I am sitting upright, which is strange and disorienting; I’m not the kind of person who can sleep sitting up no matter how tired I am. My ankles and wrists hurt and I feel pinned. I open my eyes but it’s too dark to see my surroundings. I try to stand and fall over onto what feels like a concrete floor. There’s a clatter of plastic and metal as the chair I’m tied to hits the ground.
I remember leaving work… last night? How long have I been out? Where the hell am I?
I try to wriggle free of the tight knots cutting into my skin as the room illuminates with a loud click. My eyes are slow to adjust to the brightness and I hear her voice before I see her standing over me.
“Hope you had a good night’s sleep, because you have a long day ahead of you.”
Today she’s dressed simply in dress shorts and a sleeveless blouse. The blouse is a bright green, the colour of poison. It suits her smile.
I want to respond, to insult her and find out what the hell she could possibly want from me, but I’m petrified. It takes all of my conscious effort just to breathe. I hear Yagher’s voice in my head, telling me about skin mages. Interrogation. Torture.
The woman leans down and lifts the chair, and me, upright. I don’t want to look into her face.
“Disappointing,” she spits, “I thought you were the woman who took down Johannes and Charlie almost single-handedly. I really expected more fight from you.”
It’s the stupidest thing to focus on right now, but I have to keep myself from going into shock, so I run with it: “Charlie?”
“You killed my dog, bitch.”
I laugh. Maybe the shock is already starting to set in. “You named that fucking mountain Charlie?”
She tilts her head and smiles at me, then reaches down to take my leg into her hands. She pulls off my right shoe and starts massaging my foot. Suddenly it starts to sting. It’s mild at first, but then it peaks in a crescendo of pain not unlike stepping into a teeming nest of fire ants. I bite my lip, trying to swallow my scream.
“There. That’s closer to what I expected,” she says, releasing me. I inhale sharply.
“What do you want from me?!” I yell at her.
“Victor wants to know how you did it. How a powerless little girl fought off one of our most powerful mages and one of our most prized dogs on her own. He wants me to ask who helped you. Why you’re so close to Harvey Yagher,” she stops talking for a second and leans down to stare into my eyes, her face millimetres from mine. Her breath smells like peppermint. She continues, quietly, “But mostly, I just want to enjoy my time with you.”
She leans in further and kisses me on the lips. Jolts of agonizing electricity shake my body, and I can hear the metal legs of the chair jumping on the concrete as I toss about. She pulls away and smiles. For a moment I sit hunched over, my mouth open and drool collecting at my lip. I sluggishly gather my senses and spit onto the floor in front of her. Her smile only grows wider.
“So, let’s start with who helped you. Since you obviously didn’t manage on your own,” she says, her voice dripping with fake pity.
The red haired man, Hunter Elliot, appears unbidden in my mind, but I quickly push the thought aside. I focus on the first unrelated thing that pops into my head, which happens to be my scuffle with Johannes. If skin mages can rummage through a person’s thoughts with the ease Yagher described, then it’s pointless, but I’m betting on him being wrong. Because why torture and interrogate at all if taking the information is that easy?
The woman reaches forward and grips my forearms tightly, placing her face directly in front of mine. My entire body tenses at the thought of kissing her again, but instead I find myself reliving the night of the party. The memories are a bit hazy and stutter back and forth, but overall I am forced to witness everything from the moment I attacked Charlie onwards. I feel the pressure on my forearms release and I am pulled sickeningly back into the present. I immediately vomit onto the front of my shirt.
“Johannes was always was too cocky,” the blond woman says with a chuckle. She looks down at me and her face grows stern. “But that didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Did someone help you without your knowledge? You do look a little slow.”
My face is burning with anger and humiliation. Of course, it only makes her smile again.
“How was the rest of the party anyway? Anyone give you a drink? Give you a present?” she pauses for a second, “Or did anyone touch you? Did it make you blush?”
She grabs me before I can reorganize my thoughts. I remember the feeling of Hunter’s hand on my leg and the blood running to my cheeks. The memories are still jittery and unclear; Hunter’s face is unfocused – a blur of unrecognizable features. I try to concentrate on the feeling of her hands pressed into my forearms, hoping it will force me into consciousness. It doesn’t work.
