Lana was “a bona fide mountain babe,” her father liked to say because she’d lived each day of her sixteen years at five thousand feet above sea level. The western slopes of the San Jacinto Mountains had kept her safe her whole life. She could count on one hand the number of times she’d been off the mountain. She was thinking about this while the ground beef sizzled on the stovetop. The windows were shut so the aroma wouldn’t attract coyotes, and the fan was moaning. Jessica Anderson, her best friend since they were two, invited Lana to go shopping with her and her mother at the Cabazon Outlets thirty miles away on Saturday, and Lana was hoping to use the recent coyote attacks to convince her father that it was less dangerous down there. The drought deteriorated prey abundance this spring, and the coyote population had overrun Idyllwild. They were having litters and out foraging for food to bring back to their pups. Lana waited to ask for his permission to go on the shopping trip until after he’d devoured his sloppy joe.
“We’ve talked about this,” he said and shook a greasy finger in her face. “You know what kind of people live in the flats.” His eyes grew sad and wet, which made Lana feel guilty for asking. Weeks ago he’d been called to tow a F-150 off Highway 111 near Gene Autry Trail, but when he arrived there were two bloodied bodies in the backseat, a man and a woman both shot in their chests. Lana loved her father and hated to see him so upset, especially since he worked two jobs to keep food on the table. Besides, arguing with him never got her anywhere. They ate the rest of their dinner in silence. “Stay in the house,” he said before slamming the front door and taking off in the tow truck. He would be early for the night shift.
Eight years ago, when Lana was eight, her mother met a man at a casino in the desert and left. The Morongo and Fantasy Springs were the two gambling dens Idyllwild parents spoke about most often. Even their names sounded like paradise. Lana’s mother would disappear for days, and when she finally stayed away for good it’d been unexpected. Lana could still feel the warmth of her mother’s body next to hers. She’d had long brown hair like Lana’s, and a low, soothing voice. She often sang Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star to Lana at bedtime. Lana could also still smell the booze on her mother’s breath, not that she understood what the stench was back then, and today she loathed being around people who were drinking. “She didn’t want to live here anymore,” Lana’s father had said last time Lana asked him to search for her in the desert. It was two years ago. “The heat’s brutal,” he’d said, and told her how lucky she was not to have to feel it.
Jess was sympathetic when Lana told her later that evening the trip to Cabazon was a no go. “That sucks,” she said, helping herself to a Diet Coke from Lana’s fridge. “At some point he has to let you go.”
Mrs. Anderson, though strict, had introduced Jess to real Thai and Mexican restaurants in Palm Desert with dishes more spicy then anything in Idyllwild. Jess had even been to San Diego and seen surfers in the ocean. It made Lana a little crazy. Lana had visited Joshua Tree National Park on a school fieldtrip, gawked at the churning windmills that padded Interstate 10, and slurped a famous date shake from Hadley’s, but she’d never been further away than Cabazon. She had listened to her best friend’s stories like she’d listened to Bible stories at the church they attended---carefully, as if her life depended on knowing the details. The one thing Lana would like to experience, the thing Jess, the only girl in town more pale and skinny than Lana, had told her about Los Angeles was the food trucks that lined the streets at lunchtime. Lana would love to order a taco or a burger from a truck. She imagined elves like in the commercials baking tiny cakes in Easy-Bake ovens in the bed of a truck her father’s and selling them out the window to smiling faces.
“Dad needs me here.” Lana said to Jess, who snorted and pulled out a baggie of pot. Unlike Lana, who had changed her clothes, Jess wore her Trinity uniform, with the shirt tied at the bottom to show a little skin. She must’ve gone straight from school to the general store in town where she sold gloves, trail mix, Band-Aids, and hot apple cider to tourists. Once the snow started falling, they would visit from LA or Orange County, wanting a taste of winter for a day. In addition to Trinity, Idyllwild also boasted the private arts academy a few miles up Temecula Road, where they held poetry readings on the first Friday of each month. Lana didn’t really get poetry, but she attended the events anyway to meet outside people. She pretended to her father that she was required to participate for school. There wasn’t any harm in it. She never had a coffee or dinner with anyone from the readings and was always home before he left for work. Last summer, she spoke with a gray-haired woman from Silver Lake, a famous novelist Lana had never heard of but, then again, she hadn’t heard of a lot of people. Another time, she met a girl from Portland with tattoos like sleeves down her arms, and Lana thought she might like to get a tattoo of a bird.
