Tiff Holland’s poetry, fiction and non-fiction has appeared in dozens of literary-magazines, e-zines and anthologies. Her poetry chapbook Bone In a Tin Funnel is available through Pudding House Press. Her short fiction chapbook Betty Superman won the 2010 Rose Metal Press Prize. She teaches at Austin Community College.
After the rape, three of us drove Stacy from the hospital to her trailer in the woods. She couldn’t stand to be alone. She kept talking about the guys, the guys in orange jumpsuits who had abducted her at a gas station. We told her not to talk about it. We told her we’d fix her some supper. She dozed in the car while we planned the meal: some mashed potatoes maybe or Stove Top stuffing, comfort food. Stacy lived a long ways out in the woods, far from the college. She had folded herself tight into one corner of the backseat. She was barefoot. She wore a sleeveless white t-shirt with blood dribbled down the front. She mumbled in her sleep. Julie sat beside her and stroked her head and whispered, while Alex drove. In the front seat, we were skeptical.
“What do you think?” Alex asked.
“About what?” I was trying not to think. “You know, I mean. Jeez, do you think she was really?…”
Back home, my ex-boyfriend, Ethan was a cop. He used to tell me about girls who faked rape reports, but I was never sure if I believed him. A few weeks before, Ethan had sent me a video of himself, naked, along with a note saying how much he missed me. Each shot was angled so that I couldn’t see his head, just his body. I turned the rearview mirror so I could look at Stacy more closely in the backseat. Her head, with its short spiky hair, looked huge sticking up from her tiny shoulders. She had a big multi-colored bruise on one cheek and just under her chin.
It was hard to know about Stacy. Every semester brought a different crisis. Last fall she had some kind of cancer. Then her cat got hit by a car. She accidentally drank part of a bottle of nail polish remover. In the spring someone broke into her trailer, and there was always her anorexia. Twice since our freshman year, Stacy had to be hospitalized when her electrolytes became dangerously depleted. Some of the other students jokingly referred to her as “Skelator.” I thought hard for a moment. Sometimes, I thought Stace was just lonely, but we’re all alone here.
“I guess it doesn’t matter,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter?” Alex was tired of what he always referred to as Stacy’s “drama.” He had sighed heavily on the phone when I called to tell him I was heading to the hospital, and muttered something about “the girl who cried wolf.”
“Yeah, I mean, there’s something wrong with her. Maybe there really are guys in orange jumpsuits, maybe there aren’t. Maybe she’s really worried they’ll find her, but even if she’s not, she’s too freaked out to be left alone.” Alex slouched down in his seat. He was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt with a stick figure drawing of some up-and-coming indie rock group. He was really smart and always knew the best groups, and I could probably go for him if he cleaned up a little better.
“Look, we’ll have some dinner. Then, you can leave if you want to. I’ll stay with her tonight.”
“Are you sure?” He looked relieved but not unconcerned.
“Sure, just stop by my apartment and walk Jake for me, okay?” I dug in my pocket and handed Alex my keys. If I wasn’t there when Ethan called, or better yet if a man answered, maybe Ethan would finally get the message.
It had been three months. I couldn’t get the stupid video out of my head. In one shot he tickled his own behind with a feather, in another he did a bump and grind right up against the camera. In that shot he was wearing a red thong. As near as I could tell he was rubbing the thing against the camera lens by the end of that part.
Still asleep in the backseat, Stacy muttered, then shouted, but it was hard to make out her words.
“What’s she saying?” I asked Julie over my shoulder. Julie patted Stacy’s arm.
“I have no idea.”
Stacy woke up just as we reached her turnoff.
“Good,” Alex said, “remind me which way to turn?”
Stacy seemed confused as she looked out first the driver’s side and then the passenger window. Alex raised his eyebrows as she turned to look out the back.
“We just turned off Highway 16,” I told her. She gave Alex the directions and then started talking about the men again, how the whole thing kept running over and over in her head like some kind of bad dream. She rubbed hard at one wrist.
