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Outside the Box

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A long blank space in my mind . . . . I think the ringing in my ears must be a soft continuous message from outer space.

“It’s been a quiet day, Mrs. McGee,” the nurse says. She’s new, and Carol can’t remember her name. The turnover rate in this facility is high.

Through the open door, Carol can see blankets wrapped tightly around a form huddled on the bed. Half her daughter’s face is visible, a thin thread of light bisecting her neatly across the eyes. Jackie frequently stares at the light filtering through the blinds on the window that overlooks the hallway. Sometimes Jackie’s lips move while she’s staring, but Carol can never understand what she’s saying or even if she’s saying anything at all.

Brian has stopped visiting Jackie almost entirely. Carol misses the days when she could still muster the energy to guilt him into coming with her instead of spending longer and longer hours at the shop. She’s tired of fighting with him, though, and she’d rather save what little wherewithal she has left for Jackie.

Carol sits in the chair by Jackie’s bed and thumbs through the artwork and the writing that Jackie produced in therapy on her more lucid days this week: a drawing of a yellow dog with the words “Gillenwater Goodboy” scrawled at the bottom, a shoebox full of paper objects folded so that they each have five sides, an entire ream of paper printed with random letters. Carol runs her fingers over the rows of letters, trying to make some kind of sense of what Jackie has so painstakingly typed. They come away smudged with ink.

Dear Mom and Dad, It seems like a long time. I hope you’re okay.

“No one blames you, April,” Carol says, but she’s lying. Part of her does blame April and her deadbeat mother and her negligent dad and everything about April’s childhood that made her cling to Jackie like a lifeline. Everything that made April storm in and out of their house the night Jackie disappeared. Everything that made Jackie follow her.

Carol watched her daughter become more and more subsumed by April over the years, watched her create an identity as one half of a whole, and wondered what would happen when the illusion shattered. Now she knows. What happens is that her daughter gets kidnapped.

Carol knows that isn’t fair. April had nothing to do with Jackie’s kidnapping, and the kidnapping isn’t some terrible consequence of their friendship imploding. It doesn’t feel that way to Carol, though.

“I just miss her so much,” April says, her face puffy from crying. She reaches out for Carol like she has at least a dozen times since this nightmare started, and Carol’s arms instinctually circle around her. Carol closes her eyes. Every time she looks at the girl in her arms, some vicious part of her thinks, “He should have taken you.”

WHAT I WILL DO FIRST: Take bath. Wash hair. Brush moss off teeth . . . . Forget this ever happened.

Jackie has taken more baths than she can count. She’s floated in water until her skin is white and pruney. She’s devoured an entire head of lettuce and drank pineapple juice by the pitcher-full. She’s gone into the bathroom more times than she’d care to admit and flushed the toilet just to hear the wonderful sound of modern plumbing. Jackie has done everything she dreamed about while she was locked away in the dark, everything except the last thing, the most important thing.

She often wakes up in the middle of the night screaming or, what’s somehow worse, sobbing silently into her pillow while her mom snores softly in the cot next to Jackie’s bed. Jackie hasn’t been alone since she was rescued, not even to walk to the mailbox at the end of the drive. Jackie’s pretty sure she doesn’t want to be alone anyway; she’s had enough alone-ness for a lifetime. She's also had enough of feeling like part of her will always be stuck in that cellar.

Jackie says to this to Miss Flannery one day shortly after she has started attending school again. “Cellar door is not the most beautiful word in the English language,” she says.

Miss Flannery purses her lips and thinks for a minute. “Maybe the word isn’t beautiful for you anymore, Jackie, but it’s still powerful. I think you need to find a way to make it your own.”

That night Jackie unpacks all the pages she typed while she was kidnapped and spreads them around her in a circle on the bed. She works for hours to arrange them in some kind of order, and the bare bones of a story—her story—start to take shape. That night, Jackie sleeps the whole night through, dreamless and sweet.

Sometimes I imagine how different it would have been if he had taken us BOTH.

“Jesus, Jackie,” April says, her voice raw from screaming. “That asshole left us one jar of water. One jar for both of us.”

Jackie doesn’t want to think about what No-Face leaving them any water at all might mean, so she reaches out in the dark for April’s hand, her palm damp with fear and rain. “It’s going to be okay.”

April snorts, but she doesn’t pull her hand away. “I guess getting kidnapped kind of trumps my melodramatic exit,” she says.

“Just a little.”

April sniffs, and Jackie wonders if she’s crying again.

“Why didn’t you tell me about Zack?” Jackie says.

April doesn’t answer for a long time, and then she says, “I guess I thought I could find a way to keep you both.” She’s definitely crying now. “Things didn’t turn out quite the way I planned.”

Jackie says, “None of that matters now.” She squeezes April’s hand. “Do you think you could stand on my shoulders? There has to be an air duct or a trapdoor or something up there on the ceiling we could use to escape.”

April takes a long quavery breath and squeezes Jackie’s hand back. “Yeah. I think I can do that.”

I found a metal lipstick in the backpack, and sometimes I undo it and practice jabbing the top half, with the sharp edge out. I could use it. I really could. Right into those shadowy eyes.

Jackie doesn’t know what No-Face expects from her, but she isn’t cowering down at the foot of the steps and waiting for him to do whatever he wants with her. As soon as she hears a metal scraping sound, the first sound she’s heard in days that she didn’t make herself, Jackie flattens herself against the door at the top of the stairs, her tube of lipstick clutched tightly in one hand just in case. When the door opens, the light is blinding and she nearly topples backwards on her butt, but she manages to grab No-Face by the shirt and shove him forward. He makes a surprised noise as he falls. Jackie drops the lipstick and scrambles to her feet, her eyes watering as she wrestles with the door. It’s almost too heavy for her to lift, and she feels something tear in her right arm when she tries to heave it closed. No-Face must have hit his head when he fell because he’s crumpled at the bottom of the steps and moaning instead of rushing back up at her. She can just make out his blurry shape framed by the square of light streaming through the open door. Finally, finally, Jackie manages to slam the door closed, the metallic echo reverberating through her bones. A length of chain with a padlock at one end is coiled on the ground like a snake; Jackie runs the chain through the door handles—once, twice, three times—and snaps the padlock closed. Then she collapses, her heart pounding, and waits for her vision to clear. Jackie isn’t home free yet; she doesn’t know where she is or if No-Face is working alone. But the tables have turned. She’s free, and he’s the one waiting in the dark with a half empty jar of water and a dwindling supply of stale pastries now. Jackie takes one more deep breath, wipes her eyes, and then she stands up.