Seventeen years ago. Two nights before Christmas. That was the last time I was home. The last time I think I really felt happy.
I was sneaking downstairs. The little hand on the clock was three minutes away from midnight. I was being extra sneaky tonight, I was going to steal myself a peek at my presents from my mom and dad. My older sister had taught me the tips and tricks to open a present without disrupting the wrapping.
The tree was beautiful, glimmering silver tinsel draped over the length, baubles of green, red and gold hanging from the branches, and my presents all wrapped in the shiniest of paper. I’d just knelt beside the biggest box when I heard the knock.
I puzzled for a moment before getting up and hurrying to the door. If this person knocked again, it’d wake my parents, and my plans to get an early look at my presents would be foiled. I peeked through the peephole.
A woman in a worn coat was standing on the steps, white flakes of snow landing on her frizzy dark hair. I think because it was a woman I opened the door and poked my head out. “Hello?” I asked.
The woman grinned, revealing half a mouth with missing teeth. “Hey, sweet pea, is this your cat?” She opened her jacket to reveal an orange tabby kitten tucked up next to her chest, snoozing peacefully away.
I almost couldn’t breathe. I loved cats, you see. I wrote so many letters to Santa that month asking for a kitten. I’d take care of it, I promised. In awe, I stepped out onto the porch and reached for the kitten, just to give it a quick pat on the head.
It happened so fast I couldn’t even scream. I suppose someone was standing off to the side of the porch, just waiting for me to leave the warmth and safety of my house. Two hands grabbed me by the waist and yanked me off the porch, the woman zipped her coat back up and pulled the door closed. I was an itty bitty thing, tossed over the stranger’s shoulder like I weighed nothing more than a feather and the two bolted for a car parked on the street.
I finally remembered to scream when I was thrown into the trunk, but the backfiring of the engine drowned out any of my cries for help as the pair tore down the street.
I wonder if my parents realized something was wrong right then, if the backfiring woke them up and they checked the house to realize I wasn’t in bed. Did mom bolt out of the house, screaming my name? Or did they just assume it was someone driving like a jackass and fell back asleep in just a minute?
Or did they never even wake up?
I don’t know how long I was in that trunk, only long enough for the smell inside of sweaty socks and oil to be forever burned into my mind. I did end up falling back asleep, or maybe I passed out from the fumes. When I woke up, I was locked in my new bedroom. It was small. And cold.
Of course I did what any other child would when they’re in a strange place- I cried. I cried a lot. I kicked at the door and begged to be let out. I could hear people on the other side of the door, lots of laughing and chatter with some sort of loud music playing during the day. That was the only way I could tell day from night back then- if there was music playing, it was daytime.
When I finally fell asleep, I woke up to three granola bars and a bottle of water. A bucket had been placed in the corner, and I might’ve been a kid but I knew what it was for. I scarfed all three of those granola bars down in a minute, which was a mistake- by the time I fell back asleep, my stomach was cramping so badly I almost started crying again.
The next day, I woke up to two granola bars, a box of pop-tarts, and a bottle of coke.
That’s when I learned my first lesson- be quiet and you’ll get more to eat.
I pushed it a few more times, I once spent an hour slamming into the door, trying to see if I could make it move. That next day I only got two granola bars and no water. By the time the next day came my mouth was so dry I ended up spilling half the water down my chest as I sucked down the water.
The bucket was for me to use the bathroom in, it was emptied every night. I did try to stay awake to see when they came, but they timed it just right for me to be dead out to come give me food and empty the bucket.
The one in charge of taking care of me was the woman, I think. I don’t think any of the guys came in to ever check on me, that was her job. I managed to spend a whole week silent and I got a pair of Barbies to play with. It was the only thing to break up the monotony of just spending the day staring at the ceiling and wondering when my parents were coming to get me. I got a few more toys, but another fit had them all taken away, except for the Barbies.
Be quiet, be good. It’s an easy lesson to learn when you’re in solitary confinement.
I remember it raining outside when the Woman came in when I was awake. I could hear the sound of raindrops pinging off the roof when the door swung open. My initial instinct to run under the bed was overruled by the urge to run up and give her the tightest hug. I hadn’t been touched in so long.
Her dirty fingers ran through my hair as she shushed me. “You can come out now, it’s dinner time,” She said. She took a sniff before wrinkling her nose. “First you’re taking a damn bath though, you reek to high heaven.”
Of course I stunk, I hadn’t had a bath in probably two months, but the bath I got was heavenly. I was dressed in an oversized t-shirt and some rainbow dyed shorts before I was ushered into the dining room. It was there I met the family.
I was too preoccupied with having hot food to really pay attention to all the conversation, but I got their names. The Woman’s real name was Karlie, and she was in charge of feeding all the guys. We were the only ladies in the room. There was Dave, he was the oldest guy in the room and if wasn’t smoking a cigarette he was stuffing his mouth. He made every room foggy. Micah, he was the youngest and the nicest to me, always making sure I had enough to eat. He made me think of my big sister. Alex, he walked kinda funny and one of his eyes was always facing a different direction. John, I don’t think he could talk but if you didn’t get what he wanted he’d punch the back of your head. And Tommy, he was only a bit older than Micah but always had this strange smile on his face. I never felt comfortable around him.
