Esme sat and watched the sun pass across her room, just as she did every day, waiting for the right time.
That wasn’t to say that she watched it all day, every day, although she did spend a lot of her time – probably more than most – just watching the box of light trek across her painted wall. It wasn’t as though there was all that much else to do.
During the morning, when the light was best, she did draw and read, but after her lunch arrived through the little flap in the middle of her door, she’d settle into her large armchair and watch the shadows move. As she watched she’d think, although she was running out of things to think about, just like she was running out of things to draw. She could only see so much through her window, and if she had to draw another damn bird she’d scream.
The box of light passed the crack in the paint work on the opposite wall, and Esme heaved herself out of the chair. Every day it was getting harder to do that. But, if her count on the wall was accurate, it wouldn’t be a problem for too much longer.
“Then we’ll have a whole new set of problem, won’t we?” she muttered. One hand ran over her growing stomach as the other picked up her piece of charcoal. Now that ‘midday’ had passed, she added another tally mark to the large, painted wall. Then she stepped back, and looked at all the marks in front of her.
250 days, give or take, though she was positive that she had recorded each and every one accurately. She couldn’t remember much about her life before she was led into this room – for ‘her safety’ – but she knew she was pregnant when she entered. By how much she couldn’t remember, but whatever it was, she had to be getting close to the due date now.
And then what would happen? Would the voiceless guard who delivered her meals let her out, or would she have to give birth in this room? Of all the questions she had, she did her best not to think about one of them. Would anyone come to help her?
No matter how often she’d tried to talk to her guards they’d not said a word. She hadn’t even heard them talking to each other out in the hallway. Though she still asked her questions every day, she had given up on them ever being answered.
250 days. And only a dozen new books in that time. Her mind had gotten so cloudy, so foggy and numb, that she couldn’t even remember why she had needed so much protection. Was the world outside dangerous, despite how quiet it always was, or was she a target for someone?
Who was she?
There was no mirror, and all she had was the faint reflection in her window to judge her appearance by. It looked older than the face she remembered from the time before this room, this pregnancy, and that she put down to the fact she hadn’t been able to brush her hair properly, or moisturise her skin and care for herself. She could bathe and clean, but there was nothing fancy about it. That had to be it, the reason she looked so old in her reflection.
For the afternoon Esme did what she usually did, which was nothing much. While the light was still good she read some more, although she knew all the words by heart at this stage. Then she daydreamed for a little and paced the room for some exercise, but at 250 days her mind kept drifting to terrifying questions. Instead she washed early, taking longer about it, an attempt at some sort of pampering, though she had nothing in her life that she needed pampering from.
When her evening meal was pushed through the central door flap, Esme was ready for bed, though she didn’t feel tired. In fact she felt nauseous, and she could only manage half her food. She knew from experience though that if she didn’t eat everything they wouldn’t take her plate away, so she tipped the rest of it in the bin. With nothing else to do, and the stupid birds outside still singing their stupid songs, she went to bed, and curled up.
Her hand drifted to her stomach again, and she was on the brink of crying. It was too scary, too terrifying, to think about having to face all of this alone. Not for the first time she wondered about her child’s father, but his face was blurry, and she couldn’t remember the sound of his voice.
Had she even loved him? In a way it didn’t matter – she wouldn’t judge herself or her child for that – but it would take the sting out of her situation at least. If she was there because of her undying love for that man, then maybe all of this would be worth it. Or maybe he was the reason she was in there, to protect her while he was away?
Deep in her gut she wanted to cry, and in her bland life a hint of any emotion was like a drink after a hike in the desert. But as she lay in her bed, curled up around her unborn child, her eyelids grew heavy.
“Hadn’t thought I was tired…” she mumbled, before she drifted off into a deep, dead sleep.
When Esme woke something was different.
She couldn’t put her finger on it at first, but she knew it before she’d even remembered her own name. Her head was fuzzy as were her eyes. Completely disorientated, she panicked and tried to sit up, only to find her body exhausted and weak. But she’d been sleeping, and heavily. How could she still be so tired?
The room was still dark, lit only by pale moonlight. That was odd, she thought. For all the days she’d been in the room, she couldn’t remember ever seeing it by moonlight. It made the tally marks on the wall glow eerily.
She tried to get out from under the sheets, but they’d been tucked in around her, pinning her to the bed. How, and who by? No one ever came into her room. Not that she knew of, anyway. A feeling of cold dread trickled down her spine, yet even that was muted.
The struggling got her nowhere and the tiredness swamped her again. Though she tried to fight it as long as she could, it won in the end. The last thing she remembered before the darkness swallowed her again was her hand drifting to her stomach.
Her flat stomach.
Esme woke again, in daylight now, and her head was clear.
The sheets had been loosened again – or was that a dream – and she ripped them off and stared at her body.
Her not pregnant body. Even under the baggy nightclothes that much was obvious.
“No. No. What have you done!?” Her voice was hoarse and her throat ached, everything ached, but she pushed herself to her feet and staggered towards the door anyway. Rage, fear, panic filled her mind, so it was only when she was halfway across that she noticed what else had changed.
The tally marks had gone.
The wall was clean again, fresh paint, though there was still a crack in the same place.
Esme’s body froze, but her mind raced.
She had been pregnant. That had been reality, it had to be. She could still feel the looseness of her skin, the way the weight had hung off her, the movement of the baby inside her–
But why would they lock up a pregnant woman?
Another option presented itself in her mind, so clear and fully formed. Try as she might she couldn’t ignore it.
It was all she could bare to think, and her world came crashing down around her. Her vision swam and she staggered. There was no air left in the room, it was too hot, too cold, too dark, too bright. Everything collapsed on top of her.
Esme’s hands landed on the wall. It felt real, a little cold perhaps. Colder than her imagination would make it? That meant it was real, right? For the first time in God only knew how long, she felt emotions, and now she wished she didn’t. They were too much, overwhelming her. Fear so bad her heart would stop at any moment, panic so bad her body wouldn’t listen to her, and rage. So much rage. At the world, at the people outside the door, at herself for not knowing what was happening.
And at those stupid tally marks, for not being there, for not bearing witness to what she’d been through.
The rage won out.
Esme raised her fist and punched the wall. Again. And again. Punched it until she painted it again, leaving new tracks of red down it. A tally of her anger.
The anger didn’t last long, and her hand would’ve given out before if it had been given a choice. It was a mess of sticky redness and numbness. Feeling tired again she let her head hit the wall, her panting the only sound in the room. Even the dumb birds had stopped. Had they ever actually been there?
When she opened her eyes she spotted a flake of paint coming away from the wall. Without thinking she started picking at it with her other hand, something mindless while she didn’t know how much of her mind she still had.
The paint came away, and underneath was a tally mark.
Esme kept picking, clearing more of the most recent paint, showing her wall of tally marks beneath it. But her rage her excavated further than that. There was another lay under that, with more marks, and another, and another, and–
The numbness in her hand spread across her body and into her soul, but she couldn’t stop herself from picking away more and more of the paint.
How long had she been here?
There was only one answer to that.