The Lost

Содержание:

The Lost


   BRILLIANTLY RIVETING. *

   THOUGHT-PROVOKING AND STIRRING. **

   Award-winning author Sarah Beth Durst has been praised for her captivating novels that merge the darkly imagined with very real themes of self-discovery and destiny. In The Lost, we’ll discover just what it means to lose one’s way….

   It was only meant to be a brief detour. But then Lauren finds herself trapped in a town called Lost on the edge of a desert, filled with things abandoned, broken and thrown away. And when she tries to escape, impassible dust storms and something unexplainable lead her back to Lost again and again. The residents she meets there tell her she’s going to have to figure out just what she’s missing—and what she’s running from—before she can leave. So now Lauren’s on a new search for a purpose and a destiny. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll be found….

   Against the backdrop of this desolate and mystical town, Sarah Beth Durst writes an arresting, fantastical novel of one woman’s impossible journey…and her quest to find her fate.

   *Booklist, starred review, on Vessel **Kirkus Reviews, starred review, on Vessel

   Praise for Sarah Beth Durst

   Vessel

   Andre Norton Award Finalist 2012 Kirkus Best Teen Books 2012

   “Durst offers a meditation on leadership and power and a vivid story set outside the typical Western European fantasy milieu. From the gripping first line, a fast-paced, thought-provoking and stirring story of sacrifice.”

   —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

   “Readers will feel the desert heat, the earth-numbing droughts, the vicious sandstorms and resulting sandwolves, and the bizarre sensations of a goddess living within the body of its human vessel. Brilliantly riveting.”

   —Booklist (starred review)

   Enchanted Ivy

   “Every page of Enchanted Ivy weaves a delightful, seductive spell. Lily is a true heroine—smart, intrepid, and utterly human. I’d give anything to travel to the world of Sarah Beth Durst’s imagination!”

   —Jeri Smith-Ready, award-winning author of Shade

   “With her deft prose and runaway imagination, [Durst] creates a tale filled with rich characters, wonderful story-telling,

   and puzzle pieces that fall together perfectly.” —Chicago Examiner

   The Lost

   Sarah Beth Durst


   

   For my mother,

   Mary Lee Bartlett

   Contents

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   Things I lost:

   a stick of Chapstick

   a few quarters

   one turquoise earring, a gift

   my old college roommate’s new phone number

   my left sandal

   Mr. Rabbit, my favorite stuffie from my preschool years

   my way

   Chapter One

   For the first hundred miles, I see only the road and my knuckles, skin tight across the bones, like my mother’s hands, as I clutch the steering wheel. For the second hundred miles, I read the highway signs without allowing the letters to compute in my brain. Exit numbers. Names of towns. Places that people call home, or not. After three hundred miles, I start to wonder what the hell I’m doing.

   In front of me, the highway lies straight, a thick rope of asphalt that stretches to a pinprick on the horizon. On either side of the highway are barbed-wire fences that hem in the few cows that wander through the scrub-brush desert. Cacti are clustered by the fence posts. Above, the sun has bleached the blue until the sky looks like fabric stretched so thin that it’s about to tear. There are zero clouds.

   I should turn around.

   Instead, I switch on the radio. Static. For a moment, I let the empty crackle of noise spray over me, a match to my mood, but then it begins to feel like prickles inside my ears. Also, I begin to feel self-consciously melodramatic. Maybe as a sixteen-year-old, I’d have left the static on, but I’m twenty-seven. I change the station. Again, static. And again. Again.

   First option: an apocalypse has wiped out all the radio transmitters.

   Second, much more likely, option: my car radio is broken.

   Switching the radio off, I drive to the steady thrum of the car engine and the hiss of wind through the cracked-open window. I wanted the radio so I wouldn’t have to think. I listen to the wind instead and try to keep my mind empty.

   I won’t think.

   I won’t worry.

   I won’t scream.

   The wind feels like a snake’s hot breath as it coils through the car. It smells of dust and exhaust. All in all, though, it’s not so bad. The palms of my hands feel slick and sweaty from the steering wheel, but otherwise, I feel like I could drive for hours...and hours and hours until the car runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere and I slowly die of dehydration while the cows lick the remaining moisture from my limp body.

   That would make for a humiliating obituary.

   Half my funeral audience would consist of family and friends, a few aunts and uncles I’d never met, neighbors who had never spoken to me (except to complain about how I always parked my car askew), friends I’d meant to have lunch with... The other half would be heifers.

   Great plan, Lauren, I tell myself. All of this...very well thought-out. Kudos. I have no reason to be out here on Route 10, three hundred miles east of home. No rational reason at all, except that I am sick to death of rational—of facts, of hospitals, of test results with predictions that feel as cold and impersonal as the expiration date on a gallon of milk.

   I keep driving as the sun sears its way toward dusk. Sinking lower, it blazes in the rearview mirror until I blink over and over. Soon, the sun will set. Soon, Mom will return from her doctor’s appointment. She’ll try to pretend it’s a normal day: set the table, lay out extra napkins, switch on the TV for the PBS NewsHour, and wait for me to come home with our favorite burritos—our Tuesday-night tradition.

   I haven’t eaten since breakfast. Burritos would be nice. Seeing Mom...I don’t know.

   Glancing at my cell phone, I see it has zero bars. Next town, I promise myself. I’ll call Mom and ask about the new test results. Just ask. It might be fine. False alarm. Silly me for worrying so much. She’ll laugh; I’ll laugh. After that, I’ll call work and claim I was sick, perhaps toss in a colorful description of vomit. I’ll say that I’ve been glued to the toilet all day. No one ever questions a vomit excuse. Then I’ll fill up the tank, and I’ll drive back and celebrate the false alarm with Mom.

   It’s a decent plan, except that I don’t see a next town.

   I scan the highway for signs. Speed Limit 75. Watch for Deer. Littering $500. With the road so straight and flat, I should see at least the silhouette of an exit sign. But I don’t see any exits at all, either behind or before me.

   It’s an endless highway. There will never be an exit. Or a turn. Or a hill or a valley or a bridge... I know I saw signs at some point in the past hour or so. I remember looking at them; I don’t remember what they said. I’m not even positive what state I’m in. Arizona, I’d guess. Possibly New Mexico. I don’t think Texas yet.

   It is strange that there aren’t other vehicles on the road.

   I watch the wind swirl over the highway as the sun stains the sky a rosy orange. The low light makes the desert earth look red, and the asphalt glistens like black jewels. It’s a wide highway, two lanes in either direction, and except for me, they are empty.

   I should see some cars. A few tourists with kids in a minivan, off to see the Grand Canyon or visit Grandma in Albuquerque. A pickup truck with a bed full of rusted junk, shotgun rack in the back. Maybe a motorcyclist with bugs in his mustache.

   Or maybe there really has been an apocalypse.

   Dust blows across the highway, and dried weeds impale themselves on the barbed-wire fence. I’d feel better if at least one truck would barrel past me. I tap my fingers on the steering wheel faster, faster, and the needle on the odometer creeps higher like the needle of a blood pressure gauge on the arm of a stressed patient. I need to find a town soon.

   As the sun dips lower, shadows stretch long from the setting sun. The fence post shadows cut stripes in the red dust. A man in a black coat perches on one of the fence posts.

   Leaning forward, I stare over the steering wheel, as if those few extra inches will help me see the man clearer. He’s a quarter mile away, and his coat blows in the wind like a superhero cape. I can’t see his face.

   Closer...it’s a mesquite tree with a cloth caught in its branches. I lean back as I pass the tree. It’s leafless and twisted, half-dead, with dried thorns that have captured a strip of black fabric. For an instant, it was something uneasy and beautiful.

   Ahead, the highway is blotted out by dark dust, as if a dirty cloud drifted onto the road. “Real estate changing hands,” Mom said once of dust storms. “If I wait long enough, the wind will send me a swimming pool and a fully planted vegetable garden.”

   “You have an ocean twenty minutes away. You never swim in it.”

   “I could be mauled by a sea lion,” Mom said. “And when was the last time you swam in the ocean? I used to have to haul you out of the water kicking and screaming at the end of summer.”

   I remember that, those summers when I’d be so waterlogged that I’d feel like driftwood when I washed into the start of the school year. I’d spend the year drying until I was light and brittle. “I blame the sea lions,” I told my mother. “Vicious things.”

   This storm is more like a smear of dust than any sort of storm. It has no energy or power or movement. It looks as if a painter slapped bland reddish tan across the blue, black and red of the sky, highway and desert. I tell myself that dust storms like this are common out here. The few bushes and cacti can’t hold the parched dirt onto the cracked earth, and it rises up with the wind. But common or not, coming now, it only adds to the sense of surreal aloneness. I’d write a poem about it...

   

   Desert dust.

   Alone,

   she drives

   into the earth that gravity lost—

   

   Except that I don’t write poetry. And besides, I’m driving to escape my feelings, not wallow in them. Unfortunately, I seem to have packed all my emotional baggage for this impromptu road trip.

   Rolling up the window, I silence the hiss of wind. I only hear the whoosh and hum of the car itself. I fiddle with the radio again. Still static. And I drive into the cloud of dust.

   It is as dark as if the sun has instantly plunged beneath the horizon. I switch on my headlights and illuminate the swath of reddish tan in front of me. It glows but remains opaque. I can see a few yards of pavement plus a few feet on the side of the highway. Ghostlike, a fence post appears in the dust and then disappears. Another and then another appear and then vanish at regular intervals, as if marking time in a timeless place.

   It feels as if the rest of the world has disappeared.

   It feels almost peaceful—and also as if I am in my own apocalypse.

   I’d like to think if I were to invent my own apocalypse, it would be more colorful. Brilliant chartreuse horsemen of the apocalypse trampling the earth beneath their hooves, while the earth bleeds green into the sea... All the screams would rise up at once in a cacophony that sends the birds to blacken the sky with their wings, and the mythical snake (or dragon or whatever) that wraps its coils around the world would squeeze at the same time that the turtle that supports the earth would flip, and the resulting earthquakes would disgorge a thousand monsters to prey on the survivors... Yeah, that would be much cooler than dull tan. Also, messier.

   Real apocalypses happen in clean, white rooms, delivered in long words by men and women with kind eyes and sterile scrubs. Or by a woman who is both your best friend and your mother over crab rangoon and spare ribs or a burrito.

   It’s harder and harder to see the pavement. I peer through the windshield and hope I’m still in my lane. At least no one else is on the road. I don’t have to worry about crashing into an eighteen-wheeler or a motorcyclist who can’t see any better than I can. I slow to a crawl just in case.

   My headlights catch the silhouette of a person.

   I slam on the brakes.

   Tires squeal.

   The car jolts to a stop.

   There is no person. I stare into the empty dust. Overactive imagination, I tell myself. I’ve been the victim of an overactive imagination for years, ever since I was a kid with my blanket tucked up to my chin, staring at the shadowed shapes in my bedroom, trying to convince myself that the shapes weren’t ten-armed monsters, men with axes, rabid rats or the kid from my junior high who liked to draw nightmarish cartoons of women’s parts in his math textbook.

   There is no way a person would be wandering down this highway in the middle of a dust storm this far from the nearest town. I focus on the dotted white lines that divide the lanes and follow them as if they’re bread crumbs leading me through a forest.

   Again, I see him.

   This time, he is directly in front of me. Yanking on the steering wheel, I swerve right. I feel the tires run off the road and hit dirt. I yank the wheel left, and the car jumps back onto the road.

   I look in my rearview mirror. Still standing in the road, the man is dressed in a black trench coat that falls to his ankles. Beneath the coat he wears black jeans and is bare-chested. His chest is decorated in a swirl of black feather tattoos, and he is almost unbearably beautiful. I slam on the brakes again.

   When I look in the rearview mirror this time, he is gone.

   That’s it, I tell myself. No more horror movies. Ever.

   Concentrating on the road directly in front of me, I drive and drive and drive. By the time I emerge from the dust cloud, it is night. The car clock says 8:34. Stars speckle the sky, and a full moon has risen low and fat over the desert. I loosen my grip on the steering wheel and roll my shoulders back until my shoulder blades crackle. I look behind me again—and the dust cloud has vanished. The road stretches endlessly back, clear and empty.

   I wish there were someone else with me to verify that the dust had existed, to confirm the man had existed. But if someone else were with me, I would have turned around before I’d even left Los Angeles. I would have taken that left at the light like I did every day and I’d have parked in the office parking lot and later returned home by the same snarl of highways. I wouldn’t have driven straight for no reason other than I was afraid of the possibility of bad news.

   I glance again at my cell phone. Still no bars.

   I check my gas gauge. Low but not empty. Stretching my neck, I try to relax.

   New plan: find a town, stop for dinner, maybe check into a motel for the night, and drive back in daylight when I’m not so wrung out that I imagine bare-chested tattooed men inside dust storms. Mom will understand. She’ll probably understand better than I want her to. I’ll call from the motel room and explain that her daughter’s a coward with an overactive imagination, and she’ll tell me...

   She’ll tell me how much time she has left.

   In less than a mile, I spot an exit. It’s unmarked but paved. It must lead to a town. Taking it, I find myself on a one-lane highway. A few minutes later, I see a sign.

   The sign is carved wood, like an old-fashioned New England town welcome sign. Faded blue paint peels around its curved edges. My headlights sweep over golden lettering that reads: Welcome to Lost.

   Chapter Two

   Just a mile past the welcome sign, the neon word Vacancy flashes orange: on, off, on-on-on, off, on, off, in no discernible pattern. It is mesmerizing in its syncopation, like a drunken firefly, and as I drive toward it past darkened houses, I wait for it to flash...on! Off, off, off...on! Closer, I see that it blinks above a half-lit sign for the Pine Barrens Motel. A desiccated saguaro cactus is planted next to the sign, and a clump of prickly pears grows beneath it, as if to emphasize the fact that there are zero pine trees in the area.

