Confucius said, “Before embarking upon a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
It’s been a long time since I had to dig two graves, for the two men I loved.
One for Jase.
One for Elliot.
They came for me in the night, to rescue me from the depths of hell I’d been stuck in for months with Dornan Ross, but it didn’t matter. Dornan had figured them out before they’d even stepped foot inside Emilio’s compound, and I cried as first Elliot, then Jase, bled to death in front of me, ripped apart by bullets and bitter vengeance. The cycle of retribution had finally been completed, but instead of it being a happy end, it was a conclusion filled with utter devastation.
I screamed when he shot them.
I begged him to stop.
But Dornan didn’t hesitate for a moment as he lifted his gun and blew Elliot away, pumped him full of lead and kept shooting even after it was clear Elliot’s lifeblood had drained away.
Jase he took his time with, taunted, as only a father who has been betrayed could taunt his youngest son.
We nearly got away.
But we didn’t.
And it’s all my fault.
Six months later, I give birth in that same dank, airless room, no pain relief and no support.
It happens like this: After I scream and cry and finally push my daughter into the world – the daughter I know with all my heart belongs to Jase, not Dornan – a midwife who speaks only Spanish catches her and cuts her umbilical cord, severing her from me.
We’ve been one for so long, but as I stare at the bloody, screaming newborn in the midwife’s hands, something crucial withers inside of me.
I die a thousand harrowing deaths as the midwife hands my daughter to Dornan Ross, and a thousand more when I see the look of adoration in his eyes. The look of satisfaction.
“I always wanted a daughter,” he says to me. As I scream and shake and begin to understand the ferocity of a mother’s love. As I finally become Dornan’s equal. I am a mother, and he was a father, before I took his six sons from him. Only in this moment, as I watch him hold my baby, as I bleed too much blood to put up any kind of fight, do I understand the viciousness of a parent’s love for their child.
Only in this moment do I understand how it could feel to lose the thing you love the most.
As it dawns on me I won’t even be able to feed my baby the colostrum that drips from my breasts.
He has won this war of ours. I have lost.
It was all for nothing.
Once the midwife confirms the baby is healthy, weighs her and wraps her and hands her back to Dornan, he cradles my daughter in one arm, takes his gun from his waistband and shoots the midwife point blank in the face.
That was almost four years ago.
It’s Sunday today, and if I’m good, Dornan will let me see my little girl. He called her Emily, after his father, Emilio. I wasn’t allowed to choose. I wasn’t even allowed to hold her. I expressed milk into bottles with a gun to my head and a Polaroid photo of my daughter pinned to the wall beside me, a human cow who existed only to nourish my young.
But I have to be very good, and do exactly as I’m told, or he’ll take my visit away. I’ll spend another week in here, with him, without seeing my baby. She looks like Jase, big brown eyes and lashes so lush and long, they look almost fake. Tiny rosebud lips – those she got from me – and her father’s forehead and olive skin.
I’m jolted out of my endless waiting by the door swinging open suddenly. Dornan enters my nine-by-nine cell, slamming the door behind him with a resolute thud. He smiles at me, his eyes cold, his manner that of a hunter bearing down on prey.
“Good morning, Juliette,” he says, his voice as if he’s got a throat full of gravel.
I don’t answer. I can barely talk anymore. Sometimes, I must go weeks without uttering a single word.
“It’s a good day, baby. You know why?”
I shake my head, cringing as he presses his hand to my swollen stomach. My third pregnancy down here. The first was baby Emily. The second ended in a miscarriage after Dornan kicked me too hard, too many times. Now, he’s learned his lesson. He sticks to my extremities when he’s beating me unconscious. I feel like my brain is starting to atrophy, like a fighter who’s taken one too many hits to the face.
“The blood test results came back. It’s a boy,” he says proudly. “A son to replace one of the sons you stole from me.”
My chest constricts painfully. All of a sudden, it’s really fucking hard to breathe, and not because of the fetus currently kickboxing my insides. I know, and have always known beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my daughter was fathered by Jase. I wanted her to stay in my womb forever, where she was safe, where she was away from this madness.
But the reality of carrying a baby fathered by Dornan – a son, no less – makes me want to throw myself off the roof. I’m not this child’s mother. I’m nothing but a host, a live incubator, a flesh and bone surrogate of doom.
Dornan sees my reaction, and it makes him chuckle. “You look old, Julie. Old and worn down. I’ll make you a deal. After this one’s born, I’ll put a bullet in your head and end all this. What do you say?”
