The plank broke loose with a loud splintering sound. I cringed. If anyone was out there they had to have heard. When the multitudes of evil ninjas didn't crawl out of the woodwork after a good minute and a half, I cautiously crept through the small opening into a dark tunnel that smelled like pine and… booze. It felt a bit like Narnia, only with a hint of Jack Daniels thrown in.
I felt around in the black just before crawling head first into a wall directly across from my opening.
"Ow!" I hissed under my breath. I pressed my hands against the barrier. It wasn't very solid feeling. I pushed against it. The wall slid on a small track to the left and I tumbled out onto the floor behind an old bar. I looked back at the cupboard I had just crawled through.
The room was quiet. With as much stealth as I could muster I peeked over the bar top. There were maybe five small tables left, four tipped over, and three missing legs. Old bar stools with shredded vinyl seat covers stood sentry among the scattered remains of broken pool cues and playing cards. The pattern in the carpet was unrecognizable through the stains.
My eyes traveled over to the far corner of the room where something didn't quite fit with the rest of the French Maid. A small cot with sheets was pushed up against the wall underneath a small window. A blue crate sat in front of an old television set with long and twisted rabbit ears protruding from its head. The remnants of a can of beans sat next to a radio and a couple empty beer bottles on a table. On the floor beside the crate was a big glass ashtray. A glowing ember from a butt still lingered in its stomach.
Whoever was here had just left. I shivered.
Creeping out from behind the bar I made my way to the only door in the room that didn't say Men's' or Ladies'. I gently nudged it open gently. It gave a soft squeal as it revealed a small staircase that twisted gently to the right as it went up. I swallowed audibly. I couldn't decide what to do. My mind was racing like I'd just shot pure caffeine. Should I go up the creepy staircase where there was more likely than not a very large scary individual who wished to hurt me? Perhaps someone with the urge to hang me from a meat hook while roasting my innards on an open fire? Was I really going to be that stupid girl in all horror movies that I hated? Or was I going to try to find my way out and call 911 like an intelligent person?
My feet answered the question for me by directing themselves towards the stairs. What can I say? I'm a natural born moron. My hands shook against the rails as I silently crawled upwards. My heart hammered against my chest to the point I thought I might woof my Christmas cookies. When I reached the bend, I paused and beheld the door at the head of the stairs looming over me, a soft glow escaping through its frame. A muffled voice came from somewhere behind it. I jumped slightly as visions of serial killers danced in my head (I knew I should never have watched those A&E Biographies on North America's worst serial killers|).
My breathing began to grow heavier and I was about to turn around and creep back downstairs where I wouldn't be heard when the voice grew louder, clearer, angrier. Familiar.
My head swivelled slowly towards the door again. I saw myself start to fluidly crawl towards the door as if watching through a milky haze. My fingers spread against each step like flower petals. My eyes never left the tarnished brass doorknob. With a sickening feeling grinding in my gut, I reached out and twisted the doorknob, prodding it open a crack.
The first thing I saw was a barely conscious Cal, a terrifying squall of blood trailing down his face and right shoulder. He was leaning against an old radiator whose pipes had thick fingers of icicles stretching towards the warped hardwood floor. His head hung limply on his neck and his eyes had a dark glaze over them.
A man I'd never seen before stood a few feet away from him. He had gaunt face and beady eyes. His dark hair hung in strings around his sharp face and his thin lips kept peeling back as he chewed something. I followed his gaze across the room. I gasped and felt my heart leap in my chest. Clayton!
His hands were duct taped behind him. He sat in a rickety chair, his face stony looking. I felt anger rush up inside me as I took in the bruises around his eyes and the trickles of blood from one nostril and the corner of his lip. He stared directly ahead, glaring at something only he could see. Then I saw someone else I recognized all too well, leaning against the wall behind Clayton, tapping the splintered end of what had been a snow brush in his hand.
James smiled coldly down at Clayton before pushing himself away from the wall and strutting around Clayton's chair like a vulture eyeing a fresh tasty corpse. There was an intense moment of silence before he spoke.
"It didn't have to end this way you know." He said in a hushed, steely voice, "I offered you a way out years ago! All you had to do was leave. Just walk out the front door and never bother us again. But did you take it like a smart boy? No… no instead you stuck around, thinking that my precious Rachel would protect you."
