The Devil’s Playground

Andy skidded to a halt and whistled at her Shiba Inu to do the same. The dog halted and trotted back towards Andy, its red sesame fur gleaming in the sunlight. She had come to the perfect stopping point on her favorite Journey album, Infinity, and she slowed her breathing as she removed her earphones. Andy wiped the sweat off her forehead with one hand and used the other to smooth down the back of her auburn french braid. It was still intact, mostly. She had just finished twisting the lid off her Nalgene when Kitsune plopped down next to her feet. His tongue dangled aimlessly from his mouth, and he began to eyeball the water bottle.

“Good little stud!” Andy exclaimed. “I bet you’re thirsty too.”

Kitsune’s ears perked up, and Andy smiled. He barked at her, and then sat patiently.

“Give me just a sec, ok, little fox?” Andy said.

Andy reached into her backpack, her slender, pale arm squeezing through the hole she had made between the zippers. Her nose wrinkled as she fished around until she finally felt the cool metal of the water dish. Once they were both hydrated, she sprawled out on the soil and looked up at the Colorado sky. Andy sucked the clean, but dirt tainted, air in through her mouth and nostrils. The earth smelled rich, and two mountain chickadees chirped and flitted about in the branches above her. Bees and flies buzzed all around, squirrels argued in the trees, and if she listened closely, she could hear a creek running off to her left. A gentle breeze flirted with a few flyaway strands from her braid, lifting them up and down ever so slightly. It was anything but silent, yet it was peaceful.

“This is how life should be, Kit,” Andy said as she exhaled. “It’s like a playground I never want to leave. How about I tell work to screw off, and you and I run away and build a hovel in the woods?”

Kitsune just stared, his face stuck in a typical wolfish grin. Andy sat up slowly and glanced at her watch to gauge how much time they had left to hike. Once she saw that it was almost three, she shoved a protein bar in her mouth and pressed forward when her phone started buzzing in the back pocket of her cargo shorts. Andy’s eyes narrowed, but a smile crept across her face when she saw the image on the screen. It was a photo of her best friend doing what she did best: plopped down in front of a huge monitor at work, giant mug in one hand, a Red Bull in the other—and of course, clad in massive headphones that only served to further dwarf her already petite head.

“Hey, Jade! How dare thou naggeth me when I ventureth out on a mission!” Andy said.

“You weirdo,” Jade said. “You weren’t answering any of my texts, which is perfectly normal for you and all, but—”

“Eww, I text back at least once a day,” Andy said, feigning a provoked voice. She looked back towards Kitsune, only to see him wandering off to the left of the path.

“—as I was saying,” Jade laughed, “I just wanted to know if you were going to make it back for Kim’s twenty-fourth birthday party tonight? It’s at Old Chicago, but people will most likely go downtown after that. I think the turnout should be around fifteen people, so it should be a fun night. Andy? Are you even listening to me?”

“Yeah, sorry, Kitsune just up and walked off, so I got distracted for a moment. But I don’t know. I mean, I’m planning to be back in town this evening.” Andy paused for a moment. “I just don’t know if I feel like going out. Twenty-four isn’t that big of a deal anyway, is it?”

“It’s a big deal when it’s a good friend that you’ve known for years, and especially when your best friend is going. No way are you making me go it alone, Chica. Besides, you and I both know you could use some more interaction with, well, humans.”

“Fine, I’ll be there,” Andy said as she grimaced and started walking towards the break in the path where Kitsune had disappeared. “But be advised that I chose the veterinary field for a reason. I need to go, but I’ll touch base when I’m back in town, ok?”

“Whatevs! I’ll talk to you then. Love your face!”

“I love you too!”

Andy shoved the phone back in her pocket and stared off into the endless array of aspen trees. Their cream and black crackled skins seemed to be taunting her, unwilling to render up any secrets to the whereabouts of her beloved companion. She crouched to the ground, face only inches from the dirt. This technique worked well for Aragorn in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers when he was tracking the hobbits, but Andy couldn’t make anything out in the muddled soil sprinkled with leaves and twigs. She let out an exasperated sigh, rolled her eyes, and strayed further away from the path.

“Kitsune! Here boy!” Andy paused and strained her ears. She repeated it several times and tried to stall the heat rising to her cheeks. “We only have a few hours left of hiking,” she muttered under her breath. “Please don’t ruin this.”

