by John Wyatt
No matter how hard I tried, I could never smooth out the wrinkles in my dress. I stood by the mirror twirling my dirty hair in my fingers, brushing at the dirt that never seemed to come out, and tried to recall when Bobby last bought me a new dress. Was it in third grade? Was that last year, or the year before? Time seemed to blur when I thought about the past. It didn’t really matter though, about the dress I mean, this was my favorite dress and Bobby wouldn’t notice the dirt anyway. Bobby never paid attention to me anymore. Actually, that’s not quite true – I knew how to keep out of his way, so it was as much my fault as his. I had learned how not to be noticed. I ran my hand over the creases one last time, to no avail. Oh well, Bobby would never notice.
I walked to the living room window and looked out at the yard. It had rained last night. The sun was rising and everything glistened with fresh wetness. I love the way rain makes the yard come alive. I had never actually been in the yard; something always kept me inside, but the rain always brought me back to the window and the freshness outside, as if I could see life renewing itself. My reverie was broken by the sound of something falling behind me.
“Damn!” Bobby cursed. “Why did that stupid little bitch leave that here?” Bobby had tripped over the laundry basket, which had sat in the middle of the living room floor since last night, waiting for the clothes to be folded. Bobby did the washing, but grown men don’t fold clothes – that was Kitty’s job now, and she had been lax. Bobby grumbled as he moved the basket aside. I ignored Bobby, turning back to the window and watching as the trees gently shook the moisture from their leaves.
“KIT!” Bobby shouted. “Get your lazy butt in here – NOW!”
I didn’t want to see what followed, so I walked quickly towards the den. Bobby would be busy with Kitty for awhile, so I should have the room to myself. I passed poor Kitty in the hall, terror quickly replacing the sleepiness in her eyes. I ignored the yelling from the living room as I entered the den. This was Bobby’s private sanctum and I knew I would be severely punished if he ever caught me here. Still, I kept coming back to the den; it made me feel good to invade his space like this and not get caught.
Bobby kept his books in an old weather beaten bookcase. I didn’t really care for the books; it was the bookcase itself that attracted me. As I gently caressed the scarred, aged wood it seemed I could feel the years of neglect buried within. This bookcase was my friend and I shared with it my own years of abuse and neglect. Stroking the wood, I could feel it comforting me, offering to accept my suffering into itself; and I imagined that, with each memory I shared, the wood grew a little more aged. I was careful never to touch the books – books let anyone read them. I knew I could never trust my secrets to a book; but the bookcase held everyone’s secrets without judging the storyteller or the characters.
“Hey,” a small, familiar voice whispered from the basement door behind me, “you’re not supposed to be in there.”
I ignored the voice; it was only Marsha, and I knew she wouldn’t tell on me. We didn’t get along, but we also didn’t tell on each other. I didn’t tell when Marsha broke Bobby’s favorite ceramic castle. Bobby was furious and blamed Kitty. She took an awful beating for it, but I didn’t talk. Sometimes I think Kitty tries to get Bobby mad on purpose, so I didn’t really mind her taking a beating.
“If he catches you in there you’ll get such a whipping!” Marsha whispered. Marsha was terrified of Bobby. I feared him too, but I had learned how to hide very well. I didn’t feel like arguing with Marsha so I left the den. I walked slowly, so Marsha wouldn’t think I was leaving just because she told me to.
At the other end of the hall I could see Kitty’s bedroom door. It was closed and I could hear faint sobbing. I didn’t want to listen to Kitty’s crying, so I went the other way, back through the living room and into the kitchen.
The kitchen was small and always smelled of soup. Bobby was fond of soup – all kinds of soup. Bobby did all the cooking; Kitty was too young to run the stove by herself. I was probably old enough now, but Bobby never let me. I had tried once and, to my surprise, rather than punish me he lectured me gently, saying that he was afraid I might get burned. It was nice then, feeling Bobby’s concern for me. Afterwards, I looked for other dangerous things to try, so I could feel Bobby’s love protecting me.
I walked to the sliding glass door and gazed at the wet grass in the back yard, the droplets glistening in the morning sun, each a tiny rainbow in itself. Looking out at the wet grass I felt sad, because I knew that the raindrops wouldn’t live long. While the sun helped the grass grow, it would kill the pretty raindrops.
