Never Let You Go (a modern fairytale) (4 page)

BOOK: Never Let You Go (a modern fairytale)
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Griselda had never met his mother and father—they’d passed away two years before she met Jonah—but when she met him, he’d just blown through the life savings they’d left him, and their house, on which he’d failed to pay two years’ worth of taxes, was being repossessed by the bank. He was very handsome and kept himself in good shape. His jokes were crude, which his friends from the cable company liked, and she had to admit that he could be charming, even though he was also self-centered and mean if he didn’t get his way. But when his hands weren’t slapping or grabbing her, they could be gentle and warm. And when he clasped her against his chest in the middle of the night, she could close her eyes and pretend it wasn’t him, lulled to sleep by the soothing whisper of his warm breath against her neck.

Refusing to rise to the bait, she lowered her head and took it, accepting his ugly words and feeling just as dirty as he’d intended. She looked down at her knobby knees, barely covered by her oversize T-shirt.

“Why do you make me say things like that to you?” he asked. “I tell you what . . . you’re contrary today, Zelda. Mrs. Hoity-Toity rubbing off on you?”

She didn’t answer. She clenched her jaw, knowing what was coming.

He grabbed a handful of her hair and yanked her head up. “I asked you a question.”

“I’m just tired.” She sighed, staring into his mean green eyes. He’d hit her if she didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear, and she wasn’t in the mood for extra pain tonight. Anticipating the trip to West Virginia was painful enough. “I-I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”

“That’s better.” He nodded at her, smiling, easing his grip. “I feel better now. Don’t
you
feel better?”

She nodded once, forcing her lips to tilt up.

Jonah’s hands reached for his belt, the sound of the jangling buckle making her blood run cold as it always did. “You’re so beautiful, baby. You know what I said before? It was a compliment. You’re the best, baby. I mean it. The best. How about you—”

Her stomach rolled just as his phone rang. Wincing with disappointment, Jonah zipped up his fly and took his phone out of his back pocket. His expression brightened immediately. “Shawn! We all set for tomorrow, cocksucker?”

Griselda watched as Jonah pivoted and exited the room without another glance. Taking a deep, ragged breath, she lay back on the bed, tears welling in her eyes as she stared up at the ceiling fan rotating slowly over her head.

***

“Baby, I’m sorry if I made you mad before. I shouldn’t be crude to you.”

Griselda’s eyes fluttered open, and she was surprised to find herself in bed, under the covers, the TV off, the lights out. She’d fallen asleep staring at the fan, and Jonah had tucked her in. Now he held her gently from behind, whispering into her ear tenderly.

“I’m crazy about you, Zelda. Sometimes I feel like I’d die without you.”

She concentrated on the way it felt to be held and tried to block his voice and words out of her ears.

“Don’t you want to go to West Virginia, baby? You ever been there before?”

She swallowed the lump in her throat. She’d been dreaming about Holden again, as she did almost every night, and she wiggled her feet under the covers. She could almost feel the dry soil of West Virginia seeping between her toes. They’d been watching the mother deer and her fawn, speckled with spring freckles.
Sh-sh-she’s awful pretty, huh, Gris?

Her head pounded, and she clenched her eyes shut. “It’ll be fine.”

“I’m so horny,” Jonah murmured, hardening against her backside. “I want you, Zelda.”

“Shouldn’t we get some sleep?”

“Won’t take but a minute.”

He pulled down her panties just enough for access, pushed her back forward a little, grabbed her hips, and thrust into her unprepared body from behind without permission or warning. She clenched her teeth and closed her eyes as he grunted with every thrust, kneading her soft skin to the point of pain. After several minutes, he cried out, his forehead falling into the back of her neck as his grasping fingers relaxed. She felt him come inside her, pulsing hot and wet, as he whispered, “So good. So good. So good, Zelda.”

He pulled out of her and rolled onto his back. Not a moment later, the rumble of his snores filled the room.

