YOU CAN NEVER ESCAPE YOUR INNER DEMON.
After the death of her parents, Ruby awakens from a lifetime of shadows and finds herself alone, thrust into a world of lies, deceit, betrayal and the supernatural.
As her quest for truth continues to come up short, she realizes that maybe some questions really are best left unanswered.
When her true identity is finally unveiled, she is forced to choose between two of the mysterious men who continually seem to crop up in her life.
She chooses poorly.
Now abandoned, Ruby must learn to call on the darkness within to survive, or spend a hellish eternity imprisoned because of it.
CAGED, the first of nine novels in the completed Caged series by USA Today bestselling urban fantasy and paranormal romance author Amber Lynn Natusch.
A Caged Novel
© 2011 Amber Lynn Natusch
I saw my first tree that day.
I was twenty-eight years old.
I lifted my face from the fine, white, powdery snow that I lay in to see it. It stood dead ahead of me, tall and strong. It looked nothing like I had imagined; bigger, rougher. I struggled to drag myself over to that strong tree, propping up against it with the hope that its strength would somehow inspire my own. I looked up to see the billowing clouds dance across the sky. Dad had always told me that snow came when the clouds were thick and full.
I was in shock―I could see!READ MORE
My hand floated up to my face involuntarily, stopping before making contact. I observed it, slowly turning it different ways to familiarize myself with it. My eyes then darted quickly away to the rest of my body. They, not my hands, scanned myself. Seeing the state of my leg quickly turned my shock into horror as memories slowly leaked back into my consciousness.
My parents are dead.
I had been told from a young age that those born without sight tended to compensate with their other senses. I never felt like that was true of me, exactly, but I always had the ability to sense the strong emotions of others as if they were my own. An empath, as it were. When I said that I felt someone’s pain, I meant it literally.
My parents were yards away, but I couldn't get to them. I felt their terror as death came for them violently. Distracted, I never heard their attackers coming for me. The tearing of my shirt's fabric was my first sign of their presence. I could feel the warmth of their hands as they grabbed and pawed at me, ripping material off along the way. I had no idea how many of them there were.
As the screams of my parents faded, the attackers turned their undivided and unwanted attention on me. I never was one for being the center of attention, and that moment was no exception. I could feel the cold wind on my entire body as I started to black out.
I was so afraid...
When I awoke, I didn't know whose blood was on me, but I knew it wasn't mine. I didn't know how I got to wherever I was, but I knew I was hurt and unable to walk.
I didn't know what day or time it was, but I knew I was alone, terrified, and missing a chunk of my life that I could not account for.
Despair closed in on me, and I tried to pull myself together long enough to figure out what to do. I needed to splint my leg. I needed to find shelter. I needed to find my parents' bodies. I needed to do a lot of things. The only thing I seemed able to make myself do was curl up in a ball by that big tree and stare at the world around me.
My entire body shook. The bitter cold assaulted my bare skin that had been left desperately exposed to the elements. I seemed too detached from the situation to care―a paralyzing state of shock taking over.
I never heard the voices as they approached from the distance. They were white noise, indecipherable, until one called out to me. The voice was unfamiliar, yet fell on my ears like an old friend's. I tried to yell, but instead of a thunderous "over here," a mere squeak came out. Much to my surprise, he acknowledged, then ran towards me at a speed I hadn't known a human could possess, but I guess I wasn't really an expert.
A sudden, brief jolt of horror shot through me. What if these are the people I've been trying to escape? I went from elation to panic in a nanosecond. I struggled to find a way to stand up, only to be weighed down by the burden my right leg had become. I wanted to escape. The compulsion to run nearly tore me in half.
I can't die this way.
My breathing became more rapid, shallow, and completely ineffective. I felt the darkness coming again. Just as my final grip on consciousness faded, I saw him. I thought he was an angel, sent by God to bring me home, to bring me to my parents. A dream come true, during my worst nightmare.
The contrast was beautiful and frightening.
"Shit! Just when you think you're running out of places to slice yourself with questionable looking metal scraps, some fresh real estate pops up and introduces itself to the harbinger of tetanus,” I muttered to myself, jabbing my finger with the copper I was remaking into a bracelet. If I can stave off lockjaw for another week, I’ll consider myself the luckiest person alive.
