Trigger warning: threat of sexual assault
On a muggy June afternoon, a mass of black rolling clouds overtake the sky above our little town, charging in like a herd of running bulls stirring up dust. And Everett and I barely make it inside the laundromat before the downpour starts.
As the washing machine does its thing, we sit silently across from one another in plastic yellow chairs. Each time the lightning casts its ghostly glare through the windows, I brace myself for the moment the splintering sound of the thunder’s booming voice will startle me.
Lately, it seems, I jump at every noise, whether I’m expecting it or not.
I love my older brother, he’s been both mother and father to me for the last four of my seventeen years and I can’t deny he’s always put me first. Ahead of his friends, ahead of his girlfriends, ahead of his sports teams, ahead of any part of his life that didn’t involve me. All those nooks and crannies of a popular college boy’s world that really should belong to only him. That’s how it would have been if mom and dad were still alive.
“Hey, Stephanie,” he begins, swallowing a lump caught in his throat, “there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you, I know that for a while now, you’ve have your suspicions that something’s up with me.”
Everett’s hands fidget with his phone, his bottle green eyes on the screen one minute and then darting up to meet mine the next. He’s as anxious as I am just before I write a math test.
Tears, hot, wet and plentiful form behind my eyes and when I blink I can feel them trickle down my face slowly.
“I already know what it is Ev and I’m not going to pretend that I’m not freaking out. I’m so scared that sometimes I want to throw my phone against the wall or scream like a crazy person in the middle of the night. I can’t lose you, it’s selfish I know, but you’re all I’ve got. And I can’t bear for you to tell me that you’re sick again.”
“What are you talking ab—?”
Ev’s half-formed question hangs suspended in the air as the door opens and three men in dark hoodies and masks rush into the laundromat straight at us, each brandishing a knife in one of their hands.
I find it suddenly hard to breathe and there’s a strange tightness in my chest I’ve never felt before. Helplessly, I watch horrified as the scene unfolds, even while dark spots seem to dance in front of my eyes.
The tall skinny one is the leader and speaks with a Spanish accent. He tells my brother that he’ll kill him and his little Chiquita if he doesn’t give him his wallet, his watch and any jewelry he’s got on him.
“You got a car muchacho? Out there in the parking lot? A sweet ride that now belongs to us, Si?”
“N-no… I don’t… m-my sister and I took a t-taxi here. Please I’ll give you what you want… just don’t hurt us.”
“Ha!” laughs the thief loudly, “that’s what they all say. You must watch a lot of fucking stupid TV cop shows huh? Dumbass college boys, you’re all alike!”
But instead of answering him and before the skinny culprit can say or do anything else, my brother starts taking off his watch and pulling out his wallet and handing it over to him. He does it so fast and so smoothly, I’m mesmerized just looking at him go. I can’t believe how quickly he thrusts it at the boss of the hooligans, and though he stutters and his voice gets really high-pitched, he manages to tell the crook all about his cash and credit cards and how he can have it all. He says he’s got seventy bucks and some change in the wallet and two credit cards with no limits. He assures him his watch is worth at least a hundred dollars if not more.
“That’s good, that’s good, we gonna take every last penny of your money, don’t you worry ‘bout that!”
There’s a damn good chance my teeth are going to start chattering soon and I telepathically will the thugs to turn around and leave before that happens. I want them to go right this second, back out that door. I want them to be gone. I want them to disappear. I never want to see them again even though I realize that I am not really seeing them. There’s no way either me or Everett will be able to identify these gangsters, their masks are thick, black and cover everything. Their clothing doesn’t expose one millimeter of their arms, hands or even wrists. Sleeves and gloves cover all that up and it just so happens that I am the one who watches the cop and detective shows so I have a pretty good idea what they’ll ask us. They’ll want to know about distinctive markings like tattoos or scars and details about their voices, their accents. But the leader is the only one who’s spoken.
“Hey boss,” a gravelly sound like a sinister whisper materializes to the left of me. It belongs to another one of the gang members and I can’t believe my ears when, breathing heavily, he says, “this little Chiquita is a beauty though, no? So young and innocent and so hot. How ‘bout we stick around and have a little bit of fun with her Si? It’s kinda dark in here and the storms still going good out there. No one ain’t gonna hear or see nothin’ if we take her back there behind the machines. We can all have a turn amigo.”
