RIGHT TO LIFE
“…endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights… unong these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”
“God finds you naked and he leaves you dying. What happens in between is up to you.”
THE FIRST DAY
New York City
June 8, 1998
They drove to the clinic in silence.
The night before they’d said it all. Now there was nothing left to say.
It just remained to do it. Get it over with.
Morning rush hour traffic had ended over an hour ago and traffic was fairly light. The streets of the Upper West Side seemed strangely still and dreamlike, the blue-green Toyota van in front of them drifting from stoplight to stoplight like a guide taking them from nowhere to some other nowhere while they followed to no determinate end.
Running on empty, Greg thought. Both of us.
The silence turned him back in time to their bed last night in her apartment, making love through a haze of tears which came and went with the gentle anguished regularity of waves at low tide, their very heartbeats muted, the two of them drawn more closely together than they had ever imagined or wished possible in the grim sad knowledge that pleasure now was also pain and would remain so for a very long time. Her tears cooling on his cheek and mingling with his own, the musky smell of tears and then the feel of them falling to his chest as she sailed astride him like a ship on a windless sea and when it was finished, the long dark night embracing in warm attempted sleep.
Then stillness too through the loud morning rituals of water, razor and toothbrush, both he and Sara alone now in these things as they would ever be. Then coffee drunk in silence at the table, Greg reaching out to take her hand a moment across the polished pine to feel the warmth of her again, to bind them for a moment before walking out through the door into the cool bright morning air. To the morning errands of New Yorkers along 91st and West End Avenue, the cars and cabs and delivery trucks. And then down to the car parked deep in the cooler echoing basement garage next door, Greg driving them across to Broadway and then downtown. Bringing them forward along the wheel of time to this awful empty place. This quiet, this exhausted drift of feeling.
“Are you all right?” he said finally.
The clinic wasn’t far. 68th and Broadway, only five blocks away. One of only three of them left open on the entire West Side from the Village to the Bronx.
“It’s a girl,” she said.
And it was that, he thought and not his question that truly broke the silence.
“How can you tell?”
“I just know. I remember the way Daniel felt, even at this stage. This feels… different.”
He was aware of something thick and heavy inside him again. He’d heard the story many times in the six years he’d known her. Her perceptions of the thing varying slightly over time and distance and depth of understanding. Daniel, her son, dead in a frozen lake in upstate New York at the age of six. Even his body lost to her beneath the ice and never found.
If there was ever a woman he would have wished to have a child with, to have raised his child, especially a girl-child, it was this one.
His hands were sweating on the wheel.
Because of course it was impossible.
“Why don’t you drop me off in front,” she said. “Find a place to park. I’ll go in and register. Less time waiting.”
“Are you sure?”
“The front will be fine.”
“What about those people with their goddamn picket lines. They’ll probably be out again.”
“They don’t bother me. Except to piss me off. They’ll let me by, don’t worry.”
He supposed that — no, she was not about to be intimidated. Last week going in for her examination there had been seven of them on the sidewalk by the entrance to the Jamaica Savings Bank, the building which housed the clinic and held its tenuous lease, seven men and women standing behind blue police barricades, carrying cardboard signs saying HE’S A CHILD, NOT A CHOICE and ABORTION IS LEGALIZED GENOCIDE and waving pamphlets and holding out tiny plastic twelve-week foetuses cupped in the palms of their hands.
One of them, a surprisingly handsome fortyish man, shoved his own little specimen at Sara’s face and Sara turned on Greg’s arm and said you stupid shit and walked on by past the three policemen lounging at the door who were guarding these creeps on his and her tax dollars thank you very much, and into the building.
Then this other one, this ordinary-looking woman about the same age as the man, who followed them to the elevator and up and sat there with a magazine across from them in the waiting room staring until Sara’s name was called and then got up and left. A more subtle form of harassment. Were they even allowed to do that? They’d never said a word to her though he’d wanted to. And she’d evidently known what he was thinking. To hell with her, she’d whispered, she’s not worth the effort.
She could deal with them.
Still he’d feel better if he was with her.
“What’s another minute or two?” he said. “Let me just park this thing and we’ll go in together.”
She shook her head. “Please, Greg. I want to get this over with as soon as possible. You know?”
“Okay. Sure. I understand.”
But he didn’t. Not really. How could he? For all the talk last night it was impossible to gauge how she felt at just this moment. Not now in the light of day, far beyond the familiar comfort of home and bed and the comfort of lying in his arms and even the comfort of tears. He wanted to know suddenly, needed to know, that she didn’t hate him, didn’t blame him fundamentally — though twice last night she’d said she didn’t and he’d believed her. But now it was different. He wanted to know she forgave him. For everything. For his marriage. For his son. Even for his sex. For being born a man so that he didn’t have to carry — couldn’t possibly carry — the full weight of this. He’d have done it in a minute if it were possible.
Her diaphragm had failed them. It happened sometimes. They were adults and they knew that. It was her diaphragm. It didn’t matter. He’d never felt so guilty in his life.
Do no harm, his mother had told him when he was a boy. The physician’s rule. Her personal golden rule. And here he was, doing harm to the woman he loved.
Still more harm.
He could see it in the distance on the corner of 68th Street a block and a half away, an undistinguished grey highrise that was probably built back during the mid-sixties, the bank on the first floor and offices above. Across Broadway a Food Emporium and the huge Sony movie complex. And yes, there were the long blue sawhorses and the two cops standing at the door and people crying signs walking back and forth along the curb.
“Pull up behind them,” she said. “I don’t feel like getting out right in the middle of that.”
He glided to a stop. She opened the door.
He put his hand on her arm and stopped her and then he didn’t know what to say. He just sat there moving his hand slowly over the warm smooth flesh of her arm and then she smiled a little. He saw the worry and sleeplessness that ambushed her just behind the smile. The eyes couldn’t lie to him. They never had.
“I’ll just be a minute,” he said. “I can probably find something on 67th or over on Amsterdam.”
“I’ll be fine.”
She got out and shut the door and he watched her walk away toward the dozen or so people ahead of her moving in circles curbside at the oilier end of the block and then he pulled out slowly past her and she glanced at him but didn’t smile this time, only hitched her purse up on her shoulder. He passed the stem-faced, holier-than-thou types milling across the sidewalk like flies on a carcass and then he turned the corner.
* * *
Go on, she thought. You have to do this. You’ve got no choice. He’s got a wife and he’s got a son. You knew that going into this and in your heart you never did believe he was going to leave them. Not until his son was grown. Despite what you wanted to believe and despite what he said he wished to do. Greg was faithful as hell in his own peculiar way. It was part of what she loved about him.
In a way it was a shame just how good they were together. In a way it was almost cruelty. If only it had been just an affair. If there hadn’t been love, caring, tenderness, sharing. All of it, the whole ball of wax.
You had it all, she thought. And couldn’t really have anything.
She realized she’d been thinking about them in the past tense.
Now why was that?
She glanced at him through the window as he drove on by. It was impossible to smile for him again though she knew he needed it. She knew how he was feeling. But a single smile was all she had in her today and she’d spent that currency in the car.
The sound and feel of her heels on the sidewalk seemed to jolt straight through her. The cold hard streets of New York City. She realized she was trembling. A young hispanic delivery boy on a bicycle shot past her. Going the wrong way, against traffic, and on the sidewalk no less. She shot him a disgusted angry glance that he was moving too fast to see.
Her hands were cold. Her face was flushed. Already she dreaded the picketers moving ahead of her a few yards away. Despite what she’d said to him.
Because this was no examination. This was the real thing.
A life was going to end here.
For a moment she was angry with both of them. Sara and Greg, playing at love.
No, she thought. Give the devil his due.
They weren’t playing.
And that was the saddest part of all. Because it wasn’t fair. Years and years alone after Daniel’s death and her shattered marriage and finally someone comes along who’s got everything Sam never had and more. Kindness. Consideration. Sobriety. And he loves her. Not just wants her or wants to fuck her but loves her and she loves the man back with a power she finds quite astonishing. And then having to learn all over again that love protected nothing. Love was as necessary to people in the long run as food and shelter but love was also a cruel joke, a trick, both at once, two sides of the same coin. And you never knew when the coin would be turning. Because if it didn’t wind up this way, wind up stranding you between love and necessity, even if it did work out between you, then one of you was going to die before the other and leave you all alone again. Love was also about the death of love.
Like killing the child inside, their child, who should have been a wonderful child alive and whole and made of all they had together.
Sara even thought she knew when she’d conceived her — on a warm windy beach that night in St. John just three months past, both of them so crazy over each other especially in that place with his other life so far behind him that they were downright ridiculous together, unable to stop touching, stroking, laughing, all through drinks and dinner. And then later making love in the Carribean sea, the warmth of the waves, the huge gentle womb of stars and sky.
Which led here.
It was as though it were love itself they were killing.
In the eye of her flesh she saw a beautiful baby girl.
And knowing that the child was there and knowing already the empty pain of the loss of her, so unexpectedly like that other loss so many years ago, here and now on this busy sunny street, she wondered how long she could go on with him afterwards. If this were not the turning point for both of them.
If she weren’t killing the child inside in more ways than one.
She’d begun to cry again. A thin haze of tears as she approached the picket lines. She blinked them back instead of wiping them away. These people might notice. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.
How can you do this? she thought. How can you be so small and misty and so monumentally selfish as to approach me now, when I’ve never been so vulnerable?
But of course they would.
They saw it as their right, their mission.
There were many kinds of evil in the world and as far as she was concerned this was definitely one of them.
She heard a car approach slowly behind her close to the curb, wheels over pebbled glass and gravel. In her peripheral vision she saw the fender and the light blue hood, the driver’s-side window and roof and noted that it was a station wagon, one of those fake woodies, maybe ten years old. A city transit bus pulled laboriously around to the left of it. She passed an elegant slim young woman pushing two infant babies in a double stroller. A teenager on a skateboard.
And then the car stopped moving beside her and the passenger door opened in front of her and she felt someone’s arm wrap tight around her from behind just beneath her breasts, pinning her arms to her sides while his hand sought and covered her mouth to stifle the protest, the scream, grasping at the jaw so she couldn’t bite and then she was shoved inside, his hand still over her mouth and she glanced back to the sidewalk and saw that one of the protesters, a man wearing a dark blue windbreaker, had noticed her, was looking straight at her, is seeing all of this but was saying nothing, not one word to the others nor to the police at the clinic door, astonished by this as she felt a needle pierce the bare flesh of her upper arm and saw that it was the driver, a woman, holding a plastic syringe between her fingers and grimly clutching the wheel with her other fisted hand while the man who’d grabbed her slammed the door.
As darkness descended over all her sudden fears and long familiar sorrow they slowly pulled away.
* * *
He walked by an old woman with a shopping cart full of groceries and then past the picketers, barely noticing them this time and past the pair of cops, one male and one female, who were standing at the entrance. He walked through the revolving doors and past the bank’s ATM machines to the elevators, got in and punched eleven. The door to the reception room swung open ahead of him and he stepped aside for a young blonde woman in jeans and a teeshirt who smiled at him. Or maybe she was just smiling at the world that day.
At least somebody was happy.
He walked in and the reception room was empty. He thought my god, had they taken her in already?
Was anything that had to do with medicine or New York City ever that fast?
The receptionist behind the sliding glass windows smiled at him too. A purely formal smile, meant to be reassuring. See? We’re harmless here.
“Sara Foster.” he said quietly.
She checked her clipboard.
“Yes. She’s got a ten forty-five with Doctor Weller.”
“He’s seeing her already?”
The clock on the wall behind her read ten thirty.
“No, it’s a ten forty-five appointment, sir.”
“She’s not here?”
She shook her head. “Not yet. But if you’d want to take a seat 1 imagine she’ll be along shortly.”
“I don’t understand. I just dropped her off. Right here in front of the building. Just this minute.”
The receptionist frowned, puzzled. “I’m sorry. She hasn’t signed in.” Sara wouldn’t do this, he thought.
Something’s not right here.
“There’s a drugstore a few doors down and a smokeshop just next door to us. Maybe she needed something. Why don’t you have a seat and wait a moment. I’m sure she’ll be right along.”
“Why would she…? Okay. I’ll be back.”
He took the elevator down.
After the cool of the overly air-conditioned office the summer sun hit him hard and he was sweating as he peered through the open door to ihe cigarette shop to see nothing but an old man buying a Lotto ticket and then into the drugstore next to that. He looked around him on either side and then scanned Broadway across the street toward the Sony complex and the shoppers in front of the Food Emporium but he didn’t see her. He walked around the picketers again and directly to the cops at the door.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Did a woman just go inside?”
The female cop was almost as tall as her partner, nearly six feet. Her hair was blonde pulled up under the cap and she stopped chewing her gum the moment he walked up to her.
“Just now? No, sir.”
“Did you see a woman, five, maybe ten minutes ago, white short-sleeve blouse, blue skirt, early forties, long dark hair?” He pointed. “She’d have been coming this way toward the building. I dropped her off over there. She has an appointment at the clinic.”
The officer glanced at her partner. So did Greg, actually noticing him for the first time. The cop looked shockingly young. He was big and trim but to Greg he looked barely out of his teens. He guessed the woman would have a good ten years on him. The cop shook his head. “Sorry, sir,” the woman said and glanced behind him.
“Is there a problem?” Greg turned and saw a much smaller woman in a brown business suit and baggy trousers. Her tailored white shirt was unbuttoned at the collar so that the tie hung slightly off to one side. She wore no makeup as far as he could tell and the medium-length hair was a frizzy red.
“I’m Lieutenant Primiano, 20th precinct.” She produced a wallet and shield. “You said something about a woman?”
“I let her out on that corner. I went to park the car. I drove past her and around the block and parked on 67th. She had an appointment for ten forty-five and she was headed right here, walking right toward you when I left her but I went inside and the receptionist says she never showed. She suggested maybe the smokeshop or the pharmacy but I just looked in both places and she’s not there. This isn’t like her. Sara does what she says she’ll do. She should be up there.”
“You folks have any kind of fight? Quarrel over anything?”
“God, no. We’re fine.”
He felt himself flush at the use of the word. They were not fine. Not today.
But that was their own business.
The woman studied him a moment and then nodded. “Ella, keep an eye on things here a minute, will you? Dean, ask around and see if any of these people noticed her. Your name, sir?”
“This is Officer Kaltsas and Officer Spader. Mr. Glover, let’s go on back inside.”
She questioned the receptionist and Weller’s nurse and then the doctor himself. She was brisk and to the point. It took maybe ten minutes tops but to Greg it seemed forever. Weller volunteered the notion that it happened sometimes, that at the last minute people changed their minds. You really couldn’t blame them.
“Not Sara,” he said. “She wouldn’t do that. Not possible.”
When they were outside again she asked the young cop, Kaltsas, about the picketers.
“Nothing,” he said. “Nobody saw her. I got a small problem with one of them, though.”
“What kind of problem.”
“Maybe he’s just weirdo, I dunno. Didn’t answer me right away. Something not right, maybe.”
“Bald guy with the beard in the blue windbreaker. With the sign says PRO CHOICE IS NO CHOICE. Right there.”
Greg looked at him. Middle-age man with thinning hair, parading in a rough circle between two older women.
“Okay. Talk to him again. Get his name, address, phone number. If you can, see that he sticks around a while but go easy. I’m going to take a walk with Mr. Glover, see if we can spot her on the street.”
“Have you got a photo of her? Of Sara?”
He dug it out of his wallet. It was his favorite shot, taken on summer vacation a year before on the streets of Jamaica, Vermont, the Jamaica Inn’s garlanded white porch in the background. She always hated having her picture taken and was wearing a goofy smile because of that but to him both then and now she looked lovely, her long hair swirling around her face. He had snapped and snapped her that day out of pure, almost adolescent pleasure, until she practically had to scream to make him quit.
She studied the photo and handed it back to him. “She’s very pretty,” she said. “We’ll start with your car. Maybe she went looking for you for some reason. Where’d you park again?”
“Down on 67th.”
She began walking slowly downtown. He matched her pace.
“This is crazy,” he said. “People don’t vanish.”
“No, sir. They don’t,” she said. “I think we’ll find her.”
Of course they would, he thought. There had to be some normal explanation. Maybe the doctor was right. Maybe Greg didn’t know her as well as he thought he did. Maybe she was sitting in a restaurant a block or two away over coffee, wondering if she should go through with this after all, mulling it over on her own.
She never breaks appointments at the last minute and she’s never late. She’s not secretive and she’s never lied to me and she’s not a coward.
No. Something’s wrong.
You damn well know something’s wrong.
He felt the unreality of it all wash over him and for a moment he felt dizzy, almost as though he were about to faint. Twenty minutes ago he was looking for a place to park, an empty meter, pummeled by guilt at what they were about to do. Now he was walking along peering into storefronts, at people coming out of doorways, pedestrians passing, the pour and turmoil of New York. Srching for a glimpse of her. Walking at what seemed to him a crawl when what he wanted to do was run, look everywhere at once. Police in his life all of a sudden while he’d never had pvious occasion to say ten words to a cop. And this cop, this brisk and nonsense young woman like a lifeline to him now, his only potential link to Sara. He felt a sudden incredible dependency, as though his life had just spun out of his hands and landed into hers, a stranger’s.
His heart was pounding.
People don’t just vanish. Not unless they want to. Or unless somebody helps them.
Whether they wanted to or not.
Sussex, New Jersey
She woke in dark and panic.
Her first thought was that they had buried her alive.
That she was in a coffin.
She was lying on her back against rough unfinished wood, thick wood planks to the left of her, to the right of her, so close that she could barely raise her arms to feel that — yes, there was more rough wood above, she could smell it. Pine. There was a pillow beneath her head and that was all. Panic raced through her like a breath of fire. She had never been aware of being afraid of tight spaces but she was very afraid of this one.
She balled her hands into fists and pounded. She heard the pounding echo and knew she was in a room then, in some kind of box, some kind of room and not underground — at least not buried underground thank god — because there would be no echo if that were so but the panic didn’t recede any. She could hear her own fear in the wildness of her heartbeat. She screamed for help. She pounded and kicked at the lid of the thing and side to side at firm unyielding wood and it hurt, they’d removed her shoes and stockings, she was barefoot and it was only then that she realized that her skirt and blouse were gone too, she was wearing only her slip and panties. And that fact too was terrifying.
Why? she thought. What am I doing here?
What do they want with me?
It was cold.
She was not underground but it must have been some kind of basement she was in because it was summer, the day was warm and yet in here it was cold.
Where was she?
She was crying. The tears went cold on her face the moment she shed them. Gooseflesh all over her body.
She kicked harder. Kicked until her feet were sore and maybe bleeding and then kicked and pounded again. Her breath came in gasps through the sobbing.
Calm down, she thought. This isn’t doing any good. Think. Control yourself, dammit. Concentrate.
Look for weaknesses.
She had maybe two feet between her chest and the lid above. Maybe she could press the lid off. She raised her arms, took a deep breath and pushed with all her might until her neck was straining, the muscles of her arms and shoulders spasming.
It didn’t budge.
She let go of the breath and rested. Then took another and tried again.
She brought her knees up under her as best she could until they pressed tight against the lid, trying to get more leverage, took a third deep breath and pushed until finally all her strength leeched out of her. She lay back, exhausted.
The footboard and headboard, she thought. Maybe there. She slid down until the soles of her feet touched wood, the slip riding up her thighs and then drew her arms up over her head, the palms of her hands against the headboard. She was sweating now despite the cold, as in clammy film, all over her. She pushed and felt the headboard give a quarter inch and then stop. She relaxed immediately and used her fingers to explore it on either side.
She touched metal. The headboard was hinged to the left. That meant there was probably some kind of lock on the outside. Which also meant the headboard was the entrance. How had they gotten her in here?
She lowered her arms and felt around the base of the box opposite her thighs and found a half-inch space between the base and sideboards on either side. On a hunch she pushed off with the soles of her feet and felt the base slide minutely toward the headboard and then stop.
She was on rollers, casters.
They’d rolled her in.
Then locked the headboard behind her.
Somebody had gone to a whole lot of trouble planning this, constructing this. Building this trap for me.
It didn’t change anything knowing that except to scare her further.
Who were these people? Suddenly she was desperate to know.
There was a woman involved. The woman with the needle. She’d been driving. Why would a woman do this to another woman? How could somebody do that?
She willed herself to stop thinking, to go back to the original plan. The lock might give. It was possible.
She pushed until every muscle in her body was shaking with the strain and that was when the fear set in deep and final so that she lay still, trembling wide-eyed in the dark. Because she had no choice then but to accept the fact that there was no way out until they decided to let her out to whatever purpose they had in mind, which could be to no good purpose because here she was. Half naked. In a hand-built coffin. Alone in the swimming dark.
Or maybe not alone.
She heard scratching, light raspings, like claws, something working at the top of the box and growing more and more determined-sounding as she lay there helpless, frozen, listening.
Something wanted in.
She took a deep breath and shouted. “HEY!” Why that word she didn’t know. The word simply burst out of her, angry and scared, unnaturally loud in that closed space. Hey! She listened. Waited.
The sounds had stopped.
The trembling didn’t.
What do they want with me? she thought.
Am I going to die here?
