Jo grabbed her pack from the back of Ronnie’s truck and leaned it against the nearest tree. Ronnie had gotten out of her truck and was bending, side-to-side at the waist, stretching. The air up here was thin, the last of the day’s summer heat harsh and uncomfortable, and Jo knew the hike to the cabin would be rough.
Ronnie rolled her neck and shoulders a couple more times and then stopped, peering at Jo, her expression grim. “Are you sure you want to be here by yourself?”
Jo nodded. “I told Carter I’d check out the trail, just in case something’s wrong with it, and maybe get started on the cabin. No one’s been up there for two years.”
Ronnie shuddered, staring into the woods. “Better you than me. I’d never go up there by myself.”
Jo camped, backpacked, and climbed by herself all the time, but it was hard to convince most people that it was safe. Even her parents, die-hard mountaineers themselves, often chided her for it. Truthfully, she liked being by herself in the woods. Her cousin Carter and two of their friends were coming up tomorrow, and, knowing the three of them, once they arrived, it would be anything but peaceful. Carter, a lawyer, liked the sound of her own voice. Their grandmother used to say she could talk the bark off a tree.
Jo shrugged. “I’ll be okay. It’s just one night.”
Ronnie was still frowning, staring up the trail, and Jo stepped toward her to get her attention. She opened her arms and they hugged. Ronnie drew back first and squeezed Jo’s shoulders.
“Be safe, okay? I don’t want Carter to kill me if something happens to you. I’m so pissed I can’t go up there with you and help out. Friggin’ work.” Ronnie had planned to stay through the weekend, but her boss had called her this morning with a last-minute emergency. She was flying to New York later that day.
“I’ll be fine,” Jo repeated, “and don’t worry about it. We can show you the cabin, all cleaned up, when you get back from your trip.”
Ronnie nodded, clearly reluctant to go, and then sighed. She gave Jo another tight hug and climbed back into her truck. The windows were down from their drive up, and she put her arm on the edge, grinning.
“Keep your nose clean, kiddo.” She gave her a mock, two-fingered salute.
Jo laughed, returned the salute, and then watched as she drove away. Ronnie stuck her hand out of the window, waving, and then disappeared around a curve in the road. Jo waited until the sound of the truck faded, and gradually the silence of the woods overtook her. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply. Down here on the road, the clean air was muddled slightly with the scent of pavement and road dust, but her sensitive nose caught the heady odor of pine and wet leaves from the woods.
She opened her eyes, her stomach lurching with excitement. She’d been looking forward to this for a long time, had saved all her vacation time just in case she could come here for this two-week trip. Now, finally, she was here, and she had an unexpected night to herself. She felt like laughing, almost giddy.
She checked her backpack one more time, making sure the zippers and straps were properly fastened, and then pulled it onto her back, using her core and her legs to stand up with it safely. Tomorrow she would help Carter and the others lug a great deal of equipment up this same trail, but for today she just had her pack—a pack she’d carried thousands of miles at this point. Despite the weight, it was comfortable, familiar, even, like an old friend. She cinched the belt at her waist, adjusted the shoulder straps, and started up the trail, nearly skipping with suppressed joy.
Despite being firmly within the bounds of Rocky Mountain National Park, beyond the little parking lot, the trail Jo was hiking and the mountain itself was family property. In the late nineteenth century, her ancestors had bought this land, long before it was a national park, and built a cabin at the top. When Rocky was first developed, anyone with land inside the boundaries was allowed to keep it through a policy called inholding. While most of the other families inside the park had sold out to the park system long ago, no one in Jo’s family had even considered selling, even at the height of the Depression. For generations, her family had spent vacations here, had weddings here, and, in the case of some of her ancestors, had been born and died here. This land and the cabin were the family haven.
Then, after the death of her grandparents, one of her aunts had started arguing with her siblings about the property rights, and no one in the family was allowed to come up here while they duked it out with her in court. The cabin had been virtually abandoned for the last two years, and no one knew how it had held up. Carter, as one of the lawyers in the family lawsuit, had gotten permission for this visit, but it had taken months to sort it out. Now, after all this time, Jo was finally going to see her favorite place in the whole world.
The plan, for the next two weeks, was to assess the trail and the property and start cleaning and repairing the cabin and anything else that needed work. Still, even with what was likely to be a very difficult job ahead of her and the people joining her tomorrow, Jo was thrilled to be here. It had been very difficult to stay away, and being here again was like coming home. A hollow, empty part of her felt fulfilled, whole.
Because of several delays—all Ronnie’s—it was now late afternoon, and Jo knew she needed to hike as quickly as possible if she wanted to make it before dark. She was fairly certain she would have to sleep in her tent tonight, as she imagined the cabin was in shambles, but it might just be possible to clean a space inside for a sleeping bag. It was only about a mile to the top, but it was a steep mile, especially the second half. Despite the hour, she started to sweat heavily almost at once. This September had been unseasonably warm, even up here, and the exertion of carrying a heavy pack always made the heat seem twice as intense.
The first quarter of the trail, she walked through a thick grove of aspens, some of the leaves just starting to take on the famous gold they would become over the next month. Then, almost as if there were a barrier, the aspens fell behind, and as she walked farther, she was surrounded by thick pine. Their mountain was covered almost entirely with Lodgepole pine and Ponderosa, and her nose filled with the strong scent of butterscotch and vanilla from the warm trees.
