Sitting at the wheel of his family station wagon, Ray Corson
watched the gas gauge needle hover at empty. The red warning light
flashed on, and he felt his stomach tighten.
He'd been driving for the last hour, making several loops around
Seattle's Montlake neighborhood. Part of his route wound through
the Arboretum along the edge of Lake Washington. But on this rainy
April night, Ray couldn't see the water beyond all the shadowy
trees. It was just murky blackness.
At a stoplight, he caught his reflection in the rearview mirror.
People often mistook him for someone in his early thirties. At
forty-two, Ray loved hearing that. His wavy brown hair hadn't yet
turned gray. It helped that he stayed in shape running laps around
the high school track every weeknight; or perhaps just being around
all those teenagers kept him thinking young.
But Ray hadn't been to the school in months. He couldn't go back
That probably explained why the reflection in the rearview
mirror was of someone who looked old, haggard --- and
With a sigh, Ray leaned back and cracked the window a bit. His
three-year-old son had stepped on a half-full juice box in the
backseat over a week ago, and the car still had the sickeningly
sweet smell of Hawaiian Punch gone bad.
The light changed, and he drove on. The fresh air revitalized
him, and he took a few deep, calming breaths. He was about to drive
past the Arboretum's parking area again. The two light posts didn't
quite illuminate the entire lot, which was about the size of a
basketball court. Beyond it lay the woods and the lake. The lot was
empty right now. No one in their right mind would be at the
Arboretum on such a cold, crummy, wet night.
Still, Ray kept his eyes peeled for a parked car --- or maybe
the silhouette of a man at the edge of that lot.
He suddenly realized his car was veering off the road. Tires
squeaked against the curb and gravel ricocheted against the station
wagon's chassis. Startled, Ray twisted the wheel to one side and
swerved back into his lane.
His heart was racing. "Chill out, for chrissakes," he muttered
to himself. He'd thought by now he would be at peace with what was
about to happen. But he was still scared.
Ray figured he was good for one more loop around the
neighborhood before the station wagon would start to fail on him.
He glanced in the rearview mirror at the parking lot again. Then he
checked the clock on the dashboard: 12:49 A.M.
He needed to be back there eleven minutes from now.
It would be the end of so many of his problems --- including the
whole mess at James Monroe High School, where he'd been a guidance
counselor. The tension and turmoil with Jenna would be in the past.
Jenna and the kids would be covered financially. And maybe his
runaway sixteen-yearold daughter would even come home once
everything was over and done with.
Ray lowered the window farther and felt the cool rain on his
face. He smelled the night air and gazed at the trees swaying along
the roadside. All of his senses were suddenly heightened as he took
his last loop around the area. Every thing seemed so beautiful,
each moment so precious. He started to cry; he couldn't help
Just as he'd figured, the station wagon began to sputter as he
approached the small parking lot for the ninth time. Wiping the
tears from his face, Ray steered into the lot, parked the car, and
left the engine running.
The wipers squeaked against the windshield, and rain tapped on
the car roof. Ray tipped his head back against the headrest of the
driver's seat. He gazed over toward the shadowy edge of the lot. He
couldn't see it now, but somewhere there in the darkness began a
dirt trail. It wove through the trees and shrubs, down to the
He remembered parking his beat-up red VW bug in this same spot
on a warm May night nearly twenty years ago. He and Jenna had been
sophomores at the University of Washington, out on their first
Ray had been admiring her from afar ever since freshman year,
when he'd spotted her at a kegger, dancing with this nerdy guy who
couldn't keep up with her. The long-haired, pretty brunette was so
sexy and uninhibited. Every once in a while she whispered into her
dance partner's ear, and Ray figured that guy was the luckiest son
of a bitch at the party. Ray was so enamored of her that it took
him a while to notice her dance partner had one of those shriveled
arms resembling a bird wing. And yet he looked so damn happy. Ray
kept thinking, she could have any dude in the room, and she picked
that guy. It didn't make her a saint, but it certainly made her
more interesting. For nine months, he looked for her in the
cafeteria or at different parties. Unfortunately, when he spotted
her on occasion, he never got up the nerve to talk with her. She
was always surrounded by guys.
