Ala left the kitchen. She didn’t want to hear anything else the senile lady said. She didn’t want her own enervation and passivity to be mistaken for compliance to stay in this house. She didn’t want anyone to think that she was fine with Bruce bringing her here instead of straight home, as he said he would. She didn’t want to admit to herself how reckless she was for getting into a stranger’s car. She hadn’t had much of a choice after fleeing the fire, but as soon as she had woken up, would have been the correct time to get out.
Swiftly, she walked down a shadowy hallway, the wood under her feet giving with every step, threatening to split and send her falling to the floor below. She pushed thoughts of what could be under the house, out of her mind. The hall became wider and grand dusty oil paintings hung on either side, all old fashioned portraits. Under ordinary circumstances, she would have stopped to take a look. Whenever observing art, she would try to compare the subjects to people she knew or recognized. Her parents had taken her to a gallery held in an estate in the outskirts of Memphis a few summers before. While there was no likelihood of any of the portraits featuring her ancestors or friends, Ala roamed from room to room, squinting at each cracked face, fixed on recognizing one.
She reached a cluttered parlor that acted as a dead end. The windows were very high up and there were no doors to be found. To avoid wasting energy in this maze of a house, she found her way back to the room she had slept in and closed the door tightly behind her.
Pressing her back into the wall, she let her feet slide out in front of her and the gnarly area rug felt warm against her bottom. She caught her appearance in a mirror hanging across the room and was alarmed that there were no signs that she had been part of a fire. Crawling closer, she noticed her hair was brushed soft and glossy, her skin was clean and smooth, and her fingernails had been filed.
They had bathed her in her sleep. How could she have slept through a bath? Bruce must have drugged her. She thought of the cookie missing from the chicken shack receipt. She pulled the nightgown away from her chest and looked down. Her whole body was fresh and gleaming. They had seen her naked. Those ladies, Bruce and most likely others had seen all of her.
The nightgown was making her skin crawl. She opened the closet to find that is was empty, besides a folded quilt, and continued to the bureau, which was filled with folded sheets. She looked under the bed, trying to find something else to wear. She didn’t want to speak to the women again. She would not eat the blood sausage. She would not interact with them.
There was a bible on a shelf under the nightstand. Ala needed to write to Danno to let him know what happened. The back of her mind warned of no postage or envelopes or pencils in sight, but she tore out a blank page from the back anyway.
She opened to the middle of the book and sped-read the page until finding the letter “H”. She had not been for years. Her parents stopped attending church when her grandparents had passed away. The last time Ala had seen a bible was in college, when classmates ripped out clumps from the Old Testament to use as rolling papers. What she was about to do felt indecent, but her temples buzzed and she felt her body trying to brace for her completely losing her mind.
She had to communicate. She had to try to connect. She folded the page and carefully tore out the letter. She bit her lip as she moved on an “I”, ripping slowly. She licked each dot of paper and stuck them to the blank page. She continued ripping out letters. When her hand slipped and a letter was torn, she found a substitute and took it out from another section.
Her eyes began to cross after a few minutes, but she was resolute in putting together enough words to complete a thought. She needed to leave what had happened to her on paper behind in case she didn’t make it out.
A quarter of the way thorough, she coughed, sending a whole sentence fluttered across the page. Tears well up in her eyes and she yelped, punching the wall with her fist, drawing a thin dotted line of blood across the knuckles. Taking a deep breath, she continued to work.
The room had blackened without her noticing. The letter was complete. The story began with her going for a run and ended with her sitting in this dark room. She could not fold the page, as the saliva was not enough of a binder to keep the letters in place. She gingerly lifted the paper flat and laid it on top of the bureau. Danno would not be able to read it, but she had to hope that someone would tell him what happened.
She picked up the marred bible and closed it placing it back on the nightstand. She whispered to herself that she would not go to Hell for ripping the it to shreds, because God knew that she needed to arrange her thoughts in order to survive. It was the only book in the room and she used its words to find her own.
She opened the door and walked into the hallway. She was going to get out of the house now. She had already killed a man to save her own life. Even though it was an accident, he died by her hand. And while she never wanted for a life to be cut short by her doing, she knew she was capable enough to follow through.
She could not leave without her phone. If she didn’t have a phone, she would have to hitchhike, and refused to be in a position of feebleness again.
She opened each door on both sides of the hallway. There was a sewing room with a wedding veil draped over an armchair, an office with stacks of atlases on a marble desk, a nursery with a mobile of dainty lambs; each room beckoning exploration, but Ala kept going.
The last room at the end of the hall had the ostentatious door with a shiny gold knob. She opened it and walked inside. The bedroom smelled of musk and burning wood. Bruce was on a king sized, gold rimmed bed, lying on his side reading a book. His face looked pink and puffed in the firelight, as if she was recognizing him through drunk eyes during a party. There was a tray of food at the foot of the bed and his shoes were lined up next to the mantle.
“You’re awake,” he said, smiling.
She wanted to straddle him and strangle him and poke out his eyeballs with her thumbs. She smiled and nodded as he closed the book and sat up. He was still dressed in the clothes he had picked her up in.
“My mother said you weren’t hungry. And my sister thinks you’re pretty,” he said.
“I wasn’t hungry,” she said.
“Maybe you’d like to eat now. I have some cream of mushroom soup that Hannah brought up,” he said, gesturing to the tray.
“No. I don’t think so,” she said, gaining bravado from the deflated look on his face. Who gave me a bath?”
He stood up slowly and walked past her, closing the door.
“My mother did. Look, I’m sorry, but you were shivering. You needed some cuts cleaned up and something warm to wear. We couldn’t put you to bed in the condition you were in. I promise, I didn’t see anything.” She spotted her phone on top of the mantle. The screen was dark, but she was certain of the shape and size that it was hers. “All I want to do is save you,” he said.
“I know you’re a sinner. That fire, I heard about it on the radio. You running in the night, practically naked. I don’t need to know about the girl you were before I found you, I just want to help you.”
“Why didn’t you bring me home?” She said, hearing her voice escalate.
“We need to get you back on the right path,” he said softly, removing a thin gold pocketknife from his pants pocket. He flipped the small, but sharp, blade out. “One girl we saved turned out to be my wife.”
Ala was not frightened of the knife. All she wanted was her phone. She knew he would not stab her, because he could have done so in the car, or anything else he wanted.
“What do you want me to do?” She said.
“Lay with me,” he said, climbing back on the bed. She followed and lay down next to him on her back. He turned on his side and pushed her hip up so that they were spooning. He traced a circle around her belly button with the blade. “Start by telling me what you’ve done to soil your reputation. All the nasty things.”
“Where is your wife?” Ala said, trying to keep him in a humane state of mind.
“She died a few weeks ago,” he said, caressing her stomach with his fingers.
“Drowned. When we were baptizing her, she forgot to hold her breath.”
“That’s terrible,” she said, wincing.
“I know,” he said. “All we wanted to do was save her, and her child. His voice trailed off. Ala could smell liquor on his breath. He would be asleep soon.
“What were you doing driving around that night?” She said.
“Looking for girls to help. There are a lot of junkies around there. A lot of loose ones. So many to save before it’s too late.”
After another minute, his hand stopped and she looked back to see his eyes closed. She wanted him to be in a deeper sleep, but didn’t have time to waste. She lifted his arm from her torso and got up.
The wood creaked under her as she went to the dresser to retrieve phone. He turned over and muttered in his sleep. She could not risk walking across the room to open the heavy door. And even once back in the hallway, the house was winding, leaving no point of reference as to where the front door could be.
She pushed some gingham curtains out of the way from the window, and discovered that it was unlocked. She pushed the window open slowly and stuck her leg out into the chilly night air. She noticed that the gutter pipe ran the height of the house, but looked flimsy and If she used it to support her weight, it would collapse and wake everyone. Relief came in not knowing how many stories up she was, because the only option was to jump. The nightgown did not have pockets and while her instinct was to hold the phone in her mouth, she knew that her teeth would break upon hitting the ground.
Holding on to the sill, she brought her other leg out and let go. She tried bending her knees before hitting the ground and while it was not a perfect landing, she was able to get to her feet and walk. She paused, anticipating barking from a hefty beast, foaming from the mouth. There was only quiet though.
She picked up her phone, which now had a shattered screen, and turned it on. The reassuring blue beamed like lightning through the cracked glass and she jumped up and down with gratitude. Only a sliver of battery remained, and she could not risk going to Bruce’s car to get the charger. Not to mention there would not be an outlet to plug the charger into, so she had to choose her phone call wisely.
She crept around the house to the front lawn, which looked normal enough, strewn dandelions and rosebushes. The front gate was open and out she went into the street, trying to contain the brimming adrenaline from escaping and jumping out of a window.
She could not call the police and risk linking herself to the fire and the manslaughter. Bruce now knew she was connected, but that wasn’t something she could concern herself with now. She could not go into any diner or even gas station wearing the nightgown and no shoes.
She walked to the corner of the residential block. She would not call her parents, paralyzed with fear that they would not answer the phone. There were no people or cars in sight. The clock on her phone read that it was around four in the morning.
She tapped Danno’s number and waited. He answered on the first ring.
“Is this really you?” His voice was all of the single earrings, the doll clothes, the lipgloss, the socks; the treasure trove of everything she had ever lost in her life, coming back to her.
“Yes,” she cried in between gasps.
“Tell me where you are and then hang up. I’m sending a car.”