Based on the true story that shocked the world in 1965.

In the early summer of 1965, 16 year old Sylvia Likens stepped foot into 3850 East New York with hopes and dreams. She left the house three months later, emaciated with burns, bruises and scratches. What happened in those endless months would later be described as "the worst crime ever committed in the state of Indiana". This is the story of a girl who had hopes and dreams.

This is Sylvia's story.


11. A Grave Decision

It was a new day, and I was beginning to get ready for another day of school. I had never been an academically minded person; I got grades that any student seemed to achieve in school - Bs and Cs. I didn't hate school, nor did I dread it every morning. But when I first turned 16, I quit my old school back in California, not that you would have believed it. I guess I wanted to help my parents with work; they needed the help anyway. Of course my mama had something to say about that - she actually wanted me to have an education, but my daddy wanted his children to learn the business and the tricks of the trade as young as possible. I learnt a lot about life during my carnival years, more than I probably learnt in school.

The bedroom was quiet, and I stood at the mirror while planting on, for the first time, a few layers of blusher. I didn't know why I suddenly wanted to put it on, though I guessed I felt the need to brighten up my look - after all, living with girls as pretty as Stephanie wasn't really a confidence booster. It was probably a phase I had just begun. Teenage girls always went through it; trying to look their best, though not necessarily wanting to catch anyone's eye.

The hazy light beamed through from the window, creating a spectrum of warm sun against the walls. The window had been slightly opened, so I would always hear the momentary car starting, or a few students walking by the house. It was a blouse and knee-length shorts that day, I was almost running out of dresses to wear. But I didn't mind - it gave me a different look. As I slumped back onto the bed behind me, I began placing on the shoes over each foot. Though just as I began to tie them up, I heard the quiet shuffling of somebody etching closer through the doorway. I gazed up, and I made sudden eye contact with Stephanie. She gave a smile, however timidly.

"You alright?" I asked, but she gave a hesitant nod. I could tell something was up, and I was tempted to ask what it was.

"You got anythin' important to do at school today?" She questioned, as she swayed on the spot as though eagerly awaiting an answer.

I didn't understand the question, but I shook my head. I supposed I didn't really have anything to do that day - in fact most days I didn't.

"Not really," I insisted, "probably a few tests, but nothin' big."

Stephanie's shoulders fell, as though relieved at my answer. It seemed she was desperate for someone to ask her what was wrong. I finished placing the shoes on, and shuffled to the edge of the bed, giving Stephanie a bit of room. She slouched down; her hands playing with the frills on her dress.

"...Mama won't let me go in to school today."

I frowned slightly, "why?"

"Just these old dizzy spells I keep gettin'..." She insisted, "I was wonderin' if you wanted to maybe... stay off too?"

I didn't want to let her down, but whether Gertrude would have allowed me to stay home with her was another matter. As I said before, I was a people pleaser, and so I agreed. Her face lightened into a smile, and her cheeks crinkled as her grin grew large. It always made me happy to see a smile on somebody's face, especially when that smile was because of something I had done.

"We could always go out? Go on the park or to the groceries - I don't mind." She bombarded me with ideas and questions. I couldn't help but laugh at her excitement.

She grasped me by my arm, and hoisted me to my feet. Stephanie had obviously liked me enough to have asked me to stay with her, and that meant a lot to me.

We paraded down the stairs, as the children were all getting ready to leave. Gertrude appeared from the kitchen, holding a cigarette in her hand while she sipped regularly at a cup of coffee. Stephanie eagerly rushed over to her. I was unsure about what Gertie would have thought about me staying off too.

"Don't want any of you to be late." Gertie insisted, waggling her arm in the air as the children all began their much dreaded walk to school.

Jenny followed, looking back at me with a confused stare. She obviously didn't understand why I wasn't so quick to follow her. It was only a few minutes later that the room had fallen into an awkward silence - only Dennis Jr executed a loud cry.

"You don't wanna' be late, Sylvia." Gertie said, as she slurped from the hot coffee in her hand.

