The sound of the lock was loud in the darkness. Clara could hear the others breathing heavily around her. The sticky heat of their breath against her skin made her uncomfortable. A sliver of golden light shone through in the top corner of the room. It only penetrated a few centimetres of darkness; the black shapes around her remained faceless, shifting and groaning. She gently lifted a foot to relieve some of the ache that had settled in the bones there. She had been standing for a long time now and hadn’t yet had a chance to rest. One of her companions let out a sigh that echoed her own wariness.
Perhaps outside of those doors would be the lovely young girl who had come to speak to her for a few blissful afternoons in the spring sunshine a short time ago. The girl’s hair had smelt citrusy and Clara had almost been intoxicated by it. She’d sat and listened to the girl’s wild stories of her kindergarten class and sighed happily. The grass had tickled the hairs on her legs and the cool wind had felt soothing against the heat of the afternoon sun.
The ground jolted sharply under Clara’s feet, forcing her back to the present. Some of her neighbours shuffled, scared by the noise, and gently pushed against her. A humming noise began and the ground beneath her vibrated. It was an odd feeling she’d experienced just once before. The day she’d lost her mother. The day when she’d been taken to the place she’d lived at for two years now. She pictured her mother’s anguished face as the steel door had closed between them. Her mother had called out to her in a pained voice, her tone halfway between hysteria and grief. Clara missed her terribly. But that was a long time ago.
The dark shapes around her swayed slightly with the forces that seemed to be pushing against the sides of the room they were in. It was suffocating and Clara felt ill. She desperately wanted to kneel down and lie on the cold floor beneath her but there was no room to do so. To allow the chill to stoke the fire burning between her joints was a cruel temptation. She settled for closing her eyes.
After some time, a sharp screeching sound erupted and the bodies in the room were jolted backwards. This was followed by a series of uncomfortable murmurs and more feet shuffling. A body somewhere behind her right ear let out a nervous squeak. Clara’s eyes darted around to the dark shapes before her as some men’s voices could be heard shouting something outside the room. The hairs on her neck stood up. Those voices did not sound friendly.
A blinding light burst through the darkness as the doors were swung wide open. Clara blinked, the white light clouding her vision. There was a loud scraping sound as something was moved near the door. Clara looked down at her feet. The ground beneath her was beyond dirty with mud, grass, and urine covering its surface. She moved with the tide of bodies who were slowly shuffling towards the light. Her eyes stayed focussed on the ground beneath her. One slow step at a time.
Eventually she felt the hot sunlight on her neck and face and enjoyed the relief that the open air brought. The bodies around her seemed less tense too as they welcomed the fresh air and sunlight. But the tension quickly returned as the men surrounded the group. She could see them now. Their faces were twisted with anger as they pushed harshly against those on the outskirts, moving them forward towards a large structure ahead.
These people were different from the last family she’d lived with. Although that family had sometimes had rough hands and would occasionally lash out at her for being slow, they did not have the sadistic pleasure glowing behind their eyes that these men had when observing the fear they were creating in their captives. Up ahead a man was standing on a large gate, wielding some kind of stick that was causing the crowd to shuffle haphazardly into single file. The stick gave off a terrifying buzzing sound that made Clara’s heart begin to beat faster. She glanced to her left. Her companion beside her was breathing heavily, eyes wide with fear. There was a commotion behind her and Clara felt the body of another group member push hard against her.
She cried out and tried to whip her head around to see what it was but she whacked her head hard against the shoulder of the body beside her. A grunt, a shuffle, a rising sense of panic. Something was following them. They were trapped. She felt the space around her somehow becoming even smaller as the bodies began to press harder, pushing into single file. They were being led up a ramp-like structure and onto a bridge. Clara wondered what was on the other side of the bridge and thought again about the little girl who had visited her. Perhaps she would be there. The buzzing from the terrible stick was becoming increasingly louder as she moved forward. The man holding it was laughing loudly and would occasionally push the stick onto a poor soul who would jump and shriek in response, eliciting more laughter.
Clara watched her feet moving underneath her, trying to avoid eye contact with the terrible man. It worked. He didn’t target her. She moved obediently onto the ramp and walked forwards. The surface creaked under her weight and she tentatively took some more steps, afraid it might collapse underneath them all. A glimpse of the other side of the bridge revealed a dark doorway. It looked a bit like the doorway of the place she had lived before, except this one was smaller and radiated a sense of doom. She felt the darkness reach its inky tendrils towards her, pulling her closer. Her heart beat like the fluttering wings of the birds that used to sing in the trees back home.
She was overcome with a powerful urge to run. She jolted backwards and stopped, her breathing becoming erratic. I don’t want to go near that door! Please don’t make me! She whipped her head around to look for a possible escape route. Metal bars blocked her path on the sides and behind her the others were queuing, preventing any possible backtracking. She had no choice but to move forward.
There were two bodies before her. One was slowly swallowed by the darkness, the black shadows spreading across their body like they were wading into murky water. Clara tried not to think about what was on the other side. She watched as the next body disappeared and some muffled sounds began to make themselves known to her ears. Was that a scream? Her heart threatened to rupture. She almost felt it would be better to die now by her own body’s strike than by whatever was beyond that door. The sound of the man with the buzzing stick coming towards her, shouting words at her back, forced her feet into action. She entered the doorway. The darkness began to cover her slowly. It felt like icy rain dripping down her skin. She shivered.
Once inside, she couldn’t see very well. The air was thick with a horrible smell. She began to cry softly as she resigned herself to continue her slow march onwards despite the fear urging her to stop. Her legs trembled as she was pushed further inside the horror house by rough hands. A man’s face came into view. He was holding another stick. Except this one didn’t buzz. She continued to cry, pleading to the man to let her go. He stared blankly at her and raised the stick to her temple. Clara closed her eyes and pictured the little girl’s face, smiling and radiant, but above all else, kind.
It was over.
Somewhere far away, young Penny skipped out to the field where she usually shared a conversation with her best friend, Clara, the dairy cow. Clara was a great listener and Penny enjoyed the way she sniffed at her hair. It always made her giggle. But Clara wasn’t there today.
She ran back inside, her gum boots almost slipping off her feet in her haste. She kicked them off without a second thought, mud splattering against the brick wall, and burst through the screen door. “Daddy! Daddy! Where’s Clara?” Her father glanced quickly at her mother, whose mouth turned down at the corners. He tipped the rest of his tea down the sink and sighed heavily. He had been hoping this conversation would come a little later in her childhood. He’d tried to stop her from developing any friendship with the farm animals but she’d been stubborn as most five year old girls are, and it had come back to bite him. He scooped her up and sat her on his knee and began to tell the story of farm life. He watched the innocence splintering, the cruelty of human nature breaking her kind heart. Her eyes had glistened and the tears had fallen, landing on the hardwood floors with a soft...