Leonie lives in northern NSW, Australia. She studied creative writing at the University of Canberra and writes mostly flash fiction and short stories, with several prizes and publications to her credit.
by Leonie Harrison
Allie struggled to reconcile the larger-than-life monster that lived in her head, with the stooped man here in the flesh. His skin no longer fit his body. It hung in loose creases and folds. That, and the shuffling gait, made her think of an old elephant come home to die. She wished him a long hard death. Without warning, the monster lifted his head, and his eyes locked on hers, before flicking away with no hint of recognition. It sucked the breath out of her. There was a whooshing sound in her ears and she might have fallen, but Gene’s fingers curled around hers, and the solid presence of him kept her upright. He folded her gently into a chair and she shut her eyes in an effort to stop the tremors.
Twenty years on and she could still feel his breath on her face and the chill that coursed through her when she realized it wasn’t a dream. The tip of the blade nicked her throat and she remembers wondering if there’d be blood on the fresh washed sheets. His voice a whisper in the dark.
“Scream and I’ll kill you.”
There was no need for his words. Her body had already shut down, the scream stuck in her throat. She couldn’t have made a sound even if she tried.
“All rise,” said the clerk as the judge swept into the courtroom.
Allie took a deep breath and opened her eyes. Gene squeezed her hand. “You okay?” he said, not looking at her. She didn’t know what hurt him the most; what happened to her or that she’d never told him, but at least now he understood why she double checked the locks on the windows and doors every night, and why there was a part of her that she kept walled off. She squeezed his hand in return, knowing they were both a long way from okay.
It was over in the blink of an eye. An anticlimax. Court adjourned until the following day, the lawyers called to the judge’s chambers to argue over a legal technicality. The courtroom filled with the buzz of a dozen or more conversations. Allie slumped in her chair, knowing she’d have to do it all over again tomorrow. This was just the beginning. There’d be many more tomorrows.
The hallway was packed. The proceedings might have been done, but nobody was ready to leave yet. Allie saw a group of women huddled together. She knew straight away who they were. Her heart thudded in her chest and her cheeks burned as one of them glanced her way. Allie saw the spark of recognition. The woman broke away from the group and strode toward her.
“Hi,” she said, holding out her hand. “I’m Jess. You must be Allie.”
Allie’s arm was pinned to her side. She stared at Jess, who didn’t flinch. She held the line. Allie’s arm moved seemingly of its own volition, and there was her hand cupped between both of Jess’s, and in that moment a bond passed between them. Allie fought back tears, at the nod of understanding that came from the other woman.
Jess’s eyes flicked toward Gene who took the cue.
“Hi. I’m Gene,” he said. “Allie’s husband,” and was rewarded with a warm handshake and a beaming smile.
Jess motioned to the group of women, her eyes fixed on Allie. “Would you like to meet the others?”
Allie knew their names. Jess. Brenna. Tamiko. Sonya… Thirteen in all including Allie. The baker’s dozen the press had named them, the catchy phrase ricocheting from one media outlet to another, without a thought for the thirteen lives ripped apart. Allie was number six. He’d refined his craft by then.
He gagged and tied her and flipped her on her stomach, her face buried in the pillow, so that she thought she’d suffocate, and when he spread her legs, a core part of her crawled away and curled up in a ball. She closed her eyes, trying to shut out the sound of the grunting, aware of his hand on her back still gripping the knife, the cold steel of the blade flat against her spine. She’d forgotten how to pray, but in her head, she kept repeating. Please let it be over. Please let it be over. No one was listening.
Allie never told her parents the real reason she decided to move back home. She’d spun a tale about a spate of break-ins and not feeling safe on her own. If her mother sensed there was more to the story, she never said, though Allie caught her mother looking at her sometimes as if checking to see she was okay, especially the days Allie sat staring into space, her hands wrapped around her coffee mug way past when it had gone cold. Allie would paste on a smile, give her mother a hug, and a throw away cheery line as if she hadn’t a care in the world, when in reality, her mind was locked on the night a stranger crept into her room and changed her life forever.
When he was done he pulled the sheet up over her, his hands tender, careful not to touch her skin. Hot tears of shame splashed her cheeks. His weight lifted off the bed and moments later she heard the fridge kick into life, the scrape of a chair and the sound of a ring pull popping. He was sitting in her kitchen, drinking a can of her soda. She lay frozen on the bed, not daring to move. Waiting for him to go. Not knowing if he would come back.
Meeting the other women had never been on Allie’s agenda. In her mind, she was somehow different or stronger if she stood on her own. At least that’s what she told herself. But these women, the rest of the baker’s dozen, they were just like her. They had good days and not so good days, and somehow, they’d managed to make a life for themselves and put the worst behind them. They were the only ones who could understand.
Jess, a mother of four, ran her own catering business. Sonya worked in real estate. Tamiko was a primary school teacher. Brenna, the clown of the group, was CEO of a non profit. It floored Allie to learn that after the rape, Brenna stayed in her room for nigh on three months only coming out for the occasional shower. She would have been there longer, but her mother refused to bring her meals anymore. Brenna’s voice broke when she spoke about her mother. The rest of the stories blurred. Allie would need time to let it all sink in. None of them had come through unscathed, but they were still here. Except for Holly. Holly had taken a handful of pills one night. It was too late by the time her mother found her. Allie knew that dark place. She’d skated round the edge of it, but never fallen in. She wondered if it took more courage to stay or go. She still didn’t have an answer.
