It’s a customary cycle. The floorboards above creak followed by the heavy thudding of boots advancing toward the steel door. The metal sliding out of the bolt instinctively has me snatching the duvet over my head, and my eyes slamming shut.
I stop breathing. I barely move a muscle, refraining from whimpering, ignoring the erratic pulse waving through my ears.
He descends almost noiselessly on those first few steps until he reaches the bottom and—thump, thump, his boots hit the concrete—thump, thump, the sound getting louder.
“Alexa, wake up.”
My eyes snapped wide. For a moment I remained under the duvet wondering if perhaps the sound of Kathy’s voice was a misconception, a fantasy of what I’ve wished to see for all these months. It couldn’t possibly be here in the basement with me. “What if you’re not real?” I whispered, hands trembling. “What if I come out and you’re not there.”
“I’m real, Alexa.” The mattress dipped as she took a seat beside me. I reluctantly released my iron grip on the blanket, revealing myself to her. “I’m real.”
I sobbed, but just as quickly caught it in my hand. “Where were you?” I bolted upright on the mattress, swiped the mass out of my face, and threw my arms around her, sniffled into the groove of her neck, holding her tightly, fearing if I released her, she’d disappear. “I’ve missed you so much.”
“We’re getting out of here.”
“What?” I lowered my arms and stared into those hazel coloured eyes, the ones that synchronise mine. “How?” It’s impossible. There is no way we can leave this place. I’ve tried many times and repeatedly failed. “How did you get down here?” I questioned cautiously, eyes skimming to the door that I loathe. “Does he know?”
She slipped a dark lock behind her ear. “No.”
I’m surprised by her decent appearance: fitted clothing, cheeks flushed, and braided hair. I run my sweaty palms over the stained nightgown I’m forced to wear, glance at the filth embedded under my toenails, complexion smeared in dirt, hair reeks of stale vomit and other bodily odours. “We can’t leave,” I said, using the back of my hand to remove the ooze that consistently lingers from my nose. “I’ve tried, Kathy. I don’t make it past the hallway before one of them catches me, and drags me back down.”
“They’re asleep,” she whispers, briefly glancing to the stairs. “This might be our only shot, Alexa.”
I watch Kathy rise to her feet, extending her arm, she offers me her hand to take. I warily slipped my palm over hers, and she helped me stand. “We can do this,” she said confidently, tucking my hair behind my ears. “We can get out of here.”
I nodded half-heartedly.
She creeps towards the stairs with me shadowing behind her. I latch onto the back of her shirt with a lump lodged in my throat, eyes cast to my bare feet as we ascend the steps.
The door groans as she gradually eases it open. “Stay close.”
I nodded again, unable to use words. She hastens off before me, and though I should trail, I find myself hesitating, staring into the darkened hallway, my ears perked up waiting for unwanted and unnerving sounds.
Slipping out, I settled my back against the wall, breathing heavily, body trembling, nose twitching from the stench of cigarette smoke hindering the air, indicating someone is lurking around the halls.
That unnerving knowledge had my feet moving. I patter inaudibly down the hallway as Kathy dashes into small box kitchen.
She waits for me by the back door, hand firmly secured over the handle. We don’t share words; we merely encourage each other with our eyes before she’s fumbling with the keys and granting our freedom.
It takes me longer than ten seconds to close the door behind us. I’m terrified one sound of stupidity will ruin our chances.
“Shit,” she mutters. “We’re going to get soaked.”
The sky is black, and the rain is hammering down. Although, I’m wearing a flimsy nightgown, and I’m already in poor health no amount of bad weather is going to stop me from getting out of here.
My eagerness forced my jittery legs to give way the moment I tried to rush down the steps. I launched onto the grass, cursing under my breath for being careless. But I’m not on the floor for long. I staggered to my feet, gripped the bottom of my gown, chased behind Kathy, darting into the shadows, head whipping in every direction, taking in our surroundings.
I’ve no idea where we are. I’ve been concealed in that basement for as long as I can remember. I don’t know where we were kept. I’ve no concept of what’s beyond these dense trees as I snake through them.
