Even though Geoff was only twelve, Immer claimed he had some sort of prodigal potential that no one else could see. So far he had failed or barely scraped by on most of his assignments, but the others covered for him, fearing Immer’s wrath if it seemed he had been wrong. On the morning of the fifth attack on Bari, Geoff scuttled into the office and stood hunched against the doorframe. Marecia sighed when he told her that he didn’t feel safe going out to the supply house just yet.
“Geoff, you practically begged me for this job.” She levelled a cool gaze at him. “Why are you backing out now? Immer expects that shipment in by ten, no later.”
Geoff shuffled his feet on the tiles. “I know but…I just think if I waited a few minutes, I could maybe get there and back real fast, and make it on time just fine.” Distantly, an explosion sounded. Probably another landmine. But the racket seemed to be moving farther and farther away. Marecia watched Geoff flinch toward the sound and then steel himself against looking up. He was only twelve. Orlando was twelve now, but he would insist that he was thirteen since his birthday was in only a few weeks.
“I expect the lobby floors and countertops to be spotless when I get back,” Marecia barked at him, and he nodded and scurried off without a backward glance. Marecia sighed again and rose from behind the desk. Months ago the metal rolling chair had been taken to be melted down, and a large, overturned pail replaced it. She tried to make the best of it by placing a folded sleeping bag on it, but the lack of lumbar support left her stiff and sore every day. She vowed to get back at Immer one day for putting her here. She grabbed a plastic bag from a cloth bag by the door, planning on getting some more dehydrated food while she was in the storehouse.
“Any sign of Selonee?” Marecia asked customarily as she passed Jamie on the stairs. She barely stopped to hear his response, knowing it would be the same as always. When Selonee came back, Jamie would knock down the door to tell her. Whatever the secret mission was, Marecia hoped her friend had remembered to bring enough food. She wasn’t sure how kind other sectors would be about sharing.
Grabbing a pair of sunglasses from the drawer in the conference room, Marecia took the vent passage to the warehouse. As she stepped into the buckled street, the sun broke over the office tower. At night it was easy to fantasize that things were not as bad as they looked, but as soon as the sun came out, there were no shadows left for the truth to hide behind. Angling away from the brightness, Marecia started toward the supply house. The way was lined with tall buildings that blocked out the sun, stealing the warmth from the morning.
The city was like a dead body infested with parasites, pillaged by scavengers. it was a corpse teeming with life. People darted in and out of the streets, gone before she could blink, leaving her to wonder if they had ever been there in the first place. She walked on, her feet disturbing stones and chunks of concrete.
Up ahead, the flash of an explosion lit up the dusky streets for an instant. Frozen, Marecia listened for the sounds of fighter craft, or grounded gunman. There were none, but she opted to turn off a block early anyway. This street would not turn back onto her main path, and would add about twenty minutes to her walk, but often where there was one explosion there would be more. She chose to believe that Immer would rather she show up late than dead.
It wasn’t that far a stretch of her imagination.
A small group of men were just around the block, loosely gathered around a tiny fire. Two of them leaned against a dirty wall. Marecia hesitated for a moment when one of them looked at her, but then she lifted her chin and carried on. She watched him nudge one of his companions, and instantly they all locked their gazes onto her. She was only a dozen feet from them now. As a million icicles shot through her body, she quickened her pace, keeping her chin level, her eyes straight ahead.
She knew she shouldn’t speak to them, but she was leery of pretending they weren’t there. One of them pushed off from the wall, keeping his eyes on her the entire time. Did they recognize her? Immer’s group was hardly the most prominent alliance in the city, but they definitely had some major pull in how things panned out. Would they recognize her as one of his followers?
“Gentlemen,” she intoned gruffly as she passed them, as far away as the street would let her go. It was difficult to appear strong and intimidating while cowering against the wall, but she tried. There were five of them. One of them whispered something to another. She didn’t pay attention to where she was going, and dropped the plastic bag she carried. It drifted away, behind them. She paused for a quarter of a second and then kept on, walking so fast she was nearly running.
