Authors: Tessa Escalera
As we cruised down city streets and into my neighborhood, I was trying so hard to keep from babbling that I ended up sitting completely silent, wringing my hands in my lap.
“Sarah? Is everything alright?”
I smiled at him. “Just nervous, I guess.”
“Why are you nervous? Don't worry, it will be okay. I'm just taking you home.” Travis didn't look at me, keeping his eyes on the road. A passing streetlight illuminated the perfect angles of his face.
“I know. I'm sorry, I've just never done this before, this whole dating thing.”
Travis smiled briefly. We turned onto my street, and I suddenly realized I should have been giving directions. “That's my house right there, with the brick mailbox.”
“I know.” Instead of braking, we kept going.
My neighborhood was some distance away from the main part of town, and streetlights were few and far between. I could barely see Travis's face in the dark. “Where are we going?”
That was definitely something that resembled a smile. “You'll see.”
The car hummed around a turn and pulled into a driveway. This house was dark and looming, with only a single basement light gleaming from behind the bushes.
“Travis?” I felt the first thrills of apprehension as he put the car into park. He just sat there, staring at the garage door, silent as a statue. “Travis, what's going on? I think it would be best if you took me home now. My parents will worry if....”
The voice that came from Travis's lips was flat and monotone, as if it came from a robot...or an alien. “Don't worry. It will be okay.”
The locks on the car clicked closed.
This can't be happening. Not in this town, not to me.
In a panic I tried to open my door but it wouldn't budge.
A strong hand clamped on the back of my neck like a vise. I only had time for the briefest of screams before there was a sharp prick in the side of my neck, and the world faded away into a nauseating blackness.
When I first became conscious, at first I thought I was still asleep. The world was still black, except for a small square of lighter gray above me that twinkled with stars through the branches of some sort of plant. I couldn't hear anything except a distant hum, like that of some large machine.
My head was swimming, and my stomach was churning. I was lying on something hard, and cold. Concrete? Was I lying on a floor?
How did I get here? Where IS here?
I slowly pushed myself up into a sitting position, which turned out to be a mistake. My stomach heaved and I crawled a few feet away to throw up what little of the Chinese food was left in my stomach. Acid burned my throat and brought tears to my eyes. I gasped for breath as the spasm eased and crawled back to my previous spot on the floor, searching with my hands for a wall or any sort of furniture. The spot of gray and stars turned out to be a window in a cold, cement-block wall. The window was high in the wall, high enough that I could barely touch the glass with my fingertips.
A wave of dizziness overwhelmed me and I sank to the floor, clutching my knees to my chest. My toes and fingers were cold, almost to the point of being numb. My head was pounding. My throat burned and my nose was running. I should be scared. Why wasn't I scared? I should be absolutely out of my mind with terror. I could barely feel anything but a sense of shock so deep it wiped out every other feeling.
“Hello?” I called out, my voice cracking on the second syllable. I swallowed hard and tried again. “Hello? Is anyone there?”
There was a distant sound that could have been a groan, or a stifled scream. A click, and my eyes burned in the sudden square of light that came from the far wall. As my eyes adjusted I could see more details of where I was. It was a small room, smaller than my bedroom at home. The door was in the wall opposite me, with a square opening spanned by bars that allowed the light through. A metal cot stood against the far right wall, a thin pillow at one end and two throw blankets folded on the other. Next to that, almost touching the bed, was a plain desk with a metal folding chair. In the corner nearest me to the left was a metal cart with an old TV on top, a VCR and a random collection of Disney movies below. Just past that was another door, this one standing open, showing the shadows of what appeared to be a bathtub. An extension cord ran from the TV cart, across the middle of the floor and through a crack underneath the door that admitted the light from without.
The door had no handle on this side. No way to open.
I only had a few seconds to register all this before the door creaked open, and a figure was framed in the doorway. He stepped forward, and I recognized him, at the same second as my memory of our date came flooding back, but my memory ended when I had gotten into his car.
“Travis!” I gasped. “Travis, what happened? Where are we? What's going on?”
He stepped toward me with a hand outstretched. “Shhh.” He gently stroked my hair. “Don't worry. It will be okay.” His nose wrinkled, marring his perfect face. “You stink. Don't worry, I will be back.” As quickly as he had come he disappeared, the door clanging shut behind him.
I ran to the door and peered through the bars, shouting his name. “Travis! Where are you going? Please come back!” But Travis didn't look back, walking steadily down a hallway and through another door at the end.
I felt like I couldn't breathe. I think I screamed, beating my fists on the door until my knuckles were raw. I might have screamed his name, or maybe I screamed nothing at all. The light clicked off and I sank to my knees, pounding on the door with my hands that quickly became slippery with blood. Even as I screamed and begged and cried burning tears, I felt as if I were watching the whole scene as an outsider. I felt nothing but an all-consuming coldness in the pit of my stomach. I watched myself beat on the door until my arms would no longer lift, until my knees trembled so badly that I fell prone on the floor where I lay sobbing, begging Travis to come back. I cried until my throat was as raw as my hands. I had no idea how long I cried before the blessed nothingness of sleep claimed me.
When I woke again, my first thought was that I was waking from a nightmare. It must have been something in the Chinese food...maybe a strange form of food poisoning. I was safe in my bed, my mom just a text away.
