Days became nights. They then turned into weeks. Slowly, I lost track of time. John had taken away my watch after a couple of days. The more I felt lost, the less I’d try to do anything stupid, he gathered. Nothing indicated that I’d get out of here soon. I had started calling this house a fortress. During the nights when John locked me up in the basement, I tried to remember every single door and window I had seen of the rooms I was allowed to walk through. There was the outdated kitchen with a six seater table. It had a door and two small windows. They were secured with iron bars and key locks. And darkened. He never left them unlocked, not even accidentally. Lauren’s ten year long stay in this house probably learned him to never forget. The living room had two big windows and a door that led to the kitchen and another one to the hallway. Same story. They were locked and it was unable to see through them. The furniture was surprisingly refreshing and modern. He had a big flatscreen and a Playstation. We weren’t allowed to touch it.
The hallway kept the front door as my mysterious obsession. It had three key locks and two padlocks to make sure we remain inside. John kept all the keys in his pocket. Lauren explained it all to me. John had taught her to stay put in the kitchen – the room that was the least close to the hallway – whenever he would leave the house. And when someone visited, the first reflex she had was to hide in the basement and stay quiet. That never happened, though. I simply did whatever she did. The innocent girl told me making a sound or crying for help wouldn’t make a difference when another person was there. Nobody was to be heard from inside the basement. It was sound proof. The first and only time she ever dared to make a sound, she apologized accidentally, since she thought he might’ve heard her. He smacked her over the head with a tray. She never did it again.
I might put up a fight occasionally, but I’ve learned my place in the hierarchy in this house already. John is the alfa man. He’s ridiculously demanding and unreasonable and – oh, yeah – a kidnapper, and he rules this house with an iron fist. Whenever you disobey, that exact same fist comes your way to smack you in the face. I can’t count the number of bruises that have already faded from my skin. My exhausted body hurts with every step I take. I’m tough to break, he’s found out. But that won’t stop him from trying. I don’t know why he hasn’t sold me yet, like those so called others. I get that Lauren loves to keep me around, but … is it that simple? She couldn’t mean enough to him to actually listen, right? At least, that’s what I think. Maybe the way he’s handling her is his disturbing way of caring. He doesn’t hit her – not anymore at least. He treats her like a kid and bosses her around all the time. But there are times when he stares at her while she’s cleaning or cooking. And then there’s a faint smile to be seen. He’s grown to like her. He did raise her after all. Fucked up as hell, but he did it anyway.
“Stop being so rude to him, Mariana. It won’t do you any good.” she tells me silently as we’re lying next to each other.
I got promoted from that dirty mattress in the basement to Lauren’s room on the first floor. She has a kingsize bed with soft pillows and warm blankets. Not as fancy as it sounds, though. I’m her plus one now – I can sleep in her bed. There’s a next-door bathroom with a bathtub and a sink. Not very modern, but it’s clean and well taken care of. I can finally pee on a toilet now. It’s more than I ever expected to find here. We share a closet, but don’t have many clothes to keep. Most of the things I’m wearing are Lauren’s. I’ve lost so much weight that we’re practically the same size now. Size ‘kidnapped’. My cheerleading sweats are long gone.
John’s room is across the modernized hallway – one thing he did put an effort in. The room has dark wallpaper and darkened windows. My raging nerves tell me to stay away from there as much as humanly possible. When he goes to bed, he locks us up in our room. We need to wait until he wakes up in the morning. But I don’t mind. As long as he leaves us alone, it’s fine by me.
As I cough silently, my body turns around to face her. She’s lying on one arm, studying the way I move. Her look is caring and sad. She’s worried something bad might happen to me. My black eye and bruised legs assure me that there’s not much space for worse.
“It’s just who I am, Lauren.” I whisper.
And it’s the truth. I can’t help it, not even after all this time. Sure, John’s toned me down a lot. Just like this girl right next to me, my eyes search for the tiles on the floor whenever I’m addressed. When he approaches me, I freeze up. And I haven’t tried to escape or hurt him. Trust me, I thought about it. But you don’t dare with John. Nobody does.
