Never Let You Go (a modern fairytale) (3 page)

BOOK: Never Let You Go (a modern fairytale)
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“Many of them have writing courses for promising storytellers.” She flashed her elegant smile before shrugging playfully. “Take a look for me?”

Griselda tamped down the quick bolt of pride she felt in the compliment. Not only was college a luxury she couldn’t afford, there was no way she’d actually get in. Colleges weren’t exactly lining up to recruit girls like Griselda. “That’s really nice of you, but I don’t have the money for—”

“There are loads of scholarships out there,” said Mrs. McClellan, waving her hand dismissively as she took a sip of wine. “Take a look. Then let’s talk. Okay?”

“Okay,” Griselda had answered, rushing to wrap her scarf around her neck and hurry to meet Jonah before he beeped the horn.

That was six months ago, and although she’d fantasized more than once about the possibility of college, she hadn’t allowed herself to look at the brochures. Her savings were designated for something else. Something important and nonnegotiable. She needed to work, and college would eat away at her working time. Work meant money, and money was needed for Griselda’s only shot at redemption. The formula was simple, and deviating from it unthinkable.

Have you given any more thought to those courses we discussed?

“No, ma’am,” she said softly, worried about her boss’s disapproval.

“I overheard you telling Pru another story last night. I really do think you have talent, Zelda.”

“Thank you, Mrs. McClellan.”

“Will you give it some more thought?” she asked with a light smile, and Griselda nodded, wondering what it would be like to go to college, to learn how to write her stories on a computer, maybe even to make a living like that someday—writing stories and selling them.

She doused her hopeful thoughts quickly, trading them for a cold dose of reality. She
a plan, and it didn’t include college.

Work, money, redemption.

“Well, I’m off,” said Mrs. McClellan, throwing a windbreaker over her gym clothes and grabbing her purse from the kitchen desk where she managed the household accounts. “I’ll be at the gym, then the club for lunch, then I’ll stop by N-on-N for a few hours this afternoon. Back by five. Pru’s laundry is ready for folding, and I bought Gruyère so you could make her a grilled cheese. No TV, Zelda. She watches too much as it is. Call if you need me.”

“Have a good day, Mrs. McClellan.”

“You too!”

Once the door clicked shut, Griselda leaned back against the counter, closing her eyes in the silence of the tidy kitchen. After a moment of peace, she poured herself a cup of coffee, hooked the baby monitor to the belt of her jeans, and went outside to the small but beautiful garden patio behind the townhouse. Griselda was lucky that Prudence had held on to her morning naptime later than other children. It wouldn’t be long before she gave it up and Griselda wouldn’t have this little break to herself anymore, and although Griselda should spend the time folding the laundry, she allowed herself a rare moment of quiet reflection instead.

Except that there was a problem with quiet reflection—her mind turned to something unpleasant immediately: Jonah’s demand that she steal something from the McClellans.

It was good that he still believed they’d need to steal to come up with $150 quickly. It meant he hadn’t discovered that she’d amassed a small, but respectable, sum in her private savings account.

When she went to work for the McClellans, they’d offered her the option of direct deposit twice monthly and asked for her account numbers and distribution. A laughable question, since Griselda didn’t even have one account. She’d gone to the bank closest to the McClellans’ house, and a well-meaning banker had advised her to set up two accounts: one for savings and one for checking. Though she funneled only twenty percent of her earnings into her savings account, she rarely touched it, and it now held several thousand dollars, earmarked for one very specific use. The rest—almost every dime—went toward her rent, utilities, and living expenses, aka, supporting Jonah.

Heading back inside, Griselda made her way upstairs. Quietly opening the pair of elegant French doors that led to the McClellans’ bedroom suite, she crept across the room, her bare feet sinking into the plush cream-colored carpet. Stopping at Mrs. McClellan’s dressing table, she ran her fingers gingerly over a pair of gold hoop earrings and a matching bangle bracelet. They were undoubtedly real and would likely fetch more than the $150 Jonah required.

Drawing her hand away, she walked back across the room, closing the French doors behind her. She wouldn’t repay the McClellans’ kindness by stealing from them. Griselda had lived through many frightening and unsavory situations, and she was many things as a result, but she wasn’t a thief. Not then, and not now.

Which left her no other choice. Today, after she took Prudence to the park, she’d have to stop by the bank and withdraw $150 from her savings account. She pulled her bottom lip into her mouth and bit it hard enough to taste blood. Touching that money went against everything in her heart, but she couldn’t think of another way. Later, when Jonah picked her up, she’d tell him she’d stolen the earrings and bracelet and fenced them on her lunch break. He’d buy that story. He’d be relieved not to have to do it himself.

