From an unconsciousness as deep as non-existence, Iris’s eyes flashed open. For a moment she thought she was blind. She blinked and turned her head but there was nothing but pitch blackness. A ripple of fear traveled through her body and reflexively she sat up only to be thrust down into the sour, dusty floor when her head smashed into cold steel. A flash of pain shot through her head, and as she reached up to touch the growing knot, her arm brushed metal. Where was she?
Stifling her terror, Iris extended her arms as if she could see with her hands, tactically visualizing her surroundings. First, leaves. Then dirt. Little sour smelling pebbles that were rolling across something damp below her palms. Reaching further, her hands found wires that were attached to the side of her metal prison. As if lightning had flashed, briefly illuminating the darkness, she knew she was in a trunk.
Her pulse raced and suddenly the air seemed like it was smothering her. “Think!” her mind cried as she tried to remain calm. Panic would be no good here. She had to escape. Now. She had no idea how long she’d been unconscious but if she was going to survive, she needed to act now. She remembered from some self-defense class years before, that a trunk could be opened by force from the inside, if the jack was available.
Iris groped along the edge of the carpet until her fingers dug into the edge of the stiff plastic lid that housed the spare tire below. The problem was, she was laying in the trunk and as she lifted the edge of the cover, she fought against her own body’s weight. No good. Iris rolled her body as far back as she could and tried again. This time, she was able to reach her arm through the narrow opening. She felt the jack. The plastic cut her arm as she twisted and maneuvered the clunky tool upward, eventually forcing it out of its hiding spot with a pop.
She was in luck. This was the same crank type jack that was in her father’s Buick. She remembered one afternoon having watched him change a flat tire and replicated in the dark trunk, from memory, the process of inserting the tire iron into the slot and turning it like a jack-in-the-box to raise the platform. In no time it had contacted the roof, near the latch. She turned the bar until the latch gave way, with a noise so loud it could have been a gunshot. Her ears rang so loudly that she could not tell if anyone had heard it, and might be rushing to re-capture her.
Iris knelt deaf, as her eyes tried to regain focus. The moon was waxing full, and for a moment the pale light stung at her eyes. As a clearing appeared around her, she could see that no one was coming. With a shudder of relief, she lifted one leg, then the other over the flaking chrome bumper of the Dodge, grateful to be standing on solid ground. As her eyes adjusted, she searched for her safest route of escape. Peering back at the open trunk, she saw the source of the dirt. Her trunk companion had been a filthy spade. She had to get out of here fast.
The old car was parked on the edge of a large clearing, surrounded by dense red pine. There were no hills visible through the tall canopy and no electric lights visible through the stands. Above her head, the big dipper taunted its ability to reveal north. Its cup, clearly visible, and the handle of its lesser counterpart aligned to reveal Polaris, however this was of no use without a single reference point or heading to seek. There were several trails that led into the woods. Iris opted for the most open path, simply because it offered the most light. She had no clue if it was going to lead her to help, but she felt certain that if she stayed with the car, she was not going to survive the night.
Her bare feet sunk as she stepped into the cover of the trees and onto the thick mats of fragrant pine needles. Quietly, cautiously, she made her way into the unknown, scanning as far ahead as she could see, for any sign of humanity; benevolent or otherwise. She stopped periodically to listen for the footfalls of whoever had brought her to this place, but only the chirping of crickets and the occasional cries of whip-poor-will broke the silence. How had she gotten here?
As she walked, she scoured her mind for the answer. The last thing she remembered was the lake. She had been at the lake. Cam was there. So were Angie, Todd, and Mai. Just like they were every weekend. It was not always the same party-goers. But it was a small group this time. They’d driven in Mai’s car; a sultry vintage Chrysler with a drop top. It fit her well and it was a treat when she took it out of storage and risked chipping that stock paint job on a country ride. They’d arrived and met Ricky and his sidekick Justin, who were already half way through a six pack. Just another weekend at Upper Crescent Lake.
It was not even a good one. Empowered by Ricky’s social status, and loosened with liquor, Justin had begun to make clumsily embarrassing moves on Angie. Angie’s passive demeanor only encouraged Justin, who had zero chance in the world of any of the hot Angie action he was imagining. At the same time, Mai had engaged Cam in deep conversation. She liked him, which was no secret. But the two had an uncanny synchronicity and under the full moon the conversation had become a two-person event. So much for the party.