“The handcuffs were so tight,” she moaned. Ethan had a weird shaped key on his keychain. It was long and thin with just one nub at the very end. He said it was a handcuff key, universal. I never saw his handcuffs, though. I only saw him in uniform once and he wasn’t wearing his gun belt.
Stacy started shaking and then told Alex to pull over because she had to puke. Alex and I hung back by the car while Julie rubbed Stacy’s back while she threw up into some weeds.
“Maybe it really did happen,” Alex said, turning back toward the highway. I nodded, but I didn’t say anything, thinking when I was a teenager and got so upset that I threw up even though nothing was really wrong. “Maybe I should stay, too.”
Stacy started to stand up, holding tight to Julie’s wrist, then bent back over for another empty heave. Julie dug in her pocket and brought out a tissue, but Stacy waved her off and wiped her mouth with the bottom of her t-shirt. They headed up the embankment towards us.
“She didn’t say anything about handcuffs before,” I said finally, turning back towards traffic. Once we were all back in the car, Alex clicked on the radio and Stacy went back to sleep. At the trailer, Stacy made Alex go in first, check the place out. Once we were inside, Stacy went from room to room pulling the curtains as if the men were just outside the trailer looking in. Alex headed for the kitchen and stood in front of the open refrigerator. Then Stacy told us she felt dirty and wanted to take a bath.
“That’s a great idea,” Julie told her. “Do you want me to come sit with you?”
“Would you?” Stacy started to cry and Julie gave her a big hug. I took a step closer to them but wasn’t sure if I should hug Stacy, too. Finally, I reached over and rubbed her shoulder. In the kitchen Alex closed the refrigerator door. Once the water was running, I headed for the kitchen.
“What’s for dinner?” I asked Alex. He stepped aside.
“Take a look for yourself.” I’ve never seen the inside of a refrigerator look so bright. Inside were a bowl of apples and three packs of fat free microwave popcorn. That was it.
“Well, let’s check the cupboards,” I suggested.
“Dammit, we should have stopped at the store,” Alex grumbled. He opened the doors over the counter. There were a few spices and a box of oatmeal. I thought of the food back at my apartment, boxes of cereal and rice in the cupboards, meat and frozen vegetables and TV dinners in the freezer, condiments lining the refrigerator door. I kept all my dry goods in giant plastic bags or Tupperware containers. Stacy had teased me about it the few times she’d been to my place. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring any food with me when I grabbed my keys and headed for the hospital. I hadn’t planned on taking Stacy back to her trailer. I thought I’d stop by, offer support, go home and have dinner in front of the TV with Jake like always, listen to the phone ring at seven or eight or nine. Or maybe, pick up, if I was lonely. In a way, it seemed stupid to worry about food.
“We can’t even get a pizza delivered way out here,” Alex complained.
“How about that gas station at the turn-off?” I asked.
“What about it?”
“Maybe they have some food?”
“I doubt it.”
“It’s worth a shot. Do you want to go or do you want me to?” I shut the cupboards quietly so Stacy wouldn’t hear. I had hoped to have dinner ready when she got out of the tub, and then we would eat and everything would be okay again.
“I’ll go,” Alex answered. While Alex was gone, I wandered around the trailer. I could hear Julie and Stacy talking in the bathroom. Julie had an amazingly soothing voice and I strained to hear her not for the content, but for the tone. After a while, there was more crying and then it got quiet again. I tried to imagine Stacy naked. I was glad Julie was in there and not me. Finally, the bathroom door opened and Julie came out.
“How is she?” I asked.
“Ok, I guess. She’s getting dressed. She’s got a lot of bruises, but they don’t look too bad.” Julie tucked a strand of hair out of her eyes and glanced around the trailer.
I wanted to ask about the bruises, the size and the shape, whether they looked like they came from one set of hands or two, but I didn’t.
Where’s Alex?” Julie asked.
“He went to get some food.”
“Oh.” Julie plopped down on the ratty couch. She pulled open the shade and looked out.
“What? Are you worried, too?”
“No, I just…” Julie closed the shade. “It’s getting late. I have a German exam tomorrow.” She picked up a magazine from the table, thumbed through it, put it back down. “Shit.”
