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Cut and Run by Mary Burton (1)

PROLOGUE

Exact Time Unknown

When the stairs leading down to the basement creaked, the young woman struggled to her feet. She pressed one hand to her very pregnant belly and gripped a metal pipe with the other as she listened to the steady, purposeful steps approaching the locked door. Keys rattled as mumbled curses echoed on the other side. She’d lost track of how many days she’d been waiting for him to return.

She took a step back, and her fingers tightened around the weapon, once a part of her cot’s frame. For days, she’d been working on the screws holding her bed together. She’d used her fingernails and a small bedspring, tearing and ripping her nails in the process of loosening the screws. Last night the final screw and the metal rod had fallen to the floor with a loud ping. She’d wept, clutching her new best friend to her chest as she rocked back and forth. Months in this windowless box could come to an end today, if she was very careful.

The first lock turned. More keys rattled.

He had visited her every few days for months, bringing her food, magazines, prenatal vitamins, and larger clothes as her belly had expanded. He rarely spoke to her, occasionally asking how the baby was faring. Did it kick? Did it move? She’d never been pregnant before, so she had no way of knowing what normal was or wasn’t.

A dead bolt turned, and the door swung open. He stood in the doorway, two bags of groceries in his hands. He vacantly gazed toward her and then to the small table by the kitchenette.

She smiled, her hand behind her back, her fingers gripping the metal so hard her knuckles ached. She had this one chance. One chance.

“Why are you standing?” he asked as he dumped the groceries on the table. “You should have your feet up. It’s a matter of days before the baby comes.”

“My belly has been cramping. Feels better to stand.” That was true. The muscles in her stomach had begun to contract and release. At first she thought it was the baby curling into a ball and then stretching out. But she then realized time was running out.

“Is the baby kicking?” he asked.

“All the time.” Also true. In the early weeks of her captivity, all she’d wanted to do was sleep and block out the baby and this room. Every kick to her bladder, cramp in her lower back, and bout of indigestion reminded her she’d been such a dumbass. And sometimes, when the loneliness overcame her, she wasn’t sure if the kid was on her side or not.

“I brought you a few more magazines.” He sounded proud, pleased with himself. “They’re the current issues this time.”

He carefully laid them on the small table in her room and fanned them into a neat arc. She studied the glossy covers and summoned a smile. He expected her to be pleased by this rare act of kindness. So she beamed, wanting him to believe she was docile and weak even as her mind buzzed with images of crushing in his skull. The bold magazine headlines skittered across her brain, barely registering. “Summer Beach Reads.” “Hot Makeup Colors.” “Short Shorts.” “A Glimpse into Fall Fashion.”

If anything, the magazines told her spring had given way to summer. “What day is it?” she asked.

He set the two plastic grocery bags beside the sink. “It’s Friday or maybe Saturday. No more than two weeks until the baby is born.”

The last time she’d seen the date displayed had been June 1, weeks after he’d locked her in this room. The paper had contained an article about her. In that piece she’d read the quote from her mother: “We don’t think she’s a runaway.”

Think. Even her mother doubted that she’d been taken.

He’d left the paper with her, knowing it would fuel her doubts and fears that the search for her was dwindling.

After that article, she’d known there would be no savior. No one was coming. If she was going to be rescued, she would have to save herself.

“And then you’ll let me go, right?” she asked.

“I told you I would.” He carefully unpacked apples, bananas, bread, and packets of noodles. There were also eggs, milk, and cheese—everything for a healthy baby. And if she wanted to heat up her food or cook the eggs, there was only the microwave. No metal or glass. Just paper plates and cups. No pens or pencils. Nothing dangerous.

“Too much at stake now. Can’t have you doing something careless,” he said.

But she had already done the stupidest thing in her life. She’d believed his beautiful lies that had promised rescue from a nasty breakup and parents who did not want her or her baby. He’d baited this unholy trap with smiles and sweet words, and she’d stepped right into it. Now she and her baby would pay a steep price if she didn’t make the first swing count.

“I also brought you more clothes,” he said. “Your belly is getting so big, girl. You’re straining at the edges of that extra-large T-shirt.”

She mirrored his smile, hoping it would lower his guard just a little. “Baby’s going to be a big one.”

“Healthy and strong, just like the Lord intended. You’ll thank me when it’s born.”

Thank him? For locking her in this room? “I haven’t always been grateful for what you’ve done for me. But each time my baby kicks, I say a prayer of thanks,” she lied.

“That’s good. Real good. Feisty is a good quality in a child.”

Looking satisfied, he turned and opened the tiny refrigerator and began placing perishables inside. First the milk.

She drew in a breath and gripped the pipe even tighter, picturing it striking the back of his head.

As he rummaged in the refrigerator to make room for the eggs and cheese, she took a step forward. He chatted about her needing to eat more, and she raised the pipe over her head, not making a sound as she lunged, focused solely on connecting metal to bone. She had one chance and couldn’t bear to think what would happen if she failed.

Right before the pipe slammed down, he glanced up, and his smile vanished. Quick as a cat, he twisted to the right and raised his arm, and the pipe connected with his forearm.

He grunted in pain and snarled. “Bitch!”

Driven by pure panic now, she tried to raise the pipe again, but before she could, his left fist connected with her jaw, sending shock waves of pain through her head. She staggered, dropped to her knees. Her grip slackened upon the pipe, and it fell to the floor with a loud clang. It slowly rolled out of reach as her vision blurred.

His breathing was hot and quick as he picked up the pipe and, grabbing her by the hair, hauled her up to her feet. She could feel her hair tearing away from her skull as the pain in her jaw throbbed. She tasted blood, and her tongue skimmed over a broken tooth. She instinctively guarded her abdomen.

