Chapter One – kidnapped by Fae
I pulled my car into the parking lot of Sherwood Apartments. For a second, I sat in my car and gathered myself. The evening was…fun. Nice. Something warm fluttered inside my chest. I climbed out of my car, taking my phone in one hand and my keys in the other.
As I crossed the parking lot, I unlocked the screen of my phone.
Made it! Have a good night! <3
I sighed in relief and texted Ashley back with one hand.
Have a good night, Ash! I’m home, too.
Without warning, I struck something hard. My phone flew out of my hand, and I stumbled over Ashley’s heels, while I tried to regain my balance. I snapped my head up. My blood seemed to freeze as I locked eyes with the young man before me. Those eyes were the same light, crystal-blue as Ashley’s were, but Ashley’s eyes were always bright and smiling. This man’s eyes were like ice and sent a sharp, involuntary shiver racing down my spine.
Slowly, I noticed other features. He was about my age. His face was all sharp angles and his skin the palest milk-white I’d ever seen and stood in stark contrast with his night-black hair. I doubted anyone would ever call him handsome, but he was pretty in a strange, otherworldly way.
“Watch where you’re going, you idiot!” he snapped.
For a second, I couldn’t speak. It was as if he’d cast some sort of spell on me and rendered me speechless. He swept away, stepping on my phone and grinding it into the concrete, before continuing down the sidewalk. The crunch of my phone on the pavement was like a trumpet blaring in my ear. Suddenly, the spell snapped, and everything came crashing down.
“Asshole!” I shouted after him. “What’s your problem?”
Seething, I bent down and retrieved my phone. A long crack split the screen in half, but it looked like my case had kind of worked. This was salvageable, at least. I traced my finger over the broken split in the glass and scowled. My head jerked up, as I prepared to give that son of a gun a piece of my mind, but he was gone.
Strong fingers seized my arm and jerked me back. When I twisted around, pain jolted up my arm, all the way to my shoulder. It was him.
How did he get behind me so quickly?
“Excuse me?” he asked. “Did you say something?”
I twisted my wrist, trying to free myself, but his grip tightened. Something sharp and hot, like lightning, burst through my arm. “What did you do?” he snapped.
“Let go!” I shouted, deliberately raising my voice. “What the Hell is wrong with you?”
I didn’t see anyone around, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t. Someone might hear me.
“Apologize,” he said.
“Apologize?” I asked. “For what? For you bumping into me?”
He smiled thinly. “I don’t take kindly to being called an asshole.”
“And I don’t take kindly to being grabbed, you weirdo!”
I moved into a fighting stance, and with as much force as I could, launched my foot forward. My borrowed heel gauged into his shin, and using the distraction, I twisted my wrist free. He fell back, hissing. In the streetlights, his blue eyes gleamed in fury.
“Now, get a move on before I call the police!” I shouted.
“You’ll regret this,” he said. His voice was cold and stern, as if he was delivering some deep prophecy.
Abruptly, he turned on his heel and walked away. For a few seconds, I stood, my hands curled into fists. I just wanted to make sure he really walked away. I waited until he vanished from view before quickening my pace. My feet pounded on the pavement.
There’s nothing he can actually do to me, I thought. He’s just a creep who doesn’t understand how to act like a freaking decent human being.
A shadow swept over the pavement before the apartment door, so sudden that I jumped. I halted. A toad. That was all. I let out a nervous, breathless laugh and bent down. “You need to stay away from the pavement,” I whispered.
I glanced up to ensure the creep wasn’t still lingering around, but I didn’t see him. Still, he might be hiding in the shadows, watching. I ought to just dart into the apartment and lock the door. But if I woke up in the morning and realized that someone had stepped on the frog or run him over with a car, I knew I’d feel guilty. Besides, now I was close enough to the buildings that someone would hear if I screamed.
And I’ll be damned before I let some creep dictate what I do.
The frog croaked. I smiled and after placing my phone beside the doormat, I scooped the frog in my hands. This one didn’t fight like the last one had. A chill tingled down my spine. I’d just quickly put him back. Gingerly, I kicked off my borrowed heels and padded down the cold pavement. I squinted in the darkness, trying to find the brambles, as I carefully made my way down through the grasses and weeds. As I placed the frog on the ground, something hard pressed against my palm. The frog croaked from the ground, gazing at me with large eyes. I tilted my hand, palm up, and frowned. There, resting in my hand, was a small gold ring. It was shaped like a tiara and set with twinkling, white stones.
“How did you get this?” I whispered.
