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When I finally pass out, it’s a mercy.

I don’t know how many hours go by. When I’m finally aware again, I’m not handcuffed anymore. My left hand is swollen, and I can barely move it. The drugs keep me soft-focused and weak, and I see the thin woman again. She shouts at me, a red cascade of sound, and then roughly scrubs me down with a wet towel. She takes off my nightgown and throws clothes at me. I can’t manage it myself, so she dresses me like a doll, slaps me when I start to lie down in the bed, and makes me lie on the floor. I don’t care.

I’m barely aware that she chains me to the bed’s thick iron leg. I’m gone again before I can work out what to do next.

The next time I wake, I’m much clearer. My left hand is massively swollen and bloodied now, and locked back in the handcuff. No chance now of pulling it loose. I’ve made a real mess of it, and I’m still not free.

I need to find a way out of this and get back to my children. Their faces are so clear that I feel I can reach out and touch them, and I’m seized by a feeling of loss so intense it tears me apart, and I start to cry. I lost them. I lost my kids.

I bang my left hand against the floor, and the pain that shatters through me is breathtaking. It destroys the grief, drives a bright shard of alertness into my brain.

I do it again.

I bite my lip to keep from screaming, and my whole body shakes from holding it inside. I think I’m going to fly apart, but I don’t. My head’s clearer when the storm’s passed. Pain helps. Pain drives out the last of the drugged fog.

I hear creaking footsteps, and I see the thin, bare legs of the woman who gave me the drugs. She stands over me. I nod like a junkie, and she watches for a moment, then leaves. I make sure she’s gone before I look around.

I’m in the same room. It’s the same bed. Did I really wake up here with Melvin, or was that some hideous drug dream? God help me, I wish I could believe that, but I know this is real. He’s real.

This is all grimly real, and I need to get it together because time is running out.

He told me something about the kids. Something awful. I reach for it, but it slips away like oil in water, and I’m almost grateful for that, because I can only remember the feeling of that despair, not the shape.

I focus on what’s in front of me. My puffy, wounded hand. The handcuff digging into swollen flesh. Purple-tinted fingertips.

The other half of the handcuffs is fastened around the iron leg of the bed.

I stare at that for a long few seconds, and then I slowly realize why I’m staring.

I can slip it off.

The bed’s heavy, but that leg? Thinner than the cuff. If I lift the bed, I can slip it under. The junkie girl isn’t careful. She thinks I’m beaten.

I inch over, careful not to make much noise, and I slowly lift myself up to take the weight of the heavy bed on my back, pushing it up. It’s awkward, and agonizing, and I have to concentrate hard to keep my trembling muscles from just giving up and letting the bed slam down again . . . but I slowly pull the empty side of the handcuff free, and then I bend back down, inch by inch, until the iron foot touches the wood again. Silently.

Somewhere deeper in this house, I hear bells. No, they’re chimes. A clock. I’ve missed some of the chimes, so I can’t tell what the time is, except that it’s later than ten. Could be eleven. Could be midnight.

Floorboards creak across the room. I get ready. Come up fast, I tell myself. I want to cry, I feel so lost, so tired, but part of me is still that forged steel that Melvin has made of me. Come up fast. If it’s the girl, swing the metal handcuff into her face. Get her down. Take her weapon, if she has one. Keep moving. Don’t stop.

I don’t know where I can go. I don’t think there’s anywhere to run.

But I’m not stopping.

I tense up as the footsteps come nearer.

It’s not the junkie girl I see first. It’s Melvin, and the sight of his broken smile shakes me once more. “Look who’s awake,” he says. “Annie. Get her up. We need to start on time.”

Start on time, like this is some Broadway production, and he’s the stage manager.

I come up with all the power I have and slash the handcuff at his face, but I fall short. I’m off balance, and he easily dodges it. He grabs me by the forearms and shoves me at Annie, who takes my left hand and squeezes so hard my knees give way. I don’t scream. Not quite.

“Do what I tell you,” she says. “Walk.”

She shoves me into a stumble, and she keeps her iron grip on my injury, reminding me she can inflict pain anytime she wants. Outside the room, I realize that we’re on the second level, and there’s a wooden railing on the right overlooking the room below. Everything smells of neglect and rot, and the floor creaks and groans with every step. There’s a large, gaping hole ahead, and above it, the ceiling’s fallen in. Water drips from the sagging, blackened edges to patter on broken boards. I can see a cloudy night sky up there, and when I tilt my head back, the drugs threaten to lift me up into the faint, glittering stars.

Annie leads me around the hole and close to the banister. The railing isn’t in any better shape than the floor. If she was on the side closest to it, I’d push her over. It would probably break loose and send her crashing down to the atrium below.

But I’m on the railing side. Go over, I tell myself. It’s better than what he has planned.

But I know the fall won’t kill me, and I’m afraid I’ll break a leg and lose any chance to run, or fight.

I stumble over the torn carpeting and fall forward so suddenly that Annie lets go. I catch myself on my hands. The left one gives a searing stab of agony, and I cry out and lurch over to my right . . . and my fingers catch on a loose piece of floorboard. It’s splintered at the end, and I feel the sharp edge. I don’t hesitate. I dig my fingers in and pull on the break, and a piece splits off. I grab it as Melvin jerks me upright by my hair. I don’t use it yet—not yet. I press it flat against my right wrist, out of sight.

Wait until you can be sure. You won’t get another chance. I know what’s coming for me will be slow, and brutal, and horrific, and the worst part, the worst part, is that I don’t think it will do any good to hold out. I don’t think anybody can help me now. I have to help myself. As long as he’s focused on me, he isn’t going after the kids.

The kids.

I remember what Melvin said now. Brady called me. We have Lily. I feel a wave of pure horror, like cold honey over my skin. No. No. No.


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