   The motel itself has seen better days, perhaps in 1920. Paint peels over so much of the surface that it’s impossible to see what color the motel was supposed to be. Dingy gray, I think. One lobby window is boarded up with plywood, and there are no cars in the parking lot. But the vacancy sign continues its show, and so I turn into the lot.

   The car bounces over the chopped up pavement, and I feel my jaw rattle. I am driving over bottles and cans and other trash—the motel is obviously not AAA-rated. This may be a mistake, I think, and then wonder how many horror movie heroines thought that before they checked into the zombie motel or decided to visit the basement after the electricity died. I pull into a parking spot between two clumps of thorny weeds and, taking my purse and phone, I step out of the car.

   The night air is warm but the breeze is nice. It tickles my neck and whispers in my ear. I imagine that it’s whispering warnings, such as “This place has bed lice. Also, zombies.” But I am here, and I have already parked. And I’m not ready to go home yet, lice or not.

   I click the car locked and head across the parking lot toward the motel lobby. The parking lot is littered with soda cans and beer cans that roll and clatter in the breeze. I step over a soiled sweatshirt. There’s a wallet lying on the curb. I pick it up and flip it open to see a driver’s license and an array of credit cards. I’ll hand it in at the lobby.

   I find a second wallet outside the lobby door. And a third in the cacti. I pick them up as well and wonder what sort of party involved flinging wallets and empty cans around a parking lot. I hope it’s quieter tonight.

   Chimes tinkle over the door as I enter the lobby. A teenage girl lies on the counter. Her legs are crossed. She’s wearing ’80s leg warmers up to her knees and has enough hairspray in her hair to counteract gravity—even lying down, her hair doesn’t budge from the halo around her face. She’s wearing bright blue eye shadow and yellow nail polish. She doesn’t look at me or react to the door chime in any way. Instead, she tosses a tennis ball toward the ceiling.

   “Hi,” I say.

   The girl tosses the tennis ball again.

   “Um, I’d like a room, please.”

   “I’d like world peace, sunshine, and apple pie. Oh, and I also want to kill myself.” The girl tosses the ball a third time. She wears thick rings on each of her fingers. One is a mood ring. It’s gray. “I think I will step in front of a train.”

   She says it so casually. “I wouldn’t recommend it,” I tell her. “You could be tossed from the tracks, break your bones, and be in horrible pain hooked up to tubes in the hospital for the rest of your life. Besides, there are no tracks here. No tracks, no train.”

   “Of course there’s a train. Everyone always misses the train.” She swings her legs to the side and sits up. Her name tag says she’s Tiffany and she’s happy to help me. “Catch.” She throws the ball.

   I catch it, barely.

   “You’re new to town,” Tiffany says. “Lucky you.” Her tone implies that I should step in front of the train now and save myself the horror that is to come. But perhaps I am reading into the situation too much. My mother says I do that. A lot.

   “I’m only passing through,” I say. “I’d like a room for the night.” As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I know I should take them back. I should find a gas station and drive home right now. But then that’s sooner that I’ll have to face Mom and the future. This town is a temporary escape, and I know it and I’m taking it even though I know it.

   Tiffany waves at a wall of keys. “Your choice. Just not twelve. It’s rented long-term. Also steer clear of two, five, six, and fifteen. And twenty-three smells like skunk piss.”

   “Charming.” It’s just like a bed-and-breakfast in the mountains, except not at all. “How much?” I fish for my wallet and then remember the three I found. “Oh, these were in the parking lot.” I lay them on the counter, along with the tennis ball I’d caught. A wastebasket full of tennis balls is behind the counter, as well as a box of keys.

   “Anything good inside?” Tiffany asks.

   “Do you really work here?” Despite her name tag, she does not seem to possess that certain air of professionalism that actual employees of such fine establishments...though given the state of the place, she could be the only employee.

   “Hmm...define work.” She fetches another tennis ball and tosses it against the wall. It smacks into a velvety painting of a flower, knocking it askew.

   I have many definitions, most not appropriate for polite company, even though I like my job. It’s an ordinary young urban professional kind of job—I’m a project manager at a consulting firm in L.A.—with reasonable hours, decent coffee in the kitchen, and free access to nice pens. I even like my coworkers, mostly, though I don’t see them outside of work and we have never talked about anything deeper than which lunch place has the best panini. (Tigerlily’s. Their goat cheese and fig panini are bliss.) As a rule, though, you aren’t supposed to like your job. Anyone who says they do is lying. Or lucky.

   I am not lucky. I always pick the longest checkout line, the one where the woman at the front of the line has fifty expired coupons and intends to argue each one. I always lose the receipt for the appliance that breaks (but find the one for the stereo I ditched five years ago). Traffic lights turn red when I approach. Supermarkets run out of milk. Cars splash through puddles the moment I walk past their part of the sidewalk. One day, I’m certain a meteor will crash through the atmosphere and land on my apartment... Or maybe, as Mom says, it’s only that I am a little bit disorganized and a little bit paranoid. To which I remind her, it’s not paranoia if the meteors really are out to get you.

   But Tiffany is waiting for a response. “Work is the daily activity that sucks your soul but pays your bills,” I say. “It’s the path your feet walked down while your head was stuck in the clouds.”

   Tiffany blinks at me. “Yeah, you’ll fit right in here. I’d take room eight. Nicest view of the pool. Don’t try to swim in it, though. Leeches.”

   “You’re joking.”

   “I am a perpetual teenager, and I have no sense of humor.” Tiffany plucks the key to room eight off the wall and hands it to me. She then smiles brightly, a false cheerful full-teeth smile. “Welcome to Lost.”

   “Uh, thanks.” As I take the key, I note that her mood ring is still gray. Probably broken, since those haven’t been in style since the ’70s, and I don’t think they worked then, either. Still, though... “Listen, if you meant what you said before...about the train...I mean...there are phone numbers to call. People who can help.” I feel my cheeks heat as I fumble the words. Christ, I’m not good at this. I’m better with people in my own familiar environment: my apartment, or my office—my bubble-tower-matrix-fishtank, where I can pretend everything is under control, at least on days without new test results.

   Tiffany rolls her eyes like a quintessential teenager faced with an over-the-hill twentysomething. “Need anything else, or are we done?” Her tone is that perfect mix of derisive and bored. I remember using that tone with my mother more than once. I should apologize. To my mother, not Tiffany.

   I have no idea how I am going to apologize for coming here.

   I’ll figure it out later.

   “Actually, I do need something else.” Toothpaste, certainly. Deodorant would be nice. Brush. Soap. Razor. Fresh underwear. Change of clothes. A spare bank account with enough money to cover all the hospital bills. “I, uh, forgot a few toiletries.”

   Tiffany hops off the counter and throws open a door behind her. “Take whatever you need. Free of charge...this time.” She smirks, and then she lies down on the counter again in the same position she’d been in when I’d entered the lobby.

   I scoot around the counter and into the supply closet. It’s crammed with toiletries, tons of travel-size three-ounce containers of shampoo, conditioner, and gel, plus minitubes of toothpaste. People must have left these behind after they stayed here. I weed through them and select a few that look unopened. I also find a brush without too much hair on it, a travel toothbrush that looks unused, and a still-sealed deodorant. Triumphant, I emerge from the closet with my trophies.

   Tiffany hasn’t moved. The three lost wallets still lie beside her on the counter, untouched.

   “Thanks.” I lift the toiletries into the air to indicate that I found what I needed. “This is perfect.”

   Tiffany waves one hand in the air, an acknowledgment or a goodbye or just a twitch, as I leave the lobby. The chimes jingle behind me.

   Outside, the air has cooled, and I wish I’d checked the closet for a coat. There are sweatshirts and jeans and other clothes strewn throughout the parking lot, but they’ve been ground into the filth. I could return for a second dip into the closet...but then I’d have to have another discussion with the living stereotype of teenagerhood. I’d rather shiver coatless.

   I pass by other rooms on the way to eight. A few seem occupied, though there are no cars other than mine in the parking lot. All the shades are drawn, but I see the silhouette of a man in room twelve. Low voices emanate from room six.

   Room eight is dark. I stick the key into the lock. I haven’t been to a motel with actual keys instead of magnetized cards in years. Leaning against the door, I push it open. A wave of musty air whooshes over me, and I hop backward in case a herd of rodents decides to stampede out. When no rodents attack, I turn on the light.

   Yellow fluorescents flicker on overhead and illuminate a bed that’s piled high with twenty or so garish throw pillows: striped square pillows, round polka-dot pillows, a few plaids, others with prints or birds or flowers or elephants. Some have fringe. One is paisley with velvet trim. It looks as though a rogue seamstress stole upholstery from several dozen old ladies’ living rooms and then stitched them into pillows. She then went on to decorate her orange prison jumpsuit with flower appliqués.

   I kick the door shut behind me and carry my collection of three-ounce toiletries to the bathroom. All the fixtures are 1950s lime-green. I dump the toiletries beside a shell-shaped green sink and try not to notice the circle of mold around the taps.

   I know it’s too much to hope for a minifridge. Even if there were one, I bet its contents would be a decade past their sell-by date, and I’d spend the night with food poisoning, vomiting on the hideous throw pillows—which couldn’t hurt their appearance but would hurt their odor. I check the motel room drawers and cabinets anyway and find a Gideon Bible, one gold earring, and a white sock. Everything I touch is coated with a layer of dust. The carpet is sticky. One very short night, I tell myself. I’ll leave as soon as it’s light out again.

   First, though, I need food before I’m tempted to gnaw on the throw pillow that features an embroidered still life of a fruit bowl.

   And then I’ll call Mom.

   Leaving the room, I lock the door to protect my precious toiletries. A man combs through the parking lot, kicking at the piles of discarded clothes and poking in the bushes. I hurry past him, and I slip my hand into my pocket and relock my car doors. Twice. Mine is the sole car under the streetlamp. It looks on display, a shiny please-steal-me exhibit. But obsessively locking and relocking it is the best I can do.

   I leave the car to its fate when I see there’s a diner across the street, the Moonlight Diner. It’s lit up with every holiday decoration possible: plastic blinking Santas, jack-’o-lanterns, American flags with neon fireworks. I trot across the street toward the gleaming beacon that promises French fries, pancakes, and milkshakes in a veneer of kitsch. Also a point in its favor: Moonlight isn’t spelled Moonlite. There are still no cars moving in either direction, though a few pickup trucks, Cadillacs, and old station wagons are parked by meters—all expired.

   The diner looks open. I can see a few figures through the window, hunched over their coffee mugs and dinners. It reminds me of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, except with a lot more neon.

   I open the door and walk inside. The bell over the door rings. Every person in the diner turns his or her head to look at me. A man who’d been stirring his coffee freezes midstir. All conversation ceases. Only the diner’s jukebox churns out any noise, a tinny drumbeat and a singer wailing out a song that I don’t recognize. I feel like a deer caught in neon headlights, and I freeze, too.

   “Table for one, or do you want to make a new friend?”

   A woman in a waitress uniform crosses the diner toward me. She plucks a menu out of the hands of another customer. She looks more like she belongs in a business suit than the checkered Dorothy Gale dress with apron that she’s wearing. Her black hair is slicked back, model-like, and her makeup was expertly applied to highlight her almond eyes. Her rich brown skin is so perfect that she looks poreless. Her voice is smooth, almost mocking, with a hint of a New York accent. I feel rumpled in comparison.

   “One, thanks,” I say.

   “Anywhere you want.” She waves at the tables and hands me the purloined menu.

   I pick a booth by the window, away from the stares of a trucker guy who is halfway through a greasy cheeseburger, a kid who has three sundaes in front of him, a woman in a pink tracksuit who doodles on her place mat, and a man in a thick winter parka who huddles by the air conditioner. I open the diner menu in front of me both to read and to block their view of me. All the dishes are named after cosmological objects: the eclipse éclair, the solar flare flounder, the meteor meatloaf. They’re printed in the curve of a crescent moon.

   Despite my menu shield, a woman slides into my booth. “Welcome to Lost!”

   I am not in the mood to make pleasant conversation with random overly friendly strangers. Not that I ever am. I don’t want to hear about which relatives are visiting, what the weather will be like tomorrow, or why I’d look much better if I didn’t dye one strip of hair white.

   For the record, it isn’t white; it’s colorless. I am keeping it stripped of all color until I decide whether to dye it blue, pink, or purple.

   Or maybe it’s merely cowardice, not indecision. I know my office won’t approve of blue, pink, or purple hair. Clients come in, and we are told repeatedly that we represent the professional face of Daybreak Consulting Services. But they can’t object to white hair, or they’d have to censure our CEO.

   Regardless, whatever this woman wants to chat about, all I want is food and sleep—and a decent excuse not to call Mom until morning. “I don’t mean to be rude, but...” I begin.

   “That’s what people say when they’re about to be stunningly rude.” The woman smiles to soften her words. “Just came over to offer you a little advice.”

   I have to concentrate on not rolling my eyes like Tiffany.

   The woman is older, about sixty, with a face that’s unmemorable. Not pretty, not ugly, just pleasant. She has laugh lines around her brown eyes, and she wears tasteful gold earrings. She looks like the kind of woman who has raised two children and both have turned out well-adjusted. She leans over the table, as if to impart confidential information. “Order the pie. You’ll like it. They have an assortment of last slices.”

   This isn’t what I expected her to say. I touch the white stripe in my hair and twist it around my finger, a nervous tic that I haven’t bothered to stop. “Last slices?”

   “You know, the slice that’s always left behind because no one wants to take it,” the woman said. “Victoria, slice of the rhubarb!”

   “Girl wants to be alone, Merry,” Victoria calls back. “And she needs protein. It’s important to keep your strength up when you’re in a new place.”

   “You never worry about my strength, Victoria,” the trucker says mournfully.

   “Can you still lift your ass out of that chair?” Victoria asks.

   He demonstrates.

   Victoria applauds sarcastically. “Eat your food and quit complaining.” She picks up a coffeepot. “Decaf tonight. Raise your mugs if you want some.” Several customers raise their mugs. The diner seems to have relaxed again. Still, no other conversations have started up.

