My toes hurt.
The tip of my nose hurts.
I open my eyes and see only the color brown. I blink, willing myself to focus. It takes me a moment to realize what I’m staring at. It’s a ceiling. A brown ceiling. A pine ceiling. Pine boards with dark knots that seem to dance in my unsteady vision. I close my eyes and feel relief. Hospitals don’t have pine ceilings. Neither do jails. That is good.
I hear a sound. A tinkling. I hear a creak as someone sits down in the chair by my bed. It must be a bed I’m on, because I’m trapped under the warmth of the heavy quilt, with the support of the mattress beneath me. There are two pillows behind my upper back, cradling me in a semi-reclined position.
“Open up.” I hear clinking again. A spoon, stirring. I catch the wafting odor of something savory. Then I feel pressure against my lower lip.
“Open up.” The command is repeated. The voice that repeats it is deep. I part my lips and feel the spoon pushed between them, tilting as the soup slides into my mouth. Warm, creamy chicken soup. I swallow. It’s heaven. It’s comfort.
Where am I? Who is feeding me? I open my eyes as the spoon touches my lip again. The hand holding it is large, dwarfing the utensil. The cuff above it, red-checked flannel.
“Open up.” It’s like a litany and I obey, too weak to ask who feeds me, too weak to look in the direction of the deep voice commanding me to accept the food. He doesn’t have to tell me it’s important that I eat. I don’t have to know what happened to know that the painful sting in my fingers and nose and toes is related to the last conscious memory I have.
Bitter cold. White everywhere. A small rocky den. I’ll just rest here. Just for a moment. And then I’ll move on to where they can’t find me.
But someone found me.
“Where…” I begin, but the deep voice cuts me off. I close my eyes again.
I part my lips for another spoonful of soup. I try to open my eyes, to focus, but I feel drowsy. Maybe if I move… I try that, but my limbs feel like four anchors holding my torso to the bed. I can only shift a little, and when I do I’m aware of something bulky and soft between my legs.
“What…” My speech is slurred.
“Don’t talk. Open up.”
The command continues, always the same, until I hear the scrape of the spoon against the empty bowl. The last bit of soup slides over my tongue. I swallow.
“Drink.” The edge of a glass now, pressing against my lower lip. A large hand under my chin, presumably to catch any liquid should it spill. But it doesn’t. I tilt my head forward and find myself staring directly down into a glass of water. It’s cold and crystal clear. I take three gulps before my head falls back. As it does, my still blurry gaze falls to my rescuer. Dark gray eyes stare from the tanned, bearded face. He’s not a cop. Good. But who is he?
He stands. Whoever he is, he’s big. Really big. He looms by the bed, and I take in the details. The plaid shirt is tucked into blue jeans. The belt holding the jeans up is thick leather. Mountain man. A salt-of-the-earth Good Samaritan, a gentle giant who will believe me when I tell him I was just a lost hiker. However I came to be here, he obviously took pity on me. Maybe he’ll extend one more kindness by giving me a lift to one of the small towns like Hayes Mill or Belford where I can get a job and lay low until it’s safe to move on.
But for now, I must heal. I made a hundred mistakes when I rushed away without planning. This time I will make a plan. For starters, I’ll lie here, quiet and meek, and lay out the next steps while looking so helpless and pitiful that my rescuer will soon be eating out of my hand rather than the other way around.
Light. Brilliant light.
The pain is gone, or at least dulled to a tenderness. I blink, wondering where the bright glow is coming from before realizing the light isn’t coming from lamps, but through the window to the left of the bed. The tree outside is some type of fir, its branches laden with snow. The sun coming off the snowpack is blinding; the intensity of it hurts my eyes.
But this is a good sign. My vision is clear today, and I feel as if I’m waking from a regular sleep rather than from a coma. I push the quilt back and pull myself to sitting as I take in my surroundings. The room is Spartan and old-fashioned. There are no lights, just oil lamps on what appear to be hand-turned iron hooks. The table across the room is plain and primitive, with a wash bowl and pitcher on top. There’s a tall pine cabinet against the opposite wall. Delicate scrollwork has been carved across the top of the cabinet and railing of the bed. The quilt is the only thing I remember from my periods of brief wakefulness. It is pieced together from different types and textures of fabrics, the relic of a more frugal era. Waste not, want not. I push it away and turn to hang my legs over the side of the bed, wincing with the effort.
I look down at the gown I’m wearing. I put my hand to my chest, feeling for my bra underneath. It’s not there. I’m aware of something bulky between my legs. I reach for the hem of the gown, pull it up, and gasp. The crude diaper would be hilarious were I not appalled to be the one wearing it. It’s some sort of thick cotton, fastened at the sides with two pins.
