“I told you we shouldn’t have come this way.” Candice tried to keep the nasal overtone out of her words, without much success. She didn’t even have to look at the steering wheel to know that Jason’s knuckles had tightened even further. What a frustrating way to end what had been a pleasant evening.
Candice had decided that she would start the year off with an effort to socialize more, break out of the rut she frequently found herself in with Jason. She had leapt at the invitation to attend Beth’s “Welcome to the New Year” party. Beth was a fellow account manager in her office—a fellow account manager with a mountain-side house in West Vancouver.
“There’s construction on Mathers Avenue. I had to detour,” Jason said through gritted teeth.
Candice pushed down the leaden ball of anxiety in her stomach. She hated driving with Jason when he got tense. She wished she could keep silent, but the leaden ball forced out her words.
“Are you sure this is the right way? There aren’t any street signs, and it’s so dark.”
She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth.
“Candice, do you want to drive? Oh no, that’s right, you needed to have a whole bunch of fancy drinks.”
Candice shrank back into her seat. Jason wasn’t being fair. He always wanted to drive.
“You wanted to get out more, so here we are, out, lost in this maze of cul-de-sacs.” Jason spat out the last words. Silence fell over them, as thick and heavy as the darkness around them.
“Why don’t these people have any streetlights?” Jason muttered, nosing down a narrow lane, headlights shining onto tall black hedges on either side, the branches twisted and broken.
“I don’t know, babe, it’s frustrating.” Candice tried for conciliatory. Time enough to talk about tone and temper when they got home.
Jason gave an inch. “This detour makes no sense. It’s heading away from the highway.”
“Maybe we have to go through the neighbourhood? Look, there’s another sign.” Candice pointed to a hand-painted sign in reflective paint stapled to a telephone pole. Jason turned the car in the direction of the arrow, the headlights sweeping over the narrow shoulder and alighting upon an idling car. In the illumination of the lights, the car appeared empty.
“Someone probably gave up on this detour and decided to walk home,” Jason said. Candice refrained from replying.
The evening had been fine, she thought. Beth had thrown a wonderful party. Twinkly lights lining the driveway, a roaring fire in the enormous living room. The people inside as glittery as the shining orbs outside.
“Candice!” Beth had greeted her effervescently, kisses to both cheeks. “How lovely to see you. This must be your husband?” She smiled at Jason. “Come, both of you, grab a drink.”
The drink in question had been a punch of sorts, filled with citrus and hints of burnt sugar.
“This is really nice, Beth.”
“Oh, thanks, love, it’s an old-fashioned punch.”
“Oh, a family recipe?”
“Oh no, like the drink, an old-fashioned.”
Jason smiled uncomfortably. “Right, yeah.”
Beth smiled brightly. “Excuse me a minute. I need to grab something out of the oven.”
Jason and Candice stood there sipping their punch.
“Do you know any of these people?”
Candice looked around the room—she didn’t, as a matter of fact. The faces were strange, casting not unfriendly but definitely curious glances their way. She shook her head.
“Well, I’m going to the can. If I can find it in this palace.”
“Okay, don’t be too long,” Candice called after his departing back.
Social situations like these made her nervous. She didn’t want to hang off of Beth like some barnacle. She hoped Jason wouldn’t linger, hiding out, playing on his phone.
Candice started. A tall man with dark blonde man stood at her elbow.
Candice gripped her hands tightly, tugging at her fingers. Tension smouldered in the car, a heavy, chilling fog that separated the two of them. The road before them was barely visible, the headlights picking up the vague reflection of the sparse line separating the lanes.
“I thought this was a short cut,” Jason said through clenched teeth.
“It’s a detour, not a shortcut. The opposite, really.”
“God dammit.” Jason slammed the palm of his hand against the steering wheel.
They drove in silence. The night closed around the car, pressing in. No streetlights, no stoplights, only the road endlessly unwinding. Candice pressed her lips together, the drinks she’d had earlier now leaving her edgy and unsettled.
“I am Carson. How do you know Beth?”