Andy’s pace quickened and she continued calling out. She stopped abruptly when another break in the trees opened up to her right. It looked like it was some sort of path, though it was not one well-trodden. Andy chewed her bottom lip for a moment and then turned right.

——

Roughly twenty minutes later, Andy’s path concluded at a dead end. She tore off her Columbia jacket and used it to mop the sweat off her forehead. She grabbed a jagged stone and was prepared to throw it at a nearby tree when she heard a noise in the distance. Andy started to call out, but stopped suddenly when she recognized human voices. She anxiously ran towards the sound, hoping these people had caught sight of Kitsune. As she drew closer, Andy could make out two distinct male voices.

“Come on, man, are you almost done with that already? I don’t want to be out here much longer.” The first man’s tone was strained, and his speech pattern was rapid.

“Then maybe you should shovel faster!” The second man’s voice was gruff, and he spoke with a much more eased cadence. “You’re the reason we’re in this mess, not me.”

“We were both apart of it! Just because I was driving,” The first voiced paused for a moment, and then lowered his tone, “I shouldn’t have listened to you.”

“Here you go again, you idiot. I’m freaking tired of hearing you whine about this. What’s done is done.” The second voice continued and muttered something unrecognizable from Andy’s position.

Andy inched closer and set her backpack down quietly, her heart rate rapidly increasing. She peered around the trees and could make out two figures about fifty yards away. They were both holding shovels, but only one appeared to be using them. There was a substantial amount of dirt piled in front of the men, and it was obscuring her view. Armed with her mace and a Jungle Survival knife, Andy soldier crawled towards a fallen log that rested about ten yards away from her initial hiding place. She reached the log and wrapped her hands around its moss-covered surface. It was brittle and somewhat moist, and she was soon enveloped in the earthy scent. From here she could make out what appeared to be an industrial garbage bag. It was resting just a few feet from the men and the dirt pile.

Andy scanned the first man up and down. He was actively shoveling, clad in a dark hoodie and beanie with torn jeans. He was lanky and as pale as (if not paler than) Andy. She narrowed her eyes further as she honed in on the counterpart that was reclined against a tree next to the bag. He was partially covered, but it was clear that he was a shorter and sturdier man. He had a brown gristly beard, and he was wearing a camo hoodie and a trucker hat. A can of beer was in his hand, and Andy guessed it wasn’t his first of the day. The skinny man threw his shovel aside and cursed.

“I’m over it, dude. My arms are shot and we have to get out of here.”

“Chill out,” Gristly Beard said. “Sit down and have a beer with me real quick.” Skinny started shaking and sprinted towards the bag.

“No way. Help me get her in here. I want to get the hell away from this place. Hear me?” Skinny began frantically dragging the bag towards to the fresh hole. Gristly Beard just chuckled

and threw his beer can in the hole, causing Skinny to curse again. Andy’s breathing slowed and her body tensed up. Her knuckles grew white as she gripped the log, watching helplessly as the bag was tossed into the human-sized grave. Gristly Beard polished off another can of beer while Skinny began shoving piles of the fresh dirt back into the hole. Andy swallowed and finally came to her senses. Her phone. She needed to call for help immediately. She needed to be a safe distance away first, however, so she slowly inched her way back towards the backpack. She had only made it halfway when her back pocket began to vibrate and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” started to crescendo. The volume was set at level two, but it was enough to draw the attention of the two men in the clearing. Andy gasped and backed up on all fours.

“What the hell was that?” Gristly Beard said. He stood up and scanned the woods around him. Skinny cursed again and clutched his shovel like an ax.

“It came from over there,” Skinny called out, running towards the fallen log. “This can’t be happening.”

“Shut up and let’s do something about it then.”

Andy’s eyes widened and she couldn’t hold back any longer. She stood up and sprinted back towards the path.

“There!” shouted Gristly Beard. “There’s a girl running away.”

“Crap, crap, crap!” Skinny said. He was already following in her footsteps and gaining momentum fast.

Blurs of cream, gray, and black raced by her peripheral vision as Andy dodged small bushes and rocks. Branches whipped in her face, and she held her arms in front of her haphazardly to block the impact. She was increasing the distance between her and the pursuer when her foot caught an up-curved branch. Her stomach tightened as she fell, and her head made an impact with the trunk. Her world instantly went dark.

