Appeared in DarkFuse.com, August, 2016; Darkfuse #5 trade hardcover, 2016

     The woman's eyes snagged Tristan Ward's attention from his elevated passenger seat on a Greyhound bus. Right before the duct tape covering her mouth and wrapping around her entire head seemed to lodge a grapefruit in the back of his throat. Almost choking on the shrinking confines of his windpipe, he sat up straighter, unsure if he was simply slipping into the hypnotic lull of the passing miles and on the fringed edges of a daydream with glazed eyes. 

     Or wide awake. 

     Squinting harder into the shadows that lurked in the back of a green Econoline van below him, the whites of those eyes glowed like iridescent orbs hovering in the darkness. 

As the bus kept pace with the van and took a slight turn north—the direction of the sun's rays changing just enough—the profile of her neck and shoulders appeared as vague lines and angles. Soon, a mote-infested ray of sunshine spotlighted a glistening blotch that started from the cup of her left ear and ended at the collar of her shirt. 

     When she caught his gaze among the few people on the right side of the bus, he swallowed hard and could only stare in return—disbelieving, shocked. Angry. Blood beat heavily within his ears as his heart galloped against his chest. 

     When she brought her bound wrists within view and shook both arms as one, he almost jumped out of his seat. Her cheeks blew outward against the tape—any sounds she made silent to his ears—and shiny trails fell down her flaming cheeks. 

     His brain was firing through all synapses, actively churning through a thousand different questions and scenarios. Things he needed to do … immediately! But his body held firmly in place—from shock or disbelief or both—the two parts of his being not connecting; caught between the fight or flight of responsibility. At least until she started bashing her head against the window and a spider-webbed pattern emerged like a bolt of lightning with a dash of crimson smudged against the window glass. 

     A chaotic visual tumult invaded his silent world, something he'd never experienced and struggled to understand. Words wanted to fall from his lips in a slew of syllables that would never form. Any semblance of spoken words linked into a complete sentence, an impossibility. A memo book and a pen rested inside the left breast pocket of his shirt, always within reach to communicate with those around him existing in the normal world. Not one where panic prevented the time to relay messages already too late. 

     He couldn't understand why he was breathing so fast; he hadn't even moved from his seat, yet he felt exhausted, his chest heaving, temples pulsing with pressure, vision dotted with floaters at its periphery. 

     He shook the shoulder of a man sitting in the seat next to him, immediately pulling away when the man's fists came up defensively. Tristan signed that he was sorry, quickly rubbing his fist in a circle over his chest. Confusion then understanding swept across the man's face and Tristan pointed to the van that was ... pulling ahead. 

     He jumped into the aisle and darted into a seat three ahead of his own, placing his face against the window to get a view of the van, but the angle was off and only a tinted mirror stared back at him. 

No, there she was again—the mirror-like effect becoming transparent—slowly drifting away, eyes impossibly larger. 

     He felt the stares of others on the bus, could almost feel them inching farther away from the crazy man now slapping his palms against the windows and uttering noises he knew were more animalistic than human. Intense vibrations thrummed within his chest. When he turned around, their glares seemed repelled by whatever expression covered his face, suddenly examining the soles of their feet, plucking at shirt buttons, or twirling the ends of golden locks. 


     And running out of time. 

     With every step Tristan took toward the front of the bus, the van pulled ever farther away. He tried to walk faster, swaying in the aisle, arms steading himself with the top of every seat he passed. In the extra-long rearview mirror, the bus driver's glare met his own then darted between the road, the rearview, and both side mirrors. With tentative fingers, the driver touched the radio microphone. 

     Good, Tristan thought, you need to call the authorities. 

     As he reached the front of the bus and clung to the metal pole near the stairs, he pulled the small notebook and pen out of his pocket, ready to write out instructions for the driver to do just that. Two words: Call Police. Quick and easy. 

     But as soon as he put pen to paper, a tractor-trailer loomed into view in front of the van, casting a shadow across the paper. Unable to cross into the other lane, the van started drifting backward. 

     A moment of celebration rose in his chest, at the small amount of time given back to him when every second counted. After scribbling Call onto a blank page, he paused, a desperate need to see the bastard driving the van crawling inside him like the scent of prey in the wild. 

     Two hands first came into view, locked tight against the steering wheel. Small hands.  

     Thin arms. 

     A turquoise blouse torn at the sleeve. 

     Then a face. 

     The memo book fell to the floor. The pen followed close behind when his shaking fingers lost their grip and went to cover a gasp. 