Once it was clear that the bracelet wasn't really interested in being sized, it gave me an excuse to cut out early and head upstairs to plan the events of the evening. The odds weighed heavily in favor of a salad for dinner with an HBO movie chaser, but it was an easy bet since I was the one stacking the deck. After doing a final run-through of the shop to make sure everything was shut down and straightened up, I made my way out the main entrance to an already bustling scene. All of the local restaurants that lined the old, cobblestone New England streets were lit up, creating an inviting ambiance for the people who filled the streets, making their way to the various establishments. I loved to walk around downtown, crowded with brick buildings dating back to the 1700's. Portsmouth, New Hampshire had a lot to offer for a small city, without the drawbacks of being in a much bigger urban scene. No worries about being mugged on the way to your car, no fear of a drive-by shooting while out jogging, no stabbings, no gangs; virtually no violence at all, random or otherwise. Best of all, no murders. That alone sold me on it.
I quickly soaked in the view and turned to lock the door. Maybe I should actually go out tonight. Maybe loosen up and actually participate in socialization? As I shoved that crazy talk far into the depths of my subconscious, I worked on unlocking the adjacent door that led up to my personal space, my second-story apartment and third floor loft studio. I bought the three-story brick building with my inheritance. It was one of three things I owned that had any ties to my parents at all.
Even though I'd moved to Portsmouth nine months earlier, I hadn't really made many friends. In fact, I hadn't really made any at all, which made it a tad difficult to have a social life. I never gave too much thought to it, though. Everything was so chaotic after the death of my parents, and having to assimilate into a seeing world only complicated things further. Although most things were easy enough to pick up on with a little study and help from those around me, I constantly encountered unknowns. Driving was beyond intimidating, and it had taken me months to muster the courage to even try it at all. I had kept my dad's car because of how much he loved it, and I wanted to have the opportunity to see the nuances that he always spoke about that made it such a fantastic ride. It was the second of the three items linked to my parents.
When I entered the corridor, I heard a faintly familiar sound and shot up the stairs to get into my apartment. Is that my phone? Nobody ever called me. I knew two people in town, and one of them owned my favorite Chinese restaurant.
I highly doubted that my take-out was calling me.
I barely got to the phone in time, only to hear a pre-recorded message reminding me that my recycling schedule had changed and I needed to put it out Monday instead of Tuesday. Good to know. After noting that on my virtually empty calendar, I turned the TV on for some dinner-making background noise. It was the only conversation I seemed to be a part of.
I giggled at some ridiculous show involving the strange mating rituals of drunken co-eds as I pieced together my salad. Tonight I’m going to live on the edge and add avocado. I really did need to get out more.
Feeling as though my IQ was dropping in direct proportion to the rapidly increasing beer count on the show, I decided to try the local news. I turned to a feature on the most recent bar/restaurant/club in town. I put my knife down, because multitasking had never been my thing, and watched the footage. The place looked promising. It had a fabulous contemporary decor that was very Euro-trendy and an actual live DJ spinning. Interesting.
I watched as they flashed clips of people dancing, bartenders fixing whatever drink was en vogue, and a montage of interviews with delighted patrons. Maybe I really should try going out, it looks like fun...but drunk people always look like they're having a good time.
I loved to dance, but the bar scene completely intimidated me. I'd never had the guts to go more than once. In college it was too difficult because someone had to be with me constantly to guide me through the melee so as to avoid injury from a variety of sources. Apparently drunken people were accidents waiting to happen. The one and only time I went I managed fifteen whole minutes in the bar before some idiot backed into me. He knocked me into a waitress; she fell into a group behind her, which started what could best be described as a procession of human dominoes that ended with a very pissed off bouncer and us getting tossed.
How bad could it be? I can always leave if it blows.
I caved and decided that going out for the first time ever by myself was the plan. I then frantically tried to find appropriate attire. My style was best described as delightfully random. I relished the opportunity to mix vintage with boutique finds and high fashion with Goodwill bargains, topping it all off with the perfect accessory. I was always complimented on the originality of my outfit. I suppose they could have been backhanded compliments; I wasn't very good at reading expressions. I never worried about it, though. I loved the freedom of being able to choose what I wanted to wear.
