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All the little pieces, p.4
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       All the Little Pieces, p.4

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  Faith’s blood turned to ice. There was somebody out there.

  It was still dark, but she couldn’t hear the rain any more. She wondered if she was dreaming, if this was all part of a dream. Her hand hesitantly moved over the driver’s side window, gingerly wiping away the fog with her fingertips. The glass was cold. And wet. Water ran down her palm and up the sleeve of her silk blouse, making her shiver.

  Something did not feel right. Something was very, very wrong.

  She pressed her face up to the glass to see what was outside.

  And the real nightmare began.

  6

  The girl stood there, her palms pressed flat against the window. Strands of long, dark hair were stuck to her face and neck; a blue leopard-print bra was visible through her dirty, wet T-shirt. Costume dragonfly earrings dangled from her ears. She stared at Faith with deep-set brown eyes that were streaked with heavy black eyeliner that had run down her cheeks. She put her face up to the window, her cracked lips touching the glass. ‘Help me!’ she said in a raspy voice. Katy Perry crooned on the radio.

  Faith jumped back in her seat, smashing her hip into the center console. She looked around the car, but all the windows were fogged. She had no idea what else or who else was out there.

  The girl turned to look behind her. Strands of her wet hair whipped against the window. Then she looked back at Faith and slapped the glass again. Her palms were filthy. ‘Hurry! Damn it! You have to let me in!’

  She wasn’t screaming. She wasn’t yelling, either. She was talking excitedly, but in a hushed, croaky voice. Faith moved off the center console where she was perched, and wiped the whole window with her sleeve to get a better look at what was outside. The girl’s face was inches from her own; she could see the diamond stuck in the middle of her bottom lip, the tiny hoop in her nose. Two more silver hoops pierced an eyebrow. A line of blue star tattoos ran up the inside of her wrist, all the way to the elbow. On her neck was a tattoo of a pink heart wrapped in chains. ‘I … I … can’t,’ Faith stammered, shaking her head.

  The girl made a squealing sound. ‘He’s coming!’

  A man dressed completely in black suddenly appeared beside her, like a vampire who materializes out of a thick fog. He had shoulder-length dark waves that clung to a chiseled, bony face carpeted in gruff that was well past a shadow and not quite a full-on beard. He was slender and tall – much taller than the girl. His long fingers found her tiny shoulder, swallowing it whole, and he pulled her to him. She stumbled back, almost falling, but he caught her before she could. Then he spun her around and bear-hugged her. Her feet dangled in the air behind her when he lifted her up. Faith saw that she was barefooted; her feet, too, were filthy. The man dipped her and kissed her hard on the lips. Then he looked over at Faith and grinned.

  It was surreal, as if she were watching a staging of a contemporary take on the iconic V-J day Life cover, where the soldier greets the nurse upon returning home from war. She rubbed her eyes. It felt like she was still dreaming.

  The rain had stopped; the moon had finally emerged from behind the cloud cover – at least part of it. It was bright yellow, framed by threatening clouds – the kind of moon that called for a witch to fly by. In the distance, flashes of lightning quietly exploded, like bombs being dropped on far-off cities. Her eyes caught on a red-shirted figure running between the trees of an abandoned lot across the street.

  Patches of moonlight lit the chunky remains of a building’s old foundation and crumbling walls, decades neglected and overgrown with shrubs and slash pines. The roof was long gone. Behind the ruins was a densely wooded lot, beyond that was likely cane fields. Chain-link fencing had once tried to contain the property, but that had long since rusted and collapsed in spots. A man wearing dark jeans, a red shirt and a white baseball cap burst out of the slash pines, emerging on the far side of the building.

  Using her hands, Faith furiously rubbed the fog off the windshield behind the steering wheel. The man’s red shirt was open, revealing a round potbelly stuck on an otherwise thin frame. When he saw the girl and the man in black, he stopped short, as if there were a line in the woods that he wasn’t allowed to cross. He bent over, hands on his hips, obviously trying to catch his breath, while he eyed the two of them.

  ‘No!’ yelled the girl.

