Escape From the Woods
Chapter 1. A Pendant on the Table
“This whole screeching seriously freaks me out,” Alycia whined, and pointed at real estate signs hanging from a pole near an apartment building they were passing.
“Well, Winnipeg is the Chicago of the North. The Windy City.” Mira shivered, and tightened the scarf around her neck. The wind was always the strongest on Grant Avenue. The street was wide; and with the church on a hill on one side, and a Hydro station on the other, the winds would speed up.
“Let’s take a side street.” Mira grabbed Alycia’s sleeve, and pulled.
“Just not a back alley, OK? They freak me out.”
“Everything freaks you out,” Mira grumbled.
They trod through Harrow Street, rustling with November leaves under their feet. Some lawns were neatly cut, and others were covered in wrinkled brown leaves. Some had half rotten pumpkins left after Halloween; some were already decorated with cheesy reindeer and inflatable Santas.
“Is your Mom home tonight?” Alycia asked in a hopeful voice. Mira’s Mom being home meant treats. She worked in a bakery, and never came home empty-handed.
“Yeah. She had the morning shift today. She promised some cinnamon buns.”
The girls made the last turn, and Mira pushed the back lane gate open. They crossed the patchy, sad looking lawn of the back yard, and Mia climbed the stairs of the porch, habitually jumping over a broken step without looking.
“Your Mom needs to have someone fix it for her,” Alycia mumbled just as always.
“Well, she says once Tom Hiddleston marries her, she’ll hand him the hammer.” Mira rummaged through her backpack looking for keys.
“I thought it was Benedict Cumberbatch.”
“He was last week. We rewatched Avengers couple days ago.”
Alycia laughed, while Mira fumbled with the lock. The key didn’t turn.
“Did she forget to lock it again?” Alycia asked with a chuckle, and Mira rolled her eyes.
“I mean it’s not the North End, but we do live in the ‘hood,’” Mira grumbled mimicking quotation marks around the word.
They entered and were pushing off their boots when Mira noticed that the lights were off in the whole house.
No one answered, and Mira flapped the light switch. The tiny hall of their house remained dark.
“Light bulb dead?” asked Alycia, and Mira gave out a nervous laugh. Something felt iffy.
“Yeah. Tom has a lot of work to do here,” Mira joked in a forced light tone.
They stuffed the jackets on the washing machine, and went into the kitchen. When the light went on, Mira exhaled with relief. There wasn’t anything to creep her out, let’s face it; but seeing their good old kitchen – with its IKEA table and her Mom’s collection of mugs – felt good.
And then she say the Kolovrat on the table.
“Freaking hell,” Mira breathed out, and rushed to the table. The Kolovrat – a heavy round silver pendant – lay on her palm.
“Is that your Mom’s necklace?” Alycia asked, but Mira was already rushing out of the kitchen.
“C’mon! Alycia, move! We’re leaving!” Mira grabbed her jacket, pushed one arm in, and was pulling on her boot, when Alycia appeared from the kitchen.
“What are you doing?”
“Move! Get your stuff! We’re leaving!” Mira pushed the other foot into the boot, and glared at her friend. “Alycia!”
“Are you nuts?”
“Listen, I’ll explain everything, but right now we need to go!” Mira shouted at her friend, and the girl shook her head and started getting dressed. To Mira it felt like the blonde was plodding through molasses.
“Hurry! Alycia, c’mon!” Mira pushed the jacket and the backpack into Alycia’s hands, and pulled her out of the house without letting her get dressed.
“You’re totally crazy, you know that right?” Alycia mumbled, while Mira dragged her across the street, into the house of their neighbour, Ms. Klaassen.
Mira rang the bell, clutching the pendant in her hand inside her pocket.
“Why are we going to your neighbour?” Alycia asked in a cranky voice, but Mira ignored her.
Ms. Klaassen was a white-haired, wonderfully liberal lady in her sixties. Mira adored her, and spent hours in her living room, having tea and listening to stories about Ms. Klaassen’s youth, and running away from her Mennonite family in Steinbeck, and going to the Folk Festival, and how Leonard Cohen once told her she was a sexy thing.
