Chapter 1

 

February

 

I TOSS my bag in the door of my rental car and practically throw myself in after it. Once the door is safely closed, I slump into the seat, close my eyes, and curse the entire state of Michigan. If Michigan didn’t exist, then I wouldn’t be sitting in a rental car at the edge of Sleeping Bear College’s tiny campus, having a premature midlife crisis at thirty.

I just spent the day interviewing for a job at Sleeping Bear, a small liberal arts college I’d never even heard of until six months ago. My interview went well, my teaching demonstration went even better, and I’m pretty sure I never let my cuffs slide up to show my tattoos. I could tell they liked me, and they seemed enthusiastic about hiring someone young to help them build the department. As they talked about independent studies and dual majors, I mentally catalogued all the bear puns I could. Of course, what they’d think if they found out that I associate bears’ hairy chests and lumbering gaits with large men drinking beer instead of the college, the nearby dunes, and the animal they are named for, I can’t say.

I’ve been working my ass off to get where I am today, and all I can think is that I’m a fraud. I’m not an English professor. I’m just some queer little punk from Philadelphia who the smart kids slummed it with. Just ask my ex. Just ask my father. Ask my brothers, especially. God, what the hell am I doing here?

Sleeping Bear is the only college where I got an interview and it is in the middle of fucking nowhere—near some place called Traverse City (which is definitely not a city, based on anything I’ve ever seen). I had to drive for nearly four hours after I flew to Detroit to get here. I could have gotten closer with a connecting flight in a tiny plane, but I’ll be damned if the first time I ever flew I was going to crash into one of the Great Lakes. No, overland travel was good enough for me, even if the flight, the rental car, and the suit I bought for the visit put me even deeper in the hole than I was before. At least I saved a hundred bucks getting the red-eye from Detroit to Philly tomorrow night.

I shudder when I think what my credit card bill will look like this month. Good thing I can turn the heat off in my apartment in a few weeks when it gets above forty degrees. Not like there’s anyone there except me. My friends from school never want to come to my neighborhood, claiming it’s more convenient to go places near campus. Richard, my ex, wouldn’t be caught dead in my apartment, which he referred to as “the crack house.” Asshole. And I only see my brothers and my dad at their auto shop. Still, I love Philly; I’ve lived there all my life. Moving—especially to the middle of nowhere—well, even the thought is freaking me out.

Now, all I want is to go back to my shitty little motel room, order a pizza, and fall asleep in front of crappy TV. I sigh and start the rental car I can’t afford.

I have to admit, though, the road from the school to my motel is beautiful. All the hotels near campus are cute (read: expensive) bed and breakfast joints, so I booked in at the Motel 6 outside of town. It’s down a two-lane road that seems to follow the tree line. To my left are fields and the occasional dirt road turnoff with signs I can’t read in the near-dark. God, I’m starving. I haven’t eaten since an ill-advised Dunkin’ Donuts egg sandwich at the airport.

It’s really cold so far north, but I crack the window to breathe the sweet smell of fresh air and trees anyway. It’s actually really peaceful out here. Quiet. It isn’t something I’m used to—quiet, I mean. Library-quiet and middle-of-the-night quiet, sure. But in the city there’s always noise. This is a quiet that feels like water and trees and, well, nature, I guess, like the time my parents took us to the Jersey Shore when we were kids and I hid under the boardwalk away from the crowds, listening to the overwhelming sound of the ocean and the creak of docks.

And peace? Well, never peace. If it wasn’t one of my asshole brothers starting shit with me, it was my dad flipping his lid over me being gay. Of course, later my lack of peace came in the form of Richard, my ex, who, while we were together, was apparently sleeping with every gay man at the University of Pennsylvania.

My hands tighten on the wheel as I picture Richard, his handsome face set in an expression of haughty condescension as he leveled me with one nauseating smile. “Come on, Dan,” he said, like we had discussed this before, “who believes in monogamy anymore? Don’t be so bourgeois.” And, “It’s not like we’re exclusive.” That, after we’d been together for two years—or so I’d thought—and I’d taken him to my brother Sam’s wedding.

