Bess woke up with a groan. Every part of her hurt. Her shoulders hurt. Her arms hurt. Her chest hurt. Her legs hurt.
She pawed at her belly and grimaced.
She was dressed in a different nightgown and her feet were bare. Although it was dark outside, she was squinting and realized light was pouring into her room – so bright that it made her eyes hurt. She blinked and looked around as her eyelids fluttered from the strain of keeping the light out.
The rough-hewn wood of the walls looked different. The material was the same, but the knots formed a pattern different from the one she had learned from the hours of staring at the walls in her room.
The sheet was threadbare and draped in loose folds across the mattress. A grey wool blanket with holes in it lay haphazardly at the foot of the mattress.
Bess reached down for the pedestal that her mattress was supposed to be on and felt the floor instead. She clutched at it and pulled up a handful of dirt. She watched it slip through her fingers and forced her eyes open despite the stinging shards of pain from the light that beamed in through an open door.
She heard chattering in Spanish float through the air. A man laughed. The conversation outside grew louder and she eased herself back along the mattress until her back found the wall.
She looked on each side of the mattress for a nightstand and found none.
A man poked his head through the door and grinned. She blinked again and saw he held a black flashlight as he shined the beam into her eyes.
The man with the flashlight said, “Está despierta. Venga hombre, aquí,” and laughed as a hulking figure stumbled to her door, leering at her with greasy eyes pressed into a leathery fat sweating face. He staggered into the room and tripped over the mattress, falling next to her with a grunt.
His thick arm flopped on the mattress as he groped for her. She rolled off the bed and stood up, staring at him as he writhed in a drunken stupor and fumbled with his belt. Bess covered her mouth with her hand and jerked her gaze between the drunk man on her bed and the man standing in the door with the flashlight.
The man standing in the door said, “Levántase, Borracho” and burst out laughing. “Ella necesita amor.”
Bess glared at the man standing in the door as the drunk man in her bed wrestled with the sheets and tried to turn himself over. “Stop watching us!” she screamed.
The man laughed and said, “No hablo inglés, Teresita Fuego.” He turned off the flashlight, but Bess could still see his dimly lit face. She glanced around the room for the source of light and saw the single yellow bulb suspended from the ceiling by a twisted black wire.
The man on her bed was a writhing ripple of shadows as he tugged at his belt buckle, unable to pull it loose.
Then she saw it. Or at least she thought she saw it. She watched him intently, studying his motions like the waves whipping across the lake as she timed the swells and heaved the rudder to nudge the bow over to ride into them.
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the man standing in the door, still laughing at the drunkard who would probably fall asleep before he could manage to get his pants off.
The man in the door kept laughing. As he held onto the doorframe with one hand, his body swayed just enough for her to realize he wasn’t entirely sober, either. More importantly, his free hand was holding the flashlight. It was a full sized Maglite, the kind that could act as a hefty club if needed. But his hand was not behind his back, inches away from a pistol tucked into the back of his belt. She wondered: did he even have one?
A few feet behind him, a wooden wall reached up as high as her chest. A lattice of chicken wire stretched across a frame fastened to the top of it. Her heart started to hammer when she realized she could see over that wall, through the web of tin wire and see an ocean of darkness behind it.
She could see the world outside.
She focused on her breathing as she concentrated on the man still struggling to remove his belt while his friend laughed endlessly at something that couldn’t possibly be amusing, as if his mind were stuck in its own trap and he couldn’t stop.
She saw it again, certain this time that the man writhing on the bed wore a basketweave leather sheath on his belt with the curved grip of a knife fastened to it by a leather hoop strap.
She eased herself onto her knees next to the man while her mind told her that it couldn’t be true. It had to be a trick – a trap set by Jefe to lure her into doing something forbidden that would bring on his wrath and more punishment for her and the rest of the girls. He was that way, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he always looking for ways to punish them for rules that they didn’t even know about?
She straddled the man’s legs and placed her hand on his back, trying to soothe him with her touch so he would lie still. Her eyes went to the knife as he kept squirming while he tugged at his belt buckle. She watched the knife as the laughter from the man at the door filled the room like the incessant buzz from a swarm of insects.
