The air hangs heavy with cigar smoke. I smell leather, beer, and the sickening stench of rotting food mixed with human sweat.
As my eyes try to adjust to the dim lighting, I can hear distant laughter. The kind that is deep and croaky. I find myself lying on my side in a crumpled heap.
As my senses try and figure out reality, I hear the click of someone switching the channels on an old TV. I roll onto my stomach and brace my shaking arms against the floor when pain flares across my torso. I suck in breath and grit my teeth. More bruised ribs and possibly a broken one.
I stagger to my knees and then to my feet gripping the back of a moth-eaten couch, its colors long faded. There is an irony sweet taste in my mouth and I cough hard releasing red stains. Wiping the blood from my mouth, I make my way slowly across the room. I can see the lights from the screen as they flicker in the soft moonlight casting harsh shadows against the wall.
But one shadow stands out from them all like a boulder amongst pebbles.
A cruel vicious man when he was drunk, but an even colder killer when sober. How I ended up with him is a question to this day I still ask myself. I glance at the clock that sags pathetically off the wall.
I had been out cold for nearly two hours. Over the years, I have learned to live with this thug. We have a sort of partnership though it is more one sided. I work for him and he provides me food, shelter, a bed, and a nice beating whenever it suits him.
It's been three years and I don't know how much longer I can put up with this. I've tried running away only to have Devin and his cohorts manage to track me down and drag me back into this dark reality.
I grip the rickety staircase that threatens to snap under my feet and trudge wearily to my single cot and blanket in the corner of the attic. I'm too tired to slip off my shoes and I collapse as gently as I can into my makeshift bed. My ribs scream at me and I lift up my shirt to see dark circles of black, blue, and yellow already staining my skin. My left side is swollen and puffy as I run my fingers lightly against it. Laying my head back onto my pillow I close my eyes knowing morning will come fast.
Tomorrow is Saturday. My only day of rest unless Devin decides to jump ship to keep us under the radar of the local enforcement.
My ears pick up the strain of rock music from the night club down the road. Though I am just a young teenager barely fourteen years old, I am still surprised to be alive. If it weren't for my fighting techniques and my useful age assisting street criminals, I am sure that I would have perished by now.
I sink lower into my cot and try to think of my mother. I can't remember what she looked like but I imagine she has light brown hair with golden highlights that shine in the sun. It's shoulder length and it matches her warm auburn eyes. She is smiling at me and she bends down to whisper into my ear.
"I love you, Max. Don't ever forget that."
I smile despite the pain. My mind tries to keep up the pleasant vison, but a darkness soon begins to creep in. I try to forget the night that my whole world shattered. A night of terror, slaughter, and emptiness. I squeeze my eyes even tighter and mentally block the horrid memories I refuse to engage with. I can't let it interfere with my life. I can't be weak! I mentally kick myself and let the aching of my battered body take hold. For now, the nightmares are kept at bay, but I know that one day I won't be able to keep them away.
I exhale slowly and try to still my trembling body. Tomorrow will bring horrors and troubles of its own. Why should I add more? I curl into myself dragging my tattered blue blanket over me and drift off to whatever world my unconsciousness resides in.
[Four hours later]
A hand lands on my shoulder and my eyes fly open and I instinctively take a swipe at whoever is gripping me in the dark.
"Whoa, Max. Easy, easy. It's me Marcus," a voice says gently and slightly surprised.
I blink a few times trying to clear the cobwebs from my head.
"Marcus?" I ask groggily. "What are you doing here?"
Marcus was the closest person I had to an older brother. He was seventeen and ever since I came into the "gang" he's looked out for me ever since. I hiss from my sore ribs and realize the slightly stunned look on his face.
"What?" I grumble looking at him with one eye open.
He sees he is still gripping my right wrist and let's go. "Sorry about that. You nearly slugged me that time. Your reaction time has improved."
"Is that why you're here? To test my reaction speed?" I ask slightly peeved.
"What? No. I'm here because we have trouble. The local enforcement has found our hideout and it's time to clear out. Come on we have to go," he says standing up. "We are to meet the others at the rendezvous point."
"What time is it?" I ask not wanting to know the answer.
"It's four am," he replies.
"You have got to be kidding. I can't even get a few hours of sleep around here," I decide to sound whiny because at that point I didn't care. I was exhausted and my whole body hurt. This was not a good start to my supposed day off. I slowly got off my bed grateful that I hadn't taken my shoes off. I had no actual belongings of mine except for what I had on and my old blue blanket.
Marcus must have noticed my discomfort because a mixture of worry, anger, and disgust crossed his face. I almost missed it had he not gently gripped my upper arm.
"Max?" he asks concern evident in his voice.
"It's nothing. Really, I'm fine," I reply trying to keep the pain out of my voice.
"No, you're not. You're hurt."
I scoff half-heartedly. "Nothing that won't heal in a few days."
"Max. It was him, again wasn't it?"
My silence must have confirmed his suspicions because he accepts it and gently nudges me toward the stairs. As I start down, I hear him curse harshly under his breath. Thankfully it was dark, so he couldn't see the smile that danced across my face for a second. Marcus knew personally the hand of Devin and if anyone was to have a say about it, it was him.