Before I got too far into the process, I sought inspiration from Gwen Stefani's "What u Waitin 4." I liked to go through life with my own little soundtrack blaring both internally and externally; I thought it was good for the soul. Since nobody on the news feature looked overly dressed up, I settled on some low-rise jeans that were skinny enough to toss on my favorite (and oh-so-expensive) chocolate brown, faded, four-inch stacked heel, knee-high boots with the buckle on the side. I SOOOOOO love Jimmy Choo.
As if it were important what top I wore (because my boots were so amazing), I grabbed a long-sleeved, grey and navy mini-striped top that came down low on the hips and covered me when I bent over. My boots were showstoppers, but I didn't want to run the risk of mooning the bar-goers every time I bent down or sat in a chair; I liked to try to keep my bits to myself. The slight transparency of the top demanded that I put a camisole on under it because I wasn't into flashing the girls either.
If my dressing went seamlessly, my hair and makeup were a whole other story. Sometimes you went into battle knowing you were going to get your ass handed to you on a platter. I tried my best to tame my shoulder-length, platinum-blond, curly hair, though I was convinced it was possessed and had a personal vendetta against me. The potential for greatness was there, but I hadn't quite figured out how to extract it. I had been told on numerous occasions that it looked like Sarah Jessica Parker's in Sex and the City's early seasons, only bigger. Having never watched it, I had no idea if that was good or bad. I managed to get the frizz out of it using some kind of expensive goo that I was certain just weighed it down slightly. Since it took the edge off, I considered it a wildly successful encounter. As for makeup, my strategy was simple―try not to look like a ghost. I'd learned that being obscenely pale was not generally socially accepted. Society 1, me 0.
I did my best to apply a little stain to the apples of my cheeks and clear gloss to my lips. The intricacies of eye makeup application still eluded me. My fair complexion didn't pull off a lot of color well, so I never tried. I didn't want to upstage my ocean blue eyes, so I kept my eye shadow neutral and accentuated with highlighter. Eyeliner and mascara were an ER excursion waiting to happen. I tried my best to not get the liner in my eye or on too thick. If I kept mascara to the general region of my lashes, it was a wild success. Luckily for me, my lashes were impossibly long, so I had a big target.
Once the ritual was completed, I gave myself a once-over in the mirror. Not too shabby. Beauty was a funny thing to gauge when my blindness had left me without societal cues for nearly my whole life. What I found attractive wasn't necessarily what others did. Sometimes I found myself completely baffled by the movie stars, sports gods, and socialites in the media who were worshiped by the masses. I didn't see it. Sure there were those that you just couldn't argue (Brad Pitt for example), but only one face had ever stopped my breath, and I was very certain I'd never see anything that compared to it for the rest of my existence. Some treasures were only meant to be found once.
I assumed that was an acceptable time to head out. I didn't want to be too early and look stupid arriving alone.
At the door, I stopped to load my favorite magenta leather handbag with my wallet and keys. I rifled through the clutter on the console table, looking for my platinum band. The ring was the last of the three things I owned with any connection to my parents; I rarely ever took it off. Maybe I left it in the shop. Not wanting to stall my going-out momentum, I decided to look for it when I got home. I locked up the apartment and headed downstairs. I broke out into the crowd of people meandering through the streets and locked up behind me. A girl could never be too careful, even in Portsmouth.
The club was only a few blocks away from my place, so I filed into the crowd of people going my direction and kept pace. For entertainment on my trip, I listened in to conversations that were entirely too private to be had in the busy streets. I learned all about how difficult it was to treat chlamydia, especially the third time around, from the group of early twenty-something women directly in front of me. Perhaps someone should have the "friends don't let friends get STD's" discussion.
Behind me were the drunken ramblings of some middle-aged businessmen discussing whether the size, shape, or texture of a woman’s anatomy was her most important quality. It sounded like shape was ahead for a while, but size made an amazing push from behind to come through victorious in the end. Men really are that predictable. I crossed the street, not only to escape the increasing anxiety I was feeling while listening to them, but also because I needed to make a left at Market Street.
