Bryan Crawford steps from his warm house into the cold air of a March night. He is heading to his outdoor sauna, as he does every Friday evening of the year. The light rain that hits his face makes him shiver. He’s glad his sister Rhonda isn’t here. She’d be nagging him to wear a coat and put on shoes instead of flip-flops. It’s not even 40 yards to the sauna. He’s 54 years old, and she still treats him like he’s a little boy. She’s always been like that, but her constant hovering can be hard to take.
She’s not the only woman in his life who’s starting to get to him. His wife Rachelle was all sexy, and pretty, and whatever-you-want-Bryan before they got married. But she’s different now. She wants him to do this, she doesn’t want him to do that. She’s even talking about him selling his hunting cabin. That’s never gonna happen. Maybe all wives get like that after a few years. That’s how it was with Jackie. He’s going to have to lay down the law with her. He doesn’t need a nag for a wife. Rhonda can handle that. That’s another thing that bugs him. The two of them, Rhonda and Rachelle, are always picking at each other, fighting over him like he’s a winning lottery ticket.
He laughs a little then. In a way, he kind of is. He’s good-looking, owns a business that makes plenty of money, and he’s not stingy about letting them spend it. He has a brief thought that it’s Rhonda who puts in the effort at Crawford Plumbing and Electrical, not him, but he tamps that down. He’s the owner. He’s the one his dad left the business to, not Rhonda. She’s lucky, when you come to think of it, that he gives her as much freedom as she has to run things. Where would she be without him?
At the sauna door, he reaches down under the Badgers welcome mat for the key. As he stands up, he’s startled by a noise coming from the woods behind him. He turns and peers through the darkness. He can’t see anything. A week or so ago, he set up a trail cam to catch footage of a black bear he saw out in the yard one night. So far, no luck. Not tonight either, he decides after hearing nothing else.
He unlocks the padlock and slides the security bar back, then bends down to put the key back under the mat. Whoa! He gets a head rush as he stands back up. He puts his hand on the door to steady himself, then goes inside. He’s been feeling off all afternoon. He would’ve checked his blood sugar, but he didn’t have any test strips with him. Rhonda always has them—she never lets him forget he’s diabetic. All that checking is a pain in the ass. He’s strong, he’s healthy, he takes his insulin, he eats right. Most of the time he doesn’t even think about his diabetes. Nothing says you’re a candy-ass like poking your finger a hundred times a day.
He did a test when he got home, though. His sugar was high, but he jacked up his insulin, so he should start coming around soon. He always has before when he’s had an issue.
The sauna is warm when he steps in. He told Rachelle to set the heater to preheat before she left for the weekend. She remembered, so score one for her on the keeper side. She has her faults, yeah, but as long as she keeps her looks, doesn’t get fat, and backs off on nagging him, he’ll probably stick with her.
He sets the timer for 15 minutes and sits down on the bench. He’s thirsty even though he polished off a bottle of water just before he came out. He shrugs. He’s got one in the pocket of his robe. He takes the cap off and brings it to his lips, draining half the bottle in one swig. He loosens the belt on his robe and leans back on the bench, closing his eyes.
They fly open as he hears the sound of the safety bar on the door sliding into place. He jumps up, but he has to pause a second as a wave of nausea hits him. He hears the snap of the padlock clicking shut. By the time he reaches the small window in the door, all he can see is the back of a hooded figure running away.
Damn it! He put the lock on to keep whoever got in and trashed the place out. Are they playing a stupid joke to pay him back? He pounds on the door and shouts, but of course they don’t turn around. If they can even hear him. He reaches reflexively for his phone, then remembers that he doesn’t have it. It’s on the counter in the kitchen where he always leaves it when he uses the sauna.
He sinks back down on the bench. There’s nothing he can do but wait for them to come back. He’s thirsty again. He reaches for the bottle and drinks the rest of the water. He sits back once more, but after a minute he feels a sharp pain in his gut. He’s still nauseous. This isn’t good. His blood sugar must still be out of whack. If he doesn’t get it straight, he’s in real trouble. But he can’t get out, until whoever locked him in lets him out. But when will that be? When will they come back? He needs to get his insulin. He feels the first, faint stirrings of fear. He tries to push it back with anger.
He’s going straight to the cops as soon as he gets out. Hell, he’s gonna offer a reward to anyone who finds them. A big one. That wasn’t a bear he heard in the woods, it was someone waiting for him to show up, so they could lock him in for a not-funny joke. He gets up again, looks out the window again, sees nothing again.
God, he’s starting to feel awful. He’s beginning to sweat, and he’s dizzy, and he has to pee. He has to get out of here, now, not later! He pounds on the door. He shouts. Then he stops, as the stark reality of his situation hits home.
They’re never coming back. Why would they, and chance getting caught? They don’t know that there’s no one at the house to come looking for him when he doesn’t return after twenty minutes.
Rachelle is at a retreat. Her son Adam is in Chicago. His daughter Stephanie is at college. Even Rhonda isn’t around. He told everyone that he was going to his hunting cabin in the morning. No one will check on him. No one will even miss him. Not until Monday. By then it will be way, way too late.
He feels a rush of despair as sickening as the nausea that rises with it and he sinks to the floor. He doesn’t deserve this. How can this be happening to him? He has to think. But he can’t think. His thoughts won’t hold still, his mind is jumbled and confused, and his body is in pain.
He doesn’t know how long he sits there, his mind a tangle of half-formed thoughts. He can’t concentrate. He’s sweating profusely now. His heart is racing. His mouth and throat are dry but there’s no water. His abdominal muscles spasm painfully and he cries out. But no one hears him. He tries to stand, but he stumbles. His head hits the corner of the bench as he falls. He loses consciousness, and it’s a blessing.
Throughout the night he moves in and out of wakefulness. His cries for help grow fainter until they’re no louder than a whisper. It doesn’t matter. Only the night visitors—the deer, the raccoons, the bear—are there to hear. Sometime the next day, the light coming through the window stirs him awake. He’s confused and frightened, like he was that time when he was a little boy and got lost. Rhonda found him, and she hugged him, and she told him not to cry. She said she’d always find him. For a second, he feels her arms around him. He feels safe. He tries to hug her back, but she’s gone. Where is she? Where is he?
He feels so bad. He’s been sick. He has a foul taste in his mouth. His stomach muscles keep cramping, and it’s hard to breathe. He just wants to go home so Rhonda can fix it. He’s so very tired. His voice is a bare murmur as he calls her name. Rhonda, who has always been there for him, though he rarely has been for her, doesn’t answer. Even with his mind so muddled, he knows. She isn’t coming. No one is. He’s going to die alone.
Late Sunday afternoon the door opens. A face peers around the corner. The killer stares intently for a moment, looking for signs of life. There are none. Bryan Crawford is dead.