She is in the labyrinth again. Darkness is seeping through her nostrils, into the corners of her mouth, around the edges of her eyeballs, trying to reach right inside. She pushes against it, one hand thrusting forward into the swell of shadows, the other behind her, closed around the unravelling spool.
Each step costs all her courage; to lift, lean forward, to place each foot down gently, quietly – for there is no noise here, save for a distant drip drip drip. She must not make a sound. Even when her breaths catch in her throat, and all she can taste is damp and blood, she must be silent rather than let it – him – know she is here.
It hurts, how much she is shaking. She pushes her knuckles against her sightless eyes, urging herself to breathe, breathe. The thread is scratching against her cheek. She lowers her hands, cupping the spool between both palms and tugs at it, like the hand of an old friend: come on. Someone will find her, they have to. Someone will –
Her eyes are wide open. The afternoon light is poking through the holes and rips in the tatty curtain, painfully bright.
Get up, get up, get up!
Mother is outside, banging on all the doors. Throughout the house she can hear the creaks of bedsprings and the groans of girls waking up.
Shivering from cold sweat, she kicks off her blankets, sits up. She remembers when she used to dream of home, of her childhood, of her old life, and she had thought that those sweet memories were the most terrible things her sleeping mind could conjure.
Come on lazy sluts, get up!
She wonders what Mother would say, if she knew. What she would do. Mother once strangled someone with a bedsheet, a girl who tried to run – that’s what one of the others said. She isn’t sure though. Mother takes care of them, keeps them supplied with cake and cigarettes and the little coloured pills.
She dresses quickly. Pulling on her stockings is especially difficult, and she must keep gripping at her trembling fingers to steady them. Inside her right boot, she stuffs a few crumpled banknotes, along with the ends of the laces. She wishes she had a blade.
‘You don’t choose your own story.’ That’s what Mama had said. Papa had grunted into his pipe, raised his gaze to the ceiling. ‘Let the children dream.’”
In the hallway, she almost collides with Mother, who is jabbering away to herself, gesturing at the other girls’ rooms, her words running together. She has not yet made up her face, so the dark lines tattooed onto the edges of her eyelids stand out, like an extra pair of eyebrows.
What are you up to? she demands.
I go out. I see him.
Mother lights a cigarette and inhales. The lines that appear around her unpainted mouth are like spiders’ legs.
She shakes her head, not understanding the words. Mother’s laughter becomes a gurgling cough.
Why? she splutters loudly. Fucking hell. Why – does – he – want – you?
She shrugs. He send text.
A few girls, the older ones, are allowed phones. This infuriates Mother: none of them are set to English.
Go on then, fuck off. Extra time tomorrow.
She is waved away with a sprinkling of ash. It is almost a wrench, to not look back. She wants to put her arms around the bony old witch, hold onto her, although she doesn’t know why.
Instead, she grips at the banister and runs down the stairs, past the underwear drying on hangers, the faded prints of flappers and Cancan dancers, past the other girls, half-dressed and arguing over hair straighteners. She doesn’t stop for any of it, not even Natalia. She can’t change her mind now.
“You don’t choose your own story.” That’s what Mama had said, the real one. Papa had grunted into his pipe, raised his gaze to the ceiling. “Let the children dream.”
Biting down a response, Mama had pulled the quilt tight over their little bodies, nudging them closer together to warm like coals in a grate. Then she had bent down, kissed their cheeks, stroked their hair, and blinked back the tears that were threatening to spill into the space between them.
“Very well,” she had said, while Papa puffed away in his chair. “But I will choose the story tonight, as I wish I could choose all your stories.”
So it had begun, the spinning of tales, and she had lain there with her brothers and sisters and soaked up Mama’s stories of far away and once upon a time. Huddled beneath the quilt, she had chosen to be the girl in the woods, the princess in the tower, the queen in the fairy realm, and a thousand others. But Mama was right, she understands this now: you don’t choose your own story.
The car is two streets away. It takes her a few minutes to find it, tucked away in the row of parking spots where they told her to look. She hadn’t heard of the make so she asked for a picture, but they thought it too dangerous. Before she gets inside, she repeats the number plate she learned under her breath, just to be sure.
Hi, says the driver.
She hasn’t seen him before, although he is wearing a grey jumper and jeans, as Lena said he would.
Did anyone see you?
She shakes her head. What would they have thought, if they had? Around here, girls get into strangers’ cars all the time.
Good, he says, buckleup.
He indicates the seatbelt. She tugs it over her shoulder as he pulls out into the road.
Bronzed by evening light, the neighbourhood passes by. The neon signs in the windows of fast food restaurants are flickering open. Bin bags are being piled up on the side of the road. Two dogs are yapping at one another and straining at their leads as their owners stop to chat. These details seem important, as she is driven away from here for good, and she lets her head drop a little as she watches, the seatbelt smooth against her cheek.
