Bonding with strangers
“What’s that?” my mom asks as she calmly leans against the doorway of the porch.
I’m sitting in the backyard, motionlessly staring at the trees in front of me. Strangely, it doesn’t remind me of John’s fortress. These trees feel warm and nice. John’s trees felt harsh and like a rope around my neck. They represented the cage I was locked up in. A large barrier I couldn’t break through.
I sneak a peek and throw her a cautious smile. I notice she’s staring at the hoodie I’m wearing.
“I got it from Lauren the other day.”
It’s blue and warm, and it smells just like her. My mother walks over to me and sits down on the cold grass. It’s still winter, but the weather’s changing. Spring will be here soon. I can smell it.
“You really miss her, don’t you?”
I lower my head and bury my nose in the fabric. That’s when she realizes I’m not even listening. Her left hand slowly pets my hair, while she keeps looking at me as if I’m some sort of magical creature.
“You have no idea how much we’ve missed you, Mariana.”
In a blink, she finally has all of my attention. I raise my head and face the woman I used to be so mad at for stupid reasons. I was so foolish. Such a brat.
“Your father stopped working for months after you disappeared. He didn’t treat a single patient. It took him a long time before he found his calling again, to help people.”
I heave a sigh and nervously smile. I’m not sure if that should make me happy or sad.
“And I …”
She chokes. She presses her lips together and blinks a few times before preceding. This is hard for her, all those bad memories. I always thought I was the only one having a bad experience while I was gone. Who’d have thought, I was wrong. At least I knew I was okay, alive and breathing, no matter how bruised I was. They didn’t.
“I forgot to sleep for weeks, because all day and all night, I’d be out there, looking for you. I told your father to take me to all the places you ever talked to me about, because there was this small, almost non-existing chance you were there. But it was still a chance, and that was better than anything we had. So I searched for you. I had to. You are my little girl. I had to find you.”
Her words are heartbreaking. They shake me up completely. So sweet. So sweet to find out you’ve been missed. And all those months, I doubted it.
I feel the need to apologize, like I’ve done something wrong. But then again, that’s not up to me. Some man called Eric Madden is responsible for all the pain he’s caused.
My mother sniffs up some upwelling tears and nods calmly.
“I can’t imagine how Mia’s parents must have felt. I did this for almost two years. They experienced this horror for ten.”
But the fact she calls Lauren Mia disturbs me tremendously.
“It’s Lauren. Her name is Lauren. She’s not Mia anymore.” I correct her in a rather heated tone.
My mother, quite surprised by my defensive reaction, apologizes and calms me down immediately by rubbing my back with her fingers.
“Hija, relax. I don’t mean any harm.”
Her Spanish-sounding words let me know how agitated and aggressive I am since my departure from the fortress. It’s that damn John. He’s dead, but he’s everywhere I go. All that time, my only way of surviving was a weird defense mechanism. And now I don’t need it anymore, and I can’t seem to shake it off.
Of course I know my mom didn’t mean it like that. She doesn’t know Lauren. She knows the girl Mia from the police files she had a look at. And those six days we spend together after our release. But during that time, Lauren kept quietly hiding behind my back and safely in my old bedroom. Nothing about my mother’s reaction deserved my heated reaction, but it became a second nature. A habit.
“Can I go see her today? I need to see her.”
My mom nods and puts her soft fingers on my cheeks. Her touch still makes me want to cry like a little child, because it feels like a dream come true to be able to experience it again.
“Whatever you want, Marianita.” she whispers in a cute way.
That’s when my head falls down on her shoulder, which used to happen a lot when I was a little, careless girl, and my eyes continue their endless stare towards the sky. I hear my mother’s heartbeat – and, man, does that feel comfortable.
“Did Beckett and Castle ever become a couple?” I casually ask, completely disturbing the perfection of the moment.
Castle. My television show.
My mom starts laughing out loud and needs to catch a breath before answering.
“They did. It’s Caskett now.” she informs me proudly.
A relieved smile takes over my face.
“I knew it.”
“I don’t know why your mother doesn’t like me, Lauren. I mean, she should cut me some slack. I’ve been abducted. Can’t I ever use that as leverage to make people like me?”
She smiles sillily, kind of ignoring the borderline rudeness coming from my mouth, while pointing out her new clothes spread over the bed. There’s even a snapback. When will she be wearing that?
“My sister bought them for me. She earns, like, ridiculous amounts of money.”
Such pride. Though, I get the feeling she still needs to process the fact that she has a sister every time she mentions it. Then again, nothing about a family is familiar to her.
“I haven’t seen you in three days.” she finally pouts, as her fingers linger over the fabric of her new jeans, talking to it like it’s me she’s touching.
I nod, as I stand right behind her, studying the way she moves. She’s gained a few pounds, to the point where she finally looks healthy again. I never realized she could look even prettier. Now she’s proved me wrong.
“I know. I’ve missed you.”
