She had a painful past, one that made her put up barriers against everyone. When she is alone, she feels an odd connection to nature, as if there was something she is missing out in the wild. She brushes it off, but it never leaves. But when a mysterious man who knows more about her than he should wanders into her town and offers her a better life, she decides she has nothing to lose. As her life starts to look up however, she begins to have strange dreams. Suddenly, she is faced with questions about her life. What do the dreams mean? Who is this man? Could she really open up to someone, or would she get hurt again? As her past begins to haunt her, she must decide who she’s willing to trust. Will she shut out another person to protect herself? Or will she finally let her guard down and learn to love again? Only time will tell.


18. Of Love, Hate, and Fear

Highway Chapter 18

            I awoke to the soft rays of the sun enveloping me in warmth. I was so comfortable, and I was lying on a squishy pillow. Sighing to myself, I realized I would have to get up, for Matt would wake me soon.

I sat up, rubbing my eyes. Strangely, the sight of Matt filled them.

“Matt?” I asked, wondering why he was here.

I had flashbacks to last night, and I remembered. Looking down, I realized what I had thought to be a pillow was actually his leg. I flushed, suddenly embarrassed. I knew I fell asleep on him, but I didn’t think I was on his leg.

I asked him if I had been on that all night, and he said yes. I chastised myself for doing something so stupid. I had been upset, and with good reason. That warranted seeking comfort, but it didn’t warrant sleeping on a person the whole night. Or crying my eyes out for hours as I explained every detail.

I had been exploited for telling someone I tripped, or for crying because I didn’t get what I wanted. The kids called me a crybaby and spread rumors throughout the school. I eventually learned not to cry at all, for it only caused me trouble. Had I caused him embarrassment? Had I just messed up a relationship? He didn’t seem upset, but he was good at masking his emotions.  

He told me that nothing had changed, and to stop acting like I had done something mortifying. I was still unsure, because displays of emotions have always caused me trouble. Never once have they produced something good.

I looked at my watch, and was surprised to see it said seven. Why were we sleeping in? He told me Julian was always late, calling him irritating. I hid a smile. Maybe Matt really was fine with last night.

I prepared myself for the worst. I didn’t know what I would do without him. He was the only thing I had left now, everything else being carved out of my soul. If I were to lose him, I could just say there wouldn’t be anything else for me to care about. I felt very empty, an odd numb sensation crawling over my body.

But Matt was here now, and his presence filled the void at least a little. Hoping to see if he was really uncaring about my actions last night, I joined him on our little balcony. He went to get coffee for us, which was bliss for me because I was so tired. I had slept very well the hours I had gotten, but I hadn’t slept many. There was quality, but not enough quantity.

We sat together, telling each other silly jokes.

“Did you hear about the cross eyed teacher who lost her job because she couldn’t control her pupils?” Matt said.

I laughed. We kept going, becoming more energized as the coffee worked its magic. I told Matt I would give Julian a chance, to see if he would grow on me. He made a motion of Julian attaching to his arm like a parasite.

A throat cleared behind us, and I looked to see Julian tapping his foot. Matt said he wasn’t scared of him, because he couldn’t throw him into the river. I said that if I could, he could. Julian smirked as I retold the story.

We headed out to the road, and I relished the quiet and atmosphere of nature. It had only been a day, but I still felt more confined in a hotel than out in the open. It was quiet between the men, and I didn’t mind. I didn’t know what to say with Julian around, because I didn’t want him to think anything strange about me. Only Matt could sing with me on the road, and only Matt would know I liked stuffed animals.

I wished I could talk to him privately, to try and get a feel of his view of me after last night. I asked him what some flowers were, and Julian voiced confusion from behind.

Matt explained I had given him a name, the whole time giving me the look that it didn’t matter that much. Yep, he was still a snot. I explained I would have gone insane if I hadn’t given him one. Julian commented that he would have called him snotball. I smiled, thinking I should have given him a sillier name just to spite him. He called me kid, much to my discontent. I hated nicknames so much. The only one who could get away with a nickname was my brother. And maybe sometimes Matt. But hardly ever.

