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The adrenaline spike from the day’s event was finally starting to take its toll, collapsing Charles to his knees. A pool of sweat began to collect on the floor as he struggled to breathe, shuddering as the magnitude of his actions weighed heavily upon his mind… but the deed was done. His prize was waiting for him in his basement, which he acquired without a hitch in his well-orchestrated plans. The ties between them were razor-thin at best, and Charles hoped against hope that investigators would have next to nothing to go on. There were no witnesses, no noises, no clues left behind… he made damned sure of that. As far as he knew, he got away scot-free.

For a brief moment, Charles reflected on the motivations which possessed him to commit such an act. To put it simply, he was lonely, horny, and frustrated. He certainly wasn’t a bad looking guy by any stretch of the imagination, but between working sixty hours a week and other obligations, his time to pursue personal interests was extremely limited. His occupation had afforded him a decent house, and its maintenance issues he eagerly discussed with quiet pride amongst his coworkers. But it greeted him with quiet emptiness every evening, which was beginning to depress him. His nympho ex who broke off their relationship almost two years ago had left him ravenous for more, and as time went by, his determination to rekindle his sex life strengthened with every wet dream.

During his delivery driver days, before Charles acquired his well-paying but time-consuming job, he delivered pizzas to a particular woman in a subdivision across town. She always greeted him at the door in a sensuous nightgown, smiling and flirting with an outrageously generous tip as she accepted her late-night snack from his clammy hands. He thought of her often before falling asleep after a long shift, and she reclaimed her nightly throne after he was forced once again into single life. He wanted that woman, named Andrea on the printout slip, and wanted her badly. 

Thus, the scheming began. He explored forbidden forums explaining the proper way to utilize chloroform and stalk someone from afar to learn their habits and schedules. The learning was easy, in comparison with gathering the courage to embark upon such a dangerous undertaking, which took him months of personal reassurance and sweat-drenched ‘practice’ runs. But in the end, the prospect of having an attractive woman as his puppet proved to be much too appetizing. Andrea was quickly placed in his trunk after succumbing to his soaked rag before he began the drive back across state lines, three-and-a-half hours away, to his bachelor pad in suburbia.

She was bound to be waking soon, which both excited and terrified him. Charles shook himself free from his mental convulsion and found his way to his feet. He retrieved a gallon of water from his pantry and slowly made his way to the wooden door which led down to the basement. Creaking it open with a cautious hand, his breath caught in his throat before forcing it through his nostrils with a stiff exhale. It was time to begin.

Andrea is a placeholder name, please let me know if you’d like it changed to something else.

It was a darkness so deep, so dark, so vast. She found herself falling through this darkness, hurtling ever closer to an invisible floor. Eyes shut, hands clenched, body braced for the inevitable landing that she knew would be her end. Seconds passed, then hours, weeks, eternity winding through the darkness but slowly, slowly, slowly her nose detected the overpowering, sickly sweet smell of bad candy. Chloroform? The question still hung in the air as twin pains bloomed in her wrists, settling gradually into a comfortable numbness as she clung to the only thing preventing her fall. As her wrist bonds slipped, she found herself blinking sleepily to a dismal picture of gray concrete.

This was discomfiting for a number of reasons. First, she didn’t recognize this depressing expanse of a basement, outfitted with the bare necessities – toilet, sink, and a bed farther off. Second, she was restrained. Cold metal encompassed both of her wrists, snaking into chains just long enough to allow some freedom of movement. A reflexive instinct to scream revealed the existence of a thick, cottony gag. And finally, she couldn’t remember anything of the day before.

Clara, breathe. Breathe. You’re going to be fine. She breathed long, shuddering breaths, practicing the relaxation exercises she advised for her patients. When a semblance of calm had returned to her, she began the futile endeavor of slowly tugging her hands free, met only with a growing sense of frustration and red, chafed skin. Breathe. Breathe. The only thing she could do now was wait.

Charles had knots in his stomach. The exhilarative thrill of success fled his mind hours ago, leaving him with a sickly, anxious feeling which only escalated as the unavoidable moment approached. Sooner or later, she’s going to wake up. He found himself unconsciously reaching for the jug of water beside him whenever his mind drifted towards the inevitable. She must be thirsty, he thought. I’ll give her something to drink right from the start when she wakes up. That’ll prove to her… what? His mind searched awkwardly to finish the thought before an impromptu moan commanded his immediate attention. This is it, Charles silently proclaimed. The time has arrived.

Lifting himself from his seat, he approached her slowly as the look on her face shifted from confusion to… something else. He assumed a wide stance before her, holding the jug of water in front of him as he quietly processed her every move and sound. “Hello,” he flatly called aloud as her eyes slowly rose to meet his own. “You don’t remember me, I bet. But I remember you.” Could that have been any cheesier? This isn’t a game, for Christ’s sakes. Charles sighed to himself as he offered the jug towards the vicinity of her mouth. “I’m sure you’re thirsty. Lean forward a bit and I’ll give you some.”

Ah, so the kidnapper has decided to show his face, bringing with him a – jug of water – of all things. She could practically smell the uncertainty oozing from his skin, seeping through the hesitant pauses and twitching hands. Perhaps

Hope glinted on the horizon, a tiny light from a tiny crack in the formidable stone walls of her prison. Clara slowly relaxed her unconsciously clenched fists, and slowly raised clear blue orbs to meet his, remaining completely still as she waited for him to speak.

The words tumbling from his mouth sound rehearsed, false. Like a drum, hollow and percussive. Could she capitalize on this apparent weakness? Her eyes never strayed from his as she studiously ignored the proffered container. “I don’t know why you brought me here, or who you are. What I do know is that you don’t know what you’re doing.” Every word fell with a calm gravity she didn’t feel, a cold numbness that sparked with an undercurrent of fear. “I have a family that I love and who loves me. They will be worried once they don’t hear from me, and they will look for me. Believe me, you will never, /ever/ get away with this.” She paused briefly, chains clanging as she folded her hands in her lap. “You’re not well. I can help you get better – I can help you live a normal life.”

Charles certainly didn’t expect this. Is she… threatening me? How could she be so… He shrunk back from her slightly, just enough to betray his composure. She can’t be serious. There’s no way. She has to be bluffing. Another quiet moment of retreat passes before Charles finally shrugs off his daze. “I’ll never, ever get away with this?” he forces out, seemingly to challenge her presumption. Backing away from Clara, he took slow, heavy steps back towards his chair, clumsily dropping the jug of water along the way. The lingering shadows consumed his face and torso as the fluorescent light above them began to buzz. “Never, ever…” Charles mumbled those words as if resigning himself to deep contemplation. Was she right? he thought to himself. They could find me. Forensics is amazing nowadays. Could they possibly…

“There’s no way,” he blurts out suddenly, finality trickling into his voice. “There’s no way you’ll be found. Not one person saw what I did. And it’s not like we’ve dated in the past or anything. There’s nothing linking you to me other than a few pizza deliveries, years ago.” Would she remember me now? he wondered while letting the clue slip. Does it matter, in the end? “And let’s be clear about something,” he continued, not giving Clara the opportunity to counter his statement. “You’re never going to leave here. So take a good, hard look around. This is your home now. And I’m not above taking things away to keep you in line.” Charles stopped himself and let his proclamation hang in the air. Not bad, not bad at all. And you’ll get better. In time, you’ll lay down the law like a pro.

There’s no way. There’s no way you’ll be found.

His words hit Clara like a slap, wrenching her firmly entrenched hope loose from its solid foundation, and cracking the calm facade on her features. None of this was helping her splitting headache. Perhaps she’d be lost down here forever at the mercy of an inexperienced kidnapper. No. She would be found. The hospital – they would notice and they would know something was wrong. There was still hope, if, if… if only they could find anything, if she could free herself from the ambiguous clutches of this stranger. But there seemed no way of escape – no windows, one exit, and the tight chains encircling her wrists. Even her clothes would be a hindrance – tall black heels, flimsy sundress. It was all she could do to keep from screaming bloody murder. 

Pizza delivery man? There had been countless delivery men, and women, over the years, and the hard face of the man standing above her struck no familiar chords. Any trace of his uncertainty had transformed into a clumsy confidence in his own intelligence. Pathetic. “If I’m going to stay here for a while, I’d like to know your name.” A risky move, to be sure, but she had nothing to lose. “Why did you take me? What-” her breath caught in her throat- “are you planning to do?” To me. The unspoken words hung in between them, silent but understood. And it was then Clara knew that she was on her own.

Charles’ heart swelled with some sort of pride. You did it. She’s backpedaling now. Keep your momentum. Answer her question… Charles slowly rose from his chair and surrendered himself to the dingy yellow light humming from above. Locking his eyes with Clara’s for just a moment, he dislodges them towards the wall behind her as he delivers his answer.  “My name is Charles. And I’m not going to beat, torture or starve you. So I guess we can start a process of elimination.” Rape. You left off rape. You son of a… An involuntary snicker left his lips as he took closed the distance between them, leaning forward while corkscrewing his neck to smell hers. What the hell? Just because she’s helpless doesn’t mean you should needlessly creep her out. The smile spreading across Charles’ face seemed to address his own concern. She was his now. He could do whatever the hell he wanted. 

Charles ran his nose up and down Clara’s neck, perhaps enjoying himself a moment too long. All right, that’s enough. Down to business. Pulling back, he squared his shoulders and assumed his trademark wide stance. “I can promise you three square meals a day with plenty to drink, obviously.” Charles nodded towards the sink beside her as verification. What are you doing? Explaining her benefits package? She’s not going to take you seriously. “I’m telling you this because it doesn’t have to be so bad for you down here. As long as you accept that this is your home, from now on… I’ll do my very best to keep things as comfortable as they can be. Factoring in that you’ll club me over the head and escape with half a moment’s opportunity, of course.” Hmm. Interesting strategy. Laying everything on the table. Staying wise to her act. But don’t lose sight of your ultimate goal… 

A growl of hunger fills the moment of silence between Charles and Clara. His eyes shift towards her stomach with a look of acknowledgement. “Yeah. I bet you’re hungry. I have some good food for you upstairs. I’ll be back in a bit.” Charles calmly makes his way towards a stairwell in the middle of the room, an obvious bridge to the floor above. Moments pass before the clanging of plates and silverware are heard, followed by the approach of footsteps. A creaking door releases light onto the stairwell before Charles descends towards the basement again. 

