I didn’t care what Derek said. I’d been walking in the direction of Agenton for so long that my feet felt like jelly–that is, jelly with spikes sticking through it.
At this point, however, I was hoping for any hint of civilization: the only indication that I wasn’t completely separated from all of society was the occasional sign, proclaiming “LeesCreek: 10 miles,” or “Oaksboro: 20 miles.” I hadn’t seen any of these towns, just the same road and the same surrounding forest. Despite the hours I’d spent walking, I knew I’d only gone a few miles (between my breaks and my slightly nervous gait, I wasn’t going as fast as I could.)
One part of me still wanted to turn back, but every part of me knew that it was too late. Each passing car made me cringe, and my palms were sweating profusely–not from the sun, but from the nervous beating of my heart.
So I didn’t care what Derek had said: I needed a distraction. I jerked my IPod from my pocket and rammed the earphones into their proper place. I didn’t take time to locate a song; I just listened to whatever was playing, making sure that the volume was full-blast:
“To everything–turn, turn, turn,
There is a season–turn, turn, turn,
And a time for every purpose under heaven.
A time to be born, a time to die….”
I hastily skipped to the next song, convincing myself that I didn’t believe in omens and that my IPod wasn’t trying to tell me something.
Yet, a week ago, I hadn’t believe in prophets either.
I shook my head, trying to concentrate more heavily upon Dave Davies’ guitar riffs.
It was a good distraction until I saw a gas station slowly appearing over a hill–the halfway point. (I must’ve traveled farther than I’d thought.) I was halfway home, and yet not a single thing had happened. I breathed a sigh of relief, checking my watch: it was five o’clock. I’d been a runaway for nearly a whole day.
And I was beginning to hope that things remained this way–if nothing happened (if I could get home safely), then maybe Chay would leave me alone.
I grinned–the idea seemed too good to even dream about.
I turned off my IPod, shoving it back in my pocket. There were a few dollars in my pocket, and I wondered if I could get a Coke at the gas station–it would be a welcomed break.
I walked more quickly than I had all day, stopping at the station: it appeared to be taken directly from a textbook, specifically a chapter discussing the 1950’s. The station was small with peeling paint and there were only two pumps. It seemed like the perfect place for any passerby to stop before being attacked by mutants yielding chainsaws or inbreeds yielding banjos.
At this moment, however, I’d never seen anything that looked more like a piece of paradise. I approached eagerly, entering the store area. The room was lit with a flashing florescent bulb that gave the room a greenish glow. The air smelled stale: a mixture of cigarette smoke and age.
The man behind the counter looked as old as the candy he was trying to sell (most of the brands I hadn’t even heard of). Yet he turned the minute he heard me enter.
“You lost, kid?”
“No, I’m goin’ in the right direction.” (I’d seen enough horror movies to know not to take directions from strangers.) “I was just wanting something to drink.”
The man closed his mouth, his bottom lip overlapping the rest of his mouth. He moved slowly, like a cheap wind-up toy, stopping every once in a while to straighten his glasses or touch his fisherman’s hat.
I was beginning to get impatient, constantly
glancing over my shoulder–I no longer wanted to see anyone. Not until I got home, that is; I couldn’t wait to get back to Mom and Reb.
Heck with the plan–I was running away.
I was going home.
The man finally returned, licking his lips. He passed me a Coke (in a glass bottle–I grinned; this gas station really was lost in yesteryear). “Two dollars,” he mumbled.
I passed him the money, pulling at the cap on the bottle.
“Need a hand?” the man asked.
I nodded, handing the bottle back to him. He muttered angrily about teenagers, reminding me of something Chay would say.
I bit my lip. If I was lucky–really lucky–then I wouldn’t be hearing from Chay ever again.
I took the bottle back, shoving the cap into my pocket and taking a long swig. “Thanks,” I said, turning to the door. The man didn’t say anything in response, just picked up a newspaper and began reading.
The sun was blinding, and I picked a shady spot to relax. I sat on a rusty tire, watching the desolate road in front of me. I decided that I should hurry–the less time I spent in one place, the better–but the soda was surprisingly cold, so I could only drink so quickly.
I felt suddenly peaceful–as though everything was going right.
I closed my eyes, hoping that I’d been hearing things.
The voice was angrier this time–gruffer.
I stood, taking the last drink of soda and setting the Coke on the sidewalk. I turned slowly–my worst fears confirmed.
Dang it, dang it, dang it, I thought, as though repeating the phrase would make Chay suddenly disappear.
He was standing diagonally from me. Miss Carling’s car was parked haphazardly–part of it in the road, the other part in the gas station. I noticed the angle of the car, and frowned: it appeared as though Chay had been traveling toward Derek’s rather than away from it.
Chay approached me, his steps swift and quick; he barely seemed to touch the ground. I’d never seen his short hair so tousled, nor his jaw so tightly clenched.
He reached me quickly, my back hitting against ice box. He grabbed me by the wrists, his face inches from my own. “Fancy running into you, Todd.” His voice was low and grave.
But the last thing I felt was fear. In fact, I felt angry–furious, actually.
I’d never been more easily angered than when I was around Chay. Maria and Alvin had gotten on my nerves; Miss Carling had been a thorn in my side; but Chay was… was….
Chay was like a whole thorn bush that was being shoved down my throat, twisting just the right way to push buttons I didn’t even know I had.
Because I’d been so close.
I’d almost been out of this nightmare.
But Chay wasn’t going to let me leave.
Well, I wasn’t going back without a fight, that was for sure.
I jerked my wrists, but Chay’s grip was harsh: rather than breaking his grip, my writs twisted awkwardly, paining as Chay shifted slightly as I struggled to remain upright, tripping over my own foot and falling into the tire.
Chay didn’t let go, just leaned forward, his expression grim. “Don’t embarrass yourself, Todd.”
“Let go of me!”
Chay’s chest heaved slightly in frustration. His face didn’t change however: his mouth was still taught and his jaw was strained beneath his hard features. “You will keep quiet, Todd.”
“Let go!” I squirmed, feeling very childish but not caring. “Let go of me! Help! Someone help!”
“Todd!” Chay lifted me easily, pushing me from the tire and throwing me to the ground. I scrambled against the dirt, beginning to run.
Chay was faster.
He pinned me against the building, whispering, “Todd, you’re making a scene. You’re going to be quiet. You’re going to accept what is happening–”
“I’m not letting you take me there!”
“No one’s taking you anywhere!”
“I heard you and Aislynn talking!”
“Todd, will you stay still!”
“No!” I struggled, kicking my legs in every direction and twisting my body the best I could beneath Chay’s weight. “You’re on her side!”
Chay’s grip loosened slightly. I yelled incoherently, squeezing between Chay and a pump. “I’m not an idiot!” I shouted again.
Chay was watching me strangely. His face had loosened slightly, his eyes without the edge they had implied as he’d cornered me.
“You think I fell for that?” I spat, keeping my gaze on Chay, afraid to look away. “You’re just like her! You don’t… don’t–” It was getting harder to speak. I was walking away, shouting as loudly as I could. “You don’t know anything about me!”
“Don’t know anything?” Chay came took a step closer, and I nearly tripped again, taking a few quick steps backward. Chay stopped approaching. He swallowed. “Todd, you need to understand.” He paused. “I don’t have a lot of say in this situation.”
“Liar!” My voice cracked and my eyes burned. “I’m your project. Liar!”
Chay came closer. I noticed he was reaching behind his back, and my blood seemed to stiffen–it was a sensation that made my legs numb and my heart clench. “Chay, don’t. Please, Chay, just leave me alone!”
“Todd, you know I can’t do that.” Chay’s voice was somber. This was business–nothing personal.
Yeah, to him. Not to me–this was my life. A life that I’d thought he’d cared about.
I don’t know why I was so surprised by my idiocy: I’d been fooled before. I’d thought that Chay would protect me, but suddenly–so suddenly that I had to blink away the intensity of the realization–I realized the truth.
I didn’t know how much control Chay truly had over me, but the facts were simple: if he had to, he’d surrender me to Aislynn. This was simply his job–the ole’ nine-to-five.
“No.” My voice was weaker this time. I don’t know where my anger had gone, replaced by empty hopelessness.
I could see in Chay’s persona that the battle was over. “Todd, you’re going to come along with me. You’re going to come quietly. And you’re not going to try something as stupid as running away again.”
I didn’t say anything, just continued to back away.
“Todd, do you realize how long we’ve been looking for you? I thought you’d be in Agenton, but when you weren’t there….” Chay trailed off. I could again see both of his hands: they were empty. He’d obviously decided against using force. “Todd, I assumed the worse.”
“Yeah,” I agreed weakly. “It would have been such a shame for the Department.”
“Get away from me!”
“There some trouble out here?”
Chay whirled around so quickly that I didn’t even see him turn: one instant he was dangerously eyeing me, the next he was facing the elderly gas station clerk. The old man had slowly wobbled outside, his hand clasped around the receiver of a nearby payphone.
Chay’s entire demeanor changed. When he spoke, it was with a strange, almost amused tone. “My nephew just tried running away from home. His mom’s worried sick. She’ll be so glad to hear that he’s safe.”
The old man still seemed suspicious. He raised his eyes, looking past Chay. “And what do you have to say?”
I began to open my mouth, but the voice I heard wasn’t mine:
“Wanting to fill up.” The voice was monotonous, but the tone didn’t take away from its menace.
Chay whirled around almost as quickly as I did. The surprise on his face seemed unnatural as his grey eyes fell on the figure that was leaning arrogantly against one of the pumps.
Henbane didn’t grin, nor did he even appear to notice that Chay and I were mere feet from him. Behind him was a limo, the windows tinted and the engine roaring softly, like a panther readying itself to strike.
Henbane didn’t move, just kept his eye on the clerk. I noticed with a sudden jolt of terror that one of Henbane’s eyes had been covered with a patch. His beard was rougher than it had been since I’d last seen him, his coarse face stretching into a would-be-good-natured grin, was it not for the venomous glint in his gaze.
He took a step forward, and Chay immediately jumped in front of me. Neither man spoke, and I ran closer to Chay.
Henbane glanced toward me, his lips twitching. “Isn’t that sweet?” he hissed. “Ducking for cover under mother hen’s wing.” He laughed, reaching into his back pocket. He kept his hand behind his back, but I could still see the sunlight reflecting dully against metal.
Chay noticed as well, and I saw his eyes widen.
“How much you want?”
I know I twitched at the sound of the old man’s voice. Chay, too, seemed to have forgotten he was there, though he didn’t look away from Henbane; nor did Henbane let his eye leave Chay.
“On second thought,” Henbane began, “I think the tank is full.”
In one swift movement, Henbane’s hand was in front of him, a pistol poised neatly between his fingers. He didn’t even look at the old man as he took aim….
“Todd!” Chay pushed me to the ground, commanding is a harsh whisper to “stay down and don’t look up!”
I covered my head with my arms, closing my eyes against the loud bang, and the quiet condolence as Henbane muttered, “Just couldn’t afford a witness.”
There was a thump, and I barreled my face into the dirt, trying to ignore the sound that–somehow–was still replaying in my mind. It had sounded like glue squirting from a bottle. There was no gasping, no moaning, and I tried not to imagine where Henbane must have hit to have had such an immediate kill.
The thought made me ill, and–tentatively–I looked up, making sure my eyes didn’t stop anywhere near the door to the gas station.
Instead, I watched Chay, who now also held a gun in his hands. His face was somber, his eyes unblinking, as he watched Henbane.
They were circling each other, and I noticed that I was right in the middle of their fight. I gulped audibly, clasping my hands so tightly across my head that it hurt.
“Todd, I said not to look up!”
I obeyed Chay immediately, the loose dust rising into my nose and making my throat itch.
“You came to play, didn’t you, Chay?” Henbane’s voice lacked the sarcasm it’d held last time; I swallowed hard–today, he meant business.
Chay didn’t respond. He’d obviously noticed the change in Henbane’s demeanor.
“What an interesting predicament you’re in, Chay.” I didn’t dare look up, but I could feel Henbane’s heavy footfalls surrounding me. “Let’s take a look at your options. One, you start shooting. That would cause me to shoot–” Another laugh. “–Wonder who would get hit? I think I know.”
Though I wasn’t watching the exchange, I could feel Henbane staring in my direction.
“Option two, you wait for me to start shooting–same outcome.” Henbane paused. “Option three, you stop playing and let me have the kid.”
“You wouldn’t dare shoot the prophet.”
I cringed at Chay’s response.
Henbane cackled. “I didn’t say I’d kill him.”
“I didn’t say I’d let you.”
“Of course not, Chay. You’re always the valiant one.” The sneer in Henbane’s voice was so evident that I shivered. “The brave, the noble–”
“You forgot impatient,” Chay snapped, and I jumped, clutching my hair as another bang filled the air.
There was a shout–not of pain, but of surprise. I didn’t have the time to register who had yelled. A strong arm was pulling me to my feet. I struggled, trying to keep my eyes closed and my head down.
“Todd, run!” The order was brief, but welcomed. I opened my eyes gingerly, watching as Chay ducked, dragging me along beside him.
“Trying to be sneaky are we?”
There was more firing, and Chay fell to the ground, plunging behind a pile of rusted tires. A bullet grazed the top of the stack, red dust sprinkling over Chay and myself.
Chay reloaded his gun, taking a deep breath. “Todd, I want you to run, understand?”
“Chay, I can’t just–”
“Go back to Agenton.”
My mind seemed to stop working, as though some little man inside my brain had pressed the “pause” button.
“What?” I managed to whisper.
Henbane yelled another insult, and a bullet shot through the tires, causing the pile to wobble precariously. Chay grunted, jumping from his place and shooting.
“Go back to Agenton, Todd.”
I blinked a few times. Never had Chay given me permission to leave. He didn’t say any more, but leapt over the tires, shooting so quickly that I didn’t have time to recognize where one shot began and another ended.
“You playing the distraction now, Chay? Isn’t that a demotion?”
Chay had actually given me permission to be normal–to go back to the life I’d used to enjoy. The life with school, and Mom, and Alvin, and Virgil….
My eyes darted to the side, my thoughts racing so quickly that my body couldn’t keep up. Everything good that had ever happened to me was connected to writing: my dad, my albums, Reb….
My life hadn’t just included The Man In The Shadows, it had depended upon The Man In The Shadows.
There was a loud groan, followed by an even louder thump–the sound of someone hitting the ground.
“Consider the score even.” Henbane’s mumble was barely audible above my own dizzy thoughts, but somehow it shook my from my stupor. I rose, scurrying to my feet.
I stopped when I spied Henbane, watching him carefully. I continued to retreat toward the surrounding woods, but my feet were refusing to act logically.
“Looks like its down to us, Todd Everett.” Henbane gave a twisted grin. The sleeve of his yellowed t-shirt was torn, his arm bleeding from where a bullet had grazed his skin. His jeans were ripped and dirt-covered. Henbane seemed more threatening than ever, and I wildly scanned the area for Chay.
Because, whether he liked it or not, I was connected to the stories I’d been writing for years.
And there wasn’t any easy way out.
“What’s the matter? Not so easy being brave without your bodyguard?”
Henbane was closing in quickly, but I still couldn’t bring myself to move. I glanced around the station, trying to ignore where the clerk now lay. My eyes refused to look away, however, and I clutched my stomach, gagging.
“Don’t like blood, kid?” Henbane snapped. “You’re in luck.”
I forced my eyes back to Henbane, stifling a gasp. The gun had been replaced by a long needle; the liquid within shimmered in the sunlight.
I took two quick steps backward, losing my balance and falling into a tire. Henbane laughed, closing the distance between us. “Now, this is going to sting.” He jammed the needled into my arm, twisting it slightly as it broke the skin.
My breath caught in my lungs and the veins in my neck tightened. Henbane pushed the syringe, the serum slowly seeping into my body. “This is going to make the trip go a lot faster,” he whispered, mocking the tone a parent uses when putting a toddler to bed. “Just relax, prophet.”
My heartbeat slowed, despite the desperate racing it was longing to do. I felt my limbs go numb, and my head began to feel like a marshmallow.
I watched Henbane. His lone eye seemed satisfied as he lifted me into his arms, walking carefully toward the limo. I didn’t move–couldn’t move as I hit the floor of the vehicle.
My body couldn’t detect the coolness of the limo, nor the roughness of the carpet. There was a voice–soft and low–but I couldn’t understand what it was saying.
“With pleasure,” was Henbane’s throaty response, and my ears dimly recognized the sound of gunfire.
There was movement, and the sound of the car door closing. There was little light, and I could feel my senses ebbing away from the rest of my mind.
I was angled so I could see out the window–there was a flash of red and orange. Rubble filled the air, but it meant very little. Somewhere between the rumbling of my ears and the soft voices above me, there was pain–that was all that mattered.
And yet the pain was nothing more than a wayward thought, a subtle recognition.
I was in pain. I was going somewhere.
I was tired.
Now, that’s what was important.
The command came from the other man. His voice held all the sincerity of an atomic bomb, and he sat like a statue–tall and foreboding. The man with the gun–what was his name?–reached toward me, his features stern.
Then–though I could not remember closing my eyes–the world went black.
Copyright Sarah Davidson 2020