“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
– William Shakespeare
Missouri summers are never easy, but this was a summer day for the record book in Grandview, a small farming community three hours southwest of St. Louis. The sweltering heat was worsened by the humidity that stuck to you like a second skin and kept most of the locals indoors—but not the children. Some spent the day running wildly through sprinklers in their front yards, others splashed around in the many brooks and creeks that surrounded the town. The older kids were looking for trouble . . . fireworks, alcohol, pot—anything that would give them a rush, a grounding, and some cool points.
But for Orion Darby, it was not the heat she was concerned with, nor any childish games or teenage rebellion. No, it was the blue-eyed boy standing across from her on the back deck of his parents’ home. It was her first kiss on a broiling evening in June.
It would be the last little breath of happiness before her world went dark, and a cell became her home. Before she would wonder whether it was cruel of the universe to give her that little taste of happiness, Maddox’s soft, hesitant mouth tasting faintly like Juicy Fruit. Or a blessing to give her that singular memory to hold on to when the pain felt like it could kill her. Much later than that, she’d realize that the universe was not concerned with her, that there were no greater powers at work other than monsters masquerading as men and she was just a pawn in their world. Surely, if there was a god, he would’ve saved girls like her.
But that was later.
This was still that perfect summer day . . . that perfect first kiss.
Maddox Hampton Novak—or Maddie as loved ones called him—wasn’t supposed to like someone like Orion. He was the epitome of a teenage heartthrob. He played lead guitar in a punk band, started every varsity game as wide receiver for the football team, and he was even the lead in all the school plays. A true Renaissance man. Had he not been the older brother of her best friend, April, Orion knew he wouldn’t have thought twice about looking at her, let alone kissing her. At least, that’s what she told herself. Besides, he was sixteen, two years her senior, and he had plenty of girls his own age to chase after. Some older ones too.
Orion had never planned on kissing him, even after she noticed her lingering glances were being returned. She didn’t want to piss off her best friend, didn’t want to destroy the only real thing she had in her life then. But when the town stud starts noticing the girl from the poor family, with Walmart clothes two sizes too small and a face dotted with countless freckles, what exactly was she to do?
That was the most peculiar aspect of it all really. She was a Darby, and Darbys were poverty-stricken nobodies. Always had been. Always would be. They lived in squalor at Sunnyside Trailer Park, the scourge of Grandview, in a trailer passed down from one dirtbag to the next. Darbys drank away their paychecks and fed their kids scraps, perpetuating a cycle of addiction and abuse that lasted generations.
The Novaks—Maddox and April—lived in a two-story house situated on three acres, in a community where each home was more impressive than the next. Their father was the only dentist in town, their mother a paralegal for the only law firm. Lights were always on, the water always ran, and life was good. Maddox and April had two parents who cared about them, who didn’t have rap sheets, who didn’t lay a hand on them in anger, and bought them whatever they desired. In other words, they were the exact opposite of everything Orion had ever known.
When she first befriended April in the second grade, she had yet to realize just how different her existence was compared to everybody else’s. It wasn’t until she saw the Novak’s house for the first time, full of all their things, and all their happiness and familial love, that she realized just how bad things were.
That was why Ri never expected the heartthrob she’d secretly loved for years to finally see her . . . to want her.
The week before, he’d pulled her aside at Jessie Knowles’s party, and told her how he felt, told her he wanted to kiss her, and his words made her come alive.
She had dreamed of it happening but never expected it, that smile he flashed as he held her hands on the back porch, the sun setting behind them and casting beautiful reds and oranges like fire across the sky. Slightly crooked, that smile of his. But not his teeth. Being the son of the town dentist had more benefits than just a nice home. For a moment, it reminded her of her own teeth, crooked as they were, though white from habitual cleaning, so she flashed him a tight-lipped smile back.
The way he looked at her then, a stupid grin on his face as his eyes traced her lips, made her both nervous and excited. When he finally kissed her, she forgot all about the fact that he had just broken up with Sharlene Evans, the most beautiful girl in school. She forgot about the long line of beautiful girls who had come before Sharlene. Forgot about her crooked smile, her Walmart clothes, and her shitty parents. None of it mattered because right then, in his embrace, he saw only her and she saw only him—the world was theirs for the taking.
He kissed her passionately, like she was the only girl in the world. It was the kind of first kiss that girls with straight teeth and more reputable last names deserved.
But Ri didn’t think about that.
