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The Obsession, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  As in a dream, Naomi moved forward. There was a roaring in her ears now, as if she’d gone under the water too long, couldn’t get back to the surface. Her mouth was so dry, the words scraped her throat.

  “Don’t yell. You can’t yell, okay? He might hear and come back. Okay?”

  The woman nodded, and her swollen eyes pleaded.

  Naomi worked her fingernails under the edge of the tape. “You have to be quiet,” she said, whispering as her fingers trembled. “Please be quiet.” And pulled the tape away.

  It made an awful sound, left a raw, red mark, but the woman didn’t yell.

  “Please.” Her voice sounded like a rusty hinge. “Please help me. Please, don’t leave me here.”

  “You have to get away. You have to run.” Naomi looked back toward the cellar door. What if he came back? Oh God, what if the wild man who looked like her father came back?

  She tried to untie the rope, but the knots were too tight. She rubbed her fingers raw in frustration, then turned away, using her little light.

  She saw a bottle of liquor—forbidden by her father’s law in their house—and more rope, coiled and waiting. An old blanket, a lantern. Magazines with naked women on the covers, a camera, and oh no, no, no, photographs of women taped to the walls. Like this woman, naked and tied up and bloody and afraid.

  And women who stared out with dead eyes.

  An old chair, cans and jars of food on a shelf nailed to the wall. A heap of rags—no, clothes, torn clothes—and the stains on them were blood.

  She could smell the blood.

  And there were knives. So many knives.

  Closing her mind, just closing her mind to everything else, Naomi grabbed one of the knives, began to saw at the knot.

  “You have to stay quiet, stay quiet.”

  She nicked flesh, but the woman didn’t cry out.

  “Hurry, please hurry. Please, please.” She bit back a moan when her arms were free, and those arms shook as she tried to lower them. “It hurts. Oh God, God, it hurts.”

  “Don’t think about it, just don’t think about it. It hurts more when you do.” It hurt, yes, it hurt to think. So she wouldn’t think of the blood, the pictures, the heap of torn and terrible clothes.

  Naomi went to work on one of the ankle ropes. “What’s your name?”

  “I— Ashley. I’m Ashley. Who is he? Where is he?”

  Couldn’t say it. Wouldn’t say it. Wouldn’t think it. “He’s home now. The storm’s come. Can you hear it?”

  She was home, too, Naomi told herself as she cut the other rope. Home in bed, and this was all a bad dream. There was no old root cellar that smelled of musk and pee and worse, no woman, no wild man. She would wake in her own bed, and the storm would have cooled everything.

  Everything would be clean and cool when she woke.

  “You have to get up, get out. You have to run.”

  Run, run, run, into the dark, run away. Then this will never have happened.

  Sweat rolling down her battered face, Ashley tried to get up, but her legs wouldn’t hold her. She fell to the dirt floor, her breath wheezing. “I can’t walk yet—my legs. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. You have to help me. Please, help me get out of here.”

  “Your legs are asleep, that’s all.” Naomi grabbed the blanket, wrapped it around Ashley’s shoulders. “You have to try to get up.”

  Working together, they managed to get Ashley to her feet. “Lean on me. I’m going to push you up the ladder, but you have to try to climb. You have to try.”

  “I can do it. I can do it.”

  Rain whipped in on the slow, sweaty climb up, and twice on that short journey, Ashley nearly slipped. Naomi’s muscles twanged from the strain of holding the weight, of pushing. But on a last sobbing grunt, Ashley dragged herself out, lay panting on the ground.

  “You have to run.”

  “I don’t know where I am. I’m sorry. I don’t know how long I’ve been down there. A day, two. I haven’t had any food, any water since he . . . I’m hurt.”

  Tears streamed, but she didn’t sob, just stared at Naomi through the flood of them. “He . . . he raped me, and he choked me, and he cut me and hit me. My ankle. Something’s wrong with it. I can’t run on it. Can you get me out of here? To the police?”

  Rain pounded, and the lightning lit the sky like morning.

  But Naomi didn’t wake.

  “Wait a minute.”

  “Don’t go back in there!”

  “Just wait.”

  She scrambled down, into the terrible place, and picked up the knife. Some of the blood on it wasn’t fresh, wasn’t from the nicks. No, some was old and dry, and from more than nicks.

  And though it sickened her, she pawed through the heap of clothes and found a tattered shirt, a torn pair of shorts.

