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Deborah was rudely thrust from death’s merciful embrace by angry shouting and slaps to the face.
Another blow turned her head to the side and her mouth was flooded with the taste of pennies.
‘What on earth were you thinking?’ Cross spat, his face red and twisted into a mask of rage.
‘I can’t bear another month of this.’
His expression mellowed slightly. ‘You’re struggling,’ he said, as though the thought was brand new to him.
She looked up at him through eyes that bled tears.
‘Well what do you fucking think?’ she spat.
He let the curse slide for the moment; he was more concerned with her welfare.
‘He told me you were coping well. He even suggested upping the ante a little bit. I had no idea you felt like this.’
‘Well if you lock someone in a cage for a week, starve them, cuts lumps of their fucking flesh out how do you think it’s gonna make them feel?’
He nodded, again letting the curse go.
It was as if he had never taken the time to think about the pain he was inflicting on her.
‘You will get through this,’ he said, clasping one of her hands in the most tender gesture she had seen from him so far. ‘I know you will because He has told me so. It may get worse before it gets better, but He is waiting for you on the other side so talk to Him, welcome Him into your soul.’
She thought about what he said, and if she took the time to try and see it from his perspective it did kind of make sense in a psychotic way.
His hand still clasped hers in that curiously way. ‘Now, I’m sorry to tell you that your indiscretion must be punished. After all, suicide is a sin. But remember I’m doing all of this for your own good. To bring you salvation.’
With that he released her hand and she found that bizarrely she missed the touch, though she also found it repulsive.
Without another word, he slammed the door shut, leaving her in darkness.
She screamed and cried and beat her hands against the bars until they were bloody, though she knew it was no use.
Her arms and legs ached with the effort.
When she could punch no more, she slammed her head into the bars until her face was bloody and bruised and sore.
Tears rolled down her cheeks, stinging the fresh wounds.
How could you be so stupid?
You’ve pushed it too far.
You’ve lost his trust.
Now her suffering was going to worsen – if such a thing was even possible.
She wished the towel had done the job, had let her fade into darkness in silence and serenity.
She felt cheated from the merciful death of which she had seen a glimmer.
Instead she’d returned to Hell for more suffering and terror and despair.
Screaming at the top of her lungs, she slammed her head against the bars harder and harder until he came in and sedated her.
When she woke up, her head pounded, and it felt like her entire face had been pulled tight, as though her skull was growing too big for her skin. The after-effect of the pounding she’d given it, she reckoned.
As she became more alert, she realised that her entire body felt tighter.
She realised that she was sat upright, strapped to one of the corner posts of the cage tight enough that she could barely move.
There was a lot of strain in her shoulders, her back and her neck.
She grunted as the discomfort turned to pain.
It took her a good few minutes before she noticed he was staring at her curiously.
He was crouching naked – par for the course now – with the knife he used to take his ritual pound of flesh in his trembling right hand.
His left hand fidgeted with the bottom of his dog collar.
His eyes crawled over her.
‘You’re a strange one, Deborah,’ he said, pursing his lips and tapping the tip of his knife against his front teeth. ‘I’m really struggling to figure you out. Most girls I bring here give up totally by this point. You can see the fight go out of them. You, you’re different. Sure, you tried to kill yourself, but I can see a fire blazing behind those bloodshot eyes. If you got out of that cage you’d do your utmost to break me.’
She didn’t want to say anything, as her jaw and gums pulsated from the repeated collisions with the side of the cage, but she couldn’t help herself.
‘Just fucking kill me already,’ she spat. ‘Quit milking it.’
He laughed, tutted, tapped the knife on his teeth again. ‘No no no. But I have had to set you up the way you are to prevent you trying to hurt yourself any more. He has great things planned for you, as do I. We cannot risk you doing yourself any more damage than is necessary.
‘And speaking of damage, it’s that time we both know and love. Time to cut the devil away, piece by piece.’
She didn’t even resist this time, just hoped he hit a major artery and let her bleed out for good.
A week of misery and agony followed where she didn’t move from the cage post.
The Reverend came in every now and then and forced fluids on her.
She wished he hadn’t; her mood had deteriorated further.
Her wrists were scraped raw and oozed blood that dripped from the pale tips of her fingers.
She hadn’t even bothered trying to escape; it was just the friction of her moving up and down trying to get comfortable enough to sleep.
Despite being more exhausted than she’d ever been in her life, she hadn’t slept more than an hour at a time.
She felt too weak to even hold her head up.
Her thighs blazed from where he’d torn away the pounds of flesh.
The wounds were all in various stages of healing, a calendar of her pain.
She doubted there’d be any pounds of flesh left to take by the end of this ordeal, judging by the way she was losing weight.
When he did come, she found she was pleased to see him.
The fluids were always welcome, as her throat was permanently dry.
The stench from her piss told her she was badly dehydrated.