Ricky was a regular at weekend parties, but neither Iris nor Todd really hung out with him. He and Justin had gone to a different high school then the rest of the group, and as far as she knew, neither went on to college. In fact, she did not know if they had even graduated high school. Ricky was best known for his musical talents. He was a spectacular vocalist as well as a fair guitarist. From many weekends, she had become familiar with the songs he sung, so much so that she could predict the inflection of his words. But tonight, was a bust. She had little to talk about with Ricky and Todd had little to talk about with either of them. So, they sat on a log by the fire, sipped beer, and pretended to not listen in on the lucky, or unlucky couples.
Iris knew that she’d need to find a way back besides Mai’s slick ride or she’d be spending the night sleeping near the boat dock. There was no chance that Mai would be sober enough to drive before morning. Ricky probably noticed her disappointed gaze in Mai’s direction because he spoke up. “Hey, do you and Todd need a ride back to town?” he offered. “I’m out of beer. I’m going back anyhow.” Iris looked at Todd, who looked anxiously at Angie and Justin. “No thanks bro, I’ll ride back with Mai.” Clearly, he could not leave Justin alone with her. Iris saw her escape route open up. “Are you sure it’s no problem?” she asked Ricky. “None,” he answered, “Let’s get out of here. I gotta make the liquor store before it closes.”
Iris had hardly given it a thought before getting into Ricky’s black Silverado and in a few minutes, she had said a quick goodbye to the group and was flying down the dark forested road towards town. But what had happened after that? No matter how hard Iris strained her thoughts she could not recall anything else. But she was pretty sure she never had made it to town. She was also pretty sure that Ricky had nothing to do with her ending up in the trunk of the old Dodge. Her mind dug helplessly to unearth the buried memories that had led up to the present but her mind was swimming in mud.
As her fragmented memories flickered in her fore-mind, a small cabin materialized ahead of her from the darkness. As she approached, she could see it was more of a shed. Perhaps a hunter’s retreat. The saltbox roof overhung to protect freshly cut firewood. There were no lights on and the cabin seemed all but deserted. Still, if a hunter had left a map, at least Iris thought she might be able to navigate her way to the nearest road and wave down a passing car. She peered into one of the crude four paned windows cautiously. It was no good. The light of the moon was so bright, and the cabin so dark that she felt like she was standing naked in front of a window with the lights on.
There was no choice but to go inside. Taking a deep breath, Iris slowly entered the cabin, without uttering a sound. She felt along the wall until she found a light switch and flipped it on. There was no power. Making her way along the wall in the moonlight her hip bumped into what felt like a table. Pay-dirt. Her hand found a box of matches and once she struck one, she could see the fat, multi wicked candle sitting on a plate on the table top. In seconds, the flames caught and the little room was bathed in dancing golden light. She was alone.
Relieved, Iris looked around inside. It was sparsely furnished. Just a table and two chairs sat by the window, which looked out to the front of the shack. The floor was sturdy, with wide wooden planks that were dark from years of use. On the far wall was an old, white, iron sink with a manual pump. Suddenly, Iris realized how thirsty she was. She ran to the sink and pumped the handle but not a gurgle of water came out. “The well probably dried up a century ago,” she thought to herself. She looked below and saw that the sink appeared to have a modern drain. It could not have been dry for that long. And the cabin was too clean to be long abandoned.
The sound of something outside broke through her thirsty thoughts. Someone was approaching the door. There was no way out. Iris dashed to the candle and blew it out. She spun around and dove towards the sink, slipping her tiny frame as deeply as she could behind the drainpipe. She was barely concealed by a little cloth curtain, placed to obscure the plumbing addition. She held her breath. She had no idea who the cabin belonged to but she was far too near the old Dodge to assume that the owner of the cabin and car were not one and the same. Best to wait and see who entered.
