Chapter 1: Fifty Shades of Gangrene
I woke up in a motel room I’d never seen. No matter how hard I’ve thought about it since, I have no memory of how I got there or what happened the night before.
There were beer bottles all over the side table. Not to mention a completely empty eighth of Jack Daniels. What looked like some kind of fancy foreign wine bottle, also drained, was filled with cigarette butts. The TV, one of those old boxy sets, had fallen back against the wall, and in the corner an armchair was lying on its side. Feathers were everywhere; one of the pillows had been torn open.
I was pretty sure I was alone.
No one was in bed with me. When I leaned over to check the floor I saw only more feathers and more beer bottles scattered across the carpet—along with my clothes. All of them. My jeans were in a pile against the wall with my underwear still bunched inside. My bra hung over the one armchair that was still standing.
I realized, only now, that I was totally naked.
And I’d definitely had sex.
I was sore, and not just a little. I hadn’t felt like this since Shawn and I were going at it like rabbits during my senior year of high school.
But we hadn’t had sex in months, as far as could remember, anyway.
I tried not to think about the fact that there was no good reason I would have needed to check into a motel if I’d been with my husband that night. I’m pretty young, but I live in a really small town where just about everyone gets married before they’re twenty, like I did. It’s just what people do around here. I looked at the mess around me; I’d been with Shawn plenty long enough to know that he definitely didn’t drink wine. Not even whiskey, really.
And yet despite my fear about whatever it was I’d done the night before, and despite my apparent blackout, and the pervasive smell of stale cigarettes—and some other smell too, I noticed now, something faintly rancid—I felt, well . . . great.
It was as if I’d been sleeping for days and had woken up completely refreshed. I didn’t have the slightest headache. I didn’t feel a hint of nausea. When I stood up, I practically leapt out of bed. I pulled on my pants and felt like I had the energy to race up the face of a cliff
But I still couldn’t remember anything.
Other than the bottles everywhere, there was no evidence of whoever else had been with me in the room. The only clothes I’d found on the floor had been mine, and the bathroom was empty. The only thing in the mini-bar fridge, weirdly, was an empty gallon milk container.
I looked under the bed and checked my pockets, but I couldn’t find my phone. So I couldn’t even look at my recent calls. Had I lost it, or had someone stolen it? I had no idea.
Outside, it was a beautiful day. But when I stepped into what I recognized now as the parking lot of the Starlight Motel, I realized that it wasn’t morning. The sun was already starting to set. Apparently I’d slept all afternoon.
Now that I was out in the fresh air, things started to come back to me about the day before, if not the night.
Suddenly I remembered what I’d found at the high school with my brother-in-law. I remembered how I’d helped carry it even. I remembered the stench, and how afterward I couldn’t quite wash off the smell. I wondered if maybe it was the scent I’d been smelling inside the motel room.
I also remembered why my car was nowhere to be seen. I live in Muldoon, Colorado, and if you haven’t heard of it, you’re basically like everybody else in the world who isn’t from Muldoon. We don’t even have a stoplight. It’s that small. The only thing that ever happens is the fair, once a year. The kids sell their livestock, there’s a carnival and a rodeo, and everyone pretty much has an excuse to get drunk all weekend.
I do the books at this trucking company whose office is right across from the fairgrounds. I usually park in the lot there, and when I got off work early yesterday there was this huge bus blocking my car. It was emblazoned with a massive Bryce Tripp logo. He was supposed to be this up-and-coming country star, but, honestly, I hadn’t heard of him before a few days ago. (How big could he really be if he was giving a concert at the Muldoon fair?) The people in charge of his bus must have been waiting to get into the rodeo grounds where his concert was going to be, but I couldn’t find the driver anywhere. I couldn’t even reach my husband because the cell phones were already jammed from everyone arriving from out of town.
So I’d asked my boss for a ride home. I remembered now. I’d figured I’d worry about my car later. I hadn’t really needed it anyway then because Ian, my brother in law, was supposed to give me and Shawn a ride to the fair that night so we could drink, then he was going to bring us home later.
That had been the plan anyway.
Now I was at the Starlight Motel, alone, without a car or a phone, and still no memory at all of how I got there.
I tried to go back and piece together everything that had happened the previous day as best as I could.
First, I remembered that when my boss dropped me at home, Shawn was already there, watching TV, as usual. His station at the couch was pretty much the only place he spent time lately when he wasn’t at work. He has a shift at the mill, which I know can be exhausting, but it’d been months since he’d been out. And lately he’d started saying he didn’t want me to go out with any of my friends alone. One of the reasons I’d been looking forward to the fair for weeks was that Shawn wouldn’t have any choice but to get off his ass and go somewhere. I’d been hoping that maybe we could have a little fun again, for once.
“I’m getting in the shower,” I called out, competing with the blare of Sports Center. “Ian’s gonna be here in an hour, remember?”
After a moment, Shawn yelled back.
“Tonight? We’ll go tomorrow,” he said. “No one really shows up until Saturday anyway.”
I should have seen this coming. If my husband never wanted to go out at all anymore, why would he ever go out for two nights in a row without complaining about it? I’d thought things would be different during fair, but I guess I’d been wrong.
I tried not to sound too irritated. “Everyone always goes tonight.” I leaned into the living room and found myself talking to the back of my husband’s head. He was only twenty-six, but his hair was already beginning to thin. “All your friends are going. And mine. Morgan’s already there waiting for me. And Ian’s coming all the way back in the middle of Tyler’s football game just to give us a ride. It would be weird if you didn’t go.”
Before Shawn could respond, I stepped into the bathroom and turned on the shower. I hoped that by putting myself out of earshot he would give up and agree to just go without a fight.
While I undressed, I forced myself to look at the mirror. I’d definitely put on a little weight since high school, but not as much as Shawn had, especially after his accident. But I looked okay, I decided. Nothing like Morgan, who’d somehow stayed as skinny as she was at sixteen. But at least I looked okay.