This idea was banished as soon as I opened my eyes. At some point I had moved—or been moved to—the cot, and covered with one of the blankets. Light was coming through the window, partially shaded by the bush just visible through the glass. The puddle of my vomit had been cleaned, leaving behind the faint scent of bleach.
I sat up in the bed and pulled the blanket around my shoulders, shivering in the never-ending cold. My bladder and the cotton-dryness of my mouth overwhelmed my desire to sit still and I stumbled to the bathroom, pulling the chain that flicked the plain bulb into life. In the bathroom was an ancient, rusting claw tub with no shower or curtain, a similarly worn-down toilet and a pedestal sink that looked shockingly white and new compared to the other two appliances. The walls and floor were the same featureless concrete as the other room...prison cell...whatever it was.
With the most immediate business dealt with, I stood in front of the sink and stared at my reflection in the cracked mirror above the sink. My eyes, wide and blue and bloodshot, stared back at me from amid my wild and unruly hair. I was still wearing my dress from the date. There were shadows under my eyes and streaks of blood on my cheeks. I looked down at my hands and gasped at the sight of my knuckles crusted in blood. As if the sight restored my nerves, the pain of my injuries flooded me all at once, nearly knocking me to my knees as I clung to the sink for support. Desperately I turned the water on full blast, hot and cold, and scrubbed at my hands until all of the smeared blood was gone and fresh redness welled from the raw skin. I washed my face and drank hand-fulls of the water to try and ease the dryness in my mouth and the ache of hunger in my belly. I finger-combed my hair and smoothed it down until I looked a little less like some sort of monster.
I stood in front of the mirror and stared at my reflection until the steam rising from the basin obscured the glass. Finally there was no choice but to face what I had been avoiding. I turned the water off and turned to look at my room.
Have to think. Have to plan, have to escape.
But no matter how hard I pushed my brain, I felt like I couldn't form a single coherent thought. On the desk there was a tray that hadn't been there last night. I didn't realize I had started walking until I was lowering myself into the chair, the metal a shocking cold against my legs.
The tray held a bowl of dry cereal and a glass of orange juice. My stomach growled fiercely at the sight of the food. Next to the bowl were three little bottles...hotel bottles of shampoo, conditioner and lotion. The sight was so bizarrely normal that I almost laughed. There was a hairbrush, a toothbrush, a tiny tube of toothpaste. The tray rested on top of what turned out to be a folded nightgown, a faded pink with buttons down the front that looked like something my grandma would wear. It was many sizes too big, and obviously old. The fabric was soft from many washes.
Despite my misgivings about possibly poisoned or drugged food, I took the spoon in the bowl, using the juice to help me swallow the dry cereal. It wasn't nearly enough.
My mind cleared rapidly after the addition of the sugar to my system. I pushed myself up from the chair and strode quickly to the door, wrapping my hands around the bars and straining to see every detail of the hallway beyond the door. I wasn't sure what I was searching for...escape route? “gotcha” sign? Movie cameras? (Hey, reality show was as good an explanation as any at this point.) But whatever it was, I didn't see it.
The wall to the right was bare, marked only by the lines of cinder-blocks fitted together. To the left was the details that made my heart shudder in my chest...a row of doors with one barred window, doors just like mine. I was at the end of the hall, with a straight-on view of the heavy metal door that must lead to...somewhere else. Somewhere other than this dungeon.
As I stared at the doors to the left, numbly counting the number of cells (5 besides mine), a shard of ice formed in my stomach. That groan I had heard last night....Were there other prisoners here?
“Hello?” I called. “Is anyone else here?”
After a moment of silence there was a rustling, and a thin face appeared in the window of the cell closest to mine. “You'd better be quiet,” a girl's voice said. “He doesn't like it when we make noise.”
“Where are we?”
Brown eyes stared wearily back at me through the bars. Limp black hair was pulled into a straggly ponytail. “What's your name?”
“Well, Sarah, I'm Jenny. Cell next to me is Annabelle. Others are empty...for now. Welcome to hell.” The face disappeared and only the voice was left. “Now be quiet before you get us all in trouble.”
No matter what I said, how I pleaded, Jenny refused to speak to me anymore. I hung on the bars and cried until I could only speak in a whisper, begging for someone to help, someone to talk to. For Travis to return and tell me this was all a joke, or a mistake. For something to happen other than silent gray walls and swinging, sickly light bulbs in the ceiling.
Finally, for lack of anything else to do, I took the little bottles from the tray and the nightgown and moved into the bathroom. My dress was not made for long-term wear and the edges with their rhinestones were chafing at my arms and legs. I pushed the bathroom door closed and stripped the dress off, turned the star-shaped knobs on the tub and pushed the stopper down until steaming water began to collect in the bottom of the cast-iron vessel.
I had no idea how long I spent in there. I scrubbed my hair until the shampoo and conditioner bottles were empty. I dragged the brush through my hair until all the tangles were gone. Eventually the water began to run cold and I had to get out. I stood shivering in the little bathroom until I was able to work up the courage to put the nightgown on. I cringed as I pulled the enormous thing over my head, letting the floral-scented folds fall down until it swirled around my ankles. In a moment of strange defiance I took the little belt from my dress, black and sparkly with rhinestones, and used it to cinch the nightgown around my waist until it looked a little more like a dress and less like a tent.