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The Paths We Take #15: Ghosts by Morning

May 22, 2018

 

 

 

 

Claire

 

I hesitated to open the door, as if the door were protecting me from the outside instead of keeping me there. I was another forgotten girl. Sometimes the damsel must save herself, I thought.

The first step was like daring myself to stick my foot in smoldering lava, but after the first, I scorched down the hallway and took the stairs three at a time. The night before, I imagined the whole escape in my head. I envisioned torching the sheets in my room; I felt the bursts of heat as the flames consumed the wooden walls behind me, turning the place into an orange splash in the blackness.

Ariel said that it wouldn’t be a good idea to burn the place. The smoke alarms would alert them almost immediately, and we had a real chance to just walk through the front door and into the darkness undetected. We would be ghosts by morning, new names and ID’s, courtesy of an old boyfriend of Ariel’s. She said that she would have gone on her own, that one of us would have a better chance of getting out than two, but she needed me for after. Ariel knew the cravings would hit her, best case scenario would be twelve hours, but five would be more realistic. She would be back at Donnelly’s door, begging for another chance and for the pills, and he would kill her then.

Ariel said she would be waiting for me near the front door. Gramps always left the keys in the four-wheeler, and Ariel knew that Donnelly was with another one of the girls in his bedroom on the other side of the compound. They would be able to hide under the cover of night, plenty of rocks on the trails to keep any normal-size vehicle from following them. I didn’t even know what direction to flee, but Ariel had come to and from the cabin at least two-dozen times before.

She was there, a gloved hand on the deadbolt, her black parka falling over ripped skinny jeans. The bruise on her face looked more like half of a mask in the dim dancing light of the fireplace. I didn’t have a heavy coat, but I didn’t care. Ariel lent me a black zip-up hoodie with a fleece liner. The worst part of my getaway-outfit were the shoes. Everything they gave me to wear at Donnelly’s had heels. I picked black ankle boots with four-inch heels that zipped on the sides, the more conservative of the assortment that I had to choose from.

Ariel gave me a close-lipped smile as she opened the door, reassuring me the best she could that everything was going to be okay. “You need to move that pretty ass really fast,” she said as she unlocked the door.

I don’t know how much time had passed before I felt the brisk night air punishing me for not having a warmer coat, but it felt like only a few seconds. The only sound was the humming of the four-wheeler as it seemed to glide across the ground underneath. I was holding onto Ariel, she was driving blind, except for the light of the moon and the remaining glow of the cabin. She didn’t turn the lights on until we rounded the curve that led to a trail that would help us avoid the main gate.

One thunderous “crack” came out of the darkness first, then came the tree, and then the icy bite of the forest floor. My ears felt clogged, and a high-pitched constant sound, like the sound of a flat-line on an EKG, filled my head. My face was covered with dirt and bits of broken leaves, and my arm felt like someone whacked me with a wooden bat.

I brought myself to my knees and looked over towards the headlights of the four-wheeler. I could smell the gasoline and oil as it puddled on the ground around Ariel. Her lifeless eyes were on me, and a lake of bright red formed underneath her body. I had never seen a dead body before, but somehow, I just knew that she was gone. Chunks of green plastic were strewn across the ground and the four-wheeler was a tangled mess of metal between two trees.

I saw the gun still tucked into Ariel’s skinny jeans, and the tears started to run as I pulled it from her waistband. I felt the warmth from the tears on my cheeks and down my neck as I stood up. The four-wheeler’s lights going on and off like fireflies. I was surprised that my legs didn’t hurt as I darted into the trees, my heels digging into the dirt and crunching on the lifeless leaves. I wandered through the dense mess of pines for a minute before the realization came that I was lost, alone, and probably would be dead soon.

I heard the snap of a branch behind me. I turned around, but I could only see trees, and a light, that I was sure was the Donnelly compound in the distance. I propped myself against a tree while I struggled to drink in the air.

I wanted to take another step, but a black leather hand grasped my throat. The hand squeezed harder, muting my scream, my hand slipping from the rigged bark of the tree trunk.

“You stupid bitch,” the familiar angry voice snapped. I looked up to find Bert, his eyes grabbing at me and his nostrils flared like a bull while he took big gulping breaths. He didn’t say anything else, he just dragged me by my arm while I tried to dig my heels into the dirt underneath. He dragged me towards the light, which I now realized were two lights, the headlights of the van.

I could hear a staticky voice say, “Did you stop them?” followed by heavy breathing in the background. I knew the voice; I imagined the words “pretty girl” coming over the radio next.

“The one’s dead. The other got away,” Bert responded as he opened the side door of the van. Why would he lie to them? Was he helping me?My hope in Bert was short-lived as he forced his lips to mine as he tried to shove me into the van.

I remembered the gun and ripped it out of the pocket of my sweatshirt. I pointed the barrel at Bert’s face and tried to pull the trigger. Nothing. The trigger wouldn’t budge. Bert’s fist smashed into my cheekbone, and the gun slipped out of my hand and dinged on the metal floor of the van.

“Stupid bitch,” Bert snarled as he grabbed my legs and tried to push them inside the van, my face throbbing, and my vision was muddied from the tears. “I’m going to make you scream, bitch,” he said as he used his foot to shove me further towards the driver’s side and slammed the door shut.

I felt the van lunge forward, and the tired screech of metal as the van bounced on the uneven dirt. A booming “rat-tat-tat” sound erupted, followed by shattering glass and metal thuds. Bits of debris pelted me as I curled into a ball. The van slowed to a lurch for a few seconds before it came to a sudden stop.

I scrambled for the doors but stopped as I saw Bert leaning over the center console, a chunk of skull, the size of a baseball, missing from the back of his head. The blood had started to flow like small red rivers branching out across the van floor.

The side doors opened. Gramps was breathing heavy as he choked on the night air while he leaned against the van, his head poking in at me. Donnelly was standing a few feet back from the door. I could see the rifle, the kind that you find in Call of Duty video games, gripped with both hands, the barrel pointed towards the ground.

Donnelly leaned his head inside the van. He glanced in Bert’s direction and then brought his eyes to mine. I put my hands in front of my face and just let the tears come. Gramps put his hand on my arm and gave a slight nod of his head as I looked up at him, motioning me out.

All three of us were silent on the ride back to the cabin. Gramps drove while Donnelly and I sat in the back seat. I flinched as he reached for my face. I felt the soft cloth run across my cheek. He held the handkerchief out so I could see it when he finished wiping my face. I could see the red and brown smudges on the ivory cloth.

“You’ll be okay…  It’s not yours,” Donnelly commented as the car came to a stop by the front steps to the cabin. The engine went silent. The moonlight painted the landscape in a blue haze. Donnelly put his hand on my chin and forced me to look at him. “You’ll know when it’s yours,” he said.

 

© Josiah A. Miller 2018. All Rights Reserved.