Twelve Years Ago
Olivia tried to run. When she heard the boy’s brutal suggestion that her attacker drown her, then heard the man’s answering laughter, her body reacted independently of her brain. Panic sent her spinning wildly. Like a bird caught in a cage, she tried to fly, oblivious to whatever was barring her, needing just to escape. She threw all her weight forward, desperate, not even deciding to do it until it was done.
To her surprise, her sudden lunge caught her captor off guard. Thinking she was totally subdued, broken, he hadn’t realized she still had real fight in her. His firm grip broke and she plunged forward, free. Free!
But not, of course. Her hands remained tied behind her back, her feet lashed with rope, her face still covered with the blanket. She was completely lost and terrified.
Still, she didn’t give up, driving forward into the blackness, the rope at her ankles lax enough to allow her to shuffle several inches at a time. The rough ground stabbed at her bare toes, sharp sticks and rocks piercing her flesh. Her long, filthy nightgown whipped around her legs, trying to trip her up. On the third step, her feet tangled, sending her plummeting facedown to the ground. Unable to put her hands out to break her fall, she hit hard, feeling sure she’d broken her nose and a few of her teeth. Blood gushed in her mouth, dripping over her lips, the salty, metallic scent filling her nose.
Sobbing with the pain, she continued to move, desperate, still in a blind terror, needing togo. She started to crawl, propelling herself on her torn-up knees. Inchworm, inchworm . . . the childhood song screamed crazily in her head. Or she screamed. Or the night did.
“Stop it, little bitch,” the man snarled, pouncing on her, driving a knee into her back, before she got more than a foot or two.
She struggled, twisting, kicking.
“Stop wiggling or I’ll make it worse on ya.”
How could it be worse?
He smacked her hard on the back of the head, then roughly ran his hand down her hair, yanking a handful of it. Holding her head back, he tore her tattered nightgown off her body, then thrust his other hand between her thighs, yanking them apart. Thick, rough fingers groped at her crotch, tearing her underwear off, too, leaving her naked to the cool spring night.
Olivia screamed, knowing what he meant by worse. “No!”
“I’ll fuck you and then the boy’ll fuck you and then I’ll kill you anyways,” he hissed. “Now shut the hell up and stop fighting.”
She shut up. She stopped fighting.
He rose, pulling her by the hair. Her mouth throbbed, blood spilling down her chin, and she spat out something small and hard that she suspected had once been part of her front tooth.
Surreal. Everything, the whole world tilted and wobbled, up becoming down.
I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I’m going to die.
The horse blanket fell, but his fingers were twined so tightly against her scalp, she couldn’t turn as much as an inch to see him behind her. Blinking, she instead looked forward, dazed and confused. Everything she saw told her it was useless to scream. Nobody was around, who would possibly hear?
Beside them was the rickety old barn, its faded wood planks rotting and dangling by broken hinges. Bleached with sun and age, thinned by bugs and heat, it looked ready to fall down in a strong breeze. At anytime during the days she’d spent in there, she probably could have kicked her way out if she’d tried, though, with her guard and the bindings, she probably wouldn’t have gotten far. Still, oh God, did she wish she’d tried.
Several yards away stood a banged-up pickup truck and a rusty mobile camper, the top popped up. Other than the two vehicles, nothing but wilderness. Not a building, not a vehicle, not another man-made thing as far as she could see. Just enormous ancient trees blocking much of the cloud-swathed sky. Whatever farm or plantation this barn had once belonged to had been abandoned or reclaimed by the ground from which it had been birthed. All that was left were the barn and the woods. Nasty, thick, Georgia swamp-woods, the trees heavy with moisture from a recent rain. Enormous spiderwebs filled the branches, glimmering like freakish silver necklaces in the pale, watery moonlight. She could practically see their occupants, brown, furry spiders as big as her fist, but she didn’t even flinch.
She’d once been deathly afraid of spiders. That had been before she’d known what real fear was. Now, she’d grab them with her bare hands if she thought it could help her escape. Nor did she hesitate at the thought of running through the slimy muck beneath those ancient bent trees. The area was probably filled with gators and snakes, yet if she had a chance, she’d take it.
But she was out of chances, and all three of them knew it.
Her captor said something, but she couldn’t hear it. Bullfrogs croaked so loudly she couldn’t have heard her own whimpers, and she couldn’t stop thinking how strange the air tasted. Musty and damp, rich with muck and the decay of rotting limbs and dead animals and turned earth. And blood.
She didn’t want her last breath to be of this air. Just as she didn’t want her attacker’s face to be the last one she ever saw on this earth.
It won’t be. The boy’s will.
Jack. She shifted her eyes, seeing him watching from a few feet away, wondering if he felt her hatred. Her rage.
Yes. He felt it. Good.
“Get over there. I’m gonna need you to help hold ’er,” the man snapped.
Jack stared at her, hesitated. Then, when the man barked something else, leapt to do his bidding. All the while, Olivia dangled from the roots of her gripped hair, her back pressed against the massive body that reeked of sweat and filth.
He dragged her to the rain barrel, a huge, old-fashioned one that stood as tall as her waist. Bugs and mosquitoes rose from the murk, not liking to be disturbed. A thin coat of slime and algae gleamed green against the brackish water, and it stunk the way a standing pond did in high summer.
She couldn’t help it, instinct made her squirm, try to kick. He hissed something in her hair, reminding her he’d rape her if she didn’t quit, but she couldn’t make herself stop. Couldn’t submit to that dark, black pool that looked like the opening to a cave that led straight to hell.
“Hold her!” he barked, and she felt smaller hands grab her arm.
She tried to yank away, more repulsed by his touch than she was by the man’s. Because he had betrayed her. Utterly, completely betrayed her.
But there was no time to think of that, no time to again accuse him with her eyes, or plead or beg or scream. Because that powerful hand was pushing her head down . . . down . . . until she saw the reflection of her own eyes shining back at her from the moonlit surface.
She panicked, sucked in a breath to scream. Thinking better of it, she instead clamped her mouth shut to conserve the air.
Then she was in it.
Warm and thick, viscous, not like water, more like blood. Arching her back, she tries to lift her head, her body instinctively striving to stay alive. The grip remains merciless in her hair, and her head stays beneath the surface, no matter how much she twists and splashes.
She holds her breath. Oh, how she holds it.
Unable to help it, she opens her terrified eyes, sees nothing but the black. Bubbles escape her closed lips. She clenches her mouth tighter, wriggling, jerking. Her lungs ache, her heart races, her blood surges through her veins as if knowing it’s making its last delivery of oxygen to her starving organs.
Her muscles clench, then cramp painfully. In the blackness before her eyes, she suddenly sees her father’s face. Her mother’s. Her sister’s.
Such anger. Such pain. Hot fire in her chest. The urge to open her mouth and suck in her own destruction is strong, relentless.
She has heard drowning is a peaceful death.
That is a lie.
Her body rebels until her chest cavity feels on the verge of implosion. Her mouth opens, her lungs clench, working independently of her mind, groping, demanding what they need.
She tries, struggles to hold onto that last breath, which has long since been robbed of its life-sustaining oxygen. Her cells begin to die. The images in her mind fade. Her lips part, more bubbles as the dead air leaks from her lungs.
At last, helpless against millions of years of evolution, she inhales.
Oh, God, the agony! Unlike anything she’s ever imagined.
Her heart continues to beat, though her mouth and lungs are filled with filthy water. She hears her pulse in her head: ker-thunk, ker-thunk, ker-thunk.
Slowing. Weak. Kerrrr-thuuuunk. Kerrrrr—
Then nothing. Silence. The heartbeat is gone.
And soon, so is she.