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Home > The Cage (The Cage #1)(10)

The Cage (The Cage #1)(10)
Author: Megan Shepherd

At home, when she couldn’t sleep, she’d sneak downstairs and borrow her mother’s keys and cruise the Virginia back roads, listening to NPR. There had been a story once about the ways the human mind devised to cope with trauma: denial, bargaining, lethargy. The broadcaster talked about teenage girls in refugee camps who were starving and yet, when questioned, listed their biggest problem as trying to find a nice boy to take home to their parents. He said that the human mind is able to adapt to anything.

Cora wasn’t too sure about that. When she’d gone to Bay Pines, she had been the outsider: a wealthy girl from a politician’s family, charged with murder. When she’d left Bay Pines and returned home, she was an ex-con who knew how to make a shiv out of a toothbrush. That didn’t fit well with lacrosse team and cotillion classes.

She rolled over, and let lyrics form in the back of her head.

How much can we change . . .

When change is all there is . . .

The black window seemed to hum louder, or maybe it was just in her head. She didn’t know which was scarier—seeing their captors, or knowing they were there but not seeing them at all.

9

Nok

NOK SHIVERED IN THE darkness. From where she lay, huddled under the thin blanket that smelled like chemicals, all that was visible through the window was the smear of night. In London, she’d never known true blackness. There’d always been headlights and fluorescent bulbs, street lights and billboards. And it was so deathly quiet. No city noises to drown her memories. She pressed a hand to the base of her throat, expecting the familiar clot of asthma—but her breath came easily.

She rolled over. “Cora, are you still awake?”

“Yeah.”

“I know this sounds crazy,” she whispered, “but I think whoever put us here cured my asthma. And when we first met, Rolf said he used to wear glasses, but his vision is perfect now. They must be super-advanced scientists to do all that, yeah? What if they aren’t . . . human?” Nok drew the blanket higher around her neck.

The other side of the bed was quiet. “You’ll never fall asleep if you start worrying about that,” Cora said at last. “Think about something better. Home. Tell me about London. The life of a model sounds so glamorous.”

Glamorous? Nok rolled over onto her pillow.

Not exactly.

The story she’d told the others had been a detour from the truth. Her childhood had been banana leaves and khee mao noodles and dirt roads the color of rust. Her adolescence had been a rare trip to Bangkok with her three sisters, peppermint ice cream from blue glass bowls, a model 7scout who’d seen her from the street outside and scribbled an address on a napkin he slid to her mother.

Like winning the lottery, her family had said.

Then there’d been a plane ride, twenty other bony girls bound for Europe, giggling and striking silly model poses. The plane landed in London. She couldn’t speak a word of English. They’d taken her to a neighborhood filled with sirens and trash, up seven flights of cramped stairs to a flat packed with five girls to a room, sleeping on floor mattresses, cheap clothes and cheaper makeup strewn everywhere. Home, the model scout had said.

She hadn’t needed to speak English to understand that it was not like winning the lottery.

Nok blinked back to the present. “Home? Right—London. Oh, I’ve a gorgeous flat there. In Notting Hill, by the river. Penthouse suite with a balcony, a massive bathroom with a chandelier.”

“I’ve been to London. . . .” Cora paused. “I didn’t think Notting Hill was near the river.”

Nok’s heart thudded. She knew that—she’d just spoken in such a rush. “Chelsea, I mean. I moved last year. My flat in Notting Hill was a postage stamp. I couldn’t stand it.” She craned her head, trying to see on Cora’s face if she’d sensed the lie, but there was only darkness.

“Right.” Cora’s voice was softer. “A chandelier. Wow.”

Thank you, Nok mouthed to the heavens. If Cora did suspect anything, she was going to keep it to herself.

The bed rumpled, as Cora must have flipped over. “We have a nice house too. My dad invested in tech companies at the right time. Now he’s in politics. He doesn’t know this, but I painted glow-in-the-dark stars on my bedroom ceiling when I was twelve. You can only see them when the lights are off.” She paused. “It seems silly now.”

Nok’s own secret sweated from her pores as her mind raced for a safer topic. “What do you think about the guys?”

“Leon’s kind of an ass,” Cora whispered.

Nok laughed before she could stop herself, and clamped a hand over her mouth. “I never go for those muscle types. Or the good-looking ones, like Lucky. Too full of themselves.”

“You think Lucky’s cute?”

“You don’t?”

Cora didn’t answer. Nok rolled over on her pillow, staring at the ceiling. That awful silence. One of the boys started snoring. It mingled with the hum from the black panel, and Nok’s throat started to close up. Her hand shot to her neck. Blackness swamped her from both sides: the night outside, the black window. She could feel eyes behind that dark glass studying her. She didn’t care about being watched—she’d spent her life watched by photographers from behind dark camera lenses.

When she closed her eyes, she could still see their flashing bulbs. Delphine, her steely-haired talent manager who seemed never to age, standing by the doorway eating black licorice, while a photographer who couldn’t be more than seventeen hid behind a curtain snapping his bulb like squeezing a trigger. Bam. Bam. Bam.

“Look beyond the camera,” Delphine had said. “Look into the heart of the photographer—not this greasy-faced boy, but every man. Because it will be always be a man, even if a woman is taking the pictures, because it’s a man’s world. They always want something. Vulnerability. Weakness. Need. When you give it to them, you control them completely.” Sugary black saliva dribbled from the corner of Delphine’s mouth as she bit into another licorice stick. “And controlling men is the only way women like you and me will survive.”

“What did you say?” Cora asked.

Nok didn’t realize she’d mumbled aloud until Cora’s hand squeezed hers in the darkness. “Hey. You should sleep. Lucky’s keeping watch, and I don’t sleep much either. You can close your eyes. It’s safe.”

Nok searched the dark ceiling for flashing bulbs but found none. No photographers. No Delphine with her dribbling black licorice.

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