By Kennedy Northcutt ©2011
For disclaimers, see Part 1.
Feedback is appreciated (email@example.com). You also can get updates on my blog (http://kennedynorthcutt.wordpress.com) or friend request me on Facebook (as long as you're not a cannibalistic serial killer, like Hannibal Lecter). Enjoy!
Lacey didn't remember opening her eyes. She couldn't recall much of anything. She was just awake. That was it. It should have meant something. It didn't. She was just…awake.
She wanted to think.
Everything was fuzzy, surreal and seemed a million miles away. She heard things, bits and pieces of sounds, but they didn't make any sense. Nothing made sense. It was like being underwater in a dimly-lit swimming pool with no goggles to add clarity-all soft and muffled, with no water.
Her body tingled. It wasn't a pleasant sensation, but Lacey couldn't summon the desire or energy to move and then the thought just drifted away. She felt like she was still asleep and trapped in some disconnected dream. It was a puzzle, but she couldn't solve it-a puzzle with no solution. Try as she might, Lacey wasn't able to formulate a single coherent thought. Her mind just swam in a sea of random and disconnected images that should have been important to her. They weren't.
She felt like someone was sitting inside her brain and flipping an "off" switch every time she tried to focus on any one thing. One minute, a thought was within reach and, the next, it melted away. Just keeping her eyes open took a monumental effort of will, until she finally just gave up and let her lids drift shut.
But the darkness behind her closed lids offered no comfort, either. The scattered and disjointed images were horrific. Blood. Torn flesh. Missing and charred limbs. Crumpled metal. Severed arteries. Bullet holes. Broken bodies. The dead and dying. Shouts and heat and the whir of something overhead…
And even in the darkness, Lacey could not care. The images played endlessly, like a projector showing the same movie over and over again. She was trapped in that nightmare and there was no escape. But she felt nothing and was unable to will it away.
"Lacey?" A feminine voice drifted to her, as if from a great distance.
Lacey forced her eyes open enough to see the face leaning toward her. She didn't recognize the woman. Somewhere in the back of her mind a thought came to her. But it vanished in the next instant.
Knowing she couldn't form a coherent thought and hang on to it should have been frustrating. It wasn't. She couldn't summon frustration. There was no anger. No longing or desire. No happiness or sadness or fear or… anything that would pass as emotion, whatsoever. Every time a feeling began to surface, it sank back into oblivion and vanished. Its misty remains simply disappeared.
"Lacey, hon, you need to sit up and pay attention to Miz Hester, here," the woman's voice barely penetrated her foggy haze. "Come on, Lacey. Time to wake up, now. I need to give you your meds before breakfast, child."
Lacey felt hands on her arms and then she was upright. She stared blankly at the Black woman dressed in a rainbow of colors. The woman's face swam in and out of focus, as Lacey just stared blankly at her. A tissue wiped something from her chin. The woman just balled the tissue up and tucked it away.
"That a girl, Lacey," the woman said. "Don't need you dribbling all over yourself, now, do we? Here you go. You need to drink this like a good girl. Drink it all down real fast and you won't taste a thing. I promise."
Lacey slowly and with great effort forced the woman's words to penetrate the thick-as-cotton fog clouding her mind. Then she looked at what the woman was holding out toward her. An instant later she just stared at it without actually seeing it. She had no idea what it was or what to do.
"The doctor says you need to take your meds orally now, Lacey," the woman's tone became sterner, as she moved the white paper cup closer. "He says we need to wean you off the intravenous meds and start your treatment sessions."
Lacey just stared down at the dark liquid goop in the cup, unable to register what the woman actually wanted her to do with it. Her eyes drifted slowly down further, until they rested on the hands resting limply in her lap. They were both bruised and skinned at the knuckles. One had a small, clear-plastic tube taped to the back of it. The tube looked vaguely familiar, but Lacey lost the train of thought before she could place where she'd seen it before.
Her eyes drifted shut again. Fingers instantly grabbed her chin and lifted her head back up.
"Lacey, open your eyes!" The woman ordered impatiently. "Open your eyes and take your meds or I'll have to shove them down your scrawny throat. You don't want me to pour your medication down your throat, Lacey. The experience is quite unpleasant."
