I hug my wet sweater to my body as I stare at the retreating bus. Seriously? Bitch, I take this bus every day, and you let me sleep through my stop? I can see my ragged breath as the rain becomes sleet. I wrap my arms so tightly around myself, tighter than any transient lover ever has.
Fine. I’ll walk, in the sleet, in my good leather heels. It’s only one stop, nothing to complain about.
I walk quickly, purposely. I’m not a victim, my body telegraphs. See? Move on, move on to easier prey. I must be home before full dark.
I’m not safe after dark. Or so Mama says.
Should I grip my keys in my fist, so they are daggers between my fingers? Fish the pepper spray, a Christmas stocking gift, out from the bottom of my purse? I should have/could have done all those things on the bus. But instead, I slept, without even a dream to dwell on. Now there is no time to fumble and root in my overstuffed bag. I grip the strap on my shoulder so tightly my long nails dig into my palm.
I walk more quickly, my toes numbing in my water-stained leather heels.
Work was exhausting today. So hard to smile as I speak into the headset, dreaming of going home. So hard to wear the pretty mask that smiles and nods and fits imperfectly. To eat cold, tasteless food in a grimy breakroom with coworkers who sit too close, preening and complaining. I long for something hot and filling, fresh and vital, that isn’t entombed in Styrofoam or leaking rancid oil.
The sleet ends, and the swirling, gauzy clouds, backlit in silver moonlight and starshine, begin to thin. The dim, scattered street lights are twinned on the wet, pot holed street. There are no cars to be seen, no commuters rushing home. Not here. This neighborhood isn’t safe. Not after dark.
The way is slick and slippery now. There is a thin, sleety crust of virginal purity on the side walk. My heels dent and mar it in my passing, leaving a wake of gritty slush. Tracks for a hunter. Home is close now, and I recall a shorter route than the bus, in its lumbering, would take.
I pause at the narrow alley entrance. There is a stutter in my step. I almost keep walking because my short cut is so dim without moonlight. But it is a short cut. I can almost smell the aroma of hot meat stew with carrots, bright and orange, stained by thick gravy, that is sure to be waiting for me in the slow cooker.
It’s almost full dark. I can’t be out. I’m not safe after dark.
I’m hurrying, Mama. I’ll be home before dark, I commit as I enter the alley.
My heels are hurting me now, the wet leather loose and sloppy on my narrow feet. Less sleet here, more ice. No tracks. Every heel click echoes against the forgotten, rusty dumpsters to my right and left. The cloying scent of old decay is dimmed by the cold and the icy crust sealing their lids. Nothing moves in the alley. Nothing scurries or feeds or fights. They know it’s not safe, so near dark.
My sodden sweater drags at my shoulders. My body feels like iron mail. My hands are numb and swollen, the joints ridged, too thick and dumb to work the annoying zipper by my throat. I hurry.
Almost home. No need to complain.
The darkness sharpens my senses, increasing my anxiety. No time for keys and pepper spray now. Now is the time to hurry. A gust of wind swirling through the alley brings a new scent, a mingling of sweat and adrenaline. Or is that just me?
I turn. The entrance to the alley is populated by strange, rough laughter and long shadows. Turning back, I focus on the escape end of the alley, the pale, sleety street framed like a picture by the dark glistening brick walls. I pick up my pace.
“Here kitty, kitty,” the shadow croons.
Rough laughter follows, closer now.
I run, or try to, my heels hobbling my stride. My breath is burning in my lungs. I fling my pocketbook, with my wallet, keys and pepper spray, like a desperate sacrifice to a tyrannical god.
“Here PUSSY, PUSSY,” the shadow sings.
A chorus of meows and gloating laughter bounce off the narrow alley walls, muffling my frantic heel clicks.
I feel his fingers, strong and cruel, digging into the meat of my collar bone. I sigh at the strength, the youth and health that grip implies. I can hear his breath, feel his heartbeat throbbing in the tips of his fingers. The moon, bracketed by the sharp edges of the roofs above me, glows brightly upon me, seeing me. An iridescent halo surrounds her pale beauty, a gift from the storm. Her gift to me.
It’s full, dark, dangerous.
Stepping from my useless heels, I pivot on my pads, turning to face the shadows. My mask slips; my fingers curve to talons. The laughter gasps and I begin.