Reeve’s End is the kind of town every kid can’t wait to escape. Each summer, a dozen kids leave and at least a quarter never come back. I don’t blame them--I’ll do the same in another year. We thought it was just something that happened in towns like ours.
We were wrong.
“Twenty dollars an hour,” I say to the guy who’s stopped me as I head for Doc Southcott’s. I know his name. When your high school has only two hundred kids, you can’t even pretend you don’t. But from his expression, you’d think I’ve clearly forgotten him. Forgotten who he is, at least.
I lean against the crumbling brickwork. “You asked if I can help boost your math grade. The answer is yes. For twenty dollars an hour.”
“But . . .”
“I know, Garrett. You expected I’d do it for the pleasure of your company. That’s what you’re used to--girls jumping at the chance to spend time with you. You’re a decent guy, though, so I’ll warn that it’s not so much you they’re after as a one-way ticket out of Reeve’s End. Preferably with a cute boy who’ll earn a football scholarship . . . as long as he can get the grades for college. Which is why you’re here.”
“Uh . . .”
I sigh and look down the road. There’s nothing to see. Pothole-ridden streets. Rust-plagued pickups. Even the mutt tied outside the Dollar Barn gazes at the fog-shrouded Appalachians as if dreaming of better.
I turn back to Garrett. “I’m happy to help. But you’re not the only one who wants out, and college is expensive.”
“Not for you. With your grades, you’re guaranteed a full ride.”
“Nothing is guaranteed. And I doubt I’ll get a full ride for my post-grad.”
“Med school?” He glances at Doc Southcott’s office. “You’re not serious about that.”
“Are you serious about a football scholarship?”
“Hell, yeah. It’s just . . . med school?”
Kids from Reeve’s End don’t go to med school. Especially those like me, who even here would be from the wrong side of the tracks . . . if Reeve’s End had tracks. Sometimes I figure the train purposely diverted around us for the same reason we don’t have buses or taxis--so it’s harder to escape.
Tutoring won’t get me through med school. Neither will working for Doc Southcott. But I’ve got a plan, and every penny counts. It’s always counted.
“You have your dreams, Garrett, and I have mine. Yours will cost twenty bucks an hour. If you put in the effort, I can bring you up to a B. And the bonus to paying me? You won’t need to flirt to win my help.”
He shakes his head. “You’re a strange girl, Winter Crane.”
“No, I’m just strange for Reeve’s End. So, do we have a deal? I’ve got one tutor slot open, which will fill in another week, when kids finally admit midterms are coming.”
He agrees, still looking confused.
“Tomorrow, after school at the library,” I say. “Payment in advance.”
I have a short shift at the doc’s that day. Mrs. Southcott has managed to convince her husband to take an extended long-weekend vacation, leaving this afternoon. I tried to argue that I could do office work while they’re gone, but apparently she figures Doc Southcott isn’t the only one overdue for time off.
I head to the trailer park. My official address, even if I spend as little time there as possible. Mom died when I was seven. My sister left last year. It’s just me and Bert now. He prefers Rob, but Bert better suits a guy who traded an engineering career in the city for a string of crap jobs that pay just enough to keep him in bourbon. He lost the right to be called Dad when he decided I was a burden to be borne and not gladly.
I pass our trailer and duck into the forest. My real home is out there--an abandoned shack that’s far more habitable than our trailer.
Thick forest leads from the town to the foothills, and what used to be a good source of income back when the local coal mine operated. Shitty work--old-timers still cough black phlegm decades later. But that doesn’t stop them from reminiscing as if they’d had cushy office jobs. There was money then. Good and steady money. Then the mine closed and the town emptied. Those who stayed did so because they had no place else to go . . . or no place else would have them.
My shack is nearly a mile in. That’s a serious hike through dense forest, but it means I don’t need to worry about local kids using my cabin for parties. Hunters do stumble over it in season--and out of season, Reeve’s End not being a place where people pay attention to laws if they interfere with putting food on the table.