The fingers on her chin dug into her flesh. Lacey was vaguely aware that she should feel some pain. The insistent voice should have been annoying. How dare someone talk to her that way? The thoughts drifted away in the very next instant. She had to do what the woman wanted her to do.
Her lids slowly fluttered until her bloodshot green eyes were finally open again. She made an effort to bring the face in front of her into focus and watched those full, dark lips move. Then the cup was at her lips and being tipped up.
"Open your mouth for me, Lacey," the distant voice barely penetrated the fog. "Open up and take your meds so you can lie down and sleep a while. I can see you're still not with us."
Lacey's chin fell open with little effort on her part. And then her head was forced back and the cup was tipped up fully into her mouth. Her throat muscles automatically reacted and she swallowed the bitter liquid that hit her tongue and threatened to choke her.
"That a'girl," the woman praised her in that patronizing tone that should have made her angry. "Nicely done, Lacey."
Lacey failed to find satisfaction in the empty words. She wanted to break down and cry in despair in response to the way she was being treated. She wanted to scream in anger at her inability to understand what was happening to her and around her. Something. Anything. Any reaction would suffice. But there was nothing in her that would call up a single tear or utter even the simplest of sounds. Nothing.
"I have some pills here you need to swallow, too, Lacey," the woman continued in that sing-song voice that was so annoying and, yet, not.
Lacey swallowed the pills with less trouble. Her throat muscles worked automatically when the pills hit her tongue. And then there was water to wash them down with. Once the task was complete, the woman in front of her grinned triumphantly and moved a more respectable distance away. Lacey didn't care.
"Get some rest, child," a hand pushed her back down on the bed and her eyes immediately drifted shut. "The doctor will see you just before lunch. I'll come back to get you when it's time for your session."
Lacey was aware of nothing as the nightmare images returned in full force and she succumbed to the darkness. The darkness should have been terrifying. It wasn't.
Lacey's next conscious awareness was that she was sitting in a chair in front of a pleasant-looking, middle-aged man. Her chair was purple. She didn't feel comfortable. She didn't feel anything. But she did vaguely realize that she was no longer in her room. She was somewhere else.
"Lacey?" A deep male voice penetrated the fog that seemed the tiniest bit thinner than it had before. "Are you with me, Lacey?"
She made a concerted effort to focus her attention on his face. It was a nice face. He seemed nice. So Lacey tried harder and was rewarded with a pleasant smile that lit his warm, brown eyes and caused wrinkles to form at the corners of his eyes. That was nice.
"I'm Dr. Benson, Lacey," he said in that deep voice that rumbled through the swirling fog. "Do you remember me at all? I was here when you were brought in."
Lacey knew she was supposed to say something. She thought she should at least react. But she just couldn't bring herself to do more than stare into those warm, brown eyes of his. They were mesmerizing.
He put a hand on her knee and she suddenly broke eye contact to look down. His hand was larger than hers and there was dark hair on the back of it. Lacey glanced at her own hand and noticed a small band-aid taped to the back of it. Both her hands had scabs on them and the bruises were greenish-yellow. Then she forced herself to look at his face again.
"The medications we have you on are making you lethargic," he explained. "We're still working to find the right combination and dosage to fit your needs. So, bear with us as we continue to work on it. I really think we're almost there."
Lacey heard the words and actually thought she understood them. But they were still meaningless to her, as her mind drifted away.
"We only want what's best for you while you're with us, however long that might be," he squeezed her knee and then sat back in the chair across from her. It was purple, too. "The greater the effort you put into your own recovery, the better. Your recovery-or at least the treatment you receive for your illness from here on out-will all depend on how you behave in the coming weeks. I'll have them lower the dosage on your medication, as long as you remain cooperative and don't exhibit any additional psychotic episodes or violence. We don't tolerate that behavior here. Am I clear?"
Lacey thought she was being talked down to. She stared into those warm, brown eyes and it occurred to her that his words and tone didn't exactly match the friendly expression he wore. And then the fog returned and she lost her train of thought completely.
