You know three things about girls who get taken. They are sluts. They come from bad homes. They are not you.
You are twelve years old and hiding in the woods. Last Tuesday, you sat with Mother, notepad in hand, and watched I Escaped a Bear Attack. Therefore, you know that if you ever get lost like this you should stay still. Rooted, statue-like to the spot where you first realised you were lost. Help will come. Or a bear.
But, you also watched Dangerous Strangers and you know – from the way Mother paused the television and went over the instructions again and again – that you should never allow yourself to be taken. If a man (it is always a man) tries to talk to you or just plain tries to grab you, that you should make noise, as much noise as you can, scream until he is afraid of you. And then you run. Don’t – whatever you do – let him put you in that car.
You remember Mother’s breath as she leaned in.
‘Hit them. Scream. Go for the eyes, the nuts, the throat.’ She stubbed out her cigarette and immediately lit another. ‘If he gets you in that car, you’re as good as dead.’
You scribbled with your orange-scented gel pen and underlined it three times. As good as dead.
His arm appeared from nowhere. Tight around your neck. Your stomach understood the threat even before your brain had a chance to translate his words. You let him lead you from the bus stop. Rigid. Frozen. Like this snow, just beginning to fall. You forgot how to scream, how to fight. But you didn’t forget everything. Because when you watched the film with the Father who never gave up, Mother rewound that one scene five, six, seven times.
‘Listen to what he’s telling her, Sophia. Listen to what he says.’
So in his boot, in the dark, you repeated to yourself over and over. One man, brown hair, black hat, grey car. One man, brown hair, black hat, grey car.
And you knew, from another of Mother’s lessons – the kinds you never would have gotten if she’d let you stay in school – to feel around the car. For screws, nails, weapons of any sort. You knew to kick out the tail light, but quietly so that you could peek out at the world passing by you. You knew to listen to the sounds of the sky, the road, the engine. You knew when he was going to stop and you knew that that was your chance.
But now. Hide? Or run? Twigs crackle nearby. Footsteps. Run.
A stream – too big to jump across, too small to use as a protective moat. People follow the water on Lost in the Bush; they do it all the time. But if you know that, then surely he knows that. So you plan a decoy instead. Mother would be proud. You take a few river stones, heavy ones. Throw them in the water as a makeshift bridge, then slope down to the mud at the water’s edge. You walk, backward, wiggling your feet to make dense footprints, just like the lady on I Survived a Serial Killer.
You turn away. As you walk, you count. You walk and count, walk and count until the sky is orange and the birds quieten. The breath leaving your body turns whiter and whiter, suspended in the air like a stream of candy floss. You need to find shelter.
Ice Cave Disaster isn’t going to help. Not cold enough, though the snow is falling thicker. Maybe Wild Woods? Yeah, something from there. But what?
A voice. Your name. His voice. Does he know me? Then you remember, you still use your school satchel. The one with your name blaring out in fluorescent pen. Stupid. So stupid. Mother warned you not to do it. Mother is always right.
Mother. You picture her, red-eyed but powder-puffed and ready for the cameras. Your disappearance might be the worst thing to ever happen to her, or it might be the best.
Water again. Wide and deep. Snowflakes fall onto it. Fat, white clots. You know how cold it will be to wade across. He won’t do it. And he won’t expect you to. He thinks you are weak. That’s why he targeted you. You cry, but the tears freeze onto your face.
You need to be brave now, braver than all those girls you’ve watched with Mother. Because they are not you.
You plunge and bite down a scream. You count and you count and you count and on 32 you pull yourself onto the bank. You peel off your tracksuit and fling it into the river. You have a vision of yourself, nodding at the camera, You see, Jim, I thought it might throw him off my scent, to see my clothes floating down there. Mother sits at your side, beaming with pride.
It’s a good vision, and you hold it close. But your feet, your feet tell another story. They are lead. Your knees are blue, everything below them white. You pull onto a branch and see your splayed fingers are now webbed with frost, suspended from knuckle to hand. And your tongue, your tongue. Did it always feel this strange? Too stiff in your mouth, like an ornate ice sculpture of a swan’s neck.
You realize that you are no longer cold. The snow that falls does not melt, it clings. Melds into you. You watch, fascinated.
Wind rattles. You laugh as it sways you. More comes, knocks you over. As you fall, you think, So this is what happens to the missing people on all those programmes, then you hit ground. Something surrounds you. Could be the blizzard, could be the start of a real bad snowstorm. But you see it as the fuzzy static from an untuned television. Flickering greys. Black lines. White.
Gaynor Jones is a stay at home Mum and short fiction writer from Manchester, UK. She runs the Story For Daniel flash fiction competition to raise awareness of blood stem cell donations and childhood cancer support. She tweets at @jonzeywriter