“Be prepared for the worst.”
Thursday night, 2 April 2009, AM
Celia: It is not yet 5 AM when Celia steals from the house in a borrowed shirt. The Mardi Gras Zone Supermarket is open twenty-four hours, and while some part of her knows she could run there more quickly than she could take the car, she isn’t sure how much she’ll find that she needs. She takes a flash drive with her with the freshly designed party invitations she’d made online.
There is some time yet until sunup, but there are things she can do in the meantime, and one of them includes a shopping trip. The car slides through the nearly-empty streets, that sweet spot between when the parties have died and the working man wakes up.
The ‘supermarket’ in question is inside what looks like a former warehouse. Outside it is unassuming, its entrance a single door set into a brick wall overhung by well-faded awning. Blue and white icicle-shaped lights are strung up all around it, and the glow of the overheads within shine out onto the sidewalk.
Celia parks the car on the street, mindful of the handicap signs right in front of the door, and heads in.
Inside it is larger than it appears. Wall to wall aisles stocked with party goods, clothing, and food line the shelves. The center of the store is taken up by a small cafe and tables, though Celia has no interest in the sign proclaiming “Cafe du Monde coffee & beignets, $2.99.”
She gets a basket and starts shopping. It doesn’t take long to find what she needs. She even convinces the clerk to let her print her invitations on the premium cardstock with a flirty giggle and a cant of her head.
Then it’s back into the car, back to Em’s to drop off her haul.
It still isn’t time to go to Audubon. She pulls out her laptop instead, creates a new account with a new email address on Facebook, and makes an event page. Then invites every person she can find at Tulane. She uploads a digital copy of the invitation, too, and sticks the rest in her bag to hand out later.
She sends a copy of it to Stephen, too, with a little smiley face and a heart and an eggplant emoji.
GM: Stephen does not immediately respond, but she does get a phone call from a number she doesn’t recognize.
GM: “This is Pete,” says the voice of the detective from earlier.
“Sorry to disturb you so late, Miss Flores.”
Celia: “It’s actually a little early, detective.” She laughs. “What can I do for you?”
GM: “I was trying to check in on your family earlier this evening, but didn’t have any luck. Have you been in touch with them recently?”
Celia: “I haven’t, no.” That’s the truth. “I was supposed to have dinner with them but something came up. Detective, I heard my dad is out of jail already, you don’t think..?” she trails off, puts a bit of panic into her voice.
GM: “I prefer to let facts do my thinking for me, ma’am. I would prefer to hear from your mother in person to know for sure. But it is very typical of abusers to continue harassing their victims despite a restraining order.”
Celia: “She sent me a text asking if I was safe but I thought it was because of dinner…”
GM: “Oh, did she have a reason to think you weren’t?”
Celia: “I’m not sure, Detective. I got a series of hectic texts from her. What if I head over and see what’s going on?”
GM: “How long ago were these texts?”
Celia: “Last night. Like 8 or 9.”
GM: “Okay. How about I meet you there?”
Celia: “Of course, sir. I’ll see you soon.”
Celia is already gathering her things: the cell phone taken from the house, her purse, a makeshift sling. Pete has seen her with a broken arm, which means her arm needs to look broken. Her sling should be at the house. But just in case.
She waits for him to hang up before she runs. Runs to her mom’s house, which is still destroyed. Runs to set the phone back beneath the bed where she found it. Runs to find her missing sling and tug it on beneath her sweater. Checks to make sure that there is nothing off about the house, that it just looks as if someone came in and trashed it, that there are no signs of the monsters behind the destruction.
GM: Celia literally runs like the wind. She’s there soon. The house still looks destroyed, but as far as she can tell, it looks like her father could have been behind that.
Celia: Perfect. She leaves the door open on her way outside and waits for the detective.
GM: He arrives relatively soon. He looks Celia over for a moment, then heads upstairs with her. Surveys the destroyed apartment.
He bends down to pick up the shattered lasagna pan in his hands. Turns it over thoughtfully.
He presses his hand to the floor and says nothing for several moments, then looks back up at Celia.
“Devil’s bargain,” he says slowly.
Celia: The hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Hadn’t she just been thinking that? How does he know? She had followed at his heels while he checked the house, making dismayed noises and wringing her hands, and now uses the very real idea of her mother suffering at her father’s command to fill her voice with panic and her eyes with tears.
GM: The detective looks at her and opens his mouth.
They appear after a moment.
Celia: She has seconds to decide how to play this.
Milliseconds. Split seconds. Whatever is smaller than that. The smallest amount of time she can possibly conceive, that’s how long she has.
He knows. He is one.
Don’t tell anyone about us or we’ll kill you. Is that the law? Then in revealing himself to her has he sentenced her to die? But her grandmother vouched for him.
No, she vouched for Gettis, not this unknown.
Real, unimagined, unpretended dread clenches its fist around her stomach, her lungs, her heart. She swallows. Readies herself to run, just in case this goes south.
“He took my mom.”
GM: Detective Pete merely nods.
He closes his mouth.
Celia: “I didn’t have a choice. I have to get her back. She’s my mom. She doesn’t… he’s going to hurt her.”
Because of me.
GM: The vampire looks across the destroyed apartment.
“Maybe if a few things had gone differently. All it takes, sometimes, is a little push at the right moment. Or wrong moment.”
He shakes his head.
“But mighta-beens are as useful as tits on a bull.”
“You’re right he’s going to hurt her. Probably has already. Might even be dead already.”
“It makes sense, from his perspective. Stop her from ever going after his kids again. Just scaring her got him arrested. Don’t peg him as the type for half-measures.”
“She—no. She can’t—” Celia takes a step toward the door. “You can fix it. Fix her. If she’s—if she’s -”
Not dead. Not dead not dead not dead. She can’t be dead. She can’t. That means she fucked up. That means this is all on her. That she wasted an entire evening on friends instead of family. Instead of the only person who was ever there for her.
GM: “Perhaps you’d like to sit down,” Pete suggests quietly.
Someone else might put a hand around her shoulder. Guide her down. The vampire doesn’t.
Then again, it might feel worse if he did.
But Pete sits down.
“If she’s dead, there’s nothing I can do for her,” the detective says. “Might also be she isn’t dead.”
“There’s any number of reasons she might not be. Could be your dad wants to take his time. Could be that killing is simply beyond him, although that’s probably a crap shoot. Or that body disposal and explaining the disappearance is more than he wants to deal with right now.”
“Could also be he has a plan. Or just doesn’t care.”
“I’m not saying this to alarm you, but you should go into things with open eyes. Be prepared for the worst.”
Celia: She doesn’t want to sit. She wants to run. She hovers, anxiously, while he talks, and as the dread sets in she finds her knees bending until her body hits a chair.
“You’re not coming,” she breathes. It isn’t a question. He’s talking as if he won’t be there. If he were going to go, he’d be in the car with her. Telling her this on the way. Handing her a gun or—or something more useful than sitting here talking.
She’s alone in this again.
GM: The vampire looks as if he might sigh. He doesn’t. He just looks tired.
“I did a little digging, earlier. Senator Maxen Flores lives in Audubon Place.”
