“I know the feeling,” she said.
As the moon cleared the spires of the hall behind them, its light brightened the girl’s face.
Her left eye was black, swollen, half-closed.
“Someone hit you,” he said. He looked at her backpack again. “You on your own?”
“Of course not.”
“I won’t turn you in.”
She’d smoked her cigarette down to her fingers. Flicking it into the grass, she pulled another one out of her pocket, fired it up.
“That’s really bad for you, you know,” David said.
She shrugged. “What’s the worst that’ll happen?”
“You could die.”
“Yeah, that’d be so tragic.”
“How old are you?”
“How old are you?”
David reached into his pocket, found his wallet, took out all the cash he had.
“This is a little over two hundred dollars—”
“I’m not going to blow you.”
“No, I’m not… I just want you to have this.”
Her hands were shaking with cold as she took the wad of cash.
“You’ll get yourself a warm bed tonight?” David asked.
“Yeah, because hotels rent out rooms to fourteen-year-olds all the damn time.”
“It’s freezing out here.”
She smirked, a glint of spirit in her eyes. “I have my methods. I won’t die tonight, don’t worry. But I will get a hot meal. Thank you.”
“How long have you been on your own?” he asked.
“I would rather freeze to death than go back to another foster home. You wouldn’t understand—”
“I grew up in this beautiful neighborhood in Greenwich, Connecticut. Cute little town just a forty-minute train ride from Grand Central Station. Picket fences. Kids playing in the streets. It was the 1950s. You probably don’t know who Norman Rockwell is, but it’s the kind of place he would’ve painted. When I was seven years old, my parents left me with the sitter one Friday evening. They were going to drive into the city to have dinner and see a show. They never came back.”
“They left you?”
“They were killed in a car wreck.”
“Never assume you know where someone else is coming from.”
He walked away, pant legs swishing through the grass.
She called out after him, “I’ll be gone by the time you tell the cops you saw me.”
“I’m not telling the cops,” David said.
After ten more steps, he stopped.
He glanced back.
Then he walked back.
Knelt down in front of her again.
“I knew you were a f**king pervert,” she said.
“No, I’m a scientist. Listen, I could give you real work. A warm place to stay. Safety from the streets, the cops, your parents, child services, whatever it is you’re running from.”
“I’m staying downtown at the Drake Hotel. My last name is Pilcher. I’ll already have your very own room waiting for you if you change your mind.”
“I wouldn’t wait up.”
“Take care of yourself. I’m David by the way.”
“Have a nice life, David.”
“What’s your name?”
“What do you care?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
She rolled her eyes, blew out a stream of smoke.
“Pamela,” she said. “Pam.”
David slipped quietly into his suite and hung his coat on the rack beside the door.
Elisabeth was sitting in the parlor, reading in the soft light of a floor lamp that overhung the leather chair beside the window.
She was forty-two years old. Her short blond hair had begun to lose its vibrancy—yellow considering silver.
A stunning winter beauty.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
He leaned down and kissed her. “It went great.”
“So this means you’re done?”
“We’re done. We’re going home.”
“You mean to the mountain.”
“That is home now, my love.”
David walked over to the window and swept aside the heavy drapes. There was no view of the city. Just the lights of late traffic on Lake Shore Drive and the black chasm of the lake beyond, yawning out into darkness.
He crossed the suite and carefully opened the door to the bedroom.
His footfalls soundless on the thick carpeting.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Then he saw her. Curled up in a ball on the immense bed. She had kicked away the blankets and rolled over to the edge. He moved her back into the center of the mattress and covered her again and eased her head gently onto a pillow.
His little girl took a deep breath, but didn’t wake.
Leaning over, he kissed her on the cheek and whispered, “Sweet dreams, my sweet Alyssa.”
When he opened the bedroom door, his wife was standing there.
“What’s wrong, Elisabeth?”
“We just had a knock at the door.”
“Who was it?”
“A teenage girl. She said her name is Pam. That you told her to come here. She’s waiting out in the hallway for you.”
Tobias finished tying off his bivy sack and descended the pine tree. In the failing light, he huddled over the circle of rocks and kindling with his flint and steel, building the nerve. It was a risk, always a risk. But it had been weeks since he’d felt the glow of a fire. Since he’d steeped pine needles in a pot of boiling water and let something warm run down his throat. He had thoroughly scouted the area. No footprints. No scat. Nothing to indicate it was frequented by anything other than a doe and two fawns. He’d seen a tuft of coarse white hair caught in the thorns of a raspberry bush.
He struck a spark onto the char cloth. A yellow flame licked up and impaled a bundle of Old Man’s Beard that was laced with a dismembered branch of dead fir. The spikes of dried-out, russet-colored needles ignited. Smoke coiled out of the tinder.
His heart swelled with primal joy.
Tobias built up a cone of sticks over the growing flames and held his hands to the heat. He hadn’t bathed since his last river crossing. That had been at least a month ago. He still remembered catching his reflection in the glass-smooth current—beard down to his sternum, skin embedded with dirt. He looked like a caveman.