She writhed uncomfortably as the bartender poured her second glass of wine. She sensed everybody watching her and judging her as she sat at the bar, all alone, secretly praying that she hadn’t been stood up. Such paranoia was a familiar notion that had imposed restrictions in the past, but tonight was about leaving behind that coy, cautious and predictable woman she used to be and venturing beyond her comfort zone. She never thought she would find herself using an app like Tinder, yet her lifestyle made it difficult to meet a suitable man via more traditional means.
She looked up from her glass to see her date standing in front of her. “Oh, err, hello Daryl.”
He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. “I’m sorry I’m late. Have you been waiting long?”
“No. I just got here,” she lied, trying to save face.
Daryl ordered a drink for himself and paid the bartender for Helena’s wine.
“So, let’s find somewhere to sit.” He led the way to the far side of the bar where they sat down facing each other.
Helena took a dainty sip from her glass.
“So…what’s a girl like you doing on Tinder?” he asked.
She’d already answered this question via their texts, but they went through the motions - small talk, questions and answers just to fill the silence as they gained familiarity with each other.
“Well, I don’t really have much time to socialise and meet people so I thought I’d give it a go,” she said, making a furtive summary of the gentleman before her. He was tall, which was good, but he looked older and thinner than he did on his Tinder photos. He was dressed in a plain blue shirt - a size too large and a little creased - and a wide stubby tie which dangled from his puny neck. His downcast face, with its coarse and stale complexion bore the toils of his life, and yet there was something about him she found quite alluring. He carried an air of confidence and had an intense, unwavering gaze.
“Did you drive here?” he asked. His eyes probed her body up and down, then locked onto hers.
Tipping back her head, she emptied her glass. She felt nervous, yet excited. “No, no. I got a lift. I’ve got my driving test coming up next week,” she announced. She found herself unable to maintain eye contact for long before feeling intimidated. She liked that.
“I’m sure you’ll do fine.” She felt his hand brush over her knee. “The key is to take everything very slowly.”
For the next three hours, their conversation flowed as liberally as the drink. The more Helena consumed, the easier it became. By closing time her head was spinning and she was struggling to stand.
“Come on then. Let’s get you home,” he said. She leaned on him for support and he held her firmly around the waist to prevent her from falling. The bartender hooked her handbag over her shoulder and escorted them to the door before locking up behind them.
He walked her to his car and helped her into the passenger seat. “You’ve had too much to drink. I’m taking you back to my place. You can sober up there.”
“Whatever you say, granddad,” she slurred.
Helena stole away into the anaesthetising comfort of sleep, mindful of no more than the ticking and squealing of window wipers, the growling engine and the sound of tires tearing along waterlogged roads.
She awoke to a persistent appeal. “Helena. Helena. Wake up, we’re here.”
As she forced her eyelids apart, her blurry vision unveiled a pale angular face peering back at her. She flinched with alarm.
“It’s okay. It’s me,” the apparition announced. “It’s Daryl.” The name rolled through her head before clicking into place. It was her Tinder date she’d met at a bar earlier that evening. Which bar and how much earlier, she couldn’t even begin to guess. She fumbled free of the seatbelt and using Daryl as leverage, hoisted herself out of the car.
He guided her to a side entry into his home. He turned a key in the lock, pushed his way inside and flicked the light switch. Shielding her eyes from the glare, Helena followed him into his poky living room. She eased onto a firm sofa, blinking and squinting, trying to acclimatize to the illuminated background.
“I’ll be back in a second,” said Daryl, loosening his tie as he retreated into the kitchen. “Make yourself at home.”
Home...was this Daryl’s home, this stark and unwelcoming abode? What she could see of the surrounding room confounded her perception of what a home should be. The antiquated decor was gaudy and sickly, furnished with a mishmash of scattered bargains.
He returned from the kitchen and handed her a mug of coffee. It was strong, rich and revolting, but she sipped it, hoping it would sober her up and help her make sense of the situation. “What time is it?” she asked.
Daryl shrugged. “I’m not sure. I think it’s about 1 o’clock-ish.”
She hadn’t intended to get so drunk, but her nerves got the best of her and she got carried away. Daryl had been a perfect gentleman all night and it was really sweet the way he was looking after her, but she thought it best to leave as soon as possible. She didn’t want him getting the wrong idea. She reached for her phone, but it wasn’t in her bag. She patted her pockets and couldn’t find it. “Shit!”