In her jubilance and haste, she ignored the sound in the woods for several yards, stopping only when she heard it more distinctly—a crashing, lumbering sound breaking through the trees and bushes some distance to her right. She peered that way, squinting in the bright sunshine, and waited for the animal to reveal itself. About fifty feet away, the branches of some thick bushes were swaying dramatically, as if something were fighting its way through. Jo expected to see a deer or elk walk through at any moment. Regardless of what animal it was, she was safe at this distance, as even a bear would likely ignore her. The branches stopped moving almost at once, and Jo held her breath, waiting for something to appear. She stood there, motionless, long enough that she began to tremble from suppressed nerves, and she finally let out her breath and relaxed her shoulders.
Despite the thick pine on the mountain, in several spots on the trail, like the one she stood in, the sky opened up entirely above. The trees had either been cut back or grew naturally farther away. As she waited, still hoping for the animal to appear, she suddenly realized that the heat of the sun on the back of her neck was no longer as intense as it had been. Then, as she continued to stand there, she no longer had to squint as intensely, the light gradually dying out of the sky. She glanced upward, expecting a cloud, and had to stare for a moment longer, confused. The sky was clear above her, the fierce blue unbroken, but the light was still fading. She glanced at her watch, confused, but it was much too early for sunset, and anyway, she could still see the sun.
She shivered then, intensely, and rubbed her arms, which had broken out in gooseflesh. A tree branch is blocking the light somewhere, she told herself. She watched the bushes for a few seconds more, still hoping to catch a glimpse of the animal over there, but an acute anxiety was suddenly making the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She felt as if she were being watched.
She shook her head, scolding herself for being silly. Of course she was being watched. Whatever was hiding in the bushes over there was clearly watching her. It had seen or smelled her standing here and was waiting for her to move on, motionless with fright. Still, the sensation was unpleasant, and she had a sudden wild, almost desperate urge to start moving again. She didn’t want to see what was out there any longer—no, more than that, she knew she shouldn’t let herself see what was there. She understood, with complete conviction, that she wouldn’t like what she saw.
Fighting a compulsion to run, Jo turned back to the trail and started hiking toward the cabin with a haste just shy of jogging. Having stopped for perhaps five minutes, total, to wait for the animal or whatever it had been, she was surprised by how chilled she was. Within a few yards, the sun started blazing down on her again, and she was sweating soon after.
By the time she reached the last switchback ten minutes later, she wanted to laugh at herself. There she’d been, not twenty minutes after Ronnie’s departure, creeping herself out. All it had taken was a deer and a shadow, and she’d wanted to run away and hide. She shook her head, grinning sheepishly. At least her cousin Carter hadn’t been there to see her make a fool of herself. She’d never live it down.
When the cabin finally came into view, it seemed even smaller than Jo remembered. Some of this illusion was the effect of the trees, whose growth had nearly swallowed it over the last two years. She was used to the sparse, almost desert-like effect of beetle-kill in other parts of the state. The dense pine near the cabin looked foreign, unfamiliar, almost like she had walked out of Colorado altogether. Only the glint of glass and the edge of the porch suggested the presence of a cabin there.
The cabin stood at the far edge of a flat clearing. Her ancestors had cut the woods back to give themselves a kind of yard here on the flattest part of the mountain. Still, the trees grew high on all sides, so that the effect was only slightly successful. Already, just in the last two years, saplings and a few larger young trees grew in several places in the clearing, and Jo was certain that if more time passed without maintenance, the clearing would entirely disappear. The family used this space for larger gatherings, setting up tents around the picnic table and fire pit with only a lucky few able to stay inside. Knowing she was likely staying outside tonight, Jo set her pack down on the table, surprised to find it sturdy and solid, though filthy. She opened the top zipper on her pack and dug around for the keys and a headlamp, then walked toward the cabin’s small porch.
The neglect was even more apparent up close. Jo spotted one broken window, suspecting there were more. Glass littered the ground beneath the window, sparkling in the bright sunshine. She frowned, staring at the shards. She would have expected most of the glass to go inside unless it had somehow broken from the inside out. She took a step closer and peered at it, deciding this was what had happened. She couldn’t see anything inside that might have broken out, but it was too dark in there to see anything clearly.
The other windows on this side of the cabin were intact but cloudy with dirt and grime. The porch was covered with streaks of mud and little drifts of leaves and pine needles. The furniture on the porch was, in some cases, literally on its last legs, a few pieces already caved in and broken. She would never have thought two years could cause this much damage. She had to struggle with the locks for a few seconds, and the door opened with a loud, piercing squeal.
Inside, it was incredibly filthy, and so dark it might have been the dead of night. The light from her headlamp barely penetrated the murky gloom. Jo walked farther in, pausing in the kitchen, leaving a track of footprints behind her on the dusty floor. From what she could make out in the gloom, the place was in shambles. This was the main room, a combination kitchen and living room. Two closed doors, one on either side of the room to the right and left, led to the two bedrooms. The upholstery of the living-room furniture had been destroyed, likely by animals or insects. Tufts of stuffing poked through the cushions or lay in little white piles all over the room. Dust and dirt coated every surface. The air was dense with it, almost foggy.
The bedrooms were identical, but she went to the one she knew had a broken window, knowing she would likely find real weather damage in there. She had to put her shoulder into the door to open it. The wood had obviously expanded with the summer humidity, and it took all of her strength to force it. Suddenly, almost as if it had been held closed on the inside, the door gave way all at once, and she crashed into the wall, the reverberation sending a shock through the right side of her body. She cursed and rubbed her wrist, and then, as the light of her headlamp penetrated the dark room, she froze.
