I woke up sitting in a wooden chair with my hands tied behind my back. The first thing I noticed as I regained consciousness was the dull ache throbbing at the base of my skull. Then there was a brief mental delay, a little bit of that fumbling around, not knowing where I was or how I got there. And as soon as I tried to move my head, to get a sense of my surroundings, my neck shot white-hot currents of pain throughout my body while my mind automatically retraced the moments leading up to where I was right now.
The cabin, the road flares, Sarah. I tried to make sense of what had happened, to look for some sort of a pattern. It had to have been premeditated, right? This whole thing had to have been a setup. But why were we the ones targeted, and how …
“Help,” I heard it in the distance. At least, it sounded like it was saying “help.” It was a woman’s voice, that much was clear, but the voice was muffled, as if whoever was moaning in the distance was gagged.
Could it have been Sarah? Why wasn’t I gagged? My mind started to race with all sorts of questions and hypothetical scenarios, to the point where I had to consciously force myself for the first time to take stock of my present situation.
I was in a dark room, almost pitch black, really. Judging by the musty smell, I figured I was in a basement. And if there were any windows, it had to have been nighttime, although without really being able to see anything, that was nothing more than a guess. The only visible light came through the outline of a door at what must have been the far wall.
It could have been an hour or more that I just sat there, too afraid to make any type of move. My instincts were screaming at me to figure a way out, to fight through the pain and try to take action. But I couldn’t shut the voice off in my head, the one whispering “what ifs.”
Like, what if whoever tied me up here wound up coming in right as I struggled to break free? Would my captors be upset? Would I be punished? What if I made it out of this room only to find something worse on the other side?
I sat paralyzed for a while, the wailing voice in the distance crying out every ten minutes or so. Finally I overcame whatever it was keeping me from moving. I flexed my arms behind my back to test the strength of the fabric keeping my hands bound together. It felt like a cotton rag, or a scarf, and even though it was tied pretty tight around my wrists, I was surprised at how just easily the knots came undone after only a little bit of struggling.
Now that my hands were free, I stood up, too quickly it seemed, because the pain in the back of my neck blossomed outward, it felt like a liquid neon punch to the gut, followed by a doubling back to the source, right to where the rock hit the back of my head. I was overwhelmed with a dizziness and nausea that forced me back down.
I got up again, slowly this time, one hand keeping myself steady on the back of the chair. The pain in my stomach dissipated and I could feel that my pants were damp, leading me to believe I’d most likely lost control of my bladder hours earlier.
With my hands stretched out before me, I slowly took a couple of steps toward the glowing outline of the door ahead of me. Just then there was a break in the light, the shadow of someone passing by on the other side. This time I didn’t have the opportunity to stand there and imagine all of the ways this could get any worse. I automatically took action and, while trying not to make any sounds that would give away my position, I sidled up to the wall, right next to the door.
It felt like my heart was exceeding my chest’s capacity to keep it held inside. With my head against the wall, I stood there for a while, listening for any movement on the other side. After I was as sure as I was going to be that whoever was out there was gone, I pressed against the wooden door, which I assumed would have been locked. Again, there wasn’t really any resistance. I just pushed it a little bit, and it opened up to two perpendicular hallways.
I was definitely in some sort of basement, the walls were nothing but unfinished rows of crumbling cinderblocks. The space was illuminated by a few bare yellow incandescent light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, spaced out about every ten feet or so.
“Help,” I heard the muffled cry again, coming from the left hallway. I checked both directions to see if anyone was nearby, and then tiptoed toward where it sounded like the noise was coming from.
At the other end of that hallway there was another door. I pressed my palms against the rotting wood and, just like back where I was being held, the door swung open. In the center of the room, there she was, it was Sarah. She was tied to a chair just like I was, and she flinched away from the sudden exposure to the light.
“No, help, please!” she started to scream through the rag tied around her mouth to the back of her neck.
“Sarah, Jesus … Sarah, be quiet, it’s me,” I whispered as I knelt down beside her.
“Help!” she continued to cry out.
I grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her back and forth.
“Sarah, be quiet. It’s me,” I said, still whispering, right into her ear. “Let’s get out of here,” I told her as I undid the knot behind her head. The chair that she was tied to had wooden armrests, and each wrist was bound with some sort of twine, making it a little more difficult to break loose. I patted my pockets to see if I could use my keys to rip through the twine, but there was nothing inside, no keys, no wallet.
After a few unsuccessful minutes trying to undo the knots with my hands, I knelt down and started biting at the twine, chewing away each of the individual fibers. Once her arms were free, I grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her to her feet. That’s when she let out another cry.
“I can’t. I think it’s my ankle,” she started sobbing.
“Be quiet, please, just don’t make any noise. I think someone was walking around in the hallway. Can you put any weight on it?”
She put her right foot to the ground and then immediately backed off, suppressing a whimper at the obvious pain.
“OK,” I said, “so it’s got to be either broken or sprained, I can’t see anything. Do you know who did this? What about your other leg, can you walk?”
“I don’t know, and yeah, I think I can walk if you can hold me up on this side.”
I got around her on the side, grabbed her right arm and draped it over my shoulder. I’ve got like a good four of five inches on her, so it wasn’t easy to get going. I had to stay crouched, and she must have been in a lot of pain, because she was really struggling in between steps.
“Babe, we’ve got to move a lot faster than this,” I told her.
“I’m trying,” she said.
“I know you’re trying, but we have to try harder, OK? If someone comes after us, we’ve got to be able to move, you know? This isn’t going to work.”
We hobbled over to the door and entered the hallway. It was still empty. There didn’t seem to be any exit over this way, so I pointed in the opposite direction.
“This way,” I said, and led us back toward the other hallway.
It took much longer than it should have to get to the end, but there was a door leading to a set of almost completely rotten wooden stairs. The pain must have really been getting to Sarah, because her whimpering was getting louder, even as I insisted that she stay quiet. All she could do was nod in response, while she took a few deep breaths to try and calm herself down.
At the top of the stairs there was another door, no light shining underneath from the other side. I pushed it open and we walked into the ground floor of an old shed, something connected on one side to a much larger structure. There were long glass windows along one side. I ran over the far end of the shed, there was a wooden door that was locked.
I kicked it a few times, but it must have been padlocked from the other side. I thought about trying to kick through the wood, but I didn’t want to risk drawing any attention to anyone that might have still been inside. I made my way to the windows and felt around for a latch. There were two of them, one on each side. I popped them out and the window came loose in the frame.
“OK, Sarah,” I said, “I can either lift you through first, or I can go first and then pull you up after me. What do you think would be easier?”
“I think … I don’t know,” she said.
I looked around for anything that I might be able to pull over to the window, something for Sarah to stand on. But it was too dark, I couldn’t tell if any of the boxes or furniture would make too much noise if I started dragging things around.
“Here,” I said, bending down and grabbing Sarah by the waist.
“Wait, hold on, I don’t think I can …”
“Just hold on!” I told her again as I hoisted her up and shoved her through the rectangular opening. She struggled and tried to grab hold of the frame as she fell up and over the side. But she didn’t have a grip, and I felt the weight of her body jerk upward before falling through to the outside.
She screamed when she hit the ground. I stuck my head through and, in my loudest possible whisper, I told her, “Sarah, just please, shut up! You’re going to get us both killed!”
She didn’t stop. It was like she simultaneously catching her breath in between long, gasping sobs. I reached up and grabbed the bottom of the window frame, lifting myself up through the rectangular opening. When I jumped outside, Sarah still laid there on the ground, crying.
I went to grab her by the shoulders again, to try to shake some sense in her like I did back in the basement, but when I touched her arm it felt warm, wet.
“Are you bleeding?” I asked her. I still couldn’t see anything.
“When you pushed me out the window,” Sarah managed to choke out in between her cries, “there was something sharp.”
I ran my hands back up along the wall, and yeah, there was a nail protruding just below the window frame. Sarah must have gotten caught up on her way down. I thought about finding the wound, applying pressure, figuring out some way to stop the bleeding. But just then a bright floodlight went on from the shed. It was pointed right at us.
“Sarah, we have to go, now,” I said. I tried lifting her up, but her body wasn’t cooperating. It was like dead weight in my hands. “Sarah, I’m not fucking around here, we have to run.”
“I can’t,” she moaned. “I’m trying. My leg.”
I looked up toward the house and I could see the figure of someone backlit by the floodlight. He was just standing there. I made one last attempt to get us out of there. I bent down, I picked Sarah up in my arms, and I got going.
I didn’t know where we were. It seemed like the woods, the middle of nowhere. There were no lights. And while I had Sarah in my arms, I could feel her weight slowing me down. I wasn’t moving nearly as fast as I knew we needed to be, and after a few more minutes, my arms felt like they were about to give, like I couldn’t hold her any longer.
I set her on the ground. “Sarah,” I said.
I couldn’t see her face. She said to me, “Wait … don’t …”
I could hear footsteps closing in. “I’m sorry,” I said, and took off running. As I got some distance, I could hear her crying start to subside, and then there was a scream.
The woods were deep, and I had no idea where I was headed. My throat cried out for water, my head felt like it was about to pop, and after blindly stepping through a little stream, my feet were soaked through.
I continued forward for what felt like hours until, finally, I emerged onto a paved surface. It had to have been a road, although I didn’t know where it led, or which way I needed to start walking.
Randomly I decided on a direction and made sure to stay as close to the shoulder as possible. The road went on for what felt like forever. As far as I knew, it could have been ten or twenty miles until I’d come upon anything, a town, or a junction. But I didn’t have a choice here, I just had to keep walking.
Eventually I saw a pair of headlights in the distance. They were there, then they disappeared, and then they popped back up again. It must have been a mountain road, and it looked like the car was headed toward me fast. How could I get it to notice me without getting run over?
I planted my feet in the middle of the road and waved my hands in the air as the car approached. It still didn’t look like it was slowing down, and right before it was about to run me over, I jumped back into the shoulder.
It worked. The car screeched to a stop, fishtailing around until it almost faced the other direction. I walked out from the shoulder toward the pair of headlights shining in my face that made it impossible for me to make anything out. That’s when the car’s red and blue lights went on. It was a police cruiser. I almost started crying at my good luck.
Inside the car, the officer said to me, “You’re that kid from last night. How’d you wind up out here?” There was something about his tone, like didn’t really seem that surprised at finding me.
I said, “That was you? I’m telling you, someone’s out there, someone … a real psycho. I’m like … I told you. The road flares, remember? They took my girlfriend? And then I got to the cabin and …”
“Hold on son,” the cop said, “you’re going to have to slow down.”
“Back at the cabin …” I said.
“You’re saying you got back to the cabin last night, and there were more road flares set up? And then you woke up in some basement somewhere?” he said.
I looked up at the cop. I hadn’t told him anything yet. He was just smiling out at the two-lane mountain road ahead. He took his right hand off the steering wheel and grabbed the gun out of his holster.
“I wouldn’t go trying anything stupid,” he said to me matter-of-factly.
I thought about trying to open the door. I thought about trying to grab the gun out of his hand. I even thought about just yanking the steering wheel as hard as I could. But ultimately I wound up not doing anything. I couldn’t, I was frozen. I just sat there for a while.
“Why did you …” I started to say, but couldn’t think of what question to ask.
“Why did I? What’s that?” he said. “Why did I kidnap you? Your girlfriend? I don’t know, why does anybody do anything?”
“I don’t get it though,” I said. “What about last night? When I was at the police station? Why’d you make me go all the way to the cabin?”
“Yeah,” he said, “I guess the theatrics were a little unnecessary. The road flares, the creepy shed. I don’t know, maybe I just get off on the fun of it, the middle of the woods, it’s all pretty scary, right? Tell me you weren’t scared.”
“What about Sarah?” I asked.
“Sarah. What about Sarah? I can’t believe you just left her there. I mean, I’m the psycho here, but that was just cold. But what are you going to do, right? Fight or flight? I didn’t expect you to just take off. Well … I guess it makes my job a little easier.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Well, now it’s easier for me to make this all look like you killed her.”
“That’s crazy, I didn’t …”
“Yeah, you didn’t, that’s terrific. Well I’m a cop, and so I guess it’s just your story versus mine.”
“Your story?” I said, “You don’t have a story.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. I mean, your girlfriend disappears, I find you in the cabin, she’s all tied up, you take off into the woods. And then I find you walking along the road here? I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll have to iron out any inconsistencies. But that sounds like a pretty convincing story to me.”
“That’s crazy,” I said, my heart rate started to pick up.
“Yeah well, I’m a pretty well respected guy around town, so people are probably going to be calling you the crazy one. I’m just saying, it’s not looking too good for you.”
We drove in silence for a little while, and then I asked, “Sarah. Is she still alive?”
He just smiled. “You’ll probably have a long time ahead of you to think about that. Is she still alive? She could be. Who knows? Maybe she’s tied up somewhere. Or maybe she’s dead.”
I panicked. I tried to open the door, but it was locked. The cop only laughed a little before whacking the side of my head with the butt of his pistol. Right before I passed out, I felt a warm trickle of blood start to fall down my face, pooling in the corner of my lips.