“I’ve lost my phone. You haven’t seen it have you?” she asked. “I need to call a taxi.”
“It probably fell out in the car. I can give you a lift home if you like.”
“No, no, that’s ok. You’ve done enough for me,” she said. “But err…maybe we can meet again soon?” She had no intention of seeing him again and didn’t want him knowing where she lived, but she saw no reason to upset him. She finished her coffee and rested the mug on her knee.
“Do you have to be up early?” she hinted. She was ready to go home now, back to her own comfortable bed.
“Not really. I like to spend Saturdays working on my films.”
“You make films?”
“Just short films, y’know, for my own enjoyment,” he said with a modest shrug.
“Have you ever sent them to a television station or anything?”
He shook his head and smirked. “They wouldn’t accept them.” He pushed himself from his chair and retrieved a DVD from a shelf. “I’ll show you. Won’t take a minute.”
She was intrigued, but so deeply exhausted. “I should really err…I should be err…getting home soon.”
“It’ll only take a few minutes. Promise.” He switched on the power to the television and DVD player and inserted the disc.
Helena shuffled round to get a better view of the television. Her eyesight was beginning to blur, but she would be able make out the essence of the picture and make a few attentive comments, if nothing else.
Daryl skipped to the far wall and turned out the light. It was dark, cold and eerie. “This’ll give it more atmosphere,” he said, reclining into his chair, gripping the remote control in his outstretched hand.
“This isn’t...like, a horror film is it?” She was beginning to feel anxious.
He appeared not to have heard. “You will be honest with your opinions won’t you?”
“I’m not...much good at err...at judging, but I will try to tell you what I...” - she was finding it increasingly difficult to form her sentences - “...what I think of it.” She wasn’t sure how much longer she could stay awake. She felt limp and fatigued, her vision was cloudy and her head was being drawn downwards. But she would make an effort, for his sake. He seemed so excited to have someone pay an interest in his work and he’d been so sweet, she couldn’t deny him that.
The room was consumed by a still blackness as the film began to play. What Helena saw next made her blood run cold:
Emanating from the room’s darkness and framed within the confines of the television, she beheld the figure of a girl, stripped of all clothing and roped to a chair like a lump of pink putty. Her naked flesh was tarnished with welts and bruises. Her entire head was tightly hooded inside a clear polythene bag.
Helena stiffened up like a statue, cold and taut, unable to move. She attempted to scream, but her lungs felt constricted and refused to comply. She looked on with dread as the suffocating girl whimpered and choked. Her constrained limbs thrashed in frenzy.
Daryl turned to Helena, a grin stretched across his colourless face. “This is what happens to bad girls.”
Helena bolted for the door, but no sooner had she left the couch, her knees buckled beneath her, causing her to crumple against a wall. She felt so weak and fragile, horrified to her primal core. She tried to claw her way into the kitchen.
“You won’t get very far,” mumbled Daryl, remaining seated.
She pulled herself onto her feet, but toppled again. Why wasn’t her body working? She felt numb, totally and utterly numb.
“I’ve been spiking your drinks, Helena,” Daryl’s voice rattled. “Including that coffee.”
Helena abandoned her fight and let herself be taken by the numbness into a blissful chasm of unconsciousness.
The next time she drew open her eyes she found herself lying face down on an abrasive carpet. Her hands were fastened behind her back and paint fumes swept through her nostrils. Rolling onto her ribs, she angled her neck and scanned the encasing room. The walls were seamless and white, throwing back flares from an exposed light bulb. A kaleidoscope of ghosted hues obscured any finer details from view, but she had seen enough to confirm her pending fears. These walls, this unmistakable mustard-coloured carpet, she had seen them before, flickering in the background of Daryl’s hideous home movie.
Driven by panic, she attempted to break free, jerking and contorting, wrenching her arms in a furiously fight for control. The unavailing bout brought nothing but pain and despair, however, the twine sawing deeper into her chafing wrists and threatening to sever her hands.