It took her a long moment to make sense of what she was seeing. All the bedroom furniture had been placed in a large pile from floor to ceiling, stacked precariously on top of itself, but arranged in a way that was almost artistic, not haphazard. Rather than thrown there together in a heap, the furniture had been carefully arranged so that each piece supported something on top of it. The base of the structure was the large, antique dresser that had been in here since the cabin was built. Three twin-sized beds rested upright against it, and they held four upright wooden armchairs, which in turn supported the final twin bed and a smaller dresser, lying upside down. Four lamps sat on the top bed, flush with the ceiling. She moved her light up and down the pile several times, but she stayed where she was, almost petrified with fright.
Unlike the cool darkness of the main room of the cabin, this bedroom was stifling, the heat dense and humid despite the broken window. Jo could just make out the light coming in behind the rungs of one of the chairs, but the room was otherwise closed off, and almost sauna-hot. When she directed her light there, the floor was an unbroken surface of grime. Whoever had done this, it had been long ago, but that recognition gave her no comfort.
“Nope,” Jo said, and slammed the bedroom door.
She stood there, breathing heavily, fighting to stop her trembling limbs. Her heart was racing, her body covered in a chilled, sticky sweat. She threw one quick glance at the door to the other bedroom, and shook her head, needlessly, in the near pitch of the room. Forcing herself not to run, she walked back across the small room and out the front door, which, thankfully, she’d left open for the light. In her current state, she wasn’t sure she would have been able to open the door. Her hands were shaking too much.
She closed it behind herself and hurried back to the picnic table. She sat down with relief, her legs nearly giving out. She sat there, shuddering, her back to the cabin.
“Stop it,” she told herself, suddenly angry. She’d looked forward to coming back for over two years, and now here she was, scaring herself twice inside an hour. She levered her body upright by pushing off the table and stood on legs that felt ready to collapse. Fighting every instinct, she forced herself to turn and face the cabin. Almost as if waiting for her to look at it again, the broken window flashed in the flickering sunlight, winking at her. The strength in her legs gave out again, and she sank back down onto the picnic table bench, this time keeping her eyes rooted on the cabin, watching it for movement.
She’d planned to start the repairs today. The whole point of coming up here was to get the place livable again and ready for the winter. Tomorrow, when Carter and the others arrived, she was supposed to have a list of tasks started for everyone to complete during their time here. Instead, she knew she couldn’t go back in there. Not today, anyway. Not alone. At some point since sitting down again, she’d put her hand over her mouth, and a groan escaped her mouth. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to summon her anger again. She was being irrational. After all, the cabin had been up here, abandoned, for years. Anyone could have broken in and placed the furniture that way at any time. It didn’t mean anything.
Irrational or not, she knew what she was capable of, and after a long wait, when her trembling finally stopped, she got to her feet to set up her tent, pitching it as far as she could from the cabin.
“So, you haven’t done anything?” Carter asked, hands on her hips.
Jo shook her head. “I worked a little on the trail and cleaning the camp area. I cut back some of the growth.” She pointed at several piles of sheared saplings and branches around the camp. “I only had my Leatherman, so I couldn’t get through the bigger, new trees. Those two over there need a real saw.”
“You didn’t do anything inside?”
“No—there wasn’t enough time. Ronnie dropped me off so late yesterday, I barely had time to set up camp before it got dark. I should have just waited and come up here with you guys.”
Jo was hoping her little white lie would go unchecked. Her cousin Carter and Ronnie were close friends, so it wouldn’t be unheard of for Carter to ask her about it. Still, even if that was the case, Jo thought it was possible that Ronnie might mix up the time—she was like that. Anyway, as there was no cell service up here on the mountain, there was no way for Carter to ask her anytime soon, and she’d probably forget in the next two weeks.
Last night had been a long one. She’d stayed up as long as she could, crouched by a campfire for comfort and warmth, hoping to tire herself out. Even there, by the fire, she’d felt the cabin’s presence behind her, crouched in the dark as if waiting, watching. Things had been a little better when she crawled inside her tent, but she slept poorly, waking up just as the sky started to lighten into dawn. She’d spent the morning and early afternoon doing exactly what she’d told Carter—removing larger branches and rocks off part of the trail up the mountain and cutting down some of the saplings in camp. Still, she’d had plenty of time to go inside the cabin today, but she’d put it off.
Carter was frowning at her, hands still on her hips. Her short hair, like Jo’s, was sticking up on her head, pushed back with sweat. Her eyes were narrow, suspicious. Jo had never been able to lie to her or hide anything from her successfully.
“Is there something you’re not telling me?” Carter’s voice was quiet, concerned.
Jo’s heart gave a big lurch in her chest, and she shook her head, rapidly. “No. Nothing.”
Carter stepped closer, still peering into her face. Jo had a hard time meeting her eyes.
“Tell me,” Carter said, almost angry now.
“It’s nothing. Really. You’re going to think I’m overreacting.”
“What is it?”
“Inside the cabin—”
A loud crashing sound cut her off, and she and Carter whirled toward it. A moment later, their friends, Meg and Rachel, stumbled into camp. Meg almost literally tripped her last few steps, but managed to catch her balance.
“Thank Christ,” Meg said. She slung her backpack off and dropped it on the ground where she stood. She rolled the big muscles in her shoulders and rubbed the sweat out of her short, almost buzzed blond hair. “I thought we’d never get here.”
Rachel flicked her long, black hair behind her shoulders and blew a strand of it off her red, damp face. “The last time we stopped, you said you were fine—that you could keep going for hours.”
Meg gave her a level stare. “I lied. Ten more minutes, and I was planning on dying, right there on the trail, and making you bury me in the woods. I only said I was okay to help you keep going.”