There was no answer she could think of to any of these questions that wasn’t frightening and nothing to do but ask them over and over again while she waited for whatever deliverance would come in whatever form, in however vast and slow an eternity.
The scratching sounds did not return. The cold did not relent.
Greg, she thought. Somebody. Find me.
Was it day or night?
She was so cold. Colder every minute. She was thirsty. Her throat was sore from screaming, her hands and knuckles raw from pounding.
What time was it? How long had she been here?
Inside the box there was no benchmark for time, nothing to do but wait and think, thoughts turning in on themselves like the track on a model railroad, like the double-ring symbol for eternity, the snake swallowing its tail.
Why me? bled seamlessly into what do they want from me, which dovetailed into is anyone looking for me, searching or when will I get same water or see some light or a thousand other questions which all line down to one question, how will I get out of here? Alive. Sane.
She felt permanently stunned to find herself here. The feeling colored all reality. As though suddenly she were not even who and what she thought herself to be anymore. The Sara Foster she knew had come unstuck, uprooted from everything that grounded her. The Sara Foster who taught English and drama to LD kids at the Winthrop School on 74th Street, who was daughter to Charles and Evelyn Schap of Harrison, New York, lover to Greg Glover and pregnant with his child, who was once the mother of a wonderful beautiful boy drowned in a lake, who was ex-wife to Samuel Bell Foster and best friends with Annie Graham since childhood — all these people who had cradled her identity in embraces loving and not so loving for as long as she could remember meant nothing here. Were now almost irrelevant. What mattered was not the known world but the unknown world beyond the box.
What the dark held mattered. The meaning of the box.
And when she heard the footsteps on the wooden stairs they mattered. So that her heart began to race and the air seemed to thicken so she couldn’t seem to get her breath, worse as she heard them on the landing and then move toward her, shoeleather scraping concrete and she began to twist and turn inside the box in a frenzy to get out of there to whatever freedom or whatever fate those footsteps might imply, clawing at the box, slapping at the box, her voice a shrill high-pitched squeal in her ears and while still she gulped for breath. And when she heard the man’s laughter at the sounds of her fear and struggle and heard his fingers rattle the lock outside the headboard, rattling it again and again, playing with her, her body betrayed her utterly and she saw a sudden burst of red and fainted away.
* * *
He lifted her out and placed her on the bare stained mattress. Studied her a moment.
She didn’t move. She wasn’t faking.
He lifted her head and set it carefully into the headbox.
Then he clamped it shut.
The headbox was half-inch plywood about the size of a hatbox, split in two and hinged at the top, with semicircular neck-holes carved into its base on either side and a padlock to secure the halves together. It was insulated and carpeted inside. It muffled all sound, shut out nearly all light.
He’d tried it on himself.
It was scary.
The red plush carpeting pressed close to your face, sending your breath right back at you no matter how shallow your breathing. It was hot and claustrophobic. About ten pounds of weight sitting on your shoulders. And once it was on there was no way in hell you could get it off again. It was sturdy. You could bang it against a concrete wall all day long and do nothing but buy yourself a concussion.
He’d done a good job on this one.
The first two tries were failures. The problem was mostly weight, too much or too little. He’d built the first out of quarter-inch ply and when Kath tried it on she pointed out to him that if you pressed your face into the carpeting and held it that way, making space between your head and the back of the box so you didn’t bash your brains in, one good slam against a wall could crack the plywood.
She proved this by demonstrating.
Back to the drawing board.
He built the second box of three-quarter-inch ply and it was tough as nails. But the damn thing also weighed about twenty pounds. You fell with that on, it could snap your neck.
The new box halved the weight. Ten pounds was still a lot and he’d have to watch for that but he felt satisfied it was manageable.
Kath had worn it all day long once just to see. She hadn’t wanted to but he explained to her that a trial run was a necessity. He knew she hated the thing from the minute he put it on her. Knew it scared her, made her dizzy and sick to her stomach and later she said it pinched her neck all the time she was in there but that was just too damn bad in the long view, somebody had to try it and it wasn’t going to be him. Besides the point was could a woman wear it all day long, not a man. Could a woman stand it.
When he let her out at dinnertime her collarbone and shoulders were chafed red and sore and she complained about a stiff neck for nearly a week. Nothing that wasn’t going to go away. The point was that yes, it was manageable.
He smiled. If Miss Sara Foster here thought the Long Box was scary — and she obviously did — wait till she woke up again and found herself in this one. He’d have put her in the thing in the first place but he was afraid she might vomit from the pentothol. And vomit was easier to clean off the base panel of a pinewood box than to get out of carpeting.
He’d have to keep an eye on that too. On the vomiting. Kath had said the headbox was stifling and made her queasy in and of itself, never mind the pentothol.
He slipped her wrists through the black leather manacles and pulled each of the straps tight and threaded the ropes through the silver rings attached. The ropes depended from the a pair of pulleys at the top of each arm of the brand-new X-frame he’d constructed for her. Taking the two ropes together he slowly and carefully hauled her up until only her feet rested on the floor, legs slightly bent beneath her. Her head lolled forward heavily so that the box now rested on her breastbone. That probably hurt but as yet, not enough to wake her. He tied the ropes off quickly to the the climbers’ pitons hammered into the concrete floor and then stepped forward and slipped a small brass hook screwed into the headrest he’d attached to the X-frame through the corresponding eye at the back of the box so that her head would stay upright and take the weight off the back of her neck.
He’d thought of everything.
He stood back and looked at her. All his creation.
You couldn’t see her face and that was good. Control was important. And she was very pretty.
He needed to control himself now.
The only thing that remained at this initial stage was to finish undressing her but he’d wait until she woke for that and was able t fel the cold blade of the knife cutting away her slip and panties. That kind of control was very important too.
Afterwards he and Kath could come down and have some dinner and watch her, see how she took it all and he could go over again with Kath what the next step was supposed to be so there’d be no fuck-ups, no misunderstandings. This he’d do daily. There was a progression of events to this that he needed to be sure Kath would follow. They could speak as freely down here in front of her as they could upstairs. Sound not only didn’t get out of the box it didn’t get in much either.
And now there was nothing in her life but terror.
Her legs and arms were manacled and she knew what that meant. She’d read enough in papers and magazines. Seen enough on the evening news. She was in the hands of some sex freak and dear god, she was probably not the first. Not the way he’d worked this out. There was somebody out there beyond her own vivid dark who liked to hear screams and pleas and whimpers. Before they killed.
Invariably they killed.
She knew that too.
She was aware of the terrible frail vulnerability of her body, of her cold nearly naked breasts, her exposed bare arms and legs against the scratchy wooden beams. Inside the box her eyes could not accommodate the dark. The heavy air was suffocating. She could smell her own breath. Sweat stung her eyes. She blinked to clear them and finally closed them while her body heaved with sobs that were wholly beyond her control wrenched from deep inside her. She heard her own quick gasps for breath. They never seemed to satisfied her aching lungs or still her pounding heart.
She felt the heavy weight at her collarbones.
The chafe of leather on wrists and ankles.
Then the cold touch of metal just below her right wrist, sudden, seemingly out of nowhere. Felt it travel from wrist to elbow-joint and stop there. Then from elbow-joint to armpit, slowly, a sharp prick at the delicate flesh there of a knife or sharp scissors and then travelling again, exploring the slope of breast to pause and prick once more at her fear-swollen nipple, her body jerking back then and the blade moving down again sliding over her trembling stomach to her navel and stopping to poke her harder this time at the tender fleshy remains of what once had linked her to life and then moving on.
She felt rough fingers graze her shoulder pulling away the strap of her slip and then felt that side go slack against her breast and fingers on the other shoulder and then the slip falling softly away across her thighs. The blade inserted itself thin and cold between her panties and the flesh of her hip on the right and she felt it pull and cut and now she was completely exposed to the room and the knife and the man who was doing the cutting, the fingers were a man’s fingers she thought, felt herself choking inside the box on tears and mucus, then felt the left side go.
She was naked but for the box. But for the insanity of the box.
Naked and against all reason ashamed to be.
She was glad he couldn’t see her face reflect her shame.
And feeling that shame despite the fact that her body had done nothing to cause it, that she had done nothing to cause it, feeling that made her angry. So that the first harsh access of fear began to bleed and blend and fade into stubborn black anger and finally to a strange defiant pride which was the other side of shame.
She hung suspended. Open.
* * *
“Lady’s got guts,” he said.
Kath agreed. Though she said nothing, merely watched him take a bite of the half-eaten tuna sandwich, chew and swallow. And then munch at the potato chips which surrounded it on his plate.
The cat sat in front of them near the X-frame, glancing back at the woman naked on the frame and then nervously at each of them, interested in their sandwiches, wondering who to try to hit up for a bite of tuna, but also clearly interested in this strange new arrival standing here. Stephen was eating while Kath as yet was not. She figured the cat would eventually make her move on Stephen.
It was just The Cat. It had no name. Last summer there’d been moles in the back yard ruining the lawn and they’d noticed the occasional water rat down by the brook. So they’d got the cat from the ASPCA to drive the moles and rats away and the cat was successful at that in an amazingly short time so they decided to let her stay, figuring that if moles tried once they might just try again. The cat was the color of champaign with streaks and spots of white, with one almost-perfect circle of white behind each of her front haunches. Neither of them really cared much for cats but they fed her and paid for her shots and put up with the dead or dying birds or mice she brought home now and then, dropping them on the back porch like some disgusting present.
She watched the cat inch toward Stephen. She’s been right about the cat’s decision. Stephen looked up and saw her and kicked at the air in front of her and she was only a cat but she wasn’t stupid. She backed away. Sat back and seemed to ponder her luck with Kath.
She took a bite of her sandwich and thought that it definitely needed more mayo. She was actually surprised Stephen hadn’t started complaining. But they were out of mayo. She’d forgotten to put it down on the shopping list again.
She was forgetting too much lately. He was always telling her and she thought he was probably right.
Maybe it was stress or something. She didn’t know.
But she agreed with him that this Sara Foster person had nerve. Was probably not going to be all that easy to subdue and subvert. She knew first-hand what the headbox was like and to have calmed down so fast took guts all right.
She wondered if he’d chosen correctly.
Though for some reason he was sure he had. Intuition, he said. The way she walks.
Follow her. Get her name.
“Did you phone in all the stuff to Sandy like I said?”
“What’d he say?”
“He said no problem, give him an hour. The mom and dad’s phone number are probably a New York exchange, he thought maybe somewhere in Westchester or Long Island. The Winthrop School is definitely Manhattan. So he’ll get us the street addresses on those and trace her boyfriend’s plates. He asked was there anything else and I said I guess we’d get back to him.”
“Good. We’ll go through the rest of her address book tonight, see if there’s anything else we can use.”
“Jeez, Stephen. I wanted to watch that movie tonight.”
She took another bite of the sandwich. Wished it had some chopped celery in it. The damn thing was way too dry.
He glared at her.
“Couldn’t we go through her book after the movie?”
“No, we couldn’t go through it after the movie. Can’t you fucking prioritize?”
She wished he wouldn’t use that voice with her. That condescending tone.
She knew better than to argue with him per se. But she wasn’t exactly ready to let it go at that either.
“You were going to get the VCR fixed. I mean, I could’ve taped it.”
“Fuck the VCR! Jesus! What’s more important, Kath? This or your goddamn movie? Do you realize what we’ve done here? Do you remember what’s going on? Do you realize how important this is?”
Important to who? she thought. But she didn’t want to say that to him either. It was an ego thing and she didn’t want to insult him. Stephen prided himself on being a careful hunter and a good profiler of people and a very organized personality. He thought that he had managed this pretty much perfectly so far. He also thought that it was important, that it wasn’t just a matter of his own satisfaction.
She wasn’t so sure about that part.
He saw the look on her face though and relented.
Good. She really did want to see the movie.
“What’s it called?” he said.
“It’s an HBO Original Movie. It’s called COVEN and it’s based on a book I really liked a lot.”
The cat made up its mind and walked over. She picked off a pinch of tuna and held it out to her. She didn’t much like it anyway.
He sighed. “All right,” he said. “After the goddamn movie. But you’ve got to get more serious about this, Kath.”
“Jeez, Stephen. How much more serious can I get? I drove the car, I brought home the pentathol from the hospital, risked my job, risked arrest. I shot her up for you for godsakes! I’m in this up to my neck, y’know what I mean?”
The cat was looking for more tuna. She picked off a chunk and dropped it on the floor. The cat purred and set in.
“I know. But from here on in everything’s got to go by the book. Exactly by the book. And it’s going to be a very long haul. We’ve got to be diligent as hell.”
“Don’t worry. I will be.”
She got up and walked over to his chair and bent over and kissed him. He smelled like tuna and Old Spice aftershave. She glanced at Sara Foster five feet away, still breathing hard but managing to control it, a bead of sweat rolling down off her collarbone from inside the box. She thought that for a woman her age Sara had a damn good body. Her pubic hair was bikini-waxed, unlike her own. She thought she’d like to get that done someday but there was never enough money around for extravagances like a bikini wax. The tan-line from her two-piece was very clear. Forget about the clumsy headbox and she was very attractive. Made her feel sort of dumpy, tell the truth.
All this and fertile, too, she thought.
She wondered if Stephen was going to keep his promise about not having sex with her. Not real sex, anyway. If he’d be able to do that.
“How long you going to leave it on?”
“Well, I’ve got to get her out of the cuffs in about an hour or she’s going to have problems with circulation. But by then she’ll be hurting and compliant enough so that she won’t be hard to handle. I figure we’ll just tie her to the chair here and you can hold her head still for me while I take off the box and blindfold her from behind. I don’t want her to see us yet. I want us to stay anonymous. We’ll turn off the lights and leave her an hour or so and then I want to come back and try to feed her. I’m betting she refuses. So then we put her up on the rack again and I’ll give her her first beating. Show her what things are going to be like from now on. She’ll get the idea.”
“What if she doesn’t? Refuse I mean.”
He grinned. “If you were in her shoes, would you accept food from us right now? But even if she does, fine. Establishes dependency. Either way we can’t lose.”
She collected his empty plate off his lap. The cat tried to nuzzle her leg but she stepped away.
“Are you going to stay down here a while?”
He nodded. “I want to make sure she’s basically okay, that she doesn’t throw up inside the box or anything. I’ll hang around. But you go on ahead. I’ll give you a yell when I need you. If Sandy calls let me know.”
She walked upstairs through the doorway that led to the dining room and kitchen and put the plates in the sink and rinsed them and stacked them in the dishwasher. Outside the window over the sink a pair of jays were harassing a small flock of sparrows attempting to feed by the cherry tree next to the garage, diving at them from the white birch on the opposite side of the lawn. Scattering them but making no real effort to feed. Just flying back to the birch and perching there until the sparrows returned and then diving back down to scatter them again. Seemingly just for the hell of it. Or maybe it was the sparrows themselves the jays were after.
Were bluejays predatory? She didn’t know.
Nowadays, who wasn’t?
* * *
In the basement he thought of all the things — the things he would do to her before she broke, all those things which would make her break in the course of time. It would take time he knew and that was fine because the good part was in the breaking. Once the will to resist had disappeared they were like herd animals, like cattle, without motivation other than to go on living with a minimum of pain. The pleasure was in the taming of the will and the mastery of the spirit and he was only in the second true hour of that, the second true hour of all that lay ahead yet already h hard-on was irresistible so he grasped it in his warm calloused hand and looked at her breathing flesh just a few feet away and stroked and stroked.
The cat sat watching him. The cat made him uncomfortable.
He wished it would go away.
When he was finished he went to the sink to wash the scum off his hand and remove the smell of his body and sat down and gazed at her again.
Screw HBO. He had his own Original Movie. Right in front of him.
It was going to go on and on.
“I don’t want it,” she said. “How many times do I have to tell you? Please. Just let me out of here. Why can’t you just leave the blindfold, let me get dressed and drive me back where you found me? Or anywhere. My god, I’m not going to tell anybody. How can I? I don’t even know who you are or where I am!”
“Eat your sandwich,” he said.
“Please. I can’t. Just the smell of it’s making me sick!”
“When I tell you to do something you do it. I don’t care what it is. You understand?”
“You want me to throw up? Is that what you want?”
“I don’t care what you do as long as you do what I say and eat the sandwich. Now take a bite.”
He held it under her nose.
She wasn’t lying about vomiting. She felt like a drunk at the end of a long night on sweet cheap wine. Waves of nausea rolled through her, making her sweat. It was worse than being inside the box. She shook her head side to side, trying to escape the reek of it. It was all she could do. The leather manacles were attached tight to the arms and legs of the chair. There was a rope around her shoulders and another around her waist.
She began to cry again beneath the blindfold. The blindfold her only garment now. How long and how often could you cry before it was impossible to cry anymore? Did tears have a physical limit? She hoped they did. Like her nudity the tears shamed her.
He shoved the sandwich roughly to her closed lips. It crumbled. Cold clammy bits of bread and tuna falling across her chest and thighs. Some of it clung to her lips. She sputtered it away.
He sighed. She heard a plate set down on a table. He walked around behind her.
She felt the rope around her waist fall free and then the one around her shoulders. He drew them off her.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said. “I guess this isn’t working. I thought maybe you’d sort of get into all this. Some people do, you know.” He sighed again. “I guess we’ll just take you back like you say. You sure you won’t tell? I mean, you promise?”
Some people get into this? Was he crazy?
“I won’t. I swear.”
“You remember what we look like?”
“No. I mean, it was so fast. How could I?”
He seemed to think about it.
“Good. Okay. I guess we’ll do it then. Too bad though.”
One by one the manacles fell free from the chair legs. She felt a sudden surge of hope. Maybe if he was crazy, he was also crazy enough to take her out of here. Let her go. Give her up. Or even if he had something else in mind, something she didn’t even like to think about, there still might be a chance to get free. Everything, every hope, began with getting out of here. Beyond that she’d take her chances. It occurred to her that he could kill her just as easily here as anywhere. Easier in fact.
She was healthy and strong. Anything but this she might possibly deal with.
She felt something brush her ankle. Suddenly wet then smooth and soft. She jumped.
“The damn cat. Don’t worry. Hey! Outa here!”
He released the manacles from the chair arms. She moved her wrists and jangled the rings.
“Aren’t you going to take these off?”
“In a minute. First I have to go upstairs and get you some clothes. I sort of ruined the ones you were wearing, you know?” He laughed. “Got to make sure you don’t try to run away on me in the meantime. Stand up.”
He took her hand. His was hard and calloused. Not a big hand but definitely a laborer’s hand.
“Come with me. Over here. Nice and slow. Be careful.”
He led her blind across the room. Then he stopped her and raised her hand and snapped it to a ring on the X frame. Suddenly she was scared again.
“No, wait. You said…”
“Just for a minute. While I get you some clothes.”
He raised her other hand and attached that too so that she was facing the frame, arms spread wide above her. She heard him step away. At least her legs were free, she thought. Not like last time. For a moment there was only silence.
She heard a whistling sound and fire climbed her shoulder.
She jumped and screamed. The pain settled slowly into a stinging glow, a thousand tiny pinpricks along a fireline of hurt.
“Fooled you,” he said.
Then suddenly the blows were coming furiously, fast and hard across her back and buttocks and arms, the tender flesh of her underarms, across the backs of her legs and thighs, then even her breasts and stomach as she tried to twist away, the whip finding the same burning places over and over, uncanny, lighting them with bright new pain like lines of bee stings, like lines of biting ants, no matter how hard she tried to evade him, her wrists burning too scraped raw as she twisted inside the manacles, and whatever he was using it was bloodying her, she could feel the wetness inside the pain that was nothing whatever like the feel of sweat though she was sweating too, every muscle straining, bruising herself as she jerked and twisted against the heavy boards of the X frame. She could hear him grunt with the exertion and her own gasps for breath, the blows crack-crack-crack-crack like pistol shots in her ears and it was like there were two of him, three of him, four of him, coming at her from everywhere at once.
Ah ah ah ah! she heard and it was her own voice leaping startled out of her at the fall of each blow, mixed with a high wining’ keen and that belonged to her too though she’d never heard her voice or any voice make a sound like that. She could take no more no more and she twisted from yet another blow to her anguished shoulders and the whip found her breast again burning across it like a laser cutting deep and PLEEEEEESE! she screamed, not in protest nor even begging but a prayer to the grim gods of pain, the gods of the body’s disaster.
He stopped. She heard him breathing behind her.
“You’ll get that every time you disobey. Each and every time. And worse,” he said.
From her calves on up her body trembled from the sheer effort of standing. Somehow she found a voice.
“Why? Why are you doing this to me? What did I do to you? I didn’t do anything.”
“Oh. You’re innocent? Is that it?”
“Let me tell you something, Sara.”
She started at hearing her name. Almost as though he’d hit her again.
“That’s right, I know who you are. And I didn’t just lift your name off your driver’s license either. I know plenty about you. But we’ll get to all of that later. Let me tell you something. The only innocent on God’s green earth is an infant, Sara. A baby. Some people would say an unborn baby. But I’d extend that to, say, the first six months of life or so. In my own opinion. What’s your feeling on the subject?”
