The gunshot echoed through the Olympic foothills. With that, teenage runners haloed in their own breath bolted from the line and quickly sorted themselves out into groups, clustered together by team. Stronger teams competed with each other, blocking, jockeying, fighting for dominance of the trail. Weaker teams hovered at the rear, hoping for nothing but to finish. Mills Valley High raced in dead last.
Lane Harris found herself shut out, breathing the dirt kicked up by other runners and deflecting the branches they swept aside and released. It wouldn’t matter, not in the long run. Time and terrain favored her. And preparation as well. The forest held footprints as evidence of her daily visits, during which she pounded the trails, memorized the ins and outs, and befriended the treacherous tracts and easy go-aheads. At just seventeen, nothing remained to this trail that she didn’t know—intimately.
For now, the best strategy relied on staying back, keeping pace, and conserving energy for the long run ahead. She dipped into the past, fueling her desire to win with the pain of her childhood memories. Her thoughts drifted.
The wrought-iron security gate peeled open, its low hum barely audible inside the late model Volvo as it drove through. The mansion, a three-story white structure with pillars, blotted out much of the mountain range behind it. The rain stopped earlier that day, and the peaks not blocked from view stood shrouded under a heavy mist.
The Volvo puttered up the drive and stopped in front of the main entrance, and six-year-old Lane hopped out and skipped through puddles, leaving her school bag, sweater, and beauty accessories for their housekeeper Camilla to carry, along with all the groceries.
Her first kindergarten masterpiece fluttered in the breeze she created as she rushed into the house, leaving the ornate front door open behind her, just one more task relegated to the staff. Camilla would close it—if she ever catches up, Lane thought. The youngster did not worry about the tiny, wet footprints following her as her patent leather shoes clacked along the hardwood floors.
The teacher’s instructions had been specific: put the pictures up on the refrigerator for Mommy and Daddy to see. But the master and mistress of this house never went into the kitchen; Morgan and Jenna Harris spent their time in the study, the den, the parlor, occasionally the billiards room, the library, or even the great room, but never the kitchen. That is, unless someone got yelled at or fired. That sometimes happens in the kitchen.
It was a Thursday. Mother spent the day in Olympia, returning home late in the afternoon after hours of primping and pampering. Father also worked in Olympia as the Vice President of a local bank. When he arrived home, he unwound with a drink or two—or more—with his wife, monopolizing her time completely. They’d play billiards, snuggle while reading the daily newspaper, or stroll the grounds arm in arm.
Interaction with their daughter happened at dinner. Father sat at the head of the eight-person table, Mother at the foot, and Lane at the chair to Mother’s left. She and Mother chatted about their respective days; Father kept silent, finished his dinner, and left quickly. Usually. Sometimes he just glared at Lane, his eyes burning holes in her skin.
But today, Lane had a mission that couldn’t wait for dinner. This is important, she thought, searching the house for them. She peeked into the assorted rooms as she skipped by, her dress billowing and her footfalls muffling as she passed into carpeted areas.
Jenna lay draped across Morgan’s lap, and they cuddled on a velvet settee in the corner of the bar. Rich mahogany paneling adorned the walls; four table sets, two additional settees, and several window benches provided seating. The room could host an entire gentlemen’s club or provide a hideaway for a quiet rendezvous.
Even while reclining, Morgan was a giant. He towered over most adults, making Lane feel even smaller. Well into his fifties, white had already obscured most of his natural hair color, and his dark eyes resembled holes the size of dimes.
Jenna stood a foot shorter than Morgan and, at nearly twenty years his junior, retained her natural brown hair. In quiet moments, Lane liked to run her hands around Mother’s face, tracing the elegant and delicate bone structure, and staring into her amber-colored eyes.
Right now Lane had other plans, and she rushed over with her artwork; Mother displayed mild interest, Father not so much. His face got all pinched up and his eyes narrowed as Mother faked pleasure and lavished praise on the youngster.
Lane didn’t care that it was bogus; she just liked to hear it, liked to be the center of attention. But something snapped in Father, and the anger he usually saved for the hired help lashed out at her.
