By Tom Gumbert
I stare past the IV drip, snaking from cold metal stand to the hole in my vein, to the blank white wall that fills my mind with images. If I could, I would rip the damn thing from my arm and go about my business. My business—nobody else’s, just mine and mine alone. I strain against the straps to no avail.
The door opens and I hear two sets of footsteps enter, one remaining by the door and the other approaching. I continue to stare at the wall, disinterested in the person on the other side of my bed or their activities.
“The police want to talk with you,” a female voice says softly, as if a baby is asleep in the room and she doesn’t want to wake it. “I don’t think I can delay them—”
“Then don’t!” I snap.
She hesitates before I hear her steps retreat, hesitantly at first, then with purpose. Seconds later the door opens and two sets of heavier footsteps enter, coming straight to my bed.
“Ms. Dyson, I’m Detective Rayburn, this is my partner, Detective Klipp. We’d like to talk to you about the incident.”
His voice feels like sandpaper on my flesh. I turn my head away from him and clutch the sheet tighter. Seconds go by in silence. I have nothing to say, really. They took my statement, what more do they want from me? Ah, but they want more. They always want more.
“We read your statement and are hoping that you can clarify a few things.”
The sound of their feet shuffling means they are getting impatient. Fuck them.
I turn my head and look at the one talking. He’s wearing a cheap grey suit, white shirt, and red necktie. Of course it’s red. He’s had a haircut recently, the white skin along the edge of his salt and pepper hair in stark contrast to his tan. For a desk jockey he gets a lot of sun. He wears heavy cologne, and chews gum, probably to mask the smell of the bourbon on his breath. It’s not an entirely successful strategy. I just stare, expressionless.
He, Rayburn that is, looks down at a tablet he’s holding. “The incident occurred in the parking lot in front of Kroger Supermarket, but witnesses said you did not come out of the store.” He pauses as if I should respond, even though he hasn’t asked a question. I say nothing. “Why were you in the Kroger parking lot, Ms. Dyson, were you heading in to the store?”
“No.” I say.
Another pause and I see him glance at Klipp before asking, “Why were you in the Kroger parking lot?”
“To get my car.”
A longer pause and then Klipp’s voice, “This might go faster if you tell us what happened. Let’s start with you leaving your house this morning and take us to the point of the incident.” His voice is different. The accent more southern. Not deep south, but rather like someone from Louisville, or as he would say it, Lowvul.
“I already gave a statement. I just want to go home.”
“I see. And where is home, Ms. Dyson?” Klipp asks.
I’m tired and the question annoys me. “It’s in the goddamn statement. Can’t you read?”
“Oh, we can read, Ms. Dyson,” Rayburn says, his voice louder and edgier. “It’s just that your landlord said you were evicted over a week ago. So I’ll repeat my partner’s question—Where do you live?”
I look toward the wall and close my eyes. They burn. I will not cry, I will not cry.
“Ms. Dyson,” Klipp says softly. “Are you staying with a friend? No? A shelter?” I hear him step toward me.
“Don’t touch me!”
“I’m not going to touch you. Calm down, we only want to help.”
Bullshit. Everyone says they want to help but, they don’t. Most can’t anyway, and the ones that can, well, they either can’t find the time or don’t want to. Well, fuck them.
“I’m tired,” I say quietly. “The drug…” I stay still and close my eyes and begin counting to myself. At thirty-two I hear their footsteps moving away from me.
“We’ll be back,” Rayburn calls over his shoulder.
It’s a terrifying truth.
“Tell me about the girl.”
We sit in overstuffed faux leather chairs, facing each other. The room is small and sparse, painted in a light blue, a color chosen for its soothing effect. She tells me I may call her Nancy, though I prefer not to use her name. We aren’t friends. She’s trying to gain my trust, but I know better. She doesn’t care, she’s just doing her job, and drawing a comfortable paycheck for it. Not as fat as someone in private practice, someone with the right connections and who finished higher in their class, but compared to the average Jane, yeah. Her button down shirt and dress slacks are meant to convey professionalism and approachability. I know the game.
“I asked you to tell me about the girl.”
I shrug and look down at her shoes. “I didn’t know her,” I mumble.
“Then why did you approach her?”
“I didn’t mean to scare her,” I say, pulling my arms tighter across my chest.
“I’m sure you didn’t mean to, but the fact is, you did. What compelled you to approach her?”
I can see her in my mind, all braces and pigtails and long black hair, dripping with hope for the future. So innocent. So unaware.
I shrug, knowing it won’t hold her off for long, but long enough… “She looked familiar, like someone I used to babysit, or the daughter of a co-worker, I don’t know, just familiar, you know?”
She’s giving me the blank stare, clearly not buying this but expecting me to prattle on until I slip up with the Big Reveal. Nope, not happening. I’m no rookie. I pretend to chew my nails, though they cut them down the first hour I was here. I can wait her out.
“Do you normally get into little girls faces and scream at them, or was this behavior reserved for those that look familiar to you?”
