We’ve been actively trying to avoid each other’s curious stares and almost attempts to speak with each other. We fail terribly. I like her. A little bit too much.
John’s been home a lot lately. Seems like it isn’t working out well at his job. Could it be his personality? More frustrated and annoyed than ever, he’s determined to treat us even more as house slaves. After the massive beating, he doesn’t even bother talking to me anymore. He just smiles victoriously every time I pass him, checking out the bruises and poking the parts where I hurt most. Shoes are no longer allowed for me. I need to walk around on bare feet. Yesterday, he dropped a beer bottle on purpose, right after he finished it. I had to clean it up, but the dust bin lay in the closet across the room and by the time I got there, my feet were bleeding and stinging like crazy. Lauren picked the splinters out of my flesh later that night. It didn’t hurt as much as I expected. Especially when she looked at me with her precious eyes and kissed me softly on the lips a second later.
At night, I’m lying awake, staring at the ceiling. The darkness allows me to memorize her breathing pattern. I love the way she sounds when she’s asleep. It’s so peaceful and promising that, for a few hours, this house doesn’t feel as awful anymore. She has that effect on me. But talking about what happened? We don’t seem to get there. Besides, every time an opportunity appears, John magically interrupts whatever we are doing. It’s when he grabs me by the throat or smacks me over the head, that she comes closer to take care of me. Her hands will caress my hurting skin and soothe the pain, like she’s done a million times before. Her touch helps me relax and forget about it for as long as it takes. At night, I kiss her when she’s halfway off to sleep. She smiles just before it takes her away. It gives her pleasant dreams.
Months must have turned into over a year, because the flowers and the trees have taught me that the seasons rotated full round and the circle is starting to repeat itself.
How long have I been here, for God’s sake? And how would my mother and father be without me?
My hair has grown out of proportion by now. The ponytail has reached the length of my butt. But Lauren still isn’t allowed to cut it. It’s preserved for my fantasy about a hair stylist. Nothing can change my mind about that. It’s some sort of far-fetched hope that keeps me going. For now.
The trees are still there, just like my hopes and dreams to get out of here someday. But the coolness and miserability of winter gave me a clear view on the largeness of the woods fencing the garden. It’s the first winter since I’m allowed to go outside. All the leaves have gone but there’s still no looking past them. The trees and bushes just keep coming, no matter where you turn your eye to. We’re literally in the middle of nowhere. At world’s end. We’re trapped, like animals in a cage.
It’s freezing and I’ve never experienced cold like this before. How spoiled to be privileged to huddle up around a fire place where I used to live. Back in the days when wearing two sweaters at once wasn’t that strange when snow covered the ground. All I have now are these thin rags and the blanket from our bed. My feet are blue by the end of day, since I walk around without any shoes or socks. John secretly enjoys it. He burned them all and forced me to watch. Lauren is forbidden to share hers with me. If she does, he’ll lock me up in the basement without any food or water for a week, he announced. He’s serious, because he’s done it before.
At first, Lauren refused to listen to him and offered me some of her worn off leftovers anyway. But I refused. I’ve suffered starved days and lonely nights in that awful place before, on several occasions – when I talked back or put up a fight. He kept me there in the dark, with even less comfort than the first days that I spend in this house. I will not go back to that voluntarily.
We’re in bed and our synchronized shuddering forces us to seek each other’s warmth. We skipped the part about talking about our feelings and just went back to cuddling and kissing at night. We’re like this crazy duo now, that has a sexual life at night, but live as best friends during the day.
She has put socks on my feet the second John locked the door behind us, but it doesn’t seem to help the pain my feet are in. They’ve been out in the cold for to long, today. If only that masochistic bastard would turn up the heat. But no, that would mean he’s considerate and compassionate. I thought I used to build walls up around me to keep people on a distance, but that guy brings that to a whole new level.
