Two scruffy guys, talking and noisy on the trail, carrying a shotgun and surprised to find six kids in the rutted clearing under the oaks. She just knew Danny had seen them coming—or heard them at least. He had to, and he’d have known right away they were trouble. He wasn’t conned into showing them how to get to the coast. He did it to save the others.
Shoulders rigid, Shauna caught herself. Oh, God, she was reliving it again. She didn’t yesterday or all last week, and she had to stop. She knew what she knew, so why couldn’t she just breathe like she’d learned to do and watch the sprinklers play across the big lawn outside her window? Reliving it was what got her stuck in this dumb place.
A knock on the door. "Hey, Shauna girl!" Her friend Jodi’s voice, straight through the wooden panel. "Going down for supper?"
Shauna, in jeans and a T, stayed by the window. "I had a milkshake before."
"They’ll send some droid up then."
"Who cares? I’m still not hungry."
Footsteps faded along the hall. The droids had keys and could always come in, but even with the dormers and the slanty ceilings, like in a vampire movie, it was a nice room; and no roommate, either. Her dad had sold his Lexus to pay for it, or that’s what her mom said. This time of year, the afternoon light was nice too, but before the clocks changed for winter, she’d be out of there for sure. She had to find a way.
STONEBRIDGE, the sign said. Stoner Bridge was the joke, a used-to-be winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but the droids turned everything into a slogan, like Make it your bridge to somewhere. Opposite of nowhere, she guessed, but one thing she did know was that the oxy and meth part of her life was over. Because of her, though, because of who she was, not because of any tight-ass counselors.
Every stupid session in the suite downstairs with the couch, the rhythm-less music and the Kleenex boxes was the same. Sometimes she’d have Thomas or sometimes Catherine, but it didn’t matter because they were pre-programmed. First the lame talk about jobs and college and careers and men and self-respect, then they’d take their shot.
"Whatever happened to your brother did happen, and you have to accept that he’s not coming back." Yesterday was Catherine, with the pinched face and librarian glasses.
"I do accept it," Shauna had said.
"The way you found out was cruel," Catherine went on, enunciating each word, "but you can only know what the news showed or what was in the paper."
"I know more about my brother than you ever will."
"Did you talk to any of the kids?"
"Even so, dreams are just dreams, right? You can’t relive what you didn’t really live." Eye contact from Catherine, a ton of it, and a forced smile.
"That’s your problem. I was there. I saw. Like in a movie."
"It’s hard for you, I know, but we shouldn’t keep plowing this same ground."
"Then stop. You’re who brought it up." Shauna started to fiddle with the vase of fake flowers on the side table.
"Really, if you just detach from some of it, you can let the rest go too. There’s nobody here I’d rather help."
"I don’t need to let anything go. I’ll be fine, if you think so or not."
Catherine shook her head sadly. "Where you’ll be is right back here two months after you leave."
Shauna wasn’t answering that, but kept fiddling with the flowers.
"I’m way out of line to say this, Shauna, but you’re an intelligent girl, an honor student before you ran away, and pretty, too, with a whole life to live."
"Yeah, and to live how I want."
"Like drugs and prostitution? I don’t believe it."
"If that’s what I want. The vase rocked slightly as a dusty satin petal pulled away between her fingers.
"Well, do you?"
"That’s for me to know. I’m over eighteen and the cops aren’t why I’m here."
"Doesn’t it feel good to be clean…like you have been since your first week or so?"
"I suppose." Shauna flicked the petal onto the carpet.
"Your progress in our GED program is excellent. The only real trouble was with Jared and the tattoo."
"Why should I even answer? You check my piss, see the grades from every class I take and all demerits are reported."
"We’d also like to have your attitude turn around. To prove the rest isn’t just for show." Then Catherine sighed, like she always did, wrote in her notebook and the session was over.
Shauna heard more footsteps in the hall and a tapping of fingers on the door as a key slid in. It was Ron, her least favorite droid. "What’s this with no supper tonight?" he said, all smarmy, like he cared or something.
Shauna stood up from sitting on the bed and moved toward him. "I’m just not in the mood." He was pasty and tall, in his thirties, maybe, but already going bald in front.
"Let me see your eyes," he said. He got close enough to sniff for weed or alcohol too. "I needed to make sure you’re OK, that you’re up and dressed and all."
