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Outnumbered

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OUTNUMBERED

Shay Savage





Copyright © 2018 Shay Savage

All Rights Reserved



Editing: Chayasara

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without the express permission of the author, Shay Savage —except in the case of brief excerpts or quotations embodied in review or critical writings.

The characters and events in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Cover art by Jada D'Lee Designs





Table of Contents


Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Epilogue

More Books by Shay Savage

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About the Author





Prologue


Focus.

My hands are shaking. I’m not sure if it’s from the cold or the pain. I dare to look down at my right leg, but I can’t see anything except blood through the tear in my thick, insulated pants. I’m certain a chunk of wood is embedded in the muscle. I shift my leg slightly as pain shoots from my ankle to my hip.

That doesn’t matter.

Bile invades the back of my throat as images of my mother flash through my throbbing head. I can’t pay any attention to the pain—not now. I have to focus. I have to get up. I can’t let him get to her.

She’s going to die.

I grit my teeth and push again.





Chapter 1


Blinding, bright white.

Through the small window of the cabin, I fill my eyes with the bright, snow-covered landscape, but my head is full of images from the past.

“You had a chance to speak before the sentencing, but you said nothing.”

I stared at my court-appointed attorney;  but didn’t respond.

“You understand what this means, don’t you, Bishop? You’re going away for a long time. If you had said anything at all, it may have gone better for you.”

“I doubt it.” I tried to cross my arms, but the handcuffs brought me up short. I placed my fists on the top of the table instead and stared at the metal around my wrists.

“Do you feel any remorse at all for what you’ve done?”

“Not really.”

He sighed and closed his briefcase. He had done his job as well as he could, given the circumstances.

I push the thoughts away and turn from the window. I no longer bother questioning myself about why these thoughts invade my head this time of year—I already know the answer. I’ve spent enough time psychoanalyzing myself to realize that winter brings isolation, and all the time I spent in solitary is at the forefront of my mind. Nonetheless, this isolation is self-induced, and the memories and the impending loneliness come anyway.

Technically, it was all self-induced. It’s not like I was innocent.

Pausing for a moment, I look around the small cabin that has been my home for some time now. The fireplace along the north wall is the predominant feature, followed by a full-size bed with a wooden headboard, a small dresser, and a plush reclining chair. A kitchen area on the east wall and a small door leading to a bathroom and closet are the only other features of note. There is no electricity, and the well that feeds the kitchen and bathroom only provides cold water. I consider myself lucky to have found a place with running water and enough serviceable land to add a septic tank. Many of the inhabitants of Canada’s Northwest Territories don’t have as much.

Calling the cabin sparse would be an understatement, but I don’t need much of anything else. A rug on the solid wood floor adds a little comfort, and the fireplace serves as a source of life-sustaining heat through the seasons.

I need to finish my winter shopping list, so I pick up the stubby pencil off the table and jot down a few more items.

Kerosene

Cooking oil

Paper towels

I toss the pencil on top of the notepad and walk over to the kitchen area of the small cabin. I open cabinets and take note of what’s inside and what key items are missing. I don’t need a lot—most of my necessities are provided for by the land around me. I add sugar to my list before heading to the bathroom and checking under the sink. I’m low on several first aid supplies, so I add them to my list as well.

Just one more stop before I journey across the ice road to the closest city. There’s been some talk over the past year about funding for an all-seasons road in the area. The government plans to chip in, and the local community and the mining companies digging around for cobalt will get a lot of benefits, but I chose this area because of the isolation. A road up here just means someone might find me.

Though winter is officially a few days away, it’s already bitterly cold outside. I slide into my boots, bundle up, and head outside. The brisk wind slaps me in the face and sends a shiver down my spine. I pull my sleeves a little farther down to cover the gap between my wrists and my gloves before I trek out across the snow.

My boots crunch against the powder, leaving dark prints on the dirt below. Within a couple of weeks, the snow will be deep enough that stepping on it won’t reach the earth underneath. A few weeks after that, I’ll need snowshoes to get around outside.

The crunching sound reminds me of bones breaking. In my head, I hear myself scream right before the first crunch. After that, each crunch had been followed only by my own rough breathing. Then silence.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

“There’s, uh…there’s a dead body here.”

“Excuse me, sir. Did you say ‘a dead body’?”

“Yeah.”

“What is your location?”

I turn my face into the wind, forcing myself to focus on the chill instead of my thoughts.

Two hundred feet away from the cabin is a group of Jack Pines and Tamaracks—a bright line of green in front of a standing rock formation of grey and white. To the west grow aspens and larch, which work better for fires and lumber. An outbuilding sits right in front of the tree line. It’s not quite big enough to be considered a barn, but that’s what I call it in my head. It’s a two-part structure of logs on one half and stone on the other. The wooden part of the barn is falling apart, but nothing inside is fragile, so I haven’t bothered to repair the partially collapsed roof or the gaping hole in the back corner. Inside is still protected from the wind. The stone portion is better protected from critters and is where most of my food is stored for the winter.

Much of the barn is full of firewood covered with a large tarp. It’s not quite enough to get me through the winter, and I’ll spend the next few days chopping more. Along one wall of the barn sits a line of metal crates holding most of my extended survival gear. I open the first one, count the candles and bundles of tinder inside, and then move on to the next one. Water purification tablets are low, so I’ll need to add those to my list. I need more rock salt, too.

A high-pitched squeal startles me. I stand motionless for a few seconds as I try to determine from which direction the sound came. A moment later, I hear it again. I take a few steps toward the back of the barn and look behind the smaller of the two woodpiles. The edge of the tarp lies on the ground with a couple of rotten logs nearby. In the midst of bark and sawdust is a tiny kitten.

The grey bundle of matted fur moves just enough to look up at me. Its feet are pulled up underneath it, and it seems to be having trouble lifting its head as it looks up at me.

“How the hell did you get here?” I ask.

It mews in response, staring at me with wide, bright green eyes. I don’t know much about cats, but I’m pretty sure this one can’t be more than a few weeks old.

I see tiny prints at the back of the barn, coming in from the hole near the floor. There’s only one set of tracks, so the little thing is apparently alone.

“Surprised you’re alive at all,” I mutter. I shake my head and finish going through the crates, determined to ignore the invader. When I’m nearly done, it stumbles out from behind the woodpile and drags itself over to my foot. It mews again, then follows me around as I take inventory, crying and trying to scratch my foot through my boot. It follows me outside when I’m done, flattening its ears against the wind and crying louder as it hunkers down against the door.

“You’ll last longer if you stay in there,” I tell it. “Where’s your mother? You’re too young to be on your own.”

I walk around the back of the barn and follow the tracks to the edge of the woods, but there’s no sign of any other felines around. I can only assume the mother cat never made it back from a hunt, and the kitten eventually ventured out to find her.

I go back to the front of the barn, and it meows loudly at me.

“No siblings?”

The kitten takes a step inside the barn and looks back. The wind is blowing dusty snow around the ground, and its whiskers are covered in snowflakes.

“I’m done in there,” I say, shaking my head. “You’re going to be food for a fox before long, so you might as well head for the woods and get it over with.”

With that sentiment, I begin to make my way back to the cabin. I try not to glance back, but I can hear the thing crying as it tries to follow me through the snow. I know it’s too young to survive without its mother, and I don’t want to prolong the inevitable. My chest tightens a bit at the thought, but I quicken my pace to the cabin porch.

As I kick snow off my boots, the kitten arrives at the single step to the cabin door but is far too small and weak to actually climb up. It falls a few times before giving up, then sits in the snow to cry some more.

I grab the handle of the door, fully prepared to go inside and shut it behind me. I don’t know why I stop and look at the pitiful thing. It’s probably diseased or carrying parasites. Unless I run out of mousetraps, I have no use for such a thing in my cabin. It’s not even cute—it’s mangy, scrawny, and sad.

“I’m not an animal lover.”

Again, it places its front paws on the edge of the step and tries to pull itself up. It nearly succeeds this time, which makes its fall into the snow that much more exaggerated when it fails. Its feet fly up into the air as it falls on its back and rolls a bit before righting itself and whining.

With a sigh, I reach down and pick the kitten up. It’s so small, I can barely feel its weight in my hand as I grumble to myself and go inside.

“I don’t want a cat.”

I deposit the thing on the rug near the fireplace. It sways unsteadily for a moment and then looks around the room, sniffing the air.

“I suppose you’re hungry.” I have no idea what to feed a kitten. I don’t have any milk. I could get some on my supply run, but the scrawny thing might actually die of starvation before then. Maybe that would be for the best.

As I remove my outer clothing, I debate tossing it back out into the snow. I have no need for a pet, and this one is likely sickly and going to die soon. If I keep it inside, it’s just going to stink up the place when it does expire, and then I’ll have to dig into the frozen ground to bury it.

Instead, I find a bouillon cube in the cabinet and mix it in a cup with a bit of water I warm over the fire until it’s a thick, brown liquid. In the bathroom, I find an old bottle of saline eye drops and remove the cap with the built-in dropper. I clean it out as much as I can and then fill it with the meaty broth.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I grab the mangy kitten and flip it onto its back. I place the dropper into its mouth, and after a few tries, it begins to suck.

As the kitten eats, I check it over for fleas or any other kind of vermin. I don’t find any—probably too cold for such things already. The only thing I find is a tiny penis near his tail.

“I guess you’re a boy.”

The dropper doesn’t hold much liquid, and the kitten is ravenous. I have to keep stopping to refill, which seems to piss him off no end. He howls every time the dropper goes dry, then howls louder when I take it away to get more.

The kitten’s tiny stomach only manages to hold about half of the cup of broth. Once he’s had his fill, I place the kitten back on the rug and wash the dropper out in the cold water at the basin as the kitten ventures a little closer to the warmth of the fire.

“I suppose you’re going to need a place to pee and shit.” I grumble as I head into the bathroom and open the closet door inside.

I find an old metal baking pan and fill it with sawdust from the barn and place it next to the toilet. The kitten climbs inside of it as soon as I put it on the floor, walks around in a circle a couple of times, and then does his business.

“Well, at least you got that figured out.”

I head back to the main living area and sit down in the room’s single chair. I take out my list to give it one last look.

“Ow!” The little thing digs his claws into my jeans, using all of his newfound energy to hoist himself up my pant leg and into my lap. He steps back and forth on my thigh, turns around in a circle, and then curls up with his nose tucked under his tail.

I want to be pissed off at him. I want him not to be here at all. I’ve never had a pet or a desire to acquire one, and that hasn’t changed. I’m not suited to care for anyone other than myself, and that goes for cats, too. My life is all about practicality, and there is no practical reason to keep this thing.

My leg vibrates as he begins to purr.