Matt warned him, saying I would make him regret it. He was sullying my reputation! I gave him a glare, but my lips still twitched into a smile. We continued on, me keeping a healthy distance from possible hug attacks. When we stopped for water, Matt looked over his shoulder. I snickered, knowing he was worried one of us would shove him in the river. I thought about it, but he hadn’t done anything to cause retaliation.

When we reached camp, Matt suggested I start the fire. I was hesitant, for I didn’t want Julian to think me incapable of simple task, and worried I would mess up. But Matt gave me a reassuring smile, encouraging me to do it. I took the tools with hesitation. Managing to strike the flint at a correct angle, I showered sparks on the tinder. Gently blowing on the embers, I watched as they caught the wood on fire. I heard Julian clap from behind me, and he complemented me on my achievement.

He told me Matt couldn’t do it for two weeks. He attempted to defend himself, saying it was windy. For some reason I found this to be hilarious. The Matt I knew understood everything, and yet I was hearing he hadn’t built a fire for two weeks. I started rolling on the ground, my sides hurting from the laughter. He cleared his throat, giving me a wry look. I apologized, but I wasn’t really serious.

Julian told me about Matt when he was young. The time he got attacked by raccoons for bothering them, and the time he accidently dropped his some of his clothes into the river, washing them away. It made me feel better about my mistakes, and I smiled as I heard them.

We sat around the campfire, telling stories. Matt left to get firewood, and an awkward silence overcame the camp. I felt as if I should say something, but I didn’t know what it would have been.

“Hey, kid,” he said, turning towards me. I made a face at his nickname. “Please don’t call me kid, okay? My name is Veronica.”

I tried to be polite, but I didn’t want a pattern to form.

“Whatever,” he said, “Either way, I wanted to talk to you about something.”

I was confused, but nodded my head.

“You’ve known the kid for six days, right?”

I nodded again, wondering what the relevance of the question was.

“You seem to be pretty close to him too, wouldn’t you say?”

I shrugged, but agreed that I did care about him.

“So?” I asked, irritated he was drawing out his point.

“So,” he said, “Don’t you think about how much you care about him?”

I paused, wondering I if did think about it. I supposed I did, but mostly because he was so different.

“What I’m trying to tell you is that you care about him more than a friend.”

I drew back, suddenly startled by the implication of me liking Matt a different way.

“Not like that,” he exclaimed, irritated, “I mean you care more than you would care about a friend.”

I sat back, confused.

“What do you mean? He’s my friend, someone who is different. I care about him, but I don't get what you’re saying.”

He sighed, looking away.

“I’m saying that you love him, you dolt.”

I drew back.

“What the hell are you talking about? I don’t love anybody. Look, I don’t know you, and you obviously don’t know me. If you did, you would understand that I don’t love anyone. Including Matt. I just care as a friend.”

He stood up, and sat next to me.

“I mean no offense when I say this, Veronica” he said, using my name, “But I know more about what I’m talking about than you do. And I know, with confidence, that you love him. I may not know you that well, but I know what love looks like, and you have it.”

My head was reeling. Did I love Matt? Sure, he was special to me, but did I love him? He had always been there for me, especially last night. He was the first person to treat me as if I was special, and I had grown attached fast. But even so, didn’t that mean I was just fast friends with him?

The only person I can recall loving was my brother. My mother wasn’t around enough as far as I remembered, but he always was. I remembered that warm feeling I felt with him. Did I feel that way with Matt? I certainly felt something. I was so confused. My head swam, and I couldn’t think straight.

“I don’t,” I started, “I don’t think so. Loving someone is a big thing. I care, but I don’t think I love him.”

