Daniela the Jason you’re with is an imposter. Call me.
Daniela you and Charlie are not safe. The Jason you’re with isn’t who you think he is. Call me right away.
None of them love you like I do. Call me, Daniela. Pls. Begging you. Love you.
I will kill them all for you and fix this. Say the word. I will do anything for you.
I stop reading, put a block on each number, and delete the messages.
But one text in particular calls out to me.
It’s not from an unknown number.
It’s from Jason.
My cell number. He’s had my phone all this time. Since the night he grabbed me off the street.
You’re not home, not answering your cell. You must know. All I can say is that I love you. That’s why. My time with you has been the best of my life. Pls call me. Hear me out.
I power off her phone and tell Charlie to turn his off as well. “We have to leave them off,” I say. “From here on out. Any one of them could track us if they’re transmitting.”
As the afternoon turns toward evening and the sun begins to slip, we drive into the vast Northwoods.
The road is empty.
We’ve taken numerous summer vacations to Wisconsin but never ventured this far north. And never in winter. We go miles without seeing any signs of civilization, and each town we pass through seems smaller than the one before—crossroads in the middle of nowhere.
A hard silence has taken hold inside the Jeep Cherokee, and I’m not sure how to break it.
Or rather, that I have the courage to.
All your life you’re told you’re unique. An individual. That no one on the planet is just like you.
It’s humanity’s anthem.
But that isn’t true for me anymore.
How can Daniela love me more than the other Jasons?
I look at her in the front passenger seat, wondering what she thinks of me now, what she feels toward me.
Hell, what I think of me is up for debate.
She sits quietly beside me, just watching the forest rushing by outside the window.
I reach across the console and hold her hand.
She looks over at me, and then back out the window.
At dusk, I drive into a town called Ice River, which feels appropriately remote.
We grab some fast food and then stop at a grocery store to stock up on food and basic necessities.
Chicago goes on forever.
There’s no breathing space even in the suburbs.
But Ice River just ends.
One second we’re in town, passing an abandoned strip mall with boarded-up storefronts. The next, the buildings and the lights are dwindling away in the side mirror, and we’re cruising through forest and darkness, the headlights firing a cone of brilliance through a narrow corridor of tall pines that edge up close on either side of the road.
Pavement streams under the lights.
We pass no cars.
I take the third turnoff, 1.2 miles north of town, down a one-lane, snowy drive that winds through spruce and birch trees to the end of a small peninsula.
After several hundred yards, the headlights strike the front of a log house that seems to be exactly what I’m looking for.
Like most lakefront residences in this part of the state, it’s dark and appears uninhabited.
Shuttered for the season.
I pull the Cherokee to a stop in the circular drive and kill the engine.
It’s very dark, very quiet.
I look over at Daniela.
I say, “I know you don’t love the idea, but breaking in is less risky than actually creating a paper trail by renting some place.”
The whole way up from Chicago—six hours—she’s barely spoken.
As if in shock.
She says, “I get it. We’re way past breaking-and-entering at this point anyway, right?”
Opening the door, I step down into a foot of fresh snow.
The cold is sharp.
The air is still.
One of the bedroom windows isn’t latched, so I don’t even have to break glass.
We carry the plastic grocery bags up onto the covered porch.
It’s freezing inside.
I hit the lights.
Straight ahead, a staircase ascends into the darkness of the second floor.
Charlie says, “This place is gross.”
It isn’t gross so much as redolent of must and neglect.
A vacation home in the off-season.
We carry our bags into the kitchen and drop them on the counter and wander through the house.
The interior décor straddles the line of cozy and dated.
The appliances are old and white.
The linoleum floor in the kitchen is cracking, and the hardwood floors are scuffed and creaky.
In the living room, a largemouth bass is mounted over the brick hearth, and the walls are covered with fishing lures in frames—at least a hundred of them.
There’s a master bedroom downstairs and two bedrooms on the second floor, one of them crammed tight with triple bunk beds.
We eat Dairy Queen out of greasy paper bags.
The light above us throws a harsh, naked glare on the surface of the kitchen table, but the rest of the house stands dark.
The central heating struggles to warm the interior to a livable temperature.
Charlie looks cold.
Daniela is quiet, distant.
Like she’s caught in a slow free fall into some dark place.
She barely touches her food.
After dinner, Charlie and I bring in armloads of wood from the front porch, and I use our fast-food bags and an old newspaper to get the fire going.
The wood is dry and gray, several seasons old, and it quickly takes the flame.
Soon the walls of the living room are aglow.
Shadows flickering across the ceiling.
We fold down the sleeper sofa for Charlie and pull it close to the hearth.
Daniela goes to prepare our room.
I sit next to Charlie on the end of the mattress, letting the heat from the fire wash over me.
I say, “If you wake up in the night, throw an extra log on the fire. Maybe we can keep it going until morning, warm this place up.”
He kicks off his Chuck Taylors and pulls his arms out of the sleeves of his hoodie. As he crawls under the covers, it hits me that he’s fifteen years old now.
His birthday was October 21.
“Hey,” I say. He looks at me. “Happy birthday.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I missed it.”
“How was it?”