The small pink tube is pressed into the palm of my right hand. I am flicking the lid with my thumb, finding satisfaction in the incessant beat of the lever snapping shut. My left hand is clenched around a brown bag, from which the scent of greasy food floats up and fills my nostrils. I’m tempted to just sit down on the curb of the sidewalk and eat my burger. This burger, by burger standards, is one of the best. A beef patty with a veggie patty on top, they call it the “hippiecrite.” But even in my intoxicated state I don’t like the idea of sitting on the side of the road to eat fast food. I want to get home and take off these clothes. The cropped black top I’m wearing is digging into my rib cage and my boots are just a centimeter too short in length, compressing my big toe ever so slightly. But there’s a discomfort in me that I can’t explain. A discomfort that goes beyond my tight clothing.
My feet continue along in forward motions. I’m counting the blocks in my head. The quicker I walk, the quicker I can eat these fries. I am not drunk, per se, tipsy perhaps. I can taste the mixture of Fireball and tobacco at the back of my throat. A lovely taste, until morning comes that is. I can taste something else as well, something close to fear. It’s puzzling, but I think that it must have to do with the small pink tube. A silly fear. Nothing to worry about.
I walk with conviction, my boots hitting the pavement hard. You shouldn’t be walking home alone, a small voice in my head reminds me. I march on. Moving faster now. I look forward. I try to avoid glancing at the shadows flickering around me. I snap the lid of the pink tube again and again. Snap. Snap. Snap.
It isn’t even mine — the tube — it’s my roommates. I did have pepper spray in college, a small black tube, but I got rid of it somewhere along the way. Unused.
It was foresight that made me take the pepper spray tonight. I knew I would be walking home early, leaving my friends at the bar to prepare for an early start at work the following morning. But there was something more instinctual there, too. An image of the man’s face in my window unveils itself in my mind. I see it as if it’s playing on a film reel. The slow turn of my memory and a girl standing in her room peeling her shirt off her body. As she removes the cloth from her skin, she turns around to face her closet and there he is. An unidentified face, almost shapeless, peering from between the four-inch gap from the bottom of the blinds to the window sill. As quickly as it comes, it’s gone again. And then, there’s another memory there. A memory that’s fabricated because it wasn’t my eyes that saw the tall figure in a basketball jersey slipping out of our backdoor at 2am, just as my roommate opened the front door. Even still, I can see him.
This is a safe town, they always say.
There is something in the air tonight. The wind is heavy and sweet; it ripples across my legs, a small reminder that the seasons are changing, that summer it coming. The world is dark, quiet, muffled. The way it only is when the peaceful are sleeping and the restless are prowling the town, poisoning their bodies and stirring up faded emotions. You shouldn’t be walking down a back road, I think to myself. Go down College, with all the cars, it’s safer. But I don’t turn. My feet carry me along their usual path, feeling as if normalcy is what I need right now. You’re just being paranoid. Beneath the lid of the small pink tube is a button. You just have to press the button.
I take another turn. I am close now, just a few blocks. The street lights flicker in my mind, the warm glow they give off pulses like a heartbeat, spurring me on. I hear the group of girls before I can see them. Giggling, chatting, all dressed up. They are getting into a car. Ask them for a ride. I think. No, don’t be stupid, your house is two blocks away. The voice inside my head grapples. Exactly, they wouldn’t care. My ego protests. No, no, that’s so embarrassing. The internal battle continues until I am past the girls, past the car. Too late.
I am on the long street that leads me home now, the final stretch, familiar buildings surround me. I can almost taste the burger and the sweet relief of home.
I see him before he sees me. I hear his slow pedals prowling down the street, getting closer and closer. As he spots me, I feel his gaze boring into my body. He keeps peddling slowly towards me. I continue to walk forward. I don’t look at him. I don’t falter. I march on with conviction. I paint a snarl on my face. My body is tense, every muscle engaged. The small pink tube at the ready in my hand. He passes by, and, for a moment, relief.
And yet, in the quiet hum of the evening, my ears laser focused on my surroundings, I hear the sound of the wheels behind me change course, just as I knew they would. I step to the side as he pulls up behind me, too close for strangers.
“Hello, beautiful,” he drawls.
He has tanned, weathered skin and dark dripping eyes. All of the colors on him are the same: muted, dangerous. I feel a strength build up in my body — adrenaline and fire and pressure. This is what you have been waiting for; you knew it was coming and here it is.
“Get the fuck away from me.” I snap open the lid of the mace, my arm stretched out long. I take one step back, finger on the trigger, armed and ready.
“Don’t be scared.” He says in a soft and unfamiliar tongue. His voice, poisonous, just like his intentions.
“No,” I say, my voice rising, the fire building in my chest. “Get the FUCK away from me.” I stand for a second, arm extending, eyes unblinking. Then, I turn on my heel and walk fast. I avoid breaking into a run. I go into the middle of the road. Under the streetlight. My heart pounds. I don’t look back. I don’t stop moving.
His voice follows me:
“You fucking cunt,” he yells from behind me. His frustration grows as a string of profanities stream from his ruined mouth. He won’t follow you. Minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I see a figure receding into the distance. Slowly prowling down the road, disappearing into the black, consuming night.
My body is buzzing, shaking. There’s a mixture of pride and pure fear pulsing through my body, through my blood. My knuckles are white, still clenching the fast food and the small pink tube, but my feet continue to carry me, down the last block, through my front door and into safety.
The truth is my house doesn’t even feel safe now, other eyes stole that from me, but it is safer than what awaits me beyond locked doors. I place the brown greasy bag on the kitchen table; it’s stained now from the meal inside. I don’t change my clothes, I’m numb to the discomfort now.
I get out ketchup and I begin to eat. One slow, purposeful bite at a time. The food is cold, but somehow it tastes just as good as I knew it would. I’m still shaking, but I’m not crying. There is something almost akin to peace wafting through me. You did it. The voice whispers. I am so proud of you. On the table, by my side, the small pink tube rests, the trigger never pulled.
Izzy Martens was born to share her story. Izzy is the creator of the online journal, Joke Life, where she publishes stories about the beautiful contradictions and hard lessons this life provides. Izzy studied Creative Nonfiction at Colorado State University and her work has appeared in Rooster Magazine, Thought Catalog, Elite Daily, The Odyssey, and more. Originally from Colorado, Izzy now writes and lives in Washington, D.C., where you can find her hanging out at coffee shops and finding green spaces to explore. Find her stories at www.jokelife.com.