It had been a long week and Piper was taking a break by the door.
That bastard Rick couldn’t see her here, so she was safe for the moment.
Devouring her fingernails one at a time, she gazed at the street and wondered how she had gotten so far off track. She glanced into the diner and studied the long yellowing counter and the worn red leatherette booths lined up along the windows.
The door opened and she stepped back to allow a slight figure in a faded windbreaker inside. They glanced around the empty room and turned toward her.
“Are you alone? Do what I say and you’ll be ok.” A harsh jab in her side confirmed that this was serious.
“I…uh, there’s just Rick,” replied Piper, glancing toward the back with a small shiver of fear.
“Get me the money, I wouldn’t ask but I’m out of options.”
“Please”, he whispered when she hesitated.
She could read people and her instincts were usually right. This guy didn’t seem crazy but he was nervous. ‘Maybe he’s a tweaker,’ she thought. Better be careful.
She moved slowly into the diner, her cowboy boots thumping softly on the cracked linoleum. Passing the kitchen, she saw Rick scraping the grill.
“Do you need anything to eat? Is someone making you do this?”
“No, I need the cash.” Tears crept around the edges of deep blue eyes. “I need to help my brother; he’s my only family. I got laid off and then I lost the apartment.”
She couldn’t believe it. A robber who said please and now he was crying. Straightening her brown and orange uniform to settle her nerves, she said,
“I don’t know what’s happened but I know you’re not a bad person. It’s been a slow day, there’s not much here. You can have my tips, too.” As she passed him the cash, their fingers brushed together.
Something alerted Rick and he walked out of the kitchen wiping his hands.
“What’s going on here?” he said in a low growl. “You bitch; I knew you were trouble.” He grabbed her arm and twisted it.
“Let her go,” the man yelled, and moved quickly, shoulder checking Rick into the wall.
One hard smack and he keeled over, cracking his head on the edge of the counter as he fell.
“He’s still alive,” said Piper, checking his pulse. “You better get out of here before he wakes up.”
“I can’t leave you with him; he’ll take it out on you.”
“Wait.” She thought for a second and then flashed a grin, grabbing the bank deposit bag.
“We might as well take it all.”
Together, they ran out and got into the car.
They drove in silence, each lost in thought. Glancing over, she said, “I’m Piper? Thanks for your help back there.”
“Uh, I’m Tori.” The driver shrugged off the hood and ran long fingers through her tousled black curls.
“You’re, a… a girl? Are you kidding me! I thought you were a guy, coming to my rescue and all that.”
She flushed in embarrassment. “I mean, not that a girl couldn’t come to my rescue, but… you really tackled Rick hard.”
“Aw, it was a lucky break, I caught him off guard.”
“You could have fooled me; he dropped like a sack of potatoes! I’m glad that fucker hit his head.”
He woke to an intense pounding above his left eyebrow. The world spun in circles as he sat up.
“Bitch,” he muttered as he dragged himself up. Grabbing the counter, he opened the drawer and discovered the missing deposit.
“Fucking bitch is gonna pay.”
He grabbed his phone and thumbed the screen, opening the GPS tracker. There was a blinking icon moving south.
He grinned, congratulating himself for installing the tracker on Piper’s phone. One by one, he cracked his knuckles slowly in a gentle dismembering. He slipped on his jacket and thought about how her shoulders would pop when he ripped her arms off.
Shuffling out to his car he eased himself in. Wincing in pain, he flipped down the mirror and inspected his forehead.
“Damn,” he sputtered, lighting a smoke. He started the engine and turned onto the highway.
They’d reached the outskirts of town when Tori asked “Can I drop you somewhere?”
Piper sighed, “No, there’s nowhere. I was staying with Rick. He said he’d teach me how to run my own restaurant, but then things changed.
She cleared her throat. “He started slapping me around and then he wouldn’t pay me. I couldn’t figure out how to get my money so I could leave.”
“Wow, what a creep, I guess you got your money now.”
“Yeah, I guess I did,” replied Piper, staring out the window. One snap decision and her life had changed completely.
“I’m going to Bridgetown,” said Tori. You’re welcome to come. We should drive as far as we can tonight.”
“That’s good with me,” replied Piper. We can take turns.”
They jerked awake, the tires thumping along the rumble strip.
“Braille for blind drivers,” joked Piper. “We’d better get off the highway.”
They found an old dirt road that followed a stream. It hadn’t been used for a while; there were small shrubs growing in between the ruts.
