Out of the Ashes
7 days… until… who knows what?
Chapter 1: Brenda
The point of no-return had come and gone.
Of course, the last thing Brenda wanted to do was torture her sister. How did she get out of it? Could she get out of it?
Turning over on the hospital bed beside Rachel, Brenda closed her eyes. Nausea had plagued her for the last few weeks. Rachel’s demands to be tortured using a program she had designed increased Brenda’s morning sickness with stress. Mix the bombing of the northwest with the earthquakes and other natural disasters that had claimed the western states and dropped them in the ocean and Brenda didn’t know if she’d ever recover from the symptoms of stress.
And dang it. Her sister only added more to the pile of crap Brenda had to deal with. Her sister had designed a real torture device. Designed! Like a new recipe she wanted to make sure was just right for the public.
Another wave pushed up Brenda’s throat. She swallowed. Pregnancy during the end of the world just didn’t seem fair. Pregnancy without a husband or safe medical care was… she breathed deeply. She didn’t like it. She didn’t…
Thudding continued from the floor.
Brenda lifted her hand and snapped her fingers. The thudding stopped.
His ass wasn’t going anywhere and he could bang his head on the floor all he wanted. Asshole.
She hadn’t seen Dilbeck for a couple hours, not that she was crying over that loss. If he fell off a bridge or got strung up by a cannibalistic hunting party, she might join in on the roasting. Still, lying there as if waiting for him to decide what would happen next didn’t feel right. But neither did rushing her sister along the path of torture.
A whimper from the next bed split the tense silence.
Brenda opened her eyes. She leaned up on her elbow, shoving her nausea to the floor with her captive. “Are you okay?”
Rachel’s gaze met Brenda’s across the short expanse. She offered a grimace that could have passed for a smile in the darker interior. Afternoon sunlight struggled through the blinds, lighting up the necessities but hiding the ugliness.
A dry erase marker squeaked with Rachel’s weak movement. She turned the small whiteboard to Brenda. “When do we start?” The blue block letters emphasized Rachel’s cough, the strain obvious even behind the hand she raised to cover her mouth. Swelling in her throat and tongue would have to have gone down to allow a cough like that. Hospital air, even when the vents worked, was drier than a desert. But no heat and the dry air would work wonders on the swelling, better than anything else Brenda could’ve given her.
A long tapered finger tapped the board.
Brenda jerked her gaze to her sister’s. Tears filled her eyes. She had a feeling the emotional display wouldn’t be the last over the next week
Shudders passed over her. She didn’t want to do anything to Rachel. She hadn’t even been told where to start. Given more time she’d have more information than she wanted.
Pulling her legs from the hospital blanket and swinging them over the edge of the bed, Brenda faced Rachel. She squared her shoulders. “What do I need to do?” She held up her hand. “Just one step at a time. If you tell me all of it at once, I’ll run.” She tried to hide the fear in her eyes, but her lips quivered. Of course, Rachel saw.
Pity filled her sister’s eyes. She shook her head. Without sound, Rachel mouthed, “I’m sorry.”
Chin dropped to her chest, Brenda closed her eyes. What was going on? She just wanted to disappear. Her list was filled with things undone. Torturing her sister wasn’t anywhere on it.
More squeaking caught Brenda’s attention. Rachel’s block words led a tight stack of lines over the board. “We have to get going. Dilbeck won’t be gone for long. We need Daniel to work with us, not for Dilbeck. The sooner we do this…” She left the last of it dangling in the room, as if she’d actually spoken the fatal words.
If it ended, then what? What happened when “it” was over?
Did she have a choice in finding out? Maybe she didn’t want to…
Brenda bit her lip. No way was she far enough along to feel movement, but she liked to imagine that the baby kicked, swimming along in her womb. Fresh tears stung the sides of her eyes. She was morphing into a toddler with each passing moment.
Hormonal emotions might not allow her to torture Rachel.
But, oh well. Toughen up. If Brenda was bringing her baby into the world, she’d better do her best to make sure it was as un-screwed up as she could. She lifted her chin. “Yes, Dilbeck should be back soon. Get your list together for what we’ll need.” She leaned back and glared at Daniel. He hadn’t moved from where she’d left him, lying on the floor, his legs and arms bound with electrical cord and IV tubing. To Rachel she added, “Please tell me there’s branding involved… I’d love to practice.”
Daniel’s eyes widened. He shook his head wildly from side to side. But Brenda had stuffed a surgery towel into his mouth and secured it with skin tape. Asshole wasn’t manipulating anyone with his oily charm. If she were lucky, he’d aspirate on his tongue.