Anyway, I hate being called Dan.

I grit my teeth and force myself to take a deep breath. No more thinking about Richard. I promised myself.

I glance down at the scrap of paper where I scrawled the directions to my motel. I can almost taste the buttery cheese and crispy pizza crust and my stomach growls. When I look back up a second later, something darts into the road in front of me. I swerve hard to the right, but I hear a sickening whine the second before the car veers into a tree.

 

 

ALL I can see is blackness, until I realize I scrunched my eyes shut before I hit the tree. I open them slowly, expecting to look down and see that my legs are gone or something, like in one of those war movies my brother is always watching, where a bomb goes off and the soldier thinks he’s fine, laughing and smiling, until the dust clears and he looks down and has no lower body. Then the pain hits. It’s like the cartoon physics of awareness: we can’t hurt until we see that we’re supposed to.

But my legs are there, as is everything else. I do a quick stretch, but aside from some soreness where the seat belt locked in, I actually feel okay. The car, however, is another story. I can already see that I’m not driving out of here. I jam the door open and slide out, a little unsteady on my feet. And then I hear it. A terrible whining noise.

Fuck, what did I do?

The dark seems to have settled in all of a sudden and it’s hard to see the road. I take a few cautious steps toward the noise, and then I see it. A dog. A brown and white dog that doesn’t look much older than a puppy, though it’s already pretty big. I don’t know anything about dogs, have no idea what kind it is. But it’s definitely hurt. It looks like maybe I broke its leg when I hit it.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I say. The dog is whimpering, its big brown eyes wide with pain. “Fuck, dog, I’m so sorry,” I tell it, and reach out a hand to try and soothe it. As I reach for its head, though, it growls and I jerk my hand back.

“I know, dog, I’m sorry. I’m not going to hurt you. Hang on.”

I rush back to the car for my phone and try to call information so I can find an emergency vet, but I can’t get a signal out here at all. I put the car in neutral and try to rock it away from the tree enough so that I can look under the hood—growing up with a family auto shop means you can’t help but know how to fix cars, even if you don’t want to go into the family business. But there’s no way. The undercarriage must’ve caught on the tree’s roots or something.

I grab my bag and sling it over my shoulder, and go back to where the dog is lying, still whimpering. I can’t leave it here. It’ll get run over by a car in the dark. Or, worse, it’ll just lie here all alone, terrified and in pain. The sound it’s making is ripping my fucking heart out. I can’t believe I did this. Christ, how did I even get here? I ease to the other side of the dog and gently run my fingertips over the soft fur on its head. It whines, but doesn’t growl.

I keep petting it, talking low as I ease my arm underneath.

“Okay, dog, you’re okay. Don’t worry, I’ve got you. Everything’s going to be fine.” I’m saying things I haven’t heard since my mother said them when I was little. Words that are meant to comfort but mean nothing.

I roll the dog into my arms and it whimpers and growls as I jostle its hurt leg. I cuddle it close to my chest to keep it immobile and try to stand without falling over and hurting it worse. I’ll just walk a little ways. There has to be a gas station, or a house, or something, right? I’ll just ask someone to call a vet. Hell, maybe this is what police do in a nothing town like this. Rescue dogs that get stuck in trees, or something? No, wait, that’s cats. Cats get stuck in trees. Right?

I walk for what feels like forever. The dog has gone quiet, but I can feel it breathing, so at least I know it isn’t dead. What it is, though, is getting heavy. I stop for a second to check if I have phone service for what feels like the millionth time. I haven’t come across a single gas station and I’m not sure how much longer I can walk.

“Okay, dog; it’s okay,” I say again, but my voice is as shaky as my legs, and, really, it isn’t the dog I’m talking to anymore. Still no service. Fuck.

Then, off to my right, I see a light. A shaky beam of light that’s getting closer. Just as I pull level with the light, a man steps out of the woods. I rear away from the large form, and the dog whimpers softly. The man looks huge and the way he’s shining the flashlight is blinding. My heart beats heavily in my throat. This guy could take me apart. Squaring my shoulders and setting my feet so I look as big as possible, I plan how I can set the dog down without hurting it further if I have to fight. Or run. Then a warm voice breaks the silence that stopped feeling peaceful the second I swerved.