Mira rang the bell again, and the door opened.
“Mira, how lovely of you to stop by!” Ms. Klaassen greeted her with a wide smile.
“My Mom… She left me the pendant. She said to come to you at once if it happened,” Mira breathed out, and lifted the hand with the Kolovrat sitting on it.
“Oh dear,” Ms. Klaassen gasped, wrapped her arm around Mira’s shoulders, and pulled her inside. “Come in, come in! And you too, young lady,” she ordered to Alycia. “Straight to the living room, you two.”
Mira rushed through the old, lop-sided house, maneuvering around Ms. Klaassen’s assorted furniture.
“Mira, what’s going on?” Alycia asked in a small voice, and Mira plopped on Ms. Klaassen’s worn down couch. Dylan, the elderly mongrel, lifted his head, gave Mira a look over from his basket, and went back to sleep with a sigh. The girls could hear Ms. Klaassen move around, somewhere in the depth of the house, rustling with something, dropping things, and judging by the sounds, closing windows.
“My Mom has this rule,” Mira started. Alycia stood awkwardly tucked in a corner of the living room, right next to a statue of a Cupid with a missing left foot. “This is her pendant.” Mira showed the Kolovrat on the open palm. “She never takes it off. And the rule is – if I find it sitting on the kitchen table, it means I have to drop everything I’m doing and run here.”
“Like a code message, or something? Does it mean she’s in danger? And you?” Alycia asked worriedly. Mira shrugged. “I mean, does it have to do with a guy? Like you have an abusive dad, or something, and you two ran away from him?”
“I don’t know,” Mira answered. “I told you everything I know. She never talks about my Dad, and about her life in Russia. No friends, or family, from back there. Just the two of us.”
Mira looked down at the silver circle of the Kolovrat. Six axes formed a circle that was supposed to represent the Sun, and the circle of life. There were some smaller symbols weaved into a pattern around the rim, but Mira’s Mom never spoke of them. She never explained anything about it, to be honest; Mira had to Google it when she got curious. There was just the rule about the kitchen table.
Ms. Klaassen came into the room, her glasses bobbing, propped on top of her disheveled head.
“Alright, alright, I think I got everything,” she was mumbling under her nose. “The money, the phone… Let me see…”
She hastily dropped a wild assortment of objects on a coffee table. Mira gawked at a box potentially containing a new iPhone; a fat sealed envelope; and a plastic bag with what looked like socks, underwear, and couple t-shirts.
“Alright.” Ms. Klaassen exhaled sharply. “So, my instructions are such. I am to give you these things, and then find you a room in a small hotel, and settle you in it. Before it, I need to give a call to a John Bessemer.” Ms. Klaassen started patting her jeans clad hips, probably looking for her phone. She always forgot it in her purse. “Oh, and you’re supposed to put on the pendant. There’s a silver chain in the bag with the clothes. You need to put it on, and never, under any circumstances to take it off.” Ms. Klaassen recited diligently. “Where’s my phone?”
“Have you checked your purse?” Mira offered in a bleak tone. The situation felt surreal.
“Ah yes.” Ms. Klaassen rushed to the hall, in search of her tote bag.
“Is it mafia?” Alycia asked from her corner. “It must be mafia. Russian mafia, like the one they showed in Spooks. You know, with creepy tattoos on their backs.” Alycia vaguely gestured above her shoulder.
“I don’t know, OK?” Mira hissed back, and stuck her hand in her short copper curls. “I do not know! I mean, my Mom has some weird rules, like no speaking Russian in public, and other stuff, but that’s just crazy!”
“Yeah. I bet it’s mafia…” Alycia drew out, and then Ms. Klaassen reappeared.
“Alright, I found the phone, and here’s the number.” She shook her loyal phone book in her hand. She was the only person Mira knew who had a real phone book – a small, leather bound notebook, worn out, with receipts and random pieces of paper sticking out of it. “Do you girls want anything while I’m calling? I can make tea.”
“No, we’re good,” Alycia answered quickly, and Mira glared at her. She was no less curious about the call and didn’t want to leave the room, but maybe she wanted tea!
