Authors: Arthur Mitchell
It wasn't just that he'd slap me across the face again that bothered me. They'd already done that once.
I could deal with it. Rather, the high rafters in this ruined barn distorted all sounds, transforming my horrified yelps into something so inhuman it only stirred the panic inside me.
“It's upstairs,” I murmured. “Up in my barn, and you can have all of it! Just please...please, let me go.
I don't want anything to do with this.”
Shit. It's taken them – what? – half an hour to demolish what little fight I had in me?
Not that there's any reason to fight over money now. I'm going to have a baby.
Keeping it safe from these lunatics is all that matters.
“Sounds like the bitch is telling the truth, Gordon.” The coarse voice behind me laughed.
It belonged to a skinny man slathered in spidery tattoos, the same one with the gaunt arms who'd helped capture me and who now held me on the dusty ground.
He probably wasn't that strong, but I wasn't going to test him to find out.
I'd already screamed my head off. The older, leathery skinned man named Gordon had struck my cheek, roaring his irritation in my face.
He paced around me once, stopping when we were face level again. He pulled his lips back.
The dull silver teeth in his mouth flashed, ugly as broken rocks, but he wasn't smiling.
“Is that it, girl? Are you being honest? Or are you gonna be a fucking snitch like your old man?”
My back muscles rippled, broken and uncontrolled in their panic. The skinny man dug his fingers into my biceps, hard enough to hurt.
“I'm...I'm telling you everything. Please, you can have it all. I know it belongs to you.”
Saying the last words almost killed me. But honestly, right that second, I'd say
if it got them to let me go.
to keep me from ever smelling their sickly breath again.
“Maybe we'll dump your ass off back home, huh? And you'll go find it for us, no questions asked?
No unwelcome calls to the police or the DEA?”
I nodded vigorously, twisting my face away as he blew foul air out his lips, straight onto my face.
I can't even describe how badly I wanted him off me. The acrid vapor like old liquor almost made me gag.
“Well, we're not going to do things that way, girl. We tried that with pops, and he ran right for the cops as soon as our backs were turned. Guess that's what we get for trying to deal with a dumb redneck too old to keep his mouth shut.” Gordon paused, deep in thought.
“It's just a miracle that piece of shit didn't wreck our supplies before we could haul them off his property. Got everything – except our money.”
Gordon's partner laughed. His fingers clawed at me harder, as if he were waiting for something.
His boss' face curled, snapped like he was going to headbutt me, and then jerked back in a grimace. I whimpered, seriously wondering if I were staring at a man or a demon.
“Oh, little girl, you should've seen it! We paid him back so good for his shit. So fucking good.” He jumped into the air, both fists raised, bending his knees low when he hit the ground.
“Haven't had as much fun in years as I did beating the piss out of that stupid fucker. And then we rolled over his head like a melon – God damn!” His fist shot out in rapture, and I ducked, amazed that I still had my reflexes through this nightmarish confession.
His wretched excitement left me too numb to think, to feel, to do anything but operate on base survival.
The thug grunted and grabbed for his buddy's fist, snarling in rapture as he graphically watched my Pa's murder replay in his mind.
I sniffed, barely conscious that I'd started crying.
The tears came, hot and dry. I didn't understand how my happy morning had deteriorated into
It just didn't compute. Deep in my brain, I felt like something was about to give, like an old branch clobbered with boots one too many times before it inevitably snapped.
“I'll tell you what we're gonna do,” Gordon whispered, his predatory face next to mine once again.
“We're gonna drive you to that shithole ranch tonight. We'll all go up there together. Soon as the cash is in our hands, then we'll decide what to do with you.”
“You mean you...won't let me go? Even after you have what you want? What the hell else do you want with me?” My lips curled, furious and confused.
“That's for us to decide, bitch.” The skinny man pressed his knee dangerously against my skin. “You help us out, and you got some chance. You put up a fight and try to fuck us over like dear dead dad, and you got
. Maybe we'll let you off easy...or maybe we drop you off in the country after we have a little fun with you.”
