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Emmily, Unbound

 An SFR novel: Of Tethers and Wings 

This is a work of fiction by Teresa K Cypher

All rights reserved under U.S. and International copyright law. This book may not be copied, scanned, digitally reproduced, or printed for re-sale, may not be uploaded on shareware or free sites, or used in manner except the quoting of brief excerpts for the purpose of promotions or articles without the express written permission of the author and/or publisher.

Emmily, Unbound 
Chapter 1

     I’ve given away everything that doesn’t fit in my car. Murphy, my little Cocker-mutt, jumps inside, taking his place in the passenger seat. After I hug my neighbor, I tell my ex-coworker, Addie—who’s come to see me off—to stop worrying. “I’ll call, really, I will. I’m not moving to another planet, you know. The mountains are only five hours away, so come visit me when you get a chance.”
      As I drive away, I’m a model of stoicism. What else do I have left? I’m not angry anymore, just sad.
     Murphy stares ahead, better at this than me. I think he might be looking forward to another big adventure, but I blink back the water in my eyes. Murphy doesn’t know I’m grieving.
      For my parents, for my marriage, for my job. For my life as I knew it.
      I turn on the radio, more for distraction than music. The deejays are discussing a big event authorities believe is a credible UFO sighting, possibly a crash. “It’s in north-central Pennsylvania. That’s right in our backyard,” they say. I've never heard them sound this excited.
     Murphy looks at me when I laugh, so I explain. “The deejays think it’s in their backyard, buddy. Funny, huh? When we get to the cabin, it actually will be in ours.”
 He answers like he always does, with a soulful look coming from his chocolate-brown eyes.
      Dogwoods along the street are popping spring buds. Daffodils in a cheery shade of yellow seem to wave, defying my mood. I don’t want this, none of it, but I can’t afford to keep the house now.
     At the stoplight at the edge of town, at the intersection where my parents died, I swallow the lump in my throat. When the light turns green, I head northeast, toward wilderness and solitude.
      In my rearview mirror, the town I lived in for forty years vanishes in the distance. My new address is waiting—in what will forever be the summer mountains of my youth.
     My eyes well as a truth of being human drifts through my thoughts: We leave a place because we’re searching for something, but we’re usually running from something, too.
      I’m searching for where I lost myself in the purgatory of the last year of my life. And I am running…running from the emptiness, from the pain…
      I’ve been learning to move forward again, one second at a time, one breath at a time. This decision to start over in the mountains will, hopefully, bring me out on the morning side of this dark night of the soul I’m trapped in. I know I’ll have scars, but I pray there won’t be open wounds anymore.
      It’s been hours and hours since we started out. Hilltops lift higher, now true Appalachian Mountains. Surprisingly, my mood is lifting along with them.
      I fiddle with the radio and finally find a station. It’s fuzzy, but I do hear a man talking about the phenomenon in the sky last night. He claims the regional airport picked up something on radar, but then he back-pedals. “Officially, it was a weather balloon.”
      “The weather balloon story again? But since I’ve never seen a UFO, I honestly have no idea what they look like." They could resemble weather balloons, I guess.” I wink at Murphy. “Or battlecruisers from Star Wars, maybe even flying pink elephants.”
      Murphy answers me with another one of his perfected looks.
      Bits and pieces about government squashing talk of ETs and UFOs vanish into static when I round the next bend—where the headwaters of the Allegheny river have sliced a narrow pass through bare-branched hills.
      The cellphone navigation tells me I have a turn a half-mile ahead. I know this; I mean I knew it was coming up…somewhere…soon. In my defense, years have gone by since I visited up here at the family cabin.  To say that Jason never liked it is a big understatement...and it’s one that leaves me bitter. 
      When we reach our turn-off, rock escarpments perched high above both sides of the road appear ready to tumble down onto us. Pennsylvania bluestone buttresses, keepers of the gate to Wheeler Ridge.
      I do remember them; their tall, shadowy silhouettes scared me when I was a little girl. My grownup writer’s mind can still make them into monsters.
      I need to stop this train of thought. It’s pretty lonely up here, so no monster thoughts allowed.
      Murphy sits up, alerted by our slowdown.
      We turn left then drive along a rocky stream dotted with water spilling over rock shelves. It’s kind of spooky in the shade of the mountain and the darkening day. A shiny, black SUV barreling by the other direction crowds us, but lane-hogging isn’t hard to do since the paved surface is only about one and a half cars wide.
       We travel another two miles and then turn left onto Hemlock Hollow Road. Cellphone reception is gone, along with the navigation. That’s okay. We’re so close; I’ll watch for the sign.
      I’m surprised the road isn’t paved; I guess this is still the boondocks.
      Another large black vehicle sails past. I look in my side-view mirror and see that its license reads, “Official Business.” I wonder if the last one had government plates, too.
The trees cast long shadows eastward, reminding me the day is growing late. I close the windows to the deepening chill.
     There’s no radio reception here. If I remember right, I’ll get some up at the house, not great, but better than none. I wonder if I’ll get any cellphone reception at all.     One more bend, a sharp, “kiss-a-me-ass turn” as my dad used to say, and the lane comes into view.
      A flood of memories comes back as I look at the dilapidated sign, at the black paint flaking off the white background. I remember the day dad and I put it up: “Wagner Estate. Welcome, visitors from near and far.” The words are lost to weather and time, their shadows peel from the wood, but their meaning whispers in my memory.
      That was my parents’ credo, especially dad’s. A stranger really was a friend he didn’t know.
      Seeing how overgrown the lane is, I wonder what shape the cabin’s in. I should have come up here to check on it after the will was read, after it became officially mine, Emmily Wagner, only living child of Elma and Burt Wagner.