I never went outside – it was forbidden. An old decaying swing set stood in the backyard. The posts had holes from the rust, and one swing was broken where the chain had connected at the top. The other swing looked ready to break at any time, as though it could barely sustain the weight of the raindrops. The ground beneath it was…well, it didn’t look right. The swing set seemed to look back at me; I think it knew I was watching and was daring me to come out and play on it. I didn’t like the way the swing set looked at me, as if it had dark and unpleasant secrets. I think something bad happened there once and it had not forgotten, or forgiven.
I heard Bobby enter the kitchen behind me. He ignored me as he went about fixing his breakfast. We never spoke anymore and he never seemed to miss our talks. I missed our talks. Bobby always talked nicely saying ‘Alice I love you and only want to protect you and I just want you to be a good girl.’ Talking love was nicer than other kinds of love. We didn’t talk anymore. Whatever life had been in our love was gone; now I was just a freeloader that he ignored.
Kitty didn’t come out until late afternoon. She walked slowly into the living room where Bobby was watching TV. Kitty knew better than to interrupt his TV shows, so she just stood there, her eyes red from crying, quivering as she waited to be recognized.
Bobby motioned for her to sit next to him. Kitty hurried over and plopped down on the couch, Bobby’s arms enfolding her small body. He whispered soothing words into her ear and soon the two were cuddled up, the breach healed. Something about the way Bobby held her made me nervous – and jealous. I don’t even remember the last time Bobby touched me. It was like he’d forgotten that I even existed.
Kitty remained motionless while Bobby kissed her. Kitty knew that his love hurt less than his punishment, so she submitted quietly. Kitty still looked scared, but she knew the rules as well as I did: do as Bobby says, don’t stand in the windows (a rule I often broke), and absolutely never go outdoors. Marsha forgot the rules one day and went outside to play. She wasn’t trying to run away, she just wanted to play outside. Bobby was furious and punished her. He took her to the basement and made a place for her there and never let her out again. Sometimes, when I sneak into the den, Marsha whispers to me from the basement door, but she never leaves anymore.
Bobby gently slipped off Kitty’s skirt and blouse. I had no interest in watching their love, so I turned to leave. Just then the doorbell rang! Bobby must have jumped ten feet!
“Get to your room, now!” he hissed at Kitty. “And take that with you!” pointing to her clothes laying on the floor. He straightened his own clothes and went to get the door key. After Marsha’s short escape, Bobby had installed the kind of locks that need a key on both sides. He looked back to confirm that Kitty was out of sight, then unlocked the door, opening it just a crack. I stood so as not to be seen by the caller.
“Can I help you?” asked Bobby.
A deep male voice asked “Does a young, blond girl live here, about seven years old?”
“No,” Bobby lied. “I don’t have children.”
I heard a shrill woman’s voice. “Your neighbors saw her in your back yard! She’s here!”
“Well, sometimes neighbor kids sneak into the yard and play. I shoo them away when I catch them. I’ve been meaning to fix my gate and put a good lock on it.”
The deep voice continued: “Her daughter Katherine has been missing for several months. A neighbor reported seeing a girl matching her description playing in your back yard.” The man’s voice was calm but firm. I peeked around and saw a uniformed policeman. Behind him stood a plump, middle aged woman, fidgeting nervously.
“I chased some kids off yesterday. There was a girl that might have looked like her daughter. You say she’s been missing for several months?” Bobby was calm.
The woman started to say something, but the officer motioned her to silence. He held up a poster with a girl’s picture. It looked like Kitty with longer hair.
“Have you seen this girl?” The officer showed no emotion, but the woman was so nervous you’d think ants were crawling all over her. Bobby peered intently at the picture.
“Well, like I said I chased some kids off a couple days ago. The girl looked a bit like this, but I think her hair was shorter. She looked older too, maybe 8 or 10.”
I peeked around the door, wanting to get a better look at the policeman. I wanted to tell him that Kitty was in the bedroom, but I didn’t know how. I hadn’t spoken in so long that I wasn’t sure I knew how anymore. The policeman looked friendly enough and I wanted him to be a friend, but the words wouldn’t come.
“Prove you don’t have her in there!” the woman screeched.
Something about her frightened me more than anything, so I turned and fled to the den. Behind me I heard Bobby saying something about a ‘search warrant’. I hunkered down at the foot of the bookcase and poured my pain into my silent confessor; my only friend in the whole world.
Just then the door slammed open and Bobby stormed into the den, dragging Kitty behind him! I shut out her cries as he hauled her across the room by her hair. She was still naked and the bruises were already starting to show where he had been hitting her.
