Title: Beg the Universe
Word Count: ~2,800
Warnings: hints of pre-story non-con
Summary: Helga is driving home for Thanksgiving when things start to go awry. She wants to chalk it up to paranoia, but something keeps telling her to look over her shoulder.
A/N: Super big thanks to zxora for beta reading!
Helga knocked three times on the weatherworn door.
Her hair whipped in the late autumn wind as she stood waiting. When nobody answered, she knocked again, harder, before creeping along the rickety porch to glance inside a window. Through a hole in the broken blinds, she could see the house was dark. Whoever these people were, they were either hiding or they weren't home. Most likely, they were visiting family for the holiday weekend.
"Just my luck," Helga muttered, scowling. She pulled her jacket tighter and trudged back down the dirt drive, avoiding mud puddles and beggarly cats. At the end of the drive, she looked both ways down the forest-flanked road before stomping back toward her car.
Mentally, she was beating herself up. She really hadn't thought she was that low on gas. It must have been longer than she thought since she'd filled up. Blame the 80's radio marathon. You can only take so many keyboard riffs before they start screwing with your mind.
She popped open her trunk and began searching through her luggage for tennis shoes. There had been a gas station maybe four or five miles back. There was a fat load of hope hitch-hiking on this barren road (so much for taking the scenic back roads instead of the freeway! Never again). She wasn't sure she wanted a ride from these backwoods folks anyway. They were always so friendly. Gave her the heebie-jeebies.
It would be getting dark soon. There was nothing for it. She would just have to walk.
A flash of reflected light caught her eye. There was an old truck up ahead, stagnant on the side of the road. Its windows blinked the sun's flickering, tree-filtered reflection as Helga approached.
Once up close to the truck, the gas can that she was holding accidentally tapped the window as she peered inside at the interior, which turned out empty. She let her eyes sweep the surrounding trees to spy any sign of the truck's owner. The trees were thin and bare, standing alone without any evidence of life. Talk about an eerie setting.
For all she knew, this truck had been sitting abandoned for days. There might be nobody alive for miles. A plentitude of signs warning for an apocalyptic supernatural thriller were all right here--she knew because she'd read tons of crappy books just like that. It was one of her Top Five genres.
Maybe it's a zombie apocalypse, she thought with a snort. Or a vampire infestation! Just as she was turning away and mentally compiling a list of her favorite aforementioned genre novels, a cell phone inside the truck rang out. It vibrated and lit up as it sang some standard, default ringtone. Helga glanced over her shoulder, feeling less amused about the idea of supernatural thrillers all of the sudden, before decidedly continuing up the road.
The sudden wave of goose bumps across the back of her neck distracted her so much that she tripped in a pothole. She whipped around and scanned one last time for any living beings, because Helga knew what that feeling was. It was the feeling of being watched. She remembered what it felt like to be watched, and she didn't like it. Not one bit.
Looking back at the rusted pick-up truck, she realized something. She had driven from this direction, and she hadn't noticed that truck earlier. In fact, she was certain it hadn't been there before. This meant that the truck must have been behind her and must have parked not long after she had stalled. And the owner of the truck couldn't be far away.
Walking seemed like less of a good idea. She took for the gas station at a run.
Helga surreptitiously ran her fingertips to her chest, feeling around until she skimmed the hardness of that precious object she still kept tucked behind her shirt, between her breasts. She stroked it absently, finding comfort in its presence.
The man in the driver's seat coughed as the semi-truck hit a few bumps in the road. Helga cradled her bunched up fist against her chest, cursing her own racing pulse. She was safe. There was nothing to worry about.
The hike back to the gas station had taken well over an hour. If it weren't for her car troubles, she probably would have been at her parents' by now, stomach filled with Olga's (admittedly delicious) supper, ready to curl up in her old, soft bed. Not in her old bedroom, of course, because her parents had turned that into some sort of master bathroom, but still, she'd rather be in any bed, anywhere, than where she was right now...
"There it is!" she blurted with a trifle too much enthusiasm when spotting her car on the roadside. The trucker immediately worked the brakes and the big rig came to a lumbering halt. She grabbed her gas can and hopped out of the truck. "Thanks for the ride."
"No problem, ma'am," the trucker said, nodding.
Pleased with his all-out gentlemanly conduct, she graced him with one of her rare, open smiles and walked to her car.