I grew angry, my voice biting. He didn’t understand me. He was assuming he knew how I felt, even though he hadn’t known me long. But even so, I was feeling uncertain. If I loved him, what did that mean? Loving someone involved putting your life in their hands. It meant putting all of your trust into someone, and hoping it worked out. Loving someone meant you were so emotionally invested in them; they had a part of you. If something happened to that part, it was forever lost. Loving someone meant that you were entirely open and bare to this person.

Ever since my brother died, I have never let myself be vulnerable to anyone. If I did discover I loved him, it would mean that the power levels would fluctuate. If it were to be compared to scales, I would be high in the air. My barriers were the only things I had, and he had already broken down some of them. If I loved him it would mean they would be gone entirely.

I got up, saying something about clearing my head.

“Veronica,” he called, as I was about to leave, “I’ve been with the kid for years, and I know him better than anyone on this planet. So when I say this, I know it’s true. He loves you too. I just wanted to let you know.”

A lump was forming in my throat. He did? It was all so staggering. I hadn’t cared about anyone until I met him, and I could believe Julian’s statement could be true. But I didn’t know how to deal with this. I didn’t remember what happened when I first loved my brother for it had been so close to my birth, so I didn’t understand how the relationship worked. Do I tell him? Does he tell me? I frantically walked up a nearby hill, hoping the distance from them would help me understand.

The night air was cool, blowing through my hair gently. The woods below were alive with life, the animals and insects settling down for the night. The stars shone brightly, and I lay on my back, staring at them. I traced them with my fingers, drawing the shapes and recounting the stories. The stories that Matt had told me. Everything I did seemed to be involved with him.

Sighing, I ran my hands through my messy hair. I was sure he would come up soon to talk to me, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I didn’t want anyone to have the effect over me that my brother did, but I didn’t want to shun away Matt like I did with others. In truth, it was probably too late to repel that influence, and had been from day one. And with the way he had held me last night, crying for me, it was even more impossible to ignore the obvious thought laid out in front of me.

Thanks, Julian, I thought angrily. You just ruined my carefree journey. I decided I would wait until Matt came up to talk to me, and hear what he had to say. I almost wished he would just scold me for being mean to Julian, and avoid the topic altogether. If Julian told me, would he tell Matt? I didn’t doubt it.

Sure enough, he emerged from the trees, looking around. He engaged in conversation with Julian for a moment. I sat up, crossing my arms over my knees and laying on them. I could feel him look at me, then back at Julian. After another talk, he started to walk up the hill, looking slightly irritated.

“Hey,” he called. 

“Hi,” I responded.

I was going to say as little as possible. He was going to have to break down this last barrier, and I was going to give him a fight. If he made it, it meant he really cared. He asked me if the seat next to me was taken, and I said no. I told him that life was crazy, and that it didn’t make sense. He agreed.

After a pause, I presented a question. Did he have a teacher? Someone that was like he was to me? I wanted to know if it was normal. Was I strange for caring so much about Matt?

To my surprise, he said he did. He had never spoken about him before, and I wondered why. I asked him about his teacher. What was he like? How did they meet? I had the thought that perhaps it was Julian. As I asked, I realized that I was prying.

He had never put his nose where it hadn’t belonged, and I worried I had. He laughed at the idea of Julian as his teacher, saying they would kill each other.

Soon, though, he had delved into his past, telling me the story. He warned me that he hadn't been the best guy in the world, and I listened attentively. I didn’t imagine him being in any sort of trouble so it was interesting to listen. He told me of his past, and how his parents died. It struck a chord with me, for it was something we shared. I didn’t actually know what happened to my father, but I tried not to think about it. He told me how they met, and how he wasn’t alive anymore.

I apologized, feeling his loss. I didn’t ask him how he died because I didn’t want to push him. He respected my privacy, so I would respect his. He had gained my attention now, despite my attempts to stay partially withdrawn. He asked me if I wanted to know about his death, and I jumped. I told him he could if he wanted, but that he didn’t have to. I was worried I had forced him into a situation where he felt he had to tell me.

