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Sleeping Giant

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Tonight you find out there is a Peeping Tom prowling your neighborhood. Your neighbor Mrs. Chong, a tiny black-eyed woman who reminds you of a beetle, calls your parents with the news. When your mother hangs up with a roll of her eyes you beg her to explain what’s going on—what secret she knows. And it is this: Catherine Delano, the long-limbed high school girl, a lifeguard at your pool, saw a man in the shadows outside her window late Saturday night. She screamed. He ducked, and ran. There have been no other reports—not yet—but police have started cruising the neighborhood after sundown, their cars moving like slick white fish through the darkened streets.

Your parents seem indifferent to Mrs. Chong’s news. To the fact that something has permeated the evening. They eat dinner and then watch television, your father drifting off during their favorite sitcom. With his mouth lagging open he looks like a baby. Eventually you leave them snoring and walk down the hall. You step with care on your tiptoes, as though you are doing something wrong.

In your unlit bedroom you stand for a while at the window, press your forehead to the screen. The thought of a man standing outside of it—looking in from the shadows—both scares and excites you. You are thirteen years old and this is true of most everything. The ninth graders who smoke out behind the field house, pale scowling faces. Health class vocabulary. Jake Delfino, the college-aged swim coach, who grazed your crotch with one hand in the deep end of the pool last summer. You were playing Sharks and Minnows and three months later you’re still not sure if this was an accident. And you try not to think about the way his hand felt when it brushed against you. Fingertips pressing a little.

Beyond your bedroom window night is settling over the back yard. The grass is a deep blue and the maple trees are endless arms reaching up. There are a few fireflies here and there—hovering, blinking, dying. Just last year you liked to be outside this time of night. You slammed the door after dinner, grabbed the lightning bugs with cupped palms. Tapped neighbors’ windows and then sprinted hard, giggling. Now that you are thirteen you don’t do that anymore. It’s like there’s a secret code about it between you and other girls: No bug-catching. No running. No pranks. Don’t be immature.

You imagine the Peeping Tom has already slipped from his house on quiet footsteps. That he is tunneling through yards, past glowing windows. Maybe he has been waiting for this hour, when he can move with ease over chainlink fences and along painted brick walls, move from window to window, the night dark like a closing throat.

The morning school bus is noisy and smells always of feet. Shayla Porter is already there, sitting towards the back with Mario. Shayla used to be your best friend but when seventh grade started your friendship melted somehow, as easy as chocolate in a sweaty palm. Today she is wearing enormous star-shaped yellow earrings and she’s leaning into the crook of Mario’s arm. “No funny business,” the bus driver will shout at them, but they will keep at it anyway, as they always do, the whole way to school. Once, on the bus, you saw Mario stick his tongue in Shayla’s ear. She squealed and pushed him away and he laughed. “Get the fuck off,” she had said, so that everyone on the bus could hear, and you had wanted to throw something at her, something heavy—your biology textbook, maybe. To see her duck into that sea of smelly sweaty green leather bus seats and never resurface. Not even a glimpse of her mermaid hair.

Today, moving through the narrow aisle, you give your old friend a casual wave. As though you don’t care that she sits next to Mario, and not you. She meets your eyes and then quickly looks away, nuzzles her nose in Mario’s neck. You slide into an empty seat several rows in front of her and lean your head against the cold shuddering glass. Today, at least, you have something. You have this news from Mrs. Chong. You have the Peeping Tom and Catherine Delano and the police watch. A threat to the girls of your neighborhood, to you.

At lunch there are seven of you around a long rectangular table. A gaggle of girls with small wrists and noses, clean hair, tight jeans. Complimenting each other’s bangles and belts and pink pearl earrings and heart-shaped lockets. Wendy Fenton says that her mother is taking her out this weekend to buy lemon yellow patent leather ballet flats. Katie Cross has a new beaded change purse. Candice Fogg’s sister gave her a manicure and her fingernails are painted a glitter-flecked blue. Gloria Valdano says she wants to get her belly-button pierced and somebody says it would hurt too much and somebody else says her older cousin did it, and it really wasn’t as bad as everybody thinks.

