Chapter One – Coercion
co·er·cion | \ kō-ˈər-zhən, -shən\
Definition of coercion
: the act, process, or power of coercing; They used coercion to obtain the confession.
co·erce | \ kō-ˈərs \
Definition of coerce
1: to compel to an act or choice; was coerced into agreeing; abusers who coerce their victims into silence
2: to achieve by force or threat; coerce compliance; coerce obedience
3: to restrain or dominate by force; religion in the past has tried to coerce the irreligious— W. R. Inge
It hurts to think. It hurts to breathe.
The bite of his fingers haunts my jaw. Ghostlike pains stab my chest as I breathe, each inhalation pulled cautiously through my teeth in case he’s lingering nearby. I must be careful. I don’t want to draw attention to myself.
Wish I could disappear.
My entire existence twists down into one place, deep inside, into the part he hasn’t killed yet, where I might set aside the aches gnawing into my bones and try to think.
Wish I had some water.
If I could look in a mirror, I would see the bruises.
I can’t do that, though, look in a mirror. I can’t move or see much of anything.
I try to focus. He is not here.
The stifling darkness obscures my prison, although I can see it in my mind’s eye. My arms stretch overhead, one cold metal cuff tightly clasps each wrist.
I can’t see much, but I can think, despite the grinding pain, always at the edge of my mind. I use my other senses – smell, touch, hearing, taste – to take stock of my surroundings in the brief hiatus before he returns.
In addition to a cracked rib and a bruised face, an aching tenderness throbs between my legs. A sharper sting where my lip has split reminds me I will feel numb soon enough.
When he comes back.
My tongue sneaks out to test the extent of my newest injury. I run the tip along raised, cut flesh, still pulsing and tender.
Not too bad this time. Good.
My lip is okay, just sore and cracked from being so dry. Everything is sore and dry.
I’m dehydrated and who knew it would be such a painful experience, not having enough water?
The headache grows worse every day, nearly unbearable, a constant, sinister pounding behind my eyes.
Reminding me I am mortal.
I am going to die. Soon, I think.
Nine days have passed, based on the tiny dents I’ve been able to scratch into the headboard next to my head. Although he keeps me in near pitch-darkness, I can feel the small ridges I’ve dug into the wood with my fingernails. I count nine, which means I’ve woken up nine times.
I really don’t know if actual days have passed or if my sleep schedule is just off. Maybe only hours lapse between stretches of unconsciousness. That idea is too horrible, though, the thought that time crawls by so slowly. It would mean I am only extending my misery into eternity.
I don’t know what’s worse: The thought of time passing more slowly than I realize, dragging my precious minutes into infinite desolation, or that it speeds by far too quickly, hustling my hours and days to a nightmarish end.
I don’t want to die. I don’t my last breaths of life to terminate in this hell.
I want water.
I am dreadfully thirsty. I haven’t been given nearly enough to drink.
Not since he took me.
I was in my shop the day my life changed forever. An off-the-beaten-path little hole-in-the-wall place in old town, a part of the city everyone with money long abandoned, while those of us without it stayed and tried to scavenge an existence. An old consignment shop turned fortune-teller’s, once my partner and I realized lies are easier to sell than the discarded possessions of strangers.
A faint mustiness always clung, but that was easily concealed with plenty of incense, which coincidentally lent a not-unwelcome, obscure mystery to the atmosphere.
Scarves and beads and oddly assorted bric-a-brac completed the illusion I was an enigmatic woman of knowledge, of foresight.
I would laugh but I can’t find humor in my current situation. Only a nauseating sort of irony.
Had I truly owned the foresight so boldly proclaimed by the flashy reader board outside my shop, I would not find myself here, in Hell itself.
~ INSIDE ~
potions sold and dreams foretold
ask for Madam Sunshine
I want to feel the sun on my face one last time.
My fingernails grow more ragged than usual from my attempts to escape, but so far they have proven no match for a solid oak headboard and hard metal handcuffs. And, as much as I long to sink my claws into the flesh of my captor, my current predicament provides no such opportunity. Yet.
No such opportunity yet, I tell myself.
However, I can wait. I can be patient. So long as I hold on to hope.
He’s not here, but…soon, I think.
