The oil burned her skin, searing and sharp. The pain was compounded by the terror of not knowing her tormentor, or her location, or how the hell she was supposed to get out of the dark, rotten basement in which she now found herself.
Inez Eliot howled in a way she hadn’t since childbirth, low and deep, emerging from her center and radiating out. She tried to retract her foot from the pot, but couldn’t, as her ankles were shackled to the chair upon which she was confined. Her muscles flexed away from the pain as hard as they were able. It did not help.
Her captor, a medium-height man in a ski mask and black clothes, removed the pot just as she felt she would pass out if forced to endure the pain any longer. Her breath came in sob-choked gasps.
“You won’t be doing any running for a while, will ya?” She could hear the smirk in his gruff voice.
Inez didn’t answer.
“Must be quite an inconvenience, for a woman like you. That’s what you all like to do, isn’t it? Run.”
Inez didn’t answer.
“My wife. She liked to run. Ran all around town with every pecker she saw. Couldn’t wait to cobble up their cocks and give ‘em my money.”
“Sir,” she gasped. “I don’t know your wife. Whatever she did, I had nothing to do with it.”
The black-clad man crossed his arms and rocked back on his feet. “Oh, didn’t you? Inez Elliot, champion of the downtrodden homemaker? Inez Elliot, leading the march for a guaranteed basic income for lazy whores everywhere? You had nothing to do with it, did you?”
Inez understood, then. Her kidnapper was one of those guys. The realization did not bring her comfort.
“Sir, whatever problems you and your wife had, I assure you, it was not my intention to-”
He backhanded her with such ferocity it stunned her into silence. She felt wetness on her chin and realized she was bleeding. A drop of blood spattered onto her white floral blouse. She ignored it. The pain in her foot was worse. She wondered if she’d ever walk normally again. She wondered if she’d ever walk again, period, or if she’d die in this psychopath’s basement.
“I don’t give one flying fuck what your intentions were. What you did, was you destroyed my life. After your little bill got passed, Christina squirreled away her money, little by little, in some secret account. Because who am I, right? Just her husband, that’s all. Why should I have any right to know her business, where she keeps her money, how much she has?”
“Please sir. If you unchain me, maybe I can help-”
He slapped her again.
“You will speak when you are spoken to. Is that understood?”
Inez nodded, unable to speak as a blast of nausea rocked her insides.
“Now. Where was I, before I was so rudely interrupted? Christina. Yes. Christina told me her checks were one thousand dollars a month, direct deposit into her little account. And I believed her. Can you believe that? Yeah, you probably can, can’t you? You’re probably a lying cunt just like she was.” He kicked her chair, and she screeched as her boiled foot scraped the concrete floor.
“But she wasn’t getting one thousand dollars a month, was she? No ma’am. Because those payments worked on a sliding scale. I didn’t know nothing about that. I didn’t read the fine print, did I? No. I bet no one did. Except the moochers, sucking off the government titties, like you and your friends.”
It was true, there had been a lot of confusion about what, exactly, the payments would amount to. The way the bill was promoted on campaign trails and in grassroots protests was “$1000 for each and every homemaker, every month!” In practice, however, the amount varied from household to household. $1000 was the average payment, yes. But homemakers from poorer households could earn up to $2000 per month for their labors, and homemakers from the upper-income brackets might only earn $100 per month, more as a token of appreciation for their work, than as a real source of income. The goal was to acknowledge the importance of homemaking, and to reward what had traditionally been “women’s work.” They had achieved this goal, and while there had been a lot of pushback from fiscal conservatives, there were enough demanding voices from unpaid home-workers to overpower them.
She gathered that this Christina had been in one of the lower-income brackets, and had earned more than the advertised $1000, and her captor hadn’t bothered to read up on the bill, and wasn’t aware of the pay scales.
He was pacing back and forth in front of her now, and his twitchy movements made her jump. “So she’s giving me the one thousand dollars every month, and I think we’ve got it made. A nice little chunk of change to help us out. And then guess what happened.”
Inez shook her head, tears streaming down her face.
“She packed up my kids, took her secret stash and hightailed it for God knows where. You know when the last time I saw my kids was?”
Inez shook her head, more violently.
“Fourteen goddamned months. Do you know what that feels like?”
Inez exhaled. “I do have children, sir, and I can imagine-”
“The fuck you can!” He kicked over the chair, and it collapsed backward, her feet still shackled to the legs. The hard metal back collided with her soft flesh, knocking the air out of her lungs. She gasped as her kidnapper continued.
“You can’t even begin to know the hurt I’m going through. The pain of losing your whole family, not being able to see them. I took good care of my wife and kids. I worked every day to support their spoiled, whining asses. And this is the thanks I get? To have her run off without so much as a dear John letter? What do you think of that? Huh?”