While the water warmed up, without really meaning to, I started considering what my night out would be like if Shawn did just stay at home. I thought about having the chance to ride into town with Ian alone. I thought about doing shots with Morgan, just the two of us. Maybe it wouldn’t have been the worst thing after all if Shawn didn’t come. In the middle of washing my hair, I actually started seriously considered persuading him to stay home.
But by the time I got out of the shower I could hear him changing from his work clothes, and I decided not to say anything. I couldn’t. Not after I’d already talked him into going. I’d feel too guilty if I did something like that, anyway. Besides, it would probably be good for us to get drunk together.
Ian pulled up to the house just as I was finishing with my makeup. I wore this new low-cut top I’d bought just for the fair and my tightest pair of jeans. Maybe it wasn’t exactly what they were wearing in Denver these days, but not bad for the Muldoon fair.
I could tell my brother-in-law was in a hurry to get back before the end of the high school football game, but he was too polite to say so. As we came out of the house Ian kept his truck idling, sauntered over to Shawn, and slapped his shoulder.
“Hey, buddy, you all ready for tonight?”
“Yup,” Shawn said. As always, Shawn was a little quiet and intimidated by Ian. “Ready to go.”
“Hiya, sis!” Ian gave me a quick hug, then just as quickly he let me go and hopped back into his pickup.
Ian was in a good mood. On the way over he told us that Tyler got a touchdown, and besides being happy that his son had played well, he was looking forward to being out at the fair tonight too. I could tell.
“You sure you’re okay not drinking?” I asked him. “I’m glad I’m not the one stuck driving.”
I was glad Ian had offered to give us a ride, but the truth is I also liked how Ian got after a couple drinks. He’d been a medic in Iraq, and now he worked as an EMT at our tiny local hospital. When he got back from the war I used to worry he’d break down or something if he drank, but he never did. Mostly he just got less serious and his sense of humor would come out. I’d laugh at his wry jokes, and he always laughed along with me in this kind and warmly boyish way he had. He’s actually really attractive—way more attractive than Shawn—but sometimes I think my sister doesn’t even realize this.
“Who says I can’t have a beer?” Ian winked at me. “It’s fair time. I’ll nurse one for a little while.” He nudged Shawn’s arm. “Just don’t tell Danielle.”
I was pretty sure Ian really wouldn’t have any more than one drink. I don’t think I know anyone who’s more responsible. Besides, if he did, my sister would find out one way or another and kill him.
I was about to ask whether he was taking Haley, his youngest, to the carnival tonight, but that’s when Ian’s phone rang.
The gruff, semi-garbled voice on the speakerphone must have been a hospital dispatcher, but I couldn’t make out who it was. “Ian, you there at the school?” the voice asked.
“Just left,” Ian said.
“I guess someone had a fall in the girl’s locker room, or something. Probably nothing, but could you check it out? Ambulance is still stuck here at the hospital.”
Ian switched off the speaker and brought the phone to his ear. “Yeah, I’ll be there in a couple minutes.”
He hung up.
“You don’t mind if we make a little detour, do you? It’s probably nothing, but I gotta check it out.”
“That’s alright,” I said.
But in truth I was feeling selfish and a little disappointed that Ian couldn’t just drop us at the fairgrounds. What kind of town only had one ambulance? I guess Ian’s SUV was the sole backup.
Ian pulled right up to the door of the girl’s locker room. The second half of the football game had already started. I could hear the hum of the crowd over at the field, but the gym was deserted. Shawn stepped from the pickup, but in an old high-school habit he was hesitant about going into the girls’ locker room, which I thought was kind of sadly funny, as if he were still just a kid.
Ian was in a hurry. “Come on in, if you want,” he told us. “We’re a little understaffed.” He laughed. “Maybe you could give me a hand, if I need it.”
I hadn’t stepped into the locker room for years. Bernice Whipple, my old P.E. teacher, was even there. It was like she lived there.
“Hey, Mrs. Whipple.” I gave her my best version of a friendly wave. But she didn’t even register my presence.
She was distraught, expressionless. She went right for Ian. She grabbed his jacket, then she led him toward the showers.
“Here,” she said, whispering. “Here. It’s here.”
I followed behind, trying to stay out of the way.
When I first saw what was on the tile floor—the same place I’d stood showering a hundred times in high school—I thought maybe some kid was playing a joke, trying to scare the cheerleaders or something.
There were shards of broken glass all over the shower, and, right above, one of the big frosted windows had been broken out.
There wasn’t any blood. Just a person, naked, face down. It wasn’t a high-schooler at all, but a grown man, his bare ass in the air, his skin unnaturally pale from head to foot.
He was very obviously not alive.
I’d never seen a dead body before, not ever. But I was sure that no living person could lie that perfectly still.
This definitely wasn’t what Ian had expected when he’d invited us in. He rushed to the body and knelt beside it. In what seemed like one motion, he opened his medical bag and snapped on a blue latex glove. He pinched one of the body’s wrists, gently, checking for a pulse, I guess. But he must not have got what he needed because he put on the other glove, grabbed one of the shoulders, and turned the whole body over.
It jostled onto its back and lay face up.
I didn’t think I recognized whoever it was, but the face was so sunken and gray I wasn’t sure. To me, it looked like someone that had been dead for a long time, weeks maybe. But I guess I don’t know anything about how bodies decay—the cheerleaders must have used the locker room only a couple of hours earlier, and the body couldn’t have been in the shower then.
Ian touched the body’s throat, again checking for a pulse which I knew wouldn’t be there.
I’d been so distracted by the deteriorated face, it was only now that I noticed what Ian was staring at.
He and everyone else. Mrs. Whipple was letting out this long-winded weeping sound and starting to cry.
Ian glanced at me, obviously regretting that he’d let me and Shawn come here with him. But now there wasn’t anything he could do about it. He returned his attention to the body, maybe not entirely sure what to do next.
It was missing its penis. Where it should have been was just this short fleshy stump. The wound was raggedly scabbed over and looked infected.
I was so stunned that I didn’t even feel sick, not even when I saw what was below the missing penis: two baseball-sized spheres of tightly swollen flesh. They were the testicles, puffed up unnaturally and darkened to a deep, blackish purple, like a pair of giant toxic mushrooms.
