Three people are dead.

Countless more are patiently, helplessly awaiting a fate far worse.

I can’t go to the police. The police are a part of this. The police are the ones who killed Darcy. They’re the ones who have Theo – locked in a cell somewhere or dead, I can’t be sure – but either way I know I’ll never see him again.

I can’t go to anyone. The implant, whatever it is they put inside of me, reminds me of this. It bulges, perverting the surface of my skin, moving. It’s alive, it can feel and think, and it won’t let me anywhere near it to try and get it out.

It’s too late for me, but it may not be too late for the others.

There’s a certain sense of sacrifice that you learn to give into when you start caring about more than yourself. I’ve always been a self-absorbed person; I’ll be the first to admit that. I used to say “better them than me”. I was the kind of girl who never really thought that anything bad could happen to her so long as I kept my mouth shut, head down, and eyes averted.

Well, so long to that idea.

Here’s to the sacrament for the selfish, that final acceptance of reality.

I guess I should start somewhere, and the cliche “beginning” usually works.

It was just another day. Another shitty, wasted day in the soggy taint of Cleveland, Ohio. My neighborhood has a playground. A Target. A few parks. I lived just down the street from Lakewood High at Chesterland and Madison. My parents always told me to be careful about giving out my personal information, especially online. That doesn’t matter anymore.

Lakewood is a pusher’s paradise. The parks and alleys may as well have big flashing signs, the kind you see outside casinos or carnivals, saying hey: get your heroin right here buddy, step right up and pump that vein full of pleasure. It’s not like the cops do anything except ruin your life if they dare catch you with a dimebag of bud. And if it’s not H, it’s fentanyl. Beggar’s choice, right here. Between the two, we’re on pace to hit over 500 deaths this year in Cuyahoga county alone and we still have two and a half months left in the year. We’re overachievers of the worst variety.

The problem is, there’s nothing to do. And I mean nothing. My friends and I all graduated highschool, puttered around in college, and most of us dropped out to pursue big dreams of doing nothing.

I landed a job working the register at Tower City cinema, shoveling hulking tubs of fake buttered popcorn for the larded masses. It depresses me to think that the last movie I’ll have seen will’ve been The Girl on the Train. Should’ve gone for Deepwater Horizon like Theo wanted. I will never not think Wahlberg is a hunk.

People will always tell you that your home, your friends, your surroundings, your life; they’re only what you make them. That you have the power to be your own person and forge ahead and not look back, that you have the ability to change the world around you.

What a load of shit. The only thing we’ve managed to change for ourselves is how short the rest of our lives are.

I woke up yesterday morning with an itch, and not my usual one. I didn’t need a fix. I didn’t need a drink. I just needed to get out and do something. I didn’t have work, and neither did Theo or Darcy. One phonecall later and we’re all sitting outside Darcy’s apartment in Kamm’s Corners chainsmoking butts. I’m down to my last three.

“Where do you wanna go?”

I look at Darcy; wearing her sister’s torn croptop, jean shorts, faded black docs, and draped in plastic dollarbin jewelry, she’s got the usual half pound of eyeliner smeared across ever-tired eyes and the red wound of her mouth sneers around a clove. She’s the type of girl you’d drop a trailer on instead of a house and she’d start painting the walls black and call it home.

I take another drag and say, “I don’t know. Somewhere. Anywhere besides here. Let’s drive up to Toledo?”

Theo, from his perch on the back of Darcy’s rusted out Mazda, brays with laughter, “Toledo? Yeah, sure, let’s just trade our plate of dog shit for a platter of slightly more watery dog shit.”

Exasperated, I flick my butt at him, sending a spray of sparks up his pant leg. He brushes them off with a yelp and glares at me. I shrug. Pushing his floppy brown hair aside, he hops down. In torn blue jeans, a studded black bracelet, and too-large flannel shirt resting over a ratty band tee, he’s the angtsy portrait of post-grunge perfection.

“Let’s go break into the Newburgh temple in Miles Park.”

“The masonic place?”

“Yep.”

Darcy and I exchange looks and she nods her head. “Sure, why not.”

The drive should only take a half hour but Darcy drives like a blind grandmother on xanax. On the way, we listen to a cassette, a mixtape an ex-girlfriend made her; its trip through the speakers is belabored and scratchy, the sounds of dying relationships and dead mediums.

Anyone who’s ever been urban exploring before knows that you scope the area in your getaway car once, maybe twice, park as far away from your mark as possible without it being too far to run to, and memorize your route back. That’s where we make our first mistake; we forgot where we parked.

