That first summer, we swam in the green water of his parents’ above-ground pool, the sigh of ride-on mowers and crickets flooding the dusk. Without the structure of school days, I had no other tether—we spent all our time together, watching Dexter and swimming and walking back and forth around the mall. Inside the house, I sat on his pilly bedsheets, the smell of cigarettes and dog pee stinging like chlorine. J was two years older; we’d given each other gifts for each monthly anniversary. He handed me a small tin box that said Guitar Hero on the top. I opened it. I didn’t realize what it was at first, those big white flakes, pearlescent and violent. His skin.
I swallowed disgust, tried to wipe my face clean of emotion.
“I peeled it off from a sunburn,” he said. “The most satisfying part of a sunburn is always peeling it off.”
He said: “I wanted you to have a part of me.”
It’ll be easier to let it go, I thought. I will pretend this never happened. I thanked him and told no one.
We had only been dating for a few months. I could have broken up with him but didn’t. Strange and sudden loyalty pulled at my stomach. In just over a year, he would rape me in the woods behind my childhood home. After that, we would date for six more months.
A hazy summer afternoon, not long after finishing high school, Hannah and I sat cross-legged under a cherry tree and burned the picture of a man who attempted to rape her.
He worked as Chuck, of Chuck E. Cheese, the Rat with hard plastic eyes and an unchanging smile. He and I had sat at the same lunch table. When Hannah told me what happened, I pictured J’s bedroom, the dirty carpet and torn wallpaper.
J still messaged me almost every day, no matter how many times I gently told him to back off. He was two years out of high school then and had just started his first job at Walmart. When he told me the Rat from Chuck E. Cheese started working there, I told J to be wary of him.
It would be another few months before I could name the dread bubbling in my stomach when he messaged me. I did not yet think of what he did to me a year prior as rape. I tried not to think of it at all.
In a photograph of the Rat left over from junior year, his eyelids were turned inside out, two pink blisters.
Hannah worried about starting too big a fire, so we filled a bucket with water, just in case. We sprayed the photo with bug spray and lit it, fire tearing at his eyes. She dropped it in the water once the flame edged too close to her hand. What was left unraveled in sleek strands, film reels pouring from nowhere, unfurling in the water.
Burning the Rat’s photo felt like any other memory from that summer—Hannah and me getting ice cream, walking to the park at night, catching fireflies. Hannah and I caught and released them over and over again, so salty air and childhood ritual vibrated through our bodies, feeling at once transcendent and as real as a blade of grass pulled from the earth. We freed them after a few loving moments, savoring their beauty but knowing we could not control their fire.
Home from college for the summer, I cleaned out my closet and found a box of things J had given me—sappy love notes, ugly jewelry, crushed roses, photographs, and skin. Skin in a box within a box, a matryoshka of forgetting, or of memory: left in the dark with hopes it might disappear, but taking up space all the same. I flinched and snapped the box shut. I swore I’d thrown it away as soon as he dropped me off that day, but it had been in my childhood bedroom for more than three years. Did I really forget about it, as I’d hoped I would that first day? Did I think it might go away if I buried it beneath journals and old clothes?
The skin was repulsive, like a snake or cicada’s, a reminder that he’d shed it, but was alive somewhere close.
Hannah joined me in the moonlit woods behind my house, our knees digging into soft dirt. The air was clear, earthy, musty, wet—the smell of Delaware I sometimes miss. Silent except for distant cars and a circus of bugs.
Hannah struck a match and let it float for a second. The fire caught a love letter, lighting up our eyes. The box burned slowly at first and we held our hands together, shielding it against the wind. The flame convulsed and consumed the box, pulsing in the night.
In my worst dreams, I am still his captive. The dreams are not often violent—we just sit together in his bedroom or car, all the changes and knowledge of the past decade erased. I’m trapped with him, or I never escaped. I knew the fire couldn’t undo what he had done, that he would remain unchanged. But I felt the power of that imperfect ritual, momentary but thrilling, red-hot energy throbbing in our skin.
Embers floated towards the night and we hoped that wherever he was, he could feel the fire on his skin.
There was one photo left out, one of him as a kid, asleep in a web of sheets. Maybe we shouldn’t burn that one, Hannah said. I thought I should hesitate to burn it—he was a child once, innocent and loved and capable of every good thing. I paused, my stomach pulled taut by some feeling. Inside me was a Russian doll of contradictory emotions—sadness, pity, anger, disgust, disappointment. I knew any empathy I gave him would be one-sided. I felt my skin growing tight, cracking. I shed the urge to care for the innocent boy in the photo. I watched flames eat the night air and let myself pretend he no longer existed, that the fire really could destroy him. At my core, I felt a confusing kind of apathy, a dull ember of rage still burning after rainfall. A hollow box amidst flames. I let the flame take over. It was all I could see.
I can’t remember what we did with the photo. I think we burned it anyway.
S.J. Buckley is a writer and editor originally from lower Delaware. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from George Mason University, where she was the nonfiction thesis fellow. She also served as the nonfiction editor of So to Speak journal for two years. Her essays, interviews, and reviews have appeared in JMWW, Ligeia, Grub Street, and the So to Speak blog. She lives near Washington, DC, and is working on her first book.