The Darkest Winter - Beginning Chapters


Prologue

Elle

I struggled to open my eyes and discern where I was. Crammed. Head throbbing. I could barely make out the windshield as I blinked to focus.

“If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times. It’s all a conspiracy.” The male voice sounded far away, frenzied yet familiar. “You thought this was a democracy—that we had a say in what happened in this country? Who were you working your fingers to the bone for, before the shit hit the fan? You’re delusional if you think it was for yourself.”

My mind spun and cold air nipped at my skin.

The voice was laughing . . . An echo I’d heard many times before, grating and almost hysterical.

The radio crackled. “Here you all thought I was the delusional one.”

Thud—thud.

Blood pulsed through my head and ears, gravity pulling on me as I hung upside down.

Thud—thud.

“You think everyone going mad was accidental? The joke’s on you, my friend. The joke is on you.”

The clawing fear dulled as I tried to remember what happened.

I was driving . . .

My arms hung heavy as a biting pain shot up my tendons, sending me back to the cusp of unconsciousness.

“Wake up, world! Or whatever’s left of us. You are not in control. You never were. It was all a smokescreen, and they played you like my uncle Earl’s fiddle.”

The radio crackled again, and his voice faded in and out as I blinked, registering the shuffling sound beside me.

“Sophie?” I rasped.

One boot. Two boots. Upside down. They were covered in blood.

It was not Sophie.

I needed to scream—to get out of the vehicle and find the kids—but all I could think about was endless sleep.

“If you survived the pandemic, it was for a reason.” The radio voice looped through my head as blackness consumed me. “Welcome to the goddamn Apocalypse.”


PART I

Four months earlier

DECEMBER 7


Chapter 1

Elle

December 7

I couldn’t stop my foot from bouncing as Dr. Rothman and I sat in silence. The pipes in the wall clanked as the heat kicked on and off, trying to keep up with the arctic temperatures seeping into the building. The soft gray hue of the setting sun filled the room, washing over the mahogany bookshelves and mauve carpet.

“Elle,” Dr. Rothman prompted from her chair across from me. “Do you want to say more about your dreams?”

I leaned back into the couch and picked at the loose thread in the cushion. The thread had been there since my first visit nearly a year ago, and I wanted to cut it for her every visit since, but it didn’t seem appropriate.

“I’m not sure what else there is to say,” I told her. “It’s like I hear things in my room, see a dark form standing at the end of my bed, and I can’t move or speak.”

“It’s an ominous presence,” she clarified. “Not like a guardian watching over you, but something dark—monstrous, perhaps?”

Monstrous was a word for him, but I shrugged. “It’s just a man.”

“Is it him?”

I peeled my eyes away from the maddening cushion string and looked at my therapist. Her straight, black bob brushed against her shoulders as she lowered her brow, awaiting my reply. She was the most patient, immaculately put together person I knew. But then, I didn’t know very many people. I told myself I liked it that way.

“Elle?”

I stared at her. Was it possible to dislike someone and feel gratitude at the same time? I wondered it every time I was in her office. I hated the expectant expression that always creased her brow, both stern and soft, and the way she made me feel beholden to her. I’d made a point to never feel beholden to anyone ever again. But she was different.

“You requested this meeting today,” she reminded me.

“Yes,” I said, clearing my throat. “It’s him. It’s always him. I can feel his presence even if I can’t always see him in the darkness.”

“Does he ever move?”

My hair stood on end, imagining he stood beside me now. I knew how it would feel—a cold sweat, frozen in place, and unable to breathe. “Yes. He moves.”

“But he doesn’t touch you?”

“Not in my dreams. He . . . watches.” I stared at my fingernails, the nude paint chipped from picking at it the minute I got off the ship. I could remember the last time I let him touch me, like it was yesterday. It was as if his skin was still beneath my fingernails and I wanted to scrub it away. “It’s like he’s haunting me.”

Dr. Rothman shifted in her chair, the leather protesting as she swung her right leg over her left. “You think it’s brought on by his recent death,” she guessed, drumming up an image of my stepfather, good ol’ Dr. John, all over again.

I was more compelled to explain than to agree. “Sometimes I blink and he’s still there.”

Dr. Rothman lifted her chin. “Elle, have you ever heard of sleep paralysis? When a person’s caught between sleep and wakefulness?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve heard of it.” I tucked my dark hair behind my ear, uncertain I liked where she was going with this.

“Then you might know it’s common, especially in people with poor sleeping habits or who struggle to get a good rest.”

“You think that’s why Dr. John keeps visiting me in my sleep?” It didn’t seem likely, but then I didn’t have a doctorate in psychology like she did.

“Well, you said yourself you feel awake, and it feels like he’s there—real and inside your room.” She pursed her lips, which meant she was in analysis mode. “In sleep paralysis, the inability to speak and move generates fear, naturally, which feeds panic. It’s common to hallucinate apparitions, sometimes even hear them.”

“Well, I definitely don’t see ghosts or aliens,” I said wryly. But I had heard him whisper my name in my sleep. The hair on my arms stood on end again, and I rubbed the back of my neck.

“No, you see something much worse, don’t you?”

I cleared my throat. She got me there. I’d take the boogeyman over Dr. John standing next to my bed any day.

The heater kicked on again, and I stared at the vent in the floor, listening to its soothing hum as my mind drifted. “I panic,” I admitted. “I blink, like it will make him disappear, but he’s still there, like he’s really in my room.” My heartbeat thumped harder and louder in my ears, remembering.

“But you’ve had episodes like this before, with other dark figures that were not your stepfather.”

“Not for a while.”

Dr. Rothman’s mouth quirked in the corner, pleased. “So, you’re enjoying the shooting range then?” Of course she was pleased, the shooting range had been her idea, to give me a sense of control in my life, my safety in particular.

I could practically feel the weight of a pistol in my hand, the strain of my forearms as I pulled the trigger. It was power and control. It was sanity when my thoughts were dark and desperate. “Yes, the shooting range has been helping.” Until now.

“Good. What about relationships? Have you explored any since Ben?”

I snorted. “No. I don’t think I’m ready for that.” The early stages of a relationship were easy—they were mostly physical, and you could be whoever you wanted in the beginning. It was being real with someone I wasn’t ready for again. The crumpled brow. The pitying gaze. The unspoken judgement. The self-loathing that followed.