The man on the bed groaned and then started to growl as he pushed himself up with his hands. Before she knew what had happened, he turned over, grabbed her by the shoulders and swung her down on the bed, pinning her with thick hands. She tried to twist away from his grip as he straddled her and pressed her into the mattress with the full weight of his body.
He let go of her shoulders and sat upright to resume tugging at his belt. Bess sensed a moment in time that would never come again. Her father had once told her that a person’s life pivoted on a few key moments that were all but invisible unless you were quick enough to see them. She felt one of them emerge now – a moment when she could see past the day when Lago would reach out to her through the darkness one last time.
The laughter closed in on her. It swirled in her mind, igniting the ember and a rage that boiled in the crucible of her own will. Her hand flashed out to the sheath and flicked open the snap on the leather strap around the handle. The knife gyrated away from her as the man continued to tug at his belt. She groped for the handle and the man stopped moving as he realized what she was doing. As his eyes tracked along her arm and towards her hand, she whipped the knife out of its sheath and slashed the blade across the inside of his leg.
He clutched at his leg as his femoral artery ruptured and he rolled over on his back as the scream of a wounded animal erupted from beneath his drunken stupor
The man standing in the door stopped laughing and stared wide-eyed at his drunk friend screaming as blood soaked through his pants and started to pool on the sheet. Bess ran past him and out the door as he started to yell at his wounded friend, still not realizing exactly what had happened. “Paco! Que pasó? Díme!” His face seemed frozen in time and the words emerged from his lips in slow motion as she bolted past him and raised the knife in her hand. She ignored him as he ran into the room and pawed at his injured friend, trying to sop up the blood with the sheet.
She thumped hard against the wooden wall across from the room and stabbed furiously at the chicken wire nailed to the open frame along its top. Strands snapped open, creating tantalizing gaps that weren’t near large enough for her to crawl through. She sucked in her breath hard and stabbed the blade through the narrow gap between the chicken wire and the top of the frame, prying it loose from the nails holding it in place.
When the wire popped free, she placed the knife blade in her mouth with the cold metal of the dull edge against the corners of her mouth and bit down. Huffing through her nose like a rabid animal, she clawed at the wire, tearing it down from the frame. She ignored the blood running along her fingers as the wire bit into her, tearing at it blindly until it was down far enough for her to crawl through.
She wanted to look over her shoulder, to see if anybody was behind her, chasing her or even looking at her. She wanted to know. But a voice screamed in her mind: run!
She hoisted herself over the top of the wooden wall and tumbled over, shards of chicken wire leaving thin streaks of blood as they scraped along her legs.
She fell over the other side of the wall with a grunt, rolled over and pushed herself up from the ground. Her bare feet pressed down against hard cold dirt, feeling the outside world for the first time since her arrival at Los Rojos.
She grabbed the knife from her mouth and ran away from the wall, mashing her feet into the dirt and stretching her legs into bounding strides, making each one as long as possible as she fled the compound.
Behind her, she heard the man’s voice, already fading behind her. “Esta Corriendo! Mira!” She heard indistinct shouts and then the shrill screech of a whistle. A circle of white light pawed at the ground around her, darting across scrub and weeds.
The light flashed across a cactus in front of her, but it was too late. Her foot stomped down on the needles covering its wide fleshy petal and she stifled a scream as shards of pain shot through the bottom of her foot.
The needles stabbed into her foot with every step as she forced herself to keep running, holding back the burning urge to yelp in pain each time.
Her breath came in searing ragged gulps as her lungs started to burn and her side started to throb with the beginnings of a runner’s stitch.
Something pecked at the ground next to her and then she heard the popping report of pistols and rifles crack behind her.
She changed course, angling away from the wall. She counted to sixty in her head, forcing herself to do it slowly and then angled in another direction. The sound of gunfire grew fainter and the ground around her remained still.
The light scurried along the ground like some ghostly animal running after her. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see it moving away from her as it chased along the path she had been running just moments before. She angled away from it even further and ran even faster as the searing pain in her side sharpened. It felt like a lobster claw had latched onto her.
