Under the Bridge: A Short Story (Part 3)
NICHOLAS POPKEY

You can read Part 1 of the story here.
You can read Part 2 of the story here.

“Order up, principesa,” Adrian said, sliding a hot plate through the window.

Georgia tucked the plate into the crook of her arm. She and Adrian were on fire today. Big tips — even from the Romanians, who expected six stars out of five.

Georgia worked at Pastinaca, a Romanian-American restaurant on York Boulevard in Highland Park. Georgia had been hired partly because of her Romanian heritage. She liked the job well enough, and she could walk there from her place — a one-bedroom apartment she split with her boyfriend, Lucas.

Georgia made her rounds. She swept up tips like a card dealer then rang the bell on the counter. It was supposed to let servers know an order was up, but Adrian preferred yelling through the window. So only Georgia used it, to let him know when she had a minute to chat.

Georgia folded her arms, rested her chin. “You were saying? Marius — the vampire?”

Adrian shrugged. “Wouldn’t be surprised. He’s real Romanian. From Transylvania. First one here in the morning and he goes straight to the back office with no windows. Last to leave, once it’s already dark.”

Georgia drummed her fingers on the counter. “Mmm… gonna need a little more than that.”

“Okay. Just ask him. You’re the one who can talk to ghosts.”

“Ha. He can’t know about that,” Georgia said.

Adrian grinned. “He can if he’s a vampire.”

Smiling to herself, Georgia spun around and checked the clock. Ten minutes until the biggest night of her life began. Every year her gift grew stronger, but finally she had a chance, not only to lead a spirit out of limbo, but to help a new friend — she hoped — reconcile her past.

After spot-checking her tables, she took up her post at the counter again. “Guess what I’m doing after work?”

“I don’t know,” Adrian said. “Tarot cards?”

“I finally made contact,” Georgia said proudly. “Real, sustained contact.”

“With your real parents?”

“Never mind.” Georgia checked the clock again. “Since you’re so unimpressed, I’ll keep you in suspense. If I don’t come in tomorrow, I was murdered by a ghost.”

“Wait!” Adrian shouted after her. “You can’t say morbid shit like that and then walk away! Is this a cry for help?”

Bat Upside Down

She nearly sprinted to Lucas’s car — a Subaru hatchback. He was always on time for Georgia. In truth, he was often early. He zipped up his sling pouch when she came to the window, his coffee-brown skin aglow in the low sunbeams.

“Hey,” Lucas said, and Georgia leaned in to kiss him. She handed him a to-go container from behind her back.

“Yes!” Lucas grinned and kissed her cheek. It was his favorite — chicken paprikash.

“Cassie’s gonna be here any minute,” Georgia said.

Lucas tucked in to the hot soup. “Never been more ready.”

Using her hand as a visor, Georgia swept the parking lot with her gaze. There were a few cars — none of them occupied. Then she saw a blue Hyundai in the back corner with a young woman inside.

“Maybe that’s her,” Georgia said, already walking over. Lucas set the food aside and followed.

The sedan was battered and bruised, held together with duct tape. The window tint peeled like a sunburn. The young woman looked up and smiled. Her name was Cassie, and Georgia barely knew her. “Hey!” Georgia said through the open window. “So good to see you.”

“Hi,” Cassie said. “You too.”

When Lucas and Georgia had gone to Cassie’s apartment unannounced, Cassie hadn’t been interested in the seance they wanted to involve her in. They wanted to bring Cassie to the site of her mother’s death, to help her mother’s spirit move on. Even if you believed in ghosts, it was a lot to take in, especially hearing it from strangers. Cassie had asked them to leave and Georgia would’ve given up. But then Cassie found Georgia on Instagram and mysteriously offered to meet.

“So,” Lucas said, rocking back on his heels. “Changed your mind?”

Georgia whirled around, her green eyes raging. There was red sauce on the corner of his stupid mouth. And the way his skin had been glowing… it must’ve came from the same sense of entitlement that his arrogant tone did now. It was hard enough to convince Cassie to begin with. Did he mean to scare her off?

