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little lessons

by Emma Sikes about a year ago in fact or fiction
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little lessons
Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

My mother told me this would happen one day. Speak softly, smile often, laugh at their jokes, pretend you don’t notice that he just took a picture of you, never run alone, grocery store parking lots are the number one place women are abducted. Little lessons she taught me in little moments. White knuckles gripping my shoulder, keys grasped firmly in her other hand. Eyes wide in panic when she lost sight of me at the beach. Call me when you get there, call me when you leave. Instructions I mocked and flouted. Now I picture what I fear most- having a daughter of mine own. Knowing that no matter how much I try to teach her, to warn her, there are some truths she will have to learn on her own.

I guess it makes sense that I would think of my mother, at this moment. Her lavender floral print leggings, hair clasped up in a twisted flourish. Her eyes, the one feature of hers my face mirrors. All the better to see the world, as it truly is. I flip through her filing cabinet of little lessons, searching for one last thing that might help me get through this.

I’m in a trunk.

. . .

“I just don’t understand how he’s already earning more than I am,” I say. Matt sighs, eyes rolling.

“Look, make your case and send it to me, okay?” He starts to walk away, but I follow, trailing behind him.

“I just made my case. We’re both nineteen, I’ve worked here longer, I have more experience.”

“Sometimes life gives you lemons,” Matt mutters, walking into the small staffroom. He lets the door swing closed on me, but I catch it and remain rooted in the doorframe.

“Lemons won’t pay my rent, and neither will eight dollars an hour.” Matt pinches the bridge of his nose in exasperation.

“The customers like him better. Maybe try showing a little leg once in a while, then we’ll talk.”

I walk away, letting the door slam closed behind me. On my way out the back entrance of the building, I grab a bowl of lemon slices from the kitchen. When life gives me lemons, I decide, they belong on the windshield of the patriarchy.

. . .

I’m in a trunk, and I’m freaking out. The right side of my temple screams with pain, sending my head throbbing. Reaching up to gingerly touch the wound, I find my hair is sticky with blood and plastered to the side of my head. My knuckles are the same, bruised and tender after my incessant pounding on the door of the trunk. I had hoped someone would hear me, but I stopped punching and screaming around the same time I stopped trying to keep track of how many turns we’ve taken.

It’s been approximately thirty minutes since I woke up in here. I know because it’s how I’ve been distracting myself from thoughts of what comes after this drive. With every mile we continue, despair weighs heavier and heavier on my chest, forcing my lungs to take quick, shallow breaths. I try to keep calm, to use what I know, but it’s kind of difficult to name five things I can see in the pitch black. Four things I can touch are the cloth floorboards, the wide door, the roof, and the ever-shrinking walls, all of which are mere inches away. I’m lying on my side, knees bent in front of me. Three things I can hear are the voices of two men, the rev of the engine, and the tires against the pavement. My captors converse jovially, their words muffled and indistinguishable. Two things I smell are citrusy disinfectant and the metallic iron of my blood. One thing I can taste is bitter spite, sour on my tongue, and curdling in my bones. I might not have much, but I have my senses and I have my lessons, and that’s enough.

The car makes a turn, my body is jostled about, the tires crunching on bumpy gravel before slowing to a stop. Every muscle in my body tenses as the engine goes quiet and car doors are opened. I ready myself, not knowing exactly what for. What can I use? What do I have going for me? The surprise factor.

The trunk swings open and I immediately kick both feet out, not waiting to secure a target. The heels of my shoes connect with one of the men’s stomachs and he doubles over in pain. The other grabs my heel and yanks me out of the cavity of the trunk. My torso hits the ground, pieces of gravel wedge themselves into my back. I thrash and kick, my other foot slips out of the shoe and I quickly stand. I can outrun them if I just-

The man I kicked lunges at me from behind, we both go toppling down. My face against the gravel, I twist and writhe on the ground, trying to wriggle out from under his massive weight. The other man walks toward me, lowers himself so I can see his face.

“Thought you could get away from us, did ya?” his breath is rancid, yellow bags are nestled under his watery eyes, untrimmed stubble lurks around his chin and neck. He raises himself, and I watch as the toe of his boot comes flying toward my face.

