Chapter 2


Rusty never talked to anyone about his parents. That part of life was too painful to even think about. He had done his best to muzzle those memories but they were always shouting for his attention. He was afraid if he told Diana, she would think he was some kind of mental case.

Diana held her breath and kept her eyes on the highway. She wondered why she was listening to this down and out hitchhiker, her grandpa could be out on the hill dying, She wanted to turn around and fly back up the road but something inside of her needed to hear what Rusty had to say.

She could see his chest expand as he sucked in a deep breath then exhale slowly and stare out the window. Rusty wanted to jump out of the truck and disappear but now that he had started his story there was nothing else to do but get it over with. He kept his eyes straight ahead and started talking.

“I didn’t think my parents were unusual, in fact, I didn’t think much at all about my parents, because I almost never saw them. When I did see my mom she would just glare at me and tell me to get out of her sight before something bad happened. When I saw my dad he would stare right through me, I always wanted to turn around to see what he was looking at. I guess I thought all parents were like that. But my sister was different.”

“She was the one who always took care of me. I loved Rachel like she was my mom even though she was only 12 years older than me. I remember how her long wavy red hair would fall around my face when she held me in her lap and read stories to me. I can still hear her sweet melodic voice and the sound of her laugh filling my bedroom. It’s funny, but every time I think of her voice I can smell a sweet bouquet of flowers”

Rusty pulled a blue pack of Bugler out of his pocket and started rolling a cigarette. Tobacco spilled out of the thin white paper onto the seat. He kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead.

“ My favorite book was about this kid named Homer and a machine that made doughnuts. The stories were great and pictures were even better. I can still see Homer standing next to that machine eating a doughnut. I asked her to read it over and over again, she never got tired of reading it to me.”

“I wished she would stay with me forever but she never did.  Rachel would leave the house and lock me in my bedroom. I was left to stare at the walls and wish she was there, the stories were dull and depressing without her.”

Rusty stared out straight ahead as he rolled up the cigarette between his thumbs and two fingers.

“One day after she locked the door I heard her arguing with mom out in the hall. Mom was screaming at her ‘You just keep that little maggot out of my way, or I’ll put him through the fire and take care of you and your big mouth.’ I heard a loud smack and then Rachel started crying. The next time I saw her she had a black eye and a swollen lip. When I asked her about it she just held her finger to her lips and hugged me.”

“On the weekends we would sneak out of the house like a couple of ghosts. I felt a weight lift off my chest as we burst into the bright sunlight and jumped into her GTO. I loved the way that engine roared to life. We would tear down Pacific Coast Highway with the top  down and the ocean breeze washing us clean.”

“I could feel the that engine throb right through my chest causing my heart pound in its’ sacred rhythm. I wanted to push that car to the limit and leave our world behind, howling with joy as we ripped up the highway. I coaxed her to go faster and faster because I knew nothing could touch us as when that shiny black four wheeled rocket was in flight.”

“I never worried about where we were going or how we would get there. I knew that Rachel was flying that machine and we would get wherever we needed to go, I didn’t matter anyway as long as we were moving.

Diana pulled the truck off the road and killed the headlights. Rusty closed his eyes and continued his story.

“Those were the best times, but they never lasted long. I always ended up locked down in that dreary room.”

“Sometimes I had nightmares.  I would dream that I was falling into a huge burning furnace, the smoke would choke me and I could feel the flames singeing my body. Strange voices murmured things I couldn’t understand as clawed hands snatched at me from the darkness. Down and down I would drop; the claws ripping my clothes and tearing into my skin as the flames got hotter and hotter. I would retch at the smell of my burning flesh as I tumbled helplessly towards the waiting flames. The nightmare always ended with me waking up in the middle of a scream.  Rachel must have heard my cries because she was always there to hold me and wipe my tears until I stopped crying. She would coo softly and tell me everything was all right until I drifted back to sleep”

“At night my parents would hold some kind of meetings in our den. Rachel would put me to bed when everyone started arriving. One night I could hear everyone murmuring expectantly in the hall. I could feel the tension and subdued excitement.”

“Rachel came into my room and hugged me tighter and longer than usual. There were tears in her eyes as she smiled at me. ‘Be a good boy tonight. I have to go to the meeting with the grownups’. She hugged me again and just smiled at me for a long time. ‘ I love your Rusty’. She let me go and slowly headed for the door. She turned and smiled one more time as she shut out the light and closed the door.”

Rusty paused to lick the thin paper and roll the cigarette between his fingers.