“Yeah,” Cassie said, leaning forward to meet his eyes. “I guess I was curious more than anything.”

If Lucas replied, Georgia didn’t hear him. “It doesn’t matter why,” Georgia said. “We’re just glad you’re coming. Lucas is gonna lead the way. But I thought I could ride with you?”

“Sure,” Cassie said.

“Okay,” Georgia said. “Thanks.” She hugged Lucas curtly, then went around to the passenger side.

They were headed to the Colorado Street Bridge, where Cassie’s mother, Susan Drake, had committed suicide. Just before Susan had leapt to her death, she’d thrown Cassie — three years old at the time — off of the bridge. Cassie had miraculously survived.

Built in 1912, the ‘suicide bridge’ had seen hundreds of jumpers. During the ride, Georgia told Cassie a story she almost never shared. If Cassie didn’t trust her by the time they arrived, they might as well forget the whole thing. But earning Cassie’s trust wasn’t even the hardest part, it was using her abilities once she did so. Georgia could vibrate at a preternatural frequency, but only if she placed her own trust in the unknown.

Humans tend to tune out when they can’t understand what they hear. So, entities aren’t in any hurry to connect, unless they can get what they want while keeping the human unaware. The most common sentiment humans receive from ghosts is resentment, or else contempt — for their traceable pattern of wrongdoings, of which the human species is guilty by default. Being murdered, executed justly or unjustly, vilified after death, consumed or exhumed after death, and so on. Ghosts have many reasons for their grudges.

Although it’s more common for ghosts to trust each other, it’s still a tall order. So, Georgia prepared for battle by sharpening her blade of implacable openness. She thought of herself as a sponge or a sea anemone. A creature of the most peaceful order, who could offer protection in the porous labyrinth of her abilities. So far, her openness hadn’t gotten her in trouble. Not yet.

By the time they reached the bridge, there were still sensitivities between the two women. Secrets too complex to be understood within thirty minutes. Nevertheless, Georgia was satisfied. She was sure, with the right kind of effort, that Cassie would see her mother’s spirit tonight — under the bridge, under the moon, under her guiding hand.

Light Passing through Trees

Ghost hunters need gear. Two large backpacks, three waterproof cases and a black duffel full of odds and ends. When it was just the two of them, Lucas strapped the duffel to his backpack. Tonight, he tossed it to Cassie. “Heads up.”

“Oof,” Cassie said. “Thanks.”

Hot coals hissed in Georgia’s temples. Does he not trust Cassie, or does he not trust me? She was suddenly doubtful. Doubtful, and only because of Lucas.

Lucas turned around to face the eyes he must’ve felt on his back. He was swallowed up by Georgia’s crippling gaze. “What?” He looked at Cassie. “Hey, sorry, that’s a heavy one. I’ll take it.”

Cassie settled the bag over her shoulder. “I got it.”

Georgia took a deep, silent breath. She’d been explaining her paranormal past, things leading up to her interest in being a medium. “Anyways,” she said to Cassie, “it was a long time before the visions felt real. I always thought it was… lucid daydreams.”

“You do fall asleep all the time,” Lucas said.

Georgia’s eyes were still cooling off. “I take little naps.” She turned to Cassie. “But only during the day. Anywhere. Bars, restaurants… every, single, matinee. So I was getting these visions and I thought they were… waking nightmares.”

“Sounds horrible,” Cassie said.

Georgia grinned. “It was at first. But the more I accepted them, the less scared I was.”

“And now you’re not afraid of anything,” Lucas said.

Georgia turned to Cassie. “If you know what you’re doing, there’s nothing to be afraid of. The living are stronger than the dead. Besides, your mother’s spirit — it’s calm. She was gentle. And everything was… crisp. She wants to connect. And I remembered more and more after she broke away.”

“Broke away?” Cassie asked.

“It always happens at some point, when it’s too exhausting to go on.”

