Copyright is held by the author.
“But I killed for you.” — Louise Gluck’s “Gretel in Darkness”
IN THE second year of our captivity, I managed to kill one of the kidnappers — the woman. Our captors’ vigilance over me had slackened. Though they kept Hans locked up, they often let me out of my cell to satisfy the men’s sexual desires, or to do household chores, especially cooking. I’m a good cook. On this particular day, the woman was on duty, the men having driven off somewhere to get drugs and food. Though she’d probably been told not to, the woman unlocked my cell and let me out to help make her dinner. She wanted a baked potato, green beans, and steak, with apple pie for dessert. I was supposed to make the marinade for the steak, then the pie.
Hans and I would get ramen noodles again, most likely.
I was checking the pie in the oven when she took the marinated meat out to the deck to put it on the grill. I closed the oven door noiselessly and followed her. When she leaned over to flip the meat, I moved, quick as flame. I slammed the barbecue lid down over her head and leaned on it with all my strength.
It was horrible — one short cry of agony, flailing limbs, a sickening stench. I held fast until the body was quite still. Then I pulled the gun from the holster on her hip, unclipped the key ring from her belt, and ran to liberate Hans.
“Geez, Gretel, couldn’t you just have shot her?” Hans asked when he saw the body.
“I did what I had to do,” I answered. She’d never have let me get anywhere close to the gun. Hans should have known that. It was the unexpected method of my attack that let it succeed.
Hans took the gun and ambushed the men at the gate as they returned. Then we dragged the three bodies into the cabin, and took all the cash we could find. There was a lot of it. The gang had been doing a lot of kidnapping lately: mostly babies. Hans and I were the only adults, and the only ones who hadn’t been paid up for.
We set fire to the building and took off in the SUV. We were in a remote area of wooded mountains — we didn’t exactly know where — but it was an easy matter to follow dirt roads, then paved, always downhill until we came to a town and a police department and told our story.
Hans wanted to skip the police part. His idea was we should just disappear to some distant place — Australia or Argentina, maybe.
I, on the other hand, wanted to live a safe and legal life. I wanted everything to be the way it was before. I wanted to go back to our parents. They’d be so glad to see us, I figured. They must have been worried sick about us all this time. “I was the one who got us free,” I said. “I get to choose.”
It took weeks for the police to take us through questioning, medical examinations, psychiatric assessments, site investigation, depositions. It was almost as if they found us half guilty for allowing the kidnappers to capture us, certainly guilty for burning all the evidence. I began to think Hans’ plan to just disappear might have been better after all, but of course it was too late for that. We neither of us said a word about the money we’d taken. It was owed us, we figured.
When the police finally released us, we went home.
“Why didn’t you tell us you were alive all this time?” Dad greeted us. “Your mother’s heart gave out with worry. She died two months ago. If only you’d told us you’d be back, she might be here with us now.”
Apparently he hadn’t even considered paying the ransom asked. He thought it was some scam. “Kids your age don’t get kidnapped,” he said. “You’re what, 18, 19 now?”
Home was not the same without Mum. And Dad was old and feeble and losing his mind. We packed him up, and the furniture, and moved to Montreal. The police had told us we’d be safer in a place where we were unknown before.
Hans set about enjoying his life. He wanted to make love to beautiful women, eat good food, get drunk, dance, spend money, wear fine clothes. He did all that; day and night he was at it.
I wanted to enjoy life too, but in a different way. I wanted to read books, listen to music, and drink tea in sleepy cafes. I wanted to walk in the parks and listen to the birds and feel the wind in my hair.
The reading and the music gave me no trouble, but whenever I left the apartment, I was afraid. I saw our captors’ faces staring at me on the bus or in cafes; I felt them following me in the supermarket or at the library; they waited for me at every street corner. After a while I didn’t want to go out.
Then my fears invaded my home space too. I saw a burned woman lurking in the halls of our building. From behind our locked door I could hear her screaming. At night I woke from troubled sleep and saw her peering in the window.
I got Hans to patrol the empty hallways. I hung heavy curtains on the windows and made him peek out. “Be reasonable,” he complained. “We’re on the fourth floor here. How could anyone be looking in the window?”
I didn’t want to be left alone. Hans went out every evening with his friends. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “Dad’s here. He’ll protect you.”
I lay rigid in my bed listening for the sound of Hans’ key in the locks on the door. Sometimes it didn’t come till morning. I didn’t really want to sleep anyway, for my dreams were worse than the waking fears. I wanted to leave the apartment and find a safer place.
Hans liked the apartment; he liked living downtown, close to what he called “the action.”
“It’s safe,” he insisted. “It’s very, very safe.” But I was still frightened, and eventually he had to agree to move. After all, he owed his life to me and he knew it.
We moved to a cottage on an inconspicuous suburban street. It had a garden with a high wooden fence. On sunny days I sat out there and read. For company I had a cat, and Dad, who told me stories of the old days: the same stories, over and over again; they soothed me, like the cat’s purring.
Hans began to nag at me. “It’s like you’re still a prisoner,” he said. “They’re dead, those guys. We’re free. Get a life. Enjoy it.”
The old life was gone. I knew I needed a new one, but I couldn’t lay hold of it.
“You should see a therapist, get some help,” Hans advised. “I’m not going to be here to look after you much longer. I’m going to get married one day soon.”
“You can’t. I need you. You’re the only one who understands.”
“You had the courage to win our freedom. Now you need to be brave enough to take ownership of your new life,” Hans preached at me. “I can’t live it for you.”
I did try. I went to a therapist. I told her about the fear of being killed, and the fear of killing.
On bad days I hid in the basement. The laundry room reminded me of the cell where they’d kept me and, strangely, that comforted me. The time before I killed was safer than the time afterwards.
On my better days I sat in the garden and listened to Dad’s stories and the purring of the cat. I thought it might perhaps be as good a life as many have, but Hans didn’t think so. “You’re getting peculiar,” he warned me. “Loosen up a little, can’t you?”
He brought his fiancée round to the house to meet me and Dad. I could see why he loved her. She was a beautiful, happy person. She had never known fear or shame or humiliation. She had never killed. She would never understand Hans. I told him that. He told me I was crazy. “Lay off the past,” he said. “Move on, like I have.”
“Remember that if it weren’t for me, you’d still be locked in the cellar of that cabin,” I said. “Or else dead. I killed. I did it for you, Hans.”
“I’m grateful,” Hans said. “Really. But look: I killed twice, for me and for you. I’m fine. We did what we had to, Gretel. It was them or us. We made the right choice.”
I killed with my own hands and with the strength of my body. Hans held a machine that did the killing. Perhaps that made a difference. What was certain was that the woman, dying, had entered me, burned herself into me as I leaned on the barbecue.
Early this morning, when he was still sleeping, I crept into Hans’ room and put a pillow over his face, like a lid. I leaned against it until the struggling ceased. I felt his breath release his body and enter mine. Now he will never leave me. I will be safe.