Arrie and the Wolf: Part 1
Sire & Childe Preview
© Eileen Glass
The big steel door belongs in a prison, not in the house of a little old lady. Its drab gray surface really sucks the charm out of the floral wallpaper. I think she tried to decorate dainty with that girlie wall sconce up top, but the amber lighting just makes the whole thing even creepier.
She has such terrible taste.
And I have such terrible balance. Ugh. The stairs dip and roll like a giant tongue outstretched to slurp me up.
“Go on,” she says.
“Move it, girl.”
‘Girl.’ Hah! I’m gonna be sick.
I brace myself against the wall.
She’s a mean old lady. She drugged me. Pricked me in the neck and laughed as I stumbled in circles, reaching for walls, chairs, and tables until I collapsed.
Who knows why she did it. What does an old lady keep behind a heavy steel door like that?
Her bony hands latch onto my shoulders and hustle me down the stairs. I expected to fight her. I was just resting a minute, getting myself together, beating the drug. Then I was going to throw something at her. Knock her out. Escape.
Instead, I go tripping with her to the awful door. I end in a crumpled heap on the last stair, my frilly skirt spread out all around me and my legs in disarray. Cool wood clunks against my forehead. My gaze rolls up at her.
“Uuh. Whaddaya wan’?”
She blurs, tilts, duplicates, merges, and in the distance, muted as though I’ve my head stuck in a fish bowl, I hear tink-tink-tink.
She sorts through an overloaded key ring, flipping each mismatch around the loop like she’s dealing cards.
I’ve got to get out of here. Whatever she keeps locked behind steel has to be bad for my health.
My arms and legs seem very far away, and when I look down, they’re long and rubbery like soggy noodles plopped here in a useless tangle. I can’t fight her off with these.
I lift a stringy arm and flop it at the wall. There’s nothing to hang on to. No railing. So I flop it at the stairs like a fisherman casting a line, hoping my fingers will find a groove to anchor me here.
The tink-tink stops. She’s found the right key.
“Please. Lady—I mean, Edith. I’m sorry. Please. I gotta go home. I don’t like it here.”
How much of that made it through the slurs? Did I even say it? Maybe I just thought it. She doesn’t answer.
Her shoulder butts against the door, and it opens with a creak.
I’m halfway through repeating the plea when her frigid hands grasp my ankles.
My floppy arms cling to the stair, but my grip is easily yanked free, and my skirt rides up to my waist as she drags me into a room smelling of bleach and copper. The stairs get smaller, farther away. The amber lighting from the dainty wall sconce looks mighty friendly now.
I have to get out there, out of here. I have to go. My palms slap against the floor as I pull myself back. The cold scrapes against my belly. Plain beige tile.
Before all this, when she showed me the house, I had mentally snickered at the floral wallpaper, the gaudy rugs, the fringed lamp shades. Every surface was coated in old lady prints, knits, and knickknacks.
I remember thinking, Good thing floral and floral always matches…
This beige, blank place should not belong to this woman. What does she do down here?
My arms have no strength. I fight for every inch. But I’ll fight until I’m out of here, I don’t care how much it hurts, nor how long it takes. I can’t be here. I’ve got to get out.
I don’t make it far before she has me again.
“Get up, girl,” she says, hauling me onto my useless legs. Her words echo in my mind, but in a different context.
(Get up. You can do it. And if you can’t, I don’t care. You HAVE to get up. Get up, get up, get up…)
She slings me around, and I go flying and flailing across the room. I tumble into someone—not her.
“He-elp,” I groan, clutching at this person. Hard chest, broad shoulders—a man. Oh no.
I let myself sink to the floor in his arms. It’s all over. The old lady’s heels tap-tap across the floor. I hear a solid boom, then nothing at all.
She’s shut the steel door. She’s left me here with him, this person who happens to be male and therefore is statistically likely to rape and kill me down here. Her nasty old husband maybe.
(Though he doesn’t smell old. He smells like spice, and his body is warm and solid, not bony and cold like hers.)
He holds my wrists, and I don’t have the energy to plead. I don’t struggle. My vision swims and makes me nauseous. I see plenty of eyes, two noses, several lips with a tongue waggling between them.
I give up. Let me die now. Before the pain. I can’t do this.
Maybe I speak, I can’t tell anymore.
“Hey there, don’t cry. It’s alright, I’m here with you. My name is—”
I should just shut my eyes.
(Wake up, wake up! What do you see?)
I see frogs in jars, looking at me.
Also, fingers and toes. And human ears, tons of them. They’re in the fattest jar, the dusty one tucked way in the back, with two wire brackets that pop over the lid to keep it securely shut. To keep the ears fresh.
Maybe it’s the distortion from the glass, but I think that one ear, floating around the curve of the sides, almost obscured in shadow, is awfully tiny.
I’m going to sleep.
(Wake up, wake up! What do you see?)
A metal table, across the room from me.
And also a wash basin. There’s cabinets above and below the counter top. A box of disposable gloves sits over there.
Hey, wait—there’s a dolphin soap dispenser by the sink! Yeah, the one with the seahorses and the striped fishies inside. I have the same one in my bathroom.
Now, I must sleep.
(C’mon. One more. You can do it. What do you see?)
Don’t make me say it. You’re killing my bubble.
(WHAT DO YOU SEE?)
The floor slopes to a blood stained drain.
But that can’t happen, not to me.
His name is Rex.
If that ain’t the name of a serial killer who makes jerseys out of human skin, I don’t what is.
My eyelids peel up, and I scan for this person holding me hostage. He’s an L-shaped lump in the shadows, his body sagging against the wall like a discarded doll. My prison guard, I think at first, but not for long as the bars on my right side correct me. Rex isn’t my guard. He’s a fellow prisoner like me, trapped in here.
The old hag must be quite the handy lady to build this cage herself. Or maybe she told the private contractor that the cell was for role-play. Who knows. I’d believe a frumpy old lady like her being into some kinky stuff.
Home made or not, the construction is solid. Bars go from the cement floor to the heavy old beam above. They’re freezing. Rough like sand, though they look smooth. I tug meekly, already aware of the futility.
Positive thinking. Good vibrations. You can get out of this, I urge my despairing heart, but no amount of affirmative wishing in all the universe will make me strong enough to pull them free. My grip slides off, and I sigh.
Immediate escape eluding me, I take in my surroundings. Rex hasn’t moved. I think I’m wearing his coat. Also, he must have tied my shoe.
I have the evidence—tied shoe, unfamiliar warm coat thrown over me—but no memories to accompany the facts. The coat certainly must be his since I didn’t bring mine. I think that shoe was untied before. I seem to remember tripping on the lace in her driveway, thinking that I would fix it later as I continued to her door.
Did I fix it? Or did he?
Oh god. Her flowers. They stand out in my memory, bright red and swaying slightly with the breeze…in front of a small square window. The same one I’m looking at now from the wrong side.
My fingers retreat into the warm coat. I shut my eyes, but I’m not tired. Anything to avoid acknowledging Rex, the other guy. I can only handle one problem at a time, and if he’s not a rapist, then he can wait.
I’m glad to report my continued un-molested status. Not so glad to report anything else, I’m afraid. Looking out at the room makes my chest tighten. I know it sounds crazy, but I feel a little better in here, behind the thick bars. Out there, the world is much, much worse.
“I hope it stays out there,” I whisper, thinking aloud. Big mistake.
Until now, Rex has been a dark featureless mannequin, sitting against the wall with his legs stretched out, his shoulders slumped, his head resting at a tilt.
Now the mannequin’s head turns to me. “You awake?”
He sounds ragged and tired. His hair sticks out at all angles, and his head droops. His eyes are dull and gray in the light.
He looks dead.
I tuck the coat higher under my chin. He gave this to me. So he’s nice, I think. He’ll be okay.
“Where is she?” My voice croaks, and I flex my throat to work up some saliva.
“Sleeping most likely. In a coffin is my guess.” He picks up something and holds it out to me with one arm. “I saved this for you.”
Like a curious animal, I stretch my neck toward the object and squint, but otherwise make no move to accept it. Not until I’m sure. It’s a dark lumpy thing. After a moment, thanks to a yellow fog cast off by the desk lamp’s soft glow, I see it’s a gallon jug. I lean forward to take it from him.
“It’s all we got, okay? Don’t spill it.”
I nod, and he lets go. Bottom half inch sloshes with a silvery liquid. I tip it to my lips. Cool water wets them, and I open up to guzzle as much as I can. When I’ve downed the last trickle, I’m aching for a refill.
“There’s more?” I ask hopefully.
“Just the toilet. I wouldn’t blame ya for dipping into it. Honestly, I’ve thought about it. But she brings more in the morning. Be a few more hours, if you can wait.”
The toilet gleams white and unobjectionable in his corner. I can’t help considering it. Gross, I know, but I’m a dry husk, and there’s an endless supply of clear, nurturing water in there. The water in the tank should be clean. I’m tempted. But…
He nods. And goes back to looking across the room. The lamp light touches only half his face, at a slant. Assuming the dark half matches the light half, he’s a red head, youngish, with stubble and a square jaw. Tough guy face. So the bulk under his sweater must be muscle. Black sweater. Black jeans too. It isn’t a trick of light that he’s without color. My eyes trail down his legs to his feet. Combat boots. Odd. If he’s a goth, he’s getting a little old for the fad. He’d be the buffest emo I ever met.
“So…who are you?”
“Name’s Rex.” He keeps looking at the chair.
“Yeah, but I mean…” The answer comes to me. “Oh. Did you respond to the cleaning ad too?”
“Hm? The what?”
I have his attention now. I hide a little further under the coat. “The ad. On craigslist.”
“Heh. No.” When he grins, his smiles shines extra white in comparison with the rest of him, so he looks like a wedge of teeth waiting for me in the shadows. But his tone is friendly. “Is that why you’re here?”
“Wow. Cleaning ad, huh?” His body comes to life as he shifts position, angling more my way. “What’d she offer to pay you?”
“Nothing. Didn’t actually do any cleaning. But she was advertising six dollars an hour.”
“Six? Serious?” His smile doesn’t seem so malicious now that he’s visibly shuffling, breathing, being human. Just a normal guy in a crazy lady’s basement. Like me.
“And you responded to that? You nuts or just poor?”
Ouch. He has a point.
“Me too. Six, though…” He tsks and shakes his head. The fly away hairs don’t budge, like he’s used too much hair spray. Doesn’t seem like that kind of guy though. How long has he been here with no shower or tooth brush or anything? “That cheap hag. My mother used to work at the Trail’s End, you know that place?”
He has a mother. I guess everyone does, but when he admits it, I let the coat sink lower. Dirty hair, perhaps, but he seems like a nice guy.
“Um. I think so. By the interstate?”
“Yeah, out there. Owner’s a stingy bastard, but even he pays seven-fifty. Six is just rude. Shoulda gave her the finger and kept walking.”
“Yeah. No shit.”
We both chuckle, and I feel better for it.
“So, not the ad,” I say. “What’d she get you with?”
Rex scratches the back of his head. “Ah, man. You’re gonna think I’m the stupidest jackass in the world…”
“Worse than six an hour?”
Rex sighs. “Way worse. Get this—I broke into the place.”
“I was ransacking it.”
All black, combat boots…Not a fashion statement, a work uniform. A burglar. And a murderer on the side? I hope not.
“I know, right?” He turns his palms up and holds out his hands like he’s showing me something. “I figured a large house, plus a dying old lady, equals easy cash. Usually does. This one though.” He shakes his head and drops the metaphorical items.
Fear takes my voice for its own.
“Is she gonna kill us?”
His whole posture sags. The shadows on his face don’t hide his somber expression and the way his eyes dart to the drain in the floor before he answers.
“She give you her address? Her phone number? Her name?” I don’t answer, but he already knows. “Ain’t good when a serial killer is upfront with their personal info, I’ll tell you that.”
He doesn’t lie. I got to give him credit for that, I guess. A lot of people would have hopped on the whole positive thinking angle. Unfortunately, I’m one of those people who love a heaping serving of positive bullshit. And seconds too, please.
I guess Rex is no cheerleader.
“Serial killer?” I bite my lip.
Maybe the drugs are wearing off. Something’s climbing up my throat, and I don’t want to find out if it’s a sob or a plea or a scream. I’ve got company, and I don’t want to freak him out. So I shut my eyes. It isn’t so bad in here if I focus on sensations alone. I’m not hurting right now. I’m hungry, but not starving. Nothing bad is happening to me right now.
Stay in the present, that’s what Buddha says.
Whoo. I let out a gushing breath. Suck another in. Mindfulness is the cure to suffering.
I remember so vividly standing at the front gate, checking the address against the note inked on my palm.
God, just send me back. I want it with my whole heart, more than I’ve ever wanted anything.
The concrete’s cold seeps into my jeans. Dimly, I hear Rex scratch and huff. I pray as hard as I can that all this fades, and I’m standing in the sunshine again, looking at this crazy lady’s flowers.
“I’m sorry,” Rex says.
I give up my prayer. I peek. Still here.
“Why?” My voice is heavy and cracking. I wipe my eyes and my nose.
He shrugs. “Just sorry. I’ve been here two days, cursing myself. Thinking I earned it. But you’re not like that. You’re a college student, right?”
“No. Just poor.”
“But not a criminal?”
“Nope.” And that brings another chuckle out of me.The most illegal thing I’ve ever done was sip a beer in high school. I didn’t care for it.
“You don’t deserve this. I’m sorry for that.”
I take a deep breath. I have to. Because I’m not going back, no matter how much I wish it. And I have to breathe to stay alive.
“I had so many problems before this.” I’m talking to myself, mostly, but I don’t mind Rex listening. “I’ll be evicted in two weeks if I don’t come up with four hundred dollars.”
I suck another breath into my lungs. Gotta keep breathing. “But I hate my place anyway. Hate my cheap clothes, hate my stupid job, hate my life…now this.” Harsh laughter bursts from my throat, and I have to press my hand over my mouth to cut it off.
