Warning: This short story contains sexual assault and animal abuse.
I woke up beneath the sound of rain licking the sides of the tent. I wanted to keep dreaming, wrapped in my sleeping bag, but Andrew had already put his glasses on. We rummaged through our musty clothes with flashlights and slipped on our outfits for the day. Brushed hair, fresh socks, and deodorant didn’t matter anymore. I walked barefoot across the farm. Keith would chip away at me for not wearing shoes.
“There’s poison ivy everywhere,” he scolded, but the entire two-and-a-half weeks I worked on their farm in Georgia, I never got it. We loaded the pick up truck with chicken feed and oyster shells and began the day.
After breakfast, Andrew and I were exiled to the rows of potatoes to weed. Keith and Katie were on the other side of the property, probably inside. My soggy jacket lapped onto my skin every time I yanked out a weed. Whenever we were alone, Andrew would tell me secrets. He shared how his brother moved to Orlando, FL, how he never drank because his mom was an alcoholic. He told me the story of how he accidentally discovered Keith and Katie having sex in the greenhouse on a full moon. He talked a lot like he couldn’t stop, so I listened. Mud was caked up to my wrists. I was cold and aching for lunch, but I kept working.
I had come to the farm to learn about sustainable living and permaculture. I longed to get out of the city of Tampa and back to nature. I had a backpack with some clothes, a bare-bones tent from Walmart and a secondhand sleeping bag that I bought from Goodwill for $8. I planned 3 farm stays in Georgia, Washington, and Alaska.
One afternoon, Tom the turkey was following us around as we worked. This was normal. He would puff air out of his beak, spike the feathers on his back and bump into my shins with his chubby turkey chest. He was more of a companion than a meal. Today he was different towards Keith—he was pecking and biting. I saw Keith hold back for a minute, but anger cracked him open. He jabbed the tip of his shoe into Tom’s fluff. He would alternate foot as Tom landed to each side. When he finished, he wrapped chicken wiring around him like a cage. Andrew laughed.
Keith and Katie were enthusiastic about water conservation. They collected rainwater and gave us a hole in the ground for a bathroom. “When you’re done, just cover it up with wood chips,” Keith explained to me the first day I had arrived. Very rustic, I thought, but I embraced it. I always had dirt stained kneecaps and probably should have showered more often, but Keith and Katie’s generosity only stretched so far.
We typically worked 12 hours a day, only stopping for meals. We were allowed 2 days off a week. I took any opportunity to leave, to get out of isolation. Andrew would take me on nature walks that ended in waterfalls. We sunbathed on rocks with swimsuits on and jumped in cold streams. Moths landed on my toes and I stole a piece of quartz from a gift shop once and didn’t tell anyone about it until right now.
One Friday, Andrew took me to downtown Chattanooga for their weekly summer festival. Country music twisted my gut with repugnance, but I was willing to go because I was curious about Southern culture. Andrew loved country music. He always played it in the car and while we worked. Keith loved it too and the two of them would play Bob Dylan together on their acoustic guitars.
I borrowed one of Andrew’s flannels because it kept my body warm. He dug through his car for his black cowboy hat and put it on with excitement. I paid for parking. We walked side by side to the event. He latched on, wanting to hold hands, but I squirmed away from each attempt.
There were food trucks, loose children and heavy country music beating at my ears. We arrived at the stage and Andrew lost himself inside a crowd of people. I stayed on the side, observing him dance as onlookers took pictures and videos of him with their cellphones. He danced like he had been hired for a cowboy bachelorette––hips thrusting, eyes closed, and mouth open. He was too lost inside himself to notice all the people staring. I wandered away, but couldn’t disappear.
I walked two steps ahead of him on the way back to his car. I watched the silence weigh his head down. We kept the windows rolled down on the ride back. Night was cold without the sun.
He parked his car in his usual patch of tall grass. We stayed there for a minute with our seatbelts still on. I wanted to sleep in my own tent tonight and he knew. He asked me what was wrong and why I was so mad—so clueless and confused.
I told him that there were children and families and people were disturbed. I saw their expressions when they pulled their kids away, eyes first.
“I didn’t even think about that,” Andrew said, “I love to get lost in the music. It makes me feel closer to God.”
I made him recall the second day I was here. We were talking in the kitchen after lunch. I looked at him and his face reminded me of my little brother. They were both blonde. He asked me if I wanted to continue the conversation outside. It sounded nice and I wanted to be his friend. Just his friend.
Andrew zipped the tent closed. It was raining quietly. He lay down horizontally on some blankets while I sat up with my legs crossed and listened to him talk. I felt his intentions like I could smell his dried sweat, but I stayed. He told me to lie down like him. I listened. He put his hand on my heart. I thought it was sweet and let him. Before I could think, he smashed his face into mine, clutching the back of my head to keep me there.
He rolled on top of me. I didn’t say no, but I didn’t have the air to say any words at all. “What do you like,” he kept asking, “What turns you on?” Not right now, I thought, but I just looked at him confused. “I don’t know,” I said, but he demanded an answer.
He ripped down my pants. I wasn’t wearing underwear. I told him no and pulled them back to my hips. I tried to get out of there, but he had me locked. Dinner should be ready soon. His teeth were everywhere.
I was only on the farm for 19 hours. He felt like a starving wolf—so hungry I didn’t even need to take my shirt off, he didn’t even need to see my face.
I came to Keith and Katie’s farm with innocence and curiosity, but it felt like I walked right into a cage. My openness was a vulnerability.
In the car, Andrew apologized for what he had done. He had his reasons. We all had reasons, but they could never be excuses. I told him that it was okay. We slept separately that night.
Andrew had been on the farm for 4 months now and he told me it was time for him to leave. He said learning from Keith and Katie had plateaued. He said if we couldn’t be together, he didn’t want to stay. He asked me to be his girlfriend plenty of times: on the rocks by the river, in the tree house. I said no every time. We were never together; we were just in the same place at the same time.
I was excited for him to leave, but also nervous to be alone with Keith and Katie for another 2 weeks. The night before Andrew left, I sat on the couch reading a book on meditation. Keith sat down in the chair opposite me and started talking. He told me that Andrew was driving down to Florida and that I should go with him. They knew I was from Tampa and that this would be the most convenient way for me to leave. I wasn’t working hard enough, I wasn’t appreciative enough, he said. I promised that I would be better. I hated Kieth and his cold glare. I hated Katie and her chin acne.
The next morning, I left with Andrew. I paid him $40 to drop me off in Tampa at my friend’s place. 10 more hours and I am free, I thought. He made us stop halfway at a hotel that his Dad paid for. One more night, just one more night, I thought as I centered myself. I think I had been pretending for too long. I lied and acted to keep myself from turning into ash. I knew that it would be over soon, so I did what I had to do to keep him calm.
We pulled up to the yellow house. He brought my things inside and pushed his way in. I introduced him to the dog. We said goodbye to each other and he went back into his car. He lingered in the driveway, texting and fiddling with his GPS. Finally, he drove away. I took a shower so hot it burned my skin. I looked at my phone, still in my towel. It was dead. My charger was in my backpack, but I didn’t look for it.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, healing and recovery is possible. Visit www.rainn.org or call 800-656-HOPE for help.