LEAVES CRUNCH AS I storm through the overgrown wooded area. Branches and briars brush against my pants legs, trying to burrow into the denim as if trying to hold me back from what’s ahead. As if they know even before I do that what I’m about to walk into is going to destroy me. My heart pounds heavily in my chest as if I know what I’m about to find will change my life forever. Beads of sweat crawl down my temples to my cheeks. Not from the heat but from the overwhelming amount of dread filling my stomach with each step I take.
When Tavers, an old friend of mine and detective from back home, called an hour and a half ago with the demand I come home because he had something important to show me, I knew deep in my gut what it was about. It was in the hesitant tone he used. Tavers isn’t the type to be soft spoken unless he’s in detective mode. I didn’t ask for details because I wasn’t ready to deal with them. I wanted to deny it. Hell, I am denying it. I won’t, can’t believe it until I see for myself.
It can’t be her.
It fucking can’t be her.
Flashing red and blue lights blind me along with the many flashlight beams flowing around the wooded crime scene. Eyes watch me as I pass by evidence markers on the ground and yellow crime scene tape. Sympathetic eyes. Mournful eyes. Eyes that I ignore because I’m so focused on the spot I see fifty feet in front of me. I zero in on Tavers with his hands stuffed in his pockets and looking down at the white sheet I refuse to acknowledge.
My hands ball into fists so tight the joints in my knuckles protest. Tavers looks up when I’m ten feet away, and the look in his eyes tells me everything. They hold a mountain of pain and an ocean full of sympathy.
I still refuse to believe it. There’s no fucking way it can end this way. Not after all the years I’ve looked for her. Not after committing my whole life to this. God can’t be so cruel.
When I come to a stop in front of Tavers, still not looking down at the sheet and what’s underneath, he reaches out and places a hand on my shoulder. “Niko.”
“No,” I growl and knock his hand away. “You’re fucking wrong.” I lean over and spit the last in his face.
He doesn’t flinch or back away. If anything, his expression turns even more somber, and it pisses me off.
“Niko,” he tries again but wisely keeps his hands to himself. “I’m sorry, man, but it’s her.”
“No,” I repeat. “You don’t fucking know that.” My voice cracks at the end, and that only pisses me off even more.
“Look.” His eyes drop to the sheet, and then he lifts them back to me. “She has her mark,” he finishes quietly.
Everything screams for me not to do it. It actually feels as though invisible hands are squeezing the sides of my head, not allowing me to look down. As scared as I am, I force my head to drop, but before my eyes find the sheet, I slam them closed. Harsh pants of air leave my lips as I try to control the emotions swirling through me.
A hand drops to my shoulder, and this time, I don’t push it away. I barely feel it. All I feel right now is violent anger, intense fear, and overwhelming sadness.
I pry my eyelids apart, and my gaze connects with the sheet. Air whooshes out of my lungs, and when I draw in more, my breath feels like a thousand pinpricks. The body underneath the sheet is small. Way too fucking small. There’s no way this can be her.
I fall to my knees because they won’t hold me up anymore. I feel so goddamn weak.
Now that my eyes are on the sheet, they refuse to look away. I feel Tavers beside me, and I want him to leave. I want everyone to leave.
I curl my hands into fists, not sure I can expose the form below the sheet. I’m so fucking scared of what it’ll do to me if I discover what I’m so terrified of uncovering. I’m not sure how I’ll survive knowing the truth, knowing I didn’t protect the one person I was meant to protect. After searching years for her only to find out I failed.
Tavers drops to his knees beside me. I feel his eyes on me as I stare sightlessly at the sheet. His hand reaches out for the material, knowing I can’t do it myself.
He grabs the sheet and slowly starts to pull it back. Brown matted hair is exposed, and the sight has my stomach churning. Floodlights surround the perimeter, and they seem so much brighter than normal. Every inch revealed seems to glow in the light.
Right as the sheet bares glowing white flesh, I reach out and grab his wrist. “Stop!” I bark. Without breaking my eyes away from the white material, I tell him, “I can’t…” I shake my head and continue. “I can’t do this right now.”
I’m a fucking coward, and I know it, but I need to confirm what Tavers is so adamant of when no one is around. I need more damn time to prepare for the impending obliteration of my soul. I’m not fucking ready. The small patch of skin I saw was dirty and showed a deep cut, and I know the rest will be even worse.
Tavers, understanding my need without me telling him, covers the small portion he revealed.
“We’ll wait until she’s in the morgue. Give you a bit to prepare,” he says quietly beside me, sounding so fucking clinical.
I bare my teeth, wanting to turn and plow my fist through his jaw. I keep hold of my temper only because he knows how hard this is for me. He’s been there since the beginning—actually, before the beginning—so he knows the time and emotion I’ve put into searching for her.
I stagger when I climb to my feet. Ripping my eyes away from the sheet, I turn on my heel without a word and march back through the woods to my truck.
I speed away from the scene with only one thought on my mind.
How in the fuck do I prepare for something I know will rip out my heart and end me?
I stand in front of the slab of metal that holds my unresolved and painful past. A past that’s consumed my life for fifteen years. A past I’ve fought hard to uncover without success. And finally, a past that will ultimately destroy my future.
My hands shake and sweat beads on my forehead as I reach for the sheet. I have to lock my knees in place for fear of them buckling. I grip the material in my hand, not afraid to admit I’m scared as shit to pull the sheet away. Not only has Tavers said it was her, but the medical examiner’s report says it is as well. Even now, I refuse to believe it. I won’t believe it until I see for myself. If only I can get my damn hand to work and move the sheet.
