I nod. He shakes me until my head snaps back.
“Okay?” he says again.
“Okay,” I mimic. He lets me go, but doesn’t step away. He pulls me into a hug and my face buries itself in the crook of his neck.
“He’s been filling that tank hasn’t he? That’s why there are no windows on the back of the house.”
Isaac’s silence is confirmation enough.
“Will he come back? Now that we have the door open and can fill it ourselves?” It seems unlikely. Is it our punishment now that we figured out the code? A reward and a punishment: you can go outside, but now it’s only a matter of time before you run out of fuel and freeze to death. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
He squeezes me tighter. I can feel how tense his muscles are underneath my palms.
“If he comes back,” I say. “I’m going to kill him.”
I haven’t cut myself since the day I met Isaac. I don’t know why. It might be because he made me feel things, and I didn’t need a blade to feel anymore. That’s why we do it, right? Cut ourselves to feel? Saphira would have said so. The dragon and her existential bullshit. “Since humans can choose to be eitherrrr cruel or good, they arrre, in fact, neither of these things essentially.”
Now I am feeling too many things. I crave my white room. What was the opposite of cutting? Wrapping yourself in a cocoon and never coming out. I roll myself in the feather comforter on the attic bed—that’s what we we’re calling it—the attic. My room. The place where my kidnapper put me in pajamas and laid me. Laid me out to what? I don’t know, but I’m starting to like it in the attic. I can’t hear the music as well when I’m wrapped in feathers. Landscape has not stopped playing. The first of our songs. The one he gave to me to let me know he understood.
“You look like a joint,” Isaac says. He hardly ever comes up here. I feel him touch my hair, which is sticking out of the top of my cocoon. I bury my face in the white and try to suffocate myself. I traded comforters with him. He took the red because I couldn’t stand to look at it.
“There is something downstairs you should probably see,” he says. He’s touching my hair in a way that’s lulling me. If he wants me to get up he’s going to have to stop doing that.
I came straight up here after we carried the wood into the house and discovered the electric fence. Isaac must have found something more outside.
“Unless it’s a dead body, I don’t want to see it.”
“You’d want to see a dead body?”
“It’s not a dead body, but I need you to come with me.” He unrolls me from my self-made joint, and pulls me to my feet. He doesn’t let go right away. He squeezes where he holds. Then he pulls me along by my hand like I’m a child. I stumble after him. He leads me downstairs. To the wood closet. Pulling open the door, he holds me by the tops of my arms, forcing me to stand in front of him and look inside.
I see only the wood at first. Then he reaches over me with a pink Zippo and holds it as close to the inner wall as he can. Strange, I think, at first—there is writing on the walls. Some of the wood is obscuring it. I reach inside and move a couple of the logs over. I start shaking. He wraps his arms around my torso and squeezes, then leads me backwards to the sofa where I sit. Part of me wants to break away to go look some more, but I feel. I feel too much. If I don’t stop feeling I’m going to explode. Pages of my book—over and over—wall-papered on the inside of the closet like a slap in the face.
“What does it mean?” I ask Isaac.
He shakes his head. “A fan? I don’t know. It’s someone playing games.”
“How did we never notice that before?”
I want to press my fingers into the sides of his face and force him to look at me. I want him to tell me that he hates me, because for some reason he is here as a result of me. But he doesn’t. Nothing he does is encumbered by blame or anger. I wish I could be like that.
“We weren’t looking,” he says. “What else are we not seeing because we aren’t looking?”
“I have to read what’s in there.” I stand up, but Isaac pulls me back.
“It’s Chapter Nine.”
I reach for it in my mind. Then I let it go. Chapter Nine hurts. I wish I hadn’t written it. I tried to get the publishers to take it out of the manuscript before the book went to print. But they felt it was necessary to the story.
The day the book hit shelves, I sat in my white room, holding back my vomit, knowing that everyone was reading Chapter Nine and living my pain. I don’t want to read it, so I stay sitting.
