Countdown to Freedom

by Lexi Swiatek, age 14
Countdown to Freedom Lexi is a girl who lives in Fanwood with her family and dog. She loves reading fiction and writing short stories. Her goal is to become an author for teens’ books.

“The turquoise water shimmered. Small waves flowed onto the black sand of the beach before heading back into the sea. The island positively glowed with sunlight reflecting off the water while palm trees provided shade. It was picturesque, except for the old, wooden mansion that stood tall in the middle of the island.”

The turquoise water shimmered. Small waves flowed onto the black sand of the beach before heading back into the sea. The island positively glowed with sunlight reflecting off the water while palm trees provided shade. It was picturesque, except for the old, wooden mansion that stood tall in the middle of the island. The house was old and creaky with age, interrupting the natural beauty of the island. It hadn’t been used as a residence for ten years, ever since the volcanic explosion of 1962. Fortunately, the only effect was black sand. Still, humans had never stayed on the island again, though that was about to change.

A small helicopter landed on the beach, and six girls climbed out. One held a dog, the others ladened with backpacks. The hired pilot saluted, and the helicopter lifted off, stranding the girls on the island.

“Bye!” they chorused, watching their ride leave.

Once it was out of sight, they conferred on where to explore first.

“I think we should explore the house!” Iris exclaimed.

“Or the beach!” Rosa called out.

“The beach sounds nice,” Jule agreed. “Much more so than that dirty, old house.”

“I think the house could be interesting,” Abby countered.

“What do you think, Vanessa?” Danica asked.

“Anything’s fine,” Vanessa said.

“Okay, let’s take a vote?” Danica suggested. “All those who vote ‘house’, raise your hand.”

Iris and Abby rose their hands, along with Danica.

“What?” She shrugged. “I’m curious. Now, everyone who votes ‘beach’, raise their hand.”

Rosa and Jule raised their hands, Vanessa just shrugged. She didn’t want to go to either, and she knew another suggestion would only be met with dismission.

“Well, I suppose it’s the house then,” Danica said.

The girls headed to the mansion, with Iris running ahead and Vanessa trailing behind.

***

CREEEEAK! The ancient door squealed. It slowly pushed open, revealing the dirty, dark, and dank interior of the dilapidated mansion. A spider scuttled out of the corner, hissing at the light. The house itself seemed to lean towards its visitors, hungry for fresh meat.

RUFF!” Buster barked, springing at the spider.

It scrambled back to its web, and the unfortunate dog came out with a sticky nose and his tail between his legs. Buster whimpered, rushing to hide behind his owners. Six girls peered into the mansion, their faces hesitant.

“Cool!” shrieked Iris, scrambling inside.

“Iris!” Danica chided.

“What?”

“We should all go in, together,” Danica said pointedly.

Iris stopped exploring the first floor and slunk to the back of the group, mumbling under her breath. It reminded Buster of the time Iris had recklessly led them into a cave system, despite Vanessa’s warnings, and they ended up spending five hours lost in the tunnels. It had brought them closer, though. Buster hoped this would be a bonding experience; then, at least something good would come out of spending a week isolated on this island. Looking around, the dog noticed an ancient garden peeking around the back of the house. Vanessa tilted her head and saw it too, gasping a little with excitement.

“Danica? Can we go to the back of the house first? I think I saw a garden and…” she trailed off, quietly murmuring to herself.

“Or we could go to the second floor!” Iris yelled over the poor girl as she shrunk back.

Buster wagged his tail in agreement. The house smelled musty, like no one had been there for a long time, but it also had a peculiar scent of metal. Iron, Buster thought. He padded into the house and leapt over to the stairwell, testing it with his paw. It seemed sturdy enough, so he barked for the rest of the girls to come over. Iris dashed over first, with Danica following her, and then Abby, Jule, Rosa, and lastly, Vanessa, trailing behind the group.

The second floor consisted of creaky, wooden walls in a single hallway and doors on all sides. Vanessa shrunk back, squeaking with fear. Danica examined the doors, while Jule complained about the quality of the house.

“But it’s so… dirty!” Jule whined. “Couldn’t Abby have dared us to stay somewhere modern at least?”

“I thought it would be a fun challenge — ‘fun’ for some of us more than others,” Abby looked at Iris, who was currently trying to find buried treasure under the floorboards.

