A familiar fist squeezed tight in my chest as I recalled the first pair of unwanted hands that tugged at me, pulled and pinched. I could remember it so clearly, saying no over and over again until it felt like my throat would bleed.
“I tried to talk to my parents, to the school counselor, to one of my science teachers. They all said the same thing, that I was reading into something that wasn’t there. Aaron was just friendly, overly so, and his affection was his way of letting me know that he finally accepted me into the family. The first time he raped me, I was fourteen. I cried so hard when it was over, I made myself sick.”
He went still behind me, his hands falling away from my head. The air around us seemed to pulse and vibrate with an energy I couldn’t name. It wasn’t a fun story to tell.
“The abuse went on for two years. No one listened, no one seemed to care. I thought it would stop when Aaron went away to college, but every weekend he came home, every holiday he came back for, he was all over me, angrier and more violent the older I got. I fought him, God, did I fight, but it never got me anywhere. When I was sixteen, June walked in on us. She heard me crying and saw me trying to get away. She freaked out, but not because her son was raping me, but because she was worried what people would think if it got out her kids were fucking. She was convinced herself I lead him on, that I asked for it. She tried to tell me I was getting what I’d deserved. The next morning, she and Bradley sat me down and explained how I had to keep it quiet. They couldn’t imagine how things would look on the outside. They were worried about Aaron’s future. I told them over and over that I didn’t want him touching me, that he forced me, and they insisted that I was confused and emotional. I waited until the house was empty, when they all went out for dinner, to pack up my stuff. I left the next day.”
I exhaled long and slow, the pain inside my chest having nothing to do with the beatings I’d survived the last two weeks. “They found me. The cops picked me up as a runaway and each time I told them what was going on at home, June would show up and say I was sick, that something was wrong with me. She had the cops convinced I was crazy and fabricating the abuse. Time and time again, they found me and brought me back. No one would listen to me. No one would help me. Each time they did, things with Aaron got worse. I was his favorite toy and he never wanted anyone else to play with me. They wouldn’t let me go to school anymore, wouldn’t let me out of the house. I was a prisoner, but what was worse was that they acted like I should be grateful for what they were doing for me. They reminded me I was in this country without a family and homeless without them.”
The bed shifted as he pushed off of it. I could feel him standing at the side, looming like a heavy shadow over my shoulder. “I got away again when I was eighteen and June got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. They were at the hospital a lot so I managed to escape. I did my best to disappear. I went totally off the grid, started squatting and living on the streets. I got good at being able to disappear. I found a guy who made me a shitty, fake ID and erased the person I was. I thought about leaving the city altogether, but this was the only home I’d ever known. I also realized there was a need for someone like me, someone who wanted no one to know who she was or where she belonged and could do the same for them. The Cartwrights have never heard of Noe Lee and I want to keep it that way forever.”
He exhaled long and loud. “Noe, because you said it over and over again. Noe, because no one listened.” Again, they weren’t questions because he already knew the answers. “Fuck.” The word was sharp and sounded like it had been pulled from some dark and painful place inside of him. “I need to get some air. Holler if you need anything.”
I knew it was an uncomfortable road to walk, and I had expected his anger when I was done leading him to the end. But I hadn’t expected that so much of that anger seemed to be directed inwards. I usually felt like I needed a hug whenever I told anyone about my past, but at the moment, it was my battered body and my uncertain feelings about Stark that kept me from throwing my arms around him instead.
I couldn’t figure out Snowden Stark, and it concerned me how much I wanted to tinker with all his pieces to figure out how he worked. They said he was a robot, but they were wrong. He was something far more complex. He was more along the lines of the feared artificial intelligence that always took over the world in science fiction movies.
In those movies, when the AI started to feel, began to grapple with emotion and feelings . . . well, that was when everything fell apart and the humans ended up dead.
I sure hoped Stark’s story had a different ending.