     A backpack contained everything he needed when he first stepped onto the bus. 

     With a few rolled-up changes of clothes, a paperback copy of McCammon's Speaks the Nightbird, some bathroom essentials, and a single credit card tucked inside his wallet, travel was light and convenient. He thought the paperback weighed more than everything else combined, but made sure to include it when he abandoned his previous life as though he were evacuating his bowels. 

    The book had been his escape in recent days, quickly delivering him to a place where he imagined the sounds and sights and smells with every turn of a page, casting himself as the soon-to-be legendary, Matthew Corbett. 

     A tome, a bible. 

     A means to forget about the wife, whom he knew, was having sweet nothings whispered into her ear from someone who could do so. 

     They had met in high school as part of a sign language club. The fact that he was deaf at first seemed a mystery he was happy to oblige her with as she learned to sign herself. They spent enough time together to have a child before they even graduated, and thought they were doing the right thing by getting married and raising a daughter they both cared for deeply. His only regret was the inability to hear her infantile sounds, her cries. 

     Her voice. 

     A glint off the windshield jerked him back to the present where both vehicles maintained the same speed for the moment, neither gaining on the other. His heart skipped a beat, then almost failed to beat altogether. 

     Oh. No. That look … 

     In the van's front seat, colorless lips were stretched into a wicked grin that bared all teeth. Sweaty strands of hair fell across eyes that bulged from their sockets. Nostrils flared with every deep breath of the driver. 

     No, Missy, no! 

     His daughter stared unblinking at the road ahead, a powerful gaze he had seen before, the memory painfully seared into his mind, as though the very folds of his brain were burning with its branded image. 

     She was only six at the time, playing in a sandbox with a younger girl that wanted to use the same plastic pail. From a bench nearby, he saw Missy's body visibly stiffen and tremble, her face seem to radiate with fire, and that same wicked grin taking up most of her face. 

     Yanking the pail from the other girl's fingers, Missy brought her arm back into a violent arc and smashed the girl square in the face, leaving behind two trickles of blood. The pail broke away from its handle and Missy quickly tossed this aside before tackling the girl, raking her fingers across the girl's face then grinding sand into the poor girl's eyes with the palms of her hands. A matter of seconds it took to go from friendly, content child to the spawn of Satan. 

     Breaking away from this incredulous moment of awe, he had jumped from his seat and picked Missy up by the back of her pants, holding her at arm's length as he would a rabid dog: her arms and legs flailing, teeth gnashing together, hair snapping around her scalp and looking more like the spastic strikes of serpents. He kept her like this until she slumped in his arms, exhausted, a string of drool hanging from the corner of her mouth. 

     As she got older, so did the severity of her tantrums. And as a recent teenager, she was too much to take. He quickly became thankful for his deafness as her enraged screams slipped into a void he would never have access to with his senses, though he still felt the intensity of slammed doors, punched walls, and objects thrown to the floor. 

     Drama. He couldn't seem to get away from it. 

     Not even while on a bus heading nowhere. 


     Their stares locked for a moment but any recognition in her's appeared lost on a distant horizon. Unblinking, she returned her attention to the road ahead and sped up as the tractor-trailer increased the space between them. In the distance were a couple options: continue on to meet the actual highway or visit a State Park for the day, complete with a 100-foot gorge and a raging river canyon nestled between jagged cliffs. 

     When his pulse suddenly matched the flashing right blinker, a surge of panic spiked through his veins, seeming to peel back his nerves and leave them as a jumble of exposed wires sitting in a puddle. 

     He needed to get off the bus. 


     Tristan tapped the driver on the shoulder then pointed to the side of the road where they both looked out the long door window of the bus. The van, the park entrance, and his daughter with a battered hostage in the cargo compartment all disappeared in an instant. 

     He pointed again, telepathically trying to tell the man to pull the fuck over! 

     His chest was rumbling, the sounds coming out of his throat a mystery, but enough to have the driver slow down in a hurry. 

    Then pull over. 

     And jab his index finger into the air toward Tristan's chest, cords standing out along the sides of his neck, cheeks flushing red as he screamed ... something. 

     Then opened the door. 


     Tristan jumped the two remaining stairs before the bus stopped moving, falling as soon as his feet sought purchase, one shoe coming completely off. He slid on the pavement of the emergency lane, rolling twice before using his palms to slow his skid, rocks and pebbles tearing into his flesh. 