——

Andy blinked rapidly as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She reached up to touch her head, but her arms—and legs for that matter—were bound roughly behind her back with a rope. Her initial instinct was to call out; however, she let the urge die away. She was lying down on her side in a mostly dark room. The boxy, wooden material underneath her supplied little to no comfort. She couldn’t make out much in the room, save for a single pane window with a sheer, paisley curtain obstructing most of the outside view. The last beams of light were cascading through the window, and Andy’s heart started to sink with the sun.

The door to the room was shut and it was deathly quiet all around. Andy’s resolve returned, and she struggled to sit upright. She paused every few seconds in between adjustments, straining to hear if anyone had caught onto her. The window was ideal for Andy’s height, and she hopped towards it. She fell once and had to back up against a wall to get into a standing position again. Once she reached the window, it revealed a solitary dirt road winding away from her prison. Aspens and shrubs created a blockade around all sides of the road, and there wasn’t a soul in sight. Andy’s body tensed up, and she stumbled back. She attempted to wriggle out of her bonds, but her small wrists and larger hands created an impossible barrier.

Andy was seated on the chest again when she heard tires and an engine running in the distance. The color drained from her face, and she prayed it was a kind person as she hopped to the window. A tan Ford Ranger came around the bend and stopped about twenty feet away from Andy’s window. She bent her knees, leaving just her eyes and forehead peeking over the sill. Skinny jumped out of the driver’s side and slammed the door. His face was crinkled and distraught as he walked around and opened the truck bed. Gristly Beard stumbled out of the opposite side, a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He walked a few paces and fell, laughing all the while.

“Never thought you’d be a murdered and a kidnapper in less than two days,” he howled, “You’re Hollywood material now, man.”

Skinny glared as he shoved some items in a sack and closed the truck bed.

“Can you stop joking for like five minutes? I’m already freaking out so stop trying to make my situation worse.”

“Pfff. Why you acting like you have any other options?” Gristly Beard slurred. “She saw us with Jenny’s body. It’s either her life or our freedom now, and I ain’t one to sacrifice my freedom for others. Not even you.”

“Her life? Dude,” Skinny said. “Don’t say stuff like that. There’s gotta be some other way. Jenny was an accident; look where that’s got us. You can’t be suggesting that.”

“Whatever. Lemme know how long that works for ya,” Gristly Beard said as he stumbled towards the shack.

The two men reached the front door, and Andy heard footsteps in the adjacent room. She took advantage of their stomping and hopped quickly back to the chest. She threw her body on top of it and closed her eyes. Her breathing was rapid and it seemed to echo through the room. She hoped it wasn’t noticeable.

“Go check on her,” Skinny said, his voice muffled through the door. Gristly Beard laughed in response.

“You think she hopped away in the last hour? I did everything short of hogtying that girl, and the only reason I didn’t is because you didn’t bring enough rope. She ain’t going nowhere.”

Andy heard footsteps approaching and the metallic sound of a lock being turned. The man didn’t say anything, but she could feel his looming figure peering down at hers. The musty air began to fill with the smell of day-old booze, and Andy’s stomach turned. His breathing was labored and slow. Andy prayed it somehow masked her own exhales. The door slammed, and a single tear ran down Andy’s cheek.

“She’s sleeping like a baby,” Gristly Beard said. “You want me to do it or what?”

Silence.

“I was riding shotgun in that damn boat when Jenny checked out,” Gristly Beard continued, “and I’m not about to be tied into your mess. If you’re too weak—”

“Dude, for real, stop being so chill about all this,” Skinny whispered. “This isn’t a joke, and this could worsen our situation. I’m still trying to figure out if we have another option.”

“Whaddaya mean another option?” Gristly Beard said. “Jenny is dead. Dead, dead, deader than my childhood puppy. It doesn’t matter if it was a boating accident. You and I both know that because there was a death involving alcohol and cocaine, we’re as good as jailbirds.”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right, and this only worsens our situation.”

“Yeah, so what’s the holdup?”

“Because I don’t think I can do it, ok? And even if I could, what if we got caught with that blood on our hands? That’s so much worse. It’s too much of a risk.”

The room was silent for a moment, and then Andy heard the popping sound of a canned beverage being opened.