“Hey, you forgot this!” One of them called out. She was about to take the steps up to a walkway when she felt a hand grip her wrist.
“Excuse me,” she snapped, refusing to look at him. In vain, she tried to pull her wrist away, fighting to stay calm. His grip tightened though, and without meaning too, she let out a small cry.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he murmured to her, letting go. She had to keep herself from releasing her sigh, and finally made herself look at them, assess their potential weaknesses. They had all gathered around her now, though, and their expressions had changed from curious to speculative.
“Why are you in such a hurry?” the one with bare feet asked, almost conversationally. Marecia weighed her options. She wasn’t sure what they wanted with her. She had nothing to offer them, no weapons, no food. Would they search her anyway? What would they do when they came up empty?
“Just passing through,” she replied, glaring at him, unsure of whether she should appear contrite or in control. “If you’ll excuse me.” Without a moment’s pause she sprinted up the steps. She didn’t get very far though, before a pair of hands grabbed her around the waist. She was dragged back down the stairs. Her sunglasses slipped from her face, and in the scuffle, they were kicked into a crack in the wall.
“Let me go!” she shrieked, and to her embarrassment she started to cry. It had just been such a long day.
She couldn’t see the one who had her, could only feel the hardness of his body behind her, the unbreakable strength of the arms around her. He was not as skinny as the guys in her group. For a moment she stopped struggling, wondering how they kept so strong and well-fed. Her captor took this moment to spin her around and slam her against a wall. Her breath forced its way out of her body and her vision blackened for a second.
“Now, look here!” he growled at her. “I don’t know who sent you here, but whatever you’re looking for, you won’t find it.” This man was the only one wearing jeans. At first she had thought they were all copies of the same body, clad in black, but she saw that there was something different about all of them. One wore a single, fingerless glove, one had a heavy chain around his neck, and one had a tattoo of a bird covering one half of his face.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she hissed through her teeth. She couldn’t stop staring at the tattooed man’s face. The bird was dead, bent broken over a rose that had its stem tied like a noose around its back. The rose had elongated thorns, and they speared the bird in several places.
The one with the chain and the barefoot one strode up to her, grabbing her arms and pinning them to the wall. “So who sent you?” the man with the jeans asked, standing back a little, hands on his hips, watching her carefully.
“No one…sent me,” she gasped, trying to pull away. “I’m from Immer’s alliance. The concert hall. We don’t…steal.”
The man with the tattoo stepped forward. “I think she’s telling the truth. I saw her once, with the soldiers.”
“Yes! Yes. So let me go!” She couldn’t believe she was begging these rats, but she didn’t see what other choice she had. “We want no trouble with anyone else in the city.”
“Aw, I don’t know, Mark,” the man with the chain said to the man with the jeans. “It’s been so long since we’ve had company.” He pinned her to the wall with only one hand, and now he used the other to touch her wrist, and trailed his fingers up her bare arm.
“Yeah,” Mark, the man with the tattoo said, taking another step toward her. Marecia felt a pulse in her back, just above her right hip. She felt she would throw up if her stomach tightened any further. “And even longer since we’ve seen such a…pretty face.” He reached out to her now, trying to touch her cheek, but she pulled her head to the side until she thought her neck would break.
“Somebody help me!” she shouted into the city gloom. “Help!”
“Nobody can hear you,” Mark explained, standing beside the man with the chain. She stared at him, and began thrashing and screaming once again. When her head cracked against the wall again, they released her, and she tumbled to the ground.
“Please,” she whispered, pushing her hair out of her face and looking up at the ring of leering men surrounding her. “Please let me go.”
The man with the glove stepped into the circle, kneeling in front of her. He smiled and took her hand. She was frozen, unable to breathe. “Don’t cry,” he soothed, passing his finger under her eye. “It’s not very becoming.”
