The Reluctant Escort
~ ~ ~
Two little girls, their black hair swinging in matching pigtails, sat on either side of a young man at the small round table in the old-fashioned restaurant. Fifties-style rock played in the background. With childish delight, the twins sipped contentedly from long straws dipped in their favorite nostalgic dessert: grape and orange soda pop, foaming over floating, creamy scoops of ice cream. Their sparkling eyes laughed at the man, as they dared him to taste.
“C’mon, Uncle Kyung, just one sip!” One six-year-old shoved her frosty glass under his chin.
“No, try mine first!” teased the other one, pushing forward her own treat.
“Do both!” his nieces giggled simultaneously.
Kyung stared down into the gloppy mess and grimaced. *I suppose I’ve faced worse…* Besides, surrender was really the only viable option in this case. “All right, I’ll try it – but just one sip!” He delicately maneuvered both straws to his lips and swallowed a tiny bit of the syrupy-sweet drink. His eyes traced the bright colors swirling through the white vanilla, and suddenly his mind took him back…
~ ~ ~
He stood at the crest of a windswept hill, overlooking the coast. Far off, orange and violet clouds billowed up, kissing their fractured reflections in the rippling ocean below. Behind him, his black shadow streamed out, widening until it melted into the growing night, while before him, Nature's colors melded and flowed.
Kyung, however, might as well have been blind to it all. Ignoring the gaudy kaleidoscope parading across the sky, his eyes followed instead a black splinter slicing through the water - a boat, escaping into the west. The energetic hum of its engines faded into the crashing surf, and the craft disappeared into the horizon, lost in the uncertain distinction between the atmosphere and the waves.
Suddenly, the bright colors dimmed, as the clouds darkened and the ocean turned grey, then black. The edges of his vision dissolved into blankness, and the images distorted and blurred. He tried to rub his eyes, but his arms wouldn't move. As his sight failed and he tried fruitlessly to lift his hands from his sides, something split open his skull, and he blacked out.
~ ~ ~
“Uncle Kyung? Hey, are you okay???”
Kyung blinked, and was once again back in the restaurant between his nieces. Their shining eyes looked up at him, clouded with concern. He forced a smile. “Oh – yeah, I’m fine… but I think these floats overloaded my brain! Here – you’d better finish them up yourselves.” He slid the drinks back in front of the girls and watched them empty the tall glasses. For the rest of their outing, until he’d delivered the girls safely through their mother’s front door, he remained cheerfully attentive, refusing to think about the trick his mind played on him.
After goodbye hugs from the twins, and a peck on the cheek from his grateful sister, he drove home, focused on traffic. He went through the motions of parking, letting himself into the small apartment, and shooting the deadbolt. Finally, he sank onto the slightly worn cushion of the futon on the opposite wall, and dropped his head into his hands.
It had been a while… weeks, maybe, since his last flashback. The doctor had warned that they might continue intermittently for months, even years, to come. Now that he was safely home, Kyung let his defenses down, and the memories flooded back. It had started over eight months ago…
~ ~ ~
Kyung's head hurt.
The fragments of his dream evaporated, until he recalled only the vague impression of a mellow, orange-and-purple sunset. He tried to rouse himself from the fog of sleep, but his mind felt clouded. In addition, his head was throbbing, and he felt faintly nauseous. Bright light warmed his eyelids, warning him not to open his eyes just yet, or he'd risk being half-blinded by the morning sun - and possibly triggering an even worse headache.
Instead of opening his eyes and jumping into his normal routine, he would indulge in a few extra moments of leisure. Then, as he slowly regained awareness, he remembered: it was Saturday! He could afford to let his body awaken slowly. His bed felt unusually delicious this morning, and he felt grateful for the weekend that stretched before him.
True, his new job was great. He loved living here in this little town on Europe's southwest coast, and working in the research library each day was perfect. Such a welcome change from his always-stressful lifestyle, in the big city back home. Unfortunately, however, not all of his co-workers found it so blissful. After about a month and a half there, Kyung had noticed some surprising tensions among the employees. He probably would have noticed it sooner, but still felt like an outsider around them. *Office politics,* he thought, *the same everywhere.* He shouldn't have been surprised to encounter the phenomenon in his new workplace. Still, it would be nice to get this break.
The bed felt so incredibly comfortable; he hated to get up. As far as he was concerned, there was no reason to get up early on a Saturday. After all, Monday morning would come soon enough. Perhaps he would have to call in sick; there might be a virus making the rounds. Jeannot had complained of stomach trouble yesterday afternoon. It had been so bad that the other young man had refused to join the others for their weekly evening of Friday bar-hopping.
