Running on the Road of the Lost to the Road of the Found

Submitted into Contest #110 in response to: Write about a character on the road — and on the run.... view prompt

4 comments

Contemporary Fiction Suspense

"Are you going to sneak around my garage all night, or were you planning to break in?”

Shit. I was being so careful. Now I’m standing in ankle deep snow, freezing.

I hold my breath and slowly raise my hands.

“I was just looking for a place to get out of the snow. I wasn’t going to steal anything, I swear.”

A flashlight beam shines around my shadow.

“Turn around slowly.” 

He must be a cop or military. He’s gonna turn me in. “Yes, sir,” hoping to buy some leniency. 

A long silence. I hold my breath.

He takes several long strides closer to me, shining the flashlight in my face; I close my eyes.

“Lower your hood with you left hand—slowly.” Careful, cautious instructions.

I pull my thin hood off awkwardly; snowflakes land on my head and face, wind cruelly sharp.

He walks closer, flashlight in my face.

“Who did that to you?”

He’s looking at the aftermath of last night’s beating.

“A man whose shed I tried to borrow last night.”

Quick strides close the gap between us; he grabs my arm.

“Sir, please—” 

He tightens his grasp—not hard enough to hurt. “Inside, it’s cold.” 

I know better than to resist, but tears sting my eyes as I anticipate what will happen. Not again, so soon, still so sore and pretty much beaten to hell. 

He pulls me inside and releases my arm.

I squint as he turns on the kitchen light and closes the door quietly behind him. I blink away the tears as my eyes struggle to adjust. It’s warm in here, which starts to hurt as I defrost.

He stands uncomfortably close in front of me; I take a few instinctive steps back, closing my eyes and turning my head away from him.

It registers that he hasn’t stepped any closer to me. Yet.

“What’s your name?” 

“Please, sir, I’m sorry—”

“Name.” 

“Anna, sir,” 

“Anna what?”

“Stevens.”

In the silence, I brave a quick glance at him. Tall, muscular, short hair, clean shaven, coat and boots thrown on over sweatpants. His fists aren’t clenched, not aggressive. I take a quick gulp of air.

“Want to try that again?” 

No, definitely not. I drop my gaze to the floor. I don’t want to antagonize him; I’ll try for silent and submissive.

“Let’s try another one then. How old are you?”

I hesitate. Does younger make him more sympathetic or more compelled to turn me in? “19.”

“Two lies in a row?” He steps toward me, and I step back but quickly run into the kitchen wall. “Nowhere to go.” 

This is going particularly badly. Dammit. I have no idea how to play this.

“Why lie?” he asks, only about two feet in front of me now—striking distance. “Why not just tell me the truth from the beginning, maybe bank a little trust?”

That’s a trap. I have no idea what to say. I try to clear my throat, but only an odd, dry, barking sound comes out. I swallow hard, but my mouth is too dry. This is scarier than yelling, beatings.

“Name. Age,” he repeats quietly, closer to me now.

I close my eyes and shake my head.

When his hand grips my chin to raise my face to his, I flinch back so hard that I slam my head into the wall behind me. I bite my lip and deliberately avoid bringing my hands up to my protect my face. He lets go, and through blurry vision I see him take a step back.

There’s another long, uncomfortable silence. 

“Let’s try something else.” 

No, let’s not. I brace myself to meet his eyes, hoping that when he sees the panic in mine, he’ll relent and just let me go.

His face is held completely neutral—tight, but neutral. There are deep grooves in his tanned skin between his nose and his mouth. His skin looks weathered, crinkles around the eyes, and some scarring on one side. I notice that his eyes are a still, steady seaglass green and his hair is red, more ginger than auburn. 

“Kick off your boots, use just your feet.”

That’s not going to work—too much duct tape. But I have to show him I’m cooperating. I brace my hands on the wall and try using the toe of one boot to work down the heel of the other, but it’s not budging. I try stepping on the heel to pull my foot out, frustrated and scared, tears streaming down my cheeks as I struggle. 

