Valentine always kept her windows down in the car. She liked to feel the cold breeze that left goosebumps crawling on her skin. Even more, she craved the wafting rush of fresh air, rather than the stale smell of her car.
She loved forests, evergreen thickets of trees that seemed to grow and poke at the surface of the sky. Pine trees in particular were her favorite, made of a hundred thousand little needles that prickled your palm at the touch. More than the beauty they appease to her, it was her favorite scent. The peppery, minty smell of Phellandrene and Eucalypt sent a large supply of serotonin coursing through her body.
Today, she felt lucky to be driving beside a forest. The roads were windy making her car jolt by the occasional bump over uneven pavement, but it was all worth it for the smell. She turned up her music, the sound blasting through the speakers. It almost kept her from hearing the vibrating ring of her phone. She quickly turned it down and picked up her phone, placing it against her ear.
“Hello?” She asked, in an almost annoyed tone.
“Valentine? Are you heading home?” Her mom questioned on the other end. “Yeah, I already told you, remember? You texted me that like twenty minutes ago. I said yes.”
“Okay, well I thought you would be home by now.”
“Mom,” Valentine said, voice firm, “Sierra lives an hour away, how would I have been home by now?”
“Well- I don’t know. Calm down.” Her mom said, defensive, “It’s just getting dark soon.. And usually you come home much sooner than expected…”
The curving roads and towering mountains were making her service worse by the second, but she heard enough to understand her mom’s jab at her alleged speeding. “Mom, I don’t go that fast. I don’t know why you always say that, everybody goes ten over, it’s safer than going ten under like you do.”
“Ten over is not okay, Valentine. I’m serious.”
Valentine rolled her eyes so hard she thought maybe her mom would be able to have seen it. “Mom, you’re complaining about how I drive, yet you’re the one making it worse right now.” “Don’t pin this on me-”
“I’m gonna hang up now.”
Valentine lowered the phone and looking down for a moment to click out of the call. In the split second she hadn’t been paying attention, something rolled under her tire, making a loud noise as her car moved in reaction to it. She let out an unexpected scream, swerving her car to the side of the road into a pull-out spot.
“Honey! Honey? What was that? What happened?”
She reached for the phone she failed to hang up on.
“I don’t know I just-” She paused, “Mom?” She looked at her phone, the call failed due to bad service. She called back a few times, but not a single one went through. “Shit.” She walked around her car to access the damage. She saw a large tree branch in the road and assumed that was what she had rolled over. She checked her wheels only to find a large nail sticking out of her tire, continuously leaking air. She threw her head in her hands,
frustrated with herself and now the forest around her. She grabbed the nearest rock, throwing it into the everlasting spread of trees.
Valentine was somewhat of an introvert, but she would never admit it. She wasn’t quiet and certainly wasn’t shy, she felt it was unnecessary to ask for help and any advice they had to give her wasn’t any better than what she already knew. But the real truth behind that is that she didn’t want to talk to strangers, especially not for assistance. So the last thing on her mind at the
moment was to flag down a passing car. She believed it would only lead to embarrassment, or her legs and arms severed from her body.
She was rifling through her glove compartment, looking for any sort of paper that her mom had placed inside that could help her in this situation when her worst nightmare came true. The rumbling of tires on the scattered stones caught her attention; the hairs on the back of her neck stood in anticipation.
A car door shut behind her and she heard shoes crunching on the gravel. “Hey, are you alright ma’am?”
She turned, a young man with dark sandy blond hair and brown doe eyes stared at her. He looked around her age, maybe a few years older, twenty-one was the oldest bet she gave him. “I’m fine.” She gave a small smile, eyes darting at the few cars that drove by. “Really? Because it looks like you’re on the side of the road with a nail in your tire.” He poked her injured wheel with his shoe.
“Yeah, well,” She looked at him, observing his smooth skin and dark eyebrows raised in concern, “I was just going to walk up there a bit to get some service.” She gestured to the road in front of her.
“What, do you have a death wish or something?” His voice was smooth like caramel on his tongue.
“Not particularly, no.” She crossed her arms.
“Then you shouldn’t go walking along a road with no sidewalk. Especially not on the side of a mountain. You could fall, or more likely get hit by a car. No one knows how to drive around here.”
“Well, thankfully I’m grown and can make my own decisions.”
He peered at her, looking her up and down, “What are you? Sixteen?”
“Seventeen,” She said, almost offended, “-and a half. Almost eighteen.”
He smiled, a laugh in his throat.
“What’s so funny?”
He shook his head, “Anyone who counts their age with a half at the end is not grown.” She bit the inside of her cheek, annoyed at his snarky remarks. “Thanks…Sir.” She got back in to her car and shut the door, locking it immediately. She sat there for a moment, assessing the situation, when there was a knock on her window.
It was the same guy, he smiled and gestured for her to roll the window down. She reluctantly did so.
“Hey, listen, I’m sorry for coming off so brash. I’m just trying to help, but my comments were unnecessary. I sincerely apologize.” He had his head tilted, and he seemed to be completely genuine.
“Let me give you a ride.”
“To where?” Skepticism weighed down her voice
“Anywhere. A store, a car mechanic, your house, wherever you need to go. I’ll bring you.” His smile was warm and inviting.
“Uh-” She was about to accept when her brain got the best of her, “I probably shouldn’t accept rides from strangers…”
“Cameron.” He stuck out his hand for her to shake, “Cameron Jackson.” She took his hand and he held hers with a firm grip. “Great, we’re not strangers anymore.” She laughed, “I don’t think that’s how it works. You don’t even know my name.” He narrowed his eyes as if he was thinking, “Jessica.” He said pointing to her. She shook her head, “Not even close.”