My voice sounds soft and honest. She likes that. Her body turns around and her radiant smile reappears. She walks over to me and throws her arms around my neck. It feels like coming home. Her hair smells nice. Like vanilla. And her heart is racing, I feel it against my chest. We hold on to each other for a solid minute.
But I stop talking as soon as I realize what I was about to say. Lauren lets go of me and squeezes her eyes in anticipation.
“What? You can tell me.”
I nervously sigh and frown distracted. Her hand’s holding on to my sleeve now. Well, her hoodie – her sleeve, to be correct.
“Sometimes I wish we were back again. Just for a day. Or a night. I wouldn’t even bother having John around.” I admit, afraid that it will sound crazy.
She doesn’t respond immediately, but clearly, she understands. Just the familiarity, you know. Being around each other, being in that house we know so well. Locked up is a weird way of feeling safe, once you’re used to it. As long as you’re in that house and you know exactly what’s coming at you – or in John’s case who – it’s disturbingly nice to know that nothing else can surprise you. Out here, everything’s possible.
“I hated every second I was in there. And now all I want is to go back.” I continue. “But I can’t say that out loud, because people will never understand. Except you.”
This brave new world we’re in, it’s scary. There’s a thousand more John’s out here. They’re just walking around – and nobody has a clue who’s locked up in those monsters’ houses.
But it’s not the only thing that’s creepy. We have all sorts of interested strangers, asking for interviews or statements. I already have a book deal and I’m not even sure I want to talk about what happened in that house in the first place. And Lauren has a family now. Something she never had. That’s the scariest thing of all. So, yes, being in that fortress was the easy part.
“You’re wearing my hoodie.” she whispers proudly, while completely dropping the subject.
We don’t need to talk about it. She understands – she feels the same way, probably even worse.
I look down at the blueness that was originally wrapped around her body. Her fingers softly pull the fabric from my skin to play around with it.
“Yes. I wear it when I miss you. It feels like you’re hugging me from a distant.”
A cute grin reverberates from her. So cheesy, but it doesn’t miss its effect. She pulls me close to kiss me on the lips and that surprise warms my heart. We’ve been doing this kissing and fooling around thing a lot since we were found. The more we’re apart, the more we realize how much we miss each other. And then we meet again and this happens. I’m not complaining, though. The best feeling in the world is her lips touching mine.
The situation escalates rather quickly. We both want it, so I dive in to take the chance. I reach for her jeans, to unbutton them, but she hesitates – may I say, rather unconvincingly.
“My mom and dad are here. They could hear us.”
“Then make sure you’re really quiet.” I tell her, slipping her some advice on parents.
She’s not the girl who protests resolutely. My luck. I have her pinned against the wall in no time, shirtless. My mouth traces down her neck, her breasts and her stomach smoothly. I love her taste. It’s sweet and reminds me of candy canes. She’s panting as her hands hover over my hair.
“Mariana.” she whispers, out of breath.
I look up from way beneath her belt. That’s when I see something that’s only to be found in her eyes. A sparkle without a name. But I think it’s love. It must be love. She’s radiating a mysterious glow that captures me with wonder.
“I love you.” she tells me sincerely. “I don’t know a lot about this world yet. But I know I love you.”
I rise from the ground – literally – and press my lips against hers.
“I love you too.” I assure her, breathing through her mouth.
She licks her lower lip and contently sighs.
“Now shut up and kiss me.” I command her with a silly giggle.
A heavy session with the therapist. Each and every time, it makes me feel overwhelmingly nauseous and insecure. Remembering all what happened seems to bring a lot of emotions along. I rather not talk about it, or talk about it with Lauren. But I need to do this, they say. I need to face the reality of what I’ve been through. I’m not convinced.
A month has passed and I’m still nowhere. I am studying hard to get my G.E.D., simply because a girl is nothing with a diploma. But other than that? I have no goals in live – no direction. I came out of that house, packed with traumatic experiences and a secret girlfriend. Weeks later, that’s still all I’ve got.
My mom told me about Ellen, how she left for college a couple of months ago. She’s somewhere in New York, studying economics. The Cheerios became National Champions the year I disappeared. Ellen wasn’t part of it, though. She dropped out a week after they started the search. Practice got in the way of all the hours she could be out there looking for me. The thought of it makes me angry at her, yet so very proud at the same time.
That stupid bitch. I never knew she was actually such a true friend. And now I can’t thank her.
Mamá says the girl spent a lot of time at our house the first few weeks, making sure my parents were okay. Before I went missing, my best friend came by every other day, to talk, to stage some creative cheerleading practice or to fight about boyfriends.
My therapist and I talked about that too, during my appointment today. We talk about everything, three times a week. Every tuesday, every thursday and every saturday. I’m sick and tired of it, especially since Lauren can’t be part of it. We process things separately, mostly because it’s a lot harder on her than on me. She’s struggling so much – struggling to cope with her conflicting feelings about hating, yet missing John. To cope with mourning for the man that took away her chance to live a normal life. To cope with finding a seemingly impossible way of weirdly loving him still.