“I knew something was wrong. I lay in the darkness for a long time, unable to sleep. I had to know what was going on downstairs. I tried the door; Rachel had forgotten to lock it.”

“I snuck downstairs to the den where they were having their meeting. It was dark, the room was filled with glowing, smoky candles and I could smell the burning wax. Everyone was standing in a circle around a low stone table, their faces hidden in the darkness. Someone was laying face down on the table and everyone else was chanting, I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it sounded like the voices in my nightmares. I was terrified and wanted to find Rachel, but was too scared to say anything. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there.

“I stared at the person lying on the table and recognized my sisters’ long red hair, it was draped over the top of her head and hung down to the floor. She was wearing a smooth brown cotton robe that was pulled down over her shoulders to reveal her back. Blood was dripping down on to the table and I could see a circle and star carved into her skin.”

“I recognized my mom; she was holding a small cup and a bloody curved knife with a fancy silver handle. Her eyes were locked straight ahead in a cold, blank expression.”

“I saw my dad sit my sister up and mom put the cup in her hand. Rachel held the cup under her robe for a little while then lifted it up and took a sip. When my mom raised the knife I screamed and ran into the circle. I knocked the cup out of my sister’s hand and it spilled all over me. My face was covered with blood and urine, I’ll never forget the smell.”

“There was a lot of confusion and everyone started shouting. I called to Rachel but she didn’t answer, she didn’t even turn her head or acknowledge me in any way. I called her again and again but she didn’t respond. I ended up just standing there crying. ”

Rusty turned and looked right at Diana.

“That was the last time I saw my sister, I was six years old.”

“After that my mom started yelling at me. She called me a stupid worthless little brat. ‘You’ll pay for this you little puke,’ she told me. Her face was twisted up into a vicious snarl.”

Then she started yelling at my dad. ‘I should have aborted him when I wanted to. But no, you had to have your precious son. Well, there’s your little prize, I hope you’re proud of him.’ I didn’t know what she was talking about at the time, but I knew she didn’t want me around. She told my dad to take me upstairs and whip me while everyone else placed a curse on me.”

“My dad picked me up without a word and carried me upstairs. He took off his belt and spanked me. I barely felt the spanking; all I could think of was Rachel. I was really confused and hurt. I was crushed that she didn’t seem to care what happened to me. I wanted her to pick me up and tell me everything was all right. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t answer me.”

“My dad left and didn’t say a word. I can still see his back as he left me alone in my bedroom and locked the door. I knew that my mom was right, I was worthless and stupid, and nobody wanted me around. I stopped crying and haven’t cried since.”

“The next morning the police came and took me to juvenile hall. They said my parents were gone. I asked about Rachel and they said she was gone too.”

Rusty’s hands were shaking as he put the cigarette in his mouth and flicked his lighter open with a loud metallic clink. Diana spoke up quickly. “What do you think you are doing? You are not going to stink up my truck with that nasty thing.”

Rusty sighed slowly “Okay, I’ll take it outside, C’mon Eleanor.” He picked up the little bulldog and stepped out of the truck. He put her down gently, lit his smoke and took a long slow drag. He would have preferred a joint, but a cigarette would have to do. Eleanor sat at his feet and watched him closely.

Diana stepped out of the truck and stood next to him. Her heart went out to the rejected, frightened little boy locked up in his bedroom.  She waved the smoke away with her hand. “I’m really sorry about your sister; I can’t imagine what that must have been like.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Do you have to smoke? I really hate the smell.”

Rusty took another slow drag on his cigarette and looked up at the sky. The bright full moon wasn’t able to extinguish the endless stars. Rusty thought each star seemed to have a life of its own, he wondered just how many there could be.  He momentarily forgot about his problems as his mind stretched out across the universe. It was one of those nights that made him feel really small.

Diana’s voice brought him back down to earth. “What happened after that? Did you ever see your parents again?”

Rusty took a long drag on his cigarette and stared down at Eleanor. The little dog gave him a sad look. She seemed to know all the anguish he was going through. Rusty reached down and she softly licked his hand. “No, I was placed in a foster home and stayed there until I ran away at 16. No one spoke about my parents.”

Rusty took a last drag, ground the cigarette out under his boot and exhaled the last of the smoke.

“I found out the rest after I ran away.”

“Found out what?”

Rusty picked up Eleanor and got back in the truck. He shut the door, unwrapped a stick of gum and stared out at the highway. He wanted to run from his memories and anything that brought them back. Instead he was heading right for them.

