It was unusually quiet in the classroom. It provoked Lasha to look up for a moment, to see if there was something she was missing. It was strange that everyone was just doing their work without chatting. She supposed it had to happen sometimes. She saw her neighbor, Julia, doodle instead of solving the math problems, which was enough to calm her mind.
Lasha enjoyed fully immersing herself on a worksheet and finishing it. And, if possible, finishing her homework early right after. She knew it wasn’t supposed to be cool to care, but outside of TV shows, kids didn’t actually mind that. They’d just call her a nerd and move on, if even that. That wasn’t to say she was a straight-A-student. She only had a limited capacity to pay attention and it didn’t stretch out over a whole school day. Math problems were easy, science and languages weren’t. She’d just spare herself the stress of banging her head against a wall and make peace with a D.
The noise picked up as some students began packing in their things. Some teachers had tried to make a point that everyone kept their stuff out, until the bell actually rang, but have since given up. Lasha was one of the last people to leave. Julia, who she rode their bikes home with, always took the most time to sort away her stuff. By the time they reached the bike stands, they had been nearly picked clean already.
They split up halfway home and Lasha smiled with the knowledge her homework for today was already done.
A police car was parked at the side of the road in front of her home. Were her parents being arrested? She wasn’t aware of any crimes they’ve done, but it’s not like they tell her everything. She parked her bike in the garage, noticing her father’s car hadn't yet returned. She entered the kitchen, dropping her backpack in the corner. She found her mother in the living room with two officers. One skinny, unshaven, brown-haired man sitting on the couch next to her mother and one thicker built guy standing awkwardly in the corner. Mama was crying.
“Hello.” Lasha said, reluctant to pass through the door.
“Come here, kid.” the skinny guy sighed. She remained. He accepted defeat. “Your father died this morning.” he said.
“You- You killed him?” she wasn’t sure why she reached that conclusion in hindsight.
“No, it was an accident… A car accident. He must’ve lost control of the car on his way to work and crashed into a tree. The investigation is still ongoing, of course.”
The bigger guy just gave her a pained glance, like he shit himself and was unsure how to handle it from there. What were these strangers doing in her fucking home? She was extremely angry but struggled to externalize that feeling. Wanted to say something. She felt like she really should be screaming.
“Lasha… come here.” mama begged.
“No, I’m- I’m going to my room.” Lasha went upstairs. Her thoughts just kept being thrown around in her head trying to process this. The information was in there but it just wouldn’t click. She felt like she just walked into a movie scene, nothing that would actually impact her life. Like those cops only showed up to pull some sort of sketch on her, and all would be back to normal once they left. It was just some weird prank. She chose to just push those thoughts away and resume her day as planned. Listen to some music or play a game.
Once the police were gone, her mother checked on her.
“Are you okay?” she had washed her face and regained some composure, but this atmosphere still covered this house. Nothing sounded normal anymore. Kind of muted and wet.
“...Anything you want for dinner?”
She shook her head. Mama walked in and put Lasha’s head against her chest, kissing her hair. She smelled nice. Lasha had to fight really hard not to cry.
The door rang. An awful loud noise this early in the morning. Especially after that night. You really don’t have anywhere to run from your thoughts while in bed.
“Hello.” a man, not looking the best himself, stood in the door. “I just wanted to say, so sorry about your loss. My name is Benjamin. We were work colleagues. It just… happened so fast.”
“Thanks.” mama said.
“I just wanted to offer any help. I know that it can be hard suddenly being a single parent. For me it was divorce though… so not that rough. I just…”
“Why don’t you come in? Table’s already set for three...”
Lasha wasn’t sure why her mother let him in. She supposed she just wanted to fill that void at the table. Lasha wasn’t a fan of it, but decided to bear it. She ignored the two talking while eating her cereal.
“I asked if you planned on going to school today.”
Lasha twirled her spoon in the milk. “I was thinking of sitting today out. People are gonna talk about it…”
“That’s okay. Do you want me to call your friend and tell her not to wait for you?”
Benjamin gave her that same look as that cop yesterday.
