The idea for this story started one day when I was venting to my other half that my imagination seemed to be inconsistent…and it was pissing me off. I wasn’t motivated to write anything at the time, so he started prodding me…as he always does…to write about anything.
“Anything at all,” he said. “Write about…I dunno…an exploded tire. Yeah!!! Write me a story about a tire tread on the side of the road.”
He went on a tangent at this point, but I wasn’t listening. While he was listing all the possibilities, I already had a clear picture in my head…of a woman on a snowy road in the middle of nowhere…
Sometimes that’s all it takes.
This story isn’t meant to be anything cerebral or even substantial…it simply is what came out of me at the keyboard. If you’re so inclined, please feel free to leave a comment when you’ve read it. I’m not sure how this story makes me feel…but I’d love to know what you thought of it – and feedback helps me grow. So without further adieu, I give you “Tread”.
My fingers trembled slightly as I reached for it, the shredded tip of the thing barely visible above the fresh snowfall. Up close, the black of it was in stark contrast to the wintery scene around me – but from far away it could have looked like a small piece of wood or other natural debris. To someone else. Not to me. Something twitched inside me when I’d come up over the last hill and scanned the road ahead. Something familiar.
I grabbed for the shredded remains of the tire and held it in my hand. A blow out. A few hours ago, near as I could tell. I ran my fingers over the tread, soaking up the details with my skin. Slow at first, then faster. I closed my eyes as I raked my fingertips across the ragged surface. I felt the energy warming my fingers, flowing up my wrist and into my arm. I closed my eyes against the cold and gave in to the pull of a new energy that seemed to pulse through my veins.
A blow out for sure. I could see it playing out behind my eyelids like I was watching it on tv. A struggle. The snowy road weaved behind the driver as he fought for control. The steering wheel was not cooperating. I could see the driver shouting something at his passenger as he tried to steer the crippled sedan on the icy road. I was in the back seat, watching through the terrified eyes of the man I was searching for. I felt his confusion…tasted his fear. He couldn’t believe what was happening to him. He didn’t want to believe. I felt him thinking of me and the corner of my mouth twitched upward in satisfaction.
I told you.
In the distance, a tree cracked under its icy burden and my eyes flickered open briefly. The serenity of the wintery scene before me remained unchanged. There was no one for miles, save the one I hunted…and I knew exactly where he was. I felt the slow, ebbing beat of his heart sounding in my ears. It was as plain to me as the faint babbling of the icy stream at the bottom of the ravine behind me. Above that, the wind whispered high in the trees.
I stood on the side of the road for a moment as my eyes took in the beauty of the landscape around me. I felt new in a way I couldn’t get my mind around. It was bitter cold out here, I knew, but I was perfectly warm. The thin veil of my nightgown fluttered around my bare feet, making random patterns in the freshly fallen powder. I felt a shaking in the energy around me.
Snow melted on my lashes as my eyes darted briefly in the direction of my prey. I felt him becoming aware of me. Let him wait. Let him suffer. This moment before things were finally done between us would never be mine again and I intended to savor it. It felt right to do so. I closed my eyes against the thickening snowfall and let my mind drift back to a time I’d spent most of my life trying to forget. The memory pulled at me in a way I still can’t explain. For so many years I’d fought the urge to think about it and yet here, in the middle of a snowbound road, it came easy.
The glow of the summer sun was streaming through the windows. I remember like it was yesterday. The studio was already too hot and it was just 11 am. Beads of sweat were formed on my neck by the time I’d laced up my pointe shoes. He watched me carefully from his perch in the corner. His face was hidden in shadow and his eyes were lowered, but still I knew he watched. Quietly, I walked with graceful purpose to the rosin box in the opposite corner and scratched a few steps. I forced my focus on my movements as he required. Every move was a picture. Every picture told a story. That’s what he always preached.
My mother, clad in head to toe Prada, watched from the doorway. She saw the story she wanted to see: her only child, learning from one of the greats. The Master, glaring from his corner, didn’t see a story at all. At least not the one he wanted.
