By Mary Maeve McGeorge
TW: The following piece contains stalking and assault imagery that may be triggering.
I shouldn’t have been walking alone.
It was my first night, and the promise of endless possibilities shone brightly on the tiny foreign town. Snow fell between the hazy glimmer of the twinkling lampposts, a stark difference between the dark moonlit sky. Violins squealed from a quaint restaurant nestled in the corner of the street, as if to narrate my every step. Candles flickered from the tables crowded with whispering couples, lips red from the wine. The air was crisp, biting at my cheeks in a way that made me feel adventurous—how often, back home, did I willingly walk through a cold winter’s night to explore my hometown? Never. It was all too easy to drive to get where you were going. But there was something romantic about being alone with my thoughts while strolling through a town I’d only just met. Every stranger and every corner were the first line in a story that could be. I floated my gaze to meet the eyes of each handsome stranger I passed, my lips never parting to say hello. It was the beauty in chance encounters, the possibility of entire love stories unraveling after just one look. Even my footsteps against the freshly packed snow were a story in itself. Looking back, I could see where I’d been. But the path forward was a blank slate; no matter where I went, something new awaited.
But I shouldn’t have been walking alone. Not in that town, not at that time.
At the start of my stroll, people were out and about, wandering the streets with a glimmer in their eyes I was sure I mirrored. Some were in love, some were stressed, most were alone. But we weren’t really, not when you thought about the daydreams that filled our minds. A single thread connected us all. We were all with someone or something, thoughts consumed by the things we couldn’t change or the things we hoped or the things we craved.
For the first time in quite some time, my mind wasn’t consumed by him. Though now, looking back, I wish he had been there with me. Maybe then, it wouldn’t have happened.
I had been so caught up in how lovely the city was at night as the snow trickled to the streets that I didn’t notice how quickly the atmosphere had shifted. The scent of beer oozed from the burgeoning bars lining the street, music blaring, drunkards roaring from within, oblivious to the cold snowy night beyond the bar’s cozy walls. It seemed the cold had convinced most to go home, the footsteps muddying the sidewalks the only thing I had left to remember them by.
Aside from the few drunken couples embracing in the cold as they waited on taxis to take them home, the streets were empty. An eerie empty, the type of false empty you can feel in your quickened heartbeat and the cold, hollow feeling of your bones. The sort of empty that’s a lie; someone was there, watching.
I looked at the street signs—foreign. Somehow, I’d wandered beyond the tiny map the hotel had given me upon my arrival. I pulled my phone out of my pocket. Even if I didn’t have service, maybe I could glean a sense of where I was based on the map loaded on my screen. Maybe, I could call for a taxi, or for help.
I pressed the home button again and again, my fingertips sore, burning from the cold as I tapped against the screen. But the screen remained stubbornly dark. Dead.
A taxi lurched to a stop beside me, skidding in the dirtied snow packed against the curb. My saving grace, I assumed. Manually, the driver rolled down the passenger side window. The whites of his eyes glowed in the darkness as he smirked at me. “A ride for the pretty lady? You know, you really shouldn’t be in these parts this late at night.” He clucked as if to reprimand; my heartbeat took it as a threat.
I glanced around. The streets had emptied of couples, and the bars were starting to quiet down. Men seemed to lurk in every alleyway, poking their heads out with interest, sneering in my direction with their pointed gazes. A delicate fawn lost in uncharted woods. Of course, not all present men were bad. It’s unfair to assume such a thing, though when you’re alone in the dark, there’s nothing to do but assume. The good ones, though, kept their eyes glazed with ignorance as they waited for taxicabs to take them home. It was better to avoid than to approach and lend a helping hand. After all, how would I have perceived him after coming up to lonely me, asking if I needed a ride home?
I turned back to the driver. “How much to get to the Hotel De Sainte?” I dug into my pocket, quickly realizing that while there should’ve been something, there was nothing. The image of my wallet lying on the restaurant I’d eaten at flashed across my mind. I’d left it behind in the flurry of last calls as the waiter ushered me out. They were closing, and it was time for me to go.
“Twenty euros, thank you,” the taxi driver said with an accent. French, maybe German. I didn’t know.
“Sir.” I ducked my head through the window, hoping a part of him remembered I was human. “I left my wallet at the restaurant I ate dinner at, and my phone is dead. Could you please drive me back to my hotel, and I can find some other way to repay you once the restaurant opens again tomorrow morning? Please.” I almost said I would do anything, though quickly, I remembered the repercussions of such a proclamation. I didn’t want to sound too desperate, desperate fawns are often preyed upon. But desperation is often hard to mask.
With a quick shake of his head and a few muffled curses beneath his breath, he sped away, leaving me alone in the street. No phone, no wallet, no way to get home. I wished I had my pepper spray, but the lady in the security line at the airport had taken it away. Such things weren’t allowed on flights. Too dangerous, considering all that could happen.
My racing heart led to a frazzled mind; I was clueless to the direction of my hotel. Each street looked the same, daunting in the quiet alleyways that lined the pathways like gleaming flowerpots, meant to lure me in. I had no choice but to start walking.
Every time I saw another woman, my heart simmered with relief—I’d attempt to meet her gaze so we could wordlessly share our fear, maybe make the journey together, but every woman I encountered kept her head down and her arms crossed; the uniform of lonely lost girls when all they want to do is get home safely.
So I pressed on and hoped for familiarity, for some sort of decency. But the further I walked, the more I realized just how alone I was. And, fearfully, just how alone I wasn’t. The streets were thinning, and the women with the crossed arms or the nice couples who surely would protect me were all gone. But the men lurking in the alleyways never went away.
Soon, one stepped out to greet me. A cheerful hello that made my heartbeat quicken. I could practically smell the beer on his breath, see the stains of cigarettes on his teeth. “Hey pretty lady, where’s your boyfriend?”
The other men snickered as they watched from their perches in the darkness. Perhaps they’d make a pass at me after this fellow had his fun, but for now, they’d enjoy the show from afar.
“Come here,” the man said, stepping towards me. “I wanna see your smile.”
I turned and walked the other way, but this only made him snicker. To this day, the sound of his laughter is fresh in my mind. As if he’s been laughing at my memories ever since.
“Awfully rude, aren’t you? Ignoring me like I don’t mean nothing.”
I started to run, but he ran faster. Then, his hand gripped my shoulder. His fingernails dug into my coat as he jeered. He jerked me towards him so we were face to face now, his grasp on my coat secure. “You’re quite pretty, aren’t you?”
I didn’t answer. This wasn’t flattery. It never is when a girl is walking alone, regardless of the color of the sky. Though men always assume our vanity, expecting us to simmer in the glow of unwanted compliments.
“Why won’t you look at me, love?”
“I have to go,” I said as I backed away, but this only made him laugh harder. He was missing a few teeth, and his clothes sagged off his bony body. He was covered in stains, dirt resting within every crevice of his skin. “You’re not going anywhere, my dear.”