I could hear Shawn breathing heavily behind me. I worried he was about to pass out and I wouldn’t know what to do.
“Holy fuck,” he whispered.
In the middle of all of this, Ian’s phone rang. He fumbled to answer it.
He listened. “Yeah, it’s here,” he said. I could tell it was the hospital dispatcher again. “Now you tell me,” Ian said, exasperated, then he paused. “Right now?” Another pause. “That’s not how we do things. I don’t care who—” He stopped and listened again. After a minute, reluctantly he said, “Well, I guess. I guess if that’s what they say. I don’t know. I’ll do what I can. Jesus.”
Ian stood and turned away from us. For a moment he just held his wrist to his head, apparently trying to figure out what to do. Outside, in the distance, the football game’s final buzzer sounded over the loudspeakers.
Finally Ian turned toward us.
“We have to get this out of here right now.” He gave my husband a hard look. “Shawn, buddy. I hate to ask you to do this. But I need a hand. I can’t get it into my rig on my own. I got pretty strict orders to clear this out before the crowd comes through after the game.” He nodded in the general direction of the football field. “And everyone’s on their way now.”
Shawn was silent. He took one step backwards.
Then he threw up all over a changing bench.
Instinctively, I put a hand on my husband’s back while he retched. I didn’t know what else to do. I glanced at Ian. He looked completely at a loss.
“I’ll help,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
I stepped toward the body before I could lose my nerve. Ian looked extremely uncomfortable, but I could tell he knew he didn’t have any other choice but to accept my help.
“Shit, Ashley,” he began, “you don’t…”
“I can do it.” I said.
I pulled two gloves from the cardboard box in Ian’s medical bag and put them on.
“Shit,” he said, again.
“Just tell me what to do. What do I do?”
Ian took a deep breath. “Alright. Shit. You take the ankles. It’s not far. Let’s just hurry and get this over with. God damn it, Ash. I owe you.”
I tried not to think about what I was doing. I tried to tell myself that this was no different than a dead animal, or a dummy.
But as I clutched the body’s ankles, the tendons and bones beneath the skin felt so human and lifelike that I started to feel dizzy. I tried to breathe, but I hadn’t expected the smell to be so strong. It was definitely the smell of rotten flesh. I wondered if maybe the rancid smell was coming from the swollen testicles; they did look like they were rotting or maybe turning gangrenous.
I had to do something to distract myself so I wouldn’t throw up. I was desperate not to let Ian down. I knew that my sister wouldn’t be able to do this, and somewhere deep inside I’d always understood that Danielle couldn’t ever really let herself imagine what Ian must have gone through in the war. I wondered if by helping him now, in this unlikely way, maybe I could somehow acknowledge what my sister couldn’t.
“What do you think happened to him?” I asked Ian.
I didn’t actually care what had happened, not at that moment. But I couldn’t think of any other way to get my mind off the smell and the body’s sagging, loose weight in my hands as we shuffled through the locker room.
“I have no idea,” Ian whispered. “He must have been trying to peep through the window. And then I guess he fell through the glass.”
“But what about his…?” I started, but I couldn’t finish. “Why is it missing?”
If I could barely bring myself to ask about the missing penis, I couldn’t even begin to mention the bloated testicles. They appeared at the point of bursting as the body swayed between us.
Ian gave me a look of total perplexity and shook his head. “I have no idea.”
“It’s one of those carnies!” Mrs. Whipple was still crying, but she was in control enough to make this last proclamation as she held the locker room door open for us, shuddering. “They’re all on drugs!”
The hardest part was lifting the body into the back of Ian’s SUV.
Ian laid the shoulders on the tailgate while I kept ahold of the ankles. I’d managed to control my nausea, but now my arms were burning. I didn’t even want to think about letting the body drop, or the sound of it hitting the pavement. Ian climbed into the back and pulled the shoulders from the inside, and finally I could let go. I looked around the dark lot outside the gym. I didn’t think anyone saw us, but I could hear the crowd from the game moving in our direction.
“You okay?” Ian asked.
“I’m real sorry, Ash,” he whispered. “Really.”
“It’s okay.” I tried to smile. “I need a drink,” I laughed, “but I’m okay.”
Now Ian laughed too, obviously relieved that I’d been able to handle it. Maybe he was even a little impressed.
After laughing, though, he added earnestly, “Technically you weren’t supposed to see any of this. Right?”
“Right,” I nodded. “Of course. Okay.”
I helped Shawn wash the splattered vomit off his shoes while Mrs. Whipple hurried to sweep up the broken glass.
I bought Shawn a Sprite from the vending machine, which he said helped his stomach, but I had to hurry him out of the locker room before the cheerleaders arrived.
By now everyone who had been watching the football game was passing through the parking lot on their way to the fair. No one seemed to have a clue about what had just happened. My sister was there with Haley, waiting for Tyler to finish showering.
“They won! Tyler scored!” Danielle waved to us. She had no idea what had just happened. “What are you guys doing here? I thought Ian was taking you straight to the beer garden.”
“He got called to the hospital on the way, so he dropped us here.”
Technically I wasn’t lying. I wasn’t sure what Ian did or didn’t want me to say, even to my sister.
Haley skipped over to me, obviously totally hopped up on excitement for the fair. I remembered feeling the same way when I was a kid.
“Aunt Ashley!” She slammed into me and gave me a hug. I hugged her back tentatively. I’d washed my hands and arms three times in the locker room, but I was still hesitant to touch my niece after what I’d just done. “Are you going with me to the carnival tonight?” she pleaded.
“Tomorrow!” I said.
It was so hard to say no to Haley. Over the last couple of years my niece had turned into this blonde-haired, wide-eyed kid, kind of small for her age, just like I’d been at nine. I got to play the role of the fun, slightly reckless aunt when I was with her. Last year at the fair we’d spent hours playing the same pin-ball horse racing carnival game I used to be addicted to as a kid, and I’d taught her how to cheat by tipping the machine.
