“Belle, will you watch out? You drive like a freakin’ drunk.” Jess Winslow said as they pulled the little black Mercedes C350 coupe up to Lloyd Aubrey’s. The music blared through the open windows and kids laughed and roamed the
premises inside and out, each with some sort of drink in hand.
Jess snickered. “Seems like everyone’s already plastered and it’s only nine o’clock.”
Some guy rushed down the stairs and plowed into Belinda, catching her arm before she tumbled back. “Whoa, sorry.” He glanced at her with recognition. “Hey, Belinda. Glad you made it.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Belinda pushed away from him, pulling her tight black skirt down and straightening her equally tight low-cut top. “Hey, do you know if Derrick Anderson is here yet?”
“Derrick? I heard he wasn’t coming,” the boy said as he continued down the steps. “Hey, go inside and have some fun. They’re doing keggers in the kitchen,” he said and ran toward the over-sized water fountain where several kids were splashing each other.
The large house was crammed with kids, some dancing in the living room, others lining the stairwell, and still others taking up every inch of the halls — it was as if the whole school had shown up.
“Man, this place is packed,” Belinda yelled over the music. She pointed toward the back down the long hallway. “That must be where the kitchen is. Come on.”
They pushed through the swinging doors and found several kids lying across the island in the center of the kitchen, their heads hanging off the edge. Another kid leaned over them holding a tube that extended from the keg letting the flow of beer rush into their open mouths. One boy bolted upright after the first mouthful, coughing, and hit his head against the pots and pans hanging above the table. He reached up to stop them from clanging and sent several crashing to the floor.
“I’m next,” yelled Belinda.
Jess tugged on her arm. “You sure that’s a good idea?”
“Lighten up, Jess, you’re starting to annoy me,” Belinda said and pulled away. “Besides, you’re the DD tonight.”
“Since when am I the designated driver? You hate the way I drive.”
“Since I want to get drunk and you’re all I have.” Belinda walked over to the table and leaned over the girl on the table. “Get up. I said I’m next.”
The girl rolled her eyes, but moved off the table as she was told.
Belinda lay in her place, laughing. “Don’t get that shit on my clothes, moron,” she warned the boy with the keg, “or you’re dead.”
“Yeah, no problem,” he said. “Head back.”
The room spun when Belinda sat up. She giggled and slid off the table. Jess had to reach to steady her.
“Jeez, Belle. Get a grip,” Jess said.
Belinda giggled some more. “I’m fine. It just hit me funny when I got up so quickly. I’m fine now.” She ran her fingers through her hair, and turned to the guy with the keg. “Hey, shit-head, you got it in my hair.”
“Go in the pool and wash it out,” someone shouted.
“I didn’t bring a bathing suit.”
The boy with the keg grinned. “You wearing a bra and panties under that sexy outfit?”
“Panties,” she said with a smirk.
“Then you have a bathing suit. Nothing more needed,” the boy said. “Besides, before the nights out we’ll all be skinny dipping, anyway.”
Belinda laughed and tugged on Jess’s arm, pulling her down the hall. “Come on, let’s check it out.”
Half-naked teens crowded the pool. Belinda and Jess sat at the edge of the pool and dangled their feet in the water.
Belinda’s mood swung low. “Hey, Jess, you think Derrick will stop by?”
Jess rolled her eyes. “If he isn’t here by now, chances are he won’t be. Give it a rest, will you?”
“I want to see him,” Belinda mumbled more to herself than to Jess.
“Didn’t he say he was watching the Rhyne property while they were out of town?” Jess asked.
“You’re right! Come on, Jess. Let’s blow this place. I think I want to stop by the barn to check on Golyath,” Belinda said with a devilish giggle.
“I’d rather not,” Jess said. “Besides, what’s the big deal with Derrick anyway? He’s with Cassie and blows you off constantly. You might think you’d get the hint. He.Ain’t.Interested.”
“Yeah, that’s what you think. He’s more interested than you know. Didn’t you see the way he smiled at me at the 7-11 store the other night?”
