I knew better than to acknowledge someone who would psst at me. But my dog, a mild mannered Australian Shepherd, pulled me toward the car so that he could sniff a torn plastic bag caught on something near the curb. The driver, a glossy lipped woman in a business suit, leaned toward me and said, “There’s a guy—” She scanned the sidewalk behind me and continued. “He’s been walking around here. Just be careful.”
“Um… okay,” I said.
As vague as this warning was, I noticed a twist in my stomach as the woman drove off. My dog had just finished peeing on the plastic and was now tugging me toward a large rock. I pulled him tight to shorten the leash and locked it, trying to ignore his pleading stare as I began to speed walk. We were a half mile from my apartment, nearer the neighboring complex that apparently housed suspicious-looking wanderers.
I couldn’t help but look back a few more times as I pulled my poor dog along like a puppet. I wondered at the motivation of the woman who’d pulled over. When I finally made it to Huebner, a reasonably busy street even at this hour, I looked back once more. I had positioned my apartment keys in my fist so that their jagged points stuck out between my fingers. This would have the effect of brass knuckles, or better since they had sharp points, if I punched someone. I used to hold my keys like this. When I was attacked years ago, many people said it was the neighborhood I lived in. Here I was now, a near-suburbanite walking by a gated community on the north side of town, semi-old and semi-stable, and up early every morning; meanwhile, a vague warning was all it took to reintroduce the old guardedness.
I heard something behind me and turned to find a young woman jogging. Her body was tilted forward as though her skinny frame had to counteract the morning breeze to remain upright. I moved over, allowed my dog to smell an empty McDonald’s bag. I could hear her jagged, heavy breath as she neared. A woman I’d met in a rape survivors group once told me that a jogger’s heavy breathing might invite sexual abusers because no matter how much ‘experts’ told us rape was about violence, it was also about sex. Strained breath makes anyone think of sex. She did sound like sex.
My dog gave the leash a hard tug, and I heard something breaking between his jaws. He’d found some sort of bone, which he knew to eat quickly before I could pry it from his mouth.
“Excuse me,” I said. The jogger wore short shorts, the type of thing she’d be chastised for if she were raped. “There’s some man walking around here. And he looks suspicious.” I sounded as vague and potentially crazy as the driver.
“Um,” the woman began.
“Just be careful.”
She nodded and thanked me, but her fine features hardened before she jogged off. Her tilted frame became smaller and smaller, until she disappeared around a corner. I had been wearing long pants when I was attacked, but it had also been after sundown. The first police officer to arrive asked what I was doing outside, alone. He spoke as though I were an accessory to the very crime that had been committed against me. He had assumed the same tone of the woman in the car: stern and disapproving.
I looked down at my hand and realized that the mail key faced the wrong way; a small circle of blood had appeared at the center of my palm. I thought about the warning I’d received. The driver hadn’t called the man dangerous, hadn’t said that he had a weapon; she’d only said that she’d seen a man walking. Maybe he’d locked himself out of his apartment. Maybe he was warming up for a jog.
I licked the salty blood from my palm. I opened my front door, switched my brain to the humdrum—what I needed to iron, what mood my boss would be in, what kind of coffee I’d stop for on the way. I unfastened my dog’s leash and went to lock the deadbolt. As I pushed the door, however, it didn’t close easily. Instead, I felt a push back from the outside. I saw the driver’s face, smiling: I warned you. I imagined a blunt kick to the backs of my knees. But the push against my door had just been the wind. I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t. Not yet.
Jen Knox is the author of To Begin Again, winner of the 2011 Next Generation Indie Book award in short fiction and the 2011 Readers Favorite award in women’s fiction. Her short story, “Types of Circus”, was recently chosen for Wigleaf‘s 2012 Top 50 list. Jen’s essays and short fiction can be read in Annalemma, Bluestem, Gargoyle, Narrative, Short Story America, Thrush, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in San Antonio and is currently at work on a novel. Jen’s website is here: http://www.jenknox.com
Read our interview with Jen here.