She just thought about how perfect he tasted, how freeing it felt to be wanted by the boy she had loved for so long. The boy all the other girls wanted.
Maddox pulled back, staring at her with a smile in his eyes, but not on his lips. He rubbed his thumb over her bottom lip in a practiced move that was so very adult and manly.
“You’re so beautiful,” he muttered through a grin.
“Thank you,” Ri said, voice meek and raspy, her nervous eyes jutting to the wooden deck beneath their feet.
Maddox’s fingers went to her chin, forcing her gaze upward.
“I mean it,” he said. Louder this time. More forceful. “I’ve always thought about what it’d be like to kiss you.”
Ri’s stomach dropped much like she imagined it would’ve had she been on a roller coaster—which of course, she wasn’t. Her family could never afford Six Flags. But she figured it’d feel like thrill, fear, and excitement mixed up in her insides.
“Really?” she asked, unable to keep the shock from her voice. “I mean, it felt like lately, maybe you were feeling some kind of way about me. Flirting, I guess, but I didn’t know, I couldn’t ever imagine you actually liking me. And then with everything else . . .” Her voice trailed off. She shouldn’t have talked so much. Shouldn’t have made her doubt so prominent, right on the surface. She should’ve buried it deep down, much like the shame her last name brought with it.
Maddox shrugged. “You mean my sister.”
Ri nodded. April had not been blind to the way Ri looked at her brother, and she’d given Ri a bunch of crap about it, making it clear she didn’t approve. Orion tried denying her feelings, but unlike her parents, she was no good at lying. She’d made a promise to her best friend that she would stop liking Maddox. The promise wasn’t a lie, per se. She really did try.
Then came this moment, on this perfect summer evening, with this perfect boy, and it all had gotten the best of her. A first kiss was important to a girl, especially a kiss like this. And though she had defied her best friend’s request, she was certain that no first kiss had ever been better.
It was in the midst of this perfect kiss when Orion heard a familiar voice, thick with agitation.
“Ew, Orion . . . I did not just catch you making out with my brother.”
Orion glanced up and found April with a hand on her hip and annoyance in her eyes.
Maddox moved slightly but purposefully in front of Ri, like he was going to protect her. Not only from his pissed-off and overly dramatic sister, but from the world. “Give it a rest, April,” he said. “It’s none of your business.”
“I wasn’t talking to you, buttface,” April snapped, her piercing gaze focusing on Ri. “Orion, are you aware that it’s almost dark?” She pointed to the sky. “Um, hellooo . . . your mom’s gonna kill you.”
Ri, who had been feeling delightfully soft and carefree, snapped her eyes up at the sky. Panic crawled into her throat. Reality hit.
“As mad as I am at you right now, I’d prefer my best friend remain alive. Who else am I gonna watch Charmed with?” April continued, and she let out a huff.
“I’m so screwed,” Ri said, hating her best friend a little in that moment for ripping her out of this dream. She eyed Maddox, a pout forming. “I don’t want to leave,” she admitted. “Today, all of this was just . . . perfect.”
A gagging noise came from the direction of the back door as April slid it open. “Okay, I’m going back inside now. I can’t witness this nonsense or I might puke.” April shook her head. “Get home, so you don’t get grounded, Ri. I wanna hang out tomorrow, but don’t think I’m not still pissed!” April said with a little scowl, before storming inside and sliding the door closed hard behind her.
Maddox put his arms around Ri, the gesture already natural, right. He wasn’t hesitant, nervous. No, he touched her like he had been doing it for months. “Don’t worry about her. You know she’ll forget why she’s angry by the time you get home.” He kissed her forehead. “It’ll all work out.” He said it with such assurance that Orion wanted to believe it, wanted to pretend things worked out for girls like her. To pretend that bad things weren’t waiting in the wings to tear it all down.
She almost fell for it. She wanted to. But she didn’t have a perfect life, and she had plenty of real worries. She did not have experience in everything ‘working out.’
Maddox saw her worry, her confusion, maybe not the depth of it, because he didn’t have the ability to read people too far beyond the surface—not yet anyway—but he saw enough to know her mind was running, her thoughts a storm.
So he kissed her again.
“Trust me?” he asked, cocking his head.
It was a big question to a girl like Ri. She didn’t know how to trust because she always had to be on guard, on the defensive. Really, she didn’t even know what trust meant, but she wasn’t about to tell him that. She wasn’t about to let him in on how messed up her thoughts were sometimes, how self-degrading.
“I trust you,” she muttered, her chest tightening, the hurt of having to leave feeling all too real.