Sometimes the academy’s high school students would travel to town for dorm supplies like posters and wool blankets, or just to get out and eat at a cafe. Lana had asked her father if she could apply for an afterschool job waitressing. “Dads work and daughters go to school,” he’d said, and Lana knew he was afraid she’d fall in love with an outside person, get married, and leave him alone on the mountain. She imagined her father driving the tow truck on unnamed roads, its massive headlights glaring, while he shouted her name. It made Lana feel ungrateful, so she always went home after school. She remembered the moment he realized her mother wasn’t coming back. He went to her closet, stuffed the clothes and shoes into garbage bags, and heaved them into the truck and drove away. Since then, he’d ensured everything Lana needed was right here.
The girls baked frozen Toll House chocolate chip cookies, scenting the house with buttery sweetness, and took them out to the picnic table on the patio. Lana flicked on the backyard lights, their glow extending into the yard, faintly illuminating the giant green firs that lined the forest. When she was younger Lana liked to think of those fir trees as her own army of soldiers, and as she rode the ATV across the lawn she would command them to “march” or “fire.” Her father had bought the two-acre property long before Lana was born, before it was just the two of them. She inhaled the intense smell of pine, then ruined the fresh air by lighting a Citronella candle to shoo away the mosquitos. In the distance she noticed a family of black and white coons, the parents the size of bear cubs, bustle down a wide oak and then slink into the woodland.
“Look at the size of those raccoons,” she said and pointed, but Jess was too busy rolling a joint over Lana’s Cosmo magazine so that the marijuana leaves wouldn’t get lost between the wood planks. The article she had turned to read: “A Hundred Ways to Please Your Guy.” Billy had kissed Lana on the bus once but that was more than three years ago. Kissing was something everyone did by eighth grade. Jess and her boyfriend Ty had tried “everything besides sex,” but Lana had never had a boyfriend. Billy dated Christine now, and the other guys were more like brothers to Lana. They had attended school and church together all their lives. There were only twelve students total in their senior class.
School was depressing. Their time at Trinity was almost up but nothing would change. Jess would continue working at the general store, and Lana would sign up for online classes. Neither of them would move away from home. Of course, they’d fantasized about leaving. They’d share an apartment on the beach, be roomies, smoke whenever they felt like it, and have boys over, but it was a hazy pipedream. They didn’t have the money. Lana’s father wanted her to live with him forever. They passed the joint back and forth until it cashed and then they gobbled cookies. Something yowled in the distance. Lana stood and walked to the patio’s edge to peer into the backyard, where she saw the outline of an animal popping out from behind her fir tree soldiers. From where they sat it looked too big to be a coyote. If it were a bobcat or mountain lion, they should go inside. Those things had teeth that could rip a girl in half.
“What is it?” Jess said, looking out.
Lana pointed. A large coyote pranced a few yards away. It was out in the open, close to the patio, its rear toward the yellow stars and white moon. It clenched a small animal in its jaws. “Go! Get!” she growled in her most barbaric voice, hoping to frighten it away. Her father had taught her to make loud noises and wild gestures with her arms and legs, and even to throw sticks and rocks at coyotes -- they were easily spooked.
“What’s in its mouth?” Jess said, just before she shrieked.
Lana grunted. “It’s all bloody.”
“It’s a baby!” Jess said.
Lana squinted. “A baby?” For real? From the look on Jess’s face it was. Lana ran into the yard. Since the neighbors had been extra vigilant, not walking their dogs at dusk and responsibly disposing of trash, Lana couldn’t fathom who would’ve left an infant outside unsupervised. Who’d be that stupid? She raced through the lawn, the ground suctioning her footsteps. Lightening bugs scattered like fireworks.
“What are you doing?” Jess said. “Stop!”
Lana halted at their property line. Her cheeks were hot and her lungs hurt from smoking and running. Chasing a coyote wouldn’t make it sit and surrender, but she’d hoped it would drop whatever was in its mouth. It disappeared behind the trees. The branches, their needles, and the wind created restless shadows. Her father had warned her that the forest creatures weren’t created to be kind. She turned around to see Jess jumping up and down by the picnic table, waving her arms, her short blond hair bopping with her. A stick crunched beneath Lana’s sneakers and she stumbled in the dim moonlight. To be small and alone like that baby, if it really was a baby. But she couldn’t know for certain. The coyote and its prey were already gone.