“Self-discipline is hard for you, Elle. Six months ago you might’ve rushed into another relationship, but you haven’t. Restraint is a big step.” Dr. Rothman smiled this time, big and wide the way a proud mother might. Maybe she was the closest thing I had to a mother, even if she was probably thirty-five, only ten years older than me. To a stranger, we might’ve resembled each other with our slender frames and brunette hair, though she was more like six feet to my five-foot-seven.

“What about your letters to your mother? Are you still writing them?” Dr. Rothman blinked, waiting.

Though I hated to disappoint her, I shook my head. “I’m not sure I see the point. She’ll never get them. I haven’t heard from her since the day she left, I don’t even know if she’s alive.” My mother took off when I was six and never looked back, leaving me and Jenny with the worst kind of devil—one that everyone else adored. My visit wasn’t about my mother though.

“I got a call from his estate,” I blurted, remembering the older woman’s voice on the other end of the line. This is Sandy Fields calling for a Miss Eleanor St. James. I’d been playing her words over and over for the past four days, uncertain what to do. “Dr. John left me everything.”

“Did he?” Dr. Rothman lifted an eyebrow. It was nice to know my stepfather could still surprise her too.

“His executor wants me to go to Eagle River to deal with his affairs.” I met her blue gaze. Anywhere near Anchorage was the last place I wanted to be. “So, it’s not just the dreams that have been bothering me,” I admitted.

Dr. Rothman was pensive a moment, turning her pen over in her hand before she leaned forward, resting her elbows on her lap. “While I didn’t expect, nor would I wish, for your past to show up at the foot of your bed, I think it’s good these things are moving closer to the surface, instead of weighing you down in a past you can’t control, lingering in a childhood you didn’t choose. It’s your adulthood that matters, right? The now. The monsters from your childhood can only haunt you if you let them, and this is the closing of a huge part of your life.”

“What are you saying?”

She clasped her hands in her lap. “I think the more you try to understand the monsters you’ve created in your mind, the more you can expel their power over you and move on.”

“Monsters I’ve created?” I repeated flatly.

“Your stepfather is in the past, and yet he still follows you around. He is one man—a dead man as of last week—who has set the stage for all others. You’ll never see him again, and yet he’s in your life incessantly, in all that you do. He’s in every man you meet and refuse to trust. He’s in your dreams at night. While it’s natural to internalize the past, it’s not healthy, and it doesn’t have to be that way, not forever. John is just a man, a horrible man, but he’s only a man and only has the power you give him.”

While Dr. Rothman’s words made sense, it was far from easy to flip a switch and make him disappear, no matter how badly I wished he would.

“Let me ask you this,” she said and straightened her shoulders. “If you saw him standing in front of you on a busy street, what do you think you would do?”

I imagined him wearing a gray trench coat with his clean-shaven face and hollow brown eyes. His salt and pepper hair would be slicked back without a strand out of place. He would smile the same false smirk that always gave his mood away.

My stomach turned.

“You’re having a visceral reaction about a dead man.”

My eyes narrowed on her of their own accord.

“Good, then you see my point. Feelings tend to govern us, not the mind. Find a way to move on from feeling the way you do because your brain already knows he can’t hurt you anymore.”

Feelings were everything, a warped heap inside me—fear every night as a child, knowing he was outside my window in the shadows, or dread when I could hear him breathing beside my bed and the air shifted as he reached for me. I let out an uneven breath, exhaling the tightness in my chest.

“Are you going to Anchorage?” Dr. Rothman finally asked.

I definitely didn’t want to, and I wasn’t sure I should care what happened to his things. I met her gaze. “I’m undecided.”

“Maybe it’s time to end this for good, Elle.”

Even if crawling into an obscure, dank hole of horrific unknown was preferable, I knew she was right. “You think I should go.”

She blinked at me.

“I figured you’d say that.”

“It’s why you came.”

Reluctant, I nodded.

“Who knows, maybe you’ll find your monsters are old and shriveled now,” she said, smiling.

“Ha.” A strand of hair fell in my face as I sat forward on the couch. “That’s an amusing image.” I tucked it behind my ear again.

Dr. Rothman looked at her watch, and though she said nothing, I knew my session was up.

“Well, that was fun.” I stood up with a stretch and grabbed my bag from the cushion beside me. It was old and covered in patches collected from the ports the cruise ship I’d worked on had stopped at over the past four years. All the places I had gone, searching for a life far away. And yet I always came back. Something unexplainable seemed to tether me to this cold, dark place.

Dr. Rothman stood. “Go to Eagle River, Elle.” Her blue eyes rested on mine with a subtle command in them. She wasn’t saying it as my therapist, but as my friend.

I nodded, non-committal, as the phone on her desk buzzed. She picked up the receiver, and I opened the door to leave.

“Oh, Elle?”

I glanced behind me.

“Happy Birthday.” A full, knowing grin engulfed her face, and she winked at me.

I hated birthdays.

“Thanks,” I muttered, and with a wave, I shut the door behind me. The hall was long, and I passed a few more offices on my way to the exit, before I stepped outside.

I folded the collar of my down parka up around my neck. The cold, crisp winter air stung my face and the inside of my nose. Snow lined the sidewalks and the rooftops of downtown Seward, but the harbor glowed with muted lights of blue and orange. Like the bay as the clouds set in, my mind felt foggy. Why did life have to be so exhausting?

Begrudgingly, I dialed my sister’s number and put the phone to my ear. How long had it been since I’d spoken to her? Months? Nearly a year? I pursed my lips as the phone rang and rang before it went to voicemail.

“It’s JJ. Leave me a message.” JJ? I hadn’t heard that nickname in a while. But that was Jenny, short and to the point. Typical.

“It’s me,” I said, uncertain why I’d called her to begin with. Jenny wasn’t the type of sister to console or commiserate with. She ran away the day we turned fifteen and led a life I knew almost nothing about. I didn’t blame her for leaving—I would have gone too, if she’d told me she was running away—but I did blame her for never looking back.

I cleared my throat. “I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but Dr. John’s dead. He left me the house, and—well, I’m thinking about going back for a few days.” I glanced down the sidewalk, knowing deep down she wouldn’t call me back. Regretting my call altogether, I hung up. Leave it to my identical twin to make me feel perpetually alone.