He took her in for one last hug, kissed the top of her head, and whispered, “I won’t break that trust, Ri.”
They were the last words she’d hear him say for ten years.
* * *
She thought about him the whole ride home. She was happy. Hopeful, even. Energized enough not to worry about a grounding or a beating. Enamored enough not to notice the van following her.
How could she have noticed it? She was imagining a future with the man of her dreams. The wedding. The house on the rich side of town. The cars, the babies. No thoughts of jobs, bills, or practicalities. Girls weren’t plagued with the details of reality, not after their first kiss anyway.
The bike ride home from the Novaks wasn’t too far for Orion—a fifteen-minute trip at best—and she had done it so many times before that she could do it in her sleep. But along the way, as she got closer to home, the area grew more derelict—smashed streetlights, long abandoned industrial buildings, and very few homes, which were rundown and unsightly themselves. Orion had always ridden extra fast through these parts, but this time she was too distracted, too lost in her thoughts, too immersed in a world where she lived life as Mrs. Orion Novak.
By the time she noticed the van behind her, it was too late. Its bumper clipped the rear tire of her bike and sent her flying over the handlebars, hurtling her onto the front of a rusty Civic that was parked on the street. She bounced off the windshield and landed with a jarring thump on the road, the breath heaving from her lungs. Her whole body stung, muscles seized, hot blood dripped from her nose.
It wasn’t a pretty crash.
It was ugly.
Just like the rest of her life was about to become.
As a child, Orion was a force to be reckoned with. She talked back. Complained. Refused to cry. Did just about everything an overdisciplined child of abuse shouldn’t do. It was her way of taking back control. Of fighting back against the beatings, the despicable words, the ugliness of life itself.
When she didn’t give her father the tears he desired, he’d zip-tie her hands, duct-tape her mouth, and make her sit in a closet in complete darkness, sometimes for a few minutes, other times for hours. The length of time depended on her father’s anger, state of inebriation, or if her little brother was able to sneak in and let her out himself with their father none the wiser. Adam was always looking out for her in that way, trying to help her when he could, even if it risked abuse of his own. Perhaps it was his loving nature, or maybe he felt guilt over his sister’s much tougher treatment at the hands of their father.
Ri had been so sure that she’d escape it all as soon as she was old enough and had earned enough money. On that fateful bike ride home, she had entertained the thought of Maddox potentially being involved in that escape. Not as a savior, because she was going to save herself regardless, but as a partner-in-crime of sorts.
It didn’t take her long to realize she wasn’t going to be saved. Wasn’t going to escape. Her life was only going to get worse and worse and worse, until she was eventually snuffed out like a candle in the wind and the world forgot all about her.
She eventually discovered that all the pain she felt as a child—her father’s temper and cruelty, her mother’s apathy and complete disregard—was all practice, training for the years she’d spend in a twenty square foot concrete cell, in the basement of an unassuming house, twenty miles from her home.
* * *
The first night was little more than a blur. Being thrown into the van, her head throbbing, her vision blurry, the pain immense. Voices gruff and cruel. She remembered begging, pleading. And the smell. Like body odor, cheap booze . . . like her father. But worse than that. Like something was decaying from the inside out. She’d smelled it on their breath. Hot on her face. Terrifying.
Her bladder let go at some point, she remembered that. The smell of her own urine mixed in with the filth of the van, a smell that would stay with her forever.
She didn’t remember the specifics of the van ride, apart from the wetness between her legs, the shame, terror, and pain mixed in. She remembered them speaking, threatening . . . the Things. She’d learn that all the girls called them Thing One and Two. They didn’t have names, didn’t deserve them. They were monsters. That’s all.
She didn’t consider them monsters at first because she was too afraid. Disorientated. Confused. There wasn’t enough clarity to understand what was going on. Maybe she didn’t want to understand. If she didn’t understand, didn’t force herself to face the facts, then she could pretend this wasn’t happening. That somehow she’d strayed into a nightmare like The Twilight Zone. She’d wake up soon.
But she didn’t.
The nightmare wasn’t in her head.
The nightmares had become reality.
She didn’t hear much of what they said, but one sentence stuck out to her, carved itself into her soul.
“Hush now, girl. You belong to us now . . .”
Reality became stark, lucid and inescapable with the first rape in the back of the van that first night.
A girl always remembers her first time.