I’m praying there’s another house, one where we can find help, a kind couple that can protect us, or call the police.
“I can’t breathe.” I’m cold, skin wrapped in goosebumps, heat courses through my body causing my cold to cheeks to burn.
I might be struggling to breathe, and my body might ache from the balls of my feet to tightening in my stomach - years of captivity has taken its toll on my limbs; however, emotionally, I’m unaffected. In fact, I’m welcoming the rain - embracing the chilly night air, savouring the fresh, earthy smell, lips parting to taste the downpour on my tongue, moisturising my parched throat.
“Keep running!” she yelled over her shoulder.
My breathing becomes burdensome, and mist forms in front of me as I pant for breath, feet sinking in the mud as I trail behind her.
Kathy abruptly stopped. Her face pales, chest unsteadily heaving, eyes growing wide.
“Why did you...” I followed her line of vision, and defeat washes over me. “What are we going to do?”
She stares at the vast lake. “I don’t know.”
We both flinched at the sound of howling in the distance and my anxiety hit its zenith. “They sent the dogs.” My throat worked on a painful swallow. “He knows.”
Kathy gripped my hand and steered me to the lake. “We have to swim,” she said, body lowering in the water. “We need to go, Alexa. Now.”
I lowered myself into the freezing water, moving cautiously, progressively steering through. A layer of polluted waste and algae has me squirming as my chin floats, but I’m ignoring negative thoughts of diseases and what could be swimming around us as I’d rather avoid one of those hounds mauling me to death.
Something slimy unexpectedly glides across my foot, and I panicked, surging ahead, arms bolting forward, legs propelling frantically.
Water invades my throat, and I coughed and spluttered. “Kathy!” My body becomes deadweight, my arms and legs tired.
“I can’t do it,” I whimpered, head dipping underwater.
For a split second, I feared she’d leave me behind, but then her hand latched onto mine, and she yanked me back to the surface.
I inhaled sharply, refuelling my lungs with oxygen.
Kathy holds me close. I watch the beads of water dance on her lashes and her blue lips move as she lectures me, but I’ve no idea what she’s saying. “Understand?”
My teeth clattered together as I nodded. I compelled myself to keep swimming until we reached the other side. My fingers plunged into the mud, and I dragged my exhausted body out of the water, collapsing on the ground, ignoring the frigid night air causing my skin to tighten and the filthy hair sticking to my face.
“Get up,” Kathy ordered on a cough, toppling beside me.
I rolled onto my hands and knees, crawled through the overgrown grass, reached a tree and dragged myself onto my feet.
Further into the woods we go, the thicker the fog is becoming. I find it comforting. Almost as if it’s shielding us from the darkness - protecting us from whatever could be prowling in the distance.
After a while, the soreness in my feet had me halting, grasping onto a tree, needing another breather.
I stare down at my toes, grimacing at the broken toenails, seeping with blood. One has come off, and amidst the pain, I hadn’t even noticed.
“Why did you stop?” Kathy curls over beside me to catch her breath, combing a hand through her soaked hair.
“My lungs feel like they’re caving in.” I glimpsed over my shoulder, studying the darkness. We might’ve gotten out of there, but that doesn’t mean no one is following us. “This is the most exercise I’ve had in years.”
“We can’t stop now, Alexa. I finally got you out of there.” She pinned me with an intense stare. “Do you trust me?”
My brows pinched in confusion. “You’re my sister.” I trust her with my life. “You know I do.”
“Then trust your big sister, Alexa.” She holds her hand out for me. I wrap my fingers around hers, and she squeezes. “Run Alexa. And don’t look back.”
The sound of our laboured breaths hinders between us, hair curtains my face, though I’m too exhausted to move it.
I keep pushing myself over and over - mentally battling the will to stop and rest, to catch my breath, to ease the strain in the back of my legs, and the sharp pain in my stomach.
We run for what appears like miles, occasionally stopping to catch our breathes or to ease our joints.
As quietness settled between us, a noise had me slowing down, and my head tilting to the side. I lowered my gaze, detecting vibrations under my feet. “Kathy?”
She stopped in her tracks, her expression bares impatience. “What is it?”
