by Maria Gartner
She’s awake and reading a book when it happens. She doesn’t know how she didn’t hear them. Or how her neighbors didn’t. Willful ignorance maybe, like how people don’t acknowledge when someone’s cheating on them until they come home to catch it up close and fucking on the new duvet.
Her brother’s shrill car alarm is what sets her into motion. She throws her book half-across the room in shock and rushes out her door. By the time she gets down the stairs, her breasts jumping awkwardly against her ribs, her brother is twisting the locks of the front door, his boxers dipping down low on his hips and flashing crack. Aaron has a baseball bat in his hands. He’s all crazed eyes and wild brown curls.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, Abby, stay inside,” Aaron says, pulling at the doorknob.
“Hell no, my car’s out there, too. You’re not going alone.”
“Fucking stay inside and call the cops. I have a damn baseball bat. What do you have?” He pulls the door open and bursts through, leaving the door swinging behind him. It’s like one of those old Western movies where the heavily injured and outnumbered heroes race to their own demise because they think, Why the hell not? We’re going to die anyway. Might as well go with dignity.
She gets the phone. Their parents are gone on a cross country business trip and it’s just the two of them, like it always is, but Aaron can handle it. He can handle himself and the cars for a couple of minutes while she grabs the cordless. Just a couple of minutes, he can take care of himself for a couple of minutes. Aaron would look awful with a cowboy hat anyway.
By the time she’s talking to dispatch, she hears Aaron shout, “All clear. Jesus fuck, don’t come out here, though.” There’s a strangled quality to his voice, a clear indicator that he’s trying to keep his temper and failing. He used to sound like that when she colored rosy permanent marker cheeks on his G.I. Joes and forced them into her Barbie’s furred coats.
“I need to tell the lady what the hell I actually need 911 for. She needs information, not vague guesses. Idiot,” she shouts back, pressing the phone to her chest to muffle her voice.
“Stay there. I’ll come in and get the phone.”
But she’s already outside and then she just has to stop, stop everything, and just process. Aaron’s surveying the cars while twirling the baseball bat in one long, endless loop. His car, a bright cherry red, has a single broken window. The damage almost looks pretty, all shine and illuminated glass on the tan rock of the driveway.
Her car—her car is—
The frantic, “Ma’am, are you alright?” of the dispatcher pulls her back.
“Sure, I—I’m just going to hand you over to my brother so he can give you more information.” Aaron had stopped twirling the baseball bat to look at her. As she finishes speaking, he comes over to pull the phone out of her slack hands. She can see the large groove in his forehead, the one that shows up when he’s concerned.
He keeps the phone away from himself, a desire for privacy they both must have inherited, as he says, “Don’t look at it. Go back inside, okay? Sit down. When I’m done talking to dispatch, we’ll make some tea while we wait for the police. Go.” He pushes her gently towards the door, but she just walks a big circle around him and out of his reach to go look at her car.
They broke the windows and smashed her side mirrors until they dangled from bits of metal and wire. They slashed her tires, not with single economical slits but with multiple stabs, like one didn’t cause enough damage. They didn’t take anything: her gym bag, her textbooks, her golf clubs, her misplaced cell phone, or the cash in the unlocked glove compartment.
This wasn’t robbery. This wasn’t simple vandalism. The smell of urine and shit rises too strong from her cloth seats for that.
This is harassment. This is a hate crime—ongoing.
They carved gouges, vein-ridden penises, and ██████████ slurs like: ████ , ██████████████ , ████████████ , ██████ , ██████ , █████████ , and █████████ into every available surface. And when their arms got tired, she figures their arms must have gotten tired with all that attention to detail, they remembered that they had spray paint. So they spray painted the slurs over again. ████ , ██████████████ , ████████████ , ██████ , ██████████ , █████████ , and █████████ in sloppy, inconsistent jets of acid orange paint. Only a discerning eye could tell that her car used to be white underneath all the paint and filth.
They murdered her car.
