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“I tell ya, Jim. That was the most awful racket I’ve ever heard.” Billy Alvarez sat next to Officer Jim Stone in his patrol car, the cruiser making slow progress over the rough, dirt road.
“You sure this the area you heard it?” the young officer said, shining his spotlight over the alfalfa fields, seeing nothing more than abundant crop.
“Wait,” Billy said in lieu of an answer. “Look at them tracks.” He indicated the obvious tracks in the dirt road shown in the twin beams of the car’s headlights. Whistling between his teeth, he turned the spotlight toward the right. “Look at that.”
Officer Stone grabbed the radio for dispatch, not taking his eyes off the crumpled orange mass out in the field. “Dispatch, this is 273. We’ve spotted something. Will check it out and call back.”
“Ten-four, Jim,” came the tinny response through the speaker.
The night was exceptionally dark as the moon was hidden behind the gathering clouds. A soft breeze blew in through the open windows, fanning the sheer curtains away from the frame. A few bugs smacked against the screen before heading on their way, looking for another way in.
Soft, easy breathing filled the room, a slight snort splitting the otherwise quiet house. Jared was splayed out on his stomach, legs spread wide apart in an unconscious attempt to get cooler air between his thighs. His hands were tucked under the pillow his head lay upon. The bedside alarm clock red 3:22 a.m. in blood-red numbers.
A loud snort barked out at the shrill sound of Phantom of the Opera’s Masquerade split the night. Jared’s head shot up, bleary blue eyes blinking to wakefulness. With a heavy breath, he reached across and grabbed his cell phone, which he’d forgotten to turn off. He opened it, muttering something that sounded almost like hello into the tiny mouthpiece. As the smooth voice spoke on the other end, he slowly turned over to his back and then shot up as the news penetrated.
“Yes, I know her.” He listened. “What?” Heart racing, he shoved the sheet off his naked body and padded around the dark bedroom, swallowing a groan as he stubbed his toe on the dresser in the corner. “Okay. Right. I’ll make the call. Thank you, Officer.”
Tossing the phone to the bed, he dressed then headed into the hall, glancing into the bedroom across from his. The door was closed, which for a split second made his heart resume its normal cadence. Finding the room beyond empty and the bed un-slept in nearly made him sob.
Racing down the stairs, he banged on his roommate’s bedroom doors until the entire household was awake. Jared didn’t allow himself to think as he sprinted back up the stairs and grabbed his car keys and cell phone, he pounded back down and out the front door, the screen slamming two more times behind him as Lydia and Carrie followed. Their other roomy, Alicia was spending the night with her boyfriend. Jared didn’t call her cell, not even wanting to think about what he’d likely be interrupting with the sexually volatile pair.
The drive to the hospital was made in perfect silence, everyone either not fully awake, or terrified to speak the possible. The officer hadn’t given Jared much in way of details on the phone, just simply making sure that Braxton Crowley did in fact live at that address- Jared’s name and phone number listed as an emergency contact in the blonde’s wallet. He also advised that the girl had been taken to Mercy Medical, but had no details on her status.
Carrie sat in the front seat of Jared’s car. She stared out the window at the empty street, chewing on her bottom lip. The silence between the three of them had become more acute when the Orange Bomb proved to not be in the driveway. The redhead glanced over at her roommate, and Braxton’s best friend her shaggy hair dipped into hazel eyes.
“What happened?” she finally asked, her quiet question seeming shrill in the silence of the car.
Jared shook his head, never taking his eyes from the road. He could feel the sting of emotion behind them. “I don’t know. He didn’t say.”
“But it is Brax?”
“Apparently, Carrie. How else did the police get my number?” His voice was clipped and harsh from his profound worry and sorrow. He couldn’t think about that right now. He needed to find out what had happened.
Carrie turned back to the window.
Dyson Kibb whistled lightly as the sun came over the horizon, spreading oranges, pinks and yellows across the open sky. He ignored the sunrise as he worked. His tow truck had backed into the field, his rig set to draw the heap onto the long flatbed of his truck. He’d been warned when the call had come in, but nothing had prepared him for what he saw when he arrived. The damage done to the car was nothing less than looking like a bomb had gone off inside it. A tin can likely would have faired better than the Volks.