As I approached the club, I was disheartened to see a line flowing from the entrance down the street. What is this, Boston? Great. I sighed audibly and joined the rest of the cattle in the queue. I hoped with any luck it was going to move quickly. I felt so exposed being by myself when everyone around me had friends or significant others with them. I’m so lame. If I'd had my cell phone, I could have pretended to be texting while I played games on it. While I was lost in thought, somebody elbowed me from behind to indicate the line was moving and I'd better catch up. I frowned back at the owner of the elbow in question and he smiled wickedly at me. Creeptaaaaastic. I made a mental note not to look in that general direction again.
As I started to reflect on why this was the world's worst idea, the bouncer came out and started picking people out of the line to go in. There's a selection process? I don't remember seeing that shit on the news. As I turned to duck out of line, a hand caught my elbow and gently spun me around.
"Don't you want to go in?" the bouncer asked.
I half-smiled and nodded.
"Well then, today's your lucky day, Chica."
Indeed it is.
"Thanks" was all I managed to mumble as I walked past him to the entrance. I felt the cold looks tear through the back of me as I passed everyone waiting in line. I glanced back to see Creeptastic arguing with the bouncer and pointing at me. I didn't wait around to see what that was about and put on speed as I went through the door. One flash of my ID and a smile later, I was in. Not wanting to relive my domino disaster of undergrad past, I made my way very quickly to the bar. I found the back corner where it connected to the wall and tucked myself into the last seat. I figured if I surrounded myself with as many stable surfaces as I could, it would greatly decrease the odds of a repeat performance.
I wasn't a big drinker, but the scene there would have driven anyone to it. There was barely enough room to pass between individuals without grossly encroaching on their personal space. Being very attached to mine, I decided that in order to loosen my grip on it, I would require some liquid courage. Thirty minutes, twenty-five dollars, and three G&T's later, I was ready to rock. My dancing shoes were ready to go cut some rug all over that place. Just as I was getting off of my perch at the bar, I got a strangely uncomfortable yet familiar feeling. My breath started to come rapidly and I felt all the blood drain from my face. It was at that moment I felt an unwanted hand on my shoulder. I choked down a scream. I'm in public. I'm fine. Nobody here is going to hurt me. Breathe.
I slowly turned to face Captain Touchy-Feely. SHIT! The Captain was none other than Creeptastic. How did he get in here?
Feeling slightly relieved for the moment, I asked, "How the hell did you get in here?" People skills were not my forte.
He put his hand around the back of my neck and drew me towards him. "I thought you were going to leave me out there in that line. I had to convince the big guy that you were hard of hearing and didn't realize that I wasn't behind you while you went in," he said.
My pulse was in my throat. He was smiling at me, but the look was predatory and the energy and intent behind it were nothing short of malicious. I tried to keep my shit together while every fiber of my being was yelling "get the fuck out of here." Since no overly untoward gesture had been made, I opted for defusing the situation.
"Guess I am. I never heard you and I wasn't aware that I should have notified you of my entrance approval, dear."
He laughed abruptly and moved closer still, until our toes were in danger of touching and my back was pinned up against the wall.
"Dear, is it? I was hoping our pet names would take on a more...flavorful quality."
I struggled to gracefully evade both his position and hold on me. My poker face was alarmingly close to failing, and I needed to get some distance between me and the psycho. As I ducked my head around his hand in a fluid dance-like move to the downbeat of whatever song was playing, I said, "I don't do flavorful, and I certainly wouldn't do you.” So much for the defusion game plan.
His eyes flickered something I didn't understand as he violently grabbed me by my shoulders.
"Who said I was giving you a choice?”
I not only saw, but felt, what he intended. Not again. Please, God, not again. No, no, no, no, not again. I was paralyzed by my fear. I didn't shout. I didn't run. I stared into the face of a psycho and did nothing. I felt the tears stinging the backs of my eyes and then it happened again. My vision started to narrow and go dark. I was going to pick that time to blackout. Classic. That would give him exactly what he wanted: an easy excuse to carry me out of here unquestioned and go do whatever sick things he was planning on. Focus. Focus! Do not do this. Fight! But it was no use. There was no fight in me, giving truth to the old adage: those who don't learn from history really are doomed to repeat it.