By this time, it’s dark out. Dusk is just about 7 PM, and my watch is blinking 7:13. We probably should’ve waited a little longer to head out, but we’re excited and high on the notion that we’re finally doing something other than watching TV and burning glass or shooting dope. I can see the reflection of my pumping heartbeat in my friend’s faces, lit up for the first time in a long time.

Darcy stumbles over an uprooted piece of plaster and Theo catches her. They laugh. I laugh. We all hush each other; this area isn’t usually patrolled too heavily, but the idea of running from pigs doesn’t sound overly appealing. The temple sits tall and foreboding against the darkened sky and we make our way around the edges, looking for a good way in. Between a set of broken slats in a boarded-up door, we find it.

Footing our way around piles of rubble and trash left by squatters, we find just the right amount of refuse to sate an explorer’s lust. Darcy comes across an upright piano coated in what looks like ten pounds of dust and runs her fingers across a few keys. The sound is dead and hollow, but still rings out through the heart of the empty building, faintly tinkling in the darkness.

Suddenly, as if on cue with the music, a spotlight hits us head on and it feels like the sun is exploding in my face. I shout, but am quickly drowned out as the sound of a deep, booming voice fills the room with authority and my heart with terror, seizing in the cage of my chest.

“Police!” it shouts, “This is private property. Stop where you are.”

We do stop, but only for a moment before Theo comes to his senses for the three of us, and yells, “RUN!”

As fast as our smoker’s lungs and addict’s legs can take us, we bolt for our makeshift entrance, which is thankfully in the opposite direction of the cops. Out the door, past the fence, in between alleys and through yards, we run and run and run. Whether from excitement or fear or a mixture of both, we don’t stop running for at least 10 minutes. Out of nowhere, we all stop as a group, collapsing against a wall, chests heaving, and find ourselves surrounded by unfamiliarity.

Coughing, Darcy looks around and kicks at the crumbling brick, “Fuck. Where are we? Where is the car?”

Abandoned areas all look the same. You could drop me in a factory wharf line somewhere I’d never been before and I would probably easily get lost for hours.

“I have no idea,” I sigh, “But at least we didn’t get caught.”

Theo glances at me, smirking, “Ya gotta admit, that was kinda fun.”

I hold up my hands, palms out, “You don’t see me complaining.”

“Let’s start walking.”

Ten minutes later, dipping in and out of shadows at the slightest noise, we finally come across something that looks familiar, but in a way none of us could place.

A mile-long, short building, tucked away from the rest, hidden far, far away from the street. Brown brick facade, black metal roof, it looks like a million other buildings in this wasted city. No discernible marks, except for the doors.

In the middle of the side of the building sits three red doors. Faded, peeling, the color is reminiscent of the sky right before the nights sips away its last few breaths.

After a moment of sneaking and prodding, curiosity gets the better of us; Theo, a makeshift criminal when he needs to be, was able to pick the lock on the first door. I don’t know what drove us to even look in the first place, but that’s not important now.

The smell hits me first. That sort of heavy, rotten perfume people get when they’ve been sitting for too long. It’s more than sweat, more than shit or piss or anything else that we produce. It’s fear. Fear of the unknown is a real thing, but fear of the present and the real and the right-in-front-of-your-eyes can turn the human body into a sickening kiln of toxicity. Fear filled that room, to the brim, and we walked straight into it without a second thought.

Rows of steel cages with needles sticking into them like thorns from some massive connected vine sit against both walls of a long, narrow room.

Hidden machines beep in a chorus of monotony from behind the cages, which are wrapped in a two layers of interlaced bars.

Each cage holds a girl.

With shock bubbling in my throat and bursting in my stomach, I rush forward to the nearest cage, gripping the outer lattice with trembling hands. Inside is a girl who can’t be a day over thirteen, but her state makes her look years younger. She’s wearing a thin white dress, a hospital gown, and her skin is perforated by a half dozen needles hooked into bags holding liquids of various colors. She sleeps, a deep fretful sleep, and I can see a trickle of dried blood spilled from both her mouth and nose, joined in a deep v down the side of her face.

Behind me, Darcy screams I can hear her retching, breathing hard, trying to not vomit. She loses the battle, spilling her guts against the wall. Theo just stands and stares.

“WHAT THE FUCK?” she shouts, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, “WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?”

The girl in the cage stirs; her eyes flutter open, and I can see that they’re bloodshot, the veins brought harsh and red to the surface of the membrane with repeated strain. She sees me, sees Theo and Darcy, and she tries to grasp for me through the inner lattice, but her wrists rebound on the steel shackles binding her to the wall. A number is burned into her left forearm, #1. Her mouth twists open in a scream, but nothing comes out.