  She took them with her as she climbed back out. Seeing them, Ashley nodded.

  “Okay. You’re smart.”

  “I didn’t see shoes, but it’ll be easier for you with the shirt and shorts. They’re torn, but—”

  “It doesn’t matter.” Ashley bit down hard as Naomi helped her into the shorts, as she carefully lifted Ashley’s arms into the shirt.

  Naomi paused when she saw that the movement opened thin slices on Ashley’s torso, saw fresh red blood seeping.

  “You have to lean on me.” Because Ashley shivered, Naomi wrapped the blanket over her shoulders again.

  Just do, she told herself. Don’t think, just do.

  “You have to walk even if it hurts. We’ll look for a good thick stick, but we have to go. I don’t know what time it is, but they’ll look for me in the morning. We have to get to the road. It’s more than a mile into town after that. You have to walk.”

  “I’ll crawl if I have to.”

  She got to her knees, levered herself up with Naomi’s help. It was slow, and Naomi knew from Ashley’s labored breathing that it was painful. She found a downed branch, and that helped a little, only a little, as the trail went to mud in the storm.

  They crossed the creek—running fast now, from the rain—and kept going.

  “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”


  “That’s a nice name. Naomi, I have to stop for a minute.”

  “Okay, but just for a minute.”

  Ashley braced against a tree, breathing hard, leaning heavily on the broken branch while sweat and rain ran down her face. “Is that a dog? I hear a dog barking.”

  “It’s probably King. The Hardy place is right over that way.”

  “Can we go there? We can call the police, get help.”

  “It’s too close.” Mr. Hardy was a deacon at church with her father. He’d call her father before he called the police.

  “Too close? It feels like we’ve walked miles.”

  “Not even one.”

  “Okay.” Ashley closed her eyes a moment, bit down on her lip. “Okay. Do you know the man? The one who took me, the one who hurt me?”


  “You know his name, where they can find him.”

  “Yes. We have to keep going now. We have to keep going.”

  “Tell me his name.” Wincing, Ashley pushed off the tree, began her hobbling walk. “It’ll keep me going to know it.”

  “His name is Thomas Bowes. Thomas David Bowes.”

  “Thomas David Bowes. How old are you?”

  “Eleven. I’m going to be twelve on Monday.”

  “Happy birthday. You’re really smart and strong and brave. You saved my life, Naomi. You saved a life before your twelfth birthday. Don’t ever forget it.”

  “I won’t. I won’t forget. The storm’s passing.”

  She kept to the woods. It took longer that way than it would have if she’d gone out to the road. But she knew fear now, and kept to the woods until the edge of the little town of Pine Meadows.

  She went to school there, and to church, and her mother shopped in the market. She’d never been inside the sh
eriff’s office, but she knew where it was.

  As dawn lightened the sky to the east, and the first light glimmered on puddles, she walked past the church, over the narrow bridge that arched over the narrow stream. Her flip-flops made soggy flaps on the street, and Ashley limped, the branch clomping, her breath a raw pant with each step.

  “What town is this?”

  “It’s Pine Meadows.”

  “Where? I was in Morgantown. I go to college at WVU.”

  “It’s about twelve miles from here.”

  “I was training. Running. I’m a long-distance runner, believe it or not. And I was training like I do every morning. He was parked on the side of the road with the hood up, like he’d had a breakdown. I had to slow a little, and he grabbed me. He hit me with something. And I woke up in that place. I’m going to have to stop again.”

  No, no, no stopping. No thinking. Just doing.

  “We’re almost there. See, right down the road, that white house—see the sign out front?”

  “Pine Meadows Sheriff’s Department. Oh thank God. Oh thank God.” Ashley began to weep then, racking sobs that shook them both as Naomi tightened her arm around Ashley’s waist, took more weight, and trudged the rest of the way.

  “We’re safe now. We’re safe.”

  When Ashley collapsed on the narrow porch, Naomi wrapped the blanket closer around her, then knocked hard on the door.

  “Is someone going to be there? I didn’t think. It’s so early.”

  “I don’t know.” But Naomi knocked again.

  When the door opened, Naomi had a vague recognition of the young face, the tousled hair.

  “What’s all this?” he began, and then his sleepy eyes shifted by her, landed on Ashley. “Well, Jesus.”

