“’Leave my loneliness unbroken – quit the bust
above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take
thy form from off my door!’”
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’”
-Edgar Allen Poe
The van ride was far too short. I could have sat there forever, holding my scared, innocent brother. It made me feel like I was in control, like I could protect him. But that illusion was quickly broken as the van pulled to a stop in a large, empty parking lot.
They hauled us into a vacated skyscraper that functioned as some sort of office building. One of the men must have worked there because they didn’t have any trouble getting in. A few people were there, but Aiden and I didn’t dare call out to them. Aiden was still nursing a wound from his last defiant act, and I was terrified they might hurt him again if I set foot out of line. Mandus led the way up a staircase that went on forever. I could hardly keep up, and one of the men shoved me whenever I started to fall behind. My one good leg ached with the strain of hauling myself around.
Mandus had regained a nonchalant, calm demeanor. Occasionally, he glanced back at us with a satisfied smile.
When we reached the top of the stairs, one of the men unlocked the door, and, after a few minutes, we were standing on the high roof of the building. Rain pelted us, and the wind raked its claws over our shivering, bedraggled forms. It didn’t take them long to contact my parents. By this time, they were likely done with dinner and wondering after Aiden’s whereabouts. As Mandus made the call, I was shoved to the ground with a gun pointed toward my head. Aiden, being more slippery and liable to struggle, was stood on the edge of the roof, trembling and whimpering, with an armed man behind him.
After calling my parents, giving them only a few hours to get the money, Mandus had worked himself into a self-righteous calm.
When Mandus was informed that our parents made the payment, I thought we might survive, but Mandus ruled it two minutes late, and now I’m propped up against an old generator, waiting for the bullet to enter my skull. My brother sobs and struggles in the grip of two of our kidnappers. I stand there in a haze of terror as Mandus points the gun at my head, his eyes like stained glass. He is expressionless and eerily calm, and I can’t help but tremble. Maybe I can’t die, but I have the feeling that this will hurt either way.
I lift a hand in front of my face as if that will somehow protect me and rasp, “Please... Don’t...”
“Close your eyes, Jack,” Mandus says, putting his finger on the trigger.
Aiden lets out a pitiful wail, squeezing his eyes shut. I’ve never seen him in so many pieces, and it twists my heart in two.
Mandus is just beginning to squeeze when Dominic suddenly steps forward, putting a hand on Mandus’ shoulder. “Wait,” Dominic says. He’s shaking all over, his jaw clenched tight. “Mandus, they gave us the money. So what if it’s late? Let’s just let them go and book our flights. Let’s get out of here.”
Mandus doesn’t move for several seconds, then mechanically lowers the gun and turns to Dominic. I watch, tensed, not daring to move. My leg shakes and wobbles beneath me, and rain streams into my eyes. Mandus stares at Dominic a long moment before lashing out and backhanding the quaking man. Dominic’s head snaps to the side, and his face twists into a grimace, but he doesn’t move to retaliate. It’s obviously not the first time he’s taken a slap. Something like pity swells inside me.
Aiden winces like he took the blow but doesn’t make a sound, his lips trembling.
“You’re a damned coward,” Mandus snarls. “A coward that’s too afraid to make things happen or to take fate into your own hands.” He spits on Dominic and tangles one hand in the collar of his shirt. Dominic is still looking to the side, a look of shame spreading across his face. “I thought you wanted to leave your family so that you could become more than a product of your upbringing. So you could fight for a greater cause. But that was just you running, wasn’t it? Just making another coward’s escape.”
My eyes scan the surrounding area. I see my crutch on the wet roof nearby. It is several feet away, where I’d been laying before. I can only get to it if I crawl, but Mandus’ lackeys aren’t paying any attention to me. Two of them hold my brother, and the other looks at Mandus, as if waiting for orders. If I want to save Aiden, I need a weapon, and the crutch is my only option. My brother looks toward me through tear-filled eyes, and I meet his gaze as steadily as I can, sinking to the ground. My eyes flit back and forth between the crutch and Aiden.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” Mandus demands, giving Dominic another slap.
