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Authors: Carolyn Lee Adams

Ruthless

BOOK: Ruthless
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To all the survivors out there—keep on fighting until yo
u
're thriving.

CHAPTER ONE

I CAN'T SEE. I DON'T
know why I can't see.

I do know I was just dreaming. Running in a white dress through a field of wildflowers, no less. It was like a commercial for laundry detergent or tampons or a prescription medication that has death listed as a possible side effect. The dream is embarrassing, but it's better than the here and now. I try to crawl back into the dream, but it won't have me. Reality rushes in, faster and faster, chasing the dream away, replacing it with complete and utter darkness.

I need to open my eyes. I don't know anything else, but I know that. I try to open them.

Nothing happens. Just blackness.

Don't panic.

Think.

Thinking is hard and I know why. Concussion. My fourth one.
First two came courtesy of falling off horses. The third was the result of a PE flag-football game gone awry. I forgot about the flags, tackled a guy three times my size. His heel cracked against my forehead, but he didn't get the touchdown.

Focus
.

Did I fall off Tucker? Somehow that seems wrong, seems impossible. I look for the memory, knowing it has to be around here somewhere. Tucker has an abscess in his right front hoof. He's on stall rest. Did I fall off another horse? That doesn't seem right either.

But it seems the most likely. So what next? And why can't I see?

Check if anything is broken.

I start with my toes. They wiggle. I can feel them. This is good. It seems they're inside boots, so maybe I did fall off a horse. My legs are oddly stiff, like they're too heavy to move. I try to bend a knee, but it isn't happening. My right arm is a no go. There's pain there. A lot of pain. It's dulled by the concussion, but that arm is a sleeping bear I don't want to prod. Luckily, I'm left-handed.

The left arm isn't hurt, but it also doesn't want to move. Not as bad as the legs, though, or the injured right arm. I think this left arm can get me somewhere.

Time to summon the will to move it.

Take a deep breath. . . .

Dirt falls into my mouth. Not dirt. Manure and shavings, something spiky. It's hay. Hay and shavings and manure.

I feel it now, pressing up against my neck and jaw, against my body and legs. It's dangerously close to my nose, and it's why I can't move. It's pressing down on me, pinning me in place.

Adrenaline hits my bloodstream. I fight my left arm free, dig the muck away from my mouth, and take a swallow of clean air.

Slow your breathing. Slow it down. Do it.

Nothing but air. It's all I think about for several minutes. I calm down, and the adrenaline ebbs away. I want to fall back to sleep. Sleep is soothing. Quiet. Peaceful. There's a field of wildflowers on the other side of sleep.

No.

I have to fight the concussion. I need to open my eyes. Maybe the dirt was pressed against my eyes. Maybe that's why I couldn't see. Hope gives me new energy. I try again, and get nowhere.

Maybe I don't have eyes anymore.

True fear now. For the first time. My thinking is clear enough for real, raw, primal fear to sink in. Time to be courageous. Time to check. But I don't want to know.

Be brave
.

I take my left hand and reach for my eyes. There's something weird there, but I don't know what it is. It's almost rough. But there's definitely blood. Lots and lots of it. Sticky, heavy blood.

I jerk my hand away and strike metal. There's something metal above my face.

The fear broadens into something deeper. I am in trouble. Dear God, I am in trouble. I don't know what kind of trouble, but I know it's bad. Do my parents know? Am I alone?

I try to listen. Dirt muffles my hearing. My ears are halfway encased in the filth, but it seems like there isn't anything to hear. Except a hum. A deep, resonating hum that overwhelms everything.

Concussion. I know you well, old friend. Now kindly get the hell away from me. You may leave my hearing on your way out
.

A wave of nausea crashes over me. I don't know where I am, but my best guess is somewhere on the ranch. Possibly under the manure pile. Was I in a tractor accident? Tractor chores are not my favorite. I lack skills, to put it mildly. But I won't let that damn tractor win, so I drag the arena, push the manure pile back, and do all the things the hired hands do.