But there was no way I was going to do anything tonight other than have a drink as soon as possible—an even stiffer one than I’d planned on earlier.
“But I want to play the horses!” Haley whined.
Danielle cut in, saving me. “Aunt Ashley and Uncle Shawn are having an adults’ night tonight,” she announced. “Grandma and Grandpa will take you to the horses.”
Haley looked up at me, pouting, which was annoying but still I felt guilty for letting her down.
“Tomorrow we’ll play the horses,” I promised. “Just you and me.”
“You guys want a ride over?” Danielle asked. “Tyler’s still gonna be a while.”
“I feel like a walk,” I said. “Maybe I’ll see you over there.”
It felt weird just traipsing off to the fair after everything that had happened. Someone had just died, and I’d just helped carry his body in my hands. It all felt completely unreal. I guess the right thing to do would have been to just go home, have a sober, contemplative evening, and try to make sense of what had happened. But I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being stuck alone with Shawn way out there in our quiet little house. I needed to be around people, a lot of them. I needed to get rid of the image of the mutilated body. I could still feel its weight in my arms. I was also really hoping to catch up with Ian later and find out if he’d learned anything about who the guy was, or what had happened to him before falling into the locker room, or why we’d had to rush the body away so fast.
Shawn and I joined the crowd making its way to the fairgrounds. I kept expecting him to object to continuing on to the fair, but he just walked along beside me silently, still pretty pale in the face.
“How are you?” I asked, folding my arms against the September evening air.
“Fine,” he said. “I’m fine.”
He didn’t really look at me.
I knew he was embarrassed that I’d had to be the one to help Ian. This is why he wasn’t saying anything. He would have been too ashamed to insist on running home now if I wasn’t going to suggest it first. Or maybe he also just really wanted a drink.
When we reached the beer garden, Morgan wasn’t even there yet. She was always late. I should have known.
I texted her, and she replied right back.
“b ther soon wait 4 me.”
So there was nothing to do now but wait around with Shawn’s friends, who of course had been at the beer garden for at least an hour by then.
Jason Gibbs was already mostly drunk. Right away he bought me and Shawn a beer.
Jason was a few years younger than us. I even used to babysit him. In high school, he was the basketball star, but of course no one from Muldoon ever gets a scholarship anywhere so he’d worked at the mill for a while with Shawn. Now he was a highway patrol cop; I had no idea how he’d gotten the night off. He was always a little jerk as a kid. He used to try to take Polaroids of me peeing from outside their bathroom window. For a while, though, I’d hoped that maybe he’d influence Shawn to go to the patrol academy too, and I guess I still did, so mostly I tolerated him as one of my husband’s friends.
Shawn drank his beer down as fast as I’d ever seen him drink. I bought the next round, getting a vodka tonic for myself this time.
“Whoa, Ashley!” Jason pressed his plastic beer cup into my drink. “Somebody’s partying tonight!”
“It’s been a long day,” I confessed.
Jason tapped Shawn’s arm. “You better watch your wife, bro. It’s fair time. She keeps going like that, might end up with somebody else’s dick in her ass. Not saying whose, I’m just saying.”
Shawn finished the last of his second beer. “You might end up with somebody’s dick down your throat, dude,” he said. Some of his color had come back. “And I’m saying whose. Mine.”
“Charming, as ever,” I said to both of them. But I didn’t mind that Shawn had actually sort of stuck up for me, even if it was by threatening his friend with forced fellatio in the middle of ordering more beer.
I tried to express as much of my annoyance with Jason as possible, but I was distracted by the way his long, horsey face was capped by whatever spiked thing he was trying to do with his hair. A couple of strands actually kept bobbing up a down idiotically whenever he laughed, which I don’t think he was aware of.
“I don’t know, bro,” Jason said, now without taking his eyes off me. “We have a history, me and Ashley. She told you didn’t she? She used to beg my parents to go out of town. She said I had the biggest cock of all the kids she babysat for. When they got home, she used to be, like, ‘No Mr. And Mrs. Gibbs, you don’t owe me anything. Little Jason took care of all my needs.’ Your wife’s a nympho, bro! Seriously!”
Apparently my husband thought the high-pitched voice Jason used to impersonate me was the funniest thing in the world. Shawn was laughing, and now Jason started laughing at his own joke, and this only made Shawn laugh harder. Apparently this was how much easier it was for Shawn to put the locker room out of his mind than it was for me.
“No, dude!” Shawn said. “You don’t even know! I mean, she kind of is a nympho!” My husband laughed hilariously at this revelation.
All I’d wanted was to have a drink and to try to calm down a little. And now I had to deal with this.
The worst part was that I didn’t even know what to say. I thought about bringing up how I knew Jason used to whack off to Tina Frame’s picture in the yearbook, but I didn’t have it in me. I was too mentally fried, and I didn’t care. I just sat there shaking my head like some prudish idiot.
“Ashleeeey!” Morgan’s arms suddenly wrapped around me from behind. She almost knocked me off my barstool.
I stood and hugged her back, spilling my drink. “Where the hell have you been?”
Morgan was already completely tanked. She gave me a big, whiskey-tainted kiss on the cheek. It was weird how happy I was to see her. For a moment I almost started to cry.
“You and me,” Morgan said, shaking her hips with each word in a little drunken dance, “are going to …”—she held up the back of her wrist, stamped with a green T—“the Bryce Tripp concert!”
Jason scoffed. “Bryce Drip’s a fucking faggot.”
“And we’re leaving these two losers”—Morgan traced a circle in the air, then pointed at Jason’s and Shawn’s faces—“right here in the fucking lame ass beer garden.”
Morgan displayed her stamped wrist again, then tilted her head coyly, held out her tongue, and, like an inebriated pole dancer, gave her stamped wrist a long, sexy lick.
Jason glanced at Shawn.
Now Morgan grabbed my wrist and pressed it against hers, transferring the green T concert stamp to my wrist, just like we used to do years ago to sneak one of us into the movie theater.
Before I could finish the last of my drink, Morgan was pulling me away by the hand. I didn’t even so much as wave to Shawn before leaving him there.