Panting and throbbing from the exertion, she wriggled upright and attempted to evoke her senses. The maniac she had come to know as Daryl was nowhere in sight. A door stood at the top of a small staircase. This must be the basement or a cellar, she inferred. She searched her surroundings again, hoping to find something that could aid her plight: a serrated edge of some kind on which to break the twine. With her hands free, toting a hard and heavy object, she might stand some chance against her assailant. It was her one remaining hope.
A toppled chair occupied the centre of the room, surrounded by a clutter of jumble, including cardboard boxes, a rusting bicycle wheel, a broken table lamp and a creepy plastic doll. There were tins of paint stacked against the far wall, adhered in place by their spilled contents, but nothing that could possibly set her free.
Her mind welled with horrifying flashbacks of the suffocating girl, the grazes and contusions strewn across her body, her stifled whimpers. Helena let out a scream. Her anatomy rattled under the strain as her lungs strove to supply her next breath. One scream impelled another, and then another, before withering into an undignified sob. “Please, somebody, help me,” she wept. “I just...I just wanna go home.” The pitch of her cries rose at the thought of home and the loving family she had left behind.
She recalled her last memory of John, her doting husband as he dropped her into town. Sweet, thoughtful and gullible John, so loyal and so trusting. He hadn’t suspected a thing. She’d told him that she was meeting the girls for a drink and a catch up and he agreed to stay at home with the kids, get them bathed and into bed. Without even a kiss goodnight or a word of gratitude, Helena had exited the car focused on meeting her date for the night. How could she be so insensitive, after all he had done for her? And her kids? Those sweet innocent children would have no idea why their mummy had been hooking up with other men during the past months. She just wanted some excitement, that’s all; a break from her mundane routine. If only she could make amends, tell them all just how much they meant to her. If only she could embrace them, feel her husband’s stubbly chin against her cheek and absorb the loving security she had so readily rejected. All these things that she had taken for granted suddenly meant everything to her. If only they knew that.
A noise stirred up above: creaking footsteps followed by a jingle of keys. Daryl entered the room and locked the door behind him. He unhooked a bag from his shoulder and placed it on the floor before pointing a camera at her, working over her bare legs and her heaving breasts, before resting on her inconsolable face. He took in a deep breath, appearing to derive a sense of gratification from her disgrace. She jerked her head away, refusing to indulge his game.
“Look at the camera,” he said.
Helena raised her trembling knees to her chin and clenched her eyes closed.
“Open your eyes, Helena.”
Suddenly, his gloved hand clutched her throat, forcing her eyes wide open as she choked for air. “Open your fuckin’ eyes!” he snarled, spitting at her through his teeth. He released his grip and walloped the back of her head.
“Get the fuck away from me! Don’t touch me!” she clamoured, kicking out at her elusive target.
Unstirred by her outburst, he crouched beside her and began caressing her hair. He turned her head to face him and began walking his fingers beneath her dress, continuing to point the camera in her face. She channelled her lingering stamina into another faltering struggle.
Daryl merely smiled mockingly at her pitiful attempt to break free. He withdrew a tripod from the ominous bag he’d brought with him, affixed the camera on top and pointed it in Helena’s direction.
“Why are y-huh-you doing th-his t-to me?” she stammered, inhaling her vowels.
“Because I can,” he said. “It’s a sexual thing…having power over another human, listening to them cry and beg, seeing them shake...I really can’t describe the feeling. It’s like this whirlpool of conflicting emotions and sensations. It hits you so deep that you want to be sick and ejaculate at the same time!”
He stood to his feet and peered down at her cringing figure and he pulled a phone from his pocket. It was her phone. “Let’s take a look at your Tinder profile…” he began. “Submissive girl looking for a dominant man.” He laughed. “You pathetic little sluts love to flaunt how bad and edgy you are and you go on Tinder saying you want a bad boy and you want to be dominated and treated rough. So what are you crying for? You’re getting what you asked for.”
“Not this. I didn’t want this,” she sobbed. “Please, let me go. We can end it here. It’s just a misunderstanding and I won’t say anything.”
He ignored her plea. “I’ve been looking through your phone and I see that you’re married. You forgot to mention that little fact while we were getting to know each other. I guess you didn’t think it was important,” he said. “You’re just like all the others. Just like my cheating whore of an ex, so don’t expect any compassion from me.”