The screen darkened, and I gripped the phone tighter in my gloved hand. The ginormous cruise ship at port sounded its horn, and I peered at it longingly for the first time. I could leave with the ship tomorrow, spending the next week calling guests into the studio to take overpriced, choreographed photos that would end up forgotten in a drawer a month down the line, or I could be well on my way to Anchorage by then, headed to the one place I swore I would never return.

Despite the appeal of drifting out to sea, I knew what I had to do.


Chapter 2

Jackson

December 7

“Come on, babe,” I called down the hallway as I swooped the lasagna off the kitchen counter. I nearly tripped on Hannah’s favorite polka-dot slippers. Luckily, she’d made my favorite dinner, which more than made up for it. It was still warm, and Grandma Ross’s recipe made my mouth water just thinking about it, especially coming off twelve hours of patrol with little sleep. The scent had my stomach barking at me.

“Babe—”

“I’m coming,” Hannah sang. Since the end of the first trimester, she had a permanent lilt in her voice, a happiness. Pregnancy, I’d come to realize, suited her, and I couldn’t help smiling as I swung the side door open.

I kicked it back with my foot as the cold air breezed through. The stack of firewood against the garage was low. Great. The neighbors had their Christmas lights up and I hadn’t even started mine yet. I added that to my ever-growing honey-do list, along with finishing up the crib and starting my Christmas shopping. I glanced at the calendar hanging on the fridge. I still had a solid two weeks left. I’d be fine.

“Coming, coming,” Hannah sang again. Her boots dragged against the carpet as she hurried toward the door. At eight months pregnant it was more of a toddle than a run, but it made me uneasy nonetheless.

“Babe, be careful,” I told her, nodding to her coat on the rack. “And make sure you’re bundled up. It feels like it’s below zero out here.”

“Jackson, honey,” she said softly. “I’m pregnant, not nine.”

With a slight head tilt, I glared at her, eliciting a wink in return. “Warm the truck for me?” she simpered. “I’ll lock up the house.”

“I’m on it.” Clicking the fob in my pocket, I remotely started the truck. It grumbled to life in the garage as I stepped out onto the breezeway. The front yard was covered in white. It wasn’t surprising given it was dead winter, but the streets looked unplowed, just as neglected as they’d been at dawn when I got home. The last thing I needed to worry about was Hannah driving to work every morning on dangerous, unplowed roads, risking an accident and turning our unexpected bliss into another devastating loss.

I cleared my throat and stepped into the garage, elbowing the garage opener on the wall. The door groaned and protested open.

“It smells like a carburetor in here,” Hannah grumbled as I opened the back door of the truck and slid the lasagna inside.

“It’s called grease because this is a garage—my garage,” I warned her.

“I have an infuser—”

I turned to her with breakneck speed. “No more lavender,” I told her. The garage was the only place left in the house that didn’t tickle my nose every time I walked into it.

Hannah lifted her chin with feigned offense. “Suit yourself.” She walked around the front of the truck to the passenger side. “Do you think Kyle and Kelsey will have kids?” she asked as I opened the door for her.

“Um . . . I have no idea.” I took her hand and helped her into the cab. “Why? You willing to ignore the fact you don’t like Kelsey if she’ll give you nieces and nephews?”

“Maybe,” she said and settled in with a sigh. Her cheeks were already red with exertion and the cold, and her golden eyes gleamed. She was small, even with a belly double the size of her beer guzzling uncle, Sal. “Kyle would be a good dad,” she mused. “He’s so much like our father.”

Yes, her brother would be a good dad, but not just because he was like his father. Kyle Ross didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve like I did, and he didn’t hold grudges either, he thought life was too short for that. But he had a perspective many others didn’t, his six years in the infantry had seen to that. He’d seen more of the world than he’d bargained for, and if he had kids, it would be difficult for him. He above any of us knew how precious life was; he’d watched it slip through his fingers more than once, something he only talked about when he’d had too many beers and his heart felt too full. For now, he had a revived relationship with an old flame to navigate, and them moving in together was enough of a hurdle for the time being.

Thinking about Ross as a dad and knowing my own faults, I wondered if I would be a good father. Would I be too tough? Too rough around the edges, like Hannah often teased me? Would I baby her to the point of suffocation since she isn’t supposed to exist as it is? I wanted to think I’d be a good father, even if it scared me shitless.

“Where’d you go?” Hannah asked, watching me.

I chuckled and shook my head. “I was just thinking about the impending chaos. This time next year we’ll have a little girl to pack around with us.”

Hannah’s meditative smile curved into a grin. I knew that look. She had a secret, something I would either love or hate.

I crossed my arms over my chest and waited. “What is it, Han? Spill.”

With a trill of a laugh, she dug into her purse and pulled out an ultrasound image. “I got it at the doctor’s yesterday—”

I took the image of our daughter with greedy fingers. “How could I have forgotten—and you’re only just showing me?” I turned the image around in my hand.

“You were exhausted when you got home. I didn’t want to wake you.”

“You should have,” I admonished, admiring little shadowed ears and her little nose. “Holy shit,” I breathed.

Hannah stared at me, expectant.

“This is really happening.”

“Yes, it is,” she said with a laugh. “You said that last time.”

“I know, because sometimes I can’t believe it.” I would be a father. It wasn’t a hope or a wish anymore and felt more real than ever.

“And . . . I’ve decided on a name,” she whispered.

I met her smiling eyes. We’d considered plenty of names in the past, but after three miscarriages it became harder to discuss, to hope. This time, I wanted it to be up to her.

“Molly, after your mom.”

My heart squeezed so tight my eyes burned. “But—” I cleared my throat. Adaline Ross had made her wishes known the day she found out she was getting a granddaughter. “What about your mom—”

“I like Molly,” she said simply. “My mom will get over it.” She brushed the back of her mitten-covered fingers over my cheek. “I want our daughter to know about your mother and learn about your culture. I want her to be a part of that world, too.”

I leaned in and pressed a kiss to Hannah’s lips, inhaling her—burnt amber, and of course, a hint of lavender. My wife was the light I’d found in self-pitying darkness, the one who’d saved me from myself and the bottles of bourbon I’d used to drown myself in every night. She was the woman I most admired, and even in the seven years I’d known her, she never ceased to amaze me.

Resting my forehead against hers, I stared down at Molly’s image in my hand.

