Nikki hated Los Angeles in the summer. Hot and stinky, the smells of car exhaust, cooking food and steam from street vents far below filled the air with an unmistakable stench.
Her apartment was not air-conditioned, so she sweltered in the never-ending heat, drinking glass after glass of ice-cold cola and eating ice cream by the gallon. No other food held her interest. Nothing hot, certainly, even though a plethora of ethnic restaurants lined the streets far below her tenth floor flat. Her appetite killed by the combination of stench and heat, Nikki invariably lost weight every summer, to be put back on once the temperature cooled enough to make it desirable to eat.
Her job was boring. Every afternoon she walked a few blocks to one of the university’s residence halls, clocked in, then took her seat behind the desk. She watched familiar, but unnamed students come and go as they met up with friends for an evening out or to study in the quiet of the massive library. Some of them stopped to chat, but mostly they ignored her as if she were invisible.
The best part of the job was the air-conditioning. Heaven forbid that students should swelter or feel uncomfortable, so the building was kept cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Just the way Nikki liked it.
There was one student, a rather awkward-looking boy, who stopped by and chatted with her every time he stepped through the double-glass doors. Joe. His name was Joe. Nikki never knew his last name, but she had learned that he was wealthy, came from a land-owning family in the Central Valley, he had one older sister who was attending Princeton and a younger brother who was an all-star high school athlete being courted by a vast array of colleges.
Nikki did not like Joe, but she listened to him because he was the most interesting thing in her nights. There was something a bit off about him. His face was not put together all that well. His ears a bit low and large. His forehead bulging and shiny as if he polished it before he went out in the mornings. His eyes, his best feature, were a deep brown, but too far apart and separated by an overly large nose. There was even a problem with his hair. It seemed to have a mind of its own. Despite the oiled appearance, the strands poked out in random directions, creating a spikey halo that gave him a devilish air.
Joe was engaged. Nikki had never met the girl for she attended a university somewhere in the Midwest. Joe had told her the name, but Nikki wasn’t interested so never remembered. Joe and the girl were high school sweethearts. Their parents were best friends. They played tennis and went to dances at a private country club. They went boating on a nearby lake and rented a cabin up in Lake Tahoe every summer.
Normally Joe would be gone by now, off living his fancy dream life far from LA, but not this year. He had not done well in one of his required classes and was forced to repeat it before he could move on. So here he was, bored and lonely.
He turned his attention on Nikki, which she did not encourage, but tolerated.
“Hey,” he said as he approached the desk. “Want to go out for a beer after you get off work?”
“Aw, come on. You deserve a night out. I’ll treat you.”
“No, thanks. I’m meeting someone.”
“Then how about tomorrow? You can’t have plans for tomorrow already.”
Nikki was saved when a noisy group of girls entered, all of them obviously drunk. Not all of them residents. “I need to see your IDs,” she said as she waved the girls over. She noticed that Joe slithered away, and sighed with relief. These girls were just the distraction she needed.
One by one the girls pulled out their cards. Three of them lived upstairs. Two in the residence hall next door. “Okay,” Nikki said. “Remember that no guests after eleven, so you two have to be gone by then.”
“We will,” one of them said, and then the group took off, staggering and giggling toward the elevators.
Nikki’s shift ended at eight in the morning. By that time she was exhausted, and since she had no classes this summer, she could go home and sleep. When she finally left the building, she had an uncomfortable feeling that she was being followed, but whenever she turned around, there was no one there.
All the way home the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She felt nervous and agitated, and so as she neared her building, she got out her key and quickly let herself in. She pulled the door closed and then stood there, peering through the opaque glass. Nikki thought she saw a shadow pass approach, stand still for a few minutes, and then slowly turn away.
It spooked her enough That she didn’t wait for the elevator, but instead practically ran up the four flights to her apartment. The first thing she did was close the curtains. Then she turned on the television and scanned channels looking for news. There had been a series of break-ins lately, all clustered around the university. In all cases the victims were single women. All lived alone. All attacks happened during the early morning hours or late at night. None had been solved.
When Nikki found no new stories, she went into her bathroom to shower. But thoughts of being caught there, naked, were too much. So she crawled into bed, hoping to push away the spooky image long enough to get some sleep. It didn’t happen. The shadow approached the door, over and over in Nikki’s mind.
Eventually she got up and poured herself a tall, cold soda. Then she opened her psychology textbook and tried to study. She couldn’t get passed the deviant behaviors described in the required chapter. Obsession. Narcissism. Compulsive, repeated actions. Inflated egos. Sexual perverts.
Nikki fixed herself a bowl of strawberry ice cream topped with whipped cream for lunch. It felt cool on her tongue, and when she closed her eyes, she pictured the patches of strawberry plants that her mom grew in the backyard. The bright red of the ripened berries. The sweet taste, almost like pure sugar.
After washing out her bowl, Nikki was calm enough to shower. She lingered under the cool spray, relishing in the temporary respite from the heat. She dressed in denim shorts and a light blue tank top, packed up her books, and walked to campus.
As she crossed Main Street, that sense of being followed returned, but there was nothing Nikki could do about it. She had to move on, get to class without stopping and looking over her shoulder or she’d be late, and her professor humiliated anyone who wasn’t seated when he passed through the door.
