Empty Threat

You sit in the van. In the stiff grey bristled fabric covered seat. You are like an inclined plane, a basic machine, a wedge. The base of your neck hits just under the headrest, your face tilts down at an angle that makes it look like you have three chins flooding out into the peach skin of your neck. Your butt is scooched as far away from the crack at the middle part of the chair, car seat, whatever you want to call it, as possible. Your pelvis is tilted up into the air away from the scratchy fabric of the seat. You are the hypotenuse of a chair and human triangle. A quarter could roll down, between your barely there breasts, over your stomach, and drop on to the musty floor staying up on its serrated edge. You are like a wedge, a thing of science, something the cavemen invented once they got tired of screaming “fire” and burning themselves. Once they’d decided that something round was a wheel. You came in between that and the pulley. You’ve been paying attention in fifth grade science, when you’re not reading under your desk as your teacher yells at students for not doing their homework, or plugging your nose to rid the formaldehyde smell of dead squid from your nostrils.

Outside the windows of the van the sky is purpling. Pinpricks of light pierce the darkness. You wish you’d brought a book light, a way to read, bury yourself in a far off place that blurs the lines between make believe, fantasy, and reality. It’s just dark.

In the front seat Jennifer shoves a CD into the player. Above the dashboard a stuffed white owl, Headwig from Harry Potter, dangles down from the rearview mirror by a piece of thick yellow yarn. Little Shop of Horrors bursts through the speakers, blasting static out of its way. They start singing, Jennifer and her kids, Rebecca and Jeffrey, the three of them, harmonizing in warbling voices that make your eardrums twinge. The words blur together until all you hear is a screeching chorus of nothingness. You kick your feet out at your backpack. Turquoise with white Hawaiian flowers, a black handle that pulls up from the top, a rolling backpack with your initials embroidered on the front in white: CEH. You keep kicking at the backpack as Jennifer’s voice crescendos, her off-spring filling in at the harmonies. Maybe if you kick hard enough the dumb backpack, the one that you’d begged your mother to buy for you that summer before fifth grade, your first year of middle school had started, would go right through the front passenger seat and impale Rebecca, Jennifer’s youngest daughter, through her vocal chords.

Instead you just sit there and keep kicking. Dumb backpack. Dumb-doesn’t-fit-in-your-locker-takes-up-too-much-room-on-the-bus-seat-in-the-mornings-sticks-out-like-a-sore-fifth-grader-lowest-man-on-the-totem-pole-backpack.

They keep singing, Rebecca and Jennifer up front, a mother daughter duo, and Jeffrey behind you - his voice is lowish, like it’s still trying to decide whether or not it’s ready to go through puberty. He’s only a year older than you are, a sixth grader. He says his r’s like w’s only not. He has this half lisp going on that makes him sound whiney. His face is ahead of his voice though, it’s a total add for Proactive. He sits behind you in his puffy blue winter coat, even though it’s only October, and sings.

And you just sit there like an inclined plane waiting for it to happen.


You were at Jeffrey’s house. His parents were hosting a party. Your parents sat in the living room on the weird white crocheted couches, surrounded by metallic blue paint and pictures of Disney characters. Mickey Mouse made googly eyes at you from every wall. Goofy laughed down at you. Sketches that Rebecca and her older sister Rachel had drawn of Tinker-bell and Peter Pan lined the walls. There was a huge stuffed shaggy dog, tall enough to be a footstool at the end of one sofa.

Your brother was in the basement, hanging out on the blue red and green geometric shape coated futon that was used as a couch. He was playing Nintendo 64. Super Smash Brothers. He’d use any excuse to play against someone other than you. You always chose Jiggly Puff, the cute pink one that puffed up and could fly. You also always lost. There was a huge Lindsey Lohan cut out staring at your brother, it was from when she was younger, before she got trashy, back when she was little miss I’m so sweet in The Parent Trap.

You were sitting in the sunroom area, a huge wooden walled room with giant skylights and lots of windows. It was hot, the sun beating in from all angles. Along the opposite wall there was a metal cage, a chinchilla house. The black one was named Neo, an ode to The Matrix. You never knew the name of the white one.

You were sitting at a long table with Jeffrey and all of his friends. The sunroom area was off to the side of the kitchen, there was an extra refrigerator leaned against the wall next to you, hugging the wall that bordered the kitchen as if trying to belong by association. A huge clear plastic bowl of Halloween candy was sitting on top of the beige colored fridge.

You looked at it, consumed by boredom. You didn’t know any of these people. You hated these parties.

You looked at Jeffrey.

“Can I have some candy?” you asked, pointing up at the huge bowl.