“What?” Iris looked up from prying off floorboards and put on her most innocent face.

“Nothing,” Abby smirked.

Iris just shrugged and returned to exploring. Rosa bounced to the front of the group, smiling.

“I think a vacation to an old, spooky, maybe-haunted mansion will be fun!” Rosa said, almost too quickly to catch.

Buster licked her hand in agreement. But he could tell there was something off about this place…

***

A mutilated body laid on the blood-stained ground, its limbs at impossible angles. The head rolled over, and Iris’s face stared at them without seeing. Buster yelped and leapt back from the door. Vanessa let go of the doorknob, screamed, and ran, covering her eyes from the bloody sight. Danica just froze, her eyes the size of dinner plates as she gazed upon her lifeless friend. Jule gasped and started sobbing, while Abby stared into the distance, her face static. No one went further than the doorway, where the body lay.

“IRIS!” Rosa screamed, falling to her knees in front of the body.

Her yell echoed throughout the hollow house, where only five girls remained.

***

Buster howled forlornly. The remaining girls had robotically walked into separate rooms and “gone to sleep”, though he could hear soft sobbing from Jule’s room and murmuring from Vanessa’s, while the sound of pacing emanated from Danica’s chamber. Abby and Rosa’s rooms were quiet, but Buster knew no one was asleep that night. He laid on the cold, wooden floor, next to Iris’s body. He wondered where he would sleep, now that Iris was gone. Would he still be welcome in her house? Maybe he could live with another girl, Buster thought. But he didn’t want to be with anyone but Iris. He refused to leave her like this. He would find out who’d done it.

***

The next morning, Danica was up first. She shuffled into the worn-down kitchen and stiffly grabbed a granola bar from her duffel, chewing without seeming to taste it. Soon, Vanessa joined her, the dark bags under her eyes suggesting a sleepless night. The two girls ignored each other, lost in their own thoughts, until Rosa bounced into the kitchen. Seemingly undeterred by last night’s tragedy, Rosa told jokes and stories to her unresponsive friends, trying her best to cheer them up. Her smile never wore down in front of them, but when she turned away for a moment, Buster could see her deflate like a popped balloon before she mustered her strength, plastered a grin back on her face, and continued her efforts. Meanwhile, Abby wandered out of her room and began contemplatively walking through the house. She had no desire to listen to Rosa’s one-sided chat, nor to join Jule, still weeping in her room, so she explored the old house. Abby mumbled to herself as she walked through the rooms, searching.

***

“Group meeting,” Danica called weakly.

The grandfather clock struck noon as Abby, Rosa, Vanessa, and Jule entered the room. Buster trotted in after them, wanting to hear.

“What is it…?” Vanessa asked timidly.

Danica simply raised an eyebrow, and everyone nodded in understandment. The rotten stench of Iris’s corpse could be sensed even at the other end of the house, constantly reminding them all of her fate.

“Iris…” Danica murmured. “How did this happen…?”

She looked from face to face. Rosa’s constant smile drooped, tears still ran down Jule’s cheeks, Vanessa’s eyes grew huge, and Abby just looked thoughtful.

“There’s no one here but us,” Abby pointed out.

Everyone turned to listen.

“We’re the only ones here, and only a person could have done that to Iris…” she suggested.

“Are you saying it’s one of us?” Jule bit her lip. “You’re saying one of us is a… a murderer?”

“I don’t like to think it, but it’s the only thing possible.”

Sweat beaded on Jule’s forehead, and the girl promptly fainted. Vanessa rushed to her aid, checking for bruises and lifting her unconscious friend onto a chair. Buster whimpered and sniffed Jule to make sure she was okay. Relieved that there were no obvious injuries, he scampered back to the group, Vanessa following. Danica giggled nervously and banged her fist on a counter.

“Back on topic,” she said, clearly tense.

Forcing her gaze away from the sight of Jule slumped on a chair, Danica coughed.

“Abby, why would you believe it was one of us?” she asked.

“Yeah! We’re best friends!” Rosa chirped.

“I have to agree,” Vanessa remarked. “Why would any of us do something so callous?”

“I don’t know,” Abby declared. “But I’m aiming to find out.”

