I didn’t understand why her father kept her locked in that run-down shed in the woods. When I first saw her chained in that musky place, I was too drunk to figure it out. If only I had paid attention, I might have been able to save her.
Judging by the dozens of missed call on my dying phone that afternoon, high school officials had informed my mom that I had skipped again. My friends and I had something more important to do than calculus: Getting shit-faced drunk in the woods behind the school. Before we knew it, it got dark, and the group disbanded. In my drunken haze, I must have taken a wrong turn, because I wound up deeper in the forest, where I came across a lone shed. As far as I could see, it didn’t belong to any home or cottage. It was just there, in the middle of nowhere.
A hunter’s hut? I wondered, No. What the fuck would they be hunting here … groundhogs?
Stumbling forward, I began hearing sobs escaping through the cracks of the old wooden structure. They were definitely the cries of a human girl. My head spun in a pleasant buzz, turning a simple walk into an awkward zig-zaggy trek.
As I reached the shed, my foot sunk in a particularly deep patch of snow, causing me to lunge forward. My hand rose towards one of the walls for support. It went right through the wood, the plank disintegrating into soft mush, like a soggy piece of bread. Gross. After steadying myself and wiping my hand on my pants, I peered into the hut through the hole I’d just inadvertently created.
It was blurry inside, though that was probably due to the alcohol in my system. I squinted to try and make out shapes through the darkness, but it was almost impossible to see. If I hadn’t heard another whimper, I might have missed her entirely. There was a girl, maybe 5 years old, curled up in the corner. Her arms and legs were bound in thick iron chains, which rattled as she desperately pawed at a stuffed bear just out of reach. She looked up and, for a brief moment, our eyes met. I could feel her fear and sorrow, chipping away at my heart. Through her messy, curly black locks of hair, her lips stretched into a shy smile. She was covered in filth, but seemed otherwise healthy. What kind of sick monster can do this to a kid? I wondered.
“H-hey,” I called out.
Still wearing a solemn smile, she stretched an arm towards me, but the chains held it back. She didn’t speak, but her hopeless eyes told me all I needed to know.
“I’ll get you out of there,” I promised.
I staggered to the door, reaching for the handle. I pushed and pulled, but the damn thing wouldn’t open. The simple latch might have been too much in my drunken state.
Returning to the window, I waved to get her attention, “I’m going to go for help,” I said, through slurred speech, “I promise, I’ll get you out of there.”
I ran straight for the nearest squad car as soon as I returned to civilization.
My first mistake was banging the passenger window frantically to get the attention of the cops inside. My second mistake was screaming profanities at the cops as they tackled me to the ground and cuffed me. Why couldn’t I have calmly gone up to them and explained the situation in a rational manner? I could have feigned sobriety. It obviously would have worked out better. Instead, I acted like a weird drunken teenager, cussing up a storm and making insane claims that I’d come across a psychopath’s murder hut.
I was arrested for drunken and disorderly conduct.
“Well, fuck,” I murmured, as my jail cell locked shut.
“Sober up, kid. We’ll call your mom to pick you up in the morning,” said the officer.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, I thought, irritated. I’d gone from trying to free an imprisoned child, to winding up just as locked-up as she was. Eventually, I dozed off on an uncomfortable metal bench in the back of the cell.
In the morning, I was awoken by the sound of jangling keys. The prison guard unlocked my cell and led me to the main desk. I looked around for my mom, but she was nowhere to be seen.
“So … I just get to go home now?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he answered, barely paying attention to me.
“And my mom …?”
“She bailed you out last night. She said, and I quote: ‘Let that ungrateful prick sleep it off. He can walk home in the morning.’ It’s called tough love, kid,” he replied.
I furrowed my brows. Yup, that sounded like mom all right. Probably trying to teach me a lesson, like that time she made me watch a Scared Straight marathon after I was caught shoplifting.
“Did anyone check out that shed? The one I kept screaming about last night?” I asked.
The officer laughed, patting me on the back, “Yeah, we sent a few officers to scope the area. There’s no cabin, kid. Take my advice and lay off the drugs,” he told me, using a condescending tone that reminded me of my father.
I needed to go back, if only to prove what I saw was real. Mom was probably going to get a call from school again, but I didn’t care. At least I was skipping for a good cause this time.
There it was, behind a row of snowy maple trees. The small shed where I’d seen the girl. A new wooden plank concealed the hole I had made, suggesting someone had been by since my visit the night before. The door proved much less of a challenge in the light of day and without chemicals swimming in my blood. I was amused by my own inability to complete such a simple task while under the influence. The door scraped along the snow-covered forest floor as I pulled it open. Sure enough, there she was. The girl I’d seen. Somehow, despite her awful situation, she was fast asleep under a thick blanket. She looked so peaceful that I decided not to wake her.
