She picked her way downstream until she came to what she needed—a fallen tree, the trunk making a bridge across to the other side.
She didn't wait to get up her nerve. She could be across in three big steps.
But she'd underestimated how slick the bark was, how much it would bend and shift under her weight. She was halfway when she slipped, threw her walking stick into the air, and pitched into the water.
Her arm struck something hard. Water surged into her nostrils. Her clothes weighed her down; the current spun her and rushed her backwards downstream. She tried to stand, only to be swept back in. Finally, she clawed herself to the bank, pulling herself up by a tree root, and collapsed in the mud, gasping and nauseated.
Stupid. Race would laugh in your damn face.
She had no idea how far she'd been carried. She couldn't see the tree trunk she'd tried to cross. Her whole body trembled, and she wasn't sure whether it was from the cold or the shock, but she realized it didn't matter. She needed to move. She needed to get warm immediately.
And then she noticed her backpack was gone.
She walked downstream for a long way, but there was no sign of the pack. It had been ripped off her back and carried away.
Now, for the first time, Mallory felt truly alone. She looked at the GPS bracelet—that small green eye glowing at her, daring her to give up. She was in deep trouble. She could die out here. Just her goddamn luck, to freeze to death in Texas.
No, she told herself. You can do this.
But the darkening sky and the river and the trees seemed to be telling her otherwise.
She tried to remember what Leyland had told her to do in an emergency.
S.O.S. Survey. Organize. Strategize.
Okay, the survey was easy. Night was falling. She was wet and cold—her clothes soaked through, her backpack and med kit and thermal sleeping bag gone. Her limbs felt numb.
Mallory organized her supplies. She stripped off her jacket. She checked her leg sheath to make sure the knife was still there. The metal match they'd shown her how to use was still in her pocket. That was it. That's all she had.
Strategize? She needed warmth, right away. She needed to make a fire.
The only good thing that had come from her river ride was that she seemed to have lost whoever or whatever was following her. She couldn't hear it anymore—didn't feel its anger. Fire light might attract it to her again, but she had no choice. She had to have warmth.
After a fire, she'd create a shelter. She'd have to spend the night here, move on in the morning. Thirdly—only thirdly—she'd need to satisfy the gnawing hunger in her stomach.
She'd done lots of fires in base camp. It had been one of the prerequisites for the solo trip. Nevertheless, she had to remember the steps, mentally walking herself through.
She found an enormous tree that was hollow inside and decided that would be her shelter. She'd build her fire next to it. She used the hard dirt as her platform, put down a wrist-sized branch for the brace, piled the tinder on this. It took her three strikes to spark a flame to the tinder, and by that time her fingers were losing feeling. In a few minutes, though, she'd started a curl of fire and began to add the kindling. She got to the fuel stage, began adding larger twigs, then small logs.
She stood as close to the blaze as she could, feeling like something that had been pulled prematurely from the microwave—boiling on one side, frozen on the other.
A dot of ice melted on her cheek. She looked up. Snowflakes were falling, a scatter of oversized dust motes evaporating in the halo of her fire.
Great. Just great.
When her hands felt warm enough to work, she began cleaning out the tree trunk. Grubs and worms and beetles squirmed out of the dark, and these she threw onto the tarp of her jacket by the fire. Just in case, she told herself. Just in case.
By the time dusk was truly setting in, she had made her shelter. The snow had begun to stick to the ground like a crust of salt. Mallory backed into her hollow tree, now lined with moss and grass, and kept the fire blazing. She drank spring water from her canteen, but she avoided the grubs for now.
She couldn't seem to control her shivering. She wondered if hypothermia could set in so quickly.
She imagined she was back on the ropes course above the river, suspended in the dark, her harness tearing. She was ready to make a deal with God, to get her the hell out of here.
Her last visit to her father's, just before she'd run away to the East Bay, she had walked into his bedroom and found him on his knees, his back to her, hunched over his bed in his business suit, praying. She couldn't have been more embarrassed if she'd found him in his underwear. Her dad, who'd never been to church in his life, who'd told her when she was a kid that God was a fairy tale, like Cinderella—her dad was praying. He didn't notice her. His fingers were laced, his lips almost kissing them as he spoke.
She'd stayed just long enough to hear him pleading quietly, promising God he would give anything. Please.
Then she'd left, easing the door closed behind her.
She understood finally what he'd been praying for . . . Her.
She'd blown up at him, cursed him, called him a monster because he didn't like Race, because he'd hit her mother once, years ago.
She had hurt him, just like Pérez said, and all he wanted was for her to be safe.
He'd sent Pérez to get her. That was a way of telling her he loved her. A twisted way, maybe. But he had tried.
She started crying—knowing that the tears were some damn chemical imbalance, her period making everything seem worse than it was.
Her dad was gone. She wanted to think she'd feel a hole in her heart if he were dead, but she wasn't sure.
