BY HOLLY CORMIER

Drizzling rain coated the sidewalk. Her hair was damp with sweat and clung to her forehead, a jacket and shirt clumsily thrown over her shoulders to cover her bra-less chest. The weighty messenger bag tried pulling her into the earth as she stepped outside the building, lights casting an eerie greenish glow on the back of her head. She turned to look back at the towering bricks and spied a small group of guys gathered near the entrance, smoking.

One of them looked over at her and waved. “Hey! How’s it going?” In the dark she barely recognized the figures, but she waved back.

You have to smile.

She flashed her teeth. “Hey! Just heading back to my car, have a great- Okay.”

He had already turned back to the group, and her smiled dissipated. Heels turned, her breath plumed out in front of her face as she looked up at the bleak but clear skies. Underneath, she felt her arms beginning to bruise; the back of her neck itched from the scrapes. She was certain her skin still clung to the insides of his nails, six floors up. Taking a glance back to the group, she weighed her options. They either knew, or they didn’t. If they did, well....

The campus was empty save for her and them. Hours earlier it had been littered with people. Laughter and music lazily drifting down the street. To the group, she was just another shamed face trying to make her way home. What they thought between drags would only last as long as the smoke lingered.

“You’re gonna be good now, right? You’re gonna stay still, and let me do what I want.”

Her legs quivered. Face planted in a mess of comforter and sheets, she couldn’t even watch as he forced himself inside her from behind- wait, no. That’s not where it-! Hissing at the pain, her knees gave out and she collapsed. Quickly she pulled her legs up to her stomach, trying desperately to hook her arms around them with hands still duct-taped together.

There was a disappointed sigh and a shadow loomed over her. It shifted its weight, falling on top of her so its heated breath poured into her mouth, reeking of the pork lo mein they had eaten together only an hour earlier. She would feel the weight of her own meal in her stomach, churning, burning her insides. It wasn’t fear that cause the acid to boil, but anger.

I did this.

His hands snaked around her waist and pulled her up to meet his eyes. Her face was swollen, a bruise just forming underneath one of her eyes. Tears welled but refused to fall, lips shook but never spoke. He looked at her with pity, like a master to his injured pet. Taking her trembling hands in his, he kissed them before getting up to search for scissors to cut away the tape.

His back, broad and stark white moved quickly towards his desk. She watched; she waited. Why she never ran was a mystery unsolved. She never loved him for the way he treated her on nights like these. The nights where he wanted to try new things without asking, the nights where even if she was in control, she wasn’t. A brisk backhand or twist-rip of her hair ensured that.

And she let him do it.

He had found the scissors and was making his way back to the bed, over to her patient figure. A quick snip, and he pulled. It ripped; it tore out hairs and a thin line of skin. A trail of glue stayed behind on her wrists.

Next his hands made their way to her neck, tracing the outlines he had made earlier with his nails now with his lips. He followed the path of his own destruction, of when he had gripped her nape like a newborn kitten; when he pushed her further into the mattress or leaning back into her thighs, even gripping her neck for support when there had been a headboard inches away.

Only, her skin wasn’t designed to stretch that way. She wasn’t designed to act this way.

She hoped this would be the last time.

Next time, too, she would hope that it would be the last time. It was in silence that the last visit came. It was in thoughts long gone but not forgotten that she stopped seeing him. A few attempts were made by him to reconnect, to pick up where they had left off that night, and she left his words dying on an abandoned old phone. How stupid she was to have held hope for so long as her only shield. She watched it fiercely as one does the weather in March: anxiously waiting for those brief, warmer days as flurries brush the windowpanes outside. It was fruitless to hold on to such a fragile concept, and she swapped it out for a temporary one.

The New England cold shoulder. Shuffling feet and straight- faced, no one here understood what it meant to be friendly to a stranger. Hardy people—some claim it was the Protestant roots and others say it’s the land: rocky, choppy, and scarred from battle. She knew from whence it came for her. Years of happy smiles and hugging unknown people turned into peepholes and the slithery hands of a so-called step-father, and now giving herself to a man she barely knew. She wanted love and dug for it in the cracks, believed it to taste sweet and sickly. It wasn’t the land, or the people.