In the darkness, she could see the wicks of the candle still glowing as white, waxy, smoke coiled upward in front of the window. “Stupid!” she cursed herself. “Even if they don’t see me, they’ll smell I was here.” The door swung open, and in the door stood a man holding a lantern. He didn’t seem to notice the smell of the now spent wicks, and hung the lantern on a hook on the wall. He took off his jacket and hung it on the back of one of the chairs and lit the fat candle. He opened up a little cabinet above the sink and grabbed a warm beer bottle off of the shelf. He grabbed a lighter from inside his pocket and leveraged the cap off. His legs were so close to Iris that she could smell the dirty motor oil on him. His denim jeans were filthy and he wore heavy black boots. Iris held her breath. Her heart was pounding so hard against her ribs that it seemed he’d hear it. She covered her mouth and held as still as death as the man sat down at his table and leaned back.
It was hard to see in the dancing firelight but even from the back, he looked strangely familiar. He was a big man with long, light hair that fell over his shoulders and a squared jaw, covered in a thick beard. She could see tattoos on his arms but could not see what they were of. He farted. A long, loud one, too. He lifted one leg up as he pushed it out. And he laughed at himself. Iris tried not to react and wondered if she should be relieved. Surely, he would not do that if he knew she was there. Or perhaps he was that twisted. I know you’re hiding there. Smell my fart. What if he was a normal guy and she had just broken into his cabin. She flushed imaging how she would introduce herself to him while pretending she had not just witnessed him in a private moment, as a spy in his home.
She had little time to concern herself with the man’s bodily functions. Shortly after, he got up and walked to the door again, and lit a cigarette. The smoke wafted inside along with the fresh pine air. Iris wished she was out there and wondered if she could escape. She had already decided she was not about to start a conversation. She was leaving as soon as she was given the chance, if she was given the chance. As it happened, the thread of fate had already been spun. He did not shut the door. And outside in the moonlight, Iris saw the old Dodge with the flaking chrome bumpers, was parked outside.
The man disappeared behind the car and she heard the trunk pop open. Dammit. He had to know she was here. He was just toying with her, right? Iris watched in horror as he re-emerged around the side of the car, not alone, but with a woman. She assumed it was a woman, at least. The long, dark, hair fell in a cascade across her pale body but she was so covered in filth that it was hard to be certain. She was also unconscious and bound. Hauling dead weight, the man used the bindings on her wrists, behind her back, as if it were a handle. He dragged her in, pull by pull, cigarette hanging from his lips, ashes falling as he tugged.
Once he had her inside, he dropped her to the wood plank floor with a thud. It was a woman, all right. Her bare breasts flopped apart as her head turned towards the window. Iris could see her breathing. She was alive. The slam of the cabin door jolted Iris from her concern for the woman and refocused it on him. His face was visible now. She did know him. The liquor store. He was the man from the liquor store. He worked there. Not often, but there was no mistake. He worked at the store that Ricky and her were driving to. Driving to the night she could not remember. Somehow, he was responsible for what happened to both her and this poor woman. Possibly Ricky too. She could not remember.
“Rise and shine!” the man yelled, at the top of his lungs. The sound of beer splashing onto bare skin and wood followed. He was pouring the beer onto the woman’s face and shoving his boot to into her ribs. Iris cringed as the unconscious woman coughed and turned her face from the liquid. “You awake, there?” taunted the man. The woman’s gaze met his in disbelief and fear. “Good,” he chuckled. “It’s no fun if you’re not.” Iris wanted to crawl out of her skin. She wanted to launch across the room and stop him but she was no match for this huge man. She was unarmed. And the naked woman was bound. She could not fight. So instead, Iris hid. Under the sink and in her own mind.
She heard the man fumbling with his oversized belt buckle. She heard the pleas of the woman for him to stop, to please not hurt her. She’d do anything he said if he would let her go. She heard him laugh and say, “But if I let you go, you will tell someone. They always do.” Iris plunged her fingers into her ears so deeply that she thought they’d bleed and bit down on her knee as if she might cry out, but for the pain she inflicted on herself. It did not help. The muffled pleas and screaming, and the sounds of flesh pounding flesh and flesh pounding floor vibrated through Iris’s bones and into her soul. When it all finally was silent, she unplugged her ears just in time to hear the man spit as he exited the cabin.
