The Welcomed Ones:
The True Story of Sylvia Likens.
By Jonathan Lane
She lay silently on the ground, face pressed against the cold cement floor of her tormenters basement. The bonds which held her wrist together burrowed deep into her skin, tighter and tighter as time slowly slipped by. She could hear the others laughing upstairs, playing a game of hide and seek, their footsteps rushing back and forth, back and forth, like echoes in a black maze. The floorboards creaked mercilessly above her head. Someone fell with a loud thud and the she could hear the whimpering of a small girl. Marie, maybe, or perhaps one of her friends. Didn't matter, it made no difference to her.
The girl rolled onto her side when the pain in her burnt belly became too much to stand. Of course, now her side hurt, but it was still better. Pretty soon she'd roll onto her back, then onto her chest again. She couldn't sit the way she was tied, but at least she could roll around like a dog.
Outside the night sky swallowed what little light was allowed into the damp basement. It was pitch black now, a kind of dark that was far too thick and much too complete to be the mere absence of light. No, this was different. Her eyes were going dark.
Oh well, she thought solemnly, almost humorously. Probably would be for the best if her eyes went dark for good. Better than going through life with the words "I am a whore and proud of it" branded carelessly on her chest; better than spending another night in this God forsaken basement while the bastards played hide and seek upstairs. Better than having her screams ignored by the next door neighbors. Maybe, but then again maybe not. She didn't really care, she was beyond caring.
Maybe Jenny was playing with the others upstairs. Maybe she was cowering in a dark corner like she usually did, not saying a word, just sitting there frowning and trying to choke back tears while her sister lay tied down in this basement half naked, covered with cigarette burns and countless burses from weeks of relentless torture.
Her stomach growled in protest. Nothing she could help about that, they'd barley fed her enough to live on beforethey locked her in the basement; now it seems they'd forgotten she still needed to eat. Oh yeah, they'd fed her something yesterday. She was pretty sure it was shit, but ate it anyway. Hey, beggars couldn't be choosers, right? Sure enough, that shit flavor hadn't left her mouth since. They offered her water too, but it was probably just piss and she really didn't feel like washing down shit with a tall glass of amber colored piss.
The shouting continued upstairs. Paula yelled at the younger kids to be quiet; dear old mother was sick and needed sleep.
Despite the pain the girl let out a small and tired smirk.
"Oh dear, poor old Gertie isn't feeling well," she moaned, "maybe she can come down here and wipe her ass with my hair, maybe that will make her feel better."
"John!" Paula yelled upstairs, "let go of her hair!"
Uh oh, they were fighting again. Won't be long now until Gertrude comes storming down the stairs in a sick fit yelling and screaming about the bad influence she'd been on her children. Probably be so mad she'd come down here and beat her again. And again. And again.
The girl cringed last week when they came down those stairs to use her as a punching bag, or an ash tray, or some sort of rag doll for their own personal amusement, but she hardly felt it anymore. After two months of this, what was a little more? They just had no imagination left it seemed. It was a game now. They come down here, try to make her cry, or scream, or beg, then they leave satisfied. After a little while, she got smart. Why give them that satisfaction? Fuck that. Make them workfor what they wanted, now that was a lot more fun.
"Paula," Gertrude yelled from her bedroom upstairs.
"Get the kids in bed, I'm going to feed Sylvia."
Little feet scurried across the floorboards as Pula hurried the kids off to their rooms. The door to the cellar opened and a faint light drifted slowly in. The darkness in her eyes receded slightly, allowing her to see the frail shadow of a large woman standing at the top of the stairs. Toby, the family dog, climbed down the steps, his tong hanging lazily from his mouth, and lay down beside her. He head nuzzled against her face, his fur warm against her cold body. He licked her face, not caring about the open sores or the burn marks and awful smell she was doused in.
"Good boy," the girl said smiling, kissing him on the nose. The dog licked her face again.
Toby!" she heard another voice yell from the stairs, "Get away from her!"
Toby ran away and she could see Richard Hobbs standing at the top of the stairs. Toby ran as Richard leaped to the cellar floor. She saw him grab a broom lying against the corner of the wall and come after her with it raised above his head. Sylvia barred her eyes shut and waited for the blow to come.
Voices floated through the air like flowers pollen, brushing against her ears and making her twitch.
It tickled. She smiled.
The voices came closer; although she could not make out what they were saying or tell who they belonged to, they gave her an odd sense of comfort. They weren't angry, like Paula's or Richards, and they weren't sick and insane like Gertrude's. They didn't seem scared either. They were pleasant voices.
She heard her mother in those mumbled words; papa was with her too. She opened her eyes and saw them standing above her. They were smiling, their bodies garbed in radiant white light. Papa's arms wrapped themselves around mama's waste, holding her close to his body the way he used to before the divorce. Sylvia smiled back at them. She saw now that they weren't dressed in light like angles. Papa had his carnival uniform, mama had on a silky blue dress that showed off her beautiful legs. That's what she usually wore when she was singing for the carnival. Had they come back for her? They must have. She knew they wouldn't leave her here forever.
"Hi cookie," mother said, holding out her hand.
"Mama?" she whispered not yet willing to accept what her own eyes told her was true.
"It's me Sylvia, we came back for you."
"No," she shook her head, knowing the image for what it was. Nothing more than a dream, a vein hope soon to disappear the moment her gullible mind fell for this devilish trick. These dreams, these visions of a hope long gone, returned every night to torment her in a way the devils upstairs could not. Sometimes mother and father came dressed as they were now; other times Jenny appeared instead, hobbling down those stairs and beg to take her roller skating. They were a strange comfort in the black isolation.
"Come on Sylvia," Jenny spoke. Sylvia turned and there she was, standing over her, a giant grin plastered across her face, "you said you would take me roller skating."
"But," she stumbled, confused, "but I can't. The doors locked."
"What door?" she looked again. The basement was gone; except that it wasn't. She could still see the crooked flight of stairs, the half empty cans of long forgotten paint, even the ropes they used to tie her with, coiled like serpents in the corner. Yet it wasn't the basement. She wasn't lying tied on the floor; she was in her bed, large comfy blankets covering her body with her head resting on a soft feather pillow. Bright sunlight streamed through an open window while birds sang their joyous songs from their nests in the branches of a nearby oak tree.
"There, was a door. Over there."
"That's the closet Sylvia. You're not turning into a crazy person, are you?"
"Leave me alone, I'm tired."
"It's almost four, why are you sleeping? We're supposed to meet Danny in half an hour, so if you could please get off your lazy ass so we can go?"
"Fine, fine," she went to throw the blankets but stopped, remembering the terrible scars marking her body. Jenny wouldn't want to see that. But nothing was there. The cigarette burns, the bruises, the scratches and marks of abuse that peppered her just a few moments ago were gone. All of them, except for the brands on her chest, the petty devotions of a heartless woman with a sick dedication.
"Oh God," she whimpered helplessly, "why those?"
Because you deserve them.
"No, I don't. I don't," she sobbed into the pillow.
You do Sylvia; why else would they brand you? Why else would they hurt you? You are a filthy, dirty girl. You deserve what they do to you.
"Sylvia! Hurry up!"
"Fine, I'm coming, I'm coming. Hold on a second."
Once Jenny was no longer in the room Sylvia tried to stand only to be struck with a sudden bolt of excruciating pain. White cloud like circles muddled her vision, driving her mad with agony. The world spun wildly in a mad translucent vortex. Deep commanding voices spoke in discord as she reached helplessly for foothold with which to slow herself down. Black streams flew by like crows retreating from their perches on telephone poles. She couldn't breathe, couldn't move, only lie on the ground and watch as those dark crow like figures stared at her from just beyond the reach of her vision, dark red eyes waiting with bated anticipation the moment of her passing. Seconds passed like hours as she struggled desperately to move as the darkness, before only a spec on the horizon, engulfed the room so completely that even the glowing ambers of the crow's eyes were blocked for a moment in the inky void. For a brief moment she could see the crow staring at her from its place beyond the shrouded darkness, smiling like a housecat ready to pounce an unsuspecting mouse.
And then it was gone. Light once again filled the room as the darkness fled into small corners and under the bed. The pain from her wounds was gone now, even in her stomach where the brandings still remained. Jenny stood in the doorway, smiling as if she knew a secret she wasn't willing to tell. Her leg braces were gone.
A noise came from behind, a scurrying of feet scraping against a gravel surface. Sylvia turned and saw she was no longer lying on her bedroom floor; instead she stood in an ally, dressed in a short skirt barely long enough to cover her underwear, with fishnet tights running down her bare legs into a pair of high leather boots. A black bra was the only other clothing she wore.
"Hey baby," a man approached holding a wad of twenty dollar bills in his hand, "how much?"
"What? No, I'm sorry, I don't…"
"You don't what?" another man said from behind before grabbing her by the shoulders and spinning her to face him, "you think you're too good for us? Is that it?"
"Too good for us" the first man spoke and stepped into view, grabbing her by the face and squeezing her cheeks, "well you're nothing but a worthless, stupid whore," and smacked her. She fell, twisting her ankle as she went down. Jenny stood to the side, quietly watching.
"Jenny! Jenny help me!"
Jenny did nothing, disgust clearly visible on her face. The men stood over her, arms crossed, smiling sickly like hungry dogs eyeing a discarded bone.
"What's the matter, our money not good enough for you?" one said, pulling down his zipper and giving her a wink.
"Go away," she screamed defiantly, "I don't do that!"
"We were told you do," the second man said.
"Well they lied!"
"Oh I don't think so little girl," he smiled, reveling a long row of pointed yellow teeth, "I think it's you who's lying."
Jenny collapsed in the corner. A cry of agony emitted from deep in her throat.
Pain. Jenny was in pain,
'And it's my fault,' she thought as a new, more complete darkness, overcame her.
"Looky who's awake."
The images of her parents, the men, of Jenny crying on a street corner, vanished in a whiff a blue mist as suddenly as they appeared. In their place stood Richard, slapping a broken broom handle against the palm of his hand. His frame leaned against the stone wall, a dark shadow against the pale yellowish light coming down through the open door above him. Sounds of children rushing to bed filtered down through the opening.
The door closed suddenly with a loud crash. Gertrude led Jenny down the steps, pushing her in the back when she struggled to navigate the rickety stairs. Jenny placed her hands on the broken railing and slowly slid her way down, avoiding Sylvia's pleading eyes. Sylvia could see the fear in her younger sister's face, could see her shoulders shudder from Gertrude's cold, wrinkled hand perched on her shoulder, like a vulture watching for its prey to die before it can dive in and eat whatever is left.
They reached the bottom of the stairs and Jenny sat obediently on a bench in the corner just like Gertrude told her.
Gertrude stood behind with her hands firmly clasped on Jenny's shoulders. Her eyes were pushed deep into their sockets, two dark spheres filled with hate and confusion. She was thinner, older looking now then she was three months ago when they'd first arrived at her house. Loose skin hung listlessly from her elbows, cheeks, and eyes.
Hey, killing someone takes a lot out of you. Who knew?
She pushed Jenny aside and knelt over Sylvia's body. Sylvia didn't move, breath caught deep in her throat. Silently she prayed Gertrude wouldn't smell the layer of stale piss that soaked the front of her tattered skirt.
"Sylvia, did you wet yourself again?"
She didn't respond.
