Caren Hahn

Lost in Owl Creek: Chapter 1

(***Warning: Contains spoilers for earlier books.***)

A thin layer of frost glittered on the stone path leading up to the massive front door of the Fishers’ sprawling brick home. Stained a deep walnut, the door’s ornate woodwork served as an elegant backdrop for a giant cedar wreath hung over the etched glass window. Twinkling lights shone in a large picture window to the right of the entrance, hinting at a Christmas tree in its customary place of honor.

Abby’s shoes, black Mary Janes with a flower motif stamped onto the strap, scraped against the paving stones as she darted ahead of Val to reach the door first.

“Hold on, wait for me,” Val said, anxiety making her tone strained. As much as she wanted this meeting—needed it, even—she was sick with dread and needed a moment to collect herself. Walking up this pathway was awakening memories she’d tried to bury for nearly a year. She felt numbness hardening around her and recognized it as a defense mechanism to being here, in this place. But she would power through. She had to.

She and Abby had spent Christmas in Phoenix with Val’s mother and sister Gina then caught a flight to Chicago the following day. Abby would spend the rest of the holiday break with her Grandma and Grandpa Fisher, but Val had something important she needed to do first.

Someone she needed to see.

Because the stately home sat at the end of a winding drive accessed through a security gate, there was no way to show up unannounced. Sure enough, as Abby reached for the doorbell, the front door opened.

Charles Fisher greeted his granddaughter with a wide smile.

“Grandpa!” Abby cried as he scooped her up into his arms.

Charles wore a pair of chinos and a navy cardigan over a button shirt without a tie, the most casual Val ever saw him. Even the Christmas holiday was a time to put your best foot forward when you were a Fisher.

Val had prepared accordingly, wearing a pencil skirt and heels despite the dusting of fresh snow on the upscale suburb of Chicago. She’d purchased a whole ensemble special for this occasion just so she wasn’t wearing anything Jordan could recognize from their life together. Even though she’d bought everything at a discount store in Pineview, the clothes felt like an extravagance.

In the months since the Owl Creek bombings, she’d gone to work as an aide at the elementary school. The pay was barely enough for her and Abby to live on, especially as she was registered to start taking classes at the community college in January. But this investment in her wardrobe had been necessary to assert whatever independence she could when she faced her husband.

“Good morning, Valerie,” Charles said, setting Abby down and offering an arm for a half hug. “Can I take your coat?”

“Hi, Charles. Merry Christmas.” She leaned into the hug, the familiar warmth of him putting her at ease. He smelled pleasantly of Old Spice, which always reminded Val of her own dad. She slipped out of her wool coat—the one garment she hadn’t replaced—and handed it over.

“How was your flight?” Charles asked, a kind sparkle in his eyes. “Did you try the trick with the stickers?”

Val smiled. “She loved them, thank you. Which reminds me, I stuck a package in the outside pocket of her suitcase, so she can have them on the flight home.”

A rhythmic clicking on the tile floor announced the approach of Jeanette Fisher and Heidi, her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Jeanette wore flowing slacks and a white cashmere sweater that Val suspected cost more than one of her public education paychecks.

“Valerie, Abby, do come in. So good to see you.” Jeanette’s tone was warm and welcoming, but it put Val immediately on edge. Jeanette knew what she was doing there, what she carried in her messenger bag. After all these months of trying to talk Val out of a divorce, had her mother-in-law finally accepted the inevitable?

It was hard to believe. But then, Val had never felt like she and Jeanette really understood each other. Charles, though, was a different story. Val had always felt genuine acceptance from him.

She followed Charles and Abby through a pillared archway and into the formal living room where the Christmas tree stood. It was tastefully decorated in gold and white, looking like something out of a magazine. Presents wrapped in shining paper with velvet bows sat beneath its spreading boughs.

“Wow!” Abby said, gazing up at the tree. “Look, Mom, it’s bigger than the one in the school library. Way bigger than ours!”

“It’s beautiful,” Val agreed.

“Who are these presents for?” Abby asked Jeanette.

Jeanette crouched down and fingered an embossed tag so Abby could read the name. “Why don’t you see for yourself?”

Abby’s eyes widened. “For me?”