Did I flip the tractor?

Should I call for help?

No.

No?

No. Don't call for help.

Why not call for help?

No. Feels risky somehow.

All right, no. Listen to your gut, my mom always says. And I do. It usually steers me right.

Okay, now what? How do I figure out where I am? Time for my left hand to do some exploring. Weird how I'm thinking about my left hand like it is a separate person from me, a friend I can rely on.

I reach out to touch the metal I felt before. It is a solid sheet, not far above my head. I trace a diamond-plate pattern with my fingertips. The farm has two tractors; both are smooth steel all over, except for the dirty roughness of the bucket. My tractor-­accident theory is looking less likely.

A few inches later and the metal makes a right-angle turn away from me—and my hand hits the dirty shavings. Only my head is
underneath this thing. Whatever it is, it protected me from being smothered to death.

Time to search my left side. Shavings. Manure. Hay. But then, close beside me, a pole of well-worn wood. I can feel the barely there ridges of grain in the oak. Pitchfork handle. This definitely feels like a pitchfork handle. I must be at the ranch. Where is there diamond-plate metal on the farm? I can't remember.

My left hand keeps going. The tips of my fingers touch more metal. This is something different, though. It's rough and flaky with rust. I slide my hand along the old steel. It has a soft curve. Like a bowl. But it's weird. Like the bowl is sort of shaking. It makes no sense.

I reach out as far as I can, but lose contact with the metal. Searching higher, my fingers touch metal again. A little hook. Odd. Then a straightaway of more metal. Then another metal hook. Another straightaway. Another hook.

I run out of arm. I am small and don't have much length of arm to work with. So I trace the hooks and the straightaways back to the thing that's like a bowl.

This all feels familiar. Those metal hooks remind me of my dad tying down a tarp in the bed of his truck.

A truck.

I am in the bed of a truck!

Why am I in the bed of a truck?

I reach out again for the metal hooks. Something tickles my hand.

Wind.

Stretching as far as I can go, I feel it in earnest now—the wind buffeting the skin of my hand. The wind, hard and fast.

This truck is moving.

How can that be? How can I be in a moving truck?

I reach out again, to check if I'm hallucinating. No. It's there; that biting, slapping wind is there. This truck is going fast. Then I feel the hum through my body. The hum in my ears isn't just concussion. It's a combination of engine and vibration. It's metal movement.

The diamond-plated thing above me must be a truck-bed toolbox. My head is in the empty space beneath it, protecting me from the shavings, keeping me alive.

I know where I am now.

I'm in the bed of a fast-moving truck, covered in blood, buried in filth. My right arm might be broken. I can't see.

Realization dawns, and I pull my hand in like I touched fire.

Fear slides into my belly as I wait.

Was I seen? Did someone see my hand?

The truck shift gears. It's slowing down. Quickly.

Forty-Eight Years Ago

THE BOY SITS DOWN TO
wait. Over the last hour he's put away his toys, tidied the house, put a Swanson TV dinner in the oven. Coffee is ready to brew. Ate his peanut butter sandwich and wiped away the crumbs. Everything is perfect.

After a few minutes of sitting on the couch he digs into his Snoopy book bag. Pulls out a math test with a B+ circled in red in the upper right hand corner. He's finally gotten the hang of carrying the one. He studies the paper. It might be worth the risk, putting it out where it could be seen. Maybe she'd be proud. But just as likely she'd say he was prideful. There was no right answer with her, as his uncle Lou liked to say. And Uncle Lou was her twin brother, so he'd know.

He tries it out on the kitchen table. Time ticks. No, it's too brazen out there, obviously wanting to be looked at like that. The boy moves it to the counter. That's definitely better. At least it's something close to subtle.