There were others, over the years, but they came and went. These guys always stayed.
My first job was to sweep. The house was filthy and Karlie explained that she couldn’t keep up with it on her own, which is why they adopted me.
I knew that wasn’t the case, but I just nodded. I didn’t want to get locked in my room again. Not when the idea of escape sounded real again.
Karlie was harsh but fair. She always found me new toys and clothes when they went out, most still in their packaging and some of the clothes still having security tags on them. She never got my size right, always getting clothes too small or too large, but new clothes were new clothes.
The chores piled on after time. After I swept, I did the dishes, and there were always a lot and we didn’t have a dishwasher. Dave said doing dishes by hand built character, but he’s yet to ever wash a dish himself. I learned laundry next, and with all the people in the house, there was always laundry to do. There was one time I accidentally got some of Tommy’s and Alex’s clothes mixed together and had to guess which went where.
Well, I didn’t get it right. And the next morning I woke up to Tommy cutting off my hair with a knife.
I screamed and tried to bolt away but he just pinned me back down as he sawed off more locks of my hair. He was even whistling some happy tune when he did it, ignoring every time he nicked my skin and he didn’t stop until I was completely bald. After that, he just got up and left like nothing had happened.
Micah and Tommy got into a fist fight when I walked out with my half bald and bleeding scalp. It was nasty, Karlie ended up hiding me behind her as the two men duked it out. It ended with Micah stabbing Tommy through the hand and proceeding to shave his head with a razor.
“So you know how it feels,” he snapped before storming off.
I learned to make sure not to mix up people’s clothing after that.
It was hot out by the time I made my attempt at escape. Summer was humid and terrible that year, and there was no air conditioning in that little shack that we called home. The guys were getting testier than normal, even Micah was sullen and grumpy.
That’s when John brought home the Guy.
I don’t know the Guy’s name, I don’t think John knew it. I knew by the way The Guy was walking that he was incredibly drunk. John escorted The Guy to the living room and sat him down on the couch before whistling loudly.
Like magic, everyone stopped what they were doing and walked to the living room. I saw Tommy pick up the axe next to the door and swing it over his shoulder.
The Guy looked at the circle of men surrounding him, still dumb to his fate until Dave pulled out his straight razor and dragged it down his face. The Guy screamed and it was like watching a pack of wild dogs descending on him. Everyone wanted to get in a strike, blood sprayed in the air so high it spattered against the ceiling. I dumbly thought how hard it was going to be to clean it off.
They butchered The Guy. The Guy screamed for a long time, longer than I thought possible. Micah ended up pulling one of his arms off and throwing it into the fireplace.
And then I ran.
John had left the door cracked, he had in the past but I didn’t think it was the time to run. But now it was. I ran, and I ran, and I ran deep into the woods. I was all kinds of scraped up by thorns and briars by the time I collapsed.
When I finally caught my breath, I looked up to see all the men standing behind me. Not picking me up. Not grabbing me. Just watching me.
I stumbled to my feet and started walking away again, but they just followed. Right in step behind me, all of them still covered in blood, not running but making sure I knew I wasn’t getting away. I collapsed a few more times and they just waited for me, the moonlight carving morbid silhouettes in the forest behind me.
I think I went on for another hour before finally giving up. There was no way out of this woods. I turned around and slunk back to the men, the blood on their faces and clothes now dry and crusted.
Micah patted my head before slinging me over his shoulder and carrying me back to the house. He didn’t bother covering my mouth this time. I was too tired to scream for my mom and dad.
I was kept in the back room until it began to snow again. I missed having chores to keep me busy. I missed seeing people.
When Karlie let me out, I didn’t even go in for the hug. I immediately went to go do the dishes. Dave saw me at the sink, scrubbing away, and just nodded his approval before lighting up another cigarette.
I’ve never tried to escape again. I learned my place, and my place is here. I’ve been out of this house several times, to earn my keep. I’m an expert at lifting wallets, I learned how from Micah. Tommy helped me figure out how to take off security tags from clothing.
And whenever the men needed to blow off steam, Karlie taught me how to get rid of blood stains.
She’s gone now though. This summer wasn’t good to her, and I ended up having to clean up her blood from where she blew her brains out with Dave’s gun. Chores are much harder on my own, but I get by.
We took a drive down the street I lived, once upon a time. The snow’s melted into sad, muddy piles, most of the decorations have been taken down.
I stopped in front of the house that was once my home. Through the front window I watched my mom pick up a box with strangely familiar wrapping and return it to a closet. And I saw a little girl that looked a bit like I did when I was young, playing with a tablet on the couch.
I wonder if she likes cats too.