Author's Note:

Survivor in Name Only can be classified as either Realistic Horror, or Psychological Thriller. It started life as a single sentence, the first sentence in fact. When I wrote it down, I had no idea what it would turn into, or what dark path my muse had decided to go. I had, at first, thought that it would be an emotional gut-wrencher that had a happy ending. Unfortunately, I quickly realized the ending the story would work toward—which is neither happy nor bittersweet.

There was quite a bit of research that went into this short story, in regards to medication, treatments, and possible reactions to these things. Some of the situations have taken into account real people's stories of situations in which they also had negative reactions. Though, I must stress that none of these situations, or people, happened or exist. This is entirely fiction that came from my own, apparently, twisted mind.

Any resemblance to reality is the result of research and listening to various accounts so that Karen's situation might appear as realistic as possible. This is, when all is said and done, a story of what happens when everyone who is supposed to help you goes about it the wrong way.

Trigger Warnings: Murder, torture, gore/blood, self-harm, mental illness, kidnapping, mental deterioration, psychiatric facilities

Survivor in Name Only

Day 1

She sat in the emergency ward wondering why it had been her that was spared. Why hadn't she gotten a bullet to the head, like all the others? Why had she been given a choice? What made her different from them? She didn't understand, and until she did, she couldn't feel like she was actually safe.

The thoughts buzzed about her head as she stared blankly at the white wall across the room. She leaned limply against the hospital bed, unmoving despite being free of restraints for the first time in ages. While being completely free of pain, due to the heavy painkiller they'd pumped into her, she could still feel the pull of the wounds across her back, and the missing nail in her left forefinger. Moving still pulled at the freshly closed wound in her gut.

"A final choice."

Her eyes slammed closed, trembles shaking her body. For a moment, silence reigned in her mind, and she allowed herself to relax. It was a choice anyone would have made. No one wanted to die. Right?

"A final choice."

"No," she whispered, voice cracking. "Stop." She didn't need the beeping to tell her that her heartbeat had increased. It was pounding in her throat, trying to break free.

"A final choice."

Her hands slammed against her ears, as though that would keep his voice out. Impossible. He was everywhere, contaminating everything.

"A final choice." His lips brushed her ear, and she cringed away, tears filling her eyes behind the blindfold he'd put over her eyes.

"No more," she begged, knowing it did no good, but unable to stop herself.

Long fingers traced her arms, the skin jumping under the light touch.

"Do you want to die?" he asked, as though she hadn't said anything.

"No," she sobbed, hands clenching behind her where they were bound, wishing she could see what was going on. The lack of knowledge made everything worse.

"Good."

Before she could register his response, the blindfold was tugged off, and she blinked at the sudden change of light. Despite the low level of their night surroundings, it was still brighter than the blindfold had been.

"Then we're going to play a game," he said, keeping a hand on her arm as he circled her.

"No," she breathed, wanting to be done, wanting everything to just stop.

Screaming, she was screaming. Then, doctors were there, pulling her hands down from where they'd dug into the skin around her ears. She fought them, crying, shouting, begging them to release her. She didn't want to do this anymore.

A prick in her arm brought her back, momentarily, because he'd never injected her with anything. She blinked up at the doctors and nurses, each staring down at her in worry, pity.

"Sorry," she made her lips say, before allowing the drugs to pull her into blessed, dreamless sleep.


Day 4

Three days later, she was considered stable enough for the police to speak with her. As they walked in, all she could think about was Janet. Was her name Janet, or had that been the librarian? It had to have been the cop. Maybe.

"Karen."

"Karen." His voice, her name, was like a whip across her skin. She jerked, eyes rising to meet him.

"Don't," she said, arms wrapping around her to stop the shaking.

The doctor, who'd been trying to get her attention, frowned. "Don't what?"

"Call me that," she said, voice barely a whisper, and fully aware she was being ridiculous.

The frown deepened, but he nodded. "These gentlemen want to ask you some questions. Are you up for it?"

The policemen. They wanted to know what happened.

Have they found the others?

"Was her name Janet?" she asked, wishing she could remember. She should remember.

"Who?" one of them asked.

"The policewoman. I think … was her name Janet? I … I can't remember."

The policemen shared a look. "The one who died?"

She inhaled sharply, because it was her fault. They were dead, and it was her fault.

"Yes."

"Her name was Alice, Ms. Williams."

Alice. Then, where did Janet come from?

"Probably from Dr. Janet Mitchell," the officer said, making her realize she'd spoken her thoughts.

"The doctor," she remembered, "She had a baby." Useless information. It hadn't done anyone any good. Her eyes found the white cover draped over her legs.

"Did she tell you that?"

Had she? Had any of the information come from them?

"He did," she answered, after a moment of silence. "Everything got harder."

"He?"

"Their killer. He liked … talking. Telling …" Me. "us about each other."

"How many were there?"

"12. They're all dead. I was 13."

"How did you escape, Ms. Williams?"

Her eyes found the officer's. "Escape?" she asked.

He nodded.

She hadn't escaped. Had she? The confusion filled her and she frowned.

"I didn't escape," she said, the memory rising within her, body trembling with the remembered terror. "There was a choice. I didn't want to die. It was a game. He … he stabbed me." Her hand lightly brushed the healing wound. She'd already torn the stitches three times. "He said … he said if I could find help, he'd let me go. I didn't want to die."

"With good reason," the officer assured her, gently. "So, he let you go then?"

She nodded.

"What about the others?"

"Dead." Her hands fisted in the blankets. Her fault. All her fault.

"Were they there when he … released you?"

Twelve bodies, delicately laid out in a circle around them. Feet pointed inwards towards them, heads out, each one stared up through closed eyelids at the dark sky. They'd been redressed. Each one wore unrelieved white, probably. The night made colors pointless.