Returning to the couch to stare at the door, he drags his fingers through his thick, black hair. Sweat traces his hairline. She's late. Not necessarily a bad sign. Late, early, or on time makes no difference as to whether she comes home funny. But the later she is, the more waiting there is to be done. Only good thing is, the wait ends sharp as a snap. One look will tell him what he's in for.

Too much time has passed, and the boy loses his nerve. Leaving the test out is a bad idea; he knows that now. There can't be much time left, so it's a sprint to the counter. He grabs the sheet and hustles back to his book bag in the living room, but the front door is already opening. This isn't good. It's no good to be caught in quick motion.

He looks up and up and up to get to her face. His mama's a tall lady, and he's only seven. He's overwhelmed by red. Red heels, red nails, red lips, red hair, red eyes. So help him, the boy has always thought his mama's ­copper-colored eyes damn near shined red. He looks into those eyes and knows she's come home funny.

CHAPTER TWO

THE TRUCK SHIFTS UNDER ME.
It's turning, taking a left. A moment of slow, smooth driving, and then the truck tips downward, lowering itself onto a gravel road. It must be nothing but potholes, because the truck tilts up and down and side to side like a theme-park ride. I fight hard against my stomach, against the vomit that wants to come up.

I wonder if I know this road, try to remember a road this rough, but come up empty. I try to think of who might be driving this truck. I try to remember how I got here.

All of my questions are answered by silence. Into the void comes a clear, single thought.

I've been abducted.

Once the thought comes, I have to look it in the face, and for the first time in my seventeen years I know what fear actually is.

It doesn't seem like this should be possible. My grandpapa has been telling me since I was a three-year-old to watch out for myself. Because he's not just my grandpapa, but also the sheriff, he didn't leave it at don't take candy from strangers. Ever the lawman, Grandpapa got specific. Usually at our after-church Sunday brunch, for some reason.

“Don't ever let them take you to a second location,” he'd say in his low, slow, Johnny Cash intonation.

“You fight like hell!” Nana would pipe in. “You bite and you claw and you kick. You kick them where it hurts them the most! Go for the eyes, the crotch, the instep.”

“Ruth, you promise me you'll fight and scream and you won't let them take you?” Grandpapa would ask.

I would nod my head. “I promise.”

It's a conversation that's been had around the Carver kitchen table a dozen times, thanks to Grandpapa's paranoia.

My mom would insist, “Nothing like that is going to happen around here.” Mom is a professional horse trainer and a devout optimist.

My dad, pragmatic, dryly funny, would end the conversation with “May God have mercy on the soul of the poor bastard who ever dared try it.”

And then Nana and Grandpapa and even Mom would all smile.

“Our Ruth is a fighter,” they always told me. They're not wrong, either. I am a fighter, born and raised. We Carvers aren't a family; we're a clan. We've lived on the same land, raising cattle and horses
for three generations, and everybody in Mauldin knows you don't mess with the Carvers.

But here I am. In this truck. Did I fight? I don't know. My memory bank is empty. I can't even remember the last thing I can remember. What I know for certain is that I failed Grandpapa. I'd promised him I wouldn't let this happen to me, and I failed him. I'm not the fighter they thought I was.

A sob wants to come up my throat, but I won't let it. It's important to focus. Who would want to take me? My first thought is Creepy Kyle, my stalker since the eighth grade. My parents got involved; his parents got involved; the principal got involved. But I can't imagine Creepy Kyle getting the better of me, ever. I'm not scared of him and never have been.

A political opponent of Grandpapa's? Things get contentious in South Carolina politics, but that's hard to imagine.

Ransom? Mom and Dad have money. But not ransom-level money.

Creepy Kyle seems the most likely, yet not likely enough. I want to be able to see, to know where I am, to see who has me. My eyes don't seem painful. A hopeful sign. Slowly I reach for them again. My fingertips touch the bloody roughness.

The hard squeal of brakes, then a sudden stop. An avalanche of muck covers my face.

A door opens.