“I hope you like turkey,” he announces pleasantly while holding a plate of food. The aroma quickly floods the entirety of the stale basement as Charles peers around the area for something. “Ah. There it is,” he says with recognition before setting the plate of food upon what looks to be a waist-high tray with wheels. Wheeling it towards Clara, he stops it just short of her mattress. Strategic placement. Just out of her reach. Now to see if this works… He remains motionless as Clara attempts to reach the food to no avail. Her questioning eyes twinge with anger as they slowly rise to meet his. “I want you to eat,” Charles responds flatly. “But there’s something you need to do for me first.” He pedals backwards and takes his seat, immersing himself in the shadows once more before slowly reciting his instruction. “I need you to say to me… Charles is my lord and master. I exist only to please him.” Was that really the best you can come up with? Oh well. It’s a start. “Say it thirty times. Say it like you mean it. Then you can eat.”

Process of elimination? The only thing that seemed to be missing was…rape. Oh, God, no. A perverse part of her was almost relieved at the thought, even though his promises not to hurt her could eventually amount to nothing. No, no. There’s no room for relief in this situation. Clara closed her eyes, attempting to reorient herself when she felt his breath hot against her neck while equal amounts of terror, confusion, and disgust battled against the strange paralysis that stiffened her entire body. Her breaths came hard and quick and shallow, her heartbeat loud and percussive. Don’t do it. Please, please, please, please. Even after he’d retreated to his chair, she stood plastered against the wall, hands shaking, barely heeding his words. So close. Too close. It was then that she discovered her hunger, the twinging emptiness in her stomach threatening to cross into the realm of the audible. No, no, no, no, no. Her stomach grumbled and her face bloomed red with embarrassment, hoping the sound had not reached his ears.

No such luck. In the time she was left to herself, she surveyed the room again, willing her stomach into silence and her presence of mind to return. You’re going to be okay. You messed up, but you’ll get through this. A toilet and sink sat to the right of her, and as he had gone upstairs, she quickly used the toilet to be spared a later humiliation. While a thin foam mattress lay on the floor, a bed, with a proper headboard and proper sheets, was just visible on the other side of the room. For him? Charles?A strangely regal name to be attached to a coarse, grinning stranger. Grey concrete bathed in a harsh yellow light lined the entire enclosure, and after hearing the clinking of plates floating from the tantalizingly open door, Clara concluded that she was being held in a house. Charles. Pizza delivery. Belatedly, dim memories of being sixteen, curvy, and loving the attention it got her surfaced. She mentally cursed her naive stupidity and glared at the ground. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.

When he returned with a plate of food and more meaningless words, Clara had worked herself into a truly sullen state.  Her first instinct was to reach for the proffered food, only to stop short at the end of her chains, cheeks burning with anger and humiliation. At his demand, she didn’t respond, forcing her face into a semblance of serenity before replying shortly, “I’m a vegetarian. And if you believe that you’ll ever be anything more to me than a pathetic excuse for a kidnapper, you’d be wrong. But if you release me now, I’ll promise to tell my FBI boyfriend not to press charges.” Even to her own ears, her words sounded hollow, fake, desperate. Her options were quickly dwindling, and soon he would become too drunk with power to be swayed. She had to act, even if it was futile. Please just go away. Let me go. I want to go home. Please.

A faint smile curled on the corner of Charles’ lips. She’s really grasping at straws now, isn’t she? That’s right. Keep reaching. He skirted the bait neatly, directing his attention instead towards the plate of food before them. Clutching the piece of turkey with his thumb and forefinger, he unhesitatingly flings it into patch of darkness behind the stairwell. I guess she’ll be having only succotash and mashed potatoes tonight… or not. “Very well, then. I’ll keep that in mind for future entrees. But my requirement still stands. Just remember that a hot, fresh meal is ready for you once you buck up and start doing what I say.” There we go. Skip right over her pathetic attempt for a bargaining chip. No need to address that which poses no threat. Charles patiently wheeled the tray towards a recess in the wall behind Clara. “I guess we’ll try food again tomorrow morning. A generous selection of vegetarian-friendly fare, I assure you. Assuming your cooperation, of course.”  

As he resituated himself in front of her, a rousing sense of anticipation began to resonate in Charles’ mind. A heavy breath, and then… “You were really flirty on the phone when you ordered your pizzas. And the outfits you wore when I showed up at your door… mm.” Stepping towards her, Charles found his hands resting on Clara’s sides, tracing her contours longingly before abruptly rescinding his advance. Okay, then. I thought you were going to exercise some restraint in the beginning. But I suppose if you’d like to indulge for a spell, then go ahead. “I couldn’t wait to go home after my shift and throw myself into bed. There was plenty you gave me to think about.” Charles chased after Clara’s desperately evasive eyes, finally locking them down after a considerable pursuit. “That’s right. I thought about you long and hard. Over and over. I always had to clean up afterwards.” Clara remained motionless, her expression vacant. Charles paused for a moment, then closed his eyes in response to a fond memory. “Inside you. I always finished inside you. Then I’d fall asleep.” A smile slowly wrapped around his face. “And the dreams. Always pleasant.” 

Okay. Fall back, soldier. You’ve made your point. Given her something to think about. To… accept. Charles sighed heavily through his nostrils, then pulled away from Clara. A quick lick of the lips preceded what he wanted to say next. He couldn’t wait to make this point. “Hypothetically speaking… if something were to, ah… happen in the future… there’s no way you could complicate your situation by getting pregnant. I shoot blanks.” Charles flashed Clara an exaggerated wink, then caught sight of his own breath. He took a quick assessment of the mattress below him. “I’ll see if I can get you a heavier blanket. It’s supposed to be pretty cold tonight.” Charles shifted himself towards his left, not unlike a solider excusing himself from a conversation, before retreating towards the stairwell again and disappearing into the floor above. 

Clara watched him, watched the smile grow on his lips, watched him continue on, undaunted, knowing that one of her last chances had failed miserably. He knows. He knows that I have nothing but words. He knows that there is nothing I can do to stop him. She watched him dispose of the turkey, watched his lips move, shaping his commands into something almost reasonable. She felt her eyes dull, dropping down, felt herself crumbling, felt the will to fight slowly draining from her body. But she had to resist him – why? Was there any point in delaying the inevitable? She was hungry, cold, uncomfortable. There was no sense in torturing herself any further. Clara would submit to him, but once he trusted her enough to free her, she would escape. You can have my body, but you’ll never have my mind.

She kept her eyes lowered even as she felt him approaching, his voice warm, almost friendly, in her ears. His words plucked memories of confident flirtations and harmless provocations long buried in a box of adolescent frivolities. She had made mistakes, but she would rectify them. She had been foolish, but now she was wiser. His hands slowly roamed lower, his narrative winding on and on as a blush rose in her neck. Clara pressed her lips together, feeling him trying to catch her eye, frantically trying to avoid his gaze but blundered and froze, caught within his scrutinizing gaze. She could almost see the eagerness, the desire clouding his eyes as he drew closer and closer, lost in the convolutions of his reverie.

He’s dropped all pretense. He’s definitely going to rape me, and I won’t be able to stop him. Clara found herself accepting the thought with unexpected calmness. She knew she would have to convince him, and she knew she would have to catch him off guard. None of her thoughts reached her features, which remained blank and emotionless as she watched him disappear up the stairs. Releasing the breath she didn’t know she was holding, she slowly sank on the cold mattress before her, rubbing her hands together in a vain attempt to warm them. It was cold, and for a while, she sat, watching the little puffs of her white breath. You’ll never have me.

Charles reemerged with a balled-up comforter which he tossed onto the mattress. Sleep well tonight. Hopefully an aching body and crampy stomach will make you more amenable tomorrow. He nodded acceptingly while Clara wrapped herself within the blanket as best she could, as if this simple gesture required its own approval. “For your information, the entire premises down here is under video surveillance. So I’d be pretty discreet if you’re planning on trying anything.” What the hell. Are you trying to encourage her? Wasn’t the whole point of this to… Don’t worry. It’ll take some time. But she’ll cave. “I intend on letting you having an occasional bath, but I guess we’ll have to be creative on how to best execute that. Maybe you can come up with some ideas and share them with me tomorrow.” Perfect. The gears will be turning in her head tonight on how to best fuck you over. Let her ponder, scheme, plan. She won’t be fully broken until she’s tried everything. And you’ll be ready for it. Ready for anything. “Good night,” Charles said flatly with a lingering glance before disappearing into the world above.

Charles’ body thoroughly reminded him on how exhausted he was upon retiring himself to his room. Damn. You’re beat. Adrenaline certainly is a double-edged sword. Time to lay back and regain some strength. You did well tonight. You’ve earned your respite. A brief consideration for a shower was quickly discarded before haphazardly flopping himself onto his bed. She’s going to be stewing. There’s definitely plenty of fight left in her. He turned onto his side and absorbed the blue glow of the computer station which sat across from the foot of his bed. A large monitor displayed Clara’s captivity from several angles, with a main view governing over three smaller ones. I see you… I see you. And you’re not going anywhere.

