She watched him through a blur of tears, her heart thumping against her ribcage, plastic ties cutting into her flesh as she struggled to free herself. The man’s back was turned to her while he arranged some objects on a tray, the soft metallic clinking a surreal omen that froze her blood and threw her thoughts into a whirlwind of sheer, mindless terror.
She threw her daughter a quick glance, forcing herself to put hope and courage in her tear-filled eyes. Her eight-year-old daughter Hazel was bound on a chair only a few feet from hers. She whimpered, her little chest heaving with every shattered breath. When they locked eyes, Hazel’s sobs became louder, muffled by the scarf he’d tied over her mouth, yet still loud enough to get the man’s attention.
“Enough with it already,” he ordered in a low voice. He turned and took a few determined steps toward Hazel, then stopped, his menacing eyes inches away from her little girl’s.
The man grabbed a strand of Hazel’s long hair and played with it, coiling it around his fingers, then leaned closer and inhaled its scent. The girl’s terrified gaze seemed to be amusing to him. He let go of her hair and wiped a tear off the child’s cheek with his thumb, then licked the salty liquid with a satisfied groan.
“Don’t cry,” he whispered, “your mommy loves you so much, doesn’t she.”
Hazel fell quiet, as if too scared to make another sound, but her tears flowed freely down her cheeks, soaking the fabric of the scarf. There was something eerie in the man’s voice, in the way he’d whispered those words, a sense of foreboding that sent uncontrollable chills down Alison’s spine.
“Please,” Alison said, “she’s just a little girl.”
A lopsided smile tugged at the corner of the man’s mouth. “She is, isn’t she?” Then he added, sounding almost bitter. “They always are.”
Then he turned his back to them, and the clinking of objects being placed on a tray resumed against the cold silence.
He wasn’t the woods-dwelling, rags-wearing monster one would imagine capable of kidnapping a mother and her daughter and holding them hostage in a remote cabin. He was clean-shaved and smelled of expensive aftershave, well-dressed with new, expensive clothes, and the cabin where he’d taken them was clean and large. If there was something off about it, that had to be the complete absence of personal objects, although the cabin had clearly been lived in for a while.
He seemed comfortable and habitual about his activities, as if he’d done it many times before. No hesitation in his movement and no fear in his dark eyes when he looked at her, when he seemed to be studying her like he would a piece of furniture or art he’d want to acquire.
From the man’s broad shoulders and raven-black hair, Alison’s gaze moved on to the spotless white walls and tiled floor. In the far corner of the room, next to the door, the cement grout was stained, something reddish-brown discoloring the light gray, porous material. She couldn’t take her eyes off that spot, where intersecting grout lines shared a stain that had to have been larger, like a pool of liquid advancing through the seams between the granite tiles and stopping at the wall.
He must’ve cleaned the tiles, but the liquid had permanently discolored the cement, in testimony of what had happened on that floor.
Alison felt a new wave of panic taking over her brain. She willed herself into controlling it, into retaining some shred of command over her racing thoughts. She breathed slowly, holding the air inside her lungs for a few seconds before exhaling it.
The memory of her mother invaded her mind, the smell of cinnamon and the soft tones of her voice telling her, “Why go all the way to the Pacific Coast for a vacation? All by yourself, with a little girl, that isn’t safe, sweetie. Not these days. Not anymore. Why don’t you and I take Hazel to Savannah instead?”
The sound of her mother’s voice resounding in her memory burned her eyes with fresh tears. Had she known what was going to happen? Maybe she’d seen one of her uncanny warning signs, a bloody moon or a stained sunset, signs Alison had always waved off indifferently, attributing them to her mother’s Cajun roots, nothing more than baseless superstition.
Oh Mom, she thought, do you see a sign of us coming back home?
She inhaled forcefully once more, steeling her will. She tugged against her restraints, wincing from the pain where the zip ties had cut her skin around her wrists. She sat on a wooden chair, her hands bound behind the straight, narrow back of it. Her ankles had been secured against the square, thick legs of the chair, and no matter how much she forced herself to bend her ankles and snap the ties, all she did was cut even deeper into her flesh.
When he turned and approached her, she whimpered and shook her head, despite her decision to maintain her calm for as long as possible, for her daughter’s sake. Panic roared through her body with every step the man took toward her, her eyes riveted on the silver tray he carried, then on the four-legged stool he pushed between her chair and Hazels, setting the tray atop it.
She looked straight at him, trying to read the expression in his dark pupils, the meaning behind his cold smile. As she started to understand, uncontrollable sobs shattered her breath, while the terror flooding her body turned absolute, merciless.
