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The Paths We Take #5: Wooden Palace

Mar 13, 2018






When the van came to a stop, Bert grabbed my shoulders and slid me over to the side doors. He untied the rag that covered my mouth as the doors opened, letting in the smell of fresh pines and the chill of the morning air. Gramps took hold of my arms and helped me out of the van and onto my feet.

“I am going to cut this off now, so don’t do anything stupid pretty girl,” Gramps said as I felt my wrists drop to my sides as he cut the zip tie with his knife. I sighed in relief as my wrists and hands came back to life; I tried to ignore the stinging sensation that was radiating down my wrists to the tips of my fingers. “See, you’re good as new now,” he said.

I considered kicking him with every bit of strength that I could muster, but thought better of it as I noticed the pistol hanging from the holster inside his unzipped coat. Plus, Bert was standing just a few feet away lighting a cigarette, waiting for another reason to put his boot in my ribs again. Gramps had removed the bandana from his face to reveal a square chin covered in a gruff salt-and-pepper stubble. He handed me a bottle of water and I gulped half of it down before taking a breath.

The first time my eyes fell on the fortress, I thought I was looking at a majestic ski resort nestled in the sea of pines on the mountain. The log cabin was massive, more like a wooden palace, rustic and beautiful; it was the kind of place that cloaked itself in a dream to hide the nightmares inside.

Gramps led me up a stone stairway to wooden door with an ornate pattern of leaves and vines that were carved into the edges. The inside was immaculate, paintings of wildlife covered the walls, and a stone fireplace the size of my apartment towered in the center of what looked to be one of the living areas. The room was furnished with several brown leather sofas and chairs that encircled the fireplace.

“Through that door right there,” Gramps said as he pointed to a door on the far end of a hallway, the smell of cigarettes and whiskey fresh on his breath.

The door was cracked, I could see the flashes of bright light sneaking out into the hallway as I eased the door open. I heard the Ka-chick, Ka-chick, Ka-chick, from the camera before I saw the man dressed in skinny-jeans with a black button-down shirt aiming the camera at the white muslin background. The three studio monolights hurled flares of intense light onto the white cloth.

“Well hello blondie,” the man said as he turned to look at me, flashing a luminous white smile under a thick black mustache attached to a well-trimmed goatee.  “You must be the prettiest thing in these mountains,” he said before scanning me from head to toe while he rested his chin on his fist. He went over to a rolling rack in the corner and took a dress from the hanger and then handed it to me. “This should work.”

“What is this?” I asked.

“For your professional profile of course,” the man snickered as he snapped a photo of me without warning. “Hurry up now, I have another appointment in a couple hours and I’m desperate for a mochaccino.”

Gramps was leaning against the door staring at me. I knew I didn’t have a choice, and that there would be consequences if I hesitated to do as the photographer asked. I went over to the corner, rolled the rack filled with the dresses out from the wall, and ducked behind it to change. Gramps just laughed and watched as I took off my leggings and the rest of my clothes while I tried to hide behind the dresses. The ruby-red silk dress was long, with waist-high slits and a deep plunging neckline. The even-split sleeveless gown looked like it came straight from the red carpet, and for a few seconds, I let myself imagine what it would be like to wear a dress like that on a date, or to the senior prom that I had never attended. For just a few brief seconds I forgot about what had happened just a few hours earlier– what Royce had done to me.

“Now that is a dress,” the photographer said as I stepped out from behind the rack. “Come over here baby girl and let me get a better look at you.”

I slipped on the red stilettos that he had set beside the dress rack, and then I made my way in front of the lights. “You are stunning. This will be easy for you,” the photographer said as he adjusted the height of the monolights.

He instructed me to pose several different ways, continually telling me to touch my bottom lip with my fingertips, and to “relax,” and “sexy-it-up.” He moved around, snapping photo after photo. My stomach churned as I tried to keep the dress in place when I moved from pose to pose, knowing that the photographs would be shown in secret to strange men.

“That’s a wrap babe. These are going to be perfect, and Mr. Donnelly is going to be very pleased-”

“I sure am,” a voice boomed from the doorway. A tall man in a gray suit had replaced Gramps leaning against the frame. His silver goatee was trimmed short, and he appeared to be in great shape for a man who looked to be in his mid-fifties. “You are absolutely gorgeous. I mean, Royce showed me some of your photos, but they don’t come close to seeing you right now.”

