All writings on Stories That Matter are expressly copyrighted by Tiffini Johnson



I can hear my own breathing, quick and shallow.  The man, he’s got very dark skin and speaks with an accent, is standing over me.  He’s been here a long time.  I can’t make him  go away.  I close my eyes and try hard to pretend.  I used to be good at that.  I used to pretend I was a dancer and I made everyone happy.  I used to spin around the floor, my arms stretched out to the side, laughing.  I barely remember what laughter is anymore.  I don’t dance now.  Except when the white man comes.  He likes me to dance.  He always pays for  two hours;  he must be rich to spend four hundred American dollars so often.  I don’t like him, but I wish he were here now.

My breathing is jagged, like the edge of the knife he holds against my skin.  I can feel every muscle in my body staring at the knife.  I think of the girls and how they said a man put a stick inside.  That makes me glad it is a knife in his hand instead of a stick:  a knife can’t go inside.  He is making sounds now, like a dog.  I can feel my body tearing.  He wraps my hair in his fist and keeps pounding.  My head is roaring.  He is too hard, too heavy,  and I cannot breathe.  I don’t mean to start crying,  but I am scared.  If he doesn’t stop,  I might die.  That’s what I think.  I don’t know I’ve asked him to stop, yelled for him to stop, until the knife makes a slash across my arm.  I scream out, my hand covering the blood.  It doesn’t matter that it isn’t a deep gash, that I will be okay.  I don’t feel okay.  I scream for him to get off me, to get away, and I start clawing.  I am not thinking straight.  I just can’t do this anymore and I don’t want to die.

The blood on my arm smears on my palm.  He isn’t getting off me, he isn’t stopping.  My breath is lodged now, I cannot get air.  His legs are pushing mine down and I feel so little.  The weight of his leg is going to break my knee.  And, as hard as he keeps pounding, I will rip all the way in half.  I can’t die.  I can’t die.  So I take my hands and rake them down the side of his face, as hard as I can.

The knife falls out of his hand and hits the floor.  He screams, jumps out of me and off the bed  He grabs my hair, and pulling hard, throws me across the room.  I slam into the wall, then hit the floor.  As  I fall, my chin hit the edge of the room’s table.  It makes my teeth chatter.  I am shaking even though I am not cold.  I am shaking because I am so scared of this man.  All men are monsters, but this one is the king of monsters.  I think of the white man, the dancing man, and wish him here.  At least he doesn’t make me think I’m dying.  I don’t dare look at the man, but I hear him dressing.  A minute later, he opens the door and slams it shut, leaving me curled on the floor, still naked.

I can still feel him inside me, even though he’s gone.  I still feel him.  I start scratching at my girl parts, trying to get the ants out.  But they are still there.  I scream out loud, curling myself into a ball on the floor.   I don’t know how long I am here like this until the door opens.  I don’t move.  I know who it is.


She doesn’t make me dress this time.  She grabs my clothes from the floor, then grips my arm, the one that was slashed, and just drags me.  “Get up!”  she snaps.  I don’t know how but I stand.  My eyes are blurring and my head  hurts so badly I cannot see in front of me.


“Shut up!”

She walks too quickly, much too quickly for me to keep up. I fall behind but every time  I stumble, she grips my arm, and it hurts.  She pulls me down the steps into the basement.  I know what is coming now.  The Killer.  But I don’t even scream.  I can’t anymore.  I got what I wanted:  he is gone.

When we get to the cold room, she straps me onto the table, naked.  She is so angry her voice wobbles when she yells at me.  She had to give the client his money back.  She had to give him a girl for free. I cost her money and nobody ever takes her money away, did I not know that yet?  I was going to learn. 

I am prepared for the Killer.  I will see the white lights dance.  It will feel like my skin is melting off, but I’ll remember that it’s not really.  I will be okay.  Still,  I am scared.  I am waiting for it.  I turn my head but I can’t see Madam.  I hear sounds from the other side of the room, I know she is doing something, but I don’t know what it is. She must be getting the Killer ready.  It will burn.  It will burn and I will see lights.  Then I will be okay.

I am waiting.  I am waiting for it.  I am so prepared for the Killer that I don’t even feel what slashes my skin at first.  I scream, thinking it must be the Killer, but confused because it doesn’t burn.  Instead, it stings.  There’s a popping noise and then something cracks on my back again.  This time, my body jerks.  I am screaming.  It is not the Killer.  It is leather coils striking me with such force my body vibrates on the table.  When she finally stops, I keep screaming. I will work or I will die, she yells.  The Master will kill my family if I do not work.  No matter what they want, no matter how rough, I will work.  Or I will die.  Do I understand?”  I nod, don’t stop nodding.   But she isn’t happy.

She releases me from the table and tells me to stand.  There is moisture on my back.  I reach my hand behind me and touch.  When I pull it back, I see red.  My back, it’s bloodied.  I am very weak, and very dizzy.  I am stumbling.  Every few steps, my legs buckle, threaten to collapse.  I want my mother.  I want my mother. But she isn’t here.  She will never be here.  Madam makes me walk into a small closet-like room.  If I don’t want to work, I can starve to death.  The heavy steel door slams shut.

*****  ***** *****

Hunger is alive.  It’s not just something you feel.  It  grows.  It’s always been with me.  I’ve never not been at least a little hungry.  I’ve thought about food most of my life.  When I was at home,  half the day was spent fishing for food and the other half of the day was spent making the food.  What time wasn’t spent catching or preparing food was spent either thinking about or actually eating food.  I played Mancala using rice as game pieces.  I don’t remember a time when my belly was all the way full.  But it wasn’t bad hunger.  Hunger was just a little thing, then.  Something inside of me I was aware of, but not afraid of.  The rice and fish and salt kept the hunger from growing.  But it can grow.   Like it has done in me the past five days.

