DOBBS WINS THE fight easily. He shuts and locks the door. I feel a small sense of relief. With a hulking slab of metal separating us, I am finally able to breathe just a little. It is only when I hear another thump, another door closing someplace above me, that I understand: not only am I to be left alone; I am to be hidden.
I am a secret no one is able to tell.
Just like that, instead of wishing Dobbs gone, I am waiting for him to come back.
Surely, it won’t take long.
When Dobbs returns, I’ll take him off guard. I’ll push past him, dash outside, and sprint across the field. I will steer clear of the road. I’ll head for the line of sycamore trees along the creek. I’ll make my way east, and he won’t think to follow me there on account of its being trappers’ territory. Even if I do get snared, it’ll be better than this, because someone will find me. Nobody’s going to find me here, whatever here is. A dungeon? I can’t make any sense of it. A big round room with a massive pillar right through the middle of it. Contraptions, wires, pipes, spigots, dials. I keep my back turned to the space, keep my face pressed up against the door. It is made of steel and has a handle, although not like one I’ve ever seen. Something a bank might have on its vault.
What has he done? What’s happened to me?
Surely, Dobbs should be getting back by now. He’ll take me out of here. He’ll explain it to me, not like before, which didn’t make any sense. He won’t be rough, either. Or cross. He’ll be nice, like how he is in the library.
I look at Grandpa’s pocket watch; only fifteen minutes have passed. Even though it is still ticking, I wind it tight. If only I were still at the Horse Thieves Picnic, our town’s annual tradition that I look forward to all year. The gathering that attracts a couple thousand people has since moved from its original location among the walnut trees of Durr’s Grove to Main Street, and its contests no longer include Largest Mustache for Boys Under 17 or Baby with the Worst Case of Colic, but there is still a parade and a carnival. Apart from the parade, the next most popular event is the concert at the bandstand, where Daddy, no doubt, is now line dancing. It takes no effort to imagine what my sister and brothers are doing. Suzie, with Lula Campbell, will be strutting around the midway looking for boys, and Gerhard, not actually bleeding to death from wrecking his pickup on I-70 like Dobbs had first said, will be off with his pals to scale the water tower. Having left the Horse Thieves Picnic early on account of Theo’s fever, Mama’s likely fallen asleep on her bed, the fan moving what the lazy July evening can’t be bothered to blow through the window. No one has probably even noticed that I’m gone. How long will it take them before they do? And when they do, where will they imagine I am? What will they think the cause for my absence is? They won’t be imagining anything bad, that’s for sure. Bad things don’t happen in Eudora, Kansas.
I look over my shoulder at the space behind me. The enormous concrete pillar and two partitions divide the round room into halves. Behind the partitions is where Dobbs said I could get myself something to drink. I can see a bit of the recliner, where I was told to sit and wait.
I don’t like the looks of anything behind me, so I keep my eyes on Grandpa’s watch. The minute hand and I go for long walks around the numbers. And then the numbers, the watch face, and everything else disappear, just like the time lightning split the maple tree outside our living room and we all vanished in its blinding flash. It’s like that, except in reverse. The darkness has swallowed me whole.
I can’t see my hand, even when I hold it up to my face. Nothing seeps through the darkness. I keep waiting for my eyes to adjust. The outline of the partitions or the big concrete pillar should be visible. I start shivering.
I think I hear something. “Dobbs?”
The darkness snatches my voice and issues nothing in return.
Don’t panic. The electricity’s gone out; give it a minute.
If this were home, Mama would be feeling her way to the pantry for the lantern and the matches she keeps on the top shelf. Gerhard would have the flashlight under his chin, his bottom teeth thrust outward and his eyes crossed and buggy, and Suzie would be getting all hysterical, as if he really were the bogeyman. And Daddy would be chiding Gerhard, but only halfheartedly, because there’s nothing better than spooking girls.
But this is not home. This is not any kind of place you’d put a person. What kind of things do people put in a place like this? How far underground am I? There were a lot of stairs and a long passage that kept making sharp left and right turns. And too many doors to keep track of. Locks.
Just think of home. Just give it a minute. Just wait.
There is no way to tell what time is doing. Has it been five minutes or half an hour? Shouldn’t the electricity have kicked back on by now?
There is a creak somewhere behind me, to the left. A shifting. My ears strain. I hold my breath so I can hear better. Is there something in here with me? Something doing the breathing for me? In. Out. Sounds like air through clenched teeth. Something with its lips drawn back. Oh Lord, what if it comes for me?
I mustn’t move. Not a sound, or I will give myself away.
How could anything have entered? Is there a hole in the wall? Maybe the noise is nothing but a draft coming through a vent. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe some inner door opened. Because this no longer feels like a confined space but a very large one, widening still.
There is something behind this door, too. Something that turns it freezing cold. I scoot back, exposed. On my hands and knees, I shuffle over to where the kitchen is supposed to be. I must hide. Hurrying as fast as I can, I ram straight into something. My head about cracks. I can’t make any sense of what I’ve hit—something with knobs. I keep hurrying, this time with one hand outstretched.
My hand locates the leg of the table. I get under it, bring my knees up to my chin, and grip myself tightly. Maybe whatever is making the sound is one of those things that can see in the dark. Which means it can see me under the table with the chair legs pressed against me. It doesn’t help to tell myself my imagination is playing tricks on me. Please. Oh, please.
Sit still. Don’t move. Quiet. Ssh. Help me, someone, please, God.