Trees march stiffly past the driver's side window as Laura Kearney zips down the 919. Sunlight is glinting off the snow weighing down the pine boughs, reflecting up into her eyes, and she yanks down the sun visor. It covers nothing but the patch of gray sky peeking down between the twin canopies of branches overhead. She huffs in irritation, but leaves the useless barrier regardless, squinting her way through the break in the clouds.
In a surge of petulance, she twists down the knob on the heater, as if cutting back the warm air gusting across her face will lessen the glare somehow. It doesn’t, of course, and already, the December chill is creeping back in via the cracks in outer panels of her ancient Toyota, drafty thing that it is.
Not much longer now. She’s almost reached her destination. According to Google maps, anyway.
With the passing of each of the last 20 miles or so, her heart has climbed further and further up the inner ladder of her rib cage. It’s doggedly wedged in her throat now, and she sucks down the rest of her melted iced coffee as if that will somehow dislodge it. She shakes the empty plastic cup just to be sure there’s no stray droplets left to slurp up and then tosses it over her shoulder into the back seat, too full of nerves to fish around for the plastic bag she’s been keeping her trash in.
The gesture briefly draws her eyes from the road, and they inevitably sweep across the cheerfully wrapped bundle sitting squarely in the center of her otherwise empty passenger seat. It glares at her from behind its bright red and gold wrapping for the few seconds she lingers on it. Even after averting her gaze, she can still feel it there, glowering. Much in the way she imagines its future recipient will when she shows up. Unannounced.
Not for the first time, Laura fights the urge to slam on the breaks, crank the steering wheel around, and reset her course for her grandparents' house. It is where she’s supposed to be going, after all. Where her whole family is supposed to meet up for the holiday break. She’s simply left a day early.
Old habits and all that.
A laugh bubbles out of her at the thought, just a bit too bitter to qualify as truly amused. You’d think she’d have learned her lesson about turning up early for things after what happened this past summer. Or about what surprise visits to North Kill tend to do to a body. But here she is, five miles out- wait, no, make that four- the blinking red dot representing the sheriff’s station gawking at her from the cracked screen of her cell phone.
‘Yeah, I don’t get it either, man,’ she acquiesces under the pulse of its unspoken accusation. ‘Bad fucking idea, and yet…’ She lets it hang. Because adding anything else would just feel like an excuse. And who is she trying to fool here? Herself? Good fucking luck, girl.
The reality is, she’s staved off this ‘bad fucking idea’ for as long as she possibly could. Three months have never felt like such an eternity. Well…okay, that’s not completely true. There were those two months she was locked in a jail cell next to her werewolf boyfriend…
Whatever. It’s felt like a long fucking time, is the point. A long fucking time resisting the increasingly insistent siren song that some piece of herself she’d inadvertently left out here is broadcasting. It had been difficult to resist even at the beginning, but as time wore on…well. Even a person as stubborn as Laura has a breaking point.
And now she’s three miles from North Kill. Three miles from facing her demons, and hopefully, putting them to bed. Three miles from what is sure to be…an interesting reunion, if nothing else.
She isn’t sure what she expects. Perhaps she doesn’t expect anything. But that doesn’t sound like her, so it’s way more likely she’s just tiptoeing around thinking about it so that she doesn’t go chicken shit and turn the fuck around.
Maybe he won’t even be there.
He’ll be there.
Laura rolls her eyes at herself. Well, that settles it then, doesn’t it? How can she argue with such convicted vibes?
Two miles. Time to put up or shut up.
And Laura knows she’s never been very good at shutting up.
God, this place could use a new coat of paint. She thinks sourly as she cuts the engine and peers up through the windshield at the sad structure in front of her, tap tap tapping away on the steering wheel with anxious fingertips. And a gardener. Tap tap tap. Or maybe just a wrecking ball.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Fuck it. Enough stalling. Laura throws open the car door, plucks up the gift and embarks. She takes the front steps two at a time and hesitates only for a fraction of a second before heaving open the door. It’s unlocked. And it swings inward on creaking hinges. So much for a subtle entrance.