I check my boundary thread. One section is slack, as if something pushed against it and then withdrew. Humans barrel through without noticing, so I’m guessing this was a deer. Or so I hope, because the alternative is a black bear or coyote or, worse, one of the feral dogs that have been giving me trouble.
I tighten the thread and duck under. My shack is exactly that--a dilapidated wooden structure maybe eight feet square. It’s empty inside except for a rickety chair near the wall. I pry up a loose floorboard and remove my gear. Spread my carpet. Pour a cup of water. Set aside my sleeping bag and lantern. Home sweet home.
I write up a lab experiment while the light is good. Then I go check my snares, the bow over my shoulder doubling my chance to add meat to my ramen noodles. I forage, too, but it’s the hunting that marks me as a girl who lives in a place like Reeve’s End, as I discovered when a scholarship sent me to science camp in Lexington. Some city girls must hunt, but you wouldn’t think so from my fellow students’ expressions when I told them how I got my ace dissection skills.
“Aren’t there supermarkets where you live?” one girl asked.
Well, no. Reeve’s End only has a grocery and a small one at that. But food costs money, and as much as possible, money is for my savings account. At least I know where my meat comes from, which is more than I can say for those kids.
I’m drawing near the second snare when I notice something white lying beside it. I inhale, hoping it’s not a skunk--polecat in these parts. But it’s just white. Shit. I hope I haven’t trapped someone’s cat.
I jog over to see . . . a sneaker?
I peer at the surrounding forest, expecting a prank. My snares are far from the trails, and even if someone stumbled on one, the trap is hardly life-threatening. Yet from the looks of the flattened ground cover, this person fought hard to get free.
I examine the shoe. If the mate were here, I’d take it. At size eleven, it wouldn’t fit me, but it’s a nearly new Air Jordan, which I could sell for at least fifty bucks. I turn the shoe over.
That’s when I see the blood. Then I spot a red handprint on a sapling, where he must have righted himself after the trap. I figure “he” given the size of the shoe. That shoe also means he’s not from Reeve’s End, where wearing three-hundred-dollar sneakers would be the equivalent of riding to school in a chauffeured Escalade.
I follow his trail for a bit. Mostly I’m just curious. But as I track him, I start to worry. He’s like an injured black bear, staggering and stumbling and mowing down everything in his path. Wounded and lost in what must have seemed endless wilderness.
I should try to find him. It’s inconvenient, but it’ll be a hell of a lot more inconvenient when some hunter finds his body and I suffer the guilt of knowing I might have been able to help.
I continue tracking him for close to a mile. That’s when I hear the distant growls of feral dogs.
Old-timers talk about back when we had wolves and mountain lions in these woods, and roll their eyes at hunters these days whining about a few stray dogs. The old-timers are full of shit. At least a wolf or a catamount would slink off if they heard me coming. These dogs know humans, and we don’t scare them.
I’m moving at a jog now, praying those aren’t the snarls and snaps of a feasting pack. I found a body out here once. I don’t want to ever do it again.
The light is fading fast. That’s one problem with being on the east side of the mountains. Once the sun drops behind them, it’s like snuffing a candle. I’ve learned to hunt in twilight because it’s the best time for game, but this is too dark for safety, so I clip on my headlamp. It’s modified from old mining equipment, which we have plenty of. For a weapon, I’m more comfortable with my bow, but when I’m moving at this rate, the hunting knife is more reliable.
There’s no doubt now that I’m hearing the dog pack. I slow and make sure I’m downwind so they won’t smell me. Then I exchange the knife for my bow and turn off my headlamp. Each step lands in silence as my eyes adjust to the twilight. I can smell the dogs now. They reek like an old cat that’s lost any interest in keeping itself clean.
I round a bush and spot Reject, the pack omega. She keeps to the edges, eating whatever the others leave. Last spring, she was pregnant, the dogs having apparently found a use for her. I never saw the pups. I suspect the alpha bitch killed them. These aren’t wolves or foxes or even coyotes--they’re half-mad beasts.
