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I got the call about the lost hikers at the start of what was supposed to be a romantic weekend with my girlfriend.
Stacey Stevens and I had been dating for only four months and hadn't yet gone away together to the sort of place where a man takes a woman in the hope of impressing her. But I had rented a small, outrageously expensive cottage on Popham Beach, down at the mouth of the Kennebec River. There was a fisherman's co-op nearby where we could buy lobsters and clams to steam on the propane stove, and a fancy inn farther down the road where we could have a dress-up dinner if we got tired of cooking. The screen door of the cottage opened onto a sandy path that led through dune grass to a mile-long beach with views of Seguin Island in the hazy blue distance. I had visions of sunbathing and skinny-dipping.
Things hadn't started well. As I was carrying in the luggage, I was bitten on the arm by a greenhead. Then we discovered that the plumbing didn't work, and I had to wait for the property manager to come while Stacey took a book down to the beach to read.
"You sure you don't want me to wait with you?" she asked.
"No, you should go ahead. What are you reading, by the way?"
She held up a hardcover volume with the title Chronic Wasting Disease in White-Tailed Deer.
"I've heard it's a real page-turner," I said.
"Ha, ha, ha," she said with a smile. She put on her sunglasses and went barefoot down to the beach.
Stacey was a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the umbrella organization for the Warden Service. She lived and worked near the New Brunswick border, where I had once had a patrol district. Over the summer, I'd been transferred to Division A, near Sebago Lake, in the southern part of the state, which had turned our relationship into a long-distance affair before it had really even begun. It was now a five-hour drive for us, door to door, although Stacey happened to be a pilot and had borrowed her old man's floatplane to come visit me.
She was a couple of years older than I was, almost thirty, with hair the color of mahogany and eyes the lightest shade of green I'd ever seen. She had high cheekbones, which she'd inherited from her mother, and a strong jaw, which she'd gotten from her father. She was thin, but not in an unhealthy way, not to my eyes at least. Her natural expression seemed to be one of guarded suspicion, but on the rare occasions when she laughed, her whole body shook. It was as if she worked so hard at repressing her enthusiasm that it came out with the force of an earthquake. I wished I could hear her laugh more. Her parents were such cheerful and optimistic human beings, I knew that she must be one, too. If I worked hard enough at loving Stacey, I was certain she would open up in time.
Her father, Charley, was a retired Warden Service pilot who still volunteered whenever we needed another pair of eyes in the sky. He and his beautiful wife, Ora, had practically adopted me when I was a rookie warden in desperate need of personal and professional guidance.
I'd been infatuated with their youngest daughter from the moment we'd met, but she'd been engaged to another man, the heir to a multimillion-dollar lumbering concern. When I'd revealed that he was tangled up in some bad business, Stacey had called off the engagement. The experience had soured her on men in general and me in particular. Finally, in June, I had mustered up my confidence and asked her out, secretly believing I had no chance in the world. To my surprise, she'd said yes.
Four months later, I was still praying that she would recognize we were soul mates. Stacey Stevens was everything I had ever wanted in a woman. We both loved the woods, and we shared the same disregard for authority, especially when it came unearned. She was smart and capable and feisty as hell. But there seemed to be a chasm between us I could find no way across. The beach house was my best effort to bridge it, and already I could see that I might need a new plan. We'd driven separate vehicles to our romantic getaway, so we hadn't even had that carefree time in the car together.
When she returned from the beach an hour later, her skin was browner than before, she smelled pleasantly of coconut suntan lotion, and I was still waiting for the property manager to fix the pipes.
"How much is this place costing you for the weekend?" she asked.
"You don't want to know."
"I don't think you're getting your money's worth here, Bowditch. I hope you're not bankrupting yourself."
I half-smiled and looked at my bare feet.
"What?" she said.
"I have a confession to make. It's kind of embarrassing." I gulped down a mouthful of air to prepare myself. "I have a trust fund."
"My stepfather set it up for me after my mom died last year. I didn't want to take the money, but Kathy Frost convinced me. She said, 'You're such a Catholic martyr. Give half to charity if you're feeling so guilty about it.'"
"I'm going to guess which charity you gave it to. PeTA?"
"Very funny." Stacey and I were both hunters. "I gave it to the Wounded Warrior Project."
"Because of your friend who was wounded in Afghanistan?"
I didn't like to think about Jimmy Gammon, who had come home from war disfigured beyond recognition and in constant agony, or the way he had chosen to die. "The way this country treats its veterans is a disgrace."
She came over, grabbed the back of my head with both hands, and slipped her tongue into my ear. Her breath was hot against my neck. "Have I ever told you how sexy your righteous indignation is?"
I cocked an eyebrow. "Are you teasing me, Stacey?"
"No, but I'm about to. Come with me."
