The plane landed fifteen minutes late. Sadie Sauer strained to look around the passenger in the window seat, but his head blocked most of the tiny window. As the plane taxied toward the gate, she could see prairie grass and industrial buildings. Not impressed.
At first it had been exciting—this chance to move far away, somewhere so different from the city, but as the expected departure day drew nearer, Sadie’s stomach recogized her fear long before her brain. She’d been holed up in the bathroom for the third day when Rhonda, her guardian —or roommate, as Sadie had long thought of her—asked her if she’d caught a bug. Sadie said yes. Out came the disinfectant and in went Sadie, quarantined to her bedroom.
After an excrutiatingly long wait at the carousel, surrounded by people reuniting with friends and families, Sadie exited the tiny airport, dragging the suitcase her father had bought her when she turned twelve for a trip they never took. Cow manure and exhaust soured the air. Cars lined the curb, not the newer-model sedans and SUVs and yellow taxis she was used to, but minivans with duct- taped fenders, outdated Oldsmobiles and Chevys with mismatched doors, and pickup trucks. So many pickup trucks. Enormous six-wheelers that rumbled diesel and dwarfed the single cabs idling next to them. Double cabs that had seen better days and even the disembodied tractor of a semi-truck.
Sadie had expected hicks, but now that she was here, surrounded by them, she couldn’t help but wonder if she’d made the right decision.
All day she’d kept the fear at bay. She’d woken up and gone through the motions. Brush teeth. Shower. Apply makeup. Her best A-line dress, black, of course. Paired with a dark red lace underskirt. Black spiderwebbed hose. Her favorite lace-up boots that came to just below her knees.
She’d refused to give in to the nerves eating away at her stomach. This was, after all, the better option. Leave now or get stuck in the city at a dead-end, state-granted job, barely making rent, until she got pregnant or died.
OK, so maybe not the better option.
Mrs. Nguyen, the social worker from hell, had told Sadie to look for a young woman “about your age” with bobbed brown hair.
“We’ll make sure she has a sign with your name on it,” Mrs. Nguyen had said through a fake smile.
Sadie surveyed the sea of plaid and beige and Carhartt. None of these people were anywhere near her age. And no one held a sign.
A newer-model Dodge, white and chrome, rumbled down the lane between the tractor and a maroon Ford. It lurched to a stop several car lengths away, and a boy, maybe her age, hopped out of its cab. He wore the customary plaid jacket, tight jeans, and cowboy boots. His brown hair was well trimmed, if a little boring.
The boy in plaid pulled a rolled-up sheet of paper from his back pocket.
He unrolled it and held it before him, upside down. Sadie Sauer scrawled in black marker.
Oh double no.
His eyes landed on her, and Sadie saw the blink of surprise as he took her in. In the city, black had kept people at bay. They averted their eyes, gave her space. Here, among the colorful plaid flannel, Sadie stood out like rot on an apple.
The boy raised a hand in an awkward wave then marched across the road toward her.
This was it. No turning back now.
“How’d you know?”
“They said you’d be our age, dressed in black.”
“I thought a girl was supposed to pick me up.”
“I’m Nathan.” The boy moved his jaw and spit.
Sadie stared at the wad of spit on the sidewalk. “That’s disgusting.”
“Ain’t chew.” He smiled wide and pushed a wad of pink bubblegum against his teeth. “I guess it’s gross all the same if you ain’t used to it.”
He turned back to the truck. Sadie saw a round impression against one pocket of his too-tight jeans. She let slip a small smile. The summer she was six, she’d been obsessed with Bubble Tape after a girl she thought had been her friend told her it was cool.
“Hey’a, Natty,” a middle-aged man with a heavy beard called out.
“Hey, Jim,” Nathan said with an abortive wave.
“You still with Lester’s?”
“Nah, I got a job over at Nightfall workin’ for Alex.”
Jim’s eyes flicked to Sadie. His eyes were wet, and his lips too full in the hairless space around his mouth. “You must be the new girl.”
“I guess,” Sadie said, pulling her shoulders back, her spine straight. It was a defense mechanism her therapist, Dr. Leib, had taught her to make herself feel less vulnerable.
