The house was dark and dingy. It was kept tidy but the walls were dark now, no longer bright and vibrant like they were when she was little. Years of dust and grime, dirty hands and no one washing the walls had taken its toll. They didn't have much stuff, anyway, to keep clean. The carpets were worn down from foot traffic, with stains here and there. The windows had layers of filth on them, practically blocking out the sun some.
She slowly stepped down the stairs, being sure not to step on any of the sweet spots that would alert her father or brother she was coming down them. She had painstakingly learned were every squeaking spot was. She’d walk on her tippy toes down the steps, with her heart racing so fast and beating so hard inside her chest that she wondered if someone were standing beside her, they would hear it.
She knew they were up to something. Something bad, because they were horrible people. Not that they ever did something good. Everything they did was selfish. She had practically become invisible, not that she cared.
They claimed she was the bad one. The dirty whore. The unwanted bitch. Anything that they could throw from their tongue that they thought would hurt her. It never did, though. Not anymore. Not after everything they had done to her, to her body. She was used to it. Numb to it. There was a time where it would hurt her, but not anymore.
As careful as she was being, she hit a squeaky board that seemed to echo through the house. Stopping instantly, she froze. She held her breath, she waited, and listened to see if she had alerted them.
When she was little, she dreaded leaving her school. Most kids couldn't wait for that three o’clock bell to ring. She hated it. Life at home, it wasn't easy. She wasn’t like the other kids, there was no “love” in her house. Her father was a drunk and her mother was weak. All her mother did was do whatever it was her father told her mother to do. She realized now, her mom was extremely frightened of her father. She realized now, he beat her mother daily. At the age of six, she learned what a blow job was because her father told her mother to do it in front of her. He hadn't cared, nor had the woman who was supposed to be a mother to her.
But there were moments in her life filled with love and caring and hope. Before he had broken her mother down to a shell of a person. She had talked to her once about running away from the man that fathered her. About taking her baby girl and escaping. Though that day never came. She had longed for it, waited it so badly, even at a young age, but it never happened.
She spent years locked up in her room, with the lock on the hallway side of the door. Trapped. She had a mattress on the floor, some toys her grandparents had given her that her father couldn’t figure out how to return for money. She had a few books, which she had read over and over again. She liked getting lost in the worlds of Little Women and The Secret Garden. Her grandmother on her mom’s side had sent her the Anne of Green Gables series, and those were her favorite books. Especially since she could identify with Anne. Feeling alone and unwanted, but just trying to find the good and bright and happy. Looking to finally have a home, and to feel loved.
In grade school she was expected home immediately. When she got home, she would get shoved into her room and pushed down. The door would slam shut behind her and the echo of the metallic click of the lock would echo through the room. They would bring her a plate to eat at some point, but usually it was cold.
In middle school, she was allowed to join after school programs or sports. When she was told she could, she was shocked. Her parents didn’t want to draw attention to their family, they felt if she was active after school she would appear more normal. They knew what was going on in their house was wrong. It wasn’t even the worst of things to come. She learned to use the showers in the gym locker room every morning, the P.E. teacher kept some lost and found, clean clothes there in some boxes. When she couldn’t manage to wash her own clothes in the bathroom at home or in the shower, she would usually take from there. She joined the Track Team and Photography Club, along with a few other social circles. She was told if she ever told anyone what was going on at home, she would be killed. She knew they would do it, so she didn’t dare. She did whatever allowed her to be home a lot less, so she took every opportunity not to be home.
It was then that the beatings started. He’d hit her … places people were less likely to see, and he enjoyed it. He loved it. It was around the end of middle school that her mother disappeared. One weekend there was an out of town track event and she had been allowed to stay with a friend. It was the first “best weekend” of her life. When she had come home he told her that mother ran away.
She spent some time hating her mother. Hating her with every fiber of every cell inside her. How could she run away and leave her there? How could she leave without her? She cried that night, all night.