It looked as though the end was near, and she welcomed it.
He kept her just hydrated enough to keep her alive.
She managed to wring extra water from her sodden clothes after every hosedown.
This tasted foul – she’d had the same blood-soaked, mould-stinking clothes on for a fortnight now – but was like manna from heaven to her parched throat.
Finally, when she thought she was so weak she could take no more, he’d taken the latest pound of flesh – this time from the small of her back, which was already a seething raw mass thanks to the time spent against the cage wall – and unfastened her.
He laid her carefully in the centre of the cage.
‘Don’t try anything so stupid again,’ he said, his words seeming to swim around her in her dizzy, exhausted state.
‘Can I please have something to eat?’ she managed, her voice hoarse and weak.
He silently shook his head.
Left her alone again.
The next thing she knew it was hosedown time again, and she was amazed to find that she’d had what was possibly the best sleep of her entire life.
She awoke refreshed; still in agony, still terrorised, but with a slightly more positive outlook on the whole situation.
Her defiant mind-set began to return.
If he won’t feed me, I’ll have to feed myself, she thought, unable to stop herself letting out a high-pitched giggle.
She rolled up her sleeve as high as she could.
Hunger blazed a hole right through her core.
She knew she needed to eat, but was loathe to inflict any more pain on her battered body.
Feeling truly sickened by what she was about to do, she moved her mouth over to her left bicep.
Her entire body trembled like a leaf in a gale.
She swallowed hard, removing the last of the moisture in her mouth.
She faltered as her teeth hit her skin.
Closed her eyes, unable to believe what she was about to do.
Then, without thinking, she bit down hard enough to draw blood and pulled a mouthful of skin loose.
The taste and feel of the hot blood hitting her throat made her gag, but she forced it down, knowing it was her only chance of sustenance.
She gripped her nose hard – sending waves of pain spiralling through it from where Cross’ fist had broken it – and swallowed the flesh.
She debated taking another bite, but wanted to save some of herself for the coming days.
Counting the wounds on her body was the only way to tell how long she’d been in here so she reckoned there were still another eighteen days left in here.
She sunk into a solemn silence, doing her utmost not to think about what she’d just done.
Her arm stung like hell and she was certain she’d given herself a nasty infection from the effects of not brushing her teeth for the best part of a month.
The coppery tang of blood still tainted her mouth.
When she managed to distract herself, the tiny bit of food made her feel slightly more energetic.
Until she laid down, and the taste of the flaccid skin and the blood that had surrounded it flooded back up her throat.
She bent double, heaving it up on the floor of her squalid cell.
It lay next to her, a partially-digested chunk of her arm in a small, frothing pool of blood.
Now her mouth tasted even worse.
Her stomach was wracked with spasms after she’d heaved it up, but there was nothing else to come up, just blood-streaked bile.
When the sickness abated, she fell into an uneasy sleep.
When she woke next, the room spun and a foul concoction of equal parts blood and vomit befouled her mouth.
He stood over the cage, a grin on his face akin to that of a parent watching his child walk for the first time.
‘You’ve spoken to Him,’ he said, his tone awed. ‘How does it feel?’
She ignored the question, not understanding it in her confused state. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘God helps those who help themselves,’ he said, his grin threatening to cleave his face clean in half. ‘You tried to feed yourself. You tried to survive. He has smiled upon you and given you the will to continue.’
‘I was just really fucking hungry,’ she giggled, delirium taking hold as it sometimes did these days.
He laughed with her, although he did cuff her round the ear for the curse.
‘I knew you had what it takes to survive,’ he beamed. ‘I just knew it.’
He rolled up her sleeve again and looked at the bite marks, a huge grin plastered across his face. ‘And lo He spake to Deborah and told her to eat.’ His laugh scraped down her spine like nails on a blackboard.
‘Well done, my child,’ he said, cupping her face through the bars with the doting parent demeanour she’d seen on a handful of previous occasions. ‘I am proud of you.’
Despite this, the nightly ritual didn’t change much.
The drugs to render fighting back impossible.
The removal of another pound of flesh from her emaciated body.
The cauterisation with a white-hot poker.
Only this time, he wrapped the bloody square of flesh in a white napkin as though it was a piece of birthday cake and left it on the floor of her cell.
‘If you’re hungry, eat,’ he said with a smile that Deborah felt sure was meant to be kind.
In his poisoned mind he was giving her a gift.
And, in spite of how fucked up her life had become, she found she was grateful.
It was a good few hours before she plucked up the heart to approach the pound of flesh.
She did her best to sleep, to forget about the treat concealed by the cocoon of blood-spotted white paper.
She even pushed it through the bars of the cage, in a vain attempt at convincing herself that she wasn’t going to eat it.
Deep down, she knew that it was destined to end up in her belly.
It was just a question of when.
Next chapter is here