. . .

“Wrong,” Josh says. Nostrils flaring, so much confidence. It would be cute if it weren’t so irritating. “We don’t know that it’s about an abortion,” he gestures to the two copies of “Hills Like White Elephants,” laying on our desks.

“One of us does,” I reply, looking him in the eye. Where specifically men keep their audacity, I’ll never know, though I have a strong suspicion they simply needed something to fill that empty spot where the uterus ought to be.

He breaks the eye contact after a moment, apparently aggravated that I was more than willing to partake in his unspoken battle of wills. He raises his hand, summoning our blessedly female Lit teacher. She walks over, a lovely red-lipped smile on her face.

“Mrs. Bratton, this isn’t about an abortion, is it?” he asks, leaning back in his chair and crossing his ankles in front of him. Saying, it seems, that he does not care about the answer nearly as much as he cares about appearing careless. I can’t help but find this to be a most amusing paradox, calling over the teacher to confirm something he so desperately needs to be right about, yet refusing to acknowledge that desperation as anything more than a confirmation of his ability to interpret a story. But what are boys, if not an amalgamation of paradoxes?

“It is, indeed,” Mrs. Bratton says, a twinkle in her eye as she looks from him to me. I want to hug her, to exchange stories over coffee. I try to imagine one cup of coffee for every ‘wrong’, for every side-eye they believed went unnoticed, every snicker from the back of the class, every blink of surprise from a male teacher, every ‘you passed the AP Calc exam?’. The aroma alone is enough to make my head spin.

Mrs. Bratton walks away. Neither Josh nor I say a word. A shame, really. I would’ve enjoyed another staring contest.

. . .

I blink my eyes wearily, unsure of where I am or how I got here. Darkness swallows everything, aside from the moonlight of a small window high above my head. My head aches, remembering the steel toed boot. I’m laying down on something rough and scratchy, a blanket? My hands are taped in front of me, but my legs are free. I stand shakily. How much time has passed? I heard on TV that the chances of the police finding me are slim to none, once twenty-four hours pass.

I walk over to the window, the cold concrete floor telling me that I’m still missing a shoe. The lip of the window is well over six feet above my head. The ceiling is about two feet above that. That means this wall is about fourteen feet high, much higher than a normal house wall. Where am I? Think, Belle, think. Dank must fills my nose, and the room feels cold and spacious. I dare not stray from the light of this window, but if that wall alone is fourteen feet high, this room must be large. A warehouse of some sort? There’s got to be something in here I can use.

Cautiously, I slink along the perimeter of the room. I pause every now and then, quiet as a mouse, relying on my ears to keep me safe. I hear nothing but my shallow breathing. The light from the window does not illuminate much and soon I am enveloped in the dark, my fingertips lightly brushing the cold wall. I count my footsteps. Nine… Ten… Eleven…

My toe connects with something solid and light, it goes skittering into the middle of the room, clattering loudly against the hard floor. I cringe, staying still and silent. If a girl makes a loud noise and no one’s there to hear it, does she still die? After a few moments pass, I kneel on the floor, crawling forward. Blindly feeling around, my fingers wrap around something cool and glass. I go back to the weak light of the window, holding my discovered treasure up- an empty beer bottle. Idiots.

. . .

Two team captains stand in front of the women’s cross-country team, Bryce and Will. They’ll not be running in this relay race, but splitting us up, naming each team after themselves. I feel this is something we probably could decide for ourselves, but who am I to deflect the gospel of man?

“Amy,” Bryce calls. A short girl with a pretty face trots over to his side.

“Monica,” Will calls. A stout, dark-haired girl jogs toward him. This goes on until I am the only girl standing between them. I’ve run with the both of them for six years, but over the past summer one of their friends took a nasty dislike to me, and I suppose ‘bros for life’ solidarity extends even after said friend left for college months ago.

“Alright, Belle,” Bryce beckons me over. I shuffle lamely to his side, try to disappear into the crowd of girls. The boys begin leading us to the starting line, batons in hand. I linger toward the back of the group, unknowingly claiming the anchor position. Nervous chatter bounces around, I shift my weight from foot to foot on the rubber track. It’s only practice, but the boys’ team is watching from the bleachers, along with Coach Christ.

