"I d-d-don't know where to s-start." I whisper. He clears his throat and shifts in his chair.
"Well..." He runs his hands over his face, "How about the beginning?" A half sob, half laugh bursts out of my chest. I wipe my hands across my face and sit up so I'm facing him. His face is unreadable, a stone carving I am having trouble connecting with the man I've come to know.
"I-it's a long s-story..." He nods.
"And messy, I presume." He folds his hands on the desk in front of him.
"I n-need to know that what I a-am about to s-say stays b-between us." He nods before I finish speaking.
"I swear to you Andy, your secrets are safe with me. No one you wish to hide them from will learn them from me." I nod and then the fight between my wish to protect these people from my past and the weight of my secrets boils over- My chest cracks under the pressure and I start bleeding through the holes.
A glance down at my hands shows that they are bathed in red- the blood a second blow to my all too fragile heart. The glint of shiny silver chains that lace around my wrists locks me into my decision. One blink and they're gone, my hands as clean as Lady MacBeth's.
"H-h-he p-pulled m-me off t-the s-street... " I startle myself with words I wasn't prepared to say. I push past it and fall back into my memories- back into the start of the worst part of my life.
It had been drizzling out, and we were walking home from a late dinner. We decided to take a short cut, an alley that we'd taken countless times... There hadn't been anything out of the ordinary, we were just walking along and then... Suddenly he was there, and there was so much blood... I could still hear my scream echoing through the empty street before my mind exploded in pain and everything went dark.
"The c-cellar was always so c-cold..." Mr. Cardinal traces his eyes over me, the weight of his gaze a slight warmth to my suddenly freezing body. I don't dare look up from the clean skin of my hands.
"It r-reeked of pee and d-dust, and there w-was barely any l-light. We w-were underground." I weave my fingers together. Another blink and I can briefly see the bruised skin of my thighs beneath my hands. They're gone before my next breath.
"E-everything hurt all the t-time... it still d-does." I clench my jaw at the admission of how much pain I am in all the time. I blink again and see the blood, one more blink and it's gone again.
"I r-remember screaming. S-so much screaming. And p-pain. And darkness." I swallow past the lump in my throat. "I w-woke up in a h-heap on the floor, chained up in n-nothing but my underwear. M-my head was still b-bleeding from where he'd b-bounced it off the a-alley wall. H w-was standing over me.." Memories of the first time he had touched me rip at the holes in my chest. Pain laces around my wrists along with pale fingers. Another blink and they disappear again.
I release my grip on my fingers to wrap my hands around my chest. A weak attempt at holding myself together while the memories I struggle to hold at bay wreak havoc through my mind.
"What happened?" Mr Cardinal whispers. I swallow past the lump in my throat and finally lift my gaze to his. A fat tear rolls down my cheek and his own eyes swirl with unshed tears.
"So m-much.." I whisper.
The screaming is back now, and every rip of it through my memory cuts deeper into me. It is the worst part. It is the same scream that echoes through me every night, and the same one that haunts me from the cellar. It is fear and pain and misery and heartache and anger and humiliation. It is the worst form of darkness because it is something that I can never escape. It's the bruises that littered my body, a plethora of decorations on my hips, my thighs, my ribs, my neck, my face. It's the still pink scars that remind me every day of the searing pain he caused with his shiny silver blade. It's the scent of semen and the sticky reminders he left on the walls of my prison when he would stand beside me and stroke himself to the sounds of my screams. It's the endless echoing reminder that I wasn't the only one in that prison- that I wasn't the only person he was using as a punching bag. It's the whispered "I love you"s and the soft crying when he pressed wet kisses to skin that didn't belong to him.
"Andy..." I open my eyes and see a river of red. Blood coats me- my hands, my legs, my feet, the floor in front of me. It's clinging to my bare skin and it's been poured in buckets across the concrete floor.
I press my eyes shut tight and pray for the memories to ease away. When I flick them open again, I'm back in the office and Mr Cardinal is squatting beside me.
I flinch back from him, but he stays where he is. I glance up at his eyes and feel my breath catch at the sadness there. He hauls in a deep breath, and as he does a light shines brighter in his eyes. I find myself breathing with him and with each breath the light in his eyes grows brighter as he breathes in and fades as he breathes out.
When my breathing steadies out again, he sinks onto his bum beside me. I haul in another breath and surprise myself by talking again.
"He c-captured us in January of 2019. H-he had us f-for s-seven months.... H-he'd been f-following me for a l-lot longer than that. I n-never reported it, and it e-escalated." I sniff and wipe my arm against my face to wipe away my tears. "H-he took so m-much from me, and I let h-him."
"Who was he?"
A sob rips out of me before I can stop it. Another deep breath and I find his name slipping from my lips.
