Friday, August 2, 2013

Barbed-Wire Butterflies by Jessica Kristie (Excerpt 2)

CHAPTER 2 - The Lay of the Land

Elani awoke to a buzzing sound that she thought, for an instant, was her alarm. As she rolled over, her heart broke as she found herself once more in the small cement room that had invaded her world the night before. A bad dream, it was not. The shock had yet to wear off, but her impended reality was beginning to sink in. She knew she had a choice to make. Many choices to make. She would first start by accepting this moment as her current fate, and just listen and learn as much as she could.

Jada jumped out of bed, grabbed her blue sweat suit, and glanced over at Elani who was motionless and staring.

“You put your clothes in this bag when you get a new one.” She pointed to a sack in the corner, next to the toilet. “You only get three suits a week, so try and keep them clean.”

Elani nodded to show she understood but could still not find the courage to speak. She was reeling from the past night’s events and tried, to little avail, to soak in her surroundings.

Obviously underfed, and caked in dirt, Sophie and Isabel were getting dressed in silence. They all were tired and worn. The girls took turns using the toilet and then sat on the bottom bunk across from Elani as though they were waiting for something.

“You need to hurry. It’s time to start working soon,” Jada spoke up.

“I’m hungry,” is all Elani could muster from her lips.

Jada grimaced at Elani empathetically and tried to reply without upsetting her.

“Drink some water out of the faucet. We all do it before we head out. It helps. You may not be used to the amount we eat in here, but you will get used to it. They feed us a bit in the morning, usually a piece of bread and some sort of old vegetable to keep us going. They do have water fountains in the work room but we have to ask to use them. We get a supervised pee-break when needed, but try not to have that more than once during your shift or they get mean. We eat again late in the day which usually ain’t more than some bread, soup, and other random things. I don’t know where they get our food from, or where we even are for that matter. We could be in China for all I know.”

Jada’s words sunk in painfully. Into a state of shock again, Elani stood there with deep sunken eyes staring at Jada; no words could reach her lips.

She surveyed the girls and wondered how they did it. She especially was curious about Sophie, who seemed so young. She must have only been ten or so when she was taken. How was it that Sophie was not feeling as hopeless and lost as she was? Why were these girls so compliant? Was it fear? Was it that they just didn’t care? Were their lives so awful before that this could somehow be better? Elani was confused. She knew this was wrong no matter what life any of them had before. All she could do now was play the game until she could clear her head and find a way to get out. She forced herself to get dressed, then had her turn in the small area that was now her bathroom. She took Jada’s advice and drank as much water as she could from the faucet. The water tasted like dirt and coated her pallet with an old metal aftertaste. It was worse than the drinking fountains at her local rundown mall. She did her best to hold her breath as she swallowed the fowl liquid.

Just as she turned to sit down on the bed, she heard the sound of the door to their room being unlocked. Her heart jumped and she clinched her fists to distract her from the thumping that was building quickly in her chest. Part of her wanted to scream and dart for the door, and the other part knew she had no way of escape. She held her breath as the figure came through the door. Elani was partly relieved to see Jolene, as she was at least a somewhat familiar face.

“I hope y’all filled in the new girl about her duty here at The Hub,” Jolene said loudly to the room in her country slang.

“Yes ma’am,” each girl exclaimed with gusto.

“Good, now let’s get going.” Jolene wrote something on her clipboard and then tucked it under her arm. She stood in the doorway as she ushered the girls out. Each girl made her way through the door and took her place along the wall, between the room entrances. There were eight doors along the hallway with four on each side. Every room contained up to four girls.

Elani took her place on the wall in between Sophie and Isabel. She looked up and down the hallway as the girls found their wall space. No words were spoken and every face was drawn with sadness. The sight of numerous sickly frames, bulging eyes, and sunken cheeks made Elani feel ill. They all waited blankly for their next command.

When all rooms had been emptied, Jolene stood on one end of the corridor and firmly announced, “Let’s do this, girls.”

The girls filed in line with each other and followed Jolene out of the hallway.

With her head down and fighting her body to keep going, Elani trailed the group. She watched her feet move along the dirty floor and soon found herself in sync with the rest of them.

Being an intelligent girl, who had been born into a broken and often toxic home, Elani had learned to survive. She already had to be resilient and knew that this place, as awful as it was, did not count on her being as strong as she was. Jolene had said that she knew all about her, but she didn’t. None of them did.

What was happening at The Hub was not only illegal, in Elani’s mind, but was also a moral tragedy. It had been less than twenty-four hours but she had begun the long road to a mental, and hopefully physical, escape.

They all entered a large factory where most of the girls swarmed to take their place on the line. It was a mishmash of stations inside the factory room. Tables of four were linked together in ten to fifteen spots throughout the space. In the center of the linked tables where large barrels where the final product was placed. Most of the tables were lined with sewing machines but many of them had wicker baskets full of parts, and mats lying across the table. All four entrances to the large room were guarded by a man in a green jumpsuit. The men stood menacingly with complete disinterest in the activity within the room.

