His boots scraped against the wooden floorboards, sending up little puffs of dust in their wake as he shuffled to the door. He had no idea who would be bothering him at this hour of night and the interruption made him uneasy. With a yawn, he rolled his shoulders and glanced back at the gun he'd set on the table beside the old rocking chair, his chosen place of rest this night. The bed, as usual, was undisturbed. He didn't think he would ever find sleep in a bed again, not that finding sleep was ever easy these days. He still didn't fully understand why he had decided to stop in this run-down town. Sure he was tired, but he knew he wouldn't find decent rest here; this town held nothing but bad memories for him. His thoughts threatened to take him back down that well-trodden, dark path, but he managed to dispel them with a sharp shake of his head. No, he didn't need the gun. No one here remembered him; a lot had changed since he'd last passed through. He ran a hand over his face, marveling at the sharp roughness of his unshaven beard—he couldn't remember the last time he'd bothered to shave. A smile tugged at the corners of his lips as he slipped back the bolt and pulled the door open a crack.
Darkness dominated the hall outside his room, masking the identity of the shadow before him, "How may I…" A quick shove sent the door crashing into his forehead, driving him back a few steps. He managed to keep his feet and dipped down for the short knife stowed in his boot. His fingers grazed the hilt just as another blow connected with his chin and rocked his entire upper body back. Before he fully lost his balance and crashed to the floor, a hand seized the front of his rumpled shirt and held him up.
Hot, alcohol laden breath puffed over his face. "I can't believe you came back. I thought you were dead."
"I don't know what you're talking about," he replied, hoping his voice sounded stronger than he felt. He leaned back slightly, testing his balance and the strength of the hold on his shirt. This would all be over if he could just get to his gun.
The hand on his shirt clenched, tightening its grip on the cloth and eliminating all possibility of slipping away. "Cut the shit, Aaron, that little beard of yours hides a lot less that you think."
"I think you've mistaken me for another," he said, carefully moderating his tone. The slightest hint of fear or anger would only reveal the truth, and that wasn't something he was willing to let happen. Getting stuck in this damn town once was more than enough for him. Why the hell had he stopped here again?
The man threw back his head and laughed, inadvertently loosening his hold on Aaron's shirt. Aaron seized the provided opportunity and threw his weight forward against his would-be captor before backpedaling for the gun. Disorientation from the earlier blows complicated this simple maneuver. His boot heel caught on the leg of the rocker and dropped him onto the wooden seat. Aaron let out a breath at the unexpected impact and fumbled for the gun with his right hand. He caught the barrel and quickly repositioned the weapon so that it faced the intruder who had regained his balance and was once again coming for him. "Don't move," Aaron ordered, his voice hard. He felt slightly disadvantaged sitting in the rocker, but the gun in his hand more than made up for his poor position.
"And you said I'd gotten it wrong," the man said as he settled his right hand on his hip just inches from his gun. "I still can't believe your stupidity in returning. I guess we didn't get the fact that you're not welcome here across so well last time, but that's okay, we'll rectify that before the night is out."
Aaron suppressed a shudder. "Drop your hand."
"And what if I refuse? You gonna shoot me?" the man taunted.
"Yes," Aaron said and wet his lips. He wished he could put the man's face to a name, but given the circumstances of their last meeting, he doubted he could unless someone else named him first.
The man raised his hand with a chuckle and set his fingers to his lips. A piercing whistle broke the relative silence of the night and Aaron flinched, though his gun never left its mark. "What was that?" Aaron demanded, his composure shaken.
"That was Kev's signal for us to show up," a voice replied from directly behind Aaron's chair.
Aaron started to turn to cover the window with the gun, but he was only halfway around when he felt the cool touch of metal against the left side of his neck. He froze. He was all too painfully aware of his every breath, of every beat of his heart, and the ease with which these men had triggered his terror. That man Kev was right—he'd gotten his wish for a name—he was stupid for stopping here, for thinking the danger had passed, for believing he would be left alone.
"Drop the gun, Aaron. We wouldn't want you accidentally shooting anyone before we get started," Kev said, stepping forward. He held out his hand, waiting for Aaron to comply.
Aaron hesitated, wondering if he could take Kev out before they killed him. A quick death would certainly be better than what these men had in store for him, wouldn't it? Something of his thoughts must have shown in his face because before he could come to his own decision, Kev lunged forward and tore the weapon from his grip. Aaron looked at his empty hand for a moment before letting it fall to his lap. The only good thing about this situation was they could do no worse than last time. Last time they'd stolen everything from him; now, he had nothing left for them to take. They had to know that. Aaron just didn't understand why they insisted on tormenting him anyway.