The whistle blows, and off the first pair start, batons swinging fiercely by their sides. A loop around the track and they hand the batons off to the next set. The boys scream and jeer, wolf-whistling and placing their bets. It’s fairly neck-and-neck up until the set of two girls before me, Amy and Monica. Monica leads by a good 50 meters. Amy tries to recover some ground but instead manages to lose another 50 meters. I take my position at the starting line, along with the other team’s anchor, Grace. I find it already difficult to catch my breath, can feel my throat contracting and hands clamming up.

The two girls grow nearer, Monica rounds the last corner, with Amy behind, still on the last straightaway. I’ll have to recover the 100 meters we’ve lost, and at least one extra step to beat the other team. Monica hands off the baton to Grace, and now I must watch her and wait for Amy to reach me. I consider Grace’s strides, the awkward way in which she moves her lanky legs. I remind myself that she’s under pressure as well, wonder if she wanted to go last or if it was decided for her, as it was for me. No, she’s my competition. My teammate finally rounds the last corner. I wipe my sweaty palms on my tee, hoping to Coach Christ I can avoid further embarrassment by at least not dropping the baton.

I look ahead of me, Grace is about to round the first corner, 100 meters out, just as I expected. I look behind me, see Amy panting with exertion, holding the baton out in front of her, ready to handoff. Anticipation creeps into the balls of my feet. She hands me the warm baton and I tear down the first straightaway. Strands of my hair pull free from my ponytail, whipping around my face. My feet pound against the track, stark white lines frame my vision, everything outside of them blurs to nothingness. My knee immediately aches, remembering old wounds that never properly healed. Beat her. She deserves it. Rounding the first curve, I see Grace is not quite near the second curve, where she should be. I’m gaining on her. Gripping the baton tightly, my lungs start to burn. Keep going. Show them you’re better. Halfway down the last straightaway, she breaks pace. Now’s my chance. I round the corner right on her heels, and we sprint toward the finish line neck-in-neck. At the last 25 meters, I push ahead of her. Only after I’ve crossed the finish line do I register the cheers of the boys.

. . .

With taped wrists, I roll up the glass bottle in the scratchy wool blanket I woke upon. Setting it on the floor, I say a quick prayer before stomping my foot. A dull crunching from within lets me know I was successful. Mazel Tov! Unraveling the blanket, I sift through the shattered pieces, selecting a large jagged edge that tapers off to a point. I retreat to the soft light of the window, sitting down with my back propped against the wall, concealing my weapon in my taped hands as best I can. Now we wait.

My mind wanders back to the neon ‘Harris Teeter’ sign and walking out of the sliding glass doors, the smell of a coming storm in my nose. I walked to my car, small bag of groceries on my arm. I remember shuffling through my purse looking for my keys, remember thinking my mother would’ve scolded me for not having them already in hand. It was then that I felt a hand on my waist and another clamping my mouth shut.

If I had not had such a craving for onion dip, would I still be here? Would another girl be here instead? My father still sends me every tip and trick he comes across on Facebook. Take your drink with you to the bathroom. Predators are less likely to go after girls with short hair. Always walk like you know where you’re going.

I picture my little sister’s face, her long red hair, freckles dotting her nose. I wonder about when she’s older- if she will recite these to herself at every party, or while choosing every outfit, or on every late-night grocery trip. If she doesn’t, would that make her more deserving than the girl who does; than the girl who is more prepared?

Everything they teach us seems to say: ‘pick her instead’. Not me, jeans are harder to cut off than a skirt. Not me, I have my keys between my knuckles, see? Not me, I’ll put up a fight. There will always be a girl less sober, less clothed, less cautious. An easier target. I want her to be safe too. I want a reevaluation on why teaching young girls how not to be a victim is easier than teaching young boys about consent or body autonomy.

Marinating in my thoughts, I concentrate on my anger, my years spent on learning and painstakingly unlearning. I funnel all of it into my tiny, jagged piece and wait for my moment. I won’t be the only one learning a lesson today.

. . .

