Hitchhiking had seemed like just a little adventure on the way home from college for Thanksgiving.
If it hadn’t been so late she never would have gotten in with the guy all alone. Her other two rides had been with a family and a pair of women, and she’d hoped for a similar ride to finish the trip. No such luck.
Dad would say ‘I told you so’, Sarah thought. He’d kill me first, but then he’d say ‘I told you so’.
The guy hadn’t looked… right somehow, and she’d known that when the car stopped and she opened the door. But it was the first car to stop in a couple of hours, and after sundown it had gotten cold.
It’s this or they find me frozen to death on the road in the morning, she’d thought, slipping into the big Buick with a smile and a “Hey, thanks for stopping!”
“No worries,” said the large sweaty man behind the wheel, boozy breath wafting across her as the Buick pulled away from the curb. That had been over an hour ago, and Sarah really couldn’t say if she was any closer to home than when they started. The driver (they’d never exchanged names) took lefts and rights, seemingly at random. Peripheral vision told her he looked at her at least as much as the road. Though they were in the county where she’d grown up, the darkness, the distraction of watching him from the corner of her eye, his turnings had her completely lost . She was just realizing she was lost when she felt his fingers digging into her crotch.
“Hey!” She slapped his hand away. “What the hell?”
“You have to pay for your ride.” They were the first words he had uttered since picking her up, and to her dismay he was slowing the car as he spoke. The car jerked, his foot pressing hard on the brake as he lunged across the seat to shove his hand roughly back between her legs, exhaled alcohol fumes enough to make her light-headed
She struggled, her legs flailing in an attempt to dislodge his grip. Her knee struck the glove compartment, popping it open, throwing its contents into her lap.
Spilling from her lap to the floor was a pair of latex gloves, a roll of silver duct tape, and a large, wooden-handled kitchen knife.
The car jerked to a complete halt, the driver thrusting himself down between her knees, leaning as far as he could to reach the items now rolling about by Sarah’s feet. Sarah popped the door latch and saw his scrabbling fingers close around the knife handle just as she rolled to her right, falling out of the car into the night.
She heard a crunch as the gearshift slammed into park while the car was still rolling. Sarah scrambled to her feet, running blindly for a grand total of five yards before smashing face-first into a chain-link fence. She reeled back, saw that she was at a big double-gate wide enough to drive a truck through, held shut with a padlocked chain. She shoved the gates as far as the chain would allow, squeezed through, and staggered off into the small pines on the other side. Seeing larger trees off to her left she ran, panting, in that direction, just hoping for someplace to hide. She had slowed to catch her breath when the voice tore through the night behind her.
“I’m coming for you, bitch! You think you can ride without paying? You all pay!”
“Oh my God,” she whispered, picking up speed through the pines, then stopped.
Before her the pine forest disappeared. The moon shone down brightly, revealing row upon row of white-topped stumps stretching away to either side with a geometric precision never found in nature. Sarah suddenly knew where she was.
McDonald’s tree farm!
She remembered the ruckus when old man McDonald got tired of people coming in from the surrounding fields to cut their own Christmas trees and completely surrounded his farm with a twelve-foot fence topped with razor wire. He was quoted in the local paper as saying “They want their trees, they’ll pay — one way or t’other!” He lived in the house across the road from that gate, and local rumor had it that he had a shotgun full of rock salt ready for anyone he caught trying to take a tree.
Sarah knew she had to try to get to that house— but that meant using the gate she’d squeezed through to get in here. Now that she knew where she was she noticed the straight lines the pines were in, and knew that this was less a forest than a grove, with all the largest trees already harvested for the holidays.
Not the best place to hide.
Her pursuer wasn’t shouting now. Sarah wished he’d start again so she would know where he was, could avoid him.
Silence. Nothing but the wind whispering through the meager trees.
Sarah threaded her way slowly among the pines, trying to catch a glimpse of the gate without being seen herself. She held her breath. Listened.
A minute passed.
A large hand fell on her shoulder, spinning her about. Boots tangling, she fell to the ground, rolling over. Looming over her, huge and menacing, he raised the knife high in the air.
“I told you you’d pay!”
The man’s head suddenly exploded, showering the tree she lay beneath with gore; bits of flesh and bone mingling with blood to dapple the pine like Satan’s own Tannenbaum. The body fell, revealing a figure behind it.
“You’re that Evans girl, aint’cha?” Mr. McDonald squinted at her as he lowered the shotgun.
So much for rock salt, Sarah thought, dazed.
The old man looked from her to the twitching body, gesturing with the gun barrel that steamed in the cold.
“…Happy holidays, kid.”
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