Dominic squeezes his eyes shut as if to keep himself contained.
Mandus lets out a short, humorless chuckle, hand still knotted in Dominic’s shirt. “No. Of course you’re not, you pathetic whelp. A coward is one thing, but a lying coward...well, there’s no room for that in my plans.”
Dominic slowly opens his eyes, his head twisted to the side, and he meets my gaze, looking lost and despairing. In his gaze, I see a cry for help.
“Who are you calling the coward, Mandus?” I drawl, trying to summon up what little courage lies inside of me. “That seems pretty hypocritical considering you threw a fifteen-year-old boy down the stairs. You must be awfully scared of us. I know I pose a big threat with this busted leg.”
Mandus turns on me without releasing his grip on Dominic, his eyes narrowed in rage.
Dominic is shaking all over, but a strange look passes over his face – something between confusion and determination.
I continue, “Not to mention what you did to Courtney. Does it make you feel like a big man, kidnapping girls when you’ve got four other men backing you up?”
“That’s it, you little asshole.” Mandus raises the gun and points it at my head, hissing, “You’re dead.”
There’s a blur of motion, and the gun goes off. A bullet pierces the generator inches from my head, and I jump, gasping. Moments later, I see Dominic and Mandus wrestling for the gun, and I realize what happened. Dominic had shoved his arm before he could pull the trigger. Taking the opportunity, I throw myself forward, scrambling frantically toward my crutch.
Through the blur of adrenaline, I see Mandus shove Dominic back and shout, “Kill them!”
The men scramble for their guns.
In a state of panic, I haul myself toward my crutch, dirty water soaking the legs of my jeans and splashing my face. I can hear the sounds of fighting, of blows being landed, of my brother shouting. I’ve got to save him!
The crutch is inches out of reach when someone suddenly stomps down on my back. I cry out in pain, struggling in an attempt to dislodge my assailant. The damp roof presses against my cheek, and I taste metal. A hand tangles in my hair and jerks my head back until I’m afraid my neck might snap.
“You think you can save them?” Mandus hisses. “You think you can be the hero here?”
Without warning, he wrenches my head down, slamming it against the concrete. Pain explodes in my temples, and I issue a garbled cry. Blood streams down my forehead, and my vision collapses in around me.
“Stop!” I gasp. “S—stop!”
“You couldn’t save her.” His breath brushes my ear. “What in the hell makes you think you can save them?”
He slams my head down again, and my world spins, dissolving into clouds of dark color. I pry at his fingers with weakening struggles, nausea boiling inside me, letting out an agonized moan.
I hear my brother scream, “Help! Help me! Jack!” and one thought pounds in my injured head.
Protect him. Protect him.
Thrusting my hand out, I grope, grabbing the end of my crutch. Mandus jerks on me, but I throw my arm back, slamming the crutch against his face. He recoils, howling, and I roll over. My world is a blur of shapes and colors. I rub my eyes frantically, trying to wipe away the stream of blood.
When I finally regain my vision, everything inside me freezes. For a moment, I see Courtney standing there instead of Mandus, looking down at me through accusing, hate-filled eyes. I cry out in terror, scrambling back. Then Mandus lunges at me, straddling my body and clamping his hands down on my throat.
“I can save them!” Mandus roars. “I can give everyone what they need! I can give them an escape!”
I pry at his hands, staring up at him through round eyes, choking. All at once, looking into the man’s demonic face, I believe I can die. I believe he can drag me from this world and straight down to hell with him.
“You’re just a stupid little rich boy!”
My vision flashes again, and it’s Courtney wringing my skinny neck. It’s her memory come back for revenge. “You’re a failure!” Mandus screams through her lips. “Coward!”
