Highway Chapter 21
I opened the door, surprised to see Veronica and another man standing opposite the sides of the desk. She seemed beaten up, but relatively unharmed.
When I entered, they stopped, both turning to stare at me. I winked at Veronica as a look of relief came upon her face.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said, smirking, “you wouldn’t believe the storm out there.”
She smiled. I’m here to save you, I thought.
The man across from her was staring at me curiously, and I wondered who he was. It was too dark too see him clearly, but as he turned a bolt of lightning lit up the room.
On his face was a long a jagged scar, rendering his eye useless and grotesque. Something about it seemed like I should recognize it. It didn’t dawn on me at first, but as I saw Veronica’s eyes look towards him again, they were filled with hatred and fear. Suddenly, it clicked. This was the man who had something wrong with his face back at the town, and he was none other than Veronica’s father. She wouldn’t have been that scared if it had been anyone else.
Why was he here? He was holding a sharp kitchen knife. What an odd choice of weapon.
He was tall, almost as tall as me. He seemed to be later in middle age, but he still appeared to be fit and strong. But his eyes were not entirely healthy, for they held a sense of madness in them.
I glanced at Veronica, who was wearing a blue ball gown and had her hair put up. She looked beautiful, but it was strange. Had they made her change? She also hated her hair up, so I came to the conclusion that my guess was right.
Armed with only a pocket knife, I was concerned about his weapon. I was sure the men of the complex would hear fighting, and would come to engage in the fight. I needed to make it out with Veronica, even if that meant leaving the man who had caused her such pain behind. She was my number one priority.
I thought I could at least ground him for a few minutes, just enough time to get away. If I needed to, I would toss Veronica onto the horse outside and tell her to ride away as I stayed behind. She wouldn’t be very happy about it, but she would go anyway. Her survival instinct was strong.
“I hate to interrupt,” I said, keeping a calm voice, “But I think you have someone who is important to me, and I’ll be needing her back. So if you could just let her go, I would be much obliged.”
There wasn’t a chance he was going to, but I needed him to think my guard was down. The man’s body posture suggested he was an excellent fighter, and I needed to get the first blow to surprise him. I wasn’t sure if I could win in a one on one fight if he got the first hit.
He was bleeding from the shoulder, and wondered what happened. Could Veronica have stabbed him? With what? He laughed, a low chuckle filled with dark malice.
“My, my, my,” he said to Veronica, his face twisting into amusement, “You’ve got all sorts of friends, don't you? Didn’t you learn the first time that people can’t protect you?”
She looked to me, and then back at him.
“He’s better than you ever were. Besides, I already took a chunk out of your shoulder. It’s not too hard to harm you.” She said, her head held high with disdain for him.
That’s my girl, I thought, spunky even when scared.
“Veronica,” I called, keeping my eyes trained on the man, “Why don’t you come with me? That is, unless you’re having a good time.”
She scoffed, and I was pleased she could keep a level head in such a situation. The man moved, and Veronica flashed to the other side of the desk, avoiding his lightning quick blow. She was trapped behind him now.
“I think she was mine first,” he said, “And I’ll be keeping her.”
He turned to her, telling her he would deal with her in a second. Pivoting on his heels, he faced me, holding up the knife.
“You picked a bad man to mess with, my friend,” he said, smirking.
I didn’t reply, only reaching for the small knife in my pocket. Mine wasn’t nearly a match for his, but it allowed me agility where his gained strength. It was awkward and clumsy, and would slow him down.
I circled around him, engaged in a dance of predators. He lunged, fast like a snake, and I barely dodged. The first few seconds would be the hardest, for I couldn’t pick up his fighting pattern. He bobbed and weaved crazily, but I dodged each swing before it reached me. I attempted a few quick jabs, but he was just as fast in body movement. Here was someone who was well versed in fighting.
Suddenly, I tripped on a stool behind me. I lay still, acting as if I had been hurt, in order to draw him in. But as soon as I was ready to strike, he lurched forward, dropping. I looked up to see Veronica perched atop his shoulders, pulling back on his hair. It looked a bit ridiculous with her in the dress, but she was absolutely vicious.
