He Won't Come For You
"Didn’t they know we were just as afraid of terrorism as they were?"
I didn’t cry as I sat on the stool, the electric clippers making quick work of my long hair. No, this was the most considerate gift I’d been given in a very long time. The woman— we’d been instructed to call her “Mistress Anne” but I refused— came into the cellar with our dinner, four small plates on a tray in one hand, the clippers in the other. She’d ordered Mari, the youngest among the four of us at just 22 years old, onto the stool but when I saw the fear in her eyes, I stood up. Sandwich in hand, I cautiously said, “Me first,” hoping the woman would take it for what it was, me simply trying to help my young friend and not me defying her order.
She said nothing, so I took my place on the stool and ate my sandwich in small bites as she yanked on my hair, jerking my head around, and threw each handful to the ground. I tried not to wince each time she grabbed at my hair, I didn’t want to let on that she was hurting me. The woman was married to the man that had bought me, and the three other women I shared the cellar with, just two days ago. He was a vile man. I didn’t yet know if she was doing this to us because she was just as terrible as her husband and this was her method of degradation, or if she was insecure and this was how she was ensuring her husband wouldn’t take any of us to his bed again. We all knew why we had been purchased. I’d been an ideal woman before, when I had my freedom, and I assumed the other three women had been as well. I could always get the attention of any man I fancied with a toss of my hair, a smile and a thoughtful batting of my doe eyes. Those three things and he was mine every time, but now no one could be mine because I no longer belonged to myself. So I sat there with my sandwich, grateful that I was being molded into someone else.
It hadn’t gone unnoticed by me how quickly all of this became normal. Barely a year ago, I’d been at work in my office that towered above the city with a full view of the lake shore, thinking about my plans for the holiday weekend. It was Easter weekend, my favorite among the holidays I didn't celebrate, because it had the best candy of all Christian holidays, and my plans consisted mostly of eating it and binge-watching documentaries. When I got home that day though, I was met by the ethnic police who were there to serve me with relocation papers. They’d barely allowed me time to set my briefcase down before they led me by the arm out of my building and into their truck, handcuffed as though I was some common criminal. “What’s going to happen to my two cats?” I asked them.
One of the men said, more to the other officer than to me, “Guess you should have thought about that before you decided to pray with the enemy.”
They took the keys to my condo, my ID and forced me to give them my bank account info because they were seizing the assets of every Muslim to ensure we weren’t funding terrorism. Didn’t they know we were just as afraid of terrorism as they were? We were dying from these attacks too. Despite this fact, just a month into his presidency, President Smit ordered the demolition of every mosque in the United States and shortly after that was completed, his forces began constructing what he coined “Retraining Centers” where the mosques once stood. Massive structures with no windows that looked like those mail order pole barn kits. When they were built, we were put in them. The “obvious” Muslims were the first taken. The brown skinned people with Arab-sounding names, the women that covered their heads and the men that wore beards. When they had all been relocated, President Smit began the interviews of people at every US workplace and school. I thought I’d be safe. I was never one to talk about my faith with my coworkers, and I was a white woman with a very American name. Who would ever suspect Tracy Williams was a Muslim? I was shocked by how quick my coworkers were to turn me in. I never imagined that they took notice when I always skipped the bacon at breakfast in the office cafe and that I never drank during office happy hours. How could I have known they paid attention to my suspicious wudu washing habits in the bathroom before I prayed behind my closed office door?
The woman switched off the clippers and handed me a hand mirror, as though she wanted my approval. Or maybe she wanted to see me cry. I didn’t. I took a long look in the mirror and smiled when I handed it back to her. “Thank you,” I said, looking her dead in the eye. This was a battle, and she wasn’t going to win. Did she really think this was the worst that had happened to me in the past year? Her husband had just fucked me the night before while I studied a crack in the ceiling to numb myself. This was nothing.
The woman took a step back and backhanded me across the face, her wedding ring leaving a deep gouge on my cheek and making me stumble off the stool. I smiled at her again when I regained my balance. I may be many terrible things in the eyes of my country now, but I would not be a victim to any of this. The only thing that made this bearable was hanging on to the hope that it would end and the people responsible would pay, and I couldn’t make them pay if I crumbled into victim-hood.
