snakes-and-ladders

JENNY 

Fear, when it seizes her, is like the tip of a waterdrop.  Ripe with tension at the end of the gargoyle’s chin just outside the window. She can’t look at it, and she can’t look away. No other outcome is possible, but for a few seconds anything is possible. Rescue, happiness, heroism.

Jenny knows she can never love a hero, no matter how fierce and dedicated he is, unless he also possesses a core of diamond-hard goodness. Diamonds, she knows, are almost unbreakable. She tries to imagine a good man with diamonds in his pocket, but the closest she gets is to picture a man with empty pockets in front of a table of diamonds.

She is ten, and she needs help.  Because she can’t possibly stop them from doing whatever they plan to do next.

At ten she knows enough, especially that she won’t be able to escape, given the shackle around her right ankle. Knows that the man and the woman who come to check on her are both equally tough and don’t have even a speck of goodness, even the woman with her glinting silver spectacles. Knows that no one can hear her in this house so far from the road no matter how hard she screams.  Even with her face against the window.  Like screaming in a bottle. Yet, with all that, in the dark room she sits alone in, she knows there are obligations, both for the hero and for herself. The obligations for the hero are doing the important things with merciless energy and never giving up. The obligations for her are to only wish for the hero when there is no other way and when it’s clear that the man with the tattooed left arm and the woman with the tray of food are coming for her for the last time.

Adults don’t keep children locked up unless they have plans for them. Unless they want to do something to them. She knows that.

When she woke in the small, bare room, she spent a couple of hours furiously trying to remove the shackle. But it was steel, and the lock was unforgiving. Pulling tore the skin around her ankle, and when the woman came to feed her, she hissed when she saw the bleeding shin and took away the tray of food. What was on the tray? Some bread and something, it was all too fast.  A small window let in a rectangle of gray light, and no greenery visible unless she stood, so she knew that the room was on the second level of the house. Matching gargoyles acted as water spouts on either end of the exterior windowsill.

The thing is not to cry. Crying means you’re overwhelmed. Or losing whatever precious power there is for escape.

She squeezes her eyes shut. Yes, she can make it. She squeezes harder. Jenny. Jenny Branch. She lives with her grandparents in Totnes and goes to St. Albans Primary School. She is going to go to the Torquay Grammar School for Girls next year. Her granddad has gout. Her grandma has rheumatism.

What happened? A blank spot.   Then a picture of herself walking after school and about to take a shortcut that would cut across the field so that she could avoid the long trek to the main road. A black van with tinted windows pulled up and before she could properly take in what was happening the door slid open and arms tried to pull her into the dark interior. But she’d escaped. She’d run all the way home and burst in through the front door. No one was in the living room or kitchen. Grandma? Grandpa? Then the front door opened.  A blur of movement with a masked man in black nylon windbreaker and black jeans. A chloroformed handkerchief pressed over her mouth and nose. A blank. She remembers waking in the van with a sack over her head. The van sped along and along. No one in the van was speaking.  She pretended to be unconscious as she lay on the floor. After a while she fell asleep. Then, a bustling into a strange house just as she was coming to.  A woman’s voice, sharp and curt, like a knife chopping rapidly through some soft vegetable to hit the board beneath. She was placed on a cot and fell asleep yet again as she heard the key turn in the lock.

Very quiet house. Sometimes muffled voices rise through the vents, and she can just make out the difference between male and female. Other times it is the heating fan every few minutes or the house settling like an exhausted sigh.

Why her?  Her grandparents have no money. The police will be looking for her.  Maybe, they’ll be looking. What might have happened to her grandparents? Please, not to hurt them, please not.  They almost never went out after she was done with school for the day.  If the police do get involved, there is no motive she can think of, so where will the police look?  They’ll get bored and give up. Something is going to happen, and very soon, she can feel it. She picks at the palm of her left hand as if it’s a scab. She has to be prepared.

 

ANDREA

Who are you?

Long, lean, and solid, but what? What are you? Not a side of beef.  Not an elk carcass.

Kneeling by him at the side of the road, Andrea poked his chest with a finger.  Of course Andrea knew she was in the wrong. Shouldn’t have tasered him with a double shot. The pulse was still there. He’d stepped out of the shadows, waving his arms. She’d stopped her car, and rolled down her window. He’d bent down, she’d smiled, and zapped him in the neck. Then she saw the deadly cable hanging from the overhead wires, torn probably by the storm that had come through a few hours before. So he’d only been trying to warn her on this narrow country road.

She finally had a man at her feet, and he had to be unconscious. A man she’d made unconscious. This was closer to intimacy than she’d been in two years. 

It’s not my fault. Not my fault. You and your kind are all so fucked. Either too fast or too slow. So, so slow. Can’t be trusted. Men are such a dangerous breed, but here the dangerous man is out cold, and I’m sitting at his side, wondering what to do. Will he sue me? Will I go to jail? Just wonderful. I’m only trying to protect myself from all the psychos, loonies, rapists, axe murderers. What’s a girl to do? Men have all the power. Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for Mr. Right? Forget it, I’m not telling you, it’s too pathetic, Yes, I’ve got the career. But dvds, cheap wine, and batteries don’t take me very far after hours.