“I-I-I can’t, there’s too much duct tape. I’m trying, sir, I promise, sir” I’m close to sobbing now.

“Stop,” he says, suddenly reaching down to his own boots, producing one of those huge knives the Navy SEALs always have on tv shows, and moving toward me.

“No! Please!” I collapse onto the floor, rolling instinctively into a ball facing the wall.

“Just for the duct tape, just for the tape. It’s ok.” He takes my shoulders and turns me gently around to face him. My arms are up protecting my head, my knees pulled into my chin. He puts a hand on my right boot. “Just put your foot out a little.”

I push my foot slightly forward; one slice frees my boot from my foot and then the other. He stands, leaving me huddled against the wall, trying to slow my breathing. 

“Up. Take off your coat.”

Do what the man with the huge knife says, I tell myself, grateful it’s only my coat he wants off, willing some steadiness in my legs as I lean on the wall to force myself to my feet. The coat doesn’t button or zip anymore, so I slip it off easily and hold it out unsteadily to him, eyes still on the ground.

He takes it gently and puts it on a stool behind him. “Do you know why I took your boots and coat?” 

I nod, wiping my face. “So I can’t run.”

“I’ll take off my coat too. Nice and warm in here.” He tosses his next to mine “Sit.” He pulls out one of the kitchen chairs and stands behind it.

I hesitate, not wanting to be that close to him.

“You can sit, or I can put you in this chair.” 

“Sorry, sir,” I whisper as I cower away from him and into the chair, covering my head with my arms to try to protect myself.

He picks me up with the chair, moves it forward up to the table, and then he walks slowly around the table to sit opposite me. “Hands in your lap, look at me when I speak to you.”

I move so quickly to comply that I manage to slam my elbows on the table; I bite down on my whimper as I clutch my elbows before putting my hands in my lap. 

“Now look at me.”

Shit. I blow out a quick breath before raising my gaze to his face.

“Tell me something about yourself that’s true. Anything.”

I think for a minute. I have no idea what to say. I feel his intensity burning from across the table. “I like dogs,” I blurt out. “Big dogs, real dogs, not those little yippy things rich women carry in their purses.” Why the hell did I say that, of all things? It’s true, but was it what he wanted me to say?

“See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” he asks with a small, tight smile. 

“Yes,” I reply without thinking, and horrified, clap my hand over my mouth. “Sorry, sir.” Hands back in my lap. 

“It’s ok. It was true. Did you ever have a dog growing up?” Like this is just a normal conversation, not an interrogation.

“No, sir.”

“Why not?”

“We lived in apartments, moved around a lot.”

“Where do your parents live now?”

“They don’t. They’re both dead.” That sounded really cold. Fuck.

He doesn’t even blink. “I’m sorry for your loss. That must have been awful. How old were you?”

So this is his way into my head. Not the first time he’s done this. “Eight.”

“What happened? Car accident?”

No point in lying now. I shake my head. “Murder-suicide.”

He blinks, like that wasn’t what he was expecting to hear.

“Fighting over drugs, which one had taken the last fix.” 

“You saw it happen?” 

“Yes. Meth, heroin, coke, alcohol-- a bad mix. They were always either tweaking or blitzed and fighting.”

“Who took you in after they died?”

I shift uncomfortably. This is the part I didn’t want to get to, the part that’s going to make him call the cops. “No relatives.” True but not the answer.

“Foster homes?” 

“Yes, sir.”

“Why call me sir?” 

That was a left turn. “Uhhh…Men, ummm, don’t usually hit me as much if I do. And I knew you were…. Umm… well, right away.”

“Knew I was what? How?”

“The way you held your flashlight and your weapon-- cop or military. And now—” I venture my hand out of my lap long enough to point to the USMC Semper Fi tattoo on his forearm.

“Now you know I’m a Marine.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Technically, I’m a Sergeant. We don’t get called sir. Just Sergeant or by our actual names. Mike Gordon. Nice to meet you.” He smiles, a brief forced, twitch of a smile.