“I-I swear to God...he’ll come looking for me,” she tried, with a scarcity of conviction.
“You’re a long way from home now, so don’t even try to worry me with your inane threats.”
She realized that Daryl was right. No one would ever find her here. Wherever here happened to be.
“Be quiet and do what I say,” he ordered, “Unless you want your kids to get a nasty video on their Facebook feed tomorrow. I have all your details on your phone right here…Mrs Helena Hall.”
Helena sat in silence, tense with both fear and oppressed rage.
Daryl grabbed her by the hair and yanked her onto her back. Her thoughts in disarray, her limbs restricted, she was unable to repel the sudden and powerful assault. He clambered on top of her and pushed his forearm against her throat. The pain was excruciating. Her arms, constrained beneath her back, felt ready to snap under their combined weight, while his bony arm obstructed her intake of oxygen. His pale features lurked above her, veins bulging in his forehead. His slimy tongue slithered over her cheek. She felt his hand brush along her leg...over her thigh...beneath her dress...
She stared up at the yellow ceiling as he proceeded to violate her body.
He released his forearm from her throat and she gasped for air, her brain floating and spinning as she gagged and convulsed.
He removed the implements contained in his bag, including a cane, a taser and a polythene bag. Daryl set about Helena’s drained and susceptible body with the cane. Next, he picked up the taser. She jolted with each shock and continued to plead for mercy. For the next hour, he continued alternating between assaulting her and playing with her like some soulless sex doll.
Clenching his hands around her throat, he choked her until she collapsed in a heap and fell unconscious.
She awoke some time later to find herself in a hospital bed. She was greeted eagerly by her husband, John, who was standing at her bedside.
“Oh Helena, I’m so glad you’re ok. I got the call that you were here and I raced over,” he said, gripping her hand.
“The kids?” she asked, her voice weak and ragged.
“Mom and dad are looking after them. Don’t worry, honey, I’m here for you.”
“How did I get here?”
“One of the nurses found you in the foyer,” he said. “It’s going to be ok, Helena. I’m here now.”
Helena’s injuries were superficial and healed up within a matter of weeks, but every night she went to bed she would re-live the events of that night in her mind, her body tensing up as she recalled the pure dread and helplessness she felt at the hands of that sadistic monster. John never left her side during her recovery. He waited on her, cooked for her and looked after the kids. As the days passed by, the guilt of what she had done was starting to overwhelm her. She couldn’t go on deceiving him like this after everything he had done for her. She made the decision to come clean.
“John, I think it’s best if you sit down,” she began. “I need to confess something to you.”
John took a seat on the sofa next to her and she could feel his hand trembling as she held it in her own.
“I love you so much and I never intended to hurt you, but that night I was attacked…well, I had gone back to someone’s home.” She watched her husband’s face as he tried to register what she had just told him. “I was with another man.”
“I figured. I just didn’t want to believe it,” he said, calmly. She saw tears well up in his eyes. “But I’m just so glad to have you back safe and alive and that’s what really matters.” He gripped her hand and kissed it.
This was not the reaction she had anticipated. She had prepared for him to scream and shout at her, kick her out of the house and threaten to file for divorce, and yet all he wanted to do was talk, rationalise and apologise for pushing her away.
“I know things have been difficult between us lately,” he said. The pitch of his voice started to rise as tears rolled down his cheeks. “I’ve been working long hours and I’ve probably not been around as much as I could, but I promise to try harder. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make our marriage work. Just tell me what I can do.”
Helena gazed deep into his tender loving eyes. She noted how he tilted his head as he spoke to her, the softness of his voice and the sincerity of his plea, and she felt nothing but contempt towards him. She wanted him to punish her for what she had done to him. She found herself wanting him to hit her, choke her…anything but this pathetic approval seeking bullshit! If he had just acted like a man instead of this supplicating lapdog she’d have no need to seek out other men and wouldn’t have ended up in the basement of some malicious psychopath. All these thoughts ran through her mind every time he touched her, every night she lay in the bed next to him, every time she looked at him, but she masked her repulsion behind a warm smile and continued to play her role of the devoted wife.
Meanwhile, on the phone he had recently bought for her, she proceeded to download the Tinder app, upload her photos and type out a new profile:
Submissive woman seeks dominant man to teach her a lesson.