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Apr/May 2018 Fiction

Rumpelstiltskin

by Linda Griffin

Found: in ABQ – studio art jewelry by Jessica deGruyter

Found: in ABQ – studio art jewelry by Jessica deGruyter


I: Jack

He didn't believe in love at first sight, but as soon as she came in, he wanted to touch her in ways he had never wanted to touch a woman before, to slide his hands over her warm, bare shoulders and stroke the back of her neck. She wore a sleeveless shirt, which showed a lot of smooth, tanned flesh and bulged out in front over her pregnant belly. Her dark hair was tied back in a ponytail, but tendrils of it had escaped, lying limply against her cheeks. The hot weather had raised drops of sweat here and there on her skin.

"I'm so sorry," she said, turning away from the crib. "Could I use the bathroom?" Her eyelashes were long and dark and gave her a sleepy look. She smiled apologetically. "I have to go all the time now."

"Sure," he said. "Right through there." He watched her walk away, pretending he wanted to be sure she didn't make a wrong turn, while he checked out the way her tight jeans showed off her shapely ass.

The idiot with her rolled his eyes, as if it was too tiresome the way women were made. He was not bright enough to appreciate a woman like this. "Why don't you go put the tailgate down, and I'll help you carry it out," Jack suggested. He busied himself with raising the side rail he had lowered to show the wife how easily it worked.

As soon as the idiot had gone out the front door, Jack stepped quickly toward the bathroom, keeping his footsteps light, quiet, so she wouldn't hear. The toilet flushed, covering other sounds, and he knew the click of the lock would go unnoticed. Before she could finish washing her hands and try the door, start a ruckus, he went out to the pickup.

The idiot was still behind it, moving things around in the bed to make room for the crib. "I guess your wife is feeling sick," Jack told him. "Maybe you should—" The idiot turned toward him, and the knife slipped in under his ribs, as smooth as butter. The idiot was, to say the least, surprised, but not for very long.

 

He raped her twice the first night, just to let her know how things stood. He told her not to look at his face, even though she had seen him before, so she kept her eyes shut tight. Her mouth was a grim line, as if he was hurting her, but he didn't think he was. She was a big girl; she could take it. He liked the taut skin of her swollen belly, the sheen of sweat between her large breasts, the way her fingers gripped the headboard above the rope. She was a keeper.

He stood with his back to her while he pulled on his pants, in case she was tempted to peek. "When is the baby due?" he asked.

For a minute he didn't think she was going to answer, but finally she said, "October 17th," her voice small and scared.

To reassure her, he said, "Hey, I'm not a bad guy. You'll get used to me."

After he went out and locked the bedroom door, he could hear her crying. It wasn't exactly flattering, but she was probably worried about the baby and shit like that.

 

He brought her a good breakfast. He hadn't given her anything to eat before, so she would be hungry enough to appreciate his generosity. He could tell she had figured things out. She knew about the steel hurricane shutters over the windows and the deadbolt on the door. She knew this had all been carefully planned and she wouldn't get out until he let her.

She kept her head down while she ate. She didn't seem to enjoy it very much. It was as if she were forcing herself to eat for the baby's sake. "Eggs okay?" he asked. They were a little soft, but he liked them that way, and maybe she did, too. She nodded. He watched until she had eaten every bite, sitting stiffly in the chair with the plate on her lap—if it could be called a lap. "Good girl," he said as he took the plate. He hoped he didn't sound condescending. She needed to know who was master, but humiliation was not part of the plan.

He asked politely after her comfort—the room was a little too warm for him, but he hadn't turned up the AC because he'd taken all her clothes. He could see she was a little embarrassed in front of him, but he didn't mind. Her nude body was a feast for his eyes.

"How long...?" she asked.

"Let's see," he said. "October 17th—so that's what? Three months?"

"No, please," she said. "Please." She started to cry, and he went out and left her to it. Women, especially pregnant women, cried easily. It was perfectly natural, but not pretty to watch.

 

When he brought her dinner, she seemed calmer and ate with no fuss, but she had nothing to say. "Aren't you going to talk to me?" he asked. She shrugged and kept eating. "Tell you what," he said. "You know the story about Sherazade?"

"Scheherazade?" she said. Obviously she was educated, but not too snotty about it. Her voice sounded as if she'd been crying. Duh.

"Yeah, her. Told a story every night so the king wouldn't kill her? If you talk to me, have a nice civilized conversation with me, I'll let you off tonight."

