Cold Springs Page 50


She pushed him down on the bed, moved on top of him, her breath in his ear, her skin salty.

“How much of a loser am I?” she taunted, and bit his ear. “I wait thirty years for someone, and it's you.”

There was a knock on the door once more during the night, and they fell silent until the footsteps went away, trembling for fear of discovery like they were teenagers in a high school broom closet, or guilty adulterers in a sleeping bag at Stinson Beach.

For the first time in seven years, snow began to fall over the Hill Country, so quiet and natural that all the hot summers of the interim might never have happened.

32

It was goddamn typical. Not only had she gotten shot at twice in twenty-four hours, yelled at, sleep-deprived and starved. The minute they sent her into the woods for her wilderness overnight, she started her period.

The med kit had supplies for that, but Jesus Christ.

Mallory tried to imagine Leyland teaching them some survivalist tip for dealing with menstruation. And, um, ladies, this is how the Indians used to do it.

That thought lifted her spirits just a little, but the cramps were bad, like a rhinoceros using her pelvis for a skateboard.

She remembered her monthly ritual at Laurel Heights, ever since sixth grade, spending lunch break curled over in pain in the school office, tears streaming down her face, the other kids poking their heads in the door to ask if she was okay—her mom uncomfortable, having her so close, leaving it to the secretary to reassure the kids that Mallory just had a stomachache. Everything would be fine.

Her mom had never dealt well with female stuff. She was too damn busy being headmistress to be female. Maxi-pads? Trainer bras? Forget it. Mallory remembered how ashamed she'd felt, walking into the lingerie department by herself because her mom wouldn't take her, and then walking out again, scared of the salesclerk. Finally, Norma had taken her under her wing, bought her the right training bra—Norma Reyes, the woman who had lost her breasts to cancer. She could buy a bra, and her mom couldn't. Thinking about it still made Mallory angry.

Of course at the moment, everything made her angry. Her hormones were boiling over. Maybe all the women at Cold Springs were on the same cycle—her, Morrison, Olsen—all of them ready to tear somebody's throat out. Maybe Hunter had been wise to send them off into the wilderness for a while.

She skirted the base of a large hill, using a dry creek bed for a road. She wanted to avoid the underbrush—dense pampas grass and wild rye that grew waist-high on either side. Leyland had warned them about rattlesnakes. They were less active in winter, but they were still out there, living in the high grass.

How far had she walked? Miles, anyway. She hadn't known there were still open places like this in the world, where you could walk all day and see nothing—no people, no buildings, no civilization.

Her calf muscles were sore. Her knife chafed against her thigh. She'd eaten her only ration bar three hours ago, and now her stomach was a hole, slowly burning larger and larger.

Still, she'd felt proud of herself, for the most part. They had taken her compass away before she set out, but she'd used stick-and-shadow readings to find her cardinal directions. She was fairly confident she had remained on an eastward course, though the clouds had rolled in during the afternoon—and she could now only guess she was heading the right way.

Her stomach did a slow twist, trying to write the word FOOD on the back of her rib cage. They should've given her two ration bars. They should've taken into account she'd been on the run all night with nothing to eat, unlike the rest of the team. It wasn't fair.

Nothing's fair, she told herself. Stop blaming and find a solution.

Water. Her canteen was empty. She should find a way to fill it. At least that would give her something to put in her belly.

She followed a streak of slushy gravel up the creek bed to a bathtub-sized puddle of standing water. The surface was webbed with floating algae that piled up at the edges, making shirred lace on the granite. Young frogs darted around in the silt. Water bugs streaked through the ripples. It seemed strange that there could be so much life in the middle of winter. Surely it would freeze tonight. Could frogs live under ice?

Mallory knew she shouldn't drink from here. Amoebas, bacteria—shit like that could make her sick. Then she noticed the capillary of water trickling into the pond, feeding it. She followed it up into the rocks and found the spring, almost choked in moss, but there it was, bubbling right out of the ground—one of the cold springs the school was named after. Supposedly hundreds of these sprouted up all over the ranch, lacing together to form the river. But this was the first one Mallory had seen. Weird, that something so small could make a river.

She squatted down and the cramps tightened. Black spots danced behind her eyes. She wrapped her fingers around the GPS bracelet on her wrist, squeezed the metal band. But she wouldn't push that button. She wasn't going to give up. Not this time.

She steadied her breathing, looked for something to focus her eyes on. The ground here was littered with flint chips. Chert—worked stone, just like Leyland had told them to watch for. Several pieces had been chipped to a point—discarded Indian tools. She was kneeling at a two-thousand-year-old drinking fountain.

She cupped her hand into the water and took a drink. It tasted cold, earthy—what the heart of a tree would taste like, if you could drink it.

Her dizziness subsided. She filled her canteen.

Under her hand, the moss felt like a horse's muzzle, and she remembered the evening she'd stood with Olsen at the pasture, feeding apple slices to the filly.