"Now, girl, answer me when I'm talking to you. Did you wet yourself or not?"
Still Sylvia stayed silent.
Gertrude let out an indignant grunt and placed her hand on Sylvia's inner thigh. Sylvia drew away from the contact; Gertrude's uncaring touch enflamed the swollen scares and bruises down there.
"What am I going to do with you, Sylvia?" Gertrude stood and placed her hands on her hips, shaking her head and letting out a tired sigh. She looked like an exasperated old whore, Sylvia thought absently before staring back at her sister, still sitting obediently in the corner. Jenny looked away, apparently finding something very interesting about the wall to her left.
"Is there nothing I can do to straighten you out girl? Or are you just too far gone already?"
"Want me to discipline her a little more ma'am?" Richard said from the corner. He smiled a little bit; apparently the idea of beating the crap out of her turned the bastard on.
"No, not today Richard," Gertrude responded, sounding a little disappointed, "I need her right now, maybe later."
Richard shrugged, letting the broom handle drop to the ground.
Oh well, maybe next time you son of a bitch.
Gertrude turned her attention to Jenny.
"Jenny, come here a second. I need you to help me with your sister."
Jenny hesitantly stood and walked to Gertrude's side, wobbling clumsily. She needed new leg braces, Sylvia could see, but it wasn't likely she'd get them any time soon. That was for sure. Gertrude handed her a pencil and a piece of paper.
"Here, I need your sister to write a note for me. Help her."
Jenny reached out with her shaking hands to take these but her fingers couldn't grasp the slick paper and they fell from Gertrude's outstretched hands. Gertrude's face filled with rage. The corners of her eyes twitched uncontrollably, her mouth flickering erratically like the dyeing embers of a quickly diminishing flame. Without a word her hand lashed out and struck Jenny in the check, hitting her with an old wedding band she still wore from her last marriage. Jenny, caught off guard by Gertrude's sudden outburst, collapsed in a heap beside her sister.
"You're useless! Just like your sister! What the hell is wrong with you two?"
The smell of burnt meat and stale piss filled her nostrils the closer she got to Sylvia. Sylvia reached out and grasped Jenny's hand in a weak and desperate clasp. Her flesh was cold, scared, her nails bent backwards exposing the yellowish infected flesh underneath; still Jenny clutched her hand as if it were a lifeboat, just as she'd done for countless years, relying on her sister to take care of her. Sylvia relaxed a little at her little sister's touch and offered a weak but genuine smile. Jenny's grip tightened slightly and Sylvia pulled it away, a grimace of pain stricken across her face.
Jenny took her eyes off Sylvia and looked at Gertrude. Gertrude's face was relaxed now, the evil twitch gone from her eyes and her gaze focused. She reached into her breast pocket and retrieved a cigarette which Richard lit for her. She took a long, somewhat pained draw and released the smoke with a loud sigh.
"You have to do this for me Jenny, it's for the best. Come on now, get to it."
Gertrude bent over, holding her back for support, and grabbed the pen and paper at her feet. She put the pen in Sylvia's hand, gently squeezing her fingers around it.
"Now," said Gertrude, "I want you to write a note to your parents for me, can you do that sweetie?"
"I…I think I can," Sylvia replied. Her hand shook badly. She could barely grip the pen, but somehow managed to write on the little piece of paper before her.
Dear mom and dad
She began before Gertrude stopped her.
"No, no, write 'to Mr. and Mrs. Likens.' I'll tell you what to say after that."
Jenny sat alone in the corner and watched as Sylvia wrote what Gertrude told her word for word.
To Mr. and Mrs. Likens:
I went with a gang of boys in the middle of the nigh. And they said that they would pay me if I would give them something so I got in the car and they all got what they wanted and they did and did and when they got finished they beat me up and left sores on my face and all over my body.
And they also put on my stomach, I am a prostitute and proud of it.
I have done just about everything I could to just make Gertie mad and cause cost Gertie more money then she's got. I've tore up a new mattress and peaed on it. I have also cost Gertie doctor bills that she really can't pay and made Gertie a nervous wreck and all her kids. I cost her $35,000 for a hospital in one day and I wouldn't do nothing around the house. I have done anything to do things make things out of the way to make things worse for them.
When they were finished Gertrude examined the note under the faint glow of the basements only light bulb. Her eyes scanned the document like a starving tiger would eye a sickly deer at the center of a heard; cold, cruel, but cautious and precise. Calculating and careful, yet sloppy in her hunger and desperation. She smiled warmly as she read the last words.
"Thank you girls, it's perfect." She even kissed it, the bitch, seeming to relish in her moment of victory. She, a thirty something year old hag, reveling in the defeat of a tortured sixteen year old girl tied up in her basement. And the witch could hardly conceal her amusement.
She turned from them and put an arm lovingly around Richards shoulders, pulling him as a newlywed might draw her husband near as they walked through the rows of a church as their families watched, smiling as they rushed to their car that would take them away to their honeymoon. Richard gripped her around the waist awkwardly, yet confidently. He smiled a little, looking up into Gertrude's face.
"Help me up the stairs please," she said, "I'm feeling a little ill."
"What about them?" he asked, nodding at Jenny and Sylvia.
"Richard, please take me upstairs." She rubbed her hand against his chest and whispered seductively in his ear. Richard smiled and led her up, holding her back so she wouldn't fall. When they were gone, the door shut and locked behind them. Jenny rushed to her sister's side.
"Sylvia, Sylvia I'm so sorry," she wept into her sisters torn blouse, "please, please let me tell someone. I'll be careful, I'll go straight to the police or Dianna, I promise."
Sylvia shook her head.
"They'll catch you Jenny, and then what? They'll just lock you up down here with me."
"But I can't stand to see you like this, what they're doing to you…" her voice trailed off as gasping sobs overtook her.
"Jenny," Sylvia said after Jenny was calm, "I know you don't want me to die, but I am. I can tell."
"Well don't die Sylvia, don't die!" but Sylvia was asleep. Her troubled breathing evened out as her chest gently rose and fell like the roll of the oceans waves. Jenny saw a moldy blanket lying discarded in a corner, riddled with moth holes and smelling of mildew, but far better than nothing. Grabbing it, she laid it over Sylvia's shivering body. For a brief moment Jenny saw her sister smile in her sleep, like she used to when they'd been a family, her mouth closed like always to hide two missing front teeth. Like she used to when times were better, back before they met Paula, before their mother was arrested, back when starvation and abuse were what happened to little African kids on the other side of the world. When hunger was living on two meals a day instead of three, sleeping in the basement was fun, and friends didn't want you dead.
Back in a time when her childhood innocence allowed her to believe people were decent and kind. She knew better now, better than most children her age.
Jenny stood and left her sister in the darkness.
She slept for an hour, dreaming of better times in an ancient past that hardly seemed to exist anymore. The world still turned, she assumed, outside these bitter confines of the Baniszewski's basement, but here in the cold dark time was dead. Another victim, it seemed, to the madness upstairs. Through her swollen eyelids she could still see rays of sunlight streaming through the window but it had no meaning to her now. The hurt from her burns and scars grew no less intense in the daylight, nor were they diminished in the bitter cold October nights.
The nights were endless down here. Her eyes were dimming. Sooner or later she knew the light would fade completely and darkness would consume her. Would that not be better? To never again see the brands on her chest? To never have to look into the faces of her tormenters and ask herself, as she'd done time and time again, why? Why were they doing this? What did she do to deserve such hatred? Was this God's sick version of a practical joke? Haha, looky here, I got this girl, this Sylvia girl to do everything I told her, to go to church every week even when she didn't have to and attend Bible school like a good little girl, but now look at her? I put her in this cold, wet basement to rot! Isn't it funny? Haha, hardy har har, too fucking funny!
"Yeah, too God damned funny," she croaked and turned over to lie on her side.
It was night now, and Gertrude just recently went off to bed judging from the lack of noise coming from upstairs. No one wanted to wake up dear old mommy when she was sleeping, no….
The house was quite for a while at least, until she heard the familiar sound of squeaky floorboards as bare feet passed by overhead. They reached the basement door (Sylvia could hear whispering voices) and slowly pushed it open, careful to avoid any squealing hinges. She heard a pair of small feet come down the stairs.
Johnny, that bastard of a kid.
He reached the bottom of the stairs and stood there, staring at her, his eyes full of a perverted innocence. She couldn't see his face but knew from experience the look that must be plastered upon it; it was the look of a child opening a present on Christmas morning and finding a new toy to play with. A toy to be abused, broken, and thrown away, forgotten, when no longer needed. But his play thing wasn't broken yet, not quite at least, and he seemed intent of seeing just how much punishment it (she) could take before it (she) finally did. Marie, his loyal disciple and partner in crime, walked down the steps behind him, that same look in her eyes as well.
Well, get on with it she thought bitterly, just wanting them to stop looking at her with those eyes, those sickening little ten year old eyes. What was it she used to hear from her grade school teachers? There's nothing more cruel or innocent as a child. She hadn't understood what it meant then; now she did.
"Come on," Marie said, tugging on Johnny's shirt sleeve, "where's the rope?"
"Shh, you want mom to hear?"
"Shut up then, I've got it right here, so just shut your mouth."
They walked to where she lay and knelt beside her. Johnny looped his arm around her left armpit, Marie doing the same for the right, and together hauled her to her feet and leaned her against the wall. She didn't resist. It hurt too much to resist.
"Hold her here," Johnny said. Marie did as told, holding Sylvia's surprisingly light body very easily against the wall while Johnny went back to the stairs and came back with several long pieces of rope. He told Sylvia to hold her arms above her head. She did as she was told.
See? Maria isn't the only one who can take orders.
Johnny quickly, his hands made fast with experience, tied her hands and hung the ropes from the basements rafters so that her body hung freely from the ceiling, arms spread out like Jesus on a crucifix. They pulled on the ropes until only the tips of her tiptoes could touch the ground.
"Looks like a preacher doesn't she? The way she's holding her arms up like that?"
"Naw," Johnny replied scratching his chin, "looks more like she's yawning."
Sylvia felt the strain in her arms, felt her shoulders coming loose, threatening to pop out of their sockets, but said nothing. Her muscles tightened as she tried to push herself higher on her toes. Her face was stone. She shed no tears; was too dehydrated to cry.
"See?" Johnny said, backing away to admire his work, "I told you she can't cry. If that were you, you'd be screaming your head off."
"Gosh, do you think she feels that?"
"Naw, she can't feel nothing. Here, watch this." He took a book of matches from his breast pocket and struck a light. She saw their faces now, curious eye's, wide and wondering, like little scientists uncovering the bones of a newly discovered dinosaur. They were happy eyes, happy eye's on the faces of two happy smiling children finding amusement the best way they knew how.
Sylvia's eyes left their faces and stared at the light coming in from the open kitchen door. But hadn't they closed that door when they came down…?
"Check this out," Johnny shielded the light and slowly brought it closer to her bare chest. She didn't look; her eyes were locked at the blank figure sitting at the top of the stairs silently watching them. Johnny pressed the open flame against her left breast a moment later, the smell of burning skin rose to her nostrils a split second later. But Johnny was right, the bastard he was, she hardly felt it anymore. She could smell her own flesh burning, could feel the coldness of the flame against her skin, but the pain, the pain wasn't there.
"Wow, you're right, she really doesn't feel anything."
