She heard the sound again.
Always the same. Like the wind moaning through the treetops but fainter. And closer. In the house, perhaps.
Amy blinked in the darkness of her bedroom. Sweat was beading on her forehead, and she threw back her covers, rubbing her hands against her face. Although she'd left her window open, the room had not cooled after the hot summer day. As her eyes began to adjust, she could make out the dim shapes of furniture. A mahogany dresser. A slim-legged nightstand. The curtains rustled in the light breeze.
This wasn't her room, really. She was staying with her uncle during her parents' separation. He lived on a hill overlooking the city of Longview. Looking out the window, she could see the tiny lights that were the mills.
Amy took a deep breath, sitting up in bed. She could smell her own tangy sweat.
There it was again. That barely audible groan.
“Calm down... It's just the house,” she told herself.
But it had been the same sound every night since she first came. Icy shivers ran down her spine.
She thought back over what had happened in the last few months of her life. Her parents had been fighting more and more. Ever since her dad lost his job at the lumber yard, things had been worse. Inside their tiny house, sitting on the narrow kitchen counter, was a stack of bills that grew taller and taller until they were on the brink of falling over. Sometimes when Amy came home her mother was crying.
And then they had told her. It was a total surprise, and Amy drove straight to her uncle's house in a rage. She supposed it had been a way of getting back at them, of telling them she thought they were wrong. They had tried calling, but they didn't know where she had gone. Her uncle didn't know. He just thought that she had wanted to stay because of his pool in the back yard. Usually he was gone most of the day at work.
The sound. Again.
Then footsteps. She froze. Had someone broken into the house? Then she realized that they were coming from her uncle's bedroom, stepping down the creaky hall and heading down the stairs. Immediately, her heartbeat slowed, and she leaned back. The quilt felt soft and warm against her skinny legs. She had eaten very little since she first came to her uncle's. It wasn't a conscious choice, she just couldn't choke down a meal.
Amy reached for her phone, retrieving it from the nightstand. The curtains stirred once more as a sudden gust of wind rushed through the window. She shivered, checking her messages. There were nine from home. She put down her phone again, a lump in her throat.
More than anything, she wanted to go back. But she was afraid that when she did the fighting would start again. Maybe one of her parents would leave.
She settled back into bed, rolling away from the door and squeezing her eyes shut to keep tears from coming.
Footsteps again. Coming back up the stairs. Her uncle was returning. Perhaps he'd fixed whatever had been making that sound. She sighed with relief. Maybe, just maybe, she could get a peaceful night's sleep.
The footsteps stopped at her door. She looked up, listening to the deadly silence. As the seconds slipped past her heart began to pound once again. Her uncle had spoken to her only a few times throughout the stay. When she asked to stay, the first words he said were, “Yes! Absolutely. My home is your home. But...but I want to warn you, I'm working on a...project in the cellar, so you've got to steer clear of that. Got that, sweetie?”
She'd agreed without a second thought. He had always been rather isolated, and she'd never questioned him about it. But then...he'd never been right ever since her cousin died, hit and run by a drunk driver. Who could blame him?
Finally, the footsteps retreated back down the hall, every step creaking. Her uncle's door closed.
Lying in the dark, she listened. But there was no sound other than the wind playing through the dry leaves outside. He fixed it. Sudden curiosity welled up inside her. What did he do when he disappeared for hours at a time?
Amy didn't think she had any right to pry. Hell, she didn't have a right to anything. She'd run away from home because of her bad attitude and was living with her uncle like a refugee.
However, she'd never been able to stifle curiosity. When there was a problem to solve, she would work at it for hours, or longer if that was what it required.
Still no sound.
She swung her legs over the side of the bed, yawning and stretching. It was still too hot to sleep anyway. She would just go get a drink of water. Pulling on her robe, she opened her door. The blackness was so thick that she could not see anything for a moment. Then, she began to make out the dim shape of the hallway. There was no light beneath her uncle's door. Suddenly, she felt the frantic need for secrecy. Gripping her robe, she tip-toed her way down the stairs, avoiding the ones that were loose. Her uncle's house was large; it had taken her a while to find her way around. In the kitchen, there was a six-burner stove. She pulled a glass from one of the cupboards and filled it with water, taking a long drink. It was much cooler down here. The tiles on the floor were cold against her bare feet.