Unfortunately, it will never happen.

The chances are low. I wouldn’t count on it . . .

We’d heard it all, and had our hearts torn to shreds three times in the process, but eventually we’d proven them wrong. Six weeks turned into the first trimester, which turned into a month from Hannah’s January due date, and we were finally allowing ourselves to not only hope, but to expect—a baby . . . A family.

“Molly Adaline Mitchell,” I said softly. There was no reason Molly couldn’t have both of her grandmothers in spirit. “It’s perfect.”

“Yes,” she said. “It is.” Hannah tucked a loose hair behind my ear. “And you’re looking a bit unkempt, Officer Mitchell. I’m surprised your superior hasn’t written you up yet.”

“He wouldn’t dare,” I chuckled and handed her the sonogram for safekeeping. “But we will be late, and he might give me lip for that.”

Hannah clasped the seatbelt with a sigh. “Oh, all right. If we have to go.”

“Don’t sound too excited,” I muttered, and closed her into the truck. I hurried around to the driver side, my boots clomping against the cement, and then climbed inside and shut the door, locking us into the draftless cab. “You got me all distracted and now the truck isn’t warm.”

“I’ll survive,” she said, pulling the visor down. She ran her fingers through her long, blonde hair as she eyed herself in the mirror. “I feel fat but not gross fat,” she mused. “Healthy fat.”

Chuckling, I backed down the driveway, pulling carefully onto the road. “Healthy fat is a good thing, right?”

Flipping the visor up, Hannah sat back in her seat, settling in for our fifteen-minute drive toward Ross’s new condo on the other side of town.

“Yep. Though, I have to admit the sleeping part of pregnancy is getting more difficult.”

“Only a few more weeks, then you’ll really feel sleep deprived.”

“No,” she said. “You will.” She grinned, but she was right. Between twelve-hour patrol shifts and a newborn, our lives were about to take crazy to another level.

I turned out of our neighborhood and headed toward the highway. A car passed me, going the speed limit, but on unplowed roads it made me nervous.

“You should call him,” Hannah said, her voice low and contemplative.

It was a tone I knew well, and I glanced in the rearview mirror to scour the road behind me.

“Jackson—”

“I will,” I told her.

“I’m serious. I want your dad to know his granddaughter and be a part of her life if he wants to.”

“I know, I’ll call him. I promise. I’ve been preoccupied with the extra shifts and all the bureaucratic bullshit going on right now. They’ve been giving us the runaround about all the extra caution—crime throughout the country is on the rise, you know?”

“Yes, so you told me the last time I brought this up,” she reminded me.

My dad and I had three obligatory calls a year: Christmas, his birthday, and mine. Other than that, I didn’t think about him all that much. I never forgave him for forcing me to leave my Yup’ik family and heritage behind after my mom died, because he couldn’t cope.

“I’ll call him tomorrow on my lunch,” I promised, and squeezed her hand reassuringly.

She squeezed back. “Good.”

In three weeks, I would be the odd man out—me against two girls. I needed to get used to picking my battles, and losing them.


DECEMBER 8

Chapter 3

Elle

December 8

Driving to Eagle River was the longest two and half hours of my life. Olive, my clunky, green CRV made the trip without too much protest, though the ride was anything but smooth. The rattling in the dash bothered me more than usual, but I suspected that had something to do with my anxiety about going home more than poor Olive herself. Traffic in Anchorage proper didn’t help either, and if I was honest, Jenny blowing off my call hurt, even if I should’ve expected it.

I turned onto the frontage road. The Not A Through Street sign wasn’t the only landmark anymore. The other was a giant husky head with the big black font around it: Frontier Dog Tours. It was a weather-ravaged sign, but I’d never seen it before, so it couldn’t have been more than seven or so years old at most.

Inwardly, I chuckled. Dr. John must’ve been elated to learn he was getting neighbors, a bunch of loud, four-legged ones that would no doubt disturb his morning coffee on the back deck of his secluded, modern ranch house.

I didn’t think much more about it as I neared the estate. It wasn’t a mansion, but it was large and sprawling, just like the land he and my mother built it on.

The driveway opened on the left side of the road, and I slammed on the brakes. There was an old Ford pickup in the driveway, the same spot Dr. John’s Mercedes used to sit during the summer.

It took a split-second to remember he was dead, and another second to recall he would never own a truck so old and rusty. Either the sweet-sounding executor, Sandy, was more badass than I thought and had arrived early for our meeting, or I had a different visitor. I wasn’t quite ready for either one.

Pulling in beside the truck, I shifted Olive into park and peered through the windshield at a sight I thought I’d never see again. The house was just as I’d remembered it, with tall, floor to ceiling windows, and an arched roof. Despite the snow, I could even imagine the yard in the summer, perfectly manicured by Bruce, our gardener.

I hadn’t thought about him in years. He was a nice, retired Navy man who loved to talk about the good old days when life was equal parts work and play, and people tended to their garden for the satisfaction of creating something with their hands, instead of paying someone else to do it. He let me take pictures of him so I could practice using the digital camera Dr. John had given me on my sixteenth birthday. That was a bittersweet day, and I shook my sudden chills away.

I opened the car door, bracing myself for the blistering cold. The sky was graying as the clouds rolled in, so I hurried to collect my things from the back and made my way to the front door.

Weeks of snow covered the yard, but I knew there were lily beds underneath, one of Bruce’s most prized accomplishments. He’d shown me how to garden in a place hardened by permafrost most of the year, and how wood ash mixed with soil added more nutrients, encouraging life in unexpected places. Life is beauty, he’d told me. I scoffed at it then, but it was Bruce who told me you could see beauty in everything through a camera lens—you could focus on exactly what you wanted and capture it for an eternity. He told me to use photos as proof of what life could really be like.

As I stepped onto the porch, I eyed a set of fresh, large footprints in the snow that followed a covered path around the house. “Hello?” I called.

A gust of wind raked over me, coldness seeping into my spine.

“Hello there,” a man called out and stepped around the side of the house. He was over six feet tall, with broad shoulders, a gray goatee, and short hair that stuck out beneath his ski hat. “Can I help you, Ma’am?” He looked me over, eyes shifting from my face to my luggage and back.

“Actually,” I said as he took a few steps closer. “I’m wondering if I can help you. I’m Elle St. James. This is my house.” The words were clunky and forced even if they were true.

