Every day, I work out. I run. I hit various stations set up along the Charles River for fitness enthusiasts such as me. Pull-ups on bars. Triceps dips on wooden benches. Knee tucks, hip twists, calf raises, chest flies, lunges, lunges, lunges. It doesn’t matter if it’s December and below twenty, or raining, or boiling. I’m a woman who needs her morning serotonin the way others demand a double-foam latte.
The truth is, like a lot of survivors, I’ve been taught the hard way to ignore physical complaints. Basically, spend enough time starving, beaten, isolated, and you can teach yourself to ignore most anything.
It’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
But no one says that strength doesn’t come at a price.
After my morning endurance event, I return to my tiny one-bedroom apartment with its multiple bolt locks and very kind elderly landlords who charge me only a fraction of the going rent. I make some money working at the pizza parlor down the street, but it isn’t much. I have a fund, however, that my mom set up when I first returned home. Filled with checks, some large, some small, sent by total strangers because they felt sorry for me. In the beginning, I hated that money. All these years later, no college degree, no real life plan, it’s come in handy. Still, I try to draw from it sparingly. It won’t last forever, and so far my only calling—helping other survivors—is more of a volunteer gig. Oh, and now I’m a CI for one Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren, using my street savvy to help solve crimes. Turns out, that pays nada as well. Figures.
I shower. Forever. Cleanliness, after all those months of lying in my own filth, is everything to me. After showering comes coffee.
I turn on my TV. Local news because that’s part of my morning routine. Amber Alerts, missing persons, developments on national crime cases, this is what I do—much to my mother’s dismay. But six years later, we’ve agreed to disagree.
I don’t look at the TV, the talking heads more of an audio backdrop as I bang around my tiny kitchen, searching for food that still hasn’t magically appeared because my mother hasn’t driven down from her farm in Maine to bake for me lately. I both dread and long for her visits. My mother fought for me. I went to Florida, a stupid naïve Boston college student, giddy with the limitless potential of spring break. I got drunk. I got kidnapped. And for the next four hundred and seventy-two days, my mother and my brother went through hell, appearing on national news shows and orchestrating major social media campaigns to beg for my safe return.
Then when it happened . . .I went to Florida, a stupid naïve Boston college student, giddy with the limitless potential of spring break. I got drunk. I got kidnapped.
I think we can all agree that the Flora who went down to Florida isn’t the same Flora who came back. My brother, Darwin, eventually took off to Europe. It hurt him too much to be around me. My mom is built from sturdier stuff. All these years later, she remains convinced that her sweet little girl who ran around the wilds of Maine and tamed the local foxes is inside me somewhere.
I admire my mother’s courage. I’m still never sure what to think of her optimism. Though right now, I really miss her blueberry muffins.
Behind me, the TV is talking about a local murder. Pregnant wife shot and killed her husband last night. Fussing with my coffee maker, I shrug philosophically. Nice to have the pregnant wife come out on top, is my first thought, after all those years when it seemed that every other homicide was some cheating husband murdering his pregnant spouse just to avoid alimony and child support.
It’s not until the coffee is percolating that I turn, glance at my tiny flat-screen TV sitting on the far wall cabinet.
And I start to shake. My hands, my shoulders, my entire body. My feet are rooted. I can’t move. I stand in the middle of the kitchen. I shake and I shake.
Sheer terror. From a woman who’s not supposed to feel such emotions anymore.
Cheap hotel. Too-tight hot-pink tube dress, barely held in place. Jacob smacking me across the face. “Stop fidgeting. For fuck’s sake, you look like shit. Is this any way to show some appreciation? Get back into the bathroom and try again.”
I do what I’m told, retreating to the dingy bath, where I stare at my reflection in the mirror. My orders are to “look like something worth coming home to.” My cheeks are sunken. My eyes bruised. Jacob had left me in the cheap motel days ago, maybe even a week. Nothing to eat. Only tap water to drink. In the beginning I’d expected him to return at any moment. By the end, I was curled up in a ball on the floor, half unconscious from sheer starvation.
Then: Jacob returned. Just like that. No bags of food in his arms. Just this awful dress and instructions that we were going out. Now. Time to clean the fuck up.
I rouse myself long enough to bang on the wobbly faucet. I’m still weak from hunger and definitely not firing on all cylinders, but when it comes to Jacob’s demands, failure is not an option.
