City gray filtered in through the high window as the train thundered past, pounding moats of dust off the pipes overhead. I was lying naked on the cement floor.
The world tilted as my head lolled off my arm, my forehead thudding to a stop against the floor, spittle drizzling from my mouth. My breaths labored in and out, constricted, my head and neck at an impossible angle. I needed to move, to get more air, but my body wouldn’t listen.
I sucked in ragged breaths of dank, dusty air; my nose mashed against the concrete. I had to move. I couldn’t breathe, everything threatening to close in. How long did I have before I was discovered? I couldn’t let him find me like this: vulnerable and exposed.
My left arm stretched useless above my head, dead and wooden. I struggled to regain control over my right arm, twisted behind my back.
How had I come to be here like this? Again? I couldn’t remember, the same as every other time. Fighting the urge to sort it all out, piece it together, my analytical mind grasping to know, I forced all my attention instead on moving my right arm.
Then I heard it: The groan of door hinges, a faint, hesitant step on the stairs.
I had to move. No, no, no. Pushing the panic aside, I cleared every thought, except that of forcing blood into my right hand. Move, damn it. Just a tingle, but I felt it. I felt it. Tears sprang to my eyes unbidden, filling them, rivulets running over my eyebrows, dripping to the floor.
I thought I heard another creak on the steps.
Taking in a ragged breath, I narrowed my thoughts, centering them on moving just one fingertip. That’s all I needed, just one. It would catch hold from there. Just one. I thought I felt it, my skin tingling and prickling.
A click broke my concentration. Several more followed, along with a grating buzz from the furnace just at the edge of my hazy vision. Then with a prolonged hiss, I could hear the gas seeping across the burner, not yet lighting. A dull whump as it finally caught against the pilot, the roar drowning all other sounds in the basement.
My knuckles brushed against my backside as my fingertips trembled with the thrum of the furnace. I needed to focus. I still had time. I desperately wanted to believe that. But how long before the light switch was thrown? How long before I was no longer clothed in anything but darkness?
Another click, and the blower kicked on, making it impossible to hear anything beyond my ragged breaths. He could be standing just beyond my tiny circle of vision, dumbstruck, watching me.
I stifled a whimper, a fresh stream of tears spilling from their dam. The thought of him seeing me like this – it was too much – when so much had already been taken from me. I hated being reduced to this, all control lost, no power over my own body.
Anger enveloped me. I gritted my teeth, biting back a primal scream. I was more than this. Stronger. My fingers came together, curled in a loose fist, a thousand tiny needles stabbing at the skin. Rage welled within me as I tried to move the dead weight of my arm. With great effort, I slumped it across my side, the knuckles cracking against the cement in front of me.
Something leaped back, one shadow breaking from the whole. Struggling, I twisted my neck just enough to catch sight of a pair of green eyes glowing back at me from the shadows.
I licked the saliva along my lips, letting out a huff of breath I had been holding. “Hi, cat,” I slurred in a whisper. Vaguely, I could remember my father saying something about a stray hanging around.
The cat eyed me from a distance, back hunched, hackles half raised as if unsure of whether to fear me or not.
“You’re right to be afraid, cat.” Of anything that comes from my father. My brother and I are both evidence of that.
The cat drooped its head, hunching its head to stare at me through its cat lashes, wary, unsure. The outside world had taught it well, even though it craved attention as I feared we all did. “Picked a strange place to find it, cat,” I said, trying to put some weight on my arm. It supported nothing.
Though my arm couldn’t yet bear its own weight, I curled my fingers in and out, fingernails scratching along the cement, the needle pricks fading from my fingers. The cat watched with rapt attention, its back lowering into a more relaxed position. Still wary, but curious, as well.
Slowly the feeling came back in my arm enough so that I could use it to roll myself fully onto my side, my head falling back onto my left arm. I rested like that for a few minutes. It felt like I would never be strong enough to get on my feet. But I always managed somehow. It just took time. I just didn’t know how much of it I had left, before he awoke and found me here. And why here? Why did I never end up anywhere else?
