Need a Ride?

Dorothy Bennett was not an ideal role model for young girls. After her husband left, Dorothy went from being a stay-at-home mother to working as a hotel maid. And while she could never help her daughter, Kirby, with her calculus or Latin homework, Dorothy imparted what wisdom she had. These lessons usually came about after a bad date, Dorothy pointing to Kirby with red nails that matched the wine she drank, unironically, from her “World’s Best Mother” coffee cup. 

“Boys turn into men, Kirby. And men only want one thing, and it ain’t what’s in your head.” 

These words had stuck, leaving Kirby with an unhealthy distrust of the male species. Her mother’s voice would pipe up whenever a boy asked her to study together or offered her a piece of gum in class. And that voice echoed as she climbed into Jack’s truck. But that night, Kirby ignored it for the first time. 

That was her first mistake. 

Jack had charmed her, something she was not prepared for. After all the years spent under her mother’s tutelage, Kirby would’ve thought she was immune to their allure. Most of the boys at Lutz University repulsed her. Maybe it was the air of entitlement or because they all seemed to wear khaki pants with Sperry shoes. They always traveled in packs, like crows or feral dogs, shoving and shouting at each other, seemingly unaware of the other students who darted out of their way. Kirby had been jostled by these mobs of unruly boys more than once. Afterward, when she safely made it to class or her dorm, she always wanted a scorching shower. 

She hadn’t even wanted to go to the party, but she caved after her roommate Gracie stood in their room, batting her eyes and pouting for a solid hour. Gracie had mixed her a drink, something too strong and too sweet, and dragged her to Kappa Delta Epsilon’s battered Victorian mansion on the southernmost part of campus. Under different circumstances, the house would have been beautiful. However, after so many years of poorly behaved college boys romping the halls, the hardwood floors were sticky with spilled beer, the walls reeked of marijuana smoke, and the tall windows were smudged and greasy with fingerprints. To Kirby, the house perfectly represented the boys that lived inside: they appeared friendly enough on the outside, but inside, they were a ruined, smelly mess. 

Kirby had been sitting alone, wondering if she should keep waiting for Gracie or start the long walk back to her dorm alone. Gracie had promised she would meet Kirby on the frat house lawn in five minutes after she said hello to some boys from her psychology class. That was twenty minutes ago, and Kirby reached her breaking point, frustrated tears welling in her eyes. She and Gracie weren’t exceptionally close, having been randomly paired as roommates their first year at Lutz, but the abandonment still stung. 

“Had enough of that place, too?” A voice asked. 

Kirby hadn’t noticed him hiding in the shadows, and his question startled her. She jumped, whipping her head in the direction of the voice. He laughed in a good-natured way and apologized, introducing himself. 

She looked him over, wondering why he looked vaguely familiar before she realized she had seen him around campus a few times, sitting in the back of lecture halls or reading thick books under the maple trees on the quad. Always alone, but not looking lonely. Like her, he seemed to like the solitude. 

“I needed to breathe some air that didn’t reek of Axe,” Kirby said. 

Jack chuckled wryly and took a seat next to her on the lawn. He kept a respectful distance, leaving a few inches of grass between them. But he was close enough that Kirby caught a whiff of cedar and pine when the chilly October wind blew in their direction. He smelled earthy, like someone who spent a lot of time outdoors. And when he had introduced himself and offered his hand, Kirby felt callouses on his palm. Her mother would have called them “working man’s hands.” She would have also warned Kirby that even a man with calloused hands and a firm handshake was, at his core, just a man, and men only meant trouble. 

They made polite small talk, during which Kirby studied him intently from the corner of her eye. He was lean with ropy, muscular arms. Despite the flannel he wore, she could see the curve of his biceps. His hair was dark and shaggy, but not in an unkempt way, and his eyes were a deep brown, so dark they almost looked black in the moonlight. They reminded Kirby of the coal eyes children in stories always stuck into a snowman’s face. There was a small gap between his front teeth, and he had a dimple on his right cheek that appeared when he smiled. Which he did frequently when talking to Kirby. 

Jack was reserved, not telling her much about himself when they talked, which deepened her interest. He wasn’t boastful or showy; he didn’t brandish his high school football stats at her, trying to impress her with the number of other sweaty, acne-covered jocks he had tackled. He lacked the sheen of privilege that glimmered around the other guys on campus like a fog. Jack seemed to sense that she didn’t care about stats and averages, sheer strength, and brute force; Kirby liked intelligence, kindness, and good humor, all things she saw in Jack. She felt like she’d found another loner, a kindred spirit, which intrigued her. 

“Look, you seem about as interested in this party as I am, which, admittedly is not much,” Jack said. 

“I’d rather have a lobotomy,” Kirby replied. 

Jack laughed in an infecting way, and Kirby found herself giggling. 

“Well, I’ve got my truck here,” Jack said when he finished laughing. “Do you want a ride?” 

