map Sweetheart

by Justine Haus

Published in Issue No. 174 ~ November, 2011

I was abducted by two women a week before my eighth birthday. It happened very quietly and in a matter of less than ten minutes. They pulled up to the edge of my driveway where I was collecting the mail and one of them, the old thin one, got out of the passenger seat and told me she was my mother’s friend and that I should go with them in their car. She didn’t say why, or where to, and I don’t think I really believed that she knew my mother, but I got in the car anyway and that was the end of it. They always say, once you get in the car it’s all over, and that is true. The first thing the police said, once they had given me back to my parents was, why did you get in the car? My parents leaned in toward me, their pale hands like frightened animals on their knees. The detective poised his pen in the air waiting for me to speak. After a while I said, “I don’t know, I felt bad for them.”

We drove for some time and they looked at each other urgently every few minutes, I felt nervous but unthreatened and eventually said, “Will you take me home now?” They said, “Soon.” I asked the same question an hour later and they were quiet, and then an hour after that we stopped at a gas station so I could change my clothes. At that point I knew it was not going to be over soon and that this would prompt an enormous and tedious shift in my life. The younger, plump one came into the bathroom with me and took off my sandals. She held them, one in each hand, with a kind of rotten tenderness that worried me. I said, “How do you know my mother?”, even though I knew she didn’t, and this woman cupped her hand under my chin and her grin wobbled on her face. She dressed me in boy’s clothes, denim overalls with a green t-shirt, the cap of some sports team. She snipped off my ponytail, and the first thing I thought was that she put the scissors in her bag for this very reason. She could have thought of it weeks ago, there would be no way of knowing how long she had been coming toward this. My yellow sundress, went into a plastic trash bag along with my hair and sandals. We returned to the car briskly and the young one handed the bag to the old one who had already begun driving before we were really in the car. The police asked me if I didn’t cry for help at the gas station because I felt threatened and I said that was partially true, but I was mainly too tired to complain. The psychiatrists I spoke to as a child said that my apathy toward the abduction was just a temporary coping mechanism, and that I could expect to have a break-through, which would undoubtedly be tearful and horrifying, at anytime. Twenty years have passed and I’ve felt almost nothing besides a few glimmers of it. When I was thirteen, my sister, who is younger and selfish, confessed at Thanksgiving that she saw the abduction take place and didn’t know what to do. “I happened to be looking out the window,” she spoke with her mouth full of peas and her hands held out flat in front of her chest like she was waiting to receive something, “and I saw this skinny old woman with long white hair go up to Rose and say something, and then Rose just got in the car.” The table fell quiet and everyone looked at me with their eyes wide and nervous. I think they expected me to cry or upend the table in a fit of anger but I just continued eating and for a long while the only sound in the room was my knife scraping the plate. Eventually my mother leaned in and whispered to me, “You’re a sweetheart.” Later that night my sister approached me at the bathroom sink and asked if I was more upset that she didn’t stop the kidnapping or that she brought it up in front of everyone. “I don’t know,” I told her, “I guess neither. What could you have really done about it?” She stood there for a minute blinking like an owl as I combed my hair until I said, “If I’m upset about anything it’s only that I wouldn’t have stopped someone from abducting you, either.”

I don’t remember it all as well as you might think I would, and what I do remember is not particularly frightening. My memories of my time with the two of them are disjointed and orbit wildly at an immense distance from each other. If asked to, and I have been, I could not place them chronologically or extract any feelings, from then or now, out of them. It shocks me that anyone trusts the past. I understand, perhaps better than anything else, that all memories grow into perverse monstrosities of themselves and we are capable of taking from them only what we want. I want nothing from mine, so my life has been relatively easy. These women were not bad, just strange and I think that they wanted desperately to be mothers in the same way that little girls often do. They cradled me in their weak arms and wanted me to need them to feed me. They kept me in a motel room and I drank nothing but canned lemonade for the whole five days I was with them. I was actually given handfuls of coins by the women and sent by myself down the hall to the laundry where the vending machines were. I always got lemonade because nothing else was ever in stock. The cans were never very cold. That is the most baffling part of the whole story to everyone who hears it, the vending machines. “My god,” they say, “you could’ve escaped. Why didn’t you just go to the front desk? Why didn’t you run?” I always tell them that I don’t know, and then they ask if I can stand to drink lemonade now, as an adult, or is it too painful. I tell them, of course I can, lemonade has nothing to do with it.

Returning home was more difficult than anything else. I didn’t really believe that my birthday would come, but it did and I woke up that morning with dread rotting in the back of my mouth. My family was down in the kitchen and I was devastated by their thin, brittle smiles. I was told that I could have anything I wanted for breakfast and I understood that would now be true not just on my birthday but on every day of the year, because I had been rendered untouchable and completely powerful. I saw their deflated bodies and knew that they would give me everything I wanted for the rest of my life but I was too tired to ask for it and I still am. There were times that, out of necessity, we had to drive past the motel on the inter-state and this was more agonizing for my parents than it was for me. For several years they were uncertain about whether I myself knew that it was the motel and they eyed me skittishly from the rear view mirror. I made a point to stare aloofly out the window at nothing in particular and in a moment we were past it and there was nothing to discuss. On one drive, my sister blurted out, “We all know what happened there,” pointing to the faded, blue ‘LODGING’ billboard. My parents kept an excruciating, swollen silence between them and then, to their horror, I began to laugh. My sister was delighted and kicked the back of our mother’s seat. “See?” she said, “She isn’t even upset about it.” Then, in her late teens, she became obsessed with the kidnapping, the facts surrounding it and the details of what happened during the five days in the motel. She wanted to know if I missed our parents and if I was afraid, she asked how often we left the motel and what they told me about the world. I told her we never left, and nothing, they told me nothing. When I moved away to college and she still lived with our parents I would get phone calls late at night,

“Do you think it was random?” she would ask “Or did they know about you? They may have been watching you for months.”

