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The 30-year-old Chevrolet pick-up idled at the side of the highway, purring like a lion after a triumphant kill. Its recent jet-black paint job reflected distorted versions of the stars overhead, while the light from the low-lying moon glinted off the side mirror. The bed was loaded with pumpkins of all shapes and sizes on their way to local Farmers’ Markets, with Hallowe’en just three weeks away. Through the darkness, the truck’s headlights shone into the distance, revealing nothing but a quiet, vacant landscape of vast fields and the casual solitary tree. There were not often many people on the road so late at night. The pick-up had been the first on this stretch of highway for hours, and not one car had passed in the time it had been sitting off to the side. As the moon rose ever so slightly, its light poured, little by little, into the shadows that veiled the finer details, revealing the truck’s distinct character... A dent in the front fender. A rusted scratch running the length of the driver-side door. A duct tape patch where the lock used to be. A blood-spattered bullet hole in the window. Colin Downs’ sky-blue Yaris was a gift to him for making it through his first year at university. This was the car’s first test – a four-hour drive home for Thanksgiving weekend. Lee Patterson had called shotgun. He played with the radio tuner while Tyler Pitman, behind him, passed the time by bouncing a football off the back of his seat. Opposite Tyler was seated Kene, his not-quite-identical twin brother, and, between them, Keri Hess was squeezed, feeling the most of the overcrowded seating.
They were still about two hours from home. Keri looked out the window, past Tyler, at the moonlit scenery beyond. Then, she looked out the other side. There was very little to see in either direction – just empty fields and vast stretches of withered corn stalks...and the occasional tree. As far as her seatbelt would let her, she leaned forward, and hit Colin gently on the arm. “Hey...can we stop at A&W?” Colin nodded. “How does that sound to the rest of you?” Without waiting for any response, he added, “Good, A&W it is.” A vague movement in the rear-view mirror caught Colin’s attention. By the time his eyes focused on the darkness, there was nothing there to be seen. But, something had been there. His eyes shot to another hint of movement, this time out the driver-side window, and he saw what it was. A truck was passing. It was a dark pick-up, barely visible in the night, its lights turned off. He slowed slightly to let the truck go by. “The idiots come out at night,” he said. “Probably trying to get into town before the bars close,” said Kene, watching the faint silhouette speed on ahead. As fast as the pick-up had appeared, it disappeared beyond the reach of the Yaris’ headlights. And, as fast as it disappeared, it faded from their minds – just a typical careless driver on a typical Friday night. Lee finally settled on a station, then turned up the volume. He messed with the equalizer until the small car was filled with the chest-pounding bass of Disturbia. This was one of Keri’s favourite songs; with the beat pulsing through the seat, she forgot, for a moment, about the pain throbbing in her legs from sitting in such a tight space for so long. By the time Colin recognized the outline in the road ahead as a solid object, using the brakes was futile. There was only a fraction of a second to prepare. The front of the car disintegrated with an explosion of shredded steel as it impacted the rear of the stopped pick-up; the sound was harsh and penetrating, of grinding metal and shattering glass. Pumpkins from the back of the truck erupted like a tsunami of orange and spilled onto the highway. Keri pitched forward, held in place only by the inherent strength of her seatbelt. The brutality of the impact was beyond description, and seemed to cast all thoughts from her mind, leaving her vacant and disoriented as the onslaught finally subsided. It took a moment and a lot of effort, but Keri opened her eyes. She was staring at the floor – or what was left of it, under a coating of broken glass. Gradually, the pain started to sink in. Her forehead was pounding, where it had driven into her knee, and her seatbelt was cutting into her stomach, though at least it had done its job. Her back hurt, and, for a few seconds, she felt numb, unable to sit up or move at all, but as the shock faded, one by one, her senses returned. Still, she was in pain, and the threat of causing her own paralysis by even the smallest of wrong movements was terrifying. From somewhere outside the car, she heard voices, muffled, like they were travelling under water or through a thick wall. They got closer, and sounded feminine, but it was hard to tell. Then, something Keri had no problem identifying; a gunshot. The shot was followed by a piercing, horrified scream, then another gunshot, and a third in quick succession. Still frozen, half in fear and half in pain, Keri heard the door to her left rip open, and felt the sudden loss of something she hadn’t noticed before – a mass of some sort pressed against her side, pinning her to a similar impediment on her other side. Then, it occurred to her: Kene? Tyler? But, she was given no time to think much more. She felt herself being pulled back suddenly in her seat, and a hand, holding a heavy damp cloth, forced itself over her face. She could breathe, but every breath brought with it the sickening sweet
smell of ether, and, finally, despite one last laden effort to fight against it, the substance did its job, and she slipped into unconsciousness. Unlike a sudden return from sleep, Keri awoke slowly, like a monotonous emergence from a dense fog. The first sensation to flow in was the pain from the crash. The second was a feeling of tightness around her wrists and ankles. Enduring the cutting pain, she carefully rolled her head in either direction to get a grasp on her surroundings. She was stretched out flat on a solid wooden table in what appeared to be the aged remnants of a back-woods camp or barn. Only four walls, supporting nothing but the star-filled sky, stood to enclose her from the outside world. Keri’s arms and legs were firmly secured with one long section of rusted double-link chain running through splintered holes in the tabletop. She half screamed, half cried for help, and struggled with the chain, furiously trying to break free. Pulling, twisting, straining, with every bit of strength she could gather, for as long as she could, she fought, until all of her determination was drained. Overwhelmed by the pain, tears drenching her eyes, she fell still. “Can anyone hear me!?” Colin called out into the surrounding trees. He had portions of vague memories of what had happened; he could remember the first moments of the accident, and loosely recalled the sound of a gunshot. Also, he remembered the sensation of a peculiar scent stinging his face. But, none of that told him why he was now bound to a tree in the middle of the woods. A rope held his hands secured and outstretched above his head. Colin strained his head back to examine the rope, and saw that it led to a branch a few feet up the tree towering behind him. It was pulled taut enough to leave his equally-bound feet only barely touching the ground. He lifted his legs, letting the rope hold all of his weight. The branch creaked and groaned, but the rope withstood the strain. Colin let his feet down and rested a moment. His chest was pounding, but it was hard to tell if that was because of his current uncomfortable position, or because of the accident – or perhaps both. He recovered his strength and took a deep breath. He let his body hang free once again, and the branch cracked, but, still, it held. He let himself down and recouped, taking in exhilarating lungfuls of the frosty air. He took a moment to prepare himself, both mentally and physically, then raised his legs behind him and pushed up against the tree. The rope around his hands slackened; he managed to push himself up barely an inch, but it was enough. As he fell, pulling the rope taut once again, the branch snapped and gave way. Colin had no time even to realize his short-lived freedom before something interrupted his fall – something he hadn’t noticed. The branch, with the rope still attached to it, fell to the ground, drawing Colin’s hands, and him with them, out and away from the tree. His throat felt tight, like someone was choking him; he gasped for air, but could get none. He tried to fight against the force of the massive branch, but he couldn’t get enough leverage on the damp grass. The twine that rounded his neck held firm, while he kicked and tried desperately to slip his hands free of the rope. He could feel the warm, wet touch of blood begin to run down his neck as the twine cut deeper into his flesh with every movement. He thrashed about, and tried to scream, but he was silenced. His vision blurred, and the pin-points of light, from the stars and the moonlight on the settling frost, began to glow and flicker with vibrant colours, while black rushed in to fill the rest of his view. Colin managed one quick breath, but only coughed up more blood. His eyes rolled up, and he focused on
the light from the stars until they, too, faded away. His body, dripping with slow streams of crimson, was left to hang from the tree, a depraved memorial – a trophy from the hunt. Keri flinch as a heavy hand grabbed her throat, but she could do little else. She tried to scream, but the grip was stifling. She could feel the warm, moist breath of someone leaning in next to her face. A second hand forced her head away to the side. Not a word was spoken, but Keri could feel her captor’s eyes staring her down...looking her over...studying her. She could hear him groan, and his breathing was rough and forceful. Just by listening, and by the way his hands shook, she could tell he was sick, possibly quite old. An image of a frail, elderly man entered her mind. The hand’s grip around her throat slackened, and Keri was able to get out a muffled, “Who are you?” There was no answer...only more breathing. She swallowed, and tried again: “Who –” But she was cut off; two fingers thrust inside her mouth and lifted her head, then drove it back down into the tabletop. The world was spinning. Keri tried opening her eyes, but the movement was too much. She sat – sat? – for a few minutes, looking into the calm behind her eyelids, before she dared open her eyes again. But she had to open her eyes at some point. Or did she? She didn’t have to. Maybe she shouldn’t. But she did. She opened them gradually, letting her vision settle. The room was tumbling, like the inside of a dryer. A strange buzzing sound filled her head. What was that? She was confused. It didn’t feel like she was lying on the table anymore, but she still felt restrained. There was also a strange tingling feeling in her right leg. Both were outstretched in front of her. She couldn’t quite see yet, but she could now feel it. She was definitely sitting, her back against the wall. She could also feel a set of bulky restraints grasping her wrists. The swaying of her surroundings began to calm. She was still in the starlit derelict shack. The table she had been chained to earlier sat in front of her. The irritation in her leg gave way to a penetrating pain. Looking down, she screamed and kicked and backed up in horror. The coyote, thin and disfigured, yelped and leapt back. It hadn’t considered the possibility of its scavenged meat being attached to a still-living animal. The starving beast snarled and snapped its dripping jaws at the bite wound in Keri’s leg. With her other leg, she kicked at it, but it stood its ground, intent on defending its meal. It snarled, and prepared itself to lunge. Keri readied herself for the attack, but it didn’t come; a gunshot boomed from a window opening in the opposite wall. The coyote’s head disintegrated, spraying her with blood and brain matter. Keri was still, both too in shock and too afraid to move. She was trembling uncontrollably, the shackles around her wrists rattling against the wood floor. The door in the wall on her right, already
ajar, slowly creaked open the rest of the way, and a balding, hunched over, outwardly pitiful man stepped inside. Staring coldly into Keri’s eyes, he threw his handgun on the table. Keri forced her eyes away from his. “Why are you doing this?” she sobbed. “I just want to go. Please...I just want to go.” She watched each step as he strode closer, then stopped at her feet. She looked up at him, and he stared back down at her. He looked tired, like a man denied his due reprieve. His heavy gaze ran down Keri’s body, and, with some effort, he sat down in front of her. She backed up further into the wall, pulling her legs in close, giving herself as much distance as possible. He reached out and ran his hand down her wounded leg. She flinched, and he pulled his hand away. “Where are the others?” she asked. “My friends, four others, who I was with...where are they?” He gave no answer, and, instead, leaned in to wipe a tear from her cheek. “You stay away from me!” she shouted. “Where are they!?” The man reached behind his back and pulled out a dagger, and held it up for Keri to see. But, this was no threat. Keri watched, still shaking, as he dug the blade into the floor. He did this repeatedly, leaving 17 notches side-by-side. They appeared to be grouped in fours, with one standing alone, but Keri was unsure of what it meant. He then ran a line through each of the groups of four, and Keri understood what he was doing. He was counting something: 21 something. “What are you counting off?” she asked, trying her best to sound genuinely curious. He pointed the knife momentarily at her, then cut four more notches in the floor, making five full sets of five. Keri sat up straight, not wanting to believe what she assumed he was telling her. “You bastard!” she said finally. She fought back the urge to cry and scream as loud as she could. She knew no one could hear. “So, what are you going to do to me? Huh? Why am I still alive?” The man slid the knife across the floor, far away from them both, and leaned forward onto his knees. “My name –” his voice was rough, his breathing strained “– is Alger Brock.” He reached out and grabbed Keri’s belt, pulling her closer to him. She struggled, and tried to fight, but her arms were tight in their restraints. Alger pinned her legs under his weight. She closed her eyes and screamed, letting go of the fact that she was trapped in the middle of nowhere. She could hear the sound of him unbuckling his own belt, and felt him creep forward until his face was mere inches from hers. With the fingers she had felt before, he forced her eyes open. “Your mother left a message on your cell,” he growled, running a commanding hand through her hair. “She sounded worried.”
“Look at you!” said Keri, clapping playfully. “You’re so good. Pretty soon, you’re going to be walking better than me.” Keri’s parents sat beside her on the couch, their eyes trained on the 11-month-old waddling across the floor for his first time. They cheered as the child made his way, one uneasy step at a time, over to Keri. She stretched out her arms and knelt down on the floor. “Come to mommy, Cam.” She turned to her parents.
“Speaking of ‘cam’, why is no one filming this? This cute little guy could be the next YouTube sensation.” She reached out to help the toddler up when he fell, but he needed little assistance. “That’s all right,” she said, “we’ll just tell people you tripped. Keep coming.” They sat up and turned at a sudden thumping sound from the kitchen. “What was that?” Keri asked, starting to get up. “Wait, I’ll check it out,” said her father. “You two stay here in case little Cameron decides to run in a marathon.” Keri’s mother shifted over closer to her as her father left the room. “He’s adorable,” she said. Keri nodded. “Yes, he is.” “So, you’re glad you...decided to keep him.” Her daughter looked up at her, a broad smile lighting up her face. She had been sad for so long, it was nice to now see her finding some joy again. “Yes,” she said. “He’s....” “I know. He’s something special.” Keri watched and laughed as her son stumbled, then jumped right back up to his feet to try again. “And,” her mother added, “you know you can count on your father and I to support you through your last year of school.” “Of course,” she said. “I know you’ll be there for me. You always have.” A muffled popping sound from the kitchen grabbed their attention. Keri stood. “Dad?” There was no response. There was also no time to investigate further. A familiar figure appeared in the doorway, gun in hand. Keri moved to put herself in front of her child, but was taken down by two bullets to the head. Her mother started to scream, but was quickly silenced likewise. The man walked over to the child. The toddler was now sitting crying in the middle of the floor, staring over and his mother’s body, blood gushing towards him from two gaping holes in her skull. He looked up and sniffled as the man hovered over him. “My name is Alger,” he said, lowering the gun to his side. The child struggled to stand, but suddenly found himself unable to. He had spoken a few words already in the past couple months, but now he spoke one that he had never said before: “Da- Daddy.” The man had a sudden look of satisfaction appear on his aging face. “That’s right,” he said, his gravely voice enticing the child. “I’m your daddy, and you’re coming with me now. I have a lot to teach you.”
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