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Sandy Tremont stood at her kitchen island, staring out the window at a jagged run of mountains, and stirring a pot on the stove. Some dish she didn’t remember making. Only when the sauce began to burp and Sandy smelled tomatoes did she recall her decision to serve spaghetti tonight. She shook her head, blinking away the view before her. Sandy would sometimes find herself reaching into a drawer and have no idea what she’d opened it for. She needed to try some of the mindfulness techniques she used with her patients.
The window ran the length of the wall beyond the island, her favorite part of this room. At the right time of the season, the mountains were the same color blue as the sky. And even now, in the dreariest portion of a waning year, there were beautiful things to see. Way out toward the back of their property, a creek galloped by, water leaping and rolling over rocks. The temperature must be dropping, for the flow had thickened and turned black, a sludgy, tarry brew. Sandy switched her gaze just long enough to lower the flame beneath her sauce.
When his father died, after a lengthy illness, and left them a healthy inheritance, her husband had decided to build their dream house. It was actually more Ben’s dream than hers; Sandy had been concerned about a new house being too showy for the neighbors, people in town, her patients. Sandy didn’t like to stand out. But Ben had assuaged her fears by finding a remote piece of property. It suited Sandy, the privacy that bordered on reclusion. If you looked down the hill when the trees were bare you caught sight of a rim of roof, which belonged to the nearest full--time resident. And there was the remains of an old Adirondack great camp to the left, an amputated parcel of land. The acreage Sandy and Ben now owned had once been part of this spread, which still boasted a stick--and--beam structure kept shambling along by infrequent injections of cement to the stone foundation, a fresh coat of paint over the splintery wood.
The isolation never made Sandy nervous. Her job—even though it was only part time—wielded a stranglehold of people with needs that tended not to stay in neat hourly boxes. It was good to get home and really set things aside, feel as if she were truly away.
Sandy allowed herself a small smile. Most days she couldn’t believe that this house, draped in peace and serenity, was the place she got to live. She wished Ben were home right now so she could tell him how glad she was he’d urged the move. Sandy gave the pot another stir, breathing in deeply. The sauce smelled spicy, fragrant. She turned away from the stovetop, glancing at the clock whose digital display blared a warning. Time for the daily countdown to begin. Ivy had fifteen minutes till she usually got home from school. And less than an hour until, if she wasn’t home, Ben would know about it.
Sandy felt a furry twining at her knees and lowered her hand. “Hiya, Mac, you good boy.”
The dog gave a yip of agreement, flank rising and falling as Sandy stroked him. There were a few burrs in his coat from their afternoon walk. Sandy’s fingers pulled and sorted, removing the gristly spurs along with a clump of milkweed fur. Mac was a blend of breeds, nothing very clear, although he had to have some Husky in him somewhere. He had one startlingly blue eye, while the other was brown, and perfectly pointed ears. It was more than those features, though. Something wolfish lived deep within Mac, a touch of the wild that hadn’t been stirred for some time.
“Gonna have to give you a bath,” Sandy said, and this time there was no assenting yip.
Instead, Mac’s furry brow signaled his displeasure. He turned and trotted toward the sitting area of the kitchen, the farthest away he would stray on his own. The dog lay down on the rug in front of an upholstered loveseat.
Westward-facing glass doors formed the wall behind the sitting area. They framed a pale expanse of sky canopying starkness all around. Stripped trees and fields of brittle grasses: a landscape the color of potato peelings. It was the end of a dying year, with a seemingly infinite stretch of bleakness before it, yet Sandy loved this face of the countryside, too.
She walked back to flick off the burner. The sauce was done, and a lid over the pasta water would keep it hot for later. The salad sat in the fridge in a bowl covered by a paper towel. She’d even sliced the bread. Tasks had always had a way of flitting away from Sandy, which was why she liked to get a jump-start on dinner, as if she were lining airplanes up for takeoff instead of preparing a meal for her family of three.
With nothing left to do, Sandy picked up the phone to call in to work, catching a glimpse of turquoise numbers on the clock.
Despite uncountable reminders and remonstrations to come straight home from school, or at least call with an alternate plan, Ivy was now inarguably late.
