He explained what he needed her to do. She’d ordered a coffee, made it light with cream. Now she stared at him mid-sip. She set her cup back down.
“You’re asking me to lose?” she said.
“Keep your voice down,” Dodge said. His mom had worked the early shift and was probably out with Bill Kelly—they were practically goddamn inseparable at this point—but he knew everyone else in Dot’s. Including Ricky, who he could see every time the kitchen door opened and closed, grinning and waving at him like an idiot. Dodge had to admit the kid was pretty nice. He’d already sent out a free grilled cheese and some mozzarella sticks.
“Look, you don’t want to go up against Ray, do you? The kid’s a beast.” Dodge felt a tightening in his throat. He thought about why he was doing this—thought about Dayna wheeled home for the first time, Dayna falling out of bed in the night and crying for help, unable to climb back into bed. Dayna wheeling around, hopped up on pain meds, practically comatose. And even though she’d seemed better and happier lately—hopeful, even—he, Dodge, would never forget. “He’ll knock you off the road, Heather. You’ll end up losing anyway.”
She made a face but said nothing. He could tell she was thinking about it.
“If we play it my way, you still win,” he said, leaning over the table, tacky from years of accumulated grease. “We split the money. And nobody gets hurt.” Except for Ray.
She was quiet for a minute. Her hair was swept back into a ponytail, and she was flushed from a summer outside. All her freckles had kind of merged into a tan. She looked pretty. He wished he could tell her that he thought she was great. That he was sorry they had never been closer.
That he had fallen for her best friend, and had messed it up.
But none of that mattered now.
“Why?” she asked finally, turning back to him. Her eyes were clear, gray-green, like an ocean reflecting the sky. “Why do you want it so bad? It’s not even the money, is it? It’s about the win. It’s about beating Ray.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Dodge said a little roughly. The kitchen doors swung open again and there was Ricky, his cook’s whites streaked with marinara sauce and grease, grinning and giving him the thumbs-up. Jesus. Did Ricky think he was on a date? He turned his attention back to Heather. “Listen. I promised Bishop I would—”
“What’s Bishop got to do with it?” she asked sharply, cutting him off.
“Everything,” Dodge said. He drained his Coke glass of ice, enjoying the burn on his tongue. “He wants you to be safe.”
Heather looked away again. “How do I know I can trust you?” she said finally.
“That’s the thing about trust.” He crunched an ice cube between his teeth. “You don’t know.”
She stared at him for a long second. “All right,” she said finally. “I’ll do it.”
Outside, at the edge of the parking lot, the trees were dancing in the wind. Some of the leaves had already begun to turn. Gold ate up their edges. Others were splotched with red, as though diseased. Less than three weeks until Labor Day and the official end of summer. And only a week until the final showdown. After saying good-bye to Heather, Dodge didn’t go home straightaway, but spent some time walking the streets.
He smoked two cigarettes, not because he wanted them, but because he was enjoying the dark and the quiet and the cool wind, the smells of autumn coming: a clean smell, a wood smell, like a house newly swept and sprayed down. He wondered whether the tiger was still loose. It must be; he hadn’t heard anything about its capture. He half hoped he would see it, and half feared he would.
All in all, the conversation with Heather had gone easier than he’d expected. He was so close.
Rigging the explosion, he knew, would be the hard part.
MONDAY, AUGUST 22
IN THE DAYS FOLLOWING THE TIGERS’ ESCAPE, HEATHER was so anxious she couldn’t sleep. She kept expecting Krista to show up with some court order, demanding that Lily return home. Or, even worse, for the cops or the ASPCA to show up and haul Anne off to jail. What would she do then?
But as more days passed, she relaxed. Maybe Krista realized she was happier with her daughters out of the house. That she wasn’t meant to be a mother. All the things Heather had heard her say a million times. And although the cops floated in and out, still trying to locate the second tiger, still patrolling Anne’s property, and the ASPCA showed up to verify the conditions of the other animals and make sure they were all legal, Anne wasn’t clapped in handcuffs and dragged away, as Heather had feared.
Heather knew, deep down, that her situation at Anne’s was temporary. She couldn’t stay here forever. In the fall, Lily had to go back to school. Anne was floating them, paying for them, but how long would that last? Heather had to get a job, pay Anne back, do something. She just kept clinging to the hope that Panic would fix it: that with the money she earned, even if she had to split it with Dodge, she could rent a room from Anne or get her own space with Lily.
The longer she stayed away from Fresh Pines, the more certain she became: she would never, ever go back there. She belonged here, or somewhere like it—somewhere with space, where no neighbors were crawling up your butt all the time and there was no shouting, no sounds of bottles breaking and people blasting music all night. Somewhere with animals and big trees and that fresh smell of hay and poop that somehow wasn’t unpleasant. It was amazing how much she loved making the rounds, cleaning out the chicken coop and brushing the horses down and even sweeping the stalls.