GM: “It’s claimed by another of my kind. Place is locked up pretty tight.”
“Not impossible to break into. Main question is doing it without him catching wind.”
Celia: Claimed. They claim things. Like her now.
There’s a moment of hesitation before Celia blurts out, “You were there that night. You—you gave me the gun. Told me to put him down. That jail wouldn’t stop him.”
It’s a desperate question. She doesn’t know if it’s true or not, but maybe… maybe that’s why he’s here now, to let her know that is really the only way, to let her know that if Maxen turns up dead he won’t come after her.
GM: The detective frowns.
“I never gave you a gun, Celia. That’s some patently bad advice, too. Liable to destroy your life.”
She presses her face into her hands.
GM: “You kill your old man, pump his guts full of lead in his own house, the Kindred who’s behind him will find out. He’ll come for you. Possibly your family as well.”
Celia: The word Kindred means nothing to her, but context lets her make assumptions.
“He let it happen. With my mom. He was there that night. When my dad attacked her. I saw him.” He’d touched her. Carried her. Kissed her goodnight. “Then he gave me the gun and told me to do it.” Why? So he could come after her with a clean conscious, claim it was revenge?
Is her dad his toy, like she is the beautiful woman’s? It has to be. She saw him, and her dad changed, like she’s changing. She rubs her temples. She doesn’t have enough information.
“You’re me,” she says to Pete, “what do you do?”
GM: “Well, I guess that depends,” Pete says.
“You made a deal with some… unruly houseguests, but you might’ve just done that because you were scared what would happen if you said no.”
“Who is your mom, to you? The rest of your family too, for that matter.”
Celia: “She… I mean, she’s my mom. She’s everything to me. She was there every time things went to shit. She helped me follow through with what I want to do instead of what Dad forced me to do. I love her. I’d do anything for her, like she would for me. And the rest of them… I mean, they’re my siblings. You have to love your siblings, right?”
There’s a pause. She looks at her hands, wondering what she is turning into.
“I stayed at Tulane to keep them safe from him. That’s what they mean to me. That I gave up my freedom so they wouldn’t take the brunt of his anger. When I’m around, I’m his target. And fine. I can handle that. I can play by his rules as long as it keeps them from being hit, being manhandled, being… beaten.” Except for Isabel. Isabel is too far gone. Isabel did this.
GM: “Okay,” Pete says thoughtfully.
“If it were me, I’d try to get my family out during the day. Going in there at night is a fool’s errand. Which you seem to have already decided, or you’d be there now.”
Celia: “Yes,” she says flatly. “There’s a thing in there that only comes out at night. A…” one of you, she thinks, but doesn’t say, because she doesn’t know for sure. Except that she does, and she is just terrified of admitting the truth, that she’s been dreaming about him for years, that every time she smells blood she’s back in that hallway and he is barreling towards her, and now she can’t think of him without imagining fangs as well.
“I was waiting until morning. To make sure he’s… gone.”
Only now Mom might be dead.
GM: Pete nods. “Your mom might be dead, because you’ve waited. But if he’s there now, you’re both dead anyway.”
“It’s not a happy choice. But I think you made the best one you could.”
Celia: His words give her the comfort she hadn’t realized she’d needed. She’d made the right choice. She nods anyway, even as the little voice in the back of her head tells her that her life is forfeit anyway, that in making her deal with the monsters she’d traded her life. Her mom might be dead anyway, and Celia’s life is still gone.
GM: “So let’s say you go in and get your family back. With or without your mom.”
“Your dad will want his kids back. He’ll pursue legal and extralegal means, and probably win through both. He’s a powerful man with powerful friends. The courts will rule in his favor, given enough time.”
“Try to really scare or kill him, of course, and you draw his master down on you.”
Celia: “And he kills me.”
GM: “It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
Celia: “Then everything I did is for nothing.” Her voice is bitter. “I traded my life for nothing.”
GM: The vampire doesn’t say anything to that.
He just says, “The best outcome for you is that he simply gives up the kids and forgets his wife, and in such a way that he feels he can’t or shouldn’t go to his friend in the shadows for help.”
“Or that his friend decides he’s no longer a worthwhile investment. He loses an election or causes enough of a mess that his master decides the benefits of helping him out no longer outweigh the hassle.”
“At that point he’s just a man. Same as anybody.”
“Of course, if his master finds out you’ve influenced his behavior to make him useless, he might just remove the problem by removing you.”
Pete lets that hang.
“So get him to freely give up his family without turning to his friend, make him useless to his friend without seeming to have sabotaged him, or kill him without anyone else fining out.”
“It’s a tall order, whatever menu item you pick.”
Celia: “How do I find his… friend?”
GM: The vampire raises his eyebrows.
“And why would you want to do that?”
Celia: “Maxen is a dog. If a dog bites someone, you don’t fine the dog. You take it to the owner.”
GM: “The owner doesn’t care it bit you.”
Celia: “I see.”
“Reasoning with him was probably a stupid idea, anyway.”
GM: “As far as I know, your dad’s friend doesn’t have any real attachment to him. Or for that matter, much of anyone.”
“But I don’t see much reason he’d give up a useful dog for you, either.”
Celia: “I don’t want the dog, I want my family. He can keep the mutt.”
GM: “The mutt won’t stop barking if it loses its bone.”
Celia: “My mom thought you were cute, you know,” Celia says after a moment. “She was going to ask if you wanted to go out sometime, once all this was over.”
GM: “That’s a terrible idea,” the vampire says flatly.
“Not that she’s an unattractive woman,” he adds. “That’s precisely the problem.”
Celia: “Yeah, well, if she asks after I fix this then let her down gently.”
If she’s alive.
GM: “I’ll tell her I have a wife.”
The vampire actually looks a little regretful.
Celia: “She’ll probably need someone.” If she’s alive. If I get her out. If she’s not maimed beyond repair. “When I’m gone. Make sure she doesn’t… do something stupid, yeah?”
GM: “Well, maybe you won’t be gone. It’s up to her.”
Celia: “How do you know that? You just knew.”
GM: “It’s a common enough trick. Useful in my line of work. Just like you have your own.”
Celia: “You all do different things?”
That’s what it sounds like. Is he supposed to be telling her this much? Is this one of those now that I’ve told you I’m going to kill you things?
She presses on anyway. “What about my dad’s friend? In case… in case I run into him.”
GM: There’s another grim look.
“You don’t want to run into him.”
Celia: “I do. I do want to run into him. I want to run into him with a knife, over and over and over again, so that he understands what he did to me, and to my mom, and to my family.”
GM: “Then your mom can go through the heartache of burying you,” Pete says flatly.
“I don’t know what particular tricks you’ve loaded up on, but they won’t be enough. Not against him. You’re too new to this.”
Celia: “I’m fast,” she says to him, lifting her chin.
GM: “Not fast enough. But go ahead and ignore the advice of someone who’s been doing this longer than several hours, if you’re determined to.”
Celia: “You said they have territories? Who controls Tulane? Am I fast enough for them?”
GM: “What’s Tulane matter here?”
