Tears spill over the rims of my eyes, moving down my cheeks. I sniffle, my breath hitching as I think of how I didn’t even get to put her to bed tonight; I’d been too busy getting ready to do this stupid, stupid fucking thing. My mother had her, and she definitely wouldn’t have read her a bedtime story. Lily wouldn’t know what happened. She wasn’t going to understand why Mommy left and never came back.
I should’ve run. I should’ve never come here tonight. I should’ve put Lily in the car, abandoned everything, and just disappeared. Maybe Castellanos would’ve found me, but maybe he wouldn’t have.
I’m outright crying at this point, scrubbing at my cheeks with the palms of my hands.
My whole body seizes at the sound of my daughter’s voice. Mateo slows to a stop behind me. I look across the dark patch of land, see the men standing around the concrete slab, note the yellowish light pouring down on them, illuminating everything…including my daughter’s face, lit up with pleasure at the sight of me.
I can’t breathe. I can’t think. Nothing makes sense. Why is Lily here? Fear grips me, and my body kicks into motion. I’m flying toward her, stumbling, twisting my ankle and not caring, not slowing down, but I’m not fast enough.
Adrian’s holding her, and as I start running, he turns his back to me.
Then I watch him lower my three-year-old daughter into the wooden crate. Her arms fly up over her head, barely visible over the tall side of it, asking to be picked up. My mind can’t make sense of it—why did they put her in my crate?
Adrian peers inside at her, says something I can’t hear to make her put her arms down, and then he drops the lid on top of the crate, securing it with a latch.
“No.” My stomach pitches. “No!” I scream mindlessly.
Adrian glances in our direction, then shoulders his way past another man, out of sight.
That’s when I realize what the other men are doing. Three men, three gas cans, two red and one orange. I watch a red gas can lurch and liquid spill out of the yellow nozzle, and it still takes me two full seconds before I understand what’s happening.
My legs give out, my body dropping.
No. This can’t happen.
He can’t be this much of a monster.
I grab at the ground desperately, trying to find purchase, to stand, but I can’t; my whole body quakes, my stomach churning violently. My mouth opens and the noise that comes out is something beyond a wail, piercing and high. My throat burns from the sound’s eruption and I crawl until I can get to my feet again, finally hitting the pavement. I shove the man nearest me, still dousing the wooden crate with gasoline. I shove him, then shove him harder, all the while screaming, “No!”
A pair of arms fasten around my waist and yank me back against a slightly protruding belly. I kick, still screaming. My arms swing wildly and I try to dig my fingernails into whatever they connect with. The bastard holding me swears, barking at me to stop. I bring my heel down as hard as I can on the inside of his leg, pushing down with all my weight and gouging into his leg.
“Jesus Christ!” he screams.
I never stop screaming. I can’t control it. A red haze clouds my vision, and breaking free, I fling myself against the crate, grabbing the latch, but there’s a padlock and I can’t get it off.
“No!” I scream again, fingernails digging into wood. I fling around to look at Mateo, my body draped protectively across the crate.
Appearing somehow indifferent, he slowly opens what I realize is a book of matches. Ripping one off, he turns it over and swipes it across the rough patch on the bottom.
From inside the crate behind me, my daughter cries. “Momma, where are you?” she asks accusingly.
“Oh, my god.” Another sob tears from my body, and I began to whimper uncontrollably. I thought I’d felt desperation at other moments in my life, but I haven’t, not until now.
If he’s going to set that crate on fire, he’ll have to have to set me on fire, too, but I’ll sell my soul to Satan himself to keep it from happening.
I start toward him slowly and he doesn’t move, not until I fall on my knees in front of him—then he takes a slight step back.
I crawl that step closer, tilting my head back and looking up at him, tears still streaming down my face. “Please, Mateo. Please don’t do this. I’ll do anything. Please.”
He doesn’t say anything, so I grab onto his leg, leaning my forehead against his thighs and sobbing as I chant, “Please, please, please don’t do this. Please. Please. I’m so sorry. Please, I’ll never betray you again. Please,” and other various debasing pleas for him to spare my daughter.