“Don’t you dare give me the silent treatment, Candace! You can’t walk away from this! I’m your mother, damn it!”
That enraged, semi-sober voice blared through the thin wooden door of Candy’s bedroom. Along with those booming words came a succession of loud banging, the echoes of an angry woman’s fist pounding on the door. If the way the hinges shook were any indication, it wouldn’t be long before they gave out. Candy needed to be long gone before then.
Working with increasing urgency, the nineteen-year-old woman that her classmates had nicknamed the ‘Trailer-Trash Princess’ stuffed everything she could into a blue gym bag. The bag contained the most precious material anyone could possibly have…a ticket out of Haven Hill.
“Goddamn it, Mom! The one night I wished you’d get drunk and pass out on the couch,” muttered Candy under her breath. “Guess getting out of this hellhole isn’t supposed to be that easy.”
With sweat forming on her forehead, Candy dug through her dresser drawers and closet to gather everything she needed for her trip. Some of the items were simple, such as spare clothes, some snacks, a small bag of toiletries and a cheap phone she’d bought at a thrift store. Others were a bit more volatile, most notably an envelope of cash she’d been saving since her sophomore year of high school.
What Candy had done to get that money, she wasn’t proud of. Whether it involved letting her prom date have anal sex with her to giving blow jobs to one of the deputies, she’d done everything someone with her looks and bra size could do. It had all been for a reason, though.
It still didn’t amount to much—a few thousand dollars in dirty bills. She would’ve loved to have had more, but time had run out. Either she left Haven Hill tonight or she stayed trapped here, carving out whatever life a pretty face could hope for in a rotting corpse of a town. For Candy, the choice was clear. She wanted more out of life. Unlike the countless others who’d tried to leave, she had something—not to mention someone—to guide her.
“Candace Cain Carter, this is your last warning!” her mother yelled from the other side of the door. “Open this goddamn door and we’ll talk about this!”
“Sorry, Mom, but you’ll have to do better than that,” Candy replied as she zipped her bag. “I know all about your gambling debts. You still can’t bluff worth a damn.”
“Then believe me when I say I’ll tie you to the nearest tree and run a jackhammer up your ass if you don’t open this door! You lied to me, Candy! You made a promise!”
“Wrong!” Candy spat. “I told you what you wanted to hear. It’s your fault you believed me.”
“That’s even worse!”
“I know…which is why I’m not opening that door.”
That earned her another round of angry yelling and hard pounding. The hinges started to give way. She was almost ready to go but needed more time.
She bought more by pushing her dresser against the door. It ended up making a mess. Everything she had stacked on top of it fell onto the floor in messy heap. There were still a lot of items Candy wanted to take with her. The only ones she could get were a personal notebook and an old textbook she’d stolen from school.
I thought I could skip the yelling and do this quietly. Guess I’m still not as smart as I’m trying to be.
So many things had gone wrong already. Candy hadn’t planned on making her escape tonight. She’d stepped up her timetable because she’d foolishly forgotten to check the mail earlier. That meant her mother had found the bus ticket she’d ordered from the public library that she intended to use to escape Haven Hill.
When her mother had confronted her about it, Candy had done what she could to explain herself. It had led to an argument, followed by a lot of yelling, followed by a very distressing revelation that had convinced her she needed to leave tonight and not a moment later.
After stuffing the two books in her backpack, Candy got up on her bed, removed the frame from the lone window in her room and crawled out.
That proved harder than expected. The window was small and not built to accommodate a nineteen-year-old girl’s body. Her mother probably didn’t even know it could be opened. Candy had made sure it would, having unscrewed the frame and pried off the insulation months ago. She’d expected to do so quietly and in the dead of night. She’d had to revise those expectations, among many others.
“Candy!” her mother shouted. “Don’t you fucking dare!”
Candy then made the mistake of looking back as she crawled out of the window. In that moment, she saw the mix of outrage and anguish on her mother’s face as she burst through the door, the hinges and cheap dresser finally giving way. She even saw traces of tears. At the same time, however, she also saw why she’d chosen to leave.
Her mother, once a pretty face with a great rack, had been the template for what women could expect if they stayed in Haven Hill. That pretty face earned her more comforts than most, but those looks had long since faded. Now, she was just a burned-out, hard-drinking, chain-smoking bitch who’d banked too much on her looks. Her mother had become so jaded and bitter that she’d come to see her daughter as a mere means to an end.