“Let’s go, we’ve got to get back to your grandpa.”

Diana needed to know more, but knew this was not the time. She swallowed her questions, slid back into the seat and started the truck.

“Turn the truck around and turn off the headlights.”

“Okay boss.” Diana made a u-turn and drove slowly up the highway. She kept thinking about the sad friendless little boy, locked in his room.

The task at hand took her mind off of the story. She was worried about driving without headlights and anxious to get back to her grandpa. She came to the narrow road without a sign and turned in. Rusty stuck his head out the window and used the moonlight to follow the winding road.

He soon found what he was looking for. “Stop here.” He jumped out of the truck and helped Diana pull into a small clearing. He opened the door and Diana slipped out. He picked up Eleanor and quietly closed the door. He didn’t feel like talking. He had to get started up the hill before he lost his nerve.

“C’mon Eleanor, let’s go, it’s a long walk.” He put her down and headed up the road. The night was finally cooling down as they trudged wordlessly up the hill. Eleanor’s grunts and panting broke the silence. Rusty heard cracking and rustling as she waddled through the leaves and pine needles. An occasional mosquito would buzz by.

Rusty stopped suddenly. “Listen, there’s a car coming down the hill. Get off the road it might be trouble.”

They rushed off the road and listened as the car rumbled toward them. Rusty squatted down and scratched Eleanor between her ears; she tilted her head up closed her eyes and licked her nose. He heard Diana slapping mosquitoes from behind another tree.

She gasped when Rusty pulled a nasty looking hunting knife out of his pocket and locked the blade in place.

“What’s with the knife Dundee? Do you really know how to use that thing?”

“I never have before, but there is always a first time.”

The knife made Diana nervous. “Put that away before you hurt yourself.”

Rusty gripped the knife, blew a bubble with his gum and stared up the road.

An old station wagon came into sight as it eased around a curve. Diana recognized the car. “It’s grandpa’s Chevy,” she whispered.

Eleanor ran out on the road and stood barking at the car. Brake shoes squealed as the old Chevy came to a halt. “Eleanor, is that you?” The voice was deep and worn, like an old leather chair. Eleanor barked once more and ran to the car.

“It’s him.” Diana burst onto the road. “Grandpa, are you all right?”

The car door opened and her grandfather stepped out. Diana ran into his open arms as they closed around her. “Grandpa, where were you? We were really worried.”

Her grandpa chuckled quietly. “Hi Diana, it’s good to see you too.”

Rusty put his knife away and stepped timidly into the glare of the headlights. The old man grinned over Diana’s shoulder at Rusty. “Who’s this Diana?”

She stepped towards Rusty for the introduction and held up her hand like she was displaying the grand prize in a game show. “Grandpa this is Rusty. I picked him up hitchhiking back in Pahrump. He was scared you were involved in some sort of cult.”

Duane studied Rusty with an appraising stare; the close scrutiny was accompanied by a friendly, comforting face. Rusty could see where Diana got her large brown eyes.

Duane put his hand on Rusty’s shoulder. “I can see there is more to you than meets the eye Rusty.” Then turned and looked at Diana.  “If it is a cult, they didn’t invite me to their meetings. I’m not sure what’s going on but somebody is up to something really ugly up there. I have to get to the Sheriff’s office right now.  Get in, I’ll tell you on the way. And maybe Rusty can fill in the blanks.”

Diana slid into the front seat next to her grandpa and Rusty got in the back with Eleanor.

The old man turned around and held out his hand to Rusty. You could see most of his dark brown scalp through the thin wispy hair that covered his head. Bushy grey eyebrows matched his sideburns. The wide smile seemed at home between the dimples on his face. Huge hands protruded from sleeves that were too short to cover his long arms. His handshake was gentle but accompanied by a firm warm grip. He placed his left hand on Rusty’s shoulder and gave it a friendly squeeze. “The name’s Duane Gonzales, I’m glad to meet you sir.”

Duane shifted his gaze to Eleanor. “And who’s this mangy mutt sitting next to you?” Eleanor barked softly as Duane laughed and affectionately rubbed her head. “If Eleanor likes you, then you must be a good man, she’s the best judge of character I know.” Rusty could hear her short tail thumping against the seat.

Duane smiled warmly at Rusty, turned around and started driving down the road. Rusty was relieved that Duane wasn’t shooing him away from his granddaughter; the friendly old guy actually seemed to like him. There was something about him that made Rusty feel warm and accepted, he hoped Duane wouldn’t change his mind and tell him to get lost.


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