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The kids were moved three times following Tyler's disappearance. Each time was the same—that violent, tormenting pounding would grow and startle everyone awake. Hands grabbed in the darkness. Daylight, disorienting and harsh, blinded them as they were shoved into the back of another truck.
Caroline huddled in the corner of the truck bed, face pressed to her knees as they traveled to the fourth mysterious destination. She didn't bother to look at their surroundings. What was the use of knowing the location? These guys were impossible to fight. Payphones were out of reach. It was pointless to care where they were going.
Depression and grief pulled her further inward. That night…when Tyler was taken… it replayed in her mind on a loop like an annoying Katy Perry song at the mall. Over and over she heard the screams, felt the pain and quaked with fear.
No one had mentioned Tyler's disappearance. That bothered her at first, but honestly, Caroline didn't know who else had been taken from prom. She'd done a rough count in her head from what she remembered in the cabin, but she couldn't see faces.
Tyler was the first, but he wasn't the last.
Every morning someone mentioned another name.
"Stefan?" A female had whispered two days ago. "Has anyone seen Stefan?"
Caroline kept her eyes on her fingernails, picking at the dirt and grime that was caked under them. She hadn't seen Stefan, and she knew she never would again. The voice kept asking, leaning further away from Caroline.
"No," was the universal answer.
No. No one had seen him. No one had heard him scream. No one realized that it was only a matter of time before their names joined the list.
Caroline realized it. And she kept her head down.
Yesterday's name sparked a pang of emotion in Caroline's chest. "Elena? Where did Elena go?"
She'd never been good friends with Elena Gilbert, but she knew her. She couldn't wrap her mind around the fact that she knew all of these people.
Caroline squeezed her eyes shut, waiting to hear today's name, praying that there wouldn't be one.
"Any of you see Matt? He was in the truck yesterday but…"
God, these were the names she should be reading in her yearbook on the last day of school, not the list of missing persons. She pounded her face against her knees, hugging her arms around her legs. It was surprisingly easy to do since the bad guys weren't bothering with restraining them with tape anymore.
The truck stopped and offhandedly she noted that today's ride was shorter than the last. The information was useless, but she stored it in her mind anyway. You didn't grow up the daughter of Sheriff and a Wilderness Explorer Guide and not notice those kinds of things. She raised her hand to shield her eyes from the afternoon sun.
She would give it to the bad guys, they were pretty damn clever. And they could dress. She couldn't deny that. Even the grunts wore polished suits that looked like they cost more than her dad's car. If the way she was treated was any indication, they were skilled at torturing and keeping prisoners incapacitated. She was starved and exhausted, making her too weak to even want to fight back. She never got more than an hour or so of sleep, constantly scared awake by random sounds. The "prisons" they were kept in were all the same—so dark and black that Caroline was beginning to understand what a blind person saw. Reversely, they only moved during the day. The stark contrast of pitch black to bright sun was disorienting on all of her senses, making her feel like a top spinning on the edge of a table. These guys weren't just random criminals, or even just typical murderers.
These were skilled, evil baddies.
A shiver ran down her spine. Why couldn't they just be cotton candy thugs looking to score some money?
They all crawled out of the pick up like trained dogs when the guy in the really nice suit showed up. He told them to line up in front of the shack. Caroline caught a glimpse of what he was talking about—it was a small, worn down shack with a metal chimney attached to the roof. Why were they here? They all couldn't fit in that place. Her eyes closed automatically and she didn't fight it. The sun was so painful. She was actually getting pretty good at moving around in the dark. She followed the sound of everyone's feet and stopped when the sound stopped.
People around her jumped and shoved closer. She heard a sharp buzzing noise and then more people jumped.
A few people cried out and Caroline jumped when she heard the buzzing right next to her. She'd heard that before…when…for some reason it reminded her of Bonnie…
That was it. It was a cattle prod. Bonnie made her watch a video about the treatment of cattle to talk her out of eating big bacon cheeseburgers one summer. It didn't work. Caroline assured her that all burgers she ate were made in humane ways with willing cows and Bonnie had rolled her eyes in a huff.
Hearing the device used on her classmates freaked her out. Everyone was pushing in, pinning her into the middle of the crowd. Not good. Flashbacks of prom started in. Her palms grew sweaty as her heart raced in her chest. She fought for air through shallow, labored breaths.
"It's okay," a foreign voice whispered near her ear. Caroline flinched at the proximity of the voice. Bodies were closing in around her and she couldn't breathe. "Just focus on drawing in a slow deep breath."
She was choking. "Help," she tried to scream, but the word was strangled into a garble of noise.
Her heart was pounding in her ears and everything was going black for a different reason than keeping her eyes closed.
"It's okay," the voice insisted.
"Stop." Her voice was a soft whisper, but it was the loudest plea.
Warm hands rested on her shoulders and she started to shake.
"It's okay. You're going to be okay." That same voice kept at it. She realized he was the one touching her and she tried to focus on the warmth of his hands and the calmness in his voice. Slowly, after what felt like days, she started to relax. The tension eased from her and she tentatively opened her eyes.
Gorgeous blue eyes were staring straight into hers. Unlike her, he didn't seem so overwhelmed by the sun, watching her with an intensity that unnerved her at first.
"Th-thanks," she stuttered, awkwardly. Everyone was still pushing in around them. The prodding had stopped but everyone was freaked out. Caroline could feel the panic rising in her again.
"Don't," he said, laying his hand against her cheek to refocus her eyes on his. "Don't think about it. Just breathe."
She gave him the two-second-once-over. He was tall, a good five inches taller than she was in her heels. He had sandy blonde hair that was cut short, but was long enough to curl around the edges. He wasn't broad like Tyler or thick like Matt, but he wasn't some scrawny geek either. Wiry…she'd heard her dad talk about boxers with that description. This guy looked like he could hold up his end of fight with tricky foot work. She bit her lip as she took in his face. He wasn't just handsome, he was…damn she internally clenched…he was beautiful. Lips so full she wanted to just lean over and bite them. Cheeks so high and sharp that she could cut glass with them. And those eyes. She felt like she was drowning in the ocean as she looked into his eyes.
Something was familiar about that…
"Who are you?" she asked, not recognizing him at all. She ran through the mental images of all the senior class. He wasn't someone she knew. And yet, he was so familiar to her.
That's cause he's the man of your dreams. She internally fanned herself.
He shook his head, looking up past her shoulder. Caroline tried to see what he was looking at, but strong hands closed around her waist.
"No!" The subtle hold she had on her terror broke and she flipped out. Screaming, scratching, and foaming at the mouth.
"Leave her alone," hot boy shouted. He kicked the owner of the grabby hands and earned a punch to the face for it.
Caroline was locked in fear, just like she had been with Tyler. The hands dropped her and she cowered on the ground, crying as her savior was dragged to the shack.