“I just don’t want to spend the next few days sitting around in filth.”
The drive reminded me of why I’d fallen in love with living in Alaska in the first place. After spending so many years closing myself up into safe, cramped corners, the wide-open spaces were a welcome remedy to my growing claustrophobia. I loved the crazy patchwork of foliage across the landscape, the expected greens mixed with a riot of purples, golds, and grays. All of this would be buried under a dense blanket of blinding white in a few weeks, but even that would be beautiful and welcome.
I finally got to see some of the country, now that I wasn’t always on the run. Some of it looked too beautiful to be real—purple stone mountains and trees that seemed to swallow the road whole and forests so thick no light could break through the evergreens. I loved never knowing when a little town was suddenly going to pop up around a bend in the road. Caleb seemed to know this road like the back of his hand. I had the idea that if he’d driven down a road just once, he would still be able find his way back and tell you in detail what sort of rocks he’d seen by the side of the road.
I would miss this landscape. I didn’t know where my new identity would take me. I knew it wasn’t likely that I would stay in the Great North. And the southeast was definitely out—too close to Glenn. I could only hope that I wouldn’t end up in the desert somewhere. I had come to love the snow. I just couldn’t handle one-hundred-plus-degree summer days and scorpions in my living room.
We wound through rolling, low-lying mountains lightly dusted with snow, the landscape laid out before us like an endless Christmas card. I wrestled with the fatigue I’d kept at bay over the last twenty-four hours. But between the warm truck, the full belly, and the late-afternoon sun beating through the window on my face, I fell asleep long before we arrived in Flint Creek. It had been a long time since I’d simply ridden along in a car, and the exhausting events of the last few, well, years caught up with me. I still slept lightly, waking with every turn Caleb made, checking to make sure he hadn’t driven us to Tijuana or taken liberties with my ChapSticks. But he hadn’t even changed the radio station. He just glanced in my direction every few minutes, frowned, and then turned his attention back to the road.
Resting my forehead against the warm glass, I wondered if there would be an opportunity to send an e-mail to my Network contact, “
/* */ .” I needed to explain that my situation had deteriorated quickly and ask for a rush job on my new identity. Red-burn was pretty good about responding to e-mails within twenty-four hours, so all I had to do was come back the next day to buy more Internet time.
Although I’d never met her, Red-burn had been instrumental in my move to Alaska. She worked as part of the Network, a widespread group of people who helped women escape from abusive domestic situations, particularly when those situations involved stalking. Operating beneath the radar of law enforcement, the group arranged for new, untraceable driver’s licenses, social security numbers, and birth certificates in new names, not to mention securing employment and housing. They were discreet, well funded, and frighteningly good at making people disappear.
After leaving Glenn, I’d bounced around the country for nearly a year before I heard about the Network from a fellow waitress. Red-burn was the one to connect me with the Crescent Valley job, informing me that the people in Crescent Valley, Alaska, needed a new physician, as the old Dr. Moder had retired.
I was pretty annoyed with her for failing to mention the whole werewolf issue. Of course, she didn’t know about it, but still, I reserved the right to be irritated. A Dr. Moder had treated the valley’s residents since before the government started insisting on all of those pesky birth and death records. In addition to dramatically shortened pregnancies and high fertility rates, were-wolves tended to die in violent, somewhat difficult-to-explain ways, such as disagreement with a large bear while in wolf form. Eventually, census boards and medical examiners start to pick up on those things. It was easier for the pack to have someone they could trust to file the important papers. The first Dr. Moder took the position in 1913, but when he died, his successor didn’t have a strictly legal medical license, so the pack simply passed his credentials along to make it seem as if the original Dr. Moder was still working. My predecessors were like me, medical professionals who’d inadvertently ended up on the wrong side of the legal line. The name “Dr. Moder” stuck and became a tradition. (I suspected that we all shared the same degree from a medical school in the Philippines.) The Dr. Moder just before me had testified against a prescription-pill mill linked to organized crime in Miami. She’d hidden in the valley for ten years before she felt comfortable moving back to the lower forty-eight.
