DISCLAIMER: Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I’m here having fun.
Chapter 22: The Reality
I stare at the dim light, trying to collect my thoughts about how different this experience is from the last time I was sitting in front of a camera. This time, it isn’t an exercise in research or debate or even one of juggling over-the-top personalities and insults or innuendos, but one about composure and pleasing those recording my words.
Another woman, K, who we know as a sister of Z, is less than pleased to be in our company, believing we are more trouble than we’re worth. She’s more than happy to back up her threats physically as Rose and I are reminded constantly when we overstep or ask for too much. She treats Rose worse than she does me, which isn’t saying much, as I look down at the fading bruises on my wrists, knowing there are similar new ones on my arms and back. K has a fondness for blindfolds, cable ties, and “a lucky knife.” She revels in our fear and relishes in our pain, which is teaching us to keep our emotions concealed as tightly as possible given the current conditions. I also suspect she’s the one who shot Hilda, and I don’t want to give her a reason to pull the trigger again.
Then there is S, another sister of Z. We’ve wondered privately what the “S” stands for—since I’ve started calling her Dr. Syringe in my head while Rose refers to her as Dr. Sleep. S told me once she’s trained to be a vet, which makes sense, as I feel like a lab rat every time she shows up in our doorway. I have to believe that eventually they will run out of drugs, or at least conserve their resources, and use less. But so far, that isn’t the case since Rose and I drift in and out of consciousness while S continues to overmedicate us, keeping us perpetually drowsy and fatigued.
The mental and emotional toil is mounting daily as they move us in the dark of night from location to location, or we may be moving in circles for all I know. I’m growing used to being disoriented and haven’t decided which is worse: being drugged or K’s favorite—blindfolded, gagged, and bound. I’ve lost track of the days, and I’m no longer certain how long we’ve been here, but I think we’re still in Italy. If they are trying to break us down, I have good news for them—it’s working.
Clearing my throat and pulling my thoughts to the present, I catch the movement of Z who nods for me to begin, pointing the phone camera in my direction. She says it’s time to make our presence known and has edited heavily what I originally planned to say, which I know will set off warnings in certain corners of the world, some of them closer than others.
“My name is Isabella Swan.” I exhale deeply and focus on keeping my hands from shaking the small piece of paper I’m clutching, not wanting anyone to see them tremble.
My eyes catch the shift in movement to my left, reminding me that we are not alone as K readjusts a gun pointed in Rose’s direction. She’s always quick to react with a knife or gun to keep us in line at the slightest bobble or waver, forcing us to be careful with our movements, not wanting to give her a reason to distrust us.
“I-I’m with Rosalie Hale.”
The pounding of my heartbeat echoes in my ears, and I can’t seem to catch my breath as I take my time delivering our message. “We are American journalists with the Washington Post located in Berlin.”
Glancing down at my words, I focus on the tattered piece of paper as my fingers worry the corners and edges. “We have been unexpectedly detained.”
Z tsks in the darkness.
Don’t venture off the paper.
She didn’t like my direct approach when I wrote that “we’ve been kidnapped” and crossed it out completely. But I believe we need to say something more about our lack of freedom, which by the look on her face isn’t making her happy.
I swallow down the lump in my throat, closing my eyes and willing my voice to continue. “We are collaborating with a peacekeeping organization, R2P—”
I search my brain, realizing I should have noted what it stands for, but memory lapses are all too common for me due to the drugs S is still giving us. When I pause for longer than necessary, Z softly gives me the reminder.
“Yes. Right.” I nod as I prepare to repeat her words. “R2P, which stands for ‘Responsibility to Protect.’ Um…”
I rub the sweat from my palm against my pants. “We-we are here to record and detail the crimes being committed daily by local and national governments of the downtrodden and forgotten.”
Z’s smile is victorious, as she knows detailing our threats will put a bounty on our heads and cause a new sense of urgency for all parties involved, moving her agenda forward immediately.
“They will be held responsible for their actions or inactions—whatever the case may be. We have been thrust into a war on humanity and won’t stop until these wrongs have been righted with no sacrifice being too great.”
My heart breaks knowing Rose and I have our own expiration dates if we aren’t successful in the tasks given to us—now that I think of it, maybe even if we are.
A little too loudly and in perfect English for our ears, K has supported taking whatever money is offered for us and putting it toward their cause. She overrules Z in the tug between sisters as K knows S is ready to turn us over to the highest paying bidder too.
During our last discussion, I warned Rose and made her promise me that if we are separated to stay focused and record everything. Carlisle always says the road to brilliant journalism is paved with reporters who hold decision-makers accountable for their actions, illuminating their misdeeds in the process.
“Good.” Z pauses recording, handing me another piece of paper. “Now, I want you to read this.”