"Yes. They … he'd laid them out. Did you find them?" The thought that they were still there, while she was here, safe, was unbearable. Her tremors increased at the thought that she'd failed, again. That she'd been so caught up in herself that she'd just left them, chosen her life, her safety, over theirs. Again.

"Yes, they were found. Their families want to thank you for—"

"Don't," she interrupted, hands flying to her ears, hoving there, shaking with the effort it took to not block out the world.

"Ms. Williams?" the officer asked. "Don't what?"

"Don't … don't thank me. I … I didn't do anything."

"You told us how to find the others, Ms. Williams. You helped us bring them home."

"No," she said, throat clenching as tears welled in her eyes. Her nails dug into her hands as she fought back the tears, concentrating on the mild bite. "I'm the reason they're dead," she admitted to the sudden silence. "It's my fault."

"Karen," the doctor started, laying a hand on her shoulder.

"Don't call me that!" she yelled, hands slicing at the air to get him to back away. He did. She wrapped her arms around her chest, nails digging into her arms, shaking.

"I think that's enough for today," her doctor said.

"Just one more question."

There was a moment of silence, which she ignored, focusing on calming herself down. She didn't want to be knocked out again.

"Fine. One more."

"Ms. Williams," the officer waited until she looked at him. "Why is it your fault?"

"It won't be so easy this time, will it?"

She shook her head.

"I … I chose," she said. "Everytime. He made me choose who died. And I … I did." Tears spilled over, trailing down her cheeks.

"Who's it going to be this time, Karen?" he asked, the cool metal of the gun resting against her cheek. "The widowed lawyer, or the soccer dad? The choice is yours."

"Don't. Please. I don't want to do this."

The men in question hung from the ceiling, bleeding and broken. One was old, in his sixties, the other in his early 0's. One had kids, children; the other's were grown. They were both good people.

"That wasn't an option, Karen," he told her, disappointment coloring his voice. He left her then, moving somewhere behind her that she couldn't see. A machine whined on.

"No," she whimpered. "Don't do this. Please."

"Will you choose?"

"I can't," she sobbed.

"Then I have no choice."

He jabbed the rod into her side. She screamed, body jerking as electricity ran through her. When it stopped she sagged in her bonds, taking in a shaky breath.

"Well?"

She didn't answer. A refusal would make him hurt her again. So, it seemed, would a refusal to answer. Another scream ripped through the basement as the rod jammed into her side, longer this time, until she thought it would never end.

She was sobbing by the time he pulled away, dry breathless heaves rocked her whole body where she sagged forward in the chair, only held up by the ropes holding her to the chair. He let her hang there, hair falling into her face, sticking to the wet tracks shining on her cheeks. Then, a hand landed on her shoulder, pulling her upright. Her head continued to hang forward until his other hand pulled it up, forcing her to look at the two men.

"Who's it going to be, Karen? Michael, or Joshua? Widower, or divorcee?"

The hand holding her shoulder still held the rod, warning her against refusing again. She looked between the two gagged men hanging from the ceiling, both beaten and bloodied.

"Michael," she sobbed, anything to keep from being hurt again.

She was released, sagging forward. Unable to hold herself up, she could only listen as he crossed the room.

"Sorry. I'm sorry. Sorry," she murmured, repeating it the whole time.

There was a moment of silence, then a bang sounded, nearly deafening her.

A needle pierced her skin as she fought and sobbed. Why wouldn't everything just stop?

"We're going to have to keep her sedated until she heals," someone said as the drugs pulled her down. "Karen keeps pulling her stitches."

"Don't," she murmured, tongue heavy, "call … me … that."


Day 25

Three weeks later, she was released from the hospital, body healed enough that she wouldn't do further damage with a flashback. That's what her therapist called it, a flashback, but it was nothing like the movies. It was more real. When they happened, she forgot she was out of there. It was happening here and now, and she fought, struggled, hurt herself in her attempts to get out if someone didn't hold her down, restrain her.

She still couldn't stand anyone calling her by name. Three weeks - it had only been three weeks - of hearing him say it still sent terror down her spine; still made his voice sound in her head, gentle, calm, soft, insisting, pleased, intent, excited. Sadistic.

Noise downstairs had her tensing, head jerking to the door - away from the blank wall for the first time in hours. Her heart pounded, breathing stopped until a voice drifted up, familiar, unthreatening. Slowly, the tension eased from her muscles; her heart slowed; her breathing returned to normal. In. Out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

It was a technique her therapist was trying to get her to practice whenever anything happened that caused her panic. It worked. Sometimes. A little.

"Karen?"

Her hands slammed over her ears, eyes closed tight, blocking out the world, fighting to keep herself calm.

Don't freak out, she thought. Don't freak out. It's just mom.

A hand dropped onto her shoulder. She jerked, scrambling away from the touch. Her back was against the wall before she allowed herself to look. It was her mother. The woman's hand still hovered in mid-air, eyes watching her in concern, worry. Pity.

"I … sorry," she said, pushing herself to her feet, but keeping her back to the wall.

"It's okay, honey," her mom replied, giving a sad little smile. "You wanna come downstairs, watch a movie?"

Did she? Go downstairs or stay in her room, that was the choice. Which one was correct? For a moment, she watched her mother, trying to decide which was the right choice. Which would make her mother happy?

"Can I?" she asked, softly.

Her mother's smile deepened. "Of course you can, Sweetheart. You can do whatever you want."

No, no she couldn't. All choices came in twos. Why didn't anyone else understand that? Do, or don't. Live, or die. Yes, or no. Go, or stay. Two choices.

"Do you know what you want to watch?"

She shook her head. No. that was easy.

"Well, that's all right. Come down when you're ready. I'll put in some popcorn. How does that sound?"

"Good," she answered. Good, or bad. Easy.

