After her shower and all too brief solace in her room, Bess was shuffling behind the other girls as one of the guards herded them into the dining room.
They slid onto benches on either side of a long plastic table that barely fit in the room. There were no windows. Instead, a narrow fluorescent light hung from the middle of the ceiling, smothering the room in sterile blue light. A vision of the hospital flashed through her mind and she placed her hand over her chest to feel her heartbeat and let a smile tug at the corners of her mouth. From somewhere outside, the words came to her. You and me. Close enough to hear, too far away to touch, they followed her, reminding her that she was still breathing.
The girls slid down the bench, bunching up along its length. Bess looked down, finding nowhere to sit at the near end. She swept her gaze along the length of the table. A girl at the far end sat next to the wall, apart from the rest. Bess paced down the table and squeezed onto the bench across from her. The girl next to her scooted away, leaving a space between them.
The girl next to the wall tossed her head back and flipped her hair behind her shoulder. The other girls looked around like birds – at the table, at the ceiling, at each other – everywhere but at Bess and the girl sitting across from her.
The girl sat quietly, her eyes cloaked in the serenity and futility of knowing something the rest hadn’t learned yet.
“You’re the oldest,” Bess said.
The girl nodded with a sad smirk. “That’s right.”
“What’s your name?”
Bess pursed her lips.
“It means ‘lake’,” the girl said.
Bess nodded as she gazed into the deepest blue eyes she had ever seen. She glanced sideways at the girls bunched up away from them, then leaned forward and asked, “So what did you do?”
The girl smiled again. But the corners of her eyes didn’t crease and her brows arched just under newborn wrinkles across her forehead. “I grew up.”
Bess heard a faint ringing in her ears as she stared back at the girl. “How old are you?”
The girl sitting next to Bess squirmed uncomfortably and softly cleared her throat.
Bess shrugged, glancing sideways at the girl next to her. “What?”
“Seventeen is when we’re let go,” Teresita Lago said. She looked absently at the wall, as if she was looking through a window that wasn’t there.
Each of the girls grew still and looked down at the table. Nobody talked.
A guard pushed a cart loaded with trays of food from the kitchen. Each girl on the outside end of the benches stood up and started unloading the trays while the rest passed them down until each girl had a tray in front of her. Then they pulled out forks from white plastic baskets and passed them down the same way.
The girl next to her nudged her when Bess picked up her fork. Bess glared at her, but the girl just stared at the tray of food in front of her.
“Eyes front,” the guard said, looking directly at Bess. She rolled her eyes and stared at the heap of steaming food on her tray, none of which she could identify.
After all the girls had their forks, the guard said, “Eat.”
The girls picked up their forks and started shoveling in food as if they hadn’t eaten in several days. Bess took a nibble from her own portion and blinked as she tried to determine exactly what it was. The food was bland and she felt her belly rumble with hunger pangs. Realizing she hadn’t eaten since her arrival, she dug in and shoveled her meal like the rest.
For the next five minutes, Bess’s world didn’t extend past the end of her fork as she practically inhaled her food, feeling her body thicken as she nearly suffocated herself with the blandness that was neither appetizing nor difficult to savor. She cleaned her tray with the corner of a thick dinner roll and set her fork down.
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the others, who were either already finished or taking their last bites. A moment later, the guard slapped the table three times and the girls passed the empty trays back to the head of the table.
The girls at the head of the table stood back up and stacked the trays in a flurried clatter before setting them back on the cart. The girl on Bess’s side of the table took another tray full of food from the cart and put it on the table. The girls slid it down to Bess and waited.
She looked around the table. “What’s this?”
Sitting near the head of the table, Teresita Leche glared at her with her pale green eyes, dormant except for a vague seething that made Bess’s breathing hitch. “You’re the new girl. You haven’t eaten in two days.”
Bess looked down at the tray. “Oh.” Surprised by the depth of her hunger, she dug in and wolfed down more until there were only a few bites left. Bloated from the sudden binge of eating, she pushed the tray away and said, “I can’t eat another bite.” A soft wave of chuckling rippled down the table, breaking the tension for a moment.
They descended back into silence as the guard wheeled away the cart. It was different from before – the kind of stillness that Bess could feel closing in around them like a blanket. All she could hear was the squeak of the cart’s wheels and a rustle of wind sifting through the courtyard outside. The girls were so quiet that Bess wondered if they were all holding their breath.
The guard returned from the kitchen holding a plate with a cupcake, a single burning candle nestled in its frosting. He set it on the table and one of the girls reached out with her fingertips to slide it down to the next girl, pulling her hand away as if a spider had crawled out and bitten her hand. Bess felt her teeth twinge as the next girl dragged the plate across the rugged plastic of the table. One by one, they coaxed the cupcake down the table, each one slower than the last so that Bess wondered if the candle would burn down to the wick before it got to where it was going.
