Anita Terpstra – Together
I remember wild nights with friends and lots of booze. How old would I have been? Fifteen, sixteen maybe? Too young to go out and drink, that’s for sure. But because there was fuck all else to do in the dump where I grew up, we did so anyway, on the sly. We’d meet on the river bank. ‘We’ were whoever managed to sneak out of the house without getting caught and those whose parents didn’t care what their kid got up to and who with. I belonged to the former category.
We’d sit by the water, often shivering with cold, because a fire would have been too conspicuous. We turned to one another for warmth. But what warmed me more than anything were the questions we’d ask, because deep down they terrified me. These were dangerous questions, something I realized instinctively, because for some people they represented the cruel, bitter truth. I never said so to the others. Of course I didn’t. I went along, eager to fit in. Sometimes I think I may have brought fate down on my head by doing so.
Would you rather miss an arm or a leg?
Would you rather be deaf or dumb?
Would you rather die by being burned alive or by being buried alive?
Would you rather be raped or killed?
Would you rather be shot or stabbed?
Would you rather lose your mother or your father?
Would you rather be killed or kidnapped?
I can still hear myself say it: kidnapped! At least you’d still be alive. I remember another girl saying she’d rather be dead, just so she wouldn’t have to suffer. I didn’t understand her and we almost got into an argument. Now I understand her position. You bet I understand.
I saw you in prison this week (I was visiting your neighbor Mitchell and his dog) and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since. Or rather, about what you said to me, namely that you’re innocent. I’ve read up on you and would like to hear your side of the story. You may wonder why. The answer is simple: I’m against the death penalty. I served in the military and did a few tours of Afghanistan. During the last one I had to guard a prison. I saw innocent people locked up for the rest of their lives and there was nothing I could do about it. I’m not a moral crusader. On my return I didn’t immediately take up the cause, but when I saw you… You looked lost and that touched me. Maybe there’s something I can do for you, provided you want me to of course.
Thanks for your letter, which was quite different from what I normally receive. You don’t want to know how many letters I get from women who are totally deranged. They write that they understand why I kidnapped those women, and that they want to marry me. Some even send me nude pictures of themselves. I can’t relate to that at all. That’s not who I am.
I keep telling myself, and everybody else: I’m innocent. Because it’s the truth, but also because I’m afraid I might forget one day. Everybody treats me like a guilty man. I’m a figure of hate. I’m afraid that if I keep hearing that I did it, I’ll eventually believe it. You know what I mean?
You write that you’ve read up on me, but the person described in those articles is not who I am. Those fuckwit journalists distorted everything. I’d been found guilty before my trial even started – I didn’t stand a chance. Not that I was a saint before I ended up in here, certainly not. I got up to some seriously rotten shit in the past, but I served my time for that.
Lots of mistakes were made in my case: what little evidence there was didn’t add up at all. I know what it looks like: Vicky identified me as the perpetrator and the police found her necklace at my home. The latter is true. She lost it in the garage where I work. I found it and took it home with me. How was I to know it was hers? All Vicky saw was a man wearing a cap. She never saw her kidnapper’s face, only heard his voice. I don’t know why she pointed the finger at me. Maybe because I always wear a baseball cap. So too that day at the garage when she came to pick up her car. Then she broke down on her way home. The prosecutor claimed I’d tampered with her car.
I’m not saying Vicky is a liar, because I’m sure she really thought it was me. Whether that’s because the police talked her into thinking that, or whether she’s suffering from some kind of trauma, or both, I don’t know. What I do know is that the police were in an awful hurry to arrest someone. My lawyer tells me they were trying to divert attention away from the fact that for years they didn’t lift a finger to try and find those missing women.
Please, believe me. Write back to me. You know, you sound like a normal woman and I need that right now. Life here on death row is anything but. My fellow inmates are completely crazy and so are the vast majority of the guards. In this cramped and smelly cell, it’s easy to forget that there’s something called ordinary life outside these prison walls. I hope to go back to it one day. My lawyer is certainly doing his best. He really believes in me, you know. He works for free, but I don’t know how much longer he can keep that up. At the end of the day, he’s got a mortgage to pay and a family to provide for.
I’d like to know more about you, Mackenzie. You’re no longer in the army, right? Why not? And would you mind including a picture of yourself in your next letter? You’re a good-looking woman. There isn’t much beauty where I am and I’d like to put the picture up in my cell. I hope I won’t put you off with my request.
You haven’t put me off. On the contrary. You telling me I’m good-looking makes me blush. Nobody has ever described me as good-looking! The things you write about your case… I don’t know what to say, Matt. I wish there were something I could do for you. But all I can do is write a letter back, like you asked me to. So that’s what I’m doing.