She thought about Olsen's secret—her stepfather, her little sister.

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Mallory didn't want to be anybody's substitute little sister. She'd played that part before, with Katherine.

But she also couldn't help being touched that Olsen had opened up.

She'd never had a girlfriend—like a real slumber-party paint-your-nails kind of friend. Katherine had ruined that for her. Mallory got too close to another girl and she started thinking about the silver chain around her neck. She backed away, found a boy to hang out with, like Race.

She was sorry she hadn't told Olsen her own secret—about Katherine's last night, the figure on the Montroses' porch. But she felt relieved, too.

How could she be sure of a memory from when she was six? Her parents used to tell her things she did when she was small, until she started to believe she remembered them. The dream about the Montroses' porch could be the same kind of thing. A traumatic experience, combined with a new situation—you superimpose someone's face and start believing they were there.

She wondered how Olsen would react—whether she'd laugh it off, or take her seriously, or maybe even get angry. The hungrier Mallory got, and the more tired, the more reasonable her dream seemed. She'd heard Katherine—she'd called her friend she. Mallory was sure of that. But if Mallory said something, and she was wrong . . .

She decided to climb out of the creek bed, see where she was going.

She hiked up the hillside to an outcropping of boulders that looked like the head of a turkey.

From there, she had a view of the whole valley—the low hills, the dense carpet of live oaks turning chameleon gray under the clouds, a darker strip of green cypress trees that marked the river's course up ahead, and maybe, a little farther toward the horizon, a ribbon of brown—the access road.

Race had kidded her once, when she'd suggested they take a trip to the woods. She'd had this idea they'd hitchhike to La Honda, where the hippies used to experiment with LSD. They'd score some cheap wine and pot and spend the night in the redwoods. Race had laughed, a little nervous. You in the woods? Man, the raccoons would eat you.

Now, Mallory smiled. Screw you very much, Race.

She hadn't thought of him in days—not like she used to, anyway. It had only taken one night of sex to convince her they weren't in love. Weird how that had worked—like, now that it's too late, here's the emotional proof you just made a mistake. She didn't hate him. She didn't really believe he'd killed his mother. She just . . . wanted to avoid him. Their friendship had become dangerous, like the heroin. Most of the time, she no longer craved it, but if she got close . . . if she saw a bag of smack, she wasn't sure she'd be able to resist.

Maybe Race felt the same way. Finding his mother in all that blood—how could you share that experience with someone and not have the image burn in your mind, every time you looked at her? Mallory wondered where they would be now if Chadwick hadn't snatched her—if she and Race had taken that money and caught a bus out of town. They would've failed eventually, made each other miserable. She knew that now. Cold Springs had saved her. All she could do was hope Race would find something like that, too.

An icy wind was picking up, turning her cheeks and the end of her nose to sandpaper. She was about to rise, get moving again, when she heard a loud skittering noise—dislodged rocks rolling down the hillside in the woods behind her. Her fingers strayed to the hilt of her knife.

“Hello?” she called.

No response. Just the sound of a few last pebbles coming to rest. Mallory could see nothing that hadn't been there before—the trees, the cliffs, the afternoon growing steadily darker under dense gray clouds.

You won't meet any people, Leyland had promised. This is all private land. Posted and patrolled. We're taking pains to make sure no one bothers you.

Could she trust that?

Probably, if Hunter and Chadwick were on patrol. Chadwick had taken out that one sniper, Hunter had assured her, like it was nothing. And Mallory figured Hunter was just as tough. You could tell by looking at him—the guy was a predator.

Mallory tried to relax. Probably an animal had slipped. Do animals slip? Or maybe the rocks had come loose on their own.

But her heart still fluttered. Maybe it was just her hormones again, but she felt . . . anger in the silence, directed at her. She felt watched.

She found a dead mesquite branch, about four feet long, two inches thick. She broke the twigs off of it, hefted it. It would make a good walking stick. That's all. Just in case.

She made her way downhill.

She walked for another hour or so. The air turned colder and heavier, and it began to smell like snow. Mallory put on her jacket.

Her cramps flared up, rolling through her like lava lamp goo, and with them, the old withdrawal pains from the heroin. That didn't help her paranoia. Whenever she looked back, she could swear she saw flickers of movement in the trees. She heard the distant crack of twigs.

A counselor following her? No, a counselor would hang back. This was something pressing in—a presence on her back, as threatening as the cold front.

Another snap in the woods behind her—maybe fifty yards away. Mallory started jogging.

By the time she saw the river in the distance, she was shivering, her face drenched in sweat.

The river was narrower here than it was at camp—maybe thirty yards across—but the water roared in a swollen stretch of rapids. The banks were cut steep into the mud, the exposed roots of cypresses making basket nets along either side. It was too far to jump, too icy to swim. And it was in Mallory's way.

The daylight was fading, but she had to cross. She wasn't going to stay on this side all night—not with those sounds, the thing that was stalking her.

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