From the kitchen, she could see the flat-panel TV. Not once had she seen him actually sit down and watch it.
Then, next to the fireplace, in the center of the living room, was a large shelf. On it were pictures of Princess Diana – who had died in a car crash – plaques with her name on it, newspaper clippings proclaiming her death. During the day, little lights on each shelf would illuminate the different items, making them sparkle. It reminded her of a shrine. Every time she came to his house, there were fresh flowers on the shelf next to the pictures.
A shiver ran down her spine. She promised herself that in the morning she would call her parents. Call, apologize, and go home. And beg them to stay together.
She wiped at her eyes.
Another sound. It wasn't the one she had been hearing before. This was a dull thumping and creaking. She froze, fighting the urge to run up the stairs and wake her uncle. Her fingers clenched around her water glass so hard she was afraid it might break.
Slowly, trembling with fear, she walked out of the kitchen. The sound had come from nearby. As she turned the corner, she came to the door to the cellar. It lay dark and foreboding between the dark wooden floor and the lofty ceiling. The walls felt very close. She stopped to listen. There was no sound, not from the cellar or from her uncle's room. It wouldn't hurt to take one peek, would it?
She reached forward, gripping the ice-cold knob, and opened the door. A sheer wall of blackness lay before her.
“There's got to be a light here somewhere,” she muttered, groping into the blackness, feeling along the walls. Nothing. Then a cold piece of metal met her hand. She recoiled, jumping, then took a breath and touched it again. She picked it up.
“Idiot,” she let out a tiny, nervous laugh. “Scared by a stupid flashlight. That's why none of the kids at school think you're 'cool'.”
She clicked it on and aimed the beam into the cellar. Steep stairs led down. Glancing over her shoulder more than once, she started down the stairs, gripping the rail. Every step shrieked beneath her. She cringed.
A thump in the darkness below. Then silence
Her heart thudded in her ears, each breath coming as a panicked gasp. The flashlight nearly slipped from her fingers. She stood there for what seemed like an eternity, too scared to move, too scared to breathe. A movement above her head made her jump, yelping. It sounded like her uncle was getting up again. She wondered what he would do if he caught her down in the cellar. The forbidden cellar.
She swallowed hard, reaching behind her and pulling the door shut. The blackness sealed all around her, all except for her flashlight. There were footsteps now. Feeling horribly trapped, she took a few more steps down the stairs, then peered around the corner, tracing the cellar with her flashlight. There was an old, mint blue washer and dryer. The concrete floor was covered in grit and dead bugs. Cobwebs hung from the corners like torn bits of tissue paper. Bottles of chemicals and cleaners were stacked on the shelves. Then the flashlight found the young man.
His wide eyes glowed in the beam of light, and she jumped back, mute with terror.
He was strapped against a narrow table on one end of the room by thick leather belts. His mouth was stopped up with a rag. Blood and vomit stained the floor next to the table. The smell hit her, and her stomach recoiled. He looked as if he was fresh out of high school. His face was bruised and swollen on one side.
The moaning. The thudding and creaking. Someone bound in the cellar.
She could see where his ribs had been broken – the skin was yellowed and lumpy. His right arm was the same. Fractured, perhaps.
He grunted past the rag, waking her from her shocked stupor.
Amy staggered forward and pulled the rag free. He coughed, deep and painful, then groaned.
“W—who are you?” her voice was a whisper that was barely audible.
He rasped, “Name's...Nick... Please help me...”
“I—I'm so sorry. I didn't... Let me see if I can get these off,” she pulled at the straps. Nick cringed. The question filled her with dread, but she forced it out anyway, “Who brought you here?”
He leaned his head back, swallowing, “A man... He hit me with his car... Please...”
She tugged at the straps, trying to loosen them, apologizing over and over again.
Her tears fell freely – she didn't waste the time to wipe them, “How long have you been here?”
Nick shook his head, “He's going to kill me... He wants revenge... Not much longer...”
“Shh...” she tried to sound calm, sensing his hysteria. He wasn't making sense. “I'm going to get you out. Just—”
She heard the footsteps again, her uncle's footsteps. They sounded like they weren't upstairs anymore. The young man's eyes went round. She whimpered faintly as the footsteps above her head came nearer. Approaching the cellar door.
“H—he's coming...” he whispered. “Oh, please no, he's coming back...”
“Shh,” she said. “I've got to put the rag back. When he's gone, I'll get the straps off.”
He stared at her, and for one tense moment she thought he might scream.
“You've got to trust me. Please.”
Finally he let her shove it back in his mouth.
She whipped around, turning off the flashlight. He would know! He would know because it was gone! His footsteps stopped in front of the door. Without thinking, she dove underneath the stairs, wedging herself between two boxes and desperately hoping he wouldn't see her.
The door opened with a long, piercing creak. She covered her mouth to stifle a cry. This can't be happening! It can't!
Nick struggled against the straps weakly, groaning. He was in pain.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
The footsteps came. She saw his stained socks from between the stairs. He was wearing thin pants and a loose white T-shirt, his graying hair sticking up at odd angles. She couldn't breathe.
“I thought I told you no more ruckus, boy,” he snarled, his voice thick with sleep.
Nick went still.
“I've lost enough sleep because of you,” her uncle's voice lowered to a mutter as he looked around the dark cellar. She was sure he couldn't see anything in the darkness. She hoped. Even then, she could imagine his black eyes scanning the room for her, for any sign of movement.
“She found you, didn't she? Is she still down here?” He loomed over Nick.
Amy's blood went ice cold.
Nick didn't move, staring up at him.
“I said, is she still down here?” When Nick didn't move, her uncle slammed his fist down on his chest, where the skin was lumpy and yellowed. Nick let out a muffled scream, throwing his head back.
She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to silence her sobs. Trying not to bump the crate in front of her.
Her uncle turned, his face invisible. “I know you're here somewhere. I hear you breathing...”
Her heart dropped into her stomach. She held her breath.
“Come out, come out... You don't understand. I will explain everything to you. Come out, dear. You have nothing to fear from me...” He began shoving crates around, but it was obvious that he could barely see.
He made his way over to the stairs, kicking the crate beneath it, the one she was hiding behind. It slammed into her, but she remained silent, ignoring the ache in her legs. Her lungs were beginning to burn from a lack of air.
“I'll find you,” he whispered before starting up the stairs.
She waited until she heard him reach the top. He would be turning on lights, grabbing his glasses and maybe some sort of weapon. Then the search would really begin. It took every scrap of courage that was in her to crawl out of her hiding place. Her robe caught on something, and she jerked it free. She was still crying. All she knew was that she had to escape.
She was about to make a run for the stairs when she saw Nick looking at her through pleading eyes. He would slow her down, she was sure of it. But she couldn't leave him.
It took what seemed like an eternity – but might have been less than a minute – to get the straps loose. In the darkness, she saw tears running down his face. Once he was free, he pulled the rag out of his mouth, coughing and choking. His shortly cropped hair was damp with sweat.
“We have to get out. Now,” she breathed.
He nodded, slowly heaving himself upright. He used only his left hand. The other stayed at his side.
“Hurt bad...” he rasped.
“I know. Come on.”
She helped him get his feet on the floor. His breath came in a sudden intake. For a moment, she thought he would collapse. She hauled him to the stairs, and he limped along beside her, gripping her for support. His arms were wiry and badly bruised, like the rest of him.
Getting up the stairs was another ordeal. Amy kept her ears tuned for any sound. Her uncle was upstairs, rummaging around, in a hurry. The lights were on in the house, and that kept her from tripping over things. She headed straight for the door, snatching her keys off the front room table. Her Subaru was right outside. They could get out, get to the hospital, the police... Anyone!
As she opened the door, she heard her uncle's voice from upstairs, “Amy? Amy, is that you?”
She let out a small cry and ran out the door, the young man stumbling beside her. Behind, she could hear her uncle's rushing footsteps, hear him shouting after her. The air outside was ice cold, chilling her sweaty body. The porch lights illuminated the path between the garden that led to the driveway...and her Subaru. She fumbled with the key fob, trying to get it unlocked. The headlights blinked.
He was surely at the porch now.
The young man hobbled around the car and lunged into the passenger seat. Amy wrenched the driver-side door open and slammed it shut, locking the doors. Her uncle pounded on the window while she started up the car, sobbing. As the car rumbled to life, he pulled something out of his pocket. She thought she saw the black glint of pistol. He slammed it into the window, and it shattered, spewing glass through the interior. Her uncle grabbed Amy by the hair. She screamed.