A wilted flower is picked. An upright flower is admired.
A dumb analogy but the mechanism worked most of the time.
Jim held out a thick-fingered, dirty hand. “I’m Jim Hanks. You ever need anything, you jus’ let me know.”
Sadie took his hand without bothering to hide her grimace.
“Alex will want his truck back,” Nathan said.
“’Course.” Jim looked over Sadie’s head. “I best go see what’s keeping Darla anyway.”
Nathan reached for her suitcase. Sadie pulled it closer.
“I was just going to throw it in the back,” Nathan said, his cheeks growing red.
“Oh. Yeah. Right.” She rolled it over to him. As he took the handle from her, their hands touched. His skin was rough and for a moment, she imagined what it would feel like for hands like that to touch her. About as different from Tony’s soft, city-boy hands as you could get.
“Your skin is really dry,” she said to cover the uncomfort- able warmth spreading from her abdomen.
Nathan lifted the suitcase into the truck’s bed. “That’s what my mom says too.” He opened the passenger door for her.
The part of Sadie that believed in a woman’s right to equality drew back at the gesture, but another part of her— one she didn’t like to admit existed—thought it was kinda sweet.
The interior of the truck smelled of synthetic pine from three pine-tree air fresheners dangling from the rearview mirror. A camo cover blanketed the bucket seat. It matched the facade of the custom stereo in the dash.
“That was Ava who was supposed to come get you,” Nathan said, sliding in the driver’s side. Though he was a foot taller than Sadie, he looked small behind the wheel of the lifted Ram. “But her pa is in town. He works over in the oil fields.”
The truck roared to life. Twangbanger music blasted from the speakers. Nathan slapped at the stereo until the music turned off.
“Sorry,” he said, “I ain’t got speakers as nice as these. Carey’s twenty-five minutes east, then Nightfall’s another five or so through town.”
Nightfall. The name had been what had drawn Sadie to the job listing. Help Needed at Nightfall Ranch. Nightfall. It rang through her mind like a bell tolling her destiny.
“It’s like it was meant for you,” Tanya had said when Sadie called to get her opinion. Tanya was a thousand miles away, but Sadie could still see her dark purple lips and matching eyeshadow as though she were sitting across from her.
“What does Rhonda think?”
“I haven’t told her yet.”
“And she’s still going to France?” “Yep.”
“Then I think you should do it.” Through the phone, Sadie could hear Tanya’s stepfather’s wiener dogs yapping.
“But Montana? It’s so far away.”
“It’s twangbanger territory for sure,” Tanya said. “You get a place to live? For free?”
“That’s what it says.”
“I think it’s a no-brainer, Sade. You can always do it for a few months then go somewhere else. At least you won’t be in a mosquito-infested geriatric paradise.”
And so Sadie had made her choice. Nightfall Ranch accepted her application shortly after graduation, and Mrs. Nguyen, who had to facilitate things until Sadie turned eighteen in July, helped her “get her affairs in order” like she was dying. Four months later, here she was.
The road from the airport opened onto a stretch of road with fields of grain on either side. The truck rolled up and down hills while fields stretched as far as the eye could see. Some fields were cultivated, others left barren for the cows, which spotted the landscape in silhouettes. There were old barns collapsing on themselves and broken-down houses that looked abandoned but for the lights that burned in the windows as the sunlight dimmed.
In the distance, blocky plateaus broke the flat landscape, but there were no mountains. She’d expected mountains. Every image she’d ever seen of Montana had included mountains. Granaries and steel-walled warehouses littered with rusting farm equipment soon gave way to rusting cars in driveways of houses with ancient children’s toys scattered in yards of dead grass.
Now Entering Carey, Montana, proclaimed a sign shot through with bullet holes. Population 4,267.
A brightly lit Town Pump welcomed drivers on the edge of what proved to be “downtown,” although Sadie had a hard time calling it that. Brick buildings not more than four stories high with old west facades straight out of Hollywood, well-kept sidewalks and stores selling novelties to tourists, a lawyer’s office, a tiny hotel, several bars. Two stoplights.
