Sometimes I think they know. A stranger passes by with a lingering stare. Someone turns to the person next to them and whispers furtively in their ear. An eyebrow hooks in suspicion. I can almost hear their thoughts, their murmurs of disgust.
They must know.
But nothing can link me to him. To that family.
Nothing but blood.
Water splashes up my legs as I cross the street, dousing me in droplets of mud. The city is depressing. Everything is gray. The streets, which I expected to be wide and teeming with life, are more like winding rabbit warrens with shops crammed into small spaces and walls of concrete towering either side, only showing glimpses of the sky. But at least here I can hide. There is no better place to blend in than where people gather in throngs. Here, I’m just a fledgling dancer. Insignificant. Unnoticed.
I sprint to the entrance down the alley, eager to get out of the rain. Pushing through the door, I shake the droplets of rain from my hair and pull the headphones from my ears. In the changing room, I tug my sweater over my head, push off my shoes and scamper to the dance hall, ignoring the aches and pains of my muscles. Trying not to attract attention, I join the group, lifting my leg to the barre and folding over myself to stretch. But Miss Marchand notices anyway.
“Late again, Miss Berkley?” Her voice lifts at the end as though her statement is a question, but I know it’s not.
I choose to ignore her. Closing my eyes, I lean backward, allowing myself to relax into the position and calm my breathing. My body complains as I force it into the familiar stance, but I breathe in the pain. It is my friend. My constant companion. But I can still feel Miss Marchand’s cold glare. After a while she sighs, deciding her chastisement was enough and continues counting as we change positions, working through the sequences of stretches.
No one talks. It’s the way it always is during practice. Miss Marchand likes to hear only her own voice.
Don’t speak unless spoken to.
Don’t move unless told.
Don’t breathe unless permission is given.
Those are the unspoken rules of the Marchand Dance Company and Miss Marchand governs with an iron fist. Due to her repeated rhythmic counting, we’re not even allowed to warm up at our own pace.
Not that I’m complaining. Far from it. I know how lucky I am to be here. Even if it is only as an understudy. Or the reserve for an understudy. I’m not even sure how far back in the succession line I am. I’ve never dared to ask. I put everything I can into practice and then head to the local supermarket and stock shelves all night before heading home and practicing in front of the mirror in my downtown apartment.
Dance. Eat. Work. Sleep. Repeat. That is my life. And what I lack in talent and God-given ability, I make up for in passion.
“Miss Berkley,” Miss Marchand’s voice snaps me to attention. “Since you so clearly had better things to do other than arrive on time, perhaps you would like to show the class through the sequence we went over yesterday. A refresher, if you will.”
Dominic catches my eye. He winks, flashing a smile of encouragement. He’s the only one here who’s made any effort to befriend me. Not that I’ve made any effort either. I keep to myself. I avoid places and people I may know from my previous life. All I want to do is lose myself in dance. Nothing more. Nothing less. But there’s something different in Dominic’s smile. His smile is usually wide and open, but today there’s a hesitation, as though he’s holding something back.
Stepping to face the class, I take position directly in front of Miss Marchand and wait for the nod of her head. Even though my body aches at the thought of this particular sequence, I’m grateful for all the times I threw myself to the ground last night, attempting perfection. I never obtained it, but I am better than I was yesterday.
After a painful minute of silence, Miss Marchand nods and my body starts to move. I dance by muscle memory. I train through repetition. I may not be the most elegant dancer, but at least I know the moves.
“Insufficient,” Miss Marchand snaps. “Again.”
During my second attempt she informs me I move with the grace of a hippopotamus wading through mud. During my third attempt, she sighs dramatically. “For goodness sake, Berkley, stop panting. You sound like the backing track for a porno.” That earns a few chuckles from the rest of the company, but Miss Marchand’s stern glare is quick to silence them.
After my fourth attempt she tells me I need to do something with my breasts. They’re too distracting. I grit my teeth, lift my chin and prepare to do the dance again.
“Adequate. Barely,” is her comment when I finish the fifth attempt. Despite the burn of my muscles, I swell with pride. Adequate is a compliment when it comes from Miss Marchand. But my pride is short-lived.
“Now, Monique, if you would be so kind as to show us how it’s supposed to be done.”
There is no denying Monique is better than me. She’s one of the principal dancers. I watch in awe as she throws her body to the floor, not even a whisper of a thud to be heard. She’s as light as a feather caught in the breeze. She has more grace in her little toe than I can ever hope to possess within my entire body.
I lose count of the number of times we run through the sequence. My body works on autopilot, Miss Marchand’s voice becoming the backing track to my suffering.
The life of a dancer is wrapped in pain. I wake with stiff and sore muscles. Each day, I force myself to practice, force myself to repeat the same movements over and over again until my mind is numb and I no longer just feel the pain. I live it.
Dance is my torture and my relief, my sickness and my cure.
Because when I dance, I am no longer his daughter, the daughter of a monster. I am a vessel, an instrument. Dance is pain and within that pain, I lose myself.
I get to pretend.
The sharp claps of Miss Marchand’s hands snap me back to reality. “Enough, enough,” she mutters. “Everyone take a seat.”
By ‘seat’ she means the vinyl surface covering the floor and we all crumple in a mound of leotards and sweatpants and heavy breathing. Miss Marchand paces back and forth. She has such a determined way of walking, even when she’s not going anywhere. A few of the dancers share whispered secrets, risking her wrath. I hear what sounds like my name and panic twists in my gut. Closing my eyes I draw in a few deep breaths trying to will away the ‘flash’ I know could follow. Sometimes paranoia gets the better of me.
But then Dominic leans close. “Is it true?”
“What?” I ask, already scared of the answer. My voice comes out commanding, snappish.
But he doesn’t have the chance to elaborate as Miss Marchand claps her hands again and everyone drags themselves to a sitting position, giving her their undivided attention.
“Today we have the pleasure of a visitor. Jericho Priest is one of the company’s benefactors and I expect nothing but your best behavior. Without his support, we would not be able…” she pauses for a moment. “We would cease to exist. None of you would be dancing. There would be no building to practice in, no theatre for our performances. Nothing.”
She’s being overly dramatic, but we are used to it. The company does not exist on the generosity of one man alone, but from the way Miss Marchand is speaking, you would think it does. I shoot Dominic a glance, but he’s got his eyes fixed on Miss Marchand, almost like he’s avoiding my gaze.
I shake my head slightly, trying to will away the paranoia.
They don’t know.
They can’t know.
I’m imagining things.
The thud of the outside door echoes down the hallway followed by the sound of clipped footsteps.
“On your feet! On your feet!” Miss Marchand snaps. She pats her hair, smoothing out any stray strands from her severe bun, and plasters on a smile just as the door to the studio opens.
“Ah, Mr Priest.” She glides over to him, stooping her head in revered submission and clutching onto his outstretched hand. “I was just telling my students about your most generous contributions to our company. We are forever grateful—”
The man waves his hand in dismissal and Miss Marchand stops speaking and almost falls to the ground in an effort to please him. Her face is twisted in what I think is supposed to be a smile, but it looks pained.
Mr Priest’s cold gaze scans over us. I’m too far away to tell what color his eyes are, but I know they are dark. It’s almost as though his stare holds authority, some of us stooping under the weight of it, others straightening their shoulders in order to appear more graceful and gain more attention. His gaze narrows in on me for a fraction, barely an instant, but in that moment a deep shudder runs through me as though he knows who I am. As though he can see the darkness of my soul. But then his gaze moves again and I become nothing more than limbs and sinew among the bodies.
“I do not wish to waste your time so I will get straight to the point,” he announces with no preamble. Another shudder runs through me at the sound of his voice. It’s low and gravelly and sends vibrations through my body. There’s something dark and unknown about the man that resonates with me.
Miss Marchand steps forward, that same pained smile on her face as though she’s about to speak, but Mr Priest merely holds up his hand, silencing her. She takes a step back, dipping her head.
“I’m looking for someone to tutor my ward. She’s young. She has taken an interest in the art form of dance and is insisting on lessons. You will be required to live on my estate for the period of the contract. You will be rewarded in a generous manner. Auditions will be held tomorrow.”
Again, Miss Marchand steps forward. “You know I would only be too willing to—”
And again, Mr Priest cuts her off, sending her a warning glare. “Auditions will be held tomorrow,” he repeats.
I wonder at his use of the word ‘ward’. It’s so old-fashioned, as though the man saying it should be wearing a tailcoat with a vest underneath and a cravat bunched at his throat. He’s not. He’s wearing a navy suit, no tie, shirt open and revealing a hint of ink. His hair has been smoothed back from his face and his expression is unyieldingly stern. His eyes are cold. He is handsome, but there’s something out of place about him. Something hard when it should be soft. As though he doesn’t belong in the suit. As though it’s uncomfortable for him to wear.
No one dares to breathe as he looks over us once more. I find myself willing his gaze to linger on me for just a fraction, like it did before, but he passes by me quickly.
“That is all. You may go.”
Normally, none of us would leave without permission from Miss Marchand, but there’s something so commanding about his voice we file out the door in a single line.
“So, is it true?” Dominic asks as soon as we’re in the changing room.
Everyone turns to look at me. Their eyes run over my body as if seeing me for the first time. No one is getting changed. Everyone is waiting expectantly.
My mouth goes dry.
This is not paranoia.
“Is what true?” I turn to my bag, busying myself and trying to pretend there’s no hidden agenda in his question.
“Are you her?”
I laugh, but it comes out weak and pathetic. “Her, who?”
“Oh, come on.” Monique lifts a hand and swipes her hair over her shoulder as though it is loose and long, but it’s not and the motion just looks strange. Theatrical. “We all know who you are. There’s no point in pretending anymore. Your secret is out.”
“I really have no idea what—”
“You’re the daughter of that monster, aren’t you?” Her tone is accusatory.
“Excuse me?” my voice breaks.
“Your father kept all those women in his basement.”
I swallow as the blood drains from my face. I feel faint. Anxiety rises.
“So it’s true?” Dominic asks again. I glare at him, trying to convey my desperation but he just stands there waiting, one eyebrow cocked.
My silence seals my fate.
“Oh my God,” one of the other girls pipes up. “It really is true.” I can’t remember her name. It’s something like Jessica or Janet. Something starting with J, anyway. Joanna maybe. “Was it true he had a sex dungeon?”
My feigned fumbling through my bag becomes more forced and aggressive. My heart beats rapidly. Nausea twists in my gut. I need to get out of here.
“I heard that he held auctions where all his sicko mates would buy girls to use as sex slaves. Did you ever go to one? Were you ever afraid he was going to sell you?”
I keep my eyes on my bag, stuffing my clothing inside, desperation causing me to tremble as the questions fly.
“What was he like as a father?”
“Did he ever like, you know, touch you and stuff?”
“Gross, Anthony, trust you to ask something like that.”
“Were the reports true that he kept women in stables like horses and would choose which ones to—”
I can’t take it anymore. Grabbing my bag and stuffing my headphones in my ears, I run out the door and escape outside. I keep running. I run through the rain. I run until my lungs are bursting, begging for relief and then I run some more.
But there will be no escape. I’ve been through this before. I’ve been this girl before.
The daughter of a monster.
And I don’t want to be her again.
My apartment is small. Tiny, in fact. There is a bed that pulls down from the wall in my living room. A single couch. No space for a television. The walls have been painted a stale green color that hides the mildew. The kitchen is narrow and painted in the same shade of green as the living room. The bathroom is so small I have to almost hug the toilet in order to close the door. The only saving grace is the one free wall that props up my full-length mirror. If I fold the bed to the wall, shut the bathroom door and alter the angle of the couch, there is just enough room for me to be able to practice. Sort of.
Standing in front of the mirror, my legs naturally form first position. I’m still wearing my mud-stained leggings and my leotard is covered by an oversized sweater that hangs to one side, exposing my scarred shoulder. Reaching upwards, I yank my hair tie out, allowing my hair to tumble from the messily knotted bun. It falls down my back in delicious agony, the roots protesting at being set free.
I’m a pretty girl. People have told me that all my life. He used to tell me that. He would buy me beautiful dresses and tell me how pretty I was. And I would preen under his praise like the pathetic, naïve girl I once was. Then everything changed. Now I don’t look in the mirror and see pretty. Now I see blue-gray eyes haunted by nightmares. I see limp and greasy hair, not washed in days. A body bruised by the demands of dance. A face without a smile.
Hands reach for me, stroking my skin, grabbing me.
I move to second position.
There’s a faceless head between my legs.
They come as easily to me as breathing. I repeat them over and over, never breaking eye contact with the ashen girl who stares back at me, mimicking my moves. It was something my therapist told me to do. Find something simple. Something rhythmic. Repeat it over and over again until my mind goes blank.
“First. Second. Third. Fourth. Fifth.”
Gasping breath. Lips twisting. Moans of ecstasy.
My eyes snap open, focusing on the scar on my shoulder. The pale, jagged skin shines in the light cast across the room from the streetlight just outside my window. It almost makes it look silver.
“First. Second. Third. Fourth. Fifth,” I chant a little louder.
Ragged breaths. Rhythmic grunts. Muscles and sinew glowing with sweat, heaving over me.
