Authors: Diane Hoh
I need air.
Every time they put me in this dark, narrow, airless space, they insist, as I struggle and scream in fury at them, that there is plenty of air.
But they lie.
It is always the same. In only minutes, my chest begins to ache, as if giant claws are squeezing it. My head hurts as my lungs struggle to pull in enough oxygen. I feel dizzy, as if I’ve been spinning in circles for hours.
But I haven’t been. Because there isn’t enough room in my dark, musty chamber to spin, or even to walk. Not enough room to take two steps forward or two steps backward. No room to lie down, and sitting is almost impossible in this tall, dark, narrow, box, unless you
crunch up your legs so that your knees are jabbing into your stomach like cattle prods. A very painful position, and those times when I’ve been forgotten in here and had been sitting like that, I was totally unable to walk when they finally remembered and came to let me out. My legs had frozen in their folded-up position. They had to reach in and lift me out. I’m not exactly lightweight, and they had a hard time. That made them mad. But it was their fault for forgetting me.
Dark. It is so completely black, as if I’d suddenly gone blind. There are no windows in my box, not so much as a tiny crack to let in a sliver of light from the hall outside. And it is quiet, deathly quiet. The wood is thick. Only the loudest sounds penetrate, sounding vague and distant, as if my ears were stuffed with cotton. Faint voices, an unrecognizable note or two of music, occasional muffled footsteps. This place is almost soundproof.
Which makes it as lonely as an isolated mountaintop in Tibet, or the very depths of an ocean, unoccupied by even the bravest of sea creatures.
The sense of isolation is unbearable.
But that’s their goal, isn’t it? To make it unbearable.
It stinks in here, too. The smell of human panic is everywhere, oozing from the gray-brown boards. Some of the smell is probably mine, past and present.
Once … maybe it was the first time they locked me in here … I broke every fingernail, ripped them to shreds, trying to claw my way out. And once … maybe
was the first time, I had no voice left when they finally set me free. Couldn’t talk above a whisper for three days, from the shouting and screaming to be let out.
Air. I need air.
I won’t forget this. It won’t be forgiven. Ever. It should never have happened to me. I didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t necessary.
That’s what I get for trusting.
Never again. I’ve learned my lesson, here in my dark, silent, torture chamber. Trust is for fools. I will never be that foolish again. Never.
I won’t always be trapped in this small, airless hellhole. I’ll be free soon. Free to go about my business.
The business of getting even. Payback time.
I know exactly how to go about it. I have a plan. A wonderful plan. Thinking about carrying it out has kept me from going insane in this loathsome place.
But first, I have to get out. I have to be freed from this medieval nightmare. This obscene box.
HE WOMAN STANDING AT
the sink in the bright, sunny, blue and white kitchen was short but sturdy, with a broad, solid back and plump shoulders. Wiry, graying hair fought to escape the confines of a brightly printed yellow and rust bandana that matched both the woman’s cotton dress and her full-length apron. She had made the outfit herself and was very fond of it, even though her best friend, Sunshine Mooney, had said, “My heavens, Mave, in that get-up, you look like a bunch of bananas going bad!” Silver hoops dangled from Mavis’s ears and matching silver bangles dotted her thick wrists as age-spotted hands scrubbed at a teabag stain in the bottom of the white porcelain sink.
A country song whined from the black portable radio sitting on the blue-tiled counter at Mavis’s elbow. As she scrubbed, she sang along with it, at the top of her lungs, in a nasal, off-key voice.
A pair of hummingbirds hovered at the feeder outside the wide window above the sink. Every few minutes Mavis, continuing to scrub diligently, would glance up from her task and gaze in wonder at the tiny, busy birds. “Most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” she would murmur in awe, “no bigger than some insects I’ve seen in my time. But so much prettier. Amazing!” Then she would resume her discordant vocalizing.
People who had heard Mavis sing said, “Well, Mavis couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow, but she sure is loud.” This was true, as Mavis herself laughingly admitted.
But on this particular, beautiful, early-spring morning, the volume at which Mavis sang her favorite country tune would be her undoing. Because her heartfelt caterwauling kept her from hearing the black metal latch on the back door lift upward surreptitiously, making the telltale clanking sound that it always made.
If Mavis hadn’t been shaking the thick, wooden, kitchen ceiling beams with her voice, she might have heard that telltale clanking sound.
And she might have been saved.
But because she was wailing, “You-oo hurt me so-oo bad!” at the top of her lungs, Mavis failed to hear that telltale clank, or the ensuing creak of the metal hinge as the back door swung open, or the soft, whispery footsteps entering from the small, enclosed back porch that housed a freezer, an old wicker chair and table, and a collection of house plants. Her back to the kitchen, she never heard the footsteps crossing the blue and white squares of floor tile and tiptoeing up behind her.
Lost in the song, Mavis failed to sense a new presence in the room. She was unaware of any approaching danger until it was too late. Cruel and powerful hands encircled her throat from behind, cutting into her windpipe and abruptly ending her song in mid-note.
