blinked blearily at the sliver of sunshine coming through the window where it
wasn’t boarded up. The sun was setting. Another day gone.
at the wall where he’d just finished scratching a line into the cinderblock
with his fingernail, briefly glancing up the wall at all the similar hash
months. It had been over three months since he’d woken up in this very
room—covered in his own blood, with a headache so bad he’d been convinced he
was gonna die. He had no idea where he was. A tiny office in a really old
building, he thought. Cream-colored painted cinderblock walls. It had an
institutional feel. Maybe a hospital?
There was a
thick wooden door with a tiny rectangular plexiglass window, but all it showed
was the end of a dark alcove, so no clues there. Through the tiny bit he could
see through the outdoor window, he could only see the plumbing of another
first woken up, part of him had wanted to just give up and die. Because no
matter how many times he shouted questions at the guards who occasionally
delivered food and water, no one would tell him anything about his sister
bastards killed her right there by the spring where they’d knocked him out? Or
did she manage to run away after all?
In the end,
he’d fought for consciousness and clung to life as hard as he could. Because
what if she was here? What if these motherfuckers had her too? What if they
He cut that
line of thought off just like he did every time it sprang up. He’d go fucking
insane if he let himself go there.
sounded in the hallway and he scrambled to his feet. Well, as much as he could
with the handcuffs and connected ankle fetters. He shuffled hunchbacked toward
the door and the small plexiglass window.
And saw her.
she was a mirage the first time she came and pushed his tray of moldy bread and
sour mush through the skinny two-inch rectangular hole that had been sawed in
tiny with long dark hair, wearing a faded white dress. Like some sort of
she got closer and he saw that no, she was a flesh and bone woman. Because
surely an angel wouldn’t be walking with a limp and have a black eye and a
to approach with the tray until he backed up to the opposite wall. Then she
slid it through and ran away as fast as she could.
couldn’t even be mad that the tasteless bowl of mush spilled all over the
floor. If he were her, he wouldn’t voluntarily get within three feet of a man
spent the last eight years hiding Audrey away from the world for nothing. Which
was when it hit him—Audrey. If Audrey
was here, this woman might know her.
It was all
he could think about. So the next time the woman came, he ran for the door and
started firing questions. “Do you know a girl named Audrey? She would have been
brought here the same time I was. Two months ago.”
had been so startled by his voice she’d dropped his tray and fled.
he’d shouted after her. “Audrey. Do you know her? She’s my sister. Please!”
But all he
heard was the sound of rapidly fleeing footsteps. And then nothing.
come back for three days.
unusual to go that long between meals. They gave him a gallon of water once
or—if he was lucky—sometimes twice a week. But meals were hit or miss.
next time he heard light footsteps approaching, he backed away to the furthest
wall and raised his hands in surrender.
dare say a word. If Audrey was here,
this girl could be the key to getting information about her and he wasn’t going
to fuck it up again.
cautious as she approached. Hesitant.
patiently as he could manage.
the tray through the hole, sending the bowl splattering again, and then ran
As much as
it killed him, he did the same thing the next three times she came.
And on the
fourth, he said in his calmest, gentlest voice, “I won’t hurt you.”
startled so much she almost dropped the tray again.
didn’t make a run for it.
that a win, he continued, still not moving from the wall and keeping his hands
up and visible. “My name’s Charlie.”
push any further than that.
say a word. Just shoved his tray through and skittered away.
next time, he started talking about Audrey. “I have a sister about your age.
Her name’s Audrey. She drove me crazy growing up. Little sisters, you know?
Always coming in my room and bothering me and my friends when we were playing
video games. Trying to tag along when I’d go to the mall.” He shook his head.
“Jesus, it feels like a million years ago.”
hadn’t bolted. The tray was paused halfway through the slot.
didn’t move an inch but he kept talking.
“Dad and I
couldn’t believe how lucky we were when all the girls and women in town got
sick but she stayed healthy. It was like a miracle.” Charlie huffed out a sad
laugh. And then, when the woman still didn’t leave, he told her about what
happened with his dad and the mob that came to the front door, and how he
escaped with Audrey out back.
was so soft at first Charlie thought he might have imagined it.
He sat up
straighter and she flinched backwards, tray clattering against the slot as she
yanked it back.
sorry,” Charlie said, chains rattling as he lifted his cuffed hands again and
put his back flush with the wall. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I— I don’t know
where she is. She was with me when—” He swallowed, looking down. “The men from
here, they attacked us when we were getting water.” He lifted his eyes to hers
where she watched him warily through the plexiglass. “I thought if they brought
me here, then maybe they brought her too.”
dropped and Charlie’s heartbeat sped up. What did that mean?
here? Do you know her?”
flicked back up to his. “A lot of girls come through here.”
