REDEMPTION ROAD

            REDEMPTION ROAD

“I’m not afraid,” she insisted, chin lifted defiantly. Hands and feet bound with heavy rope, she sat on the floor of the garage, knees pulled up to her chest.

He gave a low whistle. “Oh, you’re tough is ya?” His thin lips turned up in a smirk, a lock of greasy hair falling in front of his pale watery eyes. “Doncha know? That’s just the way I like my gals.” Swallowing hard, she held his gaze, more terrified than ever. She blinked rapidly, trying to stop the tears from spilling down her cheeks. He laughed, a horrible hacking sound that chilled her bones. “Yeah, you’s real tough.”

Outside, the wind picked up, knocking the lowest branches of the maple against the side of the garage. He waved a gun towards the sudden noise and then, a moment later, pointed it back in her direction. Screaming was out of the question.

Clutching the ivory handle of the old-fashioned pistol, he took two steps towards her, the leer of a grin pasted on his pockmarked face. “Do ya want me to tell ya what I’m gonna do to ya? Got it all planned out, ya know. Been thinking about it for a long time.”

Her eyes widened. “A long time?”

“Sure,” he mocked, “ya think I just plucked ya ‘cause you was there? You ain’t so smart after all, is ya?”

The woman’s mind was reeling. He’d been watching her? How could that be? Surely she would have noticed him. “Why?” her voice squeaked.

The light eyes narrowed. “Why? ‘Cause ya deserve it, that’s why!” Speechless, she gaped at the man. Leaning towards her, he covered her mouth with duct tape, checking the ropes to be sure they were tight. “I gotta do somethin’,” he muttered. Leaving her alone, he went into her house, slamming the door behind him.

The moment he was gone, she began to struggle, straining to break free of the ropes. Twisting her hands and feet, pulling with all her might, she only succeeded in rubbing the skin raw until it bled. Another rope, tied around her middle, anchored her to the back wall. Even using all of her body weight, she couldn’t escape. Fighting sobs, a trail of tears streamed down her face. Body sagging, her wrists and ankles burning, she moaned and wailed, the sound muffled by the tape over her mouth.

Flinging the door open again, the ratty man stood holding a stuffed green trash bag. Dropping it, he strode up to her, ripping the tape from her face. He eyed the blood under the ropes with displeasure. “Did ya really think ya could get away from me?” When she didn’t answer, wet eyes averted, he spat on the floor. “Stupid bitch!” Snorting, he saw her looking at the bag near the door. “Took a few things, lady. Didn’t think you’d mind, seein’ as how ya won’t be needing ‘em.

Gasping, she began to tremble. With a nasty smile that revealed a row of stained and uneven teeth, he sat on the floor, holding the pistol in his hands. Using a cloth, he wiped it with circular strokes, cleaning the ivory handle first and then the barrel. Why had he attacked her? Why was she a target? Was she supposed to know him? Sniffling, she watched the way he held the weapon, turning it over slowly, almost as though he were afraid to drop it. Focused on the gun, he looked younger, less angry.

“What’s your name?” she asked softly.

Looking up, his face registered surprise. “What do you care?”

Taken aback, she had no answer, unsure why she had even asked the question.

In the silence, he hunched over the gun, diligently polishing each and every part of the pistol. “Manny,” he mumbled eventually, “name’s Manny.”

“Manny,” she repeated. “I’m Helen.”

“I know.”

“Oh.” She shifted, limbs stiff and aching. “Do you have any family?”

Grunting, he barely glanced at her. “I gotta kid somewhere.”

“I have a daughter, Juliet,” she told him. The woman’s fear gave her a sort of courage and she babbled on about the baby. “She’s at her grandmother’s right now. She’ll be two next month and I’m having a big party for her. She’s just the best little girl, so sweet.” The stranger finally stopped cleaning the gun, placing it on the floor beside him. “I never knew how much I could love someone before. I mean, she’s everything to me.” He looked up at her, his pale eyes fixed on her face. Flustered, she stuttered, “I-I mean nobody tells you how great it is…” Afraid she had talked too much, the words trailed off.

“I saw her,” he admitted. “She’s pretty.”

“Thank you,” she hid her disgust. “What about you?  Boy or girl?”

“Girl. Like you. ‘Cept I ain’t never seen her.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Indifferent, he rose to his feet. Picking up the gun, he waved it around in the air.

“Please, Manny,” she begged, “please let me go. I won’t tell anyone you were here.”

“You ain’t gonna tell anyone I was here, lady.” She sucked in her breath. “‘Scuse me, Helen,” he stretched out her name, “since we’re all buddy-buddy now.” He tucked the gun into his waistband, hiding it under a soiled t-shirt.

Her heart was thumping wildly. “What do you want from me?” Her eyes strayed to the trash bag loaded with stolen items. “I’ll give you money.”

“Money ain’t what I want.” He chuckled, a sick gurgling sound. “That ain’t what this is about.”

Straining against the ropes, she didn’t feel the fresh blood that trickled down her forearms. “Tell me what it is about. Please.”

He glared down at her. “You people have to pay.”

In the distance came the faint sound of thunder. A light rain pitter-pattered on the roof. She was going to die. “If you hurt me, kill me, Juliet won’t have a mother.”

“Shut up,” he ordered.