“Can you feel that?”
She shook her head.
“Listen.“I clutched her arm, ears perked up. “Can you hear that?”
“What in the world is that?” she asked dubiously.
A loud horn echoing into the night had my lips stretching into a smile. “Cars,” I whispered. “It’s the sound of cars.” I darted towards the noise. “Kathy, quick.”
Fisting the bottom of my nightgown, I draw it to my waist and sprinted quicker than I have all night.
I don’t feel the pain anymore. I don’t feel the tightening in my chest - out of breath or not, I feel like I can finally breathe again.
Locating overgrown hedges, I stumbled to a stop, gripped the first branch and yanked it aside. I repeatedly snapped and moved the obstacle standing in my way until a veiled light appears from the other side. I crept my way through, unaffected by the rocks under my feet and the thorns ripping across my flesh.
Then I see the vehicles whipping past my eyes and my breath caught in the back of my throat. “Cars.”
Unbeknownst to the drivers speeding without a care in the world are two girls running away from the place that was never their home.
I gently guide my hand in front of me somewhat timorously, almost as though I’m expecting my skin to burn, or for someone to rip me away from this movement of freedom – a moment I’ve dreamt about since I was a child.
My feet alternately touched the road, and within seconds I’m flinching from the drawn-out ear-piercing sound of a car horn blaring as the vehicle shrieked past me.
I staggered backwards and my butt met the floor, body rigid, alarmed, frightened.
Don’t be scared.
You’ve nothing to fear anymore.
We made it - we actually made it.
A deranged laugh forces It’s way out as I fall to my back, and sprawl across the floor, staring at the night sky as a stray tear slides down my cheek.
I’m fighting the urge to slap myself to make sure this isn’t a dream – a ridiculous fantasy that feels too real, one where my emotions are heightened, one that I’ll wake up from any moment, returning to those four walls that kept me locked away from the world.
A bright beam of light blurs my vision. I wince, using my hands to cover my face.
The sound of a car door slamming shut, followed by feet shuffling towards me had my heart lunging to my throat.
“Dear, are you alright?”
I warily peered through my fingers, lips pinching together.
An older man stands over me, his eyes roam over my frame, concerned. “I’ll get help.” He removed his phone from inside his coat pocket, placed it to his ear. “Yes, I need the police.” He visibly swallows. “I’ve found a young girl—no, she needs help, ma’am.” He shakes his head. “We’re on the hard shoulder of the motorway ma’am—not an accident. Yes, I can wait.” He ends the call and squats beside me. “We’re going to get you some help kid, okay?”
I nodded wordlessly.
I remembered my sister and craned my neck looking for her. She’s still in the bushes, unmoving, eyes wide, timid, and afraid of the unknown. “Kathy?”
She’s terrified of revealing herself and I appreciate why. We’ve been concealed for so long and we’re unprepared to face outsiders again.
“Good God.” The old man gasps beside me, realising I’m not alone. He gradually stands, and cautiously steps towards my sister. “Please come out,” he said, extending his arm so she can take his hand. “I won’t hurt you.”
Kathy looked from his hand to me. She moves forward, appearing from the shadows, but she doesn’t trust this person - neither does she accept his kindness. She helps me stand, puts me behind her, almost protectively, shielding me from the life that’s beyond us.
“What happened to you two?” His eyes dart between us, and then he pins Kathy with a curious glare. “No. It can’t be.”
I pressed my chest against her back, warily peering over her shoulder.
“You’re the...” he pointed at us, shaking his head in disbelief. “The missing Haines sisters.”
Sirens intrude my ears, accompanied by flashing blue beacons. I watch the emergency vehicles speeding towards us, and with seconds we’re surround and officers dart toward us.
As they rush over, Kathy turns to face me, and envelops her arms around me. “You don’t know where we’ve been.” She kissed my cheek, smoothed a hand over the back of my head. “You’ve no idea why we were taken or who held us captive.”
Truth is I’ve never known why our monster took us. “Why?” I whispered, eyes focused on the detectives closing in on us.
“I don’t want him to get mad,” she said quietly, her voice breaking.
