The world came back as a mosaic of pressboard above her head. Bess lay on her back, vaguely aware that she shouldn’t try to move as she studied the pattern on the ceiling. For a moment, she felt like she was in a coffin. She let her gaze trace the nibbles of wood glued together until she found a wall just beyond her feet. She blinked, trying to focus on the seamed outline of a door. It was made from a smooth slab of wood, braced by heavy planks from top to bottom. The rounded cylinders of three hinges ran along one seam, but she couldn’t see a latch or doorknob.
Her gaze settled on her boots, still scuffed from her struggle on the road. She pawed at the streaks of dirt smeared along her dress. Pressing down next to her leg, she felt the rough texture of a gray wool blanket folded across the mattress she lay on. Working her hands back to her head, she found a stiff pillow propped under her neck.
Her body felt like a creaking pile of lumber as she rolled on her side to continue her inspection of what she decided to call a room. A dim lamp sat on top of a cheap nightstand, lighting the compartment with a thin yellow glow.
She adjusted her head on the pillow and stared at the lamp, the only thing at the moment that let her know she wasn’t alone.
Tendrils of pain sizzled along her neck when she jerked at the sound of a lock opening on the other side of the door. A hasp squealed and the door creaked open. Bess pulled back, grimacing in pain as she forced her body to sit up and lean against the wall behind her.
A man emerged through the door and stooped down to keep from hitting his head on the ceiling. His face was the color of dark caramel, smooth with a vague puffiness and a complexion that was almost oily from meticulous care.
His mouth sagged impassively as he stared at Bess with eyes embedded in his face like cool azure emeralds beneath thick neatly trimmed brows. As she tried to push further away from him, Bess saw a deliberate man who attended to every detail. She knew that whatever happened next had been thought over, planned and probably rehearsed to the point of ritual.
His words were encased in a measured tone, timed with the simple gesture of raising one hand to show his open palm. There was no doubt in her mind that he was in total control. Of everything.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
Bess stared back at him, straining to freeze every muscle in her face to keep even a single thought from showing itself. The man kept his eyes on her as two more men appeared in the doorway.
Neither of them was smooth or well-groomed like the first man. They moved with a tension that reminded her of guard dogs waiting for the command to tear into the flesh of an intruder as they descended the small wooden staircase leading from the door to the foot of her bed.
The first man stepped down to stand next to them and loomed over her from the foot of the bed.
“I realize you are probably scared,” he said.
Bess detected a trace of an accent that he worked hard to control. By the slight hook of his nose, she realized he was Mexican, even if he leaned towards the Spanish side of his ancestry.
Staring straight into her eyes, he said, “I’ve seen many states of mind on the faces of girls just like you.” He stepped to the side of the bed, inching closer to her. Bess pushed harder against the wall behind her, vainly trying to move away from him.
“Fear,” he said, taking another step closer as he studied her face for any sign of reaction. Bess swallowed and clenched her jaw, praying that her face was still a blank mask.
“Confusion,” he said. “Sometimes anger.” He placed his hands on either side of her and leaned close enough for her to feel his hot breath on her neck. “The ones that have the easiest time are those who give in to despair.” He narrowed his eyes. “But those are always the most useless to me.” He tilted his head and a ripple ran through his jaw. A hint of a smile made Bess’s blood run cold. “I’m glad to see you are not like that.”
He stood back up and pointed at the man standing closest to him. Moving with muscles tensed and ready to attack, the guard stepped to the nightstand and opened a drawer. Bess glanced over as he picked up a syringe with a plastic cap and a small vial.
Stepping back to give his minion room to work, the man in charge said, “In you, I see the rarest thing of all.” Bess stared at the needle and felt a quiver run along her chin she hoped they didn’t see.
The man’s smile disappeared. “In you,” he said, “I see defiance.”
The guard with the needle took a strip of ribbon out of the drawer and leaned towards Bess. He reached for her arm and she tried to pull away. His hand lunged out and clamped onto her arm like a vice. Bess stopped breathing as he glared at her with cold brown eyes, silently warning her not to move again. He slid the ribbon around her upper arm and tied it just tight enough for the veins in her forearm to swell.
The second guard slid to the foot of her bed and quietly leaned down to clamp Bess’s feet against the mattress. Her breathing came in quick shudders as she stared at the syringe. The guard removed the cap and poked the needle into the vial, slowly drawing its contents into the clear plastic tube behind the plunger.
“Your defiance,” the man in charge said, “smolders inside you like fire.” The guard’s hand looked like a well-tanned claw as he brought the tip of the needle to her forearm and slid it into her vein. “But underneath that fire is the passion that so many are looking for.”
