Bess grabbed the hand of every girl sitting in the van as she said her goodbyes. The black van that had brought each and every one of them to Los Rojos would now become their chariot of liberation.
There was a bond between them, but she knew they would never see each other again. She knew that like her, they were sad to know they would forever be out of her life but relieved to never again have to see a face that reminded them of Los Rojos. For all of them, it would be a time they would never want to remember or talk about. The world would still try to wrest it all from them with unkind words like trauma and recovery, always looking the other way when then truth about the kind of cruelty that could never be forgiven dared peek out and remind them that some things were lost forever. But they couldn’t know. And they couldn’t fix it.
Bess knew that all the other girls wanted now was the same thing she would have to fight for – just what was left of the rest of their lives. Simple things would be enough. Waking up without wondering if you were going to get a bullet in the head. The ability to say “no.”
The right to say your own name.
These things were enough and whatever came after that would be the days that marched into the vastness of something everyone else just called life.
Bess slid the door closed and turned to face her friend. She had known her for so long as Teresita Leche and it felt strange to call her Shannon O’Leary, but that’s what she called her now.
“I don’t know what it is, Shannon. I wish we could be friends. I don’t really want to say goodbye to you. Is that weird?”
Shannon smiled and wiped the hair from her freckled face. “No. Maybe…” She looked at the ground and toed the dirt with the still shining black pump that adorned her foot.
“Yeah,” Bess said. “Someday. Maybe.”
She hugged her friend, holding her like the sister she had become. “Take care of yourself.”
Shannon sniffled. “You too.” She pushed Bess back, holding her by the shoulders. “Are you sure you won’t come with us? You have a family too.” She tilted her head. “Right?”
Bess let out a chuckle. “Yes. But there’s something I still have to do.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Just, you know, better if you don’t know everything.”
“Okay. You know, before, I would have asked. But it’s nice being able to tell people to just back off. Right?”
Bess helped her into the driver’s seat and closed the door. Shannon rolled down the window as she started the van.
“Remember,” Bess said, “just head down this road until it runs into a highway and then turn right until you get to Terry’s truck stop. I’ll call them to come get you there.”
“Okay.” A sad smile crept onto Shannon’s face. “Goodbye Bess. Thank you.” She closed her eyes and let out a long sigh, shaking her head. She opened her eyes and squinted. “How does anybody ever repay something like this?”
Shannon nodded and turned away for the last time as she looked through the windshield at the road leading away from Los Rojos. She put the van in gear and drove away. Bess watched until the van was out of sight, knowing that Shannon never looked back – not because she didn’t want to. It was best to just leave some things in the mirror.
Once the van was out of sight, Bess pulled the last thing she had stolen from the convenience store out of her pack – the prepaid cell phone – and dialed her mother’s number.
The phone sitting on the round table by the window buzzed. Mary Kincaid lifted her head from the table and rubbed her neck, stiff from taking her turn at sleeping in a plastic chair.
She looked around the room and scowled at the empty pizza boxes, overflowing trash can full of bags from fast food restaurants and Rickie Hewitt sprawled across one of the beds as he snored. His friend sat in a chair next to the door, wide awake and still holding a gun in one hand.
The phone buzzed again and Mary looked at the number: “UNAVAILABLE.”
The man guarding the door stood up and walked to the bed, jostling Rickie awake. Taking his turn at sleeping in the other bed, Tom sat up and rubbed his eyes, instantly awake. He was the first one to speak as he leapt out of bed to sit down at the table next to her.
“Who is it?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “There’s no number.”
“Answer it,” Rickie croaked as he sat up and swung his feet down from the bed.
Mary picked up the phone and thumbed the answer icon. Lifting it carefully to her ear, she said, “Hello?”
“Hi mom, it’s me.”
The hair on the back of Mary’s neck stood up and she felt the ache of blood surging through her limbs as a tired grin spread across her face. Her head weaved back and forth as relief flooded her entire body.