My nervousness must have shown, for he smiled softly at me. Catching me off guard, he ruffled my hair affectionately, only to receive grumbles. I wondered why I let him get away with things like that. He looked unsure and sad. This was not a good story. Thinking of the time I had leaned on my brother’s knee when he was upset, I moved to do the same to Matt, showing him I was ready to listen. The only example of how to show I cared was with my brother, so I would do some similar things.

As he told the story of his teacher, I felt my heart begin to ache. I could see the story as if I was there, imagining a younger Matt leaning over his teacher. There were startling similarities between our stories. As I listened, I could see the pain in his eyes. They looked as if it was raining inside, a flash flood of emotion. Without understanding why, I began to cry. As he had done for me last night, I cried for him.

Why does life cause such cruel things to happen? Why is it that just when we’ve gotten back on our feet, when we finally feel safe, it washes it all away? When he finished, he was surprised to see me crying. He told me that it was okay, that it had happened a long time ago. I gave him a hug anyway, holding him tight. He buried his face in my hair, hugging me back.

After a moment he pulled away. He told me the point of the story was to not blame yourself. He had brought on the bandits, but it wasn’t all his fault. I was still feeling guilty about my brother, but I understood what he was saying. I gave him a small smile, hoping to reassure him I was okay. He gave me one back, before commenting that we should get some sleep.

Julian was asleep, and so I decided to do something silly. Trying to make Matt laugh, I stuck out Ozzie’s head. I made the little octopus wave to him, and he suppressed a chuckle. It was good to see him laugh again, and I was reassured that he was okay. We said our goodnights, settling in. As we snuggled into our respective bags, I thought about love.

I didn’t know if I could love someone again, if it was even possible. Still, I thought to myself, if I was going to love someone it should be him. He never pushed on my barriers, but they just seemed to melt away. I had felt something the first day we met in that bar, and it had only grown since then.

It seemed absurd to love someone in less than a week, but we were unusual people. We didn’t fit the status quo, and that was okay with us. He had already claimed a piece of my heart, the glowing embers. He had made it through today, and had made me feel like I had more control. We knew about each other’s past now, and I felt more balanced on the scale. I figured if I had to love anyone in this world, I couldn’t have picked a better person than Matt.

As I felt my eyes grow heavy, my subconscious promised sweet dreams tonight. My brother and Matt had taken up residence in my dreams now, driving away every shadow. They filled my dreams with light, blazing with brilliance. And just like a fire, the sparks I felt for Matt grew. He had blown on them gently tonight, and they were spreading. They had caught fire on the material around them, and had created a small fire. It burned inside of my heart, warm and bright.

Soon I drifted off to sleep, listening to the fire crackle.

Matt woke me with the sun like he usually did. I battered at him ineffectually, but got up, stretching. He attempted to nudge Julian awake with his boot as I ate a granola bar, but he wouldn’t move. I wondered if I was about to see someone else get dowsed with water.

Suddenly Julian’s hand shot out, grabbing Matt’s ankle and making him fall right on his butt. I burst out laughing, watching him get up with an incredulous look on his face.

We set off on the road, laughing as Matt grumbled. When we stopped for water I pulled Julian aside.

“I just wanted to say that you were right. Don’t ever tell him I said this, but I do love him. Just saying.”

He laughed, throwing his arms around me in another unexpected hug.

“Dude!” I exclaimed, irritated, “Stop hugging me! Haven’t you ever heard of personal space?”

Matt chuckled from behind us, saying, “He hasn’t. Julian would know personal space if it smacked him in the head. But you could try hitting him anyway.”

I pried myself away, laughing at his comment. Julian sulked in the corner, before deciding to give Matt a punch in the arm.

Now pouting, he said, “Why does everyone hurt me all of the time? I don’t see you guys hitting each other.”

We chuckled, and continued walking. This was nice. I had two friends with me, one who I loved and one I respected in at least a tiny way. Despite being a ridiculous guy, Julian was pretty insightful, and I was grateful for him showing me how much I cared about Matt.