“Chapter Nine is—”
I cut him off.
“I know what it is,” I snap. “But why is it there?”
“Because someone is obsessed with you, Senna.”
“No one knew that was real! Who did you tell?”
I am screaming; so angry I want to throw something large. But the zookeeper didn’t give us anything large to throw. Everything is bolted, sewn into the walls and floors like this is a dollhouse.
“Stop it!” He grabs me, tries to slow me down.
His voice is getting loud. I release mine, too. If he’s going to yell I’m going to yell louder.
“Then why are you here?” I punch his chest with both of my fists.
He sits down abruptly. It throws me off. I was all geared up to fight.
“You’ve said those words to me so many times I’ve lost count. But this time it’s not my choice. I want to be with my wife. Planning for our baby. Not locked up like a prisoner with you. I don’t want to be with you.”
His words hurt so bad. My pride keeps my knees stiff, otherwise I would have buckled from the pain. I watch him walk up the stairs, my heart pounding to the beat of his anger. I guess I was wrong about him. I was wrong about so many things with regard to him.
I am wrapped in my cocoon again when Isaac comes up with dinner. He brings two plates and sets them on the floor by the fire before unwrapping me.
“Food,” he says. I lay on my back staring up at the ceiling for a minute, before throwing my legs off the side of the bed and slowly walking to his picnic.
He’s already eating, staring at the flames while he chews. I sit on my knees as far away from him as I can—on the corner of the rug—and pick up my plate. The plate is square. There are squares around its edge. It’s the first time I’m noticing. I’ve been eating off these dishes for weeks, but I’m just now observing things like color and pattern and shape. They are familiar to me. I touch one of the squares with my pinkie.
“Isaac, these plates…”
“I know,” he says. “You’re in a fog, Senna. I wish you’d wake up and help me get out of here.”
I set my plate on the floor. He’s right.
“The fence. How far does it run around the house?”
“About a mile in every direction. With the cliff on one side of us.”
“Why did he give us that much room?”
“Food,” Isaac says. “Wood?”
“So he means for us to take care of ourselves when the food runs out?”
“But the fence will keep the animals out, and there are only so many trees to cut down.”
Isaac shrugs. “Maybe he intended for us to make it ‘til summer. We’d see some animals then.”
“There is a summer here?” I say it sarcastically, but Isaac nods.
“There is a short summer in Alaska, yes. But depending on where we are, there might not be one. If we are in the mountains it will be winter year round.”
I don’t long for the sun. I never have. But I don’t like being told it has to be winter all year either. It makes me want to claw at the walls.
I fidget with the hem of my sweater.
“How much food do we have left?”
“Couple months’ worth if we ration it.”
“I wish this song would stop playing.” I pick up my plate and start eating. These are Isaac’s plates. Or were his plates. I only ate at his house once. He probably has the type of china now that married people have. I think about his wife. Small and pretty, eating off her china alone because her husband is missing. She doesn’t feel like eating, but she’s doing it anyway because of the baby. The baby they tried and tried for. I blink the image of her away. She helped save my life. I wonder if they’ve tied our disappearances together? Daphne knew some of what happened with Isaac and me. They had been seeing each other when he met me. He put everything on hold with her during those months he was keeping me alive.
“Senna,” he says.
I don’t lift my head. I’m trying not to crack. There is rice on my plate. I count the grains.
“It took me a long time…” he pauses. “To stop feeling you everywhere.”
“Isaac, you don’t have to. Really. I get it. You want to be with your family.”
“We’re not good at this,” he says. “The talking.” He sets his plate down. I hear the clatter of silverware. “But I want you to know one thing about me. Want being the key word, Senna. I know you don’t need words from me.”
I brace myself against the rice; it’s all that stands between me and my feelings. Rice.
