Northern Minnesota. September 2001
He couldn’t get the word out of his head. Not since waking up two days before and turning on the news, the coffee he’d made untouched and cooling on the table beside his favorite chair. The images of the planes, the buildings, all the people covered in gray dust like funeral shrouds were ingrained in his mind’s eye. How human beings could do something like that to one another—
But Lucas Murdock stopped himself there. He knew how people could do such things. He’d seen it firsthand. Participated. There were no limits on human depravity, the only boundaries were the imagination.
Lucas sighed, reaching out to turn off the truck’s radio. Everything on the airwaves was about the attacks and he couldn’t absorb any more of the horror and anguish. It brought him ten years into the past to a desert with trenches carved into swaled dunes. To men screaming and being buried alive beneath armored bulldozers. That war had been about oil. The war that would come would be for revenge.
It was a warm day, gorgeously sunlit in a way he thought of as unique to Minnesota in the fall. The leaves weren’t quite ready to turn yet and the grass lining the dirt access road stood tall and unyielding to the gentle breeze.
Lucas guided the DNR vehicle around a turn, letting the air wash through the open window. Such quiet solitude here on state land. It was one of the many reasons he’d aimed his career trajectory toward the Department of Natural Resources after coming home from the Gulf. He liked being alone and much of his work kept him that way. But the isolation tended to follow him home and permeated the house he shared with Cindy, separating them with a divide he seemed to carry with him wherever he went.
A blue jay called loudly somewhere in the woods, making its voice heard even over the growl of the engine and steady crackle of gravel beneath the tires. Lucas let his mind settle into the groove of the workday, what his schedule looked like. A tree down across the road somewhere ahead had been reported by four-wheeler riders, and once that was done there was a beaver dam needing to be disassembled on a stream a dozen miles away. He could take his time, enjoy the sunshine that would soon become fleeting in the coming fall and winter. Let some of the hellish thoughts and reports fall away, at least for now.
As he rounded a sharp bend in the road the smell of smoke flowed into the cab and he wondered if it was his subconscious unwilling to let go of the vileness of the last forty-eight hours, since there was a burning ban on.
In the next moment he registered the girl walking down the center of the road and knew he was going to hit her.
Lucas yanked the wheel hard to the left, continuing the turn as the back of the truck slewed dangerously in the loose dirt. He tried tracking the girl as he skidded past, sure he would feel the solid thump of her body against the vehicle, but there was nothing.
The truck slid off the road, banging down hard into the shallow ditch before coming to a stop. The engine rattled, coughed, died.
Lucas vibrated with adrenaline, his hands scrabbling at the seatbelt release for infinitely long seconds before triggering it. Then he was out, boots and pants shushing through the long grass of the ditch, already preparing himself for what he would see on the road.
Blood. Bone. A ruined body that had held life only seconds ago.
But the girl was still upright, still walking down the middle of the road. Like she hadn’t even seen him.
“Hey!” It was all his mind produced to say. She didn’t pause or turn toward his voice. “Hey, where . . .” Lucas glanced in the direction she’d come from. No other vehicles, no people. Just the quiet sounds of the forest, unfazed and uninterested in the scene playing out on the road.
Lucas hurried up out of the ditch, tripping once on an errant tree branch before jogging to catch up to the girl. He reached out to touch her shoulder and stopped, unsure if she was injured or not. Instead he stepped around and into her path.
She was young, maybe in her early teens. Shoulder-length brown hair that had come partially loose from some kind of tie brushed her cheek and temple each time she took a step. Her face was dusted with soot and the insane notion that she was a survivor of the attacks in New York somehow transported here came and went. Her eyes were unfocused, so full of shock there was barely any life in them at all. He’d seen the look before on the battlefield, from trauma received and inflicted.
“Are you okay?” he asked as she neared him. When she said nothing and it was clear she wasn’t going to stop, he put his hands out and gently grasped her shoulders.
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