I wondered how long I could stand out here, waiting for another ride. I gazed up at the sky, white flocks of snow against a pitiless black sky. The snow teemed in my hair and I wrapped the threadbare cardigan around my shoulders.
If Josh had kept his hands to himself, she could have endured the rest of it.
The warm, stale stink of the van.
The suspension that made every pothole and bump take a personal delight in punching into the small of my back until I could barely stand it.
The chorus of hungry, nervous stares whenever they thought I wasn’t looking. Josh, the drummer had been the biggest of them. He had bulging eyes and kept taking his t-shirt off. He had thick, overly pumped muscles, would do press-ups in the parking lot trying to impress me and when that didn’t work, he would stare at me, pawing at his dick through his track pants when he wasn’t behind the wheel, playing NOFX at ear-splitting volumes. If he’d thrown on some Juliana Hatfield or Liz Phair, I might have appreciated the effort, but there was something weak within him that made me uneasy. That night, he had made a point of sitting across from me whilst he drank a six-pack, one after the other. I needed to be travelling more than I needed to point out what a prick he was being.
I woke up, having fallen asleep somewhere along the ride, when his thick, clammy hand started to slide up my right thigh. I revolted, and he took that as a cue to press himself against me. His beer breath was wet and stinking against my face. I brought my knee up hard and felt something burst against my knee cap. He roared and rolled off me, clutching his crotch as the rest of his band woke in various states of unease.
Bros before hos.
It had not been the first time. I hoped that other girls had gotten away that he hadn’t refined his technique yet but I knew who these things worked. They don’t stop, they either get caught or get better at it. I should have considered myself fortunate but instead it rubbed a little more dirt into me, and despite the fact that it was cold and I had miles to walk, it felt like a good, easy way to get clean again.
I pushed open the door, grabbing my backpack and ran down the road.
No one came for me.
They never did.
I stopped running and started walking. I had fallen asleep before we stopped, so I did not know how far I would have to walk to get back to the gas station. I jammed my hands into my pockets, already numb from the cold and hoped for the best.
It worked out about as well as any other fucking time.
I knew the risks you took travelling alone. Sometimes though, you’re probably safer than you are at home. You had to be aware out there that you couldn’t get fucked up or in somewhere you wouldn’t be able to get out of. It was never the strong ones who gave me any trouble, real strength. It was the weak little boys who had grown older but never grown up. They were always the ones that I had to fight off.
I had met some good people along the way, even some great ones and some of them had become lovers but I couldn’t stay. It was during the worst times that I would think of them. Wonder how they were. Wonder if they missed me or knew that I missed them. We could have called, but we knew what that would do to either of us.
I wiped away tears, but I kept going. My teeth started to chatter, and I walked faster. I looked up, saw the beam of the headlights and put my hand out. I wanted to cheer when it pulled to a stop a little down the road from me.
The driver wound down the window when I walked up. He had pink, round cheeks with a thin line of beard to show any resemblance of a jawline. He had to lower his glasses as they had misted over. He had a tight, quiet smile and his teeth looked too big for his mouth.
‘Do you need a ride somewhere?’
I wrapped my arms around my chest and nodding, I gave the widest smile I could. I was trying to hide my need.
‘Yes, sir. It’s really cold out here.’
He leaned forward and opened the door. A warm bank of air invited me inside.
Chip breathed in shallow metallic rasps and he had doughy, shining hands that gripped the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles had turned white.
‘So, where are you from?’
I lied about that. I was grateful for the ride, but he kept looking at me as I watched the snow fall. I had gotten into the front passenger seat, left my bag in the back. I fought a discomfort as he drove.
‘Long way from home.’
‘Aren’t we all?’
He chuckled and nodded.
‘We are all God’s lonely children finding comfort where we can.’
He looked at my thighs and ran his tongue along his cracked lips. I shifted in my seat, wondered if I could get away with getting into the back or getting out.
‘Where do you go to church?’ I said.
He sighed and looked straight ahead.
‘Everywhere. Are you religious?’
I looked at my hands, wondered how I would answer.
‘I’m spiritual more than religious, I suppose.’
He frowned and turned his head to me.
‘That’s a cop out. Either you embrace the light of the Lord, or suffer in his shadow like whores and drug addicts.’
My reaction was to look straight ahead. Some of the most generous people on the road I met were whores and drug addicts.