She was kissed tenderly, lovingly, and amazingly on a perfect summer day by the boy of her dreams. On that nightmare summer night, her virginity was torn from her, painfully, violently, and terrifyingly in the back of that smelly van. Their sweat-soaked hands kept her screams bottled up inside and her arms clamped down at her sides. She fought until she could fight no longer. Her tired muscles gave out, she closed her eyes, and she used Maddox then for the first time as a sort of trance, a meditation . . . his beautiful smile, his tender kiss, his loving touch.
The other times, they weren’t as stark. Weren’t as memorable. Was it because the horror became monotonous? Or because her brain could only handle so much trauma? Maybe the drugs. She’d gotten used to the drugs.
They gave them to her that first night when they dragged her into the house. She was fighting again at that point, screaming, clawing at them. After the injection, they dragged her down the basement steps. Her vision was hazy, her body going limp, but she did see the cockroaches scuttling across the floor as one of them flipped the lights on. She saw the stained mattress, chains, and a large door in front of her, like the gateway to hell.
At some point she passed out, her eyelids too heavy to fight. She thought she saw other girls, thought she smelled blood, but she no longer could distinguish what was real and what was a dream.
The smell caught her a few hours later, like the roadkill she and April had found once when they were younger, poked and prodded the thing until the smell became too much to bear, the iron-y scent of dried blood, the musk of decay. Its pungency yanked her from unconsciousness, or maybe it was the pain. She felt it then in her side. Her ribs screamed with every small movement, every breath. It brought visions of the van, and the car she collided into, the fists that rained down on her and the clunk of her thin body against the basement steps.
It wasn’t dark. She thought that was cruel, on top of it all. To show her where she was, to light the bloodstains on the floor. Harsh fluorescent lights illuminated the concrete walls aged with filth. The floor—which served as her mattress—was cold, the concrete dirty. She observed the stains again, all various shades of crimson. She didn’t want to think about what they were.
She did anyway.
Wants didn’t mean anything in a place like this.
Ri tried to sit up, out of habit more than anything. She didn’t know why she should want to sit upright, be conscious, move from the stained, smelly floor. She wanted to try and lapse back into unconsciousness. She should just close her eyes and drift back to sleep . . . perhaps she would wake back up in her own bed. She’d never thought of home as home before, never wanted to spend any time there, dreamed of escaping and never returning. But now, now she begged God to be taken back, to be told this was all some horrible nightmare. She’d never spoken to that being, that thing people worshipped at the small church in town. Orion had thought it was all bullshit. But she was desperate right now, so she pleaded God for this to be a nightmare.
It wasn’t. And as she took in the metal clasp around her ankle and the chain that connected her to the concrete wall, she began to weep, wincing from the pain it brought her.
“Don’t try to move too fast, sweetheart.”
Ri jerked, the voice catching her off guard, even though it was soft and kind. She didn’t understand soft and kind anymore.
Ri searched the room for the owner of the voice, but the lights were too bright, searing her eyes, the back of her head, spots clouding her vision.
“Help me, please,” Ri rasped, sobbing through the words.
Someone scoffed. “There’s no helping you now, baby.” This voice was different. Sarcastic.
“Shut up, Jaclyn!” the first voice snapped.
A hand settled on Ri’s shoulders, gently helping her upright. She didn’t have it in her to flinch. The hand on her, no matter how gentle, all but peeled the skin from her flesh. Someone strange touching her, it caused the memories to rush back in. The van, the loss of her innocence at the hands of two vile pigs. She was dirty. Defiled.
That only made her sob more.
Through her tears, Ri took in the girl she’d come to know as Mary Lou. Her strawberry blonde hair was tangled, messy, but not dirty. Her skin was pale, almost translucent, which made the dark circles under her eyes all the more prominent, even in the dull light. She looked older, maybe in her early twenties, and the thought of their age difference sent a shudder down Orion’s spine.
How long has she been in here? she thought, her stomach turning.
Mary Lou smiled warmly, as if she could sense Orion’s turmoil. The smile—more importantly, how genuine it was—surprised Orion. Such a smile seemed foreign in a place like this.
Mary Lou placed her hand on Ri’s cheek. The gesture was meant to comfort, so Ri didn’t flinch away from the touch because of the girl’s kind smile. She didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
“Are you okay?” Mary Lou asked, a concerned wrinkle in her brow. “I mean, considering.”
She asked it like the answer could be anything. Like somehow, in this basement, this cell, with the rancid smell of monsters all over her, the rancid presence of them inside her wasn’t real.