  He shot the door open, jumped out to crouch beside her. “I’m going to get you inside.”

  “Help. Help us.”

  “You’re all right. You’re going to be all right.”

  He looked scrawny to Naomi’s eyes, but he hefted Ashley like she was nothing—and flushed a bit when the blanket slipped and the torn shirt exposed most of her left breast.

  “Honey,” he said to Naomi, “hold the door open now. Y’all have an accident?”

  “No,” Naomi said. She held the door open, had one instant to think whether she should run away, just run, or go inside.

  She went inside.

  “I’m going to set you down right here. All right now?” His eyes studied the bruising on Ashley’s throat, and knowledge came into them. “Sweetheart, you see that water fountain over there. How about you get—What’s your name now?”

  “Ashley. Ashley McLean.”

  “You get Ashley some water, would you?”

  He turned as he spoke, then spotted the knife Naomi held at her side. In that same easy tone, he said, “Why don’t you give that to me, all right? There you go.”

  He took the knife from Naomi’s limp hand, set it up on a shelf out of reach.

  “I need to make some calls, and one to the doctor who’ll come and examine you. But we’re going to have to take some pictures. Do you understand?”


  “And I’m calling the sheriff in, and there’ll be questions. You up to that?”


  “All right now. Drink a little water. That’s a good girl,” he said to Naomi, running a gentle hand over her wet hair as she brought the paper cup to Ashley.

  He grabbed a phone from a desk, punched in numbers.

  “Sheriff, it’s Wayne. Yeah, I know what time it is. We got a woman here who’s hurt. No, sir, not an accident. She’s been assaulted, and she’s going to need a full exam.” He turned away, spoke quietly, but Naomi heard the words rape kit.

  “Kid brought her in. I think it’s Tom and Sue Bowes’s girl.”

  Ashley lowered the cup, stared into Naomi’s eyes. “Bowes.”

  “Yes. I’m Naomi Bowes. You need to drink.”

  “So do you, baby.” But Ashley set the cup aside and drew Naomi to her. “So do you.”

  When she broke, when everything finally broke inside her, Naomi laid her head on Ashley’s shoulder and wept.

  Ashley met Wayne’s eyes over Naomi’s head. “It was her father who did this to me. It was Thomas David Bowes who did this. And it was Naomi who saved me.”

  Wayne let out a breath. “Sheriff, you better get in here right quick.”


  When the sheriff came, Wayne took Naomi into another room, bought her a candy bar and a Coke. She’d never been allowed such indulgences, but she didn’t argue it. He got a first-aid kit and began to doctor the cuts and scratches she hadn’t realized she’d inflicted on herself on that long hike through the woods.

  He smelled of Juicy Fruit gum—she saw the yellow pack of it sticking out of his breast pocket.

  And she would always, from that morning on, associate the gum with simple kindness.

  “Honey, you got a favorite teacher?”

  “Um. I don’t know. I guess Miss Blachard maybe.”

  “If you want, I could call her, ask her to come in, be with you.”

  “No. No, that’s okay. She’s going to know. Everybody’s going to know.” It made her chest hurt, so she looked away. “But I don’t want to be there when they do.”

  “All right. We got a nice nurse coming in to be with Ashley, to go with her when she goes to the hospital. Do you want somebody like that? Maybe who doesn’t know you.”

  “I don’t want anybody. What’s going to happen?”

  “Well, the sheriff’s talking to Ashley right now for a little bit, and then they’ll take her into the hospital in Morgantown and fix her up.”

  “She hurt her ankle.”

  “They’ll fix it, don’t you worry. You want a different kind of candy bar?”

  Naomi looked down at the Snickers she hadn’t opened. “No, sir. I just never had candy first thing in the morning.”

  “How about Easter?” Smiling, he put a Band-Aid on a small, deep scratch.

  “That’s a holy day. It’s for praying, not for candy rabbits.”

  Even as she echoed her father’s words, she saw the pity in the deputy’s eyes. But he only patted her legs. “Well. We’ll get you a hot breakfast soon as we can. You be all right here for just a minute?”

  “Am I under arrest?”

  Not pity now, but that Juicy Fruit kindness again as he laid a hand on her cheek, gentle as a mother. “For what, honey?”

  “I don’t know. You’re going to arrest my daddy.”

  “Don’t you worry about that right now.”

  “I saw him. I saw him when he came out of that cellar in the