"What are you two doing down here?"
Gertrude stood at the stairs, leaning over the rail, looking down on them. Johnny jumped and dropped the matches, extinguishing the fire instantly. Marie shrieked and ducked, covering her head with her arms as if to ward off a blow to the skull. Gertrude descended the stairs, clutching the railing with her right hand like a drowning man would clutch at a floating log, back hunched over and left hand held tightly against her heart. Sylvia tried to hide the naked fear she felt, but Gertrude saw it anyway, just like she always did, and chuckled that low gargled laugh of hers.
"Mama, we were just, uhh," Marie stammered, trying to find the words, "we thought she was trying to escape so we…"
"So we came down here and tied her up," Johnny interrupted.
"Uhh, huh," Gertrude reached the bottom of the stairs and pushed her children aside so she stood in front of Sylvia's half naked body, "did you two strip her too?"
"No mama, she was already like that."
She placed her hand under Sylvia's chin hand lifted her face so they were looking into eye to eye. Sylvia's face was slack, passive, and emotionless to the untrained eye. It was the face of a POW dyeing in an enemy's cell, alone and forgotten, with no hope of escape. It was the face of a child who's lost her parents and doesn't yet know what that means. It was the same face worn by millions the day after Kennedy was shot in Dallas, no longer a look of shock or disbelief, or even of anger or remorse, but of grim acceptance. She'd already accepted her reality. Beneath the surface, however, in the reclusive recesses of her mind, a spark of sanity remained, where a frightened soul fought a losing battle to stay alive, but none could see it behind those dark and lifeless eyes.
"Hmm, figures," Gertrude said, shaking her head in disappointment, "here, I brought you something to eat." She fetched a couple of stale crackers from her pocket and held them to Sylvia's mouth.
"I don't want them," she said, turning her head away, "give them to the dog."
"You ungrateful whore, I got these for you," Gertrude growled deep in her throat. Sylvia made no response, just shook her head and returned her gaze to the floor. Gertrude clenched her fists, anger cursing through her veins causing her shoulders to shake uncontrollably, and punched Sylvia in the chest with what little strength she had.
Sylvia lost her foothold and swayed backwards on the ropes, painfully pulling on her arms and shoulders. An icy bolt of pain rippled through her body like an electric charge working its way down from her outstretched arms to her toes which desperately fought to find their grip. She gasped in immense pain as her left shoulder crackled before popping out of its socket. Her feet fought desperately to stop her body from swaying any further and take the tension off her arms. Finally the swaying stopped and she was able to stand on her toes again.
"Now eat them!"
Gertrude pried Sylvia's mouth open and shoved the stale crackers deep down her throat.
"I… I can't swallow, they're too dry," she croaked, spitting crumbs out onto the floor.
"Hmm, you're useless, just useless." Gertrude turned, letting the crackers in her hand fall to the floor for the ants and cockroaches to eat. Better they have it, Gertrude thought, then that ungrateful bitch.
"Don't go to bed too late kids, turn the lights off when you're done."
"Yes mom," Marie and Johnny said in unison, glad to be rid of their mother so they can get back to having some fun.
"Good night kids."
The door slammed shut and they could hear her light footsteps make their way back up the steps. Johnny laughed when they could no longer hear the footsteps and reached down to pick up the matches he'd dropped before. He grabbed his sister's hand and shoved the matches into them.
"Here, you try now."
Without hesitation Marie struck a light and held it before her, bringing it closer to Sylvia's cheek.
"Are you sure it's alright?"
"You saw how mad she made mom, didn't you? She knows mama's sick and she still did it. She's needs to be disciplined, mom said so herself. Go ahead."
"Yeah," Marie turned from him and glared into Sylvia's eyes, her lips contorted in a crooked, demonic smile, "this is for making mama sick you stupid whore," she said under her breath, almost too quiet to hear, as if she didn't want anyone to hear her say a curse word, and thrust the lit match onto Sylvia's cheek.
Sylvia cringed and pulled away as far as she could on the ropes, clenching her eyes shut and gritting her teeth; this one hurt, but she refused to scream. Though she could smell her flesh burning, feel the match as it burned a hole in her cheek, hear Marie giggling like a school girl with a crush and see Johnny standing behind her with his arms crossed just waiting for her to cry out in agony, she stayed silent. She kept her eyes on Johnny, watching with wary amusement the look of frustration that crossed his face. She didn't even notice when Marie pressed a second match to her other cheek, she just kept her eyes on Johnny.
Oh, and he was angry now too. His arms crossed, eyebrows pressed together so close it looked like a unibrow; despite the pain she couldn't help but smile a little. Here she was, tied to the ceiling with a match pressed against her cheek and the words I am a prostitute and proud of it branded on her chest clearly visible to him, and all this sick bastard wanted was to hear her scream.
Well fuck him.
Johnny stared into her face and frowned. Why wasn't she screaming? She used to always scream when they burned her like this; it wasn't any fun with her just hanging there like a piece of meat in a slaughter house. Marie lit another match and held the open flame to Sylvia's finger tips. Still the whore didn't so much as flinch. It was a longstanding joke that Sylvia couldn't cry, that she was some sort of demon who felt no pain, and looking at her now he could almost believe it. The flames had no effect, she didn't even shy away from the them anymore, just lay there looking at him with that God damned smirk on her face. God, was she even human anymore?
"She's kind of scary isn't she?" Marie said, now burning some off Sylvia's hair and watching it melt.
"Well, just look at her. It's like she can't feel anything at all. It gives me the creeps."
"Here," he said, reaching out his hand "let me see those."
She handed him the matches, keeping a wary eye on the thing before her. Outside a car pulled into the driveway next door, the beams from its headlights casting mysterious shadows into the dark corners of the basement. Johnny took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it with one of the last matches in the box.
God, how many of these things did we use? This box was full when we got here.
"Where'd you get that?" Marie asked, staring at the lit cigarette in his hand.
"Ricky gave it to me, but I don't like 'em, they make me cough."
"Why'd you keep it then?"
He only smiled.
"Pull her panties down."
"Johnny no! She's a prostitute; she probably has all kinds of diseases."
"God damn, you think I don't know that? I don't want to touch her. I just want to try something out, okay?"
"I don't want to though, what if I accidentally touch her down there? I might get sick."
"You're not going to get sick, alright? So just do it already."
She looked nervous, but nodded, "Okay."
Wrapping her hands in a piece of cloth she found lying on Sylvia's bed, she grabbed her panties, making sure not to touch any of the skin down there, and slid them down to her ankles. Johnny didn't even look, he'd seen it all before and it wasn't anything special. Just a collection of bruises, mangled flesh, and filthy scars. He wasn't interested in any of that, he just wanted to hear her scream, and he had an idea as to how to make that happen.
He took a draw of the cigarette and knelt before her like a man being knighted, and grabbed her legs so she couldn't lean backwards. She didn't resist, but she wasn't looking at him anymore either. Her eyes were shut tight, knowing what he was going to do. He smiled. This was going to hurt by god, and hurt really bad too.
Oh well, you should have screamed bitch, he thought, and pressed the burning cigarette against her cold, sensitive skin.
Phyllis Vermillion leaned back and rested her head against the headrest as her husband, Raymond, pulled his Ford into their driveway whistling an old Frank Sinatra song and tapping lightly on the wheel to the beat of the music. She smiled. They hadn't been on a date in a very long time, and it was nice to be able to take a break from their busy lives to enjoy dinner and a drive through movie, huddling together to keep warm and enjoying a nice cup of hot coco. Raymond was such a workaholic he hardly took enough time to care of himself much less take his wife on a date. Fortunately she was able to convince him, at least for tonight, the work could wait, and she couldn't.
He looked her way and gazed momentarily into her eyes before returning his attention to par king the car. They had a magical night, and by the look on his face he wasn't ready for it to end it. Good. Neither was she.
The car stopped as he put it into park and turned off the lights. Darkness engulfed the vehicle. She leaned into him as he reached for her, placing passionate kisses on her wet lips.
"Come on," he said, breaking the kiss, "let's go inside."
They walked up the steps to their front doors, Raymond's arms wrapped tight around her waist, leaning against one another to help stave off the cold. She saw a faint light glowing in her neighbor's basement; odd, considering that it was almost midnight, but she thought nothing of it. Gertrude probably just wasn't able to sleep and doing some housecleaning. What else could it be?
Ray opened the front door and let her in, turning on the lights as he walked in afterwards. She turned and shoved him against the wall smothering him with a series of lustful kisses. Their tongs fought at the entrance of her mouth, his hands roamed her body finding their way up from her waste to cup her breasts. She wiggled to allow his hands better access and moaned seductively as he softly pinched her nipples.
A blood curdling scream shot through the cold night air like a demonic bat flying from its cave at night. The terrible wail trembled the windows which shook as if in fear of whatever creature would utter such an unholy cry. In the distance, dogs, woken from their sleep, howled at the moon filling the night with the shouts of wolves and angry neighbors.
Phyllis grabbed her husband instinctively and drew him close. A dark chill ran up her body, starting at her toes and working their way up until her shoulders shook with fright.
"What the hell was that!?"
"God damned kids," Ray broke free from her grip and walked to an open window, shutting and locking it as if to keep out whatever evil or afflicted creature uttered that tortured cry. The scream faded, carried away by the howling winds, leaving the night still and quite once more.
"Ray, what was that? That wasn't just some kid playing around."
"What else could it be? It came from the Baniszewski's place, you know how crazy it can get over there."
"Shouldn't we call the police? Maybe somebody's hurt."
"No, no it's probably nothing. One of her kids might have fallen down the stairs or something."
Another scream, this one quieter, weaker, suddenly cut off by a loud snapping sound heard perfectly even with the windows shut tight.
"If it keeps up I'll call the cops, I don't think they have a phone over there, if someone's hurt they'll probably come over here to use ours, otherwise its best not to pry into other people's business.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, it's nothing," he walked over to where she was standing and pinned her against the wall, bringing his face close to hers, "now, where were we?"
For Phyllis and Raymond Vermillion, that night was a happy one. For Sylvia, left hanging from the rafters burnt and mutilated, it was typical.
Richard sat behind his desk in his room, looking across the street and a few doors down at the Wrights place, window open, staring fondly at the second story window that looked into Mrs. Gertrude Wright's bedroom. A radio on his night stand bellowed music from the Beatles new album but not too loud as to not wake his sick mother who slept in the room next door.
The light in her room wasn't on and yet he stared hoping to catch a glimpse of the beautiful angle who lived there. She was sick, he knew, and dealing with all those little kids every day left her exhausted at night, but he couldn't help but look, and hope, that she'd return to the window and smile his way. He never dreamt when he first met Mrs. Wright that she could be such a lovely creature; in fact he used to think she was just an ugly, tragic old woman. Two broken marriages to men who now refused to pay child support, an abusive boyfriend, on top of all the kids she had to take care of (some of which weren't even her own) and dealing with her constant illness left her poor and desolate, a mere shell of the woman she could have been had fate been more kind and good sense prevailed in place of unwarranted emotions.
He'd been friends with a few of her kids before meeting her, even had a crush on Stephanie, but not anymore. He was far too mature to be friends with any of Mrs. Wright's children though; now he had eyes only for their mother, and she for him despite her relationship with her psychotic boyfriend.
