By Bettyann Moore
“Pretty lousy day, huh?” Mr. Bowen said.
“Understatement of the year,” Kathie mumbled. She’d spent the last period of the day lying on a narrow cot in the nurse’s office, though she certainly wasn’t sick. Upset maybe. Appalled, yes. If she thought about what had happened to that girl’s sister, her stomach churned. Scared, definitely.
She wasn’t even going to stop in to talk to Mr. B, but he’d seen her as she passed his open door and motioned her inside. This way, at least, she wouldn’t have to hear the snickers and see the stares in the corridors. She was certain she’d forever be known as “the girl who threw up in study hall” … until someone did something worse.
“High school’s a tough gig,” Bowen said, getting up to shut the door. Throngs of noisy kids turned loose for the day poured through the hallways. “That’s better,” he said, going back to his desk.
Kathie sat hunched in a desk chair, the same one she sat in during Bowen’s English class. The teacher straightened a few piles of folders on his desk, putting some in a drawer and others into a big, black satchel.
“High school’s not so bad,” Kathie said.
“It surprises me to hear you say that,” Bowen said, turning around to erase the chalkboard. “I mean,” he went on, “your attendance record from your last school would indicate otherwise.”
Kathie blushed. Apparently he’d seen her file. No surprise there, but why bring it up now?
“It wasn’t always my fault,” she said, defending herself, and hating that she had to. She reached down and picked up her backpack from the floor. The hallways had cleared. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Kathie didn’t like asking for advice in the first place. Getting attitude didn’t help.
Bowen turned away from the board, rapidly slapping his hands together. Motes of chalk flew from them.
“You leaving?” he asked.
“I thought I might go home after all,” Kathie said, starting to get up.
Bowen crossed the room and plunked himself down on the top of the desk in front of her, his feet planted on the chair. Kathie sat back down, crossing her arms over her chest. He sat like men do, his knees wide apart. Kathie blushed again and tried not to look.
“Seems like you’re always leaving, Kathie, in one way or another,” Bowen said, not unkindly.
She squirmed in her seat and stared up at him. “When you gotta go, you gotta go,” she joked.
He threw back his head and laughed, then leaned forward, his elbows on his thighs, hands dangling between his legs. “Going, leaving … just other ways to say running away, don’t you think?”
Now Kathie was angry. “What do you know about it?” she snarled.
“I know a few things,” Bowen said, unperturbed. “I know you’re smart – the smartest kid I’ve ever had in this classroom in 10 years of teaching. I know you’re caring. Didn’t I read that you started a food bank for the elderly in your old school? I know you’re determined, otherwise how could you have hitchhiked from one coast to the other?”
Kathie looked everywhere but at him. Her anger was subsiding, but now she was embarrassed.
“I also know that the first time you ran away, you were eight. And the only reason why you came back was because the older girl you’d convinced to go with you got scared.”
“Big cry baby,” Kathie huffed.
Bowen smiled. “I know you ran away at least three more times after that,” he went on. “I know you missed 45 days of school during your sophomore year and were heading to beat that record in the first five months of your junior year, until you came here, that is. I know there were drugs, sex ...”
“Yeah, and rock ‘n’ roll, too,” Kathie cut in, her voice rising. “Look, Mr. Bowen,” she said. “I thought I could trust you. I thought you could help me figure out what to do about this Peter Johnson creep, not lecture me like everyone else in my life. I gotta go.” She snatched up her backpack again and stood up.
Bowen stopped her with a hand on her arm.
“I was getting to that,” he said quietly. “I wanted to help you see that old patterns are hard to break. That running only leads to more running.” He kept his hand on her arm until she seemed calmer. Kathie put her head back and looked up at the ceiling, but she didn’t move away.
“So, what are you telling me?” she asked. “That I should, what, report Johnson to the police? Or hop into his big, brown ugly car and ask him to go steady? Maybe you think I should start following him? I don’t get it.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Bowen said. “You’re not going to get me to decide for you.”
Kathie rolled her eyes skyward again. “I didn’t ask you to,” she said, then slowly smiled, “but it would be nice if you did.”
“No, it wouldn’t really,” Bowen said, “because I don’t know what you’re afraid of. Only you do.”
“What do you mean by that?” Kathie cried.
Bowen slid off the desk and started pacing like he did in class sometimes. Kathie sighed and sat back down again.
“I have a theory,” Bowen said. “We can’t really make sound decisions if fear is involved. Face the fear, call it out and deal with it first, then make your decision.”
“I’m really not afraid of much,” Kathie interrupted.
“Really?” Bowen said, with mock surprise on his face. “Seems to me that someone who runs away all the time is afraid of something, or a lot of somethings.”
Kathie felt her ire rise again, but she held it in check. This was the first time anyone ever called her afraid; they usually said just the opposite. “I still don’t get what this has to do with Peter Johnson,” she said.
“Well … there are a number of ways you can handle the situation, as you know, maybe some you’ve never thought of.”
“So which one strikes the most fear in you?”