Celia: “Because they… because I think they’re hurting my friend. And that’s why I wasn’t here last night, because I was helping her, and if my mom is dead then I am going to do something before she comes back for me.”
GM: “Just get your friend out of Tulane at night,” Pete says gruffly. “The best fight is the one you don’t have.”
Celia: Oh. That hadn’t occurred to her.
GM: Stupid, whispers her dad.
Celia: She is stupid. Stupid for abandoning her mom. Stupid for making this deal. Stupid for thinking she can go up against the thing in her dad’s house on her own.
She finds a piece of paper, writes down her number. Pete already has it, but it’s not for him, it’s for the other one. She slides it to him.
“Can you get that to him? Please? I just want my mom. He can keep the others. I just—she doesn’t… she doesn’t deserve this, Detective. Sir.”
That’s the line she’ll draw. That her dad can keep the kids if he lets go of her mom. Of her.
“If it doesn’t work. I mean. If she’s not… if she’s not at the house when I go by. If I can’t get to her.”
Celia doesn’t know what she’ll do if her mom is already dead. Kill her dad, maybe, and let the thing come for her. Slice open Isabel’s face. Carve ‘LIAR’ into her forehead, ‘WHORE’ across her stomach. Let the world see her for who she really is.
Like Celia now. Willing to do depraved things, willing to deal with monsters. Not monsters. Pete doesn’t seem like a monster. He’s been… helpful. She doesn’t want to think the other word. The one with fangs and nocturnal activity and blood.
She’s still hoping they’re not real, that if she gets into bed and pulls the covers over her head they’ll disappear.
GM: The detective looks at the paper and just gives Celia a sad smile.
“Your dad’s his mutt, Celia. Your mom is… his mutt’s bone. He won’t be moved by pity. He doesn’t care about your mom. At all. And his mutt’s gonna bark a lot if he loses the bone.”
Celia: “Then I guess I just put the stupid thing down, and pray that he was the one who gave me the gun in the first place, and that this is just another stupid test. And if not then I’m boned.” Only she’ll be a chew toy for a different type of monster.
GM: “I don’t know why he’d have given you a gun. That’s a hell of a thing to bet on.”
Celia: “Then… someone else did, one of… of your.. uh… kind..? Is there a polite way to phrase that?”
Celia: “But you’re… I mean…” she points at her own mouth, uses her fingers to make fangs. “You’re like… that’s… you’re vampires, right?” She doesn’t want to believe it. She’s hoping he just tells her no. Maybe they’re just all in a cult together.
GM: The detective gives something like a grimace. A faint grimace.
“I should really let her explain the particulars to you.”
Celia: “What if she doesn’t?” Celia presses. “What if she just… does her… blood thing and…” she trails off. She has no idea what she’s talking about. She folds her hands on her lap, looking down at them.
“She raped me. She raped me and I’m… she doesn’t like broken things.”
And that’s what she’s afraid of, isn’t it? That the woman will come back and find Celia broken. Find that Celia hasn’t done what she could have. Find that she’s stupid. Then, she knows, she’ll die. So she has to do something. Has to do anything to prove that she isn’t broken, she isn’t damaged, she can handle these tricks that were given to her, this new power. That she’s smart enough to find out more about them, even when she started with nothing but a pair of fangs.
“I’m dead. I’m just—that’s what this amounts to, isn’t it? I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and he took my mom and now I can do things but I still can’t do anything.”
GM: Pete looks at Celia and looks like he could sigh.
But he doesn’t. He just looks tired.
“Yes. We’re vampires. But that word is impolite. We use ‘Kindred.’”
“I’m sorry what she did to you. I’m sorry what he did to your mom.”
Celia: “Like calling a black man the N-word impolite, or just kind of impolite?”
GM: “Saying ‘boogers’ in front of the priest impolite. Showing up to church in jeans impolite.”
Celia: She nods. That makes sense. No mention of the V-word, then.
“Clear. Thank you. Sir.”
GM: “You’re something called a ghoul. Charitably, Kindred are adults and you’re children. Less charitably, you’re a slave, and Kindred are masters.”
“The less charitable take is the more accurate one.”
Celia: “Oh. That’s… so I’m… and you’re…”
GM: “I’m not your master. She is.”
“But I’m still a master and you’re still a slave.”
“Your dad’s friend is a master too.”
Celia: “And my dad is a slave.”
GM: “I don’t know that he’s one in the same sense you are. A ghoul, that is. But your dad’s ‘friend’ almost certainly thinks of him as his possession.”
Celia: “Which… means the master… knew…?”
GM: “Knew what?”
Celia: “That he’s been beating everyone. That he’s a… terrible person. He wasn’t like that until his friend got his hold on him. He used to be nice.”
GM: “I don’t know for sure if your dad’s friend knows or not. But he wouldn’t care.”
“Or maybe he would. But only as leverage to keep your old man in line with. Further in line.”
Celia: “You mean like he’d be okay with it because it would make my dad happy.”
GM: “I doubt he cares if your dad is happy. Just that he’s useful.”
Celia: “Happy dad is useful dad.”
GM: “Okay. Then he’s fine with your dad beating his wife and kids. It’s a minor sin next to the ones he’s capable of. Little league stuff.”
“His name is Donovan.”
Celia: “Donovan.” Celia repeats the name, lets it roll off her tongue. The monster has a name.
She and her father are just tools. Pawns. This Donovan guy doesn’t care what her dad has done, just that he’s useful. And she has to make him not useful without showing her hand, because otherwise he will take that hand off. And maybe her arm.
And her head.
“If I belong to her, the woman, is he allowed to come after me?”
GM: “If you haven’t done anything to him, he has no reason to. Isn’t worth the fight.”
“But he’ll defend what’s his.”
Celia: “Why are you telling me all this? Are you… I mean are you going to…” Celia mimes drawing her thumb across her throat.
GM: He smiles humorlessly.
“Waste of my breath if I was, isn’t it?”
“But you can’t tell these things to ordinary people. Ones who aren’t Kindred like me, or ghouls like you. If you do, we’ll kill you.” His voice is deadly serious. “Don’t be obvious using any of the tricks you know around ordinary people, either. Be subtle. All of this is secret.”
“Especially don’t tell your mom, if you’re able to get her out. No matter how much you want to. If she hears, she’s dead. So are any friends you tell. Any ordinary people.”
She tries not to think of Em. She hadn’t told him, she’d just hinted. That doesn’t count, right? It can’t count. What if he just guesses on his own? Is she supposed to lie? No those aren’t bite marks.
“Okay,” she says. “No telling.”
She’ll have to warn Em. Get him out of town. Maybe they can still run. She doesn’t want to be a slave. But these things are probably everywhere. They can probably find her, drag her back. Or maybe they won’t bother. Maybe they’ll just bite and not let go, and that darkness that called to her earlier this evening will come back for good.
She should probably stop thinking about them as things, she realizes.
She can think of a dozen different questions she has for him. About the others. About Donovan. But one that’s more pressing than the others, because none of this means anything if she can’t make it out alive.
“How do I keep him from coming after me? Or… protect myself if he does?”
GM: “He doesn’t have any reason to come after you if you don’t threaten your dad.”
