This short piece of fiction comes from a Writing Circle session. Due to popular demand, the group wrote in the genre of horror/thriller/suspense. Totally out of all of our comfort zones! What follows is what I wrote for the session, finalized after suggested edits by the group.
Written In The Margin
The headlights of the car were off, but she could hear the crunch of the tires across the leaves. They had found her. Claire Siebold held her breath as she crept around the threadbare couch, tucking loose strands of her bobbed, mousy brown hair behind her ears, her mind issuing prayers that the driver would see all the lights out in the cabin and think she wasn’t there.
All was silent. Then she heard a small click and the quiet thunk of a car door being shut. He moved soundlessly over the leaves as he closed in on the cabin, but she knew he was there. She could feel his presence like the prickle of a coming fever. She knew now they wouldn’t give up until she was dead. Never mind promises, there was too much at stake – and she, a lowly, 24-year-old, barely-paid staff assistant, was too expendable.
She cursed her naïveté for thinking she could hide. She realized now these people would stop at nothing and that, one way or another, this encounter between her and the man with the gun, was inevitable since the night she picked up the wrong jacket.
It had been a big night for her. The chairman of the opposition had hosted a gala at his own home and invited members of both sides to celebrate his 65th birthday. It was a rare mixed event in the ramp up of an election year and tensions were high. The race had been close, but Claire’s own party’s candidate, Michael Robb, was gaining ground thanks to the rallying support of the handsome, winsome Senator Lucas Martin. He was popular, if young, and people were already whispering that he might be the next candidate in four or eight years. He was a game-changer and he had stirred up the pot with his impromptu speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial two weeks earlier. With Martin solidly in Robb’s corner, their party had hope. Claire’s boss, Ivy London, was a senior ranking House member and close confidante of Michael Robb. She had attended the party for a good show to the media hounds, but the plan was to eke out every possible moment raising more funds among potential donors. Claire, as assistant to the House staff assistants, had not expected to attend, but at the last minute, London called her personally and told her to be there. She blew her meager savings that afternoon on an appropriately fashionable and attractive but forgettable cobalt blue satin gown and begged Megan, London’s personal assistant to tell her everything she knew about not screwing up.
As far as she could tell, the evening had gone swimmingly. London secured more funds and gave Claire a rare compliment for her wit and efficiency when she had come up with a quick response to Senator Powell’s challenge on the Green Air Sustainability bill. She picked up her jacket from coat check and sauntered out into the night, buoyed by confidence that she would actually survive the world of politics. She was too distracted by the thrill of minor success to notice the jacket was at least two sizes bigger. It wasn’t until she entered her tiny shoebox flat and went to hang up her coat that she spotted the McIntyre label – a designer she 1) couldn’t afford, and 2) wouldn’t wear if she were paid to. Now that she looked at it the details were all off – bigger buttons, a different cut – but she had just seen a black wool coat and trusted that when she handed over her number, the coat assistant would return the correct coat.
She fished through the pockets hoping to find a business card or phone or wallet – anything to identify the coat’s owner. But of course it bore no such details. She found an inner pocket and thrilled to find a folded piece of paper inside. She threw the coat on her couch and fumbled as she tried to open it up. Across the top bore the insignia of the opposition party. She scanned the typed memo for clues, but it was one of the deep, inner pages of a legislative memo. It looked like it was the 45th page on a bill on transportation and infrastructure initiatives, otherwise completely innocuous. Such a strange thing to have tucked away, she thought. But then she noticed what was written in the margin.
Money transferred. That much was obvious. But what was the rest? Claire had shrugged her shoulders and just made a point to call the chairman’s house staff first thing in the morning to leave her name and number in case the owner of the jacket made an attempt to retrieve it. She hoped they still had her jacket as well.
It was only later the next afternoon, when she was picking up lunch for the team at the Greek deli around the corner from the office that she realized what the note meant. She had been standing in line waiting for her order, sipping her lemonade, when she heard the news. The entire packed deli went silent when someone had called out for everyone to shut up and they turned up CNN on the TV screen overhead.
There were scenes of mayhem, police and firemen running around, and then cut to the shocked and excited face of a reporter relaying the news that the beloved Senator, Lucas Samuel Martin, had been shot. Claire watched in horror as scenes of the murder splashed across the screen. Martin had apparently been delivering a speech to party supporters and as he stepped down from the podium, a gunman had opened fire and, according to witness reports, shot twice, and killed Senator Martin at 11:47 a.m. that morning.