He did this.

Her knuckles cracked red against the steering wheel. The lights as she drove down the street lit the emptied sidewalks, each parking lot silenced in the early morning. She would return in only a few hours, she knew, refreshed from a three-hour stretch of something only vaguely representing sleep.

The buzzing phone woke her before the terrors of the night could—bleary-eyed, she reached out and peeked at the screen. Listen. I know you aren’t speaking to me anymore but please, can we at least talk once? I have to tell you something. Come over my house. It’ll be quick. I promise.

She placed the phone down, sat up in bed and opened the blinds. Watching the snow fall lightly across her backyard, dimly lit by the moon, she waited for the sun.

An hour had passed before she decided to join the world of the living. With the sun peaking through the trees, there had been enough time to consider her options. Closure was such a tantalizing thing; just like hope, the soul wants even though it knows only harm will come. She breathed in the scent of old sheets and overused winter blankets. She got dressed, then went to class.

The drive to school was replaced with memories of his room, as if she had never left. The place she had grown to know so well had suddenly become a cage. The idea of going back, the image of him smiling crookedly down at her as she padded softly by him into the gloomy room...

She had no words to describe it. She wondered if it had been like the other times, when a part of her body let go and accepted what was going on.

Shh...this is what’s going to happen now.

Like when the underside of her nails had become clotted with torn skin and blood; when her forehead and wrists swelled and glowed yellow then purple under the white light of the bathtub floor.

Like when she caught her step-father peeking in through the knife-driven cracks of the bathroom door.

The day had flown past her, and she was in her last class. She had yet to answer him. Face set in a grim, flat affect she walked into the science building, took a sharp right then stalked shortly down the hall. In the empty room she took her normal seat and bounced her foot anxiously, weighing the options.

See him, and possibly lose control of her decisions and be back at square one. Don’t, and wonder the rest of her life what could have transpired in those few hours of conversation. Caught like a damn mouse in a trap; sickening. He was manipulative, yet she wanted desperately to believe there was some good deep within, buried alive under dysfunctions and the current college culture that pervaded the campus. Before, he had gotten to her regardless of the warnings of her friends. They saw her life through snapshots, sunken-eyed and sitting alone before class at her ‘spot’ and then grinning wildly as she would run out the door to see him over break. But this time was different. She had taken the initiative, decided that this life of continuous sexual abuse needed to stop; no longer would that night reverberate in her ears like the ocean in a storm. She had chosen to rip him out of her life and now....

I have something to tell you.

The other students began filing into the classroom. Her partners in class sat down across and beside her. They chatted, adamant the cold weather had to only last a few more months. She listened for a second, quiet.

Grabbing her phone, she typed out a response.

Fine. Tell me. Then it’s done. It’s all done.

“You have to listen to me! Please! I am in love with you, I know it! You think I used you but h-how could I have? I d-d-don...I didn’t mean to—!”

They were in the front room of the house, an empty fireplace in front of her and only a small card table separating the two cushioned chairs they were sitting in. Well, had been sitting in.
She remained seated, head turned down without a tear staining
her face. She was gone, far from where he was both mentally and emotionally. She could feel his energy trying to dig at her, skin itching to touch skin yet her mind would not budge.

“No. No, you don’t. You have no idea what you’ve done and you refuse to acknowledge what happened—”

“I’ve talked to my dad about it! I’ve talked to my psychiatrist about it! All the times you paid for me, for dinner and breakfast and the paper you wrote for me and—” he paused.

“You didn’t tell them everything before you asked if it was considered using. You didn’t show them the texts, the coaxing. What you forced me to do.”

“No, but that part’s different.” “Is it?”
“You didn’t say no.”
“I didn’t say yes.”