He smiled warmly, remembering the last two days he'd spent over at that house. No boy on earth his age could possibly experience more pleasure and bliss than he. Sure there was the business with Sylvia that still seemed to weigh down on his conscious more than he liked, but it hardly seemed to matter. It hadn't been his idea, after all, to carve those letters on her chest. He just did what Mrs. Wright asked when she wasn't able to herself. She was the adult after all, right? Adults were supposed to know better than kids. And it wasn't as if Sylvia didn't deserve it either. She was a prostitute after all; at least that's what Mrs. Wright kept saying. Prostitution was a sin, God hated sin, wanted it punished, so why not mark her like they did? Why not let everyone she'd ever be with, ever put in danger of catching whatever diseases she had, know her for what she really was? It wasn't cruel at all, it was… poetic justice.
He heard the scream then, loud and terrifying. Sylvia's no doubt (how many times had he heard her scream like that?) coming from the basement where they kept her.
That bitch is going to wake my mother, he thought angrily. Another scream, this one not quite as loud.
Richard reached over and turned up the radio, drowning out the tortured screams of the girl dying in the basement down the street.
Jenny lay awake that night listening to Sylvia's tormented cries downstairs. She dared not move. Dared not speak. Dared not make a sound for fear they would hear, and come for her, and torture her the way they were torturing Sylvia in the darkness. She'd seen Johnny and Marie sneak from their rooms and crawl down the stairs earlier that night and hadn't moved since. Not long after, their mother went down to join them. That's when the screaming started. When it was done she heard Mrs. Baniszewski's climb the stairs from the kitchen and go into her bedroom.
I can try to run,she thought looking at the open window, wondering how far the fall would be, and what she might land on. But she couldn't. It just wouldn't work. They'd hear if she tried to jump, and even if she made it to the ground without breaking anything she wouldn't get far. Not with her leg braces. She might reach the neighbor's house; even if she had to crawl it wasn't far. If she could get up the porch steps she might make it.
But even then, what good would it do? They would never believe her, a child, the sister of a falsely accused prostitute coming to their door with wild stories of torture, rape, and conspiracy. No, they'd probably drag her back, kicking and screaming for dear life. They would say her story was just some childhood fantasy or that maybe she was just trying to get out of punishment for something she'd done. She'd beg, she'd cry, and throw an unholy fit before God and His angels, but it wouldn't do any good. Why? Because most of them already knew, or at least had an idea of what transpired in the house on the corner, but it wasn't any of their business; or so they would say. Life was too short to worry about what other people might be doing. This unspoken rule would not be broken for the wild stories of a half-crazed crippled girl.
The screaming stopped, but Jenny could still hear Sylvia whimper through the loose floorboards. Johnny laughed then, not a mean, callous laugh like a boy might make when pulling the wings off moths and butterflies. No, this wasn't like that at all. This was a happy laugh, a gleeful laugh, like one would expect to hear on Christmas morning when an infant opened its present. She saw in her minds eyes little Johnny shaking his fists in the air in triumph unable to hold back his giggles while Marie watched in quiet satisfaction.
Good God, what kind of monsters were these people?
The basement door slammed shut as their voices followed them up their stairs, through the kitchen, into the living room, and finally to the second floor. Floorboards creaked with their passing as if protesting the bloody feet traveling upon them.
"She screamed loud didn't she?" Marie said as they reached the top of the stairs.
"Yeah, told you she was human after all. Nothing to be scared of. She's just really tough, that's all."
"Yeah, I know, I was kind of scared we had a demon or something living in our basement."
She let out a loud yawn and opened the door to the room she shared with Jenny.
"See you in the morning."
"Yeah, and don't forget your homework this time. Your teacher will throw a fit."
"I won't," she assured him and entered the room, saying goodnight one more time before shutting the door behind her. Jenny ignored the smell of smoke on the girl's cloths and pretended to be asleep. Marie stepped over Jenny, thinking she was asleep, and lay in bed.
"Jenny?" she said after a couple minutes. Jenny didn't answer.
"Jenny?" she said a little louder this time.
"What?" Jenny replied, opening her eyes and facing the other girl.
"Can you help me with my homework again tomorrow?"
"Thanks," Marie said satisfied and laid her head against the pillow. She was asleep almost instantly, exhausted from the day's activities. She had reason to be tired. After getting home from school that day she helped Richard practice his judo kicks on Sylvia before throwing her down the stairs. When they were done Marie went upstairs and begged Jenny to help her with the homework she was too 'busy' to do on her own. And she'd done it too, thinking that maybe, just maybe, that little show of humanity would make the bitch stop beating her sister. No such luck.
I should have toldshe considered, thinking back on the day Reverend Julian came to the house for a visit. He was a good man, she knew, from when she and Sylvia used to attend Bible school at his church every Sunday. Balding except for a ring of hair around the edges of his head, the Reverend was one of the few people Sylvia and herself trusted since moving to Indiana.
"I hate it," she confided in him shortly after her mother's arrest. Tears streaked her face ruining the makeup she'd adorned for church that day. "She's always doing this. It's not like we didn't have any money, she didn't have to steal those cloths."
"Jenny," Reverend Julian placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. Her tears dried, the pent up cries stuck in her throat. "You have to understand your mother loves you. And your father too. They're both good people, they just don't think sometimes. They mean well, your mother told me just the other day how proud she was of you and your sister for proclaiming your faith in front of the entire church. That was very brave of you."
She nodded, clutching the hand on her shoulder.
"So you have to be strong for them," he knelt and looked her in the eyes. "Your such a brave girl; be brave for them. They need you and your sisters help."
A day later she met Paula. Reverend Julian said it was great she was getting to know new people.
"They're a good family, the Baniszewski's. I think you'll get along well with them. Just call her Mrs. Wright though, she hates being called Baniszewski."
Even he wasn't able to see through Gertrude's lies.
"Good afternoon Mrs. Wright," he said on one of his weekly visits. He didn't always make these weekly visits but everyone who attended his church knew he tried his best to personally reach out to his flock, something which won him the love and respect of the whole church. He was a handsome, likable man who'd taken interest in her and Sylvia when they'd proclaimed their faith for the church. They were the youngest to take him up on the challenge. He never forgot that. "How are you feeling?"
"Oh, I don't feel so good," Gertrude said, inviting him in and motioning for him to have a seat at the kitchen table. She retrieved two mugs from the cabinet and filled them with fresh coffee and took the seat closest the reverend. "I can hardly catch my breath. I've been taking this medicine the doctor gave me but it gets me doped up so I'm tired all the time and all the kids running in and out all day, it just tires me out so much."
Least you don't have to sleep in the basement with no clothes on, Jenny thought but remained silent.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Julian said glancing around the room. His eyes fell on Jenny sitting alone in the corner diligently working on her homework. He smiled warmly in her direction, nodding his greeting. She returned the smile.
"That Sylvia girl has been the worst though," Gertrude continued on her tirade of self-pity. "She's been skipping school, and making passes at older men for money. I had to lock her in her room because she'd sneak out at night."
"Well, actually, that's one of the reasons I came here. See, Sylvia hasn't attended Bible school in quite some time. I would like to speak with her, if it isn't too much trouble."
"Well, you can't, she isn't home right now. Here's her sister though," she waved her hand in Jenny's direction. "Ask her."
The Reverend stood and walked to where Jenny was sitting, kneeling over the counter beside her and giving one of his big, sincere preacher smiles.
"Hey Jenny, how you doing?"
"I'm fine Reverend," she dared not look the man in the eyes for fear that he'd see the terrible agony she felt in her heart. Her hand shook despite her best efforts to bring it under control.
"Your legs feeling okay?"
"Good. Hey, listen, I really need to speak with your sister, I've been hearing she's in some kind of trouble."
Tell him, her mind screamed. This was it. She knew full well she would never get another chance. This man trusted her word as much as he did the word of any adult in his congregation; he personally saw to her spiritual growth and knew that she would never lie to him. If there was anyone in the world who would believe her story without question and come to Sylvia's aid, it was Reverend Julian.
Just tell him, she thought helplessly, fighting against her insatiable fear, tell him about Sylvia tied up half naked in the basement. Tell him about the cigarette burns, the branding, the incident with the coke bottle, everything. Make him squirm in his seat; make him see Gertrude for the monster she's always been.
And she came so close to telling him too. She raised her head and looked the man in the eyes, intending to do what she'd been too terrified to do on dozens of occasions just like this, but the sight of Gertrude standing behind the good Reverend caught her attention and filled her soul with dread. Pure hate, that's what she saw in those dark black voids buried deep in that witches sockets. Nothing but a blinding irrational furry.
Jenny was overwhelmed by them, dear God she was. Her mouth hung open, words of confession left unsaid, her sister yet unsaved. Reverend Julian took her hand in his and held her with a genuine kindness the way her papa used to do when she was a little girl. She could have told him then, but as she worked up the courage to defy Satan's bride she felt the woman walk behind her and place a cold hand upon her shoulder. The sound of crackling knuckles filled her ears.
"Go ahead Jenny, tell the Reverend what he wants to know," she said coldly.
Jenny turned her head and stared, defeated, into Gertrude's eyes. Gertrude smiled and gave her an unfriendly nudge.
"She tells lies," Jenny said returning her gaze to the floorboards. She could feel Gertrude's smile broaden behind her. "And at night, after all of us go to bed, she slips out and raids the icebox."
"She took the babies milk once," Gertrude added.
"Jenny," the Reverend said. "Is that true?"
Lying awake now she tried to justify what she'd done, tried to tell herself he wouldn't believe her despite knowing that he would; tried to make herself believe he wouldn't be any different from the indifferent neighbors who lived in this little corner of hell.
Gertrude made small talk with the Reverend at the front door for a few minutes more, badmouthing Sylvia the way she never grew tired of doing. Quite a feat for a woman who complained about always being tired. She sure had energy now.
"Sylvia said at school that Paula was going to have a baby. But I know my daughter, and I know Sylvia. Paula's not going to have a baby, it's Sylvia."
"Paula told me that there was some hatred in her heart for Sylvia," Reverend Julian replied.
"Oh, she doesn't really mean that. It's just that Paula's been working real hard to help out around the house and, well, Sylvia's been making it awful hard on all of us."
"All the same I still need to talk with her. Tell her I dropped by when she gets back, alright?"
"I don't know when that will be. She sometimes stays out late whoring herself to older men."
"Please, Mrs. Wright."
She sighed. "Of course Reverend."
"Thank you, and thank you for your hospitality."
"You're welcome anytime."
Jenny stood in the kitchen doorway watching her sister's last hope of survival walk down the porch steps and climb into his car.
It's not too late, you can still catch him, you can still tell him.
Reverend Julian backed out the driveway, waving at Jenny and Gertrude who stood on the porch. Gertrude waved back as the good Reverends car disappeared down the street, no longer a threat to her and her secret.
Jenny went upstairs and washed the guilt from her hands.
Next door, as Sylvia drifted in and out of conciseness, and Jenny tried her best to forget her mistakes, Phyllis also lay awake in bed listening to the soft snores of her husband sleeping beside her. The night was eerily quiet, the only sounds she could make out being the constant snores of her sleeping husband and the tick, tick, ticking of the alarm clock staring at her from its place on the night stand. With the pale white moon light shining through the window she could easily make out the dim letters on the clocks face.