I wake every time, just before he returns, and I’m reduced to an animal-like reality, near-quivering with terror and eagerness in similar amounts. He hurts me, but he is my sole source of water and food and light.
I need water. I need it soon.
I might not know just how much time passes, but I sense he’s on a pretty regular schedule.
My eyes snap open when I recognize keys rattling at the front door, the creak of it opening, the soft click of latches falling back into place, the tread of booted feet moving through the house.
I am never filled with such perfect apprehension as I am at the sound of those measured thumps. I know what they mean. I know what time it is.
I try desperately to gather some spit into my mouth so I can swallow the lump of fear expanding at the back of my throat as I listen intently to those steps. They grow softer – he’s out there – then louder, until they pause, right outside the door to my room.
The door opens softly, and a gentle golden light spills around the edges to silhouette my own personal devil. It’s him, of course.
It’s always him.
“Hey, baby girl.”
He says the same thing every day. I take a breath and wonder how long I can fight today before he wins and forces me to drink my potion. That is what he calls the drugged water he gives me, potion. I think he believes the reference to be as ironically amusing as my fortune-telling sign.
My belly swoops with fear.
“You must be so thirsty, honey. Look, I brought you something to drink.”
I want it and I don’t. This is part of the dance, the ritual, the ever-expanding illusion I cling to.
“Not thirsty.” The lie, same as always, escapes my dry throat and cracked lips.
I am so fucking thirsty I want to cry.
I am parched, and I know he’s doing this on purpose, keeping me like this. On the edge of survival.
“Don’t. Lie.” His voice is whiskey shot with honey, raspy-low, and scratchy-sweet, never quite hiding the menace behind the sugar.
The first time I heard it, I thought it was beautiful, thought he was beautiful, all tall and dark-haired and amber-eyed.
I thought he was a nice guy.
“Don’t want that,” I mumble, warily eying the plastic water bottle he carries. But my reply is fumbled, clumsy and thick-tongued from the dryness in my mouth, and it holds no authority in tone or delivery. If I had anything in my stomach I would vomit.
He shakes the bottle in three harsh pumps, and I wince at the startling, sloshing noise. It’s loud and my head hurts.
I glare at him.
If he will not let me go, I wish he would at least leave me the hell alone.
He doesn’t, of course. He comes closer.
I monitor his approach, his shadow dark in contrast to the golden light flowing in from the open door behind him. I watch his long, dexterous fingers unscrew the bottle’s cap.
He sounds annoyed and my pulse skips wildly at the silken warning in his voice. “Don’t lie, baby girl, I know you’re thirsty.”
I am. I’m so thirsty I hurt from it.
He presses the edge of the bottle to my mouth, the plastic spiral pushing hard against my lips.
The cut on my bottom lip throbs angrily, a reminder of the inevitable if I fight too hard. A little resistance is okay, but too much leads to punishment.
I wonder if I will ever not be bruised and suffering again. If I will ever be…whole…again.
I’m dehydrated and cannot cry but if I could produce tears, they would be frustrated and powerless and copious.
I turn away, but he quickly grasps my face, strong impatient fingers biting into my jaw over old bruises that will never fade if he keeps doing that. He does it every time. Another part of our dance.
He holds me still and tilts the bottle. A wet trickle slides across my cheek.
I don’t want it, but I’m so thirsty. My dying body clamors anxiously, demanding me to drink, drink the water, who cares if it’s drugged? Just drink.
“Please don’t have a bad day, honey.”
A slight emphasis on the words bad day implies I have a choice in the outcome of all this. As if all my days aren’t bad, haven’t been unimaginably bad since he brought me here.
If I cannot find a way out, the rest of my days will be much worse.
“You know I don’t like it when we fight.” His voice grows chill, all coaxing tones evaporating like mist.
You’re dying, Rey. You need to drink.
I finally convince myself to yield to the quenching promise trickling away and soaking my cheek and the pillow beneath me. I turn and gulp the tainted water as it pours against my mouth and trickles in cold rivulets down my chin, trailing over my neck and into my hair or alternately down my chest.
I swallow mechanically as my eyes adjust to the softly-spilling light.
I look at him.
He smiles, so handsome my toes want to curl.
