The sudden light that shone into the trunk hurt my eyes, even though they were closed. I focused on keeping my breathing even and my body limp. She wouldn't believe I was still unconscious if I was tense. But it was the hardest thing to do in the world. Somewhere very close by, I heard the sound of rushing water. Were we near a river?
For a moment, nothing happened. I just continued to feel the intensity of her gaze on me. I could only imagine what kind of thoughts were flitting through her mind; it made me feel nauseous. Suddenly she reached down, and I felt her hands roughly grip my ribcage.
Those sharp red nails dug into my flesh, but I forced myself not to react. I was deadweight as she grunted and heaved my body from the trunk of the car. When I was halfway out, she dropped me altogether and I tumbled onto the hard ground.
How I managed to remained silent was a small miracle.
My cheek was pressed against soft dirt. The sound of rushing water was unmistakably close. Had she brought me to some kind of forest? I didn't even know there were any around the city. How long had we been driving? Quite a long time, apparently.
My joints were screaming and aching from being twisted up in that position for so long, and my head was suddenly pounding. I had landed on my stomach with my face turned toward the right.
My eyes were still closed, and I waited for her to try and move me again. Was she planning to drown me in the lake? I risked peeking through my eyelids at her, hating that it was difficult to focus in the bright light.
Megan was standing over me, leaning against the car and staring off into the distance with an odd expression. Pained, perhaps grieved. I glanced around – we were surrounded by impossibly tall trees, and when I breathed in the air was remarkably clean and fresh.
And I was right – a river was very close by.
The water was rushing quickly and powerfully toward the west – I imagined that if you found yourself in it, you would have no choice but to let the current take you. I shuddered, hoping my body didn't tremble too much. She'd brought me out to the middle of nowhere to do away with me.
Fear stabbed deep in my heart, but I forced myself to remain focused. When would be the best time to leap up and surprise her? My body ached fiercely, as if to remind me that leaping was the last thing it wanted to do.
But knowing that death was possibly near gave me an adrenaline rush, and I was confident that I could – and would – ignore any ailments that plagued me at the moment. Megan suddenly sighed, and cast a look of disgust at my body.
She was clutching a big black purse in one hand, and she slowly unzipped it. She brought out what I quickly realized was a knife, its blade wrapped in some sort of black sleeve. The purse she dropped to the ground and kicked aside.
She bit down on its handle and got a good grip on my ribcage again. I allowed her to drag me closer to the river, until we were mere feet away. The sound of the rushing water was unbelievably loud now – it drowned out all other noise.
Megan was panting, apparently exhausted with the work of dragging me along. She inhaled sharply, dropped the knife into her right hand, muttered something I didn't hear under her breath and got down on her knees next to me.
It was definitely time to act.
I wasn't going to lay around and wait to be stabbed, slashed or cut. Her plan was obvious by now; she was going to slit my throat and dump me in the river. The current would take my body who knows where, and nobody would find out about my death for a long time. And even if they did, how would they trace it back to Megan?
She had no connections to me whatsoever, and I'd never told anybody other than Vaughn about her to begin with. Something told me that she'd be very careful in covering her tracks, and I knew without a doubt that she would get away with it.
As if I needed any other incentive to stay alive. Just as she was sliding the sleeve off the blade – which was long and menacingly sharp – I acted. My eyes flew open, and I landed a kick to the side of her skull.
She let out a strangled sound and fell to the side; the knife flew from her hands and landed with a hard thud against the side of one of the towering trees.
"Why, you little" – Megan spluttered, one hand holding the side of her head.
Her lipstick was smeared across her face now; it looked like blood. I skittered like a bug towards the knife at the base of the trunk; my hands closed over the handle, and then I forced myself to stand; I staggered a little.
My hands were shaking as I held up the weapon, pointing at her with the tip.
"Don't come near me." I willed my voice to be strong and firm.
Megan rubbed the side of her head, and slowly got to her feet. Her cold, icy eyes never strayed from mine.
"What do you intend to do with that?" She asked, jutting her chin out to gesture at the knife.
