I stop in my tracks, surprised that he’s talking directly to me. His expression is serious, almost contemplative. “Bad news,” he says in a clipped tone and gives me a once-over, as though assessing me somehow.
“What?” Involuntarily, I grip the lanterns more tightly. Hopefully it’s not about my brothers. Then again, how would he know about them?
“There’s a mama black bear with her cubs right by the Dumpsters.”
I feel the blood drain from my face. “That’s exactly the direction I’m going.”
“You’d better wait until they leave. Mother bears always get crazy aggressive if they think someone’s threatening their cubs. Some idiot forgot to lock one of the Dumpsters. Same thing happens every year. It may be hours before they finish eating.”
My thoughts begin to race. If I don’t show up back at camp soon, they’ll come searching for me, and then they’ll run straight into the arms of that mama bear. “I have to get back.”
Bren shakes his head, pursing his thin lips. “You can’t get past there.”
“But my brothers…” I glance over my shoulder toward the visitors’ center. “They’ll be looking for me. We should tell the rangers. I’ve gotta—”
Bren raises a placating hand. “Louisa, the rangers are already there, making sure everyone’s safe. They’re not going to let anyone get anywhere near the bears.”
“And they’ll be on both sides of the Dumpsters?”
“Um, of course, why wouldn’t they be?”
I breathe a sigh of relief. Rangers have guns, and they’re allowed to shoot bears in emergency situations. And when my brothers see them, they’ll realize that I’m waiting on the other side.
“There’s always some idiot trying to take pictures,” Bren explains now. “This one tourist in Canada even tried to get his daughter to ride on a grizzly’s back.”
“I swear to God! But nothing happened.”
I have to laugh, and he joins in with a brief, loud “ha ha.” It’s barely a laugh at all, but it changes his face for a moment, softens those rough, unapproachable shadows, makes him look younger.
“I was headed back to the visitors’ center.” Bren takes the lanterns out of my hands. Why, I don’t know, but somehow it feels natural. “Forgot tomatoes. But if you want to get back to your brothers, I can drive you around the long way to your campsite.”
“There’s another road?” I blink, baffled. “The ranger didn’t mention that.” Unless he did and I just wasn’t paying attention. Again.
“There’s three, actually, but the third will be blocked off, too, because it’s too close to the Dumpsters. People don’t take the other route much, because it goes a few miles through the forest, and it’s got a million potholes.” His eyes shift to my bare shoulder. The blouse has slipped down again, nearly to my elbow. Automatically, I pull it up a little. He looks up, directly into my eyes. The intensity of his gaze hits me again. “You shouldn’t walk that whole way by yourself. Really.”
For half a second, I think about all the things Ethan is always warning me about, but then the sun emerges from behind a grey mountain of clouds and the entire sky seems to drown in the blood red of the setting sun. Everything is glowing, radiant. The towering sequoias behind Bren look like they’re about to burst into flame.
“What about your tomatoes? Don’t you want to go grab them first?”
He waves the question away. “I’m right over there, a little ways down the road.” The sunlight flickers in his eyes, tiny pinpoints of red dancing across his black irises, or pupils, I’m not sure. And there’s that feeling again, the one I got in the visitors’ center. The feeling that he wants to tell me something. Or is it a question he’s only asking me in his mind?
Do you want this?
A faint tingling sensation pulses through my veins. It could mean anything.
Do you want to come with me?
Do you want to sleep with me?
Do you want something to happen?
The key ring jingles in his hand like an invitation. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a man hoisting a backpack from the trunk of his car. Bren glances over at him, and I follow his gaze. The man shoulders the bag and heads straight for the visitors’ center. Otherwise, the lot is completely empty.
Bren turns away from the man to look at me again. “It’s not far.”
I nod, and he moves around to walk beside me, between me and the center.
Ethan would kill me if he knew I was getting into a stranger’s car. But he doesn’t know the situation. Besides, Bren is too hot to turn down. I guess there’s also a chance he’s hoping something will happen if he drives me. Maybe he wants to get to know me. Or more than that. Which is what makes this so exciting.
Do you want this?
My heart is racing as I walk next to him. I take a deep breath. I feel like I’m sensing everything around me at once: the rhythmic rustling of the treetops, the scent of pine needles and smoke, the wind on my skin, Bren’s keys jingling, the sound of the camping lanterns clacking together in his other hand.
“You’re shivering,” he says suddenly.
He gives me a sidelong look, and then smiles like he knows better. We leave the parking lot and continue down the main street. Within minutes, the sky changes from reddish gold to grey. “We’re almost there.” Bren points straight ahead. I can barely make out a camper bus parked in a pull-off area a short distance from the road.
My stomach knots. Is he traveling with his wife and kids? Maybe he’s older than I thought, and he’s just being nice to me because he saw me holding the bear spray so he knows I’m scared of bears. Maybe he only offered to drive me because he’s a responsible guy who doesn’t want a girl walking around in the woods alone.
“So you’re here with your family?” I can’t stop myself from asking.
His face darkens for a second, but he smiles the shadows away as soon as I see them. “Just me.”
“I pictured you with a car and a tent.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Is there a difference between tent guys and RV guys?”
Is he making fun of me? I shrug uncertainly. “Um. You just… looked like a tent guy, I dunno.” I hope he’s not mad. “I guess I thought maybe because you know so much about… bears and stuff.”
He smiles. Thank God. “The bus gives me more flexibility.” His keys clink against his cargo pants.