The smile broadened more before her mother left the room, thankfully not trying to touch her again. She listened to her mother walk downstairs and breathed.

In.

Out.

It took several minutes for her to calm down enough to venture downstairs. She moved slowly, taking one careful step at a time. At the bottom of the stairs, she paused, listening to the popcorn in the microwave. Her mother moved around the kitchen, the sounds normal, familiar. Why couldn't she relax?

She made her slow way to the living room as the microwave dinged, looking around the brightly lit room, all the curtains pulled back, letting in the warm spring sun. She didn't belong here, in this room. Not anymore.

In.

Out.

One step, then another. A third had her at the large armchair, where she collapsed and folded in on herself. She needed to interact with others. Her therapist said it would help her reconnect to the present.

Her mother entered the room, two bowls in hand. There was a pause as they watched each other - one in concern, the other wary - before she was handed a bowl. She cradled it on her lap, eyes tracking her mother across the room as a movie was chosen and put in.

The opening credits started and she felt her lips pull up. The Princess Bride had been a childhood favorite and even now, she felt herself relaxing into the chair enough to munch on the popcorn.

It was fine for the first few minutes, until Wesley went to sea, and the grandfather said he died.

He's not dead, she reminded herself over and over until he returned. Her mother, caught up in the movie, didn't notice. The anxiety eased, slowly, as soon as she caught sight of the dark figure of the Dread Pirate Roberts. She managed to relax enough to enjoy the sword fight between Wesley and Inigo, but tensed back up when Wesley choked the giant into unconsciousness. Tremors shook her body as Vizzini died, because he wasn't coming back.

But, he deserved it.

Does anyone deserve death? She reminded herself that he wanted to kill Buttercup, and him dying was the only way to save her, but it sounded like an excuse. A repetition of what she'd tried to tell herself since she'd chosen her life over Alice's.

Still, she managed to keep herself under control. It was fiction. No one actually died in movies. It was that though that allowed her to keep her seat; keep her silence.

Then, Wesley was in the trunk of a tree, and the six fingered man turned on the water wheel. The sound of rushing water filled the room, and she froze, breath leaving her in a silent rush.

She twisted her wrists in their binds as he watched him fill the tub, water splashing against porcelain, sloshing up the tubs sides.

"Time to choose, Karen," he said, leaving the tub to stand between the two women having from the ceiling. Both were gagged, though she could see the terror in their eyes, just as she could with every person hanging around the room. They were both young, and had been chained and gagged for days now, waiting their turn. The 'survivors' from the last three sessions were chained back to the wall as well, still gagged to prevent them from speaking, from affecting her choices. She was the only one not gagged. The only one he expected to speak.

"Which one of these ladies gets a bath?"

"A … a bath?" she asked. It sounded too … nice. There had to be a catch. Nothing he did was nice.

"That's right, Karen. Which lady gets a dunking?"

She looked between him and the tub. Wondering why he wanted her input now. The last three, she was just supposed to watch, until one of them was supposed to die. Was he going to drown one? But … he'd shot the last three.

"Karen."

Her eyes flew back to him, jerking when he was right before her.

"Choose, Karen."

"No," she said, unable to stop the immediate refusal. He sighed, disappointed.

"Very well," he replied, circling her chair to someplace behind her. A drawer opened, closed. He returned to her side and grabbed her wrist. She tensed, expecting the electric rod, then saw the key held in his other hand. She went still, eyes following his hand as he inserted the key and released her wrist. Then, he grabbed the other wrist and released it.

As soon as her wrist was free, she surged to her feet, pushing him away. He stumbled back as she turned. Catching sight of the door, she raced for it, despite the noodle-like quality of her legs. She fell against it, hands scrabbling for the doorknob. It wouldn't turn.

"No! No, no, no, no," she cried, tugging on the knob until a hand on her back shoved her against the door. She screamed, fighting against him. Despite her attempts, he yanked her arms behind her back, and yanked her away from the door.

"Please don't," she begged as she was pulled across the room to the bathtub. He didn't answer her. At the tub, he jerked her over the edge. Losing her balance, she fell in with a splash. Her hands found purchase beneath her, and she raised herself from the water with a gasp. A hand grabbed her hair, shoving her back under. She fought him, desperate, struggling against his hold, but couldn't get above the waterline. Just as her lungs began to burn, he jerked her head back up. She gasped in, taking a much needed breath before her head was plunged back under.

"Karen! Karen!" Hands grabbed her arms, fighting against her attempts to get away.

"No more," she cried, gasping for breath. "No more. I'll choose. I'll choose. Please!"

"Karen, honey, it's okay. You're safe now. It's okay. Just breathe, sweetheart. Everything's going to be okay."

Her mother's words filtered in, gently easing her from her memory until she collapsed forward, resting her weight against her mother, trying to take comfort from the hold.

Trying.

In. Out

In. Out.

In.

Out.


Day 36

"I can't do this," she said, curling in on herself.

"What can't you do, Ms. Williams?"

"This. I can't do this. The … memories, they …" she shook her head.

"They what?"

"Hurt," she managed, arms tightening around her torso.

"Talking about it will help, Ms. Williams," the therapist said, again. It was the same thing she said every session.

"It won't help."

"Why not?"

"It won't change what happened. It doesn't change what I did."

"You didn't do anything, Ms. Williams," Dr. Thompson said, tone gentle but firm.

"I told him who to kill!" she shouted, fed up with people telling her it wasn't her fault. It was. It would always be her fault.

"And he hurt you when you refused. That doesn't make it your fault. He is to blame. He did everything."

She shook her head. She knew the truth. She chose. If she'd truly been a good person, she'd have let Alice live. Chosen Alice. Would have taken everything onto herself. But, she hadn't.

