Some random guy gets out of his muddy red pickup and walks the sidewalk towards Emma and James. He doesn’t trigger the stranger-danger alarms Emma’s parents still cram into her 13.4-year-old brain. Maybe his saccharin smile doesn’t match his brand new Cincinnati Reds ball cap and oversized supermarket sunglasses. Still, Emma wouldn’t be surprised to see him walk right on by.
But he doesn’t.
He isn’t exactly body-builder big, this guy, but definitely not a desk-jobber either. And even if her twin brother James is expecting something, this guy is too fast. That artificial smirk hardly changes as he smashes his fist into James’ nose.
James crumples like an empty can of Mountain Dew. This guy makes sure James isn’t moving before turning his attention to Emma. She wants this to be a movie where things happen to other people. She could eat popcorn. James’ ever-present arm would be nearby to grab just in case. Instead, she stands there looking at James on the ground as blood oozes from his freshly broken nose.
Then this guy, he pokes her almost tenderly through her t-shirt with a needle-tipped syringe. It triggers a wave of warmth that spreads from her shoulder and leaves paralyzing nothingness in its wake. Emma can’t resist, before the nothingness washes over her, a guilty satisfaction that James will understand how it feels not to have a perfect nose anymore.
“C’mon sleepy Sassy. Time to get up.”
Emma skips the groggy transition from drifting through nothingness to complete alertness as she realizes her back is on fire. Her wordless shriek propels her to her feet and she’s trying to yank off her scalding shirt. No good. Hands and arms aren’t working right. She falls back down. Feet and legs not working right either.
“Easy does it. Eeeasy.” The voice reaches her from underwater. Something about that seems off. Ears aren’t even working right. Pain and panic hog all her brainpower. A gentle pressure rolls her onto her side. There is immediate relief as a layer of air separates her unburnt shirt from her back. She dimly picks up a final fading fragment from the underwater voice before the nothingness engulfs her again…
“You just got yourself a little close to the fireplace is all.”
This time, Emma tumbles out of the nothingness in stuttering fragments. Warm back (definitely not scalding). Fluffy pillow under her head smells of vanilla and bedhead. Bristly longhaired rug underneath her is both musky and dusty. Throat tickles. Loud pop from the crackling fireplace behind her startles her eyes open. Weird wooden statues all over the place. Some are looking at her. Blink. Soft incandescent light from above and flickering flames from behind throw ominous shadows. Blink.
At the edge of her haloed vision is a clunky wooden dinner table, partially enclosed by a bay window. Lacquered figures mounted on bark-crusted pedestals guard each gap. Beyond that is glossy blackness. She thinks the windows are some kind of trick because she has never seen the outside look so dark. No street lights, no traffic, no McDonalds arches proudly serving as glowing urban north stars, and definitely no neighbors watching the latest episode of Two and a Half Men on their big screen TVs, just black.
Where am I? Her brain, still rebooting, supplies an obvious and unhelpful answer. Some huge cabin, in the middle of nowhere.
Where’s James? This creates more panic than waking up in a strange place. Rather than providing an answer, her unhelpful brain calls for backup, which in this case means moving her head to look around. There! There he is. See, we found him. Awwww, he’s sleeping.
Emma calls off her brain’s premature celebration as it processes more of James. He is in a typical James sleeping pose, hands between his legs, knees bent. Except his hands are tied, his face is speckled with crusted blood, someone went crazy with the purple eye shadow, and his nose is mangled.
Of all the twin features she got stuck with, Emma hates that they have the exact same nose. Long and straight, it keeps going until the narrow tip overhangs the nostrils, hiding them unless someone gets real close (which never happens, except once with James when Amanda Bennett kissed him, with tongue). James’ nose looks confident and always points him in the right direction. The same nose, surrounded by Emma’s puffy cheeks and soft chin, along with a nervous tendency to bob her head when she wants other people to think that she knows what they are talking about, makes her look like a hungry pigeon.
This is my fault. Emma knows it’s her fault, not only because everything is always her fault, but also because her brain is finally filling in some of the blanks. See, James was walking her back home early (again) from Claireborne Academy. James, although less than two inches taller, was a much faster walker and Emma has to swing her skinny bare arms ridiculously in order to keep up. Born 23 minutes after James and behind ever since.
“Slow down! Its not my fault Mrs. Patterson made you leave class again just to walk me home.” She adds, “Your precious friends won’t do anything without you around anyway.” James only reply is the vvvtt-vvvtt of his clashing corduroys as he walks even faster.