“Hmm,” Cassie said. Lucas turned around slowly. Something was on his mind. Maybe he’s about to explain why he’s being a complete asshole, Georgia thought.

Lucas shifted his weight, snapping the buckle across his chest. “Before we go down, there’s something you need to see.”

Here we go, Georgia thought. “What?”

“It might be nothing, but you see that van over there?”

“No…” Georgia said. “I don’t—”

“It’s covered by those branches,” he said. “Like it’s been there a while. Might be someone living in it.”

“Someone’s living in their van.” Georgia shrugged. “Doesn’t concern us.”

“Maybe not,” he said. “Except I’ve seen it before.”

Georgia’s skin prickled as a new doubt settled in, brought about by Lucas, but only indirectly. He hadn’t conjured the van — simply noticed it. Georgia turned to Cassie, whose skin was ghoulish and white.

“Hey, you okay?” Georgia asked.

“Yeah,” Cassie said. “Fine.” But she looked petrified. “You’ve seen it before?”

“You look pale…” Georgia said to Cassie.

“I saw it on our way to the old infirmary,” Lucas said.

Georgia chewed her lip. “Alright, let’s go see.”

Silhouette of Person Waiting in Car

They made the walk in silence. Georgia would’ve lightened the mood if she could’ve found her words. She couldn’t tell Lucas to take more risks. Even framed as a joke it was too brash. So she tried to tune back in — take advantage of the silence. She listened to the wind as it trundled through. Any sort of disturbance could lead to a contact point. But it was no use. Georgia was shaken.

The leaves along the low-hanging branches above the van curled back, like flowers turning their faces toward the sun, away from the van’s dark aura. Fissures in the bald tires. The windows like spiderweb street maps. Energy rushed through those microscopic canyons to escape the inside of the van, which Georgia never wanted to see. “So, where did you see this thing?” She asked Lucas.

Lucas peered through the windows. “It stopped at the same gas station. When we went to the old infirmary.”

“I remember,” Georgia said. “It wasn’t even haunted. I mean, I shouldn’t say haunted. We didn’t make contact.”

Cassie stared at the van’s grill, road-splattered with insects. “Wanna keep moving? It’s creepy, but it’s still just a shitty van.”

All at once, Georgia saw the situation inside-out and backwards, bringing her back to the clarity of her abilities. When Georgia had said ‘contact,’ Cassie had snapped to attention, and then looked ready to move on. Could it be an unseen, ancestral eye, opening and turning its attention to a lost puzzle piece? Despite its core of dark energy, the van held no dominion. The gray chunk of steel was too heavy for its own good. Can it even be driven? Georgia started to giggle, which turned to frantic laughter, letting loose at her doubts and misgivings. Finally, she flicked tears from her eyes. “You’re absolutely right. It’s just a van. Let’s get down there, talk to Susan and go home.”

Georgia turned on her heel. Things were on track again. She refocused her senses on the static electricity in the air pockets around them. Nothing especially powerful yet, but soon. She breathed deeply, remembering the place, the smell of the soil, the sound of the crickets’ song.

“So,” Cassie said. “How does the seance work exactly?”

Georgia smiled and strode out in front of them. They were reaching the stone wall that ran along the edge of the ravine. She stepped onto it and faced them. She felt ready for everything, charged with a familiar vigor. She could already feel Susan nearby.

Georgia fixed her eyes on Cassie. “Have you ever seen one in a movie?”

“Yeah… oh… it’s like that, then?” Cassie replied.

“Candles, incense, incantations,” Georgia said. “You’ll see. I’ll explain everything as we prepare. Can you hum?”

“Hmmmm… of course,” Cassie said.

Georgia hopped down from the stone wall. “You’ll help with humming then. And think of something you remember about your mom. Even better, a shared memory. We’re not trying to rid your mother’s spirit. That would be very difficult. What we want to do is simple, at least in terms of the skill and experience required. We only need to summon her and speak to her. It’s all we can do, without messing with black magic.”

Georgia lightly touched Cassie’s wrist.