We bid our farewells just outside of the town, and I let him hug me one last time, even putting an uncomfortable arm around him.

“Don’t get into trouble now, okay? Don’t let him boss you around. He’s just a wuss. Someone needs to insult him while I’m not around or he will get confident. So tease him a bit.” He said to me.

I gave him a smile and nodded.

“You’ve found someone very special to love, kid. Take care of him, and let him take care of you.”

I gave him a pat on the shoulder, saying, “I know. And I will. Thanks again.”

He went over to Matt and said his goodbyes. Who knew when we would see him again? There was a lot of road in the world. We waved as he left, calling out to be safe.

As we walked into town to look for a motel, I looked up at the sky. Dark clouds were rolling in, ominous and filled with malevolent intentions.

“Those don’t look so good,” I commented to Matt, and he looked up.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “We’ll be inside before anything happens. It’s going to be a lot of rain it looks like, but it shouldn’t last more than a few hours. Do storms bother you?”

I turned away, suddenly feeling childish.

“Well, I’m not too fond of lightning.”

He said, “I’m not too fond of thunder. It doesn’t make me jump, but it isn’t my favorite type of weather.”

We walked on, and I felt a little bit reassured. About the weather, of course, but that it seemed like Matt really didn’t care if I was scared of anything. I could be who I wanted to be with him, and it made me happier than I could ever describe.

We headed back out to town from the motel, Matt speaking with the locals. After he was done, we hung around. We browsed the town for a while, but scurried for cover when it began to rain. We took refuge in our rooms, watching television and talking about animals.

The past few days had been idyllic, and it made me wonder how my life went from sucking to being full of joy. I was watching an old western again, using Matt as a pillow. At first, I had worried it would have been awkward, but he acted like nothing was out of the ordinary.  Matt was telling me how close he thought I was to awakening, that it would be anytime within the next few weeks. I wasn’t really listening, focused on the movie. As it ended, the hero ran off into the sunlight, leaving behind a forlorn lover.

“Hey,” I called, suddenly thinking. “What are we going to do when I awaken? Are we just going to keep going to towns? Maybe I can help you with what you do!”

Matt was silent, and I twisted to look at him.

“Matt?” I asked, wondering what was wrong.

“I…” he trailed off, suddenly quiet.

I looked at him with a frown, concerned and confused.

“I didn’t think you would stay after you had your awakening.” He finally said.

I sat back, bewildered.

“What do you mean? Where else would I go?”

He was scaring me now, and I wondered if his feelings had been true after all.

“I told you already. Drifters don’t stay together. Once you’ve found the way, you go off to find others. Once you awaken it makes more sense.” He tried, attempting to soothe me.

“What is wrong with you? Don’t act like you understand! I thought maybe you did after last night, but it’s clear to me now that you don’t.”

He looked stunned, trying to figure out his course of action.

“If you didn’t want me to be with you, just say so! Don’t blame it on the path. I don’t need you to take pity on me. God knows I’ve had enough of that already.”

I was on my feet now, infuriated. How could he act like this now? Was it something I did? I had thought I loved him, and that he loved me. Had Julian been wrong? He hadn’t seen him in a long time. How could I have been so stupid? I let my feelings get in the way of seeing things. This was just an arrangement. Matt didn’t want to babysit me forever, only until he had seen me safely to the other side. It was his job. I was just another part of his job.

He leaped to defend himself, saying, “It’s not like you can’t come with me! I just didn’t think you would want to! I only said it because nobody has ever stayed before. I’m not trying to shove you away! Don’t think I wanted to get rid of you! I’ve never met a pair of drifters before. It’s not that normal, that's all.”

His words fell on deaf ears. I was livid, but I was also despairing. The little fire in my heart was going out, for it didn’t have any more fuel.

“You don’t want me around, okay? Look, I get it. You’re older, I’m a teenager. We’re too different. Don’t pretend for my sake!”

He tried to say my name, but I interrupted him.