She wanted to ask a question-to ask a number of questions. She knew things. She had them tucked away in the dark recesses of her mind. But she couldn't keep a hold on the thoughts in her head long enough to do so. The instant a question formed in her mind, it drifted into that numb, drug-induced haze.
"I know you're confused, right now, Lacey," he went on, as if he thought he understood her. "I know this all seems very strange and different, maybe even a little frightening. But I want you to know that we're here to help you. The entire staff is here to facilitate your recovery and maybe even get you well enough to go back to a relatively normal and productive life. We only want what's best for you-for all our patients here."
It sounded like a sales pitch. Lacey didn't care. She was losing the battle to stay awake, to focus. The meds were pulling her toward the darkness again and she didn't have the will to fight against that pull.
"The best thing for you, right now, is to work with us-to cooperate with the staff and do what they tell you to do," the doctor continued, as Lacey drifted and it was all she could do to keep her eyes half open. "And the first step is to let the medication do what it's meant to do. Don't fight it. Don't fight us. We're here for you, Lacey."
Lacey couldn't understand what he was saying. Fight? How could she fight when she couldn't grasp a simple concept and hold onto it to save her life? Somewhere in the back of her befuddled mind, she really wanted to fight. She wanted to scream at him to stop giving her the medication that was screwing with her fucking mind. She had a sudden urge to stand up and launch herself at him. She wanted to punch those warm, brown eyes and scream at him to let her go. She wanted to shout at the top of her lungs that she wasn't supposed to be there.
She tried desperately to cling to those errant thoughts and feelings. She tried to cling to the hatred that flared somewhere in the back of her mind. He was nice, and she hated him. He was pleasant, and she wanted to beat him to a bloody pulp. His smile was warm and friendly, and all she wanted to do was wipe it from his face with her bare hands-her bare, bruised hands. But it all drifted through her fingers like dirty, gritty sand.
She did nothing, except sit and stare numbly at him. Lacey couldn't do anything. It should have frustrated her. It didn't.
"We will continue to meet once a week until I see you're making progress," he droned on, as his words became more and more muffled to her. "Eventually, you'll adjust to your meds and these therapy sessions will progress. For now, I want you to go back to your room and try to relax. Just let the medication do its work and I'll see you again tomorrow. Okay, Lacey?"
Lacey thought she should respond in some way. A nod. A word. Nothing came to her. It all just drifted back into that foggy haze.
And then a pair of strong hands lifted her to her feet and supported most of her weight.
"Come on, Lacey," another voice-another man-said.
Lacey tried to lift her head enough to look at him, but she could only summon the effort to glance up at him with her eyes. He was big. He was Black. His hands were rough and strong. His grip was almost painful. Lacey didn't care.
"Let's get you tucked back into bed so you can sleep a while," the man said, as he moved her toward the door. "Lunch is being served in the dining room in an hour, and Dr. Benson wants you there to eat with the rest of the guests."
She walked, but it didn't really register that her feet were actually moving. It took every ounce of concentration for her to do that simple task, as he led her down the pastel hallway. They passed several others on their way. One woman looked up at Lacey with a gleam of something in cold blue eyes that sparked a brief flash of memory for her. But they continued on and Lacey lost focus again.
Moments later, she was tucked back into bed with the sheet pulled up to her chin. The orderly who had helped her back to her room and removed her slip-on tennis shoes, turned his back on her and walked out. He shut the door behind him and the quiet was deafening.
Lacey wanted to keep her eyes open, so she could look around at the room she was in. She wanted to see where she was. She also wanted to know why she was there. Deep in the recesses of her mind, she knew she wasn't supposed to be there. She wanted answers-that much she knew. But she wasn't able to hold onto the questions long enough to ask them. Besides, she was alone in that room. There was no one there with her. She didn't think she could muster enough energy to talk.
She drifted into a light doze with a different pair of blue eyes floating in the darkness with her.
Lacey sat at a table with three other women and a plate of steaming food in front of her. She stared down at the food and tried to remember how to get it to her mouth. Her stomach growled and she knew, in the deep recesses of her mind, that she had to eat. A white plastic spoon sat next to her plate. She wanted to pick it up and use it, but that would require her to move and think and...