The silence stretched, neither breaking it. She stared at her knees, refusing to look up.

"What's your first memory of being there?" Thompson asked.

Speak, or don't speak. No wasn't an option, not really. It never was. Her grip tightened as though to shield herself against the questions.

"I … woke up," she started slowly, forcing the words out through a tightened, clogged throat. "Handcuffed to a chair. Each wrist was … attached to the arms."

Slowly, she extended her shaking arms, laying the over the length of the arm rests until her fingers curved over the rounded edge. She stared at one a long moment in shaken silence.

"I fought them, but they just … dug in."

Even now, she could see the thin scars from where the cuffs had cut into her wrists, made them bleed from how much she'd fought, struggled. They hadn't bled then, she'd had enough sense to stop before that happened. Then, at least.

"The others were there."

"He already had all 12 of them?"

She nodded twice. "I was the last, he said. The fun …"

"You're the last, Karen. The fun can begin. The rules are very simple. You'll watch everything that happens, and you won't look away. When I offer you a choice, you'll make it. Simple enough, right?"

"Why are you doing this?" she pulled at the cuffs, eyes flickering between the twelve bound and gagged people attached to the wall.

"If you don't make a choice, I'll have to punish you."

That drew her attention back. "What? I don't … what's going on?"

He tsked. "So worried. Don't worry, Karen, it will be fun. Now, let's start with an easy choice. One, or two?"

"What?" she frowned.

"It's a simple choice. One, or two?"

"I don't understand. One, or two what?"

"Pick, Karen. Don't break the rules so soon."

"I … two," she chose randomly.

He smiled. "Excellent."

"The fun?"

She blinked, Dr. Thompson's voice dragging her back. "What?"

"What about 'the fun'?"

"Could start," she finished. "He made me choose between two numbers."

"What were they?"

"One and two. I chose two, and he …"

"What did he do, Ms. Williams?"

Her trembling started anew. "He … he electrocuted two people, first a man, then a woman, until they couldn't move. Then, he … he dragged them to the center of the room, right in front of me, and hung them up by their wrists."

She stared, unseeing, at the space between her and Thompson, picturing them hanging limply from the chains as he circled behind her for the first device.

"What did he do then?"

Her fingers dug into the arm rests.

"He had a bullwhip. He showed it to me … there were …"

"Yes?" Thompson prompted.

"Bits of glass embedded in it. He said it cut deeper, quicker. Made it hurt more."

"Did he use it on you?"

"Not then. He used it on the man. On …" she frowned, trying to remember his name. What had he told her? "The wife beater … Jeremy. He used it on Jeremy."

The scream was loud, even gagged. The body arched away from the whip, but rocked back when he couldn't go further. Another crack, another scream, and her eyes slammed closed, leaning forward to cover her ears, to block out the sounds. The next scream was muffled, more bearable.

There was a pause, long enough that she pulled her hands away from her ears. She heard the crack seconds before the pain exploded across her back. She screamed, the sound high and loud. She had enough time to draw in a breath before the crack drew another line of fire across her back, bisecting the previous strap. A third crack sounded before she finished screaming, stealing the rest of her back.

The man knelt by her head. "I told you, Karen," he said, tone almost gentle, "you break the rules, you get punished."

"Ms. Williams?"

She jerked, the phantom pain fading from memory. Dr. Thompson knelt in front of the chair, staring up her with concerned hazel eyes. One hand rested on her knee, the touch barely there. Light. Easy. Gentle. A breeze. Her breath escaped her. She needed something. Something more.

"All right, Karen."

Her hands slammed over her ears, but it didn't stop his voice from filtering through the brain. It never did. Thompson's hands gently freed her ears.

"It's your name, Ms. Williams," Thompson said. "You can't let this man take it from you. The longer you refuse your name, the longer he wins."

"I just... I hear him," she admitted in a quiet rush. "In my head. That … my .. hearing that brings me back. I can't."

The therapist ndded. "Alright." Thompson rose, returning to her desk where she took out a pad and wrote something down. "I'm going to give you something to help the anxiety. Ideally, it will help reduce your negative reaction to your name, and allow us to work through the trauma you associate it with. Sound good?"

She nodded. That was the only real option. It was happening whether she wanted it to or not. Thompson smiled.

"Excellent. I'll see you next week then, Ms. Williams."


Day 57

Crack!

Scream.

Crack!

Scream.

Crack!

Scream.

Her eyes watered, nails digging into the sturdy wooden chair. She didn't want to watch, but she had to. She didn't want to feel the whip again. Her back still ached from last time, despite the 'care' it had been given to make sure it didn't get infected.

He circled the two hanging victims. She watched him watch them hang from their chains, too tired and sore to even speak, had they even had that ability. Both cried softly, visibly trying to gasp through their gags.

Without warning, the bullwhip lashed out, hitting the woman across the front, slicing her shirt. She screamed. Blood welled from the wound, trickling down her shirt as he did the same to the man. He did it again. The blood had her slamming her eyes closed, unable to bear the sight of all that ruined flesh covered in their blood.

Pause.

"Karen."

Her eyes flew back open, terror shooting through every nerve. He faced her, frowning. Disappointed.

"I'm sorry," she gasped. "I couldn't … I didn't … mean to. I … the blood. I couldn't …" she tried to explain, knowing that it wouldn't make a difference, but unable to do anything else.

He shook his head, coming closer. She cringed back in her chair, wishing it would move, but it didn't.

"I'm sorry," she managed to squeeze out passed a closed throat.

"Sorry isn't good enough," he told her, whip hanging loosely from his hand. Her eyes stayed locked on it, looking for the slightest hint he'd use it on her. "You do, or don't."

His hand twitched. She flinched, but nothing happened. Her eyes stayed open only by pure determination. Her attention moved to his face. He smiled at her.

Crack!

