Surprisingly, Lauren’s back in town for some police business. The cops are ready to close the case and so they need final interviews to make sure every detail’s there. But they didn’t tell me that. They especially left out the part where they’d bring back my ex-girlfriend to finish their investigation.
First thing she did when she landed, was drive over to my place. It was two in the morning, but that didn’t seem inappropriate to her. Honestly, her waking me up in the middle of the night was the best thing that had happened in weeks. Her mom went directly to the hotel. I bet she put up a fight about her daughter coming to visit me, but, as the facts turn out, that didn’t stop Lauren from trying. And ending up here.
I saw her, as I opened the front door while rubbing my sleepy eyes, and nearly fainted once I realized who was in front of me. She never warned me about her return, however short it might be. I was so close to forgetting about her that our memories seemed like foggy dreams from a long time ago. And this perfect tiny woman in front of me felt like a ghost. Hottest ghost in the world, that is.
She rushed into my arms and hugged me for two silent minutes. It felt unreal to touch her again, to smell the delicious scent she had. But it was real – and it took me seconds before it hit me. It made me feel something at last. She was clenching onto me, like she had missed me. All I could do was experience it, fighting with myself internally about how to react about her return.
And now I’m staring at her, in my pajamas, walking around the living room barefoot, like I’m Ellen this time and she’s me – like I haven’t seen her in years and I’m not sure wether I’m awake or not. Lauren’s curiously having a look around the place, just to discover that nothing has changed. Back when we first left the Fortress, she spent a week in this place, still very close to me. I sometimes think about those days when I feel lonely.
My parents are out of town for an anniversary weekend, so Ellen stayed over to make sure someone’s around. She’s in my bed, sleeping. That idiot wouldn’t wake up if a bomb would explode next to her pillow. She doesn’t even wake up when I playfully sprinkle her with water … so, she took away all the fun in that. All that girl’s got to give at night is drool on my pillow and a theft of the blankets.
“Do you have new shoes?” she asks, pointing at some designer pumps at the book shelf, just to make a conversation happening.
Lauren’s pretty passionate about shoes. The only ones she used to wear were those hideous sneakers John bought her. Once she had seen my enormous collection back at home, she decided she wanted at least as many pairs.
I shake my head and faintly smile: “They’re Ellen’s.”
“She forgot her shoes?”
Like a person would ever forget his own shoes?
I smirk: “She’s asleep.”
That confuses her. She never really met her, you see. There’s only stories about her. And they never included her sleeping in my bed.
I sillily smile and shrug: “In my bed. Where else?”
Her reaction is uncomfortable – and to me, it even seems a bit jealous: “And where are … you … sleeping?”
A half smile colors my amused face. Is she really implying this? I cross my arms and frown all defensive – but I don’t forget to remain amused about her behavior.
“In my bed. Why?”
She’s eager to act as if it’s nothing. But it’s something. I know this girl. She’s freaking jealous. And that makes her so very attractive. Shit.
“Oh, no – nothing. It’s just … I assumed that …”
But I’m not letting her win this one. She has no right what so ever to judge me. She doesn’t even get to ask how my love life is going – even if I actually had one.
“Yeah … So how’s your boyfriend?” I smile viciously, just in time to set the boundaries.
That wakes her up again. She gets it.
“He’s not my …” she starts, but then she just puffs and sighs. “He’s fine.”
I nod. Yeah, suddenly, I realize that I absolutely don’t want to discuss this. Time to go to bed, that’s what it is. I can’t have a normal conversation after just seeing her walk in. Because all that I want to do right now, is kiss her. And that’s not the best idea.
“Did you want anything else?” I ask, practically yawning.
Somehow, it feels like I’m throwing her out. But I’m not. I’m just really tired. And overwhelmed. I need to process this surprise visit.
“No.” she pleasantly sighs with a dreamy look in her eyes. “Just to see you smile at two in the morning.”