"Well?" she said.
"I’ll pop in again later. Use the call button if you’re feeling down and want to talk."
She was fourteen when it happened. Danny had just finished twelfth grade and landed a Cal Poly scholarship. They’d both been going to Camp Open Challenge every summer, but that was his chance to be a paid group leader. It was mainly a day program on the reservoir near Los Gatos, except the older kids and their leaders went on special overnights to Mt. Madonna or Los Padres Forest at Big Sur. If Shauna had been old enough, she’d have gone on those trips too, and as a camper, Danny had loved them. Hiking up and down the rolling slopes of golden dry grass, he said, or through stands of bay laurel, oak and slick-bark madrones, and where you went into the creek beds, the dark hush of redwoods.
Big Sur was his favorite, and he’d shown her on maps the beach trails or ones that dropped inland toward the river from the dirt road on Partington Ridge. That’s where he took his very first group, and sixteen months later, when Shauna ran away from home, the first place she went. She wasn’t sure the exact route he’d taken, but she did see the gate where he parked the van, which was as far along the road as she’d been able to hitch. And the trail she took did come to a campground on a side stream, like that other picture in the newspaper. But the earth there was smooth, not rutted anymore, with the river below it in a steep part of the canyon, so she followed the main trail to a plank bridge at the bottom where you crossed and could go different directions.
For the coast, you stayed along the river as it curved west, which was supposed to have been the kids’ way out, if their trip had gone how Danny planned. She was counting on it to be her way out, too, but not until she went a mile up the middle trail, north to a spot just like where his body had been found, a hundred feet down on the rocks of the river’s other fork.
She knew it was the right spot because a strange voice told her, "Stop here," and when she did and prayed on her knees to honor him, the strange voice prayed in the background. But she couldn’t really stay. It wasn’t summer, and even if she hadn’t seen anyone since leaving the ridge, she was terrified of being lost in the dark woods. Pushing herself, she jogged wherever the trail out was smooth enough, hoping the light would last, but there were stars in the sky before she got back to her little driftwood hutch on the hippie beach just beyond the state park.
She ran away two more times after that until she met Carlo and never went home. By then her parents had split, with the Cupertino house sold in the divorce and her mom pretty much a basket case. Besides, mature-looking blonde girls with nice profiles could always get favors from men. It was almost too easy. Unless they ditched you, that is, or you ditched them, but Carlo had other ideas, like ads on Craig’s List and a nice supply of pills and weed. She was done with him now though, permanently, just like the pills.
But other parts of it could still break into her head whether she wanted them to or not.
“Mrs. Vranov! Mrs. Vranov!” Their neighbor, Carol, was ringing the doorbell, knocking and shouting through the sidelights. “If you’re home turn on the news! I tried phoning, but you didn’t answer.” Shauna, sick from having her period, hadn’t gone to camp. Some days her mom worked mornings, so who cared about the phone? She didn’t go to the door either. Shauna didn’t like busybody Carol. But she did flip on Channel 2, and there it was. Danny’s campers, shrieking and freaked out, with their parents rushing in to pull them away from the camera.
At the trial, his murderers were charged only with leaving the scene of a death. For actually killing him, nothing. If it wasn’t for the escaping from a county work farm, and for stealing a truck and possessing a gun, they might not still be in prison, which her dad told her they were on his last visit to Stoner Bridge. They testified that Danny had volunteered to show them the trail out, but had taken a wrong turn and fallen into the canyon, that he was smashed on the rocks when they got to him, and they’d run away because they were already in trouble. No witnesses could say otherwise, their lawyer insisted, and the grounds to convict them weren’t clear.
Several of the kids did testify that they had felt threatened by the shotgun and the knives, that the men were drunk or stoned on something, and the girls thought they were going to be raped. The men had herded them together into the campground outhouse and shut the door, keeping Danny outside. It was so the kids would be safe from wild pigs, the men said. The reason the campground was all torn up and rutted was that pigs had taken it over and they were vicious. The one guy said he stayed behind to stand guard while Danny showed the other guy the right trail. And that when Danny and the other guy got back, they were going to help the kids camp somewhere the pigs wouldn’t bother them. The lawyer even got a ranger to say how dangerous the pigs could be.