Kirby hesitated, feeling Jack’s dark eyes searching her face. Her mother’s warnings blared in her head like a fire alarm. She remembered her mother’s words slurred at her, telling her if she trusted the wrong guy, she would end up pregnant, dead, or worse. Dorothy Bennett never said what would be worse than death, but Kirby was smart enough to fill in the blanks. But Kirby realized her mother had never told her what the right guy looked like. Maybe they looked like Jack. 

Lost in her thoughts, Kirby was surprised when Jack spoke again. 

“I know, I know, your mom probably told you never to accept a ride from a stranger.” 

“She did tell me that,” Kirby said, feeling like he had just read her mind. “Among other things.”

“Well, I’m not a stranger. Not really.” He shrugged his shoulders casually. “You said yourself you’ve seen me around campus.” 

Kirby considered this, turning the words over, looking for a fault. Maybe it was the cold night air slicing through her thin top. Maybe it was the fact that, when he had noticed her shivering, Jack had slipped his flannel around her shoulders. Maybe it was the alcohol mudding her senses. Or maybe it was how he looked at her, his dark eyes soft, watching her face. She felt like denying him would hurt his feelings, and while that sort of thing usually didn’t matter to Kirby, there was something about Jack that she liked, trusted. 

“Okay,” Kirby said finally. “Yeah, I’d like a ride.” 

Jack’s face split with a happy grin, and Kirby found herself mirroring it. As they walked to the car, he held her hand, her pale skin almost translucent against his tan. He held open the door for her, something she found charming and gentlemanly, and she climbed inside the truck. 

That was her second mistake. 

Kirby thought he was flirting. He kept her distracted for a while, asking her questions about herself and making her laugh. It wasn’t until she glanced out the window, and saw dense woods passing on either side of the truck, that Kirby started to feel like something was wrong. 

“Where are we?” She asked, trying to keep her voice light and casual despite her unease. “This isn’t the way back to my dorm.” 

“Never said it was,” Jack replied. 

His voice still had a friendly tone, but the words sent a chill down Kirby’s spine, fingers of fear working their way up her back. His teeth gleamed in the darkness when he smiled at her, making Kirby think of knives. The boy she had met at the party was disappearing, melting like ice; everything about him was suddenly menacing. 

He slowed the truck and shifted into park. They were in a small clearing, woods crouching around them on all sides. The darkness seemed immense, the weak moonlight doing little to illuminate anything other than pine needles and rough tree bark. 

Jack engaged the locks, a thick clunk telling Kirby she was trapped. She broke out in a cold sweat, her underarms dampened, and her limbs felt weak and gelatinous. 

“But…” she hesitated, wetting her dry lips, “You said you were taking me home.” 

“No, I didn’t,” Jack said, his voice amused. “I said I would give you a ride. And I did. I’m a man of my word, after all.” Jack’s voice danced, and Kirby realized three things at once. 

One, he was enjoying himself. He drank Kirby’s fear like a man in the desert drinks water. She had no idea where they were, and he knew it. He had terrified her, and he was glad.

The other thing she realized was that Jack was a predator. He had been lying in wait, a lion hunting a gazelle. He had been lurking outside that frat house, maybe not for her specifically, but for someone like her. And she was stupid enough to walk right into his path. 

The third thing she realized was that her mother had been correct. She had trusted Jack, who most certainly fell into “the wrong kind of guy” category, and now she was in danger. The only question was how much. 

“Whatever you’re thinking,” Kirby began slowly, willing her brain to work out a plan, “You don’t have to–” 

“Oh, Kirby, you’re smarter than that,” he said with a cruel laugh. “Don’t insult both of us by playing dumb.”

His tone was condescending, but there was truth in his words. 

Kirby was smart. She spoke Latin, could do calculus and knew all the British monarchs. She was valedictorian in high school and had received a full-ride scholarship to Lutz. Kirby Bennet was brilliant, yet she had still gotten into a truck with someone she didn’t know. At that moment, she did not feel smart. In fact, she had never felt more stupid. 

When Jack leaned towards her, a sneer on his face, she wasn’t sure if he would kiss her or slit her throat. She didn’t want to find out, so she did the only thing that popped into her head. Kirby punched him in the face as hard as she could. 

The cartilage in his nose crunched, and blood misted the truck’s interior. 

“You bitch!” He screamed. All the humor was gone from his voice, replaced with unbridled rage. 

Kirby’s knuckles throbbed, but she chose not to dwell on it. While Jack was busy cupping his nose and cursing at her, Kirby hit the unlock button and threw open the door. The hinges groaned loudly, and she tried to jump from the car. The seatbelt yanked her back, squeezing the air from her lungs. 

“Fuck!” She shouted, using numb fingers to undo the buckle. 

She launched herself out of the truck but was once again pulled backward. This time, a white-hot pain bloomed at the crown of her head where Jack had grabbed a handful of her hair. Dangling out of the truck, her toes dancing madly in the dirt, Kirby panicked. She thrashed from side to side, trying to free herself, making her scalp burn. Kirby’s hair was long, and Jack had woven his fingers tightly. She grabbed his wrist, digging her nails into the soft flesh, scratching at him like a wild animal. 