He’s tall, tall and dark, with thickly-waving, raven hair trimmed neatly and worn just long enough to cover his protuberant ears. His eyes are butterscotch, spiked with shades of amber and gold, framed by elegantly-winged brows and lovely black lashes. He occasionally wears glasses and they shouldn’t add to his allure, but they do. He wears them now, and they glint softly in the hazy light, riding low on his long nose.
His nose is rather large, but it suits him. A smaller nose would be strange in combination with his unusual facial traits – face too long, cheekbones too high, jaw too narrow, forehead too prominent, crooked teeth, and pale skin dotted with moles – slightly asymmetrical features, which on their own might not be terribly appealing, but collectively are somehow very attractive.
His mouth is the only truly perfect feature he owns. That mouth with its full, red lips, lushly endowed with a pillow-soft plushness, would make any vain teenager envious.
Yes. Pretty hair and eyes, and luscious, luxurious lips. And the rest of him a hodge-podge of extremes that work quite well together.
And he’s big. Well over six feet tall and burly, not stocky. No, he's built with heavy slabs of muscle carved like marble, pecs and abs and thighs muscled in the way of a predator. He’s not some overly-inflated, puffed-up gym-rat. He is catlike, all sleekly-rippling strength under tautly pulled skin, dangerous at rest, unstoppable in motion, every movement a graceful symphony on his large-boned, handsomely built frame.
A beautiful animal. And a deadly one.
He moves like water. Smooth and powerful and devastating in a storm.
His large hands cup my skull and push my mouth firmly against the bottle at my lips.
I finish gulping the water, having succumbed to the inevitable, and I glare at him when I finish. I want more, but my belly is full and aches from what I’ve already had.
My head falls back onto the pillow, wet from my brief and pathetic resistance just now, and I feel a familiar wave of dull giddiness.
“There now, baby girl. Doesn’t that feel better?” His throaty growl brushes over me, warm and velvet-smooth, satisfied now that I’ve done his bidding, however reluctantly.
A familiar buzz from whatever he’s added to my water rapidly infuses me with false bravery. He stares down his long, beautiful nose and I feel reckless.
I want these handcuffs off. I want to go home.
The edges of the room blur and I ask, “Won’t you please let me out of here? I promise I’ll be good. I promise.”
His face darkens into a scowl and I belatedly realize my mistake.
Shit. Shit, fuck –
His hand flies out of nowhere and connects with my mouth hard enough to rattle my teeth together. The cut on my lip splits open again and I yelp at the sharp pain. The copper tang of blood hits my tongue and I try not to gag.
If I throw up my water, he will give me more drugs and then I might die.
I blink up at him in fear, frozen.
“Ungrateful fucking bitch.” He bares his teeth, and his voice crackles with rage. He runs a hand through his hair, visibly agitated. “You think I enjoy this? Keeping you like this? Like a goddamned animal? Fuck. If I thought I could trust you not to run off, you think I wouldn’t let you go?” He raises his hand again and I hate myself for cringing away.
I still can’t cry, despite the water he just gave me. But I want to. I really do.
My cowering seems to pacify him, and I’m not sure if I should try to apologize just to be sure. I’m feeling more of a buzz now, as the drugs he fed me begin to take over.
“Maybe I need to show you again? How much you mean to me?” he whispers softly. “Is that what you want? It is, isn’t it?”
“Is that why you provoke me like this? Because you like it?”
I shake my head, too afraid of another slap to speak the words out loud, too afraid to change the steps to this part of our dance.
Besides, it’s pointless.
My mouth stings and my head spins. He unbuckles his belt and I turn my head away, wondering if I am ever going to feel the sun on my face again.
“Ah, you do. You like it…” he mutters. He hovers an inch away before dragging his tongue over the re-opened cut on my lip.
He kisses me softly. Slowly. Like he’s sorry. It’s just another part of the dance we do. Our ritual.
As if we are in some kind of real goddamn relationship, not this nightmare replica of one.
“Just because we had a fight doesn’t mean we can’t make up. Right, honey?”
After fourteen more marks scratched into the headboard, I’ve grown terribly weak. I need his help to use the bathroom, to sit up. I can barely move on my own. Apathy drips incessantly into my thoughts to erode my grip on hope.