Chapter 2


The ninety-mile trek across the ice road to Yellowknife is slow and uneventful. The city is the capital of the Northwest Territories and the only place where I can outfit myself to survive the winter alone. It’s the only real city for hundreds of miles, complete with tourism and a Wal-Mart. I try to stay away from tourist areas even this late in the season, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Still, it makes my skin crawl to be around a lot of people.

Too many years locked away in close quarters with the other murderers, thieves, dealers, and all-around criminals took its toll on my ability to socialize with “normal” society, not that my childhood was normal. Fuck, I sure hope my upbringing wasn’t the norm though it would explain why people are so shitty to each other.

I complete most of my shopping at Co-op and then head to the Yellowknife Book Cellar. It’s quiet inside—far too cold now for the tourists to be looking for a summer read—and I’m grateful for it. I browse for an hour before I pick out six books ranging from popular fiction to a non-fiction title about the Underground Railroad. I don’t read a lot during the winter months, but it’s less frustrating than trying to get the radio to pick up a signal.

I check my list against the items in the back of the Jeep, trying to figure out why I have a niggling feeling in the back of my head that I’ve forgotten something. I’ve already checked three times, but I’ve been paranoid about forgetting something important ever since I neglected to buy black pepper two years ago. Though it only impacted the seasoning of my food, it had me worried that I would forget something needed for survival.

Sometimes, paranoia is a good thing.

I climb back into the Jeep and let it run for a minute to warm up, then head back to the Yellowknife Highway. Hopefully, whatever I have forgotten can be found in Whatì, my last stop.

I get off the highway near Edzo and head off-road, following the edge of the lake for a few miles until I get to the top. I turn the Jeep east over rocky terrain for about three miles until I hit a dried-up riverbed. In a few weeks, it will be an ice-road and traveled only by the very brave. I follow the bed until I get to a dirt road. I use the road for a few more miles until I get to its northernmost point. If I were to turn right and drive east, I would come to a small lake, veer left and off the road again to my cabin near the rocks. Instead, I turn west and head toward Whatì in the Tłįchǫ Lands—the nearest settlement to my cabin.

Whatì is a hunting and fishing village set on the edge of Lac La Martre, one of the largest lakes in the territory. With just under five hundred residents, mostly Dene people, Whatì is a self-governed community with a chief and a council. I can’t speak their language—I can’t even properly pronounce the name of the settlement or the region—but the people seem to have accepted me in the area anyway.

Thanks to Margot.

The Tłįchǫ Lands are a great place for all kinds of fishing and hunting. Caribou are plentiful as are black bears and wolves. The lake near Whatì has the best trout and pike fishing around, and the settlement has been pushing the summer tourist trade. Despite the drought in recent years, trees are still in abundance, and I can find plenty of fuel for heating and cooking. If I’m desperate for some commodity during the winter months, and the Jeep won’t run or runs out of fuel, I can make it to Whatì in less than a day on foot. When I first traveled to the area, I stayed there and learned how to hunt, fish, and track game. I still occasionally make contact with the people who taught me.

Glancing down the road, I briefly consider heading into the small fishing village. I could go down to the docks and buy some fish to supplement the rest of my winter stores. Margot would almost certainly be there, and she’d give me that look she gives when she thinks she knows what I want. She’d assume I’d come to see her, and she wouldn’t be completely wrong. Ultimately, it isn’t fair to lead her on. She knows I’m not going to change my mind and come back to live in Whatì.

Regardless, I wasn’t planning any social visits on this trip, and I’m anxious to return to my own space. The cabin is a great place to be alone, which is how I have lived for the past three years. Three years since I moved out of Margot’s abode and into my silent, isolated cabin. It is best for everyone that I remain on my own.

Safer, too.

I park my Jeep in one of three spaces at Broken Toy’s Gas and Goods off the Yellowknife Highway just before the actual settlement of Whatì. Broken Toy’s is always my last stop because of the fuel and because I like the shop owner. I gas up the Jeep and fill the spare gas can before going inside.

Warmth greets me as I open the door to the shop.

“How’s it goin’, Bishop?” Kirk waves from behind the counter.

“Same,” I reply bluntly.

Kirk has long, black hair and is usually wearing a cowboy hat when not outside. He came from somewhere in Ohio but lived in New Orleans before the hurricane wiped him out. Though I know he’s done time from the prison-style tattoos on his arms and neck, I have no idea where or for what. The first time we encountered each other, we just seemed to know we had similar roots. We’d never talk about it, but it has given us an unspoken bond. It’s obvious that he’s hiding from his past the same as I am.

“Supply trip?” Kirk asks.

“Why else would I be here?” I shake my head. I don’t care for small talk, and Kirk knows it.

He laughs and motions me over to the counter.

“I’ve been working on a new piece.” He pulls a small canvas out from under the counter. On the canvas is a sketch of a bunch of caribou and animated snowmen, but it’s nothing like the traditional art of the First Nations. Kirk’s style is a little edgier. The caribou are stylized cartoons with zombie eyes and wearing ragged parkas.

“I’m thinking of using a lot of greens and reds,” Kirk says. “You know—for Christmas!”

“You aren’t right.” I laugh and shake my head. The dude is undoubtedly talented, but I’m not so sure he sells many of his works around here.

“Maybe I’ll do your portrait,” Kirk says. “With your build, manly scruff, and those dreamy blue eyes, all the girls in the territory will fight over it!”

Kirk uses his hand to fan his face and acts like he’s hyperventilating.

“Fuck you.” I flip him off and look back to the shelves.

“I’m just a broken toy! Says so on the sign outside!” Kirk grins and stashes the canvas below the counter as I head to the supplies.

There are very few patrons at the small general store and gas station. Kirk’s assistant Marty is stocking one of the refrigerated units with bottled coffee. I recognize a couple of locals who are shoving canned goods into a basket, but I don’t bother to acknowledge them. Two men in snow-camouflage jackets catch my attention.

“Need a guide?” Kirk addresses one of the men in camo.

“What for?”

“Guides know the area,” he says. “Show you the better hunting spots.”

Kirk lowers his voice, but I don’t need to hear to know what he’s saying. I look over my list and grab a couple more items off the shelves as the conversation continues out of earshot. The mumbling ends abruptly, but I don’t look up. I still hear the two men approach me.

“I hear you can show us around.” The one who addresses me is the older of the two. They look enough alike that they must be related, but the age difference isn’t enough to be father and son. Older brother, maybe. They’re both rough looking—unshaven and in need of the shower facilities in the back.

“Hunting season is well over,” I say.

“Yeah, but we’re still here for two more days.” The younger one sneers at me as he speaks, as if I should know his travel plans. “No one up here cares about the regs.”

“It will take two days to get you to the right spot,” I tell him. “Looks like the storm season is going to be early this year. Even if I cared to fuck up my business by ignoring the season dates, I’m not going out and getting caught up in a blizzard for days.”

“Well, fuck you for nothing!”

I raise an eyebrow at the younger guy but say nothing as he spits toward my boots, huffs, and then both men storm out of the shop. I glare up at Kirk, who just shrugs.

“I thought you might need the business,” he says.

“I don’t.” I close my eyes briefly before getting back to the task at hand. “Save it for the spring. Right now, I need kerosene.”

“I’ve got five gallons set aside for you,” Kirk says. He yells over at Marty and tells him to load the kerosene into my Jeep. Kirk looks around the shop, but it’s pretty empty inside after the abrupt departure of the hunters. He leans close to me and speaks quietly. “I’ve got a little something extra for you.”

Kirk reaches under the counter and pulls out a paper sack. He tilts it toward me and opens the top, revealing two bottles of Jameson whiskey.

“Nice!” I smile and nod. “How much?”

“For you? Seventy-five.”

“You got it.”

Whatì is a completely dry community and prides itself on the lack of alcohol. Alcohol and freezing temperatures are usually a bad combination and can even bring on hypothermia under the right conditions. I don’t know where Kirk gets his hooch, especially the name brand stuff. I don’t have the heart to tell him I grabbed a bottle in Yellowknife, but I’m grateful that he thought to save me a couple bottles. I’m not a big drinker, but the burn of whiskey still warms me during the long nights. Maybe it’s only psychological, but it makes me feel better and helps me sleep when the wind is howling. Besides, I like supporting Kirk’s business, and I’m not going to buy his artwork.

“Anything else?” Kirk asks.

“Just cigarettes,” I say. “I can find the rest myself.”

“There’s a carton in the bag already.” Kirk moves one bottle aside so I can see the carton behind it.

“Cool.” We fist bump, and I look back to the goods.

At the end of one aisle is a small selection of pet products, and I suddenly recall what I had forgotten before—cat supplies. I look at a bag of kitten food. If I get it, Kirk will ask me a bunch of questions that I won’t want to answer. I’m not embarrassed by the idea of owning a pet, but talking to people has never been my thing, and we’ve already chatted enough. With my work season over, I’m already getting myself into a mindset of no talking, and I don’t want to break that.

I pick up a small container of Sheba brand cat food. On the front of the package is a grey cat with green eyes lying on its side and staring at the camera. It looks like an older version of the kitten at my cabin, but this isn’t kitten food. I place the container back on the shelf. There are large plastic jugs of cat litter, but it wouldn’t last long, and the sawdust seemed to work well enough. I select a plastic dishpan to replace the metal one though—eventually the kitten’s claws against the metal bake pan will drive me insane.

I go back to my shopping. A moment later, the bell on the door jingles as—oddly enough—an obviously non-indigenous woman walks in. I can’t recall ever seeing a woman who wasn’t a local in this part of town, not this time of year. The woman has the pale look of a tourist but isn’t acting like one. She keeps her head down as she makes her way to the back of the shop to browse through the snacks. Her freckled cheeks are red from the cold, and her brown hair is long and braided down her back with wisps sticking out around her face.

She’s cute and totally out of place in this environment. I hope she has more cold-weather gear. Her coat isn’t heavy enough and her gloves are far too thin for the winter weather.

I finish my shopping without getting any cat food. Instead, I get a large box of dry milk and a couple pints of fresh. The little bugger doesn’t have much of a chance anyway, and if it dies, at least I won’t be stuck with supplies I can’t use.

As I head up to the register, the woman is still in the aisle of snacks. She keeps glancing up at Kirk behind the register. She shuffles her feet and reaches for a bag of trail mix.

I roll my eyes. She’s a crappy shoplifter. I’m not sure there is any way she could be more obvious. Kirk is staring right at her as she shuffles her feet back and forth. She replaces the trail mix and heads around to the other side of the rack. She’s out of direct sight, and Kirk directs his gaze to the convex mirror at the corner of the shop.