“God, Belle, he smiles at everyone. He was just being nice.”
Belle tsked. “What’s your problem? Don’t you think I’m pretty enough to get Derrick?”
“It’s not about being pretty. He’s with Cassie. He’s taken. You know, off the market. So why do you bother when you can pretty much have anyone else you want?”
“Because I want Derrick, that’s why. Cassie doesn’t deserve a guy like him. He’s way too good for her. I want him, and I will have him.”
“You’re such a bitch.”
Belinda smirked. “Maybe I am.”
The old plantation house at the end of the long dirt road loomed before them. Small statuues of jockeys stood beneath the tall moss dripped oak trees, grotesquely masked in the late night shadows, their dimly lit lanters lighting the way.
“This place looks scary at night,” Jess said. “Of course it doesn’t help that it’s about to rain any second. It couldn’t be any darker. Or creepier.” She shuddered. “Do we have to go? Don’t you want to go back to the party?”
“Oh, shut up,” Belinda said and took a swig from the Captain Morgan she’d stolen on their way out of the party. She peered out the windshield. The large tree trunks spread their spidery branches and cast the ominous illusion of witches’ fingers reaching toward their car. She winced. “Actually, you’re right. Scary.”
Jess continued to the blue barn, located to the right of the house, at a crawl. Belinda stumbled out of the car as soon as it was parked, laughing into the palm of her hand, and leaned on the car door for support.
“Man, you’re drunk,” Jess said.
“No, I’m not. Just a little…tipsy.”
“Leave the bottle in the car.”
“Shh, where do you think Derrick is?” Belinda asked and took another sip of the rum.
Jess left the headlights on and moved around the front of the Mercedes. “My guess would be the guest house near the lower barn.”
“You’re probably right. Now where is that exactly?” Belle giggled.
“You’ve been here a dozen times. If you weren’t so drunk, you’d know.” Jess noticed a dim light coming from the window of the small ranch house near the red barn. “There. There’s a light on inside.”
Belinda wandered toward the sliding door of the big blue barn and shoved it open. Some of the horses snickered and pawed at their doors. She stumbled inside and staggered from one stall to the next, talking to each horse, until she reached Golyath’s stall. “Here’s my baby. How’s my big boy?” She reached into the bag hanging on the front of the door and pulled out some pressed apple and oat snacks. She fed him one through the metal bars, cooing to him under her breath. She glanced out of the barn at Jess, still standing in the headlights of the car. “You coming in, or what?”
“What are we doing here? I don’t like it, Belle,” Jess said and walked toward her. “We shouldn’t be here.”
“Stop whining and flip that switch to your right.”
Jess did as she was told and the center set of lights lit up overhead.
Belinda took another swig from the bottle and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I’m saying hello to my horse. I have every right to be here.” She scratched Golyath’s nose through the metal bars. “Hi, sweetie,” she murmured. “Did you miss me?”
Belinda grabbed Jess’s arm as she neared. “You hear that? Sounds like a—”
“What the hell are you two doing here?” Derrick Anderson said. He stepped in the doorway and glared at Belle. “Well?”
Belinda lost her balance as she spun around and had to grab onto Golyath’s door to keep from falling. “Derrick! You startled me,” she said and laughed.
“Sorry, Derrick. She wanted to check on her horse before we went home,” Jess grumbled.
“Okay, well you’ve seen him. He’s fine. Now leave,” Derrick said.
Belinda staggered toward Derrick along the wall of stalls. “Derrriick, Derrriick. What am I to do with you?” she sang.
“She’s obviously drunk. You need to take her home,” Derrick told Jess.
“What’s your problem with me, anyway?” Belinda asked. “I just stopped by to see my horse.”
Derrick turned to leave and called over his shoulder, “I don’t have a problem with you, Belinda. You just have to leave, that’s all. And make sure you turn off the lights and close the door on your way out.”
“Wait, where are you going?” Belinda whined.
“Back to the house.”
“No! You can’t leave. I want to talk to you.” Belinda tried to reach him, but stumbled to the ground.
