When I Got Lost in the Woods, Almost Eaten Alive
Chapter One From My New Novel
I PEERED OUT A FROSTY WINDOW from the bar in the hotel on the hill above the Olympic Center, the highest point in Lake Placid. A snowstorm brewed on Whiteface Mountain in the High Peaks. Lights dotted the village like fairy dust — winked at me, put a spell on me. I picked up my glass and gulped a potent ale, concocted at a local brewery. A fire hissed in the thirty-foot-high, granite fireplace. A copper sculpture of a stag and his mate stood guard on a table in the middle of the room. The walls and the pitched-roof, made of peeled logs, formed a live shell, a forest lodge, a refuge from bad things that happen to creatures lost in the woods at night.
I was in Lake Placid for my boarding school’s reunion. It was after midnight, and everybody wanted to ski Whiteface the next day, so my former classmates downed a last shot and left the bar. Except Mark Sotto. And me.
I’d been in love with Mark since high school. We were dating now, kind of, in Boston, where we both lived. Often, after work we’d meet up at Daisy’s on Newbury Street, but I wasn’t sure where it was leading. I seemed to be holding onto a collection of random hook-ups.
“I miss skiing with ya, Francie. Those were good times, huh?” Mark said.
“Oh, yeah, I know. I miss those days, but can we talk about what’s going on now?”
He looked down at his pint. “What do you mean?”
“You know I’ve always loved everything about you.”
I treasured a picture of Mark and me at Whiteface from when we were in school. I kept it on my desk at work. Like a daredevil, like a heartbreaker, he had one arm around his K2s and one around me.
He slid over a seat, next to me.
I put my hand on his knee. “I think I’m in love with you.”
He shut his eyes, tilted his head back. “Oh, my god, Francie, you’re kidding.”
I pressed my cheek to his. He felt hot, tense, wild — like an animal. “Seems like there’s something real between us. You know, with a capital R.”
Shaking, breathing hard, he tapped my thigh. “I never thought you’d be long-term interested in someone like me.”
“I am. I want to have a relationship.”
“Well, we’ve been having fun, right?” he said.
I tugged on his hand and led him to the corner of the room, to the other side of the fireplace.
My feelings for him were eating me alive. In high school, I was more into figure skating, but I tried to keep up with Mark on the slopes. He’d explode down the mountain and spray me with snow, leaving me weak-kneed, sliding down an icy trail out of control, my hair matted with snow crystals. Or, we’d ski off trail into the forest and fool around. A hook-up. After he was gone, I’d sit on a rock underneath the dark emerald thatch of pine tree boughs, sheltered from the real world, and smoke a cig to regain my balance.
He blew out his knee on the icy backside of Whiteface our senior year and ruined his chances to ski the World Cup circuit. I blew out my heart.
I put my hand on his chest. “Remember those times in the woods? Back in school?”
“How could I forget?”
“Want to do it again for old times’ sake? See if we like it?”
“I know I’d like it.”
He glanced at the door, then back at me.
I linked my arms around his neck, closed my eyes, kissed him. He clenched his jaw and didn’t open his mouth, his lips a hard firm line. A nothing kiss. Like I’d never tasted. Confused, I stepped back.
He rubbed my upper arm. “Come on. I’ll walk you back to the hotel.”
Outside, in the snow, he held my hand while we hiked down the steep hill into town. Joy drunk I’d finally told him I was in love with him, I kept spilling my guts: “Why do I always want to sleep with you so badly?”
He smiled, shrugged.
“You think I’m sexy?” I said.
“I think you’re sexy as hell.”
We crossed Main Street, and I pressed on, looking for a reality check. “Wanna go dancing?”
I led him down the steps into Roomers, the club where we drank back in the day with fake IDs. I felt the bass thump of hip-hop, heard pool balls clack. We sat at a table near the bar, and he scoped out the room.
I grabbed his hand. “Come on.”
