FRANCES KOZIAR is primarily a fiction writer of the contemporary fiction, high fantasy, and young adult genres, though she also publishes poetry and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in over three dozen literary magazines (including previously in the Scarlet Leaf Review), and she is seeking an agent for a diverse NA high fantasy novel. She is a young (disabled) retiree and a social justice advocate, and she lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Unchained was inspired by her first-hand experience of Stockholm Syndrome (outside of a kidnapping context). Website: https://franceskoziar.wixsite.com/author
Trigger warnings: theme of kidnapping; mention of rape
When I was a child I thought nightmares happened in dreams. I thought they happened in darkness. I stood in utter silence before the window at the front of the house. It was covered in a pattern that made it difficult to see through in either direction, like a bathroom window. The window was in the hall. Filtered sun came through it, warming my skin. Mine had been brown to start with, so it was still brown, if lighter. Misty’s was as pale as her name. Sometimes I thought the sun was what I missed most. His car pulled up. I lowered my eyes to the crack in the stick-on covering. The tiniest sliver, barely enough to see through. I returned to my room, my bare feet padding silently on the floorboards, stepping around the many places that creaked. I had memorized them all. Misty was reading in her room but she was already looking up when I passed. I held up two fingers. A visitor. I closed my door gently, very slowly, turning the knob as I eased it shut so it too was silent. I was sitting on my floor with my back to the wall when they came in. Two male voices sounded from downstairs. Then a laugh. I didn’t move, just listened. His friends I knew, but I didn’t know or couldn’t recognize this voice. James hadn’t told us about any plans, but that didn’t matter. We were always ready for anything. A laugh sounded—James’. The visitor chuckled. I carefully picked up a book lying beside me and spread it on my lap. If he stayed for dinner it would be a long wait. I glanced at the chamber pot under my bed. We weren’t allowed out of our rooms when guests visited, not even to use the bathroom. It had been my daring, years ago, to ask for the pots so we didn’t have to wet ourselves and sit in it until we got rashes. James had been obliging, that day. I was reading Black Beauty. Most of the books he picked up for us were children’s books, as if he thought or would like to think we were children. Maybe he still thought we were the age he’d taken us at. Or maybe he just saw enough children, as a bus driver. My favourite were survival books, family books, and fantasy books—the first reminded me of my life, the second of what I hoped for, the third of people like me, dealing with the impossible and the end of the world. Black Beauty was a nice story, a sad story, and not as young as the others. The horse, too, had known imprisonment. James picked up half a dozen books from the library for us each week, and we usually both read them all. One time, James had brought home psychology and self-help books, including a book on trauma. I had felt something I couldn’t name at that. Had he been trying to help us, or maybe help himself? Did some part of him know that he was crazy, that we all needed therapy? I had devoured those books, memorizing everything. Reading was most of my education now. There was also a TV downstairs, but only for movies, and only when James was in a good enough mood to let us watch with him. He let us read the newspaper. The visitor left. Perhaps he was a colleague carpooling home. James’ best friend, or the one that visited the most, came every week and was also a bus driver. Sometimes his visits made me sad. He seemed like a dear old man who never said a harsh word, but he couldn’t see. He came here completely oblivious. He came here and thought James was a normal person. Even I had to remind myself he wasn’t. “Tahira,” James said, opening the door. He was a white man, nearly fifty, with short dark brown hair and a receding hairline. His belly stuck out but his arms and legs were strong. His shirt and jeans were casual, and he might have looked ordinary to someone else. He had to me, once. “Time for dinner.” By that he meant I was to make it. I set my book aside and stood. He stood to the side as I walked through the door, and my skin crawled at turning my back to him as I walked down the hall and down the stairs. He followed a pace. “How is the book?” “Good.” “I hear it’s a classic.” “It’s a nice story.” He nodded and turned back for Misty. “Steak tonight,” he called over his shoulder. I knew that meant rare steak with mashed potatoes and canned peas. I set to work. I heard him, upstairs. Misty, of course, didn’t make a sound. She only did when he told her to. Only a few times, in those months before Misty had come, had he taken me in the same way. I was grateful he hadn’t come back for that. I was sixteen now. Five