Here are some really cool storm clouds from last year. I'm hoping to get some even better ones this year...
I feel I should add a note to those who would rather read stories full of fantasy and fluff: This story probably isn't for you. Even though all may turn-out well, the reality of the heroine's trials and travails aren't for the more squeamish reader. I do hope you enjoy this first chapter, though. Leave a comment to let me know what you think. :)
The butter knife Arianna had taken at supper the night before lay heavily in her hand. She lightly tossed it back and forth, not sure she could go through with her plan. She took a deep breath and brought the knife up to her throat. She squeezed her eyes shut, prayed, “Heavenly Father, please forgive me.” She yanked the knife roughly across her neck in one quick jerk. She felt the blood spurting from the ragged wound in her neck and tried not to concentrate on the pain. ‘Take me quickly, Father!’ She begged silently as tears of remorse flowed down her sallow cheeks.
Suddenly, the attic door burst open and ‘the monster’ rushed through it. “Arianna, where is my knife?” He bellowed. He stopped in his tracks when he took in the sight before him. “No!” He screamed in tormented agony. He rushed over and tried to stop the flow of blood spurting from the deep gash in her neck. “My precious Arianna, what have you done?”
She lost consciousness, oblivious to the frantic ministrations of her captor. When he realized he couldn’t stop the blood, he made a decision: He would take her some place where somebody would find her.###
~ Chapter One ~
Justin raged in his mind as he pounded the trail beneath him. Who did she think she was? He was a grown man and he wouldn’t have her meddling in his affairs as if he were a child. He owned his own business, for Pete’s sake. He reached down to turn the sermon he was listening to up a notch higher. His actions weren’t very godly right now, and he needed to concentrate on what he was listening to. He began to pray out loud, “Dear Father, please forgive me for my attitude. Please strengthen me in this area, a…” He tripped over something on the well-worn path. He was tempted to kick whatever it was, maybe that would alleviate some of the frustration he was feeling.
When he looked down, he gasped in horror, “Oh my goodness.” There was a woman lying there, bleeding profusely through a white towel wrapped around her neck. Everything he’d learned in all those first aid classes crowded through his mind, but none of them had prepared him for this. He jerked out his phone and dialed 911. “Yes, there’s a woman lying on the path in Gobbler Park. She’s bleeding, a lot. There’s a white towel wrapped around her throat, please hurry.”
“Sir, what side of the park is the path on? I need to know more precisely. Is the wound spurting blood?” The operator asked, rapid-fire.
“I’m on the south-side, on the jogging trail. Can’t you use my GPS to track me?”
“Yes we can.” A minute later she came back, “The ambulance is on the way. Can you tell me who the victim is?”
“I have no clue. I was jogging and tripped over her.” The young woman began to moan and Justin worried she would move her head and cause more bleeding.
“Sir, is she still bleeding?”
“I don’t know. She’s starting to wake-up.” He could hear the ambulance in the distance, and he silently thanked God for the quick response. He wasn’t a doctor, but even he could see she’d lost a lot of blood.
Arianna could hear someone yelling above her. There was a searing pain in her throat and her head was throbbing to the beat of its own bass drum. “I’m thirsty.” She whispered quietly.
Justin immediately grabbed for the small canteen he kept around his waist when jogging. “She’s asking for something to drink. Should I give it to her?”
“No. Don’t give her anything to eat or drink. Does it look like she’s bleeding heavier now?”
“I can’t tell. I think it’s drying-up but I’m not sure.” The ambulance screeched to a halt beside them. Justin looked up in gratitude. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
The path became a flurry of activity as the paramedics went about putting the woman on a stretcher. They picked it up to load it on the back of the ambulance and she screamed, “No! Where is he? Where is the guy who was here a minute ago?” They had immobilized her, and she couldn’t move her head to see he was just to her right.
“He’s just a jogger, ma’am. He doesn’t know you.” The heavy-set paramedic explained as they tried to lift her again.
“No, I want him to go with me!” She screamed, half-delirious.
The skinny paramedic warned, “Ma’am, you need to quit screaming, you’re causing your wound to bleed again.”
“Don’t leave me.”
The pitiful cry of terror pulled at the heartstrings of Justin Hollander. How did he get mixed up in these things, anyway? He was forever getting pulled into the weirdest situations…
“I’m sorry. I have to get to work. I’ll call and check on you later.” He walked over and stood above her stretcher.
“No.” The skeletonized young woman began to sob. They were huge, wracking sobs that were causing her wound to ooze blood. Justin didn’t know if he could hack seeing her the way she was. Her face was nothing but skin and bone. Her lips were cracked and bleeding and her hair hung in lanky clumps of red. Her eyes were…well, her eyes were what caused him to pause. They were full of despair and horror, but more than that; a glimmer of hope. It was that last emotion he couldn’t deal with. For some unknown reason she’d placed her hope in him. She reached out one long, skeletal arm and clasped onto his hand with her bird-like talon.