Elani stayed in place and waited silently for direction. Jolene stood in front of them with her clipboard and watched as the other girls took their spots on the line. Without a noise she peered across the room for empty seats and made notes on her board. Elani searched the room to find where her bunkmates had gone. They were already hard at work. Sophie and Isabel were assembling what seemed to be cell phones. They each were inserting a few small parts. The phones were then taken to another station to be completed. Jada was swift and efficient while working on garments and seemed to know her way around a sewing machine. Elani’s curiosity was interrupted by the sound of Jolene’s voice. “You, Elani, go sit with Jada. She will teach you to make garments,” she said with an abrupt voice and a swoosh of her hand in Jada’s direction. Elani nodded and shuffled over to where Jada was working. An older woman whom she had not seen before appeared with a metal chair, placed it next to Jada, and then said nothing as she walked away.

Many of the women and girls appeared to be of Hispanic and Asian descent. It had become clear that not all of them spoke English. Elani took in the faces around the room and waited for Jada to speak as she continued to sew her garment together with eloquent detail.

“Do you know anything about sewing?” Jada broke the silence after several minutes.

“No,” Elani replied with a lump in her throat.

“Well, you are going to have to figure it out, and fast. Just watch me for a while and then ask me questions.”

Elani nodded and watched for several hours, trying to take in every movement. After a long while, Jada stopped and asked if she had any questions. Elani wasn’t sure what to ask and just shook her head with obvious confusion on her face.

For a minute, Jada and Elani locked eyes and they felt jolts of sadness spring from each of their bodies. Jada worked hard to stay disconnected, learning early on that it was the easiest way to get through each day. Elani’s looks of despair were pulling Jada back into the reality of what their lives were, and she didn’t like it. A cold expression, out of reaction to her failing strength, came across Jada’s face. Elani sensed it and looked down.

“Let me give you the rundown on this thing,” Jada said to break the awkward silence. “I still have to make my quota or I may lose my meal. They don’t care if I have to teach someone, I still have to get it done,” she said with a fast, stern voice. “This screw here is how you tighten and untighten the needles. We don’t change those often. We all know, depending on the mood, if we break one—we get punished.”

Elani winced, terrified at her comment. But Jada went on.

“Really quick now, on the rest of this, it will do you good to retain all I’m saying, Elani. Good for us both.” She continued on and pointed to all the many parts of the sewing machine. “This is the foot. The pressure foot that holds the fabric in place. These are the seam guides and cornering guides. You will understand more as I start putting together this garment. Watch now as I thread the needle and the bobbin,” she kept on as she opened the bottom and pulled out a cylinder-shaped item and thread.

Intently, Elani stared and tried to keep all the information in place just as Jada had warned. She didn’t want to cause trouble or have anyone punished just from her presence. The food was scarce and the last thing anyone wanted was to have that taken away. Within a few quick minutes Jada had gone through all the pieces of the machine and began sewing again.

Elani watched as she moved the garment through, following the pattern to make a perfect line. She was nervous she would not be able to perform as Jada had done with perfect ease; she had never worked with a sewing machine before.

As a creative spirit, Elani was often inspired to paint or sculpt. Since she enjoyed the art of creation she vowed at that moment to try and find enjoyment in what she was being forced to create. None of this was going to be easy, but one thing she could control was her feelings on the inside.

Soon after Jada had started sewing again, a loud annoying buzz that led into a voice through an intercom said, “Section one, you have five minutes.” A small area of workers then scrambled up and went to the back of the room. They each grabbed a slice of bread and headed down the side of the building.

Jada noticed the surprised expression on Elani’s face and with a whisper, filled her in. “This is our only break in the morning. You get your slice of bread and quickly find your way to the bathroom. You really don’t want to interrupt your day with bathroom breaks. That wouldn’t go over well with the watchers, so get it out now.”

“The watchers?”

“Yeah, take a look around and you will see a few people that watch us. They make sure we meet our quotas, that we are not talking, and that we work to their satisfaction. They don’t like to be bothered and they really don’t like it when people stop for any reason. Stay on task, Elani. Always. It will keep you out of trouble and off their radar. If you are noticed, then you are targeted, and that is never good for any of the girls here. Especially with the men. Don’t ever let the men notice you.”

Elani was terrified and her face went flush. She could only imagine what Jada meant by that. She pointed her gaze back at Jada’s hands and watched her as she continued to sew. She tried to breathe through the sudden constriction of her lungs, knowing well that panic was not an option at this point.

“Section one, get back now. Section two, you have five minutes,” the voice emotionlessly exclaimed over the intercom. Another group scrambled abruptly toward the back table and then down the hall to what Elani now knew was the bathroom area.

“Section two, done. Section three, you have five minutes.”

Jada put her hand on Elani and motioned her to follow. Both girls got up and waited behind three others to grab their piece of bread and small cup of water. Each girl drank the water and placed the cup back down before even leaving the table. The cups were stacked to the corner and where later whisked away by a small older man that dressed like an orderly in a hospital with scrubs. Elani followed along with the other girls, grabbed her piece of bread and headed down the hall to the bathroom area.

