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The Arrangement

She said to meet her by the pear tree if we were ever separated. So overprotective, mama, I had told her, which got me labeled as precocious. At age seven, I knew it all. At nine, even more. But in spite of my brazen disposition, our Saturday morning visits to the cozy town square lasted all the way to age 11, which, in the bigger picture of all the families in the world, is pretty impressive.

Now I’m part of another family, that I chose. But not the way you choose a family - the way you choose a restaurant. A family is not meant to be a snap-decision based on boredom. What do you want to eat tonight- I’m bored, let’s go out.

Mom and Dad had told me not to go out. And we’d had a fight. We had been having more and more of those- teenage hormones, they’d whisper knowingly to one another in the hallway; so smug. I hated it. Like they knew more about me than I did. Through the crack in my door, I saw him kiss her on the cheek as she sighed, clutching the laundry basket. I slammed my door.

And that was the last time I saw her, until this morning.

It had been easy to leave from my second story window, same way they do it in all of the teen movies. I hadn’t even practiced my escape, but with the naive invincibility of all my thirteen years, I’d climbed down the trellis, grabbed the duffel bag I had thrown out the window, and taken off down the block.

“I’m running away,” I’d shouted, when I slammed the door to my room that morning, but I didn’t realize, at the time that the impulse items I’d stuffed in my bag would be of any consequence. Mostly I’d grabbed them so I’d have something on me for when my parents caught me in the yard and made me come back. I had to look like I had an intention of actually leaving or no one would take me seriously. Maybe I’d make it to the mall and spend an afternoon sipping lemonade and eating soft pretzels until I ran out of cash.

But I’d left quietly and they probably thought I was still in my room. At some point they would have figured it out. Maybe that night or the next morning.

Do you know the difference between a child abduction and a runaway? It’s a duffel bag.

The fight we’d had didn’t help.

“Was there any conflict at home? Had you been fighting,” I could picture the Sheriff asking.

“Well, we’d just had a fight,” my mother would admit.

A fight at home meant the authorities wouldn’t have even entertained abduction for a few days, leading everyone to believe I could be anywhere- out of state, across the country, or even dead.

Definitely not three blocks away with my new family; He makes us call it that.

We weren’t abducted; We had all chosen to be there at one point. We had all walked away, unassisted, with no gun to our head.

There are guns in the house, but they’re locked up now. We know not to leave or disobey. Some of us learned that easier than others. At 22, I can no longer be considered precocious, and anything brazen was beaten out of me long ago. Some of the other girls are still learning, but I’ve been here the longest. Well, second-longest, but after Mia “went back to her family,” my status changed.

I’ve helped forward this version of the story to the other girls, even though I know Mia is dead.

Willis would never allow any of us to return to our families; he always tells us we belong to him.

After the better part of a decade proving my loyalty, I’m the safest choice for a companion. He needs one now. He can walk unassisted holding onto the the banister and maneuvering around the room with his cane, but out in town, without someone to make sure he doesn’t fall, he could attract a lot of attention to himself.

If I ever get free, I know people will ask why I didn’t run. They’ll see Willis someday on the cover of a magazine or newspaper and it just won’t register.

Why didn’t you just walk out?

And even despite our quotes about how many years he spent training us. How we didn’t eat if we disobeyed. How he took the mattresses out of our tiny rooms for months as punishment, leaving us to sleep on the bare wooden floor with just a blanket. How we slept in walk-in closets with locks on them while every bedroom in the large house sat empty, except the one he occupied.

Well, Harry Potter slept in a room under the stairs until he went to Hogwarts, someone will argue.

I wish I’d brought Harry Potter with me. I had the first three books on my shelf. But I had been reading Anne Frank for school- an ironic choice. I have been through the contents of my duffel bag so many times in the last decade. A few outfits that haven’t fit in years, a paperback copy of The Diary of Anne Frank, Cosmo Teen Magazine from Sep 2010, Sultry Diva body mist from Wet N’ Wild, a knockoff Tiffany charm bracelet, and a wooden ballerina figurine my grandfather said he carved himself, but that had the residue of a price tag on the bottom.

If this were a movie, I thought, one of these items might be the key to my safe rescue.

But things are changing here, so maybe it’s time.

Willis needs assistance now, so he’s set some ground rules for bringing me outside with him for his weekly errands to the grocery store and the bank.

I think about leaving the wooden ballerina outside, which, surely, my family will find. I will leave it right at the pear tree, where my mother always used to tell me to meet her if we ever got separated.

It’s a long shot, but she’s sentimental, and it’s right in the middle of our small town square. She probably visits regularly- every Saturday, just to be sure. But it’s a Tuesday, so there’s a lot of time for something to go wrong. Maybe leaving a toy isn’t the best idea; a child might see it and pick it up.

Maybe just a note?

Just a prank, the sheriff will say. He’s one of the few people who know we live here. Willis and his sweet nieces, he remarks, when he visits, on occasion. On those days, Willis sets us up in the living room- a big bowl of popcorn and a movie, or the remnants of a fake art project on the dining room table we’re not allowed to eat at.

Next time you’ll have to stay for dinner, Willis says, rushing the Sheriff out, but that next time always becomes the one after that.

Sometimes I think the Sheriff suspects we are being held against our will. And sometimes I think he’s in on it.

Out in the town, Willis and I walk arm in arm. “You’re much prettier when you smile,” he says, which is not as much of a back-handed compliment as a threat. I nod and adjust, drawing in my breath carefully. If this goes well, I know he will start to take me outside more. And eventually we will walk past the pear tree and I will be one step closer to freedom.

But instead of a direct path to the drugstore, he nods toward the town square. I lead us to the elevated park area. It is just as I remembered. An actual town “square.” Four benches and a pear tree in the middle. The tree, which was tiny and new in my youth, has grown to be enormous.

A lady sits on a bench near the tree. I would recognize her anywhere. We make eye contact, she smiles, and returns her gaze to her book.

She doesn’t recognize me. I fight the urge to gasp.

We keep walking, but just out of earshot, Willis turns us around to look back at the square.

“Shall we say hello?” he asks quietly.

I look at him. I don’t know the game he is playing. Even when I know the game he’s playing it’s hard enough to win, but this is unfamiliar.

“You know who she is?” I asked.

“It’s a very small town,” he says, with a rare kindness in his voice. “I protect you girls. I have tried so hard to teach you well. I keep you to myself, but everyone knows where you are. And who you are.”

I fight the urge to shake my head; Disagreement is grounds for consequences.

“I was so pleased when Mia’s family was ready to take her back,” he says with a nostalgic smile. “But that took a long time. I had to work hard to instill enough discipline for them to want to take her back. I’ve been hoping for the same for you, but we just have to be certain she wants you.”

“I don’t,” I begin. What can I say? I don’t believe you? I don’t understand?

“I’ll tell you what,” Willis says, patting me on the arm. “I’ll let you know what she says after the next time we speak.”

I shake my head, starting to lose my breath. I am not sure what is real. Maybe I’m not even outside; maybe I’m still in my own daydream, because this doesn’t match up with any reality I can imagine.

A foreign sound comes out from my gut- it’s something like a choked sob. My mother looks up from her book, and Willis waves across the park to let her know we’re fine.

“We better get you home,” he says. “Too much excitement for one day.”

My mother nods to us casually and gets up to walk away and go back to her life. At home I tear the tiny note I’d pressed inside the waistband of my bra, just in case. My handwritten plea for rescue is now in 41 pieces on my walk-in closet room floor.

“Time for a special dinner, girls” Willis sings cheerfully. I can hear him unlocking our rooms, one by one. Mine last.

“I thought we needed to go into the grocery story today,” I say carefully.

“It’s from Postmates,” Maggie chimes in. She is our youngest girl. Fifteen, and only six months into belonging to the family.

“What’s Postmates?” I ask.

Willis opens the curtains wide and turns on all of the lights. There is no purpose for trying to conceal his family. We are not going anywhere.

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in Coming of Age, Contemporary Fiction, Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Young Adult (YA)

Responses

  1. Oh WOW this is superb. Love the strong images of the pear tree and the ballerina. Absolutely did not expect it to end as it did. Felt like Shirley Jackson. Well done.