By Lonni Lees
I’d been watching one of those talk shows on the television. I do that a lot because Jeb doesn’t want me to leave the apartment without him. He doesn’t want me to do anything. I don’t fancy Oprah much. She’s too damn touchy-feely for my taste. And she’s always hawking books. Books that sound pretty damn boring if you ask me. I watch The View and Jerry Springer and sometimes that doctor guy. And I like the soap operas with all those people and their complicated lives. They help to fill up the hours. And I have to admit it feels good to see people in a worse off way than I am.
Anyway, back awhile when he was out on some day job, I dipped into the cookie jar and walked myself to one of those movie shows for a matinee. The place was bigger than my bucket of popcorn with ceilings as tall as a big city skyscraper and midnight blue velvet drapes across the screen that opened slowly just before the movie started. I’d never been to one before. Hell, back where I come from we didn’t even have a television. But we did have a radio off in the corner that my folks would listen to from time to time. Mostly The Grand Ol’ Opry or some preacher scaring us about hellfire and damnation. I thought that was entertainment. Until the day I sat in that darkened movie theater watching a real movie on that giant screen. It was like some kind of magical world opened up to me. And it was likely the best day of my whole life. But there was hell to pay for those couple of pleasurable hours. Jeb beat me home and sat in wait. When I came through the door he caught me by surprise and beat me bluer than a bog full of berries.
So I went back to doing what I was told.
I listened to him after that.
It was easier and it didn’t hurt so much.
On the outside anyway.
Sometimes I go stir crazy in this shit hole of an apartment. Could be that’s why I made the tv my friend. It’s hard making real friends when you don’t even go out your own door. And inside that door all there was to talk to was the tv and the walls. Not even a cat to keep me company. As I was saying, they were all talking about women empowering themselves and not being victims. I’d never thought of myself as a victim, but some of that talk really hit home. I was finding it more interesting than most of those shows. Usually it’s just a bunch of people who think they’re better than the rest of us. They just sit around talking over each other and trying to outdo each other with how smart they are.
But today they were talking about something that made some sense to me.
When the program was over I flipped the station to cartoons and made myself a jelly sandwich and poured out a glass of ice cold milk. I sat back down on the couch and ate while the cartoons droned on. But the more Tom kept chasing Jerry, the more I started thinking on that talk show.
Especially when the cat kept beating the bejeezus out of that little mouse.
I knew just how he felt.
Ordinarily I don’t think much on that stuff, but that day I thought about what got me here. When you’re living at the far end of nowhere, and want more than anything to get out, you can end up doing stupid. And stupid I did. I was fifteen and pretty as they come and Jeb was pushing thirty and looked fairly good. For an old guy anyway. He saw me as some sort of prize and I saw him as a storybook knight. Sometimes we see what we want to see. I was no prize and he was no knight.
Anyway, I thought he must’ve loved me some because it didn’t take much coaxing on my part to get him to agree to my plan. I’d been hatching it practically from the first day we met outside the mini-mart after school. He’d been leaning against the wall trying to look all cool and casual as the school girls came and went. I was the one that really caught his eye though. So we started sneaking off to see each other. Some days he’d pick me up after school and we’d take off in his car and park down by the lake. All the time he’d be pawing and panting I’d be thinking about my plan.
I thought about it when I woke up every morning and prayed about it every night before I went to sleep.
By the time I spoke up and suggested it, he was easy as picking ripe fruit.
In no time flat we were off in his old white Ranchero and roaring down the road like lightning, with our noses pointed west and wearing nothing but the clothes on our backs and big grins on our mugs. We made it in record time from the hills of Missouri (or Misery as I liked to call it) to the heat of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It never dawned on me that he might’ve high-tailed it out that fast so he wouldn’t go to jail for messing with a minor. I didn’t even know what we were doing in the dark was something wrong. Not the sex, I don’t think there’s any harm in that, but the fact that he was so much older and I was way under-age.
