Home > Tied (All Torn Up #2)(15)

Tied (All Torn Up #2)(15)
Author: Carian Cole

He’s gone.

Turning in a circle, I frantically search my surroundings, dizzying myself, but he’s nowhere to be seen.

Monsters are everywhere. You can’t escape them. They will always, always find you.

I walk as fast as I possibly can back to the road, my eyes darting through the woods, hoping to see Poppy while, at the same time, petrified the strange man will jump out at me again. Did that even happen? I push my hair out of my face and press my fingers to my temples, not sure if I imagined it all.

Miraculously, I find the road, relief overpowering me that I didn’t get lost. When I reach the driver waiting for me at the side of the road, I’m out of breath and covered in a cold sweat.

“You okay?” she asks as I slam the car door behind me.

“Yes,” I reply, heart still racing. I press my face nearly into the window, looking out into the woods. “Did you see anyone?”

“Who?” she asks, confusion in her voice.

“Anyone,” I answer impatiently. “Did you see anyone walking around? Or a little white dog?”

She shakes her head and starts the car. “You trippin’? I didn’t see anyone at all. Or a dog. Sorry.”

As scared and worried as I am, I tell myself Poppy looked happy. His tail was wagging. He went willingly with the man with the Santa hat, so he must be a good person. Poppy would never wag his tail if he were scared. But even with that small amount of comfort, I know I can’t just forget him and hope he’s okay forever. I need to make sure he’s safe, and maybe, just maybe, I can bring him home. Having Poppy living with me would definitely make me happy.

When the taxi driver drops me off at Merryfield, she gives me her business card so I can contact her again when I need to be taken someplace. I shove it in my pocket, already knowing I’m going to be calling her tomorrow.

For once, I’m glad Feather is engrossed in a deep phone conversation when I get home. I’m way too rattled to talk to her right now, and I definitely don’t want her to see me this way. She’ll start hammering me with questions I’m just not ready to answer. I’m not even sure if what happened today really happened. There’s a possibility I made it all up in my head.

I take a long, hot shower—one of the few things in life that calms me. I didn’t have a shower when I was taken, only an old, dirty bathtub with no hot water, which still makes me shiver just thinking about it.

Before I climb into bed, I do my nightly ritual of looking out my window at the moon and stars, which are bright like city lights tonight.

“I miss the sky and the sun and the moon and the stars. I miss knowing if it’s day or night out.”

“Day or night, it’s all the same for you, little girl.”

A tiny spark of light draws my attention away from the sky. Out in the yard, near one of the storage sheds, I can barely make out the shadowy figure of a man smoking a cigarette in the dark. Frowning, I pull the window blind down and step away. It’s probably one of the other patients, even though smoking is not allowed here.

As odd as today was, I’m grateful for two things. First, I set out to achieve the goal of finding one of the decorated trees, and I found one. And second, I learned that Poppy is alive and well, and he appears to be living with the legendary Forest Santa. I’m sure I didn’t imagine that part of what happened today. It was real.

I’m not going to let the bizarre man in the scary mask stop me from going back to try to find my dog, even though my mind is spinning with questions. Is he the Forest Santa? Why would he try to scare me? Isn’t Santa supposed to be happy? Or was it someone else entirely? I was so stricken with fear when the man jumped out of the tree, I didn’t notice if he was wearing the same clothes as the man with the Santa hat. All I could see was that eerie mask.

The next morning is almost an exact replica of the one before it. The driver takes me to the same place she did yesterday, and I walk up the same dirt road to the path, only this time with the added fear of running into the man with a plastic garbage bag tied around his head.

The scent of burning wood floats through the air, getting stronger with each step I take on the frost-covered trail. This time, I turn left at the fork in the path. Soon, I spy a tiny house with smoke curling out of the chimney. The house is small and well hidden amongst the trees and looks almost exactly like the tiny cottages in my fairy-tale books. The small windows have white shutters and flower boxes, waiting for spring flowers. A vine, gray from the cold, creeps up the house, on a trellis, all the way up to a tiny stained glass window on the second floor. A stone walkway begins not far from where I’m standing, runs to the front door, and branches off to a matching detached garage. Various birdhouses, all painted in bright colors, hang from the trees and sit atop wooden posts. It’s simply the most magical place I’ve ever seen in real life.

My excited breath is a cloud of mist as I approach the house. I’m so busy huffing out more puffs of my own personal clouds that I almost miss the man perched, still as a statue, on a huge rock between the house and the small garage. He doesn’t look in my direction, even though my boots are crunching rather loudly in the dead leaves. Poppy, however, comes running to me like a white tornado as soon as he sees me. His odd bark makes me smile, and I’m relieved to see that he is real and not a figment of my imagination. I kneel down in the dirt and leaves and gather him up into my lap, his little body wiggling with happiness in unison with his tail.

“I missed you so much. So much,” I whisper, kissing his head as tears of happiness fall down my cheeks and onto his fur. “Did you miss me too?” He responds by licking my face and making happy whimpering noises. He must have been bathed because he’s much whiter and softer than I remember him and he smells fresh and clean. Feather would be impressed that even Poppy’s “evil shit” has been washed away.

I lift my head and finally lock eyes with the guy on the rock, and my heart does a leap into my throat. It’s him. I almost didn’t recognize him. Now it all makes sense. Yesterday he was wearing a hat, and his long-sleeved flannel shirt covered his tattoos. But today, his shaggy hair is visible, and the sleeves of his sweatshirt are pushed up. There’s no denying those tattoos are the same ones I’ve seen twice before. I can’t believe he’s had my dog all this time. That he’s been here this whole time. Surely my parents and my doctor knew he lived right here in the same tiny town, knew I could have run into him, but still refused to let me write to him.

He appears normal to me—not mentally deranged, as I was told—other than defiling a holiday song, decorating a tree in the middle of nowhere, and not wearing a jacket in the cold. He continues to stare at me, totally expressionless.

Tyler Grace. In my head, he’s always been the prince. Silly, I know. But that’s who he is to me. I stand, holding Poppy in my arms, and slowly walk toward him, stopping about ten feet away. Not because I’m afraid of him, but because he seems to require a lot of personal space.

“Hi.” I quickly swipe the damp tears from my cheeks with my fingers. He looks away from me, and I frown at the back of his head. This is not the reunion I was expecting. I take one more step closer. “You’re Tyler, right?”

His mouth opens but, instead of answering me, he yawns. Yawns!

For a year, I believed that he would return to me one day and, instead, I’ve returned to him. I tell myself it must be fate. And instead of sharing in my excitement, he yawns.

“Do you remember me?” I ask, undaunted.

Nothing. As irritating and rude as it is, his ability to completely ignore me is impressive.

Hesitantly, I take two steps closer to him. The unique tattoo on his hand is visible, as is the strange, ragged, discolored skin of his other hand. I remember how those hands squeezed the throat of my captor after I dropped the rock onto his head to make him release the knife he was swinging. That knife and I were very familiar, and I have the scars to prove it. The paralyzing fear I felt in that moment, before I let the rock fall on his head, was intense. I made the choice of who would live or die that day.

“I’m the girl in the hole.” For all the times I hated being called that, here I am using it to introduce myself.

He nods his head slowly but still refuses to turn to face me or speak. I understand his silence, the fear of speaking words. Or hearing them. I felt that way for months after I was found.

“You don’t have to talk. I just wanted to say thank you. You saved my life. And you kept Poppy. I never thought I would see him again.” I hug my dog tighter, and he nuzzles his face into my neck just like he used to. “I had no idea what happened to him. I’ve missed him more than I can even say.”

Finally, he glances over at me and, wow, his eyes are a startling bright blue.

“You’re the Forest Santa?” I half ask and half state. “I love how you decorate the trees. My birthday is on Christmas Day, so I sorta have a thing for anything Christmassy. My parents even named me Holly.” My babbling is becoming embarrassing. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone that it’s you. I’m good at keeping secrets.”

A faint smirk crosses his lips. It’s small, and not really a smile, but I saw it before it disappeared, and it’s enough to make me want to see a genuine smile from him. I have a feeling it would be the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen.

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