Chapter 1: The Palace
It was called The Palace, back when it was a theatre. A small theatre, long closed, the big city's bigger theatre and the big-screen multiplex pulling its customers out from under it, and the city council bought it after years of disuse, and it's going to be converted into a civic centre, as soon as they have the budget. For now, they've ripped out the seats, and stacked plastic ones in the corner, but the stage is still there, and the high windows are small and murky. The group who meet there won't wait for it to be finished. They need it now, and so they cluster in the corner of the big room with their plastic chairs and folding table and their cheap coffee.
The group has a name, but the members just say they're going to The Palace, if they talk about it at all. Not all of them have anyone to tell about it, except each other. So they gather, every week, and they speak like any other group of friends. (Are they friends? some wonder. Would they be friends outside The Palace? They hope they would.) They'll make small talk, about school (their own, their children's, all ages end up here), about work, about their partners, about their (other?) friends. A listener would notice nothing wrong, except they never call each other by their names.
In The Palace, they are the Saint, or the Princess, or the Lady. Superhero names. Secret identities. From the stories which made them feel weak, they take names to make them feel strong. In The Palace, where once people came to watch others in masks and makeup and false names take on false identities, they take on false names to speak the truth.
And every so often, not every meeting, but sometimes, one will raise a hand in a lull in the conversation, and say "I think I'm ready to tell you now..."
Chapter 2: A Story about Saint Silvertongue
"My little guy's not so little anymore, I guess."
The Saint before the stage, unbrushed red hair, tan jacket, skinny hands shoved in his pockets, keeps on talking. "Made it into that business school I told you about. Heh, whoda thunk. We raise him in a crummy li'l apartment and now he's gone back to his billionaire ma. 'Course she wasn't one till we helped him fix that inheritance problem. You saw the news? Yeah, that was us. Sorry you know our real names now, is that not okay? Whatever. Can't take it back now."
Instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment; a boy, blowing out birthday candles, watching cartoons, baking cupcakes with the Saint and a plump redheaded older woman, spinning a dreidl. Waking from a nightmare and being enveloped in the arms of the Saint, who in turn is embraced by a much bigger man, and they huddle in soothing silence together. The boy grows up in jump cuts, his buzzed-short hair grows into flowing red-brown locks. In the street he bumps into a girl, and from the way he reacts he knew her long ago.
"Guess you all know the story now. So his girl found him, and we went, and we found his daddy's will. And everything worked out fine... Sort of..."
The movie changes; a laughing woman, outside a warehouse, with black mohawk and biker jacket and grubby hands and face. Two men with buzzcuts and more leather, laughing along with her, howling silently on the soundless tape.
The Saint swallows, and looks very small.
"Hired thugs. Y'know the type. He picked 'em up years ago, 'cause they were cheap, I think, and they weren't gonna report him. We needed in, we needed to find those papers. So my boy says, we need a distraction, and he's right. But they'd recognise him, and he knew more about the place than we did, so it was up to us. Now my partner's a big guy, real soft heart but he can fight, so he circles round one way and breaks a window and draws the bunch on that side away."
He looks at his hands, and hugs himself, and says stiffly "I'm not a fighter."
The three onscreen, with switchblades drawn, chase someone down the side of the warehouse. It's the Saint; he goes for a window, but the woman drags him down.
"I knew who they were. My kid had met them, before he met me, and he told me a bit about them, and we found some stuff in the news about them getting arrested and the old man bailing 'em out once or twice. And I'm not too bad at reading people, whatever my kid says. I knew enough to flatter 'em."
The Saint talks, faster and faster, a grin plastered on his face, until his pursuers lower their knives and frown in curiosity. He throws an arm around one man and companionably nudges him, and the man seems too surprised to stop him. The other whoops with laughter, and thumps him on the back. The woman breaks it up. Hurriedly, the Saint keeps speaking, and she looks interested, returning the grin when he sidles up to her and looks her in the eye.
"I kept talking till the guys seemed to sorta forget I'd been running a second ago. I don't think she forgot, but she must have wanted to see what happened. I knew the guys needed more time to get what they needed. And like I said, I'm not a fighter. And I didn't wanna die. So I talked them into the other option."
The Saint kneels, a hand on his head helping him along.
"I really don't know if they thought I meant it. I don't think she did, anyway. I don't know what was up with those guys anyway. I think I remember their surnames were different, but that don't mean much - blended families, y'know? Never found out if they were her brothers or her boyfriends or one of each or neither, or both for all I know? Doesn't matter. Not grossed out by watchin' each other, either way."
One man shoves the other out of the way, licking his lips. His eyes are wild, and drool foams down his chin. The woman snaps at him and drags him away.
"I was so scared of that guy. I thought he was on something, y'know? Meth, maybe? Or maybe he's just got some condition. I don't know. Thinking of that makes me feel worse. Doesn't matter what I called him in my head, I guess, but I don't know how much he knew about what he was doing. So I feel like I'm the one who did something wrong."
The Saint is pinned against the wall by the woman, both still clothed. Her knee is visible, hiked up at her side, joining her hand in pinning his wrists as she leans on the other against the wall. Her body rolls against him, and her lips form the words yeah, faggot, put ya back into it and she bites down on his neck.
"She knew. Oh yeah. She knew."