I shimmy out of the micromini, do my best to rinse my bony arms and sweat-encrusted skin with a wet washcloth. I take a bar of soap to my stringy hair. There’s only a hand towel for drying off. Then I pull back on a dress only a hooker would wear.
This time when I exit the bathroom, Jacob grunts his approval. I follow him out the door.
I don’t know where we’re going, but anyplace has gotta be better than this.
Fresh popcorn. I smell it the moment we walk into the dimly lit bar, and my stomach growls. Fortunately, a jukebox blaring out Montgomery Gentry covers the sound. I’m not sure what town we’re in. Maybe someplace in Alabama? I’m only allowed out of my box at night, so I miss long stretches of the road. But we’re definitely someplace rural. The locals, clad in tight jeans, worn boots, and way more clothing than me, mill around pool tables, trading shots, guzzling beer, tossing back handfuls of free popcorn.
My stomach growls again. I press a hand to it self-consciously, but Jacob just laughs. His eyes are too bright. He’s definitely riding high on something, which only makes him more dangerous.
He didn’t bother to clean up. His thin hair is a greasy cap on his too-shiny face. The snaps of his western-style shirt strain around the bulge of his swollen stomach, made more obvious by his skinny arms and legs.
Once, I never knew men like Jacob Ness existed. Once, I thought life was fair and being good meant I would always be safe and secure and loved. Then I went on spring break, had a little too much fun slamming back shots at a Florida bar with my college friends. And now this.
Jacob finds us a spot at the bar, gesturing for me to take the seat, then standing behind me. Protectively, some might think. Possessively. He orders two beers. One for him, one for me. A rare treat.
I pick up my beer, sip nervously.Once, I never knew men like Jacob Ness existed. Once, I thought life was fair and being good meant I would always be safe and secure and loved. Then I went on spring break, had a little too much fun slamming back shots at a Florida bar with my college friends. And now this.
Popcorn. Delivered in a red-and-white-checkered container. My whole body clenches but I don’t make a single move; I glance at Jacob, knowing the rules by now.
He nods. I grab the first few kernels. Warm and salty. I want to devour the entire tray, dump the contents in my mouth. I catch myself just in time. If I act out, if I draw attention . . . I force myself to slow down. Couple of kernels here. Couple of kernels there.
Crunch, crunch. Salty goodness. My eyes close . . .
And for a moment, I could be a little girl again, sitting in my mother’s kitchen, swinging my legs, waiting for the air popper to complete our after-school snack: “Darwin, what are we gonna do today . . .”
When I open my eyes again, a guy has appeared beside Jacob, and he’s staring straight at me.
Jacob nods at the man, almost . . . congenial. He doesn’t even protest when the man pulls up the neighboring barstool and orders a beer.
I grab another handful of popcorn. Have to pace myself. I’ve learned by now that eating too fast after forced deprivation leads to vomiting. Jacob will kill me if I get sick in public. But the man sitting next to us continues to stare at me.
And Jacob continues to let him.
Something bad is about to happen. I know it, even if I don’t understand it.
Sip of beer. But only a sip. I’m on guard now, desperately trying to pay attention.
“Girlfriend’s a skinny thing,” the man says.
Jacob shrugs. “Chicks these days. Think if they’re any bigger than a shadow, they’re fat.”
Single popcorn kernel. Pick up. Chew, chew, chew.
“Come here often?” the man asks.
“Sure. I’m a regular,” Jacob says, and both men laugh, though I don’t understand the joke.
“I’m on a business trip,” the man offers. “Sales. Good excuse, you know, to move around.”
“What the wife doesn’t know,” Jacob suggests.
“Yeah. Sure she doesn’t mind?” The guy nods toward me.
My next warning light goes off.
“Nah. My girl’s a good girl. She does what she’s told.” Jacob turns to me abruptly. “Ain’t that right, Molly?”
I look away. Don’t say a word.
I understand then. At least, have an inkling of the threat. Jacob had tried getting me to pick up random men in bars before; testing the level of my obedience. Each time, I’d managed to avoid the situation. Because I understood, somewhere deep inside of me, that while Jacob might make a game of forcing me on someone else, he’d still never take me back. And not because he’s big, bad Jacob Ness. But because he’s a man. And no man wants used goods.
The part I still don’t understand—before, the men had been strangers, maybe a cowboy caught eyeing me from across the room. Whereas this man, he’d come straight over. And the way Jacob is turned toward him, engaging with him . . . It’s almost like they’d been expecting each other.
What has Jacob done? What exactly has he promised this not-quite-stranger?
I shake out the last of the popcorn, then grab my beer. No more sipping. Chug, chug, chug. I’m desperate now. Thinking fast, but maybe not fast enough.
The man buys a second round for us. Jacob doesn’t protest, though he’s eyeing me suspiciously.
Nachos. A plate goes by, heaped high with melted cheese and sour cream. I follow it with huge eyes, never saying a word. The stranger man immediately orders us a platter. Jacob jabs my thigh. I gaze up at him innocently and swallow the last of my second beer.
Then we’re off to the races. Food. Drink. Jacob and the man talking in low voices about things I can’t hear and don’t care about. And maybe Jacob is suspicious, but he’s a fast-food addict himself and the nachos, followed shortly by sliders, then chicken wings—all at our newfound companion’s expense—are too good for him to pass up.
Except the new man doesn’t act that new. And Jacob, who never interacts with anyone, is talking, laughing, slapping the man on the back.
Eat. Drink. Faster, faster, faster. Not much time left. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen soon. The man is staring at me now, his eyes nearly as bright as Jacob’s.
The bartender flashes the lights. Closing time. Our new friend pulls out his wallet. Throws down a hundred as casually as a ten. Jacob’s smirk grows.
No more beer, nachos, wings, popcorn. My stomach hurts. My legs are wobbly. Jacob grabs my arm, dragging me forcibly off the barstool and toward the door, the man falling in step behind us.
Come on, come on, come on.
I can feel a pale sheen of sweat on my brow. I hesitate, trying to drag my heels even though I know better. Jacob digs his fingers into my bony arm, giving me a stare that promises further pain if I don’t knock it off. Right now.
Foxes. Gators. Florida beaches. So far from home. The way Jacob is the evilest person I’ve ever met. The way all men are the same.Foxes. Gators. Florida beaches. So far from home. The way Jacob is the evilest person I’ve ever met. The way all men are the same.
Jacob yanks me into the parking lot, close to a vehicle that isn’t his own. The night wind hits my bare arms, my sweaty brow. Then, finally, thankfully, what I’ve been planning on, waiting for . . .
I turn, and in a move of sheer beauty, projectile vomit all over Jacob’s newfound friend.
“Jesus Christ!” The man leaps back.
It doesn’t save him. Seven days of starvation followed by three hours of binge eating. I lurch forward and hit him again, a thick stream of barely digested food.
Crowds gather. People gasp. I barely notice, falling to my hands and knees, dry heaving onto the warm asphalt. My stomach cramps painfully, sour bile gathering in the back of my throat. I’ll pay for this. Oh, in a million different ways.
But right now, the man’s eyes widen with disgust. Then he turns and hastily walks away . . .
Jacob has his games. But I have my rebellion. He might always win in the end. But I’m not completely broken yet.
“All right, all right,” Jacob announces to the milling people. “Girl never could hold her beer. Come on, now, not the first time any of you have seen someone puke outside a bar. Move along.”
He grips my arm. I’m shaking uncontrollably, too weak to even stand.
But the not-quite-stranger is gone. The immediate threat is over.
Which leaves me with just Jacob.
“You did that on purpose!” he growls low in my ear.
“I had to. The thought of leaving you . . . Please. You’ve been gone for a week. I just want to be with you. Only you.”
He narrows his eyes, studies me hard.
“Bitch,” he says, but there’s no heat left in his voice.
He pulls me to standing. I lean against him heavily. After a moment, his arm goes around me.
And for one more night, I survive.
Six years later, Cambridge, Mass. I’m still standing in the kitchen of my apartment. Images of the murdered husband’s face appear, disappear, reappear, on the TV across the room. Followed by snapshots of his wife, the outside of their home, miles of yellow crime scene tape. I’m shaking. As hard as I shook that night, so long ago.
Now, I fist my hand and force myself to focus. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Jacob is gone. Jacob is dead. Jacob can never hurt me again.
The man on TV, Conrad Carter, I never saw him after that night. And now he’s dead, too. More power to his wife.
Except that so many thoughts hit me at once, I have to grab a chair for support.
It takes me a bit, but I finally get my legs to move. I retrieve my cell from the coffee table. I make a single call.
“Samuel, it’s me. You know how I said I’d tell you about my time with Jacob once and only once, and then I’d never speak of it again? I lied.”
From NEVER TELL. Used with the permission of the publisher, Dutton. Copyright © 2019 by Lisa Gardner.