Broken, Part III

The woman was stirring, moaning. She looked up at me, and then at Vincent. She maybe looked at the knife, too, because something spooked her. She backed up against the wall, and curled into a ball.

Slowly moving across the room, I set the knife on Vincent’s belly because there was no reason to approach her with a weapon in my hand. She was scared. No, terrified. Petrified that I would kill or hurt her more than what she had already endured. Truthfully, she was already hardened by what he had done to her. I could see it in her eyes. She wasn’t all there anymore, but still a part of her feared something. Maybe she feared living on just to suffer more pain at the hands of a madman.

When I reached her, I stopped. She turned her face away from me, cowering form my presence. To lessen my effect on her, I kneeled to show that I wasn’t a threat. It didn’t work. I thought maybe a touch might prove that I had no ill will toward her, but as soon as my fingers barely grazed the fine hairs of her skin, she flinched. Therefore, I decided to try a different approach, one that I was certain would work.

I stood and said, “Nothing I say will make you trust me, but if you give me just a—” Immediately, Vincent interrupted me by planting the knife deep in my shoulder. He and I both fell forward, landing on the ground next to the woman. She scurried back as far as the chain tether would allow her, and she balled up even more.

The pain seared, and I couldn’t feel my fingertips. My arm was going cold, numb. He had done considerable damage. He pulled the knife free, and I rolled over, determined to make sure he didn’t get another chance at me.

He screamed, “You!”

I kicked out for his shin, hoping to snap one of them. It didn’t work, but it did stagger him enough to make him fall backward. Apparently, he was still a little drunk from the fall earlier.

I scrambled up, favoring my arm. When I was over him, he tried swiping at me with the knife, but I wasn’t scared of it. If he was trying to stab me, perhaps that would be one thing, but a bit of sliced skin was hardly a concern for me. Luckily, he only managed one good swipe before I kicked him in the groin. He coughed, loosened his grip on the knife, and then I kicked it from his hand. He winced as the knife clanged against the wall.

It’s funny how things in life are always a sort of mild grey rather than black and white. For instance, I had originally been very disgusted by his weight and health. Now, as he struggled to keep his breath, I was happy and thankful. He wasn’t healthy enough to fight back without a weapon. To be fair, he did have powerful legs, but as soon as I straddled him, he wasn’t strong enough to get me off. After hitting him in the face, he was out cold again.

Looking at the table to see what had gone wrong, it appeared he’d cut through some of the straps. My desire to show compassion to that girl had caused me to make a huge mistake. I left the weapon with him, and for that I paid dearly.

There was no way they would hold him again, but at that point, it no longer mattered. With my arm completely useless, I knew it was impossible for me to get him back up there.

After walking over to the knife and picking it up, I said, “You don’t have to trust me, woman. I’ve done some pretty nasty things. You don’t have to fear me, either.”

I barely recognized my own voice. So strange was the man inside me that I wasn’t certain I could trust my own words.

She didn’t flinch when I neared her again. It was as though she knew, despite her self-preservation, I wasn’t going to harm her. I felt like she still didn’t trust me, and she had a right not to, but at least we were making progress. I offered up a bit more reassurance when I reached up and removed the inch-thick cotter pin holding the chain to the ceiling.

“There,” I said, and stepped back. “You’re free.”

She looked up at me, more timid than ever I’d seen of someone. She was as a child might be when confronted by a stranger. I don’t know how long she’d been down here, but her soul and will had been broken, reducing her to distrust all, no matter if it was God himself standing before her.

I returned to Vincent and knelt down. He was still sleeping, but I knew I had to get to work soon because he’d wake up and put up another fight, which was something I really wasn’t in the mood for.

As I retrieved the knife from my belt, the woman stood. The skin around the wrist where her hand had been removed was crudely sewn shut. It was red, and looked sore. She winced, but didn’t reach for the stump. No, she reached for her crotch, and judging by the way she held her knees together as she walked, taking her hand wasn’t the only fucked up thing her did to her.

The woman walked as far as she needed, and then dropped to her knees. She started to cry, deep heaves as she probably recalled all the disturbing things he did to her. As I sat there, I felt for her, which was something I didn’t think would ever happen. However, I couldn’t help thinking about how my wife and daughter felt at the hands of these maniacs. How scared and broken they were before these fuckers killed them.

