Authors: Crouch, Blake, Kitt, Selena
He’s a butcher.
She’s the trophy wife of a trophy hunter.
They used to be high school sweethearts, but that was two decades ago, and times have changed.
Meet Ariana Plano...40 years old, miserable, stuck in a loveless marriage to the worst mistake of her life.
Meet Ray Koski...40 years old, miserable, a lonely butcher who can do nothing but immerse himself in the drudgery of his work.
Once a week during hunting season, she brings her old teenage flame game meat for processing. They do not speak. They rarely make eye contact. Some histories are just too painful.
But this week will be different.
This week—a shocking encounter twenty-two years in the making—will change everything.
by Blake Crouch and Selena Kitt
TABLE OF CONTENTS
"Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained."
So hard to find my way,
Now that I’m all on my own.
I saw you just the other day.
My, how you have grown.
Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl”
Ariana Plano rattled along down the highway at a steady five miles under the speed-limit, alone behind the wheel of her husband’s ’57 Chevy with nothing but her thoughts and the drone of the local radio station crackling over the speakers. Specks of early November snow—first of the season—starred the windshield, the tension in her shoulders ratcheting up with every passing mile. Still, she loved this time of year in Michigan’s UP—trees stripped bare, the land gray and brown, still and waiting, as if its breath were held, for the first big storm. Ariana had been born, raised, and lived all forty of her years in this snowbelt community downwind of the Great Lake Superior, and still every time the first flakes flew, she got this tingling in the pit of her stomach like a child waking in the predawn to the realization that it was Christmas morning.
The .454 big block engine grumbled under the hood.
The truck was beautiful—powder blue with 22x8.5-inch Bonspeed wheels wrapped in 255/30R22 Pirelli tires.
Of course, Ariana didn’t know what the hell any of that really meant. She’d just overheard her husband, Bud, going on and on and on about it with their gardener several weeks ago. Truth be told, she hated the truck, hated all the frivolity it represented. Then again, Bud
frivolity: their hundred-acre horse ranch, the 7000-square foot “Casa Bud,” his gun collection, the six vehicles—Hummer, Mustang, Defender, Corvette, her AWD Subaru, and this pimped-out antique.
But in truth, she had to own up to being gobsmacked by Bud in the beginning. This flashy, big-game hunter from Dallas who’d flown up to Ontonagon County in his own Beechcraft to hunt moose in the Porcupines. Ariana’s father, a big-game sportsman himself and proprietor of the region’s premier guide service, had been the one to take Bud up into the hills, and she faulted him for making Bud fall in love with the UP.
Of course, there was a modicum of blame to be laid upon her shoulders as well. She still remembered the flutter in her heart that evening Bud and Daddy had come to the shop with one of Bud’s white-tail kills for meat processing.
Bud had swaggered in with an eighteen karat smile and an accent that made her knees go wobbly.
Tall and lanky.
She’d never encountered anything like him.
She was eighteen, a senior in high school.
Cheerleader, B-student, comfortably popular, steady girlfriend of Ray Koski—point guard for the varsity basketball team and a sweet, funny guy who everybody loved.
Bud was thirty-five, already a retired oilman, and standing there smelling of whiskey and musk, radiant with the thrill of the hunt, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her future had just walked in.
That was twenty-two years ago this month.
November of 1989.
All day, the radio had been ecstatic with reports that the Berlin Wall had fallen, and now this man from Texas was standing in her shop like a dream.
A day of change for both her and the world, and despite all that happened after, she still to this day couldn’t help but rank it as the most exhilarating moment of her life.
Poor Ray never had a chance.
* * * *
Because Bud was a hunter and obscenely rich—mainly the latter—Ariana’s father had given the Texan his blessing to marry his daughter before she was even a high school graduate. In return, Bud had made three solemn promises—(1) he would settle down in Ontonagon County; (2) he wouldn’t sleep with Ariana before they were wed; and (3) until the day the Good Lord saw fit to call him home, Bud Plano would treat his little girl like the princess that she was.