“I… I don’t know. I…”
“Let me ask you something. What were you going to do with your unborn child? Your baby. Your innocent…” He laughed. “I know perfectly well what you were going to do with him. You were going to let some fucking jew doctor kill him and flush him down the toilet. Now that’s real nice. I don’t think that makes you exactly an innocent yourself, do you? I honestly don’t think so. Plus you had to do a little fancy fucking in order to get yourself knocked up the first place, didn’t you? And I don’t see any wedding ring on your finger. So you tell me. Who’s innocent here?”
She heard a series of snapping sounds and realized that he was taking her photo. Walking around her, getting her from various angles. She heard what sounded like him opening and closing a drawer behind her and then heard his footsteps approaching.
“This won’t hurt,” he said.
And then his hand was moving over her, rubbing some viscous scentless lotion over her shoulders, down across her back and waist. The relief was immediate. But he was wrong about the hurting. In a way it hurt like hell. When he got to her buttocks it hurt and when he got to her breasts. It hurt that this sick son of a bitch should be touching her in these places and that she had no say in the matter. She was learning that there were realms of hurt she’d never imagined.
“You’re doing this because I…?”
“I’m doing this because I can, Sara. Get that through your head. Because I can. But yes, I also have an agenda. Let me tell you how it’s going to be,” he said almost gently. “Have you ever heard of the Organization?”
“I didn’t think so. Open your legs.”
She’d been holding them tight together. She didn’t want him touching her there. The whip hadn’t touched her there thank god so there was no reason and even if there were a reason she…
“I said open them. Do you remember what happened to you just now? Just a couple minutes ago? You want me to turn you around maybe, try the other side?”
She uncrossed her legs and braced herself, shivering. She felt his lingers smooth the salve over each of her upper inner thighs. His fingers coarse, the salve soothing. But the fingers went no further. They left her alone there.
“That’s good,” he said. “You’re cooperating. I could have forced you. But that’s not what this is about. This is about you doing what I ask you to do because I ask you.”
She felt him stand and heard him walk around in front of her. “I’m not going to tell you much about the Organization right now. Except to say that the Organization has a very long reach. And that you’re involved with it now, like it or not. Just like I am. I told you I know a lot about you. Well, here’s just a little part of what I know.
“Your full name is Sara Evelyn Foster. You were born Sara Evelyn Schap in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 6th, 1955. Your parents are Charles and Evelyn Shap of 221 South Elm Street in Harrison, New York. Your mother is sixty-eight and your father’s seventy-two. You teach learning disabled kids at the Winthrop School at 115 West 77th Street in Manhattan. You’ve got a boyfriend named Gregory Glover who lives at 224 Amity Street in Rye and who dropped you off for a ten-forty-five appointment this morning with a Dr. Alfred Weller, to abort your three-month-old fetus. How am I doing?”
Her head was swimming. How long had he been stalking her? To know this much?
“How can you know all that?”
“It’s not what I know personally, Sara. It’s what the Organization knows. And believe me, we know plenty. This is nothing but the tip of a very big iceberg. But the point is what I said before. That we’ve got reach. And we get what we want, one way or another. So don’t think you’re in this alone. You’re not. Your mother and father are in it. Glover’s in it. Your kids at the Winthrop School are in it. Along with plenty of others. This is not just your problem.
“So it all depends on you, Sara. If you do exactly as I say you’ll not only avoid another beating like this you’ll be keeping a lot of other people you care about safe and sound and out of some very deep shit.”
“Why? What is this about?” She was practically screaming at him. She couldn’t help it. It was crazy! She felt like a receiver on overload, could practically smell her fuses burning. “ What do you want from me?”
“I want you to calm down, for starters.” He sighed. “Look, I’ve got some stuff that needs taking care of. I’m going to take you down, put you in the Long Box again. You can rest.”
How could she rest?
“You’re not going to give me any trouble, are you? If I take you down? Remember what I said. The lives and safety of a lot of people are depending on exactly how you handle this.”
Could all this possibly be true? Could there really be some kind of Organization out there waiting to pounce on her parents or Greg or the kids? Or was this some invention of his, something he’d made up just to scare her?
All this planning, she thought. So much planned ahead of time. The coffin — what he called the Long Box. The whipping frame. That horrible confining thing he put over her head. The abduction itself, so fast and clean. They’d targeted her specifically. Could there be something to what he was saying?
Then the woman. Who was she? Part of this Organization, whatever it was? The woman hadn’t made an appearance since the car to her knowledge.
She remembered the quick deft plunge of the needle.
She needed more information. A lot more. Right now it wouldn’t do any good at all to resist him.
“I won’t give you any trouble.”
“Good. Do you need to go to the bathroom? I can bring you down a pan.”
When he’d uncuffed her and was leading her across the room she asked for some clothes but he refused. He told her she could take off the blindfold once she was inside and that he would tell her when it was okay to do that but that she’d have to keep it handy and put it on before he let her out again. She asked him for a blanket because it was cold in there and he handed her one made of light cotton, thin and soft like a baby’s blanket and she wrapped it around her against her nudity as she lay down on the sliding board and he began to push her in. And then she had to ask him one more time.
“Please. What do you want from me? What do I have to do?” she said softly.
“Lots of things,” he said, no harshness in his voice either. Almost as though he were somehow in league with her now. “You’ll see. Most of it won’t all be as bad as today. Though I have to be honest with you, some of it will probably be worse. I know how these things go. But it’s all for your own good, believe me. I’m not so bad. You’ll find that out in time. After a while everything will be fine. I don’t want to hurt you any more than I have to, Sara. Honestly.”
He slid her into the dark.
“Why would I?” he said. “You’re pregnant. You’re going to be a mother. You ’re going to have a baby.”
* * *
He went upstairs and saw Kath on the couch with a bag of potato chips open in her lap.
“How’s your movie?” he said.
“Good. Book’s better, though. I don’t like some of the casting.”
“I decided to go through her address book myself. I want to get back to Sandy soon as possible.”
“Did she buy it?”
“It got her thinking, that’s for sure.”
He went into the bedroom and opened the closet door and took Sara’s purse off the floor in back and fished around inside for her book. He sat down on the bed. He took a notepad and pen off the nightstand, opened the book and began making notes. Half an hour later he had what he wanted. He dialed Sandy.
“What’s up, old buddy?”
“I’ve got some more stuff I want you to see if you can find out for me. Got a pen?”
“Hang on a sec. Okay. Hit me.”
“First, her parents. Can you find out what her father does for a living or if he’s retired or what? Any way to do that? Also if the mother works or did work?”
“Sure. IRS records.”
“You can do that?”
He laughed. “You hurt me, old buddy. Easy as getting the clinic’s files.”
Sandy was probably one of the top two or three hackers in the Slate of New Jersey, had been ever since High School when he’d break into the school computer on a regular basis and rearrange grades for his friends. It was a game to him back then. Still was. But Stephen practically owed him his diploma.
God knows what he’s hacking into now, he thought. The FBI? He decided he didn’t want to know.
In that way they were a lot alike. Sandy never even watched the TV news. For a guy with the ability to do damn near anything computer-wise, to peer into any electronic corner, he had very little curiosity. Which made him fine for Stephen’s purposes.
“Okay, then this Glover guy. What’s he do for a living.”
“Already found that. He and his wife run a travel agency in Rye. The company’s online.”
“His wife? He’s married?”
“Her name’s Diane.”
“They have kids?”
“I don’t know but I can find out for you. What’s this all about, anyway? Why are you so interested in these fucking people? Playing amateur detective?”
“You really sure you want to ask me that, Sandy?”
He laughed again. “Nah. What’re friends for, right?”
“It’s nothing illegal. I can tell you that much.”
“Did I ask if it was illegal? So. Anything else?”
And that was the extent of Sandy’s curiosity.
“Yes. Two names. Annie Graham at 914-332-8765. And I guess this is a sister or maybe an aunt — Linda Schap. 603-434-9943.” They were the only two names listed in the book without an accompanying address so he guessed she must know them by heart. That meant these two were probably close to her. He needed people who were close.
“That last one’s a New Hampshire exchange,” Sandy said.
“Okay, but I need the addresses and anything else you can find out for me. I also need her teaching schedule at Winthrop. And list of her students if possible.”
“Easy. School computer. Hey, just like old times, buddy boy!”
“Just like old times.”
He hung up and joined Kath on the couch for the tail-end of the movie. Gory shit.
She’d finished the goddamn chips though.
THE SECOND DAY
June 9, 1998
She dozed and woke, dozed and woke again over and over as though she were in the grip of a high fever, her mind shut down to expectations, possibilities, danger, even to the reality of where she lay. It was as though she were waiting for something, some sign that life could once again return to normal. Until then she would remain dreamless, thoughtless, suspended in the moment. It was not something her will imposed. Her body imposed it for her.
On the last of these wakings she heard a sound, dim yet oddly familiar, seeming to come from directly above her, yet so low it might have come from anywhere in the house over whatever distance to eventually reach her here in her coffin.
A rumble. Something trembling. Yet she felt no vibration.
She pressed her ear to the rough wood.
Continuous, almost musical.
She listened. And when finally she identified the sound she fell back into the first true sleep of the morning. Her body and mind finally settling in, attempting to replenish themselves after a day in which both had burned to exhaustion.
Until well after dawn the cat remained lying just above her heart atop the Long Box.
And for most of that time continued purring.
At least she was drinking and eating a little. American cheese on white bread. Hunger kicking in, jarring loose the survival systems. At least she wasn’t going to die on them.
Like the other one.
Stephen had her tied to the chair, just blindfolded this time so she could eat, not inside the headbox. He said it was time Kath made her presence known, time for her to begin. So that was what she was doing.
Light from the single bare 100-watt bulb that dangled from the ceiling made weird ugly shadows in the corners as though things were crouching there, hemming them in. She would never get to like this room. No matter how much time she spent here.
She took the empty plate and patted Sara’s hand.
“Good,” she said. She walked to the back of the room and put the plate on the worktable and sat down in the director’s chair in front of her.
“Who are you?” Sara said. “Why am I here?” The voice wasn’t strong but it wasn’t exactly meek either.
“The Organization wants you here. Same as me.”
She watched the woman consider it.
“I don’t believe you. I don’t believe in any Organization.”
She laughed and bent over and took her hand in both of hers, a little surprised when she didn’t try to pull away. Maybe this was going to be easier than she’d thought.
It was still too early to tell.
“You’d better believe. Look, I’m not supposed to be saying we know this but I will. Your father’s a retired high school principal. I forget what year he retired. Your mother never worked again after you were born. Strictly a homemaker from then on. She took care of you and your sister Linda who lives in Hanover, New Hampshire. She’s forty-three and single and works as a nurse on the pediatrics ward in the hospital there. You have a good friend named Annie Graham who lives in Harrison, New York, not far from where Greg lives. Greg runs a travel agency in Rye with his wife, Diana. They have a son, Alan I think his name is, who’s ten. We know your teaching schedule at Winthrop and we know all your students’ names and addresses. They’re upstairs on the kitchen table. Want me to go get them?”
She saw that Sara was crying softly, could tell by the way she was breathing. Scared crying.
“I don’t understand,” she said. And now the voice was small.
Kath gently squeezed her hand.
“You will. It’ll take a little while but trust me, you will.”
“He said something about a baby.”
“There’s plenty of time to talk about that. Just remember that the Organization’s been watching you real close and for a very long time. Same thing with us, even though we’re a part of it. They’re watching us too, see, not just you. They want to find out how this goes. It important. Believe me, Sara, I know exactly what you’re feeling. I felt the same way once. I really did. It’ll pass. You just have to give it time.”
“Why do I have to be naked? Why did he beat me?”
She withdrew her hands.
“It’s the way the Organization wants it to be. I already told you. You’ve got to go with whatever they want from you. Really, truly smit. With all your heart and soul. Just like I did. Then nobody else will get hurt. Nobody. Not even you anymore.”
“But I don’t…”
She got up. “We’ll talk again soon, I promise. But right now I’ve got a billion things to do. The place is a goddamn mess. So you just sit there awhile and think about what I said. Think real hard.”
“I don’t… I don’t even know your name.”
She almost laughed. “Don’t worry. There’s time for that too. Think of it as being on a need-to-know basis. Like in the movies, right?” She picked up the plate and flicked the wall switch and left her there in darkness thinking, first step taken. Stephen will be pleased.
It was important to please him.
The headbox seemed to have gotten smaller. That was impossible she knew but the damp darkness seemed more enclosing than before. The musty-carpet smell thicker. She tried to move her head as though movement could clear the air, circulate the air inside but she could only move it slightly, half an inch or so in either direction because the back was latched to the X-frame. She was spread-eagled on the X-frame. Facing outward to whatever, whoever was out there.
She had been here about half an hour now. That was what she guessed. Guessing the time was her one form of recreation. It held no rewards because she never knew if she was right or wrong. But it was better than thinking.
Images kept skittering like night-crabs across a moonless beach.
Rushing to the plane that day, late as was usual in those days after Danny died, so late leaving her parents’ winter home in Sarasota that she almost missed the flight, a packed Freddy Laker flight where you had to seat yourself, leaning over a man in an aisle seat way in the back, breathless, saying to him is this seat taken? and the man who was Greg Glover she learned after two vodka tonics to sooth her nerves, the man then taking off his sunglasses and smiling saying no, it’s all yours.
The frozen ice. The hole in the frozen ice so small she could barely believe he’d slipped through. The surface of the ice for yards and yards around. Searching the pale bright face of it for a hand, a boot, a glimpse of clothing.
She and Annie little girls, kissing each other goodbye at her dad’s car because Annie went to Catholic school and Catholic school started earlier than public school did and it was the end of the summer so Annie had to go back, leave Rockport and Sara who wouldn’t see her now for another whole two weeks. Both of them crying the innocent tears of little girls who are wholly in love with one another and unashamed.
The ice. The face she had never found but had imagined countless times pressed up to the ice from beneath. Cold ice and drifting water.
All these memories. Good and tender. Bad and worse. Leveled somehow onto the same plane now. Each a heavy weight upon her heart as heavy as the headbox on her shoulders. Racing unbidden through her consciousness to torment her.
It was better to guess the time. How long she had been in this or that position. The exact time of day. The hour, the minute, the creeping passage of seconds.
The only game she herself had devised and not them.
* * *
She flinched when he touched her.
He smiled and mentally noted it for later. Flinching was grounds for punishment. Of course she didn’t know that yet but she would.
He strapped the leather belt around her waist and buckled it. From the belt depended half a dozen wide silver rings but he wouldn’t be needing them just now. He adjusted the belt so that the second, vertical buckle was in the center of her back and the second leather beltstrap hung directly between her legs in front. He opened the jar of Vaseline and lightly greased the thick four-inch leather dildo in the center of the belt. Opened her up and greased her too. She tried to squirm away from his fingers inside h but there wasn’t far she could go on the X-frame.
Another breach of conduct duly noted.
He held her open and inserted the dildo and even with the Vaseline she was dry and tight but by moving it back and forth, in and out he got it into her up to the hilt and then ran the strap up through the cheeks of her ass and through the second buckle and tightened it firmly and buckled it off.
He could hear her faintly squealing inside the box.
He stood back and watched the roll of her hips, she was trying to scrape the thing off against the X-frame but both belts were buckled up tight, they were there for the duration, the belts were going nowhere.
For as long as he wanted.
To remind her exactly who was who in this relationship of theirs.
He walked over to his worktable and opened a drawer and took out the Polaroid camera.
All she could think of from then on was this thing inside her.
This lifeless thing fucking her. This constant violation.
She couldn’t begin to guess how many minutes, how may hours it stayed there.
The two of them stood behind her as he lifted off the headbox and tied the black scarf over her eyes. Kath could see the raw spots where the box had rested on her collarbones. She wondered how the harness and dildo felt. It was new. He’d never made her wear one. She felt a twinge of something that was almost like jealousy but of course it wasn’t that because jealousy in this case would be ridiculous. They were probably damned uncomfortable. She watched him gag her.
They moved around in front of her, Kath following behind, giving him space. Knowing he’d need it.
“Here’s the story,” Stephen said. “The rules are that I do anything I want with you and you don’t flinch, you don’t pull away. You don’t resist in any way whatsoever. You understand me? Even when I put my fingers inside you like I did before. All I was doing was opening you up, lubricating you so it wouldn’t hurt so much. And you try to pull away. A that’s stupid and B it breaks the rules. So I guess you can figure what comes next. Sorry.”
The whip had eight long leather tongues, each tongue ending in a twisted ball.
She had felt it on her own body. An evil old acquaintance. The tongues stung you, raised instant welts if he whipped you hard enough. The balls bruised you, punched at you like tiny fists. Which was worse she couldn’t say.
She watched him drag the whip up sidearm from the concrete floor and slap her heavily across the breasts, first one breast and then the other, over and over, slap, slap, his arm like a metronome. Regular and more brutal she knew precisely because of the regularity, red streaks appearing instantly on Sara’s pale flesh, she wasn’t a topless sunbather like Kath was, she was probably too modest, blotching as he crisscrossed them with new strokes a she knew that the woman would welt up soon and that if he continued long enough the welts would bleed. She heard the woman screaming inside the gag, saw the muscles of her face pinch tight with pain, the body writhing and shocked by each successive blow and trying with no hope whatsoever to avoid them, every blow aimed at her breasts, each and every one with no relief except that he was moving from from one breast to the other, not much there, breasts being a kind of thing of his, a kind of fixation with him like having babies was a fixation with him and maybe they were connected, they probably were. He liked to suck her own breasts and bite them especially the nipples, he was like a baby himself sometimes always wanting mama’s titty and she knew how this felt, she knew exactly how Sara felt under the whip. She’d been there. She could feel it in her own breasts, tingling.
She figured it must be sympathy.
They’d let her use the bedpan but now she was back on the rack again. Mercifully, her hands were only tied behind her to the center of the X-frame instead of overhead. At least her fingers weren’t going numb. When her legs got to trembling too much she could kneel for a moment on the concrete floor but in that position her forearms slipped down and spread apart painfully over the lower V-shape of the frame and it was too much to take for very long. Still it provided some relief.
Whatever he’d used on her breasts had taken out most of the sting. She felt a kind of throbbing heat there and a raw spot in the center of her right nipple. The one which for some reason had taken the most abuse.
She was blindfolded, not inside the headbox.
Another small mercy.
There was a rubber ball inside her mouth. It was affixed to a leather gag strapped across her face.
They had traded the harness and vagina plug for another one in which small dildos penetrated both her vagina and her anus. She imagined she could almost feel them touching inside her.
She was cold. Her throat was terribly dry. A taste in her mouth like fallen leaves.
Humiliation. Discomfort. Deprivation. Pain.
The Four Horsemen of her own personal Apocalypse.
Her only comfort was the cat, who had taken to her for some reason or perhaps was only curious. She would feel it now and then rubbing up against her ankles, its cool wet nose and soft haunches, and once, its calloused warm front paw-pads and the tiny sharp retracted claws on her thigh just above the knee. She imagined the cat standing on its hind legs looking up at her, though as yet she had no idea even of its color or size or the color of its eyes staring up at this strange naked human tied to a tree.
She imagined a tabby. A female. She imagined her eyes were green.
Alone in the early days following Daniel’s death and her divorce she had taken a six-week-old kitten, a tabby, out of the Humane Society shelter and sardonically named her Neely after the doomed Patty Duke character in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. The cat lived with her until her death, of cancer, only last year. The name she had given to her, that of a fictional junkie, became ironic and practically prescient and not really very funny at all because in the almost three years prior to her death the cat had come down with diabetes and Sara had needed to give her insulin shots twice a day, into the heavy fold of skin at the back of her neck, at feeding time.
It was inconvenient as hell building her entire schedule around the shots and running every morning to the litter box to check the blood-sugar levels in her urine but she did it gladly because nobody could comfort her the way Neely did. It was almost always at night that the sadness and loss and loneliness descended upon her and when they did the cat was magically always there, seemed to sense the yawning gulf of emptiness opening up inside her even as it grew, seemed ever alert and responsive to this alien human need. The cat was right there. Curled warm and soft in her lap or lying on her chest purring until these awful moments passed and long after if she wished, asking only a stroke or a scratch behind the ear or even just the heat of her body if Sara’s soul could offer up neither of these just then. As though she knew that this was exactly her role in life, exactly what she was born for, this gentle service.
Sara found her lying in the darkness of her closet one day and the cat could barely raise her head. In the vet’s office she held and stroked her and looked into the green-golden eyes as he administered the shots. One which would rocket her deep into anaesthetic sleep and the next which would kill her. She saw the head droop and fall and felt her heart break yet again.
She had not got another cat despite her family and friends’ advice. There was too much loss for her in the world. And then she met Greg. For a long time he’d made her — if not forget — at least put aside the losses and focus on what they had together, on the present.
She couldn’t imagine what he was going through.
Or her parents. Or her sister.
Her parents and sister didn’t even know about the abortion — or the pregnancy for that matter. She assumed they’d know everything now once she was reported missing. Her parents were strict Catholics, especially her father, her sister lapsed the same as she was. Who would tell them? How?
She was glad that none of them could know the half of this.
She had to kneel again. The muscles in her calves were jumping.