But it seems no one is around to notice her noisy arrival anyway. She scans the main room, eyes tripping over the stacked desks and chairs, the shuttered windows, the dusty shelves. It’s like nothing has changed at all. She isn’t sure whether that makes her worried or relieved. Maybe annoyed? Yeah, annoyed is better. Annoyed is easier.
‘Hello?’ she calls into the deserted space. ‘Anybody home?’
There’s a scraping noise from somewhere upstairs, like a chair is being shoved back across the wooden floorboards. She gets the sudden, inexplicable urge to hide the wrapped bundle behind her back, but her mittened hands remain rigid at her sides.
She nearly gasps when he strides out onto the landing, unprepared for the intensity of his physical presence. How had she forgotten what it was like? That swoop in her stomach, that pressure at the base of her skull, like there’s a storm brewing in the atmosphere?
‘Hey, Sheriff,’ she smiles, waving a sheepish little wave with her empty hand.
Even from this distance, she can read the shock on his face, but it doesn’t linger, quickly transforming into something more like agitation. Alright, then. Familiar ground, it is.
‘Close the goddamn door,’ he barks in a voice she’s definitely not been hearing in her dreams for the last few months. ‘You trying to heat the whole goddamn town?’
Laura’s smile broadens, the persistent lump in her throat evaporating as she kicks the door shut behind her, and Sheriff Travis Hackett makes his way down the stairs toward her.
‘What town?’ she jokes blithely. ‘Are you talking about the boarded up Seven Eleven across the street or the dilapidated single pump I passed on-’
‘Christ, shut up,’ he interrupts with an exasperated sigh, coming to a stop about six feet in front of her, hands braced on his hips and lips twisted up in an expression that could be an illustration in the dictionary next to the word ‘unamused.’
Shit. She’s missed his craggy scowls. The one he’s brandishing at her now is having the opposite effect he’s likely aiming for, filling her lungs with helium. She may be in real danger of floating away if she doesn’t find something to grab onto, and fast. She wonders what he’d do if she reached out and grabbed onto him. Probably shove her off. And then cuss her out.
The silence between them stretches while Laura waxes stupid, and Travis regards her impatiently, tapping a booted foot. His tacit refusal to be the first one to speak ignites a fuse of rebellion in her, and she decides to wait him out, an expectant smile plastered on her face. At length, he relents, probably because he’s got better things to do than engage in a staring contest with her, but Laura silently chalks up a point on her side of the proverbial scorecard.
‘Why are you here?’ It’s half an indictment and half…hmm, she can’t tell what’s threading through his disapproval. Couldn’t be hope. Hope isn’t Travis’ style. Fondness, maybe? That's new.
‘It’s winter break,’ she responds with a vague gesture toward the only window without drawn blinds, indicating the snow. Travis doesn’t follow it, his dark, mistrustful eyes trained solely on her. ‘I’m on sabbatical so I thought I’d take in the sights before meeting up with my family for the holidays.’
‘The sights, huh?’ he deadpans, not buying what she’s selling at a discount. ‘In North Kill?’ There’s a beat where she resolutely refuses to squirm under his critical gaze, then he adds, in the exact same tone, ‘Were you here to see the Seven Eleven or the gas station?’
Laura laughs louder, perhaps, than the quip warrants, but she hadn’t seen it coming, so she allows herself the indulgence. ‘Definitely the Seven Eleven.’
His grimace softens to something more neutral, but then returns with reinforcements when she juts out her hand, offering the garishly wrapped gift.
He simply glares at it. Like it's a trick. ‘The fuck is this?’
‘A Christmas present,’ she snarks back, matching his annunciation if not his harshness. ‘I assume you’re familiar with the concept.’
He doesn’t move to take it, so she gives it a little wiggle as if to entice him. ‘You know…Santa? Sleigh bells? Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men?’
His eyes drift back up to hers, utterly unimpressed. ‘Uh huh.’
‘Just take the damn thing, Travis. I promise it’s not a bomb or anything.’
He does take it, though snatch is probably a better term for what he does. ‘Fine. Satisfied?’
‘Aren’t you gonna open it?’