"Let me go?" she asked.

"Be serious. I won't fuck you—this one time, because all of this is still new to you. Do we have a deal?"

"What do you want to talk about?" she asked.

"How about you? I don't even know your name. I don't think your idiot husband mentioned it, and I guess your purse was in the pickup."

She raised her head but remembered not to look at him. "Where is he?" she asked. "Is he here?"

"Uh, no. He split. We... came to an accommodation."

"You're lying," she said.

"I said a civilized conversation. No insults. What's your name?"

"Brenda."

"No. I don't like it. Pick another one."

"But it's my name."

"I said I didn't like it. Are you deaf? Pick another one."

"K-Kate?" she suggested.

"No. Come on, use a little imagination. Make this worth my while. And try not to stutter—it's unattractive."

"I don't know what you want. What names do you like?"

"Close your eyes and look up at me." An oxymoron, but she knew what he meant and obeyed, and he studied her face. It was not as round as he liked, but not bad. She had a nice mouth. He hadn't tasted it yet, and he looked forward to that. Pretty cheeks, too, and the eyelashes were a bonus. She had tiny pink studs in her ear lobes. If she was good, he would let her keep them. "I guess I'll have to see your eyes," he said. "Open them."

"No, I don't want to see your face. You said—"

"I said conversation, not talking back. Do as you're told, and we'll get along fine."

"Please, I just want to—"

"Open your eyes, or I'll break your arm."

She opened her eyes. Tears glistened in them, but they were lovely, big and brown, a little unfocused as if she was still trying not to see him. "Please don't threaten me," she said softly. "I'll do what you say."

"Glad to hear it. I think I'll call you Samantha. You should be able to answer the rest of my questions all by yourself. How old are you?"

"Twenty-three."

"Nice. You didn't really want to be married to that idiot, did you?"

"Yes! He's not—"

"What? What did you say?"

"No, I didn't want to be married to him. He's an idiot. Is that what you wanted to hear? It isn't conversation if you all you want is a parrot."

"Oh, good girl, I like it when you show a little spirit, but I want to be sure you understand who's in charge here."

"You are."

"I am," he agreed. "This your first baby?"

"Yes."

"Do you know if it's a boy or a girl?"

"Chris—my husband—didn't want to know, but I think it's a boy."

"I knew he was an idiot. Chris is a girl's name anyway."

"It's Christopher."

"Duh. Do you have a name for the baby? Better than Brenda or Chris I hope."

"Lisbeth if it's a girl.'

"After Lisbeth Salander?"

"No, we just like the name. For a boy Charles or Preston—it's a family name."

"Poor kid."

"Can you do better?" She seemed to be trying now, getting into the spirit of things.

"I'll give it some thought. Do you have a job? Besides catering to the idiot, I mean."

"I'm still in school. Psychiatric nursing."

"Oho! I'd better watch out, huh?"

They talked for more than an hour, on a variety of subjects. He was well pleased with their little chat; she was good company. But he didn't want her to think she could manipulate him, especially if she'd studied psychiatry. He'd have to keep her on her toes. He agreed she'd been up to the challenge, and then he raped her anyway.

 

II: Brenda

She went over and over it, trying to remember. She had told her sister Kate they planned to look at a crib, but had she told her it was through a classified ad? Had she told her they were going out to Freeman's Bluff? Had Kate even listened to what she said? Had she left the newspaper with the circled ad where Kate or the police could find it? She went back again and again, trying to pin down each word, and failed every time. Perseveration they called it in one of her abnormal psychology classes.

Maiesiophilia. That was another word she had learned in the class. Pregnancy fetish. Sexual attraction to pregnant women. Why else would he have a crib in the bedroom and put an ad in the paper? He had been very careful not to put all of his weight on her abdomen, careful of the baby. He seemed to like the shape she was in, kissing and stroking her belly. Had he done this before? Was she the only woman he had tied to this bed? She tried to remember if any stories had appeared in the media about missing or murdered pregnant women, but the only one she could recall had ended in the conviction of the victim's husband.

Rumpelstiltskin. That was how she thought of him, because he wouldn't tell her his name. Oh, he wasn't an ugly little troll or anything of the sort. She hadn't observed him closely, and she wasn't good with faces anyway, but she thought he looked like an ordinary, pleasant young man with shortish brown hair. She didn't think she could describe his face or pick him out of a lineup, but she knew he didn't resemble a fairy tale monster. Even if it had been an exact fit, Rumpelstiltskin was too much name, so she shortened it to Stilt.