Her fists circle forcefully over my body to heat me up. The friction seems to magically have its desired effect. I have my head buried under her chin and we’re skin to skin. She feels so good, so warm – so safe. There were days when my mom would put a hot water bottle under my blanket to make sure I wouldn’t be uncomfortably chilly at night, back at home. It made me sweat like a horse. The thought makes me sigh. At the same time, it makes me angry.
“You know that … this is hell, right? This is the very definition of hell. And you’d think there’d be fire or lava in hell – because we’d at least be warm in the middle of the night – but no. We don’t have that luck.”
I start to shake and tremble, because as my words leave my mouth and bend into fumes, I suddenly remember how cold it is outside. Her arms start to rub along my bare arms again, in an attempt to warm me up a bit.
“And then there’s John. He’s a mother fucking asshole – he’s the devil himself. And we’re just … we’re the bastards that ended up with him.”
She doesn’t say anything at all. All I get from her is her warmth, her understanding, her listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. My freezing body slowly starts to stretch out, until the squeaking mattress has us laying facing each other. Her eyes are faint and tired from a long day of working around the house. I can tell that she’s eager to go to sleep, but she prefers to listen to my rambling and whining instead. She’s the best thing about my life right now. It hits me every time I look at her. Her hands are holding me in a tight embrace and there’s not a sound in this house that overwhelms the loud screaming of her beauty in my mind. My head slowly moves in to kiss her. My lips touch hers for the first time today and every little thing I just said vanishes like it has never been spoken. I can breathe again. I can finally breathe again, because of her. The shuddering has stopped. My mouth’s open, far enough to pump some fresh air into my lungs and it fades out all the hurt I’m experiencing. A faint smile takes me away to a better place. She reacts by smiling back. That’s when I realize.
“But I’d rather be in this hellhole, than be somewhere else without you.”
The sun has started to fade behind the leafless trees when John announces his departure for the evening. He’ll visit the local bar, though I’m not sure if it’s the truth. Does this guy even have friends to spend his nights with? The mysterious, pink scar claims my attention as he takes his keys out of his left pocket to lock the back door. He’s wearing the freshly ironed pants Lauren lay on his bed, along with a checkered shirt. His brown hair’s carefully combed back. He looks neat … normal even. Meeting him on the street wouldn’t make you suspect a thing. Sure, he ain’t the prettiest. He looks dangerous and psychopathically to me, but any other woman in the world would find him charming and mysterious. His grumpy and blunt way of talking must intrigue the better part of them. Women can be stupid like that. I used to be.
My keeper leaves the kitchen on his way to the front door. In the distance, there’s the sound of unlocking padlocks. We’ve heard it before. It’s John’s way out. And his insurance to keep us in here. We get to breathe when he’s out for groceries or work. No insults, no yelling, no beating. The longer he’s gone, the more my life feels normal again.
It’ll take him fifteen more seconds before he closes the door behind him to start the process of locking us up, making sure we have nowhere to run. Lauren’s in the back part of the room, cooking pasta, sausages and vegetables for later tonight – her favorite. The smell nauseates me – but I don’t know why. She’s a great cook, actually. I like whatever it is she’s serving, no matter how unconventional her creations may be.
My bare feet bring me to the living room area, even though we’re technically not allowed to move a muscle until the door’s locked entirely. But he’s halfway out by now, he’ll never know.
The wall of books is still there. I’ve started rereading a few of the classics to keep me entertained. It’s nice to discover new things when you don’t expect them in the world of written words. I put both hands on my hips as I try to find my next choice to read. I wiggle my cold toes when a loud and heartbreaking cry for help suddenly reverberates from the room I left a second ago. My heart stops beating immediately, because I recognize the voice.
Something happened to Lauren.
The next few moments seem like a foggy haze. I race back through the door, completely terrified for what I may find, when John surprisingly resurfaces and cuts me off from the hallway. He hadn’t left yet.
