I’m writing again, after a two year break. It’s rough, like starting over. Ugh. But, I’m well into a tale of death, revenge, and redemption. This chapter is a work-in-progress. Posting it here helps keep me motivated.
Arnica slipped the black 9mm with a leather grip into the battered Nike gym bag. The sound of the zipper ripped through the silence of the motel room. She hauled the frayed strap over her head, to a thin left shoulder and looked around the room to make sure nothing was left behind.
If she left anything, they would find it. And with it, possibly, her.
Blue eyes scanned the still made, squat queen size bed languishing against the haggard one-time blue striped wall paper. She slept in a chair in front of the door last night, leather grip warming her hand. Her eyes fell to the matted carpet, worn threadbare and pocked with stains she didn’t want to contemplate. She hoped like hell the rash of bed bugs making its way across the nation, per national news, hadn’t found Mike’s Motel; hadn’t found her bag, her clothes, her person.
Arnica shoved the over-size brown chair from in front of the doorway. The small black gym bag hung from left shoulder to right hip and banged her right thigh whenever she bent over. It wasn’t exactly the most comfortable way to carry a ten pound duffel, but it was the safest. She straightened. Anchored the bag with her right hand, made sure the zipper was easy to reach, took a deep breath and slowly opened the door.
August Mississippi heat meandered into the conditioned space, rubbed up against Arnica’s flesh, attempted to cotton up her lungs. Tendrils of the heavy black pony tail slapping between her shoulder blades curled, tried to escape the assault. But there was no escape. Not from the heat. Not from whatever came next.
The promise of an early morning sun peeked above the pine trees. It vowed added heat to an already sweltering day. Sweat pebbled between her breasts. She looked left, right, and left again before stepping from the safety of the room to the small walkway outside the door. The motel, Psycho small, maybe six units, all emptied directly into the dusty parking lot.
Arnica dragged on mirrored sunglasses, scanned the empty lot, then headed toward the stretch of highway at the other side. If she were lucky, she might be out of Mississippi in two days, one if she could catch a ride. But luck wasn’t exactly her bosom companion the last few weeks. So she stayed alert and moved to the blacktop.
She shifted the strap on the gym bag to a more comfortable position. It didn’t matter how many times she adjusted it, by the end of the day her left shoulder and neck would match the right, rubbed raw from the bag’s machinations.
She headed west, the road abandoned in the early morning hour, tennis shoes and soft breathing barely discernible over the endless chirping cicadas. She wished for the first time that day, the hundredth time since leaving Kentucky, she could have kept the car. It wasn’t anything fancy, a ten year old white Honda Civic with more rust than paint if she was honest. But it was hers now. Or was hers. It hurt to leave it as a diversion at a truck stop in Pensacola; felt like abandoning an old friend. But, she knew from experience a vehicle is easily tracked, a direct vein to the owner. And she meant to disappear.
Her stomach growled. Arnica ignored it by focusing on how her feet hit the asphalt. After half an hour, the sun rose clear of the trees. It beat the back of her neck and shoulders with blistering bright heat. The cicadas sang an endless cacophony. Thick pine trees stood as silent sentinels along each side of the blacktop: an implacable guard, unspeaking witnesses, mute to her plight.
She squinted behind the sunglasses. Tennis shoes paced the faded yellow line on the edge of the road. A deer trail snaked through the trees on the right. It disappeared into the brown pine needles littering a shadowed floor. Did the deer continue on despite the fact the trail was absent, or did they stop and try to find a new one?
She smirked. Her life’s path seemed, with all its dissecting branches, to have the same sort of disappearing thing going on. And because there was nothing else to think about, nothing else she wanted to think about, time ticked off history in her head.
The first fork in the path occurred when her mother died; killed by drunk driver when Arnica was in middle school.
Her dad was never the same.