I didn’t answer you
, she thought to herself, his semen dripping onto the sheets as she rolled onto her back and wrapped her arms around her chest.

No, I don’t want to go to West Virginia.

Yes, I’ve been there before.

July 4, 2001

 

Griselda

 

Mr. Fillman pulled into a Yogi Bear Campground, but it turned out the Fillmans hadn’t made a reservation in advance and all the campsites were taken on account of the holiday. The gate attendant had advised them that a spell down the road they’d find the county campground. “Not as nice,” she said, looking at their rusty, outdated station wagon and sniffing like something smelled bad, “but they might have space.”

“A spell down the road” had turned into a journey of several more miles, with Mrs. Fillman’s cigarette smoke wafting into the backseat and the hot air blowing in from the windows. They passed a country market on their left, which had a rickety, peeling billboard that informed them that the “Shenandoah Camp-It” was a mile and a half up ahead.

And despite the discomfort of sitting four across in the hot backseat, Griselda felt a momentary pang of sadness, because when the car stopped, Holden would get out of the car, removing his arm from where it still pressed up against hers. She gave herself a moment to mourn that loss in advance, then tried to raise her spirits. This was the first foster family that had ever taken Griselda on any kind of excursion, and she felt a little bit excited. Yes, there would still be stale bologna and cheese sandwiches for lunch that Marisol had packed that morning, but they’d be eating them somewhere new. And though Griselda couldn’t swim, she imagined the water clear and cool on her feet and legs. Under her lemon-yellow gingham sundress she wore a faded, pink one-piece bathing suit that Mrs. Fillman had found in the left-behind pile, used by one of her previous charges. Griselda didn’t care that it had been someone else’s or that it was faded and old. Today it was hers.

Mr. Fillman pulled into the parking lot, and Griselda strained her neck to look out Holden’s window. It was more parked-up than the Yogi Bear gate attendant had led them to expect, with cars of all shapes and sizes sandwiched into neat spaces, and up ahead, on the green strip of grass by the river, she saw families on blankets, little kids in bathing suits, and the odd dog on a leash. Loud rock music blared from a car speaker, and Griselda could smell hot dogs on a grill. She felt an unfamiliar burst of hope. This felt like a party, like something normal and fun, and she couldn’t help the expectant smile that spread across her face.

Still leaning over Holden, she felt his eyes on her and turned to look at him. He wasn’t staring at the parking lot, or families, or children with brightly colored inner tubes around their waists. He was staring at Griselda and smiling that one-sided grin that she was beginning to like so much.

She giggled, smiling back at him, and whispered, “It looks fun!”

His smile widened, evening out a little, but he didn’t respond. He just nodded.

“I’m working on my tan all afternoon,” said Marisol with a loud sigh.

“You’ll help me set up the lunch first,” said Mrs. Fillman, stubbing out her cigarette in the car ashtray, which overflowed with butts and ash.

“Why can’t Billy help?” Marisol whined. “Or the kids?”

Mrs. Fillman turned around and fixed Marisol with a narrow-eyed scowl. “One, don’t back-talk. Two, oldest girl helps with meals. Those are the rules.”

Marisol looked down at her lap, muttering, “Fine,” as Billy chuckled beside her.

“I think
I’ll
work on my tan,” he said, elbowing Marisol in the side.

“Oh, Billy,” said Mrs. Fillman. “A tan wouldn’t make you one jot more handsome.”

Griselda noticed Mrs. Fillman’s eyes in the rearview mirror, the way they softened on Billy’s face, staring at him like she’d never get her fill of looking. Shifting her eyes over Marisol’s bent head to look at Billy, Griselda saw him turn away from their foster mother’s gaze, his nostrils flaring and jaw tight.

“I guess Billy and Holder could help me unload the car,” said Mr. Fillman.

“Holden,” said Griselda softly.

“What’s that?” Mr. Fillman asked.

“Holden,” said Griselda again. “Not Holder.”

“Right you are,” said Mr. Fillman absently, cutting the engine and opening his car door.