"Oh, goody, another of Uncle Bennie's fucking zombies joins us for lunch," the Hispanic woman to her left commented to the rest of their table mates. She then snapped her fingers in front of Lacey's face. "Earth to zombie! Wakey, wakey! Anybody home?"
The others snickered. Lacey merely sat there. It took her a few moments to register what was going on and, by then, the woman had turned away from her. Lacey finally called up the energy and will to lift her head. She took a quick survey of those at the square table covered in pastels. When her eyes finally drifted to the woman to her right, a pair of cold blue eyes stared back at her in open challenge.
"What are you staring at, bitch?" The blond sneered.
The woman's bleach-blond hair was pulled back into a neat pony-tail with a fringe of bangs pushed to one side. She wore elegant teal blouse over a lacy, black camisole. Two-karat diamond studs graced each ear. Otherwise she wore no other jewelry. No ring on her left hand. No necklace. Dark-brown brows and lashes and lips painted bright red stood out starkly against her pale, porcelain features. But the expression she wore was cold and calculating, as she kept her gaze fixed on Lacey.
"Leave her alone, Callie," the woman to Lacey's right said. "She'll come around, eventually. You know that. Uncle Bennie's cocktails take some getting used to. Depends on how much they're giving her."
Lacey willed herself to look at her defender. Her movements were slow and took forever, but she finally looked at the Hispanic woman, who winked back at her with a small smile.
"See?" The woman said. "She'll get there in another day or two. You gotta let her be. We all know how this shit works. Fucking drugs and tranqs make all of us drooling zombie idiots when we first get here."
The woman across from Lacey, a timid redhead, nodded. The woman was so tiny that the clothes she wore hung on her like oversized sacks. Her dark-red hair was pulled back into a ponytail, but hers wasn't as neat and tidy as Callie's. Stray wisps of fuzzy hair stuck out at all angles and framed her pixyish features.
Lacey wanted to know her name.
"Watch it, Maria!" Callie leaned across the square table and hissed the warning. "You know I won't put up with any of your bullshit." She then started petting Lacey's head fondly, as if she were a small puppy. "This one is going to be mine for a little while-at least until the effects of the drugs subside."
Maria's dark eyes flashed, as she nearly jumped across the table toward the sneering blond. "No, you watch it, bitch! I get one whiff of your damned pussy anywhere near her and I'll cut you up so bad, you'll regret it."
Lacey tried to follow the gist of the heated confrontation playing out practically right in her lap, but she was at a loss. There seemed to be some kind of rivalry between the two women, with Lacey stuck right in the middle.
"Is there a problem here, ladies?" A male orderly was suddenly standing just behind the tiny redhead.
Both Maria and Callie sat back in their seats with demure smiles plastered on their faces. They both looked like they were hiding their guilt. The man wasn't fooled.
"No, no problem at all, Jackson," Callie shook her head and shrugged. "We were just introducing ourselves to our newest tablemate."
"Yeah," Maria grabbed a raw carrot off her plate and gnawed on it. She patted Lacey on the shoulder. "We wanted to make her feel welcome."
Jackson Smith shot both women a skeptical glare. He was six-foot-two and had the well-toned muscles of a body-builder. His half-Black/half-Hispanic heritage could be seen in the curly, dark hair he wore shaved close to his head and the warm brown eyes set deeply in features that were more tan than black. A thin mustache and goatee rimmed his full lips and outlined his jaw. Otherwise, he was clean-shaven and rather handsome.
Callie was glaring up at him like he was a slab of fresh meat, as he stood there with his beefy arms crossed over his chest. A naked woman with the word "Gabriella" and a dripping heart behind it was tattooed on his upper arm and peeked out from beneath the sleeve of his white polo. His tan kakis fit him like a glove and showed off well-defined thigh muscles. No wonder Callie looked like she wanted to devour him. The fleeting thought passed quickly from Lacey's mind.
"I know all about HIPAA. But can you at least tell us what her name is?" The timid redhead turned her head up enough to look at him. "No one told us who she is. And Ms. Hester didn't say a word when she escorted our new tablemate over here. She just ordered her to sit down and eat."