The frog croaked again, as if that was an answer.
I straightened and slipped the ring onto my middle finger. It fit well, which was surprising. My ring size was a ridiculously small four-and-a-half. Rings never fit me.
“Thank you?” I said.
The frog hopped away and splashed into the drainage ditch.
Weird, I thought.
I cautiously climbed back from the weeds and brambles and back to the sidewalk. I rubbed my feet on the welcome mat before our apartment, grabbed my phone and borrowed shoes, and unlocked the door. My eyelids felt heavy. I just really needed to go to bed.
“Stupid creep,” I muttered.
I didn’t recognize him, though, which meant he didn’t hang around the apartments much. I’d probably never see him again. Thank God for small mercies.
I slipped inside the apartment, quietly closing the door behind me. In the darkness, I saw Cedric, sprawled over the sofa. Empty beer bottles littered the table before him.
Where is Mom? I wondered.
I stepped quietly into the bedroom, my eyes narrowing as I looked at the bed. Empty. My gaze darted to the bathroom door and the strip of light beneath it. I sucked in a sharp breath. I would’ve never imagined Mom would be awake when I got home, and here, I stood in Ashley’s red velvet dress and shimmering pumps.
I’m nineteen, and if I want to go out with my friend, I should be able to, I thought.
But at the same time, guilt rushed through me. I’d lied, and now, I was caught in my lie.
The door creaked open. I straightened my spine and waited, as the light spread over me. Mom stepped from the bathroom, stopping abruptly to look me. “Where have you—I thought you were at work.”
I gulped. “I was out with Ashley. Actually.”
“You—you lied to me?” Mom asked.
“Yes. I’m sorry,” I said. “I—”
Mom laughed. I frowned and furrowed my brow, unsure what she thought was so hilarious about being lied to.
“You’re not mad?” I asked.
Mom shook her head. “You sneaked out to a party or something? That’s not so bad. I did my share of sneaking around when I was young. Why, my parents hated your father! He had this long hair that they absolutely loathed. They said he looked like—” Mom cut off abruptly.
“My father?” I asked.
I remembered my father, and he didn’t have long hair. It was short and cut close to his scalp.
Mom flipped off the light. “Your father,” she repeated. “Yes. When he was young, he had very long hair.”
“I don’t remember that.”
Mom ran her finger along my ear and kissed my forehead. “You wouldn’t,” she said. “You were very young. Get in bed. It’s late.”
As I pulled off Ashley’s dress, I heard the creak of box springs as Mom climbed into our shared bed. She’d taken me lying…abnormally well. Maybe she was still mostly asleep, and the realization of what I’d said hadn’t really sank in. I fished a hanger from the closet and hanged Ashley’s dress on it. Then, I pulled on the first pair of pajamas I found.
My father had long hair, I mused.
I tried to imagine him young with long, dark hair, but the image didn’t want to come. Instead, I ran my fingers through my own hair. Just how long had his been? Was it between his shoulder blades like mine was, or even longer?
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. My dad had walked out of my life years ago, thank God, and he was never coming back.
My wrists hurt. I yawned and rolled over in bed, my eyes opening a crack, as I tried to get back to sleep. Metal scraped somewhere at the edge of my hearing. Probably Cedric. He never seemed to care that I worked until two in the morning. I groaned. My head felt too heavy, and my mouth tasted of iron. I sat upright, blinking blearily.
The blanket, for lack of a better word, was some a threadbare, stained piece of rough cloth. Like burlap or something. I lifted my hand to grasp it, and my wrists ached. Handcuffs! But they weren’t made of steel. Instead, the cuffs seemed forged of something gold-colored. Maybe bronze? But oddly, I found no seams or breaks in the metal. It was as if they’d been forged right around my wrists. I raised my wrists, twisting them in the light.
The handcuffs were still there, hard and unyielding. And already, they’d left red, raised welts across my skin. I pulled hard, testing the chain between them, but that only made the cuffs dig in more harshly.
I looked wildly around. This wasn’t my bed. This wasn’t my room. The walls were made of rough, gray stone that ran the length of the room. It looked to be square and was barely wide or long enough for the bed, and the bed wasn’t exactly huge. At one end of the room, there was a wooden door, banded with a dull, black-gray metal. Behind the bed, there was a window, set with round, golden bars, through which I could see pale blue slats of the sky. My chest ached. All my blood seemed to rush to my head.
Where am I? What happened?