Inez reclaimed her breath as the man stepped over her, straddling her, one foot planted on either side of her head. She looked up at him, cowardly in his stupid little-boy burglar disguise. She had thought that the ski mask was a good sign, at first. If he wanted his identity to remain a secret, it probably meant he was planning to let her go at some point. Now she wasn’t so sure.
And then, something in her snapped. She had planned to answer something along the lines of “I think it’s terrible what you’ve been through,” but now she couldn’t say that. The words would not physically leave her mouth. Instead, her pain and fear and rage answered, spitting and crackling out of her. “Well, from what I know of you so far, I think your wife made a damn good choice.”
“Oh, you do, do you?” The man asked, as he stepped away from her.
Inez cursed herself for her stupid loud mouth. What the hell was she thinking talking to him that way? Whatever was coming next, she was sure she wasn’t going to like it. She thrashed around, hoping to…she didn’t know what. Loosen the chains? Break the chair, maybe? She didn’t know; she just knew she couldn’t sit still and let this man do anything else to her.
He came back with the pot of boiling oil. He held it over her head.
“Oh, God, no please I’m sorry what I said before I wasn’t thinking it was-”
“GET AWAY FROM HER!”
A new voice, a woman’s voice, traveled down the stairs. Inez peered toward it and saw a light from the top of the stairway and a woman coming down, holding a gun. She recognized the voice, but –
The man stood there for a moment, then collected himself and ran for the steps, pot in hand. Seeing what he meant to do, Inez shouted a warning. “It’s boiling oil! Stay away from it!”
Her rescuer didn’t need telling twice. She aimed a bullet into Burglar Boy’s chest and he went down quickly, no stumbling around and moaning like one sees in old cowboy movies. She yanked his key-ring off his belt and rushed to Inez, crouching down next to her.
Inez saw her hero’s face and sobbed with relief.
“Alexandra! What are you doing here? How did you find me?”
“What kind of assistant would I be if I didn’t assist you when you got kidnapped?” She laughed, but it was broken, hysterical laughter, and she was crying at the same time.
“How did you find me?”
“When you didn’t show up for your morning meeting, I was worried. Your husband said you’d left for work at the usual time, and he was worried too, when I said you hadn’t arrived. So I checked the security tapes outside the office, just to see, and I saw him grab you and put you in the trunk. Stupid didn’t even bother to check for cameras.”
“But…didn’t you call the police? Why are you here?”
“I did. They’re on their way, but I was driving around and I happened to see the truck outside this house, and I recognized it. Damn lucky. Figured I’d just take care of it.” By this time, Alexandra had unshackled Inez and put her back upright. The rush of blood to her burned foot was excruciating and she gasped.
“You could have been killed, Alexandra. What kind of crazy woman runs into a psychopath’s basement, alone?”
Alexandra shrugged. “The kind who has been shooting since she was seven, and knows how to handle herself in a crisis. The kind who learned to be brave from a really brave woman.” She reached out and stroked Inez’s hair. The gentle tenderness of the caress made her cry all over again, this time from gasping, mind-altering gratitude. And also from the pain in her foot.
“POLICE! DROP YOUR WEAPONS!”
Loud footsteps echoed above them. Alexandra sighed. “IT’S ALREADY HANDLED, OFFICERS! COME ON DOWN.”
The officers entered the basement torture chamber, guns drawn, tense and fast. They took in the situation and began talking on their radios and calling for an ambulance.
“Can you take off that guy’s mask? Who was he?”
“Um, I think the police will have a fit if I touch anything.”
They both looked at the body sprawled on the ground and back at each other. “I think I deserve to know who did this to me.”
Alexandra raised an eyebrow. “Yes, you do.”
“Ma’am, an ambulance is on the way to take care of you. But we need to ask you some questions,” said a kindly police officer, standing directly in front of Inez.
Alexandra took this opportunity to stride over to the body, where some cops were stretching out “CAUTION” tape. Before anyone knew what she was doing, she grabbed the ski mask and yanked it off in one smooth motion.
An officer immediately grabbed her and moved her away from the body. She smiled at Inez over the cop’s shoulder. “You’ll never guess who it is!”
Inez looked away from the officer who was questioning her, alert, needing to hear Alexandra’s answer.
“It’s Old Man Withers, the guy who runs the haunted amusement park!”
And despite the pain in her foot and the blood on her face, and the murderous psychopath who had kidnapped her and tortured her, and despite the very real horrors perpetrated on her person…Inez laughed.
Obtaining a basic minimum wage for homemakers had been a massive undertaking, and along the way, Inez had acquired a number of enemies. She knew this. She was no stranger to death threats, internet harassment, and mean-spirited shouting. But this was the first time she’d actually been physically harmed by one of her haters.