At least he’d kept one of them.
* * * *
Ariana graduated from high school on a cool Friday night in June and was married the following day in a small, outdoor ceremony on the shore of Superior.
For her wedding gift, Bud built them the largest private residence in the UP.
* * * *
The lifestyle of a midwest queen was a learning process.
Learning to cook.
Learning to entertain.
To manage a staff of housekeepers and groundskeepers.
And while these were skills helpful and necessary to the requirements of her job, it was only in the second year of marriage and beyond, while most of her friends were thriving at the university in Marquette, when she became acquainted with the most important lessons of all...
Like not contradicting.
Not asking “Where are you going?” or “When will you be back?”
initiating a new topic of conversation at a dinner party where Bud’s friends were in attendance.
inviting her friends to visit without first securing clearance from Bud.
Or going out without first asking permission and giving Bud an accurate estimate of when she would return.
Or miscarrying a second time.
Or leaving the house with fresh bruises.
Or calling the police at two-thirty in the morning when you’ve locked yourself in the bathroom because your husband has threatened to kill you.
Or bringing Bud anything less than an ice-cold beer in his favorite pint glass.
Or miscarrying a third.
Or loaning money—Bud’s fucking money—to a friend on the brink of a winter eviction.
Or miscarrying a fourth.
acting like a cold and distant bitch.
* * * *
So by the time Ariana turned thirty, she had fully mastered the patterns of behavior that would not get her regularly beaten.
She walked the line, did as she was told, and there were even fleeting moments when she convinced herself that she was happy.
* * * *
When she was thirty-three, she and Bud celebrated their fifteenth wedding anniversary six months early with a month-long trip to Fiji in the dead of the Michigan winter.
There was one evening in particular when they dined on a patio beside the sea with a traditional Fijian meal, and maybe it was the good wine going to her head and the perfect
(raw fish marinated in lime juice and served with fresh vegetables), but a strange question presented itself as the sun dissolved into the South Pacific in an exquisite spill of light: had Bud changed? Become a better man? He hadn’t raised his hand or voice to her in two years. Was the prospect of turning fifty mellowing him, or had she so thoroughly bent herself to his desire, that she’d merely become a manifestation of his will? Two people existing to serve the needs of the one. If the latter were the case, she tried to tell herself she would’ve preferred the beatings, but one of the tragic realizations of Ariana’s early-middle-age was that she was a coward, with neither the courage to take Bud’s abuse, nor do the truly brave thing—admit she’d made a terrible mistake.
That she’d ruined a quarter of her life.
* * * *
On the outskirts of the village of Ontonagon, the snow intensified, beginning to frost the road. She should’ve driven her Subaru, but then the bag of meat in the bed of the truck would’ve stunk up her ride.
The local radio station broke in again, recapping the top story of a hunter who’d gone missing in the Porkies. It happened every hunting season up here—some out-of-towner would head off into the hills with inadequate gear, poor respect for the harshness of the terrain, and get himself lost.
Sometimes, they’d be found in time, alive.
Sometimes, dead and frozen the following spring when the snow began to melt.
Ray’s butcher shop was just a mile ahead.
She cut off the radio, punched on the headlights.
During these last five years, it was always the twenty-minute drives into Ontonagon where she reached the deepest level of misery.
Bud hated Koski, ever since Ariana had confided to him soon after their wedding that she’d lost her virginity to Ray her sophomore year of high school. Bud could’ve had his wild game processed at any number of butcher shops closer to their estate, but he’d insisted on not only giving Ray his business, but in making Ariana take it to him, throwing in Ray’s face, even all these years later, what the man from Texas had taken from the boy from the UP.
Every week during hunting season, she made the trip.
Hated Bud for making her go.
Hated Ray for how much he hated her, for how much he reminded her of the innumerable failings she’d perpetrated against herself.
Hated herself...Jesus...for too many reasons to count.
She’d come to Ray’s shop a hundred times over the last ten years, and their exchanges had never been more than the bare minimum required to transact business.