“That’s your best defense. And only defense.”
“I work for someone,” Pete then says. “Another Kindred. Someone with a vested interest in removing Donovan’s and his own master’s pawns from their positions. If your old man gets taken out by scandal, he’s useless to Donovan. And you can get your family out of his clutches or do what you want with him.”
“You have a lot of evidence. Which you’ve tendered to me. My boss could leak it to the press. Donovan will blame him, rather than you. He’s fine being blamed. He sabotages Donovan’s pawns all the time.”
“But that may take some time. Not to leak to the press, but to damage your old man to the point that Donovan writes him off as an asset, and stops caring what happens to him.”
Celia: “Wait. I have proof. Of what he did. I have a video. You can get that out?”
GM: “We can.”
Celia: “Do you need more?”
GM: “You’ve given me enough evidence already. But more would only help.”
Celia: “Then I’ll get it. I can get it.” That was her plan anyway. Get the proof, get it out. Destroy him.
And she knows exactly how to do it now.
“I’ll get it to you. More. I’ll… I can do that.”
GM: “How soon?”
Celia: “When you, um… do you guys sleep? I was going to say wake up because I kind of just assumed…”
She has research to do. Legends and myths, anything she can find to figure out what she’s dealing with.
Celia: “During the day? Is that… accurate? ‘Cause then after that. Like tomorrow night. Or later tonight, rather, since it’s tomorrow.”
GM: “Okay. How about your mom?”
Celia: “I’m going to sneak in and break her out. And then I’ll go back. He’ll be too busy breaking me apart to wonder where she is.”
“I’m the one who turned him in. And then I’ll get out before Donovan shows up.”
GM: Pete frowns. But looks thoughtful.
“You asked me earlier, where to find Donovan.”
“Doing that would be a terrible idea.”
“But I’m going to tell you. Just in case. Because sometimes a terrible option is the only one to help the people we care about.”
He gives her an address in Audubon Place.
It’s Paul’s house.
Celia: “Um. Are you…”
The doors. Upstairs.
Oh my God.
“I know him. The guy. Who lives here.”
GM: Pete grunts.
“Am I what?”
Celia: “I’ve been there.”
GM: “We hide in plain sight.”
Celia: “You, uh. I owe you. A lot. I think you just saved my life without knowing. Prevented me from… doing something really, really dangerous.”
GM: “We’ll see if you still feel that way later today. Meet me at the House of Blues. 9 PM.”
Celia: “Okay. I can do that. If… if I don’t show, I’m probably… stuck. Or, um, dead. In which case I’ll leave the footage for you. And you… you’ll bury him, right? If I can’t, you’ll use it? And… and take care of my mom? Let her cry on your shoulder or something. Girls like that.”
She’s giving romance advice to a vampire. Babbling, because if she doesn’t and he leaves she’ll have a million things left unsaid, and if she doesn’t get a chance to talk to him again she wants to get it right.
GM: “I’ll use it whether you make it or not,” Pete says.
“You’ve already given me evidence. We can use that even if you aren’t able to turn in more.”
“I’ll be there for your mom. I’ll have a wife if she gets any ideas.”
Celia: “Don’t… don’t bite her. Like don’t… turn her into this.” Celia gestures at herself. “She can’t be a slave. She’s had enough drama. Okay?”
Perhaps realizing she probably shouldn’t be giving him orders, she adds, “Not to tell you what to do. Sir. Just a… a request. She’s my mom. She should be happy. Not afraid. Not after what he did to her.”
“Sorry.” She looks away. “I’ll meet you tonight. With the tape.”
GM: Pete gives her a look.
“I told you that your mom getting involved with me was a terrible idea, kid.”
“I’ll break any news to her. No more.”
Celia: “I’m agreeing with you.”
“Not that you’re a bad guy,” Celia adds. “You seem great. Just. You know.” She taps her teeth with the nail of her index finger.
“So uh… so yeah. Tonight.”
GM: Pete just gives her more of that same look, but rises from the couch.
“And for what little it’s worth, I’m sorry you got caught up in all this. You should be going to college. Worrying about boys and grades.”
Celia: “Thank you. I… you’ve been really kind. I appreciate it.” The smile she gives him doesn’t quite get rid of the worry in her eyes. “Good night, detective.”
GM: “Good luck, kid.”
Thursday night, 2 April 2009, AM
Celia: “Em. Em, wake up.”
It’s early. Too early after the night they had, that time of day before the sun has fully risen. Wherever he fell asleep he’s in bed now, and she’s got him on his back with her knees on either side of his waist, half-sitting on his lap. She taps him a few times on the chest. She’s in one of his shirts, legs bare.
“Em. Wake up. Everything changed. Everything.”
Emmett: Em yawns, not wanting to let her tush him without a fight. He starts to stir, but then notices her position, and settles for wriggling under her instead. “You won the lottery?” he asks meekly. “The President’s dead? Don’t worry, the Illuminati’ll choose another one.”
Celia: “Don’t do that. It’s distracting.” She swats his shoulder.
“I can’t tell you. But plans have changed. Okay? I need you to get ahold of Miranda, see if she’s got a way to remotely save video. Like uh… streaming. To a private server or something. If she has a camera like that. Now. Like literally right now.”
Emmett: “Distracting how,” he teases, even as he reaches for his phone with one hand. He looks slightly more somber at her words, but still smiles at the sight of her. “Tell me some of what’s going on,” he says, as he dials.
Celia: “Em. I can’t. Literally. They said if I told anyone, they’d kill me. And the person I told. And I like you, and I don’t want you to die, because if you die then I can’t come visit you and wake you up like this, only in the future maybe naked, yeah?” She’s talking much faster than she normally does, barely pausing for breath. Her eyes are bright.
“But I have a plan. Similar to what I told you last night. Only…” Celia reaches out, takes the phone from him, and ends the call.
“Never mind. I know someone else.”
Emmett: He likes it when she talks fast. Maybe he really is rubbing off on her. He nods along with everything she says, listening carefully. He raises an eyebrow as she hangs up the call, then nods again when she explains.
Then he asks, “Maybe naked?”
Celia: “Extra naked,” she promises him. “Hold that thought. I need…” she rolls off of him and runs—slowly—to the other room to find her laptop. She brings it back and reclaims her place on his lap, sends a message, and sets it aside. Her phone is nearby, ready to go for when her contact reaches out.
“You have a part to play. But you can’t come with me. Okay?”
Emmett: He tilts his head, looking into her eyes with his own too-dark gaze.
“What part?” he asks finally, all the teasing gone from his voice.
Celia: “I’m getting my mom out. I was given some advice. And… if I do it the wrong way, the…” she trails off.
“There’s a guy who…”
Huh. How the heck can she talk to him about this without revealing anything?
“Uh. Bad guys, right? And let’s say… that my dad works for a bad guy. And the bad guy will come after me if I do a thing he doesn’t like, and he can’t be stopped by normal means. And so… I’m going in there. To see my dad. And get more, um, evidence. So like what I said earlier, basically, only now I have a bad guy I work for, but he’s a good guy, and he’s gonna… destroy the bad guys.”