years. Misty had been here for four and a half. Misty came when she was nine, rather than my eleven. Now she had just turned fourteen. She had turned out beautiful somehow, despite where she’d grown up. Her hair was orange—a colour that didn’t belong in a house of brown and grey. James came down before Misty did. When Misty came down, no one would guess what had just happened. She came quietly—even with him here we didn’t, couldn’t make noise—her eyes flicking from me to James to the floor. She never held a gaze long. I served them dinner, James first, then Misty, then me. We sat at the wooden dining room table—the windows all shuttered—like a family. “What would I do without you?” James asked with a half smile. “Both of you,” he clarified, nudging Misty in a friendly way with his elbow. “The best daughters in the world.” I gave a small fake smile, but Misty’s looked real. At the beginning, it had been to please him, to placate him, but now I wondered sometimes. She seemed happy when he was happy. Today she looked exhausted, though I didn’t know why. Nightmares perhaps. We both had them. But when she cleared her plate in minutes, I tried to catch her gaze. She was either oblivious or avoiding my look. Maybe she knew. “You still hungry?” James asked her in an ambiguous tone of voice. My fork stilled. Misty shook her head. Lie. “Give her more,” he ordered me, and I served her the extra mashed potatoes. “Peas too,” he said, and since there were none left, I forked over the ones from my plate. Misty didn’t meet my eyes. She ate silently. When she finished, again clearing her plate, James said, his voice bearing a hint of that tone that made my heart shudder, “Take your medication.” She left without a word, leaving us to eat alone. The silence was palpable. She had just turned fourteen a couple weeks ago. In the earlier years it wasn’t a problem, but she’d gotten her period last year. I didn’t know how he’d gotten them—stolen them, perhaps—but James had gotten his hands on a few sets of abortion pills. This would be the third time, which meant we were out of the pills. I hadn’t known Misty before coming here, though we rode the same bus. She was two years younger and from a different neighbourhood. But something about us must have been the same, for James to choose us, for us both to believe him. Or maybe it had all been chance. “This is a good family, right?” James asked. I stilled, the dishes in my hands hovering over the sink, and looked at him for a moment. But there was no concern there, no knowledge of what he was or what he had done, and I turned back to the sink. I began washing dishes. “Of course,” I murmured. “It’s a good size?” Was he thinking of letting Misty have a baby? Or—my heart stuttered—kidnapping someone else? “It’s perfect,” I said with a smile, turning to him. “I would get jealous if there was anyone else to share you with,” I teased warmly. “Jealously isn’t good, Tahira,” he said sternly, but he didn’t get angry. “I’ll check on her,” he murmured. I stopped moving when he left the room, a plate in one hand and a sponge in the other. I listened. Her door opened. Voices. He was speaking quietly, gently even, and I couldn’t hear what he said. Then his voice rose up angrily. “You should have told me.” Slap. “You don’t keep secrets from me Misty. We’re a family. We don’t want a baby now.” He might be shaking her. “Don’t you understand? Are you upset at me? What did I do, Misty? I’m trying to help you. Won’t you let me help you?” She knew Misty was crying, if only because that’s what he wanted to see. Crying meant more attention, but it also meant more positive attention. It was a gamble she took. I never cried. I started washing dishes hastily as her door shut and James started down the stairs, slowing to a normal speed before he reached me. But he said nothing, thankfully, and passed me, heading down into the basement. When I finished the dishes, I went upstairs. I paused at Misty’s door but didn’t dare open it. I went to my own instead, the room next to hers. When I sat on the floor, I brushed my finger softly along the wall that we shared, the only comfort I dared give, the only comfort I knew how. I started to read.
“We’re going out,” James said, bursting through my door at dawn on a Saturday. I heard him repeat the same intelligible thing to Misty, before coming back to me. I was still sitting in my bed, my face apparently registering my complete incomprehension. “Swimming,” he said raising his voice a bit for Misty, not knowing, maybe, that she could hear anyway. “Get up,” he said. “Bring towels.” Misty and I bumbled into the hall together as he went downstairs. I stared at her in shock, but hers dissipated quickly into a smile. It was her birthday present. She had asked to go swimming for her fourteenth birthday more than a month ago. The bruise on her cheek was gone from the night she’d taken the first pill. I wondered if that’s what made James change his mind, that he’d gotten angry at her. A few weeks had passed, and Misty had stopped bleeding from the abortion. James tossed us