Sylvia

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.

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52. Being Normal Is Being Alone

I gazed down to my feet as I danced them around the table. The feeling of complete numbness surged throughout my body, as it made it difficult to even feel any movement at all. The chemicals in my blood felt more like a leech in my mind, sucking my ability to keep my eyes open and my brain switched on. The world had blurred once again - how many times will everything fade? - like a painting caught in the rain too soon. And once again, the vivid dreams had begun, always inserting my family where they never were. All I wanted was to dance; to get up from that chair and sway my hips and tap my toes.

"Show me that dance you said you were gonna' teach me!"

I turned my head, noticing my brother, Benny, standing beside the table; always asking about that dance he never had gotten the hang of.

I smiled, "I can't - look at me, I can't even stand."

Benny shook his head, "and you're not going to with that attitude. You always wanna' dance - go on."

Benny was the optimist at that point, but I couldn't have gotten up even if I wanted to. It didn't hurt to speak at that point, as though Benny was a medicine to my own troubled mind.

"What dance did you wanna' learn?"

Benny danced on the spot, "you know that one; Elvis, you know?"

I should have guessed that the routine Benny had so hoped to learn was one of Elvis's signature moves. His hip shakin' dance moves were enough to have gotten Jenny on her feet, even with her leg brace. I laughed to myself, as Benny repeated in trying to sway and shake; Danny and Benny were like that, always willing to make fools out of themselves.

"Sylvia!"

I heard the sudden scream echo, and it seemed to beep in my ears as though an alarm had sounded; my own body's mechanism at warning me. Benny didn't look at me; his eyes were focused on where the voice had appeared from, and it was as though he hadn't heard me at all. He stared blankly into space, as though I wasn't even there. I was just a mist surrounding him that he couldn't have seen.

And then as quickly as I had seen the happy face of my brother, he had gone. I rested my head back upon the table, as the house had fell into a quiet slumber. I couldn't have even lifted a finger without the strain taking over my body. It was as though the world had given me a chance to rest; a chance to feel safe, even though I knew it wouldn't have lasted long. I kept retracing the same thoughts as I sat there; the world outside bustling past. I kept thinking about the certainty of being set free soon; being able to sleep forever and not having to wake up to a burn or a hit.

It has to be soon, I thought to myself - I think tonight.

"Sylvia!"

My eyes gazed up, only hazily peering around the kitchen. What does she want now? I was too tired - too exhausted to hurry after her. So I sat; motionless. I tried to ignore her screaming.

"I said Sylvia!" The haggard voice screeched from the living room, and I tried to blot out her voice from my mind. But Gertrude wouldn't have accepted that, "Sylvia, you better come in here right now!"

I didn't move; no more favours would I have done for her. I sat at the table, with the disastrously furious footsteps storming into the kitchen. They were soon followed on by a vicious growl, as I felt something smash into the back of my head. I fell back into the table; digging my stomach into it as I felt the built up of breath struggle out. Gertrude persisted; punching, clawing at my head as the force was unrelenting. Merciless. I was small - timid, meek compared to Gertrude. It reminded me of a field mouse desperately seeking shelter from a hawk. She still towered above my huddled form, seething with anger. I couldn't have seen her eyes through the tangle of matted hair, but I felt their piercing glow like two raging fires. The devastating blows rained down upon me. Though I couldn't have fought back; taking the brutal punishment pounding with a quiet deviance as I whimpered with each fresh strike. My face was burning, but she continued to thrash out.

A hand suddenly clutched onto my hair - or what was left of it - and threw me to the ground as my mind was swirling with pain; only for more pain to take over that kept flooding back to me with each hit and kick. I struggled, surrendering my bruised and swollen face with my shaky hands. Gertrude's breathing had begun to slow down, as she finally let up from the madness. She backed away to the table; her hand held to her mouth.

"Why don't you just get the hell outta' my house!" She barked, and her sharp nails grappled around my wrist. She heaved me to my feet, though I was soon to lose my balance as I fell back into the chair, "- you call the police now and get them to come and pick you up!"

Her gloomy figure finally disappeared from the doorway. I sat at the table from where I had first started, though soon dropping my head back down in a bid to silence the pain I was feeling. Every now and again a disturbed moan, or mutter would have escaped my lips, though I had no control over it. It wasn't just my body that felt the pain, it was my mind. As I sat there, once again like I had done before, I retraced my last thought.

I will die soon, I thought - I think tonight.

________________

My head was buried into my arms; my eyes struggled to open and close. I had laid at that table for almost 6 hours, as the front door battered open with the children running in and around from school. My mind swam with a departing dream; I sighed, reluctant to banish it and face the day. The light of a summer afternoon shined, and yet I allowed my head to loll from one side to the other; eyes closing one more time as I enjoyed the brief darkness. There had been no option to sleep on, no chance to rest and conjure my dream anew.

Marie, Johnny and Shirley had soon stolen that chance away from me, as they ran eagerly into the kitchen, thumping down at the table as they each enjoyed a cup of water; seemingly trying to spite me with it.

"What's wrong?" Jenny cried out; her eyes widened at my near-unconscious state.

I felt like I could have died right there, feeling the slowing of my own heartbeat. I just waited until it would have finally stopped.

Jenny is asking a question, my mind alerted me, don't be rude.

"Gertie - she - Gertie told me to call the police..." I muttered back, not even knowing how I could have still formed a full sentence. Had Jenny even heard me? Were the words even coming out?

The world spiralled around me as I refused to look up. As I rested my head back down, though not truly sleeping, I heard the frantic footsteps storm into the kitchen. I did not look up, but though the familiar skinny fingers forced me to; tugging onto my hair as my head flung back. It was Gertrude. She watched my face, inspecting me with curious eyes. 

Coy and Stephanie bundled their way inside the kitchen.

Stephanie gave an accidental gasp, "what has she done?"

"What hasn't she done."

My head struggled to look around the room. Coy, the one who had carried out the worst beatings, seemed proud of Gertie's punching techniques.

"Jesus, now that's a shiner." He smirked, as his head tilted slightly to get a better view of my face.

"I bet she's thirsty." Marie insisted, with watchful eyes that had been locked onto me for the past 2 minutes, though not that I had realised.

She was right, in fact I hadn't realised how thirsty I actually was until she had brought it up. It was a thirst like I had never known before being in that house. Even my own saliva was thick like wallpaper paste. My throat felt parched as if the skin had been extracted and laid out in the scorching sun to dry. It gnawed at me, tormented me and I thought of nothing other than finding something cool to quench it. Strangely enough, I noticed Marie's hand reaching towards me. Go on, give me a hit - I won't care. My body jerked quickly, as though instantaneously. Marie was a petite girl, and yet I had learnt how violent such a young girl could be. For the first time, she looked at me - as though unnerved and unsure. Many had always known what they wanted to do when they saw me; whether it was a burn, a kick or a punch. It was as though they had planned it.

"You reckon Sylvia's thirsty?" She asked again, however to anyone else in the room who would have answered.

Gertrude looked at Marie as though bewildered, before nodding her head slowly. Was she agreeing with her? She wouldn't have allowed me a drink - would she?

"You're quite right, baby." She said.

Even though many of her children may have looked at her and saw a kind face, I only saw darkness behind her eyes. Even when she was not doing anything to me, I would stare at her face to see nothing but a cold, frail soul.

Gertrude leaned in to Marie's ear, as though whispering something. It was about me, I was certain. It seemed their private conversation ended with Marie giggling slightly. Whatever she had been told, it made her smile. What was it - a mean word towards me? Weirdly enough, Marie reached in to the cabinet and took out a cup. Was she really getting me a drink? It didn't seem logical, and yet she had a cup in her hand as she hurried past me. If it meant I got a drink, then I would have waited patiently. Gertie tended back to cleaning dishes. Coy and Stephanie cuddled against the wall.

Finally, with the faint hurried footsteps growing louder, Marie appeared back through the doorway. She seemed out of breath, as though she had been running up and down flights of stairs. She still held the cup in her hand. Her eyes trailed over to me, as Gertrude turned back to look at me.

"You thirsty, Sylvia?" Marie asked.

I pleaded for the cup of water Marie held in her hand. Another thing I seemed to take for granted had been water; getting a drink whenever I needed one. Marie put the cup on the table, and slid it slowly towards my awaiting hands. My first feeling as I held it in my hand was the droplets of the water that seemed to dribble onto my fingers. However as I pulled it closer, I smelt an odd scent. Slightly smelling of chlorine, and yet something else that was too sharp for my senses to have understood. But it was a drink - no matter if the water was cloudy, chlorinated and seemed warmer than my hand - it was a drink. In one motion, I raised the glass to my lips as I felt the first few drops falling onto my tongue. Every swallow was like glass down my throat and my eyes watered with the effort. Water was a wishful dream and food was a concept not even worth the effort of hoping for. And yet, as I began to taste more of the 'water' I was drinking, I had noticed something. Marie was grinning at me. So was Gertrude. Why are they smiling? It seemed to take my taste-buds ages until I finally withdrew the cup from my lips. Out of nowhere, I began to gag, as though the need to vomit had suddenly rose.

"You like drinkin' your own pee, Sylvia?" Marie suddenly laughed.

My eyes almost instantly trailed down to the cup - and sure enough, it was yellow. I hadn't just drank my...own urine - had I? I felt the need to vomit increase with each second my mind realised what I had truly drunk. But it wasn't my fault, was it? The cup suddenly slid from my hand, and immediately hit the floor.

"Sylvia!" Gertrude screamed.

I couldn't understand. I couldn't get rid of the unrelenting taste imprinted on my tongue.

"Coy, get her down in that basement now!" She screamed again.

Her scream still hadn't masked me away from what had happened. All I wanted was a drink. Was that too much to ask?

Coy's hands tightly hoisted me by my shoulders as I fell limply in his grasp. He dragged me behind out of the doorway, accidentally bumping into Jenny who only looked ahead, trying to hide the tears and the emotions that followed with it.

I'm sorry, Jenny - I didn't mean to bump into you.

The same nauseating breeze pulled at my legs in a bid to drag me down into the dark abyss. I flinched, only sightly, as Coy shoved me closer to the edge of the steps; dangling me over, as he pinned my arms tightly behind me. I remember letting forth a cry of pain, and I remember the way that no one that day - not even Coy who always found a laugh in causing me pain - had any emotion on their faces. They only wore the expression of determination - and for others, even boredom. Marie, at the tender age of 11 years old, had the emotions of a grown, mature woman.

As Coy held my arms behind my back, I awaited the agonisingly long descent down the steps.

I felt myself gradually falling into the never ending darkness that seemed to invite me in. My arms reached out in front, as I tossed and spiralled like a gymnastic doing acrobatics. I want to learn how to do a cartwheel, I thought, just one. I fell, and my arms never retreated away; grasping onto nothing but air and the way I always seemed to choke on my own breath. Still, the basement had been a place I could have been alone most of the time.

Alone was just what I was used to now.

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