She headed back downstairs and picked up the coffee cup she’d left on the kitchen counter, resting her bruised chin on her palm and swallowing the lump in her throat as she mulled over their weekend plans, and recalled the first—and only—time she’d ever visited West Virginia.

July 4, 2001




Sandwiched in the back of the musty station wagon between her foster sister, Marisol, and the new kid, Holden, ten-year-old Griselda Schroeder could feel the sweat dripping from her neck, down her back, and into her butt crack. On the other side of Marisol sat Billy, who was fourteen, and had been living with the Fillmans longer than anyone else. Saying that Griselda hated Billy would be like sheep saying they hated wolves. Sure, they hated them, but they were terrified of them too.

When sixteen-year-old Marisol had moved in with them a year ago, it had been an unexpected blessing because she had, more or less, taken younger Griselda under her wing, calling her “lil’ sis,” braiding her hair, and showing Griselda how to wear makeup. Bigger than Billy and just as mean when she wanted to be, Marisol wasn’t someone the boy wanted to mess with. It had become more challenging for him to torment Griselda, though he still found ways to hurt and humiliate her. After all, Marisol was old enough to have an afternoon job—she simply wasn’t around all the time.

Holden had joined the mix three days ago, arriving at the Fillmans’ house with a black eye, split lip, and lots of attitude. Ten years old, just like her, he was smaller than Griselda, but scrappy, and very quiet his first day. She’d quickly discovered the reason: he stuttered. Badly.

On Holden’s first evening with the Fillmans, after checking that the coast was clear, Griselda had run to the shared bathroom in the upstairs hallway to brush her teeth only to find Billy and Holden getting into it. Billy, Holden’s new roommate, had stolen an Orioles ball cap out of the younger boy’s meager duffel bag, and was taunting Holden, holding it out of reach above his head. Holden jumped up several times, trying to reclaim the hat, but the third time, Billy punched him in the stomach with his free hand, and Holden fell to the floor, clutching at his belly.

Looking up at Billy with furious, churning eyes, Holden demanded, “G-g-give it t-t-to m-me!”

Billy froze for a moment, staring down at Holden in shock before a loud guffawing laugh made him double up.

“Holy shit!” he panted through loud, jagged laughter. “You’re a retard!”

Still spying on them from her spot in the hallway, Griselda felt helpless for Holden and furious with Billy, so she watched with a certain amount of satisfaction when Holden’s eyes widened with anger. He leaped to his feet and drew back both fists, pummeling every square inch of Billy’s body that he could reach. The fight turned vicious as the boys knocked over a table, which crashed to the floor, and within minutes Mrs. Fillman was pulling them away from each other. Once separated, she let Billy go and smacked Holden’s face. Hard.

“We ain’t had no trouble before you got here!” she yelled, clamping Holden’s ear in a painful grip. “Say you’re sorry to Billy.”

Holden’s mouth was a firm, tight, white line as he stared back at Billy, who bled from his lip, but he gave Holden a superior, expectant smirk. Griselda was captivated, riveted by Holden’s face as he stared back at Billy. His eyes were narrow and defiant, his nostrils flaring with every breath, his small fists balled by his sides. Mrs. Fillman yanked on his ear, and he flinched momentarily before clearing his expression to neutral.

“Say it, or I’ll call your social worker and have you removed.”

Holden continued to stare back at Billy, who crossed his arms over his chest, his smile fading. This smaller, younger boy had held his own in a way that Billy grudgingly respected, and finally Billy sighed, turning away from Holden and Mrs. Fillman.

“He’s sort of a dummy, Miz Fillman. He don’t talk right.”

Mrs. Fillman, who fancied handsome Billy and had become attached to him during the six years they’d lived together, jerked Holden’s ear again. “Look at me.”

Holden finally dropped Billy’s eyes and turned to look up at Mrs. Fillman.

“You start trouble again, you’re outta here. Clear?”

Holden stared back at her for a long, tense moment before finally nodding. Mrs. Fillman let go of Holden’s ear and placed her hands on her beefy hips, over her stained housedress, and grinned at Billy with yellowed teeth.

“Don’t forget we’re takin’ all of you to that park in West Virginia on Sunday,” she said, her voice changing from imperious to wheedling and needy. “A special outin’ on a river. Not all foster kids got such good foster parents, you know.”