      The hemlocks and mountain laurel seem to close in around the car as I drive up the steep hill. I take a deep breath, turn on the headlights, and count as I exhale. A mental note forms, that the trees need a good trimming to get them way back off the road. The job’s bigger than I can handle, so I’ll have to hire someone to do it.
      After a half-mile of switchbacks and rainwater ruts, the cabin--tucked into its little clearing--comes into view. I’m back in the sunshine, at least what's left of it: The deep-pink, final moments of daylight.
      I sigh...  Well, the hunting camp isn't quite as rough-looking as the sign at the end of the lane, but it's going to need some work..
Maybe I should have gotten a motel room back on Route 6, but it's pretty late for that now.
      Something scurries from the front porch when I step out of the car. I jump back inside, slamming the door shut twice as fast as I opened it. What was I thinking, coming up here all alone—and it’s almost dark? I must be nuts. I shudder, unsure if it’s the chilly air, or fear causing it. Murphy's sitting up, looking around at the dusky world outside of the windows.
      Sleeping in the car seems like a good option.
      No. I know I’m braver than this, at least marginally braver than my knee-jerk reaction was a minute ago.
      I dig around in my overnight bag and find my flashlight, then I leave Murph in the car. I have to check things out but I don’t need complications, especially if he chases after something big and vicious.
      I approach the cabin, listening. An owl hoots somewhere in the deep woods. Above me, on top of the mountain, another owl hoots back. The hair on the back of my neck stands up. I can hear dad’s words repeating country lore about listening to an owl call in the daylight. “Someone is going to die.” I won’t listen... I just won’t listen.
     The porchlight illuminates a few feet past where I’m parked. Murphy jumps from the car as soon as I open the door. He doesn’t get more than five feet before he raises his leg and marks a shrub. He’s making a statement: This is his home now.
      With night falling fast, I start unloading my things, getting as much as I can before it’s pitch-black. I go back and forth, back and forth carrying loads, then take a break to check my phone for the time. It’s been half an hour and it is dark now; it’s time to go inside. I don’t want to cross a creature that roams the night. Outside the door is their world, not mine. There’s tomorrow to get the rest of my stuff into the cabin.
      I think I've managed to find most of the cobwebs and spiders with the vacuum hose. Before I step outside, I turn on the porchlight and look around. As I gaze into the black woods, it occurs to me that I’ve never been up here all alone before now.
      On the top step, I gaze heavenward and wonder if mom and dad can see me, if they know I’m here at the cabin. I lose myself in the sheer depth and breadth of a starlit vista I could never see from the city. These are my childhood stars, and my teenage stars, even college stars; they’ve always spoken to me—or at least tried to.
      I get to the bottom step, ready to head across the driveway to empty the canister, and there's motion at the edge of the woods. It's at the far end of where the dim porchlight reaches. I’ve either seen somebody moving away from the clearing into the trees, or sasquatch has long blond hair. I spin around and race back inside.
      I hurry through the house, checking windows, locks, and the backdoor. I should have done this sooner but didn't think of it till now, now when there’s something outside I don’t want to get in. Then again, late is always better than too late.
 For extra measure, I take kitchen chairs and brace them under the knobs on the front and back doors. Trying to be methodical, I mentally check off ways to make the house more secure. What am I missing?
      I turn out all the lights. That should lessen how much someone outside can see in through the windows.  I inch farther back from the fire to the edge of the darkness, trying to be invisible to anyone snooping through windows. My mind is going in a crazy circle.
     The curtains…I release them from their tiebacks, and they hang full coverage. There are no blinds, but a couple of the windows have shutters; I close and latch them. Tomorrow I’ll go into town and get some heavy curtains and blinds.
      The next item I try to check off my list, but I can’t—a weapon of some sort. I’m completely unprepared to defend myself -- I have nothing here. Nothing! Tomorrow, along with other supplies, I’ll get a Louisville Slugger to keep next to the front door. Make that two Sluggers, one for the back door too, and a bear trap for the front porch.
      Bear trap? Ridiculous, Emmily.
     I need to stop my mind from continuing this wild ride it's taking me on.
      I listen for any sounds that might be predatory. Aside from my hammering heart pounding in my ears, it's mostly quiet, just Murphy’s breathing and occasional bits of wood crackling in the red glow beyond the hearth.
      I take deep, slow, breaths and will myself to calm while I try to convince my inner scaredy-cat it was my imagination. But just in case, I go to the kitchen and grab a knife—a paring knife. Little good it will do if something big breaks through that door, but it’s all I have.
      On second thought, or maybe it’s third, or fifteenth—I’ve lost track—I grab the broom, thankful that it’s a sturdy old, full-size one. It might work better than the knife. I can whack someone from a distance with it. I pray I don’t have to use either.
     When my breathing slows and my racing heart calms, when I can think again, I pick up a notebook full of my writing notes and turn to a blank page. Squinting, at the fringes of the firelight, I make a list. Baseball bat is on the top line because…it’s not a bad idea. Next are window blinds and cleaners--make that a boatload of cleaning supplies. Then I add the groceries I’ll need for a couple of weeks, starting with water for drinking and cooking.
      The list is long when I finally can’t force my eyes to stay open. After one last check on the chairs propped against the doors, I crawl into a sleeping bag on the living room floor.
      Fire-shadows play and dance, flickering on the walls and the ceiling as my racing thoughts finally slow. Instead of counting sheep, I repeat over and over, "There wasn’t anyone in the woods." As I drift off, I clench the broom handle, because no matter what I tell myself, I know what I saw…

