Chris Belden

Lana had not spoken in so long that her throat felt swollen. For almost two weeks she’d gone about her day nodding or shaking her head, gesturing with a hand, rolling her eyes. At meals, she had to point to the salt and mime sprinkling it on her bland food. If she needed to use the bathroom during prayer sessions, she’d raise her hand and wave toward her crotch. In three days, Lana would be permitted to speak out loud again—but by then, if all went as planned, she’d have escaped this place.

Eleven days ago, Lana called Miss Wittig a stupid cunt. Miss Wittig had threatened to extend Lana’s time here at God Loves Teens because Lana had not cleaned the bathrooms for two days. She’d been on “bathroom sparkle” duty for more than a month and was past due to be rotated to “meditative yard work,” or maybe “loaves and fishes” (kitchen) duty, and so had declared herself on strike. Miss Wittig skipped over any sort of negotiation to immediately threaten Lana with added time, and Lana lost her shit. Several of the girls witnessed the exchange. Some smiled and enjoyed the vicarious thrill of seeing Miss Wittig physically recoil at the insult. All the girls turned away when Miss Wittig slapped Lana across the face and ordered her to her room. 

“Two weeks of ‘Silence’ will be your punishment,” Miss Wittig had hissed at Lana’s indifferent, retreating back. “And one more month of bathroom duty.” Since then, Lana had not uttered a word but carried on a non-stop monologue in her mind. 

While the other girls attended mass in town, she stayed behind, and as she scraped the shit from the white porcelain bowls, she narrated a scene of herself on her knees licking Miss Wittig’s engorged clitoris, torturing that woman until she bucked and brayed on the verge of orgasm, and Lana would abruptly withhold her tongue until Miss Wittig begged and denied the existence of God. By the time the toilets had been scrubbed to a gleam, Lana’s face equally glowed.

Lana was plump and moon-faced, with freckles and reddish-blond hair that had been short, almost a buzz cut, upon entering the camp but now hung to her shoulders. Her parents had read her journal in which she recounted an affair with a sophomore girl named Rita Totten using words like smooth thighs, pink nipples, and wispy pubic hair. One night at three in the morning, two men woke Lana from a deep sleep and pulled her from her bed. Having recently borrowed In Cold Blood from the library, Lana expected violent death, but this was worse. The men dragged her past her stone-faced parents to a maroon van and drove several hours to a remote farmhouse surrounded by an electrified fence. She was given a bible and a printed list of rules that included:

No cursing.

No singing.

No phones, tablets, or computers.

No reading (except the Bible).

No touching of your fellow camp members.

No going outside without permission from staff.

The girls were not allowed to wear their own clothing. Instead, they wore plain slacks and tops donated by a local church. They were issued the cheapest canvas sneakers, and the underwear consisted of old lady panties and battle-ax brassieres. Breaking rules resulted in silencing, extra chores, postponement of release, not to mention endless chastisement often accompanied by brooding disapproval from the rest of the girls. 

For several hours a day, including Sunday, Lana and the others were lectured to about the evils of drugs, alcohol, and sex. Especially sex. 

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.

Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.

While the staff went on and on about the perils of sex, Lana would turn the pages to the Song of Solomon and read, Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine, and she would remember Rita Totten’s sweet breath on her neck. At those moments, she felt separate from the other girls and this place, less a captive to God Loves Teens than a captive to her own body and desires, and thus, in a funny way, she felt free.

Talk was discouraged among the girls, so Lana didn’t know for sure why some of the others had been sent here, but she prided herself on an instinct about such things. For instance, she knew Taylor McGlinnen had an oxy problem from the way she jittered around, and that Olivia Warden was boy-crazy by the way she acted around Hector, the handyman. And of course, there were the pregnant girls, whose round, bulging sins strained the cheap donated sweat pants they wore. 

The other girls had good instincts too. For example, they caught on pretty quick that Lana was a dyke by the way she rolled her eyes at their pathetic longing for lost boyfriends and makeup and short skirts. Her parents had wanted a feminine daughter that cowered at loud noises and conflict, and for years she’d tried to accommodate them, wearing flouncy dresses and ponytails. She even took ballet lessons, but she often found herself entranced by the other dancers as they preened and stretched their lithe bodies on the barres. When she quit ballet, her mother cried.

The God Loves Teens girls were not permitted to communicate with the outside world except via landline to their families for ten minutes on Sundays. A staff member observed all phone calls to make sure the girls did not reveal any secrets. On her first call, Lana had blurted out that she’d hadn’t been allowed outside all week, and that it was pretty funny that they’d sent her here to stop being queer when half the staff was obviously muff divers. 

Miss Wittig slammed her shapely index finger down on the phone button and forbade Lana any calls for two weeks.

“I don’t care,” Lana told her. “I don’t want to talk to those idiots anyway.”

Lights out arrived promptly at nine p.m. The girls slept in bunk beds, four to a room. The bedroom doors had been removed and the fluorescent hall light remained on so that the night staff could keep watch. No talking, no reading, and obviously, no sex. One of the girls next door was caught masturbating and for the next two weeks, she had to sleep on a sofa downstairs where the staff spent the night watching religious programs on TV at an absurdly high volume. 

Lana’s escape plan started to form the first time she had yard duty. While she and two other girls raked leaves into large piles for burning, Lana noted the various details of the landscape—the tall electrified fence, the entry gate through which cars came and went, the fields that surrounded the compound, and the woods that lay to the north. She saw no neighboring homes, no barns or outbuildings. The entry gate was chained and padlocked. She assumed Miss Wittig and the other ladies each had a key, as well as Hector, who did not live at the camp but came and went as needed. Same for Scott and Les, the two goons who occasionally delivered girls in the maroon van.

If she could somehow snatch a gate key, Lana figured, she could make a run for it. She spent endless religious lectures daydreaming of the long sprint across the field, the safety of the woods, the life she’d make for herself on the other side. She’d steal some money from the staff to buy a bus ticket to one of those oddly named places that had long intrigued her: Kalamazoo, Cucamonga, Needles. There she’d find a dull job and otherwise live a life of shameless debauchery.

At first, she planned to make a run for it while on yard duty, but she now deemed it too risky—the other girls would shout, the staff would give chase in a van or car, plus who knew when she’d get yard duty again? No, she would have to escape in the dark. 

At night she lay awake in her bunk, timing the staff routine. Someone, usually Miss Whitehouse, peeked into the rooms every half hour or so–Lana timed it by the number of commercial breaks in between bunk checks. Miss Whitehouse was a big woman who wore thick glasses and moved slowly, wheezing with each step. Lana figured she could fool her by stuffing her bunk with clothes to look like she was sleeping under the blanket. 

One night, in between Miss Whitehouse’s checkups, Lana snuck from the bedroom to the top of the stairs and listened to the night watch team. After her rounds, Miss Whitehouse collapsed on the sofa and chatted with Miss Adolph. This went on until Miss Whitehouse was ready to make the rounds again.

The following night, Lana crept halfway down the stairs and peeked into the living room where the two women sat, careful to avoid the one creaky step near the top. Next to Miss Whitehouse on the sofa lay her purse; Miss Adolph’s hung from the back of her chair. While Lana watched, Miss Whitehouse nodded off, her head dipping to her large bosom. A moment later, Miss Adolph stood and went to the bathroom. Lana could easily have walked down the stairs, stolen Miss Adolph’s purse, and quietly exited out the front door. If she’d been prepared, she would have done that very thing, but she wore only her itchy, donated pajamas and had not prepped herself mentally. She had a feeling this opportunity would present itself again.

The next day, while Lana scraped dried toothpaste from the sink in the upstairs bathroom, Miss Wittig appeared in the doorway. 

“Well, Lana, have you learned your lesson yet?” she asked from the doorway. Forbidden to speak, Lana just stared expressionlessly. 

“Tomorrow I’ll lift your Silence,” Miss Wittig said, “if you agree to use your voice to speak to the other girls about the lessons you’ve learned from this little episode.”

Before she could prevent it, Lana’s right eyebrow rode up to produce one of her more typical expressions. The literal translation: What the fuck?

“I might even consider moving you off bathroom sparkle duty if you do a good job,” Miss Wittig added. She leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms under her breasts (like clusters of the vine). Lana pictured her naked and felt her mouth go dry.

“Sleep on it,” Miss Wittig said, “and we’ll see how we feel tomorrow morning.” She turned to leave, then turned back. “You know, Lana, you remind me a lot of me when I was your age. Stubborn, rebellious, angry. But I see a lot of potential in you.”

She permitted herself a half-smile before leaving. For the hundredth time, Lana wondered what had brought Miss Wittig to God Loves Teens in the first place. She hardly dared to imagine that fifteen-year-old Miss Wittig had licked a girl’s pussy, though of course, that’s exactly what she imagined, much like Lana had licked Rita Totten’s pussy after school one day at Rita’s house. Did Miss Wittig enjoy it as much as Lana had? Had she written about it in her diary using florid language to describe the feeling? Had her parents been mortified enough to arrange for a three a.m. kidnapping?

Picturing Miss Wittig going down on a girl who very much resembled herself, Lana shut the door, turned on the sink, and played with herself until one of the other girls banged on the door to come in and take a shit.

That night, Lana lay in bed fully clothed, the covers pulled up to her chin. Lana wished she had a friend to escape with, an accomplice. She’d considered asking the girl who slept on the lower bunk across from her now, Sadie Lasick, but God Loves Teens was so effective at sowing suspicion among the girls that no one trusted anyone else with secrets. 

Sometime after midnight, once Miss Whitehouse had checked on the girls for the seventh or eighth time and groaned her way back downstairs, Lana carefully peeled off her bedcovers and tip-toed to the doorway. She wore her sneakers, slacks, and a cheap dark sweater. The other girls in the room breathed deeply as they slept.

Lana peeked into the hall. Harsh fluorescent bulbs illuminated the pinewood floor and unadorned walls. Two other doors led to bedrooms, with the bathroom at the end. 

She crept to the top of the stairs. A man’s voice shouted from the TV: Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Lana also thought she heard Miss Whitehouse’s nasal voice nattering away. She descended several steps and peered over the railing to see the back of Miss Adolph’s head as she sat knitting in the chair facing the TV. Miss Whitehouse sat in her usual spot on the sofa.

“Hector is coming early,” Miss Whitehouse was saying. “To put in the storm windows. I can’t believe it’s time again. Seems he just took them off and put in the screens.”

She carried on like this while Miss Adolph ignored her. Eventually, Miss Whitehouse pushed herself up off the sofa.

“Well, I s’pose I’ll go check on the girls.”

Lana ran back to her bunk. A moment later she heard the creaky step and then footfalls in the hall. Even with her eyes closed, she could detect the shadow of Miss Whitehouse looming in the lit doorway. After Miss Whitehouse had checked all three rooms and descended the stairs, Lana again crept from her bed to the stairway. 

Miss Whitehouse had returned to the sofa while Miss Adolph continued knitting. She was constantly making baby clothes for newborns of the pregnant girls. This tiny outfit was probably for the child of Hayley Weisbrod, who was six months pregnant. Poor Hayley, who slept across the hall, still talked about keeping her baby.

After about ten minutes, Miss Whitehouse’s round head started to loll until it finally rested on her chest. A moment later, Miss Adolph set down her knitting and climbed from the chair. She was tall and waistless with brown-gray hair pulled painfully into a ponytail. She rarely spoke and had lifeless eyes that either saw through you or took everything in—it was impossible to tell which.

She headed toward the kitchen and, presumably, the bathroom off the back door. Lana moved quickly down the stairs toward Miss Adolph’s purse, which hung, as usual, from her chair. With one eye on the snoozing Miss Whitehouse, she opened the purse and gently fingered the contents: keys, tissues, a glasses case, Mace, a flip phone, a thin wallet. Miss Whitehouse snorted, and her head tilted up and back to rest against the sofa. If she woke up, Lana could always tell her she’d gotten her period unexpectedly and couldn’t find a Tampon, but Miss Whitehouse’s eyes remained shut and her breathing returned to normal. Lana removed the wallet, keys, and Mace and crept toward the front door. From the kitchen came sounds of the refrigerator door opening and plastic containers being set on the counter. 

Lana slowly turned the lock on the door and heard the bolt click. Again, Miss Whitehouse snorted on the sofa, and Lana stopped breathing. She took hold of the knob and, while still eyeing Miss Whitehouse, twisted it open. A gust of cold air whooshed into the room. Miss Whitehouse grunted but did not wake. No sound from the kitchen.

Lana stepped onto the porch. For the first time, she felt as though this might work. She eased the heavy front door shut behind her. She crossed the porch through the yellowy light of the overhead lamp, and as she descended the stairs to the cement walk she felt herself swallowed by darkness.

She followed the walk to the gravel parking area. Her footsteps crunched on the pebbles so she kept to the grass at the edges and started up the slight hill leading to the gate. The night was cold and clear, with billions of stars and no moon. Halfway up, she paused to look back at the house. With its lit-up windows—the living room and upstairs hall—it looked like a spaceship floating in the dark. Miss Adolph was probably returning to her chair now, and Miss Whitehouse waking up to check the bedrooms. Choosing to think positively, Lana pictured the old bitty glancing at the form beneath the bed covers and moving on.

At the gate, Lana pulled Miss Adolph’s ring of keys from her jeans pocket. There was a thick car key and three others. With shaking hands, she tried the first key: no luck. The next did not fit either. If the third key didn’t work, she’d have to find another way. The fence was lined with electrified wire tautly strung just a few inches apart. One of the girls had said this used to be an ostrich farm, to which Lana had said, it still is, meaning everyone here kept their heads in a hole in the ground. 

She inserted the third key and it turned with a satisfying click. She removed the chain and pulled the gate open just enough to slip through before reapplying the lock. 

She ran.

The field was thick with stiff grass and pocked with holes. Several times she nearly fell but managed to right herself. At first, the woods appeared to remain the same distance off, like some sort of optical illusion, but then the trees loomed over her, dark and thick. At the edge of the woods, she paused once more to look back at the now distant house. While catching her breath, Lana thought of Miss Wittig and realized she’d miss her—the smell of eucalyptus soap on her skin, her dark eyes framed by thick lashes, the rise of her breasts when affronted by bad behavior.

In the woods, she could not see anything but vague vertical shapes, gray against black. She had no idea how deep these woods went or what awaited her on the other side, but she slowly grew accustomed to the darkness and felt more confident about avoiding collisions. While lying in bed at night, Lana would sometimes hear the far-off cries of animals, but tonight, moving quickly among the trees, she heard only the slap of her feet on dead leaves and dirt. She peered around for any sign of life, a fox or a possum, but saw none. Growing tired now, she imagined them watching from their dens or the branches overhead, cheering her on. 

After what seemed like a long time, she heard the sounds of traffic. She pictured herself hitchhiking, hopping into the car of a nice family, and . . . then what? She realized she had no idea where the nearest bus station was, or even what town she was in. What had always been just a plan was now real. She decided not to think about it—one step at a time. 

The woods ended suddenly and Lana faced a steep, grassy hill leading up to the freeway. Lights shone down from tall poles onto the cars and trucks that Lana could hear roaring up above. The noise increased as she climbed up the steep hill to the shoulder of a four-laner. At this time of early morning—Lana figured it might be five or so—she saw mostly trucks, huge eighteen-wheelers headed wherever trucks go. In five minutes she counted maybe four cars. 

Lana felt invisible in the dark space between the freeway lamps. She also felt cold. The truck cabins and car interiors, vaguely lit by red or blue dash lights, looked warm and inviting. Lana had only hitch-hiked once before, maybe a year ago, to visit a girl named Aynsleigh Simmons. They’d spent the afternoon talking about school and watching porn, and when Lana touched her friend’s cheek Aynsleigh had pulled back with a shocked look on her pretty face and told Lana she’d better leave. Lana walked the five miles home, cursing herself for pushing too hard.

The sky lightened from black to gray-blue, with a band of pale yellow along the eastern horizon. Behind Lana, the woods gradually transformed from a black wall into individual trees, while beyond the freeway the rolling land took on shape. She made out fields and farmland and, far off, a silo. 

She had no sooner stepped toward the side of the road than a non-descript sedan yanked itself out of traffic onto the shoulder. In the dawn light, the car looked gray or maybe green. When Lana got close, the driver’s side door opened and a woman stepped out. It took a moment for Lana to recognize her.

Miss Wittig held out her hands as if to say, Don’t run. 

“Lana. Please get in the car.”

She spoke in a stern voice that Lana recognized, but her face showed something new—was it fear? Lana glanced back toward the woods then across the busy freeway. If she timed it right, she could reach the median and then cross the other two lanes and into the fields. 

“Don’t do it,” Miss Wittig said, coming closer. She still held out her hands, pleading. “Just sit in the car with me for a minute. We’ll stay right here and talk. I promise, Lana. You can even hold the keys.”

Lana considered it. The car looked warm. She was shivering. And suddenly so, so tired.

“Come on, Lana. You’re cold. And I have coffee if you want.”

Lana nodded. Miss Wittig opened the passenger door for her and tossed some things into the back—gloves, her purse, some paper bags from Dunkin’ Donuts. The car smelled of coffee and pine air freshener.

Before Miss Wittig got into the driver’s seat, Lana pulled the keys from the ignition and the engine sputtered off. Miss Wittig pressed the hazard button, and the lights clicked rhythmically.

“First, are you okay?” she asked, looking Lana over. It was the first time she’d ever asked that.

The car felt so warm compared to outside, but Lana couldn’t stop shivering. “I’m fine,” she said. She hadn’t spoken in almost two weeks and had to push the words past the lump in her throat. 

“You want my coffee?” Miss Wittig held out her cup, but Lana declined. She didn’t like coffee. 

“Listen, Lana, I know you’re unhappy at God Loves Teens. I get it. There’s an adjustment period, and for some of us it’s longer than for others.”

“Us?” Lana said.

“Yes, us. I was like you. I tried to run away, more than once. It took me a while to figure it out.”

“Figure what out?”

Miss Wittig smiled. She had straight white teeth that reflected the light from the freeway lamp. 

“I figured out that I felt safer at God Loves Teens than out here.” She gestured toward the traffic just as a semi roared past, rattling the little car. “It’s scary out here, Lana. It’s cold. Lonely.” She smiled again, but in a pitying way. “You’re not ready.” 

With that, Miss Wittig rested her hand on top of Lana’s, which lay on her knee. Lana stared down at it, at the soft, smooth pink skin, the manicured nails, the little wrinkles at her knuckles. What was Miss Wittig doing? Lana remembered riding the school bus with Rita Totten, holding hands between their hips and giggling. Lana looked up into Miss Wittig’s eyes. They appeared wet as if she might cry.

Lana removed her hand from beneath Miss Wittig’s and reached out, cupping the woman’s cheek. The skin felt cold but smooth. Miss Wittig’s eyes showed confusion, then a flash of anger. She swatted Lana’s hand away.

“What’re you doing, Lana?”

Lana jerked her hand back and reached for the door handle.

“Lana, don’t.”

Miss Wittig held onto Lana’s arm so she couldn’t leave the car.

“Lana, you need to listen to me . . .”

Lana tried to wrench herself free but couldn’t. Miss Wittig’s fingers dug into her upper arm like a vise. “Stop!” Lana cried.

Miss Wittig grunted with the effort. “You little bitch!” she hissed.

Lana reached into her pocket with her free hand. She aimed the Mace at Miss Wittig’s face, intending to frighten her, but something about Miss Wittig’s expression—defiance? arrogance?—pissed her off, and she pressed the button. Miss Wittig screamed and let go. 

Lana climbed out and ran around the front of the car. Without looking, she dashed out onto the freeway. A car skidded from the right lane into the left, narrowly missing the rear of a tractor-trailer. Lana kept going. The headlights of a pickup truck grew large somewhere to her left.

“Lana!” she heard from behind her. 

She made it onto the shoulder just as the truck passed. She hopped the guard rail and ran onto the grass median. As she ran, she remembered she still had Miss Wittig’s keys. This struck her as funny.

She reached the shoulder of the western bound side and waited this time for a break in traffic before crossing. On the far side, she turned and saw Miss Wittig across the four lanes, standing next to her car. She was rubbing her eyes while trying to operate her cell phone. She was probably trying to call Scott and Les to come with their maroon van. Lana didn’t have much time. She flipped Miss Wittig the bird and made a show of tossing the car keys into the middle of traffic. A truck immediately ran them over. Miss Wittig shouted something, but Lana couldn’t hear. 

The sun was rising now, sending long shadows across the blacktop. Lana no longer felt tired or cold. She turned and started across the wide, open fields.

About the Author

Chris Belden is the author of two novels, Shriver and Carry-on, and the story collection The Floating Lady of Lake Tawaba. (