A Luminations Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
Big fight with Dad last night. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. He does not get it. I finally thought he was cool with the road trip plan, and then he goes and hands me this whole itinerary. Hotel rooms, check-in schedule. He's never gotten it. And tomorrow morning, he'll be chasing after me when I drive off, trying to convince me I need to be his nice safe little girl.
Assuming he hasn't decided to just slash my tires or something. Shit. Should not have thought of that. Going out to check on car. Peace, yo.
Just when I think nothing in this family will ever surprise me… Mom totally sided with me. Yeah, I know. Weird. But she did it. She even took all those maps and printouts Dad made for me and dropped them in the trash. Go, Mom!
Gotta get my bags in the car before they all change their minds. I'll post from Memphis.
Love ya('all)! See ya on the flip side!
There wasn't a trail of blood. But there was blood. And there was a trail.
The car was almost completely in the woods. I could have driven right by. Anyone could have. The sun was getting low on the horizon and it caught one of the side mirrors through the trees. I saw a flash. If there had been anyone behind me on the road I wouldn't have slowed down. I'm not even sure why I did slow down, or why I stopped. The line between what is and what might have been has always been pretty thin. I try not to dwell on it too much.
I pulled into something that looked like a dirt road or driveway. Turns out it went just far enough into the woods to fit my little Toyota before it met a dead end of trees and boulders.
There was a signpost, a deer crossing sign that had seen better days. The silhouette of the leaping buck had been scraped away, replaced by a smudge of rust, a shapeless red blob that somehow looked like it belonged over the sign's neatly-lettered "Xing".
Back at school people used to plaster road signs with stickers. Stop signs became "Stop Bush", or occasionally "Stop Hillary" as the primary season got off to its ridiculously early start. Some of the crossing signs at UNH had been stickered-over with swag from an indy band called Proper Hooligans, and some joker had added "KTHXBAI" to a "No Trespassing Police Take Notice" sign on one of the maintenance buildings.
So "Blob Xing" or "Smudge Xing" had me smiling, and I figured I'd take a pic with my phone and send it to my blog. My FList would appreciate it. First, though, the car in the woods. Probably some old wreck left to rot.
But the little bits of the windshield when shining in the beams of the setting sun that filtered through the trees and the blood on the dash and on the steering wheel and on the door was all still fresh, barely sticky.
I'd stopped smiling. Fuck.
I started moving and I was talking to myself, because I knew that there were things I should do, and I didn't want to make a mistake that could cost someone their life.
"Okay, Katy. Breathe. Now get your phone. Call 911 first and get help out here. Then search. Check under the car. Check behind the car. Check everywhere you can't see."
My phone was sitting on my passenger seat where I'd forgotten to grab it when I got out of the car. I'd had it out of my purse because it was plugged into the car charger.
No signal. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I ran back, stopping when I got to the wrecked car and trying to force myself to be systematic. Nothing in the back seat. Nothing under the car. I noticed the trail leading up the hill when I started circling the car looking for the injured driver behind trees and in ditches.
"Decision time," I whispered. I was in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee, playing silly GPS tricks. The device can be programmed to give you the shortest route by distance, rather than time. My Dad had given me the idea. He uses the feature when he's driving home from New York or Albany after a Friday meeting with a client and he knows he doesn't need to be back in the office. GPS normally routes you according to the fastest travel time, which means interstate highways. When you go by shortest distance, it sends you through every little back road and cowpath. It's great for sightseeing. The irony wasn't lost on me. I'd had a big fight with my Dad the night before I left on my road trip. He'd wanted me to stick to the main roads and the safe chain hotels. I wanted freedom.
So here I was. Free to choose. Head off down the road or back the way I came until those signal bars came back or until I found someone who could get help. Or head up that path and try to do what I could on my own. Dad would have wanted me to go call the cops. But if he'd been here, I have no doubt that he would have grabbed the first aid kit out of the trunk and headed up that trail at a jog.
That's what I did.
Cabins in the woods are classic horror movie settings. So far I was managing to mentally shout down most of those thoughts. Someone had crashed their car into the woods. They were bleeding, hurt. Maybe they weren't sure where they were or where to go. Maybe they had wandered up this path to this little cabin, probably just a hunters' shelter out here in the woods, waiting empty for deer season.
The cabin stood in a sparse meadow that stood out from the overgrown woods around it. It was a bald spot atop a small rise, and sitting in the shadows of the taller hills. The dirt here was sandy and dry. I remembered stepping through some mud puddles and over at least one running stream on the path, but the ground here was suffering from drought.
I paused a second at a furrow that looked like it had been cut into the ground with a gardener's hoe. The line between what will be and what could have been. I really thought that. I clearly remember thinking it right before I stepped over.
I checked the phone again. Still no bars. The sun had dipped below the hills by now and the shadows were merging into blankets of darkening grey over the landscape when I worked the rusting door open.
I saw the woman immediately. There was nothing else in the cabin to see. A bare floor and a little brick fireplace, and a woman sitting with her back to the wall, her hair caked with blood and her jeans torn and only wearing one shoe. I opened up the first aid kit as I moved to her, trying to figure out what I was supposed to use first. Clean and dress the wounds, treat for shock. My Red Cross training was coming back to me in bits and pieces.