Sandy sighed, and Mac got up and stalked back over. He didn’t like his family to be worried or annoyed or upset. He was like Sandy in that sense, she thought, watching the dog make his way across the room. Mac wasn’t as limber as he used to be, she realized with an internal flinch. It was impossible to believe that a day would come when Mac wouldn’t be here. He had grown up alongside Ivy.
Wedeskyull Community Hospital had recently installed a telecom system that, as far as everyone could tell, had only resulted in alienating the patients and annoying the employees. The automated welcome came on as Sandy pressed the cordless to her ear. If you would like to speak with someone in the Emergency Department, please press 1. If you would like to speak with someone in the—Sandy hit 4 before she had to listen to the rest of the menu.
“Mental health services, this is Gloria, how may I help you?”
“At ease,” Sandy said in response to the perky tone. “Anything?”
“Oh, Ms. Tremont, hi,” Gloria said, her voice returning to a more natural state of deflation. “Not really, it’s been pretty you-know-what so far today.” Uttering the word quiet was a jinx. Everyone who worked in a hospital knew that.
Sandy caught a rustle of papers over the line. Million-dollar system or no, WCH still operated mostly as it had for over a century, eschewing paperless replacements for treatment plans and notes and charts.
“Madeline Jennings put in a call,” Gloria said. “But only one. I’d say we’re doing well.”
Sandy allowed herself a brief, invisible nod of acknowledgment. On the days Sandy didn’t see patients, Madeline sometimes called as many as five or six times. “What did she say?”
“She asked if she could give you a call at home,” Gloria replied. “I offered to beep you, but then she said she was all right.”
It was something of a ruse, having patients phone the hospital so that their therapist could be beeped. Therapists were supposed to block their number before calling back, but technology wasn’t advanced enough in these parts for that to be a foregone conclusion. Often you were lucky to be able to place a call at all.
“Whatever all right means with that one,” Gloria went on.
Sandy didn’t echo the administrator’s chuckle. Gallows humor was the method of choice for many in their professions, a way of coping with exposure to the mental health ills of a population who lived in stark, often savage circumstances. But Sandy couldn’t look down, even undetected, on these people who eked out a living at the edge of great wilderness. And Madeline was a patient she particularly liked. A young mother dealing with the triple whammy of grief, post-traumatic stress, and what appeared to be an absolutely bizarre childhood.
Gloria relented. “I’m only kidding. If anyone can help that girl, it’s you, Ms. Tremont.”
“Thanks, Gloria,” Sandy said. “I’m thinking you-know-what thoughts for this evening.”
“Don’t even say it,” Gloria responded darkly.
Sandy hung up, checking the phone to be sure she hadn’t missed any calls. Madeline was in a special live-to-work program on an organic farm where they de-emphasized technology. Landlines were about as modern as they got.
She replaced the cordless and went to peek through a narrow column of window by the front door, Mac trailing her. He was a rescue who couldn’t bear to be alone, his first year or so of life too painful to contemplate, although Mac was the sweetest and most compliant pet you could imagine so long as he had company. On Sandy’s hospital days, Mac went in with Ben to work, although the arrangement struck Sandy for the first time as finite. What if Ben scheduled a trip and Mac could no longer keep up the pace? Maybe he could start accompanying Sandy instead. Mac’s gentle nature would make him a good therapy dog.
Although she couldn’t see the twists and turns at the bottom of the road from this vantage point, every foot of the mile--long trip up their drive was visible. Sandy wouldn’t be able to miss whichever car was chauffeuring Ivy, nor could she avoid spotting Ben’s arrival. It seemed like a wacky game of chicken: which set of headlights would appear first? The familiar circles on their Jeep or some unknown pair?
If Ben arrived before their daughter, Sandy wouldn’t be able to conceal another flouted arrival, a kindness she was usually willing to extend to Ivy, who’d been engaging in typical teenage displays lately, but was overall quite a good kid. Ben butted heads with Ivy more than Sandy did, and Sandy didn’t want the night to devolve into an ensnarement of accusations and flared tempers.
She let the strip of curtain fall back, obscuring the driveway.
Mac whined high in his throat.
