It was cold and slick, but she struggled up the hill anyway, her breath laboring in her lungs, the rocks biting into her feet. She had left the house without her shoes; there had been no time to even slip on a pair of sandals. Her heart pounded as though it would escape from her chest, or perhaps choke her; her legs were shaking so badly, it was hard to keep them moving.
The night was dark around her. She couldn’t see where she was going, only that the ground was slanted, so she knew that it must be up the mountain. She didn’t care. She had to get away, had to escape that cabin and the horrible man inside of it.
She was only eleven, but her home had been hell for a long time.
The rain kept pouring and she kept moving. Time passed – she wasn’t sure how long, an hour, maybe more, just struggling through the endless bushes and fallen logs. She fell only once, twisting her ankle on a slick rock, but even that did not stop her; the limb felt heavy and swollen, but she couldn’t bring herself to slow down. She was panicked, running away from a danger that was as silent and unseen as the night itself. There was no one behind her, but memory alone was enough to lend wings to her feet.
Finally she could go no farther. She collapsed at the base of a tree, her breath heaving, so tired that she thought she would throw up. She pressed her back against the rough, wet bark, feeling the rain drip down between the thick pine trees. She closed her eyes, struggling to regain her breath, calming herself and the terror that writhed within her. Her face felt hot – she pressed the back of her hand against her cheek where the bruise still stung, a blow that had been dealt to her only an hour before. It was one bruise out of many. The beatings had been going on for a long time now, ever since her mother had died a few years ago. At first her stepfather had tried to be patient, only pinching her and grabbing her hair when he was drunk or angry. But then his control had slipped, and now she knew him for the monster he was — not the man who had once loved her mother.
She curled up into a tighter ball, an attempt to protect herself from the memories. She had to run away, but she knew she couldn’t go any farther, couldn’t survive outside of her stepfather’s home. She was only eleven – what could a child do?
Abruptly a sound reached her ears. She flinched, her heart leaping to her throat again, and pressed herself even closer to the tree. She looked around, her eyes wide and sightless in the dark. Where had it come from? There were mountain lions and wolves this high up, but she was sure they wouldn’t make any noise if they planned on attacking her. She would probably already be dead. Had her stepfather followed her? The idea was ludicrous. She had run for so long, he couldn't possibly be near.
There it was again – a crunch and rustle, like something moving through the underbrush, a slight pause and then another twig snapping. A bear, maybe? She hoped not; she would be absolutely helpless against an animal so large.
There was silence. It stretched for a long time until she thought that perhaps the intruder had left, maybe a deer scared off by her smell… then suddenly a shape moved in the shadows directly next to her, and she leapt back, a muffled scream ripping from her throat.
A hand landed on her shoulder out of the darkness.
She turned and stared upward with wide eyes, struggling not to scream. The figure moved closer and suddenly she could make it out; a man or a boy, she couldn’t be sure of the age in the dark, only that his long black hair was slick with rain and his white shirt had the grungy look of a hiker.
His green eyes smiled down at her, strangely visible in the dark, and immediately she felt her chest loosen. Her breathing became easier. Somehow, though she wasn’t sure why, she suddenly felt like she was safe.
“What is a little thing like you doing all the way out here?” he asked quietly, his voice rough and deep.
She opened her mouth to speak, but suddenly no words would come out. She didn’t know what to say. She thought back to her stepfather, to the warm cabin in the woods where she had been struggling with her homework before his drunken tantrum. How could she tell a stranger about what had really brought her this deep into the forest? How could she tell him that she didn’t want to go home?
She couldn’t hide forever, though. Her father would come looking for her in the morning, as he always did, and then there would be worse punishment.
“I got lost,” she whispered, her throat closing on the lie; she felt choked.
