Chapter 1: A Winter Road

Get me out of here.

The seventh hour of a three-hour trip.

Seriously, please get me out of here!

Riley looked around outside the car.

We’re lost forever, she thought.

Her eyes fixed on the back of her stepfather’s neck.

And it’s all your fault.

Ashoke hunched closer to the wheel as if he could feel the heat of her glare. He had already been nearly touching the salt-dusted windshield, embracing the steering wheel to his chest, trembling hands gripping it as if to choke the life from it. He squinted as he tried to track the curvy road, crinkled skin shrouding the pale blue disks of his eyes. The gathering dark had widened his pupils. He poured more pressure into the gas pedal, importuning the sedan to go faster even though it was already going too fast.

Riley scowled at the wiry gray hairs sprouting up around his collar. She wondered why he didn’t shave them off, or why her mother didn’t make him shave them off. She hated those scraggly hairs. She hated that skinny neck. She hated him, and had for a long time. When he was in a good mood, he was annoying, always getting into her business. When he was in a bad mood, he was like, well, this.

Just when I thought I couldn’t hate him more, she thought, he proves me wrong. What a nightmare. She paused. OK, Mom says I shouldn’t say “hate.” How about “Ashoke, of all the things I don’t like, I don’t don’t like you less than all the others”?

She stared into the bluish twilight. The countryside had not changed much for hours. It had been nothing but clearings enclosed by trees and fences, and filled in by snow. Everything was cloaked by snow. Someone, she reasoned, had cleared the fields, laid the fences, and even plowed the road; but where were they now? There were no signs of people, not so much as a tool shed.

Riley sighed and drifted. She imagined the car sliding off the road and hitting the trees. She saw the car hit the trees from somewhere behind it. She figured it would all be over quickly. It bothered her that she would die, but it bothered her more that she would die with him. For all she knew, she might spend an eternity with him.

She shook her head to end the daydream. When she zoned out, she ignored everything around her. Now she could hear her surroundings again: the wind rushing over the car, whistling faintly around her window; the engine rumbling, burning what gas they had left; the tires clawing at the road, slipping and bumping over the ice. And, in the seat next to her, her little brother Ellis whimpering softly.

Ashoke cleared his throat as if about to say something. He didn’t. In fact, Riley realized, he hadn’t said anything in a long while. He certainly hadn’t asked anyone’s opinion, but that would have been unlike him anyway. He’d even gotten tired of swearing. There had been a lot of that: swearing at the map, swearing at the weather, swearing at Aunt Frances’s directions, swearing at the roads, swearing at the universe. He now appeared intent on driving until they ran out of road, ran off the road, or ran out of gas.

Riley knew better than to say anything. It would only make Ashoke angry, a misery for everyone. Anyway, she didn’t have any suggestions. She figured that turning back might just get them lost in a worse way. They couldn’t possibly find their way back through all the wrong turns. There wasn’t anyone to ask for help. Running of gas and freezing to death seemed a lot more likely than stumbling into Aunt Frances’s house.

Riley sighed so sharply that Ellis momentarily forgot his misery and eyed her warily. Ashoke started to look back, stopped, then turned away again. Riley slouched back into her seat, her full lips set in a tight line.

“Dad?” Ellis piped up. Riley shushed him. She turned on him, her full anger shifting to him. Oh please. Please don’t! You’re just going to make him mad all over again.

Ashoke shook his head slowly, his jaw set in a way that said he was trying not to speak.

Riley’s mother, Elizabeth, said nothing. She stared out the window absently. She always stayed out of family squabbles as long as she could. She stayed out of a lot of things, and in a daydreaming way. It took quite a lot to bring her back from wherever she escaped to. When provoked, however, her temper could run even hotter than Ashoke’s.

“Dad?” Ellis repeated. He looked to Riley helplessly. His pale, watery blue eyes looked about to melt into tears. Riley shrugged. It’s your own fault. You had your chance back at that gas station.

“No,” Ashoke said softly.

Look out, Riley thought.

“Dad, please?”

“No!” Much louder this time.

Here it comes.

“Dad, I’m not going to make it.” He pinched his knees together and doubled over.

“I said no!” Ashoke barked, his cheeks flushing.

Oh El, don’t do it. This is where you stop. They all knew where to stop.

