Pthe fire

*trigger warning: sexual assault  

FUEL – 21 yro

The meeting has quickly begun to spiral downwards as the lines behind both microphones continue to grow. My legs shake and and my mind whirls as I try to gather all of my thoughts in the margins of the of the agenda package. People around me are growing uneasy, aware of the mounting tension as the room begins to divide itself. Camps and groups form until you can almost predict what each person is going to say as soon as they get up to the podium. For example, the girl in the aggie jacket is going to tell us to think about all the money saved and the residence representative behind her will discuss the importance of accountability. Although I suppose I am no different.

Having finally had enough, I rush out of my seat into the sea of people waiting for their turn to speak. The line is long but first time speakers are always prioritized. This is beneficial for me for the moment but it also means that getting a second chance really isn’t an option. Trying to get back up to the microphone is significantly harder the second time around so you have to be prepared. Friends around me who know the rules push me forward, excited to hear another voice cry out with them. I approach the microphone and the chair calls me forward to speak. The student waiting to speak right at the podium looks at me, confused, as I move for his position. I apologize even though we both know that it is out of my control and I am not really that sorry. He reluctantly moves out of the way and I take my position. I smile warmly at my target audience and all but two clearly take the bait. They have seen this too many times before to be fooled by false warmth. My smile only grows as I see their distaste. 

“Hello folks, my name is Olivia and I am the representative for the Guelph Resource Centre for Gender Empowerment and Diversity – who does use a non-hierarchal structure by the way and is also full of great people.” A possible unnecessary reference to an earlier statement (that I am sure almost no one cared about) strengthens me none the less. I am still shaking but my mind is finally clear, as if all needed was the microphone in front of me. 

“My largest concern is that these changes really seem like an attempt to depoliticize the union – and I mean it’s a student union so…” I let the sentence hang in the air as a group behind me laughs and cheers. I laugh for a moment as well – unable to help myself, but it comes out shaky. I take a breath: “These efforts are dangerous and harmful to the students and the association. We need elected executives to advocate for students and these changes only make it harder.” People clap and nod but I can also see the disagreement in the room like its tangible. Eyes roll and heads shake and their disbelief enrages me.

“One glaring example of this is the complete removal of anti-oppression from all of the job portfolios. Inclusivity and accessibility and not the same thing and does not call for the same amount of work and unlearning. To say that this is the same is not only ignorant but it also contradicts any reasons for this change. Removing anti-oppression because of ‘discomfort’ is actively prioritizing the feelings of those in power at the expense of marginalized groups. Anti-oppression will always be uncomfortable but it is necessary work and integral to student advocacy.” The support is much more universal, and for a moment I feel truly hopeful.

“I ask that you consider all of the changes in this re-structuring and urge you to vote against this proposal. Thank you.” I step back from the microphone as people applaud and cheer once again. My hands shake as I flee to the back of the room where my friends are. I feel their kindness and support wrap around me and allow myself some ignorant bliss. But my hopes and adrenaline come crashing down in perfect unison as voice after voice calls out in unadulterated support. People imploring us to think of the money saved, the ‘accountability boost’ and ‘new’ ability to focus on ‘real issues’. They suggest that we put out faith in those in power because they truly have our best interests at heart.

The vote comes to quickly. It is a strategic move, they know that they have the votes. We have to count twice to be sure, but the vote passes.   

WITNESS – 16yro

The night is especially dark, the lack of street lights becoming extremely apparent. The city never prepared me for this level of darkness. A few others from big cities are still caught up in stars they barely knew existed, but I have a new discovery to focus on. Lives unfold and weave together in front of me and I am fascinated. I have been surrounded by the same people my entire life and these people are new and fresh and full of amazing things.

We are dancing down the street – young, blissful, and ignorant – cementing our identities as tourists on this land. If the locals are disrupted by our behavior we don’t even realize, too wrapped in our own world. The lack of music doesn’t seem to bother anyone – some people sing or chant, but most just dance without rhythm or care. By the time we reach the beach plans are being made and people are already beginning to split up. Anxiety bubbles up in my stomach and I try to pretend it’s not there. Almost everyone is tired from the long dance home and we all have an early morning tomorrow. But I can’t sleep. My head clear and my heart is pumping and I need to move. The sand under my feet is sharp and uneven so I walk along the water’s edge for relief. I scan the vast, unending, terrifying ocean meeting with the dark sky and something flickers in the corner of my eye. My attention is immediately drawn to a bright light in the distance. A huge bonfire burns on the far end of the beach. A few groups have stayed behind on the beach, but I know exactly who else needs to see this.  