The hallway was dimly lit, and toward the end were push doors like Elani would often see in a restaurant. Inside was a line of eight stalls that, surprisingly to Elani, had doors. There were three sinks inside and a woman guarding the inside of the door. A small, dirty table at the back end of the bathroom sat awkwardly. On the table stood a pile of paper towels and a box of feminine pads.

As Elani waited for her turn, she shot a look over to the woman guarding the door. The woman stood there with no emotion on her face. She glanced hastily at Elani as if to recognize she was new, mentally noted her features, and then turned away. Elani took her turn in a stall, and although she did not have to go, forced herself to do what she could. They all briefly washed their hands and filed back out. The entire event was so fast she didn’t even remember eating her bread. She had shoved it down her throat, mimicking the panic on the other girls’ faces.

She noticed the sadness in each of the other girls’ eyes; Elani felt almost worse for them than she did for herself. They appeared so lost and sunken deep inside themselves. She dreaded that eventually she would end up resigned to the life these girls led. She couldn’t look at them. Avoiding eye contact felt like the only way to escape the nature and repercussions of long-term living in The Hub. She wanted out and felt desperate with every passing moment.

The day went by rapidly with Elani careful to examine Jada as she worked. Jada’s hands were not those of a young girl anymore. They were bruised and worn. Her nail beds filled with skin shrapnel from hours of hard labor. Her slender bones popped from her skin, matching the sad movements her body would make. Dark gloom surrounded every room, and Elani soon found herself caught up in its wrath. It was only the first day, and every minute was spent trying to learn the lay of the land. The rules and punishments sat within fear-soaked eyes all throughout the barren place. Zombies had taken over the work stations and lifeless beings now surrounded her—and were asking her to join them. She knew, above all else, that she needed to resist as long as she could. She would play the game, move in the required way and outwardly remove the life she had once possessed. But on the inside, she would never give up the fight. A revolution was at hand, even if it was only in her mind. It had begun.

Dinner was nothing more than broth and another piece of bread. Hunger was no stranger to Elani, but this was beyond what she had experienced. The other girls comforted with eyes that said it would get easier. She knew it would, but also knew that in some ways it would only get harder. At thirteen she held experiences far beyond her age. She had already been familiar with needing to survive emotional turmoil, neglect, and some abuse.

Elani was used to standing up for her brother and herself from the wrath of an alcoholic, sometimes mentally tormented mother, and a heavy-handed father, although they had been estranged for the past few years. This was to be a greater challenge, though, and that fact was beginning to sink in. Unsure if she would be able to cope, she understood the necessity just the same. Her brother lay heavy on her heart, and was to be a driving force for her everyday survival.

As the last hours of work ended, Elani struggled with an empty stomach and restless thoughts. The intercom alarm sounded and the working came to a relieved halt.

“Lights out in thirty minutes,” the intercom voice stated, then disappeared.

Each table briskly cleaned up their stations and filed in line for the trip down the maze to their rooms. Worried expressions filled each of their faces, as Elani imagined they had to use the restroom as badly as she did. Every one of their bodies moved in ways that were tired, worn, and emotionally beaten. Eyes that once would have been glowing, now deep and sunken. Mouths that used to echo with freedom, now folded silently within their chests. Somehow, Elani had found her way to prison without even knowing it.

The longest day Elani had ever experienced was over, and they were all back in their rooms and locked in for the night. They waited for Sophie to use the restroom first, being the youngest. Even from her single day, Elani also felt the need to protect Sophie. They all finished with no words to be spoken between them. Only glances of sympathy tinged with fear.

Breaking the silence, Isabel spoke. “How was your first day?” she said with as much enthusiasm as she could muster.

“I’m a bit overwhelmed.”

“We all were, and still are sometimes,” Isabel promptly responded. “Just listen to Jada. She knows what we are supposed to do. She helps keep us out of trouble and out from under the watchful eye of the guards and Captain Carson.”

“Who’s Captain Carson?”

“From what we know, the main guy who runs this place. We don’t see him often but he wanders through the work room every now and then. He’s creepy.”

“I hope to never see him up close,” Elani pronounced.

“Me too,” the other girls all said in unison.

They lay down in their beds and each gave a sigh of relief as they stared at the ceiling waiting for the lights to be turned off. Elani tried to ignore the grumbling in her stomach and hoped the other girls would not hear its begging for nourishment. She closed her eyes and started to picture her last art project she was working on before she came to The Hub. It was difficult to imagine that just a few days ago she was going to school and was with her brother. She tried not to focus on what her brother might be thinking at that same moment; wondering where she might be. Were the police looking for her? A tingle of hope swept over as she thought that at least her brother would have informed people she was missing.

The loud sound of the lights being shut off jolted Elani from her thoughts. Isabel, Jada, and Sophie all said goodnight while she sat motionless on her bunk. She could barely muster the response, but finally in a pushed-out breath replied with a goodnight. She wrapped herself up in her blanket and brought her mind back to the blues and yellows that made up the butterfly she was working on in school. She had been painting on a bowl she made in pottery class. It was a gift for her brother, Nick. Nick was only ten, and needed Elani. In her moment of admitting her separation from him, she wept as quietly as she could into her pillow, exhausted from the hours she had now been inside The Hub.

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Genre – Literary Fiction

Rating – PG

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