Authors: Jack Kilborn


JD barked again, then began to growl.

Easy, boy. We don’t want you biting any more strangers.”

JD had never bit anyone. But Kelly understood why Grandma said that; it might scare the man off.

But the man didn’t look scared. He simply shifted from one leg to the other, revealing something he was holding in his hand.

Oh, shit.

That’s a shotgun.

Let’s go,” Grandma whispered. “Fast.”

Kelly didn’t have to be told twice. The two of them sprinted, JD alongside, down the hill in a zigzag pattern. Kelly kept expecting to hear a gunshot, and could almost feel a cold area between her shoulder blades where she was sure the bullet would hit. Mom had what she called a varmint gun, a small .22 she used to scare off the raccoons who liked to get into the garbage cans. Kelly knew the damage that could do.

This man’s gun was a lot bigger.

Not soon enough, they broke through the tree line and were back on the road. Kelly looked left, then right, and couldn’t see their car.

Had the man gotten Mom?

This way,” Grandma said. “Over the crest.”

Grandma’s strides were long, and Kelly matched her. On the asphalt she had a lot more confidence, the hard road under her feet solid and familiar. She sprinted ahead, feeling her muscles stretch, JD easily matching pace as he galloped alongside. The hill was a gradual incline, tough on the shins, and after two hundred meters her breath came faster.

Is this the right way? What if Grandma is wrong? What if Mom isn’t over the crest?

She took a quick glance over her shoulder, but the strange man wasn’t behind them.

What was wrong with his face? It was all messed up.

They were almost to the top of the hill now. Ten steps. Five steps. Kelly willed her mom to be there. Not only there, but with the tire already fixed so they could get the hell away from here. Kelly pulled even further in front, reaching the crest, staring down on the winding road and—

Nothing. Mom and the car weren’t there.

Then JD took off, pulling the leash out of Kelly’s hand, jerking her forward and almost making her fall. He tore ahead, running around the bend, out of sight.

Kelly glanced at Grandma, who was matching her pace. The old woman stared back, her face solemn.

The car...” Kelly sputtered.

It’s ahead.”



Kelly felt like crying. “I’m… scared.”

Use it. Everyone gets scared. Don’t let it paralyze you. Your body, or your mind.”

Kelly lengthened her stride again; a dangerous move since they were going downhill. If she hit some loose gravel, or stumbled somehow at this speed, it would cause more damage than just a skinned knee.

Kelly. Slow down.”

But Kelly didn’t slow down. Her feet pressed against the street faster and faster, and Kelly became off-balance on the decline. She pitched forward, envisioning her chin cracking against the pavement, her face scraping down to the teeth and cheekbones, her knees breaking and head bursting—


Grandma caught Kelly’s shirt, steadying her. Kelly took a few more unsteady steps and then slowed down enough to keep her balance.

They pushed through the turn, Kelly hoping she’d see Mom and the car and JD, fearing she’d see the strange man with the gun.

But there was nothing ahead but empty road.

We went... the wrong... way,” Kelly said between pants. She began to slow down even more.

Keep running.”

Kelly wished she’d paid more attention on the car ride up. None of this seemed familiar. The road. The woods. The mountains. It all looked the same.

Is this...” she gasped, “the right road?”



Don’t talk. Run.”

Grandma pulled in front. Kelly fell back five paces, thinking Grandma was wrong, thinking about turning around and going the other way.

Then they rounded another turn and Kelly saw their car.

JD left Mom’s side and came sprinting over to Kelly. He knew not to jump on her, and instead doubled back and ran with her until they reached the car.

I changed the tire. Did you and Grandma enjoy—” Mom squinted at Kelly. “Babe, are you okay?”

There was a man,” Kelly huffed and puffed. “His face was messed up. He had a gun.”

Grandma coasted to a stop alongside them.

Florence? What happened?”

Mom hadn’t called Grandma
since Dad died.

Grandma blew out a deep breath. “I’m not sure. Could have been a hunter. Could have been some hillbilly protecting his whiskey still. Scary-looking fellow, wasn’t he, Kelly?”

Did he threaten you?” Mom asked.

Grandma shook her head. “Kept his gun down. Didn’t say a word. Might not be used to talking, though. He had a severe harelip, probably a cleft palate. Talking would be difficult.”

Should we call the police?”

For having a gun in West Virginia? They’d laugh us off the phone.”

Are you okay, Kelly?”

Kelly felt like crying, and Mom showing concern made the emotion even stronger. But she sucked it in, got her breathing under control.

I’m almost a teenager. Teenagers don’t cry.

I’m fine.”

Are you sure?”

Grandma folded her arms. “She said she’s fine, Letti. Kelly’s almost a teenager. Quit treating her like a child.”

Kelly matched Grandma’s pose, taking strength from it. “Yeah, Mom. Now can we get going?”

Mom made a face, then looked at her watch. “We’ve got another forty minutes before we get to the bed and breakfast. Do you need to pee?”

Kelly rolled her eyes. “No.”

Are you sure?”

Geez, Mom.” She walked over to the car and climbed into the backseat.

Surprisingly, Grandma got in next to her.

Let’s let JD ride shotgun. I’d like to see that game you’re playing on your iPod.”

Uh, sure.”

As Mom pulled back onto the road, Kelly showed Grandma
Zombie Apocalypse.

It’s really hard. I can’t get past level 65.”