Then they'd ended up in the same English lit class, and he'd
finally had an excuse to approach Jenna and ask her out on a
Ray paced himself when they split a bottle of red wine in her
dorm room. He didn't want to get drunk and smash up his VW on their
way to dinner. They ate at My Brother's Pizza in Wallingford. She
loved that he had a car, and wanted to go for a drive afterward.
While they aimlessly drove around Montlake, Madison Park, and
Capitol Hill, Jenna talked and talked and talked. He loved
listening to her, and he loved the subtle, flowery scent of her
perfume in his car. At one point, she put her hand on his knee and
confessed, "Ever since I first saw you in Converse's English lit
class, I've thought you were super cute. . . ."
After that, Jenna could have said anything. He didn't care where
they were going. He would have driven to the end of the earth with
her if she wanted.
"Well, um, the feeling's mutual," Ray managed to reply. He tried
to keep his eyes on the road. But her hand was still on his knee,
and he felt his erection stirring.
It shrank a bit as Jenna told him about some of the other guys
she'd been with --- and how horrible they'd treated her. She'd even
made a little doll resembling one guy who had really screwed her
over, and she used to stick pins in it. She confessed that in high
school she'd tried to kill herself twice --- the first time with
sleeping pills, and the second effort, with a razor blade. Both
times she'd called a friend immediately after the final swallow or
"Why did you do it?" Ray whispered, tightening his grip on the
"Call my friend?" she asked. "Or why did I try to kill
"Get out of what?"
She shrugged. "Bad relationships, mostly --- and other things,
"No guy's worth killing yourself over, Jenna," Ray murmured,
glancing at her. "You must have figured that out. Is that why you
called your friend?"
Still staring outside, she shook her head. "No, I just didn't
want to die all alone." She let out a sad, little laugh. "But
instead of coming over and keeping me company, my stupid friend
called the police."
"Well, I for one am glad she did," Ray said.
Jenna was quiet for a moment. "You're right about the guys," she
said at last. "Both those times, they were total jerks. They didn't
really love me. They were just using me. You know, I'm a firm
believer in karma. They'll get theirs --- eventually. Time
wounds all heels."
Ray managed to laugh. He didn't quite know what to think --- or
where this night would go. The gorgeous creature sitting across
from him was pretty screwed up. But he liked her. She was
vulnerable and sweet --- and in need of someone to rescue her. Ray
wanted to be that someone.
Jenna also had a hell of a lot more experience than him. Ray
couldn't help feeling intimidated by that. If things got sexual
later on --- and he was hoping they would --- then, she might find
him pretty inept in the lovemaking department. He'd been so crazy
about her for so long, he didn't want to disappoint her.
Jenna scooted over toward him again, and he breathed in the
smell of her perfume. She nudged him. "Y'know, you're the first
person I've told about my suicide attempts --- at least, the first
person here at the U." She rested her head on his shoulder, and
fingered the buttons of his blue oxford shirt. "I meant it when I
said that I can really talk to you, Ray...."
She giggled. "God, I didn't mean to get so serious on you! We
should do something fun. It's so beautiful and warm out. We should
Eyes on the road, Ray thought for a moment. Back in September,
he and two other guys from the dorm had gone skinny-dipping in the
Arboretum late one warm Friday night. They'd had a blast. At the
time, Ray kept thinking how sexy it would be to share this naked,
moonlight swim with a girl.
"Well, there's the Arboretum," he heard himself say. "This time
of night, we'd probably have the place to ourselves...."
"God, that sounds fantastic!" Jenna replied. Then she kissed him
on the neck. "Let's do it, let's do it. . . ." Laughing, she pulled
away, then leaned out her window and let out a howl.
Jenna had two Jack Daniel's miniatures in her purse. She guzzled
down one on their way to the Arboretum, and the other Ray helped
her finish off once they'd parked the car.
Ray's stomach was in nervous knots as they walked down the dark,
winding dirt path toward the lake. At the same time, he was
incredibly turned on. Neither one of them had said anything yet
about swimsuits --- or the lack thereof.
He wondered if she'd keep on her bra and panties to go swimming.
