He kept her in the attic that rested above his room so he could hear her move in the night. Occasionally she would not sleep, and he could hear her pacing the floor over his armchair. The steady, repetitive sound of her soft footsteps had often soothed him to sleep. Some nights when he heard her awake he brought up some tea to her. He used the excuse that it was to help her sleep, but his real motivation was to spend time with her. She rarely refused his offer and he was allowed to sit with her and talk for a while, at least until she tired and wanted him to go. Sometimes he would put something extra in her tea to keep her calm and prolong his stay.
He was in love with her since the first time he saw her walking home from school. A ripe girl of fifteen, twisting her hair in slender fingers and soothing her skirt over her knees. His fascination overwhelmed him and now, she was his. They had been living together for almost three years now. Like any relationship they had good times and bad; some days were better that others. But eventually they had settled in together, falling into a routine that they both would live with.
* * *
Rebecca could barely see through the strands of dark hair that stuck to the tears streaming down her face. She struggled against the ground, tossing her head around, twisting her hands inside the rough ropes that constrained her, scraping her wrists raw. She was bound to a tree and other than the twisting of her head and the squirming of her body against the ground, she could not move at all. She couldn’t even pull the hair out of her eyes to see. All she could do was sob uncontrollably and occasionally gasp out the word, “Please,” which no one could hear.
Through two strands of hair that stuck to her cheeks, she could make out Justin who was lying on the ground. The man in the red coat nudged him with his foot, but he didn’t respond.
She couldn’t tell if he was dead or not. Blood was everywhere. His head became a fountain of warm red liquid gushing to the ground, soaking through their blue picnic blanket into grass and dirt. The blood was pooling on the forest floor inches from her feet. She had never seen anyone bleed that much. It all seemed so unreal. Rebecca was near hysteria when the man in the red coat approached her.
She closed her eyes. Her face was hot, the blood in her cheeks scalding. Her gasping breath had become even faster, to the point where she was choking on the air that squeezed through her tightened throat. Her lungs where burning, her body was shaking, and her eyes were leaking sticky water that covered her face and neck.
When Rebecca opened her eyes the man in the red coat was right in front of her, sitting on his haunches, examining her face. She was startled and opened her mouth to scream but all that came out was a strangled squeak.
He leaned in closer causing Rebecca to twist away from him. The ropes pinched into her wrists and ankles as she writhed. Her efforts were wasted. She closed her eyes again, but could still feel him hovering there. She smelled a strange toxic scent that she could not identify. Rebecca opened her eyes to see the man pressing a purple cloth up to her face, then the world hazed into blackness.
* * *
I know that it’s summer because I can hear the cicadas. Even through these brick walls their shrill drone becomes clear on silent nights. They remind me of the sun and bright blue skies with scattered clouds. I do not know what the sun looks like anymore, or if there even is a sun. It makes no difference; I will probably never see it again.
I lie inside these four walls that make up my own exclusive hell with no hope of escape. All I can do is sleep, because when I sleep I can dream and leave this place. I dream of family and friends, adventures I have had and days I let waste away, believing there would always be more time. I dream of the boy in high school who used to carry my books and the long college nights full of exploring parts of my mind that I never thought I had. The sound of the cicadas infiltrates my dreams, casting images of Justin and summertime. The two of us lying together under the August moon, talking about our future, our dreams, sharing kisses and making love.
Usually my dreams are peaceful and familiar. They are so inviting that they make me want to sleep forever, and it is very hard to find a reason to leave this bed. But sometimes I dream of him, the man in the red coat, and these dreams are cruel and horrifying. I dream of Justin’s cold body, drained of blood, lying alone in the middle of the woods. His lifeless eyes beg me to help him. His hands reach for me. I wake from those dreams trembling.
* * *
She was pacing above him so rapidly he thought she was trying to escape by wearing away the floorboards. He worried about her when she got agitated. One time she became so disturbed she ended up scratching her arms, face, and legs until they were gushing blood. She still had a coarse scar across her right cheek from the incident, although her hair often hid it.
