In the predawn darkness the forest smelled peaty with mushrooming rot. She hacked a path through sword ferns and redwood sorrel and coiling blackberries spiked with thorns—a long-haired girl, eight years old, lightheaded from little to eat for three days and stripped naked, shackled to a broken chain.

She feared crashing through the woods in hopeless circles or, worse, just plunging deeper into the tangled undergrowth, lost for good. From time to time, glancing up through a feathery opening in the pine and eucalyptus branches, she stared at the drifting canopy of mist and felt abandoned by the moon.

Then gravel, like bits of broken glass, stabbed the soles of her feet. She tripped on a jagged lip of asphalt—she’d reached the road: curving, two-lane, dark.

Hugging herself for warmth—how long before she heard a car? Minutes, maybe, warped into hours.

The thing rumbled up the fogbound hill, headlights a smeary glow, then breaking the turn, and she stepped out onto the blacktop, breath visible, hands splayed.

The car braked and lurched and stopped. Engine throbbing under the hood, tailpipe with its dervish of white exhaust.

She realized it might be him, coming back. The man they’d identify as Victor Cope but to her was simply the creep, Mister Menthol Meth Head—what if she got free and stumbled all this way only to make it easy for him?

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