"Seth..." Saying his name out loud for the first time in over a year leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
"He c-carved me up." My voice is weak, the sadness almost palpable. But it's still holding up, so I press on.
"He c-cut into me and he t-tore everything away. E-everything I was, everything I l-loved... He r-reached into my chest and he s-stole everything he c-could find. He b-broke me."
"No." Mr Cardinal shakes his head. "No, He didn't break you. He didn't break you, Andromeda, because you cannot be broken. You are so much stronger than you realize. He didn't take anything away from you. He just buried it a little. I promise you that you will find it again." His conviction is almost convincing.
But I know what I am.
"I c-can't." I cry. He reaches out for my hand and I let him take it. His hand is so warm, so alive.
"We k-killed him t-together." He opens his mouth to say something, but I cut him off. "H-he was there b-because of me. He s-slit his t-throat because of me. He died because of m-me. I loved and I l-loved and I l-loved and it k-killed him. I k-killed him. And w-when I prayed for d-death it d-didn't come."
The cold of the cellar floor begins seeping into my bones like it had the days after he'd been killed, as I waited for Seth to come back and finish me off.
"I-instead, they f-found me." I sob again.
"Who?" He whispers. I shake my head before focusing back on him.
"The p-police. He w-was stopped at a ride program, and t-they saw all this b-b-b-blood.... It t-took them four days to f-find where he'd stashed me and by then..... I w-wanted to d-die. I thought I h-had when they c-came in with their flashlights a-after being in the- in the d-dark for s-s-so long...."
I break down then. Every micron of pain he had dealt me, every slice and every broken bone shoots through me all at once, and the pain is unbelievable.
I collapse in on myself, sobbing and falling apart in a way that I had never let myself before.
Somewhere around me I can sense Mr. Cardinal murmuring something to me, but I can't hear him past the sound of my shattering soul.
All I can think about past the pain is how cruel this world is. How unfair it is that after everything I have been through, the world would lead me here to be tortured in this new way that somehow hurts more.
After barely managing to escape from hell, I'd somehow ended up back in a slightly worse version. Anger and sadness are at war with the pain, but sadly the pain is winning. It feels like I'm shattering into a million tiny fragments, and I don't know how I'm ever supposed to put myself back together.
All of a sudden, I become aware of warm arms wrapping around me, pulling me into a firm chest. From the explosion of sparks and electricity everywhere we are touching, I deduce it is Ryker. I can't hear what he is saying past the roaring in my ears, but I know he is talking to me.
I feel myself begin to cry harder as he holds me as tight as he can and rocks me against him, murmuring words I can't hear. I want so badly to push him away, to protect him from the bomb that I am, but I can't find the strength. So instead, I let him hold me while I cry.
I sob for everything I had never let myself feel before. I sob for the girl that I was supposed to be, and the horrors I had endured. I sob for the moments that I'd missed out on while I was locked away, and the things I still had to hold myself back from. I cry for the pain he had caused to my loved ones, and the time that we had all missed out on together. And mostly I cry for Steven.
I cry until I run out of tears. And then, completely exhausted, I fall asleep in Ryker's arms.
"Table for two, please." I whip my eyes open at the sound of his voice. It's light and happy. He's standing beside me wearing a clean pair of jeans and a button up blue shirt. His smile is sunshine incarnate. I trace my eyes over his frame and he lets me.
"What?" I whisper. He smiles wider at me but the hostess steals his attention before he can answer.
"This way." She is wearing a pair of black slacks and a button up white shirt and her blonde hair is twisted into a bun on the top of her head. She isn't smiling at us as she leads us deeper into the restaurant but I ignore her, focusing instead on the heat from his palm that is resting on the small of my back. A glance down tells me I am wearing a simple black cocktail dress, and my black hair hangs in loose curls to the bottom of my back.
Steven pulls my chair out for me and I sink into it without complaint. He walks carefully around the table and sits in the chair across from me. The hostess is talking, but I'm not sure what she's saying. I'm caught in the green of his eyes and I'm terrified that if I look away for even a second he will disappear.
He folds his menu open and glances down at it.
"What are you feeling like?" I blink at him with a frown.
"What?" He smiles at me and shakes his head. He waves his hand at the menu I haven't opened in favour of staring at him.
"What are you going to order? I know I'm handsome, Meda, but try to keep it in your pants while we're in public." He winks at me and I laugh.
"Shut up, Stevie." I look away from him then and my heart kicks in my chest for some reason. I glance back up at him and my heart beats faster- not only is he still sitting there, but he's studying me so intensely.
"What?" I question. He smiles.
"Nothing. You're just beautiful." I feel my cheeks heat and roll my eyes at him. I go back to the menu.