“It’s all right, Mackie,” Sandy said reassuringly. But she was stroking the snail shell of scar on her wrist, while chiding herself for her nerves. A teenager home late? Imagine that.
From outside came the rumble of an engine, smoother and more sedate than their Jeep.
Sandy felt a flicker of relief, or something close, while Mac let out a delighted yelp.
Sandy pulled at the hasp on their front door, reminding herself not to scold.
The door of an overlarge SUV swung open.
It was so quiet outside you could hear the rasp of leaves, but as soon as the prison door clanged shut behind him, Nick might as well have been stepping outside into a carnival. Sunlight flaring, colors barking, air so clear it felt like glass upon his skin. He had to blink and shade his eyes as the scene before him resolved. There was asphalt and drab cement, a faraway circle of trees, already winter-brown, and one lone decommissioned school bus, painted white.
They were headed toward the bus, Nick last man out, his preferred position now. On line for chow or the shower or the yard—last was just fine by him. You saw more that way.
He took a look around.
After three o’clock, and a hard frost still lingered on the ground, feathering the pavement. They had been issued jackets—thick, ugly brown things to wear over their greens—and the feel was foreign, as if Nick had been transformed into some bulky alien life-form.
So many things to observe out here, and so many that weren’t demanding the usual attention. Barely buried tempers, cattle calls from the guards that signaled chow, change of shift, med dispersal, quiet time. But you never got silence, not really. There was the continual spatter of piss from four men sharing a john. The sound the clicker made during counts and recounts, each man accounted for like a box on a pallet. And talking, of course. Constant mutters, chatter, screams. Cries for Mama, even in the middle of the night.
The prison sat on a carved-up plot of land. Trees had been hulled out and the ground shorn of grasses, paved over for visitor parking, and so the guards could have a clear line of sight. They were far enough away from the nearest town that there was no place to run, and the only cars that drove by went at a pretty good clip, warned by road signs not to stop. There hadn’t been a successful prison break since 1961, although a story was habitually trundled out about a more recent attempt, with the inmate rounded up in the adjacent woods hours later, never having even made it off the grounds. There’d been no escape attempt during Nick’s twenty-four years of incarceration as far as he knew. That tale was a composite, a patchwork stitching of every desperate man who had the thought to leave, meant to serve as a deterrent for anybody foolish enough to harbor such hope still.
But today it didn’t matter how isolated they were or how unlikely was escape.
Nick had a plan.
Harlan took up most of a seat at the back of the bus, and Nick positioned himself across the aisle from him. Two other inmates sat just ahead, with the guard up front.
Rear position. Nick was pleased. He wondered if Harlan sensed his preference, and had deliberately set up the seating. Probably it’d just been luck. Harlan wasn’t much for organization.
They’d been cellies since a few years after Nick had gone in, which meant that by now Harlan was completely exposed to him. Nick knew the mutters Harlan made while sleeping, how he shuddered after taking a piss, that Harlan had been paid only one visit his entire time inside. But by the same token, Nick didn’t know Harlan at all, not his age, or why he’d gotten life when he hadn’t laid a hand on anybody, or even who’d come to see him that time.
Nick slid his palm across the green vinyl seat. He hadn’t felt this pebbly texture in years.
“Listen up,” the guard said. He touched the rifle slung low by his side.
This guard was in his forties or fifties, a long time on the job. But today his voice held a note that was different from its usual ring of command.
On the other side of the bus, Harlan’s face appeared bland and unchanging, his features lumpy. Harlan hadn’t heard the same thing Nick had, but that didn’t mean much. Harlan was loyal, better than any man inside, but still, his brains were made of paste, and no amount of heart could change that.
The guard sounded off-kilter. Outside on his own with four men was a change from the usual day-to-day. Nick felt a small sizzle of satisfaction.
“We got blacktopping on a bridge,” the guard said. “You’ll work in teams of two.”
Information inside was strictly on a need-to-know. You had to qualify to earn a stint on the outs—even just for a two- or three-hour job—and that had taken Nick a while. The first job he could’ve worked had been scheduled in August, and that timing would’ve been a whole lot better considering what he had planned. But the job kept getting postponed—cutbacks probably—until a day sheet stuck between the bars told Nick he’d be riding out today. Nick didn’t tend to be a take-what-he-could-get kind of guy, but he had learned a thing or two since going inside. A better chance might not come along.