Her foot had gone almost completely numb and the cactus needles tickled her with a faint prickling, allowing her to stretch out her stride even further.
She was gasping for air as deeply as she could and she knew her lungs wouldn’t be able to sustain her flight much longer.
She chanced a glance over her shoulder. The chicken wire was stretched across a frame sitting on top of a wall stretched out in front of six doors that looked like they were laid out with the same spacing as the block, but it was clear now that she was no longer at Los Rojos.
The wall continued across a small courtyard with another wall on the other side. Both were attached to a sloppy adobe hut with a thatched wooden roof. Pale yellow lights revealed smoke curling away from a black stovepipe jutting from the roof.
Pinpricks of light from flashlights swept across the ground, moving away from the wall as three men searched for her. A laugh welled up in her throat and spilled out into the air in front of her as she realized they were moving away from her. She winced at the noise of her own laughter, unable to stop, but the flashlights continued to move in the wrong direction as indistinct voices yelled at each other.
She changed course again so she was running parallel to the wall, which she figured to be at least a hundred feet away by now. She counted slowly to sixty again as the corner of the building drifted behind her.
Her legs were weak now and she started to stumble as they refused to stretch out any further and her lungs couldn’t draw enough air. She turned perpendicular to the back of the building and slowed to a jog. Keeping the back end of the building to her right, she jogged through the darkness in front of her. A crescent moon splashed just enough light on the terrain that she could make out its contours, but the scrub and cacti didn’t reveal themselves until she was practically on top of them, so she had to dodge any obstacles at the last moment so she wouldn’t trip over them.
She eyed the back of the building and licked her lips as she drew closer to the place she had just fled, but she knew they wouldn’t expect her to double back and felt a faint glow of elation as the flashlights scattered further into the darkness behind her. The groping beam of the searchlight that she now saw was mounted to the top of the chicken wire frame next to the house continued to roam the ground where she had been running just moments before. But it, too, was moving away.
She slowed to a quick walk as she moved past the back of the building and to the other side of the compound.
Once on the other side of the building, she turned away from the corner at a forty-five degree angle and huffed out a few quick breaths, gathering her strength for a final sprint.
Her legs were tight and throbbing and she gritted her teeth as she forced them to start running again. She wanted to yell to pump up her strength, but knew she was still too close and they would hear her. She knew that she would have to wait until she couldn’t see the compound anymore or find the flickers of light searching the desert floor before she could even think about using her voice.
She sucked in a sharp breath as the stitching pain ripped through her side. She tried breathing through her nose, but couldn’t get enough air to fuel her sprint and let her breath explode through her mouth again, surrendering to the burn that felt like a knife cutting through her. Her feet clomped along the ground, stumps attached to legs that felt more like wooden trunks.
Still, she ran.
She didn’t look back again, instead focusing on the terrain in front of her that swept out into an infinite expanse of sand, scrub and weeds. When she saw the first joshua tree, she slowed to a jog. Further on, a few scant rocks towered up from the desert floor, looming over the trees. She jogged past them and then finally slowed to a staggering walk as she worked her way behind them.
She reached out, pressed her palm against the grit of the sandstone sentinel and leaned against it as her side throbbed in pain with each breath. Somewhere on the other side, the compound was far behind her now. Hidden behind the rock, she could imagine that it never existed at all and she fell to her knees as she finally let herself go and sobbed with an aching relief she had never felt before in her life.
She crawled on her hands and knees, blubbering with elation until she found a crevice between the two towering rocks. Squeezing through, she found a bare patch of sand in between them, protected by the rocks curving against each other.
She looked up to see a handful of stars peering down through the small opening between the rocks, which now enclosed her completely.
The space inside her rock fortress was smaller than a closet, but it felt like a castle that had been waiting just for her for over a thousand years. Tears streamed down her face and splashed on the hard packed sand. She knelt down and ran her fingers along its surface, feeling the grit of her domain brush against them. She leaned her cheek against the sandstone jutting up from the ground, protecting her from all things, and pressed her palms against its rough surface. She let the cold seep into her hands and wrap itself around her like a steel cocoon.