“DAMN YOU!” Bobby shouted. “I TOLD YOU NEVER TO GO OUTSIDE!”
Kitty was bawling. “I just wanted to play in the backyard! I went out a window so no one would see me! I didn’t leave the yard! I wasn’t trying to run away!” She went into hysterics as Bobby opened a drawer and pulled out a coil of thin rope.
“Now I’ll have to teach you a real lesson in obedience!” Kitty wailed and fought as he hit her again and again, knocking her down; then he sat on her and tied her hands and feet. I cowered in terror, more afraid of being seen than of what was happening to Kitty. She had gone outside and someone had seen her. She had known that the worst offense was letting someone see her. Now she would be punished.
Bobby opened the cellar door and dragged Kitty downstairs. I knew he would put her away, the way he had put Marsha away. I could still hear Kitty screaming from the basement, so I stopped my ears and kept repeating: “I don’t care what happens to Kitty! I don’t care!” I felt the bookcase wrapping its protective wood around me, holding me safe. I kept repeating my protective words until I couldn’t hear the screams anymore.
I didn’t notice when Bobby returned. He was hot, dirty, and furious. Thankfully, he didn’t notice me; he just stormed out of the room and soon I heard the shower running – and Bobby cursing loudly. I kept tightly inside the bookcase. Later I heard Bobby in the kitchen fixing supper. I didn’t care about supper, so I stayed where I was. Later, I heard the living room TV.
“She’s down here.” Marsha’s voice carried faintly from the cellar. Of course she was down there! Bobby put her there, just like he did Marsha! I could faintly hear Kitty’s sobs. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her.” Marsha tried to reassure me. I didn’t want to listen to Marsha or hear Kitty’s crying, but I was afraid to let go of the bookcase so I stayed there all night. When morning came I crept up into the attic – my other favorite hiding place.
I remember when Bobby thought there were mice in the attic. He searched the attic for a nest, but didn’t find any mice. That’s because there weren’t any mice, just me; and I was real good at hiding from Bobby. There were lots of nice memories in the attic. There was a garment bag with some dresses and a chest full of girl’s clothes. Some were my size; though most were smaller. I didn’t try any of them on; Bobby might notice if they were disturbed. I just liked stroking the dresses and pretending I was wearing them to school or work. My favorite was a deep blue skirt and white blouse that looked like a school uniform. I liked to imagine I was wearing that outfit and going to school. Then I’d tell Marsha off!
“I know I’m right!” I’d say proudly. “I’ve been to school!” Marsha didn’t go to school. She didn’t know anything.
A few days after Bobby had locked Kitty away, the policeman came back with some other policeman friends. They showed Bobby some papers and Bobby showed them around the house. They looked all over, I don’t know what for. They went into the basement and the attic – where I hid quietly. I wanted to say something, but there were so many of them and they seemed angry. I didn’t want them to see me in my old, dirty dress, so I hid behind the garment bag until they went away. I stayed in the attic for a long time after that. Bobby spent a lot of time in the den, I don’t know what he was doing. Maybe he was reading his books. I’m glad I never told my secrets to a book. A long time later Bobby went out, so I crept down from the attic and went into the kitchen. I stood at the window gazing out at the back yard and the old, broken swing set. Even in sunlight it looked gray and faded, as if the light touched it but didn’t illuminate it.
I like that word - illuminate. The sunlight didn’t illuminate the swing set. Sharon had used that word all the time. Sharon had been another friend of Bobby’s; I think she was about twelve or thirteen. Some of the dresses in the attic had belonged to Sharon. She would say how nicely the sunlight illuminated the room. Then one day her mother came and yelled a lot at Bobby. After that Sharon never returned. But I still remembered the word illuminate.
I looked down and noticed that Bobby had left the door catch unlocked! My heart raced! Should I sneak outside and play while he was out? My hand shook as I reached for the door handle. The big glass door would be hard to slide open. I laid my hand on the cold, metal handle, then froze.
The swing set looked different now. The sunlight didn’t even touch it anymore. The broken swing resembled a rotted tooth inside a leering mouth. The breeze touching the swing had turned to a fetid breath, and the ground beneath the swing festered with rot! Something underneath wanted out – it wanted to get at me! I stood paralyzed as the scene unfolded.
All I had wanted was play on the swing set, I wasn’t trying to run away. “What are you doing out here!?” Bobby had hissed at me.
“I was just swinging.” I whimpered.
He grabbed the swing and yanked so hard the chain broke. I fell on the ground, skinning my knees badly.
