There was Jersey, Cincinnati, Denver, Seattle, Miami, California, and me, Dakota. We were being tied up in the back of the van, chained really. It was procedure. Every night on our way to meet with clients we were chained so we didn’t escape. We obliged, since complaining and resisting only brought trouble. Accepting our fate made it easier: in less than an hour we’d stand along a wall waiting as rich, old men made their selections. “I’ll try this one on,” a silver-haired regular would say, his veiny hands grabbing Miami, the girl he selected. A creepy grin would then spread across his face; Miami’s eyes averted. “I like Florida,” he’d laugh, leading her to his room.
“Get in,” Jersey, Cincinnati, Denver, and Seattle, settled into the back row. “I don’t want you to miss your opportunity for love,” Sasha said, her voice cruel with humor. She laughed as she restrained us, her eyes darting up at ours, daring us to try something, anything. I sat on the middle seat, closest to the door. I had to wait while Sasha secured Miami and California. Sasha then motioned for me to hop in and bent to chain my leg to California’s. It was procedure. I can still replay it in my mind, the movements, all very measured, exact. And the sounds. Thick chains clanking on the van floor, the scuffle of our feet shoved in shiny heels, and the soft click as we were locked in place, secured to the van, to each other. This time I waited, sitting with my shoulder gracing California’s. There was no click. The chain only appeared to lock. Sasha hadn’t accounted for the last click. This was her job: Make sure we were transported safely to the clients; make sure we didn’t escape, or even consider trying to escape; make sure we returned when the clients were finished with us, their desires met, our bodies raw, dirty, shamed. There was no click. My mind shouted. I was not restrained. I could escape, but I’d have to jump out of a van that in moments would be traveling upwards of fifty miles an hour. I looked over at California; she knew. Her face screamed with approval.
“Do it,” I imagined her saying. “Do it, now. Don’t think about it. Thinking will only get you in trouble.”
Sasha hopped into the front seat and started the van and crept forward, merging onto the dark back road she always took, the nameless one with an electric gate at the end. On either side of the road were thick and dark woods. They felt monstrous. While the creaky gate inched open, Sasha instructed us to put on our blindfolds. She looked at us through the rear-view mirror making sure we obeyed. I thought her eyes detected something was amiss, but I dismissed this thought and put on my blindfold. The van moved forward, our bodies jerking left as Sasha turned onto a two-lane road. I can remember hearing a passing car on several occasions. We were not alone. There were people out there, but we didn’t know how to reach them. Darkness beat against the blindfold. I listened as the van’s engine got louder, its transmission pushing through each gear. I knew it would slow down again, and I knew that when it did I’d have to act fast or there may not be another opportunity to escape. But where will I go? I thought. How will I get home? Where is home? Is anyone still looking for me? What will happen to the other girls if I leave? Will they be beaten, tortured?
“You can take your blindfolds off for now,” Sasha yelled, after swerving onto a highway. She figured the numbers on the road signs meant nothing to us anymore. But now they did. I remembered the numbers. They meant freedom. I looked again at California, her eyes still pleading. My mind filled with questions. In the end the risk of death seemed more promising than staying. I leaned forward to see how fast Sasha was going—35mph, 36 mph, 37mph, the engine climbed the short hill.
“What are you doing, Dakota?” Sasha snapped.
I slipped my feet out of the stiff heels. My face crumpled as I said goodbye to the girls. I reached for the door handle and swung it open, air entering the van in a big wave. What if I don’t make it? I hoisted myself out the door doing my best to curl my body in a ball. I hit the ground hard. It felt like every bone in my body had shattered. I rolled, or bounced rather, down the woodsy terrain, scraping the skin off my arms, marring the big red fluffy dress: beauty exploding, freedom beckoning. I don’t know how long it took for my body to slow. I heard the van’s screeching brakes, but I couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from. I knew I had to get up, run, keep running. But where? I sat up, my body stiff, enflamed. Pain vibrated through my body. Something was broken, or maybe I was bleeding internally. I looked around for the van. It’s brake lights were racing towards me. Sasha was driving backwards along the edge of the road. I stood up, it took a few attempts, my legs shaking with shock. Everything felt out of place; bones and organs shifted in the fall struggling now to get back in place, find where they belonged. This is where details get fuzzy. I don’t remember how I ran through the pain; my guess is fear was my fuel. I ran and ran some more, parts of the terrain hilly, thorny, other parts lush with short shrubs, a maze of vines I navigated. My bare feet were cushions to all things sharp. What if she catches me? I ran. They will kill me? I eyed a small gas station on the other side of the highway. I had to get there. I had to get to the guard rail, make my away across the lanes. I had to get to the gas station. They’d help me.
