Ashley slipped the only picture she had of her little brother—taken in better times when their father was still alive—into the white Walmart bag on top of a couple changes of clothes, and tied it closed. Then, she turned out the light, and fully clothed, stretched out on her bed. And waited.
He had said to meet him at midnight. One more hour to go.
As the minutes ticked by, her resolve began to weaken. Was she doing the right thing? She had only known John Smith for two weeks, after all. How did she know he wasn’t an ax murderer, or worse? He looked okay in his profile picture, and in all the messages they had exchanged, nothing came off as weird. But you never could tell.
Maybe she shouldn’t go. Maybe if she talked to her mom again, when she wasn’t drinking, this time her mom would believe her, and—
The doorknob jiggled. Ashley sucked in a startled breath and sat up. Again, rattle-rattle-rattle. She grabbed Fuzzy Wuzzy and clutched the teddy bear to her chest.
“Ash…come on, unlock the door,” Jack said, his voice slurred from alcohol, drugs, or both. “Let your old daddy in.”
He wasn’t her daddy! Her daddy was dead.
“Please…” More rattling. “You know, I could…could knock the damn thing down. If I was…a mind to.”
Ashley screamed, the sound muffled against Fuzzy Wuzzy’s belly.
Something, most likely Jack’s fist, banged once against the door. Then silence.
Ashley held her breath, ears fine tuned to the hallway outside her door. She heard the faint sound of footsteps fade away. She was safe. For tonight.
But what about tomorrow night? Would her mom’s boyfriend decide then that a locked door wasn’t going to stop him? If something didn’t happen, she’d lose her virginity to the creep before her thirteenth birthday got here next month.
She had no choice. She had to leave.
Ashley picked up her cell phone and read the time—11:45–then dropped it on the bed beside Fuzzy Wuzzy, snagged the Walmart bag, and padded across the floor to the window. One leg over the sill, she paused. He said not to bring my phone, but he didn’t say anything about…
She rushed back to the bed, picked up the teddy bear, and tucked him under her arm. Then it was out the window.
Her eyes already accustomed to darkness, Ashley jogged across the dew-damp grass and through the back gate listing half-open on rusty hinges. She turned left, following the tree-shaded alley that ran behind the houses on her street.
She hadn’t told a soul about John Smith, even Emily, her best friend. He had told her not to, that people wouldn’t understand. She didn’t even understand herself, but was grateful that John Smith had wanted to help when she told him about Jack.
Ashley saw the dark shape of a man standing at the end of the alley. Right where he said he’d be. She slowed, a niggle of unease rippling along her spine. Then stopped.
He moved toward her. Come, young one, she heard him say. Time is short.
Clutching her bag and Fuzzy Wuzzy, Ashley watched him approach, wanting to turn and run, but her feet were rooted to the spot. What have I done? “Mama…” she croaked. “Daddy…”
The man stopped in front of her, and she recognized John Smith from his picture. But there was something more to him that shone beneath the surface of his skin and moved in his dark eyes. Something…something…
He smiled, and all the fear drained from her body. He held out his hand and Ashley took it.
In the night sky behind John Smith, a light winked into existence. Ashley tracked its lightening-fast approach, and in seconds, the landscape was bathed in its silver light. She looked up into its glowing heart. I’m safe.
Dogs barked. Car alarms jangled. Lights blinked. TV sets turned off and on.
Ashley McKinnon’s feet left the ground, and with one hand in John Smith’s, the other clutching Fuzzy Wuzzy, she flowed upward into the light. On the ground where she had dropped it, the Walmart bag bounced once, twice, and followed.