“Not that you’ll stick up for me when Mother finds out, but I barely even pushed Linda.” Emma is forced to pause long enough to catch her breath. “I mean, I hardly pushed her, but she was such a baby.” Two more deep breaths, then she spurts to catch back up to James. “She had to act like I made this huge fight and then she started crying, like a scared little baby.” She doubts he is paying attention to her, but continues anyway. “Then of course everyone had to come over to her.” James’ corduroy replies slow. He puts a hand in front of Emma’s wrist to slow her down. She is so tangled up in the day’s drama that James has to grab her wrist before she also notices this guy coming towards them…
“Hey there sleepy Sass! Glad to see you finally decided to wake up.” The voice comes from behind Emma and startles her back to the present. Still lying on her side, she quickly rolls into a less vulnerable sitting position, now facing him. The Cincinnati Reds ball cap and cheap sunglasses are gone, but this is definitely the guy that rearranged James’ face. He is sitting on the couch, elbows resting on knees, leaning forward slightly, his fingers interlinked. His smile is genuine and warm and it creeps Emma out.
Unable to move or respond, Emma continues to stare. She doesn’t notice his flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled to mid forearm, or dirty, rugged looking cowboy boots that look like they’ve seen some things, or his wavy brown hair cut minimal-maintenance short. Just that toothy grin, and a pair of penetrating hazel eyes.
“Sass, you know I try not to judge your friends and all, but this one’s got some problems.” He tilts his head in James direction. “Every time I try to get him up he goes berserk. I finally had to tie him up. For his own good.”
“Why…Why did you bring us here?” Emma asks, before she realizes she doesn’t want to know the answer. His reaction, wide-eyes and eyebrows tenting, makes her wonder if she should feel guilty for forgetting that today was National Psychopath day or something.
“I’m sure your mother was gonna take you to your friends, but when I saw you just walking on the sidewalk, I knew fate was telling me that it was time for us to have that quality father-daughter time I been promising for so long.” A thrilled grin takes control over his face. “And there’s also this” he says, with outstretched arms, “Look, your ol’ man finally finished our cabin!”
WTF. Seriously… W.T.F.
“Now, can you help me get your friend up? I thought that it would be alright to bring your friend along too, but, it doesn’t look like its gonna work out after all.” He finishes with an indifferent shoulder shrug.
“You’re gonna let him go?” Emma asks. Of course perfect James is going to walk away from this. I’ll be stuck playing make-believe with this psycho lumberjack while he gets to go home to mom and dad and all his friends. I’m sure somehow he’ll be the hero too. Everybody’s happy. The less vocal part of her brain that is relieved her twin will escape doesn’t get any time at the microphone.
He’s already kneeling over James, untying the cords around his wrists, and sitting him against the wall. “C’mon over here. I think it’ll help if he sees your face first thing. Maybe he won’t freak out this time.” When she doesn’t move, he pauses to give her his full attention. “Don’t worry Sass, I’ll always be here to protect you.”
Several harsher-than-necessary slaps and James’ eyes snap open. He braces to lunge forward. However, seeing Emma’s unharmed face in front of him saps his impulse to fight.
“Easy does it. Eeeasy.” The voice directing James is calm and in control.
“Who da HELL are jou, and why di’ jou bri’g us here?” James trumpets. Emma almost laughs at his rediculous new voice.
“I guess I’m not surprised you don’t remember me. I’m Sara’s dad. Ted Mallory.” He extends his hand towards James in a grudging display of good manners.
Recognition dawns on James’ damaged face. “Sara Mallory… da Sara Mallory from Golden Junior High?”
Everybody, including Emma, knows about Sara Mallory. She was popular (Sara, not Emma of course) and on her way to becoming a rock star in both the swimming pool and on the track field. One of those things probably got her invited to Doug Mitchell’s Spring Break Pool Party even though she wasn’t Claireborne. James wanted Emma to tag along too. “C’mon Em, it’ll be so crowded no one will care that you’re there so long as you don’t do anything crazy.” Mother wouldn’t budge. “No essay, no party. You know grades matter this year.” Emma didn’t really want to go to a party for Claireborne’s own Doug Mitchell anyway. Her barely-boobs and pasty skin all exposed in the retarded one-piece swimsuit everyone said was still fine for now. No thanks.
So Emma missed the chance to see Sara Mallory leap from popular to legend. The Golden Globe article was vague on specifics, but Emma overheard Greg Parker tell Samantha Ellsworth that when Sara jumped off the roof if she’d gone another foot closer she totally would have made it into the pool. Instead her head hit the lip of the pool so hard it cracked the cement. James was in the front of the house playing basketball so he couldn’t give her any details, and wouldn’t if he had them anyway. Emma couldn’t get a good look over the perimeter wall into the pool area, but she did see a construction truck in the driveway both times she rode her bike past.
Claireborne parents made a huge stink- inadequate supervision, unsafe conditions, legal repercussions. Nobody heard much from Sara’s mom, but rumor had it she was way under medical supervision. Sara’s reclusive every-other-weekend father, some genius with wooden sculptures, but not so good with people, let his lawyer do the public speaking. The message was mostly forgiveness and celebrating her life. Claireborne leadership urged parents and students affected by this tragic event to attend the funeral (even though she was a Golden Jr. girl) to aid in the grieving process.
