by L. L. Asher
“Where’s the tree?” Amber’s eyes darted through the dense brush in the forest as she ran. Tangled black hair clung to her forehead, dripping sweat into her eyes. She wiped it away with her right arm and cried out as fiery pain shot through it, and she skidded to a halt. A jagged shard of glass jutted out from a hole in her sleeve; it looked like a shimmering jewel in the moonlight. She grazed the tip with her finger and rocked forward as bolts of pain ran up and down her arm.
Twigs snapped from somewhere in the darkness.
She twisted toward the sound, wincing. Jack.
Amber cleared her throat, the way her mother had taught her to do before tearing off a band-aid, gripped the shard and yanked it from her arm. Her stomach convulsed at the wet squelching of the glass coming free. A rush of blood flowed from the wound, and she covered it with her left hand.
Leaves crunched and more twigs snapped. Footsteps moved in her direction. She swore under her breath and fought against another yelp as she moved, scanning the trees again for the sign. It was somewhere around here.
* * *
“See.” Julie had shown her two days before, running her fingertip over the double X’s carved into the tree’s bark. “I put all my special things in this tree.”
Amber snorted. “Special things? What are you, five?”
Julie’s eyes flashed to hers. “Forget it,” she said and turned away.
“Oh stop. Just show me what’s in the tree.”
Julie whirled around, her face beet red. “I’m not a baby!”
“Oh my gosh. Overdramatic, much?” Amber rolled her eyes. “I know you’re not a baby. You’re only two years younger than me, and I’m” — she ran her hands up her hips and sides — “practically a woman.”
Julie stared at her, then erupted into laughter.
“It’s not that funny.” Amber eyed her sister who’d braced herself against a tree, buckled over in laughter. “Okay, well fifteen is practically a woman. Completely a woman, really.” She twisted a lock of hair around her finger. “Tony sees me as a woman. And you know what? I think we might...” Amber trailed off thinking of Tony’s eyes and the way he looked at her. She felt a swell of heat ooze through her belly.
“Ugh, I’m sick of hearing about Tony.”
“Well, show me what’s in the dang tree, then.”
Julie harrumphed and walked back to the marked tree. She reached up, her fingers brushing the opening of a small hole in the tree’s side. “Hold on, I can’t—” She jumped, and her hand disappeared into the hole, then reappeared with a box. She held it to her chest caressing the velvet sides with her thumbs, then glared up at Amber.
“I’m not gonna call you a baby. Just show me.”
Julie opened the small, tattered jewelry box and held it out. There were a few coins inside, a tiny plastic doll and—
“Is that Mom’s necklace?”
“Yes,” Julie snapped the box shut. “She’s not getting it back until she kicks Jack out of our house.”
“Well, that’s never going to happen. Mom’s head over heels for the guy.”
“He’s bad, Amber. He’s a bad man.” Julie looked over Amber’s shoulder, biting her lip. “He’s going to hurt us.”
“What are you even talking about?”
Julie’s eye twitched and Amber waited for her to say something, but she only turned to the tree and dug her nail into a groove of one of the X’s.
Amber grabbed Julie’s arm. “Has he hurt you?”
“No.” Julie pulled away.
“Has he been mean to you? Mean to Mom? He’s never done anything to me.”
Julie stared at the tree, scraping at the X.
Amber grabbed Julie’s arm again. “Has he hurt you?”
“I said no.” Julie yanked her arm away again. “But he’s bad, Amber. Look at this.”
* * *
“Amber!” Jack’s voice called from the darkness behind her.
She could feel the vibrations of his call reverberate in her chest. She wanted to vomit but moved faster.
“Don’t run from Daddy. I just want to talk to you. Comesitondaddys lap.” He popped his lips on the last word of his slurred invitation and laughed like a loon.
She ran as fast as she could while trying to avoid the crunching leaves. She had to think. Okay, Julie’s tree was in the woods behind their house. Their house, where she lived with her mother and sister.
Mom and Julie are—
Amber’s foot caught on a rock, and she went sprawling, slamming her bleeding arm into the trunk of a nearby tree. She cried out, clasping her arm to her chest.
* * *
She’d been at Tony’s house.
“I love you,” he’d said as he pushed into her.
Amber’s heart felt as though it would burst with love for him. His body moved above her, and his soft skin melted into hers. Her fingers entwined themselves in locks of his hair as she pulled him closer.
She’d left his house in a daze. Her legs felt like jelly. Swelling heat welled in her groin every time she remembered his whispered promise.
“I love you.”
She’d walked home on a cloud. Her hand rested on the doorknob before opening the front door, and she let herself be devoured by Tony’s words once more.
Amber pushed the door open, an idiotic smile plastered across her face. She thought of Tony’s eyes and moved into the living room as if in a dream. This was the best day of her life.
“Sorry I’m late. I just—”
Her mother was lying on her back, facing the opposite wall, her legs splayed wide. One arm bent at the elbow in the wrong direction over her head. The other arm wrapped around Julie, who lay face down on top of her. Her limbs and spine seemed wrong. Twisted. Contorted.
Amber blinked, her head twitching back and forth.
She blinked again.
One of Julie’s mangled arms draped over her mother’s body as if shielding her. Blood drenched their bodies and the carpet around them. The scent of copper, vomit, and feces flooded Amber’s nose and mouth, burning her eyes.
Her heart throbbed in painful rapid bursts at the base of her throat. Short gusts of breaths flicked in and out of her open mouth. Amber closed her eyes, brought her hands to her face and rubbed. She pushed her fingers into her closed eyelids until it hurt, until her arms shook with the force of pressure.
“Mom!” She opened her eyes, blinking back the dots that peppered her vision and screamed. She knew she screamed, but she didn’t hear it. And she was on her knees crawling toward them, begging them to get up.
Before she reached them, she felt something clamp down on her left arm and launch her to the other end of the room. She came down on the coffee table, shattering the glass with her right side. She tried to scramble to her feet but kept falling back onto the glass.
“Mom!’ She screamed again.
Amber lifted her head; curled tendrils had escaped her ponytail and covered her eyes. She smelled Tony as the locks brushed her nose. She brushed them away with the back of her hand.
He stood over her, grinning, holding a half-empty bottle of whisky. Tingling dread prickled across her scalp and spilled down her back.
Get to the tree, Amber! Julie’s voice commanded in her mind.
Amber moved as if on fire. Her left hand shot out and grasped a large ashtray that lay beside her in the rubble and flung it at Jack. She spun around toward the back door, hearing him cry out when the ashtray hit him. She ran, barreling through the screen door, its wooden frame slapping against the house, and tore out into the night.
And there! Julie’s tree. Amber ran to it and clung there, sobbing.
“Amber!” Jack bellowed.
Amber gripped the trunk tighter. The skin of her arm sank into the grooves of the double X’s, and she thought of Julie running her little finger over them in the daylight.
Is Julie dead? Is Mom dead? So much blood.
“I need to talk to you, Amber,” he called.
He’d hit a tree with something.
An ax? He’s so close.
Her arms felt frozen as if her skin had fused with the bark. Painful tears welled in her eyes.
“Mommy,” she whispered.
What if they’re alive? She needed to know, but she had to get past Jack first.
She peeled her left arm from around the trunk, moaning, and reached into the hole.
She cried out and pulled her right arm away from the tree as well, reaching further into the hole.
“There you are, sugar pie. Come sit on Daddy’s lap.” He popped his lips again, laughing harder than before. Only a few yards away. She didn’t look. She focused on her hands in the hole.
* * *
“Is that a gun?” Amber had gasped.
“It’s Jack’s gun.” Julie looked up into her sister’s eyes.
“Jack’s gun?!” Amber backed away from the gun as if it were a snake.
“If he tries to hurt us I’m going to kill him.” Julie stuck out her chin and grasped the gun around the grip. “I watched a YouTube video. It’s a nine-millimeter,” she said. Her words came out slow, as if dazed. Julie traced her finger along the black barrel.
Amber stared open-mouthed at Julie. “You need to put that back where you found it.”
Julie’s gaze drifted up to Amber. “Six rounds.”
“He’s gonna know it’s missing, Julie. And he’s gonna be pissed. He better not find out you took it.”
“To shoot, you have to pull this back.” Julie’s voice still in that slow rhythmic daze. She gripped the top of the gun around the barrel and pulled. Amber heard metal slide against metal. “Then you pull the trigger.”
* * *
Amber closed her eyes, reaching past Julie’s box of treasures, and her hand closed around cold, smooth metal. She heaved it from the hole, hearing the little box drop to the ground, and held it the way Julie had shown her, wrapping her finger around the trigger. Jack’s footsteps moved somewhere in front of her. She couldn’t see him, but she pulled the trigger anyway.
“I see you.” Moonlight filtered down through the leaves above them, reflecting off his bald head. His thick eyebrows shadowed his eyes and cheeks. Amber thought his face looked like a hollow-eyed skull. He swung her softball bat back and forth. How many times had she heard the crack of that bat in her softball games? Is that what it sounded like when he hit them?
“There it is!” Jack lifted the bat and pointed it at her. “I knew one of you little bi—”
Jack’s voice dumped over her like ice water.
She gripped the top of the gun and yanked. It didn’t want to budge, but she forced it. Her hands steadied, and she lifted her head and the gun to Jack, aiming for his chest. Her finger moved back to the trigger.
“Whoa.” Jack’s hands flew up, and the bat thudded to the ground. “Hey, what are you doing, Amber?”
Can I kill him? She knew Julie could. But can I?
“They were like that when I got home, Amber. I didn’t realize that was you when I walked in. I thought you were the attacker. That’s why I grabbed you.” He took a slow step toward her and lowered his hands. “Do you really think I could have done something like that?”
Could he? She glanced at the gun. Her hands shook again.
“We need to get back to the house and call the police, Amber.” He took another step.
They did need to call the police. She would need to call Tony.
All at once the gun became heavy. The barrel drifted down. Pain flared in her right arm in protest at the movement. “Jack, what ha—”
He took another step, moving fast and reached out toward her. His lips peeled away from his long, stained teeth, and his eyes flashed to hers. All of her doubt evaporated. He’s a bad man.
The gun moved as if on its own accord and swung up, just as Jack bore down on her. She wrapped her finger around the trigger and pulled. The shot exploded from the gun with a roar.
A string of disjointed visions flooded her mind. Both of their legs spread and covered in blood.
She pulled the trigger again. Dark liquid sprayed into the air and onto her face. Her mother’s arm twisted and jutting in different directions.
She pulled again. Tony’s fingers tracing her jawline as he moved.
The muscles in her hands burned as they fought the kick-back of the shots, but again, she pulled the trigger. The back of Julie’s shirt ripped open.
Jack fell to the ground, unmoving. Blood oozed from the holes in his chest, arms, and head. She pulled the trigger again. Julie standing by her tree, her hair shimmering in the sunlight.
Amber screamed. A primal, animal cry that roared from deep in her belly. Her mother standing in the kitchen, humming a children’s lullaby.
She dropped to her knees next to his head and bellowed curses into his motionless face and pulled the trigger again. Julie whirling around in the woods, her face red with anger.
She brought the butt down on his nose and felt a vicious thrill of pleasure bubble up from her gut at the crunch of cartilage. “If he tries to hurt us, I’m going to kill him.”
She slammed it down again on his forehead; she had to do it several times before she heard the satisfying crack of skull breaking. Jack, looming in the doorway, sipping from his glass.
She flipped the gun around and with both hands, plunged the barrel into his eye. Jelly oozed from the socket and the metal barrel ground against surrounding bone, snapping pieces of it apart as she forced it in deeper. She heaved her body up and down, her teeth bared in a vicious snarl, reveling in the squishy suction sound it made as it penetrated him. Tony exhaling into her open mouth.
Amber threw her head back and howled into the night.
She stood, her legs wobbling, feeling her heart hammer against her ribs. The trees around her dripped with blood. Her eyes locked on the gun protruding from Jack’s face. Her stomach churned as if putrid gas seeped through her guts. She brought her foot back and kicked the metal butt, feeling and hearing the bones in his skull splinter.
She gripped her head, her fingers entwining themselves in her hair and pulled.
Amber reached down and ripped the gun from gaping hole in Jack’s face, pointed it at his chest and pulled the trigger, screeching when no shot rang out. She pulled the trigger again.
She threw the gun into the darkness, turned and flung herself against Julie’s tree. She pressed herself into it, feeling the bark puncture her skin. Amber wrapped herself around it, dragging her cheek against the trunk. Her foot bumped something.
Julie’s jewelry box.
Amber picked it up, running her thumb over the smooth fabric. She lifted the lid and pulled out her mother’s necklace, clutching it to her chest. Hot tears streamed down her face as she turned, stepped over the body, and walked back toward her house.
Copyright © 2019 by L. L. Asher