Only once in a while, I’m reminded of my bike rides to school and the way the wind would play with my hair. I’m reminded of Ellen and her sassy comments about her boyfriends. I’m reminded of how simple and stupid my important high school life seemed. Popularity was the highest high. Cheerleading practice was hard work. Mariana Diaz was on top, you know. It all seemed to matter. I had no idea.
“Try. For me. I don’t want him to hurt you anymore.”
Her fingers linger over my hurting skin. As a way to get her to stop talking, because I’m just too tired to speak, I nod. And I promise.
My eyes close and I’m halfway to dreamland when some fragments of my old life flash in front of my eyes. They haunt me.
“We need to get out of here, someway, somehow.” I silently mumble.
I want that familiarity back. Everything that was so boring and dull. It sounds so exciting to me now. She shakes her head calmly and discouraging.
“You know you can’t. We can’t. There’s no way out. There’s never been.”
“There’s the front door.” I suggest.
She nearly crawls on top of me and lays a finger on my lips: “He’ll kill you for trying.”
I feel her skin, sticking on mine. Her sudden reaction startled me completely. I hold my breath as I progress her behavior. The fragile eyes break through the darkness of the night. It’s fear, I recognize it. Her voice is shaking, as are her hands.
“Please, don’t do it. Please, don’t ever try.” she begs full of desperation. “You can’t leave me here alone.”
I’m her only friend. And frankly, she’s mine. Lauren is what keeps me going. Every time I am even close to exploding, my eyes wander to the beautiful blonde who’s always by my side. And it calms me down. She makes sure I don’t do anything stupid – so John won’t have to do anything stupid.
“Look, Lauren. Let’s get some sleep. We need to get up early tomorrow. Okay?”
She’s still on top of me, but I don’t get any reaction. I feel her heartbeat trembling on my skin. Her blonde locks swirl over my face. My fingers put them behind her ears. I raise my head from the pillow and kiss her comfortingly on the cheek. That’s when she finally closes her eyes. I feel a tear dripping along my skin. She’s crying.
“Come.” I suggest, while opening my arms widely.
She lies down beside me and crawls in my embrace. The fabric of her worn out pajamas press up against my body. It’s sheltering. My left arm wraps around her shoulder, while she vanishes even more into me. Then, we sleep.
The first step I take outside crushes me with overwhelming feelings. I’ve dreamt of this day. The day when I’d feel fresh air on my skin again. Must have been months. My knees are weak and I need to pinch my eyes in order to be able to face the sunlight. God, I had no idea how much I missed this.
There are trees. Grass underneath my bare feet. I see birds and rabbits in a far distance. Somehow, I can’t shake the thought that I must be dreaming. Except I’m not. I’m awake – and I’m out of that dark, smelly fortress.
Lauren is standing next to me, carrying a bucket of gardening tools. She talked John into letting me out for a few minutes.
“It won’t be long.” she promised him. “Just to check on the vegetables.”
He had circled around me for five minutes, hands behind his back, viciously staring at me with his scary eyes. That whole time, mine were focussed on the floor – praying he wouldn’t kill us for even suggesting something like a simple walk in the garden. John didn’t talk, no, he ordered and commanded, so I just stood there and listened. We had no idea how a question might be welcomed.
Lucky for me, I had Lauren. She’s his surrogate daughter, his trust person. A second before he took his decision, he stopped circling in front of me. One short mention of my name was enough to make me look up instantly. Lauren taught me that. Experience taught me that. Along with massive bruising and hurting.
No matter how much he frightened me, his scar continued to distract me whenever we were face to face. I learned all the signs of this man being a freak, so how did nobody on the outside ever get a clue?
“The first second you even think about running away, I will find you, Mariana. And when I do, staying here won’t seem such a bad idea. Do you understand?”
His words lay a tight rope around my neck and forced me to breathe heavily. He wasn’t kidding. The three of us knew exactly what he was capable of.
Lauren had told me about the garden. It was nice and big. But as she described it to me in bed at night, I quickly gathered that this house was somewhere in a deserted place. She never saw anyone whenever she worked outdoors.
