Rage is better than fear. Always.
“I’m not one of your ladies,” I tell him. I wonder how many bones I’ll have to break in my hand to pull it free. Three? Four? He’s put the cuff on very tightly. But he’s too calm. Too prepared. This is a trap, and I think he wants me to hurt myself.
“You’re my wife, Gina.”
“I never accepted that,” Melvin says, as if that settles everything. He checks a watch he has on the nightstand on his side of the bed. “It’s nearly seven. You should have something to eat. It’s going to be a very long night.”
I realize now that he’s wearing faded old pajama bottoms. They’re a little large on him. Antiques, like the gown he’s put on me. “Where are we?” I ask. “How did you get me here?” It’s not Tennessee. It doesn’t feel like that, smell like that. There’s a different weight to the air here, and it’s warmer.
“This place belongs to a friend of mine,” he says. “A grand old place, back in the day. The front of it used to look like the White House, but you can’t tell it anymore, between the rot and the kudzu that’s taken over. As to how I got you here . . . let’s just say I had some help.”
“A plantation,” I guess, because this all feels Southern Gothic, and the kudzu gives it away. “You think you’re the lord of some decaying manor now?”
“Think of it as a place where special events are filmed. Commission pieces get done here. My friend’s got a few other location sets around. You’ve even found a couple of them. The warehouse was one. That cabin you blew up was another.”
Special events. I remember the darkest trade that Absalom does, in rape and torture and murder on film, with a sick, gritty taste in my mouth. “You were part of it,” I say. “Absalom.”
“I was a customer who graduated to being a supplier,” he replies. “I had talent. Made a good career out of it for nearly ten years. I was careful. I suppose I got careless, at the end. I should have put that last one in the lake while I had the chance. If I’d cleaned up the garage the night before, like I intended, we’d still be married.” He pats the mattress. “Still sharing the marital bed, too. I know you’ve missed it. I have.”
He sounds so normal. Wistful. It’s disorienting. Who would I be now if he’d kept hold of me for these past nearly five years? What would he have done to our children? I don’t want to imagine it, but I do: poor, passive Gina Royal, afraid to meet anyone’s eyes for long, scuttling through life with rounded shoulders and the mentality of a victim. Showing her children nothing but submission.
My kids might be damaged now, but I have fought for them. I’ve made sure they’re strong, independent young people. He can’t take that from them. Or me.
“You going to rape me, Melvin?” I ask him. “Because if you try, I’m going to rip as many pieces off you as I can reach.”
“I’d never do that to you. Not to the mother of my children.” I’ve gotten to him a little. He stretches and tries to make it look natural, but I can see he’s frustrated. I’m not playing the role of cowed victim. I’m not submitting. “Not that I can see her much in you now. Look what you’ve done to yourself. And for what? To survive? Not worth it, Gina, especially since you’re going to die this way.” His eyes take on a wet, opaque shine, like ice. He’s already started taking me apart in his head.
“Fuck you,” I tell him. I start working on the cuff. The pain is extraordinary, a supernova of red-and-yellow flares that burn like phosphorus as I twist my hand. Something gives with a wet, crisp snap, and the sensation is so overwhelming that I don’t feel anything for a blessed second. It’s like my body is trying to give me time to escape.
I break another bone, and my fingers burn like I’ve lit them on fire. I let out a cry, but it’s an angry one. A victorious one. Pain is life. Pain is victory.
I’m going to get free, and I’m going to kill him.
“Gina,” he says. “Look at me.” The tone’s almost gentle. “I’m sorry it has to be like this, in front of the cameras. I didn’t want that for you. I wanted it to be just you and me. But Absalom wanted to get paid back for what they’ve done for me. And what they’re going to do.”
“You’re apologizing?” I can’t help it. I let out a bitter, barking laugh. “God, what next. What’s Absalom going to do for you, do you think? Get you out of the country? Set you up somewhere with new victims? They’re using you, you idiot. When they get what they want, they’ll kill you, too.”
“Don’t call me an idiot,” he says, and the gentleness melts out of his voice and leaves it flat and cold. “Don’t ever do that. I played you, Gina. All the way down.” His chin lowers, and his eyes almost seem to shutter. There’s no humanity in them now. Just the monster. “Brady’s been calling me. Did you know that?”
It hits me under the shield I’m holding up, and all my wonderful, freeing anger gutters out in an instant. I stop trying to get free. I don’t want to give him an inch, but I can’t stop myself from asking, “What are you talking about?”
“Our son. Brady.” Melvin sits down on the edge of the bed. “I arranged for him to be given a phone when our friend Lancel had him—remember that? That phone was Brady’s lifeline, if he needed it. Turns out he did. First you abandoned him. Then he discovered you lied to him. Just enough doubt to exploit, to get him talking. It almost worked.” There’s a terrible, bitter disgust in the twist of his mouth now. “But you made him a weak, sad little rag doll, our son. You did that to him. He’s worthless to me the way he is. I’m going to have to toughen him up now.”
This is not the calm, polite Melvin that other people knew. It’s not even the Melvin I knew, back in Wichita; he never would have said these things, not about his own son. This is the toxic sludge at the bottom of a black lake spilling out of his mouth. Hearing him talk about my son this way makes me sick, and it also makes me terrified.
“You’re lying. You couldn’t have been talking to him,” I say, because that’s the only thing I can cling to. “He would have told me.”
“He didn’t use the phone right away—you kept him on a tight enough leash. But once he started, he just couldn’t stop.” Another cold smile. “Like father, like son, I suppose.”
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