She spread her arms as wide as she could to accommodate the V-shape and sunk slowly down. The floor was hard and cold. The wooden beams dug into her biceps and they began to ache. She tried to relax her legs, to breath easily and regularly. It helped.
He came out of nowhere.
How could he do that? The man was stealthy as a snake.
She felt his fingers pinch down hard on her left nipple, the one he’d whipped raw and then the other one, pinch hard and lift which meant he wanted her up off the floor up off her knees and she groaned behind the gag and complied and stood for him and still he pinched and twisted and it felt as though he were trying to tear them off but she knew enough not to try to squirm away, knew enough to bear it. She stood and took it from him and finally he stopped.
“Didn’t say you could do that. Did I.”
When the whip came down across her breasts again she thought she would faint but she didn’t, her body wouldn’t give her even that much, her body was useless to her as now she felt suddenly it always had been, though pregnancy and childbirth and then this pregnancy too all useless and giving back nothing, even the pleasure of sex, that too useless ultimately. The body had always betrayed her. All it gave it took back and at the end of it was always pain, her breasts flooded with, engorged with pain, pain like mother’s milk inside her and maybe she deserved this after all as he said she did because everything she touched either died or was destroyed. Her body, her touch, a poisonous flower torn up out of a sour earth.
What do you think, daddy? Do I deserve this? Your little girl?
She didn’t know what he’d say. He’d maybe say she did.
When it was finished he allowed her to sink to her knees, said she had permission to do so now and she should always ask in the future and she hung there not even aware of the wood bruising into her biceps and wept behind the blindfold. Exactly what she was weeping for she wasn’t sure but she knew it wasn’t just the pain.
A strange thought occurred to her which wasn’t exactly a Catholic thought but which certainly partook of that.
Sin begins with a repugnance for the flesh.
She stared into her soul and saw herself a sinner.
They sat in the dark watching the latest Jackie Chan movie on Cinemax. He was thinking how easy these kinds of movies were, the plots so familiar you didn’t have to follow them. You could think about other things like how he was going to have to start work on restoring Ruth Chandler’s hutch tomorrow and what he was going to do with Sara Foster once Kath went back to work Monday. You could think about this stuff and plan things until the next fistfight started and then go back to it once the fight was over. He decided that Monday she’d spend the day inside the Long Box. Total dark. All day long. Every day he’d soften her.
He was thinking that sitting in the flickering shadows finishing the leftover stuffing from last night’s chicken when the doorbell rang.
So who the fuck was that? At this time of night. He’d made a point of not cultivating the neighbors. He looked at Kath on the sofa and saw she was thinking the same thing he was — cops, we’re fucked — and felt a moment of utter panic, wondering if he shouldn’t get his ass out the back door double-quick.
Then he thought no way, I got this covered.
It couldn’t be.
He put his fork down on the plate and set it on the end table and turned on the lamp beside it and got out of the chair. Jackie Chan was getting punched out by some black guy. It wouldn’t last. Chan would break his nigger ass. At the door he put on the porch light and looked out the window.
McCann. Jesus, McCann of all people. He didn’t need this. Not today.
But he couldn’t very well play at nobody home either. Not with the TV blaring.
He opened the door.
“Mr. McCann. How are you?”
“Fine. I know it’s late. May I come in a moment?”
“We were just about ready to go to bed, actually.”
“Only a moment. Something’s been on my mind. It won’t take long. I promise.”
The smile was unctuous as usual. There was something about the little bearded bald man that always revolted him. McCann was a lifelong bachelor. Probably a faggot. Their interests had led them into the same circles but for very different reasons. Stephen didn’t have to like him.
“I guess. Where’s your car?”
“In the shop, I’m afraid. I walked over.”
McCann lived about two miles away, practically into the next township. What the fuck was this all about?
He decided he’d better find out.
McCann stepped into the room and Stephen gestured toward the chair. He turned off the volume on Jackie Chan. Chan and the black guy fought on in silence.
“Thanks.” McCann sat down and sighed.
“Can I get you a beer or something?”
“If sinners entice thee, consent thee not.”
He chuckled. Actually chuckled. The asshole.
“Thank you. That would be most welcome.”
He walked into the kitchen and got two beers and opened them and when he returned to the living room both Kath and McCann were watching the silent screen. Both of them looking distinctly uncomfortable. McCann took his Bud and drank. Stephen sat down beside Kath and did the same.
“So. What can we do for you?”
“I may as well say this right out. I have to know, Stephen. It’s been bothering me. Where is she? Who is she?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The woman. In front of the clinic yesterday. I wasn’t supposed to be there, you see. The New York Christians’ Aid Coalition called some of us from my group at the very last minute. A number of their people had cancelled. Elsie Little and I were the only ones who were free yesterday. But I saw you. You pulled her into your station wagon.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He sighed. “I saw you, Stephen. If for no other reason than for the movement’s sake I need to know exactly what’s going on here. Remember, he that loveth lies loveth not the Lord’’
“You’ve got me mixed up with somebody else, Charles.”
He smiled. “You and Katherine both? That’s hardly likely. I saw both of you. I even recognized your car. Trust me, Stephen, please. This is just between the three of us. Elsie didn’t notice you and I haven’t said a thing to her. You can trust me.”
He’d sooner trust a water snake.
He wanted to strangle the little man. But McCann was scaring him too.
They’d planned it to be in a whole other State. The biggest city in the world for god’s sake. A place they’d picketed only once before. Nobody they knew was supposed to be anywhere near there.
He pulled heavily from the bottle.
“She’s going to have a baby,” Kath said.
“She’s going to have a baby. She’s three months pregnant. I can’t have one and she can. And with Stephen’s record we can’t adopt. So she’s going to have our baby. Okay? You satisfied?”
“She was going to abort it, Mr. McCann. Remember the first commandment? Thou shalt not kill? Remember what this is all about? We are saving the life of this baby!”
McCann stared at her and sipped his beer. Stephen was alternately furiously with her and relieved. The ball was in his court now.
It was unlike her to be so passionate.
Maybe she disliked the little toad as much as he did.
“Do me a favor, Kath. Get me another beer, will you?”
She got off the couch without a word. Just as glad to be out of it. McCann’s eyes followed her and then settled back on his.
“You really expect to do this?”
“But you can’t just… kidnap somebody. What about consent?”
“We’ll get her consent.”
“How in the world will you do that?”
“That’ll have to be our business, I’m afraid.”
He shook his head. “Not the Lord’s business, I think.”
“Maybe yes, maybe no. Is abortion the Lord’s business?”
“We’re trying to end that.”
“I know. In our way so are we. Here’s one kid who’s not going to get sucked out of his mother’s womb like some dustball off a living room floor.”
“But the real mother…”
Kath handed him the second beer and sat down beside him again. “To hell with the real mother. She was going to kill it.”
“The baby. Him. Her. Whatever.”
The man glared at him. Stood up.
“All right, let’s see her, then. Let’s see this… this brood mare of yours!”
“I gotta tell you. I don’t like your tone, McCann.”
“I don’t like your choice of words, either. A child is not an it. Motherhood is a blessed state and you cannot simply lift your choice of mothers off the street. Where is she? In the basement? That’s where I’d keep my prisoners.”
The man was actually trembling with anger. The self-righteous little bastard. He shook his finger at both of them and headed for the basement door.
"Isaiah 7:3. Amend your ways and doings, all ye whores and defilers…"
Something inside him gave a desperate lurch and he was up off the couch reaching for the second bottle and suddenly he was armed and fucking dangerous, one of the bottles dripping with cool sweat, he had them by the neck and he swung the empty down over the man’s ear, felt the impact and heard and watched it shatter and then he was looking down at his hand again, the suddenly truncated neck of the bottle sticking jagged and deep into the pad of flesh between thumb and forefinger. He looked up and saw the man turn trying to say something and swung the other bottle, the one that was almost full, directly into his face.
It was a kind of magic he thought what a simple glass bottle could do. One moment the face was full of fury and indignation and the next full of surprise and pain because the second bottle had shattered too but this time full across his mouth, a huge shard of brown glass pushed through the upper lip and out his cheek, foam and blood mingling in a bright pink slime riding down his chin.
Dimly he could hear Kath scream and the little man roaring deep and anguished but his brain was roaring even louder saying, finish it, you got to finish it! even as McCann reached for him. He pivoted and half-dived and half-fell over to the end table, the plate that had held last night’s stuffing clattering to the floor, the fork which was his target in his hand and he reached up off the floor as McCann lunged for him, McCann unaccountably still wanting to fight and shoved it deep into the man’s neck and twisted, twisted fast back and forth inside him, sinking it deeper until the hands closed over his own and tore them away with an unexpected force and tore the fork from his throat and sent it sailing across the room.
The man’s growl gurgled in his throat, the throat pulsing blood through his clasped hands like Steven’s own first pulsing orgasm when he was a boy, blood rolling off the pierced cheek and spraying from his throat over the throw-rug in front of the TV and over the TV screen where Jackie Chan fought on as he staggered to one knee and finish it finish it still wailed in his ears so he tore the shard of glass out of the palm of his hand and ripped the plug from the heavy brass standing lamp beside the couch and grabbed it by the neck and brought the base of it across McCann’s face as hard as he could hitting him with five solid pounds of brass, a sound like metal striking a bowling ball, knocked him sideways to the floor,’blood spraying the wall and the mirror over the fireplace in the wide arc of his fall. He stood over him and brought the base down on his head, he didn’t know how many times, over and over until the sickening thuds turned gradually softer, until the body stopped twitching and the flow of blood grew thick and languid as a mudslide. Until he could barely even lift the thing any more and collapsed to his knees beside him.
He realized he was crying. He looked at the mangled head.
He got up on quivering legs and rushed to the sink and delivered himself up of cold bread stuffing and meat loaf dinner.
He turned on the tap and the switch on the disposal unit and rinsed the stuff away and rinsed the gash between thumb and forefinger. With the other hand he splashed his face. The cold water seemed to revive him. The cut continued to seep blood in regular pulses so he wrapped it with a clean dish towel out of the drawer and used his teeth and his good hand to tie it tight.
Kath was still making tiny high-pitched keening sounds. Rocking back and forth on the couch. Staring at the ceiling. Her face shiny with tears.
It seemed as though he saw blood everywhere.
Gotta clean up, he thought.
Gotta shake her out of this and clean up and get rid of McCann in the back where the girl was and the thought occurred to him then that maybe he could use this.
Maybe this was even good.
But first he wanted towels. First things first.
To wrap that head.
* * *
Downstairs in the long box she dimly heard a voice she didn’t recognize raised loudly in anger and at first she thought it was the television turned up high, then that maybe just maybe it was someone who had come for her. The police. Someone. The thought made her heart race. Then moments later she heard a struggle. Feet pounding heavy across the floor and glass breaking and then more and more pounding and she thought yes! get them! get the fucking sons of bitches! and then please please hurry.
And then heard only silence.
She pounded on the box. Kicked at it. Shouted, screamed.
No one came.
She lay there for god knew how long, listening to her own breathing. She heard running water through the pipes on-off on-off’ and the occasional heavy footfall and that was all.
Hope seeped away like water down the pipes and left her numb and empty.
The pain returned too.
Her breasts mostly. But also her back and shoulders and her ass pressed against the cold hard wood. There was no way to get comfortable inside the box, no way to fully relax her aching muscles. Inside the box, sleep came with a hammer in its hand or else it didn’t arrive at all.
Once again her life reduced itself to waiting.
How many days? One? Two? Three now?
When she finally heard footsteps cross the room moving in her direction she knew that they belonged to him and not to some deliverer. At best he was coming to feed her or ask if she needed the bedpan. At worst she’d be beaten again for some unknowable, infraction or put inside the headbox. She was resigned to all of it.
She heard his fingers on the latch and his voice telling her to put on the blindfold and she did and then she was sliding out into the room again.
She was always a little dizzy after being inside. She stood slowly and carefully, using her hands on the top of it to support her for a moment until she felt sufficiently steady.
“Put this on.”
She felt fabric, cotton, press lightly against her stomach and she reached for it with both hands and hugged it to her, smelled the clean fresh scent of it. She unfolded it, turned it.
“The other way. You got it wrong. That’s the back.”
She turned it again.
Clothes! He was giving her clothes!
She pulled it on over her head and winced as it slid across her breasts but that was nothing to the sensation of being clothed again. It was probably a little baggy, a little bit big for her she thought and yes, it was, she knew as she began to button it. But the light thin material felt wonderful.
A short-sleeve dress. She almost felt human again.
“These too. They’re yours.”
He handed her her shoes. The flats she’d worn to the clinic. Their familiarity tore at her as though they were of another life entirely, relics of some dimly familiar well-loved past. She leaned back against the box and slipped them on.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome. Put your hands behind your back.”
He snapped the manacles together.
“Come with me.”
He took her arm, firmly and not gently, and suddenly she was frightened again. But she did as he said and walked with him. There was nothing else she could do.
“Where are we going?”
“You don’t question me, remember? You’ll see.”
Maybe this is the end, she thought. Maybe they’re going to do it now.
Kill me. Or let me go.
No. Not possible.
“Careful. There are stairs here.”
He led her up slowly. She counted the steps, trying to calm herself, trying to interrupt the circle of excitement and fear which looped into each other inside her. Neither excitement nor fear would do her any good. She counted sixteen wooden steps. They came to a carpeted landing. Fresh air swept cool around her ankles and she thought they must be standing by the back door, that it must be off to her left. Then he turned her to the right and moved her up yet another, slightly higher step and she was standing on a wood floor. This must be the kitchen or dining room area, she thought. She smelled faint cooking-smells, hamburger or something, almost overwhelmed by cleaning-smells, ammonia, bleach, and something like Windex or Fantasik.
Simple, comfortable, familiar smells. Not the damp musty basement. They nearly brought her to tears.
“Okay, slow now.”
He moved her a half-turn to the right and walked her fourteen steps straight ahead over a wood floor and stopped, took her by the shoulders and turned her around.
She bent her knees and reached down behind her with her hands until she found the base of a narrow wooden chair topped by a thinly stuffed cushion and sat down.
“Okay, now listen to me. I’m only going to say this once.”
He was either kneeling beside her or sitting, she couldn’t say which, but he was very close. His voice was soft but there was something excited about it too A kind of heightened nervous quality. It scared her. She wanted him stable. As stable as possible.
“You heard something up here awhile ago, didn’t you.”
She almost said no. Then thought it was probably not wise to lie to him. She nodded.
“I thought so. What did it sound like to you?”
“Argument. A fight, maybe.”
“Very good. I’m going to show you something in a little while that will probably upset you. It’s all right to be upset. It’s natural. But I want you to know what happened before I show it to you. Two men just left here. These two men were members of the Organization. Friends of mine. They were with a third man, Victor, who I also know very well. But Victor was a traitor. There’s no other way to put it. He knew things. And we found out he was talking to the police. We have people inside there too obviously. He hadn’t said anything too specific to them yet, he was waiting for their bribe money to come through. But we knew he was talking or about to talk. And he didn’t know we knew.
“So what we set up was this. They all come over here for a friendly visit, a drink, some conversation, the usual. Then we confront Victor with what we know. He tries to deny it but we’ve got all the dates and times and people. We know which cops he’s talking to. He finally admits it. He’s very upset, very contrite. Says he must have been crazy, out of his mind. We agree with him there. Now what I want to show you is by way of instruction. I get the feeling you don’t completely believe us about the Organization but maybe after you see this you’ll think again.”
He stepped behind her.
And lifted off the blindfold.
“Victor,” he said.
Light flung itself at her eyes like swarms of stinging insects. For a moment she could see practically nothing, then saw she was in a living room. Saw chairs, a fireplace, a television set, a dusty hardwood floor.
And in the center of the floor the shape of a man. A small man. Wrapped in heavy-duty black plastic bags tied with loops of twine.
She felt the meagre contents of her stomach rise.
“This is what happens when you fuck with the Organization, Sara. You die. It’s that simple. Turn and look at me.”
She did, fearfully, knowing the stakes were being raised yet again by him allowing her to see him. She saw a dark-haired, almost handsome man of medium build standing there in a sweatshirt and old jeans. Slim, hairline receding a little, nose a little too sharp, but with eyes that were wide and dark and actually beautiful — how could they be that? — a good strong chin and full, sensual lips. He was gazing at her directly. Not smiling.
And she had the oddest feeling that she knew him from somewhere, had seen him somewhere before. That he was not entirely a stranger.
She said nothing.
She wondered where the woman was. If she would be familiar too.
“You think we’re still fooling you, don’t you. That Victor’s some mannikin or something.”
He was right. After the initial shock that was the first thought that came to her. The mind simply rebelled. She couldn’t be sitting in a room with a murdered man lying on the floor in front of her. It just wasn’t possible.
Do you really know the limits of the possible? she thought. In this place? Do you?
“Get up. Go over and touch it. Here.”
He reached around and unfastened the manacles. It occurred to her that this was far and away the most freedom she’d had since the moment they took her.
She could run for the door.
Why don’t you, then?
Because the door is probably locked and even if it wasn’t he’d catch her easily. That’s why.
She stood, already dreading what she was going to find. If this thing on the floor were a mannikin why would he call his own bluff?
She walked over and knelt and for a moment couldn’t bring herself to touch it but he was standing behind her staring, she felt his stare like a harsh command so she reached out and gave a push to the center of the thing and it was the weight of a man all right, no mannikin ever felt so heavy nor the flesh beneath the bags so giving and it couldn’t be a living man pretending either because one of the bags was tied off tight at the neck and there was no way in the world he’d be able to breathe inside.
She was kneeling next to a dead man. A man he’d just admitted killing.
And they would do it to her, he said, if she defied him.
If he’d raised the stakes by showing her his face he’d raised them infinitely higher by showing her this. There was no way in hell he could let her live now unless she either escaped or submitted wholly to him and to this Organization he kept talking about.
Whether the Organization even existed or not really didn’t matter.
Though she now thought that maybe it did. Was it so far-fetched after all? Cults existed. White slavery existed. Neo-nazis existed. In the end it didn’t matter. Even if it was all in his mind, even if he was crazy, what mattered was his power over her. The power to extend her life or take it on a whim.
The back door opened and she saw the woman standing there on the landing in cutoff jeans and a baggy teeshirt. An ordinary-looking woman, in her early forties she guessed like the man appeared to be, neither homely nor pretty, braless, with long slim legs. She looked directly at Sara for a moment and then went into the kitchen. Turned on the water and began to wash her hands.
“It’s ready,” she said.
She turned to look at him. She heard the water go off in the kitchen and a paper towel ripped off the roll, sandals crossing the floor toward them and knew the woman was in the room with them but didn’t she didn’t take her eyes off him for an instant.
“You’re going to help us bury Victor. By doing so you’ll be helping us accomplish two important things. One, it’ll look very good for you in the eyes of the Organization. In fact you’re doing it at their direct request. Two… well, call it a kind of bonding factor. As far as the police go, should you ever decide you need to report this, you’ll be an accomplice to murder.
“Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You’re doing this under duress. So if you tell the police that, no problem. But the Organization has that covered too. We’ve done this before, you know. We’ve had practice. Once we finish with Victor here I’m going to sit you down with some pens and paper and you’re going to write us a few letters, post-dated. They’ll be friendly letters — I’ll tell you what to say, don’t worry — as though Kath and you and I are old buddies from way back. You’ll write, among other things, about how much trouble you’re having actually going through with the abortion. As though we’ve been advising you not to have one all along and you’re slowly coming around to seeing things from our point of view. Know what I mean? Then in the final letter you’ll ask us, if you do decide to keep the baby, if it’s okay for you come out here to stay awhile. Y’see? You get the idea? It’ll look like you’re here because you want to be. Period.”
“What about the envelopes?”
She almost bit her tongue for saying it. She knew damn well it was dangerous. But she had to try to shake him somehow. She felt trapped and resentful. She had to let him know that without defying him.
“The envelopes. They’d be postmarked. Dated. You can’t fake the postmarks.”
He smiled. “Who keeps envelopes, Sara? You throw ’em in the garbage. But nobody’d think twice about people who keep letters from an old friend. Here’s the finish. Finally, what we’ll do is, we’ll give you back your address book for a minute or two. Let you enter our names in. Like we’ve been in there all along. We figure that about covers it. Don’t you?”
She supposed it did in some twisted way. Would the police really believe this? They might.
In any case she nodded.
“Good.” He stood. “Let’s get going. Kath’s already dug the hole for us. You get the honor of covering him up. Kath, you and Sara get his legs.”
She hesitated, warring inside.
I can’t do this.
Yes you can. You’ve got to.
You can’t just take a man out into the backyard and bury him. This isn ’t happening.
Want to bet?
“I’d do it if I were you,” the woman said.
Kath. Her name’s Kath. One more revelation. Her voice sounded cold, distant. Almost rehearsed.
“Your father plays golf at the Fairview Country Club,” she said. “Plays mostly Saturdays. Do you know how easy it is to shoot a man on a fairway? With a high-powered rifle? Remember what we told you, Sara. You’re not in this alone. You’re responsible for and to a lot of other people.”
She paused to let this sink in. It did.
“So. You want the right leg or the left?”
And then the weight of the man, the stiffness of his body, the night air cool through the thin cotton dress and her own unwashed smell rising off her as they carried and dragged his body across the lawn, dew at her ankles, the one behind her the oy house visible, carried him back through the line of evergreen trees and into scrubby woods to a crude four-foot hole in the ground and dumped him in, the feel of the shovel in her hands which she might have used to crack their skulls but for the baseball bat he held tapping against his leg, the blisters rising hot and sore along her thumb and forefinger, the sound of earth falling first on black plastic and then more softly upon itself, the smell of damp heavy earth, of mold and decay seeming to enfold her, thinking I’m burying myself here, it’s me, it’s me I’m burying.
THE THIRD DAY
June 10, 1998
The headbox again. The still stifling air. The silence.
She’d been standing alone for what must have been hours. Her belly pressed to the X of the crossbeams, arms and legs manacled, leg spread wide apart and arms low across the center of the X to insure circulation. It was as though she were hugging the thing. Not punishment, he said, just convenience this time. They were going out to a movie. They were going out for a pizza. They needed to get out of the house for a while. As though it were the most ordinary thing in the world just to leave her here.
The day after she’d buried a man.
The day after they had killed him.
Before he left he’d slipped the bedpan between her legs and she’d used it awhile ago, pissed into the silence, unable in the deep thick quiet of the box even to know if she’d hit or missed her target, only knowing that some of it had run down her leg and still felt sticky and uncomfortable along her thigh, a trail of her own self-disgust because she could do nothing to stop this new humiliation nor any other. It was a wonder to her that a human being could turn so powerless all in the course of a few days’ time. Not even days. In moments.
Their faces haunted her, inhabiting the dark inside the box like pale flickering holograms. The woman’s face so empty of feeling, of any recognizable emotion at all as though this were nothing to her. Routine. Another day in the life. His face nervous and unsettled — reading lust, greed, power.
She had written out and signed the letters he dictated but was certain they’d fool no one who actually knew her. The language was his language, not hers. Stilted, formal. It betrayed him. It was not going to convince anybody that she was here on her own free will much less an accessory to murder.
I am filled with uncertainty and doubt. A baby’s life is a sacred thing, isn’t it? How dare I take this step?
What’s your problem? she thought, whoever the hell you are. Why’s this so damned all-important to you? What happened? Mommy never breast-feed you?
The woman, Kath, was only along for the ride. It seemed obvious that none of this was her idea. That didn’t matter, though. Because it was also obvious that she’d continue to play her part in Sara’s nasty little drama. But she knew that the craziness originated with him. That if there was an Organization it was he who’d joined it, he who’d decided to capture her, he who dreamt up the tortures and humiliations. The woman was just a follower.
She wondered how willing a follower. Was there any weakness there? Anything she could exploit? She doubted it, but she’d watch for it nevertheless.
Watch for it. Now there’s a bad joke, she thought.
She hadn’t seen anything but the dark and the images inside her head since entering their names in her address book the night before. They’d blindfolded her, stripped her and led her down here to lie the night through in the Long Box, in her coffin. Got her up and fed her a peanut butter sandwich and tied her naked to the chair — which she realized for the first time today was bolted to the floor. Fed her again and hung her on the X-frame for however long it was going to take them to see their movie and eat their goddamn pizza.
For however long they wanted.
Her breath smelled old and stale and sour inside the box. An old person’s breath.
She was growing old here.
The baby still blooming inside her.
The beautiful baby girl. The one she’d wanted to kill.
No, goddammit, that was his thinking. An abortion wasn’t murder. An abortion was only her, Sara Foster, in the act of controlling her own body. Exercising will and choice over her own destiny. If anything this was closer to murder. This utter forced loss of control to the point where she couldn’t even take a piss without fouling herself or feed herself or take a drink except when he permitted it. You could murder a personality, an identity, just as easily you could kill the body.
She wondered how long it would take for him to do that. To make her into another little zombie like Kath who wanted only to please him and accepted whatever he did or wanted.
Even to digging graves for him.
She wondered if he could. She knew about brainwashing. She knew it was possible. But possible for her? That was another thing.
Resisting could mean death. Pretending was risky in the extreme. Giving in was unthinkable.
Could he really expect her to have this baby for him?
To live the next six months this way and then give birth to a child?
The idea was monstrous. Lunatic.
And why? What could he have in mind? For the baby or for her?
Zombie mother? Zombie child?
* * *
She jolted, felt hands on the headbox, undoing the clasps, the base of it chafing her collarbone again as they did so and then felt the hands lift the hook on the box off the eye on the X-frame and she sucked in damp cellar air through her mouth as he lifted the foul thing off her.
“Don’t turn around. Don’t speak.”
He looped the blindfold over her eyes and tied it off.
“Open your mouth.”
He pushed the soft rubber ball into her mouth, stretching her jaw, the taste of it bitter and dry. He tied the gag over it. Her hair caught up in the knot but she made no protest.
Whatever this is, she thought, just get it over with.
She heard soft footsteps on the stairs and heard them cross the room and thought that would have to be Kath joining him. She heard her go the work table and put something down on it — no, two things. One that sounded like ice in a glass and another heavier, thumping to the table and then a few moments later smelled something strange in the air, something that smelled like superheated metal. Like an automobile cigarette lighter and she began to tremble even before he told her.
“I’d really rather pass on this, Sara. But it’s Organization rules. A slave has got to be marked with his or her owner’s personal symbol. Mostly so she can be identified if she tries to run. My symbol’s a V so that’s what you’ll wear. But don’t worry. I’ll do it where it won’t show in a bathing suit or anything, I promise. I know it’ll hurt for a second but after that you’ll be fine. And I honestly don’t have any choice, y’know? I’m sorry. Kath?”
She heard the footsteps cross the room and the burning smell was stronger and she tensed herself knowing what was to come, that they were going to brand her like a cow, scar her, that she’d wear this awful thing the rest of her life, she’d have this to remember them by even once they were dead and buried, knowing too that it was useless to struggle, that it would only be worse for her later, god only knew how much worse and she damned them and damned her helplessness and steeled herself, telling herself not to move, it would hurt even more if she moved or if they had to do it over again god forbid so she pressed her body tight to the X-frame, the X-frame was suddenly her friend, it would help her not to move and when the burning began just to the left of the crack of her ass she screamed long and hard and high into the ball and gag and heard and smelled her own flesh burn, fine hair burning and meat.
Her body drenched itself with sudden sweat, her body wanted to put out the fire that was huge like a thousand pinpricks everywhere, not just her ass but everywhere and when it was done she slumped groaning in her manacles and hung limp against the X-frame and heard ice and water sloshing in a metal container and then he was pressing an ice cold cloth to the wound and some of the pain slid into the cloth and out of her, coming back fierce and hot again and again as the rag cooled until he immersed it again and pressed it to her and all the while they said nothing, silent as priests standing before an altar.
* * *
Kath double-checked her work on the bandage. There was just enough play in the square white gauze pad so that when Sara moved around inside the Long Box the tape wouldn’t pull it too tight and the wound would be able to breathe. Overnight the bacitracin would do its work but the V-shaped blister probably would still suppurate for a while. She’d have to watch that. Have a look at it first thing in the morning.
The home-made branding iron, a two-pronged fondue fork with a tooled wooden handle, lay beside the cooling hotplate on the worktable. She needed to put that away. Sara was never supposed to see what he’d used to create “his symbol.” He was very good at coming up with imaginative uses for everyday household items. In his hands a meat skewer, a pizza cutter or even a dozen clothespins and some twine could transform themselves into instruments of exquisite torture, worse in a lot of ways than all the belts and whips. The fondue fork was a new one but then he was always coming up with new stuff. She’d see him sometimes just sitting in a chair staring off into space and know he was dreaming about all the possibilities. Trying them out in his mind.
Sometimes just watching him would make her shudder.
She took Sara by the shoulders and turned her toward the box and gently pushed her forward. She still wore the gag and blindfold. Her steps were small, tentative. Almost childlike.
“Okay. Stop here.”
The box was open but she still needed to slide out the runnered panel. Stephen had used three-in-one oil on the wheels and runners just this morning so it slid out easily.
“Guess what?” she said. “You get a treat tonight. Three treats actually. First, no gag. You saw last night — there’s nobody around anyway. Plus the walls are soundproofed.”
She untied it and lifted the rubber ball out of her mouth. She never liked this part. The ball was slimy. She didn’t even like the feel of it when she had to take it out of her own mouth. Much less somebody else’s.
“Second, you get this. Hold out your hand.”
She handed her a thin faded cotton nightgown. It used to be her mother’s. Her mother was dead three years now or would be in December and she’d ransacked the house for anything that might be of use to them before they sold the property. No sense wasting. Most of what she took turned out to be less useful than she’d thought. The nightgown, for instance, had sat in mothballs along with a bunch of other stuff in a box in the attic ever since. It was much too big for her. And much too big for Sara. But it would do. After a washing it still smelled faintly of mothballs but that hardly mattered.
“You can put it on.”
She said nothing, not even a thank you, only found the neck of it and then the bottom and pulled it on over her head. Kath guessed she’d have to tell Stephen about her lack of gratitude.
“But the real treat, because of the mark and all, is you get to sleep on a mattress tonight. An air-mattress. Otherwise you’d never get any sleep, you know? Stephen pumped it up for you. See? Here, lean down and feel.”
She took her arm and guided her hand.
“Nice and soft, right? You need to use the toilet or anything?”
She shook her head no.
“Okay, move over here and lie down and I’ll scoot you in. Careful not to scrape the bandages or it’ll hurt like a bitch. Plus I’ll have to do you up all over again.”
She watched her ease herself down, favoring her right hip, then move her legs in along the mattress and lie slowly back, once again favoring her right side.
It still wasn’t going to be an easy night, she thought. Air mattress or no air mattress. Burns hurt. And what was it that they said? you bang your elbow once, you’ll probably bang it again. She’d roll over on the burn at some point for sure. None of that was her problem though and Stephen was waiting for her upstairs in the bedroom. She knew he’d want to fuck tonight. She didn’t know if she could handle it if he got as energetic as he had the night before. She’d be wearing the bruises from that little session for days.
They also said that killing makes you horny.
She supposed she had the proof of that one.
” ’Night,” she said and pushed the panel into the box and swung the headpiece shut and threw the lock. As she stood again she smelled her own perspiration wafting up at her.
If they were going to fuck she was definitely going to need a shower.
Sara felt it immediately down at the end of the box.
The cat lay curled at her feet.
She wondered when it had crept in and how it had avoided getting hurt by the sliding panel and thought that well, cats were very agile. She’d known that since she was a girl.
She’d learned the hard way.
* * *
Her cat Tiggy was then just a kitten. She was only five or six herself and loved him to distraction. She probably drove him crazy half the time, always wanting to pick him up and hold him, chasing him around the house trying to pet him. But he was patient with her in his catlike way and tolerated her hugs and kisses until his own enjoyment began to wear thin, at which point he’d signal that enough was enough with a little meow and more often than not she’d let him drop then and let him go his way.
Sometimes though she wouldn’t, not right away and the reason was his breath. His breath was one of her guilty pleasures. His fur smelled wonderful. But in some ways his breath smelled even better. It smelled to her like the seashore. It always did, whether it was fish or chicken or meat-flavored food he’d been eating and this she found amazing. It was warm and rich and its salty tang reminded her of summers by the shore. So sometimes she’d wouldn’t let him go at the first meow. Instead she’d hold onto him, nose up close to his mouth for a whiff of his breath on the second meow. She wouldn’t let him squirm away.
And just this one time he bit her.
They were out on the back lawn sitting in the grass and she was holding him, holding him too long and probably too tightly and instead of meowing the second time as he usually did he nipped her nose instead. Not hard enough to break the skin but hard enough to hurt and make her angry, actually suddenly furious at him and when she thought about it later as an adult she realized she must have seen the bite as a kind of rejection. A rejection of her love just like her father’s rejection because she was a girl and not the boy he wanted. Like her mother’s merely qualified acceptance. Like other kids’ rejection because she was fat and not yet pretty.
The cat sensed her fury instantly and began to snarl and spit, a small bundle of teeth and claws and though she’d never seen him angry before and it scared her, she held him away from her and let him writhe and struggle and she squeezed until the cat let go with an ungodly wail of abject fear and she realized what she was doing, terrorizing a small animal, taking out her anger at somebody on an innocent kitten. And heartsick, attacked by sudden tears, she dropped him to the grass.
He ran. But she couldn’t let it go at that.
She had to get him back. Hold him, pet him, stroke him. Reassure him that it would never, never happen again and let him know how sorry she was and that she loved him.
So she ran too.
There was a woods behind her house and a brook, narrow and fast-running after a rain like the one they’d had the night before and the cat ran away from her back through the grass and scrub, the cat small but incredibly fast and nimble for its size and she couldn’t catch him, he kept avoiding her, she was running as fast as she could and scaring him even more she knew by chasing him but her guilt was huge and overwhelming and she couldn’t stop. Not until she had him home again, until she was sure he wouldn’t run away for good from the monstrous awful thing she’d done and suddenly, there was the brook.
The cat ran along the stones by its bank but he was in full panic by now and he slipped and fell right in front of her eyes too far away to reach. She screamed and saw him try to scale the rock he’d fallen from but his claws could get no purchase and he began to drift downstream, his meow a piteous thing now tearing at her heart, an infant calling for its mother, the cat’s eyes terrified, astonished, as he started moving fast away from her in the deep pull of the stream.
She plunged through the brush trying to get ahead of him. Trying to go faster than the stream, refusing to take her eyes off him for a second, unmindful of the branches scratching at her face or the brambles tearing at her legs but only watching as though her gaze alone would stop him from drowning. She saw him go under and come up again and claw at a rock and whirl in the current, scrabbling with his paws, trying to stay afloat and all the while his wailing in her ears and the sounds of the rushing stream and finally after an eternity it widened, slowed and she stumbled into the water and had him in her hands, Tiggy so cold and wet and fragile, she could feel his heart racing against her own chest as he clung to her for dear life and gone suddenly silent, looking every which way out through the woods as though he’d never seen them before. As though the whole world were new and frightening and she couldn’t even say words to comfort him she was crying so hard, she could only stroke and pet him. And then the miracle, the absolute miracle happened.
At the steps to their porch he started to purr.
As this cat here in the box with her was purring.
She didn’t know if it was this cat or remembering Tiggy’s forgiveness that started her crying but they were the first tears she’d shed that were not in fear or pain for a very long time. She couldn’t move much inside the box but she bent her knees until they pressed against the top and shifted sideways until her shoulder hit the right side and reached out in the dark and wiggled her fingers.
“Come on” she whispered. “Come on. Come here.”
The cat fell silent. She was aware only of the throbbing burn and the unyielding wood and the dark until in a little while she felt the soft short silky fur beneath her fingers and felt it nuzzle and mark her with its lips and cool wet nose and the warmth of its body as it lay down to settle in against her thigh. The cat immediately began to purr again and she thought there was no better sound in the breathing world.
“There’s a good girl,” she murmured. “There’s a good little girl. There’s a girl.”
And then another miracle occurred.
* * *
He dreamed that he sat in the basement on a folding chair with his ear pressed to her swollen belly. She was huge now, her navel protruding and he was speaking to the baby not to her. He could feel his lips move over the tight smooth flesh of her belly. She was naked, her arms and legs spread wide against the X-frame and inside her the baby was listening. Understanding each and every word but unable to answer him, not yet fully formed for speech.
That didn’t matter.
He told the baby about the world, about its cruelties, its ability to slight even the most talented, the most honest, the most sincere the human race had to offer. He told it about war and killing and hypocrisy and foul tainted passion and the baby listened, understanding each and every word even if the mother didn’t — couldn’t — understand him at all. It was as though he were speaking a foreign language as far as the mother was concerned. That annoyed him. Then angered him. He was going to have to punish her.
He stood up and didn’t recognize her at all. Who the fuck was this woman? Who did she think she was? The woman was smirking at him, a superior look on her face and that angered him further and he went to the worktable for a pair of pliers. He was going to work on the nipples, open them up with pliers so that when the time came the baby could feed not just on mother’s milk but blood too which was richer and more nourishing and suddenly he was stepping into a huge wide open field in the middle of the night and there were stars all around above and he felt very small and very much younger and very afraid of being alone at night under such a crowded sky.
And then the pliers were gone from his hand he was lying in his bed asleep next to Kath, something tormenting his sleep, something forgotten or left undone that was making him sweat and toss in a halfsleep, on the cusp of wakefulness, trying to remember what it was he’d omitted to do when suddenly he felt sething hit the window-screen behind him and push it out from the inside, something escaping and he thought, the cat, goddammit and he bolted upright in his bed expecting to see exactly that, the cat escaping through the window but all he saw was the fluttering curtain, pale white lace drifting slowly, hanging in the summer air.
On the sixth day of her captivity she recognized him. It was a gesture he made, holding his arm out, his hand palm-up toward the X-frame. Directing her there. In the gesture and in the smug self-satisfied smile she saw the man on the street in front of the clinic the day of her examination, the pink plastic foetus in his upturned hand.
She knew Kath to be the woman who’d followed them inside.
She said nothing nor did she allow her eyes to register what she saw. She was not yet a week in his basement but already she’d learned how to mask her feelings unless those feelings involved pain and terror. Those she couldn’t master.
Daily over the next two weeks she was beaten on the X-frame. Sometimes blindfolded, sometimes inside the headbox. Kath had contrived a double-thick bib of old dishcloths for her to wear against the chafe of the box at her shoulderblades. The bottom layer was faded blue. The top was faded green.
Sometimes the beatings were short, lasting only a matter of minutes, pro forma. Seemingly almost passionless. An exercise in power and no more. He would use a belt or a light crop.
Other times they were endless. He would spend the night with her devising new ways to torment her as other men might sit in front of the television set nursing a beer. On these nights she could feel his excitement spreading like ozone through the basement air. There were occasions when she wore only the blindfold and could hear that he was masturbating. Light liquid slapping sounds followed by a groan.
Her contempt for him was matched only by her need to conceal it.
On the ninth day he seemed to realize that she could probably hear what he was doing and put rubber earplugs in her ears from then on.
There were times when every orifice in her body was plugged except her nostrils. Ears, ass, mouth, vagina.
He grew more inventive. Bound her in exotic ways. He hung her on the frame upside down and beat her until she nearly passed out from the blood rushing to her head. He held a heat-lamp inches from her skin and watched her skin redden and burn and watched her twist in pain. He poked her with knives, pins, meat-forks. He strangled her with his hands and when she passed out he waited and when she woke he strangled her again.
Worst by far were his rages. She’d been told to control her bodily functions but one night it simply wasn’t possible, she’d been on the rack too long and there was no bedpan in front of her so she held it as long as she could and then she just let go. Her relief at so doing ended when he came at her with the studded whip. He was very good with the whip and this time he targeted one place only, the delicate flesh of her armpits and whipped them until she could feel the blood ran down her sides all the way to the hip.
He called her a whore and a cunt and a bitch and a pig and a useless cow and whatever else he could think of. Not just when he was hurting her. He used the words constantly. Conversationally. Reminding her that he could say and do anything he pleased.
There were days she went twenty-four hours between meals. Her only drink was water. Her food consisted of greasy cheap tuna salad or American cheese sandwiches on white bread and canned vegetable soup. It never varied. She was not allowed to brush her teeth or brash her hair. She was not allowed to wash except those parts of her he had blistered or bloodied.
She began to stink.
Inside the long dark box where she stayed through most of the day she began to mark the time by marking temperatures. Mornings it was always cool. During the course of the afternoon the box would warm both from the basement temperature outside and her body inside and by mid-afternoon while they were still both at work she would be slick with sweat and reeking with her own thick musky smell and would stay that way until they got around to opening it. When they let her out they would leave the box open to air out. When she got in again the temperature would drop till morning and then begin to warm again.
Her daily cycle.
On the tenth day Stephen noticed the cat moving into the box while it lay open and she was on the X-frame. The cat had come to her some nights and some nights it had not. She heard him shouting at it despite the earplugs which were never very efficient anyway and then heard Kath say something to him in a loud voice and then she heard them talking. When they put her back in the box that night the cat was there. They’d allowed it to stay. She didn’t know why. But she was grateful for the cat and she thought that perhaps that was the point. To make her grateful. Grateful to them.
But she was grateful only to the cat. To her soothing presence. To have somebody to talk to even if that somebody couldn’t talk back. Grateful that the cat didn’t mind sharing with her the thick sweltering air.
The cat seemed glad of her presence too. Brushing up against her ankles as she stood tied to the X-frame or walked either to there or to the chair so that a couple of times the cat almost tripped her. She didn’t mind.
When he wasn’t hurting her he was telling her stories or occasionally reading scripture. The readings were usually about children or husbands and wives, slaves and masters. He liked Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, Genesis.
“Now Sairai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. And she had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar.
“So Sarai said to Abram, ’See now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai.
“Then Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband to be his wife…”
The stories were always about the Organization.
The house, he told her, was bugged. They monitored the phone. They had known she was here from the very beginning and got daily reports on her progress.
Organization members were everywhere. The local police precinct. The legislature. The White House.
He gave her a Daily News article to read about the slave trade which said that in the Mideast, Europe and even in the U.S. the growing interest in S &M had lately given rise to a brisk profitable business in female flesh, women kidnapped for sale or barter to the rich and powerful with no rights or recourse to law. To be dealt with as each owner saw fit. To be tracked down and punished should they dare and then actually manage to run away. He told her that it was his father who had introduced him to the Organization and that as a young man he’d earned enough money to put himself through college by tracking down runaways.
He told her about one escapee who managed to elude the Organization long enough to actually write and publish an article about her experience. It took months but eventually they found her a second time and returned her to her owner. They pulled her fingers off one by one and then pulled off her toes. They cut out her tongue and blinded her with a soldering gun and used a stiletto to destroy her eardrums. They enlisted an Organization doctor to cut off her arms and legs without benefit of anaesthesia and then to cauterize the wounds. Finally they hung her, still alive, by her long braided hair on a hook above her master’s bed where she continued to live for three days. A trophy above him writhing in agony while he slept and read.
He showed her some of her father’s mail, two circulars and a phone bill, told her that they’d been brought to him by their own mailman, who was part of the Organization too, for her to see. So she’d understand just how easy it was to get to him or any time they cared to.
He showed her a roster of her students’ names and addresses.
On the eleventh day, a Sunday, he ordered her to suck his cock. It was the first time she’d refused him anything in several days. He tied her to the bolted-down chair, pulled off her blindfold and produced an over-and-under double-barrel shotgun. He ordered her to open her mouth and when she would not forced the shotgun into her mouth, the cold metal cutting her lips and grinding past her teeth. She had no way of knowing if it was loaded or not until he pulled the trigger.
Which he did.
He replaced the shotgun with his cock and this time she did as he said. She wondered if he’d have dared had Kath been in the room. Two nights later she assumed she had her answer when he rolled her blindfolded out of the Long Box, told her to lie right where she was, tied her hands behind her back and shortly thereafter a naked Kath descended upon her face. She suspected this was not Kath’s idea because she seemed reluctant at first but eventually began to buck and moan. And then she must have said something to him about Sara’s smell because she was finally allowed upstairs to take a shower, both of them standing in the bathroom looking on so she wouldn’t try to squeeze her way out the window.
In the shower as she soaped her naked belly she realized she was showing.
She wondered if they noticed.
On the twentieth day she felt the baby move inside her.
The beatings continued.
* * *
For Stephen the days passed working at his shop in town or out in the garage. Gluing down veneer, repairing legs of chairs and tables, finishing and polishing old wood. He created a pine bookshelf, a nightstand, an oak desk. He was fast and efficient and charged reasonably for his work and time. He brought each job in on schedule which was a rarity these days. He was affable, friendly, listened carefully to his clients’ needs and was good at what he did. No master craftsman but then this was not New York City either. He had no lack of customers.
Either he was working with wood or he was working on Sara.
He wasn’t sure if it was Sara or the shop or the struggle with McCann that had given him the case of tendonitis. But the elbow was swollen into a little marble at the joint and twinged constantly. He was left-handed and now his grip was considerably weakened and the elbow hurt miserably if he used the hand too much. There were mornings he’d have a hard time digging his keys out of his pocket and an even harder time locking the door behind him. He was popping two ibuprophen every four hours and one progesterone a day, the latter on Doc Richardson’s proscription. If it didn’t help in two weeks, the doctor said, if the swelling didn’t go down he’d have to inject a steroid directly into the tendon. It wasn’t a prospect he looked forward to.
Every time he used that arm to swing the whip or drive a nail it hurt him.
He began to have fleeting headaches and strange, frequent memories of his mother’s funeral.
At the service they’d set six metal folding chairs at the grave site, one for each of her chief mourners. His father, his mother’s sister June and brothers Bill and Ernie plus himself and Kath. Kath had a stomach virus that grey September day so she elected to stand behind the chairs and he to stand with her. At eighty-two, with heart disease and emphysema Uncle Bill found it easier not to sit only to have to stand again so he stood too. Which left three of the six chairs empty.
His father sat in the middle. Aunt June and Uncle Ernie sat together to the far left. There was no love lost between his father and either of them. So that one chair remained open to the left of him and two remained open to the right. The minister invited any other members of the assembly to have a seat but not a soul among the twenty-five people or so attending really wished to sit with him. The mourners were there for his mother, not for him. He realized his father had not a single real friend among them and no family of his own left and thought with some amazement that he’d never seen anyone look quite so lonely.
That his father should sit unattended wasn’t right, wasn’t even proper and disconcerted by this, embarrassed, the minister asked again.
Again there was hesitation. Why he didn’t sit with his father himself he didn’t know but instead he stayed with Kath. Finally two old women Stephen had never seen in his life took pity on him or perhaps they took pity on the minister and filled the vacant seats on either side. The sixth chair remained open throughout the ceremony as though for some departed guest.
Why this memory should come back to him now so frequently puzzled him. But it came at the strangest times. When he was going for the whip. When he was emptying her bedpan those few instances Kath wasn’t around to do it. When he manacled her to the X-frame. The time they allowed her upstairs for a shower. He would see his father sitting alone and stony in that folding chair.
One day over dinner he realized that he was disappointed with Sara in some ways. Or disappointed with his own responses. It seemed to him that his fantasies were never quite matched by reality when he acted on them. Her sufferings were never quite as provocative as he’d imagined, her helplessness and nudity never quite as stimulating, her submissiveness never as fulfilling. He probably needed to be more spontaneous, he thought. To plan less and imagine less. That way he wouldn’t always be forced to match his thinking to reality.
He also recognized early on the need to escalate. At least for now.
To push his limits as well as hers. That was what the strangling was about and heat-lamp and the studded whip.
He’d promised Kath he wouldn’t fuck her but he didn’t say anything about her using her mouth. No promises there. Even so she’d been angry about the blowjob and he thought that telling her was probably a mistake. But for some reason he couldn’t help but tell her. He needed her to know. It was part of being Kath’s master as well as Sara’s. So was having her sit on Sara’s face. She hadn’t wanted to do it. He’d had to threaten a whipping.
It was actually a little scary. On the twelfth day he had her on the X-frame and inside the headbox and he’d taken a Swiss Army knife off his worktable. His idea was to use the corkscrew on her clit. See what it did to her. But instead he automatically opened to the long blade. He always kept it sharp. He thought, fine, I’ll use that first on her nipples and then the corkscrew on her clit but when he approached her with the knife in hand he started to shake. He started circling the areola which seemed to be darkening as the pregnancy advanced but the shaking got worse. He had to stop.
You’re afraid you’re going to kill her, he thought.
You really could some day, you know that? You could go too far much too soon if let yourself.
Which made him a little afraid of her.
Not that she’d get away somehow because that was damned unlikely and besides, the Organization stories were working, he could tell. No, you’re afraid of her because she might just make you want to kill her one of these days just by being available for the killing and that would be very spontaneous and very much an escalation, wouldn’t it?
Then he thought about the baby. It would be terrible to harm the baby. She was just beginning to show.
He felt sure she’d have made a good mother.
In some ways he actually admired her. She had guts and will and stamina. The will he’d have to break, was already breaking but he wanted to let her hold onto the stamina. She’d need it for what they had in mind.
He folded the sharp blade back into the Swiss Army knife and pulled out the corkscrew and when the shaking stopped finally he went to work on her the way he’d planned to.
* * *
Kath wished she could call Gail. Her best and oldest friend. They’d met way back in nursing school and stayed friends even though these days Gail lived in the City working at Bellevue. But Stephen was always afraid of somebody dropping by unexpectedly. She wasn’t going to be allowed to encourage friendships for the duration. The duration was turning into a damned long time.
It wasn’t fair.
She hated the isolation.
She thought that Sara wasn’t the only one imprisoned here.
Sure she had work at the hospital to get her out of the house five days a week but she didn’t really have any friends among the staff there. He wouldn’t let her go to any meetings or rallies either. He didn’t want them to be seen, he said, till it was over. So she was stuck with the house and the basement and the television and that was it.
He’d almost completely stopped fucking her. That was another thing.
On the sixth day she drove home from work in a blinding summer rainstorm and ran directly upstairs to run a good hot shower and change out of her drenched clothes and when she came back down toweling her hair, wanting to get a coke from the fridge, she saw that the door to the cellar was open. She felt a moment’s panic thinking that somehow she’d managed to get out of the Long Box, to get free. Until she looked out the window and saw that Stephen’s pickup was parked behind her own car in the driveway.
She walked downstairs and saw that he hadn’t even bothered to change out of his work clothes which were just as wet as hers had been. Wet sawdust caked the legs and knees of his jeans.
He already had her out of the box and up on the X-frame and was beating her ass with a paddle. He had the paddle in one hand and his cock in the other and she turned and went upstairs. Grossed-out and furious at both of them.
She knew perfectly well why she was mad and disgusted with Stephen.
Her feelings for Sara were more complex.
On the one hand it was as though Sara were a kind of rival. He sure as hell had never run home to have sex with her five minutes after walking through the door.
But she was also aware that Sara was her savior too in a way. That if it weren’t for Sara up there on the X-frame it would be her. And if her sex life was practically non-existent these days so were the kinky games he always needed to play.
So why was she so mad at her? Why so disgusted?
The disgust part was easy. The dull unwashed hair. The stink of sweat and sometimes urine. She could guess that the mad part was just plain jealousy. Jealousy over the baby she carried inside and jealous that he wanted her — wanted to use her in spite of the dirtiness and the smell. But she kept coming back to the fact that it was Sara or it was her up there and why in the world would anyone in her right mind be jealous of the way he was using her because it hurt for god’s sake. It was fucking degrading and it hurt. It confused her.
Anyone in her right mind, she thought.
Maybe she was crazy. She’d considered it seriously from time to time.
Maybe you’d have to be crazy to live with him.
But she’d stuck thus far. She knew she’d play it through. She’d lie to Sara and befriend her — she was turning into a world-class liar — take her side in little things like the shower and the cat, talk to her quietly and seriously about the Organization. All of it an act. See where things went. That was what she’d do.
And then the oddest thing happened.
She hadn’t wanted it. Stephen had kidded, cajoled, yelled and finally threatened so that eventually she gave in and went down and shed her clothes and straddled her and at first nothing was going on. Certainly Sara wasn’t cooperating. Her tongue and lips just lay there under her wet and slack and then Kath started to move, not expecting much at first but doing it all on her own with no direction from Stephen and even with no cooperation coming from below soon she thought she was going to fucking explode, she was moving back and forth and side to side and directing it all herself, total power over her body and over Sara’s, wholly in command of the pace and the action until finally she found herself shuddering, quivering in the grip of the most powerful orgasm of her entire life.
She couldn’t believe it.
It only made her feelings all the more complicated. That this should happen with a woman. When she’d never even considered having sex with a woman before. And this particular woman, their captive, Stephen’s captive and now in a way that was far more real than before, her own.
The night of the fourteenth day she waited until Stephen was asleep. She took the flashlight off its hook in the kitchen and walked quietly downstairs. She sat down in the chair and let her light play across the Long Box, annoyed with herself and uncomfortable with what thoughts and feelings had drawn her here. Annoyed with Sara and with Stephen too.
She could imagine her breathing inside the box. The rise and fall of her breasts. The slow small shift inside her belly.
Could imagine the cord like driftwood to which the baby clung, tossed in a rich warm sea.
It was only by accident that she found the equipment.
Months had passed and by then much had changed.
She knew who they were for one thing.
Stephen and Katherine Teach. Forty-six and forty-four respectively. They’d met seven years ago on a ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sussex, New Jersey — she knew where she was now too, a small rural town hours northwest of the City — where he was a patient and she was his day-nurse. He had nearly put his eye out with a chunk of wood when his power-saw hit a knot in a two-by-four. They’d dated. Married six months later.
Both were only children with no living parents. Kath was Catholic and Stephen was a Baptist though neither went to church much anymore. Stephen liked to brag that it didn’t matter, he’d read the Bible six times over cover to cover including the begats, he was his own church. They liked action movies and comedies and Chinese food and pizza. They disliked housework completely. Especially doing the dishes. As though the remains of a meal were revolting to them. They had no discernable hobbies unless you counted the anti-abortion rallies and demonstrations they could no longer go to now that Sara was with them and you counted the Organization. They read only magazines — not even the newspaper. They got their news off the TV screen. Said it was easier.
They owned a CD player and never used it. Instead they watched TV.
Katherine was barren.
That was the word they used. Barren.
They’d always been saddened by this. They felt that a baby would solidify the bond between them. At least Kath did.
Nowadays she rarely spoke to Stephen.
So she learned all this from Kath. Who was lonely. Who was bored. Who spoke to her a lot.
And who — for lack of a better, more hideous word — had become her lover.
Since that first afternoon with Kath astride her outside the Long Box she had come to her more and more frequently. Always alone. Usually at night when Stephen was asleep but sometimes during the day on lunchbreaks or on weekends when he was out of the house on some errand or other, about once a week at first and then twice a week and then nearly every night.
She seemed entranced by Sara’s body. You’d have thought it were a beautiful body but it wasn’t. Not anymore. At least not to Sara’s thinking. The body was heavy and slow. The waist was gone, the belly huge. A ragged dark line ran from the top to the bottom of her abdomen. Her legs were swollen. Blue veins mapped the surfaces of her breasts. Her nipples leaked pale nearly colorless colostrum.
All these Kath licked and squeezed and bit. Lapped at the colostrum. Caressed the swollen belly as though caressing the baby inside it. I’m a nurse, she said. I’m just going to examine you.
Kath never did bathe or shower nearly often enough.
Her insides tasted bitter.
What Kath did to her and made her do seemed to shame her and excite her all at once. When it was over she would always want to talk. Chattering away like she was talking to some girlfriend. About her patients at the hospital or the job Stephen was working on. About the weather and her car needing a tune-up and the phone bills and the payments on the house and the movie they’d seen on HBO the night before. Whatever. Nervous talk with her eyes averted while Sara stood tied to the X-frame or more often to the chair or the sliding panel of the Long Box.
She would tell her stories of the Organization that were just as bad as Stephen’s.
* * *
One day she showed her pictures. Black-and-white photos of her father watering his lawn. Of her students playing kickball on the Winthrop schoolgrounds. Of her sister stepping out of her car with a shopping bag in her arms.
Of Greg. Walking some tree-lined street in Rye between his wife and son.
She was tied to the chair.
“He’s handsome,” she said. “I don’t blame you for wanting to make it with the guy.”
“We didn’t just make it. We were lovers.”
“What about the wife and kid?”
“What about them?”
“They’re a. family. Look at them. They look happy together.”
She looked at the photos again. At least he wasn’t smiling.
“It’s still a family. Why would you want to break up a family?”
“You would have. You would have sooner or later.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“I think it’s fucking selfish of you. You’re better off here. It’s better for everybody.”
If what Kath felt was a mix of shame and excitement Sara felt only the shame. But as with Stephen she submitted. Not to do so would be murderous as well as suicidal. The photos were proof if she even needed proof by then. The Organization existed. Whether they knew it or not, everyone she loved was depending on her behavior.
* * *
Stephen had shown her a pistol one afternoon. He said it was a.45. Spun the barrel for her. Threw the safety. Pointed it at her. Clicked.
She’d already seen the shotgun. Very up close and personal.
And as a result the whippings and the torture became less frequent. She hardly even saw the headbox anymore. They let her out of the Long Box now for long periods at a time. Insisting that she exercise for the baby’s sake. Upper body bends. Belly-crunches. Leg lifts. Diagonal curls. Her diet still consisted mainly of sandwiches but they gave her juice and and milk and herbal tea and the occasional leftover Chinese takeout or slice of pizza.
She was allowed to dress.
Faded print housecoats or shifts that even with her belly still hung loose on her frame. Kath said they’d belonged to her mother and they looked it. Cheap old ladies’ clothes that were hopelessly out of style. But she was as grateful for them as she’d have been for Ralph Lauren originals. She was not allowed panties or a bra.
She still had to strip on demand.
But it was Kath these days who did most of the demanding.
After the first three months or so Stephen had changed. She could pinpoint easily exactly when the change began.
The last time she’d disobeyed him.
The first and only time she’d tried to run.
She was upstairs by then, out of the cellar a good part of every evening and weekends so she could do the housework Steven and Kath both hated. At first she was appalled at the state of the place. A nice place basically, or it could have been. Two bedrooms, one bath, a living room, a small kitchen and dining area and an attic, built just after the end of World War II on somebody’s GI Bill. But everywhere evidence of casual filth and disorder. A film of grime over everything in the bathroom, balls of hair and dust in every corner, crusted toothpaste in the sink. Dust thick on all the furniture. The drapes needed washing. The rugs needed washing. The kitchen was a greasy mess.
But she set to all of it gladly. Anything to relieve the isolation and boredom and depression of the basement. At the kitchen sink she could look out a window to the yard and the trees and squirrels and the birds pecking at the lawn and rarely even think that beyond the trees they’d buried a man. She could open the windows and let in cool fresh air.
Though she set to it carefully too. Any mistakes and she was up on the X-frame again or tied to the chair, her pregnancy be damned.
The cat seemed always at her feet.
After a while she got the house in shape and from then on it was only maintenance. Vacuuming, dusting, laundry, cleaning after meals.
The bathroom was spotless. The windows gleamed in the sun.
Kath laughed. “You’re a pretty good slave,” she said.
There were times during her third trimester when her back ached terribly and she felt very short of breath. She knew that the shortness of breath was her uterus expanded and pushing up against her diaphragm. She had to explain this to Stephen. Who’d get annoyed with her whenever she stopped working. She was relieved when the baby dropped lower in her abdomen and made breathing easier.
For a while she’d hated the baby. The baby was the reason for her captivity. But she’d gotten used to the notion of actually having her now. Of bringing her to term and delivering.
She’d gotten used to so much else. It wasn’t hard to get used to this.
* * *
Then one sunny September day there was nobody around to watch her. Nobody.
No Kath. No Stephen.
She realized this while she was letting the cat out through the back door.
The silence. The emptiness. Looming with potential.
There was nobody in the whole damn house but her, free upstairs. Just finishing up the breakfast dishes.
Kath had driven into town to do the usual Saturday shopping.
She didn’t know where Stephen was. He just wasn’t there. Though his pickup was in the driveway.
She couldn’t believe it. She looked around to be sure. The bedrooms, the bathroom, the cellar. Even walked upstairs to the attic. She peered out the windows front and back. Nobody there. The narrow dirt road that wound down the hill to the mailbox was empty. So was the back yard all the way to the woods. The garage door was closed.
He had a shop there but if he were in it he’d have left the door open and even in broad daylight she knew a light would be on inside.
She could leave. She could do it. She could walk away.
She could run.
Her heart was pounding. What about the Organization? What would they do if she got away? She could warn everyone, couldn’t she? Of course she could. Tell her mother and father and Greg and the kids’ parents and get the cops to protect them. Get these two arrested. Make them pay.
For kidnapping. For murder.
The Organization had a long reach, they said. They could wait and bide their time and even if Kath and Stephen were locked up in jail they’d get her. Get all of them. That was what they said.
But how could she not run? How could she not try?
Oh, god. She couldn’t.
She walked to the front door and did the simplest, most amazing thing.
She opened it.
Walked down the wooden stairs she had walked only once before in all these months and that was going up, not down them, walked them slowly and carefully because they creaked and moaned under her feet and she was looking for him side to side all the time, around the tall hedges that needed trimming, along the line of trees far off to her right and then she was on the gravel path that led through the front yard to the road and she was running, aware of her bulk and the weakness of her legs, the legs complaining of too little exercise and her breath coming hard and then heard him behind her on the gravel, turned and saw him drop the rake why hadn’t she checked the sides of the house? he was out there raking the leaves for god’s sake and she stopped dead in her tracks because there was no way she was going to outrun him and stood her ground and looked at him.
He stopped running. Walked up to her, shaking his head, brows knit tight.
Then slapped her to the ground.
“Get up,” he said. “Get your ass up
He grabbed her by the arm and hauled her to her feet. Marched her back to the house, up the stairs and in. The kiss of warm sunlight disappeared behind her back like a fair-weather friend. He slammed the door. She was crying so hard she could barely see and her ear was ringing where he’d slapped her and throbbed with pain. He moved her through the house to the cellar stairs and down into the cold dark.
“You fat fucking cow! Strip! Get your ass over to the X-frame. You run from me?”
So furious he was spitting.
“Turn around! Spread your legs. Get your arms up.”
He strapped her into the manacles.
“You run from me, you bitch? I ought to break your fucking legs. You fat sow. You cunt!”
“Please, Stephen. The baby…”
It was her only card.
He was pacing the cellar, the studded whip in hand, slapping it against his jeans. Screaming at her.
“Fuck the baby! Fuck you! You know what I ought to do? You know what I really ought to do? I ought to kill you, you little bitch. I ought to kill you right now and to hell with the baby. You try to run from me? You want to go get a cop? You want to put the cops on me? Four months you been here. Four fucking months I put up with you and your bullshit and this is what I get? You little cunt. I ought to kill you and fuck the baby, to hell with the baby, screw the fucking baby.”
He threw the whip at her. The heavy knotted handle struck her in the eye. He moved swiftly to the worktable and came back with the red Swiss army knife in his hand open to the cutting blade. His eyes glittered.
