The Girl Before

Rena Olsen

The Girl Before

Copyright © 2016 by Renata Olsen

For Mom and Dad, who taught me to believe

Now

I am brushing Daisy’s hair at the kitchen table when the front door crashes open. The sound of gunfire and men shouting and children screaming comes in a tidal wave through the open door. Dropping the brush, I grab Daisy’s hand and pull her into the nearest closet, fumbling for the lever that will open the false back. We huddle in the small space together, and Daisy trembles in my arms.

Daisy cries as the door to the closet opens. I put a hand over her mouth to muffle the sound. Our hiding spot is clever, but not clever enough. Someone taps on the wall. “This is hollow!” he shouts, and his hands make shuffling sounds as they grope for a way in. It only takes a few minutes before the latch is discovered and we are revealed. Daisy screams and buries her face in my chest. I shield my eyes from the sudden brightness, swinging out with my other arm and coming into contact with hard flesh.

“Whoa, there,” a gentle voice says. I peek at the source and see a man with kind eyes. I know it is a trick. How could he be kind when he has broken into our home? I lash out again, and he catches my arm. “A little help here!” he calls over his shoulder. His grip is firm, and I cannot retrieve my arm from his grasp. I wrap my other arm tightly around a sobbing Daisy and glare up at him.

The man is dressed in black from head to toe, a large gun strapped across his back. A woman pops up behind the man, her hair pulled back in a tight bun. She does not look as kind as he does, but she speaks in a quiet voice, holding her hands out in front of her.

“We’re not going to hurt you, sweetheart,” she coos, and I roll my eyes. I am nobody’s sweetheart. “Just come out here so we can talk.”

I want to protest, but I don’t have many options. The man with the kind eyes tugs on my arm, and reluctantly I stand, pulling Daisy to her feet with me. She clings to my skirt, trying to disappear into the folds. Daisy has only been with us a few months, but we have already bonded. Daisy isn’t her real name. I don’t know what her real name is. When Glen brought her to me, he handed me a bouquet of fresh cut daisies. It seemed fitting. She is like my own daughter.

We emerge into the kitchen, and I sit at the same table as before. I place Daisy in front of me, retrieve the hairbrush from the floor, and resume brushing. Daisy sucks her thumb, but I do not scold her, even though we broke that habit two months ago.

“What is your name?” the woman asks, sitting across from me.

Brush, brush, brush. Long strokes through Daisy’s corn-silk hair. It is almost halfway down her back now. Sometimes we go out and make dandelion crowns and she looks just like a princess. She wears those crowns until they are completely wilted.

The woman is still staring at me. “My name is Meredith,” she says. “And this is Connor.” She gestures toward the man. “Can you tell me your name?”

Can I? Certainly. I bite my lip, wishing for guidance. As if by divine intervention, there is a commotion from the back door, and Glen bursts through. His arms are pinned behind his back, and he is surrounded by men dressed in black. He sees me and his eyes widen.

“Say nothing, baby, okay? Don’t tell them anything.” He continues to shout as the men wrestle him toward the front of the cabin. “I love you, baby! Remember that!”

I blush at his declaration in front of these strangers. The man and woman interrogating me look at me with odd expressions.

“Is that your husband?” the man asks.

Brush, brush, brush.

“How long have you been here?” the woman wants to know.

The strands sift through my fingers.

The man’s eyes narrow. He looks as if he is concentrating very hard on putting a puzzle together. I see the moment he comes to his solution.

“Is your name Diana?”

Yank. The brush catches on a tangle and crashes to the floor. Daisy yelps.

“Who is Diana?” My first words. My only words.

Then

“Clara! That damn baby is crying again!”

I am awoken by Glen’s yell. Our newest addition, whom I have christened Jewel, whimpers quietly from the floor. She has been having nightmares, so I brought her into our room to be closer. Glen grumbled about it at first, but his chest soon rose and fell with his deep heavy sleep breathing. He tends to overreact sometimes.

Now, I slip out of the bed and stretch out on the floor next to the fitful child. She is not yet four, with dark ringlets and bright green eyes. She is quiet, but in unguarded moments, her smile could light an entire city.

As soon as I reach Jewel, she relaxes into me. I stroke her soft curls, murmuring nonsense words of comfort. She should sleep through the night now. She never has more than one nightmare. I tell this to Glen, who has come to stand over us. He nods, then gathers Jewel into his arms. He can be so gentle when he chooses to be. He leaves to bring Jewel back to her room.

I am already in bed when Glen returns. He climbs under the covers and reaches for me. His stubble scrapes along my skin and his breath has already turned sour in the night, but it is comforting and familiar. It is Glen.

Now

It has been three days since I was taken. I lie on my narrow cot and try not to fidget with the scratchy gown they have given me to wear. I want to ask what will become of all my beautiful things, but that would involve talking, and I must not talk. Glen told me to say nothing. I slipped up once when the man asked about Diana, and I forgot for a moment that I wasn’t to speak. The man began an explanation, but I tuned him out. I didn’t want to hear. I only wanted to see Glen again, but he was gone.

They brought us out to the front driveway and ushered us into the backseats of the many cars cluttering the space. The children tried to run to me, but were held back. They let me keep a hold of Daisy, but wanted my hairbrush. “Evidence,” they said. I don’t know what a hairbrush is supposed to tell them, but I gave it to them anyway.

They pulled up in front of a brick building and took Daisy. She cried and reached for me, and I whispered, “Be strong, be brave,” in her ear. I don’t think Glen would have minded that. It didn’t really count anyway, since none of the uniformed men and women heard it. I was brought to another building, stripped and bathed, and left in this room. Three times a day they bring food, which I have not touched. The room smells like antiseptic, and the wail of ambulances keeps me up at night. Once a day they bring me into a room with a table and three chairs and sit across from me, trying to get me to talk.

I won’t talk.

There is a toilet in the corner of the room, but I only use it when I am sure it is nighttime. I only know it is nighttime because they turn the lights from dim to dimmer. There are no windows here. They say it is not jail. It is a hospital. They are only holding me here “for now.” They want to help me.

I will rot in this room before I tell them anything.

Then

“No peeking!” Glen is acting like an excited schoolboy. He has driven me hours out of the city, blindfolded the whole way. He has a surprise for me and doesn’t want to ruin it. I can smell the fresh air and know we must be far away from the pollution-filled city. Glen helps me down from the front seat of his truck, and my feet crunch on gravel as they land. “Just a little farther,” Glen says, sounding absolutely giddy.

He comes to stand behind me and whips off the blindfold. “Ta-da!”

I am standing in front of the largest log cabin I have ever seen. We are surrounded by a forest of evergreens, and I hear water rushing in the distance.

“Glen,” I breathe. “It’s beautiful!”

His face breaks out in a wide grin. “Come see the rest of it!” He pulls me forward toward the large porch that wraps around both sides of the house. Double doors lead into a giant foyer. There are separate staircases leading to opposite wings of the house, but what catches my eye is the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows on the other end of the living room. The Rocky Mountains look beautiful, like a postcard, and I am in love.

“What is it for?” I ask, my voice hesitant. Sometimes Glen likes to play jokes. I cross my fingers behind my back that this is not one of his silly pranks.

“For us, baby,” Glen says, coming forward to wrap his arms around me. He kisses my nose. “For us and the children.”

I look around. “All of us?”

Glen laughs and leads me to the window. Down the sloping lawn I see a cluster of smaller cabins. “The guys will live there. The children will live here. The house already has plenty of spaces for safe rooms. It won’t need too much work.” It doesn’t surprise me that Glen has already thought of this. He has become obsessed with ways to keep us safe over the past few months. From whom, I’m not sure, but we practice what to do in case of a threat each time a new girl joins our family. “And over that way,” Glen continues, gesturing beyond the tree line, “there is more land we can use to expand.”

He has a point. Right now our apartment feels like it will burst. A small bit of hope blooms in my chest. Here, with so much room to spread out, there will be plenty of room for our daugh ...

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