An ice-laden wind howled at my back, ripping and whipping unkept blonde strands across my face. No matter how many times I tried to combat my hair’s frenzy, they demanded one last dance, as though peeking out from under my hood would somehow convey a cry for help.
Bitter laughter pushed through cracked lips. Help. That was the only thing more mythological than hope. And if there was no hope, why in the world would anybody bother to help? Help to what end?
“Ouch.” I made the mistake of bending my arm to swipe running mascara from my cheek. Pain was quick to remind me that the arm had long-been tourniquet bound. Defeated, I let if flop back to my side.
Barrrrnnnng! An anonymous barge lumbered up the channel, spewing enough black soot to block out entire swaths of city lights along the coast. It was the sight of that giant silhouette cutting through waves, not the ice-cold air, that made every hair on my body prick.
A feral cold coursed through my veins. The blaring horn, the driving wind… that was exactly how that fateful night had started out too. Cold. Hard.
My good hand roved gently up and down, up and down, along my swollen belly as the smattering of frozen rain droplets moved in. Their frozen fingertips thrummed along the waves and rooftops ever louder as the storm approached. Eventually, the sound grew loud enough to subdue the tedium of nighttime traffic playing at my back. So, when a city bus suddenly belched past, blaring its horn and jostling the bridge so much I nearly slipped from the ledge, a terrified scream escaped my throat.
“Aah!” I grabbed at the rust-mottled rail I sat upon. “Idiot!” I growled when I realized what I’d done. The innate instinct to survive had secured my safety and thus, condemned me to my decision-making. And that? Well, that was when the sky’s little icicle spears decided to attack.
“Freaking idiot.” I chided myself again. In the hours since I’d plopped on the edge of this bridge, I’d done everything I could to convince myself to ease over the edge. I mean, heck, just look at me! My feet dangled hundreds of feet in the air, with my now very numb butt barely balancing atop this narrow strip of metal. My left arm had gone numb hours ago, waiting below the tourniquet as I contemplated returning to old habits.
What difference did it make, really? Shooting up was the only escape from pain. True, it was fleeting, momentary and achieved only by sacrificing all the progress I’d made… But a moment free of this agonizing, pulsating pain? Of that inescapable feeling of life leeching right out your body? A moment, just one single, solitary moment without hurt… That was a moment I’d do just about anything to experience again.
My clothes were soaked. Everything hurt. My teeth set to chattering, and the cold… God. The never-ending, world-numbing cold. It served only to make me more miserable, enunciating the hurt.
My belly had grown too large to close my jacket months ago. Instead, tired orange floral peeped through threadbare holes and tares in my once-green sweater. The too-long sleeves went wonky years ago, but by cutting a hole in the side, I’d formed the ends into haphazard mittens. Well, I had my right mitten in use anyway. The left? All three layers of that sleeve were rolled all the way up.
I hadn’t given myself over to needles since the day I discovered I was pregnant. That put me at seven months sober. Seven months of no drugs. No alcohol.
I pulled the tourniquet a bit tighter, not even bothering to wince from the pain. And to think… it all started on your average, miserable, feral ol’ night… a night just like this.
I’d been walking home after a ten-hour shift, my second of the day, when I made the mistake of taking a shortcut through the docks. I’d known better. I wasn’t an idiot, but I was tired. Too tired to walk the extra two miles. I couldn’t justify a ride-share either, not when every penny I made went to healthcare. I’d been diagnosed just a few months before. But my boss at the time didn’t offer insurance, especially not to women. So, I had to get a second job, and then a third job just to bring home as much as any one of my male co-workers made at any one, single, job.
I mean, I can’t blame him. The male co-workers made more because they were worth more. Right?
It wasn’t long before I had to give up my apartment and move into a dilapidated, bug-infested studio further in the city just to afford the monthly premium of my private insurance. Still, the co-pays often left me choosing between medicine and food, and so, I’d had to look for medical relief elsewhere. Not only did it leave me enough money to actually put some food on the shelves, but what I bought on the streets was a fraction of the price the healthcare liaison demanded. Plus, it made the pain completely disappear.
At least, it did at first, but it seemed that with each new day, my haggard body demanded more. I spent every waking moment working my fingers to the bone so that with a needle rammed in my arm, I could snag a few hours of sleep and do it all over again. My routine had grown monotonous. Wake. Work. Suffer. Shoot up. Sleep. Wake. Work. Suffer. Shoot up. Sleep.
Everyday, I woke more tired. I worked longer hours. And I suffered more. So, that night, I took a short-cut, and that foolishness had cost me. Barrrrnnnng! The barge had lumbered out of the cove, having already deposited its team for the night. I was halfway through the docks when I heard it. The raucous laughter and trading voices fell silent. In their place, were shuffling footsteps and whispers.
“No,” I breathed as I pulled my jacket tight and hurried, hurried where I didn’t know. All I knew was that I had to hurry… somewhere. Anywhere. Anywhere but there.
“What have we here?” I giant blocked my path. He towered over me, and as I tried taking a step back, I ran right into three of his buddies.