On the way through the carnival, Morgan hung on my shoulder and whispered, “I’ve been sleeping with Jason.” She made a gagging sound. “Gross, huh! I know, I know.”
I was surprised. “Morgan!” She had this great body, but I’d always been the one with the more-or-less cute face. She was always trying to prove that she was attractive by sleeping with one guy or another. But I hadn’t expected she’d sleep with Jason. “Why him?”
“It’s okay, Ash,” she said. “Because I’m already cheating on him!” Morgan snorted a laugh. “Don’t tell him! It’s way more fun cheating on him than it is sleeping with him!”
I couldn’t help but laugh with her.
“You’re fucking crazy,” I said. I was actually feeling a little better.
As we passed the Tilt-A-Whirl, I whispered, “So who are you cheating on him with, then?”
She held a finger to her lips. “Shhhhh. Not saying.”
“Who? Tell me.”
Morgan bounded ahead. I had no idea who her mystery guy was, but I worried it might be someone married if she wouldn’t tell me. Knowing Morgan, though, I’d find out one way or another before too long. She never kept a secret.
She was already through the concert gates, waving at me to follow her in.
Suddenly I flashed on the body in the locker room, again. I’d actually managed to forget about it for a little while, but now the image of its mouth hanging open came back to me. I’d kept glimpsing its teeth while I’d helped Ian carry it.
For some reason this made me nervous about sneaking into the concert. We weren’t kids any more, and I’d be mortified if I got caught now, as an adult, especially tonight. I even knew the woman collecting tickets and checking stamps. Her husband was one of the truckers at the company I worked for.
Morgan gave me a shrug from the other side of the gate. Then she impatiently waved me in again.
“Hurry up!” she yelled.
I stepped forward, trying to keep as far from the counter as possible, holding up my wrist with its faint green T. I’d never been as good as Morgan was at playing things cool.
Of course the woman collecting tickets recognized me.
“Ashley! Hi! I thought you weren’t going to the concert?”
“Hey Helen,” I smiled, scared. She already suspected me, I could tell. “Well, my friend bought me a ticket,” I said awkwardly. “We came in earlier? I just went out for a sec to say hi to my niece.”
I had no idea where these lies were coming from, or how believable they were.
“Well let’s see that stamp of yours.”
My heart was pounding. This was so stupid. Someone had just died and I was about to get caught sneaking into a concert by some musician I’d never even heard of and whose bus had even blocked my car in.
“I’m gonna be late!” I joked nervously.
Helen took my hand and examined the stamp. This was it. I glanced around. What would she do? Were there security guards she would call? I saw one guy, arms folded, standing at the entrance to the grandstands. I was pretty sure he was already looking over at me.
“That’s what I thought!” Helen declared, inspecting my stamp. “Ashley!” She frowned and clucked her tongue. “You’ve almost worn your stamp off already! I can barely see it. Here.” She plunked her rubber stamp into the inkpad and gave me a fresh T. “Enjoy!”
As soon as I was through the gate, Morgan grabbed my arm and hurried me toward to the grandstands.
“You totally thought fucking Helen Sandburg was going to arrest you or something, didn’t you!” She laughed at me. “I saw the look on your face! You did! Always such a good kid.” She squeezed my neck. “Ah, that’s why I love you.”
I hated that Morgan thought about me that way. But it was true. I let that ass-hole Jason treat me like shit. I let Shawn belittle me after I’d just wiped vomit off his shoes. And now I was afraid that sweet wouldn’t-accuse-a-fly-of-buzzing Helen Sandburg would turn me into the cops. It was a good thing Morgan loved me, however innocent she thought I was.
I was suddenly determined to get completely wasted.
The concert was packed. It was disorienting to see the rodeo grounds transformed into a country music venue and filled with so many people from out of town. I led Morgan all the way to the standing-only area in front of the stage. We must have missed all the opening acts because Bryce Tripp himself was already playing. He was sitting on a stool wearing boots and a sleeveless shirt, looking like an underwear model with a guitar and a cowboy hat. I thought maybe he was even wearing makeup.
He was singing some ballad that nobody seemed to know except for a small group of middle-aged women I didn’t recognize, each holding up a cigarette lighter and swaying idiotically.
Pretty much everybody else was at least as drunk as they were, but more restless. A couple of guys I recognized from Biggs, the next town over, started yelling at the stage.
“Hey dick lick! Pick it up, pretty boy! Too fucking slow!”
Bryce Tripp seemed to get the hint. Next song he called out his backup band, slung on an electric guitar, and started playing a much faster song whose only lyrics I could catch were “beer” and “bullets.”
Half the crowd was down in front of the stage dancing drunkenly. Morgan bought beers and managed to pour a shot’s-worth each of whiskey from her purse flask. “Boilermakers!” She yelled over the speakers.
I could tell already that the concert wasn’t going to end well. There was just this feeling in the air. Too many guys who basically wanted to drink, and drink more, and then break whatever rule they could find to break. Halfway into his set, Bryce Tripp slowed it down again, this time playing a crooning love song. A guy nearby took the opportunity to slow-dance with this girl I vaguely recognized from the beer garden. He had his hands all over her, then he started really grabbing her ass. I was pretty sure she’d been with somebody else at the beer garden. It was actually kind of weird how the guy wasn’t just grabbing her ass but totally reaching around and down between her legs, and she was just letting him go at it.
That’s when I got knocked over.
Some guy had trampled into me, fists swinging. As I fell, his elbow caught me behind the ear. I spilled what was left of my second boilermaker and scraped my palm.
“Ass hole!” Morgan screamed and tried to help me up.
This was just as the guy who’d knocked me down—it was the same guy I’d seen with the girl in the beer garden—punched the guy she was dancing with squarely in the face. But then yet another guy I’d never seen before pushed them both right back into us, and we got knocked over again.
An all-out brawl broke lose.
Morgan and I crawled to the edge of the stage, and Bryce Tripp finally stopped playing. A security guard took over the microphone while a handful of rent-a-cops tried to stop the melee. I checked my palm, which was only barely bleeding, and my head, which felt fine, but this may have had a lot to do with how drunk I was at that point.
