The boy appeared at the window each time the razor’s tip dug into my thigh, marking the latest sacrifice. A thin ribbon of red welled, then trickled down my leg to drop on the floor, leaving a trail as I made my way to the window, to him. Something drew me to this boy; something beyond the time he spent at the window watching me cut. With fingers pressed against the glass, my breath caught. Would he raise his hand to meet mine?
I searched his face and dipped my hand to swipe at the blood congealing on my thigh. A reddened finger twirled before him until it found its way to my mouth. The taste of iron flitted across my tongue and my hand returned for more. This time I dabbed the drop on the window, hoping he’d go for it. I needed him to touch the glass.
His hand moved toward the pane. Hope coursed through me. Maybe this time he’d touch it and set me free. His hand inched higher, moved toward the drop, but at the last instant he pulled away, turned and faded into the darkness.
The reflection of a wide-eyed, hollow-cheeked girl I no longer recognized stared back at me from the dark window. Choppy hair stuck out in all directions, a testament to another act of penance. It suited me; this hair, like my soul, damaged by my hand.
I no longer counted the days of my imprisonment in this room bare of all but the bed, a shadeless lamp, and the wooden toy box, which sat in the center of the small space. There was no need for more. In this world, his world, I never hungered or thirsted. Clothes never soiled or wore out.
I walked to the bed, sat on the edge, and stared at the box. Yellow ducks mocked me as they paraded across the front. Painted in a single file line, they at least had a beginning and an end. Memories of how this started for me no longer existed. Perhaps I too once stood on the other side of the window, peering in at someone who sat on this very mattress.
Five months or five years, time was a construct gone from this realm. The sounds which came from the box ruled my existence. The heavy clunk, tap, clunk grated on the nerves along my spine. Each night, the sounds grew louder; it wouldn’t be long before the screams followed. They haunted me, those screams, for I was as much the cause of them as the thing in the box. I turned off the lamp, which sat on the floor by the bed, and listened.
Movement deep within the duck’s chest cued his return and the need for an offering, but I had nothing to give. The boy refused to touch the glass.
The sound intensified and my body trembled. Fear radiated through me like sweat oozing from pores. I closed my eyes and wished myself any place other than this room with this box.
Days morphed into night. And each night, the sound grew. The luxury of waiting was over. I needed to act, to choose. I focused my inner eye, the one he created, which allowed me to hunt outside my prison. The pain of disengagement overrode any pleasure of leaving this place. I floated upward, aware of the tether which bound me to the half perched cross-legged on the bed. I moved to the window but am yanked back by the sliver of decency buried deep within the part not yet corrupted. A fuzziness filled my brain, and I lost the connection to the outside. The separation always worked better at night, when darkness ruled.
* * *
Music charged the air and my body came alive, bobbing its way to the club’s door in the alley. The stale odor of cigarettes and urine wafted out from the men’s room, where some poor sod passed out. His prone body wedged against the open door. A man in dark clothes stood in front of a urinal. The music muffled the splash of his stream as I moved through the short hallway into the throng. Bodies slick with sweat gyrated in the middle of the room. Narrow beams of light pulsed from the DJ’s raised platform, making the dancers appear disjointed; arms and legs floating free in the light.
I pushed through to the center, arms flung high into the air, to join the other bodiless limbs that twisted and swayed to the beat. Large hands ran the length of my arms to my waist, then pulled me close. I turned and took in the man’s size, then dipped under his arms and moved to the right. He wasn’t my quarry this night. Close to me, a smaller man danced with abandon, alone. I moved next to him. My body brushed his, and I shouted, “Buy you a drink?”
He looked me over, face puffy from alcohol, and nodded
His hand in mine, we headed for the bar. People, two-deep, crowded around the polished counter, trying to get the bartender’s attention. Fingers laced in his, I shouldered my way through and waved my free hand at the man behind the bar.
