In The Dark
By Lillet Dorothy
Trigger warnings: Sexual assault, sexual harassment, self-harm
They’re all humdrum, cross-legged, spring-cut grass freshly imprinting the backs of their thighs after their school bell rang freedom. Flies at the faces, they’re squinting into the distance and hoping a bus will swing around that bend for them, and not the seven-thirty-three girls. They bat at flies and itch at their waists, their thin scratchy summer uniform never sitting right or comfortably.
One little red haired one with a line of apple stickers up her leg, and another with a sour look and a bottle-black emo-swoop, and another pouting at the bus bay of the co-ed school whose girls had romance fall into their laps.
Soph sat hunched and bony beside Angel, etching into her thigh with a thick permanent marker an elephant holding balloons with its trunk. She violently swats the air in front of her face as a beefy little fly dots at her. Spacey Miss Angel watches as the black ink leaks easily into the skin’s delicate texture, exposing the intricate little network of diamond creases. Soph asks if she’s okay and Angel says yeah, staring all the while.
Some gangly brother-school lads saunter by. They wolf and howl in the seven-thirty-three girls’ direction with shirts on backwards and ties around their greasy little foreheads. Boys in almost-men’s bodies. One says with the flick of his head ‘Oi Angel, how was Danny?’ His voice was cautiously deep – too deep for his narrow boy calves. It was a voice that had been practiced in the bathroom mirror when he thought no one was home, complete with air punches and flexing.
Eyes still on Soph’s thigh-elephant, Angel breaks it to look down, avoiding the pack’s leering, snarling gaze and clawing blankly at the grass instead.
Crossing the road, he shouts a profanity - all head thrown back and leaping like a dog to catch a bone. Soph will have none of this, and howls back ‘Fuck off!’ And it rings loud and jagged, near reaching the principle, who sits hunched - some k’s away - frowning down at the papers on his desk and pinching at the frown-lines below his greyed hair.
Sophie turns to her, eyes like piercing headlights in the dead of night, ‘Oh yeah, what were you gonna tell me before?’
Angel’s throat all tight now, under the watchful shudder of another’s eyes. ‘Nothing,’ she says and looks down at her balding grass patch. The fingernails are all bulbed with dirt. She continues to pluck.
He’d had a red lava lamp that had moved about the whole time, in an alien sort of way. It made the whole room glow a dim cherry-red.
He hadn’t ever ended up going to uni, like he kept telling his 'rents he would. But he compensated by playing Vivaldi, spouting all the intellectualism the first three sources on Google could grant him. He did have proper facial hair though. This felt like enough.
His room smelt thick of Lynx, thinly veiling the must of piles of dirty clothes and decomposing take-out. Guitar with a thin coat of grey dust in the corner - hadn’t been touched since high school – bedding softened and yellowed from months of grub and grit abrasion and pillow all sunken-in where the head habitually fell. She’d pressed her finger through the dust of the guitar and squeaked a little smiley face into it, just like a kid outside dad’s car in the Coles parking lot. ‘It hurts. You’re too dry.’ The shame fell blunt and hollow, thin and cold like scatterings of dust.
Angel looks down at the white little fingers all stained green with grass blood.
Head turns slowly to Soph, who says; ‘Oh my god, I have the perfect thing to draw on the bus stop. Are you ready? It’s very clever and very deep,’ squeals Sophie. ‘Picture this...an atrocious drawing of...wait for it...it’s very clever! Very original! Are you ready?’ Sophie raises a questioning eyebrow. The silliness mounts Angel’s spirits – she comes back into herself. Angel nods and Sophie announces ‘…a dick!’
‘Wow! Sophie.’ Still her eyes can’t meet Soph’s. ‘I think you could be...a genius?!’ Angel mock-gasps, hands at her cheeks and her head shimmies at the grass.
‘No, stop! Your praise is aberrant!’ Soph has been really into reading since she watched Clueless for the first time with her glamorous older sister and ‘aberrant’ is a word she has recently learnt.
Sophie’s got Angel back now and they’re all squeals and giggles. So, in the afternoon sunlight, with their 582 just sweeping the corner, Angel’s pink-and-squishy skull-warmer is weightless.