Ri couldn’t fake it, couldn’t pretend to be strong. Before this, she’d always thought she was tough. She weathered abuse from her parents. Poverty. The ridicule from those at school who considered her to be trash. She had none of that strength now. It was stolen, scooped out of her like everything else had been.
“I hurt so bad,” Ri sobbed, all semblance of strength crumbling away from her like the weak shield it had been. “I’m so tired.”
She was. Exhausted. She wished she could sink into the concrete, the ground, and sleep forever. She didn’t just want to sleep, she wanted to die. It was the first time she’d wished such a thing, and it would certainly not be the last.
Mary Lou wiped the tears from Ri’s face. Ri regarded what the girl was wearing. A white hospital gown with tiny blue flowers covering it. She expected it to be dirty—they were surrounded by filth after all. But it was spotless. Ri looked down to see she was wearing the same thing. She was clean. How could she be clean? The dirt and grime clung to her, was embedded in her bones.
“Where am I?”
“That’s a good question,” Mary Lou said. “We call it The Cell. Not very original, I know.” She fumbled with a chain wrapped around her ankle. It was attached to the wall just like the one around Orion’s ankle. “Truth be told, we don’t know where we are.”
She motioned to her right, and Ri’s eyes found the girl at the other end of the room—The Cell—leaning against the wall. She wore the same gown as the other two girls, ankle chained to a D-ring on the far wall.
“That’s Jaclyn,” the girl explained. There was an edge to her soft voice. “She’s a delight, if you can’t already tell.” She pointed a few feet beside Jaclyn. “The one pretending to be asleep is Patricia.”
Ri focused on a girl, curled up in a ball on the floor, facing away from everyone. She found herself jealous of the girl, pretending or not, wishing she was doing the same. It hurt to talk, hurt even more to take in her new reality.
“We don’t all live in denial like Mary Lou here,” Jaclyn said, her words sharp. Everything else about the girl was sharp too. Latina; emerald eyes; long, dark, wild hair; all of her features strong, jarring, and beautiful, even in here. She was also clean.
Ri was struck with pure jealousy in that moment, despite everything. Despite the pain between her legs, inside her soul, the fear gnawing at her nerves, telling her that nothing would ever be the same again, her girlish envy somehow remained unharmed.
Ri would come to learn that Jaclyn’s beauty, her presence, was not something to be envied, coveted. It meant she was the prize possession. Their favorite.
In The Cell, you didn’t want to be the favorite.
Mary Lou straightened, jutting her chin upward in a gesture that Ri recognized. April did it now and again, not really knowing she was doing it. Almost a tic for girls from families that spoiled them, pampered them, and gave them the tools to be spoiled, to look down on people whether they knew they were doing it or not.
“You will never bring me down to your level, Jaclyn,” Mary Lou said, her grip tightening ever so slightly on Ri. She found she preferred that pain as opposed to the tenderness of before. “I will always have hope.”
Jaclyn narrowed her eyes, focusing on Ri. “You want to know what happened to the last person who wore those chains, little girl?” she asked Ri, and Orion didn’t much like where she was going with it.
It hit Ri then, quickly, without mercy. The truth. The ugliness of it. These girls were familiar with their surroundings. Resigned. They’d been here long enough to figure out ways to cope.
She wasn’t stupid. She’d read stories, watched the news. Missing girls. Children. Rarely found. What was it, the first twenty-four hours? Forty-eight? They were important. Critical. You didn’t find many after that. You wouldn’t want to find many after that.
“Do you really wanna know?” Jaclyn followed up, her tone condescending.
“You shut up right now, Jaclyn,” Mary Lou snapped, voice bordering on shrill. Similar to the tone April’s mother used with her when she was being a brat.
Then again, she also shouldn’t have been sitting in a basement with a chain on her ankle.
Ri started to tremble. She didn’t want to. She wanted to lean against the wall with her arms folded, accepting of her fate like Jaclyn was. Or maybe even blindly hopeful and kind like Mary Lou.
Not shaking, with tears and snot running down her face.
But she wasn’t in control of that. She felt powerless to the realization.
So she trembled and sobbed. “Wh-where are we? What is this?” The words came out on their own, panicked.
“This is hell on earth,” Jaclyn said, not the least bit gently. “And you’re the newest resident.”
Mary Lou stood, crossing the small space between them with a purpose, right up until the chain at her ankle went rigid and stopped her a few feet shy of the girl.
Jaclyn remained leaning lazily against the wall, a sly, taunting smile on her face. Ri suspected such a face-off happened often by the look of it. How could tension not be high? Orion had shared a trailer long enough to know, close quarters with anyone will lead to conflict.
