Well, I managed to hold out for just 3 weeks - so pathetic. I'm like one of those singers who keeps retiring and then staging a "comeback" tour before you even have a chance to miss me. But, oh well...
This is the sequel to "In Hiding." If you haven't read IH, I'm not going to try to convince you to... This one should be pretty self-explantory. Kate and Sawyer have been living together, now they're running from the feds. This chapter is almost more like a prologue... it lays out a lot of the themes and threads that will be carried throughout the fic. And this story will likely focus more on Kate, since IH focused more on Sawyer. It will be darker, but if you stick with it, I don't think the end will disappoint you. Anyway, that's enough commentary from me!
Kate nudged the screen door open with her foot and stepped down onto the cabin's simple wooden steps, built like a ladder, with three planks descending almost vertically. The bottom one was rotten, and she felt it buckle dangerously under her weight, but she sprang off lightly and headed across the clearing. In her hands she carried a blue plastic jug, which she set down next to a narrow metal pump that rose about three feet out of the ground. Grasping the handle, which creaked and groaned as she lifted it, she waited impatiently for the water to begin to trickle out.
Suddenly, she raised her head up, listening. She pushed the handle back down, cutting off the pressure and silencing the steady thrumming of the pump. Now it was quiet again.
A slight, cool breeze whispered in the tops of the trees and lifted a lock of hair gently away from her face. She pulled her thin cotton jacket closer around her.
Taking a step away from the water spout, she scanned the clearing, all her senses alert. The woods were thick here, and dark, composed mostly of pine and fir, the ground littered with a thick carpet of needles that muffled and absorbed sounds. Still, her instincts were so fine-tuned that she was almost certain she had heard something.
She mentally calculated the distance to the cabin, where the guns were. If she sprinted, she could cover it in a few seconds. But now the cracking of a stick made her freeze again and turn her head in the other direction, muscles tensed. She waited, holding her breath, prickles of cold sweat breaking out all over her body.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a bright blur of red streaking toward her from the other direction. Before she could turn her head or raise her arms for defense, the world was tilting upwards, and she winced as she landed on her back with a thud, her arms pinned down above her head, the air momentarily knocked out of her.
Looking up, she gazed for a few seconds at the face that hovered over her, and then closed her eyes in annoyance.
"Very funny," she said.
Sawyer's hair hung down in a halo around his stubbled face like greasy clumps of corn silk, and his dry, chapped lips curved upward with a hint of enjoyment.
"Thought I told you to take the gun every time you stepped out the door."
"I was just getting water."
"And look what happened," he said triumphantly. "Some crazy guy runs out of the woods, and here you are flat on your back, ready for the taking."
"I could give you a concussion right now if I wanted to."
"Maybe so... But if it'd been one of them, they'd have probably already had you in handcuffs. Or maybe knocked unconscious with one of those fun little tasers they like to carry around."
Kate exhaled wearily. "All right. You've proved your point." She allowed him to enjoy a few brief seconds of victory, then demanded, "Now get off of me."
"You sure about that?" he asked slyly, leaning down to breathe lightly against her neck, which immediately raised chills on her flesh. He let go of her wrists and ran his hands down her body, tracing the curve of her waist before beginning to move back up.
Taking advantage of his momentary distraction, she shoved hard against his chest with all her strength, throwing her weight onto him in the same motion and flipping him over to the ground beside her, reversing their positions in a flash.
"I'm sure," she said with an arch smile, still leaning onto his chest.
He grinned back at her, but as she watched, a shadow passed across his face. All the playfulness died out of his expression, and he pulled himself up into a sitting position.
"Shit," he muttered, looking miserable. "I forgot."
"What?" she asked, confused.
He looked over at her, pointedly. "I shouldn't have done that... Knocked you down like that. I guess we got to be more careful from now on."
Now she understood what he was talking about, and the realization both scared her and pissed her off at the same time. It scared her because she'd forgotten, too. But the reason for the anger was unexplainable. There was no telling where it came from, but it was instantaneous, and she directed it toward Sawyer for lack of a better alternative.