It had cost him two packs and four shots to get details on the job. He tended to be well supplied, but that trade had wiped him out. If he went back in, he’d be jittery as hell, with a mean clamp of a headache, out of smokes and juice for a week.
He wasn’t going back in.
“All you got to do is set down cones,” the guard continued. He reached up to scrub the gray spikes of his crew cut. “Simple as that. Start a quarter mile before the bridge, go a quarter mile after it lets out. Make a nice, generous curve to guide ’em along. We don’t want anybody not knowing they don’t got two lanes.”
Nick saw Harlan’s brow furrowing; he wasn’t great with anything beyond simple instructions. And he didn’t like guards, especially the older, more experienced ones. Harlan’s fists would roll into masses the size of wasp nests, his blank eyes would smolder, whenever he was confronted by a guard.
Before coming up with this idea, Nick had considered simply ordering Harlan to take out the guards who stood in their way; escaping by brute force. But, in addition to the relatively slim chance of that working, it wouldn’t have got them where they needed to be.
The driver lurched the bus into gear, rolled out of the lot, and through the gates. Then they were on the road—a real road again, smooth as a woman’s ass—and headed north.
They reached old Route 9. Setup looked just about like he’d pictured it. Nick blew out a breath of relief. The intel he’d stripped his stash for had been right.
The bus lumbered over to the side of the road. Cresting it was a hump of hill that let out onto a bridge, only one lane of which was open. The other was newly paved, shiny as sealskin.
A temporary stoplight flared red in the low afternoon light, making sure that cars didn’t meet coming over the single lane of the impaired bridge. Visible through the bus window was a pickup parked at a sharp angle. The truck’s bed held nested stacks of orange cones.
Harlan began straining to get a look, misting Nick’s face with his breath.
“Cut it out,” Nick said, and Harlan lowered his big body back down, biting his lip with piano key teeth.
“Ready?” the guard asked, unease still alive in his tone. “Out of your seats.”
The convict in front of Nick stood up. Small—by prison measures anyway—and dark-skinned, with wiry white coils of hair receding on his scalp.
He took a look through the window at the road.
This particular inmate was of the old school variety, locked up before Nick was even born. Old-School was a rampart, a foundation of the prison who helped keep eight hundred men from battering it apart. Prison lore had it that he was the one who’d helped with the escape more than fifty years ago, but Nick had never been able to buy that. The story had the feel of a tall tale. Why wouldn’t Old-School have gotten out himself?
The newer guys used the fathomless measures of time inside to beef up, Nick included, but Old-School had long since passed that mark, allowing himself to shrink and shrivel over the years. Still, he had a commanding dignity about him. The twitchy alertness new guys wore, always on the watch, looking out, had been worn away, smudged like the charcoal of Old-School’s skin. He still took everything in—you didn’t survive inside if you stopped paying attention—but Old-School did it with a studied breed of acceptance. Even this has its limits, he said with every slow blink of his eyes. Everything does.
“We going to have trouble with that light?” Old--School asked, his eyes still on the road. “Cars barreling through, hitting our cones?”
“We’re not going to have trouble so long as you don’t make any,” the guard said.
Nick watched the square off, monitoring it for signs of combustion. He’d been planning for too long to let anything go wrong now. Figuring out what was likely to bring them down, coming up with work-arounds. Learning how the world had changed since he’d gone in. And, of course, securing this stint on the outs. That had been the toughest part. To everyone else, Nick probably seemed like just another jailhouse convert, finally come to see the light and the error of his ways. In fact, the good behavior had nearly killed him—holding himself in check whenever anybody crossed him or tried to piss him off. For Harlan, good behavior came easy; he was slow to act on his own volition. But Nick had earned every oxygen-rich breath he took out here, and no wizened old con was going to mess with the scenario he was banking on.
A blink. “You don’t got to worry about me,” Old-School said.
Nick took another deep, heady breath.
The guard handed out jerseys, slick with orange reflective tape. “Then get off the bus.”
