Junior high is a jungle. Five hundred kids, ages twelve to fourteen, in a tough, urban school on the edge of the city center. There are fights every day, boys with nosebleeds, rumors about drugs, things thrown in class, teachers yelling. Chaos; I barely learn a thing the whole two years. Lori* and I, best friends since third grade, walk to school and back together, she lives a block closer to it than I do. It is a forty-minute walk in good weather, so we talk the whole way. Billy Locklin* walks home behind us, lagging back about half a block. He lives five houses from me, down my street. He only has few friends and walks home by himself.
We know Billy from elementary school. He was a quiet, surly-looking child. He got in trouble sometimes for fighting, so did his brother. Billy struggled academically and was taken out for extra help in some lessons – “remedial” it was called. His mother Lynda was our school crossing guard, she was lovely. Beaming, she greeted us every day and asked all of us how we were as we crossed the street. She gave out candy canes to all the kids at Christmas. I wished I had a mother like her, and secretly thought she was wasted on tetchy Billy and his naughty older brother.
I don’t know when the game began. Perhaps in winter when snow covered the sidewalks. The trudge home from junior high seems even more laborious the snow slows us down. We try to race midwinter’s sun sitting lazily low in the sky, so we get home before dusk. We wear ugly brown Cougar boots with red fleece lining for the trek, all kids have them. I hate those Cougar boots more than anything. I am grateful for the treads which keep me from slipping on the ice and snow, but the boots are horrid and so unstylish. They make my feet and ankles look huge. My mother insists on polishing them with dubbin, ignoring my pleas for her not to. The smell is repulsive and makes me feel sick, but it keeps the wet out. To offset the horrendously ghastly boots, and try to effuse an air of ‘cool’, I refuse to zip my coat closed or wear a hat. Ever. No matter how cold it gets.
Billy begins walking home the same route as us. If we go through the park, so does he. If we walk past the distillery, behind the mall, so does he. We begin teasing him a little, calling his name out loud. “Bil-ly Lock-lin.” “Bil-ly Lock-lin.” He looks mad, but he never answers. Never speaks.
The interactions with Billy break the monotony of the tedious walk home. Sometimes, he runs after us a little. Just what we want, a bit of a chase, and we laugh and run faster, getting away from him. The game progresses; snowballs. He’s a better aim, but there are two of us. It seems fun, it is harmless really, and passes the time on the long haul.
As the days elapse, the game gets more exciting. Billy chases us and tries to catch up now. We always out-run him, exhausted with our heavy Adidas school bags.
Then one day, we engage in the game, as we have been, calling his name, chucking a few snowballs. Billy runs, he runs faster than usual, he looks so mad today. We let out little half-fake screams and keep trying to get away. Lori runs home as we pass her street, shouting “Call me later!” I only have one more block to go; I keep running, giggling and breathless, not looking back. As I reach my corner, our corner, near the trees, Billy catches up to me. I feel a sharp jolt as he runs into me from behind, full-pelt, and grabs my arms. I’m squealing overdramatically, still half-laughing, hoping he will too. But he moves with a strength easily overpowering me; pushing me down front first to the ground. Before I can protest, Billy seizes the back of my head, shoving my face into the snow, angrily. I feel a surge of panic now as I momentarily struggle to breathe and feel the freezing snow biting my skin. He lets go, and I raise my face, gasping for air, with white icy chunks now clinging to the wisps of hair that fall against my cheeks.
Suddenly, I feel vulnerable and afraid. This isn’t fun anymore. Lori’s gone, and today’s game has ended. What is Billy doing?
I feel so cold and my top is damp now. I wish I had done the zipper up on my coat for once. I try to get up off the ground, but Billy’s shoving me down on my back now, straddling me, pinning me down with his arms full of adrenaline-fuelled strength. The look in his eyes scares me. My breathing quickens as fear sets in. This doesn’t feel like a jest, and I have no idea what Billy is going to do next. I try to sound fierce as I scream at him to get off me, to let me go, while I writhe underneath him, trying to get free. His body weight crushes me and I can barely move.
Ignoring my demands, Billy starts scooping snow and shoving it down inside my top, roughly pushing the cold ice across my small breasts with his hand while holding me firmly with his other one. The shock of his aggressive intrusion leaves me stunned, lying still and silent as he continues pushing handfuls of snow down inside my top, against my skin.
When he climbs off me, I feel frozen as the snow begins melting under my training bra, trickling across my collarbones. Only thirteen years old, I don’t yet know the word ‘violated’. But now, I know what it feels like.
I go to my Dad’s on Friday after school. We’re in the kitchen alone, my brother is watching TV and my stepmother is still at work. I want to tell him what happened, what Billy did. “Dad?…..Do you know what happened the other day?……You know Billy Locklin, right?……”
I tell my Dad everything, how it started as a joke, a bit of fun. But then I tell him what happened on the street corner, about Billy pinning me down and his threatening face, and his harsh hands inside my top, touching my flesh. When I finish, I expect my Dad to take action, he’s so protective of us. He looks annoyed, but not with Billy;
“It’s girls like you, egging boys like Billy on – that’s how these things happen! You brought it on yourselves, you and Lori.”
For the first time, it occurs to me, that this is our doing, mine and Lori’s. If only we hadn’t goaded Billy. If only we had walked home, without looking over our shoulders and provoking him. If only I hadn’t been a tease. I never speak of this again, and we avoid Billy afterward. He never bothers us anymore. In the back of my mind, I still wonder what I did wrong, how I led him on to scare me like he did? “Girls like you” my Dad called us. What did he mean?
Some time later, those words would be replaced with “slut”. Then I’d get it. Then, I’d finally realize why my Dad had said I brought it on myself. Why that was a convenient truth for boys intent on silencing girls. Why Billy was vindicated, taking no responsibility for his actions that cold, winter’s afternoon. Decades later, I’d decide to make sure I would challenge this belief about “girls like you” one day, so no one will ever say that to my daughters.
*names have been changed