Emmett: “You’re… not very good at explaining things,” he says. But he doesn’t press her, just touches her gently. “What do you need from me?”
Celia: Celia scrolls through her inbox for the email she’d sent herself almost two years ago with the subject line ECon. To anyone else, it looks like she just held the shift key down for too long, but Celia knows that inside there’s a URL that will let her get ahold of her former tutor. She doesn’t know why he’d sent it to her like he did. At the time he’d made a vague, “in case you need me” comment, but now she’s glad that she has it. And that she saved it all this time.
She copies the URL into her browser and stares at the screen that loads. A forum. Really, Emil?
She has the code, too, that she was supposed to memorize, and she clicks “Create Thread” up at the top of the screen.
Two lanes diverged in the yellow woods, she types, then pauses. What the heck else is she supposed to say?
Two lanes diverged in the yellow woods,
and sorry I Could not travel both
And be one traveler, Long I stood
and Looked down one as far as I Could
to wher it bent in the undergrowth;
Look not that day upon the land
and In whose haste it do demand
a sacrifice of coin for Ale
That makes no sense. Celia posts it anyway. He’ll figure it out.
Emil: The browser suddenly freezes, and so too does her mouse. The screen goes pale as a ghost as the blue ouroboros of the OS stalling symbol spins around and around in an endless chase of its tail.
The phone rings.
Caller ID UNKNOWN
Celia: Celia presses her fingers against Em’s lips in a shushing motion before she picks up her phone. She has to assume that it’s him, otherwise her laptop just froze for no reason and she is going to tear him a new one.
Emil: There’s an overlong playing of piss-poor muzak, compressed into layers of awfully dissonant, scratchy tones, before she hears a voice, equally distorted:
“Hello, Portal Tech Support. How can I help you today?”
Emmett: Em rolls his eyes.
And makes a jerking off gesture.
Celia: She raises a brow at Em, sliding her hand under the blanket. She can play that game.
“Um.” She blanks for a second, then remembers the final bit of the puzzle piece. “Numba nine large?” She drops the R on number, like he’d said to.
Emmett: He starts to tell her he was being derisive. Then he thinks better of it.
Then she says that, and he’s confused again.
Confused, aroused, and somewhere in there a little bit offended by the boldness of the passphrase.
Emil: “Please hold while I redirect you to a supervisor,” the man says, giggling. The muzak restarts from the beginning.
Emmett: Em gives her a flat look over the laptop.
Celia: Celia holds her thumb over the phone’s mic.
“What? You don’t want this?”
Emmett: “No, keep going, I just didn’t think we needed an elevator music accompaniment.”
Celia: “I’m calling my guy,” she says to him. But she goes back to what she was doing with her hand.
Emmett: He leans forward and kisses her quickly before leaning back and letting her.
He’s rolling his eyes. But not at her.
Emil: The muzak cuts as a different voice spills out of the speaker, crystal clear and unmistakably Emil’s.
“I really need to update that passcode, don’t I? Terribly out of date humor. I do apologize about that. But hey! Two years huh? Is everything alright?”
He sounds chipper.
Emmett: That voice sounds familiar. Em blinks as he forgets he’s supposed to be quietly enjoying his handjob. “What the fuck?”
Celia: Celia doesn’t actually get the joke since her dad never let her play games, especially violent games.
“Well, you gave it to me years ago. I uh. I need some tech assistance. If you can help. A few things. Have some time?”
Celia stops what she’s doing, startled by his exclamation.
Emmett: “Is that…” He looks at the phone. “…That sounds like somebody I know. Sorry.”
Emil: “Well I’m all out of parsley, sage, and rosemary, but it seems you’re just in luck—” he jokes, before abruptly stating, “—Interesting. Tell the guy you’re with not to use names.”
Emmett: Em rolls his eyes. “This guy. This fucking guy.”
Celia: “Uh, friend, no names,” she says to Em. But she watches his face, then presses the speaker button on her phone. “Do you two know each other?”
Emmett: “No names,” he says, voice dripping with sarcasm. “What, did he start a spy agency? After giving up on his film career?”
Celia: “Were you an actor?” she asks into the phone.
Emil: “World-renowned,” the voice drawls right back. “This is immensely interesting, you two know each other. What a pairing.”
Celia: “Do you two know each other?” She’s looking at Em as she asks, handjob forgotten for the moment. Second time she’s asked, maybe she’ll get an actual answer.
Emmett: “If his name rhymes with A-Real-Pain, as in, in my ass, then yes. And I saved his life once, which I regretted immediately.”
Emil: “What did I say about names?” the voice groans from the speaker.
Emmett: “I don’t know, probably something that nobody was listening to.”
Celia: “Uh… I guess when you pronounce it like that, yes. So this is awkward.” She raises her brows at Em, mouths ‘tell me later’ to him.
“So hey, listen, friend on the phone. I need some tech help. You help?”
Emil: Emil actually sounds hurt when he says “Oh.” He quickly brushes that off with a, “Yeah, why not? Like I was saying, still got thyme in the pantry. What sort of help do you need? Be non-specific, this isn’t a secure line.”
Celia: There’s a moment where she feels bad, until she remembers that he hasn’t reached out either.
“It’s kind of urgent. Um. Basically… I was wondering if you could help me set up a, uh, like a private server for a livestream, because I’m… doing a thing that requires… uh… live footage, that can then be given to someone else. Privately. That they can then download. Audio and video.” That’s vague enough, right?
Emil: He doesn’t seem too affected. He lists off a series of questions as if by rote. “You have the cameras set up? If so where are they? Tell me generally, what type of location? Would it be easier or harder for you to use security cameras over installing your own?”
Celia: “No. Nothing is set up. House. Like a bedroom. Harder to use security cameras, there are none inside where I need it to be.”
Emil: That gets a, “Hmm,” from the other end of the line. “Do you have time to set up the device before you need it, or does it need to be mobile? Able to be thrown around easily? You’d like me to get a camera to you, I assume?”
Celia: “I have a camera. It just might not be the right camera. I took it from our friend here. This needs to happen like… soon. Like today. Like, uh, in an hour or two. So mobile, yeah.”
“Or,” she says after a moment, “I have a webcam, I just need it to go somewhere secure, and then like release if I don’t tell it not to. Is that possible?”
Emil: There’s a pause on the other end of the line.
“It is,” he responds crisply. “Deadman’s switches should almost always be longer term affairs, however. In the short term, situations are far too mutable to simply run on a timer. As much as I’m loathe to suggest it, for the level of required flexibility, you need a person to make the final decision.”
“You need failsafe hidden cams in case you can’t set up the webcam in time.”
“I’ll send those over.”
Celia: “So you’re telling me I need to trust someone enough to do something on my behalf in case things go south.” It’s a question directed at Em rather than Emil, and her brows raise toward the boy beneath her. She’d already had a job for him, and now apparently there’s a second.
She’s going to owe him. Big time.
“How long?” she asks.
Emmett: Em just listens, and watches her lazily. Happily.
Emil: “About ten.” The line clicks.
Celia: Celia stares at the phone in her hand.
“Ten what?” she asks aloud, but the line is already dead. Her lips purse as she looks back to Em, annoyed.
