Friday, October 5, 2007

Sheltered Path

Here is the short story that won second place in the Fort Bend Writers Guild Spring 2007 Competition. I hope you enjoy it.


“Keep walking and don’t turn around.”
The man’s voice was thin and nasal with a country twang that made April think of chainsaw horror movies. She pushed the images from her mind and tried to concentrate on her footing, but her hands tied behind her back made balance tricky. Light and shadow filtered through the blindfold that pulled at the edges of her eyes, and if she tilted her head back too far, tiny blossoms of light bloomed into a blinding white sheet of pain.
“The path leads down some stone stairs,” he said from behind her, “so move real slow and don’t fall, cause I ain’t picking you up again if you do; and keep quiet.”
April placed each foot deliberately and carefully. Oh God, please don’t let me fall again, she thought. He jerked her back upright last time, and his hands felt rough and knobby against her bare arms. She didn’t want him that close to her again, she didn’t want him to touch her again; she didn’t want him to have control over her again.

April could tell the path was turning downward, and soon she felt the sharp edge of the first stone through the sole of her shoe. She stepped down and placed both feet on each stair as she went. She tried to control her breathing, but the gag was so tight she had to breathe around the edges of it. Her lips were dry and cracked.
She could smell his combination of cheap after-shave and musty summer sweat. He was right behind her. Not close enough for her to turn and kick, but close enough to feel the shadow of his tall lanky frame, pressing her forward. She felt a sharp stab just under her right shoulder blade. He must have picked up a stick somewhere she guessed, and he’s using it to poke me in the back. He did it again now. Hard. This time it was lower, and the knife-edge pain lingered near the soft, tender area above the waistline of her jogging shorts.

April managed the next several unevenly spaced stairs, but when she reached for the next step, her foot found nothing but space. She tumbled sideways, and pain shot up her right hip as she crashed into a wood structure. Its support was indifferent to her, but she was grateful it was there. Like a sturdy old friend, it had kept her from falling. She propped herself against it, and her quick breaths hissed in and out around the gag.
She heard him laugh - an ignorant wheezing sound that was almost too high-pitched to be a man’s laugh. “Not bad girl,” he said. “I thought you were going down the hard way that time. Shoot, I was hoping you wouldn’t find the side rail. That makes it too easy.” There was a loud whiplash sound as he swung the stick through the air near her head. She ducked and nearly lost her balance again. His weird laugh was louder this time. Was he getting closer? “Oh well, there’s a bridge coming up on the right,” he said. “Let’s see if you can manage to get across it.”
A bridge? she thought. She smelled magnolias and honey suckle when he first pulled her out of the back of the van, and she could hear the distant rumble of trucks away to her left. A bridge…A tiny little bridge that crosses over a shallow creek. Suddenly her surroundings became clear to her, and in her mind, the blindfold was gone.
She knew where she was.
She was in the park behind the World War II memorial.
This past year was incredibly difficult for her, and the park was the place she came when she was lonely, disturbed or just flat out frustrated. She would walk along the path, climb down the stone steps and linger for a while at the bridge. She never quite released all of her tensions, but the thick foliage and heavy canopy of trees gave her a sense of shelter. This was where she felt serene, this was where she felt calm, this was where she felt safe.
This was her park.
She began to move a little faster but then realized she was getting ahead of herself. Not yet, she thought and slowed her pace.
Her shoes made contact with the wood timbers of the bridge, and she could hear the water gently rolling over the smooth rocks below. She remembered the bridge curved slightly to the right before it straightened out over the creek. She moved steadily along and let the rough wood of the railing brush against her arm.
“There you go. Keep it steady,” he said. “Just a little further there’s a spot where we can stop for a nice rest. You’d like that wouldn’t you - a little rest?” He was closer now, and she could smell his coffee-stained teeth. “I’ll just let you lay there on the grass. Heck, I might even join you. Wouldn’t that be nice? Yeah, I think a rest will do us both some good.” He laughed again and poked her with the stick. This time it struck hard tensed muscles along her spine. He pulled it away fast, and then she heard it whip through the air as it passed over her head again.
She ducked, spun her body around, then bent forward, and thrust herself toward him.
“What the… ,” he managed before the top of her head came crashing into his midsection. He exhaled with a loud “Huh!”, and she felt him crumple over her back. She managed to get her whole body under him and pushed up with both legs. He was heavier than she would have thought, but she managed to lift him off the ground. April let her backside lean against the railing, and with a power lifter’s grunt, she stood straight up. His body rolled off her back, and the suffocating pressure of his form slipped away. In a moment, she heard a heavy thud below the bridge followed by a small splash.

The long sinews of her legs seared with pain but she turned and ran as fast as she could toward the other end of the bridge. She tried to scream through the gag and managed to get out a ragged horrible sound, but just as her feet hit the loose gravel of the path, two strong hands grabbed her by the shoulders.

“Whoa! Hold it!” said a deep, resonant voice.
The man pushed her back slightly, and his grip bit into her arms.
“Now, just a minute, calm down!” he said. “Let me get this blindfold off.” His hands reached around her head and fumbled with the knot. He jerked the fabric free, and she squinted in the piercing light.

In front of her stood a burly uniformed police officer.
“Damn it,” he said. “What are you trying to do? Kill someone?” He roughly pulled at the sides of the gag around her mouth. “Cockrell!” he called out over his shoulder. “Go check on Palmer. See if he’s OK.” A sandy-haired, young police officer came from behind him and ran to the bridge.

Finally, the gag was loose. She breathed in a gasping lungful of air and bent over. She spit out small pieces of lint and tried to work the stiffness out of her jaw.

The burly police officer stood in front of her with his hands on his hips.
“Sergeant Harmon,” April said. She took a moment to breathe and smooth out her dry lips with her tongue. “I thought it was….the best option…to make an escape attempt.”

“Awfully risky, don’t you think?” Harmon tried to make her feel smaller with his gaze, but she met it with her own and did not blink. He broke off first and kicked at some of the loose gravel in the path, then looked up at the young officer who was leaning over the bridge. “Don’t just stand there gawking, Cockrell!” Harmon said. “Get him out of there!”
A tall thin man stood up in the middle of the creek. He was drenched; his light blue T-shirt stained with creek water and his lank hair hung in his eyes. “Are you alright, Palmer?” asked Harmon. “You look like a drowned cat.”

“Yeah, I’m okay!” Palmer said in his drawling nasal voice. He looked directly at April with narrowed slits. “Just what the heck are you trying to prove, Weller? I coulda’ broke my back falling over that rail! That wasn’t part of the exercise.”

Officer April Weller shook the gag further down onto her neck. “Poking me in the back and swinging a stick at my head wasn’t part of it either, Officer Palmer.” She spat on the ground and pulled with her shoulders as Harmon freed her hands from the nylon rope. She massaged her wrists, and fixed her intense gaze on her Sergeant. “Pass or fail?” she asked.

Harmon shrugged his shoulders and his frown pulled up at one side. “Pass. But take it easy during the next phase, will you? It’s your turn to be the assailant.”

April spun around and stood on her toes. “You hear that Palmer?” she yelled down at him as he retrieved a baseball cap from the creek bed. “You get to be the victim next time!”
“I’m already a victim,” he said, and slapped the wet cap against his thigh; his nasal tone slightly muted by a bloody nose. “Now somebody help me out of this damned creek.”