     He got up and jogged, ran, then began to sprint, arms pumping at his sides. His breaths came hard and fast—painful, like slivers of glass were sprinkled throughout his lungs. Still, he ran as fast as his feet would carry him, ignoring the gawks and gapes coming from passing vehicles, focused only on the distance he had to travel. And quickly. 

     His stride was uneven, awkward with his shoeless foot wearing only a sock, but went unnoticed even as a pothole took off one nail and blood quickly seeped to the surface of his big toe and began to stain the white cotton. 

     He had to stop her before it was too late, before she came out of the haze that consistently made her do things without her even knowing it. 

     Why, he thought, does this always happen? What gene, what abnormality, what sickness could cause such a thing? So many questions he had never found answers to and finally decided to run away. From a marriage that was a complete waste of time, a constant rigmarole of playing the part for the benefit of those who could witness from the outside and judge. And his daughter … so exhausting. 

     He'd simply had enough and made a decision—years it took to lead up to this—and at a time when his daughter needed him most. 

     Of one thing he was certain: he would not let his daughter suffer for something she didn't realize or understand. Nor would he let her commit the appalling mistake she was considering. 

     He still didn't know who the woman in the back of the van was, or why she was even there. Only that she needed help. And if his daughter's past was any indication of future events, he needed to hurry. 


     Tristan's pace was slowing, but the park entrance coming into view sent fingers of adrenaline through his weary limbs. He squared his shoulders, leaned forward on the balls of his feet, and kept shuffling, finally making it through a funnel created with redwood trees stacked atop each other on either side of the entrance. 

     He followed a winding curve that never seemed to end, passed a wooden sign with park details and papers swaying in the breeze. He slowed to a walk—more of a hobble, really—as he came into a parking lot that contained only an empty park maintenance vehicle. 

     Leaning on his knees, back arching with every breath, he looked up through a tangle of hair. 

     A carriage trail wound its way to the rear of the park, leading toward the beginning of the gorge. It was here that Tristan saw the flicker of brake lights. 

     With ginger steps, he moved forward and veered left, leaving the trail and concealing himself behind sporadic bushes and trees as he worked his way toward the van. A small amount of smoke curled away from the tailpipe. Then dissipated. 

     After a length of time that had him wondering if something horrible had already happened, the driver's side door opened. 

     When Missy stepped from the vehicle holding a hammer, he froze, mind reeling. 

     He still couldn't believe the world he had suddenly become a part of—almost as though he had invented a fucking time machine and stepped out at the most inopportune moment. 

     What ... the ... fuck! 

     There was simply no other way to get to the woman—the goddamn hostage—in a hurry than open the back door, jump in, and straddle her to begin removing the tape from her head and wrists. 

     And for once, a little luck dotted his life. The door was unlocked. 

     So that is exactly what he decided to do, ignoring the look of momentary surprise (or was it recognition?) from Missy as she made her way to the rear of the van. Either way, in a matter of nanoseconds, Missy's blank stare fell across her face like a curtain at the end of a show. 

     Or was that just a spark of absolute clarity he had seen? 

     Once inside, Tristan pulled and yanked, tearing at the tape. Watched the woman's skin stretch against the adhesive, her lips begin to mouth something. 

     Fucking crazy, is what she said ... don't even need to be deaf to know that, Tristan thought. 

     A cell phone suddenly hung in front of him like a floating television screen. 

     He stopped, leaving a corner of the woman's mouth still concealed behind a gray strip of tape. Her eyes rolled upward then danced from side to side, trying to see what he was looking at. 

     Missy had climbed back inside the van, leaving the hammer on the center console, and crawled into the cargo compartment where the seats were conveniently missing. When she knew she had his complete attention—a raise of one eyebrow and the twitch of a grin—she slid a finger across the screen with an exaggerated and painfully slow fervor that held only one purpose: to let him completely soak in every image. 

     Missy flipped through the photos on her phone. And with each one, Tristan's eyes opened a little wider. 

     Like a slew of still frames linked together to create a jittery piece of film, the story all came together.   The clues that were previously strewn about his feet like a pocket full of change thrown to the ground finally came to fruition, neatly stacked on the curb. 

     A nasty flavor weighed his tongue down and dropped his jaw. 

     It all made sad, pathetic—why-the-fuck-didn't-he-see-this-coming?—sense now. 

     The first photo showed the green Econoline van pulling into his driveway, its driver hidden behind mirrored Aviator sunglasses. Clearly, the driver was the same woman trapped between his thighs.     Same oval face. Same nose, with a small upward curve at its tip. Cute. 

     What the hell was going on here? 

     Missy quickly advanced to a similar set of photos with the flick of a thumb. 

     They began with the same woman, glasses now perched atop her head and she ringing the doorbell with a bouquet of flowers hidden behind the small of her back. 

     Another series of shots followed, showing the space between the door and its frame getting larger. Larger still, as the silhouette of his wife appeared—undefined at first, then undeniable in its shape with the curves he knew well. In the next few frames she opened the door to a world that he had no idea twirled around his feet. 

     Even more difficult were the images of the kiss, lasting long enough to take more than a dozen additional shots. With the way the camera had captured the lighting, the two of them appeared surrounded by a halo of brilliance. He tried to turn his face away, but couldn't. 

     Sensual it appeared, with feelings he could feel even through the two-dimensional images of a cell phone, plucking at the emotions existing in every fiber of his being, right below the surface of his skin, tender. Painful. Through the blur of his tears or the numbness of disbelief, it would still appear the same, as an absolute pure love existed within that kiss. Such a simple gesture—savored with a meaning and purpose he apparently couldn't provide. 


     So real that nausea permeated his stomach and forced a gag reflex to erupt within his throat, making him turn away and double over, right there while straddling this woman who was beginning to struggle with vehemence. 

     But Missy wasn't finished yet. 

     At last, an image created a taste he would need to scrape away from his tongue: his wife's face buried in the crotch of the other woman’s—Roxy was how his mind started to refer to her. A nice, slutty name. 

Roxy was sitting at the end of the bed, her back arched so hard he was surprised her spine hadn't broken. Nipples bigger than eraser heads poked from her small, pointy breasts. Then she was grabbing the back of his wife's head, pulling, shoving it into her crotch while her neck craned back in complete ecstasy. Completely shaved down below, she shined with a mixture of his wife's saliva and her own juices in the frames where his wife had to come up for air.  

     Fire bloomed in his belly. 

     The clues were all there. 

     New perfume he thought his wife had hidden and used only for her new man, was actually Roxy's. The lack of sex for months at a time, and uneventful when they did have it. She didn't even try to fake that she was cumming, just lay there waiting for him to finish, probably counting the number of bumps on the popcorn ceiling, for all he knew. The extra time spent in the bathroom, and always coming out with her phone. And the texting, texting, texting ...  

     Hatred blossomed from the center of his chest and spread through his arms, extending to the hands that wrapped around the woman's throat and squeezed. Then squeezed harder, thumbnails digging into flesh. He could tell from the way the woman's flesh tightened and created more wrinkles around her eyes as she clenched them shut that his nails were stinging, biting. And hopefully burning with the causticity of acid. 

     He squeezed again. And squeezed until he felt cartilage crunch under his grip. A strange scent entered his nostrils—acrid, metallic; a powerful and intoxicating scent that made him almost delirious. And the smile that he felt stretching from cheekbone to cheekbone—completely wicked—felt just so right! 

     He locked his gaze onto Missy's, seeking justice, revenge, looking for a love he never received from a person he himself had created. And then he saw it, in the way she opened her eyes just a bit wider as she enjoyed watching him apply more pressure; the glow in her cheeks and the slight giggle she smothered in the back of her throat said it all. Good Lord, he could almost hear it! 

     His actions at this moment felt so perfect, so utterly natural and exciting, that he felt an erection beginning to stir. A pulse in his manhood made him shift his position and stop straddling the woman's legs lest his own daughter see his weakness. 

     Roxy’s eyes rolled into two white marbles. 

     Soon, her lashes fluttered, then closed, coming together in what he imagined a soft embrace, forever sealing the windows to her soul. 

     So much cleaner than a hammer. 


     In a one-two-three swing, they tried to let go at the same time, but Roxy's head struck the guardrail with a muffled thud. Yet the momentum was enough for her to tumble over the guardrail, body cartwheeling, limbs flopping around like a discarded misfit doll. She continued like this until a splash signified the end of one journey and the beginning of another as she floated to the surface and down the river, bobbing between the foamy pillows of rapids. 

     Though he and his daughter couldn't speak except through signing, there was absolutely no need as they both erupted into twin fits of maniacal laughter and each realized exactly what the other was thinking. 

     There was other business to finish. Tristan could see it in her eyes, could read her thoughts completely. In some senses, they were very much alike. 

Someone else was waiting at home. 

     Bound and gagged.