“You don’t have to answer that now, and certainly not to me,” Bowen said, holding up his hand. “Answer it for yourself. Name the fear. Confront it. Deal with it.”
“This is way over my head,” Kathie said, frowning.
“That I doubt,” Bowen said. He looked down at his watch. “Wow, time sure flies,” he said. “Time to get out of this place. It’s Friday!” He picked up his satchel and headed for the door, Kathie following and still frowning.
The school was dark and abandoned, though Kathie could hear the squeaking wheels of the janitor’s mop bucket somewhere down the long, dim corridor. She shivered.
“Oh boy, would you look at that?” Bowen said as they reached the exit. Outside, giant snowflakes fell. By the looks of it they’d been falling for quite awhile.
“A freshly fallen silent shroud of snow,” Kathie quoted, pulling her gloves out of her pockets.
Bowen smiled. “Need a ride?” he asked, standing in a circle of light from the street lamp.
“No, I don’t think so,” Kathie said. “There’s no wind and it’s really pretty. I don’t have far to go.”
“Okay, suit yourself!” Bowen gave a little wave and shuffled off to the teacher parking lot behind the school.
A block later, Kathie wished she’d taken him up on the offer. Her Beatle boots were leaking and it was the one time she wished she had a hat. The snow was deep and getting deeper. She looked behind her; it was coming down so hard that her footprints disappeared almost immediately. Her hair was so wet, it actually dripped icicles. The scrunch of snow under her feet was the only sound. She hitched up her backpack and kept her head down, her mind racing.
“He’s full of crap,” Kathie said aloud, just to hear some noise. “I’m not afraid of anything. I’m not,” she said just as she hit a patch of snow-covered ice and landed hard on her back. She felt the impact in her tailbone, but was grateful for cushioning of the backpack. With some difficulty, she finally got to her feet, the rest of her as wet and cold as her head. When the car whispered up to the curb, she didn’t hesitate; she pulled open the door and slipped inside.
“I’m not afraid of jack,” Kathie said as if she was still talking to herself. She hugged herself to keep from shivering, her teeth chattering. “If you’re afraid, you don’t stick your thumb out in the middle of nowhere,” she went on, her voice rising. “You don’t tell your step-father to take a flying fuck at the moon when he backhands you.” She bent down to take a cigarette out of her backpack at her feet; she needed one, badly. “Can you turn on the dome light?” she asked. “Or is there a flashlight somewhere?”
The flashlight, a heavy long-handled metal one, came crashing down on the back of Kathie’s head, sending her flying into the dash, bloodying her nose and knocking her unconscious. The car continued long past her sister’s house where the porch light had been left on for her and well into the country. The plows weren’t out yet and only a few hardy travelers braved the weather, their headlights dim in the falling snow.
Kathie came to painfully and slowly. The car had stopped. The passenger door jerked open and her limp body fell halfway out of the car. She kept her eyes closed; if he thought she was awake he might hit her again. She was grabbed under her arms and pulled the rest of the way out of the car, then dragged through the snow. She could feel it catching in her boots and it felt like cold whispers on her face. He grunted and struggled with the dead weight, stopping now and then to rest, wheezing and cursing.
If she’d never felt fear before, Kathie was feeling it now. Its icy fingers ran the length of her body; she was cold inside and out. She wanted to kick and scream, to fight back, to run, but a voice kept telling her to play opossum, to wait for a chance. It seemed like he’d dragged her for miles; there had been light coming through her eyelids before, now there was none. She heard his heel hit something wooden and she was bumpily dragged up three steps. The snow quit falling on her face. A porch? A cabin?
She was unceremoniously dumped, the back of her bruised head thumping against wood. He was looking at her, she could tell. She’d never felt so naked.
“Little slut. Little cocktease. You’re all the same, wearing your mini-skirts, going braless.”
She heard a zipper’s long, slow descent, the whisper of nylon against nylon. Then the scrape of a match and a dull glow, red behind her eyelids. Had she missed her chance? Kathie’s eyes flew open and she tried to scramble to her feet. In an instant, there was a gleaming knife at her throat and he was straddling her legs, his full weight crushing her into the hard surface.
“You’re not going anywhere. This is where things get interesting.”
“You’ll do what? Scream? We’re miles from anywhere. Besides, my good friend here would cut that scream right out of your throat.” The knife flashed in the light of a small lantern.
Kathie’s eyes watered. Her legs were going numb. What difference does that make? She thought, almost laughing out loud. She was going to die.
“Oh, quit your sniveling. You think a few tears will melt my heart and make me change my mind? Quite the opposite, girlie. I thought you were the brave world traveler, afraid of nothing.”
She spit in his face. He just blinked coldly at her, the saliva running down his cheek. Then he reared up and backhanded her cheek, slicing it open with a ring on his finger.
“Stupid bitch. Just be glad I only hit you. Enough of this shit.”
He ground his weight more firmly on her legs then grabbing her shirt, he began slicing off the buttons, one by one. Kathie could feel the cold steel against her flesh; she didn’t dare move.
