Charlie blinked blearily at the sliver of sunshine coming through the window where it wasn’t boarded up. The sun was setting. Another day gone.
He looked at the wall where he’d just finished scratching a line into the cinderblock with his fingernail, briefly glancing up the wall at all the similar hash marks.
Three months. It had been over three months since he’d woken up in this very room—covered in his own blood, with a headache so bad he’d been convinced he was gonna die. He had no idea where he was. A tiny office in a really old building, he thought. Cream-colored painted cinderblock walls. It had an institutional feel. Maybe a hospital?
There was a thick wooden door with a tiny rectangular plexiglass window, but all it showed was the end of a dark alcove, so no clues there. Through the tiny bit he could see through the outdoor window, he could only see the plumbing of another building.
When he’d first woken up, part of him had wanted to just give up and die. Because no matter how many times he shouted questions at the guards who occasionally delivered food and water, no one would tell him anything about his sister Audrey.
Had those bastards killed her right there by the spring where they’d knocked him out? Or did she manage to run away after all?
In the end, he’d fought for consciousness and clung to life as hard as he could. Because what if she was here? What if these motherfuckers had her too? What if they were—
He cut that line of thought off just like he did every time it sprang up. He’d go fucking insane if he let himself go there.
Voices sounded in the hallway and he scrambled to his feet. Well, as much as he could with the handcuffs and connected ankle fetters. He shuffled hunchbacked toward the door and the small plexiglass window.
And saw her.
He thought she was a mirage the first time she came and pushed his tray of moldy bread and sour mush through the skinny two-inch rectangular hole that had been sawed in the door.
She was tiny with long dark hair, wearing a faded white dress. Like some sort of angelic apparition.
But then she got closer and he saw that no, she was a flesh and bone woman. Because surely an angel wouldn’t be walking with a limp and have a black eye and a split lip.
She refused to approach with the tray until he backed up to the opposite wall. Then she slid it through and ran away as fast as she could.
Charlie couldn’t even be mad that the tasteless bowl of mush spilled all over the floor
. If he were her, he wouldn’t voluntarily get within three feet of a man either.
He hadn’t spent the last eight years hiding Audrey away from the world for nothing. Which was when it hit him—Audrey. If Audrey was here, this woman might know her.
It was all he could think about. So the next time the woman came, he ran for the door and started firing questions. “Do you know a girl named Audrey? She would have been brought here the same time I was. Two months ago.”
The woman had been so startled by his voice she’d dropped his tray and fled.
“Wait!” he’d shouted after her. “Audrey. Do you know her? She’s my sister. Please!”
But all he heard was the sound of rapidly fleeing footsteps. And then nothing.
She didn’t come back for three days.
It wasn’t unusual to go that long between meals. They gave him a gallon of water once or—if he was lucky—sometimes twice a week. But meals were hit or miss.
Still, the next time he heard light footsteps approaching, he backed away to the furthest wall and raised his hands in surrender.
He didn’t dare say a word. If Audrey was here, this girl could be the key to getting information about her and he wasn’t going to fuck it up again.
She wascautious as she approached. Hesitant.
He waited patiently as he could manage.
She shoved the tray through the hole, sending the bowl splattering again, and then ran away.
As much as it killed him, he did the same thing the next three times she came.
And on the fourth, he said in his calmest, gentlest voice, “I won’t hurt you.”
She startled so much she almost dropped the tray again.
But she didn’t make a run for it.
Considering that a win, he continued, still not moving from the wall and keeping his hands up and visible. “My name’s Charlie.”
He didn’t push any further than that.
She didn’t say a word. Just shoved his tray through and skittered away.
But the next time, he started talking about Audrey. “I have a sister about your age. Her name’s Audrey. She drove me crazy growing up. Little sisters, you know? Always coming in my room and bothering me and my friends when we were playing video games. Trying to tag along when I’d go to the mall.” He shook his head. “Jesus, it feels like a million years ago.”
The woman hadn’t bolted. The tray was paused halfway through the slot.
Charlie didn’t move an inch but he kept talking.
“Dad and I couldn’t believe how lucky we were when all the girls and women in town got sick but she stayed healthy. It was like a miracle.” Charlie huffed out a sad laugh. And then, when the woman still didn’t leave, he told her about what happened with his dad and the mob that came to the front door, and how he escaped with Audrey out back.
“She’s dead now?”
Her voice was so soft at first Charlie thought he might have imagined it.
He sat up straighter and she flinched backwards, tray clattering against the slot as she yanked it back.
“Sorry, sorry,” Charlie said, chains rattling as he lifted his cuffed hands again and put his back flush with the wall. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I— I don’t know where she is. She was with me when—” He swallowed, looking down. “The men from here, they attacked us when we were getting water.” He lifted his eyes to hers where she watched him warily through the plexiglass. “I thought if they brought me here, then maybe they brought her too.”
Her eyes dropped and Charlie’s heartbeat sped up. What did that mean?
“Is she here? Do you know her?”
Her eyes flicked back up to his. “A lot of girls come through here.”
