though lately I’d heard some stories to the contrary.
I had enjoyed sharing the space with just Viola. In fact, there’d been some talk that the Benedict House wasn’t going to welcome any more “clients” because of some of Viola’s missteps back in June. But all must have been forgiven.
“Hello,” I said, an obvious forced friendliness to my voice. I extended my hand, though I’m not sure Ellen noticed either my tone or my hand.
The woman was strung out. It wasn’t a difficult look to recognize. Skinny, with gray skin, a blemished face, stringy hair, glazed eyes. Twitching everywhere.
She didn’t extend her hand but crossed her twiglike arms in front of her chest instead, tucking her hands into her armpits. Her glassy eyes couldn’t quite focus on me as she nodded and bit her chapped bottom lip.
I looked at Viola.
Viola frowned and shook her head once. “Ellen’s going to have a few rough days and nights. Sorry if she gets noisy. She won’t be able to cook for a while, but we’ll get her on it as soon as possible. Until then, you’re still on your own for meals.”
“Sure,” I said. I’d been given kitchen access, but most of the time I ate at Food, our simply and aptly named local diner/café. One of Viola’s rules for the involuntary residents was cooking duty. Just like for some royalty over the centuries, she’d have them taste-test the food before anyone else ate. If they didn’t keel over, the rest of us could partake. For the record, I hadn’t witnessed anyone keeling over.
Ellen sent a confused blink to Viola. She was in for a lot of surprises.
I wondered if Viola was equipped to handle Ellen’s upcoming struggles with withdrawal. I was sure Viola had seen it all before, but it was going to get ugly. My landlord cut an imposing figure: a tall, stocky woman who wore her high-crowned fedora better than even Indiana Jones wore his. As far as I could tell, she never got sick even though she also never donned a coat thicker than what I’d call a jacket.
“All right.” Viola grabbed Ellen’s arm and guided her around me and toward the stairway that would take them up to the rooms where the clients stayed. “Let’s go. Have a good day, Beth.”
“You too,” I said as they turned onto the stairs.
Originally built as a Russian Orthodox church, the Benedict House had spent some time as a real inn, one with moose tiles in the bathrooms and thick comforters on the beds. Twenty years earlier, though, it had been deemed structurally unsound. If a big earthquake hit, chances were pretty good the walls would come down.
But apparently it hadn’t been unsound enough to raze, just precarious enough that the owners could no longer safely welcome paying guests. The State of Alaska purchased the building, and it suddenly didn’t have to meet the same standards an inn would. How about a halfway house, someone thought. Twenty years and lots of earthquakes later, it was still standing.
Viola had only told me that story recently. I thought about the walls every now and then but didn’t spend much time being concerned, even if I had experienced one quake that got my attention. I’d been in my room, and the chair I’d been sitting in had rumbled and creaked. I heard a loud noise like a freight train. After a few moments, everything calmed, and the walls remained upright. Afterward, I wondered if I’d truly felt what I thought I’d felt. Viola later confirmed that it had, in fact, been an earthquake. Since she hadn’t been worried, I’d decided not to be, either.
Even after most of the summer tourists left Benedict and rooms opened at other lodgings, I hadn’t found any other place to live that appealed to me, so I’d stayed. I liked having Viola close by: an imposing woman with a gun who I thought was smart enough to know when it was needed. I hadn’t seen her draw it yet, but I knew she would if she had to. I hadn’t told her about my kidnapping, but I’d been thinking about doing so lately.
I sent one more glance down the hallway, but Viola and Ellen were well out of sight. I wasn’t there to work for Viola, but she and I had become friends. A part of me wanted to ask her if there was something I could do to help. But, no, of course there wasn’t. That wasn’t my job.
Besides, I had my own issues. And my own jobs.
Even with the overnight freezes and the layer of white snow, there was still a lot of mud everywhere. Viola had put a mat by the front door where we kept our mud boots.
I slipped my long brown rubber boots over my hiking boots, keeping my jeans tucked inside, and grabbed my truck keys from my coat pocket. As I stepped outside, twilight was giving way to sunrise. It was cold but the sky was currently clear.
I glanced toward the other buildings that were part of the small downtown corner. Their signs read “Food,” “Mercantile,” “Post Office.” Randy, the proprietor of the mercantile, stepped out of his building and moved to the edge of the boardwalk. He put his hands in his pockets and seemed to be distracted, but he noticed me soon enough.
“Beth. Hey, how goes it?” he called; we weren’t far away from each other.
“All’s well, Randy. You?”
“I’m okay,” he said after a long pause.
