The Girl in the Plaster Cage
Painful sobs echoed through the bathroom vent between the two apartments, signaling a new arrival. Jessica lowered the toilet seat and stepped onto it, carefully peering through the painted metal grate toward the faint light on the other side.
“Hello?” she called, keeping her voice low. “Are you okay?”
The sobs choked back with a sniffle, and metal clunked against porcelain.
“Who – who’s there?” a trembling female voice called.
“My name’s Jessica,” she replied. “Climb up by the vent, and keep your voice down.”
Loose toilet seat bolts rattled and a female face appeared, her features sectioned into squares by the metal grate.
Older than me, Jessica thought. Probably in her late thirties? Dirty blonde hair. Blue eyes, red from crying.
“I’m – I’m Denise,” the new arrival said between sniffles, wiping at her cheeks.
She had that look they all had the first day, a mix of fear, distrust, and sadness. Jessica had tried to comfort them when she was younger, give them hope. She was past that now. Hope just made it worse. She accepted them for what they were, temporary company.
“Do you know why they brought you here?” she asked.
The older woman nodded absently, but then paused and shook her head. “Yes, I – Well, sort of – I think. The man that kidnapped me –” She said with an involuntary sob. “He – he said I’d be okay as long as my husband did what he – what he was told.”
“Any idea what that is?” Jessica asked.
The woman frowned, thinking. “No – I – we don’t have any money or anything, but my husband, Tim, he – he works for the police department. He’s just a records clerk, though. I don’t know what they could want.”
Jessica nodded, mulling that over. Something down the ventilation shaft made a scuttling sound, but she ignored it. Just one of the resident rats that inhabited the plaster walls of the old building.
Denise disappeared and then came back into view, a wad of toilet paper pressed to her nose. “What—what about you? Why are you here?” she asked, peering curiously at the teenage face on the other side of the vent.
“Because I haven’t escaped yet,” Jessica said, stone-faced. She knew it wasn’t the kind of answer the woman wanted, but she wasn’t in the mood to explain.
Denise frowned, looking confused as expected. “Have you tried to escape before?”
Jessica started to answer, but stopped at the sound of the elevator opening down the hall. “Carter’s coming,” she said quickly. “Get away from the vent and don’t let them know you talked to me. Just do whatever they tell you for now. Got it?”
Her new acquaintance nodded and then disappeared, followed by the clunk of the toilet seat being lifted. Jessica clambered down and did the same before padding back into the main room of the studio apartment. She quickly arranged herself on the worn couch with a thick history textbook in her lap, as if she’d been studying all along. A key rattled in the brass lock, and then a stocky, balding man appeared through the door with a brown grocery bag tucked in one arm.
“Hey Jess,” he said. “Got everything you wanted except for the apples. They didn’t have the kind you asked for.”
“Aww, come on Carter,” Jessica whined, launching into spoiled-teenager mode for the guard’s benefit. “You know I only like Pink Ladies.”
“We been together long enough, you think I don’t know that?” he said, shooting her a grin as he dropped the bag on the counter. “Come on, kid. Don’t be like that.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jessica said with mock-sarcasm, tossing aside the textbook. “Thanks anyway.”
Her long-time captor chuckled. “Okay, well, I got other folks to check on,” he said, heading toward the door. He paused with his hand on the doorknob. “Oh, almost forgot. Boss’ll be here Saturday for your birthday. Wants to take you out to dinner like always.”
Hot anger twisted in her stomach, but she hid it behind a smile. “Okay,” she said, teasing. “I’ll see if I can squeeze it into my busy calendar.”
“I’ve been here for five years,” she told Denise, her lips brushing the cool metal of the bathroom vent. “Before that, as long as I can remember, I lived with a guy they said was my Uncle Steve. Don’t know who he really was, but he was okay. Just another one of Hoven’s people, I guess.”
“Why’d they bring you here, then?” the other woman asked.
“Don’t know,” Jessica said. “I woke up one day and he made breakfast, and then Carter came and picked me up. I remember Steve looked really sad when I asked if he was coming too. He just told me to be good, gave me my backpack, and that was the last time I ever saw him.”
Jessica was surprised how much she liked Denise, though they hadn’t been able to talk much. It usually took her temporary friends a week or so to calm down and accept the situation. Denise had done it in just a few days, which meant she must be stronger than she looked. Her eyes weren’t red anymore. She had a determined look that Jessica had rarely seen in the parade of prisoners that had come and gone next door.
She didn’t always speak to the residents in the next room. Sometimes they were men or little kids, and she didn’t feel safe talking. Kids couldn’t keep a secret, and she didn’t trust men. Every man she’d ever known had lied to her except for one: her real dad. She didn’t see him very often, only when Carter’s boss, Hoven, the man that had kept her prisoner her entire life, had something he wanted her dad to do. Her daddy, as she called him in front of other people, was the reason she was kept locked up, but it wasn’t his fault. She’d been angry with him when she was younger, but since he’d told her why—since she’d learned the truth—she’d seen him differently.
She knew she could trust him.
“Have they said anything about your husband?” Jessica asked, turning her thoughts and the conversation from her past.
Denise shook her head and sighed. “No. I’ve asked, but Carter just keeps repeating the same thing: If Tim does what he’s told, everything will be okay.”
Jessica closed her eyes, leaning her forehead against the grate. He’s lying to you, she wanted to say. He’s lying, and one day Hoven will just make you and your husband disappear, and I’ll never know what happened to you. You’ll just be gone, like all the rest. Her dad had told her what kind of man Hoven was. He was a crime boss. He was one of the bad guys.
Denise said her name, and Jessica opened her eyes.
“Do you think we’ll be okay?”
Jessica balled one hand into a fist, digging fingernails into her palm. “I don’t know,” she said. “I need to go.”
“Wait,” Denise said, but she didn’t.
Jessica ignored the other woman’s whispers to come back, walking to one of the sealed windows and looking at the world she couldn’t visit. Hoven would visit for her birthday in two days, and she’d be moved like cargo from her room to a car to a private room at some restaurant he owned. Even when she’d lived with Steve as a kid she’d never really been free. Steve had homeschooled her, so she never went to a regular school. At least he’d had a big back yard she could play in, but even it had been privacy fenced, keeping her locked away from the world. She wanted to feel the wind on her face again, and the crush of green grass between her bare toes.
“I’m going to find you,” her Daddy had said the last time they’d been together. “Don’t give up, because someday I’m going to find you, and we’re going to leave. Just you and me, kiddo. We’ll be all right.”
“What if you don’t though?” she asked. “What if something happens and you don’t remember me at all?”
“Hoven can take my memory of you,” he said, “but I will always know who you are. It’s all here,” he said, tapping on his temple and then over his heart. “All I have to do is see your face and I’ll know, every time. Don’t you worry about that.”
Jessica pushed the memory away and went to her bedside table, picking up the only picture she had of them together. It always hurt knowing that wherever he was, he didn’t remember her. She tried to imagine him fighting the process and keeping his memories, but that wasn’t realistic. She knew how it worked. Her science books always had sections on memory extraction, and the useless teen magazines Carter bought her were filled with ads offering to “Erase Your Memory of Bad Boyfriends Forever.”
“Well, I remember you at least,” she said to her dad’s smiling face in the picture, setting it back on the nightstand.
The elevator doors rattled outside and footsteps passed by, moving down the hall. She heard a knock next door and then Denise talking, the words muffled and unintelligible through the thick plaster walls.
“I’ll remember you too, when you’re gone,” Jessica told her through the white plaster wall. “Promise.”
“You look quite lovely tonight, my dear,” Hoven said with a smile as Jessica sat down across the table.
She smiled politely and thanked him, smoothing out the flowered hem of the dress Carter bought for her to wear. She hated wearing dresses, not because they were uncomfortable, but because she always had to wear them for Hoven. Every year Carter showed up with a new dress, and after her annual dinner with Hoven she’d stuff it in the back of her closet, hidden away like a bad memory.
The waiter arrived, filling their glasses with water from a sweating pitcher as the old man methodically unfolded his cloth napkin and spread it in his lap. She examined him quietly, the man who had kept her prisoner her entire life. She picked out his physical flaws one at a time, each a reminder that despite his power he was just a man. He could still be beaten.
His skin was freckled from age, his face hatched with lines, and a single strand of white hair curled from one nostril. His scalp, visible through the thin white hair of his head, reflected the light of the muted bulb overhead. He slipped a hand into his jacket and produced a thin black cigar, lighting it with a match. The smell of it made her sick, just like it did every year. She wished she had the courage to slap him, kick him, stab him with the steak knife on the table by her plate. Instead, she picked up her glass and took a drink, waiting for him to speak.
“Carter tells me you’ve done well with your lessons,” he said, as the soup course arrived. “I’m pleased to hear it.”
She nodded, shifting into the higher pitched, childish tone he would expect. “I don’t like algebra much,” she said, “but science is pretty cool, and you kind of have to do math to do science.”
“Is that what you’d like to do someday? Something with science?”
Jessica bit her lip and stared through him, as if thinking it over. Spending your life in a one-room apartment left plenty of time to think, so she already knew the real answer. She wanted to be a neuroscientist and study the brain, learn how memories worked, and find a way to restore her dad’s memories or at least rebuild them. That was a longshot, though. She knew Hoven had no intention of letting her go outside, much less to college. His question was both subtle and cruel.
“Ummm,” she said instead, “I think it’d be cool to be a vet, and work with animals. They’re so cute, except for snakes. Yuck.”
Hoven smiled, lowering the soup spoon from his lips. A single drop of the yellow broth escaped, running down his chin until he wiped it away with a finger. “Well, we’ll see what we can do once you finish your normal studies,” he said.
She ate her soup, and the main course of chicken and pasta appeared. She only spoke when he asked a direct question, being careful to stay in character, and not let him see she was capable. Not letting him see who she really was. They talked about the weather and whether she was comfortable. He told her about a trip he’d taken to Miami, and how much she would like it, and that he might take her someday. He spoke to her like a distant father, and she gave him what he wanted: a well behaved, but clueless teenager who did as she was told.
Once their plates were empty, the restaurant staff arrived with a white-frosted birthday cake, just big enough for the two of them to share. They sang the song and she blew out the candle, wishing that Hoven would drop dead. He didn’t. She ate cake, but didn’t find it sweet. Carter arrived with the car at 8:30 like clockwork, and Hoven stood with her as she got up from her seat.
“Oh, there was one thing I wanted to mention,” the old man said, pulling at the cuffs on his shirtsleeves. “Tonight while you were out, I had the vent in your bathroom sealed. Carter tells me he’s heard some little mice squeaking in the ducts, so it’s probably for the best.”
Jessica shuddered, her stomach wrenching. He knew. He knew she’d been talking to Denise, but how could he have heard? They were so careful! How long had Carter known? How many temporary friends?
“They’re silly little creatures, mice,” Hoven said, a chill lurking in his voice as he moved close, squeezing her shoulder with one heavy hand. “I’ve heard they make wonderful pets, except they’re never happy – always trying to get out of their cages.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t cage them in the first place,” she said in her natural tone, not bothering to hide the contempt in her voice.
“Ah, but you’re forgetting one thing, my dear,” Hoven said. “A mouse without a cage stops being a pet. Without a cage, a mouse is just a pest to be exterminated.”
J.T. Robertson is the author of The Memory Thieves published by Black Hill Press. His work has also appeared in Jelly Bucket, The MacGuffin, The Louisville Review, Moon City Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other publications. J.T. earned a B.A. in creative writing at Missouri State University and funds his fiction-writing habit by working in development at a St. Louis nonprofit social service agency. He lives in Creve Coeur, Missouri with his supportive wife Pamela and three entirely unpredictable cats. J.T.’s website is jtrobertson.com and you can follow him @jayteerobertson.