The door to the claustrophobically small shed closed behind me with a click. It was warmer than expected inside the cracked structure. Roughly the size of four office cubicles, the shed was full of oddities, such as an army of broken garden gnomes, bags of seashells, and old store signs, as well as “normal” shed stuff, like wheelbarrows, shovels, a car tarp, toolboxes full of rusted equipment, and a lawnmower. The weirdest thing of all was the net stapled to the ceiling. It wasn’t a cheap little bug net, either. It was the kind you see on fishing boats: A big, thick net capable of holding thousands of unruly sea creatures. As far as I could tell, it served no purpose, other than to freak me out.
The girl stirred, her soft brown eyes opening. She immediately reached for her teddy bear, but it was still too far away. She pulled on hers chains, to no avail. There was little to no slack, especially on the ones around her ankles. I picked the teddy bear up, and handed it to her. An overwhelmingly happy smile was given to me as a reward. How could she be so upbeat, after the horrors she’d endured?
“I’m going to get you out of here,” I said.
Kneeling down in front of her, I fiddled with the cuffs on her wrists. Unfortunately, lock picking was a skill I’d only learned in videogames. Try as I might, I couldn’t get them undone. Okay, no problem, I thought. Maybe the chains were attached to the mushy, rotten, decomposing walls. Surely, I’d be able to break the wood to free her. I pulled off her blanket to reveal a concrete slab from which the chains emerged. It looked as though they’d been molded right into the block. I needed to use a different strategy.
“What’s your name?” I asked, as I examined each link for signs of weakness.
She didn’t answer. Instead, she just smiled and hugged her bear.
“Well, my name’s Adrian,” I told her.
I was really counting on finding rusted links that I could break off, but had no such luck. Unlike the other objects in the shed, the chains were in pristine condition. If I wanted to break them, I was going to have to use some tools. I rummaged through the toolboxes for anything that might do the trick. I hammered, I sawed, I wrenched, but it was all in vain. All I had to show for a morning’s worth of work were a few scratches on a single link. The chains were simply too strong.
The girl silently watched me work. Every now and again, I asked her questions. Her favorite color, TV show, superhero. She only ever smiled to acknowledge my question, but kept her lips sealed shut.
An animalesque whine escaped her lips while I was in the middle of sawing the chain for the fifth time. Half its teeth had broken off in the process, but I had stubbornly continued my work. I stopped for a moment and listened, only to hear footsteps approaching. She pointed to one of the corners of the shed, as though to telling me to hide. Like a cockroach, I scurried into the darkness, hiding behind the garden gnomes. One of them glared at me with his beady little eyes. The fuck you looking at? I thought.
A pair of feet came into view. I was half-expecting him to look like a flesh-eating lunatic of some sort, but what I saw was a middle-aged man dressed quite plainly. He shook snow off his salt-and-pepper hair, and closed the door behind him. There was a picnic basket nestled under his arm, which he set down next to the girl.
“Lunchtime, Emma,” he announced, his voice strangely mournful.
He pet the child’s head and, to my surprise, she didn’t recoil in terror. Stockholm syndrome? I theorized. The man began to pull out a variety of lovingly-prepared food items. Heart-shaped sandwiches, a bowl of warm soup, colorful fruit-kabobs, and even a cupcake for dessert. He took great care in hand-feeding her the meal he’d made. As I lay there, watching the scene unfold, he gave me the impression more of a loving father than that of a murderous child-abductor. My stomach gurgled hungrily at the feast, but I tried to will it to stop, for fear that it’d give me away. I couldn’t help Emma if I got caught and chained up next to her.
Once she finished the meal, he put everything back in the picnic basket, and gave her a toy truck, “I’ll be back in time for supper, honey. Be good,” he murmured, kissing her forehead.
My face twisted at the sight. How could someone be so delusional? I stayed hidden long after he left the shed, just in case he’d come back. Eventually, I crawled out, my stiff neck crackling with relief. Emma was playing with her new toy, a happy smile on her face.
My afternoon was spent much like the morning, hacking away at the chains, to no avail. As supper drew near, I became increasingly nervous. I knew her father would return soon, and I needed to get home. I had to make a tough call.
“I’ll be back tomorrow, okay?”
She smiled and nodded.
I hated the thought of her spending the night alone, but I had to go. There was no other choice.