She screamed as pain blazed across her front, over one breast. She collapsed in on herself, trying to will the pain away. Her eyes stayed open.

"Good, Karen," he praised, one hand on her hair. "Now you're learning. Eyes stay open, no matter what. Look up."

She did, trying to focus on his face through a cloud of tears.

"You'll watch now, won't you?"

She nodded.

He returned to the others, and she watched through the tears, focusing on the pain and reminding herself not to look away. She wasn't strong enough to take it from them; wasn't strong enough to watch; didn't have a choice.

Each scream made her flinch, made her eyes flutter, made her want to curl in and block out the world. She didn't. She couldn't.

Do, or don't.

She was pressed into a corner, alone. No one was in the house, or she'd managed not to scream this time. But how? How did she get out? She couldn't escape her memories by herself. She never had before.

A small, sharp, pain slowly registered. She glanced down, surprised to notice her nails digging into her arm. Little droplets of blood welled around each divet. Slowly, she pulled away one nail at a time, wincing at each sharp stab of pain until she just stared down at her arm. At the blood.

She should clean it up, she knew. It could get infected. But …

One finger gently brushed the small wound, smearing the blood. For something so horrifying, it was almost pretty when it wasn't being used against her. This small pain had pulled her from her memory, had saved her, and the blood was the price for that.

Can I do it again?

"Karen?"

"Karen."

She jerked, but didn't cover her ears. The Sertraline in her system helped with that. Some. It didn't stop his voice, but her reaction wasn't so … big. Three weeks had made it almost bearable.

"Karen?"

"Just a moment," she managed, voice shaking.

" … Are you alright, dear?" Footsteps sounded on the stairs.

"Yes, mom. I'm … I'm fine." She stood. She should clean up.

Her mother stood right outside the door, she could tell from her voice. "You sure?"

"Yes."

No.

Yes, was the acceptable answer. She wasn't trapped, but she wasn't fine. She'd never be fine again. But, for the first time in awhile, she felt actually alive.

There was a pause.

"I'll be downstairs if you need me."

"Yes, Mom." She listened to the footsteps slowly retreat before going to the bathroom. Gently, she cleaned her arm, wiping away the blood. The evidence of her salvation. Mother wouldn't understand.


Day 72

Karen carefully washed the dishes, scraping off the dried food and placing them in the drying rack. Someone entered the room behind her, and she tensed momentarily before her body slowly relaxed. She glanced behind her, managing a smile for her mother.

"Hello, dear. How are you today?"

"Good," Karen answered, finally able to mean it. Some of the tension eased from around her mother's eyes.

Without another word, her mother approached the counter, picking up a dish and a hand towel. As Karen washed, her mother dried, putting away the dishes. It was nice. Comfortable. Normal. She felt more of her tension slowly leave her body, even as she carefully made sure her sleeve covered her arm. It helped, but her mother still wouldn't understand.


Day 87

A knock on the door dragged her out of the calm. She dropped the razor.

"Karen?"

"Don't come in!" Karen yelled, panic coloring her voice as she turned on the faucet.

It was the wrong things to say. Her mother shoved the door open - why hadn't she locked it? - and stood in the doorway, horrified.

"Karen … what have you done?"

Karen trembled, hunching over the sink too late to hide what she'd been doing. The water washed away the seeping blood as she stared down at it.

"It helps," she admitted. "It … focuses me. I'm being careful."

"Karen, you can't do this!"

"Yes, I can!" she shouted back, uninjured arm sweeping containers from the back of the sink. She was sick of people telling her what she could and couldn't do. Why was everyone else making her choices for her? "I can. I chose to. It helps. I don't … see him if I do."

Silence was Karen's answer, and she glanced up, looking at her mother through the mirror, still standing in the doorway.

"It helps," she repeated, softer.

Her mother took a deep breath. "Okay. Here's what we're going to do." She crossed the short distance to her, and knelt to dig under the sink for bandages. "We'll clean your arm, make sure it doesn't get infected -"

"Wouldn't want this getting getting infected, would we?"

Her free hand convulsed around the wound, sending a fresh wave of pain through er. It quieted the voice. Temporarily.

"- then we'll … talk about this. Okay?"

"Okay."

Yes, or no. It was the expected answer. Other people were still making decisions for her, offering up choices that weren't really choices.


Day 90

"I don't need to be here," Karen said, trying to convince someone, anyone of that. "I'm doing fine."

The pain helped. Why didn't anyone get that?

"You're not fine," her mother said. "Cutting isn't fine."

Her eyes turned to the window, scanning the large open room that lay beyond, taking in the other patients. Many looked … dead.

"I don't want to be here."

"You have to, Karen. I can't watch you all the time. You're not getting better."

"I am," Karen insisted, trying not to beg. Begging never worked. "I'm not … freaking out as much any more."

"No, you're not," she admitted. "You're going to stay here for awhile, Karen."

"I don't want-"

"You don't have a choice."

There was always a choice. Wasn't there?

"Don't worry, Ms. Williams," the doctor said. "We'll take care of everything. I have no doubt you'll be leaving us in no time."

Her eyes flickered to the others outside.

"Don't worry about them, Ms. Williams, nothing you're suffering will keep you here long term. Your file says you're suffering from PTSD resulting from some rather horrific trauma, and your mother says you're falling back to some rather unhealthy coping mechanisms. We're here to help you heal, Ms. Williams. Will you let us?"

Karen glanced from the man to her mother. There was always a choice. Yes, or no. Fight, or surrender.

"Yes."

"Then let's get you settled Ms. Williams."


Day 103

They never stopped watching. They checked her arms every morning; after every bathroom trip; every time she got more than 30 seconds to herself. Always there, always watching. She couldn't leave. The door to her room wasn't allowed to close. Suicide watch, they called it. Didn't they understand that she didn't want to die? She wasn't trying to kill herself. She was trying to make everything better.