Chapter 2
     When I open my eyes, a soft-rose glow along the space between the curtains and the window-frame is my view. All the drama from last night rushes into my thoughts, and I admit that now, in the coming light of day, it all seems pretty silly. I need to get a grip.
      After moving the chair away from the front door, I step outside and breathe in deep. It doesn’t get better than this: that cold and clean morning, mountain air… The birds are perched on the highest branches, up where the sun is already shining. They sing spring songs, no doubt full of amorous intent. A few buds are greening-up on low-brush.
     This is how life starts anew.  The land is shaking off the cold, the loss, the illusion of endless sleep, just like I need to do… to find a way to start again.
     The sky is an almost impossible shade of blue. I stretch, doing my homemade version of yoga, welcoming the new day.  My spirits are good. I repeat in my head that this is going to work, this is the answer; I’m in the right place to heal from my losses. I finish my stretch and head back inside. I have a lot to do today, so I can’t waste this early start.
      Hauling in the rest of my belongings takes a good hour. It's way more than luggage. This is everything from my past I’ve deemed worthy of sharing space in my new life. My new parentless, husbandless, jobless life.
      Losing my job… that was the final nail in whatever it is that holds life together. In my case, the nails were being pulled out one at a time until it all fell apart.
     Unpacking several totes and organizing the essentials takes up another hour. I slide the rest of the boxes into the little bedroom, my room from forty years ago. I’ll go through them later when I’m not swimming in emotion—as if that day will ever come...
      Several bottles of water later, and a recently unpacked box of kitchen supplies, I have a fresh pot of orange and spice tea. The first morning of my new life, I take my breakfast of a cheese omelet and a travel mug of tea out onto the porch. Murphy follows me. The front steps are a perfect dining room chair, and my lap serves as my table. Murphy has already wolfed down his eggs and now sits staring at me, his eyes pleading for some of mine; like always, he wins.
     I sip my tea and enjoy the sunshine on my face, right up until a branch cracks in the woods. Not a twig. No, this took a large animal to break it. My goosebumps aren’t the result of a bunny hopping around in low-brush too thick to see through. Murphy starts sniffing the air and a low growl climbs out of his throat. I peer into the bare-branched forest, but I can’t see anything that might have caused the noise.
     I contemplate running back inside. I don't. Instead, I decide I need to either reach some kind of peace with the woods, or load up my car and head south. I opt for the former. This is my house.
      Besides, it’s probably a whitetail deer browsing for breakfast. I take stock of the yard. I wish that deer would come up and browse in it—and bring sixteen of his friends. That’d make short work of this brown and green hayfield I have for a lawn.
I glance at the door of my dad’s shed. The padlock’s gone. Great. I wonder who did it and what they stole. Maybe later today or tomorrow I’ll check to see if the lawnmower and weed-eater are still inside. I have my doubts.
     A charcoal swath of clouds hangs low on the horizon far to the south. I’ve been so preoccupied with the move, I haven’t watched the weather for a while, so I have no idea what’s coming this way. But I do know the sun is shining right now, and it’s relatively warm for an April morning up in the mountains.
     “Murphy, we should go into town and get our shopping done.” I go back into the house and put my plate in the sink. I can do dishes while it’s raining, but driving is a whole lot more pleasant if I do it in nice weather. I grab my list and my purse then call out, “C’mon little Murph. Time to go for a ride.”
* * *
     The grocery store twenty-one miles away is small with limited selection. There are no carts, just baskets and two Radio Flyer wagons. The wheels thump-thump over the worn, wooden floor as I pull it around the shop. Sometime in the future, I’ll make the drive into the county seat where there are chain department stores and groceries. For now, this is fine though.
