Themes of domestic violence and misogyny.
When Willo was in the first grade, there was a boy who would watch her during lunchtime and recess. He wore his elementary school jersey sloppy and oversized, the collar pulled long where the elastic had begun to fail. His face was always sunburnt red, and his ruddy blond hair stuck up in odd places. His gaze felt sharp on her skin. He sat in the sandpit alone, cupping handfuls of sand in a loose fist and letting it escape out slowly between his fingers.
He always kept his distance, until one day, when Willo was sitting alone and out of sight of the nearest adult. Her thought had been to remove herself from his eyeline, but instead she had drawn him in closer when he moved to follow. He stood above her then, the skin around his mouth was stained Ribena red and his brown eyes shone with determination.
‘I’m Josh,’ he announced. ‘I want you to be my girlfriend.’
A memory came to her in startling clarity. Willo recalled her mother crying on the bathroom linoleum.
The sound of her heartbeat was loud in her ears.
‘Why me?’ she said.
‘Because I said so! I want a girlfriend and I like you!’
‘Well, I don’t like you.’
Time and space shifted to make room, and then the two moments began existing in the same space. In one frame, she sat in front of Josh, and in another she hovered anxiously outside a bathroom door. One under another under another under another, seamless.
She, noticeably smaller, opening the door and approaching cautiously. Her mother’s body fragile as a baby deer, shaking. The sound of her sobs ricocheting off the tile and echoing back again.
‘So what?’ Josh challenged. ‘I want you to be my girlfriend! If you don’t do it then I’ll get my big brother to beat you up!’
Past and present blurred further. Josh was also in the bathroom now. Her mother was no longer crying but the echo persisted. From behind her child eyes, she watched chubby fingers push her mother’s hands away from her face. Oh, Willo thought calmly, I remember this now.
She stood up, brushing sand off her skirt. Josh’s face lit up in a beaming smile and he rocketed forwards.
Her mother’s face, a shock of purple and red blossoming like spilled paint into water. Crying. There was blood on her fingers, the toddler’s chubby fingers. Someone somewhere was screaming.
The ringing in her ears got so loud that it drowned out everything. And when Josh gripped tight to her shoulders and put his face in front of hers, she realised that silence was not powerful. If only one of them got to be powerful, it was going to be her.
She tried at first to pull away from him, but his grip only tightened. Then, she balled up a fist and slammed it into the soft line of Josh’s jaw. He was so close to kissing her that his teeth clipped her nose as he fell backwards.
It was instantaneous. Reality snapped back in on itself to return her wholly to the present. The skin of her knuckles throbbed. Josh’s lip was split and he was cradling his jaw and wailing pitifully.
Absently, Willo registered that she really ought to go tell a teacher what happened, but the impulse passed quickly and with little consequence. Instead, she knelt in front of him – hovering over him. His nose was running like a faucet. He shuffled in on himself under her gaze, whimpering.
He was scared of her now.
Coasting on a violent giddiness she could not yet understand, Willo laughed.
After that, parents had to be called in, and Willo’s father made a begrudging appearance. The principal had repeated to them the typical ‘violence is bad’ spiel that was required of him, and Willo had listened. Then the principal sighed heavily, looked down at her and said:
‘Now, you should be more careful. You could have been badly hurt, little girl. Call for a grown-up next time. Don’t try to handle it all on your own.’
Sitting beside her father, his impatient frame towering over everyone else in the room, she nodded dutifully and apologised. It was later that she let herself feel angry.
Because… she hadn’t been the one to get hurt? Josh was sitting there with a handful of paper towels wadded up and pressed to his lip, his shirt splattered red-brown. But she ‘could have been hurt?’ What nonsense.
The other kids seemed to understand at least – they recognised the poisonous fury awoken in her and tread carefully in accordance. The boys kept a wary distance. The girls seemed awed and kept asking her to retell the story again and again, each seeking a taste of the vicarious heat that came with righteous, violent retribution.