Bess felt a burn crawl up her arm and then her breathing eased and her face went lax as her fear subsided to a dull sense of confusion.
“And I can wait for now,” the man in charge said.
The very fire that he spoke of sputtered and died as she felt the world floating away from her. The effect of the drug swept through her like a calming breeze. For a moment, she felt like she was back on the boat, tugging on the main line and working the tiller as wind-cooled water slipped up and bit her softly in the face. She couldn’t control her expression anymore as her face softened and a smile edged onto her face.
“But you must be careful not to make me wait too long, my Teresita.”
His voice seemed to fade down a tunnel as she fell into a deep pool of sickening ecstasy. She wanted to claw at the man, but the vile bliss imposed by the drug smothered her over and her arms felt as if they were encased in lard when she tried to move them.
“You will get used to this,” the man in charge said. “You will get used to many things.”
Bess woke up with her head feeling like a balloon filled with sand. She squeezed her eyes as tight as she could and pressed her lips into a thin white line as she forced her head up a few inches. Bolts of pain wracked her body when she scooted back just an inch or two. She let her head fall against the back wall with a grunt. Her eyelids fluttered as light pierced through them like needles. She blinked away the tears welling up from the pain and pulled her eyes open, forcing them to look at the door at the top of the wooden steps just beyond the foot of her bed.
Slowly, the seams of the door came into view and she could see thin shafts of light pouring through them, slashing through the dust floating in the room. Her eyes burned and she blinked away more water. When she opened them again, the sting began to subside and she could make out the pattern of the door and its hinges.
While her eyesight continued to improve, she next turned her attention to her hands. Her arms felt like lead. She strained to lift up one arm and her hand began to shake. At first, it was a faint quiver but quickly turned into a violent gyration as she lost control of her muscles. She let her hand drop next to her leg and watched it wriggle like a fish flopping on a wharf.
She blew her breath out between pursed lips and drew in a deep draft of air through her nose. At least she was able to breathe normally. She shifted her gaze to her right hand and lifted it up, straining against the same dead weight. When her hand started to convulse, she curled her fingers into a fist and then stretched them out. Her hand started to gyrate out of control and she clenched it back into a fist, glaring at it as she struggled to force it into submission. The hand settled into a gentle swirling motion and she whispered, “That’s it. Settle down.”
She picked her other hand back up and formed it into a fist, forcing it to submit to her will. “I’m alright. I’m alright. I’m alright.”
Exhausted from the effort, she let both hands collapse back on the bed and started to flex her toes. She cringed as a twinge of pins and needles shot up both legs and swam through her nerves. Unless whoever was doing this to her was conducting some kind of medical experiment, she couldn’t imagine why they would want to keep her in a near state of paralysis. Looking around at her surroundings, anything medical seemed absurd.
She took several deep breaths, preparing herself for her next task. She sucked in as much air as she could and then strained every muscle in her body as she sat up. Blades of pain sliced through her midsection and she let out a squeal as she forced her body to pull itself up. Her abdominal muscles quivered with an aching numbness afterwards, but she was actually sitting up in bed. Breathing hard, she said, “One step at a time.”
Thinking of what to try next, she noticed her attire had changed. Her feet were now bare and a faded flower print imbued a flimsy nightgown that was just long enough to cover her knees. It was hooked over her shoulders with thin synthetic straps and there were no sleeves. Even in the dim light of her room, she could see her own body through the translucent material of her nightgown. Every other piece of clothing she had been wearing was gone. Her mind started to wander into the possibilities of what that meant and she shook her head, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand.
She picked up both hands and swung them towards her leg. Her hands still swayed, barely under her control, but she slowly urged them to rest next to her leg as the pins and needles subsided to a dull tingle. She flexed her fingers, but couldn’t get them to wrap around her leg. Instead, she laid the back of one hand against her leg and nudged it towards the edge of the bed. She could only move it a few inches at a time, so it took several rounds of nudging until her foot came off the bed and fell to the floor with a thump.
She sucked in a sharp breath as more pins and needles flooded her leg from the tip of her toes all the way to the small of her back. By now, she was able to hook her other hand like a numb claw around her other leg and scoot it out slowly until both feet were on the ground. She pressed her feet against the floor and a torrent of prickling pain overwhelmed her, consuming her entire lower body. She hung her head and closed her eyes, taking slow measured breaths until the pain subsided and she was able to feel the backs of her legs against the bed.
“Okay. Okay. Okay.” She let out another long breath. “Good.”
There was no clock in the room so Bess didn’t know how long she sat there. She massaged her legs, flexed her hands, stretched her neck and twisted her body from side to side trying to bring it all back to life. Questions ebbed and flowed in her mind, until only one remained.