“Don’t worry,” Georgia said. “Think of this in terms of nostalgia, and never fear. Although it’s a simple connection, it should be enough for Susan to move on. Try to focus on why we’re doing this, not how.”

“Okay,” Cassie said, her voice like a shadow.

“Here, let me take this.” Georgia reached for the duffel Cassie was carrying. She handed it over. “Just take it easy and stay close. It’s pretty steep, but Lucas is back there if anything happens.”

A few minutes later, Lucas stopped under an oak tree clinging to the hillside. “This is where we found the birds.”

Georgia darted her eyes at him. “Yeah, something killed a couple birds under this tree. Last time we came. Irrelevant now.”

“Irrelevant?” Lucas asked. “You said it was a sign.”

What is going on with you? Georgia thought. “It was. But they’re gone now, aren’t they?”

Lucas looked off into the brambles. “I can’t tell, it’s too dark.” He turned to Cassie. “Still wanna keep going?”

“Yeah, I’m okay. Thanks.” Lucas’ jacket had snagged on his Glock 9mm, which he kept tucked in his back waistband. “You have a gun?” Cassie asked.

Lucas pulled his jacket down over it. “Just in case.”

“It’s probably a good thing,” Cassie said.

Lucas shrugged. “You never know.”

At least Cassie’s trying, Georgia thought. But still. “Lucas,” Georgia said. “You okay?”

“I’m fine. Honestly I’m just — thinking about that van. It has to be the same one. What if it’s following us?”

“Babe. Really it’s fine, don’t get paranoid.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not getting the same vibe as before.”

“The vibes are good,” Georgia said, taking his hand. “Just give us a second,” she said to Cassie, then took Lucas aside.

Once out of earshot, Georgia put a hand on the nape of his neck, pulled him in and kissed him. “Are you not feeling up to this?”

“I know this is your thing,” he said. “But I’m serious. I don’t know how to show you, but something is different. Something is here. And it wasn’t here last time.”

“It’s okay to be nervous.” She was still close enough to feel his breath on her cheek. “But whatever it is you’re feeling, we can handle it. Cassie is into it. Don’t worry about her. And definitely don’t worry about me.”

“She was so against this whole thing at first… then just flipped.”

“Do you not see why?”

“What do you mean?” Lucas looked back at the tree where they’d found the dead birds. Cassie was sitting there, against the slope of the hill, staring up at the bridge.

“It was Jake,” Georgia said. “You didn’t ride over with her. But from what she told me, I think… he sort of controls her. Maybe not always, but at least at home. You saw the place. It seemed like his domain.”

Lucas searched Georgia’s face. “She said no because of him?”

“It was part of it,” Georgia said, finding a grip on his bicep. She pulled him close, kissing him twice. “We don’t know her. We should be concerned. But has it ever stopped us before?” He kissed her back this time. When their lips parted, Georgia sent him a dose of confidence, through the web of emotion that held them together. It was straining not to pull apart.

“Okay,” Lucas said. “If you talked to her on the way over, and you’re sure it’s worth the risk. You get my blessing.”

“Thanks,” Georgia said, and touched his lips with her thumb. She could see her green eyes sparkling in his velvety irises. She pulled him in by his backpack strap, kissed him with all the love she could spare, then took him back to where Cassie was waiting.

Opening in the Forest

At the bottom of the trail they crossed the creek bed. The forest floor unfurled itself. Moonlight, creeping vines, spiderwebs pinned onto branches. Their breath was in sync, Georgia having set the pace — the other two falling in line subconsciously. Suddenly, something cried out, shearing away other noises, bellowing like a creature protecting its young.

Georgia whipped around with a finger pressed to her lips. The others stuttered for breath, deferring their actions while Georgia listened.

“What was that?” Lucas finally whispered.

The wind found gaps in the trees, and when the branches finished swaying, it was like nothing had happened. Georgia gave a reassuring look, then turned and led them up the other side of the ravine.

