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All the pretty dead girls
By John Manning
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One The white Lexus was doing exactly one mile over the speed limit when it crossed the Louisiana state line.
It had started to rain just outside of Jackson, Mississippi-a steady downpour the wipers simply couldn't keep up with. Visibility was impaired enough to force Sue to slow down to a crawl as she passed through the city.
Sue's shoulders tensed as she watched the red taillights of the Jeep Cherokee in front of her. She had been driving almost nonstop for nearly two days now. The other girls on campus had been thinking about their exams, about what they'd do on their upcoming holiday breaks. But Sue's mind had been on one thing and one thing only. Getting away. There had been no other choice.
She snapped on the radio, trying to relieve the tedium of the drive and the steady, pounding rain. "Have yourself a merry little Christmas," a voice sang from the radio. "Let your heart be light ..."
Christmas. It was almost Christmas. It didn't feel that way to Sue, with the warm, muggy rain.
"From now on, our troubles will be out of sight ..."
She was crying. She switched off the radio. She preferred the silence.
Sue glanced back in her rearview mirror. She wasn't really sure who-or what-she was looking for. In the rain, she couldn't see anything but headlights anyway. But somehow it made her feel better to look back every now and then. Her nerves, already shot, began to fray a little as she kept taking her foot off the gas pedal to avoid slamming into the car in front of her.
"Come on, come on," Sue muttered under her breath, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel. The wind and rain whipped against the side of the car with a long, screeching howl.
It seemed to take hours to get through Jackson, but once she did, the thick traffic began to disperse. Finally, she was able to start getting her speed back up. As soon as she clocked seventy-one, she clicked on the cruise control and removed her foot from the gas pedal with a sigh of relief. Her right hip was getting sore, and she shifted a little in her seat. Cars and trucks flew past her in the left lane, throwing up streams of water onto her windshield. No matter how tempting it was to speed up, she resisted the urge and kept relying on the cruise control. She couldn't risk being pulled over.
It was just paranoia, she knew. Surely, there was no rural Southern sheriff watching for her. In all likelihood, there wasn't anyone at all on the road looking for her. But better safe than sorry.
I just don't know, Sue reminded herself, and until I do know, it's better not to take any risks-and not to trust anyone. If I try to tell anyone-they'll just think I'm crazy, and they'll turn me over to Gran and Granpa. I can't risk that.
A sob rose in her throat, but Sue fought it down. Don't cry again, that's a waste of energy. I have to focus. I have to keep my mind clear and not give in to emotion. I'm almost there. It's only a few more hours at most, and then I can take a break, get some rest, and maybe find some hope ...
But for how long could she afford to rest? Sooner or later, she knew, they'd come for her. They wouldn't just let her get away.
She still had over five hundred dollars in cash in her purse, but there was no telling how long that would last. She was afraid to use her credit cards and her debit card. She'd paid cash at that horrible cheap motel just outside of Richmond, Virginia, where she'd grabbed a few hours of desperately needed sleep before hitting the road again. She couldn't leave any electronic traces behind-that would make it too easy for them to find her. She'd left her cell phone back at her dorm room in upstate New York, buying a cheap disposable pay-as-you-go one at a Wal-Mart somewhere in northern Pennsylvania as she headed south. She'd worried about her license plates, wondering if there was a bulletin sent out with a description of her and her car-but if it came down to it, there was the gun in the compartment between the seats. She wasn't sure if she would actually have the nerve to use it, but it was there in case she needed it.
I hope I don't have to use it, she thought, glancing down at the armrest where it was hidden. But she would if she had to.
The highway was wet and the rhythmic sound of the water being thrown up by the wheels against the car made her even sleepier. She was exhausted. It had been almost sixteen hours since she checked out of that miserable motel and hit the road. Outside of stopping for gas and a quick run to the bathroom, she'd been driving-and her legs and back were stiff. She could feel knots of tension in her back, and her left elbow was sore from resting on the car door. Her eyes burned with fatigue, her throat was dry, her lips chapped. She'd kept the window cracked, hoping the rush of cold air from outside would keep her awake. She glanced at her watch. It was almost two.
It can't be much further, she reasoned. On the map Hammond looks like it's almost in Mississippi. She glanced at herself in the rearview mirror and grimaced. Worse than how she looked, she could smell herself and it wasn't pleasant-she smelled like sour socks. Her feet were sweating in her shoes. And now her stomach was growling. She hadn't eaten since seven in the morning, when she'd stopped at a Hardee's somewhere in north Alabama. She'd managed to choke down some sort of fried egg on a dry biscuit, washing it down with numerous cups of coffee. All she'd wanted to do was just put her head down on the table and go to sleep right there. But she'd forced herself to get a refill to go, and kept driving.