The four children followed, piling out of the car, and Griselda took a deep breath of warm, fresh air. Even from the parking lot she could hear the rush of the river, and her toes ached to feel the blessed coolness.

Mr. Fillman stood by the car, stretching his scrawny arms over his head as he looked out at the river, then turned to his wife, who was taking a cooler out of the trunk. “Sadie, you still got those cousins that live around here?”

“Jim and Melody? Guess so. If they ain’t dead yet.”

“Maybe you should call ’em. Ask ’em to bring a cooler of beer and come set a while.”

Mrs. Fillman muttered something about no-good relatives, handing Griselda a folding chair, and waved her hand toward the grassy patch by the river.

Fifteen minutes later, they had an old sheet spread out on the grass, with two chairs set up for the adults, and Mrs. Fillman asked Marisol to open the cooler. The stink of rotten bologna and turned mayonnaise made Griselda’s stomach flip over.

“Aw, hell,” said Mrs. Fillman, staring daggers at Marisol. “Are you so stupid you forgot to cover the sandwiches with ice? They been baking in that trunk for two hours!”

Marisol stared at the sandwiches, grimacing. “Sorry, Miz Fillman.”

“Worthless. Just as worthless as your crackhead mama. I don’t know why I even try.”

Marisol bent her head, staring down at the cooler and closing it slowly.

Standing up and putting her hands on her wide hips, Mrs. Fillman looked at her husband, then at Billy. “You two men got any ideas? I’m hungry, and there ain’t no lunch now, thanks to crack baby here.”

“Was a store a ways back,” said Billy.

“We drive to the store, we lose our parking spot,” said Mr. Fillman, taking a seat in one of the two chairs and kicking off his black shoes but leaving his black socks on.

“Then someone ought to walk it. Someone who made the mistake in the first place,” said Mrs. Fillman, staring down at Marisol, who still knelt on the blanket with her head bent over the closed cooler.

Griselda thought of all the nights Marisol had brushed her hair, braiding it distractedly as she told Griselda her dreams of being a hairdresser one day. She thought of all the times that Marisol had stepped in when Billy was pinching her or tormenting her. All Marisol wanted was to sit in the sun today. Well, Griselda could help make that dream come true.

“I’ll go, Miz Fillman,” she volunteered. “I don’t mind the walk.”

“Huh,” her foster mother huffed, turning to look at Griselda with a mix of annoyance and surprise. “You’ll go, huh?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said. The store was only a mile and a half back. That wasn’t too far away. She could make it there and back in an hour and still have the whole afternoon to dip her feet in the Shenandoah.

Marisol looked up at Griselda, her eyes bright with tears, and mouthed,
Thanks, kid.

Griselda nodded at her friend before turning back to the Fillmans. Mr. Fillman’s aluminum chair creaked as he shifted to free his wallet from his pocket. The five-dollar bill he handed Griselda was wrinkled, warm, and limp.

“Loaf of bread, bologna, cheese,” instructed Mrs. Fillman. “You got extra, get some mayonnaise. You got that?”

“Bologna again?” complained Mr. Fillman, tenting a piece of newspaper over his face.

“Ya get what ya get, and ya don’t get upset,” snapped Mrs. Fillman before turning back to Griselda expectantly.

“Bread, bologna, and cheese,” she confirmed. “Mayo if possible.”


Mayo if possible
,” mimicked Mrs. Fillman, whisking her hand at Griselda. “Go, then. Don’t dawdle.”

“I’ll, uh, g-g-go too.”

Griselda turned to where Holden was standing just behind her. She was surprised to hear his voice, surprised he’d spoken up, surprised he wanted to go.