Eventually, she hears the low murmur of Aaron’s voice stop. She can sense him walking towards her and she almost moves away, but instead she lets him put a hand on her shoulder, pulling her into his side. She doesn’t want to acknowledge the comfort he’s offering, but she doesn’t shy away from it.
“I’m sorry,” he says. The baseball bat is still in his hand, aimlessly smacking against the side of his leg like he’s still looking for something or someone to hit. The light coming in from the house hollows his face out. He looks old.
She has nothing to say to that, so she stands there, leaning into the warmth of her brother and staring at her mangled car.
“Come on, let’s head in. I’ll make you that cup of tea.”
Together, they stumble slowly back into the house with Aaron still keeping her pulled into his side.
When they’re inside, they leave the front door open. Aaron steers her towards her usual seat at the kitchen table. There are still crumbs from the cereal she had this morning, so she sweeps them onto the floor. She sits in silence while Aaron makes the tea. He’s careful about making too much noise, closing the cabinet doors where they keep the teacups by slowly moving them back instead of slamming them like he normally would. The baseball bat never leaves his hand, not even when he’s pouring the hot water.
“You’d tell me if there was something going on, wouldn’t you?” Aaron asks as he puts a cup of tea in front of her.
There’s a knock at the door frame.
Samuelson, the police officer, a squat, middle-aged blowhard with crumbs around his mouth and mustache, is more concerned with her brother’s stolen stereo. Aaron’s car is newer, more expensive, and they actually stole something tangible from him. The damage to her car is nothing more than an afterthought meant to cause him unnecessary paperwork.
“They probably thought they were being funny,” Samuelson says, mustache bristling in a way that sends tiny crumbs down onto his uniform. “Boys will be boys, y’know. Best just to file a claim with your insurance. See if you can get any money out of them to go towards a new vehicle.”
“You don’t think it’s odd that they vandalized the one car and not the other?” Aaron asks.
“Like I said, it’s probably just boys being boys. Things like this happen all the time,” Samuelson says as he leans against Aaron’s car proprietarily. He doesn’t seem to notice that he’s standing on the remains of the window.
“Really? Name the last vandalism that used this many synonyms for ████ . No, how about the last hate crime?” Aaron’s bullish with his questioning, and he uses his height advantage to tower over Samuelson. Aaron doesn’t look all that intimidating though. He has to hitch his boxers every few minutes. Not even the baseball bat still clutched in his hands can make him look anything but puppyish.
She feels as though she has to say something. Anything. “Aaron. It’s fine. Like he said, I’m sure it’s just some dumbass kids thinking they’re funny. They probably would’ve done the same to your car if the alarm hadn’t gone off.”
“At least they didn’t steal anything of yours, ma’am. I’d wager that they were too drunk to really know what they were doing.” Samuelson brings a hand up to rub at his protruding belly while he yawns. “We’ll continue to look into the matter, and sir, we’ll get back to you about your stereo. You have a nice day now.”
After Samuelson leaves, Aaron starts pacing. The baseball bat is back to bouncing against his leg. He’s probably going to bruise if he keeps it up.
“Spill,” he finally says, coming to a stop in front of her.
“We should get your car into the garage. If we move some junk around, we should be able to fit it in next to mom’s. At least yours is still drivable.” She takes the baseball bat out of his hands, and he gives it up easily enough.
Aaron sighs and tells her to go back into the house and to drink more tea. He’ll take care of the mess.
She’s not going to tell Aaron anything. Aaron’s been out of high school for four years, a lifetime. He doesn’t remember what high school was like. All he remembers are the good things. The sunshine and rainbows after the storm. Besides, he’s ████████ . What the fuck would he know?
When Aaron comes in, he says, “I’m talking to mom and dad when they get home. I’ve already left them a message telling them about what happened, but they’ll want to see for themselves.”
She’s not close with her parents, and Aaron isn’t either. She doesn’t know where this sudden respect for their opinion is coming from.
