* this is a rough draft
I’m half asleep when I feel my body floating. She’s trying to cradle me but the body of a seven year old isn’t as light as a baby. I wake up momentarily see the red hair babysitter who looks to be coming out of her teen years. She’s struggling to place me into the back of a truck where my little sister is already snuggled up fast a sleep.
“Where are we going?” I yawn
“Shhh, it’s a surprise! Lay down and go back to sleep and when you wake we’ll be there.” She whispers as her shaking hands work in a frenzy to bury us under blankets and pillows.
She arrived a few days before, alone and set up camp at our desert commune of about 40 people located at the edge of town. Hippies, white trash, poor souls, criminals, this is what the people in town call our little commune. They’re not so wrong in saying this. She kept to herself but made herself useful in the gardens and entertaining the kids. So everyone accepted her without question. “Welcome without judgment” is a phrase you hear often in our group. So no questions were asked, not even her name. My older siblings are away at my dad’s when my mother needs someone to watch us as she works the nightshift at the gas station. The red haired girl shows up without questions asked. I surely don’t question her as she pushes my head down in back of the truck, deep into the blankets. But not before I catch a glimpse of the man sitting in the drivers seat. He’s fat. He’s wearing overalls with no shirt and the fat is spilling out the sides. I see the lights from inside the truck are reflecting off the sweat that is seeping from his large body. Even though I can’t see his face I know he’s not from around here. A man this size couldn’t go unnoticed in a town this small. Us kids would laugh at the sight of him. His long greasy hair, pox scarred skin, dirty overalls. We’d see him at the grocery store and laugh as he filled his cart with microwave dinners. Out of breath from having to put all that weight on his plump legs. Our parents will smack our heads and threaten to let him sit on us if we don’t behave. I don’t know this man I think as my eyes grow heavy with sleep, I’ve already made the decision I don’t like him even before the hair on my arms starts to tingle. My hands reach for my little sister who is fast asleep. I pull her close to me and listen to her breath. I fall asleep to the rhythm of the road underneath us.
My eyes open to darkness and I can’t tell if it’s day or night. I recognize the smell of stale river water, mud and salt and sit up. I think I’m down by the river, maybe zipped up in a tent, camping. I don’t hear water and the air has a sort of weight to it that sits on my lungs. I try to adjust my eyes when I hear stirring in the far corner. Someone is shuffling about. Sounds of matches being struck echo and a small glow from a lit lantern gets brighter, my eyes start to focus. I am in an open space a cave like room. Surrounded by rock walls above, behind and to the sides. There is an entrance to a tunnel, it is blocked by a table made of pallets. To the side sits the fat man sleeping in an old stuffed chair. There are three ice coolers lined against the wall and I watch as red head pulls a jug of water from one. She doesn’t notice me as she drinks and returns to her bed, an old mattress at the other side of the room. I know where we are. The fat man and red head have taken us to a mineshaft.
Abandoned mineshafts are sprinkled all through out the mountains of Utah. If left abandoned long enough anyone can come along and claim one. Some people attempt to mine them for whatever minerals or copper are left behind. Most are used for drug storage. Once on one of my many adventures exploring the mountains I stumbled across one filled with vintage cars. Signs posted through out the mountains and desert warning people of possible radiation in the mines however have not deterred a few from turning the mines into homes. They are dark, hot and when you breath the air burns your throat and eyes. It’s like living in the belly of a dragon and here is where I find myself and my sister who is stirring beside me.
“Does my mom know we’re here?” I ask, we’re sitting at the pallet table eating cereal mixed with water.
“Of course. She even said I should bring you,” she smiles her head twitches back and forth as if she’s waiting for someone to jump out at her.
I know the red head is lying. One time I came home covered in mud from exploring a mine and my mother spanked me with the big wooden spoon. She screamed about the dangers of a cave in and radiation. Threatening to use the brush on my bottom the next time I went into a mine. My sister is to young to know about the dangers and she seems to accept that my mother would allow us to be taken in the night by strangers. Her calmness almost makes me accept it too. My mother has unknowingly put us in danger before. This could just be another one of those times. On the table are coloring books and crayons to keep us quiet and busy. Somehow this occupies us as the hours tick by. Food consists of puff cereal mixed with water. When the puffs soak up the water they turn gooey and taste like glue. My sister and I are used to the taste, as there are times where milk is scarce in our house. Welfare provides cheese for the poor but milk is considered a luxury. If we have to use the bathroom there is a hole in the back corner where we can squat. When we are done with our business we have to remember to cover it with a towel. Us kids are not allowed to drink water from the jugs in the cooler but from the water in the saucepans sitting on the table. The hours tick by slowly. The only sounds are the scratching of crayons on paper and the heavy breathing from the fat man
The fat man has not spoken once. He just sits in his chair looking at maps. I can hear his wheezing heavy breathing whenever he adjusts in his chair. I can smell him. He’s tried to cover up his fat smell with cheap cologne. It’s overwhelming to my nose and if I breath into deep I’m afraid I’ll sneeze. I spend most of my time trying to avoid any eye contact with him. My back is facing them as I try to sleep when I hear him whisper.
“We need to get out of here. Drive up the junction,” he whispers to the red head.
“I think we should wait a day. Leave in the night.” She whispers back.
I try to position my head on the pillow so I can hear them better but I have to roll over to face them. Keeping my eyes closed so they will think I’m sleep. I hold my breath. Cracking my eyelids I see them sitting at the table maps spread out. The lantern casts a glow on their faces. Highlighting the grey peppered in his long hair and the dryness of her skin. If not for his hand rubbing on her thigh I would think this is a grandfather with his granddaughter. I’m unaware that I am fully staring at them till his eyes make contact with mine. I can’t hold his stare and quickly shut mine. I imagine my own grandfather. He’s sitting next to me.
“I’m having a bad dream.” I imagine telling him.
“Bad dreams, bad dreams go away. Good dreams, good dreams come and stay.” He whispers in my head. Its hours before I finally drift off to the sounds of his soothing voice.
My head has been aching all day and it’s getting hotter. I’ve lost all track of time. If not for my sister and trying to keep her busy by drawing whatever pictures she requests. I would just lay in the corner and cry myself to sleep. The fat man sits in his chair passing a bottle to the red head sitting next to him. I can read the label on the bottle. Whiskey, I know the effect this has on people. I’ve seen it happen the few times I’ve met my dad. They’re whispering about name changes and haircuts. I’m trying to listen but my sister keeps requesting.
“Draw me a cat,” she insists.
I’m drawing when she turns to them and asks.
“Are we going home?”
“No, not today,” the fat man grunts. This is the first time he’s actually spoken to us.
Her chin is starting to wobble. It does this when she is about to cry. I can’t tell if the furrow in her brow is confusion or fear, maybe both.
“Does my mom know we’re here?” I ask again
The red head walks over and sits next to us at the table. Placing her hand on the small of my sisters back. I notice how my sisters back goes stiff.
“I already told you she said you could come with us on our little trip,” she’s smiling and I can see her missing teeth. She is talking in a voice that is supposed to calm, to stop us from asking questions.
“ I don’t think my mom wants us to go on a trip. I want to go home,” I stare directly at her and watch as her smile fades into the dark circles under her eyes.
My sister has stopped coloring. I’ve said the words she was thinking. “I want to go home.” She’s given in to her tears.
“I wanna go home,” she cries into her hands as she wipes her face.
The fat man stands from his chair. His greasy hair is covering part of his face. Looking like a giant one eyed Cyclops he grabs for us both. Dragging us to the dusty piles of old blankets that has been our bed for the last two days.
“YOUR MOM IS A WHORE! SHE DOESN’T WANT YOU.GOD HAS GIVEN YOU TO US NOW.” His voice echos around the room. He’s close enough that I can smell the whiskey on his breath. I can see his eyes are blood shot and glassy.
Later that night when the shadows fade I feel his hands push aside the blanket. Making their way up between my thighs. This is not an unfamiliar touch. I know not to move, not to push away, not to breath. I know to turn of all the senses in my body and escape into my mind. I know to let this happen so as not to happen to my sister who is sleeping next to me. When he is done I feel nothing. He has rubbed me numb. I know I must get us out of here, away from them. All I can think about is how to do this as I drift off.
When I wake up it is dark and quiet. I can hear my sister breathing next to me. Her breath is shallow and fast, scared. I can hear my stomach, days without eating much has made it upset. What I don’t hear is snoring from the fat man or whispers from the red head. I’m holding my breath and focus on isolating all the sounds. They’re not there.
“Hello,” I speak quietly.
“Hello, “ I say a little louder.
I stand up and blink my eyes furiously. Slowly they adjust to the darkness inside. I can barley see the outline of the table and tiptoe to it. Frantic, I am searching with my hands, crayons, books , finally, the matches in a box next to the lantern. Light, it’s a small glow but enough to confirm that we are alone. I shove the remaining matches in my pocket of my sweater. Kneeling down I wake my sister.
“Shhh, quiet. Listen to me,” I whisper into her ear. “Listen, we have to go now. Will you help me?” she shakes her head. “ Will you be quiet? Don’t dry , don’t talk. Hold my hand tight and don’t let go. I’m going to get us home, do you understand?”
I’m gripping her face in the palm of my hands. She nods and is on her feet before me. I light one more match to quickly gather my bearings. Before it goes out I see the slant in the wall that leads to the tunnel, our only way out. The slant is my indication to the path out. With my hand pressed against the stone wall leading us, we shuffle forward. I’m counting steps in my head 37…38…39… The darkness does not scare me. What awaits in the light does. The red head with her missing teeth, ready to take us away, the fat man with his plump hands between my legs every night. 101…102…103, I have four matches left. I will use them to light the red head on fire if I have too. I can feel air, it has no weight and it smells new. The walls are casting shadows. There is light ahead. I stop.
“ We’re almost there. I can see the end,” I’m still whispering afraid my voice will give us away to whatever might be outside. I kneel in front of her, face to face. I can her heartbeat over my own. Both of us are shaking, our teeth chattering even though it’s not cold. In fact, I’m sweating. I’m burning up. My skin feels raw, stripped and exposed to the unknown elements. Every part of my body aches, screaming out.
“What does grandpa always say to us?” I ask
“When the world gets tough, you get tougher.” She straightens up.
“That’s right, we have to get tough right now. Do you understand? You have to do exactly what I tell you. If I say run, you run and you don’t look back. Be very quiet and stay right behind me.” I take a deep breath and head towards the opening.
I’m fingering the matches ready to burn our way out of the belly of the dragon. At the entrance my eyes are tearing up, making it hard to focus. It’s been days since they’ve seen natural light and I’m temporarily blinded by the sweetness of the sun. Grabbing my sister’s hand tightly, we walk out into the day. There is no truck or sign of people, nothing.
A narrow dirt road is in front of us. We are surrounded. The red cliff mountains are on both sides and behind, a box canyon. I’ve been on enough camping trips to know that in a box canyon there is only one way in and out. The fat man and red head are not here. There is only one place they can be and that is on that road. The road can’t lead us out, can’t hide us. It can’t save us.
“ We have to go up. We have to climb up and hide in the mountains. If we go down the road they will see us walking.”
I don’t even wait for her answer. I’m practically dragging her.
“Get tougher, get tougher,” she repeats over and over in a low voice. This is her mantra, her motivation. She is my motivation.
I have grown up in this mountain desert. The red rocks have stained me knees. I learned to swim in the river that runs through the mountains at age two. I learned to jump from the red cliffs holding nothing but rope at age five. I know how to work my fingers and feet into crevices made for small insects. I’ve camped for weeks in the valleys and played with my dolls in the mountain caves. I don’t bleed blood I bleed red dirt. The way up into the mountains is the way out.
My sister is like a rattler slithering over boulders twice her size. Repeating her mantra over and over has given her the strength to reach the first crest. I see the distance between us and the mineshaft is only about three blocks. From the top of the crest I have a clear view out of the canyon. I see the narrow long road snake through the canyon where it ends at the river before a paved road veers left. The river is flowing left the paved road goes left. I’m guessing, no hoping this means that town is to the left. My eyes scan to see if we can we can walk along this crest following the dirt road below as a guide till we reach the paved road at the end. The crest ends a few yards up and the mountain breaks. A small crevice in the smooth mountain cracks it’s way up to the next crest. From there it is a straight walk out of the canyon along the mountaintop. Where we will hopefully find a trail that leads to the paved road. This is the only way out. Go up or go down and take our chances on the dirt road. The sun is dipping it will be dark soon. I see my sister out of the corner of my eye. Her mouth is moving but the words are silent. Her body is small made even smaller from the lack of food and water these last few days. She looks weak but I can see the red dirt seeping into her blood. Making her strong. Her lips stop and her eyes get wide. I can see the tears as I turn to see what she sees. The truck is back. The dirt is kicking up mini tornadoes behind it. The headlights flick on just as the sun kisses us goodnight. We hide behind some small boulders above them. If not for that boulder we’d be exposed. All they have to do is look up.
“ I KNOW YOU’RE OUT THERE,” the fat man’s voice echoes through the canyon bouncing off the cliffs. “I’M GOING TO FIND YOU BOTH AND GUT YOUR LITTLE BODIES AND EAT YOUR INSIDES.” His anger roars up at us.
My sister is sobbing uncontrollably. I know he can hear us. We are emotionally exposed. They know we are not far away. I am positive his body will not allow him to make it past the first boulder. I am not so positive the red head won’t come after us.
“Look at me, stop crying now! He can’t find us. He won’t get you. We are going home. We are going home right now!” I say this with such conviction that even I believe it.
Running above them along the crest. I find the crack in the mountain it’s smooth to the touch. Looking up I can see the moon shine inside lighting my way. I lift my sister onto my shoulders. It’s barely wide enough to squeeze into. With my back pressed firmly against the wall I bend my knees in front of me lifting my feet to the wall in front of me. With all the strength I have left, I use my legs to push up.
“ I am tough,” I repeat with every push.
These mountains are my Narnia, my Neverland. These mountains are my playground and after playing I will get us home.