Sasha was close now, the van parked in sight. She was on foot looking for me. A light broke the darkness with dart-like flashes. At first I was still. The cold air blew against my skin like small razors.
“Dakota,” Sasha sang. She was close. Did she see me?
I was still. I concentrated on taming my breath, calming myself, buying time and energy to make it across the highway. It wasn’t a busy night, but there were cars, fast cars.
“Dakota,” she yelled. “Or should I say, Olivia Michaels.” She was pointing her flashlight towards me. That name, my name, sounded foreign. I cringed. Olivia Michaels was missing. “Come on out and I won’t tell Charlie and Joe…I’ll tell them the client beat you,” she laughed, but her flashlight was steady. “You’ll have to pay for the dress…not sure how you’re going to do that though,” she teased.
My body started to shake at the thought of Charlie and Joe finding me like this, bruised and battered. There’d be more bruises; they’d break me. I might not survive. I had to get to the other side. I had to escape. I stood up and started walking towards Sasha. She shined the light on me, mocking my limp with the light. Up, down, up, down, up, down. The girls leaned forward in their seats watching me trudge along. Their faces were lined with fear, their shoulders slumped with disappointment. I had disappointed them. I was about five feet from Sasha when they all started screaming.
Sasha looked back at the van and I did what they told me to do. I ran across the highway. I didn’t look to see if it was clear; I just ran.
“I have to make it,” I cried. “Please…” I pushed myself as hard as I could. My feet stomped into the ground, my thighs like machines pumping and pumping. I heard Sasha yelling, then the van’s engine starting, its tires peeling away.
I had to make it across four lanes, to the divider, and across another four lanes. My stomach jostled, threatening to relieve itself of the crackers I’d had an hour earlier—the only food we were allowed before meeting clients. Headlights shone. Horns blared. Drivers veered left, veered right, or stopped inches from my kneecaps. “I want to go home,” I cried, something I hadn’t allowed myself to say for the last three years. Home was far away, a place I might no longer be able to go back to. Could I return to my bedroom? The one decorated sweetly with innocence—poster-size pictures of boy bands, stuffed animals along the bay window, a white canopy bed with soft pink sheets, a karaoke machine filled with pop songs about love and heartache, a neon pink jacket with the word “Princess” stitched on the back. Would I be able to sleep in that room when my body had lost its innocence and my mind did not keep sweet thoughts anymore?
I made it to the divider. There were still four more lanes to cross. The van was gone. I guessed Sasha had sped off to the next exit and was making her way around, travelling south, prepared to renege on her promise to not tell Charlie and Joe. I kept running, the sound of my own breathing a soundtrack replaying. More headlights. More burning rubber. A semi jack-knifed skidding towards the divider. I made it. I nestled my way into the sea of shrubs, slowing my pace a bit. I had to get to that gas station, that small four-pump shack just off the next exit. Sasha would be around soon. I listened for her, anticipated the van’s roar.
At the edge of the brush there was a dirt mound and tall weeds I hid behind. The gas station was lit, surprisingly busy, but it was a Friday night; people were gassing up, going out. I had too been going out, preparing to be someone’s fun, someone’s excitement, a story he’d carry back to his friends. I waited, lurked. My heart beat loud, deep in my ears, my throat. I needed to cross the street and walk another half block in the wide open. Where was Sasha? The longer I waited, the closer she was. My body started to shake again. This time I knew I didn’t have much left to give, but I ran, hobbled really. I crossed the street and I followed the narrow, blacktopped road. I shuffled along the edge, through the parking lot, and finally through the double doors that sang “ding, dong” when I walked through. A man examining packages of corn nuts paused to look at me. He stared briefly and then went back to his corn nuts. I walked to the register. The smell of cinnamon rolls wafted my way. It had been so long since I had had a cinnamon roll. I stood in front of the counter, my words far away. I looked towards the door, fidgeting with the end of my dress, the straps that wouldn’t stay up.
“Can I help you?” the attendant smacked her gum.
I looked around the store, outside towards the blacktop road.
“Can I help you, Miss?” the attendant repeated, her round face now scrunched as she eyed me up and down. I was dirty, disheveled. I looked like I had been in a fight, like I hadn’t exactly lost, but like I certainly hadn’t won. She will find me, I thought. She’s out there and she will find me.
“Help me…please. I looked around the store again, out the long windows at the headlights leaving and entering the parking lot. “She’ll find me here…please.” I moved back from the counter. My feet and my arms were bleeding, patches of scraped skin stung; pain filled me. There was a trail of blood all the way from the sidewalk.