I expected an ambush, but surprisingly the detectives slowed down, hand raised in surrendering gestures. “What’s your names?” one of the younger men asks.
My fingernails pierced the palms of my hands, chest heaving as I gasped for breaths.
“We’re not going to hurt you,” another assures. “We only want to help you, okay?”
The next half an hour moves in an incredulous blur. Kathy and I were forced apart and lead to separate vehicles.
We didn’t take our eyes off each other - not until the cars sped off and we could no longer support each other.
When I’d arrived at the station, I was drowning with anxiety. I was unsure how to behave, and I didn’t know how to respond when asked questions.
Now that we’re here, what will they do with us?
Will they let us stay together or will they separate us?
Where will we stay?
Who will take care of us?
A male detective gently holds my elbow as he steers me through the brightly lit hallway. Many officers stare at me, causing me cheeks to flush, humiliated by the thoughts of them judging me.
I don’t look at them. I keep my head down, awkwardly fumbling with my hands. “Where are you taking me?” I asked in a quiet voice.
The detective doesn’t respond. He shoves a door open to a private room, and motions for me to step inside.
When I see my sister, I sigh with relief and rush into her hold. She frantically sets kisses over my forehead. “It’s okay. We’re okay.”
“I’m scared,” I admitted, burying my head in the groove of her neck.
The detective takes a seat, conducted with an officer. “We need to ask you further questions.”
“No,” Kathy said sternly. “We don’t want to talk. We want to go home.”
My brows furrow. We don’t have a home anymore. Kathy knows that.
He sighs. “We’re working on doing that. However, we need some details from you: are you related? What’s your names? Why were you on the motorway at three in the morning?”
Neither of us responded.
“Are you related?” the female officer repeated.
I peer up at Kathy wondering if she’ll answer. Her eyes focus solely on the officers, her jaw set tight. “Can we leave?”
It’s quiet for a moment. “We’ll need to keep you separated.” His frustration was understandable, though I didn’t appreciate him abruptly ripping me out of my sisters hold.
“No!” I thrashed my body, and his hold on me tightens. “I don’t want to leave her! Please don’t take me away from her again!”
“Let go of her!” Kathy screamed, trying to fight for me, so the other officer held her back.
I fought in the detectives hold, kicking my legs, head moving from side to side as he hauls me away from her.
“I’m not going to hurt you!” he snapped, his aggression and frustration evident. “Calm down!”
“I don’t want to be alone,” I cried.
His arms softened but he didn’t release me. “You’re not on your own, kid.”
A tear slipped down my cheek. “I don’t want to be alone anymore.”
Hours prior the detectives placed me in this private room and haven’t returned since.
With my arms wrapped around my waist, I paced back and forth, counting the floor tiles, listening to the train rain thrashing against the window, chewing my lower lip nervously.
I stopped brusquely to stare at the mug sitting on the table. It’s been there for almost an hour, and I’ve yet to touch it.
Easing myself on to the chair, I lift the coffee to my nose, inhaling the aroma before taking a sip. My lip jerked, it doesn’t appeal to me as much as the smell does. Perhaps it’ll grow on me.
The sound of the lock clanking has my spine straightening just before the door opens. The male detective from earlier enters, giving me a tight-lipped smile. “We appreciate you’re upset with us separating you from your friend, kid. It’s not because you’re in trouble.” His eyebrows furrow, appearing distressed. “Neither of you were willing to talk when examined together. Are you prepared to answer a few questions for me?” He takes a seat opposite me. “Now you’ve had the chance to calm down.”
Kathy told me not to breathe a word about our abductor. She believes it’ll only cause him to be outraged, encouraging him to come back for us. I should listen to her. She asked me to trust her, but I want these officers to find him because my mind will never rest knowing he’s still out there. “Yes.”
A surprised countenance appeared on his profile. The detective assumed I’d persist ignorance. It’s understandable as I haven’t been overly forthcoming since I’d arrived.
He spreads various folders across the table, case files of missing children, some as young as three years old stare back at me.
Focusing on the folder belonging to us, I thoughtfully remove the image stapled to the front of the document. It’s an old photo of Kathy and me at the park with our mother. I’ve no concept of how the detectives obtained this picture. I presume the police department took it from our family home subsequent to our disappearance.
