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Short Story Home

by Frida Isberg

YOU decide to walk. It’s July and the weather’s nice, the city tinted a twilight grey in the early hours of the morning. You glance at your phone. It’s 3:14am. You tally up how much you spent tonight. Maybe you were smart and stopped drinking after your third beer. Maybe you stopped drinking at 1:00. Maybe you’ve got work in the morning. You look like you’re around the age where you’re still pulling weekend shifts in a restaurant or cafe. Maybe you ended the night by chugging the last of many beers — you’re not the kind of girl who lets half a pint go to waste, even if all your friends are heading out the door, even if your wingwoman has found a suitable someone for the night.

You look at your phone again and stick it in your pocket. Grasp your keyring in your other one, thread your fingers through the keys and clench your fist. A ready-made mace tucked inside your trench coat. It makes you feel better, even if you don’t really know anything about self-defence. Are you supposed to punch your attacker right in the face or swing your fist around like a cat with its claws out? You make a mental note to ask YouTube when you get home.  

Home. How long to get home? You map out the walk in your mind, chart a rough course in advance, taking into account what streets are narrow and shadowy in the half light and what streets are wide, well-lit, and well-trafficked. At some point, you’re going to have to take a deserted street that’s lined by tall hedges. Your best friend’s little sister was attacked on a street like that. Or maybe it was your best friend. You never take that street after dark. And there’s another one you never go down anymore, either, even though it’s the most direct route home, since you found out a girl was attacked there a couple years ago. It was in the news. The attacker threw her against a wall and was tearing at her pants and she screamed and he ran off. You’re not sure how loud you could scream. Or whether you could scream at all, really. Maybe that would be a good thing to practice some time.

You take out your phone. You want to call someone. Wish you had a boyfriend waiting for you at home. Maybe you do have a boyfriend at home in bed, but you don’t want to wake him up over something so trivial. You wonder if any of your friends would mind staying on the phone with you while you walk home, even though you just spent the entire night together. Your wingwoman is busy, of course.

You scroll aimlessly through your phone contacts as if you’re focused on something other than the gardens you’re walking past. The ones someone could drag you into. You hover over your mum’s number. She would understand, even though she obviously went to bed ages ago. She wouldn’t like knowing you’re downtown by yourself, has often asked you to call when you get home if she knows you’re going out. You always need to reassure her that there’s nothing to worry about, that you’ll be careful, you never drink too much and you always try to walk home with someone else. She likes to bring up the attempted attack a few months ago, or how many assaults are reported annually and how there are more every year. You always answer that it’s not the number of assaults that have gone up, but reports. These days, women are more likely to seek help after being assaulted because there’s greater public awareness. Sometimes, you’ve no choice but to firmly end the discussion, say goodbye in the same voice you’d use to tell a dog to sit, toss your hair over your shoulder and decide that you’re not going to let your life be dictated by would-be rapists. Go out on Saturday night, get drunk. But in the back of your mind, sprouts the seed she planted when she told you her story. In the back of your mind lurks the secret you promised you’d never tell anyone, ever. That she was. Under what circumstances, it makes no difference, nor how old she was when it happened. Just that she was. That knowledge is why you stopped rolling your eyes. Her warnings took root in you, instead of going in one ear and straight out the other.

You notice a man about half a block away. He’s walking on the same side of the street, coming right at you, pretty fast. Unusually fast? You clench your fist tightly around your keyring. Move your hand up and down to make sure that you won’t have any problem getting your fist out. That the keys won’t get caught in your coat pocket. He’s rapidly approaching you. You squeeze your phone in your other pocket. Pull it out as though someone’s calling you. Enter 999 just to have it ready. Pretend to answer. You look up from the ground and then down again. He’s noticed you. He’s about twenty metres away now. I’m almost home, you say into your phone, and yeah, I had a good time. You say it loud enough that he can hear you. He steps into the street and crosses to the other side. You watch him in your periphery. Throw a quick glance over your shoulder a few steps later. See that he’s well down the street; he’s not going to jump you from behind. It occurs to you that maybe he crossed the street specifically so you wouldn’t have to be afraid.