All I can think about, all I care about is water. When it is coming, and how can I get more?
Twice a day he uncuffs me, and twice a day he patiently guides me to the bathroom. We’ve become more marionette and puppet master than dance partners at this point.
My pee smells strongly of ammonia now, toxic and undiluted and it is dark yellow from dehydration. I wonder vaguely if my kidneys might fail soon. I wonder how much longer I might last like this.
Once a day he helps me shower, seating me on a plastic bench – the kind used by elderly or disabled people who can’t stand up on their own for long – and he scrubs me down like a dog, while I furtively lap at the spray like a beast. I try to get as much moisture as I can without being too obvious about it.
He doesn’t like it when I do that. I try not to let him catch me at it.
But, I’m so thirsty. I am preoccupied with water, obsessing over it as I’ve never fixated on anything before.
He has not hit me again. I haven’t asked him to let me go since Day Nine.
I think it would be pointless to ask, anyhow.
I’m weak and thirsty, and I’m not going anywhere.
Today, he seems to realize this, and after scrubbing me down, he carries me to the barren living room. He tucks me into his plaid sofa with a comforter and uses a remote control to turn on the television.
“You’ve been so good, baby girl. You can watch some TV as a treat, okay? Doesn’t that sound nice?”
I stare unseeing at whatever is on the screen. It could be a horror flick or Maury Povich for all I know or care. I cannot move, my muscles cramp and burn from the exertion of showering and being carried and sitting upright.
He seems satisfied I’m not going to jump up and run and leaves me huddled on the couch. I hear rustling from the front bedroom where he keeps me. After a few minutes, he reappears with a bundle of dirty sheets in his arms. He watches me for a few seconds, but I haven’t moved, so he leaves again.
Those sheets definitely need a wash.
I cannot muster more than mild disgust. I consider trying to run for it, but I'd never manage the complicated series of locks on the front door before he catches me. Besides, my legs are so weak I cannot stand. Not without his help.
I am weak from the drugs, and I don’t think I should have much more of whatever he’s been giving me.
Or I really am going to die.
Although maybe that won't be so bad. Maybe if I have a little more potion, I will finally escape this bad dream forever.
Except he didn’t give me any today.
Today he says I’ve been good. I wonder what he means when he says that. Maybe I will get some water soon. I’m so thirsty, maybe I should ask for water.
He might hit me if I ask.
I think if he hits me again, it might cause some permanent damage. Maybe even kill me.
I wonder if I should tempt him into it. Killing me.
But I don’t really want to die today. Not really. Not yet.
I’ve been chained to a bed for weeks. This brief change of scenery, of position, makes my head whirl. The light, even dim as it is, hurts my eyes, but I do not close them. I sink into the couch cushions and force myself to stay awake, to observe my surroundings. This is an opportunity.
I should try to find some hope. I can’t.
It’s dark outside, after sunset, I think I can tell through the tightly closed blinds. I do my best to ignore him moving through the house. I pretend maybe I’m back home, watching my own TV after a long day of work at the shop.
I try to imagine I’m burrowed under my favorite blanket, a cup of tea within arm’s reach, or even better, a glass of ice-cold water, and I can have as much as I want. I try to imagine I am strong enough to stand and walk around without cruel fingers digging into my arms or ribs or hips as he helps me. I try to remember what the touch of sunshine feels like, what fresh air smells like.
I dream of the taste of water.
I doze, drifting in and out of dreamy wakefulness to the vapid low tones on the television and muted clattering from the kitchen. He’s cooking dinner by the sound of it.
I’m not hungry.
I haven’t been hungry since he took me, although I know he’s fed me enough to keep me alive.
Mostly I’m just thirsty.
I want water so fucking bad.
Don’t think about it. You’ll go crazy if you keep this up. Think about something else.
I recall the first time I saw him, and, for the millionth time, I rehash my mistakes, the obvious cues I ignored, the indicators I can only see now with perfect hindsight.
The bell over the shop door tinkled softly, alerting me to a customer. As usual, I wore sweatpants and a t-shirt and was hanging out in the back of the converted shop I used to share with Rose Tico.
Before she eloped, Rose was my best friend, or so I thought. But she took off almost a year ago, and I’d been managing the business alone since she left.
