by Lizzi Feaker
It started when she was twelve and her stepfather told her she had bright, pretty hair, and was becoming a beautiful young woman. She knew she was supposed to like hearing it; didn’t every girl want to become a beautiful young woman? But something in his eyes made her skin crawl.
As her mother began working more and more hours to afford the bills, leaving her alone with her stepfather who never seemed to be able to hold down a job, her uneasiness grew. Several weeks later, during one of her mother’s overnight shifts, her stepfather threw her to the freezing basement floor. She experienced physical, mental and emotional destruction that changed the course of her life and repeated in the following years.
In high school other men noticed her hair, blonde and long - swinging while she walked, until she snuck into the bathroom one morning and cut it all off. She cut it as short as a boy’s, but it didn’t matter. They still stared. She focused next on trying to make herself as small as possible, trying not to attract attention in her movements or voice, trying to disappear from her stepfather’s gaze reflected in the eyes of men all around her.
When she was 18 she met a man who looked at her with another expression. He seemed to see right into her soul. When he told her he loved her and would protect her, she thought she was the luckiest girl in the world, until she once again endured the same destruction she experienced at age twelve.
In the years after high school, she attempted to further her education and find employment, but met versions of her stepfather over and over. Their eyes looked at her with that same look she experienced at age twelve and she started drinking more. She drank away her paychecks and spent her nights in bars, trying to forget the reality she couldn’t escape.
At her lowest point she met a couple online. They asked for photographs in exchange for money, wanting to spice up their marriage. She was wary. She built a friendship with them online for months before agreeing to meet one afternoon in a public parking lot. She brought a friend with her for protection, just in case.
Her friend loved them instantly, and so did she - the couple was good-looking, funny, charming, and offered to buy her drinks at a new club that night. It was a club she could never afford to get into on her own. Her friend stumbled home around midnight and she continued drinking with the couple, having a long heart-to-heart about all the things she had never told anyone else, going back to age twelve. They drew it out of her with care, and when she was too shy to continue they gently encouraged her to go on.
She woke the next morning in the attic of a strange three-story house, disoriented and alone. The attic was sparsely furnished with a bed that took up half the room. In the attached bathroom was a huge marble vanity with a light-up mirror. The couple told her in a few weeks, if she did what was asked, they’d let her go. Just a few more weeks. They just needed her long enough to build their business, get repeat clients, and help recruit other girls. They gave her a list of reasons why she owed them, why this was fair. They’d been saying they would let her go “in a few weeks” for months, but time was now measured in doses and withdrawals. She can’t remember the last time she felt mentally or physically clear.
The air around her smelled rancid when she moved. When was the last time she showered or ate? Her vision swam as fear flared through her, breaths came in gasps and her heart felt like it would burst. She smeared on makeup with shaking hands and climbed on the bed to wait. She listened for the car that would roar up the driveway, the footsteps on the stairs and watched as the door opened and a stranger walked in. When he left, the couple gave her another dose of the drugs and the withdrawals that were killing her stopped.
Later, she moved to the window and watched the world outside through a crack in the curtains. Since she arrived, she had never left her third floor prison. A delivery driver on the street below carried a package to the house next door. She learned long ago screaming was not effective; she’s too far up. She banged on the window once but got no attention from the people on the street below - the only one who heard was her captor. She nearly died from the beating he delivered. He withheld food and water until she was too weak to move from the bed to the bathroom.
She watched the truck pull away. Two women out for a walk paused underneath her window. One of them was telling a story to the other, making exaggerated gestures and laughing. A door opened across the street and several children spilled out, jumping in the sunshine. The golden retriever in the yard next door ran across the street to join them.
She let the curtains close and laid on the bed, out of breath from the exertion of moving to the window. She faded back into herself, back into the space she exists now; entirely inside her mind, her body; and the world outside foreign, strange, disconnected. In that space she returned to a memory of herself at eleven, before her stepfather entered her life. She was in a church, listening to someone playing a song on the guitar, singing to the ceiling with their eyes closed. She remembered it being a song about rescue. Hope for the ones imprisoned. She played it in her head several times a day now, making up words where she couldn’t remember the real ones, singing the song to anything - anything in heaven or earth - that might hear her, find her, help her. She repeats the questions that have become her mantra since waking up in this attic, all those months ago: Is anyone out there? Does anyone care? Was I created only to endure this and die?
This scenario of the girl in the attic plays out over and over throughout our nation, every victim enduring similar abuse, destruction and devastation. Every victim asking the same questions: is anyone out there? Is this what I was created for? Will anyone ever find me? Will I be rescued, or will I die?
Knowing this occurs an untold number of times in neighborhoods possibly not far from yours - knowing that this is the reality of our world, our nation, our cities, and even our own community - we must ask ourselves the question: Is this ok or not? Is it okay to turn a blind eye to the destruction of people like the girl in the attic? Is she on her own, or are we going to be there for her? Will we hear her cry, or is this simply someone else’s concern? We cannot “unsee” what we’ve seen, we cannot unlearn what we’ve learned. Our conscience has called us to action. May God guide us as we stand together to rescue the girl in the attic. †