I clear my throat, keeping my voice even and begin reading. “R2P has mobilized operations throughout the world and is prepared to use whatever means necessary to see justice served. We are putting the European Union on notice and holding its members accountable for their anti-immigration, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim policies, especially but not limited to the countries of Italy, Hungary, and Austria. Every country whose leaders pass legislation criminalizing the aid of services, advice, and support for migrants and asylum seekers will be held liable. We ask President Clearwater of the United States and those in positions of power to stand with us around the world and hold your fellow leaders responsible for human rights violations by withdrawing your country’s financial support and uniting to implement sanctions against abusive regimes founded on discrimination and intolerance. Years of corruption and fraud will be exposed for all to see. You have nowhere left to hide. Your time is up.”
“That’s enough, Isabella,” Z says.
I nod and take a deep breath, knowing I’ve not only given them what is necessary to get the ball rolling, but also poked the sleeping bear with a sharp stick.
K roughly grabs Rose by the arm, shoving her toward the door. “Time to move. Let’s go.”
My hand hurts as I frantically write my thoughts, filling every page of a ragged notebook after the recent meeting at the San Ferdinando migrant camp in Southern Italy. Rose sits on my other side viewing photos from the small window of her digital camera, while Z reads over my shoulder, always monitoring my every word and thought, holding a flashlight to help me see.
We’re jostled constantly as K drives over rough terrain with S at her side in the front seat while Rose, Z, and I squeeze together in the back seat of a vehicle I’ve never ridden in before.
Something happened during our visit at the nearby camp while I was speaking with several men who refer to themselves as the “new slaves” with no way out of the system when everything came to an abrupt end. I didn’t miss the alarm on their faces when Z declared our interviews over and we needed to leave immediately.
I’m no longer in a drug-induced haze as Z decides we aren’t a flight risk, and it’s time for us to get the full experience of life in the refugee camps. Z and her sisters accompany us everywhere. They are heavily armed and a constant threat to anyone who dares to think otherwise.
While most refugees are African, what awaits them as they land on the shores of Italy is something they never dream possible while leaving their families and villages long behind and escaping certain death.
The men find themselves destined to a life of slavery and manual labor, picking tomatoes, olives, and oranges on the local farms for three times lower than the minimum wage. The fate of the women is a hell much worse—sex trafficking.
It didn’t take me long to figure out the real hand at work here—the Italian mafia, who has infiltrated the razor wire topped chain link fences with little effort. The camp is overrun with sinister criminals who brag about making more money from refugees than drugs.
This location is overwhelmed with the horrible stench from festering trash, attracting insects, rodents, and flea-infested dogs. People sleep in tents and on the ground while others use whatever they can find to make conditions tolerable.
Once a new arrival completes their paperwork, they are free to come and go from the camp during predetermined times. Many set off in search of materials to reinforce their makeshift homes and protect them from the weather, but it is always at a risk to their safety. A sad story is shared repeatedly with us about a man shot and killed with little thought or remorse by a local while out looking for sheet metal scraps from a nearby trash dump.
While shelter is a struggle at times, there is an unexpected bright spot with nourishment. An allowance for food and amenities is provided for each new arrival, but unfortunately, corners are cut at every turn, giving the minimum to those in need while pocketing the profits of those in charge. When someone goes missing, no one alerts the authorities, and the money continues to funnel into the camp. The open spot is filled by a new asylum seeker and the camp is granted another new stipend from the system.
Z’s connections put us in contact with a variety of women whose suffering goes far beyond the scars on the surface. The narrative is all too common as there isn’t a woman we met who hasn’t been forced into making decisions she would never make otherwise.
We sit helpless listening to story after story as the women recount threats, violence, and gang rape, if they don’t comply with the Nigerian gangs running the lawless camps and prostitution rings here.
With over four thousand asylum seekers awaiting their fates, it isn’t difficult to imagine how the vulnerable become easy prey for traffickers. We do our best to inform and convince every woman we meet to take a stand and tell them “no,” but they only shake their heads, telling me their voices will never be heard, and they are doomed to this fate.
I’m pulled from my thoughts as I listen to Z’s side of an incoming call. She hums her responses, leaving me wondering what’s going on until S’s voice eliminates all doubt.
“How much? Millions, right?” S asks excitedly.
Someone is looking to buy us, silencing our voices. I remember being told at one point that governments and private parties offer ransoms for journalists who find themselves on the wrong side of issues abroad. However, I know any government in question won’t be my own, as the United States refuses to pay ransom for Americans, even my father’s best friend.
Z ends the call with disgust, pocketing her phone. “Nothing.”
K’s alarmed eyes shift to the rearview mirror meeting Z’s. “What do you mean nothing?”