  Faith turned back to her. The man in black had his arm around her shoulders and was walking her across the street to the abandoned lot, to where the red-shirted man was waiting. She was holding on to him and it looked like she was limping. He had his face buried in her ear.

  The potbellied guy – who looked like he had walked right off the set of Deliverance – ventured out into the street. Faith could see now the bushy patches of hair stuck on his cheeks. Not quite a beard and not a mustache. He was agitated, pacing like an anxious dog trapped behind one of those invisible electronic fences that zap you if you step outside the perimeter. He took off the baseball cap and ran a hand over his bald head. She saw that one side of his face was red and raw-looking.

  The man in black brought the girl over to him. She began to wave her arms and clung tighter to the first man. Then the three exchanged words Faith couldn’t hear and red-shirt shoved her back at the man in black before angrily walking off. The girl swayed on her feet, as if she might go down, but the man in black caught her and stroked her head. ‘We got us a Looky-Look!’ shouted the red-shirt, turning to point to where Faith was. He spat at the ground. ‘Come on out and play with us, Looky-Look! Don’t be shy!’ Then he started across the street. The invisible fence was down.

  Faith reached with a violently shaking hand for the jumble of key chains that hung from the ignition.

  The man in black stepped in front of red-shirt and pushed him with enough force that he stumbled backwards and fell in the street. ‘I told you I got it!’ he yelled. ‘Back off! Don’t fuck it up any more than it is.’

  Red-shirt scrambled to his feet and, taking the girl by the arm, led her toward the wooded lot he had emerged from. Faith couldn’t hear what he was saying, but the girl wasn’t waving her arms any more. She turned and cast one last look in Faith’s direction. She smiled weakly and nodded. Then the two of them were gone.

  It had all happened in a matter of minutes, maybe less. But exactly what had happened? Faith could hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears. She turned to check on Maggie, then thought of the man in black and whipped her head back so fast her neck cracked.

  He was standing right outside the driver’s side window.

  She jumped onto the console, smashing her hip again.

  He tapped on the glass with a long fingernail. It made a screechy sound.

  Faith tried to scream, but fear had completely closed her throat. The only sound she managed was a gurgle. She tried to force the gearshift. It wouldn’t budge. The car wasn’t on.

  His hand went to the door handle. She could hear the click of the metal as he tried to open it.

  She couldn’t get her fingers around the key, her hand was shaking so hard. Her foot, too. On the brake, off the brake. On, off. Flopping about like a fish out of water. With one hand she tried to hold her knee down.

  The man cupped a hand around his eyes and put his face to the window. She saw he had dark brown eyes and long lashes. In his other hand he held a flashlight. He beamed it straight in her eyes, blinding her. Then he moved it down over her body and across the front seat. When he aimed it into the back, his face lit up, like a child who has spotted what he wants under the Christmas tree. He tapped on the glass with the flashlight and pointed.

  Faith turned the ignition and the car started. She floored the gas and the engine screamed, but the car didn’t move.

  The man stepped back into the street, raised a finger to his lips and smiled. It wasn’t the full-on freaky grin he wore with the girl. This was a smug, toothless, dark smile that made her skin crawl.

  She threw the car out of park into drive. The tires spun with a screech and the Explorer lurched forward. She couldn
t see anything – the windshield was fogging again from her breathing so hard. She wiped it with her bare hand, but not in time. The truck smashed into a garbage can.

  The plastic can careened along the sidewalk, belching whatever contents it still had left all over the road. She tore off down a street, praying that the road wouldn’t be a dead end, or a cul de sac, leading her right back around to where she’d just been. The garbage can lid tore off the top, scraping against the asphalt underneath her car, stuck on something. She made another quick turn. Then another.

  The cane army excitedly welcomed her back into the maze, the rustling stalks whispering their false promises of refuge, swallowing her whole as the wind kicked up and the stalks closed ranks on the road behind her.

  7

  The girl burst out of the woods, hobbling on what remained of her battered foot and a possibly busted leg. She could hear the revving of an engine, the screeching of tires as they spun out, the bang as the car collided with something. Please, lady, wait! Wait for me!