Rex doesn’t say anything. I swallow the crazy laugh. “I just want to go back.”
I won’t say it, but I’m thinking that maybe I deserve this. Maybe. For not being happy with my miserable life before.
I’m poor but I don’t have to be. It’s a choice I made. Because I’m a pathetic, doomed moron.
I’m crying now. Leaking, more like. Still holding back the sobs, maintaining control, but crying all the same. I pull his coat sleeve over my knuckles and use it to soak up the tears running down my cheeks. Nice of him to wear this plushy, warm microfiber hoodie jacket. Cheap brand. Wears out in a few months, but it’s soft. Must be new-ish.
“Hey. What’s your name?” he asks.
I tell him, but the sleeve muffles it.
“It’s Arrie.” And sometimes I spell it Aurrey if I’m really in character.
“Nice to meet you, Arrie.” He flashes me a sad smile.
“Heh.” That hysterical laughter tickles my throat. I can’t help it. It’s funny, in a sick way. “Nice to meet you too, Rex.”
He extends his hand.
My figure may be slim with a plump tush, but my hands are bony, without the grace and softness that women hands have naturally.
(He’s going to find out.)
I know. He has to right? I mean, the toilet over there says that Rex and I are going to be awkwardly intimate if I’m still in here by noon.
His hand hangs too long. This has been innocent and friendly until now, and I’m about to ruin that. So, I lean forward to shake. I smile a little—please don’t kill me.
What am I to do? I can’t just tell him. What if he’s homophobic? He’s certainly got the build of macho-man.
He’s the only human contact I have in here. If he’s disgusted by me…
I would be very sad. That’s the truth of it. I can’t handle the usual on top of this bullshit right now.
His hands are rough. Tan. His knuckles are scarred, and I wonder if it’s from breaking windows. His palm molds to mine and his fingers squeeze firmly as we shake. His gaze drops to our hands for a second, then back up, mirroring my small smile.
He doesn’t suspect a thing.
I can feel the texture of his calluses long after we’ve let go.
The chair was there all along. I guess my logical mind balked at the sensory input. [_(You expect me to draw conclusions from this? You’re outta your mind, weenie!) _]
Rex hovers at the edge of my peripheral vision, just sitting. Once in awhile I hear him shuffle or sniff. I don’t watch him.
I watch the chair. Made of crude, dark steel. It has a head brace and stirrups. Leather buckles hang from it like vines. The lamp on the end table is the only light source in the basement, so the seat glows as the brightest thing in the room.
On either side of the chair, the wall is lined with floor to ceiling shelves bowed in the middle from the weight of frogs and mice in jars, including what I think is a pickled cat. Most of the jars are vague colors with shapes inside, and I don’t use up any imagination trying to figure out what they are.
I’m in denial. Every detail my eyes pick up, a gear in my brain squeaks, No way, José. Nuh uh. Not happening to me, not a chance.
Directly in front of me is the table and behind that, the wash basin. There’s cabinets above and below the countertop. There’s the dolphin soap dispenser on the sink and a box of disposable gloves too. Like a doctor’s exam room.
Rex lets out a little sigh, reminding me he’s there.
The floor dips to carry messes to the drain. It’s metal and shiny except for where a dark brownish crud lines the rim.
She’s been doing this for awhile.
The squeaky gear cusses and starts putting my situation in perspective. Got to acknowledge the problem to overcome it.
My cell isn’t just a cage. It’s a refuge.
I’m on the phone. I tell my mom I can’t be bothered with fancy school applications right now. I got the acceptance I wanted. I’m going to sew, isn’t that great? I’m being sarcastic, as always, but she ignores the snark, as always. This isn’t really about college and my father’s disappointment and making something of myself. This is actually just her calling to check up on me, calling to make sure I’m okay. But affectionate words aren’t spoken aloud in my family, and she doesn’t know how else to do it, besides nagging me about my future. It’s her way to express that she cares.
Only I never saw it that way. Many events from life keep replaying in my head, with new found clarity. No, in fact, my first serious boyfriend did not mean to break up with me in the worst way possible, abandoning me cold without a text, a note or a call. He simply saw that I wanted out, that I was too lazy to break it off myself, and decided to save us both the trouble and drama by walking out.
Never have I possessed so much self awareness as I do in my hour of need.
“Hey, hey, wake up.”
He’s reaching up my skirt.
“Don’t touch me!” I come back to reality, pulling down on my skirt and kicking out at my assailant.
“Woah. Not touching, promise see?”
He’s fast to get out of my personal space. And I understand now that he wasn’t reaching up my skirt. He was reaching for me generally, with the intent of shaking me awake. Not, you know, molesting me in the dark. I flush, but I don’t let go of the skirt. He’s…Well, he’s nice. And I don’t mean personality.
Hair in disarray, broad cheekbones, broad jaw. A strong face and a gorgeous nose. I want to dress him.
“Sorry,” I mumble. He shows me a small smile to let me know he hasn’t taken offense. Full lips too. Not pouty lips, but full. Oh, I’m in trouble. What are the chances that a crazy lady kidnapped two gay men at random?
“You kind of zoned out there,” he says. A creak behind the door, and his expression loses what little happiness it held. Slack, somber despair marks his mouth now, his attention on the door.
“She’s coming,” I whisper.
“Yeah. Don’t talk to her. Whatever you do, even if she asks a question, say nothing. Put the jug next to the bars. She’ll refill it.”
The water jug is nestled under my elbow like a child I might be trying to protect. I had forgotten about it. I haven’t moved in hours.
“Okay.” My voice doesn’t tremble, my hands don’t shake. My body follows the motions like a wooden puppet, but a perfect one. Set the jug down. Sit back. There, all done.
My heart is pounding a mile a minute.
He leans forward on one hand, looking earnestly into my eyes. “I’m right here, okay?” He falters for a second, looking uncomfortable, but sincerely states, “I’m a good guy. You don’t have to worry about me trying anything, you know? I wouldn’t—er, I’m not, you know, a pervert.”
I am! I inwardly sing. Then I wilt inside. The way he looks at me, like I’m an injured bird in the street…
Yeah, he’s straight. And if he finds out, this uncomfortable situation gets a lot worse.
“Anyway.” He coughs. He’s about to add something, but then I hear it. The sound of keys on the other side of the door. “She’s here. It’ll be okay, don’t worry.”
He sits back against the wall. I bring my knees in, folding them under and sideways with the skirt safely tucked over my legs. I fluff the lacy collar of my high necked blouse, cleverly designed by yours truly to obscure my adam’s apple. I’m so screwed.
A click sounds. The door creaks and swings open.
She comes into the room with the same alien walk I remember. That is, she sticks one foot out, places it heel first, moves her weight. I can pull that off as a sexy sway, but she has the wide-toed stance of a penguin, her feet always pointing at the wrong angles, fighting each other for the dominant direction.
She’s had plastic surgery done. On her cheekbones perhaps, on her lips definitely. Perhaps they used to be lush and kissable. Now they look like two swollen red slugs laying side by side. As she smiles, they never part to show her teeth. They stretch and thin until it seems that someone has drawn a red gash across her face with a fat marker. Her lipstick clashes with her airy spring gown of lilac with small white flowers imprinted around the seams.
From the doorway, she picks up a big brown box with the flaps crossed shut and carries it to the table.
It occurs to me to plead and, if that doesn’t pan out, to threaten and throw a fit. Let me out, you crazy old hag!
A quick side glance at Rex dispels my impulse. Because he’s been here longer than me, and he’s not saying a thing. He watches her with the evaluating gaze of a fellow predator not entirely sure what he’s dealing with. He hasn’t moved. His arm appears slung lazily across his bent knee, but he’s tense as though about to spring.
If there was a chance it would work, Rex would already be begging, I’m sure of it. I trust him in this.
She goes out of sight, rummages, and reappears with a garden hose, nozzle dripping at the end.
“Anyone care for a shower?” Her slug lips curve into a smirk as her fake nails tap against the nozzle.
I copy Rex and don’t say or do a thing. I make my face as blank as I can. But secretly I’m panicking because she’s standing right over me, her shadow is touching me, and I don’t like it.
She huffs and puts one hand on her jutting hip. Her skeletal frame shows through the creases and folds of her billowy spring dress.
“My, you two are the most boring guests I’ve ever had. I’m not actually going to do it you know. You’re perfectly safe, you don’t have to be so quiet.” The tails of her slug lips wag. “Like a couple of frightened mice,” she mutters and tsks.
The fingers on her hip tap and jerk uncontrolled. As with her opposing feet, the individual components making up her body seem to twitch and move of their own accord, out of sync, alien, unnatural. Like the pieces of her body don’t wish to be attached.
“Alright. No fun then.” She swings the nozzle at Rex and shoots a squirt across his lower legs. He springs to his feet instantly, ready to dodge the next spray. “That’s for infecting her with your stoicism.”
She goes about filling our gallon jug, then she huffs and walks off. Her eyes, outlined in crusty mascara, lock on me as her lips stretch upwards, looking smug. I brush my arms off of invisible slime. I wait until I’m reasonably sure she won’t reappear suddenly, then I snatch up the gallon and gulp my share.
It goes too fast. Much too fast. I’m barely sated, and the gallon is over a quarter down already.
I hold it out to Rex, and he pushes it back my way. He doesn’t have to speak. I sense he wants me to have whatever I want while he subsists on the rest. He may not be a good man given his record, but he’s a man. Protecting a small little woman. How nice.
[_Bad karma. _]I drink up anyway though. I’ve under appreciated plain, unflavored, unsweetened water. The brass aftertaste from the garden hose doesn’t bother me a bit.
Her movements are reduced to noises and assumptions. Winding the hose back around a hanger, probably. I hear more rustling and a beep-beep. And then, of all things, the hum of a microwave. There’s a kitchenette through the wall I huddle against.
A kitchenette. How long does she plan to keep us down here?
My gaze goes to Rex, like the man is responsible to answer my thought. He stares straight ahead, standing still against the wall like he’s lined up for a prison photo. The empty mannequin once more.
I squeak, a worried hum, and my thumb goes to my teeth. I bite the pads of my fingers when I’m stressed.
“It’ll be alright,” he whispers, almost too quiet to hear over the ding of the microwave.
Moving carefully like he doesn’t want her to hear so much as the rustle of his jeans, he sinks next to me. I hold my breath. This is the closest he’s ever gotten since the handshake. Our thighs press together slightly. I’m squished between him and the wall.
He puts his arm across my shoulders. Lightly at first, like he’s nervous on a first date. The weight settles gently like I might recoil and reject him at too much pressure.
God. This guy. If he only knew that I’m not a damsel in distress…
I could whisper to him right now. Psst. Hey, I’m a dude in a skirt.
I don’t think he’d freak out. I don’t think his arm will stick around either. And I like wearing him like a man-scarf, a warmth that reassures me. If—no, when he rejects me, I’ll be alone again.
I’m a social media guy. Always texting, always tweeting, posting pics and updates for fun and interaction. My world has shrunk to the size of this basement, and there’s only three people in it. Who can fault me for wanting some connection with him?
I’ll find some way to tell him, I promise myself without much resolve. After this.
She’s finished whatever she’s doing. Her heels tap-tap across the floor towards me.
I lower my thumb from my teeth.
Have to be calm, right? That’s what this is about. Denying the old hag her game.
Not about escaping. Not about living. Just annoying her.
His arm is heavy, and he squeezes just a little too tight. I can feel his tensed muscles and (I think) a toned body where we connect on the sides. He doesn’t lean into me, so it’s hard to be sure. He’s strong at least, I tell that easily by the size of his arms. He’s thick.
I want to giggle.
I feel better. Even when the hag reappears with two plastic bowls of soup.
“Well, aren’t you two getting cozy,” she remarks.
We eat our crappy soup. The hag loses interest in us. She goes to a locker I can only dimly see and takes out a white overcoat—a lab coat, like I wore a couple times in biology class. And a muddy brown apron.
I’m not worried yet. Not until she pulls out the face mask. And the rubber gloves, green and going all the way up to her elbows. Goggles go over her eyes and the strap bunches up her already frizzy white hair into a mushroom cloud atop her head.
Rex pulls me close into his side, holding me with both arms now, and I don’t say anything. Don’t think much of anything.
I don’t look at the chair. I don’t wonder what the gloves are for. She approaches the table, and I realize we are not the center of her attention, not the reason for the suit. I’m okay, I can think again. She’s after the box.
She hums as she undoes the flaps.
“Why, hello there,” she says in the crooning voice of a grandmother.
Does she have child? Did she ever have a family?
Perhaps. I try to remember walking through her house. Had there been photographs? I don’t know. All I can remember before she stuck the syringe in my neck is a sensation of evil lurking behind my back.
“There, there.” Out of the box she lifts…a puppy. A little one with long legs and a light face mask to complement a darker body.
I can hardly believe it, but there it is, slumped and dangling from her hand. She pets it as she lays it on the table. The metal table with gutters.
I take in these awful details. But, as if withholding a great secret from myself, I can’t comprehend what comes next. Not even as she starts going through the drawers and cabinets, humming to herself.
Rex scoots closer to me. Now our sides press tightly, and his body heat spreads to me through the layers of denim and faux silk separating our thighs. His scent clears my head, calms my thumping heart. His pulse thrums in our squeezed hands, his chest swelling with each breath. I make an effort to slow down, to match him. He’s muscled. I’ve no doubts about that now with so much of him pressed against me. And I clutch to him like I’m holding a secret weapon. A lifeline.
I almost crawl into his lap when she pulls out a gleaming cleaver.
The puppy stirs. His head lifts, drops, drags as he tries to look around. He yips weakly. One front paw swipes pathetically across the metal.
He’s drugged and helpless.