“Fine,” said Mrs. Fillman, settling her considerable girth down on the blanket beside Billy, who was staring at three teenage girls sunbathing nearby. She put her hand on Billy’s bare thigh and said, “Hurry up. Mr. Fillman’s gonna be hungry after his nap.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Griselda, her eyes lingering on Mrs. Fillman’s hand for an extra beat before turning to walk away, with Holden by her side.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

With the windows down in the back of Shawn’s Ford Escape so that Tina’s nails could dry, Griselda wasn’t expected to make conversation with her, which was a relief. Tina seemed nice enough, but with every mile, they headed deeper into West Virginia, and Griselda’s dread multiplied. Her stomach wouldn’t settle, and her fingers trembled if she wasn’t tightly clasping them her lap. Making small talk would have been excruciating if not impossible. Trying to find a bit of peace, she leaned her elbow on the windowsill, keeping her eyes closed and letting the warm wind buffet her face.

Try as she might, however, she couldn’t think about anything but her sad history with this corner of the world and finally succumbed to her memories. How hopeful she’d been when she’d walked into the Charles Town sheriff’s office ten years ago. How hopeful. How stupid.

By the time the police arrived at the Man’s house, Holden and the Man were long gone, but Griselda hadn’t known that terrible fact quite yet. She’d watched with relief as the police put out an APB on Holden Croft, two cop cars tearing out of the parking lot headed for the Man’s house. Her aching feet and legs had screamed in pain as she rolled her chair forward and reached for the Oreos, savoring the first bite after three solid years of gruel and raw produce.

  The Fillmans had been removed from the foster care system after losing two charges over state boundaries, so Griselda was taken to the first of three foster families back in Washington, D.C.. That’s where she met her new roommate, Maya, who immediately reminded Griselda of Marisol.

Over the next three or four days, she was enrolled in a nearby junior high school and interviewed by the police many times about Holden and the Man, but the visits quickly stopped. A few days later, she found out why.

Her new social worker visited her a week after the escape and shared the devastating news—when the police got to the Man’s house, it had been abandoned. No Man. No boy. Just a dog shot through the head and buried in a shallow grave on the front lawn.

“Cutter,” she gasped, trembling as she wondered if the same gun had been used on Holden.

The Charles Town police searched the area for a full week but came up dry—there was no trace of Holden or the Man, who, Griselda learned for the first time, was named Caleb Foster. The social worker asked if Griselda had any idea where they may have gone, but she didn’t. Other than the barn, garden, and cellar, she and Holden hadn’t been allowed anywhere else, certainly not in the main house. And in the three years she and Holden had lived there, they hadn’t left the farm once. She knew almost nothing about him. She had no idea where he’d go. She only knew that she had to get back to his house and try to figure it out.

  That night she made her first attempt to run away, stupidly hitchhiking at the end of her foster mother’s street and being picked up by the police on suspicion of solicitation. Her foster mother locked her in her bedroom at night after that, and Griselda didn’t tried to run away again. But when the next spring rolled around, she longed for Holden with a fierceness that left her breathless and weak every morning. She ran away the second time that June and got a little farther, but a well-meaning trucker radioed in her location, and again the police picked her up. She was transferred to another foster home. Again the lockdown, again the defeat. The following June, she tried again, but when she was picked up outside of Leesburg, her social worker told her she’d go to juvie if she tried it again. They also switched her to the worst and strictest of her three foster homes, separating her from Maya. At this house, she shared a bedroom with two other girls who had also tried to run. There were bars on the windows, and they were locked in every night with a dead bolt.

The threat of juvie didn’t scare Griselda. It just inspired her to be smarter. That year she didn’t run. That year she smartened up and came up with a plan: Earn trust. Get a job. Make money. Buy clothes. Dye your hair. Take the bus back to West Virginia. Figure out what happened to Holden.

Holden. Holden. Holden. Holden.

When August rolled around, right before senior year, she put her plan into action. She’d saved up $200 from her summer job at Wendy’s, which meant she had enough to take the bus from D.C. all the way to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

  Her plan worked too. No one bothered a young woman wearing a baseball cap and minding her business on an early morning bus. She made it to Harpers Ferry in two and a half hours, hefted her pack on her back, and walked west on Route 340 toward Charles Town. Seven miles and three hours later, she stopped at a diner, where she bought a tuna sandwich and got her bearings. It was another four-hour walk down Kabletown Road to the vicinity of Caleb Foster’s farm. By the time she got there, the sun was much lower in the sky.