Nausea hit Charlie fast and hard. She was confirming his worst fears. No, his worst fear was that Audrey was dead. But what this woman was describing was a close second.
It was an open secret that girls were trafficked all over the territories. The President had officially outlawed it, but there was a reason Charlie chose to stay with Audrey in an underground bunker for almost a decade. Law and order were so far from a reality yet, it was fucking laughable. The old wild west looked like a picnic compared to the Texas of today, and Texas was actually way better than most places.
Charlie bit his cheek against the million questions he wanted to ask. Don’t press it. She’s just opening up. Push too hard and she could bolt again.
But then those big doe eyes of hers blinked up at him again. “I could maybe… ask around.”
“Yeah?” The word came out half-strangled. Was she really just— Just offering like that when he’d— “Cause that would be— It’d be fuckin— Sorry, I just, it would mean everything—”
“I’m not promising anything,” she said sharply. Then, as if she’d just remembered the tray in her hands, she gestured down to it with her eyes. “Here. Take this.”
And, though she watched him warily, she stood still as he approached. He came slow, careful. She was skittish as a deer. When he got close enough to take the tray, he saw her hand was shaking.
And for the
first time since she’d shown up, he thought about her. Really
thought about her, and not just in relation to the info she might be able to get him on Audrey. What was life here like for her? She said girls came through. But not her? She obviously had some sort of position here.
Maid? Servant? Slave?
While her split lip was healing, she had a fresh bruise on her cheek.
“Who hurts you?”
Her eyes shot up to his through the glass and he realized too late how harsh the question had come out.
He didn’t apologize, though. Or look away. For a second, neither did she.
In spite of the bruise and her too pale skin, she was undeniably beautiful. So, so fucking beautiful. She had huge, translucent blue eyes that looked far too sad for the rest of her angelic face.
What the fuck had happened to this girl to bring her here?
“I have to go,” she whispered. “If I can find anything out about your sister, I will.”
And then she was gone.
She didn’t come back for a week. The longest goddamned week of Charlie’s life. And when she did, she didn’t have any news about Audrey.
“It doesn’t mean she’s not here, though,” Shay whispered.
That was her name. Like the sound of a sigh.
“Travis Territory is big and there are several processing facilities.”
All thoughts of beautiful names and sighs fled at that. Charlie’s blood went ice cold.
Even though he hadn’t eaten in a week he wasn’t sure he was gonna be able to get down the food on the tray Shay brought.
“But I’ll keep asking around,” she rushed to add, obviously seeing her words upset him.
One of the guards who came through sometimes walked by then so she yanked back and scurried away.
And it continued like that for weeks. Quick, stolen conversations broken up by long, endless days of nothing.
But during the moments she was there, Jesus, it was more than a lifeline. Charlie lived for the sound of her soft footsteps on the tile outside his door.
didn’t yet have any information on Audrey, Shay filled in so many gaps. He was being held in Travis Territory. To the southeast of what used to be Austin, Travis Territory centered around a township where a good-sized river sprang up from the Edwards Aquifer. Before the Fall, Charlie had even visited the place.
You used to be able to take glass-bottomed boat tours on the river and watch the springs bubbling up from the source waters.
And now it
was home to one of the most powerful and corrupt governors in the country.
The building where Charlie was being held used to be a faculty office in the English building of the old college campus.
The one thing Shay wouldn’t talk about, though?
Anytime Charlie asked anything about her, she clammed up and scurried off. So he learned not to. Because every second talking to her through the door was like being able to breathe after days starved for oxygen.
Thinking of their brief moments together helped get him through the hard days.
And there were plenty of hard days.
Because as much as he tried to hold out hope, in his darkest moments, it was too easy to believe the worst about Audrey. They’d been in the middle of fucking nowhere when they’d gotten ambushed. Even if Travis’s men didn’t get her, what were her chances out there all alone in the world?
She wasn’t even safe on her own Uncle’s fucking property.
if not for Shay, it would have been too easy to give into the dark thoughts.
Take this week for instance.
twenty-third birthday was coming up in a couple weeks and he couldn’t get this one memory out of his head. Audrey’d been maybe six and it was before the Fall.
Before Xterminate, before any of it.
He was eight and playing with his friends in the backyard. He’d already told her to go away but instead she just went over to the swing set and started swinging, staring longingly at him and his buddies where they were playing armies by the back fence.
Little sisters were so annoying, he remembered thinking.
He’d been climbing a tree when all the sudden she started up an unholy wailing. Just looking for attention, like always. He shook his head and ignored her, climbing higher.
But she just kept crying, louder and louder until she was screaming bloody murder. He kept waiting for Dad to come out of the garage and take care of it, but he must have had that stupid old rock music he liked playing. And Dad had made him promise to look out for his sister for the afternoon.
So with a huff, he climbed down from the tree and went over to the swing set, face flaming in embarrassment at having his friends see him have to deal with his sister who was such a freaking baby. She was seven but here she was wailing her head off like a two-year-old.
She was even laying on the ground by the swing set, like she’d thrown herself on the ground to throw a full out tantrum.
