I am already speed walking, my breath fogging in the air, I didn’t think I could move any faster without breaking into a run; which I was too afraid might encourage a chase. But really, was I just being silly? I mean, come on, how likely is it that this guy is actually following me? After all, it’s not like this is a quiet, isolated street. I walk it home almost every night. I see other people.
But tonight is different. Maybe I am just being paranoid. This guy is probably walking home too. I’ve only just noticed him; how long has he even been walking behind me? Perhaps he only just turned on to this street. He’s pretty far away too. So far if it weren’t for the way he walked, all heaviness and assuredness, I couldn’t have told if it were male or female.
When I realise I’ve been looking back over my shoulder more than actually where I’m going, I force myself to look ahead, only to find myself straining to hear his footsteps. Can I hear them? Are they getting closer? Faster? I can hear nothing over my own increasing pulse and dry scratching of my breath.
Don’t look behind you.
You don’t need to.
It’s not necessary.
He is not following you.
I am just being paranoid because I am a young woman walking home alone? In a street. At night. Yes, that makes me feel better. I can’t believe I’ve actually managed not to look behind me this entire time, in fact, I think I’ve even slowed down my pace a little.
Maybe if I just…
Nope. He’s closer now. This was a mistake. I start to mentally catalogue my belongings. What could be used as a weapon? An umbrella? I guess. Roll on deodorant? Not helpful. Surely, I must have something on me that could imitate a decent weapon. Something to defend myself with? Wait, wait, there’s something – some self-defence trick I remember hearing about. One of those ‘all women must know this simple trick’ adverts. Something about … keys! Keys, yes, that was it. I have keys. Come on, think, I tell myself.
What was it? Of course, the moment I truly need to remember something I forget it. I bring my bag around to my front and clutch it tightly to my chest. The metal of the zips and chain cut into my skin but I can barely feel it as I grasp the bag still tighter. I pick up my pace, walking faster, breathing heavier.
Maybe I could just outrun him? I’m small. Fast. I can run. But I can’t, I’m stuck.
Trapped in this pace. Was adrenaline not supposed to help you move? To run faster; to
help prey outrun predator? But this bitter flavour in my mouth, this tightening in my muscles and salty sting across my flesh, this did not feel like adrenaline. My legs feel wooden and shaky. Though I am in out in the open I feel cornered. I know that some animals, when they are cornered, just lie down to die; not daring to attempt a fight they know they won’t win. Is that what my body is willing me to do? To just lie down and accept whatever fate awaits me? I do not want to give up but my body does. Why would my body betray me in such a way? Why was this fear so crippling? When really, nothing has even happened yet. Nothing. Abruptly, I come to a halt, because I just cannot take another step. I believe I even sway slightly at the unexpected stillness. I suck in a dry, rattling breath. There are no longer any cars passing in the street. The air is still and dry and the moon barely manages to illuminate the ground in front of me. Dim streetlights and trees cast deep shadows that make me feel both alone and surrounded at the same time.
The voice is gruff and sharp. It sounds like a command. I want to ignore him and keep walking once more. But he calls again and still I don’t move.
“Hey Lady, what ya doin’?” he is very close now and his heavy, certain footsteps drag across the concrete path towards me. To my own horror, I actually turn around to meet him. “I said, what you doin’?” I do not answer and instead, stare at him. He wears baggy cargo shorts and a faded slogan shirt for a kind of beer. He makes some strange face at me and still I am unable to respond. “Lady, ya gotta smoke?” This time I open my mouth, but it’s dry, nothing comes out. I swallow and try again.
“No?” his eyebrows are raised, hand in his pocket, his shoulders and head bent down towards me.
“No, I don’t have any cigarettes.” He runs his tongue quickly across his mouth. “I don’t smoke.”
“Huh.” The sound is more of a grunt than an actual human response. I can’t tell what will happen next. Is he disappointed? Annoyed? Does he believe me? If he believes that I am lying perhaps he will demand some from me. Search me for them. His eyes dart from side to side before focusing back down on me. He opens his mouth, I don’t know what he will say, but I know that I don’t want to hear what it might be.
“Well, bye.” Then I’m walking again. Much faster. I dare to glance back. He is still standing where left him. He watched me as I walk away uncertain as to what had just happened. I attempt to use his shock to get as far ahead of him as possible. My head is still spinning slightly and I’m finding it difficult to swallow around the feeling that my heart is lodged in my throat. But I force myself to swallow anyway and breathe and breathe again.
Nothing happened. Nothing at all. He asked you for a cigarette. He didn’t even touch you. Or yell. Or swear.
You knew you were overreacting.
I was just being paranoid. Letting my mind run away with itself. There was no reason for me to feel so afraid of some guy. Someone I knew nothing about. I keep walking – still fast – but my breathing was beginning to slow again and pulse is no longer thumping in my ears. Not everything is a danger; I just –
“Stop, Lady, where are ya goin’?” He calls out, “don’t just walk away.”
Immediately it is back. The rush of energy and contradictory freezing of my muscles. An uncomfortable tightening of my chest. Because I thought it was over. But I hear something different in his voice. Something subtly rougher. An acidic feeling of anxiety prickles along my skin.
So I don’t stop. I keep walking. I don’t look back.
I can hear him as he starts to follow me. His steps are faster trying to catch up to me but they never lose that lazy drag.
“Just slow down. Let me walk with you.”
I don’t stop.
I don’t reply.
“Where are ya goin’, babe?” he breaks into a light jog. “It’s all fine, I can walk home
I still do not answer him. I’m struggling to ignore a creeping sensation on the back of my neck. A realisation. I don’t believe I can outrun this man. Finally, he catches me. A rough hand closes around my arm and jerks me to a stop. I momentarily lose my footing and for an infinite second I feel like I have fallen out of my body completely; only to be grounded suddenly by the sharpening pain in my arm.
He turns me back around to face him.
“Don’t just walk away from me,” he towers over me and I am forced to look up and into his eyes. They are hooded in shadow and I can’t even make what colour they are. He reeked of cheap alcohol.
“Hey, I’m trying to talk to ya. Just stop and listen for a sec, hey? I’m not that bad. Ya just gotta be a bit nicer.”
“I don’t want to talk to you, and I don’t want you to walk me home, let go.” My voice is unsteady and I pull at my arm but it is a weak attempt.
“Just stop fighting, girl. Relax. I ain’t bad, we can just chat. Even if you don’t have any smokes.” I pull at my arm again, harder, putting my body weight into it a leaning away but it does nothing but agitate him. “I said stop fighting, just…” now he has both hands on me. Trapping me. “What’s wrong with you? Just. Stand. Still.” His fingers are squeezing down on my arms holding me in place. I can do nothing.
This is when it comes back to me. That ‘simple trick all women must know’. But I wonder if I can do it and if it works; whether I will be able to run fast enough. “There now, wasn’t so hard, was it? No need to fight.” He actually chuckles at this, as if it’s all some big joke. My hand is already holding my bag and it is surprisingly easy to slip my fingers in and wrap them around my keys completely unnoticed. The sharper, more jagged feel of my house keys slides lightly against my palm as I slip it carefully and certainly in between my index and middle finger. I pull it out and jab at his stomach but barely stuns him. He is hunched over from the shock and this I time I blindly lash out at his face. The man cries out, clutching at his eye, his hands are no longer on me and so I turn and run.
I don’t stop until I find myself on the other side of my door.
In my house. I am safe.
I wonder what might happen tomorrow night.
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