“Well, maybe we can leave. I mean, she’s okay now. How would they know where to find her anyway?” I spoke quietly. There was just a curtain hanging between the living room and the bedroom. On the other side of it, I could hear Stacy opening drawers and closing them.
“I guess they stole her wallet. I guess they could get her address from her driver’s license,” Julie paused. “I wish I had thought to bring my German book.”
“I wish we’d brought some food,” I joked. Julie laughed. There was a soft bang from the other room. Julie raised an eyebrow at me.
“What was she doing way out there anyway?” I asked.
“I think she was coming back from taking Ian to the airport. Kinsman is half-way, I think.”
“Who is Ian?” I looked toward the bedroom which was suddenly very quiet.
“Some guy she met,” Julie lowered her voice, “on the Internet, I think.”
The curtain parted and Stacy walked into the room. She was wearing gray sweats despite the fact it was at least eighty degrees out and warmer in the trailer. Even though the windows were open, none of the breeze was making it past the drawn shades. Stacy stepped over the coffee table to sit between me and Julie on the couch. I didn’t have a chance to think about whether or not I wanted to hug her before she pulled both of us to her and started crying again. My stomach rumbled. I couldn’t help but notice how hard she felt. After a moment, I slipped away. Stacy turned her full embrace toward Julie. I wondered how she had managed to escape if she had been handcuffed and what had happened to the handcuffs. I stared at Stacy’s wrist where it clutched Julie’s neck. It was smooth and so thin I could see how the bones joined together. We all jumped a moment later when we heard a car door slam. I peered through the shades.
“It’s just Alex.”
“Alex?” Stacy looked up, red-eyed and dazed.
“Yeah, he went to get some supplies, for dinner.”
“Oh, good. I’m famished.” Stacy said. She paused, “and tired.”
“Maybe you should lie down,” Julie suggested. Stacy looked toward the bedroom.
“Go ahead; we’ll keep an eye out.”
“Ok, that sounds good,” Stacy started to rise to her feet, then dropped a little, as though she were about to pass out.
Julie took her by the elbow, “Here, I’ll help.”
After Stacy was safe in bed, Julie headed back to the kitchen where I watched Alex unloading supplies.
“It was just that little gas station. They didn’t have much.” He put a large jar of spaghetti sauce on the table along with a box of pasta and a twelve pack of cheap beer. There was also a roll of those refrigerator rolls that come in a tube, a large bag of potato chips and a jar of generic peanut butter.
“Peanut butter?” I asked.
“For the rolls,” Alex explained. “They didn’t have any margarine.” Julie scowled at the beer.
“You said comfort,” Alex said. “What is more comforting than a little buzz?”
I was pretty sure Alex and Julie had gone out a few times, but neither of them ever mentioned it. There always seemed to be a tension between them, and Alex’s new girlfriend, Katie, a fashion major, didn’t seem to care for Julie at all, and everyone liked Julie.
At the end of Ethan’s video he turned from the camera and walked to the dining room table. I could see his whole body then, or the back of it, his curly blond hair with that weird white spot at the bottom left behind his ear. Seeing that spot made me miss him for a minute, a real ache. He took a swig of beer from a can on the table, picked up a picture, I think it was a picture of me but I really couldn’t tell. Then he turned around, walked back towards the camera, his face still out of frame, and, looking at the picture, began to masturbate.
Alex tore open the carton and handed me a beer then offered one to Julie who passed with a shake of her head. I don’t usually care for beer, then shrugged and popped the top. It tasted surprisingly good, sweet and filling. I was surprised how hungry I was; although I had noticed that I was almost always hungry around Stacy. We’d all go out for Mexican and Stace would munch a few chips and nurse a margarita, and I’d find myself devouring a burrito and three or four enchiladas. I wasn’t the only one, either. It seemed we were all hungry around Stacy.
Alex took his beer into the living room and turned on the TV.
“Maybe there will be something about those guys on the news.” He put his feet up on the coffee table. Julie looked toward the bedroom.