She hasn’t been in a car for a long time. She used to ride in Ivan’s bashed-up old Lada almost every day, skipping the end of school so they could drive out of town and towards the horizon. She remembers being in that passenger seat and just staring at him, the angles of his face growing softer as he sang along to the radio.
When he had said they should find work abroad, she had agreed at once. What a way to show Mama, she had thought; what a way to choose. Only, when they arrived, Ivan fell in with the others almost immediately. He stayed out late, he stopped talking, he began to look at her like she was something to be devoured – all of them did. But she trusted him, she always had, and she kept on trusting, right up to the day he took her passport.
Thevanisntfar, this driver says. Maybe five minutes.
She nods and chances a sideways look at him. He has a straight nose and dark hair that is greying around his ears. Handsome, but unremarkable, she decides. Was that why they chose him for this?
She wonders what he would be like; what he would ask of her, how long he would last. Would he talk? Would he be rough? Would he want to see her again? It is a game – a habit, really – trying to guess how they are, unclothed and alone. She plays it for all the men she comes across now, and almost always finds out whether or not she is right.
As they stop at a red light, she is dazzled by the low sun reflected off a window and closes her eyes. Back in the labyrinth, she wonders: how is she always already here? She never starts outside, never volunteers to step in. It isn’t right, she thinks, that she should be at the centre of this. The story has become muddled in her mind: it should be a hero, someone like the man beside her – or any man at all.
The car jolts forward and she gasps.
Sorry. Too much gas. Usedtoautomatic.
He looks over at her as he restarts the engine. She holds her hands tightly in her lap, determined he won’t see them shaking.
It’s for the best, he says, after a while. We’ll catch him.
She forces herself to nod, watching as his fingers tap out a rhythm against the steering wheel. Gentle, she decides. A little guilty, a little too quick, but gentle. And he wouldn’t come back.
Sometimes, when she has been in the labyrinth for a long time, her palm is rubbed raw. But it is a relief, the slow, scraping of the thread unravelling.”
By the time they reach the van, she is bleeding. Her fists are clenched so tightly her nails have made four crescent-shaped dents in each palm, some of which are wet with blood. She wipes her hands together, smearing red into her lifelines and thinks of holding the spool, of the way it scratches as it spins. Sometimes, when she has been in the labyrinth for a long time, her palm is rubbed raw. But it is a relief, the slow, scraping of the thread unravelling; as though there is something else real and alive in there, not just her and him.
“Come in, come in. Quickly.”
Lena is beckoning to her with both hands. She scrambles into the back of the van, grazing the top of her head against the roof, and the driver slams the doors shut behind her.
Now the only light is coming from the bulb taped to the ceiling, and two computer screens. She blinks a few times, trying to adjust to the gloom. As well as Lena, there are two men inside, crouched on camping stools and wearing headphones. One is middle-aged and bearded, one younger and clean-shaven. They glance up from what they are doing – flicking switches and plugging in cables – to nod at her. She looks at them for longer, wondering.
“Hey,” Lena says. “All right?”
She turns, notes Lena is not in her uniform today. She doesn’t know whether this makes her feel better or not.
Now her vision has recovered, she sees there are pictures tacked to the inside of the van. A series of shots taken last week depicts her in the clothes she has on today, from the front, back and either side. Next to that is the map they gave her, onto which she drew a pencil X, and from it a meandering line, unwinding around little backstreets, tracing the route she would take. Lastly, there is a black-and-white, blown-up still of him. She stares at this picture, right into his grainy eyes.
“It’s strange,” Lena says, “we’ve been after him for years, but that’s the only photo we have. A lucky catch on CCTV.”
Very lucky, she thinks. He moves in the dark, he covers his tracks.
Lena touches her on the shoulder. “Barrett didn’t give you trouble? She let you out?”
It takes her a moment to realise who Lena means. “I told her he’d texted me.”
“Good. That reminds me – phone.”
She draws it from her back pocket and one of the men takes it from her fingers. A part of her wants to snatch it back – it is hers – but he is already easing off the back cover, and Lena’s hand is still on her shoulder.
It is not enough, the other woman’s touch: she wants to be held, to lie down on Lena’s lap, rest her cheek against her thighs, and feel a hand on her head, smoothing back her hair. Instead, Lena is all business.
“The guys are still working stuff out here, so we’ll have to wait a bit. It’s early anyway, we just wanted to get you out as quickly as possible. To be on the safe side.”
They had made her wait at the station as well, not realising the risk she had taken, sneaking out at midday when everyone was sleeping. She had been shaking then too, and she had drunk some of Mother’s good gin for courage. When the man in glasses had called her up to the front desk after thirty minutes, maybe forty-five, he had looked her up and down before asking what she wanted.