Before she ran off with a boyfriend I never knew existed, Rose made a better fortune teller than I ever did. She had a good intuition about people, she used to joke. But she left, and so I became Madam Sunshine, heiress to ancient wisdom and dubious supernatural abilities.
My sign said “potions sold” but that was mostly because it rhymed with “dreams foretold” and had a nice ring to it. Occasionally a curious teenager would come in thinking “potions sold” meant I sold drugs, and I would set the record straight in no uncertain terms.
I wondered who was here now and if they really wanted a fortune.
I threw on my turban and fringed shawl. Stereotypical, I know, so sue me. But the costume helped me look the part and it was easy enough to revert back into a shop owner after fortune-telling.
He came into the shop with slow purpose, closing the door conscientiously behind him, and my nerve endings sort of…tingled with adrenaline.
I assumed he was there for a palm reading or horoscope or maybe he just wanted someone to tell him he would get everything he’d ever dreamed of. Because that was what I did: Sold dreams and peddled hope to the sad and lonely and desperate.
Anyhow, the first thing I noticed about him was the cop uniform, complete with badge and gun.
He crammed himself into my veil-swathed booth and flashed me a wolfish smile, folding his impossibly long-legged, broad-shouldered frame into the guest chair across from me.
Every instinct I owned told me to run, right then and there. I chalked it up to his overpowering size and my natural distrust for law enforcement of any kind, especially considering my business wasn’t exactly on the up-and-up.
But I hid my nervousness well and simply asked how I could help him.
He very politely asked for a fortune as advertised on the sandwich board outside. His smile broadened, and my heart skipped a beat, my initial trepidation falling away.
Because, shit, he was sexy.
I took a deep breath, pretending to gather the forces of destiny around me, when really I was trying to collect my flustered thoughts into a semblance of order.
He waited patiently until I deemed an appropriate amount of time had passed. I hunched over my plywood table covered in a paisley swath of fabric scavenged from an estate sale. The fabric was hideous, but in the ethereal, veil-draped concave I’d created, it really worked, really looked authentic, you know?
After a quick once-over, I noticed he did not wear a wedding ring, nor was there a sign of one being recently worn on his ring finger. A tiny white streak at the corner of his mouth told me he had brushed his teeth that morning but missed rinsing all the toothpaste away.
He’s single. Lives alone. An educated guess.
Since he had asked for a fortune, I peered into my “crystal ball” – a glittery garden globe I’d picked up from Home Depot a while back – and made up some shit about him finding true happiness, the love of his dreams, yada-yada-yada.
“When?” he murmured.
Uh. I had no fucking idea when. I was thrown off. People didn’t usually interrupt me.
“Soon,” I assured him with an encouraging nod.
He watched me so closely the whole time, I grew increasingly uncomfortable as I went on. I felt him…collecting my every move, I don’t know how else to describe it. He watched me like he was trying to memorize a textbook. Intently and with full concentration.
I felt like a mouse being sighted by a hawk.
Eventually, my sub-par fortune ebbed, falling away from my lips as everything became a standstill, a standoff, almost. I couldn’t read a damn thing from him. I sincerely hoped he liked his fortune, but for all I knew he was here as a joke.
I didn’t get the impression he was taking any of this too seriously.
No. Rather…he was taking an interest in me, the girl under the turban. He watched me like he was trying to strip it away. And the shawl. It took me a minute to figure it out.
He was undressing me with his eyes.
I felt a flutter of something in my belly. Oh!
I tried to stop my cheeks from turning pink at the unwelcome discovery, but it was futile. Keeping a blush off my face has always been impossible and I hate that about myself.
I trailed off, and we sat in silence for a few heartbeats. Finally, he murmured, “Thank you, Madam…?” A tiny hint of sarcasm touched his voice.
“Madam Sunshine,” I blurted stupidly, still basking in the flattering glow of his obvious interest and thoroughly disarming gaze.
His smile broke the tension like a pebble gently breaking the surface of still water. Ripples of anticipation fluttered into me as I realized I was attracted to this customer. Sexually.
