*WARNING* After writing this whole post, I realized I’m rambling like a lunatic (I think maybe the isolation is getting to me). So I wanted to apoligize in advance and I hope I don’t give anyone whiplash or insanity (yes, it could happen after reading this post, you’ver been warned).
So I’m not the best at updating my website (SORRY), but that’s mainly because I spend most my time in my amazing Facebook group and with my Newsletter (I’m trying to figure out Instagram and Twitter, too, but I’m hardcore failing at both—sidenote, I’ve become WAY too emoji dependent… Something I don’t notice until I’m on my website and I CAN’T use them no matter how much I look for that crying emoji).
Anyway (are you starting to understand why Hunted was almost 700 pages long?), I’ve got an excerpt for you from Assembly!!! (cue excited emoji). I’ve posted this both in my group and in my Newsletter (if you’re signed up to my newsletter but DIDN’T get it, it went to your junk because the evil email gods HATE me. Here’s how to Whitelist me—it also helps if you reply to my emails, even if it’s just to send a “Hi”, increases the chances your email provider won’t send my ass straight to spam next time).
If you’re NOT signed up, you can do so below.
Hope POV – Hunters Compound
Matthew hadn’t been fed in days. Or had it been weeks? His naked chest had hollowed out, his ribs strained against skin covered in bruises, cuts, and burns.
He was dying.
We were all dying.
Or maybe we were dead and just didn’t know it yet.
I grabbed two of the bars to my cell and tried to squeeze my face close enough that I could see up and down the narrow, snaking corridor.
No guards. Barely any light.
I reached behind me to the lone piece of bread I’d been given. It folded beneath my tight grip, and I forced my hand to relax. To stop clutching it. He needed it more than me.
“Matthew,” I hissed.
Matthew groaned, but didn’t move, didn’t so much as open his eyes.
“Matthew,” I repeated, my voice no louder than before. If a guard caught me intervening with his punishment, I would be subjected to much, much worse. “Food.”
Another groan, then he blinked open the one eye that was not swollen shut. “Shouldn’t,” was all he said, hunger and something else, something dark and desperate and dire infecting his voice like a slow moving poison.
I blinked back tears, wondering how much time he had left, if feeding him, prolonging his life, was a cruelty rather than the help I intended. Or did my own hunger act as heartless justification to keep my food to myself?
Before I could change my mind, I reached my hand through the bars and tossed the bread at him. My stomach complained loudly, my hand clenching on thin air—grasping at the nourishment I was throwing away—but it would be worth it. If it could help Matthew, give him a moment’s respite, it would all be worth it.
Groaning for the third time, Matthew crawled to the edge of his cell and grabbed the bread through the bars. He didn’t eat it right away, looked at it like it was part salvation, part damnation. But then he brought it to his lips, closed his eyes, and took a bite.
My mouth watered and I could almost taste it. It would be dry but sweet. Tasting better than I knew it should. Yes, it would lie like a lump in my belly, but better a lump than this gnawing, aching emptiness.
I watched him eat. Slow. Methodical. One third gone and my stomach screamed. Half gone and it shrieked. Only two bites remained and my stomach went quiet. Gave up.
But then… silence. The kind that came before something horrible happened. The kind that, in this place, was only followed by terror and pain and death.
A guard. Gregory. Appearing out of nowhere and staring at the last crumbs tumbling from Matthew’s slack fist. The guard didn’t look angry and Matthew didn’t look scared. The latter wore a resigned expression—the kind that came when a soul was ready to go, when life on earth had become too much—the same one I’d seen on so many faces before they were dragged away, only to never return.
But the former, Gregory, he smiled.
There was so much in that smile. Anticipation. Delight. Pleasure that was born from cruelty. And in that smile, I saw my death.
“You know you’re not allowed to share your food,” he said, strolling over and unlocking my cell. The door slid open with a rattle that cut my ears, made my insides bleed.
I scuttled back into the corner; curled up with my heart racing, palms sweating, already crying. I would not survive another round, hadn’t even begun to recover from my last session.