When Candice Fogg passes around a small mirror and her new lipstick, everyone quiets. As though she has presented a holy artifact, an offering to the lunch table goddesses. The lipstick is a pale, silvery green. “Mint Fury,” Candice explains. One by one, each of you tries it on, pouting and puckering into the little mirror, murmuring observations or praise.

You have held close this knowledge about the Peeping Tom all morning, and you have planned to toss it out at the right moment. Casually, as you might spin a marble. Now, for a few seconds, they are almost silent—they are drinking their chocolate milk, they are blowing mint kisses.

You have rehearsed, you are prepared. “Last night,” you say. But your voice gets caught in your throat and it comes out mottled. Too quiet. Gloria says something to Wendy and Katie runs her tongue over her teeth, staring intently into Candice’s mirror. Somewhere behind you a lunch tray crashes.

And then Shayla Porter is there. Auburn hair and white teeth and narrow curving hips. She bumps Candice’s arm with one hip and commands, “Scoot!” and the girls sit mashed up against each other. Candice offers Shayla the green lipstick but Shayla makes a face and says no way. You wish you had thought to decline, too—the green makes everyone look like they are about to throw up. Shayla’s own mouth is stained a perfect shade of raspberry from a lollipop she is holding in one hand. A slick oval jewel, a queen’s small staff.

“So listen to this,” she says, and links her arm through Candice’s. “Did you all hear about that total pervert?”

“Hear what?” Wendy says, placing her carton of milk on her tray. It is clear that what Shayla is about to say is important.

“Okay,” Shayla starts, and rolls her lollipop around on her raspberry tongue, just once. Her eyelashes swooping and dark. “You know Catherine Delano, right? You know how she, like, lives in my neighborhood?”

It is almost imperceptible, the way everyone leans in. As slivers of metal will bend towards a magnet. But you see it. You lean, too.

According to Shayla Porter the Peeping Tom actually tried to break in to Catherine Delano’s bedroom. Pressed his palm to the glass of her window. Shayla talks in a low voice. She pauses in all the right moments, waving her lollipop as she gestures Catherine Delano’s open-mouthed shock, as she acts out all that lovely horror, star earrings hanging like stage lights.

In English Mr. Bradford makes you watch Hamlet. It’s old and in black and white and boring. On screen Ophelia’s hair is a wreck, a crazy bird’s nest. She is talking to herself and crying and her mascara is running everywhere. Mr. Bradford sits at his desk in the back of the classroom and it looks like he has dozed off, slumped back in his chair with a pencil tucked behind one ear. But it’s hard to tell with the light reflecting on his glasses and he might be wide awake, watching the television, watching you.

Shayla’s profile in the pale classroom light is sincere and attentive. This is when you could, maybe, almost like her again. When she forgets that someone—you or Mr. Bradford or Candice or Mario—might be looking. You built a raft with her one summer and tried to take it on the creek that runs through the woods behind your neighborhood but the raft broke apart as soon as you climbed onto it. Both of you sank into oily knee-deep water. When it started to get dark you climbed up the slick black bank, shivering and mud smeared, small breasts like scars through the white of your white cotton shirts. You have always been shy but you almost forgot to care, and you wanted to lean over towards Shayla in the deep blue light and kiss her mouth.

Sometimes you still pass notes in the hallway, in English. Not often, and the notes don’t say anything much. She’ll write, “My mom got me this shirt. Does it make my boobs look weird?” And you’ll write, “Can I borrow lip gloss? I’m bored,” even when you are not bored at all, and you just don’t know what else it is okay to say. She will pass you a small pot of lip gloss, passion fruit or watermelon or razzleberry, and Mr. Bradford will clear his throat and say, “Girls, we’re not running a beauty school here.”

Since your mother told you about the Peeping Tom, you have been sleeping with your blinds pulled up. Your window a single staring eye. You lie in bed with your knees opened outwards and push your fingers into and over yourself, stroking. You think about Catherine Delano’s brown legs in the shade of her lifeguard umbrella. You think about red-haired Mr. Wyatt from P.E., telling you to get off the bleachers and serve the volleyball, that he’s only going to tell you once, or you think about Jake Delfino. Jake Delfino underwater and the way he touched you that time. Eventually a violent pleasure runs through your whole body and you arch your back and clap your knees together like folding insect wings. Passing headlights from somewhere down the street send blocks of light gliding across your walls.

In the last few weeks there has been no real news about him—just a report from Mrs. Chong that she thought she heard footsteps outside her living room one night, the crunching of dead leaves, but even she admits that it may have only been her dog Otis. The nightwatch police have been spotted at the local bars and diners during the early hours of morning, sipping coffee and complaining about their ex-wives and their teenagers, yawning.

Still, your bed is directly across the room from your window, and some nights when you touch yourself you close your eyes and you see him. Hands cupped to his temples, leaning into the glass, and a face that is never defined. He is only the silhouette of a man. A vague menace, a sleeping giant. When you’ve finished masturbating—which sometimes you do twice in a row, or even three times, like some sort of frantic animal—you turn your head towards the window. You are coated in a thin film of sweat and your underwear is wet. You are alarmed by this fervor; you are sticky and guilty.

In the window there is only ever the shade of trees, a glimpse of nighttime sky. He is never there, never watching.

Before school, the elementary kids always wait at the bus stop a block from yours, on the opposite side of the street. They are usually playing tag or throwing clumps of dirt at each other or yelling for no obvious reason. Today they are dressed in their Halloween costumes—robot, chicken, vampire—and they are standing unusually still. Maybe trying to preserve their costumes, you think, or maybe because they are embarrassed by them.

Your middle school has had a no-costumes policy ever since a teacher got stabbed by an eighth-grade pirate. On the bus this morning things are mostly normal—Mary Jo Sweeney has her legs swung over Jordan Mason’s lap, and Angela Burns is taking her retainer out of her mouth, and fat Becca Hornby is pretending to sleep.

But—you notice it immediately—Shayla is not there. Mario sits by himself, hair dusting his upper lip like a grape juice stain. Eyes dull and half-closed. Without Shayla curled into him, laughing too loudly at some dirty inside joke, you almost feel sorry for him.

In P.E. you and Katie and Candice and Gloria duck under the basketball court bleachers and sit in a circle on the sticky wooden floor. No one knows why Shayla is absent. Gloria passes around sticks of gum she has hidden in the waistband of her shorts. Through the slats of bleacher seats, the boys are playing basketball while a few girls practice cheers on the sidelines. You like this secret spot, almost quiet despite the echoes of squeaking shoes, of bouncing basketballs and boys shouting; you like the possibility of getting in trouble for blowing off class. You hug your knees to your chest, and pretend to be concerned about Shayla.

“It just isn’t like her to not call me first,” Candice says. She is sitting Indian-style and though a gap between shorts and thigh there is a sliver of peach-colored underwear.

Gloria looks at you, eyebrows arched, earnest. “You ride her bus, right? Was she on the bus?”

You almost shrug, then decide against it. Instead you grow somber, thoughtful. “No,” you say. You pause to turn your eyes upwards. The undersides of the bleachers are speckled with chewed gum. “She always sits next to Mario, but he was there by himself.”

“He’s a jerk,” Katie adds.

“But it’s totally weird,” Candice insists. “I just really, really hope that nothing is wrong. Shayla is my best friend.”

You play along with Candice and Katie and Gloria, and speculate about what might have happened. You don’t even care about Candice’s comment. About Shayla being her best friend. She isn’t in school, this one day, and you are. When the bell rings there are promises to visit Shayla in the hospital or go to her funeral together, or whatever, and there are hugs and kisses on cheeks. The scent of grape-flavored gum lingering between the four of you.

