It's just an empty parking garage. All she has to do is walk to her car; it's right there. But after a harrowing encounter months previous, every moment like this is a battle of willpower. The self-defense lessons are helping, but not all scars are physical. (1750 words)

I can make it in thirty seconds if I’m fast enough. My car is just visible through the smudged glass of the door behind which I stand, safe for the moment. The overhead lighting, sparse when it's functioning correctly, flickers in and out and casts shadows over every surface. Its tempo matches my steadily rising heart rate. I hate this parking garage. It's 11:00 PM, and I've just left the firm after fifteen agonizing hours. Normally Isaac walks me to my car, but he was sick today. I had asked Barry to wait another ten minutes while I finished up, since we were the last two in the building, but he “had to get home, pronto.” Prick…

This leaves me standing alone, less than two hundred feet from my transportation, but it might as well be an ocean. I'm frightened. Frightened of what happened to my sister, of what almost happened to me had the bartender not been so vigilant. The words echo in my head. “Don’t drink that. I saw that guy over there slip something in as he walked by. I’ll call the police, just stay calm.” A pit forms in my stomach at the memory.

I had gotten used to the occasional creep trying to look up my skirt when I sit or cop a feel at a concert as they brush by, but this wasn’t just irritating and uncomfortable. Part of me wanted to go over and ask him why. Why me? The other part wanted to physically hurt him, although I doubt I would have gotten very far. Instead I just went home and picked at a microwave dinner with all the enthusiasm I could muster. You’d think that arguing in court for a living would make me good at confrontation, and I usually am. Not that time, though. Afterwards, I decided to do something about it.

A blast of frigid air hits me as I ease open the door. Normally I’d find it refreshing; I think I’m one of the only people in this city that likes winter. At the moment, it just adds to the chill within. I tell myself to stop being ridiculous, but I can’t stop my mind from doing the same thing it does when I sit on the couch and watch horror movies with my pup. I imagine faceless attackers behind every remaining car and concrete pillar. I know that statistically, I'm more likely to be assaulted by someone I know than a stranger. Somehow, that isn't very reassuring.

I pull the hood of my jacket over my head, to shield my long hair so it can't be grabbed as easily. I shift my bag to my left hand and keep my keys in my right. If you must engage, go for the eyes or throat. I hear my self-defense instructors voice, composed and articulate, in my head. He says these things like it's totally normal. I dream of being that comfortable with physical conflict one day. I’ll get there… I’ve only been taking lessons for a few months now. I’m getting better, but it’s a long road.

The irony is that although I feel more confident in my own physical abilities, I’m beginning to appreciate the destructive power of the human body, and it’s a two-way street. I have to execute a hip toss with perfect form and all my strength to topple an average size man— and I can. That same guy can throw me without a discernible effort. Every pound of muscle he has on me is another disadvantage, and— Stop it, damnit. Just walk to your car. It’s a garage. It’s concrete and open space. You’ll be fine. Rocky’s probably starving.

I exhale sharply and take my first step. The sound, deafening in the emptiness, seems to reverberate through my skeleton. I keep my head up and walk briskly, trying to project security and confidence. Don't look like an easy target. I know what the saying means, but I roll my eyes whenever I think of it. How am I supposed to not look like an easy target at 5’4 and 135 pounds? Must be nice to be a big, muscular guy.

In my frustrated musings, I nearly miss the sound of footsteps behind me. Each one drives my heart further down a dark ladder and pushes memories of the bar to the forefront of my mind. I tell myself not to be paranoid, that there are still cars here, and plenty of other normal people like me drive those cars. They have to get home too. I know that, but I clench my keys a little tighter and try to ignore the fact that my hands are now shaking.

The unease sets in further, trickling into me like water from a leaking drain. They say to trust your instincts, and mine are telling me something’s wrong. I fight through this feeling often; I keep doing what I’m doing, and nothing happens. I know it’s just my imagination. I should have done something creative with my life instead of sitting in an office all day. Still though, I can’t dismiss the dread crawling in my skin.

