Shelby stood at the edge of the precipice, staring at the rocks below. It would be so easy to step off, enjoying the few seconds of total freedom on the trip down before the hard stop at the bottom. Too easy. Maybe that was the reason she kept walking away and going back to the hell she inhabited. Today she should get rid of a demon or two…or so she hoped.
The narrow winding path from the overlook dropped steeply to the valley floor. She veered into the woods where she hid to keep from being hurt. An hour later, she strode across the open field unnoticed by those gathered at the front of the house. She slipped into the side door of the big barn, sending motes of dust dancing on the sunbeams shining through holes in the roof.
The memories of the enjoyable times she had experienced in the deteriorating building came flooding back to her. With closed eyes, she imagined gentle arms around her, guiding her over the smooth floor as she danced gracefully around the room to music only she could hear. A few minutes later, Shelby came to a stop, the good memories fading into the nightmare and the reason she was here.
Her gaze traveled to the tall cabinet nestled in a corner, forgotten in the haste to leave the house after that night. She opened the drawer and unlatched the hidden compartment. The gun was still there. Someone had returned the weapon to where she had found it. The pistol had saved her life. Whoever had put it back, had done so before the police arrived to question them about the murder.
Surprisingly, all her siblings had stuck to the story that they conjured up. Everyone said they had a reason to kill Herschel James, commonly known as Herc, who was their father…but not hers. Because she wasn’t his, she was the one he had chosen to torture on a regular basis. The whole town saw the results of what he had done, but no one bothered to help her other than Ben, her oldest brother. If it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t have made it to sixteen.
When she left the barn, she walked into the front yard where the fire chief, fire truck and crew were waiting for her. Their only purpose was to keep the fire from spreading beyond the house. Shelby picked up the large bag waiting for her before walking to the house, letting the memories of what Herc and his righthand man, Arlen, had done flow around her
The driveway. It was where Arlen would wait for her. She would tell him about her day at school as he walked her to the house. That was until the day he whipped her, leaving the first scars on her back and legs. To this day, she didn’t know why he had gotten so angry.
She entered the front door into the living room. This was where she and her brothers and sisters would happily play. Then came the day Herc yanked her up by her hair and threw her across the room, screaming, “You aren’t allowed to play with them.” At the time she didn’t know why. Her mother’s smile when she regained consciousness, laying crumpled where she had fallen below the streaks of blood showing her descent to the floor, confused her at the time. She didn’t understand why he had hurt her until years later. That was her first concussion. Her mother, Star, had made her clean up her mess as soon as she could stand.
Shelby placed the packet with the fuse on the sofa where Star sat most of the time. Too bad she wasn’t sitting on it now to enjoy the flames.
The kitchen was next. Herc had broken a bottle of beer he was drinking and came after her the day she had turned thirteen. Arlen and Cory had laughed as she darted away from him as he swung the broken bottle at her, catching her arm. Star gave Herc instructions on what to do when he caught her. That was when she knew her mother wanted her gone.
Somehow, she had escaped out the back door with only a long cut on her left arm. The run through the woods ended at the precipice over the valley. That was where Nathaniel Roundtree, her mentor, found her as she contemplated jumping. Nate taught her how to stay alive and get the evidence against them. Evidence she still had hidden. He would make sure the right people got it if anything happened to her.
She placed the accelerant packet with the fuse in the pantry where the flammable materials were located.
Upstairs in the bathroom was one of the worst places to get caught. It was here that Herc had raped her the first time as she was taking a bath, almost drowning her in the process. Not long after that, he had shoved her face into the mirror, promising to make sure no one else would ever want her. The big scar on her forehead was a permanent reminder to stay out of the bathroom when he was around. She moved from the bath, aware there was nothing there to easily catch fire.
Shelby stood at the door of the hall closet she had been forced t0 use as a bedroom. The bed was still there, the dark stain of her blood 0n the pillows. Herc’s brains were spattered over the walls by the door. His blood had run down the edge of the bed and onto the floor of the hall.
She let the hatred, jumbled with anguish, swirling in the air, reach out and pull her into the past. A past she’d give anything to forget. Her gaze when to the ceiling where the torture device Herc and Arlen had rigged up still hung. Absently rubbing her left shoulder, feeling the metal ring embedded there, the physical pain of what they did washed over her, bringing her to her knees.
