Autumn Leaves || A.I.

**PROLOGUE HAS BEEN CHANGED**

"You are one of a kind, love. You got into this mess on accident. But you can get out of it easily. All it takes is for you to think." --Ashton Irwin

Tatum Dawson was a 25-year-old who lived a great life. She had her own apartment, a job as graphic designer, and a fiancé who loved her unconditionally.

But at one point things went south. A day after she met a temporary neighbor named Ashton Irwin, a friend died, her fiancé disappeared, and her ill mother got worse. Then, to top it all off, Tatum got kidnapped. How would she deal with her great life being disturbed?

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7. 《Chapter 4》

Dedicated to my lovely friend, Valeria.

I woke up to a loud clanking. I tried raising my head, but it hurt and felt heavy. I opened my eyes and noticed that my vision was blurred. I could make out walls made of wooden planks and a single chair, with a window spilling sunlight. I suppose I was in a cabin. I sat up and realized I was on some kind of bed. The sheets and pillow were slightly dirty and smelled of dust.

The noise stopped and I looked around some more, this time with my eyes adjusted to the dimness. A guy was standing in one of the corners, holding a spoon. His face was expressionless and cold.

"You're awake," he said. His voice was sharp and carried across the room though he didn't speak very loud. "I thought you'd be out for another day."

I didn't recognize him at all. I felt that if I would have seen him before I would've known I had. He was a man with flimsy arms and a beer belly. He wore faded light blue jeans and a worn out black shirt. No facial hair except for his eyebrows.

"Who are you?" I said, my own voice cracked and barely above a whisper. But he heard me.

"My name? It's Maximus. But friends call me 'Max'. What's your name? Wait, I don't need to ask. I already know your name. Tatum, isn't it?"

I gasped. How did this stranger even know who I was?

"Where am I?" I croaked.

"That doesn't matter. What matters is that you're here. And Mark will want to see you. Get up."

Mark? Who's Mark? And why did he want to see me?

When I didn't do as he said, Max walked over to me and grabbed me by the arm. He pulled me up and out to a door that I hadn't noticed earlier. I tried to resist, but his grasp on me got stronger, his grip on me like a vice.

"I wouldn't struggle if I were you," Max said in a growl.

I obeyed and let him lead me wherever it was he was taking me. I was in a scary situation and I didn't want to test this man's patience. My heart already felt like it was going to escape from my ribcage, I didn't need to have it fall down to my stomach. If that made sense.

Max lead me into a bigger room with two beige leather couches, one beige leather armchair, and a coffee table in front. There was a flat screen TV hanging off the wall opposite. A single large fur rug was placed in the center of the room. A smell of food wafted from one of the other doors, filling my mouth with saliva.

On the armchair in the center sat a small man. Regardless of his height he seemed to be in his late thirties or early forties. He had a brown hair and a sharp nose. Around him sat three other men that I also didn't recognize. Everyone in the room was wearing casual everyday clothing. They were smoking cigarettes and playing a card game. By the looks of it, poker.

"Mark," Max said. "She's awake."

"Ah," the small man, Mark, said. "Finally. You were out for two whole days. We thought you were dead." His voice was soft and friendly as if we've known each other our entire lives. There was no trace of menace.

"Where am I?" I asked again.

"In a cabin, of course," Mark answered. "But I know you aren't looking for that kind of answer. You already know that. Where you are... that doesn't matter. What matters is that you are here." The exact same words that Max told me in the other room. That doesn't matter. What matters is that you're here.

"Why am I here? What do you want from me?"I questioned further.

"You're a curious one, aren't you? I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you're asking so many questions. After all, you have been knocked out and kidnaped."

What sounded like a bell rang from somewhere within the cabin.

"Are you hungry?" Mark asked politely. I felt my stomach growl at the mention of hunger. I was starving. I nodded. "Well, then why don't you follow me to the dining area. Leslie makes the finest chicken soup there is."

Another name that I didn't recognize. Leslie. Was that a guy or a girl? Was this Leslie another part of this little squad of kidnappers, or was this Leslie also a hostage?

I followed Mark into a room with a long dinner table containing eighteen seats: one on each end and eight on either side. Mark took a seat at the head of the table and I sat next to him on the side. His four friends took their seats as well, ready to receive their food.

"You're Tatum, correct?" Mark asked me. I nodded my head. "Well, Tatum, I suggest you make yourself comfortable here. This is your new home now."

Home? No. I couldn't stay. I had a sick mother. I had a missing fiancé. I had a grieving best friend. I had a job and a hobby. My wedding was in less than seven months. Wedding preparations started in less than three weeks. I was needed back where I was. I couldn't stay here. Wherever here was.