The openhanded and swift slap jerked the child’s head around, spinning her sideways. Instinctively, her hand sprang up and cupped the stinging skin, but not until after a scream pierced the quiet ambiance. And Father liked that even less; he dismissed Mother from his lap.
The windows behind him framed his body as he rose. The signs were all there; the smoldering eyes, the clenched jaw, and balled-up fists. But even at six years of age, Lane knew better than to run.
Her father latched onto her arm and hauled her away, the brightly colored drawing fluttering behind her.
Sometimes her feet touched the ground, sometimes not; it didn’t matter to Morgan if he dragged her all the way. His long stride covered the distance to the front door in seconds, and they climbed the grand staircase with its half-circle base sweeping upward to the second floor. Lane struggled to stay ahead of him; as long as she did, she spent more time on her feet than on her knees.
They ignored the second floor and continued to the third floor, which held the family quarters. The master suite took half the floor for itself, extending from the outer left wall to the grand staircase. The rest of the rear wall hosted an open-faced library, which sat opposite the staircase and took most of the remaining floor space. The little area on the wall opposing the staircase held a bathroom and access to the attic. Morgan veered into the hallway on the right and marched past the two bedrooms reserved for any additional children Morgan and Jenna might conceive. The final room, Lane’s bedroom, stood at the very end of the hallway, abutting the servants’ staircase.
Lane assumed that he would lock her in her bedroom; he did that occasionally, though she never understood why. It had actually been happening more often in the month since Gamma and Pop-Pop died, and Lane headed for her door.
But Morgan didn’t stop; he tugged her across the hall to the attic, straining her shoulder and eliciting a yip from the youngster. With a quick turn of the knob, the button lock popped; he ripped the door open and threw Lane inside, slamming and locking it behind her.
The stairwell lacked natural lighting, and the darkness enveloped the six-year-old swiftly, blinding her before she even turned back to the door. Pounding and kicking it didn’t produce the freedom she expected. But the door did swing back open. Lane took a step away, and spasms of fear shook the artwork from her hand.
Morgan loomed in the doorframe, using his size and words to terrify her. “I know you’re not running from me.”
Jenna moved into the doorway. “For God’s sake, Morgan, she’s just a child.”
Morgan whirled on Jenna, one hand rising but stopping short of striking. “You are my wife, Jenna, first and foremost. She”—Morgan’s finger jabbed down at Lane—”does not come between us. Ever.”
Jenna cooed, trying to smooth his ruffled feathers, but the door slammed shut.
Lane huddled before it. She sucked up her runny nose and listened to her parents fight in the hallway. She heard a rousing slap catch Jenna’s face, followed by the sound of Mother’s quiet sobbing. Something slammed against the door, and the vibration rippled through the wood and into the child’s flesh. Lane backed away, tripped up the stairs in the darkness, and lay still. Shadows played along the floor, moving slowly left and right, forward and backward, revealing the characters even if the action remained hidden.
The fight escalated. The sound of tearing cloth seeped into the attic stairwell, followed by a mild slap; Oh, Momma, you shouldn’t hit Daddy.
The next strike, even more harsh than the one that rocked Lane in the bar, brought louder sobs from Mother. Another bang sounded on the door, higher, closer to the top, and Morgan yelled, his words unmistakably meant for the child. “I don’t want to hear another sound out of you. You understand me?”
Shuffling, stumbling, the muffled rubbing of skin against floor. Father dragged Mother down the hallway, and with the distant slam of the master suite door, silence returned to the dark attic staircase.
Light slivered under the door, and Lane eased her way toward it one baby step at a time until her hand bumped wood. Tiny whimpers escaped her as she twisted the knob, but it refused to turn. And then she heard something. Soft footsteps. Creeping closer.
She snapped around but saw nothing; she worked harder at the door, pushing and leaning against it as if desire alone would free her. The footsteps neared.
Lane cocked her head, listened. She dropped to her knees and peeked under the door. Someone’s coming.
The door popped open, and Camilla stepped in holding a small bag. Lane pushed her aside, but Camilla held her steady.
“I will have you fired,” Lane said, casually assuming Father’s air of authority.