“Can’t wait,” Billy answered, jerking back as Mrs. Fillman reached forward to tousle his hair, but giving her a forced smile to make up for recoiling.

“And you best not start any trouble,” she said, turning to Holden, her stubby finger a millimeter from his nose. “Ya get what ya get, and ya don’t get upset.”

He nodded at her again. Curtly. Without speaking.

As Mrs. Fillman left the room, she muttered, “Great. Another weirdo.” Catching sight of Griselda, she pursed her lips with general annoyance before heading back downstairs.

As Holden watched his foster mother go, his eyes suddenly shifted to Griselda, easily, casually, as though he’d known she was there all along. And then, in an act of bravado that shocked her ten-year-old heart, he winked at her, one side of his lips twitching up in the barest semblance of a smile.

She hadn’t gathered her courage to talk to Holden since then. At dinner, Holden had sat across from her two nights in a row, staring at her steadily, and Griselda found herself sneaking peeks at him, wondering about him, curious as to where he’d ultimately fit in with all of them, and hoping, though she’d never admit it, that he could be a friend. More than anything—more than anything else in the entire world—Griselda longed for a friend.

She glanced at him beside her in the car, looking at his dark blond hair, a little too long and curling up at the ends. His eye was still bruised, but his lip had healed a little over the past three days.

He turned to her slowly, casually—just as he had when she was standing in the hallway—and without saying a word, he raised an eyebrow, that lip quirking up again just a little. Caught, Griselda’s heart sped up. She shook her head with a jerk and looked down at her lap. Folding her sweaty hands, she promised herself not to look at him again.

He pushed his upper arm back just a little until it was pressed against the back of the vinyl seat, and flush with hers. Over the next few minutes their sweat combined until they were stuck to each other, but Griselda wouldn’t dream of moving her arm in a million, zillion years. It felt too good to be touched gently, too nice for words. Her heart thrummed with gratitude, and she clasped her fingers together tighter in her lap.

Looking straight ahead out the window, she saw the large blue, green, and yellow sign that read “Welcome to West Virginia.”



Chapter 2


“Careful, baby,” called Griselda from the park bench, watching Prudence make her way up the slide for the fourth or fifth time. Griselda’s best friend, Maya, sat beside her while her charge, Niall, who was the same age as Prudence, kept Prudence company.

“Okay, Zelda,” said Prudence, giving Griselda a gap-toothed grin before continuing her ascent.

“So, you’re going? To West Virginia?” asked Maya, wrinkling her nose. “I don’t get you.”

“What’s to get? He set up a weekend getaway, and he wants me to go.”

“But you clearly don’t
to. I mean, come on, Z. West Virginia? Of all places?”

Griselda sighed. “I didn’t have much say in the matter. Anyway, it’ll be fine.”

“‘Fine.’ You love the word
. Just remember, I know you, girl. I’ve known you a long time.”

In addition to living with Maya for a year and a half at her second post-Holden foster home, they’d attended the same high school from freshman year until senior year, which was unusual for kids in the system. When you moved homes, you often had to switch schools, but Griselda had been moved to a foster home in the same school district. Friends for almost a decade, Maya was the closest thing Griselda had to family, but even Maya didn’t know everything. Nobody knew everything except for Holden.

you, but I don’t
you,” continued Maya, shaking her headful of brown braids, the colorful beads on the ends clicking with the movement.

“Yeah, well. No use rocking the boat.”

“Not unless you want to get smacked.”

Griselda shot Maya a look, telling her friend to shut up.

“You don’t think I can see those fresh bruises on your chin? And news flash, Zelda . . . you’re wearing long sleeves in the middle of June. Shit. I seen it all a million times before, starting with my mama. I just don’t understand why you put up with it.”

Because someone who did what I did doesn’t deserve better.

Griselda hated this particular conversation, but she knew from experience that the best way to hurry it up was just to remain silent.

“You’re beautiful, Z—”

Griselda scoffed loudly, rolling her eyes, her fingers reaching up to trace the scar on her chin.

“Not to mention, you’re flush,” continued Maya, referring to Griselda’s secret stash. “Get your own place. Tell Jonah to take a hike. Find someone who treats you nice.”

I don’t get to have nice. Not until I know that Holden has nice too.

She cleared her throat. “I don’t touch that money, and you know it.”

“Yeah. But I don’t know why. What’re you saving it for if not to make a better life for yourself?”

A better life for herself? Theoretically, there were probably many ways her life could be improved, but only three that really mattered: find Holden, help Holden, be with Holden again.

