Ava gasped for air and thought about her next move. Don't tell anyone your secret. Lock it up, bury it deep. You did this. You let him in. Pull over to the shoulder. Gather your thoughts. As she veered to the right, her car began to jerk and flutter as if it were out of gas. The steering wheel tightened, becoming difficult to turn. With all her strength, she forced it enough to pull over just as the car tailing closely behind her made an exaggerated swerve around, the driver honking and swearing as he sped off.
Ava slammed the car into park, hung her head against the steering wheel, and drew in a deep breath, but it wasn’t sufficient. The air was trapped in a knot that wrapped itself tightly around her windpipe and around her chest, pressing hard, not letting go. When was the last time she’d breathed normally?
She regretted wondering what she missed, growing up without a father. Mad at her mother for keeping him away all these years. Then cancer took her mother. Too late for apologies. When she found him, she thought her life would finally be better. But it was the exact opposite. Everything changed when the monster came to town. He interrupted her life and those closest to her, altering them all forever. She didn’t mean to uncover his secret about those women. She promised she wouldn’t tell. When she lit his house on fire, she thought she’d gotten rid of him for good. Now, he’s back and wants to take care of her. For good. How had she trusted him, pulled him in, gotten close? What had she done?
She caught a glimpse of something moving. Was that the monster through the trees a short distance from her car? She turned the key in the ignition, but it wouldn’t start. Tried again, still nothing. Her pulse raced as she sensed his growing presence around her.
Ava threw open the door and ran as fast as she could, gliding above the ground, her legs felt separate from her body. The twigs snapped beneath her feet with each step as crispy leaves cushioned them, almost slowing her at times. Running deeper into the woods, through the trees, everything around her looked the same and she could no longer tell where she had come from or where she was going.
She slowed briefly to catch her breath and calm her nerves, but something snapped behind her. Dropping low to the ground, Ava lay still, her mouth against her sleeve, muffling her heavy panting as her lungs exploded in pain. She wished she could sink deep into the earth and disappear.
Up ahead a light flickered. Can she make it there before he sees her? Will he get there first? What danger lies within? The air grew cooler and the sun was sinking fast, filling Ava with overwhelming dread. She listened intently to each noise in the forest trying to discern something from the wild or something far worse. Leaves rustled. Twigs cracked.
When the gunshot rang, it pierced her ears and stopped her heart. Someone yelled, “Run!” She faced forward and began to sprint. Adrenaline coursed through her veins and she ran without stopping, through the thick treed forest, tripping over vines and fallen branches, skipping over a narrow brook and up a hill until she was almost at the edge of the forest, not once looking back.
In the distance, stood a peculiar, old dilapidated mansion.
Carefully Ava moved to one side, and shuffled along a cobbled path, prepared at any moment, to hide behind a tree as she neared the house. She stared ahead, wide-eyed, quick glances over her shoulder, down to the ground and up again. Ready. Waiting. Fearing.
Approaching two adjacent trees, she tucked her body snug between them and peered out to scan the darkening expanse before her, all black, except for a golden glow from the windows of the house. She desperately wanted to run to the door and beg for help but feared who might answer. She broke from the trees and inched closer, crouching low beside the bushes a few feet from the house. Crickets interrupted the deafening silence around her. Stay focused.
“Help!” cried a voice from inside the house.
Her heartbeat quickened and her skin tingled. Had she really heard a voice? The voice called out again, slightly louder, yet defeated, “Help, Please.” It sounded familiar. Could it be?
Ava wavered. Stay or run? Suddenly, a hand rested on her shoulder and her heart paused. “Don’t stop, Ava. You can do this.”
She turned slowly towards a disheveled, yet familiar woman. The wind blew through her tangled hair as she fiercely stared into Ava’s eyes.
“M-Mom?” She reached towards her face. “How is this- “Her voice caught, and her heart sank. “Jenna-”
“I know.” She touched Ava’s face and scanned the woods.
“He’s after me again. He won’t stop. I think he has her.” She panted, watching the forest she’d run from.
“You don’t remember?” Said her mom. She looked down at Ava’s hand.
“Remember what?” Her gaze fell to the revolver she was holding. She hadn’t remembered grabbing it from the glove box. “But -” Ava looked up and her mother was gone. She saw nothing through the blackness and felt alone and afraid. I have to go.
Suddenly, Ava bolted toward the house, backed herself up against its side, and edged her way towards the door, towards the voice. Her hand twitched and shook as she held it above the doorknob, then she grabbed it and turned. It opened easily. She slid inside and looked around.
Ava stood in awe of the magnificent lodge-like mansion, scanning the tattered walls of the rooms, perhaps once a sight to behold. Antique lights hung at various lengths from the ceiling and an intricate crystal chandelier extended high above an expansive dining room table. Old paintings decorated the walls, a generous, bearskin sprawled across the foyer extending towards the base of the stairs.
A frightened voice moaned from upstairs, drawing Ava’s eyes to the top of the staircase. Treading lightly across the old creaky floor, Ava cautiously climbed each step, one at a time, past the first landing, onto the second, with frequent checks behind her.
When she neared the top, her legs grew stiff as fear coursed through her. But upon hearing that desperate voice again, she knew she would not be leaving this house alone. Follow the voice. You can do this.
A door slammed and glass shattered below. Ava ran down the hall and hid in the nearest bedroom closet, bracing herself for the worst. A smell of something rotten hung heavily in the air. Ava shivered and sweat beaded above her lip as she watched the shadow of footsteps pacing beneath the closet door. The shadows raced away, and she released her breath. It’s in your mind. No one’s out there. Sitting with her knees drawn to her chest and her head resting on top, she sensed a presence in the closet. Something grazed her arm and Ava jumped. She strained her eyes and saw her.
“Ava, it’s me.” said the girl, her voice weak. It was the voice she’d heard before. She looked into her eyes. Her sister’s eyes.
“Jenna!” Her heart leaped and broke at once. I did this. I brought the monster into our lives.
Ava reached for Jenna while motioning to stay quiet. She embraced her and stepped back. “Did you hear that?”
“I only heard you.” She said.
Ava pulled her to her feet as Jenna’s legs trembled and buckled. Ava stood firm, hoisting Jenna’s arm over her shoulder while holding her at her waist as they hobbled out of the closet.
“Ava.” Jenna whimpered. “I saw what you did.”
“Shh! He’ll hear us!” Ava said, walking quickly, carefully down the stairs, her sister limping at her side. Eyeing the door a few feet ahead, Ava looked around, still not convinced they were alone.
“He’s gone. I saw you. Through the window.” Said Jenna.
Ava searched her face. “He’s in this house.”
“No, he’s gone,” she said as they shuffled through the front doorway and down the cascading hill, towards the road. Headlights glowed in the distance. Are we safe?
“You shot him. You shot Dad,” her voice shook. “With your gun.”
My mother’s gun. And then it all came back. The car, the forest, the run, the gunshot. Fear. I did this. I killed my father. I killed the monster.
Ava squeezed her sister tight and kissed her forehead.
“The monster can’t hurt anyone now,” her voice caught as she leaned her head against her sister’s and walked toward the approaching car.