Curling into her seat, her fingers dug into her hair. The pain was sudden, dull, not near enough, but all she could manage. She yanked again, harder, bringing the world a little more into focus, a little more real. This was real. Not him. Not the basement.

"Karen! Stop that!"

Do, or don't.

Slowly, she removed her hands from her hair, letting the strands fall into her face. She didn't apologize. It didn't work, so there wasn't a point.


Day 114

"Come now, Karen, you know what happens when you refuse."

She sat, slumped, head bowed. "I can't do this. Please," she begged. "Please." She sobbed without tears. She'd cried so much, she was out of tears to shed.

A hand, warm and firm, ran over her wrist. For a moment, she thought he'd give her a reprieve - not make her choose, watch, listen. Then, his fingers wrapped around the pointer finger of her left hand, lifting it from the arm of the chair. She jerked backward, though there was nowhere to go, as realization flooded through her.

"No, no, no, no," she begged, unable to do anything but watch as the pliers grabbed her nail and tugged. For one, breathless moment, she watched him loosen the nail from its bed. Her voice whined out, high and pained. Blood seeped from the cuticle. Then, it was yanked out, her scream following it from her body.

She curled over the arm of the chair, uselessly trying to protect her hand as he crossed behind her. The room was silent but for her tearless sobbing. Seconds later, he pushed her up, taking her middle finger and applying the pliers to it.

"Chris," she gasped out the only name she could remember. There was no reason for it. She didn't remember which one he was, what he did, or any other useless fact she'd been told. His was the first name that came to mind, and she didn't want to lose another nail.

He paused, then removed the pliers, the hand holding her finger stroked it before releasing her. Her eyes stayed locked on her laines, one still bleeding ad sending sharp pain through her. Fingers gently - surprisingly gentle - move her head up to look at him.

"Remember to watch, Karen."

"Karen," The gentle male voice, the barely-there touch on her hand jerked her from her sightless position. Without thinking, she lashed out. He grunted, and she scrambled from her chair, reaching for something else. A book came to hand and she threw it, then another. A puzzle box, anything to keep him away.

The man called for help. Others answered, brought her to the ground. Restrained her. All the while, she screamed, and fought, and begged him to let her go. She couldn't do this anymore. She needed it to stop, to go away.

"Please," she begged as they held her down.

They ignored her. Someone said something, but it was muffled, like they were gagged. She screamed, arching up from the ground, struggles starting anew.

A sharp pinch stuck her arm. The world went black.


Day ?

She sat on her bed, legs pulled up before her as she stared into nothingness, her eyes locked on the wall across from her. Her arms wrapped around her middle by a straight jacket. "To keep you from getting violent," they'd said when she'd woken with it on some three weeks ago. That was when they'd put her on some antipsychotic, which were supposed to stop the flashbacks, the nightmares, the things that were making her crazy. It did that, but it also made everything dull. Lifeless.

She shifted on the bed, body unable to stay still anymore. She was restless. She couldn't even feed herself, couldn't go to the bathroom - a female nurse helped with that, because she wasn't allowed out of the jacket except to bathe. She was too much of a risk. They told her that the longer she went without an episode, the more likely she was to get out of the jacket. She wanted out of the jacket.

She rubbed her back against the wall. Light tremors shook her body. She was locked up again, restrained with someone else making decisions for her because she couldn't be trusted with them. She panicked too easily, didn't make the right ones. She was being punished for making a wrong decision, but no one had told her what the options were. They expected her to just figure it out on her own, but how could she when she didn't know the choices? They changed daily, it seemed.

"It's not fair," she whispered, unheard by the orderlies and doctors outside her room, but then life wasn't fair. He'd taught her that.

She blinked, spine straightening, head turning for the first time in hours. What was fair? She wondered. If 'not fair' was leaving her wondering and not telling her the choices, then fair would be the opposite. Fair was telling her all the choices, the rules, right away, so she'd know what to expect.

She was nearly breathless with the realization that her captor had been more than fair. All the pain, the injury, she'd felt was her fault. He'd told her the rules at the very beginning. She'd been the one to break them; to refuse out of fear; out of disgust; out of horror that anyone could do such things to someone else.

How? She thought, glancing down at herself. Is that any different than this?

She was restrained. She was watched constantly. The only difference was that she'd known what he'd wanted at all times. He'd wanted her attention.

It was terrifying, she thought, to realize her captor, her tormentor had been more fair than the doctors supposedly trying to help her.


Day ?

"Good afternoon, Karen," Dr. Jones said as she was led in.

"Afternoon?" she asked, frowning lightly. She could have sworn it was still morning. It hadn't been that long since she woke, had it? Her eyes flickered to the window, but the sun was the sun, and she'd stopped being able to tell what time of day it was a few weeks ago.

"Yes," Jones told her as she sat, arms now free of the straight jacket, had been for a week. After a long month where she couldn't even feed herself, her hands were her own again.

"How are you feeling today, Karen?"

"Alright," she answered, knowing what was expected.

"I can't help you if you're not honest with me."

She shrugged, shifting in her seat. She didn't know what else he wanted. She hadn't had a flashback in weeks, not since the antipsychotics had been given to her, but she'd also stopped caring about pretty much anything. The world was a haze that had stopped feeling real. Some days, she wished they'd come back, at least then she'd feel something.

The last time she'd mentioned that, she'd been put on a drug watch. A nurse made sure she swallowed every one of her pills, checking her mouth before they were satisfied.

"I'm … tired," she told him, fighting to keep herself still, calm, to not shake out of her skin, because every day she was less sure this was reality

"Tired?" he asked, leaning forward, pen in hand.

"I'm having trouble sleeping," she admitted slowly.