In the fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin asked the miller's daughter for her first-born child in exchange for spinning straw into gold, but gave up his claim if she could guess his name. She couldn't remember any version of the story that explained what he wanted with the child. What did Stilt want with her child? Did he want it? If the crib was only for bait, why not store it in the garage? Would he lock her up for three months so he could do something with the baby, or would he only keep her until she no longer satisfied his maiesiophilia? Now that he had let her see his face, would he have to kill her?

She tried not to think at all about two subjects: what had happened to Chris, and what happened to her when she was tied to the bed. Stilt had tried three positions so far, with no awkwardness or sense that he was experimenting, not even in the way he tied her. He had done it all before.

She also tried not to think about what would happen to the baby afterward, but it weighed on her mind too much to ignore. Stilt didn't answer when she asked if she would be giving birth in a hospital. She couldn't imagine him being involved in something like human sacrifice or satanic rituals. Maybe he wanted to sell the baby—a healthy infant would bring a good price on the black market. The possibility that he would kill them both when he was done with her made her wake up in a cold sweat night after night. She knew she shouldn't have told him what she was studying. It made him wary of her, careful of what he said. She hadn't much hope of manipulating him, convincing him to let her go, if such a thing had ever been possible. She could only be herself, comply as much as possible, wait for him to let his guard down, watch for an opportunity to escape, and hope to be rescued. He didn't react well to direct questions, but she tried to feel him out by dropping hints about things like her missed doctor's appointment or Kate being worried about her.

For the first few days she had done nothing but sit—when he let her sit—and cry, but it got old pretty quickly. This was her new normal, and until she could change it, she had to deal with it. She walked around the room a lot, for the exercise, and when she had calmed down enough, she made good use of the contents of the bookcase. A lot of the books were on the subject they had most in common—Taboo Secrets of Pregnancy, The Pregnancy Bible, The Joy of Pregnancy, The Pregnant Body Book, The Caveman's Pregnancy Companion, The Greatest Pregnancy Ever, Sacred Pregnancy, The Art of Pregnancy Photography, The Pregnant Madonna in Christian Art, and so on. Was he educating himself, or was this his version of pornography? Childbirth was covered, too, and she read those less for her own information than to discover what he might have learned from them—did he intend to deliver the baby himself? She had been scared even about having it in the hospital, with Chris and Kate by her side! She discovered books to read for pleasure, too—biographies, fiction, true crime, nature, and travel.

She tried a few times to engage him in conversation about the books, but it didn't seem to be his favorite subject. He did like to talk about pregnancy, especially hers—not about the baby, but about the changes it brought. He told her how beautiful she was to him, with her glowing face and her ripe, luscious body. In other circumstances, it would have been music to the ears of a woman who had felt awkward and ugly for months now.

He only fed her twice on most weekdays, so she guessed he was at work, but she never heard him leave, and he never gave her a clue about what he did for a living. He did like to talk about movies and places he would like to travel. He was interested in her childhood memories, but almost never shared any of his own. She couldn't guess what had made him the way he was, and she could not, even to save her first-born child, guess his name.

One night he woke her up and told her to get out of bed. As soon as she did, she had to urinate and told him so. "Be my guest," he said. He pushed her into the bathroom and locked the door. She thought he might be hiding her and listened hard for the slightest sound to suggest someone else was in the house, someone who would hear her if she screamed and pounded on the door. She didn't hear anything. She was in the bathroom for a long time, so she curled up on the rug, cold and awkward, and went to sleep.

Much later he woke her up, took her back to bed, and tied her so securely she couldn't move her fingers without cutting off the circulation. He raped her and left without a word. He usually had her tied to the bed only during sex, but this time he left her that way until he brought her breakfast in the morning. She was furious. It was so unfair! He had no idea how hard it was for her to get comfortable even in the best of circumstances, and her bladder was about to burst.

She never found out what it was all about.

Sometimes Stilt acted as if he loved her or was at least grateful to her, glad she was there, but most of the time he seemed cold, hard, matter-of-fact: This is the way it is; get used to it. Even when he threatened her or used bad language, he didn't seem angry, didn't raise his voice. He called her Samantha several times and then changed it to Amanda, and later it was Tiffany, Cassandra, and finally Lizzie. He never called her Brenda. Once when he was in his most loving mood, she told him how uncomfortable it was to be tied up, and he took her hands and kissed the marks the rope had left on her wrists. Later he brought her a tube of ointment and left it on the bedside table. He didn't stop tying her up, but he never left her that way again.