I pity Reject, but trying to tame her would be foolhardy--she’s as crazy as the rest of them. I keep an eye on her as I move closer, in case she notices me and sounds the alarm.
Reject stands at the edge of a clearing, watching the others. When I pass more bushes, I see them: Flea, Scar, Mange, One-Eye, and Alanna. I named Alanna after a girl at school. She’s the alpha bitch. The dog, that is. The girl is just a bitch.
The dogs are barking at something in a tree. When I see that, I exhale. I ease around the bushes for a better look, but even an unobstructed sight line doesn’t help much in the darkness. Whatever they’re barking at is just a shape in a shadow-enshrouded oak. Then I lean to the side and spot a white Air Jordan, dangling from a leg, at just the right height to convince the beasts that if they keep jumping they’ll eventually snag it.
Assuming the guy isn’t stupid enough to intentionally tease feral dogs, I’m guessing he’s unconscious. Or so I tell myself. He climbed up there and passed out. That’s all.
I could leave him and go for help. But there’s no guarantee those dogs can’t get his leg in a freakishly high jump. Nor any guarantee he won’t bolt awake and fall.
I survey my options, find a suitable oak, and shimmy up. Hunkering down on a wide branch, I notch an arrow and let it fly into the tree trunk, over the pack’s heads. That’s not a misfire. There’s no way in hell I can take down five dogs with a bow and a half dozen arrows.
The first arrow gets their attention. My second flies into the underbrush with a crackle and thump . . . and the dogs take off after this new threat. I jump down and race to the tree holding the one-sneakered stranger. I take a few precious seconds to fire another even more precious arrow. Three gone, and they’re good ones--carbon hybrids--a luxury I allow myself because they’re more effective. I’ll have to mentally map this spot and come back for them.
I climb past the stranger, well out of reach of the dogs. Then I look down. It’s a guy, not much older than me. Dark hair hangs as his head lolls. His eyes are closed, and he’s sprawled on the branch, as if he collapsed there. His shirt is bloodied and torn, as is one leg of his jeans.
I can’t tell if he’s alive. That’s the main thing right now--not his age or his hair color or the condition of his clothing.
Is he alive?
The dogs are back, yipping and yelping as they scent their old enemy. I barely hear them, too focused on answering that critical question.
Please be alive. Please.
I keep seeing flashes of that other body--the one I found two years ago--and I’m shaking as I lower myself onto the branch beside his. My boot touches down, and I catch a better view of his face, battered and bloodied, and I’m trying to see if he’s breathing and I lift my other boot, confident the first is securely planted. It isn’t.
My foot slips.
As I drop, I wildly grapple for a hold. Alanna lets out a crow of victory. She jumps and her fangs graze my leg. Then my arm snags a branch, awkwardly catching it in the crook of my elbow, my arm scissoring shut, pain ripping through my shoulder as my full weight slams down.
My free hand finds and grabs the branch as Alanna’s fangs sink into my leg. My yowl only whips the dogs into a frenzy. I pull my leg up as far as I can, but Alanna is hanging off it, her teeth digging in.
I gather all my strength and kick. She might be fierce and wiry, but she’s small, and I send her flying. There’s pit bull in that bitch, though, and her teeth rake down my calf, furrows splitting open as I howl in pain.
The damn dogs join in, howling along, and rage fills me--frustration and fury--and there’s a split second where I almost drop from the tree. Drop to face them, armed with my hunting knife, like some crazed action hero pushed one step too far. Finally facing off against my canine nemeses, blade flashing, blood spraying, taking down one, maybe two . . . before they rip me apart.
Here lies Winter Crane. So brave. So daring. Such a freaking idiot.
I resist the urge to go Lara Croft on their heads, and instead swing up my legs until I’m hanging off the branch like a sloth. I stay that way, catching my breath and ignoring the pain in my leg and the blood trickling down it. Then I clamber up and climb opposite the one-sneakered boy.
He’s dead. I’m sure of that now. With everything going on, he hasn’t even stirred.