She looked at me, her eyes flooding.

A lump swelling in my throat.

“He’s here, isn’t he? He found us and took my son.”

I headed for the ladder.

Immediately, I could tell something was off—a softness in my knees that I realized was numbness.

“I don’t feel right,” I said as I reached the ladder and started down.

Through her tears, Violet said, “I’ve been getting more and more lightheaded. I thought it was the wine.”

I descended carefully, a tremor in my legs threatening to upend my balance. My mind redlined, the last sixty seconds such a nightmare I wondered if this was really happening. I’d had a dozen dreams in the last year that he’d somehow found us, and every time I’d wake sweating in the night, paralyzed by naked fear until that wash of relief would sweep over me, reality reinstated. I’d go to the kitchen sink, drink a glass of water, and wait for the nerves to recede.

My feet touched the floorboards at the base of the ladder.

Violet still cried hysterically in the loft and the numbness in my legs still grew, and I was still in this horrifying moment, either unable to wake, or worse, there was no nightmare to wake from.

My knees hit the floor beside my bed, and I reached underneath it.

Pulled out the shotgun, but it was too light, too small, and it wasn’t black metal but orange and green plastic.

I stared at the Nerf toy in my hands and said, “What the f**k is happening?”

My voice sounded strange, as if it had been relegated to some alcove in the back of my head. I turned and the room moved slower than the swivel of my head, the firelight leaving trails across my field of vision.

Violet stood at the bottom of the ladder, swaying on her feet.

“He drugged us,” I said, and she responded but I couldn’t interpret her words, which dissolved in a swarm of echoes.

I staggered to the front door and pulled it open.

Rain fell through the sphere of illumination cast by the porchlight.

Unflinching darkness beyond.

My breath steamed in the cold, and I could feel the chill on my face, but there was distance from it—a chemical apathy getting stronger by the minute.

I stumbled down the steps into a puddle, the freezing water seeping through my socks, realized I still held fast to the Nerf shotgun. I threw it down in the mud.

My CJ-5 stood just beyond the light’s reach, and I moved toward it on rubber legs.

I kept a loaded hunting rifle in the back, had been hoping to shoot an elk that would feed us through the winter.

I collided into the door of the Jeep, fumbling for the handle.

It swung open and I climbed in, reaching back between the seats as the rain hammered the hard-top.

The Remington was gone.

He’d taken it, too.

I stepped back down into the mud and stared at the porchlight thirty feet away, blinding me through the rain.

My head felt heavy, fingers too, like they were trying to pull me down into the mud.

I could hear Violet sobbing in the cabin. It occurred to me that a loss of consciousness was imminent, and despite the effect of the drug, this recognition terrified me.

I wondered how long he’d been watching us, how long he’d been planning this night. He’d spent time inside the cabin—known how to take Max, the location of my shotgun, the rifle, and God knows what else.

I started back toward Violet, but after four steps, my face hit the frigid mud, and I stared sideways at the open door of the cabin, the interior walls awash in firelight.

Violet had gone quiet, now crawling toward the door.

I tried to call out to her but couldn’t muster my voice.

She slumped down across the threshold and didn’t move.

My eyes had begun to close of their own will, the porchlight dimming away until it was nothing but a distant star.

Now the white noise of the rain faded, and with it the cold, and as I slipped under, I held onto a final, horrifying thought—this wasn’t the end of anything, certainly not my life. This was possibly the last moment of peace I would ever know, because when consciousness returned, I’d be waking up in hell.

Violet

SHE opened her eyes and instantly shut them again.

The light was breathtaking, piercing.

Disorientation ruled her every sense.

She buried her face between her arms, but still the light crept in to scorch her retinas.

She thought, I’ve been in darkness a long, long time.

And then: Max.

She wept, and the quality of her voice suggested that she was outside.

The ground beneath her was hard and ungiving—pavement perhaps.

There was no sound. Certainly not the everpresent whoosh of wind moving through spruce trees to which she’d grown accustomed during the last year. She couldn’t recover her last waking memory, only the emotions associated with it—fear and loss.

Violet rolled onto her back and forced her eyes to open.

Thirty seconds of punishing brilliance, and then the world darkened and she saw that she was staring into a low, gray cloud deck.

She sat up.

Found herself in a neighborhood in the middle of a street.

Houses on either side.

She struggled onto her feet. Weak. Like she hadn’t stood in months.

So thirsty her head pounded.

She limped across the pavement toward the closest residence, then into the yard, through the tall grass, and up the creaking steps.

Banged on the front door.

“Hello? I need help please. Hello?”

Her voice sounded strange. Unused. She stepped back and waited. No footsteps forthcoming on the other side. No sound anywhere except the hollow scrape of an empty beer can rolling across the road behind her.

Maybe it was the fogginess in her head, but she’d completely missed it—the front windows held no glass. She approached the one right of the door and stared through the cobwebs into darkness.

Disintegrating furniture.

The smell of mold and must.

Decaying wood.

She headed down the steps and crossed the yard, stopping when she reached the sidewalk of the adjacent house. Didn’t even bother knocking on this one’s door, because the abandonment was obvious—same glassless windows into darkness, its entire frame listing.

Violet walked back out into the middle of the street.

Every yard was overgrown.

Every house dark.

“Hello!”

Her voice echoed down the street and nothing answered.

She started walking, then jogging.

After three blocks of crumbling factory houses, she bent over gasping. Her legs had no strength. They buckled and again she was sitting in the middle of an empty street, her arms wrapped around her legs—something, anything to hold onto.

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