“You’ve been silent your whole life. You were silent when we met, silent when you suffered. Silent when life kept hitting you. I was like that too, a little. But not like you. You are a stillness. And I tried to move you. It didn’t work. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t move me. I heard everything you didn’t say. I heard it so loudly that I couldn’t shut it off. Your silence, Senna, I hear it so loudly.”
I set my plate down and wipe my palms on my pant legs. I have yet to look at him, but I hear the angst in his voice. I have nothing to say. I don’t know what to say. That proves his point, and I don’t want him to be right.
“I hear you still.”
I stand up. I upset my plate; it topples.
But he doesn’t. “It’s never that I don’t want to be with you. It’s that you don’t want to be with me.”
I bolt for the ladder. I don’t even bother using the rungs. I jump … land on my haunches. I feel feral.
“The life you choose to live is the essence of who you arrre.”
I am an animal, bent on surviving. I let nothing in. I let nothing out.
I stink. Not the way you smell on a hot day when the sun toasts your skin and you smell like bologna. I wish I smelled like that. It would mean there was sun. I smell musty, like an old doll that has been locked up in a closet for years. I smell like unwashed body and depression. Yes. I slowly consider my stink and the awful way my grey streak hangs lank in my face. I don’t bother to push it off my eyes. I stay curled under the blanket like a fetus. I don’t even know how long I’ve been like this—days? Weeks? Or maybe it just feels like weeks. I’m composed of weeks, and days of weeks, and hours of weeks and days and minutes and seconds and…
I’m not even in the attic bed. It’s warmer in the attic, but a few nights ago I took too many shots of whiskey and stumbled into the carousel room, only half conscious and holding in my sick. I was too dizzy to light a fire, so I lay trembling under the feather blanket, trying not to look at the horses. Waking up there was like having a night of drinking and then finding yourself in your bed with your best friend’s boyfriend.
At first I was too shocked to move, so I just lay there paralyzed by shame and nausea. Not sure who exactly I felt like I was betraying by being in there, but felt it nevertheless. Isaac never came to find me, but considering that we were passing the bottle back and forth all night, he was probably just as sick as I was. That’s what we do lately; we congregate in the living room after dinner to sip from a bottle that fits neatly in our hands. After dinner drinks. Except dinners are getting sparse: a handful of rice, a small pile of canned carrots. There is always more liquor in our bellies than food these days. I groan at the thought of food. I need to pee and maybe be sick. I run the tip of my finger back and forth, back and forth over the cotton sheets. Back and forth, back and forth until I fall asleep. Landscape is playing. It’s always playing. The zookeeper is cruel.
Back and forth, back and forth. There is wallpaper to the left of the bed, of tiny carousel horses floating untethered through a creamy backdrop. Except they aren’t angry like the horses attached to the bed. There are no flared nostrils and you cannot see the whites of their eyes. They have furling ribbons tied to their forelocks and cranberry colored jewels decorating their saddles. To the right of the bed is a baby blue wall and centered in the middle of it, a brick fireplace. Sometimes I look at the blue wall, other times I like to count the little carousel horses on the wallpaper. And then there are times I squeeze my eyes shut so tight and pretend I’m at home in my own bed. My sheets are different, and the weight of the blanket, but if I lie very still…
That’s when things get a little crazy. I’m not even sure I want to be in my own bed. It was figuratively just as cold as this one. There is nowhere I want to be. I should embrace the cold and the snow and the prison. I should be like Corrie Ten Boom and try to find purpose in suffering. I get catatonic at that point. My thoughts, having run in circles for most of the day, shut down. I just stare until Isaac eventually carries in a plate of food and sets it on the table next to the bed. I don’t touch anything. Not for days, until he pleads with me to eat. To move. To talk to him. I stare at one of the two walls and see how long I can go without feeling. I pee in the bed. The first time it’s an accident; my bladder, stretched like a water balloon, reaches its limit. There’s another time. In my sleep I roll away from it, find a new spot. I wake up closer to the fireplace, my clothes barely damp. It doesn’t bother me. I’m finally in the place where nothing bothers me.