He snarled, shaking her off. She landed on the floor with a hard smack! Taking the opening as he went for her, I kicked out his knee, bringing down my elbow on his neck. He fell, landing face down. He wasn’t dead, only down, and I didn’t know how long it would take for him to get up.
“Veronica! Run!” I shouted.
She leaped over him, only to have him catch her ankle as she came down. She tripped, landing face first. I rushed to help her, but she had other plans. She screamed in fury, ramming something into his leg. It was a hair comb, now embedded into his flesh.
I pried his hand away from her leg, and picked her up.It wasn’t the best situation, but she was in heels and I didn’t want her barefoot. I could only hope nobody stopped us on the way out. The man was shouting into his radio, calling out orders.
“That’s your father?” I asked as we sped through the complex, taking the route I remembered.
“Yeah!” she called, “He’s great, isn’t he?”
I scoffed at her sarcasm. We came across the room I had entered before, a very sleepy man waking up to violent radio calls. He looked astonished when we came in, but I hit him before he could react. Fainting, he slumped back into bed.
“Come on,” I said, gesturing to the window, “Through here.”
She slid through with my help, and I followed as quickly as I could, hearing shouts rise up inside the building. Frantically, I took her face in my hands.
“Listen!” I called, raising my voice over the ever increasing storm, “There’s a horse just a little ways away from here, in the nearby shed! Get on it and ride to town. Get away first, and then find some help. Tell them I’m at the second storage unit south of town. Don’t look back, don’t stop, and don’t let anyone catch you. All right?”
She was already soaked, the rain pelting on her body.
“Have you gone crazy?” she asked, furious.
I shook my head.
“You’re the most important Veronica! We don’t have time to make it out together just yet. They’re already coming, and I can’t fight when I’m worried about you. Go!”
She could hear the voices from inside, and she looked torn.
“Okay!” she called, “But I need to get the other girls from out of the shed! I can’t leave them here to fend for themselves!”
I was frustrated, but she looked untenable.
“Fine,” I said, “But do it quickly! If you can’t get it open, then I’ll do it later. Now go!”
I stressed the last syllable, hoping to nudge her along.
She suddenly pulled me into a crushing hug, shouting, “Don’t you dare die on me now. I’ll never let you rest in peace.”
I smiled. She ran off into the storm, and I focused on the voices. I could use the darkness for cover, but I needed to keep them away from Veronica until she left.
A man stuck his head out the window we had just exited. I struck out with quickly, smacking his head into the window, and pushing him back inside.
I hadn’t killed anyone yet, and I wouldn’t if I could do anything about it. Still, it didn’t mean I couldn’t give them major headaches.
Two down, six to go. Seven, if you counted Veronica’s father.
I snuck around, hiding myself in a bush. I heard two voices come around the corner, their flashlight beams sweeping around the storm. When they passed me, I leaped onto one of them, knocking him down.
We wrestled on the ground, my extra height my advantage. The other man jumped on my from above, trying to get his arms around me. I lifted my arms so he had my torso, leaning back so he was pushed to the ground. I kicked the man that I had previously tackled, knocking him back as he tried to assault me from the front. I slammed my elbow back, catching the man’s face behind me. I leaned back again, crushing him against the ground. He flailed, and I flipped so I could hit him again. I hit his jaw, and his face went slack.
The man left was getting up, so I dropped into a low stance. He lunged forward, and I caught him arm. Jerking it forward, his head collided with my own. He looked dazed, and I swept his ankle out from under him. He fell back, landing with a thump. He went limp, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
These men weren’t nearly as good as their boss. Perhaps they were just hired help. With these two down, it meant I had cleared half of them already, without me sustaining any serious injuries. I heard shouts, high pitched ones that rose above the storm, and I gathered that Veronica had freed the others. Please hurry, I thought.
I stalked the building, sidling along the wall and peeking around the corners. The storm made it hard to see, but lightning was flashing sporadically, lighting up the area every minute or so. I hoped Veronica’s father was still downed, for I did not look forward to fighting him again.