“Well, keep it down. It might upset her if she hears anything.” Alex nodded and started flipping through the channels.
“So, what about this Ian?” I asked Julie as we looked for a pan.
“He was here all weekend, I guess, flew in from Florida or some place.” Julie pulled open the metal drawer and found a frying pan but nothing big enough to boil pasta water.
“I thought Stace was gay,” Alex said from the living room.
“Shh,” Julie and I whispered together.
“I thought you were watching TV.” Julie accused. Alex dropped the remote on the couch and walked back to the kitchen, tore open the bag of chips.
“Nothing on,” he told us, mouth full, “‘sides, I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Now, who’s Ian?” I asked once he was gone.
“All I know is he flew in from Florida, and he’s a drama major. I don’t think they hit it off, though, because Stace had said he was going to stay all week, be here for the big party on Friday, but instead she took him to the airport yesterday.”
“And she met him on the Internet?”
“Yeah,” Julie chewed on a fingernail. When I had finished watching Ethan’s video, I yanked the tape from the cassette in long threads wondering what made him think I wanted to watch him do that, what made him think that I wanted to watch him do that without seeing his face. He called me a day or two later and begged me to destroy the tape, to do it while he was listening. He said he was afraid I’d put it on the Internet. I didn’t tell him he was safe, just that he should have thought of that before.
“How weird is that?” I asked finally.
“I feel sorry for her. No one here will have anything to do with her,” Julie considered her words carefully. “Lots of people hook up on the Internet.”
Alex returned from the bathroom holding a large pot in one hand. He shrugged as if to say, who knows why she keeps her pans in the bathroom, then handed it to Julie who set to washing it. While there was almost no food in the kitchen, there were cleaning supplies everywhere, bleach and ammonia under the sink and Ajax and a bunch of spray cleaners in the tall cupboard by the fridge, the place at my apartment where I kept all my canned goods. Alex offered the open bag, and I took a few chips.
“Is she gay or not?” he asked. Stacy had gotten into a huge fight with some girl named Trish a few months earlier, and there was much speculation as to whether they were lovers.
“I guess she’s bi,” I shrugged.
“Of course,” said Alex and took the chips with him back to the living room where he started poking around on Stacy’s desk.
“You were at the hospital,” I said to Julie as she set the water to boil on the stove. “Was she raped?”
“I don’t know,” Julie shook some salt into the water, dumped the jar of sauce into another pan. “The doctors and nurses wouldn’t talk to me. A social worker came down and talked to her, and she talked to me after, but she just asked about Stacy’s eating habits.” To my surprise, Julie reached for a beer.
“Didn’t you hear anything?”
“There was semen. I heard something about a swab. That’s it.”
I stared out the kitchen window into the woods. Maybe there were men in orange jumpsuits out there right now, lurking among the trees. I wondered if one of them raped Stace or if they took turns or maybe they did it at both at once like in porn movies. I felt sick and headed into the living room. It was time for Jeopardy. I found the channel. The last champion had won five games, so there were three new contestants. Johnny Gilbert introduced them: a teacher, a lawyer, an accountant. It seemed like there were always teachers and lawyers. I decided to root for the accountant.
“Hey, look at this,” said Alex from Stacy’s desk.
“What are you doing? That’s her private stuff,” I said but drifted over thinking: five to one the lawyer wins anyway.
“E-mail print outs from that Ian guy, pretty hot,” Alex held out some sheets of paper.
“Really?” I couldn’t help but look. I scanned them quickly. They were hot and kind of kinky. Ian and Stacy were evidently planning a week of hot sex.
“Maybe she didn’t put out and he got mad and that’s why he left early.” Alex surmised.
There were pictures, too, one of a guy, about our age, with dark curly hair, and another of a pretty girl with shoulder length blonde hair and a confident expression.
“The guy must be Ian,” said Alex.
“Yeah, but who’s the girl?” I asked. Alex shrugged, pushed a few more chips into his mouth.
“Hey, Julie, do you know who this is?” I held out the picture. Julie turned the water down under the pasta and joined us in the living room. She stared hard at the picture for a moment. “I think that’s Stacy,” she snaked her hand into the bag of chips. I took a few, too and stared harder at the picture.
