Mary entered the hospital room where the only patient on her floor was still unconscious. All they knew was that someone found her crawling on the shoulder of the highway, she was in her mid twenties, and someone had tried to sew her eyes and mouth shut. They had wrapped the patient’s face in white bandages to cover the puncture wounds perforating the skin around her eyes and mouth. Her toxicology screen found traces of Meth, LSD, and psychoactive bath salts. Mary noticed one of the punctures bleeding through a section of the bandage and she removed it to wipe the skin under the eye. Whoever had done this wasn’t only torturing her body, but her mind as well. Mary did a final check on her vitals before wrapping up with her shift and prepared for the long drive home.
She walked through the sliding glass doors of the hospital and felt a rush of cold air as she stepped onto the sidewalk. The parking lot was mostly empty other than the few cars that belonged to the other nurses and staff. She walked into the lot but stopped when she saw a car she didn’t recognize sitting idle in front of the old hospital entrance. No one used it anymore, and it was odd for someone to be waiting there. She pressed on to her SUV but took another look. It was a black Lincoln Town Car, and someone was smoking a cigarette in the driver’s seat. She walked under the orange glow of the street lamps and secured the .38 revolver in her purse. She unlocked the door, started the engine, and plugged her phone into the charger. Another man emerged from the old entrance and waved to the driver. Mary slowly turned the SUV around and watched the two men have a conversation in the rearview mirror until they disappeared.
The drive was lonesome, but the dark forest that surrounded the two-lane highway became a reprieve between home and work. She sipped her coffee, let down her hair, and the blonde curls fell onto her shoulders. Old country, laced with static, played on the radio until a digital alarm interrupted and blared through the speakers.
“The National Weather Service in Oklahoma City has issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Southern Bryan County, Western Choctaw County, and Southern McCurtain County until 5:00 AM. National Doppler Radar showed a severe thunderstorm capable of damaging winds over sixty miles per hour. A tornado warning remains in effect for the northern Texarkana area until-” the voice faded into the white noise.
She scanned through several more stations before giving up and let the distortion fill the silence. Her green eyes looked into the rearview mirror to an empty children’s seat in the back and she began to hum a song. Headlights flashed on from behind, and an engine rumbled through the thunder behind her as the two bright circles grew brighter in the mirror until they whited out the reflection. She looked to the side view mirror and pulled to the shoulder to let them pass. The headlights swerved behind her and pursued at aggressive proximity.
“Go around, asshole.”
Mary felt the dirt and loose gravel spitting out from underneath the tires and pressed her foot on the brake. An old tow truck, riddled with dents and stripped paint, shot out from the red dust cloud. Its engine echoed off the trees until the truck pulled alongside her. She slowed down, but the tow truck fell back and matched her speed. She sped up, and it lunged forward. The purse fell back and into the rear floorboard. She reached for it but gave up when an oncoming semi rose over the hill flashing its lights and blaring its horn. The tow truck was in both lanes and swerved ahead of Mary just as the eighteen-wheeler blew past them. The corroded steel cross that stood in the back of the tow truck shrank away and disappeared into the night. Mary parked on the shoulder with adrenaline pumping through her body. She cleared her head and looked in the back for her purse. The.38 revolver lifted from the darkness and pointed at her. A face with bandages was compacted into the crevice between the seats.
“Turn around and keep driving,” the bandaged woman said.
“Okay,” Mary said and her shaking hand put the SUV into drive.
They drove quietly for several minutes that felt like hours before Mary looked into the rearview mirror. The bandaged woman sat up in the middle seat but kept her face down, and the revolver pointing forward.
“Are you in trouble? With the police I mean?” Mary asked her.
“No,” she replied and unwrapped the bandages from her head.
“You shouldn’t take those off.”
The woman paused before she removed more, and spots of dried blood peeled away with the lower layers.
“What’s your name?” Mary asked.
“Milla,” she replied.
“I’m Mary. Did someone do that to you?” Mary asked.
There were dozens of small holes that hadn’t healed dotted around her eyes and lips. Several of the scabs had torn open and small blots of blood pooled on her face. Milla just nodded while looking out the window.