Maybe once they reached the lake, if he quickly undressed down to
nothing, she'd follow his lead.
They came to a field, where Ray could see the lake ahead, its
silvery ripples glimmering in the moonlight. A huge tree loomed at
the edge of the shore --- some of the branches dipping down into
the water. Ray remembered there was a rope hanging from a high
limb. He and his dorm buddies had swung from it and jumped into the
water several times. The 520 bridge nearby had an arterial route
that had never been completed. The abandoned, blocked-off piece of
road veered off the bridge and abruptly ended over this secluded
section of the lake.
"Oh, good!" she declared. "No one else is around! It's just
Ray didn't hear any laughter, chatter, or water splashing. She
was right. They were alone here. It was what he wanted, but also a
little scary. He'd heard stories about drug deals, muggings, and
all sorts of creepy goings-on at the Arboretum late at night. The
rural oasis in the middle of the city seemed the perfect place for
some senseless, grisly murder.
The last time here at night with his three pals, Ray hadn't been
worried. But this was a totally different scenario, because he was
here alone with a beautiful girl --- and he had to protect her.
As they ventured toward the lake, Jenna seemed oblivious to the
potential hazards. Weaving a bit as she walked, she half-sang and
half-hummed a Eurythmics tune: "Sweet dreams are made of this. Who
am I to disagree?" She started to run ahead of him. Ray watched her
pull her T-shirt over her head, and then she shook out her long
brown hair. Her skin almost looked blue in the moonlight. His mouth
open, he gaped at her as she reached back and unhooked her bra.
"No one else is around," she said again. "This is perfect,
Ray started to undress, too. Jenna was already naked ---
and at the water's edge. Tossing aside her clothes, she let
out a scream and plunged into the lake. Ray got only a brief
glimpse of her beautiful, ripe ass before the water came up to her
waist. Then she was completely submerged.
Ray shucked down his jeans and undershorts. He hurried into the
cold water to catch up with her, but she hadn't resurfaced yet. The
soft bottom of the lake felt slimy between his toes as he made his
way toward deeper water. He kept glancing around for her, wondering
where she'd swum off to. For a few moments, he panicked --- until,
finally, she bobbed up, and grabbed the rope that hung from a
branch of the huge tree.
Ray felt at once relieved and awestruck by the sight of her. She
took his breath away. She was a vision with her long, wet hair
slicked back, and her flawless, creamy skin. Her breasts were
small, and her nipples --- hard from the cold water --- looked like
Jenna smiled at him. "If you can catch me," she called
playfully, "you can have me as your love slave! I'll do anything
Ray broke into a grin. "Then prepare to be caught, wench!" he
announced, trying to sound like a swashbuckling pirate. He started
toward her, keeping his head above water so he wouldn't miss one
moment of her in the moonlight.
Jenna scowled at him. "Did you just call me a bitch?"
"No, I said, wench...wench!" he explained, a little out of
breath. "I was like --- joking, y'know? I'd never
Jenna let out a squeal, then splashed him in the face.
Momentarily blinded, Ray heard her swimming away and singing
again, "Everybody's looking for something. Some of them want to use
you ..." Blinking, he turned and saw her backstroking farther into
the deep end, toward the unfinished arterial road off the 520
bridge. He glanced back at the shore to make sure their clothes
were still there. He saw them, still in a pile by the big tree.
But Ray saw something else on the shore, too --- something or
The pinpoint of light in the darkness was far away, maybe in the
meadow or perhaps in the parking lot. He couldn't tell if it was
someone with a flashlight --- or a single headlight. Whatever it
was, the thing seemed to be coming toward them and getting
brighter. Then suddenly it disappeared.
Ray stared off into the darkness for another few moments.
But he didn't see the strange, solitary light again.
All at once, everything was quiet. He couldn't hear Jenna
singing or splashing in the water anymore. Ray swiveled around and
gaped at the end of the aborted roadway jutting over the lake.
Jenna was hoisting herself up to one of the support beams. "What
are you doing?" he called. "Jenna, are you nuts?"