“Get inside now, you little bitch! NOW!”
“My knees hurt!” I began to cry – I was really scared now!
“Shut up!” SLAP! He hit my face so hard I fell down again.
“Get up! Get Up!” He kicked me in the head and the world began to spin!
He kept kicking, kicking... I couldn’t see anymore…
I woke suddenly from my nightmare and ran screaming into the attic! I crawled behind the garment bag and huddled down with my hurt knees drawn up to my chin, my arms wrapped protectively around them. It was freezing up here! I huddled in the cold darkness, trying hard not to think about the swing set, or the rotted thing that lay beneath!
I woke to the morning sunlight creeping in through the attic vent. Bobby was talking again downstairs, but this time there was tiny laughter – a small, young girl’s laughter! Slowly, cautiously, I crept to the attic door and peeked out. I couldn’t see anybody below, but I could hear what they were saying.
“He’s so cute!”
“She’s cute.” Bobby corrected. “She’s a girl, like you.”
“Is she mine?”
“Yes, as long as you behave and stop crying.”
There was a long silence.
“What’s she eat?”
“I bought some food at the pet store. Would you like to feed her?”
“Can I?” She sounded hopeful now.
The voices receded into the kitchen. I put the dark thoughts from my mind and crept downstairs. A small, gray and white kitten lay in the hall, a ball between its paws. It stopped playing when I came near. I’d never seen a kitten before – not up close anyway. The kitten watched as I stooped and leaned forward to pet her, then her ears went back and she hissed. I was just trying to pet her! As I reached down, her eyes went big, her fur stood out, and she hissed louder, her little pointed teeth bared. Then she leapt up and dashed away. What a mean, rotten, ungrateful little monster! I didn’t do anything to her! I just wanted to pet her!
“There goes Mrs. Gray!” I heard the young voice squeal. “She sure runs fast! I wonder what she’s chasing now?”
“You never know with cats.” Bobby chuckled.
I didn’t care. I decided just then that I don’t like cats. I figured that Bobby and the new girl would be eating for awhile, so I went to the den, tiptoeing so Marsha wouldn’t hear me. I huddled at the base of the bookcase and cried. No one loved me anymore; even kittens didn’t love me! Just then the door opened and Bobby walked in! I froze in terror! He would catch me for sure this time! He must have heard my crying and now he was going to punish me!
“This is my private den.” Bobby said calmly. “You’re never to come in here. Not ever. Do you understand?”
I nodded dumbly, but Bobby took no notice of me.
“Barbara, I said ‘Do you understand’? Answer me girl!”
“i understand.” The tiny voice replied.
“Good. Please understand, Barbara, that I really do love you. I want you be a good girl, and I know you want to be good too. Don’t you?”
“Speak up, sweetheart. You want to be a good girl, don’t you?”
“yes…i want to be a good girl.”
Bobby closed the door as he left. I could hear him talking as he took her into Kitty’s bedroom. No, not Kitty’s anymore. Now it was Barbara’s bedroom. I cried silently into the bookcase.
“You’re lucky he didn’t catch you!” Marsha whispered. Now she would taunt me for sure, so I got up and ran out, flinging the door open as I ran.
“What was that?” Bobby called. The bedroom door opened and Bobby came down the hall in his underwear, pausing at the den door. I stood in the hall like a frightened animal, afraid to move for fear Bobby would see me. He looked inside the den, shrugged, then closed the door.
“Must have been the wind.” He walked quickly back to Barbara’s bedroom.
“Now, Barbara my sweetheart, I’m going to teach you how to love me the way I love you.” The bedroom door closed.
The next few weeks were like old times. That is, before Bobby locked Kitty in the basement. The only change was that darned kitten! It hissed at me every time I got near it. I definitely don’t like cats!
Barbara cried a lot in the beginning; that was normal. We all cried in the beginning, then we got used to Bobby and his love. Love was better than punishment, but why does love have to feel so bad? I know that I’m bad because love feels bad. Love is supposed to feel good. I was bad. That was why Bobby ignored me now. I hoped Barbara wouldn’t be bad. Maybe she’d love Bobby the way she was supposed to.
I spent a lot of time looking out the window to the front yard, wondering how everyone else did it. Loved, I mean. Why did everyone else feel good about love while I always felt so sick? Bobby had always been nice to me and had tried his best to teach me, but I just couldn’t get it right. I hope Barbara got over her crying soon and became a good girl – I didn’t like the thought of Bobby punishing her.