“Alright, alright…” The neighbour mumbled some digits, pressing the screen of her old Motorola with a tense index finger, and then she pressed the phone to her ear.
The voice that answered was clearly male, and very low.
“Mr. Bessemer?” Ms. Klaassen gave out a small awkward cough. “Hello! My name is Edith Klaassen, and I was given your number by Yana Krapiva. She told me to call you in case of emergency.”
Ms. Klaassen listened to a short answer from the man, while nervously twirling her phone book in her fingers.
“Yes, yes, she told me to call you. I have her daughter here, and…” The man sharply interrupted her with a question. “Yes, daughter, Mira,” Ms. Klaassen answered. “What is it? Fourteen. She’s fourteen. Yes, and she’s in my living room.” Now Ms. Klaassen and the man were talking at the same time. “Yes, I know she can’t stay here, Yana told me it’s not safe. I’ll put her into a hotel. And yes, she has the phone. She will turn it on. I have to say I’m completely clueless in the questions of technology… What?” the woman asked, clearly interrupted again. “Yes, of course, I’ll let her know that she needs to text you to let you know where she is. Alright… Yes… Alright…” She was now listening, and nodding, and confirming, and Mira tore her eyes off her and looked at Alycia. Mira wondered if she was just as pale as her friend.
“So, I guess you aren’t coming to school tomorrow, heh?” Alycia whispered.
Mira suddenly realized that it was really happening, and bit into her bottom lip. Her hands were shaking.
“I’ll text you, OK? Or message you,” she answered quietly.
“Sure.” Alycia nodded. Neither of them looked sure.
Ms. Klaassen hung up, or more precisely, the man did, and she was now staring at the screen.
“What a strange man,” she muttered, and then looked at Mira. “Well, my dear, it’s time to go. And you…” She turned to the other girl.
“Alycia, I’m sorry to be so rude, but you need to go. Do I need to give you a ride? I’ll just have to look up a hotel in Yellow Pages…” She was now looking for her glasses, which were still sitting on top of her head.
“No, it’s OK. I live just couple streets away, so I’ll just.. go.”
“Yeah, right…” Mira jumped on her feet. “You look up that hotel, Edith, and I’ll show her out.”
“Lovely, lovely, my dear.” Ms. Klaassen was already rummaging through the skyscrapers of book stacks that covered every surface in her living room.
The girls shuffled to the door. They both seemed to be stalling, and suddenly Alycia sniffled.
“You will text me, right? I mean, if you can…” she choked out, and Mira swallowed the knot in her throat.
It felt weird to look at Alycia – same old Alycia, with her red backpack, and a Gryffindor scarf, and sweatpants, and her blonde hair in a bun.
“Yeah, of course. I’ll text you about everything, as soon as I know.” Mira answered in a fake cheery tone. “I mean, it’s a real adventure, and I bet it’s just one of my Mom’s spasms, and tomorrow it’ll all be fine. Or even tonight, you know?” She made a jerky gesture, which was supposed to look like a nonchalant wave of a hand. “I bet she’ll show up in half an hour, and will pick me up from the hotel, and we will laugh about it.”
“Yeah…” Alycia opened the door, and looked at Mira over her shoulder. “Well, good luck, I guess. And… See you.”
“Bye,” Mira answered, closed the door, and pressed her back to it. She could hear Ms. Klaassen clank and bang with something in the kitchen. The dim hall looked spooky, and Mira hurried into the living room.
Ms. Klaassen was stuffing an apple and a sandwich in a Ziplock into the bag with clothes that she’d brought out for Mira.
“Alright, my dear. I’ll drive us now, and you turn on your new phone. And Mr. Bessemer said you’re supposed to leave your old one at home, so you just give it to me, and I’ll drop it off. He was very insistent on not leaving it here, so I promised I’d take it to your house.”
“I can’t leave my phone! I mean, I have my stuff there!” Mira exclaimed helplessly, and Ms, Klaassen threw her a sympathetic look.
“I know, Mira, I know. It’s all very sudden, and so unfortunate, but we need to go. And your Mom was adamant that we need to listen to her and to that Mr. Bessemer.”