On the dance floor, he looped my arms around his neck, slipped his hands around my waist. I don’t know how long we danced like that, pressed together. A slow grind. Dizzy drunk, I felt him, wanted him so much . . .
He tapped my hip. “Let’s go. Get your purse.”
We walked down Main Street, headed to my hotel. Snow swirled in a wild white dance.
I had to know. So I told him again. “I love you.”
He looked sad. “Love you, too, Francie, but I gotta tell you I started seeing this girl.”
“Yeah, it’s kinda complicated.” Mark put his hands on my hips, pulled me close, and hugged me tight. Why?
I slapped him.
He rubbed his cheek. “I’m sorry.” Then he shoved his hands in his pockets and turned to go, but looked back over his shoulder. “See ya around.”
“Don’t count on it.”
Complicated? No, it wasn’t. More like end of story. The moral? Crystal in the frosty air.
I concentrated on putting one fur boot in front of the other down the snow-bound steps to the hotel’s parking lot, where I wandered around, shivering in my white parka, not wanting to go to my room alone.
Stunned, my heart a bloody mess, I lit a cig from my stash I kept for emergencies and sucked the nicotine. I bawled, emptying tears until my feelings bled out too. I looked down. Pieces of my heart littered a patch of dirty snow, gritty with car tracks. What a foolish woman I was. Self- harming. I always knew what Mark was like.
I stumbled to my room, where I took off all my clothes in the dark. Naked, I jerked back the curtains and looked out at Mirror Lake, which was frozen solid, covered in snow. I pictured myself: the Snow Queen gliding over the lake in a sleigh pulled by a white horse. I pictured Mark: under the ice in the freezing water in the middle of the lake, trapped, banging his fists on the underside of the slab. As if I’d pushed him in.
Next morning — packed up, skis loaded — I skipped the last day on Whiteface. I wanted to get back to Boston as quickly as I could. I didn’t want to see Mark again, didn’t want to ski with him ever again. And I couldn’t face my old classmates. They wouldn’t sympathize with me. They’d listened to all this before and would tell me how stupid I was — a stupid woman lost in the woods where very bad things happened indeed.
On my way out of town, I parked at the base of the Olympic Center beside the outdoor speed skating oval where Eric Heiden won five gold medals in the 1980 Winter Olympics. I had time for the public skate. I grabbed my skate bag out of the trunk, paid the admission, and laced up. A speed skater practiced his starts, while I practiced ice dances I’d learned in high school, fitting them into the mammoth track. I skated the patterns of the Argentine Tango, the Viennese Waltz, and the Midnight Blues in the falling snow, while teardrops, snowdrops, froze on my cheeks.
Off the ice, I drank a hot chocolate outside by the rink like Mark and I used to do until I couldn’t take being there anymore. I got in my car, hoping the trip through the snow-capped Adirondacks would cleanse me, maybe heal me. When I got out of town, on the two-lane, the scene morphed in my mind. The mountains, covered with slag heaps of snow, taunted me. Was I a slag? Or, did I just need an attitude adjustment?
About ten miles out of town, I pulled over by the side of the Ausable River at a trailhead, got out of the car, and walked out on the frozen river. I tested the ice near the middle of the flow. Would it hold? Would I fall in? Would I slip under the ice? I heard the water gurgle and bubble under the ice like the rage in my chest. Mark had been cheating on me all along. I felt so bad, like something had died, like I was never going to get my heart’s desire. Part of me wished he hadn’t told me, that we were going on as before, but then the murderous rage gripped my chest again as I watched a climber on the other side of the river grip the mountain face: a body, a heart versus a sheer wall of ice, hanging on for dear life.
Back in my car, I banged on the gas and swerved onto the mountain route to the Northway, thinking about how I’d murder Mark, how I’d get away with it. I could ask my da, who was the boss of the Irish Mob in South Boston. He’d make the arrangements. He’d put out a contract.
This excerpt is Chapter One of my new novel, Murder by the Book: A Boston Publishing House Mystery from Christopher Matthews Publishing in Boston. (Available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com)