Fear. One of the oldest and most primal feelings built into humans. The source of our fight or flight response. An ancient defence mechanism hardwired into us to protect us from harm. Originally the fear was based around literal survival, warning of threats from predators. As humans evolved, the fear response did not. Still there, ever present and providing those signals that something is not right but all too often they are now ignored. That uneasy feeling you get when someone is watching you gets passed off as your imagination. The way your hairs stand on end or that feeling of your skin crawling when near some people is put down to overreacting and being paranoid. Too often these primitive responses of the body are ignored in our modern world. After all, what do you really have to fear?
Sterling blinked her eyes open. The haze in her mind clearing as she snapped back to the reality of her predicament. Still darkness. Still restrained. How long had she been here? Time had no meaning here in the darkness. It could have been hours or days. Someone was surely missing her by now. She had been due to meet…Her trail of thought was cut off as suddenly the room was flooded with bright light. It blinded her with the sudden change in light intensity. She flinched away from the light, slamming her eyes closed against it. Realising that light meant she could get some clues as to where she was, she forced her eyes open and blinked rapidly to try to get them to adjust to the new illumination. She had no idea how long it would last so every second was another detail that could help her work out where she was and what was happening. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she looked around quickly. Trying to take in all she could as fast as she could. She was in a room, it was small but not tiny. There was a metal framed bed against one wall that just reminded her of the ones from bible camp. The opposite wall held a couple of metal lockers and a desk. The walls were painted brick. There were no personal items visible to give her a clue as to who this room may belong to. She tried to turn her head to see behind her but could only see so far. Before she had the chance to shuffle the chair round to get a better look the distinctive sound of a metal handle turning, hinges that hadn’t been opened too frequently squeaked as the metal shifted with the opening of the door. In that moment, as those sounds reached her ears, those primitive warning systems went haywire. She felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck, the dread settle in the pit of her stomach. Her fight or flight response was in overdrive, but she could do neither. The surge of adrenaline through her bloodstream heightened her senses. She could feel her racing pulse pounding in her chest. Every system in her body geared up but she could do nothing but sit and wait to see who had opened the door. Who the slow footsteps echoing off the concrete belonged to. The steps stopped. Part of her wanted to turn to face whoever it was but part of her kept her frozen. Fight, flight or freeze. They forgot that one in school. When despite all these systems designed to protect you, sometimes the fear renders them all useless as you just freeze.
“You should have stayed away.” The voice was cold, detached but held an undercurrent of anger. It was a voice that she had heard before. One she would remember. One that made her heart sink with the realisation that without fight or flight, she was in serious trouble.
Almost 6 months earlier
April had not slept for more than a couple of hours. Her own mind was her own worst enemy. Every time she closed her eyes, new scenes would play out. Every rumour she had heard merged with the stories from her true crime podcasts that she listened to giving her a personal nightmare. She had entertained the notion of driving over to the Wesley house last night and asking to see Sterling for herself right then. She knew that if she tried, Blair would stop her from getting anywhere near her sister. She wasn’t sure that had it been either Mr or Mrs Wesley that opened the door, that she would fare any better. So instead she had tossed and turned all night to the point that even Sgt. Bilko had left her room for some respite.
She was sitting in her kitchen nursing a cup of coffee, hoping the caffeine would jump start her brain into action. Give her at least enough brain cells firing to come up with some kind of workable plan to get the answers she desperately needed. She had been sitting there for a while having given up on sleep before the sun rose and didn’t expect any company for a while yet.
“Hey there honey. You’re up early.” April felt herself tense at the voice.
Her dad walked over to the coffee pot and poured himself a cup. He turned to face her and took a moment to study her. April felt herself grow more uncomfortable by the second as the scrutiny continued.
“I think it’s time we talked.” April wanted to think of an excuse. Any reason to not have this discussion in her sleep deprived state but her brain gave her nothing. “Let’s sit in the lounge.” Her dad left the kitchen and she followed obediently. She sat herself on the chair opposite her dad and tried to mentally prepare for whatever he was going to say. There were so many possible avenues this conversation could venture down, none of which April particularly wanted to explore. She was still so conflicted in her own mind about how she should feel about this whole situation. One the one hand, she knew what her dad had been arrested for, the actions he had perpetrated against another human being. Yet he was still her dad. The same man who had read her CS Lewis as a kid. Had held her when she cried after Aslan was killed on the stone table. The same man who had watched every Star Wars film with her numerous times. The man who had dressed up as Chewbacca when she decided she wanted to be Han Solo one Halloween.
“I know you have heard some upsetting lies about me over the past few months and I just wanted to set the record straight with you.” April kept her eyes firmly settled on the floor between them, not wanting to look up and meet his eyes. She wasn’t sure if her own eyes would betray her conflicted thoughts. “All this talk of my interactions with a prostitute is just untrue. I love your mother and as any good Christian knows, adultery is a sin. As for the rest…just malicious lies. The woman who made up those lies was after money. She had come up with this plan that if she made up these outlandish lies about me, that I would pay her off to keep it quiet.”
April listened to the story but said nothing. As much as she wanted to believe that it was nothing more than the lies of someone desperate for money that had torn her family apart, deep down she knew that wasn’t the case. As much as she wanted to still believe her father was the good man she remembered from growing up, she’d had time to review her memories and they weren’t all good. There were one too many arguments between her parents where she would be sent to her room, as if the wooden door would block the sounds of shouting and breaking glass. There was still the question of why the police would arrest and charge him if all they had was the story told by one woman.
“Of course, we were not going to pay her anything.”