This was her chamber of horrors. When the pain subsided, she set the fuse and tossed the accelerant into the middle of the bed, unable to enter the room. It meant leaving all her simple treasures where they were in the recess she had used as a closet.
Each room she visited where there were things that would burn, she put an accelerant, connecting it to the fuse wires. When she exited the house, she connected the main fuse to the ignition source. The demolitions expert checked what she had done before pointing to the box. She stared at the house where her nightmares had been real.
The handle on the large igniter turned easily. The soft pops meant the packets had exploded into flames, starting the fire to cleanse the house, and hopefully her, of the ghosts of the past. Patiently she waited, imagining the flames moving up the walls and into the attic. Within minutes the house became an inferno, the heat sterilizing the memories and events.
Shelby felt someone join her. She didn’t look away from the house, not caring who it was. Detective Spicer’s soft voice disturbed her catharsis.
“Think it will stop the demons inside of you?”
“I can only hope.”
“All the evidence comes back to you. Did you kill him?”
He was like a bulldog with a bone. Hopefully with the truth, he would leave her alone. If not, she had a plan to prevent serving time for murder…one that would stop the nightmares. She didn’t turn from the fire as she gave him the truth, not that she expected him to believe her.
“He caught me coming back from one of my forays into the woods. He was high, but still decent. When he asked when my birthday was, I knew he had a plan. I told him it was Friday, in two more days. He was smiling when he said I wouldn’t see my birthday. I knew he planned to kill me before Friday.
“I went to the barn to my secret hiding place. Someone else knew about it and had left a loaded gun in the compartment. I left it there for close to six months. I wasn’t sure if it was meant for me to use or not, but I took it and hid it under the pillows on my bed. Even though I had considered suicide, I didn’t want to die. All I wanted was for him to leave me alone.”
She paused, the nightmare coming to life in her words.
“I didn’t plan on killing him, but I wasn’t going to let him kill me. Later that night, I had to go through the living room to go to bed because someone had locked the kitchen door. My mother saw me and asked me where I was going. Herc grinned, patting her knee and thanking her. I could see he was gone into his drug world.”
Shelby shivered. Her mother knew he planned on killing her and made sure he knew she was in the house. If it wasn’t for her…. Shelby shook off the what ifs since none of them were good.
“He grabbed me and dragged me up the stairs and into the hall. At the door to my bedroom, he tossed me onto the bed, my head hitting the wall. Before I could recover and get into a corner, he caught my ankle, pulling me down in the bed before climbing on top of me, holding me in place with his knees and body.”
Her voice hitched at the memory. “He pulled out his knife before saying, ‘I’m going to see how long it takes for you to scream as I skin you alive.’ He cut my face into these little sections so he could peel the skin off. When he picked up the skin by my left ear and started to loosen it with his knife, I hit his hand, knocking the knife out of it. As he was hunting for it, I found the gun and waited for him to turn back to me.
“When he saw the gun, he hesitated long enough for me to pull the trigger. He fell backwards off from me. I got on my knees and put another bullet into his head. I wanted to make sure he couldn’t kill me. If you found the knife he dropped on the bed, plus the blood on my pillows, then you have the proof of self-defense.”
“What did you do after you shot him?”
“I walked into the living room and dropped the gun onto Star’s lap. I said, ‘That’s one promise he won’t keep’ before walking out of the room. I don’t remember anything beyond going out of the living room. Everything is blank until I woke up to Bentley piecing my face back together.”
“Why did everyone cover up for you?”
“You’d have to ask Bentley that question. I’ve no idea as to why, since none of them wanted me around.”
“What’s with your feud with Arlen?”
“He was the first one to whip me. I never did find out why. Up until that point, I liked him and thought he was my friend. I’ve been afraid of him ever since. He’s like this Jekyll-Hyde person. One minute he’s your friend and the next he’s trying to kill you.”
“I’ll talk to my supervisors and see what they want to do. Thank you for telling me the truth.”
She turned her head and peered at him. “Don’t bother. Your supervisors are in Arlen’s pocket. In fact, he should be here shortly to finish what Herc started.”