Rachel stuck her tongue out, and Meg swatted at her, playfully.
“Stop flirting, you two,” Carter said. Jo’s cousin always liked to be in charge, but she was smiling, only half serious. Meg and Rachel had only recently started dating, so asking them to stop flirting was a losing battle. Also, despite being somewhat annoying, they were incredibly cute together.
Carter rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Jo—show us the cabin before it gets too dark. The sun sets early up here.”
Jo left the keys in the little pocket of her tent, and after she got them out, she saw Carter watching her, clearly confused. Why keep the door locked when she was here? She knew Carter wouldn’t understand until she saw what was in the bedroom, so she didn’t try to explain.
“Get your headlamps, guys. It’s really dark inside.”
The others took a couple of minutes to find them and then followed her to the cabin, Rachel and Meg noting the state of the furniture out on the porch. Jo’s heart was racing and her hands started shaking again, so she barely heard what they were saying. She took a long, deep breath to steady herself and unlocked the door. The others followed her in and the four of them stood, just inside the doorway, taking in the filth. The spotlights from their headlamps made arcs around the room, revealing years of mess and neglect on every surface and in every corner. With the others here, it seemed even worse than yesterday, almost embarrassing, the air thick, dank, and almost fetid.
“I’m sorry, guys,” Carter finally said. “This is a complete waste of time. We’ll never be able to stay in here. Jo and I will have to hire someone to do this.”
“What do you mean?” Rachel asked, almost whispering, her arms crossed tightly over her body. “It’s just…a little dirty.”
Carter laughed. “Thanks, Rachel, but come on. It’s disgusting.”
Rachel’s smile was weak. “Nothing a little elbow grease can’t cure.”
The four of them stayed where they were, no one wanting to move farther inside the gloomy room. Still, Jo thought, Rachel was right in a way. Beyond the cushions, almost everything else appeared salvageable. This room was still dry, the wood sound and sturdy under her feet. The living-room furniture was nearly destroyed, but that could be replaced, and she didn’t detect, at least presently, any sign of animals inside. As for what was in the bedroom—that was something else, something only she and Carter should see for now. A little flicker of hope flashed through her heart. With the others here, she didn’t have to be afraid anymore.
“She’s right,” Jo said.
“I am?” Rachel asked, eyebrows up.
Everyone was staring at her now, disbelief in every expression, but Jo nodded. “It’s just dirt. We came up here, in part, to clean it out. We can do one room at a time.” Saying this out loud made her believe it. That carefully arranged structure in the bedroom, once taken down, would just be furniture again. Nothing scary about that, she told herself, trying to believe it.
Clearly no one wanted to argue with her, but no one met her gaze. Everyone seemed to be waiting for someone else to speak first.
Carter let out a long, whistling breath. “I guess.”
The others relaxed a little, and Jo smiled. In any group, whatever Carter said, people naturally went along with. She was just like that.
“What should we do first?” Meg asked.
Carter paused for a long while, hands on her hips. “Well, we definitely can’t stay inside tonight, and maybe not for a couple of days. Let’s set up the other tents outside and get the rest of camp together before it’s too dark. I’ll poke around in here with Jo and make a list of the other things we’ll need. I can pick them up tomorrow, when Jo and I go get Daniela and the gas for the generator.” Carter’s wife Daniela had been forced to postpone her vacation for a day.
Despite the thick tree coverage, the sunlight was nearly blinding when they went outside. All of them paused on the porch to let their eyes adjust and took off their headlamps.
Carter pointed. “You can set the tents up over there near where Jo has hers. The ground around it is pretty flat in several places, if I remember right. Put as much space as you can between the tents for privacy.”
Rachel giggled and Meg elbowed her, lifting her eyebrows up and down.
Carter sighed. “I meant for the noise, you perv.”
“I meant for noise too,” Meg said, making Rachel laugh.
Carter smiled and rolled her eyes. “Anyway, Jo and I need to get started inside. Can you guys do my tent, too? It’s right on top of my pack.”
“Sure,” Meg replied.
“Okay. Just holler if you need us.”
Jo and Carter watched as Rachel and Meg raced back to their packs. They’d planned for Carter, her wife Daniela, Jo, and their friend Meg to spend the next two weeks up here together, but it hadn’t worked out that way. Carter had promised Jo that she wouldn’t be the extra wheel, but that was before Meg invited her new girlfriend, Rachel. Jo could hear parts of their back-and-forth banter and laughter. Watching their covert and not-so-covert touches and kisses, Jo told herself she shouldn’t mind being left out. With the tension between her and Daniela, she had already expected some awkwardness this week. And anyway, it was nice to see Meg so happy. She hadn’t dated anyone seriously in years.
“So,” Carter finally said. “What’s got you so freaked out?”
Jo met her eyes. “It’s in one of the bedrooms.”
Jo led her back inside, both of them pausing for a moment to relight their headlamps. They both had to struggle with the bedroom door for a moment again, and then it finally swung open as it had yesterday—all at once. The door swung wide, slamming into the wall, and the furniture structure was revealed once more.
“What do you make of it?”
Carter’s head moved up and down, the light from her headlamp eventually crossing every inch of the entire pile. She pointed at the unbroken dust on the floor and Jo nodded that she’d noticed it, too. Carter stepped forward to look at it more closely, and Jo let out a quiet gasp.
Carter turned back. “You okay?”
“Sorry. Go ahead.”