Once we landed on the main floor, I noticed that all the trash and empty beer bottles were gone. So was Devin. Someone clearly wanted to cover our tracks. Leaving behind evidence like that was a major rule breaker. Marcus moved past me to the front door. I followed suit.
Once outside did I follow Marcus across the street, down several alleys, and across another yard into a mostly empty garage. There hidden under some covers was the truck. Marcus had named her Bertha after his grandmother who passed away two years ago. She may have looked old and rusty, but she still had a great engine in her.
I hopped in and Marcus started her up. With a great rumble, she roared to life and we slipped away into the night.
"Where is everyone else?" I ask. I really didn't care at that point, but it was good to know if they all made it out.
"Devin took some men to finish up some business. The rest are on their way to the meeting point. He ordered me to get you and take care of the evidence."
I merely nod and lay my head back against the headrest. I felt like I had been run over by a truck. My body was alert, but my mind felt sluggish. It should have been the opposite.
"I'm on my way to pick up Lisa, and then we are out of here," said Marcus keeping his eyes on the road.
The gang purposefully split up in case some of us got caught, then we couldn't sabotage the others and give away their whereabouts.
Marcus and Lisa were brother and sister that were two years apart, Lisa being the older one. Devin usually didn't like family members joining due to liability issues, but he saw their individual skills were worth it so he let them stay. Lisa was a skilled data analysis and hacker able to break into anything whether it was electronic or not. Marcus was a strategist, Devin's second in-command after the previous one tried to betray them. It is forbidden to mention his name ever again. Once Devin found out about his betrayal he didn't wait to execute him. The poor soul never saw him coming.
Lisa and her brother had taken up residence about half an hour away from Devin's main location.
"Why isn't your sister with you?" I ask slightly perplexed.
"I was closer to your location when I was notified so I came to get you first and clean up the place before heading back out. Lisa needed to get some extra supplies together before I left so it gives her the time to get ready."
I nod and try to focus my gaze on the road lit by the headlights. My exhaustion refuses to leave me.
"Max, go back to sleep. You're going to need it," Marcus says briefly glancing away from the road.
"Ok. Wake me up when we get to the sight," I say yawning. I wince at the pain that flared as I curl myself into a ball with my blanket around me. I was out five minutes later.
Marcus continues to drive until he reaches his temporary house. He pulls up into the driveway and jumps out to assist his sister who had two full duffle bags in her arms. He loads them into the bed and opens the door to the back. Lisa gets in and immediately whips out her small laptop. She types in a few keystrokes and then shuts it. Marcus turns back to the road and heads to the rendezvous sight. Back in the house a small flash lights up the windows and then it's gone. All evidence of them being there was just erased, all in just a few seconds.
After a few moments of silence, Lisa leans forward and peeks into the front seat beside Marcus.
"Rough night?" she asks quietly looking down at Max.
"You could say that. Devin got to him again."
"Again? This is what the third time this week? This needs to stop."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"I don't know."
"Marcus, you can't keep letting this go. You personally know the terror and pain of it. One of these days he'll kill the poor kid. As his second in-command you have a foot in the door to change the situation."
"I know, but he refuses to listen. He says he needs the kid."
"For what? His own punching bag whenever he feels like it? Are you kidding me?!"
"I know it's a terrible excuse, but—"
"But nothing! This child had done nothing to deserve the treatment he has been given. Sure, he ran away a few times, but any child would have done that. He's surrounded by strangers and doesn't know who to trust. I would have done the exact same thing. Heck, I already did. Listen, if you don't confront him by the end of today, I'll do it myself. You may have the higher rank, but I have better influence than any of the men on our team."
"Really…better influence?" Marcus rolls his eyes.
Lisa smacks the back of his head.
"Ow! Geez, what did you do that for?"
"Shh. You'll wake him up." Lisa whispers fiercely.
Max shifts slightly in his seat, but he remains unconscious.
Marcus shoots a glare at his sister. She merely narrows her eyes at him.
"Women have a way with words that most men can't even comprehend. And sometimes you just have to bite the bullet. Marcus, have I ever failed you?"
"No, Lisa you haven't."
"I need you to trust me on this. I will have a word with Devin, and you need to learn to stand up for the right thing. You have earned your position of authority, so use it wisely."
There was a moment of reflective silence between them.
"Alright. I'll leave the situation with you, but if it gets out of hand…"
"It won't. Like I said, you have to trust me with this one," Lisa pats her brother's shoulder and sits back in her seat.
"Get some rest. We'll be on the road for some time yet."
"How long until we get there?" Lisa asks taking out her phone.
"At least a few hours."
"Wake me in an hour and I'll drive for a bit then." Lisa then slips on her headphones and presses play on her music. She closes her eyes and tries to relax hoping she can catch a couple of zzz's before they changed shifts.
About two hours later, Lisa felt a hand on her knee. It was Marcus.
"Is it time already? Give me a second to get situated back here and then we can change spots," says Lisa a bit bleary eyed.
"I'm afraid we don't have a second."
Lisa immediately jerked out of her weariness at the tone of Marcus' voice.
"Nothing yet, but this car has been following me for the past hour, and I can't seem to shake them."
"Really, maybe they're headed to South Dakota as well? I've heard it's great up there this time of the year."
"This is serious, Lisa."
"Fine, fine I'll check it out." Lisa puts away her headphones and grabs a pair of binoculars.
At six in the morning the sun had yet to appear above the horizon that was currently overshadowed by the Rocky Mountains as they drove northward through Colorado. She twists around to the back of her seat and focuses the lenses.
There was a moment of silence and Marcus keeps shooting nervous glances in the mirror. Then the silence is interrupted by a small chuckle from Lisa.
"What's so funny?" Marcus whispers quietly.
"We're fine. It's an older man about in his sixties and his wife. I would guess their pretty harmless, but I'll run their plates to be sure."
She twists back around and grabs her laptop. Several minutes later, she confirms her suspicions.
"They are Mr. and Mrs. Hatchet. They apparently own a cabin up north in Montana. They should be continuing onto Interstate Hwy 76 after we turn off onto Interstate Hwy 40. If they continue to follow us after we switch roads then we may have a problem."
"Thanks, Lisa. That helps put my mind at ease."
"Of course. Want to trade places for a bit?"
"Yes, if you don't mind waiting. There is a rest stop in about 10 miles. I'll pull in there and we can stretch our legs."
"Ok. How's Max doing?"
"He hasn't stirred in the past two hours."
"Good, but I need you to wake him when we get to the rest stop. I want to see what damage Devin did this time."
Marcus continues down the road and then pulls into the rest stop. The car that had been following them continues its own journey. Marcus got out to wake Max while Lisa went to the back of the truck and pulls out one of the duffel bags. In it was packed a first aid kit and some water. She grabs the kit and bottle and walks to the front of the car.
"Is he awake?" she asks.
"No. He won't even stir. Man, this kid sleeps like a rock."
Lisa pushes her brother to the side. "Go stretch your legs. I'll finish up here."
Marcus nods and heads towards the restrooms inside.
"Hey, Max? Can you hear me?" she gently shakes him.
I hear my mom's voice pulling me from depths of my unconsciousness. Mom! Please just let me sleep for five more minutes. I try to curl back into the void of sleep, but it is already slipping away. Max! Max! My mother's voice grew louder and louder until I hear her right in front of me. I slowly peek open an eye to see a blurry figure up close. I blink once and the figure becomes more distinct. I blink again and find myself face to face with Lisa. She smiles at me.
"Hi Lisa. What's going on?" I rub my eyes, but the motion suddenly brings forth a spasm of pain and stiffness. I grimace and lower my arms. Lisa's smile disappears and is replaced with a look of concern.
"I know what happened last night. So, I need to get a look at you. Can you hop out of the truck?"
I nod and climb out of the truck. Lisa has tended to my personal injuries ever since I came, so I lost all sense of uncomfortableness around her a long time ago. She was like a sister and mother to me all rolled into one. She helps me take off my grey sweatshirt and the shirt underneath in order to see the full extent of my injuries. I watch as her face twists in disgust and anger. She clearly had no intention of hiding it.
"Where does it hurt the most?" she asks softly.
"The left side," I say. I look down to see the bruises have turned into darker purple, blue, and black angry splotches that now cover the front of my torso. A few red welts near my collarbone also begin to share their presence. My left side is clearly swollen, but Lisa runs her hands expertly down them in quick fluid motions. I can barely feel her pressure on my skin.
"Multiple bruised ribs. Your left side definitely took the brunt of it, but nothing is broken or cracked. There might be some slight internal bleeding, but nothing serious. However, if you begin to cough up blood, tell me immediately. I'll give you some pain meds and bandage you up, but beyond that your body will have to heal on its own. Is there anything else that hurts? Your arms or legs?"
I shake my head.
Lisa quickly inspects my head and face, but only finds faint scratches. She brushes a strand of black hair away from my eyes. I focus on her green irises full of a mixture of emotions that I can't decipher. She then hands me a bottle of water and some small pills.
"This should help ease some of the pain, but if it gets worse let me know."
I nod grateful. She waits until I finish and then quickly bandages my torso leaving it snug, but loose enough to where I can breathe. She then places my shirts back on and tells me to go stretch my legs. I walk in circle for a bit releasing the stiffness in my joints. I glance around me to see nothing but forest greenery and mountains. Even this early in the morning the birds were out chirping up a storm.
Ten minutes later, we are back on the road. This time Lisa took over the driving with her brother next to her. I sat in the back and was now fully awake so I try to entertain myself with the scenery that races by. Boring. Green, green, and more green.
"It'll be about two more hours until we can stop for some food. Think you can last till then?" Lisa asks looking in the rearview mirror.
I nod. Marcus nods as well before closing his eyes and drifting off. Eventually my mind wanders until I too begin to fall asleep.
Next Chapter: 6/24/17