“It’s a worse risk to keep her alive,” Gristly Beard said. “No one’s gonna to look for that white trash whore you dated for three weeks. She told us she had no family, and she’s a third-string stripper from Detroit for crying out loud.” He paused for a minute, waiting for Skinny to respond. “This girl, though, we have no idea who she is or who might be looking for her.”

“Right,” Skinny said.

“Right? That’s all ya got? I know I’m right, so now we need to do something soon, cuz’ if we don’t, our entire plan is ruined. She knows what we look like, and if she has half a brain, she probably figured we weren’t planting a garden in the middle of the woods.”

“I know, brother, I feel you. It doesn’t seem like we have a choice,” Skinny said.

“Why are we still talking then? I’ll do it. I just need a few more.” Gristly Beard said.

“Just give me a little more time, please? I want to make sure there are no other options before we both have blood on our hands again.”

“Fine, well I ain’t waiting around bored as hell.”

Footsteps echoed and a door creaked. Andy heard the truck doors open and close, and a few minutes later the steps returned to the other room. A laptop powered up and welcomed someone by the name of Sean, and it wasn’t long before theme music could be heard in the background.

“You have one episode’s worth of time to figure this out, Ben. If you don’t have your solution by then, I’m getting rid of the girl,” Gristly Beard said.

“Ok,” Skinny said. “Where did you put her backpack? I want to look through her stuff.”

Gristly Beard must have gestured because Andy never heard a response. The adjacent room seemed to settle down, aside from the laptop noise which was loud enough to muffle subtle sounds from her room. Andy had no idea what show was on, but she estimated she had at least a minimum of thirty minutes. She tried working her wrists around her bonds again, but it was to no avail. Everything she needed was in her backpack, but it was in the other room with Skinny’s grimy hands probing through it. Since they were just now going through her belongings, Andy wondered how thoroughly they had searched her. She sat up slowly and positioned herself so she could lie down on her right side instead of her left.

She took in a quick breath and let out a sigh of relief as she felt a sharp object press into her skin through her cargo pocket. Her knife was still there. She immediately lowered herself to the ground and started rubbing her cargo pocket button against the edge of the chest. The button’s resolve eventually weakened, and it popped off and rolled across the floor stopping right under the window. Andy instinctively started to cheer, but caught herself and breathed deeply. She climbed back onto the chest and placed her bound feet against the wall. She heard her phone ringing in the other room and wondered if anyone was looking for her.

With her back pressed against the chest, she eased her body over the edge, attempting to be as upside-down as possible. She jostled her body with the momentum from her feet against the wall, and the knife finally slid out and landed with a thud on the dusty floor. Andy tensed up and listened. Not a stir. She guessed that it had been at least twenty minutes now, so she quickly slid down to the floor. The light from the day had ceased, and Andy felt around in the dark for several minutes until her fingers grazed the blade of her knife. She was so caught in the moment that she neglected to hear the theme music playing, signaling the end of the show.

“Alright, time’s up. Did you come up with some genius plan?”

“I don’t know what else to do. I just, I just don’t like it, dude,” Skinny answered.

“Then I’m gonna do it and get this night over with. You follow?”

There was no answer.

“I’ll take that as a yes then,” Gristly Beard said.

Andy heard a chair scoot. She grabbed the blade. She hurriedly angled the knife towards her bonds, cutting her hand in the process. She began to cry out but bit down on her lip instead. Footsteps echoed all around the next room. Andy tried not to imagine what Gristly Beard was planning. She finally released her hands, sliced the bonds off her legs, and jumped up.

“At least she’s asleep. It will make it easier, right? Do you think she will feel any pain?” Skinny’s voice was detached and distant.

“At least no one will hear,” Gristly Beard said. “The nearest gas station is a couple a miles up the road at least.”

Andy’s breathing slowed as she formulated a plan. She awkwardly readied her knife and stood directly behind the door. Light poured into the room as Gristly Beard’s boots creaked on the cabin floor. Andy didn’t wait for her eyes to adjust and she lunged out and immediately began slashing at his neck area. She hit her target several times, and Gristly Beard collapsed on the floor, blood spewing from his wounds. He never had a moment to react due to his drunken state, and he didn’t mutter a sound as he died on the floor. She backed up against the wall, body numb and heart pounding in her ears. His blue eyes stared back at her, and Andy felt a chill run through her as his body transitioned to an empty shell.