Squeezing my eyes shut again, I try to will the vision away. “First. Second. Third. Fourth. Fifth,” I say, bolder. My counting increases its pace until my movements flow into each other in continuous motion. “First. Second. Third. Fourth. Fifth. First. Second. Third. Fourth. Fifth.”
My phone rings. I open my eyes. The girl staring back at me has flushed cheeks, glassy eyes and wild hair. Moving with heavy footsteps that belie my profession, I grab my phone. It’s my mother.
I take a deep breath so my voice comes across as calm and in control. “Hey, I can’t talk right now, I’m in the middle of—”
“We haven’t spoken in weeks.” My mother’s voice is weary. She’s been leaving messages for days. I haven’t returned any of them.
How do I tell my mother I want to forget her existence? How do I tell her that ever since she came back into my life, I wanted nothing more than to run away and become someone new?
How do I tell her I’m going to do it again?
“I’ve been busy.” The weariness in my own voice matches hers.
There’s silence. Painful silence. I wasn’t always like this. I used to be happy, chatty, perky even. But not anymore. Having your entire life destroyed can do that to a person. I know it’s not her fault. She is a victim even more so than I. But she reminds me of everything I want to forget.
“How are you?
“I’ve been busy.” I sound like a broken record. A broken record of lies.
“When are you coming home?”
Never. That’s the answer I want to give. I came here to escape, to become someone new. And even though it looks as though I won’t be able to stay here, the one place I know I won’t be going is home.
“I may not be,” I say it so quietly I’m not sure she hears. But then she sighs. It’s one of those sighs of disappointment. One that makes me drag my bottom lip between my teeth and bite hard enough to draw blood.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve got a job,” I lie. “Tutoring.”
“But what about Marchand’s? I thought dancing was your dream.”
“I’m never going to be able to make a career out of performing, I’m not good enough, but tutoring would allow me an income and the chance to dance. And this job pays well. It will help.” More lies.
“You know there’s money there if—”
“I’m not touching his money.” I spit the words out vehemently, disgusted she would even suggest it.
“But you’re his daughter. It’s there for you to use.”
“I don’t want it.”
I never would. That money was made from the pain of others. It’s blood money as far as I’m concerned. I will never touch it. One day when I’m strong enough, I will claim it and then give it all away. But for now, I pretend like it’s not there. It doesn’t exist. Besides, to claim it I would have to admit who I am. Be known as his daughter. It was his only requirement.
She’s quiet for a while, the pause making my rebuke sound even harsher. “I miss you,” she says finally. “I’d like you to come home, even if it’s just for a day or two.”
I swallow the knot of guilt lodged at the back of my throat. “I can’t.”
“Maybe I could come to you?”
“No,” I say a little too quickly. I scramble for an excuse. “The position starts immediately.” I should be worried about how easily the lies fall from my lips, but I’m not.
“Very well.” She sighs again and I steel myself against the emotions that come to the surface. “Will you at least return my calls a little more often? I miss you. I miss the sound of your voice. There were so many years we spent apart, I just—”
“I will,” I interrupt, not wanting to hear her go over everything again. “I’ll do my best.” Another lie. Only, this time she knows it. But my mother will keep calling. Keep trying. “Bye.” I hang up before she can respond.
For a moment a wave of sadness rushes over me, almost crippling me and making me fold over in pain. My stomach cramps as though I’ve ingested poison. It twists through my bloodstream as venom, igniting my veins and sending me crashing to the floor.
Breathe. The voice of my therapist sounds in my head.
As the pain subsides the flashes start. That’s what I call them. They are visions. Fantasies. Nightmares. My therapist says it’s my brain’s scrambled way of reconciling all that’s happened.
Faceless men claw at my body. Strong arms shove me against hard walls. Lips devour me. Muscles twist and turn. Sweat glistens. My hands are bound behind my back, my legs open and exposed.
Shame snakes through me, replacing the darkness of the venom. Shame that I have these thoughts. Shame that my body heats in places it shouldn’t. It makes me worry that even though I despise him, maybe I’m exactly like him.
From my position on the floor, I can just see the pile of unopened letters on the kitchen table. They’ve appeared sporadically over the last few years. None of them have my address, only my name, the name he wants me to go by, and yet they always find me. The handwriting has been scrawled across the envelope as though someone has written it in a hurry. I’ve always wondered if it was his writing or if it was his lawyer’s, or maybe a trusted friend’s. But the return address is always the same. Prison.