She didn't know how long she had been in the darkness when her family finally stopped screaming. She had forgotten where she was and how she had gotten there. She didn't know how long she had been trapped, chained down like an animal, dirty, helpless. She didn't know why she was naked. All she knew was that she was in great pain, that her whole body ached and her kneecap felt as if it had been shattered. That she was alone. And that something horrible was happening to her family.
Erin Faulkner couldn't see anything, not in any direction. Only the impenetrable black. All she could feel was the stone floor beneath her, hard, rough, cold to the touch. She could hear a dripping sound, not too far away, steady, with a slight echo, making this place seem even more like a medieval torture chamber, filling her with foreboding. Maybe the man in the ski mask would come back for her when he finished with the others. Maybe that was why he had taken her clothing. Maybe that was why he had chained her to the floor.
She could hear her family-her mother and father, her brothers and sister, the baby. The words were indistinct, but she could tell they belonged to the people she loved most in all the world. She could tell that they were in immense agony, that they were begging for mercy. And not receiving any.
The screams of her father had been particularly loud. He had always had a deep voice. It carried. Despite all that had happened between them, her father was perhaps the one person she loved more than anyone else in the world. His anguished cries had reverberated, had penetrated her and rattled her skull. Her father's distress pained her more profoundly than her own injuries.
She had begged the man not to hurt her, especially not on her legs. She played soccer on her high-school team, and it was one of the few things in her short life she had ever done well. But with one swift kick to her kneecap, he had taken it all away. She had crumpled to the carpet like a boneless sack of flesh, her body electrified by the lightning flashes that coursed through her. She remembered seeing the man draw back his foot for another blow. And then she remembered nothing, until she woke up here.
And that had been-how long ago? All she knew was that she wanted it to be over. The pain. The hunger. The fear for her family. Herself. She wanted it to end. If she could have made it end-any way-she would surely have done so. But she was denied even that fundamental right. All she could do was lie on the floor, unclothed and miserable. And wait. Until something finally brought an end to her suffering. Until someone-God, the man in the ski mask, someone-granted her mercy. Something she wasn't sure existed anymore.
She found herself missing the screams. Not that she had enjoyed listening to them. But at least it was something. Something to disrupt the horrid void that surrounded her. Something to give her a foothold on reality. A connection. A sense that she still existed.
She had no way of knowing how long it had been since the screams had died. Since all traces of others had faded away. It seemed as if it had been days, weeks, an eternity. Time didn't exist here, in this private hell in which she was the sole occupant. Only misery existed here. Misery and hunger and the hideous awful agony of not knowing. That was her life now. That was all she had left.
It had begun so innocently. Her mother had decided to take everyone out for ice cream, and had insisted that Erin come along. Being a teenager, she tried to avoid these family outings whenever possible. But once it was under way, once she had resigned herself to the ignominy of it all, she found herself enjoying it-Bernie's clowning, Louise's pathetic attempts to be just like Erin, even the baby. She would never have told them, but secretly she found herself warmed by the pleasure of being part of a larger circle, one that didn't fluctuate with the latest wave of popularity or peer pressure. Of feeling that she belonged to something that mattered a good deal more than who was on the starting team or who got picked for soccer princess.
And then they came home. The man in the mask seemed surprised when they poured through the entryway from the garage. Didn't take him long to adapt, though. Before Erin knew what was happening, her mother was crying out, her arm twisted behind her back. He forced the rest of them into the living room, where her father lay on the floor, beaten, bleeding. He was cruel to all of them, but he paid special attention to Erin, or so it seemed to her. She could barely see his eyes in that mask. She had thought that if she resisted, if she was strong, he might back off. She had been wrong. And now she had a shattered kneecap to prove it.
And she was still chained down, the pain increasing while her strength faded. Why had he done this to her? Why had he hurt her and stripped her and left her here? It made no sense, but she realized her mind was probably not working at its best. The chains that bound her, the physical anguish that crushed her, the fear that immobilized her-all took precedence over the feeble fumblings of her brain. Why did no one come to help? Why had this happened? And why could she not just die? Why wouldn't someone show her some mercy and please just let her die?