He arches a dark brow at her. ‘It ain’t Christmas yet.’
‘Ugh, fine,’ she grouses, pretending to be more aggravated than she is so he doesn’t detect how pleased she is that he'd accepted it.
There’s another not-quite-awkward silence. Charged, really. Like she’s licked the end of a battery. Then he demands, ‘Anything else?’
‘God, but you are a surly bastard.’
‘And you’re a pain in the ass.’
Okay, so they’re name-calling. This devolved quickly. Has she somehow offended him? Nevermind, she doesn't actually care. Fuck him. Fuck him in the bad way.
‘I want to see the Quarry,’ she demands right back, crossing her arms over her chest.
‘Hackett’s Quarry. I want to see it. I’m going to see it.’
‘The hell you are.’ He pauses for a beat, brows screwing up in suspicion. ‘Why?’
He’s taken a step forward, and Laura feels it keenly, wonders if it was an intimidation tactic or something else. ‘I need to see it.’
‘That’s not an answer,’ he counters tersely.
‘I’m not asking for your permission.’ She takes her own step forward, squares her shoulders, drawing up to her full height, a challenge in her eyes. ‘You wanna stop me, you’re gonna have to lock me up.’
Something flashes hot in his gaze, gone as fast as it appeared. He makes a show of sucking his teeth in contemplation, like he’s actually considering it, the asshole. When it becomes clear she has no intention of letting herself be cowed by him, nor of elaborating further, he sighs, deep and tired, like she’s been plaguing him his whole life.
‘Let me get my coat.’
Laura two, Travis zero.
They take his car. New, in that it hasn’t been dumped into a lake after being stolen by a couple of fugitive twenty somethings, but not new in its strict definition. It’s probably still older than she is. Travis hadn’t even given her the chance to offer to drive them, which wasn’t all that surprising. He's never struck her as somebody who rides bitch.
At least not without a fight. And Laura is saving her energy for later.
She’s leaning against the passenger side door now, chin braced in her palm. It’s about mid-afternoon, meaning the sun will be going down in only a few hours. There’s music playing, not loud enough for her to determine the lyrics, but loud enough to discourage conversation, which she assumes was his intention. Just as well, she’s caught up in her own thoughts anyway. Thoughts she isn’t exactly keen to share.
Maybe this is a bad idea. But she’s running out of any ideas to speak of at all. Laura can’t seem to get past what happened this summer, and it’s genuinely starting to become a problem.
First, there was the breakup with Max. What he needed to ‘get better’ was to Not Fucking Talk About It. Their not talking about it was so deafening, she couldn’t hear herself think. He just wanted to pretend like it didn’t happen. Like he wasn’t ripped to shreds by a monster in the lodge’s cellar. Like he didn’t spend two months locked up in a jail cell. Like he didn’t know what it was like to have her blood in his mouth and under his nails.
But Laura couldn’t pretend. She didn’t want to, not with him. She already had to with literally everyone else. She couldn’t even go to a shrink about it. They’d lock her ass in a padded room and throw away the key. She needed at least one person she could work through everything with. But Max wasn’t willing to be that person.
Or maybe he wasn’t able to be. It amounted to the same outcome, either way.
They argued. They made up. They argued some more. And finally, they split. He’s with someone else now. Barely let the ashes of their relationship get cold. Which is fine, if she’s honest with herself. At least now they can be something almost like friends. Even if it’s weird as fuck.
But that still left Laura without anyone to talk to. Anyone to confide in. Anyone to bounce her terrifying memories off of. Her terrible nightmares. She was slowly going insane with it: the not talking. Talking is how she processes things. It’s how she sorts through the shit and comes out the other end.
She has yet to come out the other end of this one. And it’s wreaking havoc on her life. She’d dropped out of grad school, had to get an apartment and a job. She hasn’t told anyone yet. Not her family…not her friends…not even Max. She’s too ashamed. But also too preemptively angry over their judgemental reactions. Nobody gets it. Nobody gets her. How could they?
‘How’s Caleb been doing?’ she asks, apropos of fuck all, breaking the willful tranquility in the cab of the patrol car.