The hummingbirds outside the kitchen window went on about their business, unperturbed as Mavis, with strength surprising for her age, struggled valiantly for her life.
In spite of her surprising strength, she struggled in vain.
When the last breath of air had been cruelly choked from her body, she gave one last, despairing sigh and went completely limp, like the wet dishrag still clutched in her left hand.
A voice behind her whispered, “Done! Took long enough. Tough old crow! Now, what am I going to do with you? Can’t have the lady of the house tripping over you when she comes home.”
Eyes cold with a lack of emotion glanced around the sunny room. The inert corpse in garish rust and yellow sagged to the floor. “Ah, yes,” the whisper said triumphantly, “I see the perfect place. Come along now, like a good girl, time’s a-wastin’.”
Mavis, who only moments before had been singing at the top of her lungs, made no sound at all as a hand reached down to yank at her gaily printed headscarf and use it to drag the lifeless body across the blue and white floor tiles. Mavis’s left leg slid limply through a small spill of coffee on one cold square. She had meant to mop the floor the minute she finished the sink and counter. She had thought she had plenty of time, the way people always do when they begin an ordinary day no different from any other.
But Mavis had been wrong.
She hadn’t had time, after all.
The hummingbirds’ wings fluttered without interruption as they continued their morning feast. In the kitchen, a soft, smooth voice on the radio sang seductively about a lovers’ tryst on a stormy summer night.
But this time, the voice sang alone.
The off-key but enthusiastic voice of the middle-aged woman who loved bright colors and bangle bracelets and hoop earrings and hummingbirds and who had never in her life deliberately hurt another human being, had been silenced.
ELL, WHAT I WANT
to know,” Sandy Trotter said to Tanner Leo across the table at Vinnie’s, “is when you’re going to have your first party now that your father has abandoned you and taken off for Hawaii, leaving you in that gorgeous house all by your lonesome.”
Tanner winced at the word “abandoned” and self-consciously ran a hand through her long, wind-blown, dark-brown wavy hair. Leave it to Sandy. Her friends all joked that tall, skinny Sandy had never learned to engage her brain before she put her mouth in motion. Impulsive, always in a rush, a little high-strung, she was constantly sticking her foot in her mouth. She’d just done it again. Sandy knew as well as any of Tanner’s friends that Tanner’s father, the psychiatrist and teacher Dr. Milton Leo, actually
walked out on his wife and daughter when Tanner was eight. Knowing that Tanner was still sensitive about it, no one else mentioned it. Trust Sandy to forget and use the word “abandoned.”
“Sandy …” Jodie Lawson, Tanner’s best friend, said in a shocked undertone. Jodie, whose real name was Joellen, was small, thin, and plain, with short brown hair and glasses.
Sandy shrugged. “I repeat, when’s the first big bash? I’ve got a brand-new outfit I’m dying to wear. Tangerine, off-the-shoulder, gorgeous. Come on, Tanner, what are you waiting for? Your father’s been gone over an hour already!”
Charlie Cochran squeezed Tanner’s hand and said drily, “What are you, Salem’s entertainment director, Sandy? Give Tanner time to catch her breath.”
Tanner smiled at him gratefully. That was Charlie, her biggest supporter. Always there when she needed him. “Look,” she said, “I’d love to have a party, and I will. But I just took my father to the airport this morning, and it feels like he’s still
I can almost smell his pipe. Give me a break, okay? Let me get used to the idea that I’m living in that house alone now. Except for Silly, of course. But she’s not there at night. I’ll have the biggest bash you’ve ever seen the minute I can’t feel his eyes on me watching to make sure I’m folding the towels into thirds instead of halves, and placing the couch pillows facing out instead of sideways, and taking the plants into the kitchen to water them so they don’t leave water rings on the hardwood floor in his study.”
Jodie, relaxing since Tanner hadn’t been offended by Sandy’s insensitive comment, laughed. “It’s hard to believe your father’s a psychiatrist. He’s so utterly compulsive! Maybe you should suggest that he see a good therapist.”
Everyone laughed, except Tanner. She had given in to her mother’s urgings and come to Twin Falls to live with her father in order to get a free education. Besides seeing private patients in town, her father taught at the college, thus his children, meaning Tanner Melissa Leo, could attend Salem University free of charge. She had had no desire to see her father after all these years, much less live with him, but her mother was adamant. “Free is free,” she’d said crisply, “and he owes us. I’m off to the Orient for a much-needed and well-deserved vacation, and you’re off to Twin Falls, New York, end of conversation.” Then she had added ominously, “He’s not an easy man to live with. But you’re tough. You can take it. And it’s only for four years.”
Tanner had learned quickly how right her mother was. Her father was a stern, unexpressive man who required great peace and order in his life. But Tanner felt no sense of peace in living with him. He was as different from her easygoing, almost sloppy mother as night from day.