“Get out of the car!” her uncle shrieked. “He's a murderer! GET OUT OF THE CAR!”
Sudden dread churned through her. “Let go!”
“He's lying! He's lying!” Nick cried, cowering in his seat.
Amy stomped down on the gas pedal, yelping as she felt several strands of hair being ripped free. She maneuvered the car into the road, glancing over her shoulder. Her uncle was running down the driveway after them.
The young man gripped the console with his left hand. “Faster!” he shouted. “Go faster!”
She sped down the road, going well over the speed limit despite the dark. “Who are you?” she demanded. “Why was he keeping you there?”
Nick looked over at her, silent.
Gunshots. The windshield shattered.
Would someone hear? Would they call the police? Would they get here in time?
Amy screamed, ducking down, trying desperately to keep the car on the road. Nick reached over and grabbed the steering wheel with the same motive. He was hollering, but she couldn't make out the words.
There was a horrible sound from the back of the car as a bullet hit one of the tires. The car jerked and swerved. They were approaching a corner. Behind the guardrail was a thin patch of oak trees. Amy jerked on the steering wheel, but it was no longer controlling the car. She slammed on the brakes, slowing it. But not enough. In that moment, her vision became a blur of fear. Her stomach rose. There was a metallic crashing and ripping like she'd never heard before. Then everything stopped, and there was silence.
Black and hollow. Slowly, she became aware of a cutting pain in her head. Something wet and sticky ran into her eyes. Blood.
As she came to herself, she realized that the car had plunged through the guardrail and struck a tree.
The windshield was gone, and glass was scattered throughout the interior of the Subaru. A scent that was like burnt metal assaulted her nostrils. She turned her head to see Nick limp, his head on the dashboard. Unconscious? Dead?
She reached out blindly and opened the door, kicking it free. Her arms were shredded, and her neck stung. It took all her strength to crawl out of the car, heaving herself to her feet. The guard rail was bent with the impact. Footsteps on the pavement.
The door on the other side opened, and she saw her uncle drag Nick out of the car. He cried out as he fell on the concrete. Amy ran around the car, her vision an adrenaline-filled blur. Her uncle was ready. He whipped around and slammed the butt of his pistol against the side of her face. She stumbled back, dropping to her knees, jarred.
Her uncle's face was soaked with sweat. He glared at her, hissing, “This is your doing! Don't you know who he is?”
Nick struggled, trying to get up, but her uncle kicked him. He let out a shrill cry of pain.
Amy shook with horrified sobs. “Uncle, don't. Please don't...”
“He killed your cousin those years ago!” there were hints of hysteria in his voice; he looked at her through wild eyes. “Ran over him with his car! They barely even fined him for it! He KILLED him!”
Something hard dropped into Amy's stomach. Her cousin. John.
“I didn't mean to!” Nick cried. “I was drunk! I swear, I didn't mean to!”
John... She had memories of walking to the lake with him on sunny days, enjoying his easy smile. Once he waded in to pick her a water lily and they had spent the next hour trying to dry his socks and shoes.
For a moment, she was tempted to run into the trees and disappear in the darkness. He wouldn't catch her. But she couldn't run any more. Not from her parents. Not from her uncle.
“Please...” Nick whispered, trembling.
Her uncle turned to Nick, obviously thinking that she was a defeated foe, and pointed the gun at his head. Nick squeezed his eyes shut, throwing his bruised right arm in front of his face.
Without conscious thought, Amy grabbed the first weapon available to her. A jagged chuck of burnt metal. Then she leaped at her uncle. Black spots speckled her vision. She slashed at him, cutting into his throat. Warm blood splattered her hands. He recoiled, dropping the gun and clawing at his throat. She stumbled back, horrified. He let out small, gurgling, choking sounds. The color drained from his face, pouring out of the gash. He turned and staggered away toward the patch of trees. A few moments later she thought she heard a thud.
Revolted, she doubled over and retched. Her robe was soaked with sweat and her uncle's blood. Nick was unconscious. Amy wished she was too...
She whimpered, “I'm sorry, John...”
No more running...
In the distance, she could hear the wail of sirens.