Edith sets the cleaver by the sink and goes digging in another drawer. She pulls out what I can only describe as a scooper. Like an ice cream scoop, but smaller. Then tongs with curved, incisor-like ends. And two thick pink rubber bands. Lastly, a razor blade.
The razor is the worst. Because she opens the razor drawer too far, it tilts downward so we see the other contents in that drawer. They glitter. Razors, scalpels, other horrible instruments I have no name for. They sit in neat rows, cradled in a black velvet casing within the drawer. Each tool has a perfectly sized slot, and she hums gently as she plucks the razor from its bed.
These are her children, her loves. She doesn’t just set the tools on the counter. She places each one with a loving stroke and a fond touch.
The dog yips and picks up its head, worry fighting the drugs. It rolls onto its stomach. Tries to look around, confused. Yips louder, the cry making it’s sides lurch with effort. Weak, pathetic, calling.
I want to hold him safe in my arms.
The hag pets him twice, then puts the rubber bands on his feet, securing his legs like a turkey going in the oven. The little guy squeals and makes drunken snaps at her fingers.
I can see myself on that table, thinking, Send me back, God, please send me back.
The drug saps his strength. With both feet bound all he can do is pant on his side utter the sorrowful pleas.
She turns to her tools on the counter. Her head cocks to the side as she decides which one to pick up first.
Her fingers linger on the cleaver. Had she picked it up, I wouldn’t have done anything. I would have cried and sat huddled with Rex, thinking that I’ve never known cruelty until this day.
Instead, she picks up the razor and the scoop, and my stomach plummets. She yanks the puppy closer by its back legs. The scoop shifts to an offhand grip as she plies at the dog’s eyes with her thumb and index fingers. The hand with the razor comes to rest on the dog’s temple.
My mind reveals that great secret finally. [_She’s going to cut out his eyes. _]
The little thing’s legs start swiping on the table. He wants to run, to go back, to escape.
The blade is poised right over its eyes. All she needs now is the right angle. She almost has it, but the weak little dog’s squirming delays her.
He manages to bite onto the thumb of her glove, and my heart fills with hope, but she shakes it off. The drug drains his energy fast and terror can only give back so much. His head flops back to the table. He can only manage a whine as she pries on his eyelids, the razor hovering.
I peel myself from Rex and leap to my feet.
“Hey! Hey, you old bitch!” I kick the bars. “What the fuck are you doing?!”
It works. She looks up, distracted. And I keep yelling, spewing any foul thing I can think of. My nerves buzz. I shouldn’t provoke this crazy old hag, I know that, but I can’t watch what she’s about to do.
“The police are gonna lock you up! When I get out of here, you’re gonna fry, get that?!”
Rex gets to his feet behind me. He touches a hand to my back.
“We can’t do anything…” he says quietly.
“Bullshit! This is fucking bullshit!” I’m not eloquent, just crazy. Shrieking. Trying to offend, putting on a show to keep her attention. Doing anything I can to stop the razor.
She hovers over the puppy, her prying fingers losing their place on his temples, the razor drifting away from his terrified eyes as she watches me, her expression befuddled. I take this as a good sign and keep screaming.
I choke when her lips stretch into that red gash of a smile.
“Oh, I hoped you would be a fun one.” She laughs. “Girls are the best, you know.”
Her voice is soft and gravelly, a grandmother’s croon. I should keep shouting, but I can’t. When she speaks, there’s no option but silence.
“They’re such spoiled little devils. All their life, girls like you are taught that they’re special.” Her eyes half close, making her look like an ugly cat. “I enjoy giving special little girls a good, harsh dose of reality.”
I can see that she’s about to do it. She’s about to hurt him. So I start up again.
“They’re gonna tell the world what your daddy did to you on the[_ _]news. The police are gonna shoot you dead, bitch.” Spittle flies off my lips.
“Police? Police?” She laughs like I’ve said the funniest thing in the world. She stops touching the little guy, stops hovering with the razor, so she can double over with humor. I’ve succeeded in sparing him for now.
“Who? Who called the police, dear? Who?” She laughs and laughs.
I glance at Rex. Between my shoulder blades, his hand rests on my back. He watches the woman with the same blank face he’s had this whole time.
I feel sick.
When she gets her breath back, the old hag says, “Oh. Oh, that’s good. Police…Whew.” She wipes her forehead with her arm. “Did you forget, girl, that you gave me your references? There’s a dose of reality for you. Ha! There’s no police coming for you. Nobody’s coming for you. You’re a runaway.”
She wags the razor at me like a teacher scolding a child with a pointer stick. “Do you know what happens to runaway little girls? Do you?”
She waits for an answer. My voice sticks. Rex holds me against him. My pulse flies fast, my breath shallow.
“Don’t play her game. C’mon…” he says. The tickle of fire from his breath on my ear brings me back from the brink, gives me a sensation to focus on. To regain control.
“No. I expect you don’t.” She looks down her nose at the dog. She looks at me. The puppy was never saved, not for a second. “I’ll show you what happens, stupid girl.”
Then she’s back on him. The little guy lost his strength some time ago. He can only whine vaguely when she goes prying at his eye.
I lose it.
“Don’t you touch him!”
The dog screams. I shout every foul word that comes to mind, whatever I can, I don’t even care if it makes sense. And she cuts him. I see the blade press in, I see the blood. And he screams.
My voice cuts off to gurgles and a sob, and Rex has me. He turns me, holds me close. He’s shaking. He presses me tight into his chest, his hands covering my ears, but nothing can block the horrible pained sounds.
Rex doesn’t let me go, not even when I fight him furiously. I’ve forgotten about the police; I want to tell her what I’m going to do to her someday. But Rex holds tight, and doesn’t let me. I shove him, hit him, claw at him…and somehow I end up with fistfuls of his shirt, clutching him close.
With her gruesome work done, the old hag sprays her table and floor clean. Red water floods to the drain and disappears. Her tools soak in a soapy bath in the sink.
She wears a different suit when she cleans, a floral apron with pink ruffles, bright yellow rubber gloves up to her elbows. She fills a bucket with hot bleach water and goes after the floor, scrubbing every inch on her hands and knees, wringing her cloth into a bucket.
“How could you?” I ask.
She stops scrubbing, her gray hair flying all over the place.
“Ingredients.” She shrugs. “Had to be done. You’ll understand. Tonight.”
She hums intermittently while she works. She takes care in the grout of the tiles and around the table’s feet, but she misses the rim around the drain. She always must for that color to stick there.
Her tools are washed and dried and put to bed with loving care.
The whole time she works, a black sack lays slouched in the corner, it’s top tied into a big, loose knot. It had thrashed for awhile.
When she’s done, she surveys her work with a self satisfied sigh.
“I’ll see you in a bit,” she calls as she leaves.
A roach scuttles across the floor. It stops at the drain, his antennas quivering, his front legs dipping into the strainer. He starts in. Pauses. Maybe the stench of cleaning chemicals drives him off. He backs up and leaves.
“I’m glad you’re with me,” Rex says. “Is that terrible?”
Rex stretches out in my corner. He didn’t like sitting by the toilet because of a draft over there. So I invited him over here, then he put his arm around me, because, well, it’s comfortable. Besides, he owns the coat we share, so we huddle into it, sitting close together, but not affectionately. Except for the arm.
I keep telling myself this is just a companionship thing, don’t look too much into, hands to yourself, Arrie.
I have to catch up to what he said. Glad you’re with me. Ditto.
“It’s okay,” I tell him.
“I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone like this, not ever. But…”
If I have to be stuck in here, absolutely have to with no escape, no hope at all…I am glad to have Rex with me. I leech off his calm demeanor. He keeps me sane.
“What you did was really brave. I should’ve helped, I guess.”
“It doesn’t matter. She was gonna do it anyway.”
He kind of smells, but I love it. I breathe in through my nose. Don’t have to worry about tight panties. A glance at the drain withers any possible excitement. This attraction to him is more about comfort than frisky urges.
My fingers toy with a belt loop of his jeans lightly, very lightly so he won’t notice. For the first time since the dog, I force myself to look at the chair. Rex and I have been stubbornly ignoring it. Now with willpower, I force my eyes to touch its steel frame, it’s black seat, its dangling straps.
I whimper unexpectedly, turning away.
Rex’s other arm comes over me at once. “What is it?” He pulls me closer and looks at the door, looks around the room. But not at the chair, I notice. He’s avoiding the issue.
“Nothing, nothing. It’s just…we have to get out of here. Tonight, she said…”
Rex winces. His own analyzing mind is powered down, and I have prodded at the control panel. He settles back into place. His other arm stays where it is, holding me, and now his chest is angled my way. If I scoot forward, a tiny nudge, I’ll be against him again. I wouldn’t mind. But I don’t. That wouldn’t be right.
I have to tell him. Don’t cuddle me, I have a penis.
No, not now. Bigger issues first. We only have so much time.
“Don’t think about it,” Rex advises, his eyes flashing to the chair and away like it singed a nerve.
I shake my head. “We have to think about it.”
He doesn’t respond, and we fall to silence. This happens with us, periods of just breathing and being together. Periods of not thinking, not saying, not hoping. But I can’t let this soothe me into a lull of denial and moment by moment existing.
What Buddha teaches isn’t an excuse to blind myself. I press on, “Look at this place. No bed, no blankets. She feeds us crappy soup. She’s not planning on keeping us long. Tonight…something bad happens.”
Rex squirms, bending one knee up, sliding it back down again, he itches at his neck, places a hand over mine and laces our fingers together.
I’m not the only leech among us, I see.
“We’ll be okay,” he says.
“No we won’t.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
Despite his assurances, he knows how screwed we are. I have to kick him out of this zombie state. Maybe we—no, we definitely will get out of here. Affirmative statement. No doubt. We will escape.
Don’t let me down, Rhonda.
“Listen. Tonight. She’s gonna…” I swallow. I’m brave but I’m not that brave. The chair is the devil, it’s name an invitation to panic. “I don’t know. But, look, when she…attacked you or whatever, she caught you by surprise, didn’t she?”
He smiles. For him, that means the slightest lift around the mouth, a tiny light in his eyes. “Well, yeah, kinda.”
“I had my hands up. It’s kind of hazy, but I was feeding her some bullshit line.” In a drunken slur: “‘What? Oh man. Whaddaya doin’ in my…oh man, this ain’t my house is it?’“
You know you’re in a bad situation when clinging to a criminal makes you feel safe. And you know you’ve gone crazy when you laugh at their jokes.
My laugh makes him smile for real. My whole body warms up at the look he gives me.
“Then what?” I ask.
“She tased me. I suspected she might have a gun or some kind of weapon, but old ladies don’t usually pop ‘em out like that, you know? They hold up whatever it is and tell you to get lost. Give you a warning. I could’ve ducked her if I knew it was coming. I’ve done it before. But, you know…she was a skinny old lady with one of those flappy pajama gowns, and I wasn’t expecting her to just shoot me.” Rex sighs ruefully. “Stupid, eh?”
“Yeah, you kinda are.” I squeeze his hand. “But not as stupid as me. I gave her my references so she could make sure I was a good murder victim. And I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. I’d say I win the stupid cake.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. She put the wage that low so only the desperate would apply. Desperate people exhaust their friends pretty quick.” Loathing tinges his words.
Quietly, knowing I shouldn’t spoil the moment but unable to stop the question: “Is that why you break into houses?”
“Well, you see—um…”
His eyes catch on the drain and his words cut off.
Another period of silence. The chair looms in the corner. His smile fades. Not because my words, I sense, but because the spell has broken for him. For a while, we were two dudes chilling. Well, two buds, anyway.
He forgets me, his eyes blanking over.
Let him keep his secrets. I will take him as is. I’m selfish, not picky.
“It’s okay. Forget it.” I squeeze his hand to let him know I mean it.
“Hm? Oh, no. No, it’s okay. I, uh, just got lost in thought.” Rex shakes his head. “I don’t really…talk about it. Ever. But, uh, my mom…” His gaze goes to the chair. The horrible, sinister chair. “She died.”
“Oh.” Then, because I don’t know what else to say, I add, “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, I know,” he says quickly. I wish there was something better to say. I’m clumsy in sensitive situations. “I was already stealing when she was around. Not ‘cause I needed to. It was different then. I’d steal gum and pay for a candy bar. I had the money but…I just did it. Anyway. She died. And the house has about five years of payments left. And she made me promise I’d finish it. So. You know.”
When I don’t say anything right away, he says, “Not really the victim story you were hoping for, eh?”
“Hm? Oh. I don’t care about all that.” And I turn red once the noise coming out of my mouth reaches my ears. “I don’t mean—ah, shit. I mean…”
“Ouch. You’re a tough sell.”
“I meant that…your motivations…you don’t need to justify, um…” I shut my stupid mouth and sort my thoughts before I spit anymore brutal words at him. “I meant that I don’t blame you or anything. I don’t hold it against you.”
He brings my hand up to his lips.
Oh, I’m in trouble now.
His kiss lingers just a moment against his mouth, but the heat lingers much longer. I can’t look at him.
If I don’t tell him now, the repercussions will be bad. I know that. I have to tell him. Now.
“We’re here and that’s there. I know what you meant,” he says.
And he’s happy again, the smile genuine. What am to do when he’s looking at me like that?
My eyes dart to the chair. Like it’s observing us, and I’m embarrassed.
“I like you,” he says, and I writhe inwardly. “I really hope you get out of this, Arrie. I really do. I don’t mean what I said about wanting you here with me. I don’t want you anywhere near me right now.”
Those are the words I dread to hear. I don’t expect them in this context. He’s spilling his guts to me, and I’m supposed to jump up and lift my skirt. Surprise!
Okay. Keep playing along.
“We don’t have to give up yet. We can both get out of here. There’s a chance.”
Yes, focus on business. Embarrassment and rejection can be dealt with when I’m assured of seeing the sunrise tomorrow.
“Escape? I’m all ears over here. Spill it.”