Charles’ mind was a relentless whirlwind of apprehension and contemplation, but he eventually found sleep. Dreams immediately began to flood his newfound slumber. Dreams of failed marriages, short-lived girlfriends…

I work hard, I make good money. Plenty for the both of us. So, what do you want from me, then? Why not stay at home? Be a housewife. Cook and clean. Hanky-panky in between. It can’t be that bad of a life. Just throw away my education? I have a PhD in cultural sciences, you know. Yeah, but you don’t have a job yet. I know, but I’m looking. Looking hard. That’s fine. I get it. This will just be temporary. There’s no fucking way I’m going to spend my days cleaning up after you. So just forget it.

So, uhm. I just thought I’d bring up that we haven’t had sex in a month. Yeah. It bothers me, too. Maybe tonight, then? Great way to come on to your girlfriend. Why not? Everything else I’ve tried hasn’t worked. Look, I just have a lot on my mind, okay? She hasn’t been working very well down there. At least you get stiff as a rod with a ten-second porno clip and can instantly relieve yourself. Great, Just great. Well, just let me know when the plumbing starts working again. Wow. I can’t believe you just said to me, asshole.

The irritating buzz of an alarm clock forced Charles’ crusty eyelids open. Bright red digits met his eyes from the nearby nightstand… 6:30. He still felt very tired but forced himself to sit up. A new day. A new opportunity. Luckily, you had the foresight to plan a long vacation ahead of you. Slowly making his way to the kitchen, be began to pull out several pots and pans from the cupboards. Make sure it smells delicious. The aroma will drive her into submission.

Sleep wouldn’t come easy tonight. Even wrapped in the comforter, Clara still shivered, head turned away from her captor as she fixed her eyes on the wall, running her eyes over the tiny bumps and scratches that populated the stretch of concrete. Video surveillance? Of course. She let her eyes wander upward, looking for any signs of the cameras, but the lights had dimmed, and everything retreated into shadow. After Charles had returned upstairs, Clara buried her head within the comforter, slowly digesting his words. He’s testing you, seeing if you’ll try to escape. It’s best to wait some time, lull him into a false sense of security, before trying to escape. She huddled around the small pool of warmth in her empty stomach and drew the comforter tighter around her, breathing softly into the folds. 

Eventually she drifted off into a fitful sleep, dreaming of cold, peaceful landscapes, of angry shouting men, of hands tentatively, then roughly, stroking her body, of rocks stacked into piles and falling one by one, of a bird flying into a window repeatedly, of a goldfinch chained to a branch, of cold hands around her throat, around her ankles, around her wrists, of suffocating slowly in a sea of warmth, until she awoke with a start and peered over the edge of the comforter. Was it morning yet? What time is it? She rubbed her aching wrists as best she could and sat up. One day closer to escape.

She groaned softly and made her way to the sink, turning on the cold tap, and washing her face, gasping at the frigid temperature of the water. Stopping short, she heard faint sounds coming from upstairs. Morning, then. She dried her face and hands on the outside of the comforter, and sat back down, burying her face in her hands. Will he give her silverware? Not likely. Is there anything within her reach that could be weaponized? Not that she could see. She climbed back beneath the comforter and pretended to sleep. Perhaps he would reveal something if he believed her unconscious.

It wasn’t until Charles finished preparing Carla’s plate that he realized he himself hadn’t eaten in a good while. Helping himself to a peanut butter sandwich, he began to assess the challenge that awaited him downstairs. So, then. What if a hot breakfast still isn’t enough to get her to follow your instructions? She must be starving after all this time. You don’t want her stubbornness to sacrifice any of her alluring curves. There’s always plan B, he acknowledged to himself. If she insists on playing hard ball, then we’ll see how long she can bear without water. Just keep reminding her of the simple price she has to pay. Just repeat after me, darling. Then you’ll get all you can eat and drink.

A flick of the switch guided his descent down the stairwell towards the basement. He approached Carla slowly with the tray, setting it on its wheeled compartment before fully turning his attention to her still, blanketed body. It looks like she’s sleeping in. Shall we leave her be for now? Of course not. Her schedule always reflects yours, and that’s all there is to it. “Time to get up,” Charles announced before giving the cold concrete a loud stomp. “Chop, chop. I have breakfast waiting for you.” The pleasing aroma of fruit, potatoes and toast quickly overtook the musty smell of sleep, but Carla’s body still offered no movement. “I said up,” Charles called louder than before, aggravation trickling into his voice. Movement under the blanket signified Carla’s compliance, but she seemed slow to expose herself to her looming captor. A frustrated sigh left Charles’ lips before he reached towards Carla and unearthed her face with a firm pull of the blanket. “Rise and shine, sleeping beauty. We have work to do.”

Okay, bucko. This is it. Time for round two. “We tried this yesterday and things didn’t work out so well,” Charles reviewed solemnly while pulling the warm tray of food closer to him. He then kneeled down near Carla and presented her a conciliatory smile. “I know you can do it. All you have to say is, ‘Charles is my lord and master. I exist only to satisfy him.’ Then you have all you can eat. I’ll even whip up seconds.” He reached for a piece of strawberry and held it near Carla’s groggy eyes. “Let’s here you say it. Thirty times. Easy-peasy.” His right hand lifted itself up into the air, digits fully extended. “I’ll count for you. Six times five. It’ll be over before you know it.”

She had almost drifted off again, ensconced within the residual warmness of the comforter, but she soon heard his footsteps on the stairs and smelled the heavenly aroma of breakfast. Be strong, Clara. Make him think he’s won. She lay still beneath the comforter, not responding to his words, not even flinching at the slap of the concrete just behind her. She listened as the frustration built in his voice, and reflexively curled tighter into herself, only to be greeted with the full glow of the harsh lights and Charles’ face, hard with lines of annoyance. Blinking sleepily, Clara rubbed her eyes as he continued in the same chipper vein he had started in. How could anyone be this awake in the morning? 

She slowly shifted until she was sitting, back resting against the reassuringly solid wall, trying not to concentrate on the insistent pangs of hunger. After so many hours without food, the strawberry Charles held before her had taken on a surreal quality. Without even thinking, she knew it would be sweet, succulent, sublime. Slow, Clara, slow. Her eyes drifted from the strawberry to his hands as he repeated his command from the night before. It’s okay. You don’t really mean it. And that’s what really counts in the end. She took a deep, shuddering breath and fixed her eyes on the ground in front of his feet – anywhere, anywhere but his eyes. 

Her lips parted, the words barely audible. “Charles is my Lord and Master. I exist only to satisfy him.” Then again, faster, louder. “Charles-is-my-Lord-and-Master-I-exist-only-to-satisfy-him.” She pressed her lips together and soldiered on, flattening her voice into producing only neutral tones. “Charles is my Lord and Master. I exist only to satisfy him.” Careful. You are what you say you are. “Charles is my Lord and Master. I exist only to satisfy him.” You’re a nurse, you graduated at the top of your class, you work at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the area. “Charles is my Lord and Master. I exist only to satisfy him.” There are people out there who are looking for you, there are people who are worried sick about you. “Charles is my Lord and Master. I exist only to satisfy him.” Why haven’t they found you yet? “- Charles is my Lord and Master.” She paused, doubt filling her mind. “I exist only to – satisfy him.” Will they ever find me? I don’t want this, any of this. “Charles…is my Lord…” She stopped, her voice breaking, eyes burning. Another few seconds and the tears were sliding down her cheeks, soft sobs muffled by the comforter she frantically pulled to her face. 

“Please – go away. Leave me alone. I don’t want to play your stupid games. I just – I just want to go home. Please.” 

Charles’ ears eagerly welcomed Clara’s labored recital with unbridled relish. Listen. Stay quiet. Just listen and enjoy. Savor each syllable. The shifts in Clara’s tone and pattern didn’t seem to affect his captivation. Each ragged exhale climbed in quivering intensity, as if he was approaching some kind of release. Thank you. Thank you, Clara. Thank you for… The abrupt plead of desperation ground his ascent to a screeching halt. No. No, no, no. Don’t stop. Don’t stop! Charles’ right hand held fast, four visible fingers signifying her ninth submission. Damn you… Just give up. Just let me have I want. A dissatisfied snort accompanied a pair of angry eyelids, opening wide to show their resentful separation from the indulgence of her rehearsal. Then: a moment of clarity. She’ll keep doing this, you know. She won’t be fully yours until you give her something in return.

Hope. She needs hope. Craves it. If you want her utmost compliance, she has to be clinging to hope. Okay, then. Let’s do it. Let’s give her some hope. He took a knee beside her again, his warm smile accompanying red, flustered cheeks. “Good. Very good, Clara. I know that was hard. We’ll work on getting the count higher next time.” Charles slowly stood up and turned his neck away, partially obscuring the features on his face. “You want to go home? Very well. Let’s see if we can make a deal.” A short pause conceded a moment of silent consideration. And then: “Do exactly what I say. When I say it. Six months. Then I’ll set you free.” A lie. Her freedom equates to you spending the rest of your life in prison. Or worse. “I’m only offering this once. And I’ll have to evaluate each infraction as to whether you’ve forfeited your end of the bargain. So you’ll have to be on your best behavior.” He clapped his hands together several times, simulating a judge repeatedly slamming his gavel. “Non-negotiable. Final. So, what do you say?”

She could see that her actions were unexpected, disconcerting even. The moment had passed, and much as a toddler becomes infatuated with something strange in the middle of a temper tantrum, Clara quieted down, wiping her eyes with the edge of the comforter. As her focus shifted from her own woes to a calmer study of her kidnapper’s face, Clara realized that the hopelessness that had choked her mere seconds had begun to dwindle, replaced by an emptiness that surprised her. As she waited, she saw the frustrated anger curled in his features melt into something resembling contemplation. Did you change his mind? Is he going to let you go? She stared at him with reddened yet quizzical eyes as he stood up, as if considering her outburst a logical argument, worthy of rebuttal or compromise.

