YOU ONLY DIE TWICE
By Christopher Smith
At first, all she was aware of was a cold wetness against her cheek and explosions of light along the periphery of her vision. She could hear someone talking to her–a man–but she couldn’t understand what he was saying.
She felt her body being jolted. Kicked. Punched.
Her head hurt.
There was blood in her mouth. And something else. Something thick and round, which made it difficult for her to breathe.
Her left leg began to twitch.
The flashes of light continued until the pain in her head became too much for her to bear.
Something was shoved into her right hand. She felt her fingers being closed around it and then, somehow, the object was attached to her hand.
She wondered what it was. She wondered where she was. Had she died again? Or was she about to die again?
She knew all about death.
She passed out and went into a light of her own.
When she woke again, Cheryl Dunning blinked and though her head was still thick and her eyesight still cloudy, she was able to process that the darkness she now saw had nothing to do with death or being unconscious, but everything to do with that fact that it was night.
She was outside and she was alive, but where was she? How did she get here? She tried to make sense of it, tried to remember what events led her to this, but she couldn’t remember anything.
Her mind was blank.
She needed to leave, get home. But where was home?
She tried to raise her head, but the effort was excruciating and she realized that she couldn’t. She put her left hand beneath her breast and tried to push herself up, but she cried out in pain and slumped back onto the ground.
She wasn’t able to move. At least not now. Instinct kicked in. That part of her that could still reason realized that she might have broken a bone or, worse, bones. She needed to be careful. It felt as if someone had pummeled her.
As she lay there, it came to her that she was on a moist forest floor. She could smell damp timber, the rot of whatever lay beneath her, and she was aware that it was raining. Water tapped against the side of her cheek and soaked her clothes. It wasn’t a heavy rain, but it was steady, and she was alert enough to know that her situation was dire.
She was alone and exposed to the elements in some unknown woods. Her thoughts turned to the wild animals she knew were around her. Circling her. Smelling her. Wanting to tear her apart and eat her. The fear she felt at that moment made her want to get up and run, but her body wasn’t having it. Something was wrong with her head. It wouldn’t stop throbbing. She felt as if it had been kicked.
And so she lay there, a prisoner to whatever had happened to her. She listened to the night and occasionally heard rustling sounds in the woods. What would prey on her tonight? Something would. She felt utterly without hope and knew that she’d be dead before she had the chance to help herself.
She closed her eyes. She tried to remember her life, but there was no life to remember. It was as if someone had erased it from her mind and left in its place a pain she had never before experienced. It consumed her before and it did so again.
She slipped into unconsciousness.
Morning came and with it, the end of the rain.
Cheryl Dunning opened her eyes, and this time she could see clearly. There was no fog, no haze, just clarity. Her body still ached, but the pain wasn’t excruciating. For a moment, the idea that she’d made it through the night alive gave her back the hope she lost the night before.
With one side of her face planted on the wet ground, she looked around and saw that she was in a wooded area. A forest. Above her was a canopy of sunlit trees, from the fiery blaze of maples being seduced by autumn’s crisp touch to the evergreens that would challenge the pending winter, stare it down and see it through to spring. It was late September in Maine, pine needles were the carpet on which she lay, and she was chilled to her core.
She also was thirsty. Her mouth was caked with the coppery taste of dried blood and she wished she was near a water source, if only so she could rinse out her mouth.
How had she gotten here? She closed her eyes, thought back hard, and the pieces of a puzzle that was lost to her yesterday started to form.
Her last memory was spending time with her friend Patty at their favorite local bar, The Grind, doing shots to celebrate Patty’s thirtieth birthday, which she called a landmark event because she said she never thought she’d make it to twenty-seven. Not with her luck.
Cheryl rarely drank, but Patty coaxed her into joining her because it was her birthday. Not wanting to spoil her friend’s fun, Cheryl went along with the celebration because Patty was a lifelong friend and after all she had been through in this town, she deserved a fun night out. Together, they did several shots of tequila even though Cheryl knew she’d pay for it the next day.
But not like this. This didn’t make sense. Why was she here? Who brought her here?
She needed to get up. Needed to get out of here. She remained on her stomach and carefully lifted one of her legs behind her. It was fine. She moved her other leg, and though it hurt like hell, it was clear that nothing was broken. She went to lift up her right hand and it was at that moment that she saw the cell phone strapped to it with a rubber band.
Confused, she stared at it.
Then it buzzed to life.
Startled, she lifted her head off the forest floor and some of the pine needles that were stuck to her face tumbled off. With an effort, she sat up, swiped away the rest of the needles with her free hand, and the cell phone buzzed again.
She tore it off and tossed it away. She looked around the forest and could see steam rising up in those areas where the sun made its way through the trees to warm the cool, wet ground. She felt as if she was being watched. She listened and heard leaves falling from the maple trees. A light breeze touched her back.
And the phone buzzed again, vibrating just ahead of her on the ground. It seemed to tremble, not unlike she was now.
And Cheryl Dunning of Bangor, Maine, who for ten years worked as an underpaid secretary in the English Department at the University of Maine and who never made it out of college for reasons only few people knew because of the deep shame that had crippled her for years, knew she was in worse trouble than she ever imagined.
It was curiosity that pulled her in.
Moving through the pain, she reached out a hand to grab the phone and when she did, she saw the cuts and bruises on her forearm, which made her pull back as her stomach sank with worry.
What did the rest of her look like? She was still in her bar clothes. A tight white T-shirt that showed off her curves, tight blue jeans she picked up for seven dollars at the bargain bin at The Gap, and boots that Patty said were made “for getting any man you want. And you need a man, Cheryl. God, do you ever. It’s been, like, forever since you dated someone. At the very least, those boots with those heels should get you in the back seat of someone’s car. And praise Jesus for that.”