He was never going to let them go. Death was written in his eyes, a silent sentence he was about to execute, welcoming it with a blood lusting smile and the casual demeanor of a man engulfed in a pleasurable Sunday afternoon activity.
My poor baby, she thought, this can’t be happening. I can’t let it happen.
She frantically fought to free herself. She threw herself to the floor, hoping the chair might break under her weight.
She fell hard, the fall knocking the air out of her lungs for a moment. He pulled her back up with ease, grabbing her with unforgiving fingers that crushed her flesh.
“No, no,” she pleaded, choking on her own tears. “Please, let us go. W—we won’t say a word, I swear.”
He didn’t reply; his only reaction to her words was the widening of his smile. Alison fell silent.
Grabbing a bone-colored comb from the tray he combed her hair, taking his time, until it crackled. Her mind raced, trying to anticipate what would come next, grateful he was focused on her and not Hazel.
If he’d only let her go, she thought, clinging to the surreal hope like a drowning man to a straw.
He parted her hair on the middle, from the front all the way to the back, and separated her long strands into two equal sections. Every time his fingers touched her hair or brushed against her skin she shivered, her teeth clacking, her entire being revolting, not knowing when the blow would come, and how. She only knew it would. Soon.
He started braiding her hair, slowly, patiently, seemingly savoring the activity, quietly humming a lullaby. Watching him move, seeing him transposed by the experience, feeling his fingers against her scalp was a living nightmare, one she’d stopped hoping she’d ever wake up from.
“Why?” she whispered, slightly turning her head to face him.
He tugged at her hair to keep her head in place. “Stand still. We’re almost done.”
When he finished braiding, he secured it with an unusual, hand-crafted hair tie made from what seemed to be leather and adorned with tiny feathers. Then he moved over to her left side and started braiding again, humming the same familiar tune.
For a while, she didn’t recognize the tune, only that she knew it. But then her frantic mind started imposing lyrics over his hums. Following her gut, she swallowed her tears and started singing softly.
“—that mockingbird won’t sing, Mama’s gonna buy you a dia—”
She froze, seeing his reaction to her singing. Instead of softening him up, like she’d hoped, his features had turned to stone, rigid muscles knotting under his skin, his stare intense, burning, his knuckles cracking as he clenched his fists.
“Sing,” he ordered, but only a whimper left her lips. “Sing, damn you,” he shouted, grabbing her half-finished braid and forcing Alison to turn and face him.
Hazel screamed; a short, muffled scream quickly drowned in tearful sobs.
Alison’s voice trembled as she sang out of tune, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“If that diamond ring turns brass, Mama’s gonna buy you a looking glass,” she managed, then sniffled and whimpered, “Please, I’m begging you.”
“Sing,” he shouted.
She quivered, the lyrics she knew so well suddenly gone from her memory.
“Sing,” he repeated, his voice uncompromising. He was almost done braiding her hair; then, what would he do?
Please, God, don’t let him touch my baby, she prayed silently. Then, her voice more a whimper than a song, she sang through the rhyme. “And if that looking glass gets broke, Mama’s gonna buy you a—”
She stopped when he wrapped the hair tie around the end of her braid. She was shaking badly and felt cold, frozen, despite the late afternoon sunshine coming through the window. In the deathly silence, she heard the birds sing outside the window, oblivious to the nightmare contained between the walls of the isolated cabin.
He looked at Hazel for a long, loaded moment, then reached out and touched the little girl’s hair. He seemed to be thinking what to do next.
Alison held her breath, her thoughts frantic. No, no…
As if hearing her plea, he walked over to Alison and stopped right in front of her. He studied her face for a long moment without saying or doing anything else.
She swallowed, her throat constricted with unspeakable fear, and forced herself to sing some more. “And if that cart and bull fall down, you’ll still be the sweetest little baby—”
Without warning, he ripped open her blouse. She gasped, trying to pull herself away from him by pushing with her feet against the floor, but he held her in place, his hand searing against her bare skin.
“Please, not in front of my daughter,” she pleaded. “I’ll do anything you want.”
If only Hazel didn’t have to witness what was going to happen. If only she didn’t have to see her like that.
His laugh reverberated against the empty walls. He leaned closer to her face, so close she felt his heated breath on her face. “I know you’ll do anything I want,” he replied, still laughing. “Are you ready?”
The blue jays that had been filling the valley with their chirping fell silent all at once when her scream ripped through the clear mountain air.