Got to keep going, Sue told herself, repeating the litany like a catechism. Don't know when they might come after me, don't know how much time I have, got to get there before they figure out where I've gone, got to get there while it's still safe-if it ever was safe there in the first place.
She allowed herself to smile when she saw the big sign with the fleur-de-lis in the center, reading WELCOME TO LOUISIANA and BIENVENUE EN LOUISIANE underneath. She thought about stopping at the welcome area, but there were too many cars and trucks parked all around, and a quick glance down at her gas gauge, inching ever closer to the red, convinced her to keep going. She decided to take the next exit with a gas station, fill up the tank, use the restroom, and get something to snack on, maybe another cup of coffee. Her stomach rebelled at the thought of more coffee-especially gas station coffee. Maybe a soda, she thought. I'm almost there, it can't be more than another hour, maybe I can make myself stay awake till I get there without more coffee.
After crossing the state line, she took the next exit, pulling into a deserted Texaco station. It was a typical roadside gas station, two islands with numbered pumps, a little food store for snacks, and restrooms. Through the rain she could discern Christmas lights strung along the outside of the building, blinking red and green and yellow. Signs all over the glass front announced sales on beer, soda, and the availability of Louisiana lottery tickets. The jackpot for the next drawing was fifty-three million dollars.
A lot of good that would do me, Sue thought.
She noticed off to the side of the station a battered-looking Toyota was parked, with bumper stickers plastered all over the trunk and rear bumper: YOUR MOTHER WAS PRO-LIFE. GOD CREATED ADAM AND EVE NOT ADAM AND STEVE. JESUS DIED FOR YOUR SINS. SUPPORT THE TROOPS. A metal fish symbol was affixed to the lower trunk close to the bumper and next to the license plate, just below a huge yellow ribbon.
She felt an inexplicable surge of panic.
Get out of here, get back on the highway, stop at the next station, there's got to be a better place than this, raced through her head before she got a hold of herself again. I need gas, and I have to go to the bathroom.
Just be goddamned careful, that's all.
Sue pulled to a stop at the pump closest to the store entrance and stepped out of the car, shivering against the chill in the air. The rain was letting up. She stretched-she hadn't been out of the car in over four hours since stopping at a rest area-and her knees and back popped in places. It felt good to stand up. She bent over to stretch her back a little more, and twisted at the waist a bit.
She walked over to the door and pushed it open, greeted by the high-pitched wail of a Christmas carol-Rockin' around the Christmas tree, have a hap-pee holiday-and a blast of hot air. Sue smiled at the girl behind the counter and headed for the bathroom. Once inside, she locked the door. The bathroom smelled vaguely like pine. It was relatively clean-she'd used worse on this trip-but she wiped down the seat anyway before dropping her jeans. She let her head rest on her hands. Almost there, she reminded herself as her eyes began to droop.
Washing her hands, she ran the sink water until it was hot, then splashed it into her face. She grabbed her brush out of her purse and ran it through her blond hair. What a mess, she thought, grimacing at her reflection. Whatever happened to that pretty college freshman?
She never really existed, Sue thought with a terrible sensation in her chest.
When her hair was in some sort of order, she dropped the brush back into her purse and looked again at herself in the mirror. That's better. Not pretty, but at least presentable. Her hair needed to be washed-a shower would be heaven-but she dried her face and walked out of the bathroom.
At the counter, a fresh pot of coffee was almost finished brewing. The coffee in the other pots looked like mud, scorched by hours on their burners. Her stomach growled again. A glass case full of doughnuts next to the coffee stand enticed her. She opened the case and picked up two glazed doughnuts, slipping one into a bag and taking a bite out of the other as she waited for the pot to stop brewing. She finished the rest of the doughnut, dropping a third into the bag, and poured herself a large cup of the fresh coffee. After adding creamer and sweetener, she took a sip. Not bad for gas station coffee, she thought.
The girl working behind the counter was about Sue's age. She was short and carrying an extra thirty pounds, give or take. A home perm had frizzed her mousy brown hair around her head. She looked as if she'd received an intense electrical shock. Her cheeks were thick, narrowing her brown eyes until they were almost invisible. Acne scars pitted both cheeks. Her lips were thin and painted orange. Her plump arms were freckled where they extended out from her blue smock, and on the upper left arm in blue script the name Jason was tattooed. The smock was open, revealing a black T-shirt with A Touch of Class silk-screened in gold over her breasts. A charm bracelet jangled as she punched numbers into the register. On her heavy left breast a name tag read MYRNA LEE.
"New York plates," Myrna Lee said, gesturing with her head out the window. "You're a long way from home." Her voice was high-pitched and her accent thick. "Don't see many of those around here."
Sue offered the clerk a small smile. "I want to get twenty in gas, too." Act normal, like anyone else. That's the most important thing. Don't act funny in any way.
