This story is by T. Bontrager and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I froze. Someone was at my door. Did they finally find me? Milliseconds later, I remembered I wasn’t carrying my pistol. My hand had shot down to my side and come up bare. The nakedness stopped me in my tracks, and as if on autopilot, I found myself astrally projected out of the building along a pre-planned escape route.
You’re safe. The gun is loaded and reachable. Just not on your hip anymore.
I checked my camera feed. It’s the delivery you’ve been tracking. Everything’s okay.
Nearly twenty years after escaping in the middle of the night, I still slept with a gun under my pillow. Despite years of therapy, I still panicked every time I heard an unexpected knock or doorbell. And no matter how religiously I followed my ketamine infusion routine, life happened: I missed a dose when I was feeling relatively panic-free and deceived myself into believing I was cured. Then all the night terrors flooded back.
Seven years prior, I’d trudged into Dr. Meadows’ Lower Manhattan office on a bleak midwinter afternoon. I didn’t think I’d see the light of spring again.
“Welcome!” The front desk girl, Lexi, smiled. A cute pixie cut with blue and orange highlights framed her face. “Your name?”
After looking me up on the computer, she swirled her chair around and got up. “Let me show you to Dr. Meadows’ office. This way.” The bounce in her step and her bright energy exuded far too much perkiness for a place that catered to the suicidal and depressed.
Having guided me down a hallway with soft lighting and pastel blue walls, Lexi stuck her head into an open door.
“Come in.” A voice floated around the corner.
Lexi turned to the left inside the office and motioned me in.
“Hi Olivia,” Dr. Meadows smiled from his chair behind a desk. A white lab coat covered his suit, and his textured salt-and-pepper hair, in a classic sideswept, adorned his face. “Have a seat. I’m glad you made it.” His voice calmed my anxiety.
I unzipped my parka, settled into a chair, and assessed the room. A diploma from Harvard hung on a wall. Shelves with books lined each side, and a candle flickered in one corner. Aromas of sandalwood and vanilla greeted my nose.
“Tell me about your childhood. What was it like?” Dr. Meadows asked, pen in one hand and clipboard with intake sheet in the other.
My hands clenched, jaw tightened, and lips scrunched together. “Rape,” I said, looking past Dr. Meadow’s face to avoid his eyes. Don’t add to my torture by making me recount all the details.
Just hook me up and let’s get this over with. “Many times. Multiple people. Dad. Uncles. I don’t remember how often, and I don’t want to remember. I had to escape at age fifteen.”
I didn’t believe ketamine would help me, but one of my friends had made me promise that I wouldn’t kill myself before trying it. The internet said it was for depression and my root problem wasn’t depression. It was post-traumatic stress (PTS).
“Here’s how ketamine works,” Dr. Meadows said after I’d answered more questions. “Extreme childhood stress raises brain cortisol levels, which in turn suppress the production of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). So one’s mood centers never really develop.
Ketamine turns back on the BDNF and starts regrowth, growing those synapses needed for a normal mood.”
“How’s this different from other meds?”
“Imagine leaves emerging on twigs in the spring. That’s what’s happening with ketamine. When the synaptic connectivity isn’t working, it’s like seeing bare twigs in winter. They seem lifeless.”
The infusions worked.
But I was chained to a maintenance routine for the rest of my life.
The doorbell rang a third time.
I pulled out a homemade chicken casserole from the oven and started walking toward the front entrance. Rosemary and cumin flavors filled the house. Those scents eased my nerves,
sending me to a childhood happy place: my Amish grandma teaching me how to cook. All the ketamine in the world couldn’t extinguish my knee-jerk reaction to the sound of someone at my door.
“Progress is managing your PTS,” Sheri, my therapist fresh out of grad school, had said when I first started seeing her. “Hopefully over time you’ll become conscious of things that trigger you.
So you can respond rationally to the fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn reaction.”
At the time, I was upset that she couldn’t give me a schedule for getting rid of PTS.
“Everyone’s experience is different,” she’d said. “I can’t predict yours.”
“I go into major panic-attack mode when I hear someone knock on my door,” I said in my last session, slumped in an overstuffed chair across from hers. “Why’s that still haunting me after a decade of therapy?”
Sheri’s gaze felt sad and compassionate. “It’s the thump, thump of your father approaching your bedroom door every night. And then those thumps up the staircase to your room repeated by each of your uncles. It’s a trigger that might never fade.”
I’d finally come to accept that PTS was incurable for me. Progress was ungluing the Beretta from my body when I was in my own home, like tonight. Progress was no longer sleeping with the gun loaded. And sometimes progress was being able to laugh and forget for a day that shadows hounded me.
Right before the covid pandemic hit, I was back in Amish Country to investigate reports of crimes.
“We desperately need your help. We don’t know what to do. Something terrible happened to our Amish client,” the message in my Facebook inbox had said. “Please call me at 212-555-5555.”
I’d just settled in for a quiet evening, legs stretched out on the sofa, laptop perched on a pillow above my knees, and a glass of red wine on the coffee table. The fragrance of honeysuckle drifted through an open window facing my backyard. Light from the setting sun streamed in. Is this for real? Sounds like a scam. Better check before replying.
“Click-click-clack.” “Senior Services of Miller County” flowed into Google’s search field. No website. Just a Facebook page.
“Clickety-clack.” Maybe “Dottie Morgan” would produce more promising results. Nothing. No confirmation that the person who messaged me was real. That wasn’t necessarily a red flag.
Many people, especially those who feared for their safety, used fake names on social media.
I’ll call the number tomorrow just in case.
Several days later, I found myself in a black SUV cruising along dirt roads through farmlands inhabited by known Amish rapists.
“You could kill someone out here and bury them in a field, and no one would ever know,” one of my bodyguards said. He gazed out the window as we drove past fields — some bare, empty, and others still bursting with swaying cornstalks — stretching in all directions as far as our eyes could see.
I felt a slice of bone-chilling air pass through the SUV, even though the windows were closed.
Goosebumps crept up my arms. Seeing the landscape through a killer’s eyes added another layer of darkness to my years of tracking child rapists. When was the last time we saw another vehicle out here? Or heard the crunch of horse and buggy wheels?
When most Americans thought of the Amish, they thought of horses and buggies clip-clopping along country roads and old-fashioned people dressed like the Pilgrims. The imagery that popular culture evoked was of an idyllic society. But the myth of “peaceful, gentle folk” who committed no crimes covered up child abuse and rendered my people above the law.
I was twelve when I’d read about Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad, and my eyes had opened. I, too, hadn’t consented to being owned. I, too, could break unjust laws. If I escape, I’ll come back for the ones left behind, like Harriet did, I’d thought.
Now I helped women and girls travel to safety along my underground routes. But the people who reached out to me for assistance — on Facebook, via text, through letters — didn’t know what else I did. When my investigations were over, the Amish would notice that a member of the community had disappeared. Sometimes one. Sometimes more.
“Ding-dong. Knock. Knock.”
Those sounds could bring freedom. Or more horror. I opened my door. This delivery was
An eight-year-old girl stared up at me, eyes wide open, wordless, clutching her adult protector’s hand. She was dressed in non-Amish clothes to disguise her, clothing she’d been changed into on the night she was rescued.
“Bin so froh’s du do bisch.” I knelt down and hugged the little girl who’d endured so much. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
The girl stood silent, her body stiff. Hugs weren’t normal. Being touched preceded abuse, not love.
I leaned back on my heels and looked into her eyes. It would take her years to process that moment and what my next words meant.
“You’re safe now. Welcome to a whole new world. Let’s eat.”