granola bars when we came downstairs, and I dutifully started to eat mine. He led us into the garage. The car was ready for us. The trunk was open. The sight of it made my heart beat faster. At his gesture we climbed in and he closed it on us, still clutching our towels. We couldn’t be seen of course. I would have guessed the trunk, if I had been able to digest what was happening at all. As the car started to move I closed my eyes, my heart roiling. I hadn’t been in this car since that day when I was eleven. It had been starting to rain, and I’d been at the park near my house. James had been driving past, and had offered to drive me the six blocks home. I’d been so close. “I don’t have the bus—I hope you don’t mind,” he said with a friendly grin. I smiled back and climbed in, oblivious, ignorant, a child. It would take five minutes, maybe ten, for James to drive me home now. But for all my peering out of windows, I had never seen my family since that day. The darkness of the trunk was comforting, but also frighteningly familiar. The dark was where he’d put us first, when we arrived. Young and stupid, I at first thought the darkness was what I should fear. It didn’t take long before I recognized it as a haven. The light was what I learned to be afraid of—the light when he opened the door to the basement, and came to me in my shackles. I still had nightmares about it. And mercifully, I can’t remember everything that happened back then. I don’t even know how long he had me shackled in the basement. It was long enough that I had wanted anyone’s comfort, even his. Long enough that sun shining through the covered windows upstairs was too bright to look at. Long enough that I thought he was truly kind when he brought me up. “You’ve been down here long enough, haven’t you?” he said gently, untying me, leaving only the shackles that connected my ankles. He led me by the hand out of the cold stone basement. “Just don’t make noise, be a good girl, and you never have to go down there again, okay Tahira?” That was when he’d planted it. The uncertainty that maybe this was all my fault, and any punishment was just because I’d misbehaved. I held a hand over my left breast as the car lurched and bumbled onto a gravel road. I wrote it on myself from time to time, wrote it in the fold under my breast where I hoped he wouldn’t find it. Lies. I had to remember. The word was written next to the one scar I had. After all the bruises, the burns, the broken bones, the rape, the horrors—only one mark had lasted. Only one mark defied the lie. It was from the basement. I couldn’t stop crying in those early days, though I’d tried. The tears just came, silently, one after another. I had pleaded too, back then. I couldn’t even imagine doing so now. He had brought a poker, red hot from the oven, and wrote Listen across my flesh with a terrifying calmness and normality, going away and coming back with a reheated poker whenever it cooled. Then he had told me not to cry. That was the last day I had. The car stopped. After a minute James opened the trunk and sun shone blindingly in. He helped us out, tugging with his strong arms. We were on a beach of tiny cobblestones. I didn’t know where we were—perhaps outside the city now. He’d driven right onto a little grassy dune beside the beach. A few people were swimming in the distance, but we were on our own. Misty was less hesitant than I. She stripped down to her underwear, and I copied her more slowly. Only one bruise between the two of us, I noted with surprise. Misty’s upper arm had a thumb print. She gasped as she stepped into the water. I followed silently, not looking at James. He followed us to the water but made no move to join us in it. I didn’t like his gaze, didn’t like turning my back on him, but I had to. He had given us a present, and I had to enjoy it. The water was cold. I hadn’t been in sitting water since I was a child; we only had a shower at home. I ducked under and came up with a gasp and a shiver, then went under again. This time I breathed out to stay down there, and listened to that silence. It was a different silence than in the house. A nicer, safer silence. Another world. Misty was doggy paddling around me with a grin on her face. I tried doggy paddling too, and found I hadn’t forgotten. Neither of us could manage a more complicated stroke. I was able to float, but Misty couldn’t. I found it was just a trick of the breathing—hold the inhale for a moment so your body rose up, exhale and inhale again right away. Striking white and grey clouds floated across a bright blue sky. They were the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Misty splashed me and I straightened, coughing. My feet touched the gravel bottom again as I splashed her back, before looking back at James on the shore. He was watching Misty with a half smile. Another group had driven up in a car, not far away, and I watched someone get out and walk toward James. James saw where I was looking and walked toward the man to head him off. It was a neighbour saying hi. I could hear them over the