Last night at the crime scene, I wasn’t prepared. I’m still not, but I know I need to do this. Not only for her but for me as well. I need to know.
I notice a small patch of brown hair peeking out from under the sheet. My hand detours from the material and instead picks up the lock of hair. It feels brittle but oily at the same time. I watch as I rub it between my fingers.
Pain like I’ve never felt before forms in my chest. One so powerful, I’m not sure it will ever go away. It’ll always be a part of me.
I gently lay the lock of hair back on the metal slab as if just that length of hair is precious. Which it is. Every single part of this girl is precious.
I close my eyes tightly and pull in a deep breath before forcing my hand to slowly pull the sheet away. When I open them again, every bit of breath I have in my lungs comes out in a painful hiss. The sheet slips from my grasp when I drop my hands to the cold metal table to hold myself up. My heart slams against the walls in my chest, and a pain grips me so sharply it feels like it’s piercing my insides.
I’ve seen plenty of victimized people in my line of work, but I’ve never seen something as gruesome as what I’m seeing now. And what makes this unbearable is the fact I’ve loved this mutilated woman lying dead in front of me since I was a child.
“Aislin…” I breathe through a thick throat.
Her once thick brown hair is now matted and dirty with chunks of it missing. Her beautiful face with what used to be stunning green eyes looks gaunt and is covered with bruises, open lacerations, and multiple old scars. Her eye sockets are sunk in, and her cheekbones stand out way too much. Her graceful neck has fingerprint markings, where someone wrapped their hands around it and squeezed. I don’t pull the sheet lower, but I know what the rest of her body must look like. I read the report, and the motherfucker who did this to her didn’t leave any place on her body unmarked. She was malnourished and dehydrated. The fucker starved her and deprived her of fluids for God knows how long. Not only that, but she was also sexually assaulted so many times and in such harsh ways that the medical examiner was surprised she lived as long as she did with such severe internal injuries.
She’s been missing for fifteen years. A huge weight in the form of guilt settles on my chest, leaving it feeling crushed at the thought of her enduring that abuse for all those years.
My eyes hit on something, and the pain in my chest bears down even more. Right below her left ear is a birthmark. A star. Memories of me calling her North assault me. I always claimed that no matter where we were, I’d always find her because she was my beacon. My North Star.
As much as it hurts to look at her mangled form, I can’t tear my eyes away. This is my punishment for not protecting her, for not finding her in time, for failing her. I should be shot dead, point blank in the head, for not being there for her when she needed me. For not finding her like I always told her I would. We promised each other as kids that we’d never leave the other. We would always be there to protect each other from the harsh life we both lived. That promise was ripped away from me and broken beyond repair. No, I didn’t leave her, but I didn’t work hard enough to find her. There had to be something I could have done differently. Some clue I missed. I was still a kid when she was taken, but I was her only chance. Everyone thought she’d run away. She was a troubled child living with a shady drug addict mom. No one believed me when I told them she wouldn’t have run away. She wouldn’t have left me—at least, not without telling me first.
The difference between her and I was I had parents who cared. We lived in a shitty neighborhood filled with drugs, gunshots in the night, and gangs, but my parents always protected me as best as they could. They even protected Aislin when they could. They knew of our bond and how much we cared for each other. I begged and pleaded with my parents to talk to the police, but even they thought she ran away. I went to the police station myself and told them they were wrong. The detective on the case just looked at me with sympathy and told me to go home, that there was nothing more they could do if she didn’t want to be found. She was only fucking thirteen. I wanted to punch the ever-loving hell out of the asshole, but I knew it wouldn’t do me any good. I left, but I wasn’t giving up.
My options were limited at such a young age, but once I got older, I made it my life’s mission to do whatever I could to find her. I chose my career in hopes it would help me. For years, those around me who knew told me I needed to give up the search, but no matter how convincing they were, no matter the lack of evidence, and no matter how much time had passed, I just couldn’t. I still felt her light deep in my chest. I knew she was still alive and waiting on me. I refused to give up when I knew down to the very core of me that she wasn’t gone. Her light was still too bright and the bond we had was still too strong for her to be wiped from the earth.
But now she’s here, brutally beaten and raped to death by some sick fuck. I was too fucking late. The light I’ve felt for years has finally gone out, leaving me in pitch-black darkness. The place in my chest where my heart should reside is now just an empty space.
I tip my head back and bellow to the ceiling as rage and pain take over my body. I want to rip something apart. I want to find the guy who did this and skin the flesh from his bones. I want to hear his screams of pain and pleas for mercy then laugh in his face when I deny him his dying wish. And once I do finish him off, I want to piss on his lifeless body and toss it somewhere for the vultures to feast on.
I push back the tears threatening to fall and lean down until my forehead rests on Aislin’s dirty one. I place my trembling hands on either side of her cheeks. She’s so fucking cold now when she used to be one of the warmest people I knew. I kiss her forehead, wishing with everything I am that things were different. Wishing I could have saved her.
“I’m so sorry, North.” I whisper my broken apology to her lifeless body, using the name I gave her as a kid and hoping she can hear me wherever she is. “I swear on my life I will get this bastard, and he’ll pay for everything he’s done to you. I vow to you, you will be avenged. I’ll always love you.”
I give her still beautiful face one last look before I kiss her soft but scar-riddled forehead for the last time and gently pull the sheet back over her. A tear slips down my cheek, and I swipe it away. I turn and walk to the metal door that separates me and my past from me and my future. A future that looks bleak but is now filled with more determination than ever before. CONTINUE READING…
© 2017 A. M. Wilson & Alex Grayson