Once, after he had finished raping her, he lay beside her for a while, and when she thought he was untying her, impatient for him to get it done so she could try to get comfortable, he retied her in a different way, arranging her for a different position. Except for the first night, he had never done that before.

"Not again!" she said. It was stupid, of course, but she was tired, and it had been worse than usual. He didn't like it one bit. He hit her in the face and went ahead as if nothing had happened, even though blood gushed from her nose.

Okay, lesson learned!

 

III: Jack

This one was a little bit of a thing and very young. She came alone to see the crib and explained that she could ask her father to pick it up in his truck when he got off work. That was good—sounded as if her baby daddy was out of the picture. She would be hungry for loving. She had the perfect round face of his dreams—tiny, exquisite ears, very short blonde hair, blue eyes—adorable. "You look awfully young to have a baby," he commented as she ran her hand over the polished wood. She didn't seem to like him being so personal, but she was so cute he didn't mind her not answering. "How far along are you?" he asked. She was wearing a dress and her big, round belly hitched it up almost above her knees.

She ignored him, which was downright rude. He almost asked her if she was deaf, but it might have spooked her, and he didn't want to do that. "It's really nice," she said wistfully, "but it's a lot of money."

"Maybe we could negotiate a little," he suggested.

"You mean it's like not a firm price?" she asked hopefully. He would have to cure her of that disgusting linguistic habit.

"I might entertain a reasonable offer," he said. "Would you be paying cash?"

"If it's not too much," she said, and then, a little embarrassed, "Jeez, I gotta pee again. Could I like use your bathroom for a minute?"

"Right through there," he said.

 

IV: Brenda

It was the last thing she would have expected. He had another woman in the house, next door to her bedroom. She was excited at first, thinking she could attract her attention and get her to help. Then she thought maybe she knew what was going on and accepted it, like a Nancy Garrido type—maybe she was the one who wanted the baby. It took her a few minutes to understand that the other woman was in the same situation she was.

She was very loud. She screamed and yelled and kicked the door and threw things. It went on for a long time, and Brenda was astonished by such energy. She knew she should feel something for the girl—she obviously wasn't very old—but at first she was too surprised to feel anything. Maybe her feelings had been dulled by what she had been through.

When she did start to feel something, it should have been pity, compassion, or, thinking of the times when Stilt said he loved her, even jealousy. Instead she felt only embarrassment. She was a little ashamed because she hadn't stood up for herself as this girl did—why had she been so easily cowed? He was bigger, stronger, and faster than she was, but she was smarter, wasn't she? Mostly she was embarrassed for the girl, who was wasting energy and making things tougher for herself, with no chance at all of accomplishing anything. Didn't she have any pride, any sense of personal dignity?

She did not. Brenda had decided her room was soundproof, because she never heard any noise from outside, but the new girl yelled so loud she could understand a lot of what she said. She used terrible language: profanity, obscenities, and colorful insults. She called Stilt things to his face that Brenda hadn't even dared to think, and she yelled "No!" over and over and over again. Brenda thought if she was Stilt, she would kill the girl just to shut her up. Instead he apparently tied her to the bed, and it slammed against the wall again and again, so loudly it seemed as if it must surely break or punch through the wall. Either the girl fought him all the way, or he was banging her brains out—or both.

When he came in with Brenda's dinner, the noise was still going on, the girl yelling and pounding and cursing. He looked a little dazed, and scratches marked his face. Brenda's heart raced from the excitement and from rising fear—she had been replaced, and they both knew she would be able to pick him out of a lineup now. Was he going to kill her? No, at least not tonight. Tonight he was going to feed her.

She didn't want to say anything for fear of setting him off, but he nodded toward the common wall and said, "Sorry about the noise. She's not used to me yet."

"You have your hands full," she suggested.

He smiled a sheepish, boyish smile. Brenda was embarrassed for him, too. "Yeah," he said, "but damn, she's cute!"

"Cuter than me?" It was meant as a joke, but he didn't always get her sense of humor.

"Don't get jealous on me, Lizzie," he said. "You know I love you."

"Does she have a name?"

"What's it to you?" he asked—he never liked direct questions—but he relented and told her: "Nicole."

"Will you change it?"