“The old hag surprised you, right? Well, that’s because she can’t take us when we’re expecting her. She’s frail.”
My plan is simple. Nothing fancy like the movies. Rex and I face the hateful chair with brightened spirits while we conspire. A plan, even a flimsy one, is better than clinging to each other and whispering goodbyes.
The hag has a tool box, a shiny red one. She pulls out pliers, clacks them twice like a lobster claw before she sets them down, and I wince, wondering what they’re for. She also sets out wire, a screwdriver, and a small box of nails.
She holds up a hammer. “Ah ha!”
She’s got everything laid out like yesterday, and going through my mind is the phrase, ‘Tonight.’ In her nasty old lady voice.
I am not at all certain of our plan to escape. With her horrible tools laid out like that, faith drops out of my heart as though someone pulled a plug somewhere. I remember too well how the little pup screamed before the final wet chop. An act of mercy, given out of necessity rather than pity. She’s soulless, the old hag.
“Calm down. Don’t freak out yet.” Rex’s touch trails down my arm, tickling through thin fabric. (I’m going to pay for this.) His hand lingers at my elbow, his fingers brush my blouse. “We’re gonna get out of here. Right now.”
His voice is paper thin at first, but gains strength with his last words.
For him, I say, “Alright. Let’s do this.”
I’m surprised by how brave I sound. I don’t feel that way, my stomach lurching. A sense hollows out my brain, empties me of thought. Since hearing that word, tonight, I’m consumed with dreaded anticipation.
The chair may be an inanimate object, but I swear I feel it beaming. Smiling, I mean, but it seems to be getting brighter too. It’s happy and glowing.
His hand settles on the small of my back and a flutter of giddiness knocks me out of my detached stare. We’re good for each other like that, always balancing on the precipice of sanity by leaning and tugging on the other.
“Let me start, okay?” he says. “I want her mad at me, not you. Just in case.”
So chivalrous. I love it. Damn it.
Rex lets me go and steps up to the bars.
“Hey, lady! I need a shower!”
She ignores him. Squatting with a creak and a pained huff, she opens a bottom cabinet crammed with plastic white tubs, all labeled on the front with black marker. She pulls out a tote labeled something–something Tess.
Rex tries again.
“Woman, I shit my pants over here! You gonna let me clean up or not?”
This gets a reaction. She looks over her shoulder like a disgruntled vulture, talons prying at the tote lid, glaring sullenly at the interruption. Her nostrils flare.
Upon scenting the clean air, she says, “I haven’t been feeding you enough for you to shit yourself, boy,” and turns back to her box.
“Pissed myself, whatever. This is the fourth day I’ve been stuck in here. When you gonna let me clean up?”
She pops the lid one side at a time and lifts it levelly from the box, as if she’s opening a delicate trove instead of a cheap plastic storage container.
“Hm. If you’d given me this attitude this morning, you’d have had a shower. A nice cold one. Maybe that can still happen.” From the box, she lifts a folded pink cloth and places it on the countertop. “But it seems so cruel, since you’re so close to your…” A charm bracelet comes next. “…fate.” She caresses the beads.
“Well, aren’t you a gracious old bitch.”
Rex gives me a look, the swish of his eyes telling me to turn away. I’m more embarrassed for it, letting him treat me like a shy girl. At this point, I don’t know what to do except play along. If there was a perfect moment to whisper my secret in his ear, it passed already.
I need to face the music and tell him soon. But right now, the moment before he whips it out and pisses on her floor, is (again) not the right time.
I point my nose toward the door. I tell myself, [_I will walk out that door very soon. _]I try to feel this as a given fact, since desperately wanting causes the opposite effect. The universe isn’t very smart.
I also think, quiet and quick like a whisper that can get me in trouble, Maybe affirmative thinking is just snake oil sold by bored middle class blonds…
Can’t do that, or it doesn’t work. Got to stay positive.
The sound of a zipper tells me when it’s safe to look forward again.
The old hag sets the bracelet on the skirt and pulls out the next item, a bagged hairbrush. That’s it. No glaring, no shouting. A trail of yellow zig zags on her floor, and she’s going about her business, paying us no mind.
I really thought the pissing act would get a reaction. It certainly would if I whipped it out…
No. She obviously wants a complementary pair. She’ll can me if she finds out. Literally, I mentally add with a glance at the jars of ingredients. Guess she was running low on puppy eyes.
I wince. Not funny.
What will do it? What will get under her skin so that I can expose this freak to the world and watch justice tear her down?
Rex shoots me a worried glance.
“Keep trying,” I whisper.
He swigs back some water, puts the cap on the jug, sets it down. Then proceeds with Plan B. “So listen, lady, I got an idea…”
He starts with an offer to bed her at the price of keeping his life. When that goes nowhere, he tries to juice up the deal with some detailed descriptions of what he’s offering. Through this, the hag begins to whistle. So he tries for a shocked reaction by listing fetishes, telling her to let him know when he lands on something that gets her wet. (I cringe.)
All the while, she empties the box one item at a time. These are the possessions of a dead victim, I’m sure of it. I know from TV shows that serial killers keep trophies, and she handles each thing with fondness, sometimes pressing an item to her cheek or petting it with adoration. Rex goes on and on about the most vulgar things he can think of (and being male, he can think of a lot). Her attachment to this poor dead person’s stuff is far more unsettling.
Rex eventually runs out of breath. She hasn’t responded to him in awhile. He looks at me and shrugs.
“I could moon her, I guess,” he whispers. “But I don’t think she’ll even look.”
Isn’t there anything that will get to her?
I chew on the pad of my pinky. It’s tough and calloused from this habit. There has to be something. Some knick in the armor. Everyone has a weakness. Doesn’t she?
“She tortures small animals,” I say. “A sicko isn’t offended by sick stuff, I guess.”
“Yeah. Not even granny sickos, apparently.”
“There has to be something…”
The next item is a black and white photo in a frame. I can’t see much from my angle, but it seems this item is the most reverent of all. She runs her bony fingers along the frame, strokes the glass, smiles warmly at whoever’s portrait it is. She holds this longer than the other items, staring down at it the whole time I’m wondering how to get at her. The answer is right in front of me.
“What’s that there?” I ask.
She glances at me, annoyed. It isn’t much, but it’s more than Rex would have gotten if he mooned her, I am sure. I bite this hook and take off with it.
“Why do you keep all that stupid cheap crap?” Her gaze jerks to me, as if I’ve said something shocking. Good. “What do you want with an ugly old photograph?”
She cradles the photo to her breast like it’s a babe capable of crying out at insults.
Rex jumps on the subject at once.
“It’s a chick pic, right?”
Talk of boners and lurid kinks hadn’t gotten to her, but this comment has her gaping as though she’s been slapped.
One second to admire her expression is all it takes. Rex starts down a whole new war path. He takes his old comments and applies them to the valued objects she’s retrieved. Most of it doesn’t even make sense, but we watch with glee as she chokes with disgust.
“You—you stop!” Fury takes over her shock in spasms, each pulse stronger than the last. Her upper lip curls. Her brow lowers. Her eyes narrow. And Rex keeps running his mouth. Until she shouts in a wretched booming wail, “Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!” She points at him with a shaky finger. “I’ll hose you down. One more word, I’ll do it.”
Rex gives her his best smirk. “Show us the picture, granny.”
“You shut up now.” Her voice cools. No longer is she an overemotional granny having a breakdown. Now she’s in killer mode, the smooth, calculated kind that doesn’t mess up. Usually.
“You think I’m cruel? Boy, the only cruel person in this room is you.” Today she’s messing up with every step. Rex moves away from the bars, slowly. “But I can be cruel if that’s what you want. Oh yes. Do you know what happens tonight, boy?”
The shaking hammer swings to point at the chair. “You sit there. And I do the exact same to you as I did to that animal.”
She stops several feet from the bars. She’s so close.
“Get ready to duck,” Rex whispers from the edge of his mouth.
“I’m gonna cut your eyes out, boy!” she howls. “And you’ll beg for death! So you shut up and show some respect.” Emboldened by Rex’s show of cowardice, she comes forward. “Or I’ll leave you there all night and finish the job in the morning!”
Rex moves another step back, pushing to the wall. And in answer to our dance, she comes forward. The last step.
She emits a snarling laughter. Rex shoots me the barest of warnings, “Duck.” And I do right away. He shoots forward, crouching and springing off the balls of his feet. Edith does not throw the hammer. She’s in mid-laugh when Rex crashes against the bars and reaches for her.
She almost gets away. If she were younger, she might have. Perhaps she was onto our ploy the whole time. We can’t be the first ones to try a ruse like this.
But Rex is quick. And maybe that’s our advantage, not her age. She spins out of his reach, but he grabs the tail end of her braid, closing upon only the last inches of it, maybe less, but it’s enough. A quick yank halts her escape. By the time I can blink, Rex has roped in the rest of her.
She lets out a shriek different from the dog only in pitch. A sick pleasure bubbles up my spine. She deserves it, that old hag, and I relish her punishment.
Her long fingernails stab into Rex’s hands, scrape at his wrists. Rex snakes a thick arm through the bars and chokes off her scream, strangling her.
“Arrie! Her keys!”
She has one hand fumbling with her belt, the keys jangling.[_ She’s going to toss them_]. If the keys are out of reach, we can’t harm her. We’ll starve to death.
So I dive for her, falling to my knees and reaching through the bars. I bat her hand away and unclip the keys. My trembling hands drop them. I hear the smack of them hitting the floor, and I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. But, of course, they drop right outside the bars. I reach to retrieve them, and the heel of her boot comes stomping down on my fingers. I screech and yank my hand back. My fingers throb. Her foot kicks out and the keys go sliding.
I reach through the bars after them. They’re so close. I don’t care about the pain in my hand, I want those keys more than anything in the world, and they sit right there. I shove my shoulder into the bars, grimacing but not letting up. My fingertips brush cool metal.
Edith’s gurgling screams die to a raspy[_ ehhh-ehhhh_]. Her feet kick blindly, her aim way off. I can reach them. I can…
I give a pained groan of my own as I force my shoulder into the bars. Almost…almost…Edith’s boot tries to crash down on my wrist. I watch it in slow motion, and for a tiny blimp of a second that multiplies to infinity in my personal universe, I have a decision. Broken wrist. Or no keys. Because that kick would send them halfway across the room. I jam my shoulder harder into the unrelenting iron. My fingers closed over blessed, cool metal. And the heel of her boot comes smashing down, the heel sliding off the flesh of my wrist.
I scream, but my fingers refuse to uncurl from my prize, and I yank them in quickly.
“I got them!” I cradle my useless hand and get to my feet. “We’re free!” Tears run down my cheeks that have nothing to do with my injury. I go to the door. The first key I try fits the lock. “We’re free! Rex, we did it!”
The door to our cell swings open. I get a glimpse at a future I had doubted…
And Edith drives a blade into Rex’s arm.
Rex responds by tightening his grip on her throat. The knife comes up again and again, blindly slashing, her raspy breaths wheezing with the whistle of a balloon releasing the last of its air. The slashes are clumsy, missing, but she nicks him a good one. And another in the short time it takes for me to come to his aid. I catch her arm, try to pry the pocket knife free. She’s stronger than she looks.
“I got her, I’m fine,” Rex grunts. “Just get the door. Call the police. I’ll hold her here for as long as it takes.”
I sense my concern will be an unappreciated gesture. He’s right, we’re almost out of this. So, I leave him struggling and bleeding, assured that he’s strong enough to handle her while I make the call.
Her skin may sag, but she’s a strong old bat. Her eyes bulge at me, her knife swipes a harmless arc my way.
Rex is still in the cage, and that bothers me.
So hurry up and get him out.
I go to the door, my injured hand cradled with the keys hanging from my crooked fingers. I sort them with my good hand. There are many.
The one most familiar to me is dark silver, matching the door. I push it into the lock—and notice for the first time, squiggles drawn all around the door handle in red. My first thought is of blood, but of course blood could never dry that bright. Spray paint, has to be. Twisting the key back and forth, trying the knob unsuccessfully, I notice more squiggles and an X painted in each corner. A red line drawn on the floor, too.
Right and left doesn’t work. So I bring out the next one. For sure this must be the one, there’s only two this color. This will be the one that sends me home. I cram it in as I hear a whump and the sounds of Edith hacking. Rex rushes to me as I jiggle and twist the key in the lock.
“Let me see.”
“Be careful not to break it,” I say, because it’s a flimsy key. Or maybe my panic has me cranking it too far. Have to be careful.
He tries it, yanks it out, tries the other. Doesn’t work. He goes through all the keys fast, most of them not fitting. And then we are back at number one.
“Keep trying,” I urge. “I’ll see if she has a different set.”
He nods. “Be careful.”
Edith is on her hands and knees, scrawling on the floor with chalk, drawing a circle and muttering while she hacks. Her lips move fast with syllables that don’t make sense. The knife lies a short ways from her hand, and I swoop in to fetch it. She doesn’t make a grab for it. And that should worry me, but it doesn’t. She’s crazy. Obviously, my snarky mind provides as I stand over her, watching her scrawl.
I regard her down there for a moment. I don’t want to touch her, she might bite me. Or come at me with those crazy long nails of hers. But I’m safe to watch for a moment or two. She’s weak, laying on her side with pained wheezes. Chalk dusts her dress. Choked coughs wrack her body.
So I descend on her. I check her pockets, I pad her down. I flip her over and dig my knee in her back, ignoring her wail. I find nothing, no keys, and I back off her quick. Don’t like touching her. I don’t even like standing next to her.
The jangle of the keys is as frantic as Rex’s curses, but hopefully I ask, “You got it yet?”
“No. There must be another set.”
Despite her shaky hands, she has drawn a nearly perfect circle. She crawls back to it, muttering all the while.
She has to have the keys on her, how else did she let herself in? But there’s no way I’m doing a strip search, so I take my efforts to the drawers and cabinets. She must have set them down.