Slams shut.

Only one door. That's better than two.

Footsteps in the gravel. They sound heavy. Too heavy to be
Creepy Kyle. Not good. Creepy Kyle would want to keep me alive, I think, but I don't know this person. I don't know anything about what this person wants with me.

Is a bullet about to rip through me? Is a knife about to punch me in the throat? Far from fighting, I play dead. Not really with any thought, just instinct. It's not a very good ploy, considering I was moving my arm a second ago.

Footsteps stop.

For a brief moment I can hear birdsong. It is beautiful.

The tailgate slams open.

Is this it? Is this the end?

I'm not ready. I'm not ready for the end.

The man climbs up into the bed of the truck. It sinks under his weight. Definitely not Creepy Kyle.

I feel hands—giant hands—plunge into the dirt and pluck me out of it like a rag doll. My nose hits the toolbox on the way up. I manage to keep my mouth shut, but it's hard to play dead. My body won't go limp like I want it to. It's shaking, my nervous system giving me away. I give up the pretense.

“Who are you?” My voice sounds rusty, like I haven't spoken in years.

Nothing.

“Who are you?” I ask again.

The man throws me over his shoulder. Searing pain explodes out of my right arm. I scream.

“Shut up.” His voice is unrecognizable to me.

I do. I shut up. I don't fight. I don't scream. Shame rides along
side my terror. But somewhere deep, deep inside, I hear Mom tell me to trust my gut. My gut tells me I am blind and I am lost, and if I fought for freedom now, it would end in my death. I listen to my gut. Because I want to live.

A truck door opens with a loud creak. He throws me inside. My hands fall against the bench seat. It is frayed and torn. Foam cushion blooms from the tears. The air isn't clean. It smells like mildew and rot. This is an old truck.

He grabs my wrists and doesn't let go. Neither does the agony of my shoulder; it digs in deep, teaching me what pain really is. He's tying my hands together, but it's not rope, it's a bungee cord. Only a bungee cord could be this tight.

“It's going to cut off my circulation. I'm going to lose my hands.”

Nothing.

He binds my ankles. It's another bungee. I can feel the stretch, hear the slight click of the hooks coming together. The door slams shut. The tie around my legs is not nearly as bad as the one around my wrists. My cowboy boots help protect me. I am definitely wearing boots. So I was at the barn. What happened? Who is this? When is this?

There's somewhere else I'm supposed to be, but it's misty. A far-off location, and I'm supposed to be there, but I can't remember what it is. Fog. It's all a fog. I'm blind and confused and in trouble beyond what I thought possible.

I don't understand why this is happening to me. I'm a good person. A good daughter. A good friend. A decent student. And I
work like hell. Nobody I know my age works as hard as I do. I'm at the ranch morning, afternoon, and night, working the farm, working Tucker, doing everything I possibly can to keep the farm on top, because winning isn't just winning. Not for me. For me, winning at the horse shows is required.

The cab of the truck leans toward the driver's side as the man gets in. He closes the door. I'm waiting for the sound of the gear shift, but the truck continues to idle. There, in that moment of stillness, something reaches me. A smell. It's familiar. A kind of cologne. I've smelled it before.

“Who are you?”

He answers with a blinding crack to my temple.

I'm dreaming, but at the same time I know I'm dreaming. But it's not really a dream. It's a memory. I'm at the barn. I'm uncomfortable. Someone is there I don't like.

Then I remember him. He is tall and big, with a large, black beard and bushy eyebrows. He has strange, hazel-orange eyes. He reminds me of a wolf.

He watches me while I tack up Tucker. I'm short and Tucker's tall. The man comes over and offers to help me heave the saddle onto Tucker's back. I don't say a word, but if looks could kill, he'd be dead. As offensive as the offer of help was, far worse is the watching.