I saw the mail lady coming up the walk and wondered what her job was like; I wondered what it was like as she went from house to house, never knowing what secrets were hidden inside. She visited so many houses, but never knew the people inside; never knew what hopes and dreams and cares and woes she put into their mailboxes each day. I think I’d like to be a mail lady. I tried hard to imagine being her.
She paused at Bobby’s mailbox and looked up. She looked into my eyes – and saw me! Her gaze struck terror into my heart! I had been seen! That was the worst rule I could ever break! That was why Bobby had put Marsha and Kitty in the basement! That’s why he … I was terrified! I dove behind the curtain and crawled behind the couch! What would happen when Bobby found out? Was the world going to end now? I could hear Bobby playing in Barbara’s room. I could faintly hear the sprinkler next door. A dog barked somewhere. Everything still seemed normal, but everything had changed. I fled to the attic, hid behind the garment bag, and made myself tiny.
CRASH! I woke to the sound of something breaking. Bobby was shouting downstairs.
“Well SOMEBODY saw you! She came right up to me and asked about that girl in my house! I told you not to go outside or stand in the windows! Can’t you do anything right?” Bobby was screaming now and I could hear Barbara crying.
SMACK! “I didn’t do anything!” she wailed. “I stayed in my room like you told me!”
“She’ll be back and this time she’ll bring policemen and they’ll take you away! Then you’ll never see your mother again! Is that what you want? Are you so bad that you don’t want to see your mother again?”
Barbara only bawled louder.
“Not so loud, you little whore! You want me to punish you harder?”
“Damn you, you little bitch!” SMACK! SMACK!
“NO!” Barbara was screaming at the top of her little voice! “NOOOOOOO! … PLEASE! …… DON’T!…….”
I couldn’t take it any longer! It wasn’t Barbara that deserved punishment – it was me. I was the one who had been seen! I couldn’t let him punish Barbara for my crime! I jumped down from the attic and ran to the den where Bobby was dragging Barbara, wailing and kicking, across the hard floor. Bobby had a coil of thin rope in his hand and was dragging her toward the basement door. I couldn’t let Bobby put her down there, but how could I stop him? Bobby never saw me anymore. I didn’t know what to do. Bobby unlocked the basement door and pulled Barbara’s writhing body up close. I didn’t have much time.
Then I saw Mrs. Gray. I ran over to her and shouted “STOP HIM!” The cat screeched and jumped like she had been burned. I chased her towards Bobby, who had stopped at the sound of the cat’s yowling. The screeching cat leapt straight into Bobby’s arms, knocking him off balance. I shouted at him as loud as I could – “YOU CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!”
Bobby wobbled, his eyes as wide as saucers. After all this time, he finally saw me, and this time it was Bobby who was afraid! “No! You….you’re…” Bobby whispered in fear.
He had forgotten about Barbara. She kicked him in the knee with all her strength. He teetered at the stop of the stairs, his arms flailing. The cat jumped free as Barbara kicked again. Bobby tottered, then fell, crashing head over heels down the basement stairs. Barbara fled. From the living room came the sound of breaking glass followed by Barbara’s screams for help. Looking down into the basement, I could vaguely make out a crumpled form at the foot of the steep stairs. Kitty’s whine subsided and I heard a new, low moaning.
“It’s all right,” Marsha whispered from the darkness below, “Bobby’s with us now. We’ll take care of him.”
Outside the house I heard voices. The room seemed brighter than before, the sunlight streaming in through the window, illuminating me. From the light, I heard a familiar voice.
“It’s all right, Alice. You can come home now.” It was my grandmother’s voice calling for me. I turned once to look back at the cloying darkness of the basement.
“What about my friends?” I asked.
“They’ll be fine. You’ve done all you can; it’s time for you to come home now, Alice.”
I walked into the sunlight and smelled the fresh garden where my grandmother waited. I was finally home.
A policeman staggered into the kitchen from the backyard.
“We found another one, this time under the swing set. Maybe about nine or ten years old. Looks like she’s been there awhile.”
“That makes three so far. That girl’s lucky she got away.”
“Where’s the man’s body?”
“The coroner picked him up an hour ago.”
The officers consoled each other as they finished their search for evidence. They closed up the basement and put “police evidence” tape across the door.
“It’s ok, Bobby.” Marsha whispered. “They’re gone now. We’ll take care of you, Kitty and I. We’ll take care of you for a long, long time.”
As the officers left the room they thought they heard a low, faint moan from the empty basement.