Lucas behind Cassie, driven by his trust for Georgia, not a word between their crunching footsteps. The foliage grew thicker as they climbed. Somewhere up ahead were the clematis vines where Susan and Georgia had first made contact. Cassie fixed her eyes on the soles of Georgia’s boots, for the lack of a light source at Georgia’s insistence had turned everything to shades of gray. The blackness was not only visual, but clawed at their gut feelings, until they didn’t know what had first compelled them to be there. Only Georgia knew, and she knew what she knew from what she was now hearing in a language Lucas and Cassie didn’t understand. It was whispered through the air currents by Susan Drake, telling her to go for the patch of the flowers again, but to veer ever so slightly to the right…

But why? Georgia thought. Circling… Right… Circle around… Vague words printed on her mind, but always drifting. Dissipating before she could remember them.

Georgia saw the white flowers just up ahead. Somewhere in their soft beauty was a bridge to the other side. A place to hear Susan clearly, instead of in cryptic shadows of words. The path they were on led straight to the clematis. But to the right, the leaves seemed to shimmer more in the moonlight. Susan was beckoning her that way, not only with sound but with visions. But going up the path on the right meant circling one of the bridge-support pillars. They were massive, squatting cylinders, and this one had a graffiti-covered wall coming off its side, adding to the detour. It’s so far out of the way… Georgia thought.

She turned back to Cassie and Lucas. “Sorry, we’re almost there.” They’d covered a lot of distance already and her pack was weighing on her.

“It’s that patch of flowers?” Lucas asked.

“Yeah. But I’m getting the sense,” Georgia wiped the bangs from her eyes, “we have to go that way.”

“Around the pillar?” he asked. “Can you even…?”

“I know,” Georgia said. “It’s a lot further.”

“Does it meet up with the other trail?”

“I don’t know.”

Lucas pointed to the flower patch. “That is where we were the last time, right?”

“Yes,” Georgia said. “I don’t want to miss her…” So many times she’d felt a ghostly hand on her shoulder, only to lose it a moment later. But her contact with Susan had made for a full conversation. Georgia was greedy to reconnect, but something was still off.

Lucas suddenly went straight for the flowers. It was being hammered into her mind that it was wrong. Like the inside of her skull was a pestle, and the message from Susan to take the other path was a mortar, grinding away at the instinct to go straight for the flowers. Go above and come back down. It’s dangerous this way.

Yet Georgia watched him go without a word. After so much doubt, she was happy to see him commit. He made his way quickly, leaping between fallen trees. The hammering in Georgia’s head went on, keeping pace with his steps through the brambles. She couldn’t be sure of what Susan was trying to say. It was all brute force like a migraine, and through it some dull notion that Lucas was on the wrong path.

“C’mon,” Georgia told Cassie, then started up the hill, if only to escape the pounding in her head. Cassie followed.

Suddenly Lucas dropped out of sight, as if being pulled into a sinkhole. There was a mess of noise — twigs snapping and Lucas’s panicked screams. At the same time, Georgia fell to her knees. She felt the walls of her mind begin to rise. Her skull expanded out from a pestle into a great cathedral. The mortar swung like a pendulum, shattering windows, and littering the floor with stained glass. The vaulting crumbled into the nave, as the sanctuary was demolished from the inside. As her mind quaked, ribbed walls of reason broke away, sliding off in slabs like a gothic glacier melting. She couldn’t hear it, but she could feel herself screaming.

The only silence came from Cassie. As the other two shrieked like banshees, she stepped further down the hill and looked behind her, as if she might drop everything and run back to where the car was parked. She fumbled with her headlamp, and although Georgia had said its use would interfere with their ability to interact with her mother’s spirit, the circumstances now justified it. But it was too bright, and although she could see the space in front of her, the creek bed and the rest of the ravine dipped to black. She flicked the headlamp off again, and the landscape came swimming back. If she could just see the road… but they were too far down.

Cassie whirled around to help Georgia, who was folded on the ground with her head between her knees. “Hey,” Cassie said. “It’s okay. What’s wrong? Shhhh. Georgia, what’s wrong?”