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
Whatever his reasons might’ve been, I never looked back. Not until I watched that stupid show. The stuff they said really got me thinking. I guess all the whoopings (they called it physical abuse) made me one of those victims they were talking about. I didn’t know a lot about sex back then. I’d had a few good times with some boys from school. Just quickies behind the gym, or if I was lucky, in the back seat of an older one’s car. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t like I was the bad girl. Half the school was doing it. And some of them were already into drinking and drugs. Not me though. Anyway, the sex with those boys was nothing memorable from my recollection. They didn’t know what they were doing any more than I did. But with Jeb it was bad enough never to forget. He used his thing like a cudgel, slamming into me with the same fury that fired him when he beat me with his fists, until he’d beaten all the fight and contrariness clean out of me. I just settled into the life that was given me and took things as they came. Funny how a person can wake up in a trap even worse than the one they ran away from. Back home I just got ignored but I never got beat, at least not bloody beat. None of it was fair, a woman being so much weaker and all. I was smart enough to know I’d never be strong enough to outfight him.
But with a little luck I sure as heck ought to be able to outsmart him.
By the time Jeb came home that night I had a headache bigger than the state of Texas from all that thinking. My temples were pounding like a blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil til I wanted to scream. But when he came through the door I smiled sweet like I was glad to see him and poured him his first drink. He sucked it down like it was manna from heaven and sunk into his easy chair with a plop and a sigh. He leaned his head back and stretched his legs out in front of him, holding his glass out and waving it for a refill. Drink made him even meaner, but I could duck some of the punches because the booze slowed him down to a snail’s pace.
So I just kept pouring.
And he kept right on drinking.
Odd how thoughts can creep into your head and lodge there all stubborn, like a splinter under your fingernail you can’t quite get hold of. I was thinking things I’d never thought before, about empowerment and all. Empowerment was a big word, but all it really meant was getting the upper hand and taking charge of things. If those sorry-ass tv people could do it, why the hell couldn’t I? It’s not like I’m stupid.
I waited and waited for the drinks to take hold. It took a lot longer than I’d have liked. I was afraid the longer it took the more likely I’d be to lose my courage.
Jeb finally passed out in his chair, snoring louder than a barnyard pig, spittle drooling down his jaw. He wasn’t a pretty sight. I went into the kitchen and got that big, iron skillet that always sat on the stove. From there on I was on automatic. I went back to the living room and whacked him on the head. Hard. The first impact made the most god awful crunching sound. Like cracking egg shells only a lot louder. Then I just kept at it, feeling better with each blow. It was like hot lava surging clean through me. Made me feel all tingly from head to toe, like I was being tickled by an electrical current.
A person could get high on that.
I wondered if that’s what Jeb felt when he pounded on me. I didn’t count how many times I clobbered him, but once he stopped moving I quit.
That iron pan was heavy and my arms were getting tired.
A girl’s got to use her brains to get the upper hand, that’s for damn sure. When I looked down at him I thought I should feel guilty. But I didn’t. The only thing bad was the terrible mess he left, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to clean it up. I’d had enough of cleanin’ up after his messes. So I went into the bedroom, crawled under the sheets, and had the best sleep I’d had in a long time.
I awoke in the morning to the hot New Mexico sun glaring through the window and across my face. I got up and walked into the other room to make sure it hadn’t all been a dream. I was relieved that Jeb was still in the chair. Even more relieved that he wasn’t moving. Or breathing. I could have stood there for hours, just looking down at the mess of him. But I had more important things to do than gloat over my accomplishment. On all those crime shows the folks always slip up, do something stupid, get caught. I walked into the kitchen and took a knife from the top drawer. I sliced good and deep into one of my fingers, letting the blood drip and spray all over blazes. I smeared some on the walls to make it look as if I’d been fighting to get away from somebody. It hurt like hell, but I figured when they found Jeb and did all that forensics stuff this’d make them think I’d been kidnapped.
Or even worse.
Once the pain eased up some, I grabbed a few belongings, took the money from my purse and fished the car keys out of Jeb’s pocket. I pulled out his wallet, took the cash, and threw his empty wallet on the floor next to his chair. I left my purse behind next to my wallet on the kitchen table. I’d strewn a few cards from it, taking the only things that could have identified me. My eighth grade class picture, a library card, and an old school identification card. They’d figure it was robbery. And a stolen car. Hell, I wouldn’t have my purse with me if somebody carted me off, right?
And Jeb thought I was stupid!
I didn’t know much about driving but the old Ranchero was an automatic and I got the hang of it in no time. I kept driving west. Maybe I’d go to Hollywood and be a movie star. Everybody always said I was a pretty thing, so why not? I could easily be as rich and famous as any other girl who headed to the corner of Hollywood and Vine from some dead-end town. Getting discovered happens all the time, right?