"Nah, she looks like a Nicole." Something crashed against the wall. "Damn!" he said, but he wasn't angry; he was happy, bursting with the joy of new love. "Seventeen if she's a day," he said, "and about to bust. She won't tell me, but I'd guess eight and a half months—or else she's having twins."

Taking what she knew to be a dangerous chance, Brenda said, "You do know this isn't normal, don't you?"

"Yeah, yeah, Miss Psychiatric Nurse," he said. "What's your word again?"

She didn't remember when or why she had told him, but she knew what he meant. "Maiesiophilia?"

"Yeah. Fancy word. Just means love."

"They say if you love something, you should set it free, and if it comes back to you—"

"But you wouldn't," he said. "Women never do. Eat your dinner. I've got a long night ahead of me."

He did, and so did she, because there was no way she could sleep through it. Nicole screamed her fool head off, and when he was done with her, she sobbed loudly for hours. Brenda was relieved, because at least he wouldn't bother her for a while—Nicole was more than he could handle. Also, if he was right, she would give birth first. Brenda still had more than a month to go and maybe she would find out what would happen to her and the baby afterward.

She got a few hours of sleep before Nicole started banging on the wall and yelling, "Let me out! You effing ugly bastard, let me out!" Brenda wanted to tell her—yell through the wall or ask Stilt to relay the message—that raising her blood pressure couldn't be good for the baby and might even send her into premature labor, but she wisely kept her mouth shut. The girl was her own worst enemy, and she'd have to learn her lessons the hard way.

For three weeks, she screamed, and the bed slammed into the wall, and Stilt came in every night and slept next to Brenda—apparently it was his bedroom the girl was imprisoned in. She hated it. She couldn't move to get comfortable without fear of disturbing him. He didn't tie her up unless he was going to rape her, which only happened a couple of times a week now, but he slept too lightly for her to think of escape or attack. He woke up when she turned over and when she got up to go to the bathroom. He woke up when Nicole went to the bathroom, too, because she never did it without slamming the door as hard as she could.

Nicole went into labor in early afternoon. It was a weekend day—Saturday, Brenda guessed—so Stilt had come in to bring her lunch and have a little chat. They were used to Nicole screaming, and it took a while to figure out what she was yelling about this time. Although he had never mentioned the possibility to her before, he now decided "Lizzie" would help him deliver the baby. She did have a BSN, but she was not a midwife!

It was the first time she had been outside her room since he first locked her in. She remembered how sure she had been that she would escape at the first opportunity. Was this one? He was distracted, his mind focused on his darling Nicole. He might let her leave the room to get something. Could she walk out the front door? How long would it take before he came after her? If she remembered correctly, no neighbors lived nearby. Where were his car keys? Where were her clothes?

He kept a firm hold on her arm until they were in Nicole's room and he had closed the door. The room was very much like the other one, except the bookcase was empty—because the girl had been throwing the books? An almost identical crib stood against the wall, but the room had no windows.

Her first sight of her fellow captive was not encouraging. She was curled up on the bed, panting like a dog between screams, naked of course, and her blonde hair was damp with sweat and sticking up all over. She had a fading black eye and ugly bruises on her wrists, thighs, and ankles. "It effing hurts!" she yelled. "Give me a goddamn epidural!" If she had ever been as cute as Stilt believed she was, she certainly wasn't now.

"I'm afraid we don't have anything to give you," Brenda told her. "It would prolong your labor and increase the risk of complications anyway. Try to relax and take deep breaths."

Nicole stared at her. "Are you fucking nuts?" she asked. She took in her bulging belly and lack of clothing and added. "Shit! What is this, an effing harem?"

"I think we'd better tie her hands," Stilt said. "Help me out."

"No," Brenda said. She hoped he would be reasonable, because helping to tie another woman up—even one as annoying as Nicole—was where she drew the line. "We should get her up and let her walk around. She'll feel better, and gravity will help her along."

"I don't want to walk around!" Nicole yelled. "It effing hurts! Give me some drugs!"

Brenda was having sympathy pains—she hoped that was what they were. "Do you have any drugs?" she asked Stilt.

"Aspirin," he said, "and a little marijuana."

"That might help." She glanced at him. She couldn't tell if he was scared or excited, but something was happening with him. His face was flushed and sweaty. "Where is it?" she asked, hoping he would let her fetch it.

"I'll get it," he said, but he made no move to do so.

"I don't want any fucking weed," Nicole said. "I need some serious drugs!"

"Have you done this before?" Brenda asked. A direct question; he probably wouldn't answer.

"Have you?" he asked.

