Heavy footsteps and laughter interrupted the quiet and I glanced back. A group of men swaggered up the sidewalk a few feet behind me.
“Hey, baby!” one yelled, his speech slurred. He made wet, kissy sounds. The others laughed and there were slapping sounds as they gave each other high-five, congratulating their machismo.
They were just immature drunks, but I couldn’t help quickening my pace. Their laughter pursued, their footfalls coming more rapidly, echoing off the buildings, as they matched my gait.
You’re fine, don’t overreact. They’re just trying to scare you. What could they really do in the middle of the Pearl District? Half of these buildings were condos. Someone would call the police if things got out of hand. Not to help me of course, but they could be counted on to protect their quality of sleep.
“Yo! Girl! What’s the rush?” More laughter exuded from the pack.
They were closer now.
I bolted for Jamison Square, weaving through the skeleton trees along the strip of wet grass, but they were faster. I discovered a moment too late, the group had divided. I was being herded.
Two men leapt out in front of me and I skidded to a halt, slipping on the slick grass. Three others fanned out around me, their arms held wide like I was a rabbit in the brush they hoped to catch.
“What’s the hurry? We just wanna talk,” said the first man. He was large with a blonde crew cut and small, mean-looking eyes. The others tittered around him, an unsettling, wild sound.
I squared my shoulders and tried to put as much super-bitch on my face as possible. It worked in clubs maybe it would work now, but they advanced anyway.
“Look, it’s one of those fucked up goth bitches,” said another, looking to Crew Cut for approval.
“You ever had a real man?” Crew Cut asked.
I tried to ignore his words, to cut off the cold fear that bloomed in my stomach. The stench of beer reeked from their skin as they circled closer. The road was only a few feet away, but it might as well have been miles off. I was surrounded like a gazelle on those wildlife shows—see how the hyenas surround their prey.
I wished I was stronger, faster. I wished I was anywhere but here.
One of the men lunged at me and I dodged aside, but there was nowhere to go. Strong arms clamped around me. I screamed and tried to elbow my captor, but the leverage wasn’t there and his arms tightened.
“Shut her up,” whispered Crew Cut. He glanced nervously at the mostly dark buildings towering above us.
A sweaty hand clapped over my mouth. I drove my boot down hard on the man’s foot and, squirming out of my coat, twisted free. I managed a few shambling steps, only making it as far as the sidewalk before rough hands found me. I clawed at them, pulling away strips of skin, I didn’t care whose. I had forgotten about running. I had forgotten everything. All that mattered was this; I would keep clawing until they stopped coming.
A fist collided with my face, and my nose broke with a sickening crunch. I sprawled to the pavement, my face a searing mask of red agony. Shakily, I climbed to my hands and knees. Blood pattered to the grey sidewalk in garish splotches. Would the morning commuters and mothers with their strollers see this bloody puddle and wonder who it had come from? Or would the police scrub away this stain of violence from the civilized world with a ho-hum, how awful, but boys will be boys, all the while secretly thinking: she must have done something to provoke them?
A foot crashed into my side and the ground rushed forward. I swung my hand around just in time to avoid a face plant.
“Stupid bitch!” Crew Cut yelled, “You scratched the shit outta my arm.”
I screamed again as another foot caught me low in the back. Something cracked inside, and a hot chill ran up my spine. Then feet lashed out from all directions, and I curled into a ball, covering my head.
The kicking stopped. I allowed myself a moment’s hope and peeked out from under my arm. Crew Cut stood at my feet, as I watched, he drew a knife from his pocket and pried it open. My blood went cold.
“Let’s see if you look any better without clothes.” Grinning, he bent toward me.
It seemed like he bent forever, his face inching closer and closer. I waited, ignoring the pain crawling along my entire body.
My hands flew at him, aiming for his eyes. My fingers tore at his face and bits of him lodged under my nails. He slashed at my arms, the knife a swinging silver blur, but I felt nothing. Blood ran down my arms, pooling in my armpits. His blood? Mine?
He jumped back and pinned me to the ground with one giant foot between my breasts. I went for his leg.
“Try it and I’ll crush you,” he said, applying pressure.
Blood oozed from several deep scratches on his face. I had missed his eyes, unfortunately. They gleamed down at me, a murky brown-green, like swamp water. He wanted to crush me. I held my hands up in surrender.
For a frightening moment the pressure increased, and I was sure my ribs would crack. I imagined my ribs breaking, their broken edges stabbing into my soft inner tissues. How long could you live with a punctured lung? Three minutes? Ten? His foot eased off a little and I was able to take a shallow, aching breath.
“Hold her arms,” Crew Cut said.
Two men broke the circle, and each took one of my blood-slicked wrists, the sweat from their hands stinging my fresh cuts. How much blood had I lost? I resisted the urge to look.
Crew Cut dropped to his knees and sat astride my hips. He leaned forward, crushing me into the cold pavement. “I’ll bet you taste sweet.”
His breath was hot against my neck, and I could smell his aftershave―Old Spice. The same kind my father had used. I shuddered. The light seemed to shift and Crew Cut’s blonde hair lengthened and darkened and his eyes changed. They were no longer mean, swampy pits; they had become his eyes—my father’s green eyes.
His eyes had always seemed brighter when he’d been drinking, and they were always bright when he’d come for me. I hated their brightness. I hated him. I hated the astringent smell of the alcohol that baked from his too hot skin. At the same time, part of me loved him, loved that he noticed me. It validated me, proved I existed. Part of me was so starved for his affection, it latched on to anything and sucked it up greedily. Even if it hurt and was confusing, and the wounds were too deep to heal. Even if it killed me inside.
I squeezed my eyes shut. When I opened them again, my father was gone. He had never been there, of course, it was Crew Cut on top of me. His weight was unbearable, and I could only manage small sips of breath. Black dots danced in front of my eyes . . .