How do I get out of here?
She felt her eyes glaze over and then fell back on the bed, too tired to sit up any longer. The question came at her over and over like a pendulum swinging a blade in front of her as she stared at the door.
When she heard footsteps approaching from outside, she imagined herself reaching for the lamp on the nightstand, determined to fight back this time. She coerced her body to sit back up, biting back the pain that tried to convince her to give up. Sweat broke out on her forehead and she started panting as she prepared for the colossal effort of just standing up.
Her legs fought back, this time with aching fists of cramps and spasms. She flexed her feet as far up as they would bend, gasping in pain as her cramping muscles refused to release her from their grip. She hobbled stiffly, barely able to bend her knees because of the burning knots in her calves, and managed to turn her body towards the door.
After that, all she could do was feel the spasms snaking through her muscles, her breath clawing at the air in ragged gasps and her heart racing at the thought of somebody opening the door.
The door creaked open. Bess’s eyes fluttered as she put up her hand to shield them from the light blooming through the door like fire and into her eyes, blinding her to whoever was now standing at the top of the wooden steps.
Rivers of pain shot through her legs as she stumbled back, squeezing between the bed and nightstand to press her back against the wall. They were up there, waiting for – what? They were going to storm down those stairs and crush her against the wall. They would brandish the needle, a drip of its venom glistening in the light just before they slid it into her vein. The fury of that venom would race up her arm, through her body and infest her mind with its numbing rage. It would suck away her soul, leach the marrow of its bones and spit her out on the shores of a ravaging sea that would wash up over her until she yearned for the drowning that would end her agony. But it would never drown her. There she would lie as endless waves cascaded over her limp body. She would sputter in choking coughs between them, forever dead while breathing. Then she would awaken and the cold shroud of endless waves would roll back as knives of pain slashed at her from inside, punishing her for daring to just be alive.
Her hand felt like a block of concrete and her arm quivered from the exertion of lifting it up. The strength in her arm bled away to numbing weakness and she gripped her wrist with her other hand, straining to prop it up. She sucked hard breaths through clenched teeth and poured the last of her will into holding her hand up because it was the only thing left to keep them from turning her into the broken shadow of somebody she had once been and would never find again.
“Please,” she said. “No more.” Her voice cracked, and then gushed out of her in a simpering wail. “Whatever you want. Please just don’t.” Her hand shook and then fell limp as the last of her strength bled away. The only thing left to protect her from the assassins of her fate was the light burning in her eyes that hid them from her.
“Give it a minute,” she heard a girl’s voice say.
It was quiet, gentle – almost timid.
Bess’s eyelids fluttered as she strained to catch a glimpse of the girl, still shrouded in the light that burned into her eyes. Then she saw it – the same floral print that adorned her own nightgown.
The girl stepped into the room and closed the door. Bess slumped to the floor and let her hands drop like two ingots of lead.
Bess studied the girl standing in the cool ambient light that now seeped through the closed door. She blinked away the water in her eyes and stretched them open.
The girl had long stringy blonde hair and dark circles under pale green eyes. Her face was haggard and flushed, the mask of a girl beaten down and devoid of any will of her own. In her, Bess recognized the effects of her own ordeal. Bess scowled at the girl, resenting the thought that she might have the same look of resigned futility on her own face. Bess took a deep breath as she realized something even more important. The girl was alive. If she could survive, Bess could survive. But how much of her would be left?
Bess surrendered to a shuddering sob as her visions of another round of drug-soaked darkness and men with emerald blue eyes flowed out of her mind in a gushing spasm of relief. She breathed, relishing just the sound of air passing in and out of her own lungs.
After taking a few more breaths to wash away the remnants of her panic, Bess asked, “Who are you?”
“Can you stand up?” the girl asked.
Bess blinked at her, stunned by the girl’s demand for something so mundane and yet, at that moment, quite impossible. Her legs were tingling stumps folded beneath her and she couldn’t feel the floor beneath her feet. Her hands lay dead on the floor next to them.
“I don’t think so,” Bess said.
“Try,” the girl said. She stepped towards Bess and leaned down just enough to dangle her limp hand in front of Bess’s face. “Come on,” she said.
Bess squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her jaw as she lifted her aching hand. Her fingers felt like bands of spring steel as she tried to curl them over the girl’s hand.
The girl tightened her grip and Bess winced at the shards of pain racing up her arm.
“I know,” the girl said. “It hurts. But you have to stand up.”
“Why?” Bess asked.
Bess yelped in pain as the girl jerked hard, stretched her arm out to its full length and then pulled her away from the wall. Her feet felt like they were pushing through mud as she stumbled forward to keep her face from slamming into the floor.