"No, and I don't want to do it now. Can't we take her to a hospital?"

"Yes, take me to an effing hospital!" Nicole yelled.

"Be serious," he said, and Brenda realized he was sexually aroused—childbirth turned him on, too. She wanted to tell him he was disgusting. She hated him. She hated Nicole. She did not want to be in this room with them—and damn, her stomach hurt!

He did leave the room to get the marijuana, but he locked the door behind him, and she had lost her best chance. She would have to help this psycho deliver a baby. He came back very quickly—he didn't want to miss anything. He also brought a pair of scissors, which he carefully kept out of reach. Everything else they needed was already in the room.

She couldn't persuade either of them that Nicole should get up. She wanted drugs, and he wanted her on her back with her legs apart. At first she wouldn't let him put the joint between her lips and then she sucked at it greedily. It didn't help much, and she went right on screaming for serious drugs. "Call 911!" she demanded. "I'm going to die! You're like killing me!"

"Relax, sweetie," he told her. "Lie back and let it happen. Let nature take its course." He had never used any kind of endearment with Brenda—he must be seriously in love with Nicole.

Her labor lasted for 12 hours and left them all exhausted. When Brenda had eased the slippery, red baby out, Stilt tied and cut the cord and leaned down to kiss Nicole on the mouth, a long, deep, sloppy kiss, and she was too tired to resist. "You did such a good job, baby," he told her. He stroked her face until she gathered the energy to slap his hand away, and then slid his hands over her breasts. "Cut it out!" she said peevishly, but she was too weak to protest much.

Brenda took the baby into the bathroom. It was a girl, and she was gorgeous. Flat out gorgeous. Tiny, perfect face, rosebud mouth, a little fine hair, itsy bitsy fingernails! She wanted to keep her, to hold her close and not let anybody hurt her, and it wasn't even her baby. How was she going to protect her own baby? The inside of the bathroom door had no lock, or she might have stayed in there. It was like hers, with one small, steel-shuttered window, no mirror, only plastic bottles, and nothing they could use as a weapon. She and Nicole might be able to gang up on Stilt, maybe get the scissors and stab him, if Nicole wasn't such an uncooperative pain in the butt. Now she was yelling again, apparently delivering the placenta. Brenda washed the baby off, wrapped her in a towel, and went back to put her in the crib, clean Nicole up, and change the sheets.

The girl was very uncooperative, and Stilt was in the way. When she was a little more comfortable, Nicole asked in an almost civil tone, "Give me my baby, will you?" While she held the precious bundle and cooed and whispered, Brenda risked a direct question to Stilt: "What will happen to the baby?"

"It depends on Nicole," he said. It sounded like a threat. A minute later he encouraged her to nurse—okay, he got off on lactation, too. Their ultimate fate seemed to retreat a little—how long could they nurse, and how long would he be fascinated by it? Long enough for him to get them pregnant again—if he could—and start over?

Presently everything was tidied up, and Nicole and the baby were asleep, and he took Brenda back to her—or now their—room. She collapsed on the bed, and he started undressing.

"God, I'm really beat," she said. "That was exhausting. I want to sleep for a week."

"Are you kidding?" he asked, very cheerful. "Sleep is the last thing on my mind. Don't be a killjoy, Lizzie. I'm so jazzed I could fuck you all night."

"Oh, lucky me," Brenda said. She was joking, and hoped he was.

He wasn't. He tied her to the bed.

 

Stilt didn't go back to work for three days. He was constantly in the other bedroom with Nicole and the baby, which was a relief to Brenda. He did sleep beside her, but every time the baby cried, he was in the other room again. He couldn't get enough of Nicole nursing her. He didn't have much to say about the baby, but oh, Nicole was so great, she was such a little trouper, so damn pretty, cutest little mom on earth, still had her delicious, pooched-out belly, not to mention those big, beautiful knockers, and the baby could suck like nobody's business!

Brenda wasn't allowed to see Nicole or the baby again. He wouldn't even tell her what they had named her—"it's our business." Her world contracted again to the single bedroom and attached bath. She tried to ask him how they were doing, but he was so busy rhapsodizing about his little sweetheart, he couldn't be bothered about the details—was she eating and sleeping okay, was she bleeding at all, did she seem to have a fever? No, of course not; she was perfect.