water with ears long trained to pick up the slightest noise. “They’re my nieces, just visiting for a few days.” “I didn’t know you had any siblings.” Half a statement half a question. He didn’t. “Well, my cousin’s children actually, but I call them my nieces. The brown one’s adopted.” They both looked at me and I gave a small wave. James waved back. The perfect uncle. The perfect actor. I felt sick. I turned back to the water, because I knew I wasn’t supposed to watch. I looked across at the far distant shore, just a line on the horizon. See me, I thought. Why are we here? Who are we? Look at us. But perhaps there was nothing to see. Just one bruise. Just one scar. “It’s beautiful,” I murmured to Misty, beside me. “This was so nice of him,” she said softly with a giddy smile. I eyed her. “Nicer than usual,” I corrected. She looked at me. “Nice, period.” When I didn’t respond she ducked under the water. “Do you think James is nice?” I asked her when she came up, unable to drop it. She looked at me, her face more serious now, her orange hair plastered to her head. “He’s not perfect,” she said. “But yes, he can be.” At my shock, she added, “He’s not the same person he used to be, Tahira. He’s nicer. He is our father now. No one’s perfect; everyone has their problems. He’s our family, and I love him. Don’t you?” I stared at her. Did I? But no, I remembered, dimly, what love was. I stopped speaking and floated, looking up at the stunning clouds. I tried to forget myself in their beauty. I tried to forget her words. I tried to forget the remnants of my heart. “We’re leaving,” Misty told me softly, and I dropped down to standing to see James coming back our way. But she wasn’t looking at him, but at the horizon. She was smiling, though a tad wistfully. “Freedom,” she said, speaking the word like a prayer of thanks. I stared at her, any trace of a smile now gone from my face. “Freedom?” I echoed, the word barely sounding on my lips. Her smile didn’t falter. “No chains,” she reminded me, her voice as soft as always. “No walls—Freedom.” I couldn’t think. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t believe. I had to remember. Lies. Weren’t they? We were in the trunk heading back. We made it home. We told James that we loved the beach. I smiled. Misty smiled for real. She hugged him. For a heartbeat, I just gaped. When had she gotten so bad? I thanked James earnestly, quickly, hoping he wouldn’t ask for the same. “Happy Birthday,” he said to Misty. Finally I was in my room, door shut. Finally I could breathe. I stuffed my face into my pillow as my breath came unevenly. Gasping, like I couldn’t take in enough air. More and more, harder and harder. Not crying, never crying, but hyperventilating. Freedom. It’s not, I thought. It’s not freedom to let a prisoner outside. It’s not true. I clutched my hand to my chest, to the word Lies, as I fought my breath, fought to keep it silent. Misty could surely hear, but James couldn’t. I couldn’t breathe, and yet that was all I was doing. No chains. No walls. I looked down at my ankles, unshed tears burning behind my eyes. There were chains once, at the beginning. When we had still needed them. Before he’d internalized the chains. No walls. But he had no need for walls. He was the source of the lies, and he would tell anyone who found us, even if we were outside, like that neighbour today. And who would ever believe us, would ever believe we were captive, when Misty herself didn’t even believe it? When it was my word against the two of theirs? When had I lost her? When had I lost my cell mate, my sister? When had I become the odd one out, and not James? When had I gone crazy? I clasped a hand around my ankle, like a chain. I wished with all my heart that I wore chains now. Chains could be seen. Chains were proof. Chains were real. Misty was wrong. James was wrong. I had to be right. Lies.
The next week he took me out again, and again, he did the impossible. I sat in the front seat. He acted like we did this every week. I think I was shaking. He handed me what felt like a receipt as we left, as well as a card. Misty stayed at home. He hadn’t explained the trip to either of us, and of course, we hadn’t asked. “You’re going to take those to the pharmacy, pick Misty up some new medication,” he explained, and I tried to focus on what he’d given me, and not the outside world. My parents might be out there. Someone might recognize me. It took me a few moments before I could make my eyes work again. A prescription. And a health card. It wasn’t mine. Tatanisha Williams, the health card read. 18. She had a similar colouring to me in the picture, but I didn’t know if we looked similar enough. But maybe if this didn’t work then they’d follow the trail back to James. I tried and failed to not think about who Tatanisha Williams was, how James had gotten the prescription, how he had taken her health card. Whether she were still alive. My heart was still pounding in terror when we pulled up at a pharmacy. I couldn’t do this. I hadn’t spoken to anyone but James and Misty in five