“Hey!” The middle man barked as he pushed at me roughly. I stumbled forward, nearly crashing into the first giant. His hand swooped under my chin, compelling me to make eye contact. To this day…. I can’t remember what the monster had looked like. Only snippets.
I remember his pale face, well… not his face, but that it was streaked with grime from his work on the barge. And I remember his eyes, an evil blue that seemed to glow like flame in the moonlight. I remember the sheen of sweat that beaded along his skin. I remember a pink tongue flicking across crooked teeth and the stink of his breath. But that’s it. The rest of his features didn’t register, not but his size, his teeth, and his evil, icicle eyes.
He had stared at me for a long time, his gaze lingering until it felt like a thousand slimy worms slithered along my skin. Evidently, I was worthy, because with no warning, he attacked. He ripped my jacket open, and a knife appeared out of nowhere, cutting the length of my shirt. A rough hand moved inside to cup a breast, and tears streamed down my cheeks. Then? He squeezed, blunt fingers burrowing deep into my flesh.
An oath of pain escaped. I was quick to swallow it, just not quick enough. Angry by my outcry, his elbow crashed into my nose before he gripped my shoulders and spun me around. I eyed his three buddies then, but their faces too, are lost to me. I only remember their leers, their hunger, their male need.
They slammed me against the wall, jagged brick biting into my cheek. Greedy hands pulled at clothes. Fingers snaked into the back of my pants, pulling. “Please,” I cried, “no,” only to have my head slammed into the wall again. I tried pulling at my waste, desperate to keep my pants up, but one of the anonymous monsters pinned my hands to the wall and squeezed so hard, I felt sure he’d just ground my bones to dust. “Please.” I foolishly tried again.
“Shut it!” That time, when my face slammed into the blood-slicked wall, little stars exploded at the edges of my vision.
A voice raged as one of the shouting demons shouted something, but I couldn’t hear him, not between my heart thumping in my ears and all the ringing.
Still, “no!” I shouted back as my pants surrendered and dropped to my feet. “No!” I tried breaking free, but my hands were only squeezed harder. “Please.” An arm dropped to the back of my neck, pressing and forcing me forward as though he were trying to press me through the solid brick wall. “Please!”
I spied a man down the alley. He was tall, at least 6’3” and strong as an ox, stronger than my attackers could even dream. His arms bulged through his jacket, and his neck was nearly as wide as his head, a result no doubt of a lifetime spent performing grueling tasks for the Elite, or for any man really, whose skin, like mine… was white.
He wasn’t like my attackers, and I will never forget his face. Not the furrowed unibrow as he spotted us. Not his kind, brown eyes or beautiful skin. Not the full lips that disappeared when he grimaced, recognizing what he saw as an attack.
“Please!” I cried feebly, even as the beasts attacked.
And I will never, ever forget the shame that lined his every feature as he ground his jaw. Regret pained him as those kind eyes dropped to the cracked asphalt and he dragged himself away.
“Please,” but my sobs fell on deaf ears. As my feet were kicked apart, I felt all hope drain from what remained of my life. Instead, I remained mute as the beasts tore at me, traded me and savaged me.
I think I threw up, and my reward was a swift right-hook. With that, the world went dark. When I woke, the sallow lights of night tried to filter the world before me, but it didn’t make sense. My attackers were gone… or rather, the initial wave of anonymous attackers. Instead, the view before me was of a man, a new man, this one dressed in a police uniform.
He was zipping his pants and readjusting his belt, but I knew the dark linen markings.
“Help.” I tried feebly.
The Officer’s head shot up, stunned mouth agape, as his hand hovered over his service weapon.
“Please. Help me.”
He took two steps closer, but he didn’t protect and serve. Instead, his boot lifted high and slammed right down on me.
Barrrrnnnng! The ship’s last call lulled me back to the present, as I sat poised upon the proverbial edge between this life and the next. My fingers continued to contemplate my swollen belly. Since discovering there were two of us now, I’d never felt so alone. I had no way of knowing who the father was. No way of providing for another mouth to feed. No avenue to help.
I remember my grandmother telling me that there used to be programs for new mothers, programs that helped them find housing and food. And jobs. But that was a long time ago. That was before the fall of democracy and the nightmare that followed. That was from a time when women were supposed to have been treated the same as men.
When minorities had rights. When all people were people, or at least, were supposed to be seen as the same.
It seemed so long ago now, it was like a fairytale because the United Americas, they weren’t like that. Not anymore. Here, in the now, women were expected to shut their mouths and service men. They were to keep their legs closed unless opened by men, and then they were to deal with the fallout of that anonymously in the shadows so as to not be deemed guilty of sin.
Grandma hated what this county became. She said women used to vote, single women, not just married women casting votes their husbands allowed. She spoke of something called Roe v. Wade and equal pay as though they were norms. I remember listening to her tales in wide-eyed wonder, at least, I’d listened right up until the day she never made it home.
And the moral of every story was that after the final President: Trump; The United Americas were never the same.
I’d been a good woman. I’d played by the rules. And still, look at where I’d ended up: sitting on the edge of this life. I’d given my all, but I was a woman in a post-democracy world.
Where being a woman? It’s never enough.