We are not where we are buried. We are where they kept us. We float now, and see the low building in the woods from above, the long plates of rusted metal, the desiccated grass bundling against the sides like a pyre, the orb spider poised over a corroded edge. But when we were alive, we only knew the inside of the basement, where we had all the usual things girls have when they are being held and killed.
There are thirteen of us girls. You might be thinking, oh, but can you really call yourselves girls? None of us are under eighteen, it’s true. But girls waterproofs us—somewhat—from the assumption that we deserve to be here. Girls makes it sound as though we should have been protected.
Not that girls are ever protected, but we are dead, so let us have this.
• • • •
This is Sandy. We hate her. She was Trevor’s “girlfriend.” She lured many of us here.
No I didn’t, she protests.
Don’t listen to her. She may not have led us with a trail of gumdrops and the promise of a candy house, but she smiled at us, laughed openly, so friendly, put us at ease as we slid into their car.
Look, they’ve got a woman with them, we thought. They must not be murderers.
We understand now: assume they are all murderers.
• • • •
We are where they kept us. They drag the new girl through the heavy steel door, a cloth wrapped tight around her face. Number fourteen.
Rolly steers her while Trevor presses the mouth of his gun against her back, herding her down the steps. Down here.
Oh no, we think. Oh no.
• • • •
This is Kaitlyn. She loved baking, especially cookies—the kind you taste once and give up store-bought forevermore. Sometimes she added lemon zest to chocolate chip, she tells us. People don’t expect it, and if you add too much you’re screwed, but just enough? With that butter and brown sugar? Perfect.
Kaitlyn wore a brace on her left leg. They keep it upstairs in a peeling kitchen full of stains.
Kaitlyn’s favorite color is strawberry frosting pink.
• • • •
Jenn loved really sappy romance movies. Bonus points if it was a Christmas story. She’d listen to those movies any month of the year, even in August. Give her a meet-cute, give her a Pride and Prejudice first dislike, give her a bad—but not unfixable—misunderstanding, give her a kiss and maybe a proposal at the end. So long as everyone ends up happy.
Jenn is blind (even now), but she says she understands the concept of color, and there’s nothing like rose red. Soft petals against your lips, scent heady as passion. I like classic, she says.
• • • •
We wish we were zombies. We wish we were vampires. We wish we were werewolves. We wish we were she-demons with long claws. We wish the full moon rose and our stories ended with us picking our captors out from between our teeth. We wish we’d been stronger. We wish we’d lived.
• • • •
The new girl’s shaking, and we know where her head is at, propeller spinning with no air to catch. She’s trying to take in her surroundings, find a handhold.
And the smell. It smells like them down here; there is no question of what will happen to her.
Her name is Monica. She keeps trying to introduce herself. She doesn’t ask Trevor or Rolly their names; she’s probably reasoning that if she can’t identify anybody, they’ll let her go.
Cooperate, and maybe they won’t kill you. Cooperate too much, and maybe it’ll just make it easier for them to kill you. Fight from the start, come hell or high water. Cooperate, get your bearings, find the right moment to strike—
Or at least, that’s the idea. Monica tries to make a break for it, but there’s no smooth spring and extension of spine like in an action movie. She hesitates for a sliver of a second, and that’s when Trevor grabs her by the hair and drags her the rest of the way.
She struggles. She cries. She pleads. They shackle her ankle so that with the length of the chain she won’t be able walk more than three feet past the stained and spore-thick futon in the corner.
• • • •
Netta worked as a farmhand. She didn’t like the drudgery, but she adored the songbirds at the edge of the fields. She knows them by their song, by the sound of their wings. She makes us laugh doing impressions of the perpetually vexed catbird, mew, of the dashing but tone-deaf cedar waxwing, scree. She teaches us to hiss when we see cowbirds because holy shit, what a bunch of assholes.
At least my babies weren’t with me, she keeps saying. Her daughter’s favorite bird was the chickadee, her son’s the blue jay. She taught them to hold their palms out flat with sunflower seeds, to be patient while the birds summoned up the courage to land on their hands.
My sister and I were close, she tells us. I’m sure she must have taken them in after I didn’t come home. She nods to herself and we agree with her instantly: She must have.
Netta loves the goldfinches most, birds that barely bend a stalk of thistle with their fairy weight. In the spring the males take on happy yellow feathers, and that’s her favorite color.
• • • •
Deanna lived above her cousin’s garage, and the moment she’d get home from working retail she’d binge-watch television series until she fell asleep.