I’m 31 and recently moved to Atmore, where I work as a waitress in a roadside restaurant. The restaurant is owned by Joe and Joe is Taylor Marr’s husband. She runs the Dog Rescue Prison Program. I owe my life to Taylor. I’ll tell you all about that in a minute.
I was born in Denver, Colorado, and moved around a lot as a kid. My father took off when I was little and my mother remarried. Shortly after my baby sister was born that guy left too. My mother couldn’t look after us. She couldn’t stay off the drink. We spent more time with foster families than with her.
At 17 I joined the army. I needed my mother’s permission, but she couldn’t care less really. She thought I wouldn’t last a month, because I can’t handle authority in her view. I was determined to prove her wrong. But in the end, she was proven right: I was given a dishonorable discharge. What happened was that me and a bunch of army buddies got drunk in a bar when we were on leave. An argument with some other patrons escalated into a punch-up. I’d already received several warnings for disobedience and following that fight the army decided to discharge me. Okay, I’m not actually giving you the whole truth here. The army wanted me to go into therapy to learn to deal with my anger management issues, but I didn’t think I had a problem and refused. You could say I lost another home, and this time I only had my stupid self to blame.
I couldn’t find a job and all I had was my car and some meagre savings. I ended up drifting for a while. At some point I adopted another vagrant, my dog Misty. I’m crazy about her. I wouldn’t know what to do without her. She’s so lively and loving – she makes me want to get up in the morning. And she makes me laugh, the rascal. But she turned out to be my savior in other respects too. One day I was having a hamburger at a roadside restaurant where I got talking about Misty with Taylor. She told me about the Dog Rescue Prison Program and I said I’d love to help. When I told her I was actually looking for a job, she said her husband Joe owned the restaurant and needed a waitress.
Now I earn enough to rent my own place. That’s to say, Taylor cuts me a special deal. The house is on her land and she gives me a discount. In exchange, I fix up the house and help her with the dog program.
That’s about it really. I go to work and I go home, where I do DIY or help Taylor look after the dogs. I’m not really used to talking about myself. Over to you.
I know where you’re coming from. My parents weren’t there for me either. I’m not going to blame all the shit that happened on my upbringing, but none of the prisoners here’s had a great childhood. Makes you wonder, right?
My mother screwed any man who’d have her (according to the psychologists and psychiatrists – those losers – it’s why I hate all women) and my father let her. Once in a while he’d go off on one and beat her up. Or us – whoever happened to be in his way at that moment. Every now and then we were removed from them and taken to a foster family, but we were always allowed to go back home, and then the damn routine would begin all over again.
I ran away on a regular basis, but nobody cared. I always went back – because of my younger sister. She’s disabled and lives in a home. Sometimes I think she’s happier than any of us. My mother nearly bled to death when she was born and had to have her uterus removed. That was probably a good thing, or else they’d have had even more kids.
During a massive argument my father once told me I’m not his kid. My mother says he’s lying, but it’s possible, you know. My eldest sister disappeared when she was sixteen. I reckon she just ran away, but of course everybody now thinks something terrible happened to her and that I’m to blame. Bullshit. My sister was pretty tough and would whack me whenever I got on her nerves.
Because my father was more out of work than in work, we lived in a really rotten neighborhood. At 15 I was fed up with school, so to earn money I started stealing. Cars mainly. It wasn’t long before I got caught and sent to a juvenile detention center. There I was given the opportunity to train as a mechanic and when I was released I got a job.
I really enjoyed working at the garage, you know. There are some who look down on my trade, I know that, but I took my job very seriously. I made sure people’s cars were okay, and they wouldn’t get into accidents because the tires were worn or the brakes faulty. I felt responsible. The salesmen got paid a lot more than us mechanics, and I still don’t get that. I worked as a salesman for a while, but I couldn’t do it. I can’t lie to people.
Still, I don’t dwell on those days; that was my life before death row. My lawyer is trying to get my case reopened, but sometimes I get scared. What if he pulls it off? There will always be people who think I’m guilty. It will haunt me for the rest of my life. And where would I go? What would I do? Will anyone ever want to hire me again? Will I ever find a woman who loves me, who trusts me? It often keeps me awake at night.
PS The photo you sent is gorgeous. It’s a lovely shot. You look happy. Radiant as the sun. I’d love to take you to the seaside one day.
Apologies for the brief note, but I’m working double shifts and I’m dead beat. The minute I get home all I want to do is jump into bed. Next time I’ll write a longer letter, I promise! Or shall I come and visit you in prison some time? It would be nice to see you.
I was mightily pissed off when I got that short note, I’ll be honest with you. But please don’t be mad at me. I always really look forward to your letters – they cheer me up no end. It would be great to see you! Nobody ever visits me, except my lawyer of course.
I subjected my wedding dress to one final inspection. All the while, my mother’s voice echoed through my head. Women do stupid things in the name of love. How often had I heard her say that? I always assumed she was referring to the things she’d done for my father. She used to say he was the only man she’d ever loved. He’d broken her heart.
The heat enveloped me like a blanket. The fan on the ceiling was just for show; it was broken. I just couldn’t get used to the temperatures that held Alabama in their sticky, strangulating grip every summer.
In nothing but my bra and panties, I stood in front of the mirror and took a long, hard look at myself. Misty, who was lying on the floor by the foot of the bed, raised her head briefly before resting it on her front paws again with a sigh. She must have been wondering what I was doing. I know I was. I slid my hands over the barely there lingerie. This getup wasn’t really my thing, but I was doing it for Matt. Would he like it? I was probably going to all this trouble for nothing. Matt hadn’t touched a woman in ages. He’d want to undress me ASAP. The doubt kicked in again. Had the lingerie been an unnecessary extravagance? We badly needed every penny I made. More often than not I worked double shifts at Joe’s, but money was still tight.
Annoyed, I turned away from my reflection and took my wedding dress of its hanger. The dress was second-hand, but looked like it had changed hands more often than that. Given the price it wouldn’t surprise me: fifty bucks at a pawn shop. It was a sleeveless, white satin dress to just above the knee. I was curious to know why the previous owner had decided to sell it.
The shoes had come with it for free. One of the heels had been reattached with glue, and not very neatly either. But as long as it stayed in place during the ceremony I wasn’t too bothered.
I carefully pulled the dress over my head. It still had a bit of a funny smell. I’d have liked to have it dry-cleaned, but didn’t want to waste the money. Instead, I’d soaked the dress in the bath tub overnight and hung it out to dry, hoping the fresh air would work wonders.
I bent over backwards trying to do up the zip and took another look at myself in the mirror. Passable. Should I wear my hair up? No, Matt would only pull out the pins right away. At that thought a shiver ran down my spine.
Misty followed me to the living room. There, on the table, lay the letter I’d received from him that morning.
My darling Mackenzie,
I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you’ve agreed to be my wife. Your love for me makes me strong. Every time I’m down in the dumps, I look at your photo, re-read your letters, and try to remember the sound of your voice, the way you smile. You’re my ray of hope in these dark days. If it hadn’t been for you, I’d have given up a long time ago. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you, but I’m incredibly grateful. I know what you’re going through for me, what you’re putting on the line. You’re the sweetest and most beautiful and courageous woman I know. I want nothing but to make you happy for the rest of your life.
Forever yours, Matt
I put the letter in my bag and walked to the door. Misty followed me, but I told her to go back to her basket.
‘No, you can’t come along, you hear me? I’ll be back in a couple of hours.’ As ever, she obeyed me at once. I thought of all those times when me and my little sister had begged our mother for a dog. To no effect. I’d found Misty outside a gas station, where she’d been abandoned. I still wonder why her previous owner got rid of her. According to the vet, she’s a cross between a Retriever and a Cocker Spaniel and around four years old.
Outside it was even hotter than inside. A real scorcher. The glare of the sun was unforgiving. The thermometer, which was in the shade, indicated close to forty degrees Celsius. Even the tall trees at the back of the house failed to provide the desired cooling effect.
The house was a converted shed. Long ago, there had been a cotton plantation on this land, Taylor told me. Taylor and Joe’s farm was a couple of hundred yards away. Because the Dog Rescue Prison Program cost a lot of money, Taylor had come up with the idea to rent out this house. But it had to be fixed up first. In a distant past it had been painted powder blue and out front a veranda had been added, much of which had now subsided. The house had great potential, though. The small windows and the timber gave it a picturesque beauty. And the swing on the veranda was incredibly inviting, especially on sultry summer’s evenings.
It occurred to me that maybe I should have worn shorts and a T-shirt and then swapped them for my wedding dress in the parking lot of Kilby Correctional Facility. Now I’d probably be all sweaty when I got there. My old car did have an air-con system, but it had been broken for ages. Since the car would go no faster than 100 km/hour, there was no time to get changed again, and besides, I’d never get out of this dress without a helping hand.
I waited for Taylor out on the veranda. From here I had a good view of the farm. She was fiercely opposed to our wedding, but had still agreed to be my witness. In fact, she worked in a supermarket and had asked for the day off especially. After a few minutes I grew impatient, not to mention suspicious. Surely she hadn’t changed her mind?
Two years. I’ve been here two years now. I think so, anyway. The days are all alike. With all the reference points like birthdays, Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and New Year gone I have no real sense of time.
With each passing day, I move further and further from my old self, my old life. In my previous life feelings were a luxury, I now realize. I enjoyed my life. I was happy with my boyfriend, had a good job as a teacher, did fun things with my friends, and took the love of my family for granted. In here, feelings are a form of self-torment. Every day I feel a little less, like a limb I no longer use and that’s slowly mortifying as a result.
Sometimes I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience and I’m watching what was once mine: it eats, it sleeps, it moves. It’s raped. It’s debased. It’s humiliated. It’s hungry and thirsty. It’s in pain.
I think we’re underground, because there’s no daylight and it always smells musty, of soil. The concrete floor and walls can’t keep the smell out. And it’s always cold and damp.
We don’t know whether it’s day or night. There’s a small spotlight on the ceiling, that’s all. We know it’s time to go to sleep when the light is switched off. The bed is just a metal frame, which has been bolted to the wall and floor. I have a thin and dirty sagging mattress, a pillow, and a blanket. I wear underpants, a vest, and a tracksuit. No shoes, no socks. I’ve got one towel, which is rarely swapped for a fresh one. I relieve myself in a bucket. Luckily it has a lid. And I have a second bucket with water – for washing and drinking.
That’s it. My little palace.
We think there are six cells in total, three on either side. The door has a viewing hatch at eye level, but it only opens from the outside.
I always thought of myself as someone who wasn’t attached to material possessions, but I do miss my own things: the stuffed bunny I was given by my sister once, my favorite books, my old pair of jeans, my photos, and my lucky bracelet (which of course I wasn’t wearing the day I was kidnapped).
Sleep is my best friend. In my dreams I’m free, watching the blue sky, feeling the warm sun and the cold snowflakes on my face, hearing my parents’ voices, or tasting chocolate and my grandma’s curries. In my dreams I’m happy.
There’s not much else to do in here. I’ve seen enough of the dark grey around me and the other women don’t always feel like talking. Shortly after I got here, I talked a lot. I wanted to know everything.
No so much now. You need to talk quite loudly to be heard through the thick wooden doors and it’s hard to keep that up for any length of time without losing your voice.
Besides, what’s there to say? Are we supposed to talk about what he does to us? That we’re given nowhere near enough food to fill us up? And that it’s disgusting because it’s either burnt or practically raw? That we hate him? That we’ve lost all hope? That we can’t even cry anymore? That we feel dirty? That we’ve given up on begging him to let us go, because when we do he beats us to a pulp? That we miss our loved ones so much it hurts and therefore choose not to think about them?
Should we urge one another to keep faith, that maybe one day we’ll escape? We’ve stopped believing that. That one day he’ll set us free? No, he won’t. That we’ll survive? No, that won’t happen. We’ll die here – the only question is when and how. He’s not going to murder us. If only he would. No, we’ll die because we decide to end it ourselves, like that woman with the shard, or because we fall ill.
The reality is that there are lots of things we can’t talk about, like the past, the present, and the future.
Still, when the silence and the solitude become unbearable, I talk. I’m usually the first one to start talking. Or I ask a question. Then they respond, and for a while there’s nothing but their voices.
Lori was kidnapped on Valentine’s Day. She was standing by the highway hitchhiking when a car stopped. He called himself John and gave her a lift. After half an hour the car began to lurch this way and that and he pulled over to see what was wrong. A flat tire, he said. Lori got out to help and was knocked down. When she came to again, she found herself here.
Lori was 23 at the time, a recent graduate and keen to travel the country before starting a job and settling down to a bourgeois life with a house, husband, and kids. Boy, does she regret that now. She studied accountancy, thinking it would guarantee her a job afterwards. That diploma is fuck all use to her now. Those are her own words by the way.
Then I arrived, followed by Nathalie. She’d run away from her husband. He used to beat her up. But trust me, listening to her, you can kind of understand why he did that. She’s a mean old bitch. She betrays us. In exchange for clean pants, an extra blanket, chocolate, and that kind of thing she tells him what we talk about.
She’d forgotten to fill up her tank and was on the hard shoulder when he stopped. He said he had some gas in his pick-up. She followed him and from there on it was the same story as with Lori: knocked down and stuffed in the boot of his car. We women are so weak. Well, Nathalie was used to being beaten up and saw the car jack coming. So he hit her arm first. That’s what she tells us – and proudly too. It’s ridiculous, because at the end of the day she’s here too. Anyway, she put up a struggle and claims that at that moment a car drove by and must have seen them. Just after she got here she clung to the hope that the driver would come forward and she’d be found. Thanks to her we’d all be freed.
We’re still here.
Sometimes I hear her cry and I feel sorry for her. She misses her kids. I don’t understand why she left them with that guy of hers in the first place, but when I ask her about it she yells that I should shut the fuck up.
There’s another woman. We don’t know who she is. We call her Jane. She’s not right in the head. We can’t get a sensible word out of her. She claims she was in a bad place and now she’s in a good place. Going by her muttering, I reckon she thinks she’s in some kind of hospital where she has a room to herself. And he’s looking after her.
I told you, she’s completely crazy.
But anyway, that’s what happens to all of us in here. Sooner or later.
Translated by Laura Vroomen