And now here I am. There’s an opportunity to take off and run at this exact moment. Run into the woods around this place. I see them. I see the tall oaks and the widely spread bushes. But I am terrified. Indescribably terrified. What if there is nothing behind these woods? What if after days and days of running away, I’ll still find myself in the middle of them? Truth is, I have no idea where I am. Not even the slightest clue. And neither does Lauren.
I feel that rope again. The invisible one that’s keeping me close and obedient. One insecure look behind me and there he is: keeping a close eye on us. Sitting on a brown, wooden chair, while his fingers are playing with the ring around his right middle finger.
In my left corner, Lauren has reached the little part of the garden where she grows vegetables. Tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, …
I watch her from a safe distance, carefully absorbing her every move. It’s warm outside. Must be spring. Yeah, I bet it’s spring.
A fresh breeze surprises me as I turn my face towards the sun. It picks up my hair to play around with it for a second. The rags I’m wearing fly up into the air. High above me, some birds are teasing each other while flying.
It’s a feeling so random that hardly anyone can describe it. Out of all the things that are taken from me, I’d never knew I could miss this simplicity. Sun and wind – trees and grass – fauna and flora. Most of all: sun and air. Everyone takes it for granted. And here I am, ready to jump into John’s arms and thank him for this massive gift.
Lauren’s busy poking some potting soil when she suddenly realizes to check up on me. She catches me standing with my arms wide open, facing the sky and all it’s glory. There are no clouds today, just birds and bugs. A lost, joyful tear rolls down my face. I can’t decide if I’m happy or sad. Maybe it’s both.
She gets up from the ground and dusts off her pants before her feet bring her closer to me.
“Are you okay?” she asks curiously.
I lower my head and face the beautiful girl standing next to me. Her hand is on my shoulder, making sure she’s right here. A deep sigh leaves my stale lungs and I nod.
“I am. Because of you. Thank you for this, Lauren.”
My lips carry a smile, something I can’t remember doing for a while. She puts the tips of her left fingers on my uncovered neck, demonstrating some of John’s finest work. I shiver, because as soft as she may intend to touch me, it still hurts. He grabbed me by the neck last night, because his shirt wasn’t ironed the right way. One solid kick against the back of my right knee brought me to the ground immediately. Afterward, he made me promise to never do it again. While holding on to my bruised skin to convince myself it didn’t hurt so much, I nodded silently. Lauren just stood there, but as I looked over to her, I saw just how angry she was with him. She was ready to burst and scream at him. Luckily, she didn’t.
The skin of her thumb carefully strokes the bruise. I put my hand on top of hers and softly smile. We stare each other deep in the eye while everything around us keeps happening. Birds are still flying, the trees are still dancing with the wind. We just don’t pay any attention to it. But this is getting way too intimate. One more second and I may dive into one of her warm hugs. I feel it: every fiber in my body tells me to seek her comfort. I disturb the wonderful, familiar feeling by blinking three times in a row while blushing. Afterward, I take her hand off of me and subtly nod, pointing out John twenty yard tiles behind us. She turns her head to find him bored out of his mind, playing with a can of beer.
“We should go back. He seems irritated.” she states.
Lauren knows every little twitch of his personality. When he’s mad, she’ll know before he does. When he’s happy – that rarely happens – she tries to please him in advance in order to refrain him from getting pissed in a second.
Lauren is this house. She is the voice and the energy. John may dictate us, but he’d be nothing without her. She cleans, she cooks, she takes care of me and him at the same time. One time, a long time before I got here, when he got really, really ill, she sat next to his bed for a week. It was easy for her to just steal his keys and walk out the door. I didn’t understand when she explained to me that something inexplicable kept her here. Now I do. Still can’t explain it, but I understand. She loves him. Because he’s all she knows.
“I’ve read all these books already, Lauren. Got any new ones?”
I still occasionally sound like the spoiled brat I was back at home. My comment makes her laugh, though.