Jackson's expression softened as he glanced down at the redhead in front of him with a gentle smile. "Her name is Lacey Stephens, Emily. She came to us just a little over two weeks ago and will be staying for a while."
"Wow, that long ago?" Maria was now slumped sideways in her chair with one tattooed arm draped over the back. "She do something illegal to get herself locked up in solitaire for all that time? 'Cause we ain't seen her around until just now, Jackson." She sat up and leaned over the table confidentially. "Come on, Jackson. Tell us the scoop on Miss Lacey, here."
"Dr. Benson thought it best to keep her separated from the rest of you for a while, that's all," Jackson replied, crossing his arms over his chest again. "And that is all I'm going to say on the matter, Maria. So don't go gettin' any bright ideas that you'll be able to talk me into tellin' you more."
"Oh, come on, Jacko," Maria slumped back in her chair again and shot him her best wounded-puppy look. "Inquirin' minds wanna know. 'Sides," she gave Lacey a visual once-over, "looks to me like Doc B's got her on some pretty powerful shit. I ain't seen anyone this strung out since Callie came back here kicking and screaming that she was going to fuck everyone in this place. Two days later she was sitting right here at this table with the same vacant expression I'm seein' on Lacey's face."
Callie glared daggers at Maria, who merely poked her tongue out in response. Then Callie licked her lips seductively, which had everyone except Lacey rolling their eyes and sighing in exasperation.
"Don't be lookin' at me that way, fuckin' bitch cunt-sucker," Maria growled. "I ain't your fucking whore and never will be."
"Watch the language, Maria," Jackson chided in a low, stern tone that was belied by a gleam of amusement in his pale brown eyes. "You know Dr. Benson doesn't tolerate that kind of language here. So, don't make me report you for it."
"Oh, come on, Jacko," Maria whined and shifted positions until she had both arms resting on either side of her plate. "There are so few perks in this shitty place, as it is. Don't take away my fuckin' right to express myself. Please?" She did the eye thing again and this time added a pouty lip, too. "You know how endearing my colorful expletives are to the other shits in this hell hole."
"I'm warning you," he pointed an accusing finger at her, before walking away. "Don't make me report this to the doc," he shot over his shoulder, as he returned to his place of observation near the door.
The three women at the table with Lacey chuckled. She just sat there with the same vacant expression. She vaguely knew the conversation was supposed to be amusing, but she still couldn't conjure up the will to care.
"One of these days, Maria," Emily shook her head in exasperation. "He really is going to report you for talking like a street whore."
"I'm not the street whore, Em," Maria replied with a saucy grin, as she took a bite of the chicken on her plate and chewed with her mouth wide open. "That's Callie's job. She's the one who opens her legs to anyone that breathes." She glanced at Callie with a wicked grin. "What was it this time, Cal? Oh, that's right. You let some asshole fuck your brains out and then slipped him a Mickey and used your that dildo contraption of yours to turn the tables on him. Daddy found out about it from the dumbass' old man. But Dumbass turned the tables back on you before Daddy could intervene. How'd it feel to get a taste of your own," she mimed quotes, "'medicine,' bitch? Did you enjoy being so strung out on those drugs he gave you that you had no clue when he took you to that room and had you fucking all those people with your own dear, sweet father looking on behind that two-way glass? Or were you too caught up in the thrill of sucking cunt and being fucked from behind that you didn't even care what was going on around you?"
"Fuck you," Callie shot back with an angry snarl. She then tossed her ponytail, collected herself, took on an indifferent air and looked away. "My sexual exploits do not qualify as prostitution, so do not presume to make that leap, sweetie." A dark smile tugged at her lip.
Maria's expression turned deadly. "Call me sweetie again and see what I do to you, cunt bitch," she growled low, so Jackson wouldn't overhear her. "I won't give you drugs before I have you gang raped by a few, choice friends. You're no better than the rest of us. Only difference is you got the fuckin' money from your rich-ass daddy to pay for you to be here. Some of us don't have that luxury and have to rely on the good graces of the state to help us through our problems."