years. I hadn’t even seen the sun in five years apart from last week, and now I had to go into a store. I was eleven when I last went into a store. But I would do it, because James was there. And nothing was scarier than him. A bell rang when I opened the door. I stared at the shelves, the bright lights, the people. Only a few, but so many. I couldn’t tell them, couldn’t speak, not with James watching through the windows. But maybe they would see. Couldn’t they see? When I mumbled something about an abortion pill and slid the card and the prescription across the counter, the woman behind it eyed them shrewdly, then looked me up and down. Could she see? What could she see? “Tatanisha Williams?” she asked. “Yes?” But it seemed rhetorical, for she said, “I’ll get it,” after typing a few numbers into the computer beside the counter. I waited, my mouth dry. I wanted to turn around, to see if James sat in the car or was outside the store, but if I looked he would be suspicious. I could write something down. But he’d see me write. If I explained, he would ask why I had taken so long. And most importantly, if I tried and failed, I would live to regret it. There were many fates worse than death, and I was sure James knew most of them. I wasn’t a good enough actor. Seeing my face, the pharmacist, pills in a tray she had pushed halfway across the counter, asked, “Are you feeling sick?” I smoothed my features, and reached across to take the medication. “No, not at all,” I said with false cheer, false normality. I extended my hand for my card and she returned it hesitantly. “He isn’t nice to me,” I blurted. “Someone should look into it. 724—” I spun before I engineered my own torture. I walked normally out of the store. No one spoke to me as I left. 724 I had said. The address number. I had stopped before I said the street. Because if they came to the house all they would find was James, a normal middle-aged white man living on his own in a respectable neighbourhood. We didn’t exist. I handed the medication to James in the car. He didn’t take it. “Keep it in your lap,” he said, pulling out of the parking spot. I couldn’t speak. “How’d it go?” he asked casually. Was it a test? I wondered with even more fear. Did he know the pharmacist? Had he set me up? Who was on his side? Had he heard me somehow? “Nothing happened,” I lied. “I just gave her the prescription and the card and she gave me the pills.” “It didn’t take long.” “There were only a couple people inside.” James just nodded. “She said nothing about the ID?” “No. I just gave it to her and she said the name, “Tatanisha Williams” aloud, and then went to fetch it.” He nodded again, saying nothing about the girl whose identity I had taken. But maybe he could sense my fear, burning through my body. Maybe, if I said nothing more, he would figure out why. Maybe if I didn’t give it a cause, he would give it one himself. “I haven’t talked to people in so long,” I mumbled. He glanced sideways at me as he made a left turn. There was a sharpness in his gaze. “You talk to Misty and I all the time. What are you saying, Tahira?” Danger. I debated silence. “Not people, I mean, store clerks. I’ve never gone to a store on my own before. It’s just a new experience.” Lights, people, conversation. I couldn’t think straight. James said nothing and it only frightened me more. I had no idea if a beating was coming, or sympathy, or lies. “Get down,” he said sharply. I did, immediately. In a heartbeat, I had undone my seatbelt and slid down until I was scrunched in the foot space of the passenger seat, my head down below the window. But once I was there, my fear-conditioned blind obedience done with, my heart cried out. Someone must be out there. Someone who would recognize me. And the idea came to me that I could shoot up, unlock the door, and dive out into the street. I might find someone, might find my family, or I might die. None of those results were bad. But maybe he would catch me, explain it away somehow, and take me home. And home was the most dangerous place of all. I wasn’t allowed up until we had driven into the garage and parked. “Stay there till I close the door,” James said in a low, heart-stopping voice, and I obeyed. When I finally did climb out, I felt like some part of me was dead inside, defeated, gone. Maybe that was all of me. All of who I used to be. Now I was a shadow, a scar, a palimpsest full of invisible stories erased one by one until nothing was left. Nothing was visible, and all I felt was fear. I didn’t see it coming. I fell to the floor, my head spinning from his slap. He picked the medication and the health card up off the floor, and booted me, hard, in the ribs. He didn’t explain. I didn’t ask. He gave me the gift of leaving and I fled to my room, wishing that walls could keep the nightmares out.