James stood in front of Clayton, interrupting his well held gaze.
"Did you hear me you little piss ant? My Rachel. Not yours!"
Before I could even breathe, James swung the wooden brush handle in a wide arc, smashing it into the side of Clayton's head. Clayton gasped, but didn't cry out. His head hung to the side a moment, then he sat back up and took up his silent gaze again. James glared down at him, nostrils flaring slightly.
"I thought I was finally rid of you when I hired Clyde. I worked it out so carefully. I waited for the weather to go to hell; I knew Rachel would never leave me stranded, especially not on Christmas. And I knew you would never leave her side. I told him to hit the back, the back only. Rachel had to survive, just not you. Hit the back seat I told him. But the fucking ice. Oh God… she wasn't supposed to get hurt," James groaned and collapsed into himself for a moment, "She wasn't supposed to get hurt."
The only sound was Clyde's smacking as he chewed away at what was obviously tobacco by the looks of his black teeth. James straightened up again, prying his eyes open.
"You were supposed to die! All I wanted was my Rachel back! You took her from me forever. When you were taken away after the crash I thought I was rid of you for good. I could blame Cal for the accident, leaving Rachel all to me when she finally woke up. You were finally gone! Then along came Marilyn. So perfect. Everything I could ever want. She took away the pain of watching Rachel slowly die! She was mine. But who should show up with her one day, but you? You, of all fucking people! The little maggot who ruined everything. I knew from the moment I saw you with her, saw the way you looked at her, that I had to get rid of you once and for all. I will not let you take her away from me. I stood back and let you take Rachel. But not Marilyn. Not this time!"
James was shouting now. His voice cracked with rage.
"I called Clyde. He was supposed to take you out here and finish the job he started that night. Make it look like you'd run away and froze to death. But I didn't count on Marilyn being so dead set on finding you. Ah, Marilyn. So sweet she doesn't realize what a waste of life you are. She's downstairs right now, and when she wakes up she's going to find me, not you, rescuing her from the crazed runaway who slaughtered my brother then tried to kill me, all so he could keep her to himself. She'll go running into my arms, she'll hate you. She'll be mine then. Just like Rachel. Marilyn is mine."
I felt something in the pit of my stomach drop like a ball of iron. My world was shattering around me like a glass ornament. I was going to hurl. I was going to pass right the fuck out. I was going to…
I glared heatedly at James as he laughed, preparing to take another swing at Clayton.
I was going to rip his goddamn head off.
My brain didn't have time to register what was happening as I tore through the door and ran at him. James stumbled back in shocked surprise. He took in what was happening a split second before I reached him and barred his chest with the snow brush just as I launched myself through the air. We fell to the floor, me clawing at whatever my hands could find, him squirming beneath me.
It only lasted a moment before strong hands stripped me off of him (I really should have thought this one through a bit more carefully), but I'd managed to drag my nails across his face hard enough to make a good, deep, three pronged gash across his cheek. I was tossed to the floor hard then picked back up again by my hair. Clyde moved quickly and held my arms fast.
James slowly reached up and gently touched his cheek. When he took his hand away he looked at the blood on his fingers then looked at me. I glared at him. He grinned. My heart stopped for a moment and my knees weakened.
"Marilyn!" Clayton cried, now straining against his bonds to the chair.
James turned on him and smacked him across the face with the back of his hand.
"You shut up!" He screamed. He turned back to me and slowly stalked over. He stood inches before me, reaching out and lightly stroking my cheek. I pulled away from him, revolted by the touch of his hand. He looked hurt for a moment, then harshly grabbed my chin and forced me to look at him.
"Hello Marilyn." He said in his eerily quiet voice, "I'm sorry you had to see all this. Extremely sorry actually, because now… now you've ruined everything. I can't keep you around now. But look at it this way! Now you and your precious little Clayton will be together forever."
"Let her go James!" Clayton's voice cried from behind him.
He sneered at me, pushing my face aside with a snap. Clyde wheezed behind me. It took a moment for me to realize he was laughing. I shuddered. James gave him a slight nod and suddenly Clyde, laughing louder, reached into his pants and pulled a shotgun from his hip. He wrapped one arm around my neck and held the gun against my head with the other.
