When I walked into the one room shack, I saw the large bed, and it looked nothing like the one I was tied to, but still had all the same coverings on it, and a tarp had been thrown over it.
‘That’s odd,’ I muttered but my words fell on dead air.
I looked to my left to make sure my partner was still there. He knew it was something I had to do alone but refused to let me come unless someone was with me. He put off an important meeting to hike all the way out to the middle of the bush with me, but we were only told about the death last night. I straightened my back and stared into the room with a confidence only skin deep.
The first thing I saw was the slip of a once white sheet, now yellow and moulding, as it hung from beneath the tattered tarp on one side.
Where my potty sat, I thought recalling the time it overflowed. I could still see a faint ring on the weather-worn floorboards.
Dragging my eyes away and back to the bed, partially hidden by the tarp was the shredded tassels of the old green bedspread.
‘Nothing’s been touched,’ I said out loud and Frank must’ve heard me.
‘What?’ he asked but didn’t move towards me.
‘Oh, it’s nothing really… well, maybe,’ I said stumbling over my words. ‘It’s just, it all looks the same, exactly—’
‘That’s good then,’ Frank called and scared a flock of black Corellas who all flew out from the surrounding trees at the same time. Frank hugged the tree he was standing under just as the leaves and honky nuts the size of golf balls fell around him.
A laugh escaped my lips at the sight, and another caught in my throat when I remembered where I was. I turned back to the door and tried to psyche myself into going through with it. There was only me you see. I was the only survivor. Three other girls were taken before me. I never met them but did get to know them… later and we all looked pretty much the same. They didn’t get to go home. They couldn’t even find their bodies.
And now the bastard’s dead! They’ll never be found, I thought steeling myself and looked back into the shack.
The metal of the bed end had flaking black paint and looked as cold as I remember. On the frame of the bed head hung the remnants of leather restraints and a sudden chill of the fear of yesterday overwhelmed me. I grabbed the door frame to stop myself from falling, and my other hand found its way to my mouth and stifled a scream.
What are you doing, Sue? Run, run now, I thought, but I couldn’t. I had to do it for them, for Peggy, Sharon and Alice who’d all disappeared down the rabbit hole.
Taking a few deep breaths, I stood upright, closed my eyes, and stepped into the room. I felt the floor bend, heard it creak, under my weight. I didn’t know what to expect, it was in the middle of nowhere.
If I was honest, I think maybe I was looking for some clue about where he buried the others. On the far side of the room to my right was the old windowless frame. A rag that was once a curtain was caught in a soft wind. The rag etching a pattern in thick brick dust. Way back when, that rag was a curtain and covered the brick wall behind it as it deceptively represented freedom to my ten-year-old self. At the edge of the bed was a table. An old metal table with white curling paint all over its top. It looked like a choppy ocean, you know the type, it’s the one when the waves are small and foamy. Anyway, the table was still bolted to a cold concrete patch the bed sat on, with each claw foot still locked tight.
‘He must’ve laid it himself,’ I muttered looking around at the patches of concrete sitting just above the wood slat floor, and everywhere it was, something was bolted to it, and it held tight to its history.
Bolted to that metal bedside table was a lamp. Not an electrical lamp, there’s no electricity out here, and I recall the heat on my face and the brightness blinding my eyes…
‘When he came,’ I whispered.
The old blue tin water jug was still in the place on the table, with its matching tin cup at its base and a large green copper ashtray with skerrick’s of cigarette buts outlined in the ash was also bolted to the table. A white powdery substance on its ornate edges, seemingly grew from the metal itself.
‘I remember you. You’d smoke like a chimney when you came to see me,’ I said to the ghosts in the room, then something else caught my eye. The only thing I could touch without supervision, ‘The book, Snow-White and Rose-Red.’
The book made me smile. I always thought he was the bear and one day my saviour would tear through him from the inside out, and he would be no more, and my saviour would take me home. I moved further into the room and found I was counting my steps.
Back when he… when he took me, there was a bush track out to the shack, and my parents had always told me if I was ever in trouble, try to remember everything because, ‘It might save your life one day,’ dad had said, so I did, and it did, it does.
I listened for railway tracks, bumps in the road, bells and sirens, kids laughing anything I could make out from the dark smelly trunk. When the car came to a stop, and he took me out of the trunk, I counted all 364-steps it took to reach the shack. I still count them in the night when the terrors come. They calm me for some reason. When the police found me, they carried me from the shack, and I counted his steps too. His were 162-steps, and when we got outside and I felt the cool air on my skin, I opened my eyes and saw the bear man was lying on the ground. A policeman had a gun pointed at him, and another was handcuffing him.
‘No,’ he howled, and he squirmed in the leaf litter in an attempt to reach me. ‘She’s mine.’
I wake up to that alot, but then I count and become calm again.
‘Okay, Sue,’ I whispered, ‘Frank’s waiting and you’ve only taken one step inside.’
All of a sudden, I was ten again and I closed my eyes and walked further into the room of an old building that had been waiting for my return. I silently count 365, 366, 367 and I am at the bedside table. Nothing had been touched and the dust build up on my book was an inch thick. When I pick it up, some of it fell to the floor. Using my right hand, I swiped across the cover to see the two little girls, one in red, the other in white. I know the story liker the back of my hand, he would test me on it. I have had a copy on my bedside table ever since and read it every night.