In my dream I was playing a bed-time game with my real dad before bed, as we always used to. It was my favourite time of day, but now I felt sick. I told him. “Don’t complain, Tahira. You’re healthy.” His reply confused me, and I felt worse. My stomach ached with tension. I was outside in our backyard, looking at the garden. It was always so pretty, but my father was mowing the flowers. His face morphed. “Don’t ever go outside,” James said. “There are bad people out there, people who will hurt you, and take you away from your family. I just want to protect you, Tahira. I want to keep you safe, to keep you here with me.” I screamed at him that he was the person that had taken me away, but I couldn’t open my mouth, and I wasn’t sure if I was right. Listen, he wrote on my flesh. I was in the basement. There were monsters in there, beasts and girls with tortured bodies, butchered and sewn. But I hid with them when the door opened and he came in. One horror might save me from the other. We’re free, said one of the beasts. We aren’t, I told them. But they all agreed with the beast. We’re safe here, they said. In the darkness. Are you all right, Tahira? It was James, sitting across from me on my bedroom floor, cards in his hand as we played the game before bed. Say yes, he said when I didn’t. But I couldn’t speak. I had no tongue. I backed into the wall, into a corner, as he came for me. Someone was screaming, but I was silent. He came with a leather belt in hand. I was powerless. I love him, Misty said from the doorway, watching it happen. And then James held me. You’re a good girl Tahira, aren’t you? He asked, his tone comforting, the belt gone. Something in me exploded.
No chains, she had said. I could add: no scars. I buried my face in my pillow. I understood. Stockholm Syndrome, my mind supplied now, remembering the trauma book I had read. But the book had never said how logical, how normal, it would seem. It had never said that Stockholm Syndrome, at its core, could be love. And who could stand against love and fear united? I love him. Don’t you? “Good morning,” James said, walking into my room. I couldn’t tell from his voice whether this was a cheerful wakeup or an angry one. I rolled to face him. He hesitated in the doorway, his expression confusingly neutral as if he hadn’t decided which of his many faces he wanted to put on today. “Are you all right?” I was sitting before he reached my bed, and my heart thudded in my chest when he sat down beside me. Normally I would lie, as I should, but, maybe because I’d just woken up, I couldn’t. I didn’t answer. “What’s wrong?” I wanted to believe that concern. I wanted to answer that question. I wanted to take the comfort. So I did. “Nightmare,” I replied honestly. “About what?” he asked with unusual patience. I shook my head, only half remembering. “I was in the dark,” I said. Half truth. I couldn’t very well mention the basement. “Someone was after me.” James rubbed my back with a hand, and my stomach curdled while my heart rekindled. Then he hugged me, and for a moment I saw nothing, remembered nothing but panic. But at the same time, some part of me felt comforted, too. When he pulled back, something like sorrow filled his eyes. “I’m sorry, Tahira,” he said. I didn’t understand what the rare apology was for. “I wish I could keep you safe.” “You do,” I argued, without thinking. “I try,” he said. “There’s a lot of evil in the world.” “You can’t stop that,” I said gently. But then I remembered who I spoke to. Or at least, I remembered who else resided behind the face of this father figure whom Misty loved, the man or monster who destroyed all the good and more that he created. It was hard to remember. When James left for Misty’s room I felt better and grateful to him. He did try to protect us. But then I looked down at my hands, clutching the sheets. Maybe that’s what had confused Misty, the idea that had poisoned her. That he was protecting us, caring for us, comforting us, when he was the very reason that we needed protection. I had to remember that he was the source of the nightmares. But was he? Maybe it was the evil in the world, as James had said. Maybe it was just my losses, my hardships, like anyone else’s. Maybe everyone had daily nightmares. Misty did and I wouldn’t put it past James, and who else was there? James left for work, leaving us each a granola bar for breakfast, as he did when he was late. Misty always showered first, and while she did, and I hovered in the hallway. On the upper floor there was a bathroom and three bedrooms—mine, Misty’s and James’. At the top of the stairs was a door that was always locked, keeping us upstairs while James was out. I don’t know why the door drew me that morning. Maybe it was just the usual loneliness—I missed James, I missed people. I used to check the door every morning in my first month upstairs, way back when. That is, until James started rubbing some sort of chemical on the door knob periodically that made my hands develop a rash. I don’t know how he knew I checked. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe it was logical to assume that someone would check that door even after months or however long I had been in the basement. My hand hovered over the door knob, remembering that chemical, and remembering what had come after when he’d seen the rash. I dropped it and turned away with a shiver. I was just coming out of washroom, damp from my shower, when someone knocked on the door downstairs. Misty and I went completely silent. Another knock, louder, this time with a barked command that I couldn’t make out. I slipped slowly toward the front of the house, stepping around the creaking spots, and reached the front window. It was sealed like all of the others upstairs, but I pressed my eye to the slit in the covering. Police. I dropped to the floor. Had they seen me? But you couldn’t, through the window. Did I want them to see me? What had I done? I had told them the address; this must be my fault. I was shaking with terror. James would beat me unconscious, and would do far worse with his words. Misty came along the hall too, stopping at the corner where she could see me. “Police,” I whispered. Her eyes went wide and slid up to the window, her brow furrowing in worry. “After James?” she asked. I half-shook my head. I didn’t know. My breath was ragged, but silent. I had dreamed of the police finding me, that first year. Now I was hiding. Why was I hiding? Because hiding was all I knew. The door crashed. They must know more than I thought. They weren’t just dropping by. Voices downstairs. Shouts. Questions. I tried to walk by Misty, but she caught my arm. What are you doing? her eyes asked. “We have to talk to them,” I whispered. She shook her head sharply, her hand tightening on my arm. “What if they’re thieves?” I asked. “Dressed as police? Or they’re asking about something else?” I knew I wasn’t convincing, but still I tried to pull away from her. She wouldn’t let go, and I pulled her along instead. “They’ll take us away,” Misty murmured, fearfully. “We’ll lose our fathers again,” Her words were unbelievable. Did she not see how she had denied and remembered the past in one sentence? “Up here,” I said, but my voice was barely more than a whisper. I physically couldn’t raise it. It had been beaten out of me. I touched the door at the top of the stairs, brushing it audibly. Misty’s arms encircled my waist now, pulling me back, but I was bigger and stronger. I grabbed the knob to keep from falling back, and jostled it a little. So much noise, but still they didn’t hear it. I tapped the door softly with my other hand, feeling crazy with courage and fear. Finally, whether by my efforts or not, I heard a voice say: “Upstairs.” Footsteps on the stairs. The knob wiggled. It unlocked. The door opened. Misty and I stood there staring at the two officers—one male, one female—like they were aliens. Misty’s arm was still around my waist, loose now as if we were just being affectionate. “Hi there,” Misty said with a cheery smile. But I could feel the fear behind it. “Who are you?” asked the woman. In her thirties, she had brown hair tied back tightly into a bun and a strong, pretty face. “Nieces,” Misty said in her soft voice, her gaze dropping down to the floor and then forcibly up. “We accidently locked the door.” She laughed. “Is something wrong?” I asked, my mouth dry. The man, a decade older than the woman with grey streaks in his short dark-brown hair, was looking at me shrewdly. “Tatanisha Williams?” he asked. I couldn’t speak. “Is that you?” “Is she missing?” My teeth actually chattered. I felt like my heart was shivering. “You look like her,” said the woman, understanding. “She’s missing,” she confirmed. “No,” said Misty, and I could sense some relief in her. “We’ve never met her. This is Tahira.” “What’s your name?” the man asked. “Misty,” she said. “Misty Shepherd.” My head twitched to look at her, for giving James’ last name, but I didn’t. Misty Macintyre-Johnson had been her name once. “Tahira,” said the woman, saying the name slowly as if she didn’t know if it were my real name. “You know Tatanisha Williams, don’t you? You recognized the name.” “We look alike,” I found myself responding, though my brain was a fog. “I was mistaken for her a couple times. But she’s two years older than me,” I said. “She’s 18; I’m 16.” It was a clue. But they were right there: why was I still giving clues? Because I couldn’t believe it. And I couldn’t trust them. And I didn’t trust that I could ever be safe from James. And because I was talking to real live people. And because I worried about them—about the sister at my side, about my adopted father, and about our dysfunctional family of three. “How long has she been missing?” I asked, to stop them from asking me questions. “Nine days,” the man said. “She’s 18,” suggested Misty. “She’s an adult. She could have just gone somewhere.” “Maybe,” said the man, turning away to leave at last. The woman was watching me, so I watched the man instead. She opened her mouth to speak, and a horn honked from outside. James. He’d come back from work. I wasn’t thinking straight. There was no time to wonder why he had come or if or how he had known the police were here. There was no time to consider the best way to cover this up. I didn’t think, I just nudged the woman back out of the doorway and shut the door in her face. I