The plate stopped in front of Teresita Lago. Her face tightened into an aching grimace as she reached out with her fingertips and poked the cupcake, nudging it away. Bess looked into her eyes and found herself swimming in their endless blue as they watered. Teresita Lago picked up the cupcake and let out a short puff of breath just strong enough to blow out the candle.
All eyes were on her now as she sunk her teeth into it as if she were taking a bite from a poisoned apple. One of the girls sniffled and quickly wiped her nose.
Watching the oldest girl nibble away her cupcake, Bess whispered, “What is it?”
The girl paused, frowning. “You’ll see.”
After dinner, Bess stood next to the other girls in front of the metal surfaced mirrors with her black leather bag slung over her shoulder. She watched in confusion as the other girls stood in front of their mirrors, dabbing potions on their faces and tracing their eyebrows with black pencils.
Standing next to her, Teresita Leche dragged a deep red lipstick across her lips. “You need to dress up now,” she said. “The clients expect a certain look.”
“For what?” Bess asked. No questions. Yes, she knew the rule but there was a somber purpose in the movements of the other girls as they transformed themselves. Even if she couldn’t control what was happening to her, Bess couldn’t just go through the motions like a compliant drone. She had to know why. She had to hear the obvious spoken out loud.
A voice floated down from the girl standing at the far end. “I’d just do what she says.” Teresita Lago glanced at her sideways and arched a brow. The blue. Bess again felt herself falling into her mesmerizing gaze, as if those blue eyes were a portal to everything she didn’t know. And maybe didn’t want to know. “She has training privilege,” Lago said, then looked away and resumed brushing her cheeks with a round brush.
“What does that mean?” Bess asked.
Teresita Leche pulled the lipstick away from her lips and leveled her gaze on Bess. Her eyes narrowed. “Because of you, I was trained today.” She leaned in slowly, staring Bess down. “And that means that I can beat you to a quivering pulp and leave you in a corner to die and nobody here would see a thing. We would tell Jefe you slipped and fell and he would throw your body over the wall and nobody would mention your name again. That’s what it means.”
Bess gulped hard. I would like to see you try. Even in her mind, though, her bravado was a pathetic protest to the truth. She had never been one to choose her battles carefully, but as Teresita Leche stared at her with those pale green eyes, now flickering with a menacing promise, it seemed like a good time to start.
Bess stared into the bag. “I’ve never done this.”
Leche grunted. “That explains a lot.”
Bess studied the girl’s movements, her pale green eyes now showing little more than a dim fascination with the task at hand.
Bess unzipped her own bag. Looking at the myriad of bottles, plastic cases and stainless steel implements inside, she said, “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” Leche said. Her voice was distant and the threat from just a moment before had slipped away, but Bess knew it would be waiting for her, ready to pounce the next time she did something wrong.
“What do I do?”
“Just hold on a minute and I’ll get you fixed up.”
While she waited for Leche to finish with her lipstick and brush pink rouge on her cheeks, Bess watched the other girls going through the motions of transforming themselves into objects for men she couldn’t imagine. The only one she could think of that would lust after the saturation of the illusion unfolding before her eyes was Tony Halk. But girls did this for him willingly, almost giddy with the chance to let him see their painted faces and smell their cheap perfumes. Men like him didn’t need to come to a prison in the middle of nowhere to find girls like the ones she watched now. Bess shuddered as she tried to imagine the kind of men who would.
Leche bundled her supplies in her bag and hung it on a small hook next to her mirror. She dug through Bess’s bag and took out a full bottle of beige liquid, holding it up for Bess to see. “Foundation.” She pulled out a clean triangle of white sponge and said, “Cover your whole face using this.”
Bess nodded and opened the bottle, dabbing the liquid onto the sponge. As she started to smear the stuff on her face, Leche said, “Your skin is dry. You spend a lot of time outside, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” Bess grimaced as she wiped more of the liquid onto her cheeks. It felt like she was smearing her face with a stick of butter.
“Let me show you the hard part first,” Leche said, fishing a plastic eye shadow kit from Bess’s bag. “Tonight, you need blue eyelids.” She dabbed the applicator in the cake of blue powder and handed it to Bess. “Brush it from the inside corner out.” Bess closed her eye, but couldn’t keep her eyelid from fluttering as she tried to drag the applicator in a smooth stroke.
Leche pulled out a black eyeliner pencil next and said, “Just a little bit right next to your lashes along the top.” Bess’s eyelid fluttered even more as she tried to draw a neat line. The pencil felt like a dull stick ready to jab her in the eye and she couldn’t help flinching. “Not too much.” Leche said. “Put on less than you think you need. These mirrors don’t reflect the light too well. And don’t ever do smokey eye. They want you to look young.”
