If I hold the candle high enough, I can just about see it. I reach higher and higher, I stretch so much I feel as though I’m going to snap. I’m almost out of here. I’m balancing on my tip toes, just a little more higher and …
A hand grips my ponytail and pulls me backwards. The candle falls from my hand; my head hits the bare floorboards, then darkness.
‘We can’t go out there, don’t you understand? Not today, not any day, it’s not safe, remember?’ A voice whispers above me. I can’t see her face but it’s her, it’s always her.
‘Don’t you ever listen to me child?’ I feel a hand touch my face; it runs over my nose and lips, fumbles to the side of my face and finds my ear.
Her breath is warm, her voice soft. ‘We can’t go out there,’ she whispers in my ear again. It sends a shiver down my spine that goes right to my toes.
‘But I ….’
‘Shhhhhh.’ I imagine her raising her finger to her lips. Maybe that’s the good thing about living in darkness, I can imagine whatever I want and no one can take it from me. Like the walls are really bright yellow, and there’s a window above my bed that lets in lots of sunlight and birds flyby and….
‘Shhhhhh, I told you.’ I lay still, maybe they heard my thoughts? Maybe they’re outside the door waiting to smash it down and grab me, to drag me from this cave I call home. They’re out there, and they’re coming to get me.
There’s a noise, a very faint noise, my eyes search the room.
‘Look, I can see….’ I point to my discovery. Light pours through the gap under the door casting long beams of light across the floor. We both rush towards it, me crawling, my white skirt, which is now dirty and frayed getting caught under my knees and her running.
‘Now look what you’ve done, they can never see us, no one must know we are here.’ She pushes the scrawled up piece of newspaper back under the door and then it’s gone. The light is extinguished, just like my hope of ever getting out of here.
No one will ever find me, because no one is looking, does anyone even know I exist?
She tells me I’m seven, that means seven years of nothingness, seven years of wondering what it’s like on the outside, because there is one, she’s told me so, she’s never kept it from me. There’s swings and parks and lollipops too but not for me she says, I can never have any of it because humans are bad. They do bad things to each other, they make the world unsafe. When I’m eight I’ll be able to reach that lock and run right out of here. I won’t even have to go on my tippy toes and I’ll face those bad humans.
‘Get away from the door child, get into the corner.’
‘No one’s going to hurt us Mummy, not everyone is bad.’
There’s a smell of burning and then a ball of light, I watch as the flame flickers. She holds the match in her hands steady, her eyes fixated on the burning glow. She smiles but I’m not sure why. She lowers the match and relights the candle.
‘And how would you know?’
I walk over to the naughty corner, head down.
‘Sit in the corner and read your book, here, light another candle.’
‘But I read it, loads and loads of times.’
‘But not the way I want you to read it. You must learn the way my mother taught me, so you can remember every word, so that if I test you, you can recite each chapter and verse.
She lunges towards me, I cower down by the sink, my back against the wall but she’s too quick. Her face presses against mine. I can see hot wax dripping down the candle on to her hand, she doesn’t flinch.
‘Count yourself lucky. This cellar is much bigger than the hole I lived in. It’s worse living under the stairs. Those footsteps, thud, thud, thud. I knew they were coming to get me, mother’s were lighter, but that father of mine, thud, thud, thud.’
‘I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.’ I swing my arms around; kick my feet out but that hand is upon me again forcing me to the ground. It clamps around my neck getting tighter and tighter, how can one arm be so strong? It locks me in place; I’m glued to the floor like a squashed mosquito.
‘Lord have mercy on your soul child, that you be shown the error of your ways.’
The walls are starting to cave in on me, the darkness is swallowing me. I can’t fight anymore; my energy is being sucked out of me. I pull at her arm with both of my hands, dig my nails into her flesh but it’s no use
‘Lord, keep this child from all the evil people in this world.’
‘Mum…please. I… I can’t ….’
She releases her hand. I gulp on the air. My breathing is heavy, my brown, dusty jumper, full of holes now wet with sweat. I pull my knees into my chest and feel the warm trickle of urine down my legs.
‘Emily. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m, forgive me.. I …’ She reaches out a hand but I daren’t touch her.
I watch as she walks away, the only image is the flame flickering and the trail of smoke it leaves behind her. I see nothing else but my hands are my eyes and I know every shape in this damp cellar. I know the table and two chairs live in the middle of the room, and the food cupboard hides in the corner. There’s a shelf above the sink where I keep my Mickey Mouse tooth brush and then there’s the fireplace, but there’s no fire anymore, it’s just a hole now filled with a mattress and pillow. Mummy reckons I should be grateful, that I’ve got more room than she ever had when she lived under the stairs. I keep testing her, hoping she’ll remember anything that was good. She reckons she only escaped because God sent a miracle and made her parents forget to bolt the door again. She grabbed her moment and ran and ran and ran.
‘Why do you keep us locked up in here Mummy?’ I ask between sniffles as I wipe my nose in my jumper.
