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.


34. The Punishment Game

It seemed the basement never changed. It always felt like no time had passed, as though I was trapped on one day and it was merely repeating itself. I felt no wisp of relief, as my mind seemed to drift further into the abyss of sorrow. Being alone made it seem impossible to think, not that you would have believed it. You would have thought that being alone would have given me the time to ponder any thoughts in my mind, and yet I would only lay there alone with nothing but the fear being my only friend. Hopelessly, as I laid looking up at the ceiling and hearing the footsteps walk over me, I pondered afflictions, but only seemed to reaffirm the hell I was wandering. And yet, it was also lying there in the silence of my own thoughts, that I began to question it all - was this couldn't be real...wake up, wake up...

I was not sure if I could have used a heart as panicked as mine again. I was not sure it would have ever healed. I was not sure if every bruise would have scarred. I didn't want any scars; I didn't want any memory of it all when daddy would collect me and take us home. When I would finally be able to leave, I didn't want any reminder of the suffering. Down in that basement, I had been awake - living, but slowly, emotionally and mentally wearing away. I wanted to forget it all when I would finally have been allowed to walk out of the front door with Jenny by my side, and my parents on the other.

Spending an entire night on concrete made me wish to be in a bed; something I used to take for granted. I wanted so badly to finally be aloud back up in the bedroom. I had learnt my lesson, and I was ready to live with everyone else. But even I was lying to myself; I still hadn't figured out what I had supposedly done wrong in the first place. I had thought it was because I had been seen with Benny, and Gertrude must have thought something had been going on. I began reminiscing about dear Benny; the kind boy who had showed me nothing but friendship when everyone else refused to be near me. I began thinking about school, and how there would have been an empty seat in class. I wanted somebody to ask questions; a teacher, student - anybody.

I heard the gradual creaking of the door at the top of the steps. This time, instead of the nervous feet limping from each step, I heard the faint sound of heels slowly descending down. I was too tired to have noticed who it had arrived, but certain signs like persistent coughing and heavy breathing gave me an inkling of who it must have been. The adrenaline began flooding my system like it was on an intravenous drip - right into my blood at full pelt. Each step I heard grazing across the concrete, I kept fearing the heart deep inside my chest would have exploded. My body wanted to run, to crawl back - anything to retreat away from the haunting shadow that had been coming closer to me. But before I could have inched away, the woman had already stopped just beside my feet.

"You learnt your lesson?" The voice was hoarse, as the eyes were lit up through the dimness; calculating.

I pleaded out amongst the heavy breathing of the onlooker, but I noticed that my throat was so dry that a word couldn't have even be spoken properly. Instead, I nodded my head frantically; so hard I thought my head would have been close to dropping off my shoulders. I wanted so badly to prove to Gertrude I had learnt whatever lesson she had taught. I was ready to go upstairs again.

She breathed out slowly, exhaling a waft of morning breath and cigarette smoke all rolled into one. I refused to turn away from the smell; I was simply frightened that if I did something out of line, just once, then I would have been thrown back down and never given another chance again.

"I have my reasons for puttin' you down here." The voice insisted.

I was desperate to force myself onto my feet, and yet - with the fall from the top of the steps - I felt numb, as if every limb attached to my body was refusing to work. I couldn't feel them. No matter how hard I slammed my foot onto the concrete, or even scratched at my hands with each individual nail on my fingers, I felt nothing. It didn't take me long to feel the true extent of how I was feeling when I made my first attempt at walking. I felt my arm luckily being lifted as I suddenly rose to my feet in the mist of all my discomfort. Each step Gertrude guided me, I couldn't even breathe a full breath without my chest tightening with painful, sharp rasps. Out of balance, I began getting led across the concrete and up the steps. My eyes had caught a glimpse of the sun, but Gertie's persistent pushing hadn't allowed me the chance to savour it.

As I stepped out into the hallway, my eyes quickly adjusted to the different lighting. They seemed to burn at such a dramatic change; it seemed surreal.

"Go and sit in the kitchen, Sylvia."