     I pick up enough food for a couple of weeks, making sure to get extra loaves of bread; it freezes. I got a dozen cans of soup, and several boxes of crackers. Mom used to talk about a heavy April snow that had them stuck on the mountain for five days. If such a freakish thing happens again, I don’t want to spend my time kicking myself for not being prepared. Always the Girl Scout. There are no fresh vegetables to be had, so I settle for the canned ones. They do have fresh fruit, though, pretty basic types. Bananas and apples. I get a huge bunch of the former, and two bags of the apples. Anther customer tells me there’s a local orchard that stores their own, and supplies the local markets.
     The checkout clerk—there is only one register—asks me where I’m from and says she hasn’t seen me around before. I tell her the short version about my parents having a place over near Wheeler Ridge, but I  don’t mention it’s specifically East Ridge where my cabin is. I add that I’m a writer, so she doesn’t feel the need to interrogate me about where I work or what I do. Doesn’t  everyone know that writers are like other artists—a little bit weird and not exactly social butterflies?
     It’s a fair assessment; I like my own company.
     The clerk at the hardware store gives me ‘what-the-hell’ eyes when I ask about baseball bats. He tells me they have none, so I ask him to cut a two-by-four into two pieces.
     Yep. Those are definitely ‘what-the-hell’ eyes. Then again, maybe they're more like ‘this-woman-needs-to-be-watched’ kind of eyes.
     When I ask about the rest of my list, he's matter of fact when he says, “We don’t have window blinds or curtains. No one in Y-town does. You’ll have to drive on over to the county seat to one of those chain stores to get them.”
     Working on the last stop, I park next to the little diner—the only eatery besides Chuck’s Watering Hole on the edge of town. I tell Murphy I’ll be right back. After I go inside and order two burgers and one fry to go, I return to the SUV and wait with my little, furry, buddy.
     There’s no post office here; in fact, you can just about throw a stone from one end of town to the other. Maybe it’s really a village, or it could be a borough. There’s no sign proclaiming it as any of them, just a Y in the road, a ‘don’t blink or you’ll miss it all’ bump in the highway.
     A man comes out of the feed-store-slash-general store. His casual glance turns into a blatant stare directed at me, and his gait changes to more a cock-of-the-walk strut. Great…he’s peacocking. He takes his time getting in his truck.
     After doing a U-turn in the middle of the road, he drives our way. It’s time to go pick up our lunch, Lousy timing.  I step out of my car just as he rolls up next to me. His smile is friendly, but something is off—his eyes linger far too long on places they shouldn’t.
     “Lost? Or are ya new around here?” He smells of beer and cigarettes.
     “Neither,” I say.
      He chortles—a laugh infused with a bit too much alcohol—then  says, “Did you come to look for the UFOs?”
     “Huh?” That must have sounded intelligent. I regroup. “What UFOs are you talking about?”
     “They say something landed twenty miles from here, yonder, near East Ridge.” He jerks his head toward the direction from which I’ve come, toward the ridge my little cabin is snugged up against.
     “Really? UFOs?” This guy is taking yesterday’s news report way too seriously.
     “Yes ma’am. It’s what I been hearin’ all mornin’. Joe, over to the feed store, says his wife seen the lights when the thing come down.”
     “Imagine that.” How else do I reply to this? I mean, it’s intriguing but there’s always a rational explanation for these things. Now, how do I get rid of this guy?
     Before I come up with a plan, a man in a way-too-big flannel shirt exits Chuck’s and walks our direction. He shouts, “Hey, Linus!”
     The man before me, who I assume is Linus when he turns and looks at Mr. Flannel, mutters, “Fuck.” Then he adds, “Leave it to that dipshit to interrupt my chat with the prettiest gal I seen in a while.”
     “Can you give me a lift home?” the guy shouts.
     Linus rolls his eyes toward me and then yells back at him, “Sure. Hop in.”
      He hurries across the street, his gait slightly off kilter. While he climbs into the truck, Linus gives me a sort of Elvis-half-sneer-half-grin. Then he says, “If you’re gonna be around, maybe we can get together sometime. Shake a little leg over at Chucks. Look me up. I’m there by four most afternoons.”
     “Thanks,” I tell him, “but I’m not much for dancing. Nice meeting you, Linus.”
He pulls away, and he's not breaking any speed limits while he watches me in his sideview mirror.