Kyung suspected that Jeannot's absence had opened the way for his co-workers' invitation for him to come along last night. He would have to find a quiet way to thank the sickened man for giving him a chance to connect outside the office. Maybe he could pick up something from the market later today. He always enjoyed taking walks through the little town, buying fresh baguettes, and browsing in the tiny boutiques.
Either it was the thought of this, or it was the cool softness of the sheets caressing his limbs out of their sleepy indifference... At any rate, he finally decided that it was time to brave the unforgiving sunlight. *Sunglasses on the bureau across the room, can probably make it without opening my eyes.* Time to wake up. Kyung stretched luxuriously.
Or tried to.
Midway through the stretch, as he arched back into the cushy pillow supporting his head, his wrists were abruptly caught by something cold and hard. His hands could reach no further than the air above his shoulders. His eyes flew open.
Squinting against the glaring sun, Kyung raised his head and stared at the shining band of metal around his left wrist. A thin chain attached to the bracelet was anchored out of sight. Kyung tugged at the restraint tentatively, but it held fast. His head swiveled to the right, and he found that his other wrist was similarly cuffed.
Cuffed?? Adrenaline flooded his system, and he tried to sit up. Suddenly, however, his brain caught up to what his eyes had been telling him, and his body collapsed back onto the soft mattress. His black eyes wide, his heart pounding, he stared at the blurry, golden-and-fuchsia wall surrounding his bed.
*What the hell? *
A chill shivered across the pale skin on his bare chest, and his hands tightened reflexively, grabbing some of the bedcoverings. Silky, satiny... Kyung gazed down in shock at the lavender sheets and the embroidered, matching duvet.
*Hey! This isn't my bed! Where am I? What - what happened?*
He wished desperately for his eyeglasses. Could this be a practical joke? Maybe this was just a setup in his own bedroom. He hoped...
More forceful yanks on the chains securing his wrists produced no appreciable results. His feet - ! He swallowed hard. Were his feet chained too? Gently, he bent his knees, pulling his legs away from the foot of the bed. He sighed with relief to find them unfettered.
How could he get out of this? He thought about yelling for help... but - chained to a bed? Really? The young man wondered guiltily just how much he'd drunk last night...
Thinking back to the previous evening, he frowned slightly. They had left work and headed towards a little restaurant for a light supper. He had chatted with Emmanuelle about the differences he'd noticed in phone etiquette between America and France. But Kyung couldn't recall where they'd gone. He knew the after-work routine on a Friday was to dine at a restaurant, then pick up some gelatos and stop by a couple of bars. None of that rang a bell. In fact, he didn't even remember the end of his conversation with Emmanuelle.
He took a deep breath. He had to try to get free. Slowly, he leveraged himself into a sitting position. He was wearing soft, light-weight cotton pants, tied at the waist with some kind of sash.
*Oh, crap... I don't even own pants like this. Oh, God...*
He stifled his burgeoning panic and bent over to examine the metal restraints. Their fragile appearance reassured him. Surely he could break out of these. With a start, he realized that the strange wall surrounding his bed was actually a curtain, but his near-sightedness had kept him from noticing. Rather awkwardly, because his right arm's movements were restricted, he turned toward the left side of the bed and, knees bent to his chest, braced his heels against the wooden bed frame. He pulled his left arm into his chest, holding it tightly.
* Here's hoping the chain is as weak as it looks... *
He straightened his body firmly, pulling against the metal links harder and harder until the bracelet threatened to cut through the pale skin on his wrist. Kyung set his mouth against the pain, tightened the muscles in his arm, and pushed his feet harder against the wooden frame, trying to snap the chain. Something tickled his forearm from wrist to elbow. He wondered whether it was a bug, until crimson spots on the pastel sheets proved that the chain was stronger than his skin. He cursed at the sight of his own blood and strained even harder.
The wooden bed frame creaked, cracked, and suddenly gave way. His feet flew outwards. A heavy hook - still embedded in a bit of wood - flew upwards. It was still attached to the chain. The force of the chain releasing from its moorings propelled his torso backwards, and his head slammed into the solid, wooden wall behind him. His body collapsed onto his right arm, still angled uncomfortably behind him. Sharp pain lanced through his arm and fireworks danced in his vision. Part of the curtain around the bed collapsed, partially covering his face. Terror battled pain for a moment, and then they reached a compromise. Roaring filled his ears and his vision tunneled down to a pinpoint. Then he passed out.