My first night on the road I ended up at a Tucson motel. I bought me some hair coloring, a cheap purse and some band-aids at the Walgreen’s and returned to my room. It was a big room with an even bigger bed. The bedspread and the drapes at the window matched. And there was a big bathtub with a separate shower stall. A real fancy-schmansy room with a wall mounted television.
I flipped it on for some background noise and headed for the bathroom sink.
My hair was always mousey brown, but when I finished and looked in the mirror I was a blonde. And a darn pretty one too. Hell, I looked like Jean Harlow and Lady GaGa rolled into one. Hollywood here I come! That night I did some more thinking as I thumbed through the little brochures I’d fetched from the motel lobby. There were all kinds of places and things I’d never seen. A whole new world was just waiting for me to explore and I was ready to chaw on it like a hound dog gnaws on a meaty bone.
I was ready for all of it.
Next morning I got up when it was still dark and the smothering heat of day hadn’t raised its ugly head. I threw my stuff together, tossed it in the car, then walked to the front office. I checked out, returned to my parked car and thumbed through the brochures one more time. One brochure had a map that led out to a nature museum up past a road called Gates Pass. It went through some mountains, so I turned on the ignition, stepped on the gas and aimed in that direction.
The twilight traffic was light as I headed west. I tuned the radio on to some Mexican station and hummed along as the car snaked up the hill, shaking my shoulders to the Latin beat. The announcer spoke in broken English, but some of the ads were in Spanish. It seemed the farther west I went the fewer people spoke English and the more it felt like I was in some foreign country.
The music stopped and the five minute news break came on. A couple gang murders. A bunch of stupid politics. Another woman’s body found off I-10. The third body in less than a week. No matter where you lived the news always sounded the same. Murder and war and politics. Yada, yada, yada. You’d think the world would make better use of its time. Disgusted, I turned off the radio and pulled onto the shoulder, tires skidding on gravel as I slowed down then came to a stop. I could see a billowing trail of dust through the rear view mirror. I turned off the car and got out to look around.
I was at a lookout point with a nice, steep drop-off.
I couldn’t have picked a more perfect spot.
First thing I did was open up that wound on my finger, which still hurt really bad and hurt even more as I picked at it. I walked around the car and got in on the passenger side and smeared around some blood, smudging some on the side window as if I’d tried to claw right through it. They might find the car, they might not, but if they did it’d look like I was a victim. Even if the cops were dumb, sooner or later they’d make the connection to the car and the blood and poor, dead Jeb back in Albuquerque. They keep that shit on computers, don’t they? I was getting smarter by the minute. I reached into my purse for a band-aid, covered my aching finger again and exited car.
Having the car made things easier—but it also made things more risky.
I was aiming to walk down the hill on foot when something dawned on me. You learn a few tricks watching those true crime shows. I waited until some guy on a bicycle pedaled past me, huffing and puffing his way up the hill. I watched his back end wiggling to and fro in skin tight pants until he disappeared around a curve. Then I hurried back to the car and opened the driver side door and set the seat back, like a person much taller than me had been driving. I wiped off the fingerprints on and around the steering wheel. I shifted it into neutral, got out, and positioned myself behind the Ranchero. With all the strength I could muster, I started pushing it, using my back as leverage as it started to roll forward.
Down the cliff it went.
Easy as shoo-fly pie.
The sun was coming up right into my eyes by the time I reached a main road and stuck out my thumb. If you’re young, alone, and reasonably pleasant to the eye, it don’t take long for some guy to pull over and stop for you. The man was driving an old truck with one of those metal boxes on the side that holds tools and stuff. He opened the passenger door and as I slid in he asked:
“Where you headed, sweet thing?”
“West,” I said.
“I’m heading up as far as Phoenix,” he said, his smile hinting at something dirty. “You could head west from there. I got a construction job up there tomorrow and figured I’d spend a day sightseeing. Ever seen Phoenix?”
“Can’t say that I have,” I said as I sized him up. I guessed him somewhere in his forties. He had bad teeth and cigarette breath and wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. He had about a three-day growth sprouting above his top lip and across his weak jaw line. His chambray shirt looked like he’d slept in it and his jeans had grease smudged along the thighs. He probably hadn’t got lucky in a while judging by the smell of him.
I figured he’d be easy.