He licked his lips and blinked slowly at me, giving me time to get over it. A hint of his cologne or aftershave or deodorant or whatever hit my nose and I blushed harder. He smelled incredible and I kind of wanted to lick my thumb and stroke it over the dried bit of toothpaste at the corner of his fabulous mouth and press my nose into his neck and breathe in his scent…
He slid twenty bucks across the hideous paisley fabric of my cheap table with a soft “Thank you for such a…magnificent demonstration of foresight, sunshine.”
“Um. You’re welcome, Officer –” I glanced at his badge “– Solo.”
He chuckled and my pussy clenched hard in response.
“Call me Ben,” he murmured. He was still staring at my mouth, and I was going to go up in flames. I didn’t need supernatural abilities to recognize that look. He felt it, too, I was sure. Hot desire writhed through me and throbbed insistently between my legs.
I was rendered nearly speechless as his gaze lingered for just a second longer than it should have. Definitely inappropriate. And then he stood abruptly and exited my ridiculous booth and I felt…kind of empty and sad.
I didn’t know why he left so quickly or if I’d ever see him again, and it put me off for the rest of the day. I closed up shop early and went home in a bit of a mood.
I don’t know if twenty minutes or two hours have passed when the warm weight of him settles next to me on the couch, waking me from my doze.
He’s holding a plate of food and watching me like a raptor. His own plate sits on the coffee table next to a large glass of ice water. The glass drips with condensation, and I have never lusted for anything in my life as I do for that water.
“You hungry?” he asks. I’m not, but he holds a bite of mashed potato on a fork and I open my mouth in robotic obedience, learned the hardest of ways. Fighting him at feeding time ends very badly, every time I’ve tried it. I don’t have it in me to fight right now. Plus, if I’m good he might give me some of that water.
He blows on the bite first, cooling away a faint wisp of steam, then carefully feeds me one forkful after another.
It’s good. Really good. I open my mouth automatically for more and he feeds me, the light in his eyes changing from wary to satisfied as the food disappears from my plate.
He likes this. Me needing him.
The food makes me tired, but my mind grows more alert by the minute. He hasn’t drugged me yet, and I’m so very thirsty…
“Please,” I murmur, finally unable to help myself. “Can I please have some water? Please?”
He pauses, fork halfway to my mouth. I have introduced something new to the dance, but so has he. If he kills me over it, at least I can say I died trying.
“Sure, baby girl. Since you asked so good…”
I am near-trembling with relief as I realize he is not going to kill me, and I’ve never asked him for water before. I’ve only ever begged for him to let me go.
He holds his glass to my lips and I know immediately it is not drugged.
I slurp the water, cold and fresh, and it’s so lovely, so soothing, such a goddamn fucking miracle. I gulp down as much as he will let me have. I can feel it sliding along my tongue, a cool trickle against my throat and down my esophagus. I can feel it hitting my stomach, mixing with the food he’s given me, churning happily into my cells, absorbing into my body.
I drain the whole glass, eagerly sucking at the droplets as the ice cubes bump against my lips. It’s so fucking good, so delicious and wet and cold, and I want to cry when he finally pulls the nearly-empty glass away, ice-cubes clinking gently to remind me there’s more water in that ice, or will be when it melts, and maybe I can have it in a little while.
I keep my eyes lowered, trying to stay calm. My mind hurtles into overdrive, though. My heart pounds a crazy, desperate cadence.
I feel like I’ve found a missing puzzle piece and locked it in place, the piece that can show me the whole picture, now.
And now I know what to do. I just need to think for a minute.
I can ask for water, and if I’m good he will give me some. I cannot mention wanting to leave. I cannot mention being let go. Ever.
Every time I do it, he grows wild with rage and it always ends in me getting slapped and worse.
I realize he’s watching me, and so I softly tell him, “Thank you.”
He tells me I am welcome and feeds me the rest of my dinner. I’m exhausted by now, and I lean into the couch, watching idly as he picks up his own plate.
When he’s finished eating, he carries me back to my room and cuffs me to the headboard. I’m full, and I’ve had water. And no drugs. I’m more alert than I’ve been for a while. I haven’t worn clothes for weeks, and I feel chilly. He neatly folds the blanket that covered me and sets it at the foot of the bed.
As he does every night, he strips out of his clothes and climbs on top of me.
I lie still and let him do whatever he wants, too happy to have finally had enough water to make an ordeal over what always follows dinner.