“Do you know how many laps are in an 800?” Coach asks. No, not at all. Only been running for you for four years. Why would I know that there are two fucking laps in an 800? Sometimes I like to act as confused as humanly possible about the most basic of things, just to see how long they’ll explain. My record is fifteen minutes, when a boy mansplained touchdowns. Other times I like to cut them off mid-sentence and tell them I know. Who could guess that I already know there’s a dent in my front bumper? Facts are only such when uttered men.

“Your hair looks good like that,” Coach says. I make nice on instinct. I ran a personal record today, but all he notices is my hair. Accept the compliment. Accept his eyes lingering on my bare legs. Survival of the prettiest and an ugly attitude is sure to attract the wrong attention.

“You used to be fast, what happened?” Coach laughs. I hope against hope to get invited to a Saturday run, with his select few favorite boys. Maybe I could be one of your favorites too, Coach. Maybe I could be fast again, if I tried. If you tried.

On team picture day, a freshman girl asks me why Coach doesn’t want to stand for a picture with the girls’ team. Was it because we don’t have as many trophies? she asks. I tell her no. We don’t have as many trophies because he does not care enough to stand for a picture with us.

A door clangs open, flooding the room with light. I stand dazedly, my piece of broken bottled wedged between my hands, still bound in front of me. A figure strides quickly toward me, a portly man with a potbelly. How good are your reflexes? As I try to look past him, at the door, something in his hand catches my eye- a knife. Terror seizes me, freezing my feet in place.

“Please,” I say. Tears roll down my cheeks. This can’t be it. “I have a family,” I plead, trying for a smile.

“You can’t smile your way out of this one,” he says. Can’t I? Endless defense mechanisms- bat the eyelids, bite your bottom lip, should’ve worn the lower-cut top today.

Still crying, I look again towards the door, then back at the knife. He pulls a half-empty water bottle from his jacket pocket and hands it to me. “Drink.”

I consider the bottle. It looks like water, though being handed an open drink by any man is never a good sign. I consider my broken piece of bottle, noticing how he hasn’t yet glanced at my hands. All I need is one good stick.

I lunge. Both shaking hands in front of me, I aim right for the throat, but he’s quicker than I anticipated. He shifts at the last second, the broken piece lodging into his shoulder. I try to pull it out, but now he’s grabbed hold of the back of my hair, pulling me off him and forcing me to look up at the ceiling. I feel the cool pressure of his blade against my exposed neck.

“Points for effort,” he growls. “Now, we’re going to try this again, and this time you’re going to drink.” He lowers the knife from my neck, one hand still in my hair. He raises the bottle to my lips and I drink, coughing and sputtering until I’ve finished the bottle.

The floor begins to swim under my feet. He walks away, the door clanging shut behind him. I drop down, letting sleep take me.

. . .

“Will you go out with me?” Jamie asks. I can’t remember his last name. I think I’ve spoken to him… once? Maybe?

“Uhm. No,” I say to his feet.

“You’re a bitch anyways, you know that?” his jaw clenches and he turns around, walking back toward his friends. I sit back down at my empty lunch table, ignoring their obnoxious chortles. Anxiety swells in my chest, scuttling up into my throat. I look down at my egg sandwich, appetite lost. I bet other girls would’ve said yes, but I’m not crazy or obsessed with boys like they are. I’m different. I don’t listen to Taylor Swift, or do my makeup in the bathroom, or watch Twilight. No, I have real hobbies, like journaling and running. Although, nobody seems to think those are okay, either.

“Hey, come sit with us,” a girl says. High, glossy ponytail and perfect pink lip gloss look down at me. I recognize her as Sarah, a senior on the cheer team and the reigning Prom queen. Her smile is warm, but this feels like a trap. I consider my alternative, to sit here and continue to try and ignore the looks from Jamie and his friends.

“Okay, thanks,” I gather my lunch together and follow her back to her table. She introduces me to the rest of her friends.

“This is Chandni,” Sarah says. I repeat it back, making sure I pronounce it correctly.

“Chon-duh-knee,” I say, my white tongue stumbling over each syllable. She smiles at me, nodding her head.