“So, my car gets to sit. Out there. Where everyone can see it.” Her voice is flat and she doesn’t make it a question because she can feel the truth in it. Aaron’s going to let her car stay there out on public display. She feels shaky, exposed in a way that makes her want to set fire to her car just to hide the evidence. The neighbors are going to notice the smell.
“It’s just for right now. Mom and Dad are going to be home in two days. You can wait that long for us to get this figured out. I’m going to call around and figure out what our options are. Why don’t you try and get some sleep? You’ve got to be up in a few hours—if you still want to go to school, that is.”
She aimlessly nods along. She wants to tell him that this isn’t going to get figured out, it isn’t going to get solved, but she keeps her mouth shut like she always does because there’s nothing anyone can do. Not about this. Not anything that’s going to have a lasting effect. They’re just going to keep coming.
She says “they” because she knows who did this.
The day after her car gets destroyed, she has to go to school. She’d skip it, but midterms are coming up. In the morning, before her brother drives her to school on his way to work, duct tape and saran wrap over his window, she looks at her car. It’s still sitting on the driveway, too old and ruined for anything else. She walks around it and notices a brick in the grass near the pine trees next to the house. Samuelson must have missed it when he was poking around. She picks it up and puts it in her bag.
She doesn’t see Iz by their usual spot when she walks into school, so she goes to the only other place on school grounds where Iz isn’t looked at with morbid confusion and curiosity.
She finds her in the only unisex bathroom, sitting on the floor, knees jutting out, her head poised back into the tiled wall.
Iz would be the prettiest girl in school if her birth certificate didn’t say she was a boy.
“Iz, what’s going on?” Iz is wearing sweatpants and a drawstring hoody pulled tight around her face. She doesn’t look like Isabella, Iz. She looks like Isaac. Iz and Abby have been friends for so long that she barely remembers Iz as anything other than Isabella.
“My parents,” Iz starts and then stops. “They’re—”
“Scared.” Abby finishes as she goes to sit by Iz. After she’s settled, she pulls Iz into a sideways hug.
“They took everything and got me these,” Iz says and pulls
at the hoody, drawing it away from her body. “They saw the bruises I got from Keith knocking me into the lockers a couple days ago. I thought my dad was going to cry.”
Abby inhales, but she keeps quiet, letting Iz talk. There are so few people that are really willing to listen to them, willing to care. She desperately wants to make a joke about taking rainbow-colored bruises too literarily, but not even she’s that crass.
“Sometimes I think it’d be better if I wasn’t—you know—here.” Iz waves her arms around to encompass the school, but she’s really talking about something else. Iz pauses again and starts fiddling with her fingers. Her nails had been hot pink earlier in the week. Now they’re unpainted.
“You think about it? Crossing down the street?” Iz continues as she lifts up her arm and jabs a finger down from her wrist to the crook of her elbow in a cutting motion. They don’t talk about it, don’t even name it, not in anything but childish euphemisms, and maybe they should. The possibility of it, the inevitability.
Abby doesn’t answer because of course she has. They all have.
“If I died today they’d put me in a suit, put me in the ground, and put ‘Isaac’ on the tombstone,” Iz finally says. “Here lies Isaac. Balls not sold separately.”
Abby rallies frantically to cut her off. “You know you can leave some stuff at my house, right? We can make this work. You don’t have to be that person if you don’t want to.”
“Yeah, thanks. I appreciate that, but I think—I think I’m going to try this for a little while. It can’t be that bad.” Iz shuffles around to stand up, leaning one last time into Abby. Her clothes hang around her, formless, making her look three times her size. “I know what you’re going to say, but don’t. Give me a couple of days. I need time.”
Abby looks at her cell phone. The one that should’ve been stolen, and changes what she was about to say. “I need to head over to the office. I have to give a tour to some new kid coming in from Wyoming. Do you think I should lie about the bowling alley on the mystical fourth floor?”
“Nah, the poor kid’s probably going to get enough hassle without you adding to it.”