Jeffrey shook his head, “Nope,” he said, smirking, the edge of his cheek lifting up his stupid transition lens glasses.

You were nine, maybe ten.

What else were you supposed to do?

You opened your mouth and in a sing-song taunting voice you sang, “Trick or treat, trick or treat, give me something good to eat! If you don’t, I don’t care, I’ll pull down my underwear!”

That’s when you became empty threat.


You dread Tuesdays. Tuesdays are Hebrew School days. Jennifer picks you and Jeffrey and Rebecca up at the middle school and drives you thirty minutes into Broomall to Temple Shalom. She drives a pastel blueish purple van with a Philadelphia Zoo license plate, the one with the tiger looking out at you with those big black eyes. The rides there are okay, you don’t talk. Just curl up in your seat with the latest Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, forbidden – your-Mom-has-to-sign-a-special-permission-slip-just-so-you-can-check-it-out-of-the-school-library - older kid book. You try to sink down into the ink and pulp and ignore the hot breath on the back of your neck. Jeffrey likes to lean forward, like he can maybe catch a glimpse of what you’re reading through the metal poles of the headrest, ramming his eyes through the back of your head, x-ray vision or something.

You go to class. Jennifer is your teacher. She scares you. Jennifer’s one of your mother’s best friends. Her hair can’t seem to decide what color it wants to be and fades in patches from red to blond to brown to silver. When she talks she paints words with the tips of her fingers and her overly long fingernails scratch at the air, a trait her children seem to have inherited. You’ve known her your whole life.

Doesn’t stop her from scaring you though. She gives your Hebrew school class prayer tests. You sit knee to knee with her out in the hall, in pastel purple or green molded plastic chairs hoisting imitation wood desktops up on metal poles. She stares you down until you start chanting. Anyone could walk by. Inside the classroom the rest of the class is in a nervous sweat, chills shake the room. Nobody likes prayer tests.

You take a shallow breath, remember she knows your mother, not that you’re the type to hide your grades, but with this there’s no going back.

“Adonai sefa tyf teef tai ooofya gytaheela techa...eternal God open my lips that my mouth may declare your glory,” you begin to chant. The prayer flows out. It floats on the air; viscous, sticky, sliding up and down, hitching sideways at odd times. It’s beautiful.

“A little fast,” Jennifer says at the end. Then she gives you what might have been intended as a reassuring smile. Her teeth seem all twisted to you, like the stalagmites and stalactites that coat the floors and ceilings of caves. Yup. Jennifer scares you.


The ride home. It’s what you really dread. It scares you more than Jennifer. With the lights out and the world dark, things can pass unnoticed in the backseat. You are an inclined plane. You are as ancient as time itself. Nothing can touch you. You have a force field around you, made of hard shimmering magic, wand work, you are all powerful. Nothing can penetrate your shield.

Except for him. Except for Jeffrey.

His breath is on your neck. You can feel him through the back of your seat. Blood is pulsing past your eardrums. You feel it begin. His fingers crawl through the crack between the back and the bottom of your seat, they scuttle, they sneak until they are pulling at the denim waistband of your new jeans. Brushing at the peach fuzz of skin, that exposed sliver between waistband and t-shirt.

The first time you thought it would stop there, it was an accident, you told yourself as your breath caught in your chest. It was just so dirty. So wrong. So - you just wanted to go home and curl up in bed and never get out. But then it happened again.

The pads of his fingers stroke at your skin, not in a caressing way, more in a seeking way. They slither down under the waistband of your jeans, past denim, and belt loops, and leather patches that say Levi. They keep going. They find the cotton, the elastic band, the fabric of your underwear.

You don’t know if he would have gone further. You’ll wonder about this as you get older. What would’ve happened if you hadn’t tilted your pelvis forward? If you hadn’t started sitting on your hands, stuffing sweatshirts behind you into the crack between seat parts? Would he have stopped or was the underwear his aim – his vengeance for your Halloween trick-or-treat song? Him trying to make good on the threat you never fulfilled.

You’ll wonder if you should say something. If you should have said something? When you get older you’ll think maybe, but that first time he whispered in your ear ever so softly and you couldn’t speak. “Empty threat,” he whispered, “empty threat.”


One of your forbidden older kid books is called Speak. It’s about a girl your brother’s age, fourteen, a ninth grader. She goes to a party with her friends and this senior guy rapes her. It’s called date rape. You read it. You are fascinated by it. In the book Melinda, that’s the main character, she tries to swallow up her lips. They become chapped and blistered, like they’ve been stitched up, like she’s not even allowed to speak, her own body won’t let her.