Another chair slid back in the adjacent room, causing Andy to snap out of her trance. She saw a small handgun lying a few inches from Gristly Beard’s body. She grabbed it. It felt cold and foreign in her hands. She tried to remember what her uncle said about hunting and guns a few summers back. She was drawing a blank.

“Are you done yet?” Skinny shouted. “I thought you were using the gun, not the knife? Sean?”

Andy, laden with adrenaline, rushed out into the next room. She aimed the gun at Skinny and held her shoulders high, trying to still her shaking hands. Skinny eyes widened as he took two steps back. Andy surveyed the room. There were two folding chairs centered around a cheap card table with a laptop resting on top. A few Wal-Mart bags and food wrappers were thrown in the corner, and Andy’s backpack was in the middle of the floor next to the bag from the truck bed, contents all spread out. Skinny stood between her and the door, and he kept fervently glancing back at it.

“Hold up,” Skinny pleaded. “I didn’t do anything. This isn’t my fault.”

Andy gestured with the gun to the doorway she came from. “Go in there.”

Skinny’s face was contorted and fearful, and it reminded Andy of Donnie Wahlberg in The Sixth Sense. He sprinted towards the canvas bag in the center of the floor. It only took him a few steps to get there, and within moments, he was pulling another gun out of the bag. Andy closed her eyes and pulled the trigger. The sound of the shot made her wince, and she opened her eyes, she saw Skinny writhing on the floor, screaming obscenities all the while. The bullet had penetrated the region between his left shoulder and chest. Andy knew better than to remain frozen this time, and she sprinted for the door.

——

Andy had no idea what time it was when she spotted a gas station in the distance. She had followed the dirt road up roughly a mile, and it turned into a paved highway that she continued down on for a few more miles. She had been jogging for at least forty minutes, yet, not one car had passed her. The stars and waning moon were bright, and they had made her run less treacherous. Andy stared up at the sky and wondered where Kitsune had run off to. She hoped Jade had started to worry by now, and was maybe even looking for her. She fought back tears as she pushed the door to the gas station open. The bell chimed as if it were welcoming her into a sanctuary. A short, stout man with white hair and a handlebar mustache looked up from his newspaper, eyes wide.

“What’s wrong, miss?” the man said.

Andy vaulted over the counter and began searching in a frenzied state.

“Don’t you have a phone here? We have to call the police immediately!”

Despite the man’s protest, Andy located his personal belongings and started to dial 911 on his cell phone. She was getting ready to press the call button when she heard a car pull up outside. Andy froze and looked out the window. It was the tan Ford Ranger. Skinny stumbled out.

“Now hold on a minute, young lady. You best be telling me what’s going on.”

“Duck!” Andy screamed as she hid behind the counter. The attendant shook his head and walked towards the door. Andy watched horrified as Skinny pulled out a gun and aimed it at the attendant’s head.

“Hand her over, old man. I know she’s here,” Skinny said, voice cracking. “I don’t have time for this. Don’t make me hurt you.”

“I’ll do no such thing.” The attendant was shaking, but he held his ground. “You get out of this store right now. The cops are on their way, so I’d leave now if I were you.”

“You’re bluffing.” Skinny’s eyes were wide as he searched every corner of the room. He finally stopped and looked at the attendant with soulless eyes. “Dammit, it’s too late. Sean was right.” Without warning, he pulled the trigger, and the attendant dropped to the ground.

Andy shouted, alerting Skinny to her hiding place. His shoulder was bleeding profusely through a makeshift bandage, but he still managed to move quickly in spite of the wound. Andy grabbed her gun, hoping it had more than one bullet. Skinny ambled towards the counter and dipped his gun over the edge. At the same time, Andy moved from her hiding place and rolled out underneath the swinging door. Skinny turned around just in time for Andy’s bullet to make a clean pass through his stomach. He shot the gun as he fell to the ground, missing Andy by mere inches.

——

The police found Andy crumpled in the furthest corner from the door, chin resting on her knees and eyes glazed over. The bodies were sprawled just a few feet from each other, and blood covered the ground. Two guns rested side by side. One officer’s radio cackled about a body found in a cabin several miles up the road. The incidents were most likely related. They offered her food and water, all the while prying for details. She wouldn’t say a word. Andy was wrapped in a blanket and carried to the highway patrol car. As she neared the vehicle, a familiar face looked out at her through the window. Kitsune started frantically pawing at the glass as the officer reached to open the door.