In an instant, she takes away all my weapons and armor. My heart has melted again and I walk over to her, to wrap my arms around her like it’s an everyday thing. I heave a deep sigh the second we entwine. How badly I would love to tell her that I’ve missed her. How badly I rediscovered it just now.
But we don’t say a word. We just stand there for a while, enjoying each other’s presence. She kneads the flesh of my back with her skinny fingers and I like it a lot.
When you think about it: we’ve been kept captured for a long time. Lauren’s been there for ten years. I only got sentenced to a couple of months in a house we hardly ever left. We have missed the streets and the fields, we’ve missed the people and the carousel that’s life. We’ve missed time passing by too quickly to even realize it because we’re having too much fun – it never happened. And now all everybody does, is keep us locked up inside, because they worry, because they want to keep us safe. How ironic. I need to get out. We both do.
I’m waiting for her after her interrogation at the police station. Her mother’s there as well, but I chose to ignore the lady for the biggest part of my time there. We don’t like each other and we both know it, why lie about it? Callie’s okay with it, I notice. Since her family left, there’s been no interference by me. That was her goal in life. She succeeded.
Before her vicious mom can say anything, I run towards her when she leaves the little room she just spend the last two hours. I grab her left hand and awaken a warm smile on her face. God, this feels to familiar. Like she was never gone. Like one touch of my fingers wakes her entire body up.
“Come with me today. I need you to see something.”
She refrains from looking over my shoulder, at her mom, and nods in an instant. She missed me as well. I finally see it.
“Okay.” she whispers.
Her smile makes me fall in love with her all over again.
It’s been months, but I don’t feel awkward around her. I feel alive again, for the first time in … a while. Detective Webb saw it as well. He observed me with a half smile the entire time that we were at the precinct. He saw the happy expression on my face, the relaxed attitude. Lauren’s to blame.
I have a vintage Vespa prepared for us, packed with a picnic basket and some warm clothes. The weather outside is amazing and I’ve decided to show her around this place. Months have passed since we got out and yet, she still has no clue where she comes from. She has seen the police station and the super market. She knows where her family used to live, but that’s about it. All she’s familiar with is the fortress and the inside of our houses.
She’s sitting behind me, cupping my legs with hers as I drive her around town. The sun is shining, there’s hardly any traffic at this hour and all around us, flowers and trees are blossoming. It’s lovely. It’s perfectly lovely. Each time I sneak a peek behind me, I find her smiling – intensely absorbing everything going on around her. And each time I’m ready to park the Vespa and kiss her.
She never really gets anywhere without her family. That’s sad. That keeps her from discovering the world, because – like I said – it’s in their nature to keep her safe. To keep her far away from every possible John in the world. And that means every single person around. I’ve begged my parents to stop acting that way around me. I get it, they’ve been through hell when I got kidnapped. They were desperate and promised themselves that if I were to ever return, they’d take care of me better. More intense, more perceptive. But I’m not a porcelain doll. I’m not a pet you can put a leash on and drag around wherever you go. I’m a young woman and I’ve been kept restrained for way too long. I want out. I want to see the world.
And now here we are, taking an unauthorized road trip, together. Two fools on the run. We’re driving by fields and rivers. We pass meadows with cows and sheep. We even stop for a while because she eagerly wants to pet a horse for the first time in her life. I let her. I even take a picture of it with my phone. But most importantly, we enjoy the silence and the view, without saying a word.
Around noon, I park the Vespa somewhere along a deserted road. We sit down on a blanket in the middle of a grass field and open the picnic basket. It contains sandwiches, some fruit and homemade ice tea. Lauren seems impressed by all of it.
“You really put an effort into this, Mariana. I like it. I like this day.”
She nearly makes me blush. That’s when I start having a look around. God, nature is so beautiful when you pay attention to it. I grab my phone and capture a butterfly sitting on a nearby, pink flower. She watches me closely. I inhale deeply to absorb the world that’s happening in front of me. I feel so blessed to be out here. With her.