Next thing I know I am reliving his kiss. The fear mixed with anger and embarrassment. I can feel his scar. I see his red hair.
She releases me and I realize that this is the real talent of a skin mage. Being able to direct their victim’s thoughts, influencing their subconscious to retrieve the memory they want. I understand that she’s won this round, retrieved the desired information. I also understand that it means she has a weakness, one that years of cognitive therapy may have given me an advantage over. I need to be in control of my own thoughts.
The nausea rises again as I surface from the memory, but I ride it out without upturning any of the remaining contents of my stomach. My captor looks pissed.
“Hunter you fucking piece of shit! You traitorous bastard!” she screams as she walks away, fists clenched. She turns quickly back to me and shouts, “Where is he!? What do you know?”
As she grabs my forearms, I use the split-second before losing consciousness to throw my head forward into hers. It connects with a crack and she shouts, reeling away. Both of her hands are over her nose and I see blood beginning to pour between them.
She glances at me and her eyes are filled with pure hatred. She hoofs my chair onto its side with a swift kick before disappearing around some crates behind her. My head hits the concrete with a sharp smack, but not nearly as severe as the blow I struck her. I hear running water and I can only assume there’s some sort of washroom back there.
I lie on my side and try to struggle free. I feel nauseous again from the smell of my own vomit and from the mounting dread. I know she’s not going to hold back when she returns. I try not to wonder whether she’ll kill me. I look around in a panicked daze for some hope of escape.
That’s when I notice the cat. I’m not even sure that’s what it is at first, it’s so large, but as I stare at it I’m sure that’s the only thing it could be. It’s entirely black with a white patch on its chest. I try to remember what Yagher told me about familiars and whether mages ever used cats. For some reason I feel like I’ve read something about black cats, but I’m distracted by the clicking of the woman’s shoes on the concrete.
She walks directly towards me and connects the pointed toe of her dress shoe with my face, narrowly missing my right eye.
“Pull anything like that again and I’ll kill you. I’ve gotten enough information out of you that the family won’t care so much if an accident happens before I finish the interrogation,” she looks me up and down, “So what are you afraid of anyway? You’re shaking, so you’re obviously afraid of me. But what else? What makes you squirm? What things have you done that make you wish you would just die?”
She grabs my face this time.
I’m sitting on my bed in my dorm room over Christmas break. I’m staring at my phone, at a message from my mom. It just says, “Come home.” I’m sobbing and I throw the phone against the floor. The screen breaks and I feel childish for throwing it. I start worrying about how I’m going to get the money to fix it. How the clerk will look at me when I tell him I broke it. Like he’ll know. I pull my knees up to my chest and bite hard into the left one through my jeans.
I tear off my shirt and throw it across the room. I reach under my mattress for my Swiss Army knife and open it. Suddenly, I’m calm. Focused. I choose a fresh space amidst the scars and still red flesh of recent cuts. I trace lines and swirls into my skin, beads of blood welling up in the wake of the sharp blade. My anger and guilt dissipate, as if escaping through my split skin. I tug my jeans down a little and cut into my hips where there are fewer scars. When I am done, I open my desk and pull out a small jar of peroxide to sterilize the cuts and the knife.
When I surface, I realize that the vision was clearer this time with fewer jumps and jitters. My cheeks are wet and there are tears still pooling in my eyes. When I look up at my captor, there are tears in her eyes too, but she’s smiling. The largest grin I’ve seen yet.
She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a knife that makes my Swiss Army seem pathetic. I start struggling hard, almost upending the chair again. She puts the knife to my chest, but only uses it to make a cut down the front of my shirt. She rips it open and tears it away. I’m left in my black t-shirt bra. I turn away from her, but I know what she’s looking at.
She laughs for a long time before speaking: “Brilliant! It’s beautiful. All that self-loathing and guilt engraved for all eternity. I love it! Oh… but what do your lovers think when they see it?”
She grabs my wrist and face then dives in.