For the past five days, I have been in this tiny room.  There is no window.  There is no carpet.  It is made completely of concrete with a steel door.  It has four walls.  There are cracks in the wall.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how cracks get in concrete walls when there isn’t anything else in the room.  It takes me four steps to get from one side of the room to the other and four steps to get from the door to the back wall.  It is a square dungeon.  There is nothing in here.  Nothing and no one.  Except for me.  At first, I was okay with this.  It means I do not have to work.  My back is blistered and sore.  My muscles are tense and painful.  But at least I do not have to worry about a man pounding inside of me.  I’d rather be alone than that.  I’d rather be hungry than that, too.

But Hunger has claws, tentacles, like an octopus.  Things like rice and fish and salt make the tentacles shrink.  Maybe they don’t go away but they don’t swell.  When you do not have rice or fish or salt for five days, Hunger starts to grow.  If you don’t give Hunger something to gnaw on, it will rumble by the end of the first day. If you still don’t give it anything, it will roll over.  By the second day, you start thinking about how to get rice or fish or salt.  Last night, Hunger stopped rumbling and rolling.  It started using its fist to punch me in the gut instead.  It’s still doing that.

If I don’t work, I can starve to death.

“It’s okay, she won’t let us die,”  I tell Hunger.  I try to console it with promises I don’t mean like, “I am important to her.  She needs me.”  Madam does not really need me but I hope Hunger doesn’t know that.  Maybe if Hunger believes me, it will stop hurting.  My stomach feels like it is rolled up into a tight ball now.  It keeps shrinking.  If there isn’t food soon, I will be in trouble.  Hunger kills people every day.

I can’t think about Hunger or I get scared.  What if she doesn’t feed me?   How long does it take before Hunger starts eating me from the inside out?  What does dying feel like?  Fear.  Fear is like hunger.  When the black man was on top of me, pulling me by my hair and pounding inside of me, that was fear.  I start breathing really fast and shallow, trying to get air but I can’t because my heart beats faster than my lungs work.  Fear feels like a rope is round my heart, squeezing it until I can hear every, single heartbeat pounding in my ears.  It cuts off the air.  Hunger does, too.  Only it takes longer.  How long does it take?

Does Mae miss me?  What about Eu?  Does Srey even know who I am anymore?  Do they think about me at all?  Have they tried to find me?  Did they know where I was going when Madam and I left?  What are they doing right now?  Are they making rice?  Or are they eating it?  How many fish did Eu catch today?   My mouth starts watering.  I can see the fish in my head.  There’s a basket of them, overflowing.  They are moist and their beady eyes still.  Mae grabs one, thrusts it into the water bucket, slices it open, throws it over the fire to cook.  The aroma, rich and distinct, fills the air.  My nostrils flare and I breathe it in.  The fish will be ready soon.  Hunger rises up, rolls over, rumbles.  It has not eaten a bite in five days.  But the fish is coming.  It’s almost here.  I can smell it.  Its skin is looking right now,  it’s almost ready.  I sniff the air again, breathing in the beautiful smell, trying to make Hunger happy.  It isn’t, though.  It isn’t happy.  It punches me in the belly again, making me curl up into a tight ball on the ground.  The picture of the fish cooking vanishes,  the smell is gone.

There is just the cold, concrete floor.

I need Small.

Small can get me out.  Where is he?   He’s been gone a long time.  He should have found the Master’s key now.  He should be back by now.  I jump up from the floor, spin around the room, looking for him.  But he’s not here.

I drop to my knees, my eyes looking in the darkness for Small’s door.  I don’t see one.  I drop further down, onto my belly, and slither like a snake to the corner of the room. Small’s door is in a corner. I know it is.  I saw him run across the floor before and through the door.  The room was bigger, I know this isn’t the same room.  But the door led to all places here.  There’s got to be a door in this room, too.  Small has to have a way to get the key to me.  I put my palm against the wall and run it along the edge, looking for the door.

“Small?”  I  call.

Nothing answers me back.  I slither along the floor, running my hand along the edge of the wall.  I keep calling for Small. But I don’t  find him and I don’t find the small, mouse door either.  I feel panic.  It’s a bubble trapped high in my chest.  I stand up, turn around and start to scream Small’s name.  When I still don’t see his rounded, furry mouse body,  I use my fists to hit the concrete walls.  It doesn’t even hurt.  Small has to have a door.  If he doesn’t have a door, he won’t be able to get me the key and I won’t be able to get out of here.  And then I will die.  Hunger will kill me.  I take my fingers and rake at the walls.  I don’t stop raking.  I will dig a hole, I think.  I will dig a hole and Small will find it because he’s smart.  And when he finds it, he will bring me the key and I can get out of here.   It doesn’t matter that the lock is on the outside of the door or that even if I had the key I couldn’t get to the lock to open it.  All I think about is getting the key.  If I get the key, I can get out.  If I get out, I can get food.

I scratch and claw at the door until the blood from my fingers streak the walls.  I lean my head against the concrete and then slide to the ground.  I don’t know I am crying until the tears slide into the corners of my mouth.

Hunger is back.

I keep crying.

I cry until I am dry, until there is nothing but Hunger inside.  And then I look at the walls.   There are no doors.  There are no windows.

That is why there are cracks in the walls.