Before going back to the house, Lana pictured the baby on the forest floor face up on a bed of pine needles. The baby’s eyes would be closed. She’d lift it, cradle it in her arms, and carry it into the house. She’d rinse it in the kitchen sink and wrap it in a towel. She’d sing it the song about the stars and the moon.
Jess was pacing the kitchen and talking on the landline when Lana slid open the glass door. “Here she is,” Jess said to the person on the other end. She disentangled herself from the old-fashioned cord and hung up.
“I called Tyler. He was about to drive all the way over here. What were you thinking?” Jess’s hands were on her hips. She was the only person on the mountain who called Ty Tyler. “He said it was probably nothing. You shouldn’t have gone after it. I thought you’d get bit or worse.”
“I’m okay,” Lana said and picked up the phone and dialed 911. She told the operator about the baby. She hung up and took a deep breath. Maybe they’d invented the baby; they were pretty high. They’d have to hide that fact from the police. They had exactly fifteen minutes. That was how long it took to drive from the precinct to Lana’s house. Clean up. Slow down. Nothing wrong here. Lana sealed the rest of the cookies in a container and scrubbed the sheet pans and spatula, while Jess wiped the counters with Windex. Lana checked that the oven was off. Maybe she should get in touch with her father. But he’d be on the road towing cars and who knew how many miles out he’d be?
Lana was lucky to have a loving father who kept her safe, but she didn’t see herself the same way he did. She wasn’t meant to live in Idyllwild forever. She didn’t want to be that girl – the one who never left. She could get a waitressing job in Palm Springs or work at a coffee shop or a hair salon at a resort in La Quinta or Palm Desert. She’d do manicures. She’d always paint inside the lines. She could learn how to cut hair and wax eyebrows. Jess could teach her how to work a register. She’d make enough money to rent a little casita on a golf course. She might start jogging and learn how to play tennis. She felt the hairs on her arms stand up. Maybe they’d hire her at the Nike outlet in Cabazon and she could wear their sneakers. She’d meet new people. She’d look up her mother.
Next spring, she would attend the Stagecoach music festival and hear Brad Paisley and Blake Shelton sing songs about drinking and failed romances. She’d wear a wide-brimmed cowgirl hat and fringed brown suede jacket, like the one Mrs. Anderson bought at a vintage clothing store on Highway 111. She had worn it to the October Fest fundraiser at church and wouldn’t let Jess borrow it. Jess would be so envious of Lana’s new clothes and things. Lana would take the Andersons for Mexican food whenever they drove down the mountain.
She’d make her way to Los Angeles. She’d figure out when to go to avoid the traffic and which onramps had the best fruit stands. She would stroll up Melrose Avenue, buy a wallet chain, drink an expensive latte, and get that tattoo. Maybe she would ask for the outline of a palm tree to be drawn on her forearm, so she could always see it. She’d go to Venice Beach, watch skateboarders in the park, and walk barefoot on the sand. The hot sun would redden her neck and she’d love it. It would feel warm and comforting, like a soft blanket. She might even learn how to surf. She’d eat fish tacos off a truck. They’d taste salty and sweet, like paradise.
The doorbell rang. Lana walked through the living room to the front door. Jess sat on the couch and hugged her knees to her chest.
Lana sighed and peered out the peephole. Two cops stood on the stoop, badges pinned on their chests. One of them was Craig Thompson, who had graduated two years ago. She didn’t know him know him, but his father and his older brother, Kyle, were on the force too. The other cop was new, from who knew where. She was used to recognizing everybody on this side of the mountain. He was shorter than Craig and had lots of freckles on his face like the sun hated him. He wiped his feet on the welcome mat before entering, and said his name was Vince.
“Are you certain it was a human?” Vince asked.
“I thought it was. Jess saw it too,” Lana said.
“It was dark,” Jess added. She got up and stood next to Lana. Lana liked that she was inches taller than Jess.
Lana gestured toward the backdoor. “It went that way, but I lost it.” The screeching noise coyotes made to celebrate a kill echoed in her head. She’d heard it many times this season. How many pets had vanished? “Maybe it had someone’s dog or cat.”
Vince faced Jess. “The thing in its mouth, what did it look like?”
