The Girl Before - Rena Olsen

Now

I am brushing Daisy’s hair at the kitchen table when the front door crashes open. The sound of gunfire and men shouting and children screaming comes in a tidal wave through the open door. Dropping the brush, I grab Daisy’s hand and pull her into the nearest closet, fumbling for the lever that will open the false back. We huddle in the small space together, and Daisy trembles in my arms.

Daisy cries as the door to the closet opens. I put a hand over her mouth to muffle the sound. Our hiding spot is clever, but not clever enough. Someone taps on the wall. “This is hollow!” he shouts, and his hands make shuffling sounds as they grope for a way in. It only takes a few minutes before the latch is discovered and we are revealed. Daisy screams and buries her face in my chest. I shield my eyes from the sudden brightness, swinging out with my other arm and coming into contact with hard flesh.

“Whoa, there,” a gentle voice says. I peek at the source and see a man with kind eyes. I know it is a trick. How could he be kind when he has broken into our home? I lash out again, and he catches my arm. “A little help here!” he calls over his shoulder. His grip is firm, and I cannot retrieve my arm from his grasp. I wrap my other arm tightly around a sobbing Daisy and glare up at him.

The man is dressed in black from head to toe, a large gun strapped across his back. A woman pops up behind the man, her hair pulled back in a tight bun. She does not look as kind as he does, but she speaks in a quiet voice, holding her hands out in front of her.

“We’re not going to hurt you, sweetheart,” she coos, and I roll my eyes. I am nobody’s sweetheart. “Just come out here so we can talk.”

I want to protest, but I don’t have many options. The man with the kind eyes tugs on my arm, and reluctantly I stand, pulling Daisy to her feet with me. She clings to my skirt, trying to disappear into the folds. Daisy has only been with us a few months, but we have already bonded. Daisy isn’t her real name. I don’t know what her real name is. When Glen brought her to me, he handed me a bouquet of fresh cut daisies. It seemed fitting. She is like my own daughter.

We emerge into the kitchen, and I sit at the same table as before. I place Daisy in front of me, retrieve the hairbrush from the floor, and resume brushing. Daisy sucks her thumb, but I do not scold her, even though we broke that habit two months ago.

“What is your name?” the woman asks, sitting across from me.

Brush, brush, brush. Long strokes through Daisy’s corn-silk hair. It is almost halfway down her back now. Sometimes we go out and make dandelion crowns and she looks just like a princess. She wears those crowns until they are completely wilted.

The woman is still staring at me. “My name is Meredith,” she says. “And this is Connor.” She gestures toward the man. “Can you tell me your name?”

Can I? Certainly. I bite my lip, wishing for guidance. As if by divine intervention, there is a commotion from the back door, and Glen bursts through. His arms are pinned behind his back, and he is surrounded by men dressed in black. He sees me and his eyes widen.

“Say nothing, baby, okay? Don’t tell them anything.” He continues to shout as the men wrestle him toward the front of the cabin. “I love you, baby! Remember that!”

I blush at his declaration in front of these strangers. The man and woman interrogating me look at me with odd expressions.

“Is that your husband?” the man asks.

Brush, brush, brush.

“How long have you been here?” the woman wants to know.

The strands sift through my fingers.

The man’s eyes narrow. He looks as if he is concentrating very hard on putting a puzzle together. I see the moment he comes to his solution.

“Is your name Diana?”

Yank. The brush catches on a tangle and crashes to the floor. Daisy yelps.

“Who is Diana?” My first words. My only words.

Then

“Clara! That damn baby is crying again!”

I am awoken by Glen’s yell. Our newest addition, whom I have christened Jewel, whimpers quietly from the floor. She has been having nightmares, so I brought her into our