REST STOP PURGATORY

By M.G. Knight

Chapter One

They told me not to go.

But if someone tells you not to do something, of course you’re going to do it. Like the time Tina Lawrence told everyone at school not to use a Ouija board. What do you think we all did that very night?

Use a Ouija board.

Nothing happened, just like nothing would happen this time. But, really, what did they expect? That I’d ignore Clarissa Baker’s taunts? This was an easy way to prove myself—as well as a delightful chance to bring the biggest bitch in school down a few notches.

Me, a baby? Because of what happened? Please. She’d be running home, screaming and tearing out her perfectly-straightened hair, within ten minutes. With me laughing in the background, of course.

At least, that’s what I thought. But I was wrong. Really, really wrong.

Because Clarissa Baker never returned home that night—or any night after.

 

Chapter Two

“You went there on a dare?”

“Yes.”

“Just the two of you?”

“Yes.” Really. It wasn’t that difficult of a concept to grasp.

“Where were your friends?”

There were no friends. Not anymore.

“Waiting. In the car. Probably doing illegal stuff, you know.”

My mother groaned beside me on the couch, and my father shot a glance my way. That used to be enough to shut me up. In fact, it would have shut me up about three months ago. But that was Before.

The investigator almost smiled. Maybe he was taking a liking to me.

“Miss Springs, it seems you’ve been having some difficulties lately.” The agent leaned back in his chair, sending a crease darting along his suit.

I suddenly became very interested in my wrinkled sweatpants.

“Please, Agent Milas,” my mother said softly. Dad grabbed her hand.

The past three months must have been tough for them. What with dealing with “After” Paige. And, you know, being forced to continue school. And to lose all their friends and have to find “slut” spray-painted or markered onto their locker and new car and gym bag.

Yeah. The past three months must have been really tough on them.

“Miss Springs, I realize this has been a difficult time for you,” Agent Milas continued.

Ah, here we go.

“From what I’ve heard, things haven’t been easy at school.”

Yeah. Wish homeschool could be an option.

“But someone is missing. And you’re the last person who saw her. Maybe you could walk me through the details of that night?”

Yeah. So not going to happen. I didn’t want to end up in some loony bin over a dare that went wrong.

I frowned. “I told you. We separated. I heard a scream. That’s it.”

It wasn’t all a lie. Because we definitely didn’t separate. But she definitely did scream. A lot.

I still wasn’t sure how I felt about that part.

The agent rubbed his face. The sunlight streaming though the sheer curtains highlighted the greys in his hair and the stubble on his chin. “Miss Springs, I am going to be very blunt with you,” he said. “I know Clarissa Baker is a witness in your case—speaking against you. I know she has been bullying you at school and encouraging others to do the same. I know that, four months ago, you were the best of friends and now you’re not. So.” He leaned forward in his chair and the scent of cologne stifled me, even though my parents didn’t seem to notice the smell. Just like they hadn’t bothered to notice anything else; they wanted everything to go back to normal. Just like it had been Before. “It is in your best interest right now to cooperate.”

All very good points—if I could put the details of that night at the rest stop into words. Words that made sense.

And so I repeated my story, and the agent left, and I went to bed that night with the usual nightmares waiting upon my pillow.

 

Chapter Three

Climbing out the window was easy. Starting my car so my parents didn’t hear it? Not so easy—especially considering the muffler was blown.

But I couldn’t not go back. I couldn’t not know.

Sweat made the steering wheel slippery as I left the town lights behind me and headed deeper into the night, towards that place. The rest stop.

Crime scene tape had the little footpath that led to it blocked off, but I ducked under it and continued up the trail, trying to ignore the way my heart pounded so loudly I could hear each thud. I felt cold—sick and clammy.

And yet . . . And yet.

There were the whispers again, just like the first time. Barely-discerned warnings to turn away. I probably should have listened to them.

It was difficult navigating the path at night, and I concentrated on the forest floor to still my nerves, dodging brush and branches in the hard darkness. The trees opened, and there it was: The Rest Stop, so dubbed because it was merely an overgrown parking lot set in the middle of nothingness.

No one knew the story behind it. But everyone said it was haunted—and that if you came up here and listened, you would hear screaming.

Blood pounded throughout my body as I surveyed the scene, my eyes wandering over the empty beer cans and cigarette butts that littered the cracked pavement. A single swing leftover from a long-forgotten time creaked across from me.

And then came the screams.

My blood chilled; goosebumps erupted down my arms. But I didn’t move. Because I recognized the tenor of those screams.

“Clarissa?” I called. The screaming intensified.

What really made The Rest Stop spooky was the tree: a tall, aged willow that erupted out of the pavement’s middle, its sweeping claws and stretching fingers always flexing in the breeze.

That was where the screaming was coming from. The tree—behind the curtain of drooping branches that swept to the ground.

“Clarissa?”

Most people would call it ugly, twisted and scarred from age. But as I approached, reaching out with shaking fingers, part of me thought I had never seen something so beautiful.

I touched one prickly branch, hoping to see nothing, hoping it wouldn’t be like in the nightmares. I would just see bark behind the expanse of branches.

Just bark.

I swept it aside.

Clarissa. Her eyes rolling madly, her beautiful hair turned into strings of yarn, the manicured fingers now yellow and cracked.

I felt a sickly kind of joy swiftly followed by terror. Then that other flood of emotions, the ones that came every time I thought of her. Hate. Regret. Sorrow. Pain.

Pain. Because of them. Humiliation. Because of them.

And there was the shadow, stalking to and fro like a cat playing with a trapped mouse. It had no face, but I somehow knew it was smiling.

“Paige.” Even Clarissa’s voice had turned ugly. It only made sense. You couldn’t hide your true self here. Out there, sure. But not here. “Paige. I’m sorry.”

She was sorry. Of course she was sorry.

I searched her face, smelled the alcohol on Tim Andrew’s breath and the cologne on his clothes. Felt Tyler Evans hold me down against the cracked pavement until it was his turn.

And there on the swing: Clarissa, holding a beer and laughing.

Laughing.

The shadow paused, its shapeless face turned towards me as we stared at each other. Slowly, it reached out a hand.

I took it.

“Yeah,” I said, my blood frost-bitten, my heart singing at the metallic scent of blood—and the thought of more to come. “Yeah. I’m sorry, too.”

 

Chapter Four

Maybe I should have listened to the voices. Maybe. Maybe not.

The final bell signaling the end of school was music to my ears.

“Hey, Paige,” he said, coming up behind me. Too close. “Did you want to hang out tonight?” His eyes gleamed at the prospect, looking everywhere except my face.

It had taken weeks.

“Yeah,” I said, closing my locker door. It was spray paint and marker-free. I put my mouth against Tyler Evans’s ear. “Meet me where it happened four months ago. Meet me at the Rest Stop,” I whispered, and blew him a kiss.

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