Why does that sound familiar? I search my thoroughly stress-scrambled brain. “You’re famous, for the war, for….” That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever said. Of course a soldier would be famous for a war. But I can’t remember why.

“Not famous. Just a brief news story. Human interest piece.”

He clearly doesn’t want to talk about it, so I shut my mouth and stare at the table, wishing I could become invisible.

“You don’t want to tell me your name because you don’t want to get sent back to your foster home.”

Dammit. I nod.

“What happened to you there?” His tone is quieter now.

I shake my head. “It was…bad.”

“You don’t want to talk about it, like I don’t want to talk about why I was on the news.”

I seize our common ground and nod vigorously.

“Fine.” He spreads his hands on the table. “Tell me about last night instead.”

I bury my face in my hands before I remember to keep them in my lap. “Sorry, Sergeant,” I mutter as I stuff my hands under my legs to keep them from moving again.

“It’s ok. Tell me about last night.”

“Umm… not much to tell, I guess,” I stall. “I just wanted to get out of the snow for the night. Got caught getting into this guy’s backyard shed.”

“And?”

“And… he was mad. He hit me.” My face throbs, but I force my hands to stay put under my legs.

“He beat you. He didn’t just hit you. He beat you.”

I suck on the inside of my swollen lower lip.

“I know what a beating looks like—not a fight, not getting hit. That was a beating.”

I nod.

“Did he rape you?”

My breath catches in my throat, unable to speak, feeling like I’m suffocating. I can’t do this.

“It’s not your fault—” 

I interrupt him, which I know is incredibly stupid. “Yes, he raped me! He beat the shit out of me for trying to sleep in his crappy little shed, and then he got me on me knees and held my hair with both hands. But that wasn’t enough, so he forced me down in the snow, pushed his boot on my face so I couldn’t move, and he had everything he wanted. Locked the door to the shed, told me he’d shoot me if he saw me again. So I ran, half-naked and bleeding everywhere.” I’m out of breath when I finish, realizing how loud and colossally insane that was. Shit. 

I stare at the table in front of me—hoping maybe it will burst into flames and get me out of this situation. I just yelled at a United States Marine. With a gun. Who cut my boots of with a huge knife. And who now has both them and my coat. Whose garage I tried to sneak into. Who knows I am a runaway. And will probably now call the police. Excellent, well done.

The silence, except the ringing in my ears from blood pressure, is interminable. Gritting my teeth, I decide to risk a glance at him.

His face is a flushed, muscles tight, a vein in his neck is throbbing, and his hands are now clenched into large fists on the table. Scarred fists, I notice. He looks like he’s fighting himself to stay still.

“I’m so--”

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for.” His voice is tight, like the emotion is squeezing all the muscles in his neck.

I search his face, confused. My mouth is trying to say something, but no words are coming out. I shake my head to try to clear out my scrambled brain-- bad idea—only makes me see those little cartoon stars. I close my eyes until the dizziness passes.

“Please, sir—Sergeant—I’m already sorry, you don’t have to make me sorry.”

“Do you remember where this man lives? What he looks like?” 

“Sir-sorry, Sergeant. I don’t understand.” 

“I need to pay this man a visit. Do you remember how to get there?” The intensity is still in his eyes and his hands are still terrifyingly white knuckled, muscles in his forearms so tight, they’ve pushed his hands up off the table.

“Oh… okay. Sorry, Sergeant, I’m a little slow—fear shuts down my brain. I just assumed, I mean, that… See? I can’t even….” I take a deep breath. Pull it together. “Yes, I know where he lives. I will recognize him, sir—Sergeant, sorry.” I sound an idiot.

He manages a small smile. “You don’t have to call me sir or sergeant. You certainly don’t have to apologize for it.”

“Ok. Right. Sorry.”

