Her mother had warned her about going to the woods on her own. As usual, she hadn’t listened, preferring instead to do what she wanted; how she wanted. Today was the first day she wished she’d listened.
It was a beautiful day, the crispness in the afternoon sunny air signaling that summer was quickly coming to an end. The stores were now stocking binders and pens, the beach balls and flipflops were pushed back to clearance section. But Naomi wanted to squeeze every last ounce of summer out, before heading into her last year of elementary school. She had a nagging suspicion that after this year, things were going to be different. While High School seemed ages away, she could feel the changes in her body signaling that things were different now. The dreams she had about Jared and Derek. The way her body squeezed and quickened when she thought of being close to them. She could never decide which one she preferred. If only one of them would have shown any interest in her, she would have chosen him to be her boyfriend, for sure. But no, they always talked about the pretty Claudia, the exotic Renee, who had boobs before anyone else. Naomi was sure she’d be “the friend” to all the boys until she was at least 20. As she looked in the mirror that morning, she decided that the boys didn’t like her because her hair was just a little too frizzy, her nose just a little too big. If only she had a different nose, then she’d be pretty and all the boys would like her, not Claudia or Renee. She angled the hand mirror in her hand and glanced into the bathroom mirror to see her profile. “Yup”, she confirmed to herself, for the 100th time that summer, “nose too big”. She dreamt about the day she could wear makeup, and be able to shadow her eyes, to take the emphasis away from her big nose, as her teen magazines advised her.
She’d called Renee, Claudia and even Vicki, who normally she couldn’t stand, but they were all busy with back to school shopping. Her urge to go see Jared and Derek in the woods that day was stronger than ever, the thought of being alone with them was exciting, even though her Mom had warned her not to. What was the worst that could happen? Her first kiss? She inhaled, excited by the thought. Would it be Jared? Or Derek?
She lifted her bike up over the high metal plates as she crossed the train tracks and the sharp teeth of the pedal gouged into her leg. She always crossed the track quickly, even though the trains rarely passed. This was the first time she’d hurt herself. She paused a minute, wondering if she should go back, but when she saw Derek’s bike at the edge of the forest, she continued.
Winding through the trees, along the thorny path, she arrived at the clearing where they’d hang out every afternoon, sitting on milk crates, eating candy and telling stupid stories. But the air felt different today. Jared, Derek and Marek were crowded around a magazine and all three looked up at her at the same time with a weird look. Her pulse quickened, the cut on her leg started to ache. I shouldn’t have come.
But she didn’t want to look awkward or weird, so she sat down and pulled out some Popeye cigarettes, crunching on one and passing the box to Jared. As their hands touched, he looked at her differently. He’d never looked at her like that before. It was almost the way she wanted him to look at her, but not quite. The right side of his lips curled into a smile, and he passed her the magazine.
“What do you think, Naomi? Look what Marek found in his brother’s room,” he said it almost daringly.
She looked down at the magazine and took in the images of naked women with big breasts and hair between their legs. She pretended to look surprised, but she’d seen magazines like this before. She’d found some hidden in the basement one night when Mandy was over for a sleepover. How they’d pored over the images, looking at the women’s bodies, wondering if their bodies would one day look like this. When looking at them with Mandy, she’d felt safe, curious, even excited. But today, she felt worried. She realized that Jared, Derek and Marek were looking at her, like they were looking at these pictures. And it didn’t make her feel safe, curious or excited. She suddenly understood why her mother had told her not to go to the woods alone.
She started looking around, thinking about how she could leave without too much fuss, when Marek brought out a rope they’d used last week to make swings from the tree.
“Come here, Naomi, I want you to help me with something,” he said.
She stood up. “What?” she asked, trying to sound confident, not afraid, even though every cell in her body was terrified.
“Come on, Naomi,” Derek said, “It’s not like we’re going to tie you to the tree and rape you”.
They all started laughing and she joined in, wondering what rape was. She had no idea, but had a strong feeling that it wasn’t good and she didn’t want to wait around to find out what it was.
