“Oh my God,” I whimpered, “Oh my God.” My nails clawed into my wrists as I tried to pull the cuffs apart, but because of the fit of the manacles, I only managed to dig them into my flesh, blood tricking down my forearms. I stifled my cries of pain, not wanting to give Jude any sense of perverse joy. I bit down fiercely upon my lip as I leaned forward, arching my back to relieve some of the tension building in my body. I attempted to whip my head around to catch what novel plan Jude was hatching, but my arms were bound above my head around the spigot of the tub. I knelt, naked and vulnerable with my bare back facing the dull lights of the bathroom.
Jude wretched me off the floor of the kitchen after he managed to break a couple of my ribs, and then he drug me by my hair down the hallway to the bathroom delegated to visitors. The carpet’s tendrils rubbed my bare legs raw as I fought to tear away from his ponderous grip in vain. Once he stepped across the bearing of the bathroom, he snatched my upper arm and threw me into the bathtub. At gunpoint, he forced me to remove my articles of clothing one by one until I lay crumbled in the curve of the tub. He yanked my wrists on top of the spigot and wrapped zip-ties across my wrists, and then he left for a moment before returning with a black case.
“You’ll like what I brought for you,” he had said.
My stomach lurched, and I felt threatened to vomit yet again. I whispered, “I think I’m going to throw up.”
Jude snapped something, and I turned my gaze to just above the lip of the tub. He yanked on a pair of purple latex gloves, snapping each of the edges as he writhed inside of them. “Go ahead.”
And then I heard the whir of a machine. My ears perked as the familiar noise rang through the restroom. I yanked backwards against the manacles, fighting my binds as I became frantic. I needed to leave, and I needed to escape now.
I lumbered to the front of Heath’s house, a bag of groceries loosely hanging in a yellow plastic bag at my side. I heard through the grapevine that Mr. and Mrs. Frey were having trouble with the upcoming graduation ceremony—distraught that their only child would never have the chance to graduate high school. I rushed after school to the store, hoping that this errand would distract me from Devin, but it didn’t.
I brushed past the aisle of flowers hanging from the fridges, and I contemplated grabbing some to bring to her house—she hadn’t been in school the past couple of days, and graduation was coming up. Apprehensive, I inquired Esther of Devin’s status, and Esther and Leslie were clueless as to whether she left town or just fell off the face of the earth. For one, she never came to her window anymore. After the second night of her failing to tend to the sill, I gave up. I shouldn’t have—maybe I should have knocked on her door and apologized profusely. Maybe I should have held her tautly and embraced everything about her. But I didn’t.
I stood in front of the Victorian home timidly, concerned that maybe my presence would only make things worse for the Freys. I contemplated just knocking on the door and bolting, leaving the baked goods on the porch step beside the white swing. I also considered peering inside the house to even see if anyone was home to intercept my package.
A mellow meow caught my attention.
I slowly blinked as I turned to the creature. My lids lowered as I stared down my straight nose to the small fur ball. Her strawberry blonde fur nestled between streaks of vibrant red as if someone ran a paint brush against the critter. Her pink nose crinkled and her eyes wrinkled as she let a small greeting escape her throat again. I knelt down meekly and reached out my palm gently in front of the cat’s face. Edna leaned forward and licked my calloused skin with her sand-paper tongue as if she remembered who I was. I slid my hand on top of her head, gently rustling her fur as she began to purr. “What’s up, hairball?” I whispered as Edna began to lean against my knees.
“Can I help you?” a voice rang curtly.
I stood up and turned to the screen door. Mrs. Frey, long and slender, stood behind the black veil and glared holes through the door as if she didn’t want company. I raised the grocery bag and shrugged, trying to give her any strength and make me inferior to give her comfort. “I just bought some baked goods for you and Mr. Frey.”
Her eyes narrowed as she hissed, “You know, Heath would have graduated early. He could have graduated his junior year, but he wanted to stay with his friends. He wanted to spend as much time as he could being a kid.”