I recall the day well. My father wasn’t at home; It was only the three of us. My mother had put flowing dresses on us and made a picnic for dinner. We spent the entire day at that park, stopping for juice and the occasional snack before going back to the swings.
It was a scorching day. Mother applied sun cream to our skins to make sure we didn’t blister. Kathy wasn’t having as much fun as me, but she feigned enjoyment for my benefit.
There’s quite an age gap between us, and it showed. She wanted to be out with friends, flirting with boys - not keep me company by playing football.
“Kick the ball into the net, Alexa!” she’d shouted, and I’d sensed she was growing irritated as I missed every time.
“God, you’re lucky I love you,” she muttered rushing to the side to get the ball.
“My feet are too little!” I’d protested in a tantrum. “I can’t do it!”
“There is no such word as can’t, Alexa!” She set the ball onto the grass. “Now kick!”
I was acting stroppy, rolling my eyes and pouting as I kicked the ball again. It went in that time. I was happy I’d finally done it, and Kathy was satisfied with her teaching skills.
“Girls!” my mother yelled from the sideline. “Ice cream!”
She held two ice cream cones smothered in strawberry sauce and sprinkles.
We ran over and took them. I sat next to my mother, silently eating.
My mother was a beautiful woman - especially that day: Black lustrous hair sat just above her shoulders, her lips often painted red. She was wearing a long summer dress and strappy sandals and those big sunglasses concealed most of her face.
She always wore shades, even on a winters day. I’d ask her why. She’d tell me her eyes would hurt, and she was exhausted.
I used to believe her.
I’m older now, so I know different.
She was hiding bruises.
“Can I go to the school disco tomorrow?” Kathy asked my mother.
“I don’t know sweetie. I’ll speak to your father,” Mother returned.
Kathy groaned, falling onto her back in annoyance. “That’s a ‘no’ then.”
“Kathy,” she extended, her voice compassionate. “What time is it?”
“Four o’clock mum. And my friend told me her dad would pick me up and drop me home safe.”
My mother considered for a moment. “Well alright then. Promise me you’ll be home before seven? I don’t need your daddy knowing about this.”
Kathy grinned, launching forward she wrapped her arms around my mother, catching her with the cone. “I promise!”
Mother wiped the ice cream off her face. “Now look what you did!”
When she climbed to her feet, Kathy and I ran, laughing as she chased us through the grass. “I’m gonna get you!”
“Mummy no!” I giggled dashing behind my sister.
“Quick Alexa!” Kathy grabbed my hand, dragging me behind the large tree, her smile mischievous. ”She won’t find us here.”
Smiling at the memory, I placed the picture back onto the table with an ache in my chest.
The detective studied me carefully. “Is the photo familiar to you?”
His eyes widened a fraction, and he shifted in his seat. “Can you confirm these two sisters in the photo,” he points to the image, “are of you and your friend in the other room?” His head drops a touch, pleading with me to cooperate.
“Yes,” I answered unhesitatingly. “I’m Alexa Haines.”
His lips parted slightly. His eyes horrified. “You’re Alexa Haines?” he asked again as if he needed reassurance.
The detective stared at me in bewilderment. Then he jumps up so fast the chair slides from under him, crashing onto the tiled floor. He rushed towards the door and swings it open, yelling at anyone with a pair of ears.
In the wake of my confession, the hours went by in another blur. I was stripped, examined, and I’d retorted numerous questions until my mouth was dry and my eyes were sore.
Despite the fact the police department trod carefully around us, I could see they were silently celebrating. It’s not often incidents similar to ours result in a happy ending.
They finally allowed me to see my sister. Initially, i was nervous because of what she’d warned me, and I feared she’d be angry that I told our secret. Thankfully, she wasn’t. Instead, she held me as we slept on the blue sofa in the detectives’ room and told me she loved me.
The following morning, I was interrogated again.
Where did you stay?
Do you remember any names?
Can you tell us what he looked like?
Were there others?
Familiarities? Disfigurements? Tattoos? Smells? Surroundings?