  She saw the Crazy, standing there in the middle of the street, waving goodbye as if the lady in the SUV was his wife, off to run an errand.

  ‘Stop!’ the girl screamed at the Explorer that was hauling ass down the block. But only a squeak came out. In her hand she clutched a chunk of Swamp Thing’s face that she had managed to rip off with her fingers.

  For a moment she thought she might beat the odds again. Odds that had been against her since she’d first stupidly climbed into the Cute Crazy’s car two nights ago to make a little cash. Odds that would’ve had her dead already, or hanging from that beam in that shack. But she’d made it out of the horrible place that stunk of death, with its walls and floor stained with blood and torn fingernails and its floor of broken glass. A place she knew others had not made it out of. She’d made it across fields in the middle of a storm in the middle of the night. She’d survived being hit by a car as the Crazy Brothers hunted her down. She’d walked on shredded feet. She’d made it here. She’d found civili-zation in the middle of nothing but cane fields. She’d found a lady actually sleeping in her car in a town where there was not a single other soul around. It had to be a miracle. It had to be. She was so close to a happy ending – it couldn’t end here. It couldn’t end this way. ‘Stop! Please!’ she barked.

  She saw the flash of brake lights and started to cry, but then the SUV turned down a street. Her body finally gave out. It could take no more. She collapsed on her knees, surrounded by garbage, her arms outstretched. Her leg felt like it was on fire. ‘Come back!’ she screamed.

  But her voice barely made a sound. Fear had claimed it.

  Swamp Thing was behind her – he wanted his cheek back. She tried to crawl away, but didn’t get far. He found her feet and dragged her like a caveman might, back toward the woods. Her fingers clawed at the asphalt.

  The last thing she saw before the woods consumed her, and the mud and leaves and rocks filled her nose and mouth and eyes, was the other Crazy – the one she’d thought was handsome when she’d danced for him, with his long, dark waves and his scruffy beard and intense eyes. He had a hard body and strong hands. Hands filled with cash and, as her friend Loni liked to say, green made every guy look good. But the tall stranger hadn’t needed much help in that department. Now he was standing in the street, facing the direction where the SUV had driven off. His arms were raised up to the sky and he was laughing. As she was being dragged to the slaughter, he was laughing into the rain. Now she could see him for who he really was, for what he really was. He was the Devil, dressed all in black, daring God with his outstretched arms to come down from the heavens and perform one last miracle for His little lost lamb.

  But there were no more miracles to be had. Not tonight.

  The clouds gathered, seemingly at his command, consuming the moon again, and the biblical rain started up once more, washing away the drag marks that her body had left behind.

  8

  Faith’s heart was pounding so hard, she thought she might actually be having a heart attack. It was hard to breathe. She turned the car down another road. And then another. She was surely lost, but was she far enough away? Had she gone in circles? Were they behind her?

  A toddler could read the body language – that man was telling her to be quiet, he was telling her to shut up, putting his finger to his lips. It was a gesture that an annoyed librarian might make to a table of giggly teens. But he’d pointed at the back seat. He’d pointed right at …

  Maggie!

  The thought overwhelmed her and she started to cry as she turned her head to look in the back seat. Maggie was still asleep. Her Cha-Cha had come off her head – probably when she’d hit that garbage can – but she was still clutching Eeyore and her blanket and still sucking her thumb. Her face was buried in the corner of the booster. ‘Maggie, honey?’ she whispered cautiously. ‘Maggie, are you OK, baby?’

  There was no response. Faith actually moaned with relief.

  What had happened? What had she witnessed back there?

  She checked the rearview. The back window was completely fogged.

  Who were those people? Where had they come from?

  She lowered her window to clear the fog and checked her side view. No one. There was no one behind her. No headlights gaining speed on her in the distance. She listened as the rain and wind rushed in the car. Sweat ran down her face and neck. She reached for her cell phone and remembered she didn’t have one.