Carter approached the furniture structure slowly, walking lightly as if afraid it would fall. With Carter here, Jo wasn’t nearly as frightened as she’d been yesterday, and now she actually understood what she was seeing. There were, she saw, too many things in here. Usually, each bedroom held two twin beds, a dresser, and two chairs. Somehow all the bedroom furniture from both rooms had been moved in here and stacked together. Her fright finally began to abate, and she walked forward and touched one of the chairs. The structure held steady. The pile, despite the height, had been well arranged. It was solid and firm.
She and Carter’s eyes met, and Jo lifted her shoulders. With Carter here, her rational mind was functioning again, and she tried to think of an explanation.
“Do you think Aunt Nancy did this?”
When the cabin had belonged to their grandparents, it had been a shared space for their entire extended family. Before their grandparents died, everyone in the family took turns visiting it throughout the year on an agreed-upon schedule. Their grandparents had died in quick succession two years ago, and their dad’s twin sister, Nancy, had commandeered the keys, setting off the lawsuit that was still in progress.
Carter shook her head. “I doubt it. I can’t see Nancy hiking up here just for a prank. She’s not the nature-loving type.”
“Then why did she take the keys?”
“To be a bitch, as usual.”
Jo stared at the pile and then took a couple of steps away from it to view the entire structure again. “Can you think of anyone else who would do this?”
“She was the only one with keys.”
“That we know of.”
Carter nodded. “That’s true. I guess there could be other sets.”
“It’s creepy either way,” Jo said. She paused, trying to think of another explanation. “If it wasn’t Nancy, who was the last person up here?”
Carter lifted one eyebrow, thinking. “Nancy claims she hasn’t been up here at all, so if she’s telling the truth, it would have been Martin right before Grandpa died.” Their cousin Martin and his sons had used this as a ski lodge every January.
Jo frowned, confused. “That’s even weirder. Why would he do this? He’s not the type to do something just as a prank. I guess one of his kids might have done it?”
Carter lifted her hands. “I mean, it could have been someone else, but I’m pretty sure he was the last one here. Let’s call him tomorrow when we get cell service again and see what he says.” She gestured at the pile. “Do you think we should stop by the forest-ranger station? When we go back down tomorrow? See if they’ve heard of any vandalism in the park lately?”
Jo considered the situation and then shook her head. “No. Let’s ask Martin and the rest of the family first. If it’s not one of them, I’m betting some teenagers managed to get in somehow. Or Nancy. If she didn’t do it herself, she might have asked someone to come up here.”
Carter snorted. “I wouldn’t put it past her. She’s that petty.”
“Should we tell the others—Meg and Rachel?”
Carter paused and then shook her head. “No. It might scare them. I can see now why you were so weird earlier—it kind of creeps me out, too. I’m sure it’s nothing but a prank, but I don’t know how they would take it. Let’s tell them only if we have to.”
They spent a minute or two examining the rest of the room, kicking up dust. The structure stood, level, secure, no matter what they did, and Jo found that with extended exposure, she was finding it easier and easier to be in here. It was still incredibly hot in the bedroom, in part because the broken window had been blocked by a curtain and the furniture. This was actually a good thing, as very little moisture had come inside. She didn’t remark on the fact that the window had clearly been broken from the inside out, and Carter didn’t seem to notice.
Jo followed her cousin out into the main living space again. Carter walked over to the other bedroom to take a peek inside and then closed the door again, nodding that it was okay.
Jo thought they were headed outside, but Carter stopped by the front door and turned around, shamefaced and guilty.
“Listen, Jo. I wanted to say I’m really sorry about Rachel. I wouldn’t have asked Meg up here if I’d known she was going to invite—”
“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it. They’re cute together.”
“I know, but I promised you wouldn’t be left out this week. And with Daniela coming up tomorrow—”
Jo squeezed her hands. “Stop. It’s okay. It was always going to be awkward this week, no matter what.”
Carter’s face fell, and Jo pulled her into a hug. “It’s okay. I’m doing better now.”
Carter drew away, frowning. “Goddamn Elsa. I still can’t believe it.”
“I’m getting over it. It’s been six months.”
“I still can’t believe she broke up with you on your birthday.”
“She always gave the worst presents.”
Carter laughed. “Okay. Still, I’m sorry if you feel left out this week.”
Jo followed her outside. It was getting late now, but the light outside was still much brighter than in the cabin. They snapped off their headlamps and slid them down around their necks. Meg and Rachel had put four camp chairs around the firepit and already started a campfire. They’d also collected a sizeable pile of wood nearby, ready for the evening ahead. Even now, at the end of the summer, it was cold up here at night at this elevation. The thin air didn’t hold the heat the way it did down in the foothills.
“What’s the rest of the cabin like?” Rachel asked when they drew closer.
Carter threw Jo a quick glance before responding. “The same—filthy. Only that one window in the bedroom is broken, but luckily the curtain in there blocked most of the weather from getting in. A little dry rot on the sill, but it’s minor.” She paused. “It’s going to be a really big job, though, guys. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Of course!” Rachel said. “That’s what we’re here for. We want to help.”
“Kind of shitty to make you work on your vacation. Jo and I should be the ones to clean it out.”
Rachel put a hand on her arm. “It’s fine. I’m looking forward to seeing it restored.”
“Thanks, Rachel,” Carter said. “I appreciate it. I really do. Once everything’s done, you guys can come up here any time it’s free.”
Rachel and Meg shared a smile, and Carter rolled her eyes at Jo. Sorry, she mouthed. Jo shrugged and made herself smile back.
“You guys all set for the night?” Carter asked.
The tents were already up, and Jo was glad to see that both couples’ tents were far from hers. She didn’t mind their loving happiness, but she didn’t need to hear it in the middle of the night, either.