“Carey has more bars than churches,” Nathan said with neither pride nor disgust.
Sadie could see the spires of at least three churches over the tops of the buildings, down roads lined with houses in various states of decay. A fourth church, Carey’s first by the looks of it, stood next to the domed town hall right off the main street.
They passed a park with genuine metal play equipment instead of the colorful plastic things Sadie was used to. A woman nested a screaming baby on her hip while two other children ran circles in the mulch around the merry-go- round. Sadie couldn’t imagine growing up here, living here, loving here.
“You probably don’t like cotton-pickin’, chicken-pluckin’ music, do ya?” Nathan’s voice startled her.
“You like devil music?” He eyed the twisted metal charm that hung from her choker. Tanya had made it in metal- working class while Sadie had been sewing too-big pajama pants and cooking dry casseroles in home ec, thanks to Mrs. Nguyen’s endless meddling.
“Yes,” she said, hoping to scare him into not talking to her for the rest of the drive.
“I got into Metallica a few years ago,” he said. “Their new stuff more than their old. But I always come back to Garth.”
She, too, had liked Metallica at one time but had moved on to more contemporary bands such as Five Finger Death Punch and Avenged Sevenfold. Not exactly “devil music” but close enough.
“The problem with places like Carey,” Nathan contin- ued, “is we don’t get more than a few radio stations. We can pick up some from Glendive and Miles City, but even those are chicken-pluckin’.”
She turned back to the window. They had left down- town. That hadn’t taken long.
“The highways from Billings and Jordan connect here,” Nathan said as they drove through a four-way intersection with flashing yellow lights. “Takes you all the way to the oil fields in North Dakota. That’s the school.” He pointed to a squat building with a huge parking lot and a really nice football stadium complete with overhead lights. “I gradu- ated last year. And I don’t ever want to go back.”
It was a joke, but Sadie didn’t laugh. She was staring at a rapidly approaching sign lit brightly in the oncoming dark- ness. Her stomach twinged.
Nightfall Quick Stop.
Sadie heard Tanya’s voice. You can always do it for a few months then go somewhere else.
But the truth of it was, Sadie had nowhere else to go.
Nathan turned in to the parking lot at 6:42 p.m. Nightfall Quick Stop was a strange amalgamation of new and old. Sadie had seen pictures of it online, but they hadn’t prepared her for the stark difference between the old, wooden building that had been converted to a convenience store for the truckers passing through and the rows of shiny new gas pumps out front, with more around the side spaced for semi-trucks. Peeking over the top of the old building was a steel hanger with a sign just visible that read Drive-Through Feed. Several vehicles, mostly trucks, had parked in front of the building. Nathan tucked the truck in among them.
“Your place is over there,” Nathan said, indicating a small cement building tucked into the shadows. “Alex converted it to an apartment when he hired help. It ain’t much but it’s got running water and a heater and a camp stove.”
Sadie felt the knot of unease loosen a fraction. Her own place. She would’ve taken a tent if it had meant being on her own, really on her own. No Rhonda to give her disapproving looks or irritated sighs when Sadie required an unexpected doctor’s visit or school supplies or tampons or bras. No more Jenny Craig meals that tasted like plastic. No more having to clean house to Rhonda’s impossible standards.
“You coming?” Nathan had one foot out the truck’s door.
Sadie jumped the couple of feet to the ground. The air smelled of dirt and diesel and cow shit.
Nathan’s boots clapped across the pavement, and Sadie thought of cowboys in the old westerns Sadie had some- times watched with her father. Sadie’s boots, on the other hand, clunked heavily like Frankenstein’s, the buckles jangling against one another in a very city way.
She could hear voices inside the store. She tugged at her clothes, suddenly uncomfortable. Her boots pinched her toes, her hair—dyed black and purple to match her lip gloss —itched her skull. This may have been a terrible mistake.
Nathan opened the door, a bell tinkled, and the voices grew louder. He held it and gestured for her to go first. His smile, sweet and warm and not at all embarrassed to have collected a freak from the airport, was the only thing that kept Sadie from turning back to the truck and insisting she be returned to the airport.