I stand there, hands on both sides of the doorway, watching whatever it is that’s happening and quickly learn that Lauren burned herself seriously. She’s crying in the most hysterical way, covering her fire-red right arm. The kettle with pasta is spread across the cold, tiled floor. So is the boiling water that was in it. My instinct tells me to go and take care of her, to comfort her with hugs and kisses. But John is standing next to her already, and he’s reacting all worried. The guy’s panicking – he has no idea what to do. I’ve never seen such compassionate feelings rising from him. Hurting me doesn’t bother him, but seeing Lauren hurt, that triggers the small, little, good part that’s left of him somehow. She’s his surrogate daughter, the girl he’s raised to be a young woman. He learned her how to read and to do math. She’s his little creation.
His fingers grasp for the water tap, after which he forces her to keep her arm under the running water. The painful screaming breaks my heart, but I can’t come near. He’ll push me back and get mad at me. His attention will go to punishing me, instead of taking care of her.
But suddenly, an unconscious and inexplicable pulse forces me to look to the left. And just like observing a miracle, there’s the mysterious front door: wide open, unlocked and allowing the last bits of sunlight of today to enter the hallway. The sight fades out all the noises. All there’s left is freedom, inviting me, begging me to cross the doorstep. A fleeting look teaches me that John’s too busy taking care of Lauren to pay attention to anything else. Slow steps bring me closer to my way out. I literally smell the freshness of escape. Through the small entrance, a white van and a long dirt road can be seen. It takes seconds before I remind myself to breathe again.
As I reach the outer wall of the fortress, my fingers clutch around the wooden frame of the door. The front yard is messy. There’s a mail box that looks ancient. But nothing else. Not a person, not a single sign of life. Except far in the distance, high above the woods, columns of smoke color the grey skyline.
Chimneys! It must be chimneys! There are houses or factories somewhere around. I take a courageous step forward and shock myself by stepping out of this house for the first time that isn’t the backyard.
I’ve never been this nervous. If I start running, I might reach the living world by midnight. At least now I have some sort of direction. Just straight ahead; the smoke plumes are guiding the way. Tears of happiness fill my eyes. There’s hope, slapping me in the face. This is the first chance ever to get out of here, to escape John. I’ve dreamt of this moment, a thousand times during cold nights and lonely days in the basement.
But suddenly, my bliss ends unexpectedly as Lauren’s heartbreaking sobbing reaches my ears again. A glimpse learns me just how much she’s in pain. Her eyes are swollen as she’s being held under the water tap by a nervous John.
Running away from here would mean leaving her behind. With him. In pain.
Confusion overwhelms me. It’ll only take a few seconds before John starts to finally gather his thoughts again and he will come and find me. I’ve been out of that kitchen for too long. Another footstep leads me out of the house. It’s hesitant. The wooden floor underneath me cracks. It’s the same sound that warns us when John’s home. Now it could mean my departure. The sound of getting out.
But her tears, they tear me up inside. I am so afraid to leave this place. I am so afraid to leave Lauren. I’m afraid of what’s out there. My brain screams to take a leap and run. Run as fast and as long as I possibly can. And then there’s my heart. It commands me to stay with her, take care of her, take those exact same bandaids she’s used to patch me up a million times before.
“Are you okay?”
My slow, defeated and tempered voice makes Lauren and John look up to me. In that exact moment, John puts together the pieces of the truth: he didn’t close the door. He left me with an opportunity. I cross him like nothing has happened and courageously push his body away with my elbow. I don’t care if he hurts me now. Lauren’s all that matters. That’s when I put my left hand on her hurting arm, to take over his task of nursing the girl I adore. My feet are soaking wet from the water on the ground – but I couldn’t care less.
John surprisingly doesn’t yell at me or force me back. He’s too shaken up. His eyes rage with confusion as he quickly takes a gander at the door he opened a few minutes ago. It’s locked secure, with the padlocks clicked tight again. The keys are on the inside, slightly dangling. My road to freedom has been ignored, because, no, I could never just leave her. Not even in my wildest dreams, I’d leave her behind with this animal.
