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Until they hear a sound coming from the trunk.
Ty and Cory are escaping demons of their own. But what they discover in the trunk puts them in the crosshairs of something darker and more sinister than their wildest nightmares.
Told through a gripping, lightning-fast narrative that alternates between present and past, this unputdownable survival thriller unravels the tangled circumstances that led Ty and Cory to the deer in the road and set them on a perilous course through the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.
Copyright © 2018 by Stephen Wallenfels
Designed by Maria Elias
Cover design by Maria Elias
Cover illustration © 2018 by Matt Griffin
All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.
To my brother, Mike
“Because brothers don’t let each other wander in the dark alone.” —Jolene Perry
SIXTEEN MONTHS AGO
Benny Bic slammed the truck into park, killed the engine, and said, “Get out.”
They were stopped dead center in the middle of a one-lane bridge spanning a deep gorge. Cory figured the metal-and-wood structure was fifty feet end to end, and judging by the rusted bolt heads and sagging cables he wondered if it dated back to the Civil War. His father knew he hated bridges, especially the old forgotten ones like this. Being up so high made his stomach feel like it was lined with ants. He glanced at his twin brother, Ty, wondered if he was in on this stop. Ty just shrugged and opened the door. They climbed out and waited next to the truck for their father to drain the last of his beer while the whispered sound of distant rapids mixed with the ticking of the truck engine behind them as it cooled.
Benny began walking to the side of the bridge and motioned for them to follow him. Ty joined him and they looked down. Cory hung back a few feet, those ants in his stomach really beginning to crawl.
“Is that Tanum Creek?” Ty asked.
“The one and only,” Benny said, and lit a cigarette.
“How far to the bottom?”
“A hundred feet, more or less.”
“I thought it would be smaller.”
“It is where we’re goin’.”
“Where are we going?” Cory asked.
Ty looked at Cory. Neither one of them liked the sound of that.
“What’s a Stumptown?” Ty asked.
“It’s a birthday secret. But you won’t ever see it unless you stop bein’ a pussy and git up here. I got another secret to share first.” Cory forced his feet to move an inch at a time until he stood next to Ty. Benny took a long drag on his Camel, blew the smoke out soft and slow so it drifted across Cory’s face. “See the big pool almost straight down, at the bottom of that waterfall?” Cory and Ty followed his hand pointing down, spotted the pool of still water looking turquoise where it wasn’t shaded by a leaning tree. Cory had to will the ants in his stomach to settle. “We used to skinny-dip in there when I was your age. We’d tie a rope to that big ol’ tree and swing out to the middle. Called it the swing tree.” He shook his head at the memory. “Oh man, that was some fun.”
“How deep is the pool?” Ty asked.
“We never touched bottom.”
Ty whistled appreciatively.
Cory asked, “Who is we?”
“Me and a coupla migrant kids named Luis and Marco Esparza. I worked the orchards with them thinning cherries and apples for two summers. They were brothers just like you two, ’cept for the twins part. And the fact that you’re alive and they’re not.”
After a respectful silence, Ty asked, “What happened?”
“Luis died in Mexico. All his mother would say is he had an accident. Marco wouldn’t tell me anything. But the orchard manager told me he got stabbed by his stepfather because he brought home the wrong kinda beer.”
Cory recalled a time last fall when he tripped over a can of Benny’s beer and spilled it, the liquid mixing with all the other stains on the rug. Benny roused himself from his drunken haze long enough to grumble, “You’re lucky I left my knife in the truck.” Cory didn’t know what that meant at the time, but he did now.
Ty asked, “What about Luis’s brother?”
“Marco?” Benny frowned, flicked the butt out over the void. They watched it fall till the wind caught it and blew it under the bridge. “He died down there.”
Cory felt a chill run through him. He knew where Benny was going and he didn’t want to hear it. He wanted to get back in the truck and drive off this bridge. But Ty, unfazed, asked, “Did he drown?”
“Hold your horses. I’m gettin’ there.” Benny lit another Camel. “We spent half a summer tossing rocks from this bridge, figuring out the exact right place to jump, testing how far out we needed to go. We agreed we wouldn’t do it till we hit the center of the pool ten times in a row. Eight was the closest we got.” He ran his hand over the outside edge of the top rail, slid it back and forth a few times, as if looking for something. Then he stopped and said, “So here’s another secret I promised you. I’m the only person alive that knows about it. Now I’m sharing it with the birthday boys.” He stepped back to make room. “Go on, take a look.”