Charlie fast and hard. She was confirming his worst fears. No, his worst fear
was that Audrey was dead. But what this woman was describing was a close
It was an
open secret that girls were trafficked all over the territories. The President
had officially outlawed it, but there was a reason Charlie chose to stay with
Audrey in an underground bunker for almost a decade. Law and order were so far
from a reality yet, it was fucking laughable. The old wild west looked like a
picnic compared to the Texas of today, and Texas was actually way better than
his cheek against the million questions he wanted to ask. Don’t press it. She’s just opening up. Push too hard and she could bolt
those big doe eyes of hers blinked up at him again. “I could maybe… ask
word came out half-strangled. Was she really just— Just offering like that when
he’d— “Cause that would be— It’d be fuckin— Sorry, I just, it would mean
promising anything,” she said sharply. Then, as if she’d just remembered the
tray in her hands, she gestured down to it with her eyes. “Here. Take this.”
she watched him warily, she stood still as he approached. He came slow,
careful. She was skittish as a deer. When he got close enough to take the tray,
he saw her hand was shaking.
And for the
first time since she’d shown up, he thought about her. Really thought about her, and not just in relation to the info she
might be able to get him on Audrey. What was life here like for her? She said
girls came through. But not her? She obviously had some sort of position here.
Maid? Servant? Slave?
split lip was healing, she had a fresh bruise on her cheek.
shot up to his through the glass and he realized too late how harsh the
question had come out.
apologize, though. Or look away. For a second, neither did she.
In spite of
the bruise and her too pale skin, she was undeniably beautiful. So, so fucking
beautiful. She had huge, translucent blue eyes that looked far too sad for the
rest of her angelic face.
fuck had happened to this girl to bring her here?
“I have to
go,” she whispered. “If I can find anything out about your sister, I will.”
she was gone.
come back for a week. The longest goddamned week of Charlie’s life. And when
she did, she didn’t have any news about Audrey.
mean she’s not here, though,” Shay whispered.
her name. Like the sound of a sigh.
Territory is big and there are several processing facilities.”
thoughts of beautiful names and sighs fled at that. Charlie’s blood went ice
he hadn’t eaten in a week he wasn’t sure he was gonna be able to get down the
food on the tray Shay brought.
keep asking around,” she rushed to add, obviously seeing her words upset him.
One of the
guards who came through sometimes walked by then so she yanked back and
continued like that for weeks. Quick, stolen conversations broken up by long,
endless days of nothing.
the moments she was there, Jesus, it was more than a lifeline. Charlie lived
for the sound of her soft footsteps on the tile outside his door.
didn’t yet have any information on Audrey, Shay filled in so many gaps. He was
being held in Travis Territory. To the southeast of what used to be Austin,
Travis Territory centered around a township where a good-sized river sprang up
from the Edwards Aquifer. Before the Fall, Charlie had even visited the place.
You used to be able to take glass-bottomed boat tours on the river and watch
the springs bubbling up from the source waters.
And now it
was home to one of the most powerful and corrupt governors in the country.
building where Charlie was being held used to be a faculty office in the
English building of the old college campus.
thing Shay wouldn’t talk about, though?
Charlie asked anything about her, she clammed up and scurried off. So he
learned not to. Because every second talking to her through the door was like
being able to breathe after days starved for oxygen.
their brief moments together helped get him through the hard days.
were plenty of hard days.
much as he tried to hold out hope, in his darkest moments, it was too easy to
believe the worst about Audrey. They’d been in the middle of fucking nowhere
when they’d gotten ambushed. Even if Travis’s men didn’t get her, what were her
chances out there all alone in the world?
even safe on her own Uncle’s fucking
if not for Shay, it would have been too easy to give into the dark thoughts.
Take this week for instance.
twenty-third birthday was coming up in a couple weeks and he couldn’t get this
one memory out of his head. Audrey’d been maybe six and it was before the Fall.
Before Xterminate, before any of it.
eight and playing with his friends in the backyard. He’d already told her to go
away but instead she just went over to the swing set and started swinging,
staring longingly at him and his buddies where they were playing armies by the
sisters were so annoying, he
climbing a tree when all the sudden she started up an unholy wailing. Just
looking for attention, like always. He shook his head and ignored her, climbing
just kept crying, louder and louder until she was screaming bloody murder. He
kept waiting for Dad to come out of the garage and take care of it, but he must
have had that stupid old rock music he liked playing. And Dad had made him promise to look out for his
sister for the afternoon.
So with a
huff, he climbed down from the tree and went over to the swing set, face
flaming in embarrassment at having his friends see him have to deal with his
sister who was such a freaking baby. She
was seven but here she was wailing her head off like a two-year-old.
even laying on the ground by the swing set, like she’d thrown herself on the
ground to throw a full out tantrum.
Audrey,” he muttered as soon as he got close. She just wailed even louder. He
rolled his eyes and knelt down on the ground beside her. Her face was cherry
red and fat tears ran down her cheeks.
stop crying.” He hated it when she cried. It was loud and well… he just didn’t
like it. “Come on, sit up.” He held out a hand and hiccupping, she took it. He
put his other hand to the back of her head and helped her sit up.
You’re okay now. Calm down. It’s okay.”
And then he
pulled his hand away from the back of her head.
covered in blood.
dripped off his fingers, even.
stomach cramped just at the memory. He’d been playing with his friends, having fun, and she’d been lying there,
seriously hurt. Crying—no, screaming for
him—and he’d just ignored it, for what? Five minutes?
of those screams kept him awake at night. Filling the silence of his office
Look out for your sister.
His Dad had made him promise the same thing he
had so long ago when the bad times came. No
matter what happens to me, look out for your sister. And Charlie had sworn,
sworn, both to his dad and to himself,
that he would never fail her again like he had that day in the backyard.
But he had. And ten thousand times worse.
Because whatever she was going through right
now, wherever she was, wouldn’t be solved by a trip to the emergency room and
twelve stitches to the back of the head.
And he was stuck in this fifteen-by-ten-foot
room, fucking useless. She was out
there, with God knew what happening to her, screaming and screaming for his
help and he couldn’t get to her—
“Let go of me. This is for the prisoner!”
jerked to attention and ran to the door, ankle fetters yanking taut and
tripping him halfway there. He hit his knees hard but then stumbled back to his
feet and scrambled to the door.
time to see the big, bald guard who sometimes patrolled yank the tray of food
out of Shay’s hand and then backhand her.
Charlie roared, pounding the door with his fist. “Shay!”
was knocked to the ground where she lay crumpled like a ragdoll. “Shay!”
bastard nudged her with his big, booted toe, then chuckled and walked off, tray
about to pound at the door again but fisted his hands and bit back his curse.
Because goddammit, he didn’t want to do anything to bring the guard back. Yet
again, he was fucking useless. Another woman he cared about was laying out
there hurt and he was here, just feet away, and he couldn’t do a goddamned thing to help her.
As soon as
the guard’s footsteps were gone, he dropped to his knees to look through the
Shay! Can you hear me? Are you okay?”
just laid there.
grabbed at his hair, wanting to yank it out by the roots and—
But then he
heard a noise.
smashed his face to the hole in the wall and thank God. She was moving. He
shoved his fingers through the small slot. “Shay, Jesus, are you okay?”
What the fuck, obviously she’s not okay.
that’s stupid. Can you sit up?”
over and dragged her body further into the little alcove where the office was,
out of the path of the main hallway.
finally sat up, he expected tears. He expected a bitter grimace. He even
expected to see blood.
And she did
have a fresh split lip, blood trickling down from the corner of her mouth.
But what he
For her to
be fucking smiling.
Charlie asked uncertainly. “Are you feeling okay? He hit you pretty hard.”
small giggle escaped her lips, Charlie really started getting worried. But then
she hopped to her feet.
she came near, there was a light in her eyes he’d never seen before.
where Audrey is.”
coughed in shock, hand going to the plexiglass. “Where? Is she okay? Who has
Shay gestured impatiently for him to move back.
totally fucking bewildered.
He took a
couple steps away from the door.
her grin got even wider, though he wouldn’t have thought that was possible.
And, with one quick glance back toward the hallway, she produced a keyring,
holding it up briefly so he could see through the plexiglass.
even have time to finish the thought before he heard the click of the lock
turning. Then the door pushed open.
only stare in shock as Shay slipped inside. Her dark head was bowed as she
flipped through keys on the keyring. Then she reached for his hands.
gasped. “How did you—”
look up from unlocking the shackles around his wrists. “I stole them off Carl
when he was grabbing for the tray. I’d scrounged up some butter for your bread
and made sure to pass by him. I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist.”
“But he hit you.”
shrugged it off as if it was nothing. She got his wrists free and then dropped
to his feet. The sight of her, crouched down at his feet, was just too much.
leaned down and put his hands on hers, taking the keys.
blue eyes of hers flashed. “I know where Audrey is. And I’ll tell you.” Then
her face went flinty with determination. “As long as you help me get the hell
out of here.”
He felt his
eyebrows shoot to his hairline. This woman was full of surprises. But everything
she was saying was music to his fucking ears.
half minute, he had the shackles off his feet. The chains dropped to the floor
and he stood fully upright for the first time in three months.
reached out a hand to Shay.
2018 Stasia Black