by MARGARET BARNETT - November 13, 2019
A fire truck red Volkswagen Beetle flew ninety across the state line. Imaginary heat waves crashed upon the pavement, the sun burning my forehead through the thin glass windows. I fumbled clumsily through the collection of cassette tapes in the side of the passenger door, impulsively choosing the Greatest Hits of Abba and slipping it into the dash of the car. God, I love ABBA. My hair whipped in front of my face as Steve rolled the windows down. We sang the chorus like wild children. Our eyes meeting, I think we were both thinking the exact same thoughts: this is the freedom we had been chasing and now we were running with it.
It was only two days ago that I was trudging through the halls of Littletown High School. It was a Tuesday, an especially bland day. I could compare this school to hell, but hell isn’t blasted with icy air conditioning. Being optimistic had always been easy for me, but if I had to spend one more week in this juvenile detention center of a high school, it was surely going to shatter me.
At the end of the main hallway was my favorite class: painting. It was the only reason that I could even bring myself to leave my car in the morning. The corners of my mouth turned up when I walked into the studio and saw the man himself, Mr. Randy Simons. Randy (which is what he insisted we call him on the first day of high school) was our 54-year-old, hip art teacher. The walls of his studio were clothed in his oil pastel landscapes, coated paint pallets, and even a ten-foot portrait of himself; and though it seems a bit narcissistic, he was anything but that. Randy knew every student well, which was refreshing because most of the teachers here didn’t care at all. But Randy— Randy was a lonely dude. He had no wife, no kids, no friends; in fact, Randy only had his students. If we were all that he had, then I was going to be the best student of all. So naturally, I sat near his desk with my best friend, Steve Smith.
Steve had been my pal since I sat next to him in chemistry on the first day of freshman year. Ironically, we discovered that our moms knew each other from their days at NYU. By some strange coincidence, they both ended up moving to the Midwest, where their kids happened to attend the same school, sitting in the same class. A small world indeed. Steve had his act together. He started for the varsity basketball team. He was at the top of his junior class. And his hair. The whole school, in fact, the whole city seemed to like him. He was a catch.
So why would a kid like Steve decide to leave his perfect life behind to run away with a girl like me and an art teacher with no friends? We may never know. Honestly, I cannot recall how this thought initially crossed my mind.
All I know is that it started in painting class. Steve asked how I was feeling that day, and a little too casually, I responded, “I think I might run away. On Thursday. Just for a while.”
“I’m down,” Steve replied, his eyes twinkling.
“But I thought you—“
“Let’s take my volksie. Great gas mileage. Lots of cassettes. I heard cassettes are coming back,” Randy exclaimed, nearly tipping over in his chair with excitement.
“Rita…” Randy mocked back.
“You really want to come… with us? Your students?” Steve asked, confounded.
“I’ll drive. Truancy second period. On the road by 9. Bring snacks and whatever else you’re supposed to bring when you’re running away,” Randy whispered excitedly.
And with a shrug of the shoulders, the plan was formed.
The next morning came quickly. My tote held my disposable camera, a family-sized bag of pistachios and a map of the United States. It had not yet hit me that I was running away. I had not prepared for running away. I think I was trying to distract myself from thinking about it like that. As the second period bell rang, I strutted out of the cafeteria door with a smirk on my face. A sweet smell tickled my nose and drifted past me with my every step. Maybe it was the aroma of the rose bushes lining the sidewalk, but I’m pretty sure it was the smell of freedom.
Across the parking lot, Randy sat on the hood of his car. Steve stood leaned up against the passenger door, shades on his face, his arms crossed. I hoisted my bag on the roof of the car, startling both of them.
“Good morning, boys,” I said. “Ready to run?”
“My first truancy,” Steve joked. “This better be worth it.”
Randy gave Steve the keys, all of us knowing that Steve was the better driver. He started the car, left the parking lot, and got on the highway. We were on the run, with nowhere to go.
Hours passed. As I checked the faded map, I realized that we were in the middle of Iowa. It was only our little red car among the rolling fields. The sky was wide and blue, the clouds like cotton balls. Randy was sleeping in the back. Steve was quiet. Suddenly, my phone rang. It was my mother. No no no, the little voice panicked in my head. Steve’s face turned pale. Randy gasped. Impulsively, I threw my phone out of the window. We were all silent in shock. I let out a laugh. Then, we all laughed. I threw my head back, in pure joy. I was officially off the grid.
Back at home, the town was in a panic. The police station was crowded with people lined through the doors, waiting for an answer. Steve’s and Rita’s parents sat in a tiny office with the Littletown Police Chief. Both of their youngest children were missing, and so was the beloved high school art teacher. No one understood. No one understood why Steve, possibly the most prosperous kid in the whole city, was gone. Or why Rita, a friend to all, just walked out of school and disappeared.
Very soon after, Steve's and Rita’s parents would find out that their children were with an extremely dangerous man. A man who had been in disguise for years. This man had done many bad things. And he wasn’t done quite yet.
We reached Nebraska by the time we needed to stop for gas. Randy wasn’t lying, this little car did get good gas mileage. The sun was sinking. Steve got out to fill the car and left the keys in the driver’s seat. We chatted through the open window. Steve went into the filling station store to pay for the gas with his cash. As he did this, Randy opened the back door and sat in the driver’s seat.
“Hello… Randy,” I said reluctantly, puzzled by the look on his face.
His eyes were bloodshot and full of anger. He looked possessed.
He grabbed the keys from under him and started the car. The headlights flicked on.