It was amazing, too, how good it felt to be wanted somewhere. Because Heather believed, now, what Anne had said to her. Anne cared. Maybe even loved her, a little bit.
Which changed everything.
Three days until the final challenge. Now that Heather knew how it would go down—that she would only be called on to lose in the first round of Joust, to Dodge—she felt incredibly relieved. First thing she was going to do with the money was buy Lily a new bike, which she’d been eyeing when they took a trip to Target the other day.
No. First she would give Anne some money, and then she would buy a bike.
And then maybe a nice sundress for herself, and some strappy leather sandals. Something pretty to wear when she finally worked up the courage to talk to Bishop—if she did.
She fell asleep and dreamed of him. He was standing with her on the edge of the water tower, telling her to jump, jump. Beneath her—far beneath her—was a swollen rush of water, interspersed with bright white lights, like unblinking eyes pasted in the middle of all that black water. He kept telling her not to be afraid, and she didn’t want to tell him she was terrified, so weak she couldn’t move.
Then Dodge was there. “How are you going to win if you’re scared of the jump?” he was saying.
Suddenly Bishop was gone, and the ledge under her feet wasn’t metal, but a kind of wood, half-rotten, unstable. Boom. Dodge was swinging at it with a baseball bat, whittling away the wood, sending showers of splinters down toward the water. Boom. “Jump, Heather.” Boom. “Heather.”
Heather woke up to doubleness—Lily whispering her name urgently, standing in the space between their beds; and also, like an echo, a voice from outside.
“Heather Lynn!” the voice cried. Boom. The sound of a fist on the front door. “Get down here! Get down here so I can talk to you.”
“Mom,” Lily said, just as Heather placed the voice. Lily’s eyes were wide.
“Get in bed, Lily,” Heather said. She was awake in an instant. She checked her phone. 1:13 a.m. In the hall, a small fissure of light was showing underneath Anne’s bedroom door. Heather heard sheets rustling. So she’d been woken too.
The banging was still going, and the muffled cries of “Heather! I know you’re in there. You gonna ignore your own mother?” Even before reaching the door, Heather knew her mom was drunk.
The porch light was on. When she opened the door, her mom was standing with one hand to her eyes, like she was shielding them from the sun. She was a mess. Hair frizzy; shirt so low Heather could see all the wrinkles of her cleavage and the white half-moons where her bikini had prevented a tan; jeans with stains; enormous wedge heels. She was having trouble standing in one place and kept taking miniature steps for balance.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“What am I doing here?” she slurred. “What are you doing here?”
“Leave.” Heather took a step onto the porch, hugging herself. “You have no right to be here. You have no right to come barging—”
“Right? Right? I got every right.” Her mom took an unsteady step forward, trying to move past her. Heather blocked her, grateful, for the first time, that she was so big. Krista started shouting, “Lily! Lily Anne! Where are you, baby?”
“Stop it.” Heather tried to grab Krista by the shoulders, but her mom reeled away from her, swatting her hand.
“What’s going on?” Anne had appeared behind them, blinking, wearing an old bathrobe. “Heather? Is everything okay?”
“You.” Krista took two steps forward before Heather could stop her. “You stole my babies.” She was weaving, swaying on her shoes. “You goddamn bitch, I should—”
“Mom, stop!” Heather hugged herself tight, trying to keep her insides together, trying to keep everything from spilling out.
And Anne was saying, “Okay, let’s calm down, let’s everyone calm down.” Hands up, like she was trying to keep Krista at bay.
“I don’t need to calm down—”
“Mom, stop it!”
“Get out of my way—”
“Hold on, just hold on.”
And then a voice from the darkness beyond the porch: “What’s the trouble?” A flashlight clicked on, just as the porch light went off. It swept over all of them in turn, like a pointed finger. Someone emerged from the dark, came heavily up the stairs, as the porch light, in response to his movement, clicked on again. The rest of them were momentarily frozen. Heather had forgotten there was a patrol car parked in the woods. The cop was blinking rapidly, like he’d been sleeping.
“The problem,” Krista said, “is that this woman has my babies. She stole them.”
The cop’s jaw was moving rhythmically, like he was chewing gum. His eyes moved from Krista, to Heather, to Anne, then back again. His jaw hinged left, right. Heather held her breath.
“That your car, ma’am?” he said finally, jerking his head over his shoulder, where Krista’s car was parked.
Krista looked at it. Looked back at him. Something flickered in her eyes. “Yeah, so?”
He kept chewing, watching her. “Legal limit’s .08.”
“I’m not drunk.” Krista’s voice was rising. “I’m as sober as you are.”
“You mind stepping over here for a minute?”
Heather found herself ready to throw her arms around his neck and say thank you. She wanted to explain, but her breath was lodged in her throat.