“I have two tasks for you, now. I’m going to get my mom. Then I’m going to deal with my dad. He,” she waves the phone, “is going to set up a thing. If I disappear, you make sure it gets out. Can you do that?”
Emmett: “If you give it to me? Yeah. Easy.”
Celia: “And if you don’t hear from me before 9pm, I need you to meet someone for me. At the House of Blues. With a letter. Just hand it to him and leave, don’t linger, don’t make small talk, don’t… don’t do anything silly. Okay?” There is very real concern in her voice.
Emil: There’re three hard knocks at the door.
Celia: “You expecting someone?”
There’s no way it’s him. Already? That wasn’t ten anything. Ten seconds, maybe. But she’s seen people move that fast before, hasn’t she? Emil, too?
She’s off of Em and has a pair of sweats pulled on before he can think to complain, moving toward the door with wary caution. She picks up something to clobber him with, just in case, and opens the door.
Emil: It’s not Emil. But he’s wearing his face.
A plastic mask a few sizes too small presses into the man’s skin; Emil’s grinning visage is printed on it. A nylon thread struggles to hold it in place. There’s two red LEDs shining out of crudely-cut eye-holes.
There’s a circular grate cut through Emil’s lips, with a stiff black fabric sitting behind it. A coiled black cable and earpiece sits on the side of his large head, hidden under a grey hoodie.
The man, wearing heavy combat boots, has an athletic build under the sweat uniform, yet he holds a long white cane. Its black strap is secured around his wrist. His broad shoulders make the backpack he wears look more fit for a child. Gloves cover his hands.
“It was closer to fifteen,” comes a voice that is unmistakably Emil’s, though still distorted like on the phone, from behind the mouth grate.
This is the weirdest thing she has seen lately, and she has seen a lot of weird stuff.
“Thanks for… uh…” she trails off. “Are you coming in, then?” she steps aside, wondering how the hell she is going to explain this to Em. Maybe she’ll get him a new apartment after this, something nice, with another cafe downstairs. Keep him nice and anonymous.
Emil: “You’re welcome,” he responds after a moment of delay, and then the man wearing her tutor’s face walks in, tapping the floor in front of him with the white cane as he moves.
Celia: “We’ve got company,” Celia calls loudly to Em, letting him know that if he’s going to come out the bedroom he should probably put some clothes on.
“Want a seat?” she gestured to the couch. Then finally asks, “what on earth is this whole getup? Are you a robot now?” She’s only half joking.
Emmett: He does not bother to put some clothes on. It’s his own apartment, dammit.
Nevertheless, when he walks into the other room in his boxers, he says, “Fuck.”
Then he walks back into his room. He’s too sober for this shit.
Emil: He seems to scan Emmett, tilting his head as he walks in and then out again. There are quiet whirring noises emanating from his eyes.
He places his backpack at his feet. There’s a buzzing from the earpiece as the man looks at the couch. But then he sits down, not feeling for its presence once.
More buzzing, and he turns to look at Celia.
“This is my associate’s body. I’m borrowing it,” Emil’s voice answers. “We’re now speaking over a secure line, so there’s no need to hold back.”
“This is about your father,” he asserts. The man nods in agreement a moment later after a second of buzzing.
Celia: “Yes,” she says without hesitation. She seats herself opposite him, crossing one leg over the other. In the oversized tee and sweats, with her makeup specifically done to made her look younger, she looks less like the dignified lady she was going for.
“He was arrested two nights ago and already released. Domestic abuse. Media squashed the story. I found mention of it online, one of the forums you told me about, and that’s it.”
She pauses, as if considering what to tell him. In the end it isn’t much.
“I just need something that’s so big it can’t be contained. Something his benefactors can’t bury. And a way to get it to someone in case I’m… not able to.”
Emil: His ear buzzes. He nods. “I took the liberty of setting up an encrypted pipeline to stream the video through. The storage spot is waiting. All you need is a target to release it to at the command of someone you trust, and to set up your webcam and these hidden cams in my associate’s bag.”
“There is something I think you should know, however.” The man struggles to unzip the bag. After a buzzing in his ear, he succeeds at pulling out a sleek black laptop. He opens it on what appears to be recorded surveillance footage. The play button obscures the view of a large SUV. Her father’s SUV.
Celia: “Perfect!” She is about to express her gratitude, to thank him for everything he has done and how quickly he was able to pull it off, when the guy—robot?—pulls the laptop out of the bag. Her eyes move to the screen.
“Daddy’s car?” She glances at where Emil’s face should be, then back to the laptop. There’s more here. There has to be. She reaches out to press play.
GM: It’s a fairly routine surveillance tape. Maxen drives alone in the front seat of the SUV. Celia’s four siblings sit in the back two rows. She does not see her mother.
It strikes Celia as somewhat odd that Isabel isn’t sitting next to her father, given the obvious moon eyes she has for him.
She’s seated in the back-most row instead, where she alternately shushes Logan and dries his tears.
David and Sophia look more subdued. They don’t seem to talk to to anyone.
Celia: “When is this from?”
GM: The time stamp says earlier this evening.
It’s dark out, but a reasonable hour still. Around when people are settling in for the evening.
When Celia was gone with Em and Emily.
Celia: “Anything since then?” she asks Emil without taking her eyes from the screen. “Do you know where he went? Home, right?”
Where’s my mom?
Emil: “They’re going home. This is Audubon Place’s perimeter.”
The eyes make the man look like the Terminator. Painfully difficult to discern his emotion. And yet, from his body language he looks unmistakably uncomfortable as he hears more sounds buzzing into his ear.
“I turned off his hearing aids’ environmental listening feature. He doesn’t need to hear this.”
“If his body doesn’t seem to be reacting appropriately to anything you say, that’s why,” Emil’s voice cautions.
The man scrubs through the video with his fingers, which seem intimately familiar with the keyboard. He cycles through a few keyframes that show Isabel looking briefly, intently towards the trunk.
“She’s watching over the person your father stuffed in the trunk. She helped. She did it to make your father proud. The person was still alive at the time this video was taken. If she wasn’t, your sister wouldn’t be keeping watch over her.”
Emmett: Em wanders back into his living room, still in his boxers. They’re vintage Action Bill merch, with the man himself giving a thumbs up that bulges over the wearer’s crotch. The Danger Squad cover him from the back. He looks brighter-eyed, and there’s a joint dangling from his lips.
“Cool, TV,” he says, when he sees the screen. He offers their guest the smoke. “Do you take turns riding each other, or is it a top and bottom thing?”
Emil: The larger man doesn’t react at all to Emmett’s question, nor his offer of the joint. The conman is treated to a view of the thick sinew of the masked man’s back, visibly defined even through the heavy sweatshirt.
Emil’s voice sounds painfully serious when he interrupts his own explanation.
“If you intend on entrusting Emmett with your recording, he needs to sober up. Now.”
Celia: Mom’s alive.
A brief, fleeting sense of relief shoots through her. She’d known. Of course she’d known. Her mom has to be alive, otherwise… otherwise she’s doing all of this for nothing, everything that she has been through has been for nothing. She nods, jaw tight, as Emil explains, and finally looks over to Emmett.