I call to Christian and Alyssa and then we are running. It is senseless, but we know this – laughing and trying to catch our breath as we run. The distance is somewhat larger than I had anticipated but we never stop or falter. I can already feel the heat coming of the fire as we approach. The flames reach high into the air, touching the stars above our heads. When we finally reach the our destination I can barely breathe. The clear feeling from my head is gone, replaced by a dizzy adrenaline. For a moment we just stand there, each unsure of what to do next. The night is warm but we sit by the fire anyway, happy to bask in the glow. One person comes and goes from the fire, clearly checking in, but we don’t interact with them. We don’t really interact with each other either, just sitting starring into the fire. Eventually we head back to the house slowly, now exhausted. Collapsing on to the beach, we sit facing the ocean. A rotting log supports our backs as we sit facing the ocean. 

It has been two weeks since we arrived in Belize but it is only now that I feel like I am here. The sand under me and the ocean swaying before me keep me grounded. I am at ease. Finally. Christian and Alyssa are still excited about the bonfire, but discussion quickly moves onto other topics. I tell them things I have never told anyone. I share with them more than I have with anyone else. I tell them as much, which surprises them – I have barely told them anything. They don’t understand just how private I am, and how much this means to me.

IGNITE – 8 yro

I don’t want to be here. I shouldn’t be here. There are few things I know innately in my young life, but I know this. Something is wrong here. It’s too dark, the small ‘window’ in the corner is covered and I can only see a bright white outline. I have to stop looking at it, the sole brightness burning my eyes. When I turn away I can barely see what’s in front of me, the light making the dark seem so much darker. The two figures in front of me are vastly different but I can barely see them in the darkness. I have known one of them almost my entire life, but the other is largely new to me. He is older than both of us and his 15 year old body is still lanky and disproportionate. But even sitting he easily towers over the both us and in the darkness his presence only feels larger. They are asking me questions now but I don’t answer them. I don’t think I am supposed to answer them. I don’t think they are supposed to ask me these questions. Instead I focus on the only other source of light, just peeking through the bottom of the door. Sunlight illuminates a thin rectangle just in front of the door. The little bit of light exposes the concrete floor covered in blue and green paint splatters but little else. An ant crawls just out of sight, engulfed in the darkness. 

They are getting frustrated, I can hear it in their voices. I focus on the post supporting me, feel the rough wood under my fingers and the parts where the blue paint chips. Or maybe this one is green? I stare into the darkness but I can barely make out the post itself, let alone the color. He yells something and I jump but I don’t say anything. I don’t know what to say and the dread just keeps building. I look to the other boy and I can just make out his eyes. I muster every ounce of pleading I have and aim it at him hoping he understands whats happening. I want to scream at him to do something, but I can’t. I can’t even make a sound.

I stare at him and he eventually breaks my gaze and turns to the boy beside him. He is whispering something and I am straining so hard to hear what it is. The sounds of summer over-power him and all I hear is birds and waves and laughter floating up from the lake. Sounds that I would much rather be listening to. But they won’t stop whispering and I don’t know what to do, the noise blocks my mind and I can’t think. The darkness starts feeling heavy and the humidity is thick in the air and each breath sticks in my lungs.

And then he stands up. 

I look in his eyes again hoping to see some clue as to what he is doing, hoping for one last shot. He meets my eyes for only a moment and then quickly averts my gaze. My whole body pulses as he opens the door looking back only once. The light illuminates his young face and dread washes over me. As he closes the door I know for certain now what is happening.

And then he locks the door.

From the outside.

My ears are ringing and the brief exposure to light makes me blind in the dark. I run for the door unsure of what my plan is but needing to move. Needing to finally take action. I cry out only once as he grabs from behind. His arms are so long that he doesn’t even have to get up, I barely make it a foot before he drags me back. He tosses me on to the bed next to him and all I can think about how old I know this mattress is. I know that it doesn’t matter, especially now, but it fills my brain and I can’t ignore it. I wonder if there is any way to keep my skin from touching the mattress. He only pushes me deeper into the mattress as he climbs on top of me and I can feel old coils digging into my shoulders. 

He covers my mouth with one hand.

The other clumsily moves across my body. They both feel clammy and warm and his body feels hot on top of me. My throat is constricting and my eyes sting and the stickiness in my lungs is only getting worse. I don’t want to be here. I shouldn’t be here.  

He takes my body as his.

He sets my body and soul aflame and changes me in a way that he may never understand. I feel a part of me die. But another part has been ignited. The fire he set will never go out.  

Not for a moment.

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