I stepped gingerly onto the floor, which was made of something sleek and gray. My foot ached. Ashley’s shoes had left blisters. And I—
I wasn’t wearing my clothes. A sharp, shrill scream tore unbidden from my throat. My chained hands fumbled with the dark blue cotton pants. This wasn’t my shirt either. It was the same color as the pants and embroidered with H-3157 in stark, black thread. I backed against the wall, my head reeling.
Someone changed my clothes.
My pulse raced.
Someone changed my clothes.
The words somehow wouldn’t register. I rushed mindlessly to the door and seized the knob, twisting and yanking. It didn’t budge. Some distant part of me knew that was to be expected, but another, louder part of me seemed to have all the control. And that part wanted to rip the door off its hinges.
But the door still didn’t budge. I stumbled back, my chest heaving. Was I shaking, or was it the room? I gulped greedily, trying to force air into my lungs. There didn’t seem to be enough of anything. This wasn’t my room, wasn’t my bed, weren’t my clothes, and—
All my thoughts crashed and collided so violently that my knees shook. I clambered over the bed and hauled myself up. I forced myself onto the balls of my feet, so I could gaze out the window. Grass and sky. It looked as though I was on the side of a hill. Or a mountain.
There aren’t any hills or mountains in Hattiesburg. Where the Hell am I?
I bolted from the window, tripping over the blankets. The mattress felt strange beneath my feet, all prickly and uneven. I edged into the corner, keeping my back to the wall and the door in my line of sight.
What happened? What happened? What happened?
My heart raced, the echo of its beats reverberating in my skull. This looked like a prison. But not quite. It didn’t resemble the prisons I’d seen in movies with the bare, tile floors and bunkbeds. There weren’t enough bars, and everything looked too old here.
But what happened?
I searched my memories. The part with Ashley. Travis and Alejo. That jerk in the parking lot. I felt a sharp flash of fear. But no, that was completely irrational. I’d made it home. I distinctly remembered talking to Mom. If someone had pulled me out of my room, I would’ve woken up. Or Mom would’ve woken up. Even as useless as he was, I doubted Cedric would let someone just break into our house and take me.
But what if whoever took me did something to them?
Bile rose in my throat. I felt like I might vomit. Just in case, I searched for a toilet, but all I found was an empty pail. I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled my knees up to my chest. Someone had brought me here, changed my clothes, and done who knew what else. I dropped my forehead to my knees and tried to fight back the wave of nausea that rose inside me.
My eyes burned with tears. I rubbed them roughly away against my knees. Focus, Gaudere, I thought. What do you know?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Maybe I’ve been caught by human traffickers, I thought, with cold and creeping dread.
Just recently, the vice president of the university sent out an email about human trafficking on campus. Someone had passed around fliers and made posts on Facebook about an alleged human trafficker, and after the university police department was flooded with calls, the university had to step in and ask people to stop calling. There was no proof of any human traffickers on campus. There never had been.
I sucked in a deep breath. What if it hadn’t been a hoax?
But, no. That was ridiculous. I’d made it home, where…
Where something terrible happened. I choked back a sob. Whatever this was, I had to be strong. But all I really wanted was to take a bath in boiling hot water, so I could scrub every inch of me.
And someone changed my clothes. I shuddered. What else had they done? Groped me? Or worse? I tipped my head back against the wall and dress a quick, shaky breath. No. It wouldn’t do to think like that. I’d only upset myself. I needed to pull myself together, so I could survive whatever this was. Just survive. I could do it.
Across the room, the doorknob turned.
There was no one there. I cautiously uncurled from the bed and padded to the door. Was it a mistake? Carefully, I peered out. Before me, there was a wide, round tower that stretched upwards as far as I could see. Just beyond it, there were several rooms, their wood doors thrown open. Around me, there were rooms, too. People flooded the halls, all of them dressed in the same dark blue pants and shirts.
“Get a move on!” a voice barked.
Someone shoved harshly against my shoulder. My head collided with the wall. Black spots obscured my vision, as I stumbled. Dimly, I made out a dark-haired man in a heavy-looking white coat. He seized my arm and dragged me forward, shoving me. The hall crowded with people bustling, shouting and moving.
I stumbled. A foot struck my shin. Pain thundered through my leg, and although I tried to keep my balance, it was impossible in the crowded hall with people rushing all over and around me. I fell, my wrists scraping hard against the ground. When I tried to stand, something collided hard with the back of my head.
I yelped. A foot stamped on my hand. I pulled my arms back, the cuffs digging into my wrists. “Stop!” I shouted.