Red-burn was the one to convince me that I was strong enough to move so far away, to a cold, alien place where I would be isolated from anything I knew. She was the one who called me the night before my cross-country drive and told me not to be a wuss. Red-burn believed in tough love. She told me about her own past abuse. Although she was happily married to a much nicer guy, she still regretted that she hadn’t been brave enough to leave on her own terms. So now she helped other people escape their bad relationships and felt as if she was taking some of her power back, bit by bit. She was funny and sweet, but she brooked no bullshit. She insisted that I do half the work to get myself moving, telling me I wouldn’t appreciate my safety without a little effort.
Then again, it was Red-burn who had sent me the e-mail warning me that there had been a not-elaborated-upon but still quite scary “development” with my ex-husband. She said it was time to pull my “escape hatch,” my preplanned departure route that we had put in place before I even moved to the valley, while she worked on establishing a new place for me. That did secure some of my loyalty.
And run I did, tout de suite. I took my truck, which technically belonged to the village, and drove it as far as Grundy. I left it in the care of Nate Gogan, the town lawyer, whom I could trust to get it back to Maggie, and I tricked him into accepting twenty dollars for his trouble and gas money, which officially earned me attorney-client privilege and kept him from giving Maggie any details. I hitched a ride to Dearly with Evie, who had to make her weekly run for supplies. I gave her some excuse about needing to pick up some prescriptions and then disappeared through a side door of the pharmacy. I walked to the nearest used-car lot and plunked down seven hundred dollars for my poor departed Pinto. Of course, if I’d known I was buying an extremely expensive incendiary device, I might have upgraded to a Camry.
I drove as far as I could trust the Pinto to take me, camping out in McClusky and getting the job at Emerson’s while I waited for Red-burn to come up with a new identity for me. I shivered, tucking the collar of my coat closer to my chin. Although it was early autumn, the first hard frost wasn’t too far off. And that meant winter, with its rural-road-crippling snows and blood-freezing temperatures, was nipping at my heels. In the valley and the nearby town of Grundy, the first frost meant a big party to celebrate the last opportunity the locals would have to see one another socially before the snows set in and isolated them in their homes. Now it meant I had precious few weeks to get my butt to Anchorage and then haul ass across the state to wherever the Network had established a place for me. There were definitely times I despaired having to travel relatively close to the valley after “pulling my escape hatch” and running all the way east, but Anchorage was my checkpoint and that’s where I would go.
I would miss this. I would miss living in my cozy little house on the edge of the valley. I would miss the thrill of first snows of the season and the relief of the spring thaw. I would miss the irreverent, unpretentious humor of the pack members. I would miss the magic of watching people I shared a post office with shifting from two legs to four and back.
No, I thought, practically whacking myself on my nose with an imaginary newspaper. No reminiscing. None of this mattered. I’d left the pack to protect them, not so much from Glenn’s violence—that hadn’t come until the end of our marriage—but from his intrusion.
If he wanted to, Glenn could make life for Maggie’s pack very difficult. He could compromise the pack’s municipal bank accounts, causing the community considerable hardship. He could go to the authorities and raise all sorts of questions about “Dr. Moder” and how someone with the same credentials had managed to practice in the valley for so many years, essentially preventing the pack from getting medical treatment. He could call attention to discrepancies in the pack’s birth and death records. He could point out the number of mysterious disappearances involving drug dealers and other undesirables who wandered too close to the pack’s territory. He could put the pack’s secret in serious jeopardy. And after everything the pack had done for me, I simply would not allow that to happen. The pack had survived for hundreds of years without exposure to humans. I wouldn’t let my crazy ex-husband ruin that streak.
And if I told Maggie what I was going through, she would insist on “opening a werewolf-sized can of whoop-ass” on Glenn, and that would bring up a whole new set of problems for an alpha already stretched pretty damn thin by integrating two packs and a recent marriage. And I certainly didn’t want to complicate the pack’s ability to hire a new Dr. Moder, not with so many couples from the newly merged packs expecting cubs. There were plenty of doctors out there who could take my place as Dr. Moder, doctors without my baggage. It was easier for everyone if I just removed myself from the equation.