Even then, she’d been too young to recognise the gravity of her own anger or anchor it to anything concrete. It ached and tore at her like a cancer. She spun, directionless.
It was in one of the earlier high school years that Willo became aware of a fundamental difference between herself and other girls her age. It wasn’t that they were any less full of anger, they just aimed it differently. They took that anger and internalised it, harnessed it to make themselves smaller. If you turn your anger inward though, you become another victim to it.
They were all so nauseatingly eager to give up their power in exchange for any small amount of external validation. They stripped themselves naked, laid on the floor with their big eyes and fragile wrists, and begged to be treated gently.
‘Look at me, I’m so weak and pathetic. Don’t you feel sorry for me. You would never hurt me, right? That would be wrong of you.’
They were like lapdogs, prioritising cuteness over sensibility. They thought if they only looked pitiful enough, no one would ever want to hurt them. The girls around her lapped this ideology up like the declawed defanged mutts they were.
It was revolting. (Secretly, it was also terrifying).
The more aware of this deep divide Willo became, the less effort she put towards appealing to her peers at all. She no longer acted out of politeness or of fear of entrapment by social expectation. If she could not connect, she would rise so far above that they would all fall into irrelevancy. It surprised her however, that this same aloofness and purposeful othering of herself attracted an influx of admirers – elevating her to a level of new level of popularity she had not sought but found herself becoming quickly comfortable with.
At lunch, Willo could openly insult a classmate and all the consequence she would receive was a timid self-dismissing laugh. She was introduced to a different kind of violence. One that did not need to threaten openly; not when a smile was just as effective. The more she pushed, the more they gave to her. The world in all its potential presented itself to her as an unfolding flower.
There was a day when she had taunted another girl so that the girl had curled up and cried, fallen against a brick wall. She seemed to have it in mind that this public display of pitifulness would force Willo to relent – perhaps even apologise. But attempting to appeal to Willo’s sense of compassion was a fruitless act. All she felt was disgust, and all she held was contempt.
Willo felt herself atop a great height, stood at an unflinching precipice. She took in the sight of this girl on the floor, a pathetic wet tissue of a thing, and her heart curdled. Heat filled her lungs. Her mouth flooded with a heady sweetness. Other students milled about awkwardly, tutting and murmuring to one another, otherwise content to remain spectators. The only active players were Willo and the crying girl.
The girl – Willo was unable to remember her name – glanced up through teardrop heavy lashes, the picture of quintessential pitiful sweetness. Willo was struck with a primal urge to spit on her; but she didn’t.
‘Pathetic,’ she said, lip curled in a cruel smirk.
The girl burst open into a fresh bout of miserable sobbing, and Willo turned heel and continued to her next class. Her heart felt light, satiated.
Willo went to university because she had the grades, her parents had the money, and because she had nothing better to do. It was there, at the bookend of her first year as a business major, that she first met herself as she was.
The animalistic anger she had carried for so long felt different, hungrier. It had matured alongside her, grown specific in its preferences.
She had always felt somewhat drawn to acts of depravity and cruelty, whether by her own inclinations or through vivid unenacted fantasies. It had been easier to stem the tide of that longing when she was still young. Her whole body was a raw nerve, and now she was surrounded by swathes of equally hormonal, aroused adolescents eager to experiment sexually.
At a party – she’d not bothered to learn whose – she had been teetering on the edge of intoxication and found herself in an upstairs bathroom, with the door locked, and a soft body pressed under hers. The woman she had brought upstairs with her was bright eyed and deeply flushed, her dark hair fell in a halo upon the tiled floor. Willo pressed kisses over her mouth, and her chin, then to the crook of her neck. Heat consumed her utterly, urged her forwards.
The air was saturated with the sounds of their breathing. The music blaring below vibrated through the floor, its rapid hyper-pop cadence rocking through Willo’s body like a second heartbeat. She carded her fingers into the woman’s hair and pulled back harshly. The pained gasp that elicited made Willo lightheaded.