Her heart instinctively rose in her chest when he mentioned making a deal. Was there a chance he would let you go? Just like that? Even with the improbability of it all, she couldn’t help but feel heartened, almost cheerful. Hopeful. That was the word, wasn’t it? Six months? Half a year, two seasons, twenty-six weeks, one hundred eighty-two days, however you put it, it’s a long time. Can you survive that long? She could feel her doubts flickering across her wrinkled forehead, soon hardening into something resembling resolve. “And if you decide that I’ve failed to keep my end of the bargain?” He’ll keep you forever.

Surprise, surprise. She bought into it. Your fabrication. She’s invested herself. Charles met Clara’s questioning eyes with the most authentic expression of integrity he could muster. “There shouldn’t be any deliberation if you simply do what I command without hesitation. And I realize it must be a hard sell to prove my trustworthiness. But you’ll see. Six months and you’ll be free. I’ll even hang a calendar down here. We’ll discuss along the way how to best ensure that I won’t be captured.” Nice touch, there. Everything on the table for all to see. Makes your pitch more believable. His acquiescent demeanor suddenly soured, a furrowed brow further communicating a stern shift. “So cut the shit,” Charles said with a snap, his voice teetering towards anger. “I’m holding you steadfastly to our agreement. No games. No crying. Just complete, unrelenting obedience. Kapeesh?” 

Charles flashed Clara a firm look of finality before turning his attention towards the almost forgotten tray of breakfast. He wheeled it towards Clara, carefully tilting it to better roll upon the mattress, ensuring her ease of access. Watching her eat, his mind drifted. So you have her reciting your weird manta. Great. What’s next?Spasms of desire began to flood his loins, which he concealed with a shift of his stance. You haven’t gotten off in a while, have you? Let her eat. Then take her. Fuck her. Put her to the test. Get some real enjoyment out of this, for Christ’s sakes. Charles bit his lip, the primal cravings finally beginning to wash over. No. Not yet. You can have her anytime. Continue to break her. Mold her. Truly make her yours. Have her anticipate your needs. Have her eagerly seek to fulfill them. Then, only then, you will have won.

Clara couldn’t help but feel a vague sense of unease, a nagging suspicion that refused to be pinned down. It’s just your nerves. People negotiate with their kidnappers all the time, don’t they? She shifted uncomfortably, but the look on his face and genuine reason in his voice reassured her. Perhaps he really means it. If she kept her head down and her mouth shut, she would be able to escape unscathed – mentally, at least. And if any opportunities arose before then, there would be nothing stopping her from turning her back on their bargain and running as far away as she could. His harsh words woke her from her reverie, and returned her to the hard reality that would be those six months. Clara nodded in response to his terse inquiry, fingers crossed beneath the comforter. He doesn’t have to know.

When the tray of food was within her reach, Clara grabbed the plate, once again reminded of her persistent hunger. It seemed that she hadn’t eaten in a decade; everything she put in her mouth seemed to explode with flavor like nothing she had ever eaten before. Clara restrained herself, eating slowly and delicately, ever mindful of Charles’ watchful presence. She had promised her absolute obedience – she stopped eating. What would he make her do? Probably more than a little light housework, that’s for sure. She swallowed the last bit of toast, placed the plate back on the tray, and waited tensely, her mind deluged with a flood of unsavory possibilities.

Something didn’t sit right with Charles, even though he knew he was the sole beneficiary of their newly established agreement. He watched Carla finish her food, his expression shifting from one of quiet observation to sobered discouragement. “I hope you enjoyed that,” he said vacantly while seizing her tray and heading towards the stairs. What’s wrong? Why don’t you feel okay about this? “I’ll be back in a bit,” Charles announced before disappearing into the world upstairs, the lingering disappointment fully apparent in his gait. As he tossed the tray into the sink, he finally got a handle of why he was feeling the way he was. You fool. You bloody, bloody fool.

Too much. You’ve relinquished too much. What do you mean? I’m more in control now than I was before. Are you? You should have forced her to accept her situation the hard way. You’re babying her now, with empty promises of eventual freedom. I can mold her, shape her. I have her right where I want her. What good is having what you want if your will has to bend every time? Damn it. Nothing but a cheat code. A lazy shortcut towards the final stage of the game. 

Charles reemerged down the stairwell wearing a new ensemble of clothing: beige shorts and worn sneakers were the first articles to be uncovered from the overhead basement light. A small insignia on the upper left of his deep blue shirt drove the point home: He looked an awful lot like a pizza delivery guy. Tossing a bag towards Clara’s feet, a pink lacy strap draped over the side immediately gave away what was inside. “Here. Put this on.” He then pulled a small remote from his back pocket and focused it towards her restraints, pressing a button which released Clara with a clickety-clack after a short pause. Well done, you idiot. She’s going to be fantasizing about how she can possibly get her clammy hands on that thing. Bright red welts pulsated on her wrists and ankles as Clara stood frozen for a brief moment before focusing herself on the bag, frantically fumbling with its contents. “Quickly, quickly.” Charles called at her militantly while keeping his distance, making a point to expose what seemed to be a taser strapped to his belt.

After Carla finished putting on her outfit, Charles made a brisk circular motion with his outstretched hand. “Turn around. One wrong move and I shock you senseless, reshackle you, then disappear for a week.” He reached for a tangled bundle of straps and restraints from another bag resting at his side, then approached her slowly. After some considerable effort and methodical instruction, a debilitating BDSM-style harness was fastened upon Clara, forcing her arms together in a gesture of prayer while giving her feet a limited length of stride. He seized hold of a chain which dangled from her neck piece, pulling her towards another part of the basement, where a rotary phone rested upon a small table with a nearby wooden chair. Then, without warning: Charles hastily solidified his position behind Clara, forcing her into a kneeling position before brandishing a large utility knife, presenting its blade an inch before her eyes. Now. Now’s the time.

“I want you to know something, Clara. I’ve thought about you being down here for a long time now. And I’ve considered many things for us to do together.” Charles slowly dragged the dull side of his blade down her back, watching her skin recoil with silent delight. He then snapped it close and clasped the top of Clara’s head with his palm, forcefully guiding it towards the right corner of the basement. “Do you see it?” he asked aloud, pointing towards some sort of contraption hidden in shadow. It wasn’t easily visible at first, but after a few moments, the faint outlines of an inclined bench came into focus. “You see, I really wanted to break you down. To beg. To plead. So, I studied up on the safest ways to waterboard someone. I wanted to ingrain in your mind that even breathing was a luxury.” He leaned close to Clara’s ear, his sardonic smile unmistakably evident through his whisper. “Imagine the sensation of drowning. Over. And over. And over.” He pulled back from her as if to collect himself, sarcastically clearing his throat. “I was going to do that to you. I still might.”

That’s it. That’s right. She can have hope, but she also needs fear. But, in the end, these are all precursors. She needs to embrace helplessness. She has to lose her identity. She has to lose herself. “Now,” Charles said with unsettling assuredness, gesturing towards the rotary phone. “It’s time for our game.”

The full import of what she had done, what had made him do, was still trickling into her consciousness. Even if he might not have realized yet, Clara had made him deviate from his lengthy, detailed plan with a simple emotional breakdown. She watched emerge from his sojourn up the stairs, frowning quizzically at his changed appearance. Was he dressed as a… delivery man? The bag he was holding soon landed at her feet, pink lace pooling from a gap in the zipper. That didn’t bode well. A short click and resulting clatter signified her sudden release as she examined the angry red marks on her wrists and ankles, almost collapsing as the blood rushed back into her numbed extremities. Her eyes lifted just quickly enough to catch sight of a small black device as Charles slipped it into his pocket.

His words startled her into action, clumsy trembling fingers extracting what appeared to be two very small pieces of lace. After a moment of dumbfounded embarrassment, she set about disrobing, glancing ever so often at the taser in his belt while studiously avoiding his eyes, and self consciously stepped into the lacy ensemble. Clara watched him extract the mess of straps and metal, and let him, with no little apprehension, fasten the straps around her wrists, her neck and her ankles, a length of chain snaking down from the metal collar. She swallowed nervously. This was far from the typical fantasy. This had been carefully planned with a definite goal, an idea that had spiraled into something so much more than that. His rough movements caused her to stumble frequently as she ventured into an unfamiliar area of the basement.

She had barely enough time to register an ancient phone, one with a rotating dial, before she was forced awkwardly to her knees. She could feel him behind her, a wall of menace, of intimidation. Her heart kept into her throat – was that a knife? Clara fixed her eyes on the tapering metal blade, willing it not to come any closer. And it didn’t. He had thought about her, he had planned what he would do to her, he had fantasized, distorted, idealized this experience above everything and Clara, she closed her eyes. It won’t seem quite so real if you imagine you’re somewhere else. Anywhere else. A thin cold line crept down the bare skin of her back, a deliberate motion, carefully calculated to unsettle. Please don’t hurt me. She looked where he wanted her to look, but saw nothing.

A few moments more, and the dim outline of a simple wooden bench made itself apparent. Waterboarding? The term meant nothing to her, but his tone conveyed enough malice for her to get the general idea. Drowning. The very word was triggering, bringing back long buried memories of inhaling water, a fading light at the surface, of being resuscitated by unfamiliar men. Clara inhaled sharply, eyes fixed on a point just in front of her, her eyes caressing the outline of the phone, searching for something familiar, something comfortable, anything. “I thought you said no more games.” That’s it. React unexpectedly. Say the first things that come into mind. Throw him off balance enough times and he might let you go.

He simply could not believe his ears. Even after all that, was she still showing… defiance? Charles shuffled a short walk towards the front of Clara, kneeling before her with a wild, frenzied look radiating from his eyes. No. Not a chance. This sort of thing can’t be permitted. Reaching out past her ear, he grabbed hold of her hair and yanked, pulling her head back enough to fully expose her neck. Damn collar. Oh well. Charles reintroduced his knife and nodded towards it with a sarcastic look of reverence. He then slowly drew a line on Clara’s flesh, just below the collar, with the blunt side of his knife from left to right, simultaneously mouthing a sound effect. Krrrrrrkkkkkksshhhhhhhh. Clara was then released, left to collect herself as Charles snapped his knife closed, tucking it away within a back pocket.