   As she walked up the dusty path from the road, she could tell the place hadn’t been lived in for years. The grass was high and unkempt, and the paint on the house and the barn was peeling worse than it had been three years ago. But even more than that, there was a dead feeling to the place: no animals, no people, no fear, no hope, no life. Empty. Like a vacuum.

As she approached the abandoned house, Griselda could see that several windows were broken and the porch sagged in the corner where Caleb Foster used to sit on a stool in the shade reading Leviticus and Deuteronomy aloud, over and over again, in a booming, terrifying voice, as Griselda and Holden tended to the garden in the hot sun for hours on end.

He hath uncovered his sister’s nakedness; he shall bear his iniquity . . . Cursed be he that lieth with his sister . . .

She hated that she knew the words by heart. She hated that they ran through her mind on autopilot as she stared at the porch. She hated that her mind would never be free of them.

Auction notices were stapled to the front door and the two porch pillars, and the warm afternoon breeze made them flap lightly. At the base of the pillars were two long, rusted metal chains, the ends hidden somewhere under the porch. Griselda didn’t need to see the ends of the chains to know what was there. Her ankle twitched in remembrance of the tight metal cuff she’d been forced to wear on gardening days—a cuff that kept her tethered to the porch.

A shiver ran through her as she looked to the little garden plot where she’d first told Holden about her plan for escape. It was nothing but dead, dusty earth now, though she could still make out the several dozen rows they’d painstakingly created and tended together. She could almost hear the metallic jingle of the long, long chains that had almost sounded musical in the very beginning. Like Christmas bells with every step they took. Like the hope of being rescued.

“Oh, Holden,” she sobbed, sinking to the lowest porch step, her legs weary and her eyes burning. “Holden, I’m so sorry.”

What had she expected to find here? Sixteen-year-old Holden waiting for her? Freckled, tall, and healthy, smiling at her in hello? Stupid girl. They’d told her he was gone, and he was. Gone. And it was such a long way to come only to find nothing.

She flicked her glance to the back of the house, picturing the storm cellar doors in her mind. Caleb Foster would hold their chains in one hand and open each exterior door at the end of the day, when they were forced back into the dark hole. The old, sturdy doors would creak and growl, and he’d unlock their ankles right before they made their descent down the crumbling cement steps. After locking Griselda in her room, he’d leave—for a while, at least, if not until morning—slamming the two doors above their heads, and turning his key in the padlock.

Dare she revisit the site of so much pain?

Although she had no wish to be reminded of the darkest moments of her childhood, the strange contradiction of Griselda’s life was that the darkest times were also some of the best and brightest because Holden had inhabited those dark moments with her. Like a match light in the blackness, like hope in the midst of deep, desperate despair, he had been her only joy, and her prevailing source of comfort, strength, and spirit. She fought hard not to forget him. Even when it hurt so badly she ached and throbbed, and her regret was so overwhelming she thought it might be better to die, she still
fought
to remember the thousand nights in Caleb Foster’s cellar. She fought not to forget the sound of Holden’s voice, the color of his eyes, the touch of his fingers on her face, his breath against her skin. She only went on living because it was possible he was still living too.

Pulled toward the rickety storm doors, she was surprised to find the padlock and chain gone. Looking around, she found them, the chain like a rusty-colored snake, rotting in the long grass beside the cellar where she’d thrown it after picking the lock that morning three years ago.

And it told her something that the police wouldn’t have known: Holden hadn’t been locked back in. Holden and Caleb Foster had left immediately. In fact, they were probably long gone before Griselda ever even arrived in Charles Town.

She took a deep breath, trying to calm her racing heart, and pulled up one rotted wooden door, then the other. Taking a quick look at the waning sun, dread weighing down her movements, she slowly descended the stairs.