Words of agreement filled the room, mixed with approving barks from Buster. He agreed with Abby; Buster knew that one of the “friends” killed Iris. What he couldn’t fathom was who, or why part of such a tight-knit group would turn on the rest.

“So it could be any of us…” Danica said in a slightly menacing tone.
Abby nodded grimly.

“I know we’re all anxious,” Vanessa said, trying to stay calm. “Maybe we should sleep on it?” she asked, motioning to the dark sky out the window.

“Fine,” Danica replied emotionlessly.

“Okay,” agreed Vanessa, and Abby simply nodded. The girls headed towards their rooms, Danica’s firm steps echoing on the wooden floor. It was the last thing Buster heard before his head drooped, and he inevitably fell asleep.

***

It wasn’t until the next morning that someone noticed Jule. Her limp form remained sprawled over the chair; she had never gotten up. Abby’s eyes widened as she prodded her friend, trying to get her to wake up. But despite her best efforts, Jule wasn’t moving. Abby turned her over and discovered a peculiar rip in her friend’s shirt, covered with a brown stain that sharply contrasted Jule’s light blue top.

“Girls!” she called out. Several teens stumbled into the room, curious but tired.

“Abby?” Danica asked.

“Morning,” Abby replied. “Hope I didn’t wake you.”

“I wasn’t sleeping anyway,” Danica sighed. “This is just terrible.”

“Yeah,” Vanessa agreed sadly.

Rosa wordlessly sat down, her mouth wavering as if struggling to produce a smile.

“I called you all here because something else happened,” Abby said sternly. “Who knifed Jule?”

A collective “WHAT?” shook the room as everyone gasped. A look of horror filled their faces as they looked over and saw their friend turned over, with a small cut marring her back. Somehow the perpetrator had gotten close to Jule and stabbed a vital area, quickly paralysing her without anyone noticing. Dried blood clotted the wound and a small amount on the chair previously hidden by Jule’s body. Abby repeated her question.

“Who wasn’t in their rooms last night?” she asked.

“I didn’t hear anyone,” Vanessa pointed out, puzzled. “Did any of you? I know most of us didn’t sleep last night…”

“I didn’t,” Danica confirmed.

“Me neither!” Abby pondered.

Buster barked in agreement. He carefully stepped over to Jule’s body, sniffing the wound. He knew it hadn’t been there last time he checked. Buster thought about this. It was between when Jule fainted and now. That didn’t help him much; it had been hours since the incident. Buster’s tail drooped, effectively reminding him he was a dog. He had a tail, sensitive hearing and smell, and was close to the ground. Maybe it was time to use that to his advantage. The canine sniffed Jule’s shirt, shuddering at the smell of death that blanketed her. Past the metallic and cold smell of decay, Buster thought he smelled… dirt? Yes, he got a distinctive smell of soil. Buster had a lead. However, none of the girls had even a hint of earthy scent on them. They simply looked at Buster in confusion as he leapt from girl to girl, sniffing and barking. Finally, Buster gave up, lying down in defeat. Abby rubbed his head, looking at him sympathetically.

“Alright then,” Danica said, desperately trying to regain control. “So it’s either Abby, Vanessa, or Rosa?”

“Hey!” Abby yelled. “You could have done it, same as anyone!”

Danica gulped.

“But I didn’t do it!” she retaliated.

“Mhmm,” Abby said discerningly. “Sounds like someone is trying to take the focus off herself.”

“What? I am not!” Danica yelled.

Abby raised her eyebrow.

“You know, you’re right!” Rosa gasped. “Danica is trying to pin it on us!”

Three angry heads swiveled towards Danica.

“Girls, I think we have a culprit,” Vanessa said slowly.

“Hang on!” Danica shrieked desperately. “Wasn’t Abby awfully quick to point the finger at me? Maybe she did it!”

“All I hear are excuses,” Abby said menacingly.

Vanessa rose, glaring at Danica, and Rosa followed suit.

“Well,” Abby said darkly. “The only thing to do… is murder the murderer.”

The other two nodded, firm expressions on their faces. Buster whimpered.

***

After Danica took a rather unfortunate “tumble” off the second-floor balcony and snapped her neck on the rocks below, Abby seemed darkly satisfied.

“Glad that’s taken care of,” she said, dusting her hands.

Vanessa nodded in complete agreement, while Rosa was mourning.