The first drawer I open contains knives of all kinds, and I shudder, thinking this must be the worst of it.
I’m wrong. She has a glass case full of hair samples. More victim trophies, I suppose. She has a cabinet much like one my dad used to have in his garage, but instead of nuts and bolts, her’s is filled with dead insects. And the medicine cabinet has bottles and bottles of pills and liquids, all labeled with a white sticker with her scrawl and nothing else.
Sitting open on the counter top is the box, My Dear Tess the label reads. I rifle through the contents quickly. No key. The photograph is an old black and white image of a girl in a school uniform. She has the barest of smiles on her lips, as though that was all she could muster for the camera. I almost put it down. I want the keys, only the keys. But something beckons me to stare a little longer…and then I spot the likeness.
Thin lips, no high cheekbones. But she has Edith’s long, thin nose and prominent chin. She has curly dark hair and thin fingers. Edith as a girl, I assume. Except…why would she keep a memento down here and not up in the house?
“It’s none of these,” Rex says, startling me.
“It’s not here, either,” I say, gesturing to the open drawers and cabinets.
“Did you check everywhere?”
He doesn’t wait for an answer. Every drawer and cabinet I searched is left open, so Rex starts attacking the closed ones, revealing more weirdness. Tweezers of more shapes and sizes than I knew existed. Scalpels. A surgical electric saw.
Terrified and disgusted, I move to search the utility closet. This holds a bunch of cleaning supplies, rubber boots, rubber gloves, three aprons—two plastic and one quilted floral. Goggles, a face shield, several gloves, but no damn keys.
I move my search to the kitchenette. It has a green arm chair tucked by the refrigerator and a stack of books on the end table. I expect to find some leather-bound stuff with drawings of demons inside. Maybe a medical magazine subscription. But no, she’s reading cheap romance paperbacks. Historical cowboy romance to be specific, where the damsel swoons in a low cut gown and the hero hovers on her lips while a horse watches them go at it.
Somehow this discovery is the weirdest thing of all. It speaks of her ability to hide among the normal, to morph into a harmless grandma at will, the wolf in sheep’s clothing. I imagine if the police did come around asking about me, they would be charmed and assured with sugar cookies as they walked back to their vehicles.
The cabinets in the kitchenette reveal cans and cans of soup, some plastic cutlery, and no keys. I check the fridge just to be thorough—and gag on my own voice.
He starts towards me at once. As he crosses the room, he also crosses Edith’s circle. She stopped drawing sometime ago, just laying hunched over on the floor.
His first foot in, nothing happens, but when the second lands, he collapses to the ground like he’s tripped. He jerks and kicks and flops, his mouth open, his eyes rolling up into his head.
He’s having a seizure, I realize and run to him.
I stop short.
“Back up, girlie.”
She has a gun.
Edith is slumped on the ground, her voice a whisper, but the barrel amplifies her command loud and clear. She holds a grandma gun to be carried in a purse or a hidden pocket. It would kill me just fine at this short distance. I put up my hands.
‘Don’t shoot, god, please don’t—”
She starts coughing. I assume the command is shut up, and I do. Rex continues to flop on the floor. I lower my body, my hands still extended. I can reach him maybe. And do what, I don’t know, but we are in this together, him and I.
“I sa—” She coughs. “Back up! Don’t touch him.”
I freeze. She steadies the gun. I obediently move back. We’ve lost, I realize. God, what now?
“Let me…Let me just help him…”
Rex’s mouth opens and closes. When people have seizures they can bite their tongues off, right? I have to help him, make him stop. He twitches and gapes in a growing puddle of his own blood, a horrible moan in his throat.
Edith shakes her head. “Back.” She waves the gun in the direction of the cage.
I do nothing at first. Maybe I dodge the gun when it fires, I think. Maybe I knock her flat. And then I’m stuck down here with no escape. But maybe I break the small windows and shout through them. Maybe, maybe if I am really lucky, someone finds me. On this large property, far from the main road. It could happen.
Edith guesses my plan though. Her aim adjusts.
“Even—” Cough. “Even think about it. He dies. Give back my knife, too.” And then she starts hacking again. Her aim falters, but Rex is right in front of her. She won’t miss.
[I _]can escape. _I can take her down and maybe get out.
Rex would be executed.
I won’t lie. I think about it. I look at the chair, and I almost choose it.
Miserably, I toss the knife and go back to the cell. At her order, I shut the door. The lock clicks.
“What about him?” I ask. Won’t she need me to haul his body in here?
She doesn’t lower her gun while she hacks and massages her throat. An unsettling chill hollows out my stomach. I’ve made a horrible mistake.
“Hey! [_What about him?!” _]I shrill. “He needs me!” I cry. “What are you gonna do?”
[_She’s gonna kill him anyway and I’ve listened, I’ve locked myself in here. _]She moves toward him, gun pointed at his head.
“YOU BITCH! You ugly, horrible…”
I’m speaking to myself. For while she hobbles to him and nudges him with her foot, it’s me I blame. I can’t comprehend what I’ve just done. Given her Rex, locked myself up in here where I can’t help.
A worse thought: She hasn’t fired yet.
She’s already proven she’s capable of doing a lot worse than killing him. The things I saw…
Outright death was never her intention.
I scream, I cuss, I kick. She ignores me. She goes to one knee beside his head, the gun by his ear, and nudges him with the barrel. And I grab my hair with both hands, certain this is it. This was Arrie’s big-ass fuck up.
She wets two fingers on her tongue, grimacing at the taste, and rubs one of the symbols on the floor, erasing a clean line through it. Rex goes slack. She takes the keys laying beside him and goes to the door. I can barely see her in the nook of the door frame, but I know that the key had been on that ring all along.
Something else was keeping us in here.
It takes two hours for Rex to get up. She must have poisoned him. My mind supplies vague images of Edith going to the syringe cabinet and sticking him. But that contradicts the other memories I have, so I create a new theory that explains everything—she had a hidden syringe.
And who’s job had it been to search the old hag pulling guns and syringes out of her pantyhose? Why, mine of course.
I sit cross-legged in front of the cell bars, my forehead resting against the iron. I cried, I prayed, I begged, but Rex never responded to my pleas. And I gave up.
Edith hasn’t come back. Not even to close the fridge, which is still open, revealing its horrors to the world. The cooler hums and shudders, trying to keep the blood and body parts from spoiling. Thank god I can’t see it from here.
When Rex finally stirs, I have drifted into a miserable half sleep. First, he groans and rolls over. I blink, peeling from the bars indenting themselves in my forehead.
[_I might have imagined it, _]I think.
I’ve been going crazy, talking up a storm to no one in particular. But when he stirs again, I know my sanity has returned.
“Wake up!” My voice is hoarse. “Wake up!” I call louder.
And he does. Slowly. I have to call him twice more, when his eyes shut and he breathes deeply. Then he sits there in his circle, swaying, in danger of laying down and passing out.
“She drugged you. You’ve got to fight, Rex, you have to. She’s gonna kill you. Kick it, Rex. Whatever it is, kick it.”
He murmurs. He rubs his eyes. He’s having a hard time coming to life, I can tell.
“You’ve got to, sweetie.” The pet name feels right, though I’ll never dare speak it when he’s sober and functioning. “She’s gonna kill us. You gotta kick it.”
He shakes his head, trying to dispel the drug haze.
He looks up from his hands. He squints, rubs his eyes, squints harder. I can see the thought when it hits him, his look of failure and horror.
“Arrie…” His voice is such a wretched sound, it almost brings my own tears back.
“Hi,” I say hoarsely.
Rex checks his ankle. He looks around him confused.
“She drugged you. She didn’t come back in time, and you woke up early. Rex, listen—you’ve got to try and get out. And if you can’t…you’ve got to kill the bitch.”
“I…” His eyes drift shut, but he’s sitting up, so I just wait. “If I leave you…” He scrubs a hand through his hair. “I’ll find a way to get you out. I’ll…pick the lock or something.”
“No. Don’t do that.” No more mistakes. One of us is getting out of here.
He starts the process of standing, carefully with both hands to catch him when he pitches forward too far.
“Pick the door if you can. Otherwise, hide with the cleaver. And be fast.”
Could it be done quietly, I’d tell him to use the surgical saw. I’m pitiless, craving more than efficient justice.
Rex, perched on his knees now, waiting for the dizziness to pass, shuts his eyes.
“Not alone. Let me try.”
“She’s got some stuff in—” He gestures at one of the drawers, the one with the nasty long needles.
“No time. We’re lucky you’ve shaken this off before she came back. Now get up.” I harden my voice. I have to. I’m furious at the old hag for getting the better of me, and I won’t let it happen twice. “Get up, Rex. You can pick the lock after she’s dead.”
“Okay.” With a grunt, Rex manages to stand, but he’s wobbly. He catches the table to prop his weight and keep his balance. His left foot doesn’t leave the circle, extending unnaturally. That’s the same foot he felt up when he first awoke.
“Are you hurt?”
His right arm has three bad cuts and couple minor ones. I had worried the whole time they bled, but eventually they stopped on their own. It’s amazing that he beat the drug given his exhaustion on top of his blood loss.
“I don’t…” He frowns at his foot. “I don’t know.” He moves it around. It never leaves the chalk circle.
I lick my lips. We’re so close. Again. But we can’t mess up this time.
“Rex, you’ve got to pull together, okay? The cleaver should be in there, see?” I point.
“Arrie.” He shakes his leg again. “Arrie, I’m…chained.”
“I’m chained! My foot! There’s something on my foot!”
He lifts his extended foot, waving it in the air, then drops it with a thud.
“Rex, you’re hallucinating.”
“No, I’m not, I swear. There’s a chain on my leg.”
“Okay…well…pull against the chain. You’ll see, I promise. It’s not real.”
Rex shakes his head but does try to pull. Or, it seems so. It’s weird to see. No wrinkle on Rex’s jeans hint that something is fastened there. But he tries to walk along the table’s edge and can’t. I don’t believe him at first.
“Keep going. It’s okay, keep going you’ll see.”
He shoots me an irritated glance. But he keeps going. He leans forward until his leg is pulled in the air at an odd angle.
“There’s something there, Arrie. I know you can’t see it. I can’t see it either. But I can feel it. It’s…cold.” Rex comes back to a standing position and bends over to feel around his ankles. “I can’t feel it now.” He moves a step back. “But I do now. It’s like…a chain I can only sense when it’s pulled tight.”
“That’s impossible,” I say.
Rex, wobbly but standing unassisted now, starts to walk around, his eyes on the chalk circle. He weaves as he does. One step in one step out.
“Impossible,” I repeat weakly.
Then he tries to reach me. He can step forward with his right foot, but his left remains inside the chalk circle. He reaches out, grabs the cell bars and pulls. I can see his muscles tighten, see his breath suck in and hold as he strains against something not there. Until he gives up.
He looks helplessly at me, then at the circle.
“Do you think…?”
“Destroy it,” I say. And if he were able to, I’d gladly attribute this strange happening to a hallucination, let false memories nest among the real ones and hatch a reality that makes sense. But when he rubs his toe on the lines, the chalk dust doesn’t move. He gets down, scrubs at it with his palm. Nothing. He swipes his thumb along the powder line and brings it up for inspection. Clean.
“Arrie. What is this?”
I watch, but I can’t believe it. I had watched the lady draw that circle with chalk. I had seen her erase a couple lines herself. I can see the soft, powdery texture from where I sit. But Rex can’t disturb a single particle.
I have all the evidence right in front of me. Her muttering, the creepy symbols. I can also add the symbols spray painted on the door and the key that fits but won’t turn.
“I don’t know.”
Rex tries walking out again. Tries erasing the circle again.
“This is crazy,” he says.
And he starts looking around at the lab. Looking at what we had assumed were the scrawls and doodles of a crazy lady. When his eyes meet mine, he doesn’t say anything. To speak out loud that the serial killer is a witch, that magic is real, would open a whole new horrifying parallel with our already awful reality. The conclusion belongs to the imagination, not to spoken words. When he meets my eyes, we share the acknowledgment of what we both know.
She’s more than a crazy old hag.
“What now?” he asks me. His gaze flashes to the chair, then back to me.
“What…what are we gonna do?”
Because it was my idea to escape in the first place, I have to have another clever plan, right? I take a deep breath. I search my surroundings. There has to be something. Something clever. Something the old woman hasn’t thought of.
“I don’t know,” I tell him with sad, honest eyes.
He turns so I won’t see him break down. It lasts a few minutes. When it’s over, his eyes brim with desperate hate and fear, his fists clench at his sides.
“I could’ve killed her. But I didn’t. I thought we were saved…”
“Neither of us knew what she was doing. Don’t blame yourself.”
Rex starts pacing back and forth across the circle. His feet should make an impression in the chalk, but they don’t.
“I’ll kill her when she comes.”
I say nothing.
“When she opens that door, I’ll…I’ll grab her again. And choke the life out of her.” He calms down as he talked through the scenario in his head. “I’ll be quiet and well mannered. And while she’s doing her thing, she’ll get a little too close. Just a little, that’s all I need. And I’ll choke the life out of her.” His eyes flash to the chair. “Did she say when she’s coming back?”
“No. She didn’t say anything.”
Rex nods. “Set her back, most likely. She’s scared of me now, I bet.”
She might have been afraid when Rex was choking her, but I don’t think she’s afraid anymore.
I keep this to myself. He’s brave, getting braver as he works himself up. And I need him brave, I need to leech off his confidence, even if it’s a show, because crippling despair is upon me fully now. My imagination is chomping at the bit, spinning a new reality that makes me want to roll over and give up.
She might not be human. She might not kill us for years. She might eat us, beat us, bleed us…
“I’ll get her.” Rex mutters over and over, pacing.
“I’ll distract her,” I say. “I’ll make her angry again so she makes another mistake.”
“Yeah, that’s good. And I’ll wait patiently right here, just biding my time, just waiting her out.”