He’d spat in his hand. It still hurt like dry sandpaper and as she jerked back and forth, she watched the lava lamp’s oily bubbles float up and then down again, up and then down again, the low and high hums of The Four Seasons permeating the room.
Asses on the bus, and the plasticky nylon fabric itches at first, but becomes sore like prickles after an hour or so. Sophie whines and Angel agrees but thinks more of the sharp pain she has sometimes been getting below her belly button and inside of her.
Sometimes she leaves class to go to the toilet and stays there minutes at a time to scratch around inside herself and relieve the discomfort. She’ll wash her own thin moisture from her hands, lathering up in cheap white cherry blossom suds and pause to stare up at the popcorn ceiling. It has shaky graffiti across its uneven surface that reads in 12mm Chisel permanent marker, ‘I’d rather get fucked and die’ and a feeling inside Angel nods.
Sophie’s room now - all pink, and stickered, and glittered with mess that’s spewing out from cupboards and draws and from under the bed. There’s a fat wad of doona and blankets curling out from under the bed, like a monster tongue – as if the bed frame will leap from the ground as metallic jaws. But it always stays inanimate and stagnant, no matter how threatening the mess beneath gets. So many sleepovers on that bed, so many secrets divulged in stifled whispers.
Sophie has beautiful things. Her dressing table is all jewelled with hundreds of bottles, containers and tubes of pretty smelling liquids and powders. Angel struggles to understand the intrinsic and distinct value of it all, which Sophie finds a little humiliating for a girl of her age. Across her stout bookshelf and desk and draws are variant sizes and colours and smells of jarred candles which had the accumulative effect of walking past a Peter Alexander. Despite the smell, there was also an alarming amount of actual mess. Her bins were forever bursting with dirty pads and take away containers and packaging from all the candles she bought online.
Adding another box to the pile beneath her desk now, Sophie asks again - curiosity drilling away at her.
But Angel can’t get it out – not under the harsh down lights of Soph’s room. Not with a sticky layer of sweat clinging to the folds of her limbs. Not with the stiff fabric of her school uniform clinging to her and certainly not with her vulgarly stitched back strap clinging at the small of her back and indenting the crease of her stomach.
The alteration of the strap had been to make her waist appear thinner and she’d fantasied about the brother-school boys watching her at the bus stop. One coming over and asking for her number. One taking her on an ambiguous date. But after lunches when she could feel it grab at her stomach folds, she felt fatter and would hide beneath her frumpy, itchy wool jumper.
So, it’s only after Fiona, Soph’s mum, comes in and tells them, ‘Hush up, you two! And get ready for bed’, when the shower water streams down, and flannel pyjamas are put on that Angel can even allow it to enter her brain.
Fiona is going on fifty, stern and simultaneously bubbly. Soph and Angel often mimic her in the privacy of a bus or behind a shut bedroom door, although Angel never feels good about it. She feels far better making fun of her own mother with Soph, as it alleviates some abstract ache in her, that longs to be heard but isn’t yet.
Fiona has made them lasagne for dinner which they eat on Sophie’s bed in the quiet glow of YouTube. It tastes of oregano that gets stuck grotesquely in Soph’s teeth and of thick folds of pumpkin. It's just okay.
After their showers, Angel’s thigh wears a huge black smudge where the elephant had once been. It has delicate little frills on its edges where it once again seeps into the creases in her skin.
It takes an hour of pillow whispers and giggles in the newly darkened bedroom for Angel to even warm up to telling Soph. Her edges begin to slacken, but her core still feels hard and frozen - immovable. Soph lets out a little gasp with a quick rise of her chest as Angel recites something Mrs Amble described in class that day. It’s followed with a slow, nasally breath in. The conversation cracks as suddenly as eggshell on a frying pan. These are the noises Sophie makes just before falling asleep. Angel’s throat is tight again, and her nose all pinched – with time all dried up, panic pours inside her, and swells her consciousness uncomfortably.