“You want to fuck around? You want to call the cops on me? Well how ’bout we give ’em something. How ’bout we really give ’em something? How ’bout we do this?”
He stabbed her. The soft flesh below her left shoulder.
She felt the sudden punch of the thing and the searing burst of pain.
“How ’bout we do this?”
He shoved the knife into her inner thigh. The pain was a hammer and a snake-bite. Her body slammed back against the X-frame and she screamed. Through the sudden panic she saw where he was going. The hand drew back. Pointed at her swollen abdomen.
“How ’bout we…”
“STEPHENNOPLEEEASETHEBABY!” she wailed.
He stopped. Stared at her.
His face went pale. He staggered once and lowered the knife and then looked away from her, looked down at the floor as though studying something there and then walked slowly over to the worktable and folded back the blade of the knife and put it carefully down. Then just stood there staring at the table. Blood was rolling down her side over her hip and down her thigh across her calf and pooling at her foot. She hung there shaking. Sobbing, watching him.
“I better clean you up,” he murmured. “I better clean up the mess you made. Before Kath comes home.”
Now, a month later, those were practically his last words to her.
He seemed to have lost interest.
She was damn well glad of that but worried as to why. He moped around the house, drank too much beer at night in front of the TV. Mornings Kath would let her out of the Long Box and half the time he’d be still in bed or only just getting up. She’d see the empty bottles. There were times beads of sweat would break out over his forehead, for no apparent reason. He walked with a kind of stoop. His muscle tone seemed to have gone slack. He seemed almost as depressed as she was. Kath said he was worried about money, with taxes and mortgage payments being what they were. But Sara thought it was something else.
She didn’t know why she should be worried. So what if he was depressed? Why should she care? The man had almost killed her. She didn’t know what it signified or why it should concern her but it did.
Her apprehension resolved itself into something infinitely worse the week before Halloween when she went up into the attic looking for a replacement bag for the vacuum cleaner. And saw what they’d stored there.
* * *
“When this is over I want to find another,” he said.
They were lying in bed back to back. She guessed he couldn’t sleep.
She knew what he meant and she didn’t like it one bit. The baby was supposed to be the glue. The baby was supposed to be sufficient. How long did he think this was going to go on? With how many? “Jesus, Stephen. With a baby in the house?”
He snorted. “The baby won’t know.”
“What about us? What about our lives? What about our friends? The baby’s got to have friends and so do we.”
“The baby isn’t going to need any friends the first year or two. I want somebody younger this time, Kath. She’s too fucking old. She doesn’t do it for me. She’s fucking disgusting.”
He was serious for god’s sake. She thought back to Shawna, the first one. She’d been younger all right. Sixteen.
Buried in back a few feet away from McCann.
He’d been playing with electricity. They hadn’t known she had a bad heart.
“Stephen, I want my life back. I want to have Gail over. I want to go out to dinner and a movie sometimes. I mean, is that a lot to ask?”
“I’m talking about a year or two. Once the baby’s older I’ll… settle down.”
Sure. Sure you will.
“We’ll take it easy for a while. But right now, you know. I’ve got needs!”
Like his needs were the most ordinary, matter-of-fact thing in the world.
“Look. You want it to be you again? Is that what you want?”
She did not.
But she didn’t want this either.
“We’re going to get caught. You know that. We try again, we’re gonna get caught.”
“That’s paranoid. We just have to be careful, that’s all. Like always.”
She turned to him.
“Do you realize how close we came? With McCann? What if Elsie or somebody else had seen us and not just him? We’re lucky we didn’t get caught right there.”
“Unlucky, Kath. McCann was a one-in-a-million shot for chrissake. Besides, we won’t be taking her in front of some crowd at an abortion clinic. We’ll be taking her off the street. Any street. It’ll be completely anonymous. Just like Shawna was.”
She couldn’t believe he was saying this.
“Listen to yourself. Don’t you get it? You fucking killed Shawna!” He turned and got up on one elbow and pointed his finger at her inches from her face. Jabbing at her.
“Don’t talk to me like that, Kath. You hear me? Not ever.”
He stared at her a long moment and then rolled over again.
“I’m your husband. You married me better or worse. You’ll do as I say.”
* * *
He was sick of her. Sick of her whining and sick of her sloppy body and sloppy habits. He wondered what the hell kind of mother she was going to make. He thought that maybe he’d been wrong about this all along. Right from the start. That maybe a kid was going to be one great big pain in the ass, period.
He was even more sick of Sara Foster. Her body repulsed him. The swollen blue-veined breasts, the stretch marks, the varicose veins in the backs of her knees. Even her hair had lost its sheen. And the belly itself — the thing itself. She was living with a parasite inside her body for god’s sake. How could a woman do that? He wouldn’t tell Kath this but experience was the best teacher and he’d privately decided that the Movement was all wrong. It wasn’t a kid in there, not yet. Once it was born it would be, sure. But for now it was nothing more than a tiny parasite feeding off her and depending on her for everything from its oxygen and food to dumping its piss and shit.
The whole damn thing was gross.
He couldn’t kill her, hell, he couldn’t even play with her now the way he’d played with her before, it was ashes with her body being what it was and ashes in the face of what he really wanted to do because he couldn ’t wait to kill her. It was the only thing left he hadn’t done to the bitch when you came right down to it and he knew he’d come then which he hadn’t lately, hadn’t really come.
They’d cut and pull and tear it out of her and that’d be the end of the miserable fucking life of Sara Foster.
That in mind, he slept.
“Kath. Please. What is this?”
There in the attic.
A stainless steel cart on wheels. Sponges. Sterile pads, gauze pads. Scalpels and forceps. A box of disposable syringes. Packages of sterile drapes. An IV drip. The question was rhetorical. The need to ask it, frightening.
She knew damn well what it was.
This wasn’t her first delivery.
“You’re planning to do it here? In the house? You can’t be.”
“Of course we are.” She laughed. “What did you think, we’re bringing you to the hospital? You’d have the cops on us in seconds.”
“No I wouldn’t.”
Kath patted her shoulder. “Don’t shit a shitter, Sara. Now come on back downstairs. Don’t worry about that stuff.”
“I wouldn’t say anything. I swear!”
“Right. Come on or I’m telling Stephen.”
She was losing her mind. She had to be. This couldn’t be happening.
“Wait. All right. Wait. These things here. What are they?”
They were huge.
“My god. What for?”
She shrugged. “We might have to… you know, a cesarean section. You use them to hold back the organs… stomach, whatever. The spreader’s for the ribs.”
“Jesus christ, Kath!”
“You got to be prepared, right? You might have complications.”
“I’m not going to have any complications!”
Kath headed for the stairs. Sara reached out and grabbed her arm. Something she had never dared to do before. But she couldn’t let it go at this.
“Listen. Listen to me. Who told you to get all this? A doctor?”
“You’re not even going to get me a doctor? The Organization can’t spare a doctor!”
“We don’t need a doctor. I’m a nurse, remember? Look, we’ve got everything here. Anesthetics, whatever. Anything you’re going to need. Don’t get all upset about it for chrissake. Midwives deliver babies all the time.”
“Midwives don’t perform surgery, Kath!”
“Well, neither will we. Not unless we have to.”
She looked away, up to the high naked wooden beams of the ceiling.
And in that moment Sara simply didn’t believe her.
She felt herself flush and the contents of her stomach rise.
My god, she thought. I’ve been such a fool. Such a terrible fool. I never saw it.
I never saw it coming.
There weren’t even any stirrups. They’d never even considered normal delivery.
This was what they were planning — had been all along. She was their little experiment. The baby would be the fruit of that experiment.
But Sara was as expendable as one of these throw-away syringes here. In fact she had to be expendable. They couldn’t keep her captive here forever for god’s sake, not even the Organization could isolate her that much. Sooner or later somebody would come around to visit. Sooner or later somebody from the outside was going to know.
Certainty washed over her. Washed her clean.
They were going to kill her.
The birthing was how.
The Organization be damned. It was time to see what she could do about that.
She was well into her seventh month.
It was time to see right now.
* * *
Should have locked the damn door, she thought. Fucking stupid not to. It was sloppy.
Stephen would be pissed. But it was Stephen’s fault too.
There was nothing to do but try to repair the damages.
They sat at the dining room table over some hot herbal tea. Grandma’s Tummy Mint. Celestial Seasonings. She supposed it was meant to be nice and reassuring. It wasn’t. Outside the window the day was gray and still and dark. In a couple of weeks kids would be out trick-or-treating. She wondered if any of them would bother to come out this way.
It was Saturday. Around four. Stephen was still working in the garage. She could hear the whine of his circular saw.
She sat and listened and drank her tea and petted the cat curled up in what passed for her lap nowadays.
“Look,” Kath was saying. “In the old days they only used cesarean when the mother was dying. Now the whole thing is to save the mother and the baby. What you do is, you make an incision through the skin and the wall of the abdomen. Most of the time there isn’t even much of a scar. Then you open up the wall of the uterus. The incision can be transverse vertical or low vertical, transverse usually because there’s less bleeding and it heals better. Then you deliver the baby and we suture you up again and that’s that. I mean this is all just in case. Only if there’s a problem. But it’s really very simple. You don’t have to worry, I know what I’m doing. I’ve assisted on hundreds of these.”
And on how many murders? she thought.
And she realized now that she was listening to a very good and convincing liar. There was only that single slip in the attic. Otherwise Kath was practically flawless. Which called into question again all these tales all these months about the Organization.
She decided she was going to proceed as though there were none.
Another weight lifted. It was astonishing. Just like that.
The Organization was suddenly… gone. Frozen out of her. Trapped in the glacier of her resolve.
She was going to live.
Where in the world did I find this calm? she thought.
She was suddenly calm as the cat was.
She decided it was in the knowing that she’d found it. In the certainty. What had trapped her up to now was lack of certainty. Not knowing on a daily — even momentary — basis what they would or wouldn’t do to her. These people if you could even dignify them with the word people had played on that uncertainty like a harp. Headbox or no headbox? Beating or no beating? Upstairs in the light or downstairs in the dark? They’d kept her off balance for months now.
Was this balance? Yes it was.
Balance was knowing and knowing was calm.
Take them one by one, she thought. And no time like the present.
Do I have it in me? Yes I do.
As certainly as I have this little girl inside me.
Greg’s little girl and mine.
It was the first she’d thought of him for ages. That was balance too.
“Kath? Do you think I could have a little more tea?”
She shrugged. “Sure. You know where it is.”
She lifted the cat gently off her lap and put her down on the floor thinking yes I do, I know where everything is, you bitch and walked past Kath to the kitchen and ran water from the sink into the mug and put the mug into the microwave and turned it on and then opened the bottom cabinet door and took out the twelve-inch stainless steel frying pan they hardly ever used, the pan looking new as they day they’d bought it, new as the stainless steel cart upstairs and gripped it in both her hands and walked over to Kath who was hunched over her mug, who had the mug to her lips sipping Tummy Mint tea and brought the pan down as hard as she could on the crown of her head, the pan ringing like a bell, the sound true and pure and brave, Kath’s face driven down into the ceramic mug and the mug to the table, the mug shattering between table, teeth, flesh and bone and flooding the surface with a liquid the color of autumn leaves.
Not a sound out of Kath as she brought the pan up and hit her again, the pan musical once more against the side of her head which suddenly sprouted glistening drops of red forming a rough half-circle across her forehead at the hairline.
She examined the base of the pan. The base was flecked with blood and a stray brown hair or two. Despite the rapid heartbeat she felt steady and powerful.
“You dead yet? Should I hit you again?”
She had the urge to giggle.
No. She’d done it right so far and Kath hadn’t made a sound. Only the pan had made a sound and that one was delightful — the tolling of her freedom-bell. She could still hear Stephen’s saw whining in the garage but he might stop at any time. Don’t push it, she thought. You still have him to deal with.
Or do you?
Car keys, she thought. Fucking car keys. In her purse.
Where the fuck was her purse?
The purse was on the couch in the living room.
The cat peered out at her from the hall as she crossed the living room and put the pan down on the couch and rifled through the purse. She felt the baby kick inside. The baby was urging her on.
Yes! Got ’em!
The keys jingled in her hand. Smaller bells of freedom.
The saw outside stopped.
She picked up the pan. The pain had stained the couch. She hadn’t meant to do that but hadn’t thought of it either. She walked quickly through the living room past Kath at the dining room table to the kitchen and looked out the window to the garage. He wasn’t there. He wasn’t cutting across the lawn and walking toward the house. She couldn’t see him anywhere.
What she could see though was that the keys were useless. Kath’s station wagon was the one sitting there in front of the garage which meant that Stephen’s pickup would be directly in back of it. That meant she needed Stephen’s keys, not Kath’s. Stephen would have them in his pocket. And now she realized that she’d been wrong before, she didn’t know where everything in the house was because she didn’t know where they kept the goddamn spares.
They weren’t in the kitchen. She’d spent a lot of time in there and would’ve noticed them. The bedroom? The end-table drawers in the living room?
She wasn’t going into the basement. Not ever again.
Goddammit! There wasn’t time! There just wasn’t time to go through every damn drawer in the house. The sawing had stopped. God only knew what he was doing. He was probably finishing up out there. He could walk in on her at any second.
The pan felt puny in her hand.
She needed more.
She needed to get out of there but first she needed more because she wasn’t going to go strolling out like the first time only to get caught again.
The shotgun, the pistol. Where would they be?
The bedroom. She wasn’t allowed in the bedroom and though the door was never locked she never thought to disobey and go there.
She’d damn well disobey now. She had no idea how to shoot a pistol unless you counted what you saw in the movies and what he’d shown her in the basement and even less idea how to load and fire a shotgun but she was counting on the pistol to be the simpler of the two and that probably it would be the easier of the two to find, that most people would want a pistol in the nightstand drawer by the bed in case of intruders.
She went to the phone on the kitchen wall and punched in 911 and let the receiver dangle. Maybe the police would trace the call here and maybe they wouldn’t but she didn’t have time to talk.
Why hadn’t she done this months ago? 911. Such a simple thing.
Greg. Mom and dad. The Organization.
The fucking Organization!
There isn’t any.
The cat followed her down the hall.
There were two night tables in the bedroom and she didn’t know who slept where or which side would be Stephen’s side so she went to the nearest. In the drawer there were a dirty jumble of pads and pencils, cough drops, matches, an address book, a Vicks inhaler, an open package of Kleenex, a tin of aspirin. No gun. She walked around the bed to the other side and opened the drawer and there it was, the pearl handle and the gleaming polished silver and now at the sight of it she remembered what Stephen had done that day exactly. As though she’d memorized it without knowing, stored it away for just this very moment. Her finger went to the cylinder latch and she checked the chamber. The gun was loaded, not even the first chamber empty. She didn’t have to search for cartridges. She threw the cylinder back into place and threw the safety, left the frying pan where it was on the bed and walked out into the hall.
All you need to do is get his keys, she thought. Put the key in the ignition and drive away. And that’s the end of it. The end of all of this. You have the gun. He can’t stop you. He can’t hurt you at all anymore.
Just get the keys.
But when she got to the living room and turned and saw him coming through the back door, slamming the door, pausing at the landing at the top of the cellar stairs, saw the old claw hammer in his hand, saw him take in the sight of Kath slumped across the table and saw his face darken with that now-familiar blush of rage it was not the keys she wanted, not anymore.
She felt her own face twist tight into a snarl and the sudden wild pounding of her heart and she raised the gun and fired twice, the gun jumping in her hands and woodchips flying off the doorjamb and as he crouched and stepped back toward the door she fired again lower this time, the bullet slamming him back against the door and bright arterial blood spurting off his thigh and he was shouting no no no no which she could barely hear above the high roar in her ears, his face gone sickly, cowardly white as she stepped forward and forward again with the gun held out in front of her and realized she was roaring too, a sound the like of which she’d never heard before twice in his presence she’d made these strange and awful sounds, the first against the X-frame and as she closed in tighter watched him try to make himself small in the corner, shrinking away, down to his goddamn proper size, trying to crouch in the corner — the snake — and she took one more step uil she was sure she’d get it absolutely perfectly right this time, obeying the tidal pull of her own perfect instincts in this single perfect moment and shot him in the chest and shot and shot again.
Watched him slide to the floor.
Watched him smear his filthy death across the walls.
Watched urine soak his pants and puddle up beneath him.
Saw the open mouth and the open eyes and the bright blood flowing. And felt the baby kick.
New York City
November 10, 1998
They’d spoken on the phone a few times though she’d yet to see him. It had been much too hard on her to have to see him.
Now it was still hard. But she was glad to.
He looked older somehow but then so did she. The hospital’s bathroom mirror had revealed that very clearly to her this morning. The face that peered back at her was drawn and pale and lines she couldn’t remember seeing only yesterday spiderwebbed her forehead. “Mother? Could you just give us a minute?”
Her mother had stayed at the hospital throughout.
Her father hadn’t.
“Certainly, dear.” She patted Sara’s hand and got up off the chair. “Nice to see you, Greg.”
“Nice to see you too. Mrs. Foster.”
The door closed behind her and then they just stared at each other, smiling.
On the phone there had been too many tears. Too many regrets and apologies. He was staying on with his wife and son. He was committed to them. Of course he was. He blamed himself for not finding her, for giving up hope of ever finding her. He’d tried, god knows. He and her mother had harassed the police for months. Of course he had. He was a good man.
It was good to be able to smile at him now.
“You saw her?”
“She’s beautiful, Sara. She looks just like you. Just like her mom.”
“She really is beautiful, isn’t she.”
She patted the bed. “Come sit. Talk to me.”
He walked over and sat down.
“Are you all right?” she said.
“I’m all right. Question is, are you all right?”
“I’m fine. A little tired. I was only in there a little over two hours. With Daniel it was more like four. I think she wanted out. Hell, I don’t blame her. But what I meant was, are you all right with… all this now?”
“Sure I am.”
“Well, like I told you, Alan was pretty upset at first. But it was more knowing about the two of us than about you being pregnant. I think he’s squared away, though. I know Diane is.”
“She says she wants to meet you. And the baby. How would you feel about that?”
Just how civilized are we going to get? was what he was asking.
“I don’t know, Greg. Give me some time. Let me think about it, okay?”
“Sure. Of course.”
He sat there looking at her a moment and she watched his eyes turn sad and he reached over and took her hand, the eyes saying, is this all right to do? and hers saying yes, it is while they pooled with tears, both of them still smiling and she thought, yes, I still love you too, always will even before he said it.
“I still love you, Sara. Always will.”
He began to cry. She squeezed his hand.
“It wasn’t such a horrible thing we did, was it?”
His voice breaking with sorrow.
“No, Greg, no. What we did was love one another and I don’t think that was horrible at all, do you? Do you really? In your heart? And you’re doing the right thing now. You know you are. Alan needs you. Diane needs you. And we’re okay, you and I. Aren’t we?”
He wiped the tears off his cheek and nodded.
“What about you?”
She laughed. “I think I’m going to be very busy for a while.”
She was going back to teaching when she could. Greg knew that too.
“Yeah. I guess you are. You gonna need any help? Anything I can do, I mean?”
“That’s between you and Diane. But no, not at first, anyway. I’ve got my mother with me and we’ll be fine. Talk it over with Diane if you want to. See how involved you really want to get. Then we’ll talk, you and I. Take your time. We’ll see.”
He nodded again and then he was silent for a while. “I hear she finally died,” he said. “That bitch. Katherine.”
“She never came out of the coma.”
“Saves us a lot of trouble, doesn’t it.”
“Court and all.”
“Yes. I guess it does.”
“I just wish I could have…”
“Greg. I’m sorry but I honestly don’t want to talk about it, you know? It’s over for me. It should be over for you too. Am I right?”
“You’re right. I just…”
He laughed and shook his head.
“You’re right. I’m talking like a fool. I’d probably better go. You need to get some rest.”
He squeezed her hand and leaned over and kissed her gently on the cheek and then stood beside the bed but would not release her yet, did not let go of her hand, seemed to want that one last minute holding her. She realized she wanted it too.
“Have you got a name yet?” he said.
She smiled. “I’m thinking Megan,” she said. “It’s Anglo-Saxon. It means strong.”
Her mother was asleep in the guest room. Her baby whose name was now indeed Megan slept beside her bed in the crib. She lay staring at the ceiling trying not to remember what was impossible not to remember but thankful for the soft warm bed and the quiet apartment and her all old familiar belongings gathered around her, all of it like a comforting womb of its own from which her life could go on and spread itself unconfined, grateful too for this other familiar presence at her feet who had somehow in those months taken the sting from out the whip, the edge off the knife.
The cat sleeping beside her on the bed. The cat who now also had a name.
Ruth. Ruthie. From the Hebrew.
“Police operator 321. Where’s your emergency?”
“It’s my mommy.”
The voice on the other end was so small that even its sex was indeterminate. The usual questions were not going to apply.
“What happened to your mommy?”
“Where did she fall?”
“In the bathroom. In the tub.”
“Is she awake?”
“Is there water in the tub?”
“I made it go away.”
“You drained the tub?”
“Good. Okay. My name is Officer Price. What’s yours?”
“Is there anybody else in the house, Suzy?”