His curt nod signaled me that my lesson had begun. I followed his queues and danced through the carefully choreographed warm-up routines I’d learned through years of private lessons. He carried a thin cane with him, banging out a cadence on the hardwood floors. I hit every mark, executed every turn with perfect precision. I was fluid grace and elegance as I twirled across the room, occasionally catching a glimpse of my mother’s face. As proud as she was, there was always a vacancy behind her tired gaze. She only ever lasted about ten minutes and then, well, her demons were calling her.
“NO!” The Master barked, jolting me out of a triple pirouette.
My mother flinched violently at the sound, then waved one perfectly manicured hand at no one in particular and disappeared down the hall leading to the parents lounge. Right on time. The sight of her leaving should have had me sobbing in fear, but fear was already the fuel that drove my young life. I squared my shoulders and faced the wall of mirrors, as was required when I caused the Master any displeasure. I looked into my own eyes, not thinking twice about the lifeless gaze that stared back at me. I was 15 years old and nearly dead inside.
“SE METTRE EN POSITION!” he shouted in French.
I sprang into action and did as I was told, striking the pose I started my routine from. The Master circled me slowly. Occasionally he raised the cane and touched me with it. A tap on the elbow where my arm was bent too much. A jab on my ankle where my foot wasn’t in exactly the right position. He smelled vaguely of toothpaste and some kind of woodsy cologne. There was always a ruthless energy emanating from him and it scared me. And he loved that.
“Et encore…” he murmured too close to my ear. And again.
He banged out the counts with his cane and I sprung to life in the most Pavlovian sense, executing the steps with rare precision for someone my age. I lost myself in the dance. I always did. The feeling of my body moving through the steps was like a healing balm for my troubled soul. Every bend, every extension of my arms, every stretch of my legs was pure poetry. In these moments I could even tune out the Master. Most of the time.
“NO! IDIOT!!” he yelled, shattering my brief reverie. I stopped immediately and faced the mirror again, waiting for his merciless critique.
He twirled the cane in the air, as he often did when he was angry, and stepped forward to look down at me with absolute disdain. Six feet of unbridled fury against five feet two inches of absolute fear. In one lithe movement, he brought the cane swooshing down and struck me full force across the side of my left leg. I recoiled in fear and pain, rubbing my leg with trembling fingers as I fought back fresh tears.
He’s the best, I heard my mother’s voice in my head. He’s an artistic genius, Kat. He will coach you to straight into stardom.
I glanced up at the clock. 11:14 a.m. I suppressed a tremor in my lower lip. It was 11:14 a.m. the first time he ever beat me. The memory of that was burned into my memory. I’d collapsed to the floor in shock and in pain, not wanting to believe that the man my mother had regaled as some kind of hero had actually punched me in the ribs. I’d failed to complete a triple pirouette, you see.
I was 12 years old.
This was the truth of our dance, played out twice a week for most of my young life. An artistic genius and his amazing prodigy. In public, he adored me. The other students at the exclusive school of dance envied me. Their parents gushed over my mother like she was some sort of celebrity. I won every talent show, brought home trophy after trophy from competitions all across the country. In private, however, things were brutally different. In private, he never failed to remind me how insignificant I truly was. The beatings were many, but he always hit me in a place that wasn’t readily visible. The torso and thighs were his favorites.
One day, after a particularly painful blow that knocked the wind out of me, he helped me back to my feet. The uncharacteristic show of compassion was almost more frightening than the beating. He looked down at me with feigned sympathy, stroking my cheek with the same hand that had just leveled me to the floor, and told me that I’d be grateful for his discipline one day. When I started to sob, he pressed his finger over my lips like a father shaming a little girl.
His predatory instincts assured him that I would never speak up for myself – and he was right. I never did. Dance was the only joy in my miserable young life. I’d already lost my father and, in all the meaningful ways, my mother. Even if there was anyone for me to tell, and there wasn’t, I’d have lost the last thing in the world that was precious to me…and I just didn’t have it in me.
“SE METTRE EN POSITION!” he yelled again. I jumped into position and we started…again.