"So birthday girl, what are you feeling?" I smile at his words and pick a random dish, a string of Italian words I don't quite understand but the picture looks delicious. He smiles and nods for the waiter to approach.
"Why do you keep looking at me like that?" He speaks over his bruschetta a few minutes later. I shrug. "Just remembering this..." He smiles and reaches over the table to take my hand.
"Remembering what?" I haul in a deep breath and blink my eyes shut for a minute. The sounds of the busy restaurant are still there, clanging dishes and quiet conversations, but mostly I'm aware of him.
He breathes in steady cycles, the sound of each exhale louder than I expect. I can feel him looking at me, and the weight of his gaze feels like home. He smells like his aftershave and taffeta and pine trees and I love it.
I flick my eyes back open. He's frowning at me, concern clear on his face.
"Meda, are you ok?" I smile and squeeze the hand that is still wrapped around my own.
"Yes. I'm fine. I just... I love you." He smiles at me and squeezes my hand back.
"I love you too. No need to be so weird about it." He drops his hand and a second later our food arrives. We eat and joke and just enjoy each other's company and before I know it he is leading me out the door again by the small of my back. He grabs my hand as soon as it's through the sleeve of my coat and presses a kiss to my forehead. I laugh and pull away from him, intent on walking back home.
He twirls me back towards him with the grip he has on my hand.
"Good birthday?" He whispers. I smile and nod up at him. He tugs me closer and starts walking with his arms wrapped around my waist. I laugh and walk along with him, enjoying the warmth he offers. Light snow starts to fall as we walk and he pulls me in the direction of our favourite shortcut- an alley that leads to the parking lot behind the dance studio.
He squeezes my hip and I laugh, but the sound is cut off by the feel of cold metal against my throat.
A man is standing in front of me. He had stepped out of the shadows as we walked past, and now he is holding a knife to the soft jugular of my throat.
"Calm down, man. I've got my wallet right here. No one has to get hurt." Steven's voice quakes as he drops his right hand from my hip, no doubt reaching for his wallet. The man's watery brown eyes dart past me for a second before he shifts them back to me.
"Hi Baby." He whispers. I'm shaking now, and I grip tighter onto Steven's hand.
"Here, take it." Steven thrusts the wallet into my view, offering it to the stranger. He frowns at it for a second before shifting his gaze back to Steven.
"I don't want yout fucking money, dog. I'm here for her." Steven's grip tightens on me, and he lowers the wallet.
"You can't have her." He growls. The other man squares his jaw and pulls his knife back an inch, so it's no longer pressed to my throat.
"You don't get a say in this." Steven pulls me back against his chest and the other man snaps forward in the same second. I let out a startled scream as I fall backwards in an attempt to keep distance between the two of us. Steven loses his grip on me and I hit the ground a second before the two men collide.
I push to my feet to try to help, but the second I'm standing the stranger shoves Steven hard into the wall. I hear the clang of his head against the bricks and try to run to him. He groans but I can't hear anything else as the other man grips my arm. He's still holding his knife somehow, and now it's pressing into my stomach just enough to make sure I know it's there.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you." He's speaking over my shoulder. I turn my head and see Steven crouching, straining against something that I can't see.
"Steven!" I yell out for him, trying to see if he's OK. His eyes flick to mine and he freezes when he sees the knife that's pressed against me.
"Let her go." He growls. The other man pulls me deeper into his chest and I fight the urge to throw up as I feel his erection pressing into my backside.
"You want her... come and get her." He hisses.
Steven stands and rushes towards me, and at the last second the stranger shoves me away from him. I spin into the wall, and my head cracks against a particularly sharp brick. My head swirls in an explosion of pain and I collapse to the ground again.
I try to clear my vision but the pain is making it hard to think straight. I reach up to the spot that hurts the most and my hand comes away red.
Steven screams in pain and I try to stand to get to him. Instead, I crash into the stranger. He smiles at me through the wave of my vision and I struggle to pull myself away from him.
"Steven!" I yell. He doesn't answer. The stranger growls down at me and wraps his hand around my hair. The tug sends another shockwave of pain through my skull and I whimper. He tugs my face up to his and presses a wet kiss to my forehead. I struggle again but his grip on my hair keeps me tethered to him.
"Don't worry baby, I'll make it all go away soon." He presses another kiss to my head and then drops me as the sounds of groans reach us. I fall to the ground and my head bounces off of the side of something metal, and the pain causes black spots to drift into my vision.
The last thing I am aware of is the sounds of Steven screaming, and then I black out.
When I wake up, I'm freezing and my head is throbbing something fierce. I press my heavy hand to my head and the pain spikes. I pull my eyes open slowly and feel my heart stop.
