Bess woke up blinking at the door. She picked up both hands and turned them over as she studied the shafts of light leaking through. Her hands didn’t feel like blocks of concrete this time. She sat up and swung her legs off the bed, wiggling her toes. Her body did not rebel with searing blades of pain. There weren’t even pins and needles. She stood up and stretched, pressing her palms against the ceiling and let out a sigh of relief. Looking down, she saw she was once again wearing her flimsy flower print nightgown.
She sucked in a quick breath when she heard the door to one of the other rooms slam open and a man yelling something in Spanish. Sounding like gunshots going off in succession, each of the other eleven doors slammed open. A rabid chorus of shouts and commands from the guards rose up and the light peeking through the seams around her door fluttered with shadows as she heard the scurry of bare feet running along the cement walkway.
The sound of boot steps thumping the walkway followed as the bellowing grew louder and then passed by her door and into the courtyard. The voices cut off and all she could hear was a faint rustling from the outer walkway. Holding her breath, she tip toed up the steps and pressed her ear against the door. She heard faint muffled grunts coming from the courtyard, as if the girls had their mouths covered.
She fell back when her door burst open and two guards clomped down into her room. Thick leathery hands wrapped around each arm, yanked her to her feet and shoved her up the stairs. Once on the cement walkway, one of the guards slammed his palm into her back, sending her hurtling towards the courtyard. She watched the ground as she scrambled to keep from falling.
When Bess looked back up, she let out a sharp gasp. The girls lined the walkway between the block and the main house, each of them on their knees and facing the courtyard. Rags tied tightly in their mouths pushed their tongues to the backs of their throats. They all breathed heavily through their noses, unable to get any air in through the gags. Plastic zip strips binding their hands behind their backs cut into their wrists to create a reddening swell where the plastic mashed into their skin.
Jefe stood in the grass between them and the iron gate, wearing a hat with a brim that was too small for his head. His emerald eyes smoldered as he stared at her with his hands neatly folded across his chest.
The guards shoved Bess off the cement walkway and sent her tumbling onto the grass. As she started to stand back up, they grabbed her arms and hoisted her up in front of Jefe.
His mouth was set in a straight line. His brows arched in sharp crooks and he squinted at her just enough for her to see the creases of crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes. She felt his breath in even measured puffs splash against her chest as time seemed to stop. She stared back at him, refusing to look away, but couldn’t help swallowing just once as her heart fluttered inside her chest.
His voice came in calm, measured tones with a patience and finality she hadn’t heard before. “Your fire burns those around you Teresita Fuego.” He flicked his brows and the men jerked her around to face the other girls. Their hands were vice clamps as they forced her to her knees and held her in place. Jefe’s voice rumbled behind her. “Behold the wrath of your fire.”
The girls looked at Bess with forlorn eyes. As she surveyed their faces, fear paralyzed them all except for Teresita Lago. She realized they knew what was happening and that she did not want to ever know what that was. Some of them sucked air back and forth through their noses with a sickening gurgle. A few whimpered. Bess suddenly realized she desperately wanted to see anger in their eyes. At that moment, she would have wallowed in hatred lashing out at her – anything but the languishing dread she saw staring back at her.
One of the guards standing behind the girls stepped back and pulled out a pistol. It was a revolver with a scuffed brown grip and a short black barrel. The man pointed it at the back of the first girl’s head. Bess tried to remember her name, realizing she had never asked.
“Do you know what that is?” Jefe asked.
“It’s the same kind of pistol my father had,” Bess croaked.
“No, Teresita Fuego. Not like your father’s.”
The guard pulled the trigger and a muffled shriek erupted from the girl. The gun clicked, but did not fire. The girl hung her head and started sobbing. Bess felt the warm glow of numbness flow out to her fingertips and a sickening ache rose up in her chest. “Oh my God,” she said. “No.” She started to shake her head when a thick hand clamped down on the top of her and forced her to keep watching.
