She had to be dreaming. Nothing about this felt real.

A thought flashed through her mind—I’m dead. It explained the confusion, the weakness, the holes in her memory, these surreal surroundings. And she thought of her son and what that meant, a whole new string of questions erupting, and she wept again, deep, racking sobs and stinging tears, and she could have cried all day and into the night if one ever came, but she was abruptly silenced by a voice that started speaking in her head.

Andy

TOTAL darkness.

Day after day after day.

Strapped naked to a wooden chair lined with strips of freezing metal, leather restraints securing my ankles, wrists, and head.

Utterly immobilized.

No food.

No water.

No sound but the occasional creak of metal somewhere high above me.

The sole luxury a hole that had been cut out of the bottom of the chair, presumably so I wouldn’t get an infection and die of my own filth.

When my thirst became all-consuming and the desperation descended, someone would inevitably enter and approach in the dark. I’d feel a straw push between my chapped and cracking lips, and for thirty seconds I’d gulp down all the water I could take in. Sometimes, my captor would feed me cold soup or a wedge of stale bread, never speaking, and I would call out as their footsteps trailed away from me, begging for a word, an acknowledgment, something, but I was never answered.

In my waking moments, I obsessed over Violet and Max until the thought of whatever had become of them reduced me to sobs. I passed through phases of fear, boredom, terror, and finally, into madness.

It stalked me—I could feel it creeping up in the dark, scraping at the back of my skull, fueled by sensory deprivation. Often, I didn’t know whether I was awake or sleeping. Lights blossomed in the pitch-black, each display more intense than the one preceding.

Movies for a breaking mind.

I talked to myself.

I sang.

Mostly, I wept.

Then cycled through it all over again, until I finally arrived at a simple, overpowering wish to die. The pain of this immobilized consciousness, of lying in the dark waiting for something I knew not what, freezing and thirsty and hungry and confused and no concept of it ever ending was beyond any physical pain I’d endured.

And then it happened. I came shivering out of a fever dream and something was different—an object rested in my right hand—small, longer than it was wide, hard plastic, one side covered in rubber buttons.

A voice—soft, southern, and familiar—was suddenly in my head.

“You have a choice, Andy. This will be the first of many, and once done, it cannot be undone. In your right hand, you’re holding a remote control. If you want to see something, press the large button toward the front.”

I realized I held a smaller device in my left hand.

“What’s in my other hand?”

“That’s for later.”

“Where are Violet and Max? Luther? What have you done with them?”

He made no answer.

I sat in the dark fingering the large, circular button, savoring this first new sensation in days—the friction of the rubber against the ridges on my thumb.

I didn’t want to do it. I knew nothing remotely good could come from it, but anything would be better than continuing to sit here in darkness.

This, I couldn’t bear.

So I pushed the button.

Violet

“HELLO, Violet.”

She brought her hand to the earpiece in her left ear, hadn’t even noticed it until this moment.

“Acknowledge that you can hear me.”

“Where’s my son?” she asked.

“I’m holding him.”

She took in a quick shot of oxygen, tears welling, her throat beginning to close.

“If you hurt him in any—”

“He’s safe—for the time being.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Max’s unmistakable cry blared through the speaker into her ear. She could have picked it out of a million.

“See, you just made me pinch him. There, there, little man. Hush now.”

“Max, it’s Mama. I’m right here.” She couldn’t hear him anymore. “Please don’t hurt him. I’ll do anything you want.”

“So glad to hear you say that.”

“Is Andy okay?”

“Andy...has been better. But he’s alive.”

“What is it you want?”

“Get your ass up.”

Vi came to her feet, made a slow turn, eyeing the abandoned factory houses up and down the street. She touched the earpiece again, gave it a soft tug. It didn’t budge, but she could feel her skin stretching.

“It isn’t coming off,” Luther said. “Not without a scalpel. Start walking.”

“Which way?”

“Toward the water tower.”

She started walking.

“You can see me?” she asked.

He didn’t answer.

The water tower stood a quarter of a mile away, its silver tank dulled and heavily graffitied.

Still, she could read the palimpsest of the tower’s namesake.

“You’re feeding my son?”

“He’s being fully cared for, Violet.”

“I need to see him.”

“That can certainly be arranged.”

“How?”

“Obedience, of course.”

She was closing in on the tower now.

A chain-link fence topped with barbed wire surrounded the base.

“Up and over,” he said.

She ran her hands through her hair which had been pulled into an off-center ponytail, then touched the fence, a heavy coating of rust on the metal. As she began to climb, she noticed she wore a pair of tennis shoes and a black tracksuit that had never belonged to her.

Near the top, she made a lateral move across the fence and swung her leg over between a gap in the barbed wire, caught the leg of her tracksuit on a stray jag of metal coming down, ripped a six-inch tear.

Gasped at the coldness of blood and the burn of torn flesh.

She hit the ground on the other side, turned, stared up at the tower—a hundred and seventy-five feet of rusted metal that should’ve been razed years ago.

It creaked, swaying visibly in the wind.

“There’s something for you at the top. Something you’re going to need.”

“The top of the tower?”

“That’s right.”

Violet saw where the lowest rung of the ladder stopped six feet above the concrete foundation.

“I can’t reach that.”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

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