Karen Raylor isn’t crazy about the idea, but she determines that pretending to have started menstruating just might keep Mercer at a distance.
“Um… Mercer?” she projects with an edge of concern, knowing he’ll hear through the wall.
“Yeah? You all right?”
“Well… I started my period.”
“Oh.” Disappointment is stark in his voice, but Karen doesn’t perceive any anger. “Okay. I prepared for that.”
She hears him unzip one of the large duffle bags and withdraw a plastic grocery bag. He pauses outside the bathroom door.
“Ready?” he asks.
“Yeah, go ahead.”
Mercer opens the unlocked door just far enough to slip the bag in. Karen is grateful that the door opens away from her so that he doesn’t get a glimpse of her on the toilet, even covered as she is. He shoves the Great Oak bag in her direction, its tied handles keeping it closed, and shuts the door.
“You’ll need to bring that whole bag back out with you,” he instructs as Karen starts to look through its contents. “When you use the bathroom in the future and you need to uh, change, use one of the folded bags and tie it up tight. Until your, um… cycle is done, use that air freshener too after you wash your hands. Got it?”
“Yup. Thanks for being so gracious, Mercer.” Karen hopes that her show of gratitude has slightly improved their relationship.
He doesn’t respond. She hears him cross the room and sit on what she thinks is the couch.
As Mercer indicated, the bag contains more bags. The air freshener is a concentrated aerosol spray with fall packaging called Harvest Twilight. The bag also holds a neat stack of extra underwear — just Karen’s size, she notices with a grimace — and a loose jumble of tampons. She prefers pads and hopes that she’ll escape back to civilization before her actual period starts, which should be in about two weeks.
Karen unpackages a tampon and pushes out the cotton into her underwear instead of inserting it. She places the empty applicator in the bag with the rest of the items, figuring she can move it to an empty bag when she needs to discard her “used” tampon. Still not sure how I’m going to get blood on there, she thinks. She sets the bag to the side, wipes and flushes, and hops the few steps to the sink.
Gazing at herself in the mirror, Karen feels the crushing weight of the exhaustion she didn’t realize she was holding at bay. Her eyes half-close of their own accord. Her mouth gapes. She draws in a rapid breath that immediately forces its way back out.
Looks down and focuses on washing her hands. Drops the bar of soap into the sink twice. Is vaguely aware of how quickly the water heats up and how nice it feels.
Reaches for the doorknob. Barely remembers the air freshener, a jolt of adrenaline renewing her alertness. Uncaps Harvest Twilight and compresses the nozzle, sending a narrow cone of fine mist toward the ceiling above the toilet. Replaces the cap and puts the can back in the bag. The concentrated fragrance spreads quickly in the small room: ginger, sandalwood, apple. Maybe a hint of caramel. She grabs the bag, leaves the bathroom, closes the door.
Karen sets the bag off to the side. Stares at Mercer, the surge of adrenaline gone, its effects avalanched by her fatigue.
“I cannot keep my eyes open,” she monotones. “Where am I sleeping?”
Mercer points to the one bed. It’s against the wall at a distance from the wood stove that makes her think she’ll still be plenty warm, plus it has several thick blankets on it. Karen spots handcuffs covered in plush fabric; one cuff tightly grasps the bed’s metal frame, the other rest on the floor at the end of a snaking, extra-long chain.
“What about my arms?” she asks, raising them slightly, her mind managing to play the cooperation angle even as it shuts down for sleep.
“It’s fine,” Mercer replies. “With that cuff on, you won’t be able to reach anything that could get you in trouble.”
“Okay,” she mumbles, shuffle-hopping toward the twin-sized bed.
Mercer helps her cover up. When she’s snuggled in, he commands her to give him her right hand. Karen extends it past the blankets. He closes the soft cuff around it, and the chain has enough play that she can pull her hand back near her body. The thick cuff is somewhat uncomfortable despite the fabric, but Karen’s consciousness is quickly slipping.
The overhead lights wink out. The last thing Karen registers through her closed lids is the dancing light of the small fire.
* * *
When Karen awakens, lush illumination suffuses the cabin. Each window is hidden by a stout curtain with a rectangular halo of moderate sunlight. The wood stove still proudly blazes its tiny inferno. Mercer is nowhere in sight, and the bathroom door is open.
Karen’s mind jumps to life.
She throws off the blankets and eases onto her left leg. The downrush of blood to her right foot makes it throb, but she ignores the insistent pain. Hops as far from the bed as she can, bending over when the handcuff chain pulls taught, reaching with her left hand to touch something, anything.
The bed is too far from the rest of the furniture. No loose items are within ten feet.
Karen hobbles toward the foot of the bed, then the head. The cuff secured to the bed can only slide along one quarter of the frame’s length, so Karen isn’t able to explore much more real estate. She knows it’s futile; Mercer has placed everything else far enough from the bed that nothing is within reach. Still, her mind demands that she tries.
Switching tactics, Karen inspects the frame, intending to grab the bed and pull it if necessary. But, the frame’s feet are pierced by bolt heads — it wouldn’t move for her even if her body were in perfect health.
The window. Karen climbs onto the mattress, moving with her knees, and pushes aside the curtain. Squints her eyes as they adjust to the increased light.
Forest. From this angle, all she can see are endless trees. An unremarkable ground of dirt, foliage, and scattered leaves. The overhead canopy of fall colors, which holds no joy for her. Sunlight weaving down through the canopy in a million tiny, diffuse beams. A chipmunk skitters past, pausing erratically in its search for food before getting spooked by something and dashing away, tail skyward. Then, the forest again grows still, even the canopy barely shifting in whatever timid wind that plays above.
Karen has to force her attention away from the tantalizing vision. She lets the curtain fall and looks around the room, her gaze as unpredictable as the movements of the chipmunk.
Under the bed! her mind offers. She eases down off the bed to her knees and looks.
It’s empty. Of course.
Karen leans against the mattress and slumps her shoulders. It’s okay, she tells herself. I’ll find an opportunity. I just have to be vigilant.
Growing chilly on the floor, Karen climbs back into bed and snuggles under the blankets. She goes for a mental run, imagining the ingrained scenery of her favorite route. As she does, she moves one hip toward her abdomen, then the other, flexing her biceps in the same gentle, alternating pattern.
She refuses to let fear or despair creep into her thoughts. When they try, she transforms them into grotesque statues and runs on past.
Maybe a half hour later, she hears the faint rumble of an engine. What might be a door closing. The rustling of leaves. Boots treading lightly up the steps and across the porch.
Karen closes her eyes almost entirely. Relinquishes conscious control of her breathing, letting it softly rush through her nostrils with natural pauses between each inhalation and exhalation.
Keys jingle. One slides into the lock. It turns. The door opens, hinges quietly creaking.
A figure enters. Karen assumes it’s Mercer, but doesn’t want to risk looking just yet.
The door closes. The deadbolt secures it. The figure walks toward the kitchen side of the room. Karen peeks — it’s him. He’s holding two plastic grocery bags. He sets them down carefully next to the fridge. Glances back at her. She shuts her eyes just in time. She hopes.
The crinkling rustle of thin plastic lets her know that he’s rummaging in the bags. She hears the muffled tear of the refrigerator door’s seal as it opens. Takes another peek.
Karen can’t tell what Mercer is putting in the fridge, but her easy guess is food. Her stomach grumbles. She flashes her eyelids back together, unsure if it was loud enough for him to hear at a distance of some forty feet.
Mercer finishes unloading the bags. Quietly closes the fridge. Takes long, slow strides across the room. Their quality changes; Karen is unsure why but keeps her eyes shut.
She hears the bathroom door close. The barest tink of a belt buckle. She waits, but doesn’t hear anything else. Then, she realizes there is a barely perceptible murmur of one liquid flowing into another. He sat to pee, she thinks. I doubt he normally does that, I remember him enjoying making a loud, fast splash as though it were some manly thing. He must be trying his hardest not to wake me.
Karen feels a surge of appreciation, then severs the emotion as though it were a poisonous snake. Don’t focus on the nice things he does, she admonishes herself. You be nice, get on his good side, but don’t let him do the same to you. You MUST keep your guard up.
Mercer washes his hands, but doesn’t flush. Comes out of the bathroom. Crosses the floor. Puts a piece of wood in the stove, exercising such care that it takes him almost a full minute.
Despite enjoying the power she’s having over Mercer, Karen is growing quite hungry. She decides to end the charade. Opens her eyes. Stretches, the mattress squeaking. Yawns as Mercer turns, his gaze an amusing visage of concern.
“Shit, did I wake you?”
“It’s fine,” Karen replies, realizing she can cause Mercer to feel as though he owes her. “I think I was almost up anyway.”
“Okay. Still, sorry.”
Karen doesn’t say anything else, just smiles once before looking away.
“Sleep all right?” he asks, moving toward her. His apologetic tone has evaporated.
“Yeah, not too bad.”
“Give me your hand,” he demands. Karen complies as he reaches into a pocket of his jeans and produces the small key to the cuffs. He unlatches the one on her wrist and slides it under the bed frame.
“Hungry?” he asks.
“Yeah, starving,” Karen replies with a slight smile.
“Okay, I’ll make some breakfast. You’ll eat whatever I give you and not complain. Understand?”
“Yes. Thanks, Mercer.”
“Go ahead and use the bathroom,” he commands. “I’ll get the bag.”
Karen hops to the open door and waits. He hands her the bag from under the kitchen sink.
Door shut, squatting on the cold seat, relieving her bladder, Karen realizes that the time has come for her to figure out how to get blood on the tampons she’s supposedly used. She knows she can’t cut herself anywhere that he might notice. She also can’t cut herself so deeply that she won’t be able to stop the bleeding with a bit of toilet paper. Her robe is thick, but it’s also lavender, and if he saw blood anywhere odd, he’d probably get very suspicious and demand to inspect the injury. She’ll also need to be able to reopen the wound or make a similar one nearby.
Mercer has surely given her nothing with which she could cut herself, so that only leaves her teeth and her nails. Neither option is pleasant or sanitary, but she’ll do whatever she has to in order maintain the facade. She gives preference to her teeth — at least those are only her germs, not whatever microscopic filth might be trapped under her nails — but she can only reach a few places on herself with her teeth.
Chapter 17 Choice: Where should Karen cut herself to produce a few drops of blood?
- Bellybutton: Use her nails. (0%)
- Bicep: Use her teeth on the inside of her arm. (11%)
- Thigh: Use her nails on her inner thigh. (0%)
- Tongue: Bite her tongue. Drip blood on to her hand. (33%)
- Nowhere: Take the chance that Mercer won't search for blood. (56%)
This poll closed on February 12th, 2018.