The man stopped a couple yards away—close enough for me to notice he had mud on his clothes, and what looked like dog hair, too. There was nothing overtly sinister about him, but something was off—something that made the hair on the back of my neck and arms stand on end.

His dark, close-set eyes narrowed on me. I was about to ask him to leave when he smiled. “You’re Dr. John’s daughter, aren’t you?”

“One of his stepdaughters,” I corrected, as politely as possible.

The man offered me his hand. “Thomas Mitchell. I run a dog kennel down the road. There have been several break-ins in the area lately, those end-of-the-worlders with any excuse to steal what isn’t theirs.” He glanced at the house. “I’ve been checking in on the place from time to time since John went to the hospital.”

I was glad to hear John hadn’t died in the house even if I knew it was a morbid thought. I wasn’t sure I could handle being in the house at all let alone knowing he’d died there.

Thomas shoved his hands in his pockets. “I was sorry to hear what happened to him.”

“Yes, well, thank you, Thomas, for looking in on the place.”

“You can call me Tom, Miss.”

I nodded. “I’ll be here for a few days, so you’re off duty.”

He pursed his lips and lowered his chin in understanding. “Very well.”

I turned for the front door.

“Will you sell?”

I looked back at him. “The house? Yes,” I said, the answer rolling easily off my tongue. “I hope to have it on the market within the next couple days.”

“You don’t waste time,” Tom said with a grin. “I admire that.”

I smiled as politely as I could, but I didn’t want to prolong my visit any more than I had to. “Yeah, well, I have a cruise ship leaving this weekend in Port of Seward, and I need to be on it.” I switched my luggage from one hand to the other, and glanced up at the dark clouds. “I better get inside and get the place warmed up. It looks like a storm’s coming in.”

“It’s supposed to be nasty, Miss. Like I said, I’m right down the road if you need anything.”

I waved a thank you, and Tom finally turned to head for his truck. As soon as he was inside and backing down the drive, I reached into the pot of frostbitten plants and grabbed the hide-a-key rock Sandy had left for me.

With steadier hands than I’d expected, I put the key in the lock. I hadn’t been home since I’d bolted on my seventeenth birthday, eight years ago. Glancing through the windows, into the dark house, I expected to see Dr. John standing in the hallway, watching, but the vast surrounding forest was all that reflected back at me.

After a few jiggles of the knob, the latch turned, and I pushed the door open. A waft of cold, stale air hit me, and I lumbered inside with my things. I shut the door, closing myself in the musty house, and let out a deep, even breath as I turned around. It’s just a house. The unwanted memories were like photographs I could lock in a box and shove under my bed to forget about. I could do that.

Unwrapping my scarf, I switched the entry light on and abandoned my things by the door. First things first—the thermostat. After three steps and a shimmy into the frigid room, I clicked the heat on and the unit kicked to a roar in the attic. It was noisier than I remembered, but it worked.

Dr. John always had the best of everything, which meant it was state-of-the-art in its day. Money afforded a lot of luxuries, and elaborate charades, like trips to Sea World, cruises to the Caribbeanperfect family outings that were all for show. But it also meant everything was weather-proofed, so I could bank on working water pipes too, even if the house had been uninhabited and left to the elements for a few weeks.

Heat hissed from the vents in the ceiling, and I rubbed my jacket-clad arms in anticipation of warmth. I was uncertain how to proceed as I peered around the living room.

The interior was just as I’d remembered it, stark and masculine, but precariously clean. The remote was in the black tray in the center of the coffee table, the metal coasters stacked in their holder beside it. The same gray suede couch sat in front of the fireplace with the large flat screen mounted above it. The only noticeable changes were a pair of worn, wool-lined slippers that sat next to the recliner, and a set of bifocals resting on a Holy Bible on the side table. I hadn’t been expecting that.

To anyone else they would be normal items—an old man’s glasses left behind. Dr. John hadn’t worn glasses when I’d known him, though, and he definitely wasn’t reading the Bible back then either. Even the slippers seemed strange too, like they were too comfortable, too casual for him. Dr. John Tomlin was a man of control and precision. He didn’t have time to relax or read a book. He was severe and calculated and always knew your weaknesses. You want a new camera? Here’s what I want in return . . .

Dr. John was an older man to begin with, wealthy and suave all his life, which is probably how he caught my mother in his net, not that I knew much about her other than her taste in men had been amiss. But I imagined his back stooping more and more as he turned into a lonely, regretful old man alone in his big, fancy house.

Taking a deep breath, I unclenched my teeth and stared at the Bible on the side table. At which point had he decided to leave me everything, knowing how much I hated him? Knowing I’d been willing to blackmail him to never have to see him again? Pictures never lie. Bruce had told me that.

Then it dawned on me. Bruce had known.

A cold, heavy mass pressed against my chest as I took in a shallow breath. Bruce knew. I let the unexpected truth settle in. For the first time, I realized why he asked me so many questions about Dr. John, and why they’d been fighting in the driveway the day Bruce left and never came back. Part of me was heartbroken, but elated when Dr. John kept his distance for nearly a year. It was all part of a plan—a deal brokered between them I knew nothing about.

My mind swirled with understanding, and I shivered as the house creaked in the howling wind. No more shadows, I thought and switched on the table lamp to brighten the somber afternoon. The watermark on the coffee table caught the light, and I thought of Jenny. She’d purposely left a sweaty glass of ice tea on it one summer.

Defiance had been her armor. I hadn’t realized it for the longest time. She was a smart-mouth, unruly girl that Dr. John learned quickly wasn’t worth the risk. She spoke her mind, was loud when he wanted quiet, talked back when he demanded submission.

Meanwhile, I was too afraid of what would happen if I challenged him. I never considered the ramifications of silence would be worse. I was the one who was punished for her disobedience, and deep down I think she knew that. But then Jenny had never thought much about anyone other than herself. She’d been convinced our mother would never leave us because moms don’t do that, and when I told her to grow up, I think she’d written me off for good.

The hardwood floors, brittle from the cold, creaked as I walked through the rest of the house. The kitchen was smaller than I remembered but much the same; six chairs nestled around the long, oak dining table with only a single place setting for one.

I crossed the living room toward the hallway and hesitated outside the first room on the left. My room. As much as I wanted to keep the door closed, my hand reached for the doorknob and opened it.