‘Ahh, baby,’ the woman gasped wildly, between breathless moans. ‘Please, please, just like that! Oh god, please don’t stop!’
Willo responded in kind. The boundaries in her mind set between what was morally okay and what was not were crashing down in rapid succession – overpowered by blind, mindless desire. The woman arched her back and Willo pulled harder at her hair so that her chin jutted up painfully. Willo’s unengaged hand crept towards the woman’s bare neck. Something in her ached to do more. Hurt her more.
‘Choke me,’ the woman spluttered, pushing her head back farther.
Willo’s free hand stilled instantly, hovering over the crest of the woman’s neck.
She had been moments away from doing just that; in fact, she had been aching to. It was different if she was acquiescing to someone else’s demands though. It wasn’t liberating anymore; it wasn’t about power. And if it was about power, it was no longer about Willo’s grasp of it.
All in a breath, Willo felt herself come crashing back down. The magic – the unreality of it all – melted away. She looked down and instead of the woman’s face, she could see her own looking back at her.
‘Choke me,’ the faux Willo repeated, pleading.
It was like her head had been shoved into a bucket of ice water. Her whole body jerked in recoil. She, voyeur-like, was hovering over herself, watching herself act out the role of both predator and prey.
She couldn’t climb back out. It was as if she was suddenly a stranger. The same tale, the same ending. She couldn’t allow herself to be within that scene. Because as soon as the woman’s face was her own, it was also her mother’s. Willo felt herself thrust into a role she had distantly fantasised about but, now that she wore it, burned wherever it touched.
That same memory, but wider. She saw her mother bleeding and alone. Then time moved backwards until she was in her child bed, listening to her father yelling, the sound of crashing furniture. Her mother bleeding and alone.
She wrenched herself up off the floor just in time to bury her head over the rim of the toilet seat and vomit.
The woman – whose face Willo could not bear to look at – asked her timidly if she was okay. The words swam through the air, garbled and nonsensical.
The ensuing events were so harried and frantic that she only recalled them in fragments. Pushing off the wall with one hand to keep herself steady descending the staircase. Shoving aside someone who was blocking off the exit. Calling for a lift home. Crying under the sheets. Feeling terrified. Disgusted.
It was mechanical. The way she was able to pull herself out of bed the next day, dress and make herself presentable for her Monday morning seminar. She refused to be weak, no matter how shaken she was. Her armour felt hollow, but still, she could not discard it.
Throughout the lecture, given by a supervising professor, she felt a steady tingle at the back of her neck. Goosebumps rose up along the flesh of her arms. Slowly, she turned her head to look at the seat behind her and was met the fierce gaze of a man she only distantly recognised from previous classes.
He was watching her.
In what felt like slow motion, she watched him press a single finger to his lips and blow towards her a kiss embellished with a sly wink.
The class continued on, and the lecturer fell to white noise. The sound of her heartbeat was loud in her ears and her neck felt hot. Fury consumed her. White hot and mind-numbing, it sped up her spine and crackled as unspent adrenaline in the curve of her tightly clenched fists.
She envisioned him – this stupid, arrogant man – below her. Crying. Repentant. Terrified. And it spoke sweetly to the core of her. Worked like a balm to her frayed nerves. Her mind ran rampant, building momentum and speeding through fantasies in which she brought him to his knees and he regretted ever looking down on her. By the end of the lecture, she was a live wire, every nerve ending raw.
Every so often her fantasies were interrupted by that woman’s face, eclipsed in unencumbered bliss. It made her stomach turn.
Freya Petterson was born and raised in The Huon Valley. She has published a collection of free verse poetry with BookLeaf Publishing in 2022, ‘Fragments’. Her writing expands into many genres but she primarily works in the realm of fantasy and YA fiction. Her short story, ‘Coming of Rage’, was Highly Commended for the Future Leaders Writers Prize in 2022.
Further examples of her writing can be found at freyalili.substack.com