When her old friends from high school texted her she’d ignore them, not because she didn’t like them but because somehow the thought of responding made her feel so heavy. The same with her laundry, with her mail, with leaving home in general.
After talking to Sasha, Deanna thinks she probably was depressed. She wonders if she could have gotten better.
When I put my hand on the car door, she says, I felt this zap in my eyes, like I’d touched a live wire. I just knew.
She tried to calmly turn around, amicably decline, but it was three against one, so. Deanna remembers, clearly, that she managed to hook a finger under the door handle when they had her in the backseat. But it was locked.
Her favorite color is the purple of the lilacs that lined her neighbor’s yard when she was growing up.
• • • •
You want us to stop talking about ourselves. You want to know about them. Everyone wants to know about them, and if they ever get caught, they’re all anyone will hear about. You want to know if their mothers made them wear dresses when they didn’t want to wear dresses, if their fathers locked them in with rabid dogs, if some uncle forced them to kill baby rabbits with a sledgehammer—
Or you want to know what they did to us.
As though you don’t know what they did to us.
• • • •
Fine. Trevor is the kind of guy who’s good-looking if you don’t have a lot of guys to choose from. He’s the one who carries the gun. He’s the one who decides who’ll go first. He keeps a flask in his pocket, and when he occasionally offered it to Sandy, she’d always turn it into this big operatic gesture, curving the inside of her wrist up as she extended her arm with that stupid beneath-lowered-lashes look like she was a concubine seducing a king.
Rolly—Trevor’s cousin, in some complicated kind of way—has that vacant look and hollow skin that makes you think his parents weren’t around much to feed him. Before he laughs there’s always a split-second pause when he looks to Trevor, to make sure it really is something he can laugh at.
He’s not dumb though, don’t let him fool you, don’t you dare write him off as a feeble-minded and trusting accomplice. He enjoys it just as much. Trust us.
• • • •
Lily is still getting used to it. I really wanted to live, she keeps saying. I wanted it so badly.
So far, we only know that she was in college, and she wasn’t doing so well. She did Adderall to try to make herself more productive, but it wasn’t working the way she thought it would.
Her favorite color is forest green.
• • • •
We’re afraid Trevor will take it further, but he glances at his watch. “I’ve got to make an appearance,” he tells Rolly. “Keep an eye on her.”
In other words, don’t start without him. Monica has a little more time. We try not to think about the inevitability breathing through the walls like black mold.
Trevor and Rolly take turns leaving the basement and doing some odd errand or sitting in a nearby restaurant. Places where people they know will see them acting normal. They’ve done that ever since they killed off Sandy. Trevor especially. He probably thinks he’s clever.
Maybe he is. No one has caught them yet.
• • • •
Trevor jingles the two sets of keys as he climbs the stairs. The key to the leg shackle bounces around on a teal—teal? yes, that surprised us too—wrist coil. On a piece of masking tape stuck over the bow he’s written “Freedom” in permanent black ink.
Trevor leaves the wrist coil—teal parrot squawk among the rest of the dull and grubby upstairs—on a small hook outside the heavy metal door. The heavy metal door key, however, stays with Trevor. Always.
The heavy metal door is complex. There’s some kind of mechanism where it’s easy for the person entering from the kitchen to pull it open but it takes both of them to push it open from the basement side, even when it’s not locked. In fact, it’s such an effort that Trevor uses a short metal shovel—a spade, Netta politely corrects us, you can tell by the square blade—to prop the door open wide enough to squeeze through.
If we nearly dislodged our ankles from our legs, we could stare up at that tantalizing opening. We regarded the obelisk of light slanting through it as though it were holy, sacred. Where life began. But of course, we were on the wrong side.
• • • •
You might be thinking, where did they even get a door like that? Who even owns this building? Who has the time to lure and murder women? How could they get away with this so many times?
Yet here we are. They wanted it badly enough, we guess.
• • • •
Zoe was addicted to meth and it was easy to carrot her into the basement. Her last boss, a sturdy woman who ran some east-nowhere truck stop diner, was kind to her. She’d corral Zoe into the kitchen, saying she was too skinny and needed to learn how to cook.
You heat the pan first, she’d say. Then the oil. And Zoe enjoyed it actually, working with the pots and pans, with food.
But she stole money. With the life she’d led, there was something inevitable about being fired—but maybe it wasn’t, she says, and maybe that’s why it felt like something clawed at her insides when her boss wouldn’t look at her, told her she wouldn’t call the cops, just get out.
Zoe’s favorite colors are watermelon pink and lime green, don’t make her choose.