Ignoring the plea in his eyes, Brenda looked back to Rachel. “I can do this, but I need a promise from you.” Rachel stopped writing on her board and waited for Brenda to go on. Brenda talked past the emotion tightening her throat. “You have to promise whatever you make me do to you, you’ll survive it.”
Their gazes clashed. Brenda’s stormy with challenge. Rachel’s resigned, but she jerked her head yes even though she didn’t want to.
For once in their lives, Rachel had better keep her promise.
Chapter 2: Andy
“Can. We. Stop? I hate. To ask, but…” Andy couldn’t force another word out. He didn’t want to sound like a baby, but the four-wheeler’s jostle and sway had lost its appeal inches out of the hospital parking lot. That had been at least two hours before. His back, neck, and arm muscles ached from trying to hold himself stiff in his attempt to avoid using his stomach muscles.
His head hurt.
Josh glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah, I think we’re far enough into the woods.” He slowed the ATV to a stop and slid from the seat. “You okay? You’re looking a little, I don’t know, peaked?”
“That’s putting it mildly.” Andy’s strangled mutter flat-lined in the peaceful surroundings. He’d wanted to banter, but he dropped the ball on delivery. He didn’t move from the four-wheeler. Couldn’t. Breathing hurt. But as long as they weren’t moving over the bumps, he’d survive – another moment.
Beside a tree, Josh leaned against the bark and relieved himself. The whir of his zipper and the far off snap of a twig broke the calm.
Josh spun into a slight crouch, ready to spring.
All Andy could do was watch. If the devil himself showed up right then, Andy wouldn’t be able to do much more than groan.
His attention focused in the direction of the snapping, Andy couldn’t make out movement or anything that screamed danger, just a wall of forest, trees, bushes, and dirt.
A bright red spot flashed through the leaves. On closer inspection, more organized sections of trees proved to be man-made amongst the randomness in the surrounding bushes and trees, but not enough to be noticed with a cursory glance.
A man stepped from behind a brush blind.
Moving closer to the ATV, Josh watched the newcomer with narrowed eyes. “Hello?”
The stranger stepped out further, his eyes squinty with suspicion. A hand on either side of his waist held Andy frozen.
Adorned in camouflage pants, black army boots, a camouflage printed hat, and a camouflage sweatshirt emblazoned with a scarlet EWU logo from the Cheney College, the man’s attempts to hide seemed to lose all credibility with his bright splash of red.
What the hell? Who did that?
He didn’t speak but crossed in front of them to the other side of the vehicle. Watching. He didn’t take his eyes off them.
Josh angled his head. “I’m Josh. This is Andy. We’re trying to get home.”
Brows tilted and scrunched, the man’s gruff voice begrudged them a reply. “Ain’t nobody lives out here but me. You trying to steal my home?”
Trapping the scoff that wanted to escape, Andy arched his brow. He couldn’t speak, his ribs wanted to dig through his stitches, but oh, if he could, he’d ask where they were supposed to take the crazy man’s home? Pack it out on their shoulders?
Shaking his head, Josh spoke slowly. “No, not your home, our home. My friend is injured and we were just taking a break for a minute.” He stretched out his hand hanging by his side, but held completely still otherwise.
The man’s eyes shifted, angling his gaze from Andy to Josh and back. From his hip he pulled a can and squirted what could only be processed cheese into his mouth. He never looked away.
Uh. Andy’s disbelief swelled in his stomach, stretching the stitches and pulling at his thighs. He had a sinking sensation he wasn’t dreaming. Come on!
With a fancy display of twirling the thin can in the air and catching it once more before returning it to his “holster”, the man worked his mouth and swallowed. “You two sure you’re not going to try to steal my home?” He squinted, focusing behind them, as if they’d hidden an army to set siege to his place – wherever it was.
Desperate to beat the shit out of the man – hell, desperate to draw a normal breath of air, Andy grunted.
Josh acknowledged his friend’s concern with a short nod. He rubbed his forehead. “Look, I don’t know what you want me to say. We aren’t interested in your place. We have our own. We were really just taking a break.” He pointedly turned from the man and made a show of climbing back on the four-wheeler with Andy who welcomed the pillar of his friend to lean against.
Everything sucked at his strength.
Smacking as if he retained a small semblance of the cheese along his gum lines, the man stepped closer. Twigs snapped.
Josh had moved quieter than he did.