Her whole body felt nauseated.
Rising, the man pulled her to her feet. She tried to move away but he backed her against the wall once again, one hand on either side of her, the weight of his body pushing into her. He was so much taller than her. He had to bend over to reach her mouth when he kissed her.
“Don’t touch me!” she screeched, ripping her face away from his. He laughed and pressed his lips to her neck, gripping her narrow waist in his broad hands when she tried to duck under his arms.
“Hey, save some for me,” Mark insisted, pushing Glove Hand away and catching Marecia’s elbow when she tried to dart off. He jerked her toward him like she was a toy on a string, and caught her when she tripped over a stone. Gripping her shoulder so she couldn’t go very far, he grasped her butt with the other hand, pressing against her. She aimed a punch at his throat, and he loosened his grip enough for her to slip away. Immediately someone else caught her from behind. He gripped her between his elbows and brought his hands to her breasts, squeezing until she shrieked.
“Somebody hold her down,” Mark ordered, excitement glowing in his eyes. “Let’s really make her scream.”
“Let me go,” she sobbed, jerking with all her might as someone grabbed her ankles and lowered her to the ground. She continued to thrash and flail as they held her knees down and pulled her precious shoes off her feet. She managed to kick one of them in the face and sprinkle herself with blood from his split lip as they worked her pants off, and her shirt. She wore no bra. It was being washed today.
Her throat was getting sore, but as she lay in nothing but her underwear, she screamed for all she was worth. “Somebody help me, please!”
“We’ve got a live one here,” said the man with the chain, sitting back on his heels and admiring her. She sobbed as she wondered what they could possibly see in her. She was dirty, and skinny, scratched up, speckled in blood.
She felt one of them stroke her ribs, her stomach, and reach between her thighs. She continued to scream. What else could she do? Why had no one heard her yet? The city was full of ghosts, unseen presences. Surely she wasn’t the only one who would dare trespass on this gang’s territory.
She squeezed her legs together as they reached to pull off her underpants. But there were too many of them. One of them pulled each of her legs apart, lifting her half off the ground, and another pulled the underwear off, ripping them in the process.
She couldn’t stop herself from throwing up, and splattered the man with bare feet. “Damn you!” he yelled, yanking her up by the hair. She slipped in her vomit and for a moment she hanged, willing her hair to rip out of her scalp so she could get away. She shot her elbow into his stomach but it did no good. Regaining her footing, she turned to face him and tried to poke out his eyes, but he caught her hands. Holding her arms above her head, he took her mouth in his. She bit him as hard as she could, and he swore again.
“What a fighter” Mark jubilated, grabbing her hips. With barefoot man pinning her arms, Mark gently kissed her while she sobbed.
She wanted to hide, conceal herself. She wanted to curl up in a corner and die. But she grabbed one of the fingers around her waist and wrenched it back, hoping to hear a snap, a crack, but he simply let go of her, and another one grabbed her. She tried to remember every training session, every battle she had ever fought. But that was when she had had her team. Her weapons. She was alone now. Naked and alone.
“Hold her, over there,” Glove Hand, the ringleader, commanded. Four of them wrestled her to the wall. They had a hard time staying upright as she threw her weight against them, panting and sweating. She was so slick with sweat that they could barely hold on, but this didn’t seem to bother them.
Slammed against the wall once again, the small pebbles stuck to her backside dug into her skin. Glove Hand approached slowly, sliding his belt off. Less than a foot away from her, he unzipped his pants, and ran his hands over her shoulders, her breasts, her thighs. Tears streaming down her face, she flinched every time the rough material of his glove scratched her. She was completely naked, fully exposed, and all he was going to do was unzip his pants? She wept harder as his hips moved closer to hers.
“No, no, no,” she mewled, pressing as far away as she could. She would rather be swallowed into wall, remain forever entombed, than give herself up to these bastards.
