I cough again violently and try to catch my breath as my body goes still. I sniffle once feeling the drainage behind my eyes and it burns like a hot poker is being shoved into my nostrils. I cry out in pain and then lie still, trying to breathe only through my mouth. My lips are dry and cracked and bleeding, and they too taste like smoke.
Tears seep from my eyes and my body shudders against the cool, hard surface like a quivering ball of muscle and bone. I think I’m going to die here. Wherever here is.
“You should’ve known better, Cassia,” the voice says and it sounds like she’s right behind me.
Determined to place a face with the voice, I try desperately to pry my lids apart, but like everything else inside of me, my eyes are burning.
“Who are you?” I ask weakly and my voice cracks. I need water. I need something to wet my mouth. Anything…
She laughs quietly and the cruelty in it frightens me to my bitter core. I feel heat on the side of my face, the side not pressed against the hard surface. And then I hear her voice again and I know that she’s right there, hovering over me with her mouth near mine, tracing a path from my earlobe to the corner of my lips.
I feel her lips on mine, so warm and soft and tender. My body is cold, so cold, and her lips so warm that I don’t have it in me to protest. I feel her tongue slip into my mouth and gently tangle with mine. My eyelids, heavy before, now slam shut and leave me absolutely no control over them anymore.
“You’ll always belong to me, Cassia,” the woman whispers onto my mouth. “You owe me.”
The coolness of her hand grazes the skin on my stomach and she slides her hand into the front of my thick cotton pajama pants. I feel her fingers hook inside of me harshly, painfully, and my eyes spring open to see her face looking back at me with malice and menace, her dark eyes swirling in the blue hue of the night sky, her slim outline illuminated by the streetlamp several feet behind her. Her hair is jet black, cut short around her oval-shaped face, each side following the curvature of her jawline. She is beautiful. She is evil.
And then in a whirlwind the vociferous sounds of the frantic city catch up to my ears again. I begin to choke, coughing so terribly that I think my lungs are going to come up with the black-tinged saliva I expel into my hands. I roll over onto my back and stare upward at a starless black sky, rolling with winter clouds and brisk with winter wind. My body shakes so harshly that it feels like my bones are going to shatter like glass if I can’t control it. My head falls back to the side and I see a pile of boxes. The leg of a couch. A black trash bag with a hole ripped in the bottom and some kind of fabric pushing through it. A cracked mirror with a weathered wooden frame. A red milk crate full of random things: old beat up boxes of food, a bottle of anti-freeze, a crushed soda can.
The woman is gone. I thought I heard her tall black boots crunching in the snow behind me when I went into the last coughing fit.
My body aches. I think my leg is broken. It’s a wonder how I didn’t feel it before. I grit my teeth and screw my eyes shut tight as the pain sears through me. I hear more voices approaching. Cops. Firemen. No…it’s an EMT.
My eyes open and close from pain and exhaustion, but I try to fight the sleep. I want to see what’s going on around me. I want to see if the woman is still close by. While the paramedics are tending to me, I don’t pay them any attention, not even when they ask me questions looking to see how alert I am. But I look beyond them, toward the street filled with red and blue flashing lights that bounce off the nearby buildings. A crowd has gathered on the other side, all bundled in thick winter coats, pointing upward with their gloved hands at the building still engulfed in flames behind me.
But there is one tall, dark figure amongst the crowd that appears out of place. He stands with his hands in the pockets of his long, black coat. He is calm, unaffected by the chaos in the streets.
He is you.
You look at me instead, across the street and through moving bodies and vehicles that pass by and temporarily block our path. Your eyes pierce through me like…like nothing I’ve ever felt before. All I know is that my stomach feels hot and that I’m afraid, yet I still want to look back at you.
I-I don’t know why, but…but my heart is breaking. Tears sting the backs of my eyes and my chest feels like it’s falling in on itself, like a star burning up its last breath before it collapses into a black hole.
And then I wake up in your home and I barely remember my name much less anything else about me.
Fredrik reaches out his hand and wipes the tears from underneath my eyes. I gently coil my fingers around his strong wrist and I shut my eyes softly to savor his touch.
“She said that you owed her.” Fredrik’s voice pulls me back into the moment and my eyelids carefully break apart again.
His hand falls away. He places it back within his lap.
I look at for a long moment and then back up at his eyes.
“What?” I’m confused.
Fredrik tilts his head slightly to one side.
“You didn’t say that before,” he explains. “That the woman told you just before she left that you owed her. It’s a new memory.”
I blink, a little surprised, and nod as the realization sets in.
“Yes,” I say. “She did say that. But I don’t know what it means.” I lower my head with regret and even shame. I want to give him whatever he needs or wants from me. I have since shortly after he brought me here many months ago. Even if it means that I’ll lose him to that woman, I love him enough that I would let him go if it’s what he wanted.
I don’t know why I love him. I don’t know how it’s possible to love a man who keeps a woman chained in a basement. But then again, there are so many things I don’t understand because I can’t remember anything. So much doesn’t make sense. Actually, nothing makes sense. I feel trapped in someone else’s life. Out of place in the world, and as it goes on all around me, I stay put in the same place trying to recall a life I had before that doesn’t seem to want to be found.
“Cassia,” Fredrik says kindly and I raise my tear-filled eyes to him. He sighs regretfully. “If you can’t make progress on your own, you know what I’ll have to do.”
My hands begin to shake within my lap, my bottom lip begins to tremble.
I shake my head. “No, Fredrik, please—”
He leans toward me in one swift motion, punishment in his eyes. I ground the palms of my hands against the mattress on both sides of me and push myself backward against the wall.