Thursday, June 7, 2018

Out of the Box, by Simon Botten

‘That would expose your Queen,’ he commented before she took her hand off the white
knight, so she put it back, careful not to upset any other pieces, involuntarily feeling her lower lip with her tongue.
She waited for him and he surprised her with half a smile. She reciprocated.
‘I almost forgot,’ he rose  somewhat awkwardly and, turning his back on her, stepped into the darkness. ‘I have something for you.’ There was an extended rustling sound,  which she recognised as hands struggling to extricate objects from a cardboard bag.
‘Don’t look. Close your eyes.’ She had to resist the temptation to laugh at this instruction, instead doing as directed and wondering what on earth the something could be. Long seconds of trying to match actions with sounds; he was busy.
‘You can open your eyes now.’ She detected a touch of nervous excitement in his voice, wasn’t sure whether this was necessarily a positive sign, took the plunge.
The chessboard had been moved to one end of the rickety coffee table to make space.
Between them he’d placed two paper plates, each with a large chunk of babovka sitting atop napkins. Plastic forks. Two plastic cups filled with kofola. Paper and plastic;  he’d prepared a party.
‘I told -’ he stopped short, thinking better of it. ‘You know it’s a special day, Dorka. Our anniversary. One week since we met.’
She forced another smile. ‘Thank you so much. You’re really very kind.’
The cake was difficult to cut with the plate resting on her lap. Crumbs and icing sugar fell everywhere, despite her best efforts.
‘It’s delicious,’ she nodded at him. ‘Happy anniversary.’
If it really was one week then it was a Wednesday outside.

   A week before, the consequences of the seemingly most insignificant decision had become only too apparent.
   Front entrance or back, and, to save little more than a minute, she’d chosen the latter, ambling through the faculty snack bar and emerging into brilliant early spring sunshine behind the building. The sharpness of the Sun’s stare caused her to squint as she walked
along the thin strip of pavement between the red brick wall of the building and the vehicles belonging to staff. After an extended spell of cool grey days the sudden warmth and brightness felt enlightening, rejuvenating; she could  hear the sound of children playing in the park the other side of the road, their chatter and high-pitched laughter.
   The back doors of the large van were opened just as she was approaching, blocking the pavement, forcing her to stop. Her initial thought was at how stupidly inconsiderate the
figure getting out had been. She would have to squeeze past him in order to walk around the other side of the van.
   That was her last free thought. An instant later a large arm was around her neck, another in her back, and she was being pushed into the vehicle. 
   ‘Not a sound!’  Words hissed in her ear. His weight on her, rolling, then the sound of the doors slamming shut.
   ‘Just relax. Relax….Relax.’ And a sharp pain in her upper arm, then just the weight on her, remaining, growing until it was gone.


   If it had been in some novel or film she might have laughed at the absurdity; at least it would have caused a smile to flit. Instead, she just felt sick, and cold, and scared, and confused. Metal enclosed her wrists and her legs were bare and bound just above the ankles; her jeans were gone and her pants somehow twisted. She was lying on some blankets in a small room with a naked light bulb piercing her eyes and a figure looking down at her. A figure with upper face concealed by a mask made of what looked like felt, a mask with a protruding red nose and large white eyes through which holes had been cut - Krtiček’s - Little Mole’s - smiling visage reduced to a sick joke, bringing terror and a stone to her dry throat.
   ‘Apologies,’ the voice was surprisingly soft given his bulk. ‘But when building a relationship, one requires trust. Don’t think of screaming, by the way. This is something of a hideaway, if you’ll forgive the pun. Nobody anywhere near here to hear you.’  Small mouth, thin-lipped. Weak jaw. Pallid skin. Head turned slightly away – even covered, with eyes concealed within Little Mole, he couldn’t meet her gaze. Wide shoulders sloping down from a bulldog neck, top two buttons of a tight light blue shirt open. Hands - tears came, ran silently down.
   ‘Don’t,’ he instructed, ‘ you might not think this the most auspicious of beginnings, but-’ taking a deep breath tinged with exasperation, ‘but we can, if you- our situation can improve. Relax.’
But how to relax? With the aid of whatever he’d injected her with, whatever it was that had robbed her of consciousness for – how long? - and what had he done to her? Where was she? In some small cellar pervaded by an unpleasant musty odour, as if the earth that had been removed was waiting behind the walls to reclaim its place. The only window high on the wall opposite, hints of metal bars behind glass grimed by a decade of dust. No natural light visible, indeed nothing natural was evident and, rather than improving before his departure, the ‘situation’ declined markedly.
   He’d prepared the most basic and uncomfortable of beds for her. It was, she saw, an old wardrobe that he’d lain horizontally by the wall facing the window.
   ‘A little primitive, I’m afraid, but it will have to do.’ He appeared to be adept at understating the obvious. ‘And you’ll have to wear this while I’m gone. Just in case some lost soul does appear. Open your mouth.’
   He knelt with one knee across her throat, held her nose until she had to open her mouth, then forced the cloth between her teeth. Bound and helpless, she could do nothing as he picked her up and put her in the wardrobe, closed the doors and locked them.

