Home > The Last to Vanish

The Last to Vanish
Author: Megan Miranda

 

PART 1


Landon West

Date missing: April 2, 2022

Last seen: Cutter’s Pass, North Carolina

The Passage Inn

 

 

AUGUST 3, 2022

 

 

CHAPTER 1


HE ARRIVED AT NIGHT, in the middle of a downpour, the type of conditions more suitable for a disappearance.

I was alone in the lobby—removing the hand-carved walking sticks from the barrel beside the registration desk, replacing them with our stash of sleek navy umbrellas—when someone pushed through one of the double doors at the entrance. The sound of rain cascading over the gutters; the rustle of hiking pants; the screech of wet boots on polished floors.

A man stood just inside as the door fell shut behind him, with nothing but a black raincoat and some sob story about his camping plans.

Nothing to be afraid of: the weather, a hiker.

I was only half listening at first, his request buried under a string of apologies. I’m so sorry, I’m usually more prepared than this and I know this is a huge inconvenience but—

“We can get you taken care of,” I said, making my way behind the desk, where I had the room availability list already pulled up on the single computer screen. This was the type of rain that drove hikers off the mountain—sudden and fierce enough to shake their resolve, when they’d give a second thought to their gear, their stamina, their will. Unlike him, I had been ready for this.

The back of our property ended where the local access trail began: It was marked by a small wooden sign leading day hikers on a path to the falls, but the trail then continued on in a steep ascent, pressing upward until it ultimately collided with the great Appalachian beyond. Our guests loved the convenience, the accessibility, that touch of the wild—the mountain looming, so close, from the other side of their floor-to-ceiling windows.

From the ridge of that mountain, at the T intersection of the two trails, I knew, you could see us, too: the dome of the inn, and the town just beyond, with the steeple of the church pushing up through the treetops; the promise of civilization. Sometimes, on nights like this, they spilled down the mountain like ants scurrying out of a poisoned mound, searching for a place of last resort. Our lights drawing them closer, the first sign of respite off the trail.

Sometimes if there was only one room, strangers would join forces and bunk up, in the spirit of things.

Right now, it was high season and we were booked solid in the main building, but three of the four outside cabins were vacant. The accommodations out there were more rustic, mainly used for either long-term stays or purposes such as this.

The man was still standing on the far side of the lobby, hands cupped in front of his mouth, as if the storm carried a chill. I saw his gaze flick to the freestanding fireplace in the center of the room. “You’re going to have to come a little closer to check in,” I said.

He laughed once and lowered the hood of his raincoat as he crossed the lobby, shaking out his hair, and then his arms, in an uncannily familiar gesture. I felt my smile falter and tried to cover for it with a glance toward the computer screen, running through the possibilities. A return visitor. Someone I’d seen in town earlier this week. Nothing. Coincidence.

“Here we go,” I said, turning my attention his way again, hoping the sight of him so close would trigger a memory, place him in context: brown hair halfway between unkempt and in style; deep-set blue eyes; somewhere in his thirties; no wedding ring; the sharp line of a white scar on the underside of his jaw, which I could only see because he was a solid head taller. I imagined him falling during a hike, hands braced for impact, chin grazing rock; I imagined a hockey stick to the face, helmet dislodged, blood on ice.

I did this sometimes, imagined people’s stories. It was a habit I was actively trying to break.

I was sure I knew him from somewhere, but I couldn’t place it, and I was usually good at this. I remembered the repeat visitors, could pull a name from three years earlier, recognizing those who’d gotten married or divorced, even, changing names and swapping partners. I paid attention, kept notes, filed away details. The stories I imagined for them sometimes helped.

He looked behind him at the empty lobby before leaning one arm on the distressed wooden countertop between us. “I’m so sorry,” he repeated, though I wasn’t sure whether he was referring to his lack of reservation or the puddles of water he had trailed across the wide plank floor. “It’s just, I left my wallet somewhere. Out there.” His raincoat rustled as he gestured toward the door. He was pointing in the opposite direction of the mountain, but I let that go because of the dark and the rain, and because I knew how disorienting it could get out there, on a bad night. “I had some cash in my car, though,” he said, hand stuffed deep into the pocket of his coat before he pulled out a damp roll of twenties. “For emergencies.”

He extended the money my way, an offering held between the tips of his fingers.

Hikers sometimes arrived like this, it wasn’t unheard of, but I started reassessing him. The clean fingernails. The collar of his blue T-shirt, just visible, still dry. The familiar squeak of too-new rubber-soled boots, before they’d gotten any good miles on them.

Celeste wouldn’t approve of this—a man with no ID and no credit cards, showing up just before closing. She’d say I needed to look after myself first of all, and then the guests, and then the inn. Would warn me that we were alone up here, that the only way to project control was to make sure others didn’t think they held the reins. Celeste would rather the lost customer than the lost upper hand. She’d say, So sorry, we’re all full, and she’d mention the campgrounds down by the river, the rentals over the storefronts, the motel in the next town. But I’d been known to make some exceptions. I didn’t like the idea of leaving anyone alone out there, especially on nights like this. Besides, I was sure he’d been here before at some point.

“No problem,” I said, “Mr.—”

His gaze was drifting around the lobby again, taking everything in, like he’d never seen this place before: the fireplace encased in stone and glass, visible from all angles, logs piled up into perfect pyramids on either side; the two-story arch of the dome with the exposed wood beams, the large picture windows that made up the entirety of the far wall, for the best views; the keys hanging from the pegboard in a locked display behind me.

“Sir?” I repeated.

He finally made eye contact. “Clarke,” he said, clearing his throat. “With an e.” He smiled apologetically, a little lopsided, a dimple in his left cheek—another twinge of familiarity.

The name didn’t ring a bell.

“Sure thing, Mr. Clarke. Let’s see what I can do for you.”

Cutter’s Pass was a seasonal, small-town haven: river guides and zip lines; a well-maintained campground a half mile outside downtown; horseback tours and an abundance of hiking trails forking off into the surrounding mountains. There were three types of visitors we typically got at the inn. The high-end vacationers who wanted a taste of rustic without actually roughing it; the hikers who thought they were ready to rough it, and discovered they were not, asking for a cabin, or any availability please; and the tourists who came for our eerie history, our notoriety—usually groups of friends who asked a lot of questions and drank a lot of beer at the tavern down the road and stumbled in late, laughing and clinging to one another, like they had escaped something. They always seemed surprised by the reality of Cutter’s Pass—that it was more REI and craft beer, overpriced farmers’ markets and upscale accommodations, less whatever stereotype of Appalachia had taken root in their heads.

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