She straightened her shoulders, tucked her hair behind her ears, and stepped inside. The place was more like a city convenience store than the facade would have you believe. Rows of shoulder-height shelves filled with everything you’d expect: food, diapers, single-serving aspirins and ibuprofens, chips, candy, candy, and more candy. Along the back wall, coolers hummed around brightly colored bottles of cold drinks. To her left, cases of beer rose in a pyramid, the logos of football teams plastered across the boxes. A single counter along her right, its surface covered in candies and phone cards and gum, bracketed a wall of tobacco products and advertisements. An old whiteboard behind the register gave the prices for various kinds of feed. Stuck to its bottom with tape was a handwritten piece of paper that read, Pay here FIRST.
A tall man in a baseball cap and a button-down shirt more suited to the big city than the countryside stood behind the counter. Four other hard-faced men stood on the other side, their faces grim. A girl Sadie’s age (Ava, maybe?) clasped the hand of a man who looked so much like her, he could only be her father.
“There she is!” the man behind the counter cried.
The ball-capped man swung open a hinged door on the counter and stepped out to greet her. Sadie watched him for any hesitation, used to people not wanting to get too close, but there was none of that. He strode forward, smiling. He was more handsome that she’d expected. Blue eyes, scruff tinged in gray, skin the color of mahogany.
“I’m Alex. You must be Sadie?”
She nodded, unable to get her voice to work. She shook his hand, its skin rough and hard.
“Welcome to Nightfall.” Then to Nathan, “Thanks for collecting her, Nate. My truck survive?”
“Yes, sir.” Nathan wouldn’t meet Alex’s eyes.
Alex put an arm around Sadie’s shoulders. Sadie tensed but allowed herself to be dragged further into the store. “Guys, this is Sadie Sauer, my new hire. She’s from Cleveland.”
There were various words of welcome and polite intrigue. Then the man holding the girl’s hand stepped forward.
“I’m Ned.” He hooked a thumb at Alex. “This guy’s brother.” While not as handsome as Alex, Ned had the same blue eyes and a bearing about him that bespoke all things fatherly. “And this is Ava.”
Ava hooked a thumb at Ned. “This guy’s daughter.” Everyone laughed. Sadie fought an eye roll.
Ava was country-girl pretty. She had a round face; big, brown eyes; a tiny nose; and soft lips. A widow’s peak in the middle of her forehead lent a certain ferocity to her other- wise demure appearance. She had long brown hair pulled back into a braid and wore jeans with a faded white T-shirt. The ubiquitous flannel was tied about her waist.
“I like your hair.” She said it in a way Sadie knew meant the exact opposite. Her eyes slid across Sadie’s body. “You always wear black?”
“Only when the sun’s out.”
Nathan laughed. Ava’s fake smile faltered. Sadie smiled to herself.
“Don’t know if Nathan told you,” Ned said, “but Carey has been in a bit of disarray lately. One of our own has gone missing. It’s the reason behind this meeting here. Although . . .” He glanced at the three other men. “I will say it’s dropped off a bit, the longer it’s gone on.”
“People’ve got lives, Ned,” Alex said. “You can’t expect them to spend them searching.”
“She was fifteen, Alex.” This was an argument they’d had before. “Tupello is beside herself.”
Alex gave his brother a pitying look that, had he been her brother, Sadie would’ve hated. And by the look on Ned’s face, he didn’t much like it either. “And she has every right to be. But we can’t keep looking. The police—”
“Aren’t doin’ shit.” Ned’s voice cracked. He glanced at Nathan. “No disrespect to your father.”
Nathan took a step so the backs of his legs pushed up against the newspaper stands by the door. Sadie could tell he was struggling to keep his expression neutral. Flashes of irritation bloomed despite his efforts.
A cop’s son. Sadie hadn’t known any kids whose parents were cops. In Cleveland, that was information you kept quiet.
“They’re doing their best,” Alex said. “It ain’t like people go missing ’round here all the time.”
Ned frowned. “No. They just move along.”
“That’s right,” Alex said. “They do.”
Then, on a dime, Alex’s demeanor shifted. He turned to Sadie. “You must be exhausted. Let’s show you where you’ll be staying.”