You’re still ten minutes from home. You regret not taking a taxi. You just live right at this embarrassing middle distance, a fifteen-minute walk from downtown. Far enough that you want to take a taxi, but close enough that you don’t really have an excuse to. Younger and poorer you would have never even considered it. You think back on all the times you walked home in those days, how you drank, how you took drinks from anyone who offered, how you’d pad home in just your socks, unsuspecting, unconcerned, sometimes two nights in a row on weekends. You realize how lucky you are that nothing ever happened.
 
You’ve arrived at a major road. A few taxis drive past. You relax a little, even though it’s still twilight and there aren’t many people out. You mentally prepare yourself for the final stretch. The hedgerows. Find yourself suddenly thinking about a conversation you had with a friend a few months ago. You were at a bar and there was this guy who’d been watching you for a long time. Hovered around you like a little moon. Never got too close. He wasn’t one of those puffy-eyed, thick-tongued older men who tries to buy you a drink and then just stumbles off when you give him a look. This guy had his shoulders thrown back, his eyes were focused. Sweaty palms. Something off about him. When you started pulling on your coat, he sidled up to you and asked if you’d like to go to his place. You could feel his loathing. It scared you. Your friend had cycled there; you were on foot. You asked him to walk, to take a detour with you. It was cold — this was right between winter and spring — and he was reluctant, didn’t understand what the big deal was. Made a joke about you being paranoid, then gave in. You promised to invite him over for pancakes the next day, which you forgot to do. “Don’t you ever get uncomfortable walking home by yourself?” you asked when you arrived in your neighborhood. “In Reykjavik?” he asked, skeptically. Looked around the empty street as if to show you how harmless it was.

You hear the crunch of leaves. There’s someone behind you. Right behind you. You hear it, all of a sudden. Quick, short steps. You pick up the pace and hear them speed up, too. You steel yourself for an attack as you turn around.  

It’s another girl. She’s a little younger than you. Not dressed for the weather at all. She looks a little drunk. She smiles at you. You can breathe easy. There are two of you. No one’s going to attack two women. You smile back. Are a bit ashamed of your heart, pounding in your chest. You both walk not-together for a while. Then you have to turn onto another street. She continues straight ahead, arms crossed under her breasts, shoulders spiked and stiff like a big M. She’s walking a lot faster now. Stumbles over the uneven sidewalk but quickly regains her balance. You’re gripped by a sudden rage. That you’re both this scared. There was a time when you would have listened to music on your way home. Turned it all the way up, even though it made your headphones buzz. Your quick steps become angry strides. You’ve turned onto the street with hedgerows, with cut-throughs, back alleys, and tall trees. There’s no-one around. You feel like taking all your clothes off and strolling the rest of the way naked. Taking your time. Swinging your ass as sexily as you can. Stroking rings around your nipples with your Fuck-you fingers.

You’re almost there. Your house is two minutes away. You decide to take a cut-through; it’ll be even quicker. You feel like you’ve sobered up, but that’s probably not true. You try to remember what you have in the fridge. Did you eat that frozen pizza?

Probably. You don’t look like the kind of girl who’d forget she had a pizza in the freezer.

There’s your building. You unclench your fingers so that your fist-mace turns back into a palm and keys in your pocket. You pull out your keyring. Find the front door key. It has purple or yellow rubber around the edge. Or maybe it’s one of those old-fashioned gilded keys that are shaped like a trapezoid. Your sidewalk is strewn with gravel. There are your stairs, leading up to your front door. There’s a flower in a tin can on each step that the woman who lives next door decided should live there, too. You’ve made it to the door. You open it quickly and step inside. Close it behind you. Double-check the doorknob. It’s locked. You sigh. You’re relieved. You’re home.

Frida Isberg is an Icelandic author based in Reykjavik, she is a member of the Icelandic poetry collective Impostor Poets and was awarded the Icelandic Booksellers Choice for Poetry. Her work has been translated into five languages. Home is included in the anthology of short stories The Book of Reykjavik published by Comma Press (£9.99).

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