Ants on the Wall by Jabeen Akhtar

I calculated as my hair fanned across the scorched, crumbly asphalt: 5.5 pineapple vodkas since 12:13pm, four in the privacy of my kitchen, one and a half since I had been out in the sun, and a beer. I was a spectacle, another drunkard attempting to dance to the live jazz that had overtaken our streets.

Are you ok? they all asked. Seriously, are you ok?

Canned pineapple juice trickled up my throat. A pebble had lodged itself in my left earlobe. I turned my face to the afternoon sky, opalescent from the heat radiating off the ground, and picked the pebble out. “I tripped,” I said.

My new friends, pretty girls with fairy eyes and shiny rouge circles on their cheeks, gathered above and pointed to my shoe. The sole of my right flip-flop was nearly ripped in half. That’s why I fell, I told them. I was dancing and didn’t know my shoe was falling apart.

I stood up, smoothed my hair, and my friends and I exchanged bland girly banter: Your skin looks good all dewy; is that guy truly hot or will I not think so tomorrow; oh god you won’t believe who texted Sarah last night. We played along, pointing the afternoon’s arrow to fun again.

The one with blonde hair parted down the middle (Sadie? Sophie?) offered to walk me back to my apartment to get another pair of shoes. I needed water, rest. To sober up alone.

I pulled the keychain from my purse. No, I told my friends. I’ll go myself. Watch my stuff.

One by one, their bodies turned from me and started swaying again to the music. Limping, rubbing my ear, rubbing my eyes so the world would stop shuddering, I walked past a comic book store and a small gourmet grocery where I once bought olives and a $40 bottle of wine. I passed a street to the left. This street could get me to my apartment faster than if I looped around the entire neighborhood, so I took it.

I brushed some dirt off my white cotton skirt and fiddled with the straps of my navy tank top. I wished I had worn a hat or sunglasses. A slow ache developed in the front of my head, above my eyes. It hurt to look up, so I kept my head down. The street was longer than I remembered.

I passed five blocks of stores and restaurants. The longer I went on, the more grass and trees appeared along the road. Then the road stopped, ending in front of a small, gated private school whose name I knew. But this didn’t make sense. I thought this street led to the liquor store near my building that people said sold absinthe, even though I never saw any in there. The music from the festival was still coming from everywhere. I wasn’t too far from my friends. I found a street sign. Somehow I was on a different street. It must have changed names at some point. I turned around and walked back.

The damp, polluted air was not good for walking. My breaths were shallow and unsatisfying—from breathing while trying not to breathe. My chest tightened from the stress. But I was still hopeful that home was nearby. I was in a neighborhood that I just never explored before. I had only lived in the town a few weeks. Now I was being forced to learn the area better, and that was a good thing. All I had to do next was cut through the cluster of apartment buildings that were in front of me and the cluster after that would be mine.

I crossed through several more blocks of apartments and stopped. I found myself in front of an abandoned furniture store and I was by a highway. I didn’t recognize the highway. I had been walking to the right. Should I have been walking to the left? How long had I been walking home? My thoughts couldn’t overtake the vodka, or the pain in my head. The street was quiet, only a few cars driving by. I felt isolated and far from anywhere I needed to be.

Down a street, I could hear live music, bongos. Afro-Cuban? If I couldn’t get home, at least I could find my way back to the festival where my friends could guide me home. I departed the quieter residential area and followed the frenzied slapping of drums, a flute that fluttered in and out like a coquettish butterfly. I pictured the flute player. She’s on stage. The bongo player’s in the middle, she’s at the edge, standing. Her towering frame is draped by a forest green halter dress with a plunging neckline. Her slick, dark chocolate breasts, hardly contained by the dress, slide left and right with each movement. She’s wearing orange hoop earrings. A floral scarf is tightly wrapped at her forehead to contain a puff of afro. No, gold hoop earrings. Her nails are painted orange.

Suddenly, an alley appeared to my right, curving between two skyscrapers. It was too narrow for a car, but it eventually opened to a wide street that seemed busy. I saw a few partiers on the other side, howling as they spilled their plastic cups of cheap beer onto the sidewalk. I was getting close.

Cool air bathed me as I entered. I felt myself quickly sobering up and my headache started going away. I picked up my pace again at the thought of getting back to the festival. I would make light of things with my friends, so they wouldn’t worry. I got lost. I’m an idiot. I would smile and make them laugh. “How funny is the new girl?” they might say.

“Excuse me.”

There was movement behind a grey plastic trash bin. He wore a stained white T-shirt and black jeans. His shirt couldn’t stretch all the way over his large, round stomach. His dark brown hair went past his shoulders. He looked at me. I had the choice to turn around or keep walking past him. I was embarrassed to do it, but I turned around.

He was walking fast. I didn’t know how far behind me he was. I was too afraid to turn around and look at him. I started walking faster. His footfalls grew louder. The warm sweetness of rot and waste drifted over my shoulder.