Charles stood up suddenly, breaking any imminence of his threat. His mind was swimming with confliction. Waterboard her. Now. Let her squirm with desperation for an hour or two as she begs for air. Another, long-forgotten voice chimed in. Didn’t you promise that you wouldn’t torture her? A rebuttal: One man’s torture is another’s walk in the park. Charles sifted through the jumble of voices with balanced consideration, though he already knew what he wanted. His desire was to punish her. Severely. Then, with a crackling burst, one final voice overtook the rest, resolving his intentions with unequivocal certainty. NO. If she deviates your itinerary in any way, then she is victorious. He collected himself before looking down towards her. A slow, composed breath preceded his terse warning. “Test me again and I’ll break your arms.” You meant that. Good job. He then forced Clara to her feet and pushed her back onto the patiently waiting chair.

Retrieving something from his pocket, Charles unfolded a piece of paper and tossed it upon the table beside the phone, presenting it to Clara. Alternating bars of color quickly revealed themselves as lines of text, laid out in a screenplay format. “The lines in red are yours,” Charles said with an indication of his finger. One line in particular seemed to jump off of the page, under a second Act, no less. For some reason, it was written considerably larger than the rest. Clara: I’m so sorry, delivery-man. I don’t have enough left over for a tip. Maybe you can give me yours? Charles’ businesslike glare sharply contrasted the absurdity of his script. “Don’t fuck this up. Make it believable.” No warning needed this time. She knows. 

Charles left Clara and lumbered towards a second set of props yards away, immersed within a blanket of grayed shadows. He passed a wooden frame along his route which harbored a door, standing tall a few feet from the foot of the neglected bed. He plopped himself into his chair with a grunt before calling towards Clara. “My number is 392. Go on ahead.” Charles knew he should expect a lackluster performance at best. But as Carla reluctantly accepted her role, reciting her lines with brooding objection, he smiled internally. This is fun. An investigative peek into what could have been. Charles’ phone rang, which he let ring twice before answering. Just like they taught you when you worked there. He then promptly answered. “Thank you for calling Dominoes Pizza, home of the Sausage Sensation. Would you like to try a large, two-topping pizza for 11.99?”

Clara’s delivery of her lines was surprisingly all over the place. Charles savored the most genuine acting that she mustered. She’s not doing too bad of a job. Or maybe your excitement is compensating for her awfulness. His anticipation rose once she finished placing her ‘order.’ Time for Act 2. He directed Clara with a snap of his fingers towards the back of the freestanding door, the foot of the bed not far behind her. He then rose from his chair with another prop in his hands: an empty pizza box. Positioning himself before the wooden monolith, Charles rang a bell which seemed to visibly bounce throughout the basement with a piercing echo. Taking her cue, Clara opened the door between them almost immediately. You were supposed to wait for a few seconds, you dumb bitch. Her mediocre assertiveness almost made up for her mistake. She’s getting better at this. More dialogue was exchanged before the inevitable climax. Clara invited him ‘inside’ with a flat recitation, which was enough to make Charles’ heart pound. Even after this badly-acted schlock, you’re still loving every second of this, huh? 

Charles had seen enough. He tossed the pizza box aside and rushed towards Clara, forcing her to stumble backwards towards the bed behind them. His body toppled upon hers almost immediately with an awkward flop. He adjusted himself to align the twitching bulge between his legs against Clara’s crotch. Now. Now! Tear her panties off and fuck her! Even as his body trembled with sweaty expectation, he was slow to act. What now, you unbelievable piece of work? Charles couldn’t place it at first. Then he did. Her previous rebellion. It bothered him on a fundamental level. Ah. You’re realizing it now, then.

Charles climbed off Clara before awkwardly excusing himself, beads of sweat glistening on his brow. He meekly sauntered away towards an envelope of darkness just out of view. Moments passed before squeaky wheels were heard approaching the bed where Clara lay motionless. Before long, she caught a glimpse with the corner of her eye: the inclined bench. Leather straps dangled from its sides before resting forebodingly upon the concrete floor. Charles materialized again, standing firm at the foot of the bed. He coldly lifted his arm, then pointed with his finger. “You. On there. Now.” 

And to think, she would have thought him laughable, had this been under different circumstances. As it was, a definite feeling of unease had made her head its home with no intention of leaving. Clara restrained the cry of pain that rose to her lips as he pulled her head back, and could only wait in torturous suspense as the now familiar knife blade slid across her throat, accompanied by a theatrical sound effect that should have been out of place, but instead made the situation that much more sinister. What are you trying to prove, Charles? Do you think me your equal? Because that’s what he was doing, putting on larger and larger shows of power for her benefit. But he hadn’t actually hurt her, he hadn’t followed through on any of his threats. You know what they say, his bark is worse than his bite. He’ll break my arms? Sure. Nevertheless, a small worm of doubt nibbled into the apple of her mind. He sounded like he really meant it, that time.

There was conflict within her, equally matched feelings of terror, excitement, and defiance jostling for dominance, each manifesting itself for a moment before being pulled under by the others. She glanced at the page in front of her – quite a thick stack he’s got there – perusing the pages as best she could considering her bound arms, and groaning inwardly, a blush glowing on her face that almost matched the red text. His next words each fell with a weight at her feet. Don’t. Fuck. This. Up. Clara sighed inaudibly, murmuring beneath her breath, “If you want believable, I’ll give you believable.” 392. How does this phone even work? She glanced nervously in Charles’ direction, and took the phone out of its cradle, and tentatively pushed the ‘3’ button. No dice. Struck with inspiration, she pulled it clockwise, where it returned to its original position. She did the same with the ‘9’ and the ‘2,’ relieved when she heard it ringing across the room. 

The exchange that followed was inundated by equal amounts of terrible writing and terrible acting. “Oh yes, I would like a Sausage Sensation with extra sausage, please. I haven’t had any sausage in me for so long.” “Is it okay if I pay you when you get here? I’ve got something special for you.” “I hope you don’t have any other plans. I’d like to keep you all to myself.” When she hung up, Charles quickly motioned her to a position in front of the other bed she had seen and behind a wooden door. After a few seconds of difficult maneuvering, and several moments when she thought she would trip and fall, Clara was in place, script clutched in her hand. Opening the door immediately after the bell was a mistake, as she apprehensively watched the frustration flicker over his face and disappear. “Thank you so much, delivery-man. Won’t you come inside?” And then comes the special large-text line. “I’m so sorry, deliver-man. I don’t have enough left over for a tip. Maybe you can give me yours?” 

Charles reacted as she’d expected, and she had prepared herself for this moment, taking a step backward and steeling herself for the fall and his subsequent weight on her body. Clara’s eyes were firmly closed, her bound hands clenched beneath him, her entire body stiff as a board. Please be quick. She felt him between her legs and resisted the urge to throw up. After a few seconds, she realized that he had stopped moving, but was still breathing hot air onto her forehead. What’s wrong? Too much of a coward to go through with it? As soon as he had gone she melted into the bed, almost crying from relief. That is, until she caught sight of the bench approaching her location. Artificial drowning? Oh, god, no. She didn’t respond to his command, eyes blankly fixed on his as she slowly inched her legs off the bed, and took off as quickly as she was able, running awkwardly toward and up the stairs, bound hands trying the door. Please be unlocked, please-please-please-please.

The door was locked, of course. Even so, Charles watched Clara joggle the doorknob with a vague feeling of unease. Well, this is her chance if she ever had one. That latching mechanism could malfunction and she could actually get upstairs. No worries. There were plenty of contingency plans in place. He hurried up the stairs after Clara and seized her firmly. “Boy, you are going to pay for this,” he growled while dragging her flailing body back towards the bed. A brief struggle ensued which Charles utilized to his full advantage. Maneuvering himself behind Clara, he applied a chokehold to her neck with ample pressure, causing her thrashing limbs to calm after a few desperate moments. Before long she collapsed to the floor, and Charles took a breath before quickly pulling out a small key-like object from his shirt pocket. Using it to address the bindings around Carla’s wrists, her arms parted from each other before falling limp onto her lap. As he drug her by the feet towards the bench, a strange exhilaration overwhelmed in senses. Control. You’re in control. Always have been. Always will be. He hands tended to Clara’s bindings on the bench. His mind hazily reminisced.

He reflected on numerous lovemaking sessions he had in years past. His habit was to forcefully cover the mouth and nostrils moments before his partner climaxed. Some appreciated it. Some didn’t. Why did you enjoy that so much? Were you partaking in the ultimate form of control? That sort of thing is dangerous, isn’t it? The human brain can go for four minutes without oxygen, two without lasting damage. A few moments of breathlessness shouldn’t matter. Tell that to your angry exes. Shut up. Also, the same chemicals are released during a hanging as they are during orgasm. Are you trying to justify yourself, you creep? No. Not at all. I’m simply trying to understand. His mind ventured forward, spiraling towards the weeks of his preparation, the days before Clara’s abduction.

The murky corners of the internet were familiar to Charles, but his tastes never plunged into anything overtly illegal. His curiosity led him on wild goose chases, uncovering a wide range of strange and disturbing content. One evening, he stumbled upon a link which directed him to a site with a large, bold title: Tips on How to Waterboard a Friend. He was greeted with stark white text against a black background, which accompanied pictures and videos. Charles took a moment to recall a bulleted list highlighting the do’s and don’ts of undertaking such an endeavor. Fierce struggling with anything but leather straps could lead to broken bones. Leather straps: check. The first step is important. A damp towel needs to be securely, but not tightly, draped over your friend’s face. Charles improvised a makeshift cloth with two clips on either side. Sprinkle, don’t pour the water upon the fastened cloth. This lowers the chance of hypothermia. Hmm. Serious business. No more than twenty seconds of saturation. No less than fifteen seconds of recovery. She’ll be coughing and gasping. And begging, no doubt. The psychological ramifications could last a lifetime. Don’t overdo it. We’ll see about that. Follow all these steps to the letter, and let the fun begin. Yes, let’s.