“Stop it! You could at least have the decency to admit it!”

I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, my tone becoming progressively more bitter and cold.

“Look, calm down! I don’t know what happened in the past ten minutes with you, but this isn’t getting us anywhere.”

Damn those eyes of his and that calming voice.

“You can’t just expect me to be happy about everything, Matt! Don’t tell me to calm down when you were the one who caused it. First you don’t even want to stay, and then you can’t admit it to me! I was going to tell you I loved you tonight! What was I thinking?”

He stood shocked for a moment, and his eyes softened.

“Oh, Veronica,” he said, reaching for me.

I thought it a sign of pity, and I was through with that. All of my life I have been looked down on, pitied and seen with disdain. No, I thought to myself, I would never let someone do that to me again.

“Don’t you touch me!” I growled at him, springing away from his stretched out arm.

A flash of lighting came through the windows, illuminating our faces. I flinched, the blinding light startling me. I had never done well with thunder storms. I couldn’t stay here anymore, for I could already feel the tears cascade down my cheeks. Life had once again destroyed the only things I loved. Or perhaps it was all me?

Before he could protest, I ran through the door. I didn’t know where I was going; only that it couldn’t be here. I didn’t want to hear his sugary sweet words convince me that it was okay for me to leave. If I couldn’t hear them then I couldn’t be swayed by them.

The storms intensity was picking up. The wind whipped around, blowing in the rest of the clouds. It was raining, but it wasn’t especially heavy. Matt was coming down the stairs as I busted through the door, much to the shock of the employees at the front desk.

“Veronica, wait!” he called, “Let’s work this out! I’m sorry if I was insensitive! Please come back!”

I ran as fast as I could, my legs burning and threatening to buckle under me. If I could lose him, he wouldn’t be able to sense me. I rounded every corner I could, once slipping down an alley. I saw him run by across the street, and sank down once he left.

I felt bad, because he had seemed so frantic. But I didn’t want to go back now. I didn’t want to hear those heart breaking words come out of his mouth again. What little was left of my heart thumped painfully against my chest, and my lungs ached with every breath I drew. Didn’t he love me? I could have sworn he did after last night. He had cried for me the morning of the nightmare. Shouldn’t that mean he cared? I was so confused. Why did life send me such an amazing, blissful experience, only to tear it down viscously?

I didn’t want him to leave. But he never said he would, I thought. Another thought sounded, opposite of the first. He said that it wasn’t normal to be together. That he had never seen any pairs before. The first one again. But he said it’s not like I couldn’t go. He wanted to apologize, he's looking for me. The battle raged inside my head, thoughts switching back and forth between positive and negative. I could hear him calling my name faintly, looking far off.

I didn’t know what to do. He had always been able to fix every problem I had, taken on every challenge. It seemed so uncharacteristic for him to leave me if I wanted him. He had seemed so concerned at the hotel, and now he was chasing after me in the rain.

The storm was getting worse by the minute, the rain coming down more heavily now. The lightning scared me, and I just wanted to lie in our hotel room and watch stupid movies. I wanted to tell stupid jokes to Matt, to sing, to dance, to laugh. I wanted nothing more than to be in his arms again, hearing him comfort me. Even if it was a lie, it was what I wanted. Still, I didn’t believe he would lie to me now.

Julian couldn’t have been wrong. We didn’t have to be normal. We were never normal, right from the start. We could challenge the status quo. We hadn’t had problems doing it before. I got up, peeking around the alley for Matt.

“Hey there,” I heard a voice call from behind me.

I whirled around, seeking the voice’s owner. It was hard to see in the gloom, but it appeared there were about 4 guys standing there. Oh, no, I thought to myself. These men couldn’t have been good guys. Nobody normal wandered around in the rain at night, especially not in groups. Where had Matt gone? I couldn’t hear him now, and I feared the worst.

