Last Girls Alive – Jennifer Chase

“Hurry,” Candace whispered urgently as she disappeared down the wooden staircase and into the pitch-black basement. “Wait,” was Tanis’s breathless reply as she slowed to glance behind her. In just a flimsy yellow nightgown, the damp air from below chilled her bare arms and feet. She shuddered. The padlock Candace had picked open swung precariously from the latch, ready to drop and awake the rest of the sleeping house. This was a bad idea. “C’mon,” urged Candace from somewhere down in the abyss. “Hurry up!” They were going to get caught. The consequences would be merciless. Shifting her weight on the wooden landing, Tanis pushed herself onward and pressed her foot onto the first wooden step. And then another. Each footstep creaked beneath her slight weight. She clutched the loose railing and clumsily made her way through the dark until her feet touched cold cement. Hands fisted at her sides in fear, she frantically blinked her eyes, straining to see through the darkness—to the unknown. It left her powerless.

There had been no time to find a flashlight, but it would only capture unwanted attention anyway. A hand grabbed her arm. “C’mon, we’ve got to go now.” Candace took Tanis’s hand and pulled her toward the end of the basement and around a sharp corner to where a dim light from outside allowed her eyes to begin to focus. The girls moved as fast as they dared through the maze beneath the old house. Tanis could only see Candace’s long hair flicking from side to side as they ran. At one point, she closed her eyes and relied on her friend’s strong will and instinct to get them to safety. They stopped abruptly at a storm door, the only thing standing between them and freedom. Panting in the darkness, a creak from upstairs lifted both their heads in fear— someone was awake. Candace lunged forward and grabbed the large bolt locking the door with both hands and pulled.

It gave way with a loud clunking sound, and she pushed the bulky door open to reveal the half-moon outside. Cool air whipped inside, wrapping itself around Tanis’s shivering body as she watched her friend take the final two steps—to a new life. With the moon behind her, and with her arms outstretched in joy, Candace resembled an angel in her white cotton nightgown, her dark hair blowing all around her. “C’mon,” she urged again. Tanis froze. It was as if her feet were cemented to the basement floor. Doubts about running away from the foster home plagued her mind. They would never stop searching for them—ever. She and Candace knew too much about what went on at Elm Hill. How would they survive without any money? She realized that she just couldn’t do it—not now, not like this.

She would soon be eighteen and then things would be different—the home would no longer be her prison. She would be legally free. No one would care anymore. “What are you waiting for? This is our chance.” “I can’t… I can’t do it. It’s just another year,” said Tanis. “Not even that long.” “No, we’re doing this together. We have each other,” said Candace adamantly, shaking her head. “I’m not going to leave you here.

We escape together.” “You have to go. You can’t stay…” Candace ran to the side of the house and retrieved a duffel bag, which had been carefully packed and stashed for their escape. Unzipping the top, she pulled on a pair of jeans and slipped on a pink sweater. It was her favorite color, always matched to her nail polish. “Hurry.” Tanis changed her tone. She wanted her best friend to escape the abuse of the home—the authority and focus was always more concentrated on her anyway. Tanis knew that she could endure another ten and half months, but Candace couldn’t. “No…” “Yes, hurry.

I can help misdirect the she-beast and the cops. You’ll be safe.” Tanis heard the rustle of branches in the distance and looked toward the edge of the property, near the hiking trail, and saw the outline of a man. She had never met Ray, had only seen him from a distance, but he was their ticket out of here. At least, that was how Candace had described him. “Go. We’ll meet back in ten months and three days at our secret spot. I promise.” “I will come back for you.” Candace’s voice faltered.

It was clear she wanted to stay, but as she looked to the south she saw Ray waiting; that was all she needed to push forward. Tears welled up in Tanis’s eyes. She knew that she’d made the right decision to stay behind, but that didn’t make it any easier. One of them had to stay. It would soon be over. It all would be over. Candace hugged Tanis tight. Whispering in her ear, she said, “I love you and I’ll be back.” She gave her a long look before she turned and ran. Tanis watched her friend move quickly into the shadowed night—and soon disappear altogether.