She turns her back toward the mirror and shifts her weight, leaning toward the shelf full of pre-packaged baked goods. I don’t see her hands, but I’m still pretty sure she picked something up. A moment later, she moves to the refrigerated section, grabs the cheapest bottle of water, and heads up to the counter.

Kirk has about half of my items rung up already, and he stares at the woman as she smiles and places a dollar next to the cash register.

“Here you go!” she says, still smiling. She gives a little wave as she takes a step toward the door.

“That’s another three bucks for the donuts you’re stealing.”

“What?” She straightens her shoulders and looks with indignity at Kirk. “What are you talking about?”

“The powdered donuts in your left pocket,” Kirk says as he places a meaty palm on the countertop.

She touches the outside of the pocket, covering the bulge with her hand. Her eyes widen, and she appears to be genuinely shocked when she pulls out the package.

“I…I don’t know how those got there.” She looks like she’s going to burst into tears, but there is no way Kirk is going to let her off the hook. Regardless of how pretty she may be, Kirk likes his cash, and I have a feeling that the dollar she placed on the counter is the only one she has.

“I’ve got it,” I say abruptly.

Kirk looks at me with obvious shock. I ignore his stare and grab the package of donuts from the woman. She also stares at me, her mouth slightly open but unable to form any words.

“Just put it with my stuff.” I cross my arms and wait for Kirk to start moving again.

“I shouldn’t put up with this shit,” he mumbles but rings up my remaining purchases, donuts included, and gives me the total.

I hand him the cash, hand the woman her donuts, and walk out.

She follows me.

“Thanks for that,” she says. She stands off to one side as I open the back of the Jeep and begin to shift items around to make room for the rest of my supplies.

“It didn’t cost much.” I don’t make eye contact with her, hoping she’ll just leave if I ignore her, but she doesn’t.

“I’m Seri,” she says. She laughs nervously. “It’s spelled with an e, not an i like the phone personality.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You know,” she says as she takes a step closer, “the woman’s voice on the phone that gives you directions and whatnot. It’s short for Serenity, which sounds kind of pretentious, so I just go by Seri.”

I stop loading for a minute and look at her. She’s still smiling, but it’s a nervous smile, not a friendly one. She wants something—more food, money, a place to stay—but I don’t care. I don’t need to get involved in anyone’s drama.

“I don’t own a phone,” I tell her. “Never have.”

“Oh.”

I lean down and pick up a box of supplies. I have to shuffle a few more things around, but I have almost everything in the back. The booze and cigarettes can go in the front seat.

“I ran out of money getting here,” the woman says, trying desperately to continue the conversation I keep trying to end. “I didn’t realize there wasn’t much work to be found in the winter, and—”

“I really don’t care.” I wish she would just be on her way, but I made the mistake of playing the nice guy, and she’s hoping to get more out of me. I could probably get something out of her if I was that kind of guy, but I’m not. I don’t pay for sex, not even as barter, no matter how long it has been.

“It’s just…you’re the first person who’s helped me at all since I got here, and I thought maybe…maybe…”

“Look,” I say as I toss the rest of my stuff in the back of the Jeep and turn to face her, “I really don’t need to hear your life story. I don’t give a shit. You don’t owe me anything, so just be on your way wherever you are going.”

In a flash, her expression changes completely.

“Just another self-serving asshole, aren’t you?” she says, speaking through clenched teeth and pointing an accusing finger at me. “You could at least try to be polite! I thought this place was known for its hospitality!”

“You aren’t in Whatì, and I don’t live there.”

“Close enough!” She practically spits the words at me.

I stare at her for a moment. She has intense green eyes—not as bright as the kitten’s, but definitely notable. Her eyes held a soft and curious look while inside, but now they are dark and blazing. She’s so enraged, she doesn’t even look like the same person anymore, but I can’t figure out why she could possibly be so pissed at me.

Then again, most people take their anger out on whomever is closest to them, and not the person who actually makes them angry. Whatever her issue is, it’s not my problem, and I want nothing to do with her.

“Fuck off.” I turn away. I’m not going to be drawn into an obviously pointless argument, and this woman apparently has a screw loose. I try to ignore the fact that she isn’t moving along as I finish loading my Jeep and then make my way to the driver’s side door. She follows me.

I continue to ignore her presence as I climb inside and shut the door. She keeps staring as I start the engine and pull away without letting it warm up first.

I glance in my rearview mirror one last time to see her smiling and waving.

“Thanks for the donuts!”

I shake my head as I drive away, realizing my heart is pounding rapidly in my chest. The whole encounter has left me strangely unnerved, and I reach into the bag that holds my booze and cigarettes on the passenger seat. I steer with my knee as I get out a smoke and light it. I cough when I inhale, a reminder that I should probably stop buying the damn things, but winter brings long stretches of boredom, and smoking helps pass the time.

I glance in the rearview mirror again and watch the strange woman disappear behind me, grateful to be away from her.





Chapter 3


I’m greeted by a mewing feline before I even get the door open to haul in the first load of supplies. As soon as I put the paper bag containing the milk on the floor near the stove, the little guy is sniffing at it. I wonder if he can actually smell the milk or if he’s just being a typical, curious cat. I’ve never had a pet in my life, and I don’t really know much about how cats behave. When I was a kid, some of the neighbors had dogs that I played with, but all the cats I saw weren’t the friendly type.

I bring most of the supplies inside the cabin before it gets too dark inside to see what I’m doing. The fire in the fireplace has burned down to coals, so I get it going before lighting candles around the place. I have to yell at the kitten to keep him away from the flames.

“You better figure that shit out sooner rather than later.” I cringe as I hear my father’s words coming from my mouth. I take a deep breath and soften my voice. “Don’t want you to burn yourself.”

I take two candles that usually sit on the floor and place them up on the mantle and out of the kitten’s reach. I light a small kerosene lantern in the kitchen and pull out the bottle I bought in Yellowknife, fill it with milk, and then warm it a bit over the fire before feeding the kitten.

“You need a name.” I remember the can of wet cat food with the picture that looked a bit like this one. “Can’t call you Sheba. You’re a tomcat.”

I hold the bottle of milk and stare into the eyes of the kitten as I try to remember anything I can about the name Sheba, searching for a suitable name for the grey bundle of fur. All I can come up with is some vague recollection of the Queen of Sheba screwing King Solomon.

“Is Solomon a good name for a cat?” I ask out loud. The kitten doesn’t respond. “Maybe just Solo for short? You’re the only one left of your litter, and chances are you aren’t going to find any companion other than me out here. Solo works as well as anything.”

Solo complains and claws at my fingers as I refill the bottle. I have no idea how much a kitten should eat, but he still seems ravenous, so I keep feeding him. Getting a bit fattened up before winter is a good plan anyway.

“I don’t know how long you were without food, but it must not have been too long. You’re recovering pretty quick, at least.”

Large green eyes stare at me as I keep talking nonsense to a cat. I have no idea why I’m talking to him at all, knowing full well that he understands nothing of what I’m saying. It’s a pointless activity, and I feel foolish, but I do it anyway. It’s not like there’s someone else here to judge me for it.

Solo finishes up his milk and sits near the fire as I put away the rest of my supplies. In the back of the Jeep are a handful of things that need to go to the barn, but I’ll wait to put them away in the morning. It’s already dark outside, and the temperature has surely dropped since the sun went down.

I grab one of the books I bought at the bookstore and sit down in my chair. It’s a mystery with the picture of a startled-looking woman on the cover. I’m a huge fan of mysteries. I like trying to piece all the clues together to see if I can come up with a plausible answer as to “whodunit.” I rarely get it right, but it’s still entertaining. This one is also a nice, thick book, which means it will take me a while to read. Before I get a chance to skim the summary on the back, Solo is climbing up my leg.

“Those claws hurt, you know.”

Solo isn’t concerned with my pain. He picks his feet up and kneads at my thigh and then looks at the book in my hand. He sniffs it briefly before rubbing his face against it. He rubs once more before trying to climb on top of it.

I set the book on the arm of the chair and lean back as Solo crawls up my chest and settles himself down with his nose up near my chin. He’s still tiny and obviously weakened but seems better than when I first found him. Maybe he wasn’t alone out in the woods as long as I thought he might have been. I wonder what happened to his mother.

Thoughts of motherhood in general take my mind to the last time I saw my own mother.

“Do you have anything to say to me? Anything at all?”

I just sat in silence, staring at the barred window separating us.

“You could consider apologizing, you know!”

Her words dug into my skin. She might as well have been grabbing me and shaking me. I was shaking anyway.

“For what?” I finally said, unable to speak any meaningful words.

“For what? Really, Bishop? You killed him. You killed him in cold blood. They’re right about you, aren’t they? You’re a sociopath. You have no remorse and no conscience. You don’t care at all about what you’ve done.”

I looked up and stared into her smooth, brown eyes. Even as a child, I wished I had her eyes instead of my father’s. There was too much of him in me, and I’d proven that.

“Well, good luck with the rest of your life.” The chair scraped across the floor loudly as she pushed it back and stood up. “I hope you rot in here!”

“I saved your life!” I didn’t know where the words came from. “You know I did! Why can’t you even admit that to yourself!”

“Saved my life?” My mother’s mouth dropped open and a tear rolled down her reddened cheeks. “You think you saved me? You ruined my life, Bishop. You ruined it. I can’t even go home now because of what you did. I wish I had listened to my own mother. I should never have had you.”

Solo’s claws dig into the skin of my neck, and I wince.

“Careful!” I pull him off my chest and set him down in the seat.

I pour myself a glass of whiskey and light a cigarette off one of the candles. Solo tries to climb back up my leg, so I find an old towel in the bathroom closet and place it in one of the boxes from the store. It’s a small box but just about the right size for the little kitten.

I place the makeshift bed near the fire, and Solo checks it out immediately. He walks around it a couple of times before placing a foot inside. After doing this a couple of times, he climbs in and starts kneading the towel. He looks up at me and howls once.

“What? You were expecting Egyptian linens?” I laugh and take a sip of my drink. It burns my throat, but I welcome the feeling. I haven’t had any alcohol since last winter; it never lasts long. Neither do the cigarettes though I’m better at rationing those.

Now that Solo is settled, I make myself dinner out of the perishable food I bought in town. It won’t last long but should give me what I need to get through the latter part of winter when my primary diet will be nothing more than caribou meat and snowshoe hares. I’ve got plenty of vitamins to help supplement whatever nutrients I’m missing.

Once my dishes are washed in warm water heated on the fire and set on the counter to dry, I load the fireplace up with the heaviest logs in the bin and prepare for the night. I blow out the candles, navigating the small, familiar space by firelight alone. I hang my jeans on the rack near the fire—the cuffs are still a little damp from the snow outside—and place my boots near the heat as well.