‘I’ve told you, because humans are sick, so we’re better off in here, just me and you. Safe from the outside. As long as you stay with me, you’re safe, no one can hurt you, not even them, you understand? If you try to escape, they’ll kill both of us.’
‘Not everyone can be as mad as your Ma and Pa? Mummy….. can I have a cuddle?’ She’s silent for what seems ages, I daren’t move.
‘For a short while and then sleep for you.’
I cuddle into her, and lay my head on her chest. Her breast is like a fluffy pillow and my head rises up and down with each breath she takes. Her brown, scraggly hair falls around her face. It smells real bad; she makes me wash mine till my scalp burns. I take a piece of her hair and twist it around my finger and snuggle into her dress, it’s way too big for her. This is the Mummy I like best, not the other one. I look upwards to her; I know her face is there even if I can’t see it.
I want to tell her I know her dirty little secret. She thinks I’m dumb, but I know this darkness better than her, I was born here, I know every inch, every hole, and that door opens, it opens and there’s an outside, an outside I want to live in, with pretty dresses and friends to play with. No baddies ever come in but she always goes out.
She creeps out and always manages to step on the squeaky floorboards and wakes me up, she thinks I’m still sleeping but really I’m wide awake by then. She lights a candle and walks over to the door and disappears for an hour or even two, then she’s back, she’s back with food and stuff. She tells me it’s a gift from God, that he leaves it by the door for us when we’re sleeping. She tells me lies, if it was that unsafe, she wouldn’t go out there. She thinks by locking me up in here, I’ll be safe, but this bad Mummy I have is just as bad as the other nasty people in this world.
‘Your daddy was a bad human too.’ I remember her telling me that when I asked why so many of her teeth were missing.
I can barely feel her breath on me now, her body seems limp and every few seconds there’s the biggest snore ever. This could be my chance, but I can’t reach, I know I can’t reach it. She’s caught me before. Like the time when I tried to balance on a tin of beans and I fell and twisted my ankle, so she puts everything up high now. If I try again she will starve me for the day. The crying of an empty stomach is enough to make me think twice. This time I’ll be much better, I’ve a new plan. I’ve been hard at work, scraping the sticky stuff that makes the chairs stick to the floor, I’m a great worker at night, don’t need eyes for that job.
I break free from the arm around me and tip toe to the chair.
My heart crashes against my chest, if it wasn’t glued into my body I’m sure it would smash its way out. I hear it thumping in my ears and rattling around in my head. I put my hands on my temples and clamp my eyes shut.
‘It’ll pass, like a ship floating by and then calm.’ I mutter in my head but it doesn’t. I take a deep breath and put my hands on the chair.
I feel the smoothness of the wood in my hands. I fumble along its back until I reach its legs, bend and pick it up; it’s free at long last. I want jump and dance and scream all at the same time but there’s no time.
She coughs. If she wakes, if she sees me, if she knows I’m up to no good. I hold my breath. My whole body seems to be taking on a life of its own, shaking and creaking but she settles, how lucky am I?
My muscles strain, my back slouches, but I make it to the door. I jump up; unbolt the lock and the door creaks open. A gush of air seeps from its grasp, it tickles my noise. Scrunched up bits of newspaper fall from the door frame. There’s so much light, it stings my eyes. I use my hand to cover them and the other to feel my way around. I sneak a peek through my fingers. There’s lots of tins and packets on shelves, a cooker too. My stomach lets out a loud, crying noise.
I pull my hand away. I’m waiting for them to come and get me, to come charging over and beat me but nothing. I walk across the floor; the tiles are cold on my feet and I run to another door. This time I can reach it. I pull it open. There’s cars and trees and a garden too. I smell grass; I hold a finger under my nose to stop me sneezing.
‘Emily, get back here, they’ll kill you, get back here now.’ I turn. I can see the size of her eyes before anything else bearing down on me. Her face takes it in turns to go red and white.
She runs towards me, this whole stranger who I’ve never seen completely, only the parts that the candlelight dares to show.
She grabs my arm and tries to pull me back into the house. I twist and turn and fall to the ground. The carpet burning my legs as she drags me back down the hallway.
‘Let go, let go of me you crazy bitch.’ I reach up and sink my teeth into her hand; I squeeze so hard I can taste her blood in my mouth. She pushes me back and stands there; mouth draped open, clutching her hand.
‘Where are they then? Go on, tell me where, Mother.’
‘They’re here, all around us, they’ll come and kill you. They’ll lock you up under the stairs, beat you, starve you, try and….’
Her eyes are all bloodshot and glazy, her lips tremble. I take her hand in mine and squeeze it. She must have been so scared as a child. Her eye brows crease and she stares down at me. ‘Emily. I’ve been a terrible Mother, I thought I was protecting you but I….’
She stands there in silence. She’s been ill forever but no one needs to know. I’ll take good care of mummy on the outside now, there’s no need for us to be scared at all.
Claire Hay, lives in South Wales, UK. A lover of tennis and writing, she has had some short stories and flash fiction published. She currently works as a HR professional and is starting to think about writing her first novel.
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