“Enough, Marco. She's young and dumb, but I think she gets it.” His hands relaxed, like an obedient pet obeying his master's words.
Sniffing through my grief, I clammed up. I had to.
This was base survival, and nothing else. If I didn't find some way to keep the fury and sadness inside, I was done for.
Men like this didn't listen to reason, and they certainly didn't hear emotion either.
My vision blurred. Gordon whipped himself around and walked away from me.
He leaned on a torn hole in the old abandoned barn and lit a cigarette. It seemed like he smoked three, maybe four, staring off into the desolate countryside the entire time.
I'd seen the place from the road a thousand times. But no matter what happened, I knew I'd never look at these ruins the same way.
All I could think about was getting another chance to look at anything at all. If I didn't do exactly what they said, just the way they wanted it, they wouldn't hesitate to drive over my head – or maybe worse.
The skinny man wouldn't let go of my arms, even for a second. His clammy paws pulsed, gradually angling themselves lower while his boss wasn't looking.
I closed my eyes and said a prayer. Above us, the deep blue sky shimmered like an upside-down sea, strangely at odds with everything else.
If anyone's looking out for me, now's the time. Ethan, Pa, God...whoever and wherever you are, I
need your help. If not me, then help my baby. Please, save both of us.
When I opened my eyes, Gordon had tossed his cigarette to the ground. He was running outside, and I felt an added unease creeping through my captor's arms, like slow moving static passing through me.
My eyes went wide. There was a scuffle just behind the worn wall, two men shouting angrily and something clattering to the ground.
When Gordon returned, my face fell toward the ground. My prayers had been answered, but not in any way I wanted.
Ethan stood before me, tall and strong, even in real peril. I couldn't see what Gordon had digging into his back, but I knew it was something more menacing than his hand.
He carried a gun I recognized in his opposite arm. He'd gotten Ethan's weapon too, and now he was doubly armed. Twice as dangerous.
“Let's go, fucker. This way.”
I tried not to look at him as Gordon guided him over. The worst thing we could do was let them know that we knew each other. But then, they probably realized that.
Still, I wasn't stupid. They'd see message between us as an escape attempt.
I didn't want to find out what they'd do us if they thought we were trying to get away, right under their noses.
Calmer, Gordon resumed his slow drag on a seemingly endless cigarette. Skinny Marco wasn't holding onto me as tight anymore – not when he had to closely watch my lover too.
I hadn't realized how much time had passed until Ethan appeared. He spread his hands on his big thighs, just inches away, so close it was hard not to tip away from the criminal and crash into his arms.
I longed for his comfort. Needed it so bad it hurt.
At one point, he looked at me, eyes bright as new emeralds.
Is everything okay?
I saw the question there, stark and silent.
I nodded, answering his imaginary words.
“Keep yourself steady, bitch,” Marco snorted behind me. “Don't get so god damned antsy. We'll be moving you along soon enough.”
“Yeah. It's about time for that.” Gordon turned around, a sadistic gleam in his eye as he looked us over one last time.
“What's your story, cowboy? Hmm? You came here to find your little girlfriend?” Twisting his lips into a new terrible smile, he grabbed for Ethan's chin, fighting him with one hand as he shook his head.
“I'll take that stupid hat too. We're not leaving anything to ID you if we wind up dumping off your bodies.” Ethan flinched as the criminal raised the hat away, lifting it up to his nearly bald head, laughing coldly.
I started to sweat. Ethan looked like he was about to explode, a human spring loaded with buckshot.
“Come on. Up, up! Just like Gordon says.” Marco kicked near my belt, catching my shirt and briskly scratching the skin of my low back.
Ethan stood up too, his chest noticeably rising and falling much faster than before. He was going to blow – it was just a question of when and how.
We all followed Gordon to the rusted Escalade parked just a few feet from a familiar black pickup.
The head thug waited near the vehicle and slipped something into Marco's hands. I swallowed hard, realizing it was probably the extra gun he needed to hold us both at bay, without any problems.
At least I hope there won't be trouble. I'm more worried about Ethan. God, please let him box away
the killer instinct. Just this once.