I strip off my remaining clothing and shiver for a moment until my skin gets used to the chill. Boxers and socks go into a basket in the bathroom, but I hang my shirt up with the jeans. It isn’t wet, but it helps me separate what’s been worn and what hasn’t. Doing laundry is a luxury and uses a lot of water, so I keep it to a minimum.

I climb into bed, welcoming the weight and the warmth of the blankets—one thermal, one wool. In the closet, there’s a bear hide with the fur still attached, but I won’t need that until it gets colder.

I’m only in bed for a minute before Solo whines and crawls his way up the edge of the blanket, meowing constantly. He climbs onto my thigh and then walks up my body until his face is right up near mine. He yowls loudly.

“I got you your own bed,” I say.

He doesn’t appear to care.

I sigh, too tired to bother arguing with him, and let him curl up on my chest. His purr is comforting, and his body heat added to my own makes the bed that much warmer.

Two hours later, he wakes me up with his cries and moans. Eventually, I crawl out of bed and get him some more milk, which calms him down enough that we can both go back to sleep. Three hours later, we start all over again.

By the time the sun is up, I feel like I haven’t slept at all. Solo, on the other hand, is very active. As I wash up and get dressed, he explores the rest of the cabin, getting into the firewood, the supplies I have yet to put away, and almost getting his nose snapped in a mousetrap back in the closet.

As tempted as I am to spend the day inside and maybe take a nap, I still have a lot to do before the weather gets any worse. There will be plenty of time to sleep through the winter. I feed Solo one more time, get my hunting bow and hunting equipment, and head outside.

I’ve got a lot of meat stored in the locker at the back of the barn, but one more caribou would make sure I didn’t run out or have to track the herd through the deep snows.

The barren-ground caribou in this area are already migrating, though some exist throughout the winter months, migrating from further north. As long as there are conifer trees to munch on and water to drink, they’ll stick around. The marshes of this area work well for finding the herds quickly, and I also know where to look. More importantly, I know when to look.

Parking the Jeep a good distance away, I set myself up at the edge of the trees and wait. As the wind shifts, I change my position, making sure I’ll be downwind when the herd arrives to drink from the marsh waters. It’s comparatively warm today, and some of the snow is melting, but I know from the weather radio that snow is on the way, probably tonight. If it’s a big storm, I might not have another hunting opportunity for a while, so I have to make this one count.

As I move from one group of trees to another, I come across some Shaggy Mane mushrooms. It’s late in the season for them, but a couple haven’t gone inky and black. They’ll make a good meal tonight.

I hear the herd approaching before I see it. When the first few bucks appear around an outcropping of trees and head for the water, an eagle flies overhead, looking for its own dinner. Caribou travel stirs up a lot of smaller mammals for the eagles to hunt.

I wait—patient, silent, and still. I pick out my mark early and anticipate the best time to shoot. The creature turns, showing me its side. Adrenaline flows through me as I aim carefully, and my arrow flies straight into the animal’s flank, puncturing a lung. I run toward the fallen caribou and finish it with my knife.

I give a silent prayer, thanking the animal for its life. I’m not sure I really believe any of that stuff, but those who taught me were adamant about it, ingraining the spirituality of the hunt into my mind. When it gets colder, I’ll drink the blood. The indigenous people swear by it, and I do feel energized when I drink it, but I wonder how much of that is psychosomatic.

Covering the carcass with a bear skin to keep some of the predators away, I head off to retrieve the Jeep. If I had help, I could prepare the carcass here. It would be neater, but I’m on my own, and I have to get back to my cabin to clean it.

Once the caribou is strapped to the hood of the Jeep, I start back towards the dirt road and the lake near my cabin. I go slowly over the rough terrain, watching carefully to avoid any obstacles ahead of me. The carcass shifts as I hit a bump, partially obscuring my view. I roll down the window and stick my head out a bit to see better. The temperature is dropping rapidly, but I’m almost home, so I won’t be cold for long.

As I get to the dirt road, I see a dark shape off to one side, nestled in a group of boulders near the lake. I’ve studied the landscape around here so intimately, I know whatever it is wasn’t there before.

As I pull up closer, the shape moves slightly.

I stop the Jeep and grip my hunting knife in my right hand before I get out. I’m pretty sure it’s not an animal, but I don’t know what it is, and it’s always better to be careful. I walk up silently until I can get a better look at it.

It’s a person.

Not just any person but the woman I saw at Broken Toy’s the day before. She’s huddled up in a ball against the rocks, still not dressed properly for the climate, and half frozen.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I ask as I approach, knife still in hand. I haven’t forgotten how she wigged out on me when I wouldn’t listen to her autobiography.

She looks up, and I’m met with her bright green eyes. Her hair is flapping around in the wind, smacking her in the face, but I can still see the tears in her eyes.

“They left me,” she says softly. Her voice shakes as she shivers violently.

“You’re going to freeze out here.” I reach down and offer her my hand. “Who left you?”

She stares at my hand for a long moment before reaching out tentatively. She lets me help her up, then wraps her arms around herself as the brunt of the wind, previously blocked by the rocks, hits the rest of her body.

She looks to the west at the road leading to Whatì.

“Are you staying in Whatì?” I ask. “I can take you back there.”

“No.” She doesn’t offer any other explanation as she sways unsteadily.

I grab her arm just as she’s about to fall, and the next thing I know, I’m holding an unconscious, freezing woman in my arms.





Chapter 4


What the fuck have I gotten myself into?

I carry the unconscious woman inside my cabin. I can’t even remember what she said her name is, but here I am, bringing her into my home where I haven’t had company since the first winter I was here.

I’m concerned about my kill. Leaving it on the Jeep is a bad plan—a bear will surely smell it and pay me a visit. A lot of the bears will already be in the hibernation dens, but some are certainly still out and about. If not a bear, then some other carnivore or carrion eater. It won’t last long, even with night approaching, and I don’t want to lose the meat.

Maybe it’s shitty to be more concerned about the caribou meat than I am about the human woman. I don’t care. Thawing out this woman had not been on my agenda for the evening.

Now that I have her inside, I have no idea what to do with her. Her clothing is wet, and I need to get her out of it, but I don’t know where to put her. I don’t want to lay her on my bed – she would just get the blanket wet.

With no other options, I squat down and lay her as gently as I can on the rug. Solo comes up immediately, meowing loudly.

“I know you’re hungry,” I say. “I gotta deal with this first.”

Solo is not impressed with my reason for delaying and continues to whine.

“Hey, can you hear me?” I yell at her a couple of times but get no response. After a bit of hesitation, I slap her face lightly, but she still doesn’t move. If I had some smelling salts, they probably would have worked, but I live on my own and never had need of them before.

I need to get her warm, which means getting her dry. I start undressing the woman, all the while trying to figure out what I’m going to say to her if she wakes up and finds me taking her clothes off. I don’t want her to panic, but I have to get the wet clothes away from her skin. It’s much warmer inside the cabin, but the warmth won’t be enough if she’s getting close to hypothermic, and I can’t check her for frostbite while her socks are on.

She remains unconscious as I strip her down to her bra and underwear. Pushing the wet garments to the side, I dry her skin carefully with a towel as I check for any grey flesh. She doesn’t have any signs of frostbite, so I finish drying her and crouch down to pick her up.

By the time I move her to the bed, she’s shivering. It’s a good sign—her body has the energy to work to warm itself. I cover her with the blankets and stoke up the fire to better heat the room. Only dim light comes through the window now, so I light the kerosene lamp and a few candles as well. Even little flames can help heat a small room.

I try to get her to drink a little water, but she’s not cooperating, and I don’t want the bed to end up wet. I pinch her arm gently and watch her skin snap back. She isn’t severely dehydrated, or her flesh would pucker. Water can wait. I hang her clothes and meager coat to dry out on the rack by the fire.

“Keep an eye on her, okay?” Solo only responds by whining, but he’s going to have to wait, too. I need to get the caribou back to the barn and stored where nothing can get to it.

I jog to the barn and grab the sled. Once I have it back to the cabin, I untie the caribou from the hood of the Jeep and strap it onto the sled. As I start to pull it back toward the barn, I wish I had found a husky pup instead of a cat. At least when they grow up, huskies could help with the work.

I store the caribou in the barn next to another one I’ve already cleaned and dressed, separating the best meat into usable portions and preparing the hide for whatever use I might have for it. I’ve built up a stockpile of furs over the years, and I usually end up with plenty of extra to sell or trade in the spring if I need a bit of cash to replenish supplies. I never sell the caribou hides though—the skins with the hollow fur are the best for winter weather protection, and that’s worth its weight in cash around here.

As I walk back from the barn, the wind picks up. I can feel the increased chill in the air and smell the impending storm before I even look up at the sky. Dark clouds loom from the west.

Back inside the cabin, the young woman hasn’t moved. Solo is absolutely screeching at this point, so my next task is to feed him. I watch the woman as Solo sucks on the bottle I bought for him in Yellowknife, trying to remember what she said her name is. I am pretty sure it starts with an S. Maybe Sarah? That doesn’t seem quite right. It is a little more unusual than that, and short for something else. I wanted her to leave me alone and hadn’t really been paying attention.

Solo drinks as much as he can fit into his tiny stomach. I swear he’s glaring at me for making him wait. When he’s finished, I rinse out the bottle while he decides to check out the woman in the bed. She’s still lying on her back, just as I left her. Solo starts out at the foot of the bed, sniffs at the lump under the blanket where her feet are, and then walks right up her legs, over her stomach, and stands on her chest. He stares at her face for a minute, carefully sniffing her nose.

He seems unimpressed.

“Women are trouble,” I tell him. “They’re best avoided. Sometimes you can’t help it though.”

Solo jumps down and entertains himself with a bit of bark he finds on the floor near the fireplace. I get caught up in watching him for a moment, trying to figure out how he could be so entertained just by pushing the bark around on the floor, but he seems happy enough to do it.

I should be so easily entertained.

As it is, I’m just tired. Between last night’s interrupted sleep, the hunt, and hauling this woman around, I’m about ready to lie down myself. It’s not late at all, but the sun is starting to set, and it will be dark quickly. I light the oil lamp and make some extra food when I cook dinner, assuming the woman will be hungry when she wakes up. Those donuts couldn’t have lasted too long.

While I eat, I crank my weather radio and tune into the forecast. As I suspected, there’s a storm on the way, and it’s looking like a big one. Several inches of snow are expected, followed by dropping temperatures. I glance at the unconscious woman, wondering just how long I am going to be stuck here with her.

She’s still out when I’m done eating, and I’m kind of at a loss about what to do next. For a while, I just stare at her, taking in her features. She’s pale white with light brown hair, which means she isn’t from anywhere around here. I remember the few words she spoke to me, and I know she’s from the States and probably from the Midwest. Why would an American Midwest girl be this far into the Northwest Territories in the first place?