I used the walls for support, and somehow successfully guided myself through to the kitchen; manoeuvring myself past the living room in which I hadn't seen for a while. The morning light greeted me from the street outside, as I slumped into an empty seat alongside the other children. I had no energy to speak, even to Jenny who gazed at me with such worry. I hadn't been upstairs for what had felt like forever. The sights - the smells all felt alien to me, like it didn't seem real or normal.

"Don't you even wash!" Marie cried out; her eyes glaring at me with a hand placed over her nose.

I quickly remembered that I had still been wearing my clothing from the day before; clothes that, as I gazed down, had now become masked with dirt and blood. I knew I would have to have apologised to daddy for that.

Gertrude stumbled in, and her eyes flickered over to me carelessly.

"We'll sort that out later." She insisted, spluttering into her hand as she wavered her other in the air.

I didn't want to hesitate in asking. I couldn't wait any longer. My stomach let out a groan, and I felt the tight, twisting deep in my gut.

"Can I eat?" My voice struggled, but I managed to ask.

I hadn't felt that hungry before - I had always been well fed at home. The only time I had ever felt a little hungry was when we were out working with daddy on the stalls; long hours, and being surrounded by so much candy-floss didn't help much.

Gertrude looked at me as if I hadn't made much sense. She picked up a glass set on the table, presumably whiskey, and began sipping on it in between puffs from her cigarette.

She slowly shook her head, "am I not feedin' you enough?"

I was confused. Why did she bring me up if I wasn't aloud to eat? What she had asked seemed to be a trick question. She expected me to tell her that I wasn't being fed enough, just so she could have thrown me back down in the basement. But Gertrude never did realise how strong I was. I had to forget about the food; forget about the gargling in my stomach. I had been learning how Gertrude liked to play her game; how her mind was beginning to tick. But there was one thing I couldn't have left the table without.

"Can - can I have a drink?" I asked again.

I hoped she would have allowed me that.

"Hey, Sylvia! You want some of mine!" I heard Shirley laugh, cupping her hand around the glass of cool, refreshing water that hypnotised me for a second.

The children lunged at the chance to mock me. I guess I seemed like an easy target.

"You girls better go and do somethin' worth while," Gertrude muttered, pointing a finger at the two young girls who seemed so timid sitting at the table.

Marie and Shirley both skipped out of the kitchen, arguing about who should go to the groceries or not, as though it had been a normal day. No one would have second guessed anything, as they would have ran out of the front door and played out in the yard. No neighbour would have even known...

Gertrude turned away as she grasped an old, grimy looking glass from the very corner of the cabinet. I was far too thirsty to even care. There was silence as I sat at the table; my head hung to the side of me in a bid to fall asleep, though I kept strong. Fear was a burden on me, but it was also the pain, the worry and the constant irritations of hunger and thirst. Not to have mentioned the constant heartache of being alone; now that was far worse than fear. That was what I thought at the time anyway.

I sat, waiting for the taste of a refreshing drink of water. Gertrude swivelled on her heels, placing the glass onto the table; sliding it across to my eager hands. I grasped it; very much frantic to have drank it all in one, though Gertrude was quick to stop that idea.

"Make it last the week..." She groaned.

A week?

I stared at the water rippling inside the glass cup. A week had seemed impossible; I knew I couldn't have made it last that long. Whether Gertrude knew that, I didn't know.

"A...a week?" I repeated after her.

Gertrude's expression had fallen to a scowl, as her hands leaned against the table and she moved her face closer.

"If you don't want it, give it back." She said.

Of course I wanted it, in fact I had wanted a drink throughout the whole night. The temptation to drink it all was far too much a burden. My mouth was famished; I had not felt the moisture slide down my throat for a while. In a moment of desperation, I snatched the cup and held it to my lips. I just gulped it down all in one, and the water cradled my mouth; forcing out a deep sigh of appreciation. Gertrude stood back up, distancing herself from me again - and yet her face seemed satisfied that I drank it in one. I placed the empty glass back onto the table. I was thirsty; unbearably thirsty, to the point that I thought that if I would have went one more day without water, I would have died - however dramatic it may sound. That was the feeling that coursed through my mind; the fear of dying from thirst or hunger. Whenever an opportunity came to drink or to eat - no matter the consequences or circumstances - I would have taken it; no hesitation.