“My head…” Georgia groaned. But then the headache faded. Even though the pain was gone, its memory was blasted onto the cathedral walls of Georgia’s mind. Clarity came back as she rolled onto her side. Her head felt larger. There was more space inside it, like something had made room for itself. Georgia looked up at Cassie.

“Are you okay?” Cassie asked, her brow knotted.

“Help!” Lucas cried out before Georgia could answer.

Georgia got to her feet. “Hey! Lucas. We’re coming up!”

Georgia’s footsteps were guided not only by her own mind, but by another undercurrent, the touch of which was familiar and protective. Susan had broken through a barrier in Georgia’s mind, and was now able to suggest small bodily commands. Georgia gave in to this touch from another world.

“Follow my steps exactly,” Georgia said over her shoulder to Cassie.

When they made it to where Lucas had fallen, Georgia half-expected to find a portal to the nether. But it was only a deep hole, clearly made by human hands, its edges too steep to climb out of.

“Georgie…” Lucas moaned from the bottom.

“Hey, Lucas,” Georgia said. “We’re here. It’s okay. We’ll get you out.”

“God… fuck…. no, no, it’s not here. Fuck!” Lucas was frantic, going through the pockets in his backpack.

“What?!” Georgia shouted down at him. “What are you looking for?”

“It’s not here!” he shouted back. “Fuuuuuuuck… It fucking hurts…” He emptied the entire backpack. It was so dark down in the hole, Georgia couldn’t see what tumbled out, just a few blinks of moonlight that must’ve been glass jars.

Georgia took her own backpack off and unzipped the pockets. “Is it in this one? Tell me what I’m looking for!”

Lucas sighed and rubbed his eyes, then looked up at Georgia and Cassie. “The ketamine,” he said. “It’s in my sling pouch.”

“Ketamine?” Georgia asked, dumbfounded, on the verge of laughter. But then she fully registered the look on his face — sheer, total pain. “The horse tranquilizer?”

“Yes,” Lucas said. “It’s in my sling pouch, the white one. I must’ve packed it in yours instead.”

“But… why did you bring it here?” Georgia asked, incredulous.

“Oh, I don’t know.” He was delirious. “I thought if I fell into a ten-foot hole and broke my fucking leg, I could use it as a painkiller!”

Georgia looked over at Cassie, who shrugged. “Okay,” Georgia said. “You need it, huh?”

“Just drop it down here and go get help.” Lucas sucked a breath through his teeth. “Aaaah… I seriously think I broke my leg.”

Georgia tossed him the sling pouch. It vanished into the dark but she heard him catch it.

“We’re going now?” Cassie asked.

“Someone should stay with him,” Georgia said, pulling out her phone. “Fuck. No service.”

Cassie checked her phone. “Me neither.”

“We’re too far down,” Georgia said. “If I stay here, can you go up to the road and get a signal?”

“Of course,” Cassie said.

Lucas snorted. “Mmm… so much better.”

“Cassie’s going to get help!” Georgia called down. She finally noticed the tarp that was still secured around the edges of one side of the hole. Someone had stretched it over and covered it with dirt and leaves like a trap.

“I’ll come right back,” Cassie said. “Unless they want to me to wait there on the road.”

“Okay,” Georgia said, already feeling Susan slipping away. “I’m so sorry about this. But it’s okay. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Cassie said, then stood up, lingering at the edge of the trap.

“It’s okay,” Georgia said. “Go.” Cassie nodded and headed for the creek bed.

“It’s okay,” Lucas echoed. “Really, I think I’ll be okay.”

“Of course you will!” Georgia shouted.

“There’s some rope in the car… just go get some of that,” Lucas said drowsily. “Cut it up, cut it in a bunch of pieces, then tie it back together… whatever’s clever I’ve never been better… It’s probably just a sprain.” He tried to stand.

“Just stay still babe, she’s getting help,” Georgia said.