Her pink and squishy brain becomes loud and restless and red leaks back into her again. Between her thighs she saw his softened-with-oily-skin sheets had a newly petaled blossom of blood. She stared blankly into it, with the frilled outskirts blurring at her peripheral. He was all upset that he’d have to wash his sheets – 'Faaark, can’t sleep in that,' he’d murmured and begun to tear the sheet out from under her and throw it scrunched into the already-cascading laundry hamper.
Hot tears meld with a running nose – the weight of it all dancing upon her chest.
Angel fills her lungs and purses fastened lips tight, frozen in the headlights.
‘Are you crying?’ Soph persists.
‘Yeah, a bit,’ Angel said.
Finally, the weight lifts with her soft confining croak penetrating the room’s still-quiet.
‘Oh my god…’ Said Soph. ‘Fuck, Angel. You’re such a little slut! Oh my god, Angel I’m so happy for you!’ Soph squeals and shakes Angel a little.
‘What’s wrong then? Are you mad I didn’t ask?’
‘No, I’m not…hccck…mad at you.’ A little hiccup leaps from Angel’s mouth.
‘Ahhhhh! I’m so proud of you! My little Angel! All grown up…’ Soph shifts. ‘It’s okay, Angel. The first time is never good for the girl.’ She gathers up Angel in her arms, delicately like a fragile pile of animal bones, and strokes her hair. ‘Has it been hurting you?’ And Angel’s head rocks up and down against Soph’s sternum. ‘Oh, honey. I’m sorry about that. But it has to hurt at first and then it’ll start getting good. That’s what everyone says. It’s okay, it’s okay...’
Angel floats like a leaf on baskets of wind into sleep with the waves of Soph’s hand along her head, and dreams of a time that it stops hurting.
The days after a sleepover at Soph’s are always long, stretched out overwhelmingly with the lethargy of less than six hours sleep.
Finally, off the bus, the salt air hugs her lovingly.
She lets the one-street strip of shops and the familiar faces inside become a bright blur as she walks home fast despite the weight of her tortoise back-pack, with head down. As the bitumen fades into dirt road, dust began to crawl up her white polyester socks.
Hand on the back door finally to open it and it stays fixed. Locked.
Mum forgot to leave it for her. She sinks to her knees, pushes the cat flap open and like an awkward swan dive, rotates and pushes her broadening shoulders and widening hips uncomfortably through the little square.
She falls finally, to her own bed – all dusty from the dirt road and laundry floor. She has her palm to the meat of her cheek and her eyes track the little colourful blobs in her fish tank. They’re underwater and she’s underwater with them. She watches Demon, her angel fish glide slowly through the water.
Her dad bought her when she was six, but she was sure this was not the same fish. She has a vague memory from her childhood of what she thinks was her dad coming in and hearing a slight splash around in the water. And the next morning she’s sure the fish had a dot on one side of its body that it didn’t before. When she was young, she hadn’t spoken to him for a whole week, but now she doesn’t really mind.
Could’ve been a dream.
But she hasn’t had the same child-like faith in him since. She won’t ask him; he’s so sanguine, he’s dishonest; and she doesn’t know how to be honest. At times like these, when her eyes are welled and sight blurred, she pretends she’s just a fish – and that’s why her vision is liquid-y.
Angel shuffles around under her mattress for the little camping knife her dad got her for her seventh birthday. She swipes and her blurry eyeballs can see a little flourish of red against white.
She rests and lets the blue aquarium light consume her. She takes the coloured blurs of the room and morphs them into colourful coral and grey rocks and swaying seaweed, and she tries her hardest to have as few thoughts as possible. In fact, a lot of her time is spent trying to coordinate as few thoughts as possible, while still functioning.
But our Angel’s 'pink-and-squishy’ has an awful lot of thoughts.
The next afternoon, she stops at the grocery store before going home – Angel slopes along the aisles, grabbing miscellaneous items to play the part but not having enough stamina to really think about it. She passes the drug section then, not finding it, looks over the toddler-high check-out confectionery. Behind the cashier, in a glass case are the pregnancy tests. The cool, bright, watching overhead lights circle as the anxiety rises from her middle. She points her finger, ‘One of those please’ without even a shake or falter.