• • • •
Rolly’s talking to Monica. What luck: Monica works as a junior developer at a video game company, one that makes an RPG that Rolly really likes to play. He sits just by the futon, firing questions at her. Can you use grenades to teleport to the Hall of Elders? How can you unlock the secret map? Is it true that if you ask the Behemoth what kind of toothpaste it uses, you can tame it?
She’s smart. “Oh man,” she says, shaking her head. “The new release is going to blow your mind. You have no idea.”
And Rolly—that absolute shit—opens his mouth a little to gasp. Sits up straighter on the floor just by the futon where he held us down, all wide-eyed, innocent as a kid on Christmas morning.
“It’s hard to think though, with,” and Monica gestures to the chain. “Do you think you could take this off, so we can really talk?”
Though we no longer breathe, all of us hold our breath.
The temptation seems to pain Rolly. “The key’s upstairs.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Monica jokes, but her desperation sends a branching crack through her tone.
Rolly stares at her ankle shackle for a long time. “No,” he says finally.
We sigh. Monica is at a distinct disadvantage, in that she is number fourteen, and many women before her have tried a similar maneuver.
Inexplicably Rolly starts explaining the RPG to her.
To her, the person who works for the company.
But again, she’s smart. She plays it casual, asking Rolly what kind of character he plays, his stats, what quests he’s completed. Raises her eyebrows, makes little ohh noises, all impressed by his answers. (Though according to Kaitlyn and Octavia, who used to play the game they’re talking about, Rolly’s a complete noob).
“I know the guy who designed that mod,” Monica says at one point. “I bet he’d love to hear your ideas. I could put in a word . . . tell me more about what you’d do with the Red Swamp.” She leans forward so convincingly that Rolly chatters on, and only we can see how every time she leans back in postural agreement, oh, totally, how her eyes dart around, searching for opportunity.
Monica, this girl, she’s smart.
But then again, so were most of us.
• • • •
This is Ellie. Her fiancé’s favorite color was green, so it was hers too. She’d spend hours editing photos of them for Insta. She liked dressing up for him, cooking for him, pulling recipes from the internet so he wouldn’t get bored.
We didn’t say a word until one day she said, dumbfounded, I didn’t have a life of my own, and then the floodgates were open.
She thought telling them how much she loved her fiancé would help her; that they’d see her as another man’s property maybe, the way you could put a guy off in a club by inventing a boyfriend, except she really did have a fiancé.
We give Ellie credit: she didn’t scare, she didn’t scream, she gave them nothing to get off on until they ripped her finger off and her engagement ring with it.
It took her a while to really think about it, but her favorite color is burnt orange.
• • • •
We cowered under their gun, their knives, their fists, their unzipped pants. We cried. We did whatever they said. We told them to fuck off. We tried to talk them out of it. We mentally disappeared. We scream-begged please please no. We tried to fight. We tried to charm them we tried to reason with themwetriedwetriedtojustbreathe.
In the end we all died in horrible pain, in terror, and even when we slipped away we entered a black without comfort.
• • • •
Theresa’s favorite childhood book, the one that she made her mother read over and over again before bed, was called Ophelia the Opossum Runs Away from Home.
Ophelia the opossum (baby opossums are called joeys, Theresa says) lived with her mother in a cozy burrow beneath a great oak tree.
One day, after a fight with her mother, Ophelia runs away from home, thinking I’ll never come back—that’ll show her. She scampers farther and farther, deeper and deeper into the woods until none of the trees or rocks look familiar.
As it starts to rain Ophelia realizes how lonely she is, how scary the woods are and how terribly she misses her mother. But the rain’s washed away all scent and sense; she cannot remember the way home.
Shivering under a wide leaf (of course Ophelia didn’t bring her coat, that would be something her mother would tell her to do), she starts to cry. She’s so lost now, how can she ever find her way back?
But then, the corner of the wide leaf lifts, and whose eyes stare back at Ophelia but her mother’s!
“How did you find me?” Ophelia asks as her mother hugs her tight in the drizzling rain.
“Little one, I will always find you,” her mother says, and here Theresa always makes the joke that her mother made that line sound affectionate or threatening depending on how crazy Theresa had driven her that day.
The book ends with mother and child—joey—back in their burrow. When Theresa recites the last part—about how the rain continues but inside the burrow is warm and dry, how Ophelia’s mother wraps a soft blanket around them both and they snuggle, how the last thing Ophelia hears before drifting to sleep is you’re home, safe and sound, safe and sound—we weep. All of us, even the ones without parents. By all reports Netta hated her mother, hated her, and even she wipes away non-existent tears. We want to hear it again.