My ears are trained on the footsteps behind me. They’re steady, but somehow that only adds to my edginess.  I consider turning around to look, but instead keep my eyes focused ahead. My stride quickens against my will. Don’t do anything out of the ordinary. You’re going to be fine. You’re fifteen steps away, just keep walking and—

My heel catches a rut in the cement and I stumble; my ankle sends a searing pain up my entire leg. The concrete bashes my knee, then my hands. Blood trickles into my mouth and hair flies across my face.

The footsteps behind me quicken; a sick helplessness overtakes me. Oh, God, this is it. I can’t stop him. A terrified yelp escapes my lips. Yes, you can. You’ve trained for this. Avoidance, verbal de-escalation, engagement. Too late to avoid. I twist around on the ground to see him just feet away; he’s reaching out towards me. Every muscle I have tenses up as my insides freeze.

“I’m alright!” I force myself to speak normally, albeit loudly, past the knot in my throat and put up a hand. It’s not an aggressive move, but it serves as a physical boundary. Don’t escalate. I wish I could tell my pounding heart the same thing; I swear I can hear it as I await his response with bated breath.

He stops and tilts his head curiously. “You sure? Nasty spill you took, there.”

“I’m good. Thanks.” The blood on my lip tastes like hot metal. I wipe it away, not taking my eyes from the stranger.

“That ankle doesn’t look too good... Can I help you… In any way?” He’s tall, about my age, with neatly combed chestnut hair and eyes to match. He’d be attractive if he didn’t keep shifting from side to side with his hands jammed in his pockets. I almost burst out laughing. Why, again, was I so frightened? This guy’s more nervous than I am! My anxiety dwindles away like an ebbing tide; my hand drops, and my breathing slows.

“Really, I’m fine. I appreciate it.” Spare me your desperate gentlemanly flirting and just let me continue on my way home. I’m really not in the mood for this, especially now that I feel like an idiot. I need to stop getting freaked out like this.

“Is the ground OK? You... tackled it pretty hard.” He chuckles and then awkwardly looks away when he realizes how bad the joke is, fidgeting the whole while.

I give him a pity laugh and clamber to my feet, gritting my teeth against the bolt of agony in my leg. You’ve had worse. Suck it up. Be pleasant to the guy and get in the car. Rocky’s probably peed everywhere by now. I resent the fact that I have to play nice for him when I just want to get the hell out of here, but it’ll get me home quicker than being confrontational. And it’s less risky. Even though he reminds me of a boy scout, you never really know.

“You probably want these.” He dangles my keys out in front of him. I hadn’t even realized I had dropped them. “Sorry to bother you. I just wanted to make sure you were alright.” He smiles, a little too eagerly. Something about it gives me goosebumps. It’s… off.

I grab the keys and force myself to return a smile. “Thanks. Have a good night.”

“You too.” He looks at me, a few seconds too long, and walks away. I limp to my car, favoring my ankle and cursing myself as I hear my would-be knight in shining armor’s car start up and exit the parking structure. The air is brisk and refreshing again, not the menacing chill I had felt only moments ago. I collapse into the driver’s seat with a grunt.

A sigh of relief escapes my lungs as the fear, discomfort, and embarrassment that I’ve experienced in the past few minutes vanish. The release is overwhelming. The sigh becomes a giggle, and before I can control myself, I’m howling with laughter in my car. Jesus. If I let myself get this worked up every time I’m alone at night, I need to double down on my training.

Part of me is annoyed that this even happened at all, and not just with myself. My nervousness is circumstantial, not inherent. It’s the product of something far more unsettling than just a dimly lit parking garage. If only... I blow it all away in another sigh. Besides my ankle, I’m alright. I’m safe. It’s late, and I need to get home.

The drive back is silent besides the hum of the engine. The actual events of the night and the worst imaginable possibility alternately run through my head. I have to remind myself that although the guy was a little weird, he was harmless. Something about him though, hovers in my mind, just out of reach. I haven’t felt like this since the night at the bar that first sent me into this tailspin of mistrust.

Stop it. Nothing happened. You’re home, go inside. I limp to the porch, eager to plop down on the couch for a quick meal while Rocky sneakily tries to scrounge from my plate. I smile in anticipation of his enthusiastic greeting as I go to unlock the door. It’s only then that I realize my house key is missing.

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