She had tried to explain – about herself, the other girls, about Natalia most of all – but she hadn’t been able. Mother made sure they knew the words they needed, the rest didn’t matter.
The man in glasses had seemed bored. After a while he had stopped taking notes and his gaze had wandered over her head, at the people walking past on the monitor. She had banged her hand against the desk then, making him jump. Tears had stung her sleep-deprived eyes, and she had begun to repeat a name, his name, again and again and again.
The man had made a phone call. Couldhavesomethinghere. Getmesomeonewhocanspeak – He looked at his notes, at her. Where – are – you – from?
Lena is babbling away in a language not her own, chatting with the men who are now tapping at the computer keys. How old is Lena? Twenty-five? Older than her, but not by much. She imagines they came from similar families, for they are not so very different to look at, to listen to. But somewhere along the way, their story split in two. Did Lena choose hers?
When they met, she had thought Lena would be her champion, her rescuer. It made sense that way, far more so than all the others she had imagined were coming for her – an enamoured client, perhaps, or a long-lost brother. It would be Lena, this person who was like but so unlike her – she would be the one.
“What do you want most in the world?”
It was her second time at the station. They were sitting opposite one another in a bare, grey room, the plate of biscuits between them untouched. She had talked for a long time, speaking more than she had in years. Her voice was all dried out, but she knew how to answer.
“I want to go home.”
Lena had leaned across the table, and she remembered hoping she would take her hand, squeeze it, pass on some of her strength or nerve or whatever it was she had. Instead, all she had been given was a look.
“We can help you get back. We can get you new documents, a new identity, you can start again. But first, we need your help.”
That had thrown her. “I’ve told you all of it, there isn’t anything else.”
“You said you’d known him, what, six, seven years?”
“You were one of the first? He lets you have a phone? Sometimes he asks for you?”
Was she in trouble? “Not often.”
“Would you say he trusts you?”
“I don’t think he trusts anyone.”
“But –” Lena had been leaning so far forward the back two legs of her chair had been in the air. “Will he talk to you?”
We’re ready here.
The bearded man has finished with the phone.
“This is the back-up,” Lena translates. “It has a fairly rudimentary tracking device fitted to it, so we know where you are. We can also kick-start its microphone, which might pick up bits and pieces of conversation, but we’ll only do that if we have to.”
She takes the phone between two fingers, as though it might sting her.
“And this,” says Lena, continuing to speak over her colleague, “is it.”
In his palm, he is holding a silver cylinder smaller than her little finger. Strange, she thinks; she imagined it would be an actual wire.
Lena laughs. “Looks like a pen lid or something, right?”
It looks like a bullet, she decides.
All right, let’s do this.
The man crouches in front of her, the device now clutched in his fist.
“It goes in your pocket,” Lena says.
He is pointing at her denim shorts, at the tiny rectangular pocket within a pocket she thinks might be for coins. She takes the device. It is lighter than she expected, and warm from his hand.
“Is it –?” she starts to say, but stops as she hears her own words again, a few seconds later, coming from one of the computer monitors.
All right! We’re on! The younger man slaps the side of the van in triumph.
Her own breath is echoing back at her, growing louder and faster. She cannot take her eyes from his picture on the wall.
“Hey, hey.” Lena is the one to crouch in front of her now. “It’s okay, it’s just one conversation. And we have your back, I promise.” She too looks at the CCTV still. “You’re going to change everything. Think of the other girls like you – their lives will be different, better, because of what you’re doing tonight. Okay?”
But what about me, she thinks. What about my life?
She is in the labyrinth again.
It is not as she dreamed it. The darkness isn’t absolute here: it pools in empty doorways, down alleys, around piles of abandoned junk on the pavement, but she can skirt around it, stepping from the beam of one streetlight to the next.
She is not alone either. There is noise all around: the piercing laugh of a girl, the yowling of a cat or fox, the thump of music below her feet, sirens. Men call out to her, shouting words she doesn’t understand, but she knows their meaning. She doesn’t stop.
What if it doesn’t work? She resists the urge to put her fingers in her pocket, imagining the men in the van wincing into their headphones. She wants to check it’s still there. She wishes it was an actual wire, so she had something to hold onto.
Sometimes she drops the spool, and then she must duck down, grope at where it fell, her fingers grasping at air, at dirt. Frantically, she crawls this way, that way, cutting open her palms, her knees, until she thinks the dampness on the stone might be her own blood, but still she cannot find the thread.
Where did she get it, the story? How is it, among all the tales Mama told – of glass slippers and giant beanstalks, flying carpets and magic lamps, winged horses and golden fleeces – she finds herself in this one? She thinks back to lying in that bed with her siblings, the quilt pulled up to her nose, and Mama doing the rattling breath, the rumbling growl, her fingers making shadow claws on the wall. It was always the story that frightened her the most.
It has begun to drizzle. Tiny raindrops are catching in her eyelashes and she draws her knees to her chest, wondering how she came to be on the ground, in the shadows. None of them can see her here, she thinks, for she is not yet within range of their cameras, and he doesn’t know she is coming. She could dump the phone, the spool, and run away from it all.
It would be safer: if he realises what she is doing, he will eat her up, gobble her whole. And if he doesn’t, if they send her home – what then? He’s clever. She could be thousands of miles from him and he would find a way to tear her apart. That is what they don’t understand, these heroes who are good and pure and strong. She hasn’t the heart – nor the words – to tell them she knows what happens to nameless, friendless girls who step into the dark.
You don’t choose your own story, Mama had said, and she knows this is true now, because her story has been written by Mama and Papa, by Ivan, by Mother, by Lena, and by him. And Natalia, she tells herself, looking up from her legs – and Natalia.
Staring at the peeling wall opposite, she holds Natalia in her mind: small, blonde, more like a spirit than a person. When Mother brought her in, a month or so ago, she had been struck by how young the girl had looked. Then later that week, she had walked into the unlocked bathroom, and Natalia had leapt back, scrabbling for a towel.
“How old are you?” she had asked.
Natalia hadn’t met her gaze. “Seventeen.”
“How old?”’ She had walked forward, gripped at a spindly arm. “How old?”
“Fourteen!”’ Natalia had begun to cry. “Don’t say I told. Mother said I had to lie, that it would be dangerous for him…”
She saw him then – that man who had charmed her and fucked her and beat her and paid her and used her until she was all hollowed out – and the only thing left was a monster.”
And there, as she had stood in the bathroom and watched the pale, flat-chested little girl struggling to cover herself up, she had come back to life. It was as though she had been numb, for years and years, and she hadn’t even realised until that moment, when feeling had rushed back into her body. She saw him then – that man who had charmed her and fucked her and beat her and paid her and used her until she was all hollowed out – and he was different. Natalia had knocked aside the guardian, the friend, the lover, the boss, and the only thing left was a monster.
Yes, Mama was right, she thinks, brushing the silvery beads of rain from her arms, but perhaps Lena is too: lives will be different and better, not because she can choose her own story, but because she can change the stories of others.
She staggers to her feet. Her hair is wet and her knees are in danger of buckling, but she begins to walk, giving everything she has left into putting one foot in front the other, again and again.
“It’s just one conversation,” Lena had said.
He will be pleased to see her, she thinks, rubbing under her eyes for mascara smudges, biting colour into each lip. He might offer her a drink. She will slide onto his lap and he will pull her close, ask any others around to leave. If she is still shaking, she will tell him she is cold, from the rain.
“Will he talk to you?”
She has given a lot of thought to how she will start, and decided on a lie to cover a lie. “I missed you,” she will say, “I told Mother you had asked to see me.” And he will be amused, aroused, and she won’t give him a chance to think about it further. Then, while they speak of Mother, before she turns the talk to Natalia, perhaps she will mention the expensive face cream Mother bought in her ongoing battle against old age, and the way it made her face so puffy she couldn’t open one of her eyes. He will open up then, because she will have made him laugh.
It makes her laugh now. And as she laughs, here in the heart of the labyrinth, its walls begin to fragment, dropping away in pieces as though she has taken a chisel to them, and underneath it isn’t dark – it’s green and bright. It’s the coppice where she and her siblings have spent the day playing, dirtying their hands and faces; it’s the hill down which they run and leap and tumble at the end of the day; it’s the garden at the back of the squashed, run-down little house, where Mama stands, calling them home.
She reaches a door. Two men, each twice her size, peer down at her.
You’re one of his girls, right?
I see him. He ask.
They look at one another, shrug, and stand aside.
She hesitates. Beyond the doorway is music, flashing lights, men with money. And him. Above her head an exit sign is glowing.
One of the bouncers laughs. Stupid slut. Then, loudly, Are – you – waiting – for – something? Someone?
She looks up at him, at both of them.
No, she thinks, not anymore. And she steps inside.
Amanda Block is a graduate of the Creative Writing Masters at the University of Edinburgh, a literary consultant for a small Geneva-based publishing house, and a freelance ghostwriter. She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the Chapter One Promotions Short Story Competition and the Waterstone’s Booksellers’ Bursary Award. Her writing has been published in Modern Grimmoire: Fairy Tales, Fables and Folklore, Vintage Script and Stories for Homes. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and thinking about returning to her half-finished novel.
Follow Amanda on Twitter: @ACWritersBlock