Theresa worries about her mother, and what’s happened to her; if she believes Theresa is dead; if she believes she is still alive.
Theresa’s favorite color is the fairy blue of forget-me-nots.
• • • •
We wish that there was a moment, a low so offensive that something in us snapped, and we summoned a power beyond ourselves. Snap, flare in our eyes, and rise, shackles broken, blowing that door off its hinges. Wouldn’t that be satisfying.
• • • •
That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You’ve got a narrative hard-on, waiting for us to do something. To fight back. To glow. To infuse Monica with superhuman strength.
We can’t. You knew from the first sentence that we are dead; why are you putting so much on us?
Do you think we didn’t hope for the same?
At first we thought that between all of us our psychic energy could combine, and we could do something! We could break the chain, we could unlock the door. We could pick up a long stick, impale each of them and plant them by the side of the road for crows.
But really. If groups of women who died horribly had the ability to manifest supernatural power, the world would be a very different place, don’t you think?
In fact, you better hope we never do.
You leave us behind. Always. You write books about them. You can’t stop trying to empathize with them. You hold them in your palm, in your heart, forever, but you abandon us in a lonely grave just like they do.
• • • •
Yes, some of us sold our bodies for money sometimes. We will not tell you who.
Are you bored? Are we boring you?
What would you like from us.
Would you like us to be wearing sacrificial white dresses and flower crowns? Would you like us to thank you, kiss your hand for listening?
Would you like us to be more interesting—more violent, more powerful, secretly able to murder our captors with a pinky?
Would you like to be like them?
Would you like to bite our breasts? Grab the inside of our thighs, hold us down until bruises raise from our skin like islands from the sea?
Fill us with your trash and say that it makes us trash?
You go ahead and tell us what you want.
We will ignore it. We are dead.
• • • •
This is Octavia. Her parents named her for the science fiction author, not the Shakespeare character. Ironically, she was addicted to reading ghost stories, couldn’t get enough of them.
Ghosts are usually women, she says with a shrug. Read into that what you will. Octavia’s more frustrated than anyone by how powerless we are, because she’s read about every other possibility. We can’t even be poltergeists? We can’t even nudge a freaking pencil?
When they had her, Octavia got a punch in that was magnificent. Full sucker, not the middling scratches most of us managed. Trevor, pathetic piece of shit, cried in pain over it and wore the bruise for a good two weeks. She paid for it.
Octavia’s favorite color is the—yes, ghostly— silver-blue of the butterflies she chased when she was little.
• • • •
A small part of us, thin as white crescent on nails, wants Monica to die. Because we are so tired of watching. Because for her to survive when we are dead is unconscionable.
We wish our fate on no one. We wish our fate on everyone.
• • • •
That sound. Our heads swivel like owls’.
A car. A car is crunching up the weedy dirt road toward the building. A four-door sedan that does not belong to Rolly or Trevor.
We’re in the middle of the woods, but we’d be less surprised if a shark jawed its way up the drive. We’re so stunned that when Jenn asks what the hell’s going on, we have trouble moving our mouths.
The license plate signals that the car’s a rental. The driver and passenger are career-looking women. Blazers, blouses. That jacket’s Prada, Lily says out of nowhere, and we exchange glances to return to that little reveal later. The driver, a woman we peg as being in her thirties, gets out and scans the building, the tall whispering grass.
• • • •
The woman in the passenger seat holds her phone to different spots in the air and makes frustrated noises. She’s in her late twenties and she has the weary, irritated tone of someone who’s repeated herself all day. “There’s no reception out here, we’re going to be late.”
It hits us that the younger woman is the professional superior to the older one, and we think damn, the job market’s messed up—but we even miss that.
“It was just weird,” says the older one. She keeps a hand on the car roof. “Wasn’t just me, right? Those guys staring at her. It was creepy.”
“All men stare,” the younger woman rejoins, giving up and dropping her smartphone back into her tote. “That’s what they do.”
“It was creepy.”
“If we stopped for every creep, we’d never get anything done,” the younger one snaps. “You don’t even know what you saw.”
“OK, not to dismiss your perspective or anything,” the younger one sounds as though she’s repeating something from an HR workshop. “But you’re overreacting—we’re late.”
The older one gestures. “That building—”
“Is probably a meth den. You saw her, that’s probably her jam. Their trucks aren’t even here.”