“It’s okay. Let me take you back. We can clean those punctures, and you can tell the police what happened. I can be there if you like?”
“No, no police!” she yelled. “Just shut the fuck up and keep driving!”
“Where?” Mary asked.
“I don’t know!”
Mary looked into the rearview mirror and saw Milla crying. This wasn’t some tweaker freak out, this was terror.
“That’s fine, we can just keep driving like this for a while. Let’s just stay calm.”
Milla sat quietly in the back with head resting against the children’s seat and stared at it withered tears dripping down her face while Mary continued to drive.
“You have a kid?” Milla asked.
“He’s three. Carson,” Mary replied.
Milla placed her head against the seat.
“What’s he look like?”
“He’s blonde, like me. Kind of tall for his age. His eyes are dark like his yours-”
She looked back. Milla was drifting into sleep. Mary waited until she was out and reached back for the gun. The SUV hit a pot hole that bounced Milla awake. Her eyes darted to Mary’s hand reaching for the gun. She recoiled into her seat pointing the gun at Mary.
“Back the fuck off!” Milla shouted and turned the gun on herself.
Mary stopped the SUV and turned to Milla.
“Listen to me, I’m not going to hurt you and I’m not going to make you do anything you don’t want to do. You don’t want to talk to cops, that’s fine, but you have to help me out here and put the gun down.”
Milla squeezed her eyes tight causing several scabs to pop open.
“I can’t go back there. Please, don’t let them take me back there.”
“Those men at the hospital. They know I escaped, and they’re trying to take me back,” she said.
“They’re not going to. I can take you somewhere safe where we can figure this out, but you have to give me the gun.”
“Keep driving,” Milla said and kept the gun pointed.
They rode for several minutes and the sweat on Mary’s palms made them slide on the steering wheel. She the needle on the gas gauge was on empty and Mary knew they still had a ways to go. The neon numbers of a gas station flickered in the distance.
“We’re almost out of gas. I need to pull over here” Mary said.
Milla nodded in the rearview mirror. The uneven concrete scraped beneath them as they pulled into the station towards a small white building made of bricks and sheet metal. Duct tape covered the credit card readers and scratched out glass covered the pump prices. A piece of paper flapped in the wind that read CASH ONLY.
“I have to pay inside,” said Mary.
“Give me the keys,” Milla said and Mary handed them over. “If you take too long, I’ll leave without you.”
“You won’t make it far,” Mary said. “I doubt you have any feeling left in your legs right now.”
“You have two minutes.”
Milla lowered herself into the backseat as Mary stepped out and approached the screen door of the gas station.
The station door slammed shut behind her, and a small speaker played a jingle under the flickering fluorescent bulbs.
“Just a sec,” a man with a drawl called out from behind a grill of rolling hotdogs. He grabbed the blistered links of meat with a pair of tongs and dropped them into a trash bag. “Yes ma’am?” he asked with a smile.
“I need ten on pump one, and do you have a phone?”
“Got a payphone on the side of the building that still works, and a phone here that’s for official use only. We don’t let customers use it unless it’s an emergency.”
“It’s an emergency,” she said.
“Come on around,” he said.
He guided her to the cubicle sized office that had a small desk with a folding chair stuffed into it. On the desk was a fan next to a yellow chorded phone that rested on the wall.
“Go ahead,” he said and clicked on a light.
She pulled the phone off the hook and dialed.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Kent,” he said and pushed up his glasses.
“Kent, do me a favor and make sure nothing happens to my car while I call?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Kent. “I’m on it.”
She dialed 9-1-1 and waited for the dispatch officer to pick.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency-” the voice cut off and the lights of the gas station flickered off as a loud clap of thunder boomed from outside.
“Shit,” she said and dialed again, but the phone was dead.
“Ma’am?” the gas clerk called from the front. “Which vehicle is yours? The SUV or the Lincoln?”
A cold sensation tingled down the hairs of her neck like an early winter breeze in autumn. She would have to use her cell phone and prayed it was charged enough. She hung up the phone and pulled the.38 from her purse and put it in her scrub pocket.
She walked past the gas clerk who was staring out the window with his arms folded.
“Did you call the cops?”
The black Lincoln from the hospital was parked at the pump next to her’s. It could be a tremendous coincidence, but it didn’t feel like it.
“The storm knocked out your phone. Do me another favor? “Keep an eye out while I fill up the tank? Make sure it’s safe?”
Blood rushed to his cheeks. This was probably the longest conversation he had held with a female in a long time.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied. “You got it.”
Mary walked out and the gas clerk returned to his post at the window where he recrossed his arms.
Outside, Mary took a deep breath. The storm that had been chasing her was now flashing above. The front doors of the Lincoln opened and two men stepped out as she approached. One was bald with a wild beard that went down his chest. The other man was thin and clean shaven. His greasy blonde hair was swept back and he watched Mary with bulging eyes that shifted between her and the ground. She lifted the gas handle and filled the tank when he stepped into her view from then otherwise of the pump.
“You a nurse?” he asked her.
She gave him a quick nod while turning her back to grab the pump and kept her other hand in her pocket with her grip on the revolver. She pumped gas and looked down into the window where Milla’s wide eyes stared back at her. Her chest was rapidly rising and falling with the .38 pressed tightly against her. She pulled the hammer back with her thumb and Mary tried to signal her to stop by shaking her head.
“You must work at Bethlem General further down 259, right?” the thin man asked while pointing to the highway, revealing a Teutonic cross with the number thirteen burning in the middle of the tattoo. “I knew a nurse there once. She took excellent care of me. I don’t know if she was special or if all nurses are like that, wild you know?” He unzipped his jacket and pointed to his chest. “Right there. She tore it to shreds, but maybe you can give me a second opinion?”
“I’m off the clock,” Mary replied.
The bald man laughed while trying to talk to someone on his cell. She looked over her shoulder to watch him as he paced around the lot. On the inside of his arm was an iron eagle grasping a swastika with its talons. His eyes caught with hers, and she turned away, squeezing the gas handle harder to speed up the transaction. The thin man pretended to be shot through the chest and leaned back on the hood of the Lincoln and played dead. He lifted his head up and smiled.
“That’s not nice. I thought nurses make people feel better?” he hopped off the hood of the Lincoln. “Don’t worry about it you’re not my type, anyway. See you’re a blonde, but I’m looking for a girl with black hair. You’re in your what, late twenties or early thirties? I’m looking for a girl who’s younger. You’ve got a nice ass, but her ass is perfect. You seen anyone like that on your last shift?”
The gas continued to pump. The terror in Milla’s eyes grew and the view through the window fogged with condensation from her breath. The pump clicked off and Mary put the nozzle on the hook before closing the gas cap.
“I asked you a question, Mary!” he called out.
She spun around and faced him the moment he said her name.
“How do you know my name?” Mary asked.
“Ma’m, is everything alright?” the gas clerk called to her from the front door.
“She’s fine, go back inside asshole,” the bald man barked.
The gas clerk stood in the doorway until the brawler took a few aggressive steps towards him and the clerk ducked back inside to retreat.
“Fuck this, I’m calling the cops!” the clerk yelled before the door closed behind him.
“Stay the hell away from me,” Mary said before getting into the SUV.
Both men turned to see Mary shut the door, and start the engine before she drove away.
“Drive safe,” shouted the thin man as she pulled away from the pumps.
The last stretch of the drive cut through the outskirts of Anselmo State Forest near the Arkansas border. The rain was splatting against the windshield and purple bolts of lightning ripped across the sky and reflected off the wet road. Milla had crawled up into the front seat and watched the storm.
“Those men at the hospital?” Mary asked. “Why are they looking for you?”
“Because I got away.”
The phone pinged, and she turned her attention to it. It was on five percent, just enough to make a call. She left it plugged in and tried the police again. The call wouldn’t go through. She hung up and tried again, nothing. The flashes of lighting were picking up with size and intensity. The storm was right on top of them and for a moment she wanted to turn back. The sound of her mother’s voice said something in her head and she dialed her number. The call went straight to voicemail.
“Mom, something’s happened. I’m on my way home but I need your help. We need your help,” she said and turned to Milla who stared back at her. “I think someone from home, old home, found me. I don’t know how, but I’m afraid we’re being followed-”
The front tires burst in unison followed by another pop from the back that sent the SUV swerving to the side of the road. Mary tried to hold the steering wheel steady as the tires skid across the slick cement. She pumped the breaks, but the vehicle continued to pull hard to the side until it slid off the road and rolled over. Her and Milla’s hair flew to the side and then straight up as the top of the SUV crashed into the ground, shattering the windows upon impact. The cell phone bounced inside the tumbling interior through the flying shards of glass before striking Mary in the face. The last thing she saw was Milla’s arms and hair flying around in the crashing metal before everything went black.
A single drop splatted against Mary’s forehead, bringing her back. She tried lifting her hand, but her arm was twisted underneath her body. Her eyes opened, and she stared through the passenger door above her where she saw the edge of the night sky that was being devoured by the storm. Something was brushing against her right shoulder and she rolled over. It was Milla’s hair. The seatbelt held her, but she was slumped to the side with blood dripping from her head.
Red light flooded the inside of the SUV, saturating everything with color. From the darkness shined a crimson cross that floated in the air towards them. Compressed air sprayed out from behind it as the tires of the tow truck rolled through the wet grass. The driver hopped down from the cab and his heavy boots thudded into the torn Earth. He was a squatty man with a beer belly that pressed the buttons of his tucked shirt over his belt. He turned towards Mary while holding a phone to his ear and the thick rims of his glasses flickered from underneath the bill of his cap.
“I got her, but we’ve got a problem.” said the driver. He walked to the side of the road and pulled a rope that dragged something across the highway. He returned with a set of spike strips dangling from his hand and threw them into the back. “You’re good to go.”
The black Lincoln pulled near the wreckage and parked next to the tow truck and their front doors opened. They approached the tow truck driver and the bald man yelled while pointing at the overturned vehicle.
“The roads were fucking slick! How was I to know?” shouted the tow truck driver.
“Make sure she isn’t fucking dead!” shouted the bald man.
Something jammed its way into the passenger door above Milla and popped it open. A thin shadow climbed on top of the doorway and clicked a flashlight on.
“She’s fucked up pretty bad!”
“Pull her out!”
He pulled Milla through the straps of the seat belt until her legs slid out the window.
“Here, taker her. Easy!”
The flashlight shined back down into Mary’s eyes.
“Grab the nurse,” one of the men said.
The flashlight shining through the window above revealed her purse dangling by its strap from the mangled rearview mirror and disappeared when the light flipped under the chin of the thin man, stretching the shadows across his grinning face. Mary started kicking her foot against the console, and she could see the strap purse strap slide a little. Mary kept kicking her foot towards the console, turning the radio on and the thin man slammed his crowbar against the side of the door.
“No need to make a fuss, puss.” He slammed the crowbar again. “I can make a much bigger fuss than you.”
“Quit fucking around and grab her!”
She gave one more big kick, and the strap slid over the edge. The thin man turned back with the flashlight.
“Now, how about that second-” he asked but stopped mid sentence.
She was aiming the.38 at him. Before the grin could fade from his face, two blasts ripped through his chest and out the back of his jacket, knocking him off into the grass below. The smoke swirled from the gun barrel as the ringing in her ears pulsed from within her head. Muffled cries of pain broke through and she could hear the other men yelling at one another. The SUV rocked back and forth before rolling upright onto its shredded wheels, throwing Mary sideways. Before her body could recoil, a pair of tattooed arms came through the broken window and wrestled her for the gun. The tow truck driver climbed through the passenger door with a cattle prod while Mary tried to wrestle herself free from the hands that were grabbing her. She kicked at him and he tried to push her feet out of the way. The cattle prod jammed against her chest and all of her muscles seized with pain until she passed out and drifted back into darkness.