Candice smiled nervously before answering.
“We work together. In accounts.”
“Oh yes, Bethie’s told me about her little start-up. Good for the both of you to help out and get things off the ground.”
Candice smiled, her teeth digging into her bottom lip. The start-up was her and Jason’s only source of income. Since Jason’s mother had gotten sick, there wasn’t enough money to pay for round the clock care for her. Jason’s father had died several years prior, and his sister lived in Saskatoon. It fell to Jason and Candice to care for Jason’s mother. Candice wondered how to convey something like this to someone like Carson, who seemed to view work as an entertaining pastime. It was exhausting, Candice thought, this life they had built for themselves. Jason barely looked at her with anything approximating interest anymore. Unlike Carson, who definitely was.
“Beth and I are cousins, and I feel compelled to let you know that I tend to find these little gatherings rather dull, but here you are, and I’m wondering if I should revise my opinion.” His teeth lined up in a white, symmetrical grid, pristine rectangles.
“How nice of you to say.” Candice looked down as she spoke, thinking how different her life might have been if she’d only been invited to these sorts of parties earlier.
“What’s nice?” Jason appeared at her elbow.
“Where the fuck are we, Candice? We’re going in the complete opposite direction.”
Candice could feel the start of a migraine pressing down just beyond her temples. Tension pushed down her forehead as she tried to see through the dark.
“There, Jason, there! It’s a sign.” Candice pointed at another hand-painted sign with the word “detour” written in red reflective paint.
“It’s leading even further up the mountain. This doesn’t seem right.”
“Well, we have to go around the construction, don’t we?”
They drove slowly along an ever-narrowing road, the houses along the side replaced by towering hedgerows.
“Babe, this is not the right way.” Irritation flooded Jason’s tone. Candice knew he was holding back the onslaught of his frustration. All she wanted to do was stretch out next to him in their bed at home and let the exhaustion overtake her. This endless road, the anxiety thrumming along her spine into her stomach, the rigidity of Jason’s jawline, all of it surrounded by creeping darkness.
Carson smiled at Jason while Candice stood there awkwardly.
“Jason, this is Carson, Beth’s cousin.”
“What’s nice?” Jason repeated.
Jason looked over to Carson for a beat before holding out his hand. Carson glanced at it and stuck out his own.
“Glad the two of you could make it up here.”
The three of them smiled awkwardly, and then Candice turned to Jason. “I could use another drink?”
Jason looked at her, his lips pressed in a thin line. “I’ll get right on that. You good, buddy?”
Carson looked at him. “Thanks, pal, I’m set.”
Jason nodded slowly before heading to the bar. Candice watched him walk away, hating herself for noticing how out of place he looked amongst all the other guests.
“Now I feel a bit foolish, meeting your husband.” Carson smiled ruefully at her. “The two of you drive over?”
Candice nodded, wondering why she felt guilty. She could almost count on one hand the number of words she’d said to Carson.
“Look at the pair of you! Candice, I’m so happy you’ve met my cousin. Carson, Candice is such a love.” Beth emerged through the crowd and grasped her cousin’s arm as she beamed at Candice.
“I was just saying how wonderful it was of Candice and her husband to come all the way up here.” Carson smiled at Beth.
Beth ran her hands up and down Carson’s considerable biceps. “Absolutely.”
The pair of them smiled at Candice before Beth flounced off. Carson moved closer to Candice.
“I am quite aware this is inappropriate, but I am still going to ask for your phone number.”
Candice knew she was being stupid. She knew it as she took Carson’s phone and entered her own number. She knew it as Carson dialed her number. As they smiled at each other, Jason returned with two glasses of punch.
The road they were on was by quickly becoming a rutted path, the pavement devolving into gravel and dirt as Jason attempted to navigate through the gloom. Candice could hear a tiny voice in her head repeating over and over: This is not right. This is not right. This is not right. It took her a moment to realize she had spoken the words out loud. Jason glanced her, his face mirroring her own rising fear, before he took a deep breath and stopped the car.
