The long stretch of dirt road comforted me. I didn't know where I was going, but that was okay. My body still felt the tingling of liberty, of new-found freedom. I gripped the steering wheel tighter. I have never known what it was like to make a choice. And now, driving through the empty country-side at two o'clock at night - this was my choice. Samson mewed in the passenger seat.
"What's wrong, Samson?" I reached over to stroke his ears, "You're not going to bail out on me now, are you?"
The cat purred lightly, then soon quieted and fell asleep. I was alone, and it was a wonderful feeling.
I could hear my thoughts clearly for the first time in my life, swayed only by my own inclinations and emotions. It was like being reborn into a different world, full of sense and feeling! The touch of Samson's soft ears, the clothes rubbing against my skin, the smell of leather from the car seats, the gentle humming of the car's engine as it pushed me into the unknown, and the prospect of farmland and the night-light and the new world – these observations excited me, made my heart beat with motivation and a purpose.
I considered the stars, glittering like jewels in the dark sky around me, passing slowly across my windscreen and disappearing with a residual wink. Have they ever been more beautiful, or was it my prison that had hindered this acute observation? How dark would night be if stars did not exist?
I couldn't keep my thoughts from veering to the immediate danger presented to me, however. Were they going to find me soon, punish me? Such a question twisted my stomach into knots, although it wasn't enough to completely dampen the excitement of my escapade. I wondered what lay beyond my headlights, far off from now – was it a promising future, or one doomed to misery? My mind flooded with these fresh and foreign imaginings that I felt myself quite dizzy. I decided to concentrate on one path of reflection: needing to pee.
It was an odd sensation to feel the need to pee, I almost revelled in it! I contemplated going in the field. The blackness of the night and the waist-high grass might have been enough to suffice for privacy, but I soon saw a sign for a Gas and Diner not a couple of miles ahead. I could hold off until then. I think.
The badgered, fluorescent sign of the Gas and Diner soon came into view, and I pulled up left into the park, bypassing the gas outlets. It was a cool night, so I reached over into the backseat and pulled out a coat from my bag. Samson didn't wake as I turned off the ignition. When I got out I cranked down the window a smidgen lest the cat suffocate by lack of ventilation. Paranoia was just one of the many symptoms of free will.
I walked quickly to the Diner. The wind was mild, but the cold still touched my skin and made me want to pee even more. I could already here the clatter of knives and forks and the hubbub of conversation within the interior. It was then that I noticed the six or so vehicles already parked, alighted by the golden glow of incandescent lighting.
"Strange," I said to myself.
Considering the remoteness of the area and the time of night, I wouldn't have expected more than two dining visitors. Perhaps a surplus of nomads had unexpectedly descended upon the diner for reasons attributable to coincidence, or maybe they had discerned my route, and were waiting inside to seize me.
I crept slowly to the wooden, two-door entry and peeked around to look through the window, which management had fashioned with lacy curtains and a white windowsill. Indeed, no one looked suspicious. Three burly fellows hunched over their steak and chips, a waitress in a short skirt outwardly flirting for tips, and a barman who chatted solemnly with those seated at the bar – this scene seemed safe enough, but I was still wary.
I pushed one of the doors gently, and it swung open. I walked in.
My presence was unnoticed at first, though when I asked the waitress where the bathroom was, she eyed me with alarm and took a step back. She nodded over her shoulder, and I glanced a sign directing a bathroom-goer to the back of the establishment. I thanked her meekly and pulled my head down, hastening past the dining niches. The waitress's behaviour was evidently hostile, and it didn't escape my notice that the she had hastily tittered to the barman and whispered something to him.
I found the girl's bathroom easily enough, although its lack of lighting made it difficult to discern where the toilet bowl was. Nevertheless, I was soon peeing graciously into the ceramic. It felt nice, an overwhelming congratulatory relief for holding off so long. I must've stayed like that, urinating in the almost-darkness, for at least a minute. After I was done, I washed and dried my hands. I didn't even notice the mirror until I saw something moving in my periphery, and having realized it was just me I ended up staring at my half-illuminated face for a moment.
It was the first time that I had actually looked at myself. I had a sense of surrealism – was my reflection real, or was it just a play of light? Fact tended towards the latter, but did that mean I wasn't real? To be honest I didn't know what I was, or who I was. My parents had named me Dawn, but that did not describe the emotions I was feeling, the beat of my heart, the lines of my fingertips, nothing but, I guess, the start of day.
My reflection, she was startling. Her auburn hair flowed down the neck and to the middle of her back, un-brushed and in need of a wash. Her once pink and thriving lips were dry and chapped, eyes blue and disturbingly fierce, and there was flush in her cheek, excitement still lingering in her bones. She seemed scared too, as if she was looking at something horrifying, out of the ordinary, something false. But it was just me in front of her. Just me. I walked out of the bathroom, deeply confused. My excitement was starting to wane.
When I re-entered the Diner, my eyes were fixed to the ground. It was unusually silent and with an ill-fated curiosity, I had looked up. To my mortification I saw that every set of eyes, from the barman to the burly fellows, the waitress and the drinkers, were fixed upon me. They all looked indignant, their gazes incensed under their furrowed brows, some letting out sighs of aggravation and hitting their clenched fists on the table.
I walked slowly past them, careful. I nodded to the waitress in thanks, but she clearly did not appreciate my presence. The barman, gruff and bearded, had welded a shot-gun from somewhere, and rested it on the bar in front of him, his fingers close to the trigger.
I didn't know what was wrong, and anything good that I had felt before this moment was obliterated with confusion and fear. Fear pushed me along, confusion made me unsteady, and I burst out of the diner awkwardly, hastening towards my car. I didn't like how these emotions shook me to the bone, overwhelmed my every limb that I fumbled to pull the car keys out of my jeans. Perhaps I shouldn't have left. My parents had severely warned me about the danger of the world outside, and had chastised me when I didn't believe them. But were right all along.
I glanced over my shoulder, and I observed three black figures lumping towards me. They had come from the Diner, groaning and yelling at me. There were not them, but that didn't mean I wasn't afraid.
"What are ye doing out here, you wretched con!" said one.
"Bad things coming to you!" another teased, and fiddled with his belt.
My heart thumped so hard against my chest I thought it was going to break through my ribs. A nauseating heat ravaged my body, and I couldn't really focus. I wanted to faint, and the fringes of my vision were starting to darken.
"Look at 'er! All pretty and clean," the voices were close now.
Finally, I got the keys from my pocket, but it was difficult for me to find the right one. No sooner had I retrieved the keys when I felt a hand on my back. I was shoved, hard and aggressively, into my car. I stumbled sideways.
"Pain," I blurted out, almost incoherently.
"Ah, never felt that before 'ey? Do you like it? Want some more?"
They then kicked me in the stomach and the legs. I thought I was going to die. If you felt pain, surely it meant death. My whole body was on fire, pulsating with hurt. This is pain. Real, physical pain. The dirt road rubbed torturously against my face and I felt the full, crushing weight of a body as one of the men toppled over on top of me. I hated this. I hated confusion, hated fear, hated pain. To me, they all seemed linked. The good was nothing compared to this bad. I should never have left. Damn my stupid impulses. Damn. Damn. Damn.
I could hear Samson hissing over the maniacal, drunken laughter of my assailants. They were going to kill me, but what would happen to my cat? Surely they wouldn't harm him!
"No, No!" I shouted, when the man tried to peel my legs apart.
My eyes were blurry and wet, and I tasted salt in my mouth. Was I crying? I wasn't even upset, I was more scared than anything else. Does one cry when one is scared? The other two men had grabbed my wrists and attempted to restrain my flailing limbs above my head, on the ground.
"No! Please!" I whimpered as the other man on top of me started to unbutton my jeans, his body now lunged between my legs.
Everything stopped. The men had ceased moving. I could hear nothing except for the echo of the gunshot, and then my sobs and Samson's screeching for a long time after that.
"Get up," I thought I heard in the distance, "now."
My arms were suddenly freed and I felt the ballooning relief as the one on top got off of me. I just laid there, unable to move or see. The sweat and tears and dirt stung my skin, and the places where the men had kicked and restrained me were throbbing with an unbearable hurt. I gritted me teeth to keep from moaning.
"Why, an Arch! What can we do for ye now?"
"No, pish. You bastard, get lost!"
I heard their remarks well enough.
"Go," was the only reply, hard and unmerciful.
There was a mumble of irritation, a scuffle of boots, and a hulk and spit.
"Fucking loser!" I heard in the general direction of the Diner.
The three men had gone, but I knew I wasn't alone just yet. My saviour was still here.
"Where are your keys?" I heard my saviour say, in a gruff, masculine voice.
I only knew where my keys were because I was still holding onto them, clenched tightly in my fist. But why should I give him my keys, trust this stranger? I was apprehensive. He could drive away with my cat and my car and leave me to die on the ground. Or worse, he could shoot me now, kill Samson and take the car. It wasn't like I could actually defend myself at that moment, and so I resigned and relaxed my hand, hoping that he might be lenient with our lives. He must've heard the rattle of the metal because he took them from me.
Suddenly I felt two arms crawling under my arms and legs and then in almost an instant I was hoisted up from the ground. It hurt and I groaned loudly. He started to walk. Where was he taking me? I reflexively tried to wriggle out of his hold, not caring for the hurt that radiated through my body. But he was too strong for me, he did not falter.
"Relax, okay. I'm not going to hurt you, Dawn."
I stilled. How did he know my name?