Kev bent down and tugged the knife from Aaron's boot. "Just to be on the safe side," he said, waving the knife in front of Aaron's face. "We haven't seen one another for a few years, and I don't know what tricks you might have picked up in the meantime. You seemed pretty sure of yourself with that gun so we're going to have to assume you know the knife too. You understand, don't you?" Kev asked.
Aaron looked at him and said nothing. All his work with weapons since he'd left this deplorable town had proven useless. What did they want him to say?
Kev laughed and jerked his head towards the bed. "Why don't we get started? I don't see any point in waiting."
Another man joined the one holding the blade the Aaron's neck. They each seized one of his arms and hoisted him out of the chair without a word. The three of them stomped across the floor and paused beside the bed; then the two men shoved Aaron forward onto the lumpy mattress and faded, quilted bedcovers. Aaron flopped face down and pushed his hands into the blankets to turn over but the other men seemingly didn't have patience for such a maneuver. Hands seized Aaron's shoulders and roughly flipped him onto his back. Once there, the cool knife blade returned to his neck, dispelling any notion that he could yet get away from this.
Kev walked around to the foot of the bed and looked down at Aaron's prone form. "Now, doesn't this look familiar? It's only unfortunate that your pretty little wife couldn't be here today to help with the reenactment and the room isn't quite right either. You should've stayed at the old inn on the other side of town where we did this all before, Aaron. We're trying to go for historical accuracy here."
"Just kill me and be done with it," Aaron whispered and fought against the current of memories that Kev was trying to trigger.
"Kill you? Goodness, that is the last thing we want to do. Don't you remember how this goes, Aaron? You're the example to everyone—this town, this whole region now actually, is ours. We need to make sure everyone understands that, and you wouldn't be able to attain that kind of understanding if you were dead," Kev replied, grinning as he slipped a long-bladed knife from his belt. He trailed the tip of the blade along the top of the quilt as he strode around to the opposite side of the bed from Aaron. "Now, let's see. How did we do this last time?"
Aaron clenched his fists and closed his eyes. He wasn't going to be a party to this; he didn't even understand what they were doing. They'd done their damage last time around. What was the point of this 'reenactment'?
"Open your eyes!" Kev demanded, his cool composure temporarily forgotten.
Aaron wasn't about to oblige him, this man who'd destroyed all happiness in his life, but his self-preservation was still high regardless of his near perpetual state of despair so when the knife at his neck broke the skin, Aaron's eyes flew open and latched on the darkened ceiling.
"Much better," Kev's smile had returned. He flipped his knife in the air and nimbly caught the hilt between his fingers. "Should we go find a girl for this?" he asked, directing his question towards his compatriots.
"Do we need one?"
Kev looked down at Aaron for a moment before nodding. "I think it'd be best. He seems a little tense; a girl would loosen him up." He motioned towards the door with his knife. "Check the room right across the hall; I think there's a little lady staying there tonight."
The third man hurried towards the door and disappeared into the hall.
"Yes, I think having a girl here will make this all the more enjoyable, don't you Aaron?"
"What do you want from me?" he asked, his voice low. Aaron wasn't going to let himself think about what was going to happen—he couldn't let himself think about it. The associated memories were still far too painful.
"I weary of having to explain that to you," Kev replied and lightly sat on the edge of the bed. He leaned over and flicked Aaron's shirtsleeve with the point of the knife, ripping the loose white cotton and nicking the flesh underneath. Blood began to pool in the shallow cut and Kev held the bloodied blade before Aaron's face. "I can't seem to remember how much we involved you in the fun last time."
Aaron tried to pull away from Kev's knife as he placed the tip against his lips, but the other blade at his neck sank a little deeper, stilling him. After an agonizingly long moment, Kev withdrew his knife. "I don't know what fun you're talking about," Aaron answered after another moment, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice.
"Oh well, we'll just have to make it up as we go and hope it's close enough," Kev said and moved to stand, but stopped just before rising and plunged the knife into Aaron's right forearm, only then did he finish getting up.
The scream tore from Aaron of its own volition and the pain left him gasping.
Kev patted the new wound and turned towards the door as it opened. His third man entered, dragging the middle-aged woman behind him, bound and gagged. Her blonde hair reflected the moonlight from the open window more than anything else in the room and Aaron's chest clenched. She had the same blonde hair as his wife. The similarities stopped there, but her hair…
The man threw the woman down on the bed beside Aaron and tied her bound hands to the headboard before securing her ankles in the same manner. "Would you like me to do the honors?"
Kev shook his head, his eyes trained on the woman and Aaron. "Aren't you going to offer her any words of comfort?"
Aaron rolled his head to the side, mindful of the knife, and looked upon her terror-filled face. "I'm sorry," he whispered. There was no comfort to be given in this situation; he'd made that mistake last time, making promises he would now never be able to fulfill.
