Freedom. It was something I had seldom thought about…until
four years ago. I had taken for granted living life every day without looking
over my shoulder. Never feeling any real peace, a tiny part of me was always on
high alert. I feared that at any moment, I would be discovered. I had spent the
past four years trying to cope with intense, crippling anxiety, and everything
I had done was still no match against the nightmares that visited me often.
I thought fate would deal me a better hand. I believed I could
escape him. Now the effects of my mistakes had spread. I feared not only for my
life but also those of people I love who were put in danger because of me. I
was no longer free. Now, at twenty-seven years old, my time had run out.
My eyes began to open. I blinked slowly, trying to get them
to adjust to the darkness. I used my shoulder to wipe the dampness from my
face. Blackness cloaked the room, making it impossible to see anything around
me. The musty air blasting through the vent was frigid. My fingers and toes
were numb, making them hard to move. An intense headache competed with the
throbbing pain in my face. The tiniest bit of warmth against my back made me
aware of the body next to mine. I tried opening my mouth; the tape that had
sealed it shut had been removed. My lips felt swollen, and I tasted dried blood
on them. I nudged the body next to mine. I hoped that it was Paige, that they
hadn’t separated us.
A soft whisper came from my cracked lips. “Paigey…” I
croaked her childhood nickname.
“Paige, please answer me,” panicking, I whispered louder,
waiting for an answer.
A small groan escaped her as she moved just centimeters.
“Ana…” a low voice struggled to whisper back.
I let out the breath I was holding, relieved that hers was
the body next to mine. “Oh, Paige…” I leaned into her as close as I could, “I’m
so sorry you got dragged into this.” My voice hitched and my eyes welled, but
no tears came. Dehydration left nothing for my body to spare. We leaned into
each other. The friction caused my broken body to ache. “I will find a way to
get us out of here,” I promised her.
A door opened. It creaked loudly, breaking the silence.
Light streamed down the staircase. It was dim yet blinding in the blackness of
the basement. We both jumped and huddled our bodies even closer with our hands
tied behind our backs.
We stayed silent. The only sound came from the shoes that
clanked heavily down each step. The stairs moaned under the weight of the man.
A large shadow appeared, then the massive body that belonged to it. It was
him—the monster. The man with all the scars. The slight limp in his step gave
He turned on a small flashlight and aimed it around,
highlighting areas of the basement before finding us. The light so shocking
when it hit me, I squeezed my eyes shut. I could feel the tremors rolling off
Paige’s small body. God, please. Please
send someone to rescue us before it’s too late. I had pushed away everyone
who cared; now there might be no one left who could save us.
With my eyes still closed I listened to the clicking of his
fancy shoes on the damp concrete as they got closer and closer. I braced myself
as the large body loomed over us.
Six months earlier…
I tucked my head down further behind the shield as I picked
up the pace. My bike pushed forward faster, anxiety building in my chest as I
passed the small road sign with the arrow: Sugar Maple 15 miles.
That little sign surged adrenaline through every part of my
body as I got closer to home. My bike sped through the warm night, covering the
distance as fast as possible. Miles of trees, bushes, and mountains were
blurred in my peripheral vision over the last five and a half hours until I
finally crossed Georgia from Tennessee.
The sound of my pipes cutting through the night was all that
filled my ears, the mountain air leaving a light mist on my partially exposed
face. I tried to stretch my back. I felt tight everywhere from not stopping.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to grow up so I could leave this place. After
four long years of exile, I couldn’t get back fast enough.
It was Monday night—I was five days early. The idea of
surprising my brothers in the Stained Souls MC came to me last night when I
tossed and turned trying to sleep. Friday seemed too far away. At first light,
I packed my shit and left behind everything that couldn’t fit on my bike. I
knew my club brothers weren’t expecting me until the weekend so they could
throw me a huge homecoming bash. As much as that sounded great, I wanted some time
to reacquaint myself with my newly renovated hometown. Besides, I knew that the
party would leave me hungover for days, and that wasn’t how I wanted to start
Last time I talked to Hawk, he said that the Stained Souls
were raking in cash with all the new people in town. The club owned several
buildings on the main strip, so naturally, they had done pretty well with the
renovations. I hadn’t decided, even with the influx of income, how I felt about
returning to a town full of strangers. I was once a well-known and feared man
in this town. Now I would be the stranger. The thought had my stomach turning.
My forearms tightened as the needle pushed further toward
one hundred on the desolate road. The blackness of night was the perfect
backdrop for the slideshow that was running in my head. All the people, places,
and friends I left behind…the good times with my brothers and the bad times
that destroyed my soul. I shouldn’t have wanted to go back. I should have
embraced my new life. But no matter how much darkness and anger Sugar Maple
triggered, it was still home.
I shook my head, clearing the thoughts. I focused on the
approaching glow of city lights that made the horizon over the mountain appear
bright compared to the inky sky that surrounded it. The May heat and humidity
created a haze blanketing the area.
I slowed my pace to almost a crawl just outside town. On the
hillside, the moon illuminated the bright white chapel and gave it an eerie
glow. It stood tall and menacing, overlooking the bridge into Sugar Maple. Its
angular windows, the way they looked down the hill to the town below, reminded
me of angry, judging eyes.
I tried to keep my eyes forward, but the small graveyard
pulled me to it. The decaying stones of the cemetery were almost as white as
the church. My eyes locked on a single headstone. I swallowed back the lump
that formed in my throat. Every fucking time I entered or left town, I was
forced to pass the painful reminder of what life took from me. I had said
goodbye to three people I loved standing under those tall maple trees, which
always seemed to mock me.