That realization—a realization that Candy had spent a good chunk of her youth struggling to accept—kept her from hesitating a second longer. As far as she knew, tonight was the last time she would see her mother.
“Goodbye, Mom. I’m sorry,” Candy said under her breath.
Another round of angry, alcohol-fueled yelling followed. Candy shut it out as best she could. Her mother shoved things out of her way to get across her room and try to grab her foot before she escaped. She missed by just a few inches. With any luck, she’d fallen flat on her face and passed out.
“You won’t get far, Candy! I already called Paul! He and the sheriff are on their way!” her mother shouted out of the window.
Damn! My luck is just that bad tonight.
Assuming it could only get worse, Candy ran the second she felt the wet gravel beneath her feet. She practically sprinted through the maze of trailers and dirt paths that made up her community, going straight for the main road that led west.
It sure didn’t help that the trailer park still hadn’t recovered from the wildfire three years before. If anything, it had gotten worse. The trailers the state had provided them were small, and since parts of the land had been scorched, they’d been bunched together. That meant the neighbors had probably heard all the yelling. That also meant they’d probably called the law, too.
As if that weren’t enough, the sheriff was an old boyfriend of her mother’s. He had just as much incentive to stop Candy. He would’ve run her over if he had to. They were just that determined to stop Haven Hill’s prettiest face from leaving.
Gotta make it to the highway. God, I wish I’d joined the track team my freshman year.
By the time she’d made it onto the main road, she was already winded. She saw nothing but dark and dangerous roads ahead of her…the kind no sane person would navigate on foot, at night and with cold winds blowing right into her face. It was as though the world was conspiring to keep her in Haven Hill and away from Ryan.
That didn’t matter, though. Candy refused to let anything stop her. Pulling up the hood of her sweatshirt, she braved the wind and pushed harder. She kept on until she couldn’t see the lights from her trailer park. She ran as though her mother were chasing her with handcuffs and a shotgun.
She didn’t know how long she’d been running, but eventually she had to stop to catch her breath after making it up a steep hill. As her lungs and legs burned, she looked behind to see the faint lights of Haven Hill in the distance.
From so far out, it almost seemed peaceful…a tiny little California town that few knew existed. It might as well have been its own world, complete with a perverse set of rules and expectations that nobody dared question. That world needed her a lot more than she needed it. On some levels, she suspected that people like her mother knew that. There were so many people who’d been eager to leave but couldn’t. She just happened to be more eager than most.
“Goodbye, Haven Hill,” Candy said, not hiding her resentment, “and good riddance!”
She would’ve loved to catch her breath a bit longer, but she had a long road ahead of her…literally and figuratively. With a sigh, she turned around and prepared to brave the blustery night.
Then, from a dirt-road just a hundred feet ahead of her, a truck burst out and blocked her path. The bright headlights momentarily blinded her, causing Candy to stumble back a few steps. As soon as her vision adjusted, though, she gasped in horror. She recognized that truck and who it belonged to.
“Candy Carter…you’re out awfully late,” an amused but annoyed voice said to her. “This ain’t the kind of night for a casual stroll…especially for the future mother of my children.”
“Paul fucking Reynolds,” Candy said angrily. “Didn’t I once tell you I’d sooner shove a hungry wolf pup into my womb before I had your asshole kids?”
“You say a lot of crazy things when you ain’t thinking straight. Sometimes it’s downright sexy. This ain’t one of those times, sadly.”
The door to the truck opened and a man Candy had hoped to never see again stepped out. She wanted to run, but she knew she wouldn’t get far. Paul Reynolds was a well-conditioned farm boy and former football player. He’d chase her down like a wounded deer.
If that weren’t bad enough, Paul was stupid enough to believe that she still loved him. He thought that just because his family owned the biggest farm in Haven Hill—which also happened to be the biggest methamphetamine factory within a hundred miles—he deserved to have the prettiest girl in town. Sadly, one too many people—including her mother, apparently—believed him.
I can get away with pissing my mom off, but I can’t get away with pissing off Paul Reynolds. What I do next will decide whether I’ll leave this town and see my angel again.