His head sunk low, and his knees buckled. He tried to grab her chin, begging to be looked in the eyes. Begging to be forgiven, to go back to before.

Nails raked the arms of the chair, wishing instead for it to be his face. Biting her tongue, biting her words, she stood up and walked out into the hallway. He followed but backed away when she shot a glare at him from the front door.

Through the whole talk, she tried to find the light. But it was oh-so dark inside, so absolutely vacant of hope and care that it was clear to her nothing would be salvaged. It was enough to accept what had already happened—she wasn’t going to stick around to figure out what would come next.

“Nothing happened.”
“It wasn’t like he raped you.”
“Are you sure it was him? He’s your step-dad, for god’s sake!” The words bounced off the walls of her brain and the ceiling she watched.

His dark eyes stared back. “I didn’t do it. You’re just imagining things.”

Did I? she wondered. She considered every afternoon, every second she spent listening for the creaking footsteps of him outside the bathroom door, the shadowy glimpse of his feet inches away. Then when the creaking stopped, towel thrown over the door to cover the cracks in the door she knew he peered through.

“I didn’t rape you. Fucking crazy. You didn’t say no.”

Was she wrong then, too? That night in the dorm; when he
had taken control of the situation without her input, without consent. She didn’t say no. Had she wanted it? It seemed today there were all these rules, all these fucking complications over what actually happened. Nights were now spent questioning: how had she felt in the moment? Had she been okay with it because it was her decision, because he so simply explained to her that it was the right thing to do—to let him finally have her after working so hard to get her? Her mind pushed her further; was this all a lie? Had she never been sexually assaulted, had she merely imagined the creaking heavy footsteps outside the bathroom of her own house, the hands around her throat and in her hair, her closest friend in college forcing himself into her pathetic, unyielding body?

And then: “You can’t leave the party until you kiss me. Come on, we’ve been dating five months now. Kiss me, and you can leave. But you have to kiss me.”

She was fourteen again, her tank top straps falling down slightly over her hitching shoulders. Waves of messy brown hair covered her face and back like a curtain, hiding from the strangers walking in and out of the public library. The setting sun felt warm on her exposed knees, the warmth of light that until twenty minutes ago she had been deprived of, instead cornered at a card table in the library’s function room amongst fifty pre-teen Super Smash Bro-obsessed boys. Hovering over her small frame at that table was her first-ever boyfriend.

Squee.

Their relationship had consisted of him being entirely devoted to her, absolute puppy love and she...felt bad. With him being her closest—scratch that—only friend she had at the time, she had decided she would give it a try. She saw him as a caring, trustworthy human being.
Yet there she sat, trapped between losing a friend and losing control as he forced her to kiss him.

Yet there she waited, listening for the creaks outside the bathroom door but never getting solid proof that it was him. Yet there she stood, watching him from the end of his bed as he taped her wrists together, leaving her mouth free to say....

“When did it start?”

She looked at him curiously; this strange new man in front of her. She wondered if he would be like the others. She considered his question. Would she ever know when the abuse began, after being denied the truth by ones she thought most understanding? She felt her throat closing; she tried to swallow. She tried to answer. Instead she looked inside...to a future she saw in the form of a little girl running ahead of her along a woody, autumn trail. Her little legs carried her far, her voice carrying even farther. “May the road ri-ise to meet you, may the wi-ind be always at your baack!” The twig the little girl held firm in her hand swung out with each syllable, orchestrating the winds to play the flute gently with her song.
Behind the little girl she watched, calling out in response, “May the sun shine warm upon your face!”

The child turned back and beamed up at her. “Mummy, can I be the sun? Then I can shine on everyone else, cause they’re gonna need it and then they’ll be warm and happy and...”
She waited for this new man to push her, like the others. Instead, he waited for her to push herself. She saw a future she wanted for herself, a future she wanted for those who will come after.

Swallowing the past, she answered: “It doesn’t matter when it started. I want to know when it ends.”

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