I think we both know that we’re just posturing for the benefit of the other.
We sit for some hours in our respective cages as the white light through the windows becomes yellow then orange. Distantly we hear the sound of a television, but we can’t make out more than the occasional word and jingle here and there. Rex’s anger drains from sheer tedium. He had paced for some time and we talked about escape until I was convinced we actually would get a second chance. It wasn’t until that nervous energy burned out that I recognized the ruse once more.
I wish I’d had the sense to grab more fucking knives while I was out there.
Rex lays on his back, staring at the ceiling, one arm curled under his head and the other thrown back to me. There’s a chill, and I made him wear the jacket, overriding his chauvinistic character. I think the drug exhaustion helped. He’s out there exposed, but at least he’s warm. I sit cross-legged in the cage, my two hands coming out and around to hold Rex’s hand. I play with his fingers absentmindedly. His hands remain slack and abiding.
I should tell him. This really is the perfect time. Alone. No hag.
“You really a runaway?” His voice is hoarse, quiet.
“Kind of. I moved out. My parents were super mad.”
“Oh, they want me to go to college. Be an accountant or something useful like that. Marry.” A woman. No, I’m not a lesbian. Close, though. “Be normal. Like them.”
“Mmm. Doesn’t sound like a bad life. Comes with a pretty little car, I bet.”
“It comes with a sensible car. A safe car. Like a minivan. Or a wide SUV with lots of room for kids and groceries.”
“My mom would have killed for a car like that. Beats the old clunkers that leave you stranded on the high way.”
I don’t say anything. I feel guilty for not wanting that life, that safe and sensible life. I should have taken it and been grateful.
Rex tilts his head way back to look at me upside down.
“Hey. I don’t mean to be an ass. I just meant that’s what she wanted. Every day. Safe and sensible, like you said.”
I smile to let him know that I haven’t taken offense. But I still feel the truth in his words.
“It’s okay. You’re right to say it.” I look around the dismal little room, my imagination x-raying the closed drawers and cabinets, seeing the horrors that wait for me. I move his fingers a little faster. “I didn’t know it until now, but I was being a spoiled, ungrateful little bitch. I wanted danger. I wanted thrill.”
He pulls on my hand, and I have to strain forward so he can press a kiss to my palm.
“I like danger too. That’s why I was stealing as a kid, when I didn’t have to. I liked the rush.”
I think I know what kind of rush he’s talking about because I’m experiencing it now. It’s tainted by impending doom, but I still hope that there might be a happy end in all this. Our talk about escape has mostly been desperate moral bolstering, but there’s a chance we’ll get a second opportunity. I have to believe that because otherwise I have to kill myself. I would rather die at my own hands than find out what Edith does to people in the chair.
He taps my wrist. “Hey.”
I come out of my thoughts.
“So you left. To pursue a career in burglarism like me or…?”
“No, I wanted to become…” I can’t say it without an embarrassed wince. “…a clothing designer.”
“Heh. You do like danger.”
I smile and give a little laugh.
“You any good?” he asks.
“I don’t think so, no. Not yet.”
“That’s good.” He lets my hand retreat back to the previous position so I don’t have to reach so far. “I knew you were smart.”
“Hey, don’t make fun of me.”
“I’m not! I’m being sincere. Once you think you’re good, your skill flat lines. You don’t learn or strive or improve hardly at all. To become amazing, you have to realize how much you suck.”
“That’s one way of looking at it. Honestly, though, I just wanted…to be different, I guess.”[_ Really, really different._] God, I need to say it now. “I think…I think I would have ended up going back home and signing up for the safe life once the money ran out and I ended up on the street.” Wrong secret. I’m such a coward, but I can’t help it. “That’s why I answered the stupid job ad.”
“Well. When we get out and put this psycho away, you can come live with me.”
“Yeah?” My smile is such a lie, but I entertain this fantasy because it’s nice and I want it very much. “Maybe you can teach me how to burglarize old ladies’ houses.”
“No way. Old ladies scare the shit outta me. We’ll break into some place safe. Like a tiger pit. Or a gangster’s hideout or something.”
“Yeah. Hey, Arrie?”
“I mean it, you know.” He looks at me, his upside down smile very charming. “If we get out, I’ll help you become a clothing designer. My ambition’ll be your ambition.”
“What’s your real ambition?”
He pouts. “Making you a super rich clothing designer, like I said. But before all this…” He shrugs. “I don’t know. After Mom died, I just…felt empty, I guess. And then I got reckless. Like…” He pauses to find the right words. “I don’t know. Like I was pushing to feel something, I guess. Like I was doing stuff and waiting for a reaction and not feeling it, and doing something worse.”
“Do you feel something now?” I ask in a whisper. His eyes go to mine and he answers instantly.
“Yes. Of course I do.” He squeezes tight.
“Me too.” I hate myself.
“I don’t think you would have liked me much outside of this place. If we get out…who knows?”
“I doubt that.”
“Good. What do you say we get out of here and find out?”
“I’d like that very much.”
What if she never comes back? It’s worth thinking about. It could be that she just decides to forget about us altogether. And there is the implication that she can do a lot worse with symbols and chalk, stuff we haven’t even guessed at. I still haven’t told Rex about how he dropped to the floor in a seizure. I don’t want to scare him, stupid as that sounds.
The roof creaks, we both look at the ceiling. She’s moving around right above our heads, and the little optimism that Rex had disappears. His tight hold on my hand no longer seems reassuring, but frightened, clinging. I hold his hand with both of mine.
“I’m with you,” I say. “Whatever happens.”
I don’t know what exactly I’m promising. It just feels right to say because he looks so alone out there, exposed to the waiting horrors and the looming chair.
He nods, as if I’ve said something serious. The frightened light in his eyes doesn’t dim, but I think I help.
“She’s coming,” he says. “Arrie…”
“Just like we planned, remember?”
“Yeah. Yeah.” He takes a deep breath. “Okay.”
“We should sit separate. So she doesn’t suspect anything.” I know how foolish it is to think we can fool her twice. She’s nasty, she’s old, but neither of us think she’s dumb. I start to pull my hand back.
“No. Not yet.”
And we wait.
The stairs creak. She’s near the top, coming to us.
“Rex…if this goes bad. I want you to know…”
“I already know.”
No. He doesn’t.
I have an obligation to tell him, but…
I squeeze his hand tight, painfully tight, beyond the act of extending comfort. He squeezes back and my fingers are crushed, but I don’t care.
Her keys jingle as she shuffles through them.
We hang on to each other until a thunk announces the turning of the lock and her entrance. He’s terrified. He hid it well under the facade of bravado and escape and hate. But I see it now. His big round eyes keep rolling toward the chair, then darting opposite, but always compelled to look back.
I forcibly yank my hand free of his. I have to. I won’t let him quit on me, and we have a plan.
The door swings open.
I clear my throat. Here we go. I’m ready to shout, to degrade, to piss her off like Rex had before. But when I see her, my confidence withers. She’s grinning, her slug lips stretched wide from ear to ear, their tails twitching with glee.
“I hope you’ve had plenty of time to reflect on your wrong doings,” she says with a catcall ring. Her voice has none of the hoarse, bruised speech that it should.
She’s dressed fancy tonight in a gown that might have been new two hundred years ago. It’s black, shimmery, with flowing princess sleeves and a low cut front. Ugh. Doesn’t do her any favors.
She’s not wearing a proper hoop skirt for such a costume, so the hem drags on the floor, her feet kicking up the bottom with each lopsided step.
Though she doesn’t wear the customary pointed hat, there’s not a doubt in my mind what she is. I see her now in her truest mode of dress, the cloak of normalcy cast off, her grandma apron hung in the closet.
Whatever insults I planned to hurl (her photo is ugly, her charm bracelet is stupid, all of her stuff isn’t worth whatever derogatory animal I can come up with on the fly), I’m afraid to so much as think them now.
She’s the same old woman who’s visited us before. Same wrinkles, same pumped up cheek bones, same over inflated slug lips. But she radiates with a power she kept secret. Old, yes. But youthful in the straightness of her back, the glee in her eyes, and yes, in the beauty she possesses as well, despite her cruelty.
The dress has a low cut back that dips to a V, and when she turns the shadow of her spine and ribs look like a coiled centipede. I expect to see enormous mandibles jutting out of her red marker smile as she speaks.
“Nothing to say? Back to the quiet game are we?” She shrugs. “No matter. It doesn’t bother me tonight. You’ll be loud enough in no time.”
I wet my lips. And start to say something. I don’t know what. But that’s my job, to distract. I have to try.
Rex’s eyes snap to mine. Big, frightened. His head shakes, just once, right-left.
We had a plan. This is my time to act, to get us out of here. I suck in a breath to speak.
Rex says, “Why can’t I move?” He spits the words, a fast utter of mashed syllables.
He’s giving up, I realize. He doesn’t believe we can escape.
My eyes: We have a plan. Don’t do this.
His eyes: Be quiet. Stay out of this. Stay safe.
“Magic, of course,” she answers, propping a hand on her hip. “Do I really have to go over this with you? You’re young, you’ve watched movies, haven’t you?”
“So…” Rex swallows. “You’re a…witch then?”
She scrunches up her nose like she’s smelled something foul.
“A witch? Oh, heavens no. Why does everyone always ask that?” She huffs disgustedly. “Ugh, you people…Witches are nothing but flower-kissing, tree-humping stoners.” She flaps her hands. “They dance around naked and commune with nature. Bleh. Witches…” She shudders.
“Then…what are you?”
“I’m a scientist.”
She answers without hesitation or thought. An honest reply, but I think it must be a joke.
Clearly, Rex thinks the same for how he gapes at her.
Edith picks up her picture from the counter and pets the glass with the back of one crooked finger.
“I study the metaphysical laws of our world. More specifically, the application of thought, material, and spirit to manipulate abstract elements in the physical world. It’s not that different from studying the physical laws of nature, except that, well, it’s less exact and quite a lot more is possible.” She puts the picture down, finds the hammer and nail. She goes to the wooden support and starts to hammer the nail in.
“That chain on your foot—” Whack! “—exists in its metaphysical form—” Whack! “—but not it’s physical form.” Whack!
“It’s a tricky thing to explain to commoners, but the metaphysical elements I employ are no more extraordinary than gravity or electricity. It exists already, all around us. I merely try to understand and manipulate to my advantage.” She hangs the picture on the nail and stands back. Corrects the way it hangs and stands back again. She’s satisfied.
The box labeled My Dear Tess is open, its contents laid out on the counter, and Edith puts it back together. With efficiency instead of reverence now. She starts up that humming again as she puts it away. Starts repacking the toolbox next.
Everything neat, everything orderly.
The light outside is orange and growing dim. She’s waiting for darkness.
Rex and I share another look. Mine of askance, his of grim acceptance.
“Hey, Edith!” I don’t let myself choke on the name. It’s only the third time I’ve openly called her.
“Let me make something very clear, girl,” Edith says. “If you repeat the vulgarities of this cretin—if you so much as show me the slightest disrespect at all—I will make sure he pays for every word. And the same goes for you in reverse,” she says to Rex. “Both of you are going to be respectful little children from now on, understand?” We don’t answer. “Say, ‘Yes. Ma’am.’“
“Yes, ma’am,” we both mumble.
“Good. Now. What is it you wish to say?”
Rex mouths the word no, holds his palms out to stop me.
“Who’s that bitch in the picture?” I ask.
And I think, [this is it, she’s gonna break, she’s gonna come get me and walk right within reach of Rex. _]He’ll grab her and make her undo whatever it is. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll tell him to kill her. I’ll smash out the windows and get help. _We’re going home tonight. No way she’s putting Rex in the chair, no way she’s getting away with this.
I go on, calling the girl in the photo a variety of names.
For a moment, I’ve got her. (Granted, my jibes aren’t half as creative as Rex’s, but I’m playing my A-game here.)
But instead of erupting into a spitting rage, she starts to chuckle. Slow. Dangerous.
“Oh, you’re clever, aren’t you?” Her ugly cat smile returns. “Okay, okay.” She tosses up her hands. “You got me. In truth, you can say whatever you want. Doesn’t change a thing.”
Her words take a while to sink in. I’m distracted by her going to the fridge and carrying a bowl of blood to the table. And then by her going back to bring out the eyes in their jar. She sets both on the table.
I think of what she did to the poor little creature, and then the meaning of her words hits me.
It doesn’t matter what we say. Because we’re going to die a horrible death no matter what.
“You can’t do this!” I shriek. “You can’t…you…”
“Arrie, stop,” Rex says quietly.
“She can’t.” I say in a hoarse whisper.
Edith ignores us. The orange light outside the windows is dark now. Twilight fades fast, and she moves with the efficiency of a woman on a mission. From a drawer comes a paintbrush, but not the kind you’d buy in a craft store. It’s crude, it’s bristles standing out in rough squiggly ends. She sets this by the blood and the eyes. From the closet, she pulls out a feather duster, and starts dusting the seat of the horrible chair.
Rex watches this, sad but accepting. Then he does the most horrible thing. He pulls off his jacket, tosses it at the bars. It falls by my feet.
“Rex, no, Rex…”
I’m struck by how real this is. Rex is always there to make me feel a better, always there to leech off of.
He doesn’t look like my tough guy anymore. He’s a scared little boy, trembling and trying to hide it.[_ _]My fingers close on the soft material, still warm from his body heat and I pull the jacket through the bars. _This is happening. _
I hold the jacket in front of my face, breathe him in. Goddamn it. He’s alive right out there, and if nothing good happens…
What about positivity? What happened with all my affirmative statements? Is this somehow my fault, did I subconsciously wish myself into this hole?
If there’s no loving universe, what is there?
Rex was watching me, but now he breaks away, starts walking in circles, pulling on the invisible chain. He’s scared. But he’s gearing up for a fight, I hope. For me.
“I have to shit,” he says.
“Go ahead.” She’s dusting the straps now.