Adrenaline surged through her body; she started to sweat and ran along the path towards her bike. They quickly followed, and Derek cut to another path. Jared grabbed at her arm, trying to hold her back, but she shook him loose and kept running. Marek just laughed as he followed along. “Stop it, Naomi, we’re not going to hurt you. Come back” On she ran. In moments, she saw the edge of the forest, the road, she was so close. Then Derek appeared in front of her, with a massive board that he lifted out of the bushes and blocked the exit to the street. Tears blinding her, she headed left, through the thick brambles, she knew she could get out of the forest in another 20-30 feet, if only she could get through the brambles before they got to her. The thorns scraped and gouged her legs, but she felt nothing, only her heart pounding and the distance to her freedom getting smaller and smaller. Two feet from where the forest met the townhouse lawn, Jared pushed her and she fell, face forwards. He grabbed her bloody leg and tried to pull her back into the forest, but she screamed and kicked him square in the face.
“You bitch, you broke my nose, you’re gonna pay for that” he yelled as he let go of her leg and caught the blood pouring from his face. Retrieving her leg, she dove out of the path and onto the grass. Cars sped past on the road and people sat in their gardens. The day was normal for them. Did they not see what was happening?
Naomi looked around in terror, where was her bike?
“Hey Naomi, how about we lift your bike up into the tree?” Derek and Marek had thrown one edge of the rope around a high tree branch, and were in the process of tying up her bike to the other.
That was more than Naomi could take. Her freedom so close, her body, if not her soul, still intact, she erupted into hysterical crying. A couple walked by on the sidewalk, glancing at her as they passed. Jared came up to her and gently put his arm around her “Oh, sis, don’t worry,” he said kindly, glancing at the couple to see if they’d bought his phony sibling concern, “we’ll give you your bike back.” The couple said nothing, only watched and slowed down their pace, as Marek and Derek untied her bike and gave it back to her.
Shaking with fear, blinded by tears, she sped away, glancing over her shoulder to see if they were following her. They weren’t, but called after her “Don’t bother telling anyone, they’ll never believe you. And anyways, nothing happened, Naomi. Nothing happened. Can’t you take a joke?”
The images raced through her head. Had anything really happened, she wondered. What would she say? Who would she tell? All her friends knew how much she liked Jared and Derek, they would never believe her. And her mother had told her not to go alone. If she told her mother what had happened, she’d probably be mad. I can handle this on my own. I’m almost 12 years old, I’m not a little girl anymore.
As she crossed the overpass, she paused and looked down into the oncoming traffic. Too easy. Too messy. She biked on, dangerously weaving in and out of cars on the boulevard, not stopping at stop signs, holding her breath as she sped through intersections without slowing down. Hoping for fate to intervene to numb the pain, the images, the confusion.
Naomi turned the corner and pedaled down the road as fast as she could, “I’m not going to stop, the water is right there. I’ll just go. I won’t stop”, she told herself. But as the water neared, her hands gripped the brakes and she skidded to a stop only 2 feet from the edge of the fall. The contents of a ripped garbage bag were strewn on the ground. Tears started flowing again, every muscle ached, sobbing, she noticed a greeting card. Through the flood of tears she read it. “My condolences on your loss…”
Naomi interpreted that as a sign that she didn’t need to die to erase the pain. If she did, then her family would soon be getting cards like this and no one would even know why she’d done it. Her Mom would cry, her dad would implode and her sister would be alone. And who would take care of her beloved cat, she wondered. No, she couldn’t do that to her cat, he needed her.
Naomi looked out on the river until her heartbeat returned to normal. And now, this…it was probably her fault. No one would believe her. And after all, nothing had happened.
When Naomi walked into the house that night, she said hello but couldn’t look her mother in the eye. She said she needed to shower before dinner, and as she watched the dirt from the day fall off her body, she rubbed her aching legs and paused over the cut from the bike pedal. I should have known better. The steam from the shower had fogged up the mirrors. She saw yesterday’s shower fog message to herself “I love Jared & Derek”. Her heart closed in on itself as she wiped it out and wrote “I HATE Jared & Derek”. She hoped her mother would see it and ask why.
Kathleen Oakland is a support worker at a sexual assault hotline and intervention center. She believes strongly in empowering women and men to make healthy, compassionate choices. This is her first short story.