My lungs heave for air as my chest begins to cave in. I sob, tears streaming down my cheeks, and my eyes bulge from my head. In a last desperate effort, I claw at my assailant’s face, digging my fingers into his eyes. Mandus jerks back, clapping his hands over his face. I curl up beneath him, vomiting, my world twisting and writhing around me. Somewhere in the dark blur, I see an object near my head. A pistol. One of the men had dropped it.
Heaving with wretched, confused sobs, I lash out and grab it, pointing the thing at Mandus and pulling the trigger.
Mandus lets out a shriek, toppling back. Blood spurts from a wound to his shoulder. Gasping for air, I grab my crutch and slowly haul myself to my feet, swaying unsteadily. Crying. Whimpering. The pistol is still clenched in my hand.
My vision again ripples, and Courtney lays there in a pool of her own blood, writhing, staring up at me with loathing. Everything beautiful about her is gone. Her expression twists with the intent to hurt, the intent to ravage my soul and break my mind. To destroy me from the inside out. For the first time in two years, I realize what her memory has been doing to me. Cotard’s Syndrome was only a symptom of the real problem. I see the demon that has held me bondage for so long. And I weep for the wasted time and because I never thought she was capable of hurting me.
Mandus starts to haul himself up, spitting curses at me, and I point the gun at his head with a shaking hand.
“Y—you can’t save them, Mandus,” I choke out. “Not with the drugs. Not with the money. But you can save me now. You can save me...”
My demon lunges at me, and I shoot him in the head.
Red explodes across my vision. For a moment, I think I might black out. Then my brother’s cries bring me back to reality. I whirl around, clutching my one crutch and cocking the gun with shaking hands. Through blurred vision, I see Dominic and one of our attackers rolling across the cement. Dominic’s face is contorted in rage, and his shirt sticks to his rippling muscles. The second man lays on the roof, seemingly unconscious. Then I find my brother.
His captor has his arm locked around Aiden’s neck, dragging him toward the edge of the roof. Aiden thrashes, letting out faint choking sounds, his face contorted in terror. His sneakers make scraping sounds as they scrabble against the concrete, and his eyes are round. He gropes toward me.
I point the gun at the man’s head with shaking hands but don’t dare pull the trigger for fear of hitting Aiden. In a haze of pain and desperation, I hobble forward, leaning heavily on my crutch. The ground rocks and twirls beneath my feet.
“Aiden!” I rasp.
They are three feet away from the edge of the roof when I reach them. Dropping my crutch, I lunge forward, locking an arm around the man’s shoulders and pounding him with the butt of the gun in an attempt to knock him unconscious. Our assailant roars, bucking, and Aiden twists free. The man whips around, pulling away from my grip. Unable to grab anything, I topple to the ground with a pained grunt. My assailant looms over me, cursing under his breath, and stomps on my bandaged leg. Pain rips into me, like nails being driven through my limbs. I let out an agonized scream, writhing, sweat and blood streaming down my face. My eyes roll back in my head.
Then, the pressure disappears.
My vision flashes in and out, and it feels like cotton is stuffed in my ears. Muffled, dissonant thumps, shouts, a heavy crack. I turn my head to the side and make out the shape of my assailant lying next to me.
A face suddenly presses in front of my own. Aiden’s eyes are wide and pleading and tear-filled. He shouts, his voice sounding like it’s coming from the end of a long hallway. “Jack! Jack!”
Summoning the remainder of my strength, I reach up and pull him against my chest in a desperate embrace. My brother’s head tucks beneath my chin.
She’s gone.... My beautiful star...
Tears streak my face and trickle toward my ears. Rain blinds me, sticking to my fluttering eyelids and making me shiver. A shadow falls over us, and I make out Dominic’s grim face.
“My head...” I moan through my brother’s wet hair. “My head...”
“It’s okay, Jack,” Dominic murmurs. “We’re free.” A triumphant grin spreads across his face.
As my brother pulls away from my shaky grip, I sink slowly into the black soup of unconsciousness, dimly aware of a comforting presence and strong arms wrapped around my aching body.