The first hour we rode along quiet, with me looking at the ugly brush and cactus as it raced past the truck windows. But I was smiling, thinking of all those pretty palm trees I’d see in California. He’d tuned in a western station on the radio and was singing along like he hadn’t a care. And I joined in, telling him I loved country music, which wasn’t necessarily true.
Every time I heard country it reminded me of Jeb. That’s all he ever listened to until I was ready to scream.
Just country music and talk radio.
Sometimes the silence was the worst of all. It always meant something no good was brewing in his head.
About five miles out of Phoenix he started talking again. The words that came out of him sounded like he’d been practicing them in his head. I’d been thinking up a few of my own.
“We’re about there,” he said. “I can drop you off by the interchange and you can pick up a ride from there.”
“Or if you’d like, you can check into the motel with me and we can make a day of it. You did say you’d never been here before.”
I let the silence hang in the hot desert air a long time before answering.
His idea of a day in Phoenix was nothing more than driving around in a lot of bumper to bumper traffic. He didn’t show me anything I hadn’t seen before. If you’ve seen one big city you’ve seen ’em all, best as I could figure. Too much traffic and too much dirty air. Too many strip malls. Fast food joints or gas stations on every corner. You’d think when a place got big it’d grow with some good things instead of just multiplying the same crap you could find in any small town anywhere.
This guy was boring me to tears, but a ride was a ride and that’s all I needed.
That evening he picked up some fast food and a six pack and we headed back to the motel room. I don’t know what smelled worse, the burger grease or him, but I took a deep breath and ate. I was hungry. He guzzled down some beer and belched some and we watched cable news until long after the sun went down and he readied to make his move. He said all the words like he thought he was real clever, and I nodded with my best coy smile. Then he sat his wallet and keys on the night stand and when he came back from the bathroom he was buck naked and I was under the covers waiting for him.
Real men never do act like in those romance books, getting all cuddly and sweet afterwards. They just get the job done quick, never ask if it was good for you, then roll over like you wasn’t even there and start to snoring. He was as predictable as they come. Kinda makes a girl wonder what all the fuss is about.
I sure never saw anything special about it.
I lay there awhile until I was damn sure he was dead to the world, then eased myself off the mattress and dressed in the dark. I emptied the bills from his wallet and shoved them into my pocket and out the door I went. It was the middle of the night. I walked a few blocks, then picked up a taxi and had him drop me off at the nearest truck stop.
When I got inside, I slid into a booth and ordered. I filled up on coffee, eggs and hash browns and waited for the sunrise, watching the truckers trickle in before starting their day. I wiggled my behind a bit as I headed for the register and paid my tab. Believe me, with that shiny blonde hair, I didn’t go unnoticed. I went out the door and waited.
First trucker out the door spoke to me.
“You need a ride, sugar?”
“If you’re heading west,” I said.
“I’m going the other way,” he answered, “but if you want to step into my truck for a bit I can make it worth your while.”
“I’m no lot lizard,” I said, pretending his words had shocked me.
“Just asking.” He shrugged.
“Well, I’m not that kinda girl,” I answered, but I was wondering if maybe I really was. After all, last night had been pretty easy. I figured I could get all the way to Hollywood like that, picking up some cash along the way. By the time I got there I’d have enough in my purse to tide me over until I got discovered. And then I’d be a movie star and I could go to another one of those movie theaters and sit there watching myself on that big screen like I was the Queen of fucking Sheba.
I was getting the hang of that empowerment thing.
Three more truckers and a few tourists walked out never giving me a glance as they headed to the parking lot. Then this big, tall guy walked out. He paused for a second and looked my way kind of sideways. I gave him my prettiest smile. He kept walking, then stopped and looked back in my direction. He came over to where I stood in the shade. He looked clean and harmless enough. We started chatting and flirting just a bit. He was heading for San Diego so I followed him to his rig and got in. It was a long climb up, believe me. I’d never been in anything that big before. As we drove down the road and up the freeway ramp I felt like I was on top of the world. I could look down onto the hoods of the cars around me like they were little bugs I could squish.
The trucker said his name was Jim, and I told him mine was Missy. We both knew we were lying but it didn’t matter. He was real polite and we talked nice together as he drove south on I-10, then headed west on the I-8. I felt relaxed for the first time in a long time as we yakked away about everything and nothing at all.
He was down-shifting as we climbed slowly up the grade in some hills that lead into California when he suggested we pull into a motel. I suppose the suggestion had to surface sooner or later. He was polite, but under it he was just another man. The storefronts looked like little chalets, making the small village look like it belonged in another country, all nestled into the mountainside like that. I almost expected to hear yodeling. Well, it was only midday and at this rate it would take me forever to get to Hollywood. But it was my chance so I took it. It wasn’t like I was in that big a hurry and I was sure truckers must keep plenty of pocket money when they’re on the long haul. I told myself that the longer my journey took, the more seed money I’d have when I reached my destination.
Jim left me sitting in the truck when he checked into the motel, then came back and suggested lunch. Like I said, he was a polite one. And no cheapskate handing me junk food either. We went into a nice little restaurant and sat down. They had red checkered tablecloths, like the oil cloth ones at the diner back home, but these were made of real cloth. There were folded linen napkins and empty wine jugs with candles in them. Italian music played softly in the background.
“Have you ever had chicken cacciatore?” He asked.
Well, I’ve had plenty of fried chicken and the occasional boiled one, but I didn’t know what he was talking about. And I certainly didn’t want to look foolish and unworldly.
“It’s one of my favorites,” I lied, not knowing what to expect. It could be cat food for all I knew. Cat food. Cacciatore. Sounded pretty damn close.
The waiter returned and sat down a basket, covered by one of those linen napkins and lit the candle at our table. Jim pointed to something on the wine list, then ordered lunch for us both.
An old Jerry Vale song drifted from the speakers as we chewed on garlic bread and sipped dark red wine, chatting up a storm until our food arrived. I’d never had alcohol before and it was making me feel fuzzy. I took my fork and cut into the chicken, cautiously placing the first bite into my mouth. It was delicious, no lie. My taste buds were dancing to flavors they’d never experienced before. I looked up at Jim and into those pretty blue eyes, sparkling at me from across the table. I couldn’t help but smile as he told me little snippets about himself and his life. And he told me I was the prettiest little thing he’d ever laid eyes on. Even if his intent was getting me back to the motel and into bed, I have to admit he did it with style.
I’d never been treated so nice.
It all made me wonder if I’d feel a pang of guilt or remorse when I ripped him off.
Back at the motel he shut the curtains and the room was dark as midnight, even though it was still afternoon. He started off all nice and slow, like he was in no hurry at all. So I welcomed his advances, kind of hoping he was going to make sex as nice and special as our lunch had been. Romantic and all. Pretty soon we were lying there naked as jay birds, exploring each other’s bodies. It was slow and sensual and it was starting to stir feelings I’d never felt before.
When he flipped me over onto my stomach, I thought what the heck. But then I felt him grab my wrists, yanking my arms behind me. My face hit the pillow with a thud. Before I could react he had bound my wrists behind my back.
“Hey, I’m not into any kinky stuff,” I said with a laugh.
He’d flipped me over like I didn’t weigh nothing at all and put his large hand over my mouth. Then he took the snot-rag from the night stand and shoved it into my mouth. I looked into those pretty blue eyes and they were as dead as coldest winter.
He had a satisfied smirk when he saw my fear and I knew I was in deep trouble.
“You’re into anything I want, you little whore,” he said, punching me hard in the face.
My mind went back to the drive up Gates Pass in Tucson. The Mexican music playing in my head stopped the next time Jim slugged me.
“Another woman’s body found along I-10,” the radio man said. “Third one in a week. Another woman’s body.”
Tears stung my eyes as I looked up at him. Even in the darkened room I could make out the outline of the knife. Grinning, he lowered his hand, piercing my skin with the sharp blade and twirling the tip into my flesh. The first cut was shallow, kinda like he was playing with me.
But the second cut sliced deeper, fiercer.
“The fun has just begun,” he whispered into my ear.
LONNI LEES is the winner of multiple writing awards. In print, her stories have appeared in Hard Boiled Magazine and the anthologies DEADLY DAMES, MORE WHODUNITS and BATTLING BOXING STORIES. Her online stories can be found on such haunts as Yellow Mama, A Shot of Ink, Shotgun Honey, Black Petals and Einstein’s Pocket Watch. A short story collection, CRAWLSPACE and her first novel, DERANGED, (winner of the PSWA 2012 Award for Best Published Novel) as well as her second novel, THE MOSAIC MURDER, are available on Amazon and the usual outlets. She’s working on THE CORPSE IN CACTUS, a sequel to THE MOSAIC MURDER and another novel, MADMAN’S MOON.