Disgusted with me, or perhaps with herself for failing to break me, the woman glared at me as she handed me the clippers and pointed to the other women. “You’ll do them, then,” she instructed me, grinning at me now. She didn’t get her way with me so she was going to make them hate me. She walked out and padlocked the cellar door, and I told the women every thought that passed through my head while during my turn on the stool. This would work in our favor. We had been brought here for sex with whatever men paid for us. How many of them would pay for a woman with stubble on her head? I doubted that detail was part of their perverted fantasy. And in the grand scheme of things, how much did an unwanted haircut really matter? In my last effort to convince them that they shouldn’t hate me, I told them the only thing I knew for certain, that it grows back. I told them that I was sorry.
As the other two women argued in a language I didn’t know, I watched Mari, and I thought of the men we would soon have to do unspeakable things with. They were the reason our lives had been offered for sale and bought, and I was struck by the fact that they didn’t believe that we were good enough to be considered human beings, yet we were good enough to want sex with. I wondered, if we were such despicable people, didn’t sex with “the enemy” make them just as guilty? I wondered if the man that bought us had considered that, and if he had, how he justified it. Was it the money? Had he paid so little for us that he could turn a profit in charging his friends for sex with us? Or were we just a new business venture in this newly lawless country? Money had once driven me to work twelve hour days willingly, give up my vacation days and knowingly make decisions that cost people their jobs, but I can’t imagine money ever pushing me this far.
I felt responsible for the women in the cellar with me. I was thirty-eight, the oldest by at least eight years, and two of them were immigrants. Even though we were suffering the same fate, I was so ashamed that this was how they were being treated by this place I used to think of as my country, my home. When their arguing stopped, and had determined which of them would go first, I apologized for what I had to do, and they took it with minimal tears. I tried to be much more gentle with them than the woman had been with me. I saved Mari for last, both because I felt a special bond with her, I saw a bit of myself at 22 in her, and because I’d seen how fearful she was when the woman first told her to get on the stool. Mari had been born and raised in Chicago, just a few blocks from where I grew up, and it saddened me to know that the first time we crossed paths was here. She had gotten a position as a dancer at the Joffrey Ballet two weeks before she was taken from her home by the ethnic police. She and her family had arrived at the Center on the northwest side days after I did. We’d been in this cellar for going on three days, after many months in the Center, and each night she cried after we turned the light off. She cried for what she’d been through, for where she was now, for the fact that she’d been separated from her parents, and none of us could tell her if she’d see them again. I sat beside her silently and held her head on my lap, stroking her kinky hair the way I remembered my mother had mine when I would have a nightmare as a child. I wanted to tell her it would be okay, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know that it would be. We were locked in a windowless basement in which the warm, damp stink grew each day we were held captive. How would it be okay?
I stood by the stool and waited for Mari to sit down. When she did, she let out a shaking deep breath, her chin quivering. I wiped a tear from her cheek with my thumb and bent over to plant a kiss on the top of her head. I didn’t know where this was coming from, I didn’t have a mothering bone in my body, but Mari felt like mine to protect. I felt like this was my fault. Out of the four of us, her husband had decided on me as the one he took to his bed. I couldn’t care less what the woman had done to my hair, truly, but I knew it would be a stretch for most women to feel the same way.
“It’ll be okay Mari,” I told her.
“Will it? None of this is okay. How will it be okay?” She asked me through her tears, “Looking like who I used to be is all I’ve got left.”
“You’re right. This is all wrong. It’s evil, what they’re doing to us,” I agreed, “But this? Don’t let it hurt you. Don’t let that woman win. She doesn’t get that satisfaction.”
Mari looked at me, tears still streaming down her cheeks, and nodded. I flipped the switch on the clippers and tried to get it over with as fast as I could while Mari’s body jerked as she sobbed. I understood. This most recent indignity felt like a kick in the gut. What else could be taken from us? And for what? Because we said Allah instead of God? Wasn’t it enough that we had been bought by a man for the crime of being pretty girls? Now his wretched wife had to take her jealousy on us?
“Tracy,” Mari looked up at me, “Last night when the man came down here and took you. Did he, you know?”