“It’s okay, babe. We’re just lost. We gotta retrace our steps and figure out how to get back to the highway.”
His gentle tone calmed Candice slightly, but the work was undone when she saw him reach for the door handle.
“What are you doing?” she yelped.
“It’s okay, babe, I’m just going to get my bearings, see if there’s room to turn around up ahead.” Jason paused and reached over to pat Candice on the arm. “I’ll be right back.”
“We should hit the road, Candice.”
Jason shoved the glass of punch towards her, its dark contents sloshing over the edge and dripping onto the glaringly white rug.
“Jason! Be careful!”
Jason stared at her, faint spots of colour flaring on his cheeks. “I don’t think I’m the one who needs to be careful. I’ll see you in the car.”
He stalked away, depositing both glasses on a side table. Candice felt a familiar knot of frustration form in her stomach. She glanced at Carson, her cheeks burning.
“Sorry about that. I should go.”
Carson patted her arm. “No apology necessary. I will let Beth know you had to leave.”
Candice hesitated. It seemed rude to just leave.
“Go on, you don’t want to keep Jason waiting.”
He was already turning away. Candice headed to the front entry before turning back as Carson called her name.
“There’s construction on the main road back down to the highway. You should take the detour through the properties. There will be a sign as you head out of the neighbourhood.”
Candice nodded and waited a moment, hoping for something more, but Carson had already turned away from her, and she watched him walk over to a group of coiffed blonde women. She turned back to the front door, noting the faint stains of whiskey on the carpet.
The darkness surrounding the car was nearly absolute. The moon a mere sliver in the sky, surrounded by faint pinpricks of light, their illumination faint. Candice waited in the car, watching the glow of Jason’s phone slowly fade away. Tall hedges lined the cramped street. Candice tried to remember when they had turned onto this dirt road. There weren’t even any street lights. Were they on a private driveway? She clasped and unclasped her fingers, her nails digging into the softness of her palms. Where the hell was Jason?
A scream cut through the night. Candice’s hand jerked to the door handle.
“Jason!” she whispered.
Loud cracking sounds reverberated through the night, followed by another scream, which was quickly muffled. Silence descended. All Candice heard was the blood rushing in her ears, her heart pounding. Her fingers clutched the door handle as she reached for her phone with her other hand. No signal. A glint of silver caught her eye. The keys!
She quickly slid across to the driver’s seat, twisting the keys, hearing the engine pour to life. Bright beams of light slashed through the darkness as Candice turned on the high beams. The sound of the horn joined the brightness in invading the dark.
“Jason!” Candice screamed into the night, honking the horn. “Jason!”
Then, lights flickered in the gloom ahead of her.
“Jason?” she called hesitantly.
The lights grew, and she could hear something low and ominous—the crackling of dead leaves under many feet and the low murmur of voices. Candice froze, her hands on the wheel, her heart pounding and jumping. Suddenly she lurched the car into reverse. How far back was the turn-off? The car careened from side to side as she tried to find her way backwards. The lights grew fainter as she tried to speed away. Back and back and back, past endless looming hedges, the moon barely lighting the way, until she collided with a crash, the back of the car crumpling up as Candice hit her head against the steering wheel. Pain cracked through her forehead. She sagged against the steering wheel, her ears ringing, her mind cloudy. The pain radiated, dripping down her face—or was it blood? Through the pain, she was aware of a pervasive sound, a howling, a keening. Are those dogs? The sounds grew louder. Candice pulled herself upright, gasping at the banging in her head. The barking grew louder. Candice craned her neck, looking over her shoulder, seeing the large metal gate that had barred her way.
The gate was firmly padlocked.
“Oh no, oh no, oh no.”
The car door fell open as Candice pushed it, staggering outside, blood dripping down the side of her face. She realized what little ground she’d gained with her frantic backwards attempt at escape.
Her head whipped toward the sound of Jason’s voice.
“Jason?” she whispered into the dark. From a break in the hedges, she saw a staggering form.
“Jason!” She lurched towards him, branches slashing at her face and shoulders. The howling became louder.
