Charlotte stirred. The room was a welcomed darkness. The stench of semen gagged her. She swallowed the bile for fear of waking them. A breeze crossed her face, cool fresh air. The first she had breathed in days. She turned toward it and listened. Nothing. The sound of vile breathing was gone. The room felt an eerie emptiness.
The breeze again, this time it roused her senses. It came from the door. There was a creak as the wind pushed at the door. Never had any sound or smell given her such hope. She crawled along the wall feeling her way toward it. The pain was nothing to what she had already endured. The murky light of the moon proved she was alone and naked. She pulled a filthy sheet from the bed and wrapped herself. Covered at last as the threads clung to the leaking blood of her wounds.
She peeked out the door, nothing but trees and a dirt road. The car was gone. They must’ve left her for dead or maybe they would be back for her. Charlotte chose to run.
She studied the stars but they gave her no direction. She listened for a voice in answer to her prayers, there was none. She knew Robert might be dead. If he was alive, she had no idea how to find him or even where she was. The police were monsters. Her family would never want her back now. Starving alone in the woods would be better than life in this cabin.
She rose to her feet; the pain dropped her to her knees. Charlotte crawled out the door.
The crisp piney air gave her strength. She limped at first but the taste of freedom empowered her to run. The gravel cut at her feet. This new pain camouflaged the pain inside. She stayed just at the edge of the road. If they came back she could hide in the trees. She made it a mile or two before she saw them.
Light beams cut through the darkness, followed closely by the sound of engine, and then the siren. Charlotte ran into the woods, branches slapping her face as she fled. The sheet and the underbrush fought against her flight. She dropped the sheet.
Without warning the trees ended. The road had circled around and she found herself naked in the beam of headlights. Blinded and trapped.
The police cruiser slowed to a stop behind her.
A man got out of the car in front of her. The three cops emerged behind her. She sank to her knees.
“Charli, is that you?”
She knew that voice. “Daddy?”
“Charli, it’s Robert.”
The first cop lunged toward her. She yelped and crawled toward Robert.
“It’s all over, Officers. This is the girl I’ve been looking for.”
Charlotte clung to his leg and sobbed.
Robert gave Charlotte time to heal. The bruises faded and scabs fell off. For days she moaned and cried in her dreams and often screamed herself to consciousness.
“You saw the uniforms again?” Robert asked.
Charlotte nodded with eyes fixated on the door. A quake rattled her fragile body. She drew the covers up over mother’s sweater that she wore over Robert’s bulky tee shirt.
“Do you trust me?”
Charlotte remembered the last man who asked that questioned.
“Never trust a uniform again. They are all the same.”
Robert did find me; he saved me.
“The uniforms punish those who don’t please them.” Robert sat next to Charlotte on the bed. “You didn’t please them. You weren’t good enough.”
“I’m going to make sure the uniforms don’t hurt you. I’m going to make you good again. Do you understand?”
Charlotte didn’t, but she nodded anyway. Robert pulled back the sheets and began to caress her legs, moving his hand between her thighs.
“I’ll teach you what pleases a man. Then God will forgive you.” His hands began to pull at the buttons on her sweater. Charlotte slapped away his hands then wrestled the covers to her chin.
“Oh boys!” Robert yelled.
Charlotte screamed as the three uniforms walked into the room.
Robert sneered at her fear. “They won’t come near as long as you please me.”
The men roared and snorted, they got into position to watch, hands on their crotches. One aimed a video camera.
“Boys, I think I’ll call this one, Lotti.” He moved in closer. His burning breathed on her face. She could hear the heaving of the uniforms.
Charlotte let go. Robert tossed the covers to the floor.
“Yep, this Lolita is going to make us lots of money.”
One button at a time, Charlotte removed her covering and became a leading lady.
“Welcome to my cave.” Robert unlocked the door and waited for Charlotte to cross the threshold. A large TV hung about the fireplace in the living room with massive leather furniture and a bear rug on the floor. The kitchen to the right had the shiniest appliances Charlotte had ever seen. It looked like something from the magazines her mother loved to dream over.
“The bathroom is down the hall. I’ll start a fire.”
Charlotte was cold, hungry and aching for the bathroom. Robert seemed to always know just what she needed. The house assured Charlotte that all the stories about Robert were true. His parents were rich. He was free to enjoy their money. So, therefore, he was going to take good care of her. She began to relax as they munched on salsa and chips and snuggled on the couch before the raging fire.
“You can take the downstairs bed, I’m going to rest on the couch. A nap will do us both good.”
Her unpacked crumpled Disney tee and sweats seemed out of place in such elegance but she wanted to sleep with a memory of yesterday. She hid her backpack under the bed. It seemed the right thing to do. Charlotte fell asleep before her head could form an imprint into the pillow.
She dreamed of the lake near her home. Like a mermaid she swam through the dark waters navigating around thousands of piranhas. They attacked, shredding the scales and exposing her legs. Each time she followed a beacon, she crashed into a wall. It was like swimming in an aquarium that continuously shrunk in size. When she tried to break the surface of the water for freedom, she found it solid. Her lungs ached for air. She kicked harder.