"We don't know anything for sure yet," she said, her tone dark and forbidding. "And I'm fine. Nothing has to change."
He watched her, not answering, but she could tell he didn't believe that for a second. He looked like he felt sorry for her, which she hated more than anything. He also looked like he wanted to talk about it, something they hadn't done yet. But she couldn't. She still wasn't ready to go through that again. What was the point? There wasn't anything new to say, and they'd already been through it all.
And now he was getting ready to speak her name... She could practically feel him gearing up toward it, preparing himself. His face wore that serious, thoughtful expression which was the first warning sign.
"Kate," he said quietly, still looking at her. Just like she'd expected.
Standing up quickly to escape from this moment, she walked back over to the pump.
"Did you find it?" she asked without looking at him, trying to change the subject.
She felt him waiting a few seconds, giving her another chance. But she remained facing away from him, keeping her attention focused on the handle. Finally, the water began to flow from the spout, and she raised the jug to catch it.
He sighed, giving up on her. "Yeah. It's right where I thought it was... Same place it used to be. 'Bout half an hour's hike from here."
She nodded. "We'll wait till it gets dark."
"You still want to leave tonight?"
After considering for a second, she said, "I think we should. After we get what we need."
"You mind tellin' me what that might be?"
Now she glanced back over her shoulder at him, a sly smile playing about her lips. "You'll see," was all she would say.
Lowering the handle back to its resting place, she lifted the heavy jug and carried it toward the cabin. Sawyer watched her, still sitting on the ground, wondering what the hell she was up to.
It had been Kate's idea to stay in the area, to lay low for a few days. Sawyer had been all for hitting the road and not looking back. His instincts had urged him to put as much distance between the two of them and the house as they possibly could, and the sooner, the better. It had taken every ounce of patience Kate possessed to convince him that that was exactly what they would be expected to do. Their best bet, she knew, was to hide out somewhere close until the pressure had died down - until the agents had turned their attention elsewhere, trying to pick up a trail, giving up on the immediate vicinity. Then, and only then, could they safely leave. Although he had eventually come to see the wisdom of her plan, it wasn't easy for him to agree to it, and it was even harder to carry it out. But he'd gritted his teeth and done it.
So, instead of heading west or north, they had first gone east, threading their way even deeper into the mountains of eastern Tennessee. Kate's initial idea was to camp out somewhere in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but Sawyer, determined to have some input at least, had bettered this suggestion with his own. Somewhere on the western edge of the park, still deep within the forest but located on private property, were the derelict remains of an old summer camp that had been built with the purpose of rehabilitating troubled youths. He knew this thanks to the fact that he had once been sent there, and the exact location of the camp remained etched in his memory because he had run away from it so many times. So much for rehabilitation.
After cutting down a section of sagging barbed wire fence, they had been able, just barely, to maneuver the truck along the old rutted roads that had once been used by camp personnel. The cabins they eventually found were falling apart from neglect, the green paint flaking off like a bad sunburn, the screens ripped and flapping idly in the breeze. The first one they had ventured into was already occupied by a family of raccoons who seemed offended by the intrusion. The second was missing a section of roof, and the floor was rotten and caving in from decades of exposure to rain and snow. The third seemed habitable, but just barely.
Since they only planned to be there for a short time, however, this was the one they chose to sleep in. The beds were simply shelves of wood extending from the walls, small and narrow, built for children, making both sex and sleeping a bit of a challenge. There was no electricity, no light, and no heat, except for what they generated themselves through the contact of their bodies. The running water consisted of the metal pump in the ground outside, and for bathrooms, there were moldering latrines that, despite not having been used for twenty years, still retained a stench that could knock you down.
They had been too wary to risk a fire on the first night, but over the next few days had made do with a small blaze underneath a grate, just enough to warm their hands and to heat water for coffee. It was only the beginning of November, and though damp and cool, it wasn't truly cold yet. They'd brought enough food to last for about three days, but it was quickly running out. And although they'd been lucky so far, not having seen or heard a trace of another human being, they knew it couldn't last. They would have to move on, and soon.