I remove my shirt and socks, then my jeans. Glancing at the woman in the bed, I leave my boxers on for her sake. She is bound to freak out when she wakes up in a strange place, and the last thing she would want to see is my dick waving around.

I stand in the middle of the room, looking back and forth between the chair and the bed and getting colder by the minute. I toss one more piece of wood on the fire just to buy myself some time. It would be most chivalrous of me to grab an extra blanket and sleep in the chair, but that would just kill my back, and I need to finish the caribou tomorrow before the storm hits. I also need to chop more wood, and doing that with an already aching back would suck.

Without knowing what else to do, and being totally unwilling to be gentlemanly enough to freeze my ass sleeping on the floor, I climb over the woman and slide into the blankets beside her.

Her body is still a little chilly, even under the blankets with the fire roaring. I move a little closer to her, pressing my body up against hers. I am encumbered with a vague memory of the last time I was in bed with Margot as a winter storm approached. It’s been awhile since I felt soft skin against mine, and I hope I don’t make a fool of myself.

Some things are more easily controlled than others.

I shiver a bit and pull the blanket up over my shoulder. I don’t know what to do with my arm. I try just laying it down my side, but it’s completely unnatural and uncomfortable. I’ll never be able to sleep with it in that position, so I slowly, carefully, slide my arm across her bare stomach and rest my fingers against the mattress on the other side of her.

“Please don’t wake up and punch me in the face,” I mutter as I close my eyes.

She doesn’t.

In fact, she’s still asleep when I open my eyes. I’m in almost the exact position I was in when I fell asleep—with one arm tossed over her. Her hand lies across my forearm and her head is tilted toward me. Her skin is warm now, our combined body temperature creating a pocket of heat under the thick blankets. The firelight is dim, but I can still make out her face. Her breathing is steady, which is a good sign. The light is too dim to know for sure, but I think she has color back in her face as well.

While I’m still staring into her face, her eyes open, and she grips my arm tightly with her fingers.

I brace myself, expecting her to freak out when she wakes up and finds herself in a strange place, lying in an unfamiliar bed with an unknown man lying beside her. She lies perfectly still for a long moment before slowly looking around the room. When her gaze finally reaches me, I’m surprised at the calm look in her eyes.

“Where am I?” she asks softly.

“My cabin.”

“How did I get here?”

“I found you on the road. You passed out.”

She looks around the room again before she focuses back on my face.

“You bought me donuts.”

“Yeah, I did.” I snicker softly. “You were trying to steal them.”

“I wasn’t. I don’t know how they got in my pocket. I guess they must have fallen off the shelf.”

Her explanation is about the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard, far more implausible than the many, many excuses and claims of innocence I heard from my comrades in prison. She doesn’t seem phased by my look of incredulity but rather directs her attention lower.

“Where are my clothes?”

“Hanging up by the fire,” I say. “They were wet. Getting wet in this weather is a death sentence.”

She nods slowly. I’m still waiting for the panic to set in, but she remains calm. She looks around the room again as she takes a deep breath.

“What were you doing out there?” I ask.

“They just left me there on the road.” Her voice is a monotone.

“Who did?”

“Two guys. I met them outside the gas station.”

“Wearing hunting gear?”

“Yes. They said they would give me a ride to Yellowknife, but when I told them I didn’t have any money, they started suggesting other ways I could pay them. When I refused, they dumped me beside the road.”

I narrow my eyes as I stare at her face. Her story is perfectly plausible, but her tone of voice is so matter-of-fact and emotionless, I don’t know if I should believe her or not. There’s definitely something off about her. I’m tempted to confront her, but I don’t even know what to say.

“You’re pretty calm about all of this.” I raise my eyebrows when she looks at me.

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” I say and then pause for a moment before continuing, “I kinda expected you to be more scared, I guess.”

“Of what?”

“Me. Being in a weird place. Something.”

“Are you going to hurt me?”

“No.” The word comes out of my mouth automatically. As soon as I say it, my throat tightens. I don’t intend to hurt her, but I know from experience that there is never a guarantee.

“Is there something dangerous in this place?”

“Well…” I’m not really sure how to answer. Any given place has a certain level of danger associated with it, but I know that isn’t what she means. “I mean, there’s a fire, which is potentially dangerous, but there isn’t a minefield under the floor or anything.”

I don’t tell her I also have guns around the place. It’s not information I think she needs.

“I guess all that’s left is in the unknown,” she says. “If I were to be afraid of that, I’d always be afraid.”

I can’t really fault her logic, but her attitude is still unsettling.

The kitten must have felt left out of the conversation because he chooses that time to jump up on the bed and walk up the woman’s leg.

“Is there a cat on me?”

“Yeah,” I say. “That’s Solo.”

“Hi, Solo.” She reaches out and lets him sniff her hand before she rubs his head.

Solo closes his eyes and pushes against her touch.

“He’s so tiny.”

“Yeah, just a kitten.” I shift my weight and reach out to run my hand along Solo’s back. He mews and crawls onto me, and the woman smiles.

I don’t know how to take her. She seems perfectly at ease waking up in a stranger’s bed with a mangy kitten standing on her. She should be upset. She should be worried about my intentions or something, but she remains perfectly calm.

Maybe her brain hasn’t defrosted yet.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

“Bishop.” I look at her face. “Yours is…? Sorry, I can’t remember.”

“Netti.”

I narrow my eyes at her again. I can’t remember exactly what she had told me her name was before, but I am sure that wasn’t it. I consider calling her out on it, but I don’t know what the point would be. Maybe she’s more frightened than she’s letting on and trying to protect herself. Maybe she lied in the parking lot of Broken Toy’s Gas and Goods. Maybe my memory sucks.

I know it’s not my memory, and I decide to just ignore the change of name. I can’t imagine it matters much anyway. The storm can’t last more than a day or two, and I’ll drag her back to Whatì and forget she ever existed.





Chapter 5


Overnight, the storm hits. Wind whips around the cabin in great gusts, shaking the window and door. The temperature inside drops considerably, and I have to keep the fire blazing to ward off the chill.

“Where’s my backpack?” Netti asks.

“Never saw one,” I tell her, though I vaguely remember her having one at the gas station. “You weren’t carrying anything when I found you.”

“I guess they kept it,” she says with a long sigh. “It’s not like there is anything in there they could use. Just a change of clothes and my toiletries.”

“I have a couple spare toothbrushes,” I say. I always have extra toiletries on hand, but I don’t know what compelled me to offer them to her. Regardless, I can’t take it back now. I point my thumb over my shoulder. “Look in the box under the sink. There’s a working toilet in there if you need it.”

Netti thanks me and heads into the bathroom, closing the squeaky door behind her. Living on my own, I never bother with closing the door, and Solo apparently doesn’t like being shut off from the small room. He first sniffs and then scratches at the door until I swoop in and pick him up.

“I told ya women are trouble,” I whisper into his fur, “always lockin’ ya out of the places you want to be.”

I cringe when I realize I’m speaking baby talk and immediately change my tone.

“She won’t be around long, boy.”

Solo mews and rubs his face against my cheek. I’m not sure if he’s satisfied with my answer or not, but at least he’s content again. His loud purr vibrates against my skin.

Netti is in the bathroom only a short time before coming back out. When she comes out, she walks to the bed and sits on the edge with the blanket wrapped around her. Her clothing is still wet, so I find her a pair of my sweatpants and a long T-shirt to wear until her own clothing is dry, but she’s still cold. I’m not sure if it’s because of her exposure to the elements yesterday or if she just isn’t used to the temperatures here.

We’ve barely spoken since waking up, still wrapped around each other for warmth. I wouldn’t know what to say to her anyway. As I prepare milk for Solo, my whole body is tense, and I’m trying my best not to show it. I’m not exactly prepared for a guest and wouldn’t know what to do even if I were so inclined to have one. Margot came here exactly once, and that was just to bring me a box of extra supplies she had. I didn’t like Margot being here either, but it was better than being at her place where I felt like an extra, unwanted piece of furniture. It wasn’t Margot’s fault though. I just don’t do well in any kind of social situation.

“I emptied that drawer for you,” Margot told me after I had lived there for a month. “You don’t have to live out of your backpack.”

I shrugged, not knowing how to respond.

“Really, Bishop. It’s okay. You know you can stay here as long as you want.”

“Everything I own fits in the bag,” I said. “I don’t really need to take up more space than I already do.”

“I want you to be comfortable here.”

I took a long, shaky breath. I knew she was trying, but I also knew I was never going to feel comfortable living with her.

Margot had eventually given up trying to get me to relax, and that was the beginning of the end. When the ice road began to thaw, I found the cabin. A few weeks after that, I moved out of Margot’s place, and I have been alone ever since.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like Margot or didn’t like living with her—I did. That was part of the problem. I couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling in the back of my head that living with me would never be in her best interest. It was better for me to be on my own and safer for Margot to be away from me.

Even now, I can feel that same tickle running across my scalp. My hands clench and unclench uncontrollably. In my head, I see myself picking up a piece of firewood and bashing in my visitor’s skull just to be rid of her. I close my eyes for a moment, willing the images away.

Solo is the exact opposite—he seems to enjoy the extra company. He keeps crawling around in Netti’s lap and rubbing his head against her. When I bring his warmed milk over, Netti offers to feed the kitten for me.

Solo rolls over on his back and reaches up with his paws as Netti brings the bottle of milk to his mouth. He stares at her adoringly as she giggles and coos at him, and my stomach tightens. Watching Netti with the kitten makes me feel like I’m out of place in my own cabin. I don’t like it.

My hands shake as I go back to the kitchen counter and stare out the window, feeling stupid for feeling awkward. The storm is in full force, and big, heavy flakes fill the air as the wind whips them around the trees. I keep my focus on the swirling snow until the violent thoughts dissipate.

I grab a heavy pan along with coffee and a percolator and the carton of eggs I got in Yellowknife. After hanging the percolator on a hook inside the fireplace, I crouch down and cook the eggs over the fire without looking at the woman or the kitten. When breakfast is ready, I hand her a cup of coffee and a plate full of eggs and caribou bacon.

“You want sugar?” I ask.

“Sugar?”

“For the coffee.”

“Oh, um, sure. Yes.”

I add sugar to both of our cups and sit down on the floor by the fire. Solo comes over to me, sniffing my plate. I push him away a couple of times, but he’s very interested in the smell of the bacon. Though I don’t know his actual age, I’m pretty sure he’s not old enough for solid food yet.

“I think my clothes are dry now.” Netti reaches over and runs her hand along the sleeve of her coat.

“Should be.” I stare at my plate as silence fills the room. Even Solo stops his begging for food, curls up by the fire, and settles down for a nap.