“Not quite,” Meg said. “We don’t have our mattresses or sleeping bags out yet. Yours is all ready, though.”
“Okay. While you guys finish, I’ll get started on dinner. It’ll be dark soon, and it’s going to be chilly.”
“I’ve got some brats for tonight,” Meg said.
“Any of them vegetarian?” Rachel asked.
Meg looked crestfallen, and Rachel laughed. “I’m joking. I brought my own food.”
“Brats sound good to me,” Carter said. “I can cook up some chili, too, if anyone wants it.”
“I brought stuff for s’mores,” Rachel added.
Everyone turned to Jo, and she grinned. She’d stored her backpack in the little vestibule by her tent, and she went over to it, dug around, and pulled out an oversized bottle of tequila.
“This is all I brought. That okay?”
Meg stood up from her spot by the fire, walked over to her, wrapped her in her thickly muscled arms, and gave her a long, solid hug, almost popping her back. Meg sobbed and pretended to wipe away a tear. “My hero.”
Jo laughed and bent down onto one knee, holding it up in tribute. “For you, my lady. May my offering give you pleasure.”
“Hear, hear!” Rachel shouted, and they all laughed.
Jo sat up, still wrapped in her mummy bag, and listened. She was sure something had woken her, but the silence beyond the tent remained thick and complete. She held her breath, listening harder, but heard nothing. Just as she was certain she’d imagined some remnant of a dream, she heard it again: footfalls, heaving, plodding, somewhere near her tent. Whatever it was, it was a heavy walker, but cautious. It moved a few steps, paused, and then continued. With the moon already set, the animal was likely having a hard time seeing anything. She listened longer until she was sure—a deer, maybe an elk. Sometimes, like any animal, they would risk moving around in darkness if they thought they were in danger. Hopefully it could smell her and the tent and would give the camp a wide margin.
She lay back down, her heart still racing. Now that she was listening for it, the sound of the animal was obvious, clear. A branch snapped, and the footsteps halted again for a long moment before continuing that careful tread through the woods. It was a long time before the sound faded away completely.
She was still wide awake. Her startled fear had faded, but the adrenaline was still pulsing through her, making her ready for flight. She made herself snuggle into her bag, covering her head again, and took several long, deep breaths before closing her eyes. Certain she wouldn’t fall asleep again, she was a little surprised when she started to drift off.
When she sat up again some time later, a faint light filtered inside through the tent walls. As before, she was listening, holding her breath, and again she heard nothing. She took a couple of quiet breaths and then held the last one. Still nothing. Just as she was about to make herself lie down again, she heard it—footsteps. Not a deer.
She slipped on her knitted cap and gloves, struggled out of her sleeping bag, and pulled her pants over her long underwear. She scooted the sleeping bag out of the way and grabbed the fleece jacket she’d used as a pillow before unzipping and climbing up and out of her tent. She shook one boot and then the other before putting them on, carefully and quietly closing the tent behind her. The sky was still dim, her watch suggesting that full sunrise was still about an hour away. She’d put her headlamp in her jacket pocket, and she snapped it on. She threw a quick glance at Carter’s tent, wondering if she should wake her, too, but dismissed the idea almost as once. It was clearly just an animal, perhaps the same one she’d heard hiking up here today, and a second person would simply scare it away.
She walked into the woods in the direction she’d heard the sound. She paused, listening. A few birds were starting their morning songs, and off in the distance she thought she heard a squirrel chastising something, but detected nothing else, nothing to explain what she’d heard. Unlike the deer or elk from earlier this morning, this sound had been different—lighter, somehow. Still, she couldn’t be sure she’d actually heard it. The tread had been much softer and surer somehow, almost as if whatever it was could see where it was going, with none of that hesitation the larger animal had moved with earlier in the night. It had also seemed closer. Much closer, perhaps ten or fifteen feet from the tent. A bear, probably. She didn’t want to creep up on it—that would be stupid, but if she spotted it, she would at least know what they were dealing with and wake the others if needed.
It was colder than she’d expected, and she caught a whiff of something foul and rotten. A predator like a mountain lion or bear might have dragged its kill nearby. They would have to get out some of their bear spray to scare it off. She took out her handheld flashlight and shined it on the ground. She bent close, not entirely sure what she hoped to see, and moved the light in short arcs in front of her as she inched forward farther into the woods.
“Lose something?” Carter asked.
Jo shrieked and spun, almost tripping backward over a log. Carter squeezed her lips together, but a moment later she was laughing, hands up in a warding-off gesture.
“I’m so sorry, Jo. I couldn’t resist.”
“You asshole. You almost scared me to death.”
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime. You would have done the same.”
“Not likely. Not unless I wanted to give you a heart attack.”
“Okay, okay. But seriously—what are you looking for?”
Jo paused, turning slightly and peering into the woods. Her eyes had adjusted a little, and the light had increased in the last few minutes. She could see some twenty feet into the woods but spotted nothing out there—no movement at all in the still, dawn light.
“I thought I heard something. It woke me up.”
Carter frowned and walked over to her, staring out into the woods. They both stood there, both holding their breath, but again, Jo heard nothing.
Carter shrugged. “Maybe a raccoon, or a fox. They’re attracted to the smell of human food.”
“Maybe.” Jo didn’t actually believe this. While quieter than the deer, the noise had come from something bigger than a fox. She decided, however, to let it go.
“What are you doing up?”
Carter sighed. “I couldn’t sleep. Not long anyway—two, maybe three hours.”