Griselda made $640 a week with the McClellans, which worked out to $33,280 per year, $6,000 of which went back to Uncle Sam. That left $21,824 for living expenses and $5,456 a year that went into her savings account for Holden. The first year, she’d spent several thousand dollars on a private detective, but the money had run out quickly and the detective, whose business had been shut down a few months after Griselda gave him a check, hadn’t found out much. He’d discovered that the Man who held them, Caleb Foster, was born in 1961. At the time of Griselda’s and Holden’s abduction, he’d been forty years old and the last surviving member of his family, outliving his parents and a younger brother and sister, both of whom had been tragically killed in an accident in the seventies.

Despite her efforts to research Caleb Foster on the library computer at the Laurel Public Library, she’d never found very much. There were thousands of Google hits when she searched his name, but none of the profiles jibed with what little she knew about him. And when she searched “Holden Croft,” she found nothing beyond the news of their abduction. No hits. Not one. Which always made her grief intense and painful because it made her wonder if Holden was dead, how he died, and when. Had he been frightened? Alone? Was he thinking about her in his final moments?

Staying hopeful that Holden was still alive was the most gut-wrenching and exhausting challenge of Griselda’s sorry life. But she could not—she
not—give up on him until she knew for sure that he was dead. Until then, she would keep looking . . . because she
him, because once upon a sweet and terrible time, she’d
him, and he’d loved her in return.

Internet research had finally led her to the Browne & Castle Agency in New York City, one of the best private detective firms in the country, and rather than throwing away any more money on scams, Griselda had decided to book their services as soon as she was able. The catch? The retainer was $5,000 up front, which she had, but the per-hour expenses ranged from $40 to $100. If Caleb Foster had driven Holden all over the country, it could take weeks or months to track down their trail and what had eventually happened to them. Griselda figured she’d need about $20,000 before she could retain Browne & Castle’s services, and right now she was more than $5,000 short. So she worked. And she waited. And she hoped that next year she’d have enough money to find Holden, to help him, to spend whatever she had to make up for leaving him behind . . . or at least find out what had happened to him.

In the meantime, giving Jonah $100 here and there hurt her heart, because every dime she gave to Jonah was another hour further away from finding Holden, the only human being whom she knew—beyond any shadow of doubt—had ever truly loved her.

Taking a deep breath, Griselda gave Maya, who was still waiting for an answer, a sidelong glance. “Honey, if it ain’t your tail . . .”

“. . . don’t wag it,” finished Maya, quoting their foster mother, Kendra, with whom they’d lived for the first two years of high school. “Damn, but she loved saying that.”

“Yes, she did.”

“You deserve so much better than Jonah.”

thought Griselda.
No, I don’t.

Why, Zelda? Why stay with him?”

Because I should have gone back with Holden and I didn’t. Because we were supposed to make it together, but one of us got dragged back to hell. Because life is only bearable when it’s more bad than good.

her heart added in a guilty whisper
, because when Jonah shuts up and falls asleep, his arms are warm and solid around me, and sometimes I can trick myself into believing he’s someone else.

“Forget I asked,” said Maya, sighing heavily. “Ain’t my tail.”

Griselda nodded, watching Prudence run from the slide back to the ladder. “Jonah’s not always mean, you know.”

“Yeah, sometimes he sleeps.”

“He can be sweet to me sometimes.”

“He’s mean enough, often enough. A little sweet don’t make a difference,” said Maya, suddenly sitting up straighter and tsking. “Niall, don’t you grab that child’s braids. You leave her be, now.” She turned back to Griselda. “Most days I don’t know if I’m grateful that you got me this job or not.”

“You’re grateful.”

Griselda paused, thinking how much better this weekend would be if Maya and her boyfriend, Terrence, were in tow. She had nothing against Jonah’s friend Shawn, and his girlfriend, Tina, had been pretty nice the one time Griselda had met her. But still, they were practically strangers.

“Can’t you and Jonah be friends?” she asked.

“Not going to happen, Zelda. He and me is like oil and water—hell, oil and a
.” Maya chuckled, shaking her head. “I’d belt him good if he came after me the way he gives it to you.”

You’d lose
, thought Griselda, and her upper arm throbbed where it was covered with the black-and-blue imprints of his fingers. She’d exchanged pleasantries with the cashier at ShopRite last night, and the minute they got back in his truck, Jonah had grabbed her arm and accused her of flirting.

Still staring straight ahead at the kids, Maya’s voice was soft when she asked, “You ever gonna tell me, Zelda? What happened to you? I mean, besides the old news reports I can read on the internet?”