“You okay?”

His voice is deep and a little growly. For half a second, all the puns about bears that I was making earlier dance through my head and I laugh. What comes out sounds more like a hysterical squeak, though.

“Do you mind?” I say, squinting and hoping my voice sounds more threatening than the noise I just made. He lowers the flashlight immediately and walks toward me. I take a half step back automatically. All I can really see in the dark, with the ghost of the flashlight leaving spots in my vision, are massive shoulders clad in plaid.

“Are you okay?” the man asks again, and he puts out a hand as he takes the last few slow steps to my side. I nod quickly. His hand is huge.

“I, um.”

He bends down and looks in my face. I don’t know what he sees there, but his posture shifts, the bulk of him softening ever so slightly.

“I didn’t mean to,” I try to explain when it’s clear he isn’t a threat. “Only, it came out of nowhere and I couldn’t—” I break off as he shines the flashlight on the dog. It whines and I gather it closer to me, suddenly unsure. “I tried to find a vet, but I can’t get a signal here and my car hit the tree so I couldn’t drive and I—”

“You were in an accident? Are you hurt?”

“No—I mean, I’m not. I’m… but my car’s fucked. Do you have a phone? Can you call a vet?”

“No vet,” he says. “Nothing’s open this late.” It’s maybe 7:00 p.m.

“Please,” I say. “I can’t let it die. Fuck! What the fuck am I doing here? I can’t believe I—” I break off when I can tell my next words won’t be anything I want a total stranger to hear.

“Come with me,” the man says, and turns and walks back into the woods. What the hell?

“Um,” I say. Am I actually supposed to follow a total stranger into the woods? In the dark? In the middle of nowhere? In Michigan? I know stereotypes about cannibals who live in the woods and eat unsuspecting tourists are just that: stereotypes. Maybe I’ve watched The Hills Have Eyes one too many times, but still. Isn’t it, like, a statistical fact that most serial killers come from the Midwest?

While I was distracted by regionally profiling the man, he’d come back out of the woods and is now standing directly in front of me, close enough that I can kind of see his face. He has dark hair and eyes, and a sharp nose. That’s all I can see in the dark. But he is definitely much younger than I assumed. His low voice sounded older, but he looks like he’s in his midthirties. And up close, he is massive, with hugely broad shoulders, powerful arms, and broad hips—how much of that is flesh and how much is flannel remains to be seen. He’s nearly a head taller than me, and I’m not short.

“You need to come with me,” he says, and his voice suggests that he’s considering the fact that I might be an idiot.

“Er, sure,” I say, figuring that if worse comes to worst, at least I can run; I have to be faster than this guy, right? I take an experimental step toward him and, in the way it sometimes happens when you rest after an exertion, nearly fall on my face as my body takes longer to wake up than my brain. The man catches me with one easy hand under my elbow and steadies me. Shit, that was embarrassing.

“Here,” he says. “Let me take the dog. You take this.” He shrugs something off his shoulder and hands it to me. It takes a few seconds to process the unfamiliar shape in the dark.

“Is that a gun?”

“Yeah,” he says.

“Why do you have a gun?” I ask warily. Though, I guess I should be reassured that he’s handing it to me and not pointing it at me.

“To hunt with,” he says matter-of-factly.

“Right,” I say. Hunting. Michigan. Michigan.

He gently sets what I can only assume is a rifle on the ground next to me.

“Let me.” He slides his hands under the dog. His hands are huge, covering practically my whole stomach as he worms them under my arms. “I’ve got him,” he says.

“I don’t know if it’s a boy,” I say. “I don’t know anything about dogs. I mean, I guess I would’ve been able to tell by looking, but I didn’t think of it. But it’s really common, defaulting to male pronouns to refer to things of indeterminate gender.” Christ, I’m babbling.

He cocks his head at me and walks away. I pick up the strap of the gun gingerly and take off after him, holding it as far away from the trigger as I can. With the luck I’m having today, I’d trip and end up shooting the man. Or myself. Or, shit, probably the dog.