“They are threatening to bulldoze the camp if we don’t turn them over.”
“Wait. What?” I can’t believe someone is threatening to level the camp we just visited.
“You heard me.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
I’m at a loss for how to prevent this from happening and remember how Carlisle always told me to take my problems to the person who has the power to make the decision for change. Without knowing whom we are up against, I can’t do that and know I need to figure out another plan. “What about everyone there?”
“They start over.” Z shrugs and stares out the window. “You are worth far more to those people than food or shelter. You offer a better life than what you saw they are living. We’re fighting for them in a different way. It’s what they need.”
“Four thousand people will go without everything they’ve known since coming here tomorrow—all because of our visit and the threat of us revealing the truth.” I’m stunned with disbelief. “When is someone important enough going to be on their side? We can’t let this happen. I have to do more than what we’re currently doing. My words alone can’t possibly be enough.”
Z chuckles at my defiance. “And how do you propose stopping them? Are you willing to take the places of those women? It wouldn’t matter if you did. That’s a fool’s errand. You mean nothing to them and are only a pawn in their game. Keep writing—that’s how we make a difference. They are busy hiding like sniveling cowards. We will expose what they are doing and scream it from the rooftops. They can bulldoze the place. The people are resilient and we will not give into their threats trying to silence us.” She jabs a finger toward my notebook. “Keep writing.”
“You’re as bad as Emmett,” I mumble. Looking over my last notes, I take a quick glance in her direction and don’t miss her small smirk.
“I have no idea what that means, but I’ll take it as a compliment. We will be at the ferry in two hours, but we need to stop and change vehicles.”
“Are we going east?” I prompt for answers I know will never come.
“You ask too many questions.”
“But isn’t that why I’m here?”
“Isabella, I brought you with us not only for your connections, but also because you are trustworthy, and work willingly outside of the formal power structures of your country and employer. You are a warrior for peace and humanity. While I don’t see you as passive or weak, others do. They underestimate you and your ability to tackle an extraordinarily difficult task, like the one I’ve put before you. Will you rise to the challenge and silence your critics standing behind your words with strength and determination? That’s up to you.”
We’ve been traveling east for over a day with only brief stops. I suspect we are headed for the migrant camps on the islands of Greece found in the Aegean Sea that border Turkey where most migrants choose to cross since it is a short distance. K likes to keep us in the dark to our whereabouts, but after passing through Athens, I suspect we will be taking another ferry soon.
It’s weird not having a phone or some type of electronic device, keeping me connected to the outside world. I know my phone was on our table at the bar on the night we were taken, but Rose said she recalls hers was in her pocket and it’s been gone ever since we woke up.
I miss simple things like a GPS app or even the ability to know the time. I have no idea what’s happening out there beyond this vehicle or the next camp on our agenda. My mind drifts from time to time when I’m not writing, wondering if anyone is searching for us.
From all the time I’ve spent with Rose, I have concluded that her family is well off financially. The combination of her family money in New York and my connections in D.C. must be getting someone’s attention to our whereabouts. Or maybe I was convincing enough in that video for everyone to believe we weren’t kidnapped but simply working with a peacekeeping group while tracking down leads for a story.
I have no doubt Hilda is a tigress in her wrath—daring, fierce, and determined to find us. I chuckle thinking of how Alistair must have his hands full with her, healing from a bullet wound or not.
My mind drifts to Edward, and I wonder if he knows or cares about my disappearance. It’s been almost five months since our breakup. Am I barely a passing thought on the news, while he moves on with someone else and focuses on his career? Maybe he’s the toast of D.C. and a half of a new power couple under Shelly Cope’s clever—and mostly likely deceitful—guidance.
I know it isn’t good for my mind or my heart, but sometimes I fantasize about being that woman—one full of courage and strength while he stands proudly at my side. In my fantasy, we’re equals in every way. It’s us against the world, championing the underdog and fighting for justice. I chuckle to myself at the impossibility—we sound like superheroes in that scenario. Maybe Z is right and I only have foolish thoughts, especially when it comes to Edward.
I glance over at Rose who is quietly sleeping with her head against the window, and I’m reminded how comforting it is that we’re in this together. I have no idea how long we will be held or if our captors are considering a release any time soon. While Rose accumulates photos from each stop, I’m filling notebooks and anticipating an ending of some sort for us. I mean, there has to be a better one than the possibilities of us being sold or shot. I’ve tried to get information from Z of when they are going to release us, but she has refused to share any answers.
Keeping my emotions at bay is a constant battle as anxiety ebbs and flows inside of me, and I wonder how long our current state can continue.
A/N: Huge thank yous to LizziePaige, Honeymoon Edward, purpleC305, and Midnight Cougar for their help with this story. xx