“Thank you, Mariana.” she emphasizes.
Her fingers slip across mine and all I can do is stare at the action. My heart starts beating familiarly fast and I smile softly.
“You’re welcome.” I whisper, desperately trying to catch a breath.
Quickly, I put a sandwich in my mouth, before I say or do something stupid. She explains to me how she’s been in intense therapy ever since she left. How her therapist is a really nice woman; understanding and creative. Lauren claims to have made a massive progress, far away from me, just like I wished for her. I’m happy to hear. She seems a bit different, to tell the truth. She seems more grown up, more at ease with herself and everyone around.
Suddenly, she starts asking about me, if I’m still doing therapy. I nod. Three times a week. It’s helping. More than ever.
The more we spend time together, the more I catch myself dreamingly staring at her. She notices, but doesn’t seem to mind. Instead, she grabs my phone.
“We should take a picture together.” she proposes.
I smirk and try to act indifferent: “What?”
But she’s not buying it, while she hands the device over to me: “You take a million pictures a day. What? You didn’t think I wasn’t still checking up on your Instagram account and stuff?”
Her confession is surprisingly thrilling. Sometimes I had wondered if she still kept track of me and now she affirmed it. She makes her way over to my part of the blanket and decides to rub her body against mine, which: holy mother of God! I nervously chuckle and hold my phone in front of us, pointing the camera directly at us. Some poses happen. The first three attempts, we just smile and try out our best faces. The next two, she puts her lips against my cheek and it shakes me up so tremendously that my fingers can barely click the photo button. The last one, as it appears, I’m staring deeply into her eyes, ready – more than ever – to have a taste of her lips. Picture proof of that. Awkward.
But I keep myself from doing so. Therapy didn’t only teach me to cope with my emotions, it has also taught me to be patient and learn a thing or two about abstinence.
“I like the fields with the trees,” she resumes while eating some grapes and staring at the view once the photography fun has ended. “They remind me of …”
But she realizes she’s reminiscing about things she can’t really discuss. At least not with others. Her entire body decides to make a change, so she bends over and spreads out across the blanket. Her head’s on my lap and I lovingly put my fingers on her blonde hairs. Before I realize it, I’m playing around with the softness of it all.
“The fortress?” I add carefully to finish her sentence.
She turns her head to look at me. It dawns that I’m the only person who knows exactly what she’s talking about. It crossed my mind too, today. This middle of nowhere kind of looks the same as the middle of nowhere at John’s. Suddenly, I realize something that is not natural to me.
“You miss him, don’t you?” I ask, while she looks away from me again.
She shakes her head so faintly that I start laughing. She couldn’t fool me, even if she really tried.
“You don’t have to lie to me, Lauren. You never have to lie to me.”
It’s not that I understand, but I somehow get it, when I really think it through. Her eyes close as if she’s ashamed about how she’s feeling and she lowers her head, burying her chin between my legs. Her right hand is positioned on my knees. Then, out of nowhere, she gives in.
“I feel so bad sometimes, missing him. But they don’t understand – he’s been my father. A bad father, but when I was little, that didn’t matter. He tucked me in, he read me bedtime stories when he had a good day, he made me breakfast. He even bought me a present once, on my birthday. And then, he gave me you.”
I run my fingers along her cheek and close my eyes for a second. She’s still so happy to have met me during the hideous storm we called life back then – like I was her light, her salvation. I can’t express my gratitude about that.
“He was my family, for a very long time. And now he’s gone and I’m not supposed to miss him.” she whispers, as if it was to herself.
“Says who?” I ask all annoyed.
If anyone’s allowed to do whatever the fuck she wants, it’s her. Despite and thanks to everything she’s been through.
She shrugs while staring into the distance: “Everyone. Everyone except you.”