Travis is silent for so long, she assumes he doesn’t intend to answer. But then, he surprises her by softly, almost meekly responding, ‘About as well as you’d expect. Poor kid’s traumatized to hell and back.’
Laura regards him out of the corner of her eye; he keeps his own on the road. ‘At least he’s alive.’
She suspects the puffing noise he makes is a cross between laughter and a scoff. ‘Cold comfort when both his sister and dad are dead.’
Yeah. That. She should probably feel guilty about her part in that. If she does, it’s eclipsed by her own shit right now. ‘He still has you.’
The atmosphere shifts as soon as the words have left her mouth, like she’s tumbled ass over teakettle into a hole in the dark and has no idea where it ends and the open air begins. Her pulse flutters as she watches him visibly swallow down whatever barb was coming next. For some reason, she’s gripped by the sudden need to expand on her statement.
‘I know you’ll do your best to look after him. I’m sure he knows it too.’
Now he does flick a glance over at her, and it’s so full of frank emotion, she doesn’t recognize him for a second. Then his leaden gaze lifts off of her and is back on the road. ‘Sure. Whatever.’
They arrive at the turn off for the camp shortly after, and Laura sits forward in her seat as they approach the car lot. Her muscles are coiled like she's about to sprint off as soon as they stop and the door opens.
Travis parks. Turns off the engine. They’re here.
It’s cold, but they’re appropriately bundled. Laura all but leaps out, not waiting for him to join her as she tracks through the ankle-deep snow up to the lodge. She pauses at the base of the stairs, can feel Travis keeping his distance, giving her space. Like he understands.
Fuck, she doesn’t even understand.
After a full minute of just listening to the wind through the snow-covered trees. She ends up turning toward the cellar door. Stalks straight up to it. Flings it open. Stares down inside. Takes the first step. But that’s as far as she gets, instead plopping heavily on the threshold and simply glaring into the still darkness below.
She senses more than sees Travis come up behind her. Imagines the warmth coming off of him. The solid, safe presence of his body. Something clicks into place, and, all at once, she does understand. It’s not that she needed to see this place. It’s that she needed to see it with him. The only other person on this goddamn planet who could possibly get what she’s experiencing right now. The only one who seems willing to let her process this in her own way.
She’s not going to cry. She’s already done enough of that. No, what’s pricking behind her eyes and clogging her throat now is far more dangerous. Especially if she gives it a name. So she doesn’t.
‘We should have gone to the fucking motel,’ she laments with a shake of her head.
She turns to look up at him. He’s got his hands shoved deep in his pockets. There’s a pink blush across his nose, cheeks, and ears from the cold. A spike of want shoots through her. She wants to hit him. She wants to hold him. She wants him to hold her. She wants…
‘You hungry, Sheriff?’
There’s a diner not too far outside of town; Laura had marked it at a possibility on her way in. She convinces Travis to take her by playing up how famished she is and offering to treat him for his trouble, really leaning into being as annoying about it as possible. That seems to work on him.
The place is straight out of the 60s. Mostly empty despite the fact that it’s time for the dinner rush. She’s the first through the door, giving the establishment a once over. Looks clean enough. And something smells fucking fantastic.
Travis comes in behind her, stomping the snow off his boots. The stout man in a white apron and matching ball cap who shifts into the order window to get a look at the new arrivals offers them a friendly grin and a salute with the spatula in his hand. Travis hails him by name, Jimmy or something like that, she’s too stunned by the warmth in his greeting to really hear it. Then he takes Laura’s elbow and steers her toward a booth against the far wall.
An elderly waitress sashays up, probably favoring her joints more than swaying her hips, and asks if Travis is having the usual. Flo, her faded name tag indicates. Laura is mystified by this, by the politeness in his tone as he answers. So mystified, she misses his prompt for her to order a drink. She gapes at both him and the waitress as they stare at her until his foot prods hers under the table.
‘I’ll take a coke. And a menu, if you have one.’
‘Coming right up, sweetie.’
As soon as Flo is out of earshot, Travis huffs sarcastically. ‘Sweetie.’
‘Hey, I can be sweet.’
