Next I knew there was a dimly lit room with pastel red walls and gold trim.
The arms dragged my feet inside and closed the door before. They placed me down on a four poster bed; the curtains were riddled with dust.
My stomach churned, still rolling with the blow that landed in the dark. A girl with blonde hair and green eyes leaned over me, fretted with teeth biting her lip, and lifted my head.
“Hey, are you alright?” she pressed. “Sorry, we didn’t mean… we thought you were-”
My gut told another story.
Another of the girls opened the door a sliver and peeked through. She lingered like a statue, senses sharp and eager for the smallest move to trip them. Our fumbling pricked her ears and inspired a scoff, but she turned back to her watch without a word.
“Anything?” asked my nurse.
She shook her head and closed the door. “We’re safe for now, but we should think about going back upstairs and to the East wing.”
I groaned, “which way is East?”
Another girl, also blond, shrugged from her perch atop a crate. “Left and the down the hall, we think. It’s been a long time since any of us have seen the sun, so it’s hard to tell.”
As the pain eased I moved upright and fixed on the looming girl; she looked just the photos, except more worn. Her face was thinner, and bags pulled under her eyes. “Emma Chapman?” I asked. “Sorry, but that’s you, isn’t it?”
She frowned and sharpened her glare. “Do I know you?”
“Your picture’s been all over TV,” I told her. “Your mom is really worried.”
Emma slipped down and covered her mouth to gasp. “You’ve seen my mom? Is she okay? Is she-”
“She’s fine. Scared, but she’ll be glad to know you’re okay.”
She jumped forward and hugged me. After a moment’s hesitation I hugged her back.
Seeing the tears pool in her eyes made the experience all the more real; this was more than a puzzle to be solved, but a game of people’s lives. Telling her about the news cycle and how many times they played her mom weeping on camera suddenly had real consequences.
“What about me?” my nurse asked.
Her face was covered in soot and her hair was a mess, but after tracing her features there was no mistaking the young woman in my research. “Becky Taylor,” I mused, then turned to her friend; “and you’re Sarah Anderson.”
They nodded, linked hands and pulled close for comfort.
“Your families are all safe. They’re worried sick about you; all of you,” I told them. My fists clenched as I pulled myself upright. “Don’t worry. We’ll be out of here soon.”
“What are you going to do, newbie?” Sarah chided. “Not that we don’t appreciate the enthusiasm, but you just got here and we’ve been searching for a way out for…”
Becky sighed and squeezed her hand. “For weeks. Maybe longer. It-it feels like forever.”
“What they’re trying to tell you,” Emma hummed as she strolled to my side, “is this place will squeeze hope right out of you. We’ve checked every spare room on every floor, and we’re sealed underground. The only way out is through… it.”
They didn’t dare look at each other, but I had to know; “what is it?”
“It’s a robot,” Sarah said, “we think. Nobody’s had a chance to look at it.”
“Sometimes it leaves us food,” Emma scoffed. “One plate for the three of us. Bacon and eggs, porridge. steak. I can’t eat a lot of it because I’m vegan.”
“And I’m celiac,” Beck muttered. “Not that we don’t accept it. Even if it makes us sick, we eat what we’re given or we starve.”
I furrowed my brow. “So that thing is feeding you?”
Sarah frowned. “You heard the name it keeps repeating, right?”
“Well,” she reasoned, “our guess is that it thinks we, all of us, are Melanie.”
Emma scoffed. “That’s your theory, Nancy Drew.”
“How else do you explain it?” Sarah pressed. “Five blond teens getting kidnapped, and the same name, over and over.”
Then it struck me; Becky Taylor, Emma Chapman, Sarah Anderson, and now Kaira Cade. “Where’s Laura Jones?”
Silence fell over the girls. It could only mean the worst.
“The thing took her,” Becky whispered. “We were… we were trying to scope out the attic, but she fell down the stairs, and that’s when we heard it calling for Melanie. We had no choice. We had to keep moving.”
I wanted to reach out for her as she started to cry, but Sarah was there to throw her arms around the other girl. Gods, what these kids must have gone through; kids, like I wasn’t just like them.
No, I was different. I was the hero, or at least I was going to be.
“The machine took her?” I pressed. “Where?”
“We don’t know,” Emma sighed. “We don’t even know if she’s alive.”
“Nobody assumes anything until we find her again,” I said.
The three of them stood together. Despite the situation I was still an outsider. Why should they trust me? I hoped my confidence would give them enough reason.
Sarah narrowed her gaze, as did the others. “What’s your name, newbie?”
“Caroline,” I said. If Glimmer Girl was in the game I couldn’t be too careful.
She scoffed and grabbed my shoulder. “Well then, Caroline; if you want to lead a suicide mission into the haunted mansion that’s fine, but at the first sign of trouble you’re on your own. Got it?”
I nodded. They didn’t trust me, but it was a start.
To be continued…