“It was small and pinkish, like bloody.” Jess shook her hands like she was grossed out, then hugged her arms tight to her chest. “Tyler said it was probably nothing, but I don’t know. I thought it was a baby.”
“Is Ty here?” Craig said.
Jess shook her head and looked down.
Lana rubbed Jess’s arm. “It’s going to be okay.”
All four of them headed for the area where Lana last saw the coyote. After checking the yard for a blood trail and finding nothing, Vince and Craig agreed to split up. Vince would take the car and scan the roadside, and Craig would continue walking the immediate premises, stay on the grounds, and keep watch. Those were his words.
“Where can I take a leak?” Craig said.
Lana pointed the way to the bathroom.
After Craig was in the bathroom and Vince had driven off in the patrol car, Jess quietly motioned to Lana and mouthed the words “Craig Thompson.”
Lana put her hand over her mouth to silence her giggling, then removed it quickly. The baby was no laughing matter. Yet she knew what Jess meant. They couldn’t believe Craig was in this house. He had dated their older friend Stacy, Idyllwild’s one and only beauty queen, who had ridden a float in a parade in Indio. Lana was just Lana.
“I have to be home before ten or my mom will freak out,” Jess said.
Lana hugged her. “It’s fine. These guys know what they’re doing.” She stood in the kitchen and watched Jess’s headlights recede into the darkness.
“How’s Trinity?” she heard behind her. In the kitchen doorway stood Craig, his hands in his pockets. He’d taken off his blue hat and his towhead hair needed combing.
“I’m graduating in May, so great,” Lana said.
“You look younger,” he said. “What’s your game plan? COD?”
Many Trinity grads went to College of the Desert in Palm Desert. “I wish. I don’t have a car,” she said. “I’ll take classes online. I might want to be a nurse.”
“Ol’ Yeller still kickin’?” It was an old joke. Mr. McCarthy was too old to be teaching high school Algebra.
Lana leaned against the countertop. “Whose baby do you think it is?”
“Probably not a baby,” he said. “You’re stoned.”
Lana shook her head.
“I can smell it.” His expression made Lana nervous. He looked serious.
“It was a baby. I wouldn’t have called 911 if it wasn’t,” she said.
“Jess get the weed from her loser boyfriend? I should go arrest him right now.”
“No. She’s my best friend,” Lana said.
“Does your dad know you smoke?” Craig asked.
“We made chocolate chip cookies. Want one?” Lana reached for the container and set it down closer to Craig.
He smiled, revealing the dimples that had helped make him so popular at Trinity. He didn’t take a cookie. “I’m not going to rat you out, but you could use some drops.” He pointed to his own eyes.
Heat rising in her face, Lana excused herself to the bathroom to find the Visine. She saw her reflection in the mirror above the sink. Craig was correct–-her eyes were red. She squeezed the liquid in her eyes and it stung like punishment. When she opened the door, Craig was there, standing in front of her, his wide chest pushing past the doorframe.
She took a step back. “What?”
“May I have a glass of water?” he asked.
“Help yourself,” Lana said. She thought it was weird that he didn’t help himself to a glass in the kitchen. She would have.
“I don’t want to be rude,” he said.
Lana nodded. He shifted just enough so she had to brush up against him when she squeezed by. Maybe she should call her father, tell him what was happening with the cops and Craig and the coyote with the baby in its mouth, but she assumed this would be over soon and there wouldn’t be a reason to take him off the job. She took a glass from the cabinet, inspected it for soap spots, and filled it with cool tap water.
“Do you ever see Stacy?” Craig said. Their fingers touched when he took the glass. Lana looked away. Stacy was newly married to Mike Jones and waitressed at La Bella, an Italian restaurant on the main drag, while Mike taught elementary school PE. She had quit hanging out with Jess and Lana. She was too good for them now.
“She’s never around these days.” Lana’s eyes had stopped stinging but her head still buzzed. She crossed her arms and tried to focus on Craig, who wiped the water off his lip with his sleeve.
“You know she screwed Ty a week after we split? She is such a cunt,” he said.
“Language,” Lana said, but understood how it made him angry. “Shouldn’t you be looking around outside?”
Craig unclipped the Walkie Talkie from his belt, shook it. “I’d have gotten a call about a missing baby. Don’t you think there’d be a mother crying?” He put the glass in the sink. “Maybe it was a possum or a rat.”
