“Hey there, beautiful. What’s your name?” I heard a voice coming from my left and I turned my head to see a man leaning out the passenger side of a van that started to slowly roll along beside me as I walked.
“I’m not interested.” I tried to give him a friendly smile, but not one that would inspire him to keep hitting on me.
“Come on, I just want to know your name.” He shifted his weight so that he was able to get more of his upper torso out of the can. “After I get your name, I want your phone number.”
“No.” I chuckled under my breath and kept walking.
Men. They think they’re entitled to everything. He’s not bad looking, I guess—but I’m just not interested in dating anyone—nor am I interested in what he obviously wants.
“Fine, break my heart then.” He sighed and started rolling up the window.
He gave up easier than most of them do.
I was walking on Sycamore Street, and once it intersected with Maple Leaf Drive, I would be within a block of my apartment. I usually didn’t stay out that late—but, I got busy and forgot that I needed a few essentials until the sun went down. Apparently, my penance was getting hit on by a stranger. The van rolled to a stop as it approached the intersection and waited for the red light to turn to green. I focused my attention on the sidewalk and shifted my groceries around so that the heavy bag was in my left hand instead of my right.
As I reached the intersection, the van suddenly accelerated, turned the corner and came to a stop. The sound of the tires screeching against the pavement startled me and caused me to look up—then the door opened. A man in a black ski mask hopped out and started walking towards me. I felt panic immediately. I looked around for help—I was all alone on Sycamore Street. There would be people on Maple Leave Drive—but I couldn’t get there.
“Leave me alone!” I dropped my groceries as he picked up speed and I turned around to run in the opposite direction.
My knees were wobbling from fear—at the one moment in my life when I needed them to support my weight and carry me away from the situation, I wasn’t going as fast as possible. I stumbled as I spun around, and that was all the time he needed. He closed the distance between us, grabbed me around the waist, lifted my feet off the ground, and started dragging me towards what I could only assume was the van I saw him exit.
“You should have just told me your name.” I heard his voice in my ear, and it sounded like gravel being rubbed together as he spoke.
“Let me go! Help! Someone! Hel—p.” His hand clamped over my mouth and my voice was muffled.
He was wearing a thick glove, and as it stopped me from screaming, I smelled something— something that I could only describe as chemically sweet. The smell was resonating from his glove, and I knew I shouldn’t breathe it in—especially when the first whiff made my head spin and my vision blur. I felt my muscles getting weak as he continued dragging me towards the van, but I continued to fight. I threw elbows back against his mask, kicks into his shins. He ignored them all except for a slight grunt that echoed in my ear.
“Go to sleep, sweet Lizzy.” His voice was followed by a brief chuckle.
He knows my name. Oh my god, how does he know my name?
That was the last thought that went through my head. All of the fighting used up the oxygen in my blood before and then my lungs involuntarily sucked in another breath of chemically sweet air. My head spun harder. My vision blurred until the lights on the street looked like I was seeing through a kaleidoscope. My muscles got so weak that I didn’t have the strength to do anything but slump forward in his arms. I was vaguely aware of my surroundings when we got to the van—then I was floating—no, I was thrown. I landed on the floor of the van and the door slammed shut.
Then it was just darkness. Darkness in the van. Darkness in my mind.
* * *
“Wake up, Lizzy.” A voice—the same voice from the nightmare in my head was present the instant I opened my eyes.
Except it wasn’t a nightmare. It was real. The man with the gravelly voice was speaking to me, and he was directly in front of me, but the room was dark, so I couldn’t see his face—or maybe my vision was just still blurry. I tried to shake the cobwebs out of my head as I sat up. My vision started to focus finally, but my head was throbbing so hard that it was hard to do anything but squint. The room was definitely dark, except for a small dim light bulb hanging over my head. There were bars in front of me—bars on top of me. I was in—a cage?
“Why are you doing this?” My throat was parched, and my words scraped against the dryness as I spoke.
“Because sweet Lizzy. You’ve been a very bad girl, haven’t you?” He stepped closer.
“I don’t know—what you’re talking about.” I cleared my throat and tried to coat it with my saliva so that it didn’t hurt to speak.
“Pretending to be innocent isn’t going to get you out of this cage.” He tilted his head and leaned close enough for me to see his face. “Only the truth can set you free—the truth and your penance.”
“Who are you? Why are you doing this?” I found the strength to grab the bars in front of me. “Please let me go. I won’t tell anyone that you took me—I swear. I just want to go home.”
The man in front of me had dark colored eyes—almost like onyxes set in his skull. His skin was tanned, his hair was dark brown, and it was a little unkempt. I assumed the ski mask had something to do with that. He was a large, broad-shouldered man—not one that I could have taken in a fight, even if he hadn’t used something to knock me out when he grabbed me. He wasn’t the one that tried to talk to me when the van approached, but their features were similar enough for them to be related.
“Lots of people want to go home.” He nodded slowly. “They want to enjoy a warm fireplace, a home-cooked meal—all of the comforts that life affords. Is that what you want, sweet Lizzy? All of the things in your apartment—the things you bought for yourself.”
He—knows where I live.
“Yes.” I choked out my words and nodded. “Please let me go…”
I’d settle for water, fast food, and a blanket right now, but I definitely want to go home.
“No.” He shook his head back and forth. “You don’t deserve all of those things, because you’ve been a very bad girl.”
“Then tell me what I did wrong. Let me apologize.” I leaned against the bars of the cage and felt tears welling up in my eyes. “Please don’t hurt me.”
“I like it when you beg.” A sinister grin spreads across his face. “But before you leave this cage, you’re going to beg me to hurt you—because that will be your penance, sweet Lizzy—pain. Emotional pain. Physical pain. The kind of pain you like to inflict on others.”
“I—I've never hurt anyone.” I blinked in surprise.
“Why don’t you think about that for a little while. When I return, if you’re ready to start confessing your sins, then maybe we can discuss what your penance should be.” He started to stand.
“No—please don’t leave me in here!” I looked up at him, but he turned away without saying another word.
He walked into the darkness that surrounded the cage, and I saw light when a door opened on the right side of the room. His hand lifted, and with a quick flick of his wrist, the light bulb above my cage went out. The room was plunged into total darkness. I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. I felt around to learn the size of the cage I was in—how much room I had—and finally found a semi-comfortable spot to sit where I could lean against the bars. They didn’t feel good against my back, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances. I felt some sort of bucket next to me with what felt like a roll of toilet paper—I assumed the bucket would be my bathroom, but the thought of having my waste so close was revolting.
What did I do to this guy? He’s not familiar—I don’t know his face. He’s young—late twenties, maybe early thirties—definitely not someone that I would normally talk to. The other guy was a little older, but not by much.
His words weren’t total lies. I had done things that I wasn’t proud of—some of them left me with less remorse than others. Most of them were for money—survival—a way to get by in an economy that didn’t exactly have many opportunities for a nineteen-year-old high school dropout. But I took precautions to protect myself—to make sure nobody would ever find out who I really was. That couldn’t be what landed me in the cage? Could it?
I had to stay calm—stay very calm. I needed to think. I had to figure this out before he came back.
The darkness played tricks on my eyes—tricks on my thoughts. My eyes adjusted to it, but I still couldn’t see anything. It was more than just darkness—it was an absence of light. There were no windows in the room. The floor beneath my cage was hard, but it was smooth. The texture felt like some sort of stone that had been polished smooth. I tested the bars, pushed against them, tried to rock the cage—and when it didn’t even budge, I had to assume it had been bolted to the floor. The door moved a little bit when I tried to shake it, but it was locked, and I wasn’t going to be able to bend steel—my determination wasn’t that strong.
The minutes passed like molasses. The hours passed like fragments of eternity. At first, I was relieved that he hadn’t hurt me—that the worst of it was a cage—but then I began to realize that the cage itself was punishment. The darkness was punishment. I just didn’t know what I had done to make him believe I deserved to be there. I had sins—but really—didn’t everyone? What made mine so bad? What made him the judge or jury—and what right did he have to punish me? I felt a gnawing in my stomach that told me too much time had passed since I had eaten. I woke up with a parched throat and I reached a point where I couldn’t produce enough saliva to keep it from hurting.
How long was he going to leave me here before he came back? What if I don’t have the answers he’s looking for—or know what sin he wants me to confess?
I was afraid to sleep, but exhaustion eventually took over. The worst part about falling asleep was that I didn’t know how much time passed while I was unconscious. The darkness didn’t allow me to tell if I had managed to sleep for a few minutes or a few hours. Could it have been longer? My muscles ached when I woke up and they were cramped when I tried to move them. The cage prevented me from truly stretching them out, but I did the best that I could.
Did I hear footsteps? Was he finally coming back?
The silence had played tricks on mind a few times before, but it wasn’t deceiving me this time. I heard a click that sounded like a key being turned in a lock and then the door opened. The light coming from the other side hurt my eyes and I had to lift my hand to block it out while my eyes adjusted. I saw an outline of a man—I assumed it was the one who locked me in the cage. I moved closer to the front as he stepped into the room, and then the light above my cage came on. It seemed dim when I first saw it, but after being in total darkness for so long, it was almost like staring into the sun even though I wasn’t looking at it.
“Have you had enough time to think, sweet Lizzy?” He walked over and looked down at me. “Are you ready to start confessing your sins?”
“Please…” I forced out my words. “I need water—my throat hurts so bad.”
“Everything is earned, sweet Lizzy. Nothing in this world is free.” He chuckled, and it was a dark, sinister chuckle. “But you already know that—don’t you?”