The boardwalk was covered by an awning that extended out from the front of the retail buildings but not in front of the Benedict House. I lifted my feet through puddled mud and walked toward him, glad when I came upon a drier patch, but not sure what to do with all the mud I’d gathered. I tapped the sides of my feet on the edge of the boardwalk, cleaning them off well enough to venture farther.
I did and didn’t know Randy Phillips well. We hadn’t shared a meal or even a drink, but I’d shopped in his store and he’d let me have an account. Our conversations had been brief and without substance, but I’d decided that I liked him and could trust him as much as anyone.
Randy was probably almost sixty, but seemed like he was still in his forties. The mercantile kept him moving, kept his joints lubricated, he claimed. He wasn’t married and kept his salt-and-pepper hair just long enough to always look messy.
“What’s up?” I asked as I joined him.
I laughed. “Okay. I don’t believe you.”
He sent me a quick smile and then looked in the direction of the ocean. I turned that way, too, though from where we were standing, we couldn’t see the water. The shore was a couple of miles away and the view was blocked by tall spruce trees, their tops currently threaded with fog. Carmel, one of the horses that roamed around town, came into view. He moved toward us, high-stepping along one of the only two paved roads. It seemed as if he’d seen us and thought we might be waiting for him. I wished I had a carrot or an apple.
I looked back at Randy. “Really, you okay?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” he said.
Another long moment later, he nodded to himself before he looked back at me. “Do you know where I live, Beth?”
“No.” I might have assumed he lived in the back of the mercantile, but I hadn’t given it any thought.
“Out past your Petition shed and beyond the library.”
My Petition shed was where I wrote and printed a new edition of the paper every week. Its content included events like community center class times, local meetings regarding everything from the Glacier Bay Lodge gift shop hours to where a new concrete parking strip for some place or another might be poured come springtime, and if the diner had enough halibut to offer special prices to locals for a few weeks.
“Okay,” I said. “That’s pretty far out there.”
“I live way out in the woods. I like it that way. I talk to so many people throughout the day that it’s good to get away from the rat race, you know?”
I suppressed a laugh. I didn’t know exactly how many customers Randy saw in his store, but there weren’t very many people around, even when tourists filled the inns and the fishing boats during the summer. I hadn’t seen any sign of a rat race since I’d left St. Louis. But Randy wasn’t joking.
“I understand,” I said.
Randy looked out toward the Petition office now, but there was nothing to see there but more trees. He said, “I heard some noises last night.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like them before.” He looked at me. “I’ve lived here six years or so, Beth, and I’ve never heard sounds like what I heard last night.”
“Can you describe them?”
“Neither. Something in between.”
“Did you go out and look?”
“I opened my door and flashed a light, but I didn’t see anything.”
“It’s really on your mind. Maybe you should call Gril, let him know.”
“I called Donner when I got in. No phone out there. Donner headed out to my place earlier this morning. I’m waiting for him to get back.” He sent me another worried frown. “What if someone was in trouble but I didn’t go help them?”
Donner, a park ranger and part of Gril’s team, was the one to call if a wildlife emergency presented itself, among other things. If you could reach him, that was. There were only a few pockets of cell phone and internet coverage in the area. There were some landlines, but even they hadn’t been put in everywhere.
I shook my head. “No, Randy, you know you can’t think that way. You followed your gut; that’s all you can do. You might have gotten hurt. You can’t put yourself in a potentially dangerous situation, particularly out there where no one would find you in a timely manner.”
My words came directly from one of the community center classes I’d taken. I’d promised Donner I would take any survival and self-defense classes that might be offered. If I was going to live in this wild place, I needed to have some smarts about it.
Carmel had stopped at the statue of Ben the Bear, a black bear. The statue wore a friendly smile, made for the tourists, as the horse sniffed the muddy ground around it.
“I know I have to be smart, but I sure wish Donner would get back,” Randy said.
“Sure.” Randy took a deep breath and reached into his pocket. “Too damn muddy out there for me, but here are some carrots for the horse if you want to take them out to him.”
“Sure. Thanks.” I took the carrots as Randy turned around to head back inside.
But then he stopped and faced me again. I waited as he seemed to think about what he wanted to say.
“Did that body ever get identified?”
There had only been one unidentified body discovered in the area since I’d moved to town, so it didn’t take me long to figure out what he was talking about. Shortly after I arrived in Benedict, a body had been found near the ocean. It was a man, dressed in jeans and a white dress shirt. I still remembered wondering why the dress shirt wasn’t dirtier as the cold ocean water lapped at the rocky shore and over his body. Later, I thought it had been a strange thing to notice.
Gril had called me to the site to ask me if I could see anything unusual. An earlier murder, one that had occurred right when I first came to town, had been solved partially because of something I’d observed.
