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The door creaked open. Slowly, Rebecca poked her head inside the room and nervously looked around. The rain fell through the roof, hitting a metal pail with constant, percussive plunks, each of which caused her to jump. The more she looked around, the more horrified she was by what she saw. The room appeared abandoned, but somehow she doubted that was the case. Despite the old barrels piled in the far corner, and the tattered, faded, appearance of the blue drapes on the windows, the room appeared too clean to have been unoccupied for the past decade, as everyone in the town believed. There were no dust piles in the corners, and cobwebs hung from neither the ceiling nor the simple pine table in the middle of the room. The moth-eaten flowered sofa was faded and the fabric was in shreds, but there were two spotless white sheets on the rickety iron bed.
“Is someone living here?” Rebecca remarked to herself.
“What’s wrong, Becca?” her sister Samantha inquired from outside, unable to fully hear what Rebecca had said.
Suddenly a door slammed shut, causing both girls to scream. Samantha immediately abandoned her dignity and took off running for the woods, with Rebecca right on her tail.
“Wait, wait!” Rebecca screamed, as the two girls came to a halt. “I lost my necklace!”
“Are you kidding me? There is no way we are going back there, we’ll get killed!” Samantha said, taking off again through the woods.
“But Sami, it’s the necklace Mom gave me!” Rebecca pleaded.
“You lost Mom’s locket? How could you! That’s the only thing left of hers that Dad hasn’t tried to sell!” Samantha groaned.
Pushing her sister aside, and fighting back tears, Samantha stormed off into the forest. Upset, Rebecca followed her sister through the forest, crying the whole way. As they approached the clearing, both girls noticeably sighed when they saw the familiar pine cabin, with its rusty brown door and its broken white shutters. Their small cabin on the outskirts of Aldridge, MT wasn’t much of a home these days, but at least they were safe from whatever creature inhabited that shack.
Even though no bodily harm had come to either of them, Samantha’s building frustration with her sister had reached its boiling point. Peeved, she stormed up to the attic room that she shared with Rebecca, praying that her sister wouldn’t follow. Rebecca entered the house only seconds behind her sister, carelessly allowing the door to slam behind her. She took several steps towards the creaky brown ladder across the room before she paused, knowing that her sister wanted nothing to do with her. Hesitantly, she glanced outside. Father was nowhere to be seen; he most likely wouldn’t come in from the fields for several more hours. If he happened to come back early, well, Sami would never admit to having snuck out of the house that morning and would cover for her, she hoped. Sober, Father was scary, but when he got drunk, he was downright dangerous. Trying desperately to put aside her trepidation, she crept back out of the house. Taking a deep breath, and glancing back at their little plot of land one last time, she ran back into the woods to retrieve her necklace.
“Oh God,” Rebecca thought. “Why did I ever come here without Sami? It seems so much vaster and so much scarier now than it did before.” For a few brief moments she paused, unsure of whether or not she wanted to continue.“I guess I have no choice,” she concluded. “I have to do this. For Mother.”
Gradually, the shack came into view. Only this time, smoke rose from the chimney. Slowly, tentatively, she crept onto the property. Then it dawned on her: smoke was no longer rising from the chimney. Had she only imagined it before? No, of course not; she’d seen the smoke rise with her own eyes on this allegedly abandoned property. So who or what was controlling the fireplace?
Seeing no movement, Rebecca crawled over to the window and peered inside. Straightening up against the flimsy frame of the house, she banged her head against the decaying oak shutter.
“Owww,” she moaned. “How on earth am I supposed to hide this bump on my head from Father?”
Suddenly, it dawned on her that if she delayed much longer, she wouldn’t be able to hide her excursion from Father either, assuming he was sober, which he probably wasn’t. Cautiously she opened the door and glanced around. There, on the broken pine table, was her mother’s locket. Becca didn’t know how it had gotten there, and in that moment she didn’t care. She had found the one memento that she still had from Mother, and now it was time to get it and go home. Silently, she darted across the room and delicately picked it up. Cradling it in the palm of her hand, she glanced around nervously. It was time to leave this wretched place and go home. She was almost out of the door again when a loud voice cried out.