“I’ve been constipated. You might want to let me use the toilet.”
She dusts the head of the chair and goes to put the duster away. She’s careful to give him extra space.
“I promise not to look, just do it if you really have to,” she says in a distracted tone. She keeps checking the light outside the windows. It gets darker by the minute.
“What are you going to do to me?”
She doesn’t answer. Moving fast now, she opens the cabinets, her tools retrieved without loving touches. Scalpel. Incisor tongs. Razor. She shivers with energy, with thrill, with eagerness. She’s the star of the world’s creepiest cooking show, laying out her tools and ingredients for a terrifying course. Last item: an empty jar.
“I want to be drugged.”
She pauses, looking at him in surprise.
“If you want to do your crazy shit, fine. I can’t stop you. But I want drugs.”
Edith sighs. “I would if I could. But anything I give you might interfere with the results.”
“Results for what?”
She shakes her head and doesn’t answer. Not even when he shouts the question at her again. She’s wringing her hands, looking at the dark windows. As the night falls, her shadow grows up the walls.
After a few minutes she says, “It’s time.” and goes to the light switch. All the fluorescents go on, the room awash in white, and I flinch.
I always thought I wanted to escape this gray place, that I hated the dim crawling shadows.
My opinion has changed. Here, the twilight is safe. Here, the light is to be feared.
Edith goes to the kitchenette and reappears holding the gun from earlier.
“Get in the chair,” she says.
Rex’s eyes are frightful, but his voice is tough. “Lady, you’re nuts.”
Edith finds some humor in this, her lips curving, slug tails twitching.
“I have lots of ways I can force you. I can make a little doll and walk you step by step if I have to. I could also twist it’s limbs and gouge it’s stomach with pin needles, and you’d feel it all. But that would take months of preparation. You don’t really want to hang around that long, do you?”
His eyes go to the chair.
“I’ll take the bullet.”
Edith snorts. “The bullet isn’t for you.” The gun swings at me. “It’s for her.”
Rex says nothing, but I can see dark logic working in his eyes. His frown deepens. He doesn’t like the conclusion he’s reached, that getting me shot might be a mercy.
I take the weight off his shoulders. “Then shoot me. He’s not getting in that chair, unless you drag him.” I cross my arms over my flat chest. The skirt is a ruse, hag. Try me.
“Alright. Let me explain something before you kids go selflessly throwing yourselves on the knife. When she’s no longer useful to me, darling little Arrie here is going to die a slow death.” She gestures to the shelves. “I will harvest her organs, pull off her fingernails, and she’ll be sitting in jars. I’ll keep her alive as long as possible just to spite you.”
Rex loses color. “Crazy bitch,” he sputters.
She nods. “Yes. I am. But I’ll make you promise. You get in the chair, and it’ll be a short death for her. Versus many hours.”
He doesn’t move at first.
“Rex,” I say. “Just let her do it. Whatever it is. Don’t give in to her. She’s playing us. Can’t you see it?”
I’ll regret this later. Oh, don’t I know it. But I can’t keep letting her win. I don’t care what it costs me, she can’t keep winning.
“If I go to the chair…it’ll be quick?”
“Not for you. But for her…oh, three minutes, tops.”
“What are you doing?!” My voice is wrecked, unable to put volume in the cry, only desperation.
“NOW!” Edith shouts, and we both flinch.
So he does it. He goes to the chair.
I expect the chain on his ankle to keep him from leaving the circle, but perhaps Edith is feeding it some slack. Or perhaps, I think crazily, the spell broke ages ago, and we didn’t know it. Oh god, maybe he’s been free this whole time.
Like a carnivorous plant, the straps of the chair come alive and coil over his limbs, buckling fast, snapping like jaws. Rex shouts in surprise and tries to jump out of the seat. He ends half-standing, half-sitting, the buckles slapping against his thighs, the strap on the head brace straining for his neck. The buckles click like piranha hungry for fresh meat.
Edith giggles and skips to him, her dress swishing across the floor. She extends her two thin arms and gives him a light push on the shoulders. Trapped in such an awkward position, there’s no hope. He falls back, and soon as his butt lands in the chair, the buckles close over him.
When the head brace come down, I start making this noise. Not a scream, not a whimper, but something between. A keening sound. And someone in me is oddly fascinated by this noise, a quiet observer in the back of my mind. Whether I am the boy in the cell or the watcher in the boy, I can’t be sure.
I think the observer must be that logical part of my mind that refuses to process the facts, taking the evidence my eyes relay for a joke. My newest infatuation—maybe love—in that chair?[_ No way, José._]
This quiet observer shakes his head as Edith takes a pair of scissors—and I damn near shriek my head off when she touches him—and starts cutting him out of his shirt. No way. Not my Rex. He’d break those straps and twist her head off if she tried that.
Scraps of cloth litter the floor, and I’m all too aware of the way his abdomen clenches when he wails, the bob of his throat, the fingers digging for escape. He cries, begging for his mother and God.
Not my Rex, _]my observer says. [_Are you sick? Knock it off. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it, stop-it-stopitstopitstopit—
Edith’s shoots me a disgusted (but also sickly pleased) look. Apparently these words are coming out of my mouth. And I’m kneeling on the floor, gripping the prison bars with white fingers. Prison bars. About three inches thick. Maybe less, I don’t know. I shake them—try to anyway.
This can’t be happening.
My arms are thicker than the bars, yet my pulling is futile. This isn’t right, I should be able to break them. I’m alive, they’re not. I’m thicker. My need is greater. They’re just…just iron. Just rock in some melted, molded form. Why do they get to trap me here? Why can’t I bend them? I’m so close to freedom, to saving Rex and killing the hag. Why do thin bars get to imprison me here?
Ludicrous, the observer and I agree. What kind of sick joke is this? This isn’t happening to us.
She doesn’t grab the knife, thank god. A sliver of my sanity comes back. I take big gasping breaths. My cheeks are burning. She grabs the weird bristle brush and the bowl, peeling off the plastic wrap. She carries it to him, careful not to spill, and I watch dumbfounded as she starts drawing on him in blood, muttering.
She draws spirals and symbols and tangles all over. And Rex…
At first I think he’s sobbing. but he’s actually laughing. I wonder if the brush tickles as his laughter gets louder, high pitched, feverish, until it’s an unnatural bray.
Edith steps back while he’s laughing and pulling at the restraints. Not pulling much, the buckles hold him tight, but he’s trying, rattling the head brace. The blood dribbles down him in rivers, but none of it his.
He’s okay, maybe, says the logical observer. I knew it couldn’t be true. See, it’ll be alright. This is all she wants.
And maybe these words come from my lips too, I don’t know.
Edith, oblivious to me, studies her work critically and adds a few more swashes here and there. Then she goes to the table with the glee of a child, but instead of a doll, her toy is a razor.
My screams take on a new energy then. Wild. She blinks rapidly and seems to come back to herself.
“Don’t,” I beg.
She tilts her nose high into the air, dismissing me, and approaches him. I scream again. She stops. And I think that maybe I’ve saved him, maybe if I scream like this I can drive her off. Then…and then something, I don’t know what.
She makes a little sigh and rolls her eyes, like, ‘Goodness what was I thinking.’ She giggles and goes back, puts down the razor.
I slump with relief. He’s okay. Nothing can happen to Rex, the universe won’t allow it.
Edith dances to the closet and starts suiting up. Plastic apron. Rubber gloves to the elbow. She steps her bare feet into rubber boots. Face mask. Goggles.
My heart hurts like it’s being crushed in a fist.
Let her feel this, I think. Let her collapse and die of a heart attack.
I don’t doubt this time. I wish and believe with my very soul.
She picks up her razor and starts for him.
My scalp hurts where I’ve been pulling at my hair. My throat is an aching, scratchy thing that barely works. My limbs are numb, and I’m holding the bars to stay upright. At some point I put Rex’s jacket on and the smell, once so comforting, has become cruel and foul as I look upon Edith’s work.
I am not screaming. I’m not afraid. My breath comes calm and measured.
I’m empty. Placid.
Watching Edith kneel in a new chalk circle, her hands clasped in prayer, her body swaying, her slug lips wiggling fast.
And…god, the floor. The drain. It looks like hell gurgled up from the pipes and flooded the place. Looks like it did for the little guy.
And Rex? He looks like the little guy too. In the worst possible way.
I suspect he went into shock some time ago, his mind long gone. I hope so. I remember—just a flash—her cutting two red holes out of his face. They’re deep. And bloody.
The gorgeous brown eyes that once filled those wounds are on the floor with Edith. Her circle has a triangle within it. A gemstone necklace sits at the top, in front of her knees. The jar of dog eyes sit at the point farthest from me. Rex’s lovely eyes lay on the floor at the point closest to my cell.
They aren’t gory or hideous or disgusting to me, though they should be. To me, they represent the whole person, and I empty my soul to them, pouring all my love and pity into those dead irises.
Hard to explain to commoners, Edith said, that magic is the simple application of thought, spirit, and material.
Well, my own magic hasn’t been working for me, but I understand the concept. Reeling from shock and sorrow, my grip on reality tenuous, I do everything I can to interfere with her work.
Eventually she stops her muttering and swaying. She looks around, wringing her hands, biting her lip. Like a child creeping down the stairs and wondering, Where’s Santa? He’s supposed to be here, you said so. Granted, Edith makes for one of the ugliest, creepiest little girls in the world. But like I said—there’s a sense of youth in her. She has a child’s curiosity, a child’s zeal. She has a lack of empathy and a cruelty streak, too. Also on par with the mental development of a child.
“I’m gonna kill you.”
I say it without hate or grief or horror. Those emotions have been drained out of me. I’m empty. I’m not swearing revenge or anything dramatic like that. Just stating the facts.
“You’re a dead bitch.”
“Shut up,” she hisses.
I drag my gaze to Rex’s toes, carefully, giving myself every opportunity to dart back to safety if I need to. It hurts to even look at this small part of him. Looking [_up _]is like receiving a shot gun blast to the chest.
He has ugly man toes. Wide. Shaped without grace. Tufts of hair grew on the backs of his feet. His toes scrunch intermittently, grasping at the lip of the pedals they lay in. It might be that he’s unconscious and his nerves are going crazy. I hope so. More than anything.
His shoes are under the chair. When had she removed his shoes?
My observer slaps my reaching hand. [_Don’t touch that. _]I flinch and utter a squeak.
Edith looks upset. Her chest heaves like a child building a tantrum, her slug lips rub backs, their tails spasming. She’s brushing strands of hair out of her face in that flustered way you do when a quiz comes back with a score even lower than your worst expectations.
“Didn’t work did it?”
Her gaze jerks to me, affronted, hurt.
“You failed, didn’t you? Experiment—” I blow a short, vulgar raspberry.
“I didn’t…” She looks at Rex. “I…”
I doubt her horror is for his suffering. More likely it’s for the lost work, the failed experiment. When she bites her lip to hold in a sob, I watch her with unaffected, stalking malice.
When I have my opportunity, I will be vicious. For now, I am quietly amused.
“Maybe you should have drawn that eye thing better. See how crooked it is? Looks like a squished foot ball.”
“Shut up.” She gets to her feet, wobbly. She has to lean on the table while she strips her outfit. Gloves in the sink. Blood splattered goggles, too.
I had sloshed the gallon jug at her earlier, feebly attempting to stop her. Didn’t do me any good. I missed.
She glares while she reaches back to untie her apron. She folds it sloppily, the messy part on the inside so she doesn’t have to touch it, and sets it on the table.
She grabs a clean, smooth knife. I remember the puppy, and I know what it’s for. This is the one act I don’t scream and cry about. It has to be done. After all he’s been through…
She pauses, bites her lip, taps the hilt of the knife against the counter.
What is she waiting for?
“Go on. Do it,” I say dully.
She shoots me a dirty look. It glazes over with uncertainty and sadness.
“I…I don’t know…I did everything right.”
She’s sick. Out of her mind. And right now she feels vulnerable.
“Can I get some water?”
She considers it for a moment. Then she goes to the kitchenette, and I hear the faucet come on. She appears with a glass and sets it outside the bars where I will have to reach for it. I do so with no problem and slurp down the cool liquid.
I’m licking drops off my lips when the air chills. A distinct awareness seizes me—there’s something here. Edith looks around wildly, checks to see if I feel it too.
Something slicks by my leg, and I jump back. There’s nothing there, but I felt it slide past, brushing me like a cat. It was rough, bristly, and left an oily sensation behind that I scrub away with my hand. Edith looks wild.
The lights flicker. [_Pop! _]The bulb of the table lamp bursts.
Edith gasps, her fingers flying to her mouth.[_ Zzzap-pop! _]The overhead fluorescents go out one by one, and she starts squealing, giggling. At the pop of the lamp over Rex, she claps her hands and does little jumps of glee. One more light fizzes and explodes, the one in the kitchenette. Black is sudden and complete.
And strangely comforting, but I don’t contemplate that. I’m empty, unafraid. Only my nerves are alive. The roots of my hair seem to crawl, my arms quiver. There’s something massive in the room with us.
Rex, who had been so quiet I suspected he might be passing away without the blade to end it, starts heaving, a horrible, meek sound.
I put my hands over my ears. I will do everything I can, if I can, but I can’t take anymore of that noise.
It will eat him, I think. Because whatever this is, it feels hungry.
Edith lights a candle and her face pops out of the blackness. She starts toward Rex, one slow step at a time. Her mouth puckers into an O, her eyes big with splendid wonder.
When she comes to her circle, she carefully steps between the chalk and kneels to pick up her necklace. A heavy gold chain with an emerald pendant. She grasps it in her fist and, holding it to her breast, takes two more steps towards Rex, her curiosity overwhelming the sense of danger in the room.
The head brace begins to rattle again. I press harder over my ears. Empty though I am, I begin to rock in effort to block this out. I hold onto a thought that quiets the noise, separates me from reality so I can cope.