“Two shots of tequila.” The shots arrived, and I heard complaints from those around us at the speed we received our drinks. Miraculously, two stools became available, but I knew better. There were no miracles in my world. The box provided all. I reached into the pocket of my dress and waited for the bill to materialize, then slid the hundred across the bar. “Keep ‘em coming.”
We drank and danced until my senses dulled and his inhibitions evaporated. “Let’s get some air,” I said, running my hand along his leg. When we were almost in the alley, he stopped short and headed for the closed men’s room door.
“Back in a minute,” he said, speech slurred. He stumbled through the door, hands already at his zipper.
I reached for him, my prey, but too late. The tether yanked me from the hall into the alley. With each breath, it grew stronger until it wrenched me back to the room, every nerve in my body on fire until the two halves melded together. When I opened my eyes, the boy waited at the window.
Hope surged, and I rushed forward. My hand snaked under the hem of my dress for the patch of crusty scab. Fingernails dug in, mining for blood, an offering to entice the boy to touch the glass, to free me.
The sound of footsteps came from the box. Time was short. My bloody finger touched the window, but this time I kept my hand pressed against the pane, still warm from the day’s sun. To my amazement, he lifted his hand, moved it to the glass. Closer, closer. Fear, he would again pull away, radiated through me. But, this time, he fitted his hand against mine and in that instant the window became permeable. When the hole solidified, he was inside and I was out.
His wail followed me down the street, sending chills through my body. I raced to put distance between myself and the knowledge of what happened in that room.
When the muscles in my legs burned, I stopped to catch my breath and realized I had nowhere to go. My hand dug into the pocket of my dress, but no money materialized. An emptiness consumed me as I wandered the dark, vacant streets.
Drawn to the corner park, I huddled on a bench and waited for the sun to rise over the treetops. I was free, but alone, with nowhere to go.
A woman dressed in blue jeans and a gray hoodie approached. “Mind if I sit?”
I shook my head.
“If you’re hungry, the shelter on the next block hands out food, but you need to hurry. It doesn’t last long.”
I wondered at her appraisal of me. Did she know something I didn’t? The emptiness in my stomach, a long forgotten sensation, responded to the mention of food urging me to forget my questions and move. I rose from the bench and walked in the direction she’d pointed.
Twice I turned to head back, but hunger won out and soon I stood at the end of a long line of other disheveled creatures. The line moved at a steady pace and, to my amazement, when my turn arrived, the food hadn’t disappeared. Wrapped peanut butter sandwiches laid out on the table like presents alongside paper cups of dark coffee. The rich aroma brought images of people seated with their hands wrapped around over-sized cups at tables next to the window in a cafe I’d passed on my way to the shelter. The notion of friends, people to share time and food with felt foreign to me. I surveyed the others who milled around the tables and wondered what occurred in their lives to bring them to this place. Would any of them believe my story? How there’s was a hole in my brain that once held memories and now some weird magical putty filled the space. But here, on the outside, both were lost to me.
* * *
Compelled by guilt, I returned to the window when night fell, but no light shone from inside. I turned away, my heart heavy as a chill wind stirred, hinting at the season’s change. Soon the world would turn white.
Back at the park, I drank from the fountain to fill my empty belly, then laid on the bench. Images of yellow ducks marching across the wooden box filled my head, and a shiver ran down my spine.
The wind picked up and drove me to seek shelter among the evergreens. The branches and needles of the dense undergrowth took their due, digging into my face and bare arms. Deeper and deeper I crawled, until a space large enough for me to sleep opened under the branches. A place protected from the wind. Years of uncleared pine needles made my bed. Curled in the fetal
position, enveloped in the scent of pine, I fought the urge to return to the window as the cold from the ground seeped in to steal my body’s heat.
Dim light knifed its way through the dense growth to mark morning. If this was to be my new home, improvements needed to be made. Hunger, ever present, and the desire to find something to keep me warm at night sent me wiggling out of the burrow. When I stepped out of the brush, the sun, high overhead, warmed the air.