"So what's it gonna be? Mexico?" Sawyer now asked as Kate slid a road atlas out of her backpack on the evening of their third night here. He ripped open a package of beef jerky and looked at it in disgust.
She sighed deeply and flipped the book open to the Tennessee map. They'd made only one stop on the way here, at a gas station, and Kate had been adamant about purchasing the atlas, even though it cost thirty dollars. Thirty bucks for a goddamn book of maps? Sawyer had demanded. Hell, all we have to do is follow the road signs, and they're free! But she had simply looked at him until he reluctantly shelled out the cash.
"I don't think so," she finally said, surprising him.
He waited, watching her. They were sitting on beds across from each other, on opposite sides of the small 8 x 10 foot cabin. Sawyer's legs hung over the edge of his bed, and Kate's knees were drawn up to her chest. It was ridiculous how much this felt like summer camp, he mused. Any minute now a counselor would come in and tell him that he wasn't allowed to have girls in his bunk. The thought almost made him smile, and he tried to hold it back.
When she didn't say anything else, he prompted her. "Well, then what'd you have in mind?"
She raised her eyebrows at him a little. "You're not gonna like the idea."
"How 'bout you tell me what it is, and I'll decide whether I like it or not?"
She waited a second, and then said simply, "Canada."
The look on his face was exactly what she'd expected.
"I told you you wouldn't like it," she said with a smile.
"Canada," he repeated, confused. "Why?"
She stared down at her fingernails. "When your aunt was here... She said that she knew this guy... he lives on some kind of wilderness preserve up there, near the Yukon. She thought he might be willing to help us out... to let us stay there."
"The Yukon," Sawyer echoed sarcastically. "Sounds like a blast."
Kate looked up at him, sharply. "This isn't a vacation, Sawyer. I know it might not sound like the greatest place in the world to live, but we don't have the luxury of choice. Or at least I don't," she added, more quietly. All of a sudden, she looked exhausted.
Now he felt terrible. The truth was, he didn't give a rat's ass where they went. He was used to leading a rootless existence, and one place had never seemed to him much better or worse than another. There were people dumb enough to be scammed everywhere. But all that mattered to him now was her. If he could just keep her close to him, they could live at the damn North Pole for all he cared.
"You're in charge of the maps, Freckles," he said with an apologetic expression. "I'll go wherever you want to go. Just say the word."
She met his gaze, gratefully, and gave a slight nod.
"Then I think we should try it. It seems like the safest option." She went back to examining the atlas.
The cabin was getting darker by the minute. Sawyer switched on a flashlight and trailed the beam aimlessly along the walls above and to the right of Kate's head.
She began to speak quietly, almost to herself. "We have to go slow. It's easier to make mistakes when you hurry... and we can't make mistakes. The key is to stay on the back roads. The interstate would be about five times faster, but that's exactly how they'll expect us to go. They only have so much manpower, and they won't waste time monitoring the rural areas and the older highways." She looked up at him.
He had the flashlight's beam pointed high into a back corner, where a long-ago camper had rendered, in black magic marker, a graphically realistic depiction of a naked woman.
"Sawyer?" she asked.
"I think I mighta drawn that," he muttered distractedly.
She sighed. "Would you pay attention, please?"
He turned the flashlight beam toward her, making her wince in the glare. "Back roads... Got it. What else?"
"We should also try to travel at night as much as possible. We can sleep during the day. That way it'll be harder for them to see who's inside the truck."
"I drive better at night, anyway," he said with a grin, trying to be supportive.
She gave him a wan smile in return, but she still looked tense and preoccupied. Dragging himself off of the bed, he crossed over and took the atlas from her, tossing it to the side. He climbed onto her bed and stretched out on it, gesturing for her to join him. She leaned over and straightened her legs out, resting her head on his chest, just underneath his chin.
He sighed into her hair, bringing both arms up around her to pull her closer against him. "We'll get all the details worked out as we go," he said quietly. "No use in worryin' yourself sick over 'em now."