I finish breakfast and wonder if the weather is too bad to deal with the caribou in the barn. Inside the barn itself shouldn’t be too bad, but the short trek there might be ugly. Chopping wood is probably out of the question until the snow stops falling.

“Well, I appreciate all of this,” Netti says suddenly, “but I really should get out of your hair.”

I look up and stare at her for a long moment, trying to decide if she’s completely nuts or not. She doesn’t have a vehicle, and even my Jeep wouldn’t do well under the current conditions. If it were a life-or-death situation, it might still be better to wait until the mass of the storm has passed.

“Have you looked outside?” I shake my head at her.

“No.”

“Maybe you should.” I sound like an ass. It occurs to me that she was asleep when I was listening to the weather radio and that she hadn’t gone near the one window in the cabin, but she should at least be able to hear the wind against the walls.

“I guess the storm is too bad to leave?”

I’m not sure if she means it to sound like a question or not, but I think the answer is pretty damn obvious. I press my lips together. Any words that come out of my mouth are going to sound shitty.

“How long will it last?” she asks.

“Fuck if I know,” I say. “Do I look like a meteorologist?”

The tension is getting to be too much. I grab her empty plate and cup and take all the dishes to the sink, just trying to put some distance between us. I add hot water from the percolator into the sink and grab a bottle of dish soap.

“Let me do that,” she says as she moves up behind me and tries to take the bottle of dish soap from my hand.

“I’ve got it.”

“Please,” she says, “let me do it. You made breakfast.”

Her hand touches mine, and I still as all my muscles fire at once. Images of cracking her head open with the frying pan fill my brain. She’s a guest, so I should be doing the work. She’s a guest, so I should let her help if that’s what she wants. She’s a guest, and I have no idea what to do.

I drop the pan in the sink, splashing cold water onto my arms. The droplets feel like they’re burning my skin. I push away from the sink, wanting to get away from her, but there is nowhere to go inside the small, one-room cabin.

She’s obviously shocked by my reaction but says nothing. As Netti starts to wash the dishes, I grab my winter gear and start suiting up to go outside. I just need to get away.

I still have that caribou to clean. Maybe I’ll chop wood in the blinding snow just to get some of the tension out of my shoulders. Fuck the weather.

“Where are you going?” she asks quietly. “The snow is really coming down.”

I don’t answer her. I just put on my boots and gloves before opening the door and quickly shutting it behind me.

Outside, I can breathe again.

The wind burns my exposed cheeks, but the snow isn’t deep enough yet to need the snowshoes, so I leave them on the porch and head to the barn. Putting some distance between myself and the woman inside my abode is more important than anything else right now anyway.

Despite the brisk cold demanding that I focus and move quickly, my mind wanders to the past.

“Do you really think I don’t know that you’re hiding something, Bishop? Do you think you can live with me all these months, tell me nothing about your past, and not have me notice?” Margot had her hands on her hips and her girlish, heart-shaped face was full of fire and brimstone. Her jet-black hair hung over her forehead and into her eyes. She pushed it away as she continued to yell at me. “You don’t trust me enough to tell me, and every relationship needs trust!”

“You think this is a relationship?” I asked as I shoved the last of my items into my backpack and stood up, prepared to just walk to the damn cabin myself. “At what point did I hand you a fucking ring?”

“Stop being shitty.” She scowled at me. “You’re doing it just to piss me off, and it’s not going to work.”

“You are pissed off,” I said. “It did work.”

She took in a long breath to get herself back under control.

“At some point you are going to get tired of being alone,” she said. “You are going to want to have people in your life again, and if you keep it up, no one is going to take you back, not even me.”

“I seriously doubt it.”

Once I’m inside the barn and away from the wind, I take a few long, deep breaths. I welcome the cold air into my lungs. It makes me feel alive even as it sends a shiver down my body. Working on the caribou in the cold will be rough, but I welcome it. Hard work keeps me from thinking too much.

As I work on gutting and skinning the caribou, I work up enough sweat to remove my outer coat and gloves. Having my hands free for a short time makes the detailed work much easier though it’s too cold to leave the extra layer off for long.

I store the meat in the stone structure at the back of the barn along with my other kills. There’s definitely enough meat to get me through the winter even if Netti is here for a while.

I think about that for a moment. If the storm lasts a while and the snows pile deep, there will be no leaving the cabin. I don’t have a snowmobile to get around, and there’s no way this woman is going to walk all the way to Whatì. She doesn’t have the gear for it, and I don’t have enough extra to give her.

I really don’t want to think about how long I could be stuck with Netti sharing my cabin. For the first time, I wish I had a telephone or two-way radio to contact someone in Whatì with a snowmobile or a dogsled. At least then she would be away from me.

For a brief moment, I’m concerned about where she would go and what she would do without money or friends. If she had either, she wouldn’t have tried to hitch a ride with those two hunters.

“Not my responsibility,” I mutter to myself. “She figured out how to get here on her own, and she can figure out how to get herself somewhere else.”

But she got here during the warmer seasons, and now winter is in full force.

I finish cleaning up. I’m breathing hard, and my arms and shoulders ache, but it’s a good feeling. Having the pain to focus my attention on is a wonderful way to avoid thinking. I gather up my outer coat and head back outside.

I don’t have any real sense of how much time has passed, but the snow is much deeper now. At least six inches has fallen since I entered the barn, and the wind is blowing impossibly stronger. I tuck my chin down to my chest and plow my way to the front door of the cabin.

I stomp my feet against the porch floor to knock some of the snow off. The vibrations from my feet are amplified by the cold and echo up my legs, pulling me out of my daydreams.

When I open the door and go inside, Netti is sitting on the edge of the bed with Solo in her lap. She’s added wood to the fire, and it’s blazing nicely. Usually when I have been out working during the winter, the fire has died down and the cabin has gone cold, but this time it’s still nice and warm inside.

“I was starting to wonder if you were coming back,” Netti says. There’s a smile on her face, but it’s hesitant.

“Nowhere to go.” I kick the remaining snow from my boots before slipping them off. I hang my winter gear on hooks by the door and walk past Netti to the bathroom.

The water from the sink is frigid. During my first winter in the cabin, the pipes froze. Though I was lucky enough that they didn’t burst, I had to have them better insulated before the following year. Considering it’s just now the beginning of winter, I can only hope the pipes don’t freeze again before spring.

“I was going to try to cook something,” Netti says as I emerge, “but I’ve never cooked on a fire like this. I wasn’t sure how to do it.”

“Just like a stove,” I say briskly. “You just have to be a little more careful not to burn the place down in the process.”

“I suppose that’s true,” she says with a nervous laugh.

“Watch.” I say little else as I place a pot of rice on the fireplace hook to cook and then get out a cast iron skillet. I cook up some caribou meat and vegetables to go with the rice while Netti watches.

When the meal is ready, Netti jumps up to retrieve plates for us. She flitters around with a nervous smile on her face, trying to do things to help. I should say something to make her feel more at ease, but I don’t know what to say. I spent my formative years locked up, and the social niceties of regular society are simply something I never learned.

“How long do you think the storm will last?” she asks.

I glare at her.

“I know, I know,” she says as she holds her hands up, “you aren’t a meteorologist. You must have some idea though.”

“Hopefully just a day or two,” I say. “You never really know until it’s over. I don’t usually pay much attention. Once it sets in, I just wait until spring.”

“You just stay here for months?”

“Yeah.”

“By yourself? You don’t go anywhere?”

“I prefer to be alone.”

“I guess I’ve ruined that.”

“Yes, you have.” It’s a shitty thing to say, but it’s the truth. Storm or not, I don’t want her to get too comfortable here. As soon as I’m able, I’ll take her somewhere else.

Anywhere else.

“Where do you think you’re going to go anyway?” My tone is harsher than I intend, but ultimately, I’m going to need an answer.

“I don’t know.” She looks away, biting at her lip and rubbing her hands together. “I was going to try to make it to Yellowknife, but that didn’t work out so well. I guess I should go back to Fort Providence.”

“Do you know someone there?”

“No. It’s just the last city I was in.”

I snort at her use of the word “city.” Fort Providence, though larger than Whatì, is just barely a hamlet. If I can get the Jeep to Edzo, there’s an all-weather road to Fort Providence. The trek is even farther than Yellowknife, but if I drove her, I’d be rid of her.

I’m tempted to ask her a hundred questions, beginning with how in the hell she ended up in Fort Providence, let alone Whatì. Though tourist fishing is decent business in the summer months, no one comes this way in winter. There isn’t a fancy hotel in town, and the main entertainment is Dene Hand Game. She obviously isn’t Dene, and there aren’t too many people around competing in Hand Game who didn’t grow up playing. I’ve tried, and I’m terrible at it.

I don’t ask her because I’m pretty sure I already know the answer. It’s the same reason I am here. There’s only one motive that brings someone this far north—to escape something or someone in the south. If I start asking questions, I’m going to get more information than I want to hear. Best case, she won’t want to talk about it. Worst case, she’ll tell me everything and then want to know how I got here.

“I assume you don’t have any money.”

“No,” she says quietly, “I ran out shortly after I got to Fort Providence.”

“Yellowknife is a better destination,” I say. “A lot more people. Maybe someone would give you a job or something.”

“I don’t know…” She shakes her head as her voice trails off, confirming my suspicions.

Those who don’t want to be found don’t go looking for a job in a city where they might be recognized. It’s part of the reason I don’t go there more than once a year and never stay long when I do. I’m technically a fugitive though I don’t think anyone cares enough to actually go looking for me.

“Would you be able to take me to Fort Providence when the storm lets up?” she asks. “You’ve already helped me so much, and I know it’s a lot to ask. You don’t even know me.”

“It depends on the storm,” I say. “I can get you back to Whatì, but farther than that might not be possible for a while.”

“Why is that?”

“Even getting to Whatì can be difficult once the cold sets in. There aren’t any roads around here, and my Jeep can handle the snow only to a certain point. Once it gets cold enough, it won’t run well. It’s winter, Netti.”

“Netti?” She lets out a short burst of laughter. “No one has called me that in ages. Just Seri, please.”

For a moment, I just stand there. I’m the first to admit that I’m not great when it comes to talking to women, but I don’t think that’s my problem here. This woman is just weird. I know she told me her name was Netti, and I knew then that it wasn’t the name she had given me before. Seri does actually sound right—a shortened version of a longer name.

I have no idea what to say.





Chapter 6


As I light the kerosene lamp and a few candles, I watch Seri as she cleans up from our meal, eyeing her carefully.

I consider her behavior when she first woke up. “Netti” was so calm and relaxed. She spoke softly and with purpose. Seri is not the least bit calm but rather full of nervous energy. She babbles about nothing as she moves around, trying to help as much as possible. She smiles constantly though the look in her eyes is one of trepidation.

I shake my head. I’m obviously reading too much into this. She was probably in shock when she first woke up, and this is more normal behavior for her—at least normal, given the abnormal circumstances. Giving me a name that she obviously used in the past was probably just a slip of the tongue. The cold can make people do weird shit.

“How can you walk around like that?” she asks. “It’s freezing in here!”

I look down at my bare chest, sweatpants, and socks. It’s the way I usually dress while inside, and I’m used to it. As long as the socks are warm, the rest of me typically is. If I do get chilled, I sit closer to the fire or put on a hat.

“Go outside for a minute,” I reply with a shrug. “I bet you’ll think it’s warm in here then.”

She giggles and rolls her eyes. I smile back a little sheepishly. I’m used to the temperature inside, and I’m perfectly comfortable running around half naked. It doesn’t bother me at all. Considering the wind chill is at about negative forty right now, inside is a summer vacation on a nice, sandy beach in Florida. I didn’t think about how she might react to me dressing this way. Not that it matters—I’m not about to change for her.

“I suppose you get used to it. Back home, it never got this cold, not even in winter.” As soon as the words are out of her mouth, her eyes go wide and she looks away. She’s given me more information than she intended.

No worries. I’m not going to ask you any questions. I don’t care.

“It’s so dark already,” she says in a lame attempt at changing the subject. “I don’t see a clock…what time is it?”

“I dunno.” I shrug. “I don’t own a clock or a watch.”

“Really?”

“When there is no set schedule, what time it is doesn’t really matter much. When it gets dark, you go to bed. When it’s light again, you get up.”

“Wow. No clock, no phone. I’m not even sure how you can survive without those things.”

“Neither of those things are required for survival.”

“True, but people think of them that way.”

“Not around here,” I say. “If you’re going to talk about survival here, you’d better mean it.”

“I guess that’s true.” Seri nods and fiddles with her fingers. “So what do you do when it’s too cold to go outside?”

“I stay inside.” I narrow my eyes at her, wondering why she’d ask such a stupid question.

“And do what?” she asks.

“Just…whatever.” Once I understand what she means, I realize I don’t have much of an answer for her. “Keep the fire going. Repair whatever might be broken. Read.”

“All winter long?”

“Pretty much.”

“What do you like to read?” she asks.

The stack of books I purchased in Yellowknife is piled up next to the chair. I debate pointing them out to her and telling her to look for herself, but I’m not sure I want her to know what my reading preferences are. The subject feels very personal to me, and I don’t want to share that with her. The very idea puts me even more on edge.

“Words,” I finally say. I turn away from her, hoping to deter any further questions, but it doesn’t work.

“How often do you go into town?” she asks.

“There isn’t any town.” I let out a long sigh. “If you mean Whatì, I’ll go there for supplies if I need them, but I won’t. I already have enough to last me until the ice thaws.”

“Do people come here to visit you?”

“No.”

She stops washing the dishes and just stares at me for a long time. I turn my attention away from her and poke at the fire.

“That sounds very lonely.”

“Didn’t really ask for your opinion.” I grab a log and shove it into the coals. I stare at the flames as they lick around the wood. All the tension I felt before is back, and I envision myself picking up a burning log and smacking her with it.

I push off the floor and stalk over to the kitchen, brushing Seri aside and grabbing a pack of cigarettes out of the carton. I sit down next to the fire and light the cigarette off a nearby coal, nearly scorching my forehead but not caring.

I take a long drag and blow the smoke toward the fire. The smoke burns my lungs, and it takes all my willpower to keep myself from coughing. Solo mews and rubs up against my thigh, providing a much-needed distraction. The kitten is very interested in my cigarette, and I have to hold it away from him when he tries to sniff the burning end. The violent images leave my head, and I end up feeling like an ass. Apparently, Seri agrees.

“Did I do something to offend you?” Seri takes a step away from the sink and folds her arms across her chest.

“Other than existing?” It’s like I can’t stop shit from spewing from my mouth. Even Solo jumps a bit at my harsh tone.

“I didn’t ask to be here, you know!” Her voice rises in pitch and volume.

“Would you have preferred it if I left you in the snow?” I keep my own voice as quiet and calm as I can. The cabin is small enough that whispering can be heard from the far side, and yelling is hardly necessary.

“Of course not!”

“Then what are you bitching about?”

“I’m bitching because it’s very difficult to be grateful when you’re jumping down my throat every time I say anything!”

“Maybe it’s best if you just shut the fuck up, then!” Apparently, yelling is going to be necessary after all. I quickly finish the cigarette and toss the butt into the fire.

“I’m not the one being nasty!”

“Believe me,” I say through clenched teeth, “I could be a lot worse.”

“I don’t see how!”

I pick the kitten up off my lap and set him down on the rug beside me. My stomach is so tight, I can’t sit up straight. I want silence. I want solitude. I don’t want any of the shit that has been thrust upon me, and it’s all her fault for being stupid enough to trust some redneck tourists. Standing quickly, I face my unwanted guest and point a finger at her.

“I saved your fucking life.” I’m practically snarling at her, but I can’t stop myself. “I got you inside, fed you, and gave you a fucking toothbrush. What I haven’t done is bash your head in, though the thought keeps crossing my mind. So yeah—it could be a whole lot worse!”

Oh shit.

I hadn’t meant to say that out loud. Yeah, sure, I’d thought about it. I thought about it whenever I spent too much time with anyone. When two people are in close proximity for an extended time, someone inevitably starts asking questions. As soon as someone asks me where I come from, if I have any family, or any similar, normal questions, I’d get images in my head. I’d recall the feeling of my hands as they gripped the long handle of the axe. I’d shudder from the sensation of tendons in my arm tearing under the sheer force of the swing. I’d remember the feeling of warm blood spattering my face, and I’d lose all ability to function.

I don’t look up. In my peripheral vision, I can see Seri pressed up against the sink with her mouth hanging open. My throat tightens, and I can taste bile in the back of it. Even with my lack of social graces, I know I should apologize for my outburst.

Regardless of what Miss Manners would say, I’ll be returning Seri to the outside world at some point. If she tells people about the crazy guy in the cabin outside of Whatì, threatening her, someone might just come out to pay me a visit. Someone might decide to do a little investigating and figure out who I am. Extradition from Canada to the United States is pretty straightforward as such things go, and I’d probably end up back in prison.

Seri moves quickly, and when I glance up at her, I see she’s grabbed a knife off the counter. Her eyes fill with fire and fury as she brandishes it at me.

“Don’t you fucking threaten me, you asshole!” she screams, and it’s my turn to drop my mouth open in shock. “I’ll fucking gut you!”

My heart starts to beat a little faster. Seri’s not a big girl, and I’m confident I can disarm her without a lot of difficulty, but damn if she isn’t scary looking anyway. Her words aren’t like anything she has said to me before. In fact, I don’t recall her using a single cuss word.

No…wait. She did call me an asshole outside the gas station the first day I met her. She even had the same look in her eyes as she pointed a finger in my direction rather than a knife.

“You dragged me out here, fucker! Keep talkin’ to me like that, and I’ll kill ya and live off all the shit you’ve hoarded out here!”

I raise my eyebrows, trying to figure out if she’s serious or not. I watched plenty of guys lose their shit in lockup, and they typically had that same look in their eyes. Their actions were often followed by a month in solitary, and I wonder if this woman has spent any time behind bars.

I’m not going to ask, certainly not now.

I take a few breaths to calm myself down. The last thing either of us needs is for both of us to freak out. If I have to disarm her, I’m not sure what I’ll do with the knife once it’s in my own hand. I need to keep myself together long enough for the storm to pass and then get rid of her. It will be worth the dangers of the ice-road drive to Fort Providence or wherever she wanted to go. Then I can settle in for the rest of the winter without all this bullshit drama.

But first, I need to de-escalate the current situation.

“Look…” I start to speak—to apologize—but I don’t know what I should say. I take a deep breath. “I’m not a social person, okay? I don’t like people in general, and I definitely don’t like people in my place.”

“I got that idea.” She’s still glaring at me and holding the knife tightly.

“The storm should let up soon,” I say. “Once it does, I’ll take you to Fort Providence or Yellowknife or wherever you want to go.”

“Suits me, asshole.”

“You can put that down now.” I ignore the insult and try to sound calm as I motion toward the knife. I sit down on the floor, and Solo immediately climbs back in my lap. I can only assume I look less threatening with a tiny kitten sitting on me.

“How about I don’t?” Seri squares her shoulders like she’s about to stand off against a grizzly. “Maybe you should just stay the fuck away from me!”

“Whatever.” I take several deep breaths as I watch her from the corner of my eye. She seems content to just stand there holding the knife and doesn’t move any closer as if she were going to use it. I decide to ignore her.

Time passes, and we say nothing to one another. I keep my eyes on the fire, the cat, and the floor—anything to keep from looking at her. At some point, I hear her turn the water back on, followed by the clink of dishes. When I do glance at her briefly, her back is to me, and she’s humming.

I shake my head at the odd woman and light another cigarette. Smoking is doing nothing to alleviate my tension, so when Seri finishes the dishes and politely excuses herself to the bathroom, sans knife, I toss the half-smoked cigarette into the fire and stand up. Solo whines at the closed bathroom door as I go to look out the window. I’m hoping the snow has subsided enough to allow me to head outside and chop wood but no such luck.

In fact, the storm seems to be getting worse. I grab the weather radio, spin the crank on the side for a minute to give it some juice, and begin to listen to the mechanical voice just as Seri comes back into the main room.

“This hazardous weather outlook is for the Canadian Northwest Territories, Tłįchǫ Lands, Whatì, and Lac La Martre areas. Temperatures dropping rapidly and heavy snowfall predicted overnight and into tomorrow. Expected totals ranging from eighteen to twenty-four inches…”

“Fuck me.” I grumble to myself as I switch the radio off.

“Don’t you want to hear the rest of the forecast?” Seri asks. “It sounds pretty bad.”

The bathroom break must have done her some good because she’s back to her usual, nervous energy. She looks at me intently with her head slightly bent to one side—a natural and unconscious sign of deference. I watch her fingers twist around each other as she sways slightly, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

Thankfully, she seems to have dropped the repetitive F-bombs.

“I heard enough.” I lick my lips and take in a deep breath. “Like it or not, we’re going to be stuck with each other for a while.”





Chapter 7


“The snow is really piling up out there.” Seri turns away from the window as I toss my third cigarette into the fire.

The previous night’s sleep had been awkward though we still shared the bed for warmth. Throughout the night, I was pissed and tense, and Seri acted like nothing had happened at all, which was even more annoying. I didn’t feel calm again until daybreak.

Seri must have realized that silence is the way to go and hasn’t said much of anything all day. Even Solo has been unwilling to leave his towel-lined box for anything other than milk. At the moment, he’s sleeping soundly and not bothering the food I have laid out by the fire, ready to cook for dinner. Maybe the storm is affecting his mood, too.

“The wind is blowing, too,” I say. “It’s likely to drift up over the roof.”

“Really?” Seri’s eyes widen at this news. “What do we do if that happens? Couldn’t we suffocate?”

“In theory, yes. Having extra bodies in here doesn’t help with that, but there are ventilation holes on the roof.” I point out two places on the ceiling of the cabin where you can see the holes. “If snow covers the roof, I can stick a broom handle through the holes and let oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. That’s only happened once though. Once the snowfall stops, I can climb up on the roof and clear it off.”

“What if you fall?”

“I won’t.”

“But what if you do?”

“If I get hurt badly, I’ll die.” I stare at her for a long moment. I can see that she’s starting to panic, and I don’t need that. “I’m very careful, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. If the snow is piled up to the roof, I’m not going to fall far. Don’t worry about shit that hasn’t happened.”

She takes a deep breath and then nods.

“In the meantime,” she says, “maybe we should try to get along a bit better?”

I have to bite my tongue to keep myself from telling her to just fuck off and leave me alone. I don’t want to get along; I want her out of here. But that’s not possible right now. For a moment, I wish I hadn’t picked her up at all. I wish I had just left her there—it was her own problem, not mine. I also know if I had, I would have ended up racing out there as the storm hit, riddled with guilt and probably getting both of us killed.

Maybe getting along isn’t so bad.

“How would we do that?” I ask her warily.

“Maybe just talk a little?” she says, and I cringe. “We have to have something in common. You’re obviously from the States, not from around here. Where did you grow up?”

In a detention center.

“Kentucky,” I finally answer. “Outside of Louisville.”

“Really? I’m from Indianapolis, so that’s pretty close! See? We already have something in common.”

I’m not so sure that counts, but I’m willing to admit understanding such things isn’t my forte.

“When did you graduate from high school?” she asks.

“I didn’t.”

“Oh.” She looks away as she twists her fingers around each other, finally ending her list of questions that likely included colleges and majors.

I knew talking wasn’t a good idea. This is just going to lead to all kinds of questions I don’t care to answer, which is going to piss me off, which is going to make me want to do something I would end up regretting.

If I kill her, I’ll have to dig through the frozen earth to bury her, and it is too damn cold to even consider that. That thought alone should help me behave myself. I place caribou steaks into the hot pan on the fire and focus on the sizzling sound.

“Bishop is a really unusual name,” she says.

“So is Seri,” I reply.

“Heh, yeah, that’s true. It’s short for Serenity. I got picked on a lot because of it when I was growing up. It sounds like such a snobby name. I think my parents believed it was going to represent a peaceful life. No such luck.”

She chuckles nervously. I can’t think of a way to respond to the information she’s provided me, and I don’t want to ask her a bunch of questions about the ways her life hasn’t been serene, so I say nothing.

“So, where did the name Bishop come from?” she asks when I don’t speak up.

“My mother.” Her question is innocent enough, but I tense anyway.

“Well, yes,” Seri say with another chuckle, “but where did she get it?”

I take in a long breath and let it out slowly. I flip the steaks over and check the sear for a moment, but when I glance back at Seri, she’s staring at me, still waiting for a better answer.

“I was a preemie,” I tell her. “Born about six weeks early. I had to be in an incubator and on oxygen and such. I was in pretty bad shape for a while, and the doctors weren’t sure if I was going to make it. My mother is a devout Catholic, and she prayed over me all the time. One day, someone from the Catholic Church stopped by and prayed with her, and I started improving the next day. When I was finally doing well, she named me ‘Bishop’ because she couldn’t remember the actual bishop’s first name.”

“That’s a nice story,” she says. “I’m kind of surprised you weren’t named before that though. Don’t babies get named right after they’re born?”

“I was,” I tell her. I poke at the steaks in the pan—they’re almost done. “Originally, I was named after my father. Thankfully, they changed it before I left the hospital.”

“What did your father think of that?”

“I don’t give a fuck what he thought.” I pull the pan from the fire and walk over to the kitchen, placing the hot pan on a folded towel on the counter. Without another word, I stalk to the bathroom and slam the door behind me.

This is exactly what I wanted to avoid. I know all the seemingly innocuous questions that come next, and I’m not prepared for any of them—I never have been. Are your parents still alive? Where is your mother now? Why don’t you speak to her? What happened to your father? These are all questions I can’t answer without saying far, far too much. When no answer is forthcoming, people become suspicious, and that stirs their natural curiosity. If they decide to investigate, they find out more than I want them to.

“I know what happened, Bishop.”

I stared at Margot with narrowed eyes.

“Well, you wouldn’t tell me anything, so I looked you up. I found a couple of articles in the Courier-Journal.”

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” she promised. “I think I know you well enough to know you aren’t a violent person. You had to have a pretty compelling reason to do what you did.”

“You don’t know shit.”

Solo meows and scratches at the door. The sound pulls me from thoughts, but I don’t respond to him right away. I’m pissed that I’ve shut my own bathroom door for the first time ever. I’m pissed that there’s someone else in my house. I hate her questions. I hate her presence. My stomach is tied up in knots, and my hands are shaking.

Get a fucking grip.

Solo is howling at the door now. I didn’t realize the tiny thing could get so loud. I take several deep breaths, splash ice-cold water on my face, and open the door to face a very angry kitten. He immediately starts climbing up my leg, and when I reach down and bring him up to my chest, he stares me straight in the eye and howls again.

“Shut it,” I mumble. Solo makes his way onto my shoulder and sits there as I go back to the kitchen and put the steaks on two plates. I hand one to Seri as I walk by and sit down slowly enough for Solo to keep his balance.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” Seri says.

“You didn’t.” My lie is transparent, and she raises an eyebrow at me.

“Well, I’m sorry anyway. I didn’t intend to pry.”

I shrug and dig into the meat. Seri blesses me with a brief amount of quiet as she finishes her food and slowly stands to take her dishes to the sink.

“You just heat water for the sink in this pot, right?” She holds up the percolator, and I nod. She fills it and takes it to the fire, examining the hook for a moment before hanging the pot. When it boils, she removes it by the insulated handle and pours the hot water into the sink.

“That seems to work,” she says. I assume she’s talking to herself, so I don’t answer. She walks back to me and holds out her hand until I hand her my plate and silverware.

Seri finishes the dishes while I feed Solo.

When the kitten is done with the milk, he licks my fingers free of meat juice. When my fingers are clean, he keeps licking.

“You’ve already got it all,” I say softly. He doesn’t seem to care.

I hear clanking from the kitchen as Seri puts the clean dishes away. I look at her sideways and see her wiping her hands on a towel and staring out the window at the snow coming down.

Turning my attention back to Solo, I disengage my fingers from his tongue and place him down near the fire. He yawns and stretches before curling up in a ball and then begins to clean his paws and face.

I wonder how he even knows to do that, given the loss of his mother. He looks so small and helpless, but he has instincts. They got him to a place where there was someone to look after him and keep him warm. Everything else he seems to know how to do on his own.

Solo must think he’s clean enough and decides it’s nap time. I’m thinking the same thing. I’d just put myself to bed and be done with the day, but it’s not all that late yet, and I have this guest I don’t know what to do with. Snowstorms always make we want to sleep until they’re over.

Seri is still staring out the window, motionless.

I take a deep breath and start preparing for the night. I pick up a few logs and test their weight before placing them a little closer to the fire for easy access if it gets cold overnight. I head back into the bathroom to pee and brush my teeth, leaving the door open this time. The inside of the bathroom isn’t visible from the kitchen, and I don’t really give a shit if she sees me anyway. I ditch my shirt into the dirty clothes bin in the closet before I walk back out into the main room.

Seri doesn’t look my way as she continues to focus on the snowfall, so I step up to tend to the fire.

“I can’t believe how fucking dark it is out there!” she yells suddenly.

The F-bombs are back. Awesome.

I ignore her comment and toss a few dense pieces of wood on the fire. It’s getting late, and I want some good coals to keep through the night. The flame grows higher, warming me enough to slip off my jeans and hang them on the rack.

“You do that just to tease me, don’t you?”

“What?” I look over to Seri.

“It’s too fucking cold to go around without a shirt,” she says, “so you’re obviously doing it just to show off those abs.”

Once again, I am at a loss for words. I’m well-built enough—I spend most of the summer doing physical labor—but it’s not something I think about. I’m hardly body-builder material, and I certainly don’t show off my physique intentionally.

“What are you talking about?” I shake my head at her.

“It’s dark and it’s cold and I’m bored!” she yells. “You’re walking around practically naked, and I’m fucking freezing!”

I have about a hundred nasty things to say in response, but I shake my head instead. Seri huffs through her nose and glares at me. I really don’t want to get into it with her again, but apparently, she does.

Seri steps up close to me and stares me right in the eye. I straighten my shoulders, mentally preparing for whatever she wants to get off her chest.

“Don’t pretend you don’t know what you’re doing,” she says. The sneer is gone from her voice, and her tone is low. It reminds me of Solo’s purring. “That body is enough to turn every straight woman toward you, and you know it.”

Okay…I am not mentally prepared for this. I thought she was going to yell at me some more about being stuck here, my lack of social graces, or the weather in general. I have no idea how to respond to…to…whatever the hell this is.

I open my mouth to speak though I’m not sure what to say. I don’t get a chance to utter a word before, without warning, she presses the full length of her body against me.

“How much have you thought about it?” she asks. She trails her fingers from my shoulders to my chest. “Don’t fucking lie to me either.”

I swallow hard. My head is spinning a bit as the touch of her body against my flesh makes my skin tingle.

“Thought about what?”

“How much warmer you’d be with your cock in my pussy.”

Holy shit!

I stand, dumbfounded, and stare at her. I can’t possibly have heard her right. There is no way she just said those words, and I’ve obviously fallen asleep in the chair or something. Apparently, my dreams have gone into porn mode because real, live women don’t say those things.

Do they?

Margot never did; that’s for sure.

Seri places one hand around the back of my neck, and I just stand there like a moron. She moves her other hand from my chest to my abs and then lower. It’s not until she’s wrapping her fingers around my dick that I even realize how hard I am.

“Fuck.” The curse is out of my mouth before I realize I’m saying it. My muscles clench and my eyes close as I automatically press my dick against her hand, and I grunt.

Maybe I should have thought about this possibility. Other men probably would have, but I didn’t have a normal upbringing. Even when in bed with her