Griselda turned to her friend, and Maya faced her, her chocolate-brown skin satiny in the sunshine and her deep brown eyes profoundly sympathetic.

It had taken Griselda a half a day of hiking through woods barefoot before she made it to a highway at dusk. An older lady picked her up, chastising her soundly about the dangers of hitchhiking before dropping her off in front of the Charles Town sheriff’s office. Griselda ran into the building like a maniac, delivering her entire story to the first person she saw and ending with the demand, “Please! You’ve got to

The sergeant working the front desk had stared at her for a moment before calling a female officer to escort Griselda to a small interview room. They found a sandwich in the kitchen, half a sleeve of Oreos, and two cans of pop, which they placed in front of her, and someone rustled up a blanket, which the officer placed carefully around Griselda’s shoulders. Although she was starving, Griselda wouldn’t eat until she had shared every bit of information that she possibly could: the names of her foster parents, how she and Holden had been taken, the general location where they’d been held captive, and how she’d escaped. She begged them to race to the Man’s house, and only when the officer assured Griselda that two cars were en route did she lay her head on the metal table before her, weeping with fear and relief and exhaustion.

How tempting it was to tell Maya the whole story. It would be like stepping off the side of a pool into warm water, free-falling, sinking into the compassion of a friend, then drowning as she faced the awful truth of what had happened.

Her breath was ragged as she inhaled deeply.

“No, Maya.”

Griselda pushed off the bench and fixed a smile on her face as she walked over to the slide.

“Time for lunch, baby,” she called to Prudence. “Playtime’s over.”


“You know where my fishing pole’s at, Zelda?” Jonah asked, peeking his head into the bedroom.

Griselda looked up from where she sat on the edge of the bed and shook her head before turning back to the TV.

“Aw, baby. Can’t you try to crack a smile? We ain’t had a vacation in months.”

Actually, they’d never had a vacation. Not in the year they’d been living together. They met when the cable company sent Jonah to her apartment block to check on a faulty connection. He’d buzzed her apartment instead of the super’s, and even though—or maybe because—she suspected he was so mean, they’d started dating that night. He’d been rough the first time they had sex, and she hadn’t liked it, but then he’d held on to her as he fell asleep, and it felt so nice, she didn’t ask him to leave. Mostly, she hated him for his meanness, and she hated herself for liking the moments he was gentle.

To Maya’s point, Griselda wouldn’t let herself be with someone kind and decent. That would mean that while Holden’s life was likely a living hell, she was pursuing a happiness that she didn’t deserve. Being with Jonah made her pay mightily for every embrace, every kind touch. She couldn’t relax or let her guard down. Whatever tenderness she received from him was balanced by his meanness, which was the only reason she allowed it.

Sometimes, when she went days without a kind word or touch from Jonah, she almost likened her time with him to doing penance. Penance was a matter of choice for the transgressor, wasn’t it? It was punishment for the wages of sin. It felt good to do penance, even though punishment hurt by nature, because it moved her life closer to redemption.

But tonight? With a weekend in West Virginia bearing down on her? She just didn’t have the energy for his abuse.

“Maybe I should stay home, Jonah. I just don’t think I’m—”

He crossed the room in a flash, standing before her with his hands on his hips. “You don’t want to spend time with me and our friends?”

She leaned back on her hands to look up at him, crossing one finger over the other. “I do. Of course I do.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

She scrambled to think up a plausible explanation for not wanting to go to West Virginia. “Wouldn’t it be nice to go away together? Just you and me?”

“Sounds boring as fuck,” he said, pulling a mashed-up pouch out of his back pocket, opening it up, and pinching a wad of brown tobacco between his fingers.

She looked up at him, feeling her eyes flash with a rare show of hurt.

“I don’t know why we’re together,” she mumbled, despising him. Despising herself more.

Tucking the tobacco between his bottom lip and teeth, he grinned at her like a shit-eating baboon. “Because you’re sweet, Zelda. You take care of me. Hell, you suck cock better than any girl I ever met.”

Much like Billy, her tormentor of old, Jonah was a bully. The only child of older and deeply devoted parents, he’d steamrollered them for most of his childhood and adolescence, from what Griselda could piece together. He’d been in trouble for petty crimes once or twice—defacing property and drunk and disorderly conduct, the stories of which he shared with pride—but his parents had always arranged for good lawyers, and Jonah had never served any time.

BOOK: Never Let You Go (a modern fairytale)
9.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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