Candy did her best to steady her breathing as Paul approached. He hadn’t gotten less imposing since their last encounter. He still stood a good foot taller than her with a growing beer gut and hulking arms that he’d built from lifting crates of illicit drugs. He could easily subdue her and two other women just like her without breaking a sweat.
Her legs nearly buckled when he got close enough that she could smell his breath, which reeked with a mix of whiskey and cheap beer. In his bleary eyes, he saw a man who wasn’t used to being denied. She also saw a man who was never far from erupting into a jealous rage.
“This hurts, Candy. This really, really hurts,” Paul said as he reached out and cupped her face.
“Speak for yourself,” Candy replied, trying hard not to retch under his touch.
“Was it really all a lie? Did you really just put on a pretty face, smile for the cameras and nod when our mommas set us up?”
“What did you expect? That I’d be okay with other people deciding my life for me?”
“Funny… I don’t remember you complaining about it at your senior prom…or at the motel we stayed at after? Just how much of that was a lie?”
His grip on her face strengthened, taking on a distinctly possessive fervor. It let Candy know that he was pretty angry. If she wanted to avoid the temper that cost him a football scholarship, then she’d better be careful with her words.
“Actually, don’t tell me. I’d rather you shut up than lie to me again,” he said. “The sad truth is that when your momma called, a part of me wasn’t surprised. When she told me you’d gotten a bus ticket out of town, it just confirmed something I’d already feared…something I really hoped wasn’t true.”
“Paul, whatever you think you know, I—”
Candy didn’t get a chance to finish. The imposing man clenched her jaw with his burly hand, so much so that she almost choked on her own words. She tightened her hold on her bag and backpack, bracing for the wrath of a man she’d pretended to love.
“I thought it was just a phase, you skipping parties and burying your nose in books,” Paul continued. “I just thought you were trying to make things easier on us all. Hell, after Jenny Greer got knocked up and Johnny Omar overdosed, it seemed so right. You’d keep your nose a little bit cleaner than most, making sure you had your pick of the litter when the time came to cash in on that ass of yours.”
The way Paul described it, she’d done a better job than she’d thought. She’d known those names he mentioned. They were two of many who’d succumbed to Haven Hill’s pitfalls. Pretty girls got knocked up. Arrogant boys got dead. Whether it was sex, drugs or simple recklessness, they’d lost their chance to leave. It was the trap too many fell into.
She’d tried to make it look as though she wasn’t avoiding that trap. She’d tried to hide any desire she might have had to leave. If someone like Paul suspected it, then she was in more trouble than she’d thought.
“It’s sad. As much as I love that ass of yours, it pisses me off that you picked me to be your fall guy,” Paul said. “It doesn’t matter that our mommas worked a deal out. You still went along with it—made me believe you cared.”
“I’m sorry you got hurt,” Candy managed to say.
That didn’t help. If anything, it upset him even more.
“Oh no you don’t! We’re way past the point of apologies, Candy,” he barked. “I don’t care that it was a deal between our parents. I was gonna love you as much as any man can love a woman. I was gonna treat you like a queen on my daddy’s farm…the same farm he wants to leave me after the liver disease does him in.”
A touch of sorrow was mixed with his anger. Candy knew Paul’s situation like everyone else in Haven Hill did. His father was sick and didn’t have much time left. He needed Paul to take over the farm, keeping it in the family at a time when there were few people he could trust.
To some extent, she sympathized. Paul wanted to maintain whatever little anyone could in a place like Haven Hill. That sympathy disappeared when he grabbed both sides of her head and looked her in the eyes with murderous intent.
“We were gonna be a family. We were gonna create a new generation of little Pauls and Candys to keep our farm in business. It doesn’t have to die like everything else in this town. Now how the hell am I gonna do that without you?” Paul yelled into her face.
“There are others, Paul,” she told him, “dozens of other women who will gladly marry you, have your babies and everything in between.”
“I don’t want those other women, Candy. I want you!”
His voice echoed over the howling winds like the roar of an angry animal. It filled Candy with dread. At the same time, however, it added to her own anger.
Paul clung to her the same way a child clung to their favorite toy. There was no love or affection in his grasp. Candy knew what caring felt like. She’d only ever felt it once before and she knew she’d never feel it again if she stayed in Haven Hill.
