A FEW HOURS BEFORE I am raped, two officers in a bar try to corner me and steal my panties. Locke and I are hovering by a standing table when they approach, standing so close that I have to crane my head back to see their faces. Despite my heels, they’re taller than me.
“Want a drink?” asks the one closer to me. His dark hair is so neatly shorn that his skin looks blue. It gives him away. I point to his head.
“Enlisted or officer?”
He grins, all teeth, and leans forward, splashing me with the scent of whiskey sour mix. He’s uneasy on his feet, leaning to one side, a meaty hand resting on the table for balance.
“Officers. You military?”
Locke’s jaw works impatiently and she ignores the men, instead looking around the bar for something better to do. She doesn’t suffer boredom well and she likes her men prettier than this. “Enlisted.”
“Aww,” pouts the other, trying to get Locke’s attention.
“You’re too pretty to be in the Army,” says the officer nearer to me, and I can’t help but smile. I never quite understand the phrase, whether it’s meant to be a compliment or insult, but I like being called pretty, even if the praise is buried in subtext. I don’t have Locke’s tall, toned body or her steely confidence. I still blush and preen under male approval. He likes the reaction and moves closer. He presses his shoulder against mine. “Let’s get a drink.”
The two men are older than us by at least a decade, and the age gap feels significant somehow. I shift my weight to the other foot to buy myself some space. “I don’t know. I feel like that’s fraternization.” I laugh to lighten the rejection.
“I won’t tell if you don’t.” He winks one watery eye. For as much experience as I’ve had keeping men at bay, I suddenly don’t know how to untangle myself from this situation. Locke looks bored but shrugs. She won’t turn down a free drink but I prefer to buy my own. Too many unspoken obligations tie a girl to a bought drink.
“I know.” I perk up. “How about a bet? If I can take a shot better than you can, then you pay for our drinks.” Locke grins. She knows this party trick and I’m damn good at it.
The officer snorts. “You think you can handle your liquor better than me?”
“For one shot I can.”
“And if I win?” he asks. He’s grinning. He thinks he’s already won.
“You leave us alone,” Locke shoots and I’m both uncomfortable and elieved by her brusqueness. I long for that kind of grit.
The officer shakes his head. “That’s not a reward. How about I get your panties.”
“Your underwear. If I win, you have to give me your panties.”
Locke looks aghast and I wear a similar expression. “Why would you want my underwear?”
Locke lays a hand on my shoulder and shakes her head. Her whiskey shots are kicking in.
“Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answer to. Fine. Deal. Whatever. Get us some shots.” Please don’t gamble with my underwear, I want to say, but I know they can’t be serious.
I’m certainly not serious. It wasn’t a real bet, just something said in jest.
The officer jabs his friend with his elbow. “Go get us some whiskey.”
“Don’t be a bitch,” I counter, gathering my confidence because, though I only started drinking a few months ago when I turned twenty-one, good Christian girl turned a little bad by legality, this I know how to do. “Ever- clear,” I add, naming my 190-proof corn spirit of choice. If you want a shot to knock someone back on their heels, Everclear is the only way to do it.
The officer grimaces, which is the exact reaction I was hoping for, but he doesn’t back down. When the Everclear arrives, it glistens in a tall, plastic cup. It’s a double shot.
“You first.” Locke’s hand hovers by her own drink—whiskey already purchased by one of the officers.
The officer stares tentatively at the drink, the cup dwarfed in his palm. I hope he backs down. He doesn’t. He throws the drink back, swallows in one gulp, careful to keep his face composed. He blinks rapidly but doesn’t cough or grimace. He carefully places the cup on the table before clearing his throat. “Your turn.” The other officer slaps him on the back and congratulates his fortitude.
I scowl in annoyance. I usually win this game before I even take the shot. I hold the glass out, careful not to get a whiff of its potent stench, then breathe in and hold it. I down the drink, feeling it burn its way down my throat and pound its way into my stomach, and breathe out slowly, careful to keep my nose closed off so I can’t taste the alcohol. I grin as the last of my breath escapes between tightly clamped teeth. Easy peasy.