During some stolen moments, my eyes flash back and forward between the two of them. John’s stumbling away from us, gasping for air like a nervous, little boy. The realization that I neglected to easily take off and turn him in to the police, confuses the hell out of him. I’m sure he’ll never understand. He’ll never know how much I care for Lauren. How thankful I am for all the things she’s done for me these past months.
The scar under his eyes disappears from my sight. With a hand to support his shaking body, the wall on the other side of the room becomes his pillar. The other one rubs his panicking face. Close call, wasn’t it, fucker?
Lauren’s red, weepy eyes flare up at me. I can tell she knows exactly where I was. This girl reads my missed opportunity. Without saying the words, her face asks me why I didn’t do it – why I stayed and closed the door like a beat-up, lost, obedient puppy. A disappointed sigh escapes my lungs as my fingers caress the red skin of her arm. She doesn’t move a muscle, though. There are no more tears or sobbing.
“Because I love you.” I softly whisper, making sure John didn’t hear me.
I realized it a minute ago. And I had to tell her.
The next morning, we’re scrubbing the floor with some shaky brooms. Soap bubbles up the tiles. How Cinderella-ish. Her arm’s wrapped in bandages and sterilized gauze. I didn’t find ointment for burns or something, so I just put some of John’s moisturizing cream on the wound. Lauren hasn’t said a lot since it happened. As soon as she stopped crying last night and John recovered from the shock, he took her in his arms to her to bed. He kissed her lovingly on the forehead before closing his eyes for a long time. I stood in the doorway, confused out of my mind with what was happening. This wasn’t the John we both knew.
He sat next to her until she fell asleep. Then he waited for her to stop moaning in pain unconsciously.
The guy got up and stared at her for a couple more seconds. Then, he walked over to me, nodding towards the bed.
“Time to sleep, Mariana.” he said, so very kind that under any other circumstances, I might have liked the way he spoke.
His voice wasn’t as threatening as normal. I guess it all shook him up badly.
When we woke up this morning, our bedroom door was unlocked en he was gone. Lauren and I didn’t understand. Maybe he woke up early for work. Maybe he didn’t want to disturb Lauren while she was resting. But he was gone – and that worried her. She has this connection with him, you see. He’s the only father she remembers.
Instead of taking it easy, she suggested to start doing our chores immediately. That way, he’d be pleased when he’d get home. I listened, because I felt sorry for her.
And now here we are, counting the bubbles around us, trying hard not to look at each other.
“Lauren.” I finally sigh, tired of playing this childish game.
She ignores me and continues the same movement she’s been doing ten minutes already. That part of the floor must be cleaned for life now.
“Will you at least look at me, please?”
She shakes her head determined: “Nope.”
You stubborn little thing! I lean on the top of the broom and frown offended. She has got to be kidding me.
“Fine, then I’ll just talk to you without having to look you in the eye. Might be easier.” I shrug, just to piss her off.
An annoyed sigh leaves her mouth. I don’t understand why she’s acting this way.
“I realize you’re mad at me. But I don’t know why, to tell you the truth. Is it … because of what I said? Are you mad that I told you I love you?”
She closes her eyes for a second and finally stops her movements. Her broom gets placed against the kitchen counter. A couple of fingers linger over the bandage around her sore arm.
“I’m not.” she assures me.
Relief is a great emotion to experience. It warms your heart. But her eyes are not all that happy about it.
“Then what is it?”
She walks over to me and cups my hands in hers. Her thumb caresses my skin and I start smiling. She just stares at our connection, scared to look up.
“Lauren.” I sigh away my confusion, encouraging her to speak up.
My lips kiss her forehead, just like John did last night. She shuts out the sight of things again.
“Nothing good can ever come out of this, Mariana. Why didn’t you run? Why didn’t you …”
My skin brushes along her face, until my lips reach her ear.