Her brother was treated completely different than she was. He was three years older than she was, but he was treated like the prodigal prince. He did anything their father said, and was as twisted in his sick mind like their father was. Especially now that he wasn’t in school. She remembered when he used to try to protect her. He’d take a beating for her when she did something wrong. Then one day the light in his eyes just changed. He became scary and angry.
When she started high school, she continued with Track and Photography. She also joined a Writing Club. They no longer locked her in her room because she didn’t leave her room, she preferred to be as far away from them as she could. She found music. She found a clock radio at a garage sale for a quarter once, the people saw her looking at it and told her she could have it after a short conversation. She ran from that garage sale before they could change their minds.
At school, she noticed her brother was constantly watching her. Then one night her door opened, and he came in. He had just taken a shower and was only in a towel. Her gut twisted inside her, as if to warn her she’d never be the same. He let the towel drop. When she screamed, she thought she could hear her father laughing from the hallway. He had come to her all through her freshman year. Her father and her brother took turns, sometimes the same night. Sometimes they’d tie her up, they would always cover her mouth in some way so her screams couldn’t be heard. Eventually, she just stopped screaming.
It stopped when he got a girlfriend. She knew that he abused the girlfriend, and she knew it was bad that she was thankful his attention was off her. Once her brother got bored with her, so did her father. She was left alone. Several months later, her brother’s girlfriend disappeared. The police kept showing up, dragging her father and brother down to the police station to question them. Eventually that stopped too.
After the girlfriend was gone, both her brother and her father would sneak into her room again. Sometimes they’d watch each other and take turns. It didn’t matter how much she screamed, or cried, so she stopped. She’d just let them do what they did and she’d just lay there.
Then she noticed there was more and more women going missing around town, she’d hear about it around school. Her dad and brother were spending less time at home and when they were home they were usually in the basement. She noticed one day there was a pad lock on the basement door. In her gut, she knew. But she had to be sure.
She stopped holding her breath. She hadn’t noticed any sounds from them, no one came around the corner to hit her and tell her to go back to her room. She felt sick.
She was only fifteen and it felt like she had lived a lifetime of hell.
Now, right now, it didn't seem like the squeak had gotten their attention. She wasn't sure where they were or if they were even home. They seemed to travel together, everywhere. Where one of them was, both of them were. She knew she had to be sneaky.
She allowed herself to breathe again and continued down the stairs. She tip-toed through the living room and into the kitchen, again, avoiding any sort of squeaky board. That’s when she heard them coming up the stairs from the basement, talking. She hit in the corner of the pantry wall and the kitchen wall. It was just big enough for her to flatten her back against and hide. She prayed they were headed out the back door and wouldn’t walk past her. Surely, they would see her if they did. Surely, she was in for it, a beating, being raped, something would happen if they found her. She tried to make herself as small as possible, willed herself to form into the tiny box the walls made.
“What are you going to do about her?” It was her brother’s husky voice. You could hear the anger dripping from every word. Anything coming out of his mouth had rage dripping from it.
“Well, we will do what we do with them all.” Her dad growled. Neither of them knew how to talk. They both sounded completely uneducated and like cavemen.
“What about the parasite upstairs? When are we going to take care of her?”
“Soon,” her father said as they opened the back door. Her heart stopped, her breath held. “Can’t do it too soon, they’ll look at us cuz of your mother and Vicky.” Her heart dropped. She had been wondering lately if they had killed her mother. If they had killed his girlfriend Vicky. They both had just disappeared into thin air, never to be heard from again. This confirmed it for her. They had been involved with the disappearance of her mom and her brother’s girlfriend.
“I want to do her,” her brother said, she could almost see the disgusting smile spread across his face with the thought, like the Joker in Batman. She had seen that movie at her friend Gabby’s house. She didn’t get to watch television or movies much. Only when she could spend the night with her best friend. “I want to watch her bleed while I am inside her.” Her stomach knotted up and she felt like she was going to throw up. They were going to kill her, she realized.