Somehow, I’d convinced myself that Dr. John would’ve turned it into a gym or a guest room after I left, but it was exactly as I’d left it, save for the open drawers and discarded clothes I’d left in my wake. There were no incriminating photos though, nor a nasty note telling him there were more where that came from. He’d straightened it and kept it clean, his need for control ensured that.

The lotions and body sprays that littered my dresser were the same ones I’d left behind. The quilt my mom made for me when I was born, the one that matched Jenny’s, was still folded at the foot of my bed.

Fleetingly, I wondered if Jenny was right—that there was more to our mom’s abandonment than Dr. John had told us. She had always been meek and submissive, so I hadn’t been surprised the day she finally broke and disappeared into the night, like an ailing cat slinking away to die alone in peace.

I clenched my hands at my sides, my fingers sweltering in my mittens.

Suddenly too warm to breathe, I pulled off my beanie and rushed out the bedroom door, slamming it shut behind me. I walked over to my purse and grabbed my phone to dial Sandy. I was closing a chapter, not opening an old, gaping wound. I couldn’t afford to spiral right now, and I was finished allowing them to have any more power over me. Screw them all—John, my mom, even Jenny. Soon it would all be a distant memory.


Chapter 4

Elle

December 8

Sandy cancelled our meeting about the house because of a sudden cold. To distract myself from a wasted day in my own personal hell, I had a taxi driver drop me off at Taps, a local hangout with cheap drinks and a decent bartender, so said the driver. He was an older man who smelled of cloves and wore a leather biker jacket, which gave him some street cred in my book, even if it was illogical, but his recommendation didn’t disappoint.

Walking through the creaking door of Taps was like stepping into the past, complete with Formica tabletops, pleather swivel-seat bar chairs, and herringbone wood paneling along the back of the bar. The only thing I didn’t see was Patrick Swayze with his flowing brown locks and his arms crossed over his chest, looking pensive and ready to rumble.

The jukebox played low in the background, a song with a melodic country twang, but the place was warm and wasn’t a dark memory box like Dr. John’s, so I stayed. The scent of stale beer and musty wood was the least of my worries.

I shrugged out of my coat and hung it on the worn, wooden coatrack by the door. My North Face jacket was pretentious beside the beat-up leather one from the 90s and the trench coat draped beside it. The two men sitting at the bar stared at me, probably thinking the same thing. They nodded at me as I walked in, a bottle of beer in each of their hands.

With a quick nod in return, I pulled out an empty seat at the opposite end of the bar, smiling warmly at the bartender. He was an older gentleman with a balding, shiny spot on his head, overgrown beard, and a large beer gut.

He smiled back, his face open and bright, like Santa himself. “You a tourist?” he asked, studying my attire. Other than a long-sleeve shirt that covered my curves differently than his, we didn’t look all that dissimilar in our jeans and snow boots.

I shook my head and pointed to the Jameson two shelves up. “Here on business. A whiskey, please.”

He flipped a highball glass over and poured two fingers full. “A whiskey it is,” he said with a slight whistle. He placed the glass on a small napkin square and slid it to me.

I slid him my debit card in return. “You can start a tab.”

“You got it.” He turned to the cash register.

“Thank you.” I lifted the glass to my mouth and pretended not to notice the lipstick stain on the rim. Though drinking was never really a vice of mine, I felt almost desperate for it, and with a quick swish of the glass, I swallowed the spicy liquid down in one gulp. I reveled in the trail it blazed from my throat into my stomach and licked my lips.

“You’re a whiskey girl, huh?” The bartender’s brow crinkled. If I wasn’t mistaken, there was admiration in his non-question.

I shrugged. “By default. It’s the only thing my stepdad wouldn’t drink.”

“Ah. I see.” Amusement curved his lips.

Did he? His eyes fixed on me, measuring me up as I pulled out my phone to check the severity of the impending storm. Maybe the bartender had an inkling, since I assumed he was good at gauging people. It was part of his job, assessing if a patron would cause trouble and determining when one more drink was one too many. In a state with freezing temperatures most of the year where the natural beauty could be equally cruel and terrifying, I assumed he’d seen a lot of desperation in people’s eyes in his lifetime. I was probably no different.

As I was about to put my phone back in my purse, I noticed twelve unread emergency alert texts. I clicked the first message open. Below the image of a man, it read: Anchorage manhunt for assault and battery charges. I tapped it closed before I could read the rest. I’d been getting more and more notifications lately, and I didn’t need to hear about all that shit right now. I was on a mission to forget my problems, not get sucked into the desperate state of the world and humanity—both of which were completely out of my control.

There was a reason it took a certain type of person to thrive in Alaska. The arctic nights could stretch long, and dark thoughts ran rampant; a never setting sun in the summertime could create just as much disquiet. We lived in a place so far removed from one town to the next, it was easy to get lost in the restlessness. Traveling with the cruise lines helped, even if it was to have subpar conversations and get outside of my head for a week or two at a time.

“I’ll have another, please,” I said, running my fingers through my hair. The strands fell down around my shoulders, still not as long as they used to be—but getting there. I’d cut my hair after I’d left Dr. John’s house. He preferred Jenny and I with long hair, and illogically, I’d kept it short for years after, as though it might help keep him away—until I started seeing Dr. Rothman.

The bartender filled my glass again and slid it back to me. I turned it around and around, contemplating what I might do with the money I made from selling the house. Buy a new one? Move away from this place? I actually liked living in Seward. Being here, so far from the ocean, was strange. Moisture wasn’t heavy in the air like it was in Seward. Eagle River was further removed and cold in a way that made my bones ache at their core, and my body stiff. The whiskey though . . . I tossed it back, breathing out an invisible fire. Oh yeah, one more of these would do the trick.

“Looks like they have another update for us,” the bartender muttered.

The outbreak in the lower forty-eight had been making the headlines for the past week, a possible chicken flu outbreak from an unsanitary factory, which seemed to happen more and more frequently. With the increasing FDA regulations, I wasn’t sure I bought it, even if people around here were starting to get a tad nervous. We imported most of our food, so what was to keep the outbreak from spreading all the way out here?

Tugging the elastic band from my wrist, I pulled my hair up into a ponytail and turned to the flickering light of the television. I wasn’t sure if the heater was cranked up to a hundred degrees or if the whiskey was finally making its way through my veins, but I was growing uncomfortably warm.