I glance around the room for my clothing. Maybe it’s in the cabinet. I stand, grasping the bed for support. The back of my head feels sore. My hand moves to the back of my skull and I gasp as it encounters what must have been an impressive goose egg. And then I remember. I slipped and fell on the trail. I even recall the moment it happened. I was consulting my map while hurriedly navigating the backcountry trail heading toward Pixton Pass. I was intent on determining the best route to one of the six tiny towns laying between Black Rock and Munford. It was stupid to be paying more attention to the map than to where I stepped, but my foot had slipped and I’d slid down a slope—not far, but far enough to hit my head. I’d thought I was fine, but then I remember being cold, confused, and very sleepy.
The floor is cold beneath my feet, raising gooseflesh up and down my legs. I let go of the bed, testing the strength of my limbs, and when I ascertain I can move without falling, I walk slowly to the cabinet and open it. All I find inside are several men’s flannels, an old-fashioned nightshirt, and some neatly folded blue jeans that are too big to be mine.
“It’s not nice to go snooping in somebody else’s things.”
I literally jump at the words coming from behind me, slamming the cabinet door as I turn.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I was just looking for my clothes.”
“Those are my clothes.” He nods toward the cabinet.
“Yeah.” I shut the door, feeling awkward. “I need mine. Can I have them?”
“When can I get them back?”
He doesn’t answer. Instead he walks past me to a little curtain in the corner of the room and slides it aside. It hides a narrow row of shelves and I watch as he reaches onto one and pulls out something checkered. I stare at the garment hanging from his huge hand. It’s a dress. A gingham dress. I don’t want this. I want my blue jeans and shirt and jacket. But this man saved my life, and I need at least pretend to be appreciative if I’m going to convince him to take me to town.
“Thank you,” I say quietly.
He looks me up and down. “You’ll need drawers,” he says, turning back to the shelves. “You were out of it when I found you. I had to diaper you.”
My face floods red at how casually he makes the comment. I’d almost forgotten, and my hand strays to my hip now, to where the pin fashions the bulky undergarment. It’s too much to hope that somewhere in the house is some kind and homey woman who pinned this flannel diaper around my waist. But I know it’s just him and me, that he was the one who undressed me and tended to my most intimate needs as I lay unconscious in his cabin.
He’s handing me something else now.
“I need underwear,” I say, eyeing the muslin item he’s offering me now.
“Drawers are underwear. And they’re best I can do,” he says. “Unless you want to be bare.” He pauses. “Or have me keep diapering you.”
Is he kidding? There’s no humor in his voice. I take the drawers and hug both them and the dress to my chest, eyeing him nervously. He’s tall, with a body builder’s broad chest and a bushy beard. I glance at his huge, callused hands. Those are the hands that diapered me. Oh, god.
“Could I please have some privacy?”
Am I imagining that he smirks at the question? And why shouldn’t he, considering that he’s already seen everything anyway.
“Sure,” he says. “When you’re done, come out and get something to eat. You’ll need your strength.”
He walks out, the top of his head nearly brushing the doorframe. I follow him to the door, looking for a lock. There’s not one. I walk to the window and rub the condensation off for a view of the outside. Forest. That’s all I see. Forest and snow and beyond that, mountains. I recognize the odd rounded top of one. It’s Miller’s Knob. I’ve hiked that ridge dozens of times. I was not too far from the access trail when I took the Sharp Top spur heading toward Pixton Pass. Miller’s Knob is in the distance now. Miles and miles away. Where the fuck am I?
I should be happy to be alive, even if it is because some quirky backwoods mountain yokel found me. I toss the garments he gave me on the bed and shrug off the homespun gown before picking up the drawers. And that’s just what they are. They’re thin, knee-length, with a drawstring front and an open back. An open back? Really? I unpin the flannel between my legs—it’s thankfully dry—and pull on the drawers, feeling ridiculous. The dress isn’t much better. It’s cut like a child’s dress, falling to just below the length of the drawers. At least it’s lined so that the nipples of my breasts don’t show through. I’m grateful that I’m small-chested, given that I don’t have a bra. I reach up, running a hand through my shoulder-length blonde hair. I expect it to be oily, but it’s soft and I catch the scent of something like wildflowers. On top of everything else, he’s apparently washed my hair.
“Girl!” He’s calling me, his voice gruff. He’s expecting me to come out. I glance down at my dress. The floor is cold. I wish I had my socks.
From the bedroom I couldn’t tell how large the cabin is. Now I can see that it’s spacious. One huge room comprises both the kitchen and living area. There are two doors off to the left. The furniture here is handmade, too. There’s a huge stone fireplace warming the room with a crackling blaze. A gun rests over the mantel. On the floor is a bear rug made from a real black bear, its mouth open to show sharp white teeth.
“Took that one over in Granger’s Gap,” he says, nodding at the rug. “It wasn’t because I wanted to, but because I had to. Black bears don’t generally attack, but this one had a mean streak. I was checking trap lines when I heard him chuffing from a thicket. He was maybe two feet from me when I fired. If I’d not turned, I’d be dead now.” He nods to a chair. “Found you some wool socks. Put ‘em on.”