The guard pulled the gun back ceremoniously and held it close to his chest with the barrel pointed up as he started walking towards the next girl. His steps were agonizingly slow as he passed the next girl in line and moved on to the third. The second girl now glared at Bess, searing her with hatred that Bess knew would never subside.
The guard turned and pointed the pistol at the back of the head of the third girl. Recognizing the face of Teresita Leche, Bess strained to wrestle her arms free. She clenched her teeth and held her breath as she tugged with all her strength. The grip on her arms only grew tighter.
The anger in Teresita Leche’s eyes evaporated. Her eyes became vacant and dormant, just like Bess had seen when she first met her. But now she understood they were neither. Teresita Leche simply looked at Bess with the resigned emptiness of knowing.
Her words flew through Bess’s mind in a chorus of admonition. Don’t tell your name. Stay on the sidewalk. Don’t ask questions. Bess heard her voice saying all these things again, finally understanding what she had meant, that it wasn’t a game and that she had totally missed the meaning of it the first time. However bad you think things are, they can get worse.
Everything you do here affects the rest of us.
The guard’s finger squeezed the trigger. Bess felt her own scream erupt from her chest before she heard it spill out into the courtyard, splash up against the walls and claw its way back to her own ears. Her soul rushed out of her, pleading to somehow push away the moment and force time to stop.
Teresita Leche’s expression didn’t change. She didn’t even wince. She just stared at Bess, helplessness washing over her in an endless wave.
“I’m sorry,” Bess wailed. Convulsions ripped through her body and her eyes flooded with the agony of knowing she had brought somebody who was trying to be her friend to the threshold of death.
The guard pulled the pistol away, walked past the girl next to Leche and then stopped behind the one next to her. Bess realized he was skipping every other one. There were eleven girls and six chambers in the revolver’s cylinder. Bess slumped against the hands holding her down. She knew. They were all safe – except for the girl kneeling at the end of the line. Jefe was going to make her watch the guard click an empty chamber at each one until he reached Teresita Lago. Bess turned her eyes towards the oldest among them. Teresita Lago’s face looked like it was behind a window and the relentless river of Bess’s tears was like rain streaming down its surface.
Bess didn’t look anywhere else after that. She listened for the click, knowing that each one was counting down to the girl staring back at her with the deep blue eyes of her name’s sake. Unlike the rest, she didn’t look scared. There was no hatred in her heart. Although pulled back into a forced grimace by the cloth gag, Bess thought she could see the corners of her mouth curling up into a shadow of a smile.
Bess stopped hearing anything after the next click. She fell into the gaze of Teresita Lago, drowning in the silence that was sweeping away everything the young woman staring back at her would ever be. She seemed to be trying to tell Bess something. Maybe it was just an illusion, her own mind struggling to escape the horror that she had become the end of time for a young woman who would never see a day of what that could mean. Maybe it was her way of trying to escape the truth. The other girls wouldn’t be enduring the agony of hoping for a click when their turn came if only she had done what was expected of her. How horrible was it really to give up your own soul so that others might live? What would her own spirit be worth after the clicks ran out and all she had left was Teresita Lago’s blood dripping from her hands?
The guard pulled the pistol back and paced the last few steps towards Teresita Lago. Bess swam through the blue. She churned the waters that engulfed her, a deep ocean that hid a secret too far away for her to see. Tears welled up in Teresita Lago’s eyes and she nodded gently. She pulled her mouth up further, so there was no doubt. She showed Bess a smile, plain and forgiving as tears dripped down from her eyes. Bess had to find what the girl was trying to tell her before it was too late. What is it?
The guard stopped behind Teresita Lago. Bess stared at her, trying to drink in every moment of the rest of the girl’s life. As the guard checked the cylinder to make sure the bullet was in line with the barrel, Bess finally realized what she was trying to tell her.