She did not know how long he was gone before she found the courage to peer out from the tiny curtain. “Hey, are you okay?” She whisper-called out to the woman. There was no answer. Again, she called out, only a little louder than before. There was no response. Gathering the little emotional strength that she had left, Iris squeezed out from behind the drain and crawled, hands and knees, across the floor towards the motionless woman. The closer she came to the woman, laying still on the floor. Iris took the woman by the shoulder and shook her. She was warm to the touch. But there was no response. Touching her carotid artery, Iris found no pulse. She was too late. Or, she’d chosen to be too late to spare her own life. She couldn’t predict the future. But she’d hoped that primal urges had been the only thing on the man’s mind. There was no hope left.
Iris’s eyes welled with tears as she felt regret stabbing through her chest. The dark coils of hair fell across the woman’s face, and Iris brushed them back. And there she looked into her own eyes. Ice washing through her veins, she staggered back. She looked down on the bluing body that mirrored her in mockery. Iris had, again, refused to witness her own murder. The smell of copper hung heavy in the air and Iris screamed. Over and over until it seemed her lungs would explode. The man came back in and grabbed the woman’s body, Iris’s body, by its bound wrists once again, and dragged her, this time heels down, across the floor. It jostled with each transverse crossing of a wide dark plank, until they were outside again.
He hoisted her dead weight into the trunk of the Dodge Dart and drove down the path. Iris ran after it. The car, for a moment, was out of sight but she caught up. It had not gone too far before it had turned off into a small clearing off of the main trail. Her mind second guessed itself. The woman looked just like her. Was this her mind’s own past trauma obscuring some dark reality that Iris could not step forth to meet? Slipping behind one of the great red pines, Iris watched the man. He pulled out a large ring of keys and inserted one into the trunk. It stuck and he wiggled it angrily until it popped open. Iris swore that as the fading moonlight shone along the metal that she could see a dent near the trunk latch.
The man hoisted the bloodied corpse out of the trunk and it flopped onto the ground. This was not the man’s first rodeo. A shallow grave was already dug in this location. All he had to do was roll the corpse in, and cover it. Iris watched sullenly as he tossed shovelful over shovelful of damp, piney soil over her body until it was completely obscured. Then, he brushed over a foot of pine matting on top. A couple of hard rains to dislodge soil from pine and the grave would be lost. With that the man drove away. And Iris’s memories rose from the muddy earth.
How many times had she relived this night? How many nights would it take for her to act? He had killed her. She had disappeared and no one knew what had happened. Not just her. Other women. This monster was stealing their lives. He was a stock boy. Or a man. People had felt sorry for him. He was a bit slow, but seemed kind. And the Liquor store owner had given him a job. This job had not just given him an opportunity to make a little bit of money. It gave him the opportunity to act on those urges that no one had known about. He knew the woods.
When Ricky had gone into buy his beer so near closing time, there was just one clerk. Iris was in the truck waiting, falling asleep in her seat, when he struck. With the skill of a practiced hunter, he had spirited her away. She was not sure if he had choked her or used something like chloroform, but it did not matter. He had killed her and she had relived this death every night. She did not know for how long. It was a cycle that she could not seem to escape. But it was not the same sequence each night. At least, not exactly. This time she had lit the candles. She had never done that before. The matches had been just like the well pump, impossible to use. As a bound spirit she was not supposed to have physical domain in the material world. But lately it had been different. Something had been changing.
The trunk. She remembered she had escaped this before. And it had impacted the material world. She’d seen that tonight, and nights past. She escaped. And she died. But there was no mistaking it, the man had trouble with the latch ever since she escaped. She changed the timeline, though ever so slightly. The candles were new. She had lit the candles this time. But no water. Iris sat back on her grave and looked up at the sky. She felt as if she were trying to remember a dream.
The moonlight was quickly being dissolved by the sun as its light found its way back to her resting spot. Soon it would start all over again. This time, she would not forget. As she waited for the sun’s orb to pierce through the red pines, she grasped hard onto her night’s epiphanies. She swore to herself, as she did each night, that she would avenge her murder. Iris shut her eyes as the sun crested the horizon, ripping through the ephemeral world. The clock was reset.
Credit: Starr E. Lane
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