It was dark and smelly in the outhouse, the kids told the judge, and too crowded to move, but suddenly they heard shouting from outside and running footsteps. Then, after it had been quiet a long time, one of them eased open the door, kicked away a rock and found out they were alone. While they were racing up the side trail they’d come in on, they heard a gunshot, which made them run even harder. Finally, they got to the van and then to a cabin and someone drove them to where their phones would work.
But there was a witness—Shauna. She hadn’t been there, but she absolutely knew. Except nobody believed her. Danny had seen them coming and could tell they were trouble, that they weren’t just other hikers. Trouble even before he saw the shotgun. Or really, heard them was what happened first, because they were talking.
“You think there’s still hippie gals this side of the hill?” said a sudden voice.
“Dun’no,” Chris answered, “ but I sure could use me one.” He was in the lead as they pushed through overhanging branches where the main trail entered the clearing. “Ho, ho!” Chris went on. “What’ve we got here?”
“Our lucky day,” said Jimmy, the other guy, the one carrying the gun. Both of them were sweaty in T-shirts with rolled up sleeves and filthy jeans, and they both had buck knives on their belts and beat-up work boots.
“These sweet lollipops got themselves lost in the woods,” Chris said, walking forward. His hair was dark blonde. Jimmy was older and his was brown.
“We know right where we are,” one of the boys said. “Our leader does, anyway.” Most of the overnight groups included more boys than girls, but this time, mainly girls.
“Who? That one?” Jimmy motioned at Danny, clearly the oldest and with the biggest pack.
“Yes,” Danny said, stepping toward them.
Jimmy looked at Chris and cocked his jaw funny. “Then maybe you could help us out.”
There was another rattling knock, but this time no key, just a loudly whispered, "Shauna," right near the doorframe. Jared. At least he’d snapped her out of it. She let him in.
"We’re not supposed to hang together," she said. "Ron’s due back pretty quick." She was taller than Jared, and older, but he obviously had the hots for her. Like she couldn’t do better than a lank-haired, pimply video-gamer with a tattoo kit and a non-stop history of smoking weed.
"Fucking Ron," he said. His rumpled shirt was tucked in on one side and not the other.
"Yeah," Shauna nodded.
"I was thinking we’d finish your tattoo." He pointed to her arm. "How I could make it not hurt so much and you’d let me keep going."
"Maybe, but it can’t be tonight." If she gave him a blowjob right now, she thought, he’d never forget her the rest of his life. And if Ron walked in on them, he’d never forget her either. She wasn’t going to, but it made her smile.
"Then when?" he said.
"When I ask you to, when else?"
"But I want to try my new idea."
His so-called kit had needles made from broken steel guitar strings with bottle corks for handles, matches and a little candle to sterilize with, and ink he drained from brands of ballpoint pens he said he’d tested on himself. She wondered what his new idea was.
"Better get gone," she said. "Not worth more trouble."
"I guess." He looked disappointed. "Or," he added, "how ’bout a J of good kush?"
"Go." She watched him back away and shamble out, then it pulled at her again.
Chris was the one guarding the outhouse. All he had was a knife, but only a single kid at a time could’ve escaped through the narrow door, so a knife would do lots of damage. Besides, they had no way of knowing where the shotgun was.
Actually, Jimmy took it for steering Danny on the trail, and Danny had to know they planned on killing him or fucking him up real bad, then drag the hottest girls into the clearing. When they’d gone maybe ten paces, Jimmy half-turned to tell Chris something. Danny ducked aside, grabbed the gun, leveraged the handle away from Jimmy and hurled it like a lazy boomerang out over the canyon. He’d already started to run down the wooded switch-backs when it hit what sounded like a flat spot, metal thwacking on stones and pebbles.
“You piece of shit!” Jimmy screamed. He lunged two strides after Danny, then stopped. “Hey, Chris!”
When Chris moved toward him, Jimmy motioned wildly that he should go after the gun. “Jam that door with a rock first,” Jimmy added, more quietly, before turning again and racing away. “Better run, you fuck!” he yelled. “We’ll cut your balls off!”
Chris scrambled to find a rock big enough, then threw himself down a notch in the canyon wall. “Little bastard,” he muttered, fighting through twisted tangles of live oak and chaparral. “Fucking little bastard.”