Iz starts to leave the bathroom. There’s a stiffness to her that screams how uncomfortable she is. She looks alone.
“You know you’re beautiful, right Isabella?” Abby says, trying somehow to make this better, more palatable.
Iz turns to look at Abby, and the look on her face shuts Abby up because this isn’t Abby’s war, not really, even if it feels like it.
“Maybe you should call me Isaac now.”
She doesn’t tell Iz about her car. She doesn’t want to worry her. Iz has enough to worry about.
She does the new student tours because she figures “Management’s Whipped Bitch” will look good on her resume. Mostly she does it because it gives her a chance to talk to someone who might be like Iz, or Chris, or her. It gives her a chance to warn them.
If she spots someone, she pulls them down into the section of the school waiting on the renovation funds it’s probably never going to get, and asks them quietly, wishing that there was some kind of secret handshake, “You ████ ?”
They usually look around first, eyes on the walls’ crumbling brick, and then nod, thinking they’ve found an ally, a comrade in a mostly unacknowledged war.
Friend. They think she’s their friend.
Then she tells them, “Get your parents, parent, guardian, whatever to transfer you to the arts school. Even if you don’t give a fuck about art, transfer.”
They all look at her with confused hurt and ask, “Why?” Even though they should be used to this, even if they come from a different fucking planet, there’s no way that they don’t know that ███████ and █████ aren’t allowed. No one’s that ignorant.
“Because at the arts school, you might have the chance of getting laid or at least fumbling your way to an orgasm. Or you could just stay here instead and get harassed until you graduate. Your choice, bro.”
She doesn’t catch everyone, though. Finding a ███ isn’t
formulaic even if you consider every stereotype imaginable, and she has. She hates when one slips through the cracks, and ends up crossing down the street into a nicely lacquered box. She thinks about it constantly, wondering which stereotype all her classmates think she is. The one that they assume she is.
The first time she pulled the whole “Stop, proceed with caution” bit was with Chris. He was a vapid kind of pretty, obsessed enough with his reflection to not need someone to tell him if he had food on his face. He already knew. She liked him. She appreciated his unflinching honesty.
“And why the fuck would I listen to you,” he said, pulling a tube of sparkly ChapStick out of his jeans like magic.
“When they find out what you are, and let me tell you, bro, you ain’t subtle, they won’t hurt you physically. Not anything more than being tripped or pushed into the lockers, anyway. Too many teachers for that. They will break you down, though.”
“Honey, don’t. You think I wear my jeans this tight because I care what people think?”
She tried to interrupt to tell him that, yes, that’s exactly what she thought, but he talked over her.
“No, no, I do not. But thanks for the warning anyway, doll face,” he said as he turned to walk away.
She tripped on her terminally untied shoelaces in her hurry to catch up with him. “Look, man, I understand trying to tough it out, but they don’t play around here. This is closet dweller space only. Narnia ain’t got nothing on us. You wanna be the big, out, and proud ███ man, fine, great, just do it somewhere else.”
Chris turned around then. She had to pull herself up short to keep from invading his space. He looked at her for a while, trying to stare down the part of her that made her hide. Arrogant dumbass was going to get himself killed.
Finally he said, “I don’t take kindly to closets, unless they’re being used for their intended clothes-holding purposes. Most people are scared of the things that dwell in closets anyway. We should use that. Show a little pride.”
Chris doesn’t go to the arts school, but he should. When he does show up for class, he looks wane, none of his original brass left. She and Iz try to keep him involved. They call and text him constantly, drag him out when his eye-bags get too dark, but they can all feel how futile their efforts are.
They start to celebrate every day he decides that he wants to stay alive.
She sees the next time Keith goes after Iz. He’s subtle about it. Nothing too overt because even though Iz makes people nervous, she still looks like a girl, even in her bulky clothes, and good boys like Keith aren’t supposed to harass girls out in the open.
Keith brushes up by Iz while she’s at her locker, leans in close enough to swipe at Iz’s neck with his tongue, and whispers something in her ear. After he leaves, Abby can see Iz shaking and clawing at the hood of her sweatshirt to cover her head.