   It’s probably my mood, but it all feels a little off, as if the banter were staged for my benefit, as if they’d normally sit in silence.

   “I’m Meredith,” the woman across from me says. “Folks here call me Merry. It’s on account of the fact that I like to smile. Also, it’s the first two syllables of my name.” She smiles again, and I think she must be sitting in an odd patch of light. She has glints of light on her arms and a soft haze around her hair.

   “I’m just passing through,” I say. The kid at the counter continues to stare at me. And the trucker is shooting me looks between bites of his cheeseburger. Grease clings to his beard.

   “Ahh, staying at the Pine Barrens. You’ll want to avoid room twelve.”

   I nod in mock seriousness. “Dead bodies?”

   Merry laughs and then sobers. “Just stay out of twelve.”

   The waitress Victoria swings past and drops a plate of steak and mashed potatoes in front of me. “But I haven’t ordered...” I begin to say.

   Merry leans across the table again and says in a stage whisper, “Don’t argue with Victoria. She knows what your body needs. Besides, that’s New York strip steak. You won’t see that here every day.”

   I am going to say that I’d wanted a soup or a simple sandwich, but my stomach yawns and I don’t have the energy to argue anyway. A steak in a diner can’t cost that much. This isn’t L.A. I cut a piece and put it in my mouth. My eyes instantly water as pepper fills my sinuses and tickles my throat. I swallow and cough.

   “Guess it didn’t need that additional seasoning,” Victoria observes.

   “Told you,” a man says from the kitchen. “Came preseasoned. If you’d let me taste it earlier, I could have told you what seasonings.”

   “You’re not licking uncooked beef.” Victoria swings a finger over everyone in the diner. “And none of you are listening to this conversation.”

   “No, ma’am,” the trucker says. He focuses on his food with intensity.

   Merry reaches across the table and pats my hand. “You finish your dinner, honey. We’ll talk more later, when you’re ready.” She slides out of the booth and saunters toward the back of the diner. I watch her disappear down a hall and think I see the odd haze of light following her, but then I decide that I must have imagined it.

   I eat quickly. The faster I eat, the sooner I sleep, and the quicker I leave here. The potatoes are cold and have congealed into solid lumps, but they’re thick with garlic so I eat them anyway. Driving must have made me extra hungry.

   The other customers keep glancing at me.

   I pretend I don’t notice.

   Merry doesn’t return—the diner must have a back door. I’m glad. I don’t want any more conversations tonight. I’ve had my fill of this town already.

   Finishing, I look up to catch the waitress’s eye... She is watching me, waiting. “Check, please,” I say. I fish my wallet out of my purse and take out my credit card.

   She shakes her head. “Your cards are no good here.”

   “Oh, sorry.” I hadn’t noticed the lack of credit card signs. I don’t carry much cash, but I should have enough to cover a meal at a diner, even a steak. I look through my wallet. “How much?”

   “It’s on us,” the unseen man in the kitchen pipes up.

   “Oh, no, I couldn’t.” This diner can’t possibly serve many tourists. Plus my job may be soul-sucking but it pays me enough for dinner.

   “Your money’s no good here. Barter system only, and you have nothing we need,” Victoria says. “You can pay next time, after the Missing Man explains the rules.”

   I feel a chill. I don’t like the certainty in her voice when she says “next time,” and I don’t want to know what she means by “rules.” Also, what kind of diner doesn’t take money?

   “I don’t know ‘the Missing Man.’ And as I said, I’m just passing through. I won’t be back.” Leaving my table, I cross the diner and press a twenty-dollar bill into Victoria’s hand. “Steak was great, even with the extra seasoning.”

   Victoria follows me as I flee to the door. All the customers are staring at me again. “You need to talk to the Missing Man,” she says.

   “I need to get some sleep,” I say. “Long drive tomorrow.”

   I bolt out of the diner and across the still-unused street. Not a single car drove past during the entire meal. Crossing through the parking lot, I spot yet another wallet on the ground. This time, I leave it there.

   Ahead, the forbidden room, room twelve, is lit from within, but its shades are drawn.

   At my motel room door, my hands shake as I fumble with the key. I shoot a look back at the diner, its bright lights and garish decorations lightening the dark sky. Above, a fat moon has risen. It hangs above the neon diner sign. Every crater seems to glow brighter than I’ve ever seen it.

   I let myself into the room and lock the door behind me, shutting out the town, the diner, the moon, and the road home.

   Chapter Three

   I wake with the feeling that dreams have swapped with reality.

   Any second, a dirigible will land on the roof, deploy dozens of alien ninjas who will sneak into every motel room to rendezvous with the lime-green monsters that are camouflaged in the bathroom, and then conquer the world; all the while I am due on stage in three minutes but have never learned my lines. Also, I’m naked.

   Except that I’m not naked, because I slept in my underwear.

   Oddly, I find that more comforting than the absence of alien ninjas.

   I blame the garlic mashed potatoes for the dream, and I roll over to check my cell phone. No messages and no signal. I don’t know how many times Mom tried to call me. I should have used the motel room to call her last night. But I didn’t, and I don’t now, either. Call it childish or stupid or ostrich-head-in-the-sand delusional, I’m not ready to hear her news. Not yet. Instead, I lay my head back on the pillow—an ordinary white pillow. I’d chucked the pile of throw pillows into the corner of the room, where they hulk like a not-yet-formed pillow monster. It’s somewhat surprising that my dreams weren’t haunted by those pillows. I have no idea why I dreamed about a dirigible.

   Sunlight streams through the slightly open shades. I blink. My eyes feel crusty, and I think I would have slept better if I’d been home where I was supposed to be.

   Officially, this is the stupidest thing I have ever done.

   Unofficially...yeah, asinine.

   I should be home making coffee, locating my shoes, and brushing my teeth in my own sink while Mom hunts for her hairbrush, the special one that won’t yank out her thin hair. Instead, I lurch out of bed and totter to the motel bathroom. The lime-green sink gleams as if radioactive in the overhead light. It’s good that I’ll be out of here today.

   I shower and dress in the same clothes from yesterday. My shirt itches, and my pants are so wrinkled that it looks as if I plan to tie-dye them. I think about taking the toiletries—I liked the shampoo—but I have my own at home. I leave them around the sink.

   Ready, I check the room one more time—out of habit, not out of a belief that I forgot anything. I find a condom and a pair of glasses under the bed, both coated with dust, as if they’ve been there for months. Since neither is mine, I leave them, though I stick the glasses on the bedside table. I don’t touch the condom, even though it’s still in its wrapper.

   I linger in the room, though I don’t know why. Of course I want to leave this backwater dump of a town, and of course it’s time to head home, way past time in fact, which may explain why I linger. I will have a lot of excuses to make to people once I am back, especially to Mom. She’ll forgive me, of course, which will make it worse. She’s the one who should be angry or sad or scared—she’s the one who may or may not be sick again, not me. It’s entirely selfish of me to expect her to cater to my emotional needs. But she will, and then I’ll feel like I have the soul of a worm. Part of me wishes I could stay here longer, as if that will delay anything bad, as if the world freezes when you close your eyes.

   No, I think. It’s time. I’m leaving. Mom needs me. I’ve had my little breakdown, my personal moment, or whatever, and now it’s time to put on my big girl pants and be strong.

   Voices drift muffled through the door.

   Pressing my eye to the peephole, I see... It’s blurred. Gunk from a hundred other eyeballs is smeared on the peephole glass. I have the urge to wash out my eye.

   Instead, I push the curtain window an inch to the side, not too far; I don’t want anyone to notice the movement. Sunlight floods into the room. I am facing east, and the sky is lemon-yellow. Automatically, I open the shades wider and let the sun warm my face. Then I notice the people.

   Across the parking lot, a throng of people surround...my car. And the motel clerk, Tiffany, is standing on the trunk of my car, as if it were a podium. She’s wearing a purple prom dress, and she is holding a small suitcase over her head.

   I charge outside, my purse slung over my shoulder. I am a woman with a mission, and that is my car and I am leaving this town.

   Halfway across, I slow.

   There are about twenty people in front of Tiffany, and there is something...off about them. Their clothes don’t fit right. Their hair isn’t combed. Some of them sway and mumble. In one corner, by the curb, a man kneels next to an open duffel bag and rifles through it. He grunts at each item before he tosses it over his shoulder. A boy in a nightshirt scoops up the discarded items and stuffs them under his shirt. His belly bulges with weird angles.

   I recognize the woman in the hot pink tracksuit from the diner last night. Same outfit. Her hair looks as if a mouse had nested in it, though I admit I’m not one to talk without my blow-dryer and gels. Near the front of the pack, the pink woman is rubbing her hands together and muttering to herself.

   The others are all fixated on Tiffany, or more accurately, at the pile of suitcases that is stacked in front of her like a pile of snow left by a plow.

   “Excuse me?” I say. “Sorry to interrupt, but would you all mind moving just a few parking spots to the left? Thanks.”

   A man in a wrinkled suit looks at me. He scratches the stubble on his chin. He then proceeds to scratch his armpit. He doesn’t speak and he doesn’t move.

   “That’s my car,” I say. “I need to get it out.”

   He doesn’t respond.

   I look for a way through the crowd to Tiffany. Everyone is packed tight together, shoulder to shoulder. “Excuse me,” I say as I squeeze between them, “excuse me.” I have to watch for broken bottles on the ground and leap over several suitcases. One woman glares at me and clutches her suitcase to her chest. I am nearly at the front of the pack. Only the woman in the pink tracksuit blocks my way. “Excuse me, I need to talk to Tiffany.”

   The woman shifts herself to further block my path. “You bidding?”

   “I need to leave,” I say. “And that’s my—”

   “Then you shush up,” the woman says. “Bidders only. Samsonite carry-on coming up. Looks to be from...can’t see the tag. That makes all the difference, you know. Plus whether the owner was coming or going.” She cranes her neck to see the new suitcase that Tiffany has plucked from the pile.

   Seizing her moment of distraction, I slide past her. Tiffany hefts the suitcase over her head and twists so that everyone can see it. She then lowers it onto the trunk of my car beside her with a thump. I wince on behalf of my poor car.

   “I’d like to check out.” I hold up the key to the motel room, and I notice that she is wearing high-heeled shoes. If she’s dented my car, I am sending her a bill...once I am as far away as possible.

   “Kind of in the middle of something here,” Tiffany says to me. She raises her voice to the crowd. “Offering a good deal on this one. Samsonite from San Diego. Marks on the wheels, so this is a frequent traveler. Male name on the luggage tag with California address.”

   A man raises his hand.

   “Noted.” Tiffany nods. “Counteroffers?”

   Another hand goes up.

   “You don’t have anything left, Jerome. A different offer. Anyone have any granola bars? No? Chocolate? Candy of any sort? Come on, someone must have won some snack—”

   “Life Savers,” I say. “I have a roll in the car. It’s yours if you move this show a few parking spots to the left and let me pull out.”

   “Deal,” Tiffany says. “And I will throw in this carry-on, this being your first Lost barter and all. Folks, hold on to your bids. Got a preempt transaction here.”

   “Thanks but no thanks,” I say. “I don’t want someone else’s luggage.”

   “It’s not someone else’s.” Tiffany hops off my trunk. “It’s yours. And you’d better take it. You don’t have much to trade.” She slaps the trunk as if that will cause it to open.

   “Fine.” I pop open the trunk with my key.

   She tosses the carry-on inside and then slams the trunk lid down with enough force that it causes the car to rock. Pivoting to face me, she holds out her hand. “Life Savers?”

   Trying to ignore the eyes of the crowd, I go to the front of the car and dig the roll out of the glove compartment. It’s full, minus one Life Saver. I hand the roll to Tiffany.

   “Sweet,” Tiffany says. “Pun totally intended. Okay, everyone, move left!”

   The crowd mutters to each other in words that could have been English or Spanish but somehow sound more primal, like the grunts of cavemen before they take down their prey. I feel like prey. I plaster a smile on my face to show I appreciate the effort and that I’m nice and harmless and civilized, and aren’t we all civilized here?

   I’m not judging them on their clothes or the filth that clings to their skin or their uncut and unkempt hair. It’s the look in their eyes. Hungry. And also the filth and their hair.

   “Thank you so much!” I chirp at them.

   The mountain of suitcases is shoved to the side, and a barefoot boy climbs to the top of the stack. A man pulls him down.

   “Can you tell me where to find the gas station?” I ask Tiffany.

   Tiffany smirks. “Next town. Don’t have one here.”

   “Great,” I say. “Well, then, thanks for everything. Slept well. No complaints.” I climb into the car and wave, aware that I sound and look like a chipper idiot. I toss my purse onto the passenger seat.

   Everyone watches me as I put the car in Reverse and pull out of the parking spot. I glance in the rearview mirror as I turn onto the street. Everyone is still staring at me. So are all the patrons in the diner, their faces pressed against the glass. The beautiful-as-steel waitress, Victoria, is there as well, her back stiff and ramrod-straight, as if she were a soldier at attention.

   Mental note, I think. Never come here again.

   I am halfway out of town before I realize that I still have the key to the motel room and that I never paid. I decide I will mail the key and a check to Tiffany once I’m home. I am done with this place.

   I look back once more and see a red balloon float away over the town.

   * * *

   I drive past the Welcome to Lost sign. “Good bye, Lost,” I say to the sight in the rearview mirror. I switch on the radio. This time, there isn’t static, which is a relief. It’s a song that I don’t recognize, though, so I change the station. Same song. I change it again. Same song again. I go through the stations, scanning at first and then tuning to each station, even those that should be static. But all of them are playing the same song. I turn off the radio. It must be broken.

   I drive in silence.

   It shouldn’t be far to the highway entrance ramp.

   Wind blows dust across the road. It dissipates across the desert. There are no clouds in the sky, and the sun washes over the red earth. It isn’t hot yet, and with luck, it will be another nice day for a drive. Maybe that’s what I should tell people, “It was a nice day for a drive.” Certainly sounds better than “I’m a coward with an overactive imagination.”