When class ended, Joe was there. “Want to get a pizza?” he asked.
Nikki pushed past him, pretending not to hear.
He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her toward him. “I asked if you wanted to get a pizza.”
He wrapped his arms around her, bringing her close to his chest. He placed his chin on the top of her head. “Come on, Nikki. You know you want me. You’re such a tease.”
Nikki planted her hands and pushed. She managed to create a bit of space between them, but then Joe trapped her against a door, bent down and kissed her. “See how much you like it. Next time, we’ll take it further.” Joe released her, waved, blew her a kiss and strolled away.
Nikki was shaken. This was sexual assault, her first. She knew she should go to the counselors’ office and report it, but it would be Joe’s word against hers. He came from wealth, she from a working family. He didn’t need money to go there; she was on full scholarship. When it came down to it, Nikki knew she’d lose. So she went to work.
Thankfully nothing exciting happened. No clusters of drunken students, no rambunctious athletes, no giggly girls. And especially, no Joe.
In the morning Nikki walked home, alert in case she was being followed, but after crossing Main and not feeling the least bit perturbed, Nikki relaxed. When she entered her building, no shadows appeared. She collected her mail, called for the elevator, and rode up feeling good about the day.
When she unlocked her door, she knew something was wrong. She stood in the open doorway, ready to leave in case of attack, but as she looked about she quickly saw that there was nothing out of place. No weird smells or writing on the walls. No dead pigeons or strangled cats. But there was something. Something that Nikki could not see or smell or define. It was there as surely as that shadow had been in the glass.
She gently closed the door behind her. An arm went around her neck and pulled her back into a burly chest. “Nikki, my love,” Joe’s voice said. “I didn’t think you’d ever come home.”
“Let me go,” she said as she heard the deadbolt turn.
Joe kissed her on the neck. “You smell so good.” He turned her around and kissed her neck.
“Stop it. I want you to go.”
“You want me, yes,” he said as he pushed her into the bedroom. He placed one hand on her right breast, the other went under the waistband of her shorts.
Nikki struggled, but her arms were pinned to her sides. She tried kneeing him, but couldn’t get enough force behind it to hurt him. “Stop. Please, stop.”
His lips found hers. He tasted like whiskey and cigarettes. Marijuana. His hair smelled so bad she gagged. And his body odor, beyond foul. He was so disgusting that Nikki thought that he probably hadn’t washed or brushed in days. It made no difference.
Joe pushed and shoved until he had her on the bed. The unmade bed, which shocked Nikki as she never left without everything being neat and tidy.
He forced Nikki’s hands above her head, trapped them with one of his much larger hands, then unbuttoned her shorts with the other. Nikki wiggled and squirmed and tried biting Joe’s arm, but couldn’t get enough of his skin in her mouth to hurt him.
“Getting feisty. I like that in a woman.” Joe pulled away and looked in Nikki’s eyes.
“Don’t rape me, please. Don’t hurt me. Leave,” she said, “and I won’t report this.”
“Rape? This isn’t rape.” Joe smiled. “This is consensual. You’ve been begging me to do this for months now.”
“No, Joe. It isn’t true. You’re lying. I never teased you,” Nikki said as tears poured down her cheeks. When he let go of her hands she scooted away until she was off the bed and against the far wall. “You’re engaged,” she said. “Your girlfriend loves you. Imagine how she’d feel if she knew you were a rapist.”
Joe stood up and glowered at her. “I’m no rapist.” He stepped toward her, his hands clenched. “Don’t go spreading rumors about me. It you say one word, I’ll get you fired. In fact, I can do worse. I’ll get you kicked out of the university.”
“Just go. Now.” Nikki moved toward the bathroom door, stepped into the room, slammed the door shut and locked it. Joe pounded on the door, screamed additional threats, and then finally walked away.
Nikki stayed in the room, sitting on the toilet lid for what felt like hours. Her entire body trembled, her teeth chattered, and despite the intolerable heat, she felt frozen. Only after convincing herself that he was gone, did she feel brave enough to open the door.
She went into the front room. No sign of Joe. Nikki quickly crossed the room and bolted the door. She sank to the floor and dropped her head into her arms. She breathed deeply, telling herself that she had escaped. She had survived.
And she knew that she couldn’t report it. Joe’s family was wealthy enough that he could lie his way through the accusations and live to rape another girl. Which made Nikki wonder, was there any possibility that Joe was the neighborhood rapist? Could he be the one terrifying single women?
Nikki packed up as many of her belongings as she could in the two suitcases she owned. She wrote two letters: one to administration claiming a family emergency that required her at home and the other to the apartment manager. She put stamps on the envelopes, and carrying everything squeezed into the elevator. She dropped the letters into the mail slot in the lobby along with her key.
She walked briskly to the nearest bus stop and waited nervously until it arrived. After several transfers, she arrived at the bus depot, where she bought a ticket to San Francisco. It was not until she was seated on the bus that she was able to breathe without panicking. As the bus pulled out, Nikki saw a figure that she thought was Joe leaning against the wall.
It couldn’t be. He wouldn’t dare. Would he?