Third Place Writing – Editorials


Playing His Twisted Game

By Allison Gatlin

“You’ll always be mine,” he whispered in my ear as leaned in to kiss me. A kiss that at the time felt so precious and full of promise, I now remember with bitterness and fear.

Three years later, I still search the shadows before entering or leaving my car. Every white Nissan Sentra could be his. Every store I enter could reveal him hidden and waiting. I jump at shadows. Small noises attack my nerves. At times, I still feel his gaze on my back, cold and sneering.

For the past three years, every day of my life has been consumed with the fear that today would be the day he finds me.

* * *

It all started innocently enough, as first loves do. Joe was wonderful and charming, and I tripped into love with all the gracefulness of a newly hatched goose. His eyes — the color of maple syrup — hypnotized me.

Joe showered me with gifts. Teddy bears. Candy. Flowers. Dinner and movies, my first kiss. All my friends fell in and out of love so easily, but I thought I’d never stop loving him.

We fought, oh boy, did we fight. It was simple enough at times. I interrupted him. I called him on a night when his parents were fighting. I spoke to the wrong guy at work and gave him the impression I was flirting. I spent too much time with my guy friends. Without meaning to, I somehow always made him angry.

But he forgave me, and I was grateful.

When he yelled, I simply shut down. I’d listen with open ears but a closed heart. I grew more timid as time went on, afraid to call him at night for fear this would be one of his “bad nights.”

No one knew. We looked and acted like the perfect couple. No one knew the secret dread that had begun to well up inside me.

He broke up with me several times. There never really seemed to be a reason. Maybe it was out of boredom, maybe out of spite. A week of tears and heartache later, he’d call me or find me at work, begging me back to him.

The third time he broke up with me was the last time. I was ready to be free of the torture that accompanied loving him.

For the first few weeks following our breakup, he was relentless. Cards, candy, phone calls. It was all harmless — until he started showing up everywhere.

* * *

The Saturn we were leaning against should have been replaced years ago. Cracked paint, immovable windows and a front bumper held together with a substance unknown to science. But in the hot Arizona air, dimly lit by the lights of a dog park, our new love was flourishing. Sweat coated my forehead as I looked into a pair of the most stunning blue eyes I’d ever seen. This new boy, Cameron, was Joe’s opposite, full of more life and love than I could have imagined.

But on that sticky June night our new relationship was hit with Joe’s fury. It had been three months since Joe and I broke up, and I hadn’t yet changed my phone number.

After 12 missed phone calls and 12 renditions of my favorite ringtone, I finally answered the phone. To this day, I’ll never hear “Sugar We’re Going Down” without chills running from my neck down to the stretches of my toes.

It was Joe, of course. He wanted to know where I was, of course. He knew I was dating someone new and was rotten enough to make sure I wouldn’t forget him.

“What do you want?” I asked wearily.

“Where are you?”

“Heading home. Why? Where are you?”

“Driving home from work too. Why didn’t you answer my calls?”

“I’m busy.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet.”

As I explained that I’d have to call him back, barking from the nearby dog park sounded in my free ear … and then echoed in the phone.

“Joe …” I said slowly. “Where are you really?”

“On my way home, I told you,” he said as the dog continued to yowl.

I dropped my phone. Tears welled up in my eyes as I leaned heavily against the Saturn.

A lone figure emerged from behind a pulverized white minivan.

Deadpan, he asked, “Busy, huh?”

For 45 minutes Joe had been watching us from behind the hubcap of a ’96 Dodge Caravan.

* * *

The Build-a-Bear I’d given Joe for his birthday appeared in my locker at work one day, beheaded. Tufts of stuffing drifted inside my locker. The heart I’d placed inside the teddy bear before stuffing it lay exposed through the hole in its neck.

By the time I returned with a supervisor, the bear had disappeared.

* * *

The day before I left home for college, Joe found me again. My heart hammered as I spotted him across the library parking lot.

He pushed me into the asphalt. My head smacked on the cool concrete of the sidewalk. Stars danced in my eyes. My favorite San Diego shirt snagged on the ground as he tried to tear it from my body. He pressed against me, pushing the air from my lungs and struggling to pull my legs apart.

“Is this how he kissed you?” he asked before pecking my mouth. His lips were cracked and tasted like beer — a taste I still can’t stomach.

“Or is this how he kissed you?” he screeched before forcing his tongue into my closed mouth, thick with the taste of cigarettes and liquor.

Raw fear clawed at the edges of my mind, pleading for some sort of action. I was frozen. The cold earth threatened to swallow me whole if he pushed against me any harder.

My breath came in short gasps as I began to struggle. A swift kick to his groin sent him squealing with pain. I scrambled clumsily to my feet and ran to my car, praying I wouldn’t hear his designer tennis shoes sprinting after me.

* * *

I’ve moved more times than I care to count. I changed my phone number after Joe gave it to his friends so they could call me with their insults. I cut my long hair — my one vanity — to a short bob, quit two jobs I loved and severed connections with almost everyone from my old life. At 18, I planned for a future in which I knew I’d always be running.

Although my life has shrunk to the places where I think he won’t go, I wait for the day he’ll find me. I check the shadows before venturing into them. Buses drive me to hysterics because I never know who’s going to be riding them. I open my car door only after inspecting the back seat from the outside. I carry pepper spray. I own a Taser.

The loss of innocence — some think it happens when a child stops believing in Santa Claus; others say it happens the first time a person has sex or witnesses an atrocity. In my case, it all started with a soft kiss that opened the door to promises of revenge.

It’s his twisted game of hide-and-seek, and I pray every day that eventually I’ll win.