She rolled onto her side and squeezed her eyes shut but sleep would not come. She reached for it, begged for it, and yet still it eluded her, residing just beyond the tips of her fingers and mocking her defeat.
Can't get to sleep huh? Poor, poor Phyllis, let's all feel sorry for little ole' Phyllis.
'For the love of God,' she thought angrily, 'why can't I get to sleep?'
She couldn't believe it, she never had trouble sleeping. Even when Ray worked late or she was sick, she was always able to sleep when she wanted. Not since she was a little girl, afraid of monsters in the closet or suffering from a bad dream, did it elude her like it did tonight. Usually she just laid her head on the pillow and that was it, lights out, see you in the morning, hold my calls. But not now. Why?
Oh, so sorry you can't sleep. Hey, look at my eye. You see it? You see that little tear drop? That one's all yours bitch.
"God damn it," she muttered, lifting the sheets and climbing out of bed. Throwing on her night gown she quickly made her way to the bathroom, turning on the lights and examining her face in the mirror above the sink.
'Get a hold of yourself Phyllis, you're not like this. You don't let stupid little things keep you up all night. You don't let emotions get the best of you.'
Emotions!? Is that what you think this is? You stupid bitch, open your eyes, this ain't no God damned emotion!
What else could it be though? She must still be freaked out, she supposed, by that scream they'd heard earlier. That was all.
DING DING DING, guess you aren't as stupid as you look after all.
But… it couldn't be Sylvia, why would she be worried about Sylvia? She barley even knew the girl. They'd never really met, never spoken, never been in the same room for more than a minute or so. If it weren't for a few chance meetings she might not even be aware of the girl's existence.
You're lying to yourself, but you can't fool me you dumb lousy broad. You can't fool me!
'Why would I be worried about Sylvia?'
'But she's fine, probably sleeping in her bed right…'
She did. She thought back to the day she'd first moved into the neighborhood, sometime in August if she remembered correctly. She'd gone next door to Mrs. Wrights house to introduce herself, and to find a babysitter with whom to leave her two children when she and Ray were out. She'd seen Sylvia then, yes, but that couldn't be what was keeping her up now…
…Yes it can...
…and it couldn't have been Sylvia who made that scream…
…It was too and you know it…
…and even if it was it must have been some kind of accident. Had to be, what else could it be?
You're lying to yourself again. Stop lying! Think about what you saw and then try to tell me you're not still awake because you feel guilty.
'What I saw? What did I see?'
She tried to remember, back to that day, back in August with the sweat pouring down her face, loose cloths sticking to her skin. Slowly approaching her neighbor's front door to introduce herself to this woman she would be living next to for the next few years. This Gertrude woman, who for some reason preferred to be called Mrs. Wright, came highly recommended by the other mothers in the area and the kids here seemed to get along so well. The woman had, after all, raised five children of her own; why wouldn't she be highly recommended?
She rang the bell and waited for the door to open. When it finally did she couldn't believe the woman she was looking at was the same so many touted as being the best sitter in the area. Gertrude Wright opened the door, her face pale as the dead and wrinkled beyond all recognition, exhausted eyes drooping low as matted, unkept grey hair covered her forehead. The woman looked half dead, a corpse made to look presentable to a grieving family by an inexperienced mortician. Behind her in the living room small children chased one another in a game of tag, knocking over furniture as they ran. In a crib under the stairs a small baby's wails went unheard.
"Hello Mrs. Wright, I'm Phyllis Vermillion, I just moved into the house next door."
"Oh, so you're our new neighbor," Gertrude said pleasantly enough, allowing a smile to cross her face, "pleased to meet you. Please, come in, don't mind the racket, I try to keep the place under control but it's hard to do with nine kids running around and with this medicine the doctor gives me it makes me drowsy all the time, which makes it even harder if you can imagine."
Mrs. Wright stepped back and welcomed Phyllis in, guiding her to the living room couch where they sat and made small talk. Phyllis spoke about the move, her husband and children, why they chose to live in this particular area. Gertrude talked about her own children and her ex-husbands who weren't paying the child support they owed.
Despite this, the more Phyllis talked to the woman the more she found herself liking Gertrude. It was hard enough raising two children by herself, she could hardly imagine the stress of caring for nine with no husband for support and no job to fall back on. They were pretty close when it came to age, and yet the woman sitting not arm's length away seemed so much older.
"Yes, the children get on my nerves sometimes," she spoke confidently, "I had to run the neighbors kids out this morning. But I think I can take two more for $10 a week, but only if you pick them up soon as you get off work. That shouldn't be too much trouble.
"Well, it's just a little, you know, crazy in here," she said, half joking.
"Yeah, well, it's not always like this. It's a weekend, so all the kids are playing with their friends. They'll probably go to someone else's house pretty soon. Coffee?"
"Paula," she turned and talked to a large girl leaning on the wall in the kitchen, watching with a prison guard's confidence the madness in the house.
"Could you get us some coffee?"
"Sure, just a second," she disappeared through the kitchens entrance. As she left Phyllis's eyes settled on a small, abused looking girl sitting alone on the kitchen table dressed in a filthy and torn yellow blouse, her skin covered in sores and bruises.
"Why child," she exclaimed in shock, "how did you get that black eye?"
The girl turned away without saying a word.
"Get out of my sight," Gertrude cried in a sudden fit of rage. Her eyes instantly changed from those of an overwhelmed but well-meaning woman to those of a crazed killer choosing her next victim, "get in the kitchen Sylvia. I don't want nothing to do with you! I hate you!"
The young girl rose, her face clenching in obvious pain, and limped out of sight.
"That's Sylvia," Gertrude said, making a face as if something bitter rested on the tip of her tong, "her parents are with the carnival. She's three months pregnant. I just don't know what I'm going to do with her."
A shriek of pain emitted from the kitchen, followed by a loud satisfied laugh. The younger girl, Sylvia, stumbled into view, her body shaking as she held her hands against a swollen and dripping wet face. Steam rose from her head as if she'd recently taken a shower. Sharp gasps for breath could be heard through her tightly clenched teeth. Paula came out next, calming carrying two steaming hot cups of coffee.
"I gave her that black eye," she boasted, letting Phyllis see the cast on her arm, "hit her so hard I broke my wrist."
"Get on up to your room Sylvia," Gertrude shouted, the sinister hue returning to her eyes, "if you're pregnant I'm going to kill you!"
Sylvia complied, her eyes filling quickly with confused tears.
Rising from her bed late that night, 2:00AM (God damn!), she recalled in haunting detail the young girls eyes for the brief moment their gazes met. A silent plead for help, washed in the fear and sorrow of one who'd endured much without knowing why. What else could it mean?
So you're finally ready to admit it?
'No, that's just stupid, barking at shadows. Only crazies believe their neighbors are killers. It's nothing…'
Stop that you stupid bitch, stop lying to yourself!
What did she know? Nothing; not really. Maybe Sylvia was a trouble maker like Gertrude said, maybe the rumors the kids thought she didn't know were true, that she prostituted herself to older men, and stole the babies milk. Did any of that justify the beatings she'd obviously taken? Well, no, but some people were just stricter than others, nothing wrong with that.
There's more though, you fucking idiot!
Was there? Yes, she reluctantly agreed, that wasn't the only time she saw the sad sight of the young girl next door. She didn't want to leave her kids with Gertrude, not after the chaos she saw in that house, but they remained on friendly terms.
One morning earlier that month she decided to visit Gertrude before work. It was a lovely day, sunshine spilling through sparse clouds in a dazzling display of morning colors. Dew on the grass, slight fog dissipating in the growing light, uncollected newspapers sitting on the neighbors driveways. Typical of any neighborhood in America. Nothing out of place in her little corner of the world.
She could hear Gertrude's children as she approached the front door.
"Oh, good morning Phyllis," Gertrude welcomed her.
"Hi Gertrude, just thought I'd drop by and say hello before work."
"Well come in. I have some coffee finished, I'll get us some cups."
In the kitchen a couple of kids ate a breakfast of toast and jam. Paula once again brought them their coffee; cheap stuff, but she could hardly hold that against them. Coffee was a luxury, not a necessity, after all.
Sylvia entered the room, limping slowly, clutching her right shoulder in pain. The sight caught Phyllis off guard. For a moment she studied the girl like she would a picture of a starving African child, unable to believe the dirty, disfigured form before her. If this girl concerned her before, she scared her to death now.
"I beat her up again," Paula said flippantly, as if it were no big deal.
Just doing my job ma'am, no need to thank me.
Where before Sylvia appeared confused and terrified, now only a look of extreme apathy remained. Defeated, broken, those eyes told her story better than the bruises that covered every inch of exposed skin. No longer bright and attentive like one would expect from a sixteen year old girl, not even the hate or fear of an abused victim, rather the lifeless hollowness of a POW pushed too far for too long, to the point of bitter acceptance. This was her life now. It wouldn't change, thoughts of escape long ago pushed aside.
Seeing her face, Gertrude spoke quickly.
"I had to make her quite school. She stole a watch from down the street. Can you imagine?" she stole a hateful glance at Sylvia, "I don't know how I'm going to pay those people back. I guess I'll just have to take it out of her ironing money."
You know what you sawthe voice spoke again, pleading with her, desperation replacing the anger in its tone.
'But if she was in trouble, why didn't she say anything?' reason replied.
"She's fine Phyllis," she re-ushered herself, "why are you losing sleep over this?"
You're lying again! How can you call yourself a 'good' woman and let this go on?
The anger was back.
'There's nothing wrong, she's fine. Just calm down, you really think Gertrude would seriously hurt a child she's taking care of?'
You saw the scars, you saw those eyes. How do you think she got those? That she fell down the fucking stairs?
'Kids play hard sometimes.'
They're fucking killing her!
"Don't be silly, they wouldn't kill anyone."
'Of course they wouldn't.'
Liar! Open your fucking eyes!
"Shut up!" her fist struck the mirror, shattering it into hundreds of tiny shards. Splinters of glass imbedded themselves into her now bloody and mangled hand.
"What are you doing?" Ray stood in the doorway, dressed only in his boxers. The soundless argument of her subcouncouse ceased.
"Nothing, nothing. I'm sorry I woke you," she said.
"Wha-? What are you doing? What happened to the mirror?" his eyes settled on her hands, a large sigh escaped his lips.
"I was just clumsy."
"Your hand is bleeding. Here," he retrieved a pair of tweezers from a drawer and held her hand hesitantly in his own. When he was finished picking the glass from her hand he skillfully bandaged them and cleaned the large pieces on the floor and in the sink.
Sinking into bed, glass swept and blood wiped clean, she felt a re-ushering ease sweep over her. Was she really worried about Sylvia's life? No, of course not. Gertrude might be a stressed out old woman prone to harsh punishments, but she wasn't insane, and she certainly wasn't a murderer.
The voice ceased. Silence engulfed her; all was still say for her husband's snoring. There was no reason to feel guilty anyway. She never did anything wrong.
2:45 AM, Phyllis Vermillion sleeped soundly in her bed. 2:45 AM, Sylvia Likens lay unconscious on the basement floor relieved, at least for a moment, from pain inflicted.
Things were a little better now. Not much, keep in mind, and besides after the hellish torture of the night before just about anything could be considered 'better.' Was it good that she still had nothing to eat? Was it good that she was still used as a makeshift punching bag/ash tray? No, it wasn't good. But was it better? Of course it was. It probably wouldn't last for long, she knew, but for now even that didn't seem to matter.