Lana pictured the raccoons. Was it? “I saw it with my own eyes.”
“You have beautiful eyes,” Craig said.
It was a cheesy thing to say, but she blushed anyway. She couldn’t help it. As soon as she felt the blood fill her cheeks, she knew it was the wrong reaction. Craig stepped closer. He was thick, like all the men on the mountain. The weight of him pinned her against the wall by the warm oven. Before she could speak, his mouth closed on hers, and he sucked, kissing his way, his tongue thick and dry and hot and tasting like tuna fish.
This couldn’t be happening. Not with Craig Thompson. She moaned, irritated not pleased. If only he’d slow down. He toppled her to the hard kitchen floor, her spine pressed into the yellow flowered tiles, his chest weighing her down like a sandbag. “Wait,” she said, but he reached under the elastic waistband on her bottoms. His fingers shoved inside her even as she struggled to push him away. He must’ve thought she was enjoying it. He was used to girls coming on to him, but his nails were too long and tore her flesh. She’d never done this before. She wanted to tell him. Her insides felt like they were on fire. She gritted her teeth. This was Craig Thompson. Craig. Thompson. Would he tease her if there was blood? She said “No” and “Stop,” but he wasn’t listening.
A car honked in the driveway. Craig opened his eyes and looked at her, like they were in it together. He smiled with those dimples. “I have to go. I’ll call you.”
Should she speak, smile or cry? She stayed down, rolled to her side, and stared at the crease where the linoleum met the wall. The paint was chipped. She waited to hear the front door close and latch, and then curled into a shivering ball. Her cheeks were wet. What he’d done was wrong. It had been like she was there but not really. But she couldn’t tell anyone. If she called the police Craig might hear the call on his Walkie Talkie, deny it. Say she was on drugs. In the morning, she could confide in Jess. But Jess might tell her own mother, who would tell Lana’s father, but look at everything he’d done her whole life to protect her, to keep her safe on this mountain. It would make him nuts, to know all his efforts hadn’t worked. He’d probably drive the tow truck across town to the police precinct and open fire with his twelve-gauge shotgun. Craig would die and her father would go to prison, or they’d kill him.
She wanted to lie there forever, but her father might come home and discover her on the floor, ask what she was doing, so she got up. Craig should have told her what he was going to do and quit when it hurt. Maybe she should’ve told him afterwards that she wouldn’t have done more than kiss him, had he given her a choice.
In the bathroom she peeled off her tights and underwear, ran them under the sink with hot water, like she did whenever she’d had a period accident. She turned on the shower and climbed in. She scrubbed her thighs with soap and examined the dirty suds whirling down the drain. In her mind, Lana slid the backdoor open and stepped onto the porch. She had stuffed her backpack with a change of clothes, apples, string cheese, the container of cookies, and bottles of water. Her wallet had money in it. She carried her father’s shotgun. He’d taught her how to load it, take it off the safety, and fire a straight shot, but she wasn’t to touch it unless it was an absolute emergency. Unless it was necessary in order to save a life. She snaked through the trees. Soldiers serve and protect; they were just old firs. “Where are you?” Lana whispered, careful not to make too much noise. She turned the dial all the way to the left and allowed the hot water to scald her skin. The pain was endurable. A lifetime on the mountain had made her hardy. She followed a stench so potent she didn’t have a name for it, until she encountered the coyote’s den. It hissed -- she could almost hear it. She moved nearer and it didn’t run away. Up close, the coyote resembled a small German shepherd with a bushy tail and long snout. She swore it laughed at her. She saw its teeth. “What’s so funny,” Lana said as she braced the handle of the shotgun against her shoulder and aimed. Her fears didn’t paralyze her. She jerked the bolt handle back and a bullet fell into the chamber.
She snapped out of it when she heard the phone ringing. She shut off the water. It might’ve been Jess on the other end of the line, wondering what happened with the baby, or maybe it was her father saying goodnight. She reached for the towel on the rack and began drying herself off before she realized it was the same towel Craig had used to dry his hands. She screamed until her throat was tender. No one would understand why Lana disappeared. Her father would spend the rest of his life looking for her. Some people would believe she was dead. Eventually, she’d be forgotten. To Lana, her voice was the sound of the bullet resonating over the mountain, and she’d already be in the desert before the rescue team came searching for her.