The delicate French accent gave Camilla’s voice a fluid melody. “Better count your friends where you can, Little Miss. You are no a princess. No anymore. This will get you through tonight.” She held the bag up. “I will come back tomorrow with more, unless they let you out. I no think they let you out tonight.”
Camilla reached past the child and flicked on the light switch. “There is another light at the top. Turn this one off so Mr. Morgan no sees it. There is also a door. Close it behind you, or the environmental sensors will tell Mr. Morgan that the temperature has changed, and then he will come up, and you will be sorry again.”
She held the bag of food out to Lane, but the youngster refused to take it. “Carry it upstairs.” Lane folded her arms across her tiny body and stepped aside, thoroughly expecting the maid to take the order.
Camilla smiled and set the bag down on the second stair. “When you are hungry, you will learn to carry it yourself. Just no let Mr. Morgan find it. Inside the door, you will find light switches. Turn them on so you can see. There is furniture and a bathroom. You will be comfortable at least.” Camilla turned to leave.
Lane bolted to the door, but Camilla held her at bay and slipped out. “If you pound on this door, Mr. Morgan will come back. I no think you will like it.” The lock clicked behind her.
Lane stared at the knob for a few minutes, then at the door at the top of the staircase for another few. She took a tentative step up, the wood creaking beneath her. The bag remained on the stairs, silent, crumpled, looking more like an offering to the homeless than a meal for the heir of the Harris family fortune. Carry it myself. Really?
But what will Father do if he finds it, she wondered. She pinched the folded-over top edge of the bag between two fingers as if it were the diseased body of a dead mouse, holding it away from her body as she climbed up to the attic.
The door at the top of the stairs squeaked open into a black abyss. Trembling fingers eased along the wall, finding the light panel. An overhead light came on when she snapped the first switch. Once able to see her surroundings, she shut off the stairwell light.
Next to the row of light switches, another panel displayed the temperature and humidity. A solitary green light started to blink, then abruptly changed to red, flashing out in panic mode. The panic transferred to the child, and she quickly closed the door; with the environment sealed, the light popped back to green.
Beyond the little bubble of light, the attic loomed dark. And scary. The switches snapped on one by one as tiny fingers urged them up. In response, a row of lights came to life, glowing softly at first, then brighter as the fluorescent bulbs warmed up. With the flick of the last switch, the light spread to the left, completely illuminating the attic.
A bathroom of sorts sat directly across from the entry. It contained no counter, a tiny over-the-sink cabinet, no door. Who could use such a terrible little bathroom? Lane’s face scrunched up, as if someone had just suggested live toads had become the new caviar.
A small window graced the wall next to her; peering out, she looked down on the driveway and the servants’ quarters three flights below. She made a half turn and found a matching window on the far wall. It must look over the meadow and the mountains, she thought.
The rest of the attic was little more than a warehouse. The first section held eight rows of metal storage shelving, spaced four feet apart with a larger walkway down the center. Cardboard boxes, all neatly arranged and labeled, covered most of the available space.
Lane tiptoed along the wooden boards, tiny steps designed to reduce noise, but it didn’t work. Her shoes hadn’t been made for stealth mode; she slid them off and left them behind.
The clatter of pots and pans startled her, and she jumped, crushing the paper bag against her body like a shield. The rattling came from a vent pipe that hugged the wall near the stairs. The pipe continued out of the house through the roof but transported sounds as well as steam, smoke, and cooking odors through the attic. I wonder if anybody knows.
Lane continued down the center aisle, gawking at the eight-foot-tall army of steel and wondering what might be in the boxes, but knowing better than to touch Father’s things.
No walls marked room divisions here. The shelving simply ended, and in the approximate center of the attic lay an assortment of furniture. Some she recognized from Gamma and Pop-Pop’s house, antiques that needed a new home after they died.
More shelving lined the furthest end of the attic, mimicking the first section. Subdued noises came from these shelving units, not sharp and crisp like the sounds traveling along the kitchen pipe.