“I’d rather be in this hellhole, than be somewhere else without you, remember?”
She starts nodding repeatedly, like she can’t stop.
“I am so sorry, Mariana.” she whispers.
I sense desperation in her voice and it worries me. Her hands let go of me and they find their way around my body.
“I am so sorry that I ever asked him to keep you here. Because I know he did it for me. He hurts you and he treats you bad. And you’re trapped and you missed out on that one chance you got to escape. All because of me.”
But before I get the chance to comfort her and explain how all of this has nothing to do with her, but with the monster that’s keeping us here, loud noises suddenly break the tension. They’re coming from the front part of the house, the front door.
I turn around in fear and push Lauren protectively behind me.
“John?” she asks.
But I know it isn’t him. See, John has a key. Whoever is there, isn’t using one. There’s loud bashing against the wood that’s secured by all the locks. My body starts shaking uncontrollably. What if it are the guys John always talks about. Those men that are going to take me away from here. Maybe they’re finally here. After what I almost did last night, he might have changed his mind about keeping me with Lauren and him.
A tight pull guides me to the back part of the kitchen. We try to hide behind the massive cabinet, but we couldn’t fool anyone even if it were dark.
That’s when the wood of the door seems to break. I recognize the sound. There are numerous footsteps that race across the floors in the house.
We have no idea what’s going on. All I know is that I’m about to pee my pants. That’s how scared I am.
“Mariana.” Lauren shrieks.
But I hush her, keep her safely behind me and pray that it all will stop in a second. Whoever it is, they are inside. And they’ve come to find us.
There are a lot of voices to be heard, but I don’t recognize John’s. God, I wish he was here.
What the hell is happening?
I feel Lauren’s fingers digging deep inside of my skin. It should hurt, but it doesn’t. I know what’s rushing through her veins. It’s rushing through mine as well.
“I love you too.” she softly whispers in my ear.
It feels like the last words she’ll ever say to me. Like this is her last breath. I grasp on to her tightly and close my eyes as the footstep bring the strangers closer to the kitchen entrance.
That’s when I hear loud, relieved screams reverberating. I can’t help but sneak a peek. I’ve learned to be a bit braver during my stay in this house. What I see startles me. I gasp for a breath.
“It’s the police!” I utter, almost sure I am dreaming.
The weight of the world crashes down on my shoulders. Lauren’s tucked away behind me when she snaps out of her fear of death.
“What?” she stutters.
Some men, completely dressed in blue combatting clothing, carefully approach us. They reach out their gun-free hand, in a way to comfort us, while identifying themselves as police officers. All of them are wearing helmets and bulletproof vests, like they’re about to go to war. I can’t stop looking around the place – at all of them.
“Are you girls okay?” one of them asks.
I can’t answer. I can’t utter a single word. All my body’s able to do is shake with confusion.
“Is there anyone else around here? A man, a woman?”
Terrified shrugging happens, as I try to memorize all the people standing around us. Lauren’s still hiding, burying her head deep between my shoulder-blades. I feel her heart racing against my skin.
“John’s not here. He left this morning.” I finally stutter, in an attempt to keep them on a safe distance.
One of them approaches us, but I gesture him to stay back. Lauren’s not used to strangers. She’s scared out of her mind.
One of the officers orders the rest to put down their weapons. I forget to blink while all of it happens. They are trying to win our trust, that much is sure. But Lauren trusts nobody else but me. And I’ve been taken the ability to trust anyone by John.
“I am detective Webb. You’re safe now.” he tell us calmly.
His helmet disappears from his head. He looks exactly like a cop: strict, tired and determined. His blue, excited eyes put me at ease immediately, just like the flattened, dark hairs on his head. A faint smile flares up the expression on his face – he looks genuinely happy and thrilled to have found us.
My heart stops racing for a split second, while my head tumbles and tumbles unstoppable. But then it hits me.
They found us.
We are found.