Her dad laughed, “Soon, right now you can imagine these other women are her,” and the back door opened and shut after they shuffled out. She stayed pressed against the wall until she heard the roar of the run down, beat up car they had. They were leaving.
If it wasn’t for her close friendship with Gabby, she didn’t know how she could have survived. She remembered her dad, one night, threating to do to Gabby what he did to her. She started screaming, and fighting, and she realized later it was that reaction he had wanted out of her. She debated on keeping away from Gabby, but when it came down to it, she couldn’t. It was Gabby who started calling her Bella. It was the first nickname, besides bitch and whore and whatever else her father and brother called her. They certainly never called her Maribel. Her mom had called her Mari when she was little, but it had been so long, she had almost forgotten.
She sighed, in relief, when the sounds of the car grew further away. She moved quickly through the small kitchen, through the mess they had created and never cleaned up. Now that her mother was gone no one could be forced to do the cleaning but her, and they barely bothered to make her anymore. She saw the cockroaches crawling all over everything, they didn’t bother to hid anymore. Usually she could find an army of ants in the kitchen too. She never bothered to eat there anymore. They only meals she had, were the ones she could get at school.
She made her way to the basement steps which were by the back door. She expected they would soon go to her room, drag her down by her hair, as they had done before, and demanded she clean up after them. She wasn't allowed to eat with them, she got scraps when they were done, if she was lucky. So she didn’t even eat that anymore, she wouldn’t eat unless it was at school.
She went down the stairs and saw they had added another lock to the door. She panicked for a moment. Then looked around. On the window sill was a key. She grabbed it and prayed it opened it. When the lock clicked, she took a deep breath and opened the door.
The smell that escaped the room was horrible. It is what she was met with first. It was so horrible that she had grabbed the top of her shirt and covered her mouth and nose with it. Then she flipped on the light. She saw blood. So much blood. There was a woman in a cage, tied up and gagged, she didn’t respond to the light. Her eyes stayed shut and she was slumped over in the corner of the cage. She thought she might be dead.
She almost vomited. She turned around quickly, she almost ran. That’s when she noticed all the padding on the walls in the basement. On the back of the door. Everywhere. There wasn’t a part of the room that didn’t have some kind of blood splatter on it. Most of it was dried on. There were weird things hanging from the ceiling. Different things built into the walls. She thought it was like a torture chamber that she read about in books. So many thoughts rushed through her head as she was taking stock of the room. There was an old work bench, one that used to have tools on it that now had different kinds of knives and other things. She saw what looked like leather collars for dogs, some with balls in the middle of them. She saw a weird looking saw hanging on the wall. A box of those really big black trash bags. Then she saw all the pictures, the instant camera kinds with the white frame around them They were alll over the wall above the tool bench. Then she noticed them on some of the back walls, covering the back wall. There were so many photos.
She knew … she knew what she had to do. She shut off the light, rushed up the stairs, shut the door and put the lock back on. She ran up the stairs and practically jumped on the kitchen counters, causing dishes to clang to the floor, bugs scattered, to find the coffee can her mom use to hide money in that she kept on the very top of the cabinets. She had always said it would be their running away money. She was hoping and praying it was still there. She reached up and patted the top of the cupboards around, she felt dead bugs, and a few live ones’ crawl across her hand. She didn’t scream or flinch because she couldn't see and she was too busy praying she’d find the metal can. When the very tips of her fingers touched something metal, she almost cheered. Her finger tips tried to work it out of the far corner and she struggled to get a grasp on it. When she finally did she grabbed the can, pulling it out as quickly as she could. She paused long enough to pull the plastic cover up to see if there was money still in there, and when she saw there was, she closed it. She jumped off the counter, falling to her knees and ran through the house and up the stairs. She grabbed her school backpack, throwing a few things in there, threw the can in there, the books she had been given. She turned the clock radio on that she had gotten from that garage sale. She stuffed anything she could find under her blanket on the mattress making it look like she was laying under the covers.