The detailed instructions on ‘safe waterboarding’ were fascinating, but it was the visual media which really piqued Charles’ interest. Videos were uploaded from unknown sources, each pairing a masked captor with a bound female victim. The struggles were intense against their straps, as were the subsequent screams. ANYTHING! I’LL DO ANYTHING YOU WANT! This wouldn’t deter their tormenters, of course. The longest video was forty-five minutes. By the end, the female subject was noticeably pallid, with trembling limbs and bloodshot eyes. But there was another video which fascinated Charles the most. In it, the female participant wasn’t initially bound. Instead, she was instructed to assume her place on the bench. There was a strange, cold look to her eyes which seemed to immediately disclose its origins: she had been through this many times before. She struggled like the rest for the duration, but offered no screams or sobs during her recovery. Charles found himself caressing his computer screen, tracing the woman he’d never meet with his finger. She was broken. She truly was broken.

At once, his mind snapped from retrospection to reality. Finally, Clara was fully secured on the bench. He gathered himself for a spell before pacing towards the sink. He filled a watering can meant for plants to the brim, then set it near the bench. Okay. That’s done. Where’s the cloth? He reached into the same bag where he retrieved Clara’s restraints and pulled it out. Good. Everything is in order. Now we wait.

It wasn’t long until Clara seemed to pull herself out of her daze. Her eyes reluctantly opened, and the realization quickly seeped in. Excellent. Now say hello. Leaning over from the inclined end of the bench, Charles curtly waved his hand and smiled. “Welcome back, Clara.” He took a little time before clearing his throat, then gestured towards a cassette player on a nearby table, close enough for Carla to see. “Before we start, I’d like to play you something.” Charles pressed play on the ancient piece of equipment, which commenced the recording of an unknown man’s voice. “Hello, fellas. Just thought you’d like to hear what it’s like to waterboard a bitch.” The screaming began before he finished his sentence, unmistakably authentic in its presentation. “NOOOOO! STOP! HELP ME GOD, PLEASE! PLEASE! STOP—” Charles abruptly stopped the tape as if to answer the desperate appeal. He then leaned over Clara once again. “Well, then. Let’s begin, shall we?”

Her trembling hands scrabbled at the tarnished brass of the door knob, willing it to open. Was it stuck? Was it broken? She clung desperately to the hope that one more effort would cause the door to creak open, that one more turn would give her her chance at freedom. But the heavy tread of booted feet approaching from behind her told her that time was running out. A quick glance behind spurred another frenzied struggle with the door. Just as she heard the clicking of the knob give way to a resounding crack beneath her hands, as she felt an impossible wave of hope rising within her, she felt his arms clasped around her waist, pulling her inexorably towards her fate. Clara struggled hard, trying anything and everything in her desperation for escape. Her elbow glanced off soft flesh, her bare foot made contact with his shin, but nothing seemed to slow him. She choked back screams, sobs, a storm of emotion threatening to break. No one was coming to help her. No one was coming to save her. Clara was completely, and fully, at Charles’ mercy.

Just when she thought he would force her onto the bench, she felt his rough hands closing around her throat, squeezing, choking. Her bound hands clutched at his, helpless to break his hold. Her lungs struggled for air, her back arching against him as she writhed against him. All she could feel was the primal need for oxygen, the pain of not receiving it, the knowledge that it was all futile. Grainy multicolored spots appeared in her vision, her eyes wide open, staring. Gradually, her struggles weakened as the spots grew, slowly filling her field of vision until her eyes rolled back into her head and she slipped into unconsciousness. Clara peacefully drifted in and out of consciousness, at one time feeling the rough floor moving beneath her before surrendering to sleep. She felt a slight reassuring awareness of leather enclosing her wrists, groaning softly as she blinked, the bare concrete of her prison coming into focus. The sensations were returning – her back was scraped and raw, her neck sore and bruised. The panic returned all at once, her eyes blankly meeting his at his wry greeting, the terror visible just beneath her clouded irises.

She let him speak, let him show her her fate, let him show her what she would become, her silence a testament to the roiling seas of fear swelling in her chest. The screams and cries of the unnamed woman echoed in her head even after he paused the tape, coiling around happy memories, winding themselves through the gardens of her mind, telling her – no, promising her – a lifetime of misery. She trembled in place, the panic and terror and despair all growing and expanding and combining and changing until it all burst out of her in one long loud exclamation. “What do you want from me?” Her fists opened and closed, her eyes shifting from terrified to accusing to despairing confusion. “Haven’t I given you everything you wanted?” Her voice cracked, the emotion slowly draining from her face and body, now as still and limp as a corpse. She stared listlessly at the blank wall to her left, her blue eyes dull. “If you want to – rape – me, just do it. All of this – foreplay? – is unnecessary. I’ll do whatever you want, I’ll be, whoever you want me to be.” Clara drew a dry tongue over her chapped lips. “Please don’t do this to me.”

Charles dropped the watering can beside his foot. The word ‘rape’ momentarily stunned him. She gave you the go-ahead to rape her. Well isn’t that nice. He stepped back from the bench, his resolve wavering noticeably. Go on, then. Rape her. Imagine scenarios of seduction and spread-open legs. Fill her up and be done with it. What are you waiting for? Charles buried his face into his right hand, his teeth grinding underneath clenched lips. Words climbed out of his mouth after a time. “This isn’t about fucking rape.” Clara’s silence seemed to voice the obvious question. What the fuck is this about, then? His shoulders drooped in defeat. A part of him ached to assert his pathos with such clarity that Clara would have no choice but to applaud. “Oh. Of course,” she’d say with newly enlightened eyes before gleefully nodding at her straps. Instead, Charles whispered with tempered concession. “You wouldn’t understand if I told you.”

He stood militantly while facing away from Clara, his hands holding firm against the small of his back. “Well, I guess it’s safe to say that our agreement is null and void after that stunt you just pulled.” Charles languidly shook his head while tsk-tsking in mock disappointment. “You should have just resigned yourself to the bench when I first told you so. I’d have simply given you a good scare before letting you go. But now, I’m not so sure.” Charles teasingly traced his fingertips along the leather restraints as he circled the bench. Leaning forward at her feet, he visibly acknowledged Clara’s bound body like a condescending diety. “Honestly, I should just follow through with my earlier threat and disappear for a week. Let you starve.” There was a pause before his face shifted again, passing Clara a wink. “But in all honesty, I’d hate to sacrifice those alluring birthing hips of yours.” He sighed and plopped himself onto the nearby bed. “So I guess I’ll ask you again. Are you going to do what I tell you from now on?” Clara, in no uncertain terms, nodded her acceptance. Charles clenched his eyes shut. Words. They’re just words. You have to push harder.

A moment passed. Then two. His eyes finally pried themselves open, looking towards Clara with brooding sympathy. “I hope you understand. Unless I prove myself to you, you’ll keep thinking I’m weak. I’m sorry.” With that, Charles clamped the cloth across Clara’s face, which was held in place by two wedge-shaped obstructions on either side. It’s a necessary evil. Do what you must. He lifted the watering can from his side and began to pour.

Clara was motionless at first. Then the struggle began. Her hands clenched, her pelvis twisted, her back arched. Pining for escape. Finding none. Charles continued to pour. It’s only been ten seconds. Poor thing. Hang in there, sweetie. Gurgles now. Fifteen seconds. Clara was saying something through the drenched cloth. Begging, most likely. Charles wasn’t sure because he refused to hear. Time! Twenty seconds. All right, that’s enough. No. Not quite. The leather straps were straining tightly as Charles pressed onward, counting silently to himself. Twenty-five seconds. What the hell are you doing? Making a point. She must not forget this. Ever. Thirty seconds. She’s going to hurt herself, fighting like that. Nothing that can’t be patched up afterwards. Thirty-five seconds. She’s clawing at the damn bench. She’s going to tear her own fingernails off. She should be thankful if that’s the worst of all this. Forty-five seconds. Clara’s mouth was stretched open, her torso hunched upwards, a grotesque statue of anguished desperation. You idiot. You’re going to kill her. I told you before. Two minute leeway. Fifty-five seconds. A minute. Charles stopped pouring and tore the cloth from Clara’s face, freeing her to cough, gasp, retch. Let her onto the floor, for Christ’s sakes. Charles loosened to the leather straps around Carla’s wrists and ankles, allowing her to wriggle haphazardly towards the cold concrete.

Congratulations. You went through with it. You’ve graduated to a sick, twisted fuck. Charles stood still, looking blankly ahead as Clara writhed at his feet. His eyes surveyed the basement until he found the fridge he installed weeks prior. It’s there if I need it. A vacuum cleaner stood cryptically beside it, challenging the shadows to label its purpose. All part of the plan. Charles looked down upon Clara with steely, unrepentant eyes. “It’s up to you if that has to happen again.” He crouched near her, respecting her unrestrained arms with a braced stance. “Maybe this time, you’ll take me seriously.” He lifted himself and sauntered towards a nearby closet, fetching a mop which he leaned against the bench. “When you’re done, you can clean up the water. Then make your way towards the fridge over there, please.”

What did he mean, this wasn’t about rape? Why else would a middle-aged man kidnap a young woman? Why else would he have her act out that pointless fantasy of his? Why else would she be wearing these lace underthings? Everything about him was a mystery, an enigma that she wasn’t sure would ever be solved, or that she wanted to solve. He oscillated between uncertainty, and dominance, suddenly unearthing new plans or scrapping old ones, in all things set off by the smallest remark. Clara let her body hang limp from her restraints, concentrating on the feeling of the cold leather as he kept talking. Words piled upon words piled upon words – all shoving her defeat into her face as he gloated over her failure to comply, to escape. Teasing her with threats of starvation, all false. She nodded when she was supposed to – did it really mean anything in the end? – and kept quiet when spoken to. Don’t set him off, don’t make him angry, don’t make him do something he’ll regret.

