She was a dead woman.
He would kill her. Kill her.
She glanced down at the wand from the pregnancy test kit and saw once again that yes, she was pregnant, then she looked into the mirror over the sink of the public bathroom at the local WalGreens and stared at her reflection. Wide, scared blue eyes peered back at her beneath a fringe of pale bangs.
You. A mother. At seventeen . . . well, eighteen by the time the baby gets here.
Her throat grew thick and she blinked back tears. She couldn’t cry, not now. There was plenty of time for that later. She slapped the tears away, sniffed, then stuffed the wand into her purse and stuffed the packaging deep into the trash bin beneath a wad of paper towels. Not that it mattered, she told herself, no one knew her here. She’d driven to Missoula for the test, taken it here in the restroom, and now had to drive home.
What was she going to do?
Oh. Dear. God.
Cheeks flaming, feeling as if everyone in the aisles of the store knew her secret, she hurried to the front door and nearly tripped over a boy stocking shelves with cans of hair spray and sticks of deodorant in an overflowing metal cart.
“Hey!” he said sharply and she mumbled a hasty, “Sorry,” on her way past the counter where pharmacists in lab coats were filling prescriptions and two people waited near the register to pick up their meds.
Through the glass doors and into the August sunshine she flew, then found her way to the car, her mother’s ancient Ford Taurus, and hopped into the sweltering interior. She switched on the ignition, threw the car into reverse, and as she hit the gas, that she heard a sharp beep and stood on the brakes, just in time before she nearly clipped the fender of a Honda cutting through the lot. The driver, a brunette woman in sunglasses and a baseball cap, flipped up her middle finger as she swept by.
Destiny didn’t care.
Let the girl flip her off.
She had more important issues to deal with.
Pregnant. You’re pregnant.
A baby? She couldn’t handle a baby. No way and it’s not as if the father would be any help. Oh, Lord . . . the father. He would be pissed.
She took three deep breaths, rolled down the window as the for-crap air conditioner wasn’t working, then eased out of the slot more carefully, managed not to scrape a fender or crumple a bumper and wended the old Taurus out of the crowded lot.
Maybe she wouldn’t tell him. Just have the baby by herself . . . but how? She couldn’t tell Mom and Dad and she couldn’t just wish the baby away.
The thought of abortion skated on sharp wheels through her mind, cutting deep. But only for a brief moment and she banished it. No–her cousin had an abortion once and never forgave herself. And then there was mom. How many times had she admitted that Destiny was not only a happy surprise, but a “miracle baby,” given her name for just that reason. It had been the only instance Helene Montclaire had ever gotten pregnant in some twenty-odd years of marriage. Despite the fact that she and Destiny’s father, Glenn, had hoped and prayed for a sibling for their only daughter, it had never happened. Helene had even broken down once, tears of anguish filling her eyes with the frustration of not being able to bear another child.
So the thought of terminating this tiny little life was out of the question. There had to be a better option, she decided as she hit the gas and made it through an amber light, then started south on the highway out of town.
She could give it up for adoption, she thought, squinting, then fishing in the glove box for a pair of sunglasses with one hand while she drove. She slid the Ray-Bans onto her nose and came up too fast on a hay truck, so she eased off the accelerator.
That’s what she would do, right? Go to a lawyer and set up a . . . oh, crap, that’s what would happen after she had the baby. What about before? When she was huge pregnant? She wouldn’t be able to hide it for too many months. She was slim and a baby bump would be noticeable and . . .
And there’s the baby’s father to deal with.
“Damn it.” He would be a problem.
Or . . . would he? There was a chance . . . oh, dear Lord, no . . . She swallowed back a new fear. Wouldn’t let her mind travel down that dark, insidious path.
If only this were a dream. A really bad nightmare.
After turning on the radio, she played with the stations, heard bits of songs she didn’t recognize then clicked it off, all the while staring through the bug-spattered windshield and wondering what the hell she was going to do.
She glanced at her worried eyes in the rearview, but wasn’t sure. Shouldn’t she keep it? What was it the reverend had always told her in one of their counseling sessions? When she had a problem? To think about it. Yes. And pray. Talk it over with God.
“You’re stronger than you know, Destiny,” he’d said in his smooth voice, then gently touched her hair, letting them slide down to the back of her neck before withdrawing his hand quickly. As if she’d burned him. Or as if he’d had a sudden attack of conscience. Or as if someone was coming up the stairs to this, his private office, located under the sharply pitched roof near the bell tower. And the stairs had squeaked, announcing the arrival of his wife.