“Freeze!” he demanded. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“Sir…,” Rebecca squeaked out, trembling. “I just came back to reclaim my mother’s locket. I didn’t steal anything from you!”
“That doesn’t tell me how you found this place!” he replied, walking across the room to grab her. “Or how the necklace got here in the first place!”
Now Becca was well and truly terrified. His strong, muscular arms had her pinned up against the wall, and a bruise was already beginning to form on her right forearm where he had grabbed her. Why, oh why hadn’t she told her sister where she was going?
“I didn’t mean you any harm sir,” she apologized. “I didn’t know that anyone lived here! My sister and I… we were just bored! I promise!”
Clearly, mentioning her sister had been the wrong thing to say. All of a sudden, he grabbed her and threw her down onto the floor, his left hand on her throat.
“Where,” he growled, “where is your sister?”
Terrified, Rebecca tried to somehow force the words out of her lips. “At home. She doesn’t know where I am.”
Not releasing his grip at all, the bald man snarled back. “And why I should I believe you?”
“Because it’s the truth sir!” Rebecca whimpered, as she fought off tears. “I just wanted to get my Mother’s locket back so that Sami wouldn’t be mad at me.”
With that the snarly buff man backed off ever so slightly, releasing his grip on her neck. Although he was no longer physically pinning her against the wall, his body still blocked any possible route of escape.
“So tell me,” he demanded, “who are you, and why should I let you leave ever again?”
Back at home, Sami gradually sat up and removed her face from her pillow. Gratefully, she realized that her sister had not barged into their room while she was crying, for once; the room is quiet and serene. Part of her wanted to go talk to Becca, but the other part of her was just too mad at her sister to even consider a confrontation- she refused to give Rebecca the satisfaction of seeing her with puffy red eyes. Blissfully unaware of her sister’s predicament, she picked up her knitting and continued working on the new pink scarf that she was making.
Slowly, Rebecca opened her eyes, and she tried to pull herself up to a sitting position, without much luck. The resistance was too strong for her to break free- she must be chained to something. From where she laid, Rebecca struggled to figure out where she was. Eventually, she remembered that she was being held captive, and she figured out that it must be dark outside. She knew, or at least she hoped that her family would worry about her and come looking for her. Even if they did try to find her though, she realized that the chances that they would ever come out to this cabin were miniscule. Assuming that’s where she still was, of course.
Suddenly, the back door slammed shut. A few seconds later she heard a scraping noise, and then, miraculously, there was light. When Becca looked up again, she found herself staring at her captor. Even in the dim candle light, she could see the faded scars that covered his face, arms, and legs. But when she looked into his eyes, all she could see was anger.
“Here. Your dinner. Eat,” he barked at her, his rough voice not displaying the slightest ounce of sympathy.
“Yes, sir,” she replied obediently, trying not to shake. “But sir…”
“I told you not to call me that! I’m not a sir, and I’m not a number! I’m just me- and my name is Miles,” he bellowed.
“Okay Miles,” she apologized, near tears once again. She knew that if the tears started, they wouldn’t stop. And her head already hurt a lot. “Umm…”
“Yes Rebecca?” he asked tauntingly, using her name as a plaything; as if it gave him more power over him than he had already.
“I… I um… Need my hands to eat,” she said, bracing herself as she said it, as she wondered what part of her body he would hit this time.
To her great surprise, no blows followed. Miles leaned over and grabbed a knife off of the table behind him, and Becca gasped. To her even greater surprise, he smiled at her.
“Don’t worry,” he told her. “I’m just freeing you so that you can eat your supper.”
Perplexed, Becca flexed her aching wrists, and eagerly reached over towards the rusty tin pail that contained a few pieces of slightly burnt chicken. Famished, she dove into eagerly, forgetting to ponder his motives for feeding her, and whether or not the chicken was poisoned.