“Are you okay?”
“Please help me…” I stared at her then back at the window, more headlights, more people coming in. A new set of headlights, a van, Sasha. She had parked on the side; she, after all, had a van filled with abducted girls and didn’t want to draw attention to herself. But it was all too noticeable.
“That’s her,” I screamed. The corn nuts guy moved towards the door. “She’s coming for me…please help me. Hide me.”
“Uh…” the attendant stammered.
“Call the police,” the corn nuts guy said, his voice deep, demanding.
I watched as Sasha’s big body flopped, propelling her across the lot.
“Yes, this is Amanda Greenly at the Stop & Gas on Hammer Lane off Highway 11. I got a girl here who says she’s being chased and…”
There was no time. Sasha was maneuvering her way through the line of cars. The bathroom key hung on a small nail just over the counter. I leapt towards it, scaring the woman. She let out a strained, throaty moan. I ran out with the key, past the corn nuts guy, around to the back of the building, Sasha was hurrying towards me. I calmed myself enough to wriggle the key into the hole and step inside the dark and smelly room. Just in time. Darkness.
“Open up Dakota,” she yelled through clinched teeth. “Don’t make me call Charlie and Joe.” She beat on the door.
I knew by then she had already called them. They were on their way. I was not safe. But there was no turning back. It was freedom or death. Or perhaps both.
“Open the damn door,” she tried the door, jiggling the knob.
I moved away from the door. The floor was wet. My feet slushed through the pooled liquid. I felt for the wall, and leaned against it, sliding down into a squat. The toilet roared with rushing water.
“You will regret this,” she said. “Life will not be easy for you.”
“Excuse me,” another voice joined. “I don’t know what’s going on here…and I’m not one to get in other people’s business…but the girl don’t want to be bothered so I suggest you leave.”
It was the corn nuts guy.
“The police are on their way…how do you know that girl?”
“She’s my daughter,” Sasha lied.
“Well, she’s pretty beat up. How you gon’ explain that to the police?”
“Dakota, I’m giving you one more chance to come out…” Sasha yelled.
Then she was gone.
“I’m gon’ stay right here til the police come,” the corn nuts guy offered.
I put my hand to my mouth to muffle my cries. Freedom was scary, hairy and imposing, but here was kindness, raw, unveiled, just as scary. I didn’t know where to place my trust. I imagined Sasha driving back to the compound where we were kept, Charlie and Joe driving to the Stop & Gas to find me. I imagined they’d beat me for running away, for messing up my body. “No one is going to pay for a scarred up piece of trash,” they’d say as they pounded their firsts into my face, my sides, my chest. I’d gasp for air, inhaling blood like before. I’d almost die again when they threw me in the dungeon—a dark room designed for surprise tortures. My cries, my pleading echoing throughout the compound, a reminder to everyone else that disobedience was punishable, death always a possibility.
In three years, I’d seen five girls brought out in body bags or wrapped tight in sheets. We were told to look away, pretend we didn’t see what was happening and pray it didn’t happen to us. So we did. I did. In this life good was bad and bad was good. That’s all I had to remember to get from one day to the next. At night, deep in the night, when all was still, California would reach for my hand, caressing it, a reminder that there was still such a thing as love. This was the only time we had to remember that. In those long, still hours we clung to love, the hope of it soothed us to sleep where our dreams, if just for an hour or so, were vibrant and joyous, a replay of a past that, had we known then that we’d end up in a place like this, we would have cherished more. I would have hugged my mother more, resisted less when she tried to love me, sat with her while she talked to me, warned me about life’s dangers.
I let my hand crawl along the wall in search of a light switch. The switch was stiff, the bulb dim. My eyes strained as I looked around. The toilet was overfilling with water, a clump of toilet paper stuck at the bottom. Graffiti marked the walls, vulgar remarks that surprised me, the kind clients had sometimes made—all part of the fantasy that made conquering us tempting. The mirror, broken around the edges, was dingy, revealing a rather cloudy image of my face. I pulled the straps of my dress back on to my shoulders, dusted the front, trying to remove dirt stains. Bruises covered my arms, a few open wounds still leaked blood. I ripped the last paper towel from the dispenser, wet its tip, and dabbed my wounds.
“How are you doing in there?” Corn nuts guy asked.
I stayed quiet. I didn’t know how to answer that question. My body did look like I had been beaten. And I had, for three years. I had been beaten, violated, locked away. How was I doing? It was too soon to tell. I didn’t know yet which direction life was taking me, if I’d survive.