Bess lifted her face to the sunlight filtering through the slats of a wooden awning running over the stretch of sidewalk they were standing on. Concrete walls flanked the sidewalk, each with six evenly spaced doors just like the one to her room. Each was made from the same heavy wood and had a steel hasp held in place with a padlock.
“This is the block,” the girl said. “This is where we live, sleep and entertain.”
Bess looked away from the doors and into the girl’s eyes. “Entertain?” she asked.
The girl leaned in with her vacant stare that Bess was learning to understand – it meant she had made some kind of mistake. “What did I say about questions?” the girl asked.
“Sorry.” Bess said.
“What did I say?” the girl asked.
“You said to listen and try to understand.”
“So quit asking questions. Jefe was right about you. You’re smart.”
“Not smart enough.”
“No.” The girl shook her head. “Smart gets you in trouble.”
Bess blinked and focused on keeping her face as still as possible to hide what she was thinking. The girl was right – the drug was wearing off and her mind was grinding back into gear. There were twelve doors. They were locked with padlocks. They weren’t combination locks. They used keys. Bess let her gaze drift to the guard standing next to her door and noticed the thin chain drooping from his front pocket and tied to his belt loop.
“Do you understand?” the girl asked.
The girl’s eyelids eased to half mast and she let out a faint sigh. Shaking her head, she laid one of Bess’s arms over her shoulder and wrapped her own around Bess’s waist so she could pull Bess along the cement walkway. Bess shuffled her feet, trying to keep up, but she still couldn’t lift them into an actual walk.
“It gets better,” the girl said. “You’ll be alright in a little while.”
The girl dragged Bess down the cement walkway that led out from the block and across an open courtyard. Sunlight continued to spill through the slats of the wooden awning above the sidewalk, now supported by polished poles hewn from tree trunks and fastened to them with leather straps. Close cut grass sprouted on either side of the sidewalk as if to declare they were walking through the courtyard of just another modest hacienda nestled in foothills – nothing to see here, move along. Bess could just make out the tops of those foothills peeking over the adobe walls on either side. A small brick path wandering across the courtyard seemed to invite her to simply stroll to the iron gate embedded in one of them, where a thick dark-skinned Mexican with sunglasses, plaid shirt and black jeans stood next to it like a statue.
The girl pointed at their feet. “Don’t ever leave the sidewalk.” Bess tried to choke back the question straining to free itself from her throat and cringed when she heard her own voice ask, “Why not?”
The girl stopped, grabbed Bess by both shoulders and slammed her back against one of the poles holding up the awning. She eased her face in until her nose almost touched Bess’s.
“I’m trying to help you here,” she said. “But you need to shut the fuck up and listen. Because if you don’t get this, we’re both in trouble. You and me. And you don’t know what that means yet. But I do.” The girl grabbed Bess’s chin when she tried to look away, forcing her to gaze into the girl’s empty green eyes. “I have no interest in trouble. And look at you, trouble with a mouth.” She thumped Bess’s shoulder and backed away, leaving Bess to lean against the pole, stranded because she still couldn’t walk on her own.
The girl’s eyes flared against the hollowed out mask of her face. “Got it?”
“I’m just trying to understand,” Bess said. She eyed the girl’s hands, wondering if she was going to help her the rest of the way or just leave her stranded against the pole.
“You don’t need to ask questions here. The things you need to understand are very simple and they will be explained to you.”
Bess started to say something, then closed her mouth and just nodded.
“Good. Now what’s rule number one?”
“Never say my name.”
“Things can get worse.”
“Stay on the sidewalk.”
The girl put her arm back around Bess’s waist and pulled her the rest of the way to a two story building on the other side of the courtyard. Bess let her gaze drift up along its adobe stucco walls. A large window stretched across the second story wall to her left with a smaller one on the right. Another window ran along the first story between them and the iron gate. Thick drapes covering all three windows hid the interior of the house.