‘What the?’ I say when I realised, I’d sat on the bed. ‘Must’ve happened when I picked up the book.’
I leapt from it and the creaking of old springs ushered in a rush of terror, and a sense of the pain inflicted by my captor. I smell mildew, dust, him, and for another moment it is 20-years earlier, and the room transformed before my eyes.
I’ve become a voyeur of my youth.
Instinctively I rub at the old scars on my wrists as I step back from the bed. I see myself strapped to the head bars with the brown leather dog collars. They have the pointy silver spikes on them. The bear man uncuffed one of my hands for me to eat and drink, read and sleep… and other things. On the other side of the table was the old yellow metal potty with a green surround at its lip. I hadn’t realised it was there from the doorway. It’s not much bigger than a mug and he’s watching me, the bear man. Now it is night, I’m reading my book as the old door, now hanging from its hinges, swings open. I see the terror in my young eyes, feel the terror at the core of my inner self.
‘It’s not real,’ I repeat, trying to shake myself awake, the next thing I know is there are two strong arms around me, ‘Daddy?’
As I am bringing myself back to the present, I realise it’s Frank. Frank has hold of me, keeping me safe.
‘I’m sorry, Frank,’ I sputter, ‘I didn’t mean to call you—’
‘It’s all right, Sue,’ he said. ‘I know you want to do this alone, but you started screaming.’
‘Please stay with me?’ I ask, still clutching the book to my chest.
‘Of course I’ll stay, but I don’t think this is helping—’
‘No, it is,’ I lie. ‘It is helping.’
Something on the table under all the dust caught my eye. I took hold of Frank’s hand and led him to the table, then pinched the edge of a piece of old paper. It was a, no, the list. With my thumb and index finger I brushed the remaining dust of it.
- Wake up at 6 am,
- Breakfast at 8 am,
- Make bed after breakfast.
- Read book.
- Got to bed at 6pm
The list did not include his visits or conversations with me. He thought I was his daughter.
‘What?’ Frank asks.
‘That one?’ he asked pointing to a set of old wooden doors. They were still in good order, but the paint was peeling off.
I gripped Frank’s hand and walked towards them, and I can’t help but feel more than a little bit of guilt as I reach for the handles.
As the doors open, I see old board games stacked in a dusty pile on the top shelf; Trouble, Cluedo, Monopoly and Checkers, and hanging just beneath the shelf was the old white and pink floral dressing gown he made me wear. Then I remembered something. I reach into the sole pocket of the dressing gown with my left hand, dust flew into the air making us both sneeze. I had to put my other hand over my mouth while I felt around, then I find it.
In my hand I held tight to a soft plush teddy bear. He was just a tiny little thing, and my only true friend. His name is Fred. He was a friend I had in school just before… and the teddy was all I got to bring with me when I was…. when I arrived. Fred was attached to my school bag. He was a key ring teddy bear my mother had given me. I was so proud of my Fred bear that I insisted on taking it to school with me that day. Mother said I could if I kept him chained to my bag.
Fred is all I could grab on to when he took my bag from me and threw it into some bushes not far from my school. I always thought it was my own fear I could smell, but it wasn’t, it was him. He always dressed in dark blue jeans, a light blue shirt and a jacket with ‘Bill’ written on the pocket, and he always smelled like old oil. I knew what oil smelled like because I always use to help dad fix the car. He even had dark smudges on his face like dad would, and he wore big boots with oil on them. I asked him one day if he worked with my daddy, he yelled, ‘I am your daddy.’
I didn’t ask again.
Looking through the old cupboard, Frank found a dusty framed photo. It had Bill in it with a smiling lady and a happy little girl.
‘Must’ve been his family,’ I said. ‘I look a lot like his daughter.’
‘Um, yeah,’ Frank said, ‘You know what?’
‘It’s getting late, and we have a long way to walk… Sue?’
I wasn’t really listening, I picked up the photo frame and it fell apart in my hands, then a newspaper clipping fell to the floor. It was short and titled, ‘Mother and Daughter Killed in Hit and Run’ (Reachville Community News).
Hot pricks of involuntary tears sprang from my eyes.
‘We all looked like his daughter,’ I said to Frank, ‘so why would he kill—’
‘Who knows what a mad man is thinking, Sue,’ he said. ‘You have to try to put all this behind you now.’
‘But the others?’
‘They’re cold cases. Off duty, and retired, police offices come out here every weekend and scour another section of bush, Sue. They’ll let you know.’
‘But why me?’ I asked and Frank looked confused. ‘Why did I survive, and they didn’t?’
‘Oh, God, Sue. Come here,’ he said and pulled me into his arms. ‘You lived. There’s no-one left to say why, but if you need a reason, I’ll tell you. You got to live so you could make sure they keep looking for the others. You will make sure they get justice. Now, we’re going home and for the first time you can sleep safe in the knowledge Bill is dead.’
I left the shack with Frank. He was right, I wouldn’t stop looking for those girls, But only the counting brings me any peace, I thought holding tight to Snow-White and Rose-Red.