“Elizabeth? I look like an Elizabeth to you?”
He let out a breathy laugh, “I guess not.”
He nodded his head with a small grin, “Valentine,” He repeated under his breath, “I like that.” He laid his hands on the car door through the open window. “Okay, Valentine. How about this.” He riffled through his back pocket to pull out his wallet, skimming through the leather folds. “Here’s my license, take a picture of it, send it to whoever you’d like. I’m not trying to kidnap you, I just want to help.” He handed it over and she took it, skeptically.
She read over the information carefully. “How old are you, Cameron Jackson?” He smiled, “I’m twenty.”
She nodded her head, and handed back the card after snapping a photo.
“Let me give you a ride, Valentine.”
She tried to find a part of herself that didn’t want to accept his offer, but she couldn’t and she gave in, “Alright, how close is the nearest gas station, I’ll call my mom from there.” “It’s about a ten minute ride, fifteen if we’re behind someone real slow.” He backed away from the door and jumped in his truck, starting the car.
She followed and got in cautiously, careful not to scuff any part of his car. His truck was really clean, like neat-freak clean. It smelled like the new plasticky car smell that always gave Valentine a lingering headache.
Cameron was right, the ride was only about ten minutes, but she spent the whole time begging for his license photo to send to her mother. She wouldn’t be happy with her for accepting a ride from a stranger, but what choice did she have, plus, he was a charming stranger. He was sweet and genuinely seemed to want to help.
“I’ll wait with you, until your mom comes.” He said, turning to her as she was about to get out of the car.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that.”
“But I will. You’d be amazed how many creepers you can find on a Sunday morning at the gas station, especially for pretty girls like you.”
Valentine felt her skin redden, not sure how to feel about his unwarranted comment. So she laughed nervously in response like she always did.
After a bit of time, and a lot of awkward silence, Valentine’s mom had finally showed up and called a tow truck for Valentine’s car. It was much later now, Valentine’s SUV was getting fixed at the car shop, and she had said goodbye to Cameron hours ago. She laid in bed like a starfish, staring at the ceiling in almost complete darkness. Despite the awkward situation, a
small part of her couldn’t help but miss earlier in the day when she had met Cameron, she wished he hadn’t left so soon. She sat up to pet her dog on the end of her bed, soft brown curls of fur. Her dog, in response, jumped off the bed and stood by the door, wagging her tail. That was a signal of “I need to go pee”. Valentine rubbed at her eyes, checking her digital clock across the room.
“It’s twelve at night.” She whispered as if the dog could understand her, but she didn’t budge. She groaned and opened the door, letting the dog run out of the room, she followed her to the back door, sliding it open. She couldn’t see anything as her dog ran around the back yard, finding the perfect spot of grass to pee in. She heard a loud rummaging behind her and whipped her head around.
“Mom?” She asked, into the dark home. No response. “Daffodil,” She called to her dog, willing her to come inside, but she was quickly ignored by her preoccupied pet. She walked inside slowly and made her way to the kitchen, reaching for a knife handle, just in case. “Hi.”
Valentine jumped, dropping the knife on the ground. She turned around, eyes wide. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” The room was dark, but Cameron’s smile easily shined through.
She stared at him, heart beating out of her chest, at a loss for words.
“You left your wallet in my car.” He handed it to her, “I thought I’d better return it to you.” He looked at her, waiting for her to respond, “You know, you better lock your doors at night, anyone could come crawling in.” He stared at her, and let out a hearty laugh. “Can you leave?” Was the only sentence she could muster.
“But I just got here.” Disappointment rang in his voice.
“Get out.” She said, in a firm tone. When he didn’t budge, she decided to wake her family by yelling for help. He immediately grabbed her, holding a hand over her mouth to smother her screams. He leaned his head against her’s and whispered into her ear in a calm voice. “That was a bad, bad idea.” She fought against him, and he pushed her forward letting her go. “Pick up the knife.” He said, gesturing to the one she had dropped on the floor.
“What?” She was stunned and out of breath.
“Pick it up.” He demanded.
She backed up and bent down, keeping her eyes on him, and picked it up, wielding it towards him, hands shaking.
“Hide.” He whispered with a grin.
She stared at him, at a loss for words.
“Don’t run, don’t stand there gawking at me, and don’t point that at me. Not until you’ve hidden.” He walked forward toward her until she was backed up against the wall. “Hide.” He hissed in her ear.
She took this chance to jam the knife toward him, but he had expected it. He grabbed the blade of the knife and ripped it out of her hands, blood quickly gushing from his hand. She screamed and ran past him frantically.
“You’re breaking all the rules!” He screamed manically.
He chased after her, but she soon vanished into the darkness. “Va-len-tine.” He sang, whipping his head around. He smiled, excited for his next move as he was about to turn to the next room. “Say hi to your parents for me.”
Cameron hummed a sugary sweet tune as he stood in the kitchen, wearing nothing but an apron. There was a pile of bloody clothes in a trash bag next to him.
“Daffodil!” He called Valentine’s dog, who happily ran over to him, wagging her curly brown tail against the still air. He pet her head in quick pats before dragging his hand down to her back, soft and wet. Wet? He lifted his hand off her back, a trail of blood soaked into her fur. He turned over his palm, inspecting the fresh wound he’d failed to bandage. He silently prayed none of it dripped into the soup. He walked over, checking the murky water.
“Do you want a treat?” He asked the dog in a high pitched tone. Daffodil became extremely excited, her tail wagging more than before. He grabbed a pair of tongs from the counter and dipped them into a large pot. He pulled out a perfect square of meat and tossed it to the dog, who eagerly ate it. He smiled and petted the dog again. “Do you want to try some fresh?” He asked, before pulling a severed leg off the counter, raising a knife to it.