They hide! Theresa shrieks, and the rest of us jump—which is absurd, because what could happen to us now? But living habits die hard. They hide the trucks!
Raw-throat desperate she screams: She’s in here!
That breaks the spell of our daze, and then we’re all screaming, swinging down as far as we can from the building, waving our arms, trying to get the living women’s attention. IN HERE, IN HERE, IN HERE, IN HERE
“This is going to hurt our numbers,” the younger woman says, taking a deep breath, manager mode. “I don’t want to sound like a, you know, but if we don’t get on the road right now . . . like, I can’t not put that in your review.”
A flicker of fear across the other’s face; we watch the age-old woman’s war between intuition, pragmatism and self-preservation play out. “Alright,” she says finally. She skims the low building for a last moment and then relents, climbing back into the driver’s seat.
Neither even lifts their chin in clairvoyant pause as we scream our non-existent guts out. They back down the driveway like sun from the shadow of the earth.
• • • •
We see Monica even more tragically now. She almost had help. She almost had rescue.
Rolly’s banned from starting the worst things, but that leaves a lot of things. Monica’s doing everything she’s supposed to do. She’s fighting. With the least amount of slack, she’s jabbing at him, rocking her weight, trying to throw him off balance, earn herself a chance.
But he’s big, and he’s done this before, and from the blood scrapes under the dark hair at her temple, she’s already been hit in the head at least once today, which all of us can tell you impacts your whole system in ways you can’t always foresee.
We watch, shredded and stripped like celery strings.
So many of us sat in that passenger’s seat at one time or another. We’d see things, things that activated some primal part of our brain, threat here.
But if it was going to mess with our paychecks, with what people said about us . . .
Like she said. If we stopped every time a man was creepy, what would we ever get done?
Easier to smile. Easier to brush it off. Easier to roll our eyes at bitchy women who overreact to everything.
Easier to choose and defend the reality where nothing is wrong.
Easier to say some women belong in the basement.
Who put us here, really?
All of you.
All of us.
Maybe we deserve the monsters we choose not to slay.
• • • •
Reyna was obsessed with pomegranate-flavored things. Pomegranate in her lip balm. Pomegranate in her BB cream. Pomegranate in her shampoo, in her chocolate, in the drink she’d order at the bar.
I don’t care if I’m a basic bitch, she tells us. Pomegranate me up.
One day she bought a real pomegranate from the grocery store, strange red round fruit with a flare sticking out the bottom of it like a trumpet.
What did she think?
I didn’t know what the fuck to do with it, Reyna says, and that cracks us all up. Grinning: That is a weird frickin fruit.
Her favorite color is, um, hell yeah, pomegranate red.
• • • •
Sasha was earning her master’s in social work. She cheated on her boyfriend and she wonders a lot if he ever found out. She worries that maybe after she disappeared the police targeted him or her lover as suspects.
You cheated? Sandy says to her, appalled, and we all throw our hands up because Jesus Christ, Sandy.
Sasha’s favorite color is the pale blue of an open sky.
• • • •
Trevor killed Sandy because she told him to tuck in his shirt. That’s what earned her the shackle, the chain, the futon and all the rest. She insists he didn’t mean to, that she’s not like us, and Trevor was just crushed about it afterward because he loved her so much.
But if you aid and abet murderers . . . can you be that surprised if you get murdered?
Sasha’s her greatest defender, which astounds us, considering that Sandy lured her to the basement all on her own. When she heard what Sasha wanted to do with her life she tearfully “confessed” that she was in an abusive relationship and could Sasha come with her to get her things so she could escape?
As soon as Sasha set foot in the low building, she knew very bad things had happened there, things beyond her experience. Immediately she reached for her phone to call the police—but of course, no reception.
Sandy cried crocodile tears, begging, please just go with her to the basement for her things and then they’d go? I don’t think I can do this, please please please don’t leave me.
I won’t, Sasha promised her, looping her arm through hers, holding her up and nodding. You and me, we’re in this together. I promise.
Through the steel door. Down the stairs.
Just as they reached the bottom Sandy shoved and swung Sasha headfirst into a beam, and before she could regain her footing Sandy had shackled her as a “gift.” Sasha had nearly torn her leg off when Trevor and Rolly pulled open the heavy steel door, Sandy twirling and declaring, ta-da!
And still Sasha never gives up on Sandy. Not an inch, defending her from every phantasmal beating and revenge we’d like to dole out.
A lot of us want to give Sasha a reality check, but Rachel disapproves, and generally we listen to her. Sasha believed in helping others, she says gently. She bet her life on it.