Harlan’s girth caused each step to heave as Nick followed him down. A chill sun shone through the naked spires of trees. In concert he and Harlan approached the pickup, so in sync they glided. Harlan hoisted up a batch of cones, taking the bulky rubber tower into his arms as if it were a toddler. Old--School and the other inmate wrestled their own stack down.
A sick, eerie light descended, and Nick looked up to see the temporary stoplight turn green. A late model sedan shot across the bridge, its driver clearly pissed off by the delay.
Timing was going to be key.
Old-School and the other inmate made it to the far end of the bridge, probably thinking that haste had bought them the choice position, farthest away from the guard and the bus. But Nick was glad again to be last. He watched both men walk on—a quarter mile looked about right—before Old-School took the first cone out of the other inmate’s arms and set it down, his placement as precise as if decided by instrument.
The guard jerked his chin toward Nick and Harlan, indicating that they should get a move on. The guard’s gaze was targeted and direct, switching back and forth between the woods, the adjacent fields, the thin skin of the river itself. Only last did he scan the long, empty road, where a body would be seen instantly, a fool’s choice of escape.
Nick led Harlan along the asphalt, gauging the distance till they’d gone about fifteen hundred feet, just like the guard had specified. Then Nick held up a barricading hand, stopping Harlan, and reached for a cone. Harlan had to stoop way down for Nick to take it.
Nick placed the orange dunce cap on the road, then took a few steps in the direction of the bridge. Harlan trod after him, and they repeated the sequence.
Nick touched a spot on his leg before tackling the next cone. Weather coming in. He could feel it, even if the sky was still clear, and for a second the privilege he’d fought so hard to win turned nasty, useless, something to stomp into the ground. Bring inmates in at the tail end of the day so the fewest number of cars would be coming over that bridge. It wasn’t like there was rush hour out here. Schedule the job in November instead of the summer due to someone’s budgetary screwup. Nick felt a dagger of resentment toward the powers that be, not to mention the citizens who were able not only to drive around freely, but be protected as they did it.
Harlan began shifting his burden of cones from one arm to the other while Nick tried to wrestle his anger down. It was a trick he’d learned in mandated counseling, to picture a mental scabbard and thrust his fury into it. Nick had dutifully attended one idiotic session each week all year. Now he breathed in air so fresh it tasted like menthol. Never again was he going to take a whiff of the stale, recirculated air inside. The sensation in his leg was sometimes misleading, and in this case, it’d better be.
A car streaked by, its cloud of exhaust smelling like freedom. The light changed to red, and Nick stilled with a cone in his arms.
He began to count.
The car cooled its wheels, forced to wait at the bridge. It occurred to Nick that these drivers weren’t so free themselves, and he felt a swell of satisfaction build.
He swiveled to share it with Harlan, then scowled. Nick had been keeping track of how long the light stayed red, maintaining a beat in his head. But he could see Harlan’s lips visibly moving, expelling white puffs into the frigid air. If the guard were any closer—and could lip--read—he might’ve seen that Harlan was counting.
“Quit it!” Nick ordered, low.
The stack of cones Harlan was hugging to his chest pitched sideways, off balance.
Nick reached over to steady them, cuffing Harlan on his coat sleeve as he did.
It was like hitting a girder.
The light changed and the car moved on across the bridge. The driver gave Old-School and the other inmate a wide berth on the opposite side.
Harlan’s mouth stilled and so did the count in Nick’s head.
He’d gotten to ninety. A minute and a half.
They would enter at the seventy-five-second mark. That would give them fifteen seconds more for maneuvering, the inevitable balking and surprise.
The road behind them was empty now, a faded gray strand in contrast to the new lane they were approaching on the bridge. Nick didn’t want to risk looking too long in this direction—the guard was headed back their way—but he would’ve felt a whole lot better if he could’ve seen another car. This road was supposed to be decently trafficked for these parts, but here was that end-of-the-day thing again, poking up its ugly snout.
The light went through another cycle with no car appearing. Harlan struggled with his armful of cones, and Nick reached for a few more, lightening Harlan’s load. They were getting close to the bridge.
A car sped by, braking hard when the stoplight flashed red.