The drunk driver walked. That specific lack of justice compelled her on a new path leading straight to the police Academy…
Mid-stride, a handful of years later, the path forked again. Ottis Major crushed his back in the coal mine. No academy, no time or money for school at all. Arnica took a job driving a coal truck for the Thompson Coal Company; took on the monumental task of raising Shelby, while their father lost himself in the bottle.
Seven long years later, when Shelby went to middle school, Arnica quit the coal truck and returned to her path of choice. She managed to earn a place in the Police Academy at the University of Kentucky, graduated in the top three while working part time to send money back home.
She frowned and wiped sweat from her face.
The next time the path didn’t exactly fork as disintegrate. She didn’t want to think about it; tried to push it out by whistling to the mocking birds in the trees. They whistled back.
But, dark memories better left alone, crept in all the same.
Arnica tried to remember Shelby as a baby, as the four year old with bright red hair standing beside their mother’s grave. Those memories were harder to conjure than Shelby as a teenager, driving for the first time, making cheer squad.
She tried to visualize Shelby’s smile. Cement the joyful face of her sister in the center of her memory. The more she focused on Shelby’s joy, the harder it was to keep it in place. Her disobedient mind went to that other, darker memory.
The familiar lump lodged in her throat.
A habitual companion, Arnica learned to breathe around and through the memories it portended. This path she could never leave or change.
Images of Shelby’s bloated body after a week in the water, bright red hair fanned out around her head, the missing hand. The way she found Shelby’s Honda; the autopsy report: rape, torture, suffering.
Arnica sucked in a deep long breath around the lump.
Those damn Thompson twins. Those damn dead Thompson twins. She took immense satisfaction in the retribution. In the fact she was able to mete out what the justice system she believed in so vehemently would not.
One dead. One, well what exactly was Bardon Thompson for the hours he walked around without a heartbeat? A zombie?
Though that duffel bag full of gore…
She shook her head to clear the image.
The calamitous, the place she drew upon to execute retribution, stirred. For the thousandth time she thought of the absolute darkness in the deep mine, the thing coal miners whispered about when they drank too much, the “color.”
No more could she deny the malevolence residing in that pit. The sentience capable of using a dead man’s body to get up, walk, talk, and escape the confines of the mountain. Capable of leaving the original host’s body to rot in the slurry after jumping to another.
Yes, Shelby’s murderers were dead. She saw to it.
But during the retribution process, she loosed something malicious, destructive, obscene upon the world. It was only right, only just, she hunt it down, destroy it. If it could be destroyed.
Arnica sighed. She knew how to be a cop. But this, this, other. She didn’t know how to make things right; didn’t know where to start. Would it be possible to do before Ham Thompson’s people found and killed her? Ham’s unlimited resources meant revenge was only a matter of time. She knew him well enough to understand he wouldn’t rest until the woman responsible for the death of his youngest sons paid, and paid with blood.
The knot loosened. Real attackers, real targets, Arnica could handle. In fact, if she was honest, she looked forward to taking on Ham’s people. Killing the Thompson twins didn’t assuage the anger, the need for blood retribution. Maybe taking more from Ham Thompson would fill the ache.
A sky blue mini-van with Florida plates blew past, rocking Arnica out of dark thoughts. Red break lights flashed as it pulled over to the shoulder throwing white dust into the air.
Arnica jogged toward the van. A toddler’s car seat sat askew in the back seat. A woman with a blond pony tail and pink baseball cap sat behind the wheel.
Arnica sized-up the woman and van with law enforcement efficiency.
“You need a ride?” The woman smiled, perfect white teeth against soft pink lip gloss.
Arnica nodded. “Yeah.”
“Where you headed?” The woman didn’t have an accent.
Arnica thought about it. “Baton Rouge,” she offered, though had no intent of stepping foot inside the city.
“Climb aboard then. I’m headed that way myself.”
Arnica gave the empty highway one more quick sweep before pulling open the door.
“I’m Diana.” The woman offered as she simultaneously pulled back onto the highway and raised the window on Arnica’s side.
“Shelby,” Arnica said. “My name’s Shelby.”