“Now I understand a little more.” He looks into my eyes. “Nothing like that is going to happen to you here. I swear on my honor as a United States Marine. I never have and never would raise a hand in anger to a woman or child; that would disgrace the Marine Corps.”

“Zoe Amanda Clarke, 17,” I blurt out. Dammit. 

His whole body relaxes. “Thank you for telling me, Zoe. I understand. When you’re being interrogated, silence first, and then lie. But why Anna?”

“I always start with an A name.”

“The furthest away from Zoe you can get.”

I nod.

“That’s a good strategy. Why tell me you’re older?”

“I, well, I couldn’t decide—younger gets me sympathy and maybe gets you to go easier on me, but probably makes you more insistent about calling the police about a runaway minor. It was a gamble.”

He seems to consider this for a moment. “Do you believe what I told you, Zoe?”

“Sir? Sergeant? Sorry. Do I believe what?” I’m tripping all over my tongue like an idiot. Jesus.

“That I won’t hurt you.” 

I want to believe him. “I believe that you sincerely mean it, believe it. But—”

“But….”

“I don’t know, people hit me—mostly men. I’m stupid. I just yelled at an armed, angry US Marine, clearly I’m stupid, especially when I’m scared, I just get dumber, let my mouth run away with me, like now.” I force my lips together to stop myself from rambling. “Sorry. Kind of like that. It just all comes out in a big jumble.”

“I understand, I do,” he says quietly.

I know who he is. “You’re the P.O.W.” The scars, the control, the interrogation skills. “I’m so sorry, Sergeant. For what happened to you.”

His face twitches, lips pressed tightly together, vein throbbing.

Fuck. I’ve said the wrong thing, like I always do. The exact wrong thing. It’s an unfortunate talent. I can’t take it back, can’t run or hide. I squeeze my eyes closed and plop my head on the table, sobbing.

“Mike?” A brunette walks into the kitchen “What is happening? It’s two in the morning.” She pulls her robe closed around her nightgown. “What--Who is she?”

I drop my head. Look at the table, look at the table.

“Melanie, it’s fine. Remember me telling you about my cousin Sylvia and her daughter Zoe? Zoe’s had some trouble at school, and Sylvia called me last night to say she was on the way here.”

I can’t risk looking up.

“Zoe, this is my wife Melanie.”

I stand. “Nice to meet you, ma’am.”

She flinches. “My God, what happened—” She reaches toward my face, and I cower. Melanie looks at her husband. “Mike?”

“She got mugged at the bus station. They took everything. She managed to find her way here,” he explains smoothly.

I didn’t know Marines were such good liars. I nod, eyes on the floor.

“Zoe, why didn’t you call?” she asks.

“I didn’t remember the number. They took my phone.” A plausible lie. “I remembered the address.”

“She’s going to be staying with us for a while, just until Sylvia figures out what to do.” Mike wraps his arm around his wife’s waist and turns her away from me. “Why don’t you get some things together so she can get cleaned up.”

Melanie nods, smiles sadly over her shoulder, and disappears down the hall.

He watches her walk away, and I hear a door close. 

Then he’s in my face so quickly that I would probably have fallen over if he hadn’t grabbed me by my sweatshirt. “This conversation obviously isn’t over. For now, you are sweet second cousin Zoe, and if you so much as breathe wrong around my wife or kids, I will gut you, and no one will ever find your body. Understood?” He face is florid, his breath hot on my face.

“Understood.”

September 06, 2021 19:56

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

4 comments

Alice Richardson
03:18 Sep 12, 2021

Compelling story. So realistic I almost cried. Well done.

Reply

Elizabeth Fenley
20:42 Sep 12, 2021

Thank you. I'm glad it was "almost" cried.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Jon Casper
09:41 Sep 08, 2021

Masterful storytelling. The dialogue is outstanding. Great descriptions. I wanted to keep reading!

Reply

Elizabeth Fenley
12:27 Sep 27, 2021

Thank you. I haven't written any beyond that. I'm glad you liked the opening. I'll put it on my list to get back to. Thanks!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply