Linda’s mother redecorated her bedroom every few years, surprising her after a visit to her grandparents or a softball tournament. With each new paint color and bedspread selection it became clearer to Linda that rather than giving a gift to her daughter, her mother was creating the rooms she had dreamt of as a lower middle class girl biding her time in Rockford, Illinois. They were bedrooms neatly cut out from 1970s issues of Home & Garden — flat, yellow florals, an ivory vanity highlighted by thin lines of gold, blush pink floor rugs perfectly off center. The only items in the room that Linda felt truly belong to her were the baseball mitt lying under the cushioned bench and a pack of cigarettes hidden above one of the curtain rods.
Clothes lay in piles on the floor, grass streaked jeans and wrinkled t-shirts, their underarms delicately tinted with summer sweat. The comforter and top sheet had been kicked to the bed’s edge, the throw pillows stuffed in the closet. Empty Diet Coke cans were lined up like soldiers on the top of the bureau. Linda felt as if she should apologize for how it looked, but it made her proud, like the room was finally her own.
“It’s getting pretty late,” she said.
“You trying to get rid of me?” Kiel said with a smile, slowly walking around the room, letting his fingers fall against the back of her chair, the top of her dresser. Linda sat on the bed, her feet on the floor. She crossed her arms defensively against her chest, with a familiar swell of frustration tightening her throat.
“So those girls were your friends, by the pool?”
“We’ve known each other since grade school.”
“I’ve seen that blond one around school,” Kiel said, sitting next to her on her unwashed cotton sheets, making her immediately regret her choice of sitting places. His shoes had a thick white sole, so they appeared too large for his feet.
“Emme,” Linda said, rubbing her hands along her legs as if she was cold, feeling the small pricks of hair. She knew what was coming next, imagined the different ways she would stop it — a hand against his chest, a turned cheek.
“Yeah, she seems like kind of a cunt.”
Linda was always surprised at how easily those words came to boys, as if the syllables had been playing in a loop in their head all day, waiting to skip off the tongue. He was close. She noticed the skin was peeling near his hairline, a delicate puckering, like the wings of an insect.
“Yeah, I guess she is,” she said, and with the ‘s’ still hissing past her two front teeth, Kiel leaned towards her. She dipped her head back reflexively, like a boxer dodging a punch. He smiled, strong bone-white teeth, and moved closer.
There were no voices, but Linda felt them beneath her, moving like fish from one room to the next. Doors opening, the sound of something being dragged across the floors. She brought her hands up to her face, her fingers tracing her eyebrows, her cheeks, the dry curve of her bottom lip, an unconscious gesture to see if she was still there. Her bedroom blurred and focused, each element of it seen in a new, white light — the window was too high for them to jump from, the lamp was too large, its base unusable as a blunt object to break over someone’s skull.
The footsteps were coming closer, one set, now two, and she realized they must be near the bottom of the staircase. She had left her cell phone on the kitchen counter, and earlier Kiel had lamented that his was dead. Her mother had bought her an antique telephone, its cream cord wrapped around the base, no portable receiver she could carry. One of her old softball bats was propped up beside her vanity, the leather looped around the handle loose and frayed. She picked it up, grabbed Kiel by the sleeve of his shirt and as quietly as she could, opened her closet door and ducked inside, closing it softly behind them, the metal latch making a solemn click.
Linda pushed through the dresses on wooden hangers: the pale pink her mother bought her for her cousin’s wedding, the green chiffon Emme she wore once to a Bat Mitzvah. She pulled Kiel down beside her, thought of throwing clothes over them, but there were not enough to hide both their bodies. Their backs were against the smooth plaster. Kiel kept running his fingers back and forth through his hair, the tips making a scratching noise like a match against carbon. She gripped one of his wrists to stop him, convinced the men below could hear.
Everything within her —the blood rushing loose and wild under her skin — quieted at the sound of feet moving up the staircase. She could hear the swish of a vinyl jacket and for a moment wondered how they could bear it in the heat. They lingered outside her doorframe, the hinge creaking as it swung open like a mouth. Foot soles entered the room, moving from the floor to the carpet; a brief clearing of a man’s throat, the loose sound of spit. Next to her, Kiel put his head between his knees. He smelled like chlorine and sweat, the scent so consuming she thought she might vomit. Then came the swish of a drawer opening, then another, the smooth sound of wood against wood. The slight scratch of a fingernail across the drawer bottom as clothing was pushed to the side, then a sweep of the arm across her vanity, the bright clink of nail polish bottles and porcelain jewelry dishes against the glass top.
Her parents would be at their hotel room, her father neatly folding his jacket and laying it over the desk chair, her mother wiping off her lipstick with a tissue. Emme would be lying on her striped comforter, her long, browned feet flat against the wall as she talked to Lauren on the phone. All of them had left her to this, to them. So come in, she found herself willing the men outside her closet, angling the bat forward like a torch, just try, just try, just try.
Once when she was no more than six, she had locked herself by accident in the bathroom after her mother had drawn her a bath, the metal somehow jamming into the door slot. Her mother had to call the firemen to get the door open, and Linda distinctly remembered standing naked, her towel wrapped around her shoulders like a flag, as strange men broke through the lock. When they first arrived her mother cooed to her through the door, telling her she was right there, that it was going to be just fine; but then nothing. All she could hear was the men’s labored breathing, the clang of metal against metal, metal against wood, as the door buckled and broke under their weight.