I lie on the floor thinking that Master is going to come and give me a reading: that long, horrible process in which Master pinches each of your fingers and toes individually whilst aligning himself with the heavens to delve into your soul. I hate this process, hate the way Master pinches just a little too hard, seems to enjoy the wince in my face, in all the girls’ faces. I tighten up at the thought, wishing I could get away.
My mouth is dry, hair plastered with stale sweat to my head, tongue heavy, limbs leaden with exhaustion, pinned to the floor. I manage to lift my head and glance around. I am drugged; movement is difficult. I am lying in a small box of a room, bare apart from a grimy bed in the corner. The floor is stone, chilling me through my clothes, and dirty. One of the walls is not a solid, but contains a window which looks into a dimly lit hallway. It is the only clean thing in the room.
The Movement which I escaped from—cult, though they’re viciously opposed to that word—is into some shady things, but I’ve never heard of them kidnapping and imprisoning people like this. Oh, they kidnap and imprison people, but they do that with smiles and beckoning waves and promises of rent-free living. Is this them? I draw in a deep breath, hating the way my bones seem to rattle as it moves down into my chest. I’ve definitely been drugged. I can taste something metallic on my tongue. My gums feel raw, as though something has been rubbed forcefully into them. Then I rise slowly to my feet, having to grit my teeth as my legs threaten to buckle beneath me.
Where the hell am I?
I lift my hands into my hair. My hair is a tangle most of the time as it is, but now it feels even more tangled and twisted. I move my hands through it, and that’s when I find it: a flower. I slide it by the stem out of my hair and bring it to my face. A pink, open-petal, thorny-stemmed flower. In drop it when it pricks my fingers, and I can feel the place on my scalp where it’s cut into me. No, this is not the Movement. Maybe not. Or maybe even after running away I’m still underestimating them.
I look down at myself. I’m still wearing my cargo trousers and hoodie: a no-bullshit outfit. It matches my attitude these days. No bullshit. Just keep going. Just get it done. Over these past few years, I have become a rodent. I am not ashamed to call myself a rodent, even if I should be. A rodent scurries wherever it needs to scurry to be safe, tunnels, scampers here if here is safe, there if there is safe. That is who I have had to become to survive. You can’t have compunctions when you’re running from the devil. But as I search this room, there is nowhere for a rodent to scurry. The only thing I could possibly use to break the window is the bedframe, and that is bolted to the floor. The thin mattress, with a large coffee-colored stain over the sheets, won’t be much help there. If I am a rodent, I am a trapped rodent.
I limp to the window, which takes up the entire wall. My heart is hammering in my ears, making it hard to think, and yet simultaneously it sounds faraway. It’s like it’s hammering in my ears but I am floating somewhere above myself, drugged up, distant. I know this feeling well, I reflect as I lay my palm flat against the glass and push. Yes, I know this feeling well. I remember innumerable times growing up when it was easier to be outside myself. When Master would roam the Compound with his strange sideways smile, telling a woman he could heal her if she followed him to his office, and then as he strode over to me and stood over me and looked down into my face, and I knew, and he knew, and everybody knew what he was about to ask of this child—but then my mother, Alice, would stand in front of me and say, ‘Oh, not today, Master,’ and for some reason he would listen. If there is a good person in the Movement, it is my mother.
I press against the glass, straining, but it is reinforced. This whole place—the bolted-down bed and the reinforced glass—is enough to make my mind start working overtime. But it needn’t work so hard. It doesn’t take much to realize why a twenty-two-year-old woman, with eyes Mom had often told me were so big and brown I looked like a squirrel—even from an early age, I was a rodent, it seems—and a body made athletic from years of running, no, no, it doesn’t take much to realize why a girl like me would wake up in a room like this.
The voice just confirms it.
At first, I don’t know where the voice is coming from. It sounds like it is coming from all around me, or from inside my own head. For a second I wonder if the Movement and all its nonsense about interplanetary communication is true, but then I glance up, and I see that there is a small speaker unit attached to the top of the window. The voice is gravelly, but it’s a Kansas voice. Maybe this voice comes from a man who lives right here in Kansas City, got in his car after work and came right here to scare a reddish-brown-haired girl.
“Let me speak to this bitch,” the man says to someone there in the room with him. There are several of them, I hear, all jostling around the microphone. I wonder how they can see me: a camera aimed from the end of the hallway perhaps, in the murky shadowy recesses where the light doesn’t reach. I imagine the six, seven, eight of them hunched over the microphone and a computer screen. “Let me speak to this fuckin’ whore for a second. Hello, whore, hello, hello. How are you doing today? Are you happy? I hope you’re happy. Hello? Hello? Is this thing working? Please, whore, give me a little sign if this is working. This is a very high-tech piece of equipment, you understand. At least, that is what the man who sold it to me told me. And I would hate for that to have been a lie. I would hate to have to seriously hurt this man. If you do not give me some sign that you can hear me, I will assume you can’t, and send one of my boys down there—”
“I can hear you,” I say. My voice is croaky with dehydration and fear.
“Oh, good, excellent.”
“Hang on, hang on. Let me talk to this bitch.” Another voice, gravelly, too. They are all gravelly. Gravelly and drunk and slurred. A bunch of drunk men all gathered together to watch me squirm.
I stand completely still, trying to show no sign of fear on my face, try to resist the urge to clench my fists.
“Hey, bitch. I bet you’re wondering where the door is, ain’t ya? Let me tell you, I’m a goddamn genius. It’s like a secret fuckin’ lair down there. See that glass? That is the door, sweetie, and it can only be opened from the outside by—ow! The fuck you hit me for?”
“The fuck you telling her that for, dumbass?"
“She’s going to be a fucking crack whore soon. Who cares?”
A crack whore. I try not to show fear, because in my experience when you show fear people don’t hesitate long in abusing it. But when I hear that, I imagine a whole life being laid out before this moment. I see myself chained to some bed, drugs being injected into my veins until my arms are covered in track marks and until I actually start to yearn for the drug; I see men, far too many men, writhing atop me. I see, I feel, I fear—
“Whore, whore, whore.” A fourth voice. In the background, somebody stumbles, somebody coughs, somebody shouts. “Now, these jokers are just that, jokers. Let me tell you what we need you to do, for business. You see, we’re business men. If we were sober businessmen, this evening might have a little more structure. But still, what’re you going to do? So, please, remove your clothes. We want to see what your mother gave you.”
Alice gave me everything a cowed, beaten, Movement woman could, but Alice was big, voluminous, the sort of woman who filled out a room. I am small, birdlike, an under-the-radar sort of girl. And being an under-the-radar sort of girl means I do not, as a rule, undress for strange men.
“I, uh . . .”
“I, uh . . .” the man mocks. “No, no, not I, uh . . . no, no, that won’t do at all. I don’t think you understand the situation you’re in, missy. I really don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t be talking I, uh . . . no, no, you would be talking, Yes, sir.”
All the men break into raucous laughter at this.
“Unless, of course,” the man goes on once the laughter has paused, “you want one of us to come down there and help you undress.”
The men roar:
“Let me! But I have to warn you, if I go down there, I’m having a little feel!”
“She thinks she can hide those perky tits under that hoodie? Cock-teasing little whore!”
“I want to see those eyes bulge, boy, bulge and water, if you know what I mean!”
“Look at the way she’s looking; she wants it! She wants it! I can tell. They always want it in the end!”
“I’ll break her legs!”
“Listen,” the man says. “We will come down there and takes turns on you unless you start getting undressed in the next five seconds. That is the truth. Come on, now.”
I swallow, hands shaking, and try to hide my fear as I pull my hoodie over my head.