I’m talking to you. Do you have the attention span of a sparrow? I need you to hear me. What kind of man are you? It would be good if you were a criminal. That would be very convenient.  You don’t look like a social worker. Dated one once, frayed collars and too much coffee look.

Why does it have to be so hard? Got this supposedly cushy job, a creative job, designing and writing video games and comic books. Makes me a member of the Cultural Creatives, some mob that have a lot of opportunities and money, but no t-shirt. What’s so cushy about seven day a week runs and 16 hour days when a deadline is looming? That can be three months we’re talking about. Then suddenly a slide back to six- hour days, four days a week. It’s what I do. Get used to it.

You creative types! You’re all the same, crazy and impulsive, wearing clothes that don’t match. Who says they don’t match? People should just mind their own effing business. Like the Dark Knight here. He’d be just fine skulking in the shrubbery or whatever he was doing if he’d not tried to be helpful.  Yes, people should just mind their own business. And they certainly do, at the wrong times. Texting me all day, but the phone sleeps in the evenings. You tell men you create video games, and at first they’re taken aback, like you’ve just said you were a fighter pilot, then they’re kind of tickled by the idea, then a bit fascinated, then they walk away. Because, like, a woman—designing  a video game? The idea leads them to some dark place of insecurity.

Well, that’s where I live, losers—a dark place of insecurity. What’s so bad about that? Cozy dark, sometimes a little ambiguous dark, sometimes a little hair-pulling dark. Life’s not perfect. But the darkness means you don’t have the glare of everyone else’s aura and buzz; it means you don’t have to listen to the world clacking along or grinding up its daily quota of victims.

I haven’t conjured you up. You’re definitely solid, too solid for my liking, if my toes have anything to say about it. I’ll have to wait until you’re awake. Ridiculous. Here, by intense-green farms with alfalfa and rounds of hay and shrubbery-lined country lanes. Dogs barking at crows. No heroes here. Battles are all about making ends meet and surviving frosts or blights and not looking at climbing interest rates and petrol costs. Get used to it.

I know tasers are illegal for civilians, but this is a war. A war.  Not an advertised war, not a war with economic benefits attached, but a war, nonetheless, against women. So I have a taser. An ex-boyfriend in the security business gave it to me. Warning it was illegal. So there you go: don’t use it, you could get done, but here it is anyway. A man’s gift.

It was the jogging after work. Like a fool I thought I could jog in the dark on the streets of London. The only time for me, really. And I don’t like exercise machines. Get me away from machines.

Tasers are awkward to run with. And illegal. So is, by the way, getting beaten and raped. Choose your misfortune. Getting raped or getting arrested for possession of an illegal weapon.  I keep mine in a bag that flaps at my side as I run. Got a bruise on my hip to prove it.

Do it by the book. The system will help you, if you let it. The men say so. Help. After the fact. So I should get beaten and concussed and raped. And THEN call the police. Who will come and take samples and interview me more than once. Excuse me. Excuse me, Mister Policeman, next week some time you will get hit over the head and kicked and then fucked in the ass. You know this not in the same way that you know the sun will be in the sky tomorrow, but in the same way that you know not to go into a certain abandoned building where you can hear creaks and thumps. You can always fill out a complaint report afterwards, so don’t worry about it. At least you don’t have to worry about getting pregnant.

You got the logic now? Well, I’m still uneasy about it all. Look at my dark knight helpless on the ground, maybe I’ve killed him. Three months ago I noticed this balding man, not short, but with a weaselly face.  He seemed to be around whenever I was jogging between 8:00 and 9:00 in the evenings. Had a certain stare that traveled. Every woman has the implanted knowledge of when she is prey, when her body prickles all over and her antenna sends a cold draft down her back and deep into her gut, and her chest feels an unwelcome touch. Nothing happened when I thought it might. I always accelerated and kicked into a longer stride that ate up the dark street. Then, suddenly, as it always is with bad news. A day or so later. Hit over the head from behind, punched in the back, and kicked in the hip as I struggled to get up again. Dragged me to a patch of dogvisited grass by an alley. He had my trousers down before I could clear my head. I was in pieces. Part of me was asking what was happening. Another fragment was observing it all dispassionately. A third was thinking no way I’m letting this happen to me. A fourth was wondering why my body wasn’t responding to the alarm bell in my head. He didn’t seem to have a knife or gun, but who knew. Grunting and panting and just then a dog barked close by and he stopped trying to wrestle me into a suitable position, and listened, and at that moment, I said, yes, thank you goddess, and I screamed and brought my knee up, and then swung my fist to box his ear as hard as I could. He rolled off and scrambled away in some pain. Not enough pain. I was lying on the ground saved by the bark of a dog and thinking I’d let him get away. Almost raped. Assaulted. That’s life in the big city, they say. Get used to it. That’s crap, I say.

– End of Chapter One –

 

 

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