Chapter I: Tick Tock
It was 3:00 a.m. and Annie Bayde was terrified. One would have thought she would be used to it by now, but she wasn't. The girl's breathing caught in her throat and her heart started to beat faster. Suddenly Annie realized that she was holding the air inside her lungs and let it out in a whoosh. The exhale sounded unusually loud in her ears. A floorboard creaked and her whole body twitched. Tick tock, tick tock. The clock sounded out the time before her approaching doom.
How many times had she sat on this couch, waiting, watching, unable to sleep because of fear? Afraid that if she even closed her eyes for a moment that she would find her? Tick tock, tick tock. Annie dug chipped fingernails into sweaty palms. Tick tock, tick tock...
Bang! Annie jumped, her head spun to the door. She could hear the sound of phlegm rattling inside of a raw throat, could already smell the stench of liquor in the air. Slowly, shuffling, a pair of feet dragged themselves through the vomit and blood stained carpet. No matter how Annie scrubbed those marks they never disappeared. Just like the ones on her starved body.
"Hello sweetheart." The cruel voice snapped the girl out of her thoughts. "You miss me?" The speaker laughed, a heartless, blood chilling noise. Annie rose and her breath caught on one word. "Mama." Talia laughed and staggered forward, eyes glazed red and predatory. Her hair was disheveled, falling to cover half of her smirking face. Annie watched the woman like a doe about to bound away from its pursuer, hands working nervously on the bottom of her raveling shirt as if fixing the threads could weave her life back together. Maybe tonight she'd only get punched once.
"Yes deary, 'Mama' is home." Suddenly her voice shifted from mocking to dangerous in the blink of an eye. "And I've come home to find the place a pigsty! Didn't I tell you to clean this house up?" The words came out as a growl as Talia's visage twisted into an anamalistic snarl. Annie shied backward and managed to put a little distance between herself and the drunken woman. Annie started to answer and Talia lifted a half empty bottle of whiskey to her lips and was about to take a swig when the girl spoke a simple sentence. "I did Mama." She froze in the middle of setting her throat alight with the yellow liquid. Her eyes locked on Annie, and the child knew she had made a grave mistake. "Oh really?" Annie whimpered. Tick tock, tick tock. The girl could hear that dreaded pendulum pounding inside her head. Tick tock, tick tock. She knew it was only a few seconds before---without warning her mother leapt forward and then Annie could feel fingers around her throat.
"You did huh? A little piece of trash like you dares to talk back to me?" Annie flailed, trying to draw air through her crushed windpipe. The girl's lungs felt as if they were collapsing inwards, like an avalanche of rocks had fallen down from a high cliff and crashed into the valley of her chest below. Desperately she shook her head. Her mother leaned even closer to the girl's face, surrounding her in a cloud of fumes. "I should have gotten rid of you when I had the chance. It would have been so easy to dump you in a trash can and leave you to die. If it hadn't been for that worthless father of yours and his money I'd have done it." Finally she released her daughter with a violent shove. Annie staggered and fell, trying to suck oxygen into her body. The drunk woman didn't give her long to recover.
"You better have made me something to eat." The underlying threat made Annie struggle to her feet. Shakily she led the way to the kitchen. And that's when she smelled it. Heat, scorched Teflon and melting steel. Her eyes fastened on the open burner she had forgotten to turn off and she shrieked. The bottle of liquor fell from Talia's shocked fingers and shattered with a crash. Then the girl's mother knocked her to the side and grabbed the handle, not realizing how warm it had become. The pain took about a second and half to set in and she dropped the skillet, adding another string of expletives to the ones she'd already been spitting. Grabbing a cloth she tried again, and dumped the bowed up pan in the sink. Before Annie could warn her not to Talia turned on the cold water tap. A jet of steam plumed up and the woman's hand was caught in it. She gave a choked yell of surprise and then pain.
Her gaze locked on Annie with a murderous look as curses flew ever thicker. Annie pushed Talia to the side to try and protect her. For the child's selflessness she was rewarded by a brutal strike to the head. The girl gave a cry and reeled back, tripping on the rug in front of the sink as she did. Her right hand shot back to cushion her fall, and went right into the steam. Then her palm and fingers came into hard contact with the still sizzling pan. Annie's eyes widened and she gave a strangled cry, jerking away and went to clutch her damaged arm and fingers. So much adrenaline was running through her veins that at first the burning pain was only faint. She stumbled---and then she heard a movement just before the blow fell on the back of her skull. In the few seconds that transpired during Annie's injury her mother had found a rolling pin and decided to use it on her as punishment.
For a moment the girl's body went limp and slumped to the side. Her mother was shrieking, and everything started to go black. Tick tock, tick cock. The chime seemed to mock the girl's hideous predicament. Then a sensation jerked her into full consciousness again. It was heat. Wet, extreme heat had enveloped the right side of her face. Annie's drooping eyelids snapped open as her mind screamed a warning and she launched herself backwards. At first she didn't feel anything, the world seemed to be perfectly still. Three seconds ticked by. And then Annie's senses were overwhelmed by searing, acidic pain that seemed to be eating into the skin and muscle of her face. She screamed, falling to the floor as her knees went weak. She couldn't stop screaming. The agony was like nothing she had ever experienced before, there was not one sensation or object to distract her mind from it. All that remained was pain. But suddenly a thought born of survival sparked in the cognitive pathways of her brain. Cold water. She needed cold water.
A hand grabbed the back of her head by the hair and hauled Annie to her quivering legs. For a moment she caught a glimpse of her mother's enraged features. The second after a fist slammed into the injured side of the girl's face, rupturing the blisters that had formed to protect her wound. The wave of agony was so intense that the howl stuck in Annie's throat. She nearly blacked out, and the world swirled around her as she was allowed to collapse on the cold tile again. Annie's voice didn't return and she couldn't scream anymore. Faintly she could catch her mother yelling profanities, blaming her for everything and saying she deserved what she'd gotten. The words faded in and out, and it seemed as the a dark sky of unconsciousness spun above her, lighted with stars made of searing, white hot suffering. Then some of the jumbled sentences became clear again. By tomorrow morning Annie's mother wanted her out of the house for good. The demand didn't really register, and the pain took over once more.
After a while Talia stormed off, leaving her daughter sprawled on the floor. Annie didn't even notice the fact. She considered staying there, and letting the world fade. But the child knew her burns needed to be taken care of, and with a high pitched moan the girl rolled onto her stomach. Inch by agonizing inch she started to drag herself out of the kitchen on her elbows. Her right hand hurt nearly as much as her face, and she dared not inspect it further. At the stairs that led to her room Annie stopped, her strength beginning to ebb. But pain and the promise of relief drove her on, and she slowly dug her fingernails into the carpeted steps. Agony burst through her burned fingers but she bit her lip and ignored it, pulling herself by sheer will. Tick tock, tick tock. The clock's pounding returned to her mind. The sound seemed to grow louder and louder.
One, two, three. On the third stair she was high enough to reach the rail. Her hands rose upwards, and she caught a glimpse of bright red skin torn open. Shuddering Annie concentrated on the task she had to accomplish. Her fingers wrapped around the round, smooth cap on the banister, and with a cry she forced her body to get up. She clung to the rail for dear life, and 18 times she made her knees bend and straighten. Blindly the girl groped along the hallway until she reached her room, being sure to avoid her mother's. Annie's right eye had swolen shut and the other was straining. It was getting harder to see.
Familiar settings comforted the girl as she went forward. Normally her mother didn't come in here, not unless she was particularly angry. Her foot brushed against the metal threshold that separated her bed and bathroom as she lurched over it. Annie's left hand fumbled along the wall until she found the light switch and flicked it up. The glow revealed her maimed face and she gasped. It was too horrible to process and the girl looked away quickly.
As carefully as she could Annie peeled the soaked sleeve of her sweater off, trying to avoid tearing the already damaged skin on her hurt arm. Of all the burns the ones on her forearm were the least serious, her jacket had served as a slight protection from the steam. The good news ended there, her face and hand looked much worse. Each movement brought pain as it pulled on the scalded skin. The girl discarded the rest of her clothing, trying to avoid brushing her right cheek as she did so. Annie turned on the cold water and stepped in. Sweet relief flooded her senses, and she slid down the wall and sat there. Annie let the freezing liquid wash away her tears as they came. She was alone with an abusive mother. There was no one to save her from this nightmare.
Her father had abandoned her when she was just four. She hardly remembered anything about him. But the few things she did were the only beautiful memories the girl possessed. Her father getting her an ice cream cone, her father spinning her around on his shoulders, her father kissing her on the nose. Her father saying "I love you my Annie doll." They were happy moments, and they were hers. She prized them deep within her heart, often rifling through the recollections like precious treasure.
But then reality came crashing in on the girl's mind. He was just as bad as her mother. That excuse of a father had left his wife once he discovered her manipulative ways, heavy drinking, drug use and violent temper. And worse than that he abandoned his four year old daughter to the mercy of a heartless, brutal woman.
Finally the tears stopped, but the grief and anger did not. Annie was a girl aged far beyond her years by harsh treatment. Her childhood had been stolen by one cruel human being who didn't even deserve the title of "mother".
Suddenly Annie's thoughts returned to Talia's order, that by full morning she would have to leave. It seemed as if the girl's stomach dropped, and she felt empty and sick. Knowing it was foolish to hope she couldn't help but do so anyway. Maybe her mother's resolution would fade with her drunkenness. If it didn't---what would she do? As bad as this situation was, Annie knew that life on the street would be far more dangerous. She was small, and there was no way she could defend herself against an attacker or kidnapper. Not that she wouldn't try, but she lacked the physical strength to do much against a fully grown adult, or even an adolescent. The girl looked down at her thin body, touching the ribs that stuck out from her paper white skin. She just wouldn't last. All the money went to drink, and what was left had to be stretched to pay bills and last of all get food. Her mother only managed to keep jobs for a month at most, but her deceptive charm always got her another. She shook her head and all contemplation went back to the matter at hand, the threat of being kicked out and having to fend for herself. It weighed heavy on Annie's small shoulders. With an extreme effort she forced the thoughts aside. If it happened there was nothing she could do to stop it, and she had enough to deal with right now.
After an hour Annie felt chilled to the bone and had to get out. The moment before the water went off the girl's body had experienced relative peace. But the instant her foot touched the floor mat a draft of air struck her open wounds and all the pain returned in redoubled force. She bit down on her lip again to keep from screaming and tasted copper. The last thing she wanted to do was wake her mom up again. However she couldn't stop a constant, unconscious string of pitiful whines from escaping her mouth as she moved. Annie reached for a towel and tried to dry herself. Her belly lurched and she leaned over the sink, bile rising in her throat. The girl felt as if she might throw up. The top layer of her epidermis was pressing on the burned layers below, and with each breath of air the nerves sang with renewed agony.
Gulping oxygen to try and steady herself Annie opened the bathroom cabinet and looked for some bandages. The child felt hollow and ill in the pit of her stomach. She swallowed again. Her fingertips brushed across several rectangular boxes and she pulled them out. Besides using these there wasn't much else that she could do, she figured topical creams would do far more harm than good. Annie wrapped the right side of her face in gauze, and then did the same with her forearm and hand. Then, shivering, she gingerly put on her only tattered nightgown and climbed into bed. The pain was horrible but there was nothing else she could do. For three hours she lay there, feverish and alone in her suffering. Annie's delirious mind strayed, trying to find something to hold onto. The time seemed to pass like an eternity and only a millisecond all at once.
Tick tock, tick tock. Annie heard the clock again. It was the sound that haunted her nightmares. She'd run from its dreadful clamor, but the constant tick tock would always find her. And even in waking life it would often torment her mind when she became frightened. What was it counting down to? Her own death perhaps? Tick tock, tick tock. Annie tossed and turned, hearing it pound again and again. Tick tock, tick tock.
The last lucid thought that Annie had before the pain and dark dreams enveloped her was that even though she was only eleven years old, her life was already ticking away.