By lunch time, she has arrived.

Katie and Candice and Wendy and the other girls are at the table, pressing forward, leaning into and over and against each other. Shayla wears a solemn look and a prim posture. Her hair is twisted into two chaste braids. You set your lunch tray in front of the only available seat, on the opposite end of the table, facing her.

“So they asked me what he looked like,” Shayla is saying. She does not look at you when you sit, but darts her eyes back and forth between the other girls. “Like all about what he was wearing and stuff, and the color of his hair. But I couldn’t see his hair because it was dark.”

Gloria turns to you and whispers. “Shayla saw that pervert watching her last night. Her mom took her to the police station this morning.”

Wendy, pressed at Shayla’s side, rubs one hand along her back in a gesture of comfort, of sympathy.

Katie says, “So what did he look like?”

Shayla shakes her head. “It all happened so fast. I don’t know. He was scary looking. Like a rapist.”

“That is so freaky,” someone says, and there are chirps of agreement.

Her window was open, Shayla continues. There was just a flimsy screen, the only thing separating her from him.

“He said something, too,” Shayla said. “That’s how I first knew someone was there. He said, ‘Hey, pretty.’” Her eyes well and she dabs at them with a crumpled up napkin, pinky finger thrust out. “I was just in my underwear. I mean, fuck.”

Candice shakes her head. “What a fucking perv.”

Katie reaches across the table and pats Shayla’s arm, then withdraws her hand as though embarrassed. Gloria slides Shayla another napkin. Wendy offers her a mirror shaped like a seashell and a stick of royal blue eyeliner, which Shayla applies with a trembling hand. When she looks up from the compact her gaze meets yours, eyes glittering and wide. For a quick moment, you are startled by their fear. But they glance elsewhere too quickly, back to the little mirror, and she’s lost to you once more.

Your parents go all out in matching Hansel and Gretel costumes. They wear them as they hand out candy to trick-or-treaters—your mother’s breasts too large, your father’s thighs hammy and white.

You lie on the floor of your bedroom, hands tucked behind your head and legs outspread. It has grown late. Your window is cracked open and through it drift noises leftover from the evening—a teenager shouting something, the crackle of fireworks. On the ceiling above you are glow-in-the-dark stars, swimming green in the blackness. Your stuffed animals are piled into shelves and in corners in mute discomfort, staring. Everything looks stupid.

All day you have been imagining the Peeping Tom outside of Shayla’s window, crouched between the dead hydrangea bush and cold aluminum siding. You can see the brightness of her bedroom, the way she must have stood illuminated in her rainbow-striped underwear, her neon pink bra. You wonder if he had been close enough to reach her with an outstretched hand. If he had wanted to pull her to him, to press his wet mouth to hers. To harm her.

There is another noise now, this one louder and closer. You flinch. It was a cough, maybe. Or could it have been a word, a rough whisper? You are sweaty and suddenly cold, but you stand and creep towards the window. Through the open crack the air is raw with cut pumpkins. You hear it again: a shuffle. A close noise. Inches from the window you stop. Your room isn’t dark enough and you can see your ghostly reflection in the glass and nothing but shadows beyond. But you know what all is there, and you begin to undress. Shirt and jeans. Padded bra, underwear. Panties, Shayla started saying, like she’s so grown up.

You are naked, now, teeth chattering, unsure of where to put your hands. The night has quieted. You know you sense him there, just past your own reflection—you can hear him. His breaths are heavy, his face a clean moon in the dark. He is waiting for you to make your move.

Ashleigh Pedersen has published fiction in New Stories from the South: This Year's Best 2010 and Iowa Review. Her story "Small and Heavy World" was recognized as one of the "100 Most Distinguished Stories" in Best American Short Stories 2010. She is currently completing a collection of short stories, singing a lot of karaoke, and teaching high school English in Austin, Texas.