Four months after his best friend, Dodge, disappeared near their families’ camp in a boat accident, Nate is still haunted by nightmares. He’d been planning to make the treacherous trek to the remote campsite with a friend — his first time in winter without his survival-savvy father. But when his friend gets grounded, Nate secretly decides to brave the trip solo in a journey that’s half pilgrimage, half desperate hope he will find his missing friend when no one else could. What he doesn’t expect to find is the door to the cabin flung open and the camp occupied by strangers: three men he’s horrified to realize have escaped from a maximum-security prison. Snowed in by a blizzard and with no cell signal, Nate is confronted with troubling memories of Dodge and a stunning family secret, and realizes that his survival now depends on his wits as much as his wilderness skills. As things spiral out of control, Nate finds himself dealing with questions even bigger than who gets to leave the camp alive.
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1. The Dream
The dream was waiting for him. Dodge Hoebeek under a thick sheet of crystal-clear ice, his eyes wide open, his fingers scraping at the glassy ceiling above him, his mouth screaming, bubbles pouring out, and his long blond hair trailing behind him in the black water.
Then somehow the streaming bubbles formed themselves into words. “You gotta come, man! You owe me!” And Nate, kneeling on the ice above his friend, his bare hands flat on the surface —frozen to the surface — tried to speak but couldn’t, as though he were the one who was drowning.
“You owe me, Nate! It’s your fault!”
“I’m sorry!” Nate shouted. “I’m so sorry!”
It was like he was looking into a warped carnival mirror, unable to say anything, unable to do anything except throw his head back and howl.
He woke up, his heart beating like a two-stroke engine. Had he really howled? He listened to the ticking stillness. No one was coming, so maybe not. Last fall he’d howled, good and loud. He’d woken, time and time again, with his head pressed to his mother’s chest, her arms around him, his father standing just behind her, his hand on her shoulder, strong and calm.
“I’ve got to find him,” Nate would say. And his mother would shush him. And he’d yell at her. “No! You don’t understand. He needs me. He’s waiting for me up there!” Eventually he would wear himself out. “It’s all my fault,” he’d say. “It’s all my fault.” His voice would grow hoarse and the tears would come and finally he’d lay his head back down on his pillow. His mother would fuss with the covers as if he were a fiveyearold, touch her fingers to her lips and place them on his forehead, a benediction. Then she’d leave the room. But his father would stand there in the dark. Stand guard until he fell asleep. Stand there as long as it took.
It was a daring escape. “Brazen escape,” the TV anchorman called it. Nate watched as two jailbirds attempted to climb a knotted rope hanging from a helicopter.
“Is this for real?” said Nate. His father nodded, his eyes glued to the television. “So how come if they’re filming it, nobody’s trying to stop them?”
“CCTV,” said his father.
Nate leaned against the doorjamb at the entrance to the den. It was late. He was in his pajama bottoms and a ratty Lockerby Vikings T-shirt. The men weren’t getting very far on their climb toward the chopper. They were about as athletic as a couple of filing cabinets.
“Not exactly James Bond,” said Nate.
His father chuckled.
The helicopter began to rise with the two guys hanging on for dear life. Up, up they rose toward the roofline of the jail that surrounded the yard on all four sides. The closed-circuit camera was in a fixed position, and soon enough the dangling criminals were whisked out of view. And then there was a new camera in play, the TV station camera, presumably, outside the jail. But there were no criminals or helicopter in sight, obviously. This was later. The camera was following the path the helicopter might have taken across a city covered in snow.
“Whoa!” said Nate as the scenery beyond the enclosed compound came into view. “Is that here?”
His father nodded. “The Sudbury Jail.”
There were other shots of police roadblocks on various highways out of town, and then the news returned to the talking head with the frozen image of the escape on a screen behind him. Nate’s dad pushed the mute button.
“I don’t blame them one bit,” he said.
“Uhhuh. That place is disgusting. Overcrowded, understaffed. And the mice? The place is completely infested.”
Nate stared at his father. “Dad, is there something you want to tell me?”
His father held up his hands. “Busted,” he said. “Yeah, I spent some time in the stony lonesome.”
The grin gave him away. “Only as a visitor.”
“Oh,” said Nate, relieved but sort of disappointed. Burl Crow was the most decent, upstanding guy imaginable. It would be kind of cool if he had a shady past. Then again, maybe he did. “Visiting who?”
His father shook his head slowly, back and forth. He was looking toward the television but he had one of those thousand-yard stares on his face, the kind of blank, unfocused gaze of someone looking into the past. Then he snapped out of it.
“What are you doing up?” he said.
“Uhuh,” said Nate. “You’re not getting off the hook that easy.”
His father raised his eyebrows, trying to look parentally threatening but missing by a mile. Then he patted the couch next to him. Nate slouched into the room and sat down.
“My dad,” said Burl. “Your grandfather.”
“Oh, right.” Nate had never met his grandfather, but he knew a bit about him. The burn on his father’s right arm: that was thanks to Calvin Crow.
“What was he in for?”
His father laughed. “You name it. Arson for one thing, drunk and disorderly, aggravated assault, petty larceny —notso-petty larceny.”
“Taking what isn’t yours. That’s my old man to a T.” He put his hands together thoughtfully. “He was a thug, Nathaniel. Bad news.”
“Did he die?”
Nate frowned. “When was the last time you saw him?”
His father shrugged. “Five or six years ago, I guess. He was in for carjacking that time. He wanted me to bail him out and I had to draw the line. Not anymore. We’re done.”
He turned to Nate and tapped him on the knee. “What’s up, son? I thought you went to bed an hour ago.”
Nate let his head flop back onto the top of the couch. Closed his eyes.