I should have left the subject of religion entirely.
‘Are you a preacher, Chip?’
He laughed and shook his head.
‘No, I have fallen too far from the sight of the Lord for that.’
I looked out of the window and thought about the desperate beauty of the snow. Beauty, in that it fell in thick, sparkling drifts and desperate because I knew that if I went out there, it would probably meant I would die of exposure. I saw the light of a cabin as we drove past and felt a desperate leap of faith alight in my chest.
I had spent most of my life choosing between a rock and a hard place. I had never had to choose between a cold place and a hot one.
‘Cat got your tongue, miss?’
His voice had changed, with more careful glances in my direction than before. I shifted in my seat, moving my hand to where I could unclip the seatbelt and open the door if I needed to. Each breath brought the acidic stink of his sweat to me. I shook my head and told him I was tired.
‘We sleep a long time when we enter the Lord’s light, Dawn.’
His lips curved into a reptilian smile and he patted my knee with a smirking superiority. His faux concern only went to his voice, otherwise his actions were of a man who was aware and enjoying the discomfort he created in me.
I looked back, saw my backpack in the back seat and thought about the light in the forest. Wondered if it was a cabin, or even somewhere to hide. Part of my brain was always looking for the exit, and at that moment, it was working overtime.
Chip punched me in the side of the head.
Bursts of white light appeared in my vision and my head rang with the impact. He had been quick despite his bulk and was already pulling the car over, whilst I sought to act through the haze of sudden, violent disorientation his blow had started.
If I did not get out of this car, I was dead.
If I stayed in this car, I was dead.
I unclipped the seatbelt, threw my forearm into his face without any real force behind it, desperate and clumsy with the need to be free. One of the pewter skull rings caught him on the forehead and he swore as I felt his blood ooze against the backs of my fingers. I pushed open the door and threw myself out of the car. My elbows hit the asphalt, partially cushioned by the snow that had fallen but the cold rushed at me like something feral and hungry.
My stuff was in the back seat but I got to my feet and started to run. The snow sucked at each step, made my legs chill and leaden as I went into the woods, into the rough direction of the light I had seen. I could not see far, everything was shadows and plumes of thick, twinkling snowflakes as I raised my hand to my eyes to keep the worst of it away.
I heard the car door open and slam which made me run even faster. He had started to run, and I heard his breathing deepen as he exerted himself. It gained volume and potency in my imagination, the rough charnel house breath of something with appetites too large to be controlled.
My breath plumed and my lips cracked with the cold. I could feel the mucus turning to a chill glaze on my upper lip as each step tested whatever strength I had left within me. I started to pant like a thirsty dog. My consolation was that Chip was no more suited to pursuit than I was to evasion. My diet of coffee and cigarettes versus his simple carbohydrate and opportunistic rape-murder couched in religious misinterpretation was an even bet.
It did not stop him coming.
Time and distance lost definition before the onslaught of the snow, The cold burned, leaching me of feeling and perspective until it was only the twitching dance of my survival instincts compelling me onwards.
Chip did not stop.
Something cracked. I thought that it was a branch being broken until I saw the thump as something hit a tree trunk to my right.
A shot. I wept but kept going. His visibility was as poor as mine, and my only defence was to use that to keep going.
I saw the light ahead. A lantern hung in a doorway and I ran towards it without caring.
Which was when I ran into the low fence and toppled over. I landed on my back into a drift of snow. The force made me wheeze before I rolled onto my side and heard the crack of another shot.
The zing of the round as it whizzed past me.
I heard the click of the door and a shadow fall across me, broad and holding something in its hand.
I lifted my head and tried to shout but I was too winded.
‘He’s got a -‘
The shape turned to me, and dove forward as a bullet cracked into the air above us.
I made out eyes the colour of burnt umber and white teeth pressed together, a dark scrub of beard and a thick neck.
‘Who have you brought to my door?’
His voice was thick and rough, carrying a lack of surprise.
‘He’s trying to kill me.’
He crawled closer, and I caught the scent of his warm skin, a leathery, clean musk that held a reassurance as it crawled over the chill bark of the night air. He reached out his hand and gazed at me.
‘You follow me inside. On the count of three.’
