I trudged along a scenic, tree-winding road that saw at most a few cars every hour. In gray jeans and a black hoodie, I blended into the dreary surroundings, just another shadow below the early morning ashen clouds.
A deep ache settled in and I shrugged my clanking backpack higher once, twice, three times after a few more steps. My gloved hand on the strap kept the heavy load from sliding back down. My car was well out of reach now. Out of sight too, down over the steep drop-off to the right in an isolated parking lot no one used in these colder months of the year. Safe and hidden…until I needed it. The rain that fell was ignored, the crunch of wet gravel under my combat boots lost to the sway of wind-battered trees.
Though I stared ahead, what I saw was not the hardening downpour or the flying of loose leaves. Instead, I saw a girl’s face. Young. Innocent. Twentyish with forest-green eyes and long, almost black hair. Her smile had been infectious and the words from her pretty mouth had set my course. “…Saturday morning. At the crack of dawn. My dad doesn’t believe in waiting for sunrise. Not when the whole day is waiting. That Kananaskis Trail…”
Now I was here. Soon I’d be the one waiting.
Right before a hairpin bend on this less-traveled road, my booted strides stopped. Anticipation filled me with a flood of warmth, but a deep breath of brisk air tightened my chest. I ignored the discomfort as raindrops trickled down my brow and cheeks. After days, months, and years this was it. There was no turning back now. This was my only escape, my only way to make the past right.
Dropping my backpack with a clatter and quick stretch of my back, I bent over. A flash of cold metal came free, long like a chain but not as smooth. The long length jangled as I stretched it out over the asphalt and then the weedy grass beyond before tucking the end behind a bush.
A quick jog delivered me back across the road and I reclaimed my lumpy backpack. Then I was back at the bush and crouching behind it. A quick grab and click cemented the scene as my Polaroid camera hummed out a happy snap. A memento. As I tucked the device back out of the rain, a set of headlights shone around a smooth bend back down the road and brought my head up.
“Shit!” I spat from beneath my hood as an old sedan sailed too fast up the rain-slicked road. My gloved hands tugged the length of metal back just before the sedan’s tires could claim those sharp spikes. Heart pounding like a drum, I muttered as I watched the red taillights disappear around the bend. Wrong car. Then I ran out to string those spikes back in place. An approaching white glow had my hood snapping up to see another car coming.
Right on time.
Racing back over the road, I dove for cover behind the bush. The headlights of the approaching white Merc flashed on highs for two beats.
I’d been spotted.
And then the front tires hit the spikes. With a hiss of released air, traction was lost. The man driving yanked the steering wheel and anchored on the brakes, the tires barely squealing on the wet asphalt. But it was too late. The drenched road provided a slippery passage as the sedan fishtailed then spun, sliding sideways over the edge too fast to stop. It tipped on the sudden drop-off, tumbling guts over roof, guts over roof.
The tall cypress tree that halted its descent with a deafening clap wasn’t a Godsend. Metal cried out as it curved around the tree, reshaping the driver’s side and shattering the windshield.
And then there was a moment of pure quiet, nothing but the sound of peaceful whooshing wind as the rain eased off.
Tugging back the spikes and concealing them behind the bush, I hoisted up the backpack and unhurriedly made my way down the slippery path to the wreck. The next part to come was a means to an end. My anticipation lied in the aftermath but not in this act. And yet with each step, I felt nothing. No uncertainty. No regret. Those feelings I’d shed long ago. I’d had no choice.
Reaching the wreckage, red was visible beneath the mud-caked windows. My backpack was dropped to gain a closer look. The middle-aged female in the front passenger side was out cold, with cuts that leaked blood down her face to her blouse. In the driver’s side, the man’s features were unrecognizable, covered in glossy red. There was a creak of movement. It wasn’t him. In the back, there she was, her perfect lips no longer smiling and dark bruising puffing up her pale face. With a blink of her lids over her bloodshot green eyes, she wasn’t dead.
Unfortunate for her…she was coming around.
I tugged the car’s back door open and reached in, taking hold of the young woman and dragging her out. She was pretty out of it, eyes dazed and lids twitching. She was injured too, with multiple cuts and bruises on her face and arms. A bump on her forehead was ballooning beneath the skin. Her feet trailed as I dragged her by her arms across the mushed-up ground.
Then I noticed the object she somehow clutched in her tight fingers. A phone. Relieving her of the device once we were well out of reach, I positioned her to face the wreck.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got you now.”
My combats squelched through the mud back to the car, and with a lean over the dead man, a click sounded as I unlocked the fuel tank. Back around the Merc, I found the fuel lid open and unscrewed the cap. My black Zippo lighter came free of my pocket along with a long rag. A minute or so after soaking the rag and I was yards away, the Zippo’s flame fighting the wind and rain and losing.
“Cassidy…” The woman still in the car—the young woman’s mother—was waking up. Still alive. She moved as her hand came up to her head. “Cas…talk to me.” She groaned, and then sucked air as she twisted to get a better view, seeing her husband and the empty back seat. “Cas!”
The girl’s eyes fluttered then went wide. Her voice was a painful rasp. “Mom…”
“Time to say goodbye.” There was a crunching scrape as the Zippo sparked back to life. The flame met the material’s end and I returned to the girl, turning to see the fire retreat.
“Mom!” The girl’s voice was shrill, and she swayed as she scrambled to get up. Her eyes rolled like marbles, bringing her back down. And then it was too late. With a whoosh the soaked rag below the sedan ignited in a fiery ball, climbing up the metal walls and curving inside the dry cab. The woman’s shrieks cut through the dying rain as my camera immortalized this moment in time. But the sounds of her death faded all too fast, the fire taking her pain away. Taking her life away.
As the girl I’d saved from the wreck whimpered, I readied what I needed before returning. Standing over her, the small boulder in my hands blocked the view of my face. The hefty weight of the rock returned that ache to my tired shoulders. “Don’t worry, Cassidy. This isn’t the end. I need your help…to bring them all to me.”