~ ~ ~
Kyung drew a ragged breath as he pulled himself back into the present. Realizing that night had fallen without him realizing it, he got to his feet wearily and closed the blinds on the large window. He crossed the room to the kitchenette and opened the refrigerator without real interest. *You have to eat something healthy,* he reminded himself, parroting instructions he’d learned sometime in the last few months of therapy, and found a stick of string cheese and an apple, which he could eat quickly with nearly no cleanup. He leaned against the counter and peeled the plastic wrapper from the cheese, then added a strip of the soft white cheese to the crunchy bite of apple already between his teeth. He gazed at a round painting on the wall, not really seeing the brush strokes delineating a white sail against grey clouds and blue ocean. An apple with cheese… how very French, he thought, and he felt the memories returning…
~ ~ ~
This time when he awoke, the sun was not beating down on his eyelids. His headache, however, was worse. Kyung’s eyes opened instantly as he struggled to sit up. Suddenly, he realized that his arms were free; he lifted his hands and saw that the chains had been cut through. The gleaming bracelets remained intact, however, with a few links dangling from each. Although sore, his right arm appeared undamaged despite taking his body’s weight. His cut wrist, on the other hand, sported a wrapped, white bandage. Obviously, someone had come in while he was unconscious.
* Oh, fu…” His voice trailed off. Though a gap in the curtains, Kyung could see what looked like a door. He stood quickly, fighting off the dizziness, and took two steps towards escape.
“Perhaps you would like these,” a soft voice suggested in French-accented English.
Kyung whirled, assuming the defensive stance he’d learned in the classes his Korean parents had enrolled him in since he could walk. A man was sitting, long legs crossed at the knee, in an elaborately carved chair in the corner of the room. He held out something, but Kyung couldn’t see what it was, and the young man wasn’t about to let his guard down. The other man sighed, and stood up gracefully. He was tall - at least six foot two, Kyung guessed - and crossed the room in two strides.
Before Kyung could react, the man clasped one of the young man’s hands and pressed into it a hard, rather delicate-feeling object, then retreated back to the chair. The young man’s sense of touch grasped reality before his sense of sight, and he abruptly realized that he now held his glasses. He swiftly slid them onto his face and got a quick look around the room before focusing again on the tall man.
Despite the flamboyantly decorated bed and ornate chair, the rest of the room was painted a plain white, and the other furnishings – a wooden table, short bookshelf, and cabinet – had simple, minimalist designs. In fact, the room seemed fairly unremarkable, except for the two small, round windows to the right of the door.
“What the hell is going on? Where am I? Who are you?” Kyung fired off the questions one after another. The man, a mane of fiery red hair framing his angular face, stared back at Kyung, tilting his head and narrowing his eyes quizzically.
“You are in the place on which we agreed last night… and I’m the one whom we agreed would be in charge.” Kyung’s brows furrowed in confusion at this non-sensical answer, while the other man continued. “Are you adding a new twist to our scenario, or are you actually having second thoughts?”
“So,” Kyung glared at the seated man, “you’re not giving me a straight answer, then? Fine - I can find my own way out. Just leave me alone!” Still feeling dizzy, he backed up towards the door and reached behind him to find the latch. The red-head watched him calmly, a slight smile playing about his thin lips. Kyung lost his balance for a moment, and his hand bumped a lamp sitting on the bookshelf beside him. He reacted quickly, expecting it to tip over. Even as he moved, however, he realized that the lamp hadn’t budged – it was apparently bolted down. Kyung glanced wildly at the man who was still seated in the chair, and then jerked the door open and ran from the room.
He was immediately outdoors, wind ruffling his black hair, his bare feet slapping on a wooden floor. A white railing stretched across the space in front of him, so he turned right and began to race alongside the building he’d just escaped. Then he looked back to his left, taking in the view he hadn’t really noticed the moment he’d gotten out of the door. His steps slowed, then stopped. White-faced, he staggered to the railing, grabbing the waist-high metal bar with both hands. Eyes wide, mouth agape, he stared in disbelief. An endless expanse of rippling waves surrounded him – him, and the boat on which he now found himself.
Two tanned hands grasped the railing on either side of his own, and a crisp shirt pressed into the bare skin on his back. “I think we may have a problem here,” a soft, accented voice breathed into his ear.