She notices small things, this one. She notices cracks and imperfections in the concrete. She notices the trail of ants that slip so easily through the walls of her prison. She smiles at a spider in the corner, spinning its invaluable, little web. But most of all she stares, transfixed, at the enormous black and brown moth on the wall above the bare mattress where she sleeps. The black witch, she calls it, because that is its species, but also because that’s what she wants it to be. She is an amateur entomologist and an expert dreamer
“How’d you get in here?” she says to the black witch. “You must have cast a spell.”
Her name is Juniper Adams, she is fourteen years old, and she has been in the cellar three weeks and a day. The morning she arrived, she was terrified. She screamed and screamed until she was hoarse. She pounded on the walls until her fists were swollen. Then she gave up, lay on her stomach, and cried.
Her captor left her alone until her tears were dry and she had no energy for more. Then he entered the cellar and explained her situation. She was to live in this place until he tired of her. The man had a terrible craving. He needed to own a human being, and Juniper would fulfill that need. If she was good and did not try to escape, the man would be satisfied with her, and he would not need to abduct anyone else. But if she did try to escape, the man would be forced to kill and replace her. He had kidnapped one person, but he kept her by holding the rest of the world hostage.
She doesn’t dare test his resolve. Instead, Juniper spends her days reading the books he has given her, drawing on the walls, and conversing with the black witch until her captor finally cuts her power and she is forced to sleep.
The monster controls everything. He makes the day and the night for her. He chooses when and how much she will eat, what she is allowed to read. If she’s too loud, he cuts her power. If she says anything he doesn’t like, he withholds food. And if she shows any sign of missing her old life, he takes her books away or threatens her. Sometimes she can’t help it. Sometimes she thinks of her mother and cries. But she’s learned to bury her face in the mattress when she does, just in case he happens by.
The only parts of her world the man does not control are the small things—those beyond his notice, beyond his care. The small things come and go as they please, except the black witch. The black witch can do nothing but watch.
In the beginning, Juniper said very little to the great moth, but that didn’t last. These days she reminisces about her family, her annoying little brother, her mother, and how they visited their father on the weekends. She talks about things she used to love: her cat, and vacations, and water parks. Then she cries, and sleeps, and wakes again.
“Good morning,” she says to the black witch, because any time she wakes is morning to her. “Sorry I drifted off earlier. I don’t know what came over me,” she lies.
* * *
One day, Juniper determines that the black witch is a prisoner, and that no matter how much its presence comforts her, she has no right to keep it. This is her attempt to distance herself from the man who holds her prisoner. She identifies with him, and then she fights it by doing something he would never do. She begins to devise how she will help the black witch escape.
First, she tries to handle the moth. She reaches up and urges it to climb onto one hand with the other. It flies from her and lands on another wall. She pouts when she discovers it has flown out of reach. Then she decides to construct a tool. She retrieves toothpaste and a toothbrush from the little washroom in the corner. The washroom is nothing more than a toilet with a combination sink and trough, which she uses to bathe. She unrolls the toothpaste, shoves the end of the toothbrush into it and uses the crude, little device to reach for the black witch.
“Sorry. I don’t mean to scare you. I just need to get you down so I can let you out.” When the black witch does not cooperate, she begins to reason with it. “You don’t really want to stay here, do you? You want to go out into the world and live your life. You want to find food and a mate or something, don’t you? It’s not that I don’t like you. You’re my favorite, honest. But you shouldn’t spend your whole life in a place like this. Come on. I swear I won’t hurt you.”
Finally, after an hour of trying, she persuades the black witch to climb onto her hand. And it stays. Its wings quiver like an engine revving, pattering against her skin with a feather-soft rhythm.
“Don’t be afraid,” she says as though the black witch were trembling for fear. But truly, she’s talking to herself. As she always does. She has no reason to talk to a moth.
She waits until the black witch has settled and laid its wings flat against the back of her hand. Then she marvels at the thing. “You’re so full of color,” she says. “I thought you were only brown and black, but look.” She points without touching. “Your feathers have a kind of purple sheen to them, don’t they?” She turns her hand to see the light reflect off the black witch. “Pretty. Ooh, look at those eye spots on your wings.” She holds the black witch close and examines it. “I didn’t notice how detailed they were.”
She brings her other hand in but still does not touch. She is more gentle with this creature than she has ever been with anything. The black witch shifts, and she holds her breath. She does not want it to fly away. So it doesn’t.
“Don’t worry,” she says in a hushed voice. “We’ll get you out of here.”
She sits and waits, still as a statue, until the man comes to bring her a meal.
“June,” he calls to her in a singsong voice. “June Bug.”
Juniper hates his nickname for her. She tenses at his approach, and the black witch begins to tremble with her, preparing its wings for flight. “Hush,” she says to it. “Be patient.”
The man opens the door. “Supper time.” He sets the plate of food atop a small bookcase he has given her. “What’s that you’ve got there?” When he comes close, Juniper covers the black witch with her hand. “You caught a bug?”
“I…” She gulps. “I just wanted to let it out if that’s okay.”
“Well, I don’t know, sweetheart.” The man kneels down and toys with a strand of her hair. “Are you sure it’ll survive out there? Maybe it wants to stay indoors and out of the cold.” His kindness is only half feigned. He is pretending to be the person he wishes he was. But he is not that person, and Juniper knows the moment she tests him, she’ll meet the real him—the one who snatched her on her way to school, covered her mouth, and threw her into the back of his van so violently her head hit the other side and bled. The most frightening kind of monster is the kind that doesn’t think it’s a monster.
“I just thought maybe it would do better outside.” She keeps the black witch covered but is careful not to touch its wings. Her cupped hands are hot and moist.
“Well, you can let it out if that’s what you really want. But then you have to do something for me.”
She pulls her knees up to block him. “What?”
“You know what, sweetheart,” he says.
She does know. She fights him in every way, and he doesn’t like it. He prefers a willing sacrifice. He wants her to give herself over completely. He wants her to pretend to love him.
Slowly, she uncovers the black witch just enough to see it trembling on her hand. Her eyes well with tears, but she won’t let them fall. She never cries in front of the man. “Okay. I’ll do what you want.”
“You’re such a good girl.” The man strokes her head the way any other person might stroke the head of an unfamiliar dog. “I knew you’d come around eventually.”
Juniper cringes at the man’s touch.
He helps her to stand, guides her up the stairs to the door, and opens it for her. Then he takes hold of her elbow and lets her put one foot outside. She lifts the black witch into the air and watches as its wings are ruffled by the wind.
“Go on,” she says and shakes her hand a little. But the black witch clings to her. She begins to panic. What if the black witch won’t leave? What if it stays in its prison and dies there? What if it has become so used to the concrete walls, it’s actually afraid of freedom? “Please,” she pleads, and in one last, desperate attempt to free the creature, she flings it into the air.
The moth lets go and flies. But the man doesn’t close the door right away, and before Juniper can stop it, the black witch has flown right back to its place on the wall over her bed.
“Looks like it likes you, June Bug,” the man says. “Now remember what you promised.” He closes the door and reaches for her.
And the black witch closes its eyes.
And an absence occurs—an absence of everything—of the event itself.
It hasn’t happened.
* * *
Juniper is sick when the black witch opens its eyes again. She crawls to the toilet and throws up. She curls into a ball on the ground and moans. The man has cut the power, so Juniper cannot see the change that has occurred. The black witch, though, does. And he trembles from the shock of it. He presses himself against the wall but cannot cling to it. He is heavy. Bulky. And he has only four limbs. His movements are sluggish and powerful, so he moves as little as possible.
As Juniper drifts to sleep, curled on the concrete floor beside the toilet, the black witch waits, and the waiting is terrible.
When the lights return, hours later, Juniper is still in a ball on the floor. She groans and rolls onto her other side. Then she slowly, groggily looks up and screams.
Her panic is real and instinctive. She kicks into the floor, pushing herself back and back until her head hits the trough with a metallic gong. She screams again and tries to scramble under the trough. It will not protect her, but what else can she do? She is a wounded thing, a cornered animal.
And she has just woken up to find something not quite human in the room with her.