“I know she was a murderer, but we had so many good memories,” Rosa sniffed.

Abby patted Rosa on the back.

“I know, but we have to let go,” she sympathized. “Maybe we should camp somewhere else on the island instead. This place holds too many bad memories.”

“But we’re safe now,” Vanessa pointed out. “Why don’t we do what we came here to do — explore the place?”

“I dunno,” Rosa hesitated. “This place stinks, metaphorically and literally.”

“Hey, it could be fun!”

“Aw, why not?” Abby agreed.

“Can we finally go to the garden?” Vanessa murmured.

However, this time, she got results. Abby and Rosa agreed, and Vanessa smiled proudly, leading them to the garden. The walk was treacherous, even for someone with four paws. Buster found himself almost lying down while trying to evade thorny, skeletal shrubs, and the girls were hopping past overgrown vines and trying not to touch anything that looked poisonous. Buster jumped away from a particularly large insect and found himself in a patch of what used to be roses. The flowers had long since turned to dust, but unfortunately for Buster, the thorns were still there. He yelped and leapt into Vanessa’s arms. She carefully plucked the thorns from Buster’s backside, petting him to make him feel better.

Meanwhile, the other girls were growing bored with dead plants and stinging bugs.

“Can  we go back now?” asked Abby.

“Yeah,” agreed Rosa. “This place is boring.”

“Fine…” Vanessa agreed reluctantly.

Abby gladly led the group back to the mansion, where they decided to retire for the night. It had been a long day, after all. Only Buster decided to stay awake. He suspected something wasn’t right, and he intended to find out what.

***

It was three hours after the girls headed into their rooms, and the house was quiet. Buster was listening to the wind as it whistled through the cracked walls, silently standing sentry. It was an extremely monotonous job, but he was determined not to miss a thing. His resolve served him well as he heard a creak. A figure slipped from behind a door into the hall, hiding in the shadows. Buster internally gasped. He tracked the creature, silently following it until it pulled open another door.

Buster flowed into the room behind it, and found himself in a bedroom. The loud snores emanating from the bed identified the occupant as Abby and covered up any sound the intruder made. Buster hid under the bed, watching the figure’s feet move about the room. It was difficult to keep track of; it seemed to blend into the background most of the time. Eventually, it approached the bed. Buster’s heart hammered, and his mouth went dry. He heard a muffled thump, and the underside of the bed shifted as though someone were moving about on top. Buster didn’t dare to move, but he had the opportunity to carefully observe the feet of the figure. They were surprisingly small and dainty, and seemed familiar, but he couldn’t place them.

Just as he was devising a way to sneak out, the feet moved away. The intruder slipped through the door, and Buster chased on instinct. His paws thudded on the floor, all subtlety forgotten with the excitement of a chase, and the figure turned at the sound. Moonlight revealed a girl’s face, the cruel intentions toward whomever had been following her clear in her expression. Until her face softened, and she picked up the horrified Buster.

“Oh, it’s just you,” Vanessa whispered.

Buster, overcome with shock, fainted in her arms.

***

The next morning, Buster slept late. He was usually awoken by Abby’s footsteps echoing through the house, but not today. He continued to snooze on Vanessa’s bed until screams caused him to leap out vehemently. He ran to the source, not noticing that he’d slept in so late until he discovered the reason why.

Abby laid unmoving under her covers, a pillow over her face. Rosa was staring at her friend, eyes wide with shock and fear. She placed a shaking hand on Abby’s heart. It wasn’t beating. Buster’s howl echoed.

***

The sounds of grief alerted Vanessa, who was calmly eating a breakfast bar in the kitchen. She knew Rosa had discovered her latest victim, and relished in the knowledge that her task was almost complete. Grabbing a knife from a drawer, she headed to Abby’s bedroom. Soon, no one would ever walk over her again.

***

Rosa wailed, her grief over Abby mixing with the shock that Danica wasn’t the killer after all. She couldn’t believe she had taken part in the murder of her innocent friend, and the guilt was destroying her. Buster nosed up to Rosa, trying to comfort her. However, he cowered in fear when he saw a silhouette in the doorway. He tried to move, but his paws seemed stuck to the floor. When Rosa felt the stab in her heart, she just assumed it was her inner pain. She was wrong. Rosa collapsed to the floor, her tears still warm on her lifeless cheeks. Buster leapt away in shock, getting a bit of Rosa’s blood on his fur. Vanessa chuckled.