Stephanie was quick to interrupt, much to my relief.

"Sylvia's gonna' stay with me today."

I held my breath. I didn't know why, but I had promised I wasn't going to be a burden on Gertrude. She looked at me, and then back to Stephanie.

"You don't need babysittin'," Gertie huffed, walking over to the couch as she placed the half empty cup onto the coffee table.

Stephanie folded her arms, "'s just one day, mama. Sylvia even said she don't have anythin' important today."

Gertrude groaned, pinning her wiry hair from her face as she wearily nodded.

"- Fine, but I don't want you stayin' in this house all day long."

"We ain't, we're goin' out now," Stephanie insisted, and she strode over to the front door as though to prove a point.

I amply followed, trying to avoid anything if Gertie were to change her mind. She always seemed like she would have. Stephanie threw open the door and stumbled out onto the steps, as I followed. It felt odd; stepping out of the house and not actually intending to go to school. It felt...rebellious. I was excited about the day Stephanie had planned for us. It made me happy knowing that she liked me enough to have asked me to stay with her. It truly meant a lot to me.


We walked down the quiet, lonesome street of East New York. The yards that day were, strangely, dull - abandoned in a way, though I imagined it was due to the fact that adults had work, whilst children had school. It felt better that way; the silence of the world with only a few car engines beginning, as well as the casual birds singing along to each other in such perfect harmony. The sky was unravelled into a bright blue, with the sun bearing down on us all. The trees, however, luckily swayed from the breeze that gave us all a reassurance that we wouldn't have burnt to death.

We had been walking for almost 20 minutes, gliding past houses as each conversation we began seemed to change almost instantly.

"...Glasses or no glasses?"

We had resorted in discussing what we preferred in a boy. What do two teenage girls talk about when there's nothing to do? The thought of glasses immediately reminded me of Ricky - that sweet boy I had met before.

I awkwardly gazed away, "glasses..." I reluctantly replied, and Stephanie immediately grinned.

I knew she had already thought about Ricky, as had I.

"- I hear church bells ringin'!" She hopped a little, as though triumphantly.

I smothered my head into my hands as I tried to keep up with her, "- you asked me and I gave an honest answer!" I insisted, though I couldn't help but smile at the image of Ricky in my mind.

"Steph!" A voice called, followed by somebody whistling from behind us.

I imagined it was to be some stupid little kids trying to get our attention, though it was none other than Coy, who held a cigarette between his lips and another behind his ear. He stretched out his arms, throwing his head back as Stephanie suddenly squealed beside me. She sprinted over to him, throwing herself in his arms as they embraced one another.

I hesitantly walked closer to them, but I was worried about getting in the middle of their 'hot and heavy romance'. Coy finally released his hold on her - though not before a quick kiss on the lips.

"And what are you doin' out of school?" He smirked, running his fingers through her hair.

"Those dizzy spells again," she moaned, as she took hold of his hand, "...Sylvia stayed with me though."

I awkwardly looked up, as Coy finally realised I was standing there. I didn't blame them. They were in love; it made my heart skip a beat in that gooey, 'lovey-duvey' way, as Paula would have said. I couldn't help but laugh a little; what could I say, Coy was nice, and seemed like he truly did care for Stephanie. Mama used to tell me a man like that was hard to come by; a man who really idolised his lover.

"You never said what you were doin' out of school?" Stephanie asked, nudging him on the shoulder.

Coy grinned to himself, as though he was keeping a secret, "I ain't goin' back to Mr Craig's class - asshole can't even take a joke."

A humourless teacher - there were plenty at Arsenal Tech, that was for sure.

"I don't want you gettin' in to trouble." Stephanie whined, and her arms wrapped around his torso even more securely than before.

He scoffed, "I couldn't give a damn if he hates me."

I gathered, just by hearing that conversation, that Coy wasn't too fond of learning. Then again, what teenager was?

"What you think of Gertie then, carnival girl?" Coy questioned.

I was slightly amused at the name he had given me. Although a little ridiculous, it suited me; brought me back to my childhood.

I shrugged it off, "she's nice."

Coy raised an eyebrow at Stephanie, "you don't have to be nice just because Stephanie's here. You won't tell on her, Steph - would you?"

Stephanie gave a mischievous grin, and shook her head like Coy was a parent telling her right from wrong.

"Nah, Gertie's alright. No lie, she danced right in front of us, Randy and me - did the er...what's it called? The hoochie-coo."

Stephanie laughed and slapped him on the shoulder, "don't listen, Sylvia. My mama wouldn't do that, not to you."

The hoochie-coo was some provocative belly dance; it was popular in being shown at loads of carnivals. I guess people saw it as entertainment.

"Alright, fine! But she did tell us about it, said it was real popular in the carnivals when she was younger." He admitted, and I felt his gaze on me, "you ever done the hoochie-coo, carnival girl?"

I hadn't meant to, and yet I knew the look of mild shock had been sprawled across my face, and my cheeks had already flushed pink. Oh, I hated getting embarrassed...

"Jesus, Coy, leave her alone!" Stephanie warned, "that's so perverted."

Coy sniggered; he was a joker, that was for sure. I knew a kidder when I saw one, my daddy was the biggest kidder of them all; he could have made me laugh for 10 minutes straight.

"- Anyway, I got some friends I'm meetin' at the park." Coy insisted.

"Sylvia?" Stephanie turned to me, "you mind if we head over to the park?"

I was fine with meeting some of Coy's friends, not that I hadn't realised what they most probably would have been like, considering Coy's personality. I knew that boys would be boys. We all agreed, but I was tempted on retreating back to the house; all those headaches I seemed to be getting from that persistent heat wasn't much help.


I was right in my guess, the heat was merciless - Indianapolis was always the place for a guaranteed summer to remember. The weather brought each day with overcrowded parks and laughter; it was a different day compared to when Jenny and I had arrived off the bus with my mama. That day did feel similar to California; the energy and spirit of the place. Across from me parked precariously on an old patch of grass was the ancient ice-cream van that I had seen parked on the street a couple times. The ice-cream van was fit for the dump, but as if transfixed, everyone in the local park were swarming to the van; tired parents, bored teenagers - I guess everyone needed some refreshment.

I was sat with Stephanie, with Coy and his friends loitering nearby.

"You know..." Stephanie leaned in to me as though secretively, "...I love Coy, but sometimes it's like his friends are more important than me..."

Sadly it was the case that boys would be boys; friends always seemed to come first for them.

"I'm sure that ain't true." I insisted, but I knew my opinion wouldn't sway how she felt.

"Yo yo!" A voice shouted, the group which Coy had huddled with were beginning to walk over to us.

Stephanie sighed, "I do apologise for Coy's friends, Sylvia."

"Steph, done somethin' to your hair?" One of the boys smirked, but a shove from Coy kept him quiet.

Coy took a seat beside Stephanie and planted a firm kiss on her cheek. Having Stephanie around gave me someone to talk to, but when she was too busy cuddling with Coy, I couldn't find one person to speak to. That was until one of the boys addressed me, though not by my name.

"You the carnival girl?" He questioned, and a cigarette in his mouth gave him those much needed moments of relief.

It seemed Coy had already told him the 'nickname' he had called me earlier. And yet before I had even had a chance to reply, Coy had already butted in.

"- Kiddies and carnivals, woopty-fuckin'-doo." He muttered.

I couldn't tell what he meant with that one comment. It was either a harmless joke, or a snide remark aimed at my background. It seemed he thought of himself as far too mature for a 'kiddy carnival'.

"I like a carnival," Stephanie smiled, nudging him on the shoulder, "the er...what's that ride? The circle thing..."

In the mist of her thinking, I had already conjured up the image of the carousel; the ride that immediately brought me back to my childhood roots.

"- Merry go round?" I asked, and Stephanie frantically nodded.

"Sure, you're just too scared to go on the big rides." Coy scoffed.

"Am not," she defended herself the best she could.

I wasn't afraid to admit the big rides terrified me; throwing up wasn't my idea of fun.

"Maybe it's a girl thing." One of the boys laughed, but a glare from Stephanie killed the laughter as quickly as it had begun.

It was a stereotypical thought to have, that girls were instantly scared of everything and that boys were labelled as 'brave' out of the genders. But as the conversations continued into a different topic, the image of the merry go round hadn't disappeared from my mind. It only created a ton of memories that I could embrace whenever I wanted to retreat from the real world.


It was the evening and the sky was a faint, mysterious blue as the flicker of house lights enchanted the street of East New York. Ahead of me was a night out with Stephanie and Paula; a local party being held when all the teenagers could meet up and chat. I was happy I had been accepted with the family; now it was just a case of getting to meet Paula's friends. We were all sat in the bedroom, as I leaned beside Jenny peering into a magazine. Paula slouched at the mirror; her hair rolled up in curlers as she gleefully watched herself in the reflection.

"Make sure you do it nice, Shirley!" Paula insisted, as her little sister carefully combed down parts of her hair.

"Johnny, give it back!" Marie cried out, but Johnny had already snatched her teddy.

"Hey! You two quit it or you're gettin' out." Paula warned; she was always like some mama when Gertie wasn't around. Even if she was scared about that baby, I was sure she would have made a lovely mother.

Stephanie sat beside Paula, applying blusher to her pale cheeks as her gorgeous ringlets of hair fell upon her shoulders.

"Why can't I come?" Jenny asked, as I noticed her looking up at me.

"Someone's gotta' look after the little ones," I smiled kindly.

Jenny hesitantly smiled back, before staring back down to the magazine. I knew she was upset about not getting to come out with us all, but I just didn't feel she was ready to go out. I felt a protective barrier that I needed to keep.

"God, I'm so excited to see Coy!" Stephanie sighed; she was beyond excited, I could tell.

I couldn't help but feel all mushy inside. Stephanie had only seen Coy earlier that day, and already she was missing him like she hadn't seen him for an entire year! But Paula obviously thought differently.

"Ha - the only thing you'll be seein' is your hands when you're pushin' him away!" Paula scoffed.

Stephanie shot her a scowl, placing the blusher back on the desk as she huffed loudly.

"I may not be pushin' him away..." She insisted.

"Yeah right, Princess -" Paula giggled, "you'd cry if he breathed on your blouse!"

"- Don't be givin' Sylvia the wrong idea now!" Stephanie warned, though I hadn't realised her next question was to be aimed at me until I saw her looking over, "- you ever had a boyfriend?" She asked.

I awkwardly stared around the room in a bid to avoid answering. Questions about boyfriends or appearance made me embarrassed. I guess because there was so much expectation to have had a boyfriend, or bought the newest addition of pale blusher collections. I didn't have the money for those kind of luxuries.

"Course she has - tell 'em about that boy in California, Sylvia." Paula persisted.

I could have gagged Paula right there and then, bringing up some past boyfriend that didn't mean a whole lot anyway. But I refrained from succumbing to the embarrassment.

"It weren't much..." I smiled, like a timid mouse in a field, "...anyway, it was nothin' compared to you and Coy!"

Stephanie gave a heart warming smile, "- see, Paula - Sylvia knows a good relationship when she sees it!"

Paula stuck her tongue out like some 11 year old child, and began unravelling the curlers from her hair; each curl falling neatly around her cheeks. I couldn't help but admire Paula's confidence; it radiated out, and you wouldn't have believed she had a secret pregnancy. I was envious of her, but it was a friendly envy. I was glad she was happy.

"Your hair is gorgeous!" I insisted, almost tempted to reach out and feel the spiral that had been created by one little plastic hair roller.

"I hope Bradley will like it!" She excitingly thought aloud.

I could tell that seeing me stare at her in the reflection seemed to cause her excitement to die down. She didn't realise the danger of what she was doing. She was playing with fire, and yet she didn't seem to know it.

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