Emma was not one of those students. She was however desperate for an excuse to get out of an oral presentation of her still incomplete persuasive essay. She rehearsed her appeal, “I even heard that Mr. Mallory is going to donate one of his famous wooden sculptures at the cemetery.” She presented her case during dinner. Lawyer-father continued to scroll through emails on his phone with one hand, pasta filled fork in the other, “You shouldn’t have led with the fact that you don’t know the girl.” Mother’s stony dismissal was more emphatic, “What kind of girl would want to take a field trip to a funeral? Besides, you’ve already fallen too far behind.” Mother took James to buy a new suit for the funeral.
“Sass? Earth ta Sass! C’mon, it’s time to say goodbye to your friend.” Emma stands mute at the apex of an isosceles triangle whose points, represented by Mr. Mallory and James, draw closer together. James’ anger distorts his speech even more. “I’b dot going abywhere withou’ by SIS-ER!” He times the last word to coincide with what would otherwise be a glancing blow. Mr. Mallory catches the errant fist, then uses it to casually spin James around until his wrist is pinned between his shoulder blades. Further upward pressure sends James to his tiptoes.
“I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in front of my Sass.” Flexed forearms strain the rolled cuffs of his flannel shirt and forces fleshy worms to squirm under his skin.
“Her dabe is EBBA! A’d this “Sath” tha’ you keep thaying… the’s FUC-KIG DEAD!”
These barely intelligible (but still pretty harsh) words send Mr. Mallory into sleep mode because the pressure keeping James on his toes relaxes in parallel with their captor’s facial features. Face sags until it’s just a pair of frantically scrolling hazel eyes. Emma is mesmerized by the glossy blackness beyond the bay window reflected in those twitching eyes.
James takes advantage of the reprieve and begins to pirouette his arm free, careful to avoid eye contact throughout the awkward maneuver. Emma is too slow to make the transition from witness to participant in their escape before Mr. Mallory’s internal power plant resumes operations.
“Its…time…for…you…to…go.” A reanimated Mr. Mallory punctuates each word with torqueing twists on James’ re-pinned wrist. James responds in sync with involuntary squawks until his contorted wrist broadcasts a nauseating crack. Back arched, on his toes, James wails. Emma pounds on Mr. Malory’s back, kicking his legs, tears surging, and she’s screaming, “Let him go!”
Mr. Mallory marches this ear-splitting parade to a locked wooden door. James loses the fight to stay conscious. Mr. Mallory hefts James to his off shoulder, and after absentmindedly barring Emma from following, descends the stairs behind the door. Emma beats on the door. It doesn’t block out the muffled clamor of what sounds like luggage thrown around by irritated baggage-handlers.
Emma stops hammering when the door opens and Mr. Mallory returns alone. Her heart takes over where her little fists left off. She is backing away before her mind- It’s my turn now- shifts focus away from James. Two long strides puts him within arms reach and Emma realizes it’s too late to run.
“Please don’t hurt me.”
He puts a substantial hand on each of her scrawny shoulders. Emma scrunches her eyes shut. It didn’t work the one time she rode a roller coaster and it isn’t working now.
“Sass, open your eyes. Please, look at me.” His voice is tender now, but way too close for Emma. She opens her eyes. He is stooped down at her eye-level. “I’m sure you’re upset Sass. You’ve gotten used to your mother letting you have all sorts of friends and do all sorts of things with them. But, that’s what got you… hurt.” Despite her crappy grades, Emma is smart enough to know that silence is the best way to avoid joining James behind the locked door. “Look at what your friend (he takes his hands off her shoulders long enough to put up air-quotes) tried to do to me in our own home! Its one thing to throw punches, and even horrible lies, for no reason, at me. Who’s to say he won’t do the same thing to you? Huh? He had to go. Just had to. You understand that don’t you? That I love you, and that I will NEVER let anything, or anyone hurt you ever again?”
His gaze is imploring, unwavering. “Yes sir.”
“C’mon now,” he chuckles, “There’s no need for all that. I’m still Dad and you’re still my perfect Sass. Right?”
Despite the whole Kumbaya vibe, Emma can’t keep herself from looking at the locked door before answering. “Yes… Dad.”
He beams at her the exact same way Mr. Edwards did that one time she got all the differences between a parallelogram and a trapezoid in geometry. Dad puts a sweaty arm around Emma’s shoulders in a good-natured side hug as he rotates them away from the locked door to survey the living room. The victor and his cringing prize. “Great. Now it’s just us. Just like fate planned.”
Emma searches for unlocked doors and windows as best she can after Mr. Mallory (Dad) goes to bed, thinking that maybe just this once, if she gets away and brings back help, she’ll get to be the hero. Of course, no luck. Groaning and creaking floorboards keep narcing on her. She really wants to, but she can’t do anything for James other than endure his faint groans escaping through an air vent near the dinner table. And even if there is a way through the locked door, it’s way too much of a risk to her “perfect Sass” status.