Caleb gently jostled me awake in the late afternoon and led me stumbling into another dingy room, this time at the Flint Creek Motor Inn. I chose not to comment on the lone queen-sized bed. I was too tired to protest the possibility of spooning with Bitey McWolfPants again. Caleb practically had to tuck me into bed like a toddler, pulling off my shoes as he explained in his gravelly voice that he needed to talk to some local contacts about Jerry. I stayed up long enough to lock the door behind him and promptly fell asleep again in the squeaky little motel bed.
It was the dream of my darling former husband that woke me up, the dream of him breaking down my motel-room door. I was screaming and screaming for help, but no sound was coming out as he dragged me away. I sat up, making a strangled whimper, clawing at the imagined hands at my throat.
I sprang out of bed into the dark, empty room. I blew out a breath and pushed my hands through my short, snaggled hair, then padded to the door to check the lock again. I shook my head and wondered whether I was going to be waking up like that for the rest of my life. But I still double-checked the bolt.
Better safe than sorry.
I crawled back into bed, pulling the covers up to my chin. How had I sunk to trusting my security to a cut-rate dead bolt? I used to be a pretty nice girl, back when I was Tina Campbell-Bishop, M dramatic pause D. I had everything. A nice husband. A nice home. A promising career. And I walked—well, ran—away from all of it. All the things I took for granted when I was growing up, such as feeling safe, having an indoor place to sleep and food on the table, people being polite and taking notice of me—I lost them somewhere along the way. I got harder, meaner. Rather than looking at people as human beings whom I might be able to help, I viewed them all with a calculating eye, analyzing how they might help me or hurt me before they could even introduce themselves.
Most people can’t pinpoint the exact moment when everything in their life goes to shit. I consider myself lucky to have such a definite timeline, so that if I were ever given the opportunity to travel through time, I could hop into the DeLorean, drive directly to April 10, 2004, walk into the break room at the hospital, and bitch-slap myself before I could meet the new technical-support hire, Glenn Bishop. But we seemed like such a good match! It was such a sensible solution to my dry spell, a string of bad dates that made me want to see someone safe for a while. And Glenn was so accommodating, easygoing. We liked the same kinds of movies, food, and, wouldn’t you know it, music. We enjoyed lazy weekends and trips to the lake. He was proud of my medical career and the energy I devoted to my work. I thought I was lucky to have fallen into a relationship with someone so easily.
I thought that’s what relationships were supposed to be. My parents were married for almost forty years before they died, and in all that time, I couldn’t remember them fighting. They didn’t really argue, because they knew how to talk to each other and how to compromise. I thought that was what I’d found with Glenn. He was sweet and attentive and dependable. He was that guy, the guy of substance your mother told you to be on the lookout for, just in case he came along.
Being with Glenn was always the easy part. The hard part was spending time with anyone else. Glenn was slight, bookish, and shy, which I sort of liked. It was a nice switch from the alpha-male types I normally went out with, burly, athletic types with dozens of friends and interests I had to compete with for attention. It was lovely to be able to have a conversation with a man without him eyeing the waitress or spotting someone across the restaurant he wanted to speak to, leaving me to fiddle with breadsticks for ten minutes while he bro-hugged some guy from his intramural basketball league.
The problem was that Glenn’s shyness became my issue. He had no trouble spending hours online gaming or chatting with total strangers, but he didn’t want to go to my work functions or casual drinks with my coworkers. He spent too much time around my colleagues anyway, he said, and my colleagues got enough of my precious time. Before I realized what was happening, Glenn slowly but surely made it more difficult for me to maintain friendships. He pouted when I wanted to go out with the girls, saying he never got to spend time with me. He even hid my car keys a few times so I couldn’t leave, all the while claiming it was just a “joke” he was forced to play because he loved me so much.