The telephone rang a little more often since the accident. Just people saying their condolences. The church, the mason that did the tombstone. Insurances. Stuff Lasha didn’t really understand. After lunch, one day, her mother picked up the phone again. She didn’t react with the usual indifference.
“Who was that?” Lasha asked after her mother hung up.
“The bank. They said that papa had opened a secret bank account not long before…”
“What does that mean?”
“It appears that he won the lottery. And I guess he didn’t plan to just tell us at the dinner table…”
Lasha looked at the impaled stack of losing tickets by the TV, which her dad kept as a good-luck charm. “You mean… how much money is on it?”
“And we can keep it?”
“It’s ours. They just asked whether to keep the account or transfer it to our regular one.”
Lasha laughed involuntarily. “Well, at least there’s that then.”
But a mountain of money really wasn’t worth shit compared to a loving person.
A month passed. Benjamin showed up almost every day. Mama didn’t tell him of the money. Lasha wasn’t sure if it was mistrust or she simply didn’t know how, like papa. Lasha didn’t trust the guy at all, but her mother had been rather grateful for his presence. He did indeed help soften the transition into single parent life, as far as Lasha could tell. But she’s seen some of papa’s work friends and he had never been among them. Maybe that had her a little suspicious. Why the hell did he care so much? What was in it for him? Had he just always had the hots for her mother and finally saw his chance? Benjamin certainly noticed that Lasha remained cold towards him and didn’t make much of an effort to fix that.
Maybe he just didn’t handle children well, but he allegedly had a daughter a little younger than Lasha. One she had never seen either. This guy just rubbed her the wrong way. But Lasha decided to keep that to herself. She couldn’t be sure if this wasn’t just her going paranoid as a way to deal with the grief.
The thing is, the guy started to live here, practically. He’d just stay and house sit while Lasha and her mother were out. He didn’t even bring a laptop to work while he’s there. Apparently he was an author. Didn’t seem to go to papa’s workplace anymore either, if he ever worked there. Maybe they used to be work buddies and then he quit?
Lasha needed to clear her mind of this. So she decided to pretend to go to school and then sneak back in and spy on him. She missed school every now and then lately, the teacher wouldn’t call unless she missed several days in a row. They knew why she sometimes didn’t feel up to it and let her be, as long as she brought a written excuse the next day.
She took her bike, rode it down the street and back again. She placed it and her backpack in the garage and checked the windows to see where Benjamin was and how she could get in unnoticed. He was in the living room, so if she came in the backdoor, she could get upstairs without being seen. Since the living room and kitchen were connected to the hallway without doors, she could stay at the top of the stairs and hear what Benjamin was doing downstairs. He had no reason to come up and if he did, she had enough time to hear him coming and hide. She was proud of her plan.
Of course Benjamin spent the first two hours doing nothing but sit in the living room and raid the fridge. He sighed a lot. Otherwise, nothing suspicious.
Then the door rang. Benjamin walked to the door.
“Oh, fuck.” he said. Lasha heard the hinge’s familiar creak. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Language, Morgan.” an unfamiliar voice said and footsteps hit the carpet. “Wanted to check on you. The phone is so impersonal. I’m sure you agree.”
“Wasn’t the whole plan that you wouldn’t show up here?”
“What? No. I wanted to see if you’re doing your work.”
“I am! You being here puts it all in danger! What if the kid comes home early? She’s gotten used to skipping school.”
“You aren’t a fan of kids getting home early, isn’t that right?”
“Stop. I’m doing my best. I’m so close.”
Lasha heard objects being picked up in the kitchen.
“Mr. Maryland, please, I have no reason to stall.”
“Oh, you do. You aren’t the first fool who owed me.”
“I’m not trying to pull anything.”
“Maybe not. But you have me impatient. I’m thinking of moving our correspondence to mail. It’s time the kids come home, if you understand.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“Oddly composed, are you? They usually start to threaten at this point.”
“What good would that do?”