“Is this your dog, ma’am? We found him several hours ago. He was running down the highway like he had a mission.” The officer shrugged when Andy offered no reply.

She climbed into the car and wrapped her arms around Kitsune’s thick neck.

“Your friend, Jade, gave us a call a few hours ago. We’ve had the forest crawling with rangers. She’ll be happy to hear that you’re ok. Do you want to give her a call? Or your family?” The officer said.

He sighed after waiting for a moment for Andy to reply, and finally started the engine. Andy stared out the window, watching the gas station get wrapped in yellow crime scene tape. It soon disappeared from her view, and Andy was once again surrounded by her favorite playground: nature.

——

Andy watched from the doorway as the pastor wrapped up the message. The funeral was comprised of less than fifty people, but all of them were sniffling and wiping their eyes. It was a simple church, and the set-up for the occasion was equally minimal. Wooden pews were adorned with nothing more than a brief program on the deceased’s life, and the casket lay closed on top of the stage. Andy stifled a cough, but a little girl seated in the very front row turned back to look for the source of the noise. Her eyes were bright despite her evident sadness, and she twirled blonde strands of her hair while she gazed at Andy. The plump woman seated next to the little girl turned to see what distracted her, and the woman’s eyes met Andy’s. Andy looked away and shuffled out of the room.

——

Kitsune gazed at Andy, his amber eyes unblinking. The apartment was quiet, save for the raindrops pelting against the window. Andy reached down to rub Kitsune’s head, forcing herself to feel the different textures of his fur. An hour had passed, and she was no closer to beginning her to-do list. She raised her body off the edge of her bed and trudged towards the kitchen. Kitsune’s ears perked up and he sprinted towards the corner where his food bowl was stored. Andy walked past his dish and fell into the bean bag in the middle of the living room. Kitsune whimpered from the kitchen.

“Crap, I’m so sorry, boy.” Andy’s voice was monotone as she reached for the television remote.

She turned the cable on and switched it to Channel 11 News before heading back into the kitchen. Kitsune sat patiently, the curvature of his tail preventing it from wagging back and forth excessively. Andy tossed aside the measuring cup that rested atop the food storage bin and proceeded to dump some into the bowl.

“And this just in, Bob,” the female news anchor squawked from the television. “The two men responsible for last month’s murder of gas station attendant John Rowsey, and for the kidnapping and attempted murder of Andrea Lowry, have been officially been connected to the homicide of a Detroit girl, Jenny Dawson.”

Andy abruptly set the food bin down, leaving Kitsune’s bowl overflowing with little morsels. Her cheeks reddened as she looked at the faces on the screen.

“Yes, Tina,” the male news anchor replied, “It appears that Benjamin Kutchara and Sean Brown had been connected to another death prior to the incidents that occurred on July twelfth. From the looks of the autopsy, twenty-one-year-old Jenny’s causes of death were drowning and brain trauma. Traces of drugs and alcohol were also found in the body. Experts believe that the factors suggest it may have been a substance-induced boating accident. The investigation is still on-going.”

“That’s terribly sad, Bob,” the female news anchor shifted her papers around as she spoke. “It makes you wonder how the lone survivor, Andrea, is doing. What a courageous, young— “

Andy shut the television off and threw the remote against the wall. Kitsune ran and grabbed the remote in his mouth, dropping it at Andy’s feet.

“Thanks, Kit,” Andy exhaled slowly. “I know you’ve got my back. You need to go for a walk? I sure could use one.”

Kitsune jumped up at the mention of a walk and trotted to the door. Andy glanced at her hiking boots that sat alone on the furthest corner of the doormat. They were covered in a layer mud and sprinkled with a film of dust. She stood there for a minute and chewed her lip, and finally went into her bedroom. She appeared moments later in moccasins and grabbed Kitsune’s leash in one hand and the boots in another. Zipping up her rain coat, Andy sprinted down the stairs and stopped just outside of the dumpster enclosure. She tightened her grip on the leash, and in one sweeping motion threw the boots over the side.

——

“I’m so glad you came out tonight,” Jade shouted above the pounding of the bass. “You’ve been through a lot, but staying cooped up like that isn’t good for anyone, you feel?”