Smokey eye? Bess had barely been able to put on lipstick and mascara for her school picture, and even then she had needed her mother’s help. An odd sense of longing rose up at the memory of her mother scowling at her impatiently as she tried to show her how to put on lipstick ‘like a proper lady.’
Bess stopped and blinked at her new teacher, struggling to understand how she could talk so casually about dressing up to look young for strange men who were going to -.
“You can’t think about it too much,” Leche said. “It’s like questions. Just don’t.”
Bess dropped her hands to her side, still holding the eyeliner pencil. “Why not?” she asked, the ember stirring inside her. Some of the other girls glanced at her sideways.
Leche sighed in exasperation. “What have I told you?” Bess just blinked at her, drawing a blank. “No matter how bad things are…”
“They can always get worse,” Bess said.
“That’s right. It’s simple. Every time you think of a question, just think, ‘keep it simple.'”
Bess narrowed her eyes and shook her head. “So I might make it to the day when they bring me a cupcake?”
One of the girls, a dark-haired nymph with olive skin and deep chocolate eyes locked her gaze on Bess. “You need to calm down,” she said. Shifting her gaze to Leche, she said, “You better get her in line.”
Bess understood she had brought grief to somebody who was trying to be her friend. She understood the militaristic logic behind her privilege as a result. But she wasn’t about to become the prison yard bitch for every girl in the room. It was like that, wasn’t it? Didn’t she need to gain their respect?
Bess dropped the pencil and clenched her fist as she started to take a step towards the girl. Leche slammed a hand into her chest with surprising strength. In a harsh whisper, she said, “No.” Her eyes were wide as she shook her head and pushed Bess back against the wall. “No.” Bess breathed hard, her blood surging, driven by the ember that now flared inside and ached to lash out at the world.
Leche held her hand against Bess’s chest, waiting for her to calm down. “You can’t think about that. It will take everything you have just to make it through tonight. Don’t waste it in here.”
Her chest still heaving, Bess said, “I can’t do that. I have to believe there’s more than just … this.”
“It’s not about you. Don’t you get it?”
“Everything you do here affects the rest of us. All of us.”
Bess watched the other girls as they continued with the somber ritual of dressing themselves up for the coming evening. There were rules she didn’t understand yet. There were rules she would never understand, but she felt herself becoming dimly aware of the fact that she was part of a group now. She had never paid too much attention to what it meant to go along with her peers. She had set herself apart with a mild contempt for most of those around her who always seemed to concede what was expected before thinking about what was right. She recoiled at the thought of somebody giving up who they were for their own survival. In a place like this, though, maybe they couldn’t afford to understand that.
“I don’t know how to do that,” Bess said. “But I’ll try.”
Leche nodded and slowly pulled her hand away. “Try real hard,” she said.
The door flew open and banged against the wall with a ringing steel echo. A guard poked his head in and yelled with a sharp growl. “Tiempo Teresitas!“
In a flurry, the girls finished last minute touches and then threw everything back into their bags. Leche pulled Bess aside as the other girls trotted out the door. “The rest of us will be in the main house, meeting clients. But not you. This is your first night. They’ll bring somebody to you.”
Her eyes softened. At first, Bess thought she saw a flicker of sympathy or even compassion. But when a quiver fluttered through Leche’s mouth, Bess knew it was something else. The girl was scared.
“So don’t freak out,” she said. “Please.”
Bess nodded quickly, her heart racing as she tried not to think of what was going to happen. Here, she could at least go through the motions of doing what was expected of her for the sake of the other girls. Once alone, she knew it wouldn’t be so easy. Independence had become a habit, just as adamant as the shackles of any other addiction.
Bess looked at the ground, avoiding eye contact with the guard as she traipsed out to the walkway behind Leche. Another guard stood at the end of the block and waited for the girls to duck into their rooms before marching down the walkway to lock the doors behind them. Bess was the last in line and looked at the locked doors as she reached her room. The walkway was empty except for the guards, the other girls now ghosts that seemed to have never been there at all, leaving her as the sole prisoner who now had to face her torments alone.
She ducked into her room. As the door closed behind her, she stopped short at the top of the steps. A satin blue dress lay on her bed, with a faux diamond tiara setting on top. A note read, Tonight, you are the princess. Bess never thought her greatest humiliation would come from a pretty dress. She scoffed and swept the costume aside as she sat down on the edge of her bed, staring at the door. She could barely make out the seams along its edges as the light outside faded. She leaned over and snapped on the lamp on her nightstand.
Opening the drawer, she saw a new syringe with the cover still on lying next to a vial, which she assumed was the same drug they had given her the night she arrived. She shuddered as she wondered why they had put more in there and closed the drawer.
She held up the dress and sighed in disgust as she inspected the smooth satin lines and the tight elastic at the waist. She ran her hand along her leg, still covered by the flimsy nightgown she had worn for two days now. The dress, as absurd as it was, would be better. It would feel good to cover her body with actual clothes, even if it meant encasing herself in satin.
She stood up and slipped on the dress, smoothing over the pleats that flowed out from her waist. The top plunged embarrassingly deep and framed her chest in two form-fitting arches that made her feel self-conscious. She pulled the top of the dress up as high as it would go, only to feel it sliding back down snugly on her chest.
Tracing the laced edges with her fingertips, she realized somebody had made the dress specifically to fit her body. It followed the lines of her torso like a glove and draped over the curve of her hips in a perfect bell before flowing out into the pleated skirt that fell to just above her ankles. For a moment, she felt pretty, even if it was just wrapping on a package that she knew wouldn’t last. Still, in another place, with the right man looking at her, it could have been something from a dream as unfamiliar to her as the nagging alarm rising up inside her as she felt her sense of self slip away.
She picked up the tiara and started to put it on, then stopped and thought to brush the silk of her jet-black hair behind her shoulders so it would flow out from under and behind the glistening plastic jewels. Her hands began to tremble as she thought of the coming encounter and realized the only thing she could control was the obscure vanity of how she looked. Bess froze in place as she stared at the door, understanding, finally, that she couldn’t stop what was going to happen next. A shield of satin and a ridiculous splash of costume jewelry couldn’t hold back the terror of what would inevitably follow the moment that door opened.
She stood for a long time after that, staring at the pale yellow light from her lamp washing up against the door that stood between her and the unthinkable. She braced herself as best she could, determined to face it, just as she had faced bitter winds and water rising up to splash over her during a storm on the lake. But she knew these were not the same as what was waiting on the other side of that door. Winds passed. Water subsided. And they never took anything away – they always left her with more of who she was than before. Now, they were going to take some part of her away. And she would never get it back.
Of all the terrors that ran through her mind, the one that bore down on her soul the heaviest was the fear of forfeiting to what was happening to her, to letting them break her like they had the other girls. And they were broken, every single one of them, because they had given up being human and instead swam in the dull numbness of enduring the unthinkable until they were no longer somebody worthy of breathing. It was no different than dying.
The door creaked open. She swallowed hard when she saw a man the same age as her father looking down at her with a wicked grin. He seemed overdressed, wearing a black jacket, a crisp white shirt and a ridiculous black bow tie. He might as well have worn a sign around his neck declaring he had money and power and the craven mind of an animal that allowed him to do whatever he pleased, so long as nobody actually fought back. His eyes lit up with hunger and Bess felt her blood curdle as she let her gaze drift down to his slender hands, knowing that he craved to touch her.
He came down the steps and she backed up, tripping over the edge of the bed and falling back on the mattress. She sat up straight, glaring at him, unable to quell a shiver that ran from the tip of her toes to the top of her head. He stopped just in front of her and reached out to stroke her hair.
In a baritone voice dripping with lust, he said, “Well, hello there.” She detected the scent of alcohol and cigars on his breath.
Images from the last two days flashed through her mind. Leche’s eyes trembling with submission in Jefe’s office. Lago weeping as she blew out the candle on her cupcake. The agonizing ocean of ether from the drugs they had given her. Before she realized what was happening, her mind slammed them all back into a distant darkness as her ember flared, now a living thing inside her and beyond her control.
A voice cried out. “NO!” Just as she realized it was her own, instinct gripped every fiber of her being as her rage took on a will of its own. She stood up and slammed her knee into his groin. She let out a growling yelp from the stabbing ache that shot through her kneecap. The man’s eyes went wide as his voice filled the room with a jagged scream.
He stumbled back up the stairs, grabbing himself with both hands. “God dammit!” he yelled. “What the fuck is this bullshit?” Even as he staggered out the door, two of Jefe’s guards, now dressed in the same formal black attire as her guest, burst into the room and slammed her against the wall. They practically snarled as they glared at her with guard dog faces that seemed farcical in contrast to their bow ties and white shirts as they pinned both her shoulders against the wall.
She thrashed with her feet, trying to kick them, but couldn’t find her target. She clenched her fists and tried to raise them in defiance, but she couldn’t move her arms.
A third guard ran down into her room and opened the drawer of her nightstand. He took out the syringe, popped off the cap and jabbed the needle into the vial. He drew the plunger back, filling it as far as he could and jammed the needle into her neck. He shoved in the plunger with the heel of his hand and Bess thought she heard herself scream as needles of fire skittered through her neck and shoulders.
Then the room started spinning and she was able to move again as they let her slump to the bed. She raised her fists and swung as hard as she could, but it felt like she was churning a marshmallow as her hands flailed through the air in slow motion. The room tilted and she felt a warm glow wash over her.
Then the world went dark.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence