by Sarah K. Stephens
It was a night that sang to you, offering its melody as collateral to the ongoing wager between enjoyment and cruelty. Thursdays always were back then.
Todd and Matt and Scott were all in the car, enjoying the freedom of another evening with nothing more important to do than avoid pissing their pants. And even that was excusable.
The cross streets ran in a tiny grid away from campus, and everyone, Todd and Matt and Scott assumed, knew that they were really just there as suggestions.
Todd drove that night, with Matt sitting shotgun and Scott strapped into the back seat like a drunken toddler, his mouth pressed to the glass to produce a vaguely digestive soundtrack for their run from the keg shop back to Alpha Chi Lambda.
The boys were already punchy. A few pre-gamed drinks plus another synchronized text from the University’s S(luts) A(nonymous) ticker-tape announcing “Perpetrator Unknown” had left them feeling unsinkable.
It was really no one’s fault. The ‘International Student’ clearly didn’t realize the natural law of this land, where cars were indomitable. Why else would she have crossed the street with all of them, Todd and Matt and Scott, revving at the intersection, just waiting for an excuse to sprint across?
‘Want to play Duck Hunt?’ Todd had yelled before pressing the accelerator and lunging the hulk of steel towards the girl. Even now, after all the outside scrutiny, Matt didn’t know what he’d meant.
The girl heard the car’s engine and her head turned just as the tawny body of the sedan reared across the small hill of the road. It bore down on her finely-boned body and, like a fish, she flopped herself out onto the grassy berm. Matt saw her mouth puff itself into an exuberant ‘O’ as she gasped for breath.
Laughter erupted from the boys, filling the car with the smell of stale beer.
If it had ended there, this night would just be an anecdote to share over future homecoming weekends. But it hadn’t. Vanity ensured it wouldn’t.
Matt, offering himself an admiring glance in the side mirror, saw her mixed with his own reflection. She was a different figure from the one on the grass but feminine in the vague tucks and curves of her form. Her phone scorched the inky black of the night for one brilliant second with its flash before she discreetly shoved it back into her coat pocket and continued on her way.
His relaxed mind scrambled to make sense of what he’d seen. Picture. License plate. His car. Evidence. The connections were sloppy, but the outer edges were solidly hewn. They were in the shit.
“Turn right,” Matt yelled at Todd, twisting the steering wheel himself when Todd tried to keep going straight.
Matt explained the situation as quickly as he could, and both Todd and Scott agreed.
They swung around the corner in the car, brashly filled with purpose. People like her could not be tolerated.
She stood there on the corner, waiting to cross, entitled and unworried. Matt could see the white lines of her ear buds dangling in a disembodied dance, but because of the lack of illumination only the general outline of her darkly swaddled shape was perceptible. Black or possibly navy wool coat. A scarf puffing out of her throat like a bullfrog.
Scott opened the door and snatched her, the unsuspecting body folding easily in the panicked surprise of being touched. They drove off with the heavy weight of her bag pressing into Matt’s thighs.
The boys were gone before the other girl, Floppy Fish, made it over the crest of the corner. Certain that no one had seen them, Matt and Scott and Todd couldn’t suppress the urge to touch each other in congratulations, sliding palm against palm or rasping their knuckles in a collision of defiant celebration.
She struggled at first and Matt could hear her attempts to cry out muffled by her tightly-knotted scarf. He vaguely recalled that it was cold outside, although he was only wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. His mother still texted him reminders to dress for the weather, which he ignored. Eventually Scott whispered something to her and she fell silent, her head pushed down below the seat by his hairy tarantula of a hand. The only sound in the car for the remainder of the ride was her wet breath heaving against the fabric of her scarf.
Matt felt odd bumps in her bag pushing into his legs and opened it to see a community of sad leavings. Tupperwares, handi-wipes, juice boxes, oversized ring of keys. His mother’s purse had the same now useless junk in it, too.
When they got back to the house, the woman walked obediently through the basement door and into the dank room. It was filled with the carcasses of overstuffed couches and one semi-naked poster of Rihanna hung below the solitary glass block window. Scott had pulled her hat down over her eyes in a moment of total brilliance, so the boys were fairly sure she didn’t know where she was.
No one turned the lights on and the room remained in a muted effervescence, the glow cast by the neon Heineken sign someone had strung up last winter break with a reference to it being ironic. Or meta. At the moment, Matt couldn’t remember what either idea meant.
Scott, who had defaulted into his role as guard, led her to a place on the sofa and sat her down with a gentlemanly hand at her elbow. The three boys stared at each other in the dark, the whites of their eyes asking the others what their next play was.
Suddenly, Matt’s body revolted and a stream of body-temperature beer erupted from his gut and onto the filthy linoleum floor. It was revelatory enough to encourage Todd and Scott’s dominance. Wordlessly, they’d decided that Matt would do it.
Todd ran up the stairs, leaving Scott and Matt alone with her. Matt couldn’t see her face and her body remained shrouded and sexless. He could make out thin, knee-high boots on her legs the same dark color as the night outside.
She hadn’t moved since they sat her down. She hadn’t spoken again, not since Scott gave her his directions in the car. The two boys could hear scrapes and shuffling upstairs, but the minutes ticked by and Todd still didn’t reappear.
“You’ll have to do it,” Scott finally said to Matt, breaking the silence that had settled.
The sharp intake of breath from the woman surprised both of them. They’d almost forgotten she was sitting there, playing dead in her parka.
It was their little ritual, the three boys. Except usually the girls were way past gone. And definitely not scared. Matt wondered if they could get the woman drunk too, but then realized he’d rather leave the scarf where it was. It’d be easier that way, especially if she was old.
Todd came back, bearing a decrepit roll of duct tape. The entire process took five minutes as the boys moved with practiced assurance, despite the new variables at play. They kept her coat and everything else on her the entire time, none of them at all interested in who she was or what she looked like. Todd did her hands as Scott leaned on her back, smirking into her ear. This time Matt could hear what he was telling her.
Matt was already a little deflated as it was, with the beer and the puke, without having to rouse himself inside folds of wool smelling like moss and campfire and home. But he did it, because he had to. Some lessons can’t be taught—they need to be shown.
Afterwards they drug her back into the car the same way they brought her in, screeching around the grid until they felt like they might fall over themselves from dizziness. Scott threw her out the door, calling one last reminder to behave herself.
Matt and Todd and Scott fell asleep on the floor in Matt’s room that night, the adrenaline leaching out of their bodies with each well-paced breath. The morning brought no further realizations, except that each had pissed themselves in the night.
Razzing each other about the ammonia-reek, each boy eventually got up to take a shower or eat breakfast. Matt noticed the bag was still there, waiting patiently in his room. They’d have to get rid of it. He pawed through it first, looking for something useful. Tucked inside were papers and books. He owned one of them—he’d ‘read’ it for a class his freshman year and had kept it on his shelves for visual effect. Her wallet rested at the bottom. For a brief moment he considered not opening it. She was there in the driver’s license photo, looking back at the camera with a calm nonchalance. Matt assumed she wouldn’t look like that again any time soon.
After breakfast, Todd and Matt and Scott went downtown to get a few essentials. Toilet paper. Red Bull. Condoms.
The day was bright and clear, unlike the night before. The three boys walked with pride, one word cycling through Matt’s mind. Flawless. Flawless. Flawless.
Their phones dinged in unison, and in the innocence of delusion they expected the message flashing up in the generic green light to be like all of the other messages. About classes, or girls, or pizza.
This message would remain in each of their phones, casting a shadow on the backs of their retinas for years and years, even as they made their way to airless interview rooms and courthouses that were a wet dream for Murphy’s Oil soap. Through all the television interviews and lawyers’ fees and parental tears--even as a finger pointed from across the courtroom—it would be this one image that remained, echoing in the garbage dump of their visual fields.
“SA Warning: Sexual Assault Reported--Perpetrator Known.”