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She came in here with her brand-new shoes. Happy. I don’t know her, but I’d seen her at school.
I think her name’s Rebecca. Maybe Rachel. Something with an R. She was a freshman. A year younger than me. Maybe she’s still a freshman. I don’t know how much time has passed; I don’t know how long I’ve been here.
“Please,” she begs, but he doesn’t stop hurting her.
It never stops.
I wish I felt more for her. I almost wish I could feel it the way I used to. Could suffer her fear alongside her, but I can’t anymore. I can’t let myself feel it.
There have been seven girls since the night I came here. To this room. This forgotten place for forgotten girls.
The room is a box. There’s nothing on the walls. No posters or pictures or even a tacky wreath. Nothing to make it more than a room. The walls are just place markers. Beige and boring and broken. The holes came later. With the damage that fills the room.
“Please,” the girl says again.
There’s gum on her shoe. That’s what I look at, because otherwise, I have to look at him. His familiar and confusing smile.
The gum’s on her left shoe. They’re brand-new, looking like they just came out of a box, but the soles don’t care. There’s a giant wad of gum smeared across the bottom. She would’ve been mortified if she’d realized it. I mean, before. I don’t think gum’s a priority now. Still, it bugs me. The way it got onto her new shoes. The way it took something good, something beautiful, and slowly ruined it without her knowing. I hate the way these unseen things damage us in secret.
It was pink, although most of it’s grime now from being on the bottom of her shoe. In the cracks, though, in the places where the dirt couldn’t reach, pink still sneaks through. I hope for the pink. I wish for it, because I have to focus on gum.
She’s so pretty. Of course she is. They’re all pretty. I suppose it should be flattering, to be one of them. It means I’m pretty, too. That was all I thought I wanted. To be part of something. To be special.
I don’t feel pretty. I don’t feel special, either. I don’t feel much.
Keep looking at the gum.
I don’t want to look up. I don’t want my eyes to travel to the tops of her shoes, to her blue-and-white socks, up her pale legs. I don’t want to see it. I’ve seen it so many times now.
I can’t let myself look at him. Don’t want to remember how his hands felt. All the things he said to me. The way he touched me. The same way he’s touching her. That invasion of something you don’t know how to hold on to. I force myself to forget those things.
Just think about gum.
So I try, instead, to remember gum. I remember how it was, even if I can’t taste it. I remember the first day of school. How we carried it like a weapon. We walked into classrooms, challenged our teachers with the knowledge that we carried it. It took maybe a day to realize the teacher didn’t care anyway. Why would they? It was only gum.
But every so often, there’d be one teacher who agonized over the residue stuck to the underside of the chair when they went to flip it over, as they put the classroom back into its evening state of waiting.
I miss the pettiness of it all. The way we think when the world still makes sense and spins altogether for us. When gum is nothing more than gum. When it doesn’t cling to the shoes of a girl who’s crying.
Oh, God, I need her to stop crying.
“Why are you doing this?” she asks.
He doesn’t answer. He’s a cliché. He looks for the young ones, the pretty ones.
The weak ones.
That’s it, though, isn’t it? He thinks we’re all weak.
He takes off her shoes and there’s nothing left to stare at. Nothing except him. With her. His hands are clean today, but they were so dirty that night. He hadn’t even bothered to wash his hands for me.
Without the gum, without anything to distract me, I close my eyes and pretend not to know what he’s doing. While she cries, I ignore her. Try not to hear. Try not to remember how he laughed. I try not to feel the way the carpet scratched my skin.
I wonder about the people who lived here before. They left furniture, boxes. Most of what made them a family. All the things that made this a home. When they left, they probably thought someone else would come along. That someone would make this house a part of their lives. Maybe exist like they had. I don’t think they imagined this.
Would it have changed anything if they’d known? I’ve seen how some of them leave. Strangers forcing them to choose which things to keep. What to save. What parts of home aren’t linked to that sense of place.
“You’re hurting me,” the girl cries, interrupting my thoughts.
Shut up, I think, dreaming about the ghosts. The ones who were here until it was forgotten. I wonder if they had kids.
I bet they cried when they left. Not for the reasons Rebecca/Rachel is crying. They cried because it was their home. Sure, maybe there was another house somewhere, but a house isn’t the same as home. A house has walls and rooms and a roof. Home is the annoying rattle the pipes make in winter when you get up before school to brush your teeth. The rattle that you miss when you stay somewhere else. Home is knowing exactly where the trash can is.
There was one time—several years ago now—I watched the people across the street as they lost whatever fight they were trying to win. We stood on our front lawn, like the rest of our neighbors. We were helpless while the sheriff’s department dragged them from the house. Changed the locks as they watched. Separated them from everything they were. Because the bank said they were out of time.
When I was younger, I didn’t understand. It was sad and it bothered me, but I didn’t feel it the way I do now. Seeing what someone’s home becomes. What the banks were saving. This room is what they created.
Hollow Oaks, New York, is an impossible town. It’s impossible for people to stay here, just like it’s impossible for anyone to find me.
I wish I could remember when I came to this room. I remember gum, but not time. I don’t know how many days or weeks or years have passed. I don’t know how long ago the people who owned this place left. I don’t know how long I’ve been here or how long it will take until they remember I’m missing.
But I do remember before. Vivid details and memories of even the smallest things. Gum. The smell of rose petals. The way it felt crawling into bed after the sheets had just been washed. Yet I can’t remember how long it’s been. I only remember after. A perpetual state of after.
“No,” the girl says.
I just want her to be quiet. I don’t want to be here, but I can’t seem to get away. There’s only folding myself into before.
There has to be an end to this. There has to be a finite number of girls. There has to be a limit to how many times I can hear the word no.
There has to be a limit to how many times this can happen.
Copyright © 2018 by TE Carter