     I run inside the diner, grab our food, and get back out to my car. I left the windows down a bit for Murphy, but now I roll them up tight and lock the doors before pulling onto the road.
     A few miles out of town, a vehicle is pulled off to the side at a dirt lane that vanishes into the woods. It is unmistakably Mr. Unwanted Advances from town. He’s talking to someone leaning against his passenger side window. I see as I pass that it’s the free-ride Linus didn’t want to give. Must be his drop-off point.
     As I continue, Murphy and I are eating our burgers and sharing the fries. The sun is still shining and, except for the man who gave me the creeps, it’s all good. I check my mirrors. Crap. Decided that too soon. Life might have a small kink; Linus is now following me.
     My heart lurches. Then I tell myself that he probably lives out this way, and to stop with the paranoid drama.
     A car pulls out of a side road between Linus and me. I take full advantage and speed up, getting some distance between us. I know I’m driving too fast, but somehow this seems like the best plan. Half a dozen thoughts spin in my head. I keep getting stuck on this one: The hardware store didn’t have baseball bats so the best I could do was a couple of two-by-four clubs.
     I turn off beneath overhanging boulders and don’t slow down. The narrow road is twisty, but I view that as good. If Linus can’t see me because I’m around a bend, he won’t know where I turned off the main road.
     I get to the dirt road and slow down after I fishtail around a tight turn. The paved road is now out of sight, and Linus has not appeared. I think I lost him.
As I near my lane, I’m watching my rearview mirror. I glance forward and… “Shit!” I jam on my brakes.
     A man is standing smack-dab in the middle of the road. I start to drive to the side trying to squeeze past him. He shakes his head, turns until his shoulder is facing me, raises a weapon he’s gripping with two hands, and aims it directly at me.
I slam the car into reverse. What the hell is this? A carjacking? In the middle of nowhere? 
     I turn to look behind me and catch motion among the trees. More men are running toward the car. They level weapons at me too.
     I might be having a heart attack.
     I put my foot on the brake and try desperately to come up with a way to get out of this. The wind is blowing my trail dust past the car, and the man in front of me covers his mouth and nose with his sleeve. He’s walking closer, finally standing at my car door. The three of them now have me surrounded. Two no longer point weapons at me, but the guy at my window keeps his drawn. He leans down close to the glass and I don’t have to see through those dark glasses to know he's locked eyes with me. He speaks in halting words. “We… need your… help.”
I can barely breathe, let alone think.
     “We do not wish… to… harm you. We need your help.”
      Am I hallucinating? I mean, never in my life have I… Still…am I imagining this middle-aged man with long and silky hair so white it looks like it has no pigment? Not natural. The hair or the crazy vision. I’d pinch myself, but I’m paralyzed or petrified.  Both.
     Mr. Gun-at-my-window hasn’t budged.
     His hair? Maybe he just bleached the hell out of it. A string of beads hangs in one thin braid near his face, his too-perfect face. I can’t see his eyes because of the sunglasses he wears. They all do.
      Hair? Glasses? Holy shit! Who cares? The gun. The gun…
      Hysteria grips me, my gut clenching and then releasing into fits of butterfly-flapping mixed with terror.  He’s good-looking. This lunatic pointing a gun at me is… A crazy Kurt Cobain thought is here and gone.
      He touches the weapon to the window and his voice no longer sounds like he’s trying to reason with me; it’s a demand. “Get out.”
     There are only two choices. Step on the gas and run at least one of them down, or comply. I slide the shifter into park. I’m no killer.
      For shit’s sake… Bet I’ll regret that decision.     
      My hands obey, sort of. They’re shaking so hard when I grab the door handle, I struggle to get it open. I’m not sure I’ll be able to stand. I climb to my feet and lean against the car for support. No use trying to run. I’d fall for sure, and then he’d shoot me for trying to escape. Besides, Murphy is still in the car, standing on the seat watching this nightmare unfold.        
      The man leans toward me and grabs my arm. The grip is firm but doesn’t cause pain.  His voice still carries demand when he says,  “We need help…” 