“It’s huge,” I realize. “You could fit a family of five in there.”
“I need space. Sometimes I spend the whole summer on the road.”
“So what do you do in winter?” The question is out before I can bite it back. I’m too damn nosy.
“Oh.” Now I feel dumb. Like, obviously, if you spend the whole summer traveling around, you have to earn money sometime.
We’ve reached the camper. Travel America, it says in red-and-blue striped letters across the side. I wonder what it’s like going on vacation all by yourself in this gigantic RV. Is Bren a loner? He doesn’t look like one. But you can’t tell that Jayden’s a loner at first glance, either.
Bren walks to the passenger-side door, unlocks it, and pulls on the handle, but the door doesn’t open. “Ah, fuck,” he groans. “Stuck again.” He yanks on the door grip as hard as he can, but nothing happens. He turns to me with a sheepish grin and shrugs. “Sorry. You mind getting in the back and then climbing up front?”
“No problem,” I say, but all at once I’m starting to get a bad feeling. I don’t know why, though. I mean, I’m standing here with the single most attractive human being in California. Ava would probably walk across broken glass for a chance to sleep with him. Everything’s fine. The passenger-side door sticks, no big deal.
Bren opens the back door on the side, which leads into the living area. Over his shoulder, I see a small yellow kitchen island and a table with benches. It’s pretty dark in here, though. When he steps aside to let me through, I hesitate, peering into the camper again. There’s a dark jacket tossed carelessly across one bench, and a two-liter of Coke and a glass sitting on the table. A small dishtowel hanging on the fridge door handle. The tiny counter is cluttered with stuff.
Organized chaos. Exactly what I’d expect from a guy like him.
I look up at him.
He smiles, but it’s different somehow. Maybe it’s just that weird feeling in my stomach that I totally have no idea why I’m getting.
He seems to notice my anxiety. “Hey,” he says, taking a step back. “I’m Bren, not Jack.”
He raises his hands as if to show he’s not armed. My camping lanterns swing into the air with them. “The Ripper.” Grinning, he lowers his hands and stuffs his keys into his pocket.
I let out a laugh. “Okay.” But that weird feeling stays with me. Maybe I’m scared of my own courage. Maybe he wants to get right to it, like he’ll offer me a Coke and then make his move. I wonder how I would react to that. Or will react. My stomach is still doing flip-flops, but I’m not sure anymore if I’m feeling excited or threatened.
“We could walk if you’d rather,” Bren suddenly says. “It’s kind of far, but I understand if you—”
“No, it’s fine,” I say, cutting him off, and take the stairs up. He wouldn’t offer to walk with me if he was actually trying to do something bad. So I don’t understand why now, of all times, Ethan’s warnings come flooding back into my head again. Like that stuff he was saying about guys seeing my clothes and thinking maybe no means yes with me.
But Bren wouldn’t have to force girls to do anything, I reason with myself. With those eyes and that smile, he can get any girl he wants.
Once I’m in the RV, I look to either side. The curtains are all drawn, I notice for the first time. Bren gets in behind me and jerks the door shut roughly.
Why didn’t he go around to the front?
That weird feeling flickers to life again. He’s behind me, close enough that I can feel the warmth of his body, although he isn’t touching me.
He doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t go to the fridge to offer me something to drink.
Where did he put the stuff he bought earlier? He was coming from a totally different direction. He can’t have walked the whole way to the camper and back in that short of a time. Something is off here. A wave of fear washes over me. The sweet scent I smelled back at the visitors’ center is suddenly really intense. I’m too scared to turn around and look at him. I open my mouth, not sure whether I want to talk to him or scream or just run to the driver’s side door.
At the exact moment that I decide to run, there’s a loud crash, and glass splinters fly in every direction. A lantern rolls past my foot. Before I can react, Bren’s arm shoots out. He presses my elbows against my body, squeezing me. At first I’m frozen in shock; then I start trying to wrench my arms free, but I can’t, he’s too strong.
I scream again and again, so loudly that it hurts my throat. “Help!” “No!” “Please!” but then his hand is on my face. He’s pressing something soft against my mouth and nose, holding it down tight.
The sweet smell burns my lips, makes my eyes water. Immediately, the room starts to spin. I can’t breathe this stuff in. Don’t breathe, don’t. Still holding my breath, I dig my nails into his thigh, but Bren’s grip is like iron, like the bars of a cage. Blind panic fills me. I can’t get away. Oh, God, I can’t get out of here. I understand what’s happening to me and yet I don’t.
“Hold still, I’m not going to hurt you.” He sounds perfectly calm, even as his arm is winding tighter and tighter around my body.
All I can see now is the white cloth. All I can think about is how I’m going to die. My pulse is throbbing in my ears. The pressure in my chest is unbearable. I have to breathe. Aimlessly, I kick out at him, land a couple of blows, but then he crushes me more tightly against him, lifting me so my feet are dangling in the air. My eyes start to water. My lungs are exploding. I can’t hold my breath any longer. The sweet stuff flows into my mouth, scratches my throat. Neon-colored spirals dance before my eyes against a black background. I try to wriggle free, but my muscles have other plans.
“I won’t hurt you, don’t worry.” Bren’s voice pierces the thick, dark fog circling inside my head. I feel myself slump in his grip, tip forward. I know that I’m blacking out. And that it means I’m going to die.
Wild patterns envelop me. At the end, all that’s left are words.
Hold still, I’m not going to hurt you.
You really are completely useless.
Do you want this?