He thought he should go up and see if she needed anything. Tomorrow would be their three-year anniversary and he had gotten her some nice things: music, a few new books, and a very special present from his mother, a silver hairbrush from the eighteenth century. He was excited to give it to her, knowing that she would love it.
When they were younger he often watched her through her bedroom window from a neighbor’s backyard, brushing her hair with an antique silver brush. He remembered how beautiful she looked as she stared at herself in the mirror stroking her hair with the brush.
He crept upstairs to her room and gently knocked on the thick metal door. He could hear her stop moving at once.
“Yes,” came her small voice from the other side.
“How are you tonight?” he asked the door.
“I’m fine, John,” the door replied.
“Do you need anything? Some tea, or milk perhaps?”
“No, I’m fine,” she said. “Go away, please.”
“Alright,” he said merrily, used to her constant rejection. “I will see you tomorrow.”
* * *
Rebecca picked up the brush as though it were some kind of foreign jewel. It was very lovely, heavy silver, with floral patterns eloquently engraved on the backside. The bristles were thick and she wondered what they were, boar hair maybe. “This is real silver,” she uttered under her breath. She was astonished at how her captor could possibly have attained anything so rare and striking.
“It was my mother’s,” he said as though reading her mind. “She passed away a while ago. I always thought it was so beautiful that I kept it although I’ve never used it. I like having things like that around me, beautiful things that no one else has.” He paused and eyed Rebecca, as though waiting for a response. “I thought it was appropriate that you should have it.”
He approached Rebecca and took the brush from her hands. He walked behind and began to brush her long black hair. He loved her hair, the flowing black strands that slipped over her shoulders and stretched down her chest.
“Thank you,” Rebecca said obediently. She turned and looked at him, causing him to stop brushing. “John, I was hoping that maybe you could take me out.”
“We could go out in the forest and have a picnic or something. It would be a wonderful gift. I would be good. I just want to feel the sun, the fresh air. I promise it won’t be like last time. I won’t try to run.” Her words came quick. She was trying hard to convince him. “Please, it would be the best thing for me right now. No one would see us. Just a walk even—“
“I’ll think about it.”
John set the brush down on top of the table that was cemented to the wall in the corner of her room. Her request had affected his mood more than Rebecca had anticipated.
“I said I’ll think about it,” he snapped as he made his way for the door. He unlocked it with his key and relocked it once he had exited.
Rebecca’s eyes became moist, but she blocked back the tears. Crying was pointless. She picked up the silver brush with her right hand and examined it. It was heavy to her. She wondered how strong it was.
* * *
John began to hear a scraping noise as he sat in his chair. He looked up at the ceiling and wonder what it was she was doing up there. He knew it was impossible for her to escape. He had spent a year constructing her room, taking into consideration possible means of escape. The walls were all brick, the floor was made from thick heavy planks of wood, and aside from a small peephole that was embedded inside the heavy iron door, there was no exposure at all to the outside world.
He tested the security of the room several times before he first brought her here. In the beginning she tried repeatedly to break free. So much struggling those first couple of months. Truly it hadn’t been until he had her a couple of years that her spirit really began to break. He was always impressed with her creative attempts at escape. It was like a game the two of them played that he always won.
Lately she was so listless and slept so much that he began to worry about her. He was afraid she might try to hurt herself again or that she would slip so far into depression she would become unreachable. However, since the scraping noises began she had seemed more positive in minor, subtle ways. She greeted him more kindly, not as kindly as she would greet him when she was trying to seduce him into letting her go, but kindly. She slept less and spent more time reading or listening to music. Sometimes she played her cassette tapes loudly, trying to drown out the sound of the scraping.
But John was no fool. He would let it go on for a while, just to encourage her. She seemed so happy when she had hope.
* * *
I chipped away almost five inches of concrete from a brick behind the head of my bed. I can only move the bed a few inches for fear that John might hear. So far I do not think he knows what I am up to. He makes no mention of anything out of the ordinary and I am trying not to provoke any thoughts. I keep the brush in the top drawer of my dresser so he never sees it, or what has become of it.
I think that if I can chip through four full bricks I will be able to squeeze through and get to the outside. I am a little scared of what I might find out there.
I fear that I may be in some room that is very high off the ground. That may be a problem when I try to get through, but I will do whatever I have to.