The guard pressed the barrel against Teresita Lago’s head and stopped. Bess felt the sickening warm brush of Jefe’s breath against her neck as he leaned in behind her.
“It’s not like your father’s gun,” he said. “It is your father’s gun, Teresita Fuego. And now you must learn from it. Because you have refused to let me teach you.”
The guard pulled the trigger. In that last moment, Bess burned the girl’s unspoken words into her mind, swearing that she would honor them to her own dying breath as the blast from her father’s .38 snub nose filled the courtyard.
The following night, Bess sat on the edge of her bed next to the nightstand, staring at the pall of yellow light washing over her feet. She was no longer wearing her nightgown. Instead, she was clad in a sheer black negligee with pink ribbon sewn around the cuffs, neckline and short skirt cut just above her knees.
The only coherent thought that came from her clouded mind was that she was still in shock. Her universe had shrunk to the confines of her room and trying to think of anything beyond its four cement-encased walls was exhausting. Any time she tried, it felt like she was pushing against something infinitely opaque and immovable, just like those walls. Her mind had stopped. And she didn’t feel much like trying to get it started again.
She didn’t look up when she heard the door open. Nothing that came through the door could be any worse than what she had endured the day before. It was either something that no longer mattered or something that would kill her, which wasn’t the unwelcome thought it had once been.
Jefe sat down on the bed next to her and placed his hand on her shoulder. A day ago, her skin would have crawled. Now, she just felt the dead weight of skin and bone perched on her shoulder, totally devoid of meaning.
He let out a sigh before he started talking. “You’ve been through a lot, Teresita Fuego.”
His hand didn’t move, bearing down on her like a dead thing. She looked at his shoes, which shone back at her with her own dull reflection.
“You can’t understand this now,” he continued, “but I know how you feel at this moment. The world has lost all meaning to you. And you think it has forgotten about you. Perhaps, you think that it never knew you were alive in the first place.”
She turned slowly to look at him. It was as if he had reached into her soul and plucked out the only truth she had left so he could turn it slowly in the light as he showed it to her.
He arched a sad brow and said, “I know.”
There was no wisdom in what he said, no kindred spirit reaching out to her. His words reflected a simple reality that rolled past her like a lone wave to fade back into an endless sea.
“You have a purpose now,” he said. She leaned away as he squeezed her shoulder. “You were brought here to soothe the hunger of depraved men so they might not go mad in the world. It’s not as meaningless as you might think.”
Bess turned away, her eyes drooping at the insanity of his words, too tired to push them back. They infected her mind with a soothing sensibility that would have made her stomach turn just a day earlier. Now, they were words that would allow her to keep breathing.
“Why?” she asked, forgetting that she wasn’t supposed to ask questions. But his words seemed to invite one now.
Jefe nodded and let out a soft grunt. “No, I do not wish to rekindle your fire just yet. I can tell you there is an answer to that question, and maybe I will share it with you some day.”
He reached across her lap and opened the drawer to her nightstand. She glanced at the needle with its plastic cap and the vial full of liquid next to it. He picked up both and held them in the palm of his hand. She gazed at them without recoiling in fear. Oddly, there was something faintly soothing about seeing them now. They were reliable things, always there to take her into darkness where nothing could touch her. They could also paralyze her, but the memory of waking up in searing agony slid behind the ethereal blanket of darkness they had brought last time. Vaguely, she ached for it.
“These will always be here, Teresita Fuego. They are for you. They always have been.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“Something that can make all of this easier for you to endure.” He smiled at her and a glint flickered in his eyes. “Because of your fire, we had to give you more than you need to be comfortable. It doesn’t always have to be like that. You can take just a little and it will help you relax. It will make it easier for you to accept what is happening to you and do what you now know must be done. Do you understand?”
He nodded, his smile broadening. “Good. I knew you could learn.”
She stared at the syringe as he held it in his palm. “What now?” she asked.