“Randy, Steve is driving. What are you doing?”
Randy looked me in the eyes. He reached into the inner pocket of his faded jean jacket, revealing a silver flask. He took a long swig. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead.
“Randy, you can’t drive drunk.”
I reached for the keys. He grabbed my hand and pushed my elbow into the window, cracking the glass from the inside. The blood oozed down my arm onto my lap. My eyes pooled with tears. Randy locked the car doors.
Through the window of the filling station, Steve stood waiting to pay. Hurry, Steve. My eyes were closed. Steve, please. I heard a click as Randy put the car in drive. I looked at him. His eyes were full of wild rage.
Helplessly, I kicked the window once. It cracked more. Yes, yes. I kicked it again. Please. I mustered up all of the strength I had and kicked it one last time. The window shattered. Steve heard the ruckus from inside and ran into the parking lot, his head swiveling around to find the Volkswagen.
“Steve, oh my God, Steve! Randy… he’s drunk. Oh... he’s mad!” I pleaded.
Randy struck my left temple with his fist. My ears were ringing as splotches of color danced through my eyes. Steve was running now. He grabbed the handle of the passenger door. It was locked. Steve grabbed my arms, hoisting me through the window. Half of my torso was out of the car when Randy hit the gas. That’s when time moved slowly. All I remember is the feeling of Steve letting go. And seeing him fall face-first onto the hot concrete. My trail of blood following the car. The harsh light of the overhead lights blinding me. The faded map covered in red on the ground. A last look at Steve’s face, then followed by a dark fade out.
Back in Littletown, Steve returned. The man at the gas station had called the Grand View, Nebraska police and reported the incident. They then linked it to the missing child's report from Littletown, Illinois, our hometown. Steve was back home. But peace was anything but restored. The horrifying scenes that Steve had witnessed haunted him every day. The search was still a full go. Steve insisted on going, but his parents were advised to keep a close watch on him. The search continued.
I awoke in a dimly lit room. Smoke circulated through my lungs. I coughed. My head pounded. The surface under me felt velvety under my body. Old music played faintly over the many voices. As my eyes adjusted, it was clear to me that I was in some sort of club. My body jolted up. Randy was sitting next to me on the couch, a drink in hand.
“My gal is awake,” he slurred.
“Randy? Why are you doing this?” I whispered. He snatched my hand. It was still coated in blood. I pulled away. He squeezed tighter and downed his drink.
“Let’s dance, Ri-ta Chi-qui-ta!” he slurred.
He yanked me from the cheetah-print sofa onto my feet. The painful sensation in my arm was so strong that I stumbled into a high-top table and knocked it over. My eyes couldn’t stay still. The room was spinning. I knew Randy was in front of me, but I couldn’t see anything. He got closer. I didn’t know what was making him act like this. My head pounded. My hand was bleeding again. I thought of Steve. My good Steve.
And that’s when I did it. I spit. I spit on Randy’s face. It’s all that my strength could allow me to do. And then I ran. I ran so fast. My feet were moving, but I couldn’t feel them. My heartbeat was in my eardrums. Nothing made sense. Randy was yelling. My feet carried me up a set of stairs. I ran down a narrow hallway, hitting doorways clumsily. I stumbled into a random room, shut the door, locked it, and collapsed against the door. I can’t see. I can’t see a thing. My breathing was loud and heavy as I tried to choke down my tears. Randy is coming. Steve is dead. I can’t see. My mind was still running, even while I was on the floor.
My eyes darted around the room. A purple couch. Red coat on a hook. A record player playing Frank Sinatra. The smell of peppermint and banana bread. A notebook. And a pen. I crawled across the shag carpet to the dresser with the notebook. I opened it, discovering that it was a diary. The pages were crinkled and tinted brown as if they had been around for many years. Words decorated the pages in a very distinct handwriting. I knew this handwriting. It was Randy’s handwriting. This was his house. It must be. His notebook was here. But we were in Nebraska. My hands went cold, a sharp shiver climbing up my neck as my eyes scanned the pages. What was in this book would haunt me for the rest of my life. The page turned. A list of people:
John H. Simons: complete
Sandra Simons: complete
Anne Simons: complete
Eddy Simons: complete
Frank Simons: in progress
Ugene Simons: complete
Steve Smith: failed
Pat J. Simons: complete
Rita Jones: in progress
My name was on the list, along with many others. They had to be connected, but I couldn’t connect the dots. There were so many Simons, and then Steve and me. Randy had said that all of his family members had died, but he never said their names. And that’s when it hit me. Randy’s family members hadn’t died; Randy had killed them. He had marked them complete. And I was next. I was in progress.
I feared it was too late, so I tore out the blank pages of the notebook and ran to the bathtub. I locked the door behind me and barricaded it with what I had. I closed the shower curtain and sat down, starting to write. My hands moved, even when my entire body was numb. Pages filled with words. This went on for twenty minutes, my hand moving back and forth across the paper. I knew that this was the end. It had to be; I was too weak to leave a serial killer’s bathtub. I fell back against the cool, porcelain tub in agony. That was the last thing I remember.
I awoke in a white room. Everything was still. My legs were heavy against the soft sheets that lay beneath my body. I felt like I was floating. Heaven? I wondered.
“Rita?” a familiar voice said softly. I tried to sit up, but my body was too weak to hold itself up. My eyes inched open to the harsh light. It was Steve.
Steve didn’t need to say anything; I knew that I was home. My hand found Steve’s hand, and I held on with all of my strength. Running away was not for me