"You are learning," Kev laughed and slammed his knife down into the woman's right ankle. She screamed against the gag, her face paling. The woman looked on the verge of fainting when Kev plunged the long blade into her other ankle, snapping her back into awareness with a fresh wave of hot pain. Then he moved up to her shins and repeated the process, one leg then the other. At that point, the woman did faint, and Aaron reached his breaking point.
He kicked out at the brute holding the knife to his throat, driving him back a step, and lunged for the blade. Aaron wasn't going to let history repeat itself in this twisted fashion. He had to get this woman, who his mind kept insisting was his dead wife, out of here. He had to save them. His hand seized upon the hilt of the knife and he jerked it free, falling back to the bed. Aaron rolled to the side and reached towards the bonds around the woman's/his wife's wrists, ignoring the pain tearing from his forearm, but he got no farther. Slick pain shot through the back of his right shoulder, immobilizing that arm, and the knife in his hand tumbled onto the quilt. "Let her go!" he screamed as they forced him onto his back and replaced the knife at his throat.
Kev fell into full convulsions of laughter, his left arm wrapped loosely around his waist. "Who do you think she is, Aaron? Your woman? She's just some whore from across the way!"
It no longer mattered to Aaron who the woman was, all he could hear was his wife's screams as Kev stabbed her in the same fashion over and over again until the blood loss and the mortal wounds took her life. He hadn't allowed himself to think on that dreadful night for years, but then he'd come back and the horror of it had returned as well.
Kev didn't bother waiting for an answer. He slapped the woman back into consciousness and resumed his methodical stabbing, reaching her hips before she succumbed to unconsciousness again. The knife at Aaron's throat had ceased being a deterrent to him, forcing the two men to physically pin him to the bed to prevent him from interfering much like they'd had to when it was his beloved wife they killed. Kev licked his lips and waited a few minutes before bringing the whore out of her faint again and slipping his knife into her heaving abdomen. The resulting scream triggered another bout of resistance from Aaron that was quickly quelled by a knife to his thigh.
The woman was still awake so Kev proceeded through his ritual, slicing each of her arms before dealing the second to last blow through her chest. "Say goodbye again, Aaron," he muttered and slit the whore's throat. She was dead less than a minute later.
The two men released Aaron and backed away, leaving him lying alone on the blood soaked bed with the dead woman. He rolled onto his side and laid his left hand against her pale cheek. "I'm sorry," he repeated as tears streamed down his cheeks and onto the blood-red quilt. He rolled her eyelids closed with his thumb and fell back onto the bed, closing his own eyes. His wife was gone, his life was gone and now this innocent woman was gone. The screams reverberated through his head unrelenting and with them came the images of his wife's brutal murder at Kev's hands three years earlier and Aaron's inability to save her. He'd walked away from that episode relatively untouched but his wife was dead; it was one of the cruelest tricks life had ever played.
Hands grabbed his arm and tossed him off the bed onto the wooden floor with a thud. Aaron went without resistance, seeing no point in fighting the inevitable. He knew what came next, and he doubted Kev and his men would want to miss a single step in their reenactment. A well-placed kick struck his stomach and left him breathless as they pulled him to his feet and out of the soiled room. The two men dragged him down the stairs, the toes of his boots thumping against each step. When they reached the lobby of the inn, Aaron saw the first rays of the morning sun shining through the dusty windows, light he hadn't noticed while in the room upstairs—his mind had been otherwise occupied.
Kev led them out onto the dusty street where they tied Aaron's wrists together and wrenched them over his head to tie the connecting rope to the lone street sign in town. His boots barely touched the ground when they'd finished and the pain in his right arm reached nearly unbearable proportions, but none of the three were going to do anything about either of his two problems. That was the point of this whole exercise. If they said so, no one would do anything to help him. Aaron dropped his head, letting his chin rest on his chest as he tried to banish the memories of his wife's murder. What was about to happen to him again was just punishment for what he'd let happen to his wife and that woman now; only he didn't want to have to think about their deaths, too. He'd have enough of his own pain to deal with soon.
Kev and his two lackeys stood off to the side of the street as it began to fill with the usual early morning business. No one spared Aaron so much as a glance, so Kev grabbed a coiled whip off a nearby horse and started the lashings. Aaron held his tongue for the first few strikes, but it was a losing battle so he let his cries go, shamed but unable to care. Somehow, these men had managed to twice destroy his life regardless of the fact that they'd stolen everything from him the first time around. He jerked in his bonds as the whip cut across the knife wound on his shoulder and felt the tears slip down his face again. Then the tip of the whip snapped across the bridge of his nose and left cheek, ripping his skin and lighting a fire of physical pain beyond any Kev had yet given him. Aaron screamed and desperately wanted to alleviate the blazing pain but had no recourse. Kev halted the whip and returned to the side of the street, watching.