The two officers narrow their eyes, staring, waiting for me to shiver, cough, and gag. I tip the glass victoriously before returning it to the table. “We win,” Locke says, then downs her shot, throws the cup onto the table, and grabs my arm. “Bye bye.” She tugs me away from the table.
“I don’t think so.” The smaller officer’s hand shoots out and captures my wrist. “We win. He did better.”
“Did not,” I protest, but the corn ethanol is working its way through my system. My feet are suddenly large and cumbersome. I grip Locke’s elbow tighter.
“Yeah, I was way better.” The officer makes a come-hither gesture with his hand. “Give up the panties.”
“Nope.” Locke pulls me hard enough that my wrist slides out of his grasp.
“Hey! A bet’s a bet!” he yells after us as we make our retreat through the crowd.
“Freaks,” Locke says, pushing me up against the bar. The air is suddenly hot. I tug at my dress’s collar.
“Is it hot in here?”
“Here.” She pushes a vodka shot into my hand.
“Nooo,” I mutter to myself, eyeing my archnemesis. Everclear I could do, but vodka and I aren’t very good friends. “I’m not supposed to be drinking,” I suddenly remember, thinking of the doctor a few weeks back who handed me a nine-month supply of isoniazid for a positive tuberculosis PPD test, stressing, “You can’t drink at all while taking this,” and then pressing another bottle of vitamin B12 into the other hand to counter the “acute liver failure side effects” of the first drug. But possible liver disease seems a minor complication to a twenty-one- year-old and I shrug, taking the shot. Really, it’s only a few drinks this one time. What’s the worst that can happen?
There is dancing and more shots. I know I can handle a dozen without a problem, but I stop counting somewhere around drink ten. Locke’s body weaves intricate symbols on the dance floor, her cheeks vermilion red. I sway to the music, fascinated by the drops of light that waver and splash across my skin. Maybe it’s the medication, but the alcohol hits me harder than usual, faster, more violently, and I try to keep to my normal drinking pace but I’ve outrun my sobriety. I skirt to the outside of the dance floor and lean into a corner. I rest my head back, legs braced apart, using the hard angles of the corner walls to hold me up.
“Hey you,” says a familiar voice, and I crack open one eye. The dim lights burn.
“Hi?” My voice crackles. The officer leans against the wall beside me. “I won our bet from earlier, you know,” he says.
“Meh.” I don’t have the will to argue and I close my eyes. Sight makes me wobbly.
“I believe these are mine,” he says and suddenly there is a warm hand on the inside of my thighs.
I gasp and slam my knees together, pinning his hand in place. “What are you doing?” But the protest comes out breathy and weak.
He grins, his face so close to mine. He’s tall and I’m not standing upright, making his upper body loom over me. “It’s all in good fun,” he tries to assure me, wiggling his hand upward.
I laugh because I’m nervous and drunk. “Stop.” I catch his wrist and try to push it down. “Come on, you lost the bet.” The other officer is there to my left and my spine is pressed into the corner, locking me in place. His fingers slide up my skirt, up against the outside of my hip, and loop around the material of my underwear. He tugs and the fabric slides down. “Seriously, stop,” I laugh, swallowing hard, knees shaking, and I use my other hand to grip my underwear, trying to hold them up. But it’s four hands against two and they’re winning. I feel tiny, as if I’ve shrunk and they’re giants, black shadows bent over me, blocking out the rest of the club.
“Hey!” Locke breaks through between them, a vengeful spirit, all wild dark hair and crimson cheeks. “Fuck off!” she snarls, so tall, so muscular, jabbing one of the officers in the ribs and pulling me out from beneath them. I stumble after her, quickly trying to straighten my underwear with one hand.
“Jesus Christ, Dostie, learn to punch someone in the face,” Locke throws over her shoulder at me. I stare up at the strong line of her shoulders, the muscles that contort and roll beneath her black tank top, the exposed white skin that defies the December night cold, and feel shamed.