The buzz grew louder as she drew closer. Her parents’ voices drifted into the recesses. They varied, sometimes soft, sometimes yelling. She followed the cadence to the far wall but didn’t see any pipes; rather the sounds bled into the attic from a series of fixtures installed in the attic floor.
Searing white light bulbs blocked most of her vision, but she could catch glimpses down into the master suite by leaning left and right. Her parents lay on the bed. Mother cried out a couple times; Father held her down. Maybe they’re wrestling, but why is Momma crying?
Bits of the conversation filtered up into the attic. Mostly, Father yelled while Mother protested and cried. Morgan said something about “humping everything in the state to get ahead,” and Lane wondered what that meant.
Then something about Jake Olsen, whom Mother had referred to as a dumb ox when they encountered him at his brother Vic’s gas station. She said he swept the floors at Vic’s sometimes to make extra money because he wasn’t smart enough to get a real job.
His son, Jason, attended school with Lane. But he’s mean, she thought. A bully. Then she heard something about the Keates brothers. Yes! Momma should call Sheriff Keates if Daddy’s hurting her.
Lane twirled and scanned the room, but she had no idea where to find the phone up here. By the time she knelt back down, Mother lay alone on the bed, all wrapped up in the sheets, crying. No matter how Lane twisted or turned, she couldn’t see Father, and powerless to change anything, she wandered away.
Pop-Pop’s gun cabinet stood along the wall, smothered in bubble wrap so thick that she couldn’t see inside—couldn’t tell if Pop-Pop’s beloved guns were there or not, even if she pressed her face against it.
Further along, Gamma Jo’s old easy chair sat discarded against the front wall. Lane hugged it, wishing Gamma and Pop-Pop hadn’t left her. She climbed up into the chair, plopping down and arranging her dress in an appropriately ladylike fashion.
The paper bag unfurled in her hands, presenting her with limited choices for the night’s meal: a package of Pop-Tarts, raisins, an apple, and two juice boxes. It was no contest: the Pop-Tarts fell victim, followed by the grape juice. The fruit found a new home on the floor, and the tired youngster snuggled into the chair, lulled to sleep by whiffs of Gamma and chocolate chip cookies.
In the morning, Lane ran down the stairs, gathered up her forgotten artwork, and found the door unlocked. She scurried down the hallway as Mother came out of the master suite.
“Momma!” The masterpiece led the charge, offered up for review by arms open wide for a hug.
She hadn’t expected Mother to slap her, hadn’t expected those delicate eyes to fill with such rage. And hate.
For the life of her, Lane couldn’t figure out what she’d done to deserve it. Her hand rose halfway to the stinging skin before her eyes locked on Mother’s. And then those amber slits went empty, devoid of any emotion or concern.
Lane’s hand fell to her side. A tear brimmed, slipped down her cheek, but she refused to cry. The slap didn’t hurt nearly as much as the betrayal, the loss of the only person who even pretended to care about her.
Father slipped out of the master suite, snuggled up against Mother’s neck, and smiled wickedly. Mother’s face remained frozen.
The gurgling waters of the river brought Lane out of her trance and created a breeze that cooled the surrounding air, dropping the temperature several degrees. The chill invigorated her, though most of the other runners barely noticed it as they rounded the bend and charged toward the last series of hills.
The first hill rose from level ground to a steep, sixty-degree incline that presented a grueling climb. At the top, it immediately dropped into a gully, followed by a lesser incline at just forty-five degrees. After that, the ground leveled out for several yards, then fell into the last gully before presenting the final sixty-degree climb. If the grades weren’t difficult enough, the ravines trapped runners unfamiliar with the course.
The wind picked up, dancing along the branches of the trees. Trapped in the valley, it swirled against its captor mountains and raced back and forth across the trail, pushing against the runners as it swept past. It took some measure of joy when the scrawny mortals stumbled and knocked each other off stride while it pranced off to find another playmate.
Lane welcomed it. With the wind knocking the competition around, she’d get even further ahead once she made her break.
Her teammates, nominally smarter than the visitors, gathered around her, anticipating her moves. They closed up ranks and shadowed her like a pack of wolves chasing down a lamb.
Lane smiled; they hated her, but they also knew she’d win this race. Yahoos.
