Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash
Walking home from the bus stop. Buds of the sycamore trees along the sidewalk slowly unfurl, the smell of cut grass carried on the breeze with the scent of lilacs. Black-eyed Susans, California poppies, blue bells, all blooming along a driveway near the bus stop. I still have six blocks to walk and I’m distracted by everything opening around me, inviting me toward it all. I am floating. I dream of the creek I will cross over, curious about what’s stirring in the water below the bridge.
Then the blue car rolls up. Its paint is chipped, a humming sound rattles out from under the hood. The man driving has a bushy mustache and it crawls toward his nose when he smiles at me. The car’s squeaky brakes pierce my ears and then he passes me. I spot more flowers along the sidewalk, turn the corner and I hear the car rattling from behind me; he circled the block.
I turn to see the man again. He isn’t wearing a shirt. His hand moves up his chest, his fingers curling through his thick dark chest hair. His gold wedding band reflects the afternoon sun. He’s smiling again, but it’s a smile that makes me shrink inside. He stops the car and tells me to get in. My gaze falls toward my scuffed shoes with their frayed white laces. My face burns. His smile vanishes and he speeds off as another car approaches. I exhale, walk faster. Just three more blocks until I’m home.
He has circled the block again, approaching me in his long blue car for the third time. There’s a dead bird near the gutter; it’s just a baby, flattened on the pavement with one leg missing and the other twisted out to the side of its broken wing. My mom isn’t home and I don’t want this man to know where I live. I turn left instead of right, circling another block over and over again until the sun shines sideways through the tree branches and I know it’s almost the time of day when Mom gets home from work. I’m afraid he’ll be waiting in my driveway. I wait until I can’t see or hear the car and creep down under the bridge. I run my fingers over the soft head of a cattail, and watch the water bugs and tadpoles until I fall asleep.
At the public pool. The heat is ruthless but the tan is worth it. My friend Layla has long golden hair and the boys all watch as she dives into the pool, her hair fanning out like a mermaid’s as she twists and glides under the water. I’m watching her, too. She’s graceful and tall and she has a new neon green two-piece that shows off her tan and brightens her emerald eyes when she comes up for air.
The pool is crowded but I’m baking under the sun so I climb down the ladder and into the chlorinated water. I plug my nose, my head submerges, muffling the sound of a hundred laughing swimmers. My feet meet the floor of the pool and I push myself up for air. There’s no space to swim through the bodies, all of the kids splash and shout and I can’t see Layla anymore. I submerge again, same routine, pushing myself up for a breath.
And then the boys crowd around me; they appeared so quickly. They’re all older, maybe 14. The lifeguards are out of sight and then I feel it, a hand—maybe two—grabbing me hard between my legs. I feel aching and a sharp sting and then the boys swim away, shouting and dunking each other under the water. The space they leave is quickly filled by other kids and I want to let myself sink under them, to stay submerged forever. The stinging grows and I’m afraid everyone saw them do it, afraid of what they’ll say when I get out of the pool.
Layla appears, her long hair dripping, the drops quickly evaporating on the hot pavement as she leans over to greet me. She’s ready to get snow cones; she always orders the blue raspberry that stains her mouth and makes it look like the bottom of the pool. In the changing room, a tinge of fresh blood stains the lining of my rainbow one piece. I wrap the wet suit in a towel, shove it into my pool bag, pull my summer dress back on, and follow Layla into the bright afternoon.
At Kmart. Trying on school clothes to be put on layaway until fall. My breasts are just starting to bud, and I adjust the straps of my flowery training bra to hold it firm against my changing body. Mom is in the next dressing room, angry at the mirror, huffing about her fat and wrinkles. She hates her short legs and full belly, always tells the mirror she’s ugly. She marches from the dressing room to find clothes that fit and I’m relieved.
I worry that because everyone says I look like her, that I am fat and ugly, too. I stretch my arms overhead, examining the spot where the soft flesh of my belly curls over my panties. I don’t think I look so bad but maybe I’m wrong. I hear a muffled cough and what sounds like a long sigh. It’s coming from the waiting area and I think it is Mom, wanting me to hurry. I pull on my top, cross one arm over my chest, use my free hand to pull the changing room curtain aside, and peek out. A man—probably 30—is kneeling down, looking up and into the room where I had removed my clothes. He sees that I’ve caught him watching, jumps to his feet, shows me his little pink dick poking out from a nest of black hair before scrambling out of the room, knocking over a rack of plastic clothes hangers that spread out with a loud clattering across the floor.
