The Obsession

By: Nora Roberts



It made an awful sound, left a raw, red mark, but the woman didn’t yell.

“Please.” Her voice sounded like a rusty hinge. “Please help me. Please, don’t leave me here.”

“You have to get away. You have to run.” Naomi looked back toward the cellar door. What if he came back? Oh God, what if the wild man who looked like her father came back?

She tried to untie the rope, but the knots were too tight. She rubbed her fingers raw in frustration, then turned away, using her little light.

She saw a bottle of liquor—forbidden by her father’s law in their house—and more rope, coiled and waiting. An old blanket, a lantern. Magazines with naked women on the covers, a camera, and oh no, no, no, photographs of women taped to the walls. Like this woman, naked and tied up and bloody and afraid.

And women who stared out with dead eyes.

An old chair, cans and jars of food on a shelf nailed to the wall. A heap of rags—no, clothes, torn clothes—and the stains on them were blood.

She could smell the blood.

And there were knives. So many knives.

Closing her mind, just closing her mind to everything else, Naomi grabbed one of the knives, began to saw at the knot.

“You have to stay quiet, stay quiet.”

She nicked flesh, but the woman didn’t cry out.

“Hurry, please hurry. Please, please.” She bit back a moan when her arms were free, and those arms shook as she tried to lower them. “It hurts. Oh God, God, it hurts.”

“Don’t think about it, just don’t think about it. It hurts more when you do.” It hurt, yes, it hurt to think. So she wouldn’t think of the blood, the pictures, the heap of torn and terrible clothes.

Naomi went to work on one of the ankle ropes. “What’s your name?”

“I— Ashley. I’m Ashley. Who is he? Where is he?”

Couldn’t say it. Wouldn’t say it. Wouldn’t think it. “He’s home now. The storm’s come. Can you hear it?”

She was home, too, Naomi told herself as she cut the other rope. Home in bed, and this was all a bad dream. There was no old root cellar that smelled of musk and pee and worse, no woman, no wild man. She would wake in her own bed, and the storm would have cooled everything.

Everything would be clean and cool when she woke.

“You have to get up, get out. You have to run.”

Run, run, run, into the dark, run away. Then this will never have happened.

Sweat rolling down her battered face, Ashley tried to get up, but her legs wouldn’t hold her. She fell to the dirt floor, her breath wheezing. “I can’t walk yet—my legs. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. You have to help me. Please, help me get out of here.”

“Your legs are asleep, that’s all.” Naomi grabbed the blanket, wrapped it around Ashley’s shoulders. “You have to try to get up.”

Working together, they managed to get Ashley to her feet. “Lean on me. I’m going to push you up the ladder, but you have to try to climb. You have to try.”

“I can do it. I can do it.”

Rain whipped in on the slow, sweaty climb up, and twice on that short journey, Ashley nearly slipped. Naomi’s muscles twanged from the strain of holding the weight, of pushing. But on a last sobbing grunt, Ashley dragged herself out, lay panting on the ground.

“You have to run.”

“I don’t know where I am. I’m sorry. I don’t know how long I’ve been down there. A day, two. I haven’t had any food, any water since he . . . I’m hurt.”

Tears streamed, but she didn’t sob, just stared at Naomi through the flood of them. “He . . . he raped me, and he choked me, and he cut me and hit me. My ankle. Something’s wrong with it. I can’t run on it. Can you get me out of here? To the police?”

Rain pounded, and the lightning lit the sky like morning.

But Naomi didn’t wake.

“Wait a minute.”

“Don’t go back in there!”

“Just wait.”

She scrambled down, into the terrible place, and picked up the knife. Some of the blood on it wasn’t fresh, wasn’t from the nicks. No, some was old and dry, and from more than nicks.

And though it sickened her, she pawed through the heap of clothes and found a tattered shirt, a torn pair of shorts.

She took them with her as she climbed back out. Seeing them, Ashley nodded.

“Okay. You’re smart.”

“I didn’t see shoes, but it’ll be easier for you with the shirt and shorts. They’re torn, but—”

“It doesn’t matter.” Ashley bit down hard as Naomi helped her into the shorts, as she carefully lifted Ashley’s arms into the shirt.

Naomi paused when she saw that the movement opened thin slices on Ashley’s torso, saw fresh red blood seeping.

“You have to lean on me.” Because Ashley shivered, Naomi wrapped the blanket over her shoulders again.

Just do, she told herself. Don’t think, just do.

“You have to walk even if it hurts. We’ll look for a good thick stick, but we have to go. I don’t know what time it is, but they’ll look for me in the morning. We have to get to the road. It’s more than a mile into town after that. You have to walk.”

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