“And you’re going to stand here and wait for him?”
“There comes a time when you become tired of running. That time has come for me.” She returned her focus to the fire as it ate the house she had come to see as a part of hell. Her hell. It was the reason she was burning it…she was sending all the memories back into the hell she had climbed out of, only to face death once again.
When the roof caved in, a hand on her shoulder let her know Arlen had come for her. “Let me finish watching it burn, please.” It was as close to begging as she would get.
“Sure. I’m in no hurry.”
Of course you aren’t in a hurry. You will have all the time you want to kill me. Only this time, I have a surprise for you.
When the house was only smoldering, Arlen guided her away from the ashes along a path she knew well. At the club house, he had her sit on the ragged couch. He joined her, his arm resting over her shoulders.
“We need to talk.”
Shelby focused on the torn linoleum, waiting on him to talk.
“I fell in love with this sweet girl who seemed to like me. She was always smiling and laughing. I’d like to have her back.”
Good luck on that one!
“You took the innocence of that little girl and destroyed it. She went into hiding, not knowing what she had done to cause you to hurt her.”
Arlen frowned, studying her face.
“You began to tell me about this boy at school. I went into a jealous rage. In my mind, I saw you leaving me for this boy.”
The truth. Years too late. Not that she would have understood his fear of her leaving him at age twelve.
“That girl left that day and will never return. Before those stripes healed, Herc began his reign of terror. For four years I lived in a hell I couldn’t control starting with your beating. When I killed him, it only stopped him. You and Star kept it up until I took the only way out I could see that didn’t involve dying.
“Nothing much changed. Five years in the pen and you hunting me has kept me in that hell. That teenage girl who was trying to survive, died with Lee, who was doing his best to save me. You are looking at a shell with nothing in it.”
Arlen blinked, understanding coming too late.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Too little, too late.” It sounded trite, but was the truth. “It doesn’t matter what you do to me. I pray for death each day, if for no other reason than to stop the nightmares. I’ve been damaged to the point where the constant pain is barely below unbearable. I began the painful process of having some of the damage repaired, but soon realized it wasn’t worth the cost.”
She raised her eyes to his. “Herc made sure you’d never have me by destroying everything that made me a woman.”
Arlen blanched, unaware of what his boss had done. “I guess I messed up big time, didn’t I.”
“If you were the one who told him I wasn’t his, yeah, you did.”
“I never meant to hurt you.”
Her face was a mask as she stared at him. That may have been the truth for him. For her, he had destroyed the girl who had loved and trusted him.
When he didn’t speak, she made her decision. She walked out the door, aware he was following. Within the hour, she was standing on her cliff, watching the sun slip toward the horizon. One of them wouldn’t be walking away from here, and at this point, she didn’t care which one it was.
Arlen’s hand on her shoulder had her stiffening. He removed it, coming around so he was standing before her, his back to the precipice.
“What can I do to make it so we can be friends again?”
You’re too late. That’s a question you should have asked after you beat me.
“Nothing. It is what it is. None of you cared enough to find out what you were doing to me inside.” She took a step toward him. “What did you offer Bentley to keep me alive?”
Arlen took a step back. “Freedom from being part of the fun and games Herc had planned for all of you. But he had to keep you alive.”
She took another step toward him. “Why was it so important to keep me alive? You no longer wanted me.”
Arlen took another step back. He licked his lips, eyes glistening with tears. “I couldn’t let you go. Even damaged, I wanted you.”
“Why?” she asked, taking another step toward him.
“Because you were my light. That beauty, even after all Herc and I did to you, who kept me wanting her. You became my drug. No matter how hard I tried to give you up, I couldn’t.”
Shelby poked her finger into his chest. “You will let me go this time.”
Arlen took a step back into nothingness. His arms flailed as he attempted to regain his balance. No sound came from his open mouth as he flew for the few seconds before hitting the rocks at the bottom, his wide eyes watching her as he fell.
Sitting cross-legged on the edge, Shelby stared at Arlen’s broken body. Maybe it was an ending after all. Him instead of her…only the freedom she expected to feel didn’t happen. The past sat heavily on her as she cried for the man who had loved her to death…his death.