Jo raised an eyebrow. Carter didn’t lose sleep over almost anything. Three years ago, Carter had spent the night before her wedding to Daniela at Jo’s place and slept like a log all night. Jo, on the other hand, the best lady, had been pacing and fidgeting until dawn—terrified she’d mess something up. Carter was the family rock—steady, unflappable, dependable, and calm in a crisis.
“You worried about something?” Jo asked.
“Not exactly. At first, I couldn’t stop thinking about the furniture in the bedroom. I must have slept a little, because when I checked my watch again, it was almost two. I tossed and turned, and finally decided just to go fix it.”
“On your own?”
Carter nodded. “Yeah. I mean, at first I just wanted to see if I could, and wait for you to help me today, but once I got started, I decided to finish. None of it’s very heavy—it was just a matter of dragging half of it to the other bedroom.”
Jo had a hot flash of relief. After showing the pile to Carter, she’d avoided going inside the cabin for the rest of the day. Though she wasn’t as scared of it as she had been, it was still unnerving. She didn’t want to see or look at the furniture structure again. Carter had done her a huge favor without realizing it.
She licked her lips and tried to sound casual. “Must have taken you all night.”
She could see Carter shrug in the pale light. “I just finished, if that’s any indication.”
Again, they stared into the woods, and Jo sensed that Carter was waiting for something. They’d spent enough time together that she could tell what her cousin was thinking and feeling. The silence dragged on into awkwardness, and Jo finally forced the issue by speaking first.
“Are you sure there’s nothing else? You seem worked up. It’s not only the furniture.”
After a long pause, finally Carter sighed. “Yes, actually. I’m worried about you.”
Carter started to shrug again and then shook her head. “You’ve been so down, lately, and I can’t help feeling like I should have done more for you. After Elsa left, I mean. I’ve been so busy at work, lately, and then there’s the weirdness between you and Daniela…but that’s no excuse. I should have been there for you, and I’ve barely seen you for months now. I’m sorry.”
A flash of angry resentment—the same feeling Jo had nursed for months now—washed through her in a hot blaze. Carter was trying, and she should let her apologize. She knew this intellectually, but it was hard to let go of the pain with just a few words. She made herself take a deep breath and let it out. “It’s okay, Carter. Really, it is. I know I was pretty dramatic when she broke up with me, but I’m feeling better about it—I promise.”
“Are you dating yet?”
Jo shook her head. “No. I mean, I’ve seen a couple of women, but nothing serious. One or two dates.”
Carter raised her eyebrows up and down. “Oh yeah?”
Jo laughed. “The answer is yes, if that’s what you’re implying. But nothing past breakfast.” She paused, peering at Carter closely. “Anything else bothering you? My love life can’t be keeping you up at night.”
Carter sighed and then shook her head, apparently defeated. “It’s mostly about you and Daniela. She’s my wife, Jo, and I’m worried that when she comes up here, you guys will start fighting again, and then—”
Jo grabbed her shoulders. “Carter—it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. It’s been so long now, I can’t imagine it’s gotten any worse. I promise I won’t start anything with her.”
“She won’t even talk about you. I know I should have pushed her a little, but I was hoping she’d come around. Then last week, when I told her you managed to get the time off, and that you’d be up here too, she tried to back out. It was all I could do to convince her to come up at all. She’s still upset about Elsa.”
When Jo had started dating Elsa, Elsa and Daniela had immediately hit it off. The two of them had been like sisters. They took trips together and had eventually ended up working together in a little Mexican bakery and café they co-owned in Longmont. Elsa had sold her half of the business when she and Jo broke up, and Daniela had barely talked to Jo since.
“Do you know why?” Jo asked.
Carter shook her head. “She won’t tell me. I mean, I know she was scrambling for a while to get a second manager at the café, but I don’t think it has anything to do with that anymore. The new guy is great—better than Elsa, actually. It must be something else.”
“So you don’t have any idea why she’s so mad at me?”
She shook her head again. “No. I was hoping you’d tell me.”
The sun finally broke the tree line, and warm light flooded the area around the cabin. The birds ratcheted up, so loud now they almost hurt Jo’s ears. She and Carter started at a loud crashing sound, both turning toward it just in time to see the tail end of a deer leaping away. They smiled at each other, both a little sheepish at their fright.
Carter squeezed her shoulder. “Just try to talk to her this week for me, Jo. Maybe you two can make it up. It would mean a lot to me if you guys were friends again.”
Jo almost argued with her. She’d tried to talk to Daniela several times over the last six months, in person and via text and email. As far as she knew, Daniela was uninterested in mending fences. Still, seeing Carter’s worn, tired face, there was only one thing she could say.
“I promise I’ll try. As hard as I can.”
“I’ll start breakfast. When are we heading down?”
“As soon as possible. Daniela gets off work at noon today, but I wanted to buy the supplies before we pick her up so we can make it back here before dark.” She grinned. “She’s not going to be happy about sleeping in a tent, I can tell you.”
“Still not a camping convert?”
“I guess she never will be. I mean, she’ll do it, to please me, now and again, but it’s never her idea, that’s for sure. She just likes a roof over her head and flushing toilets. Can’t say I blame her, really.” She snapped her fingers. “Dang, that reminds me. I need to check the outhouse in the daylight. It was a little smelly last night, which means I might need to buy some more peat and lime when I’m in town. I know it was cleaned out two years ago, but I think the stuff in there needs to be refreshed.”
“Anyway, go ahead and start breakfast. I’ve almost finished making the list, so I should be ready to hike down right after we eat.”
Carter set off for the outhouse, and Jo began pulling the breakfast things out of the bear canisters and coolers. By the time the water for the coffee was boiling, the others had gotten up. Rachel seemed to like having a fire, as she immediately lit a new one, somewhat unnecessarily. It did help with the bugs, but the air was already warming up nicely. In half an hour, it would likely already seem hot.
