Trigger Warning: Please note that the following story may be a trigger for trauma, sexual abuse, and violence.
I’m sitting in the back of the rusty old vehicle Adesh drives me to work in. The cushioned seat is ripped and smells of dust and sweat. I want to roll down the window to let the air circulate, but last time I showed up with wind-blown hair, Naiyana smacked me across the face. She must think a bruised cheekbone is less alarming to customers than a few out-of-place pieces of hair.
The humidity inside the car is stifling, so I crack the window a bit. As soon as exhaust enters and makes me cough, Adesh whips his head around and yells at me to shut it. I quickly obey then try to sit up and lean against the door so my back doesn’t touch the seat and allow sweat to soak through my satin dress.
How I long for fresh, cool sea air.
We hit a pothole as we make a sharp turn, and my head smacks the dirty window.
The Night Ahead
I was called into work an hour early tonight, which has only happened once before. When I first arrived in the city, a burly man with a dark beard took me into a back room and told me to do something disgusting. When I politely refused, he threw me down, and I hit the floor with such force that it made my head spin. He forced himself on me, and I had no choice but to lay helplessly as I felt my bones being crushed under the weight of his body.
I walked out of that room covered in bruises, with a gash on the back of my head and searing pain in the places he had been.
The terror I felt that night still haunts me. I see the burly man in my nightmares, and I find myself watching for him out of the corner of my eye as I work. I don’t know what I’ll do if I see him again.
A bead of sweat drips down my back, sending a shiver down my spine that brings me back to the present.
Thoughts of Home
I close my eyes and try to make my world disappear for a moment. The lights and traffic of the city I hate fade as I think of home.
The cool sea breeze.
The birds singing in the mornings.
The seagulls sweeping into the water, emerging with bright-colored fish wiggling in their beaks.
My sweet dog that followed me everywhere I went.
I miss feeling soft grass beneath my feet.
I miss my twin brother—my best friend—who would tell me exciting stories about faraway places as we walked the long, winding path to school every morning. He would do everything he could to make me laugh so hard I’d cry.
I miss my mother most of all. She’s the strongest woman I know, and I always thought she could do anything. But I need her now more than ever, and she’s not here for me.
I sometimes wonder if she knew where I’d end up when she let me go, but then I hate myself for thinking such a thing. Of course she didn’t. She would do anything for my brother and me. If she knew where I was, she’d demand to trade places with me in a heartbeat. That thought—no, that realization—fills my eyes with tears.
Maybe, just maybe my mother is searching the world to find me.
Why I Left
When my father died, everything changed. We were in debt, and men started threatening to drag us off our property if we didn’t come up with enough money fast. I searched online and found a high-paying position hundreds of miles away—a job caring for three young children from a wealthy family. I begged my mother until she finally gave in and let me take it.
Just one month and 28 days later, I find myself living in a body that no longer belongs to me. My father would be horrified at the things I’m forced to see and do on a daily basis. And that small farm that sheltered everything I used to love is already becoming a distant memory.
I open my eyes as a tear runs down my face. I angrily wipe it away. There isn’t a single person in this vile city who knows me, loves me, or cares if I’ll ever make it out of here alive.
Adesh slams on the brakes and tells me to get out of the car. It’s time to go to work.
I follow him into the bar I’ve become all too familiar with. Fear starts to crawl back into my mind when I see Naiyana waiting right inside the door, smiling at us. I force my face to hide the feelings that are boiling inside me right now. I know what will happen if she thinks I’ve shown up to work in one of my “states.” Last time I was in this mood, she had Adesh teach me a lesson the next day that I won’t soon forget.
“Customers are waiting,” Naiyana tells me calmly as she points to the back of the room. Her long ruby-red fingernails perfectly match the color of her lips. I hold my breath as I turn and look to see who’s waiting for me on the other side of the bar.
It’s not the burly man.
One of the two men at the table waves, and relief rushes over me. I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear, clear my throat, and begin making my way through the crowd.
I squeeze past three people standing in the middle of the aisle, then walk around a table where another girl is serving drinks. Everyone seated looks my way as I pass by. I try to ignore them, but it makes me uncomfortable. I subtly pull down the hem of my dress that suddenly feels too short and focus on walking gracefully in my now-unsteady four-inch heels.
As I get close to the men I’m approaching, I put on the best smile I can. I admit, it’s probably not much to look at, but it should at least hide the fact that this is the last place on Earth I want to be right now.
The young blonde stands and greets me in English, then offers me a seat on the bench next to his friend. I slide over, and he sits down and starts talking like all three of us are old friends. The man to my left smiles warmly at me. I notice he has hazel eyes, like me.
I don’t say much—I never do. I simply listen as the two foreigners converse in their own language. Every once in a while, one of them asks me a direct question in the local tongue, but I don’t understand much of that, either, so I usually just smile or nod in response.
These two strangers seem different than most men I meet here, and there’s something … familiar about them. They don’t try to touch me. They treat me like a person. As I sit quietly between them, I almost feel safe.
I remember them.
The talkative one orders me a glass of Coke, and for the first time today, I start to let my guard down a little. Maybe I’ll get a break tonight.
But Not Different Enough
The blonde abruptly waves over Naiyana to ask her the one question I don’t want to hear. “How much would it cost to take her for an hour?”
My smile fades. I can’t hide the disappointment I feel and hope Naiyana doesn’t notice. How could I be such a fool? I wouldn’t be called into work early unless there was a paying customer waiting.
She tells him the hourly price, and he seems satisfied. He stands to pay and slowly counts out the cash. Every bill he thoughtlessly flops into her hand is like a jab to my gut.
The man still sitting by me looks at his phone for a few seconds, then starts talking about their trip to the country. He asks me several questions about the city, which I vaguely answer. I don’t feel like attempting to speak in a language I barely know with a tourist. But even if I did, I honestly don’t know a lot about the area. I’m confined to a number of buildings I can count on one hand, and I’m never allowed to go anywhere alone.
My perception of this city is the ten blocks that lead from my cramped apartment to this bar, filtered by the dirty backseat windows of the rusty old vehicle that smells like sweat.
The blonde is sitting again, but his friend is dominating the conversation now. The older man’s deep voice remains gentle and kind, but I stop listening, no longer interested. I look down at my hands sitting tiredly in my lap and prepare myself for what’s about to happen. I glance at the cola in front of me wishing it was whiskey.
I take a small sip but no longer taste its sweetness.
I jump when I hear a noise that sounds like the door at the front of the bar has been ripped off its hinges. Dark figures rush into the crowd, pushing some out of the way and grabbing others. People are screaming and running in every direction. What’s happening? I want to run with them, but I’m trapped behind the table—between these two men. I look at them—frantic. Why aren’t they moving?
When I try to stand, they pull me back down and hold my arms so I can’t break free. All I can do is sit and watch in terror as the room breaks into chaos.
I make out the men in uniform as they progress toward the back of the bar. They’re wearing black vests and holding guns. I look frantically for Naiyana. They have her.
Now they’re coming for me.
I think I’m going to die.
Adesh means “command.” Naiyana means “eye.”
This is the second of four parts in the series entitled, “Until She Is Free.” The narrative was inspired by interviews with TER investigators and stories of human trafficking survivors whom our community works to help. Creative liberties were taken.
We dedicate this part of the story to survivors. Most of us will never truly understand the depths of what they’ve seen or experienced. What we do know is that their freedom is worth everything it takes. This narrative only offers a glimpse of the horrors of human trafficking, but we hope it also inspires readers to join the fight for a free world.