My heart drops down into my stomach like an out of control elevator plummeting at breakneck speed… all the way down… to the depths of hell… or some place just like it. This can’t be happening here in this quaint little mountainside town where everyone has always, my whole life, seemed so kind and compassionate. This cannot be happening to me… to us.
The head of the gang hesitates looking at me with his dark eyes through the holes of his mask, I can see and feel them burning into my skin as he takes in my face, my long auburn hair, my short-sleeved indigo blue satin shirt and tight blue jeans. I even see him study my pink pearl nail-polished toes peeking from my summer sandals. And I want to scream and cry and have super powers– oh God how I want to have super powers– as my heart does another flip flop and my lungs can’t seem to get enough oxygen. I think I’m on the verge of hyperventilating.
My gaze rests on the steady rain falling out there on the other side of the doors that separate us from the outside world, from safety and freedom. That’s where I want to be, out there, getting drenched by the deluge of water that’s gathering in pot holes and between dips and valleys of uneven pavement, forming huge puddles everywhere.
I want to be anywhere but here. And yet I’m not. Something really bad is going to happen to me, something vile and vicious and traumatic. And I feel like I’m drowning in the fear.
“Wait! Please! Please don’t hurt her. Please just leave her alone. She doesn’t deserve this. If you let us go, if you promise not to do anything to us, if you just forget you even saw us here and leave, I can tell you something that might help you even more. I know you give the orders and the decision is yours. So if you can be a true leader and a man of your word then I’ll be a man of mine, I swear.”
My brother’s begging and pleading sounds exactly like that of those countless victims in my shows, and the dread works its way further down my spine, slithering like the cold skin of a venomous reptile. I shiver even more thinking that it’s never going to work. It never works in those shows and I’m pretty sure it never does in real life either. Does it?
But at that moment, a powerful gust of wind sets a shopping cart gliding out of control in the parking lot and as it smashes nosily into a parked car, another car’s headlights cut through the falling raindrops. Then another car pulls up. And another. And then two more. The strip mall is getting busy all of the sudden and this seems to rattle boss man quite a bit. I know he’s thinking that they should really get out of here now if they want to make a clean getaway.
Please let him be thinking that, I plead with God.
Before I can move, the blade of the knife is pressing against my throat and I feel the cool sharp edge quivering alongside my clammy skin.
“Ok gringo. I’ll take you up on your offer. Even though I could easily slit this little hot tamale’s throat in two seconds, I’ll let you both go with no marks on you and no blood spilled from you, if you tell me your secret. And if it’s any fucking good.”
Oh shit! I cry inwardly. What if Everett’s bluffing? I mean what could he possibly tell this guy to get us out of this mess? I can’t think of a single damn thing.
“Ok, this might sound crazy but listen to me man. Inside my left shoe, on the part that covers my ankle, there’s four-hundred dollars stitched into the nylon mesh. If you take your knife and carve right into that netting, you’ll be sure to find it, I promise you.”
There’s a pause, the blade pushing into my skin moves and I swear I can feel a pinch and then abruptly it’s gone. As soon as it’s in his hands, my would be assailant begins slicing into Everett’s high-top while yelling at the other two that they can’t stick around any longer, they can’t risk it, they need to get out of there fast. But, he tells them, if the college boy is lying they will take the little piece of ass with them to play with later.
A car horn blares, the startling sound eerily out of place as it pierces through the tense quiet atmosphere of the laundromat, even the washing machine has stopped its spin cycle whirring noise. The guy in charge starts to get visibly antsy now. He hacks the shit out of my brother’s Nike Air Max and is excited to find that, true to his word, Everett indeed has four one-hundred dollar bills sewn right into that shoe in the most bizarre of secret hiding spots.
“Come on amigos, let’s get the hell out of here now! Sorry brother, we’ll find you another hot Chiquita later! Right now, let’s roll!”
They run out as fast as they ran in.
And when the door clicks closed behind them, I can’t explain how the relief hitting me feels. I can’t even try to.
Sobs take over my body and I don’t even remember moving my feet when I’m suddenly in his arms, his huge warm frame holding my small icy-cold one, enveloping me in a bear hug and gently murmuring “it’s alright Stephie, you’re alright,” in my ear.