He walked over to me and brushed the hair from my shoulder with his hand. The photographer left through the doorway without saying anything else. I was alone with this man, the one who would decide my fate. He looked at me with a cool confidence, his gun metal eyes drinking me in like a smooth brandy.

“I’m Raymond. It is such a pleasure to finally meet you, and I have to say that you do not disappoint.” He rubbed my arm with the back of his hand as he walked around me. I couldn’t move, and my voice was lost in the shivers that shot through me like needles. I wanted to run, but everything seemed like it was a world away.

“I know you think that you don’t belong here, and that you are different, but I know girls like you; girls who want everything that men like me have to offer. This is exactly where you are supposed to be.”

“How do you know where I am supposed to be,” I blurted out, the words jumped from my tongue as I tried to stop them. Mr. Donnelly’s face still held the cool grin that he came into the room with.

“We all choose the paths we take; you chose this life a long time ago; don’t think that I don’t know you. People don’t change, they just wander off the path, but they always come back,” Donnelly said as he stroked my hair, his face inches from mine.

I started to cry, the tears falling from my cheeks onto the red silk. I hadn’t thought about my past for a while. I told myself that life could be better, and I thought I had met a guy that would help make that happen. I should have known that Royce would have done a background check on me.

“Don’t worry Claire, I brought you here to take care of you, the way a girl like you should be taken care of.”

A younger girl came through the doorway, but her eyes widened when they caught sight of Donnelly, and she turned around and started to leave.

“It’s okay Ariel. I have someone I want you to meet,” Mr. Donnelly said as he put his arm around me and looked at the girl. “This is Claire.”

The girl’s eyes caught mine, moved away, and then came back to me. Her topaz eyes matched her hair that ran down the length of her back. She looked like she was around seventeen or eighteen, dressed in a short burgundy pencil skirt with a paisley pattern and black V-neck tee shirt. Her right eyebrow was pierced, and I could see that she had a tattoo on her left arm of a rose that was partially hidden by her sleeve.

“Why is she here?” Ariel asked Mr. Donnelly in a sharp voice.  But before she could say anything else, Donnelly’s hand came across Ariel’s face, forcing her from her feet and onto the hardwood with a thud. She tried to pull herself up but fell back to the floor. I started towards her but stopped myself. I couldn’t risk what Donnelly would do to me for interfering. She raised her head off the floor, her cheek was crimson where Donnelly’s hand had struck her. The tattoo on her arm was in full view now; the name “Adeline” was written in longhand across the rose petals. She struggled to her feet, straightened her skirt, and smoothed out her shirt with her hands.

“You know what happens when you break a promise Ariel. Now don’t be rude and introduce yourself,” Donnelly said while he stepped up behind her, kissed the back of her neck, and then made his way over to the dress rack. “Don’t worry, she is not here to replace you.” Donnelly started pulling a few dresses from the rack and examining them.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Ariel,” she said; her soft voice shook while she introduced herself. She was careful to keep glancing back at Donnelly, as if she were checking to make sure that every syllable she uttered met his approval.

“Hi,” was all I managed to squeak out in reply. Donnelly came back with several dresses in his hand. He pulled Ariel close with his free hand to kiss her. After they kissed, he put his mouth to her ear and whispered something that I couldn’t make out, and then handed her the dresses that he had chosen from the rack.

“Ariel will show you to your room, and she will make sure that you know all of the promises that we keep here.” Donnelly smiled at Ariel and then turned his gaze towards me. “This is a business Claire and… well, I think you already know how this works.”

I could hear the buzzing of the phone inside of his jacket pocket as he stepped out of the room. I looked back at Ariel, who was staring at the doorway in silence. I found some comfort in her presence, even though I didn’t know her at all, or if she could be trusted.

“Jon, it’s been a few months, how can I help you?” I heard Donnelly say, his voice coming from the hallway. I could hear his footsteps as he started to walk back towards the room.

“Tell him to stop by tomorrow. I have someone new here that will be perfect for him.”


© Josiah A. Miller 2018. All Rights Reserved.