“You killed that other girl.” Kathie’s voice came flat, mechanical.
“She got what she deserved.” He came to the top button and sliced upward, nicking her chin. She felt the blood drip down her neck and felt him grow hard against her.
“You like the blood,” she said. “Is that it?”
“It’s such a beautiful fluid. Hot, red and slick.” He rubbed a finger against the cut, then licked the blood off. Kathie’s stomach churned. She turned her head to the side and retched. Nothing came out but bile.
“Ever hear of Death By a Thousand Cuts?”
Kathie closed her eyes as he ran the blade lightly up her bare stomach and up under the elastic of her bra, then sliced upwards, cutting it in half.
The next thing she knew, he was crushing her with his dead weight, his head smacking the floor next to her own. She looked up.
“Oh my God,” she cried, “oh my God, it’s you.” She pushed with all her might against her attacker’s slack body, rolled over and scrambled away.
“Are you okay? I think he’ll be out for a while.” Peter Johnson, gripping a flashlight, kicked at Dan Bowen’s inert body. Kathie had never been so glad to see someone in her life.
“How did you find us?” she asked, shuddering uncontrollably. She pulled her coat together and sat on the cold, wet floor of the park gazebo rocking and wailing.
“I, uh, saw you get into his car and I followed you,” Peter said.
Kathie smiled wanly.
“I woulda got here quicker, but I had to stay pretty far behind. Thought I lost him one time. Here.” He shrugged off his down parka and placed it around her shoulders. “I better go call the police. There’s a phone out by the main entrance.”
“No! Don’t leave me with him!” Kathie cried. She tried to get to her feet, but her legs shook and collapsed beneath her.
Peter had already pulled off his belt and was tying Bowen’s hands behind his back. “I’ll need the scarf, too,” he said pointing to her.
His scarf was still around the coat he gave her. Kathie tugged at it with cold fingers and handed it up to him. He kicked Bowen’s feet together and knelt down to tie his ankles, then looped the scarf around his tied hands for good measure.
“There, he’s hogtied and he’s not going anywhere,” he said. “I wouldn’t touch the knife,” he added, nodding his head at the blade near Bowen’s hand. “Fingerprints. There’s a Swiss Army knife in the right pocket of my coat if you need it.”
“Why would I … no, let me come with you!” Once again, Kathie tried to stand, but failed.
“It’s not far,” Peter said, “They just put in that 9-1-1 number here. Besides, you can’t walk real good right now.”
“Please hurry,” Kathie said, pulling his large coat down over her knees, trying to cover herself as much as possible. Before she could even finish the sentence, Peter Johnson was barreling away through drifts of snow.
Kathie moved as far away from Bowen as she could. Her whole body trembled with fear and the cold, though her head felt hot and feverish. She didn’t take her eyes off of him. It seemed like Peter was gone for hours when Bowen started moaning. Kathie fumbled in the big pocket and pulled out the knife, then fumbled to open it as Bowen came to. His eyes snapped open when he realized he was tied. He looked around, incredulous.
“Nice trick,” he snarled at her. “How’d you manage that?”
“Shut up,” Kathie snarled back, pointing the knife at him.
“Cute toy,” Bowen said, coughing up a laugh. “You can’t be serious.” He struggled against the bindings. Kathie got to her knees and held it straight out, as if it were a gun.
“C’mon, Kathie,” Bowen crooned. “Untie me, would you? I was just playing with you.”
She didn’t know she had it in her, but Kathie barked out a laugh. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” she scoffed.
“Come on, I’m serious here.” Bowen’s eyes shifted back and forth, he started wriggling closer to her. “Okay, I’m a sick, sick man,” he said, making his voice sound pitiful. “But they’ll put me in jail and throw away the key and I’ll never get the help I need, don’t you see? I need treatment, I need understanding and compassion. You’re compassionate, aren’t you, Kathie?”
He was whimpering. Kathie lowered her arms a bit. She looked around. When would Peter get back?
“Look, Kathie,” Bowen said, “I know you’ll do what’s right, what’s good. I trust you.” He struggled, but managed to roll right over so that now he faced away from her. His bound arms and legs were just inches from her. “See?” he said. “I trust you. Just cut them off and I’ll be on my way. I’ll go away and I’ll get the help I need, check into a hospital.”
When Kathie didn’t move, he tried again.
“Look, there are just two choices here, not like with that silly Peter Johnson thing: Either cut them off and let me get help, or don’t. Just two choices. Even you could pick one.”
He had to go and say that, Kathie thought. Even though being near him made her skin crawl, she moved closer until her mouth was inches from his ear.
“No, Mr. B,” she hissed, “that’s where you’re wrong. That,” she said, holding the knife against his jugular, “is a classic example of the fallacy of the limited possibility. There’s definitely at least one more choice here.” She pressed the cold steel harder against his neck as he lay stiff and unmoving.
Kathie had never prayed in her life, but now she prayed that Peter and the cops would get there in time.