As she reached the bottom step, Griselda took in a deep breath, letting her eyes adjust to the dim light filtering in from the open doors behind her. It smelled achingly familiar, like mildew and earth, and she swallowed the lump in her throat as she stepped forward into the small, low-ceilinged room. Her foot knocked into something that clattered a short way across the packed dirt floor, and, realizing it was Holden’s tin porridge bowl, a small sob-like sound rose from deep in her throat. She leaned down and picked it up, fingering the edges, holding it against her chest like a talisman.

To her left stood the old iron cot with the thin brown-striped mattress where Holden had slept. Stepping gingerly across the room, still clutching the bowl, she stood beside it as tears streamed down her face. She pulled the bed away from the wall just a little, and there, scratched into the wall so lightly that the Man would never notice, were the letters
H+G
.

***

“Holden, tell me about your mama and daddy,” she whispered into the stark, cold silence.

Though she could feel his chest push lightly into hers, his every breath warming her neck every five seconds or so, she couldn’t see a thing. It was blacker than black at night, a darkness so consuming and pitch you might think the whole world had disappeared.

They were both very tired after a long day of gardening with the Man’s beady eyes watching their every move. They’d learned quickly that if Holden’s arm should brush Griselda’s, or her gaze should linger on Holden for too long, it meant a beating. Depending on the Man’s mood, one that could knock you out for hours, or just leave you in a world of pain for the rest of the day. The first time, it had taken weeks for Holden’s bruised ribs to heal. And Griselda still bore the mark on her chin where the man had split her face open a few days later. It hadn’t healed very pretty. When she ran her fingers over it, she could feel the uneven, bumpy scar that she’d probably have forever.

Griselda concentrated on Holden’s breathing, on the warm, comforting pressure of his arm slung over her hip. Her eyes were heavy, and it was warmer with Holden than it was in her own bed, but she knew better than to succumb to exhaustion and fall asleep together. If that ever happened, the Man would surely kill them.

Holden’s breath caught. “D-d-did you hear that?”

Griselda stopped breathing, and her whole body tensed, ready to roll off Holden’s bed to the floor and crawl a short way to the paneled wall that separated their rooms. Two months into their captivity, Holden had discovered a loose panel in the wall, and Griselda had become adept at rolling, crawling, pushing aside the loose panel without a peep, and returning to her room. So far, the Man had never discovered them together, and it had been their saving grace over the past two years to find comfort holding each other every night before bed.

She heard a low whimper on the other side of the door at the top of the stairs.

“Cutter,” whispered Griselda, listening for the sound of his claws clicking back across the floor upstairs. Once they heard them receding, they both exhaled in relief. It wasn’t the Man, about to come downstairs to administer “lessons.”

Holden squeezed Griselda closer to him and took a deep breath before saying the words softly, the same words he said every night. “M-m-my mother’s name was C-Cordelia, but my father called her C-Cory.”

“And your daddy . . .”

“. . . w-w-was named Will.”

“Cory and Will Croft.”

“Th-that’s right.”

“And one day, I’ll be Griselda Croft,” she said, moving on quickly because she heard the tears in his voice.

“Yep. You and me. W-w-we got to stay together.”

“Holden,” she said, shifting her body on the lumpy, dirty mattress to face him. She couldn’t see him, but she felt his breath against her lips. “When you take your time, you don’t stutter so bad.”

“S-s-stammer,” he corrected her for the thousandth time.

She tucked her head under his chin, snuggling a little closer, as he adjusted the arm draped over her waist, his fingers curling under her body as her chest pushed up against his. Resting her forehead in the curve of his neck, she closed her eyes for a moment and breathed in deeply, bypassing the smells of dirt and mildew, and finding Holden—warm skin and sweet boy and sunshine. She’d turned twelve a month ago, and she knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that she wanted that smell to whisk her to sleep every night for the rest of her life. Someday they wouldn’t have to say goodnight and part. Someday Holden would belong to her, in every possible way.

BOOK: Never Let You Go (a modern fairytale)
5.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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