The aroma of fried bacon drew me into the unfamiliar alley behind a diner, where I spied a sleeping bag flung over the chain-link fence which formed part of the narrow passage’s boundary. I pulled the it free from the fence’s metal triangles, not caring if it belonged to someone else. With the bag wrapped around me for warmth, I hurried to my den with my prize.
Each night I returned to the window, hoping the light would illuminate the boy within. Each night, the tightness in my chest grew as I faced the dark glass.
Three mornings I waited in line at the shelter for what turned out to be my sole meal. On the third day, a young man in a green turtleneck walked the line talking to people. The hair on my neck stood on end when the hidden darkness briefly contorted his soft face into the boy’s. It lasted no longer than the blink of an eye. My head spun around to see if anyone else witnessed the change, but I saw no response to him other than nods and smiles. My heart sank and my body grew cold at his approach. He pulled me from the line and took me through a narrow door away from the food. His touch filled me with unease. Yet I allowed him to lead me deeper into the building. Images of windows, blood, and shadowy hands filled my mind.
“You could do with a hot shower,” he said and pulled a pine needle from my hair. “There are clean clothes in the box over by the wall. Choose whatever you want.”
The thought of warm water cascading over my skin was too much to resist, and I no longer cared about the cost. The price conveyed by the way his eyes moved over my body. My acceptance unspoken, I followed him deeper into the small locker room.
He retrieved a hotel-sized bar of soap and a towel from a locked cabinet and placed them on the plank bench before he sat to watch me strip the soiled clothes from my body. When the lace panties slipped below my protruding hip bones, I found the five scars gone, my thigh soft and unblemished. A moan escaped him when my fingers explored the undamaged flesh, now void of any trace of my role in the offerings. His sharp intake of breath drew my eyes as his fingers teased the zipper over the bulge he worked to free.
* * *
The next morning before the sun rose, I headed to the alley behind the diner to scrounge the dumpsters for scrapes of food. A half-eaten slice of peach pie lay atop several wilted lettuce leaves. I stretched on tiptoes to scoop it out. A sudden sharp stab on my inner thigh exploded into waves of pain, stronger than any I remembered from when I’d cut myself. The pie cradled in my hand fell to the ground, forgotten.
Under the dim bulb near the dumpster, I shoved the sweats to my knees. A thin red line marred the smooth skin of my inner thigh. Hunger gone, I stumbled from the alley, stepping on the discarded pie.
Back in my nest among the evergreens, I stared at the cut, red and raw. Even in the dim light, the welt and scab along its ridge were visible. My fingers brushed the familiar crustiness of it an instant before it fell away, leaving a white scar in its wake. I burrowed deep into the cocoon of the stolen bag and tried not to think about the pull, certain it came next. The cut proved my escape was but an illusion. Even here, outside, I remained tethered to that room, the box, and the thing within it.
In the morning’s chill air, thirst drove me from the bag’s warmth. The night before, in my rush to return to my refuge, I forgot to fill the plastic bottle rescued from the recycling bin. Two more slices cut into my thigh as I held the bottle under the fountain. I braced myself against the rock base and escaped into the pain each one brought.
My resolve weakened with each fissure. Five ridges of reminder now marked me. The same number of sacrifices I supplied. The exact number that scarred my leg when the boy and I exchanged places through the window. Unable to shake the dread, I crawled into my refuge to wait out the day. I shivered in the bag’s warmth, feeling my freedom slip away.
Light from the setting sun slithered through the boughs into my burrow. I’d lasted five days in the outside world. Five days of hunger and filth, sleeping on benches and in a stolen bag, and trading my body for whatever I could get.
A whispered goodbye to my nest sent a lump to my throat before I moved through the evergreens into the park. I stopped by the restroom for a last drink from the faucet to fill my empty belly.
The woman who told me of the shelter sat on the same park bench. She shifted her gaze to me, recognition in her eyes. “Going back?”