She couldn’t bring herself to say rape, but I knew what she was asking. “Yes, he did.”
“I’ve never… Will it hurt, when he comes for me?”
“He won’t, Mari. He won’t come for you.” I promised her, and I intended to keep my promise.
It had grown dark by the time I finished with Mari. Still crying, she got off the stool, and I asked her to wait. I went into the tiny bathroom we shared and wet the lone washcloth, using it to wipe off her neck and head. It was a simple gesture, but she was miserable, and she shouldn’t have to go to bed itching with tiny hairs all over. The other two women were already on their cots and Mari went to hers. I closed the curtain that served as the bathroom door and pulled the chain hanging from the light bulb. The room went dark but within seconds the motion sensing nightlight that was plugged into the wall came on, giving me just enough light to see where I was walking. Modern slavery, I thought, we may be prisoners locked in a basement, but at least we have our night light. I walked to my cot but stopped short of it, instead turning and going to Mari’s. She was on her side, facing the cinder block wall and I laid down next to her, my body against hers, and put my arm around her. After a while, she stopped crying and drifted off to sleep. In the stillness, I heard the other two women crying, so quietly, and I lay awake wishing that I could give them all the part of myself that saw this as my body being prepared for war. We were Demi Moore in that Navy Seals movie, what was it, G. I Jane? Yes, we were G. I. Jane. After a short while, the other two women also fell asleep, and I still lay awake, now thinking of how it had come to this. I just couldn’t piece it together. Shortly after Smit had won the election by a landslide— a feat that both shocked and horrified me— there was a series of attacks carried out by young men that had pledged their allegiance to ISIS. What escaped me was how nobody seemed to notice what I had. In the year before Smit began his campaign for the presidency, there had been two terrorist attacks in the United States. During the months of his campaign that looked very much like Hitler’s rise to power with his racist rhetoric and scapegoating, attacks became more and more frequent, culminating in his winning the election and there being five attacks in five big cities, all within a month after he won. Did no one see that he was the one goading them on? How had this become my fault? Our fault? We had done nothing wrong, yet Harold Smit had inspired the majority of the nation to hate us, which made his next steps easy.
Once every Muslim in the country, as well as some people that didn’t practice Islam but were suspect, or suspected of being Muslim sympathizers—Smit-speak for people that still had goodness and decency in them—it became apparent that President Smit had lied to everyone. He told us, in a televised address, that we would only be in these centers until the “Muslim problem” was taken care of and terrorism was no longer something Americans had to worry about. He told us that if we were truly the patriotic Americans we claimed to be, this was a sacrifice we would make willingly, for the safety of our fellow citizens. What he didn’t tell us was that the “Muslim problem” was simply that we existed. The ways in which Smit’s troops running the Centers decided to degrade us were astonishing. The hijabis were no longer permitted to cover their hair, men had to shave their faces, and if anyone was caught praying, they were beaten and put in isolation for a week. Our meals started out as pork in one variety or another and one side dish, usually potatoes. When the guards noticed that we were only eating the potatoes, our meals became just pork. We could either starve or violate our beliefs. We were also stripped of our names and renamed Infidel with a number. My new name was Infidel 90932, and it was this insult that made the troops smirk every time they called for one of us. It was ironic that so many believed giving us this name was the biggest insult, yet I’d never known any Muslim that had ever used the word infidel. But that simple insult was, in essence, what this whole mess was. A bunch of lies and false information spread about our faith and how we practiced it and rather than learning the truth by speaking with us, people just lapped it up and helped it spread with their social media posts. The news spoke of "infidels" incessantly in their reporting of terrorism in the Middle East, so it must be a word all Muslims used regularly, it was assumed. After a couple of months passed in the Center, women started disappearing. There were no signs of violence or struggle, they were simply gone from their beds when we woke in the morning. Word spread quickly when a prisoner had witnessed one guard telling another how much money he made letting a friend pay him to take three women and how much money his friend was now making, using those three women for prostitution. Sex trafficking of American citizens, right here in America and nobody even batted an eye.