I love you and I’ll be back. ONE FIVE YEARS LATER Monday 0730 hours The diesel engines of the earthmovers and bulldozers roared as they prowled like metal predators on top of the hill and through five acres of dense trees surrounding the mansion. The massive tires left deep grooves in the soil, still sodden after extensive bouts of rain, and various attachments worked to smooth out the terrain and keep rain runoff to a minimum in preparation for demolishing the house. Loud voices yelled back and forth across the property, directing the action. Three metal containers, each forty feet long or more, sat on the far side of the estate, housing tools, supplies, and some of the more valuable interior pieces of the house such as doors, light fixtures, crown molding, fireplaces, and various pieces of shiplap wood. The new owner, Magnum Development, Incorporated, wanted to save anything that would bring in any extra money, no matter how small. They planned on building three luxury-spec homes on the impressive landscape that would garner more than two and a half million if they could only fight the rainfall and correct the slipping landscape. It was highlighted as a “special project” that they had taken on in addition to more lucrative ventures, but there was still a comfortable profit margin to be had. Built in 1895 but left abandoned for the last two years, what remained of the house was still known to most around Pine Valley as Elm Hill Mansion. It used to be a safe haven for fostered teenage girls, but now looked more like the façade of a haunted house at a Halloween carnival.

Four years earlier, the foster home, which had been a private philanthropy project, had been disbanded by the county and state authorities who had little or no budget to maintain the project after allegations of abuse. The house had repairs and indications that it potentially wasn’t safe. The remaining girls were relocated to other homes and soon thereafter the investigation had fizzled and the large house sat vacant. The historical mansion, with more than 2,000 square feet of livable space, included five bedrooms, two living areas, a parlor, storage, and a library area that had been reduced to a pitiful crumbling mess of empty shelves over the years. A panicked cry from outside stopped several workers in their tracks as they wrenched a rotting wooden fireplace from the wall. Among them, in jeans, a red flannel shirt and hard hat, was Bob Bramble, the foreman in charge of the project. He looked around, angry at the interruption and keen to get back to work. “Boss!” yelled one of the employees. “Hey, boss!” the man yelled again, more urgently. One by one, the booming sound of engines ceased, leaving the area strangely quiet.

“Yeah,” Bob said as one of his men jogged up to him. “What is it?” “We can’t get the crowd to leave.” “What crowd?” he growled and craned his neck to see half a dozen people with handmade signs saying “Keep the Elm Hill Mansion” and “Keep the historical house” headed their way. “Oh, brother. Get them out of here,” he barked. “We have a job to do! I’m not going to get behind because of a group of idiots.” “But what if they don’t leave?” asked the worker, looking at the crowd with a worried expression. “Then… call the cops.” At the same time, one of the bulldozer drivers jumped from his cab and ran toward them. His face pale, panic in his eyes.

“Boss!” he yelled as he increased speed. “BOSS!” “Crap,” the foreman muttered. “Now what?” he snapped as the driver ran over to him. “There’s… it’s…” “Spit it out, Chris… tell me what’s going on.” “We found… it’s horrible, sir…” Bramble grabbed Chris’s arm and gave him a little shake. “Show me. We don’t have time for this shit.” The men hurried to the far side of the property where several trenches had been dug. Two other workers were standing side by side staring down the hillside—not moving. “What’s going on here?” Bramble demanded.

One of the men slowly pointed his index finger without saying a word. Bramble stepped to the edge of the pit and peered downward. Submerged in the muddy earth, and surrounded by puddles of water, lay the naked body of a young woman—her pale skin like porcelain in the early morning light. Lying on her left side, arms twisted precariously, one in front of her bent body and the other behind. She looked like a broken doll that had been carelessly tossed away. The remnants of a rope dangled from her left wrist. Her long chestnut hair, wet and knotted around her face, covered her frozen expression. Bramble couldn’t tear his eyes away from the body as the sun peeked out from behind a cloud and illuminated her fragile form in a natural spotlight. “Stop working…” His voice caught in his throat. “Stop.

Everybody STOP!” He waved his hands, turning around to get everyone’s attention. “Stop working. Everybody exit the property now! Now!” Bramble had never seen a dead body before and the young woman looked painfully close to his own daughter’s age. As his team downed tools and headed for the parking area, he bent down closer to the body, carefully moving down the hillside, and strained to see if he recognized her, searching for anything around her that might identify her. Slipping his hand into his pocket, he stood up, swallowed hard and composed himself —still not fully believing what he was seeing. He knew enough from watching true crime shows on TV to keep the area clear to avoid contaminating the crime scene, but all he could do now was dial 911.


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