Andy stirred her drink repeatedly with a straw and looked up from the table. Her shoes kept sticking to the ground and the room smelled of Wal-Mart perfume, gym lockers, and nicotine.

“Yeah. I needed this.” Andy forced a smile that anyone could have instantly seen through. Jade propped both elbows up on the table and pulled her glasses further down the bridge of her nose so she could peer at Andy from above them.

“Now, honey,” Jade said in her best motherly voice. “Are you going to turn that frown upside down and have fun with the other kids tonight? That boy by the bar has been staring, and I think he wants a playdate.”

Andy didn’t look where Jade was gesturing and nodded her head in agreement. Jade shoved her glasses back in place and pushed her chair away from the table.

“Wow, that one always gets you.” She grabbed Andy’s arm and they made their way to the patio, weaving in and out through the sea of belligerent twenty-somethings. There were several men out smoking on the patio, but a fierce glance from Jade cleared the prime seating next to the balcony. The crisp air tainted with cigarette smoke smelled like the weekend, and Andy stared up the stars.

“Ok, seriously, please talk to me.” Jade finished off her drink and took a sip from Andy’s. “Eww, vodka cran again? We gotta work on that. But not tonight. What gives?”

Andy turned her gaze from the night sky and looked at her friend. Jade’s sleek black hair was pinned up in a messy bun with some side bangs sweeping just across the top of her glasses. Her spaghetti straps kept falling off her narrow shoulders, and Andy reached out to put them back into position.

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” Andy started, “There really isn’t much to talk about. It was a scary night and I try not to think about it.”

She grabbed her drink and downed it in one sitting. Jade’s eyes widened.

“Wow. Ok. Let’s slow down on drinks going forward, k?” Jade’s voice softened. “I don’t blame you for not thinking about it all the time, but don’t you think you should confront that night at least once?

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, like, relive what happened, see how it impacted you, take something from it, and move on?”

Andy glared and looked back towards the sky.

“Yes, if life and situations worked out perfectly like that then maybe your idea would work. Please, just stop offering suggestions on something you know nothing about.”

“Ouch. Sorry for trying to help. I’m just concerned because your mom said you haven’t been back to work still or even enrolled in your fall post-grad classes yet, and, well, I just miss my best friend.” Jade squeezed Andy’s shoulder. “Let’s just forget about it for the night, and go from there?”

Andy slipped away from Jade’s touch and grabbed her purse.

“Maybe another time. I’m not feeling this tonight after all. You have a good night, though.”

Jade didn’t get a word in before Andy disappeared through the bar door.

——

Andy looked down at the address in her hand for the fifth time. Kitsune got up on two legs and place his paws on the edge of the gift basket.

“Little fox, get down. This isn’t for you,” Andy said as she sucked in some air. “Ok, let’s get this over with.”

Andy raised her hand and pushed the doorbell twice. Kitsune sprawled out on the ground, enjoying the sun rays beating down onto the sidewalk. Footsteps approached and the little girl from the funeral opened the door. She revealed a toothless smile and waved. Andy cleared her throat.

“Hi. My name is Andy. I, uh, is your mom home?”

The plump woman appeared behind her, concern in her eyes.

“Honey, who is this?” the woman asked.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. Mrs. Rowsey, right? My name is Andy. Andrea. I’m the girl who was at the gas station. The night of—“ Andy wiped away a stray tear rolling down her cheek. “I brought this for you guys.”

She shoved the gift basket in Mrs. Rowsey’s direction and turned to leave.

“Wait,” Mrs. Rowsey said. “Thank you for this. I thought I recognized you from John’s funeral. Would you like to come inside? I was about to make some sandwiches for lunch. We can use some of the cheeses and meats in this gift basket.”

Andy knelt down to pet Kitsune. The little girl just continued to smile, and Andy noticed that she was slowly inching towards Kitsune. She lifted her head to look back at Mrs. Rowsey.

“I’d actually love that. Do you mind if my dog comes in?”

“Of course not, we love animals. Call me Lisa, by the way. This is my daughter, Mary.”

“Hi, Mary.” Andy tugged Kitsune closer to her. “This is my dog, Kit. Would you like to help him inside? He could use some play time.”

Mary giggled and softly took the leash from Andy’s hand. Andy followed them inside, and a felt the edges of her mouth start to turn up.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

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