Darling Darlene

The first few heavy drops pinging into a steel pan are the most satisfying. Once it has enough water to dull the ring it only sounds like dripping water again. You forget about it unless it’s one of many containers that must be attended to, and even then, it just gets tossed out with the other rain. Reunited after a short detour with a leaky roof.

I must have blacked-out, or somebody hit me. I was wet and cold laying in the woods bound at the wrists to my ankles behind my back. The position alone made breathing difficult. The gag didn’t help. I lunged forward only to discover my neck was tied with thin cord to the base of tree. The water that dripped off the limbs above was part of chorus that echoed deep into the forest. It just kept going and going and I so desperately wanted to follow it to its source. I wanted to meet the conductor, with black tails, flailing his little wand over an endless stage of obsessive compulsively seated rocks and trees. Next to me drops struck the broad leaves of forest plants that sounded plastic and fake. I wished they were. I wished I were playing a part all too convincingly in a shitty Off-Broadway play. Then I wished I could act, so that my previous wish could be possible. Critics would universally applaud my realistic tears and bottomless distress.

It was starting to get dark, mosquitoes bit my face and hummed in my ears. I was so angry I forgot to be scared. I screamed under my gag which I’m sure sounded like nothing more than a throaty moan. When the cord around my neck pulled tight, I remembered fear.

“Lemme get ya loose here honey,” Darlene said as she untied the rope around my neck.

“You know what? I was thinkin’. You got to be the rudest girl out here in these woods do you know that?”

Darlene rolled me onto my stomach, grabbed a hold of the rope between my ankles and dragged me. My shirt rode up to my armpits as rocks and forest debris scratched and cut my face and body. I twisted and wormed forcing her to use two hands to control me.

“You see? You see right there is what I was just talkin’ about ya little,” Darlene said as she dropped me.

The crack of a baseball bat follows the hit you see depending on the cheapness of the seats. Darlene cocked her leg back, I guess as far as it could go before she fired the kick. I heard the rib crack before I felt it.

“You didn’t even shake my hand honey. I mean, at least be cordial. Didn’t your mama teach you any damn thing?” Darlene asked.

Darlene leaned against a tree to catch her breath. Apparently masochistic abuse is tiring. I was getting dizzy, and for all of a three count I was glad I wasn’t standing. Counting up to an ironic catch 22 I began to wretch. I discovered there’s only so much room in the brain for pain which begets more pain. Everything went black.

I saw a little girl, dirty dress, no shoes, belligerent as to the wishes of her mother. She sure did teach me things though. For instance, she taught me to make myself scarce when she had a friend coming to the house. I was afraid to leave at first, especially in the dark. Everything under the sun became something to fear in the absence of light. As much as I thought she hated me I would come to realize the real darkness to fear was in the hearts of men. Some would just stare, some would touch me, others did much more. Intense rain and thunder chased me home early one night. The filthy man on my mother became enraged as I struck him with both fists, screaming, demanding he get off her. He jumped up and stood in front of me, balls out naked. He reared back and suffered unto me through his fist all the power of a man who didn’t mind cracking the rib of a little girl. Officially, I fell off a bike I never had.

Mercifully, a splash of cold water on my face brought me back to my current agony.

“I had to take the gag off honey, I didn’t want you chokin’. Now you ain’t gonna give me no trouble huh? If you start screamin’ and such I’ll put it back on sure as I’m standin’ here,” Darlene said.

I scraped a handful of tattered words from the floor of my throat.

“Water. Please, can I have some water?” I asked.

“Now see? That there’s manners honey. That right there. Too bad really it took all that,” Darlene said.

She gently lifted my head to pour water into my mouth but stopped.

“You know what? This getting’ hard on my old bones. Be a hell of a lot easier if you’d walk. You walk and I’ll give you water, deal?” she said.

I nodded my approval. As much as my mind raced for ways to break the deal, I worried I may not have been physically capable, and any further discretion would only result in further punishment.

“Alright then,” Darlene said as she cut the rope binding my ankles.

“Here, lemme give ya a hand,” she said.

Darlene grabbed me by the back of my arm and helped me to my feet. I lost my breath from the sudden surge of pain and nearly collapsed back to the forest floor.

“That’ll learn ya,” she said. “Now suck it up and walk.”

Every step became a personal goal. If I could make one, then I could make another, at least until the narrator of my life introduced a hero. I was back in the play again, desperately needing that hero.

“Hold it honey,” Darlene said grabbing my arm.

Arriving at the edge of an unknown body of water, Bob waited in the other canoe, floating in the calm water just offshore. There was no sign of Ross.

“Stand still, feet together,” Darlene said.

“But I walked,” I humbly answered.

“Don’t matter, we’re headed out on the water now. Still I said.”

“No, no,” I cried quietly.

I made an ill-advised and half-hearted attempt at escape. Darlene swung her paddle to the back of my knees. I went down hard, like a bag of sand. My wind left me long enough for her to tie my ankles together again. She helped me to my feet and pushed me down into the bow of the boat. I was doing my best not to cry as she disappeared momentarily from view. She returned in short order carrying a large, long stone. She placed it in the canoe and lashed it to my ankles.

“This here’s in case y’all thinkin’ about taking me down with ya. We go over, you drown sure,” Darlene said.