   By now, I should have seen the entrance ramp. Looking in the rearview mirror, I can’t see the town anymore, not even the water tower.

   I don’t remember driving more than a few minutes off the highway last night. But maybe it was longer and I’m overeager to escape. Tapping my fingers on the steering wheel, I keep driving.

   Dust billows. It blots out the view of the road in front of me. Another dust storm, or dust bank. Like last night, it doesn’t seem to have much wind behind it. It sits on the road. Soon, I’m inside it, and the desert is a blur around me.

   I slow and turn on my lights. I don’t want to miss the highway entrance in the dust. I peer at the side of the road and watch for a break in the fence that could indicate an entrance ramp. But there isn’t one. The posts keep appearing, one after another like reliable ghosts.

   Strange that there should be another dust storm. Or maybe it isn’t so strange. Maybe the contours of the land make this area prone to them. Don’t be paranoid, I tell myself.

   Eventually, the dust clears, the storm recedes to the rearview mirror, and I relax. Not even the worst dust storm can last forever, even if it feels as though it’s swallowed the world. Now that I’m out, I am certain that I will see the highway soon.

   Ahead, I spot a sign:

   Welcome to Lost

   My car rolls to a stop next to the sign.

   I stare at the chipped wood with the gold letters.

   There must have been a fork in the road. I must have somehow taken a turn within the dust storm. I hadn’t been able to see both sides of the road. It had been impossible to tell direction. The road could have split and then somehow circled back here... I don’t remember a fork or a merge or any turns, but there’s no other explanation.

   Shaken, I check carefully in both directions—there are still no other vehicles on the road—and do an overly cautious three-point turn, like my mom if she has to drive in downtown L.A. I head away from town. Again.

   A few miles down the road, I hit the dust storm. It swallows me and the desert and the road. This time, I inch forward and keep as close to the side of the road as I can without driving on the dirt, so that I don’t miss the highway entrance a second time. It has to be here somewhere.

   I am in the dust storm for nearly half an hour.

   A minute after I emerge, I see the Welcome to Lost sign.

   I slam on the brakes and hit the steering wheel with the heel of my hand. I swear I didn’t feel the road turn. It didn’t fork. This makes no sense!

   I pull a U-turn and try again.

   Again, there’s the dust. And again, when I emerge, the sign.

   “Goddammit!” I shout. I get out of the car, and I kick the Welcome to Lost sign. It doesn’t even sway. I take a cathartic breath so deep that it would please a yoga instructor, and I climb back into my car.

   I slam the door.

   I check my cell phone.

   Still no damn signal.

   I look down at the gas gauge. It’s brushing against the red.

   What the hell kind of middle of nowhere town doesn’t have a gas station? Isn’t that the whole point of the entire goddamn town, to service people who drive out here in a futile bid to avoid the inevitable?

   I have enough gas for one more try.

   There has to be an entrance ramp somewhere. It’s the dust storm that’s fouling up my sense of direction. If I could see more than three feet ahead of me, I’d be fine. I’ll wait for the dust to die down, and then... And then if I fail, I’ll use the motel phone to call AAA to bring me gas from the next town. I am reasonably sure that I renewed my AAA membership when Mom reminded, aka nagged, me to.

   I sit in the car, engine off, while I think about Mom and wait for the dust to die.

   I know I should have used the motel phone to call her before I checked out. I’m certain Mom has tried to call me already, probably multiple times. She wouldn’t be panicking yet, at least not visibly, because we’d had a conversation about boundaries and how I need space, especially now that she’s moved in with me. But she will be checking her phone regularly by now.

   I’m coming, Mom, I think.

   It is silent here, in a way that L.A. never is. So silent that it feels like a pressure inside my ears as I strain to hear the hum of another car, the honk of a horn, the bark of a dog, even the cry of a bird. I only hear the wind. I reach for the radio again and then stop. I don’t want to know if it’s continuing to play the same unfamiliar song.

   I turn the car on, ignore the low-gas beep, and drive down the road—directly into the dust storm. This time, I’m in the storm for much longer. It begins to feel as if the dust will never end. I can feel it in my lungs as it leaches into the car. My skin is gritty. I had to have missed the highway entrance, but I continue to drive because this road must lead to another town! Construction workers spent time constructing this. It can’t be a road to nowhere.

   After an hour, the car sputters. I look at the gas gauge, and the needle is at the bottom of the red zone. I press down on the gas pedal. But the car runs slower and slower.

   Soon, it stops. Dust swirls all around me. I lay my forehead on the steering wheel. This is how I will die, lost in a storm in the desert, choked by dust, dehydrated, and starved...

   A knock on the window.

   Shrieking, I jump. My head smacks hard against the headrest. “Ow!” I rub the back of my head as I look out the window. I see only dust, though I swear I’d heard a knock. The wind must have blown something against it.

   It works as a wake-up call, though.

   Option one: I can sit here, wait for a kindly soul to drive by, flag them down, and beg for help. Problem is that I haven’t seen a car go by in...well, ever. I’m not even on the main highway, just a road to nowheresville.

   Option two: I can walk through the storm back to town. Problem is that I drove for an hour to reach this delightful spot of nothing, and that’s a damn long walk through air thick enough to chew. At best, it will be uncomfortable with the dust flying in my eyes and nose and mouth. At worst...it’s freaky how shrouded and hidden the world is. I can’t see more than a few feet in any direction. The idea of walking into that nothingness makes me feel like I will dissipate into the dust.

   I wonder what a horror-movie heroine would do, stay in the car or get out. Girl Scout training says stay put and someone will find me. But that only works if anyone has a clue where I am. As far as anyone knows, I could be home on a sick day or off on a spontaneous beach vacation or away on an impromptu business trip. I doubt anyone would guess I’m here.

   Yesterday was not a terrible day. I woke up, brushed my teeth, showered, and dressed. I had a slice of cinnamon bread for breakfast as I dashed out of the apartment. I locked the door, shoved the bills in the mailbox, and sidestepped the pile of dog poo left by the neighbor’s evil yap-yap dog that I had twice threatened (under my breath) to drown when it decided to take up operatic howling at 4:00 a.m. Then I got into my car. It started with its usual not-quite-dead-yet lurch, and I drove toward work. I hit two red lights and at the second, when I should have turned left, I didn’t.

   I simply didn’t.

   That was all.

   I skipped three nonessential meetings, the usual lunch with my coworkers Angie and Kristyn, and dinner with Mom after her doctor’s appointment, which may or may not have included positive or negative test results. There was nothing that would give anyone any hint that I would have driven east for hours, and no reason for anyone to guess that I would ever do this, even on a bad day. I don’t even have a reason to tell myself. Just...a hunch that the day was going to turn bad.

   I was a particle of dust that a breath pushed eastward, and so here I am inside dust. If I step outside the solid car, I’m afraid I’ll dissolve into the air and float forever, shifting across the desert... Stop with the bullshit, Lauren, I tell myself.

   I fling the car door open. The town is back the way I came, unless I’ve mysteriously circled toward it again. I don’t know which is the quickest way, but I can’t stay here and stew in my own melodramatic miasma. Swinging my purse over my shoulder, I step out of the car. The dust pricks my eyes. Coughing, I hold my sleeve over my mouth. I turn to shut the car door behind me. And I scream.

   A man dressed in black crouches on the roof of my car.

   Screaming, I retreat so fast that I stumble off the road and onto the dirt. I keep backing up until I smack into a fence post. The barbed wire snags my clothes.

   It’s the man from the dust storm yesterday. He wears the same black trench coat, open in front to display a bare chest with black feather tattoos. His hair and eyes are black as well, and he has a claw-shaped earring curled against one ear. He is so beautiful that he looks like artwork posed on top of my car, and for an instant, I am convinced that he is a sculpture.

   He grins at me.

   And my nerve breaks completely. I run. My feet slap the pavement. I hear my breath loud in my ears. I feel my heart thud in my chest. Dust swirls around me, stinging my eyes and drying my mouth. It feels as if the dust is tightening around me, even coiling.

   I see a shape ahead of me. It hulks, monsterlike, a shadow in the dust.

   I skid to a stop as the shape of a car emerges. My car, impossibly. The man is no longer on its roof. The door is still open. I slow to a walk, my heart fast, and approach the car slowly, nearly tiptoeing. I peer through the windows. He could be inside, hiding in the backseat, waiting for me to jump inside to apparent safety—

   “You’re lost,” a voice says behind me.

   I scream again and spin around to face the voice.

   The man stands in the center of the road. He doesn’t move toward me. He isn’t grinning anymore. “Lost your keys. Lost your shoes. Lost your memories. Lost your mind. You look so very scared. Lost your nerve? Such a pity.”

   “Ran out of gas.” I point to the car. My lungs feel tight, and I can taste the dust that fills the air. It swirls around him, stirring his coat. I put my sleeve back over my mouth.

   He darts past me, climbs over the hood of my car, and stands on the roof. “Poor little Gretel, lost your way and the birds ate the bread crumbs.” He crouches as he considers me. “Or are you Little Red Riding Hood? You have the clothes for it.” I hug my arms over my chest, across my red shirt. “Of course, that would make me your wolf.”

   He disappears over the back of the trunk, and the dust swallows him. I peer into the dust cloud. He’s out there, somewhere. I turn in a circle—

   And he is directly behind me.

   He grins.

   “Your grandma is not here, Little Red,” he says. “And there are wolves all around.” His eyes are sparkling, as if he is a cat and I am his mouse. I swing my purse directly into his face and then run toward the car. This time, I dive into the front seat, slam the door shut, and lock it.

   I am shaking, and my lungs feel so tight that I think they’ll squeeze shut. I gasp for air like a fish as I turn the key and floor the gas. Please, please, just a breath more gas. Please!

   The car lurches forward. I look in the rearview mirror.

   The man is pushing my car. My mind runs in tight circles, shrieking. I cling to the steering wheel. Without power, the steering wheel is stiff.

   There aren’t many options for where he could push me. I control the wheel, stiff as it is. The car isn’t moving fast. It occurs to me that he’s helping me. Five minutes pass, ten, fifteen... He continues to push me down the road, which is where I want to go.

   After twenty minutes, I unlock my door, open it, and lean halfway out, still keeping one hand on the steering wheel. Dust floods into the car. “What are you doing?” I call back to him.

   “I am Sisyphus, Little Red,” he says merrily, “and you are my boulder.”

   “This isn’t a hill,” I point out. With the door open, I hear the crunch of the road under the tires. It is strangely silent, rolling through the dust without the sound of the engine. “Um, thanks for helping me. Why are you helping me? I do appreciate it. But how did you find me? Why are you out here in this?” Half my words are muffled by trying not to inhale too much dust, and I doubt he’ll understand me.

   “You’re a damsel in distress, and I am your knight.” His voice is light, as if he’s mocking me. Also, he doesn’t sound out of breath, as he should be from pushing a heavy car down a dust-choked road.

   “I’m not a damsel in distress. I’m just a damsel without gas.” I lean farther out so I can see his face, half-faded in the blur of dust. The car veers toward the edge of the road.

   “Just steer straight, damsel.”

   I close the door and keep the steering wheel pointed straight. Time passes. At last, the world lightens.

   The dust dissipates, and the car emerges into the sunlight. The man continues to push. Eventually, the car rolls up to the Welcome to Lost sign. The man stops, and the car halts. He straightens and rolls his neck to stretch his muscles.

   I am not sure if I should stay safely in the car or step out and talk to him. I tell myself that if he intended to kill me, he wouldn’t have pushed my car for hours. I step out of the car.

   He waits for me by the trunk. His grin is back, and his skin glistens slightly from a sheen of sweat. He is untouched by the dust. The black of his coat is still night-black. He looks as though he has taken an intense stroll through pure sunlight. I feel coated in grit.

   “Why are you here, Little Red?” he asks. “Not the universe here, but here here. Or perhaps the universe here, since that would explain it.”

   “Just trying to get home,” I say.

   “Poor damsel. You’re doing it wrong.” He sounds amused.

   “Yeah, noticed that. Listen, I need a few gallons of gas and then I have to find the entrance to the highway. Somehow, I kept missing it in the dust storm.” I try to force a laugh, as if I am a silly damsel in distress who is geographically challenged and not the victim of inexplicable weirdness. “Do you know where the highway is?”

   “I know where the Milky Way is,” he says. “You’ll love the stars here. You can see forever, if you try. Well, not right now, since it’s daylight. But try tonight. You may see your way in the Milky Way.” He sweeps his arm overhead as if he could touch the sky.

   “Just need Route 10. And gas.”

   The man sighs, and the sparkle that was in his eyes fades. “Just once, it would be nice to be surprised by someone. This place has beauty, too, if any of you would bother to see it.” He forces a smile. “But I suppose you seem like a nice enough woman. Get yourself situated, learn the rules, and stay out of the void.”

   “Um, okay. Thanks so much for your help. Really.”

   He leaps onto a fence post. Balancing on the top, he places his hands together as if he’s meditating or praying. And then he springs forward and leaps from post to post, away from town. His trench coat flaps behind him like bird wings. He runs, feet hitting the tops of posts, as if he were flying, until he’s swallowed up by the dust storm.

   He doesn’t appear again, though I wait and watch. At last, I fetch my purse, lock the car, and walk into town. I look back over my shoulder every few steps. Oddly, the storm neither spreads nor dissipates. It simply sits, as if it is waiting, too.

   Chapter Four

   Abandoned houses are scattered across the desert on the outskirts of Lost. I hadn’t seen them properly in the dark when I drove into town last night, but I notice them now. There’s no pattern to them that I can see. No driveways that lead to them. No mailboxes on the road. They look as if tornados dumped them here after they failed to reach Oz. Some are Tudors, some are Capes, some Colonials, Victorians, even a triple-decker town house, which has to be hell on the third floor in August. Only a few are the usual adobe-style ranch houses that should be here. Mesquites and brambles clog their yards, and windows are boarded up or broken. Some have piles of junk in their yard—trashed cars, old appliances, bicycle parts, empty bottles.

