THE WIND WHIPS against her face. Snowflakes stick to her hair, her cheeks, her eyelashes.
She's disoriented as she tries to find her way home. The sun set at four in the afternoon, but it's much later now. It's so dark that it feels as if blackness has swallowed up the city. She's making her way down the streets, relying on streetlamps and muscle memory. It's impossible to see in the snow.
She knows two things: first, that she's going to be in big trouble for being so late; second, that it's not going to be easy to locate her house in this terrible storm. It's a small home. She's the oldest of four girls. The youngest are twins—high energy and overly demanding of her patience. It's exhausting to keep them in line. They don't behave as they're supposed to. Even worse, they're all crammed into one bedroom.
They live with their widowed father and his sister. Her aunt is strict, but her father is ruthless. He works in the church and has high standards for his children. She also suspects he resents all of them for not being boys. He can snap at any time, for any reason. Anything she can do to protect the twins, she will do.
'What's the world like outside of this place?' she wonders.
Maybe someday she'll find out.
She's crossing the street now, turning the collar of her coat to the wind, the residents of Harlem passing her by. They all seem to be in the same rush, wanting to get home and out of the cold. The stove will be nice. She's going to sit in front of it until her face is glowing from the heat. After that, maybe she'll read. Or perhaps write a letter using the new fountain pen in her pocket, which she bought earlier in the day. Or maybe—
Someone grabs her from behind, a pair of hands that seems to have come out of nowhere. She tries to pull away. She slams her elbows back. Kicks hard. Her hands ball into fists and she turns to throw a punch. But it's too late. A raggedy cloth presses over her nose and mouth.
The world spins. The buildings blur.
After a few seconds, it all goes black.
She won't be going home tonight.
HER HANDS ARE shaking. That's the first thing she notices. They're tied tightly in her lap. She immediately begins trying to get loose. The room is small and dark. In the distance, maybe a few steps away—the blackness is so bewildering that she can't tell for sure—someone is crying softly.
The winter cold has settled into her bones. The tips of her fingers have gone numb; her feet, too. Her coat is also gone. It provided some comfort against the cold, but now she's trembling under her thin clothes.
She blinks as her eyes adjust. How long has she been here? A day? A week? She has no idea. The last thing she remembers is trying to get home, then fighting as hard as she could to free herself from someone's grasp. But that could have been a month ago. She could be in an entirely different city, maybe even a different state.
Her eyes are heavy. She wants to go back to sleep. Just for a moment, she thinks. Maybe if I sleep for a bit, I'll wake up and find myself next to the stove in my house. But she knows better than that. If she closes her eyes again, she may never wake up. It's too cold in here. Her stomach is swirling. Cramps tear through her legs in gripping waves.
She must stay awake and alert.