"Nightmares?"

She shook her head. "No, not nightmares. I just can't sleep lately."

Everything felt wrong, and it seeped into every nerve in her body until she couldn't breathe. It was worse at night when the noise died and she was left entirely to her own thoughts.

"Do you know why?"

She shook her head. He'd just prescribe her more pills, more people watching her. There was already no privacy here, and if she got any less, she might scream … if she could get the emotional response to do it.

"Just can't sleep," she said, eyes on his desk, memorizing the wood grain pattern.

"I'll write you a prescription for Eszopiclone. It's a sleep aid that should help."

"No." Her head jerked up to stare at him.

He paused, attention focused on her. "No?"

"It's fine," she said, one nail picking at the cuticle of a nail bed, forcing herself to look Jones in the eye. "It's not that bad."

"Karen," he sighed," you need to sleep. Staying awake all night isn't going to help you get better."

"I know," she said, shrinking in on herself, wishing she hadn't said anything. "I just …"

"What?" he asked, after a moment of silence.

"Don't want to take any more pills."

"It's just a sleep aid."

"But the ones I am taking aren't helping," she told him, the words crossing her lips before she had time to think.

"Dr. Jones' eyebrows rose. "No? Karen, in the last month, I've seen you go from a depressed young woman with moments of violent psychosis, to one who is constantly in touch with reality, if still depressed."

But this doesn't feel like reality, she thought, blinking at her doctor. None of this feels real anymore.

"Not sleeping is not going to help your progress, Karen. You need to sleep."

"I know," she said, giving in. Fight, or surrender. Fighting only led to problems. It was easier to give in.

"However, we'll only have them for a week, alright? Then, we'll see where we are."

"Yes, Dr. Jones."

"Excellent. Now, let's move on …"

His voice washed over her as her gaze returned to his desk. It didn't matter. None of this was real. Maybe the drugs would help her wake up.


Day ?

She twisted in bed, whining out in pain and ear. Blankets wrapped themselves tight around her, restraining her. In her terror, she lashed out, arms trapped. She screamed, terrified and unable to move.

Orderlies ran into the room to find her trapped in her dreams and unable to wake. It had been several hours since she'd taken the pill, but it still wouldn't be easy to wake her. None of them were willing to close the door to her pleas to a faceless terror.

"Let me go," she begged.

"Tell me what you want," she sobbed.

"I can't," she screamed, all the while struggling and fighting so they had to hold her down.

Finally, though, eyes opened, looking more tired than they had been earlier, and bruised around the edges. Unfocused from being woken before the drugs were out of her system.

"I can't do this," she whined, words slurring together as she was made to sit up. "This isn't real. Please."

"This is real," one of them told her, ever-so-gently. "You're safe now, Karen. It's just a dream."

"A dream," she murmured. "A dream. I want to wake up."

"You are awake, dear," another said, trying to get her to drink some water. Her head twisted away.

"No. This isn't real. Can't be real. It's not real."

"She's still asleep."

"Not fully awake, more like. Come on, Karen, let's get you up and moving, shake off that nightmare before trying to sleep again, hmm?"

"She can't leave her room," the first warned.

"Wasn't planning on it."

She was pulled to her feet, barely able to support herself, so the orderly held her up and helped her move.


Day ?

She was back in the jacket. After her nightmares, it seemed like all her medication stopped working. The haze she spent her days in only served to prove that she was dreaming, still stuck in a nightmare that wouldn't end. Time didn't flow right, and everyone knew time was skewed in dreams. They'd changed her drugs to something stronger, more likely to help, they'd said, but her hazy, dream-like state only worsened.

Her attempts to wake herself up had been progressively violent, ending in her breaking a plastic spoon and slicing open her arm. The wound was closing up nicely, the doctors said, but it would scar. It wouldn't be alone.

"Let me wake up," she murmured.

"You are awake, Karen," someone said.

"Let me wake up. Please. I want to wake up now."

A hand on her shoulder had her twitching. "Karen, look at me."

She didn't. Couldn't. There was nothing in her that had the strength to do anything but stare. A hand turned her head, tilting it up so she could see a woman.

"You are awake, Karen," the woman said.

Her head shook, the movement imperceptible. "No, I'm not. You can't feel anything in a dream. They're not real."

Nothing was real.

The woman sighed, then smiled again. "Your mother's here. Do you want to see her?"

Did she? "Yes."

Maybe her mother could wake her up.


Day ?

She sat, tired and drained, jacket wrapped tightly around her, impeding her movement. Last night - what they called last night - was bad. It started with a dream - or was that reality? - that left her screaming and shaken. She'd fought, restrained as she was, until they'd sedated her.

"Karen?"

She didn't respond. The nurse knelt in front of her, silently demanding her attention.

"You have a visitor."

"No. I don't want to see her."

The last time her mother had come had been a disaster. She'd refused the woman's last three visits. Had it been three? Was it more than that? How long had it been between each visit? It didn't matter. Time meant nothing here.

"It's not your mother. It's a young man who says he knows you. A James Donovan?"

She blinked, frowning. She didn't know a James. Did she?

"He says he understands why you might not want to see him, but he'd like to see you. He says it's completely your choice."

"As always, it's your choice."

She started, his voice returning for the first time in years, it felt like.

"Karen?"

"I'll see him." She didn't know a James, but maybe he could help you wake up. Maybe he could show her how.

"Alright, Karen. I'll go get him."

She watched the nurse leave the common room before her gaze drifted back to that spot on the wall. It didn't take long for the nurse to return, but they didn't get her attention before anyone spoke. She couldn't bring herself to look.

"Thank you, Ma'am," the male said.

She tensed, breath catching, eyes turning to the two. The moment she saw him, the world sharpened into clarity so quickly it almost hurt. Apparently, she did know a James.