Outside, I embrace the sharpness of the cold against my skin. I shiver, as if I can physically shake off the feeling of rough palms searching between my legs. Andres is there, materializing as if summoned, and I lean against him, dropping my head onto his shoulder. He and Diaz had been at another part of the bar, placing as much space between them and the dance floor as physically possible. I cuddle against Andres’s safety and warmth. I have a sometimes-lover at another post, so my relationship with Andres has been platonic, though not strictly so, with tentative flirtations of possibly more. I trust his inherent instinct to protect me, as if I’m a wobbly fawn in constant need of tending. “I need to go home,” I say, to him, to Locke, probably to myself.
“No, come on. It’s too early.” Locke pouts. She complains. She begs for reconsideration but I’ve had too much and I sprawl out in the backseat of Diaz’s car, glad to have a sober friend, our faithful designated driver. I keep one hand on the hem of my skirt, as if retroactively keeping it in place.
Diaz drops us off at the barracks parking lot. Locke has convinced him to take her back into town and they encourage Andres to join them. The night is too early and I’ve ruined it too quickly. But Andres waves them off and I feel bad, but mostly thankful. I eye the long path to the barracks building warily. I’m not sure I can navigate it alone. I concentrate on placing one foot in front of the other, like it’s some complex physics formula that needs all my attention. Mere steps from the main door, my foot catches on nothing and I plop down onto the pavement. Andres grabs my elbow but I shake my head. “Nope. Just leave me here.” Drunk me doesn’t want to dare the stairs.
There’s a short laugh. “Looks like someone had a good time,” says a guy from our Military Intelligence unit. He sits on the cement benches outside the main door. He has a thick, white v-shaped scar that covers the back of his head. It’s his only distinguishing mark. Otherwise he’s nondescript: short, stout, and with lazily buzzed brown hair. I don’t know much about him, since he’s in a different platoon. I think he’s an intelligence analyst, and I’m a Persian-Farsi/Japanese linguist; we barely overlap.
“Yeah, she’s going to bed,” Andres says above me as he tries to pull me up.
“To bed!” I cheer loudly, because that’s exactly where I want to be. My sheets are calling me.
The guy says something else; there is an exchange that is literally over my head, and when Andres guides me toward the stairwell, the analyst grabs my other elbow, balancing me out. I smile in gratitude, feeling protected between fellow unit members, my sentinels.
At my room door, I sway before the electronic combination lock. Our barracks don’t have keys. Instead each door is fitted with a box that has four simple punch buttons, each lock needing a specific series of numbers stamped in a particular order. I punch in my number and try the handle. It rattles in hand. “Shit,” I hiss and punch the number again. The handle refuses to move. “Shit fuck.” I jab the combination, one hand braced against the doorframe. Third time is a charm and the door swings open. I sprint on foal legs to my bed, curling up around the sheets, nuzzling my pillow.
The bed shifts and someone sits by my feet. I have to sit up for someone to sit on the other side of me. There is masculine laughter, a conversation that I’m not quite part of but I smile and nod. A wine bottle passes in front of me, from one man to the other, and I don’t know where it came from. It’s pink wine. It’s definitely not Andres’s. The bottle is pressed into my hand and I wrap my fingers around the neck. I take a gulp because it’s there, because I feel the intense need to keep up, to prove that I can. I start to pull the bottle away from my lips and the analyst grabs the bottom of the bottle, tipping it up so that I take another mouthful. “Drink,” he says, and I chug another two gulps. It’s too much. I shove the bottle into Andres’s hands and crumble to the side, wrapping my arms around my pillow. I drift between awake and asleep, startling now and again at a particularly loud punch in the conversation.
“She’s definitely had enough,” Andres concludes and I hum in response. Andres herds out the analyst and I hear the shuffle of their feet as they leave, the comforting click of the door locking behind them. I slip off to sleep in the cool darkness, still fully dressed, still wearing the underwear that has made it this far, but will make it no farther.