“I’m sorry.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Part of me wonders if I stood my ground and persuaded him to attend college early, if maybe that would have saved him. Maybe he never would have been in that accident.” Her eyes remained locked on mine the whole time, and I pondered if maybe seeing me grown up and aged a year frustrated her even further. Her expression remained blank, though, almost as if she recited this speech and memorized it by rote.
“This is for you. I’m sorry about your loss.” I gently tapped the screen with the bag, trying to leave this ghost of a woman I knew. She was never the same after Heath died, and I never quite understood that. Shouldn’t she grieve and mourn as much as she wants and then return to her former self? Then again, I didn’t know the loss of my whole world like she did.
“Keep it. I don’t want your charity,” she answered coldly.
“Mrs. Frey, it’s not charity.”
Her eyes finally removed themselves from me and fell on the cat. She snarled, “That dumb cat won’t go away.”
“I don’t have the heart to take her to the pound, but she reminds me too much of Heath. My husband won’t let me get rid of her, but all she is is a reminder that I don’t have my baby anymore. She’s just a burden I don’t want to deal with.”
And then she slammed the door.
I felt him straddle my lower back, forcing my shins and knees harshly into the porcelain tub. I squealed from the pressure resulting in my hips and tethered arms, but Jude didn’t seem to care. He leaned into my back with his elbows, digging in between my broken ribs with little concern. I finally released a scream of pain as the needle tore through my skin and dug into my muscle as Jude focused on piercing me deeply while the tattoo machine whirred to life. The needle was not gently guided through the practice of creating an image but was utilized as a torture device I could barely stand.
“You know tattoos are a sin, baby girl,” Jude growled as he vibrated the needle across one of the bones of my vertebra, dancing coolly like a warrior readying to pounce on his prey.
I bit fiercely into my lip and grunted from the pain that shot down my back into my tailbone. I managed, “Please, stop. Just stop.”
“Nope, the party is just getting started, Devin. It’s a farewell party.”
I shuddered as he pulled the needle from my skin. Blood trickled from his handiwork down my back, curving around each minute bone and sliding down my smooth skin. He stood up, and the pressure upon my back decreased immensely from the lack of burden. I decompressed and heaved a deep breath. He wiped the needle on his shirt and placed it back into the black case he had carried into the bathroom. I finally let my eyes fall closed, exhausted from the assault.
The clatter of metal upon the porcelain startled me; my eyes shot open in time to see the sheen of a mirror to my left. Jude held another mirror as he placed a foot on the edge of the tub. He tilted his mirror expertly until I could see the reflection of my new tattoo upon my back, and I choked back a sob.
My beautiful tattoo no longer existed. The memories no longer existed. The proof of those times never existed. I was no longer free of anything, imprisoned to the censorship now blocking my freedoms and rights. A black bar etched across my back, veiling my previous tattoo permanently.
“I did a pretty nice job, that with all of the blood and everything.”
I shook my head as he removed the mirror from my side and shoved it into the sink. He turned to me again, placing his hand on the edge of the sink; his other hand landed on his hip. He gave me a sincere smirk before shaking his head. “God, you’ve grown to be such a lovely lady.”
I hissed, “Go fuck yourself.”
“With such an awful mouth.”
“Learned a few things from my daddy, I guess.”
He shoved a fist into the back of my head.
Graduation practice was a bore. At least Brody sat behind me. Mr. Sir orchestrated this very simple plan for the massive graduating class to follow along with the JROTC students to abide by while they presented the flag and the chorus sang the national anthem. JROTC messed up approximately six times in which we all had to then restart standing and sitting and then standing and then finally sitting. I turned to the section in the back Devin would sit in, but she wasn’t there—just like she was ordered. I expected an appearance or some grand entrance at the ceremony, but something bothered the pit of my stomach each time I glanced at the space between Aaron Seas and Veronica Seeker.