Lucas stumbled and sat back down, giggling softly. “It’s okay,” he said. “I just gotta climb outta here.”

Abstract Black Hole

Cassie ran. Her headlamp was on, and although she could only see the immediate space in front of her, she knew it was the right direction. It was her chance to get away. She’d put Georgia where she needed to be. She’d held up her side of the bargain. But then again, Lucas was stuck in a damn hole. Maybe she could call for help and then hang up before they could trace it. That way she could go straight home with a clean conscience. Home. The word sounded so sweet to her, she said it aloud. She was almost to the creek bed when she heard her name, called out sharply, in a voice that sucked the air from her lungs.

“Cassie,” the voice hissed.

She spun wildly, looking for the source.

“Are you leaving already?” The voice seemed to come from another direction now, but maybe she was just tired, manic and turned around. She switched off her headlamp and crouched down. Maybe she could still hide… maybe it was a ghost after all… but these were childish thoughts… Cassie knew exactly whose voice it was.

The black-eyed man stepped out of the shadows. He wheezed with laughter as he moved toward her slowly, his forefinger held to his lips, his other hand pointing his gun at her. “Shhh,” he whispered, frozen in his own lunacy. Then leaped toward her. Before she could scream, he had Cassie by the collar, like a tiger cub held in its mother’s mouth.

“I see you’ve figured out by now how to stay quiet,” the black-eyed man said, his sour breath burning in her nostrils. It wasn’t that Cassie didn’t want to scream — she couldn’t. Her mouth was too dry, and the way he was holding her pinned the neckline of her blouse against her throat, shutting her larynx except for just enough air to breathe.

“If I thought you were going back to your car to simply drive away, of course I could let you go,” the man said. “I keep my promises, and you did bring Georgia back. You did a fantastic job at that.” It was the first time Cassie had seen his face. Even in the moonlight, which drained most of the color, she could see his skin was bright red. It looked to her like the surface of Mars, his black eyes like the bottomless pits of deep craters. His face was cracked earth, peeling in so many places, so peppered with sores and scars that it could’ve been a Halloween mask. But when the man spoke, his face moved along with his words, and nothing had ever seemed more real, more palpable than this pocked wasteland, spitting cruelly at her. “But the problem is, I know what you want to do. You want to call the cops, send someone down to dig up that little spook outta’ my hole. I get the sense you’ve gotten sympathetic for those two, and the only sympathy you’re allowed to have is for me.” He pulled Cassie’s cheek to his lips and kissed her.

“I’ll go back,” Cassie said, trying to turn away from his shattered, oozing mouth. It was just like she predicted. He was everywhere and nowhere at once, at least down here. He didn’t just creep through the silence, listening to everything the three of them had said; he was the silence itself. Cassie felt hot tears drip into her mouth, tasted the salt. “I’ll do whatever you want.”

He let go and she fell to her knees, sobbing. She let herself collapse, and for a moment she had the animal instinct to play dead. If she could lie perfectly still, he might go away. But her rational mind re-spooled itself, and Cassie sobbed again, wanting to melt into the cool earth pressed to her forehead.

“I don’t give a fuck what you do,” he said. “Just gimme your phone.”

Cassie yanked it from her pocket and tossed it toward him. She didn’t want any more scars, no matter how small they were. She’d do anything now to get away. She heard a crunch, then looked to see him grinding a steel-toed boot into her phone screen.

“Run along,” he said, and Cassie scrambled off, never looking back.

She ran, with no regard for the branches filleting her face, thorns and serrated leaves tearing gills in her jacket. She ran, faster than the first time he’d laid hands on her, when she tumbled out of his van in the back alley.

First it was fear, but then something else compelled Cassie. She was headed up the hill instead of across the creek when she realized. The numbness of being alone was the same quiet he crept in, the same bitter solitude all around her. And for the first time in a long time, Cassie knew what she had to do. She was going back to Lucas and Georgia. Not because she needed them, but because they needed her.

To be continued in next month’s issue…


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