James crouched beside Clayton who was staring at me with wide eyes, his chest heaving.
"Watch her die, maggot. Know how it feels to watch the most important thing in your life die. And know it's entirely your fault."
I couldn't do anything. This was the end! I was going to die. And when they were done with me they were going to kill Clayton and Cal, too. I felt tears slide down my cheeks. I couldn't save them. I'd failed.
My eyes darted from Cal who was groaning, one heavy arm reaching out towards me, to Clay.
"Marilyn I'm so sorry!" Clayton was sobbing, pulling madly against the duct tape. James watched this scene, glaring. He pointed at me.
"That's right! Tell her you're sorry! Tell her you're sorry for killing her! Tell Rachel you're sorry!" He screamed into Clayton's face.
I stared into Clayton's eyes, my lip trembling.
"Rachel isn't dead."
The soft voice came from behind me, taking me off guard. Suddenly a loud bang sounded and I was sprawled across the floor. I quickly pushed myself up onto my hands and knees. Cal had Clyde's wrists in a death grip and the two struggled against one another shakily. The gun in Clyde's hand was pointed towards James and Clayton. Cal, veins popping out in his forehead, snapped back Clyde's wrist, sending the gun skittering across the floor.
Cal took Clyde's momentary surprise to slam him back against the wall. Clyde fell limp and collapsed to the floor. Before I could move, James went after the gun. He stood up, aiming at Cal.
My arm shot out.
His head spun around as another shot fired through the air, this one hitting it's target and tearing through Cal's chest with a sickening shredding sound.
A strangled gagging sound tore from my throat as I watched Cal slowly drop to his knees. He stared at his twin; his eyes filled with a sad pain and realization before falling flat on his stomach, a puddle of red spreading out beneath him. Now glassy eyes watched me from across the room.
James slowly lowered his arm and turned to me. A single tear welled in his cold eyes as he lifted the gun once more, level with my head. Clayton was screaming, pulling against the chair as hard as he could. The world had gone silent in my head though as I watched James.
I closed my eyes waiting for the eminent blast, praying Clayton would somehow tip over and not be able to see. I squeezed my eyes shut.
A shot fired and I waited for what would come next. I waited for some warm feeling, or a bright light. When nothing came, I opened my eyes. I blinked, my brain not comprehending what my eyes were seeing.
Jacqueline stood over James (now kneeling on the floor screaming and clasping his shin) with a tiny gun poised in her hand and her stiletto heels spread wide. She strode over and kicked away his gun with one quick swipe before he had a chance to grab for it.
I'd officially lost my mind.
Jacqueline lifted her gun up towards the ceiling as men in police uniforms and Nan with the family in tow suddenly flooded in around her, shouting and gasping.
"No one hurts my leetle sardine except moi!" She said crisply, jabbing her heel against James' wounded leg. He let out a wail. She looked up and saw me watching. And then something occurred that I had never witnessed before. Hell, something I hadn't thought was possible. Jacqueline smiled warmly at me. She opened her arms ever so slightly and I leapt to my feet, rushing into them.
"How… what… why?" I stammered into her bony chest. She patted my back.
"Because, Sardine! You are part of ze only family I have left. I vill never let someone take zat away from me! When I saw ze bumper sticker for ze French Maid in ze basement I knew it vas bad news. Zis is vhere I used to work before I met ma petite Seanny. It is not a good place." She explained, shaking her head sadly, "And besides. You steel have my shoes."
I eyed the tiny gun in her hand. She smiled proudly.
"A can-can dancer alvays knows to handle a gun." She said, holding her head up confidently.
I chuckled and gave her another squeeze.
I turned around slowly. Clayton, now free, stood shakily. Our eyes met for a moment before I raced across the space between us and threw my arms around him. I bawled like a baby into his chest.
"I never thought I'd see you again! I thought we were going to die and I'd never get the chance to tell you that I love you Clay! And I don't care if it's creepy and wrong. Santa can put me on his damn naughty list if he needs to but that's the way it is." The words were spilling from my lips like a fountain of idiocy.
Clayton reached up and placed one finger against my mouth silencing me.
"I know." He said quietly, looking deep into my eyes, "I know."
It was at this point that I finally got what I wanted for Christmas as Clayton's lips met mine.