Derrick looked at her and scoffed. “Another time maybe, when you’re not so drunk.”
“Wait!” she called. “Okay, okay, I’ll go. But I need you to help me to the car. Can you do that?” She sat back on her heels.
Derrick looked from Belinda to Jess then back to Belinda. He shrugged and walked up to her. “Come on, then,” he said. He hoisted her up and pulled her arm over his shoulders and wrapped his other arm around her waist.
Belinda cooed and leaned into him. He smelled shower fresh wonderful. “You smell… manly. Delicious. I could eat you up.”
“That’s enough, Belle,” Derrick said. “Hey Jess, get the door, will you?”
Jess moved around them and opened the passenger door without comment.
Belinda clung to Derrick’s neck. “Don’t put me inside. Hold me.” She pulled him toward her lips. “Kiss me.” A crack of thunder sounded and soft rain began to fall.
Derrick reached up, took her arms, and pushed her away.
Belinda’s face heated with anger and embarrassment. She gripped the bottle of rum by the neck. “Fine!” She waved the bottle. “You’ll be sorry. It’s your loss. Who needs a piece of shit like you, anyway?” Liquid sloshed around and escaped to cover Derrick’s shirt with stains of alcohol.
“Yeah, whatever,” Derrick said, wiping at his shirt. He got on the golf cart and spun it around without another word.
“Go, then, asshole! I don’t need you!”
Jess put her hand on Belinda’s shoulder. “Come on, Belle. Let’s get you home.”
Belinda whipped away from her and turned her hatred on Jess. “Get the hell away from me! Don’t touch me!” The rain fell where tears did not.
“Belle, we can’t—”
“I can do anything I want! Do you know who I am?” Belinda called, and then mumbled, “I can do anything I want.” She watched Derrick in the distance park the cart by the guest house and go inside. Her eyes filled, but even in her drunken state, she refused to let any tears fall. Little Miss Casandra Rhyne would pay for turning him against her. She whirled around to Jess. “And right now I want you to drive me to the red barn.”
“Come on, Belle…”
Belinda pushed past Jess and fell into the passenger seat. “Now!” she ordered and slammed the door.
Jess shook her head and rounded the front of the car to the driver’s seat. “Fine. You’re the boss.”
As they neared the barn, Belinda slapped Jess’s arm several times. “Turn the headlights off and go slow. Pull in over there between the barn and the wash stalls. There, near Derrick’s truck.”
Jess pulled the car halfway down the length of the barn and turned the engine off, then glared at Belinda. “Okay, genius. Now what?”
Belinda’s lips curled. “I have a plan.” She glanced at Jess and frowned. “Don’t look at me like that. This is a beauty! Remember the auction they’re doing on Wednesday at the Depot?”
Jess nodded slowly. “Aaand…”
“I’m going to make sure Arco finds his way to that auction.” Belinda laughed into her hand. “Isn’t it brilliant?”
Jess stared with wide eyes. “You have to be joking. Belle, that’s the lowest low I’ve ever heard of anyone doing—even for you—and that’s saying a lot. You can’t be serious. Cassie hasn’t done anything to you to deserve that.”
Belinda looked down her nose and reached for the door. “Well, I am, and you’re going to help me.”
“Oh, no I’m not. There are lines you just don’t cross, and this is definitely one of those lines.”
“You will or I will disown you as my friend. No more free rides to the best of everything. See how you like shopping at Wal-Mart.”
Jess shook her head. “Wal-Mart’s just fine with me. You think I hang around with you because of your money? Maybe your head has been so far up your ass that you’ve failed to notice, but my family’s not exactly poor. I don’t need your money or your handouts.”
Belinda clucked her tongue and looked away. “Fine, I’ll do it myself then.”
“And how do you plan on doing this?”
“Easy, I’m going to ride him through the woods to the old Miller place. No one’s living there and I can keep him in the barn there until morning. I’ll go back with my trailer and head to the Depot.” Belinda opened the door and stepped out. She leaned in the window and smiled at Jess. “See? Perfect! Now, drive out to the main road and meet me at the Miller place. Wait for me there.”