When I looked up, Morgan was talking to Bryce Tripp. I couldn’t believe it.
“Why’d you stop playing?” she yelled out while the scuffle continued on, barely abated, behind her.
I was sure Bryce Tripp would just ignore her, but he actually smiled and said something. Neither of us could make it out over the bullhorn.
“What?” Morgan screamed. I hadn’t seen her this drunk in a long time.
Bryce Tripp smiled again and shook his head. I couldn’t believe it, but he actually approached us at the foot of the stage and kneeled down to talk to us.
“They won’t let me keep playing,” he said. “It’s actually in my contract.”
He had these crazy icy-blue eyes. I honestly don’t think I’d ever seen anyone better looking from this close, in person.
“You know,” he added, and shrugged. “The ‘safety of the performer at risk’ and all that.”
Morgan was in full flirting mode. “So you always do what they tell you to do?”
She had this weird ability to flirt without making a total ass of herself, no matter how drunk she was.
Bryce Tripp laughed. He was even cuter with a full grin. I actually felt this wave of attraction pass over me when he spoke.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “I usually do pretty much what they tell me.”
Morgan put on a pout and pretended like she’d lost interest. “Well, that’s a shame.”
“No, not really,” Bryce Tripp shot back, still grinning. “I get paid all the same. This is my third brawl in two months. Just means I get the night off. Which is fine by me.”
He stood, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a stack of what looked like business cards.
“Couple of backstage passes,” he said, handing one to Morgan and one to me. “Looks like I’m free for the evening. Why don’t you come on over and say hello.”
Then he just gave us this friendly wave and left.
As soon as he’d left the stage, Morgan clutched her pass and screamed.
“Oh my fucking God! How do we get back there?”
There was a little security gate beside the stage which seemed to be the only way in.
By then the brawl had shifted toward the grandstands and we were able to make our move. We had to avoid an inebriated trucker pinned to the ground by a couple of security cops, but we managed to race to the side of the stage without getting knocked over again.
I couldn’t stop laughing. I hadn’t forgotten the body, but I was so drunk by now, I actually didn’t care that someone had just died.
This little panicking security guard was the only person manning the backstage gate. He was so focused on the brawl, standing on his toes and yelling into his cell phone, that he just waved us in without even really looking at our passes. He was probably used to letting local girls with passes backstage.
The area behind the stage was strangely empty. There were these couches set up outside, and a cold-cut buffet, and coolers of what I assumed to be beer, but no one was around. Bryce Tripp’s trailer—the same one that had blocked my car—was now pulled up alongside this sitting area.
But Bryce Tripp himself was nowhere to be seen. I don’t know what I expected, but not this.
Morgan grabbed a beer from a cooler and sat on the couch.
Just then someone came out of the trailer. A guy. He was dressed in tapered jeans and a fitted shirt and looked ready for an L.A. nightclub.
He lowered his sunglasses, and it was only now that I realized fully that this was Bryce Tripp, the same guy who’d just been singing twangy country songs in a Stetson.
“How do you like my disguise?” he asked.
“I can’t say it’s an improvement,” Morgan said.
He folded his glasses and stashed them in his vest pocket.
“So where we going?” he asked. “If I’m going to buy you drinks, you two have to lead the way. I’ve never been here before. Where are we, anyway? Muldoon? Is that what it’s called?”
“Muldoon,” I confirmed, stupidly.
Morgan laughed. “Which means there’s only one place to go! Come on.”
The Buckshot Bar is the single establishment where you can buy beer on tap year-round in Muldoon. During fair time it never closes, and it’s basically standing-room-only, twenty-four hours a day, all weekend.
I don’t think anyone recognized Bryce Tripp when we came in. He turned the head of just about every girl he passed when we all made our way inside, and at least a dozen half-sozzled guys sized him up. But he looked so different out of his western clothes that no one realized he was the same guy on all the concert posters. Everyone figured he was just someone’s out-of-towner friend, some pretty boy from the city.
“Well, ladies,” he said, wedging himself into a place at the bar between me and Morgan on one said and Tuck Schroep, my second-grade teacher’s husband, on the other. “What’ll it be?”
I was already barely able to keep my balance, but I let him order me a whiskey.
It was while I was doing the shot that I saw Shawn at the back of the bar. He was nodding drunkenly at one of his friends from the mill.
For just a moment I worried he’d see me shoulder-to-shoulder with this extremely attractive stranger, the only guy in the bar in skinny jeans, and get upset.
But in exactly the next moment, I hoped he’d see me. I thought again about his complete inability to help Ian with the body in the locker room, and the way he’d laughed at me with Jason. Fuck him.
“Nate!” I yelled at the bar tender, pounding my hand and drawing as much attention to myself as possible. “Three more Maker’s!”
I had no idea if this worked because I lost sight of Shawn while a surge of a dozen people spilled in from the cancelled concert. I’m sure the bar was well past its legal capacity. I could hardly breathe.
By the time our next round arrived, Tuck Schroep was talking at Bryce and Morgan from beneath his hairy white mustache.
“. . . Clean off!” he was saying, making a chopping motion with his hand. “That’s right. I’m telling you. Somebody’d cut his thingy clean off!”
I realized he was talking about the body.
I knew the news of a mutilated corpse in the girls’ locker room was going to spread like prairie fire, but not this fast. Mrs. Whipple must have told anyone within earshot after the football game.
And now everyone was on edge. I could tell. People weren’t just drinking because it was fair time. People were nervous, afraid. Things like this didn’t ever happen in Muldoon. I’d never even seen Tuck Schroep drunk before, not ever, come to think of it.
“What’s he talking about!” Bryce laughed. He couldn’t seem to figure out if Tuck was crazy or not.
“I don’t know,” I lied. I was desperate to come up with a way to change the subject. Before I could think of how, though, Tuck broke in again.
“Fella was trying to rape one of the girls, I guess!” he declared. “One of the cheerleaders. I don’t know which one of them cut it off, but one of ’em did. Well, good for them, I say.”