It was all for naught. With a strange calm, she felt the cloth cover her face, still unsure whether he would actually follow through. The same feeling persisted as she felt the water begin to trickle through the cloth, wetting her lips and entering her nose, gradually pulled by gravity. It was almost serene at first. It might not be so bad. She held her breath, letting the water enter her nostrils until something happened, something snapped. She was drowning, she desperately expelled water until her lungs emptied, she clutched her palms, trying anything, everything to make it stop. Clara could feel her lungs burning, the taste of the tap water on her lips, the knowledge that he was watching, making it happen, getting off on it. She tried to open her mouth to plead, to beg, only to be met with a mouthful of water. In a fit of panic, her back arched off the table, her fingernails desperately scratching at the wood table beneath her. It was an eternity of agony.

It finally stopped. He stopped. It all stopped. The moment hung in the air, motionless. In a single moment, she was free, water flowing from her face. Eyes blankly open, seeing nothing for a moment until her breath returned to her and she gagged from the bitterness of the water, eyes tightly shut against the downward flow of the water. As soon as he released her, she fell helplessly onto the concrete, short coughs and retches bringing the rest of water to the surface. A strong, stubborn feeling of abhorrence arose within her, accompanied with a slow simmering helplessness. Her eyes met his, a grey veil separating them from ever knowing the thoughts of the other. She completed his commands thoughtlessly, leaving dark grey stains on the concrete as a testament to what he would do and walking meekly to the designated refrigerator. But next time… There won’t be a next time.

Watching Clara’s defeated march towards the refrigerator disrupted Charles’ hardened scowl which he tried so hard to maintain. His mind spiraled from accomplishment to unwelcome sobriety, and a peculiar feeling of panic began to swell within his conscience. Well, there you go, you evil fuck. You’ve actually tortured another human being. No turning back now. He glanced down towards his hands, clenching and unclenching his fingers as if performing a system check. Ah, yes. The instruments of her destruction. What’s next for the poor girl beyond sadistic interrogation techniques reserved for terrorists? A familiar voice burst forth from the recesses of Charles’ instincts, weighing its essential opinion. She wasn’t going to take you seriously until you actually did something. The ball is in her court, now. Twitches of regret remained, but their manageability was now ensured. In a way, Charles’ internal turmoil was a welcome relief. At least now you know that you have a shred or two of humanity left.

The look on Charles’ face suggested a compromise of emotions as he stood beside the refrigerator to face Clara. He drummed his fingers against the side as some sort of deranged invitation. “Well, I guess you know what this is for.” Uhm. She probably doesn’t. Not everyone is as mentally warped as you, buddy. The door of the fridge was opened to reveal a hollowed-out interior save for a makeshift bench towards the back. “There’s an oxygen feed so you won’t suffocate. And the cold won’t have any lasting effects on you. I’ll let you out after a few hours.” So you’re trying to sell her on her own torment now. There really is something wrong with you. Charles shook off the awkwardness of his presentation and stared at her intently. Give me some sign that you’ve learned your lesson, and I won’t have to do this. A moment passed. Then two. “Clara, look at me.” Clara’s eyes surrendered to his command after a reluctant pause. Charles could see a rising hope of acquittal balanced against an acknowledgement of powerlessness, and he was pleased. With that, he shut the door closed and dusted his hands. “After lunch, then. We’ll have it upstairs.”

Clara’s mouth was taped shut, her arms secured behind her back and the binds adjusted around her feet to severely restrict her mobility. Charles guided her carefully up the stairs towards the unseen world that awaited above. “I assume you know the consequences if you try to pull any stunts up here.” Clara’s eyes offered a blank look of acceptance. He  glared one final warning before reaching for the doorknob. As the door creaked opened, natural light flooded towards them to reveal a large kitchen with several stoves flanking a steel refrigerator. Clara was led towards an island which seemed to divide the floor and was released. “You can meander around if you like. Stay away from the windows, please.” Everything seemed clean and orderly, even underneath the dim lighting of the closed blinds. There was a large living room with a flat screen television and various console systems strewn about. Paintings hung on the walls with various subject matter. All the adjacent rooms were locked from access, save for the bathroom. Soft music was playing from a speaker in the ceiling.

Clara wandered the living room with jerky strides, seemingly not sure of what to do with herself. Charles watched her admirably, the calm nature of her exploration reassuring the confidence in his experiment. After a time, Clara inadvertently locked eyes with her observer, darting them away with mild contempt. Charles approached Clara as if taking a cue, placing a hand on her cheek which grudgingly accepted its touch. “Cook. Clean. Fuck. That’s what I want out of you. We’ll get there in time. I promise.” He smiled warmly before retreating towards the kitchen to collect items from the fridge. “Life needn’t be so bad, Clara,” he mused aloud while busying himself with knobs on the stove.

It was all so surreal, like a bad dream that refused to end. Clara stood in the middle of her captor’s kitchen, tape glinting from her mouth and wrists. The light slipped by the blinds in long wide slivers, dust motes glinting. Her emotions were dulled, scraped raw by the the unending sensations. Stickiness around her wrists. Smells of tap water. Damp feet, dripping hair, weak knees. Confusion. It was all arbitrary, all fickle, superficial. Goosebumps still remaining from the chill of the refrigerator downstairs. Resigning herself to another torture, another meaningless reflex wrung out of her body. Couldn’t he see? Doesn’t he notice? Every breath seemed to rasp through her lungs, the oxygen tasting sweet against the bitter metallic feeling on her tongue. Her eyes wandered, her feet meandered. Blinds on the windows, soft sounds in the kitchen, carpet beneath her sore feet. She was safe. For now. After lunch.

Sometimes she ran her eyes over him, sizing him up but never concluding anything beyond a slight contempt. Sometimes he looked at her, but she never noticed. Sometimes their eyes met and she saw something deeply buried within his eyes. One time he placed a hand on her cheek mechanically, as if it were expected, called for. She stood still, neutral eyes assessing him blankly, questions cyclically repeating in her mind. Couldn’t he remember? Did he remember his promise? What did he want? Did he want her? Did he want her obedience – compliance? What did he want her to do now? She was left standing, mind struggling to reconcile her situation, murmuring softly beneath the gag. The hope of escape was slowly fading into the distance, covered by an ever-looming blanket of darkness.

Even as he was immersing himself with the proper utilization of his bachelor-level culinary skills, Charles keenly observed Clara from afar as she blankly wandered the perimeter of the couch. After some preparation, Charles presented Clara with a fold-out tray of Lipton noodle soup and a ham-and-cheese sandwich. He instructed her with a wave of his hand to sit on the couch and claimed a pleasant seat beside her. He loosened her mouth gag and let it fall simply to her chin, glaring a silent warning before spoon-feeding her mouthfuls of soup. Charles casually expressed hollow encouragements as Clara ate robotically. “There we go. Thatta girl. Swallow it all. Good, good.” Once the soup was finished, the sandwich was quartered with a knife and consumed with uninspired bites. When all was said and done, the gag was promptly reinstated. Charles forced a smile and nodded his approval of Clara’s cooperation. “Very good. We’re making headway, I think.”

With absentminded curiosity, Charles turned on the television with a nearby remote. After some aimless channel surfing, a news program beckoned his attention with a scrolling bulletin. A sinking feeling immediately overwhelmed Charles’s senses. He knew what was coming, and his eyes widened accordingly. “Police are investigating the probable abduction of a nurse near her home last night in Fredericskburg, Virginia. No suspects have been named but officials are hopeful that the questioning of neighbors will lead to clues regarding her disappearance.” He watched transfixed as the broadcast delved into various particulars, including the potential involvement of the FBI and a tenacious campaign to uncover potential witnesses. After a quiet moment of brute analysis, his curiosity shifted towards Clara. Way to go, dumbass. You’ve just instilled hope back into this bitch. With a sudden wave of anger, Charles kicked over the tray of food and stood over her with clenched fists, obstructing her view of the program. His breathing gradually slowed, mirroring an ominous calm which quickly rose to negate his ferocity. “Downstairs,” he staunchly commanded. “Now.”

The food was warm, and most likely nourishing. However, even as the soup washed down her throat, Clara couldn’t taste it. She kept her eyes fixed on the spoon before her, a residual blush suffusing her cheeks. His hands were steady, his face empty. She sighed quietly when she finished, metallic traces of the tap water lingering within her nose. There barely enough time to swallow the last bit of her food before he pushed the gag back into her mouth – eliciting nothing but a small, but brief, moan of protest. Clara leaned back into the welcome softness of the couch, eyes drifting closed as the heat spread through her. Her head nodded against her chest as she weakly struggled to stay awake. Eventually, as she was about to drift over the edge, he turned the television on.

The sound of sharp, professional voices brought her back to her senses. As the words slowly filtered through her mind, she suddenly realized something. They were talking about her. They were talking about her abduction. They were looking for her. They were hopeful. Her eyes widened and she stiffened, not daring to look at her captor. She blinked slowly, face studiously blank as she tried not to show her excitement – but. Clara started at the sudden sound as Charles upturned the tray, scared eyes darting down, away from his. He had realized, and he was angry. Clara took a deep breath, her silence greeting his demand. It was no use struggling. He was stronger than her, faster than her – this was his house. She steeled herself for what she knew was coming, and stood. Clara cast a final glance at his dangerously calm features, and walked through the still open door, down the cold stairs, and back into the basement.