Three men race round the corner - the Saint's partner, baseball bat in hand, a fluttering blue-suited man recognisable from the news as the uncle's PA except the bruises on his face are so much fresher, and a spry old man who takes in the situation instantly and lunges with his sturdy cane.
"Sometimes I can't sleep in the bed with him. I asked him why he took me back when I cheated. He said I didn't, and the old guy told me to come here. I put it off for weeks, and I didn't speak for weeks, and it's been months till I've dared to say anything. 'Cause I asked them to do it. And the other option was get myself and my family and his family killed, I know. But..."
The Saint sits down, and his voice fades out.
"Every day, I've been asking myself... does it count? Does it count? Does it count?"
Chapter 3: A Story about Sister Snowdrop
"My older sister's been in treatment for depression since she was six."
Sister Snowdrop leans back on the stage, arms folded. Strands of her reddish hair are escaping her headscarf. A lock streaked with white dangles over her tiny freckled nose.
Instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment; two little girls, one blonde, one redhead. The blonde bursts a bag of flour on a countertop and shoves the fluffy white mound together into a crude snowman, and gives it toothpick arms as the redhead watches, giggling. Jump cut. The blonde is facedown on her little blue-covered bed, while the redhead knocks unheard at the door.
"Nothing seems to have happened to cause it, but there might be something she didn't tell me. I guess I know that well enough." Shrug.
Police at the door. Death certificates. Black dresses.
"Our parents died at sea on a business trip, and she withdrew even more. We bounced around between aunts and uncles for a while, then moved out on our own together, but I barely saw her. I want to help her, but I've had to be the strong one practically since I was born. It's exhausting."
A party. A red-haired gentleman in dark blue and white. They dance, close together, hand in hand, then in a tight embrace. Snowdrop sips a drink, then gulps it. There are no white streaks in her hair on the tape.
"We started arguing, and we both needed a way to deal with the stress. I started partying."
A note on a table. The wardrobe door left open.
"She started running away. I was frantic the first time, I thought she'd done something stupid, but she called me to say she was fine and not to follow her, and a week later she turned up again like nothing happened. We screamed at each other for a while, and she was gone again the next morning. I gave up trying to discuss it. She always came back. I don't know where she goes. I guess she needed a release valve. It scared me, but not as much as her hurting herself, so I didn't complain again. I needed one too, so I found the last phone number I'd been given and called it."
Snowdrop meets the man again, and again, and again, in the park, in a coffee shop, in a restaurant, and finally she brings him home, leaning on his arm, flushed with drink. He lays her gently down on her bed and begins unbuttoning her shirt, he pulls a wrapped condom from his pocket, and they share smiles as warm as summer.
"Everything was fine, until he left." She wrings her hands, and the words are forced from her throat like a flower through a concrete crack. "I went to clean up, and I found... some stuff there that I was pretty sure wasn't mine."
The stickiness on her fingers is opaque and thick, white as snow. She looks down to the trashcan. The condom and its torn wrapper are in there. She looks closer. The rubber is clean. Unused.
"Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe he made a mistake. Maybe this was a different one and he threw the other away somewhere else. I ran into him again, and he brought me roses and let me vent about my sister, and I didn't know how to bring it up, so I didn't. I was already on the pill just in case, so I thought okay, no harm done, but I kept thinking about it."
Snowdrop brushes her hair carelessly, and it comes out thick and fast on the brush. She opens the drawer of her dresser and takes out a pack of pills, and scowls when she sees they have run out.
"I was so worried I forgot to refill my pills. I fought with my sister again, and she disappeared again. And a few days after that, I went to him to talk, and he came over again."
This time, she enters sober, still on his arm but looking at him with a hint of caution. On the bed, half-undressed, he kisses down her neck, and she shrinks away and points to his discarded slacks. He shakes his head, and tries to continue, but she shoves him away.
"I was not going to get pregnant, and I told him so. I said I was out of pills, it wasn't like the last time. I don't think I should have told him I knew."
He pulls her up by the hair, and throws her off the bed. Her head strikes the bedside table, and she falls to the floor, bloody-scalped. He steps off and kneels over her, and pins her hands. Cut; she lies on the floor and tries to pull her clothes back on, as he stands by the mirror, buttoning his shirt and combing his hair.
"I asked him why he'd do this. I said nobody would do this to someone they loved. And he said..."
"If only there was someone out there who loved you." And he leaves, and slams the door.
"I ran down to the drugstore, and I picked up some Plan B, and my sister came home an hour later. My hair grew back white. I told her I hit my head on the doorframe."
Sister Snowdrop lies in her bed, and her sister knocks on the door, ignored.
"I can't turn him in," she says, covering her eyes with a hand as her voice cracks. "Even if it wasn't my word against his, if I did, I'd have to go to court. And my sister would find out. And she would think it was her fault because she wasn't there, and that would kill her."
"Papa and I are talking about whether or not I should go back to school yet. I want to go, it's boring being at home all the time and I'm not allowed outside right now."
The Duke perches on the edge of the stage, needing the extra height for the whole group to see him. Tiny, pale-faced and dark-haired, limbs thin as sticks, he wrinkles his carrot-shaped nose.
"I think I'll end up switching schools. The papers didn't say it was me, but I went missing and then it's all over that a bunch of kidnapped kids got found? It's pretty obvious."
Instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment; the Duke on another stage, rather younger, dressed up and dancing and belting out lyrics. He finishes, and bows, and the audience applauds.
"School was a bit messed-up for me anyway. I'm a- I was a child actor, and I travelled a lot on tour. Never got a big role on TV but they loved me on the stage, and I did a couple of commercials. Can't do that anymore either, that stinks. I miss it."
Outside the theatre the Duke, now older, disentangles from a group hug with a white-haired old man with a big moustache, a tiny bald man younger than the first, a blonde young woman, and two other children. Waving, he pushes his suitcase into the trunk of a car and climbs into the back, and the scraggly red-haired man in the driver's seat looks guiltily at him and drives away.
"The guy who took me there was my agent. He said he was taking me to the next city for the show, and Papa and Uncle said I was old enough to go on tour on my own. We had no reason not to trust him. Once we got on the highway he said he was taking me to a special summer camp instead because I'd been so good. I thought it was weird, but I wasn't gonna turn down a free vacation! Would you?"
A huge beaming red-coated man and a small nervous yellow-coated one lead the Duke and his agent onto a boat, and soon they arrive on a small rocky island. On the island is a very large, very plain brick building, with no signs advertising any camp. A wall surrounds the building and the yard. It looks more like a prison than a camp. But inside the building is a huge yard with climbing equipment and a grassy space for ball games and at least a dozen other boys. And the wall is painted with grinning clowns and prancing animals, and the windows let in sweet salty breezes, and the mesh over the windows is for their safety, right?
"They called it Pleasure Island, and everyone there seemed to be having fun. I said hi to a couple of the guys, but I didn't really have time to talk before they hauled me off to the doctor. They said all the boys had to get regular checkups just in case, and I said okay. And, um, I did get the talk about not letting anyone touch me in a bad way, but I thought if it was a doctor it was okay, and when I asked why he was filming it he said he was gonna send the video to Papa so he could see nothing wrong was happening, and I believed him."
A doctor kindly instructs him to strip down and get on the scales, and lines up measuring tape, thermometer, calipers, and so on. The Duke does as ordered, visible only from the waist up, and the doctor snaps on rubber gloves, glances down, and double-takes.
"I don't know if it made it better that I... See, something went wrong before I was born, and, um, my... some parts didn't grow in at all. What was it they called it? Agenesis. That was it. So the doctors did a blood test and figured I was probably gonna be a boy, so that's how I grew up, and when I was a bit older Papa and Uncle told me the differences and asked if I wanted to keep being one. I said yes, and he said fine, and whatever anyone said I was absolutely a real boy if I said I was. So I told the doctor that and I thought everything was fine."
The Duke scurries out of the medical bay and back to the yard, and sits down on the grass next to a bigger red-haired boy with a brown bowler hat. The bigger kid looks at him with an odd sadness in his hollow eyes, and says new fish, huh? The Duke talks animatedly, the other boy languidly, as their fellow inmates play around them. The Duke misses the dead look some of them share with his new friend.
"That was when I met Lampwick. I liked him, he was fun, but he seemed really tired and not very well. I wanted to cheer him up. I asked if he'd been here before, and he said not really, because he never left. I thought it was great, he lived somewhere this cool! He said yeah, some of the boys are full-timers. I found out later all of us were supposed to be. He was great, he showed me how to pick locks and play cards and all kinds of stuff. Even if I did have to explain I'm not a girl."
Duke settles in and joins the fun. The boys are herded down to the beach, to swim and fish and climb the rocks, with coolers full of ice cream waiting for them. The dress-up closet is overflowing and they take full advantage, dressing as pirates and cowboys and spacemen. On a rainy day, they're allowed, nay, encouraged to splash and wrestle in the mud. The bigger boys fight for real, earning bloody noses and blackened eyes and once a broken tooth. They eat candy and chug soda until they vomit on the floor, and the red-coated man "accidentally" leaves liquor and cigars in the kitchens. All the while, cameras hum away in every corner, and some days they're even taken into a studio and encouraged to pose properly.
"Little things were weird. Like, the staff seemed really keen for us to dress up, and then they told us there was no need to bother with clothes at all when it got really hot or on the beach. And the boys got taken off on their own a lot and we weren't allowed to follow them."
Duke lies in the bed nearest the window in the dormitory, and is falling asleep when a light starts flashing in his face. He screws his eyes shut, but it keeps coming, and he blinks and sits up to see his friend in the next bed pointing a flashlight out the window, out to sea.
Flick, flick, flick. Flash. Flash. Flash. Flick, flick, flick. Flash. Flash. Flash. Three short, three long, three short, three long, over and over.
Why are you doing that?
'Cos I can't remember which is S and which is O.
Heehee, you're funny! But I'm trying to sleep, okay?
Lampwick flings a pillow at him. Duke pouts, and curls up in bed, blanket over his head, as the flashes continue washing over him.
"I'm really glad I found out when I did. I know they'd have done something horrible to any of the other boys if they tried to tell me before, but I'm still kind of mad Lampwick didn't tell me, and I feel bad for that. I went past Coach's office, and I heard him talking to my old agent and his friend, so I stopped to listen, and I heard him - the agent, I mean - saying 'I don't want to do this'..."
The Coach is shouting at the cowering agent and the small yellow-coated man hiding behind him, about the money they owe him and how they're too deep to get out now. He calls them incompetent, says at least you could have brought a real boy, tells them they're lucky there's a market for sideshow attractions and he's hammering out the details with a couple of clients. Maybe the new kid can make enough to replace that worn-out redhead nobody wanted anymore.
"I don't know what to think about all this. I didn't get hurt, but I feel really creeped out. The police lady said they were selling all the tapes, see, and most of them were just us doing regular stuff which we'd do anyway. I had to have another sex talk about how there are people who like all kinds of stuff, and now I feel like a million creepy guys on the internet are watching me every time I do anything. I'm scared of doctors now and it's hard to even eat or sleep or go to the bathroom when I need to when I know people watched us do that."
The Duke looks out the window into the yard, and the other window into the beach, and checks the dorms and the playrooms and the bathrooms and the medical rooms, but Lampwick is nowhere to be found. The Coach pushes past him, and he seizes his chance and runs to the office. The agent and his friend are still in the room; all he has to do is knock, and the look on his face lets the men know he heard. They leave for the mainland that evening, with him smuggled away in their boat, and as soon as they are on the mainland they lend him a phone.
"I guess I'll have to speak in court when it's time. I hope my agent and his friend come out okay. I think they're really sorry, but Uncle said the cops found they have pretty serious records for other stuff and they're only sorry they got caught. We didn't know till then he was stealing from my earnings, too. So I lost two friends."
Police interview rooms. Crying family, hugs. The Duke sits through it all, looking lost.
"Everyone's feeling weird about it and crying a lot, and Uncle Jim's really mad at himself. He's the one who gave me most of the safety and grown-up-stuff talks and now he's beating himself up that he didn't think to say something which could have stopped this. I told him he did say a bunch of stuff which could have helped and I still did a lot of stupid things so it was my fault, and he cried some more."
A police boat approaches over the horizon, and as it comes nearer, the figures of the boys become visible, some trembling and weeping, some whooping and waving. The Duke waves back, until something in the ocean catches his eye. He looks over the side of the pier, and a brown bowler hat washes up on the shore below.
"His name was Romeo Lucignolo. He was only just thirteen, and they still haven't found him. I wish I could tell him I'm sorry. And I think he'd want to tell me he is too."
Chapter 5: A Story about the Page of Cuts
"I miss my razor. Need my razor. Need to use my hands!"
The Page sits on the stage, short and scrawny, thirty and looking twelve, wild-haired and wilder-eyed. He almost disappears in a white polo-neck big enough for four of him, hands working-working-working in a web of threads. Next week it might be a spinner or a Rubik's Cube or a ball of putty. He can't have his razor here.
Instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment; a boy grows up in poverty, on and off the streets. One day he steals a straight-razor, and sets about learning to use it for purposes it was never intended for.
"Punk God of the Straight Razor, ol' Wheezy called me." The Page kicks his feet like a child, and adds "I like it, even if it is from a boring ol' book. He's got a bunch of mystery books, an' I don't like to read, it takes aaaages and I gotta focus all the time an' I can't fiddle with stuff if I'm holding a book, but if we ask real nice an' his cough's not too bad he reads out loud, an' Stupid an' me listen, an' I think Smarty listens sometimes even though he tells him to stop 'cos we're not babies." He looks down. "I missed 'em a lot."
A warehouse; a shootout. Police arrive, and the gang scatter.
"They left me. Left me to get caught. Left me aaaallll alone, and left me in the cell."
A cell, a hallway, a courtroom.
"I'm legally insane!" the Page says proudly. "Can't remember what they called what they said I had but they stuck me in the loony bin and said I was never ever coming out."
The Page sits in a padded cell, twisting his fingers compulsively together. The door creaks open.
"Wasn't so bad really. They don't make you stay in padded rooms all the time anymore but they stuck me in there a few times to shut me up. 'Sposed to stop you hurting yourself. It's not very good at that." The Page rolls up his sleeves, exposing dozens of thin white lines overlaid with thicker jagged marks; marks that were made by his teeth. "Didja know nobody can hear you from inside those rooms? No matter how much you yell?"
An arm in a white sleeve reaches out and touches the Page's head. He remains still, curious, as the fingers entwine in his hair.
"Didja know one of the most common problems you can have with a shrink is that they try to fuck you? Happens aaaaallll the time. Makes sense. Where else can they find someone no-one would believe? He's a doctor and I'm just a crazy little boy."
Fingers push into his mouth, and he bites them bloody. The doctor yanks away, and the uninjured hand closes into a fist and sends the tiny Page to the floor. Bitten fingers wrapped in a handkerchief, the doctor's hands lift him, pin his wrists behind his back, and force his face into the padding.
"You ever stone-cold known you're gonna die? I've seen people who did. Never thought about how it felt till then. I didn't wanna suffocate. I didn't wanna die not fighting back. When he was done he dropped me like a bag of trash and I was too busy trying to breathe to fight."
The doctor leaves him bleeding through his white pyjamas, onto the white padding, and gnawing more red from his hands and flinching as salt tears spatter the wounds. Days pass. More visits to the padded room. Until the cell door opens, and the Page looks up to see a stolen white coat topped with a familiar face, and beams.
"Smarty came back for me," the Page says, hugging himself. "Don't know why but he did. I shoulda known the guys would find a way. They're the best. Even if he didn't bring my razor 'cos he said people would notice. I still wanna go back with it. But we all had to run away and go live in a new state."
The redhaired man from Sister Snowdrop's story finds his front tires slashed and the words "I KNOW" carved on the windshield.
The Page looks at the group from under his mop of hair. "You're not gonna turn me back over to him," he says confidently. They all look at each other, uneasily thinking it over, but for now, at least, he's right.
Chapter 6: A Story about the Mother Superior *CSA*
"I'm afraid I can't share a story of what happened to me, because nothing did," says the Mother Superior, standing to attention before the stage, perfectly manicured hands clasping a pen, perfectly painted lips forming perfectly clipped words. "But I can tell you how I came to begin this group, and I hope it will help you all feel more secure."
Instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment, showing the Mother at work. She is a social worker. Nobody's dream job, perhaps, but she always arrives in perfect time and takes perfect notes in her perfect handwriting.
"I enjoy my job, for the most part. I like to organise, and I like to solve problems, and I like to help people, especially children. But we can't always provide the help people need most."
At home, the Mother feeds her grumpy green parrot and sits down to sew a simple little ragdoll. At work the next day, in an interview room, she gives the doll to a sniffling little girl in a torn and grubby dress, and leaves the child with her colleague, who has grey hair and a soft blue suit and a gentle smile.
"Perhaps it was overstepping the boundaries a little, but I like to sew, and we needed toys for the children. It helps them to have something to hold onto, and some of them have no suitable toys of their own. I don't do child interviews myself. I'm told my manner can upset them. Efficiency must take a backseat to gentleness in these circumstances."
Another coworker speaks to her, also in blue but with golden hair - she is the young lady seen with the Duke of Dolls. The Mother nods, and at home she sews another doll. This one is different; two pink buttons on the chest, some other additions elsewhere.
"We also needed the special dolls. I thought it better I made them then we have a repeat of what happened to poor Cora Reynolds. Not that I would make such a foolish mistake in ordering, of course... I don't think you want to hear the details. Suffice it to say I make sure we wash the dolls and the CPR dummy regularly."
Children hit the dolls, bite them, shake them, scream at them. Pull their clothes aside and point or touch. Adults sit in the interview room too, mostly women, some men, bruised and bloody, some of them clutching toys too. Notes and recordings are handed over to police. Sometimes the officers bring good news. Sometimes they don't.
"Honestly, I have learned to be quite good at shutting off my empathy. One has to, in such a line of work. The worst parts are the ones we can't help. Sometimes the evidence simply isn't sufficient."
A young man knocks on her door with a bunch of cheerfully-coloured flowers, and she takes his arm and steps out into the street, smiling.
"I realised I was getting too lost in my work, and so I put out a personal advertisement and struck up a friendship with a young gentleman. He used to work here - he was a dancer, and an excellent one. He moved on to the other theatre when the Palace closed, but he still had some useful contact numbers and it's thanks to him I was able to obtain access to this room. But I'm getting ahead of myself a little. He was also something of a songwriter..."
By the park's duckpond, the man dances over the bridge, making the Mother laugh, and waves, urging her to continue his song. She does, and the camera pulls up to her face; You'd never think of pressing your advantage, forbearance is the hallmark of your creed...
"At the time, we thought nothing of it. I was just singing whatever came into my head and rhymed. Later on, though, he became slightly concerned, and talked to me about why I said that. He asked me something to the effect of 'why would I praise something about him which everyone should be'. And I had to say that it was because so many people are not."
On the sofa at her home, the man frowns, and says Is this about your work? and the Mother frowns too, and nods. The man leaves and comes back with a pot of tea, and sits next to her to talk.
"He thought I should take a break and find a way to stop taking my work home so much, but I would feel I was failing in my duty if I did not do everything I possibly could to help. On the other hand, I know that if I overwork myself, I will not be able to help anyone at all. So we decided the best way to solve the problem was to help people to help themselves."
The next time a young woman sits in the interview room, crying her nose bloody to match the scrapes on her hands and head, the Mother Superior slips a business card into the tissue she hands over, with the address of The Palace. When a child has to go back to the parents she knows but cannot prove are harming them, she hides the card behind the toy in her hand, with the handwritten note TELL NO ONE. She gives stacks of the cards to her coworkers and her young man, and they leave them in libraries and public toilets and on buses through the city.
"I don't come here every week, now people I can trust have taken over. The group runs itself now, and I can see that everyone here is willing to help everyone else. I was criticised for allowing children to attend alongside adults; people don't think children should hear what a vile place the world can be." She surveys the group with the pride of a general. "I say children who need to be here already know that. They need to know they are not its only target and that there are people who will care. And I would like to say; thank you. Thank you all."
Chapter 7: A Story about the Countess of the Keys *CSA*
"I told Mom this was an art club. I've always loved art. She believed me. I feel terrible for lying, but I need some space away from her. She drove me here, but she didn't look too closely. I think she thinks art is boring. Well, what would the world be if we were all alike, right?"
The Countess stands before the stage, paint on her hands, hair brushing her soft bare feet, a sketchbook in her arms.
"She worries so much! She moved house for me so I could stay with her, because she didn't want me to go to college alone and have to live with strangers. I might even have had to move in with..." She glances around, and whispers hoarsely, "men. Isn't it great that she loves me so much?"
Instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment; a tiny blonde girl, smeared with finger paints, sits quietly and lets a dark-haired woman brush her hair. A dark-haired woman can have a fair-haired child, of course, but they really don't look very much alike.
"Oh, I'm sorry, guys, not you, of course. I know you're all safe." She mutters "Well, maybe not the Page," then clears her throat and adds "But I don't think Mom would. I love her and all, but I've been thinking recently that maybe she's a... teeny... bit overprotective?"
The little girl, the infant Countess, sits in front of the TV all alone and plays with a single doll. She leaps up in joy when she sees the car headlights, and sags when the car does not turn into the driveway. She picks at the spilled cereal box lying beside her and eats a few pieces.
"It's weird. She wanted me to be super independent at home, but not anywhere else. I know she had to work and stuff, and she couldn't always afford a babysitter, and I was smart enough to not burn the house down, but still, didn't she trust anyone to watch me?"
The little girl is old enough for school, and her mother takes her shopping. She tries on shoes, and takes a few steps, and whines as if she's never worn them before. Indeed, she hasn't. By afternoon she's sunburnt, so used to the protection of locked windows. But she perseveres.
"I remember, my first day of school, she drove me right up to the gates, and as I got out of the car, she said to me..."
"If one of those horrid little boys should hit you, you come and tell me, flower."
"I wasn't good with people. I'm still not. I had a panic attack, and everyone laughed. I was marked as the weird kid from then on, and when I went to Mom and cried, she said..."
"There, flower, if they're so cruel, doesn't that show you shouldn't be friends with them anyway?" she says, embracing the sobbing child.
"It was around that age I saw something inappropriate on TV. I think it was just a throwaway line in a sitcom, but I figured out I was missing something, and I asked. She sat me down and told me everything. I think she told me more than I'd wanted to know, heh, and I was pretty badly scared. And then she said..."
"So if your teacher tells you to go off alone with him, you come and tell me, flower."
"Even the weird kids can find some friends, and there were some older girls who were nice to me. They had a little sister in a wheelchair, so I guess they were used to kids with problems socialising. And they invited me over for a sleepover. And Mom said..."
"Seven daughters? My goodness, dear, don't you know how much he must like to fuck?" The little Countess begs and begs, and Mother finally gives in. Outside the gates of the beautiful garden around the beautiful house, where the seven little girls wave and their big bearded father nods, Mother says to her If he creeps into your room in the night, if he takes out that horrid thing I told you about and tries to make you touch it, if he tries to hold you down and hurt you, you come tell me, flower. And the little Countess enters, trembling.
"It was a sleepover, not much to say about that. Movies, makeup, yeah. We all crammed into one bedroom and cuddled up in blankets and pillows, and the others fell asleep, but I was thinking about all the stuff Mom said. Their dad was really big and scary, and he seemed nice, but like Mom said, don't they always?"
The little Countess huddles under the blankets, and relaxes slowly, and is almost falling asleep when THUD, the door jolts in the frame, and she leaps up screaming, and when the door opens and the concerned father enters she kicks and hits and bites and hides under the bed.
"He said he tripped on the top step, but he would say that, wouldn't he? And Mom said that I must never ever tell a man I knew what he wanted or he'd hurt me worse, so when he asked, I didn't say. I kept on screaming and crying till he had to call Mom to take me home, and she said 'I told you so'. The girls never hung out with me after that."
The Countess grows up, all alone. When she must walk down the street, she holds her keys between her fingers, ready to scratch out someone's eyes. Pepper sprays live in her pocket and her pillowcase. When Mother isn't home, she locks the doors. When she earns an art scholarship, Mother moves them both across the state, and drives her to her first class, and says if any of those boys tries anything, you come tell me, flower, and she nods.
"This is stupid, I shouldn't even be here, I'm sorry. I can't come to a support group because I'm afraid something might happen, right? But... I don't think every man is dangerous, and everyone seems so calm all the time, so is there a way to tell which ones are okay that I don't know? I thought you guys might know... What? You think I should be here because of Mom? Why?"
Chapter 8: A Story about the Lady Reynard
"My favourite fairy tales were always the ones about tricksters. Anansi and Coyote and Loki."
The Lady at the stage, in a long pink gown with her soft ginger hair under a pink hat, wringing a pink handkerchief in her fingers.
"I suppose that was what attracted me to my fiance. He was always quite a troublemaker. Never anything dangerous or really illegal, of course, but oh, he was a terror as a child! My favourite uncle loved him. My other uncle, though... not so much. Unfortunately, that uncle is the one who taught me recently that tricks aren't always funny."
The Lady yawns and stretches in a hotel bed as a weak-chinned blond man, rather young to be her uncle, throws open the curtains, declaring oh, bother, it's raining - ah well, not much. It'll clear up soon, I shouldn't think you'll need an umbrella. He opens the wardrobe, and pulls out a white skirt and jacket and holds it up to her thoughtfully.
"He told me he was going on a business trip, and asked if I wanted to come along for a free trip. I should have known something was up. He's never done anything for free before. I suppose I assumed he was putting it down as a business expense, and I said yes. Then when we were there, he took me out for a drive, along with his PA. They seemed very nice, and he even gave me flowers."
The Lady, in the white suit, sits beside a skinny gap-toothed man in the back of a car, chatting and laughing. Uncle, driving, tosses a small bouquet of pink roses into her lap, and she smells them happily.
"I said 'oh, thank you, what's the occasion?' and he... he was so casual when he said 'your wedding, dear'. I was shocked. I thought for a moment he'd brought my fiance over too, to surprise me, but they always hated each other. He hadn't. He told me one of his business associates was waiting at the church right now. I had my hand on the door already when his friend pulled a gun on me."
The car passes by the churchyard, stone angels looming, misty raindrops collecting on their faces and slithering down to the earth below. She looks out the window, but they don't stop. They park on the street outside the courthouse, and the Lady is led to the door. Excited, the skinny man knocks, saying open up! open up! and she stands still, as cold and dull-eyed as the corpses in the church's ground.
"My fiance and I were arranging a church wedding, that was important to us. I'm glad they didn't make me profane a church this way. There was a judge who owed them a favour, it turned out, and I thought he didn't notice how I felt, but when I started crying I realised he didn't care. I didn't dare speak. They still had the gun."
A thin grey-haired man with a stern face and a floppy hat answers the door. Uncle urges the Lady in, and they lead her to the courtroom, where a fat grey-haired man is whistling idly and picking his fingernails. When she walks in, he lights up. Her uncle takes her arm, holding hard enough to bruise.
"They must have been planning this for weeks. Months, maybe. That's what scares me. I lived with him, I kept my documents in his attic. He stole my birth certificate and sent it to this man so they could make the paperwork look right."
Tears in her eyes, she signs the paperwork, and the stranger who is now her husband signs alongside her. Uncle beams, and slips him a cheque.
"My fiance was still in England and thought I was just on holiday, my other uncle was still on a business trip somewhere in the Middle East, and I have no other family. I wouldn't be missed for days or weeks, and I know the first day is the most vital in abduction cases. I had to be clever enough to get out of it myself. They tricked me, and I had to trick him back."
A hotel room. Nice enough, if it was in better circumstances. She sits on the bed and picks the bouquet apart, knotting the stems together like the knots in her own stomach, as the stranger removes his tie.
"If I got hurt, there'd be no way I could get out. I... I played along."
Close-up on her face, his hair visible over her shoulder, her blouse still on but opened, terror in her eyes as she whispers love me, love me, love me and flinches as he bites.
"He fell asleep quickly, at least. He had the keys to the door and the balcony in his hand and I didn't want to risk trying to take them in case he woke up. The window opened far enough for me to get out that way. When my fiance and I were little we climbed out of windows with bedsheet ropes all the time. We were ten floors up, so I couldn't get all the way down, but I didn't need to."
With a rope knotted together of the towels and both their clothes, which she anchors on the sink pedestal, she climbs down, teeth gritted around his stolen wallet and gaze fixed resolutely forwards, and swings across to the balcony of the room below. She knocks on the glass door and calls open up! open up! The inhabitants wake, shocked to see a tearful woman in her underwear, untangling her clothes from the rope.
"I'm so glad the room was occupied. If I'd had to wait for the maid, he might have woken up and found me gone. They offered to take me to the police, but I didn't want to. The judge was in on it, I couldn't trust the local law. There was enough in the wallet I... took for a bus ticket. I know he deserved worse, but I still keep thinking I ought to pay him back. Silly."
The couple, both short and with slicked dark hair, the woman's bearing a red polka-dot bow, drive her to the bus station. The Lady is still in tattered clothes and smudged makeup, and limps when she leaves the car. The woman gives her a phone number.
"Luckily my fiance's best friend lives in the States, and I knew his address. I had somewhere to go, and it was far enough away that I could trust the police there. I didn't want to ruin the evidence, so I didn't clean up. I had to travel all night, changing buses halfway there, and call a taxi to his house, without being able to wash up, still smelling like that man's awful cologne and with a pad to stop me bleeding into my skirt."
A hulking man with a gentle smile opens an apartment door, and the Lady wails JOHN! and hurls herself into his arms to weep.
"He got me to the hospital and they used the kit, and it was as awful as you would expect. I'm sure many of you know. We called my other uncle, and he flew right over. I talked him out of just going and strangling his brother. I think he really would have done it, but that wouldn't solve anything. And now we're trying to get the annulment through."
The Lady sits on a couch, freshly bathed, face scrubbed red, hot coffee mug in her hands and a blanket around her. Beside her sits a big golden-bearded man. He moves a hand towards her arm, and she flinches away.
"We tried to use duress as a reason, but we're having a hard time proving it. We're arranging for my real fiance to fly in to testify. I'm staying with his friend for the moment, I don't want to be alone and hotel rooms frighten me a little right now. He's noticed I'm sometimes nervous around him and he can't do anything to help it, because he just happens to have the same name as the uncle who... who sold me."
The Lady presses her handkerchief to her eyes. "I just want to go home. But where is home now?"
Chapter 9: A Story about Ka Pua Mae 'Ole *CSA*
"Can I tell you guys a bedtime story? Even if it's not your bedtime, it's gonna be mine when we leave."
Pua Mae huddles on the stage, arms around an ugly but loved handmade doll, its green cloth showing vividly against her long red dress.
"Once upon a time, there was a rabbit. And her name was, um..." She looks around the room and her eyes light on the cleaning closet. "Mop. And she lived with her big sister... Bucket, who loved her more than anything in the world and was super good at surfing and had a really nice boyfriend who breathed fire. And her uncle was a giant and built things and her auntie had a cool eyepatch and collected wigs, and they were all her 'ohana which means family. And she really liked dancing and went to halau all the time, which means hula school, and she had the cutest pet dog in the world and he was her 'ohana too."
Instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment; a blue-roan mutt with a snub nose, bug eyes, and enormous ears, probably mostly terrier, drags the tiny girl around the park, chases an overweight grey-and-white pug halfway up a tree, frantically competes to bark louder than a White Shepherd cross, struggles with a tatty brown mongrel over a set of oversized rubber keys of different colours.
"But your halau is supposed to be your 'ohana too and hers wasn't. The grown-ups were nice but the other little bunnies were mean. 'Specially the one with poofy red ears, who was called... Blanket. Mop didn't know why she was so mean. Bucket said it might be 'cause her daddy had a lot more carrots than they did, or 'cause she had white fur and lots of people thought that made her better than brown bunnies like Mop, which I think is stupid but everyone says I'll get it when I'm older. And she really really hated Mop's awesome dog."
Hula class; Pua Mae explains to the teacher why she was late, soaked from swimming. The red-haired girl sneers, and Pua Mae lunges at her.
"And she knew really bad words. Well, I guess I know them too now, but I don't say them, honest! But she did. One day after dance class she was fighting with Mop about her awesome dog again and she said 'do you... really-bad-word... your dog' and Mop didn't know what that meant. And she told them all, and everyone laughed."
The little redhead explains, along with explicit hand gestures, and Pua Mae stamps her foot and screams ew, no I don't! why are you so gross? you're making that up! and the redhead says why else would you keep that thing around? and the other girls chant you're gonna have puppies! and they laugh and laugh and laugh.
"And she started being weird. I- Mop dropped stuff sometimes, and she'd stand behind her and bend over a bit so Mop bumped into her when she stood up, and then she'd yell 'ew you touched my boobies' and everyone would laugh. So Mop said no she didn't 'cause it was an accident and she didn't even have any boobies, and the other bunnies laughed again and Blanket got mad."
In the toilets, the little redhead stands on a stool to wash her hands. Pua Mae enters, leans on the sink up on tiptoe and tucks her hair behind her ears. The redhead pulls a face and says something snide, and Pua Mae says why are you always so mean? and the response is because you suck and they start to argue in a whisper-yell so as not to attract adult attention.
"So they got in a fight in the bathroom at class. And Mop said Blanket was a big jerk and she needed to be punished and she was going to go tell how gross she was. And Blanket said..."
"Snitches need to be punished!" And she shoves Pua Mae into a cubicle.
Pua Mae curls up tighter around the doll, and mumbles "It... it hurt. An' Mop knew how to fight but she didn't this time 'cause she was surprised and then scared, and then she did try to fight but it didn't work."
The door opens. Three other little girls enter and peer round the cubicle door, one saying where are you, it's time to go home- and cutting off. The redhead started to pull away but not fast enough, and they see her hands moving very quickly away, and the bite-marks and pinched spots on both girls' arms. They look them up and down, and wrinkle their noses at Pua Mae's dishevelled state. Probably they assume it was just a fight. The redhead tosses her hair and struts out as if nothing happened, the others following behind like ducklings while Pua Mae locks the cubicle door and curls up beside the toilet.
"So Mop sat by the toilet for the rest of class, and the grown-ups came in to see where she was and they thought she was just sick, so they called her auntie to pick her up, and she put her home-time dress back on so no one saw the marks."
A noodle-thin woman with an askew wig and a lime-yellow eyepatch cheerfully acknowledges the teacher and takes Pua Mae's hand.
"And at bathtime auntie saw the bites and she got told off for getting in a fight. And she felt gross for days and days, until holding all that inside was more scary than telling someone, but she didn't wanna get in more trouble. She didn't really know what to do 'cause her sister had told her to tell her right away if a man touched her in a weird way, but not about if it was another little girl bunny. And she absolutely couldn't tell her sister because she'd be upset, so she waited till her sister was out with her boyfriend, and she sat down with her auntie and uncle, and told them a story about, um... a butterfly who had it happen, and asked what they thought the butterfly should do. But they knew right off what she meant."
The skinny woman is in tears, squeezing Pua Mae in a tight hug, and says tomorrow I'm marching right up to that school and giving that girl's parents a piece of my mind and Pua Mae and the huge man beside her both cry no!, and the man adds I don't think little kids would come up with this on their own. He draws them both into a hug and wipes away a tear of his own, and the dog jumps up to lick the salt from their faces, and Pua Mae hugs the little animal tightly.
"And... and it wouldn't have been so bad..." Her lip trembles, and her voice cracks. "... if even one of the other little bunnies had said something when they saw what she did. But they just watched." She breaks down, and buries her face in her doll. "They just watched."