Biting her bottom lip again, Mira put her Samsung on the coffee table, and after a pause she opened her backpack and took out her iPad. Something told her, it had to go too.
For a moment she asked herself whether she should leave her school books as well, but then she brushed the thought off as ridiculous. She’d be back home soon, and go to school – back to normal life. That was just some crazy misunderstanding.
Dropping her keys, and mumbling something about her glasses being in the car, Ms. Klaassen went to the back door. Mira put the plastic bag and the envelope into her backpack, grabbed the iPhone box, and walked after her.
The first thing she did in the car was put on the Kolovrat. It lay on her neck as an unpleasant weight. Some vague memory came, of sitting on her Mom’s lap, and picking the pendant up. The thing weighed a ton, and was disgustingly cold on Mira’s skin under the shirt.
She was unpacking the phone, and putting the prepaid number in, when Ms. Klaassen sighed near her.
“So, my dear, first things first. That envelope your Mom left you? That’s money. She told me to tell you she trusted your judgement, and that you’d do just fine, but because she didn’t know for how long you needed to last on your own, you should still be careful.”
“Last on my own?!” Mira screeched out. And that was when it all became just a bit too much. “Wait, do you mean to tell me she’s not coming back?”
“Mira, my dear…”
“No, no wait, I’m just not getting it, OK? She disappears, leaves me cash and a phone like in a spy movie, and I’m supposed to text some guy where I am, so I guess he’s coming to pick me up, or something…”
“Yes, Mr. Bessemer is driving from Saskatoon to pick you up, that’s what he told me,” Ms. Klaassen muttered.
“Oh that’s just great. So, some guy is driving from Saskatchewan to pick me up in a hotel, and it’s unknown for how long I’m supposed to stay on my own, and I haven’t even heard about him! I mean, my Mom never spoke of a single guy in her life, and now, all of a sudden, there’s some Mr. Bessemer that I’m supposed to listen to.”
“Mira, I’m sorry,” Ms. Klaassen’s voice trembled. “I have no explanation for you. Your Mother never divulged anything to me. When she first told me of all this… procedure, to be honest, I thought she was joking, But she spoke of it again and again, and I eventually agreed. I don’t know anything, Mira, I’m sorry.”
“That’s just fantastic,” Mira grumbled, and turned away, her eyes on the darkness behind the car window.
Winnipeg streets rushed by. Everything was familiar. There’s her Mom’s favourite pizza place; the Tim’s they stopped at on the way from the pool; the park she played in when she was small, and where Dan Jansen kissed her last year. The guy was a jerk, but she kind of liked him, because he was tall and cute; so they went out to movies couple times, and then he kissed her. She hated it, and was complaining to her Mom, who was trying not to laugh, but failed. Mira could just see how her Mom wrinkled her nose, and was coughing, hiding her usual giggles. Mira felt her eyes prickle.
“But how’s my Mom going to know where I am? Is she with that Mr. Bessemer?” Mira asked quietly, without turning her head. Ms. Klaassen sighed and once again reminded Mira that she knew nothing. That was just perfect, wasn’t it?
In the hotel Ms. Klaassen talked to the clerk, pretending to rent the room for both of them. She made a fuss about having two beds there, her acting appalling, and then they took an elevator to the seventh floor.
The room was dim, and cold, and smelled of detergent. Mira dropped her backpack on the disgustingly bland coloured carpet, and switched the lights on.
“Well, my dear…” Ms. Klaassen awkwardly shifted between her feet. “I’m sorry to leave you, I’d rather we had dinner together, but I promised to take your phone into your house right away. I’ll order your some room service, and then I’ll be off. I’m also supposed to make sure no one comes to clean your room, and bother you in any way. And you text Mr. Bessemer, with the hotel address, and the room number…” The woman handed Mira a piece of paper with a number. It had a Toronto code. “And don’t take off the pendant, alright?”
Mira nodded, returned Ms. Klaassen’s tight hug and mumbled hurried goodbyes – and suddenly she was alone in a hotel room.