“Alright, let’s go,” Bob said.

“Yeah, yeah, just keep your pants on. Keep your old damn ears open too. I don’t expect nobody’s gonna be travlin’ this time of year but ya never know. Two ears are better than one, or four ears. You know what I mean,” Darlene said.

“How’s him?” Darlene asked Bob.

“He ain’t been too much trouble. Bleeds a lot though,” Bob said.

They spoke to each other in muted whispers, paddling close together. Ross was alive. With all the potential of the world’s worst and most untimely pun, it occurred to me that he was probably in the same boat as I was. I questioned my sanity for thinking anything about this event was even remotely funny.

From my position in the bow I could see so many beautiful stars emerging. It was the first time since this adventure began that I was able to notice and appreciate the night sky. I wondered how such a horrid event could spawn any sort of humor or awe-inspiring beauty.

My only gauge of time was the level of darkness. At some point, dark is dark and every minute past that moment is only a guess. Two solo paddlers seemed to cover a lot of water but progress in a loaded boat is slow. I could hear what I thought was wind blowing through tall pines and surmised we were getting closer to shore.

“Tighten up,” Darlene said.

“Me?” I asked.

“You shut your damn mouth or Ima gag ya again, soon as I can. I swear to God above if you call out or start screamin’ so help me I’ll make ya hurt,” Darlene said.

“Shoulda’ tied her mouth before we pushed off,” Bob said.

Her threat struck me as odd. This is a woman who has not hesitated to inflict pain. She took no chances. What did she mean, ‘tighten up’? The sound of the wind became more intense. Maybe it was the pain, but it didn’t add up to what I was feeling. The boat began to pitch with every one of her paddle strokes and now I could feel our speed was clearly increasing.

“We’re a couple of damn fools,” Bob said.

“We can’t risk no trails with these two, even at night,” Darlene said, forgoing any more whispering.

“That’s why you don’t take two,” Bob said.

“Shut up! Just shut up! We been through here plenty enough times, whoa,” Darlene said as the speed and roar of the water increased.

“Hey! Hey!” I yelled at Darlene.

“Little girl if y’all know what’s good for ya,” Darlene said before I cut her off mid-threat.

“You’ll what? Break my ribs? Stop the boat? You can’t even look at me right now,” I yelled.

Darlene needed every last drop of focus to keep us from running aground on the rocks. I sat up, scraping the rock tied to me along the bottom of the boat.

“Ross! Ross! Get up! They can’t do shit!” I yelled at the other canoe.

“Damnit Darlene, we got trouble,” Bob said.

“Ross! Ross! Ross get up!” I screamed.

I saw the top of Ross’ head as he too pulled himself upright in the boat. In the dim starlight it was difficult to determine where the blood on his face stopped, and his gag began. I was momentarily struck by the whiteness of his eyes.

“I’m doin’ it!” I yelled to Ross.

“You gonna die! Stay down!” Darlene yelled.

Ross looked at me shaking his head as if to say ‘no’. Maybe it had something to do with the intensity in my eyes, but something made him take stock. He looked back at Bob, then at Darlene and finally again at me before begrudgingly nodding his approval. My focus turned back to Darlene.

“Don’t even think about it honey,” Darlene threatened again.

It had been many years since I spoke to God. We were no longer on speaking terms. Back before we met, I didn’t know He was available to help me. When I was much older, I thought He should have anyways. I was told as I cried to look to Him next time, that He was the way and the light. I heard those words as a little girl and figured He was the one who could take away my fear of the dark, my fear of the darkness in men. Turns out He was never light. He was life. The way, the truth, and the life. I guess I heard it wrong. Maybe that’s why when I really needed Him again He never came. When He didn’t take the man away I begged Him to take me to heaven instead, but again, He was life. He left me lying in a pool of piss, blood and He knew what else. You owe me.

“You owe me! God Damnit! You fuckin’ owe me!” I screamed at heaven with all my might.

“You shut the hell up!” Darlene yelled as she desperately tried to control the canoe.

“Hell?” I yelled at Darlene and then I looked away towards Ross.

“See you there,” I said softly.

Rolling to my knees I threw all my weight against the side of the canoe. We tipped hard to the side but didn’t go over. I was able to catch a glimpse of Ross as I countered to the other side. He was guiding me with his eyes, helpless but emotionally involved. It was Ross who taught me the first one throws you off balance, but it’s the second one that tips the boat.

The cold water felt like redemption. Instantly the stone I was bound to hit the bottom. My body caught the lion’s share of the current and like a sail, pulled both the stone and I downstream. It toppled and turned. I felt the cord tighten around my ankles as it twisted. In a matter of moments the weight of the stone was gone. I sprung to the surface. The water wasn’t nearly as deep as I feared. I could see Darlene downstream struggling for purchase on the bottom of her upturned canoe. I saw the other boat sideways in the current before I was spun around by the river.

Flailing backwards, kicking like a wounded mermaid my bound arms hooked around a jam of slimy logs jutting out from the shoreline. Repeated kicking had freed my ankles. Methodically I used the logs as a brace to keep me from being swept downstream and made my way to the rocky shore.

“I suppose you want me to thank you now.” He was life.

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