Mercer Evans waits in his muscle car, its horses asleep. He knows Karen will return any minute — or should, assuming she comes right back from the restaurant. It is much easier to wait now than it was while she was eating dinner with that hot-mom friend of hers. Watching them through the expansive windows of Fratelli’s had been as boring as cranking it to the bra section of a clothing catalog. But then he had started up a fantasy involving all three of them, which swung the pendulum to full excitement. Once that was over, though, it was just as lame again. Mercer had waited almost two hours altogether for them to leave their table. Stupid blabbing bitches, he had thought.
A vehicle glides down the street, its twin beams thrusting through the darkness. It’s the third since Mercer sped from the restaurant to Karen’s neighborhood. The other two had rumbled on by, and Mercer had raised a hidden middle finger to each, cursing them for having the nerve to get his hopes up. Thankfully, this third one slows as it nears Karen’s house.
Karen’s garage door rises. The car stops.
He grins, knowing she’s staring at the heart on the side of the mailbox. He’s several hundred yards down the street and can’t even see her outline due to the glare of her headlights, but he can imagine the look of shock on her face, her mind gripped with secret desire for him. He licks his lips. His eyes are dark fire.
Come on, you sexy bitch. Get out and open the mailbox. Let me see those curves. He feels a stir in his groin but ignores it. A rare moment of sexual self-control.
Mercer sees movement — but it’s Karen’s entire car, not just her door. She pulls into the driveway and the garage. The powered garage door starts to descend.
He waits, breathing shallowly and loudly, his entire body tense. She doesn’t come back out. Lights flare to life in the living room, and she closes the blinds and draws the curtains.
“FUHHHHHCK!” he yells, slamming his fists into the steering wheel. “STUPID FUCKING BITCH!”
Mercer twists the ignition so violently he almost hurts his wrist. He reaches to put it in drive and gun it, but catches himself. Can’t make a big show of being in the neighborhood. Gotta keep a low profile. For now.
Teeth clenched, eyes wide, every motion a patient exaggeration, Mercer Evans heads for home.
I’ll see you real soon, Karen DEAN. Real fuckin soon.
* * *
Karen Raylor hits the brakes as she backs down the driveway. She’s all set to hit up Great Oak for grocery shopping but wants to check the mailbox first. Let’s get this over with, she thinks, stepping out.
She takes off the heart first, pinching the red yarn with two gloved fingers and setting it into an open bag. Pulling the slider on the bag to close it, Karen reluctantly presses it against her leg to force the air out. She opens the left-side passenger door, drops the bag to the floor, and swings it shut.
Okay, now for the main event. As she walks to the mailbox, she draws in a deep breath and slowly lets it out. She clears her mind as much as possible.
Karen cracks the door to the mailbox, standing as far away as possible.
She opens it a little more. Nothing.
Yanking it all the way down, Karen withdraws her arm and almost jumps backward. Still nothing.
She creeps in an arc, staying a few yards away until she can see into the small cave of plastic. Lying face-down is a postcard-sized white envelope.
Karen slowly withdraws it. It seems alone. She closes the mailbox door and turns over the envelope.
On the front is another heart. It appears to have been created with a marker. It’s comprised of many overlapping lines and curves, as though whomever drew it had made at least ten hearts atop one another. Karen raises it to the ascending spotlight of the morning sun but can see nothing inside except a folded piece of paper. No powder, no pornographic image, no needles. She returns to her car.
Karen is tempted to toss the envelope in a bag and let the police open it, but she wants to make sure it’s from Mercer, and she wants to know if it contains a threat. Turning it over, she rips the envelope and withdraws the folded paper.
Babe, we should go to Vegas. I think about it all the time. I know you do too. You can change your name when we get back.
For a moment, Karen is that young woman again. Heading to Las Vegas on her twenty-first birthday, whisked away on the whim of the intoxicatingly confident and wild Mercer Evans. Gambling, drinking, putting her face between strippers’ breasts while Mercer laughs and stares with intensity. Getting matching tattoos. Heading to a chapel.
“Shit,” Karen says. She briefly touches the upper part of her left breast where she has an area that is always just a hint lighter than the rest, the spot where lasers fragmented the pigmentation of the tattoo for her body to absorb. Karen takes her hand back down.
Reading it again, Karen curses Mercer’s careful wording. He says “go to Vegas” instead of “go back to Vegas”. He says “you can change your name” instead of “this time, you can change your name.” Nothing makes it explicitly from someone I went to Vegas with before.
Karen slowly breathes. Deeply. In, out. In, out. In, out.
I’ll take these to the police on Monday when they’re open again. Fill out another report. There’s probably nothing they can do, just like last time. Oh well. At least I still won’t have anything from Mercer in my house. Karen returns the note to its envelope and slips it inside another locking plastic bag. When she has it sealed up with most of the air out, she reaches behind her seat and drops it next to the bag with the heart. Then, she puts Mercer and the things he had sent her fully out of her mind, focusing solely on her task of grocery shopping.
