Two captive teens plan their escape from the strange and frightening man they call Sparkles.
I can smell our unwashed bodies and the shit bucket in the corner. Enough light sneaks through the covered basement window that I can see the vague shape of Cutie. I have a plan but haven’t told her yet. She’s gun-shy now.
I nudge her with my foot.
“Mm?” she says.
“I’ve been listening. To Sparkles’ routine.” She’s quiet so I keep going. “He walks to the kitchen and stays there a bit, like five minutes. Then he brings us oatmeal, right?”
“Listen, listen. After that he watches TV.”
“Porkchop, no. My ankle…”
I’m not Porkchop, just so you know. He gave us these names. The fact that we use them with each other is all kinds of weird I don’t care to get into.
“Listen!” I hiss, but my collar is tight and I cough. “After that he showers or baths or whatever. The water runs for a long time. That’s when we’ll leave.”
“I found a nail.”
I can pick a lock like nobody’s business, don’t ask how. As we speak I’m picking my way through the zip tie holding my wrists together.
“No,” she whimpers. “He’ll find us.”
“We’ll stay off the road.”
“We’ll get lost! You go, but…”
This is annoying and time is precious, but when I see the wet shine of her big, frightened eyes I feel terrible. I look at her deliberately, with hardcore eye contact, like teachers do when they want you to get your act together.
“I was in search and rescue,” I say. “Rule number one—never hike by yourself.”
I’ll be honest. It was an elective last year and I skipped most of the classes. Who cares. I can’t help a person just because I don’t have a fucking shiny badge? Or whatever? A hat? Like I need that. I can get us out of here. My zip tie snaps off and I reach over to squeeze Cutie’s hand.
I slip behind her and start work on hers.
“Rule number two,” I whisper, impressed that some of this stuff stuck with me. “Keep the path in sight. We’ll stay close to the road, but not on it, okay?”
We hear Sparkles shuffle to the kitchen and clang about for a bit. I work furiously on Cutie’s zip tie, but stop when the hall light flickers beneath the basement door. The scattered light? Sparkly. It’s how we know he’s coming, and the reason for his name. I slip my hands behind my back, clasping the nail between my palms.
The door opens and he flicks on the blinding light. I shut my eyes against the glare, just for a moment, then open them and look at Cutie’s ankle. It’s worse. So swollen the skin is tight and flaking, mottled in dark blues and purples. I take a breath, then smile at her to be encouraging.
At first we only see his shoes. Clack. Clack. Dress shoes, old and stiff and without laces. His pants are short and he wears white tube socks gone gray. Not that I care, but I’m painting a picture so you get the general idea about Sparkles.
Plastic belt (shiny, red).
Wholesome cardigan (beige with stains).
Pasty face (soft and loose, like he’s slowly deflating).
“Porkchop, sit,” he says in his sweet, high pitch. I am sitting, so I sit taller and he places my bowl on the floor.
“Heeeere Cutie, Cutie, Cutie.”
He makes Cutie scooch forward for her bowl. When she hesitates, and she should know better, he zaps her collar. The sound from her throat is tight and choking, tears spill out of her eyes. She bends over her bowl while Sparkles sits on his haunches to watch us eat face-first like dogs.
“Peaches and cream,” he says of the oatmeal, and we thank him in unison. Then he pets Cutie’s head and tsks softly.
“Good girl,” he says.
He’s moved on from me since he brought Cutie here, which is a relief and also terrifying. Don’t ever think a gentle voice makes a gentle person—that’s mistake number one. Last time we tried to test the door our timing was tragically flawed. He heard us hit that creaky fifth step, then threw himself forward, giving us a neck-snapping shove to the bottom. That’s how Cutie hurt her ankle. Later he cropped our hair to the scalp and locked these collars around our necks.
We watch him take our bowls upstairs in his old clackety-clicking shoes. It goes dark. I wait for the TV, then get back to Cutie’s zip tie.
“Another rule?” I say. “Bring a pocket knife. That’s basically what I’ve got here, Cutie, with this nail.”
I poke and scratch, and gouge my way through the plastic, hitting her wrists several times in the dark.
“Ouch,” she whimpers.
I’m jittery, like too much coffee, and scared I’ll drop the nail where it could ping along the concrete floor to who knows where.
We wait. The TV shuts off and Sparkles moves to the bathroom. Clack, clack, clack.
I grab the zip tie and pull. I pull so hard I think my eyes will pop out and land on the floor. So hard that my collar becomes a vice grip around my neck. Finally it gives, and Cutie has hands again.
“Shh,” I warn her. “Remember the fifth step.”
With Cutie propped against me, we feel our way to the stairs, barefoot. I’m pretty sure there was a rule about comfortable footwear, but I don’t tell Cutie. She doesn’t need to know every goddamn thing.
The shower is running, skiddy sounds of bare feet on wet enamel. I count in a whisper, lifting Cutie over the fifth step—thank God I’m husky.
And then I drop the nail.