“Oh, sweetheart, thank God. Are you Okay?”
“Fine here. Are you alone?”
Mary cranked her head around to see Rickie rub his eyes and shake his head. “Is that her?” he whispered.
Mary nodded and turned back around, trying to remember the rules he had given her. “Yes, sweetheart, I’m alone.”
She felt Rickie’s hand on her shoulder as he leaned down and whispered into her other ear, “Good girl.”
“Well, just the same, go ahead and put me on speaker.”
Mary glanced at Rickie. He shrugged and then put his finger to his lips and arched his brows, warning her to be careful.
“Alright, dear. Hold on.” She laid the phone on the table and activated the speaker. “How’s that?” she asked.
“Can you hear me OK mom?”
“Yes, dear. Look, I’ve been worried sick. Where are you?”
“Well, before we get to that, there’s something you need to know, what with you being alone and all.”
Tom rolled his eyes towards her, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth just enough for her to see.
“Alright. What is it?”
“Los Rojos is burning.”
The man guarding the door stepped up and leveled his pistol at Mary’s head.
“Be very careful,” Rickie said, squeezing her shoulder. When she tried to turn around to look at him, he grabbed her head in his hands, holding it like a vice. “Just talk,” he whispered.
“What is Los Rojos?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s just this place that’s burning. Now I know you don’t believe me, so I’m going to take some pictures and text them to you. I’ll call you back in five minutes.”
The line went dead.
The man with the gun turned to Rickie. “What the hell, man?”
“I don’t know,” Rickie said. He flicked his hand at the pistol and said, “Put that away.” Rickie started to mumble under his breath as he paced back and forth behind her.
The phone chimed and read, NEW MESSAGE. Mary thumbed the accept button and heard Rickie gasp when it showed a picture of a burning building attached to an adobe stucco wall with a black iron gate. She couldn’t tell where it was – the only landscape visible was scrub desert.
Rickie’s hand went to the table as he lowered himself into the chair next to hers and buried his face in his hands.
The man with the gun leaned on the table and glared at him. “Seriously, man, what the hell?”
Rickie glowered at him and shouted, “I don’t know, OK?”
Tom revealed more of his smile and in a calm tone, said, “It means she’s smarter than you.” Rickie glared at him and slammed his hand on the table.
Mary flinched and Rickie reached out to place a soothing hand on her shoulder. “Sorry. It’s Okay. Just… We’ll just have to play this out.”
The phone rang again. Rickie grabbed it from her hand, activated the speaker and threw the phone back on the table with a clatter.
“Did you get the picture?” Bess asked.
Mary started to talk, but Rickie cut her off. “Yes, Bess,” he said, “we got the picture.”
“Oh, hi Mr. Hewitt. How are you doing?”
Rickie sighed and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment before answering. “Fine. Where’s Jefe?”
“I dunno’, but I bet he’s pretty pissed off about now.”
Rickie eyed Mary and shook his head. “Alright Bess, listen to me now. This is how it’s going to work. You need to come in. Today. Your mother’s life depends on it. Simple enough?”
There was a pause as silence filled the room.
“Did you hear me, Bess?”
“Sure did. Only here’s my deal. I’m going to call the precinct across from the hardware store – my mom knows the one I mean – right mom?”
“Um, yes dear, the hardware store.”
“So, anyway, I’m going to call there in 30 minutes only I’m not going to tell them anything. I just want my mother to be there to take the call. Right there at the police station. You don’t have to be there, Mr. Hewitt.”