“Some of them,” Jeanette answered. Smile lines creased the corners of her eyes. “We decided we would wait for you to come before celebrating Christmas. What do you think of that?”

Abby looked hopefully at Val. “You mean, I get to have two Christmases?”

“That’s very generous of you.” Val hoped her smile looked more genuine than it felt.

“They’re not all for her,” Charles said, as if guessing her thoughts, “but Jordan wanted to get her a few things.”

“Of course.” Val glanced around the room, half-expecting and half-fearing to see Jordan in the doorway.

“He’s waiting for you in the library,” Jeanette said, the light dimming from her eyes. “Unless you’d rather wait…”

“No, thank you. My flight leaves this afternoon, so I need to get on the road.” Val’s stomach flipped again like she was going to be sick. She hadn’t eaten breakfast at the hotel for this exact reason. But this is why she was here, so she gripped her messenger bag and left Abby gleefully examining the presents and blissfully unaware of the gravity of what her mom was about to do.

The double doors to the library were closed, and the frosted glass disguised the interior. Val wondered if she should knock, but surely Jordan knew she was there. Was he as nervous to see her as she was to see him? Val paused and took a deep breath to calm her nerves. You are a warrior, she whispered on the exhale as she opened the door.

Shelves lined one wall, filled with books, framed photographs on small easels, and other mementos of the Fishers’ almost forty years together. The carpet was plush beneath Val’s feet as she stepped inside, the small click of the door latch closing behind her announcing her arrival.

Jordan stood before a gas fireplace and turned as she entered. The snowy daylight, cool and stark, fell across his features.

Val’s breath caught.

She’d imagined—and dreaded—this meeting so many times in recent weeks, yet she still wasn’t prepared for what it felt like to recognize him. Her whole body came alert in a way that said, I know you. She paused just inside the door, trying to push away the feeling of longing that welled up inside—a memory of touch and tenderness over the formative years that had defined Val’s transformation into adulthood.


Just one word. Her name. His thumbs were hooked in his front pockets, a posture as familiar as the timbre of his voice. His hands twitched and he folded his arms, then dropped them to his sides as if he wasn’t sure what to do with them. He was dressed in jeans and a dusty blue sweater layered over a white shirt, a casual look that he still managed to make sophisticated.

“Come in,” he said. “It’s so good to see you. You look…amazing.”

Somehow Val summoned the strength to step forward into the room. He reached for her like he wanted to touch her, but she shielded herself with the messenger bag and sidestepped to the nearest leather sofa. She sat on the edge of the cushion, unable to relax. The leather was cold against her bare legs.

“You look very much alive,” she said. “Not exactly what I expected when you disappeared a year ago.” She hadn’t meant to say it, but the ache in her chest betrayed her and she couldn’t hold it back. Focus. He’s not worth dredging up old pain.

Jordan sat opposite her in a wingback armchair and leaned forward, his forearms on his knees. Just the way he moved was so familiar it stirred something inside of her. A knowing. A feeling of belonging. Still, there were some differences. He was thinner than she remembered and his sandy-colored hair was cut shorter than she’d ever seen it, making it look almost brown. His close beard didn’t quite disguise the single dimple, and she found herself looking for it rather than looking into his eyes.

“It’s too late to say I’m sorry,” Jordan said. “I know that. But I am, Val, for what it’s worth.”

“Did that work on the prosecutors?”

He blinked. “I don’t expect you to understand. What I did was unforgivable. But I hope you’ll believe me when I say I really thought it would be best for you and Abby. I was trying to protect you, and I thought if I disappeared things would blow over faster.” It sounded rehearsed, like a prepared speech, and she wondered how many times he’d imagined this meeting too.

But then, he’d kept his crimes a secret for years. If there was one thing he was skilled at, it was telling her things she wanted to hear.

Anger shot like heat up her spine. “You weren’t thinking of us, you were only thinking of yourself. If you’d really wanted to protect us, you would have turned yourself in. What even happened to you?” A crack in her voice betrayed her emotion and she cursed herself for not holding it together.

Jordan sighed and looked out the window at the manicured lawn where snow lay as pristine as a postcard.

“I wish I could explain, but I can’t.”