“You can’t go riding out there at night,” Jess scoffed. “That’s just stupid. The woods are full of quicksand, especially around the Miller place. Remember?”
Belinda rolled her eyes. “Whatever, worrywart. I know my way around. Just get going and meet me there,” she said, and shut the door quietly.
Belinda slid the barn door open and then waved to Jess. She slipped into the barn and stumbled her way to the tack room. Arco’s bridle hung on the door of his stall. Belle stood and stared at him as he slept. How quiet he looked now. Not so tough. Though she’d never admit it to another living soul, Arco scared her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been thrown by a horse. His shiny, pure black coat made him appear even larger than the 16.2 hands he stood.
She opened his door and patted him. “We’re going for a little ride and you better behave,” she said as she slid his halter from his head. She placed the bit in his mouth and moved the bridle over his ears, then led him into the aisle and hooked him to the cross-ties. Now for the saddle. Belinda scampered to the tack room and pulled the first saddle she saw.
“Stand still,” she said as she struggled with the girth. She kneed his belly, gritted her teeth, and yanked harder on the girth. “And stop bloating. It’s not my fault you have such wide withers. I’m not changing saddles now. This one will have to do.”
Arco fidgeted forward and back.
“What’s your problem, you stupid animal?” She finished saddling him and led him out of the barn, then turned the corner and waved to Jess. She walked Arco up to the green plastic mounting block and hoisted herself up onto his back.
Jess got out of the car and stared at her. “You can’t do this, Belle. It isn’t right. Cassie will never get over this.”
“Like I should care what she feels. Does she care about me? Or what I want? She doesn’t want Derrick, she just doesn’t want me to have him. Do you think she cares how much that hurts me?” Belinda turned Arco toward the north field. “Now go to the Miller place and wait for me there.”
“I’m not doing this,” Jess said with ire. “I’m sorry, but this just isn’t worth it.”
“I thought you hated her as much as I do?”
Jess frowned. “I never said I hated her, and if I did, not enough to do this.”
Belinda glanced back as Jess gt in the car and started the engine. “I can’t believe you’re just going to leave me when I need you most.”
To her amazement, Jess beeped the horn. Belinda froze and spun toward the guest house. Derrick appeared in the window and then was gone.
She glared back at Jess. “You bitch!” she called over her shoulder. She rammed her heels into Arco’s side and he lurched forward.
Derrick ran from the porch and reached out for her. “What the hell are you doing? Stop!”
Belinda kicked at him and he fell forward on his hands, missing them as they passed.
Derrick fumbled for his keys as he rounded the corner of the barn toward his truck. Jess stood beside her driver’s door.
“Derrick, I’m so sorry. She’s acting like a psycho. We have to stop her.”
“My thoughts exactly. What the hell is she doing?”
“She’s going to the old Miller place,” Jess said. “Get in. We’ll meet her there.”
Derrick ran to his truck. “No, I’ll head her off on Critchton Road.”
Derrick kicked up gravel as he slammed his foot down on the gas and fishtailed away from the barn. Belinda knew she couldn’t ride Arco. She’d get herself killed if he didn’t stop her.
He drove out onto Brayton Street and slid on the slick, wet road. He managed to straighten the truck out and floored it. If he didn’t stop her on Crichton Road, she’d be done for, and so would Arco. Cassie’s warnings of quicksand flowed back to him. What was Belle thinking riding through these woods at night? It’d be suicide.
Derrick glanced down at the speedometer and wished he could go faster but the winding, wet road kept his speed at forty-five. He slowed briefly and rounded the bend that turned into Critchton Road, then increased his speed once again.
The dull wipers washed the rain over the window in a blur. The old, dark country road gleamed in front of the headlights as Derrick made his way through the night. His heart pounded and thoughts of Cassie raced through his mind.
A dark shadow sprang from the woods to the right and appeared in the middle of the road. Derrick slammed on his brakes and the small truck fishtailed out of control. Wild eyes from girl and beast flashed before him in the light. Belinda’s screams mixed with his own, and then there was darkness.