The young man just smiled and took her hand, gently pulling her to her feet. Suddenly she wobbled and let out a small cry; she had forgotten her twisted ankle from her fall in the woods, and it seemed that the brief rest had brought the pain back full force. She staggered, but already his arms were around her knees and picking her up, lifting her high into the air to nestle her against his strong chest. She hated being touched or carried, but somehow she could tolerate him. She felt safer being held than on the ground.
“Let’s get you home.” The man’s voice was soft and warm, deep and soothing. He started walking, and suddenly exhaustion hit her, making her head swoon against his shoulder.
The last thing she remembered, other than the fresh smell of his shirt, was a glimpse at the ground and the sight of the man’s feet. He wasn’t wearing any shoes.
School sucked, but work sucked worse.
Maddy hated her school, and who wanted to study with a drunk, abusive stepfather roaring around the house anyway? Between her chores and the flying bottles, she didn’t have any time for homework. And then her job… putting up with bitchy customers all day at the local hardware store was not her idea of a fun time, and then her father took all but a small percentage of her wages. For booze and gambling, of course. No money for a car, or even to take the bus. She was lucky to afford a sandwich for lunch.
And so she walked home. Her feet hurt from standing at a cash register all day, but it was a familiar ache. At least standing at a cash register was better than being around the house. The streets of Black River were small and homey, with tiny houses and big yards, most of which were wild and unmowed. This was the poorer district of town, where most people parked broken down RV’s in their front yards and the asphalt was cracked and decaying. She passed down another block now. Half of the yards contained rusty cars and tire swings hanging from spindly trees, their bare branches clicking in the wind. Technically this was the scenic route to her house – she could have cut through the main street of town and arrived at her cabin in the forest within twenty minutes. However, she always took this detour… because this was his street, and walking down it made each day a little bit less sucky.
There was his house now. She still didn’t have the guts to ring his doorbell; other than the times he found her out on the mountain, cold and usually wet from rain or fog, she didn’t share many words with him. Sometimes he came by the store, and then he would smile at her, with those beautiful green eyes and the long dark hair, and her toes would curl a little. Yes, there was an age gap, technically eighteen-year-olds shouldn’t be staring at men who were in their late twenties (or was it thirty already? She had never had an opportunity to ask), but she couldn’t help it. He was tall, ripped, tattooed and everything a man should be. If only she could convince him that she was a woman too, and not the scared little girl that kept running up mountains at night.
Maddy sighed. His car, a beat up old Camaro, wasn’t in his driveway. No chance of a casual ‘hello’ today. Whatever.
She scuffed her dirty tennis shoes on the sidewalk and kept walking, glancing up at the intersection ahead. She paused. A small groan escaped her lips. Dammit.
There, standing on the corner, were three skinny, blond, magazine-type girls flirting around the stop sign, chewing gum and sticking their hips out at cars. She bit her lip in distress and glanced around, looking for a detour, but of course there was none – unless she wanted to cut across someone’s yard, but that would be too obvious, and she wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction of seeing her run. Instead she shoved her hands in the pockets of her old hoodie and walked a little faster. The quicker she got through the intersection, the quicker she could get past them… and maybe they’d be so busy flirting with traffic that they wouldn’t notice her.
It was too much to hope for. One of the bleached-blond girls turned at the last minute and saw her coming, and a wide smile split her face, without an ounce of friendliness in it.
“Heeey lookie there!” she crowed, grabbing her friend by the shoulder. “It’s Muddy Maddy, with her new jacket and Prada shoes!”
“Nice hair, Maddy! Did you wash it today?” the other girl sneered, then they both screeched with laughter. Maddy bit the inside of her cheek to stop from retaliating. She had already been down to the police station twice this semester for fights in school, and it was only October. One more strike and she was on probation.
“Come on girls,” the third one, Alex, their ringleader, said. She smiled at Maddy, a look that was colder than the chill Autumn wind. “We don’t need to get her germs on us. Where are you off to, Maddy? Home to your daddy? I hear he’s been up at Art’s Liquor Store again… hear your old man lost his job.”