"Blame your whore of a mother, who shot herself up one too many times and left you to fend for yourself at the tender age of sixteen, for that," Callie turned a cold smirk on Maria. "You really should stop blaming others, though, for your own shortcomings, dear. Maybe things can turn around for you some day and you will no longer have to beat the shit out of your own cunt-sucking girlfriends to get your kicks. What was the last one's name, again?"
If Lacey hadn't been sitting there like a mute statue between them, Maria would have launched herself at Callie and punched the crap out of her. Instead, she just sat there seething. She would bide her time and keep a close eye on her nemesis, until Callie did what she always did and tried something with Lacey. Maria knew how much Callie wanted the green-eyed blond. She made a silent vow to do whatever it took to keep Callie away from Lacey.
"Suck this," Maria grabbed her crotch, instead, and shot Callie the finger.
Callie's expression turned seductive. "Anytime, sweetie. Just say the word."
"Go fuck yourself, bitch," Maria turned away and blew out an exasperated breath. "I ain't interested."
"Oh, but it's so much more fun to let others do it for me," Callie teased with a wicked gleam in her icy blue eyes. She then glanced Jackson's way and back. "And there are so many here who are more than willing to indulge my…er…discerning tastes."
Maria rolled her eyes.
"Can we talk about something else, for a while?" Emily put in timidly. "I'm really not comfortable with all this talk about lesbian sex and stuff-especially not while I'm eating."
Everyone except Lacey glanced at her untouched plate of food.
"I'm finished, anyway," Maria grabbed up her own empty plate, abruptly stood up and walked around the table until she leaned down next to Callie's ear. "Don't touch her, bitch," she hissed. "I'm keeping my eyes on you."
She stood up straight again and tossed a wink Lacey's way, before storming out of the dining hall without a backward glance.
Callie sat there acting as if nothing had just happened. "Well," she said, as she placed her elbows on the table and folded her hands in front of her face. "Wasn't that pleasant?" She shot Emily a pointed look. "Don't you have somewhere to go?"
Emily's pale gray eyes narrowed. "Maria warned you, Cal. Besides, I haven't finished my lunch, yet." She gave Lacey a quick glance. "And Lacey might still want my company, even if she is lost in that drug-induced haze and doesn't have a clue what's going on around her."
"Are we actually growing a backbone, Emily dear?" Callie shot back snidely. "Why, I had no idea you were capable of protecting anyone else, much less yourself."
"Now you listen to me, Callie," Emily leaned over the table and lowered her voice. "You will not do to that poor woman what you tried to do to Meg and what you succeeded in doing with me. I won't let you, you prissy bitch. You might be able to bully and manipulate others into allowing you to fuck them, but I won't let you do it to someone who has no clue what's going on around her. So just, back off!"
"Well," a dark brow rose in surprise, "the timid kitten actually has claws. I never would have guessed."
"Yeah, well, I've learned a thing or two since I've been here," Emily added. "And we all know you're much more than just a sexual predator, Cal. Sex is your drug of choice and you just can't get enough of it. Not to mention, you never take 'no' for an answer."
"Are you quite finished?" Callie let a cold mask of indifference fall over her expression, as she hid the pain Emily's words caused her.
"I'm still eating," Emily said and scooped up a spoonful of mashed potatoes, then shoved them in her mouth.
Callie glanced from Emily to the still-expressionless Lacey and back again. Then she decided it wasn't worth it to stick around with Lacey's self-imposed bodyguard there. She rose to her feet with as much grace and poise as a queen and left the table without a backward glance.
"Good riddance," Emily commented, when Callie was no longer in earshot. "She is such a major pain in the ass."
Lacey felt a small kernel of relief deep down inside her. She knew she didn't like Callie. And she was grateful to the other two for sticking up for her-at least as grateful as she could be under the circumstances. Conjuring up as much willpower as she could muster, she gave her remaining companion the barest hint of a smile.
"Thank…you," she managed to quietly croak out the two words with great effort.
A winning smile split Emily's features. "See? Told you that foggy haze would finally start to dissipate. You just need to keep working hard in order to push past the wall that the drugs put up against your emotions. You'll get there, soon enough, but you have to work really hard and keep working until you break the surface."
Lacey slowly nodded and worked another smile in. It was difficult to get her muscles to obey her wishes. Kind of like being brain-dead and trying to re-learn everything that came naturally to her before...What?