I can see her little face, the wide eyes, contorted mouth, she looked so scared, like I was trying to hurt her, like I was a monster. “I wasn’t screaming at her!”
“Then what would you call it?”
Damn, this bitch is shrewd. I dig at the skin at my hairline above my forehead with my forefinger. Think. Think.
“A mistake,” I tell her. “I’d call it a mistake. A misunderstanding. I’ll write her an apology note. Yeah, tell her how sorry I am for scaring her. Assure her. I’ll assure her that it will never happen again.”
She’s staring at me with those unblinking hazel eyes for what feels like forever. She pushes the brown hair back over her left ear and smiles. “Okay,” she says.
“Okay?” I never expected in a million years that this would work.
“I’ll get you a paper and pen and you can write your apology note.”
She gets up from the chair, and I watch the heels of her shoes dimple the carpet as she moves to the desk. From a bottom drawer, she removes a notepad and ballpoint pen. Not a nice one, a disposable one. Fucking hospitals. When she brings it to me, she is smiling, all pleasant like. Sure, I’ll write the apology letter, then split like an atom.
I take it from her and it feels odd. I can’t remember the last time I put pen to paper for anything more personal than a grocery list. I enter the date in the upper left corner, then add Dear… I don’t know the girl’s name. I frown.
“Is something wrong?”
“The girl. I don’t know her name.”
Nancy looks flustered, and I realize that she doesn’t know the girl’s name either and for some reason, that pisses me off. “Leave that blank and you can fill it in later,” she tells me.
I glare at her for a good ten seconds before continuing. I’m sorry that I scared you the other day. I know how horrible it is feeling scared, and I want you to know that I would never hurt you—that was never my intent. Do you know what intent is? It’s something you mean to do. I did not mean to hurt or scare you, and I’m sorry that I did.
I put down the pen and hand the notepad to Nancy. She quickly reads my apology and frowns. “That’s it?” she asks, her eyes boring into me.
I shrug, wait a few seconds, then nod. I stand to leave, and she holds up her hand.
“I apologized,” I tell her, “so I get to leave.”
Nancy sighs. “It’s not going to work like that. Your apology, it tells her nothing. You have to tell her why you approached her. You said your intent wasn’t to hurt or scare her, but you didn’t tell her what your intent was. That’s the first thing you need to do, then we’ll decide when you can leave.”
I open my mouth to protest, but I know it’s useless, so I fold my arms across my chest and glare. For the remainder of the hour no one speaks. This is what we call an impasse.
Another night strapped down and sedated for your own protection, they tell me, but they aren’t interested in protecting me. No one has ever protected me, only I can protect myself. The drugs they give me are supposed to help me sleep, but the nightmares still come. The monsters still claw at me, their teeth still tear at my flesh, and my loved ones watch as silent accomplices, their betrayal complete. All I want is for it to end, for ME to end—until I see her.
She stands in the parking lot alone. Her countenance a picture of sweet innocence. The wolves of the world have yet to find her—but they will. I have a choice. Be like the others, those who stand by unwilling or unable to help, or I can take action. I can protect her, or at the very least, warn her to protect herself.
In the morning, I’m drenched in sweat. I shower while being watched by a female attendant and I play with myself to make her uncomfortable. I know this will be reported and it will not help my case to leave, but it’s one of the few ways I can retaliate without being subjected to medication or physical restraint.
Nancy reads the notes from my watch and manages to remain expressionless. When her eyes meet mine, she says, “Her name is Shariah,” and hands me back the notepad.
I take it from her and watch in surprise as she leaves the room. I stare at the page for several minutes before writing with shaking hand Shariah beside Dear in the salutation. I reread what I’ve written.
I’m sorry that I scared you the other day. I know how horrible it is feeling scared, and I want you to know that I would never hurt you—that was never my intent. Do you know what intent is? It’s something you mean to do. I did not mean to hurt or scare you, and I’m sorry that I did.
I take a deep breath and exhale slowly, allowing the words to flow from my mind to my hand.
My intent was to help you. Well, actually to tell you to help yourself. I wanted to warn you that you have to be careful. The world is not safe. Standing all alone in a grocery store parking lot is not safe. So many bad things could happen to you. You’re young, you don’t know that. Or maybe you do. And maybe that’s what scares me most.
There are so many bad people in the world that it’s hard to tell who is good. Never assume anyone is good. Make them earn your trust. When I was your age, my family taught me to trust certain ‘people’ like police, the clergy, teachers, and relatives, but all of them are capable of evil. Protect yourself. That is what I was trying to tell you.
I put the pen down and dab at my eyes with the sleeve of my gown. It takes a few minutes before I’m ready to continue, and after rereading what I’ve written, I add,
Take self-defense lessons. Don’t for one second believe that if someone hurts you, others will help you or even believe you. When it comes to girls and the horrors we encounter, the world is in denial. They’ll say you’re making it up, starved for attention—that it’s all bullshit. Don’t even expect your Mom to help. She’s too afraid, too insecure. She may have been abused herself, but she’ll never talk to you about that. She doesn’t want to lose her man, or become a pariah in the church or community. She’s broken and needs to feel accepted.