Suddenly, I sensed a figure around me. The storm made my ability to sense others fuzzy, but I could still feel their presence. Hoping I was concealed enough, I waited, the small knife clenched in my pocket. The man came around the corner, and just as I was about to strike, he shined his light on me.
“He’s over here!” he called, and I cursed.
So much for staying hidden. Still, if they couldn’t find him they couldn’t find me. I took him by surprise, lunging at him. I grabbed his arm, twisting it backwards. I removed the flashlight from his possession, arcing it down so that it hit the back of his head. He stood shakily, and I kicked him in the stomach. He landed against a wall, and went limp.
Hurrying, I dragged his unconscious form over to a bush, and bolted. Three men were somewhere around the complex, not counting the boss. Hopefully they wouldn’t find the man I had just knocked out.
The rain was coming down at a sharp angle, stinging against my skin. My clothes didn’t have a chance against the cold, but I wasn’t shivering. The heat of the battle warmed up my muscles, keeping them loose and ready. I resolved to make it out as soon as possible so Veronica didn’t have to worry.
She must be on her way to town now, but wouldn’t be there yet. I would just need to hold off these men until help arrived, or until they were no longer threats.
The man I knocked out had a gun on him, but I didn’t know whether to take it. I didn’t want to kill these men; or rather it wouldn’t have been right. I knew how to use a gun, learning when I was out on the streets. But I could always use it to scare them. I wound my way back, pleased to find him still hidden.
I removed the gun from his side. I could hear a voice nearby, searching for the man who had called out. I peered around the bush, hoping to survey the situation.
He appeared to be alone, but I wasn’t sure it was so. Often, other attackers hide, making it seem as if there was only one member. I took a deep breath, clearing my head. I looked around, hoping to spot the ambush. I saw slight movement in another bush nearby, and I carefully wound myself around the cover, pausing when I saw the man lying in wait for me.
Sneaking up stealthily, I reached up behind him, covering his mouth. He struggled, but I kept a firm grip around nose until he slumped backwards. Stopping quickly to make sure he still could breathe, I got up again.Suddenly, a shot went off by my ear.
I whirled around, only to see a man squinting through the rain. They had guns, and now they were using them. He could only see me faintly, his eyes not accustomed to such darkness. But mine had adjusted an hour ago, and I could see much better.
I slid when he shot again, using the now slippery mud to dive away. I ran right into his leg, and he jumped back. But before he could get away, I pulled it away, causing him to slip as well, his gun being washed away by the rain. He slid as he tried to get up, and I realized I could coat myself in the mud to make myself too slippery to grab. I rolled around, splashing myself in the muddy puddles.
The man had finally regained his footing, and attempted to find the gun. Giving up, he settled for tackling me. He tried to wrap his arms around me, but I was too slick and slipped away from him. The man who I had seen at first had come over now, seeing us fight. He lunged for my arm, attempting to yank it back. Again, I was too slippery, and so he pulled away with nothing. I lashed out, kicking out the first man’s leg. He went down, and I used the opportunity to hit him with the butt of the gun.
After he lay still, I pointed it at the other man. He froze, looking horrified.
“See this?” I called above the storm, “I have a gun. You don’t. What are you going to do about that?”
The man was obviously not prepared for me to have a gun, and he was terrified. He dropped to his knees, muttering something about it just being his job.
“Please, man,” he pleaded, “Look, it’s the others. I didn’t even want to do this; they just talked me into it. You can hurt them as much as you want, just please leave me alone!”
This man didn’t seem to have loyalty to anyone, and he would willingly use people to save himself. I gave him a look of disgust. What a lowly coward. I knocked him out by whipping out with the pistol again. If I had left him, he may have come back and attempted to get in the way.
Veronica’s father was nowhere in sight, and I thanked every god I could think of. She would be racing to town, or perhaps she might have even gotten there already. I had managed to protect us both, and even though Veronica was a bit banged up, she was safe now.
It hrew the gun aside, not liking the familiar feel of the warm,slick metal in my hand. I turned to leave, planning out where I could take refuge while the storm blew over. Deciding I would go back to the other warehouse, I started to walk. I heard a scream behind me, a feminine one. It wasn’t anyone I recognized, but it was one of sheer terror.