Who knows what is out there now. But I think that once I get out I will be able to make my way to the nearby river and follow the water until it lead somewhere, a town, a road, something.
I may be getting a little bit ahead of myself, but I can’t help it. It’s been so long since I felt this close.
* * *
It wasn’t the first time she had seen his face twist like that.
Rebecca froze, feeling as though she had suddenly become very small. She was unsure what he would do. His face told her he was capable of anything.
“What have you been using?” he barked at her.
Fear crept into her throat, stealing her speech. She stood there, helpless, unable to respond.
“I asked you a question.” He approached her rapidly. She cowered before him and lifted her arms around her face in a futile effort of protection. Her grabbed one of her arms and dragged her out of the room. It was the first time she had seen the hallway, the stairs, but they were all a blur to her. Her eyes fastened on a wooden door near the front of the house, the front door, and freedom. He took her down into what looked like a living room and shoved her into a shallow coat closet.
The world was dark. She tried to turn the doorknob but it was locked or jammed or something, she couldn’t tell what. She began to cry and banged on the wooded door with all her might. She could hear him above her. It sounded as though he was tearing her room apart. She could hear furniture being moved, items being thrown. Then she heard a big scrape across the ceiling. She knew instantly that he had moved her bed and found the hole.
Only yesterday she had chipped through the first brick. She saw the outside world for the first time in over a year. She could see the sun, the trees, and the blue sky. She fell asleep to the hum of the cicadas, which was more clear and promising that any noise she could think of. Yesterday had been a beautiful day.
But he must have found out somehow. He might have seen it from outside or maybe he just caught on, he was always more clever than she gave him credit. He found out and he was angry. It was all over. All her work was for nothing. She sank to the bottom of the closet and began to bawl.
* * *
He wasn’t too disappointed about the incident. He felt betrayed, but he had prepared himself for it. He became angrier than he thought he would when he confronted her. Sometimes he couldn’t control his rage.
It was the same when she had been playing her little game of love. “I think I love you John.” “I don’t want to leave, John.” “This is the life I know, John.” She worked on it for almost a year, but he never really believed a word of it. He used to let her think that he was falling for it. After all having a beautiful woman tell you she loves you and will do anything to convince you has its advantages. But the first time he sat with her, let his defenses down, she tried to hit him over the head and grab for his keys. Luckily he had overpowered her and she wasn’t able to escape.
After that she had tried to out power him. He heard her up there doing push ups, trying to lift the bed, and any other objects that were a reasonable weight. He didn’t let her take it too far, seeing that it didn’t benefit him. He depleted her room of many of the things that made it nice and presentable and began drugging her, making her too tired to do any vigorous strength training. It took her about six months to give up.
This time he benefited from the situation and therefore saw it as an overall positive experience. After he sealed up the hole and let her back into a room that was in shambles, he gave himself the privilege of personally coming in to her room twice a day to brush her hair with the silver brush. It still had most of its form and still brushed well. The handle had just become dented and deformed.
He greatly enjoyed brushing her hair. Rebecca would sit on her bed and he would crouch behind her lovingly, stroking her long locks. She always had her head down and always sat very still. Her hands would rest listlessly in her lap and her eyes would cloud over. He knew she would get over it eventually.
* * *
I stare at the floor and notice the long black strains of hair that fall on either side of my face. It has grown so long that it hangs to my waist. I take a piece and wrap it around my right hand over and over again till it is tight in my fist. I yank.
* * *
She had paced the floor for almost an hour before she heard the familiar knock on her door.
“Rebecca, how are you tonight?” came his voice slightly muffled.
“I can’t sleep.”
“Would you like some tea?”
She paused, thinking things through slowly. “Yes John, I would like some tea, hot tea, to warm me up.”
“All right, I will go make you some.”
“And John?” she paused to see if he was still there.
“I want you to brush my hair.”
“Of course, with pleasure.”
In less than five minutes he knocked on her door again before he opened it with a key. A nice courtesy, one he has always given her. He had a tray with a teapot, milk, sugar, and two teacups. The silver brush was also sitting on it. He was surprised to find the lights out and instantly was on the defense. He could not see Rebecca but felt her presence in the corner near the bed. He set the heavy tray on the table by the door.
