Playing in the Woods

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Jury

Leaves crunch beneath my feet and bare tree branches strike my cheeks as I push myself through the woods. My breath comes in quick, shallow pants, my lungs burning with each breath I force myself to take. Behind me, Randy’s laughter floats through the mid-autumn air, mixing with the unflattering sound of my name shouted from his brother’s chapped lips. The sounds crash into my ears and echo in my skull.
They’ve been hunting me all morning. The sun’s rays had barely kissed the horizon when Nate had untied my hands. He’d leaned in real close, his breath hot and muggy on the side of my face.
“Count to a-hunerd,” he’d whispered. “Then you can take off the blindfold and the real fun can begin.”
Real fun, I think as I duck beneath another low-hanging branch. I misjudge, and the tip of the branch snags in my hair. A jolt of panic surges through me as I twist myself free from the branch. I can hear the brothers coming together at the intersection I just came from. Last night’s calculations tell me I only have five, maybe ten, minutes before they close in and start shooting.
I untangle myself, leaving a few stray hairs hanging, and pick up speed. Pain radiates down my legs, the dull ache begging me to stop running. My chest tightens with each breath I take, my lungs burning as they fill. A branch snaps behind me, and I instinctively turn my head to glance over my shoulder. As soon as my gaze lands on Nate’s thin, lanky figure darting out from between two trees, I crash into something hard and broad.
I fall backwards, jutting my hands out behind me to break the fall, and bounce roughly in the dirt. A new wave of pain rolls up my arms from my wrists to my shoulders, and I wince. I shift my gaze upward until I meet Randy’s crooked smirk. His rifle is slung over his shoulder, a strip of neon tape running horizontally along the butt - his way of differentiating between his hunting rifle and his game rifle.
“Ten minutes earlier ‘an last night, Nate!”
My throat closes around potential protests. Randy’s words snake between my parted lips and crawl in the pit of my stomach. They curl there, dense and immovable.
Ten minutes earlier ‘an last night.
Ten minutes earlier.
“That’s quicker ‘an when we went huntin’ them deer last season, too,” Nate comments, coming up to join his brother. His rifle, a matching strip of neon tape along the butt, hangs across his back. “Di’n’t even need to shoot this time.”
As Randy reaches into his back pocket and produces a small bit of weaved rope, a phantom pain flashes across my shoulder, radiating from where Randy’s wax bullet struck my shoulder last night. I rotate it slightly and wince at the ache that crawls across my shoulder blades.
“Let’s go, sweetheart.”
Nate’s long fingers wrap around my wrist, and he hoists me to my feet. I grunt and stumble against his chest. In the split moment I’m propped against him, Randy yanking my arms behind my back and tying my wrists together, I can feel Nate’s heartbeat beneath his buttoned-up flannel. I’m surprised by the rapid thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump that greets me.
Once the rope is secured around my wrists, Randy pulls me away from his brother and pushes me forward. I stumble but manage to catch myself before I fall. Randy chuckles, and it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. The sound coils through my body as we make our way back to the cabin, finally settling in my chest and in the pit of my stomach.
“Think we oughta let this ‘ne rest a while?”
I fight the urge to look up at the brothers; I know lifting my gaze from the grass beneath me will only result in another crack from the butt of Randy’s rifle. A centipede scurries across my line of vision, and I focus on its hundred legs moving in exactly the right way to keep the creature from tripping over itself.
Count to a-hunerd.
One... two... three... four...
“You could get another’ne to run if you ain’t worn out yet,” Nate says, cutting into my thoughts. “I’m sure most of ‘em are rested.”
Randy laughs, a hearty laugh that shakes my insides. He claps a hand over my shoulder, enticing another hiss of pain that he ignores, and shoves me toward a small shed next to the cabin. In the fading light of the late morning, I can see three or four other small sheds spread out across the cabin’s backyard. Most of them are shaded by tall trees, and there are chains and padlocks securing each door; the metal glints in the sun.
“Ma brother’s right,” Randy tells me as he pulls a ring of keys from his left pocket. My eyes flick over the various keys that hang from the metal loop as he shoves a copper-toned one into the lock on the door. Once it’s opened, he pushes me inside.
“Time for you to rest up before we play again later,” he continues.
His eyes glitter with a voracious mischief, and my heart drops in my stomach. The dense ball of fear hardens, tendrils of anxiety and anticipation winding up my torso and into my chest where it wraps around my lungs and my heart. It clutches my organs, making it almost impossible to breathe.
Randy takes a step forward, and I instinctively recoil back. My back hits the wall furthest from the door where Randy looms, and his intimidating stance pushes my heart rapidly against my ribs. He takes a heavy step forward. There’s a wicked gleam in his eyes, and a sinister smile tips his lips. I swallow the lump in my throat and wait.
“Nate’ll bring ya some water an’ some’n’ to eat before we go out again tonight,” he assures me.
I nod, and his smirk widens. He closes the space between us and crouches in front of me. I shrink back as he extends his hand and his fingertips brush against my cheek as moves a stray strand of hair from my face. The pads of his fingers are warm, and the smell of smoke and nature fills my nostrils. I close my eyes and focus on my breathing as he quietly inspects the fresh cuts on my forehead and under my left eye. His breath hitches when his fingers skim the freshly broken skin.
“Randy! You comin’?”
Nate’s voice floats through the front door of the shed and pulls Randy back. His fingers trail along my cheek one final time before he pulls out a knife and slices through rope around my wrists. He straightens and rolls his shoulders.
“You rest up now,” he reminds me. “We’ll be out for a couple-a hours.”
Another nod.
Another smirk.
Then he slips out of the shed and closes the door behind him.
I listen as the chains rattle against the wooden door. The lock clicks into place, the sound seeping into the empty shed and reverberating off the walls. Randy gives the door one final, vicious tug, and when he’s satisfied that there’s no way I’ll be able to escape, he leaves. His heavy, booted footsteps fade away, and soon I’m left in complete silence.
Though they’d only been bound for a few minutes, my wrists ache as I rotate and flex them. The rope’s weaved pattern is imprinted across the back and underside of my wrists, and I take a minute to run my fingers over the aggravated, red skin.
I rotate my shoulders, knocking the sore skin against the wooden wall. I can imagine the bruise blooming across the skin, discoloring my naturally tanned complexion. I tilt my head back and close my eyes.
“Grab an easy one,” Randy instructs.
Another shed door opens, the hinges squeaking with protest. I can hear the chains rattling against decaying wood, and a weak whimper slips through the crack beneath my door and penetrates my ears. The weak, defenseless, and sad sound bounces around and mixes with the screams that soon follow. The sound of wax bullets being fired from Randy and Nate’s guns, the squawk of the birds in the trees surrounding the sheds and the cabin. Every sound is magnified as I sit against the wall of my shed, eyes closed, my lips moving in a silent prayer. Despite my best efforts, I find myself falling victim to the heavy darkness threatening to envelope me.
And as I succumb, I imagine another girl in the woods with Randy and Nate, playing their game.

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