As if she’d known.
So, as she had then, she would take his advice, talk things over with God, and then decide how to handle the problem. No, not a problem. A baby wasn’t a problem. This was just a situation. A “stumbling block in the road of life,” the minister had advised.
The fifty miles or so to Grizzly Falls went by in a blur of western Montana farmland, and fences, grazing cattle and horses. She drove straight down the valley, turned toward the mountains and didn’t even remember crossing the bridge that spanned the Grizzly River.
She managed to make it home, avoid too many questions from her mother who was canning peaches in the kitchen and hole up in her bedroom. The house was hot and smelled of sugar and Destiny flopped on her bed, tuned into her private thoughts, talking with God a bit and coming up with no answer.
But she did come up with a plan of action, so after a dinner of cold ham and potato salad, fresh peaches and cream, she told her folks she was going for a walk.
Her mother seemed worried, but didn’t argue, just fanned herself with a leaflet the
Jehovah’s Witnesses had dropped by earlier in the week and sat in “her” recliner. Destiny’s father was already tuned into the television, the footrest of his La-Z-Boy already elevated, his reading glasses on the tips of his nose, newspapers spread on the table next to his chair and spilling onto the sculpted carpet Mom had picked out a year or so after Destiny had been born.
Another typical night at the Montclaire home.
Except that their only daughter was, as near as she could figure, about eight weeks pregnant. She wondered if there was some kind of app on her phone that would tell her precisely when she’d gotten pregnant.
That would help a lot.
With the excuse of going for a walk, she set out, her parent’s barely looking up. The house was surrounded by the fields of neighboring spreads and she set out across the Jones’s south pasture. Until a few weeks earlier the fenced acres had been covered with lush hay, green stalks that had shimmered silver in the breeze, but the crop had been harvested and now she trod across the sun-bleached stubble that remained.
At the far side of the field, she slipped through the sagging barbed wire, then headed into the woods. Familiar woods, a place she’d always thought of as a sanctuary. In the shade the temperature dropped a bit, but the air was still warm. Dry. Smelling of pine and dust.
Out of sight of the windows of her parents home, she studied the screen on her cell phone, sent out three texts and called Donny.
As she waited for him to pick up, she listened to the sounds of the forest, the sound of birds fluttering through the trees, their soft chortles and chirps a balm.
No answer. She didn’t leave a voice message. Couldn’t.
She glanced at the face of her phone, no quick responses to her texts.
Of course he was mad at her.
He was always mad lately.
This time she texted Donny and told him she was heading to “their” spot up near the reservoir. She asked him to meet her or text her, then headed up the hiking trail that lead over the hill. The trail was steep, a rigorous climb that took over twenty minutes and she was sweating by the time she wound up the switchbacks to the ridge, from there, it was a quick climb down. She paused. Caught her breath. Gathered her courage. Noticed how dark the woods had become.
The sun had settled over the western mountains and long shadows were fingering through the stands of pine, hemlock and aspen. The birds had quieted, a few bats already whirring overhead, the silence strange and . . .
She turned at the sound of a twig breaking.
What was that?
The hairs on the back of her nape lifted.
Nothing. It’s nothing!
She squinted, her gaze racing from one thicket to the next, but nothing moved, no animal showed itself, not even a rabbit or racoon stirred in the thickening umbra, at least none she could see.
Just your imagination.
You’re freaked, that’s it.
And yet suddenly she felt something that wasn’t quite right in this all-too-still forest, this place where she’d come for solace.
She bit her lip as she remembered every damned, zombie, werewolf and vampire movie or TV she’d ever watched, about a girl alone in the wilderness.
One last sweep of the area and seeing nothing out of place, she continued, but goose bumps raised on the back of her arms and she felt as if hidden eyes were following her every move.
She kept telling herself that over and over, but her willing mind went to images of snarling cougars and black bears, maybe wolves, too. Hadn’t they been reintroduced or something? Hadn’t she heard about that in school or something? And what about bobcats and . . . oh, God, snakes. Rattlers. Hadn’t her father told her they hunted at night? Or was she wrong?
Relax. You know this place. You’ve never encountered anything scarier than a porcupine waddling through the brush, right?
