Four Summers Ago
She was nearing the outskirts of Willow Creek when the flash of headlights caught her attention, illuminating the unpaved dirt road ahead. She walked a little faster, her heartbeat quickening as the car approached in the darkness. Shifting the bag of groceries in her hands, she kept her eyes locked on the house at the end of the road where she and her dad lived. Just a couple more minutes and she would be home.
She kept her eyes straight ahead as the car came up on her right and the driver put their window down. She could hear male voices coming from the car, garbled and incoherent.
“Hey, pretty. What’re you doin’ out here all alone?” one of them called out to her, his voice slurred.
She didn’t respond. The car accelerated and moved ahead. She breathed a sigh of relief, knowing they were about to leave. To her surprise though, the car then pulled across the road, blocking her path. She stopped, confused.
A young man got out of the car on the driver’s side, leaving the car parked in the middle of the lonely road with its motor still running, the headlights now pointed at the crop of soybeans off the side of the road.
She stepped backwards, clutching the bag of groceries tightly as her pupils dilated with fear.
“Where’re you goin’, darlin’?” he asked. An eerie smile slowly spread across his face as he watched her.
She swallowed the knot in her throat, her pulse racing now as she took another step backwards.
Another man got out of the car on the passenger side. He called over to them, “Hey bud, let’s get goin’. It’s gettin’ late.” His voice sounded anxious and hedged with uncertainty.
The other man ignored him, though. “A pretty girl like you really shouldn’t be out here all by yourself at night." He began to walk over to her, shortening the distance between them. His eyes were bloodshot, and it was clear he had been drinking.
Instinctively, she stumbled backwards, trying to put more space between them and her. He continued to walk towards her though, and her stumble broke into a run as she dropped the bag of groceries onto the dirt, its contents spilling and scattering across the road.
She sprinted into the soybean field that separated her from her house. At first, all she could hear was the sound of the dirt and plants underfoot, the leaves whipping her bare legs as she neared her house. But then she heard the sound of someone else running, their footsteps growing louder as they gained on her.
She screamed, praying that someone, anyone would hear her as she ran, her dark hair streaming behind her. She glanced behind her and saw someone chasing after her, quickly closing the gap between them.
Suddenly, her foot caught the root of a plant and she tripped. A searing pain shot up from her ankle to her leg as she fell headfirst into a row of soybeans, the leaves scratching her face and tangling her hair. Her ankle throbbing, she tried to stand up quickly as she heard him approach behind her.
“You really didn’t have to make this so hard on yourself.” He was hardly winded as he spoke.
She tried to stand again, but fell. Her breathing was heavy and labored as she tried to ignore the sharp pain in her ankle. She knew she couldn’t outrun him now. She was trapped, like hunted prey.
He squatted down next to her and looked into her eyes. Her dark eyes were wide with fear, and her usually smooth hair was matted from her fall. She tried to crawl away from his reach, dragging her ankle, but he put his hand on her leg and held it fast, stopping her.
“Where do you think you’re goin’?” he asked, jeering at her.
Though she could barely see the outline of his face in the darkness, the whites of his teeth were visible. His lewd smile was sickening, and she felt her stomach churn with terror. “Let go of me,” she said, trying to pull away from his hand.
“Now, why would I do that? Seein’ I got you here all to myself, that wouldn’t make much sense now, would it?” He tightened his grip on her leg and pulled her closer to him.
She screamed again as loudly as she could, fighting against his firm hold on her leg.
Back at the car, the other man stilled as he heard the shrill scream over the motor of the car. He took off into the field, his movements sluggish from drinking earlier. “Hey man, where are you? This ain’t funny anymore!” he yelled as he ran through a row of soybeans. He continued to run in the direction he had heard the scream come from.
A sudden movement close to him made him stop. “Are you there?” he called out, but his question was met with silence. He took a step backwards. “Is that you?” He held his breath, waiting.