If you make it to High School with your virginity intact, know that every boy there wants to take it from you and will attempt any means necessary to do so. They’ll try compliments, tell you how pretty you are, how they need you—love you, until they get what they want—then they’ll treat you like a disease. If that doesn’t work, they resort to drugs or violence. They don’t care what it does to you, only what it does for them. You won’t be able to tell the teachers, unless the boy is unfortunate enough to be low on the socio-economic scale. An athlete—forget it. Rich kid, popular kid—same. Fuck, even some of the teachers will want you, and when I say you, I mean sex. That’s all you are to them, the possibility of sex so that they get off and feel good about themselves, not caring that they are destroying you and your self-esteem.
My breathing has become ragged, my palms sweaty. I want to stop—but I can’t.
Shariah, I’m sorry about the curse word, though I’m pretty sure you’ve heard it by now and know what it means. That’s funny. Being sorry for an ‘offensive’ word in a warning about the evils of the world. That’s what I should be apologizing for. That you live in a fucked up world and there’s pretty much nothing you can do about it. Don’t believe me? Go online. See what’s trending on social media. College athlete rapes unconscious woman and gets a slap on the wrist while his parents protest that the world is ruining their son’s life. A man in Cleveland captures and enslaves girls to be his sex toys. Child pornography and sex trafficking is rampant. Priests and other clergy abusing children worldwide on an epic scale. Christ Almighty, the man running for President of the United States talks about grabbing us by the pussy!
My mouth is dry and I look around the room but there is nothing to drink. Sweat trickles from my forehead to my eyes and behind my eyes, I feel the pressure build. Squeezing my eyes closed, I message my temples, hoping to delay the inevitable. Must-push-on.
Let’s say that you are lucky and make it through High School intact. Think you’re safe? Think again. Maybe you’ll go to college. Guess what? You have a one in four chance of having someone try to rape you. There’s a 90% chance it will be someone you know. Think the law will help you? For every 1000 rapes, only 6 will result in the perpetrator going to jail. Six. Six out of a thousand. Do you hear me, Shariah?!!
And God forbid that you ever get pulled over by the police. It can be for nothing. Maybe you changed lanes and they said you didn’t signal. Maybe you rolled through a stop sign. Regardless, if you speak up, say that you were not breaking the law, why then you are disrespectful and resisting arrest, which can get you killed. Don’t believe me? Google Sandra Bland.
If college isn’t for you, and like me, you decide to serve your country, don’t expect it to get better. No matter your assignment, your rank, or any other factor, you have a chance of being sexually assaulted. God forbid you get assigned to a war zone, because you then have about a 50% chance of being sexually harassed and a 25% chance of being sexually assaulted. So basically, if the enemy doesn’t harm you, your fellow service member probably will. And when you report your superior for raping you, guess what? You get prosecuted. Seriously, I’m not bullshitting. On top of the physical and emotional trauma, they take your career, your pay, your benefits, your dignity and your reputation. They use you in every negative way imaginable and discard you on the trash heap of life. YOU ARE DISPOSABLE. And when you find out your attacker made you pregnant, well, they say, that’s what you get for being a whore.
Tears drip on the page and I blot them with my sleeve, smearing the ink. I have to finish.
So you are pregnant, with no money, no benefits, and no home, because your family says “good Christian girls don’t get pregnant before marriage.” Ever have to live in a shelter? My advice—don’t. You’re probably safer on the street. Find an abandoned car you can lock and keep a lead pipe with you. Because people will hurt you, Shariah. And when they hurt you, you lose your baby.
I don’t hear her enter the room and when she touches my shoulder, I jump.
“Time’s up,” she says, reaching for my paper.
I snatch it away. “I’m not finished.”
“Time’s up, Kayla, now give me the letter.”
She frowns, glances at her desk and at the door. Making her decision, she turns and goes out the door. She’ll be returning with security, and I’ll be restrained and sedated. Picking up the pen, my hands tremble.
You see, Shariah, I wasn’t trying to scare you—you should already be scared. I was trying to warn you, to let you know that you can’t stand alone in a parking lot because someone, anyone, might hurt you. Protect yourself.
The hands on my shoulders try to lift me from my seat as she reaches for my letter. I stab downward with my pen, our screams harmonizing.
Tom Gumbert lives near Cincinnati, OH with his wife Andrea (Andy) in a log home overlooking the Ohio River, in an area that was an active part of the Underground Railroad. Operations Manager by day, he has been writing for over a decade with an eclectic taste in what he reads and writes. His work has appeared in over a dozen online and/or print publications, including Rathalla Review, Black Heart Magazine, L’ÉphÉmÈre Review, Sick Lit Magazine and Meat for Tea: A Valley Review. He co-authored the anthology, Nine Lives, which was published by All Things That Matter Press in March 2014. He is currently working on his novel.