As if that’s what Cheryl was seeking. She hadn’t been with anyone in years and Patty knew why. She knew Cheryl was emotionally scarred, but Patty had suffered her own troubles and knew that life nevertheless had to move forward. “There are two things you can do, Cheryl,” Patty once said. “You can live in your past and die by it. Or you can let your past inform your present so you can have some semblance of a future. That’s therapist talk, but it’s true. Your past won’t go away, but you can do your best to learn from it and move forward.”
Over the years, other lectures came, which Cheryl tolerated because she knew her friend was just worried about her. But after what happened to Cheryl during her junior year in college, which is the reason she never finished college, she had no intention of being with a man again. Not after what she went through.
She wondered about the boots and their heels. If she had to run, how would she manage to do so with these on her feet? The idea of it worried her almost as much as that phone, the surface of which now gleamed because it had captured a piece of the sun and was tossing it back toward the sky.
She went for it and grabbed it. She turned it over in her hands and nearly screamed when it buzzed. It vibrated again, which confirmed her belief that somewhere in these woods, someone was watching her. Toying with her. She didn’t understand why, but someone was nearby and given her current condition, it was clear that they either planned to hurt her further, or they were going to kill her.
She had no idea why. Maybe there wasn’t a “why.” Maybe it just was, particularly if she was dealing with madness, which she’d dealt with before.
She wished she could remember more of what happened last night. Did someone slip something into one of their shots when they weren’t looking? And if someone did, who did it? It had been only her and Patty last night, hadn’t it? She didn’t remember speaking to anyone but the bartender, and even that was brief. The Grind had a packed house. He was busy. Whenever she or Patty engaged him, it was just to order another round.
She was thinking of Patty and wondering where she was when the phone vibrated again in her hand. It was an iPhone, dented on its side, scratched on its surface but one of the newer models. She had one herself, an older version, so at least she was familiar with how to use it.
She pressed the button below the screen and saw that while there were no voice messages, there were eight text messages. She clicked on the icon and read the first. “You have no ability to make a call. You have no ability to send a text. Maps have been disabled. Tracking has been disabled. Browser access has been disabled. Are we clear? This phone has been hacked and serves as my line of contact to you. Here’s your first directive. Select the iPhotos icon and look through the photos.” She went through the other seven messages and they all said the same thing, though the last one was more urgent. “Select the iPhotos icon, Cheryl. Do it now. Don’t anger me.”
Whoever it was knew her name.
The phone buzzed again and another text appeared on the screen. She opened it. “I really don’t want to kill you, Cheryl. At least not now. So, open the fucking icon.”
Nervously, she clicked out of the text window and selected iPhotos. What she saw when it opened was a series of events. The photos began at The Grind. The quality was grainy, as if no flash was used, which made sense because people would have noticed a flash, including her and Patty.
Still, there was enough light to see that she was having a shot of tequila with Patty at the bar. She swiped to the next image. Now, she and Patty were dancing in the center of the dance floor, a crush of people around them, some with their hands lifted above their heads. She stared at the photo. She had no recollection of dancing last night.
She swiped to the next photo and saw that she and Patty were back at the bar and downing another shot, each with a cigarette in their hands. She was sweaty and laughing. Patty was bent over and appeared to be in hysterics. The bartender, a good-looking man with dark hair and a masculine face, was looking at them in amusement.
She swiped to the next photo, and this time it was just her, alone, standing at the bar. Patty was nowhere in sight. Looking at herself, she could see her insecurities stamped on her face, but then she always was uncomfortable when she was alone. Her face looked grim. Her arms were folded in front of her. She was looking off to her left, which is where the restrooms were. The crowd was noticeably thinner. The night was winding down.
Patty was back, this time with a man, and Cheryl was smoking again. Just as she herself was leaning against the bar for support, Patty was leaning against the man for the same reason. Her arm was draped over his neck. He was big, younger than them, muscular. He looked sober, but they looked wasted. Cheryl switched to the next photo and this time they were outside in the parking lot with the man. They were standing beside Patty’s white Jetta, which was next to an illumined streetlamp that cast light down upon them. The man was kissing Patty’s neck. His hands gripped her ass. Cheryl looked over at the image of herself and saw that her finger was raised, as if she was wagging it at them, even though she was laughing.
Patty was in the car with him, her hand waving out the open window as she drove away from Cheryl, who was standing beneath the streetlamp, holding onto it to steady herself while she looked over her shoulder. For the first time, she was facing the camera. Though her lips were parted, her expression was otherwise blank.
Heart quickening, she flicked her finger across the screen again and this time, she was unprepared for what she saw. She was lying on the pavement. Blood was spattered like a net across her face. There was a dazed look in her eyes, as if whatever happened to her had just happened. A man’s boot–large, dirty and old to the point that it looked worn out–covered her mouth and mashed her face to one side.
She was too upset to look at the other photos, but she knew she had to, if only to see the story they told and how it might inform how she might get out of here now. She flicked through them. She saw herself in the back of a truck bed, her hands and feet tied behind her with rope, a ball gag strapped around her head and shoved into her mouth, Duct tape over her eyes to seal them shut.
Another photo, this one brightly lit. At this point, he obviously felt safe enough to use the flash. She was in the forest now, flat on her back, the ball gag still in her mouth, but now the tape was off her eyes and with them wide open and exposed, they reflected pure terror.
She went through the rest of the photos and in each one, her face and body seemed to expose more blood and bruises. He was actively beating her when he took the photos. By the last set, she was on her stomach, her head was turned to her right, her eyes were closed, the ball gag was removed from her sagging mouth, and water shined brightly on her face, which was smeared with dirt.
She was unconscious.
But right now, she was alive, perhaps only for a moment, because behind her was movement in the woods.
# # #