I turned my attention back to Mr. Sir as he showed the lowerclassmen how to properly usher the lines of seniors to the stage to receive the diploma holder. Our school never delivered the diplomas in case we misbehaved or threw our caps at the end of the ceremony. Apparently the school got into some suit in which the mother was charging another student for assault because his cap hit the woman’s son in the eye. Thank you, frivolous lawsuits, for clogging up the legal system. Also, one year, a group of guys brought a sex doll and made her body-surf through the crowd—some people swear that it was used and still seeping. Another group brought beach balls, and another group brought smoke bombs to make a grand appearance upon receiving their diploma. Needless to say, Mr. Sir had his work cut out for him the past several years.
Mr. Sir then forced all of us to the chambers in which we would be entering the venue and proceeded to rehearse the whole ceremony. We drudged along like mindless zombies, tired and wanting to just get this whole situation dealt with. I glanced to my side, and Davey Morals was taking pictures of his manhood and sending it to a contact named Lily Davis. I rolled my eyes as I focused back on the back of Jonah Mortè’s head, readying to march back into the venue and sit down for another three hours of listening to Mr. Sir orchestrate this grand plan that wasn’t going to work.
I lay limply in the bottom of the bath, my arms tired and weak from hanging from the spigot. Dehydrated, my stomach and head throbbed as I rolled my neck from side to side and then finally let it lull back. My head was too heavy to keep supported as the room began to spin.
Water began to dribble down into my mouth, and I desperately opened my mouth, trying to imbibe as much water as I could. And then the stream stopped as abruptly as it had come. A strong hand fell upon my throat and murmured, “No more, baby girl. Not for now. I got to keep you a little weak, okay?”
I stared at the blurry silhouette of the villain before me, and all I could do was wish he was dead, wish he was anywhere else but here. I nodded my head and remembered the party he was talking about. I meekly inquired, “When are you going to kill me?”
“Oh boy, don’t get the chariot before the horse. You’ll get what’s coming to you soon enough. I’m not done with you just get.”
I nodded. “Any more men?”
I shuddered and allowed my lids to fall. My heart rate quickened as my mind created numerous scenarios that would scar me and force me to face reality. I shook my head of the images, but they remained snuggly attached to their neurons. I finally cried, “Please, just kill me. Just kill me. I’m sick of this.”
“But I’m not.”
“Why can’t you just kill me already?” I cried out.
“Because I’m going to make you hurt. I’m going to make you hurt.” And then he left me, vulnerable and naked inside of a bathtub. The only good thing I could think of was that I could rest and not be afraid of more abuse while he was gone. I finally got a reprieve.
Mr. Sir stood in front of the stage behind a podium almost as tall as he was. His face reddened frantically because the JROTC managed to present the colors before we even came out, so the chorus immediately burst into the national anthem. It was all a mess before it even began. A girl in my section ripped her black tights, which Mr. Sir found apprehensible due to the strict dress policy he set in place just for this event. The band forgot to inform the trailer company that they needed to transport however many instruments the band consisted of. However, our brave, fierce principal managed to trudge through the awful miscommunications of the ceremony to manage to say nearly everyone’s name correctly except for that foreign exchange student from Norway we just dubbed Norway John (his real name had like twelve consonants and one vowel).
After the ceremony, students began to hug one another before filing out to meet up with their parents. Brody leaned across a chair to give Jasmine a hug, and Lily sprinted across the hall to give Davey an embrace. Ethan clasped hands with his best friend, and then I noticed a group of girls squeal and jump at the thought of our new futures. In a moment when I should have been celebrating my wonderful life, I found myself missing the two beings I would never have thought I would lose.
Devin did not show up in the crowds of black gowns and caps, did not lose herself in the mass chaos of finding her parents or siblings. She never showed up.
I hustled out of the venue and searched mindlessly for my parents, and then I ran into someone I never expected to see. Jude Sebold stood with a small petite woman and Esther. Leslie stood next to his girlfriend, his hand on her lower back as she chatted with the newly freed man. I froze as I recognized he had put on immense muscles, but what else could you do in a cell? Leslie glanced over his shoulder at me, and we locked eyes for a second.
He understood I was missing someone as he gave me a forlorn shrug.