Ty glanced at Cory. Cory shook his head. Whatever it was, he didn’t want any part of it. Ty moved to the place where Benny had stood. Cory tried to step back, but Benny slipped behind him. “You need to see this too.” He nudged Cory forward until he stood shoulder to shoulder with his brother. A crow launched from a nearby pine tree, its caws echoing sharply against the vertical rock walls as it flew over the chasm. Still behind them, Benny said, “Now, to see it properly you’re gonna have to stand up on the bottom rail, get a good grip, and lean out.” Ty took a breath, hooked his fingers over the edge of the top rail, grasped the top rail, and raised a leg. Benny said, “Nope. Both of you at the same time.”
“Why at the same time?” Ty asked.
“Because that’s the fucking way it needs to be.”
Cory was shaking. Ty looked at him and said, “Don’t worry. You’ve got this. On three?”
All Cory could do was nod. He tasted bile rising in his throat. He started to back away, then felt Benny’s hand on his spine. Benny hissed, “No pussies on this bridge.” Pressed him forward into the rail.
Ty said, “One. Two. Three.”
They stepped up six inches onto the bottom rail. After taking a few seconds to adjust his balance, Ty bent at his waist and leaned way out. Cory did the same although half as far, trying to ignore the yawning distance below him and the slimy sweat on his palms. Trying not to think about the warm wetness spreading across the front of his pants. Trying to focus on what he was supposed to see on the back of the handrail. It would help if tears weren’t blurring his eyes.
Cory felt the pressure of Benny’s hand fade until it was gone. “Okay. That’s it. Now let go with one hand, then the other.” Ty let go with both hands, raised them over his head. Cory pried his left hand free for three seconds, then returned it to the handrail. Benny said, “Now for the last thing. But it’s the most important.” Cory heard him moving, walking closer. Smelled the cigarette, felt the smoke brush warm on his neck. “You gotta spit for good luck.”
Cory managed to work up some saliva. It barely drizzled out of his mouth and stuck to his chin. Ty hawked up a big one and sent it flying. Benny backed away, said, “That’ll work. C’mon down and tell me what you saw.” They stepped off the rail. Cory’s knees collapsed and he started to fall. Ty grabbed the neck of his shirt and held him up.
Benny said, “So? Speak up, boys. Whaddya see?”
Ty said, “Three letters, but they were upside down. I think one was a W, and maybe a T?”
Benny frowned, turned to Cory. “Wipe that spit off your face, son.”
Cory wiped at his face with the back of his hand.
“And? What about you?”
Cory whispered, “MBL.”
“What happened to your voice?”
“Did it fall off the bridge?”
After a beat, “No.”
Cory saw Benny’s dark eyes flick to the front of his jeans. He braced himself for the comment sure to come. Benny with those eyes steady on him said, “Then speak up like a man so the dumbass standing next to you can hear.”
“I saw MBL.”
Benny’s face split into a smile. “Fuckin’ A that’s what you saw. Marco, Benny, Luis!” He leaned back against the truck, regarded the brothers. Cory watched his eyes play over them, narrow for a moment, no doubt weighing the contrast between the two: Ty an inch taller than his brother, lean and wiry like his old man and a fighter to his core, and Cory with his hands crossed in front of his zipper, softer by thirty pounds, not an ounce of it muscle, with his father’s black hair but his mother’s full lips and dirt-brown eyes. Benny said, “I climbed over the edge one night with some braided baling twine tied around my waist. Marco held the twine and Luis held the flashlight. I carved those letters into that rail with this.” Benny reached into his jeans pocket and came out with his red Swiss Army knife, the one with a broken tip he always had with him and went into a rage once when he thought Ty had lost it. “You were looking at the spot where we were supposed to jump.” He took a long final pull on his cigarette, stomped it out with the toe of his hiking boot. He walked around the truck, climbed in, and cranked the engine. “Let’s go, birthday boys. It’s time we head on up to Stumptown!”
Cory slid into the front seat, followed by Ty. As they rattled off the bridge and Cory could finally draw a decent breath, Ty said, “I guess Marco missed the pool?”
