1: Exercise More!
Buy the shoes. It’s okay, screw the budget, that’s not this year’s resolution. You deserve this. When the saleswoman asks you if you’ve done much running, laugh and gesture to your mid-section. The woman will blink, force out a half-baked hah. It’s a reaction of discomfort, not cruelty; you made it weird. You don’t know why you feel the need to shame your own body in front of a stranger, but you blame it on her lululemon leggings and air-hostess smile. She makes you nervous. Most people do.
When you go outside, sit next to a man on a bus bench. He’s reading a book, and you recognize the cover from an English course in college. A man’s body, clad in red, knight-like armour, with a white mask where his head should be. The mask is smiling and handsome on one side, twisted and snarling on the other, with a hollow void where his eyes should be. The Mysterious Stranger, by Mark Twain. Good taste. When you sit, notice how the man’s eyes dash over in your direction. It’s almost imperceptible, and no other part of him moves an inch. Convince yourself that the chill trickling down your spine is a sign of an early winter wind. The sweat beneath your arms says differently.
Change into your new shoes right there on the bench. They’re tight, but almost comforting, reminding you of the cattle squeeze chutes on the farm you grew up on. Your new shoes are white, because white seemed luxurious and fresh and symbolic (new beginnings, clean slate). Now, curse and rub your own spit into a dirt smudge on the side. Remember that white is rarely ever white at all—think of the stains spreading like mould along shower walls.
When the bus arrives, sit near the front. You’ll only take it half the way home today and walk the rest (new year, new you). The man with the book sits at the back of the bus.
This is your bus stop, in a residential area you don’t know well. Apparently, it’s his bus stop too. Start walking. Notice he is walking too. This shouldn’t make you nervous. You always see the worst in people. What is wrong with you? Therapy should have been one of your resolutions.
It’s been fifteen minutes. You’re almost home, but you don’t want him to know where you live. So you walk past the turn to your street and feel your heart drop to your toes. You can smell the fishy stench of your own stress-sweat leaking through your corduroy jacket.
Twenty minutes. Almost out of the residential area. In a couple blocks, you’ll be on commercial drive, where you can enter a café, or a bar, and have a panic attack in a graffitied bathroom stall until the perceived threat is gone. It wouldn’t be the first time.
When construction blocks access to the street crossing you meant to take, you’ll have to find a detour. Luckily, there’s an alley to your left, a shortcut to safety if anything. You just need to move fast. Good thing you bought those shoes.
When you hear the man’s footsteps beating at your heels, run.
2: Eat Healthier!
Start your day off right with his bento box leftovers. He ate all the shrimp from the noodles and the sushi on the side but saved you the edamame. That’s alright, you didn’t need those extra calories anyway. Don’t make all that running and fighting from yesterday for nothing.
Take a bite. You’re not hungry, but you don’t know when the next time you’ll see food again will be. The noodles are cold, and they slide down your throat like earthworms. Don’t complain about the temperature. Your mom always told you microwaves were evil anyway.
You crouch over the food on a cold concrete floor. You’ve stopped crying long enough to take in your surroundings. You are confined to a small circumference around your bed with a chain clamped around your ankle, the other end of it welded to a rusty metal pole coming out of the ground. The chain rattles with each move you make. Your bed is in the center of a room, bits of foam scattered around it from mice chewing the mattress. Next to it is a bucket, where eventually you will have to relieve yourself, though you’ll hold it in until it hurts. There are no windows down here, and it smells like an old boyfriend’s basement; a combination of mildew and old socks, air so thick you feel as if you could cut into it with a knife.
The corners of the room are dark but packed with things. Boxes stacked haphazardly, shelves overflowing with old books, loose papers on the ground. You can’t make out what any of the books say on the spine, as much as you try to strain your eyes. So much for that clue.
When he tells you to eat, you eat. Whatever he wants with you, he doesn’t want you dead. Yet. Take comfort in this. Hide the fork from your meal under your mattress.
3: Learn a New Skill or Hobby!
It takes an average of 6 seconds to walk in a circle at the length of your chain. 3 seconds if you run. Count the moths that flicker around the buzzing lightbulb above you, count particles of dust in the air.
Numbers were never your thing before. You were an English major once, though that life feels lightyears away. Divide experiences between before and after. Before, you had a cat. He had a scratchy meow and sprayed on your laundry but slept in the crook of your arm every night. Before, you had a crush on your co-worker, Diane, even though she talked with her mouth open, and you caught her stealing from the baking display three times.
After, you are shitting in a bucket.
You curl up on your mattress, thin blanket pulled over your head, and cry.
Try making an itemized list in your head of every kiss you’ve ever had. See if you can remember the script from the 1998 fantasy movie Willow (you almost can. For some reason, this makes you cry, too). Go back to counting. The mice stayed hidden for the first couple days, but they’re getting bolder. Keep track of every time one skitters over your hand or foot.
Of all the horrors you could imagine a kidnapping victim to go through, boredom certainly was not one of them.
On what you think could be the eighth day, try something different. You know the man only enters the basement twice. First to take your used bucket, then to bring back a clean bucket and food. You have been so busy cowering in the farthest end of your chain away from him that you haven’t gotten the chance to really observe. Pay attention this time.
Start counting when he first unlocks the door. He keeps his eyes on the ground as descends the stairs and approaches to pick up your bucket. It doesn’t look like guilt or nerves, but rather he does not seem to regard you at all. As if you are so far beneath him that your presence can hardly be perceived. You almost lose track of your counting, mind reeling. Why are you here at all when he acts as if he wants nothing to do with you?
He is as nondescript a man as they come. Brown hair, dark eyes, with short, well-kept facial hair. Thin-rimmed glasses, a button-down blue shirt, recently ironed. Grey trousers. Clean shoes. If you ever get out of this, you’re not convinced you could pick him out in a police lineup.
When he leaves, he shuts the door behind him, but does not lock it. These seconds are crucial. Above you at one end of room, you can hear a toilet flush, running into pipes that go through the basement. More water running after that. Then there are footsteps, to the other side of the house. He is there for a short time. Finally, the footsteps lead back to the basement door.
He has returned with a freshly cleaned bucket in one hand and a tinfoil-wrapped burrito in the other. He sets them both down beside you, wordlessly, and then he is gone again. The door is latched tight behind him.
Four minutes and thirty-eight seconds. That’s how long the door was unlocked for. Don’t forget this.
4: Be More Adventurous!
Something is different today. Another moth hits the burning lightbulb and falls dead into your matted hair. The mice, your only companions, have gone quiet. Upstairs, there is more movement than usual, things being dragged along the floor. Your stomach has been flip-flopping since you woke up. Call it intuition.
There is the issue of that pesky iron shackle around your ankle. You made a valiant effort by nibbling off your toenails and using them as lock picks, but they were too soft and bendable. You thought about breaking your ankle, but your heel would still be in the way. So now, you turn to the other end of your restraints, the metal rod coming out of the basement floor. At its base it flares out into a square plate, with large iron screws holding it down into the cement.
The pole is speckled with a dusty red rust that follow down the first couple links in the chain. A memory flashes in your mind of you as a young girl, loose braids and dirt smudged over your summer freckles. Your dad had an old chevy parked on the edge of the horses pasture, weeds growing through the windows. You tried, with all the strength in your little arms, to open the door, but the handle snapped right off and sent you flailing backwards. It left red on your hand, and you thought the car was bleeding.
There could be hope after all. You take your shoes from where they’ve sat dutifully by the bed and put them on. Pull the chain taut, and kick near the base where there is the most rust. Kick again. And again. The rust stains the white of your shoes. Take a break to wipe frustrated tears from your eyes, then try something different. Pull the chain towards you, taut again. Push your feet against the chain. Harder. Your legs begin to shake, and the chain bites into the flesh of your palms. Grit your teeth. Keep pushing.
It bursts. You gasp, collapse to the floor, and weep. It’s refreshing to cry from joy for a change.
When the man comes to change your bucket, sit in front of the pole. Don’t let him see you’ve escaped your shackles.
The man raises his eyes to meet yours, and you can suddenly feel every single hair on your body. This is the first time he’s looked at you since you were taken. It doesn’t last more than a second, but you are shaking.
He heads up the basement stairs, bucket in hand. Shake off the chills, let them roll down your spine and out of your system. It’s now or never.
With clammy hands, pick up your broken chain and cradle it to your belly. Quiet. You can feel your heat thumping against your ribcage, and you breathe hard through your nose. Leave your shoes behind; too loud. When you get to the stairs, pretend you are a feather, flitting weightlessly above the steps. Place your ear to the door, try to hear past the pulsing of your own veins.
The water is running. Open the door.
5: Read More Books!
When you wake up, all you see is a bright light ahead, and with some relief, ask yourself if you are finally dead. It takes a few bleary blinks for your surroundings to come back into focus. The light at the end of a tunnel becomes no more than a light bulb, flickered by the fluttering of wings. You are back in the basement.
Sit up. Careful, not too fast. Your head rushes, and dots speckle your vision. You bring a hand to your head to steady it, but when you bring it down, your hand comes back sticky with red. You feel around with your hand some more, find that your hair is matted and clings to your forehead. Beneath the hair is the source of blood. It doesn’t seem to be actively bleeding much, and what is there has already coagulated.
Beneath where your head was laying, the mattress is soaked with your blood. You shuffle backwards away from it as your breathing grows erratic and shallow. Try to wipe your red hand off on your jeans. The blood is already caking under your fingernails.
On unsteady legs, you manage to stand up. You realize that although you are back in the basement, your chain is still broken. Look frantically around the room for a weapon, or another escape you somehow missed before, until your eyes land upon the boxes and shelves. Maybe something in there could help. You hobble over to it, dragging your chain behind you, and throw open the first box you reach. It’s only paper, and as you rummage you leave red smudges and fingerprints all over them.
You aren’t paying attention to the words, but an image catches your eye. You stop, pull out the paper. It’s a diagram, of sorts, with labels and instructions in a language you can’t understand. But what you do understand, is that this diagram looks awfully like a pentagram. You pull out more papers, pay closer attention. Drawings of cloaked figures, goat heads, numbers and lists written in Latin and other old tongues. Box after box, they’re all the same.
You turn to the bookshelf, flipping open dusty tomes to more diagrams of demons. You toss the books on the floor, and they land with a satisfying thud. You blink back the dots forming in your eyes and steady yourself.
Above you, footsteps are approaching the basement door. You lay back down on the mattress and pretend to be unconscious, right where he left you.
7: Appreciate the Little Things!
You peek through your eyelashes. He is painting a pentagram in white on the floor. Beside him is an assortment of strange objects; wax drip-candles, fragments of leg bones, a skull. Raven feathers in a jar, glass vials of liquids and powders, glistening gemstones.
It’s almost comical. The most generic, vague satanism you could imagine. A half-frantic giggle bubbles in your chest, tugging at the corners of your mouth. Bite your tongue to keep it down.
His hands clamp down on your ankles and tug. He is dragging you off the bed, to the floor just beside it where he’s painted the pentagram. You hear the clinking of glass, the rattle of bones, as each object is arranged around your body.
Then you can hear his breath above you, feel his knees at the sides of your legs. He begins to chant. You risk a peek through small slits in your eyelid, and see him kneeling over you, book in one hand and a knife in the other.
You kick him in the stomach. He gasps and reels back, dropping both the knife and the book. But before you can scramble away, he is on you again, pinning your wrists to the ground. You can feel his hot breath on your face, spit flying out of his heaving mouth. He curses at you and tells you to stay down.
Your fingertips brush the edge of the mattress beside you. Remember what you kept from the first day you woke up in this shithole.
6: Set Healthy Boundaries with the People in Your Life!
You feel around for the metal, find its handle, grip it hard. Then spit in the man’s eyes. He loosens his grip on your wrists for just long enough.
With utensil in hand, you thrust your arm up until it meets with his neck. The prongs sink into his flesh as is he were nothing more than a dense cheesecake. Now, he looks you in the eyes, and you do not cower. You hold there for a moment, driving the fork deeper in. Just in case. When you let go, he takes a moment to react. Then his eyes widen, still locked with your own, and he stumbles backwards, off of your body. His hand fumbles for the fork. There is blood trickling down onto his freshly ironed shirt. With a shaking hand, he pulls the utensil from his flesh, causing the blood to rush to escape the open wound in thick spurts. He holds a hand tight to his throat, trying to slow the loss, gasping and sputtering. He turns and runs to escape the basement.
Get up, follow him. As he fumbles with the lock on the door, you grab the back of his shirt and pull. In his shock, he loses balance and drops his key on the step beneath the door. He tries to grab onto you as he falls backwards, but you step quickly to the side and cling to the stair railing. Watch as he tumbles down the stairs, landing hard on the concrete below. He struggles to get back up, only making it to his knees as his movements grow more sluggish. You can hear him gargle on his own blood. He clambers towards the stairs again.
Pick up the key. Your heart flutters at the click of the door unlocking. Open it. Ahead of you is a hallway, at the end of which is your exit to safety. Don’t look back at the man groveling at your heels. Step out, shut the door behind you and lock it tight.
New year, new you.