Rayna sat in front of the mirror removing her makeup and wondered who she would discover underneath. The white paint came off her skin in flakes and she had to scrub hard with the towel in order to get it all off.
She stared at her bare face – her brown skin, straight nose, and plump lips – and tried to understand how she could have forgotten what she looked like. Was the white paint they forced her to wear truly so identity-erasing?
“Who are you?” she asked the reflection.
She almost expected an answer, such was the disconnect she felt towards the stranger in the mirror. She looked down at her arms, which were still covered in the white paint. Her entire body still was, in fact.
She stood up from the vanity and crossed her bedroom to the adjoining bathroom. Once inside with the door locked behind her she stripped off all her clothes. She gazed at her naked body, running her fingers along the raised scars of her back and thighs as she remembered the feel of the whip slashing against her skin. Violence was the perpetuator of obedience. She was taught to obey her leaders, but now that she was home she was free. The scars began to throb, a dull yet incessant pain. It sure didn’t feel like she was free.
She turned on the shower to the hottest setting then stepped inside. The water scalded her skin but it made it easier to wipe the rest of the paint off. She had been home for almost a week already, but this was the first time she was taking off the paint. She had been too scared to before, paranoid that the leaders would come back and punish her for removing it, but now she knew they were long gone. The police had said so; everyone responsible was now either dead or in prison. She was free, so she was told.
The white paint, along with many layers of grime, ran down the drain. Rayna watched it swirl at the bottom of the tub curiously, getting lost within the random patterns that were being formed. She didn’t know for how long she stood in the shower, but the sun was just beginning to descend behind the mountains when she finally got out.
She slipped on the fuzzy robe her mother purchased for her a few days prior. It was so soft and warm, and she wished she could give a robe to every single person who had been held captive by the leaders. At the mere thought of them she shuddered. Once again, she had to remind herself that she was free. But no matter how many times she repeated it, it was quite hard to believe.
She opened the bathroom door and stifled a scream. There was a man sitting on the edge of her bed, waiting for her.
“Who are you?”
His eyes widened at the sight of her. He opened his mouth but no words came out.
“Who are you?” she repeated, her voice trembling.
He was seemingly broken out of his stupor. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. Your parents let me up.”
She walked further into her room, eyeing the stranger cautiously. There was something familiar about him that she couldn’t put her finger on. “Do I know you?”
He gave a nervous chuckle. Then, upon seeing how serious she was his face crumpled. “It’s me, Rayna. It’s Carson.”
“Don’t you remember me?”
Of course she remembered. How could she ever forget? Carson was her best friend from before she was kidnapped. She thought of him every single day to avoid going insane. She never believed she would see him again but here he was, all grown up.
“You cut your hair,” was all she managed to say.
He ran his finger through it; now it was shortly cropped. “Couldn’t keep it long forever. I have a job now.”
“Yeah.” He cleared his throat. “I’m interning at a tech company.”
“I can’t believe you’re actually here,” she said, sitting down at the vanity.
He smiled. “I can’t, either. I never thought I would see you again, Rayna. You don’t know how much I’ve missed you.”
Her stomach did a somersault. To know that she hadn’t faded into oblivion over the years was a true relief.
“You know,” Carson continued, “I wanted to take you to your favorite restaurant but your parents wouldn’t allow it. Do you remember Dee’s?”
She nodded. “I traded one prison for another, it seems,” she said, longing for the taste of cinnamon French toast and blueberry pancakes.
What followed was a period of charged silence in which she could tell he was dying to ask her something. Finally, she said, “What is it?”
“I’m sorry. I just, well, I have to admit I’m curious.”
She turned away from him, looking at herself in the vanity’s mirror once again. She wouldn’t have been able to recognize herself if it weren’t for her matted dreadlocks that were the result of years of neglect. “I know what you want to ask me.”
“You want to know what happened to me, where I’ve been these past five years. Everyone does.”
“You don’t have to tell me anything – ”
“I’m sure the police filled you in on the fact that I was taken by a religious cult right after my eleventh birthday.” She swallowed down the lump that was forming in her throat. “But what you don’t know is the rituals they forced us to do, the white paint they ordered us to wear, and the way they punished us for any disobedience to their stringent rules.”
“I know more than you think.” His voice took on a sober tone. “You were made to sing praises to their desert gods for days on end, naked and hungry, without any breaks. And that was one of the easier rituals you had to do.”
Her eyes locked onto his through the mirror. “How did you know that?”
“You didn’t tell the police much, but that doesn’t mean the other victims they rescued didn’t. You remember that my uncle is a detective, right?”
She let out the breath she had been inexplicably holding. “Right. I honestly forgot that.”
“We don’t have to talk about any of this. I shouldn’t have even brought it up.” He slowly stood up. “Maybe I should go home to let you rest.”
“Stay a little bit longer, Carson. There’s something I need you to do.”
“Anything, Rayna, just ask.”
She pulled open the vanity’s drawer and took out a pair of scissors and clippers.
“What are you doing?”
“I want it gone,” she said, pointing to her dreads.
“You want me to cut your hair?”
“This isn’t my hair anymore,” she said sharply. “My hair was glossy and straight.” She pinched a lock between her fingers, ashamed. “This is the hair of a slave, a powerless slave. It’s knotted and greasy and it’s not mine. Not anymore.”
He walked towards her and picked up the scissors. He put one hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. “Anything you want,” he murmured.
They looked at each other for a long time. Rayna was captivated by his dark brown eyes. On her worst days with the cult, she would think about the way they turned to the color of honey in the sunlight, all golden and fractalized.
“I’ve missed you,” Carson said. He began to cut her dreadlocks in small segments, starting from the bottom on the left side of her head.
“I’ve missed this,” she said, turning back towards the mirror.
“Choice.” She sighed. “Do you remember how we used to talk about running away together?”
“How could I forget? We were just kids, but the entire proposition of it felt so real.”
“You were always a bit afraid at the idea of leaving this place. I was always trying to convince you.”
The more he cut her hair, the lighter her soul felt. It was such a relief.
Eventually, she worked up the nerve to ask, “Do you still need convincing?”
His hand froze in mid-air. “What are you saying?”
“Run away with me, just like we said we would do when we were kids.” He put down the scissors. “No, please don’t stop until it’s all gone.”
“So, are you in?”
A low chuckle emanated from his chest. She liked the way it sounded. “I was in before you even asked.”
For the first time in years, she smiled. It was scarcely noticeable, more of a slight tugging at the corners of her lips, but it was something. “It’s time I live for myself and no one else.”
Nearly two hours later, Carson was finished with cutting and buzzing off her hair. She rubbed her hands all over her head, delighting in the feel of the long stubble grazing her fingertips. Grateful tears stung her eyes.
“We’ll leave tonight,” she said.
“Where should we go?” He sat on top of the vanity.
She glanced at him. “We’ll figure it out on the way. Come to my window later tonight and wait for me to climb down the way you used to.”
He smirked. “You have always been spontaneous.”
Before she could respond, there was a knock on her bedroom door. “Rayna?” her mother called.
Carson nervously looked at the pile of dreadlocks on the floor, no doubt worried that her mother would come in and demand to know what had happened.
“What?” Rayna said.
“Carson should be going home now. Dinner is almost ready and I want it to be just family.”
“Just let us say goodbye.”
Although she couldn’t see her mother’s face, she sensed that there was more she wanted to say, much more, but instead all that was heard was the sound of her footsteps retreating back downstairs.
“I should help you clean this up,” Carson said.
Rayna waved him down. “It’s okay. I’ve got it.”
He nodded. “If you’re sure.”
“I’ll see you later.”
He blushed and something in the pit of her stomach fluttered. “You will,” he said.
Before he left he gave her a long embrace, resting his chin on the top of her head. She had missed his touch more than she realized.
After she was done discarding all of her hair in the garbage bin, she joined her parents in the dining room, where they promptly greeted her with a flurry of panicked shouting.
“What happened?” her father said, jumping up from his seat so fast his chair was sent backwards.
She sat down and took her time fixing herself a plate before answering. “Carson cut my hair.”
Her mother gasped.
“I asked him to,” she added.
“Why would you do that?” her father said, still standing over her. “You need to ask us before doing something like cutting all your hair off. You are still our child.”
“And you wonder why we don’t let you leave the house,” her mother said. “You are too impulsive.”
“I took the white paint off like you’ve been begging me to all week, in case you hadn’t noticed. So can we please just eat instead of talking about my hair?”
Her father sighed, dragging his chair back to the head of the table and sitting down. “Fine, let’s eat.”
“I’m sorry,” Rayna said.
“Are you truly?”
“Yes,” she lied. “I promise to ask you next time.”
“Maybe you wouldn’t have been taken all those years ago if we would have kept a closer eye on you,” her mother said deplorably.
“Anya,” he chastised. “This is not the time.”
The rest of dinner was spent in an uncomfortable state of silence, the kind of quiet that felt like a chore to keep up when all Rayna wanted to do was scream at the top of her lungs.
She ate her food as fast as possible. Then she ran to her room and hurriedly packed a bag full of clothes and feminine products. The leaders didn’t let her wear pads or tampons. They wanted her to bleed freely, and she had grown used to the sensation, but now it was time to take back control.
She sat at the bay window, waiting for Carson to come. He showed up less than an hour later, a youthful grin on his handsome face.
She opened her window, tossed out her bag, and then climbed down.
“Do you have everything you need?” he asked her.
It was now the dead of night but the sky was full of stars that lit up the world around them. She looked up, failing to count just how many there were. The leaders used to say that the stars were the eyes of the gods staring down at them, but she knew they were just bright balls of gas made up of hydrogen and helium. She was thankful to have held onto that piece of knowledge from her childhood astronomy classes.
“Yes,” she told him, “and I’m ready to leave this place behind.”
“Do you like the stars?” he said as they walked to his car.
“Huh?” She was lost in thought.
“I saw you looking at them.” He threw her bag into the backseat before opening the passenger door for her.
“Oh, right,” she said, getting in. “I do. They’re beautiful.”
“That they are. I like to think they’re watching me.” He closed her door and walked around the front to get in the driver’s side.
“The stars aren’t watching. They are just balls of gas, after all.”
He put the key into the ignition, twisted it, and the engine rumbled to life. He looked over at her. “Seatbelt.”
And then they were driving away and leaving their lives behind, if only for a short while. Deep down Rayna knew that Carson was just taking her for an impromptu vacation, but she appreciated it nonetheless. Maybe one day she would be able to leave forever. He was bound to this town but that didn’t mean she had to be.
“I know a good hotel where we can stay at for the night,” he said some time later. “We can figure out where to go in the morning. How does that sound?”
They were cruising along a desolate stretch of road, the vast desert closing in on them from all sides. It was strangely peaceful to be so openly exposed and yet completely alone. Rayna felt a sense of safe vulnerability.
“So can I ask you something?” he said.
Her mouth went dry. “You want to talk about my time with that insane cult.” She noticed his hands tense on the steering wheel.
“Insane? Is that what you really think?”
“Of course that’s what I think,” she said, affronted.
“It’s just that you were with them for so long. I wasn’t sure if…”
“If I started to believe the lies they fed me?” She scoffed. “They failed to brainwash me, Carson. I thought that was clear.”
He sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I was just – shit.” He pulled off the road.
“What just happened?”
“We have a flat tire.” He turned off the car and stepped outside. “Do you think you can help? I just need you to hold the flashlight for me.”
She was still confused from their uneasy interaction but tried to agree as pleasantly as possible. She got out and he handed her a flashlight while pulling out some type of wrench for himself.
“Go shine that on the back right tire,” he said.
“Sure.” She walked over to the tire and knelt down beside it. She clicked the flashlight on and leaned forward to inspect it. “Did we run over a nail or something? I’m not seeing anything. It doesn’t even look like – ”
“Did you miss this?”
She put the light on him. He was holding up a tube of white paint in his right hand, the wrench still in his left.
“Why do you have that?”
He stepped closer to her. “You should have never let the police take you away. The leaders are very disappointed.”
“What are you talking about?” The light wavered as her hand shook. “The leaders are dead or in prison.”
He grinned. “Only the ones that lead your group. There are many more out there.”
“I – I don’t understand.”
“Don’t be so ignorant!” he snapped. He pointed to the sky. “The gods are watching us all and their message is spreading.” He kept walking until he was standing directly over her.
“What are you doing, Carson? I don’t understand, if this is some sort of joke – ”
“This couldn’t be more serious for me. I have a mission from the gods to take you to a new group. And I refuse to fail.”
Before Rayna could do so much as scream, he swung back and smashed her over the head with the wrench. She collapsed on her side, drifting in and out of consciousness. She vaguely registered Carson sitting down beside her. Something cold and wet was slathered on her face, spread messily so that it dripped down her neck onto her shirt. He was giving her the appearance of a slave to the cult she foolishly thought she was free from.
He leaned down so that he was face-to-face with her, their noses so close they were almost touching. She tried to shout at him but her words came out as a low, incoherent babble.
“I’m taking you back to where you belong,” he said.
That was the last thing she heard before losing consciousness completely.