   I see figures scurry over the piles. They’re kids, scavenging like feral cats in a dump. One girl in a torn and stained velvet dress holds up a find: an apple.

   A boy in sagging jeans swipes it out of her hands.

   Shrugging, she dives back into the pile.

   There are no parents around, but this many kids can’t be homeless. If this were L.A., maybe. But not in a small desert town. The parents must not know that their kids are playing near so much rusted junk, rotted wood, and broken glass. Ahead, the vacancy sign flashes in its syncopated rhythm. All the suitcases are gone from the motel parking lot, and there’s no sign of the crowd. The pavement has been swept clean of all the debris, bottles, cans, and clothes. I walk into the motel lobby.

   Tiffany is perched on the counter. She’s tying a rope into a noose. She has a pile of nooses already next to her. She holds one up as I enter. “Souvenir?” she offers.

   “No, thank you.” Perhaps I should have tried the diner instead of the motel. “Listen, my car ran out of gas outside town...”

   “Uh-huh.” Tiffany tosses the new noose into the pile and selects another rope.

   “I would have had enough, but I had trouble finding the entrance ramp to the highway...”

   She rolls her eyes and begins to knot another noose. “Uh-huh.”

   “All I need is a few gallons of gas. Enough to reach the next town. And directions to the highway. I know you said there’s no gas station here, but I’m hoping there’s someone who can sell me—”

   “Gas isn’t easy to come by here.” Tiffany completes the next noose. “If you want something that’s hard to come by, you have to talk to the Missing Man. He finds what you need, if you can’t find it yourself.”

   “The Missing Man,” I repeat. The name sounds like a joke. “You know, I used to be just like you. Not the leg warmers. But the multicolored hair and the attitude. Convinced I was bound for something great.”

   Tiffany smiles flatly. “I’m not bound for anywhere. And neither are you.” She hops down from the counter and goes behind it to fetch more rope. “And you weren’t like me once. I was like you once. Go talk to the Missing Man.”

   “And where do I find him?”

   “You don’t,” Tiffany says. “He’ll find you.”

   Adopting my best mock-teenager voice, I say, “Whatever,” and walk toward the door. The bells chime discordantly as I shove the door open.

   “Wait!” Tiffany calls after me.

   Stopping, I look back at her. Something has erased the mocking expression, and she looks young, innocent, and oddly scared. I have the urge to ask what’s wrong, to stay and talk to her...but I’m not here to counsel this echo of my old teenage self. I wait for her to continue.

   “Do you think...this isn’t who I should be?”

   I don’t know what she means. It’s an odd question to ask a stranger.

   She touches her hair, pats the hair-sprayed curls. They bounce back under her palm. “Should I ditch the whole ’80s emo thing?”

   “Definitely,” I say, though I think what she really needs to ditch is her personality. But I don’t say it because (a) it would be rude, and (b) I don’t think it’s possible to change a personality on a whim. Every New Year’s Eve, I make dozens of resolutions to change my personality, and at best I last a week before I plunge back into old habits. Back when I was in my artist stage, I’d create (and then fail to finish) more paintings and sketches in the first week of January than any other time of the year.

   She sighs. “Pity. It was kind of fun.” A second later, she brightens and says in a faux Southern accent, “I know! I’m a fallen debutante. Lost my virginity!” She jumps off the counter. “All I need is the right clothes...pink. Lots of it.” She scurries into the supply closet.

   I want to tell her it isn’t that simple to change who you are. You can’t dress the part and expect it to seep into you from the outside in. Sure, she can lose the leg warmers, but I doubt the eye roll or the dripping disdain for others will be as easy to shed.

   Tiffany doesn’t return immediately, and I tell myself it’s stupid to wait for her. She’s nothing to me. I leave the lobby.

   The Moonlight Diner is directly across the street, but I’d rather try other options first than face the intimidatingly beautiful waitress. Besides, I am curious to see what the center of town looks like. Leaving the motel, I head down the street. It isn’t far, only a block or two.

   I pass a barber shop with an old-fashioned barber’s pole by the front door.

   A cozy used bookstore (the kind you rarely see anymore).

   A white clapboard post office with a bronze eagle at its apex. Its front windows are boarded up with plywood.

   I think the town would be quaint and cute if it weren’t so run-down and if there weren’t so much trash piled up on the sidewalks. It feels like a ghost town where the ghosts have forgotten to leave.

   Despite the overwhelming mess, one person is trying to improve the town. In front of the post office, a woman is on her hands and knees planting flowers. Her hair is tied back with a floral scarf and she’s wearing a Donna Reed 1950s housewife dress. She hums to herself as she digs with her trowel.

   “Excuse me,” I say to her. “My car ran out of gas outside town. I made a few too many attempts to find the highway entrance and kept getting mixed up inside a dust storm. We don’t have too many dust storms on the L.A. freeways.” I laugh, awkwardly. She digs another hole. “I am hoping that there’s someone in town who could sell me a few gallons. Do you know who I should talk to?”

   She doesn’t look up. “You should talk to the Missing Man.”

   “Yeah, okay, so do you know where I can find him?”

   “You don’t find him—he finds you.”

   Clearly I walked right into that one. She picks up one of her flowers to plant. It’s dead. All the flowers are dead. She stuffs its withered stem into the hole she made, and she pats the soil tenderly around it as she hums. “Thanks for your help,” I say, and back away.

   Nearby, a man in a filthy business suit wades through the debris in the gutter. Every few feet, he halts and picks up a penny. He ignores the dimes and nickels and quarters. He stuffs his pennies into a Santa Claus–like sack that weights down one shoulder. Seeing me looking at him, he clutches his sack and says, “Mine!”

   “Absolutely. Yours. Do you know if there’s a police station around? Or anyone helpful?” I don’t expect him to answer, and he doesn’t. He scuttles faster down the gutter, scooping up pennies as if he expects me to steal them first. I scan the area for anyone without a plethora of mental issues.

   Children, as ragged as those on the outskirts of town, are crouched in the alleys between the shops. Perched on top of and around Dumpsters, they watch me, their eyes bright and hard. One little girl in a princess dress sucks on her thumb. She has a dirty teddy bear tucked under her elbow and a knife in her other hand. She squeezes the handle as if it’s as comforting as a teddy bear.

   So far, it seems that the motel clerk and the waitress are the sanest ones in town. I retreat away from the center of town, back toward the motel and the diner. I hear footsteps behind me.

   The children are trailing after me.

   The girl with the bear and the knife is in front. She stares at me with her anime-wide eyes. A boy with glasses is right behind her. He has a trash can lid strapped to his arm as if it were a knight’s shield. He has a cut on his cheek that has puckered into a red crust. I pick up my pace, and I hear the shuffling speed up behind me.

   They’re kids, I tell myself. Little kids. And it’s broad daylight.

   But my heart beats so fast that it almost hurts. As soon as I’m close enough to the diner, I bolt inside. The bell over the door rings, and I check behind me. The kids don’t follow me inside. I sag against the door and then I wonder why a glass door should make me feel safe. It could be opened. It could be broken. It could be shattered and slice me with its shards.

   “Ready for some pie?” It’s Merry, the overfriendly woman from last night. She pats the stool on the counter next to her. She still has that odd haze of light, as if sparks are caught in her hair, but I can only see it if I look out of the corner of my eye.

   “I’m ready to leave this place,” I say.

   “Oh, you look so scared! Don’t worry, sugarplum. Those kids won’t hurt you. They just want to see if you have what they need.”

   Victoria sweeps past with a coffeepot in each hand. “Don’t sugarcoat, Merry. Not all the kids who come through here are sweet cuddly pumpkins.” She pours a cup of coffee in the trucker’s mug. He’s in the same seat as last night and wearing the same clothes. He doesn’t look like he’s moved at all. “Best if you don’t make eye contact.”

   I shoot a look out the window, as quick as possible so that the kids won’t see me looking. Most mill around the sidewalk, as if they’ve lost interest in me—except for the girl with the bear and knife. She stands motionless outside the diner, staring at me through the door with her wide, brown eyes. I shiver.

   “Sit.” Merry pats the stool again. “Have pie. Feel better.”

   “I don’t need to feel better,” I say. “I need to go home.” By now, Mom must have graduated from slightly worried to very worried. This is the woman who called the police when I walked home from school instead of taking the bus in sixth grade. She’d imagined every possible scenario and decided I must have been taken and sold on eBay. I didn’t get my overactive imagination from nowhere. “Can I use your phone?” I ask Victoria. “I have no coverage on mine.”

   “Sorry,” Victoria says. “There are no phones here.”

   The man in the kitchen pipes up. “Technically, there are thousands. But none work, at least not as phones. Games work until the batteries die. Unless you find a compatible charger.”

   “Okay, no cell tower,” I say. “Fine. Stupid but fine. You must have landlines.” I know I sound hostile, but I can’t help it. It feels as though they’re conspiring to strand me here, though I know I’m the one who missed the highway entrance and ran out of gas.

   “Oh, honey, it won’t work.” Merry’s voice drips with pity. “Don’t get in a lather. You won’t help yourself that way.”

   Victoria points to the hostess station. “She needs to try it for herself.”

   All the customers watch as I stride to the hostess station. There’s a rotary phone, circa 1970, on the wall. I pick it up and hear a dial tone. Relief floods through me—it works! God, these people have a warped sense of humor. For a minute there, I actually thought... Never mind. Keeping my back to the not-at-all-humorous crazies in the diner, I dial.

   Beep-beep-beep. “This number is out of service...” The computer voice crackles as it delivers the error message. Oops, I misdialed. I try again, slowly dragging my finger around the circle to be certain each number registers.

   Same error message.

   I won’t panic.

   I try my office. And then my coworker Angie’s cell phone. And Kristyn’s. One after another, I try all my friends’ numbers, including those I haven’t called in years, which is most of them. I even try the pizza delivery number and my doctor’s office. At last, I dial 9-1-1. It fails.

   “Your phone is broken,” I say. My voice is flat. Inside, I feel as if I am splintering. I’m trapped, trapped, trapped. No one knows I’m here. No one will save me. I’ll never leave. Mom needs me. I can’t reach her. The words chase each other in circles inside my head.

   Victoria passes by me again, this time with plates balanced up and down her arms. “The Missing Man will explain it all. You don’t need to worry. He’ll help you. In the meantime, as entertaining as this is, I have to ask you to sit down. I have other customers that need attention.”

   Obeying, I shuffle to the stool next to Merry and sit. “I don’t understand.” My eyes feel hot, like I’m about to cry. I bite the inside of my cheek.

   “No one does when they first come here,” Merry says, her voice full of sympathy, too much sympathy, as if I’ve received a life-threatening diagnosis, “even though there’s a clear-as-day welcome sign on the way in to town. Whoever founded this place was overly literal, in my opinion.”

   Victoria sets down two slices of pie, cherry and blueberry. Merry picks up a fork and dives with gusto into the cherry. I stare at the congealed blueberries. I try to tell myself I’m overreacting. Someone must have gas they can loan me. Someone must have a phone. There must be a way to contact the world outside this weird little bubble of a town. It can’t be cut off from the world. Maybe I could hitch a ride from someone... “My mother is sick.” I hate saying the words. But I can’t bring myself to say the worse word. Cancer. “Very sick. I have to go home. Please, I need help.”

   Merry points to the window. “You see that man with the sack?”

   I twist in my seat to look out. The man in the business suit is in the gutter in front of the diner. He’s still scooping pennies out of the filth and muck. He ignores the little girl with the bear and knife, and she ignores him.

   “He used to own a Fortune 500 company,” Merry says. “Had his photo in magazines all the time. Dozens of girlfriends. Yachts. Summer homes. Trips to Europe whenever the whim struck him. He lost his company when the economy crashed. Of course, he didn’t lose it all. He still had a nice house with a swimming pool. Even kept one of his boats. But it wasn’t enough for him.”

   “So how did he end up here?” I ask.

   “Sailed here,” Merry says.

   “He couldn’t have sailed here,” I say. “This is a desert.”

   “He says he did,” Merry says, “and I’m not the type to call people liars. He is searching for his lost good luck. He thinks it’s in a penny.”

   “He’s crazy.”

   “To quote a certain cat, ‘we’re all mad here.’” Her voice is gentle. It’s obvious she is trying to instill an Important Message, but I don’t get it. Or maybe I don’t want to get it. “You’ll understand this place soon enough, and you’ll discover why you’re here. The Missing Man will help you. If you can’t find what you need in town, he can search the void for you. It’s his specialty. The Finder helps you arrive; the Missing Man will help you leave.”

   “Again with the Missing Man.” My voice is shaking, but I haven’t cried, so that’s a victory of sorts. I don’t want to cry in front of these people. I didn’t cry when my mother was first diagnosed. I was strong for her then because I knew she’d recover. She had to. I can be strong now when I’ve been...inconvenienced. “I’m expecting him to arrive on a winged chariot with an entourage of angels singing hallelujahs.”

   “He’d never approve of that much pomp, but I surely wouldn’t bat an eye if he did,” Merry says. She points to my pie as the bell over the door rings behind us. “Finish. It’s on me.” She pats my hand. “Really nice to have met you. Hope you find what you need soon. And maybe we’ll meet up again one day.” She saunters away behind me toward the door.

   I pick up my fork and then put it down. I don’t want pie. I want explanations and reassurance and help. I want this mysterious Missing Man to appear and say, “surprise, it’s all a joke” or a trick or a nightmare or a delusion. I’m running out of reasonable explanations.

   Behind me, I hear a man say, “Hello, Merry.”

   “I’m ready,” Merry says cheerfully.

   “Yes, you are. And you found what you needed on your own. Congratulations.” He has a deep, reassuring voice. I want to turn to see if his face matches the calm, soothing tone, but I’ve had enough of talking to strangers.