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Behind the high school football field. I take this shortcut when I walk home, and sometimes I climb up to a big oak branch along the creek and smoke joints there with Mike and Shayna. They’re usually listening to a boombox with the Pixies or the Clash streaming out, scratchy and muffled. Sometimes there are jocks making out with cheerleaders nearby, but most of them have cars to do it in. There’s a chain-link fence that’s been cut and bent like a broken door, and I slip through it and across an empty lot strewn with potato chip bags and cigarette butts. I hate that I’m sixteen and don’t have a car like the other kids my age. I work at Foster’s Freeze, flipping 49-cent burgers for creepy old men on the weekends, hoping to save enough to buy my neighbor’s old Volvo.
Last week I walked the same path home. My friends weren’t there with their joints or Pixies and I heard magpies squawking, maybe a warning. Two men lurked near the path, smoking cigarettes. The smoke swirled around in the sunlight that speckled through the trees. I looked away. The men walked slowly behind me as I passed through the fence. I picked up my pace and one of them coughed, alerting me that they had picked up their pace, too. As I approached the center of the vacant lot, I turned to see them retreating back into the trees. I could feel my pulse in strange places: the side of my face, the palms of my hands, in the back of my knees.
Then tonight, newscasters announced that a girl I knew from my geography class—Female,15, brunette, 5’2”—was found near the opening in the fence. Her P.E. shirt had been torn off and wrapped around her neck, there was blood and ashen dirt under her fingernails and her eyes were wide open, gazing up toward where the magpies always gathered. The newscasters didn’t say it but I knew it was Ashley Woods because her parents were looking for her after school. My sister lit a candle for her on the kitchen table.
At home, watching CNN. Every night on the news a new famous man gets called out for raping or harassing famous women. And every night, my mom pulls a bottle of wine from our tiny apartment’s hallway closet and pops it open, pouring glass after glass, swirling the red fluid around like she’s watching a drain emptying and circling into nothing.
Mom can’t stand this news cycle, but she can’t stop watching it either. She says things like “good for those women” and “fuck those motherfucking assholes” and then, “too bad no one gives a fuck about the rest of us.”
After a few weeks of this, the bottles start piling up in the corner of the kitchen and she says she wants to turn them into art. “Or maybe,” she says one night, “I can break those bottles and turn them into weapons and regain some fucking power.” She swirls her wine again, takes one last big gulp, walks to her room and slams the door.
Across the street from the pub. There’s a guy I keep seeing all over town. I saw him at the gym when I was going hard on the elliptical, Cardi B blasting through my earbuds. Then I spotted him at the co-op, where I buy my kombucha after work. Then last week he drove by twice while I was walking my neighbor’s black lab. I’ve seen him on campus once, near the library, I think maybe he works there. Seeing him everywhere in this small college town wouldn’t be so unusual, except he won’t say hello and always looks angry.
Tonight, he walked into the pub where I was celebrating the end of the semester. He sat at the bar with his back to my table, ordering pint after pint and then finally turned around to look at me. He’s usually wearing sunglasses so this was the first time I saw his blue eyes. They felt like ice. I smiled politely and he rushed out the door. Walking the dark street to wait for my Lyft driver later, he crept from behind and grabbed my shoulder. His hand felt small and cold and I whipped around, reaching for the pepper spray I usually carry. My pocket was empty.
I remembered my self-defense class: remain calm, present yourself with confidence. He extended his white hands toward my throat, I stood tall. I pushed my hand toward his chest and it cracked through his rib cage. I stared straight into his eyes. I reached further inside of him, my hand wet with thick warm blood, the flesh on my forearm ripped open by his broken bones. I expanded my fingers, wrapped them around his heart and tugged hard, pulling it from his chest. I squeezed it tighter and tighter as he fell to the ground. My Lyft driver arrived, and I threw the dead sticky heart into the street.
Excerpt of Some Places Worth Leaving courtesy of Tolsun Books.
Dani Burlison's Some Places Worth Leaving contains 13 short stories centering women and girls in precarious and sometimes life-threatening situations and their attempts to escape. The stories revolve around themes of fear, violence, revenge, power, and redemption. They are set against a backdrop of the west, in its rural communities, redwood forests, sprawling California cities, and along the roiling Pacific Ocean. From creative and sometimes disturbing coping mechanisms to revenge fantasies, bad habits, and magic spells, the characters in these stories provide an invitation into the dark side of what it is like to be female, and the lengths women will go to survive in the world.