We still grumble about it, don’t like it, considering that it’s Sandy who benefits from us holding back. But who knows, maybe with therapy Sandy wouldn’t have been such a piece of work.
Yeah, Sandy has a favorite color.
Who gives a shit.
It’s white, she pipes up anyway. Like a wedding gown.
• • • •
We had wild hope, with the car there. But now there’s nothing else to do except wait the long wait to take Monica in, welcome her as one of us. We open our arms, ready to embrace her.
• • • •
The car skids back up the drive.
The younger woman, red-faced, shouts as the older one shoves open the door. “The second we’re in range I’m calling—”
And then we all hear Monica scream.
• • • •
We see their heads raise like prey animals. Watch them lock eyes, strip everything that came before. Track their thoughts like rabbit footprints in the snow. Danger. Get out, don’t get involved, call the police at most, and only from a safe distance away.
“Call the police,” the older one says, vaulting herself out of the car.
“But you—” the younger one now seems so much younger.
“Back up and try by the exit,” the older one responds.
In their exchange we learn their names—Danielle is the older one. Kelsey is the younger.
Danielle. Kelsey. Danielle. Kelsey. We repeat their names to each other like we’re passing buckets of water down a fire line.
Danielle’s taken off her sensible heels, hurry-creeping to the door in pantyhose that’s a couple shades darker than the tan of her skin. Kelsey, face gone pale, climbs into the driver’s seat, backing up with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding her smartphone in front of her.
She should drive the car right into the building! Reyna screams in frustration. Maybe she’s right, but here we are.
Back to Danielle. She’s shaking, holding her sensible heels with one hand as she quietly opens the rusty screen door. Monica’s cries burst from the basement like scalding water.
Danielle stops in the arch of the grubby kitchen and we know that she knows: this is her last chance to turn back. We can tell she really wants to.
She swallows. She keeps going.
• • • •
She reaches the heavy steel door that leads to the basement and glances at the spade keeping it propped open.
Bring something with you, we yell at her, gesturing to the various items lying around the kitchen she could use as a weapon (we know they could be used as weapons because so many were used on us). The discarded pipe in the corner. Knives. Garden shears. Kaitlyn’s leg brace propped up against the wall.
Yet she doesn’t, not anything other than the heels she clutches with one hand. Angling her body carefully she steps over the spade onto the steps.
Rolly must assume it’s Trevor padding down because he doesn’t turn right away. Not until Danielle can’t hold back a stifled shriek does he whip his head around.
Monica, our girl, our girl, seizes the opportunity and kicks Rolly’s legs out from under him.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he cracked his head on the concrete and died instantly?— but no, all his critical parts bounce off the futon and he rolls back up quick, frantic.
Now it’s messy. Monica’s yelling at Danielle, pleading for the key, do you have the key get the key. But Monica’s having trouble speaking and Danielle just found a battered woman chained in a basement.
We cheer when Danielle hits Rolly’s head with her sensible heels and he yelps like the weasel he is.
But scrawny or not, he’s still bigger than Danielle, and he’s done this before. He launches himself at her and she’s not fast enough to evade, hitting the floor with a crash that pushes a high grunt from her lungs. Up again, Rolly yanks her clear of Monica’s reach.
He kicks her ribs as Monica shrieks at him to stop, hands to her head, astonished at how badly things have turned. Rolly kicks for a good while before pausing.
Danielle contracts into a ball on the floor, paralyzed with pain and anticipation of the next kick. Monica’s backed into the concrete wall, chain rattling. Rolly loops his belt he’d removed earlier around Danielle’s neck and draws it tight, hauling her whole body up with the force.
We scream screams that no one hears, howl like wolves denied the moon.
Two of them, two of them against one, and still—
• • • •
Rachel was the first. She’d been having such a terrible day. Her apartment had been flooded by a malfunctioning water heater, her landlord threatened to evict her when she asked for money to live elsewhere temporarily, and she wasn’t able to clean up before her job interview.
She went to the interview anyway, forced herself to look the interviewers square in the eye and say she wasn’t having a good day, but she showed up. That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? Show up no matter what?
Except the junior interviewer looked at her soiled suit pants, crinkled his nose and said that really, she should have rescheduled. The senior interviewer seemed more sympathetic, but with cringing acknowledgement—poor thing, you tried— rather than admiration for her doggedness.
Yet Rachel answered the questions as best she could. If they were listening to me, she says, they’d know I knew what I was talking about.
Dejected, Rachel sat at the diner scrolling through her dying phone, calculating how much it would cost to take the bus versus hailing a ride share. How far she could realistically walk. It was raining.