The shock of it was worse than the pain from her injuries, and despite the strong painkillers they administered in the hospital, she had trouble sleeping. Nightmares plagued her. It didn’t help that the nurses came in frequently to push buttons and squeeze and mess with her foot. Her husband and grown children stayed by her side as much as they were able, but they had their own lives to attend to, and often she was left on her own, to brood on her dark thoughts.
The man who kidnapped her was named Gustavo Higgins, and he had not survived the gunshot. Inez wished she wasn’t so happy about his death. It made her feel ghoulish.
She adjusted the back of the bed so she sat up straight. She reached out a hand and stroked the lovely daffodils that sat closest to her. Her room was filled with flowers and well-wishes from friends, family, coworkers at Coalition Headquarters and random people who looked kindly upon her for the work she had done on their behalf.
“I hope you have room for one more bouquet,” said a voice.
Inez looked up and saw a woman standing in the doorway. She was short, with ash-colored hair and huge luminescent eyes. She was high strung; you could see the neurosis clinging to her like a shaky fog. She was not unlike a Chihuahua.
“Hello,” said Inez, rolling her shoulders back, assuming her professional persona. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“No, we haven’t. My name is Christina Bishop.”
“It used to be Christina Higgins,” she said, pointedly, dipping her head.
Inez’s heart picked up the pace, preparing to run. “I see.”
Christina burst into tears. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am that this happened to you. Gus—Gustavo—I knew he had his issues, but I never imagined he’d be capable of kidnapping a stranger, and…” she gulped, “and doing what he did to you.”
Inez wasn’t sure what to say, so she kept it safe. “No one really sees these things coming. I’m glad you made the decision to leave him, with your kids. I think I can safely say it was for the best.”
Christina chuckled, a wry, joyless sound. “This never would have happened to you if I hadn’t left him, so for you to say it’s for the best…It’s kind of surprising.”
“Why? You think I can’t handle a little pain? My whole life has been devoted to making sure women like you — women like us — get the respect we deserve. Poverty, dependence, helplessness…these are things no one should have to suffer through, just because they devote their lives to hearth and home. Because of my work, I’ve been slandered, abused, ridiculed. Every day I fight for the dignity of the workers who make our lives clean, comfortable and healthy. And looking at you, standing here in front of me—a woman who has suffered so much for the sake of her honorable career choice —I know all my fighting is worth it. Because it works. And that is worth a little foot injury.”
Christina burst into tears and hugged Inez, tighter than was comfortable, but Inez hugged her back anyway.
When they finished hugging, the women talked for a while, until a nurse came in and announced it was time to clean Inez’s foot again. Christina politely excused herself.
“So many visitors,” said the nurse, shaking her head and smiling. “Must be a nice feeling, huh?”
“Nicer than what you’re about to do to me,” chuckled Inez. The debridement process was incredibly uncomfortable, even with the painkillers.
“You know, can I just say something?” The nurse bit her lip, uneasy.
“Sure,” said Inez, cautiously.
“You know, I’m sure your heart’s in the right place with all this activism and stuff, but what do you have against working people? You know, I work hard to support my kids, and it’s not easy. But it’s better than sitting at home on my duff taking a government handout, you know?”
Inez sighed and closed her eyes. So the nurse was one of those people. She just couldn’t get a break.
She opened her eyes. “I’d like to request another nurse for my debridement, please.”
The nurse held up defensive hands. “No, no. I don’t mean this as an attack. Like I said, I’m sure your heart’s in the right place. I just think that the money could be better spent. It’s not fair to people with real jobs, and—”
Inez raised her voice, to be heard over the nurse’s chastisement. “I’d like to request another nurse please.”
The nurse gave a tight, rude smile. “Fine.” She spun on her heel and left the room, muttering something like, “can’t even have a civilized debate.”
Inez shook her head. She reached under her blankets and retrieved her phone, checking her messages. She rolled her eyes. Senator Grant Powers was sponsoring a bill to repeal the Minimum Income for Homeworkers Act (or MIHA as it was often called). It was already gathering support from MRAs and from many military professionals who were still butt-hurt over the budget cuts that helped pay for MIHA, and of course from the libertarians and fiscal conservatives.
She sighed. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. She took a bracing sip from her plastic water cup, elevated her damaged foot, looked around the room at all her flowers and cards, and got to work.
Dana Hammer is the author of The Taxidermist and Rosemary’s Baby Daddy. Her short stories have appeared in It’s All in the Story: California, Murder Park After Dark, and Cliterature Journal. She enjoys tea, jigsaw puzzles, profanity, and birding.