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“Fine, fine, thank you. I’m old, not decrepit. Not yet. Besides, the doctor says it’s good for me.” He laughs. “What’s good for you never feels good, my experience.”

“Boy, is that true,” Lanny agrees. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Claremont.”

“Easy,” he says, starting his way up the hill. “You run safe, now!”

“We will,” I say, then turn a sweaty grin on my daughter. “Race you the rest of the way.”

“Come on! I’m practically dead here!”

“Lanny.”

“I’ll walk, thanks. You run if you want.”

“I was kidding.”

“Oh.”

2

We’ve almost made it home again when my phone pings with a text message. It’s an anonymous number, and hackles immediately go stiff at the back of my neck. I come to a stop and step off the road. Lanny gleefully jogs on by.

I swipe and open. It’s from Absalom; it has his cryptic little text signature as the first character: Å. Then, Are you anywhere near Missoula?

He never asks exactly where we are, and I never tell. I type back, Why?

Somebody’s posted a thing. Looks like they got it wrong. I’ll try to head off and divert. Bad for whoever they’re tagging. CYÅ.

That was Absalom’s standard signoff, and sure enough, no more pings arrive. I assume he uses disposable phones, just as I do; his number changes every month like clockwork, always unrecognizable, though his symbol usage is totally consistent. I can’t afford that many burners, so mine stays the same for six months at a time, the kids’ phones for a year. A little stability in an unstable world.

The second that someone gets close, though, I burn everything—phones, e-mail accounts, everything. If there’s a second close call around our location, Absalom notifies me, and we pack up and go. That’s been our routine for the past few years now. It sucks, but we’re used to it.

We have to be used to it.

I realize I’m looking forward to receiving that treasured concealed carry permit in the mail with an almost physical hunger. I’m not one of those jackasses who feel the need to strap an AR15 to their back to pick up groceries; those people live in a dystopian fantasy where they’re the heroes in a world full of threats. I understand them, in a way. They feel powerless, in a world full of uncertainty. But it’s still a fantasy.

I live in the real world, where I know that the only thing that stands between me and a thriving, violent, organized bunch of angry men could be the sidearm I carry. I don’t need or want to advertise that fact. I don’t want to use it. But I’m ready and willing.

I’m fully committed to our survival.

Lanny’s celebrating wildly up ahead, and I let her have her victory. We stop at the mailbox for the day’s haul of mostly junk mail. Lanny’s stopped limping by now, charley horse smoothed away, but she continues to pace as I sort through the envelopes. I’m just a couple in when I realize that someone’s walking toward us down the road, and I feel my body shift into a balanced stance, a different state of alertness.

It’s the man from the gun range, the one who’d de-escalated Carl Getts from murder to general mayhem. Sam. I’m surprised to see him here, on foot. Have I ever glimpsed him around here before? Maybe at a distance. He looks vaguely familiar in this context. I must have seen him out walking or jogging, like so many others.

He continues walking in our direction, hands in his pockets, headphones in. When he sees me watching him, he gives me a vague wave and nod and keeps walking right past us, heading the opposite of the route we took around the lake. I keep my attention fixed on him until he goes over the slight rise that branches off to the upper homes—the Johansens’, a little above ours, then Officer Graham’s place—and he disappears. Just taking a walk. But where is he coming from?

It’s probably obsessive that I feel I need to know.

As we enter the house, I turn to enter the alarm code. My fingers touch the keypad before I realize that I don’t need to enter the code, because the alarm isn’t beeping.

It isn’t on.

I freeze, standing in the doorway, blocking my daughter’s way in. She tries to push past, and I give her a fierce, wild look and put my finger to my lips, then point to the keypad.

Her face, pink from the exercise and sun, goes tense, and she steps back, and back again. I keep an extra set of car keys in the potted plant just inside the door, and now I scoop them out and toss them to her as I mouth, “Go!”

She doesn’t hesitate. I’ve trained her well. She turns and runs for the Jeep, and I shut and lock the front door behind me. Whatever’s inside, I want to keep it focused on me. I put the mail on the closest flat surface, careful not to make much noise, and the house lays itself out for me, all my options running fast through my mind.

It’s only four steps to the small gun safe under the couch. I kneel down and press my thumb to the lock, and the door springs open with a small, metallic click. I pull out the Sig Sauer. It’s my favorite and most reliable weapon. I know it’s loaded and ready, one in the chamber, and I keep my pulse slow and my finger off the trigger as I move quietly across to the kitchen, the hallway, down.

I hear the Jeep start up and pull away with a hiss of tires on gravel. Good girl. She knows to keep driving for five minutes and, if I don’t give her the all-clear, to call the police, then head for our rendezvous point almost fifty miles away and dig up a geocached stash of money and fresh IDs. If she has to, she can disappear without us.

I swallow hard, because now I’m alone with the fear that something terrible has happened to my son.

I’m drawing close to my bedroom. When I steal a look inside, I see nothing out of order. It’s just as I left it, down to the shoes tumbled carelessly in the corner.

Lanny’s bedroom is next on the same side, across from the main bathroom that we share. For an awful moment I think someone’s ransacked her room, but then I realize that I never checked it before heading out to the range this morning, and she’d left the bed unmade, discarded clothes slumped over half the floor.

Connor. The pulse in my temples throbs faster, and all my self-control can’t slow it down. Please, God, no, don’t take my baby, don’t.

His door is shut. He’s put up a KEEP OUT, ZOMBIE INSIDE sign, but when I carefully, slowly try the handle I realize that it isn’t locked. I have two choices: enter fast or slow.

I enter fast, banging the door open, gun coming up in a smooth arc as I brace myself with a shoulder against the rebounding wood, and I scare my son half to death with the whole production.

He’s lying on his bed, headphones on and music audible from where I stand, but the percussive bang of the door against the wall brings him bolt upright, clawing the headphones off. He yells when he sees the gun, and I instantly lower it, but not before I see blind terror in his eyes.

It’s gone in a second, replaced by boiling fury. “Jesus, Mom! What the hell?”

“I’m sorry,” I say. My pulse is hammering perversely much faster now, responding to the adrenaline dumped into my bloodstream by the shock. My hands are shaking. I put the weapon down carefully on his dresser, ejection port up, barrel pointed away from both of us. Range rules. “Honey, I’m sorry. I thought—” I don’t want to say it out loud. I manage to drag in a trembling breath and sink down to a crouch, hands pressed to my forehead. “Oh God. You just forgot to turn it on when we left.”

I hear the music shut off in midscream, the headphones clatter to the floor. The bed creaks as Connor sits on the edge of it, looking at me. I risk a glance at him, finally. My eyes feel red and hot, though I’m not crying. I haven’t in a long time.

“The alarm? I forgot to turn it on?” He sighs and bends forward, as if he has a sore stomach. “Mom. You’ve got to stop going off the rails; you’re going to kill one of us, you know that? We’re out here in the middle of nowhere—nobody else even locks their doors!”

I don’t answer. He’s right, of course. I have overreacted, and not for the first time. I have pointed a loaded gun at my child. His anger is understandable, and so is his defensiveness.

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