My hands refused to stop trembling. "Kill you, if I have to."
"You won't. You're weak, just like he is."
Fury flashed through me. "We are not weak! We're humane. You're cruel and malicious, stalking and hurting innocent people for no reason at all."
She laughed, loudly. It confirmed my suspicion that not a soul was within a few miles of here.
"Innocent? You think the both of you are innocent?" She spat the word like a curse at me.
"We are," I insisted, my voice cracking.
Megan shook her head me slowly. Bitterness crept into her voice. "You're not."
"Why?" I couldn't help whispering the question, a question I had wanted to know the answer to for so long.
"Why have you been doing this to us? We haven't done anything to you!"
She gritted her teeth. "You haven't, not really. Vaughn was my priority, in this little game of cat and mouse we've been playing. You were just a bonus."
I felt like stabbing her right then and there. But I needed to know this, and for that, she had to keep talking.
"Why?" I asked again, "Tell me why."
She blinked at me, her mouth set in a hard line. "This game has been going on for far too long. I wanted to toy with you both for a bit, to scare you, but now I see I was being too dramatic. I should have been quicker about killing you both."
She sounded deeply disappointed at her own mistake.
"Tell me why!" I screamed at her.
Anger flashed across Megan's face, and then pain. She muttered one word so low, I could barely hear it. But when I did, my heart skipped a beat.
I swallowed against the lump in my throat. "What does he have to do with any of this?"
She reached toward me with those long red nails, like she wanted to strangle me for my harsh words. I held the knife close, keeping her at bay.
"I assume Vaughn has told you his sob-story of the past? About Marissa?" She snarled the name at me.
Megan inhaled sharply, her blue eyes flashing with contempt. "I met Jack after he'd already started dating Vivian – Vaughn and Marissa's mother. He was attending the same play at a theater in the city. I thought he was the most charming, attractive man on the planet. I wanted to go on a date, but he said that he couldn't – he was engaged."
She rolled her eyes like this was a moot point. "I managed to persuade him to take my phone number anyway, in case he changed his mind. A few weeks passed, and I assumed he'd forgotten about me. But he called me up one day and said he wanted to meet – he'd been arguing with Vivian about her bratty kids. When we met, I offered him solace and comfort he would never receive from her."
"We got along marvelously, and we began secretly seeing each other on a regular basis. I told Jack I wanted him to leave her – she wasn't good enough for him, anyway. But he went ahead and married her anyway, despite my wishes. He kept on seeing me, though, and I kept agreeing to meet with him, hoping I could change his mind about his crazy wife." She sighed, seemingly frustrated.
"But he never did. It broke my heart, but I couldn't stop seeing him. I loved him too much, and he loved me, too. Just not enough to leave her. It infuriated me, especially when I saw how unhappy he was. He was always arguing with Vivian about something, mostly the younger child."
She was disobedient and rebellious all the time. I told him that he needed to enforce discipline, and eventually he did. The older child" – Megan flashed me a hateful look – "was constantly getting in the way of things. Both of Vivian's kids drove him mad. And then there came that fateful day when it was too much, and he ended up killing her. And he's been in prison ever since."
Tears came into her eyes and dripped down her cheeks.
"I loved him," she whispered, "And now he's locked up because of her, because she never listened. Because of Vaughn, too, because you can bet he did his share of aggravating Jack. They pushed him and pushed him until it was just too much for him to bear."
She was sobbing now, and I watched in disbelief. "If only he had left her, if only he had seen reason! We would be together, like we rightfully should be. And you," she snarled through her teeth.
"It absolutely infuriated me when I saw the both of you in the city. I didn't plan it, it happened by chance. But I recognized Vaughn instantly – he's not difficult to place. And you were with him, and the both of you were going on your merry way – on your honeymoon, no less. Why should you get to be happy and with the one you love when I can't? Why should he? He doesn't deserve it."
I blinked, trying to absorb all this new information. Megan was in love with Jack. She wanted revenge, because she had somehow deluded herself into believing that Vivian's kids were to blame for his imprisonment. It angered her that I was happy and in love with him. All this time . . . it was all because of Jack.