  A million questions rushed her brain: Where had that girl come from? Were those people watching her when she was asleep? How long had they been out there? Who were those men? What did they want?

  She looked back at the rearview. Still pitch-black.

  The events of the last five minutes played over and over again in her head. Each scene demanded to be replayed first, and the images quickly tumbled together, as every detail fought to be remembered before it was forgotten.

  Help me! She heard the raspy, hoarse voice, the palm slapping against the glass. She saw those crazed brown eyes, that twitching mouth with an earring stuck in the lip. And one in the nose. And two in the eyebrow. The dirty clothes. The tattoos. She saw the disheveled possessed girl from the movie The Ring, climbing through her driver’s side window, trying to get in, that’s what she saw. She shook her head.

  What was wrong with that girl? Why was she like that?

  Maybe she was on drugs. Maybe she was drunk.

  Was she running from that man? From both of those men?

  With that heavy makeup and the tattoos and the piercings, and the dirty bare feet she must have been high. Who would be out like that in the middle of the night in a terrible storm unless they were high on drugs? And that town – it had Faith thinking of every freaky horror movie she’d ever seen.

  She looked again at the side view. If someone were following her, she’d be easy to find, even miles away. She was the only car on the road.

  He’s coming! Let me in! The girl was back in her head. Faith rubbed her temples.

  What had the girl meant by that? Was she in trouble? What had that second man, the man in the red shirt, done with her? Where had he taken her? Faith stared ahead into the endless black. There was nothing out here. Nothing at all.

  She had smiled at Faith. The girl had smiled at her. And that guy in black had grinned. The two of them had kissed. What was that about? It was all so weird. Now that red-shirted potbellied guy – he was definitely creepy. And he looked angry. The girl had looked scared of him. He’d certainly scared the hell out of Faith.

  She ripped off the cuticle she’d been gnawing on before. Blood filled her mouth. The clock read 1:40.

  Again she checked the side view, but there was still no one there. No one was following her. If she’d witnessed something really horrible, something like a rape or an attack or – she sucked in a deep breath at the thought – something even worse, wouldn’t someone be following her by now? Bad guys didn’t leave witnesses. If they’d been doing something ev
il to that girl, those two guys would never have let Faith leave. In fact, the guy in black had actually stopped the red-shirted man from coming over to her car. Neither of them had a weapon. If they had, surely they would’ve used it to stop her – if they were doing something to that girl, right? So they must not have had a weapon. The thought made her feel a little bit better. Until the next question came at her.

  Why didn’t you let her in, Faith?

  She felt nauseous. Her brain started to sputter out a litany of excuses.

  It all happened so fast.

  Maggie was in the back seat. She couldn’t let a girl like that – a stranger – into the car with her daughter right there.

  What if the girl was a robber? What if the cry for help was a ruse to get those other men in the car?

  Jarrod used to be a public defender in Miami. He used to tell Faith all about the horrible crimes his clients had been accused of: carjacking, robbery, rape, kidnapping, murder. The insider stories were enough to scare anyone from ever stepping outside their front door. And when he described how criminals thought the twisted things they thought, why they targeted certain people, how they hunted their victims – it was bone chilling. More than one story had involved home invasions that kicked off with a female accomplice: women posing as sympathetic ruses, claiming they’d been hurt in an accident, begging for help on a doorstep while their armed boyfriends waited in the shadows for the unwitting Good Samaritan to unchain the door and let them all in.

  She ran her hands through her hair, trying to hold her thoughts together. There was another reason why she hadn’t opened the door: she was scared. No, she was terrified.

  She finally spotted a sign: West Palm Beach, 41 miles. She wasn’t just on the right road – she was almost out of the maze! She knew where she was. A car actually passed her, heading the opposite direction. It was the first car she’d seen since she’d left Highlands County. Up ahead was civilization, even if it was closed for the night. A few miles later she saw the golden arches of a McDonalds and a red-and-white neon sign welcoming people to the Sunland Inn. They had a vacancy. From the looks of the empty parking lot they had more than one room available. She pulled in and sat there for a moment, staring at the glass doors of the empty lobby.

 
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