She closed her eyes and listened to the steady, reassuring beat of his heart, letting herself rise and fall with his breath.
"Do you think they went in?" she asked sleepily.
She raised up, leaning against him, peering at his face just inches away from hers. "After we left. Do you think they went inside the house?"
He understood her now. "Nah," he said, trying to sound casual. "There coulda been a hundred reasons why I didn't want 'em snoopin' around in there. I coulda had drugs in there... or hookers... or some kind of illegal porn..." He trailed off, smiling. "Probably figured I just got nervous and cleared out. I doubt they even bothered." Reaching up, he tucked a loose strand of hair back behind her ear from where it had fallen.
"Because if they dusted for prints," Kate went on, as if she hadn't even heard him, "Then they'll know for sure that I'm with you."
"They didn't go in," he whispered, looking straight into her eyes.
She leaned down and kissed him, softly.
"Ready for our little hike?" he asked when she raised up again.
She glanced at the screened windows lining the sides of the cabin. "I guess it's dark enough. Then after that, we can go ahead and clear out." Running her fingers through his hair, she said critically, "You need a shower."
"Yeah, well, you don't smell so hot yourself, darlin'. But you don't see me complaining."
"That's because you like it," she answered with a smile.
"Can't argue with that," he said in a wicked tone. With his hands on her hips, he attempted to maneuver his fingers under the waistband of her jeans. "How many days you been wearin' these underwear now?"
Rolling her eyes, she removed his hands and pulled herself off the bed. "Come on, you pervert," she said, grabbing his arm and dragging him to a standing position. "I have a job for you that doesn't involve my underwear."
"Freckles, for me, every job involves your underwear... You just don't know it."
She laughed as she opened the door and went out.
After Kate had grabbed some things and stuffed them into a backpack, they set out carrying flashlights, Sawyer armed with a revolver. It was harder than he'd thought it would be to find the place again in the dark, but he pretended to know exactly where he was going. Kate pretended to believe him.
After they'd been walking for about forty-five minutes, he stopped abruptly and shone the flashlight in a wide arc. At the furthest extremity on the left, the beam caught a glint of metal.
"It's right over there," he said, gesturing.
Kate moved in the direction he'd indicated, and he followed just behind her. They both halted at a chain-link fence.
"Wow," Kate said quietly. "That's the most hideous thing I've ever seen."
Spread out below them on the opposite side of the fence was a clearing in the woods. Acres and acres of wrecked, junked, and impounded vehicles stretched as far as the eye could see, illuminated sporadically by isolated halogen lamps. Some were in remarkably good condition, while some were simply twisted, monstrous hunks of metal. A few looked to be brand new, but the majority dated back to the seventies and eighties.
"Is that the highway over there?" she asked quietly, looking toward a distant, hazy line of light just barely visible to the north.
"Yeah," he replied. He waited a second, then asked. "All right, so there it is... Just like I said, a salvage yard. I'm all ready for the big reveal. You mind tellin' me what the hell we're doing here?"
She smiled reticently, but finally turned toward him, speaking in a conspiratorial tone, as if she was giving up a great secret.
He looked at her like she was crazy. "What?"
Sliding her backpack off her shoulders, she kneeled down and started digging through it. "I know it seems ridiculous, but it's the details that matter. You'd be amazed how much help the tiniest little thing can be. Even if it only buys us a few more minutes, that could mean the difference between getting caught and not getting caught."
"You honestly think switching around the license plates is gonna have any effect?"
Standing back up, she handed him a screwdriver. "It does." She paused. "Haven't you ever done this before?"
"Can't say that I have."
She smiled a little, but her eyes were serious. "Then I guess you'll just have to trust me. Think you can handle that?"
He sighed in annoyance, but replied, "I'm out here, aren't I?"
She nodded. "Good."
Then she turned to scan the fence. "Looks like we'll just have to climb over." Without another word, she grasped the fence up above her head and lifted herself, positioning her feet in the gaps of the chain-links to get leverage.