“He’s always high. I think he functions better that way. And he won’t be getting the tape unless it falls through, which is obviously Plan B. Plan A is that…” she cuts herself off. Neither of them need to know. “Plan A is that I make it out.”
She turns her attention to Emil, gesturing at the laptop.
“What else? What else is after this? They went home and what? Stayed there?”
Emmett: Em feigns a look of offense at Emil’s suggestion. “What am I going to replace it with? Circumcision?”
He’s touched, though, by her standing up for him. It warms his heart. Or some part of him, anyways.
GM: Of course, the video is by now hours old.
Who knows what’s happened to her mom since then.
Emil: “There’s still more to look at in this video.”
The associate scrubs through the video as Emil continues to describe it. She can see her father’s face contort, shifting from composed into momentary grimaces. When he zooms, she can see the unbridled anger in Maxen’s eyes, The anticipation raising his blood pressure, reddening his skin.
“The person in the trunk, they were in danger in the evening. Your father was bloodthirsty, on edge, and ready to do whatever dirty work he intended once he reached your house. It’s been hours since this video was taken.”
“The person in the trunk is likely dead. Ninety percent of kidnapping victims taken to a secondary location do not survive. And if they aren’t, I wouldn’t dare imagine what torture they’re enduring as we speak.”
Celia: “You’re telling me something I already know.” Her voice is cold, jaw tight. Her lips press together in a thin line.
“It’s possible she’s dead. And if she is, he’ll pay for that too. Because if he took her life, I will take everything from him. Everything. Not in an easy out, not in a quick knife to the throat, but by taking every single thing that he holds dear. It’s not a lot, you know, but I’ve lived with the man for 19 years. I know what he cares about.”
There are worse things to do to someone than to kill them. The last forty-eight hours have taught her that.
“So if there’s something else, Emil, tell me now.”
GM: The video dies. Then another one starts up.
Emil: “I think it’s best you just watch.”
GM: The car pulls up to the house. Maxen and the Flores children get out.
He touches their shoulders. Says softly encouraging things. Isabel does so too to her younger siblings.
Maxen walks inside with the kids. Isabel remains outside by the car.
She crosses her arms and glares at the trunk.
“He would’ve left you alone. You just had to come and kidnap us.”
There’s muffled, fearful noises from the trunk.
“If you make any noise I’ll tell Dad.”
Emil: “My associates and I just acquired this footage.”
GM: “You’re a liar! You’re such a liar! You always LIED! About everything!”
Isabel kicks the trunk.
There’s more noises from inside. Scared. Muffled. Almost pleading.
“You’re not my mom!”
Isabel crosses her arms and turns away.
Emil: “Oh,” the voice emanates from behind the dead face of the mask. “Your mother. I see.”
GM: The recording fast forwards.
Maxen comes back outside. Isabel hugs him and kisses his cheek.
“Go inside, sweetie.”
“Daddy, I want to help.”
“This isn’t for you to see.”
“She’s not my mom.”
“I don’t repeat myself in this house, Isabel.”
She walks inside.
Maxen looks around. The house’s grounds are large. It’s comfortably isolated. It’s dark out.
He opens the trunk. The three can’t see exactly what’s in there from the camera angle.
“Scream and I will shoot you,” Maxen says calmly.
There’s an acquiescent whimper.
Then louder, pained ones, clearly trying to be quiet.
A heavy thump.
Emil: “You don’t have to look, Celia. I can watch for you,” the voice suggests. The red eyes stare into the screen, whirring as they focus and refocus.
GM: The camera shows Maxen again. He’s dragging Celia’s mom along the path up to their house by her hair. She’s tied up and gagged. Her eyes are scrunched in equal parts pain and fear as she whimpers through the cloth.
Emmett: Em slips his hand in hers.
Breathe, he doesn’t say. He doesn’t have to.
If he had any doubts about being on the right side of a struggle that isn’t much his business, they’re gone now. He’s met Diana.
Maxen deserves whatever he has coming.
GM: Dragging a totally limp woman up the porch steps with one hand takes a bit of strength even for Celia’s dad. He’s slow, but he manages. Her mom’s eyes scrunch in pain with every bump and jostle at the pressure on her scalp. The gag in her mouth works a bit.
Celia: Her grip is tight around Em’s hand. She waves off Emil’s suggestion to look away. She created this. She will watch every second of it.
GM: Maxen opens the front door. He drops Diana’s hair. Her eyes blink rapidly in relief, but it’s a desperate kind that knows it’s all-too short-lived. Maxen walks back, then uses his feet to shove and kick the prone woman over the welcome mat.
He steps over her, pulls her inside by her hair, then closes the door.
The recording jumps forward suddenly. They’re in the dining room. Maxen is sitting at the table reading.
Celia: “There are cameras in the house?” The sharp question is directed to Emil. Her eyes don’t leave the screen.
Emil: “In the walls… smart house… lights when you walk into the room… needs cameras,” he half explains, trailing off at the abrupt scene change.
GM: Diana walks out of the kitchen. She’s carrying a steaming plate of steak, peas, and mashed potatoes. She’s still wearing the cloth gag, though she’s no longer tied up.
She gingerly sets it down in front of Maxen. She looks scared, but it’s a different kind of scared. Tense. Breath held.
Celia: “I need them disabled.”
GM: Maxen takes his steak knife, an act that makes Celia’s mom tense oh so slightly, and holds it up.
Diana doesn’t move a muscle.
Celia’s dad turns the knife over.
Then he picks up his fork and starts cutting the steak.
Diana’s shoulders slump with relief.
Celia: Celia lets out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Her hand relaxes around Em’s.
Emil: “I can do it. But it’ll look suspicious.” She can hear him breathe better as he cuts into the steak.
GM: Maxen takes a bite, chews, swallows.
“Are you hungry, Diana?”
Celia’s mom shakes her head.
“Really? Because if you weren’t hungry, that would’ve meant you ate a full meal with my kids. A full meal.”
Diana looks slightly confused, but more fearful.
She slowly nods her head.
“Why are you nodding like that, Diana? Are you trying to communicate something? I didn’t pose a yes or no question.”
Celia’s mom stops nodding.
“Nod your head if you ate a full meal with my kids.”
She shakes her head.
“So you must be hungry.”
A slow nod.
“Get on your knees.”
There’s a momentary pause.
Celia’s mom kneels by her ex’s chair.
Maxen pats her head.
She flinches at the contact.
He pulls out the gag.
He cuts off another section of steak and drops it on the floor.
Diana reaches to pick it up.
Celia: No, Momma. With your mouth.
GM: Maxen lightly slaps her hand.
She flinches, sharply.
“With your mouth,” Maxen explains patiently.
Diana bends to the ground and eats it off the floor. Red starts to rise to her cheeks. But there’s still more pallor than anything else.
“You were always a better cook than Celia, I’ll give you that much.”
Celia’s mom doesn’t say anything. But she keeps her head on the floor.
Celia’s dad drops another bite of steak. It hits her head and bounces off.
She turns, slowly, and eats it off the floor. Like a dog.