I had a sense of spatial distances that wasn’t common; it was how I’d come to help my grandfather, the police chief of a small Missouri town, when I was working for him as a teenager.
I shrugged. “Not that I know of. Why?”
Randy’s mouth made a hard, straight line as he looked out into the woods and then back at me. “Just wondered.” Then he pushed through the door of the mercantile and went inside.
I glanced toward the road I thought Donner would be traveling, but I didn’t see his truck or anyone else coming in this direction. I contemplated following Randy inside to talk to him some more, even if I wasn’t sure what there was to say.
Finally, I looked at the horse and whistled. Carmel looked up, and I held out the carrots. He walked right to me.
“Hey, you.” I petted his nose.
He gobbled the carrots gently but greedily. He and the two other horses, Coffee and Cream, were domesticated enough that they roamed around on their own. They had a home and were, in fact, well taken care of. But they’d gotten out one day, and the literal and figurative barn door hadn’t been closed since.
I worried about them mingling with all the other wildlife in the area, but had been frequently told they were fine.
When I first moved to Benedict and asked what wildlife I could potentially run into, I’d been told “all of it.” I hadn’t had any scary run-ins, but I’d seen my share of bears, moose, wolves, and porcupines—lots of porcupines. I knew how to keep a respectful distance, and though I didn’t consider myself wildlife smart yet, I’d become less stupid. At least I hoped so.
Once the carrots were gone, the horse had no interest in me. He turned and carried on with his morning explorations, bidding me adieu with a noisy snort. I wondered if I’d ever again be able to live in the kind of place that didn’t have horses roaming around freely.
I looked around as I pulled my cap down over my ears. It was early, just after eight. Maybe it was the conversation with Randy, maybe it was just the cold, but now, as I looked into the woods again, goose bumps rose on my arms.
“Just get to work,” I muttered, shaking away the chill.
As I made my way back to the other side of the Benedict House, I glanced up to its second-story windows. One was illuminated, probably the window to Ellen’s room. Was Viola there, too, or was Ellen alone and scared?
My truck was old, a purchase I’d made from Ruke, a local Tlingit man. His sister had driven it until she left to marry a man from another tribe. I was surprised every time the engine turned over, but it had never once sputtered. Even this morning, it started right up, and its almost-new tires got me onto the unpaved road that would take me to the Petition. The road had become covered in enough foliage that I wasn’t mired in mud, but it wasn’t an easy drive. Like Viola, I also looked forward to everything freezing over. Of course, other issues would come with that.
I was almost to the Petition’s building, an old tin-roofed hunting shed, when I saw vehicle lights coming my direction. I hoped it was Donner, and I hoped he hadn’t found anything terrible.
I pulled over a little, put the truck in park, and rolled down the window, having to push in the crank with my right hand as I rolled with my left to keep the handle from falling off. I loved my truck.
The oncoming vehicle was, in fact, Donner’s, but it didn’t look like he was going to stop. I put my arm out the window and waved.
He sent me a look I couldn’t quite decipher, other than that he wasn’t happy. He slowed to a halt and rolled down his window. He was dressed in his brown park ranger garb, and a Russian-style fur hat covered his head. His beard took up so much of the rest of his face, I often thought it was a good thing he had such bright green eyes, or no one would be able to distinguish the back of his head from the front.
“What’s up, Beth?” he asked, brusquely. “You okay?”
“I’m fine … I talked to Randy. Did you find anything out there?”
Donner squinted. “What did he tell you?”
“He heard a strange noise.”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“Donner?” I said when he didn’t continue.
“Listen, don’t go out there, and don’t drive past the Petition building today. The weather has caused some unexpected shifts in the roads. Okay?”
“Sure. I never go farther than the library,” I said.
There was something I could only describe as “tight” to his voice. It was more than shifts in the land, mudslides, concerning him. I was curious, but certainly not brave enough to go exploring on my own.
“Don’t even go that far today. Just to the Petition. Got it?” he said.
“Do what I say, Beth. Okay?”
He rolled up his window. His wheels spun for only a second as he put the truck in gear and drove away. I almost turned around and followed him back to the cabin that housed the local police to ask more questions, but no one cared about my position as “the press.” It wasn’t that they didn’t respect me; this part of the world was theirs, Gril’s and everyone else’s who made this wild place a safe place to live. Freedom of the press just wasn’t their priority. I’d stay out of the way for now.
I’d hear the details, probably in gossip form, soon enough. I’d head back to town for lunch later and learn what was going on. More than anything, I hoped Randy was okay.
I put my truck back into drive and continued to the Petition.
Copyright © 2020 by Paige Shelton