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“Her?” Annie’s lip curls. “She’s nothing.”

“No. She’s mine.”

When he moves, it’s like the strike of a snake, too fast to be seen. He smashes her head into the door frame, again and again and again, a flurry of moves so shockingly violent that I can’t even think to act, to attack him, to try to save her life. He’s a tiger, pure bloody rage, and I’m terrified. Everybody’s frozen, even the film crew, who must have seen horrors I can’t imagine.

I don’t want to see this, but I can’t close my eyes. It’s as inevitable as a nightmare.

Annie collapses, gasping, eyes blind with blood. She crawls toward me.

I back up. I can’t help the instinct. Panic is howling inside me, a black tornado of despair because my thin piece of wood is nothing, nothing against this madness, it’s a paper-thin lie I’ve told myself, and nothing can stop Melvin Royal.

Melvin steps over Annie, grabs a screwdriver from the rack, and with one viciously powerful blow, he drives it through her skull.

Then he loses control.

My vision grays out. I can’t see this. I can’t know it. My mind is trying to run, trying to hide like a child in a maze, and I hear myself screaming because Annie can’t, she doesn’t make a sound, and all I want to do is run.

But I can’t make it past him. The second I move, I’m a victim.

When Melvin stops, it’s because he’s tired, not because he’s finished. I can see that in the way his chest heaves, and his hand shakes, and the butchered woman lying on the floor is barely recognizable as human from the neck up.

The lighting and camera operators haven’t made a sound or a move. They’ve frozen in place, too, as if they know they’re in the presence of an animal who could eat them just as easily. When Melvin sits back on his haunches, he looks at the camera operator. He’s dripping with Annie’s blood. He still has the screwdriver.

“Keep rolling,” he says to the cameraman, and, oh Jesus, he sounds so normal, so like the man I married. The man who took vows to love and cherish and protect. “I’m just starting.”

I feel myself going away. It’s not a faint; I know I can’t make myself vulnerable that way. I feel my mind leave my body, drift up like a balloon only loosely tethered to this heavy, shaking sack of flesh. From this distance, looking down, I don’t feel the horror or the sickness. I don’t watch. Somewhere, I have to believe that my children are still alive. Safe. That somewhere, Sam is okay.

Somewhere, people still live in the light.

But here in the dark, I’m all that stands between Melvin and the people I love.

And I have to keep standing.

When I open my eyes, I’m still in that putrid, dying place, and Melvin Royal is turning toward me. His bloody face looks calm, and his smile looks hungry.

“Gina,” he says, “I’m sorry, but this is how it has to—”

I lunge forward, and I jam the sharp piece of wood into his eye.

It goes deep, rupturing the fragile surface, and I feel the warm fluid from within sluice over my fingers. It’s all I have. All I can do. It’s isn’t enough, I know. Everything inside me goes silent.

It’s almost peaceful.

The wood breaks in my hand off as he screams and twists away. He’s alive. Blinded in one eye, in agony, but alive.

Melvin pulls the wood out of his destroyed eye and screams in rage.

The silence inside me snaps, and the fear roars back in, black and silver and cold as sleet, and I know I have seconds, seconds, to save myself.

I’m already lunging forward. It feels like I’m moving in slow motion, every motion crystalline clear and too slow, and something inside me is screaming to hurry, hurry, God, run, go.

I’m past him before he realizes I’ve moved, but he’s only a step or two behind me, screaming my old name, my dead name, and I know if he gets his hands on me, there won’t be any carefully curated torture streamed out to enrich Absalom; it’ll be pure, bloody slaughter, just as it was with Annie. He’ll rip me to pieces.

I see the camera operator moving out of the room behind us; he’s brought the video recorder with him, and he’s filming me as I head for the stairs. I hear Melvin roaring. It sounds like hell is ripping open behind me.

The screwdriver that Melvin used to kill Annie has rolled out into the hall, kicked there at some point, and I bend and pick it up without breaking stride. Someone’s charging up the stairs, a new man, and he has a gun in his hand.

I need that gun.

I can’t feel the pain of my wrist anymore, or anything else. I feel incandescent. I burst with power, and I close the distance faster than I thought possible. I bury the screwdriver in the guard’s neck, and the gun falls to the floor as he staggers back and starts to tumble down the steps. I dive for the weapon, twist over on my back, and as I roll, I see Melvin taking a last step toward me. He has his right hand clamped over his bloody, mutilated eye, but he sees the gun just in time to throw himself to the side as I aim and fire. Adrenaline or not, the shock of recoil sends a brutal stab through my arm, and I yell in pain and fury. My first shot misses him by less than an inch. I try again.

Melvin ducks into the room where he intended to kill me. He has weapons there. Maybe even a gun. I can’t stop now, even if my wrist shatters off my arm, I have to hold the gun and shoot, and pain doesn’t matter.

I fire more bullets into the wall, walking the shots methodically across. I don’t know where he is. My heart is racing so fast that it feels like a dying bird in my chest, but my brain feels slow. Calm. Almost peaceful. The gun in my hand is a semiautomatic, so it has a minimum of seven bullets. I’ve fired four.

The video operator is still standing there filming me. Maybe he truly doesn’t understand that he isn’t just crew, that he’s a guilty accomplice to horrors. Maybe he thinks his camera is a magic shield.

I shoot him, and he goes down. Five.

I scramble forward. My legs feel weak and loose, but somehow I stay up. I dodge drunkenly around the hole in the middle of the floor, step over the dead camera operator, and pray there’s still at least one more bullet in the gun so I can put it in Melvin’s head.

I make it to the door of the torture room. There’s a man curled up motionless on the oval rug: the lighting tech. I got him with the shots I put through the wall.

Melvin isn’t here. Melvin’s gone.


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