She looked down at her plate and concentrated on lifting a hand to the spoon next to it. After what seemed like an eternity, she finally managed to do that simple act. Her mind kept randomly checking out on her, from time to time, but she finally managed to grasp the spoon, lift it onto the plate, shove it into the cold mashed potatoes and lift it to her lips.
"Hey," Emily's voice intruded and broke her concentration. "Oops, sorry about that." She watched the spoon drop back to the plate. "Didn't mean to make you lose focus. You were doing really well, too." She watched Lacey's eyes slowly track up and meet her gaze. "Oh…oh, yeah. I'll shut up now, so you can concentrate on eating your lunch." She zipped her lips shut to emphasize her words.
Lacey went back to the monumental task of lifting that spoon of mashed potatoes up to her mouth. When she finally managed to take a bite, she found that the potatoes were cold on her tongue. She didn't care. She simply let them slide back in her mouth until her swallowing reflex kicked in. They slid down her throat with ease and she went back to the task of picking up another bite.
The faint hint of a triumphant smile pulled at one corner of her mouth, as she continued to work in slow motion to move the food from her plate to her mouth. It was exhausting work, but it gave her the tiniest spark of satisfaction when she was able to take one bite after the next, until the plate was almost empty.
When she was finally finished, she dropped the spoon onto the empty plate and sat back limply in her chair. She could do nothing more than stare sightlessly across the table, but saw Emily grinning at her.
"You did it," the redhead said warmly. "It probably won't seem like a big deal in a few days, but right now it's the biggest accomplishment you've ever faced. Congratulations, Lacey."
Lacey wanted to smile at the warm look of friendship Emily gave her. She liked the woman and still felt a deep sense of gratitude for what Emily had done. She was just too exhausted by her simple accomplishment to make an effort to thank her again.
And then she felt mind being pulled back down into the black void again. She couldn't fight it. She didn't want to. It closed in fast and she was completely powerless to stop it.
And when those familiar blue eyes appeared to her and the face of an angel materialized behind them, Lacey actually felt something deep within the recesses of her mind. She felt-peace. That sense of peace was so incredibly alien and new, in fact, that she actually made a concerted effort to hold onto it, as she continued to sink down and down into the darkness.
Emily watched Lacey's chin sink to her chest a moment after her eyes drifted shut. She knew exactly what the woman was going through. She also knew what it was like when the drugs kicked in and pulled you down into the dark recesses of your mind. She'd been there once. She never wanted to go there again.
The deepest recesses of one's mind could be one of the scariest places on earth. When one was unable to escape or evoke the will to escape, all sorts of suppressed thoughts and memories surfaced. The darker the memories, the worse the nightmares and terrors were when the drugs eventually stabilized in a person's system.
Emily sent a silent prayer to the heavens that Lacey Stephens wouldn't be plagued by anything buried deep in her mind. She hoped the woman, who appeared to be sleeping peacefully and who had the vaguest hint of a smile on her lips, didn't have any skeletons in her mental closet. God help her if she did.
Lacey Stephens didn't look that much older than she was and Emily was only twenty. She hadn't lived long enough to collect too many bad memories. But she had. Emily knew there were experiences in one's childhood that were horrific enough to remain buried for years. All it took was the drugs for those memories to surface.
Emily knew what it was like, because she had been molested as a small child and had managed to somehow repress the experience throughout her later childhood and teen years. She struggled, constantly, with the anorexia and bulimia that were psychological manifestations of her repressed memories. She struggled with an identity that she couldn't reconcile, until the drugs released the memories into her consciousness. And she was still struggling through nightmares at night that left her shaking in terror, unable to sleep.
She watched her companion sleep in the chair across from her and sent another quick prayer to a god-the one who had abandoned her to face her fears all by herself-that the beautiful woman across from her would not experience the same hell she had-that she still experienced every night.
A moment later, Jackson came over, gently lifted the sleeping woman into his strong arms and carried her out of the dining hall, leaving Emily still sitting there with a full plate of food in front of her. She looked down at the cold meal and then shoved it away, her appetite gone.
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