If he’d ever had one. But Maddy didn’t say that part. She just waited for the traffic to stop and started across the street, not giving them the satisfaction of an answer. The girls continued laughing, calling names at her back, then more crude jokes – laughing at her shaggy auburn hair and patched clothing. She didn’t stop biting her lip until she was well down the next block; by that time, she had imagined every possible scenario of her fist flying into Alex Holder’s face.
She turned toward the mountainside; it loomed above the town of Black River, a constant sentinel. Her cabin was located right on the fringes of the forest, where it was unclear whether civilization really continued. It was starting to get dark, though it was only about 5pm; this time of year it got dark and stayed dark for a very long time. Maddy liked it that way. Something about the night always made her feel safer, like she had a place to hide.
There was snow at the very tiptop of the mountain, though it hadn't made its way to Black River yet. Soon the snow would make its way down to the hills, and then the town of Black River would be all but isolated from the world. It was a time of year she both enjoyed and dreaded. Enjoyed for the isolation. Dreaded, because her midnight escapes would be all but impossible, and suicidal at best. The temperatures dropped to well below freezing in the winter.
She crossed another street and kept walking. Nothing else to do.
* * *
Her father still wasn’t home.
She was happy, but at the same time, afraid. Because it wasn’t expected. And when things weren’t expected, they usually turned out painful. So she sat on the couch with their analog TV and tried to watch the news; nothing but weather reports. Then she made dinner, swept up the small living room and kitchen, straightened out his bedroom, and made up the couch where she slept. But still he hadn’t arrived. It had been almost two hours, and full night was upon her. Where could he have gotten to? He hadn’t mentioned leaving Black River to go to the nearby casino in Davenport, the next town over. For all of his nasty tendencies, he usually let her know when he would be gone so she could do whatever chores he wanted before he got back.
It was another fifteen minutes before she thought to check the phone messages. The light was on, so apparently someone had called. She hit play.
Beeeep. “Hello, this is Principal Kirkus from the Black River High School, I’m calling about a discipline issue we’re having with your daughter, Madeline. We understand Madeline is under pressure from her mother’s passing, but certain obligations must be tended to…”
Maddy sighed and pressed fast-forward. Whatever bullshit excuse her father had used for her behavior was obviously not working anymore. If only they knew the truth about her home life… but if she said anything, her father was sure to throw her out, and realistically she had nowhere to go nor anyone to run to. Even worse, the beatings would become more violent, and that was what scared her the most.
The next message was about the electric bill, and how the power would be turned off by tomorrow if it wasn’t paid. Maddy would have liked to do something about that, but once again her father had taken all the money from the jar in the kitchen, and she had kept only a spare twenty for herself, which she stashed in a hole at the bottom of the couch.
Another message, somebody hanging up. A fourth message, this one with a longer pause, someone (she guessed was a guy) clearing his throat, then another hang up. She sighed; probably one of her father’s drunk friends calling for money, which nobody seemed to have. Then finally she got to the fifth message, and a thin, nasally voice came on the line, one that immediately caught her attention. It was the type one imagined a snake would talk with.
“Mr. Baker, this is Ronny Dougal, calling from Ron’s Pawn and Loan about an debt you owe us. We’ve been trying to contact you at your work number, but it seems you no longer are employed there. Mr. Baker, this presents a little problem...” There was a pause, and the hair rose on Maddy’s arms. Loan? Debt? Her stepfather hadn’t mentioned anything about this during his regular drunk rambling, but that wasn’t so unusual. However, somehow these creeps had gotten his home number, which was very unusual. When the voice spoke next, it was vicious. “Listen here you cock-sucking-mother-fucking bastard, you better get us our fucking money or you know what’s going to happen. We came by earlier today, nice house you got there, and I see you have a daughter. She’s a hot piece of ass, and I’m sure you’d just hate it if something happened to her.” There was a meaningful pause. “You have two hours to get us our money, or we’re coming and taking it. If you don’t got the money, then we’re taking someone else as a lean. You got that, motherfucker? Good.”