Ellis paused a moment more, perhaps to decide if his life was worth living. He leaned forward and, close to Ashoke’s ear, whispered, “Dad, I really have to—”

“No! No! No!” On the last no, Ashoke slapped the dashboard almost hard enough to break it. A sound like a rifle shot seemed to echo in the cramped car. The boy wilted into his seat.

Riley rolled her eyes. We are on the road to hell. She wondered whether Ashoke would get them to Aunt Frances’s house or wrapped around some tree.

Ellis withdrew for a long minute then lifted his head to glance in the rearview mirror. It was filled with his father’s angry eyes. Ashoke made eye contact and turned all the way around to face him. He gave Ellis the dreaded baleful look, what Ellis dubbed his “basilisk stare.” Riley noticed his craggy nose fairly bristled with blackheads.

“Ashoke, leave him alone!” Riley demanded. He’d gone too far. She had been unhappy with her whiny brother—her half-brother, she reminded herself—but she disliked bullies even more. She’d stepped into more than a few fights.

“Oh don’t you start,” Ashoke said. He glanced at her, his lips pursed and jaw working almost imperceptibly, as if about to add something more. He shrugged off the effort and turned back to driving, now just a bit faster.

Riley wished she was elsewhere or that everyone else was elsewhere. She pressed her forehead into her window’s coldness, her breath fogging the glass, and fixed her attention on the passing fences. Spare and in disrepair, yet too many to count, the wooden posts and tangled wire persistently rising and falling with the vagaries of the hills. The roadside fence might at some points succumb beneath the thick snow bank, but would after a spell rise up again, only to descend once more. Riley imagined it was the ribbon of fence moving by while the car stood still. She tuned out the surrounding sounds—the tires clawing at the road, the wind’s whistle across the glass, and Ashoke drumming his fingers on the wheel—and folded herself into her silent mental space.

“Riley! Stop that!” Ashoke snapped.

“What?”

“You know what. It’s distracting. I just told you to stop twice.”

“Oh. This?” she said, holding her hand up. Riley had been spinning a ballpoint pen around her fingers. From time to time she’d stop and click it. It was an idle habit when she was daydreaming, but it was sort of a bonus for her that it bothered Ashoke.

“Yeah. That.”

“Whatever you say, Ashoke.” She never called him Dad.

“You’re making him mad,” Ellis whispered.

“I think you already did that,” she replied. She went back to her window.

As they pushed deeper into the storm, the storm pushed back. A tunnel of fat snowflakes rushed up into their headlights and shrouded the car in white. The effect was more claustrophobic than comforting. It also seemed like the rows left by snowplows along either side of the road were getting closer together. And as it had for hours, the road always looked exactly the same.

Have we been going in circles? Riley wondered. Are we going to get stuck out here?

Ashoke had been foolish, but the navigational problems started with Aunt Frances. Her directions, written in beautiful longhand with a fountain pen, looked pretty but made little sense. Frances had supposed city people could follow things like “turn left at the hemlock and look for a field of yellow flowers.” Maybe Ellis could identify a hemlock—he had a thing for trees—but finding a field of yellow flowers in winter made no sense at all. It looked like she had written the directions with another season in mind. Elizabeth had been to the house long ago and didn’t remember much. Meanwhile the car’s computer claimed they were driving across a large lake.

Little black dots on a paper map from the gas station marked towns with tongue-twisting names like Botskinston, Bucklestop, and Belcher’s Bend. The towns themselves hardly seemed worth having names. They were scrappy little clumps of buildings, deserted and dark. One seemed to be no more than a line of rusty mailboxes bolted to a rail. The highways were as lifeless as the towns: pale winding strips of concrete with faded lines ghosting out beneath the blowing snow. The road signs were scarce and aged. One exception was a large hand-painted sign that said “MOOSE CAN KILL.” She’d asked Ellis, “Does that mean the moose—mooses?— are shooting back? I mean, can you imagine a moose with a rifle?” and he’d chuckled. “It’s just moose, and I hope not,” he said. The corners of her mouth twitched into an almost grin.

Besides the bad directions, it was hard getting around anywhere on account of the tough winter. First a cold snap had soaked into the earth, splitting water pipes deep within and buckling the sidewalks like soda crackers. The wind froze skin and knifed through the cracks between collars and scarves. In the last week, two blizzards had dumped seven feet of snow. The first snow had been as wet, the second one dry. The wet snow quickly froze into icy formations that could barely be plowed. The dry snow drifted across the face of the ice in blinding clouds wherever the wind willed it to go.

The Eckerd’s hometown looked like a lumpy blanket, with the lumps being entire buildings. Sometimes the roofs failed from the weight of the snow. From time to time the freezing rain came, sheathing the whole mess in more ice, ripping power lines from their poles and large branches from the trees.

Despite it all, Ashoke had managed to get them out of town. It was his occasional virtue that when he set his mind to doing something, he was fierce about doing it. He cleaned off his pampered car, loaded them up, and coaxed it out of town. Although the road was as slick as wet soap he kept on going, not always gingerly. He defied a roadblock by cutting through a cemetery, driving over several windswept graves. “It’s not like they’re going to complain,” he had snapped.

Ellis was still unhappy. He tried a different approach. “Mom…? Please?

“Now, honey, hang on for just a bit,” she said in a voice pitched for a boy a few years younger than Ellis. “We’ll be at your aunt’s any minute now. Your father is right. We don’t have any time to waste if he and I are going to get in and out of there by dark.” It was already getting pretty dark, either because of the time or the storm.

Riley said, “Oh come on, can’t we just stop long enough to shut him up?” Her grayish eyes flashed. I wish I was somewhere else. Anywhere else. What an awful vacation. She wished she had some ruby red slippers, even if they were a ticket to Kansas.

The last landmark they’d seen had been a gas station in one of the godforsaken towns starting with a “B.” Like most places, the gas station looked abandoned. Its wood-shingled roof was bursting apart like a roasted pine cone. Its weathered siding had lost even the memory of any paint. The gas pumps were surrounded by an apron of frozen mud and gravel. As Ashoke filled the tank, the pumps displayed the price with numbers on rusty spinning wheels. A faded sheet metal sign promised in pastel colors that they’d receive Blue Chip Stamps with their purchase. Riley wondered what those were.

It had been hard to find anyone there. They’d banged on the door to get the attention of the owner, who came out wiping his grubby hands on a piece of waste. He had a watchful but emotionless expression, outrageously large Popeye arms, and tufts of gray hair squirting out the neck and arms of his T-shirt. One could imagine this old man throttling a moose with one hand while downing a beer with the other.

The children were hungry. There was nothing in the store but stale chewing gum and beef jerky that probably wasn’t beef. Ellis asked the owner for something else. The man pulled a sandwich out of a dirty cooler and demanded five dollars. It might have been the man’s lunch. It was tuna or egg or maybe some of each. Despite Riley’s warning, Ellis bought and ate it quickly, flushing the clumps down his throat with bright green soda.

When Ashoke asked for directions, the man snapped, “Do you mean to tell me you’re out here in this storm and don’t know where you are? Listen carefully because I’m only going to tell you once.” He wearily rattled off a series of lefts and rights and go-straights too fast to remember or write down. As he talked he seemed to be muttering an entirely different conversation with himself, something about city people. Ashoke had hesitated to ask him for more help, and Ellis had certainly not asked about a bathroom.

The station owner shook a broom at them. “Now be on your way. I have to batten down the hatches,” he told them as he swept the Eckerds out the door. “This is a wicked storm.  Wicked. If you ask me, only a fool would be caught out in it.”

“What choice do I have?” Ashoke asked.

“You had a choice. You could have stayed home. Now get going.”

“But I don’t know where I am,” Ashoke insisted.

The man paused for a beat before he declared, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t belong here.” He slammed the door in their faces.

Now the service station was long gone and Ellis needed a bathroom or a convenient tree like nothing else. Besides that, the sandwich wasn’t sitting well in his stomach. He rubbed his throat and squirmed and burped. The odor of overripe egg and tuna sandwich, cheap soda, and stomach acid spread through the car.

Riley grimaced. He’s going to throw up on me. I know it. He’s thinking about it. He looks like a big nauseated frog. Ashoke will totally lose it if he messes up his precious seats. And if it gets on me….

She leaned over, careful not to smell him, and whispered, “Do it and I’ll kill you.”

Ellis shook his head weakly. He cracked his window open and sucked in the cold air. Ashoke noticed and rolled it back up.

Elizabeth piped up. “What about this one?” She pointed to a fork in the road up ahead. Unlike the others, this junction had a sign that were bright and clear with promise atop a straight pole. But the new road had a strange number.  Ashoke stopped the car and stared at the sign. Although most country highways were jumbles of letters and numbers like SR6502, this one was just two zeroes. 00.