When they reached the end of the walkway, the girl pushed down on the black iron thumb latch of a door cut from dark polished lumber. She pulled the door open and dragged Bess into a narrow hallway flanked on either side by two more heavy wooden doors. A flight of carpeted stairs rose up in front of them. The walls were lined with ornately carved wooden wainscoting and the walls and ceilings were covered in a plush textured wallpaper. An ornate chandelier with flame-shaped bulbs sprouting from its silver frame hung from the ceiling by a black iron chain. Bess detected an old world sense of charm and oppression at the same time, as if the decor was intended to hide a secret by slathering it with its gauche facade.
The girl pointed at the door on the left. “That’s the parlour.”
Bess stared at the door, catching another question in her throat as her mind grinded against itself trying to reconcile the thought of people gathering in a parlour just feet away from a room where they had drugged her to the brink of insanity.
The girl pointed at the door on their right. “That’s the kitchen and dining room. They feed us pretty well here. Most of the time anyway.”
The girl tugged at Bess and dragged her down the hallway to the stairs. The girl looked up the stairs and then at Bess. “They don’t usually drug the new girls this badly. How are your legs?”
Bess let out a sigh and narrowed her eyes as she studied the stairs. She grabbed the thick mahogany rail bolted to the wall, surprised at how much strength her hand had regained, and heaved herself forward to place one foot on the first step. A sweat broke out on her forehead as she pulled again and dragged her other foot up. Her legs wobbled for a moment and then she slid her hand further up the rail and pulled herself onto the next step. Like a child, she felt the elation of being able to not only stand on her own, but to actually move under her own will. If she could walk up the stairs on her own, it would seem like she was consenting to a request rather than submitting to a demand. She knew there was no real difference, but it was a start – a sublime fork in the road between capitulation and self-determination.
“Okay, I think we’ll be alright,” the girl said as she trotted up next to Bess and put her arm back around her waist. “Come on.”
Bess grunted and clutched at the rail, lurching up the steps with the help of the girl pulling her at the waist. When they reached the top, Bess sat down, gasping for air as sweat rolled down from her forehead and dripped off her nose.
The girl put a hand on Bess’s shoulder and smiled at her. “That’s good. Jefe didn’t think you could do it.”
The girl clapped her on the shoulder and pulled Bess to her feet.
“Come on,” she said.
Bess held the image of the building in her mind as she let her face sag impassively, hoping to shroud everything inside from whoever waited on the other side of the door. She imagined walking through it and seeing a window at the far end of the room. Her legs ached and still quaked from the strain of climbing the stairs, but she could force them to run across the room. She could force her body to lunge through the drapes, bash out the glass with her head and go tumbling to the ground below. She wasn’t sure what the ten-foot fall to the ground would do to her, but she played the image of her body tumbling and then springing back up to lope into the foothills beyond.
If she couldn’t do all of that, Bess was certain that she wouldn’t survive whatever was on the other side of the door. She tried to see her face hollowed out by despair like the girl’s next to her, but she couldn’t. She just wasn’t built that way. If that’s what it took to survive, to live, to breathe through the next day – she knew she couldn’t do that.
So she prayed the window was there. If it was, she would take care of the rest.
The girl pushed the door open. It swung back silently on well-oiled hinges and seemed to shove the air aside as it revealed a cavernous room lit by an array of track lights that shone into every inch of the room.
The desk in front of the wall to their right seemed to be hewn from a single block of rosewood and glistened like a pane of polished glass.
The girl tried to steer Bess towards the desk, but Bess set her foot hard against the carpet and leaned back into the girl as she stared at the far wall.
Thick black drapes covered the entire wall, so she didn’t know where the window was exactly. A Platinum standing safe stood sentry in one corner while a long richly upholstered sofa stretched across the front of the drapes.
“Come on,” the girl said, tugging Bess’s arm.
Bess stared at the drapes and tried to feel blood surging through her legs as she tensed them for the sprint to the window she prayed was behind them.
She grunted as she tore her arm away from the girl and shoved her foot back to start her sprint. The room moved by in slow motion as her muscles rebelled against her will and knotted up again in tight cramps. She clawed at the air, forcing her legs to propel her forward. She wasn’t exactly running, but it was more than a walk.
The sound of men laughing chased after her as she stumbled across the room. She tried to jump up to the sofa, but her feet barely left the ground and her knees skidded onto the seat cushions. She grabbed the back of the sofa, pulled herself over the top and fell against the drapes.