I’d say yes, only I know it’s a trick. A cruel lie. The debt’s too high for him to just let me go like that.
“Kidding,” he says. “You know I can’t do that.”
He taps the end of my nose playfully. “You’ll have this one, and another, and another. And one day, the balance will be even. Am I right, baby girl?”
Tears form in my eyes and I have to blink them away, or they’ll fall, and that will only excite him.
He grins, baring those teeth that he bites into my flesh when he wants to hear me scream.
“We’re almost even. The question is, how many more do you think you’ve got in you, Julz?”
I remember the moments after Emily was born, perfect and healthy. How I’d almost died from blood loss. How I’d woken up to find a red-filled tube running from Dornan’s arm to mine. “What do you know,” he’d said wryly. “We’ve got the same blood type, you and me.”
I didn’t want his blood inside me, but it didn’t matter. He got inside me then, and he’s inside me now, and that’s all it’ll ever be until he decides to turn out the lights in my world.
“Baby girl,” he says, backing me up until he’s pressing me against hard limestone wall, cupping my chin almost tenderly. “I’ve missed you this week.”
He kisses me hungrily, and I reciprocate. What choice do I have? The pleasures I get in this world are fleeting, brief. He tastes like cigarettes and coffee and a brief reprieve from my fate. I pull him into me, kissing him back feverishly, my eternal hope that he’ll love me enough to let me out of this room one day.
He picks me up easily, my frame waifish despite my twenty-something week pregnancy, dropping me on the single bed and crawling on top of me.
I don’t fight as he unbuttons my blouse, button by agonizing button.
I don’t fight as he rips my panties from me and pushes my skirt up around my waist.
I don’t fight as he wrenches my legs apart and pushes inside me.
I don’t fight as he wraps his hands around my throat and squeezes until the room spins around me and white spots appear in my vision.
I don’t fight at all.
When it’s over, he takes me upstairs and lets me see her.
“Mama!” Emily yells, her brown curls flying out behind her as she runs across the living room to me.
“Baby!” I exclaim, kneeling on one knee and extending my arms out. I catch her in a bear hug, burying my face in her tiny neck; breathing in the sweet baby smell that’s still there, the one that I don’t think ever goes away for a mother. I smother her in kisses. I think of Jase. I swallow back a tidal wave of grief.
“Mama!” she says excitedly. “Daddy says I’m getting a baby brother!”
I look up at Dornan, who’s standing behind my little girl, watching our scene unfold with great satisfaction.
I feel my lips quiver as I try to answer her. “Yeah, sweetie,” I say, brushing away a tear. “He’s going to love you so much.”
I look up at Dornan again, at his smirk, at the dark promises in his eyes for me, all for me.
Dornan Ross once promised me things worse than death.
Now, I know all of them.
He’s going to give me my children and then take them all away.
And there’s not a damned thing I can do to stop him.
It ends too quickly, it always does. In the end, he has to drag me away from her, and I can tell how much he loves doing it, each and every time.
Back in my airless little hell, Dornan pushes me face-first against the wall and just stands there, trapping me with his large body, his breath hot on my neck as his arms cage me in.
I have tried so hard to find an escape from this room. A sharp edge, a long enough sheet, something poisonous to swallow. But the only poison I get to taste is the kiss of the man who has utterly destroyed me.
God, what I would give to get out of here. I would give him anything.
I would give him everything. My soul. My limbs. This baby boy inside my womb. I would give him my life, tear my skin open like paper and watch it spill away, if he would just give me the chance.
But Dornan Ross is not the kind of man who desires things that come easily. Dornan Ross is a man who lives to see the torment his retribution causes. Dornan Ross is a man who exists to twist the knife deeper in the gut of his enemy, and I am his worst enemy. He twists and twists but he never gets the knife deep enough to actually kill me.
Dornan Ross is not a merciful monster.
“Aren’t you tired of this?” I say wearily, my fingers raw against the rough limestone wall, salty tears stinging my cheeks. “Aren’t you tired of me?”
Dornan laughs, and I feel the way his chest rattles against my back. “Are you kidding me?” he replies, fisting his hand in my hair and yanking forcefully so my neck is exposed. “I could never get tired of this, baby girl. You and me? We were always going to end up here.”
He leans in, sinking his teeth into my neck like some kind of pseudo-vampire. At the same time, he brings his free hand around to my front, finding the place at the juncture of my thighs where if he presses just a little, in just the right spot, he pain fades away.
Pleasure and pain. Blood and betrayal.
A vengeful girl and a villainous man.
Dornan and Juliette.