Andy would’ve rolled his eyes but he didn’t have the energy to pull it off.
The man pursed his lips and considered them for a long moment.
Not giving in to fatigue took everything Andy had.
“Okay, here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna let you come back with me and get some dinner. I have plenty ‘cause the wife refused to come with me.” He shrugged and slapped Josh’s shoulder, his initial suspicion evaporating like steam on a bathroom window. “Oh, well, what d’ya do, right? Wench had this annoying habit of correcting me on everything. And eating everything!” He barked, holding out his hand. “I’m Jerold. My friends call me Jerry.” Jerry snapped his finger to Josh’s face, pointing inches from his nose. “I haven’t decided if you’re friend or… not. So Jerold is fine.”
“Sounds good.” Josh waited for something.
Andy didn’t care. The moment slipped away from him. He couldn’t focus again. The forest spun with a swirly tie-dye effect that made him want to throw up. He gripped Josh’s shoulder… oh, he thought he did. Passing out was becoming his thing.
At what point did you stop passing out and just die?
The ground rushed up to meet him.
Chapter 3: Rachel
When Brenda stepped out to check on Dilbeck’s whereabouts, Rachel moistened her mouth and tried swallowing. She coughed, the swollen meat of her tongue aching wherever it touched the rest of her mouth. But thankfully the size was smaller, smaller but not back to normal. At least she could breathe again.
The man in the room wouldn’t judge her or expect much from her, if all she did was try. She’d pretend he didn’t exist for the next few seconds. “Hello? Hello?” Cough. Cough. “Blah. Blah.” Pain rushed through her mouth, down into the base of her tongue and along her jaw line. Fingers pressed to her throat, as if she might somehow press the button that would release the pressure from her tongue.
Her voice fell into the room with effort. She could almost pretend she would be okay, go home soon and sleep in her own bed. But that wasn’t possible and even saying a word at a time she’d never articulate fully unless she ignored the pain.
She’d have to figure out a way to get her words out around the damaged meat of her tongue. She breathed in through her nose and concentrated on taking it slow. “Two. For. Yes. One. For. No.” Her congested and ill-formed words conveyed the meaning with relative clarity.
Two taps from the floor. Good.
Rachel swallowed in the back of her throat, careful to avoid the front of her tongue. Dang, if she moved too much, she pulled her tongue from her teeth, reopening wounds they’d created when her swollen tongue had pressed into them. If she survived the hell she’d been dropped in, she’d consider wearing a mouth guard. Not that she’d ever leave her home.
Her questions had to come fast and get as much information as possible. Brenda didn’t want to leave Daniel alone with Rachel and Rachel understood that. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Daniel was Rachel’s partner in the whole situation. They’d done alone together. By the time the newer tests were complete, they’d do a lot more than just rely on each other.
“Can. You. Resubmerge?” Oh, damn. The last word sounded like ressseresmug or something.
Terrific. He’d be able to put her back under. “Today?”
She closed her eyes. In the last two years she hadn’t considered… oh, bullshit. She’d considered – considered so many different ways how she could do the tests herself for punishment, remembrance, just to get her out of the pain she’d brought to her life.
Apathy was colder than pity, colder than pain.
Truth was, in the last two years she hadn’t really been willing to commit to resubmerging. Hadn’t even swam in lakes, pools, rivers, anything. Avoided baths like a virus. Hated water. Showered out of sheer necessity.
But “resubmerge” didn’t just refer to reentering the torture path, it referred to the technique Daniel would use to deliver her back into the state of mind she’d been at when the project had ended. She’d been exported from the program she’d begun and hadn’t been allowed to look back.
“Hurts?” She couldn’t help asking. The word slid from her lips like an egg white escaping the shell. Physical pain she could handle. The mental anguish she’d endured on that island… she couldn’t count on Daniel.
She needed Brenda.
A decided lack of response didn’t offer any reassurance.
For once, Rachel needed Brenda.
“Don’t. Mess. With. Brenda.” She dropped her head to the pillow. Her s’s sounded like th’s, but Daniel would understand. He’d have to pay for branding her sister, and he would… sadly, he would pay for a great deal more.
But if he knew she knew he’d lied? He might not stick around for the finale. And there was no way she’d be able to survive the last test without him. Survive with her sanity intact. Well, that last possibility may or may not have a statistical viability, but Rachel would calculate the outcomes later.
She had to convince Brenda to let Daniel go.
But did he understand she’d have to kill him to make it through the last challenge?