‘Uh huh. Why do I find that hard to believe?’
‘Your fault for not giving me much reason to.’ Then she adds, for good measure, ‘Surly bastard.’
‘Pain in the ass,’ he retorts without any venom whatsoever.
Flo returns with her drink, a red and white striped straw tucked in the ice, and the single laminated sheet of paper that makes up the menu. Laura scans it and then orders a bowl of chili. The waitress leaves again.
Travis drums the fingers of one hand against the laminated table top, studying her as she takes off her coat and mittens, tucking them in the booth behind her.
‘You said you were on winter break.’
She pauses in unraveling her scarf, meeting his shrewd gaze. This feels more like an interrogation than companionable small talk. Like he expects her to lie.
What the hell? Why not just be honest? If for no other reason than to fuck with him.
‘I would be, if I were still in school.’
He frowns. ‘But you’re not.’
‘I dropped out after about a month.’
The frown deepens, cutting severe lines in his face. ‘Why?’
He seems almost…disappointed? And it causes her to balk. Fuck the truth. Half-truths are better, anyway.
‘I just wasn’t ready. I’ll pick it up again in the fall. For now, I’m taking the opportunity to work and save up some money.’ She affects nonchalance, grabbing up and fiddling with her napkin-wrapped silverware.
Laura chances a stolen glance at Travis, and he is, once again, not fucking buying it. But neither is he asking more about it, so there’s that, at least. She decides to switch it back on him.
‘You always want to be a cop?’
His brows draw together in confusion before the question registers as a subject change, and then he looks away from her with the most derisive smile she’s ever seen on a man. Still a smile though. He turns back to her, licks his lips, and actually answers. Fascinating.
‘Nope. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cowboy.’
Laura barks a startled laugh and scoots forward conspiratorially. ‘No shit?’
‘No shit. Obviously, it didn’t work out.’
‘Not that many job opportunities for rootin’ and tootin’ these days, huh?’ she smirks.
He huffs a laugh, but then something serious drags down his expression. ‘Not within driving distance, no.’
Ah. So he had to stay close to home. Close to family. She recalls said family, and it puts a bitter taste in her mouth. She wonders what else he’s given up for them. If they cared as little for those sacrifices as they did for his more recent ones.
‘You know,’ she taps her chin in mock consideration, attempting to lighten the mood, lighten the sudden weight on his shoulders. ‘I actually can picture you as a cowboy.’
‘Can you now?’
‘Sure. With the hat and the spurs and the lasso and everything. Saying shit like ‘whoa there,’ and ‘howdy pardner,’ and ‘get along little doggy.’’ She’s hamming it up: pantomiming, making faces. Even doing a fucking accent. And while Travis isn’t exactly eating it up, he definitely seems to be on the right side of amused.
‘So,’ she prompts, leaning further across the table and into his space. ‘Give me your best yee haw.’
‘Come on, Travis,’ she whines, nudging his boot under the table like he’d done to her earlier. ‘Just one little yee haw?’
‘Stop it.’ Not an order; there’s no iron in it. So she decides to push it.
Laura nudges his foot again, and this time he nudges back. Her smile turns into a full-bore grin. ‘It’ll get me to stop bothering you,’ she bargains.
He shoots her a cutting look. ‘I highly doubt that.’
Laura purses her lips, and then sits back in her seat, giving him back his space, but also making room for the returning waitress bearing their meals. ‘No, you’re right. It wouldn’t. But it would be a fine gesture of goodwill.’
He sighs, shaking his head. ‘Just shut up and eat your food.’
‘Sure thing, Tex.’
He rolls his eyes heavenward, but there is a telling tug at the corners of his lips.
After dinner, even though the whole reason he seemed to have agreed to it in the first place was that she was footing the bill, Travis refuses to let her pay, batting away her hand as she tries to reach for the tab.
‘I don’t need your charity.’
‘What,’ she scoffs, glaring at the visa he tosses onto the wooden slate the receipt is clipped to. ‘So I need yours?’
The smile he turns on her then might have his signature biting sarcasm around the edges, but at its core, it’s almost devastatingly sincere. ‘'Tis the season.’