He swam toward her as fast as he could. But he wasn't the best
swimmer. He lost all sense of direction when his head was
underwater. After several frenzied strokes, Ray paused to catch his
breath and see where he was going. He'd veered away from the
bridge. But he spotted Jenna climbing over the guardrail to the
unfinished section of road.
She paused at the abrupt edge, about ten or twelve feet over the
water. Headlights from passing cars on the bridge briefly
illuminated her lean, nude silhouette. She looked so defiant,
uninhibited, and utterly gorgeous as she stood there. Ray was
mesmerized --- until she slowly raised her hands over her head. He
could see she was preparing to dive, and a panic swept through
His dad's best friend in high school was paralyzed after diving
into a quarry and hitting a boulder. Ray imagined blocks of
concrete under the water by that unfinished road. "Don't dive in
there, Jenna!" he called, swimming toward her. He got water in his
mouth and nose, and he began to cough. "You --- you could get hurt!
It's too dangerous...."
"I don't care," she replied, a tremor in her voice. It sounded
like she was crying. "It doesn't matter...."
Helplessly, he watched her push off from the edge. She executed
a flawless dive, plunging into the lake's placid surface with only
a small splash. Ray anxiously waited for her to emerge again, but
there was no sign of her for several, long, unendurable
He imagined having to carry her limp nude body all the way to
the car, and then speeding to the UW Hospital.
"Jenna?" he called out, glancing around. He didn't see her near
the shore. But he noticed the little point of light again ---
closer than before, yet still too far away for him to figure out
what it could be.
Right now, he was more concerned about Jenna. He knew she was
drunk; but her mood swings were absolutely nuts. Just five minutes
ago she'd been so excited, laughing and singing and flirting with
him. Then up on the edge of that unfinished road, he could have
sworn she was sobbing. Was she trying to commit suicide again?
For all he knew, she'd just succeeded. It had been at least a
minute since Jenna had plunged into the inky water --- and she
still hadn't resurfaced.
"Jenna?" he yelled, frazzled. "Goddamn it, Jenna . . ."
He turned at the sound of splashing water and saw her clutching
on to the rope again. This time, there was nothing sexy about it.
She was crying and gasping for air.
"Are you okay?" Ray asked, swimming toward her.
She didn't answer him. She started to pull herself up the
"Jenna, what the hell is going on?" he called. "Why are you
acting like this?"
She didn't even glance at him. A determined expression on her
face, Jenna continued to shimmy up the rope. He was amazed at her
strength and agility. He knew guys back in high school gym class
--- even a few of the jocks --- who had trouble with the rope
climb. Yet Jenna pulled herself up, passing the lower branches. He
heard her sobbing the whole time.
"What are you doing?" Ray called, heading toward the shore now.
"For God's sake, Jenna, you're going too high!"
She disappeared amid the top branches of the tree. But he could
still hear her crying.
Naked and shivering, Ray staggered onto the muddy bank. He
spotted her again, standing on one of the high branches. Jenna was
shivering, too. She still held on to the rope and braced herself
against another limb. She hoisted up the thick, braided cord, and
then took the slack and wrapped it around her neck.
"Oh, Jesus, no," Ray murmured, horrified. He raced to the tree
and began climbing it. The branches and rough bark scratched his
bare feet and scraped against his naked torso. But he pressed on,
grabbing one limb and then another, struggling to reach her before
she jumped. "NO!" he yelled with what little breath he had.
She gazed down at him. The rope was twisted around her neck.
"Please, Jenna," he gasped, climbing to a higher branch. "Even
if you're kidding, cut it out. You're giving me a heart attack
here. I don't want --- I don't want anything bad happening to you.
Why are you doing this anyway?"
Numbly, she stared back at him. "Why not?" she muttered. "Who
"I would, I'd care!" he answered, pulling himself up to the same
branch as her. She backed away --- farther out on the limb. He
didn't want to scare her off, so he stayed close to the base of the
tree. "Listen, if you're doing this for some kind of attention, you
don't need to. You've always had my attention, Jenna. If --- if I
see you in a room, you're all I see. I gotta tell you, I --- I'm
crazy about you." He clung to the tree branch and let out a
frightened laugh. "And I'd be really pissed if I lost you this
early in the game. . . ."