And in that moment there is nothing that Abby does not hate about Keith.
After the incident with Keith, she stops sleeping, and she’s constantly in that period of intense exhaustion where you think if you sleep, if you just close your eyes for a bit and wake up, everything will be better. Not okay, never okay, but better.
One night she looks at the brick sitting on the desk in her room and contemplates writing something witty on it, something like “Bricks b4 Dicks” and then jamming it down Keith’s throat.
Her nightmares are filled with Iz in one of those nicely lacquered boxes. The loose spill of her body forced into the suit of the man she never wanted to be. She sees Chris suffocating in a closet. She always ends up getting dragged out of their funerals by security because she’s yelling, “Are my screams loud enough? Is my pain? Is their pain? Can you hear me? Can you hear us? How many of us have to die before we’re acknowledged?”
But then she wakes up.
The nightmares make her want to know if the stages of grief apply to something that hasn’t happened yet.
She realizes that they—Chris, Iz, her, even the new kid from Wyoming—don’t have time to wait for the stars to align, for some form of benevolent god to get off his or her ass. She doesn’t believe in karma or hell. She believes in the cruelty and the kindness of human beings. And if she’s anything, she’s human. She wants revenge, justice, where she can see it.
She grabs the brick and throws it in a black garbage bag she grabs from the kitchen. Then she goes about grabbing the rest of what she’s going to need to pay Keith a visit.
She knows where he lives. They’ve been on the same bus since
kindergarten. There’s a forest across from his house not cut down by developers yet, so she goes in the forest far enough that she’s well hidden but can still see the house. Keith’s car, the car he’s been boasting about since he got it, is sitting on the driveway just like hers had been.
She’s been to enough funerals to know that nothing gets solved because one ██████ kills himself or even if two or three do. No one cares until it looks like genocide. Willfully ignorant.
She’d enlist for this, kill for this, this right to be, to live. These thoughts are probably how wars start.
Enough, enough. God, she’s so tired.
She takes the brick out of her bag, steps out of the tree line, out of her closet, maybe not that far, no, not yet and—
She calls Iz the next morning, at a time when it’s more afternoon than morning. The sun so high, you think it’s never going to come back down.
“Hey, Iz. How’ya doing?” she says as she tries to wash the grime from under her ragged, bitten fingernails.
“Abby,” Iz says and then trails off.
She drops her hands into the sink and the too-hot water almost scalds her. “What’s wrong? Iz, tell me what’s wrong.”
“I’m going to the arts school,” Iz’s voice comes over in a crackle.
“Did you hear me?” Iz asks after Abby’s been quiet too long.
“Well?” She goes back to washing her hands, turning the faucet for a blast of cold water.
“Why are you leaving?” she asks. She knows it’s a dumb question after she’s said it. She just says it to take up space, so she doesn’t say what she really thinks.
“Why do you stay?” Iz snaps back.
“I don’t know,” she says, but she’s lying. Of course she fucking knows. Just like she knows Keith and his friends are the ones who killed her car. Just like she knows the reasons why she sends all the people she can find like her to the arts school.
She stays because she wants to be able to drink tea with her brother. She wants to be welcome in her parents’ home. She wants to be accepted. She wants to be normal. She can’t—how is she supposed to decide what she wants when half the time she doesn’t even know if she’s ███ or ████████ ?
“You should come with. Seriously, come with,” Iz pleads.
She turns off the faucet, tilting her head to keep from dislodging her phone.
Maybe Chris was right about closets. We are the bogeymen, we are the bogeywomen, and we want out. She wants out. She doesn’t want her life to be the story of a girl and her closet.
Maria Gartner graduated from Bemidji State University in Spring 2012 with a BFA in English as well as Creative & Professional Writing. She is currently taking a relaxing break from studying while writing her first novel, which is a lot harder than it sounds.
(See From the Editors for a note about this story.)