“Come on, Audrey,” he muttered as soon as he got close. She just wailed even louder. He rolled his eyes and knelt down on the ground beside her. Her face was cherry red and fat tears ran down her cheeks.
“Audrey, stop crying.” He hated it when she cried. It was loud and well… he just didn’t like it. “Come on, sit up.” He held out a hand and hiccupping, she took it. He put his other hand to the back of her head and helped her sit up.
“All right. You’re okay now. Calm down. It’s okay.”
And then he pulled his hand away from the back of her head.
It was covered in blood.
Blood dripped off his fingers, even.
Charlie’s stomach cramped just at the memory. He’d been playing with his friends, having fun, and she’d been lying there, seriously hurt. Crying—no, screaming for him—and he’d just ignored it, for what? Five minutes?
The sound of those screams kept him awake at night. Filling the silence of his office prison.
Look out for your sister.
His Dad had made him promise the same thing he had so long ago when the bad times came. No matter what happens to me, look out for your sister. And Charlie had sworn, sworn, both to his dad and to himself, that he would never fail her again like he had that day in the backyard.
But he had. And ten thousand times worse.
Because whatever she was going through right now, wherever she was, wouldn’t be solved by a trip to the emergency room and twelve stitches to the back of the head.
And he was stuck in this fifteen-by-ten-foot room, fucking useless. She was out there, with God knew what happening to her, screaming and screaming for his help and he couldn’t get to her—
“Let go of me. This is for the prisoner!”
Charlie jerked to attention and ran to the door, ankle fetters yanking taut and tripping him halfway there. He hit his knees hard but then stumbled back to his feet and scrambled to the door.
Just in time to see the big, bald guard who sometimes patrolled yank the tray of food out of Shay’s hand and then backhand her.
Charlie roared, pounding the door with his fist. “Shay!”
Her body was knocked to the ground where she lay crumpled like a ragdoll. “Shay!”
The bald bastard nudged her with his big, booted toe, then chuckled and walked off, tray in hand.
about to pound at the door again but fisted his hands and bit back his curse.
Because goddammit, he didn’t want to do anything to bring the guard back. Yet again, he was fucking useless. Another woman he cared about was laying out there hurt and he was here, just feet away, and he couldn’t do a goddamned thing to help her.
As soon as the guard’s footsteps were gone, he dropped to his knees to look through the tray slot.
“Shay. Shay! Can you hear me? Are you okay?”
But she just laid there.
Charlie grabbed at his hair, wanting to yank it out by the roots and—
But then he heard a noise.
The smallest groan.
“Shay!” He smashed his face to the hole in the wall and thank God. She was moving. He shoved his fingers through the small slot. “Shay, Jesus, are you okay?”
What the fuck, obviously she’s not okay.
“Sorry, that’s stupid. Can you sit up?”
She rolled over and dragged her body further into the little alcove where the office was, out of the path of the main hallway.
When she finally sat up, he expected tears. He expected a bitter grimace. He even expected to see blood.
And she did have a fresh split lip, blood trickling down from the corner of her mouth.
But what he didn’t expect?
For her to be fucking smiling.
She was grinning. Huge.
Charlie asked uncertainly. “Are you feeling okay? He hit you pretty hard.”
When a small giggle escaped her lips, Charlie really started getting worried. But then she hopped to her feet.
And when she came near, there was a light in her eyes he’d never seen before.
“Shay, what’s going—”
“I know where Audrey is.”
Charlie coughed in shock, hand going to the plexiglass. “Where? Is she okay? Who has h—”
Shay gestured impatiently for him to move back.
He frowned, totally fucking bewildered.
He took a couple steps away from the door.
her grin got even wider, though he wouldn’t have thought that was possible.
And, with one quick glance back toward the hallway, she produced a keyring, holding it up briefly so he could see through the plexiglass.
He didn’t even have time to finish the thought before he heard the click of the lock turning. Then the door pushed open.
He couldbonly stare in shock as Shay slipped inside. Her dark head was bowed as she flipped through keys on the keyring. Then she reached for his hands.
“Shay,” he gasped. “How did you—”
She didn’t look up from unlocking the shackles around his wrists. “I stole them off Carl when he was grabbing for the tray. I’d scrounged up some butter for your bread and made sure to pass by him. I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist.”
“But he hit you.”
Shay just shrugged it off as if it was nothing. She got his wrists free and then dropped to his feet. The sight of her, crouched down at his feet, was just too much.
“Shay, Shay, stop.”
Charlie leaned down and put his hands on hers, taking the keys.
Those endless blue eyes of hers flashed. “I know where Audrey is. And I’ll tell you.” Then her face went flinty with determination. “As long as you help me get the hell out of here.”
He felt his eyebrows shoot to his hairline. This woman was full of surprises. But everything she was saying was music to his fucking ears.
“You’ve got a deal.”
In another half minute, he had the shackles off his feet. The chains dropped to the floor and he stood fully upright for the first time in three months.
Then he reached out a hand to Shay.
2018 Stasia Black