You wonder about it. About what makes things right and about what makes them wrong. You think about Jeffrey. It’s definitely not rape. You know that. It’s not really even wrong. It just happens. So you don’t say anything.

You make up conversations. You pretend to talk to your Mom, but it’s all really just silence. You can’t even begin to imagine what it is you would say. Your mother loves Jeffrey. Jennifer is her best friend. It’s not really anything anyway. It just happens. You let it happen. So you don’t say anything.

You reread Speak. It makes you cry. In that good way, where salt water seeps out until your whole body feels cleansed, refreshed, good as new in that want to hug a teddy bear and fall asleep listening to ocean waves kind of way.

Crying is good.


It becomes a routine. You are an inclined plane. You are a thick stone wall. You are a raging fire that never goes out, an eternal flame. It’s a fascination of his maybe, you tell yourself. Maybe he is just fascinated by the elastic bands of girl’s cotton panties. Maybe he secretly yearns to be an underwear designer. Maybe it’s all an accident, maybe it’s in your head, maybe it’s normal, maybe, maybe…maybe it’s your own fault. Maybe you are an empty threat.

His fingers are cold, they raise goose pimples on your skin, on the band of your lower back. They dip beneath the top of your pants, your skirt, your jeans, searching searching, until they find the cotton, the elastic band of your underwear and pull. Not a hard pull, like when your brother gives you what he’s deemed the “atomic wedgie” but a soft pull, a wiggling pull. You squirm.

“Empty threat,” he whispers, hot breath clouding your right ear.

“Stop,” you hiss, just this once, maybe he’ll listen. He keeps pulling, wiggling, his fingers climbing down where they don’t belong, shouldn’t have been in the first place.

“Stop!” you hiss again, this time louder.

“Carly! Jeffrey! Stop messing around back there,” Jennifer snaps, her voice a whip, ricocheting off of the sloped ceiling of the van. Outside the sky has turned navy blue.

“Stop,” you say again, through grid-locked teeth. You don’t want Jennifer to hear. But she does.

“What did I say?”

“Mom, he’s obviously doing something she doesn’t like...Jeff stop!” Rebecca issues the command, her neck swivels around, her long brown braid slapping at the side of her face. She glares over your head towards Jeffrey. His fingers relax, withdraw. She still has no idea.

You sit on your hands. Wait for home.

When you get there you pull your backpack down after you, listening to its wheels kerplunk down onto the cracked asphalt.

“Thanks for the ride,” you say, like you do every week. You cross in front of the car, dragging your backpack, punch in the garage code, and wait as the door glides up. Jennifer backs out of the driveway, her headlights spotlighting you like two balls of fire, of ceaseless energy staring you down. You go inside.


At dance class you count the number of pleas you do at the ballet barre. You stand all in a line, mirror images of one another in black leotards and pink tights and pulled back hair in different lengths and colors of ponytail. Your skirt is purple. You tug at it until it sits in the right place on your hips, the gap between ends of it fluttering down on your right thigh. One hundred. That’s how many pleas.

Knees to your neighbors. Out over your toes. Heels pressed together, like they’re kissing, that’s what they told you when you were little, just learning first position. Your knees crackle. It sounds almost like the last few kernels in a bag of microwave popcorn bursting into buttery goodness as you rise from your last plea.

You wonder. What if you wore your leotard under your school clothes next Tuesday? What would he do? Would he stop or just shrug, keep going?

You decide not to wear your leotard. How would you explain it to your mother? That next Tuesday you sit on your hands again.


Jeffrey falls during the roller skating unit in gym class. You don’t see it, but you imagine that the cause was the top of your roller blade turned up to the ceiling, soaking up halogen rays, tripping him as he skidded by. You imagine him air-born, slow motion, arms wind milling through the air, mouth ohing out in a deep throated scream and then SLAM! Down onto the hard waxed surface of the wooden planked gymnasium floor.

You can feel the cool wintery air rushing in from the blue metal doors that lead outside. The gym teachers believe that freezing to death is better than sweating, and that all students should have to know what frostbite feels like before ever reaching the ninth grade, no sweatpants allowed, doors open. Maybe it’s a science experiment...does sweat crystalize when exposed to extreme temperatures?

Jeffrey breaks both arms. He’s in two blue fiberglass casts, his arms bent inwards at right angles. He has to wear his puffy blue winter coat over his shoulders like a cape.
On the way home from Hebrew school that Tuesday you sit in your seat normally. You lean your head against the cool glass of the window and watch streetlights flash by in yellowy blurs.

A few months later the casts come off.

You are an inclined plane.