Karen Raylor decides it’s worth the risk.
She turns onto her stomach.
Compresses her abs and rises to her knees.
There’s a clear shot to the front passenger seat. Her bound arms are useless, but she feels confident she can make it even with only her left foot for propulsion.
A police officer is surveying the traffic. He’s turning in her direction.
Mercer flicks his gaze to her. His eyes go wide.
She makes eye contact with him as she launches forward, ducking her head. Bangs it against the ceiling anyway, causing her hat to come off.
Karen clears the open space and lands on the seat. Lifts her head. She should be in the officer’s field of vision. Surely he’ll notice her any moment. She screams against the wet rubber ball.
As she does, Mercer grabs both of her calves. Yanks backward. Her knees bang against the hard plastic of the stick shift’s housing.
He puts a hand on her neck. Shoves roughly down and forward. The officer and lights disappear.
The thin carpet covering the floorboards mashes into her forehead. It smells of dirt and oil and the residual road salt of a dozen winters. Tiny, sharp pebbles dig into her skin. The heater blasts down into her scalp, making it itch almost immediately.
Mercer rests his right hand on her calves, preventing her from kicking up into the air. Squirming her torso doesn’t help at all.
Still, Karen has hope. Did the officer see her? Surely. He had to.
Mercer says nothing, only maintains his firm hold on her legs.
The car starts creeping forward again. Stops. Starts. Keeps going. Picks up speed.
Dismay and regret wash through Karen.
“Well Karen, that sure was some Grade A Bullshit.” His voice is cold. “Guess I’m going to have to give you zero freedom. I’d like to crack a rib too so you don’t forget, but I don’t trust myself not to hit you too hard and cause serious damage.”
“Got a long trip ahead. Probably feel really long for you, with your head stuck down there. Not that I feel bad for you. You deserve every second.”
“Speakers are down near the floor. I’d say I hope this music isn’t too loud, but at this point I don’t give a fuck.”
Hard rock blasts into Karen’s right ear. She wants to turn the back of her head toward the speaker but knows that the position would eventually hurt her neck, so she does her best to breathe and meditate and ignore the blaring music. The downpour of heat. The detritus pushing into her forehead. The rest of the physical world.
It helps. Maybe twenty percent.
The only good thing about her discomfort is that it keeps her mind away from what Mercer has in store for her.
When they turn off from smooth pavement onto a hilly road that feels like a trail of dirt, Karen has no idea how long ago they left Riverside. Two hours? Three? The interior of the car is still fully dark, so it couldn’t have been much more, although she has no idea what time it was when they left her house.
Mercer parks and cuts the engine. The momentary silence is absolute.
“Hold on, babe,” Mercer says. His sudden voice startles her. Its quality is affectionate and eager.
He opens his door, gets out, shuts it. Karen counts three heartbeats before there’s a POP near the back of the car. The trunk. She hears the muffled sounds of rummaging. The THOOMP of him closing it.
A few more heartbeats. Mercer opens the door on her side. Pulls her out and turns her over. Lifts her into his arms. Kicks the door shut.
Karen gazes around. Nothing. Her eyes strain against the pure ebony.
No… there is something. Some faint illumination highlights the edges of densely packed vertical columns. Trees.
Peering upward, she sees the endless ocean of stars. Its unobtainable pinpoints of light are mostly obscured by what she assumes is the withering canopy of the autumn forest.
Karen wonders if they’re in a valley, for no wind stirs the trees. She also hears no animals scurrying or chittering. It’s as though a terrible behemoth towers overhead and nature herself is cowering in its presence.
He was right, she thinks. Nobody will find us out here.
Mercer strides forward. He treads on a few leaves, their dry carcasses rustling and breaking. Otherwise, Karen only hears his boots padding on soft dirt, now and then scraping stones against each other.
He steps highly. One boot thumps against hollow wood, then the other. Karen can see a support column at the edge of a porch.
“You’ll have to stand here a minute,” he says, setting her onto her left foot and leaning her against what must be a wall.