Nervestight as bowstrings, she kept moving, deeper into the woods, her ears straining, her pulse pounding. She heard nothing more, no footfalls, no rustling through the undergrowth, no heavy breathing, but still she felt those eyes upon her.
As darkness encroached chanced the flashlight app on her cell phone to make certain she was sticking to the trail. Of course she was almost out of battery life and she didn’t want anyone or anything to see her anyway so she used the light sparingly as she made her way to the canyon floor.
She heard and smelled the creek before she saw it, a dark ribbon slicing through the woods. The path she was following downhill bled into a dusty trail that ran along the banks of the creek that serpentined through this part of the canyon floor. When she reached the intersection, she turned upstream walking quickly, hearing the water gurgle and splash over stones before it eddied in deeper pools, imagining the sound of footsteps following behind, though every time she stopped suddenly, she heard nothing, no footfalls.
She let out her breath.
You’re an idiot. An idiot who has psyched herself out. This all is just because you’re nervous, you know. No one is following you. No blood-thirsty creature is hunting you. No Zombies are walking stiff-legged over this rough terrain. No, Destiny, the only freak out here tonight is you. Pregnant, stupid you.
So much for a mental pep talk, she thought and continued. Through sparse pine and hemlock thickets, she made her way to the spot he’d agreed to meet her, where the trees gave way to a parking area, rarely used any longer, the gravel that had once covered the lot now choked with dry weeds.
Could she tell him?
Swallowing hard, she gathered her courage.
She wouldn’t just blurt out that she was pregnant. No. She would measure how angry he was first and take it slow. Besides . . . who could tell what he would do? And then there was her little lie . . . well, make it a big lie. She licked her lips and almost turned around and ran, abandoning the meeting. Because of his lightning-quick temper . . . Maybe this wasn’t the best plan.
Before she could decide, she heard the rumble of a large engine. Too late. Turning toward the access road, she saw the beams of headlights splashing against the trunks of the surrounding trees. Her heart went into over drive. No, this was a bad idea. A really bad idea. He would go ballistic.
She should never have contacted him.
She wasn’t ready to confess the truth. Reflexively, one hand went to her flat abdomen.
That was the problem; she often reacted before thinking things through. Isn’t that what Mom was always telling her?
This was wrong. All wrong. Meeting him up here alone with the coming night. No one knowing where they were. It would have been smarter to risk a public scene, maybe give him the news at a coffee shop, or a park full of people or somewhere that was public, so he wouldn’t . . .
Oh, Destiny, what have you done? Do not tell him. Not tonight. Be nice, don’t cause a fight. Remember: You broke up with him. You’ve got the upper hand. And he’s majorly pissed off.
Maybe she could just take off, before he saw her.
The Jeep rolled to a stop and she was caught in the headlights.
She steeled herself and stepped out of the beams.
He let the Jeep idle, beams from the headlights illuminating a conical area in front of the rig as he stepped out. She saw him in thin light cast by the interior light, an alarm dinging him to remind him that he hadn’t turned out headlights. No doubt about it. He was a big man. Muscular. Strong. A college athlete.
But he wouldn’t be carrying a weapon, would he? He wouldn’t bring a gun or a knife or . . .
Every muscle in her body tightened as he slammed the door.
“Des?” he called, his voice a harsh whisper.
He saw her then and approached, dwarfing her. “What did you want?”
She decided. She couldn’t do it; she couldn’t tell him. Not about the baby. Not here. Not tonight. “I, um, thought we should talk.”
“About what?” He was still angry, his words clipped.
“About you breaking up with me on a text? About that?” he guessed and yeah, he was pissed.
She shrank inwardly as he went on. “You know what? When it happened? When I got the text? I thought it was a joke, that someone had gotten your phone and fuckin’ pranked me. Like it was real funny. Ha-fuckin’-ha.”
“It was a chicken-shit thing to do, Des,” he charged, his voice a little higher as his anger increased. “By fucking text? Really? Fuck me!”
“I should have talked to you.”
“Hell, yeah, you should have. But you didn’t. Just fired off a chicken-shit text and ended it. Fuck!” He spat in the ground. “So what’s this about, Des? Tonight? Why did you want to meet up here?”
She heard the derision in his voice, felt his fury radiating from him.
“Are you . . . are you like trying to get back with me or something? Because no way. No damn way. It’s over! Hear me?” He took a step toward her and she stood her ground, even though she was shrinking inside, she wasn’t going to let him see that he frightened her.