Instead of a gravel floor in the basement, now she rested on a piss stained mattress in one of the upstairs bedrooms. She'd even had a bath, though Stephanie kind of ruined it. Clean and refreshed, Sylvia lay on the dirty mattress and rested as best she could. Sleep, always a cruel master, denied her as it often does when one is hungry, cold and scared. No matter. A few minutes of rest were almost as good. It's not like she wanted to sleep anyway, not when her dreams offered no relief and often frightened her more than her wakeful hours. Strange dreams, bizarre dreams, dreams that made her scream in the night and wake feelings ants crawl up her spine. Sleep offered no rest, no fortress of solitude to which to escape life. Instead it trapped her like a snare pulling her deeper and deeper into the void of insanity.
Men with knives and baseball bats chased her through a dense forest, branches smacking her in the face, thorns sticking painfully into her bare feet. No matter fast or careful she ran they always caught her. Or she'd fall into a black pit filled with snakes and roaches.
A playground filled with laughing children, all huddled around a homeless man begging for water while they kicked him and threw dirt in his face. Sylvia tried helping him once, but that only made the homeless man angry. After that she let him be. If that's what he really wanted, so be it.
And then there was the dream where it was Paula locked in the basement, and Sylvia could do anything she wanted in that dream. Mom and dad were there, and Jenny too. Paula would be lying on the basement floor, huddled in a little ball and crying, holding her stomach and telling them to stop. For the love of god, stop, she'd hurt the baby! Most times Sylvia did stop.
Sometimes, she didn't. Sometimes, that burning spark of power would ignite. The desire to do onto others what others did onto her overwhelmed all sense of decency and morality leaving only the dried husk of a revenge ridden girl. To slice into the crying demon before her and extract revenge for all the torment she'd endured seemed the ultimate pleasure. On those nights, when that dream entered her mind, she'd find herself waking, smiling, feeling alive in a way she'd never thought possible. The pain, the terrible pain, vanished, leaving only smug satisfaction.
It was this dream that scared her most of all.
In many ways, Stephanie Baniszewski was a lot like her mother; in many ways, more important ways as far as she was concerned, they couldn't be more different. It was one of those similarities, however, that kept her home on this particular day. Fainting spells, to be specific, something her mother also suffered from since she was a teenager. She felt weak and tired. Headaches haunted her almost every waking hour, some so painful she could barely move.
Life just wasn't fair sometimes. Johnny went to school every day and came home complaining like the little bastard he was while she was stuck here looking at the ceiling and twiddling her thumbs. Oh, the irony was not lost on her.
Pushing the blankets away, she climbed gingerly out of bed and stepped from her room, putting on a set of school cloths hung on the door handle the night before. The house was empty, or at least it should've been except for the sound of running bath water and steam coming from the crack beneath the bathroom door.
Who the hell's taking a bath in the middle of the day?
Walking across the hall, she put an ear against the window and listened. The soft patter of water splashing on skin reached her ears. She cracked the door ever so slightly and peered inside. What she saw horrified her. Sylvia sat on the rim of the bathtub, letting warm water roll down her body smiling just a little in obvious pleasure. Scars riddled her body running from her neck down her back. Weeks' worth of filth and dried blood dripped solemnly to the floor like gore raining down from a heavenly battlefield.
Stephanie could only watch in shock. She knew the other kids beat up Sylvia sometimes, hell she'd lost her temper a time or two herself, but this… This wasn't just a punch here or there, or even a full blown beating every once in a while, the mutilation on the girl she saw now could only be from almost daily torture. Who would do such a thing?
She knocked tentatively, "Sylvia?"
Sylvia turned quickly, fear flashing franticly across her face before she saw who it was. It faded just as fast once Stephanie stepped in replaced by a loud sigh of relief.
"Oh, Steph," she gasped, her arms trying (unsuccessfully) to hide the scars and brandings that covered her naked body, "you scared," she swallowed, "you scared me to death."
"Sylvia," Stephanie approached the tub slowly, unable to keep her eyes off the poor girls mangled body. Seeing this, Sylvia looked away and continued washing as if she weren't there.
"Sylvia, what…? Who did this to you?" she demanded, shock giving way to pulsing anger, "was it Johnny? Did he do that?"
Sylvia didn't answer, didn't even look her way, her face a battlefield of deep trenches and scorched earth traced cruelly with a meat grinder's precision. Her arms, legs, neck, every inch of exposed skin seemed dotted with hundreds of tiny burns. None of this compared, however, to the brands tattooed on her chest.
"Stephanie," Sylvia tried to speak only to stop herself.
"Sylvia, tell me who did that to you," she commanded now, all compassion now gone from her voice.
"No," tears rolled down her cheeks, "it wasn't… just Johnny."
Sylvia's body shook with anger, her hands clenching into tight fists.
"Ask your mother."
Looking back, after all was said and done, she couldn't really say it was a surprise. One had to be deaf and stupid not to know mother had it in for Sylvia though Stephanie never could understand why. She knew the accusations that Sylvia was a prostitute, pregnant, and a thief were mostly false, but the others seemed so adamant about it. Sylvia was no prostitute, and though she'd been known to steal things on a few occasions the wild accounts that she stole the baby's milk and went on wild drinking binges were either gross exaggerations or bold face lies. As for being pregnant, that honor fell squarely on Paula, not Sylvia. Eventually, though, if you hear the same lie enough times, sometimes you come to believe them even if just at a subconscious level. Maybe that's why Stephanie reacted the way she did. Maybe it was because she, like her mother, never learned to control her temper. Or, perhaps they were more alike than even she thought.
"You liar! You lying little bitch!"
"Ask her!" she shot back defiantly, "go ask her yourself!"
"Shut your whore mouth," Stephanie smacked Sylvia across the face. Sylvia, caught off guard by the sudden assault, fell backwards, hitting her head on the rim of the tub before crashing into the lukewarm water.
"You want to tell lies about my mother?! Here!" Stephanie shouted, turning the waters heat all the way up while holding Sylvia's head under the underneath, "take your precious bath!"
Sylvia thrashed wildly, pushing with what little strength she had to get her face out of the water. Stephanie relaxed her grip just enough to let Sylvia breath. Scolding hot water, almost boiling, showered down on the already scared girl. Stephanie didn't care. She'd smelled blood. Like a great white, dark eyes rolled to the back of its head, razor sharp teeth bared for the kill, she could not, nor did she want to, stop. It wasn't until Sylvia, shaking terribly as if left outside in a blizzard, whimpered softly that the blood rage coursing through her finally ceased. No more anger. No more hatred, only shock.
Did I just do that? Yeah, I think I did.
Stephanie backed away, allowing Sylvia to rise and turn the water down.
"Umm, hey, sorry."
Sylvia didn't react, only stared her down with those menacing eyes of hers. Stephanie shivered. There was something about those eyes, those sincerely hateful eyes. Defiant, yet hopeless; strong and uncaring.
The girl was dead already; she just didn't know it yet.
Stephanie stepped away. Though she refused to admit it at the time, she believed every word Sylvia said. Or rather, what Sylvia implied, because she'd known all along on one level or another; knew what her mother was capable of doing, and what she herself was guilty of. It wasn't just Johnny, though she knew what a little bastard he could be. It wasn't just mother or Paula either, it was her.
Stephanie recalled walking into the living room after school a few weeks ago, the scene inside when she entered the front door forever burned into her mind. Like a diorama from hell, characters she knew, Paula, mother, Johnny, Jenny, arranged almost like a nativity scene the way they all surrounded Sylvia in a vicious semi-circle. Jenny sat alone in the corner, her frozen body staring out the window at the freedom she longed for so dearly. Facing the wide eyed audience was Sylvia. Naked except for her bra, she stood with her back towards Stephanie, hands holding a broken Pepsi bottle between her legs.
It wasn't until later she learned the truth about what happened. By then the damage was done. That image, that terrible haunting image, and that girl she did nothing to help. That Pepsi bottle inserted between her legs, her mother just… watching, almost smugly, like a judge placing sentence on a murderer. The only one in the group who didn't seem somewhat satisfied was Jenny, who stared down the hall as if fascinated by the stains on the walls.
You can't blame yourself for hitting her she told herself, you didn't know mother made her do it.
'Teaches me to jump to conclusions.'
Leaning on the guardrails for support, Stephanie limped tiredly down the steps to the living room. No more anger. That was typical Stephanie; quick to anger yes, but also quick to forgive, if not to admit her mistakes.
Mother got home a couple hours later. By then Sylvia was resting peacefully on a mattress upstairs sound asleep despite the racket Johnny and Marie made as they arrived home.
"Where's Sylvia?" Johnny shouted from the basement, unmistakable fear present in his quivering voice.
"What's that Johnny?" Marie, who stood at the basement door, asked, peering in after him.
"She's gone," Johnny scrambled up the steps and pushed Marie out of the way, "she ran away mom! She isn't down there no more!"
"She's upstairs sleeping," Stephanie said as he ran past.
"Well what's she doing up there?"
"I told you, she's sleeping."
"Sylvia's not allowed to sleep upstairs," Marie chimed in.
"Why the hell not?"
"She wets the bed."
"Stephanie?" mother said, walking into the room cradling the baby in her arms, "you feeling any better?"
"Why is Sylvia not allowed to sleep upstairs?" When mother hesitated, she continued,
"and why does she have those brands on her chest? Did you do that?"
"No," mother answered quickly this time, the baby squirming uncomfortably in her arms, "no, that was your brother. Don't worry about it Steph, they'll heal by themselves soon enough. She'll be fine."
"But mom…" Johnny protested, sounding hurt and a little betrayed.
"Shut up," mother interrupted. He stopped immediately. Stephanie was too tired to argue. Even what little exertion she used to confront mother took the fight right of her. Twirls of hazy light cascaded off the rafters as soft Christmas bells sang sweetly into her ears. It only lasted a moment before disappearing into a foggy memory but the energy was gone like air from a popped balloon.
'Yeah, Sylvia's fine,' she told herself as she lay on the couch and drifted into a deep slumber.
The whole gang was here now, Jenny observed. Well, everyone except Stephanie who rested upstairs after suffering another nervous breakdown. That left them alone with Gertrude, Paula, Johnny, Marie, Shirley, and Richard. Not a good situation, but at least Sylvia was out of the basement. That had to count for something at least. Maybe Gertrude actually meant to get her sister the medical treatment she needed.
Maybe, but probably not.
The two young monsters chased each other through the house while Paula watched them like she often did, still wearing her work uniform minus the blue apron, and smoking a cigarette. Just a typical scene from a typical household. That changed once Jenny looked into the kitchen.
Sylvia had a new set of cloths. Not those filthy old piss stained rags she wore before, but neither were these cloths any self-respecting person would choose to wear or be seen in. The dress she wore now used to be red and white, though now the colors seemed to mesh together in a yellowish brown, its sleeves torn off while the ripped skirt showed off Sylvia's skinny legs all the way to her upper thighs.
Sylvia sat in a chair by the dinner table, Richard and Shirley watching attentively, one in quiet interest, the other in mild shock, as Gertrude tried to force feed her a plate of donuts and a glass of milk. Sylvia rested her right arm on the table, trying unsuccessfully to grasp the glass.