“I can either give you some. A much smaller amount than you’ve had in the past. Or…” He opened the drawer further and reached towards the back, pulling out the strip of ribbon. “You can do it for yourself.”
She looked at the ribbon, imagining his thick hands wrapping it around her arm. Then she looked at her wrist, seeing her own hand gently thrust the needle into her own vein. There was a choice – another fork in the road between capitulation and a self-determination that was all but meaningless. “I’ll try,” she said.
He tied the ribbon around her upper arm and turned over her wrist. She watched as the blue streaks of her veins emerged, waiting for her to inject the numbness that would stand between her and the shame that was waiting for her. He uncapped the syringe and handed it to her. Holding the vial with his fingers, he said, “Insert the needle now and pull the plunger back half way.”
Bess poked the needle through the rubber top of the vial, noticing her hands were steady now, as if she had done it a hundred times. She pulled the plunger back and watched the liquid wash into the tube like a small wave. Her face relaxed and she realized she wanted to feel the venom surge into her veins.
“Now, carefully, slip it into the biggest vein you can find. Just a little ways. Gently.”
Bess carefully placed the tip of the needle against a deep blue vein and then pressed it against her skin until she felt the sting of the needle breaking through.
“Good. Now slowly push down until you feel comfortable.”
She pressed the plunger in a quarter of the way and stopped as a calming glow washed over her. She let out a slow breath until she felt nothing in particular except the glow, insulating her from the clutches of a world she no longer understood. It was as if she had left herself behind somewhere and floated through a different world where nothing mattered anymore.
She pulled the needle out and dropped it in the drawer. Jefe set the vial in next to the syringe and untied the ribbon. He tossed it in the drawer and closed it.
“Now,” he said, “you have another client tonight. He is a gentle man. A kind man. He will help you learn so you can accept what you must do now. Do you understand?”
He placed his hand back on her shoulder and gently grasped her chin to turn her face towards him. The smile was gone and the glint in his eye faded. “This is important. This you must understand. I promise you he will not hurt you and he will take very good care of you. But, he must tell me later that you have given him what he came for tonight. Do you understand?”
“Yes Jefe. But…”
“It’s alright, you may ask your question.”
“How do I do that?”
“You just let it happen.”
He stood up and walked up the steps. As he slipped into the darkness, another man emerged at the door and peered at her with gentle eyes. He walked slowly down the steps and into the light. His face was soft and he was much younger than the first man they had sent to her. He smiled warmly and his eyes did not have the craven gleam the first man had shown her. Instead, he looked at her with simple adoration.
He sat down next to her and placed one hand on her back, letting it rest there for a moment so she could get used to the feel of his touch. Then he placed his other hand just beneath her collarbone and gently eased her down onto the bed. She felt a faint twinge of fear dash through her heart.
“Shhhh,” he said. “I won’t hurt you. It’ll be OK.” He brushed the hair along her temple and gently swung her feet onto the bed. He closed his eyes and nodded slowly. “There.” He stroked her hair a while longer, kissing her softly on the cheek. She felt a flash of panic sweep across her face and swallowed nervously.
“I know,” he said. “We have a long way to go.”
She let out a whimper that she hoped came out as something the man found pleasing.
The effect of the drug slowly intensified and she found herself imagining Teresita Lago’s face peering at her from a distant shore. She closed her eyes and dwelled on the ache in her heart as she gazed into the deep blue of Lago’s eyes. She let her mind drift away, leaving her body behind as something separate from her while she swam across an endless sea towards the girl standing on the shore.
There was a sensation, something that tugged at her mind, trying to pull her back, but she just kept swimming towards the shore. There was a sound, the man’s voice rumbling from far away. It cascaded into a distant thunder and still she swam, looking at the girl standing on the shore who never seemed to come closer. Teresita Lago stood there anyway, so Bess could know there was someone waiting for her as long as she just kept swimming. She would stand there forever, if that’s how long it took for Bess to finally find her way home.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence