Come Sundown

Come Sundown by Nora Roberts

For Jason and Kat,

the best of traveling companions


A Journey

So, when a raging fever burns,

We shift from side to side by turns;

And ’tis a poor relief we gain

To change the place, but keep the pain.

—Isaac Watts


— Western Montana, 1991 —

Alice Bodine relieved herself behind a thin screen of lodgepole pines. She’d had to trudge through knee-high snow for the screen, and her bare ass (with the dragonfly tattoo she’d had inked in Portland) shivered in the wind that soughed like the surf.

Since she’d walked a solid three miles on the back road without seeing a single car or truck, she wondered why the hell she’d bothered.

Some habits, she supposed as she hitched her jeans up again, just didn’t break.

God knows she’d tried. Tried to break habits, rules, conventions, and expectations. Yet here she was—hardly three years after her self-proclaimed emancipation from everything usual, all the ordinary—dragging her half-frozen ass home.

She shifted her backpack on her shoulders as she high-stepped into her own footprints to get back to the sorry excuse for a road. The backpack contained all her worldly possessions, which included another pair of jeans, an AC/DC T-shirt, a Grateful Dead sweatshirt she’d taken off some forgotten guy back when she’d first gotten to Los Angeles, some soap and shampoo she’d copped during her mercifully brief stint cleaning rooms at a Holiday Inn in Rigby, Idaho, condoms, her stash of makeup, fifteen dollars and thirty-eight cents, and what was left of a nickel bag of pretty decent weed she’d swiped from a guy she’d partied with at a campground in eastern Oregon.

She’d told herself she was aimed toward home due to her lack of funds and the very idea of cleaning up some jerk’s cum-stained sheets ever again. And there was some acknowledgment of how easy it would be to become one of the dead-eyed women she’d seen hooking on the shady side of so many streets in so many towns she’d passed through.

She’d come close, she could admit that. You got hungry enough, cold enough, scared enough, the idea of selling your body—it was just sex, after all—for the price of a meal and a decent room seemed okay.

But the truth was, and there were times she faced the truth, there were some rules she wouldn’t break. The truth was, she wanted home. She wanted her mother, her sister, her grandparents. She wanted her room with her posters all over the pretty pink walls, and the windows looking out to the mountains. She wanted the smell of coffee and bacon in the kitchen in the mornings, the feel of a horse under her at a full gallop.

Her sister was married—hadn’t it been the stupid, altogether traditional wedding that had set her off, that was the last straw? Reenie might even have a kid by now, probably did, and was probably still as goddamn perfect as ever.

But she missed even that, even the annoying perfection of Maureen.

So she walked on, another mile, with the worn fleece jacket she’d bought at Goodwill barely holding off the cold, and the boots she’d had for more than ten years slapping the snowpack on the skinny shoulder.

Should’ve called home from Missoula, she thought now. Should’ve just swallowed her pride and called. Her grandpa would’ve come to get her—and he never lectured. But she’d envisioned herself striding up the road to the ranch—maybe even swaggering up that road.

How everything would stop, just stop. The ranch hands, the horses, even the cattle in the fields. The old hound, Blue, would lope out to greet her. And her mother would step out on the porch.

The Prodigal Returns.

Alice’s sigh puffed out a stream of warm breath, whisked away in the stiff, cold wind.

She knew better, had known better, but snagging a ride in Missoula seemed like a sign. And it took her within twelve miles of home.

She might not make it by nightfall, and that worried her. She had a flashlight in her pack, but the batteries were iffy. She had a lighter, but the thought of making a camp without tent or blanket, with no food, with the last of her water gone two miles back had her pushing on, harder.

She tried to imagine what they’d say to her. They’d be happy to see her—had to be. Maybe they’d be pissed at her for taking off the way she did, with no more than a snotty note. But she’d been eighteen, and old enough to do what she wanted—and she hadn’t wanted college or the prison of marriage or working some pissant job on the ranch.

She’d wanted freedom, and she’d taken it.

Now she was twenty-one, and making the choice to go home.

Maybe she wouldn’t mind working on the ranch so much. Maybe she’d even think about taking some college classes.

She was a grown woman.

The grown woman’s teeth wanted to chatter, but she kept moving. She hoped her grandparents were around—and felt hard twists of guilt because she couldn’t be absolutely sure Grammy or Grandpa were still alive.

Of course they are, Alice assured herself. It’s just been three years. Grammy wouldn’t be pissed, or not for long. Maybe she’d scold some. Look how skinny you are! What on God’s green earth have you done to your hair?

Amused at the thought, Alice pulled her ski cap down snug over the short cap of hair she’d bleached out as blond as she could manage. She liked being blond, liked the way the more glamorous color made her eyes read greener.

But most of all she liked the idea of being enfolded in one of Grandpa’s hugs, of sitting down to a big meal—Thanksgiving was almost here—and telling her whole stick-up-the-ass family of her adventures.

She’d seen the Pacific Ocean, had strutted along Rodeo Drive like a movie star, had twice worked as an extra for an actual movie. Maybe getting real parts in real movies turned out to be a lot harder than she’d imagined, but she’d tried.

She’d proved she could be on her own. She could do things, see things, experience things. And she could do it all again if they gave her too much grief.

Annoyed, Alice blinked and swiped at the tears flooding her eyes. She wouldn’t beg. She would not beg them to take her back, to take her in.

God, she just wanted to be home.

The angle of the sun told her she’d never make it by nightfall, and she could smell fresh snow in the air. Maybe—maybe if she cut through the trees, across the fields, she could make it to the Skinner place.

She stopped, tired, torn. Safer to stay on the road, but heading across the fields would cut off a good mile or more. Plus, there were a couple of cabins, if she could remember her way. Bare bones for wilderness vacationers, but she could break in, get a fire going, maybe even find some canned food.

he One #2)