C H A P T E R
The rest stop off I-84 on the Oregon side of the Columbia River was vile, even by rest- stop standards. Graffiti covered the white subway- tile walls; the paper- towel and toilet- paper dispensers had been emptied, their contents now strewn on the concrete floor. Two of the metal stall doors were pulled off their top hinges and hung at odd angles. It smelled like a parking- garage stairwell, that peculiar marriage of urine and cement. Eighteen miles from the nearest bathroom, and they end up at a rest stop trashed by hooligans. There was no alternative. Amy put her hands on her hips and stared at her eleven- year- old daughter.
“Come on, Dakota,” she said.
Dakota’s blue eyes widened. “I’m not going in there,” she said.
This is what the whole road trip had been like. They had been making the annual drive up from Bakersfield to see Erik’s family in Hood River every summer since Dakota had been a toddler. She had always loved it. This year she had spent the whole trip texting friends and listening to her iPod. Maybe if Dakota hadn’t been such a little jackass for the last two days, Amy would have been more sympathetic.
“Just squat over the bowl,” Amy said.
Dakota bit her lip, leaving a glob of pink lip gloss on her front
tooth. “It’s gross,” she said.
“Want me to see if the men’s room is any better?” Amy asked.
Dakota’s cheeks flushed. “No way,” she said.
“You said you had to go,”
Amy said. In fact, after not going in the restaurant they had stopped at for dinner, Dakota had quickly begun insisting that her bladder was going to burst and that if it did she was going to use it to seek emancipated minor status under California law. Amy didn’t even know what the fuck that was, but it seemed serious. So here they were, at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere. There was a banging at the door.
“What are you guys doing inthere?” Erik called.
They were twenty minutes from his sister’s house. If they didn’t get there soon, Amy knew that Erik was going to lose it. He had already been white- knuckling the wheel for the past ten miles. Who was she kidding? She was the one who was going to
“She doesn’t want to use any of the toilets,” Amy called to her husband.
“Then come outside and go behind a tree,” Erik called back.
“Dad!” Dakota said.
Amy pushed open the door to the last stall. It was cleaner than the rest, or at least less filthy. Toilet paper in the dispenser. No visible human waste. That was a start.
“What about this one?” Amy asked her daughter. Dakota took a few tentative steps up behind her and peered into the toilet bowl.
“There’s something in there,” she said, pointing limply to the pale pink water in the bowl.
Amy didn’t have time to explain to her daughter the effect of beets on pee.
“Just flush it,” Amy said. She turned and walked over to the row of white sinks and waited. She heard the toilet flush and felt a little bit of the tension bleed from her shoulders. They would
be on the road soon. Erik’s sister would have wine waiting. Erik’s sister always had wine waiting.
“Mom?” Amy heard her daughter ask.
What now? Amy turned and saw her daughter standing in the stall, the
metal door swung open. Dakota’s face was white, blank, her hands balled into fists. The toilet was overflowing, water spilling over the lid onto the floor, forming a puddle that seemed to almost have a tide. Only there was something in the water. It swirled with veins of red. It looked almost menstrual. And for a second Amy thought, Did Dakota get her period?
The bloody water streaked down along the outside of the white toilet bowl, onto the floor, under Dakota’s sneakers, and toward where Amy stood frozen. There was something in the toilet, something that had bobbed to the surface and now sat at rim level. A piece of
something raw. Flesh. Like some maniac had skinned and drowned a rat. It sat on the edge of the bowl for a moment and then slopped onto the floor and slid forward, skimming Dakota’s sneaker and disappearing under the next stall. Dakota shrieked and scrambled forward out of the stall into Amy’s arms, not even looking back when her iPod slipped from her hands and landed at the base of the toilet with a deadening splash. Amy forced herself to swallow the warm saliva that rose in her throat, marshaling her will not to gag. It wasn’t a rat. It was definitely not a rat.
“Mom?” Dakota said.
“Yes?” Amy whispered. The iPod was still playing. Amy could hear some tinny pop song coming out of the half- submerged white earbuds. Then, just like that, it stopped.
“I don’t have to go to the bathroom anymore,” Dakota said.
C H A P T E R
Detective Henry Sobol lifted the evidence bag out of the rest- stop bathroom sink. The contents, four fistfuls of severed flesh, three of which had been plunged from the toilet, glistened under the clear plastic. It was heavier than it looked— dark, almost purple— and the large medallions of flesh were frayed, like they had been cut with a serrated blade. Blood and toilet water formed a triangle of pink juice at the corner of the bag. It didn’t have the sanitized look of the clean, plump, pink meat under Saran Wrap at the supermarket; something had been killed for this. Or someone had tried to make a kebab out of roadkill.
“Tell me again where you found this?” Henry said.
The state cop who’d called him stood next to Henry with his “Smokey Bear” hat in his hands. The bathroom’s fluorescent lights gave his skin a pale green sheen.
“The john,” the state trooper said, tilting his head toward an open stall.
“Got a nine- one- one call. Family reported some blood in the bathroom. I responded.” He shrugged.
“Plunged it. That came up.” Maybe it wasn’t the lighting, Henry thought. Maybe the trooper was green because he was sick to his stomach.
“You have to call him,” Claire said again.
Henry looked back up at the wall. Hundreds of tiny hearts, executed perfectly with what looked to be a red Sharpie. They covered everything, obliterated everything. The heart was Gretchen’s signature. She carved it on all of her victims. She’d carved it on Archie.
And now she was back.