I looked up from a bank of computer monitors when a cup of coffee was set down by my elbow. I tugged off my glasses and rubbed my tired eyes. There was no sleeping after Noe pulled back the curtain and let me peek into her past. I hated her story. I hated even more that it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it, or a version of it. I hated that I’d lived inside the less horrible parts of that story myself when I was younger. Trapped somewhere I didn’t want to be, caught up in an impossible position I couldn’t get out of. It twisted me up inside and I was almost resentful of the fact that Noe was strong enough to get out and rewrite the story with herself as her own hero. In my version, there were no heroes. There was nothing more than a tragic ending and a whole lot of innocence lost. In my story, the heroes were villains, and I was a stupid pawn in a game I still didn’t know how to play.
“You been down here all night?” Booker asked the question even though the answer was obvious. I hadn’t moved from the security room in the loft’s basement for hours. My legs were numb. My back was stiff. My mind was going a thousand miles a minute, but I was oblivious to all of it because a couple of hours ago, reviewing security footage, I’d seen Jonathan Goddard crawl out of that mangled shipping container. A blacked-out SUV had wheeled its way to the wreckage, and the Mayor had managed to limp his way inside. He was alive.
I picked up the coffee and ran a hand over the rough stubble that now covered the lower half of my face. “Yeah. I was watching the container for survivors.” Even though Benny wasn’t someone I wanted to spend my free time with I realized everything he was risking for to save Noe. I was hoping he made it out of the fray and was on his way to the person that he’d been willing to deal with the Devil for.
Booker grunted as he leaned against the desk. He was back in a severely tailored suit. One cut specifically to hide the bulge of the gun he wore strapped to his side. “It records. You could have fast forwarded through the footage this morning. You didn’t need to watch it all night.”
I knew that. I was the one who had installed the security system. It was top of the line and had all the bells and whistles. It didn’t require any human interaction to operate, but this human couldn’t pull himself away. The steady stream of visuals, the low hum of surveillance footage being recorded, soothed some of the wildness that was alive in my blood after listening to Noe explain why being homeless, alone, and hungry was better than being home. The machines did what they were supposed to do; they didn’t have stories that made my guts feel like lead, ones that turned my heart inside out and made my head feel like it was caving in. All these feelings were going to bury me. I couldn’t breathe through them, couldn’t think with them circling around every thought.
“I know. I couldn’t sleep, so I figured I would come down here and see if anyone made it out. Benny pulled himself out not long after you got Noe free. He looked pretty banged up, but he was moving under his own steam.” I was surprised how relieved I was when I saw the dark-haired man stagger into sight. I knew Benny only went after Noe because Nassir had him by the balls, but he got her out when no one else could. Even if he was a self-serving asshole, I felt like I owed him, and I was glad he hadn’t gone down doing this final favor in his hometown.
“If he was moving then he’s fine. He’s already gone. He has someone waiting on him, and he was anxious as hell to get back to her. Gotta say, I’m glad he’s gonna make it. If a shithead like Benny can find a girl willing to wait on him, that means there is hope for the rest of us rejects.” He took a sip of the coffee he had clenched in his hand and lifted an eyebrow at me. “Anyone else make it out?”
I dipped my chin in a half nod. “Goddard. Got picked up a little before dawn, but he was barely moving. A clean-up crew showed an hour ago and pulled out the bodies of the cop and some skinny guy. They dumped them in the water along with the security detail you took out and wiped the container clean. They went after the surveillance tapes.”
“They freak out when they realized there was none?” Booker sounded slightly amused. Nothing good went down at those docks, and a lot of that nothing good fell under Nassir’s watchful eye. The only surveillance that happened on the shady waterfront area came from this building. It was just one more way that Nassir kept his finger on the pulse of everything that went on in his city.
“Yeah. They definitely seemed confused. You would think a guy like Goddard would know more about the place he uses for all his dirty work.” Noe was far from the first person to pay a visit to that shipping container.