This was her mother's fault—her mother and Chadwick. They had started everything going wrong, just because they wanted to fuck each other. They'd ruined two families. Her father's disappearance was on their heads.
Maybe Chadwick had treated her okay. Maybe he was even serious about helping her. Maybe, for a while, when she was scared in Fredericksburg, she'd even thought about confiding in him. But in the end, Mallory knew the main reason she hadn't told her dream about Katherine to anyone wasn't that she didn't believe the dream. She wanted to see what would happen if her worst suspicions were right. She wanted to see Chadwick punished.
She huddled into her hollow tree, facing the flames, her knife at her side. Her empty stomach seemed to be ripping itself out of her body. And as the night grew dark, her only company was the river and the fire and the sound of the hills moaning as they contracted under a hard freeze.
Race was crazy to be at the café. He knew that.
But he needed time to think. He had a decision to make. And he was running out of places to go.
He sat down at the sidewalk table where a month ago Mallory had been taken from him. He stared at a half-empty coffee glass, a chess game the last customers had left unfinished.
He couldn't go back to Nana's apartment. The visit from Chadwick and Jones had unhinged the old lady, made her start drinking and having conversations with Samuel and Talia in the middle of the night, and Race couldn't handle that shit.
His mother's house was sold—some family with a U-Haul already moved in. Race had stood down the block, watching as a boy lugged his wagon of toys up the front steps, a little girl kicked a soccer ball around the stumps of the palm trees like relay race cones.
Last night, he had stayed in the abandoned apartment building behind the café—up at the top of the stairwell where he and Mallory had made love. The BART trains rattled the windows, and a couple of derelicts in the gutted apartment below him had kept him awake, squabbling about laundry money. Race had kept his .22 semiautomatic in his improvised ankle-strap, close enough where he could reach it, just in case they came up the stairs. He didn't sleep until dawn, when the homeless guys wandered out to find their morning booze.
He couldn't handle being in the stairwell another night. Not because of the derelicts, but because the old carpet still smelled of Mallory. Her scent reminded him of their final night together—being pressed against her, how she would pinch his ears, letting him know when he was being too rough. The whole thing had been wrong—as wrong as finding her the heroin she wanted, feeding the death wish that made her want to turn into Katherine. But Race had followed her lead. He always did. And now he was trying hard not to think about her.
During the afternoon, he'd stolen a bike and made the long ride up into the hills—to the condo above the Caldecott Tunnel. He'd been hoping to find some money, but the place had been cleaned out, as if for good. That made Race nervous, made him wonder what was going on. He thought about staying there overnight, but the idea made his throat go dry. The place had worse ghosts than his mother's house; evil breathed into the air like corpse odor from the five or six years it had been occupied—radios and televisions playing in every room, twenty-four hours a day, to drown out the hatred.
Now it was night again, and he was back at his and Mallory's favorite café, where he had failed so miserably to help her.
He shivered, pulled his camouflage coat around himself. It stank. He stank. He had five twenty-dollar bills left—enough to eat for a few days, but this was a miserable time of year to sleep on the street.
He had to make a choice.
Race took out Chadwick's card, fingered the worn edge. He'd looked at this card every day. He'd memorized the damn number. He'd even called it once, but he'd gotten a machine, and hung up.
He could call again. He could even go to the city, to Norma Reyes' house. He would tell her first. Then she would help him. She would make the call for him, protect him from the consequences. He had known for years—ever since the day she defended him against that idiot who called him a monkey in fourth grade—that Miss Reyes was somebody he could trust. It had something to do with the sadness in her eyes, the loneliness that reminded him of his mom, those few times she was between men, when she wasn't high or drunk, and she paid attention to him. He could go to Norma Reyes.
Or he could do what he'd been told. He could wait and be silent.
He thought about Samuel—his dead big brother, whose memory had been resurrected to serve as a monster's skin.
She had promised no one else would die. She had promised to come back for Race and give him a fresh start, a new school, an easy life with plenty of money.
But she had also promised he would graduate from Laurel Heights. She said he could go to college, study history, get a Ph.D. if he wanted to. He could rewrite African-American history and turn the fucking world on its head.
She'd broken her promise.
For a while, his future had been part of her revenge—a thorn in the Zedmans' sides that served her purpose. Now, he was just a loose end.
Race hadn't seen her for days, but he had no illusions. She could find him at a moment's notice. She had almost killed him for saying as much as he had—for leaving the apartment, trying to warn Miss Reyes.
It would be stupid to cross her twice.
He stared at the chipped chess pieces on the table, thought of Mallory teaching him the game, years ago, in third grade. She'd always told him he was smarter than she was, but in chess, like everything else, she always outmaneuvered him.
Inside the café, the evening crowd was settling in with herbal tea and baguette sandwiches. White families, white college students glanced at him apprehensively. When he caught their eye, they stared past him, pretending to be looking somewhere else.