That’s my girl, Nana says in her mind. You walked away from Mercer as a young woman, and you can do it now. Over and over, as many times as it takes, until he’s out of your life for good.
Karen smiles, her eyes watery. Yes, I can, and I will. I love you, Nana. She shifts her car to reverse, backs out, and starts for Great Oak.
While grocery shopping, Karen picks up a new canister of pepper spray. Otherwise, it’s a typical trip, automatic to the point that she’s in a semi-meditative state as she treads the aisles. When she’s back in her car, she feels calm and realigned with herself, and she maintains that deep sense of peace as she drives home and puts away the groceries and other household items.
Karen arrives fifteen minutes early to the self-defense class. Riverside Academy of Martial Arts, the building declares itself. The front wall is entirely glass with ceiling-to-floor vertical blinds four inches thick. A row of posters lines the bottom on the inside, running the length of the vast window and showing adults and children wearing uniforms and performing martial arts. Each one has an empowering word like DISCIPLINE, FOCUS, TEAMWORK, or SELF-DEFENSE. Between the half-open blinds, Karen spots three or four women warming up.
Inside are several shoe racks, and Karen slips hers off. A woman smiles at her from behind a counter situated above a glass case that displays trophies and certificates. High on the wall above the woman are uniforms, gloves, and weapons.
“Good morning,” the woman says, offering her hand. “I’m Sandy.”
“Hi Sandy,” Karen replies, shaking her hand the way her dad had taught her — not as though she were trying to intimidate Sandy, but still firm. Confident. “I’m Karen.”
“Nice to meet you, Karen. Are you here to try out our women’s self-defense class?”
“Good,” Sandy says, genuine and warm without being too earnest. “I’ll go see if the instructor, Mrs. Draver, is available to speak with you.”
“Thank you,” Karen says. Sandy nods, still smiling, and leaves Karen at the counter. While she waits, Karen watches the women on the padded floor. They seem to be part of the upcoming class. Each one wears a uniform with black pants; a heavy, red, long-sleeved shirt that partly folds over itself like a robe; and a belt of thick fabric tied over the shirt. The belts are in varying colors, and Karen has heard enough about martial arts to guess that they indicate rank.
Two women are alternating takedown moves, projecting a “yaaa!” each time that is well short of a scream but feels stronger. Two more women stand next to each other and face the extensive mirror that covers one entire wall, striking the air in unison with fists and feet. Karen notices a third woman come out of a door in the back that she assumes leads to a locker room; the woman joins the two, who seem to be attacking themselves in the mirror, falling perfectly into their rhythm.
Sandy returns, walking behind a woman who has an outfit like the rest, except that her heavy shirt is black, as is her belt.
“Mrs. Draver,” the woman says, giving Karen the perfected version of the handshake Karen had given to Sandy.
“Thank you for joining us today, Miss Raylor. Or is it Missus? Or Doctor, perhaps?” Mrs. Draver smiles with complete sincerity and respect.
“Yes, Miss,” Karen replies, already feeling like a slightly better version of herself just from being in Mrs. Draver’s presence.
“Okay, Miss Raylor. If you’ll follow me, we can talk about the class before we get started. Sound good?”
“Yes, Mrs. Draver.”
Mrs. Draver smiles and nods deeply, holding Karen’s eyes. Then she turns back toward the raised mat, putting her feet together with her toes just shy of it and bowing before stepping onto it. As Mrs. Draver starts walking, Karen emulates her respectful entry onto the padded floor. When they exit the widely padded area in the back, Mrs. Draver turns toward Karen and bows before stepping down. Again, Karen follows suit before leaving the mat.
Behind the large training room is a small office with a round table. Mrs. Draver asks Karen to have a seat.
“Miss Raylor, any woman is welcome to join the self-defense class we run on Saturdays. Our rules are: One, you must be able to withstand the physical demands of our training. Two, you will be here, changed, and ready by the time class starts. Three, you will train with your mind attentive and with an active desire to improve. Four, you will practice outside of class at least three times a week to reinforce what we teach you. Five, if you ever feel in danger and are able to call the police, do so. Self-defense is an absolute last resort.
“Since this is your first day, you are welcome to join us for free, and you can wear what you have on, although of course you can change in our women’s locker room if you brought another outfit that you prefer. After class, please stay for a few minutes so that we can discuss your thoughts on whether or not you’d like to join us.
“Do you agree with our rules?” Mrs. Draver asks, maintaining the pleasant smile and tone she has used throughout.
“Yes, Mrs. Draver.” Karen feels the certainty of immense potential, as though standing just above a sprawling network of underground power lines.
“And do you agree to stay after class so we can talk further?”
“Yes, Mrs. Draver.”
“Very good, Miss Raylor. Do you have any questions for me at this time?”
Karen is so eager to start that she truly does not have any questions.
“No, Mrs. Draver.”
“Okay. Glad to have you with us today.” Mrs. Draver gives Karen another deep nod, and Karen returns it. I think this is going to be amazing, Karen thinks.