If he doesn't, we're both done for.
I cut my searing hopes off there. My prayers had already twisted around on me once, like someone playing a sick joke.
I couldn't risk another fiery slap from God, the universe, or whatever else had brought my lover and I to these brutal men.
Did Pa keep praying as they killed him?
I wondered, flinching as Marco crammed me into the cold leather seat next to Ethan.
Pa hadn't been the most faithful churchgoing man, but he hadn't stopped believing. I was the opposite.
Too many skeptics in the city had tarnished my girlhood faith. I pinched my eyes closed and forced away the deadly thoughts, knowing I wouldn't be able to comfort myself or anyone else if the final moment came.
The Escalade took off like a rocket. Gordon drove more recklessly than I'd noticed on the way there.
It seemed that we weren't the only ones getting anxious.
Sunset was almost finished. The dying sun sank beneath the horizon, casting a deep red autumnal glow across the landscape.
Twilight for the plains. I don't care what happens next, as long as it isn't twilight for us.
The dirt road leading back to our area was almost a straight shot. The Escalade rounded its first wide turn when I heard a loud thump in front of me, somewhere near the pedals.
“What the fuck? Brakes are stuck or something,” Gordon muttered.
Ethan looked toward me as I heard the driver's foot slam onto the brakes several more times. The vehicle would fly straight into a deep ditch if he didn't make the turn.
We locked eyes, and I saw him nod his head once, just before he pounced. The cabin exploded with the sounds of men yelling as Ethan's hands locked around Marco's neck.
It was so sudden I didn't have time to ponder if he was trying to choke off his breath or crush the thug's Adam's Apple. The truck zig-zagged more violently, slowing only a little bit as Gordon fought to pry Ethan's hands away.
“Now! Open the door, Cat, now!”
The adrenaline racing through my veins made me react faster than I thought possible. I held my breath and popped the door, fighting the air pressure to push it open.
The time for choices was over. One of them had managed to grab the gun, and I heard its deafening shot before I went sailing into the hot evening air with Ethan, crashing to the ground and rolling, rolling, rolling.
It was like being on a ship in a storm, an airplane crash – maybe even both at once. Somehow, Ethan had tucked himself around my whole body, absorbing the teeth chattering impact.
We screamed together, slowing dramatically as his body zipped over some thin brush. I was still paralyzed and shrieking long after we stopped.
I ended up on his chest. I stretched out my limbs, amazed that I was alive in one piece.
Rolling off him, I braced my hands on my head to steady the vertigo spinning in my head.
When I could finally think straight, I leaned to Ethan, checking him as best as I could. He was barely conscious, bleeding heavily from the temple.
Instinct took over, and I sent the thinking, emotional part of me into the lonely basement. My fingers tore at the hem of my shirt, cutting makeshift bandages here in the dirt and broken branches.
I ignored my minor scrapes as I applied the fabric to the big gashes along his arms. I pressed the biggest one to his head, shaking when I saw how much blood had been dabbed up.
“God, hold on with me, Ethan. You're going to be okay. Help is coming.” I bit my tongue, unsure if the words were anything other than bitter lies.
It wasn't totally nightfall yet. Sooner or later, someone had to pass and phone in the wreck. But I knew it would probably be at least an hour before someone found us. Possibly an hour or two too long.
“Is it true?” He whispered, closing his eyes to rest.
“What? What are you asking me?” My voice shook with my body. I seized his large hand and pulled it to my breasts, kissing the long scratch running across the back of his hand.
“Are you really pregnant?”
I smiled. In his state, I expected his mind to be on a million things. Anything besides
“Yes! We did, Ethan. I took the test this morning. You shouldn't have found out this way, but...”
“Any way is fine with me.” He squeezed my hand.
“I'm happy. You could take away my arms and legs right now, and I'd still be satisfied, knowing that you and I have made a miracle together. Our miracle.”
His fingers went slack in mine. I pounded on his hand, desperate to get him to stay with me.
I didn't know much about medicine, but I knew the obvious dangers of slipping into unconsciousness after a severe shock to the system.