But no one did. There was kicking, stomping, and moving. I tried edging towards the wall, but I was caught in a flood of people. Panic rose inside me. My chest hurt, and my breath came quickly. I fought, trying to force myself up with everything in me, before I was trampled, but I couldn’t make it. Cackling laughter rose in my ears. Someone kicked my face. My jaw ached.
“First morning?” A sharp, feminine voice asked.
A hand seized my bicep, hauling me up. I gasped, my head aching with the sudden movement. Stumbling over my feet, the hand pulled me through the throng. My head spun. All I could see of my rescuer was a froth of short, red curls and a slender figure, drowning in the same blue cotton clothes that I wore.
I quickened my pace, trying to catch up to her. Her arm left my bicep and drifted lower, her fingers pulling on my cuffs. “Keep up, Doll-face,” she whispered. “They’re a rude bunch! You can’t expect them to stop for you.”
I glanced at her profile and was so startled that I nearly stumbled. If she hadn’t gripped me so tightly, I’d have probably fallen again. She was shockingly beautiful, like an Instagram model who’d been put through a half-dozen filters and Photoshop. Her skin was the same golden-brown as the banding on a piece of polished tiger’s eye and just as smooth.
My gaze drifted lower. SP-4562 was embroidered across her chest.
Numbers, I realized, for identifying us.
Maybe that was how the human traffickers were keeping count of us.
“What’s going on?” I asked, shouting to be heard.
The woman’s green eyes remained firmly fixed ahead of us. “Breakfast! If you’re late, you won’t eat until six o’clock tonight. So don’t be late. Keep moving because no one will stop for you.”
“Breakfast?” I asked.
“Yes. You slept through the first bells. At six o’clock, you shower—”
“In the morning?” I asked.
She nodded sharply. “Six o’clock. You make your bed and shower. Breakfast is at seven. After breakfast, you return to your cell for roll call and inspection. The warden will likely remove the cuffs for you, provided you behave. At nine, is exercise. You have leisure time between ten and eleven.”
“Wait. A warden?” I asked.
The woman steered me down a crowded stairwell. The railing crushed into my hip as we descended. “Yes. A warden.”
“But—I’m in prison?” I stammered.
Her brow furrowed. “Where did you think you were?”
Prison. This was all a mistake, then. Hope blossomed in my chest. Even though I’d never been in prison before, one of Mom’s ex-boyfriends had gone to prison. There were laws and Constitutional rights. They couldn’t just keep me here. If it was a prison, there was still hope. “I—I thought this was human trafficking or something! It’s a prison?”
“So—so I get a phone call, right?”
“A…phone call? I don’t know what that is.”
What? I glanced at her, unsure if she’d misheard me.
“My mom,” I said. “I can call my mom. This is—this is a mistake! You can’t just throw someone in prison. There has to be a trial and—and evidence! I have Constitutional rights!”
No, there had to be. “This is a mistake,” I insisted. “I don’t—I don’t belong here! I haven’t done anything wrong! This isn’t legal!”
“It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing you can do.”
Heat rushed to my face. Why was she so nonchalant about it?
Maybe she’s just messing with me, I thought. That must be it. Surely, I get a phone call. And if not, I’m sure Mom will call the police. Or Ashley will. Then, they’ll find me. They can’t keep me here forever.
We reached the floor, emerging into a round area. The tower base stood in the center of the room, surrounded by small, square tables bolted to the ground. The woman released her grip on my cuffs and shoved me forward instead. Already people—no, prisoners—were seated at some. I twisted around, searching. I bumped into someone and received a growl in return. The woman pushed me away. When I looked over my shoulder, my blood ran cold.
It was a man. No, not really. He couldn’t have been any older than I was, but I didn’t notice that at first. Instead, my gaze fell upon the straitjacket, strapped tightly over his massive form and the leather mask covering the lower half of his jaw. Another low growl rumbled from his throat. Clumps of his matted, brown hair fell into his blazing gray eyes. I shivered, as his attention fixed on me.
“H-2159,” the woman said quietly. “He’s always in a bad mood, so stay away from him.”
Considering I had no desire to go near him, that wouldn’t be very hard. Before me, I could see that two lines had formed. A cafeteria.
“This is the only time I can help you,” the woman continued in a low tone. “If you want to survive, you’ll get as far away from me as you can. I’m trouble.”
Without warning, she shoved me away.
“But I—I don’t even know—what’s your name?”
She tapped the number over her chest. “Can’t you see? Or are you blind as well as stupid? SP-4562,” she said, raising her voice. “Now, stay away from me, you bitch! The last thing I need is dead weight pulling me down!”