A stirring in the ice cold air brought me out of my reminiscence. As if in slow motion, my gaze moved across the pristine snowy scene before me and down the ravine. Painful memories were still raw in my head. In my heart. I felt a prickling on the back of my neck, an undeniable eagerness to do what needed to be done. It was long past time. My pulse quickened. The scent of desperation and fear pulled at me and suddenly I was moving down the ravine on the side of the road, wanton bloodlust rioting in my veins. Very near the bottom of the steep decline, the car lay crumpled and curled around a large tree. A few thin wisps of smoke still hissed from the engine. I took it all in…the violence of it all. I closed my eyes for a moment and played through it in my mind. The car flew down the ravine, crashing through the smaller trees and finally cartwheeling and smashing to a halt. What took only a few seconds actually felt like an eternity to him. Good.
My feet barely touched the snow as I moved closer. I felt the remainder of my humanity slip away as soon as I saw him.
There he was. The Master. Bloody. Bruised. His fear quickened at the sight of me as I came around to the broken window. His eyes darted wildly around as he tried to justify the sight of me standing there. The expression on his face was worth waiting a thousand lifetimes for. Shock. Confusion. Denial. He struggled, but it was in vein. A thick tree branch had sliced through the import’s door and impaled him against the back seat like a rag doll. Right through the ribs. Exactly the spot where he first hit me all those years ago.
I smiled coldly.
“How? W-w-why??” he stammered. I didn’t answer.
I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know how I was here. Somehow, though, I knew why.
He was beginning to panic. His terrified gaze darted from me to the tree branch in his gut and back again. He tried pulling at it, but it was no use. He would die here. Judging from the amount of blood he was covered in, it was a miracle he wasn’t already dead.
No, not a miracle, I realized. A gift. For me.
I moved closer to the car to get a better look. A steady trickle of blood ebbed from somewhere underneath his expensive shirt. Every ragged breath he took must have been agony, causing his ribs to saw back and forth on the thick tree branch. The sight of it should have horrified me, but instead I felt an overwhelming sense of joy. In my everyday life I would have shamed myself for such a thing, but the same thing that brought me here and carried me down the side of this ravine was giving me permission to relish every moment of the Master’s terror and suffering. And I didn’t care. I enjoyed it.
“I was only doing my job,” came his gurgling plea. “It was my job to give you the pain you needed for greatness, don’t you see? I did it for you.”
Something pulled my eyes to the clock on the dash. It was frozen in time, flashing 11:14. My gaze flew back to his. With twenty years of pent up anger welled up inside me I was no longer in control of my own body. I raised my hand with delicate precision and pressed a finger to his lips. Just like old times.
He began to cry and my heart sang at the sound of it. His pleading eyes met my own indifferent ones.
“I’m giving the pain back to you…”
I can’t describe exactly what happened next. He screamed in terror before I moved a muscle, as if something within my eyes was horrific to him. I only know that I was no longer myself. I felt a tremor slide up my spine and something opened in me. My head fell back and my mouth opened wide. I gripped the car for support and dug my feet into the snow, holding on for dear life. Years and years of pain and grief and anguish came pouring out of me. Things I’d forgotten. Things I hadn’t.
Every muscle in my body tensed as it heaved its way out of me, like a long festering scab tearing itself from my soul. The energy of it was astounding. I heard a terrible, inhuman shrieking and I opened my eyes to see what was happening to him, only to realize that the sound was coming from me. I sputtered and coughed, choking on something wet and clawing.
Something came out of me. Black and horrible, it landed on the Master’s chest. I held my grip on the car, still gasping but unable to look away from what was happening. The thing began to inch its way up the Master’s chest to his mouth. He cried out and tried to thrash, but he couldn’t manage it. He knew what was going to happen to him. There was nothing he could do to stop it.
The thing slid up onto his face and began pushing between his lips. His screams were horrible. And wonderful. He twisted and wretched, but it just kept coming at him. His eyes slowly opened, as if something was forcing them open against his will, and he looked at me. I saw the fear in his eyes and drank it in. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, something amazing happened.
