Today is my birthday, but I'm wearing a Halloween costume. It’s my first time as the bait.
“Remember what we talked about, Kayla, dear,” Mum says, hugging me tight. “If they run you over, don’t scream.”
Next to her, Dad nods. “Don’t make a sound. It’ll ruin the surprise, and more of ‘em will come. They’ll take you away. Do you want that to happen?”
I sniff and shake my head, releasing a captive breath that plumes through the night air. Goosebumps pepper my bare arms. I can’t tell if they’re from cold or fear.
We let silence wash over us as the townsfolk do their work. Illuminated by pools of moonlight, they tug a mangled car onto the road and set it askew. Metal scrapes sharply against asphalt, and voices hiss warnings in response, demanding quiet. This is the riskiest part.
I look past them to stare down the empty road, and a deep weight unsettles my stomach. The wind tickles rows of looming cornfields on either side, as if they’re also shivering, as if their lives are also on the line. I’d think it was beautiful if I wasn’t the bait.
Dad follows my gaze, frowning. He puts his arm around my shoulders. “It’ll be alright, love. I remember my first time, too. I was terrified. Don’t worry – Jackson will be with you all the way. And once they stop, we’ll take it from there.”
The townsfolk, finished with the first car, are now dragging the second one. The front of it is smashed in. They position them facing each other, then stand back to assess the scene. I spy Jackson’s broad frame kneeling, pointing at one of the cars’ tires. There’s more whispering, then he and several others remove the tire and place it overturned a short distance away.
He spots us standing there with the cornfields to our back, and limps over.
“You ready to rumble?” he grins.
“I think so,” I mumble.
He tousles my hair. “Well, you look the part, kiddo. There ain’t nothin’ to be worried about. Come on, let’s get you all bloodied up.”
I take one last look at my parents, holding each other and waving at me. Then I fall into step with Jackson as he leads me towards the battered cars. It never fails to surprise me how fast he moves, despite his bad leg. As we walk, I peek at it from the corner of my eye. It’s normal above the knee, but his shin is twisted something awful, and his foot is sideways. It looks painful.
“It don’t hurt, if that’s what you’re thinkin’,” he remarks, reading my mind. “Sure, it ain’t too convenient. But you know what’s funny? I don’t think they meant anything by it. Was an accident, pure dumb luck. Bad driving.” He chuckles, breath misting. “Might even be they’re guilty about it. Imagine that!”
Usually, an older sibling does the bloodying. But I’ve got no brothers or sisters, so Jackson will do it, since he’s my oldest cousin. Tradition says he must be bait tonight alongside me, but he shows no signs of fear. Instead, he’s a restless bundle of energy, the excitement rising from his skin like steam from a kettle.
Beside one car is a metal bucket. “Kneel down. It’ll be easier,” he says, suddenly serious.
I comply quietly, the road scraping roughly against my knees. The jeans I’m wearing – which are not really mine, because they’ve been used and reused since before I was born – are ripped and torn. So is my shirt, white with no writing or logos. Mum said it’s to make sure that I’m seen.
Jackson reaches into the bucket, and his hand emerges dripping. He works it gently into my hair. Cold drops splatter on my neck, and I jump, muffling a shriek.
“It’s alright,” he murmurs. “Hold your breath and close your eyes.”
He smears blood across the side of my face, making my breath hitch in my throat. Some of it trickles down my neck and onto my arms. When he reaches my shirt, he picks up the bucket and pours it all over, leaving me shivering and uncomfortable, like dozens of freezing insects are crawling across my skin. I’m sure there’s none in my mouth, but I can taste it anyway, bitter and metallic.
When he’s satisfied, he beckons me up and hands me the slick-handled bucket. Then he lowers himself down and motions towards his face.
I follow his directions, smearing him with blood until he looks like he’s been in a horrible accident. The night disappears; all I can feel is the wetness of my hand and Jackson’s warm, slick skin. Suddenly, I realize we’re alone amongst gutted cars and the moonlight. The townsfolk, and my parents, have left us. But I know they’re watching.
“It’s almost time,” Jackson says, peering up at the sky. “Follow me.”
He leads me further up the road, just past where the cars are laid out, and points to a spot on the asphalt.
“Lie down here.”
My un-bloodied cheek touches the road, and I wince at the gritty particles digging into my skin. Fumes of burnt tires and old smoke make my head swim. Jackson grasps my limbs one-by-one, positioning them so I’m splayed out like a bug on a windscreen. He leaves my head where it is, my eyes fixed down the road. I feel his hot breath in my ear before he disappears somewhere behind me.
“Don’t move an inch.”
The worst part of being the bait, everyone agrees, is the waiting. I realize now why they say it’s impossible to close your eyes. Once, Jackson told me he lay there as bait all night, and in the morning, his eyeballs were all dried out from hardly blinking. But no one thinks tonight will be like that. The townsfolk say my birthday is an especially bountiful day.