Jenna cracked an uncertain little smile. "You like me?" she
He nodded. "A lot --- even when you're acting weird, like now.
In fact, it makes me like you even more. How screwed up is
She wiped the tears from her eyes and managed to laugh. "Pretty
"We make a terrific pair," he said. Despite the fact that she
stood precariously on that limb with a rope wound around her neck,
Ray couldn't help looking at Jenna's beautiful breasts, her long
limbs, and that triangle of dark pubic hair.
He noticed she was looking him up and down, as well. She started
to unwrap the thick cord from around her neck.
Then she suddenly lost her footing.
Ray heard a branch snap. Jenna let out a shriek. Her arms
flailing, she teetered to one side. The rope was still partially
looped around her neck as she started to fall.
Paralyzed, Ray watched her careen down toward the lake. Twigs
cracked and broke as her body hit them on the way down. For a few
moments, everything was a blur. Ray didn't recall scrambling out on
the limb and then diving into the lake to rescue her. He just
remembered plunging into the water, then bobbing up to the surface
and gasping for air.
Jenna was only a few feet away, amid a whirlpool of leaves and
twigs. She held her forehead and laughed while treading water.
Somehow, the last loop of the rope had uncoiled during her fall. He
noticed some blood on her elbow --- and fresh scratch marks on her
arms. But her neck and face were unmarred.
"My God, are you okay?" he asked, wiping the water and snot from
Nodding, she drifted toward him. "I can't believe you dove in
after me," she murmured. "Do you know how high that was? You risked
your life for me...."
She put her arm around him, then kissed him.
Ray was too numb to feel aroused. Exhausted, they clung to each
other and made their way to the shore. He kept checking her arms
for cuts and scratch marks. Jenna said she'd be okay. As they both
emerged from the water, they paused to catch their breath. They
gazed at each other.
Her eyes seemed to focus on his torso. She gently touched his
hip. "You nicked yourself, poor baby," she whispered.
Ray glanced down at a scrape mark along his right rib cage.
"Should I kiss it and make it better?" she whispered.
Before he could answer, she bowed down. He felt her warm breath
against his cold, wet skin as she planted kisses along his rib
cage. Ray shuddered gratefully. He was about to close his eyes.
But he noticed that solitary light again --- coming closer.
"Wait, no ...wait, Jenna, no," he whispered, pulling her up.
She looked out toward the meadow --- toward the beam of light.
"What is that?"
Ray urgently pulled her toward the base of the tree, where
they'd left their clothes. "Let's get dressed, c'mon...." He
reached for his undershorts.
"What is that?" she repeated. Then she called out, "Who's there?
Is somebody there?"
Ray put on his boxers, then grabbed her bra and shook it at her.
"Y'know, Jenna," he whispered, "it might be a good idea to put some
With a perturbed look, she took the bra and slipped it on.
Ray swiped up her panties and handed them to her. He glanced
toward that eerie, single spot of light again. Now he could see a
person behind it. Someone with a flashlight was coming toward them.
Ray quickly stepped into his jeans and threw on his shirt. To his
utter frustration, Jenna was taking her sweet time getting dressed.
She stood there in just her bra and panties, squinting at that lone
figure with a flashlight.
Ray tried to get a good look at the man, but the flashlight was
blinding him. He heard the man's feet shuffling as the light got
closer and brighter. Ray shielded his eyes. "Who's there? Can I ---
can I help you?"
The light shined on Jenna. She sneered at the man behind it.
"What the hell do you want?"
Now Ray could see the lean, tall man in a police uniform. He was
about thirty-five, with black hair and a thin, weather- lined face.
His police cap was tucked under his arm. "Seattle Police," he
announced. "Are there any more of you out here? Or is it just you
Ray swallowed hard. "It's just us. . . ."
"Is that your red Volkswagen in the lot?" he asked.
Ray nodded. "Yes, that's my car. I'm sorry. Were we making too
"It's not a case of too much noise," the cop said, directing the
light at him again. "This park closes at ten p.m. So it's a case of
trespassing --- and indecent exposure."
Excerpted from DISTURBED © Copyright 2011 by Kevin O'Brien.
Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.