Mary Lou jabbed a finger in Jaclyn’s direction, fire in her eyes. “I swear, Jaclyn, if you don’t leave this poor girl alone—”
“You’ll what?” Jaclyn snarled, pushing off the wall and standing, the chain jangling at her feet. She tensed her shoulder, hands fisted at her sides. “She’s not the only ‘poor girl’ in this fucking place. She’s no more damned than the rest of us. Stop fucking babying her.”
Mary Lou shook her head in disappointment or anger. Orion couldn’t decipher. Maybe both. “And who was here to comfort you when you first got here? Would you rather I just fed you to the wolves?”
Jaclyn scoffed. “Newsflash, Mary Lou. The wolves have been feasting since I got here. You can’t protect me from that. Just like you can’t protect her. When the beasts are hungry, they come prowling for their hapless prey.” She rattled the chain on her ankle purposefully.
Ri saw the fire, the fury in Jaclyn’s eyes from across the dimly lit space, and she felt something that surprised her . . . pity. She imagined then, Jaclyn’s first day in The Cell, and what she must have been like. She imagined an innocent girl just like herself, slowly turned jaded over—years? Weeks? Months?—of abuse.
“And comfort?” Jaclyn asked, her eyes piercing. “Comfort? You lied to me, Mary Lou. You don’t make it any better when you pretend we’re not all going to fucking die in here. And that before we die, we’re gonna experience shit that’ll make us wish we were dead. When you spew your toxic optimism all over the place like we’re going to see our families again. Our friends. Like we’re ever gonna walk out of this fucking hellhole. Like we’re gonna ever see freedom again.” Jaclyn’s face was red, spittle flying from her lips as the words tore from them. “Get a fucking clue, girl. We’re not! This is it, Mother Mary. I’m not going to live in fucking La La Land and I’m not going to let you give this poor girl false hope.”
Jaclyn backed up to the wall and slid back down so she was sitting on the concrete again. She rested her arms on the top of her knees, and just like that, the anger in her features dissipated. The smug grin Orion would get more than used to returned. “Now leave me the fuck alone,” she said, leaning her head back against the wall and letting out a long breath. “And good luck with your new project. Hopefully she fares better than the last one did.” She nodded her head to the freshest of the crimson stains on the floor, nearest Orion’s feet.
Orion cowered away from the stain, back against the cold, hard wall, tears welling in her eyes.
Mary Lou turned from Jaclyn sharply, disgust written on her features. “Shame on you, Jaclyn,” she said quietly. “Shame on you for bringing Sarah into this.”
Jaclyn ignored her.
Mary Lou focused on Ri once more, chain clanging as she walked back toward her, as close as she could get. She sat down, cross-legged, and rested her hands in her lap. “Ignore her, dear. She’s got a bad attitude.”
“What happened to the last girl?” Orion asked, not even hearing her last statement.
Mary Lou didn’t answer.
“What do you think?” Jaclyn snapped from across the room. She was glaring at Ri now, coldly, like she hated her for speaking, for breathing.
Ri hated herself a little for breathing too.
Mary Lou’s hand reached out to Orion. “Ignore her,” she repeated.
Ri wouldn’t, of course. She was fascinated with the details of the last girl who wore her chains. She searched for words, but couldn’t find any, couldn’t figure out what she wanted to know.
“What is this place?” she finally asked, her eyes flitting from Mary Lou, to Jaclyn, and finally, to Patricia, who now trembled uncontrollably as the tears came.
“Put two and two together, sweetheart,” Jaclyn said, laughing coldly.
Mary Lou’s lips pursed. She took a visible breath. “We were all . . . taken.” She paused, eyes going far away. She was remembering something, Ri could see that. Maybe the van. The things. The smells.
“We’re being held captive by the two who brought you in here. We call them Thing One and Thing Two.” Mary Lou continued, “One is the fat one. Two is the one who looks like Skeletor.” She chuckled. “Not that it matters. They’re both disgusting pigs.”
“Why did they take us?” Ri asked the question, even though the pain between her legs told her everything she needed to know. They were there for one thing, and one thing only.
Mary Lou’s eyes flitted to her lap. “It’s best we don’t discuss that right now. You need to rest. There are a lot of drugs still in your system.”
Tears trailed down Ri’s cheeks. Why did she have to be so nice? Calm. It made everything worse. “I don’t understand,” she said through a sob.