I didn't know it was possible to have another human being as much as I hated him in this moment.
"You're wrong," I said, "Jack didn't love you, not if he wouldn't leave Vivian. You were probably just a toy he kept around to use at his convenience, when he wasn't getting enough of what he wanted from her. And he was locked up because he murdered Marissa – who never did anything wrong in the first place. And neither did Vaughn. It's you who is demented here, you and Jack are the ones who are nuts!"
I glared at her, and she glared right back.
"Vivian didn't deserve the life she got. She should have found herself a real man," I spat at her, my blood boiling with rage.
Megan shuddered violently. "She deserved it for keeping him away from me. He loved me more than her; Jack stayed with her because he pitied her."
"Pitied?" I asked in disbelief. This woman was seriously crazy. A real and true psychopath.
"She was dirt poor, and she had two rotten kids to look after."
"And killing one of them was the perfect solution to that issue."
"It was Marissa's fault for pushing him too far," Megan insisted, "And I made sure Vivian knew that when I paid her a visit not too long ago."
My jaw dropped; my palms were slick with sweat, and keeping my grip on the knife was difficult.
"What – what do you mean?" I stammered, fearing her reply.
She smiled wickedly at me. "I want revenge. I intended to get rid of her and Vaughn. It's true, I found him in the city by coincidence, but I would have found him eventually."
"You . . . You killed his mother!" I jabbed the knife at her accusingly; she flinched, but otherwise ignored it.
"It took months of careful planning. I couldn't be caught, not when I wasn't done with them. Getting into that asylum was hard. But, yes."
It felt like my inside were shriveling up and falling apart. I wanted to drop to the ground and vomit the contents of my stomach. Megan murdered Vivian, and Vaughn didn't even know it. Tears welled in my eyes, but I refused to let them escape.
Something inside me had snapped, and it felt like I was capable of anything. Memories came rushing back; I went to the Animal Shop to see Vaughn, only to find him, Julia and Mirabelle in a state of despair.
He'd told me that the thing between us was over, and spouted some nonsense about how he wasn't allowed to be happy. That was the real first time Megan had almost torn us apart. She had been with us, every step of the way, even then.
"You're wrong," I whispered, even though I knew my words would be lost on her. "We deserve to be happy, and you don't deserve to live." I waved the knife around in the air.
A sudden look of smugness came over Megan's face, and I wanted to slice it off.
"Even if you did, it wouldn't matter now."
"Why?" My voice came out all weird and high. "Where is he? Where's Vaughn?"
She stared at me with those hard eyes. "He's dead."
If I had felt crazy before, it was nothing compared to what possessed me at that moment. A shriek of rage passed through my lips, and suddenly I was racing toward her. I tackled her to the ground, mere feet from the back of the river. The sound of the rushing river filled my ears, along with my fast-beating heart.
Megan let out a cry, and her hand close around my wrist, keeping the knife away from her face and body. I wasn't trying to stab her, not yet. She kicked and wiggled under me, and her thumb found a spot on my wrist that caused undeniably excruciating pain to race up my arm.
A pressure point?
Regardless of what it was, I screamed and had to drop the knife. It skidded away from us, landing close to the edge of the river. And then suddenly were rolling around on the ground, each of us grabbing, kicking, punching and biting.
When I finally managed to kick her off me, I rolled onto my stomach and crawled toward the knife. She grabbed my ankle from behind, trying to stop me, but I yanked it free and my heel connected with her face.
But just as I managed to grab the handle, she was on me again, and we wrestled for control of the blade. The droplets of water that clung to the handle made it slippery, and we ended up dropping it again – further out this time.
Megan let out a frustrated growl – blood was coming from both her nostrils, and I could feel my body hurting all over from where she'd punched. Her rings left cuts on my face and arms.
Knowing she would attack me again, I tried to gauge how far out the knife was – I could see it the blade, shining dimly under the water, nestled in a pocket of sand. I had a mere second to decide whether or not it was worth risking the raging river.