"Hold on just a sec there, sweetheart." Sawyer hooked his arm around her waist and pulled her back down. "Before you start hummin' the Mission Impossible theme, you might want to take a look at the sign." He aimed the flashlight onto a notice in neon orange letters nailed to a board. It read Beware of Dog.
Kate rolled her eyes. "I don't see a dog," she said impatiently. "Do you?"
"It's a big place," he answered, concerned at how reckless she was being.
"Well, we've got the gun." She turned back to the fence. "Besides, they just put those signs up to scare people away." She started climbing again.
"That's assuming the kind of people who steal from salvage yards know how to read," Sawyer muttered under his breath, following her over.
When they'd both reached the opposite side, they paused for a few minutes to get their bearings. Kate looked around thoughtfully, taking stock.
"I know most of these will be Tennessee plates, but we're so close to the interstate, there've got to be others here too. Keep your eye out for any states we might pass through on the way to Canada. I haven't decided yet where the best place to cross the border is, but any state north and west of here would be good to have. Duplicates are fine, too. The more, the better."
Sawyer sighed, still not entirely convinced. "You know most of the dates on these are expired, right?"
She gave him an almost pitying look. "That can be fixed."
He didn't even bother to ask how. Obviously she had an answer for everything.
"I'm gonna start this way," she went on, pointing down the row nearest to them. "You should take the edge over there, on the right. Work down the fence line."
"Whoa, now... wait just a second," he protested, holding out his hand. "You never said anything about splittin' up. You really think I'm gonna let you go wanderin' around out there by yourself?"
"Sawyer, it doesn't take two of us to read the name on a license plate! We can cover twice the ground, in the same amount of time this way."
"It's not safe," he insisted.
Kate was getting fed up. "Look, I didn't bring you out here to be my babysitter, okay? I know what I'm doing. Now do you want to help, or not?"
God, he wanted to smack her sometimes. They stared at each other confrontationally for a few seconds. Finally, with an almost wounded air, he pulled the gun out of his waistband and held it out to her.
She hesitated before taking it, looking a little sheepish. Tucking it into her pocket so that the handle stuck out, she said with a softened expression. "Meet me back here in twenty minutes."
As she walked off, he called out after her, "How am I s'posed to know when it's been twenty minutes?"
"You're wearing a watch!" she called back without turning around.
He looked down at his wrist. Damn it. Pissed, he glanced after her one more time and then trudged off in the other direction.
Keeping a close eye on the time, he worked as quickly as he could, trying to stay alert and listen for any sound she might make on the other side of the salvage yard. When the twenty minutes were up, he headed back to the place they'd started from. To his immense relief, she was already there. He was also pleasantly surprised to see that his stack of license plates was bigger than hers. It wasn't much to be proud of, but it made him feel a little better.
"Well, now," he gloated, "I thought with all your experience at this, you'd have a whole truckload ready to go."
"All the cars on that side were wrecked," she said in explanation. "Let's see what you've got."
She took his pile and started to flip through it as they walked back toward the fence. She paused on one and looked over at him, raising her eyebrows in amusement. "New Mexico?"
"On the way to Canada, you think we might somehow pass through New Mexico?"
"It's dark out here," he said defensively. She turned back to the pile.
"Besides," he went on, "A little side trip to the desert don't sound half bad. You ever been to New Mexico?"
She considered for a second. "I robbed a bank there once," she said in complete seriousness.
Sawyer grinned and shook his head slowly. "That's my girl," he muttered.
Kate smiled too, choosing to see it from his perspective for once instead of with the sad veil she usually viewed her past through.
By now they'd reached the fence, and she tossed the plates over the top. They landed with a loud metallic clatter, and Sawyer winced, although Kate didn't seem bothered. She climbed back over, and he quickly followed. Scooping up the plates, she quickly scanned and then re-scanned the few that she'd found, with a strange expression.
"There should be another one of these, from South Dakota. I know I had two that matched. I must have dropped it."
"How 'bout we just wait till we get to South Dakota and swipe one off a car?" he asked wearily.
"Because someone will report it." She sounded like she was talking to a child. Scaling the fence again, she said, "I think I know where it's at. It won't take long. Just wait here."