“Celia gets her brains from you, you know. By which I mean she inherited a completely vacant and empty head.”
“Tonight has revised my earlier estimation of your intelligence, Diana. I think it’s possible you might be even stupider than our daughter.”
“Tell me you at least recognize that fact. Say you’re stupid.”
“I’m stupid,” says Celia’s mom.
Celia: Color rises to her cheeks. She doesn’t look at either one of them. Her hand curls into a fist, nails digging into her palm.
GM: “You are stupid. Stand up.”
Celia’s mom stands up.
“Take off your clothes.”
She pauses. Then she slowly pulls off her dress.
Maxen stares at her.
Celia’s mom lowers her gaze.
A moment passes.
“What are those things you’re wearing, Diana?”
“A-a bra. Panties.”
“And what are bras and panties, Diana?”
“Un, underwear. Clothes.”
Celia: “Look away.” To both of them.
GM: “And what did I tell you to do with your clothes?”
Emmett: Em goes to the kitchen.
GM: “To, to take them off.”
“So why didn’t you?”
Emil: There’s a buzzing in the man’s ear, and then he averts his eyes.
GM: Diana hesitates.
Maxen smashes his dinner plate over her head. Ceramic shards and potatoes and peas mixed with red fly everywhere. The remaining steak hits the floor with a thop as Diana’s knees crash into the hardwood. She cries and holds up her arms, bloody potatoes running down her head.
Maxen yanks her up by her hair.
“Diana? Can you hear me? Are you too stupid to understand the question?”
“Y-yes! I, I m-”
“Yes what, Diana? Yes, you can hear me? Or yes, you are too stupid to understand the question?”
Celia’s mom babbles.
Maxen sighs dramatically.
“Never mind. I know you can hear me, and I also know you’re too stupid to remember the question.”
“I’ll spare you the effort of having to formulate a reply, since that clearly takes a lot of effort for someone with your limited mental capabilities.” He lets go of her. “Take off all of your clothes, Diana.”
Celia: She leans forward, pressing her hands over her mouth. She can’t look away. She did this. She delivered her mother to Maxen. Her fault.
GM: Celia’s mom hurriedly, frantically, tugs off her underwear.
Maxen’s face contorts in disgust.
“Look at this.”
He tugs one of her breasts in his hands.
“Just look at this.”
He stares at it like it’s a rotted piece of fly-specked fruit.
“This is unbelievably hideous. You’re a hideous cow. I’m glad I divorced you.”
Diana’s face burns as she looks away.
Celia’s dad rises from his chair, grabs his ex-wife’s face, and jerks it up to meet his gaze. He’s over a head taller than she is.
He seems to inspect her features for a moment. “Your face is uglier too. A grotesque face to go with your empty head. I can’t think of any man who would ever want a used-up old whore like you. You’re a dog walking on its hind legs.”
Celia’s mom starts to softly cry.
“No one wants you, Diana,” Maxen says in a patient, explanatory tone. “You’re ugly and stupid and you’ve wasted your entire life. Do you realize that? Teaching dance to children. It doesn’t build something physical. It doesn’t advance the sum of human knowledge. It doesn’t improve moral character. It’s a completely valueless pursuit.”
“You’re a terrible human being. I don’t mean terrible morally, though stealing a man’s children certainly is a terrible thing to do. I primarily mean you’re terrible in the sense that you add nothing of contributive worth to society. You’re worthless. If I put you down like the dog you are, no one would miss you. No one would care.”
“The only worthwhile thing you’ve accomplished over the course of your mediocre existence has been to incubate my children so my family line could continue, but anyone with a hole between their legs could have sufficed for that. You should be grateful I chose you for the privilege, though in hindsight I suppose I regret it. If I’d chosen someone with an actually functional brain inside of her skull, it’s likely Celia would have turned out less stupid. Not to mention I’d have stayed married to you. You always were a terrible mother to our children. You abandoned them. You walked out on them. You let them grow up without a mother. I don’t understand how you can live with yourself.”
Celia: “Can you fix this? Blur her out, her face or her body or something? Just release… him?”
Emil: Emil does not respond to that, the man simply sits on the couch, facing away from the computer.
GM: Celia’s mom silently cries.
Her mouth works for a moment. But then she doesn’t say anything.
She just cries.
Emmett: Em brings her a mug. Tea. Like after her rape. He doesn’t look at the screen. The sounds are enough.
GM: “Don’t worry. They’re never going to see you again. You will never see them again. They will never be contaminated by you ever again.”
“I-I’m s-sor-” Celila’s mom falteringly starts, but she breaks off in sobs.
“Lie down on the couch.”
Diana freezes. But does so.
Maxen unzips his pants, then climbs over her.
Celia: Her eyes close. She can’t look. She can’t watch this. She finally turns away, draws her knees up to her chest, covers her face with her hands. The offering of tea is ignored.
GM: Perhaps numbers flash past on the screen.
Time Celia could have been there.
Time she could have shown up.
The sound quality isn’t the best. It’s garbled and fast forwarded. The recording fast forwards through the deed.
There’s a sobbing sound, on seemingly endless playback. Manic-sounding from how fast it’s being played. Eh-he-he-he-he-he.
“We’re not finished, Diana.”
“We’re just getting started.”
“Clean all of this up. You know where the cleaning supplies are. I want this place spotless.”
Celia: “How far back does it go? The footage. Years? Is old stuff saved?” She wipes at her eyes. She did this. Her mom’s suffering is because of her.
She breathes slowly. She has to. If she doesn’t, she’s going to fly off the handle. If she doesn’t, she’s going to fall apart. She’s going to turn into the girl she was, not the girl she needs to be. Keep it together. That’s the only thing she can think about.
Keep it together, make him pay, and then kill yourself, you stupid worthless whore.
GM: Celia turns back in time to see her mom numbly cupping her hands around her vagina to keep her ex’s cum from leaking out.
She doesn’t really succeed. It still gets over the carpet.
Her gaze is dead as she slowly shuffles away. She comes back with supplies. She bends, still naked, to clean up the couch she was raped on. She cleans up the spilled food. She picks up the shattered plate pieces.
Maxen drops her dress and underwear into the trash bag too.
Diana does the dishes while her ex-husband watches over her shoulder. She soaps and scrubs the glass and eating utensils.
The video jumps forward. The numbers on the bottom are different again. Closer to now.
Emil: “There’s only so much footage you can store. Maybe… maybe…”
GM: They’re in Celia’s bedroom. Diana is still naked and tied spread-eagled across the bed. Her face is a bloody welt of black and purple bruises, so like that hospital visit of six years ago. Her head is propped up on a pillow.
“I have something for you, Diana,” says Celia’s dad.
He holds something up.
Diana screams past her gag, eyes mad with terror.
It’s a hacksaw.
“We won’t be interrupted this time.”
The shadows of the serrated edges slowly descend over her naked breasts.
Celia’s mom frantically jerks against her bonds.
But mostly, she just screams.
The video winks out.
The time stamp is about ten minutes ago.
Celia: One moment Celia is on the couch. The next she is not. She is gone, the door slamming shut behind her.
She runs like she has never run before.
I’m coming, Momma.
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