Further out, there was probably a waterfall with lethally sharp rocks at the bottom. She landed a kick into my shin, which made me collapse. She grabbed a fistful of my hair and tried to hold my head under the water.
I thrashed and twisted, bringing her down with me – luckily she wasn't much stronger than I was. In the process, however, I managed to inhale a breath of water, and then I was coughing.
She was, too, but still tried again to shove me back under. I let her this time, forcing my eyes open underneath. I twisted out of her grasp again dove for the knife, my fist closing around the handle.
Megan came after me again, and the impact of her running into me sent us both stumbling back – and off an abrupt drop off where the wet sand-floor ended. I lashed out with the knife as the both of us were carried out into the river, but the water pushed up apart too quickly.
Waves of fast-moving water were closing over my head over and over, and I struggled just to stay above the surface. I let go of the knife, realizing that it wouldn't help me now. The waves tossed me around like a rag doll, and the sheer icy temperature of it froze me to the core.
Nearby, Megan was struggling the same way I was, and I could hear her cries. A few escaped my lips, too, every time I tried to breath and was met with no air. My lungs began to burn and I desperately looked around for escape.
Something hard slammed into me, and I gasped. Stupid rocks. For a moment I considered just letting the river do whatever it wanted with me – if Megan was to be believed, what was there to live for, really?
Except Megan is not to be believed.
What if she was lying about Vaughn for this very purpose? I wasn't going to let her win. My heart pulsing with new-found adrenaline, I kicked my arms and legs harder, determined to stay above the surface.
I scanned the edge of the forest, looking for anything I could grab onto and pull myself out with. It must have been my lucky day, because several yards down a few long tendrils of wood, root or something else dipped into the water.
Sucking in a huge breath before the most recent wave shoved me under again; I focused all my energy into the simple act of swimming closer. I reached out with desperate hands as I drew closer; I knew I wouldn't get another chance like this again.
If I didn't make this, I might as well pray for a quick death at the base of a waterfall. I lost my grip on the first one, but managed to get hold of the second. I could now see that they were in fact roots, attached to a bush that had grown lopsidedly, too close to the river.
I pulled myself closer towards land, ignoring a wave that crashed over my head, threatening to yank me back. My arm shot out and I found a hold on the side of large, bumpy boulder a few feet from the bush.
Pulling my body up and onto land was the hardest thing I'd ever done. My body felt like it had been beaten up, run over, shot and a thousand other awful things. My cheek pressed against dirt, and I promised myself never to take land for granted again.
After several minutes of catching my breath, I forced myself to sit up and stare at the river. I scanned the surface of it repeatedly, searching. But there was no sign of Megan anywhere. Did I dare assume that she hadn't been as lucky as me, and was now dead?
I exhaled in a sharp breath. Yes. Yes, I would assume that. Considering anything else would be painful. I tried to shake off the shock of all that had happened, and tried to stand on shaky legs.
The river had carried me too far, but I was sure I could find the clearing where Megan's car was parked. I needed to find it before it got dark and somehow find the city again. I also needed to get out of my wet clothes – already I was shivering violently.
But it would be colder after dark, so I really needed to get going. Walking was excruciating, especially with the lack of adrenaline in my veins. I did in fact find the car, after locating a dirt trail – and Megan's purse, dropped next to the back right wheel.
I dug out the keys and got inside. Then I remembered that there had been something scratchy in the truck with me, so I hurriedly got out and opened the truck. Sure enough, it was a sweater. It was an ugly shade of green – I wondered why on Earth Megan would have it.
Shaking my head, I shed my wet shirt and pulled it on. It was itchy, but it would definitely do. I stumbled back into the car, putting the heat on full blast, and found a main road that would eventually lead to some signs.
I inhaled and exhaled deeply, reminding myself to slow down every so often. What would I find when I returned to the city? It could either be a joyous reunion or heartbreaking news. I hoped with everything I had that it was the former. Tears welled up in my eyes as I focused on my pounding heart.
I was alive.
A/N: And so am I! :)
Just the epilogue to go now.