Eventually, they pulled into a moonlit clearing and parked behind a barn. Piper looked around.
“Don’t think anyone has been here for a long time,” she said.
Tori opened the trunk and pulled out a sleeping bag and a blanket. “I’ve been sleeping in the car,” she said sheepishly, “all the comforts of home.”
Rick’s car rolled slowly down the dirt track. “They’re close,” he thought, pulling over. “I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
When he reached the barn he snuck up to the window and saw two people moving around. One of them was Piper; he’d recognize her dumpy shape anywhere.
Crouching, Rick crab-walked back to the car and thought awhile, smoking cigarettes one after the other. He would wait until the moon had set. It would be better to catch them sleeping.
After a few hours, he grabbed his spare gas tank from the trunk and carried it down the path. The gas quickly soaked into the grass and loose hay around the sides of the barn.
“This’ll drive em out,” he thought with a twitch of anticipation.
“Do you smell smoke?” said Tori, starting awake, looking around frantically. It was billowing in from the doorway and flames were licking through the cracks.
Coughing hard, she shook Piper awake and pulled her out of the blankets. Towing her through the smoke, they ran outside, gagging and spitting up ash.
Out of the corner of her eye, Tori saw a fist and ducked. Rick’s swing missed her, throwing him off balance. He recovered but stopped in surprise when he saw that Tori was a woman. Piper backed away and stumbled into the barn.
“Well now, what do we have here, a kitty cat. Let’s play,” he taunted, circling Tori. She turned to face him and tried to kick his leg.
“Oh, does the little kitty have claws? Nice. I like to play rough.” With a sudden move, he reached in and grabbed her arm, forcing her to kneel. Pulling some zap straps out of his pocket he quickly tied her up.
Tori kicked his ankle and he went down hard, grunting in pain. “Now you’ve asked for it,” he growled and punched her in the stomach; she folded in half, gasping for air.
The stable was filled with smoke; Piper crawled to the stall where she had seen a pile of rusted metal. She felt around until she found a heavy bar.
Barely able to breathe she found her way back to the edge of the door and screamed “Ricky, please help me, I got the money but I can’t get out.”
Rick covered his head with his jacket and ran into the barn, determined to save his money. Piper was waiting. The bar connected with a sickening thunk and he fell into the dirt.
Her arms numb from the recoil, Piper rolled toward the doorway. Half crawling, she collapsed in a fit of coughing just outside.
“Tori, wake up, are you ok?” Piper retched as she dragged Tori away from the blazing barn. Her legs buckled and she cradled Tori’s head in her lap.
“Oh god, what have we done.”
With a loud explosion of sparks, a rafter caved in, followed by a rain of burning debris. Piper and Tori sat gazing hypnotically at the patterns in the fire, lost in their own thoughts.
They found Tori’s penknife and used it to cut the ties. Climbing into the car, they drove down the lane to find Rick’s car blocking their escape.
“Let me check something,” croaked Piper. She felt along the edge under his door and found the spare key mounted in a magnetic holder.
“He was always prepared,” she muttered with a wry smile.
Hands shaking, Tori whispered, “What are we going to do? I never meant for any of this to happen.”
Piper patted her shoulder gently. “It was an accident, he was going to kill us, or worse, we both know that. Let’s get out of here.”
“What are we going to do with his car?”
“I’ll leave it at the train station. They’ll think Rick and I left together. Follow me in your car.”
The lot at the station was almost empty, with only a few cars at the far end. “It’s quiet,” thought Piper, parking away from the single light. She walked over to Tori’s car and got in.
“I was thinking…,” said Piper.
“We should think about..,” said Tori at the same time. They smiled, and Tori continued, “you go first.”
“I was thinking while I drove,” Piper continued, “It’s safer if we split up. We can’t be seen together.”
“That’s true. Do you need money?” Tori pulled out some cash.
Piper waved her away, “it's ok, I’ll take the bank deposit; it’s almost what he owes me anyway. Tori found some extra clothes and Piper changed in the back seat.
When the sky started to lighten Piper leaned over and gave her a big hug.
“It’s time,” she said. Go and find your brother.” Tori hugged her back, tears streaming down her cheeks. “If anyone asks, you never saw me; this never happened.”
“Thanks for everything, I’ll always remember you.”
Piper climbed out of the car and gave her a quick wave. Straightening her shoulders, she turned and walked into the station.
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This story also appears on Medium by Tree Langdon, the author.