She knew it would be over soon. She had been far too long without food, without water. This imprisonment would kill a healthy person, much less one with a broken leg. Her eyelids fluttered with the sweetness of the thought. Soon all this misery would be replaced with the blissful sensation of not knowing, not caring anymore. . . . No. Something inside her flashed, snapping her out of a fatigue-induced haze. She sat upright, perhaps for the first time in days. What was she thinking? Was she giving up? Was that the best she could do? She was not a helpless baby like Bryan. She was a fifteen-year-old woman, and she was not going to die like this. She was not going to let that bastard in the ski mask have that satisfaction. She would find a way. Despite the hunger, the lethargy, the terror. She would find a way. The handcuff around her left wrist was what pinned her down. She could feel the other cuff; it was attached to some kind of metal ring embedded in the floor. If she could get it off her wrist, she would be free. But she couldn't. She had tried for hours, days, since she had awoken and found herself down here. She couldn't get out. Her hand was too big. She recalled reading that wild animals caught in a trap would chew off their own limbs to escape. She didn't think she could do that. Could she? It wouldn't have to be the whole hand. The thumb was the problem. If she could just get rid of the thumb, she would be able to slide her hand out. She brought her mouth down to her left wrist. She smelled bad, she realized. Not a great surprise. She had been lying naked forever, on the dirty floor, in her own squalor. She had wet herself more times than she could count. But she had to put all that out of her head now. Her lips parted. Her teeth bit into the flesh at the base of her thumb. And she gagged. She pulled away, dry-heaving. She couldn't do it. She just couldn't do that. But perhaps there was another way. She had discovered something yesterday, or the day before. Something hard just at the outer edge of her limited reach. A rock. Or a brick, perhaps, since it seemed more or less rectangular. She had tried to use it to break the cuffs and the chain, but they had been too hard, too solid. But maybe . . . She reached out again and found it, just where it had been before. She carefully fingered her cuffed hand. If she could just break the bone connecting her wrist to the lower knuckle of her thumb, that ought to be enough. Get that out of the way, and she could slide her hand out. She could do that. Couldn't she? Couldn't she? She took the brick into her free hand and closed her eyes. It would have to be quick. She would have to do it all at once, and fast. If she just injured herself, without breaking the bone, she would cause more pain, so much that she probably wouldn't be able to hit herself again. Worse, her hand would swell, and then she would have no chance of getting it out. She would have to strike once, hard and fast, then slide her hand out. Hard and fast. She could do this, she told herself. She could do this. She gripped the brick tightly. Her hand was beginning to sweat. She could sense her heart pounding harder, each beat feeling like a major stroke. The hollowness inside her stomach had converted to a horrible aching. The pain in her leg flared. She heard a voice inside her head trying to talk her out of this desperate plan. Your leg is already broken. Are you going to cripple your hand as well? I can do this, she told herself, tears seeping out of her clenched-shut eyes. I can do this. With as much speed and strength as she could muster, she brought the brick down against her left wrist. The pain was incredible. Her body began to shake. She cried out, her scream echoing around her. But she knew it had not been enough. The bone was hurt, not broken. Her hand could not slip through. And she did not have much time before the swelling began. Once again, she brought the brick down hard. Then again and again and again, each blow harder than the one before. Her cries and screams and tears all swam together. And after the fifth blow, she felt the bone break. She flipped onto her back, her whole body convulsing. She clenched her teeth together, trying to shut out the pain. She was going into shock and she had to fight it. Fight the pain, stave away unconsciousness. She had to- It was a long time, or so it seemed, before she realized what she had done. In the midst of her writhing and shaking, her hand had slipped through the cuff. It had worked. It hurt worse than anything she had ever imagined, even worse than her leg, but-she had done it. She lay on her back, watery eyes closed, her hand lying beside her like a dead animal. She would have to sleep now. But despite the hunger, despite the cold, despite the unbearable agony, she faded from the conscious world with one certainty imprinted on her brain. She had done it. She had made herself the woman she wanted to be. She had told herself she could do it, and she had done it. She was free.
When she awoke, much of the aching had subsided. She could still feel it, to be certain, but it wasn't the raging torrent it had been before. More of a dull throbbing, steady and rhythmic, but not incapacitating. In biology, she had learned about the body's natural anesthetics. Must be kicking in, she thought. Or perhaps she was just so broken she couldn't feel anything anymore.
She began to slowly crawl away from the spot where she had been chained for so long. She had no idea where she was going. She just had to get away.
She hit some kind of wall. She pulled herself alongside it, feeling for an opening. Eventually, she found a raised ridge. And beyond the ridge, a smooth flat panel.
Her left hand wasn't good for anything, and her left leg could support no weight, so her right side had to carry the load. Slowly, an inch at a time, she pulled herself upright. Not quite standing-more of a crouch, leaning against the wall for support. But it was enough.
Not much light came in through the open door, but by comparison to the unrelenting darkness Erin had experienced for so long, it seemed blinding. She shielded her eyes, trying to block it out. In time, her eyes adjusted. She opened them, a fraction at a time.
She had been in the basement of their home. All along. With a fragile but steady pace, she clawed her way up the stairs. Moving past each step was like climbing Everest, but she forced herself to do it. No one had come to rescue her, and there was no reason to believe anyone ever would. She would have to help herself. And that meant she had to get out of the basement.
The journey up the stairs took half an hour, although it seemed much longer. She started across the endless corridor that connected the basement to the laundry room. Then she crawled through the laundry room to the living room, the place where she had last seen the rest of her family.
And then she screamed. Screamed louder and harder than she had during the entire ordeal. Screamed longer than she had when her leg was broken, when she mutilated her own hand. Screamed for them. For what was left of them.