Aaron hung heavily from the rope, sucking in deep breaths and hoping this wouldn't last all day as it had before but knowing that was a useless hope all the while. They were going to break him again, exactly as they'd done before so as to elicit the best response. He was alone among a sea of people, no one was going to help him and Kev was able to reinforce the message that this was his territory—not a bad outcome for Kev and his men. Aaron only wished he understood why he'd been chosen as an example back then. What about his life, wife and happiness had called out to Kev and made him want to destroy it so thoroughly? Was it the news that his wife was pregnant? Was it his friends? Or was he selected simply because Kev decided to pick him? Aaron supposed it didn't matter but still desired an answer anyway, as if knowing would give him back a piece of what had been so ruthlessly taken from him.
"Aaron?" a quiet, shocked voice called.
Aaron lifted his head and found himself looking into the eyes of one of those friends he'd lost. Was this another of Kev's ploys?
"It is you," Charles stepped forward, peering up at Aaron's face. "We thought you'd been killed; they told us you'd been killed."
Aaron's eyes widened. He glanced over at Kev and cringed when he saw the man approaching. If Charles was genuine, he had to get out of here or they would kill him or worse. "Run!" Aaron muttered.
Charles looked over his shoulder at Kev and his men but didn't move. Instead he shifted his gaze off in to the other side of the street and casually flicked his fingers in their direction. Three shots rang out in the street, sending people all around diving for the relative safety of the street or shadows of the surrounding buildings.
Aaron looked from Charles to Kev and the two men in confusion and saw his three tormentors freeze in their tracks and crumple to the ground, clouds of dust rising around them upon impact. His eyes returned to Charles and discovered a knife in the man's hand. He jerked backwards, unsurprised to learn that the friend he thought was helping him actually wasn't—he knew all too well what it meant to be alone in this world, but the knife never pierced his skin. Instead, a quick flick of the blade snapped the rope holding him up and Aaron sagged. He would've gone all the way down to the street if it hadn't been for Charles' steadying arms. "I don't understand," Aaron whispered as a second man he recognized stepped onto the street with a gun held loosely in one hand.
Charles smiled and pulled Aaron into a hug. "You're alive," he said in amazement.
"They wouldn't kill me," Aaron replied. He had no idea what was going on. Where had Charles been last time if he was so concerned now?
The second man, his friend Thomas, stopped a few feet away and holstered his gun. "They sure made us believe you'd been killed along with Sarah. They're a ruthless bunch and we've had to bide our time to get at them; it's not often they're distracted enough to go out without first sweeping the streets and bringing considerable backup. I don't understand why they altered protocol today," he said more to himself than anything.
"Sarah," Aaron whispered and pulled away from Charles who released him, looking confused and concerned. Aaron sank to the street and glanced past Thomas' legs at the bodies of Kev and the two others whose names continued to elude him.
Charles and Thomas exchanged a look before squatting down in front of him. "How did you get away?" Charles asked.
"Get away? They stole everything from me and sent me on my way alone. I have nothing; I don't even know what you two are doing here. This isn't what happened before," Aaron cried. He wanted to believe Charles and Thomas really were his friends and that he wasn't alone, but it seemed like too much to hope for after all that had happened.
"Aaron, I don't understand. What happened before?" Thomas inquired, gently laying a hand on his injured right forearm.
"Don't make me live it again. Just kill me; if you're truly my friends, you'll grant me the freedom they wouldn't," Aaron whispered and pulled his arm out from under Thomas' hand. He grabbed that hand and moved it to the butt of the gun jutting out of the holster.
Thomas jerked his hand away from the gun as if shocked. "Kill you? Aaron, we just found you alive!"
"I'm not alive; I haven't been since they took Sarah from me three years ago, and it'll only be worse now," Aaron protested and scooted away from them despite the pain and tears blurring his vision.
Thomas' face paled and he looked at Charles again. "You're not alone," Charles said, holding out his hand. "We don't know what's happened to you, but we're here to help. You're not alone, Aaron. You don't have to relive anything you don't want to."
"But this is their town; you can't promise that. Don't make promises you can't keep, you'll only regret it later," Aaron shook his head.
"You misunderstand. This is a promise I can keep. Kev, Dale and Paul over there ran this town but they're dead now. Whatever this business with you was about distracted them enough to let us get that final shot in and end this. We've been working towards this since we heard you and Sarah had been killed, and now you've helped us finish it," Charles tried to explain.
Aaron looked into his friend's face for a long moment before granting him a small nod, and for the first time in three years he knew he wasn't alone.