With a vicious crime ring closing in on them, and unsure of whom to trust, Bobby and Susan desperately plunge into the heart of danger to save the boy -- and themselves.
John Gilstrap's Even Steven enhances his reputation as an ingenious and innovative contemporary thriller writer.
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Bundled tightly against the cold, the young couple lay on an outcropping over the Catoctin River, looking up at the cloudless sky, and wondering which of the countless millions of stars was truly the one that delivered wishes.
"You asleep?" Bobby whispered.
"Not yet." Susan's throat still sounded thick.
He pulled his bride of five years even closer and kissed the top of her head. "Happy anniversary."
Susan snuggled in, burying her face in his jacket.
The calendar had lied. After such a brutal winter, he liked to think that April would have brought warmer temperatures. Out here in the mountains, though, where West Virginia reached closest to God, the air still smelled of February. He'd never been so ready for spring.
This wasn't at all how he'd planned it. The spot was perfect, yes; and the night beautiful, but he'd hoped the sadness would have dulled by now. There had to be a way to make the pain go away. There had to be. If he were a better husband, he'd know what it was. Susan's thick brown hair -- invisible in the darkness -- felt warm and soft against his hand as he gently massaged lazy circles on her scalp. She liked it when he did that.
"We'll just try again," he whispered, hoping she didn't hear the tremor in his voice. "And again, if we have to. And again and again and again."
Susan just burrowed her head deeper. Her anguish felt like razor blades in Bobby's gut. He pursed his lips and stared at the sky, desperately trying to hide the little hitch in his breathing. His role required strength. If she sensed that dimples had formed in his armor of optimism, he wasn't sure how either of them would hold up.
They'd come so close last time; they'd let themselves believe. As much as he craved children, Bobby wasn't sure he could handle the cycle of hope and disaster anymore. He wasn't sure that anyone could. His tear tracks turned cold quickly in the night air.
It had been a week since the doctor had pronounced Susan's internal plumbing to be healthy and normal, and this was to be their weekend of healing. The tears were all a part of it, he supposed, as was the pain, but he worried about the anger. Sometimes when he was alone -- only when he was alone -- he raged about the injustice of it all, cursing God and Susan and himself for denying them the one blessing that would make their marriage whole. The anger ate at him sometimes, and on nights like these, as his best friend succumbed to wave after wave of grief, he wanted to hurt something just to exorcise the rage.
Time was the answer. He knew this, both from experience and from the advice of others, but it was the one element in the world that he could not manufacture.
Time heals all wounds. What a crock.
The river ran fast and loud just below them, swollen by melting snows. Every now and then, a few drops would rain down on them from an errant eddy that had slapped against the vertical face of their rock ledge. The thunderous noise of the water filled the void of the night, bringing to Bobby a momentary glimpse of the peace he'd hoped they'd find out here. What is it about water, he wondered, that settles the soul?
On a different night, he might never have heard the rustling in the bushes that bordered their secluded outcropping. It was a tentative sound, too random to be the wind, but bigger than a coon or a possum. Out in these parts, there was only one reasonable thought when you heard a sound like that.
"Oh, my God, it's a bear," Susan breathed, speaking their common fear. And it stood between them and their campsite.
Bobby was way ahead of her. Rolling quietly to his side, and then onto his feet, he rose slowly.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm gonna scare him off," he said.
"You're gonna piss him off. Just be still."
Bobby had never actually encountered a bear in the woods, but the common wisdom agreed that they had no real interest in people. As long as they didn't feel cornered, and their cubs weren't in jeopardy, they'd much rather run away from a noisy human than face him down.
"Go on!" Bobby shouted at the top of his voice, waving his arms. "Get out of here! I see you there in the bushes! Get out! Run away!"
Susan pulled at his pant leg. "Bobby!"
As the rustling stopped, Bobby turned in the cold moonlight and flashed a grin. "See?"
Then it charged. Squealing like a frightened pig, the beast bolted out of the trees, coming straight toward Bobby at first, then breaking off to the right, across the rocks toward the river.
Only it wasn't a bear.
"Oh my God!" Susan yelled. "It's a little boy!"
And he was scared to death. Screaming, he ran in a blind panic toward the edge of the rocks, and the roiling waters below.
"No!" Bobby shouted, and took off after him. "No! Don't! Come back!" But the kid moved like a water bug, darting with amazing speed but no visible effort, turning at the last possible instant away from the water, and back toward the woods, screaming the whole way.
"I didn't mean it!" Bobby called. "Stop! Really! I didn't mean it!" His words only seemed to make the boy move faster.
Finally, an old-growth oak tree ended the footrace. The boy looked over his shoulder long enough to see if Bobby was closing in on him, and he slammed into it; a glancing blow on his shoulder that might have killed him if he'd hit it head-on, but instead sent him ricocheting into a sapling, then onto the hard ground.
Bobby closed the distance in eight strides.
At first the little boy just sat there, stunned, and then the pain kicked in and he started to cry -- a wailing sound that went beyond pain, combining fear and anger and frustration. He simply gave himself up to it, rolling over onto his tummy and sobbing into the leaves on the ground.