An obscure shadow came into view. “’Course it’s me. Who’d you think it was?” his friend asked as he approached, buckling his belt as he walked.
Before he could answer, a loud cry erupted in the darkness, mere steps away from where the two young men stood.
He felt his breathing grow shallow. “Wh-wh-what did you do to her?” he asked his friend, taking a step in the direction from where he had heard the cry.
But his friend ignored him, brushing by him as he walked back to the car. “Let’s get the hell outta here.”
The other stood there, listening for the girl’s voice again. Hearing nothing, he turned around and followed his friend, raising his voice as he asked again, “You gonna answer me?”
His friend stopped as he reached the edge of the road and turned around. “Hey, if you wanna stick around in case the cops show up and start askin’ questions, go right ahead.”
“Why would the cops be askin’ questions? What did you do to her??” he demanded, looking at his friend.
His friend frowned with distaste as he thought of her. “Nothin’ she didn’t already deserve. Now let’s go.” He turned and walked over to the car, his tall figure a silhouette in front of the headlights.
The other gulped nervously, caught in an internal struggle.
His friend got into the car and stuck his head out of the window. “You comin’ or what?” he called out to him.
He shook his head and took a step back towards the soybean field. “This ain’t right. I don’t know what you did to her, but I’m gonna—“
“Gonna what? Make sure you get caught? S’fine by me if you wanna stay here!” his friend yelled back to him. He sniffed with annoyance and shifted the gear to drive. Shaking his head, he drove away into the darkness, leaving his friend standing by the road.
All was silent for several moments as he stood there, watching the car disappear into the night. Taking a deep breath, he then turned around and ran back into the field, frantically trying to find her. A sickening, gnawing feeling took hold in his gut as he searched the field for her.
She heard him walking up and down the rows of soybeans, calling out for her, but she remained quiet, huddled under the plants. She was scared. She wondered why he had returned. Was he going to come back and hurt her again? Hadn’t he done enough? Closing her eyes tightly, she hoped against hope this was all a nightmare.
He searched the field for almost an hour, combing through the rows of plants. When he finally gave up and left, she waited for several more minutes until she was absolutely sure he was gone.
Standing up, she gingerly tried to stand on her sore ankle. Although it was swollen and tender to the touch, she could put some of her weight on it. She began to hobble down the long row of soybeans in the direction of her house, slowly making her way.
Back at home, she removed her torn clothing and showered, scrubbing herself abrasively under the showerhead. As much as she tried to scour herself clean, she still felt dirty as she stepped out and dried off. Once she was dressed, she sat at the kitchen table for a long time in silence, staring down at the floor as she tried to absorb what had happened to her.
She looked up at the clock. It was late at night, and her dad wouldn’t be home from the bar for at least another hour.
She didn’t know what to do. She felt consumed with hatred, anger, and pain as she reeled from the shock. Should she call the police? Would they even believe her?
Her thoughts turned back to her dad. She closed her eyes as a wave of shame washed over her. What would he say? What would he do when he found out?
She suddenly stood up from the table and limped down the hallway to her room. Grabbing the suitcase from her closet, she threw in a few changes of clothes, and the picture of her and her boyfriend that she kept on her nightstand. She paused for a moment as she looked down at the framed picture.
It was taken last summer at the county fair. She and her boyfriend looked so carefree and happy as they sat on the carousel together, his arm wrapped tightly around her waist as she gazed at him, smiling. She sniffed back the tears and wrapped the picture in one of her shirts, amply padding the frame before she tucked it into her suitcase amongst her other things. She then took the suitcase and went down the hall again, wincing as she put weight onto her swollen ankle with every other step.
She unlocked and opened the front door, but stopped before stepping outside. Turning around, she looked at her home, letting her eyes roam over the familiar setting one last time. Sighing, she went outside with her suitcase in hand, and locked the door behind her.
As she limped across the yard under the starry night sky, grasping her suitcase tightly, she vowed she would never return to Willow Creek again.