He pulled me to my feet and ran, dragging me along as Chip walked towards us, an indistinct shape illuminated by the flash of the muzzle as he fired another shot. I was pushed forward as he shut the door behind us, and I heard the low growl of something in the dark.
‘Avocado.’ he said.
The grey mastiff stopped growling and started to pant. My eyes adjusted to the low light within the cabin and more details became available to me. I shuddered with a palsied brutality from the cold, and my teeth chattered until he crept away from the door and pulled a blanket from the couch, wrapped it around my shoulders.
He clicked his fingers, and the dog sauntered over to him, quiet and focused as it sat in front of him. He rubbed between its ears and crept over to the other side of the room. He pulled a black, elongated rifle with a black stock and a scope from a rack and picked up a clip of four brass, red-tipped rounds then checked his own handgun, a bulky revolver that he pulled the hammer back on and slipped into a holster on his belt. He had shaved his head, but kept a good crop of beard and wore a thick grey sweater over black jeans and unlaced black leather boots.
‘You stay here with Pork. If anyone but me comes through that door, you say the word I just did. Understand?’
I nodded. The dog was huge, but it regarded me with an uninhibited enthusiasm. Its menace lay within its potential, its loyalty and he had put it to my defence without discussion or explanation. He brought the rifle to bear, slipped in a round and moved slowly to the hallway. He laid flat on his stomach, went still like a lizard on a flat rock and waited. The door flung open with the force of Chip kicking his way in and he stood, gun in hand, framed by the doorway. His face was beet red and his glasses had been lost in the pursuit. He shone like something boiled and saw me, but not the man laid before him.
He tried to raise the gun before the room filled with the boom of the shot. At that range, it threw him through the doorway with a wet, concise thoom, folding in half as he flew away. The man on the floor racked the bolt and slipped in another round.
‘I don’t think he’ll get up from that.’ I said.
He got up slowly, laid the rifle down with care and drew the revolver to hold in front of him in a two handed grip as he stepped slowly to the door. He lifted the gun up, walked outside and shut the door behind him. I sat there with my arms around the dog, listening to the sound of my heartbeat and the roar of the wind waiting for him to return.
He came back and brushed snow from his shoulders. He lit candles from a small petrol lighter and stood a few feet away from me. He had replaced the revolver back on his hip and extended his right hand, the size of a catcher’s mitt towards me.
‘I’ve got you.’ he said.
I took his hand, and he pulled me to my feet. He glanced over at me and asked if I was injured.
‘No more than usual.’ I said.
That got a smile from him and he told me to sit down.
‘My stuff. It’s in his car. His car’s still out there.’
He nodded without looking at me as he reached into an overhead cupboard and pulled a first aid kit and a bottle of brandy as well as two tin mugs. He made coffee on the stove and poured two healthy slugs into each one before adding the thick, steaming black liquid. It burned going down, but it smoothed out the first tremors as my adrenaline dumped away.
‘I’m Dawn.’ I said.
He drank from his mug and looked at me over the rim before he swallowed and spoke.
Tears came, and he did not flinch from them. He watched me with a kindly, animal patience as I took another sip of the laced coffee.
‘Thank you. He was going to kill me.’
‘When it stops, we’ll get your stuff from the car and figure out what to do from there.’
I reached out and put my hand on his knee.
‘I won’t stay long. Just I needed to get out of the cold.’
He sighed and put his hand over mine.
‘That’s how most people live their lives, Dawn, nothing to be ashamed of. Wasn’t any doubt in my mind that a man like needed putting down.’
We did not speak for a time. We talked until the snow stopped or I drifted off to sleep on the soft couch but when I awoke, it was morning and Mac had put another blanket over me. Pork had slept next to me, snoring in the velvety rumble of a mindful animal.
My backpack sat at the end of the couch. His bedroom door was closed, and I woke up, hugged it to my chest and wept with relief.
He got rid of Chip and the car.
We had not been the only ones in the car. Initially, he told me that he was going to drive the car out and run it into a quarry in the next town but after checking the trunk, he drove it to a truck stop, wiped it down and made a phone call to the nearest police department.
The girl’s parents had a right to know what happened to her.
When the kids asked how we met, we told them it was in a coffee shop. I say that I was struggling with a clue in the crossword and he came over to offer his suggestion.
I tell them that he saved my life, and he always looks at me with a flush of pride.
It is the only part of the story that is true, but it is the only part, in the end, that matters.