A flash illuminated the alley, allowing me to survey the situation. There were four, and they were big. Not so much the same kind of strong as Matt, but more the strong that’s all power but no staying strength. Still, there was no way I could take on all four of them if they decided to make a move.

“Hi,” I said cautiously.

Maybe I could back away slowly. I didn’t want to make them mad yet, for it would only make my situation dire. Every moment I spent here could be a moment Matt came back. At the same time, every moment could be drawing him away. This situation had the possibility to escalate to violence, and extremely quickly.

“Your hair is beautiful. Did anyone ever tell you that?”

Crap. These guys were definitely out to get only one thing. That was not a simple complement. I needed to get out of here, and fast. I took a step back out into the street, wondering if I should just bolt.

“Come on, where are you going sweetheart? We’re not gonna hurt you. We just want to talk.”

Yeah right. You wouldn’t talk if I gave you truth serum.

“Look, I really need to be somewhere. I have a friend waiting for me who wouldn’t be too happy if I was late.”

The one in front, ring leader it looked like, smiled again, taking another step towards me.

“You have a friend? Is that why you were curled up against a wall in the middle of a gigantic storm? If I didn’t know any better, I would say you’re just trying to get away from us. Right boys?”

They all jeered behind him. I was walking backwards steadily now, ready to sprint. Matt had to be around here somewhere right? Or perhaps I could find shelter in a building? They wouldn’t do anything with other people around.

But the alley I had chosen was awfully secluded, and the darkest place in the city. I cursed myself quietly. Of course, I had picked the most dangerous area possible for my hiding place. I wanted to scan for Matt, but I didn’t want to take my eyes away from the figures in front of me.

The  ringleader was getting too close now, and I turned to get away. I was a fast runner, especially now that I was stronger from walking on the path. But I had waited too long, and he snatched out, grabbing my wrist.

“Not so fast, little bird. Don’t fly away.”

I gasped as he crushed my wrist in his hand, leaving bruises. But I was quick on my feet from so many years of torment at my school. Nobody had ever tried something like this, but there had been attempted pranks.

Whipping around as fast as the lightning around us, I threw out a foot, catching him in the groin. He dropped to the ground like a stone, and I took the chance to flee. I sprang away with excessive force, running like a wild boar. The others were chasing me now, and they were unexpectedly fast. They were taller, and so they took bounds where I took steps. Still, I managed to keep them off my tail.

I was searching frantically for any sign of Matt. Where was he? This town wasn’t that large. It wasn’t until it was too late that I realized they were herding me. I had thought myself clever and quick, evading them. But now as I saw the first man in sight again, I realized I had made a fatal error. As I slowed, one of them crashed into me, pinning me to the ground.

“Gotcha!” he whispered into my ear, his breath making my skin shiver with revulsion.

“Get off of me, you filthy pig!” I shouted.

I was done with this situation. If I didn’t get to Matt in the next minute or so, I didn’t even want to know what was going to happen.

“Matt!” I screamed, as loud as I could.

My voice was drowned out by the roaring wind and the clashes of thunder. I elbowed the man, catching him in the stomach. With my lungs free from weight, I tried again.

“MATT! Matt, where are you?”

I screeched over the howling of the storm, my voice carrying this time.

“Veronica?” I heard faintly.

“Matt! Help! I’m over here! There’s a bunch of guys!”

The man I had elbowed covered my mouth with his hand, pressing me against his body. I bit him savagely, and tasted metallic blood.

“Matt!” I yelled again, and then I saw him come into view.

Quite a ways away, he stood against the storm. It was difficult to see, but I could tell from his height it was him. Suddenly, I was hoisted up on the guys shoulder. I tried to wriggle free, slamming my fists into his back. He was running to a truck across the alley, cursing at me. I was thrown into it violently. I felt my head ram into the metal back. The truck was some sort of moving vehicle, for people’s furniture.

Despite being wobbly, I crawled my way to the entrance. Matt was close now, but was faced with two opponents. He looked to me frantically, and I tried to crawl out.