The bartender turned up the volume on the flat screen.

“—Influenza hospitalization is at an all-time high. Joseph Hillman is in Georgia now—outside of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—awaiting an announcement from the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Kenneth Donaldson. Joseph, have you heard anything new since this morning?”

The screen flashed from the brunette news anchor to who I assumed was Joseph Hillman, standing outside the CDC. He was wearing a measly scarf and windbreaker, and a surgical mask hung around his neck. “No, Veronica, there’s been nothing new officially reported. The Virginia and Georgia departments of health still request everyone stay indoors as much as possible while they continue to investigate the multi-state outbreak of what’s said to be an avian flu. Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is said to be helping them with this, but there’s been nothing official reported. We already know they think the outbreak might’ve started at a chicken plant in western Colorado, but, again, there has been nothing officially announced.”

“Any idea why the East Coast would be so affected by an outbreak in Colorado? Have they claimed they are the same virus, or why they’ve had such difficulty containing it?”

Joseph shook his head. “No, they haven’t stated whether they’re connected, though there’s plenty of speculation circulating. We know there was an outbreak reported last week at two different plants owned by the King Corporation. Forty-two people were initially infected, and only six of them survived and remain in critical condition. Without knowing much more, you can imagine the panic here on the East Coast with so much uncertainty.”

Veronica’s eyes crinkled with apprehension. “With all the spreading panic, the CDC seems to be more quiet than expected.”

Joseph nodded. “There’s been a lot of vague talk, which makes most of us standing out here wonder if they’re still working on their answers. Hopefully, we’ll know more after their official statement tomorrow.” A gust of wind whipped over him, causing his scarf to flail around his body.

Veronica cleared her throat. “Has the King Corporation had anything to say about all of this?” I had to wonder just how off script she was going.

“Unfortunately, they could not be reached for comment.”

“The number of sick reported in Wales yesterday were staggeringly high as well. Is it possible it’s the same disease?”

“Again, there’s no way to know for sure.” Joseph looked exhausted and a bit perturbed by her questions, perhaps because he was standing out in the cold, or perhaps it was because he didn’t know the answers to very much at all.

He switched his microphone from one hand to the other. “One thing I can tell you,” he started, a bit reluctantly. “Is that historically speaking, the CDC operates on the basic principle that disease knows no borders. Statistically, this means in today’s interconnected world, diseases can be as dangerous as wildfire, spreading from an isolated village to any major city in the world in as little as thirty-six hours. This information was on their website last week, and as of today, I could no longer find it.”

Despite his calm and collected demeanor, the reporter’s foreboding tone gave his anxiety away, and a shiver shimmied down my spine. If the CDC wasn’t providing answers during a rising panic, that probably meant everyone was screwed.

The guy at the end of the bar set his beer down with a clank. “Thank God we’re way out here,” he muttered, but I couldn’t breathe as easily. The sticky fingers of fear crept over me. Just last week I’d met hundreds of people on a cruise, traveling from around the world, and my stomach knotted as I considered how many of them could’ve been sick.

“Can I getcha another?” the bartender asked, eyeing my empty glass.

“Um, yeah. Please.” I tried and failed not to wonder how long before a virus like that was out of control and what that would even look like.

“The name’s Terry, by the way,” he said with a weak smile. Either he could see the alarm on my face, or he felt it himself.

“Elle,” I said, flashing him a wavering smile back.

Terry poured me another shot, heavier this time. “It’s on the house.”


Chapter 5

Elle

December 8

My mind was spinning as Terry drove me back to the house. His old truck was loud and rattled over every bump in the road, making my stomach churn more and more as each minute passed. Although I’d had three or four shots, it wasn’t until I’d stood up to leave the bar that I realized just how drunk I was.

“I’d wanted to forget the past tonight,” I slurred. My tongue was heavy and thick in my mouth. I laughed. “I think I’ve accomplished that.”

Terry chuckled. “I think you did, Miss Elle.” He was a nice man, I’d decided. Among other things, I’d learned that he was very proud of his grandkids from Juneau, but wished he saw them more.

The headlights flashed on the dog kennel sign that was coming up fast. “It’s right here,” I directed.

Terry hit the brakes, thrashing me forward, and turned onto the frontage road. Had I ever been so drunk? I nearly lost the contents of my stomach as he drew closer to the driveway, and I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to be this drunk again.

As we pulled into the driveway, I thanked Terry for the ride and fumbled to remove my seatbelt. “That was fun. We should do it again.” But as the words came out, I knew I would never see him again.

“Here,” he said, shifting the truck into park. He was about to climb out and help me when I held up my hand, the passenger door swinging open. “I got it. Get home to your wife,” I told him. My mouth tasted sour, but I hadn’t even thrown up yet. Not that I could remember, at least.

I stumbled out of the car.

“Take care of yourself, Miss Elle.”

I flicked him a goodbye wave as I ran as fast and steadily as possible to the front door. The snow was cold as it clung to my face, the wind like sheets of ice against my skin, but internally, I was on fire. My insides rolled and burned, like they were smelted in a caldron, churning until I couldn’t take it anymore.

I clung to the porch railing and doubled over. Everything scorched its way up my throat as I expelled it into the hibernating rose bushes. My entire body trembled, and it took everything I had left in me to hold myself upright and not fall to my knees.

This sucks.

Pulling in a deep breath, I peered out at the driveway. Olive was parked under a thin blanket of snow, Terry was gone, and everything was dark. Despite the sweat dripping down my temple, I needed to get inside where it was warm before I froze to death on the stoop.

I fumbled for my keys, using the doorframe to lean against. I couldn’t focus. I could barely make my fingers work, and it felt like something rotted inside me. I didn’t feel drunk anymore; I felt like I was dying.

Minutes passed, or maybe only seconds, before I was in the sweltering heat of the dark house. I slogged into the kitchen. All I could think about was drinking water, but lifting my arm to reach a glass from the cupboard was nearly impossible. I stuck my cupped hand under the faucet instead, sighing with relief as cool water rolled off my skin.

Chills immediately followed, then momentary numbness, which was a welcomed sensation. Bending over, I slurped the water overflowing from my hand as quickly as I could, but it wasn’t enough. I needed more water. My stomach rumbled, my insides twisting into knots, and before I realized what I was doing, I was hauling my ass down the hall and into the bathroom.