She was right, it didn't take long. She had disappeared into the darkness and re-emerged again with the missing plate before an entire minute had even passed by. But as she walked back to him, an odd, jangling sound drifted toward them from the opposite direction. Kate stopped, turning to listen.
To Sawyer, it sounded, absurdly, like sleigh bells. But this notion was quickly dispelled when he saw what was really producing the noise. Trotting out of the shadows was a large, famished-looking Doberman with metal tags hanging from its leather collar, knocking against each other. Drawing in his breath, Sawyer grasped the fence, not knowing what to do.
Kate remained frozen as the dog neared her. It started to growl even before it stopped trotting, the motion producing a stuttering sound. It stopped about five feet away from her, now beginning to snarl, its entire body tensed and angled forward, in full attack mode. Thick ropes of saliva glistened along its jaws.
She still hadn't moved a muscle. It was like she was in some kind of trance.
"Shoot it," Sawyer called out through clenched teeth, trying to stay as quiet as he could. "For Christ's sake, shoot it, Kate!"
But she made no move for the gun at all. The dog kept snarling, taking deep, choked-sounding breaths every few seconds.
He was on the verge of climbing back over, to try to distract the thing, to get the gun away from her to shoot it... to do something, at least. Anything was better than this terrifying stasis. As he grasped the fence to pull himself up, though, she finally moved. What she did was the last thing he would have expected, and the strangeness of it made him pause and watch her, bewildered.
Keeping her arms motionless at her sides, she dropped to her knees in front of the dog. It snarled louder at first, obviously startled. She continued to stare directly into its eyes.
Sawyer watched this scene play out, the two of them - Kate and the dog - illuminated under the glow of a lamp post, like they were on some kind of stage. But at the same time, it felt like he was witnessing something intensely private, like he was never meant to see her this way. Because the expression on her face was mystifying to him. He couldn't read it at all. He couldn't even decide what it was a combination of. It was like nothing he had ever seen there before, and he felt chills rise along his arms and neck.
At almost the same instant, the dog stopped growling. It continued to stare at Kate, threateningly, taking deep, staggered gulps of air. They were at eye level, and the animal seemed as mystified as Sawyer. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, it lowered its head slightly, and with an almost solemn air, turned around and walked back into the shadows.
Sawyer's heart was still pounding in his chest, but he couldn't yet form any words.
Kate remained where she was for a few seconds longer, her eyes still locked on the spot the dog had just occupied, the unreadable expression fixed on her face. Then, slowly, as if she was emerging from a deep hypnosis, she seemed to shake herself, looking around her, at first without recognition. Noticing Sawyer, she pulled herself to her feet and continued on toward him.
She stopped at the fence, and the two regarded each other warily.
"What the hell was that?" Sawyer demanded harshly. "Why didn't you shoot the damn thing! You coulda been killed!"
"The trick is to not show any fear," she said unconvincingly. But he wasn't buying it. That hadn't had anything to do with what he had just witnessed. Whatever had been going through her mind, it wasn't that.
"That's bullshit," he whispered with anger.
She looked at him calmly through the fence that separated them. The metal links crisscrossed her face, dividing her features into fragmented segments which made her still slightly unfamiliar to him.
Without answering, she climbed up and lowered herself back down on the other side, stuffing the license plates into her backpack as he watched. After she'd slung the bag onto her shoulder, they started to walk.
As they neared the top of the incline, Kate stopped and looked back. Sawyer turned, wondering what the hell she would do now. But it was okay, he saw with something like relief. Now she just looked sad. Sad, and tired, and afraid. Unfortunately, this was a part of her he recognized all too well. She gazed back into the salvage yard, as if she was searching for something that she knew couldn't be found there.
He waited a second, and then touched her arm. "Hey."
With reluctance, she turned to face him.
"We got a long drive ahead," he said softly.
Nodding, she started to walk again. He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close against him, and she didn't resist.
The two flashlight beams receded into the distance, lighting up the path back to the campsite and the packed and waiting truck.