The Eckerds stared at the sign. Its vacant eyes stared back. The route wasn’t on the map. Route Double-Nothing did not look like the other highways, though a roads that day went, it looked better. The road was smooth and black with crisp markings. It was snow-free.

Zero zero? Riley wondered. A road to nowhere?

“I have a good feeling about this,” Ashoke announced. He pushed the car onto the new road and rocketed onward with fresh confidence.

The road didn’t hold promise for long. It got dark and tunnel-like. The fences were replaced by menacing trees. The treetops squeezed together and pinched out the last of the sky. It’s like the beginning of a horror movie, Riley thought.

Ashoke was soon criticizing Elizabeth for “letting” him turn on to the new highway, even while he was unwilling to turn back. Elizabeth made a face at the children. They tried hard not to laugh. She’d finally had about enough. There was an understanding that they’d give him a little more time before open mutiny.

Then Elizabeth perked up. “Look at that fence! Sweetheart, we’re on the right road! That fence there, the one with all the hubcaps, I remember it from last time.” She pointed at a fence decorated from top to bottom with long rows of hubcaps, flat ones with logos and fancy curved ones with spirals and spokes. Most were rusty remnants, but a few had enough chrome left to sparkle in the headlights.

Ashoke slowed way down and studied the display. For a moment he looked interested. “They don’t make hubcaps like those any more. Now they’re all made out of cheap plastic.” He shook his head. “So, is this the sign she told us to look for? Does your sister hoard hubcaps when she’s not writing lousy directions? She’s crazy, you know.”

“Honey, don’t talk like that in front of the children. And she’s not crazy.” She patted his leg. “The hubcaps aren’t hers. I just remember them being near the turnoff to her house. I don’t know what she meant by a sign for her place.”

Ashoke pulled his leg away. “Well, it’d’ve be nice if she’d made it clear. How should I know what to look for? What, is a simple sign too much to ask for? What’s it going to be, a billboard or a burning bush? We should just go home.”

Elizabeth’s expression went cold. She said firmly, “No. We’ve come all this way, and it means so much to Frances. It’s been years since she saw the children.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“She loves children,” Elizabeth protested.

“As a snack?” he quipped.

“Honey, be kind. She’s a sweet lady. She’s lonely.”

Ashoke looked her in the eye. “Of course she’s lonely. She probably ate everyone else. Are we maybe looking for a gingerbread house?”

“No, honey. It’s a Victorian. And not on the road. Honey, please watch your speed.”

Ashoke said, “I drive the car. You just tell me where to turn.”

“Slow down, honey, you’re going to miss it.”

“I said tell me when to turn.”

“Look there! That must be hers.” Elizabeth pointed at a flag hanging from a tree. It was as bright and colorful as a rainbow and looked brand new.

Ashoke tapped the brake just as a heavy truck appeared behind them, closing fast. Its headlights lit up the car. Ashoke squinted into the mirror and swore. Riley tried to look behind them but could see nothing except the two headlights and a large truck grille.

“What a jerk!” Ashoke said. “Who does he think he is? I’ll show you something, buddy.” He slowed the car down, way down.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Elizabeth said.

The truck came unbearably close, as if about to ride up their bumper. The driver sounded the horn, a deafening howl. The truck swerved on to the other side of the road and roared past. The tops of its tires were almost higher than the roof of the Eckerds’ car. It was a stout ten-wheeled truck, the sort used to haul rocks. This one looked like it must have hauled a lot of rocks. It was dented and rusted all over. As it sped by, they heard the insistent jangle of chains whipping about its sides. Its wind almost shouldered the Eckerds off the road. And then it was past, its tail lights bouncing and its heavy metal gate crashing about. The truck disappeared into the woods around a curve.

Ashoke shouted, “Idiot! Maniac! Assassin!”

“I don’t think he can hear you,” Elizabeth said.

“It’s not my fault he’s crazy. We could have been killed.”

“Especially with you acting stupid,” Riley asked. “What if he comes back?”

Ashoke shook his head. “Don’t be silly. He’s not coming back. He’s a coward, hiding behind that big truck and all. Did you see how fast he took off?”

Ellis pointed. “Hey, he is coming back!”

