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Chara’s eyes flickered open.

Her head felt as if it were being squeezed in a vice, and she could feel that her face was swollen. The skin around her eyes and lips pulsed.

She looked around in a daze. She was dizzy like she’d just stepped off a roller coaster.

Where am I? How long have I been out? What happened??

There was a large bed with floral sheets in front of her. Matching curtains hung over the windows, tied back with big satin bows. Bedside tables on either side of the bed were covered in a similar floral pattern fabric, with lace at the edges. On the white wall above the bed hung a faded oil painting of a mother and son holding hands in a rose garden.

The decor reminded her of her grandmother’s house.

Chara’s jaw ached, she tried to flex it but realized, suddenly, that her mouth was taped shut. She went to remove the tape, but her hands were bound behind her back. She struggled unsuccessfully upon a wooden rocking chair.

“Mmmmm mmmm!” she attempted.

She found that she was wearing fluffy slippers and a white nightgown. They weren’t her own. She wondered who had changed her, and whose clothes she was wearing.

Just then, the door opened, and a man walked in. His heavy upper body seemed to enter before the rest of him. An imposing V-shaped figure stood before her. He pursed his thick, red, almost woman-like lips and scratched at the long, arrow-shaped scar on his cheek. He had wide-set emerald eyes and a thick, crooked nose that looked like it had been punched a few too many times.

He shut the door behind him, walked to the bedside table, where he opened the drawer and rifled through some papers.

Chara mumbled from beneath the tape.

He turned to look at her, with raised eyebrows, clearly surprised to see she was awake.

How long have I been out? She wondered.

“Well, well, well. Sleepy beauty wake up!” His thick Russian accent was gruff and sharp, and he spoke like he had something stuck at the back of his throat. He walked to her and put his hand on her cheek. His huge hand was calloused and rough.

She mumbled a muffled scream.

“Now listen. We put tape on your mouth for own good. You not scream. You not fight. You not get hurt. OK?” he tapped her face with his hand with just slightly too much force, stinging her skin momentarily. She winced and nodded.

He dug his nails under the side of the tape, and into Chara’s cheek, and ripped the tape off her face in one fell swoop.

Fiery pain shot across the lower half of her face. Her mouth fell open into a throaty scream, and she thrashed her head at his hand, biting the fleshy part between his wrist and pinky finger.

“Ahh!” he grunted, pulling his hand back, and slapping her hard across the face. Her head snapped to the side with the force of the slap, and the pain was so intense that her skin was numb at first. Only after a few moments did the intense stinging start, and the blood rushed to where his hand had connected with her cheek.

“Who are you?” she said, breathing the words out. She felt hot tears flood her eyes.

“My name is Alexei,” he answered, taking a seat at the foot of the bed, and clasping his large hands on top of his lap, rubbing the tender area where Chara had bit him. He wore jeans with suspenders, over a white T-shirt.

“And where am I?” Chara tongued the side of her mouth. It tasted of nickel, bleeding from the blow. She thought back to the last time her lip bled. When Jak had delicately dabbed it with a cloth and caressed her chin with his soft, supple hands. The sweet taste of his lips on hers.

“You’re safe. That’s all you need to know right now.”

She didn’t feel safe. “Why am I tied up?”

He ignored her. “You must be hungry.” It wasn’t a question. He pushed himself off the bed and opened the door, closing it briskly behind him.

“Wait!” Chara yelled as the door slammed. She searched her fuzzy memory. The last thing she remembered was...talking to Jak on the phone. She’d been at his condo. Where had he been? Oh right. He’d been in the hospital. He’d met up with Pong that night. Could that have anything to do with this? Yes! It must. She must be being held by one of Pong’s cronies.

After a while, Alexei came back into the room, holding a steaming bowl of what looked like red mush. “Eat,” he commanded, holding the bowl in front of her face. It smelled of hot cabbage.

“No,” she refused, stubbornly. Her stomach was so empty that it was cramping, but she was in no mood to eat.

He raised his eyebrows at her and set the bowl on the ground beneath her. “Fine,” he shrugged. “Starve then.”

Her bones hurt.

“Where am I?” she tried again. More hot tears fell down her face.

Alexei ignored her. He opened the closet and searched for something in there.

“Jak will come for me, you know,” she whimpered. She shifted in her seat and felt her heavy bladder.

Alexei turned around and looked at her blankly, glancing at some envelopes in his hands. He huffed. A cold silence settled in between them.

“I have to pee,” she said, finally, when she couldn’t wait any longer.

He narrowed his eyes at her. She noticed another scar just above his bushy eyebrows. “OK. I untie you to pee, but if you try anything, I tie you back up and you must pee yourself in chair from now on. Understand?”

Chara nodded slowly. She would try to escape soon, but not now. She needed to find out where she was before she attempted anything, and she certainly didn’t want to face having to stew in her own urine.

Alexei lumbered over to her and cut the rope around her hands with his pocket knife. Blood rushed to her wrists as they were suddenly freed from the tight bind. Chara brought them around and in front of her, and rubbed them gently.

She stood up, and her vision went black. She faltered but managed not to faint. She must have been sitting there for quite some time. She put one foot unsteadily in front of the other and walked to the open door Alexei had pointed to, where she assumed was the bathroom.

“Leave door open,” Alexei commanded.

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