“I don’t think they were watching.”

“That would be scary, if they were.”

“It wouldn’t really have changed anything.”

“Do you ever feel like going back to the motel?”

“I’ve never thought about it.”

“Well if you ever do, I would, of course, go with you.”

There were two twin beds in the motel room but we never used them. The young, heavy one stripped them of their sheets and pillows on the first night and made a nest on the floor in front of the air conditioning unit, which leaked a cold and clear liquid that smelled strongly of a deep mineral cavern, but also artificial, an imitation of nature. I lay in the center of the nest with the women curled on their sides around me like mother cats and every night they woke me up and carried me to the tub, which was always full with tepid water. I think I surprised them by getting in the bath myself, before they could ask me to. The older, tow-headed one washed me with the solemnity of a priest. She scrubbed me with waxy, paper-wrapped soap from the maid’s cart and then poured water over my head using her cupped hands. After a while the bath became milky and opaque. The other woman sat on the edge of the tub and cried every time. During the five days my skin never felt clean, the soap left a sticky film on me that smelled like chalk and carnations.

In the mornings the young one would leave and come back with a newspaper from the lobby. They checked for articles and pictures of me, which after two days there were. The women’s anxiety increased as time passed and the possibility of relocating to another motel in a different state was discussed. They began staying up later into the night and the baths lasted longer. On the final day I was in the water from midnight to six in the morning, the water was cold and thick with soap grime when they finally wrapped me in a towel and sat me on the edge of one of the beds. They each kissed my forehead and then left the room, and I knew that they were really gone. I spent several hours just sitting there thinking about what was different now. I told myself that I was no longer kidnapped and that soon I would be back with my parents, and until I was much older this would be the only time I’d be alone in this way. Toward the end of the afternoon I went to the front desk and said that my name was Rose Hatcher. I was surprised by the smallness of my voice, and then said it again more loudly to convince myself that I was real. This poor, horrified man took me into his office and wrapped me in a flannel blanket even though I was dressed by then. He sat far away from me by the window and offered me cookies from a flimsy tray, I ate all of them and he told me several times that the police were on their way.

“Your hair is gone,” he said, I nodded, crumbs clinging on the edge of my lips, “That’s why I didn’t recognize you. I didn’t know you were here.”

“I know.”

“Were you here the whole time?” he asked and I said yes, room 26. He began to cry and covered his mouth with a tissue, his cheeks were red and slick with tears and I said, “Stop, it’s okay.” But he kept crying like that so I waited out in the lobby.

Last week my sister came to my house and asked when I last had a nightmare about the women. I told her I wasn’t sure that I ever had one and she was crestfallen,

“I can’t believe that,” She said

“Why not?”

“You just seem okay to me. I can’t believe someone would be so okay after that.”

“It wasn’t really the worst thing to ever happen to me.”

“What was? What was worse than that?”

I put down my glass of water and thought about it, but there was nothing. The only things that floated to the surface were the times I choked on a piece of lamb, and when I touched the chest of our stillborn brother. Both times I was certain I would die. I even felt the vulgar chill of it rush to my head, and my vision became distant and small. I felt none of those things after being in the motel with them, and at no point during the five days did I think I would be killed. I did feel a certain sadness or agitation at the obvious fact that my life would be different and uncomfortable afterward, but I figured that if it wasn’t this it would be something else. Suddenly I was aware of the placement of my eyes and hands in a way I had never been before, then it was impossible to tell how close anything was to my body. I was in many places at once and I knew that if I tried to explain it to her it would dissolve into vague pieces and take the rest of my life to reach her whole.

“It’s not that it wasn’t terrible,” I tried to explain. “There were just more important things.”

She had a vacant look about her and I suddenly knew the true distance between us, I had seen it stretch across my kitchen table and understood how ugly and impenetrable it really was.

“Do you ever cry about it?” she asked, and I wanted to slap her face. I knew that she was expecting it to happen now, here, at the table with the errant grains of salt digging into the flesh of our palms and the bowl of waxy apples sitting too close to the edge. I squeezed my eyes shut hard until I saw faint blue and lavender lights forming patterns in the dark. I tried to think about the lights, how beautiful they were, which didn’t work, maybe because they aren’t or maybe because the concept of beauty means nothing to me anymore. I opened my eyes and asked her if she would like something to drink, and she shook her head no.

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Justine Haus recently graduated from Hampshire College with a B.A in Creative Writing and Literature with a focus on short fiction. She currently lives in New York City and is working toward her MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in The Reader.