   I look out the window. The little girl is sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk. She walks her bear up and down the concrete. His head flops from side to side. The knife lies beside her.

   As if she senses me looking at her, the girl looks up.

   Behind me, the man says, “You were lost; you are found.” As if they’re one, everyone outside—the kids, the woman planting dead flowers, the man in the dirty business suit—all turn to face the diner.

   Inside the diner, everyone applauds.

   I twist around on the stool and see an older man alone by the door. Dressed in a gray suit, he’s tan with white hair and a soft, well-trimmed beard. He carries a black leather briefcase with gold clasps and a cane with a black handle. He reminds me of a kindly old doctor, the kind who hands out lollipops with each checkup. Grape lollipops with Tootsie Roll inside.

   Mug halfway to his mouth, the trucker spills coffee on the table and doesn’t notice. A woman in a housecoat looks as if she wants to drop to her knees and kiss his feet. Even severe Victoria wipes her hands nervously on her apron.

   “You’re the Missing Man,” I guess. I glance at the door behind him, surprised that Merry didn’t stay to introduce him. But I suppose an introduction is unnecessary. It’s obvious from everyone’s behavior that it’s him.

   He smiles, and it’s as warm as sunshine. “You’ve been expecting me. That’s good.”

   I nod and realize I’m smiling back at him. I didn’t intend to—for all I know, he’s responsible for trapping me here—but he exudes kindness in everything from the gentleness of his expression to the reassuring tone of his voice.

   “I am here to help you,” he says. “I am your guide, your mentor, and your friend. I will stand beside you until you can stand on your own. If a door shuts to you, I will open a window. If you fall, I will pick you up. If your load is too heavy, I will carry it. Until you find what is missing, I am here for you.”

   It’s a pretty speech, and I want to believe him. “Can you help me get home? Can you tell me where I am? What is this place? Why can’t I leave? Who are these people—”

   “Slow down. Let’s begin at the beginning, and then I will answer all your questions.” His smile crinkles his eyes and washes over me like sunshine. “I am the Missing Man. And you are?”

   “Lauren,” I say. “Lauren Chase.”

   The pleasant smile fades from his face. “Lauren Chase.” His eyes are cold as he backs away from me. “No.” Without another word, the Missing Man pivots and bolts out of the diner. The bell above the door rings behind him.

   Chapter Five

   The bell dies in the silence.

   Through the glass door, I watch the Missing Man stride away from the diner. His cane hits the sidewalk in a rhythmic thump. I don’t know why I can hear it when he’s outside and I’m inside, but the thud-thud-thud echoes in my bones.

   The diner customers cluster at the windows.

   Seeing the Missing Man, the man in the gutter waves and races after him. The Missing Man brushes him away, and the former CEO falls behind. His expression is stunned, as if he’d been stabbed by the cane instead of merely brushed aside.

   Emerging from the alleys, the kids trail after him as if he’s the Pied Piper. One, a girl about eight or nine, lunges toward him. She clings to his sleeve. I can’t hear what she’s saying, but her face is twisted as if she’s crying. He shrugs her off. She falls on the pavement, but he doesn’t pause. Another kid helps her stand.

   In front of the boarded-up post office, the woman who was planting flowers hobbles after him. She reaches her hands toward the Missing Man. He doesn’t even slow. More men and women pour out of the shops and the houses. He walks ahead of them all. As he reaches the barber shop, I have to press against the glass to still see him.

   “Out,” Victoria says to me. Her voice is cold. “You aren’t welcome here.”

   “I don’t understand,” I say, still watching. He’s at the end of the shops. People trail behind him, a comet tail to his meteorite. He doesn’t seem the kindly savior anymore.

   “The Missing Man has never refused anyone before,” Victoria says. “He helps all. The weak, the broken, the bad. But he refused you, and now look, he refuses them. Us. You need to leave so he’ll return.”

   Her words feel like ice-cold water in my face. This is not my fault! “I’m trying to leave! He was supposed to help. You said he’d help me.” I point at her. “You said he’d explain. You told me to talk to him! ‘Talk to the Missing Man,’ you said. Over and over.”

   “Sean,” Victoria calls.

   The man in the kitchen comes out of the swinging door. He’s a beefy man with shockingly red hair and tattoos that run up his arms. He wears a white T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off. Towels smeared with grease are tucked into loops on his belt.

   The trucker stands up.

   Other customers shift closer.

   “Leave my diner.” Victoria’s face is as implacable as her royal namesake’s. She looks as if she wishes to crush me in her fist, to shatter me.

   I back toward the door and fumble behind me to push it open. “All I did was say my name. He doesn’t know me. This has to be a mistake.”

   “It’s not a risk we’re willing to take.” Sean’s voice is gentler than Victoria’s, almost sympathetic. “If the Missing Man doesn’t want to help you, then we cannot afford to. We need him.”

   “Out,” Victoria says.

   I lean against the door and stumble over the threshold.

   On the sidewalk, the little girl sits with her teddy bear. She whispers to the bear as she watches me with wide eyes. I cross the street as quickly as possible.

   All of the customers are at the window, also watching me.

   The trucker, the waitress, the cook, the little girl. All watching me.

   My limbs lock as my mind chases itself: What do I do? Where do I go? Who will help me now? The Missing Man was supposed to help me. He has the answers. As if they were a taut rubber band suddenly released, my muscles unlock, and I stride down the street after the Missing Man.

   The street is full of people. They mill around, bereft, as if everyone lost a loved one all at once. Kids cling to each other. A woman sobs loudly in front of the post office. I hear muted conversations, speculation as to why the Missing Man left them so abruptly, and I think it won’t be long before word of what happened in the diner spreads to the rest of the town. I lengthen my stride. I already know the people in this town are crazy; I don’t want to see them crazy and angry.

   Ahead, the Missing Man is a silhouette between the houses on the outskirts of town. If I can catch him...make him explain...make him come back...then I can fix this. As I reach the end of the shops, I look back over my shoulder. The diner customers have come outside, and people cluster around them. A few point toward me, which causes others to notice me.

   They begin to trail after me. I think of zombies, the way they shamble after me.

   I pick up my pace. The Missing Man is no more than a pinprick in the distance. Somehow, he’s outdistanced me. But I keep walking, passing abandoned houses until there are no more houses.

   On either side of the road, the desert stretches away to the horizon. Clouds streak the sky, but do not move. The red earth is as still as a painting. The only sound is the wind and the crackle of dead branches as the wind slaps them against the barbed-wire fence.

   I look back over my shoulder again. The men, women, and kids have halted by the last house. They stand still and silent, clumped together, watching me with hollow eyes. When I look back at the road, the dot that was the Missing Man has vanished. He’s gone.

   I keep walking because I don’t know what else to do. After a while, my feet begin to ache on the pavement so I switch to walking on the dirt alongside the road. The wind swirls the dirt around me. It’s the only sound in the desert.

   The sun begins to set. It looks as if it’s painting the sky. It dyes the sky orange and gold. Clouds look dipped in rose-pink. On the opposite side of the sky, the blue deepens, and a few stars begin to come out. I think of the man in the trench coat, talking about the Milky Way, and I think I haven’t seen such a beautiful sunset in... I can’t remember when I last watched the sun set.

   Still, though, it doesn’t feel late enough for it to be sunset. I’d woken at dawn, made my attempts, been pushed back into town... I check my watch. It’s stopped at 8:34.

   I am not surprised when I see my car ahead, next to the Welcome to Lost sign, even though I left town in a different direction. I feel as though I’ve walked away my capacity for shock. I have no surprise or disbelief or anything left in me. I unlock the car, climb inside, and then relock it. I feel empty, and I think of my mother, alone in our apartment with the low buzz of the TV. After a while, I climb into the backseat and lie down.

   Somehow, as the stars spread thick across the wide sky, I sleep.

   * * *

   I wake contorted in the backseat of my car. My neck aches. My back feels sore. My breath tastes like stale peanut butter. I’m hungry, thirsty, and I need to pee. Sitting up, I stretch. Sunrise is peeking over the horizon. This is the third day I have been wearing the same clothes.

   I climb out of the car. The air is chilled. I hug my arms as I look across the desert. I see no one and nothing in any direction except more red earth.

   “Now what?” I ask out loud.

   I half expect to hear an answer. But I only hear wind. I relieve myself on the desert side of the car and wish I had toilet paper. Or anything useful at all.

   Food.

   Water.

   Clean clothes.

   A working phone. Or a ham radio. Or a telegraph.

   I remember the carry-on suitcase that cost me a roll of Life Savers. If I’m lucky, it will have fresh clothes, toiletries, maybe even food... I wish I’d brought the toiletries from the motel. I’d had a toothpaste tube and a travel deodorant. I pop open the trunk of the car and unzip the suitcase.

   It’s a businessman’s carry-on: a suit with extra shirts and ties, gym shorts, dress shoes. Most of the clothes are wrinkled and worn, but there’s one spare shirt that’s still crisply folded. I find a Ziploc bag with toiletries and a brush. I pull off my wilted shirt, use the deodorant, and put on the spare business shirt. It hangs midthigh, but it feels so clean that it’s like a breath of spring air on my skin. I keep my same pants and shoes, but I use his clean socks, folding them over twice. I drag his comb through my hair—every strand knotted while I slept—and I use his toothpaste with my finger as the toothbrush. I also look through the suitcase for anything that resembles food or drink. I only find mouthwash. “Not helpful,” I inform the suitcase. It doesn’t respond.

   I’ll have to head back into town.

   By now, people must have calmed down and realized that what happened with the Missing Man wasn’t my fault. I’d said my name; he’d left. I hadn’t forced him to leave or said anything offensive or committed a crime. Victoria may even feel badly for her overreaction. She was, after all, the one who told me to talk to him. I’ll buy some water and food, and I’ll check back into the motel again until I figure out a way to leave this place or contact home.

   It’s a plan, a shaky one but a plan nonetheless. Mom would approve. She likes plans. I remember as a kid we’d play a “game” where we’d both write out our one-year, five-year, and ten-year plans. Mine featured moon visits, Guggenheim exhibits of my artwork, and a pet that was more active than the class turtle I was occasionally permitted to babysit—or turtle-sit. Mom’s included travel, too, writing a book, and learning to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. She mastered the last one, but the book and the travel never happened. She’d put it off for years. Never enough time. Never enough money. And since she became sick...well, she hadn’t done it yet.

   Pushing back thoughts about Mom, I look through the side pockets of the carry-on. I find a box of Tic Tacs and a granola bar. I’m about to dive into the granola bar when I remember that Tiffany had coveted one. The waitress had mentioned the barter system. I could trade this, maybe for a full meal or a gallon of water or even gas. I tuck it into my pocket and then rifle through the carry-on again, this time focusing on items that I can trade. If I can’t count on kindness and sympathy, I think, maybe I can buy help.

   Cuff links. A nice belt. A box with a silk scarf, clearly meant as a present, as well as a kid-size T-shirt from the San Diego Zoo with a picture of a fuzzy bear on it. It reminds me of the girl with the teddy bear, the knife, and the empty eyes. I stuff all four items into my purse. I’m ready.

   This could be a mistake. But the alternative is to keep walking until I die like my car did inside the dust storm that seems to separate this place from the rest of the world. I have to head back into town. It’s the only practical option.

   I compliment myself on being practical and hope I’m not being stupid.

   Shouldering my purse, I lock the car and head down the road toward town. I have time for second thoughts, third thoughts, and fourth thoughts, but then I’m there.

   A lost red balloon drifts over the post office. And then back. And then over again. There isn’t any wind.

   Keeping to the opposite side of the street from the diner, I walk briskly toward the motel lobby. I see the same former CEO picking his way through the gutter. The woman in the pink tracksuit lies on the front stoop of a house with peeling white paint. She’s counting her fingers over and over. Neither notices me. I don’t make eye contact with anyone.

   As I enter the hotel lobby, the chimes ring discordantly. I call out, “Hello? Anyone here? Tiffany?”

   A sweet Southern voice answers, “At your beck and call...” Tiffany sweeps into the lobby in a frothy pink dress. Her hair is blond now and done up in a twist. She wears demure gold earrings and an oversize pearl necklace. “You.” She halts and drops the fake smile.

   I hold up the granola bar. “I’d like to make a trade.”

   “Folks at the diner said you ran the Missing Man out of town.” She also drops the accent.

   “He left on his own,” I say. “All I did was tell him my name.”

   “Powerful name,” she says. “Are you Voldemort?”

   “Lauren Chase.”

   She gasps...and then she shrugs. “Don’t know you.”

   “Then you’ll trade?” My mouth salivates. I can almost taste breakfast. I wonder how much she’ll trade for the granola bar she wanted. I’d like a shower in the motel room, too.

   “No way,” Tiffany says. “Victoria runs the only diner in town, and Sean’s a kick-ass cook. His meatloaf is to die for—not literally, unless you want to go ‘on’ instead of home—but if Victoria says no dealing with you, then I’m not dealing with you. Sorry. You seem nice, if insufferably boring, but I’m not risking access to the only decently cooked meal in this hellhole.”

   “I also have these.” I pull out the cuff links. “And this.” I show her the belt.

   “Not interested.” She looks beyond me, out the lobby window. Her face pales. “You shouldn’t have come back.”

   I feel my heart drop. Slowly, I turn.

   A pack of kids has plastered themselves to the window. They don’t speak. They merely watch. Beyond them, adults draw closer. Some of them whisper to each other. Most are silent. Gathering together, they press shoulder to shoulder in a line, as if they are a human net intent on tightening around me.

   My knees feel loose, threatening to cave in underneath me. I feel my palms sweat. “Is there a back door I can use?”

   “I can’t help you.” She’s backing toward the supply closet.

   “Please! They...they don’t look friendly.”

   “Just don’t make eye contact. Don’t talk to anyone,” she says. “Walk out of town without stopping or even hesitating. Don’t look back.”

   “I’ll die out there! I don’t have water or food. I’ll dehydrate and die, and it will be your fault for not helping me when you could. You’ll be responsible for my death.”