Behind me, all around, there’s more shuffling, more rustling noises as the rest of the girls come to. More clinking of metal restraints, more mouths hanging open in muted pleas for help.

I slam my open palm on the wall above the cage, my skin burning with anger. The girl looks up, startled, and that’s when I see the jagged, fresh scar across the base of her throat.

The sound of silent screaming is something I have never heard, but can still hear all too well in my head.

Darcy runs to the wall opposite me, grasping at bars, and tries to pull them apart to no avail. I scream for Theo to help us, and he rushes forward. He can’t pick any of these locks. The deadbolts stare back, malicious, hungry, unyielding.

My eyes flit up. The plaque above the girl’s cage reads:

#1 – A. Lange, Saxony, DE – E. 10/08/16 – C. 10/10/16 – S. 10/16/16

I look around, eyes trailing helplessly on the ten cages lining the walls of the room, and they all share a similar plaque. Each has a number. Each has a location and three dates.

I don’t know where the realization comes from, but it hits me like a freight train. Each cage has a name, but not the name of the person inside. The buyer. Entry date. Shipping date. Some date in the middle.

A fire of rage tears through my body and spills out of me in a furious stream. I look around for something, anything I can use to break apart the cells. There’s nothing.

Then, the door bursts open and spotlights hit us once again. This time, there’s nowhere to run.

As the cops pour through the door, slamming Theo into one of the cages and pinning me against #1, the girls rise up in a seething wave around us, straining their bodies against their cuffs until the metal bites straight through their skin. Darcy is screaming, screaming for the cops to look, look around them, but one of them just rushes her and tears her arms behind her back.

She wriggles free and manages to grab his gun. My cry gets caught in my throat as I watch her raise her arm, pointing at the cop nearest me, and she fires off a round, the move catching him by surprise and the round catching him clear in the throat. The force of the shot pirouettes him, turning his last moments into that of a twisted ballerina, and blood sprays across my face in an almost beautiful arc.

As she turns to fire again, a blast goes off next to my ear, deafening me, sounding like the last shot at of the world, and a gaping wound appears in the center of Darcy’s forehead. She falls forward, and for just a moment, everything slows down and I can see the wall behind her, speckled with blood and bits of bone and grey matter, clear as day through the new hole in her face.

The last thing I see before the blow to the base of my skull steals my consciousness is girl #1’s eyes; they’re a soft brown, and they’re full of tears, full of fear. They’re full of emptiness.

I awake, I don’t know how much later, unable to move. My eyes shoot open and I’m temporarily blinded. Everything is freezing cold, smells sterile, and the taste of copper fills the air like it’s got something to prove. I can’t move my head, can’t budge my body. My fingers and toes are the only thing that seem to respond to direction.

As my eyes adjust and the white light begins to fade, I realize I’m looking up into the rude face of a halogen. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see a grey metal edge, the piece that’s holding my head in place. My throat is burning and my lips are cracked and dry. I run my tongue over them, and realize my mouth isn’t bound. I open my it to scream for help, but no sound comes out.

Straining my head up as far as it can go, pushing my chin out without moving my head, I feel the fresh stitches pull taut against the skin above my collarbone.

Like a hellish angel, a face appears above me, blocking out some of the light. Goggles, a surgical mask, white apron and light blue scrubs. Another figure appears next to it, its appearance mirrored. One of them makes a gesture towards the other side of me, and its partner goes to fiddle with a knob on a machine. I feel a strange euphoric sensation rush my body, and darkness comes, blissfully, once again.

I woke up just past four this morning next to a dumpster outside of the UHAUL near Berea and W. 114th in Cleveland. My body is different. They did things to me, put something under my skin. I assume it’s a tracking device, but every time I get anywhere near it, something inside of my brain stops me. I can no longer speak; I try, but no sound comes out. There is a number branded into my left forearm. I am number 7. Lucky.

It took a little while for me to figure it out, but I think the third date in the sequence, between the entry and the shipment, was the date of recapture. If I’m right, I only have one day left.

My name is Theresa Bell. I’m twenty-three years old. My friend, Darcy Wilson, 22, is dead. My other friend, Theodore Albright, 27, is either missing or dead.

I will not let myself end up in one of those steel cages, strapped to a wall with mystery liquids pumping through my veins, patiently awaiting my shipment off to god knows where. There is no hope for me. I’ve lived my life a selfish person, a wasted person, ready to give into anything that brought me the most minute, instantaneous amount of pleasure.

However, before I take my own life, I can make one final decision; to make this plea in the hopes that the right person will see it, and do something.

If you’re in Cleveland and find a building with three red doors, there may still be time to save them.