All around me, the cornfields tremble with anticipation. They must be close. Something howls in the distance, but my thundering heart drowns it out. Mum and Dad said this part was the most exciting, the part you lived for. The best part of being the bait.
In the distance floats a pinprick of unnatural light. It grows bigger as it approaches, then splits in two. A low hum brushes the edge of my hearing.
A small voice in my mind urges me to get up and run away. To disappear into the safety of the cornfields and my parents’ arms. Then another one retorts in Jackson’s deep tones, chiding me for the thought. Without thinking, I let a whimper escape, and the wind surges past, whipping my hair around as if in a reprimand. And all the while, the lights get closer.
I can make them out as headlights now, fluorescent white. Soon, they’re burned into my vision, and it makes no difference if my eyes are open or closed. The full moon is gone, lost somewhere high above. Its absence leaves darkness leaking through, blotting out the sky.
They’re almost here. The hum has grown into the distinctive growl of a car engine. Gulps of cold air, instead of calming me, chill me to the bone. I see my breath misting and frantically clamp my mouth shut.
Even though it’s my first time as the bait, I’ve thought of this moment often, played it out in my mind. The road is so long, it’ll take them a while to see me. But when they do, the driver will slow the car down to a crawl. They’ll get so close I can see their faces. Maybe they’ll even stop and get out.
This is what I tell myself as the headlights approach. I ignore my heart, pounding out of my chest, when the car doesn’t slow. I ignore the small voice, pleading shrilly to run while I still can. It is so close I can smell acrid fumes and burning engine oil.
It still hasn’t slowed.
It’s going to run me over.
A moment of clarity descends, and I remember when Jackson told me what happened to his leg. Keep it relaxed, he’d said, or it’ll be more painful if they run it over. As my limbs loosen and the light fills my vision, my parents’ advice echoes through my mind, their voices repeating over and over again.
If they run you over, don’t scream.
If they run you over, don’t scream.
If they run you over -
I scream, a bloodcurdling wail, but it cuts short abruptly.
I’m not in pain.
Instead, I’m blind. The car is still, headlights shining directly into my face, burning rubber assaulting my nose. If I reached out, I could touch the front wheel. The engine reverberates in my ears, guttural, like a beast slavering for my flesh.
I hear muffled voices, then the sound of a window rolling down.
“Christ, is that a child?” a female voice says, hushed.
“Oh God, I think it is. Did I hit her? Oh heavens,” a man replies.
“Don’t be silly, she was already lying there,” the woman retorts. She raises her voice. “Are you okay? What happened?”
Just like they taught me, I remain still as a stone, forcing shallow breaths in and out of my nose. I shut my eyes firmly, the inside of my eyelids painted bright orange from the light shining through. Terror numbs my skin even colder than when I was bloodied. Have I ruined the surprise? Are more of them coming?
“You stay in the car, Deb. I’ll go check on her,” the man says.
The car door opens, and several sounds erupt at once. A chime from inside the car: ding ding ding ding. The slap of boots on asphalt. And, further away, rustling from the cornfields.
A faint voice floats towards me. “Mummy, there’s something in the trees.”
The woman shushes her. “Quiet, honey. Back to sleep.”
Footsteps crunch closer and closer, until suddenly my eyelids go from orange to black. The man must be standing right in front of me. He grunts, and I catch a whiff of sweat and stale cologne. A rough hand brushes my arm. It takes all of my willpower to remain splayed out, at his mercy, waiting for him to take me away. This close, he must see me trembling.
But I never find out if he does.
On either side of the road, the cornfields shudder and sigh. Footsteps erupt from every direction. The man yells in surprise, yammering an incoherent question; his hand withdraws, his smell recedes. There is no reply, but I hear the grunting of several men, and, briefly, a soft, wet sound. The world flares orange again. Someone screams.
For a heart-stopping moment I worry it was me, until she screams again. It’s the woman from the car. The car door slams shut - cutting off the chime, muffling her voice. My vision flickers as several pairs of legs run past.
Someone pulls the door open; screams and wails pierce the night. I want to put my fingers in my ears, block them out, but my limbs are frozen in place. The dreadful sounds echo until they’re unbearable, before, one-by-one, they cease abruptly and all noise fades. My ears strain against the silence. My chest is paralyzed, too afraid to breathe.
Then, it starts. Wet, smacking sounds, like bootsteps on mud. Twigs snapping. More grunting, mixed with rumbling moans. The tearing of cloth, and metal bending.
A strong pair of hands clasps me under the armpits, lifts me to my feet.
“You can open your eyes,” Jackson whispers.
I do, but they fail to adjust. Light burns through, making my head hurt. Blinking, I lean on him for support, and he puts his arm around my shoulder. My throat is dry, and I struggle to get the words out.
“What are they doing?”
“You’ll see, Kayla.” His grip tightens. “But don’t scream.”