     He cocks his head to the side and blinks several times. His brows pinch together,  then he adds, “There was a…crash.”
      My voice quivers--but at least I'm managing to speak. “I don’t know medicine or rescue or anything like that. I can’t help you. But I can…I can call an ambulance. I have no phone reception here. I’d have to drive back down the road a ways." I draw an 'X' on my chest and add, "Cross my heart, swear I’ll make the call.”
       Cross my heart? Seriously?
       He cocks his head again and hesitates. His string of beads sways back and forth...back and forth... He says, “No ambulance. No doctor.”

       I don’t know what they want. What do they expect me to do?
       He points the weapon at my temple. “You will help us… now.”      
       That’s when I get a good look at the weapon and I start to snicker. The snicker grows into something explosive—an uncontrolled howl—a funny-but-so-not-funny kind of laugh. The danger doesn’t escape me though. Even if it is a cheap Halloween ray-gun, I’m still alone in the middle of nowhere with strangers who control my immediate future.
    Tears slip out of my eyes and I wipe them away. My nervous reaction to intense moments does this to me: Laughter, tears, accompanied by uncontrollable shaking. And… here it comes.

      His brows pinch together, and he leans his head to one side. I imagine he’s wondering what the hell is wrong with me.
       My inner-voice is already arranging words to answer his unvoiced question, and they sound shamefully doormat-apologetic--that I’m prone to bouts of mild hysteria.  Yeah. What the hell is wrong with me? I bite my tongue, refusing to show how easily I kowtow to demands.
That's the snippet. Here's a few more to round out this thought. 
       Speechless, I hang onto the side of the car, trembling, trying to gain control of my spinning brain.  For cripes’ sake, think!  If Murph and I are going to live through this, I need to get it together. 
      There’s movement in the woods again. “Holy shit and what the hell--all rolled into one.”  I swallow the enormous lump that forms in my throat. I will be dead soon if I don’t stop thinking out loud.

        Two more white-haired men are carrying something. Mr. Friendly remains at my side with the plastic ray-gun pointed at me. The other two carjacker-types go back into the woods and help carry whatever it is.
          “Good God above,” I mutter. Is that a body? I try to control my shaking while I  look around.
       I really need to escape. Like…really.
     The weapon-wielder must see it on my face, how desperate I am. He leans close, directly in front of me, blocking the view of them coming our way and I can’t avoid him. He says, “I am Kade. I do not want to harm you. My friend needs help. You…have no choice. But your …cooperation will make this…easier.”
      Easier? As if any form of the word easy has a place in what’s going on here.
     I have no choice.
      Numbly, I nod at him while my mind spins. They want me to help them get rid of a body? My knees are going to give out. The illegal things going on here are mounting up. Accessory to a…a… what the hell is it? At the very least, there must be something we can be arrested for, like disrespecting the dead. No. That’s not it.

     I try to control my breathing, slow breaths, counting. I can’t be charged with a crime, I reason, if I’m being forced at gunpoint.
     Yeah, my knees aren’t going to hold me much longer.

     The men carrying the prone form arrive at the car. On closer view, I see that one of them is a woman. I had to look hard, though; hiding behind the same uniform the others wear, she’s one strong-looking woman. Same silky hair, same gorgeous features but hers are smeared with soot and blood. She glances my direction and I know right away I get no points for belonging to the sisterhood.

     Kade tells me to open the back, and when I do, I get close to the body. I look down into a face contorted in pain. He’s so pale. He must have died an awful death that this mask of his demise remains.

     Even so, he is…drop-dead handsome. Is? Was. He was drop-dead handsome. The lines of his face are angular. Brows arch in perfect form above eyelids fringed with long lashes. His hair, colorless like those surrounding him, is fine and silky, the kind of hair I always wished I had. A single, small braid hangs to the side of his face, and it's full of beads.

     For God’s sake, I’m going into shock. Why else would I… Seriously? I’m checking out the dead guy…

     The others hoist the sides of the camo tarp he's on… and he moans.
      Oh, thank God. He’s alive. Maybe. Just barely from the look of all that blood. Why did I think he was dead? Cripes. My gun-packing-kidnapper did say his friend needed help, not a funeral.
     How messed up is this moment that I'm reacting this way?
     The crime is changing. Now it’s a mere act of harboring fugitives. Or, could it be aiding and abetting?           
      Either way, I am so going to jail before this is all over.
     Again, I tell this man, Kade, that I’m no doctor. “He needs a doctor and a hospital if he’s been in a car crash.” 
     They ignore me, all their concentration on getting the injured man inside my car.
     I take stock while they lift him. He's not wearing sunglasses like the others. Blood is smeared across his forehead, and there’s a lot of it on the blanket he’s wrapped in. I lean in to close the back of the SUV, and see his eyes as they fly open, wild, startled, with elongated pupils.
     Oh. My. Gawd. Animal eyes.


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