“Okay, Suzy. I want you to stay on the line, okay? Don’t hang up. I’m going to transfer you to Emergency Services and they’re going to help you and your mommy, all right? Don’t hang up now, okay?”
He punched in EMS.
“Dana, it’s Tom. I’ve got a little girl, can’t be more than four or five. Name’s Suzy. She says her mother’s unconscious. Fell in the bathroom.”
* * *
It was barely ten o’clock and shaping up to be a busy summer day. Electrical fire at Knott’s Hardware over on Elm and Main just under an hour ago. Earlier, a three-car pile-up on route 6 — somebody hurrying to get to work through a deceptive sudden pocket of Maine fog. A heart-attack at Bel Haven Rest Home only minutes after that. The little girl’s address was up on the computer screen. 415 Whiting Road. Listing under the name L. Jackson.
“This is Officer Keeley, Suzy. I want you to stand by a moment, all right? I’m not going to put you on hold. Just stay on the phone. Sam? You with me?”
“Okay, Suzy. Your mommy fell, right? In the bathroom?”
“And she’s unconscious?”
“She’s not awake?”
“Can you tell if she’s breathing?”
“I… I think.”
“We’re on it,” said Sam.
“Is your front door unlocked, Suzy?”
“Your front door.”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know how to lock and unlock the front door, Suzy?”
“Yes. Mommy showed me.”
“Okay. I want you to put the phone down somewhere — don’t hang up but just put it down somewhere, okay? and go see if the door’s unlocked. And if it isn’t unlocked, I want you to unlock it so that we can come in and help mommy, okay? But don’t hang up the phone, all right? Promise?”
She heard a rattling sound. Telephone against wood. Excellent.
In a moment she heard the girl pick up again.
“Did you unlock the door, Suzy?”
“Uh-huh. It was locked.”
“But you unlocked it.”
I love this kid, she thought. This kid is terrific.
“Great, Suzy. You’re doing absolutely great. We’ll be over there in a couple of minutes, okay? Just a few minutes now. Did you see what happened to your mommy? Did you see her fall?”
“I was in my bedroom. I heard a big thump.”
“So you don’t know why she fell?
“Unh-unh. She just did.”
“Did she ever fall before, Suzy?”
“Does mommy take any medicine?”
“Does mommy take any medicine? Has she been sick at all?”
“She takes aspirin sometimes.”
“How old are you, Suzy?”
“Four? Wow, that’s pretty old!”
Giggles. “Is not.”
“Listen, mommy’s going to be just fine. We’re on our way and we’re going to take good care of her. You’re not scared or anything, are you?”
“Good girl. ’Cause you don’t need to be. Everything’s going to be fine.”
“Do you have any relatives who live nearby, Suzy? Maybe an aunt or an uncle? Somebody we can call to come and stay with you for a while, while we take care of mommy?”
“Grandma. Grandma stays with me.”
“Okay, who’s grandma? Can you give me her name?”
Giggles again. “Grandma, silly.”
She heard sirens in the background. Good response time, she thought. Not bad at all.
“Okay, Suzy. In a few minutes the police are going to come to your door…”
“I can see them through the window!”
She had to smile at the excitement in the voice. “Good. And they’re going to ask you a lot of the same questions I just asked you. Okay?”
“You tell them just what you told me.”
“And then there are going to be other people, they’ll be dressed all in white, and they’re going to come to the door in a few minutes. They’ll bring mommy to the hospital so that a doctor can see her and make sure she’s all better. All right?”
She heard voices, footfalls, a door closing. A feminine voice asking the little girl for the phone.
” ’Bye, Suzy. You did really, really good.”
And she had.
* * *
“Minty, badge 457. We’re on the scene.”
She told Minty about the grandmother and when it was over Officer Dana Keeley took a very deep breath and smiled. This was one to remember. A four-year-old kid who very likely just saved her mother from drowning. She’d check in with the hospital later to see about the condition of one L. Jackson but she felt morally certain they were in pretty good shape here. In the meantime she couldn’t wait to tell Chuck. She knew her husband was going to be proud of her. Hell, she was proud of her. She thought she’d set just the right tone with the little girl — friendly and easy — plus she’d got the job done down to the last detail.
The girl hadn’t even seemed terribly frightened.
That was the way it was supposed to go of course, she was there to keep things calm among other things but still it struck her as pretty amazing.
Four years old. Little Suzy, she thought, was quite a child. She hoped that when the time came for her and Chuck they’d have the parenting skills and the sheer good luck to have kids who turned out as well as she did.
She wondered if the story’d make the evening news.
She thought it deserved a mention.
“Incredible,” Minty said. “Little girl’s all of four years old. She knows enough to dial 911, gives the dispatcher everything she needs, has the good sense to turn off the tap and hit the drain lever so her mother doesn’t drown, knows exactly where her mother’s address book is so we can locate Mrs. Jackson over there, shows us up to the bathroom where mom’s lying naked, with blood all over the place for godsakes…”
“I know,” said Crocker. “I wanna be just like her when I grow up.”
Minty laughed but it might easily have been no laughing matter. Apparently Liza Jackson had begun to draw her morning bath and when she stepped into the still-flowing water, slipped and fell, because when they found her she had one dry leg draped over the ledge of the tub and the other buckled under her. She’d hit the ceramic soap dish with sufficient force to splatter blood from her head-wound all the way up to the shower rod.
Hell of a thing for a little kid to see.
Odd that she hadn’t mentioned all that blood to the dispatcher. Head-wounds — even ones like Liza Jackson’s which didn’t seem terribly serious — bled like crazy. For a four-year-old she’d imagine it would be pretty scary. But then she hadn’t had a problem watching the EMS crew wheel her barely-conscious mother out into the ambulance either. This was one tough-minded little girl.
“What did you get from the grandmother?”
“She didn’t want to say a whole lot in front of the girl but I gather the divorce wasn’t pretty. He’s moved all the way out to California, sends child support when he gets around to it. Liza Jackson’s living on inherited money from the grandfather and a part-time salary at, uh, let’s see…”
He flipped through his pad, checked his notes.
“… a place called It’s the Berries…”
“I know it. Country store kind of affair, caters to the tourist trade. Does most of its business during summer and leaf-season. Dried flower arrangements, potpourri, soaps and candles, jams and honey. That kind of thing.”
“She’s got no brothers or sisters. But Mrs. Jackson has no problem with taking care of Suzy for the duration.”
She glanced at them over on the sofa. Mrs. Jackson was smiling slightly, brushing out the girl’s long straight honey-brown hair. A hospital’s no place for a little girl, she’d said. We’ll wait for word here. The EMS crew had assured them that while, yes, there was the possibility of concussion and concussions could be tricky, she’d come around very quickly, so that they doubted the head-wound was serious, her major problem at this point being loss of blood — and Mrs. Jackson was apparently willing take them at their word. Minty wouldn’t have, had it been her daughter. But then Minty wasn’t a Maine-iac born and bred and tough as a rail spike. Suzy had her back to the woman, her expression unreadable — a pretty, serious-looking little girl in a short blue-and-white checkered dress that was not quite a party dress but not quite the thing for pre-school either.
When they’d arrived she’d still been in her pyjamas. She guessed the dress was grandma’s idea.
The press would like it. There was a local TV crew waiting outside — waiting patiently for a change. The grandmother had already okayed the interview.
They were pretty much squared away here.
She walked over to the couch.
“Do you need us to stay, Mrs. Jackson? Until the interview’s through I mean.”
“That’s not necessary, Officer. We can handle this ourselves, I’m sure.”
She stood and extended her hand. Minty took it. The woman’s grip was firm and dry.
“I want to thank you for your efforts on my daughter’s behalf,” she said. “And for arriving as promptly as you did.”
“Thank you, ma’am. But the one we’ve all got to thank, really, is your granddaughter. Suzy? You take good care now, okay?”
Minty believed her.
* * *
Carole Belliver had rarely done an interview that went so smoothly. The little girl had no timidity whatsoever in front of the camera — she didn’t fidget, she didn’t stutter, she didn’t weave back and forth or shift out of frame — all of which was typical behavior for adults on camera. She answered Carole’s questions clearly and without hesitation. Plus she was pretty as all hell. The camera loved her.
There was only one moment of unusable tape because of something the girl had done as opposed to their usual false stops and starts and that was when she dropped the little blonde doll she was holding and stooped to pick it up and the dress she was wearing was so short you could see her white panties which Carole glimpsed briefly and promptly glanced away from, and then wondered why. Was it that the little girl acted and sounded so much like a miniature adult that Carole was embarrassed for her, as you would be for an adult?
It was possible. She’d done and thought sillier things in her life.
The piece was fluff of course but it was good fluff. Not some flower-show or county fair but a real human interest story for a change. Unusual and touching. With a charming kid as its heroine. She could be proud of this one. This one wasn’t going to make her cringe when it was broadcast.
It occurred to her that they could all be proud of this one, everybody involved really, from the dispatchers god knows to the police and EMS team to the grandmother who’d no doubt helped raise this little wonder and finally, extending even to her and her crew. Everybody got to do their job, fulfill their responsibilities efficiently and well. And the one who had made all of this happen for them was a four-year-old.
Quite a day.
They had down all the reactions shots. All they needed now was her tag line.
“This is Carole Bellaver — reporting to you on a brave, exceptional little girl — from Knottsville, Maine.”
“Got it,” Bernie said.
“You want to cover it?”
“Why? I said I got it.”
“Okay. Jeez, fine.”
What the hell was that about? Bernie had just snapped at her. Bernie was the nicest, most easygoing cameraman she’d ever worked with. She couldn’t believe it. It was totally out of character. He and Harold, her soundman, were packing their gear into the van as if they were in some big hurry to get out of there. And she realized now that they’d both been unusually silent ever since the interview. Normally when the camera stopped rolling you couldn’t shut them up.
But the interview had gone well. Hadn’t it?
Was it something she’d said or done?
By now the print media had arrived, some of them all the way from Bangor and Portland and they were talking to Suzy and her grandmother on the front steps where she’d taped them earlier. Flashbulbs popped. Suzy smiled.
Bernie and Harold looked grim.
“Uh, guys. You want to let me into the loop? I thought everything went fine here.”
“It did,” Bernie said.
“So? So what’s the problem?”
“You didn’t see? You were standing right there. I thought you must have — then went on anyway. Sorry.”
“When she dropped the doll.”
“Right, I saw her drop the doll.”
“And she bent down to pick it up.”
He sighed. “I’ve got it all on tape. We can take a look over at the studio. I want to know it wasn’t just my imagination.”
“It wasn’t.” Harold said. “I saw it too.”
“I don’t get it. What are you talking about?”
She glanced over at Suzy on the steps. The girl was looking directly at her, ignoring the reporters, frowning — and for a moment held her gaze. She’s sick of this, Carole thought. That’s the reason for the frown. She smiled. Suzy didn’t.
And she had no idea what all the mystery was about until they rolled the tape at the studio and she watched the little girl drop the doll and stoop and Bernie said there and stopped the tape so that she saw what she hadn’t noticed at the time because she’d looked away so abruptly, strangely embarrassed for this little girl so mature and adult for her age so that they’d simply not registered for her — the long wide angry welts along the back of both thighs just below the pantyline which told her that this was not only a smart, brave little girl but perhaps a sad and foolish one too who had drained the tub dry and dialed 911 to save her mother’s life.
Which may not have been worth saving.
Nobody had noticed this. Not the cops, not EMS. Nobody.
She rolled the tape again. Jesus.
She wondered about the grandmother. She had to know. How could she not know?
“What do you want to do?” Bernie said.
She felt a kind of hardness, an access to stone will. Not unlike the little girl’s perhaps. She remembered that last look from the steps.
“I want to phone the reporters who were out there with us, kill the story. Dupe the tapes. Phone the police and child welfare and get copies to them. I want us to do what her daughter evidently couldn’t bring herself to do. I want us to do our best to drown the bitch.”
They both seemed fine with that.
“I said I’m here.”
“Aw, don’t start with me. Don’t get started.”
Jill’s lying on the stained expensive sofa with the TV on in front of her tuned to some game show, a bottle of Jim Beam on the floor and a glass in her hand. She doesn’t see me but Zoey does. Zoey’s curled up on the opposite side of the couch waiting for her morning feeding and the sun’s been up for hours now, it’s ten o’clock and she’s used to her Friskies at eight.
I always had a feeling cats saw things that people didn’t. Now I know.
She’s looking at me with a kind of imploring interest. Eyes wide, black nose twitching. I know she expects something of me. I’m trying to give it to her.
“You’re supposed to feed her for godsakes. The litter box needs changing.”
“The cat. Zoey. Food. Water. The litter box. Remember?”
She fills the glass again. Jill’s been doing this all night and all morning, with occasional short naps. It was bad while I was alive but since the cab cut me down four days ago on 72nd and Broadway it’s gotten immeasurably worse. Maybe in her way she misses me. I only just returned last night from god knows where knowing there was something I had to do or try to do and maybe this is it. Snap her out of it.
“Jesus! Lemme the hell alone. You’re in my goddamn head. Get outa my goddamn head!”
She shouts this loud enough for the neighbors to hear. The neighbors are at work. She isn’t. So nobody pounds the walls. Zoey just looks at her, then back at me. I’m standing at the entrance to the kitchen. I know that’s where I am but I can’t see myself at all. I gesture with my hands but no hands appear in front of me. I look in the hall mirror and there’s nobody there. It seems that only my seven-year-old cat can see me.
When I arrived she was in the bedroom asleep on the bed. She jumped off and trotted over with her black-and-white tail raised, the white tip curled at the end. You can always tell a cat’s happy by the tail-language. She was purring. She tried to nuzzle me with the side of her jaw where the scent-glands are, trying to mark me as her own, to confirm me in the way cats do, the way she’s done thousands of times before but something wasn’t right. She looked up at me puzzled. I leaned down to scratch her ears but of course I couldn’t and that seemed to puzzle her more. She tried marking me with her haunches. No go.
“I’m sorry,” I said. And I was. My chest felt full of lead.
“Come on, Jill. Get up! You need to feed her. Shower. Make a pot of coffee. Whatever it takes.”
“This is fuckin’ crazy,” she says.
She gets up though. Looks at the clock on the mantle. Stalks off on wobbly legs toward the bathroom. And then I can hear the water running for the shower. I don’t want to go in there. I don’t want to watch her. I don’t want to see her naked anymore and haven’t for a long while. She was an actress once. Summer stock and the occasional commercial. Nothing major. But god, she was beautiful. Then we married and soon social drinking turned to solo drinking and then drinking all day long and her body slid fast into too much weight here, too little there. Pockets of self-abuse. I don’t know why I stayed. I’d lost my first wife to cancer. Maybe I just couldn’t bear to lose another.
Maybe I’m just loyal.
I don’t know.
I hear the water turn off and a while later she walks back into the living room in her white terry robe, her hair wrapped in a pink towel. She glances at the clock. Reaches down to the table for a cigarette. Lights it and pulls on it furiously. She’s still wobbly but less so. She’s scowling. Zoey’s watching her carefully. When she gets like this, halfdrunk and half-straight, she’s dangerous. I know.
“You still here?”
She laughs. It’s not a nice laugh.
“Sure you are.”
“Bullshit. You fuckin’ drove me crazy while you were alive. Fuckin’ driving me crazy now you’re dead.”
“I’m here to help you, Jill. You and Zoey.”
She looks around the room like finally she believes that maybe, maybe I really am here and not some voice in her head. Like she’s trying to locate me, pin down the source of me. All she has to do, really, is to look at Zoey, who’s staring straight at me.
But she’s squinting in a way I’ve seen before. A way I don’t like.
“Well, you don’t have to worry about Zoey,” she says.
I’m about to ask her what she means by that when the doorbell rings. She stubs out the cigarette, walks over to the door and opens it. There’s a man in the hall I’ve never seen before. A small man, shy and sensitive looking, mid-thirties and balding, in a dark blue windbreaker. His posture says he’s uncomfortable.
“Un-huh. Come on in,” she says. “She’s right over there.”
The man stoops and picks up something off the floor and I see what it is.
A cat-carrier. Plastic with a grated metal front. Just like ours. The man steps inside.
“Jill, what are you doing? What the hell are you doing, Jill?”
Her hands flutter to her ears as though she’s trying to bat away a fly or a mosquito and she blinks rapidly but the man doesn’t see that at all. The man is focused on my cat who remains focused on me, when she should be watching the man, when she should be seeing the cat-carrier, she knows damn well what they mean for godsakes, she’s going somewhere, somewhere she won’t like.
“Zoey! Go! Get out of here! Run!”
I clap my hands. They make no sound. But she hears the alarm in my voice and sees the expression I must be wearing and at the last instant turns toward the man just as he reaches for her, reaches down to the couch and snatches her up and shoves her head-first inside the carrier. Closes it. Engages the double-latches.
He’s fast. He’s efficient.
My cat is trapped inside.
The man smiles. He doesn’t quite pull it off.
“That wasn’t too bad,” he says.
“No. You’re lucky. She bites. She’ll put up a hell of a fight sometimes.”
“You lying bitch,” I tell her.
I’ve moved up directly behind her by now. I’m saying this into her ear. I can feel her heart pumping with adrenalin and I don’t know if it’s me who’s scaring her or what she’s just done or allowed to happen that’s scaring her but she’s all actress now, she won’t acknowledge me at all. I’ve never felt so angry or useless in my life.
“You sure you want to do this, ma’am?” he says. “We could put her up for adoption for a while. We don’t have to euthenize her. ’Course, she’s not a kitten anymore. But you never know. Some family…”
“I told you,” my wife of six years says. “She bites.”
And now she’s calm and cold as ice.
Zoey has begun meowing. My heart’s begun to break. Dying was easy compared to this.
Our eyes meet. There’s a saying that the soul of a cat is seen through its eyes and I believe it. I reach inside the carrier. My hand passes through the carrier. I can’t see my hand but she can. She moves her head up to nuzzle it. And the puzzled expression isn’t there anymore. It’s as though this time she can actually feel me, feel my hand and my touch. I wish I could feel her too. I petted her just this way when she was only a kitten, a street-waif, scared of every horn and siren. And I was all alone. She begins to purr. I find something out. Ghosts can cry.
The man leaves with my cat and I’m here with my wife.
I can’t follow. Somehow I know that.
You can’t begin to understand how that makes me feel. I’d give anything in the world to follow.
My wife continues to drink and for the next three hours or so I do nothing but scream at her, tear at her. Oh, she can hear me, all right. I’m putting her through every torment as I can muster, reminding her of every evil she’s ever done to me or anybody, reminding her over and over of what she’s done today and I think, so this is my purpose, this is why I’m back, the reason I’m here is to get this bitch to end herself, end her miserable fucking life and I think of my cat and how Jill never really cared for her, cared for her wine-stained furniture more than my cat and I urge her toward the scissors, I urge her toward the window and the seven-story drop, toward the knives in the kitchen and she’s crying, she’s screaming, too bad the neighbors are all at work, they’d at least have her arrested. And she’s hardly able to walk or even stand and I think, heart attack maybe, maybe stroke and I stalk my wile and urge her to die, die until it’s almost one o’clock and something begins to happen.
Like she’s not hearing me as clearly.
I’m losing something.
Some power drifting slowly away like a battery running down.
I begin to panic. I don’t understand. I’m not done yet.
Then I feel it. I feel it reach out to me from blocks and blocks away far across the city. I feel the breathing slow. I feel the heart stopping. I feel the quiet end of her. I feel it more clearly than I felt my own end.
I feel it grab my own heart and squeeze.
I look at my wife, pacing, drinking. And I realize something. And suddenly it’s not so bad anymore. It still hurts, but in a different way.
I haven’t come back to torment Jill. Not to tear her apart or to shame her for what she’s done. She’s tearing herself apart. She doesn’t need me for that. She’d have done this terrible thing anyway, with or without my being here. She’d planned it. It was in motion. My being here didn’t stop her. My being here afterwards didn’t change things. Zoey was mine. And given who and what Jill was what she’d done was inevitable.
And I think, to hell with Jill. Jill doesn’t matter a bit. Not one bit. Jill is zero.
It was Zoey I was here for. Zoey all along. That awful moment.
I was here for my cat.
That last touch of comfort inside the cage. The nuzzle and purr. Reminding us both of all those nights she’d comforted me and I her. The fragile brush of souls.
That was what it was about.
That was what we needed.
The last and the best of me’s gone now.
And I begin to fade.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jack Ketchum is the pseudonym for a Manhattan writer who has not yet been hanged for his crimes like his namesake was but who has suffered other indignities. The Village Voice titled their review of his first novel, OFF SEASON, simply “YECHH.” And Stephen King has said in his introduction to THE GIRL NEXT DOOR that “the only two sure things in life are death and taxes, the old saying goes, but I can add a third: Disney Pictures will never make a movie out of a Jack Ketchum novel."
He is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the novels OFF SEASON, HIDE AND SEEK, COVER, SHE WAKES, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, OFFSPRING, JOYRIDE (ROAD KILL in England), STRANGLEHOLD (ONLY CHILD in England), RED, LADIES’ NIGHT and THE LOST. His short fiction collections are THE EXIT AT TOLEDO BLADE BOULEVARD and BROKEN ON THE WHEEL OF SEX.
He is still hoping Mr. King is wrong.