by Michael J. Moore
You realize you’ve made a mistake as soon as you spot the girl in the back of the van. She’s sitting in the farthest corner from the driver’s seat, hugging her legs with her head between her knees so she doesn’t look like much more than a set of shins with blonde hair. Then your eyes dart back outside, past the fat man in dirty coveralls, past the yellow house where the meanest dog on the block lives, and they take in the gray afternoon sky one last time before the door slides loudly on its track, and slams shut. There are no seats in the back of the van, and it’s just grown silent aside from the sound of the rumbling engine which is causing the carpeted floor to vibrate beneath your feet. The only windows on the vehicle are located up front and on the backdoors, but the ones in the back are so dark they make the outside look like night.
The inside smells of grease, just like Dad’s workbench in the garage, but there’s no toolbox in here. As far as you can see, it’s completely empty aside from you and the girl, who doesn’t look up, but appears to be around the same size as you. The walls are lined with black paneling, though, so it’s too dark to make out much detail.
Your jaw trembles before you becomes aware of your heartbeat, which seems to be drumming inside your ears, Whump-Whump-Whump-Whump, the way it does when you play tag during recess, or sprint across the gym in P.E. The way it does when you lay back on the dentist’s chair while he shoves screaming power-tools into your mouth without a bit of reserve. The way it did last summer, when the dirty worker at the carnival locked you in the steel cage just before the ride began. Only then, it was a good kind of fear you were experiencing because adults had never spoken to you about rides the way they have about getting into cars with strangers.
You feel a growing warmth beneath the surface of your eyes because you need to get out of here, and you need to get out now. You scan the door and spot a latch, which is the same color as the rest of the interior. Taking a breath and clenching your jaw, you tell yourself not to cry, but before you can stop them, tears explode out of you. They pour down either side of your nose, wedging between your lips, and salting your tongue as you pull, pull, pull on the door only to discover what you already know.
“It’s child-locked,” the girl’s voice causes you to jump. It’s low and so deplete of joy or even hope that as it drifts into your ears, it causes your stomach to flip. “It won’t open from the inside. Neither will the backdoors.” She doesn’t look up as she speaks, just continues to stare down at the space between her white shoes.
You hiccup and sniff as you ask her why they’re child-locked, but before she can answer, one of the doors in the front opens, letting in light and the sound of a passing car with loud rap music coming from its speakers. You glance over to see the fat man climbing into the driver’s seat, causing the van to rock.
“Why is it child-locked?” you repeat, this time it’s directed at him.
He doesn’t answer, though, or even acknowledge that you’re here. Just shuts the door, shifts the stick on the steering-wheel, and pulls out onto the road. As soon as the van’s in motion, you lose your balance and topple right onto your ass, where you sit and cry even though you know it won’t do you any good.
The problem is, what else is there to do? The man isn’t just fat, he’s tall and though you can’t see much beneath his giant beard, even his face seems massive. You’re barely even nine, and small for your age. You couldn’t fight this guy in your dreams.
Your birthday was last month, and you had been hinting for weeks that you wanted a cellphone, pointing out that because your older sister has one, you two could text each other if you did too. But Dad knew what you were up to, and one night at the dinner-table, he told you, “A phone’s a lot of responsibility. Give it another year, why don’t you?”
You consider standing to stare out the back window. To watch your neighborhood disappear. You could try to wave down cars behind you, but you know they probably won’t see through the darkened glass. So instead, you sit here in the middle of the van, your palms flat on the carpet to keep you from tipping over, and you think of posters of missing children taped to walls in local stores. Your lips harden, and you’re about to break into another fit of crying when the girl in the corner speaks again in her terrible, low, solemn tone.
“How’d he get you get into the van?” She still doesn’t look up.
You blink and you blink, and then you reply, “He said he was—he said he was making a—”
“A calendar,” she interrupts. “The son of a bitch. I hate him.”
He must have used the same line on her, but it’s comforting to talk, so you carry on anyway. “He said he gets pictures of a different kid every month, and you get to be the star that month. He was gonna take me home and get my parents to sign a contract, and I’d be February’s star when the calendar came out. He said—”
The van comes to a stop at a streetlight, and the fat man turns in his seat and says, “Are you calling me a liar?”
Sniffing, you tell him, “No.”
“Good. You are gonna be February’s star, but only if you start behaving back there. No more crying.”
“He’s lying,” the girl says. “He’s not making a calendar. He’s driving to the woods.”
The fat man turns and puts the van back into motion as you ask the girl what he’s going to do in the woods. In response, she asks if you’ve ever shot a gun.
“A gun?” you repeat. “Why would I—”
“Ssshhh. Don’t say it again, just listen to me. There’s a revolver where I’m sitting. If you peel the carpet up, there’s a compartment with a jack and lug-wrench, and that’s where he keeps his gun. You gotta be quiet when you get it out, or he’ll stop the van and then it’s over.”
At first you don’t respond, just let her words replay in your head, until finally you ask with a trembling voice, “How do you—how could you even—”
But before you can finish, she looks up and you nearly jump out of your skin. You cover your mouth to keep from screaming, because where her eyes and nose should be, there’s only a giant hole. It’s the size of a baseball, with sharp pieces of skull reaching for each other from its edges. A tangled mesh of brain-matter is draped over the bottom, and more blood than you’ve ever seen in one place is pouring over her mouth and chin, down her neck.
“I was October’s star. He shot me in the back of my head, and the bullet destroyed most of my face on its way out. There’ve been three more since me, and none have been brave enough to go for the gun.”
You’ve never even dreamt of anything as terrible as her, so you close your eyes as tight as they’ll shut. So tight that the friction might start a fire on the bridge of your nose.
The girl says, “Maybe you’ll be the one to finally stop him, but if not, there’s a place for you in the woods with the rest of us.”
Finally, you open your eyes, and the girl is gone, replaced by the emptiest space you’ve ever beheld. The fat man looks back briefly as you scoot to the farthest corner from the driver’s seat. When he returns his attention to the road, you wedge your fingers under the carpet and slowly peel it up, praying that he won’t notice.
Michael J Moore is a Latinx author from Washington state. His books include Highway Twenty, which appeared on the Preliminary Ballot for the 2019 Bram Stoker Award, the bestselling post-apocalyptic novel, After the Change, which is used as curriculum at the University of Washington, the psychological thriller, Secret Harbor and the middle grade horror story, Nightmares in Aston – Wicker Village. His work has received awards, has appeared in various anthologies, journals, newspapers (i.e. the Huffington Post) and magazines (i.e. the Nation), on television (with acclaimed newsman, Carlos Watson) and has been adapted for theater and radio. Follow him at twitter.com/MichaelJMoore20 or https://instagram.com/michaeljmoorewriting.