Authors: Isla Morley
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OBBS WINS THE
fight easily. He shuts and locks the door. I feel a small sense of relief. With a hulking slab of metal separating us, I am finally able to breathe just a little. It is only when I hear another thump, another door closing someplace above me, that I understand: not only am I to be left alone; I am to be hidden.
I am a secret no one is able to tell.
Just like that, instead of wishing Dobbs gone, I am waiting for him to come back.
Surely, it won’t take long.
When Dobbs returns, I’ll take him off guard. I’ll push past him, dash outside, and sprint across the field. I will steer clear of the road. I’ll head for the line of sycamore trees along the creek. I’ll make my way east, and he won’t think to follow me there on account of its being trappers’ territory. Even if I do get snared, it’ll be better than this, because someone will find me. Nobody’s going to find me here, whatever here is. A dungeon? I can’t make any sense of it. A big round room with a massive pillar right through the middle of it. Contraptions, wires, pipes, spigots, dials. I keep my back turned to the space, keep my face pressed up against the door. It is made of steel and has a handle, although not like one I’ve ever seen. Something a bank might have on its vault.
What has he done? What’s happened to me?
Surely, Dobbs should be getting back by now. He’ll take me out of here. He’ll explain it to me, not like before, which didn’t make any
sense. He won’t be rough, either. Or cross. He’ll be nice, like how he is in the library.
I look at Grandpa’s pocket watch; only fifteen minutes have passed. Even though it is still ticking, I wind it tight. If only I were still at the Horse Thieves Picnic, our town’s annual tradition that I look forward to all year. The gathering that attracts a couple thousand people has since moved from its original location among the walnut trees of Durr’s Grove to Main Street, and its contests no longer include Largest Mustache for Boys Under 17 or Baby with the Worst Case of Colic, but there is still a parade and a carnival. Apart from the parade, the next most popular event is the concert at the bandstand, where Daddy, no doubt, is now line dancing. It takes no effort to imagine what my sister and brothers are doing. Suzie, with Lula Campbell, will be strutting around the midway looking for boys, and Gerhard, not actually bleeding to death from wrecking his pickup on I-70 like Dobbs had first said, will be off with his pals to scale the water tower. Having left the Horse Thieves Picnic early on account of Theo’s fever, Mama’s likely fallen asleep on her bed, the fan moving what the lazy July evening can’t be bothered to blow through the window. No one has probably even noticed that I’m gone. How long will it take them before they do? And when they do, where will they imagine I am? What will they think the cause for my absence is? They won’t be imagining anything bad, that’s for sure. Bad things don’t happen in Eudora, Kansas.
I look over my shoulder at the space behind me. The enormous concrete pillar and two partitions divide the round room into halves. Behind the partitions is where Dobbs said I could get myself something to drink. I can see a bit of the recliner, where I was I told to sit and wait.
I don’t like the looks of anything behind me, so I keep my eyes on Grandpa’s watch. The minute hand and I go for long walks around the numbers. And then the numbers, the watch face, and everything else disappear, just like the time lightning split the maple tree outside our living room and we all vanished in its blinding flash. It’s like that, except in reverse. The darkness has swallowed me whole.
I can’t see my hand, even when I hold it up to my face. Nothing
seeps through the darkness. I keep waiting for my eyes to adjust. The outline of the partitions or the big concrete pillar should be visible. I start shivering.
I think I hear something. “Dobbs?”
The darkness snatches my voice and issues nothing in return.
Don’t panic. The electricity’s gone out; give it a minute.
If this were home, Mama would be feeling her way to the pantry for the lantern and the matches she keeps on the top shelf. Gerhard would have the flashlight under his chin, his bottom teeth thrust outward and his eyes crossed and buggy, and Suzie would be getting all hysterical, as if he really were the bogeyman. And Daddy would be chiding Gerhard, but only halfheartedly, because there’s nothing better than spooking girls.
But this is not home. This is not any kind of place you’d put a person. What kind of things do people put in a place like this? How far underground am I? There were a lot of stairs and a long passage that kept making sharp left and right turns. And too many doors to keep track of. Locks.
Just think of home. Just give it a minute. Just wait.
There is no way to tell what time is doing. Has it been five minutes or half an hour? Shouldn’t the electricity have kicked back on by now?
There is a creak somewhere behind me, to the left. A shifting. My ears strain. I hold my breath so I can hear better. Is there something in here with me? Something doing the breathing for me? In. Out. Sounds like air through clenched teeth. Something with its lips drawn back. Oh Lord, what if it comes for me?
I mustn’t move. Not a sound, or I will give myself away.
How could anything have entered? Is there a hole in the wall? Maybe the noise is nothing but a draft coming through a vent. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe some inner door opened. Because this no longer feels like a confined space but a very large one, widening still.
There is something behind this door, too. Something that turns it freezing cold. I scoot back, exposed. On my hands and knees, I shuffle over to where the kitchen is supposed to be. I must hide. Hurrying as fast as I can, I ram straight into something. My head about cracks. I can’t make any sense of what I’ve hit—something with knobs. I keep hurrying, this time with one hand outstretched.
My hand locates the leg of the table. I get under it, bring my knees up to my chin, and grip myself tightly. Maybe whatever is making the sound is one of those things that can see in the dark. Which means it can see me under the table with the chair legs pressed against me. It doesn’t help to tell myself my imagination is playing tricks on me. Please. Oh, please.
Sit still. Don’t move. Quiet. Ssh. Help me, someone, please, God.
The light snaps on. The first things I see are Dobbs’s shoes. Suede beige moccasins. The second thing I see is the gap behind that massive metal door after he’s entered. Maybe he will think I’ve run off. Maybe he’ll think me gone, head back upstairs, leave the door open.
“What are you doing under there? Silly girl. Come on out.” The shoes approach.
I don’t move.
“Come on. We’ve got work to do. I said I’d be back, didn’t I?”
I crawl out. “I’d like to go home, please.”
“We’re not going home now. I’ve explained that. Ten times already. I need us to finish our task. Teamwork, remember? Me, you, a team?”
“Please, I need to get back home. I’ve got chores and there’s my book report and my mother’s not going to be happy if—”
He puts down a sheaf of paper on the table and then pulls out a chair for me.
“Is this about the library books?” Theo had scribbled in them. I’d offered to pay the fine, but Dobbs had said not to worry. Now he’s changed his mind; he aims to punish me. Has to be it. It can’t be anything else. Why else would he be so calm, like people are supposed to be when disciplining kids? I’ve never noticed before that his eyes are spaced too far apart and are too small for such a long face. Barely
noticeable are the features that are supposed to give a face definition: his eyebrows are thin and, like his eyelashes, fair; and his lips are the same pale color as the rest of his face. His skin from hairline to lips to drawn-out chin is that of a chicken before it goes into the oven. If it wasn’t for his thinning hair neatly combed over his ears, plucked is how he’d look.
His plaid shirt is tucked in. Clip-on tie perfectly straight.
I do as he says. “Can we hurry? Because my mom and dad are going to get worried pretty soon. And then they’ll think—”
“They’re going to think what we want them to think.” Dobbs Hordin snaps the lid off the pen. The noise startles me. Only now do I realize there are no other sounds down here.
He pushes the pen in my hand, puts a crisp white sheet of paper in front of me, then takes from his top pocket a note, which he irons flat with his hand. “Copy this, word for word; no embellishing.” Tidy words, like buttons in a row. They’re for me to fasten up, fasten something that needs covering, putting away. The note I’m supposed to copy reads:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I know this will come as a shock to you. I have taken the bus to a city far away. Please don’t try to find me. I will write again when I am settled. Please don’t worry.
From your daughter,
They’ll know from the very first line this didn’t come from me. Won’t they?
I scoot back. “You’re taking me away?” Shouldn’t there by a why in there someplace, too?
“Write.” He taps a long nail on the blank page. “The sooner you write this, the sooner we can move on.”
There are going to be a dozen ways to escape, none of them from here. I write the first word, but I’m seeing myself at the counter of some down-at-the-heel diner where the waitress has everything sized up
before Dobbs is through ordering. Finish the letter and get going, I tell myself. The sooner you get to that diner, the better. And if not that, then out the window of a 7-Eleven restroom.
Dobbs leans over me and watches me copy each word. He’s too close. I can feel his breath on my neck. He smells of mouthwash.
He puts his hand on the table next to mine. Underneath it is the poem I’d written while waiting for Arlo at the Horse Thieves Picnic tonight. He mutters and shakes his head.
“You had no problem writing this.” I ask him to give me back the poem, but he tucks it into his shirt pocket and says, “You really feel this way? Over that boy?” As though there is something deficient about Arlo, as though the last thing a sixteen-year-old should be doing is giving Arlo Meier the light of day, much less her heart.
I feel the heat rise to my cheeks.
He bends toward the paper I am working on. He says, “I’ve always admired your handwriting,” before taking it away and tearing it up.
The next two attempts go the same way, but I can’t write the note without some little clue for my mother, something she can use to show the police officer, so she can say, “See, Blythe would never be so careless with her loops.” Or “She never forgets to cross her
’s, but see here—three in a row.” And if they don’t believe her, she can fish out my diary and hold it up against the note. It won’t take but a quick comparison by a handwriting expert to see what is going on. “Yes, she is being held against her will. Be on the lookout for a man with wispy hair and teeth so uniformly stubby they look filed or gnashed, like the Bible says. Five ten, hundred and seventy pounds, middle forties, queer habit of clearing his throat when agitated. Look for a silver Oldsmobile with a rosary draped over the rearview mirror.”
“I’ll take that,” Dobbs says of my next attempt, and hands me a fresh page.
With him watching so closely, I try to be more careful. On every other line, I write a letter backward.
Dobbs slips the paper from under my hand, crumples it. “We can do this all night, if you want.”
On the new page, my handwriting is impeccable. Every
crossed. He thinks I am complying. He doesn’t seem to notice when I press down on a letter a little harder. If Mama turns the page over, those letters should stick out a little. If they do, even a blind man will see what’s happening. All she has to do is run her fingers lightly over the letters, rearrange them in her head, and they are going to spell
. Nothing more need be said, because she’ll be right back to that night two years ago when Dobbs Hordin turned up in our living room, rousing her suspicions like a stick in a nest of sleeping copperhead snakes.
Eudora’s country roads, gravelly and rutted, are chancy at night. A car found this out the hard way. We heard the crash, and we followed Daddy out to see, even though we’d been told to stay put. And there was the Oldsmobile: high-centered, back wheels spinning, turn signal flashing as though it intended to wind up in Lester Pickett’s cornfield. Daddy helped the driver from his car and ushered him up to our front porch, where I could see it was Mr. Dobbs Hordin from the school library. Apart from a tiny spot of blood on his forehead, he seemed fine. Mama served him a glass of warm sugar water, while Daddy went back to the car to wait for Sheriff Rumboldt.
“You have a wife we can call, Mr. Hordin?”
He sipped his water, clutching the quilt around his neck. “Please don’t go to any trouble, ma’am. I’m mighty sorry for the inconvenience to you and your family.”
“Some relative, perhaps?” Creasing Mama’s brow was the same little frown she got when she read a recipe and came to an ingredient that seemed out of place. Dobbs Hordin wouldn’t have known, as we kids did, how you could measure the length of Mama’s frown and determine the amount of trouble you were in. “There must surely be
I can call.”
“You know my children?” she asked after learning he worked at the high school.
It wasn’t exactly a denial, but it was an omission, and Mama says omissions qualify as lies. Dobbs Hordin had, in fact, recommended two books to me the previous week. He’d been especially nice about it, too. Asked my name, asked what it was about nineteenth-century poetry that caught my fancy so. And there he was in our living room, telling Mama in so many words he’d never seen the likes of me.
Later, when the car had been towed away and Sheriff Rumboldt had given Mr. Hordin a ride back home, I could hear Mama and Daddy talking in their bedroom.
“He wouldn’t let me call anyone. Can you imagine that?”
“Shock can do funny things to a man.”
“Seemed awful calm to me. There’s something about that man that doesn’t set right. Why would he be driving down our way when he lives clear across town, especially at this time of night?”
Mama, you’re going to have to look especially close at this note if you want to know who’s got me. Before signing my name to the note, I give him a hard look. “We were nice to you. We helped you.”
He’s got that same calm expression, just as he had when Mama quizzed him. Dobbs folds up my letter and tucks it in an envelope. When he licks it, his tongue is basting with spit, like his appetite’s been whetted. “Now, let me show you around.”
What he calls the kitchen is not much more than the table I hid beneath, three chairs, several metal bookshelves loaded with canned goods, and a counter with a gas stove and a kettle. There is a stand and a washbasin and a storage space with cubbies. Each plastic tub in it is clearly labeled:
TUPPERWARE, FIRST AID, LAUNDRY SUPPLIES
. Where are the windows is what I’d like to know. There must be one in the restroom.
“I need to use the facility,” I announce, to see if I’m right.
He leads me around the partitions to a narrow door that opens to a stall the size of the broom closet. “Powder room,” he announces.
There’s a drum with a toilet lid on it. Next to it is a stack of boxes labeled
, along with a mound of toilet paper rolls and written instructions taped to the wall about how to separate the toilet bowl from the waste reservoir beneath it, when to add disinfectant, and how to use something called an accordion valve to flush water from the top tank into the bowl. He taps the sheet. “A chem-john’s a little different from what you’re used to, so be sure to follow all the steps, please.”
He closes the door. No window, only walls made from the kind of pressed board with holes in it. I can hear him shuffling about on the other side. Can he see me in here?
Mama! Help me. What do I do now?
How do I get up those stairs and back on the other side of that door? When he brought me here it was still light outside. We drove up to what looked like a concrete outhouse, except it was an entrance of some sort: a door, two narrow concrete walls on either side of it, and a little overhang, and that was all. You see a door like that, with nothing behind it but a big open field, and you think it’s a joke. He says it leads to the safest place in the world, and because you’ve already had the bejesus scared out of you being told your brother’s been in a car crash, you want to be somewhere safe. You step through it. You go down concrete steps so steep and so narrow that you have to hold on to the wall. Through more doors and into a circular room that looks like a giant drum. That’s all it takes to be completely cut off from Eudora, Kansas, population 2,200, on the town’s biggest night of the year. I’d still be at the Horse Thieves Picnic if I hadn’t got fed up waiting for Arlo, if I hadn’t decided to walk home without telling anyone. If I hadn’t climbed into Dobbs Hordin’s ugly car.
“You done in there?” he asks through the holes in the wall.
I step out. “I want to go home. Right now.”
He scratches his head. “I don’t know how else to explain it to you.”
It’s eerie, the silence down here. No cicadas screeching from the elm trees; no kettle on the boil. No lawnmowers; no tractor churning up a nearby field in the last light. If we were aboveground, I might be
able to hear the distant strains of music at the carnival, or at least the faint roar of freeway traffic on K-10, maybe a crop duster headed for a barn. But underground, there is nothing but the sinusy breath of Dobbs Hordin and those briny eyes thinking of a way to explain something that makes no sense.
“Maybe if I show you. Come with me.” He offers me his hand.
I shove mine under my armpits.
He makes a sweeping gesture as though by some miracle this is not the room in which I have just spent the last couple of hours but some new place that wants discovering. “I call this the Ark.”
We move to the section that is meant to look like a living room. Between two brown recliners is a bronze floor lamp with a yellowed shade. On top of a rickety chest of drawers is an artificial potted plant. It is exotic-looking, leaves shaped like tongues. The shag carpet in mustard and orange colors matches the curtains, which don’t frame a window but hang around a paint-by-numbers picture—a boy reclining next to a creek, his straw hat pulled over his eyes, a fishing pole at his side.
“My mother took up painting when my brother died. She said that’s how she pictured my little brother, Elby, in heaven.”
It’s hideous, I want to shout.
On the other side of the Peg-Board partition is a supply closet and what he calls “sleeping quarters.” The cot has a folded quilt at one end, a pillow at the other, and smack-dab in the middle a white teddy bear with a big red bow—something you might win at a stall on the midway. Hanging from the ceiling is a plastic curtain that Dobbs pulls till it makes a cubicle, like the one they have you change in at Dr. Hubacher’s office. “For privacy,” Dobbs says, as though that explains everything.
He points to the clothes rack. “These should all fit.”
The dresses are from another era, with pleated sleeves, modest necklines, fitted bodices, and long A-line skirts. Beneath their hems is a tub marked
. Next to it are two pairs of ballerina flats—one black, the other tan—and a pair of house slippers. “Blue—your favorite color, right?”
I start to shake. I tell myself this is not the time to be weak. This is the time to be strong. To fight him. “You tricked me.” My voice quavers. I try again, loudly this time. “You lied!”
“Yes, I’m sorry about that.”
Could it really have been little more than two hours ago when Dobbs had leaned out of his car window, stopping beside me on the street? I had my face set to smile even though the evening, having started with such promise, had been such a letdown, and even though I had the long walk home ahead of me. The poem I’d written on the bleachers was crumpled in my hand, the misery of waiting for and then giving up on Arlo too clichéd for iambic pentameter. “There’s been an accident,” Dobbs had said. “Your brother.” That was all it took for me to leap into the passenger seat. He had to reach across me to close the door, had to belt me in. I had forgotten simple tasks. And then he was driving down Winchester Road, and I couldn’t imagine why he was still going the speed limit. When he turned left on the county road instead of heading for Lawrence, I asked, “Aren’t we going to the hospital?” “I’m sorry it has to happen this way,” had been Dobbs’s reply. I thought he meant my brother, twisted and bloodied, fighting for his twenty-year-old life, and my having to carry such a load at the age of sixteen. It hadn’t made sense. Not so much the words as the tone of his voice—flat. The way he kept his eyes on the rearview mirror—flat, too. There was a bumpy dirt road and a gate and a sign:
TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT
. Dobbs had gotten out of the car. He’d unlatched the gate and pushed it into a thick patch of foxglove.
That’s where everything might as well stop. Right there, with me sitting patient as you like, hands folded tightly in my lap, watching Dobbs wedge the gate in the weeds. Before the word
had a chance to cross my mind.
Now, it is fully formed.
I had slipped into the driver’s seat.
I had backed out of the driveway.
I hadn’t sat there, so quietly, with all the alarm bells ringing in my head.