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The Naturalist (The Naturalist #1)
Author:Andrew Mayne

The Naturalist (The Naturalist #1)

Andrew Mayne



CHAPTER ONE


1989


The woods were wrong. That was the only way Kelsie could describe it. There was just something not right. She stared off in the direction Trevor had gone, unsure if she should try to track him down or stay put next to the tiny red tent and wait for him to return from his bathroom break.

He’d laugh at her if she said she was scared, so Kelsie dug through her backpack, searching for the roll of toilet paper she’d borrowed from the Conoco station restroom thirty miles back. She found it wrapped up in the cords of her Walkman, resting on the mixtapes Trevor had made for her back at Boston College.

Trevor was a lanky journalism major with a mop of black hair that usually covered his eyes. They’d met at an off-campus party and bonded over a mutual love of prog rock and board games. The first evening they spent in his dorm they listened to Tubular Bells, played Stratego, and drank cheap wine. She was pretty sure she was in love right there but waited two months to tell him.

Her parents hated him. Her father, a bank executive, couldn’t get over the phrase journalism major and her mother still hadn’t gotten over her own first marriage, made in college. Trevor was just another fling to them. No more significant than Kelsie’s date to junior prom.

Trevor’s parents were divorced and lived abroad. He barely spoke to them, and Kelsie soon followed suit with her own. When he proposed a cross-country hiking trip during summer break, she said yes without hesitation. To further her independence from her parents, she only told them she wouldn’t be returning home for the break. She ignored the phone messages left at her dorm. To hell with them.

That was two weeks and a thousand miles ago. As Kelsie looked out into dark-blue forest, she wished very much she’d gone home and tried to talk them into accepting Trevor. The trip had been fun, mostly. But she saw Trevor’s temper occasionally and was terrified of doing anything that might make him roll his eyes and remind her of how ignorant she was of the most basic hiking and camping skills.

“Trev?” Kelsie called out as she started along the path she’d seen him go down.

There was no reply.

“You bring any TP, babe? I got you a roll . . .”

She walked ten yards, looked back to make sure she could still see the tent, then went a few more.

The woods were transitioning from day to night. Crickets chirped, and some enormous, shadowy bird—an owl?—flew overhead, returning home or heading out somewhere.

Kelsie still got chills thinking about their hike in the Appalachians, when she saw a huge flock of black birds and pointed them out to Trevor as they flew across the dusky sky. There were so many of them. She’d stared up in awe as they swarmed past.

“Those are bats, babe,” he’d explained.

“Bats?”

“Yep. There’s probably a huge cave nearby.”

“Cool,” she’d replied, trying very hard to pretend she meant it. She didn’t sleep at all that night. Every flicker of shadow on the wall of the tent sent a shiver down her spine.

That was nothing compared with now.

She reached the spot where Trevor should have been. It was a V formation of logs and formed a natural barrier where even she’d feel somewhat comfortable.

But he wasn’t there.

Maybe he took another way back?

Her body was half-turned when she noticed the pale leather of his hiking boot. She knelt down and picked it up.

It had been wedged under a root, as if he’d tripped and slid out of the shoe. Only he wasn’t lying in front of it. He wasn’t anywhere.

“Trev?” she called out timidly. She was too afraid to raise her voice.

The trees were growing darker and the twilight fading. Kelsie decided to go back to the tent and tried to visualize Trevor waiting for her, smiling. She took the boot and headed back to the campsite.

For a moment she panicked when the tent wasn’t visible, but as she got closer she could make out the red fabric in the dim light. There was still no sign of her boyfriend.

“Babe?” she called out.

He’d pranked her once, and she’d denied him sex that night in retaliation. She was pretty sure he’d gotten the message but hoped that this was just a relapse.

Kelsie set the boot by the front of the tent and tried to decide if she should go inside and wait or try to make a fire.

Make a fire, she decided.

It was when she knelt down to the small circle of rocks to ignite the dry leaves that she noticed a tree stump that hadn’t been there before. Half the height of a man and as black as night, it was standing between two evergreens in a spot she would have sworn was empty a moment ago.

Her breath frozen in her lungs, she quickly looked to her left and then her right to make certain that she wasn’t mistaken. When her gaze returned to the stump, it was gone.

The woods were moving.

There was an explosion of motion, as if a shadow leaped out at her.

The next thing she knew, she was on her back and the frozen breath was trapped under the incredible weight of something standing on her chest.

Her fingers felt thick, coarse hair, like on her mother’s paintbrushes. The smell was coppery and rancid.

She saw the flash of claws but didn’t understand what happened until seconds later when she felt her warm blood drip down the cold flesh of her stomach.

Trevor had told her that there were bears and mountain lions in these woods. Kelsie had no idea what attacked her. All she knew as she lay paralyzed, bleeding out, was that she’d never heard of an animal that wounded you, then just sat there, watching you die.





CHAPTER TWO


ICE MACHINE

A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, a mere heart of stone.

—Charles Darwin

Red and blue police lights splash off the chipped chrome letters spelling ICE MACHINE. I’m standing in front of the motel vending machines with my plastic pail in my hand, lost in thought. Where does the water for the machine come from? Is it from some local stream? Do they filter it? Is the water sealed inside an internal reservoir before it’s frozen into cubes?

I just read a paper that described a new bacterium found deep inside ice caves. It evolved from photosynthesis to chemosynthesis—literally eating the rocks to survive. It could also chew through the charcoal used in most filters like soft ice cream.

So far it hasn’t been shown to be harmful to humans . . . which makes me wonder if it would be useful for dissolving the mineral buildup of kidney stones. So many questions . . .

So many questions . . . I barely notice the squeal of tires as a vehicle comes to a stop behind me. I turn and see that it’s an armored van and that the parking lot has filled with a half dozen police cruisers, each with a pair of county deputies ducked behind, guns drawn and shotguns pressed to their shoulders. Every eye and weapon is trained on the rooms across the lot from me.

“Get down,” someone whispers harshly.

A man in black slacks and a tie covered by a bulletproof jacket is hiding behind the driver-side door of a Ford Bronco parked beside me. I can see a badge on a pendant, but his gun isn’t drawn.

He waves me away. “Go back to your room.”

Everything is happening in slow motion, but I can’t move. All I can do is crouch and watch from behind his rear bumper.

Four men in black tactical gear with metal face masks leap out of the back of the van and run toward the row of rooms across from us. One of them is carrying a thick metal cylinder. He rams it against a lock, and the door bursts open. Guns pointed inside, two men rush into the room while the others keep them covered.

There’s a tense silence.

From inside someone shouts, “Clear!”

One of the armored men steps outside and makes some kind of hand signal while shaking his head.