“We have to get out of here, babe, we have to get out of here now.” Jason clutched at her. A deep gash ran along the side of his face. Blood sputtered from his shoulder.
“What happened to you?” She ran her fingers gently over the side of his face.
“There’s no time, babe, we have to go now. It’s some kind of hunting party. I couldn’t see their faces. They’re all wearing hoods.”
“What about the howling?”
“I didn’t see any dogs. I think it’s on a speaker.”
“How do we get out of here? There’s a padlock on the gates, gates that came out of nowhere!”
Jason grabbed her arm and pulled her into a farrow under the hedges against a dark stone wall.
“The detour signs were bullshit, Candice. We were lured here, to this estate, whatever it is. We’ve got to get over the wall, back onto a main road.” Jason was panting, his breath hot against her cheek.
“Okay, okay, let’s go.”
The only sound was the ragged hitch of their breathing as they crept through the foliage, keeping the looming darkness of the wall on their left.
Jason leaned against Candice, and she felt warm stickiness spreading over her arm and shoulder.
“Jason, how badly are you hurt? You’re bleeding everywhere. What happened back there?”
“No time,” he gasped, pushing the words out with an exhalation of air. “They were waiting for us. I can’t…”
He slowed as he attempted to catch his breath.
“Who were waiting for us? What is going on?” Candice couldn’t help herself as the questions tumbled out of her mouth. The sounds of the night enveloped them, sounds removed from those that had grown familiar. There were no sounds of cars, of sirens, of doors slamming, of the faint filtered sound of television. There was just darkness and the rustling of the wind.
Burning pain flared up the side of Candice’s chest, a stitch knitting and unknitting itself. Her arm was sticky with Jason’s blood. They had been walking for hours, or moments—it was hard to tell in the dark. Every so often the crunching of grass and leaves and mulch flickered across the silence. Jason’s hitching breath also contributed to the uneven cacophony.
“What do we do, Jason? Please, what do we do?
“Keep moving, come on, babe, there has to be a way out of here.”
Candice kept moving, her heart thumping.
“How clever.” The voice dripped over the cobblestones of the old-fashioned driveway, as rich and sweet as the punch at the party.
“Carson?” Candice gasped, turning about, her pumps sinking into the mud.
“You want to be part of us so much, don’t you? Give us the man. You don’t need him. He only drags you down. Come on, Candice, you would fit right in with us. Think of all the fun you would have at our parties!”
Brightness burst through the black. Candice’s pupils recoiled, and she stumbled backwards. The break in the hedges was directly behind her; she sensed rather than felt the openness of the air. She could do it. She could push herself out of this hell. Jason’s arm brushed against hers as he swayed, fighting to stay on his feet. Any choice involving escape wouldn’t include him.
“Go, Candice, just go,” Jason said.
“It is not a difficult choice, Candice. He is a broken anchor around your neck, weighing you down. There is so much more you could have.” Carson’s voice floated through her strained thoughts, softening the jagged edge of her breath.
“What do I do?” Each word pounded in her brain as sweat dripped down her neck, the small of her back. It was a struggle, her life, a struggle against tedium, against mediocrity. What person would she be, if she didn’t have a creased line running down her forehead?
Carson had emerged from the light, and his golden features came into focus, just as she sank to her knees, exhaustion sinking through her, cold and heavy. She reached out her hand to Jason. He met hers, passing her a solid object.
“Do what you need to do, babe, please.”
Candice felt the object in her hand as she gazed up at Carson.
He reached down to caress her face.
“You put up a good fight, Candice, but now it is over.”
Candice looked up at him and set her jaw.
“It is over, Carson.”
The object in her hands—the knife Jason had passed her—plunged upwards. The lights picked up the arc of blood following the knife as Candice pulled it out of the side of Carson’s neck.
His words died on his tongue as Candice rose to her feet.
“Run.” Jason crouched in the mud, his face a pale smudge. “Run, Candice.”
She looked at him as noise joined the light, and she turned towards the hole in the hedge and ran.
Written by Avalon Bourne
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