Clara was hastily ushered down the creaky stairs and forced upon a chair with a yank of her shoulders. Charles squatted in front of her with heavy, composed breaths while locking down her eyes. “I want you to know something,” he began with his index finger extended towards the bridge of Clara’s nose. His mouth opened as if to continue, but was interrupted by his eyes wandering over his shoulder towards the door. What the hell are you looking at? Expecting a SWAT team to burst through the door and nail you? That broadcast was par for the course. Standard procedure. You must have expected it. Calm your ass down and concentrate. He craned his neck towards his front again, refocusing on Clara. “They’re looking for you, but you’ll never be found.” Charles’ eyes momentarily flickered, and he hated himself for it. You don’t believe yourself anymore, do you? That’s fine. Keep going. You’re not done yet. “But even if they did…” The pupils in Charles’ eyes dilated slightly as he bridged a considerable gap between he and Clara. “I’d kill us both before I’d let them take me.” He allowed his proclamation to linger ostensibly in the air. Hmm. Your delivery could have been better. But it really does’t matter, does it? You meant it. In the end, if things get dicey, that’s what is going to count.

“Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way,” Charles exhaled while lifting himself off his knees, the intensity in his voice waning. “I think it’s time we tried something out.” He strolled towards the fridge that was located against the back wall, turning his attention towards the vacuum beside it. He plugged it into a nearby outlet and wheeled it beside the bed from their earlier role play, almost running out of cord slack in the process. Then, reaching underneath the bed, he retrieved a transparent bag with one circular plastic piece jutting out of its side. It soon revealed itself as a large, vacuum-seal pouch, roughly the size of an average human being. “I’ve decided that we’re going to sleep together every night. But I definitely don’t trust you without some precautions. So there’s really only one way to make sure that you won’t… can’t do anything as I sleep.” After sprawling the bag upon the bed, he motioned for Clara with an eager index finger. “Let’s get that shit off of you,” he explained clinically, “so you can fold yourself into this thing.”

She found herself staring into his eyes, her own flickering worriedly as she tried to decipher his mood. He seemed unsettled, disconcerted, almost paranoid. Her gaze unconsciously followed his to the still open door, half-expecting someone to appear. Everything he said afterwards seemed halfhearted, as if he were questioning himself. But his final statement jerked her back to reality – away from fantasies of seeing her family again, of returning to work at the hospital, of finding peace again. Clara was helpless, and she was his. His words were a grim reminder of what he was capable of, just how far he had gone over the edge. Clara shrunk away from him, dreading his next move, the punishment she knew would be coming. With a series of deep jagged breaths, Clara gathered herself into a semblance of inquisitive calmness, watching him wheel the innocuous-looking household appliance near the bed and then produce a large plastic bag, uncannily resembling a body bag.

She recognized the small black piece of plastic protruding from the bag – was that a vacuum seal? – and swallowed nervously. With an effort, Clara pushed down the urge to run, knowing that it was useless. The door was open, true, but she was in no condition to outrun a grown man, even if she hadn’t had rope around her wrists and ankles. Sleep together? Her eyes widened in fear, muscles tensed as she tried desperately to figure out how she would breathe if he sealed her within the bag. Please don’t kill me. Wooden legs brought her over to him, a mannequin limping toward the inevitable.

The fear in Clara’s face, contrasted against her unquestioning obedience, released a primal wave of satisfaction which surged throughout Charles’ body. A carnal craving seized his loins for a moment afterwards, which he curtailed with a slow, shuddery sigh. He studied her expression as she approached the bed and quickly calculated her concerns. “Don’t worry. This thing will give you all the air you need.” He took a moment to present Clara with a plastic instrument which he retrieved from his pocket. It had a rubber mouthpiece connected to an oblong opening, with two cylindrical protrusions on the top; it seemed to resemble a piece of diver’s gear.

After tending to Clara’s binds, Charles shifted his attention towards the bag on the bed and patted an invitation within its pouch. “Okay, then. Time to hop in, dear.” Clara morosely complied with her instructions to pin her arms behind her back and to fold her knees to her sides. Charles powered on the vacuum and fastened its detachable hose to the bag’s circular intake; it wasn’t long until it noticeably began to crinkle and shrink. Clara was fully sealed a minute later, the heavy transparent plastic molding itself tightly against the contours of her body. The vacuum was removed and wheeled away before Charles reintroduced his familiar pocket knife. He cut two slits near Clara’s nostrils and one longer slit near her mouth and affixed his mechanism accordingly. Clara’s labored inhalation through the apparatus completed a successful trial.

Charles circled the bed slowly with admiration before lolling himself beside Clara. “So, this is how you’ll sleep every night beside me. We’ll have to make sure you use the hell out of the bathroom beforehand so that you don’t make a mess for me to clean up in the morning.” He smiled, an aberrant, callous smile, before his eyelids began to droop. “Time for a nap,” he announced while tending to the alarm function on his phone. “I’d focus on getting used to this if I were you. You’ll be graduating from one hour to eight later tonight.” He draped an arm around Clara’s confined waist as a light sleep overtook him, fraught with airy, ephemeral dreams.

Clara was not quite morose; being far too scared to be sullen or irritable. She took a deep breath, not much comforted by the small – breathing device? – he produced. A cursory rub of the wrists, a double check of the blood circulating through her ankles, a perfunctory lick of the lips, and she crawled into the bag, following the muffled instructions. She obediently placed her hands behind her back and folded her legs up beneath her. Her breaths came short and shallow, a small misty spot forming on the plastic immediately in front of her. As the air began draining from the bag, Clara closed her eyes. She struggled to breathe, short gasps becoming more frantic as her lungs screamed for air. The plastic drew tight around her body, freezing her in her current uncomfortable position. Clara tried to move, to somehow scratch an opening into the plastic, but she was already immobilized and faint without oxygen. It seemed like an eternity, hovering between full consciousness and unconsciousness.

Groggily, she felt a sharp blade cutting through the plastic – first at her nose, then at her mouth. Something tasting of rubber was inserted through the openings, and with a sudden start Clara could breathe again. She knew he was saying something, most likely threatening or gleeful or both. She could hear something through the tight slick material, but nothing registered. Except – “This is how you’ll sleep every night…” Clara let the thought slip from her mind, concentrating on breathing and not the unwelcome feeling of his possessive embrace. Eventually, she drifted off into a deep dreamless sleep, a statue in the arms of her sculptor.

A series of fleeting, colorless dreams projected themselves against Charles’ mind. Comforting memories of his father’s protection and nostalgic board game triumphs played like snippets from home VHS movies until they slowly dissolved into static. With a sudden introduction, one particular dream emerged from the void to explore his first kiss─an unceremonious experience which occurred when he was ten. An innocent game of House had intensified at Wendy’s residence (That was her name, wasn’t it? He was halfway certain of it), and Charles found himself woefully unprepared for her advances. He was soon straddled in the living room couch, with Wendy’s inexperienced tongue exploring the reluctant confines of his mouth. With one firm shrug, he pushed her off his lap and stood over her with perturbed bewilderment. The looming influence of his mother’s dogmatic weariness flagged all sorts of warnings within his psyche, automating his rebuff. They remained friends, but Wendy never sought any attempts at affection again─and that suited Charles just fine. He discovered something about himself that day, a fundamental attribute which adapted itself as a solemn vow: he would never be caught off-guard again by a woman. He would always the one to arrange the first date, make the first move, achieve the first orgasm. He secretly loathed any female-dominant sexual positions for reasons he couldn’t quite place. It’s because she’s the one in control, isn’t it? She makes the choices, she fucks you the way she wants to fuck you, and you lay there and accept it. Nuh uh. Not for you, poindexter.

Charles’s eyes opened with a wince, impulsively reacting to the sound of his phone alarm. Clara’s plasticized body slowly came into focus, shifting only slightly during their brief intermission. He felt somewhat refreshed; the concern over the news broadcast had almost completely left him. Charles observed that Clara was breathing normally; he assumed her pleads and shrieks would alert him otherwise. With a start, he leapt upon his feet and quickly realized that Clara was sleeping. That’s pretty amazing given the circumstances, isn’t it? She’s well on her way to becoming exactly what you want her to be. A curious emotion swelled within Charles’ emotional core. It wasn’t love, he was quite sure of that, but perhaps a derivative of it, the same way heroin derivatives from opium. He couldn’t find an appropriate word to describe it. But it hatched nonetheless, grew a pair of wings, and perched itself upon his shoulder, whispering irrefutable truths which helped him come to terms with his intentions. If you can never sleep beside Clara as a traditional lover, so be it. You’ll happily accept this as a substitute. He would never have her trust, but he would have her, period. With a relaxed smile, he began to search for a pair of scissors, ready to release his butterfly from her cocoon.

Clara had never been one for relationships, or romance for that matter. Sure, she had that bubbly personality that was characteristic of most nurses, but there was determined hardness beneath all the bubbles that most men could never get past. It had served her well in high school (dealing with drama swiftly and efficiently) and college (staying up all night studying for a final was as simple as breathing) but made her uncompromising on the smallest things. Simple things that involved deciding which restaurant to go to, what to wear the next night, often resulted in explosive fights and copious amounts of shouted words and no regrets. She learned to channel it eventually, directing her energies towards getting through school and soon Clara learned to bend, giving way on her opinions to gain the friendship of others. And to a certain extent, it worked. Her resentment bled out in various ways, and she gained a reputation for having an explosive temper. But none of that mattered now. It was too difficult to gather enough strength to move, let alone become angry.

She awoke with a start and a sudden realization that Charles was longer beside her. The plastic had warmed against her, slick and clouded with moisture. She breathed slowly and calmly, shifting the contraption in her mouth slightly. Clara tested her arms and found there was a little wiggle room, with a little effort she managed to bring her arms around to her front. As best she could against the confines of the plastic, she attempted to stretch the stiffness from her muscles. This can’t be healthy, can it? A particular bad knot in her shoulder caused a soft cry of pain and she quickly backtracked. Where are you, Charles? Hasn’t it been long enough?

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