Chains rattled. Jaclyn was standing again. “It seems you need someone to spell it out for you. You’ve been taken by two pedophiles. You belong to them and their buddies now. You don’t belong to yourself. You don’t control anything. It’s something you need to get right with fast, because fighting fate ain’t gonna do you any good. And fighting them is only gonna get you beat up worse.” She paused. “And one last thing. You are never getting out of here. That’s the truth. It’s ugly. But I’m thinking as soon as you opened your eyes, you realized ain’t nothing beautiful waiting for you in the future, no matter what this bitch tells you.” She jerked her head to Mary Lou. “Your fate is sealed, just like ours. And the sooner you get used to that, the better off you’ll be.”
Mary Lou’s face had been getting redder and redder during Jaclyn’s tirade, her mouth twisted into a scowl that Ri would only see a handful of times throughout their years of captivity. For the most part, Mary Lou stayed positive, energetic. She rarely let reality bring her down. “I hate you, Jaclyn,” she whispered, tears in her eyes. The chains clanged again as she stood. “I hate you!” she screamed. “I wish it were you and not Sarah, you know that?” Mary Lou clapped her hands over her mouth in a vain attempt to hold the words in.
Jaclyn raised her middle finger, sitting down again. “I wish it were me instead, too, bitch . . . trust me.” Her voice was a growl, her elbows resting atop her knees once more, and then her head dropped between them. “Trust me,” she murmured, and Orion thought she heard a sniffle.
The silence that followed was long and stifling.
It was something that would get to Ri, throughout the years. The absolute quiet. No far-off sounds of cars, sirens, civilization. No music, no TV, no books. Nothing but empty air to taunt them and show them no one would hear them scream, that no one would ever find them.
“How long have you guys been here?” Ri asked finally, the quiet starting to burrow under her skin, to make her think crazy thoughts, unwelcome thoughts.
She regretted the question upon seeing Mary Lou’s face. As kind as her eyes were, the rest of her face dropped, that hope falling off it like water on a windshield.
“You really should rest,” she said, avoiding Ri’s gaze.
“Please,” Ri said. She should’ve felt bad, pressing Mary Lou like this. Not giving her respite, but she didn’t. Mary Lou was in a position above her. Didn’t Ri hear that knowledge was power? Chains at her ankle and bruises on her thighs were the sign of how little power she had. She’d get the knowledge. Even if it were just shreds. She needed something.
Mary Lou took a deep breath. “How long I’ve been here really depends on what year it is.” She was weary. Words and tone decades older than this girl in her early twenties was.
“It’s 2006,” Ri replied.
Mary Lou’s sharp intake of breath told Ri something. As did Jaclyn’s slightly maniacal cackle from the other end of the room.
“What?” Ri asked, even though she knew this was bad for her. For all of them.
A tear ran down Mary Lou’s cheek. “It’s been far too long,” she rasped.
“How long?” Ri probed. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to know.
Mary Lou took another sharp breath. “I was taken in 1997,” she whispered.
“2001,” Jaclyn called out. She shook her head, clicking her teeth. “Five years,” she muttered, then laughed coldly again. “Five fucking years.”
Sobs echoed from the corner where Patricia was still curled in a ball. Her body twitched with each one.
“Patricia was brought here a few months ago,” Mary Lou said.
Words and numbers were ricocheting in Ri’s mind. She couldn’t process the fact that these girls had been here, in this dank, dark place for years. That couldn’t be right.
“How is this even possible?” she said. “How could you have been here for so long?”
Ri had been wrong. Knowledge was not power. Now, she knew, her mind was falling apart, unraveling as the chain around her ankle tightened.
“Look around you,” Jaclyn said. “That’s how years could go by.”
“The walls are thick,” Mary Lou said. “We can’t hear when they’re coming down the stairs. We can’t hear them unlocking the chains on the other side of the door. Nothing travels.” She shook her head. “I don’t know. I stopped trying to figure it out years ago. Years,” she repeated, blinking rapidly.
Ri could see it now, where her threads were showing. At first, she seemed kind, as normal as a girl could given the situation. But she was lost too. Broken. Parts of her mind. Sanity. It wasn’t there anymore.
“What door?” Ri demanded. A door meant escape no matter what they said. They’d been here for too long. They’d given up. Ri had more fight in her. She’d get back to that perfect summer day. To that perfect kiss. This would all be a nightmare.
Mary Lou pointed at the wall Patricia was curled in front of. “Do you see the separation in the concrete? It opens there.”