There were still girls here? I thought Veronica had let them all out. I turned back towards the unit, only to see a girl stranded on the roof.
She was screaming, “Ayúdame!” which I knew to be “Help me!” in Spanish.
I glanced around. Veronica’s father could be around anywhere, and I didn’t want to risk running into him. But still, I couldn’t leave a defenseless girl caught on a rooftop, perhaps even more so because he could be about. Sighing, I rushed towards the building.
There was a fire escape on the side, and I leaped up to catch the ladder. I climbed, almost slipping in the rain twice. The metal was slick, covered in the rain. I reached the top.
“Calm down!” I yelled at her, trying to speak over the storm. She didn’t seem to understand. She screamed again, and pointed over my shoulder. What?
Pain exploded in my shoulder just as I turned to see what was wrong. I hit the ground, searching for the source of my discomfort. I felt a long gash across my shoulder, warm and bleeding. Lightning flashed again, piercing through the gloom. I looked up to see Veronica’s father, a wild snarl on his face.
Damn it, I thought to myself, how could I have been so stupid? One lone girl, up on a rooftop, after I knocked out all the men? It had been a trap, an obvious one. I had let my guard down too soon. Now there was no way I was going to be able to escape without leaving the girl behind and getting hurt.
I hadn't liked the gun, and now it was still sitting on the ground far away. Now I realized that had been a mistake, one that could prove fatal. He was still wielding the knife, sharp and wicked like the smile on his face.
“You may have taken Veronica away from me,” he shouted, “But not for long. I can always find her again, and I always will. Killing you is just a bonus.”
He was laughing now, the sound being mixed in with the wind. He took a step towards me.
“After her brother,” he said, “It devastated her. Still, she could pass it off as a fluke incident, perhaps because he had been so young. But if I kill you, that’s a different story. She thinks you’re strong, that you can do anything. If I kill you she’ll know that she can never get away from me, and that I’ll kill anyone she gets close to.”
I could only see the lunacy in his eyes, and I understood he was having a mental breakdown. He was on the verge of becoming hysterical, his maniacal laughter continuing.
“And it’s all because of you. Did you come here to save her today? Do you love her? Is that what she thinks? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is you’ve given me a wonderful psychological tool with your death, and I thank you.”
I was angry, angrier than I had been in a long time. But it wouldn’t do me any good to lose my focus now, and it was just what he wanted. I won’t play in your games, you mad man. I raised my head so I could be heard better.
“You act like you’ve already killed me. I think you’ll find it’s a lot harder than you expected. And yes, I do. I hope she knows, because otherwise I haven’t been very good at expressing things. But I’m not dead, so don’t thank me yet."
He smirked, his attitude full of cockiness and disrespect.
“You think that you can take me?” he asked, starting to circle.
I shrugged, repeating his action. I pulled out the small knife, and he laughed.
“Is that all you have? And you really expect you can win against this?” he asked, lifting up the kitchen knife.
He thought too much of himself, which could be his downfall. He was good, that I didn’t doubt, but anyone could lose in a fight. I could lose to any young fighter, and so could he.
I noticed he was limping ever so slightly as he circled, and his shoulder seemed to cause him pain. Veronica had really gotten him good, and with a hair comb no less. I felt pride well up inside my chest, and I thought of her to keep my mind clear.
“Well,” I said, hoping to cause him anger, “You’re limping around with a hurt shoulder, and you can’t see out of one eye. All of which, were caused by teenagers. I think I have a bit of an advantage here.”
I didn’t know that for sure, but I knew that he reacted badly to anger, and I wanted to make him lose his focus.
“I mean, come on,” I continued, “Is it really so hard to contain a few small kids? You’re taller and stronger. You must really not know how to handle them, huh? That scar’s pretty nasty.”
He screamed in rage. His face was absolutely livid, so red it looked like a tomato. He lunged with his knife, a move I had long anticipated. I dodged it effortlessly, kicking him as he was off balance. He fell, but got up just as quickly.
“How dare you? I’ll teach you to open your mouth!” he exclaimed in fury, “I was just going to kill you quickly, but now I’ll make it slow and painful!”