The country tune in his head continued to be vented through his shrill, seemingly tuneless whistling. Dyson let out one long whistle when he caught sight of the windshield. The entire portion in front of the passenger side was gone, jagged shards clinging to the orange frame. But what caught his eye was the remaining piece in front of the driver’s side. A nearly perfect hole was punched through, just barely big enough for a child to go through. The jagged edges were bloody with a few spider web tendrils of blood spreading out.
“Christ,” he whispered. He hadn’t heard about the driver, the body long gone. He had no idea if they lived or were dead, which he figured was fairly likely. “Crying shame,” he muttered, resuming his whistled song.
Green eyes blinked open, then blinked several times. An up close and personal view of an ant met the focused gaze. Braxton pushed herself away, her phobia of the tiny, sectioned creatures overruling her confusion. On her knees, she eyed the insect with disgust, relieved as it scurried away. Raising her eyes, she took in her surroundings. She found herself lying on the deep, rich soil of a forest. Trees, as tall as the eye could see, surrounded her, like proud sentinels. The braches were raised to the heavens far above, peppered with rich, green leaves.
Turning, Braxton cried out in surprise when she saw a little girl, no older than five or six, sitting on a fallen log. The girl’s light brown hair was a mass of tangled locks on her head. She didn’t seem to mind as piercing blue eyes studied the blonde. A dirt-smudged finger played at the girl’s lips, matching the smudges on her cheeks. Her dress looking as though it had been fashioned out of a burlap sack, her feet bare.
Completely confused, Braxton slowly got to her feet, grunting slightly with the effort. Her body was intensely sore, feeling as though she’d been running a marathon for ten days straight. She turned in a small circle, taking in the trees, then noticing a small, shack-like structure just beyond the trees. The smell of smoke filled Braxton’s nostrils. Turning back to the little girl, she was startled as the child jumped up from her perch and ran toward the house, glancing over her shoulder before disappearing into the trees.
“Where the hell am I?” She looked down at herself, gasping aloud when she saw the she was naked. “Oh my god,” she whispered, looking around desperately for something to cover herself with. Finding nothing but leaves, and not exactly feeling like Eve today, she sighed. “Shit.”
Low humming could be heard coming from the small house. Frantic now, Braxton looked around, finally hiding behind a tree. She could feel the rough bark against her skin as she peered around the thick trunk. A portly woman made her way through the woods toward the small clearing where Braxton had found herself sprawled on the ground.
“Come on out, child,” the older woman said, her voice soft yet firm, as she neared. Dark eyes scanned the area.
Braxton wasn’t sure if the woman was speaking to her or someone else. Her eyes flicked to the woman’s hands, seeing a bundle of material folded over the woman’s arm. It looked like a dress.
“Come out. I’ve got something for you to put on. Can’t let you catch your death. Not yet, anyway.” The older woman stood at the center of the clearing, almost in the exact spot where Braxton had lain. Her dark hair was streaked with gray, bound on top of her head. Her full face made her eyes crinkle, seeming even more friendly than the twinkle would make them.
Braxton stuck her head out from behind the tree. “Um. Hello,” she said, feeling shy and extremely vulnerable.
“Oh, there you are!” She hurried over to Braxton, taking the material off her arm and holding it up against the blonde’s petit frame. “May need a little altering, but overall, I think it’ll do nicely,” the woman muttered, eyeing the dress with a critical, yet practiced eye. “Here, let’s get you dressed.”
Braxton was lost in a blur of activity as the portly woman had her dressed in record time. She felt a sense of panic as her confusion leapt to the surface of her thoughts again. “Where am I?” she asked, near panic.
The woman smiled up at her with the reassurance of a mother, easing Braxton’s fear. “Come, child. Get settled and warm, then you’ll be shown.”
Jared tried to readjust his butt in the incredibly uncomfortable plastic chair without disturbing the two girls who decided his shoulders were the perfect pillows. Sighing, he tightened his arms around Carrie and Lydia’s shoulders. He knew that they were both leaning him- literally and figuratively- because he was the only guy. He didn’t mind being their champion, as he’d certainly done it enough. But sometimes he needed someone to tell him everything would be okay.
Glancing at the clock above the nurse’s desk he knew the sun would be rising soon. Sighing again, he wondered who long it would take Margot and Fletcher Crowley to arrive. He knew Margot would be hysterical, and undoubtedly the good Reverend would be as impassive as ever.
Jared’s attention was drawn to a woman standing in front of him, a cup of steaming coffee in her hand. She was dressed in light pink scrubs, a hospital badge clipped to the shirt. “I know you’ve been sitting her for awhile. Figured you might need this.” She offered the cup to him with a smile.
“Thanks.” Jared managed to gently tip Lydia’s head over against the wall to free one of his arms. He adjusted his shoulder and near dead arm gratefully. Taking the cup he sipped. The hot fluid felt good to warm his chilled soul. “Any news?” he asked the pretty nurse. She shook her head, dark, unruly curls bouncing in her eyes at the movement.
“Not yet. I’ll let you know as soon as I know something.”
“Thanks, Nurse. I appreciate that.” He gave her a smile then sipped from the cup again as she walked away. Resting his cheek against Carrie’s head, Jared stared at the TV mounted in the corner, no clue what infomercial was playing. Looked like something for skin care. Ignoring the muted program, he allowed his mind to wander, finally punishing himself.
Over and over again he heard Braxton’s desperate pleas for him to listen to her and to be there for her. He felt the sting behind his baby blues as the conversation came back to him:
“Hey. It’s me.”
Jared felt his jaw clench for a moment, setting the green, two liter bottle on the scarred counter top. “Yes, Braxton?”
“I know you’re mad at me, Jared, but I need to talk.”
“Of course you do,” Jared said, taking a sip from his drink before returning the soda to the fridge. “Undoubtedly that asshole hurt you. Again.”
“Yeah. I caught him getting blown by some bimbo,” Braxton said, her voice quiet, thick from emotion.
“Shocking,” Jared said dryly, heading back to the living room where the game awaited his direction.
“Jared, please. I need you, but don’t need your comments,” the blonde pleaded on the other end of the line.
“Of course you do. Just like you have every goddamn day for the past year and a half. Just like you have every time you’ve stood me or your other friends up for that piece of crap. Just like you have-“
“Damn it, Jared! Can’t you just be my friend? I don’t need a lecture.” Braxton sounded like she was on the verge of tears, which made Jared even angrier. He felt she kept setting herself up for this hurt time and time again, regardless of just how often Andrew Watson showed his true colors. He was tired of it. Tired of listening, being the constant shoulder his friend cried on, yet she never listened to him, or to anyone else that told her to drop the loser.
“Braxton, I’m in the middle of my game. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Jared, please. I really need to talk-“
He raised his head from Carrie’s, easing himself away from her. She mumbled in protest then fell back into a deep sleep, curling her short body up in the chair. Jared glanced down at her as he stood, noting with a small smile that she looked like a little girl, tucking her hands beneath her chin. Stepping away from the bank of chairs, he sipped his coffee, his free hand shoved into the pocket of his jeans. He watched as an ambulance flew by the tinted glass doors of the ER lobby entrance. Immediately his thoughts went to Braxton.
They’d been cooling their heels in the hard chairs for more than two hours with no word. It was the longest two hours of his life. Jared saw the face of his best friend flash before his eyes- golden hair like a halo when the sun caught it just right. Her eyes, always twinkling, and seeming to be filled with a mischief that made him grin, even as he stood in the cold, sterile hospital.
Once again his thoughts turned to the phone call from hours ago. Could he have prevented this tragedy if he’d talked to her? Maybe told her to stop on the side of the road, let him come get her. Or maybe they could’ve gone to that all night diner where they usually had their serious talks.
“Damn it,” he said, choking on the words as the tears finally came. He was tired of being strong for Carrie and Lydia. Let them lean on each other for once. Setting the Styrofoam cup on a nearby end table, Jared buried his face in his hands, sinking to the closest chair to him. His sobs were guttural and profound. He had no idea what he’d do if he lost Braxton, especially if he could have prevented it.
The small structure was made of logs with a rock base for support. The yard was nothing more than earth and weeds and wild grasses. Braxton was ushered inside, where a fire warmed the small interior, which was as basic as four walls, a rough table with four chairs, and boards lining one wall, which held utensils, dishes and mugs.
“Sit, sit,” the woman insisted, pushing at Braxton’s shoulders.
The blonde did as she was told, looking around even more confused than ever. She saw a doorway which led to another part of the shack. Her brow drew, as she knew from the size of the building outside, there was no way another room could exist. Voices brought her attention back to the only outside door of the shack. The little girl ran in, her glance briefly finding Braxton before she scurried through the adjoining doorway. A taller woman had entered behind her.
Braxton stared up at her, hands resting politely in her lap. The woman had long, dark hair, which was windblown and disheveled. She wore pants that looked to be made of some sort of animal skin, medium brown in color, large x-shaped stitches for seams along the legs. The top was nothing more than a tunic with long sleeves. It reminded Braxton of clothing she’d seen Native American’s wearing in pictures. No moccasins were on her feet, however, instead the pants were tucked into knee-high black boots, which were covered in mud and dust. A sword was tucked into a backhanger, the grip and pummel of the sword visible over her right shoulder.
The woman stopped on the other side of the table, looking at Braxton with a critical eye, her blue eyes intense and penetrating. Braxton fought the urge to squirm in her seat.
“What do you remember?” the woman asked.
“I remember waking in the forest. That little girl,” she said pointing toward the doorway the five year old had disappeared through, “sitting on a log, watching me.”
The woman sighed with a nod. “Feared as much.” Without another word, she headed through the doorway, returning within a few moments. Braxton started as a heap of clothing was tossed into her lap. “That dress won’t do. Hurry and change. We need to get going.”
“Going?” Braxton said, pushing to her feet and following quickly behind the brunette, who stopped suddenly in the doorway of the other room. She rounded on Braxton, dark brows drawn in irritation.
“I said change.” With that, she headed through the doorway, a door slamming solidly in Braxton’s face.
She turned back to the main room of the shack, eyeing the clothing which had fallen to the floor in her haste to follow. “I swear I’ve fallen through the rabbit hole,” she murmured, though had no idea from where. She did know that she did not belong here.
Quickly stripping from the dress, she pulled on breeches that were ill-fitting and of a rough material, that felt very much like the same burlap sack the girl’s dress had been made of. The shirt wasn’t much better. The stitches were uneven and large, made of a thick thread. The entire outfit was the color of muddy water. She glanced up in just enough time to see the door open once more, just enough for a pair of boots to be thrown out, landing at her feet.
Dressed, Braxton resumed her seat, again her hands folded in her lap. She looked around the room, taking in more. In some ways it looked like the room hadn’t been touched for years- dust covered everything, a few cobwebs hung in the corners. The fireplace was spotless, save for the wood that had burned to ash since she’d been sitting at the table. Yet, on the flip side of that thought, she would swear people had inhabited the shack since the day it was built. The atmosphere was comfortable and warm, and she swore she smelled homemade bread and stew, though nothing filled the iron pot sitting on the fire’s hearth, nor was there any semblance of food stuffs on the shelves.
She listened, not hearing anything from either outside, or the other mysterious room. No little girl giggling or laughing. No older woman barking out orders or giving loving kisses. No young woman. Rising from the chair, Braxton eyed the plank door, chewing on her lower lip, unsure. The doorknob was no more than a foot away, and she saw her hand come into her sight, about to grab hold when the door flew open.
Braxton started, looking up at the tall woman who glared down at her.
“Yes?” the brunette asked, voice hard, impatient.
“I, uh, well, I was just wondering…” Braxton could only stare, her words trailing off at the hardness in the blue eyes that studied her. “Where the hell am I? Who are you people, and why am I sitting here?”
the woman closed the door securely behind her, tossing a small smile down at the blonde. “Impatient, aren’t you?” She lifted her head, sniffing the air. “Hungry?”
“I… I don’t know. I’m just really confused.” Braxton wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at her predicament. She felt like she were stuck in a really bizarre dream, but knew full well she was awake.
“We’ll get going soon,” the woman said, turning her attention back to Braxton. “Gather our gear to the barn,” she said, nodding toward a corner next to the door. Braxton followed her gaze and gasped at the pile of supplies she saw, certain they hadn’t been there a few moments before. “I’ll meet you out there in a couple minutes.”
“Alright,” Braxton said, feeling like she must be on a bad trip or something. She was brought out of her reverie when the door slammed once more, and she was again left alone.
Walking over to the supplies, she saw two bedrolls, a large, leather satchel filled with two wooden mugs, plates and utensils, as well as an iron pot. She saw another pouch filled with small bundles filled with something she couldn’t identify- they were soft, a few squishy. “What the hell?” she muttered, but then remembered what she’d been asked to do, quickly gathered everything, grunting under the weight as she stood and headed back outside.
The air outside was warm, the breeze calm. A large structure sat to the left of the shack, the thatched roof meeting at a strict ridge. One side of the two were open, allowing Braxton to hurrying inside, her arms burning with the effort of her burden. Setting it all down, she looked around the shadowing building. The only light was what came in from the open door, as well as the cracks and slits in the boards which made up the building.
Two horse stalls were tucked into the left, the right held stacked bales of hay and equipment for the care of horses was hung on the plank walls. Only one stall was filled, the huge, black creature within beautiful. He stared at the blonde, making soft noises in his throat at the newcomer.
“Hey,” Braxton said softly, walking over to him. He was one of the biggest horses she’d ever seen, but almost the most beautiful. Suddenly she knew she had grown up around horses, but didn’t know why or where.
“That’s Black Jack,” came the soft voice from behind her. Braxton turned and saw the tall woman entering the barn, a saddle in her hands. “Move so I can get him ready to go.”
Braxton backed away, watching.
Jared honestly didn’t think he could get any more exhausted than he already was, but as the hours had dragged on, he felt almost nauseous. Of course, emotional exhaustion was even worse than physical. His eyes were red-rimmed, nose felt like two days of a nasty cold. It was pushing seven a.m., and his stomach had begun to growl.
“Jesus. I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck,” Carrie muttered, pushing herself painfully up from her folded position on the chair. Her back cracked as she stood, stretching her arms high above her head. After a loud yawn, she glanced around, noting Lydia sitting quietly in another chair, reading a magazine, and then Jared standing before her, hands shoved into this pockets. “Anything?”
“Not yet,” Jared said, sounding more dejected than he meant to.
“Let’s get some breakfast,” Lydia said, joining her roommates, looking from Jared's tortured blue eyes to Carrie’s tired hazel ones.
Jared shook his head. “You guys go ahead. I’m staying here.”
Carrie patted his stomach. “We’ll bring you something.” She walked over to her friend, roommate and sometime lover, the two women heading off deeper into the hospital.
Jared walked over to the vending machine that sold various cans of soda and bottled water. Digging in his pockets, he found a crumpled dollar, easing it into the mechanized changer, listening to the hum then the sound of his single quarter change hitting the metal cap. He made his choice, the can of Dr Pepper tumbling to the plastic tray.
The sun was up, the sky already a bright blue as Jared walked over to the windows, staring out at the busy day. Hospitals, he realized, were so cold and empty in the middle of the night. Now, in the light of day, he felt warmed and welcomed within the healing arms.
“Anyone here for Braxton Crowley?” a loud, clear voice called out.
Jared hurried over to the man dressed in dark blue scrubs, his surgical mask pulled down below his mouth. The doctor looked at the expectant young man before him.
“I’m Dr. Yaklich. Braxton is out of surgery, but not out of the woods yet. She suffered to fractures to her skull in the accident, which saved her life, as it gave the brain room to swell from the massive injuries she sustained.”
“Can I see her?” Jared asked, nearly grabbing the front of the man’s shirt in desperation.
“Not yet. She’s in ICU, where I imagine she’ll be for a while yet. She’s slipped into a coma, the body’s way to protect itself from pain and trauma while the brain heals. The good news is, though unconscious when brought in, she did respond to the pain of her bones being set in ER.”
Jared nodded solemnly, swallowing back his fear. “Will she make it, Doctor?” he near whispered.
“I can’t say just yet. It’s going to be very touch and go. She’ll been seen by her physician later this morning, after she’s been settled.” With that, the doctor turned on his heel and headed back through the swinging doors in which he’d come.
Jared blew out a long breath, the cold can of soda in his hand forgotten. Relief was mixed with dread as the doctor’s words echoed in his brain. She’s alive, but for how long?
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