   “If you’re meant to be saved, then you’ll be saved. If you aren’t...don’t take me down with you. Please.” She begs on the last word, and for the first time, she sounds like a kid. Before I can think how to respond, she bolts into the supply closet and shuts the door. I am alone in the lobby with only a door between me and the townspeople.

   Someone throws a rock. It crashes into the window, and the glass shatters. Screaming, I dive behind the lobby counter. I crouch and wait to hear more glass shatter and the mob shout. But it’s silent. There are no more rocks.

   Time passes, and I feel my legs cramp from crouching for too long. Slowly, I straighten and peek over the top. The crowd waits. “What do you want?” I shout at them.

   “He isn’t back,” a woman says.

   “Look, this is obviously all a mistake! I didn’t do or say anything wrong.” I hold up my hands in surrender to show I’m harmless. The townspeople murmur to each other. I wish that woman Merry were here. She’d seemed at least friendly.

   “He’s never refused us before,” the same woman says. She has once-dyed-red hair that is only red for the last five inches; the rest is gray. She wears a polka-dot dress, five-inch heels, and smeared makeup. She looks as if she stayed at a cocktail party too long.

   “Who is he?” I ask. “Why does he matter so much to you?”

   “He’s the Missing Man.” It’s the woman in the pink tracksuit from the diner. “He helps us find what we lost, if we can’t find it ourselves, and then he sends us home. Without him, we can never leave.”

   Her words don’t make sense. “But I haven’t lost anything.” Yes, I’ve lost socks and earrings. I’ve left a book on the bus and an umbrella in a restaurant. I’ve lost track of friends. But I’ve lost no more than anyone else in the world. Less than many.

   “Everyone says that at first,” the pink woman says. “You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t lost.” Everyone else mutters in agreement.

   “I wouldn’t have gotten lost if it hadn’t been for that damn dust storm,” I say, though I think of how I hadn’t seen a sign or another vehicle for miles before that. I feel cold. This is all so unbelievable, yet no one cracks a smile. It isn’t a joke, at least not to them. “You can’t tell me that everyone who is directionally challenged ends up here.”

   “Not that kind of lost,” the woman in the polka-dot dress says, “or at least those kind don’t stay for long. All they need is a map or a sign or a clue. The Missing Man sends them back right away.”

   One of the kids, a boy with a baseball cap low over his eyes, says, “But he didn’t send you back. He left you. He left us.” The crowd inches closer until they press against the broken glass. I back up and hit the wall. Turning, I try the door to the supply closet. Locked. I knock on the door. “Tiffany? Please, let me in.” I can hear the panic infuse my voice, and I can’t stop it. I feel like a rabbit, cornered by a pack of wolves. I turn back to the mob. “It’s only been a day,” I say to them. “Give him longer. Me longer. Please, leave me alone!”

   A small figure pushes her way through the crowd.

   It’s the freaky girl. She still holds the teddy bear in one hand. Her princess dress is torn and stained. Her hair sticks out at odd angles and is clipped with at least twelve different clips, which only makes it jut out more. She steps through the broken window. Shards of glass crunch under her red sequin Mary Jane shoes.

   The girl holds out her hand. It’s empty.

   I stare at her hand. She wants me to take it. She waits, little hand out. At last, I reach out my hand and clasp hers. I hear an intake of breath from the mob, amplified by the number of people.

   Without a word, she pulls me across the lobby and through the broken window. Confused, the crowd parts. The girl marches through without looking right or left. I imitate her and don’t make eye contact. When we pass the mob, I don’t look back. We pass the bookstore and then the post office and then the barber shop. I am trying hard not to panic. I am not succeeding. “I need to get out of sight,” I say.

   She keeps pulling me down the street.

   I wonder if she intends to march me out of town, in which case what I told Tiffany will come true. I am already hungry and thirsty. I can’t live out in the desert. “Is there anyone friendly here? Someone who can help me?”

   The girl doesn’t answer.

   “I’m Lauren,” I say, trying for a friendly tone. “What’s your name?”

   Still no answer.

   Glancing back, I see the mob has spilled back onto the street. They are watching me. So far, they aren’t following, but that could change. “If you know a place to hide...”

   The girl switches direction, pulling me into the alley between the barber shop and a decrepit triple-decker house. She still doesn’t speak.

   I don’t know why I’m trusting her. “Are you helping me, or dragging me someplace private to cut me to pieces and feed me to your teddy bear? Just curious.”

   The girl looks at me with her wide eyes. “My name is Claire. And my teddy bear is not hungry today.”

   “That’s...good?”

   Claire skips over rotted cardboard boxes and sashays around sodden trash. I hesitate, weighing my options: follow the little knife girl or break out on my own. I think I can outrun her, but so far she’s done nothing but help. She beckons me. I’ll trust her, I decide. The decision makes my head feel light and dizzy. Or maybe that’s the stench. The alley stinks as if a dozen cats have died underneath the piles of junk. Following Claire, I hold my sleeve over my mouth and breathe through it. It doesn’t help. The stench makes my eyes water. Worse, the ground squishes underneath my feet. I feel as though the smell is clinging to me. After a while, I stop looking down. I don’t want to know what I’m stepping in.

   The alley stretches for far longer than should be possible, given the size of the town. A town this size shouldn’t have an alley at all. As we turn a corner, Claire puts her fingers to her lips. We creep past an open door. I hear voices, loud male voices, but I can’t distinguish the words. They may not be English.

   I follow the little girl in silence as the alley twists and winds. Oddly, there are no intersecting streets. Only narrow, trash-choked alleys. We’re hemmed in by apartment buildings, each ten and fifteen stories tall. Some are brick and have balconies strung with laundry and cluttered with old bikes and dead plants. Others are sheer concrete, defaced with spray-painted bubble letters and symbols. I don’t know how I failed to see them from the center of town. It’s as if Main Street hid a portion of a city behind a small-town facade, which shouldn’t be possible, given the height differential of the buildings.

   Two lefts and a right later, Claire leads me to a set of basement steps. I halt at the top, which forces her to stop, too. “Exactly where are we going? Because that looks ominous to me.” I try to sound light, as if this is a kid’s game, but I hear my voice shake.

   Claire releases my hand and trots down the steps.

   “Claire, wait. Why are you helping me?”

   “Because you tried to leave, and then you came back,” she says.

   She knocks on the door twice slowly then three times fast, as if in a code. I hear footsteps approach the door. I bend my knees, prepared to run if I have to.

   “You came back,” she says. “You weren’t led back. The Finder didn’t bring you. Well, he did the one time, but not all the times you tried. I watched you. You didn’t see me, but I saw you.”

   “The Finder? Who’s the Finder?”

   With wide, innocent eyes, Claire says, “He is.”

   The door opens, and a man is silhouetted in the doorway. Light spills from behind him, and his face is shadowed, but I know him anyway. It’s the man in the trench coat who pushed me through the storm. “Nibble, nibble, gnaw. Who is nibbling at my house?”

   Laughing, Claire scoots under his arm and disappears inside. “I want cookies.”

   He looks at me, his face unreadable. “I know you, Little Red.”

   “She brought me,” I say.

   “Unusual.” He opens the door wider. “‘Will you walk into my parlor?’ said the spider to the fly. ‘’Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy.’”

   “The spider eats the fly,” I say, and do not move.

   “And the wolf eats Little Red.” He smiles at me as if we share a secret, and I feel caught in his smile like a fly in a web. He is as stunningly beautiful in the darkness as he was in the storm. “Of course, in this case, the role of ‘wolf’ will be played by feral dogs.” He nods at the alley behind me, and I hear a growl. I turn and see a mangy dog leap onto a broken crate. “They hunt in packs.” His voice is conversational, as if making a semi-interesting observation. “Dogs are lost every day. You may want to come inside.”

   The trash rustles and shifts. I see the shadow of a second dog dart through the alley. Another growl. I hurry down the stairs. “She says you’re the Finder.”

   “You can call me Peter,” he says. “I think definite articles are too formal, don’t you?”

   “It’s better than Sisyphus.” I tell myself that I’m not being stupid. He could have hurt me before out in the desert, and he helped me instead. But I don’t like how dank and dark the hallway is. The concrete walls are painted black, and a single bare bulb swings from the steel beam rafters. It throws our shadows, black against the black, until they twist and contort. Swing, twist. Twist, swing. He stares at me, and I stare back. In the shadows, he looks mysterious and perfect, also dangerous.

   “You don’t seem to be an interesting person,” he says. “Lost your way emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Cut-and-dried, really. Yet Claire has never brought me a visitor before. There must be more to you.” He closes the door and bolts it.

   I clutch my sweating hands behind my back. My heart is beating rapid-fire. I won’t show fear. Or awe. He is just a man, and it’s the situation, not him, that makes me feel off-kilter. “I am not an interesting person. I went for a drive, that’s all. And I just...didn’t want to stop. Now I’m stuck in a town full of hostile lunatics who want me gone.”

   “That’s a little bit interesting,” he says. “Not the lunatics part. That’s usual. But the fact they want you gone. You aren’t repellent. In fact, you’re pretty, in a standard California sort of way.” He smiles at me, and the force of that smile stuns me again for a moment. It’s as potent as a shot of whisky. I have the wild thought that he’s thinking about kissing me. Or maybe I’m thinking about kissing him. But I don’t, and he doesn’t. I don’t know why I’m even thinking it when I’m in the middle of this nightmare.

   Three cookies crammed in her mouth, Claire trots back into the hallway. “Come on!” she says around her cookies. Crumbs tumble to the floor. She tugs my hand.

   “Her Highness demands it—we must obey,” Peter says. “Come inside, have a cookie, and we’ll talk. A little tête-à-tête, if you will.” He places his hand on my back to guide me. His palm feels warm through my shirt. I scoot forward, away from his touch.

   I follow Claire through a set of black curtains...and I gasp. Inside sparkles like a thousand stars. Covered in tiny white Christmas lights, a tree grows in the center of the room. Colored scarves are draped from every branch. More lights chase over the ceiling as if to make their own Milky Way.

   Claire plops onto an oversize plush chair. Her feet barely reach the end of the cushion. She dangles them in midair. Beside her, her teddy bear is holding a blue-and-white china teacup. In miniature chairs around her, a circle of stuffed animals also hold teacups.

   “Tea?” Peter offers me. “It’s always teatime when Claire comes.” He shares his beautiful smile with her, and she beams back as if he’s a beloved big brother.

   “May I have more?” Claire asks in a polite little princess voice. She holds up her cup, and Peter pours air from an empty teapot into her cup. She sips it. She looks so innocent, and I wonder where she’s stashed her knife.

   “Do you have anything non-imaginary?” I ask. “I’d love a glass of water.”

   He winks at Claire. “Let’s show our guest what’s in the magic trunk. Bibbity-bobbity-alakazam.” With a flourish, he flings open an old-fashioned steamer trunk. In it are prepackaged snacks of all kinds: Ritz crackers with peanut butter, Little Debbie snack cakes, Twinkies, Entenmann’s Pop’ems. He bows to Claire as she applauds, and then he hands me the crackers with peanut butter. “You look like the healthy snack sort, even if there is dog shit on your shoes.”

   I look down at my shoes. My best office shoes are smeared with brown and green. “Crap,” I say, and Claire giggles. Peter tosses me a bottle of water. I open it and drink. It feels like pure joy pouring down my throat. I close my eyes and drain half the bottle, then I tear open the package and pop a cracker in my mouth. The salt melts into my tongue.

   I sink down into a chair near Claire and look around the room. Lava lamps light the corners, and chess pieces fill the shelves. A pile of records lies in one corner, along with a stack of comic books with dog-eared corners. A train set curls underneath a worn sofa. There are also jars and jars of pennies, buttons, paper clips, rubber bands... On the walls, I see photographs of hundreds of different people: portraits in sepia, families on vacation laughing together, wedding pictures, school photos.

   Peter plops cross-legged onto the floor next to the tree and rips open a Hershey’s bar. “And now, Oysters dear, ‘the time has come to talk of many things: of shoes and ships and sealing wax...’ Tell me, how have the beloved citizens of Lost earned your censure as ‘hostile lunatics’?”

   Claire offers tea to her teddy and says matter-of-factly, “They planned to kill her.”

   I shudder. “I don’t know that they would have—”

   “It would have been messy.” Claire wrinkles her nose at the dolls. “We don’t want to see the pretty lady all messy, do we? No, we don’t.” She points to an empty chair and says to Peter, “You gave away Mr. Giraffe!”

   “It was a necessary sacrifice,” Peter says gravely. He turns back to me. “But I am still the cat dying of curiosity. How did you enrage the homicidal instincts of the peasantry?”

   “I told my name to the Missing Man,” I say.

   Claire is scowling at Peter. “I think Mr. Giraffe’s friends are angry at you.”

   “I hope not,” Peter says to her. “It would be a shame if Mr. Giraffe’s friends were too angry for the secret surprise in the back closet.”

   Claire leaps out of her chair, knocking over her teddy bear with his teacup. Peter dives forward and catches the teacup in one hand as Claire scampers out of the room through a set of multicolored beaded curtains.

   “What’s in the back closet?” I ask.

   Peter flashes me a grin. “I have no idea.” I listen to Claire’s squeal of delight. Perhaps a new doll, I think. Or a machete.

   “You’re good with kids.”

   He shrugs. “Tell me what’s so fearsome about your name.”

   “I’m Lauren Chase.”

   He raises one eyebrow. “It’s a fine name. Not as fine as mine, of course, whatever it was. If I ever remember what it was, I’ll prove it.”

   “The Missing Man said ‘no’ and walked out of town without a word to anyone. He hasn’t returned yet, and everyone blames me.” I hold my breath, waiting for him to react.

   Peter laughs out loud. The sound fills the room, and my mouth quirks up into a smile, though I don’t know what about any of this is laughable. But his laugh is infectious.