(For the life of us, we can’t figure out why Rachel couldn’t make it as an artist; she draws in the fog and she’s really good. Shouldn’t she have been rich from selling her paintings? She tells us being “a creative” is very hard.)
So there she was, weighing her options while the waitress gave her dagger eyes for taking a booth and only ordering coffee and for being so dirty, when three young-ish people walked in, two men and a woman.
Desperate, Rachel asked if they had a phone charger. Rather than flicking their eyes away, they seemed interested in her, happy to help. They asked her questions and listened attentively to her answers. They were so nice. Trevor told a funny story about how Rolly filled his truck with chickens as a prank. The smell! His voice rose over their laughter.
We’re going that way! Trevor said when Rachel mentioned her neighborhood—vaguely, and certainly not her exact street name; she knew the rules of strangers. Come with us, Rolly urged, save your money.
If it had just been the two men, she never would have considered accepting such an offer. But there was Sandy, nodding along and smiling at her. We’ll take you.
When Rachel hoisted herself up by the handle above the truck door and swung into the backseat they were all laughing—don’t worry, this isn’t the chicken truck—as though they were old friends, giddy on the threshold of a road trip. She remembers catching Trevor and Rolly exchange glances and hoping they weren’t having second thoughts about letting a stranger ride with them. She couldn’t believe how kind they were.
Since she was first, they were impulsive, sloppy, manic; she only lasted three days. People who don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about would call that lucky.
Wouldn’t it be something, if I’d gotten the job? Rachel asks us sometimes. Wouldn’t that be something?
• • • •
When we entered the dark, it brought us no comfort. Nothing solid, nothing to grip. When we touched our left-behind bodies—thin, hollow, sunken—nothing happened. When they took hold of our corpses, rough, our minds collapsed, became nothing but wail, our thoughts like our elbows knocking against the stairs as our bodies were dragged where we could not follow.
Because who cares about the girls who do not make it?
Not you. You want the girls who overcome. The girls who win. Or at least, the girls who survive. All our names together will only make them more memorable; it lends nothing to us.
It’s an awful thing, to witness your own descent into irrelevance. Before our eyes our lives dissolved, liquefied, plunged down grates into the dark.
I was never a person.
I was never more than meat.
My life meant nothing.
I was nothing, I was nothing Iwasnothing—
And then Rachel, setting herself before us, solid as stone. What’s your favorite color? she asked, guiding us through the concrete where we couldn’t see.
She’d have to repeat her question several times before we could focus enough. To answer was hands pushing aside heavy water, forced us to shake out the folds, our memories like heavy cloth, thwack. Unroll our lives over a desk and down the hall, our fingers instinctively skimming toward our childhoods, when color mattered the most—crayon nubs, cheap markers revived with spit, rainbows staining the sides of our palms—or did that ever go away? Tracing the myriad threads after, the colors searing so bright we blinked.
If we answered with one word, Rachel would press us gently for more. Purple? What kind of purple? Pink? What kind of pink?
Her favorite color is the red of life, even now after everything that was done to her. When she was young, her mother had to deliver her friend’s baby in their kitchen, and Rachel never forgot the squalling life-full scene, the red on her and the red in the baby’s cheeks.
• • • •
A noise from the heavy door like a bell into still air, breaking the spell. Oh no, Trevor?
No. It’s Kelsey.
Barreling down the basement steps clutching something in each hand and the teal key coil round her wrist. When Rolly lunges toward her she flings something at him, and though he ducks she lands a strong spray of mace into his ear.
Hitting him in the eye would have been ideal, but we’ll take the ear because he rears back, pawing at the side of his head and coughing.
Through the arresting sensation of pepper spray Danielle is on her feet again shoving him off balance. Kelsey aims the mace and pulls the trigger—again, missing his eyes but landing some directly in his mouth, which from his reaction is quite fine with us.
While he struggles to right himself, Danielle draws her arm down and hits him with the spade handle in back of the head.
Rolly topples over and we think don’t let him fool you—but Danielle’s way ahead of us, turning the spade around and striking him again and again in the head with the square edge.
Monica’s fixated on the key—how can she not? She’s spent an eternity staring into the holes on her shackle lock, imagining its curves, willing it into existence.
“The key,” she says to Kelsey, and gestures to her wrist. Kelsey seizes the lock, draws the key with the carefulness of a seamstress threading a needle. They’re all still coughing from the pepper spray, gasping through watering eyes and gummy throats.