She’s a dead bitch, she’s a dead bitch, a dead bitch, she’s…
Edith holds the candle out, and heaven help me, I look. I don’t know why. I have to, I guess.
My first thought is that he’s being ripped apart by a black octopus. I see tentacles reaching out from behind the chair and coiling into him. I see his muscles bulging, his neck straining. I hear his labored wheezing and whimpering.
Edith and I wear equal looks of dumbfounded fascination, mine tinged only a little by horror. I have only just found out that magic is truly real. The horror of what is happening gets delayed by the surprise of what I’m seeing. More and more tentacles come out of the black and wrap around him, squeeze and dig into him, eat him, and I know that soon he will be gone, sucked into that thing.
I hear Edith say, “Yes, oh yes,” with such breathless pleasure, she could be reading one of her tasteless cowboy books.
Oily tentacles wiggle and worm and leave not but a scrap of skin to be seen. Black tendrils jut from his raw sockets like scraggly, squirming roots.
A hacking cough takes over me, then a retch of impending vomit. But instead of puke, I bend over and a final wail comes out, something I’ve failed to contain. It doesn’t sound human.
When it’s over, my mind is unaffected. I just don’t have the resources to be terrified anymore. I wipe spittle from my mouth.
The black melts into him. Some of it slides of his skin and turns to smoke with a hot hiss before it touches the floor. Like tar, the rest of it covers him, burns him, and sinks into his flesh. He’s smoking and thrashing in the chair. His screaming can’t be heard through tar that clogs his open, gaping mouth. He’s burning alive silently, except for persistence rattle of the brace.
Edith can’t help herself. She takes another step closer with her candle.
Like water into a sponge, the tar fills Rex’s orifices and cavities and disappears. The black stuff behaves less like tentacles and more like ink, soaking in, dribbling off, evaporating. I smell ash, dust, and burning wood.
Edith is grinning now. It’s the first grin I’ve seen where her lips part enough to show teeth. The shadows from the candlelight make her appear demonic.
Rex’s plight is only the second scariest thing in the room. Always, the real monster has been Edith herself.
My nose, clogged with snot, whistles faintly with each breath.
The tar surges in his empty sockets, bubbles and boils inside, the spray evaporating into dark smoke and the spillage dribbling down his face and neck.
Whee-whee-whee goes my nostril, a teeny sound that’s absurdly loud to me.
I can’t take it, so I drop my gaze to his feet. Rex feet still but covered in tar, going up in smoke. When I look up, black ink oozes from his eyelids, a small bubble bursting from his tear ducts.
It takes me awhile to realize…
Rex’s eyelids are blinking over two big brown irises. He has eyes again.
What did she…? Did she stick them back in…?
No. On the floor, the others are still there, soaking sadly in their own juice.
But he has eyes.
Edith is crying. Happy tears now. And she goes to rummage through the drawers and cabinets. She knocks over the dog’s jar on the floor. (“Oopsie.”) I hear it go rolling and clinking.
Edith pulls out a dozen more candles, breaking into a fresh pack with trembling hands, those that never shook when they held a razor. Soon she’s setting candles on the shelves, on the counter, on the tables, until the whole place is bathed in dancing orange light.
Rex’s breath is calm, like he’s lost consciousness again, until Edith walks next to him to place a candle. Then he hyperventilates, his eyes darting sideways to stare at her.
They’re functional. Or…they seem to be. He’s looking right at her. He’s following her. I study him closely in the new light. His eyes aren’t brown, I had merely imagined them so. They’re actually red.
Those aren’t his eyes.
Rex’s gaze lands on me, sticks there.
Not his eyes.
So who’s looking at me?
Continued in Part 2
Also by Eileen Glass
Sire & Childe (M/M Vampire Romance): Embrace
I feel like dogshit. Eloquent, I know, but sometimes there’s no other way to put it.
How hammered did I get last night?
Moaning, I bring my hand up to touch my throbbing temple, where my brain pulsates against my skull, growing a lump underneath. Something stops me. My wrist doesn’t move, something tight holds it back.
I groan and wince at the sharp sound, a girl. Where the hell am I?
Footsteps all around, and a couple shadows moving across me. With all the strength left in this body, I pick up my head and open my eyes to the bright, glaring room, hissing with pain.
Through the fog of my squint I see…nothing much. A person standing over there. Walls and an open door, a woman shouting out, “He’s awake!”
God, I wish she’d shut up.
My head drops back to the bed, and through the slits of my resisting eyelids, I see my wrist and the restraint keeping it locked tight to the bedpost. I tug. The shackle clinks lightly. Tug on the other side, and that wrist too doesn’t come down, an answering tink telling me I’m bound.
I pull harder, my arms and legs too, my efforts always met with the alarming tink.
Shit, she’s loud.
Grimacing, I throw my weight into it, arching my back off the bed with effort, throwing my torso forward as much as I can. Nothing. Not a budge, not an inch.
The pulsing in my head hasn’t lessened, but that doesn’t distract from the knowledge that I’m stuck, chained spreadeagle to a strange bed in a strange room.
Two figures join the woman in the doorway, both men, their features blurry.
“He just woke up, not even a minute ago,” the woman says, shutting the door with all three of them in the room.
My pulse goes very fast now and another noise joins my ears, an annoying beeping. My blinking eyes are focused on the people in the room, but they also pick up a thousand details from my peripheral vision, none of them comforting. Wires attached to my arms and legs. An end table with a lamp, the source of this terrible white bright burning steadily through my retinas. I’m dressed, so that’s a little comforting. Only my pants though, so that doesn’t exclude rape and death from my near future.
One carries a metal pipe. The other, a shotgun. A big-ass double-barrel shotgun, and he holds it with two hands like he’s hunting.
“God, jesus, no—”
“What did you say?”
The three of them gape at me.
“Don’t hurt me please, I—”
One of the men approaches fast, and I shut up.
The woman reaches for him with a hand outstretched, but she doesn’t touch him, doesn’t try to save me as he lifts the metal pipe high, its shadow falling across my legs and its arc positioned to collide with my face. Light dances off the dull surface and my eyes zero in on the webbing between his thumb and forefinger, stretched around the curve of the weapon. I notice the texture, the fold, the bump of his knuckle.
And now his face is all I see, giant, ugly and spitting.
“Don’t you say those names again, or I’ll cram this down yer throat.” He grabs a silver chain hanging around his neck, a plain and simple cross dangling from his fist.
I push into the mattress, trying to sink as much as possible from that pockmarked face snarling down at me. His eyebrows never end, wiry tufts shoot out from his nose, and sweaty curls of chest hair poke out from the v of his shirt.
“Hungry are ya?”
My confines give me no freedom, so I make myself as small as possible, head turned aside, sinking as much as I can.
The man straightens, his sweaty stench dissipating from my oxygen just in time for me to refill my lungs.
“Won’t be long now. He’ll be looking for this one. An’ looking to feed…”
The woman seems to be breathing easier too, now that Raymond is walking away from me, going to the edge of the room to sit in a chair. The other man is a younger guy I see, and he’s holding that shotgun like he’s going to use it.
I swallow, clear my throat, and speak. “Who are you people?”
Ray snorts like I’ve said something funny, but gets serious when the woman opens her mouth.
“Don’t be stupid.”
She gives him a look that hints that she doesn’t like him much, but she can’t control him. I flex carefully on the binds, trying to test them for weaknesses without being too obvious about it. The horror of my predicament is only just dawning on me, thoughts of my family, my life, and my ability to feel pain all creating sparks of panic. But I’m smart enough not to lose it yet. Or maybe just disoriented still.
“I’m Theresa,” she says. “That’s Raymond, and this is Brian.”
Brian actually dips his head like we’re being friendly. He’s got dark hair, short but not recently trimmed, curling around his ears. He’s prettier than Raymond, with long lashes around blue eyes, but he looks at me through a subtle squint like a predator’s watchful glare.
Theresa gives me a shaky smile and inches toward me. She’s got uncombed blond hair and bangs that make her look like a kindergarten teacher. No weapon. White spots in her unpainted fingernails. Loose white shirt and blue jeans, middle-aged. A mother type.
These shackles are tight and solid. I’m screwed.
As Theresa sits on the bed, both men shift with their weapons in hand, glowering at me.
“Ain’t safe,” Ray grunts.
“If he could escape he would have already.”
Brian speaks up. “Don’t know that. He could be smart.”
“Who are you people?” I ask, and my voice sounds like a stranger’s, too high, too thin. I remind myself to breathe, breathing is good, and the machine beeps along with my heartbeat. All these wires…
Higher still, all the breath in my body locking up inside my chest with the question, “What are you going to do to me?”
The woman stares at the heart monitor. So does the redneck, Raymond or whatever. The only person who doesn’t take his eyes off me is Brian, shotgun held slack. A hunter, but he’s not ready to kill yet. Why?
Shouting, strong and more like myself, “What do you want with me?!”
Theresa jumps with startled fright, nearly off the bed. The pulse in her neck speeds up in her moment of panic, and I lean forward.
They all watch me.
And I fall back to the pillows, feeling revealed, embarrassed almost, but I don’t know why. I can’t fathom why I thought about her neck just then, why I imagined…I don’t know what I imagined. I need to get out of here.
The woman settles again, readjusting her glasses. “We are the—”
Ray cuts her off. “He don’t need answers, we do. Who are you, devil?”
Surely, if I’m tied here, introductions must have passed. They must have rifled through my wallet. They could have read my name off my license, my student ID, my many bank cards, or the social security card I really ought to keep somewhere else, like my mom said, in case I lose the wallet, so I don’t lose both—
I shake my head to clear it. That’s the panic. That’s a maze I can’t get lost in if I want to get out of here.
“I’m Sam Tompkins,” I say. “I’m a student at the university. I…uh, I…”
What else? What can I add that might make me more sympathetic? I have a family, sounds too cliche to be compelling.
“Student? Taking night classes?” Brian asks, and he and Ray have a chuckle over that. Theresa watches me, deep in thought like she’s trying to figure something out.
“Who’s your father?” she asks.
“Um, David. David Tompkins.” I can’t imagine why she wants to know that.
Theresa seems perplexed.
“Your mother?” she asks.
“Susan. Look, what do you want? Please…I don’t understand.”
Maybe they’re just sickos. I have a license, but not a car, so maybe they picked me up off the street, drugged me. Or something.
The three of them look at each other, communicating silently.
“If he doesn’t know…” Theresa trails off.
“Then keeping him here won’t work,” Brian finishes for her. “What we read was wrong. Probably planted by one of them.”
I can take no more of this. I strain and pull, shouting with everything I’ve got, “Just tell me what you want! Let me go! Agh!”
I already know that won’t work, and Theresa doesn’t look half as frightened as she did the first time. I sag, but that can’t be it, that can’t be all the fight in me. I muster a little more.
“My name is Sam. I work at the Dine ‘n’ Play on 21st street. I rent a shitty apartment on Copper Avenue. Please, I just want to go home. I’ve got a group presentation on Wednesday for christsakes!” I twitch, forgetting that Raymond is overly religious, but he doesn’t react to the last word.
I catch my breath, and with fake calm, “Tell me what you want. Whatever it is…” (Unless it’s torture, sex, and death.) “I’ll give it to you. Please. I just want to go home.”
Theresa sits quiet for too long, her expression more perplexed than ever.
“He don’t know.” Brian leans against the door as he speaks, one hand letting go of the shotgun barrel so that it points at the floor.
Jesus. He actually meant to use that thing. Whatever I’ve said has changed his mind, his posture relaxed.
I blink rapidly, processing that they may have realized their mistake but that doesn’t mean I’m going home. I don’t know who they think I am, I don’t care. All I want to know is, What’ll they do with the mistake?
I swallow, try to convince myself it’s not over, but despair is hopeless and true.
“You don’t remember anything?” Theresa asks.
“No,” I say dully, dropping my head back to look at the ceiling.
The cracks up there. They’re like rivers. Or roads. And there’s a hole, small and dark, like someone might have hung a plant there once. Or maybe it was a light fixture. How else could that have happened?
“You have a heartbeat.”
I try to stay focused on the dark spot, ignore the questions I want to ask. They’re going to do what they’re going to do, I have no control.
“But…” I can hear Theresa crossing her legs, the bed shifting with her movement. “When you undergo the transformation…don’t you die?”
Okay, that got my attention.
“What?” I ask, picking my head up again.
She’s looking at Brian, saying, “The new ones must retain their memories. Maybe this is how they…” She trails off. “Maybe they leave the new ones to continue their life until they…” Again. I wish she’d finish a sentence for once so I could figure out what they’re telling each other with their eyes. “Until something happens,” she finishes.
The only reason I don’t scream is because then she’d shut up completely and I’d be left with nothing. Not that her silences are giving me any answers.
“Sounds like their way.” Ray nods. “More like it than those stupid books we got.”
“It would be terrible when he turned. He’d go crazy. Kill dozens or more perhaps.”
They’re talking about me killing, I realize, but at this point I’m better to be a sponge, soaking up as much as I can while they’re willing to talk.
“So he doesn’t know a thing.” Brian sighs, rubs the back of his neck. “That’s fucked up, man. Can you imagine?”
Another shared look.
I have to ask, I can’t hold it in anymore. Politely, “What are you guys talking about?”
Theresa’s perplexed expression is replaced with a blank one. “They might still come for the child once it’s turned. We need to show him.” To Brian, “Bring me a mirror.”
Continued in Sire & Childe #1: Embrace
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Eileen Glass lives amongst the sounds of sirens, car stereos, and the yowling of stray cats. She commands two minions of destruction, slobbery beasts that eat power cords and wall plaster. While she enjoys cafes and urban life, she’s known to be a bit of a hermit, having yet to get a facebook account and being bad at noticing her phone. She writes m/m gay romance with paranormal creatures and dark fairy tale themes.
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© Eileen Glass
Published By Glass Fiction
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