Phantoms

She hurried down the street, glancing anxiously over her shoulder intermittently. Her breath fogged the chilly night air before disappearing into the shadows, like a ghost.

The road behind her was empty, no cars or people in sight. But as she turned away again, the undeniable urge to turn around returned.

This was a bad idea, she realized. Her heart pounded in her chest, and her quick breath left a silvery cloud trailing behind her, a misty veil.

Ahead, one of the tall streetlights flickered uncertainly, humming loudly in protest as it fought back against the invading darkness. When she reached it, the light flashed brightly before disappearing.

Blinded, she groped in the darkness. Her hands found the rusted pole, and she clung to the cold metal with all her strength. In the distance, a car alarm whined loudly, screaming its warning through the desolate city streets.

The streetlight flickered to life weakly above her, and it illuminated the menacing faces in the shadows, the faces she always hoped to escape.

She remembered each of them—their handsome faces and expensive clothes, the Greek letters embroidered across their chests. She was an ignorant freshman, flattered by their attention.

They followed her when she left. She didn't hear them until it was too late.

The rough metal under her hand burned like gravel that grated against her back as they pressed her into the ground in that filthy alley.

The sound of her labored breathing reminded her of their frenzied excitement as they took turns above her.

The knot of emotion building in her throat was the same one that silenced and paralyzed her as they raped her, again and again.

She pressed her eyes closed as a stifled sob escaped her throat.

"Are you okay, lady?" a voice asked, breaking her nightmare's stranglehold.

She forced her eyes open and glanced around frantically. At first, she was afraid. The man was tall and intimidating, dressed like the thugs that occupied the street corners. His pale face was shadowed by a red ball cap. He removed the hat as he stepped out of the tattoo parlor, flipping off the neon sign hanging above the door. The streetlight glinted faintly off his assorted piercings.

She could only see concern in his eyes.

"I'm—I'm fine," she lied. Her voice was strained, broken.

"You need help? I can call a taxi for you," he said. He was clearly skeptical.

"No, thank you." She smiled tightly.

He shrugged and locked the door behind him, walking past her in the direction she had come. She took a shaky breath, and it felt tight in her lungs. It was too soon, too soon. She loosened her hands from the pole, and they ached painfully from the frigid cold.

The doctor said the memories would fade, the fears subside. But she was haunted by their dark faces, cowled in shadow.

She forced one foot in front of the other. The darkness pressed in around her, heavy and thick. If there was light ahead, she couldn't see it. Her hope had disappeared into nothing, like the men who had stolen it from her. But for this night, she would abide the shadows and resist the phantoms lurking in wait for her.

Each step, each breath, one at a time. An icy inhale, and then its warm exhale. She hurried along the empty street, trailed by her silvery breath and her nightmares.

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Written for the Review Game's January Writing Challenge Contest. Review the other entries and vote for your favorite between the 8th and the 14th.