“Good,” the girl said. “Now the other one.” Bess watched the girl’s eyes as she dragged her other foot forward until she was standing hunched over like an old woman. The girl’s face creased with a hint of pity that Bess could tell she was trying to hide from her.
Breathing hard from the strain of standing up, Bess asked, “Now what?”
The girl leaned in and stared into Bess’s eyes. “Listen to me,” she said.
Bess nodded slowly as the blood started to flow through her legs and the needles of pain dimmed to a numbing tingle.
“Are you listening?” the girl asked.
“Yes. Just… what’s happening to me?”
The girl’s lips thinned as her mouth stretched into a tight line. “No. That’s not listening. That’s asking questions.”
Bess’s legs quivered as her muscles again cramped into a knot of pain. “OK,” she said between sharp gasps. “I’m listening.”
The girl tugged on her arm. Bess sucked in a sharp breath when her cramped muscles protested with another stab of pain as she slid her foot forward.
“Rule number one,” the girl said. Her eyes were so cold and blank. Bess shuddered at the idea that somebody could reduce her to something less than human. “Never say your real name. To anyone. Ever.” She arched her brow. Yes, I heard you, Bess thought.
The girl tugged on Bess’s arm, inducing another flutter of pain in her shoulder. “What’s the rule?” she asked.
Bess felt the ember insider her flicker to life. “Never say my name. You don’t have to -“
The girl tugged again, harder. “No. Listen.”
Bess sucked in a breath through her teeth as she stumbled forward, nearly knocking the girl over as she fell against her. The girl grabbed Bess’s shoulders, letting Bess lean against her for a moment before pushing Bess back on her feet. Bess swayed, but was able to stand on her own as the girl slid her hands off her shoulders.
The girl turned and walked up the stairs. Bess’s legs were still heavy, but the pain now flowed as rivulets of aching that were at least bearable as she picked up her foot and clomped it back down.
The girl stopped at the top of the stairs and looked over her shoulder. A hint of a smile peeked out from the corner of her mouth. “Like I said, give it a minute.”
Bess looked at her feet and imagined the ordeal of clomping them towards the stairs. They were only a few feet away, but her quivering legs wouldn’t last even two more steps. She slid one foot forward and shifted her weight over it. She let out another breath, relieved at how much easier it was to simply slide her foot. She slid the other one forward and propelled herself to the stairs in a skittering shuffle of short slides until her toe bumped into the first step.
“Shield your eyes,” the girl said. Bess held a wobbly hand over her brow like a visor and squinted as the girl pushed the door open.
The light from outside washed over the room and Bess blinked at its brightness, but the stabbing fire from before was now just a faint sting.
The girl reached down for Bess to take her hand. “Come on,” she said.
Bess started to lift her hand, which now seemed to be more like a heavy sack of flour than an ingot of lead, but stopped short when she saw the hulking silhouette of a guard as he stepped in front of the door. Bess cowered and started to slide her foot back.
The guard stepped to the side and the girl said, “It’s Okay. Just take my hand.”
The sunlight caressed Bess’s skin, bathing it in a soothing warmth. The outside beckoned to her now. Yes, it was where the harbingers of her torture came from, but the girl had also come from there. And now she was going back. She was a ghostly thing, not entirely herself, but she was alive. Being outside was something Bess could survive. Outside offered possibilities that her room did not. It was a bridge to somewhere else. Outside led to places like home.
Bess picked up her foot. It felt like somebody had tied it to the floor with a large rubber band, but she mustered enough strength to pull her foot up and let it smack onto the wooden step – her first step to the outside.
She latched onto the girl’s hand as she pulled Bess up with surprising strength for such a diminutive and ghostly figure. Bess yanked her other foot up and felt a shameful blush of elation at the simple act of walking up a few steps just so she could stand outside.
The girl tugged one last time and Bess heaved herself out through the door to feel the grating tack of cold cement under her feet.
Her eyes fluttered as they adjusted to the light and then she was able to squint against its brightness as her surroundings coalesced into familiar shapes. Her heart sagged as they formed into patterns of concrete, doors, walls and gates. Outside, it seemed, was just more of being inside a place run by people who didn’t want her to leave. Her world was now measured in feet and her fate lay beyond the ravaged shores of her drug-induced nightmare. She knew she would survive, just as the girl looking back at her had. But now she wondered – would she want to?
“Hey,” the girl said.
Bess squinted at her, remembering the rule. No questions.
“Stop thinking about it. Listen. Learn the rules.” She pulled Bess closer, staring into her eyes again. “And here’s the next one,” she said. “No matter how bad things are, they can get worse.”