It takes an excruciating half hour for the police to finishing questioning us and another twenty minutes for them to help us get Everett’s car keys from under the vending machine where he somehow slid them when the culprits weren’t looking.
By the time we get home, I’m exhausted and my eyes are red-rimmed and swollen from the endless river of tears I’ve wiped away. We shower and change into our most comfortable clothes, and my brother pours us both a vodka ginger-ale not caring that I’m only seventeen and it’s illegal for me drink. Or that the only taste of alcohol I’ve ever had is a quarter of a glass of champagne at a handful of friends’ weddings and graduations.
But I’m still chilled by the thought of what could have happened to me and I still can’t stop shaking, can’t get my body and mind to relax as much as I thought they both would by now. I think I do need a stiff drink to quiet my panic down. So I take a few quick gulps and then several more and even more after that until I begin to relish the warmth seeping into my bloodstream and filling me with a strange sort of calm. Mission accomplished I guess.
“If you want to talk about what happened or could have happened, if that’s what you need to feel better Stephanie, we can and I’m all ears. But if you’d rather not, I’m ok with that too.” My brother asks me these questions looking at me as if he’s searching for the answers in my eyes, the same sort of eyes he sees when he looks in the mirror. We both have irises with that avocado-green hue people always comment on.
“No. No way. I don’t need to re-live the whole thing just to heal… or… get closure… or… whatever. I’m going to be alright, just like you said. I mean, I’ll probably never leave the house now for the rest of my life or let you out of my sight, but other than that, I’m good.” I flash him a hint of smile and feel so much better when he grins back at me. He’ll always be one of the best people in my life.
“Good, then let’s talk about what you were saying before those dicks ambushed us. Why did you mention something about me being sick?” he asks with a frown.
I tip back another sip of my drink, and study the ice cubes melting into weird shapes at the bottom of the glass. Then I gather my courage, take a deep wobbly breath, and tell him the truth.
“I found an old shoe box filled with mom’s stuff a few weeks ago. I saw the newspaper clippings, the stories and photos of a five-year old kid with leukemia. Mom had put your hospital bracelet and some of your hair in there too. You never told me you had cancer when you were a kid. And I’m terrified to ask but I just have to… has it come back? Am I going to lose you like we both lost mom and dad?”
Everett shakes his head and reaches over to pat my hand like every big brother should do when a sibling is dying inside. But I know not everyone’s like him. I’m one of the lucky ones whose brother is just out-of-this-crappy-world good.
“The cancer is not back and I’m not going to die; you’re stuck with me for a lot of years yet kid,” he pauses to take a long drink; I can see his Adam’s apple moving as he swallows so much of the liquid at once, then he gives his head another quick shake before saying “no, this is entirely something else. And the reason I’ve been hiding it from you is because it’s just so huge and shocking and wacky, you’re going to be blown away. I mean, I can’t even begin to guess how you’ll react to it. You might be angry and hurt or you might look at it as an opportunity for something good. Like I have. It’s all going to be up to you though Steph. I’ve made my peace with it and I think it can be a good thing. That there can be a certain… warmth… and… who knows? Maybe even… joy… in it.”
“Ok…“ I say slowly, “now I really need to know, there’s no way you can leave me hanging bro. Out with it, you can just rip off that band-aid.”
And he sure does.
“You and I are biological siblings but the parents we knew as mom and dad for most of our lives, actually adopted us. You were three months old, I was four years old. At that age, I was old enough to remember that I had one family for a while and then, suddenly, went to live with another one. I think I took it really hard, being ripped away from the people I knew as my parents. I know I found comfort in having you with me, a tiny three-month old that didn’t do much, but still a living thing connecting me to our real mom and dad. Nevertheless, I had nightmares and went to therapy. And then of course, I started asking questions as I got older. So one day they told me. They were going to tell you too but then… the accident happened. And… now… our birth mother wants to meet us. She’s reached out to me because I’m an adult but I’m telling you about it even though you’re still a minor. I think we should make this decision together.”
Everett and I stay up late going over everything. Since the death of our parents in a car crash, it’s just been the two of us always there for each other and making the best of it. But eventually we come to the conclusion that maybe we can expand our horizons… that maybe we should give it a try. We ought to at least meet this person… and see where the road to find the answers takes us.