“We’re going to the pub for a few drinks,” said Jess. “Wanna join us?”
Allie turned to Gene.
“Go,” he said. “It will do you good.”
“Look,” said Brenna. “A dartboard,” and proceeded to rummage in her handbag for pen and paper. Her hand raced across the page, and when she was done, she held up her drawing as if it were a prize exhibit. “Let’s see how many times you can hit the target, girls,” she said.
There was a moment of stunned silence, then they fell about laughing at the image of a stick figure, its slack penis dangling between a pair of grape sized balls.
Jess and Brenna both missed. Allie stepped up for a turn, and felt the adrenaline kick at the weight of the dart in her hand, and the thud in her chest as it hit the board, heard the collective “ohhh” when it clipped the edge and fell to the floor. Her blood was up now. She turned to Jess as if for permission. Jess smiled and nodded. Allie lined up again, one eye closed, zooming in on the target, like a sniper fixed on his prey, and wham.
“Bullseye,” they all screamed as Allie twirled round and round.
They managed twenty bullseyes between them, and squealed and giggled every time one of them hit the mark. Brenna kept adding details to the drawing. Crosses for eyes on the balls. A downturned mouth. A line of stitches running the length of the penis. A knife poised to chop it off. She laughed so hard she peed her pants, and that set them off again.
“The winner,” said Jess, and raised Allie’s hand in the air.
Allie beamed as Jess gave her the drawing and one of the darts for her three- bullseye haul. Then the smile slid from her face and the others turned to follow her gaze. Tamiko was sitting on the lounge, her knees clasped to her chest, tears rolling down her cheeks, and in an instant, they were all stone cold sober.
Allie’s stomach lurched as the monster shuffled back into court. Jess caught her eye and drew two grape sized circles in the air, and Allie had to smother a laugh at the thought of his balls pinned to the dartboard.
“Thank you,” she mouthed, and the tension dropped away.
“All rise,” said the clerk, and they were set to do it again. The judge reeled off the list of charges. Break and enter. Aggravated assault. Assault with a deadly weapon. Sexual assault. Thirteen counts of each. The judge turned to the monster.
“How do you plead,” she said.
Not a sound in the courtroom. Everyone holding their breath. Allie gripped Gene’s hand as the seconds ticked away, and finally, the monster opened his mouth to speak.
“Guilty.” The word coming out as a mumble, so that Allie had to strain forward, not sure what she’d heard.
“Speak up,” said the judge.
“Guilty your honor.”
Stunned silence in the courtroom. Guilty. No trial. No having to listen to the evidence, and hear their stories described detail by humiliating detail. The air went out of Allie again, but this time, it was a slow hiss of helium, as the weight of twenty years floated to the ceiling.
“Take him down,” said the judge, and the courtroom erupted into squeals and shouts and fist pumping and back slapping. The judge didn’t even bother to bang her gavel. There were tears and laughter as the women hugged one another. Guilty. It was over.
It took two days to read the victim statements. Mothers and fathers cried. Men squirmed in their seats and hung their heads, as if ashamed to be a man in the face of what they were hearing, and even the judge had to wipe her eyes when Holly’s mum read her statement.
Allie gripped the edge of the lectern and tried to steady her breathing. Her eyes searched for and found Gene. “You can do it,” he mouthed, and a lump formed in her throat, filled with love for this man. She took a breath, blew it out, and began. The monster was sitting right there in front of her, but she didn’t care whether he heard or not. She wasn’t speaking to him. She was speaking for herself. Twenty years she’d held the words inside, but she wouldn’t be silenced any more. They’re all the same, the cowards who hunt in the dark. They take your body; they strip away a piece of your soul and leave you to bury the darkness so deep, so that nobody can see that you’re unclean. They tear your life apart, but it’s the shame that grinds you down and makes you small.
Her voice. All their voices, counted. Life behind bars. No chance of parole. Bittersweet words.
Allie and Gene drove out to the old quarry. Allie took the crumpled piece of paper and pinned it to a weathered post. Gene had to squint in the fading light to make out the image through the creases and the holes. He turned to her with a grin, and she handed him the dart. Whack. Bullseye first go, and his shoulders were heaving, and her arms were around him, and they slid to the ground crying. They stayed there, holding each other until the moon cast shadows on the rocks.
Neither of them spoke on the drive home. Gene had one hand on the wheel, the other holding tight to Allie’s. A light rain had begun to fall, the sound of the wipers a soothing background noise. Allie’s thought flicked back to the quarry, the moment she touched a match to the paper and watched as it curled in the flame and turned to ash. The ritual loosened something inside of her, as if all the parts of her had come back together again and she’d been made whole.
Gene turned the key in the lock as they hunched against the rain trickling down their necks. Allie leaned into him, and breathed in the scent of his damp coat. It smelled of walks by the river, the warmth of his body, the two of them curled together on cold winter nights. It smelled of home.
Copyright 2021 by Leonie Harrison