Mira texted the number, and received a short ‘OK. Stay there. Wait for me. Don’t talk to anyone’ in return. She ate the steak and mashed potatoes Ms. Klaassen ordered for her, watched TV, and went to sleep. Falling asleep turned out quite easy. The sheets were crisp and clean, and Mira had never slept in such a wide bed. There were so many pillows that she built a wall around herself, and fell asleep clutching Lisa in her hand. Lisa was a three inch tall ragdoll, her Mom made for her. It was distinctly Russian looking, with yellow yarn braids, red cheeks, and a flowery dress, and was normally hanging on Mira’s backpack. Mira was often asked if she’d bought it on Etsy.
Since she had nowhere to go in the morning, she didn’t set an alarm, and when she woke up the sun was shining through the curtains. A sunny day in November was a rare gift in Winnipeg.
Mira went down to the restaurant in the lobby, quickly ate her breakfast hoping no one would ask any questions, and hurried up back to the room. She then proceeded to watch TV all day, throwing glances at her iPhone. There was no data on it. She could of course use the hotel’s Wi-Fi, but ‘don’t talk to anyone’ in the mysterious Mr. Bessemer’s text probably meant no social media. She snacked on some crappy chips and candies from the minibar mid day, and for dinner she finished her last night’s food. The steak was still fine. She’d prudently put the plate and ms. Klaassen’s sandwich into the room’s tiny fridge for the night. The question of the food for the next day was troublesome. She wondered if she’d be allowed to order room service, but then she decided she’d just go out, buy something, and bring it to the room.
That posed the question of money, and Mira fished the envelope out of her backpack and gingerly ripped one side open.
She’d never in her life seen so much cash! There were four thick stacks of hundred dollar bills, new and crisp, and a smaller envelope inside with twenties and loonies and toonies. Mira couldn’t even imagine how much was in the stacks, but somehow she felt almost sick at the thought of counting it. Until she did, it was still just a weird adventure that she didn’t have to fully participate in. Counting money and planning budget would make it real.
She stuffed the money back in the backpack, and looked in the plastic bag. Cheery socks, colourful underwear – all the usual stuff she bought for herself – were also new, and neatly folded. Tees were the cool kind, ordered from ThinkGeek probably, couple with Tardis, and one with R2D2. All of it was just screaming her Mom, and Mira pushed it inside, wrapped the arms around her knees, and started crying.
It was a quiet hissing noise that woke her up. She opened her eyes in the darkness of the room, and listened.
The sound was coming from the door, somewhere low, as if from the appalling brownish greyish carpet. The hiss was high, like air escaping an inflatable mattress. It was also slowly approaching Mira’s bed.
Mira felt frozen, still staring at the blackness above her, just listening. She ordered herself to turn her head, and look – but couldn’t.
And then a loud knock came to the door making her jump up and press her hands to her middle. There was a nasty taste in her mouth, just as always when she was scared or nervous, metallic, and bitter. She then slid off the bed and minced to the door.
In the peephole, she was presented with the fisheye view of a tall, dark haired man, with black beard, in a black peacoat, collar upturned.
And at his feet, slithering and twisting, Mira saw a giant knot of stark black snakes. She could clearly see the forked tongues darting out, the scaly bodies, the beady eyes – and at the same time, while the man seemed corporeal and mundane, the snakes were as if shimmering, not quite present, like a hologram in a sci-fi movie.
The man impatiently jerked his neck and knocked loudly again.
“Mira, open the door! It’s me, John Bessemer.” The voice was low and authoritative. There was an accent too. Mira watched Doctor Who with her Mom. That was Northern British accent – like Eccleston’s Doctor’s.
“Mira!” the man called again.
The snakes hissed louder, and Mira saw three or four of them slide under the door. She pressed a hand over her mouth muffling a squeak and jumped away from the door. There were no snakes inside, but the sound was there.
Mira rushed back and jumped on the bed, wanting nothing but to get her feet off the floor. She then pulled her knees to her nose and wrapped her arms around them.
Another knock and another ‘Mira, open the door!’ came, and she covered her ears with her hands. And yet, she could still hear the high monotonous hiss.