“Did you suffer from any sexual exploitation?” His gaze lingered over my frame.
I clenched my thighs together, hands fumbling in my lap, embarrassment causing heat to flush across my face. “No.”
“Just for clarification, you’re stating that no sexual assault or penetration took place.” He used his pen to scribble notes.
I briefly closed my eyes. “No.”
“Can you tell us where you slept? Was there a routine? Were you authorised to leave the house?”
“In a room...” I paused, grimacing. “There was a mattress that I slept on and it was cold down there and sometimes I’d paint...” My memory was beginning to deceive me. I remember where I slept, and I recall the noises. I think I remember his voice. “He has an accent and he often spoke in his own language.”
“Do you have any concept of what that language was?”
“Lexi,” I whispered, throat tightening. “He called me Lexi.” It’s too much for me - overwhelming. “There was...sometimes there was a chair in the room and...and there were bugs. Yes, definitely bugs crawling on the concrete and...” My eyes watered. “I don’t know.”
I began questioning myself: did this even happen?
“How can I not remember the most significant part of my childhood?”
“Trauma,” the detective says, his eyes sorrowful, expression sympathetic.
“What’s trauma?” I narrow my eyes. “Do I have that?”
“Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a distressing incident,” the psychiatrist sitting next to him informed me. “Trauma is usually the outcome of an overwhelming quantity of stress, exceeding the capacity to cope with the emotions associated with that experience.”
I stared at them confused.
“It may take weeks, years, or even decades for you to deal with trauma. It could eventually lead to severe, long-term negative outcomes.”
My features hardened out of stubbornness. “I don’t want to live like that.”
“That’s why I’m here so that I can help you,” she said. “Ordeal differs among individuals, according to their personal experiences and people react to similar traumatic events differently.” She placed the notepad on the table. “Not all people who experience traumatic incidents become psychologically traumatised, particularly if they address it and get help.”
“Anything you say could help,” the male detective piped up again. “Even the smallest of things could leads us somewhere.”
“He was older.” I pick the imaginary lint from the jumper they’d given me to wear. “He smelled disgusting—like stale cigarettes, and something musky.” I grimace, gazing at the window to watch the rain beating outside. “There were others.”
“Others?” they spoke in unison sharing a sceptical look.
“Yes. Other girls. They never stayed long—only a few days if I were lucky.” Lucky enough to have company, I think to myself.
The detective positioned his elbows on his knees. “Do you know where he kept you?”
“In a basement,” I replied. “That’s all I remember. I lived in a basement, separated from everyone else who lived there.”
“Were there other adults? Men or women?”
“There were other men, but they didn’t visit often. Usually, they’d bring other girls down to join me, but just as quickly they’d be gone again. It was only him. He was the only one who handled me.” That admittance sickens me. I hate that he kept me for so long. I could never understand why he held onto me yet discarded the others.
“You said you ran. Do you recall how you found your way to the motorway?”
“I already told you this,” I huffed in frustration. “I managed to escape and run. I didn’t look back. I didn’t stop. I had one opportunity to regain freedom, and I took it.”
He breathes out exasperatedly. “I want to help you.”
“I know that!” I yelled defensively. “But you’re asking me the same questions when I’ve already told you I don’t remember!”
“Our team has worked all night, surrounding the area you and Kathy were discovered. We’re going to do everything we can to find this man.” He gave the physiatrist a sad smile. “I think Miss Haines has suffered enough.” He soars to his feet. “We’re done here. Come on.”
I shadowed the pair into the hallway. Kathy stands there with another officer waiting for me. We gazed into each other’s eyes, both holding equal upset and frustration.
“Are you girls ready?”
We left the station with our heads held high, and our hands locked together as we mutely faced what was awaiting us beyond those station doors.
There were flashing lights. There were reporters, and newscasters mounted on the pavements. We didn’t look at them. We ignored every question thrown our way and moved towards the police vehicle so that we could settle into the back seats.
“What happens now?” I asked my sister, gazing at her hopelessly.
She entwined our fingers together and squeezed. “I’m twenty-one, Alexa. I’m going to take care of you.”