“Nah. That weren’t the problem. I heard he hit the pool just fine.” Benny popped the top to a beer, swung the truck right onto a rutted dirt road bordered on both sides by a split-rail fence. Green and gray mountains rose like a wall in the shimmering summer heat.
“So what was the problem?” Ty asked.
“He hit the swing tree first.”
Ty stops on the bridge even though we’re way behind schedule and it’s too dark to see. We step up on the rail, lean out over the void, and spit for good luck. The creek sounds louder than I remember, more like a rush than a whisper. I think about the pool, the swing tree, and am thankful for the blackness of this night. Just like we talked about, we yell, “No pussies on the bridge!” then climb back into the Volvo and leave without saying another word. He makes the right after the bridge and we head up toward the junction, this time in a heavy fog that settled in after six hours of solid rain. Icing could be a possibility higher up. We hadn’t factored that into our plans.
He drives one-handed while drinking a Mountain Dew, taking the hairpins a little too fast in my opinion. Ty sees me reaching for the handle over the door. I stop and he smiles. If we’d been lucky we wouldn’t be doing this part at night, but a truck fire on the interstate leaving town, a poorly stocked camping store, and piss-poor service at an IHOP (how long does it take to fill two bowls with lukewarm chili?) conspired to put us here six hours later than we wanted to be. As Benny would say, Open a can of worms, don’t be surprised when they start crawlin’ out.
The excitement of what we’d done had worn off by noon. Our agreement to not discuss it did little to stop the reality of our actions from sinking in. Just before we left pavement for the rutted gravel of the FS-101a turnoff, Ty asked me if I had any, you know, regrets? I said some, but I’d still do what we did. “Me too,” he said. “It’s not like we had a mountain of choices.”
Although we didn’t have a mountain, we did have at least two. But I didn’t feel like bringing them up and he for sure didn’t want to hear them. Ty found a radio station with decent country, cranked up the volume, and we drifted into our own heads to deal with whatever monsters were lurking there.
After the third hairpin, the fog gets so bad Ty has to turn on the wipers. We spin in the mud coming out of the turns and almost get stuck twice. But the Volvo is a champ and we make it through. Then on the incline just before the junction, Ty rounds a curve and something is in the middle of the road. A dark shape resolves out of the fog. It’s too big to drive around on this one-lane road, the right side blocked by the forest, the left side a steep ravine leading down to Tanum Creek. The shape moves, tries to rise but can’t.
“Are you shitting me?” Ty groans, rolling to a stop. He leaves the headlights on and the engine running. We put on our jackets, grab our cell phones out of the cooler, step out into the fog, and walk to the deer lying on its side in the mud. It’s a buck, and a big one. He regards us with one glassy black eye leaking red. White bone sticks out from its right rear leg. Its breaths rattle out in pink foaming heaves. The eye blinks.
Ty says to the buck, “Looks like you picked the wrong night to cross the road.”
Tire tracks in the mud tell us what happened. A vehicle must have come straight down from the junction on a fairly steep incline, swerving left, right, then hitting the deer and taking a sickening final swerve off the road and into the ravine just beyond us. We walk to the lip and peer down. Other than trees and rocks and tire tracks scarring the dirt, we can’t see much without some light.
“You know it’s down there somewhere,” Ty says.
“How long ago do you think this happened?”
“The tracks look pretty fresh. And the deer’s still kicking. Thirty minutes?”
Ty nods. “Sounds about right. That’s some steep terrain. Do you think they went all the way down to the creek?”
“Doubt it. That’s a quarter mile at least. Let’s turn on our phones. But don’t activate location services.” Once I get to the home screen I check for service, and it’s exactly as I suspected. “I got nothing. You?”
“I guess we do this old-school.” Cupping my hands to my mouth, I yell, “IS ANYONE DOWN TH—”
Ty yanks my hands away, hisses, “Dude, don’t do that!”
I’m stunned. “What’s your problem?”
“We stole a car, remember?”
“Yeah. But that—”
“If we get involved it’ll fuck up everything.”
“I know. But we can’t just leave. I don’t see a choice here.”
“I do. We drag the deer off the road and keep going. It can’t be more than five miles to the trailhead.”
Ty says, “On a different night, yeah, we’d take a look. But not this night. We need to walk away, Cor. Stick to the plan.”