“I just want to know why,” she lied, knowing now she couldn’t, wouldn’t dare tell him about the baby. Not here. Not alone. “Why you cheated, huh? With that . . . girl, what’s her name? Veronica? At college.”
“I told you she meant nothing to me.” But he was a little shocked at the turn in the conversation.
“Yeah, well, I heard you were staying over at her apartment, like, all the time.” Her turn to be angry. “That you practically lived at her place.”
“You want to go there, Des? Really? About seeing other people?” He was close now, looming over her.
Looking up, she could see his eyes for the first time, burning bright in his sockets, catching the light from the Jeep’s headlights. “Because we both know that you’ve been slutting around.”
“I have friends down here,” he snarled. “Don’t you think they keep me informed, let me know what’s what?” His jaw was tight, his teeth flashing white as he spoke.
She remembered seeing him so mad he once kicked a dent into the side of Emmett Tuft’s Honda. Another time he’d physically beat the crap out of Bryant Tophman for hitting on her at a party.
“Your friends lie.”
“Not about this!” He pointed an accusing finger at her, wagged it toward himself and back at her. “Not about us! You want to know why?” Before she could answer, he said, “Because, you know what, Des? It was important to me.” A muscle worked in his jaw. “A helluva lot more important to me than it was to you.” He leaned down, his face a little closer to hers and she smelled the beer on his breath, the sweat on his skin, “now that it’s all out in the open, you lying little bitch, it’s over for good. Now you don’t have to sneak around any more. You can fuck anyone you want to--”
She reacted. Just hauled off and slapped him so hard across his jaw that she felt the bristles of his beard shadow.
Oh, crap. Why had she–?
He froze. His eyes blinked, disbelieving. Then his fists balled and she didn’t wait. Spinning, she took off the way, she’d come, back down the path that ran by the creek, her feet flying in the dust.
He was a foot taller than she was, his stride immense and fast as lightning, but she was quick, too and agile and knew these woods like the back of her hand. She sprinted, adrenaline firing her blood, sending her feet pounding on the trail.
Run, run, run!
She heard him behind her, yelling at her, chasing her down.
“I’ll fucking kill you!” he roared and she believed him. With every breath in her, she believed that if he caught her when he was this furious, he’d kill her with his bare hands, the very hands that had touched her and caressed her and turned her inside out with wanting.
Don’t even go there! Just freakin’ run!
Ducking branches, she cut around a tree, a few seconds later heard a thud, then a cry of pain. Probably a limb smacking him in the face, maybe the eyes. If only! That’s what she needed, pine needles piercing his eyes, half-blinding him and stopping him.
She sped on, thought she might have lost him at the juncture where the trail split, one spur heading uphill. But she was wrong.
Footsteps pounded, shaking the earth and sounding as if he were right behind her.
She turned up the hill, took two steps and felt a huge hand on her shoulder, fingers tight.
Stumbling, she tried to scramble away, to get her footing but it was too late. He had her. He spun her around and in the darkness, she tried to see his face, to plead with him, to tell him she was sorry, but she couldn’t see him at all.
Hands closed over her throat as she tried to scream.
All that came out were gurgling, sputtering, sounds and she couldn’t breathe. He was squeezing so hard. She fought, tearing at the hands on her throat, crying to dislodge the steely fingers that cut off her air, realizing belatedly that he was wearing gloves. That he’d planned this!
Her lungs felt as if they’d explode. She needed air!
Oh, God, please, stop! Please don’t . . . .
Frantically she kicked and flailed, unable to land any solid blows, wishing she could thrust a foot of knee into his groin.
The bastard was going to kill her. Strangle her!
Her lungs were on fire, the pain excruciating, the night dark trees swimming in her vision.
Panicked, she clawed at his gloved hands. If she could bite him, kick him, scratch the hell out of him . . . All she could think about was drawing in a breath, just one. But there was nothing.
No, no, no!
She was desperate for air, her lungs screaming, her brain pulsing against the skull.
Dear God, please, please help me. Save me. Save my baby.
Her eyes felt as if they would pop out of her head and her arms became useless, swinging without any force as the blackness began to swallow her. She struggled, but it was useless, she could do nothing, her arms and legs still, the pain receding as she began to lose consciousness.
No . . . No . . . My baby . . . My precious . . .
Then she was gone.