She woke choking in a sack yanked over her head and shoulders. She screamed and kicked making contact with the kidnapper hovering over her. He rewarded her with a blow to the head, yanked her from the bed and threw her over his shoulder.
“Robert! Help! Rob…”
“Shut up or he dies”
Charlotte bit her lip; the taste of blood sickened her.
She listened for any sign of Robert. All she heard were hurried footsteps, another door, crunching pinecones, and then she was tossed onto a cold metallic surface. It wasn’t until the lid slammed shut that she realized she was in a trunk. The engine roared. She bounced and wept. “Oh God. Robert. Oh God, help.”
The scratchy sack protected Charlotte from the vapor fumes, though it forced her to choke on her own breaths. When the fumes became more pungent than her own sweaty air, she knew she was succeeding in freeing her head and shoulders. Charlotte searched for a tool to force open the lock. Nothing. She pried at the lock with her hands and kicked at the taillight until her feet bled. Gradually she began to lose the desire to fight; she only wanted to sleep. She dreamed of her high school football game; she was the ball.
A bright light woke her. The beam burned her eyes.
“What’s your name?”
When Charlotte didn’t answer, the man stepped away. The flashlight roamed the cabin revealing a small mattress on the floor to her right and a wooden table with two chairs to her left. Charlotte was on the floor huddled next to a sink cabinet. There were no windows, only the door on the other side of the man. The light was back in her eyes.
“What are you doing here?”
The man stepped closer and she could see his uniform. His sagging belly covered his belt; the pant legs strained around heavy thighs were stuffed in worn hunting boots. His badge flickered in the light and for an instant there was hope.
“Who are you?” His toothy aged smile popped his hat forward. A gray streaked ponytail escaped.
Charlotte tried to answer but only a whimper escaped, it smelled of gasoline. The officer walked around the room until he found a light switch. The bright glow flooded the room.
“Okay, girlie. Let’s see you. Stand up here.” The officer pulled her to standing and studied her under the light.
“Please sir, help.”
“Do you trust me?”
Charlotte nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Well, you shouldn’t.” His laugh sounded like a lion’s roar before the kill. “I’m going to give you what sluts like you deserve.” The officer grabbed her throat with one hand and slammed her against the wall. The other hand ripped her tee shirt splitting Mickey’s face. Charlotte fought his hands but he pressed harder on her neck. She kicked at his shins. He stopped only to throw her on the floor and kicked her in the gut until there was no fight left. He picked her up by the neck and slammed her on the table face down.
Her pants ripped off in a second.
Charlotte had never imagined there could be such pain; it split her in two, body and soul. The officer snorted with each thrust. His hands clenched her hair and yanked her head back and forth pounding her face into the table. Blood oozed from her nose and lips. He groped at her back, her breasts, and her hips with claws that dug deep crevasses in her skin. There was no limit to his torture.
There was a time in the Bible when the earth split open and swallowed the sinful. Charlotte prayed it would happen to her, now. It didn’t.
When he was finished with her. She moaned, slid to the floor, and clenched her broken body to the table leg.
He searched his pockets for a cell. The call was short, “She’s ready.”
He lit a cigarette and waited. He laughed when she flinched at the flicked ashes.
By the end of the second smoke, Charlotte heard tires on gravel then two slamming doors. She held her breath and gripped the wood tighter. Footsteps crunched closer. The door opened.
The first to enter was tall and lanky, his body as crooked as his nose. He wore a baggy blue uniform with black Converses. His partner was tanned and toned in a khaki uniform. His biceps pushed the sleeves to their limit. There was state insignia on his cap. The Brad Pitt look-a-like smiled at her.
“Boys,” the first officer said as he crushed out his cigarette and stood with unzipped pants, “let’s party.”
Her only relief came when they tired, turned off the lights, and slept by the door. Charlotte never slept; curled in a fetal position she prayed the lights never came on again.
They did, for hours at a time. Charlotte faded in and out of reality. She dreamed she was burning alive in the Lake of Fire, or being ripped to shreds by a den of lions, but never, not once, did she dream of God’s rescue. Eternal damnation was her only hope.
Charlotte couldn’t believe her luck. As Robert talked of the countries they’d visit and the movies they’d make, she studied his face. He looked older than his Facebook picture. Charlotte couldn’t help think Robert would be the perfect mate for her older sister, except Nancy wasn’t going to date until God brought her husband-to-be to their father for his approval. “Well Nancy,” Charlotte mumbled, “maybe now, God loves me more.”
“What did you say?” he asked.
“Sorry.” She quickly added, “I don’t have a passport.”
“Don’t worry, you won’t need one with me.”
“Where are we going? Going to live, I mean?”
“My folks have a house in the woods, we’ll go there for awhile.”
“My parents might come looking. What if they call the police?”
“You didn’t tell anyone about me, did you?”
“No, no one. I promise.”
“Then they won’t find us. I’ll take you where no one will find you.”
Charlotte grabbed the door handle. “But after you’ve written your movie and we become famous… I can go home and they will be proud of me. Right?”