I can’t convince him to let me go. Everything I say is just going to piss him off even more. If I’m going to get out of this, I need to take a chance…a very stupid chance, but the only one I’ve got.
To his credit, Paul kept trying to entice her, as he’d done on their prom night. He loosened his grip and casually brushed her long-flowing hair behind her ear, casting her an affectionate gaze. She didn’t believe his sincerity for a second, but she let him try…if only to buy more time.
“You’re not just another pretty face with a great rack, Candy,” Paul said with slurred words. “Not to me anyways.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” she muttered under her breath.
“When my momma first set us up, I thought you’d be like all the other ditzy bimbos who threw themselves at me. You proved me wrong. You showed you were something different—something that stood out in this hole of a town. You make a man want to love you…and believe me, I wanted to love you. God help me, I still do.”
His hands trembled as he clenched her shoulders. Candy couldn’t tell if it was due to drunkenness or emotion. Knowing Paul, it was probably a combination of the two, mixed with his famous hard-headedness.
At that moment, feeling his grip falter, Candy saw the opportunity she’d been waiting for. It still required sickening levels of stupid risk and, given her luck so far tonight, that was pushing it. For her future and the man who’d inspired it, she was willing to try anything.
Unfortunately, it meant playing into Paul’s hands and lying to him one more time.
“Paul…do you really mean that?” Candy asked him, with as much false sincerity as she could muster.
“Yes! I really fucking mean it,” he shouted back at her. “I want to love you. I want us to be together. I believe that we can save what’s left of this town. Now are you gonna quit being so goddamn selfish and come back? Or are you gonna walk into a world that’s gonna eat you alive? Come on, Candy. You know what’s right.”
For a brief moment, she gazed into his bleary eyes. What she was doing was selfish on some level. She also didn’t doubt that Paul believed he could save what remained in Haven Hill.
However, she’d seen too many good people fall into that trap. She would not be one of them. She owed that much to herself and to the man who’d risked his life to safe hers.
“Okay, Paul. I’ll do what’s right,” she told him, bowing her head solemnly.
“Oh, Candy…my girl,” he said before leaning in for a drunken kiss.
His alcohol-laced breath tested her gag reflex. She had to pretend she was willing to kiss him and go back to Haven Hill. It strained her ability to lie to the people who knew her so well, but it did the trick.
Once his lips were just a few inches from hers, Candy made her move. She gripped the strap of her backpack—the same one that had two heavy books stuffed inside—and channeled every bit of strength a trailer-trash princess from Haven Hill could muster. Then, in one swift motion, she swung it right at Paul’s head. The hard thud that followed was, by far, the most satisfying sound she’d ever heard.
“Aaghh!” Paul yelled.
He stumbled back then fell forward to his knees, his drunken demeanor doing him no favors. The second he released his grip on her, Candy bolted past him with agility that put a frightened deer to shame.
She knew Paul wouldn’t stay down for long, though. He was a former football player. She’d seen him get back up from much harder hits. To make sure he couldn’t come after her, Candy ran into the driver’s seat of his truck that was still running then grabbed and twisted the keys in the ignition. The engine stopped and the headlights turned off, surrounding her and Paul in darkness.
Using that to her advantage, Candy turned to throw the keys into the woods as far as she could. Then, she ran back on the main road and shot into the darkness. She didn’t care that the wind had picked up, nor did she care that mountain lions were known to roam certain parts of the hills. She just ran as hard as her legs would carry her, not looking back for a second.
Even after she’d put plenty of distance between her and Paul, she could still hear his anger echoing through the night. It was hopefully the last gasp from the world that had tried to trap her.
“Candy! Get that big ass of yours back here! You can’t run from me…from us! I’ll find you! I swear I’ll—”
A sharp gust of wind muted Paul’s voice. That was probably for the best. That man’s voice had haunted her enough already. She was ready for him and everything else in Haven Hill to become a distant memory.
Even as she ran, though, a hint of tears formed in her eyes. It wasn’t just because of the wind, either.
I’m sorry, Paul. I’m sorry, Momma. There’s just nothing for me back there. The life you wanted for me? I can’t live that life. I need to build my own…and I can’t build it here.
After a long stretch of hard running, it finally sank in. Candy was finally free. She’d left Paul and everything else in Haven Hill behind. Now, a new and dangerous road lay ahead of her. One she hoped would lead her back to Ryan.