Pushing the thought away, I focused on my left hand, still dead to me. Minutes passed, feeling like hours, as I struggled to regain control over my muscles. With each twitch of movement, came the first tingles of pain where my muscles and tendons had been stretched beyond their limits for who knows how long. All things I would try and calculate when I made it out of here and back to my office. I had a log to keep track of my waking hours, so that I would know just how of my life had slipped out of my grasp. It wasn’t perfect, but at least I knew the times had shortened. I awoke sooner each time. I just didn’t know what I was waking from.
By the time a hint of feeling had returned to my left arm, I had managed to push myself into a canted sideways sitting position. Settling some of my weight onto my left elbow, I gave my right arm a brief respite. My body ached for energy, for food. Whatever happened to me during these blackouts left me empty, drained beyond belief.
The cat had dismissed me as a threat some time ago, grooming itself with only an occasional glance my way, disinterested, aloof.
“Boo,” I whispered, causing the cat to still, its body flinching toward flight. “Don’t worry, I’m not that hungry.”
It watched me warily as I struggled into a kneeling position, my head drooping to my chest, as I took several deep, exhausted breaths. When I could, I lifted my head and looked at the cat, which had stopped grooming, its tail twitching behind it as it watched me. I could hear the beginnings of a purr. I smiled, settling my right hand against my leg, palm up.
Slowly, it padded over, its nose sniffing my fingertips, its body lean, almost gaunt. Taking a tentative lick, it nudged my hand with the side of its multi-colored muzzle, scratching from there to its ear. It licked me a few more times, waiting, followed by more nuzzling.
“I don’t have much left in me, cat.” Still, I turned my hand so that I could wiggle my fingers enough to scratch behind its ear and along its neck. An involuntary shudder rippled through me, the cat angling sideways to leap at the first sign of trouble. My nerves were waking up all over now, the cold of the cement already leeched well into my depth. I just hadn’t felt it yet. Another shudder, and the cat leaped sideways out of reach.
The shudder turned to an all-out shaking, my body trembling from deep within. Since the beginning, I had convinced myself that it was merely the cold, but I never fully believed my own lie. Something happened to me each time, too profound to ignore. Images, searing in their intensity one moment, lost in the next. If only I could remember, pull those images back to the forefront. But did I really want to know?
Had I really wanted to know that my brother was a monster? Capable of so much death? And, yet, I did want to know. I always did. It was who I was. Who I always would be. I had to know.
Now, I had to wonder if that insatiable thirst for knowing is what had dragged me into his hell, his insanity threatening to swallow up mine along with his own. Rebelling against that thought, I struggled to my knees just as I heard movement upstairs.
“Stay there,” I said under my breath. The cat looked at me, incredulous. I looked back, just as incredulous. No, I wasn’t talking to you. Like a cat would listen, anyway.
With a flick of its tail, the cat flew up the stairs, winding its way between the door and casement. Good, keep him up there.
As my father moved about upstairs, I summoned the energy to get on my feet and stagger over to where I knew I would find my clothes on his workbench. The first few times had been the most jarring, finding myself naked, thinking I had nothing to cover myself with as I regained my wits. Now, I moved with slow purpose as I undid the package of snack cakes, and took a bite. In between bites, I dragged the clothes over my limbs, washing it down with gulps from the bottle of Dr. Pepper that had been waiting for me. All the while, listening to my father’s movements about his house. It had been his house ever since my mother died. After her death, and especially after what my brother had become, it just never felt like home again.
Any more than this felt real: The clothes, the food, the Dr. Pepper, none of it. And yet here it was, where I always found it. Waiting.
I knew I couldn’t wait any longer as I laced up my neon pink Nikes. In the off chance he would come downstairs, I had to be gone, taking with me all evidence of my having been here.
Slipping out of the house without a backwards glance, I paused only long enough to scan the railroad tracks and abandoned buildings for signs of life … of witnesses. I carried my trash with me, a sluggish jog at first, then slipping into a run as the sugar worked its way into my veins. I had so much to run from.
So little to run toward.