In the end, though, it didn’t matter. She screamed for help and renewed her desperate efforts to get away. But every time she moved against him he tightened his grip on her shoulders, telling her how sweet she was, how good. Eventually she stopped trying, and cried. She couldn’t stop herself from trembling.
They each took their turn with her. While one was inside of her, others kissed and stroked her, running their hands all over her. By the second, she was bleeding, and in so much pain she thought she was dying. If she had been able to look down at herself, she knew she would see dark bruises imprinted on her skin, from head to toe. Everything ached.
By the third, she knew she had to keep trying to attract attention, and screamed until her voice finally gave out and she was only able to whimper and rasp.
By the fourth, she wasn’t sure how many hours had passed since that time when this was just an ordinary day, a routine errand for Immer.
By the fifth, she was numb, barely conscious, incapable of supporting her own weight. He shook her, trying to make her respond to him, fight him, but she could only lie limply on the asphalt, shaking and hiccupping.
“Help,” she whispered deliriously, trying to remember where she was. Something pressed against her lips. Something slid between her legs. She realized she was naked. She could hear voices, all around her.
“You’re so good,” someone murmured to her. She tried to see through the fog that blurred her vision, but she couldn’t tell who spoke.
“Help me,” she begged, and then the ground started to shake.
“We’ve got company!” someone shouted. A man. “Let’s get – ”
An explosion interrupted him, and Marecia felt dust and pebbles rain onto her. Within the cacophony of detonating bombs, she heard shouting, and it got further and further away. Or maybe she was the one getting further away.
When she woke up, it was darker than she remembered. She looked around, and found that she was in a musty alley, guarded on all sides by gloomy, empty buildings. As she tried to push herself up, a shooting pain ignited her arm, travelling the length of her body several times. She felt as though she was made of cardboard. Looking down at herself, she saw that her skin was darkened and splotchy. Bruises. This thought came to her before she realized that she was naked, lying in the middle of the alleyway.
She blinked in the darkness. It sounded like Jamie. He sounded close, yet too far away for her to see him. “Jamie!” she tried to shout, but found that her voice was raw.
Fighting her pain, she forced herself to stand. The breeze passed over her naked body, and dust and rocks rolled off of her onto the ground. There was a bright light up ahead, and as she moved toward it, her feet tangled in something and she tripped. A howl ripped its way out of her as her bruised body slammed to the rough ground, even though her throat was made of sandpaper. In the fading greyness she recognized the bundle twisted around her feet. Her pants, her shirt, her shoes. Her ruined underwear.
Again, she was unable to stop the scream that tore through her as she remembered. When someone touched her shoulder, she grabbed the hand and tried to tear the fingers apart.
“…are you doing, Marecia!” She realized the voice spoke to her. It knew her name. None of the others had known her name. She focused on the face. Jamie. She started to cry, but her eyes burned dryly. “Oh my God,” her friend moaned. “Marecia, what happened to you?”
She turned from him, wrapping her arms around her legs and burying her face in her knees. “Don’t touch me,” she begged hoarsely when Jamie laid his hand on her back. He didn’t hear her.
“Marecia, we’ve got to get you back. Everyone’s wondering what happened to you.”
…what happened to her. “They can never know! You can’t tell Immer!” she rasped.
Jamie knelt beside her and she angled away again, trying to shield herself from him. He reached for her shirt and draped it over her shoulders, but it was too small to hide anything. Her horror. Her shame. He took off his light oversized sweatshirt and handed it to her, making a point of turning away while she labored to pull it over her head. It covered most of her.
“What happened?” Jamie asked again. Marecia keened and rocked slightly, trying to block the thoughts from her head, but her body was stamped with the evidence. “Come on, Marecia. It’s getting dark.”
She wasn’t sure if he was implying anything, but her mind immediately ran the possibility of them coming back for her. What would they do if they found Jamie in their territory? She had to get them both out of there.