We fought with each other on the rooftop; the constant lightning flashes the only light. There were several close calls, for I couldn’t see in between the strikes. I received several small cuts, and so did he. He managed to give me a cut on my face, and the blood coursed down my cheek.
The girl from before was huddled in the corner, thankfully. If she got involved, I couldn’t assure her safety.
He lunged and I parried, the cycle continuing. He was getting tired now. I had developed increased endurance over my years on the trail, whereas he only developed muscles. He was stronger than me at first, but I would wear him down. He was also too bulky to get around as nimbly as me, for I was more compact in frame. He had obviously never had his victims last this long before.
“I’m no teenage boy,” I called to him, “It won’t be as easy.”
He simply continued attacking he swung it down, and I barely countered with the pocket knife. It was so much smaller, and I couldn’t stop the blade from coming close to my neck. Using every shred of strength I had, I pushed him away just enough to hit him. His face was leaned in, and so I head butted him. It hurt, but I needed to get the knife away from my throat. He was standing in a daze, and I tackled him to the ground. I punched him several times, but he didn’t pass out.
He grabbed my shoulder from the ground, and I screamed in pain. Gritting my teeth, I pushed him back, leaning a leg on his wound. He also cried out. I shoved him into the concrete, simultaneously putting pressure on both gashes made by the comb. I reached for the knife in his hand, but he flipped, creating a long gash. It burned, and I let go.
He stood up, leaning over me. My hand wasn’t numb, and I could still move it. But he didn’t need to know that, and I could actually do what I was going to do before. He was on his guard now, and knew how good I was at fighting now. I would have to make him truly feel like he had all of the power. I only hoped his sadistic instincts would kick in and he would attempt to torture me like he had said. Resigning myself to pain, I waited.
He came up to me, putting a foot on my ribs and pressing down with enough force to crush them. My world spun for a moment as I forced myself to focus. The pain was absolutely excruciating. Each snap that came from them created an agonizing wave that followed, drowning me in a sea of pain. Veronica, I thought, Think of Veronica. Her hair, her eyes, her beautiful smile.
The nausea was coming. Her puns at night, her silly country voice acting.
He had moved to my arm now. Just a little bit closer, I thought, just a little bit more pain. Her cuddling Ozzie, her head resting against my shoulder. Her sopping wet hair as she pulled me into the river, laughing maniacally.
Her tears for me the night I spoke of my past, her fascination in nature, stars, and stories. Her look before she said goodbye, the bone crushing hug.
Only a few ribs were broken as far as I could tell, but I mostly had fractures. I cried out, a mix of pain and exaggeration. He laughed again, leaning in. He had forgotten I had the pocket knife, absorbed in his anger.
When he came close enough, I grabbed his head, burying my fingers in his hair. Bringing down the knife with as much strength as possible, I slashed across his face, almost identically to the previous slash that had caused the scar. He wrenched away, howling in pain. He clawed at his face, tearing away pieces of skin. It was grotesque, and I had to look away before I vomited. His screeching rose though the air, and he dropped to the ground.
Why was he doing that to his skin? He would kill himself! I tried to gesture to the girl, to get her out safe and sound while he was distracted. She leaped over him, but slipped on the slick rooftop. I bent down to help her, only taking my eyes off of Veronica’s still screaming father for a second. Unfortunately, that second had been too long.
I heard the knife puncture my side before I felt it. The pain was delayed, almost as if I was in shock. But sure enough, I looked down at it, the knife sticking out. Veronica’s father was staggering along the roof, and he smiled when the knife clattered to the ground as it slipped from his weak grasp. It was bleeding profusely, seeping through my shirt like a sieve. I was still standing, although I couldn’t comprehend why. Perhaps I had just been grazed? It was strange I could only feel an ache there.
Veronica’ father attempted to reach me, but couldn’t keep from swaying. I couldn’t feel the knife in my hand anymore, and I didn’t know if I could fight. The girl was shivering in a corner now, burying her face in her hands. Before any of us could react, he lunged forward unsteadily. He tripped on the girl as he moved, knocking him off balance. He was now leaning dangerously over the rail.