She clawed at the heavy cloth, searching for the end so she could pull it aside. The laughing welled up again, closer this time.
Her breath coming in sharp gasps against the pain rippling through her muscles. Bess found the edge of the curtain and pulled it back to reveal the smooth glass of a towering pane window that looked out on the world.
She could see a road just below the window and foothills stretching out to the horizon. She imagined herself bounding through the scrub, weeds and sand of the foothills like a gazelle fleeing a would-be captor. She saw her legs stretching out in long strides and her fists pumping the air as she fled into the wilderness while thick-boned guards scrambled after her, unable to catch up as she faded into the horizon.
Bess pressed her cheek against the window and wept as she stared at the black iron bars stretching over its outside. Oh, she could have bashed through the glass, sending shards scattering along the road with her floating out over them, free. But the bars. They were only inches apart and for a moment, she felt she was standing behind a jail door.
She heard the sickening sound of her own flesh smashing against bone as something slammed into the back of her legs. She gasped and then yelped as a crushing ache leapt up through her muscles and seeped into the small of her back.
She crumpled to her knees and then thick hands gripped her shoulders and pulled her back from the window while a man laughed from across the room.
“Mira la,” the man said, “Sangre de fuego. Casi.” He laughed even harder as the men hoisted her up and dragged her across the carpet, letting her knees burn against it until they were bleeding.
The men dragged her to the front of the desk and let go. Bess slumped and slammed her hands against the floor, barely able to hold herself up as her arms quivered from exhaustion. She heard the clatter of a wooden bat as one of the men threw it on the desk.
The ember flared. The burning rose up from deep inside and she could feel it creeping out from her middle and along her chest until it reached her throat. Her heart surged with it, pounding blood into her veins hard enough that she could feel her fingertips throbbing.
She took a deep breath and lifted her head to stare into the azure emeralds she had seen the night before. The man glared back at her, impassive, unmovable. His face was stone against fire in her eyes. But the ember would not subside.
She imagined a man rising up behind him and grabbing his chin from behind, then twisting it around far enough for her to hear his neck snap and see the life drain from his eyes before he crumpled to the floor.
“You won’t get away with this,” she said.
The man burst out laughing. “And, who, Teresita Fuego, is going to save you?”
He didn’t know her. He didn’t know who she was or where she came from. She could make him believe it. She could make a believer out of him the way she had made Tony Halk a believer. All it took was the will to mold reality to what she needed him to believe.
“My father,” she said. “He doesn’t take kindly to men who hurt me.”
The man rose from his chair and tilted his head as a smile of mock sympathy spread across his face. He waved his hand and said, “Levantela.”
The men standing behind her latched onto her arms and forced her to stand up. She winced, fighting to hold back anything that would let him know she was in pain.
The man leaned forward until Bess could feel his breath dripping down her chest.
“Your father,” he said, “died some months ago.” He arched a brow. “Or have you forgotten?”
Bess felt the world fall out from under her. She closed her eyes and hung her head as she saw herself tumbling into the void like a rag doll, spinning down behind the rest of her world that a cruel child had tossed in like playthings. First, her father – spinning helplessly with cross-stitched eyes. Then, her mother, an insipid inebriated grin on her clown’s face. Finally, Bess, a little girl with her hair twisted in two braided pigtails and her cheeks crimson with red circles of paint.
What she had thought was the private humiliation of a broken family, she now saw as the clockwork obliteration of her life by outsiders, now served up to their purpose with no regard for the price paid by those who had been reduced to cogs, wheels, springs and bells. Bess fumed as she realized the worst part was that she simply hadn’t known. From the beginning, their fate had been sealed by Tony Halk, Rickie Hewitt and God knew what other tin soldiers this man had wound up and sent to destroy her life.
That she saw all these things in the forms of toys and clocks gave her a sense of power she knew to be false, a coping mechanism so she could corral her predicament in her own mind until she was ready to face the brutal reality of the man staring down at her. Blood and crimson lay somewhere beyond the horizon of her future, but at that moment, cowering on her knees and barely able to command her own movements, all she could do was seethe at a man against whom she was utterly powerless.