“Please, she’s just a baby. She needs me.”

Enraged, he shouted this time. “Shut up!” His eyes bulged in the sallow face. Picking up an old discarded toy from the floor, he hurled it at the wall. The jagged plastic pieces fell around her. Shaking, she couldn’t take her eyes off him, his anger like a hot flame in a roaring fire, intense, burning out quickly. He turned away from her. “Just shut up,” he repeated.

But Helen couldn’t stop. She was dead anyway, wasn’t she? “Manny, please just tell me why? What have I done?”

“Nothin’,” he muttered. “That’s what you done. Nothin’.”

The thunder came closer. Through the small windows of the garage, she could see the flicker of lightning in the darkening sky. She had to keep him talking, realizing it was her only chance to stay alive. When she didn’t show up to collect Juliet, her mother might become alarmed and call the police. Still, she didn’t want to make him angry again. “What do you mean? If I haven’t done anything, I don’t understand.”

“Ya don’t gotta understand. Too late anyway.”

“Why? Maybe I can do something now. Maybe I can fix whatever it is I didn’t do,” she offered hopefully.

Manny sighed. “I thought I tol’ ya to shut up.”

“I’m serious,” she persisted, relieved he wasn’t mad, that he was listening. “Tell me how I can fix it.”

“Fix it, huh? Ya gonna switch places with me?” he asked, scratchy voice filled with scorn. “Ya gonna be me, always havin’ to watch your back, stay just ahead of the cops? Ya wanna do my time for me?” He fingered the gun under his shirt. “Ya gonna stand up for me, Helen?” She was silent, watching his face. “See, ya don’t know what it’s like, do ya? Always the lady with the fancy car, snazzy house, little family. I had that once, too, ya know.” His tone was wistful. Catching himself, he shook it off. “But that don’t matter no more. This is how it’s gotta be.”

A lump had formed in her throat. “I’m sorry.”

Manny’s face hardened, and the words were colder, icy. “I don’t want your damn sorriness. Sorry doesn’t do shit. The truth is ya don’t see anyone who ain’t just like you. Damn! Ya sure as hell ain’t never noticed me. I know ‘cause I seen you lots o’ times ‘fore. Bet ya don’t ‘member though.”

He was right. She’d never noticed him until he pulled her off the path in the park, dragging her through the woods back to the house. “Is that what I’ve done? I’ve been superior, thinking I’m better than you?”

“Somethin’ like that.”

Her response was quick. “I can change.”

Those lifeless eyes slid towards her. “Change? Nah. I tol’ ya. It’s too late. Already broke my parole. They’ll send me away for life this time. Can’t stand it in there though. I ain’t gonna do it. This way I could get the chair.” In spite of the hot, stale air in the garage, a chill went up her spine. A driving rain beat against the windows and roof. “Plus, I get to rid the world o’ one more snotty rich lady.”

It hit her hard, the hopelessness. Manny would rather face execution than spend the remainder of his life behind bars. Murder would change his sentence, give him a way out. This would be the last day of her life. Leaning back against the wall, she began to pray, whispering at first, then louder, the words spoken from memory.

“What’re ya doin’?” he croaked.

“I’m praying,” she replied.

“Stop it! God ain’t a part o’ this.” Rocking from side to side, right hand playing with the pistol, the storm was making him jumpy.

“I need you to do something for me.”

“What?” The man was astounded. “I ain’t doin’ nothin’ for you. It’s almost time anyhow.”

Body relaxed, her voice was quiet. “No, I mean after.”

Frowning, he was skeptical. “What?”

“When you confess,” she paused, looking at him closely. “You are going to confess, right?” He nodded. “When you confess, I want you to give the police a message from me to Juliet.”

“I ain’t doin’ that.”

Helen ignored him. “Tell her that loving her was the best thing I ever did. Tell her that I wouldn’t change one day of her life or our time together. Tell her that I will always be with her, no matter what. Tell her that.” Tears flowed down her cheeks but they were not tears of fright, rather tears of love, of a gratitude for the gift she’d been given.

“I ain’t doin’ that,” he said again, shaking his head.

“Tell her I love her,” Helen instructed, as though she hadn’t heard him, “so, so  much.”

With eyes so light they were almost colorless, he stared at the young mother. “Shit,” he mumbled. Pacing the length of the garage, a twitch in his step, he ran his fingers through his greasy locks, the minutes ticking by. Stopping in front of her, legs spread, he slowly pulled the pistol from under his shirt. “It’s time,” he said softly.

Outside, the summer storm raged, but inside, the air was still and quiet. Closing her eyes, she nodded, lowering her chin to her chest. She heard him take a few steps back, cocking the gun until it was ready to fire. Curling her fingers together, she clasped her hands in prayer. Holding her breath, Helen waited for the end. The shot rang out, the sound deafening inside the small garage. Blood flowed from the lifeless body, staining the floor and spreading like a ripple on a pond. The pistol clattered to the floor. The smell of gunpowder and death was overpowering. Exhaling, she opened her eyes. Manny, once a stranger to her, the image of his face now burned in her memory, lay crumpled on the floor, a gaping hole in the side of his head. There would be no sentence after all.

THE END

This short story is the property of Kellie Larsen Murphy and may not be used or reprinted without her permission.

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