He raised the pipe, ready to strike. “I always thought you were just too kind and sweet. But you weren’t nice at all. You were angling to get me to drop my guard. But I’ve been around this particular block before. I know how women like you lie.”

“I’m sorry! I won’t do it again!” she screamed.

He pulled her bloodied face next to his. “If it were up to me, I’d beat the living piss out of you. I’d punch every tooth down your throat.” He shoved her onto the metal cot like a rag doll. He raised the pipe, reminding her how well he could inflict pain while safeguarding the baby.

“I won’t do it again. I won’t!” she pleaded, her trembling hands blocking her face.

“If you try that again, I will break your hands and feet. Do you understand me, girl?”

Tears streamed down her face as she tried to make herself as small as possible.

“Do you hear me!”

“Yes,” she choked. “I won’t move.”

He hauled her off the cot and made her stand in the corner as he dumped the mattress on the floor, lifted the cot, and shoved it out the door. It landed in the hallway, forever out of her reach.

He left the room, slamming the door behind him. She didn’t hear the lock or the rattle of keys. She sat a little straighter, listening to the thud of his footsteps, and wondered if she should dare make another escape attempt.

But just as quickly as the idea came, she abandoned it. The door opened, and he reappeared, gripping a chain with a manacle. “I should have done this on the first day. But I was trying to be nice. I don’t like being mean. You have only yourself to blame.”

He bolted one end to a hook wedged deep in the wall and reached for her ankle. Driven by reflex and fear, she kicked his hand away. But he gripped her leg so tight his fingernails bit into her flesh. He clamped the manacle around her ankle and locked it.

The metal compressed inflexibly against her skin and immediately began to chafe. “You don’t have to do this. I’ll be good.”

“You had your chance to be good.” He drew back from her, breathless and rubbing his forearm as if it still pained him. As scared as she was, she was glad she’d hurt him. It was worth the broken tooth and the pain still rattling around in her head to see him suffer.

“I want to get out of here!” she shouted.

He backed up toward the door, scooping up the metal pipe. “Oh, you will, darlin’. I’ll let you go as soon as you give me a healthy baby.”

The kid kicked her hard in the ribs, matching the beat of the heart hammering in her chest. “Why do you want my baby?”

“It’s spoken for. A decent couple who can give it all it deserves.” As he fished his keys from his pocket, a pen fell out and tumbled to the floor, rolling out of sight under the refrigerator. But he was too angry to notice as he rubbed his forearm and then slammed the door behind him. This time the dead bolt clicked into place.

She wrapped her fingers around the manacle and pulled at it, wincing as it scraped her skin. Tears welled in her eyes, but she refused to give in to the pure fear that threatened to swallow her.

She stood and walked toward the door, only to find out that her tether stopped several feet short of it. She had just enough slack to reach the toilet, the dresser, and the refrigerator. The microwave was inches out of reach.

She dropped to her knees and slid her fingers into the small space under the refrigerator. Her fingertips touched the pen, which for several tense seconds rolled just out of her reach. She pressed her bruised cheek to the refrigerator door, stretched her arm, and prayed for the pen, which miraculously came into reach. She coaxed it out from under the appliance and gripped it in her hands. It was a simple ballpoint pen. She pulled the blue plastic top off and tried to wedge it into the lock on the manacle. Unflinching metal quickly ate up the plastic, leaving her with a choice to now use the pen tip on the lock or save it for something else.

She sat for nearly a half hour before she made her decision and shuffled to the dresser, the chain clinking and rubbing as she moved. She pushed the cheap piece of furniture away from the wall, knowing exactly what she wanted.

She’d had months to explore every inch of this room, and she’d found initials on the back of the dresser.

JJ

OM

KS

If she’d ever had doubts that there’d been others before her, the initials proved she wasn’t the first and probably not the last. She shifted her focus to the second discovery she’d made eight weeks ago. It was the air vent behind the dresser and two loose screws that were nearly stripped. Initially, she’d thought she’d found a way out, and hope had exploded so violently it hurt. But as soon as the vent cover had been off, she had realized it was too small for any human body. It wasn’t an escape route.

But it was a hiding place.

She jostled the grate free, careful not to make a sound for fear he was still lurking outside her door, listening. As the silence stretched, she grew bold, stuck her hand into the dark vent until her fingers skimmed what she was looking for. Amazing what you could discover if all you had was time.

She removed the magazines, replaced the grate, and pushed the dresser back in place. She never knew when he’d return, and it was always smart to look guiltless.

She righted her mattress on the floor and then smoothed out her bedding and pillows. She settled on the bed, discovering it was even harder and more uncomfortable without the squeaky frame of the cot. She read the writing scribbled on the edges of the magazines she almost had memorized.

If you read this . . .

She’d have added her own, but there’d been no pen. And she’d spent too many hours searching for and wondering what had happened to the one they’d used. But now she had her own. Perhaps just a small victory, but she had to believe it was a lifeline. Now she could write her own thoughts in the margins next to the notes of JJ, OM, and KS.

She pressed her hand to her sore jaw and winced as she worked it back and forth. She clung to every win, knowing small victories like this kept her from going insane.

She carefully put the old magazines back in the vent and replaced the grate in case he should return. Picking up a newer magazine, she flipped past the magazine’s title page to the first page with a lot of white space. She drew tiny circles in the upper left-hand corner until the blue ink flowed.

With a trembling hand she wrote,

If you read this . . .

My name is Paige Sheldon.

It’s summer 2018.

What I like: binge-watching television. My smartphone. Chocolate ice cream.

What I hate: That my mom will never know that I am sorry.

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