He offered to help her up as she began to rise, but she refused to take his hand. She had to be strong enough to get back on her own. Jamie couldn’t feel that he had to defend her, if they came back. She couldn’t bear to see him covered in bruises, like her.
By the time she was more properly dressed, it was almost pitch black. She left her ruined underwear, even though it was her second last pair. Jamie produced a tiny flashlight and led the way out of the alley, keeping his eye on her. His hand fluttered around her, wanting to support her but not daring to touch her.
After only ten steps she felt the ground coming up to her. “Whoa, there,” Jamie said, catching her. Every part of her was a sore spot, but she was too tired to make any sound. She leaned on Jamie as they labored toward the concert hall, but soon she was so weak that he scooped her up and cradled her against him. Without her slowing them down, they reached the hall in five minutes, using the front entrance.
“What happened?” Jeremy, on watch tonight, asked.
“She just got a little lost,” Jamie explained, passing through the door that Jeremy held open for them. Marecia hated this explanation, hated how incapable this made her seem. Burying her face in Jamie’s shoulder, she pretended that if she closed her eyes, no one could see her.
She didn’t open her eyes until they reached the pre-show room and Jamie lowered her to the musty futon. For a moment, Jamie stared down at her. She broke his gaze and covered her face with her hands. She could feel a fresh round of sobs coming, or maybe she was going to throw up again.
“Marecia!” someone shouted from the doorway. She was tired of hearing her name. This was Gracie, she knew. Another friend. “Jamie, what’s going on?”
“I’m going to get someone to help you,” Jamie whispered to Marecia, ignoring her weak protests, weepy assurances that she was going to be fine. “I’m not going far, and I will be back.”
He left with Gracie, who Marecia hadn’t even looked at. They closed the door, but Marecia could still hear them talking. Could even hear some of Jamie’s words. “…left her in the alley…not sure how long she was there.… think she was raped.”
The word made something pop in her mind. A sound came from her, a rising wail that filled the room even though her mouth was closed. The door opened, and Gracie came in. She didn’t say anything, simply sat on the floor against the futon and took Marecia’s hand. They sat there, Marecia sniffling and crying, until the door opened again.
“My dear,” Ghita’s grandmother breathed as she took in the scene. “My dear, poor child.” Marecia tried to push herself up, but Selonee still held fast to her hand. Oh wait, it was Gracie. Selonee was gone. “No, don’t move. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
“Don’t touch me,” she said automatically when Mrs. Black reached for her.
Sympathy creased her ancient face. “My dear, I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. But you will feel much better after you’re cleaned up. Then you’ll be able to get some rest.”
“I can do it on my own. Thanks, but I’d really like to be alone now.” A bit of her old command came back into her voice, though she felt hollow and dead. “Thank you, though. Both of you.” The sentiment was more dismissive than grateful, but they did leave when they saw Marecia stand on her own. As soon as the door closed behind them, she fell back again, wrapping her arms around herself. She knew she would never be able to rest again.
She meant to leave the pre-show room, get back to work. She really did. But every time she thought of turning the doorknob, walking out into the hall, a cold hand would seize her stomach. Dizziness would overtake her, and the room would spin. In the end she let go of the thought, let it float away and rest against the ceiling, waiting for it’s chance to descend again.
Jamie, Ghita, and Gracie brought her food. They sat and talked to her between their shifts, but in the end they always had to go. They always came back, but they always left.
They offered to stay with her at night, and once in a while she let them. She never slept, though, when they were there. She slept during the day. They were never there when she woke up, screaming and in pain. Alone.
She remembered that once upon a time, years ago last week, she had been a kind of authority. She told someone to do something, and they did it. She asked for something, she got it. People looked up to her, depended on her to keep a clear head when things got messy. Now she saw them stop at the door and peer in the narrow window, quickly moving away if she happened to look up and see them. Always the pity. The sympathy. And no more respect.
Would they ever respect her again? Would she ever respect herself?