I’m in the bathroom puking my guts out when my dad walks in. He asks if I’m okay. My dad is a sober person. He’s a doctor, so unless I’m barfing up blood or rainbows, he isn’t going to be worried.
“It’s just … part of therapy, I guess.” I growl while hovering over the toilet seat.
Lovely, just lovely. What good will therapy do when it literally makes me sick? Papá takes some pieces of toilet paper and hands them over to me. I breathe in and out and use them to wipe my face clean. After that, he helps me to get back up on my feet. His hands remain around my waist, for comfort, for support. He also has that look of wonder in his eyes while looking at me, just like my mother.
“I don’t want to do this anymore, Papá.” I admit. “I don’t want to constantly talk about it, because that won’t change the fact that I’m reminded of what happened back there every second of my life.”
He and I don’t really discuss what went on in that fortress. He knows it was bad. He knows it was bad enough for me to not talk about it. Somehow, he prefers to shut out the details of what some stranger did to his daughter. But that doesn’t change the fact that the distant father from my memories has disappeared. He’s been here every single day since I got out. He tucks me in at night and wakes me up with breakfast every morning. I like it, it’s a nice change. But it’ll never fix me.
“But you’re doing much better, don’t you think?” he asks. “You’ve even gone out to party a few time last month.”
Just his way of telling me I’m making progress. Some things never get old. Visiting parties has always been a hobby of mine. I love music – I’ve missed it so much during the time I was with John. And dancing, God, dancing is just great. It’s liberating and relaxing. It takes my mind off of things just for a while. Do I need that …
My parents hate that I go to places where crowds surround me. They would rather keep me locked up inside, but isn’t that ironic? So I go out to small gatherings, and I promise to text them every single hour. Old friends accompany me. Rebecca, Michael, Jane, Tim – the old gang. Only Ellen’s never there. And nobody has heard from her since they found me. My friends are a bit uncomfortable around me. They feel restricted from having careless, mindless fun. But they don’t get that that’s exactly what I need. I need people to stop worrying about me. I don’t want to feel like a porcelain doll. I want to feel alive.
For a couple of instants, my dad’s eyes flicker between the toilet and my pale face. The doctor inside of him surfaces and even though I haven’t seen him for twenty months straight, I still know him well enough to figure out what he’s about to ask.
“You’re not pregnant, are you, Mariana?”
I burst into laughter and pat him against the chest.
“No, dad.” I snort.
He can’t be serious about this, the silly man. But he hesitates while frowning.
“You could tell me, you know.”
Oh, I see … the caring father thing. He is serious. This whole conversation makes me feel awkward. He’s implying that I’ve been having sex. No father should know about that. Or is he implying that John … ?
“I know.” I stutter.
I try to subtly sneak out of this confrontation by stepping back, but he puts his hand on my arm, careful enough not to scare me.
“Mariana, I want you to know that … if you were seeing a guy, some boy – and something were to happen. You can always come talk to me about it. Or ask me questions.”
The freaking birds and the bees? Now? No! No, please, don’t make up for lost times by doing this?
My pale face goes even paler. After all I’ve suffered, this might be the worst. I rather go back to puking.
“Dad!” I stop him, before he takes this a little bit further.
I’m getting cold sweat. And every fiber in my body starts to shake. Embarrassed, I cover my ears. But he’s a determined father now. A changed man. He won’t let this go, I can tell.
“Don’t be ashamed. It’s a natural thing.” he tries in his best effort.
The man’s more nervous than I am, it seems.
“Papá, I can’t be pregnant. Trust me.” I stop him before the words ‘sex’ even dares to flow from his mouth.
“You can’t?” he questions.
God, here it’ll come. A suggestion that I’ve been using birth control or something. I panic and briefly close my eyes while suffering this entire thing.
“I can’t, Papá.” my soft words repeat carefully. “Because …”
His eyes convince me of his genuine interest. He must have promised himself along the way that nothing bad would ever happen to his little girl again. My father keeps staring at me, dying to know what’s coming next.
“Because I don’t have sex with boys.”
Silence breaks the tension like a loud, crashing airplane. I catch a deep breath and lower my head in fear.
“Because I’m in love with Lauren.”
I can’t believe I just said that. The words sink in for a while, as we just stand facing each other, no longer saying anything. Enough embarrassment for one day, I guess.
He taps his foot, clears his throat and nods almost invisibly, while processing. This is a very determining moment. This clarification could change every single feeling he has about me. He could hate me from now on.
Papá frowns briefly and rises my chin with his index finger, like he did a lot when I was a little kid and ended up in trouble for some stupid thing.
“Well, good.” he states. “Because I’m glad you’re home, Hija. And I’m glad you’re not pregnant.”
I catch a faint smile and smile back. Wow, this coming out of the closet thing went a lot better than I read on the Internet.
“Now what?” I ask, a bit thrown off my game.
He shrugs and puffs sillily: “Now we tell your mom. And then we’ll have dinner.”