Esther was expecting her as much as anyone else.
Had anyone seen her? I hadn’t seen her walking home, and I hadn’t seen her training at the soccer field. No word was spoken about her at school. Everyone was oblivious to the whole fact that she was hiding. Then again, maybe she was hiding in plain sight.
I spun around to see Lex streaking up to me in a white sundress. I knelt down and wrapped my arms around my little sister tautly, rocking her back and forth as she gave me a kiss on the cheek. She squealed, “Congrats, Ned!”
My parents strolled up nonchalantly and escorted me with small chit-chat about the ceremony to the car. We all shuffled into the car and went to a steakhouse. I was supposed to be so relieved I was done with high school, supposed to be relieved to get out of this hell hole, but I kind of just felt numb.
I heard the back door crash open, and any person who was hopeful and desperate to be saved would have screamed and yelled for help just with that door open. I should have cursed or prayed to God or Buddha, or just done something. Once, I caught myself praying, but who was I praying to? Was I praying to the God who put me on this forsaken earth? Was I praying to the God who supposedly put me in this position in the first place? The one who planned for me to suffer?
However, those emotions emitted out of me as the one dreadful thought that I would not survive rooted inside of my chest. I tried to relax and get in a comfortable position, but I could not manage without my shoulders creaking and struggling to break free of their sockets. I hissed, “Goddammit.”
Footsteps thundered up the stairs, and I immediately recognized the soft thumping as Jude. I clenched my eyes shut, readying for the next hit, the next assault. I just didn’t want him to do what I was so afraid he was going to do. The click of mechanics echoed in the tiny room, and I tilted my head up from facing the bottom of the tub. The barrel of the gun aimed at me, and Jude threw me a glare of menace. He snapped, “You missed a wonderful celebration for your sister.”
I turned back to the tub and went limp. “I wonder why.”
“Look at me.”
I ignored him.
“Look at me.”
I continued to ignore him.
“I swear to God I’ll put a bullet through your sister’s head if you don’t look at me.”
I turned my gaze back at him just in time for him to pistol-whip my cheekbone. I nearly screamed from the intense pain that flowed through my face.
“Disobey me again.”
I turned to him and glared intensely at him. The Bible sat on the edge of the sink, and he had turned to a specific page. I murmured, “You going to give me a sermon?”
“You need one.”
“Not from a hypocrite.”
He smacked the Holy Book harshly into my brand new tattoo, and I heaved out a breath as the impact deflated my lungs. I struggled to regain my breath before he yanked my chin towards him. His nose pressed against mine, forcing my sinuses to burn. His veins bulged angrily as he bared his teeth at me like a rabid animal. “I don’t need to be judged by a whore.”
“Then you shouldn’t have made me one,” I retorted.
I thought maybe if I spoke venom, he would kill me faster. It helped to create all of the different scenarios he could follow to dispose of my body. I thought this all would make his punishments quicker so he could be rid of me forever, but I was sorely mistaken.
I cut into my steak silently as my parents chittered with conversation that somehow ended up excluding my sister and me as they raged on about taxes and certain 401Ks. Either that, or I just excommunicated myself from the conversation. I bit into the tender meat, and the usual euphoria with digging into a piece of delicious food was stifled. I sluggishly chewed my food, staring at my plate, realizing I would not have the gall to consume the monstrous portion like I could several weeks before.
The waiters and waitresses paraded down the aisles of the restaurant, clapping their hands methodically. They began to hum to a familiar tune, and then they encircled a table with a small baby with a smile on her face. She clapped her hands, trying to remain in rhythm with the waiters and waitresses, but she had yet to master the whole theory of rhythm. She stifled a squeal as everyone burst into a round of “Happy Birthday.”
And that’s when I remembered it was recently Devin’s birthday. She would have finally been eighteen—she could have voted. She could have bought a lottery ticket. She could have played poker. She could have lived on her own legally. She would not have to report to her parents, even though I highly doubted she reported to her mother anyway. But, she would have had freedoms. And I thought she would have had me.