It clunks, then rolls, then pings on the concrete floor beneath the stairs. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt the deepest, fieriest terrors of hell (I honestly doubt you have), but it’s like your heart’s exploding while your limbs melt and your brain turns to dust.
Fortunately, I’m a fighter, so I whisper for Cutie to wait as I feel my way back down. I place my hands, palms down, on the gritty floor and crawl, sweeping my arms in wide arcs. A shampoo bottle falls in the tub above as I push my hands through a sticky spider web under the stairs. But I feel the cool sharp metal. The nail. Sweet Jesus.
I make my way back up, step over the fifth stair and clutch at Cutie’s arm. “Got it,” I whisper.
I grasp the doorknob and find the hole with my thumb, then jiggle the nail until I hear the click. Slowly I push on the door. Neither of us are breathing.
The house is grimy and dim and Sparkles is singing in the shower— Time After Time, flat and slow. I feel a chill, but we move toward the front door, Cutie hopping louder now without a railing to hold onto.
With a sharp click and the wheezing sound of water pressure easing, the shower goes off. I don’t have time for fiery hell-terrors, so I lunge toward the door and throw it open to a piercing beep.
A fucking alarm.
Cutie’s frozen with panic. I pull her outside and off the porch, then crouch low so she can hop on my back. And I run. Well. Lope, or whatever. I’m weak and I feel clumsy. Rule—ensure you’re in peak physical condition. Ha. Normally I’m strong.
“Go, Porkchop, hurry!”
I can’t even reply, I’m huffing and wheezing. This isn’t how I remembered the yard, so open, so far to the trees. For someone small, Cutie weighs a ton. I’m just waiting to hear Sparkles call our names.
I step on something sharp and stumble, but keep my balance.
Then I hear it. “Cutie, Cutie, Cutie!”
I crash into the woods like a beast, snarling and sweating. I feel Cutie squirm.
“He’s on the porch,” she says, and I fall to the ground in a convulsion. Everything a blinding buzz.
“Porkchop, please,” Cutie whispers. “Let’s go.”
I stand up. She hops on my back and I keep going. I feel her convulsing, but I can’t stop. Her raspy choking is in my ear and I wonder if I’ll be sick. I wonder if it’s better to go back.
Then I remember Connor. Connor the asshole in eighth grade, who called me a dog. Who pulled chairs out from under me and held my head under the tap until water came out my nose. One day I said no. I grinned at him as he skulked toward me, then knocked him flat. He went home with two missing teeth and I was suspended. Best day of my life.
I bare my teeth and run, not knowing how far Sparkles is behind us, falling to the ground every time he hits his buzzer, but getting back up again. I need to get us out of range, each step is a fight for distance between us and Sparkles.
Cutie’s been zapped a few times and she’s draped on my back, dead weight.
“Cutie, is he close?”
Then I’m on the ground, spine arched and teeth clenched, the burn floods down my throat and into my chest. When I open my eyes, Cutie is sitting over me crying, wiping the drool on my face with her sleeve.
“I saw him just…” She points into the forest. Her whisper is raspy, both of our voices destroyed.
I put my hand on her arm and mouth, listen.
In the distance, toward the road, a woman calls her dog. Nearer, but on our other side, Sparkles is thrashing through the trees. We’re in the middle.
Cutie and I look at each other and I get an idea.
“Stand up,” I croak.
I put my finger to my lips and wait for the lady to call again, this time she’s closer. I can hear Sparkles’ off-key singing—If you’re lost you can look and you will find me.
He’s not in a rage now, but don’t forget what I told you about Sparkles.
“Now,” I say. “Stand up.”
Cutie doesn’t know my plan, but she trusts me. She stands on her good leg, as tall as she can, and sure enough, Sparkles’ voice calls out, loud and high and friendly.
“Heeeeere Cutie, Cutie, Cutie. Come here, girl!”
Suddenly, a dog bursts through the ferns and shrubs, tongue flapping as he races toward Sparkles. Oh my God, dogs are so stupid and so freaking beautiful. Another zap fills me with bees and everything goes dark.
“Porkchop?” Cutie crouches next to me. Beside her stand a man and woman in orange vests. The woman is on her phone, her hand flat against her chest and tears on her cheeks.
“They’re with us now,” she says. “Yes. Definitely Abby and Sam.”
In her hand is a poster with our faces side by side. Me: chunky, hair in my eyes. Cutie: freckled and smiling. So that’s what she looks like. Normally.
The man bends down and shares his water bottle, then examines Cutie’s foot. The dog sits next to us, all goofy and happy, like nothing bad ever happens anywhere.
I gesture to my collar and manage to whisper, “Can we get out of here?”
I’m pretty sure Sparkles has taken off. I think he’s scared of dogs, and maybe people too.
The nice couple helps us to the road where their car sits, shiny and bright in the sun. It smells like new car and cinnamon. Classical music plays gently on the speakers.
I look at Cutie and squeeze her hand.
“Hi, Abby,” I whisper.