I'm sitting in a tiny room. It's dark, and it smells awful. Three walls are stone, although one has a solid steel door in the centre. The fourth wall is the same stone on the bottom, but the top half is a mass of twisted pipes. I can almost see between them, and I am almost sure that someone is standing in the next room, but I can't get a clear look through the mass of pipes. When I turn again I gasp.
The man from the alley is standing beside the door. He's changed- instead of the thick red sweater and dirty jeans he'd had on when I'd last seen him, he is now in a loose pair of shorts and his chest is bare. His greasy brown hair falls limp over his forehead, and he's sporting a few bruises across his chest and face. Likely Steven caused those - Steven!
"Steven!" I scream. I can't see him anywhere. On the other side of the pipe wall, I hear him.
"Meda!" My head moves to the side a second before the pain from his slap registers. I whimper and press my hand to my face and slowly look up to the stranger. He's glowering down at me with his fists clenched.
"Don't you ever say his fucking name again." He hisses at me. I feel a single tear leak down my cheek.
"Why?" I whimper. He lowers himself down and grips my chin in a too tight grip.
"Because," He growls, "You belong to me."
My throat aches as I bolt awake, a terrified screech dying on my lips. I can still feel his fingers wrapped around me, and the cold of the cellar has a tight grip on my bones. I blink a few times to adjust myself to the darkness I'm bathed in, trying to figure out where I am. A few deep breaths and I recognize the scent- Ryker's room. I rest back into the cushion of his bed and haul in a few more deep breaths to try to steady myself.
A knock at the door has me wiping my face on my arm and pushing to my feet. I open the door an inch and frown when I see Blake.
"Can I come in?" I take a step back and start fumbling on the wall for a light switch. After a second I find it and the room lights up. I study the deep blue of the walls instead of looking at Blake.
"Andy...." He whispers. I wrap my arms around myself and settle onto the surface of Ryker's dresser. I stare at the floor to keep my eyes off Blake.
"Andy I'm sorry." He steps closer to me, and I slide down on the dresser to keep the space the same. He sighs but doesn't try to close the gap between us again.
"I just... I want to understand."
I clench my jaw and fold my arms around myself to try to keep it together.
"Am I such a bad guy for wanting to understand what happened?" I scrub my hands across my face, frustrated. I figured by now he would understand that I just can't share anymore with him. If I didn't know better, I would think that Blake was getting off on seeing me in so much pain.
"W-why do y-you need t-t-to know?" I finally stutter. I run my eyes over his frame, studying him. "Y-you've seen t-the M.E.'s report, y-you've s-spoken to the cops t-th-that f-found me" I choke on the last word before I manage to spit it out. It tastes like acid, but now that I've started I don't think I can stop.
It seems the world is intent on breaking me today. I take a deep breath in before reliving my hell for the third time in one day.
"T-the only t-t-thing I've e-ever asked of y-you was to not m-m-mention it. D-don't ask questions, d-don't try to g-get me to face it. J-just leave. It. Alone. B-but you c-can't do that, c-c-can you?" I feel the tears I'd been forcing back slip down my cheeks. I find my lips pulling into a sadistic smirk as the last lock I'd been keeping on the box of my memories falls open, and everything spills out.
It is so much worse than I remember.
The blood, the knife, the shiny silver handcuffs snapped so tightly around my wrists I couldn't feel my fingers anymore... I feel the pads of his fingertips pressing into my hip bones, sliding along my breasts... The screaming and the agony and the blade being dug so deep into my thighs I am sure he could see my bone... And then Steven... His smile, his laughter echoing along the empty alleyway. His fingers twined so tightly with mine, so sure he'd never be letting go... I feel Seths thin lips pressed against the column of my neck, his arms twined so tightly around my waist. I can smell his breath on my face, the scent of smoke swirling through my nose.
I scream. I just open my mouth and let the agony tear from my lungs-anything to just let the pain out. I'd do anything if it could just go away for a while; let it end, I chant to myself, let it all end.
It will never end, a voice screams back. His voice.
I want to rip open my wrists with my teeth, so that some of the pain would be forced out of my system. I want to rip his name from my brain, even if I need to slice open my skull and douse what's left in bleach. I want to slide out of my skin and come apart into so many pieces that all of the king's horses, and all of the king's men couldn't put humpty together again. I want this to be it; that this last breath would be the last and I wouldn't have to keep going- because I can't possibly live through this pain. I can't possibly endure all of this agony all over again. There has to be a time when the machine stops working; that my body would bow and my heart would dance its final curtain call. I couldn't possibly go through this again.
I feel someone grabbing me into their arms, but I am so far past broken-I can't stop screaming. I don't care that it couldn't possibly be him wrapped so tightly around me. That it isn't possible for him to be here with me. I can't lift my head or open my eyes or do anything other than scream and scream and scream until I am out of air. And then finally, I collapse into my mind.
I can't possibly go through this again.