There end up being twelve students in the class besides Karen, who makes the seventh person in the second row. Mrs. Draver asks them all to come to the attention stance, adopting it herself — feet together, back straight, hands pressed to the outside of her legs. Karen is glad to be in the second row, and also glad of the mirrored wall they face; both facts allow her to follow along without turning her head.
“Repeat after me,” Mrs. Draver instructs in her clear, strong voice. “I am a dedicated student of the martial arts.” She pauses while the class repeats it. Karen feels energy growing inside her. Mrs. Draver continues, pausing after each sentence for the class’s reiteration. “I am constantly learning and growing. I treat myself with respect, and I treat others with respect. I set goals for myself, and I achieve those goals. I value teamwork, and I know that I can always accomplish more with others than I can alone. I am not a victim. I am strong. I am confident. I think noble thoughts. I speak noble words. I take noble actions. I am a black belt!”
Karen feels as though a cry of agreement will burst forth from her. She keeps it contained, hovering in her abdomen.
“Class, we have a new member today. Miss Raylor, please come forward.”
Karen is so invigorated that she feels not the least bit self-conscious as she joins Mrs. Draver at the front.
“This is Miss Raylor. Please show her the respect and courtesy that you show me and each other and that I know you carry beyond these walls. Let’s give Miss Raylor a round of applause.”
Glancing at the faces of the class, Karen is surprised. She had expected a few to be friendly, most to be indifferent, and a few to look her down and up with faint disgust the way unknown women sometimes did. Instead, every single woman has the same manner of warmth and acceptance as Mrs. Draver. Karen has the brief thought that everyone is too nice, as though it’s a cult, but she dismisses that notion. She senses the deep worthiness of Mrs. Draver’s character and sees that reflected in the eyes of her classmates, either as something they have attained or aspire yet to do. Yes, she thinks, these ARE my classmates. I’m absolutely going to do this.
The forty-five-minute class feels like fifteen. They spend the first five stretching and doing deep breathing. Next, the entire class punches: jab, cross, hook, uppercut — and then kicks: front, side, roundhouse. Karen is surprised that that basic roundhouse isn’t the spinning move she had seen in action movies, but instead a simple strike with her body turned sideways that brings her leg up in a small circle before connecting the top of her foot with her imaginary opponent.
Then, Mrs. Draver splits the class into smaller groups by rank, placing Karen with one women who has a white belt and two with yellow. In pairs — Karen with a woman wearing a yellow belt — they practice the strikes and throws necessary to escape from two kinds of holds.
The first hold has the attacker grab both of her target’s arms above the biceps. The defender escapes by doing a front kick to the stomach, putting her hands together and quickly raising her arms up and apart to disengage her opponent’s grab, and then doing a side kick with the intent to topple her attacker.
The second hold is a bear hug from behind. Upper arms pinned, the defender bends her elbows and grabs her attacker’s arms, thrusting them upward. Then she steps out wide with one foot and moves the other in a half-circle to place it behind her attacker’s leg, ducking out of the attacker’s arms at the same time. Raising her arm that is farthest from the attacker, she does a palm-heel strike to the ear. When the attacker raises her arm to her ear, the defender delivers a hook punch to the stomach.
With both hold escapes, the final move is to sprint away, and each woman runs in place a few steps before taking her turn as the attacker.
Mrs. Draver repeatedly asks for hustle and power. For the holds, she instructs the class to take care and not actually strike each other while escaping, but still to perform their moves with strength. She explains that this will help their training to feel realistic while teaching the principle of control.
When class is over, Karen feels ready to take on anyone. She knows she’s overestimating the effects of a single class, but it takes a conscious effort to suppress the thrill that runs through her.
Back in Mrs. Draver’s office, the black belt instructor says with a grin and a soft chuckle, “It seems you liked the class, Miss Raylor.” Karen laughs at herself, realizing she hadn’t hidden her excitement as well as she thought.
“Yes, ma’am. I definitely want to join.”
“Excellent. We’re glad to have you.”
They go over the specifics of monthly costs. The outfit of black pants, red shirt — a “gi”, it’s called — and white belt is free as a new student. Karen signs the contract with reverence and joy, feeling that it is the best decision she’s made in a long time.
As Karen puts her shoes back on, the classmate she had practiced hold escapes with walks near. “Hi,” she says with a smile, extending her hand. “Rochelle.” Karen shakes it and gives her own name.
“Listen,” Rochelle says, “I know we just met, but you want to get some lunch? I mean in a few hours. I don’t know about you, but I want the chance to go home and clean up. I just wanted to tell you about my experiences with this dojo.”
Karen senses the same level of calm respect in Rochelle that she had in Mrs. Draver.
Chapter 5 Choice: How should Karen respond to Rochelle’s offer?
- Lunch Another Day: Set something up for another time. (0%)
- Lunch Today: Agree to meet for lunch in a few hours. (100%)
- Next Class: Say they can talk more after class next week. (0%)
- Phone: Offer to talk on the phone later in the day. (0%)
This poll closed on November 13th, 2017.