I had only one mission when I got to school the next day: Break into the janitor’s closet where he kept the lock cutter. I knew he had one, since the school had performed a “random” drug search on my unit the month before.
I followed Mr. Bentley as he roamed about, picking up litter in the hallway. Every time he looked my way, I’d act like I was checking my phone. I’m not sure if he bought it, but my shifty behavior certainly didn’t keep him from eventually unlocking the maintenance closet. I kept my distance, and waited for him to exit. Once he did, I subtly slid my foot between the door and its frame to keep it from closing. I slipped inside, heart racing, and searched for the lock cutter.
There would be trouble if I was caught, and I couldn’t afford the delay. Emma needed me, and there was no way I was sitting in the principal’s office all day over something as stupid as “borrowing school property”. I had to be quick. Pushing through a pile of useless junk, I found what I came for: the cutters.
It was snowing that afternoon as I travelled back into the forest. Free the girl, bring her to the cops, be a hero, I repeated to myself. They had no choice but to believe me if I brought her in. I clutched the metallic jaws close to my chest, my moist mittens sticking to its cold surface. Emma, as always, welcomed me with a big bright smile.
“This time, we’re getting you out,” I told her confidently.
I prayed my plan would work, as I slid the lock cutter’s jaws between her skin and the shackle around it. The cuff was tight and there was barely enough room for it to fit, but I managed to wiggle it in any ways. Emma looked terrified. Maybe she feared the device was going to cut her hand off?
“Don’t worry, this won’t hurt,” I reassured, “On the count of three, okay? Deep breath … one … two … three!”
I brought my arms down with all my might.
She yelped as the cuff cracked open like an egg, freeing her right hand. She immediately reached for my arm, holding it tightly. I repeated the process until I’d freed every limb. Then, I took her into my arms and ran towards the door, leaving the lock cutter behind. She was light. Lighter than I thought possible. Holding her was like lifting someone in a pool. Sure, she was small, but how could anyone be that light? She clung to me like a baby koala to its mother, her teddy bear squished between our chests.
I ran through the woods, snow crunching under my feet. Once we’d gotten far enough from the shed, I set the girl down. As I did so, her little hand grabbed mine in a vice-like grip. I forced a reassuring smile. I’d done a good deed. Now, I just needed to get her to the authorities. Child protection services…the cops…anywhere that could keep her “father” away. And I would have. I would have gone straight to help, if I hadn’t felt the light tug, like that of a helium balloon, as we passed a park. She led me to the swing set, releasing my hand only once the other had grabbed hold of the chain. It was a dumbed-down version of what had been keeping her captive less than an hour before. An odd choice.
I pushed her for a bit, but as the sun began to set, I grew wary. Her father had surely returned to the shed by now and had realized she’d escaped. He’d be looking for her, and I was sure the park would be the first place he’d check. I stepped away, and motioned for her to follow. Instead, she clung to the swing set, her body trembling. A single hand outstretched towards me hesitantly.
“I’ve got to get you someplace warm, okay? C’mon. We can’t play anymore,” I answered.
She shook her hand, insisting I take it.
“Fine,” I grumbled.
I took her hand half-heartedly, but the strength with which she held it made me realize she felt safe with me. I smiled and squeezed her tiny, delicate fingers. We took off towards the police station. Never once did she let go of my hand.
Then, it all fell apart. All because of me. Because of a stupid sneeze. I let go for just a moment. A split second, so I could cover my mouth. In the moment it took for my eyes to close and the air to torpedo out of my nose, the girl disappeared. I looked around me frantically. How could she have run away so quickly? I should have noticed it sooner, but when I did, it was too late. I looked at the snow to try and track her, but only my footsteps were present in the snow. There were two thin lines next to me, as though only the tips of her feet had touched the surface the whole time.
Something fell on my head. Something soft and squishy. Her teddy bear bounced off my forehead and landed at my feet. No fucking way.
I looked up.
She was floating, her body drawn towards the sky. Already, she was out of reach, yet her hand still extended down towards me, as though begging me to take it, to save her. Even as I jumped to try and bridge the distance, I failed to come close. It was like watching someone fall into a chasm in slow-motion. She started sobbing, tears falling like raindrops between the snowflakes. Her hand wiggled desperately, but she was already higher than the trees. There was nothing I could do. I wanted to save her. To go after her somehow, but I was chained down. Gravity was chaining me down to earth, like she should have been. I could only watch as she cried and floated up into the sky, helplessly begging for my help, until she disappeared behind the clouds.
Even to this day, on quiet nights, I can still hear her wailing cries echoing above. Somehow, she’s still out there, cursing me for breaking her chains.