“You’ve reassured me. Keep up the work. But don’t make it two months.” The other man was going to leave. Lasha wriggled forward to peek through the railing. She had to see this man. To describe him to the police? She wasn’t sure, but it was important. Benjamin stood with the back to her. He looked defeated. A tall, skinny man stood in the hallway. Almost freakishly tall. His line of sight aligned with Lasha’s. If he was just a little shorter, maybe he wouldn’t have seen her. Mr. Maryland smiled. Benjamin followed his eyes. Lasha saw his face grow pale. She was frozen in fear. She should’ve pulled her head up and climbed out the window.
“Looks like you’ll have a choice to make, Benjamin.”
Lasha’s jaw ached. Two pairs of socks held it open as far as it went and muffled her screams. She was slammed onto the floor of the car’s trunk repeatedly due to the rocky road. She couldn’t see where they were. Her limbs were tied using pairs of pants. After an excruciating while, the car stopped. The trunk opened and Benjamin lifted her out. She flailed out of his arms and hit her head on the side of the car on the way down. The world started to spin and she couldn’t focus on trying to crawl away.
“Leave her for now, not like she’ll get away.” Maryland said.
Lasha felt leaves beneath her. Their crunch was louder than any sound she could produce. The sun was blocked out by tree tops.
“Are you sure about this?”
“Most people don’t even know this ravine is here and no one’s been down it. And even if they find her, we’ll be long gone by then, right?”
Lasha tried hard to gain focus of her eyes again. Benjamin watched her with sad eyes.
“She’ll have a quicker death than Melanie, I’ll tell you that. Put her in the front seat and lock the doors.”
Lasha lacked the strength to escape his arms a second time. She saw Maryland stuff something into the gas tank before she was placed in the driver’s seat. The doors locked. It was one of those older cars with these pins by the window, no simple button to unlock them again. Lasha tried to smash the window with her head but only made herself sick with pain. The car rolled forward. With a thud, the front wheels lost ground. A moment later and Lasha saw the bottom of the ravine in front of her. She closed her eyes and bunched up as much as the restraints allowed. The car hit the side of the ravine with a loud noise. Lasha was lifted out of the seat and hit something with her back. She tumbled back off whatever she landed on and expected to be thrown around more, but even though she heard the metal creak and windows shatter, she didn’t move. She opened her eyes and faced the ravine wall. She rolled over and saw the windshield underneath her. It was nearly opaque with cracks but still in one piece. What a time to get lucky. She rolled onto her back again to look up. She must’ve fallen maybe twenty meters. She was sure Maryland and Benjamin couldn’t see her. Couldn’t see she got flung out of the car. The crushing noises stopped and in the silence, Lasha heard fire crackling. The two men didn’t lean over the edge to see. Not like Lasha had any hope of surviving. Even if she survived the fall and didn’t burn up in the car, she was still at the bottom of a hole, likely with broken limbs. Really, landing on this rock jutting out was no help at all.
So she laid there motionless. She wasn’t sure what to think about. Her mother? Benjamin? Papa? Maryland? That she was going to die. How she could’ve just gone to school and nothing would have happened. Were they out to steal the money? How’d they even know about it? She’d be okay with them taking it if they just left her family alone. Let her be with her mother. Maybe a piece of glass broke out of the windshield. She could cut through her ties. If just to remove the gag so she could cry properly. Would they kill mama too?
The fire died down. The car didn’t even explode. Lasha wondered if she should just roll off the edge. It was all ruined anyway. Why wait? What for? It was hard to assess her injuries but she felt something stab her into the shoulder and it wasn’t glass or a rock. The socks in her mouth soaked with blood. She wouldn’t be surprised if she looked in the mirror and found a chunk of her head was gone. Her right eye was blinded with blood, or swollen shut or crushed entirely. The other could only make out various colors near grey, swimming around each other.
“Lala.” a strange voice said. Was that a bird maybe?
“Ebeiud shon? Lala?”
That wasn’t a bird. Lasha tried to focus. Something… stood over her. It was hard to make out against the grey. Colors faded back in slightly. The green of the trees hanging over the gash. The brown earth. Something black. “Madre.”
Something soft picked her up. The sky moved. It rose further up. Then the sky was swallowed in darkness.