Maddy's face paled; she could hardly believe her ears. She felt numb and stunned. What the hell? She had the urge to replay the message, but it was so vile that she couldn’t bring herself to even touch the answering machine. Her hand fell to her side and she clenched it into a fist. Her good-for-nothing father had really fucked up this time, and it seemed that he had finally tried to screw with the wrong people. She took a deep breath, still in shock, unsure of what to do. Suddenly the cabin she had lived in her entire life seemed like a strange, exposed place. Someone had gone through their house, and she hadn’t even noticed.
The answering machine kept running, and finally the electronic voice went off, politely informing her – “Message left Monday, October 21st, 5:06pm.”
That was today.
She glanced at the clock, her heart suddenly slamming in her chest.
It had just turned seven o’clock.
She would have panicked, but instead a polite knock sounded at the door, as though on cue. Maddy’s body was frozen to the spot; fear lashed through her and wiped away any survival sense she might have had. All she could do was stare. A long silence ensued and she began to relax a tad; perhaps this whole thing was just to scare her. That sounded reasonable, right? A lot of times gangs just wanted to scare you to get what they wanted, not actually hurt you… right? Or maybe it was just a crazy coincidence – had her father forgotten his keys? Maybe some girl scouts had wandered miles out of their way to sell cookies – at night. As she began to take a step away from the door, a resounding crash answered her questions, and a muffled shriek escaped her lips. Someone was trying to kick open the door!
“We know you’re in there,” a voice sneered. It wasn’t the same voice from the message machine, but it had the same slimy quality.
Maddy didn’t move; she didn’t know what to do. Her father’s beatings she could deal with, she had learned how to cope with that; just lie still and not struggle until a convenient moment when she could run, or he lost interest. This was different, however. This was a stranger, and he was trying to break into her house, and all she knew how to do was run.
She took a few steps back, glancing around, deciding if she should hide or if there were any weapons. There were a few knives in the kitchen, but she doubted that would do much against a gun, and who knew what these creeps were packing? There was a curse as another kick landed on the door; she was amazed it had held for so long.
“Just break the fucking window, dipshit,” a second voice said. Shit, now there were two of them. How many more had come? It occurred to her that if they intended a kidnapping, there might be as many as five waiting outside.
The thought sent her heart racing even harder. She had to get out of there. She fell to her knees and reached under the couch, ripping out the twenty before turning towards the back door. She had to take her chances, and the back of her house was right against the forest – with any luck, they hadn’t attempted to walk through all of the thick bushes and trees. There was a louder crash and the tinkle of breaking glass from the bedroom — the window. She turned and scrambled to the back door. Her hands were shaking; it felt like eons before she got the lock to turn.
Then she yanked open the door and dashed outside, not bothering with her shoes. She was used to fleeing barefoot.
She had half-expected someone to be at the back door, but she was still caught off-guard when a man came charging out of the darkness, tackling her to the ground. She fell with a scream, rolling across musty leaves and sharp rocks, slamming her fists against the man who held her. She must have hit a weak point, because he grunted and his hold loosened. Without hesitating, she kneed him in the balls and pushed his convulsing body off of her, jumping to her feet and dashing through the trees. She took the trail she always followed, the ground slanting upward and leading her into the mountain, assuring her of which direction she was headed. She dodged trees and broken branches, leaping over ditches that her feet remembered. For once she was thankful for all those nights spent hiding in the woods; at least now she could navigate confidently.
There were curses and shouts from behind her, and a gun shot, though she didn’t know where the bullet went. She knew it was too dark to see her, but the men tried to follow anyway, pointing hazy flashlights into the trees and stumbling along clumsily. The air dragged in her lungs – her adrenaline was so strong that she couldn’t breathe properly. There was already a stitch in her side, and she had only been running for a minute.