Danny had a decent lead and thought he knew the trail better than the two guys did. At the plank bridge, he cut right and made heavy scuffmarks back upstream on the opposite side to a bench of embe dded rock. Tiptoeing along it to the trail edge, he left no trace in returning to the middle trail, which climbed steeply along the North Fork through a washout of bare dirt and protruding roots.
In the canyon behind he heard splashing and grunted cries. He also heard a set of footsteps echo on the bridge and what he thought was a second set. Good, both guys. They’d gone after him, not the gun. The kids would have a chance to run for it.
Now he was above the next box canyon, and to his left, perched over the river in a screen of brush, stood a big, solitary madrone, and from how it leaned, half the root-ball underneath had been hollowed away, making a great hidey-hole. Careful not to leave tracks, Danny circled back once he’d passed it and huddled into the shadow of the eroded gap, with no line of sight to the trail.
It smelled mushroomy and funky, but as long as there were no rattlesnakes, he’d be fine. And almost right away, the earth against his ear vibrated with thumping footsteps, closer and closer. Soon, footsteps on the trail’s surface too, and rasps of heavy breathing. But they went on by and receded. He relaxed and braced himself to stay hidden.
“OK, fucker! Got you cold!” It was the Chris guy, down in the riverbed, his hair more blonde in that light, with the shotgun and a bead on Danny between two tree trunks. “Jimmy!” the guy yelled. “Jimmy, I got him!”
Danny crabbed across the slope so the trees would be in the way, trying to reach the trail before Jimmy got back. “Hey, asshole!” Chris yelled, as he shifted sideways to re-find his target. “Freeze!” A roaring blast from the gun, and dirt kicked up near Danny’s leg.
“Yeah, shithead, you’re done.” It was Jimmy, right above him. A buck knife was in his hand, but Danny didn’t panic. He’d make this part last as long as he could to give the kids more time.
“Crawl up here real slow,” Jimmy said, calm and nasty. Danny did, extra slow, until the knife was in his face. “OK, Chris, he’s mine. Come on up.” Then to Danny, “Stay fucking just like that, on your belly.”
Danny heard grunts and some scrabbling of brush, and Chris hauled himself onto the trail, smirking, with his trouser legs and boots soaked from the river. When he stood, he leveled the gun at Danny. “Let’s blow his goddamn head off.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Jimmy said. “Somebody’ll find him, and trace that thing back to us.”
“We can’t fucking turn him loose.”
“Take him up the trail a ways, where I just was.”
They prodded Danny to his feet. “Forward march, asshole,” Chris said.
Danny did exactly what they told him, eating up time with the smallest strides he thought they'd tolerate. Ahead, the trail narrowed and crossed a bulge of greenish shale. The river, its flow shrunken to a silvery strand as summer dried out the forest, hugged the base of the cliff.
“Stop and turn back around,” Jimmy ordered.
Danny did that too, but said nothing. “You ain’t gonna’ beg for your life?” Chris sneered. Danny still said nothing, but his eyelids fluttered to where he could barely see.
“Make like you’re gut-shooting him,” Jimmy said.
Chris stepped back and aligned the gun barrel. “Hands behind your head, turd boy.”
With a sudden lunge, as if he'd learned it playing football, Jimmy threw a shoulder and forearm at Danny’s ribs. Danny stumbled once, before arching off into the air, falling and falling. You could see him try to tuck for protection at impact, but he didn’t yell or scream, he didn’t give them the satisfaction. He landed on the rocks with a sickening thud, like a sleeping bag full of watermelons, and after that, a sickening silence.
Her brother. Her big brother.
She’d never seen that much of it before, either, past the part where they pushed him and all the way to how he fell and landed, so she was hyperventilating when Ron let himself in.
"Sorry, Shauna," he said, and she realized she was still standing by the door from when Jared left. "I thought you were OK," Ron continued, "but they sent me up with a… Oh, oh, not OK. What’ve you taken? We know Jared was here."
She stood there, unable to move, then finally backed away a step. "Yeah, he was. Go on, write me up."
"Forget that for now. We need a urine sample. You can come downstairs or use this in your bathroom with the door open while I wait." His hand waved a cup inside a plastic baggie.
She looked at him. "Not downstairs," she said. And no more reliving it either. She had to turn that off and get out of here, she had to, and she would, clean, but the tattoo was staying like it was. Above her left biceps, a small, crude image of a wild pig that she could say was a dragon’s head when people asked.
Ron, looking bored, gave her the cup.