leaned into it, Misty at my side. She understood. She was the only one who did. We were a team. I caught her gaze, her fearful eyes, before she dropped them to the floor. “The door’s unlocked,” I whispered, realizing. He would know. She looked at me then, and this time, her fear was pushed down by surprising courage, and a resolve that made my own heartbeat quicken. She stepped away from the door, and when I copied her, she opened it. I didn’t stop her in time. She walked down the stairs. And I understood. She couldn’t protect herself anymore, but she could protect James. I followed more slowly, afraid of his eyes, not sure what side, if any, I was on. There were two police cars outside, and the second set of officers stood in the doorway by James. Misty—brave, owned, powerless, fourteen-year-old Misty—went forward to stand by James. There were questions on both sides. I tugged the sleeve of the female officer from before, who had hung back. I could barely breathe, I was so scared. “Tahira Brown,” I whispered. She leaned in for me to repeat it. “Tahira Brown,” I whispered, unable to make my voice louder, barely able to speak. “And Misty MacIntyre-Johnson,” I added, my eyes swinging across the room to Misty. She wasn’t looking at me. The woman eyed me for a moment, then pulled a radio from her belt and started speaking. James’ gaze caught mine from across the room. Suspicion. Beneath that was fear. For him? Or to lose me? He looked at the woman on the radio, ignoring the officers around him. He looked back at me. And now something else flashed through his eyes for a moment, before it was replaced by hate—hurt. I had betrayed him. James looked like he wanted to kill me. No, he looked like he didn’t want to, but like he had to and he would and I would deserve it. And he would do it slowly. But surely I was safe. There were enough officers now. The door was open. I could get out. He couldn’t keep me here now. The woman finished on the radio. Someone had told her and she understood now. And so I stopped understanding. “Tahira Brown…” Was that still my name? Did someone but me remember it, know it? “…going to be okay…” I didn’t know what those words meant. “…will be arrested…” James? Or me? Or maybe Misty, because she had helped him? “…your parents…” Parents, parents…I had no parents. Did I still have parents? Had they forgotten me? Had they given up hope? Had I given up hope? “… your missing persons case…” James was put in handcuffs. My adopted father was put in handcuffs. I had done it. Misty was crying. “…Misty’s family…” I watched her, hoping she would understand. But Misty wasn’t looking at me, and I think it was on purpose. Surely, she must understand. There was hope now. We would go home now. She would see the little sister she had loved so dearly in the early years. She would see her fathers. It was impossible. “...your parents are on their way…” My parents. My other parents. Did they still want me? “…he’ll be charged…” James was escorted out the door, and this time he didn’t look at me, but at Misty. He looked heartbroken. He said her name. “…we looked for you…” Would they still want me, when they understood everything? When they knew I hadn’t run at the first opportunity? When they knew I was worried right now, about James and Misty, that I cared about both of them? I wanted to go to Misty, but she was being comforted by another officer. “…you’ll be okay,” the woman finished in that same calm voice. I stared at her, blinking like a simpleton. And then something else caught my eye. “Misty,” I murmured. And across the room, over the other voices, she heard me and looked. “Your parents,” I said. Her gaze whipped toward the window. She shook her head once, hesitating, and then she walked out the door. I stood back from the open door, out of sight, watching. I saw her stop before she reached them. I saw her dads run the rest of the way, tears on both of their faces, and crush her to them. She hadn’t forgotten. She hadn’t forgotten her real parents. I couldn’t breathe. Again, I was gasping. A gentle hand was on my back, and I spun to face the officer who put it there, who hastily withdrew it. But he wouldn’t hurt me. No one would. I rubbed my eyes, keeping the tears in. I wasn’t allowed to cry. Crying was dangerous. Listen. But now I listened to something else. The sound of a car pulling up overlapping with the sound of running shoes smacking the pavement as someone ran along the sidewalk. I stepped further inside, even though the more moments that passed the more I wanted to step out into that beautiful, glorious sunshine and get out of this place forever. She stepped out of the car and he caught up with her, panting from his run. They asked the officers, and were pointed to the house. I stepped back, even though my heart ran forward. Too fast, too much. Five years. But they came. Before they reached the door, I barrelled into their arms, tears waterfalling down my face to land on their beautiful, brown skin. “Tahira,” they murmured, and I pushed aside the fear, and held on as if I would never let go.