Apples dangle above and below me, and I am surrounded by waves of fruit and grain. A cow’s mournful song echoes around the hills. The clouds look like God has sprinkled dust on them, and the menacing howl of coyotes makes my skin prickle. I swear the wind is trying to pick me up and carry me away, and I honestly wouldn’t really care. I can taste the metallic lightning on its way. Or maybe it’s the blood drying on my lip as a result of my refusal to “fetch” my father his paper.
I’m not alone. It feels like I am sometimes, though, because while Maya inherited the wonderful traits of our mother, I’m more of our father’s daughter. Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is that she thinks of our step-mom as an oasis. Whereas when I picture our step-mom’s face, the crows feet around her eyes, always with a smile, I want to barf. Happy people are overrated, anyway.
She has no idea she’s our step-mom of course. She thinks Maya and I are adopted, and that our father is a wonderful man who took us in out of the goodness of his heart. She thinks that she is our one and only mom. Oh, how I wish she could know! But my father has made it quite clear what will happen to Maya if I spill. He knows my weaknesses.
“Stella,” Damon bellows, “I know you’re up there!” My heart leaps into my mouth. I knew my step-mom was out of town, but the fact that she still is makes my body numb with fear.
“Yes, father!” My voice cracked. Damn it! I peer down through the branches to make sure he’s not just saying that.
Oh no. He has a knife in his pocket and Maya on her knees, her bloody, tear streaked face tilted in my direction. His whip, usually used for riding horses, is in his free hand, and even up here I can smell the awful fumes.
“Your job is to pick the apples, not lounge around! If I don’t see an apple in the next five seconds, I’m bringing out the whip,” Damon threatens. “One. Two. Thre-OWW!”
Oh, shit! I curse silently, Oh God, what have I done?
“Why you little brat! You think this is funny?! Now your precious sister will suffer the consequences. I’ll only do ten strokes if you come down here right now!” He rubs the apple out of his eyes.
When I emerge from the tree, Maya’s eyes find mine. I see betrayal in them.
“How could you, Stella?” Maya asks. “I know when you’re angry you do rash things, but we’ve talked about this.”
“Maya, I -”
“That’s enough out of you!” Damon roars. “Now Maya, stand over there.” He gestures beneath the tree.
She swallows and slowly inches towards the tree.
“Good. Now take off your shirt. Perfect.” Damon actually smiles. “This won’t hurt a bit. Well, won’t hurt me anyway.” He raises his arm back and swings. Hard. “One!” he laughs.
Maya cries harder as the whip scrapes away her flesh.
“Two! Three! Four! Five! Six!”
Maya loses consciousness and plummets onto her face. That doesn’t stop Damon.
Please Lord, have mercy.
When he gets to ten he still doesn’t stop. I don’t cry out because I know that will just extend her punishment. “Twelve! Fifteen! Twenty!” I am about to beg for it to stop, anything to make it stop, when God answers my prayer for once.
For at that moment, an old, beaten up blue Ford pick-up truck speeds down the road. I’d know that car anywhere. Mom came back. After six years of clinging onto a promise I thought was empty, her last words are still engraved on my mind, set in stone.
“I love you, Stella, and I will come back for you… “
I guess she was to afraid to come back, unwilling to inform the cops of Damon’s addiction like she promised she was going to do, maybe hoping he’d changed. Afraid he would harm us if he heard the sirens. But her timing is on point.
I race to grab Maya’s unconscious body, but Damon beats me to it. “Give her to me, Damon!” I shout, half on the edge of madness. I am this close to freedom, and the only thing standing in my way is my father. I feel a raindrop. Oh, good, it’s raining.
In answer, he pushes his knife to her throat. “Never!” His eyes have the glint of a madman. I feel tears welling up in my eyes. I was so close.
“You monster.” I whisper. Thunder tears across the sky.
I hear the pick-up door slam, and then feel warmth around my neck and heart. I should be furious. She took so long. But it’s been too long since I’ve had someone to lean on, and I fall onto her sobbing.
“There, there,” she whispers, “There, there.” Her golden brown hair tickles my face.
“Melissa,” Damon growls, “Go away right now and swear you’ll never return, and I promise I’ll let the little one live.”
Lightning crackles overhead as her words warm my cold heart. “Never again, Damon,” Mom says, “I will never again fall for your tricks, never again abandon my flesh and blood, and I will never again run from you to save myself. I am tired of hiding, tired of waiting, and I will never again run. I am tired of loneliness, tired of solitude, and I will never again run. I will never run, do you hear me? I will never give up! I will win this war yet, do you hear me, and I will never, give, UP!” Her fists are now clenched by her sides, her chest heaving, lips tight.
“Win? Why Melissa, it seems I have already won.” He smiles a gruesome smile, lifts up the knife, and plunges it down, down, down… into Maya’s arm. Her body twitches, but otherwise stays still. Blood peeks out from beneath the knife, a brutal crimson henna decorating her arm.
I see red at the edge of my vision. No, everywhere, everything is red. I hear a lone wolf howl, and realize it’s me.
“Stella!” I faintly hear my mother call. “Stella, come back!” My feet are propelling me towards my father, but his glazed eyes don’t even acknowledge me. They are both fixed on my mom.
“That was a warning, Melissa! Leave now, and I might just be generous enough to let her live!”
Thunder shakes the ground. Or maybe it’s just my head pounding with adrenaline. I barely register that my mom is crying. I am closing the distance rapidly.
“One!” Damon shouts. “Two!” he raises the knife again. I pick up an apple. And chuck it as hard as I can at his head. “Thre-OWW!” His hands rush to his head, and in the process he drops the knife. Success. The thought registers. But still I don’t slow down. I scoop up the sticky, warm knife in one hand, and gently position Maya on my shoulder with the other. I start running again. But with Maya, I am too slow.
I feel the thud before I register the pain. Again, the whip digs into my flesh. Stars float around my vision. Can’t give up, can’t give up. Another stroke. More stars. With one more bull’s-eye, black creeps up my vision. Can’t, give, UP! Another lash at my back.
I feel my head hit the ground, and arms picking me up. I have no idea whether or not they are the right ones.
A fire crackles in front of me, so close I could reach out and touch it. Maya has her one arm around me, and I hear Mom talking on the phone in the kitchen, probably guiding the police. A car rushes by our city’s apartment, and sirens sound in the distance. But none of that matters.
The warmth from Maya, the fire, the cocoa in my hands, all of it seeps through my entire body, heating up my core. I look into the depths of the fire again, swirling, dancing, playing. Red, orange, yellow, blue, white.
Fire is a funny thing. It can tear entire forests to the ground, take lives, and burn hopes and dreams. Or it can save a man from hypothermia, cook a meal for a starving woman, and light the way at night. The wind can batter away at it until it’s nothing, water can cover it in a deathly embrace. One storm can destroy it. But no matter how hard the world tries to extinguish it, fire can always be born again.