Sure you can,” Grandma said. “You just haven’t yet.”

Kelly attacked the level with a frenzy. For some reason, more than anything, she wanted to prove Grandma right.


# # #


I’m sorry, Miss Novachek. All of our rooms are booked.”

Deb Novachek kept her anger in check. She was an expert at that.

But I have a reservation. I confirmed it yesterday.”

The concierge looked pained. He was a tall, pasty man with a bad hairpiece that looked like an animal was perched on his head. His nametag read
. “I realize that. And I humbly apologize for the inconvenience. We overbooked. Your room will be available tomorrow morning, and we’ll upgrade you to a suite at no extra cost.”

That’s not good enough. Tomorrow is the pre-event briefing. I have to be there early.”

Deb fleetingly considered playing the
special needs
card, but she knew she’d sleep in her car before she did that. Hell, she’d sleep on the street with a newspaper blanket before she asked for preferential treatment.

I really wish there was something I could do. I’m very sorry.”

I’d like to speak to the manager.”

Miss Novachek, I am the manager. I’ll not only upgrade to a suite tomorrow, but we’d be happy to pay for it to make up for the inconvenience.”

That doesn’t do me any good tonight.”

Deb felt like crossing her arms, but resisted. It messed with her balance.

Unfortunately, this seems to happen every year at triathlon time. Every hotel and motel in town is filled to capacity.”

Deb frowned. “Could I room with another contestant staying here?”

Franklin reached for the phone. “That would be up to them. If you give me a name, I can connect you.”

I don’t know anyone here. This is my first time at
Iron Woman

I’m sorry. I can’t just start randomly calling guests.” He put the receiver down and tapped his pale chin, apparently thinking. “You know, there is a bed and breakfast, forty miles out of town. It’s so out of the way, it probably has some rooms available. Would you like me to check for you?”

Deb took a deep breath, let it our slow. “Yes. Please.”

I’ll need to find the number. I’ll be right back.”

Franklin waddled off. Deb turned away from the check-in counter and faced the lobby. It was crammed full of people. Some of them spectators. Several of them reporters, complete with video cameras and microphones. A few of the women were obviously athletes, and Deb considered approaching some of them, asking if they’d like to share a room. But she didn’t move.

Deb valued her privacy. Social situations were painfully awkward for her.

Which is why she quickly turned away when she saw the man staring.

Men stared at her all the time. So did women. And kids. Even animals did, somehow able to sense something was wrong with her.

But this man wasn’t gawking. He had a playful smile on his face, and his eyes crinkled when she caught him looking.

This wasn’t a gawker. This was a flirt.

Deb preferred the gawkers. She unconsciously glanced down at her cosmetic legs. They were covered by sweatpants. Unless someone was paying close attention, they couldn’t tell, even when she was walking.


The voice startled her, and she turned around. Mr. Flirt was in her personal space, less than a foot away from her, a sly grin on his face. Deb noted his breath smelled like cinnamon, and he was even cuter up close. Strong chin with a bit of stubble. A roman nose. Neatly cut hair, dark and parted on the side. Sort of like a younger George Clooney.

Can I help you?” Deb’s voice came out clipped, and a bit squeaky.

Are you Debra Novachek?”

Who wants to know?”

Mal Deiter.
Sporting Digest.
My office has been in touch.”

He offered his hand.

So he’s not a flirt. He’s a reporter. Which means he knows about my legs.

Deb didn’t know if that made it less awkward, or more awkward. For some reason, she had pictured a woman interviewing her. Or some pudgy old man. Not someone good-looking.

Good-looking guys made her nervous.

Nice to meet you, Mr. Deiter.” She took his hand and shook it hard, businesslike, then quickly pulled away. “They seem to be having some trouble finding me a room here.”

I’m sorry to hear that.”

If you’re really sorry, you can give me your room.”

I would, Ms. Novachek, if I had one. But I’m already doubled up with my photographer.” He pointed to a portly man with a very large camera in his hands, shooting people in the lobby. “That’s Rudy. Great talent, but a terrible roommate. He snores so loudly he can loosen your fillings. I’m going to wind up on the lobby sofa if I want to get any rest tonight.”

He smiled, and it was a dynamite smile. Deb wondered why he worked for a magazine when he had a face for TV. She decided against asking, not wanting to compliment him and risk it sounding like a come-on.

Not that Deb could even remember what it was like coming on to a guy.

The manager returned. “The Rushmore Inn does have a few rooms left for tonight. I took the liberty of making you a reservation and drawing you a map. We’re also covering the cost of your room there. It will be free of charge.”

Deb bit back thanking him, instead saying, “I have a GPS. I don’t need a map.”

He pushed the paper toward her. “It’s really out of the way. I doubt the Inn, or even the road, is on the GPS.”

How long will it take to get there?”

An hour. Maybe an hour and a half at the most.”

Deb clenched her jaw. Her mood worsened when she saw the cute reporter furtively eyeing her legs.

She slapped her hand on the map and picked it up.

Again, we really apologize for this inconvenience.” The manager smiled, but this time it seemed more cruel than sympathetic. “I hope to see y’all tomorrow, Miss Novachek.”

Deb raised an eye at the manager’s sarcastic tone. She let it slide, instead turning to the reporter.

I’m sorry, Mr. Deiter. This isn’t going to work.”

Call me Mal.”

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