“Nah,” said Alex.
“Yeah, see that’s her nose,” Julie pointed.
Of course, it looked fuller than Stacy’s nose, but there was definitely a resemblance. The girl in the picture was incredibly pretty, model pretty. She looked a little like Jodie Foster. “Do you think so?” I handed the picture back toward Alex but Julie took it and pointed to the girl’s hand.
“See,” she said triumphantly, “that’s the ring Stacy always wears.”
“Well, if Ian came here expecting this,” Alex nodded to the picture, “and got that,” and then toward the bedroom. He mock-shivered as if he were creeped out. The Stacy in the picture could have any guy she wanted.
“Maybe Ian did this to her,” Julie said just as the thought popped into my head. I looked at Alex and could tell he had thought the same thing.
We put the printouts back on Stacy’s desk and headed to the kitchen. Julie handed me the tube of rolls. I tore off the wrapper and pressed a knife to the seam in the cardboard, and the rolls popped out. Julie and Alex leaned against the counters, watching.
“What kind of guy would beat up some girl just because she wasn’t what he expected?” Julie asked after a moment. Neither Alex nor I had an answer.
“What kind of girl would say she was raped if she wasn’t?” Alex said after a moment. He started playing with the faucet, turning the water on, then off, on, then off, faster and faster until Julie reached over and pushed the faucet down, moved his hand away.
“What kind of friends would ask these questions?” I thought out loud. “I mean, is it really any of our business?”
“She called us,” Julie said
“She always does,” said Alex.
“Maybe we’re not doing her any favors, always coming when she calls,” I said finally.
“But what if she really was raped?” asked Julie.
“Then there’s nothing we can do anyway,” said Alex. “We can make dinner, I guess.”
I began to arrange the rolls on a cookie sheet. Julie stirred the sauce and Alex set Stacy’s tiny dining table. She only had three chairs, so, he dragged in one from behind her desk. Then Stacy appeared, rubbing her eyes.
“Mmmm… smells yummy,” she said, pulling one of the chairs out and sitting down on it cross-legged. She had taken off her sweatshirt and was wearing another white sleeveless tee. The knobs of vertebrae stretching above the shirt up her neck were almost as white at the shirt. There was no comfort in her body. I thought about how lonely she must be out in the woods, how lucky I was to have a dog to eat with, to curl up with every night. For a moment, I missed Jake and wished I hadn’t promised to stay with Stacy. I longed to bury my face in his soft fur, to feel him place his neck over mine the way dogs do in a pack to protect one another.
Stacy adjusted her silverware with her long fingers, straightening her knife and spoon so that they were straight and parallel and moving her fork to the left side of the plate.
“What are we having?” she asked, spreading out a paper napkin and letting it fall unto her lap, only she had no lap, so it collapsed into the hollow between her crossed legs.
“Spaghetti,” Julie told her, lifting the pan of water from the burner and draining the pasta at the sink.
“Oh, wait,” said Stacy and jumped up, leaving her napkin to flutter to the linoleum. She reached into a cabinet above the stove. After a moment, her fist emerged. She turned it over, opened her palm wide, “Here,” she offered. In the middle of her hand a clove of garlic was knotted. She placed it in the middle of the table. The rest of us sat down. I tried to imagine her with long blonde hair. She took one of the rolls. I let my eyes blur so she was slightly out of focus. Stacy looked like a chipmunk chewing. With her cheek rounded out by the roll, I could see the resemblance to the girl in the picture. What had happened to her?
I took a roll from the plate Julie passed. Stacy took another. She spread peanut butter on it, then piled her plate high with pasta and sauce. She held the roll with one hand and wound spaghetti around the fork she held in the other. She pushed in a bite of pasta, still chewing the roll. I took my own fork to my mouth and looked at Alex and Julie. They were just sitting there, motionless, watching. I bit down. There was nothing on my fork. I set it back on the table. The garlic sat on the table between us, the three of us and Stacy, as we watched Stacy eat.