Above her, Kirby heard a laugh. “Go ahead, Kirby, wear yourself out. That’ll make things way easier.” 

Kirby stopped fighting, her breath hitching painfully in her lungs. Jack’s voice was nasally, but he had regained that taunting tone, like he was enjoying himself. Kirby forced herself to calm down, taking a few deep breaths, giving herself time to think. 

She twisted her neck to the right and saw Jack above her, illuminated by the truck’s interior light. His long body was stretched awkwardly across the bench seat, his left hand pinching the bridge of his nose to staunch the bleeding, the right gripping Kirby’s hair. Kirby suddenly realized how she could escape, and she took a deep breath, knowing what she had to do would hurt like hell. 

Kirby gripped the truck’s sides and planted her feet on the ground as best as possible. Then, gritting her teeth, she summoned all her strength and pulled herself forward. 

The pain was so intense it brought tears to her eyes. She stumbled forward, somehow managing to keep her footing. There was a thump and groan behind her, and when Kirby looked over her shoulder, she saw Jack slumped on the ground outside the truck, a clump of her bloodied strawberry-blonde hair still in his fist. He raised his head to look at her, his eyes lifeless and his teeth bared. 

“I’m going to fucking kill you,” he said. 

Kirby didn’t stick around to give him a chance. She ran, dashing into the woods, without knowing where she was or what direction to go. She heard nothing except her heart hammering in her ears, her breath wheezing in and out of her lungs, and her feet snapping twigs as she fled. Tree limbs scratched her face, and roots snatched her ankles, tripping her. Blood ran down her face, stinging her eyes and filling her nostrils with its coppery scent. 

The air smelled smoky, like someone was burning leaves nearby, and the soft soil smelled like cedar. The woods smelled like Jack’s flannel, which she still wore, and Kirby realized he had been here before. He had likely been there that night, plotting where to park the truck, possibly even where to dump her body. That thought made her stop, fearing she would run straight into a grave he had dug. 

Twigs snapped behind her, and she turned, fearing she would come face-to-face with Jack. There was no one there, nothing but darkness, but Kirby knew that would change quickly. She knew, with a certainty that only comes with facing death, that she couldn’t hide; Jack would find her. And then kill her. The way Kirby saw it, she had two options. Fight or flight. 

Kirby ran three miles every day. She had since her dad left, and she read online that exercise helped with anxiety. She did not doubt that she could outrun Jack, given an even playing field. But these woods gave him the upper hand. A stray rock or downed tree could snap her ankle, leaving her crawling on the dirty forest floor until Jack caught up with her. 

No, flight wasn’t an option. So, that left her with fight.

“Kirby,” Jack called out, his voice echoing throughout the woods. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” 

His voice was close, but Kirby still had time. She knelt, dragging her hands in the dirt, scattering the fallen leaves. Carefully, she worked her way down the sloped hill at her back, making an obvious path. At the bottom a line of pine trees led deeper into the woods. Kirby pulled off the flannel and tossed it past the tree line, ensuring it was partially visible from the path she had created. Then she crept behind a tree where she had spotted a thick fallen branch. She picked it up, testing the weight in her hands.

“Olly Olly oxen free,” Jack called out. 

His voice was so close it sounded like it was coming from right above, on the lip of the slope. A beam of light slashed the darkness, and Kirby stepped farther into the woods, enveloping herself in shadow, waiting. Jack crunched through the woods, a flashlight gripped in his hand. He swung it around madly in search of her. His breathing was an angry rasp. 

All around her, the night was alive. Crickets chirped, and somewhere above, an owl hooted. The wind danced in the trees, the leaves making a hush-hush sound. But Kirby tuned them all out, focusing all her attention on the sound of Jack’s steps and panting breath. When he stopped, she tightened her grip on the branch. 

He spotted the flannel and walked farther into the woods, his pace increasing. He passed by Kirby but did not see her because he had trained his eyes and flashlight ahead. But Kirby saw him. He was so close she could smell the metallic tang of blood from his nose and see the beads of sweat on his neck. 

“Where are you?” he asked, talking more to himself now, no longer taunting. 

Kirby took a deep breath and pulled the branch to her shoulder, holding it like a baseball bat. 

“Right here,” she said. 

Jack jumped and wheeled around, his eyes popping to a comical size. Kirby watched as the surprise morphed into something close to fear as she swung the branch with all her strength. The branch connected with his temple, and there was a thick cracking sound. Kirby wasn’t sure if the sound came from the branch or Jack’s head, but she didn’t care either way. Jack crumpled to the ground, a heap of muscle and bone. The flashlight fell from his hand, rolling towards Kirby. She bent and grabbed it, dropping the branch next to Jack’s body, and dug into his back pocket to retrieve the truck’s keys. 

“Thanks for the ride,” she said to Jack’s lifeless form. 

Kirby walked back through the woods, her mind blessedly quiet. Her mother’s voice had finally gone, leaving Kirby with only her breathing and the rustling of leaves in the trees. Despite everything that had happened and all the blood and horror she had seen, Kirby was smiling. Because she was, after all, still alive. 

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