I explained all this to Mark with as much kindness I could muster. But even so, he shook his head. "I'm sorry, but you can't go back now. We will give you a job here. Of course, you won't get paid because you don't need the money."

"I don't understand," I told him.

"Okay. I will explain."

A few women came out from what I think was the kitchen and serve everyone chicken soup. They put white and black bread on the table, along with salt and pepper shakers, cups, drinks, salads, and vegetables. The women were also dressed in everyday clothing. But by the looks of it, they were waitresses.

"I kidnap people to have them do things around the cabin. Well, girls. Some cook, some serve, some clean. Sometimes we use them for pleasure." Mark picked up a spoon and ate his soup. "You will be given a job here. You won't get paid. But of course, you won't really need the money. If you need to go into town you can ask one of us and we will gladly buy anything you need."

I took a moment to take in all this new information. No. There was no way I was staying here. What happened when we all grew old? Was he really going to continue this nonsense? I needed to get out.

I stayed for the food, though. I've already sat down and it would be not... well, nice, to leave. I took a spoon and began to eat the soup. Just one bite made my eyes go wide. It was so good. Mark was right when he said Leslie made the best chicken soup. In what felt like no time at all I finished the soup and Mark asked me if I would like some more. I refused kindly, telling him I really had to get going. That I already missed a day of work and that my friends were probably wondering where I was.

Mark shook his head and told me that I didn't understand. He told me that there was no going back to my old life, and this was my new life. He told me that I was staying here whether I liked it or not.

"And plus," Mark added, "you shouldn't get on my bad side. Because once you do you will regret it for the rest of your life, darling."

Darling? This was absurd. I had to get out.

"I will have someone escort you to your room now. Ash!"

A man who I could not see entered the room.

"Take Ms. Dawson to her room, please. Help her feel at home."

I got up and turned to see who Mark was addressing to. When I saw him my eyes involuntarily widened in confusion and shock. Because Ashton stood in front of me, with his deep and beautiful eyes, and curls tied back with a headband. He stood with his hands behind his back and his eyebrows slightly furrowed.

I must have been standing here and staring for a while because Mark said, "I'm sure you know Ashton. I can't believe how it is to be betrayed by someone you trusted. But no time for standing around. Go on."

Ashton turned around and walked out of the dining room and I had no choice but to follow him. As we climbed the two flights of stairs I couldn't help but wonder what was going on. This entire time Ashton had been working for Mark. He made me trust him, told me all those things about himself, just to gain my trust. Was anything he told me true at all? Or was it all a lie just to get me here? I felt like this was all a dream and that I was going to wake up in my bed at any moment. But the poking in my gut told me it was far from a dream.

When we cleared the two flights of wooden stairs Ashton led me to the third floor. There were many doors here and they were all marked with numbers. We passed what looked like a reck room, where a bunch of girls either hung out on a balcony or played against each other in a game of cards or air hockey. There was a big fireplace in the back wall, flame flickering inside to warm the place.

Ashton took me to a room marked 9. He stopped in front of the closed door and turned to look at me. Now his face expression softened, as though he was sorry for doing this. But I didn't know what to believe anymore. For all I knew this was some kind of prank. He looked like he was about to say something but then changed his mind. So he stood there awkwardly until I decided to go in the room.

"Tatum," he finally said, stopping me as I began to open the door. "Listen. I'm so sor--"

"Save it." I stepped inside and slammed the door shut. I barely had time to take in my surroundings when tears filled my eyes and blurred my vision. In no time, they began to roll down my cheeks.

I started to think about what Ashton told me before all of this. I'm staying at my brother's place for some time. Otto Irwin. I used to be in a band. I'm twenty-seven. I'm a photographer. That last one. He lied to me. He wasn't a photographer. He worked for a small crazy man who liked to kidnap people. If he lied to me about his job, what else did he lie to me about? Was he really brothers with Otto? Was his last name even Irwin? Was he ever in a band? Was he the age he told me he was? And was Ashton his real name, or a name he used for the job?

I sat against the door crying for some time until I figured that tears would get me nowhere. I wiped them away from my cheeks and eyes and looked around me, taking in my "new room". It wasn't much. There were two beds, one on either side of the plaster wall, divided by a single window. One side of the room was completely bare. It's walls were white, with a bare bed with the exception of a mattress. The bedside table was also empty. That was my side.

The other side of the room, on the other hand, was far from empty. Pink walls, pink bed sheets, stuffed animals, fluffy pillows. It was so girly and bright it made my eyes hurt.

I decided I did not want to be holed up in this room just yet. So I wipe my eyes with the backs of my hands and step out into the hall. I slowly walked around through the hall and found what I was looking for: the reck room. I quietly stepped inside and crossed my arms over my chest. Only one girl noted my presence. She was a purple-haired girl with pink at the bottom.

"Girls, we have a newbie!" she exclaimed.