He looked down at that pitiful hand, and caved. “Okay, I’ll go with you.” The paramedics picked her up and slid her into the back with no protest this time. He said a silent prayer to God and hopped into the ambulance beside her.
The bigger paramedic began to secure her, asking her questions as he went about his duties. She didn’t answer, just looked at him questioningly.
“What’s your name?” Justin asked. He was trying to avoid looking at her as the paramedic pulled the towel away from the wound. He wasn’t afraid of the sight of blood, he just didn’t like it.
“I’m Arianna, who are you?”
“My name’s Justin Hollander.”
“Like the actor?” She returned. Justin knew she was in shock and probably wouldn’t remember any of this later on. That saddened him for some unknown reason.
“Yes, like the actor. He was used to the teasing question every time he told someone his name. “Arianna’s a beautiful name. What’s your last name?” He looked over at the paramedic, who gave him a slight nod.
She clammed up. Justin could almost see the wall slamming in place. She waited a minute, and then asked, “Was ‘the monster’ there?”
“What monster?” He looked at the paramedic, afraid Arianna had become full-blown delirious.
The paramedic asked, “Do you see monsters?”
She pointedly ignored the man and returned her gaze to Justin. “Did you see a huge man with a hair-lip and a limp? He’s the one who took me. He must’ve brought me here.” Her head fell to the side.
She’d passed-out again, probably from a combination of the trauma and the drama.
“What do you make of that?” Justin asked the paramedic.
He’d finally finished checking the wound on her neck and looked up at Justin with a serious expression on his face. “I’m not sure what to make of it. She could be correct, or she could be delusional.”
Justin was confused. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know how long she’s suffered whatever trauma she’s been going through. From what I can detect, even from a cursory examination, it’s been quite some time. She may be off in her own little world.”
Swift anger burned inside him. “I’m no expert, but she didn’t seem crazy to me. She seemed very much intact.” His stiffened shoulders dropped. He didn’t even know this woman. Why was he defending her so hotly?
“Calm down, mister, I don’t mean anything bad or disrespectful. It happens a lot when a victim has been traumatized to her extent.”
“How do you know to what extent she’s been traumatized?”
“She’s got several bones that have been broken and healed improperly, most likely from lack of real hospital care. She’s severely malnourished and filthy, not to mention hostile to those trying to help her.”
“She hasn’t been hostile to me.”
“That’s very strange, too. I think she’s bonded with you for some reason.” The paramedic got up to open the door. They’d pulled into the hospital in front of the emergency room doors. “In any case the doctors will probably need you to stick around long enough to calm her if she wakes before they sedate her.” He hopped down and he and the skinny paramedic rushed Arianna into the hospital, leaving him to trail behind them.
Justin thought very seriously about skipping-out. By the time she woke-up it would be too late to make him feel guilty, he’d already be gone. The thought brought immediate guilt to mind. How could he ditch someone who so obviously needed him?
The inner doors were just beginning to shut when he pushed them open with a burst of strength. He rushed through them, but was stopped by a beefy-looking security guard. “Where do you think you’re going?”
He jerked his head toward the quickly disappearing gurney. “I’m going with her. She asked me not to leave her.” His own desperation surprised him. He had a pile of computers at the store he needed to check out and some parts he needed to order, not to mention the inventory he needed to catch-up on. But ever since he’d tripped over that poor victimized woman, she’d become his first order of business. He’d even forgotten the early-morning call he’d gotten from his mother.
The guard’s voice softened, but remained firm. “It’s hospital policy that only family members can accompany someone into the emergency room. I’m sorry.”
“But…” Justin began.
The guard cut him off. “I’ll give you updates if you want to take a seat in the waiting room while they check her in.”
Justin thought about arguing, but knew there was no point. The guard couldn’t let him in even if he wanted to, he’d get fired. “Okay, I’ll be right over there in the chair by the water fountain.” He pointed to one of the striped, cloth-covered chairs and made his way over to it.
After fifteen minutes he was bored almost to tears. Maybe he would call his mom and apologize for the way he’d talked to her earlier. It was true, he was a thirty year old man, but he still needed to respect his mother. He pulled his phone out and punched in her number.
“Mom, I just wanted to apologize for the way I talked to you this morning.”
“Your apology is accepted, Justin. I wasn’t trying to pry. I’m worried about you.” He could hear the tears in her voice and fresh remorse flowed through him that he’d caused her undue stress.
“Mom, I know you mean well, but I’m not interested in Megan Williams. If I thought for one second we’d be a good match I’d get to know her better.”
“Why don’t you think you’d make a good match?” There was timidity in her voice and he hated it, because he’d caused it. She was afraid to make him angry for fear he might yell at her.
He wrestled with the truth, but decided honesty was the best policy in this situation. “I don’t know how well you know her, but she goes to raves and smokes pot.” He held his breath and waited for his mother’s response.
“She does not.”
“Yes she does, and she isn’t the least bit ashamed of the fact. She told everyone at church but the pastor.”
“That’s not good. I’m sorry Justin. I’m just worried you’ll never find the right woman. You’re not getting any younger, you know. I want some grandchildren before I die.”
Justin laughed. He knew there had to be a reason she was pushing every single woman in the church congregation on him. “You’re going to outlive me mom.”
“No I’m not, son. You know I have Alzheimer’s. Even if you give me grandchildren I may not remember who they are. You need to provide me with some babies before my mind goes.” There was fear in her voice, and he felt another wave of guilt assail him.
“I’ll start looking, if you really want me to.”
“I do. Thank you Justin.”
“I love you, Mom.” He ended the call just as someone rushed through the swinging door out of the E.R.
A harried-looking, middle-aged nurse stopped in front of him. “Did you come in with the kidnap victim?”
“She won’t cooperate with us. The only thing she’s said is she won’t say anything if it isn’t you she’s talking to.”
“I tried to come back with her but the guard wouldn’t let me.”
“Harry was just doing his job. Will you come and see if you can get anything out of her? We’re going to have to sedate her if she doesn’t calm down.”
Justin got up to follow the nurse. The guard looked over at him and smiled. “Good luck.”
Justin returned his smile. “Thanks.”
When he got to Arianna’s room, he barely recognized her. They’d cleaned her face, and even tried to brush out her hair. It was still filthy, but no longer tangled. There was a huge white bandage on her throat. He looked up at the nurse. “What did they do to the cut on her throat?”
“She got some stitches. It turns out it wasn’t deep enough to do any lasting damage, at least since she got to the hospital so fast.”
“Do you know how it happened?”
“She won’t talk to us. We were hoping maybe you could get her to open up. It seems she’s taken a liking to you.”
At the sound of Justin’s voice Arianna’s head swung in his direction. “Justin.” There was so much meaning in the way she said his name his heart thumped to his toes and back up into his chest. She trusted him. She must feel so alone…
“I’m here now.” He rushed over and picked-up one of her talon-like hands in his own. It was so bony, and cold. “Why is your hand so cold?”
“It’s probably just the IV they’re giving me. Don’t leave again, promise me.”
He looked up at the doctor, and he nodded his head. “I won’t. I hear you won’t answer any of their questions. They need some answers so they can treat you.” He gently rubbed her tiny hand in his.
“I’m afraid of them. You ask me.”
“They probably need to know your full name, and if your allergic to anything.” This seemed logical to him, anyway. The doctor smiled, and this gave him more confidence. “They probably also need your birthdate and where you lived before all this…” He stopped, worried how she would feel if he said it out in the open.
“You can say it, Justin. I was kidnapped. I was raped. I was beaten and mistreated…” She broke-off into quiet sobs. He moved toward her, putting an arm around her slender shoulders. He was alarmed at the sharpness of her shoulder bones, but didn’t let her see it.
“It’s okay, honey. Tell us what you can,” He encouraged.
“He took me from the Stop and Shop when I was sixteen. My name is Arianna Michaela Rathburne.” The nurse and doctor both gasped in recognition.
“I remember you!” Nurse Cooper exclaimed. “It was all over the news!”
The doctor’s response was somewhat calmer. “I remember you too. Your parents must be so worried. Can we call them for you?”
Horror filled the woman’s eyes. She looked up at Justin imploringly. “Please don’t let them call my parents. They’re going to hate me.” Tears slid down her hollow cheeks and Justin’s own eyes watered at the sight of her suffering.
“They’re not going to hate you, Arianna.” He gently pulled her chin toward him. “Look at me.” When she complied, he continued, “They’re going to be ecstatic you’re alive, honey. Let us call them.”
She seemed to be considering it, tears still streaming down her once-beautiful face. Finally, she shrugged. “Okay, but you have to stay with me.” She grasped his arm with surprising strength and looked up into his face with such uncertainty his heart broke. Who would do this to another human being?
As Justin pulled out his phone and waited for her to give him the number, he couldn’t help thinking how quickly one’s life can change. This morning all he could think about was his business. But at the moment, all he could think about was this slender, broken little bird lying helplessly in a hospital bed, afraid to face her parents. He still had questions to ask, and answers to receive, but they could wait.