He started making a suffocating, sucking sound as the thing disappeared inside his mouth. For a brief moment, I saw the anger in his eyes that I knew all too well as a child, but then…it changed. As the thing moved farther inside him, I watched his face contort through a riot of emotions. First was a sense of childlike wonderment. Then joy. No…not his joy. That wasn’t right. I’d never even seen him smile. There was something familiar about the joy in his face…and I realized it was me I was watching behind his eyes. It was my joy and my demons being played out for him.
He’d just been force fed every evil thing he’d ever done to me and any other child before or after me.
He started to cry out again in a sort of gargled tone. He was going through the beatings. He was yelling like he used to, but he wasn’t hitting me. Something unseen around him was hitting him with every blow he’d ever dealt to me. He was beaten and choked and made to suffer and I just stood there watching. After several minutes, the light behind his eyes start to fade. I recognized that, too. It’s quite a humiliating thing when someone breaks you down and unmakes you. There, for my benefit, he was unmade.
The force of what was happening to him was not letting him go until it was done. His eyes were forced on me the whole time so that I could see him run the gamut from childlike joy to fear to pain to grief to unbelievable suffering. Finally he grew quiet…and I began to feel my humanity returning.
I stood straight up and squared my shoulders, doing my best to shake off the otherworldly thing I’d just seen. As I began to move away, I heard a hoarse whisper come from The Master. I leaned in the car and looked him squarely in the eye so that he could see how unmoved I was by what happened to him. He was broken. Not just in body, but in soul.
“I-I…”he whispered thinly. “I didn’t mean…I…no, I didn’t know. I didn’t know, Kat…”
A long ago broken piece of me began to heal as I saw him suffering in confusion and fear. Now he was burdened with my past. Now he knew. I smiled at him one last time, leaned forward so that my lips were right up against his ear, and murmured my last goodbye.
His breathing gurgled to a halt and he slumped over in his seat. Dead at last.
The last thing I remember was a pulling sensation coming through my back, lifting me high above the ground.
And I was free.
I awoke abruptly and quickly looked around at my surroundings, then breathed easy. Everything seemed in order. Everything seemed right. I was in my bed at home. Safe and warm in San Antonio, Texas. Nowhere near a snowy road or a car crash.
What a crazy dream.
I hadn’t allowed myself to think about the Master in a very long time. Not since the day I finally had the courage to walk away from it all. Abused and tortured from the inside out, I’d finally had enough at the ripe old age of 21. When I told him I was quitting, he showed no emotion at all. It was as if I’d told him I’d bought oranges at the grocery store or something equally innocuous. After a few moments, he turned to me and said “I just knew you’d never amount to anything.”
Something came over me in that moment and I marched straight up to him and looked him in the eye with all the anger I could muster. I remember putting my finger in his face and saying “I’m telling you right now…someday you’re going to feel the pain that you’ve put me through. Someday you’re going to look at ME in fear.”
It was the first time in my life I ever found any courage. He just walked away from me, laughing softly, and I never saw him again. Until the dream.
I rose from my bed and padded across the hardwood floor, then stopped abruptly. What the hell was I seeing? I moved closer and blinked back my confusion. A perfect set of snowy footprints in the hall, leading right up to my bed. My footprints.
I whirled around and grabbed the hem of my nightgown. Wet. Icy wet.
The tv came to life behind me and I jolted back from it. But before I had a chance to investigate, the news anchor’s words froze me in my tracks.
“Once again, famous choreographer Michael Cornin has died in a horrific car crash in upstate New York. Authorities believe he was on his way home when the car fell into a ravine and slammed into a tree. Both Cornin and his driver were killed in the crash.”
I shook my head in dismay. Somehow this happened. Some force or higher power out there in the universe had decided to let me witness his complete destruction. Whatever it was, it knew I needed it. So it pulled up that wretched clump of misery and pain that I’d carried with me all these years and gave it to the man who created it in the first place. And I got to watch.
Now I was free of it. I could feel it in my skin. There was a lightness in me that I’d never known before. A love for myself that I’d never quite been able to touch, even after years of therapy. He was gone. He couldn’t hurt me anymore.
I watched the news footage of the cranes pulling his mangled car out of the ravine. I saw them carrying the body bag to a waiting ambulance. My grief was over. I smiled at the tv and said quietly…
I told you.