Danielle continues making square-shaped strikes until Rolly’s skull is completely crushed in—and even after kicking his lifeless form three times, she still puts two fingers to his neck to be sure there will be no horror movie miraculous awakening.
We love Danielle.
Where is he? Zoe demands, hovering over the mash of Rolly’s head. Where is he? He’s trapped with us now, right?
The thought a branch of lightning, exhilarating some of us and petrifying others. We gather, witches-to-cauldron-like, watching Rolly’s body stop completely.
For naught, as Rolly does not join us. That Rolly could leave this world without having to face us lights us with rage. Another denial. Another injustice.
We’re brought back by the click of the key, of the pneumonic hhh of the shackle opening. Monica draws her freed leg close to her chest and rubs the angry red imprint on her ankle. “The other one,” she chokes out. “The other one has a gun.”
“Police?” Danielle asks through a cough. She shrugs off her blazer and wordlessly hands it to Monica, who quickly slips her arms through the holes and covers herself.
Kelsey’s doubled over, wiping the tears and snot off her face with the bottom of her expensive camisole. “No,” she says guiltily. “I had to come back, I had this feeling—”
“Good thing,” says Danielle hoarsely, slinging Kelsey in a brief half-hug before turning away for another round of coughing. The force makes the spade she’d been white-knuckle gripping slip from her fingers, clattering wet on the floor.
The spade? It hits all of us at the same time, including Monica.
The spade the spade thespade.
The spade from the top of the stairs. The spade that was the only thing propping open that heavy steel door. The door that only Trevor can open from the outside once it closes.
• • • •
“The door,” Monica shrieks with such alarm that immediately Kelsey and Danielle take off up the stairs toward the thin sliver of sunlight outlining the doorframe.
Miraculously, the very thing that makes the door so deadly is what saves them; it’s so difficult to move on the hinge that the lockbolt didn’t fully enter the bed. They’re not locked in.
Leaving the problem of pushing it open. The stairway swirls with the lingering smell of pepper spray and blood. Kelsey shoves and the rebound force almost sends her down the stairs. The door doesn’t budge.
“Fuck,” Danielle’s voice a wail.
“We only have to open it wide enough for us to get through,” says Kelsey with the determination of a commander telling her line to hold—huh, maybe she’s a good manager after all—and slams her side into the door again. Down the steps: “We’ll need that shovel back.”
Spade, we all correct automatically, which the living girls ignore.
Monica grunts, wipes blood from her nose and staggers to her feet as Danielle jams her shoulder next to Kelsey’s. They groan with the effort, struggle to keep their footing (they are at the top of the stairs after all, and the last thing anyone needs is a girl with a broken back).
On the fourth step Monica slips in her own blood, almost plummeting down, but she rights herself, gets back to it, uses the spade like a climber’s pick.
Their adrenaline is waning. The door is so heavy. They’re weak from the pepper spray messing with their eyes and nose and lungs and skin, hurt from the struggle in ways they can and can’t name.
Hurry. Trevor will be back soon, and he has a gun. Hurry.
The living girls strain themselves heaving out of sync, watching the opening widen slower than a watch’s secondhand and narrow again.
They pull back, exhausted. Danielle clutches her midsection where Rolly kicked her.
“Count of three,” says Kelsey in between shuddering breaths, glaring at the steel under her fist. She turns to the others. “On three, we give it every-fucking-thing we’ve got.”
Danielle sets her side in place, positions her feet. Monica aligns herself against the bottom left of the door, ready to push and stick the spade back in the opening as soon as it’s wide enough. They nod at each other, bees thrumming a map we cannot follow.
Do we hear the sound of Trevor’s tires creeping up the drive, or is it our imagination?
We know we are dead. We know we can do nothing.
Yet here we are, all of us but one swooping toward them, arms outstretched, palms out.
Sandy, Sasha barks, and to our shock Sandy listens, gliding down and looping her arm with Sasha’s. We hear the promise: Together.
Seeing them does something to all of us, twist, splits us from everything that came before. Not forgiveness; no, we’ll never forgive. This is something thicker. Fiercer.
In unison we turn to the heavy steel door, driven as beak to eggshell. Sparking, swelling with all the colors we were, all the colors we’ll never be, all the colors we want for them. A crackling spectra of loss, our pigments rich down canvas.
Stacking like firewood on top of each other, we set ourselves against the cold steel, press our non-existent hands above and below the shoulders of the living. Kelsey’s voice, coil to spring, gong to bell, match to flint, noose to shove. All of us together, push.
Spread the word!