The weight of his logic is crushing my resolve. I stare at the tire tracks leading down. Listen to our car idling behind us. And somewhere in the mix a deer is drawing its last rattling breaths. I hate myself for saying it, but he’s right: “Let’s clear the road.”
We walk back to the buck. Neither one of us has the stomach to kill it, so we decide to each grab a front leg and drag it to the edge of the road on the forest side. We bend down, grab a leg. The animal struggles weakly, pain and fear registering in his eyes. “I can’t do this,” I say. I release the leg, walk toward the back of the Volvo.
Ty says, “Hey! What are you doing?”
“I’m going down. You can stay here, or come with. Whatever you decide is fine with me.”
Ty turns off the engine but leaves the headlights on and activates the hazards. I stress about the battery draining, but Ty says we won’t be gone that long ’cause there probably won’t be any survivors. I hope he’s right, then kick myself for thinking that way. I take my pack because it has the first aid kit, but add two water bottles, four granola bars, Ty’s extra hoodie, and his sleeping bag in case there are multiple victims and I need to treat for shock. We put on our headlamps and start working our way down. The slope is too steep and slippery wet for a straight descent, so we have to do it in tight zigzags. I curse myself for not buying those trekking poles at REI. Meanwhile the fog is so thick we can’t see more than fifty feet out. But the tire tracks digging into the pine needles and dirt are easy to follow. After a couple hundred yards the tracks slew sideways and end.
Ty says, “Looks like this is where it gets bad.”
We keep walking, find pieces of metal and glass, big chunks of earth dug out where the vehicle landed and went airborne again. Farther down the slope our lights sweep across something big leaning against a boulder. It’s a silver sedan, upside down, wheels facing out.
Ty says, “What a mess.”
We run the final thirty feet. Inhale the stink of gas and oil and burning rubber. Shattered bits of glass are everywhere. I shed my pack while Ty checks out the driver’s door, which is crushed inward. The window is gone. He crouches down, pokes his head inside. I run to the rear passenger window, which is also gone, and shine my headlamp inside, fully expecting to see multiple dead bodies. But the backseat is empty. I don’t see anyone in the front passenger seat. Ty says, “Nobody here. But there’s plenty of blood on the airbag and the steering wheel. Oh, and there’s more on the roof. Shit. There’s a lot on the roof.” Then, “Hey. Check it out.” Ty shines his headlamp on the seat belt clip. A six-inch piece is hanging down, sliced at an angle. He says, “Looks like the driver had to cut his way out.”
“Any sign of a passenger?”
“Don’t see any blood. And the airbag didn’t happen.”
I say, “The gas smell is pretty bad back here.” Then I step away from the car and throw up.
Ty knows the drill. He waits till I stop heaving, says while I’m wiping my face with my sleeve, “There’s a bloody handprint outside the driver door. And a couple boot prints going that way.” He points up the slope we just hiked down. “Looks to me like he didn’t want to hang around here with all this gas leaking.”
“I know how he feels,” I say as my stomach finally settles and the surrounding trees wind down to a slow spin.
He says, “So? What’re you thinking?”
“If he’s bleeding as much as you say, he could be hurt pretty bad. Since we didn’t see him up at the road, or on the way down, it could mean he collapsed somewhere between here and the road. With this fog it would be easy to miss him.”
“Right. Or her.”
“So? Can we go now, or do you need to search for the body?”
“Maybe we should yell first. Do you mind?”
“Go for it.”
I yell, “HEY! WE’RE HERE TO HELP! WHERE ARE YOU?” We wait. Hear nothing. I yell again. Still nothing.
“Well?” Ty says.
Then I do hear something. But it’s not coming from the forest. It’s close by. A muffled, metallic sound. I look at Ty. “Did you hear that?”
“A sound. Kind of a clunky metal sound.”
“Nope. All I heard is you yelling.”
We wait a couple more seconds. The fog-drenched silence seeps in from the trees, coils in our headlamps, crawls up and over the big rock where the trunk of the car is resting. Whatever the sound was, it’s gone.
“And the verdict is…?”
I say, “Let’s spread out. Stay about twenty feet apart and hike to the car. If we don’t find the driver, then we’re back to plan A.”
Ty smiles. “Okay. Let’s do it. But do it now. I don’t want to kill the battery.”
I put on my pack. Ty finds another boot print. It’s about the same size as his hiking boot, so I figure the driver is our size, six foot, maybe a little more. Ty walks fifteen feet away, starts hiking up the hillside. I walk fifteen feet in the opposite direction, then head straight up, scanning the beam from my headlamp in 180-degree arcs. I walk ten steps and stop when I hear the same sound again. But this time there’s no question about the source.
I call out to Ty, “Wait! I heard something.”
He swings around.
I run to the car. Bang on the frame with my fist and yell while scanning the interior, “Hey! Where are you?”
By this time Ty is back. He says, “Cory. The car’s empty. We checked. There’s nothing—”
Then he hears it. A muffled thump, thump.
He looks at me, says, “Oh shit.”
The sound is coming from the trunk.
SIXTEEN MONTHS AGO
Driving up to the junction with six miles between them and the bridge, Benny talked about hunting pheasant and chukar in those fields back in his teens and twenties before the habitat went to shit, back when he could scare up a big ol’ rooster just by blinking. If he didn’t have a sack of birds after an hour’s time, he’d consider it a bad day. While he talked and drank and drove one-handed, Cory tried not to think about the empties clanking around in the passenger footwell every time Benny hit a bump. About how many times the truck would roll if Benny missed a hairpin and they bottomed out in Tanum Creek Canyon. But Benny kept the truck in second gear and the engine whined as they climbed out of wheat fields into scrub bushes and then pines.
At the junction Benny swung left and paralleled the canyon. He told Cory and Ty that a pheasant stew simmered in wine all day is a tasty treat, but nothing beats an elk steak grilled to perfection over a charcoal fire. He said he’d count down the days till archery season like a kid waiting on Christmas, that if you were willing to hump in some miles with a bow and be patient and endure a little suffering, then getting skunked just didn’t happen. Then he slowed the truck to a near crawl, scanned the trees to his left, and said, “But there was one day in particular. One day that stands out from all the rest. It was the best hunting day of my life despite the fact that I came home empty-handed.” Then he stopped, backed up twenty yards, and took a hard left through the trees onto a narrow road. The branches slapped angrily against the windshield and screeched like claws raking down both sides of the truck. Cory took this as a sure sign that where they were headed and where he wanted to be did not inhabit the same universe.
Ty said, “What’s so amazing about that day?”
Benny said, “You’re about to find out,” and braked to a stop. They were in a circular clearing barely big enough for the truck to turn around. Straight ahead through the mud and bug smears on the windshield Cory saw two knee-high rocks and a dark gap between them hinting at a trail. What he didn’t see was a bathroom, a trailhead sign, or even a garbage can.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“This here’s the hunter’s trailhead for Tanum Creek.” Benny reached across the two of them, opened the glovebox, and pulled out his .45 with the pearl-and-bronze handle. He checked to make sure it was loaded and the safety was on, drained the beer on the dash, burped, and said, “Time for a walk in the deep, dark woods.” He climbed out of the truck.
Over the sounds of Benny whistling while his bladder emptied against those rocks, Ty said to Cory, “Why do Dad’s birthday presents always suck?”
After a quick snack of glazed donut holes, raisins, and Sunny Delight, Benny shrugged on his daypack and they hit the trail a few ticks shy of 9:30. Benny made a point of leaving his cell in the truck, telling them, “There’s no service up here, so why carry the weight?” Before leaving, Cory asked Benny if he had a map, because on these outings he always had a map and compass and made sure they knew exactly where they were going and how to get back. But on this day Benny just took off his ball cap, tapped his forehead, and said, “It’s all up here, boys. There’s only me an’ one other person that’s seen what I’m about to show you. An’ that other person, well… let’s just say he’s no longer a factor.” He put on his cap and walked between the piss-stained rocks. “So you’d best make sure nothin’ unfortunate happens to your old man.”
- "A hair-raising, explosive thriller."—Kirkus Reviews
- "The busy story lines of the past-tense chapters contrast sharply with the urgent, single-minded present-day scenes, where survival is the goal, but the alternation keeps things moving, and sweet, good-natured Cory is easy to root for. A suspenseful thriller for fans of wilderness survival stories."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Feb 25, 2020
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers