Chapter 1 – Welcome To My Life
Ara Elizabeth Stanton
Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020 – 10:56 PM EDT
A cool breeze swept through the desolate lot as Ara Stanton and her co-worker, Monique, walked to the singular car in view. Leaving behind the slow-burning-hell of One Stop Shop, the sole discount store in their quaint town of Mellebrik on the southeast side of North Carolina. As the girls stopped in front of Monique’s rusted old 2006 Ford Taurus, Ara leaned her shoulder into her friend.
“Have a good night, Mo,” Ara said, hugging her gingerly.
Monique smushed her lips into a thin line while pulling back a strand of tightly braided hair escaping the otherwise neat bun sitting atop her head. Her beautiful mahogany skin glowed in the moonlight as she placed her hands on Ara’s shoulders.
“I know you’ll shoot me down like you always do, but will you please just let me give you a ride? Yes, I’m aware that it’s five blocks, which may not seem like much, but you never know what creeps are out there. And I really don’t mind.”
Ara laughed, her eyes averting Monique’s. She shook her shoulders free of her friend’s loose grip. Ara hated cars. They always seemed too dangerous. Too fast. Too out of control. She’d entertained the idea of becoming a regularly licensed person at the age of sixteen; however, after an accident a day into her driver’s education course she realized it would be safer to walk or take public transit. She appreciated the offers for rides, but she preferred being on her feet.
“I’m okay. Cross my heart. It’s a couple of blocks. Plus, it gives me time to clear my brain of this.” Ara rolled her eyes to the place they didn’t speak of once they left. “And you know, I can take care of myself.”
Contorting her face into what she hoped came off as intimidating, she raised two fists into the air and wiggled them. Monique laughed and shook her head; which Ara understood as her cue to get her friend on her way home. Ara opened the driver-side car door and ushered Monique in.
“I like to think I’m tough,” Ara said, winking.
Once Monique sat and buckled herself, Ara shut the door and stepped away from the car.
Rolling down the window, Monique checked with Ara once more. “You’re positive?”
“Like that little blue plus sign.” Ara winked and used a finger to make a checkmark.
Monique sighed, started the engine, and waved goodbye to Ara. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” Monique said. Before rolling up her window she added, “Be safe.”
The old Taurus drove out of the lot, turned right, and disappeared at the end of the street.
To the left was Ara’s small, cozy duplex. For a moment, she remained motionless beneath a ray of white light beaming from an overhead lamp as insects buzzed in the glow, casting tiny dancing shadows on the cracked pavement around her feet. She yawned and stretched out her arms. Ready for bed, Ara left the light behind as she vanished into the night.
Walking at a brisk pace, her heart thumped in unison with her steps. She removed her outer green button-down work shirt with “One Stop Shop” embroidered in yellow cursive lettering over the breast pocket. Her name displayed below, and her underling position followed it.
Ara’s lips curved as she drew closer to her house. While it didn’t contain much, it had the bare necessities to get her by and she looked forward to it at the end of each workday.
With every step, her swift and silent feet moved across the pavement. The only light accompanying her came from the cloud-dusted, almost full moon and occasional streetlamp. Ara’s arms hugged her chest and she dug her fingers into her pits as the night breeze blew through the streets. The summer wind cool on her skin and the faint smoky scent of a recent barbecue lingering in the air left her stomach in a rumbling, twisted mess. Perhaps the leftover steaks from Saturday were still good.
Passing by homes filled with slumbering families, Ara hummed a random tune. Walking by a dark alley, she’d almost gotten to the chorus when she heard a faint raspy voice call out, “Help me, Ara.”
Jumping sideways, she shrieked. Her eyes darting across her surroundings. She saw no one. Did she imagine the voice? Although she’d never hallucinated before, it wouldn’t be the first time extreme exhaustion left her feeling crazy. She took another step, hoping deep inside the voice was all in her anxiety-ridden-mind; until it returned.
“Please, help me.”
Ara froze. Chills prickled from the base of her neck to her toes. It was dark in the alley, but it appeared empty. What the hell? She glanced at the road. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Shaking her shoulders free of the voice, she kept walking at a much quicker pace. Home awaited her and wasn’t far.
“Ara,” the voice echoed her name again. How did they know her name? Who were they? She certainly didn’t recognize them.
Staggering as far from the alley as she could without slipping into the street, she shouted, “I don’t have any money!”
With already sweaty palms, she faced the street. In a bigger city, a homeless person asking for help from an alley isn’t an uncommon occurrence. However, in a small town such as this one she knew better than to trust a stranger lurking in the shadows. In addition to her curiosity as to what they wanted; the main question circling Ara’s mind was how did they know her name?
Too afraid to help or confront the voice, she continued home. She crossed the empty intersection and rushed down the sidewalk. Only a couple blocks from her home, she passed another alley. That was when she heard the same voice again.
What on God’s green Earth was going on?
“Ara, please stop.” The voice desperate like an elderly person crying out for help.
Her heart twanged with the faintest hint of guilt but also tremendous dread. She yelled at them, “Who are you? What do you want?”
Her gaze moved from this alley to the previous one and back to the present one. How had they moved so fast?
More than halfway home, she debated her options. She could keep walking, or running for that matter, and arrive without interacting any further. This was the optimistic option. And the safer one. But wouldn’t they follow her home? And what more could she do there? Well, she’d have her gun. She’d have better survival odds with a weapon for sure. More than on the street. She could see her duplex from where she stood.
As she teetered on the edge of indecision, the voice from the alley spoke again. “Ara, please help.”
“What do you want?” she repeated, anger tainted her soft voice. She hoped deep inside this was a homeless person in need that she could help and then be on her way. In her gut though, she knew it wasn’t.
Going against her better judgment, she stepped forward and peered into the shadowy abyss. Every fiber of her being warned her against entering, so following what little self-preservation instincts remained, she backed off the curb and stood between two parked cars. Quickly grabbing a few items from her purse, she dropped the black leather bag to the pavement and with her foot slid it beneath the front bumper of the car on her right. The decision to stay would probably be a mistake.