For a second the room fell silent and all heads turned toward me. It was scary, like a whole bunch of zombies or something staring at you with hungry expressions. But just for a second. Then, they all burst out and smiled and ran up to me, asking me different types of questions.

What's your name? Where are you from? When did you arrive? What job do you have? How old are you?

Then, the purple/pink-haired girl stepped in front of me to face the crowd of curious females.

"Ladies, that's enough!" she yelled. When everyone quieted down, more calmly she said, "Obviously this girl is new. And I'm sure you all have a lot of questions for her, but she just came here. Let the girl breathe, for heaven's sake." The girl's voice was soft but projecting.

She took my hand and lead me to the fireplace.

"You don't mind if they ask you a few questions, do you?" the purple-haired girl asked.

"Not at all," I said.

"Right then. My name is Valeria, by the way."

"Nice to meet you." I didn't bother saying my name. Someone would probably ask anyway.

"Okay, girls. She is ready to take your questions. One at a time, please!"

All the girls raised their hands. I picked one of the girls in front. A big-eyed female with jet black hair. "What's your name?"

"Tatum," I answered.

Again, the hands went up.

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-five."

"Where are you from?"

"Yellowtail."

"What was your job before you came here?"

"I was a graphic designer."

There were other questions asked, the hands almost never going down. It was actually kind of fun. But then one question that was asked in particular that almost broke me down.

"When was your wedding supposed to be?"

They saw my engagement ring. They thought I was supposed to have a wedding. Even if I wasn't kidnaped, what kind of wedding would it be without the groom?

"Um... right. Uh..." I didn't know what to say. I was lost. My fiancé disappeared when I told him his best friend was murdered. He hasn't contacted me or returned since. There probably wouldn't have been a wedding anyway.

"All right, people. That's enough questions," Valeria said. "Come on, Tatum. Let me take you to your room."

Valeria lead me out of the reck room and into the hall. "What is your room number?"

"Nine."

"Oh, you're my new roomie!" she squealed. That made sense. The room design, the hair.

But I couldn't stop thinking about Carl. According to Mark, I was out for two days. That meant today was... Monday? Tuesday? I didn't know if he counted the day of my kidnapping as a full day or not.

I turned to Valeria and asked, "What day is today?"

"It's Monday, I believe."

Monday. Today I was supposed to report Carl as a missing person to the police. That is if he wouldn't have shown. If he had shown, I would have had a talk with him. My dad probably called me to ask about him. Did he wonder where I was? Was he looking for me? Was Lola looking for me? How about the other girls; Grace, Laura, Anne?

Valeria broke me out of my trance. I didn't realize that we were already in our room and that I was sitting on my bed, staring at nothing.

"Tatum, are you okay?" she asked.

"Yeah, yeah. I'm just... thinking."

Valeria let out a breath. "Hon, I know it's hard. Being separated from your loved ones is painful, especially when it's against your will. I went through it all two years ago. You'll never get used to it, but eventually you'll grow used to it here."

"My fiancé is missing," I said. I didn't notice how I began to cry. It was as if the tears just magically appeared. Or as if I had been crying this entire time. "My friend's boyfriend is dead and she's grieving. My mother is ill with cancer and is dying and my father is alone with her. And while my best friend and father grieve alone I'm here in this devil's pit, working for some short and balding man who has no sympathy." I bawled out tears, hot against my skin. Valeria sat next to me, embracing me in a hug.

"Oh, my gosh," she says in a hushed voice. "I am so sorry. I didn't know."

"It's not your fault, don't be sorry," I said through the tears, wiping them away. "It's Ashton's fault."

"Ashton?" Valeria asked, her voice raising an octave. "Ashton Irwin?" I nodded. "Oh, so he was the one who... well, lured you in?"

"Mhm."

"You're so lucky!" I was so surprised by her sudden outburst that I started. She squealed and waved her hands in the air. "Ashton Irwin lured you in! Next thing you know you'll wake up on the bed naked." Valeria giggled.

What? "What do you mean by that?" I questioned, giving her a look of confusion.

"Well, the last girl he lured in ended up sleeping with him. That was two years ago. I don't think he's slept with anyone since. You two'd make a great couple!" Valeria squealed again and embraced me in a tight hug.

A knock sounded on the door.

"Come in!" Valeria called, letting go of me.

The door opened and in walked Ashton. He walked in slowly as if scared of some beast.

"Tatum," Ashton said. "Mark told me to go to town with you so you can, um, decorate your room and pick out clothes for yourself."

"As long as I'm not gonna be forced to shop for you," I said.

I got up and told Valerie that I would be back soon. I follow Ashton out of the room, giving him a cold glare. If anything, that son-of-a-bitch deserved nothing but the cold shoulder.

 

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