Karen can barely make out Mercer’s figure as he reaches into his pocket. There’s a metallic jangle of keys. She hears him scrape one of them against the surface of what’s likely a deadbolt. She remembers how Brad used to get self-conscious when he had to search out a keyhole in the darkness; she had never asked her husband about it, merely assumed it was a quirk of guys, the need to appear that they always knew right where to stick things. But, now she’s lending that curiosity to Mercer, and thinking of him in even a remotely sexual way makes her want to throw up. Karen banishes the thought, her stomach threatening to splash the back of her throat with bile.
The door opens.
“Stay here a minute,” he says, vanishing into deeper darkness.
Karen considers running, but knows she wouldn’t make it far with her injury. Besides, there’s nowhere to go.
Blessed light spills from the doorway. Surprisingly, it seems to come from normal light fixtures, not a lantern. She briefly wonders how he has power in such a remote place.
“Come on in,” he says.
The act of voluntarily entering his hideaway is worse than anything Karen has experienced since the moment she first saw him standing in her bedroom.
The main area is a combination of living room, kitchen, dining room, and bedroom. The windows on each wall are heavily curtained, probably light-blocking. A wood stove squats dead-center, its chimney pipe disappearing into the ceiling. An aged water heater buddies up against the wall that has the only other door, which Karen assumes leads to a bathroom. She’s not sure if she would rather have to bathe with Mercer in the same building or just go au naturale for the duration of her imprisonment.
Mercer has set down several large duffle bags, likely from the trunk of his car. Karen sees her winter hat on top of one.
“You mind closing the door?” Mercer says, tone congenial.
Karen complies, hobbling, pushing it with her left shoulder. When the latch catches, it takes all her efforts of relaxation and self-control not to start crying.
“Here, have a seat.” He gestures toward a plush chair that’s maybe ten feet from the stove. Karen hops over and slowly sits. Thankfully, the chair has enough cushion that her bound arms aren’t squeezed uncomfortably.
“Isn’t that nice?” he asks, smiling at her as though they’re on a romantic getaway. “I’ll get a fire going, and then I’ll take off that gag.”
Mercer opens the door and heads across the porch. He returns with an armload of chopped drywood. Sets the wood near the stove. Heads out again, grabbing a flashlight on the way. Is gone longer.
Karen tries to focus on happy things, like memories of Nana. Brad. Mr. Totsley. Karen squeezes her eyes shut at the thought of her furry companion. He’ll be okay, she tells herself. When Paul wakes up, he’ll tell the police about my abduction. They’ll come to investigate. They’ll find someone to take care of Tots until I get back. Karen considers. Paul will tell the police, right? He has to. He has to. She’s not convinced.
On one hand, Paul should realize when he wakes up that Karen and Mercer being gone can only mean he took her. On the other hand, Paul might only be thinking about himself and might want to hide his actions from Jamie. He might have just woken up, gone back home, somehow getting a ride even without his phone. Shit, his phone, Karen thinks. Her mind surges with hope as she remembers Mercer turning off Paul’s phone and putting it in his coat. She desperately hopes that he forgot about it, that she can turn it back on when the time is right, even if she has to wait a week.
This time, Mercer comes back with a canvas tote. He shuts the door and sets the tote on the floor near the stove. It contains sticks and leaves. He takes a moment to return to the door, engaging the deadbolt. Opens the stove, setting all the leaves inside. Breaks the sticks and adds them. Heads to the kitchen area, opening a drawer. Retrieves a long lighter with a trigger. Lights the leaves and watches. Blows in several times. After a few minutes, he adds the first piece of wood and closes the stove’s door.
“There. This place will be nice and toasty in no time.”
Mercer stands and walks to Karen. Squats in front of her, gazing up into her eyes.
“I can’t even tell you how happy I am that we’re here together.” His face darkens. “Sure, you spoiled it a bit by trying to get the attention of that fucking pig, but you’re sorry, right? Learned your lesson?”