I woke the next morning when the cellar door opened, still lying next to Mari, shielding her. It had been the woman bringing us our meals, but this morning it was her husband. Had she gotten in trouble for what she’d done to us? Or was she too embarrassed that she’d failed to be able to look at me again? The man put down the tray and looked at me. “You all need to shower, and be quick about it,” he said. Apparently I had become the foreman of the group, as I was always the one given our instructions. I didn’t reply, and he left the basement. I handed out the plates, eggs and wheat toast this morning, and told them I’d shower first while they ate. My stomach was pained with hunger, our meals weren’t nearly enough to fill us up, but I needed to be sure that whatever we were showering for, it happened to me first, not Mari. In the shower, I quickly rubbed the bar of soap all over my body, pausing for a moment to notice that my head now felt like sandpaper and that I had lost so much weight my hip bones jutted out. They weren’t starving us, we ate three meals a day, but they were more the size of a snack than a meal. It was better than nothing though, and it was rarely pork. I appreciated that. I ate my breakfast while the others showered and shortly after the last shower was finished, the man returned. He pointed at Mari, “You, come on,” he ordered her, and I got the sudden taste of adrenaline on my tongue. Not her.
I stood up, blocking his view of Mari. “Her?” I asked him, trying to keep my voice steady, “Look at her, does she look like she knows anything about how to please a man? She’s an amateur.”
The man stood silent, considering what I was saying.
“I know what I’m doing, you know that,” I continued and hooked my finger behind his belt for added effect, suppressing my urge to retch, “Come on… Take me. You know you’ll have a happier customer.”
He looked at me, looked back at Mari and then back at me, “Come on,” he said, and I made my way up the stairs. I was at once disgusted with myself and pleased that I’d gotten my way. I’d had my share of casual sex but this, volunteering myself to God-knows-who for God-knows-what, this was something else entirely. But the thought of young Mari having to do this, it would ruin her. This was what I had to do, for Mari, and I’d keep doing it because no woman should have to feel the way I did about myself at that moment. On the way to meet the man that had bought me for an hour, I saw the woman. She had a black eye and turned away quickly when she noticed me looking at her. She had been punished for what she’d done to her husband’s slaves. I wanted to think it was good, that she got what she deserved, but I couldn’t. I’d wondered what kind of man could buy women and force them to have sex and seeing her gave me my answer. The same kind of man that hits his wife. I was surprised by my pity for her. I may have been walking to meet this terrible fate, but her husband was the first man that had ever treated me unkindly, and she was married to him.
I returned to the cellar a while later, sore and feeling hollow, filthy. I’d sold myself, quite literally, to that sorry excuse for a man and even told him to ask for me if he came back. All to protect this girl I’d known for three days. When I stopped at the bottom of the stairs, my face void of any emotion at all, Mari ran to me, hugged me. I didn’t hug her back. She took me to the shower and stripped my clothes off behind the closed curtain door. I had no life left in me. I got in the shower, and once the warm water hit me, I fell to my knees and cried. Mari cried too and I wanted to lunge at her, hurt her. What did she have to cry about? She scrubbed my back and arms, then my chest and head, while I sat there, lifeless. I wanted to scream at her, get off me, this is your fault. You don’t get to cry, not anymore. I protected you and there’s nobody to protect me. Then she said it, “Thank you.” And just as quickly as it came, the rage I felt toward Mari left, and I started laughing, uncontrollably. This girl was thanking me for being raped for her, as though I’d given her a new piece of jewelry, as though my body was a thoughtful gift. This must be what losing your mind feels like and there wasn’t a thing anyone could do to save it. Nobody could help me, not now, so Mari did the only thing she could and tried to scrub the man off of me. She scoured away at my skin until the water ran cold, as though she understood that to get rid of the man, I’d need new skin. I was red and raw by the time she finished but still, his hands were on me. I could still feel his sweat running over my chest and down onto the sheets. I would never be clean.
Things continued like this for the next several weeks. I was taken out of the cellar at least once a day, sometimes more, and each time I returned, always a little emptier than I’d been before, there was Mari, ready with a hug and a shower for me so I could cry. I was the only one of the four of us that was ever used for the man’s little prostitution business, and this fact made me grow to loathe the other two women for not ever stepping up to take one for me. Instead, they were put to work doing other things in the house. Mari was now the one that cooked every meal, both for the man and his wife, and for us, and the other two did all of the cleaning in the house. I hoped they hated themselves when they had to clean up the used condoms from my day of work. Mari stayed safe, though, and that mattered to me. The woman never came down into the cellar again, not even to humiliate me again after her husband took me to their bed for the second, fourth, ninth time. The electric clippers remained in the cellar though, and I used them every single day. I was a warrior in battle now, and I had to stay ready, always. Chancing a glimpse at who I once was and having to remember I was a person still was dangerous. I didn’t think I’d be able to survive if I had to see the woman I was before. I was not a person. I was a garbage disposal and garbage disposals felt nothing.
We had been living in the cellar for two months, maybe three, I wasn’t sure, I’d lost count of the days, when I overheard news that left me numb. I was on my way to the room to meet the first customer of the day when I heard a familiar voice on the TV playing in the living room. The news anchor I used to watch every day, before all this started, sharing breaking news. “President Smit has been shot. He was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital in Philadelphia. President Harold Smit has been assassinated. He was sixty-two years old.” I heard his words, but they weren’t registering. I continued on to the room where the man stood waiting for me, and I lay there on the bed as he worked up a sweat, trying to make sense of what I’d just heard. If he was dead, then what would happen to us? If he was dead, was this all over? Did anyone even know we were here? Did anyone care? The man finished and got dressed again, and I dressed too, my mind reeling with questions.
I went back to the cellar and as usual, was greeted by Mari and her hug, but this time, I didn’t cry. I just stood there.
“Tracy, what’s the matter?” She looked me up and down, “Are you hurt? Did he hurt you?”
“What is it? What’s wrong?” She asked, panicked.
“He’s… dead. Smit. He’s dead. I heard it, on the TV.” I told Mari, and she started to cry.
I remained numb the rest of the day. I didn’t have to go see any more customers and neither the man nor the woman came down to the cellar with food for us. We all sat, waiting, for what we didn’t know. There was no food brought to us again the next day, or the day after that. We were starting to believe the cellar was where we would die. On the fourth day after I’d heard the news, we were awoken by a crash in the house above us. Yelling followed the crash and then footsteps that grew closer with each step. The cellar door opened and a man in black SWAT gear shined the light on his gun down the stairs. He slowly walked down into the cellar and asked if any of us were hurt. I said no, and he asked if there were any other women in the house, I said no. He told us that we were safe now and that our families were waiting for us back at the police station. I didn’t know what that meant for me, I had no family alive still. Two more police officers came downstairs and lead us up the stairs, through the house and outside. It was still dark out, the sun hadn’t risen yet, and the lights from the police cars were blinding. I hadn't been outside in months and had stopped trying to guess what day and what month it was some time ago. I had assumed it was summer with the way the sweat collected on the pipes that ran along the ceiling of the cellar and the smell of the dank basement grew stronger every day. I'd assumed right, it was hot and muggy even at this early hour. I stood for a moment and let my eyes adjust. When they had, I looked up and saw the man and his wife, each locked in the back of a police car. I eyed the gun in the holster of the officer nearest me. I could grab it. I could kill them both. I should kill them, just as they had killed me. I reached for it. As though she had read my mind, Mari grabbed my outstretched hand and held it, her fingers woven through mine, and didn’t let go for the entire ride to the police station.
We got out of the car and walked inside, Mari still holding onto my hand, pulling me along behind her. I was sure she’d let go and forget about me the moment she saw her family inside. We never spoke of what I’d done for her, and I assumed now that it was over, she would want nothing more than to push it all, including me, out of her head. I had no one waiting for me, nowhere to go, not that I could have gone back to my former life even if it had been waiting for me to return. I saw Mari’s parents before she did. They looked like her, mahogany brown skin and both of them tall and thin, just like her. She spotted them and picked up her pace but didn’t let go of my hand. They both hugged her tightly, but still, she held my hand. “Let’s go home, Mari,” her father finally said to her and he started to walk towards the door, but Mari didn’t move. “She protected me,” Mari looked at me as she spoke to her father, “She’s my sister, we can’t leave her.” I expected him to protest but instead, he smiled at me warmly and said, “Okay. Let’s go home.”