She raised her hand, and pounded her fist into Vincent. She hit him repeatedly until she no longer had the energy. Surely, it did no damage because her body was broken, probably more broken than my emotions. She probably just didn’t have the strength to make him hurt. At least that’s what I thought, anyway.

“I’m Oliver,” I told her, and tried to give her a smile. I couldn’t. “I know… I know what you went through, even though I can never know how you feel. He… he took my wife. Not him directly, but he let them have her. Let them have their way with her. Then they killed her, but they made her suffer first. Tortured her. Broke her.”

I felt the heat burn my face as hot tears rolled down my cheeks. I couldn’t meet her eyes, but I knew she was watching me.

I continued, “He was the one…” I had to pause, because this was the worst part. It was all bad, but this made me who I am today. “He hurt my baby. My little girl. Wrapped his giant hands around her frail little neck, and he…”

It was there I cried. I hadn’t talked to anyone about what happened because I didn’t think anyone could possibly understand, but this woman knew. She had been in their place, and no doubt, had I not shown up this night, maybe she’d have ended up with rings around her neck as well—if not a bullet through the skull.

She reached out with her hand, her fingers shaking with either fear or malnutrition—or both. I looked at her for a moment, and didn’t need to ask what she wanted. I handed her the knife. She looked at the blade, and then at Vincent. The contempt twisted her face, turning her from a broken albeit beautiful woman into a monster. I knew what she wanted to do, so I laid next to Vincent, wrapped my good arm around his neck to hold him still, and nodded to her.

She didn’t hesitate to get to work stabbing him. He woke up on the first one that entered his leg, and he screamed. No doubt the guards would come running if he kept it up, so I placed my numb hand in his mouth. I wondered briefly if he could remember the taste because as he bit down during his muffled call for help, all those memories of what he did to me came rushing back.

She stabbed and stabbed, and he called out in pain. Most of her attack centered on his penis and hands, and I don’t blame her. Those were a source of pain for her. They were the things that destroyed her.

Soon, he wasn’t screaming any more. Vincent had gone limp, but she continued to stab him. She let out a whimper of anger each time she stuck that blade into his body.

After pulling my hand free from his mouth, I inspected the teeth marks he’d left. I was bleeding, but not bad. It probably would have been painful if I could feel it. Thankfully, I couldn’t.

The girl finally stopped stabbing him, leaving the blade buried deep into his crotch. I looked at her, and she looked at me. Her face was striped with strands of his blood, which also spackled her chest and arms. He was as good as dead, and even though she clenched her teeth in anger, I still detected a small amount of satisfaction written on her face.

“I’ll help you get out of here,” I told her, but she nodded to refuse. I said, “What?”

She nodded again, and pulled the knife from its fleshy sheath. I thought perhaps she meant to kill me, but she instead brought the blade to the left side of her neck and cut through her own carotid. The blood squirted a couple times, and as her body weakened, she dropped the knife. She laid down gently onto the sealed concrete, and bled out until she passed away.

I watched her for a long while, and I longed for the kind of peace. The sounds of silence after death. All of life’s problems for her were gone, now. Perhaps I didn’t condone suicide, but the way this girl looked now, was beyond perfect. She had endured so much, and now that she had confronted and killed the man that hurt her, she finally stepped out of this horrible world to find peace in whatever laid beyond.

As I stood and headed for the exit, I knew that one day it would be my turn to enjoy that eternal sleep, that moment of peace. For now, though, I had one more stop to make. I had to go see the man that started all this pain and anguish. The man responsible for so many lives lost, including my beautiful girls. It was time to see my father.

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Broken, Part I

“When I was a little boy, I never thought I’d become a hero, but as you well know, all of that changed with Vincent Gianulias,” I told Byron, the man kneeling in front of me. “Well, I guess I ended up more like an anti-hero.”

For the most part, he had kept his head down, but he had finally looked up at me. No doubt he avoided eye contact because he’d heard rumors that if you don’t look at the person with the gun, they’ll be less inclined to blow your head off. I didn’t know how true that was, and probably neither did Byron, but he would soon learn where the truth lied with this particular situation.

His eyes reflected both the cool white of the florescent lights and his deep regret for his life choices. He hadn’t, up to this point, understood the kind of man that he was to people. Criminals rarely do until they’re confronted with something that forces them to face the reality of their actions. Byron, the man with his skull pressed against my gun, only just learned that karma was not just a bitch, but a bi-polar cunt-whore with a serious beef. That was me.

His voice was meek. “I don’t know what that has to do with me.”

I said, “You asked me why I’m doing this, right? Well, you know Vincent, don’t you?”

He remained quiet. The tears in his eyes wanted to tell me a story of his fear and anguish, but it was of little matter to me. I knew he was scared. I didn’t care.

“Right?” I said louder, and pressed the muzzle harder into his skull.

Through his pointless sniveling, he said, “Okay, yes, I know him.”

“I knew that, but I wanted you to admit it. Not that it matters, but do you know what he does to people?”

He remained silent again, but this time, I didn’t really bother to force an answer out of him.

I said, “You see this?”

I lifted my right hand, and showed him what Vincent had done to me. Three fingers were missing, the pinky, the ring, and the brother. Half my palm had webs of skin forming into slick, mountainous scars. The two remaining digits didn’t work, but these days, it didn’t matter. Nothing I did anymore required two fully functional hands. Granted, it would help, but it wasn’t necessary.

That wasn’t true two years ago, though. In the past, I was a pianist. My wife once told me that I had the skill of one of the greats; that I played as gracefully as a silken scarf dancing in a soft breeze—her words. I spent my days practicing as she listened while reading novels, and I reserved my nights playing at Lucille Hall to no empty seats.

Now, I’m a murderer. The last graceful thing I did was entering this place without breaking the door down. Monsters aren’t supposed to be fluid. They aren’t supposed to feel that special positive energy that drives them to be smooth operators. They made me this way, and this way I shall be.

“Please don’t hurt me, man,” he pleaded, but it was in vain. I already knew I was going to kill this man. Him and everyone else who took everything away from me.

Pulling the hammer back on the Magnum made a click that sent a shiver down my back; the kind of satisfying sound that made my heart skip a beat. Perhaps I wasn’t destined to become a monster, but I felt giddy like a child on occasion. Some really dark things triggered that feeling, which made me wonder from time to time if I had this darkness in me all along. I didn’t care either way by that point, but it was fun to think about sometimes.

“Henry?” Selena’s voice was as soft as the first movement of moonlight sonata. It was more melodious than cannon D. It was the strings from which happiness could be woven just as the high-carbon steel in my old Steinway Grand gently hammered its descants. It was too bad, then, that she had been dead for over a year because I truly believe her real voice could have saved his life—and more importantly, mine.

I looked over, and Selena stood just beyond the coffee table. She was wearing the silver dress from the night we first met. Golden rings hung lazily from her wrist and neck, reminding me of that New Year’s party. She smiled, and I return the favor, though I imagined mine was as empty as my home and my soul.

“Hey, man, wh—what are you doing?” Byron asked, but I ignored him.

Selena,” I said, my voice cracking. I swallowed a hard, thick lump, nearly choking. My heart thumped in my ears, my face felt numb.

“Are you being crazy right now, ‘cause—” Byron tried to say, but I smacked him with the revolver.

“Shut the fuck up!” I screamed, and then to Selena I calmly said, “I thought you were…”

She interrupted, “What are you doing?”

There was a moment of weakness in me just then, brought forth by the memories of old. Standing in front of her, I felt guilty, like I was doing something of which she would never approve, but then I remembered what happened, and all I could see was red. “Making them pay. Making all of them pay.”

The air conditioner kicked on, and little tassels attached to the vent drifted languidly in place. Her black hair didn’t tussle, didn’t rustle. Her dress remained stagnant. She said, “This isn’t you.”

“It is now,” I said, and pressed the muzzle into Byron’s cheek. I imagined squeezing the trigger and watching his broken, shattered teeth blowing through the other side.

“It doesn’t have to be.”

“Yes, it does. All these mother fuckers took you away from me. Took Sadie away from me.”

I closed my eyes, and sighed. They took my humanity. None of them deserved to live.

Byron, realizing that he wasn’t going to survive, pleaded uncontrollably with deep sobs of regret and shame. I looked down at the pathetic man who was all too willing to do the dirty work, but when it came time to pay for his actions, he whimpered like a little bitch.

I kicked Byron over, and put my foot on his chest. Selena said, “Sweetie, don’t.”

That’s what she called me back then, back when I rubbed her feet every night before bed. She told me I did it to strengthen my fingers, but I truly only did it because I loved her. This was back when I made dinner every night before the concert, and despite my sometimes lingering insomnia, cuddled her for comfort until she fell asleep. Those were the days I probably was considered sweet, but just like everything in this world, I became sour, unpalatable.

I looked away from my wife’s gaze for it had a calming effect I didn’t like. This burning pain inside was what drove me to do what needed to be done, and I couldn’t have her take that away from me. I needed it. I needed to keep this darkness in me that prevented me from giving a damn about anything.

“Please, don’t—” Byron began to say, but I stomped on his head before he could finish. One is all it took, and the thirteen times after that were for me. For Selena. For Sadie.

When my eyes returned to Selena, she was no longer wearing that glittery silver dress. It had become a torn blouse and panties. Her hair wasn’t in curls but instead knotted and caked with dirt. Her skin was mottled with grime and dried blood. One shoe was missing, the other still attached to the swollen foot at the end of a broken and twisted leg. Her left eye was missing, gouged out by one of these bastards. At the time, I didn’t know which one or I might have done the same to them.

Sadie appeared next to her. Her blonde matted hair hung over her shoulders, decorating the dark purple rings around her neck. Neither of them smiled, as if they disapproved of my choices. Perhaps if I was still the man they knew, I might have cared. I wasn’t. I didn’t.

After using Byron’s shirt to wipe as much as I could get of the blood, brain, and skull fragments from the bottom of my shoe, I walked to the door. I looked back, and my wife and daughter had vanished. Maybe they’d show up at Vincent’s house, where I would finally put an end to the life of the man who tried to eat me alive. Maybe they wouldn’t. I hoped they would, because I still missed them, despite my broken emotions and my damage humanity. If they didn’t, that was okay, too. At least I’d still get some satisfaction force-feeding Vincent his own damn body parts.

To be continued next week! Do you like my stories? Read more here!

Skin Tags

The jagged square of flesh pinched between my fingers felt strange as I stood over the dead man’s body. Beads of sweat dripped down my face, and I held back the vomit while I thought about this horrible place. This wasn’t where I thought I would be today. I thought I would wake up, start another day of work, and cap the day with a savory meal and a cold brew. I wanted so bad to wake up in my warm bed, hit the snooze button, and then roll over so I could fall into a new dream. I wanted this to be nothing more than a nightmare.

Indeed, it was a nightmare, but a living nightmare. I wasn’t asleep. I was awake and very alert. I had to be, because a lack of diligence would get you killed in a place like this.

Earlier, when the loud trombone-like sound woke me, we found a note on the floor. It told us that we all had a talent for couponing, and that in order to stay alive, we had to rely on that talent. I certainly was a good coupon clipper, and even competed in plenty of extreme couponing competitions. My OCD made me a perfect candidate to get it done, and get it right. However, nothing could have prepared me for this hell.

There used to be six of us. The man at my feet was Michael, and like him, all the others were dead. That left me alone to complete the challenge. I could no longer rely on anyone but myself, which considering the circumstances, it was much better than having people fighting while a clock slowly ticked away toward my demise.

I stepped over Michael’s crumpled body. Not long ago he’d taken a shotgun blast to the skull. It wasn’t suicide but rather a fatality resulting from a mistake he made trying to complete the puzzle for this room. This was no surprise to me because he wasn’t as good at couponing as the rest of us. What was a surprise was that he outlived everyone but me. Of course, the rules of this game were ever changing based on the whim of the man who talked over the intercom. That faceless monster who built this kill house toyed with constantly, so anything that could change did change.

I stepped through the door, and entered the next room. It was like this from the get. As the note informed us, we were to go from room to room and solve each puzzle. Well, they weren’t really puzzles. They were areas with set coupons, and if you used the right coupons to get the best deal possible, then the door would open. If not, the trap would kill the person who offered the deal. We all took turns per room. When one of us didn’t make it, we just rotated to the next person. After twenty-two room, there was just one person left.

This room was not new to me for I had been here before, but not in the sense that I had been here before I came to this awful place. I came into this room earlier after I solved the puzzle that killed Michael. As it turned out, there were no coupons in this room, so I had to go back and find them.

The room was the same size as the others, though poorly constructed with particle board. Don’t get me wrong, the walls and ceiling and floors were strong and reinforced. We couldn’t just escape by breaking down a wall. There was concrete and rebar and all manner of stuff. Whoever stuck us in here had it planned perfectly. Moreover, like a haunted maze, the particle board was there to terrify us, among other things of course.

These other things I’m writing about are the props. In this room, the walls had blood splattered all over them. Pig’s blood if I had to guess, but I could be wrong. There were pieces of animal limbs spread around the floor, with animal innards splayed from the ceiling by wire and a few too many bits laying on tables.

You might think that this was the most horrific room, but it wasn’t. Not by a long shot. You see, each room represented a different type of retailer, each a morbid representation of the type of business. For instance, one room resembled a barber shop, and there were severed heads, scalped flaps of hair hanging everywhere, and beards torn from faces and nailed to the walls. In another room, which was a nail salon, there were severed fingers hanging from fishing wire, nails ripped off and glued to the floor, and feet laying on the tables. All this among many other things.

I didn’t know where he got all the body parts, and I didn’t much care. All I wanted to do was get the heck out of there.

This puzzle in this room wasn’t hard, but it was by far the worst of the bunch. The coupons weren’t in a basket near the beginning of the room. I didn’t have to dig through body parts or a list of ingredients to find the right one. No. I had to return to all my fellow competitors. Each one of us had a tattoo of a coupon on our body somewhere, which had been inked there before we were locked in this place. It was clever for this guy to have done this because it meant we had to torture each other just to get through the final door—or what I presumed was the final room. What he didn’t count on was that there would only be one of us left, and I didn’t have to torture anyone to get the coupons.

After gathering the last of those five coupons, there was only one left. Mine.

As I mentioned, the tattoos were not in the same spots, and in some cases, it was difficult to get it off someone. Michael had his on his back, and I was thankful that mine was on my stomach in the front, where I could easily access it. This, however, didn’t make it any easier to clip.

The room had provided six pairs of razor sharp scissors, and I had already used a pair to cut out the other five. I grabbed a clean pair because I wasn’t sure how clean or dirty the other captives were, and if I did get out of there, I didn’t want to suffer from some disease I got from sharing someone else’s blood. Call me crazy, but that little OCD voice inside me needed to feel safe.

My hands were shaking as I looked up at the timer on the wall. It read that I had three minutes left to complete the room. I didn’t know what would happen if the timer in each room ran up, and I didn’t want to find out now.

After pressing the sharp edge of the clippers against the corner of the coupon, I struggled to make the first snip of my skin. The shaking became even more violent, and I felt my head go foggy. I fought passing out, but soon squeezed the handle and felt the blades cut through my skin.

I would like to tell you that I didn’t scream, that I fought through the pain without tears. It didn’t happen that way. After the first snip, I felt my body turn icy. I screamed and I cried and I pleaded to the maniac who brought me here. The snot dripped from my face, and my shaking hands moved the sheers a centimeter further, and then… SNIP.

I nearly dropped the sheers that time, but persisted. One snip after another clip, I pressed on. I glanced up at the clock, which told me I had wasted a minute and a half just getting thorough one edge of the coupon. This wouldn’t do, so I had to go faster. All the way around, until each side was cut.

Looking up at the clock, there were fifty seconds remaining. I still had to organize all the coupons to get the best deal, and that didn’t leave me with much of a choice. I had to tear the coupon off or I wouldn’t make it. So, I peeled back one of the corners, and yanked hard and fast. This, I fear, was nothing like ripping off a Band-Aid. It was hot. It was cold. My vision blurred. I was nearly down for the count.

After wobble-running to the door, I fished the other slices of flesh from my pocket. Some of them slipped from my fingers, and I had to quickly scoop them from the floor. The timer dropped second after second, but I dared not look up to see it.

Reading each label, I needed to find out what coupon should go in the scanner first, but there was nothing more than bar codes on them, which I hadn’t noticed before. Each tag of flesh twisted my stomach as I handled them, the torn flesh rough and slick against my fingertips. I had no idea what went where and in which order. So, I began scanning them all and throwing them into the basket. I ended with my own piece, but hesitated to throw it in with the rest. Whether it would save my life or not, tossing out a piece of myself felt weird, but I eventually scanned mine and dropped it in there.

The clock on the wall continued to count down, and I wondered what the heck I had done wrong. Something somewhere wasn’t right because usually the clock stopped the moment the last coupon went into the basket or, if it didn’t, you were immediately killed because it meant you failed the puzzle. Frantically searching the room turned up nothing useful, and the clocked began its final countdown.

…5

…4

…3

…2

…1

The red LED clock numbers began to repeatedly flash 0:00. I expected the room to close in on me or for a toxic gas to snuff me out. Maybe I would just be locked in the room with all these festering bodies until I eventually died of disease or starvation.

That’s when I heard the soft buzzing noise. The door behind me closed, and the one before me didn’t immediately open. Instead, I felt like I was floating for a second. A moment later, that semi-weightless feeling ended, and the clock changed to three hours. The door before me opened, and I entered a new room with five new people.

They watched me, and I sized them up because I had no time to mess around. I didn’t know if I would have to endure this forever, but these new sets of puzzles wouldn’t be the thing that would end me after all that horrific stuff I went through. I wouldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t. So, I pressed on, determined to lead this new group and help them succeed where the others had failed.

The Lonely Road

Oatman, AZ

The desert seems more barren in this area than in the previous. Jack is in the back seat looking out at the ocean of sand passing by at speed, my wife sits passenger, silent as well.

It wasn’t always like this. We all used to be a family of chatty best friends. My son would be bouncing around in his safety seat, and my wife would turn around and play along with him. My daughter would be humming in the back seat to some tune she found on YouTube. It was always perfect.

Not everything lasts forever. Not traditions and certainly not life. Not long after her fifth birthday, the doctors diagnosed Liliana with lung cancer. Within a year, she passed away.

Although any type of cancer can attack anyone, my daughter’s lung disease wasn’t abnormal. Well, it was, but it wasn’t just a random occurrence of cancer. It resulted from my smoking habit. I never gave a second thought as to how dangerous it could be to smoke in the car with my children in the back seat, even with the windows open. My stupidity was my daughters end.

My wife, Kelly, looks at me and then at the gauge cluster. She says, “You better fill up before we get stranded out here.”

She’s right. Plus, I’m incredibly tired. I need to get something to wake me up if I plan to drive through the night. So, I nod in agreement, and she doesn’t say anything further. We aren’t a catty couple. She doesn’t nag and I don’t pick fights.

Ahead, the road appears fluid, a river through this Egyptian-like desert. To the right of the lemon-lime horizon is a small gas station. The giant sign twisting languidly at the top of a long pole had once presented the name of the station. Years of weather and neglect caused one side to break apart and reveal the lamps inside. The other still had the name, but it had faded to a light pink logo that I couldn’t read.

Pulling into the station, we transition from tarmac to gravel. Small pebbles kick up and tick inside the wheel well. I stop at the first pump on the right, and the hot desert wind carries a cloud of dust past us. For a moment, it twists into a dirt devil, and then dissipates as quickly as it appeared.

“I’ll be right back,” I tell them. They know I’m coming back, but I feel like I have to say something. I want to interact with them because we all need it. Silence is a killer. Perhaps it won’t actually kill anyone, but it will destroy relationship, and I needed to break that silence to make sure that they’ll be okay while I’m gone. To let them know that I’m here for them, and that I will always return.

The inside of the station is much cleaner than the outside. A quick glance through the door behind the attendant reveals that he lives here. My guess is that he originally didn’t want to drive every day, so when he bought this station, he decided to move into it.

“Twenty, please,” I say as I hand him a fifty note. “Can I also get one of those energy drinks in the cold case back there?”

“Yes, sir,” the man replies.

As I wait for him to start the pump and make change, I walk back and grab one of the cherry flavored drinks. Returning, I spy something to my left. My eyes dart over there, but I see nothing more than a rack full of flavored jerky.

I thought it was my daughter. This isn’t unusual, though. I’m used to keeping an eye on her in my peripheral, as one must do with children of any age with so many creeps in this world. Even now that she’s gone, I still see her everywhere.

“Son, are you okay?”

I meet the old man’s lazy blue eyes, and smile weak and thin. “Yeah, I’ll be okay.”

With my change and drink in hand, I return to the car and start pumping the fuel. As the LED screen indicates that I’m nearing the end of my twenty-dollar credit, I hear for the first time in months my son screech with laughter. It warms my heart so much that I almost drop the pump and cry with joy. Thankfully, I’m able to maintain composure as I kneel down to see what has him so excited.

My wife is gone from the car. I don’t know exactly where she went. I don’t recall hearing her exit the car. My brow furrows, and I turn my attention to Jack.

He has his mother’s deep brown eyes that are reminiscent of crystal rather than mud. The light allows the small golden flecks in those pools of joy to twinkle with life. He looks away from me, and laughs again. I’m not sure what enamors him so, and although I want to study him for a moment to figure it out, the pump handle clanks hard letting me know it finished.

I get back in the car, and my wife is sitting in the passenger seat again. However, this time she’s facing the back seat, playing with Jack.

She says, “The bathrooms here are so clean. I expected to walk into some kind of CDC death trap, but I have to hand it to the guy, he really knows how to scrub.”

She hasn’t shown this much affection or attention to either of us in a long time, so I don’t respond. I know I’m still broken even if she has suddenly become okay, and I don’t want my dour mood to sour hers. So, I remain quiet as I pull out of the station.

Jack continues to play. Kelly lightly claps her hands and urges him on. I glance over at her, and I want to caress her skin, to feel her warmth, but I know I don’t deserve to touch her. Instead, I look in the rear view mirror to steal a glimpse of my son, and I see my daughter sitting next to him.

Slamming on the breaks causes me to lose control of the vehicle for a moment. I wrestle it back into a straight line on the road, and then I stop the Chevy entirely. I try to turn around and look at my daughter, but the seat belt stops me. I fight hard with it, and finally release the latch. I look back, and see her sitting there as alive as ever.

While Jack has his mother’s eyes, Liliana has mine. They’re azure, but warm. The light haloes from her blonde hair and filters through the fuzzy peach hair on her cheek. She looks scared because of my reaction.

Kelly says between panicked breaths, “What the heck was that?”

I shake my head, unable to speak.

“Babe, are you okay?”

My heart pounds in my chest, and I step out of the car. With my hands on my head, I try to control my breathing. I look out into that hot abyss. A lizard skitters from one dead bush to another. A fly buzzes near a pile of coyote droppings; it lands for a moment and then takes flight again.

I know this can’t be real, but it’s too vivid to be a dream. It has to be a reality, but then, how is my daughter alive? I don’t know, and because I figure that it can’t be real, I fear turning around because I worry she won’t be there.

Eventually, I gain the courage to turn, and gasp in horror. The car sits overturned in the embankment, fluid dripping from the hood. It takes me a minute to process what I’m seeing, and then I run to the car.

“Kelly!” I scream, and I fall to my knees to look through the window.

It is there I find my wife crumpled in the passenger seat. In the back, my son lays silent, still hanging in the safety seat. I search for my daughter, who is supposed to be in the car. She isn’t there. However, someone else is in the car. Me. I sit there with blood all over my face, teeth smashed, and eyes bulging and staring through the cracked windshield.

I look anywhere but there and find my daughter standing a short distance away from the wreckage. She smiles warmly, and beckons me with her hand. Her mannerism isn’t that of a child but of someone with finer motor skills. She smiles again, and I go to her. When I arrive, I find Kelly standing next to her with little Jack sleeping peacefully in her arms.