“Yeah, I thought so. Good girl.” Mercer reaches out and caresses Karen’s hair. She prevents herself from recoiling.
“Okay. Time to take off that gag. Now listen, nobody will hear you out here if you scream. We’re a hell of a long way from any-damn-one. So do the right thing, keep being a good girl, and I won’t have to put it back on. Deal?”
Karen nods again, trying to appear eager to please him.
Mercer smiles and stands. He’s leaning right over her, and the thought of kicking him in the balls is very tempting. Bide your time, Karen, she thinks to herself. Wait for the big opening. He undoes the latches and pulls the gear up and off. As the rubber ball slips out of her mouth, Karen’s jaw pops. She works it side to side, then compresses her lips and swallows.
“Bet it’s nice to get that off,” Mercer says. “You want some water?”
“Yeah,” Karen replies.
Mercer pauses. Doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. Karen looks up at his cold expression.
“Yes, please,” he firmly corrects.
“Yes, please,” she complies.
He smiles. “Good girl.”
Mercer gets a plastic cup from a cupboard. Fills it from the faucet. Karen immediately questions the source and quality of the water. Mercer opens another cupboard and retrieves a straw. Inserts it and brings the cup to Karen.
It tastes amazingly good, and Karen doesn’t think it’s only because she was parched. She wonders if there’s a stream or a spring nearby. Well, not too nearby, or I would have heard it.
“I’d like to untie your arms, but I’m not sure you’re ready for that liberty yet. I’m already being soft with you, taking off that gag after I said I would give you zero freedom. So, I think I’ll wait until tomorrow to see how I feel about it.”
“I have to pee,” Karen says without hesitation.
Mercer grimaces. Then, he smiles with only a hint of inkiness.
“Well, I can help you go. No problem.”
Karen thinks about arguing. Decides on a different approach.
She lowers her head. “Well… guys seeing me pee is a major turn-off.” She looks at him again. “I agree not to scream and not to run. Can you untie me just so I can use the bathroom? You could tie my arms back up when I’m done.”
Mercer stares at her, not speaking, barely blinking. Karen concentrates on making her gaze open and calm.
“Yeah. Okay. Just a minute.”
Karen watches Mercer open the bathroom door. He rummages inside for a moment before emerging with a plastic grocery bag full of items she can’t make out. He puts the bag under the kitchen sink.
Then, he’s in front of her.
When she does, he removes her coat. Undoes the knots on the silk rope. Lover’s rope, her mind throws out perversely. Karen slowly brings her arms in front of her, stretching and rubbing them, the aching a good kind of pain.
Mercer grabs her shoulders and stares at her with mountainous authority.
“Be a good girl, or I really will crack a rib.” He turns her toward the bathroom, not waiting for a response.
As Karen shuts the lockless door, the illusion of freedom is like the unburdening of half a day at the spa. She quickly takes stock of the small room: toilet, shower stall with curtain and ceiling vent, vanity with sink, towel on a ring, mirror, trash can, ceiling light, light switch. No window. The only items she sees are toilet paper and a bar of soap near the sink. She reaches for the shower curtain to see if it hides anything besides soap.
“Karen, I don’t hear any pee! Get to it!” Mercer’s voice seems right next to her, and she jumps. She hadn’t realized how easily sound would travel through the thin wall.
Karen lifts the toilet lid, pulls down her pajama pants, hefts up the bottom half of her robe and gathers it near her belly, and sits. Gasps slightly as the arctic seat numbs her flesh. Enjoys the relief of emptying her bladder, which takes longer than average.
As she waits, her mind fires off idea after idea of how she might gain leverage over Mercer. She discards them as unrealistic or dangerous until one in particular raises her eyebrows in consideration. It’s risky, as Mercer might call her bluff and be livid when he finds out she’s lying — especially after she tried to get that officer’s attention at the accident — but it’s the only option that seems like it might work.
Chapter 16 Choice: Should Karen pretend that she started menstruating?
- Yes (56%)
- No (44%)
This poll closed on February 5th, 2018.