“It was me.”
A shadowed hand reached into my stomach and yanked at the sound of that weak declaration. My lips moved, shaping a denial that wouldn’t come.
Our torturer turned; waited.
“I stole it.”
“Really?” Gregory drew out the E, made it into something obscene and unbelievable. “And just how did you manage that?”
“Food cart. When we returned from the basement, Dave walked me right past it. I saw my chance and swiped a slice.”
Gregory grinned and stepped out of my cell, sliding the barred door close behind him.
I could breathe again, but each gulp of air tasted foul. Rotten.
Soft footsteps. Another door rattling open, and this time, I bled all over. ‘No.’ It hovered there, on my lips. But I couldn’t bring myself to say it. Not when I was glass about to shatter.
I dragged my battered body as close to the bars as I could get, my eyes glued on Gregory’s back. This wasn’t right. I couldn’t let this happen. It was my fault. My mistake. My crime.
The bars didn’t groan beneath my grip. Not even when I clenched my hands with all my might. They remained steadfast and unmoving, unbending and unending. They refused to complain, refused to budge, refused to get out of the way, no matter how hard I pushed and squeezed.
They were strong, and I was weak.
Crack went bone and tendons.
The sound Matthew made as his first finger broke in Gregory’s fist was worse than any scream. Barely a whisper, it was a breath of death; despair given voice. A soft, almost inaudible moan that sent my stomach heaving, wishing he would cry, yell, shriek—anything but this broken barely-there sound.
Gregory turned halfway to me. Lifted a brow.
Bile rushed up my throat and I clenched my teeth shut to keep my stomach lining from bursting out through my mouth.
I looked at Matthew, but he wouldn’t meet my gaze. He stared at the ground, closed his eyes, bowed his head. Ready to take the pain meant for me. The pain my damaged body and shattered spirit would not survive.
But neither would Matthew.
I opened my mouth; choked on my choice. The weight of an ocean pushed against my chest while the salt of its water soaked up my spit and left my mouth so dry my tongue rasped against my gums.
It was me, I tried to say. Or did I just think it? Did I just think it? Did I just—
The pressure on my chest moved to my stomach, and I expelled a stream of spit and bile.
This time, Matthew made no sound at all, but he collapsed from the pain, his upper body swaying from Gregory’s firm grip on his arm.
“It was me,” I croaked, skin prickling with the pain to come. “I-I did it. Not M-Matthew.”
Gregory laughed. “It’s too late now, girl. I’ve already started.”
“Should’ve said something when you had the chance.” He turned to look at Matthew. “She could’ve stopped it, you know. I waited. I gave her time to speak up. But she didn’t.” He broke another finger, and I made the noise Matthew couldn’t, I gave voice to his pain and screamed. “Rather you than her—though she doesn’t look too pleased now, does she?”
A churning, liquid roar in my ears. I clutched at my stomach but there was no more bile, no more spit or empty air to spew. “Stop!” I screamed. “God, oh god, please, stop, stop, stop!”
Gregory broke the rest of Matthew’s fingers. One by one, crack by crack, scream by scream. Then he broke his arms. His legs. His body. His spirit.
I had long since screamed myself hoarse, reclaiming the blame, begging him to stop, to turn to me, to punish the guilty party and not the innocent. But Gregory only laughed, telling me I was too late, I should have said something earlier, I should have told the truth before the second finger broke.
There were many sins I would never forgive myself for from that day.
I would never forgive myself for the relief I’d felt when my cell door closed and Matthew’s opened. I would never forgive myself for not doing anything when Matthew’s skull split open and his broken body fell to the ground. But most of all, I would never forgive myself for the fear that had stolen my voice when Matthew’s first finger snapped.
I could have saved him then. I could have turned Gregory back to me. But I had let a second break, and by then, as Gregory had said, it had been too late.
© Erica Woods 2020
That’s it! I REALLY hope you liked it and that it made you excited for book 2 (which is coming along nicely, hoping to have it ready in like 2 months).