“All done!” she chirped.

Though her voice was still quieter than the whisper of a freshly turned page, no other voices were there to talk over her. For once, she could be heard. Vanessa smiled. Buster whimpered, alerting her to his presence in the corner. She slowly walked over to the dog, and his heart beat harder with her every step.

“Hi, Buster!” she cooed as she pet his coat.

Buster blinked, surprised. Vanessa took advantage of his shock to pick him up and walk out of the room. They traveled to the front of the house, Buster squirming in Vanessa’s arms. She washed the blood out of her hair and his fur, and careful as to not get any more blood on her, dumped the bodies into the ocean. Buster’s eyes grew huge as he watched the girls he loved sink below the water, lost to the world forever.

***

Buster and Vanessa spent the rest of the week on the island, doing trivial things like exploring the rest of the island and making sand sculptures. Vanessa built a rather realistic knife out of black sand and “accidentally” crushed the mound Buster was trying (unsuccessfully) to mold into a girl’s face with his paws. He growled, but there was nothing he could do.

When the helicopter came and picked them up, the pilot was confused as to why he only had to fly back two passengers instead of seven. Vanessa, fake tears in the corners of her eyes, simply told him she didn’t want to talk about it. Shrugging, the pilot strapped them in and took off. During the seven-hour flight, Buster was secured to Vanessa’s chest by the seat belt. He silently resented this at first, but it was hard to hate Vanessa when she was scratching that special spot behind his ear. He soon lulled off, only waking up when they landed hours later.

They strolled through town, Vanessa holding Buster to her chest and smiling. Vanessa’s small stature and big eyes were the picture of innocence. If anyone passed by, they would only see a teenage girl walking with her dog. Buster was the only one who saw the malice in her grin, the murder in her eyes. When a police van rolled by, Buster leapt through the open window and barked to get the driver’s attention. The policeman followed him out of the vehicle and to Vanessa. Buster barked and jumped around the girl. The policeman picked up the defenseless dog and handed him to Vanessa.

“Is this your dog?” he asked in a gruff voice.

“Yes, sir,” Vanessa replied. “Thank you for returning him.”

“No problem, miss,” the officer grunted.

He got back into his police car and drove away.

“Silly Buster,” Vanessa giggled.

Buster grimaced. Vanessa only smiled, and they walked on until they got to her house. Her parents were animal lovers and happily introduced Buster to the family’s other three dogs. He got along with them but found them to be too bland. The other dogs acted happy all the time and wouldn’t listen to anything bad about their humans. Buster shuddered to think that he might act like that one day and vowed to never give up. But try as he might, he could not alert anyone to what happened at that mansion. Without a human voice, he couldn’t deliver justice.

***

However, Vanessa’s crime did not go unnoticed. Soon, the other girls’ families began asking why their daughters hadn’t come home. Vanessa quickly fabricated a story about how the girls had gone on a boating expedition, using a raft that Iris crafted. However, the raft broke apart far away from the island, drowning everyone on it. Vanessa said that she and Buster survived because the dog refused to go near the water, and she stayed on land with him because she wanted to make sure he didn’t hurt himself in their absence. Vanessa was a good actress, and her clear love of animals only added to the story’s credibility. She fake-cried when telling the tale, making it seem like she was upset about her friends’ deaths. Her performance was in every way calculated and perfect, and though the island was investigated, she’d left no trace of what she had done. Therefore, she managed to get away with murder. After all, the only other being who knew couldn’t tattle.

***

After years of trying to tell someone what Vanessa did, Buster rested into his fate. He began to act as submissive as the other dogs, manipulated by an easy life and Vanessa’s unconditional kindness towards her pets. It became easier to forget the horrific things she had done so many years ago. The short memory of a dog kicked in after a while, and Buster simply saw Vanessa as his owner. He forgot about the other girls entirely, and the whole ordeal erased from his memory.

Vanessa became a successful public speaker, speaking up for organizations that held good causes but had low members and funding. She became known as a charity worker and an overall good person. Vanessa gained a fortune from raising charities, from small to famous, and in time moved into the old mansion on the island. She had it renovated into a modern home and lived there with Buster and her other pets for the rest of their days.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.