Bobby just stood there. He had no idea what to do. He stooped down and hesitantly reached out a comforting hand. "Hey, kid, settle down, okay? I didn't mean any harm."
"Here, let me in." Susan shouldered Bobby out of the way and scooped the boy into her arms. He fought at first, but then he looked into Susan's face, and he liked whatever he saw. He seemed to meld with her, clamping down hard with his arms and legs, his face burrowed into her shoulder.
Susan shot a look to Bobby, but he didn't know what to say. The boy looked tiny -- maybe three years old -- and he was filthy. Dirt caked his hair and his ears; his skin was crusty with it. He wore only a pair of footy pajamas, with little red choo-choo trains stenciled on the flannel. The toes on his left foot protruded through the tattered cloth.
"What do you think?" Bobby whispered.
"I don't know. He's so small. And he's freezing. You should feel him tremble."
Bobby looked around, hoping to see a terrified parent somewhere, but all he saw were woods and sky and water.
"Hey, little guy, what's your name?"
The sound of Bobby's voice made the boy cringe and pull himself even tighter against Susan.
"He's going to break my back," she grunted.
Bobby stripped off his down jacket and wrapped it around the boy's shoulders. "Here you go, tiger. Let's get you warm." To Susan, Bobby added, "Let's get back to camp."
During the walk back, Susan tried to talk to the boy, asking him his name, and how old he was, but all he'd do was cry and hang on.
"This is bad, Bobby," she said softly. "What's he doing out here without clothes in this kind of cold?"
Bobby shrugged. "Maybe he wandered away from his campsite." What else could it be?
"But how did he get so dirty? I mean, look at him. This isn't just a little dirt. This is weeks of dirt. Months, maybe, and even then, he'd have to live in a garden."
She had a point. There's dirt, and then there's dirt. This kid looked as if he'd been rolled in mud.
In two minutes, they were back at their campsite, such as it was. Primitive was the name of the game here. Their Explorer was parked a good mile away, at the bottom of the trail. What little they had in the way of creature comforts they'd packed in on their backs. The campfire, built for aesthetics and warmth rather than cooking, had burned down to a pile of shimmering red embers.
"I'll build this back up," Bobby said, peeling off from the others.
Susan went straight to their igloo-like dome tent, and the warmth of the sleeping bags inside. She stooped to her haunches outside the little doorway and tried to pry the boy's hands from around her neck, and his feet from around her waist. He grunted and instantly reattached himself.
"No, no, sweetie, you're okay now. You're safe. We'll make sure you get back home, okay?"
No, it wasn't okay. It wasn't okay at all. He remained glued to her, and the more she tried to pry him away, the more desperate he became to hang on.
"Why don't you sit with him for a while inside, Sue?" Bobby suggested, drawn back to the tent by the noise. "Wrap him up in a sleeping bag and just hold him until he settles down. He must be scared to death."
Bobby's eyebrows twisted. "I don't know. I guess we hike out with him in the morning and take him to the ranger station. They'll decide what to do with him from there." Bobby stayed in the doorway for a moment, watching the two of them settle into a sleeping bag. "Tell you what," he proposed after they were lying down. "Why don't I make some hot chocolate? If nothing else, maybe it will loosen his tongue a bit."
At the sound of the phrase hot chocolate the kid's eyes lit up, but as soon as Bobby shifted his gaze to meet them, the boy quickly looked away and remelded with Sue.
Having put the cooking equipment away hours ago, Bobby had to reassemble it all from scratch. The camp stove was a single-burner job, fueled with white gas, and it took all of about three minutes to put it together, the satisfying blue flame telling him that he'd done it correctly. He poured water from his canteen into an aluminum pot, put it on the burner, and set about the business of resuscitating the campfire. He carefully stacked what remained of the kindling they'd collected in the daylight and knelt low, so that his elbows were on the ground, and his face nearly touched the dirt. From there he blew on the embers, a thin stream of air that made them flare orange before finally blossoming into a satisfying yellow flame.
He added larger pieces of wood, and within minutes, it burned freely, the flames reaching a good foot above the pile of sticks.
This whole thing had him spooked. Why in the world would a toddler be wandering around the woods in his pajamas? If he'd indeed been separated from his parents, where were the teams of rangers and police that should be out here looking for him? Where were the helicopters and the dogs? A sense of foreboding prickled his skin and he found himself obsessed with the notion that someone was watching him.
A loud snap drew his attention up ahead and to the right, toward the darkness that lay beyond the illuminated circle cast by the campfire. What was that? Most likely, just his imagination.
But he heard it again. Whatever it was -- whoever it was -- was approaching cautiously. Bobby closed his hand around a club-sized piece of firewood and stood casually, keeping it hidden as best he could behind his leg as he moved to the edge of the light circle.
"Bobby?" Susan asked from inside the tent. "Is something wrong?"
"Shh. I don't know. Be quiet for a second."
There it was again, only this time a rustle of leaves preceded the snap, and again the movement stopped, as if someone were attempting a stealthy approach and getting frustrated.
"Hello?" Bobby yelled. His words seemed five times louder in the silence of the night. "Who's out there?"
Copyright © 2000 by John Gilstrap