You know you’ve hit rock bottom when you fall down and can’t be bothered to get back up.
My entire life had been one endless beating, and I’d reached breaking point.
I was done.
Until a letter gave me the strength I’d been missing.
Those precious words gave me enough courage to dust myself off, to try one more time.
In that moment I realized something.
I wasn’t done.
Not even close.
And I had an entire family I didn’t even know existed standing at my back.
You know you’ve hit rock bottom when putting powder up your nose is the only way to make it through the day.
My life took a wrong turn, so I poisoned my body in an attempt to escape.
I was done.
Until I found salvation on the back of a bike.
With nothing but the open road and the wind in my face, I found the courage to live.
In that moment I realized something.
I wasn’t done.
Not even close.
And my family might not be blood, but they were standing at my back.
Prologue – Nicola, 9 years old
The house is dark and eerily quiet as we make our way toward the front of the residence where the ‘formal living room’, as Mrs. Smith likes to call it, is located. I have no idea what it looks like inside, as the door is always firmly shut. Mrs. Smith pointed it out to me when she showed me around on my first day here and told me that the room was strictly off limits. Stepping inside or even opening the door earned you an immediate punishment.
I’ve come to learn that within these walls, all it takes is a wrong word to earn you a punishment. Or in my case, speaking to the wrong person.
How was I to know that I couldn’t speak to the beautiful lady with the black hair and green eyes wearing the black vest over her brightly colored blouse? She was friendly. Mrs. Smith was very angry when she saw the two of us talking. She sent me inside with an angry rebuff and told me to wait for her in the kitchen. Talking to a stranger earned me a night in the punishment box.
The nightly curfew of eight o’clock has come and gone, meaning all the other children are in bed. Tucked under their covers, lying on a comfortable mattress, cozy and warm, waiting for sleep to carry them off to dreamland. I hear Mr. Smith’s shuffled footsteps upstairs, going from room to room and switching off the last of the upstairs lights, bathing the house in darkness.
I hate the dark, only because I’m afraid of what I can’t see, making falling asleep difficult for me. Every bump and creak startles me, and my overactive imagination conjures up frightening pictures which leaves me shaking in my bed. Voicing those fears gets you nothing, and especially not much-needed comfort. The Smiths don’t believe in such things.
“Hurry up,” Mrs. Smith hisses, pushing me to walk faster. “We don’t have all night.”
I want nothing more than to drag my feet, draw this out as much as I can, but I know that it will only be delaying the inevitable.
The closer I get to the room, which houses the punishment box, the sicker my tummy feels. Suddenly we’re there.
Mrs. Smith flicks on the light switch, bathing the room in light. The walls are unadorned, painted a stark white color, the floors dark polished wood. The smell of the lavender-scented beeswax used on the floors lingers in the air. Thick white curtains that are closed cover the large window, making the room cold, dark, and foreboding.
Directly in front of the drawn drapes sits a large wooden chest. The dark wood of the box is rough and weathered, the intricate design that was painted on it eons ago faded.
The faint odor of bleach pours out when Mrs. Smith opens the lid. The smell makes my stomach turn even further, as well as making my nose burn and my eyes water. The box doesn’t look very big, and I wonder how I’m going to lie in there the whole night.
Mrs. Smith gives me a push toward it, clearly wanting me to get in. Climbing into that thing is the last thing I want to do, but a glare from Mrs. Smith forces me to do so, and quickly.
“You’re not to move from here till morning, not even to go to the toilet. A word of warning—if you wet yourself, you’re going to have to lie in it all night, and come morning, you’re going to be scrubbing the inside of that thing. With bleach. Leaving the box means another night of punishment. Is that understood?”
I just nod and try to hold the tears I can feel burning the backs of my eyes. I lie on my side and seconds later the lid slams shut, plunging me into darkness.
The crash of the lid echoes in the small space and right through my body, causing me to shake. I’ve just gone from a brightly lit room to total darkness in a matter of seconds. I raise my hands to the front of my face, but I can’t see them. I try again and again, but the result is the same. I begin to panic, bile slowly rising from my stomach. I beat at the roof of the box with my tiny fists, my voice small and sobbing at first, growing louder with each passing second as I beg to be let out. A swift kick to the box silences me. I wrap my arms around my belly as my breath comes out in rasps.
“Shut up,” Mrs. Smith shushes. “You’ll wake up the whole house with your screaming. If you do, you’ll be spending another night in there.”
I cringe, my muscles tensing, my body going rigid. I hold my breath to stop myself from whimpering out loud, my eyes stinging with unshed tears. Silence fills the box. I hear Mrs. Smith’s footsteps as she walks out the room, turning off the overhead light, the click of the door shutting letting me know that I’m alone.
I take a deep breath before curling into a ball, pulling my nightshirt over my legs. Despite it being the middle of summer, the temperature sticky and humid outside, it’s cold within the confines of the box. I can’t stop shivering. I lie as still as I can, my small hands clapped firmly over my ears.
After a little while, my hip starts to hurt from lying in a fetal position on the bare wood. I try to find another comfortable position, but I don’t think there is one inside this box. It’s meant to be uncomfortable; it’s a punishment, after all.
One night within its confines is supposed to make you grateful for everything the Smiths do for you on a daily basis. They’re the ones who took me in when nobody else wanted me. They provided me with a roof over my head and three meals a day. They provided the clothes I have on my back and even the opportunity to go to school and learn.
The last thing I feel is grateful.
I would trade it all in to be back in the small trailer I called home. To feel my momma’s arms around me as she read me a bedtime story. I would even gladly eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the rest of my life, if it meant that Momma would make them in her own special way.
The older children had warned me that the punishment box could be frightening the first time, but it would get easier each time. I don’t think that’s even possible.
Terrified of the endless darkness that surrounds me.
My eyes are closed tight, my arms wrapped around my still trembling body. My chest feels tight, and breathing in and out has become difficult. A wave of dizziness hits me, leaving my whole body weak. My heart is beating so fast, almost like it wants to jump right out of my chest.
I try my hardest to conjure my mother’s image in my mind. I want her beautiful face to comfort me, her voice to whisper soothing words to calm me, her arms to wrap around me and hold me close.
Momma, I miss you so much!
I allow the tears I’ve been holding in just minutes ago to fall freely. Here in this box, I allow myself to cry knowing that I won’t have to explain my tears to anyone. Won’t have to risk punishment for mentioning my mother. Mentioning her name within the walls of this house has been forbidden. I’ve been told to forget about her existence and the life I had with her. But how do I do that when I miss her every day?
According to the Smiths, I’ve been given a second chance at redemption, by God and his earthly church. A chance to have my mind, body, and soul cleansed of the evil that flows through it. That’s why I was brought to the Smiths. They are going to make sure that by the time they’re done with me I am good and pure. Ready to serve in whatever capacity I’m needed within the church. The woman who birthed me and the biker scum who fathered me will be nothing but a distant memory.