Someone put a hand on my shoulder. At first I thought it was someone trying to pay Nate, but whoever it was kept his hand there and pulled a little, gently turning me around.
“How you holding up?”
It was Ian.
I practically knocked Morgan over hugging him. “You’re already here! I didn’t think I’d see you.”
He looked at me a little warily. He’d changed clothes; he’d probably showered. He was wearing his Army hoodie. He glanced at Bryce, then back at me.
“How you holding up?” he asked again.
“Fine!” I yelled over the bar’s noise. “Fine! Totally fine. Drunk off my ass, but fine!”
Bryce Tripp held out his hand. “Hey I’m Bryce,” he said, charmingly.
Ian shook his hand. He was polite, but wary. “Ian.”
I was actually pretty drunk at that point, but I could see right away that Ian was the only person in the bar who recognized Bryce Tripp from the posters.
“Buy you a drink?” Bryce asked him.
“Nate!” Morgan yelled to the bartender before Ian could respond. “Four more!”
Ian grinned at me for the first time since he’d said hello.
“I did say I might have just one.”
Bryce raised his shot glass. “Well, then, to—where’d you say we are? Muldoon! Prettiest little place I’ve ever avoided getting my ass kicked. So far.”
Morgan laughed, we all clinked Bryce’s glass with ours, and I drank down yet another whiskey—who knows how many by that point.
After that point, things start to get hazy.
I remember Morgan talking to Ian about bear hunting with her dad, and Ian just nodding and listening to her drunken blather because he was too nice to tell her just to shut the fuck up. I remember actually grabbing Bryce Tripp’s arm and peeling him away from Tuck Schroep—something I never would have done if I hadn’t been so totally wasted—and staggering with him in tow onto the insanely crowded dance floor. I think I remember Shawn watching us dancing, but I can’t say for certain.
Next, I remember—just barely—asking Bryce if he smoked, and then I remember him buying cigarettes from the vending machine. I think I remember having one more shot at the bar and going outside to smoke, and I’m pretty sure I remember that Morgan actually talked Ian into having another shot with us. There was another moment outside—this one very hazy—when Bryce bummed someone’s last match, and he laughed when I told him he’d have to monkeyfuck me, which meant, I explained, lighting my cigarette from his. But I can barely remember this at all, and I can’t really say if it was before or after that round of shots with Morgan and Ian.
And that’s it, really.
The rest is totally gone. Anything else that happened that night is completely blacked out from my memory.
The next thing I remember is waking up alone in the Starlight Motel, without a phone, or a car, and, now, with night coming on.
I had no choice but to walk the half-mile from the motel to the fairgrounds, where I hoped my car would still be parked.
All the way there I still felt weirdly great.
I kept expecting a massive hangover to hit me, but it never came. I didn’t even have to pee, and I wasn’t really thirsty at all. I honestly don’t think I’d ever felt more rejuvenated in my life.
It was only when I reached the highway that I realized something was wrong.
It had to be the Saturday evening of fair weekend, but there wasn’t a single car on the road.
The traffic should have been bumper to bumper, even worse than it had been last night. Any other time of year, an empty highway would have been perfectly normal. But not tonight.
I walked faster. My footsteps through the gravel at the road’s shoulder was the only sound I could hear. It occurred to me, hurrying along while the sun sank into the mountains way off in the west, that I hadn’t seen a single person since I’d woken up. Not one.
The lights at the rodeo arena were on. And most of the street lights too.
But as I approached the fairgrounds, all of the carnival rides were totally dark. The Ferris wheel’s motionless silhouette rose up over the feedlot’s corrugated tin roof. There was no blaring carnival music, no roar of souped-up engines at the Saturday-night destruction derby, no cheers from the grandstands.
I hopped the fence into the parking lot.
There were only a few cars left. I was so relieved when I spotted my little gray sedan, parked all alone in the dimming evening light, that I practically ran to it.
I’d lost my set of keys along with my phone, but thank God Shawn had insisted that I keep a spare hidden under the battery. I popped the hood and found the extra key right where it should have been.
But the car door wasn’t locked. Which was odd, because if there was ever I time I’d be sure to lock my car door, it was during fair, especially if I’d parked in the public lot.
I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could and go home, or maybe to my parents’, or to Ian and Danielle’s, and to figure out what the fuck was going on.
I tried not to think about the unlocked door for now and I jammed the key into the ignition. Just as I put the car into drive I noticed something on the passenger seat.
It was a hoodie. A man’s. I kept my foot on the brake and held up the fabric.
It was Ian’s black Army hoodie. The one I’d seen him wearing at the bar.
So Ian had been in my car last night.
I tried again to think as hard as I could about what had happened after we were all at the bar. But it was no use. I had no memory whatsoever of anything after that.
In the dimming light I almost didn’t even see that there was something else on the seat. But when I moved the hoodie aside, there it was.
A gun. Ian’s gun. I recognized it right away.
It wasn’t like Ian was one of those guys who packed everywhere he went, but he must have been carrying it last night in the bar. And he must have had a reason.
But why would he have left his gun in my car? With the door unlocked?
It didn’t make sense.
Something was wrong. Something was really wrong. I had to get to Ian right away. I had to talk to him and find out what the hell was going on.
I hit the gas and drove my little car as fast as I could to toward the fairground’s nearest exit.
The exit was in the back, near the stockyard. On the way there I saw that everything at the carnival was totally shut down. All the food stalls were closed, and as far as I could tell, even the animals had been taken out of their pens. My headlights flooded the road and all of the motionless rides, but I didn’t see a single soul.
When I reached the gate, it was blocked.
A pair of wooden police barriers spanned the entire road. What the fuck was going on?
Someone knocked hard on my window. I almost screamed.
“Ma’am?” It was a male voice, but it was too dark now to see who it was. Another couple of pounding knocks. “Can’t leave here, Ma’am.”
It was a cop. He was knocking with his flashlight. I don’t know if I was more relieved that it was a cop and not someone trying to kill me or that it was simply another human being, the very first I’d seen that day.
I rolled down the window.