A friend of Dad's from church recommended him, said he needed a second chance. He worked on the cattle side of the farm. Everybody sang his praises. He showed up on time, worked hard. But the guys who worked the cattle side of the operation had no business
showing up at the horse barn. Most of them I never saw at all. But I kept seeing that wolf-looking guy, and that wolf-looking guy kept seeing me. I told Dad to fire him. He didn't want to, not at first, but then I explained how he watched me, and he was gone the next day.

That was all a long time ago. I can't recall his name, but I'll never forget that disgusting cologne.

With a jerk, I'm awake. I'm sitting on a wooden chair. My hands are bound behind my back, my feet to the chair legs. My fingers feel like swollen sausages that don't want to move. The bungee cord has done its work. I try to open my eyes, but it's no use. My eyelids are fastened shut. A stench, almost like the smell of a Dumpster, fills my nostrils. Under the stink there's mildew. Under the mildew there's dust. The kind of dust that comes from years and years of neglect. The dust and the mildew and the stink are so thick I can feel them on my skin.

I listen.

There's nothing to hear.

“Hello?”

Nothing.

Somehow silence is worse than sound. Is he right in front of me? Staring at me? The nausea comes again. This time I can't choke it back. I vomit down my shirt.

Concussion, I hate you.

“Hello?”

Nothing.

Panic wells up inside me, overriding reason. I have to get free.
I have to get free
now
. I wriggle and twist my numb hands. My right arm is screaming, but I don't care. It needs to suck it up. Like a miracle, one of the hook ends snaps off the bungee. In an instant my hands are free. Blood rushes into them. They move. They even work.

For a brief moment I listen. More silence. But this is good silence. If he were right there, staring at me, surely he would have done something by now.

Encouraged, I put my hands to my face and realize my arm isn't broken. Good news. It's not working well, but well enough that I can use it. With all ten fingers at my disposal, I examine my face and almost weep with relief. It's a vet-wrap blindfold. The clingy, neon pink bandage I've been using on Tucker's injured hoof. I'm not blind. I'm just bound.

It's never easy to find the end of vet wrap, and right now it's almost impossible. In the past I've had nothing but appreciation for how it molds onto the body like a second skin. I claw at it, desperate. Find the source of my concussion, a deep gash across the top of my scalp. A tear forms in the bandage, giving me leverage. Wolfman must have used an entire roll on my head.

There, it's off. I can open my eyes.

I'm in a small cabin.

Garbage covers everything. Moldering pizza boxes, cans of beer so old the sun has bleached the labels, rags soaked in gun oil.

I work on freeing my feet while glancing up every couple of seconds. I don't see him anywhere. Thick, ugly curtains obscure most of the view, but I can catch glimpses of a forest thick with pine and mountain laurel, rhododendron and muscadine vines. I'm in
the Blue Ridge, maybe even the Great Smoky Mountains. I am far, far from home.

On my feet now, my body running on panic like it's rocket fuel, I check the front door. It's barred shut from the outside.

I check the back pocket of my jeans. My phone is gone. As I search for a side door, I remember where I'm supposed to be. It's fall break, and I should be at the beach with Courtney and Becca.

I find a side door. It's solid and barricaded, like the front.

We were going to meet up at Becca's house, then road-trip over to her dad's place on the coast. They have to have missed me by now, called my parents. Called Caleb. Oh, my redneck best friend Caleb, God bless you and your obscene collection of hunting rifles.

Yes, people will be out searching for me.

Not here, though. No one will think to look for me here.

It doesn't matter. I'll live in the woods if I have to. Find my way to a highway. Find my way to the people looking for me.

There are no other doors. Time to break something. I choose the back wall's lowest window, use my good arm to grab my wooden chair, and heave it through the glass. The amount of noise it makes shocks me. I kick out the remaining shards, then scramble through. It's a bigger drop than I anticipated, but I don't pause, launching myself out of the godforsaken cabin. After a bad stumble, I pop up to my feet and I'm ready to run.

BOOK: Ruthless
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