"Oh, no!" came Olga's voice from the other end of the line. "I was so looking forward to our sleepover tonight!"
"I'm too tuckered out to keep driving, sis," Helga pronounced carefully around persistent yawns, snuggling against the hotel pillows. "I'll hit the hay soon and get up early. Be there before you know it. Then we can... bond and peel potatoes or whatever. Like old times."
"I'm so excited," Olga squealed, instantly mollified. Despite Helga's warnings that her cell phone battery was dying, Olga continued talking for the better part of the next twenty minutes, going on to describe everything from the dishes she was preparing to the little turkey placemats she was constructing. In the middle of explaining the color scheme for the tail feathers of the turkey placemats, the line dropped. Helga breathed a sigh of relief.
Olga was probably still yakking into her phone unawares. That happy thought followed Helga into dreamland as she let her weight sink into the hotel mattress, truly exhausted from her unexpected hike. After all this, she decided sleepily, I'm going to work out more.
There was a wheezing breath behind her, causing goose bumps to work their way across Helga's skin again. She bent to collect the groceries that had spilled across the sidewalk, furious at what made her spill them. But really, she couldn't waste time being angry; there was a huge mess, hundreds of food items. I have to count them to know if I've got them all, she thought, but counting was impossible when the wheezing breath wasn't breath at all, it was an alarm blaring out to warn her: run.
Helga blinked awake.
The dream flitted away as she realized that here, in the real world, there was a real alarm going off. She sat up in bed, waiting for the brain haze to clear, until she realized exactly what it was. It was her car alarm.
She turned on the lamp and felt around--temporarily blinded--for her car keys. She stumbled across the room and slipped on her shoes, peeking out the window. There were streetlights over the parking lot, providing enough light for her to see her car. For a long time, she stared. There was nothing moving out there.
"A cat probably jumped on it or something," she muttered to herself.
Not bothering with her key card, she blocked the door from shutting by nudging her shoe in place, and then walked out into the cold barefooted, 'cause she was tough like that. She pressed the button on her car remote repeatedly until she was finally close enough for it to successfully stop the alarm. But before turning back, she noticed the streetlight beaming down on something shiny. Curious, she got closer. It was a trail of liquid that had trickled down the slight downward slope of pavement. A quick investigation proved it to be a trail of gasoline.
"Criminey!" she whispered harshly. "No wonder I ran out of gas--there's a leak!"
She looked up at the stars, certain that there was some universal force out to get her.
The cold ground of the parking lot made her feet go numb, so numb that she contemplated giving her car a good kick, since she wouldn't feel it. She'd feel it tomorrow, though. And if she was honest, she'd rather not spend Thanksgiving limping around and feeling stupid about it.
The mental image of herself hobbling around the kitchen while Olga flounced around gracefully, telling her what to do, made Helga roll her eyes and smile, but the smile broke a second later when a noise reached her ears. It almost sounded like the ringtone from that truck. She stood very still, listening attentively, but did not hear it again. The wind was probably just playing tricks with her ears.
For cripe's sake, Helga, ol' girl, you've got to stop being so paranoid, she told herself.
She let out an amused snort and turned around to find a man standing about five yards from where she was. His face was shrouded in shadow, but she recognized him immediately by the shape of his head.
"You," Helga accused. Her fists clenched, and a heavy weight dropped in her stomach, like a judge's gavel. A confirmation of the eerie intuitions she'd been having all evening.
"Hey," he said.
"What do you--" Helga started to ask, but stopped herself. It was a stupid question. She already knew what he wanted. Instead, she opted for, "How did you find me?"
"I waited for you. At the state line," he confessed. He always was stupidly honest. "On highway thirty-nine. I followed you."
He took a step closer, out of the shadows, his stupid propeller hat spinning in the wind. She couldn't believe he still wore that thing. But then, Arnie had a repulsive tendency to hold onto things too long. Helga moved back, panicked but trying not to let it show.
"How'd you know I'd be on highway thirty-nine?"
"It was the highway you took when you left."
Holy hell, this guy was messed up. As if she didn't already know. She surveyed her surroundings, taking care to remain facing him at all times. They were in an open space, so she wasn't trapped. Right now she just had to keep him at bay, keep him talking until she could make a run for it.
"How did--" she began, stiltedly, trying keep the high-pitched panic out of her voice, "How did you know I was coming back?"
Her gaze snapped to his. "You stay away from my sister, you psycho."
"I didn't know she'd be at the bus stop," he said, drawing closer to Helga even as she drew back, as if he just couldn't keep away. "I like sitting at the bus stop. She was talking to you on the phone, and that's when I knew. I had to see you again."
Drawing from the courage that was finding its way back inside her, she crossed her arms and cloaked her face in a mask of indifference that was sure to intimidate any man. Well, any normal man. As she spoke, she leveled her voice with a tone as cold as the wind.
"And what were you doing in the city, anyway? You expect me to believe Arnold would have you over for Thanksgiving after what you did?"
Arnie shrugged. "Arnold's in Manitoba. He's not visiting until Christmas. His grandparents invited my mom and me. I like your coat," he said, changing the subject with dull ease. "It's brown."
They were still moving simultaneously, slowly, and above them the streetlight pulled shadows down his face and revealed the strange twinkle in his half-lidded eyes. She licked her lips and regretted it when his eyes dropped to watch.
A terrible thought struck her.
"Did you set this up? Did--did you put a hole in my gas tank?" she questioned, realizing as she said it that it was undeniably true. Her hands twitched; she pushed her hair behind her ear even though it was already there. "Was that your truck on the side of the road?"
"I had to see you again," was his only answer. His left eye blinked; then his right.
It all came together. When she'd felt like she was being spied on by that truck, it was him. He'd been lurking out there somewhere. He might've even been planning something heinous; she probably saved herself by running away from the scene. She'd come so close to being a victim again, but she'd escaped without even knowing. She could escape again.
Her revulsion and panic were growing, and Arnie was breathing it in. It was now or never. He took a step closer, and Helga caught the vague scent of gasoline coming from him.
She gave him a good, hard shove and tried to run toward the hotel. His hand wrapped around her wrist but she jerked away before he could get a grip. She took off across the parking lot and considered going straight to the front desk, but it as was very late, it might be locked by now. She could have ran toward the gas station down the road--it was open twenty-four hours, she remembered reading so on the sign--but she was already going in the wrong direction, her legs were already tired, and if she could just get to her room, lock the door and call the police, she had a good chance of escape.
Arnie's footsteps pounded behind her.
Helga bolted into the hotel room, quickly kicked the shoe aside, and shut the door just in time. Arnie ran into the door with a thump, but it did not faze him. He immediately began knocking.
"Let me in."
Helga cursed the cheap hotel for not having a double lock. She hoped the single lock would hold until the police got there.
"Helga. I love you."
She looked at the untidy bed she'd been sleeping so soundly in just minutes before, and suddenly wanted to be nowhere near it. She gave it a wide birth as she approached the table where the phone was. There, she was presented with a grim sight: the phone line socket had been pried away and ripped from the wall, leaving a dark hole and sprawling wires.
With all the insanity so far, he still managed to surprise her. He must have gotten into the room as soon as she had left to check on her car alarm.
That stupid ringtone was going off again, and Arnie answered this time. Trying to think her way out of this, Helga distractedly heard his muffled voice telling his mother he wouldn't be home tonight.
Think, Helga, think!
Some hotels, she remembered, had second telephones in the bathrooms. She ran to look. No dice.
A resounding thump meant that Arnie was throwing his weight against the door.
It was just some cheap hotel, that door wouldn't last, especially with Arnie's weight. He wasn't exactly a scrawny nine-year-old anymore. Out of desperation, Helga flicked off the lamp by the bed, so that if he got inside, he might not see her right away. Maybe she could slip past him through the door.
Helga went back to the bathroom and didn't shut the door, but kept it open and leaned back against it so she would be out of sight, but ready to bolt out of hiding, if necessary. Helga begged the universe not to let Arnie in yet, begged that she would be given a few more minutes to come up with another solution, any solution, any escape...
But on his second try, Arnie broke through the door.
Judging by the sound alone, Helga guessed that chunks of the door had gone flying. The door smacked the wall when it opened and nearly flew shut again, but Arnie grabbed it and pushed gently. A long splint of light was cast upon the carpet, broadening as the door swung open with a squeak. Centered in the box of pale light was Arnie's shadow, motionless and disproportionately large. The longer Helga stared at it, the less it made sense, like a painting that went from unambiguous to complex when you stared too long. The shadow began to move. It showed Arnie's head turning as his eyes swept the room. His footsteps whispered against the carpet as he drew closer.
Helga extracted the switchblade from her bra, and waited.