Nick and Harlan weren’t ready for it. They weren’t quite there yet; maybe five or six more cones to go. Nick juggled possibilities. He could speed up to ensure they made the next red—although getting Harlan to move faster was like shoving water—but if a car wasn’t there for that light change, then they would have to change course and find a way to stall. Nick supposed they could literally reverse, walk back up the road and make sure their cones formed the nice, smooth curve the guard had asked for. But even though Nick tended to like things tidy since his I’m-a-changed-man conversion inside, straightening cones at a work site might look a bit suspicious.
On the opposite side of the bridge, Old-School and the other inmate were moving slowly, enjoying their freedom. Nick focused so hard, it felt like a string was about to snap in his head. He tried to match Old-School and the other inmate’s pace.
The light switched to green, and the waiting car drove off.
Nick eased a cone out of Harlan’s arms, lining it up with the one that’d come before.
The guard reached Nick and Harlan’s side of the bridge, nodding at them and pivoting before crossing back over the creek that swelled beneath.
The long, waving road was empty.
Everything inside Nick seized up. His lungs felt like a solid mass of concrete, his veins a web of cement. The thick orange rubber of the cone buckled in his grip.
And then, as if he’d willed them into existence, two cars appeared over the rise.
Nick kept his gaze aimed down. If either driver saw him as they passed, they would read the glee in his eyes. Everything always worked out for Nick. Things fell into place where he was concerned as if they’d been ordained, as if he’d been ordained.
Harlan was regarding both vehicles with interest. Did Harlan remember what they were doing here? That would be something—Harlan’s memory was usually for shit. For a second it occurred to Nick to wonder whether Harlan even wanted to live on the outs. Or could he just not stand to go back inside if Nick wasn’t there? Nick needed Harlan for obvious reasons. His size, his ability to intimidate. But in a way, Harlan seemed to need him, too. The awareness gave Nick a strange feeling; that and the presence of the cars made him send Harlan a brief, approving nod.
Harlan’s broad brow creased.
Nick drew as close as he dared to the temporary light. It was a metal thing on stalks, like some kind of massive heron or stork.
Harlan trudged over beside him, his shoes throwing up clods of dirt.
Nick stooped to set a cone down, at the same time taking a quick glance through the window of the first car. Its driver was young, his head bobbing back and forth, although Nick couldn’t hear any music playing.
A teenager who didn’t know anything, and would be overpowered in a cinch.
The light hadn’t changed—by Nick’s mental timer, it still had forty-five seconds to go—but the kid was already pulling forward, like choking up on a bat. He was trying to shave seconds off his waiting time without having any idea what that would do to Nick.
Then the kid turned his head sideways, and his eyes caught Nick’s.
The guard began making his return trip over the bridge. His usual militaristic march had come back, firm and in control. “Jesus,” he said as he drew near. “He looks even bigger out in the open, don’t he?”
Harlan’s cheeks stained red, a wide swath of terrain. His golf ball–sized Adam’s apple gave a jump, propelled by a rumble too low to hear.
The second car—a big, fancy SUV—remained in place, not rolling forward like the other one. Through the windshield, Nick spied a lone female driver, looking down, studying her nails.
The light was going to go green in thirty seconds.
The kid’s impatience could be an asset: he would be gone by the time Nick forced the woman in the second car to drive off.
Nick started to assemble a smile for the guard. “Yessir.”
The guard aimed a crisp gaze at him. “Don’t ‘sir’ me,” he said, that earlier hum of nerves erased from his voice.
Nick crushed his smile.
The light glowed like a ruddy burn, SUV stalled just before it, first car already moving on. Lucky there were no traffic cops out here, Nick thought, quashing another grin. He hoped the kid did jump the red.
Old-School crossed back over the bridge, coming up behind them. “We all done on our half of the bridge. Want us to get started here?”
The guard rotated slowly. “You questioning my instructions?”
“No, I am not,” Old-School said, standing there in his dignified way.
The other inmate walked across the bridge, joining them.
The guard let out a scoff of dismissal. “Back on the bus. You two—” He swung around in Nick and Harlan’s direction. “—finish up this section. And make it fast.”
Old-School let the other inmate head off first.
The SUV inched forward, readying itself for the light change.