Ashley stumbled through the trees, desperately wondering if she could make it to the road she knew must lie ahead of her, up the slope. She had even thought she saw headlights a few minutes before, though the flash of illumination through the thick, bare branches had come and gone so quickly that she mistrusted her mind’s interpretation of her senses’ information.
She mistrusted everything about her mind and her body; both were much, much too tired to give reliable data. Her feet—in sneakers never intended even to take five steps in six-inch-deep snow, let alone run more than a mile through it—were soaking and numb. At least the temperature had gone above freezing the previous day, or Ashley thought she probably wouldn’t have lasted a quarter mile.
But of course the slight melting of the snow made everything slushy and wet, and now it seemed a question not of whether she could make it to the road but of whether the dogs would find her before she fell down and made their job all too easy. And of course when the dogs did arrive she would feel grateful to be alive.
The warden would say that, too, wouldn’t he? “Young lady, you should feel grateful to be alive.”
They would bring her back. They would put her in solitary again. After three days, she would be grateful not just to be alive but to have the warden bring her to his office for a special session. The way it had happened to Jenny, right after she turned eighteen.
“It’s not so bad, sucking his cock,” Jenny had said. But Jenny’s eyes had told Ashley everything she needed to know when Ms. Barnes, who taught the computer class they were making her take, told Ashley that the warden wanted to see her.
And the warden himself hadn’t even tried to conceal his intentions much. Since the private company had taken over at Tall Oaks Juvenile Correction Facility, Ashley had been shocked on an almost daily basis by how little care the teachers and correctional officers seemed to show about covering up their abuses: the brutal way the new guards broke up fights, the cutting back of class hours. The special sessions in the warden’s office.
“Ashley, I want to make something very clear to you,” the warden said once she had sat in the metal chair across his desk from him. “I can make your life very difficult, now that you’re one of the girls we keep from ages eighteen to twenty-one.”
Most of the time, since the terrible night she had crashed her cute red convertible into the police car a month before her eighteenth birthday, she had responded with an attitude she called, to herself, Westchester pride. Ashley came from Westchester County. Her parents had given her everything she wanted and needed, including the cute red convertible. She knew full well that the world regarded her as a spoiled brat, no one more than her teachers here at Tall Oaks. Juvie.
From the moment it had become clear to Ashley Lewis that a juvenile correctional facility lay in her future, she had adopted Westchester pride as her defense. She had perfect manners; her mother had seen to that. She would never disobey, but she would also never show anyone from this horrible broken system anything more than the bare modicum of respect needed to keep out of solitary.
Ashley didn’t need computer classes, and she needed the English and Social Studies classes even less. She would go to college when she got out, in a year. Her parents had told her that. Even if what the academic classes at Tall Oaks covered had offered anything Ashley hadn’t covered in her sophomore year of high school, she would have refused to do anything but try as hard as she could to get D’s instead of the A’s she could have achieved with ridiculous ease.
“I know, sir,” Ashley replied to the warden, respecting him with her words but disrespecting him with her eyes, despite how frightened she was. Really she should be able to turn off the Westchester pride, shouldn’t she? But it had become nearly automatic.
“Do you want me to make your life difficult, Ashley? I believe Ms. Barnes said you talked back to her in class on Monday. I could isolate you for that.”
“No, sir.” Ashley swallowed.
“No, you don’t want me to make your life difficult? Or, no, you didn’t sass Ms. Barnes?” The warden, slightly paunchy and very greasy, got up from behind his desk and hitched up his belt. His badge clinked against a gold ring on his left hand: a wedding ring.
“Neither, sir.” Now, as she quailed back against the hard metal of the chair, Ashley tried everything she could to make herself respectful. It was probably the wrong decision, but there probably didn’t exist a single right one. At any rate, the warden seemed to grow in satisfaction and in authority as he noticed the effect he had on her. He sauntered around to the front of his desk and leaned against it. His crotch, covered in the blue wool of his trousers, loomed a foot away from Ashley’s face.
“Alright, then. I want you to think about what you’re willing to do for me, so that I don’t make your life difficult.”
“Like what, sir?” Her voice trembled.
“I’m sure an eighteen-year-old suburban slut like you can think of what she should be ready to do for a man who knows how to treat her. What happens in my office stays in my office. When you come back here Friday for your first special session, I want you to be ready to show me something I’d like to see, and to take what I have to give you. You’ll take off your shirt so I can play with those sweet young tits of yours, and you’ll learn to give a proper blowjob. We’ll have a good time, and you’ll have extra privileges. I’ll tell Ms. Barnes to go easy on you.”
He laid all this out there so very blandly. Ashley felt her breath coming in sharp little gasps, but the warden seemed not even to notice that he had proposed to abuse one of the girls he was supposed to be taking care of. The shock of it—despite knowing, from Jenny, that this was probably coming—felt so deep that Ashley began to feel like she didn’t even inhabit her own body.