She was cold. Her side still throbbed with burning lashes of pain. Her legs ached. Her foot was swelling and the cactus needles once again felt like metal spikes jabbed into her heel.
But the air she breathed was her own, all the sweeter for the fortune paid in suffering.
Hours later, Jefe slammed his hand down on his desk. “Fuck!”
The guards flanking the desk flinched at his outburst. Seething, Jefe hunkered down over his desk and glared at Rickie Hewitt.
“I feel the need to kill… something,” he said.
Rickie glanced around the room and tapped his chest. “Not me?”
Jefe leaned his forehead into his hand and started rubbing his brow, pressing hard enough to make his nails turn white. He rolled his eyes to one of the guards and stared at the man as he continued stroking his brow. He rolled his eyes the other way, took several long breaths and then shifted his gaze back to Rickie.
He stopped and folded his hands on his desk. He took another long breath through his nose. “No, Mr. Hewitt, not you.” He tapped his palm on the desk and then pressed down as he mashed his lips together in a tight grimace. “Although I’d sure like to. You created this mess.”
Jefe eased back in his chair and licked his lips. “Somebody sent a suitor to call on your young Bess.”
Jefe waited while Rickie blinked at him and finally asked, “Isn’t that what she’s here for?”
“Somebody who knew her by name,” Jefe said.
Rickie shrugged. “I don’t understand.”
“The only names these girls have are the ones we give them. This guy, who I know has never been here before, knew her by name.”
“Oh.” Rickie glanced around the room, rubbing the palms of his hands along his pant legs. “So what you’re saying -“
“Is somebody came here looking for her.”
Rickie worked his jaw for a moment and then his eyes glazed over. “Yeah, I can see how that could be a problem.”
“Yeah, I saw it the same way. So I sent her down south.”
“A camp in the old country. Where nobody can find her until we get control of the situation.”
“Okay, so what’s the problem?”
Jefe took another deep breath, stretched his neck and shook his head. “She escaped.”
“Why didn’t you just kill her?” Rickie asked.
Jefe snorted and pulled his head back to look down his nose.
A smirk crept onto Rickie’s face. “Yeah, she kind of gets to you. I know.”
Jefe looked away and said, “I had a moment of weakness in the face of genuine compassion.”
“You?” Rickie asked, his mouth agape.
“Yes, Mr. Hewitt. Me.” He turned back to Rickie and drummed his fingers on his desk. “But that moment has passed. She was still a valuable brand, as well. But now…”
“Well, she doesn’t know where we are, does she?” Rickie asked. “I mean, she can’t tell anybody where this place actually is.”
“All she has to do is start talking and people will look. And it won’t just be the friends her mother hired. Sheriffs. Police.” Jefe leaned forward. “Your federales.”
“You mean the FBI.”
Jefe nodded. “Mm hmm.”
“So now what?”
“Have you reacquainted yourself with the mother?”
Rickie stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked at his shoes. “Well, things have changed. She’s cleaned up. Even going to meetings now.”
“You need to round her up, Mr. Hewitt. And then she needs to call her friends so you can round them up, too.”
“You mean kidnap them?”
“Yes, Mr. Hewitt. Get them in one place and make sure they don’t go anywhere.”
“And we wait. The first thing young Bess is going to do is call her mother. And when she does, you’ll make sure we know exactly where she’s calling from.”
“That sort of thing really isn’t what I do, Jefe.”
Jefe picked up his hand, let it hang in the air and then slowly laid it back on his desk. “Well, Gutierrez will continue to provide assistance in your quest to expand your horizons, Mr. Hewitt. It’s simple. You point a gun at people, getting them to do things becomes a simple exercise in persuasion.” Jefe arched his brow. “Right?”
“Yeah, okay, I got it. What are you going to do?”
“Me?” Jefe scoffed. “I’m going to put a bullet in that girl’s head.” He leaned forward, a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Before she finds a way to put one in mine.”
©2017 Michael J Lawrence