When I was a kid, I tracked the passing of time by the radio programs. The rise and fall of the sun had no meaning to me: the day began when the morning news programs reported crashes on the interstate, and it ended when the late-night DJs began their endless progression of pop remixes. But in-between, you never knew what you were going to get.
I liked the unpredictability of radio. I guess that’s what drew me to him.
Our story started by chance. My biology teacher handed out a group project, forcing us to pick partners. I sat in the back of the class and barely knew anyone, so I turned to the nearest person, begrudgingly making eye contact with the blonde girl next to me. I didn’t know it then, but she had his eyes. They stared at me, dark and inscrutable. I barely caught her name: Isabella Cortico. We decided to meet that weekend to prepare our presentation. At her house, of course.
His wife greeted me at the door. She was the kind of person who takes decorating very seriously. The kind of person whose throw pillows, embroidered with phrases like “loving life,” are immaculately arranged from biggest to smallest on her overstuffed, beige sofa.
She baked us apple cobbler as we worked. Dished out generously with a spoon, it was warm and juicy, sweet with a hint of cinnamon. She seemed kind.
It was well past seven when he got home, slinging his coat on the couch and loosening his tie before kissing his wife. Isabella and I were in the kitchen, and I watched him carefully as he approached me. He introduced himself, I shook his hand, I looked him in the eyes. They were dark, and I had nowhere to hide from them.
The sun set outside the kitchen windows, lengthening my shadow before absorbing it into darkness, a lamp in the kitchen barely illuminating the table between Isabella and I. Both of us had begun to yawn, slumped over in our chairs. Clearly, we had made all the progress we would make that night. Her mother insisted I get a ride home from them - it was late, and it was no bother, really. But she was so tired, and oh, could he do it please?
I said my goodbyes to Isabella. Before I left, she slipped me some leftover cobbler in a plastic container.
“I noticed you really liked it, so I got you some extra,” she said.
I was shocked by her kindness. I knew more about her now, I had glimpsed her life outside of the confines of school. Maybe now we were actually friends. I slid the cobbler into my backpack as I stepped out the door.
He turned on the radio after pulling out of the driveway. Better than making conversation with his daughter’s acquaintance, whose only connection to him was forged through happenstance. The late-night DJs were spinning their pop remixes, and the music swept out of the speakers, filling the nervous silence between us.
We barely spoke on the ride home, me too shy and him too uninterested. The dark streets, only illuminated by the headlights of the car, flashed by. Then, with no warning, he jerked the steering wheel to the right, and pulled to the side of the road.
Taken aback, I turned to look at him as his hand deftly switched off the headlights. In the darkness, I heard him unbuckle his seatbelt.
“Well, what are we going to do with you?” he asked in a low voice. His smile that once struck me as charming, now was that of a fox, its teeth glinting in the darkness.
He put his hand on my knee, just slightly higher than was proper. The reality of this encounter, so long imagined by my overactive mind, was deeply inappropriate, I knew. I froze. This was all wrong.
Just then, the car doors clicked, locking me inside.
My heart pounded in my chest. I had to get out, but my brain would only focus on tiny, insignificant details: the smell of his sweat mixed with car air freshener, the way his hands brushed against my skin, the blare of the car radio as he forced my wrists against the passenger window. I felt weaker than I ever had before, unable to fight back, to scream, to do anything. All I could hear was his breathing and the trickle of the radio, a sound once so comforting that now drowned me in its waves.
When his car pulled into my driveway, he let me out with a smile, but not before whispering, “If you tell anyone, I’ll fucking kill you.”
I stepped out of the car, closing the door behind me, stumbling to my front stoop as he drove away.
I don’t know how I managed to go to school the next day. In the hallway, Isabella raised her hand in a gesture of greeting, but nausea rose in my throat at the sight of her eyes, now so reminiscent of his. I looked away, and began to shake, tremors that followed me all day.
It wasn’t until fourth period when I realized something else was following me, too. A pair of eyes tracked me in the hallway, eventually cornering me at my locker. The eyes belonged to Netra Ahuja, a tiny girl with long, dark hair that framed her serious face. We had never spoken more than a few words to each other. I opened my locker, keeping the metal door between us, a useless defense, but one that I needed.
“I heard you went over to Isabella’s house last night,” Netra whispered. My eyes widened. “I know what happened.” Her voice, already barely above a whisper, dropped even lower. “In the car, right?”
I hesitated a second. I wanted to deny everything, to pretend that nothing had happened, but I felt so alone and vulnerable, a scared girl trapped in a dark car, that tears sprang to my eyes. This was confirmation enough for Netra.
“It happened to me, too. I went over to Isabella’s to practice our Spanish presentation, and he drove me home, and... you know.” She took a deep breath, and then, all in a rushed exhale, “It happened to Vanessa Richardson too, and Sarah Hernandez.”
My mind was racing. “Does Isabella know?”
Netra shook her head. “What would we even say?”
My emotions, already simmering, began to boil, a mixture of despair and hatred filling my chest. They did this to me. He did this to me. I did this to myself. How could I have been so fucking stupid? How could I not have fought back? I had felt so weak, so tired, unable to move my body to protect myself from harm. I had never felt that way before.
“It’s a shame, too,” Netra said. “Her mom makes such good cobbler.” A dark joke, no doubt intended to make me feel better about all I - all we - had gone through.
My spiraling thoughts suddenly stopped.
“She made you cobbler too?” I asked, my voice several pitches higher than normal.
“Yeah, blueberry,” Netra answered, puzzled. “Why?”
Suddenly, all the pieces were fitting together. My weakness in the car that night. His wife’s insistence I get a ride home. Her excuse of exhaustion, leading me into that car with him. I scrambled with the zipper of my backpack, frantically pulling it open. The plastic container of leftover cobbler was still in my bag, forgotten from the previous night. I knew what to do.
Weeks later, I sat in my room, listening to the radio announcer highlight the top story of the day.
“... After the cobbler was found to contain traces of rohypnol, Stephanie Cortico, mother of Isabella Cortico and wife of James Cortico, confessed to drugging eight different girls, preparing them to be sexually assaulted by her husband. When asked to explain her behavior, she said, ‘my husband used to beat me, but he left me alone when he had the girls instead. I was tired of being the victim.’ More news to come as the story develops --”
I cut off the newscaster, fiddling with the radio dials until a swell of pop music emanated from the speakers. I felt sorry for Mrs. Cortico, but really I felt angry. That was mostly what I felt, these days. Life had thrown me a wild card, a life-shattering event that I wanted so deeply to forget. Much like my beloved radio, life was simply too unpredictable. As I sat and listened to the DJs string their songs together, my shattered mind drifted back to my childhood, and I knew from the pop music that the day, that this awful, mind-melting experience, was over. I switched the radio off and sat in silence.