“Or,” the warden continued, “you know, isolating you isn’t even the worst thing I can do, Ashley. If I have to, I can discipline you the old-fashioned way, on your impudent bare backside. The old paddle is still here in my office. When you come back, I can bend you over this desk and take down your panties for punishment, if that’s what it takes. Some girls need that, and I don’t mind giving a hiding—especially when a girl’s backside is as pretty as yours.”
It didn’t even seem worth mentioning the illegality of it, and the bruises she could show to anyone at Tall Oaks—no one at Tall Oaks would care.
If she made it to the road, managed to flag someone down, she might well thank the warden in her heart that he was such a bastard that he enjoyed making girls like Ashley think his abusive propositions over before their first special sessions with him. As she stumbled through the woods, she wished only that she had tried this insane escape the first night, rather than lying awake in bed all night. She might not be so tired, then.
There: headlights again. The road must be only fifty feet up the slope, which had gotten much steeper, though the trees had thinned out to scrub bushes that Ashley clawed desperately at for purchase.
The guardrail. More headlights. Which way was Tall Oaks? Which way was the nearest gas station? How could Ashley have any idea? She could beg for a cell phone, call her parents. They could start an investigation about Tall Oaks. She wouldn’t have to go back there.
Car. Cell phone.
Over the guardrail. She didn’t mean to fall down into the road, but she did. On her side, looking into the oncoming headlights.
The headlights, much too close. A scream of rubber stopping sharply on asphalt. The burning smell of the rubber, coming to her nostrils.
A moment in which she had probably been unconscious.
“Are you okay? What the hell do you think you’re doing?” A deep, worried voice.
Knees, squatting, in jeans that looked faded in the glare of the headlights. Raising her head feebly, but only catching a hint of flannel shirt.
“Can you talk? What’s your name, honey? Don’t move. We have to make sure nothing’s broken.”
The story she had made up as she lay awake, waiting to get up and make her run for it, began to come out. “Help me, please,” she said through practically numb lips.
“I’ll do my best, honey,” said the deep voice. “It looks like you can move your head, but you’ve got some really bad scrapes on your face. Try sitting up.”
Was that the baying of a dog over the sound of the pickup?
“Have to go,” she mumbled. She did try to sit up, and succeeded after one false start. She felt sore all over, especially the side of her face where it had impacted the road as she had come over the guardrail.
Ashley looked into the eyes of a tall, heavily muscled man. Her first, dismayed thought was that he must be an off-duty guard from Tall Oaks, but she didn’t recognize him, and he didn’t recognize her. He had close-cropped dark hair and a chiseled jaw with a day or two’s growth of beard.
“Take it easy,” he said. “I’m Wes. What’s your name?”
“Please,” Ashley said, “can we go? Can you take me to a gas station, maybe?”
A puzzled expression came over Wes’ face in the glow of his pickup truck’s headlights. Ashley noticed that above him, the sky seemed less dark than it had been a few minutes before as she had clambered up the slope.
“Why?” Wes said. The confusion turned to suspicion. “What are you running from? Shouldn’t I take you to the police, if you’re running from someone?”
Ashley bit her lip and gave the answer she had ready. “He’s a cop. Please, just take me… somewhere. I need to talk to my parents.”
Wes nodded. “Alright. I’ll take you to my house. It’s not much farther away than the nearest gas station. Can you get up?”
He put his arm around Ashley and got her to her feet. She had banged her hip, falling into the road, she realized now, and so she was grateful for his helping her into the high cab of the truck. She thought she heard another bark of a dog, though, and so it seemed like forever went by while he closed the passenger door and walked around to the driver’s side. After he climbed in, Wes reached behind his seat and came up with a roll of paper towels. He handed it to her.
“Hold some of these against your face and try to press down a little, okay?”
“Okay,” she replied. “I’m Ashley,” she said after he had put the truck in gear and started up down the dark road.
“What’s a pretty girl like you doing falling into a road in a place like this?”
Wes’ truck had already gone half a mile through the pre-dawn of the upstate New York woods. Had she really done it? The fear and elation that filled her chest in equal measure made it difficult to concentrate on what Wes had just said.
“I…” She realized her teeth had started to chatter.
“Shh,” Wes said, glancing over. He turned the heat up. “That’s okay. You just curl up there and go to sleep if you can. We’ve got an hour or so to drive. We can talk later.”
“Okay,” Ashley said. She must be in shock, or something. Everything seemed so far away. She curled up as the cab of the pickup got warmer. The big man—the big, kind man—next to her in the red flannel shirt looked at the road. Wes.
Then the truck was pulling up in front of a cabin, with snowy trees looming all around. Wes turned the key and looked at her, saw she had woken up. “My place,” he said. “Let’s get you inside and clean you up.”