Ri squinted, her head pounding and gaze unfocused, but she did manage to make out a definite crack.
“And you haven’t tried to attack them when they open it, when they come in?” Orion asked, and it sounded almost judgmental, though she hadn’t meant it to. “Fight back or something?”
Jaclyn scoffed. “Stupid little girl.”
“There are cameras in every corner of the room,” Mary Lou explained. “Microphones too. The door is heavy. They can barely open it themselves. They’re heavily armed at all times. There is a lot to this. They’re not your average kid diddlers. They’re organized.”
Ri followed Mary Lou’s gaze to the corners of the ceiling. Red lights glowed in dark corners, and Ri could make out the shape of a small camera.
“Fighting back does nothing but make things worse.” Mary Lou’s eyes darted in Jaclyn’s direction.
Ri didn’t know it then, but she would discover later that Jaclyn fought back often in the beginning, when her will was still strong. It wasn’t a surprise, considering how feisty she was. But when Ri found out how she was punished, she would understand why someone like Jaclyn would stop fighting.
Orion sat in silence for a long while. She looked around the room and took it all in. She thought of the John Sanford and Patricia Cornwell novels her mother loved so much, and the true crime books she devoured like her Pall Malls. Ri ended up reading those same books, because she needed an escape, and she didn’t have the money or resources to choose who authored her escape. She’d read all about men like this, who treated people as objects and life as disposable.
She had learned to love those books, and she wasn’t quite sure why. She knew it was weird to be so interested in the horrific murders of another, but the books exhilarated her nonetheless. And it was the only thing she shared with her mother, their only commonality. She became addicted to reading about lives that were much worse than hers. No magic carpets, handsome princes, or mythical creatures. She had loved the reminder that things could always be worse. A perverse way of not letting her miserable existence seem so bad.
Until now. Now she was living that worst-case scenario. Now she had become the victim in those tragic stories she devoured and obsessed over. She had been plunged right inside one of those crime books because she’d kissed Maddox for too long, lingered in a dream for too long, ridden home late. She was the pawn, controlled by sick needs, and it was all her fault. It’s all she could tell herself.
Ri would later conclude—because she had nothing but time to think—that it made sense. She was cursed from birth by way of genetics and fate.
Some people were put on earth to be shat on. Divine comedy for those pulling the strings. Ri was one of those people. Maybe she deserved it. Maybe, in some past life, she’d sentenced herself to this. Maybe her parents carried it in their DNA, passing it over to her like cancer or mental illness. A Darby through and through. A life of depravity and despair.
“Do you have any good stories?” Mary Lou asked again, seeming to sense the storm raging inside Orion’s head. “We’re fresh out. I think I’ve told all mine at least three times over.”
“And they’re thrilling, lemme tell ya,” Jaclyn added, scoffing.
Ri’s eyes trailed to Jaclyn and she scrunched her brows. “Has she always been like that?” she asked, leaning toward Mary Lou and lowering her voice.
Mary Lou shrugged. “She’s grown worse, but she’s never been a people person.” Her eyes darkened. “Which I guess I understand—people can be pretty horrible.”
“And her?” Ri nodded toward Patricia.
Mary Lou’s lips turned down, her eyes softening. “She hasn’t adapted well. Not many of them do.” There was resignation, knowledge there.
“How many have there been?” Ri asked. The questions served nothing but her sick addiction. To dreary lives. Misery.
Mary Lou’s eyes went to the floor. Lines of distress wrinkled her forehead. “We shouldn’t talk about it,” she said, giving her head a slight shake. She forced a smile. “What’s your name?”
“Orion,” Ri responded, though her thoughts belonged to the girls who came before her, and whether they went quick or not. “But everyone calls me Ri.”
“Nice to meet you, Ri,” Mary Lou said, extending a petite hand.
Ri scooted closer, avoiding the crimson stain, and she shook Mary Lou’s hand gingerly before returning her hand quickly to her lap.
“Tell me something about you,” Mary Lou said. She was trying to distract her. Ri could see that.
“Are you telling me that this is my life now?” she asked, the words spilling out on their own. She couldn’t help the panic and confusion that set in often, hitting her in waves for much of her first year in The Cell. “I’m stuck here until the day they decide to kill me? Is that what you’re saying?”
Mary Lou put a hand on her shoulder, meant to comfort. Her other cupped her cheek. Ri bit her lip again. “We’ll find a way out,” she whispered softly. “It just takes time.”
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