Like a plunging echo, the hollow knock reaches deep inside of me. The blood stills in my veins and I am faced with a choice; behave and do not draw attention to myself as I know He wants, or scream as loud as I can until my pain is heard and face what punishment follows. The door opens, his guest is welcomed warmly inside our home—his home, my prison. I feel a cry building in my larynx but force myself into silence. Maybe if I am good, He won’t do anything. Maybe if I behave, I can make him love me like He used to.
I approach the guest quietly and wait for them to notice. I stand by their leg, resting my head against their thigh, staring up through clouded eyes until finally they turn their attention to me. Though they greet me back, they refuse to meet my gaze. Their hand is warm but hesitant as it moves through my hair, tentatively petting my head before they draw back abruptly. Their face screws up and their nose crinkles. They can’t even look at me, holding their arm to their mouth to block out the foul stench. It’s not my fault. But they don’t know that.
Nothing I am not already used to being called.
‘What’s wrong with the leg?’ Always the same question.
‘She was born with it.’ Always the same lie.
He brushes off their weak concerns with a reassuring smile, the same one given to me whenever He recognizes He’s been too rough. But He is slow to realise, no matter how long we do this dance. Even now He shoos me away from his guest with cutting insults, a harder than necessary nudge below my ribs, and a firm kick to my rear as I turn to leave. It hurts, of course, but there’s no fighting it. His guest doesn’t even blink. It is all I can do to hobble away on my gnarled, twisted leg.
They don’t see it. Or perhaps they simply choose not to see it. I can’t say I blame them. It isn’t their business, nor their concern. What right do they have to interfere? That’s what He would say. But when the nights are cold and lonely, my thinning cover doing little to keep the harsh winter’s chill from reaching my skin, I cannot help wishing they would. Knowing He is bundled comfortably beneath the duvet in a room I am forbidden to enter, I close my eyes and wait for dawn’s nurturing light to find me. When He stands over me, drunk and tired, tuning out my desperate squeals as He takes his anger out on me, I long for someone to come and save me from this place.
The groaning of my empty belly goes unnoticed. With a flicker of hope, I stand over the only bowls He allows me to use, waiting and praying He might realise my hunger and offer me something. He doesn’t. The barest of scraps remain from my last meal, however many days ago that was. Stale and gummed on the inner curve of the old blue plastic, I lean closer to sniff the tiny morsels of regurgitated leftovers and recoil almost immediately. It is hardly edible, no matter how much I want it. As I limp away, my stomach gives another growl; still hungry, still hurting.
A sliver of light creeps in beneath the folded metal shards. I hate them. They rattle loudly in the night and keep me from sleep. They’re pale and cold and blend with the walls. They obscure the outside and trap me in this place. I dare to peek between them, a longing hand reaching to touch beyond the glass. The yard is nothing more than a dull stretch of browning grass bordered by the broken panels of the old fence. Though He complains about it often, the scenery never changes. The white paint has all but chipped away from the rotting wood and I easily spot a pile of shattered glass off in one corner. If I strain my neck a little, I can see what lies beyond this pitiful patch of ours. Garden beds line the other side of the street, bright and lush and full of pretty little flower buds that have yet to bloom. Pointed rooftops are painted against the clear skies. One after another, they seem to stretch on forever. I wonder if the street ends before they do. I yearn to see more of what lies outside these prison walls; the life I could be living, the freedom I could have. I can hear the barking of the neighbourhood dogs and watch as they walk by on their leashes. Their fur is sleek from a recent grooming, their tongues lolling out of their mouths as their tails wag furiously. Their owners hush them quiet, though the brimming smiles on their faces betray their command. Colour and life are so close, yet tauntingly out of reach.
Sometimes I think of running. Even with rare glimpses such as these, I don’t know what the world out there is like. He has kept me from it far too long, but somehow I know it must be better than this. There are nights I feel it might be possible. I could slip away in the dead of night while He slumbers. There’s bound to be someone out there willing to take me in, right? I know I could be better than this ugly, useless me if I only had the chance. Every evening the opportunity is there, but I cower in my corner instead. I know I won’t get far. He locks this place up tight and the slightest twinge in my crooked leg reminds me of just how impossible it would be. And besides, He always knows where I am.
When I was little, He loved me. He took me in and raised me. He spoiled me with goods I did not need, brushed my hair each morning and let me cuddle up to him when the nights grew cold. There was nothing He wouldn’t do for me then. To him, I was family. I was his little girl who could do no wrong.
Now I am grotesque in his eyes.
I don’t remember when it changed. Did I get too old? Is He bored of me? Will we ever return to the way we were then?
I try not to whimper when He grasps the back of my neck with a firm hand. His nails bury deep into my skin as He drags me away from the window. My breath catches in my throat, a soft wheezing escaping my lips when something hard latches around my neck. I feel another tug and the ground turns to ice beneath me. There’s barely enough room for me to sit up. My leg spasms as I hold it under my body, twisted uncomfortably to fit inside these new confines. Excrement smears the walls and the strong taste of urine hangs in the air. I close my mouth so as to not let the putrid scent reach my tongue.
The ground trembles and I stagger. There’s nothing to hold onto so I do what I can to balance as the whole world seems to shift. I cannot see a thing. I can vaguely hear the roar of his car, the evident clink in his engine more noticeable than ever, but it is quickly drowned out by the rush of blood pounding in my ears. My chest tightens, my thundering heart ready to burst free from my ribcage at any moment. I know not for how long we have travelled like this, only the relief I feel when everything finally stops. The trembles halt, and balance is restored. There’s an onslaught of new noises, all of which sound threatening. I scrape at the walls of my confines until a ray of light burns its way through and my vision is restored.
Nothing is recognizable. I see him standing a few metres away, staring straight at me. His eyes are void of any emotion. Then, without saying a word, He turns and walks away.
Wait! I reach as far as my arm will stretch; my frightened gaze fixed on the sight of his retreating back. Don’t leave! I’ll be good. Please don’t leave me.
I watch and scream until I can no longer see him, holding onto the hope that He will turn around and come racing back. He will change his mind halfway to home; He will reappear over that hill and run back to where He left me. He will release me from this prison, take me in his arms and carry me home like He did all those years ago.
His scent is already beginning to fade, overwhelmed by the sharp tang of garbage and unfamiliarity encircling me. I huddle closer to the edge of the cage, wincing at every rumble and surge of hot air as the traffic speeds on by. Maybe He doesn’t hear me, too far away for my words to reach him. Or maybe He does and simply doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter either way. He is gone.
Jasmine is a third-year student at the Queensland University of Technology, majoring in Creative Writing. She specializes in speculative fiction novels, but also enjoys writing short stories, flash fiction and screenplays. Often in the voice of a minority, her works aim to confront and challenge society’s understanding of what it means to be human.