I tried to grab him, to stop him from falling. He didn’t deserve to live exactly, but I wouldn’t let anybody die if I could help it. He was supposed to be in jail for the rest of his life, not falling off of buildings. He looked as if he were steady for a moment, but then leaned over even more. Without warning, he fell off of the edge.
Had he slipped? I moved as quickly as I could to the rail, hoping I could still see him. I could, but there was no way he was alive. He hadn’t landed in a survivable position. I felt my legs buckle out from under me, and I fell to the ground.
“Matt!” I heard a voice call.
I looked around, only to spot Veronica.
“Hi,” I said, not quite registering what had happened.
She looked confused and frantic.
“Why?” I asked, looking at her curiously, “Why are you here?”
She rushed over to my side, kneeling next to me.
“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t leave you behind with other guys. I sent one of the girls ahead to the town, because she spoke a little English. What happened? I thought the knife missed?”
She was so concerned, and I felt happy she cared about me. I was bleeding out, and so I began to feel dizzy. She pulled my arm around her shoulder, attempting to get me down the stairs she had just come up. I tried to walk, but I was losing my balance, and I almost fell. Fortunately, there was only one flight of stairs, and she dragged me down it. When we reached the ground floor, she pulled me out a now open door. I fell from her grasp outside.
The edges of my vision were starting to cloud up, but I forced them away. Was I dying? I knew that I was. The knife wound had been too serious. I couldn’t feel my tongue, and so my words began to slur.
She told me that I was going to be just fine. I smiled at her, knowing she understood I was dying. I reached up to her face, placing my hand on it. I frowned when her cheek was smeared with blood.
“Sorry,” I said, worried I had upset her.
She kept telling me I was fine.
“No, baby girl. No.” I told her firmly.
I told her to listen, but I was interrupted by the pain finally coming to me. I arched my back in agony, writhing around. As the initial wave passed, I panted.
I told her I loved her, because I hadn’t said it before at the hotel. She needed to know just how much I cared before I went away. She told me she loved me too, and my heart glowed with joy. I reached around her head, touching her hair clip. I told her she was beautiful, but that she should have her hair down, for she liked it that way. I took it out for her, her hair coming down in waves.
She really was beautiful in her dress, and I was glad I was going to see her as my last vision before I faded away. Her hair was now clinging to her face, and so I brushed a strand away. She was my baby girl, my beloved friend, and my favorite person in the entire world. She was my angel.
I told her how she had changed my life, and how thankful I was. She was crying.
“Don’t cry,” I said, frowning at her, “You’re okay. Everything will be fine.”
She shook her head. She was saying something about not leaving her, but I was fading, and fast. But I had to say one last thing before I left.
“Please don’t let this bother you,” I said, more relaxed this time.
The pain was draining away like the blood, and I could feel myself grow limper. It was cold, but she was holding my hand in hers, so I didn’t mind.
“You will be the most beautiful drifter there is. I can already tell you’ll help so many people. You are the sweetest, most loving girl I have ever met, and I want you to spread that love to others. You’ll awaken soon, and it will all be better. Remember how much I love you right now, and keep that love in your heart. If you ever feel lonely or sad, just remember me in your heart.”
She was weeping now, hunched over as she held my hand against her face. The rain was clearing up rapidly now, as if Veronica’s presence had brought down sunshine again.
“It’s never really goodbye,” I said weakly, fighting to keep my eyes open, “I’ll become a part of nature now, and you’ll always have me with you. Stay strong, okay? Never change who you are. Remember every single ounce of love you have received and give some to others. It’s time for me to go now.”
She was shaking her head frantically again.
“Veronica, my beautiful baby girl, I am the luckiest man in the world. Thank you for loving me as I love you. Be a good girl and don’t get into trouble. Take care. You are always going to be the most special person in my heart. It’s time for me to leave you, but I’ll meet you again someday. I love you.”
She was screaming something, but I couldn’t hear.
When my vision faded and I went completely limp, the darkness closed in. I wasn’t afraid of it, because my life had truly meant something now. Instead, I welcomed it like an old friend.