   Once you lose hope you’re dead, Dora remembered her father telling her once as they watched some survival documentary on television.  Through the hours of  dark confinement she cloaked herself in the words; while they remained, and the thought of them remained, she remained. Don’t give up, she told herself, focus on positives, on those survival stories you viewed, rapt, so often when back home. Whether God or gods or some other power exists, there is always the possibility of salvation.
   It had been broad daylight. Surely, someone must have seen something, perhaps one of the ladies working in the faculty canteen whose barred windows looked out onto the car park; or, if they hadn’t noticed, then there must have been CCTV cameras – she thought of the sour-faced woman at Reception with her display of monochrome images – the front entrance, the main car park – there must have been a dozen screens showing the views from a dozen cameras, at least one of them must have been of the rear of the


building, surely. There had to be evidence, some clues for the police to investigate, to lead them to her.

   On the second day, he brought out the chess set, setting it up on the table between them with what she took to be an air of satisfaction. With most of his face hidden, it was difficult to tell.
   ‘I thought you might like a game. Something to test ourselves. A little diversion. You do know how to play?’
    She nodded, but couldn’t stop shaking, from both the subterranean cold and her fright. In trying to make her first move, she knocked over several pieces and was watching them bounce on the floor when he struck her across the mouth with the back of his hand.
   ‘Idiot!’ He jumped to his feet and appeared about to hit her again, before turning to send his stool flying with a violent kick. ‘I’m trying to have a normal relationship and you can’t even – how can you be so clumsy?’
   That was when, through her fear, Dora recognised what she had to do. It was just a matter of determining what constituted normal in his world.

   His vision for her appeared limited. Yoghurts and bread rolls with slices of cheese or ham kept her fed. There was only bottled water to quench her thirst. When she needed to go to the toilet he blindfolded her and led her up ten stone steps and  through two doors into a bathroom, she could hear him sliding a bolt on the first. This was the only time he removed the rope binding her legs, but she still had to suffer the indignity of having him just feet away as she relieved herself, had to rely on him for the paper.  He had spoken of building a relationship and the situation improving, but she could only guess what he had in mind and take comfort from the fact he was at least talking of a future for her.

   Cringing inside, wanting to spit out the gag and scream as the fingers holding the soapy sponge brushed her skin. More than purely accidental, the sick bastard was getting his pleasure.
   ‘You really are heavenly, Dorka. Like some goddess.’ Bastard with smooth fingers, almost baby-smooth, not calloused at all, not those of someone used to manual labour; a doctor or scientist perhaps? Someone with knowledge of drugs and injections, she knew that. ‘I’m so glad we met. That we are becoming better-acquainted.’

   She breathed  the words mantra-like, over and over - ‘you will not win, you will not win, you will not win. I won’t let you.’ Thumbnails scraping in the dark, over and over in the wood that contained her, until the nails were worn down but she could feel four crude letters carved by her side, D O R A. Evidence,  traces of life, of her existence; she left fingerprints wherever she could and got unusual satisfaction from the occasional falling hair.
   In the box, she thought of those who had shaped her, who had made her what she was. Most of all, she thought of her father, visualising him at his forge, raking the coals until they glowed and deftly shaping slabs of steel into axe heads and sword blades fit for the collections of connoisseurs around the world. Though proud that she had been accepted at the university, he had been reluctant to let his little girl leave, warning her to take care in the big city, and to keep in touch regularly. She’d laughed and told him not to be silly, she knew how to take care of herself and it wasn’t exactly a cauldron of crime, not


like some American city; people all said it was just like a big village.  Still, to keep him happy she had called him almost every evening, much to the amusement of her roommates at the dorm. By now he would have contacted the University, and then the police, of that she was certain.

   Some people are naturals when it comes to telling tall tales and little fibs, but she wasn’t one of them. Even the slightest untruth caused the colour to rise in her cheeks, so
it was best, she concluded, that she stick as close to the truth as possible when trying to rouse his sympathy.
    ‘I’m sorry about the tears. I’m not crying because of being here, but because of my father. He’s got cancer and the doctors say it’s only a matter of time before he dies. Days or weeks, they can’t say, but I’d hate for him to die alone.’ She had his attention, but the mask hid the extent of any feelings, so she continued. ‘Every day I’m here is one he’s spending alone, and my absence will be killing him just as much as the cancer. I know you talk about building a relationship and trust, well….I need you to trust me. If you take me back I won’t say anything. You could just drop me off somewhere. Or put me to sleep again so I won’t see anything. I’ll do whatever you want if you let me go to see him. I-’
   ‘Stop. That’s enough,’ he sounded weary. ‘You really think I should trust you so soon? After just one week? Perhaps because I’m wearing this ridiculous carnival mask you think I’m stupid? Or because I thought to bring you the cake? It’s time,’ he paused for what seemed an eternity, before finishing the sentence. ‘It’s time you got in your bed again.’ Gag in mouth, no more words. The wardrobe doors closed on her, squeezed hopes to the size of a beating heart.

   Seconds dragged to minutes and minutes stretched to hours. Patience, they said, was a virtue, but never one she had embraced and now perhaps the lack of it would prove her downfall. Dora grimaced at the word, for she truly had fallen down, into an almost airless box in the fusty cellar of some forsaken house in the middle of nowhere. She closed her eyes on the darkness. Imagined a voice exhorting her not to give up, just like in one of those survival stories.

   There are occasions when the dreamer dreams that they are dreaming, They tell themselves it’s only a dream but still continue, two steps from reality.
 The banging sounds are mere figments of dream, or maybe nightmare. You’ve fallen asleep, Dora, and now he’s coming to wake you. More bangs, louder, at regular intervals , culminating in the sound of something being riven, broken open.
   Imagine footsteps, voices, your elbow and legs pounding the wood of your prison for the first and last time. An explosion of light and the hands reaching.


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