He couldn't have sex with her yet of course—even he understood that—so Brenda was lucky number one again. She tried, not for the first time, to suggest it was dangerous to have sex so late in the pregnancy, but he said that was bullshit. She shut up and waited with considerable dread for her own ordeal—would Stilt or Nicole be any help at all? What if she had a breech birth or hemorrhaged? Would he take her to a hospital, under any circumstances?

 

The baby was crying again. Brenda had barely gotten to sleep after a particularly exhausting session with Stilt, so she was annoyed, but he bounced out of bed, wide awake and happy as a clam. He was back in a few minutes, a little disgruntled. The baby had gone right back to sleep, and Nicole didn't think it was time for her to nurse anyway.

An hour later, the same thing happened. Brenda suggested he have her call or bang on the wall if she was ready to nurse and let them sleep otherwise. "You are getting to be such a drag," he told her. "I know you're jealous, but try to act like a grown-up." She was too flabbergasted even to attempt an answer. She turned over and tried to go back to sleep.

An hour later, the baby was crying again. "This time, for sure," he said, and she supposed he was going to force Nicole to nurse the baby even if they were both unwilling. She turned onto her back and waited for the girl to start yelling.

She didn't hear anything. Instead she realized she had not heard something. In the beginning of her captivity, she had listened every time for the click of the deadbolt when he left the room. It had never failed, and she had become less alert to it, instinct dulled, but she had no trouble casting back in her memory to hear it the first two times tonight. This time...?

Had he, preoccupied with Nicole, forgotten to lock the door? It was too much to hope for, but she couldn't let the chance go by—she would regret it too much later on. So she got up, tired and fuzzy, and went to make sure. She realized she would be relieved if it was locked and nothing more was required of her. She just wanted to go to sleep.

The doorknob turned in her hand. She listened hard for noises from Nicole's room or outside the door—was he coming back, disappointed again? She eased the door open, the better to hear. The only sound was a slight ticking, as from a clock somewhere nearby. A light was on in the hall, a small night light next to the thermostat, but the rooms beyond were dark.

What would Stilt do to her if he caught her? One thing he would not do was ever make the same mistake again. However unready she was for this opportunity, she must seize it. Nicole's door was closed, and now she could hear her voice: "Stop it!" and more too low to make out, and then "Jeez, you effing moron!" Okay, they were occupied, not listening for stray sounds in the hall. She walked very quietly, very carefully, touching the wall to orient herself.

The first room she entered was the living room. Very little light filtered in from the hall, and she could barely make out the couch. A few more steps and she could see the front door, where a faint light came through the small frosted glass windows at the top. Moonlight maybe, or the porch light was on. She felt her way around the couch, barked her shins on the coffee table, and stifled a cry of pain. The door was only a few yards away. She remembered coming in through it with Chris, remembered the size and solidity of it. She hadn't noticed what kind of lock it had, but she was sure opening it would involve some noise, and then what? Even if Stilt didn't hear her open it, how long would it take for him to come after her? How far would she have to go, barefoot, naked, to find help?

She took a deep breath and reached for the coffee table to edge her way around it toward the door. Something slid under her hand and she grabbed it to prevent it from making a noise, clattering on the wood or falling to the floor, and oh, my God!—it was a phone, Stilt's cell phone, or maybe Nicole's if he had taken it from her. Brenda took a few careful steps back toward the hall, where there was more light. She couldn't hear anything behind the door—he might come out any minute. She moved down the hall toward she knew not what, as long as it was someplace farther from Stilt.

There was a night light in the kitchen, above the stove. She could see the refrigerator, a moonlit window over the sink, and what she supposed was a back door—to the garage? Or a basement—what if something horrible lurked in the basement? More prisoners or piles of bones or dead infants? She put a protective hand on her own baby—he was her primary responsibility—and went farther into the kitchen.

She tried the back door, but it seemed to be locked, and she couldn't see how to unlock it. She found another door next to the refrigerator and it opened easily, with a sound that made her heart stop. She stood still for a minute and listened for sounds from the hall before she carefully opened it the rest of the way. A walk-in pantry, shelves full of dark shapes. She stepped back, and there on the counter was a rack of kitchen knives. She reached for the largest one. Could she—would she...? He deserved it. He had killed Chris. It was knowledge she had tried to keep at bay, and it came with a wave of grief. Her heart was racing, her time was running out, and now she was having a contraction, not for the first time—probably not actual labor, but scary. Could she kill another human being, even a sick, warped one who had imprisoned and abused her? What if she failed?