"Gonna be okay," I whispered, taking her hand. "You crashed your car. You need a doctor. I'm here to help." She was older and bigger than me, stocky but not fat. Her hair was bleach-blonde, cut short, clumped with her dried blood. Her eyes looked alert and resigned as they looked me over. Her breathing was steady, deliberate.
"You stepped over the circle. Clever girl." As she whispered, she shifted, turning a little to bring her head up closer as though she wanted to make sure I heard.
That was when I noticed the wound in the back of her thigh, and the six-inch stick that was stuck through her jeans and into her flesh.
"Oh my God. What happened?"
"Shot me, clever girl. They just wanted to slow me down. Worked. Here I am. Here you are too." She shrugged weakly. "Sorry about that. They'll kill you too now."
She was looking through me. No, she was looking past me. I turned my head and followed her gaze to the open door of the cabin.
I could make out their shapes in the dusk. It might have been my imagination filling in some of the details: the biker jackets and baseball caps and steel toe boots. I could make out five of them, and that was pretty bad odds if they wanted trouble.
I followed my first instinct. I grabbed the cabin door and pulled it shut, putting all my weight into it as it dragged on the dirt and the rusted hinges fought with me for every inch.
"They're warded." The woman spoke as though she was stating the obvious. "I thought you knew."
I turned around slowly and leaned back on the closed door, trying to listen for movement from outside.
"What the hell is going on?" I whispered.
She didn't feel any need to lower her voice, but she hesitated, suddenly careful of her words. "It's a gang initiation. I'm sorry. They intend to hurt me. You too, now. They follow some weird tradition that keeps them from just breaking in here, but they'll wait for us."
"Oh, fuck." I didn't want to dwell on that. Better to plan, to act. "We've gotta get out of here. How do we do that? Okay. Okay, we can get out of this. Wait them out until dark. Then out that back window, right? I can help you get through. We'll be quiet. There's a lot of woods out there. I just counted five of them. They hear us, we freeze, let them get close. Then I've got…"
She didn't look like she was listening. And my thoughts were starting to catch up with my mouth. I've always had a problem with talking and acting before I think. But my thinking catches up, eventually. This woman isn't the first one who's called me 'clever', and while I'd rather be brilliant or insightful or just plain intelligent, I've learned to accept it.
"What?" I asked. Let her talk. I suddenly needed to think.
"What's your name?"
"I'm Katy. You?"
I stepped away from the door. "Okay, Phoebe. Cut the bullshit. I didn't exactly grow up on the streets, but this shit is definitely not normal even in Redneck Hell. Gangbangers do not shoot people with arrows, and they don't have a problem walking across a line in the sand."
She blinked and sat there.
"I know what a ward is. My dorm room is warded."
That got her interest. "So are you a witch or not?"
"Isn't the question supposed to be am I a good witch or a bad witch?"
She shook her head. "You're not a bad anything, Katy. That's why I'm so sorry you had to find me. World needs more people who'd help a stranger. You just picked the wrong one. Life sucks, right? So… Witch?"
"Squib. Well informed and well connected one. Those guys?"
"Aw, shit." My introduction to the hidden world had been gradual, and it had been mostly secondhand. Chess saw things, Nancy saw things. Katy just heard about things. Oh, I believed it all. Why not? It was all the old stories we'd grown up with come to life. You want to believe that. The magical side of the world is seductively appealing, and it's easy to overlook all of the bad implications that come with acknowledgement of the supernatural world.
This wasn't bad implications. This was pain and death staring right at me. If I'd been alone I probably would have shut myself right down. I would have settled down to have a good cry about the things I wasn't going to get to do, while I waited for them to find a way in. Maybe I'd find it in me to fight until I died. That was a nice thought, though not much of a comfort.
I shook myself out of it by forgetting about myself.
"I came to help you, Phoebe. I'm gonna get you out of here." I didn't speak about helping myself or saving myself for the rest of the night.
I worked on Phoebe with the first aid kit. I'm not sure how long it took. The arrow proved less of a problem than it had appeared to be. Most of it hadn't gone through the denim. Instead, the barbs had caught on the fabric and pulled about an inch of it into the wound. It came out pretty easily. I cut a circle of denim around the wound so I could apply a gauze pad. It started bleeding again, and I had to add a second gauze, and then a third to soak up the blood, but that finally seemed to stop the flow, and I taped the bandages in place.
Phoebe's other injuries were minor cuts and scratches.
She told me some of her story while I worked on her. She'd been living in a domestic abuse shelter in Knoxville when she found out her ex-husband had set these monsters on her. She didn't want to draw them to the shelter, so she fled. Her accident had been arranged. She wasn't sure how. She'd thought she could keep herself invisible as long as she was on her own.
"They see auras like I do. I can disguise mine. I'm from a family that's… connected. I've learned things."