“And this is Jasmine, Sydney, and Morgan,” Sarah says. As we finish eating, I try to place one fact to each of them. Chandni hates sweet tea. Jasmine doodles impressively detailed eyes. Sydney adores “Grey’s Anatomy”. Morgan wants to go to college down in Florida.

And Sarah, the girl whose name was in everyone’s mouths the day after Prom -recanting stories and rumors and everything in between- the girl I thought I had not a single thing in common with, she likes to journal, too.

Maybe I was wrong about her. Come to think of it, nobody had any comments to make about the Prom king. Maybe I was wrong about a lot of things. Believing that there are any shameless hobbies for girls. Believing the guy who said his ex was crazy. Believing what the media told me about Taylor Swift.

Believing that I was in this alone.

Maybe… other girls are just that- other girls.

. . .

Strong hands shake me awake. I try to see whom, but invisible coins sit on top of my eyelids, dragging them down.

“Build up his ego, bury your own,” I slur, trying to regain full consciousness. Fragments of memories slip through my mind. Under no circumstances reveal that you’re smarter than him.

“How much did you give her?” Someone asks. My eyes struggle open. Three men stand over me, another is still shaking my shoulders. Don’t you want him to like you? Don’t you want him to think you’re pretty? Well, you should.

Hands lift me, a hand around the back of my knees and another around my back. My head lolls to one side, but I still can’t pry my eyes open. It is much preferred for ladies not to say a word. She who bites her tongue gets the man. A door clangs and I smell rain. A beep sounds and I’m on the hard floorboards of the trunk again.

I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to… sleep.

. . .

My first kiss was my fault. I did not want it to happen, I turned away twice, I told him I wanted to go home, but I had texted him beforehand that I would, so he did it anyway. He was never held accountable for the promises he made, but I certainly was for mine.

I suppose I should be grateful. As far as scarlet letters go, my story is remarkably gentle compared to the rest of my friends’. Sometimes we like to compete with them, shine pretty little lights on our pretty little scars. The only rule is that they have to be truthful, but that rule has never been broken. There’s never been a lack of material.

We gauge the winner by playing Never Have I Ever. You say something that’s never happened to you, and then if it has happened to someone else, they put a finger down. The first person to have all ten fingers down wins. It starts easy. Never have I ever had my ass pinched by a random guy. Never have I ever been catcalled. Never have I ever had an old man touch the small of my back.

As the game goes on, they get more specific. You can tailor a phrase to fit only one person, in the hopes that someone will do the same for you. Never have I ever had my drink spiked by a guy with red hair. Never have I ever had the cops ask what I was wearing. Never have I ever used a friend’s insurance at the doctor the next morning. We giggle and swap jokes, poking at old bruises in tandem. We tell ourselves that there is healing within the humor; that there is power in reclaiming the punchline. What do you call a fat girl with a rape whistle? Optimistic.

Lines are crossed with lace and satin, tangling together in a beautiful, mangled braid. We leave knots to find our way back to one another, never trying to untwine them. Instead, we press our lips gently to them, in recognition.

You are damaged. You are loved. You are seen.

. . .

“Pop the trunk,” a man says. My neck aches, it’s been stuck at the wrong angle for too long. Pins and needles assault my left leg.

“Look man, we’re just going down to the beach for a day, is this really necessary?” I recognize my captor’s voice.

“There’s an amber alert out, and regardless, it’s policy,” the man says. “You want to cross? Pop the trunk.” Cross? A border? Oh god, please open the trunk.

Visions of missed milestones pass through my head. Graduating. Moving out. Getting married. To have and to hold, to be had and be owned; if you’re borrowed, forget it, if you leave him blue, forget it. Settle for used but you must be new.

I hear muffled shouts and punches being thrown. Somebody hits the gas; I’m thrown violently against the door of the trunk. I feel around for anything that might help me but find only a roll of duct tape and an empty water bottle. Think, think. The car veers left; sirens are catching up to us. They blare louder and louder, screaming hope and prayer. Relief floods through my body, all the way down to my toes. There’s no way he gets out of this. There’s no way-

CRASH!

I’m weightless, floating, and free.

fact or fiction

About the author

Emma Sikes

If you can’t blow them away with your brilliance, baffle them with your bs.

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