“Why did they drop the charges?” April almost couldn’t believe she had asked the question out loud.
Her dad paused for a moment. “The force can have a strong influence on the weak minded. You know this little padawan. If you know someone’s weakness, you can exploit it to your advantage. And this woman was very weak minded.”
An unsettling feeling set into April with those words. Her father was a successful businessman, in part due to his rather ruthless tactics. When there was something he wanted, he would get it. If someone tried to stand in his way, he would find their weakness and exploit it for his own gain. Something he had taught April that she used in her forensics competitions. She felt her throat close up at the realisation that it wasn’t just in forensics she had employed her father’s teachings. She had used them against Sterling. She wanted Fellowship leader, had found Sterling’s weakness and exploited it for her own gain. The realisation that she had more of her father’s influence shining through than she believed made her feel slightly queasy. Unsure if she wanted the answer to the question ricocheting around her mind, she forced the words out anyway. “What weakness?”
Her dad smiled. This was not the smile she remembered from her childhood. There was no real joy behind it. It was a smile born out of schadenfreude. “She had children. It’s amazing what the threat of child protective services will do.” Her dad sat back in his chair looking very pleased with himself. “As if staying with her degenerate sister was in any way an improvement on staying with a prostitute.”
April felt herself pale slightly. Not wanting to hear more, yet not knowing how to stop this conversation. There was no school, no church, no reason to get up and walk away without creating a greater problem.
“She changed her statement so they had no evidence against me that would hold up in court. The only witness to the events had changed her statement and proven herself to be unreliable. Meanwhile, Gerald had made a statement about overhearing her trying to blackmail me. Once that was all done, I felt it was my duty as a good Christian man to report that family anyway, if you can even call it that. Leaving those children to grow up in a house with those dykes would have been wrong. They have no place raising children.”
April felt the bile rise in her throat. It took every ounce of her will power to remain passive through the recounting of his achievement. Her own father had reported a family as the person looking after the children happened to be a lesbian. She knew her parents were bigoted but to hear the level of hatred in no uncertain terms still cut deep.
“Anyway, that is all behind us. Those children are safe in the foster system and that woman knows better than to try anything like that again.” April forced herself to nod. Her eyes still firmly fixed on the floor. “So tell me about this new friendship of yours with Sterling.”
April’s mind was fragmented. Still trying to resolve the news from her father’s explanation of his temporary incarceration, being asked about Sterling threw her. She opened her mouth to speak but closed it again when no words came out. Swallowing and taking a deep breath she tried again. Attempting to sound as nonchalant as she could. “Oh, it’s just for school. A couple of projects we got paired up in.” She chanced a glance up at her dad’s face and was met with a searching look. She wanted to look away as soon as she had looked up but couldn’t afford to raise suspicions that she wasn’t comfortable with this topic.
“Are you going to be working with her again?”
April flashed back to the last interaction they had. The hurt look on Sterling’s face. Her gaze dropped with the regret of having caused that hurt. Then the events of the weekend she still hadn’t got all the details on. “I don’t think so.” The words felt heavy on her tongue as she spoke them. The knowledge that the sole reason for not being able to work with Sterling, be close to Sterling, was all her own making.
“That’s a shame. I’d have liked to see Sterling again.” April’s eyes shot up to her dad’s face , the confusion written plainly across her features. He chuckled at her expression. “Don’t look so surprised padawan. She had been involved in a big event in our family recently. I’d like to pay her back for that.” As he spoke his hand came up to run across the left side of his head.
The feeling of unease amplified. After all, her dad’s way of paying someone back had just resulted in breaking up a family. There was something more going on but April didn’t know what and the man before her was not someone she could ask. One thing she was certain of, was that this wasn’t just about a school project.
“Anyway, if the chance comes up to work together I think it would be a good option. After all, y’all got a A+ on the last one. So much better than the grade you got on the last project with those friends of yours.”
April bit the inside of her lip to stop from saying something she would regret. She wanted to defend her friends but going against her father was one step too far right now. “Yes daddy. If there’s another project, maybe we could work together again.” She knew the chance of that was remote but the answer would placate her father for now.
He smiled at her. “Excellent.” He looked at his watch. “I’m off to the club to meet up with Gerald. We have a lot of business to catch up on. Be good.”
“Always daddy.” April stayed motionless on her seat as she watched him leave. Left alone once more, she retreated to her room and began pacing. Her mind racing through everything that had been said and the events of the past few days. She pulled her phone out and opened the message thread with Sterling. The last message was flagged an undelivered. Knowing she couldn’t turn up at the Wesley house and she had no other method of contacting Sterling, she just started typing.
Hey Sterl. I don’t even know why I am typing this. You have obviously blocked my number and I can’t blame you. I just need to say these things now before I really go crazy with them circling in my head. I need to see you. I need to speak to you. I’m just so worried that you are not OK. Despite everything I said and did at the lock-in, I still care about you. I’m just so tired of being scared. I want to close my eyes and sleep without fearing what lurks in the shadows of my own mind. The only time those shadows were kept at bay was when my mind was filled images of you. I miss it Sterl. I miss you. I have tried to shut this side of me down again but I just can’t. I’m still terrified of what would happen if people found out but these past few days have made me realise I’m more scared of never seeing you again. Never getting a chance at someday. I just want to hold your hand and hear you tell me it will be alright and that we can do this. That I can do this.
April hit send and turned her phone off, curling into herself on the bed. Hoping that having sent her thoughts into the ether that at least they wouldn’t continually plague her mind. That maybe she could get just a bit of rest. She didn’t see the notification that her message was delivered. Nor the one that told her it was read.