She cried so often she wondered if she would ever get used to it. If she didn’t feel like crying, she felt like throwing up. When she didn’t feel like throwing up, she felt numb. When she wasn’t numb, everything pressed around her, digging into her like knives. Whenever someone showed her any kindness, the knife twisted inside of her.
When he finally came, Marecia was debating eating the dehydrated fruit Jamie had brought her. “Do you remember,” Jamie started, “When Fin made that deal with Bitonto that he would send them thirty machetes in return for a box of grenades? When we opened the box, there was nothing inside but dried pomegranates!”
The shock on Fin’s face had been so acute that everyone had cracked up. Due to her acute distrust of most people, Marecia had called it, and was more than willing to collect a chocolate truffle from Jamie, Ghita, and Gracie. Remembering now, Marecia smiled.
“And when Bitonto opened their box, you know what they found?”
Marecia had never heard this part of the story. “No, what?”
“Dried chili powder. When they opened the box, poof!” He made a motion like someone trying to scratch out his eyes.
A strange noise came from Marecia. A laugh! She giggled again, just to remember what it felt like. She hadn’t laughed since before…Well, anyway, His Highness Immer Chapalu chose that moment to step into the room. Instantly the laughter died.
If he had been worried about her, nothing showed. He looked just the same as always, his features the usual mixture of concentration and annoyance. There was no pity, no sympathy, when he looked down at her on the floor with Jamie. “Are you feeling better?” he asked, in his usual quiet voice. There was no tenderness, simply calculation.
“Getting there,” she replied, staring at the floor.
“Are you about ready to get back to work? I could really use your help out here. I’ve given you a few weeks grace considering your – uh, your situation.” Glancing up at him, she saw the slight flicker of discomfort in his eyes before it darted away.
Jamie, beside her, stiffened. “Are you kidding me?” he asked.
“Jamie!” Marecia admonished, reddening.
“What exactly do you need her to do that I or someone else couldn’t do?” he demanded, getting up and standing over her.
Immer raised his eyebrow. “Well, Jamie, there’s that package from the supply house that never did get picked up. I know how much Marecia hates it when other people take over for her, so I haven’t let anyone else do it.” The last sentence was a sort of electric prod for Marecia, a reminder of her previous self.
Jamie strode right up to Immer. “You heartless son of a – ”
“Jamie, shut up!” she exclaimed, getting to her feet. She still felt a little stiff and sore. “That’s enough.” See how I still defend you, Immer? No matter what, I will always be loyal to you.
Jamie stared at her, then at Immer, and made a sound of disgust. “Forget both of you,” Jamie spat. “I’m going to get that damn package. Marecia, you need to rest. Gracie will be here in half an hour.” He stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
Marecia stood in front of Immer, shaking and dying to look at him, but knowing that if she did, the fantasy would dissipate. At last, she opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. She heard Immer’s feet cross the room. She heard him open the door and leave. She wasn’t quite sure if it was before or after she started crying.
Sinking against the far wall, she stared at the door, trying to convince herself that he had simply gone to get something. That he would come back to her. But she knew. He knew. There would be no forgiveness for this ultimate betrayal, no matter how hard she had fought.
But then, the door did open. Marecia’s heart flew out, rising on the updraft of hope and relief that swelled from her bones.
It was only Ghita.
“Hey,” she said, poking her head inside. “Oh, good, you aren’t sleeping.”
Had it been half an hour allready? Oh, no, it was Gracie who was coming then.
“They said I should tell you, since Gracie and Jamie are both gone.”
“Tell me what?” Marecia asked in a wooden voice, not caring, really, what Ghita had to say.
“It’s your parents.”
A small movement in her heart. A shift toward interest. And apprehension. “I don’t want to know what happened to them,” she decided.
Ghita smiled a little, a light ghost brushing her lips. “No, that’s not what I meant. They found us. Your parents are here, Marecia. They would really like to see you.”