“New ones?” she ridicules me. “Have you seen anything new coming in here since you entered this house?”
I puff and pout as my eyes examine the wall of books in front of me. Not a single one left to discover. That’s when I start thinking. The library in my school had countless books.
“I should be in my senior year right now, Lauren. This is the year I’m supposed to graduate. Everyone is: Ellen, Rebecca, Michael, Jane, Tim, …”
I sigh and smile melancholically.
“Even that ass, Tommy McHannan.” I reminisce myself out loud.
He really was an ass.
My friends. I’ll never know how it feels to throw that hideous baret high up in the air with them. I’ll definitely won’t have to fight Ellen over who gets to star with a self-written commencement speech. I would’ve nailed that gig easily, to tell you the truth.
Lauren’s busy cleaning up the clutter in this living room, but spares a second to have a look at me. John’s at work. That’s what he told us. But that’s okay – it means we’re free for a short wile. Well, as free as you can get around here.
“Are you okay, Mariana?”
The worry in her voice makes me smile. Such a caring person. He never deserved her. Somehow, I’ve found peace in being here. Most of the time that is. I realized that sitting on the ground, crying all day won’t ever bring me more than some extra bruises. She forgets how strong I am sometimes – and so she does the best she can do: take care of someone.
I reach out my hand to her and that makes her smile. Her cleaning stops and she accepts my invitation to hug it out a bit.
“Of course I’m okay. It’s just … I got reminded of it. Ellen will be so freaking pissed that she can’t brag about her good grades to me.”
Lauren, pressed up warm against me, puts away some of my wandering locks of hair. A silly smile thanks her.
“You really miss her, don’t you?”
I shake dreamily: “Who would’ve thought.”
Another melancholic grin covers my face. She’s still trying to get my hair back to its correct place. But it’s a mess. It hasn’t been cut in months. No wonder it won’t stay where it’s supposed to.
Her soft movements freeze me up. The tension and electricity of her skin stops my breathing. That’s when her lips catch my attention. And all I can do is swallow.
“I can cut your hair if you like.” she says – and snaps me back to reality.
I immediately start smiling. Now here’s the thing: I trust this girl with my life. She’s saved me from John countless times, when he was drunk or in a bad mood and I felt like returning him the favor. She’d get in the middle and calm him down – fearless and determined to spare me. She’d tell me to leave the room and get some water or go to bed. Sometimes I’d get mad at her for interfering in my fight – my battle. I’d stamp my foot on the wooden floor, like a little kid and run away from his threats of killing me with his bare hands. But afterward, I’d just be thankful for the dodged beating he had ready for me.
So, it’s clear to say she’s my trust person. But cutting my hair? No, way. Nobody touches it. That’s stylist material only, no matter how long I’ll be here. A ponytail or a bandana, it’s all I need for now.
Because one day I will get out of here. And I’m dreaming of sitting in that barber chair, excitingly waiting for that first cut. That first sound of scissors working on a new hairdo.
“No.” I state.
I sit down on the old, soft carpet and stare at the wall of books again.
“I never thought I’d like to read this much. It calms me down.”
Lauren turns her head to see what I’m talking about. It doesn’t take long before she sits down next to me.
“I know what you’re saying.” she tells me. “I have read all of them as well. They allow you to escape for a brief while, don’t they?”
A soundless nod agrees. That’s the reason why they interest me so much.
“There’s no John, no fortress. There’s castles and knights. There are horses and dogs. High school and universities.”
As soon as I realize she’s staring at me, I turn to face her.
“I like the ones with murder and mystery.” she admits.
We lie down on our back and end up staring at each other for a while. All our chores are done. We function well as a team. Ironing, cooking, washing, cleaning. It’s all done quickly when you divide the tasks.
“I am happy he brought you to me, Mariana.” she whispers through the silence.
Unlike everything I’ve ever said and felt about this house and the circumstances I got stuck in, seeing this beauty next to makes me feel warm and loved. It’s like staring at an angel, to be honest. And she takes your breath away, she makes you forget about all the bad things and the good things at once.
“Me too, Lauren.”