I walk gingerly around the head of the bear, as if it may snap, and retrieve the socks, taking a seat on the couch as I pull them on. They come up to my knees and are too narrow for a man. I wonder who the clothes I’m wearing once belonged to. Probably his grandma. Or his great grandma. He strikes me as someone who’s never left this place, a real backwoods type.
“Have you ever had venison?”
Surprise, surprise. A man who walks traps and hunts woodland creatures is feeding me Bambi. Reminds me of someone else I know.
“No,” I say, swallowing my distaste. “But I hear it’s supposed to be good for you.”
“Well, even if it wasn’t, it’s better for you than starving.” He points the ladle he’s holding at the chair, indicating I should sit down. A million questions run through my still sore head, but the main one I’m afraid to ask. As I go to sit, I glance around looking for my backpack, but it’s nowhere in sight. Did I lose it when I fell? If I did, then everything that brought me to this moment will be for nothing. And if someone finds it? I don’t even want to think about that.
“How long have I been here?” I sit down at the table.
“Going on five days,” he says.
Five days. I’d fallen my third day on the trail. I backtrack in my mind to when I left, recalling my rushed plan to leave Black Rock. I remember the note I left designed to mislead Roger and Sarah, the kindly couple whose room I rent, telling them I was going back home to California and would send them money to put my stuff in storage. I figured Ken Workman would go to them first when I didn’t come to work. Now I feel stupid. If anyone does decide to go looking for me, they’ll have no idea I’m here, wherever ‘here’ is.
“Where am I?” I ask.
“In my cabin.” He plunks a cast-iron stewpot on a trivet in the middle of the table as he states the obvious. Steam rises from the top, curling toward the pine beams above my head. I sit passively in my chair while he ladles some into each of our bowls. There are hefty chunks of carrots and parsnips among tender pieces of meat. It smells wonderful. He slices a piece of homemade bread and puts it on the corner of my bowl. I dip it into the stew. It’s excellent.
“I know I’m in a cabin,” I say. “But where?”
“What’s your name?”
He ignores my question and asks his own, so I ignore his, pretending not to hear.
“Did I… do you have my backpack?”
He repeats his earlier question. “What’s your name?”
“Mandy,” I lie. “Did you find my backpack?”
He studies me from where he’s settled across from me. “No,” he replies. “I’m Zane, by the way. Zane Tyler.”
Shit. I must have lost my backpack when I fell, which means when I get out of here, I’ll have to go back and find it. It also means I need to think fast. How far are we from town? Does he know anyone there? Could he already know what I’ve done?
“Nice to meet you,” I say, not being able to think of a better response. “And um… thanks for saving me. I don’t remember much. I was… hiking and I fell…”
“Bad time of year to be hiking alone,” he says. “You a city girl?”
“Yes.” It’s another lie, but the further I can get him from the truth, the better. “I hiked some back home on breaks from school. I figured I could navigate the trails here.” I flash him a smile of sheepish innocence. “I guess I was wrong.”
He continues to regard me in silence before speaking.
“If it hadn’t been for that red jacket you were wearing, I might have missed you. I had a trap right by that cave you were holed up in. A concussion is a serious thing. Why didn’t you call for help after you fell?”
It’s not the questions he’s asking me that make me nervous, but the way he’s asking. It feels like he’s fishing, like he’s interrogating me. But he doesn’t have my backpack, so the answer I’m about to give him seems plausible.
“My phone was in my pack,” I lie again. There is no phone in my pack. It seemed useless to have a phone with no signal, so I closed my account and left it behind, fearing that someone might use it to track me down when I made it back to civilization. Technology makes it hard to disappear in today’s world, and that’s just what I intended to do. I had enough cash sewn into the lining of my pack to pick up another phone when I reached Munford. At least, that was my plan.
“So you hiked up from… where…?”
“I don’t know the name of the town.” It’s my third lie. “I was just doing a solo hike over break, hitting some of the beauty spots, you know? It was a stupid idea. I was heading toward Munford, though, so if you can just give me a lift there…”
“Fraid not. Three days ago, maybe. With snow coming, the road out is going to be impassable.”
“You don’t have a snowmobile or something?”
“Yes, but you still need to rest.” He pauses. “If you need to notify family, I have a satellite phone.”
“No,” I say quickly. Too quickly? He’s watching me, reading my eyes as surely as he’s reading my words. My unease grows and I smile, seeking to distract with charm. “I wouldn’t want to worry them. And I don’t want to trouble you any more than I have to.”
“It’s no trouble at all, Mandy.”
He turns his attention to his food and I do the same, devouring my first independent meal in days as I try not to think about how I’m alone with this backwoods stranger who’s more than twice my size, about how I don’t know where I am, about how to get the hell out of here without tipping him off to what I’ve done.