That moment, as if on cue, the manager appeared at the screen door. He was a slow-moving and seemingly unapologetic character, and he banged around in the crawl space beneath the building for ten minutes before emerging with a wrench in his hand and a head wispy with spiderwebs.
"You're all set here," he said in a heavy Maine accent.
"So how about knocking a couple hundred dollars off the rent for the inconvenience?" said Stacey.
"Do you want me to leave the wrench?" the man replied.
"I'm serious, champ," she said. "How about a discount?"
"Enjoy your stay."
"Gotta love the customer service in this place," Stacey said with a full-body laugh after the manager had driven off in his minivan. "Now, where were we?"
She took my hand and pulled me into the little bedroom. It was wallpapered in seashell patterns and painted in soft beach colors.
I sat down on the mattress, and the springs made a rusty, complaining sound. "At least the bed isn't broken."
She tugged her T-shirt over her shoulders and head. "Not yet," she said.
* * *
The first time Stacey and I had slept together was the most intense sexual experience I'd ever had. The second time was even more exciting. By this point in our relationship, however, I'd begun to realize that our physical intimacy was fast outpacing our emotional intimacy.
I tried to make a joke out of it as we lay together now, listening to the pounding waves through the open window.
"You know, Stacey, sometimes I wonder if you're just using me for sex."
She ran a hand through my crew cut. "Oh, poor you."
"I'm not complaining!"
"You'd be the first man in history who ever did, Bowditch."
Before I could say another word, she slid off the mattress and disappeared into the shower.
I lay on my back, watching the breeze ruffle the thin cotton curtain. The midday sun angled in through the window and touched my groin and bare legs with its warmth. I could taste the salt air on my lips.
I was so positive that she was the love of my life, that the two of us were meant to be together, and yet she seemed content that we remain intimate strangers. Even her playful habit of calling me by my last name seemed like an attempt to hold me at bay.
My cell phone rang in the living room. I grabbed my jeans from the floor and pulled them on.
It was my new sergeant, Jason Ouellette, apologizing for interrupting my weekend. He said that two hikers had gone missing on the Appalachian Trail and asked if I could make myself available to assist with the search. The Hundred Mile Wilderness was a solid three hours' drive north of Popham Beach, in the remote Moosehead Lake region. While it wasn't unusual for wardens to be summoned to far-flung locales, the sergeant's request suggested a need for extra manpower that went well beyond the ordinary.
I heard the shower stop in the bathroom and felt a pang, not so much at the thought of losing hundreds of dollars on the beach-house rental as for the missed opportunity to make inroads with Stacey.
"Can you come?" asked Ouellete.
"Of course," I said.
Stacey stepped out of the bathroom with a terry-cloth towel wrapped around her body. I signed off with the sergeant and tucked the phone in the back pocket of my jeans.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Two women disappeared in the Hundred Mile Wilderness. They're thru-hiking the AT, and they were supposed to talk to their parents in Georgia three days ago. It doesn't sound good."
Some of the color seemed to drain from Stacey's suntanned face and she sat down, almost as if her legs had given way, on the edge of the pale sofa.
"They just graduated from Pentecost University," I said. "Have you heard of it? I never have."
"It's a Christian school down south. How old are they?"
"Twenty-one and twenty-two."
Her hair was dripping in her face, but her almond-shaped eyes had glazed over, as if she had fallen into a trance.
"What is it?" I asked. "Are you OK?"
"I was twenty-one when we hiked the Long Trail in Vermont, my friends and me."
I had a feeling that she was referring to the three women I'd met earlier that spring in the village of Grand Lake Stream, including her former girlfriend, Kendra. "Did something happen to you?"
Her pupils tightened into focus, but she still seemed shaken. "No."
"Then what is it?"
"We met some creepy men that week. But there were four of us. I can't imagine what would have happened if it had just been me and Kendra."
Stacey was a pilot and a scuba diver, a crack shot with a rifle or a pistol, and she could track the blood trail of a dying moose through an impenetrable swamp. As a wildlife biologist, she went alone into all sorts of dark places, and it had never occurred to me to worry about her. But her wavering tone made me wonder if something bad really had happened to her on the Long Trail and that for some reason she was unwilling to admit it. The thought that she might be keeping a secret troubled me.
"I don't have to volunteer for this," I said. "I can stay here with you."
She frowned, as if I'd just uttered some drunken nonsense. "You have to go, and you know it."
I glanced at our luggage, which was sitting where we'd left it beside the door. At least we hadn't unpacked. "I've already paid for the cottage. You can stay if you want."
"Not while those girls are missing."
"Maybe they'll show up tonight and I'll be able to turn right around and come back here."
She pushed the wet strands of hair out of her eyes and stood up, clutching the towel tightly above her breasts so it wouldn't drop. She returned to the bedroom without meeting my gaze again.
"I wouldn't bet on it," she said, her voice hard with certainty.
Copyright © 2015 by Paul Doiron