Once she was satisfied it looked like she was laying there sleeping she looked around her room one last time. When her eyes rested on the blue teddy bear her grandmother had sent her, the last thing she had ever gotten from her, she grabbed it and opened the bag one last time and closed it again.
Her heart was racing so hard she thought it was going to jump out of her chest. She turned off the light, slammed her bedroom door, she flipped the lock for good measure, making it look as if they had locked her in. She ran out of the house. She didn't know what she was going to do, but she knew she had to do something. She had to …
She stopped, freezing in place, she could hear the car coming down the street. The loud engine was unmissable. She panicked, looked around for a place to hide. She ducked into a bush and watched them pull into the driveway and they kept going to the back of the house by the garage and the back door. She stayed there until she knew they had gone in the house.
She had to save herself. She had to try to save that woman if she wasn't already dead.
It was only then that she ran. She ran like her life depended on it, because it did. She ran like there were wolves snapping at her feet. She realized she was running to her friend’s house. She didn’t know how long it had taken for her to get there, she had no idea because it didn’t feel that long, but it felt like forever all at the same time. She reached the door, covered in sweat and tears, and collapsed on the front step. She started beating on the door with her fist as she screamed for help, with the last bit of energy she had. Her breath was labored, she felt like she was in a tunnel and the walls were closing in on her. She beat on the door until her hand couldn’t move anymore and then she just cried. She didn’t realize it was only thirty seconds before someone made it to the door and threw it open to see her in the fetal position with her red fiery hair covering her face. She heard her friend’s brother scream for his Dad.
She couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. She felt herself being lifted by some very strong arms. Protective arms. She had never before felt that in her life. “Bella,” he gasped as he carried her up the stairs and laid her gently on the couch. It was where she broke down crying, sobbing, and telling her friend’s frightened parents everything. Every dirty rotten secret she held in her heart. Everything she saw. Everything they had done to her. Everything she knew in her bones to be true. Her father and brother were murderers. They killed her mother, and all the women that had been in the news she heard about at school. She knew it.
Then the cops came. So many cops, she had thought. She had to repeat everything. There were looks exchanged between the cops. Cops, she had been told, to never trust. Here she was spilling her guts out to them. Gabby’s parents had begged the cops to let her rest, but they had to take her to the police station.
Despite the objections of her friend’s parents, they took her into the police station, and she had to repeat everything, all over again. They didn’t put her in one of those cold rooms with the two-way mirrors that she had seen on some movie at some point, but it looked more like a meeting room. She told them everything. She was there for hours, it felt like days.
When she left the room for a bathroom break, at one point, she walked through the sea of desks to the bathroom where she had been instructed to go. She had stopped dead in her tracks. She couldn’t move and she realized she was holding her breath. She could hear her father screaming. Every other word was a f-bomb. She looked up and saw officers pushing her father, cuffed up, through a hallway on the other side of a glass partition that separated the room of desks from other areas of the police station. She saw him spit on a cop and then throw his head back and laugh manically before he tried to head butt another cop. Then two cops came down the same hallway pushing her brother down the hall, also cuffed up. His head was hanging. It almost looked like he was shameful. Almost like he was remorseful.
“Hey,” a cop came up to her, put his hand on her back which made her jump like a scared rabbit. “Sorry,” he whispered. “Are you okay?”
She nodded. Looked back to where they had walked her father and brother but they were gone. “Bathroom,” she whispered. He pointed where she had been instructed to go.
When she came out of the bathroom, she saw some looks that made her feel funny and self-conscious. Some of the cops watched her make her way back to the room she had been sitting in with looks of sorrow.
When she got into the room, she almost wanted to just curl up into a ball and hide. Except there were a couple of officers in the room, the one who had been talking to her, and now another one. He had some pictures in his hand, the instant camera kind, ones she bet were from the basement of her house.
“Hey Maribel,” the new cop said softly and sweetly. “I have some pictures that I want you to look at,” he told her. “These ones are of some faces, just faces,” he continued. “We just want to know if you recognize anyone.”
She sat down as he had been talking to her. She nodded. He put down the photos, one by one. In a line, and another line, and another line. He kept pulling more out of a clear bag he had sitting on a chair on the other side of the table. There ended up being, what seemed like, a hundred photos covering the table. “These are only some of the polaroids that we had collected from the basement.” She had to get up from her seat to look at all of them.
She looked at each one carefully. Giving each some thought. “I recognize some of them from the newspapers that floated around at school.” She told them. And then she stopped dead, as her heart sank into her stomach. She pointed at the picture, “that’s my mom.” She could tell that her head – her lifeless eyes – was no longer connected to her body. Even though her neck was at the edge of the photo, she could see the jagged cuts and red flesh under the skin all the way to the to the grass it had been laying on.
There was a photo that wasn’t too far off from the one of her mom. It was Vicky, her brother’s girlfriend that had disappeared. “That’s Vicky,” she stammered on the verge of tears. Vicky wasn’t dead in her photo. She was very much alive, with tears running down her cheeks. Silver duct tape over her mouth. Her vibrant green eyes were wide with fear and begging. Snot coming out of her nose. You could tell someone had a handful of her reddish-brown hair, tugging on it, like they were making her pose and look at the camera. She was clearly terrified. Under the photo, in big black bold letters, someone had written “whore.”
She had been there a few more hours until a lady from Family and Children showed up. When she did, she talked with her a little bit. Told her that she was going to be placed with a family. Bella just nodded in response. After some chatting with her, they got up to leave the room. She assumed she was going to get driven to some stranger’s house, but instead she was taken to a room where Gabby’s parents were waiting.
“Oh, thank God!” Gabby’s mom, Rose, had shouted. “Oh, my dear sweet Bella,” the tears started to pour out of her eyes as she jumped up out of a chair and enveloped Bella into her arms. She felt warmth and safety. She wondered if this is what love and family felt like. Trust. Gabby’s dad stood up and shook the Family and Children’s lady’s hands and thanked her over and over. Bella just broke down into more tears until she didn’t think she had any left. It was then that Rose lifted Bella’s face, looked deep into her eyes, and told her they were taking her “home.” She thought that they just meant their home, but she’d soon discover they meant it was her home too.
A year later, Bella wasn’t as twig like as she had once been. She had a little bit of meat on her bones and curves to her body. Things weren’t easy. The nightmares were horrible, the fear and need to be constantly looking over her shoulder was too much at times. She wasn’t used to being part of a family, let alone feeling like someone actually cared about her like Rose and Phillip did. They treated her like they did Gabby and her brother Reed.
Being dragged into the court house for the trial was hard too. The judge was nice enough to not have her father and brother in the court room when she was needed to testify. When the custody rights had been taken away from her father and given to Rose and Phillip, it wasn’t hard to be at the court house, but she was still extremely uncomfortable around all the legal people after it had been beaten in her head that they couldn’t be trusted.
She realized it was wrong, but the feelings were still there. At least she could argue it in her head, even though her stomach was doing cartwheels inside her.
And all the doctors, and the psychiatrists, and everyone else she had to talk to, tell the story over and over to, and work through her feelings with – made her want to scream.
She just wanted to bury her head in the sand. Wanted it all to just disappear so she never had to open her mouth about it again. She wanted a new name, she wanted to be rid of being the daughter and sister of the murderers of Broward County. When Rose and Phillip adopted her, she got the chance to change her name. So, she did. She was no longer Maribel Susan Holister, and she never would be again.
When the trial was over, Phillip put in for a transfer with the company he worked for. He got transferred to Oregon, about as far away from Florida as you can get. They got uprooted but she looked forward to being somewhere where no one recognized her as the daughter of the serial killer, the sister of his apprentice. Where she could just be herself and learn to get beyond her past to live a more normal life.