She had to do whatever she could, whatever was best for herself, her baby, Nicole and her little girl, and yes, even for Stilt. She took the knife, in case it came to that. She stepped into the pantry, laid the knife on the edge of a shelf, and closed the door. It was too dark to see what she was doing, but she fumbled with the buttons until the phone lit up.

She pressed 9-1-1. The contraction eased, and she was able to take a full breath before the call was answered. "911. What is your emergency?"

"I was—I'm being held against my will. I don't know the address—end of Campbell Road in Freeman's Bluff."

"Can you speak up, please?"

"No! I can't. He'll hear me. Did you hear...?"

"Go ahead, ma'am."

"End of Campbell Road, did you get that? Away from other houses, a small, white house, a—I think a red roof." Which they wouldn't be able to see in the dark. "A gate in front. I was raped, and there's another woman, a girl, she was, too, and she has a baby. A big man with brown hair. I think he killed my husband. I don't know his name. Please..."

"What is your name, ma'am?"

The pantry door was pulled open with such force that she jumped and knocked the knife to the floor. She didn't have to see clearly to know who it was. Stilt grabbed the phone out of her hand and threw it across the kitchen. "Hurry!" she screamed, in case the operator could still hear her.

She tried to reach down for the knife, but he grabbed her arm and jerked her out of the pantry. "You stupid bitch," he said. "I loved you. Did you give them the address?" She didn't answer, and he twisted her arm. "Did you?"

"I d-don't remember the address."

He pulled her with him to the back door—she hoped it was the back door, not the door to the basement he was going to bury her in—lifted a ring of keys from a hook she hadn't seen, and unlocked it. It was cold outside, and the moon was about half full. Even in this terrifying moment, it was an amazing sensation to breathe fresh air again. The season had changed while she was locked in. "I thought we were getting along," he said. "It's Nicole, isn't it? You couldn't take the competition?"

"That's crazy," she said. "You can't—"

"You had to mess things up." He opened the back door of a boxy SUV—she couldn't tell the make—and shoved her inside. She fell across the seat, twisted to shield her baby, and bruised one knee. He locked the door and went back inside—for Nicole and the baby, she supposed. Would he have to kill them now, or did he have another place to take them? All together in the closed space of the car, would it be easier to fight him, to escape, or would Nicole be too afraid to endanger the baby?

She tried to sit up, her heart pounding. Stilt had never shown her a weapon. Did he have one? What if he had one in the car and had forgotten about it? The thought gave her the strength to get up and try to reach the glove compartment, but her belly was in the way. Why was the female body so unwieldy when it most needed to protect itself?

She heard the kitchen door open again. "It's effing cold out here!" Nicole yelled. "I want my clothes!" Brenda couldn't hear what Stilt said in reply. It looked as if he, not Nicole, had the baby. He opened the back door, put her on the seat beside Brenda, and brought Nicole around to the passenger side, apparently planning to seat her beside him in the front seat. He let go of her arm and unlocked the door.

"Nicole!" Brenda yelled. "Run!"

She didn't know if she would do it—she was a stubborn little cuss, and she might not want to leave the baby. Even if she did, Stilt could get her to come back by threatening the baby, and he knew it. But neither of them knew what she had had time to tell 911, and a distraction, a delaying tactic, might make all the difference.

"Don't even think about it," he said and gestured for Nicole to get in. "You know I love you," he added. He didn't touch her, confident there was no danger of flight. She was naked, barefoot, and such a little thing, skinny, weak from childbirth, already bruised from resisting.

And she ran.

Stilt swore. He took his time, leaning in to glare at Brenda. "You troublemaking bitch," he said. He slammed the door and almost forgot to relock it. The baby started to cry again, startled by the noise, and she picked her up to comfort her. He ran after Nicole, not even full speed. He knew he could catch her.

He did. Brenda could hear her crying and yelling, her old litany: "No! No! No! Fuck you! No!"

Stilt yelled, "Shit!" She had no weapon, no strength—maybe she had bitten him? He was likely to knock her teeth down her throat. Brenda pulled ineffectually at the door handle. She regretted putting her in such jeopardy—perhaps all of them. Where was her early compliance now?

She heard a siren in the distance, coming closer.

She peered through the darkness, trying to see what was happening. It took a moment before she could make out the two figures struggling together. It was an unequal fight of course, and he lifted Nicole like the child she was and headed back to the car with her in his arms, still screaming and kicking.

Brenda caught her breath as another contraction gripped her.

Red and blue lights flashed beyond the open gate at the foot of the driveway.

 

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