"Be gentle with her, Mr. Donovan. She can be riled up quite easily."

"Don't worry, ma'am," James said. "I won't be riling her up."

There was a pause before the nurse walked away, but her attention was on her visitor, taking in every detail - from his short brown hair, to his hazel eyes, to the casual way he was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, to the mole under his left eye. He pulled a chair over, setting it in front of her, giving her a look that was calm, expectant. She knew that look.

"Hello again, Karen."

Her heart sped up, breath catching as she blinked. She was awake. This was reality. He was here. She could scream now, call for help, tell someone that this was the man who'd done everything. He'd go away. If they believed her.

"Hello," she said, voice rough from the screaming she'd been doing lately.

He looked her over, eyes going slowly, taking in everything. The silence stretched. She didn't dare interrupt him until his eyes returned to hers.

"It's been awhile," he said, breaking the silence first.

"How long?" She didn't know anymore. Time hadn't existed for so long.

There was a pause. "Six months, fifteen days since last I saw you."

Six months. It had only been six months. It felt longer.

"Are you going to kill me?" she asked.

He leaned back in his seat, observing her. "Do you want me to?"

Did she? "I don't know. Nothing … nothing makes sense anymore, and I …" she trailed off, eyes closing as she focused on her breathing.

In. Out.

A hand landed on her knee. Firm. There. Demanding attention. Her eyes opened to stare directly into his. Everything else faded. She could breathe.

"You what, Karen? What do you want?"

"I want everything to stop. I want … I want a choice, but no one is giving me one, and I can't … I can't do this anymore!"

"Very well," he said, lips pulling upward in the slightest smile, approving. Something inside her eased. He was pleased. She didn't hurt when he was pleased.

"Then," he continued. "Here's your choice. Do you want to live, or die?"

She almost sobbed in her frustration. "I don't know." Everything tightened up inside her, knotting until she couldn't breathe.

"That's not an answer, Karen." His voice was soft, disappointed, with an underline of threat. She breathed, knots easing once more. "You had one before.

It took her a moment to remember what he was referencing. "You stabbed me before."

"I had to know if you meant it," he told her. "So many said they wanted to live, but didn't have the strength to follow through." He smiled then, a real, pleased, smile that took her by surprise. "You're the only one who's survived, Karen."

"The only … you've done this before?" she blinked.

"A few times."

Wasn't he worried about getting caught? She glanced around. No one had heard him yet.

"Karen."

She couldn't ignore him. Never had been. Her eyes found him. The reason for everything.

"Why?" she asked. "Why this? Why me?"

His grip tightened around her knee, letting her know he was there.

"You called me," he told her. "Caught up in the world, in what was expected. Trapped within the restraints society placed on you. You needed freeing, if you were strong enough to reach for it."

Her arms spasmed in the jacket, fighting the restraint.

"Guess I failed."

So, he was there to kill her. At least she'd be free of this place then.

"Oh, Karen," he breathed. "This isn't your fault. Society's trying to force you back into their mold. That's what this," his free hand motioned around them, "is. Their attempt at conforming those who won't play by their rules."

"I …" she shook her head.

"You haven't made your choice, Karen."

"I …" she paused, questions fluttering through her head. "I want …"

"Yes?"

"I don't want to die."

His smile widened. "Good." He rose.

"Don't go," she said, unable to stop herself. He paused, looking at her.

"Nothing makes sense anymore," she admitted. "Nothing feels real, and I can't … I can't … I don't …" her voice whined out, unable to find the words to express what she felt.

"Oh, Karen," he breathed, tone gentle, a quality she'd only heard a couple times during her stay with him. He knelt beside her, one hand rising to cup her cheek. Gentle. Firm. There. She almost cried with how real, how solid, he felt.

"How they've hurt you," he said as she leaned into his touch, craving the contact. "I can help you. I can make everything make sense again."

"Please," she begged quietly.

He rose again, placing a kiss on her forehead. "Tomorrow," he said.

"Tomorrow."

She held onto the promise of salvation. He'd never lied to her. He'd save her. He'd said he would.


Day 1

"24-year-old Karen Williams was reported missing after a break in to the White Valley Mental Hospital. Security Cameras were damaged extensively during the break in, and all footage was corrupted from that week, and two security guards were killed. Police believe the perpetrator might have been the same man who abducted Ms. Williams over six months ago.

"Orderlies say that a man matching his description visited Ms. Williams earlier that week, using the name James Donovan. Police suspect he means to kill Ms. Williams, finishing the job he started upon her escape. Any information regarding their whereabouts should be given to the police immediately.

Karen knelt on the cement floor, staring in fascination as the blood slowly seeped from the cooling flesh before her. It stained her hands, glinting in the dim light. Everything was calm. Everything was focused. She was awake.

Hands rested on her shoulders, and she leaned back, resting against his legs, enjoying the contact she'd been denied for so long.

"How do you feel, Karen?"

"Good," she answered, head tilting back to look at him, eyes sparkling, lips pulling up into an almost giddy grin.

One hand moved to her head, fingers carding through her hair. Her eyes drifted closed.

"Everything real again?"

"Yes. Thank you."

He hummed quietly in acknowledgement.

"It'll be better when the drugs leave your system," he promised. "Then you'll never have to worry about that again."

"I'm glad."

The two stood in silence - him with his arms about her torso, her still on her knees before him - enjoying it far too much to break it for a long while.

"Now, Karen, time to choose."

Her eyes opened, staring up at him expectantly.

"Do you want to kill him, or should I?"

Karen licked her lips, debating. "I killed her," she answered, finally. "You should do this one."

"Very well."

"In other news, Mr. and Mrs. Alex Wilson were reported missing. Their car was found empty on Highway 14 earlier this morning. Any information should be called in to 360-468-4768."