Fine, she thinks to herself as he interacts with Flo one last time, fighting a rather mutinous blush as it tries to lay siege to her cheeks. His point, then. But she is not losing her lead.
On the way back to the station, Laura decides she’s not done with him yet. ‘I think I’m going to stick around another day.’ She drops a taunting smile over her shoulder at him in spite of the fact he doesn’t bother to look at her. ‘I’ve heard a lot about this nearby motel, and I feel like I should check it out.’
Travis feigns indifference, grumbling something about it being a free country, but Laura can tell it’s all a show. She’s growing on him. The way she had when she was in that cell. But that was an ‘enemies to begrudging allies’ thing. This is different. This is…something else entirely.
He parks next to her car, and climbs out. Watches her duck into her own and start to drive off before turning back toward the building. Like he was making sure she got on the road safely. It sends a cold thrill down her spine. So Laura cranks up the heat, and punches the Harbinger Motel into her maps app. It’s not that far. How about that?
Once there, the place is nicer than she’d expected. Old and outdated, bordering on kitschy, but pleasant and clean. The friendly octogenarian behind the desk asks questions about her travels, and she answers them good-naturedly. It’s almost a relief, talking to someone she doesn’t have to drag every syllable out of. When she mentions Travis by name, in the context of visiting an old acquaintance, the concierge perks up.
‘Oh, now there’s a good boy, if there ever was one.’ Sadness overtakes her wrinkled features as she shakes her head. ‘A shame about the family.’
‘Yeah,’ Laura responds solemnly, because she can’t think of anything else to say that doesn’t include a few four letter words that are sure to scandalize this dear elderly woman.
Then the melancholy dissipates, and the concierge offers Laura ‘the family and friends’ discount with a wink, before sending her on her way.
She…isn’t sure how to feel about that.
The door to each unit is outside, so Laura hustles to her trunk for her overnight bag and then shivers her way to her first floor room. She misses the lock on the first two tries, but third times the charm.
‘I’m in,’ she gruffs in her best hacker voice.
The room is actually pretty cozy. Freshly painted with a cheerful landscape photograph hanging on the longest wall. Color her surprised.
She gets ready for bed before tucking herself beneath the covers of the single queen that takes up the majority of the room.
And then…then she thinks about the other surprises of the day. About Travis. About the look he’d leveled at her in the car. About his disappointment when he’d found out she’d dropped out of school. About the change in the atmosphere between them even over the course of the night.
He’s always been tight lipped when it comes to anything he doesn’t feel like talking about. And she supposes she can’t really fault him for that. Well, not about his personal shit anyway. The werewolf stuff would have been helpful to know earlier on. For everyone’s sake.
Regardless, the little glimpses she got of him today, coupled with the almost electric moments where he willingly touched her…
It’s intriguing, if nothing else. And maybe also a bit tempting. What else could she get out of him if she just applied a little more pressure?
Laura smiles and turns out the light. Tomorrow, she’s going to find out just that.
It’s late. Too late to be sitting up at his desk having a stare-down with the red and gold wrapped gift sitting atop it. What the fuck is his problem? Travis sneers at his own hesitation before yanking open the top drawer and swiping the package inside, slamming it shut. There. Out of sight, out of mind. He’s too old for this shit.
He gets all of five paces away, before he’s whirling back around, cursing up a blue streak as he takes the damn thing back out and starts to rip open the paper.
Inside, he finds a well-worn, well-loved paperback book. Track of the Cat. He flips it over, reads the back. Huh. A mystery novel. About a park ranger. Why the fuck did she give this to him? Did she think he’d like it? Has she read it herself? Did it belong to her first?
Travis Hackett chews his bottom lip as he thumbs absently through the pages before dredging up a sigh from the very tips of his toes. This is stupid. He’s being stupid. He needs to sleep. And there’s a perfectly decent cot, as well as a bottle of bourbon upstairs calling his name.
He makes it to the bottle and the cot, but not to sleep, settling in on his back atop the quilt his grandma made for him when he was a kid, head propped on a flat pillow. Then he opens the book, and starts to read.