The register beeped as Myrna Lee typed that in. "Twenty-three forty-seven." The clerk grimaced, her lips pulling back to expose crooked yellow teeth. "Where ya heading, so far away from home?"
She's just making conversation to be polite. Or-she could be one of them ...
A chill went down her spine. "Los Angeles," she lied, handing over a twenty and a ten, trying to keep her hand from shaking. "Going to go live with my boyfriend."
Myrna Lee took her money, but kept her beady eyes fixed on her face.
"How far is the next town, or where I can get something to eat?" she asked the clerk, who finally averted her eyes. She felt could feel her heart pounding.
"We-ell, let me think." Myrna Lee put her change down on the counter and tapped her chin. "There's Amite, Shiloh, Independence, then Tickfaw, and then Hammond. I reckon it depends on how hungry you are. There are more choices in Hammond, I'd imagine. College town."
"And how far is that?" Don't act too interested in Hammond. Even if she isn't one of them, they could always ask her, and you don't want to give too much away.
"Twenty, thirty minutes maybe. It ain't far."
"And New Orleans?"
"New Orleans? 'Bout another hour past Hammond." Myrna Lee grimaced again. "It ain't the same since the hurricane, though. You just keep taking 55 past Hammond, and then you go east on I-10. You pick it up out in the swamp. I-10'll take you right to New Orleans."
"Don't mention it. You have a happy Christmas now."
Sue wished her the same, then picked up the doughnuts and coffee and walked back out to the car. Hooking the nozzle into the tank and setting the latch so she didn't have to hold it, she wolfed down the doughnuts. Then she took another long sip of the coffee. When the gas tank clicked that she was full, she replaced the nozzle back onto the pump and climbed back into the car.
She sat there for a few moments after starting the ignition. It was still raining, and an eighteen-wheeler flew past on I-55, throwing up a huge spray of water.
"Almost there," she said out loud, and then felt panic starting to creep into her brain.
What if this was all for nothing? What if there's nothing she can do to help me? What if she's not even there? What if there's nothing anyone can do to help me? I don't even know why I'm going to see Dr. Marshall-but she is an expert, and the girl said she could help me. But this could still all just be a fool's errand, the delusions of a crazy girl, a crazy girl who claims she-
"Stop it," Sue said, pounding the steering wheel with both hands. "This isn't going to help."
Her eyes filled with tears. Sue sat there for a full minute and let the panic sweep over her. Her body began to tremble, and she put her head down on the steering wheel and let the tears come. After a few moments, she took a deep breath and regained control of herself. "Okay, that's enough of that," she said aloud.
She glanced out the window. Myrna Lee had come outside and was staring at her, smoking a cigarette. Sue wiped at her face, smiled, and gave Myrna Lee a friendly wave, even though fear was starting to inch its insidious way back into her mind. So much for acting normal, she thought grimly as she slipped the car into gear and rolled out of the parking lot. I need to put some distance between me and this place.
There was no traffic coming, so she sped up as she headed back onto the highway. The eighteen-wheeler was just taillights in the mist far ahead of her. She got the car back up to seventy-one miles an hour and turned the cruise control back on, then allowed herself to relax a little bit. But within a few miles, she was back to glancing in the rearview mirror every minute or so to make sure no one was behind her.
I'm being stupid, Sue reminded herself again. Even if they are coming after me, how would I know it was them behind me? I wouldn't know until it was too late, until they had me-
"Stop it," she said, and turned the radio up louder.
Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o'er the plain ...
She wished so much she had managed to grab her iPod, or at least a handful of CDs.
Every muscle, every bone, every joint in her body ached with fatigue. Sue's eyelids began drooping again. The coffee hadn't helped at all, other than to churn up more acid in her stomach. She grabbed the pack of Rolaids she'd bought a hundred years ago, it seemed, in North Carolina and chewed on two. Rolling the window all the way down in spite of the rain, she took a long deep breath of cold air. Her hair blew back into a mass of tangles and her teeth began to chatter, but it was better than falling asleep again.
She flew past the exits for Amite, Tickfaw, and Independence, glancing down at the directions she'd printed off the Internet just before taking off on this nightmare drive. The first Hammond exit wasn't the right one, so she kept going. The traffic was getting heavier, but it was the second turnoff she wanted. She slowed down at the bottom of the off-ramp and turned left, heading into Hammond. She passed a Lowe's, a Wal-Mart, and the numerous fast-food places that always gathered in small towns near the highway exit. Her stomach growled again and she thought about going to a drive-through, but dismissed the thought as quickly as it came. I'm almost there. I can worry about getting something to eat after I've gotten out of this goddamned car and talked to Dr. Marshall. (Continues...)
Excerpted from All the pretty dead girls by John Manning Copyright © 2009 by John Manning. Excerpted by permission.
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