Rickie scoffed. “Um, yeah, that’s not going to work, Bess. Like I said, you need to come in. I’ll tell you where. Or -“
“Yeah, I got all that. But going with my scenario, what happens if my mother isn’t at the police station in twenty nine minutes to take my call is this. I’m not going to tell them anything. I’m not going to call the sheriff either. I’m not even going to call the Federal Bureau of Investigation or channel four news. Nope. What I am going to do is tell Jefe that it was you who helped me burn Los Rojos. That you helped me escape that hell hole he sent me to so I could make it all the way back up here and burn his house to the ground. Did you know he has people as far south as Cabrillo County? And I bet at the airport and bus station, too. So, I don’t know, if it was me, I wouldn’t want to see Jefe if I was the guy that helped a girl burn down Los Rojos. How does that sound?”
Rickie bit his lip and eyed his partner. The man glanced sideways, tucked his gun into his belt and eased back towards the door.
“Los Rojos burning.” He let out a slow breath and shook his head. “That’s bad and it sounds like it’s on you. You’re on your own man.” He opened the door and eased out backwards, closing it once he was in the hallway.
“Twenty seven minutes, Mr. Hewitt,” Bess said.
“Um, where is Jefe?” Rickie asked.
“Last I heard, he was with his daughter.”
The line went dead.
Rickie leaned back in his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose, letting the air seep out of it in a long hiss.
He dialed another number and put the phone to his ear.
“Who are you calling?” Tom asked with a smirk.
Mary rolled her eyes toward Rickie and held her breath when she heard the three step tone and robotic voice announcing the number he had dialed was out of service.
Rickie set the phone down and stared at it for a moment, then stood up. He strolled to the chrome coat rack and pulled his yellow windbreaker off a hanger. Staring at Mary, he carefully pulled it on, zipped it half way up and tugged at the hem.
Without another word, he strolled to the door and slipped into the hall without bothering to close the door behind him.
Mary looked hesitantly around the room and then looked at Tom sitting across the table. She could feel the empty look of confusion on her face.
“What now?” she asked.
Tom reached across the table and took her hand. “Now, we go to that police station before your daughter lights the whole countryside on fire.”
Bess breathed in the crisp night air as the blue frost of the moon washed over the landscape and reflected off the chrome gas cap of the motorcycle with a sparkling glint.
It had taken her a half hour to reach the sandstone cliff where she had parked her motorcycle and she still hadn’t called. But she knew her mother would wait. She had waited the better part of two months just to hear her only daughter’s voice.
She swung onto the seat and flipped open her phone to dial the number to the police station.
After the desk sergeant answered, she asked, “Is Mary Kincaid there?”
“Yes, she’s right here. Hold on.”
Her mother’s voice was tired, as if she had woken up from a long sleep, which Bess realized was the truth. “Honey. Oh my God, please tell me you’re alright.”
“Is Rickie gone?”
“Yes. Yes he is. I don’t know what this is all about, but you put the fear of God into him. He’s gone. I promise.”
“Good. He wasn’t the right man for you.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I … I have so much to make up for, but right now, please just tell me where you are so we can come get you.”
Bess pinched her lips together, trying to remember what it was like at home. Then she tried to remember what school was like. None of it came through. It was all just a haze from a long time ago. She peered at the moon, reading the faint puffs of wind that were scurrying across the ground, just like she did when she was on the lake. The sky, the wind – these things were constant. They never changed. They always did the same thing, every day. She never had to guess. She just had to feel them.
“I have someplace I need to go first,” she said.
“What do you mean?” her mother asked. Bess could hear her searching for words as she sputtered. “Where… Where are you going?”
Bess smiled and closed her eyes.
“I’ll know when I get there.” She gently closed the phone and stared at it sitting in the palm of her hand. Then she let it drop to the ground and unfolded the kick starter. She stood up on it and shoved down with all her weight, bringing the motorcycle to life.
She gunned the engine and let out the clutch. As the dust boiled up from the wheels, she twisted the throttle back and leaned into the wind as it swept her long black hair back from her face.
Free at last, Bess Kincaid rode along a dirt road that had once led to a place called Los Rojos, where she could look in any direction without seeing a single house, light or even a lone stanchion of tired wooden utility poles with black wires sagging between them.
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©2017 Michael J Lawrence