Clare jolts upright, her hand at her mouth to stifle a scream.
This room is blue with moonlight. Clare is on a single bed, its rusted joints creaking beneath her as she adjusts to sitting. She blinks. Bare walls, high ceiling, cobwebs wound tight in the corners. There is an open window, a hot wind lifting the corner of her bedsheet. The door is closed. Another single bed is pressed to the far wall, a woman lying facedown, asleep, as still as a corpse.
A voice in Clare’s head. Do you know about this place?
The woman in the bed lets out a long whine. Clare studies her in the low light. She looks to be in her midthirties, her face gently lined but tense even in sleep. She rolls onto her back, one arm flapped over the side of the bed. There is a zigzag of scars on her forearm and palm. Defensive scars, Clare knows. The kind that come from fending someone off. They spoke only briefly after Clare arrived last night, shook hands, maneuvered around each other in the small space. Raylene, she’d said. Her name is Raylene.
The painted hardwood floor is warm under Clare’s feet. She stands and tiptoes to the window. This room is on the
second story, a porch roof extending below her. Two hundred feet ahead, a river churns. A willow tree is perched so close to the water that its thick roots curl over the edge of the bank. A wooden cross has been nailed askew to its trunk. Clare twists her hair into a bun, then crouches to catch the breeze on her neck.
Do you know about this place?
Yes, Clare thinks, eyes on the wooden cross. I know about this place.
This morning, there was the ocean. Two days ago, Malcolm Boon in the doorway of Clare’s room, a folder in hand.
I have a new case, he’d said. A woman and her child have disappeared.
How many days since she and Malcolm absconded from the hospital in Blackmore before the police could question them? How many days and nights did Clare spend in that motel room, drifting in and out of fitful sleep as she healed from the gunshot wound? She can muster only flashes. Bandages peeled back, the angry pink of her shoulder. A meal eaten on an unmade bed. A dusty glass of water Malcolm gave her to wash down the pills. The tide in and out on a beach. Malcolm there, Malcolm gone. And then, Malcolm arriving with the folder, offering her a new assignment.
I think you’d be good for this case, he’d said. It’s a place called High River. A place for women like you.
Something had roused Clare then. Her second case. A chance to right the wrongs of her first effort, to prove she might actually be good at this work. For twenty-four hours she’d pored over the folder: Sally Proulx and her two-year-old son, William, swept away days ago by the same river Clare watches out this window now. She’d papered the wall of her motel room with the timeline and backstory, photos and police reports. Photos
of Sally in her previous life, before she and William arrived in High River. As Clare worked, a strange energy bolted through her. She couldn’t sleep. She wouldn’t talk to Malcolm. She cut back on the pills, holding her breath against the waves of pain and nausea. This time, she would be prepared. She would invent a version of herself that fit in at High River. Go undercover. Learn from her mistakes. It only occurs to her now that Malcolm probably chose this case because he knew it would hit too close to home for Clare to refuse it.
With a gasp, Raylene sits up in bed, eyes wide. “No!” she says. “No.”
Her eyes search the room until she spots Clare crouched at the open window.
“It’s okay,” Clare says.
Raylene’s eyes are unfocused, afraid.
“You were dreaming,” Clare whispers. “Go back to sleep.”
As if never awake, Raylene slides down the bed until her head lands softly on her pillow.
Rain. Clare extends her hand through the open window to catch the first drops on her palm. She can never remember her own dreams. It used to suit Clare to forget, to abandon the details of her life before this one, those many months on the run before she met Malcolm Boon. Before Malcolm hired her to do this strange work of searching for lost or missing women, before her first case in Blackmore. Before the bullet wound and the blur of days spent recovering at that seaside motel. As they drove to High River yesterday, southward to this thick heat, Malcolm kept such quiet that when he spoke, his voice startled Clare.
Remember, he said. We got lucky on the Blackmore case.
We got lucky, Clare repeated, hand resting on the shotgun wound just inches from her heart. Lucky.
What I mean, Malcolm said,
is that missing women don’t always turn up alive.
Forget luck, Clare wanted to say. Instead she looked out her window in silence, any change in the landscape masked by the gas stations and fast-food joints on repeat at every interchange. Mile after mile she mulled the details of the High River case. The little boy and his mother. Fixating on the details of the case distracted Clare from the pain in her shoulder, from the panic, the need for one more pill to take the edge off. She committed everything in that file to memory, every detail of Sally Proulx’s story absorbed, Clare an actor learning her part. This time, she will play Sally’s friend, a more direct route into the story than she took last time. But now that she’s here in High River, Clare feels uncertain she’s made the right choice in agreeing to take on this case. She stares at the white cross, at the swaying tentacles of the willow tree. Her chest hurts. Her shoulder hurts. It feels hard to breathe in this heat. She thinks of the letter from her husband that she carries in her bag.
I can’t forget you, my Clare. You’re still mine.
Eighteen, Clare thinks. Eighteen days since she left Blackmore with Malcolm, driving west to the ocean and that motel, the letter from Jason in her back pocket. Two hundred and twenty-five days since she left Jason, sprinting through the snowy back fields to the car she’d hidden under a sheet. A long-planned escape from a vicious husband. A life left behind months ago. But no matter how much time passes, she can’t seem to stop counting the days.
Do you know about this place?
It was Raylene who’d asked her this question as they lay in the dark last night, hours after Clare first arrived. Clare had feigned sleep instead of answering. Yesterday she’d felt certain she was equipped for this. She’d felt certain she’d learned all
she could about High River, that this time her cover would be rock solid. Clare glances over her shoulder to Raylene, curled into fetal position, a pained look on her face as she sleeps. Clare looks back at the river, then presses the window all the way closed, her hands shaking with pain or withdrawal or panic, she can never tell which anymore.
It doesn’t matter if I’m ready, Clare thinks. I’m here.