I imagine how she can’t talk about it with her family. She used to worship the hell out of a person who kidnapped her. Simply because she didn’t realize it back then. And she learned to love him. And now he’s gone. Someone she loved is gone. Forget how I feel when she’s not near, it’s nothing compared to whatever’s going on in her heart. My hand starts rubbing her forehead comfortingly. I feel so sorry for her, but in a compassionate way – not a pitiful way.
“I’m sorry, Lauren. I know it’s fucked up for you.”
She nods and moves her body to turn around. Now she’s facing me, dreamingly looking up to my eyes. Somehow, the entire world escapes my mind for a second.
She quickly shrugs: “It’s fucked up for you as well.”
That’s not an equal comparison.
“Do you know where they’ve buried John’s body?” she calmly asks, almost too afraid to utter the words.
Her fingers are caressing the jeans I’m wearing. I feel it with every fiber in my body. Actually, I do know a lot more about what happened with John than she did, simply because Lauren never asked the police. I’m determined to know every single detail, even if it was to make sure I’ll never stumble upon John again – to be completely convinced that he’s dead.
This thought is something that’s been on her mind for months now. And for the first time since we were rescued, she dares to pose the question.
“They haven’t. Detective Webb told me he got cremated, and scattered somewhere in a meadow.” I explain as gently as I can.
“Which means he could be anywhere.” she concludes. “So there’s nowhere I can go … Nowhere to visit?”
I feel sorry for her. I wish she could take some of my hatred towards him and make it even out the love and compassion she has left for him. But I can’t do that. All I can do is play with her hair to make her feel not so alone.
“No,” I sigh. “But … I have an idea. I think we need to do this.”
I immediately regret it after saying it out loud, but: anything to help her. She looks up to me with teary eyes and softly smiles. I reach my hand out to her and after a hesitant second, she accepts the offer.
My heart is beating like it’s never beaten before. I feel terror rushing through my entire body. I experience fear and anxiety and … utter terror. Somehow, I feel locked up again, like it’s happening all anew. Like getting out was just a hopeful dream, and now I’ve opened my eyes and the reality of being close to my family and friends was just an epiphany.
The awful place in all its glory.
I never really saw it again after we left. And even as we were rushing out of that house, I can’t remember looking back to have a decent look. I just wanted to get out of there so badly – and keep Lauren protectively in my arms.
There’s still police ribbon, sealing the crime scene from the curious audience. But there’s no audience around this hellhole. Nobody knows the exact location of Eric Madden’s house.
I decide not to care whether I’m allowed in there or not. The police shouldn’t make that decision for the both of us. We’ve lived the horror, we should be the ones making that call.
And so I get off the Vespa and nervously look behind. It’s late in the afternoon by now and the long ride has worn Lauren out a bit. But now that we’re here, she’s wide awake again. Her hands are shaking. But it’s not like she’s afraid. She’s nervous. And emotionally confused. I walk back over to her and slip her fingers between mine.
“Are you okay? Are you sure about this?”
She waits three seconds before nodding. God, no, she isn’t afraid at all. She’s mourning.
We make our way over to the front door and shiver the moment we hear those familiar squeaking wooden floor boards under our feet. John’s eyes pass in front of my eyes. I sigh. My left hand rips the ribbon out of the way, while the other holds on to her firmly. This house isn’t even locked. All I have to do is push the doorknob and the busted door flies wide open. Such irony, when you think about how intensely locked it has been for ages. Just a push and it’s a way out. A gentle stroke that could make a difference. I did that once, on the other side of the wood – and I decided to stay inside, to take care of her. I remember that clearly. I remember my unique way out. And why I stayed.
My throat snaps shut, but I refuse to cry. Still, I can’t deny all the chills running up and down my spine.
She’s cupping my entire hand and wrist with both her hands as I nervously walk ahead. We slumber around the fortress for a while, passing the living room. The Playstation hasn’t been used in ages. Dust covers it.