Ashoke gaped. The same truck was coming at them head on. It looked more menacing this time. Its lights made bright haloes in the icy windshield.

Elizabeth said slowly, “Honey, I think he’s on our side of the road.”

“No. Can’t be.”

Riley asked, “Hey Ashoke, maybe you should pull over?”

“Nonsense! I have the same right to this road that he does. He can’t push me around.” Ashoke flashed his lights and honked. The truck kept coming. It was now just a few seconds away. Ashoke pursed his lips and leaned forward as if facing down a charging bull. He sounded his horn long and hard. The truck responded with its own horn, a sound much deeper and resonant. Its pitch rose as the two vehicles rushed towards each other.

Ashoke shook his head. “He thinks he can intimidate us!”

Riley yelled, “He’s right! He can! Pull over!”

The truck’s headlights ignited with double the brightness, directly into the Eckerds’ eyes. Their car overflowed with the flood of light. Ashoke raised his arm across his eyes in pain, and Elizabeth grabbed the wheel away from him. She swerved the car onto the shoulder, missing the truck’s massive fender by a distance little more than nothing.

The car plowed into the soft, snowy shoulder, bouncing wildly. With a loud crash it hit some unseen obstacle beneath the snow and spun around backwards until it got stuck straddling a ridge of ice running alongside the road. The car rattled like a stick drawn across a washboard. Then it hit a series of rocks or potholes so harshly that Riley wondered if the wheels could be torn off.

Ashoke shrieked, “Let go! Let go!” He shouldered the wheel away from Elizabeth, but it spun uselessly in his hands. If he achieved anything, it was to get the car off the ice ridge and the road entirely. They smashed through some scrubby brush onto an frozen lake crowded all around by stout trees. Something sent them spinning slowly. The tires hissed as they slid over the ice, lifting plumes of fine snow that sparkled in the headlights and coated the windows like diamond dust. Everyone sat with their eyes wide, watching the world spin by. All but Riley closed their eyes as they neared the trees on the other side. She winced as she anticipated the moment of impact, but the car hit the shore painlessly. There was no shock, no airbags, no sound. The car simply stopped.

Am I dead? Riley wondered. The car was motionless. The windows were dark. Riley touched her body. She couldn’t find anything wrong. There was no blood. She felt no discomfort. She rolled her window down. Snow fell into her lap. They were buried in it. There was a massive tree inches away from the window. She touched the trunk to see if was real. She pried off a piece of bark and scratched at the inside. Her fingers came away sticky with sap. Sniffing them, she smelled something fresh and alive.

“Hey? Is everyone OK?” she asked.

The others moved slowly and said nothing. Elizabeth looked back at her children. Riley stared back at her. Ellis struggled with his nausea. She looked at her husband. Ashoke held still, eyes locked straight ahead. A string of sweat trickled from his temple through the beard stubble along his jaw. A vein near his ear throbbed.

Elizabeth asked, “Is everyone OK? I think we’re all right, yes?”

Ashoke swore. “No, we’re not all right. Why, look at this car!” He turned on the windshield wipers. They could not move the snow away. He tried to open his door. The door jammed against the tree before it was open a few inches. He threw his shoulder into it. The wipers came free and dumped snow on his head. He tried to pull the door shut, but now he couldn’t do that either. “Elizabeth, look what you’ve done. Why did you grab the wheel like that?”

Riley said, “She saved our lives, Ashoke.”

“Don’t you two gang up on me! Elizabeth, this is just terrible.” He turned to Riley, looking like his face would burst, wagging his finger at her, and said, “And you … just … just stop calling me Ashoke!”

“OK. How about—”

“Riley!” Elizabeth said. “Enough!” She lowered her voice and took a deep breath. “Everyone, let’s be calm, especially you.” She put her hand on Ashoke’s shoulder. He pushed it away sulkily.

Riley said, “Well, now what?”

Ellis asked, “Hey, has anyone seen the truck?”

Ashoke snorted. “No, he just took off. Didn’t even check to see if we were hurt.”

Riley said, “Good. I think he came back because he wanted us hurt.”

“Now Riley, that’s ridiculous,” her mother said. “Everyone should calm down and—oh look! Look there!” She pointed with a slender finger through the space the windshield wiper had cleared. “It’s right in front of us. The sign.”