Turning his attention to the girl that had brought Bess in, the man said, “Teresita Leche, you disappoint me. You have failed to make Teresita Fuego understand.”
He flicked his fingers and one of the guards let go of Bess’s arm and marched over to the girl. He picked the girl up by the shoulders and set her down next to Bess, as if he were moving a scarecrow.
“Train her,” the man said. A glint of remorse flashed across the guard’s eyes and then was gone. He nodded somberly and started to drag the girl to the door.
The girl started kicking and Bess saw something in her eyes that had lain dormant and now sprung to life. The girl started twisting and grunting as she tried to wrestle free from the guard. She glared at Bess with a withering hatred. Then she screamed.
“Jefe, no! Please! I’m sorry. Let me -“
The guard pinned her against the wall by the throat, opened the door and threw her onto the landing at the top of the stairs in a crumpled heap. The door banged shut and another stifled scream splashed against it from the other side.
Bess’s heart surged as she thought of the girl, who had been vacant, dormant and empty and whose fear and rage now lashed out at the sound of two simple words. Bess shuddered as she remembered the girl’s face, just inches from her own. She hadn’t really heard it then. Now, the words thundered in her ears as if the girl were screaming them.
No matter how bad things are, they can get worse.
The remaining guard pulled Bess up onto her feet. As she turned back to look at Jefe, he threw a black leather bag at her. She wrapped her arms around it as it hit her in the chest like a dead animal.
Leaning back down on the desk, he locked his gaze on her. “As I said, I am willing to wait. But don’t make me wait too long, Teresita Fuego.”
He sat down and flicked his hand again. The guard jerked Bess through the door and onto the landing.
He hustled her down the stairs, going so fast that she had no hope of keeping up with him and resigned to letting the tops of her feet bang against the steps as he dragged her down to the courtyard.
When they reached the courtyard, he didn’t slow down and Bess sucked in sizzling breaths through her teeth as the tops of her toes flopped against the sharp grit of the cement sidewalk. Ribbons of blood erupted on them as the guard dragged her towards the block.
“Jefe really doesn’t like you,” he said.
“Well, I don’t much like him, either,” Bess said.
The guard stopped and jerked her arm, twisting her around and forcing her to look at him. “That doesn’t matter,” he said. “Jefe not liking you makes this hard for everyone. Not just you.”
He turned her back around and continued to drag her towards the block like the rag doll she kept seeing in her mind.
Passing the entrance to the block, he dragged her to a steel door set in the concrete wall at the end of the sidewalk.
Unlike the others, the door was unlocked. The guard swung it open on groaning rusted hinges.
“Shower’s in here,” he said. “Everything you need is in the bag. Go get cleaned up. You stink.” He threw her into the room and Bess felt her knees crack against cold hard tile. Wincing against the pain in her knees, she flinched as the steel door clanged shut behind her.
Inside, she saw a room lined entirely with tiny squares of aquamarine tile. A row of twelve showerheads hung on the far wall. Next to them, twelve sinks with metal mirrors – no glass. To her left were twelve stalls. There were no windows.
She groaned as she stood up and picked up the bag. Her hand began to tremble as she rummaged through the contents, finding a bottle of body wash. She hung the bag on a steel hook next to the door. Looking around to see if anyone else was in the room, she took off her nightgown and hung it over the bag.
The knob underneath the showerhead squeaked as she twisted it to unleash a warm stream of water. She turned around and let the water cascade down her neck. She closed her eyes and suddenly she felt herself at home. She retreated into the normalcy of a warm shower and how it soothed over her skin, tempering her aching muscles just the way it did after a wrenching day of sailing in rough waters.
But such things were a lifetime ago and Bess wondered if it was just a dream and that now she had awoken to a life she had managed to forget somehow, its terrors born again – and waiting to be lost again as she dreamed of boats and cookies and things printed in Greek.
Unable to maintain control any longer, she dropped the plastic bottle on the floor. As the sound of plastic hitting tile echoed through the room, her lip began to tremble and she slid down the wall and sat on the floor, letting the water drench her head. The room echoed again when she sucked in a sharp breath. Giving up entirely, she hung her head and allowed herself to weep.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence