I’m an insomniac. I always have been. I’ve never been able to sleep properly until the sun started to peek out over the purple and pink mountains in the distance. If I close my eyes, I can still see them, sitting still and calm and waiting for a new day to wash over them. I don’t have a window now, so I have to imagine it. I come in from work just as the sun is about to rise, but never as it begins. Even if I suffered in school because of my habit of waiting until the bitter taste of the morning to fall asleep, there was something about cocooning myself in my grandmother’s quilt as Ukraine seemed to stand still that made me feel safe and taken care of. My father’s long absences to work on the oil rigs, my mother’s callused hands from washing dishes at the café all night, my young twin brothers’ bowed legs and the squeak of their hand-me-down wheelchairs as they glided over our cement floors, all seemed to disappear in the hope and promise of the morning.
…..I light a cigarette and take a drag, letting the smoke cloud my mind and attempting to rid myself of the night. Most nights, I don’t even think about my mother and how she must be frantic since I never called once I got to Turkey to nanny for the summer like I promised I would. I never got to Turkey, obviously, because I am in the backroom of a beer hall in Kiev that smells like urine, blood, cocaine and feet. I need a shower. A shower and some coffee. She took her coffee black. That makes me think of her. I run a dirty hand through my greasy hair and wonder if she’s getting my brothers up, taking them to another doctor who will tell her that our family can’t afford his services.
…..“Put that out and go to bed!” Olena calls from her cot, a cloud of smoke from the cigarette I am sucking on clouding her mascara stained face. She shields her eyes from the small slats of light that have made their way into our bunker. She is bleeding from between her legs onto the sheets, but makes no effort to fix it. All the mattresses have blood on them, from us, or those who came before. No one ever scrubs it off.
…..“I can’t,” I answer flatly, even though I can, I just don’t want to. Olena doesn’t like me. She has four children back home in Kherson. She thinks she deserves more work so she can get home to see them faster. She doesn’t like that I take it from her. Its not that I mean to, it’s just what the clients prefer: younger, fresher girls who they can pretend are virgins. Besides, I want to go home just as badly as the next girl. And my brothers are sick, which I always remind her. She always pretends not to hear that part.
…..Olena rolls over and pretends to cough. I know it’s fake because no one really coughs like that. None of the other girls seem to mind. They are fast asleep in their cots, so close together in our prison that they could reach out and touch one another. Their is make-up worn and flaky from a night’s work. It is too difficult most of the time to gather the strength to take it off before collapsing into bed.
…..When I first got here, I would watch the people going by the back room in the morning. Children would run and play, chasing balls and wild dogs on their way to school. Businessmen went to work, checking their expensive watch clutching their briefcases. Peasants brought their meat and eggs to sell at the market. Skateboarders went by with their fake gold chains and loud American-style music. Men came in dusty and worn trucks and dropped off beer from all around the world with a rude thud. I got angry. Why did they not help us? Couldn’t they hear us coughing, crying and bleeding behind the wooden slats, the chatter of our teeth as we huddled together on January nights? Maybe. But why should they care? I had known this kind of thing happened all the time in Ukraine before it happened to me. I probably passed dozens of bunkers like this one, even met a girl working at my mother’s café who had been released from one of these sex factories after thinking she was taking on a job as a waitress in Kiev. I thought it was sad, but I never ruminated on, never enough to do anything about it anyway. Who could blame their unknowing faces and ignorant eyes? I was one of millions of people being taken advantage of around the world. Why would I be lucky enough to be saved?
…..My cigarette burns my fingers and I flinch. It doesn’t hurt as much as it used to. Desensitization. It’s a good thing, especially here. My chest starting feeling empty two weeks after I got here. The feeling spread outward to my fingers and toes. Now it barely stings when a client slaps me across the face or digs his nails into my hips.
…..I hear kicking and screaming upstairs. A girl is crying. Men shouting. They are telling her to get on her knees, that she is a worthless piece of flesh. She cries louder and I hear something snap. I close my sand-filled eyes and light another cigarette. One of the girls in the room whimpers in her sleep, sighs the name of her long forgotten husband and turns over revealing cuts along her inner thigh. A client did that to her. He liked to watch women bleed. If the the price was right, they might have even let him kill her for his own pleasure. He didn’t have that much, so he settled for nicks along her thighs with a rusty Swiss Army Knife.
…..The struggle continues upstairs for what seems like hours. There is more cursing and screaming. I couldn’t go to sleep on a morning like this even if I tried. I pick up a Bible someone brought with them and read the verses on the page before ripping one out to roll another cigarette. I lick the pages of St. John as I paste the edges together. My mother used to tell me it was a sin to eat near the Bible and kept it high on the fading green bookshelf that the Communists or Nazis or someone shot a hole in thirty or fifty years ago. They suspected my mother or grandmother of having banned books. Or maybe it was hiding Jews. I take another drag as I poke at my fingernails. Dirty and disgusting. Yes, I really need that shower about now. Maybe I’ll get one before I got out to work tonight.
…..The fight upstairs ends without any more noise as I realize I’ve almost used all of my tobacco. I begrudgingly wrap it up in the baggie and stuff it under the clothes in my fake Adidas sports bag I had packed for what I thought was the summer in Turkey. I toggle a tank top and a pair of panties out of the way so I can hide the tobacco out of sight. I don’t want it stolen.
…..There is a rustle at the door and several of the girls jolt awake. Its Andriy and Marko. But they aren’t here for us. When the girls realize it, many of them fall back asleep immediately. They come brandishing a new product. She has curly blonde hair, is exquisitely beautiful and thin. Her stringy hair hangs over her yellowing left eye. Blood is coming from between her legs. She is no more than fourteen. I am not surprised, the youngest ones do the best. Andriy likes them young, but not younger than eleven or twelve. I am sick of being the youngest. There was a free cot in here from when they let Iryna, the beautiful and brooding girl on the verge of womanhood who wanted to be a model, go back home. I don’t know why they let her go, they just did. I figured they’d find someone else to replace her as soon as possible. Andriy and Marko don’t like to waste space or money. And here she is.
…..They shove the girl towards the middle of the room. She falls, but there is barely enough space for her thin body to rest on the floor. She is not wearing underwear and I can see everything. Marko laughs and licks his gold tooth, flinging her ripped panties towards her like a slingshot. She starts to cry again, her whole body shaking as she curls her head forward. She tries to cover herself with her skirt, but they laugh even more.
…..“You stay here,” Andriy tells her, throwing her duffle bag onto the free bed. The sheets have not been changed since Iryna left, or maybe ever. I don’t say anything.
…..“Daryna! Go to bed!” Andriy adds, looking in my direction. I’m not afraid of him anymore. Not the way I used to be when my breath would turn cold and my back fell rigid any time he looked at me. But I nod anyway and sulk into my cot. I turn my back to the girl as Andriy and Marko leave. I listen to her cry for a few minutes and then I hear her get up. She tries to scratch the wooden side of the room that faces the outside with a Swiss Army Knife.
…..“They will kill you,” I tell her matter-of-factly, rubbing my still sand-papered eyes.
…..“What?” she asks, turning around, her face caked with tears and blood from where she bit her lip in two.
…..“Stop.” I tell her. “Go to sleep.”
…..“I was supposed to go to work for a rich family in Kiev. I was supposed to be their nanny,”
…..I say nothing. I’ve heard this same story so many times that I am unmoved and often wonder how anyone can be so stupid, even though I fell for the same thing too.
…..She freezes in the middle of the room and then turns the knife on herself. She makes a motion to move it towards her wrist, her pulsating artery.
…..“Don’t,” I tell her, getting up from my cot and placing my hand on hers. Her hands are cold and clammy.
…..“Why not?” she asks, breathing in and out heavily. She looks like a crazy woman, like the one who used to run around our village with fire beneath her eyes. Olena tells the new girl to shut up and go to sleep.
…..“Because,” I whisper.
…..I don’t have a better answer. “Because” is all I can come up with. She seems pacified with this ridiculous answer, at least for the time being. She sits down on the floor and stops crying. I find her the ratty pink towel one of the girls puts over her head when she smokes marijuana. I wet it for her.
…..“Here,” I tell her. She accepts it and wipes herself off but leaves the towel on the floor. She stays silent.
…..“Do you want a cigarette?” I offer.
…..I nod. I rifle through my fake Adidas bag and find a pair of sweatpants that used to belong to my father. They still sort of smelled like him too: cheap beer and my mother’s stew.
…..“Put these on,” I tell her.
…..But I don’t bother to see if she actually does. My sandpaper eyelids have gotten heavy. It must be nearly eight in the morning, way past the time to go to sleep.
Anna Scanlon is a freelance writer, playwright and theatre educator. She will be moving to Budapest in the fall of 2009 to teach English.