Claire dropped her lemonade. The words “11:47” struck her like a drop kick to her shoulder blade. Her knees buckled under her. 11:47. LSM. Lucas Samuel Martin.
The deli broke out in pandemonium, but Claire couldn’t move; her mind was in a whirl. Money had been transferred. Spider…a code name? For an assassin? Martin had been assassinated by members of the opposition! The owner of the jacket had been in on the assassination! And she had the evidence to prove it!
…And she had left her name and contact info with the chairman’s house staff that morning.
Her first instinct was to run. But where could she go? The pushing of the thronging crowd was suffocating her. She had to get outside. She shoved her way through to the open street and willed herself to think. Could she go back to the office and pretend she never knew anything? But if she didn’t release this information, the party would suffer. Without Martin’s support, they couldn’t win. Everyone knew that. And the corrupt politicians who had murdered him would win. It would be an insult to Martin’s memory, and, she was still young and idealist enough to believe, detrimental to the well-being of the nation to be left in the hands of murderers and crooks.
It didn’t take long for the phone call to come.
“Whatever you think you know you will keep quiet. Or you will be dead,” threatened the unrecognizable man’s voice. She didn’t have to recognize the voice to know who she was dealing with. Only the top brass would be in on a plot like this. In her fright and shock, she had promised silence and begged for her life. The line went dead and so stopped her heart.
She did not go back to the office. She left the sandwiches at the deli and went back to her flat, chopped off and dyed her hair, packed her suitcase and got out of town. She drove for hours and hours, out of the city, and down the highway. She wound her way through the deepest Appalachian forests several states away, found an old hotel with isolated cabins for camping, checked in with the name Rebecca Chamberlain, a mishmash of two of her friends’ names, and paid in cash.
She spent every day that week in hyper paranoia. She shopped for basic groceries two towns over, parked her car half a mile from the cabin and walked back, fretting the whole way about having withdrawn cash from the ATM. She had only done it once, out of desperate need, but she knew it left a trace. Other than when it was absolutely necessary, she never left the cabin. She had dumped all her electronic devices: her Macbook, her Blackberry, even her iPod, back in DC, operated only during daylight hours, and kept the lights off at night. She did her best to make it look like she wasn’t staying at the cabin at all, and prayed that if they did come, she’d remember something of that self-defense class she took when she was eighteen and moved to the city. She kept the folded piece of paper on her at all times.
She worried about her parents, having never had a chance to tell them she was leaving and not to worry. She worried over her job. It would not be there if or when she got back. Disappearing in the middle of a workday without word? It was unheard of, and she imagined, unforgiveable. And she had no excuse she could give. She listened to the news on a small transistor radio in furtive, 10-minute segments a few times each day. She couldn’t catch much, but already she knew the fallout after Lucas Martin’s death was disastrous for the party, and to her mind, for the nation as well. Could she survive like this until after the election? After the inauguration, even?
She didn’t have to wait that long. Eight days later, they found her. Despite all her precautions, they had found her and there was a gunman outside her cabin door. She had promised them secrecy. She had delivered them secrecy. And still they had come.
But that was their mistake…because now, Claire was mad.
Claire crawled out from behind the couch, sweat pouring down her cotton tank top and gray sweat shorts, her hands and knees digging hard into the wooden, splintery floors. Instead of moving towards the back closet, as was her initial impulse, she crawled her way to the kitchen. Watching the windows for the shadow of a man, she reached up and eased open the drawer by the stove, and reached in for a knife.
She clutched the scallop-sided chef’s knife to her and leaned back on her haunches. Which way would he come from? She needed to see better. Slowly, she stood up and started to step towards the front door. She moved closer and closer, her hands slippery with sweat on the handle of the knife. Dared she peer outside?
She didn’t see anything. Had she imagined the sounds? Was her paranoia actually driving her mad?
Claire began to let out a breath – until she felt the muzzle of a gun bump up against the back of her head.
“Put down the knife.” The man’s voice was hard. It sliced through her and made her gasp. “Put it down slowly,” he said.