Soon, Jo was frying eggs on the camp stove, and Meg was helping Carter. Despite the occasional crazed song of the birds, it was quiet here, windless and still. Rachel stood up from the fire and walked closer to Jo, rubbing her thin arms against the last of the morning chill. Her long, black hair was tied back in a loose ponytail today, and she looked a little pale, possibly from lack of sleep or the remnants of last night’s tequila. She smiled at Jo, a little uncertainly, neither one of them having much to talk about. They’d met once before, for a couple of hours last week when they were all planning the trip, but all Jo knew about her was that she was a lawyer, like Carter.
They spoke at the same time.
“When I—” Rachel began.
They laughed, awkwardly.
“Go ahead,” Jo said.
“I was just going to say that when I woke up and got out of the tent, I thought you were Carter. Do people get you two mixed up?”
“All the time.”
“You could be twins. I’ve seen twins less like you. You’re like that old show—that one about identical cousins.”
Rachel laughed. “That’s the one. I used to watch it on the retro channel when I was a kid. I love those corny old shows.”
“Carter and I watched it a lot growing up. We memorized the song and could do that mirror thing in the doorway.”
“Oh, that’s right—Meg mentioned you grew up together.”
“Carter moved in with my family when we were thirteen.”
“You’re the same age?”
Jo grinned at her. “Close enough to be twins—a few hours apart, same day.”
“Creepy,” Rachel said, then blushed. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I think it creeped our parents out, too, until they got used to it. It’s some kind of genetic fluke. Some people say we look like one of our great-great-aunts, or something, but I don’t know. We don’t resemble anyone else in the family. Everyone else has really dark hair, and that’s just the beginning. Both my sisters look just like my dad’s sister.”
Rachel inched nearer, peering at her intently. Jo blushed under her gaze, but if Rachel noticed her embarrassment, it didn’t stop her. Finally, Rachel shook her head.
“Up close, I guess I can see some differences. Your hair is lighter than hers, and you’re obviously tanner. And your eyes are a little different, too. Hers aren’t as blue.”
“I spend a lot of time outside. And we’re pretty different in other ways, too, once you get to know us better.”
Rachel smiled. “I hope I do. I’m having fun with you guys.”
She laughed. “Oh? Cleaning is fun?”
Rachel shrugged. “Well, maybe not that part—but the rest of it. I still don’t know a lot of people here.”
“That’s right. Meg and Carter said you moved here from out of state.”
Rachel nodded. “California.”
“Why did you come to Colorado?”
“I wanted a change. I came here for a conference a couple of years ago and kind of fell in love. My parents think I’m crazy. I had a great job in San Francisco, and it paid more than I make now. And all my brothers and sisters live near them in the Bay Area. It’s kind of a Korean thing, especially for daughters, to stay close—or at least it is for my parents and their friends. But then, I was already different from the rest of my family when I came out of the closet.” She paused. “But you and Carter are kind of like that, too, right? Your whole family is here in Colorado.”
Jo nodded. “Yep—every single one of us. And we marry locals, too. People in our family take it as a personal insult if you leave the state. My sister Annie went to college in Wyoming, and my parents almost disowned her. She came back after she graduated.”
Rachel laughed. “Yeah, my parents are exactly like that. I’ve gotten the silent treatment from my mom since I moved.”
“Well, Meg’s happy you’re here, obviously.”
Rachel grinned, her cheeks coloring slightly. “I’m so happy I met her. We’ve been together only a few weeks, but it’s going well. I haven’t dated anyone like her before. My previous girlfriends were so uptight—career-focused, money-driven, overachievers. I always thought that’s what I wanted, but Meg kind of swept me off my feet.”
Jo smiled, happy to hear it. Meg was definitely not career- or money-focused. She worked seasonally as a ski instructor or river-rafting guide and lived in a tiny studio apartment. She probably wouldn’t work at all, if she could get away with it.
“Carter’s glad you’re here, too. She can’t say enough about you at work. She told me the other day she doesn’t know how she ever got along without you.”
Rachel grinned and wiped her forehead. “Whew! What a relief. I mean, I thought it was going okay, but it’s hard to tell at a new job.” She paused. “You know what—I don’t know what you do. Are you a lawyer, too?”
Jo laughed. “I wouldn’t do that for all the money in the world. I work in the parks department for Fort Collins.”
“Oh, cool. That explains why you’re outside a lot.”
“Almost every day.”
They were quiet for a long, awkward pause. Jo was terrible at this kind of small talk. Luckily, Rachel broke the silence.
“What does Carter’s wife think of you two?”
“What do you mean?” Jo asked.
“I mean, how does Daniela deal with having two of you? Has she ever mistaken you for Carter?”
Jo laughed. “Once. And it was embarrassing as hell.”
“Oh, do tell.”
Jo shook her head. “No way—Daniela swore me to secrecy. Even Carter doesn’t know.” She looked around to make sure she wasn’t nearby. “But I will say this. When it happened, Daniela was naked. I know exactly where and what her tattoos are on some fairly private places.”
Rachel started giggling, and soon they were both laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Meg asked, walking into camp.
“Nothing,” Rachel said, giggling again.
Meg cocked an eyebrow her way, which sent Jo into another giggle fit. Meg started laughing simply watching them, and before long the three of them were breathless, clutching their stomachs.
Jo had just managed to calm down and was wiping her eyes when Carter joined them. Seeing their faces, she asked, “What’s up?” and it sent them off again.