Several minutes later, she leaned back and exhaled; her pail was empty. As Miles approached her though, she tensed and tried not to move. He only took the pail; he walked across the room to put it into a wooden crate that contained some other dishes. She couldn’t tell if they were dirty or clean, and she desperately hoped that her dinner pail had been washed recently.
Then he came back. Sharply, she inhaled as she tried not to let her alarm show on her face.
“Relax,” Miles told her. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Puzzled, Rebecca eyed him quizzically. What did he mean he wasn’t going to hurt her? He had bound her to a wooden post for hours; her wrists still ached from the rope burns.
“I just want to talk,” he continued. “You can’t tell anyone I was here.”
Aggravated, Becca was tempted to yell at him, “Fat chance!” but she still feared this man enough that she didn’t want to risk him hurting her further or tying her up again. Miles just sat there and looked at her, so eventually she felt obligated to respond.
“And why not?” she eventually asked.
“Well… Let’s just say that they don’t want me here. Nobody does,” he began. When Becca dared to venture a glance at his face, she was shocked to see that he looked quite despondent.
“Of course they don’t, when you go around kidnapping young girls” she thought, but she managed to hold her tongue; her mother had taught her that much, and she owed it to her mother’s legacy to mind her manners.
“If I tell you, you can’t tell anyone” he told her. “I’m not a murderer or anything, I promise.” Miles knew his word might not carry much weight with her at this point, and he desperately prayed that he could trust her.
Part of Rebecca wanted to run away, and tell the first person she saw what had happened, but another part of her had come to think that maybe she shouldn’t report him. The more they talked, the less evil he seemed. He seemed lonely, and she could certainly relate to that. After her mother had died of pneumonia three years earlier, Becca hadn’t had anyone to confide in about her troubles at school. Of course she had her father and her sister, but she and Samantha argued more frequently than they got along. Besides, Sami succeeded at everything that she did without trying, and she was friends with everyone. Unlike herself, the perpetual outcast, who had to study for hours on end in order to successfully complete her second Reader. As for her Father, he had fallen into a hole after his wife’s death, and he got drunk almost every night. Like her sister, Becca tried to avoid him; his drunken rampages were terrifying, and she had no desire to personally experience one: hearing his drunken fits from her attic room intimidated her plenty.
They talked for hours that night, each bearing their souls to each other; a cathartic experience for both. Miles went first, describing the past seven years of life in great detail to Rebecca. He began with the torture and abuse that he had endured in prison for almost seven years from the more drug-crazed, violent inmates. He had refused to do drugs, and he was easily overpowered in a fight, as evident by the many scars that now marred his entire body. It didn’t matter to the guards that he hadn’t started the fights; eventually, he was sentenced to solitary confinement for the final four years of his stay.
“But Miles,” Becca started to ask. “Why… why were you in jail? What did you do?” Her voice trembled as she said it, and she wasn’t completely convinced that she even wanted to hear his answer.
Fortunately, he seemed to notice the doubt on her face. “Are you sure you want to know? I swear Becca, I’m innocent. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t hurt her.” Although his face contorted with anger as he said this, his eyes filled with tears. Whether it was for the girl or his own loss, Becca didn’t know, but she gave him a small nod in answer to his question, as she could no longer bring herself to look him in the eyes.
“Eight years ago, I lived in a small town about 300 miles from here, in a place called Coloma. We had a good mayor, Mayor Richards, and his daughter Elise was the prettiest, sweetest little thing to ever walk the earth. I fell in love with her the first time I set eyes on her. For whatever reason, she loved me too. But her father was an important man, so we had to see each other in secret. This had gone on for about seven months, when Elise told me that she was pregnant. The baby was mine. I told her that we would live together; we would raise that baby right, but I guess she just couldn’t bear to let her Daddy down and tell her that we were courting. She was the daughter of the most influential man in town, and I was nothing but an ordinary blacksmith.”
“Miles. Why were you in prison?” Becca demanded, her voice shaking with a combination of apprehension and sympathy.
Miles nodded, trying to find the strength to continue. “The next morning, she frantically burst through my door. I assumed that she had told her father, and that he wanted to talk to me. That wasn’t the case. She had told him about her pregnancy, yes, but she hadn’t told him the truth. She came to my place to warn me, and to tell me to get out of town as quickly as I could, before the police came for me. Elise told her father that I… raped her. I swear to God, Becca, I never hurt her.”
Struggling to form words, Becca took a deep breath. “So… what did you do?”
“I… I ran, I did. I lived on my own in the woods, running from town to town for three or four months before they caught me. They brought me back to Coloma to be tried. It didn’t matter that she wouldn’t accuse me of any wrongdoings in court; Mayor Richards held all the power in that town and he was a family man. Seeing as she was his daughter, I was convicted before the trial ever began. And so I spent seven years in prison. As soon I was released, I ran again. I didn’t know if I wanted to see Elise, but I did want to meet my child. I don’t even know if it’s a boy or a girl. I just couldn’t risk running into Mayor Richards. If he saw me, I know for a fact that he would try and kill me. So I left, and I ran away as far as I could. When I first entered Aldridge, my plan was to stop in, purchase some supplies, a frying pan and a couple of tarps, and be gone again before anyone could realize who I am. Or who they think I am, at least. But then I found this here bungalow.”
Becca exhaled loudly, as she tried to figure out what to say. Miles startled at the sound, having momentarily forgotten that she was there.
“So you stayed here?”
“I started living here, yeah. I hate being on the run. I miss my home, and I miss my family. I miss my life. This shack… it looked abandoned. I figured, by the looks of the things, that no one had lived here in a very long time. Years, if not longer. I must have been in the woods hunting when you came by this morning with your sister. I’m sorry if I scared you.”
“Miles,” Becca began, her voice tense. Visibly nervous, she gulped a breath of air before she continued speaking. “Why did you hold me hostage then? If you really haven’t done anything wrong, why couldn’t you just let me take my necklace and go?”
“I didn’t know who you were. I thought you were coming to take me back, to try and send me back to prison. I didn’t realize that you were just a girl, Becca, I really didn’t. And then once I realized you hadn’t meant me any harm, I thought that for sure you’d turn me in. Even if you didn’t know anything about me, I figured you were the sort of good girl who would run straight home to Father and tell him about the man living in the abandoned shack on the hill.”
Becca couldn’t help it, she almost smiled. “I’m not a Daddy’s girl, not at all. He’s been an alcoholic ever since Mother died three years ago. I doubt he’s even noticed that I didn’t come home for supper last night.”
“Becca… I’m sorry for what I put you through. You are free to go, if you like. I don’t want to be this man that you must think I am, or the monster that everyone believes me to be. I know you don’t owe me anything, but I hope that you can find it in your heart to keep this between us.”
For several moments, Becca sat in shock as she tried to process everything that she had just heard. She sighed deeply, and contemplated what she could possibly say before she responded. “I… I forgive you. Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.”
“It is probably best that you get on your way then. If you leave now, you can probably slip into the schoolhouse after dinner unnoticed.”
“Miles. I am covered in bruises. What am I supposed to tell my teacher; what am I supposed to tell Miss. Dawson? What am I supposed to tell Samantha?” Becca knew that her father, even if he was sober enough to notice, wouldn’t care enough about her to wonder where they had come from. As long as she was home and under his control, that was all that mattered to him.
“I don’t know Becca. I’m sorry,” Miles sighed. “Here, take your locket. And now, I think that you’d best be on your way.”
Becca quickly reached out her hand to grasp the familiar metal chain, which wrapped reassuringly around her fingers. As she headed towards the door, she hesitated, uncertain if she should say something. Deciding against it, she walked out the cabin door and ran to the Aldridge School with more enthusiasm than she ever had before. Happily, she settled into her desk beside her sister. Sami looked at her with a puzzled expression, but before she had a chance to say anything, Miss. Dawson approached the chalkboard to give out the afternoon assignments.
Back at the cabin, Miles sighed. He might have done some good by the girl in letting her go, but what did he have to show for it? Once again, he was all alone.