Then suddenly someone grabbed her. She let out a scream, kicking and fighting, but the man threw her against a tree, pressing her down and cussing. How had he caught up with her? Or had he been hiding in the woods already? Maybe these jerks were better organized than she thought.
Suddenly something solid and metal smashed against the side of her head, making her see stars. She whimpered in shock and pain and almost fell, but the man’s rough hands held her upright, and the blow came again, this time sending her spiraling in and out of consciousness. She gasped, pain exploding in her head. Her eyes watered and her body trembled.
“Dumb bitch,” the man spat. “Fucking little cunt… shut the fuck up and stand still.” She wanted to fight, she wanted to get away, but she couldn’t make her body obey her commands. Her head was pounding. She felt a trickle of blood down her cheek, and her fear bit so deep that she had to hold back tears. She was going to die. She was going to die and this was how it would end – alone in the darkness, beaten to death, just as she had always feared.
The other men were approaching now. She could hear their laughs and vulgar jokes. Then abruptly she felt something else – a hand over her shirt, grouping through her sweatshirt and over the mounds of her breasts, down her flat stomach and to her thighs.
“She's a tight little cunt,” the man said to those behind him.
“That’s what the boss said,” another one joined in, his voice familiar – she guessed it was the one who had first tried to kick down her door. “Eighteen.”
More laughter. “I want to taste it.”
Maddy faded in and out of her surroundings. The conversation was confusing and terrifying at the same time; she couldn’t make herself focus. Her head was bursting at the seams, splitting down the middle, hurting worse than any time her father had beat her. At least he had used his hands – this man had hit her with the blunt of a gun.
She heard fabric ripping. It was a moment before she realized it was her shirt. They were taking off her clothes, their hands rough, uncaring and bruising.
It was too much. She screamed.
The men cussed and grabbed her harder, but suddenly there was a sound in the forest. At first she thought it was her imagination – a low growl issued through the trees, deep and feral and utterly terrifying. The men stopped and stood still. Maddy let out a slow breath. Her body slowly sunk back to the ground, released by their hard hands.
“What the fuck-”
“Shut up!” the leader hissed, the one who had hit her. He turned and took a step away. “Fucking wolf or something….”
A wild animal? Maddy couldn’t be sure and at the moment she didn’t care; she was about to pass out any second, and all she could do was focus on the ground, tell herself that it was okay to go to sleep, okay to never wake up.
The growl continued, rising in volume, until the men had moved a few feet away from her, instinctively huddling together. Then the growl turned into a roar. There was a scream, a gun was fired, but she couldn’t tell what was happening – it was too dark. Scuffling, growling, a terrible ripping sound that was far juicier than just torn clothes. She didn’t want to imagine what was happening, and in her heart she knew that she would be next. No, not killed by a beating – eaten alive by wild animals. Great.
The gun shots continued until there was one final, blood-curdling scream, then the loose sound of a body falling limply to the earth. She ducked her head down, swooning, nauseas and trying not to vomit. She fought to stay conscious. She was not going to be found in the morning chewed up and in a pile of her own puke.
When a hand touched her shoulder, she almost screamed.
“Fuck,” she heard, though it was just a soft sound, barely a whisper. The voice was familiar, though she hated to hope; she was sure she was hallucinating. She would have said something, except that her head hurt so bad she could barely remember her name. The hand traveled from her shoulder to her face, cupping along the side of it and pushing her hair out of the way. Another soft curse. Then arms were sliding around her shoulders and under her knees, and she was being lifted up – suddenly she was eleven years old again, terrified of the dark and even more terrified of going home. She turned instinctively and buried her face against a warm, muscular shoulder. No shirt.
She tried to wonder at that, but couldn’t keep her eyes open anymore. Her brain was shutting down. She let out a soft breath and went limp in his arms.
Everything went dark.