You’re eighteen and have just finished your first semester at an expensive liberal arts college in Vermont. You’re back in Minnesota for Christmas. Your parents are sixty miles away at the outlet mall, buying discounted Gap hoodies for your many cousins. You refused to go, claiming a sore throat. It’s twelve fifteen. You have just put a pan of cookies in the oven.
You’ll soon be in the worst pain you’ve ever experienced, several orders of magnitude above your occasional menstrual cramps, headaches triggered by perfume, and the time you broke your wrist at Disneyland. The pain will carve out a new space inside you, one you can crawl into when you need a rest.
You lie on the overstuffed, striped love seat with a view of the driveway, waiting for the oven timer to sound. To your right is a piano that hasn’t been tuned in twenty years. You keep a finger on one of the white keys, a high, shrill note, because that’s what you can reach. Every thirty seconds, you push it down and wait for the sound to fade. You are interested in those last moments of sound before silence, the exact boundary between the two things.
You would have unfurled the curtains but you like the warmth of the sunlight through the glass. It bakes your face and forearms, making you sleepy and slightly nauseous. Outside, it’s ten degrees. You saw a family of deer earlier. Their eyes were blank orbs; their nostrils spilled steam. They poked their noses under the snow and then ran off, startled by something you couldn’t see. This is a snow-blanketed land of farmhouses and spindly trees. You are contained in a snow globe, waiting to be shook.
A UPS van circles, once, twice. Then it backs into your parents’ driveway.
Last night at a gas station, you stood in the beer cooler with a man who wouldn’t stop staring at you. Late twenties, topaz eyes, orange hunting jacket. He asked where you lived, what your parents did. His stance was stiff, and he spoke carefully, slowly enough to unnerve you. You gave him your phone number because he reminded you of someone from your dorm whom you find attractive. By the transitive property of lust, you found this man attractive, too.
When the UPS truck comes, you wait just long enough that you can no longer run upstairs and hide; he has seen you. He gets out of the truck. He is wearing a black parka, jeans, work boots. You are embarrassed to be wearing no makeup, but at least you are fully dressed, in jeans and an oversized wool sweater.
You and the man look at each other through one of the small, square windows in the door. He’s about your height. Blue eyes. You pause with your hand on the brass door handle. When you were in first grade, a tall fireman dressed in full fireman gear came to your class and taught you about fire safety. Feel the doorknob, he said, and if it’s hot, don’t open the door.
The handle is cold. You open the door.
The man kicks it in and it knocks you backward. Your head hits the wall behind you. You try to stand up, and he punches you in the mouth, then blindfolds you and ties your hands behind your back.
He doesn’t bother with a gag. You couldn’t scream loud enough for anyone to hear you. Even the deer are far away now, over the ridge.
Footsteps pitter-patter around you. Men’s voices. The smell of cigarettes. They are boxing things up, putting them on the truck. They put you on the truck last. You flail and kick, and are shoved against the side of the truck.
Your arm has been pulled out of its socket. The pain tunnels through you. You can think of nothing else. You’re composed wholly of tortured sinew.
Someone runs his hands over you, inspecting. He pops your shoulder back into its socket. You are grateful.
You bump along in the truck, which smells comfortingly of cardboard. You roll around, cultivating bruises, before managing to wedge yourself in a corner. Every few hours, the truck stops. Someone pets your hair and coos.
The shoulder was one thing; it persists as a nagging ache, like when you’ve left something at home but can’t remember what. The worst pain is yet to come, in childbirth.
You live with the five men in the gymnasium of a burned-down school in Ontario. The windows are all broken. Birds nest in the eaves. The men always say they’re going to shoot the birds, but so far they haven’t.
You’ve been with them almost a year. You know from the changing of seasons; it’s getting cold again. You hunker down at night in a sleeping bag with the topaz-eyed man, whose child you carry. He claims his name is Phoenix, but you heard the other men call him Brad.
During the day, they go hunting with your father’s guns. You are left alone in the gym with the fluttering birds.
They bring in a midwife who only speaks French. You suspect she does know English, but refuses to speak it with you. She gives you commands accompanied by broad hand gestures. She is always knitting, and seems annoyed when she has to stop and tend to you.
Through the distorting haze of pain, like a wall of gas fumes, you suddenly remember the cookies you were baking the day they took you. You wonder how long the cookies stayed in the oven. Did they burst into flame? Could the curling fingernails of fire have crept from the oven and strangled the house?
Here’s what happened that day. Your parents returned with bags of hoodies along with presents for you, which they hid in the garage behind bags of salt for the water conditioner. On entering the house, they smelled the smoke and heard the chirp of the oven timer. Because all things must happen in order, your parents first turned the oven off. What were once cookies were now shrivelled black discs that collapsed, when touched, into powder. Were they oatmeal chocolate chip, or regular chocolate chip? Did they contain nuts? No one could tell, because you put the ingredients away.
The ash coated everything in the kitchen. The tops of the fan blades wore black fur. The walls and the wood of the cabinets bore an acrid smell, a faint sheen of ash, long after your parents moved to escape the memory of you.
Kate Folk is from Iowa and now lives in San Francisco. She has an MFA in fiction from the University of San Francisco. Her work has been published in PANK and Bartleby Snopes, among other magazines. Visit her at www.katefolk.com.