“Francis, Louie, take care of this punk. We got the girl. I’ll meet you back at base.”

And then, the door closed. I was left with the two men, both glaring down at me. The one I had bitten walked up to me, and before I could say anything, slapped me across my right cheek. It stung, the pain of the lash not expected. I didn’t cry despite the pain. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.

“Bet you’re not so tough now, are you?”

I lashed out at him with my foot, hoping to catch him off guard. The ringleader restrained me, slapping something cold onto my wrists. Metal handcuffs. The second guy tried to come near me, but was too scared to get into range. After seeing what I had done to the ringleader, he wasn’t eager to share the same fate.

The first man bent down over me, away from my feet. Carefully lifting my face, he examined the welt that was forming. He frowned, looking at the other man.

“You know the boss doesn’t like it when you hit their face. It ruins the appearance. It looks like she won’t have any major damage, but it will be swollen for a while. He won’t be happy.”

The man shrugged, giving me a glare that I returned. The ringleader turned my face to him.

“You’re a spunky one. That’s fun. But still, you’re a bit too wild. Don’t worry, we’ll fix that. In no time you’ll be just like everyone else.”

He expected some fear, maybe tears. I spit in his face. He jumped back, and I smirked. He drew a hand back, but paused. He pinched his nose.

“I can’t ruin your pretty face just yet. But fair warning, you better learn to knock it off. There are much worse people out there than me.”

I snarled at him, wild and aggressive. I wouldn’t show them I was scared, no matter how terrified I became. They stopped once more, after about 30 minutes of driving. The men got out, and didn’t return for about ten minutes. I used this time to try and find anything to escape with.

But all of the windows were boarded up, the metal solid, and nothing to attempt to pick the lock on the handcuffs with. Maybe I could leave a trail for Matt? The only things I had in my pockets were change. He would never see it in the dark. Looking at my undershirt, I realized it was neon green. Using a part of the handcuffs that had worn away and become sharp, I desperately tried to rip off a piece. Finally freeing it, I slid over to the opening of the truck.

I was terrified they were going to find me there, and take away my only means of a trail. I slipped it to the corner of the truck, leaning on my side. This way the cloth would fall out when they opened the door, and hopefully they wouldn’t spot it. As I hastened to get back to my spot, I barely made it. They came back just as I had leaned back against the wall.

They lifted another girl onto the truck. She was small, birdlike, and had black hair with startlingly blue eyes. I glanced over to where the piece of my shirt was, and was relieved to see it on the ground behind them. I would do this whenever I could. They shut the door again, moving to the front with the driver. I attempted to speak to the shaking girl, but she couldn’t understand me. It seemed she only spoke Chinese. I tried to speak with gestures, but it was too hard with my hands handcuffed behind my back.

We stopped two more times. Once for a bathroom break which I refused, and once because the girl had been pounding against the door until they handcuffed her like they did me. Each time I tore off a piece, and barely made it in time to lay back. If they caught on, they would take a different route. When we stopped a third time, they hauled us out.

There appeared to be a small camp of only a few guys, probably totaling 10 if you counted the two they left behind. We had arrived at a small building, an abandoned storage structure. Screaming and kicking, I was the difficult one to carry. The ringleader had thought it best to take me so I wasn’t hit again. He held my legs in an iron grip, and he pressed my face against his shoulder to muffle my shouts. He smelled of sweat and fish. The camp had gone relatively quiet now, and they were gathering around to see the new “guests.” This was sick.

They brought us to the front, dropping us to the ground none to gently. I immediately noticed the tall figure in front of us, as all eyes were on him.

“What did you bring to me today, boys?” he asked, and I felt the chills go down my spine.

I knew that voice, but I couldn’t figure out why. He turned, and my world suddenly froze.

“Well, well, well,” he said ominously, “If it isn’t Veronica. So nice to see you drop by.”

I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t hear, and my heart didn’t beat. For he was standing in front of me, alive and well.

There, smiling at me, disfigurement still running down his face, was my father.

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