   Claire skips back into the room. She’s hugging a new teddy bear with polka-dot fur. “Peter! I love him!” She plants a kiss on his cheek and then carries her new acquisition to her oversize chair. She sets him beside her old teddy bear. “I’ll name him Prince Fluffernutter.”

   “Extremely dignified name,” Peter says with no hint of mockery. “Consider Prince Fluffernutter a thank-you gift for bringing me Miss Lauren Chase. I have never met anyone whom the Missing Man has refused before. Aside from me, of course.”

   “You?” I ask.

   “Indeed. A number of years ago, we had a spat. He nearly destroyed my universe. I nearly destroyed his soul.” He rubs his hands together. “So, given his unkindness toward you and me...I say we think of a way to defy him.”

   I like the sound of that. “Do you have a plan?”

   “Let’s start with keeping you alive,” Peter says.

   

   

   Things I lost:

   a slice of leftover pizza, intended for lunch

   a cheap set of headphones

   an opportunity

   my dreams

   the future I was supposed to have

   Chapter Six

   “Food, water, shelter.” Peter ticks off the items on his fingers as he hops from Dumpster lid to Dumpster lid. Claire scampers behind him as if she were part-squirrel. She has her old teddy and Prince Fluffernutter stuffed in a sequined purse that matches her shoes. I follow along on the ground, trying to step gingerly over the muck.

   “If you can get me home, we can skip all of that,” I say.

   “He can’t,” Claire said. “He’s the Finder.”

   “I find lost people. Like you.” He doffs an imaginary cap at me. “Bring them out of the void to Lost. Save them from disintegration.”

   “Once you’re here, only the Missing Man can send you home,” Claire says. “Everyone knows that.” She skips across cardboard boxes as if she weighs zero pounds. “But first, you have to find what you lost. The Missing Man helps with that, too. If you can’t find what you need here, he can go into the void and it will come to him. That’s his power.”

   “I didn’t lose anything,” I say.

   “They all say that,” Claire says.

   “What did you lose?” I ask her.

   “My front tooth. And my parents. They left me in a shopping cart in the grocery store.” She says it calmly, as if it’s old news. “The police couldn’t find them, and so I went to look for them myself. That’s when Peter found me and brought me here. I’ve been here ever since.”

   “How long ago was that?” I ask softly, gently.

   “Long enough,” Peter interrupts. “But first, home, home, sweet, sweet home!” Crouching on top of a Dumpster, he points down the alley. It leads to bright desert sun.

   Claire hops from the boxes and lands beside me. She sinks with a squish into the muck but doesn’t seem to mind. She slips her hand into my hand. “We can play house. Teddy will be the mommy. Prince Fluffernutter is the baby. He needs to nap.”

   I’m not good with kids. I never babysat, except for one disastrous evening that was supposed to be a favor for one of Mom’s library friends wherein I nearly called 9-1-1 because I thought the three-year-old had locked herself in the bathroom. She hadn’t. The door was just stuck. But she did squeeze every bit of toothpaste into the toilet and then cram it full of toilet paper. I was in tears by the end of an hour. Still, it’s not so difficult to squeeze Claire’s hand and say, “Sure. He looks sleepy.”

   “I know a lullaby,” she declares. In a sweet lilting voice, she sings as we walk toward the light, “Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop. When the wind blows, the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks...” I hear padded footsteps behind us and a low growl. Looking over my shoulder, I see yellow eyes in the shadows. One of the feral dogs. “...the cradle will fall.”

   I catch Peter’s eye and jerk my chin backward.

   He holds up three fingers. There are three dogs. My heart pounds faster, and I sneak another look. All three are large and muscled with yellowed fangs and fur in patches. In the bare patches, their skin is scarred.

   “And down will come baby, cradle and all...” Claire trails off. I am gripping her hand hard as the three dogs trail after us. “Ow.”

   I loosen my grip. “You have a lovely voice.”

   “It’s not a nice song, is it? Babies shouldn’t fall.”

   “It’s not nice,” I agree.

   “Wonder why it was written that way. Much better, ‘When the bough breaks, the cradle will fly, and up will go baby, into the sky.’”

   “He’d still have to land,” I point out.

   “Possibly,” Peter says. “Or he could sprout wings and fly.”

   “That’s silly,” Claire says.

   The end of the alley is only a few yards ahead. I can see the wide stretch of desert before us. The blue sky gleams like a jewel, the brightest color that I’ve seen here. For some reason, I feel like if we reach the desert, we’ll be safe from the dogs. I know it’s not a rational belief.

   Walking faster, I ask in as even a voice as I can, “Should we run?”

   “They’ll chase if you do,” Peter says, equally conversationally. He walks faster, too.

   “Do you have special Finder powers you can use on them?” I wiggle my fingers to indicate magic. I am half-serious. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were magic. He reminds me of light on the water, flashing and changing and unpredictable and beautiful.

   Peter snorts. “Nothing relevant for this situation. I can enter and leave the void safely, like the Missing Man, and I can find lost people inside it. I sense the kernel of hope within them. Now, if I had the power to conjure up bacon...”

   I begin to feel my heart beat faster, my palms sweat, my muscles tense.

   I look at Claire. She has her knife in her free hand. I hadn’t seen her pull it out. Her lips are pressed tight together so that they’re pinched white around the edges, and I suddenly want to protect this scared little girl who guided me through the mob with no fear in her eyes. Even though I never wore a princess dress in my life, even though I played with paints and not stuffed animals, even though I never held a knife or helped a stranger through an alley, she reminds me of me.

   I don’t decide to act.

   I don’t think at all.

   I drop her hand, spin around, and shriek with every bit of air in my lungs. Scooping a trash can lid off the ground like the boy who held one as a shield, I run at the three dogs.

   The dogs hesitate for a moment. And then they spin and flee. I skid to a stop, and I hurl the trash can lid in their wake. It clatters against the brick wall of an abandoned building.

   Panting, I head back to Claire and Peter. Peter is staring at me, but all he says is, “Huh. Interesting.” He climbs off the Dumpster to join us on the alley floor. I take Claire’s hand. She smiles at me. And we walk into the desert.

   * * *

   I had seen the decrepit houses on my walk into town: Capes, Colonials, ranches, mobile homes. I see them now for what they are, homes that people lost. The foreclosure signs are proof. Once, they were loved, and there are memories within the peeling paint and chipped wood and warped aluminum and cracked shingles.

   Peter stops, apparently to chat. “Tell me about your dream house.”

   Claire and I stop, too. It’s hot but not unbearable. Just enough breeze to toss the red dust into the air. I breathe in air that isn’t thick with feces and dead animals and rotted food and unidentifiable garbage. The abandoned houses are an improvement over the alleys, which once again are invisible, blocked from view by houses and junk piles. I don’t understand why I can’t at least see the tops of the apartment buildings. A two-story house shouldn’t be able to block a twenty-story high-rise.

   “Your dream house,” he prompts. “One house that you always wished were yours.”

   I’m not sure why he wants to know this. All I need is a safe place to hide until I figure out how to get home, but I humor him. “I never wanted the white picket fence. Or a mansion.”

   “Then what did you dream of?”

   “A house with stairs I could climb up to an open room, a sunlit studio.”

   “Dance studio? Art studio? Photography studio?”

   Art, of course. I used to imagine a wide, sun-filled art studio where I’d have easels with works-in-progress and finished work on the wall. I’d have a potter’s wheel in one corner, and another section with fabrics and beads. But I don’t say this. “Why are we stopped?”

   He stretches his arms out expansively. “I want you to choose your dream home.” He looks, for a moment, like he can grant wishes. He’s smiling, but his eyes are serious, as if they hold a thousand secrets. He has magical eyes.

   I shake my head. “I want someplace that’s safe. A house that the townspeople won’t notice I’m in. And that won’t crash on my head if the wind blows. The rest doesn’t matter. I’m not planning to stay, remember?” I look at Claire, away from Peter and his captivating eyes. “You want to choose for me?”

   She points at a little yellow house. It’s nestled in between an oversize sprawling Colonial and a rusted mobile home. Its shingles are half–fallen off so that it looks like a mouthful of baby teeth, half-gone and waiting for grown-up teeth. The weeds are so high that they obscure the porch, and the front door gapes open.

   I like it.

   I don’t admit that. “All right,” I say.

   “I always wanted my own room,” Claire says. “I had three sisters and two brothers, and we shared. My sister Bridget always stole the covers. And Margaret snored. I used to make my own pretend room in the back of the garage underneath Daddy’s workbench. I’d move boxes around to make a nest and fill it with towels to make it comfy. I’d store snacks in case I was hungry. It was nice there.”

   I want to ask if she misses them, if she knows what happened to her brothers and sisters, if she ever wants to go back. I want to know if it was an accident that she was left, and if so, how could anyone not return for her. I wonder if her parents are alive or not and if they regret what they did. “Where do you live now?”

   She shrugs. “Nowhere. Everywhere.”

   A homeless six-year-old. My heart lurches. “You can have a room in this house, if you want.”

   Her face lights up as if the sun poured over it.

   “It’s just temporary, remember,” I caution her. I don’t want her thinking that I’m inviting her into my life long-term. I’m not her new mommy. I am a very long way from being anyone’s mommy. I’d have to be a lot less selfish and a lot less cowardly first. “But you can stay as long as I stay.” With luck, that won’t be more than a few days. I try not to think about how statistically unlucky I am. In a few days, I could be squashed by a chunk of falling satellite. Or mauled in a shark attack.

   Her face falls. “You feel sorry for me.”

   “And for myself.” I am not going to lie to her. I always hated when adults did that to kids—all the classic lies, like you can be anything you want to be and work hard enough and good things will come to you, and all the little lies, like you’re smart, you’re beautiful, you’re special.

   She considers that. “Okay.”

   Peter has run ahead. He’s scrambling over the junk in the yard and then over the roof. He climbs to the peak and scans the view. I am surprised more of the stray kids aren’t here, but there’s no hint of movement around any of the nearby houses. The kids must still be in town, or playing on other heaps of rust and broken glass elsewhere. I wonder how long we have until they return, if they’ll return. Perhaps the place has already been picked over. I wonder if they’ve left anything we can eat or use.

   He swings down from the porch roof and lands on the railing. It creaks beneath his weight, but it doesn’t collapse. Claire and I wade through the weeds in the front yard as he disappears into the house.

   “I wanted to see it first,” she pouts.

   “Let him scare away the rats, snakes, and whatever other wildlife is in there.”

   “You didn’t need him to scare away the dogs.” She mimics my charge at the dogs. Her mouth is open in a mock scream.

   “I don’t like dogs,” I say.

   “Why not?”

   “It’s the drool. And the teeth. And when I was in kindergarten, one of the kids brought in their pet dog for show-and-tell. It peed all over the R in the alphabet carpet. I used to always sit on the R.”

   “I don’t like them because they bite,” she says.

   “Your reason is better.”

   We reach the porch. Some of the slats in the floor are broken, but overall it seems solid enough. Stacks of old moldy letters, catalogs, and magazines lean against the wall of the house, and cobwebs encase two rocking chairs. I can clean them easily, ditch the old mail, sweep the floor, make it livable.

   The front door swings in the breeze, slapping against the wall. It looks to have a lock and dead bolt, though they won’t do much good since the window in the door is missing. Also, there are other broken windows around the house. We could board them up, I think. Prevent unwanted visitors.

   Claire skips inside as if this place is already home. I wonder what on earth I’m thinking, playing house with a little girl, thinking of home improvements as if I mean to stay for longer than a day. But it might be longer, and the motel won’t take me, the car is uncomfortable, and there are houses to spare. Besides, Claire is happy. I tell myself that it’s okay to be practical, that I’m not running away by staying, that I do want to go home as soon as I can, that Mom is most likely perfectly fine and her stomachaches aren’t part of a relapse, or worse. I don’t need to hide from the truth.

   I follow Claire inside. The entryway has peeling wallpaper with roses so tiny and dirty that they look like bugs. A grimy mirror hangs on one wall. Coat hooks are beside it, and one raincoat hangs on a hook. To the left off the hallway is the kitchen. Claire has disappeared into another room, but in the kitchen, Peter is investigating its cabinets. “Pasta!” He picks up a box of spaghetti and shakes it. Moths fly out the top of the box. He puts it back. “Never mind.”

   “Is there electricity?” I ask, crossing to the refrigerator. I open it, and a blast of sour milk and the reek of rotted vegetables washes over me, but so does cool air. I shut it. “Running water?”

   He tests the sink. It gurgles at first, and then a gush of rust-colored water sprays out. The pipes haven’t been used for a while, but I bet it will run clear soon.

   “How’s this possible?” I ask. “I don’t remember any power lines. All the houses look just plopped in the desert. And besides, no one is here to pay the bills.”

   “People lose power all the time,” Peter says. “And water is wasted every day.”

   “Huh,” I say. “Convenient.”

   Peter smiles a knowing smile.

   I study him for a moment, the Finder, Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf, Sisyphus, whoever he is. “You led us to this house on purpose. You knew it had this.” I wave my hands at the sink with running water and the functional fridge.

   He bows, sweeping his trench coat behind him. It’s an elegant, archaic, and practiced bow. “I am your guardian angel, your fairy godfather, and your knight in shining armor.”

   “Kind of,” I say. And he kind of is. He’s my angel in a trench coat, first saving me from the dust storm and now this. It helps that he’s drop-dead gorgeous, exactly the type I would have picked out of a crowd from the wild-boy smile to the artist-quality tattoos—exactly the type I swore never to date again. Luckily, I’m not looking to date anyone.

   He holds out his hand. “Come see the rest of the house. You’ll like it.”

   I take his hand and let him guide me into the living room. A picture window (sadly broken, a quarter of the glass gone) with a window seat opens onto a view of the desert. Two once-white couches lie under a sheet of dust. Books and cobwebs fill the shelves. The fireplace is full of ash. It’s as if the old occupants simply left. It’s extraordinary that the place hasn’t been found by any scavengers or occupied by wildlife, especially with the broken windows.

   Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.