“Why is it so dark in here? Is there something wrong with the lights.”
“I like the dark.”
“Mind if I turn them on, so I can see you?”
“Are you sure that is what you want?”
“I need to see you to brush your hair.” John went to the switch on the wall by the door and flipped it. Caged fluorescents illuminated the little room from high above. When he turned, Rebecca was standing directly before him. In her arms she held waves of long black hair out to him.
Her pale face held no expression, her eyes were the same empty orbs they usually were, but her head…
“Rebecca,” his voice was a breathe, an exhale. “What have you done to yourself?”
What remained on her head were small patches of black, thicker in some areas that others, some areas were completely bald revealing the dead blue skin of a corpse. There were red scratches stretched over her scalp and patches of dried blood, erratic long strands, which had survived, fell in thin strips.
Rebecca had gathered the hair together in a thick bundle and tied it in a knot. She held it out to John as though presenting an alter with a sacrificial offering. His face had melted into an expression of horror. Rebecca held out her hair farther, insisting he take it.
Slowly John reached for the dead thing in Rebecca’s arms. The soft locks consenting to his grasp. In the harsh lights Rebecca looked very small. Without her long hair to cover her he could see how thin and bony she had become. The skin on her shoulders hung over her bones like a loose tarp weighted down. The scars on her face from her previous efforts at self-mutilation were no longer hidden and stood out brazen against her white skin.
“I’d like my tea now,” she said.
John looked from her disfigured image to the hair. He could not move. Rebecca only looked at him with the wide innocent eyes of a child.
“What have you done?”
She grabbed the tea pot and tossed the hot tea into his face. He yelled. She had gotten it right in his eyes. Rebecca turned quickly to the heavy metal tray and picked it up, knocking the contents to the floor. She struck him with it as hard as she could. John fell to the floor. She jumped on him and pinned his arms down with her knees. He struggled, blind and confused.
“Rebecca,” he yelled as he thrashed underneath her. “Rebecca, I love you. Please don’t-”
Rebecca grabbed the hair which had come undone from the knot and lay littered over the room. She shoved it into his eyes and mouth. “Shut up, Shut up, Shut up!”
John still struggled. Rebecca twisted on top of him until her eyes rested upon the silver brush, lying on the floor a few feet from him. A rage that Rebecca had never felt tumbled out of her. She reached for the brush, being careful not to let John go. She began screaming, a wild crazy sound that she didn’t recognize as her own. She lifted her arms and crushed the silver brush into John’s head. She couldn’t stop. Even when he stopped struggling, she couldn’t bring herself to stop. Even when blood began to leak from his head, splattering onto her nightgown, on to the walls, she couldn’t stop.
Finally her arms gave out and she dropped the brush. She was crying, sobbing, exhausted. Hair was everywhere, covering his face, the floor, sticking to the blood that covered her. John lay still on the ground held under her weight, the silver brush lying next to his right ear. Rebecca crawled off of him, gasping. She could feel the blood rushing through her veins. She had never felt so alive.
She pulled the keys out of John’s pocket and dashed for the door. She didn’t look back but locked the door behind her; whether he was alive or not he wouldn’t be coming after her. She ran towards the front door and found it unlocked. The night air greeted her with a crisp freshness. She could hear the hum of the cicadas loud as thunder in her ears.
She began to run. She ran into the waiting forest trees that surrounded her. Her body filled with laughter as she got farther and farther away from the house. She didn’t know where she was or where she was running to but she was free. Finally she stopped and crumbled to the ground out of pure exhaustion. She touched the forest floor with a shaking hand, the soft dirt seeped though her fingers. She noticed a cicada shell lying on the ground close to her and picked it up. She stared at the ugly, fragile thing and began to laugh, tears ran down her face.
Rebecca pushed the dirt around creating a small hole and placed the shell inside it. Covering it with a hand full of dirt, she then rose to her feet and began walking forward into the forest towards the soft sound of the river.
“The Silver Brush” is previously published in Conceptions Southwest (2005 ish).