In that moment, Val realized that for as much as she’d told herself it didn’t matter, she did want an explanation. For him to deny her that felt like a final betrayal. With effort, she pushed away all feeling behind the wall of numbness and turned to the matter at hand.

“Whatever, it doesn’t matter now. I have the papers here.” She opened her messenger bag and pulled out the sheaf of papers waiting for his signature. “The terms are what our lawyers discussed.”

“I get relegated to the Disneyland Dad?” Jordan said dryly as he took the papers from her.

“Considering that you were Dead Dad until recently, I’d say this is an improvement.”

The silence grew long as Jordan thumbed through the paperwork, occasionally pausing to examine something in more detail.

Val had a hard time breathing and offered a silent prayer that Marcene hadn’t made any mistakes. Val had intended to let their lawyers handle all the communication, but Jordan had insisted on seeing her in person before signing the divorce papers. He’d conceded to all her demands, so this seemed one consideration she could give him. But the pressure she felt watching him examine all the forms made her wish she’d refused.

When Jordan reached the end, he paused and looked up at Val. “What is this?”

Val glanced at the sheet in his hand and mentally kicked herself. She’d meant to give the letter to Abby to deliver on her own. The last thing she wanted to do was make this meeting sentimental. “It’s a letter Abby wrote for you over the summer when she missed you. Before we knew you were alive.”

Jordan scanned the page, mouthing some of the words Abby had spelled phonetically with a smile tugging at his lips. His eyes widened when he finished. “There was a cougar on your parents’ property?”

Val was immediately transported back to that summer day with Joel when they’d discovered Sam Howser’s body on the hill behind the farmhouse. The terror she’d felt when the cougar threatened them. The way Joel had placed himself in front of her as a shield—an act which had awed her at the time and which she now understood to be so quintessentially Joel that she couldn’t imagine him doing any less.

But she wasn’t about to tell Jordan any of that, so she dismissed it with a simple, “Fish and Wildlife took care of it.”

Jordan set aside the letter and settled back in his chair. “Thank you for making room for me in Abby’s life. I know it can’t be easy, but I appreciate it.”

His gratitude took the edge off her stress.

“It’s not what I wanted for her,” Val said. “None of this is. But no matter how I feel about you, she has the right to make her own decisions about who her father is.”

“I promise I’ll be there for her,” he said fervently. “She’ll be able to count on me.”

The ache in Val’s heart grew. I couldn’t count on you, she wanted to say. Why should she? But it was too late for that. She couldn’t get those years back now. And she wouldn’t even want to if given the chance. Not now that she knew what he was capable of.

Jordan signed the divorce papers with the same deliberateness he’d shown in reviewing them.

Val waited for a sense of relief to come as he finished the last one, but instead she just felt tired.

She bound them back in the folder and slipped it into her messenger bag.

“Thank you for coming to do this in person,” he said. “It seems like two people should look each other in the eye when they end their marriage instead of doing it through strangers.”

“Well, I’m glad it worked out,” Val said brusquely, moving to stand.

He stood, too, and held out his arms. “May I…?”

She let him embrace her but held the messenger bag against her stomach and didn’t return the affection. He smelled differently than she remembered, but the way his arms fit around her was so familiar she closed her eyes briefly, wondering how it had come to this.

He pulled back and held her at arm’s length. “For what it’s worth, I never stopped loving you. I knew I didn’t deserve you, but I always loved you.”

Val tried to muster a scathing response, but she could see the truth of it in his eyes.

“Sometimes love isn’t enough,” she said quietly.

He let her go but called to her before she reached the door.


She stopped and looked back, one hand on the doorknob.

“Is he good to you?” He didn’t sound bitter. Only sad.

She didn’t have to ask who Jordan was talking about.

“He is.” She looked at the gas fireplace instead of making eye contact.

“That’s good. I’m glad. You deserve the best.” The pain in his voice made her throat tighten.

She wouldn’t feel guilty for hurting him. She wouldn’t feel guilty for moving on.

“Goodbye, Jordan,” she said as she opened the door. But she looked back before she left and offered a last token of reconciliation. “Thank you.”

* * *

The heart-stopping series finale releases March 12!

Hatched: Dragon Speaker (Chapter 1)