I felt a gentle hand rest on my shoulder, and Jenny's eyes had a desperate glint that she was trying to hide from Gertrude.

"Are you alright?" She asked, quietly and trying to avoid a tear from running down her cheek.

Everything was hurting; each leg was aching, and it was a pain that I truly believed would never have gone away. I was frightened, terrified. Terror around every corner, no matter how I looked at it. And yet, I simply looked at Jenny...and nodded to her question.

Gertrude walked a little closer towards me, as her head leaned in to mine. I wanted to flinch, but my mind ordered me not to. I had to reassure myself that she didn't frighten me, even though I knew everything about the woman scared me half to death.

"Don't speak to Sylvia, Jenny." Gertie warned, and a finger pointed directly at Jenny's face.

Gertrude didn't want anyone near me, even my own sister. Jenny stayed silent, not giving in to the manipulation that Gertie seemed so very well at doing. I thought at the time, that if Jenny was to be in danger by being around me, then I didn't want her to be around me. I was so gullible.

Gertrude finally pulled away from Jenny, and stood back; her hand picking up a glass of alcohol as she went.

"I got a call from your parents," she informed.

The heart that had once seemed terrified inside my chest, was now uplifted. My parents will be here soon. Endless hopes surfaced, and I believed they would have soon became reality.

Jenny luckily spoke for me; my throat was far too sore to speak a word.

"Are they comin' for us?" She asked, and a sudden change in her voice told me that she had also pushed away the fear at the thought of our parents coming to pick us up.

I bet Gertie didn't think of that, I thought, with a hidden smug expression written on my face. And yet, my hopes and dreams had once again been pulled from my grasp after being dangled so close to me.

Gertrude shook her head, and took a seat at the table, regularly sipping at the whiskey as though it would have removed all of the problems in her life.

"No." She said, and the instant happiness I had experienced a few seconds before, had drifted away into my imagination.

Jenny's shoulders fell, and I could have easily felt the same lingering feeling of loneliness from her.

Gertrude held the glass against her head, as though to cool her down from the heat, "...they said they're goin' up to Florida, so they won't be back for a few weeks now."

She spoke in a way as though all of what had happened - me being thrown in the basement and humiliated - had never even occurred. As though it was a nasty dream I had conjured up when sleeping in the warmth of the bedroom. I hoped that that had been the case, but I knew it had been real. And I couldn't have pushed it away from my mind, no matter how much I wanted to.

She continued her unusual conversation with Jenny, "...the er, the paychecks are arrivin' quick now, so that's helpin'."

Jenny didn't speak a word, as though puzzled by the fact that Gertrude seemed so oblivious about it all. It was as though she wanted to forget it had ever happened, and so did I.

The front door opening, and the approaching footsteps made me tense in my seat. I was so embarrassed after...what Gertie had made me do before; showing myself like that in front of them all. But I knew I had to face them, for at least a few more weeks until daddy would collect us. And yet before the person had even walked past me, I already felt a fist hammer into my shoulder. An aching, sharp pain had been activated, and yet the confusion made me forget it for a second. Why would someone do this to me?

"How'd you like it in the basement?" It was Johnny who paraded past me, as he unravelled his fist slowly.

"- She liked it in there," another voice soon joined in, "that's where she's meant to be anyway."

Paula followed after Johnny, with her arms crossed and a hateful vengeance in her eyes. She had surely gotten her revenge, that was for sure. 

"Paula, baby, I need you to take on more shifts at work." Gertrude interrupted Paula's moment of triumph.

"- What? Well, what about Stephanie?" Paula moaned, "she don't do nothin' beside bein' with Coy all day..."

Johnny sat at the table, and looked at her, "- she's smarter than you!"

Paula shot him a glare, and shoved him against the shoulder, almost knocking him off the chair.

"Shut it, Johnny!" She barked, and Johnny inflicted a well aimed shot to her arm.

When I had first met Paula, I felt bad that she had to work so much at such a young age. But sitting at that table, I felt a hidden sense of happiness.

"Christ, shut up all of you!" Gertrude yelled, and her voice soon quietened the once rowdy pair of siblings.


I soon heard Paula's voice, and her eyes glowed like two burning fires; glowering at me from across the table. Suddenly, I felt a sharp aching pain race across my forehead, and I automatically buried my head into my hands. 

"Paula, you better pick that up right now." I heard Gertrude warn.

The pain dulled slightly, as my eyes hazily looked down to see a hair brush laying on the floor.

"You heard mama, pick it up." Paula snarled, glaring at me.

My head ached, the kind of pain where I just wanted to rest.

Why would you do that...?

I made my time by asking pointless questions in my head; questions that I didn't have the courage to say aloud. As stupid as it was, I did what Paula said; forcing my tired, weak body to bend down, as I tried to reach for the brush on the floor. So close, just a little more...

My fingertips lightly grazed against it, and yet before I could have even picked it up, I felt two hands shove into my back, as I fell forwards off the chair. My hands instantaneously cushioned my fall, and the only thoughts I had harboured were... why are you doing this to me?

My eyes attempted to look up, and the sight of Johnny standing beside my chair with a smile on his face told me immediately who had pushed me. The same burdening questions didn't leave, even at that moment; even if I knew that it was pure hatred in their hearts...for me.

"Christ sake, Jenny can you take your damn sister in the livin' room or somewhere." Gertrude moaned, settling her head into her hand as though wanting to shut off from the world. I most certainly did...

Jenny roughly wiped at the line of snot dribbling from her nose, as the tears frothed from her eyes. I forced myself up to my feet, searching and searching for any inner strength I had. I felt Jenny's hands rest on my shoulders, as she began leading me out of the kitchen doorway. I felt it, in her aura; the way she carried herself. The fear.

And yet before Jenny could have helped me to the couch, the front door soon opened. Please be a neighbour... But instead, walked in Ricky.

"Hey, Gertie -" He called, but he immediately silenced as his eyes met with mine.

His eyes said it all; confusion, shock, probably as to why I looked so...dirty. Help me, Ricky, was all my mind wished. But he looked to the floor, and wiped at the dust collecting on his glasses. Ricky was not the person I had met at school. He was different in that moment; unfeeling, distant, only fixated on finding Gertie. And as quickly as I had hoped he would help in some way, he walked past, and shoved himself into my shoulder.

"Got any cigarettes?" I heard him ask, as he walked into the kitchen.

I simply stood there, baffled. Jenny's hands tightened around my shoulders.

"It's alright, Sylvia." She insisted.

But it wasn't alright.

Brick by brick, my walls came tumbling down. I didn't care who saw. I just broke down. The sobs punched through, ripping through my muscles, my very being, my soul. My life felt as though it was crumbling in my fingertips. I could never cry pretty, like those girls you see in movies. I always cried from raw emotion, and at that moment, the emotion had never felt so real. The tears burnt, as they made themselves at home.

"Sylvia?" I heard a voice from the front door again, as little Shirley stood with a desperate glint in her eyes, "...Sylvia, you don't have to...but could you go and get my toy from the basement?"

The word 'basement' was enough to send chills across my skin, and I knew that Jenny had felt my body tense.

"I, I don't think she really wants to right now, Shirley." Jenny insisted.

But Shirley crossed her arms, and glared; a completely different side to Shirley soon made itself known.

"Let's see what mama says about that." She hissed, her eyes daring Jenny to defend me, daring me to refuse.

I knew I had to do it. Even if every urgency in my brain was screaming for me to stop. I needed to do it, anything to avoid Gertie. It was the jolt I needed to know that I was walking into a storm. Jenny reluctantly lifted her hands from my shoulders, as Shirley walked over to the basement, and gently opened it for me. My destiny had already been written, and I was going back in that basement. But it was only to retrieve a toy, and maybe Shirley would have liked me a little more if I did it for her?

"Can you walk alright?" Shirley asked, carefully holding out her arms in case I would have fallen. 

It was strange at how...nice she was being to me. It felt good, and I was grateful. I shuffled further, and the familiar waft of cold air made itself known on my skin.

"It should be at the bottom of the steps." She insisted.

I reluctantly took my first step, with a sharp pain quickly soaring up my leg before disappearing. It was the same recurring feeling with each amount of weight I put on my feet. The basement was dark, and my eyes were struggling in seeing anything at all. The outside light streamed through the small, rectangular window above, but it only helped a little.

"It should be there," she said again; her voice becoming more distant the further I ventured down.

The light from upstairs was dimming; it made me nervous.

"I...I can't see it." I said.

No reply.

Admittedly, I wasn't at the bottom step, but I refused to go any further. The smell of the basement rekindled the memories, and I wanted to forget them.

"Sh..Shirley?" I called her name.

No reply.

"Shirley, please don't!" I heard Jenny's panicked voice, and before I could have looked up to understand what was going on, I felt the brunt of somebody's foot kick me in my back, as I felt my body suddenly leaning forwards.

I made no noise, no attempt to salvage my balance or footing. It was already too late, as I felt the breath being squeezed from my lungs. Betrayed by Shirley, I felt my body plummeting towards the ground.

An entire staircase waited for me.


On the surface of it all, everything seemed fine. The house still stood as it first did when I had walked in; people lived their lives, working, education, family, love. I had wandered into 3850 with a chance to find something better, to learn again, to be the 16 year old my parents wanted me to be.

My eyes travelled to the rectangular window, and the distant rays of the sun shot through the grimy glass. It must have been the afternoon, as I heard the voices of children and teenagers bustling past the house, arriving back home from school. I wanted to be at school again, no matter how boring it was. I wanted to ride on the merry go round, help daddy with the stall. I wanted to style mama's hair for the day, like she always wanted me to do - if not me, Diana.

I struggled to heave myself up onto my knees. I felt old, like I couldn't have done anything. I felt old, and I was only 16. The distant thudding of drums was all I could have felt; all I could have heard. Each pound inside my head made each moment unbearable. There felt as though there was a stake being hammered into my lower back; the strikes radiating pain in a way that shattered my brain. I lied so still, breathing shallow. The need to vomit was there, and yet I simply had nothing in my stomach; only the recurring taste of bile setting in my mouth. All I needed was silence, and to be left alone, but strangely enough, all I could hear was thumping - as though a construction site was a few doors down. I pushed away the pain, and tried to ignore it screaming inside.

The only thing I could have thought about was water; I was so thirsty. My mouth felt dry and parched; my throat begging for the satisfying taste. I dug my fingernails into the concrete; hard enough to slightly yank myself upright. The pain was more intense than I thought it would have been, as I tried to catch a breath; fighting against crying out. Beads of sweat began to break out on my pale face, so I gave up and fell back to the floor. What was happening to me?

It seemed my mind was hovering over so many inner thoughts, that I hadn't noticed the basement door opening, or the multiple footsteps wading down the staircase. My body tensed at each creak the steps would make, and all I played on repeat was the hopes that it was not Gertrude who had come down to see me. That woman terrified me.

"Damn!" A voice, which took a while to match to a face, spoke first, "what did she do?"

I could hear voices all around me. The faint scent of smoke and the constant shuffling of shoes made me shudder with fear; the fear of only hearing but not seeing was far too real.

"Mama says she's real dirty."

No school. No church. It seemed Gertie had stopped me from seeing everyone. I missed it all. Church had been the only thing that had kept me sane amongst the chaos, and yet I didn't even had that to brighten up a day. My head was forced to rest against the hardness of the concrete floor; my body was still struggling, but I was slowly becoming used to the frosty nipping the concrete seemed to inflict on my bare skin. I felt each beat of my heart escalate with each step somebody took towards me; my own pulse thundering in my head. Each sense I had developed over my 16 years had become strung tight - like a rubber-band pulled to near breaking point - I could have felt the strain in my own head.

I felt a hand graze against my cheek; my body automatically flinched, as the panic rushed through my brain. Don't hit me, I pleaded mentally. It followed closely by a relentless kick to my leg, as a sharp sting attacked before disappearing as though nothing had happened.


I squirmed slightly; it seemed that kick was what had been needed for my eyes to struggle open. Whom I saw was Johnny, standing over me with a height that I once towered over; now he was towering over me.

"Don't worry," he insisted, "she's used to it."

I felt my skirt being flung over my knees, followed by the unusual sound of gasps that surrounded me. I finally summoned my eyes to open, so I would have no longer been left to see darkness. As much as I didn't want to, I had to identify the faces that were looking over me. Through eyes that had cried for so many hours, I had seemed to make out the children, as well as Coy, Randy and Ricky - but another girl stared at me. A girl whom I would come to know as Judy Duke; long, silky blonde hair, and her face heavily made up with blusher and mascara. It seemed everyone had been told about me.

A cold hard lump of fear settled into my chest. The pain and burning indigestion from not being able to swallow back the terror, had taken all of my confidence and maturity I had gained after I had turned 16.

"Wanna' see somethin' cool?" I heard Johnny ask.

I didn't understand. The people standing before me had all been friends - and if not friends, people I had spoken to. Why were they all gazing down at me and not doing a thing to help? Though the thoughts in my mind were suddenly crushed, and a pain - an unbearable burning - reached my arm. I felt blinded; I couldn't have even thought straight. Tears built inside my eyes; that horrific scream made me question if it was even mine. What was everyone doing?

The world was going mad.

"Pretty cool, huh?"

"Jesus, Johnny - you just burn her like that?"

"Yeah, you can do it too," Shirley insisted.

Everything was closing in on me; each wall was compacting me in to the point I felt I couldn't have moved without kicking someone's leg. I tried to catch my scream as it flashed through my teeth, but failed to keep it. My paralysed arms clinched my sides so hard, to the point that my nails were inflicting tiny cuts on my palms.

Judy looked away uncomfortably, "what has she done that's so bad?"

"Question is what hasn't she done," Marie scoffed, "- honest, mama said you can."

Johnny nodded his head; his hand stretched out as Judy accepted the cigarette like some gift. I squirmed on the floor, praying that Judy would have realised what she was doing. But...she didn't; much like everyone else. She knelt down, slowly bringing the cigarette to my leg as I tried my very best to retaliate - only to realise I was paralysed and unable to move a muscle without groaning in pain. I could feel the trembling. I could feel the blood pounding away at my skull. I was caving in on myself; vision swimming. It was too much - too much.

Judy etched closer and closer, with the same heat radiating onto my skin. I pinned my eyes shut, though there had been no use in ignoring it.

It was happening.

My body, as though instantaneously, tried to get out of the way, and each second I felt the harsh burn course itself through my veins. I begged to shrug the scalding heat off, though there wasn't much I could have done before Judy had thankfully released it. I cried silently; my breathing struggling to stay shallow and slow. I didn't know why everyone wanted to hurt me. I hadn't done anything to them - had I?

"Stealin', sleepin' round for money - you name it." Marie murmured.

I felt a shoe suddenly thud into my ribs, as I instantly arched away. The pain drove itself into me relentlessly, but the tears stinging my cheeks only seemed to sound more laughter. The pain attacked itself through my limbs; a continuous thumping inside my head, as with each beating I would wince. I was frightened, panicked and in agony - though no one cared. I felt the pain constricting my throat, and the emptiness of my airless lungs. I kept my eyes closed, but the tears found a way of frothing out and dribbling down my cheeks.

"Is she dead?"

A shoe, with anger behind the force, rammed hard into my thigh, and the results of not clenching before-hand had made me crumble to the floor once again.

"Nah, she ain't dead."

There was silence, as if nobody knew how to react while I had laid wriggling upon the concrete.

"Come on guys, let's head out." Someone finally spoke.

Everyone began to leave; none looking back at my distant, trembling figure. The footsteps began to fade away, and with a loud echoed thud, the door had been closed again; immersed in the darkness as I waited. I wasn't sure what for, but I waited. Each nerve in my body found a way of screaming out, and each scream made me beg for the pain to finish. The agony would have never have compared, but I was scared. I fought an internal war with the horror that felt like an eternity. As I regained my capacity to breathe, I succumbed to the thumping inside my head once again. I had no idea what I had done that was so bad.

Did I deserve this?

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