I tilted my head, furrowed my brow, and pretended not to understand.
“Once marked, no one breaks free. You’ll see.” When she rose from the bench, a thin cord similar to the one that bound my two halves when I hunted trailed behind her, shimmering in the darkness. The image of her tether ricocheted inside my skull as dread consumed me. No more marks would scar my thigh. For I feared the sixth cut would be etched into another’s skin.
“No one escapes.” The words haunted me as the last hint of day faded from the sky and night descended to claim its due.
The lit window beckoned from the corner and when I reached it, the boy sat on the edge of the bed. Aged in the days since the exchange, he no longer reminded me of the magical boy from Wonderland in the story book, for gone was his innocence. Even with our positions reversed, we were both trapped by what hid in the depths of the toy box.
As he rose from the bed and moved to the window, a thin cord trailed behind him. When he placed his hand against the glass, it held no trace of blood, for it was only mine to give. My hand slithered to the five ridges on my thigh. I dug with broken fingernails until the familiar throb filled the emptiness. Longing swelled within me.
Blood covered the fingers I pressed against the pane. When the barrier softened, became permeable, he grabbed my wrist and pulled me into the room.
But why was he not on the outside? It made no sense. His presence gave me hope. Was he to be the sixth, not me? The sound of footsteps echoed in my head. He’s coming for one of us—the shade.
When the boy’s face morphed into the young man from the shelter, I skittered away until the wooden box blocked my path. I laid my head on its top, impeding the ducks’ march across its cover. The beat of a heart vibrated against my ear. Soft and rhythmic, it came from the box’s depths. Whispers filled my head.
“You bear my mark.”
Warmth drained from my body at the words. The box continued to vibrate beneath me as if someone climbed steep stairs deep within it. My fingers raced for the latch, the hook, but the metal was too hot to touch. I pushed away, knowing what came next. I’d seen it before, five times before, to be exact.
Footsteps approached. It’s too soon, my mind screamed.
“Time passes differently here,” the boy said, as if reading my thoughts.
My hand slipped into the pocket of the sweats and a razor blade materialized beneath my fingers. A surge of relief flooded through me at the magic’s return.
The lid creaked on stiff hinges and I took a step closer to the boy, whose eyes shone in the dim room. I drew the blade from its hiding place and hid it in my cupped hand as I took a second step toward my prey, our prey.
When the top snapped back, the shade flowed out of the box like black steam. A dank, metallic odor rippled through the air. The black cloud swirled around me, caressing my skin, tasting. I stood stock still, heart hammering against my ribs, until he moved on to the boy. Air rushed from my lungs in relief. I shuddered at the memory of the screams that drifted up through the box after he carried each of the five into its dark recess. My hands covered my ears to block the sounds that filled my head.
The smell of burning flesh snapped me back to this room, this moment, as the shade marked the boy. “You now bear my mark.” The brand sank into the boy’s flesh as the one on my forehead bloomed red, then disappeared.
Memories flooded into my brain. Images of huddling in the alley, body trembling with need. The craving so strong within me I’d have given anything for relief. Curled tight into a ball, body slick with sweat, I didn’t see his approach. In my delirium, he seemed to materialize out of thin air, swirling in the surrounding space, tasting my need, my desperation. And when he reached out to me, the promise of relief communicated. I took his shadowy hand, not caring about the cost as he marked my flesh.
It wasn’t until this moment that I understood I’d sealed my fate the moment his mark seared into my forehead. My hand lashed out, slicing the boy’s face with the razor. A last ditch hope the blood would alter his choice, but a sudden sharp pain burst through me like fireworks in the night sky.
The shade lifted me from the floor where I’d collapsed and carried me to the box, to be taken into its depths.
KA Burks lives in Reno, Nevada. Her love of writing goes all the way back to childhood when she used to make her own picture books. After retiring from a career in education, she decided to take up writing full time.