She made to crouch down like she was putting the blade on the floor, then swung around to slash at him. He was taller than she, but not by much. She swept upwards at his mid-side but was farther away than she thought and smacked the knife against the hand holding the pistol. The gun went off, like lightning in her eardrums. The man cursed and grabbed his bleeding hand as the .22 Sig-Sauer clattered to the floor.
She started to run, but he growled and tackled her. They crashed down onto the wooden floor of the cabin and she could feel the splinters in her cheek as he pushed on her face. She struggled underneath him, but he was too big and heavy. He cursed at her, pinning her down with all his might as he tried to reach for the gun. He couldn’t quite reach and she used the opportunity to try to squirm her way free. He was forced to use both hands to pin her.
Claire grunted and managed to turn more on her side, her hip digging painfully into the wood, and he smacked her hard in the face. “You’re not going anywhere, bitch,” he breathed into her still-ringing ear.
“You should have stayed away,” she spat back, more bravely than she felt. “You had it good. You had me quiet. But that’s not enough for you greedy sons of bitches, is it?”
He laughed. “That’s right. And now you’ll find out what we do to anyone who gets in our way.” He grabbed her hard, by both arms, and hauled her up and dragged her to the couch, which he threw her on. She struggled to sit up and launch herself at him, but was caught at the sight of him. He had his gun back in his hand. She fell back on the couch, eyeing him with every hair on her body on end.
“So, Peaches,” he said, suddenly in a better mood. “Tell me. Where is the paper? What did you do with it?”
“Don’t be stupid,” he snarled. “We both know you have it. You’re gonna’ give it over nice and easy now and then this will all be over.”
She scrutinized him, weighing her options.
“Be quick!” he said. When she still didn’t move, he cocked the gun and got up in her face. “Where is the paper, damn it! It ain’t gonna help you if you’re dead.”
“It’s in the bedroom,” she whispered, her eyes wide with fright.
She got up off the couch and moved toward the back of the sparse cabin. He followed her, the gun trained on her every move. She made her way to the bedside table, and pulled open the narrow top drawer.
“Hurry up,” growled the man.
She rustled a few papers, then finding what she was looking for, drew it out. He leaned closer in anticipation. She took a deep breath, then whipped around, and with every ounce of strength she had, stabbed a paring knife into his stomach. Even in her fear, she noted how much harder that was than she thought it would be. He yelled out in pain and fury and she kneed him forcefully in the groin, then front kicked him in the chest. He dropped backwards onto the ground and she jumped over him and ran towards the door.
On her way out, she stopped only to grab the kitchen knife, and could hear him stumbling after her. She pushed open the front door and rushed outside. As she ran, she sliced open both tires on the driver’s side of his car, and then pelted out to the woods, running faster than she ever had in her life.
Claire grunted as side-aches splintered her sides, and she forced herself to run faster. She crashed through the forest, branches cutting her face and hands as she pushed her way through. Her lungs ached, and her bare feet screamed in pain, but she pushed on, aware he must be only moments behind her. Even carrying the knife became too much of a burden and she dropped it in the leaves somewhere along the way.
Finally, she broke through the forest edge onto the main highway and screamed – a cry for help or of frustration, she wasn’t sure which. There wasn’t a car or person in sight. Desperate, she began to run along the open road, the gravel tearing up her feet with every step.
Then, to her unending relief, she saw headlights. She called out and ran in front of the car, flagging it down to stop. The ancient, early 70’s Chevelle screeched to a halt, coming to a full stop mere inches in front of her. She folded over, plopping her hands on the car’s hot hood and she peered in through the windshield to make out the scared and shocked faces of two teenage boys gaping at her. She ran around to the driver’s side.
“Dude, lady, are you all right?”
“I need your help!” she gasped. “Can you get me to the nearest city? I need the police.”
The dumbstruck boys looked at each other and shrugged. “Sure lady, whatever. Hop in.”
The driver got out to let her in the back of the hardtop coupe. Claire fell into the back seat, and struggled to catch her breath. It was only as the kid got back in and got the car back up to speed that she reached into her pants pocket and felt the folded paper that she began to feel hope. “Hey,” she said. “Either of you boys got a phone on you?”
The kid in the front passenger seat tossed his phone at her. “Have at it,” he said, his voice still registering his wonderment.
She punched in the number she knew by heart. It rang three times before she heard the woman’s voice on the other end.
“Megan. It’s Claire. Put me through to London.” She knew she was safe when Megan connected her, no questions asked.