Just as my body prepared to run, he grabbed the back of my shirt. The front of my shirt strained against my neck, choking me. I dropped my keys. He swung me around. My flip-flops came off. His palm pushed my face against the wall. He pushed my lower back into the wall with his other hand.

“Stay still,” was the only thing he said. He said it calmly, like your mother would say while removing a splinter from your finger.

I jerked once in his grip but he held me hard against the cold wall, moving his dry, rough hands over my arms and legs.

Then he stopped touching me. I waited. I wondered if that was all he wanted. He seemed to have stepped away. Maybe he’d left. Muscle by muscle, I started to turn around to see what was happening behind me. I caught a glimpse of a long thin blade before he pushed my face against the wall again. This time, I heard the dull pop of my forehead hitting concrete.

His other hand crawled up my inner thigh. I realized I was barely breathing. It helped me. The lack of oxygen kept my mind vacant, calm.

My body did not cooperate with my mind. It started shaking violently, and my knees gave way. He had to hold me up. He was prepared for it, expected it.

He pulled my underwear down. Maybe he sensed I would try to move from him again, because he pressed my head more firmly against the wall. The knife in his hand scraped against my temple. I saw strands of auburn hair falling to the ground.

I didn’t hear him unzipping his pants. It didn’t hurt like I expected it to.

Every thrust scraped my nostrils against the rough concrete wall. I could taste a thin salty liquid dripping between my lips. Blood.

I waited for him to come. He leaned in closer to me as he continued thrusting. He didn’t do it hard. It felt normal, like it could have been my ex-boyfriend behind me. What felt different was the pounding of a dense, protruding stomach against my lower back.

As I stood there, I noticed a line of delicate black ants crawling next to me on the brick wall. I watched them march into a small hole in the mortar. I wondered what it looked like inside. Two of them turned in my direction and started walking towards me. It made me feel better, like they were paying attention to me. But when I blinked, they were gone.

He quickened his pace. I was starting to dry up. It was starting to hurt. I stayed quiet.

Finally, I felt him tighten and shudder and he pulled away without making any noise. His left foot curled under the valve of a steampipe and he landed on the pavement, the knife falling with him. He lay there, panting. He looked up at me and nodded. He had finished, and I did fine. He zipped his pants and stumbled back to his feet, gazing down both ends of the street several times. Then he opened the lid of the trash bin near us and tore apart the bags inside. He found a wooden napkin holder and placed it near a collection of other goods. I pulled my underwear up.

He was ignoring me now, his back turned to me. The knife was at my feet, beneath a pile of litter. I leaned down to pick it up. I was conscious of an ache between my legs, but I couldn’t quite feel it. I knew my face was damaged, bleeding and swollen, but I couldn’t feel that either. I couldn’t smell and I couldn’t hear. I could only see, and I looked up.

All around me, the walls of the alley were moving, swiftly and in total silence. The street was growing longer. The buildings on either side were growing higher. They grew so high, I watched as their tops eventually touched each other, blocking out the sky. No more sun. No more birds. We were completely enveloped. On the cold, darkened ground below, he was alone with the new girl.

His whole body was leaning in the trashcan. I stood behind him and breathed quietly. He looked silly like that, bending into the trash can like that, in the filth.

He tried to grab the knife from my hand. I moved out of the way so his blood wouldn’t get on me. I hadn’t cut him that badly. He could get stitches.

Then I sliced his arm. I was struck at how easy it was to cut through muscle. I examined the knife more closely. It didn’t look like a knife. It had no handle. More like a piece of scrap metal.

His hand came swinging toward me. I sliced across it when it came near my face. He crouched. His mouth was open but I couldn’t hear what was coming out of it. He turned away, like he was going to run. I stepped in front of him.

I wanted to know what it was like. I would only do it once. If he stayed still, it would be over quickly. I held the blade and plunged the tip into his side. The metal hit something hard, like bone, and didn’t go in far, so I pulled it back out. I was disappointed. It felt like a waste, not what I expected. I felt dizzy and dropped the blade.

I rested on the ground, my back against the wall. I watched him as he lay there with his mouth open. I wanted to know what sound was coming out of his mouth. I closed my eyes and tried to listen, to concentrate on it, but instead, an image of my father came to me. An old image, from the winter before. Three towns ago. My father was wearing his crumpled tan coat and brushing snow off my car. He didn’t have gloves on. He told me to get in, that there was someplace he needed to take me. I got in my own car and drove away.

I opened my eyes again and saw people standing on the busy street on the other side, looking in. Then they started running towards us. Two men and a woman. Then another man. I could barely hear them, but I knew they were shouting as they arrived. The woman brought her hands to her face. The others bent down to the bleeding and twitching man on the ground. They looked at me. I looked back at them, and touched my bare feet.

“My shoe broke,” I said.

Jabeen Ahktar
Jabeen Akhtar is the author of Welcome to Americastan (Penguin/Viking). She lives in Washington, D.C.

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