"Sylvia, drink your milk," Gertrude spoke softly as if to a toddler, "you need your milk to make you strong again."
Instead of drinking, Sylvia muttered something under her breath and threw the glass spastically to the floor.
"No Sylvia," frustration entered Gertrude's voice, "I can't help you if you're not going to drink. This'll make you feel better. Here," she filled another glass and placed it by Sylvia's hand.
Sylvia reached for it, this time meaning to do as she was told, but as she lifted the cool glass to her lips it slipped from her shaky hands and spilled all over her 'new' cloths. Gertrude snapped. Grabbing a brass rod from Richards's hands, she struck Sylvia violently over the head. Shirley shrieked and ran. Richard, who seemed disappointed when Gertrude didn't hit her the first time, giggled under his breath. Jenny only watched.
"Jenny," Gertrude turned suddenly, "go upstairs and get dressed. You and Johnny are going to blindfold Sylvia and take her to Jimmy's forest.
For the first time since the day Gertrude asked Richard carved those words in her chest, Jenny saw panic fill her sister's eyes. The world stood still. Even the brats stopped their childish games, very much aware of what their demented mother was asking. Richard stopped giggling; Shirley's face went white as death. Toby, normally one to bark during a commotion, fell silent, perhaps sensing the ugly scent lingering ominously in the air. Sylvia's face twisted slightly, as if considering her options.
And then she ran.
For a brief moment, it seemed she might get away. Though she was weak and mutilated, she ran with surprising speed, carried on by the desperation growing stealthily in her heart. No one moved to stop her until she reached the front door and yanked it open. Sweet sunshine engulfed the room. She was going to get away.
'Go,' Jenny allowed hope to surge inside for that short exhilarating moment. Sylvia stumbled through the open door and onto the porch before falling down the front steps and sprawling onto the sidewalk. Paula was on her a moment later. Sylvia screamed, kicking madly against Paula's iron grip. Windows opened up and down the street as neighbors pulled them open to witness the spectacle. Sylvia screamed madly as Paula wrapped her giant arms around her shoulders and dragged her into the house.
"Help!" her cries fell on deaf ears, "God damnit help!"
"You stupid bitch," Gertrude shouted, ripping Sylvia from Paula's grasp and throwing her to the floor.
"Mom, stop!" Shirley shouted, but Gertrude was having none of it.
"You think you can just run on me? After all I've done for you?" her fists came down again, and again, tearing the skin off her knuckles, "where were you going? Off to whoreyourself off again? Huh?"
They carried her down the stairs once more, descending one last time into the damp dungeon below ground that Sylvia already knew so well. Minutes passed. Jenny didn't move; hadn't moved, actually, during the whole gruesome ordeal. That wasn't right. Sylvia was downstairs; she should be downstairs too.
Slowly, carefully taking each step, she made her way down the rickety stairs, leg braces clanking noisily on the loose floorboards. Nobody noticed as she approached from behind, gently pushing Johnny to the side as she hobbled to her sister's side. Sylvia lay almost lifeless on the floor, muttering her ABC's.
"A… B… C…" she stopped, confused, and started over, "A… B…"
A wet trickle of urine snaked down her leg, collecting in a puddle beneath her.
"Clean yourself up!" Gertrude screamed franticly. Johnny and Marie laughed. Sylvia continued as if nothing happened. Jenny sat by her sister and rested Sylvia's head in her lap.
"If you don't get up I'll give you the broad jump," Paula mocked.
Sylvia smiled dumbly, pointing at faceless crowd before her, "You're Ricky," she said, "and you're Gertie…"
"Shut up, you know who I am!"
"All my teeth feel loose," Sylvia looked into Jenny's eyes, concerned.
"Don't you remember Sylvia? You're front tooth was knocked out when you were seven."
"Oh yeah, that's right," she smiled and closed her eyes, relieved.
They left a few minutes later, their bloodlust satisfied for the time being. Jenny stayed behind, cleaning the sores and swapping her own cloths for Sylvia's rags. They locked the door behind them, erasing any hope she had to escape. Fears of uncaring neighbors and judgmental police long ago passed from her mind, re-enforced by Gertrude's shocking display of brutality. They saw Paula drag Sylvia's screaming body back into the house. Certainly someone thought that strange and would come to her aid if told the truth. They had to. What decent person wouldn't?
But that was just it. They had to know already. The screams, the fighting; only a deaf mute could possibly miss the chaos behind these closed doors. Why hadn't they said anything? Maybe they were all in on it, or maybe they just didn't care. Either way they couldn't be counted on for help. She'd have to find a way to free Sylvia without them.
Stephanie walked down the steps to the living room, feeling a lot better after her forced power nap. The events of the past few hours never broke through the foggy haze that was her mind as it dwelled peacefully in an exhausted slumber.
"How you feeling?" mother asked as she entered the kitchen.
"Better," she replied, grabbing an apple from the fridge.
"Sylvia had an accident downstairs, could you go down there and help clean her up?"
"She had an accident?"
"Wet herself again. Johnny's down there now, but I'd be more comfortable if you were down there too."
"Sure mom," she took the time to finish her apple before climbing down the stairs. Opening the door she could hear Johnny laughing, squealing like a pig in a mud puddle, spraying Sylvia down with a hose while her eyes fluttered open and closed sporadically.
"Turn off that hose!"
The hose fell from his startled hands, spraying wildly and getting everything soaking wet before he got it back under control. Sylvia's body twitched slightly but otherwise made no movements.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm, uhh, I'm washing her, see?" He held an empty box of detergent to her eyes, pointing at the soap bubbles covering Sylvia.
"You idiot, turn that off!"
"Fine, fine, geeze…" he muttered something unintelligent under his breath.
"Go upstairs and fill the bathtub," she ordered and smiled when he quickly ran off to do as told.
"Sylva? Sylvia?" she stooped low and brushed the soap from her face, "you okay?"
She wasn't. The girls breaths were short and weak, labored gasps from lungs that couldn't take the strain much longer.
"Sylvia? Sylvia wake up!"
"Wha…?" she opened her eyes for a brief moment before they rolled to the back of her head. Her breathing, short and labored before, stopped altogether. Her shaking hands went still.
"Mom!" Stephanie shrieked.
"What? What's going on?" mother ran down the steps as fast as her old legs could carry her.
"I don't know," tears fell free from her face, "I don't think she's breathing mama."
"What? That can't be."
"She isn't breathing mama. She isn't breathing."
"Yes I am," Sylvia tried to speak only to find her lips could no longer move. Her head hurt. No, that wasn't quite right, it hurt yes but that wasn't all. It felt pressed, like her brain was swelling against the inside of her skull, as if someone was standing on her head. There wasn't the pulsing throb normally associated with a headache; instead there was only that constant uncomfortable swelling sensation.
Someone was crying. Jenny? No, Jenny wasn't here; she left a little bit ago to go do something. What was it? Something to do with mom? Mom was in Florida, or Alabama, or somewhere. Was she back? That would be nice. Maybe Jenny got away. Good for her. But then who was crying? Was it Gertie? That couldn't be it either, only good people could cry. The devil shed no tears. At least she didn't think he could. Perhaps he did, she just couldn't remember. Ehh, whatever. But then who was crying?
Stephanie. Of course, Stephanie was crying.
Because I'm not breathing.
But I am… I think.
"What's going on?" she heard Richards voice from the stair case.
"Richard, I think she's dead," Stephanie sobbed uncontrollably.
Stop that, Sylvia thought, you're hurting my head.
Someone put their head to her chest. That hurt a little too, but not as much as her head. Damn, the headache was getting worse.
"She's breathing, but barely."
She tried to use her arm to push whoevers head was still pressed against her chest away but it wouldn't move either. Bummer. She loved moving that arm. Interesting, maybe her other body parts worked. She tried to move them, but nothing happened. Her legs, fingers, even her eyes wouldn't do as they were told.
'You have a knack for understatement.'
Thanks, I know.
She was floating now, drifting through an empty haze, clear blue skies smiling at her from high above.
"She's faking!" Gertie shouted, "She'll be all right!"
Glad you think so.
That was all she heard now. Numbness engulfed her, numbness in her arms, her legs, her head and mouth. Numbness in her mind where the pain seemed to dissipate with alarming speed. Black voids met her eyes every time she opened them to look around. All that remained was that dreadful screaming on and on like an abandoned baby left in a dumpster by an uncaring teenage mother. She tried to speak, but once again found she couldn't. A loose tooth wiggled in her mouth before falling out.
Oops, there goes another one.
Flashes of light scrolled across her vision like a slideshow, or a really bad movie in slow motion, going frame by frame telling the story of her decently plain life. Helping Jenny roller-skate, mother being arrested for shop lifting, her older sister's wedding, the day they met Paula at church. God was a hugefan of irony apparently. The images fled by in rapid secession; a playground in the park, staying up late to hear the latest Beatles song on the radio, snow on a window sill, her first kiss. Good times and bad, all laid out before her in excruciating detail. She knew what it all meant, had known for some time her life was soon to end, but it wasn't the fear of that impending death that filled her heart with such a terrible sorrow. She would die as she lived; a nobody. An insignificant blight thrown helplessly to the wolves. Forgotten by the ones she loved, hated by those she didn't. It was this thought most of all, the thought of never having existed in the eyes of the world, that haunted her most in these final moments.
"I wish my daddy were here."
They carried her up the stairs, mother following closely behind shouting obscenities at Sylvia's comatose body.
She slammed a book against Sylvia's head, striking her squarely in the forehead.
"Mom, stop that."
"Gertrude, get away," Richard pushed her. Mother staggered for a moment, nearly losing her balance on the stairs, before grabbing the handrails and righting herself.
Stephanie and Shirley bathed Sylvia carefully, removing her cloths and running soap with warm water over her alarmingly pale skin. Blood and stale piss clung to every corner of her mangled body no matter how hard they scrubbed. Scabs long healed fell like dead leaves in a cemetery. Richard, who minutes ago ran across the street to call 9/11, tapped on the door and peered in.
"She doing okay?"
"Oh, she'll be fine," Stephanie assured him though she knew it a lie. Looking at her now, it wasn't hard to see Sylvia was in trouble. Her breaths grew weaker, shorter, more pained. There was no more fight left in her.
They dressed her in a thick sweater and wrapped a wool blanket around her shoulders to keep her warm. Shirley cleared the mattress in Marie's room for Sylvia to sleep on.
"Come on Sylvia," Stephanie whispered into her friend's ear. For a moment life seemed to flood the girls empty lungs. Her eyes, for so long dark and dreary, lit with a last fiery light as if deciding too late they didn't really want to die. She looked around confused before finally settling her gaze on Stephanie.
"Oh, take me home Stephanie."
And then she stopped breathing.
She didn't respond.
Richard ran into the room and lowered his head again to her chest. Only this time he didn't hear any breathing.
"You know mouth to mouth resuscitation?"
"Okay, give it to her."
When Jenny returned to the Baniszewski house that afternoon, she was feeling a little better about herself. No, she didn't find her sister Diana, but she did earn a little money raking leaves around the neighborhood. That would help a little. It still didn't solve any of their problems, but still, not bad.