Nailed to a tree, a cardboard sign apparently drawn in red lipstick letters read HOUSE OF FRANCES and WELCOME ECKERDS! with a smiley face. It was hung just above a battered yellow and black metal sign cautioning KEEP OUT and NO HUNTING. The sternness of the sign was undermined by dozens of little holes poking through it.

Ashoke asked, “Well, what the hell is the sign doing here, way off the road? No wonder we didn’t see it. How did she expect us to see it?”

Ellis asked, “What’s with the holes in the other sign?”

Elizabeth pursed her lips. “The holes? Birdshot, buckshot, and regular bullet holes. Hunters can be poor sports when they don’t get what they want. Frances won’t let them hunt her property.” Elizabeth had grown up on a farm and knew things like this.

Ashoke cut in, “This ridiculous trip is over. We’re turning around and going home.”

“Oh honey—” Elizabeth said.

“Sorry. We’re going back.” He shifted into reverse and looked back. His eyes grew wide. It was by now nearly dark, but the truck was clearly visible in the moonlight, standing on the other side of the ice. Smoke twirled up from its exhaust stacks. For a moment its headlights brightened and the smoke turned thick and black. The truck lurched forward hesitantly, inching towards the edge of the ice.

Ashoke floored the accelerator, forgetting the car was in reverse. It shot backwards, the tree breaking the hinges of his open door, before stalling partway onto the ice. He wrestled with the wheel and transmission and tried to get the car to go forward. The car obliged, a little bit. After advancing a dozen feet, the wheels spun and the car twisted in place on the slippery ground. Finally the tires found purchase somewhere under the snow and, engine whining, the car vaulted through the narrow space between the trees. Ashoke’s door was knocked clean off.

They landed unexpectedly on the beginning of a little plowed gravel road hidden behind the trees. With Ashoke steering madly and pouring on the power, they rocketed down the road. Riley looked back. The truck stayed on the other side of the ice.

Ashoke held the pedal down. The car’s headlights bobbed crazily in the brush. Tree branches swatted at the windshield like brooms, scattering needles and pine cones, tearing at the paint and cracking the windshield. The underside of the car scraped over the gravel as the wheels pounded through potholes. Ashoke locked his hands over the wheel tighter than ever, his lips set in a thin line.

Finally he stopped, perhaps a mile down the road. Out of breath and shaking, he said, “OK, OK, I guess we’re OK. No thanks to you.” He glanced around. “Look what happened to my car!”

“Just keep driving, all right?” Elizabeth said calmly. She was good at calming him. The children often went looking for her to talk him down from the peak of one of his angry fits. “Drive safely please. And turn up the heat.”

Ashoke seemed too flushed and wound up to be cold. He grumbled something resentful but went along with what he was told. He drove at a more reasonable pace and bumped up the heat a degree or two.

After a while they got stuck in a shallow, slushy depression within a massive stand of paper birch. Faintly luminescent bark sheathed the straight white pillars of the trees, unfurling in thin sheets that practically glowed in the moonlight. Ellis, who had a special interest in trees, stared at the woods surrounding them. He looked as high as possible from inside the car and as far as the gloom allowed.

“Ellis, it’s just trees,” Riley said, leaning over to see what he was looking at. Ellis ignored her. She cleaned her glasses and took another look, but didn’t see what the big deal was.

Ellis suddenly remembered his bathroom needs. “I’ll be back!” he yelled as he bolted out of the car and out of earshot into the woods.

“Ellis! You come back here!” Ashoke demanded pointlessly. “That boy has no respect! Riley, will you go get your brother?”

Riley buttoned up her coat and got out. Ashoke got out too, and took a look at the car. It was quite a sight, half the glass broken and gouged all over. He shook his head, a much milder reaction than Riley had expected.

Riley followed Ellis’s footprints into the woods. It wasn’t easy: the snow was thigh-high. She struggled not to fall as she followed his trail. She could feel the snow getting into her shoes. The ground sloped down steeply from the road. She was soon out of sight of the car. She figured it would be easy enough to find her way back again even in the dark by retracing her footsteps, but still was wary of going too far.

She called out, “Ellis?” Her call made just a small noise; the cape of the trees and snow swallowed it up. “El, where are you?!?” More silence. She walked a few steps farther. She started to feel scared, but managed to sound irritated: “Ellis! Come here now!”

Nothing.

Riley swore and headed deeper into the woods.