Their sole commitment to this meet culminated in a slow walkthrough so the coach could point out the pitfalls. They hadn’t even run the course this year, relying instead on their coach’s instructions: “Watch Harris.”
But that casual forest stroll occurred two weeks ago. Since then, spring rains had swollen the rivers and streams, soaked the ground, and left gigantic mud marshes throughout the forest. The hills retained so much moisture that climbing up them bordered on pointless. And the wind rose up suddenly these days, lashing out and tossing debris along the paths.
The opposition hadn’t bothered to scope the trail at all. They came to Mills Valley, nestled in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains, knowing that the local team hadn’t placed in thirty-plus years.
And no one outside the town expected them to do so now. Mostly because no one outside the town knew about Lane, or that she had joined the team. Or that she was their most promising runner since the Keates brothers those thirty-plus years ago.
The runners neared the first rise, and the trail split into three tracks. Most runners took the shorter main route. A few took the second path, believing it would give them the ability to pass. Just as steep as the main trail, it provided no real advantage except lack of bodies.
No one took the last fork; longer than the other two trails, it zigged fifteen yards into the forest, then zagged another eighteen yards back to the main trail. But the incline rose more gradually; a runner expelled less energy on the longest of the three trails.
Lane broke ranks; her teammates followed. She tracked easily along the outer path as her competition dug in and pummeled their way up the main hill, spewing dirt into each other’s faces.
In the middle of the second leg, she picked up speed and vaulted a six-foot muck hole she’d discovered days earlier. Behind her, a runner fell. The catching of breath, the thump, the plop—Lane didn’t look.
Whoever had fallen hadn’t reacted quickly enough, or hadn’t believed it necessary. The mud grabbed her, sucked at her and planted her face down before spraying brown goo on the rest of the team.
The fallen runner yelled at her teammates to keep going, and they did, leaving her struggling to pull herself free. No one worried about her; volunteers manned stations along the trail to aid runners in distress. They came in handy for the occasional sprain or broken bone—or bear.
Her competitors clawed the dirt near the halfway mark of the first ascent. Lane rejoined the main trail at the top of the hill; running at near full speed, she sailed into the air and jumped the twelve-foot ravine. She landed a few feet from the top of the opposing hill and quickly scurried over.
The rest of the Mills Valley High team followed, throwing themselves over the chasm, thumping into the ground, grunting and groaning as they grappled their way up the second rise.
Lane noted the sounds, determining the order in which her teammates landed, but she didn’t wait for them. The twenty-yard stretch to the next gully fell away quickly, and she leapt into the air one last time, solidly planting herself just inches from the top of the last hill. The intensity of the noise behind her grew, signaling that the out-of-towners had finally crested the first rise. Without any speed built up, they had no choice but to drop into the ravine and then tackle the second hill from the bottom up.
Focused on the win, Lane scrambled easily over the top of the final rise and tore up the remaining course. She ventured a quick peek over her shoulder; mist swirled up on the mountainside. No time to lose, she thought.
The wind swept down at them. Out here in the open, it held the power to strip seconds off a runner’s overall time, or slap minutes on. Branches whipped to fury urged the wind forward; it stampeded the meadow, mowing blades of grass flat. Nothing on the plain challenged it. It raced among the runners, pressing against their backs, fluttering through their clothes and hair. One girl stumbled into another; both went down in a tangle of arms and legs.
In its zeal, the wind raced ahead of them, and unable to slow itself to toy with them any more, it began chasing their leader. Still several dozen yards behind her, its tendrils shot forth, tousled her short hair, and tugged at the back of her shirt. It surged forward, steamrolling closer, ready to devour her.
A split second before its power unleashed, the leader merged into the tree line, seeking asylum from nature’s force among the trunks of Douglas fir and Western hemlock.
Disappointed, the wind threw a few halfhearted shots in among the trees. It continued on its path, racing toward the mountains where it would have one final chance to swirl back and wreak havoc on any unfortunates still on the field.
Happy with her lead and the protection the forest afforded her from the wind, Lane funneled back into her thoughts, storing up anger from the past and energy for the rest of the run.
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