"Can you see mine?" I asked. I wanted to keep her talking so she wouldn't focus on the pain. She wasn't showing symptoms of shock, and I didn't want her to start showing them. Sooner or later we were going to have to move or fight.
She smiled a little. "You've got a strong aura, Katy. That's why I thought you were an experienced witch. And because you stepped over the circle."
"Step on a crack… Childhood habits, I guess. So, if that circle gets broken…"
"No more ward."
"They can't just throw a stick over it?" I asked. I liked there to be a logic in these things.
Phoebe shook her head. "Can't be by action they take. I made sure of that."
"Okay. Will they know where it's broken?" I was grasping for ideas.
Phoebe nodded. I finished up the work on her leg and was cleaning the cut on her forehead with a disinfectant wipe.
"Hold still," I warned. "Okay, how about this? I break the circle and run. Get them after me and you go the other way. I can handle myself in a scrap."
"Not against these."
"Okay. But I'm fast. And I grew up playing in the woods."
She shook her head.
"Hey, hold still."
"It won't work, Katy."
"Okay then, how about this? You said you can be invisible to them. Can you make me that way too?"
"I don't know. If we were out of sight, not moving, I could hide our auras. But they know we're in here."
"Not if they think we're gone," I said.
As plans go, it was weak, and I was pretty scared about how it was going to end. If we got to the road, we'd probably find they'd wrecked my car, or at least posted a guard. That was if we could get past them and we didn’t break our necks running through the woods.
"But better to try, right?"
Phoebe didn't look so sure, but she nodded, resigned to try and fight for her life. I just kept focusing on her. There was no me. There was a person who needed help. That was all.
The misdirection was simple and crude. I inched the door open after Phoebe had spoken the ritual words to obscure our auras. She waited by the door while I crossed to the little back window where I'd put the first aid kit. I tossed the bandage roll underhand into the darkness, the length of gauze trailing behind, the end secured to a rusty nail in the sill.
We heard them moving out in the darkness. I clutched the pepper spray that I'd pulled from my purse, fully expecting them to have left at least one to watch the path. They were moving away from us. Phoebe led me into the darkness, her steps infuriatingly slow as she counted on concealment while all I wanted to do was run for it. I focused on her, clung to her, and tried to envision myself wrapped in darkness.
I nearly lost Phoebe when she suddenly pulled to the side just as we reached the trees. Something warm and wet touched my cheek, something hanging from a tree by a cord, some animal, fresh-killed meat. An appetizer. They hadn't fallen for our trick because they were stupid. They just couldn't ignore their hunger.
"We need to run," Phoebe whispered.
She'd heard them before I did, but I could hear them now, breaking branches as they came through the woods for us. We made for the path down the hill, stumbling, pulling each other along when one of us fell. I was nearly dragging Phoebe when we hit bottom.
The driver's side window of my car was cracked, and even in my state of panic I was remembering those horror movie cliches. There was one of them waiting in the back seat.
The car doors unlocked as I reached for the back door handle and aimed the pepper spray. Empty. I glanced behind the back seat into the hatchback. Empty. I grabbed Phoebe's arm and roughly helped her into the back seat.
They burst from the woods as I powered up the car, and just possibly they didn't realize we were already moving because the gasoline part of the hybrid engine hadn't kicked in yet. They hesitated. We drove.
One nearly caught up. He smashed out the rest of the driver's side window reaching for me, and I pulled away from his claws clutching the wheel and trying to reach the pepper spray. Somehow he lost his grip and we sped away on the dark road. I figure I would have probably gotten us more than him spraying that mace in the car, so I was pretty glad it hadn't come to that.
I was pretty glad I wasn't dead, but that wouldn't really sink in for another hour or two.
His hat had come off in the car. I reached down and picked it up and threw it into the road. It looked more brown than red, but of course that's what blood looks like after it dries.
"Where were you heading?"
"Memphis," I told Phoebe. "University of Memphis. Go Tigers. A friend from high school goes there. I'm visiting her. Spring break road trip, you know?"
She smiled. We were in Chattanooga, sitting outside a homeless shelter in a rundown neighborhood where most of the stores were boarded up or converted into storefront churches.
"You're a freshman? First Spring Break?"
"Yeah. I was hoping for a little adventure, you know?" We both laughed at that.
I held her hand. "Look, are you sure this is what you want? I might have to lie a bit, but I can get my Dad to wire us money. Maybe not enough for an apartment or anything, but enough so you can get a bus to anywhere in the country and have some left for food."
"I know people here, Katy. They'll take care of me."
I got a pen out of my purse and wrote my email and cell number on the back of one of Nancy Mateo's business cards. I handed it to Phoebe.
"My info's on the back. On the front, well, that place is sanctuary. For anyone who needs it. Just in case, okay?"
"Okay." She reached over from the passenger seat to hug me. "You'd better get on the road. You're late to meet your friends and you need to check in with your parents. Your Dad wouldn't approve if he knew what you've been getting yourself into."
She stepped out of the car and waved.
"Well he wouldn't believe a word of it," I said to myself, "But if he did, then I actually believe he just might have approved."
I waved to Phoebe and got back on the road.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2008