Twenty dollars in her pocket and a rake almost too big to carry slung over her shoulders, she made her way back to the house where she'd left her sister naked in a basement. Overhead the sun slowly descended towards the boarders of the horizon, blazing before her a procession of ghostly dancers whose forms quivered and swayed as their master abandoned them to the night. Beautiful, really, as long as she didn't stay out when the sun was completely gone and nothing was left to battle the cold. Leaves turned dazzling colors of yellow and red blew carelessly across streets and driveways.
Jenny loved this time of year. Halloween was just around the corner; jack-o lanterns sneered at her from window sills and porches while scare crows stuffed with hay hung limp from naked trees and flag posts. A brisk wind nipped at her neck like a dozen tiny needles just barely breaking the skin. The cool, musty, fresh scent of broken leaves and dying grass wisped around her in a swirling vortex of bright colors so sweet and cold her hands tingled with the sensation.
She stopped. Across the street, parked on the street corner by the Baniszewski house were two police cars, blue and red lights flashing rhythmically to the sound of bitter cries emitting from the house's open door.
Her pace quickened into an awkward trot, moving as fast as her crippled legs would allow. Blood drained from her head. Vision blurred.
"Sylvia!" she burst through the door, tripping on the porch and falling down at the feet of a large police man. Tears of anxiety tore loose from her eye. Faces starred at her through a hazy blur. A figure in blue, a man, took a knee and helped her to her feet.
"Jenny!" Stephanie's voice rang in her mind, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry…" she wept openly, wrapping Jenny in her trembling arms.
"What's going on? Where's Sylvia?" she franticly pushed the clinging arms away.
"I'm sorry Jenny, I'm so sorry, I tried…"
"Shut up! Where's my sister!?"
"She's dead Jenny. Sylvia's dead."
"You're kidding!" Paula shouted from the doorway through which Jenny just entered.
"What? No…" the tears flowed freely now, her voice cracked and uneven. She tried stand but quickly lost her balance. Paula laid a hand on her shoulder from behind.
"This was meant to happen Jenny," the words, spoken softly, were daggers in her back. The hand on her shoulder squeezed hard for a moment before Paula loosened her grasp, "if you want you can live with us Jenny, we'll treat you like our own sister."
Suddenly, as if a switch inside her head were finally flipped, the tears stopped. Her hands, before shaky and cold, stilled. The frightened little girl afraid to cross her tormenters vanished. A void opened in her heart, a void quickly filled with rage.
"Did you tell them I'd been doctoring Sylvia?" Gertrude shouted from the kitchen where she spoke to an officer, "she just stumbled into my yard a couple nights ago holding this," she waved the note she'd forced Sylvia to write in the basement, "she ran off with a gang of boys, they did this to her."
Her eyes settled on Jenny, like they did the day Reverend Julian came for a visit.
"Jenny," she said, almost relieved, "tell him. Tell him I was helping your sister."
"Sylvia was your sister, miss?"
"Who are you?" she asked flatly, her eyes never leaving Gertrude's.
"I'm detective Kaiser," he sat on the couch facing her, knees open, fingers interlocked. He talked but she did not listen, only stared, eyes aglow with a glowering hatred.
"You get me out of here," she said, enjoying the growing horror on Gertrude's face, "and I'll tell you everything."
Christmas morning, 1969.
Jenny gazed across the snow covered yard through the foggy window of her upstairs bedroom. Outside light snow flurries swayed sofrtly in the gentle December breeze adding to the great white blanket that fell the night before. The sun was not yet up though she could see the dim glow of sunrise in the distance. For now, street lights cast a yellowish tint upon the sparkling snow.
Sylvia would have loved it. Four years; hard to believe it was so long ago that she met Paula, and Gertrude, and everyone else made Sylvia's life a living hell. She didn't like to think about it anymore, but this was the one time of the year the memories of those hellish months back in 1965 could not be buried. She bore no permanent scars, not physical anyway, but the guilt was something she'd carry around the rest of her life.
"You were perfectly free to go and tell anyone you saw, weren't you?"
"Well yes, but…"
"You could have told neighbors about this, couldn't you?"
"I could've," she told the defense attorney, her voice breaking, "but that doesn't mean I wanted to die, though."
Yes, it always came down to that, didn't it? She wanted to live, and that, it seemed, outweighed the responsibility she had to her sister. The fact that no one blamed her for what she did didn't help, if anything it only cemented in her mind the idea that she was responsible for Sylvia's death.
You were perfectly free to tell anyone you wanted.
Yes, that doesn't mean I wanted to die though.
"Merry Christmas Indiana," the radio spoke from on top her dresser. The voice was somber, possibly admiring the snow from some studio window deep in the city amidst the clamber of early morning traffic. "We have a beautiful Saturday morning, a chili 15 degrees with an estimated three inches of snowfall forecasted for today, so don't go anywhere if you can help it. My name is Jessica, and I'm going to start you off with some Christmas music this morning. Enjoy."
Somewhere down in Louisiana, or maybe it was Texas now, her parents were celebrating the holidays with the carnival, the same one they were with when Sylvia died. They were together again after almost four years apart following Sylvia's death. It wasn't like Jenny cared anyway. They'd left her with Gertrude, someone they didn't even know, and never came back. This was all theirfault.
But she couldn't really believe that, no matter how easy it may be. They hadn't known; she did. Sure, they bore their share of the blame for leaving their two daughters with a stranger, but how could they anticipate what followed? How could they know their faith in humanity would be so completely dashed? Following the trial Jenny's relationship with her parent's grew cold as did their relationship with each other. Life seemed to be at an end. Her parents managed to line up a job for her answering phones for a cab company, but it was almost a certainty she'd never set foot in school again, never walk down a podium with her proud older sister watching her receive a diploma and throwing that stupid hat into the air. What would she be doing in ten, or even twenty years? Probably answering phones for that same cab company. Great, just what she wanted out of life.
But that didn't happen. For Jenny Likens, fate chose to be kinder than it was to her sister, perhaps making up for lost time, or maybe just deciding to throw in a twist happy ending to an otherwise dreary and uninspiring story. Was it possible that God's sense of irony wasn't quite as cruel as first believed?
Chief prosecutor Leroy New was the name of her guardian angel. He took her in when she was homeless and orphaned; he enrolled her in school, bought her new leg braces, and most importantly gave her a future where none seemed possible. It was from his house now that she starred at the snowy landscape before her. In the backyard, beneath the window, was the swimming pool she used every day during the summer, covered by a blue tarp to keep the snow off. Sylvia loved to swim.
"Hello, everybody, and a Merry Christmas to all, here's to hoping it's a good one. I know this isn't a Christmas song or anything, but I'm feeling nostalgic right now and need a little melody, so here's a little piece of Beatles mania for you."
A soft acoustic guitar riff replaced the staticy silence. Tears stung Jenny's eyes as she listened to the lovely melody wash over her like a cool wind. This was Sylvia's favorite song, one Jenny never grew to appreciate until after her sister's death. While Jenny only listened to their more upbeat songs like 'I Want to Hold Your Hand,' and 'I Just Saw a Face,' Sylvia spent hours by the record machine playing the same song over and over, eyes closed, hand twirling in the air like a conductor swinging her baton leading some imaginary orchestra through a classical symphony.
"Suddenly," Jenny sang along. "I'm not half the man I used to be. There's a shadow hanging over me, oh yesterday came suddenly. Why she had to go I don't know, she wouldn't say. I said something wrong now I long for yesterday. Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play, now I need a place to hide away, oh I believe in yesterday."
Jenny turned form the window and walked out into the hallway. She was the first up, though she knew that wouldn't last long. Soon, Mrs. New would be in the kitchen making breakfast while Mr. New placed armfuls of carefully wrapped packages underneath the Christmas tree. But for now the house stood empty, decorations unlit, record machine eerily silent without a worn out Beatles album to occupy it.
"Jenny, hey, what are you doing up so early?" Mr. New snuck up from behind, arms filled with packages just like she knew they would.
"Couldn't sleep," she answered through a huge yawn, "any of those for me Mr. New?"
He mocked laughter. When she'd first moved in, he insisted that she call him Leroy, but her well-tuned sense of politeness never quite left her comfortable enough to call him by his first name. By the time they were that comfortable around each, it became a running joke between the two of them.
"Hmm, well I might have something for you; help me carry these down the stairs, will you?"
She tapped on her leg braces.
"Oh, yeah, that," he pretended to sigh in frustration, "kids these days, just too damn lazyto do any real work. I tell you, what is this world coming to?"
"Oh stop it, listen to yourself, asking the crippled girl to carry your packages for you. For shame," she punched him softly on the arm.
"Violence, violence, is that any way to treat an old man? Well if you can't help carry these down maybe you can make them look nice and pretty under the tree, huh?"
"Sure, why not? Have to put all that expensive schooling to work sometime, right?"
"Now that's the spirit!"
Downstairs they sat by the tree, just the two of them, arranging the gifts like so many other families must be doing that very same moment. He filled the stockings with candy and other small prizes and hung them by the fireplace while she sat cross legged on the floor, shaking boxes like a little kid trying to figure out what's inside.
"You okay Jenny?"
"Well," he sat down, placed an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, "because you look like you've been crying."
"Oh, yeah," she quickly wiped the tears away, "it's nothing, just something in my eyes."
That was a lie. Five years ago she was sitting in a room much smaller than this, in front of a tree with a lot fewer presents underneath it than were here now, part of a family that was always on the move and rarely together for more than a month at a time. She was poor, often hungry, but she had Sylvia. Sylvia, who was always the sister Jenny wished she could be. Jenny loved her new life, loved Mr. New and his family, loved the opportunities she now enjoyed to go to school and make her own way in life. It was almost like Sylvia sacrificed her own life, knowing that by doing so Jenny would have a chance. Would she do the same for Sylvia had situations been reversed?
No. That was the sick truth she wanted to forget. She wouldn't. She hadn't. But still, as she lay at night on many occasions too tormented by the past to drift away, she wished the lord would grant her one wish; that He would take everything he'd given her back and return the sister He'd taken to heaven. Fruitless as it was, she couldn't help but believe that someday He might grant that wish to her, and she would once again be united with the sister she loved.
She looked into Mr. News's face and saw a man she loved like a father, who'd been a better father to her than her own. She only wished she and Sylvia were left with people like these.
"Here," he grabbed a small box from under the tree and put it in her hand.
"What is it?"
She shook it gently, feeling around the edges with her thumb and forefinger. Pulling on the baby blue ribbon, the packaging unraveled in her hand like melting ice on a hot pan. She opened the box and lifted a small golden locket on a silver chain. Light from the Christmas tree's candles glistened on its dazzling surface sending fireflies of enchanted light sparkling off her forehead.
"It's beautiful," she gasped, tightening a small hand around his wrists.
"Open it, see?" he undid the lock that held the locket closed and opened the small door shut. Inside, drawn with black charcoal, was a picture of Sylvia, a school photo taken in California, showing off one of those big toothless grins of hers. She was so beautiful.
"Look at the back," he nudged her hand to turn the locket. Ascribed on the back, chiseled into the golden treasure by hands both skilled and pure, were these simple words written just for her, and the sister whom she loved. Jenny placed a kiss on her father's cheek and wept.
I see a light;
I feel a breeze;
I hear a song;
Let them through,
they are the welcome
Though this story was based on the case of Sylvia Likens, and though I have gone to great lengths to stay true to the facts as we know them, creative licenses have been taken in regards to the characters and certain events. This is a work of fiction, and should not be taken as an official retelling of the story.