In the kitchen, the utilities we were about to use when the police stormed the house are still spread across the counter. There’s little police stuff everywhere, to indicate evidence and things. I put my free hand on my throat in an attempt to calm myself down, but it’s not working. I can smell the bastard’s presence. My body is shaking with the memories of him hitting me. Something stops me from looking at Lauren the entire time. One look and I’ll burst into tears, I’m sure. She wisely stays one step behind me, wherever we go.
Upstairs, we walk pass John’s room. Out of respect for his demands when we all still lived here, I don’t enter it. Maybe I’m still afraid. Afraid of a ghost.
My eyes examine the room. Everything’s still here. What if I wake up in a second and I’m back here, stuck? What if getting out was a dream? Anxiety takes over my heart beating until Lauren pulls my arm towards our own room. When she pushes the door wide open, there it is: the bed. She finally lets go of my hand and slowly approaches the furniture. Her fingertips carefully touch the wood – like it could bite or snap at her any second – and all of a sudden, her breathing fastens. Sobbing happens and I don’t know what to do. I put one hand in front of my mouth and bite my lower lip. Hesitantly, I make my way over to her. My arms wrap around her shoulders and that’s when she puts her head against mine to have a decent cry. I resist the urge, because I want to be her person, the one to be strong and rational. Some seconds pass before she turns around to dive in my embrace. Her heartbeat pounds against my ribcage and I smell the perfume she’s wearing. The truth is I’m not the strong one here. I’m just as fragile and weak as she is. We both are damaged goods.
I left her alone to go through some of John’s stuff. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the guy, so I try to dodge the mourning part as much a possible. If you ask me: he got away with it easily. Instead of facing his mistakes, he killed himself. He’s gone, and we’re here, stuck with our memories and struggles. He wouldn’t even give me the pleasure to laugh at him, sitting in a tiny, tiny cel. Or kill him myself. He escaped. I didn’t.
My feet eventually bring me to the place I thought I didn’t want to see: the basement. The old, dirty mattress is still there. I slept on it countless times. This was the punishment area, you see. And I was a very punishable person.
The same stench still lingers here. Sometimes in my dreams, I can smell it. It invades my nose and throat. When my eyes peek at the floor, there’s stains of blood. My blood. Unconsciously, my fingers rub the sides of my ribs. Yeah, they’ve suffered the worst in here. They’ve felt the tip of his hard, working shoes too many times. And my face met his fists on countless occasions. I grasp for air and take a heave.
Though I’m wearing extremely clean clothes, I can’t resist from sitting down on the mattress. On my left, there’s the metal pin. The rope’s still attached to it. I feel my aching wrists. In the corner, there’s the bucket Lauren once brought me. It’s been cleaned. She always did that. And suddenly I feel John’s presence again.
This freaking place, for fuck’s sake …
This basement is where Lauren and I met.
The kitchen is where we fell in love.
The bedroom is where our life felt normal during the peaceful nights.
The garden is where John taught me how much a person can get hurt.
This house is where a stranger took away my family and my innocence.
Everything is tied to this fortress. And us. To our relationship.
I’ve remained relatively calm the last half hour. But now I feel emotions soaking in, invading my body like they’ve been gone for months. Every time I close my eyes, there are memories. Bad ones, horrifying ones. But every now and then, I see Lauren. Her pretty face, her warm hands on my cold feet, her caring touch when she patched me up after a beating. My heart starts to hurt going through all of it again, so I close my eyes tightly to make it all go away. But it doesn’t. It’s inside of me. It’s tattooed in my brains: permanent and non-erasable. This fortress brings out all the worst feelings inside of me. It took me to the edge of doing things I never thought I was capable of. It almost brought me to kill someone, in order to save myself. It almost made me want to run away, with the risk of killing myself if he’d find me. It almost made me invisible, because he cracked me – and I never thought that would happen to me.
I heave a heavy sigh and wipe away some tears that are about to escape. Lauren can’t see me this weak. I never was at my worst, so why should I be now? A fighter, Mariana. That’s what a Diaz is.