THERE ARE CERTAIN THINGS the mind cannot comprehend. People fall into the same routines of thinking day after day: toss an apple and it falls to the ground. Pick a flower and it withers. Fall asleep in your bed and wake there the next morning.
But this. This was like dropping an apple and having it fall toward the sun.
Cora Mason dug her hands against her temples to steady the churning sea between her ears. She’d woken in a foggy daze minutes ago—or maybe it was hours—in what seemed to be an endless desert. Her bedroom windows were now rust-red dunes rising in hundred-foot swells. Her arched ceiling was a cloudless sky. Her lamp was a blazing sun searing her skin.
It sure wasn’t Virginia.
And it wasn’t like any desert she’d ever heard of. This wasn’t cacti and thirsty clumps of dry grass. This was an impossibly vast smear of red as far as she could see.
Was she dreaming? In dreams, her mouth never felt this dry. When her father had first been elected senator, his security detail had trained Cora and her brother, Charlie, in what to do in the event of a kidnapping—stay in one place, don’t fight back, wait for help. But that had been a decade ago. She’d just barely started kindergarten. Did the same logic apply to a sixteen-year-old? There were no footsteps in the sand, no tire tracks, no indication at all of how she’d even gotten there.
A starburst of pain streaked through her head. She hissed, pressing her temples harder. Only moments ago, she’d been in a car with Charlie, her down-lined parka pulled tight against the cold, cranking the heat as they drove to a ski resort to meet their parents. She’d had her feet on the dash, scrawling lyrics in a notebook.
“What do you think of this line?” she had asked. “‘A stranger in my own life, a ghost behind my smile, not at home in paradise, not at home in hell’?”
Charlie grinned as he took a left into the resort. “Not bad,” he’d said, “but a senator’s daughter can’t sing songs about hell.”
Now, surrounded by sand, Cora felt panic clawing up her throat. She was supposed to be in that Jeep. She’d waited nearly two years for this. The four of them together as a family. No more custody battles. No politics and reporters. Just winter in Virginia. Parkas and snow. Her parents waiting with hot chocolate, not a couple anymore, but not bitter enemies either. She and Charlie had been close enough to see the resort over the next rise. Were her parents there, waiting, wondering how she’d vanished? Were they safe?
The breeze stung her eyes, carrying a strange smell—granite and ozone. As she scraped her tongue with her teeth, she could taste the smell in the back of her throat. It triggered another memory. A dream. Hazy images of a man’s handsome face—bronzed skin, heavy brows, closed eyes—that danced in the back of her mind like a will-o’-the-wisp. The dream beckoned her, but the more she reached for it, the further away it floated, his beauty always frustratingly out of reach. Was he someone real that she could meet, and touch, and speak to? Or had she been unconscious for so long that she’d dreamed of an angel?
Or . . .
Am I dead?
She hugged her legs close. Dead people didn’t sweat as much as she was. She was alive; she just had to figure out where. Stay in one place, the security guard had taught her. Wait for help. But if she stayed, she’d die of thirst or sunburn. She hugged her legs harder, fighting the urge to panic.
Count backward. Ten. Nine. Eight . . .
She forced herself to her feet. She’d find shade, or water, or some kind of town, and wait there for help.
Seven. Six . . .
She started walking. One more step after the last. One more dune after the last.
Panic lingered in her joints, making her feel loose and unhinged, like her legs might walk away from the rest of her body. The blazing sun dried her tears into salty crusts that she tasted each time she licked her lips. She shaded her eyes and squinted upward, hoping for a helicopter, but there was only an eerie quiet.
Where were her kidnappers? What was the point of leaving her in the middle of nowhere?
Five . . .
Ahead, the valley floor sloped sharply into a towering dune that was higher than all the others. She blinked up at the wall of sand, her body wobbling as she started to climb. Up, up, crawling more than walking, sliding back one step for every two forward. She brushed sweat off her forehead with her sleeve, then froze.
The clothes she was dressed in weren’t her own.
Her down parka and ski boots were gone. She was barefoot, with skinny black jeans and an oversized shirt for a band she’d never heard of, with thick black cuffs on each wrist. A punk look? She was more lace skirts and cotton dresses. The only concert she’d ever been to was her neighbor’s garage band, and she’d left with her hands over her ears after ten minutes.
Now, she ran the tissue-soft fabric between her fingers. A white strap flashed beneath it. She peeked down her collar, and fear bubbled up her throat. Beneath her clothes were a white camisole and white panties. Not hers. Whoever had put her here had first dressed her like a paper doll, and then left her for dead. Her stomach lurched at the thought of strangers’ hands all over her. But whose hands? Who would do this?
Don’t panic. Keep counting. Four . . .
She was unhurt, as far as she could tell, except for the sunburn. But would she stay that way? She needed her father’s security guards. Or Charlie. All those years when they were kids, while her dad worked in Washington and her mother slept half the day away, Charlie had looked out for her. He was the one person she could always rely on, if you didn’t count Sadie, which you couldn’t because she was a dog. He’d told her old episodes of Twilight Zone as bedtime stories. He’d taught her where to hide her lyric notebook from their snooping mother. And six months ago, he’d picked her up when she was released from Bay Pines juvenile detention facility. He’d even punched a reporter who shoved a microphone in her face and asked how an upstanding senator’s daughter went from straight As to eighteen months for manslaughter.
Three. Two . . .
She pawed at her necklace like a lifeline. It held a charm for each member of her family: a theater mask for her mom; a golf club for her dad; a tiny airplane for Charlie, who wanted to be a pilot. All she’d wanted was for them to be together again, as close as the clinking charms on her necklace. She’d been so near to the resort where they would all sip hot chocolate like a family again—but her fingers grazed only air.
The necklace was gone.
Sweat chilled on the back of her neck. She threw a glance over her shoulder, suddenly overtaken with the feeling that she was being followed, but the dunes were empty. Breathing harder, she climbed the final few feet to the top of the highest dune. Please, let there be a road. A telephone. A donkey. The only thing she desperately didn’t want to see was another dune, and another, and another, stretching forever.