“Sure, babe, sure.” He caressed her thigh.
An icy current shot from her legs to her spine; Charlotte remembered her mother’s favorite sweater stuffed in the bottom of the backpack. Digging through the bag distracted her enough to stop the tears. The aroma of peppermint candy her mother kept in each pocket choked a sob from her throat.
Robert noticed and took her hand.
“It’s okay, Charli. They won’t come looking. You said Thomas was their favorite.”
Hearing her words read off the screen and spoken aloud pierced her soul. It was true. But she would miss her little brother the most. She grabbed the Thomas the Train flashlight keychain clipped to her bag. With the other hand, she repacked her bag.
Once everything was securely stored, she ran her finger along the secret seam. It had been her dad’s idea years ago. After reading how missionaries smuggled pages of Bibles across enemy borders, he made them prepare for the day they would have to hide their faith. There were no Bible pages here only the crisp twenties she had stolen from the cookie jar and a family photo taken at Christmas. They would remain secret, for now.
“We’re almost there. You know I need you. You’re my main girl. There’s no movie without you.”
Charlotte looked for her reflection in the glass, nothing but a ghostly glare.
Her mother had wasted her own beauty in motherhood. Charlotte wanted more. She needed her family, her school, her church, yes, even her God to see she existed for more. Robert understood. He had picked her.
He could’ve had any girl. He reminded her of the beautiful people cast as Tolkien’s elves. She was certain Robert could walk on snow. Darkness concealed her ruby cheeks but her passion roused his scent. His eyes met hers. Charlotte grabbed the door handle but they moved to fast for her to jump.
Once the car left the interstate, conversation ended except for a curse with every pothole. Charlotte blushed at each foreign word. Maybe Robert wasn’t perfect for Nancy.
Their journey ended deep in a mountain cove, parked before an expansive hunting cabin. The morning sun glistened off the dew on hundreds of pinecones crunching under their steps. What a sight they must’ve been, a muscular young man in Diesel jeans and leather jacket next to a soon-to-be fourteen-year-old girl wearing her mother’s frumpy sweater hanging to her knees and a pink backpack in her hand.
A passerby would think nothing of the girl on a swing; long hair sweeping the ground, toes pointing to the stars, as she swooped back and forth; if it weren’t well past midnight. The lone human pendulum slowed to a standstill in the creamy moonlight. The rusted red-and-white candy striped swingset stood between the farmhouse and a grove of citrus in bloom. On the manicured lawn between the house and the girl lay a stuffed backpack.
He said she should leave everything behind.
Charlotte stood, clenching the chains, a figurine frozen in the warm night. For this moment, time stood still. It was as if creation held its breath, watched, and then collectively exhaled. The fresh tangy breeze blew blond locks across her face and rattled the chains; she shuddered. Then ran. She darted toward her house, grabbed the bag, and then fled in the opposite direction. She refused to stop running until she reached the end of the dirt driveway. With one short glance over her shoulder, she adjusted the bag on her back, and headed toward their meeting place. It was time.
He said he would be waiting in the parking lot behind the football stadium. Last night her freshman Red Devils lost to the Tigers of Redwood High. Charlotte hadn’t watched the game. Instead she had searched the lot for his red Mustang and roamed the stands, hoping he had come early. Now hours later, her family asleep in their beds, Charlotte sat crouched inside the ticket booth waiting for her prince.
Robert was the image that woke her each morning, the motivation for each heartbeat. He wasn’t imaginary; he was her secret life. They met on a neighbor’s computer. Charlotte offered free babysitting in exchange for time with her best friend, confidant, and boyfriend. She felt sure her parents would never know; their ancient computer was just one step above an abacus. Her dad always said, “Smart phones and fast computers made people dumber; it was the devil’s plan.” Because of the devil’s schemes in fashion and fun, Charlotte was the school outcast. But now, she’ll be the talk of the town. It was her turn to shine.
A distant engine invaded her thoughts. Two beams of light searched the emptiness for her. She peeked above the counter as the sports car slowed to a stop, a man leapt out, with arms outstretched, declared, “Your savior, riding in a red horse, as promised.”
Charlotte gasped and giggled; it came out more like a snort.
“Well, come out here and let me see my princess.” He opened the creaking half door. For the first time, he was flesh and bone not dreams or digital images.
Robert flashed an approving smile, “Hmmm, you are a looker.” His eyes rested on her breasts. Charlotte crossed her arms; her budding body frightened her, and opened her to teasing. She waited for the usual, “Elsie, can I milk your udders?”
Instead, Robert opened the car door for her. “Come on Charli, let’s get going.”
He used her father’s pet name. He remembered. Charlotte’s right foot moved forward but the left ankle, twisted in a shoulder strap, held her firm. She stumbled into his arms.
“Hey, what’s this? I told you I’d take care of everything you’d need.”
Charlotte scooped up the bag and hugged it close to her chest. She took a step backward. “It’s only a change and my toothbrush.”
“Did you bring your phone?”
“Yeah, right. Like my dad would let me have a phone.”
Robert smiled. “Well, then. Let’s get on the road. We have a long drive.”