I couldn’t breathe, and tears stung my eyes. I peeled off my suffocating coat and the scarf around my neck. What the hell’s happening to me?

I switched on the light and dropped to my knees on the tile. I needed to purge every rotten thing inside me if I would survive what felt like pure misery.

I retched into the toilet bowl over and over, until my insides were raw and cramping with pain. Nose running and eyes too heavy to keep open, I rested my burning cheek on the cold toilet seat. “God,” I pleaded. “Kill me now.”


DECEMBER 9

Chapter 6

Jackson

December 9

I stared at the clock on the dash. It was barely 1:00 a.m. and I still had another three hours before I got a break. My mind was numbing over, and I wondered how many more frantic calls I would have to take before my good Samaritan side wore off completely.

The long, drawn out beep of an emergency alert broadcast blared through my speakers, peeling a layer of haze back from my mind. I ran my hand over my face, dreading what came next. I wasn’t sure I could take another Amber Alert tonight.

“The following message is issued at the request of emergency management. Due to the possibility of a viral outbreak, a mandatory quarantine has been issued for all cities in Alaska with five hundred or more civilians. Alaska residents, including those in Juneau, Anchorage, and Fairbanks, are asked to stay tuned to television and radio stations for further updates.”

I blinked out the window at the black morning as the recording repeated. Things had gotten crazy in the past twenty-four hours, but quarantine? I reached for my phone and dialed Ross. Even if I was certain he would’ve told me about this if he’d known, he was my superior and would have far more information than I did.

The phone barely rang once. “Are you hearing this?” he said in answer.

“Yeah. You didn’t know?”

“No, I mean—the chief said things were worse than they were letting on, but he never said the word quarantine.”

I stared at the radio, waiting for it to beep again—for another Emergency System Alert that would explain what the hell was happening, not just contribute to the spreading fear. “Should we meet up at the PD and—”

“Shit—he’s calling. I’ll hit you up in a sec.” Then the line went dead.

Could things have worsened so much overnight? It was hard to tell out here where everything seemed normal, parked at an abandoned gas station on the side of the highway. Normal except for the paper-thin mask I was wearing as a result of an unexpected fever outbreak. Just a precaution, we’d been told.

Out here, the roads were white and desolate like any other winter night. In a matter of hours, I’d only passed a few cars on the stretch between Anchorage and the surrounding boroughs, but that’s how the back roads were in a territory where miles of wilderness stretched between one unincorporated town and the next.

Chief Gonzalez’s request, that all units remain on-call, was justifiable when we thought it was to maintain order due to the spreading hysteria as conditions in the lower forty-eight worsened. But quarantine meant contagions, not food poisoning and chaos as the rest of the US scrambled to make sense of everything. How had it spread so fast? Or maybe everyone was just finally catching on. The past twelve hours had been a blur of breaking up bloody-knuckled fist fights, responding to car accidents from sick people who shouldn’t have been behind the wheel, and catching an arsonist in Sutton that claimed he wanted to know what it felt like since the world was ending, anyway.

If government officials had downplayed what was happening, they’d risked everyone’s health and safety, and I wasn’t bionic. Troopers were just as susceptible to contagions as everyone else, and we’d been on patrol for over twenty-four hours, since we’d got the call at the dinner table. My lasagna was still on my plate when we headed to the department for bullet-proof vests and masks.

I tore the mask off my face and clenched my hand around it. The damn masks wouldn’t do anything if a perp was infected, and I hit the dash with my fist. It creaked in protest and the computer screen shook, but I didn’t give a shit. There was no way to know if I’d caught the virus in the span of the last twelve or twenty-four hours, and now I might pass it on to Hannah when I got home.

I scrubbed my hands over my bristly face again. “Fuck,” I groaned and leaned my head back against the seat. I needed to compose myself before I called Hannah to see how she was feeling. And I needed to figure out where I was going to stay because I wasn’t taking my potentially sick-ass home until I was cleared.

I took a swig of cold coffee, though I didn’t need it. My body was already wound tight, my adrenaline kicking in. Staring into the darkness, I tried to control my racing thoughts. Regardless of whether or not I was sick, Hannah was in danger if the illness had already spread this far. Molly was in danger. Hannah wouldn’t survive if anything happened to this baby, not after we’d already lost so much and come so far with this pregnancy. Losing Molly would be devastating for both of us, and dread began to burn a hole in my stomach as I imagined the possibility of it.

“All units—” I glared at the radio. “10-19 for a 10-10 in progress. Lasson Street in Eagle River. Tango 3 is on the way, requesting backup. Caller is advising that there’s a 12-gauge shotgun and 2200 on the premises.”

I was only ten minutes away, but for the first time in my six-year career, I hesitated to answer the call. I hadn’t heard back from Ross and had to make the split decision to respond and risk getting sick or worse, or ignore it and be the cause if an innocent was injured or killed.

Loyalty. Integrity. Courage. “Shit.” Despite my better judgement, my oath made it impossible to ignore the call.

As I reached for my radio, my cell phone rang, vibrating and screaming at me from the passenger seat. “Finally.” I grabbed it, watching a Dodge Ram speed past me down the highway as I brought the phone to my ear. “Ross—what’d he say?”

“Mr. Mitchell? This is Nurse Crawford at the emergency clinic.”

My breath caught in my throat. Hannah. “What is it—what’s happened?”

“Your wife was admitted thirty minutes ago.” The nurse’s voice was raspy, like she was winded and distracted. “She’s in surgery.”

“She was what?” I could barely speak through my terror. “The baby . . .” Hannah still had a few weeks before she was due.

“Mr. Mitchell . . .” Nurse Crawford paused, a pause that implied impending bad news. “You better get down here.” There was a crash on the other end of the line—a commotion of back and forth muttering that drew closer. “Take him to room two-seventeen, through that door,” she commanded, and then the connection was lost.

“Hello?” I shouted into the phone. “What the . . .” My mind spun with a million questions as I threw the truck into drive, fishtailing on the slick road as I turned toward the city.

A Vise-Grip cinched inside my chest as my worst possible fears became reality. The roads blurred, and I wiped the tears from my eyes as I pressed the petal down as far as it would go. Hannah would be fine. Molly would be fine. Everything would be fine . . . I just needed to get there.


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