My eyes adjusted to the glare of the flashlight, and now I could see that the cop was Jason. Fucking great.
“I’m not authorized to let you through here, Ma’am.”
“Ma’am? Who’s Ma’am? What the fuck, Jason?”
“Ashley. Whatever. You can’t pass through here.” He was obviously still hung over, but this wasn’t stopping him from acting like an ass-hole cop now that he was on duty. “Vehicles can’t come or go until the search is over. Why are you even here? Why aren’t you at home?”
“I’m trying to go home,” I said. “Just let me out.”
“Can’t. Can’t let anyone in or out. We still haven’t caught those guys yet.”
“Are you kidding me?” Jason leaned casually against my car and folded his arms. This enraged me even further. “The guys who attacked that girl. Where have you been?”
Immediately my thoughts leapt to Haley. “What girl?”
“I don’t know.” Jason shrugged. “Some girl. Some kid. It was two guys who did it. We’re still looking for them. We’re combing the fairgrounds. It’ll take a little time. The whole place is locked down. Here and the high school both. How do you not know about all this? Everyone was supposed to be out by two-thirty last night. They were announcing it for hours.” Now he grinned that stupid smug grin of his. “Where were you?” He laughed. “You were fucking hammered last night! Having a little too much fun?” With this he gave a few rabbit-like thrusts of his pelvis.
I was too worried about Haley to care.
“Who was the girl, Jason? Just tell me who the girl was.”
“I told you I don’t know, Ashley. Maybe if you weren’t so shitfaced drunk last night you could have found out for yourself.”
In the briefest of moments I thought about the gun under Ian’s hoodie. But I wasn’t stupid.
I had to focus on getting home as soon as possible, then calling Danielle on the landline. All I cared about right now was making sure that Haley was okay. I tried to remind myself that there were probably hundreds of little girls at the fair last night. But if something had happened to Haley after she’d begged me to take her to the carnival, and I wasn’t there, I’d have to kill myself.
I had to stay calm. I had to. I couldn’t afford anything else.
“Look,” I said to Jason, trying to control my voice. “You know me. I’m obviously not a suspect. All you have to do is move that roadblock and let me through.”
Jason didn’t stop leaning against my car.
He grinned. Again.
“What’s the rush?” he said. “I mean, I can’t let you out. I told you that. And, hell, I sure could use some company.” Now he leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “Here I am, stuck out here all alone on a chilly evening. What’s the hurry?” He winked. “It’d be just like old times.”
“Let me the fuck out.” It was everything I could do not to scream. “Right now. Jason. Let me the fuck out. There’s no way this is even legal. Let me the fuck out right now.”
Jason put his head through the open window and brought it close to mine. He sniffed.
“You been drinking? Ashley? Are you still drunk, maybe?” Now he put his finger under my chin and turned my face around toward his. He sniffed again. “I wonder if maybe you’re getting just a little belligerent. I wouldn’t want to have to detain you. But if I have to, I have to. It’d be for your own good.”
I couldn’t even think. I hadn’t ever been so enraged in my life. I just acted without planning. Suddenly I found that I’d slammed my foot into the gas pedal.
My car heaved forward. Jason spun around, and the next thing I saw of him was just his hand flopping out through the window. I’m not sure, but I may have broken his arm.
I didn’t have much time to wonder about it, though, because my bumper hit the two wooden police barricades. I lurched forward with the impact, and I worried for a moment that I might not make it through. But I just kept my foot on the gas, and my little car surged, knocked the barriers aside, and sent them tumbling onto the road.
I looked into the rear-view mirror.
My taillights were just bright enough to illuminate Jason limping forward. He raised his gun with one hand. I ducked and kept speeding forward as fast as my car would go. But I was already too far away; he lowered his gun without firing, and I turned the corner onto the completely empty highway.
I drove faster and faster, trying to catch my breath, maxing out at a little over ninety miles an hour. The road was completely empty. The night was completely dark.
And then I felt it: someone’s hand on my shoulder.
For a moment I tried to reason that this was impossible, that maybe my seat belt had tightened when I’d crashed through the barricades. But I wasn’t wearing my seat belt.
Someone really was in the back of my car—had been in the back of my car this whole time—and now they were touching my shoulder!
I felt an index finger slowly rise up the skin on my neck. Very lightly, it touched my ear.
I was driving way too fast to take my eyes off the road. My car was shuddering from the speed. Without really thinking about it, I held on tight to the wheel and reached for the gun. I felt its metallic grip at the tips of my fingers.
But I didn’t grab it.
And this is what’s really weird. This is what I still can’t figure out. Because more than anything else right then I was truly afraid that Haley had been hurt, or worse. I was also consumed by worry that I may have cheated on Shawn. And now I was truly, utterly terrified at the fact that someone was in the back of my car, running their finger along the softest part of my neck. And yet, despite all of this, that weirdly euphoric sensation of invincibility that had overcome me after waking up still hadn’t gone away. If anything, it was suddenly becoming more intense.
Whoever was behind me drew their hand down over my shoulder, slowly across my ribs and abdomen, then plunged it, very softly, into my underwear.
I still had no idea who it was, or how I could be so weirdly aroused at a moment like this. I flashed on dancing with Bryce Tripp last night, and lighting my cigarette from his, and his icy blue eyes, and I wondered if only someone as confident as he was could do anything so audacious as this.
And then I remembered something else while still trying to slow my car down without wrecking it. It hadn’t been Morgan who’d talked Ian into having one more shot with us, like I’d thought earlier. It had been me. Morgan had been goading him, but it wasn’t until I’d spoken up that Ian finally glanced in my direction, and, for just a moment, he gave me this accidental look that seemed to say I’d do anything you ask me to do, anything at all. Then he drank down his second shot.
I took my hand from the gun.
Instead, I clutched the fabric of Ian’s hoodie in the seat beside me.
Whoever it was in the back seat of my car right now, reaching even deeper into my underwear while I tried to keep the car on the road, it was probably more likely that it was anyone in the world other than Ian.
And yet no matter how well I knew it couldn’t possibly be him, for a moment I hoped somehow that it was.