It’s almost Halloween and the guesthouse owner has embraced the season with a ghoulish fervour, but it’s clear we have different perspectives on creepy. I tiptoe past pumpkins, a scarily unconvincing cat, waft past webs of spiders, store-bought rather than spun from neglect in my normal haunts.
This is not a hotel in a hostile environment, or a makeshift camp on the edge of an earthquake zone. It’s not the kind of place I frequent on foreign trips. But it is still far from home.
Here, the walls are hung with pastel paintings of pioneer country, and the owner greets me like a long-lost friend, not a stranger speaking a language we should, but don’t quite, share.
‘Hello darl’, she swoons.
‘How can I help you?’ It’s as if she is awaiting many guests, many answers to that question. I lower my bag, but not my guard.
Experience has taught me there are almost always monsters in the shadows, but at least here they are in the open.
I’ve been invited to give a talk at a media school in America’s mid-west, and share my experiences of being a female journalist on the frontline. This State was once pioneer country and I’m struggling with how a woman working in a war zone might be seen as charting new territory.
But right now, the only path I’m charting is to bed. We walk by wooden witches, ghostly garnishes, fish bowls full of yellow and orange candy corn. Welcome signs on the wall weave a spell at odds with my anxiety as the owner points out my bedroom’s direct access to the garden. Even with the jetlag, I remember journalism risk assessments recommend against ground-floor accommodation, noting their easy access for predators.
My guide spirited away, I lock the door, slip beneath a dense duvet and into dreams. In sleep, I find stories for which I have no words by day, find faces I try to forget, voices calling for help. I am trapped, unable to talk too. My teeth fall from my mouth like candy corn into a fish bowl.
Duvet and dream-twisted, I drag myself into day, haunted by horrors I will still not speak.
After years of suppressing my own traumatic experiences, I am starting to wobble. But right now, I have not surfaced the words to tell my own truths. I forge on, pushing down the pain. Even with the eggs sunny side up, breakfast brings no respite and I rush to flush down memories with copious caffeine before it’s time to head to campus.
At the university, the man who has invited me here introduces me to his colleagues. He is like an elderly scientist, cautious in his introductions, and we make small talk, as one by one they peer from their glass offices, like animals emerging from burrows. I watch them retreat, remember the times I’ve hid too, moving faster than they do, seeking shelter from gunfire or the ground shaking, and those times I’ve not been able to retreat. I remind myself this is not a hostile environment. I try to not think about how glass shatters when shot. On one door, there’s a poster of me and I feel part celebrity, part sitting duck, shiver with the air con and anticipation.
At the door to the lecture theatre, there’s a soldier with a gun. I’m used to seeing weapons in war zones, but this is a bit weird. Still, campus shootings are a thing in conservative America so I don’t mind his presence. And when he tells me where he served and I share my conflict credentials, I finally feel understood. Before I can ask more about what he’s really doing here, I’m told it’s my time and we part with a smile shared of experiences unspoken.
There is nothing to worry about here. This is not the Congo, or Haiti or Libya, or any of the places I have been shot at, sabotaged, sexually assaulted. It’s a place I am safe, where I have a platform to share this privilege, to show women can hold places alongside our male colleagues. This is the message I give.
It’s only later that I realise I am wrong. There are no glass doors in the room we retire to after the lecture. There, my host tells me the university received a threat, targeted at someone teaching at the time I taught. He tells me I was the only person scheduled then. He says it as if that somehow makes me special. He tells me the student who made the threats had made sexist comments in class, that the university knew to take it seriously after he called the City rather than the Campus Cops.
He tells me not to worry because the bad guy has been taken in and he says that’s why the soldier was there. He tells me there was no sense in telling me sooner and thanks me for my speech. I want to ask him what right he thinks he has to make a risk assessment on my behalf when I’m supposed to be the expert on women on the frontline. But I have no more words.
He tells me all this again that evening over cold beers with his colleagues, in an outside bar where I hear these male professors try to normalise my experience as if this place has not suddenly become a new frontline and I wonder if my drama will soon become mere decoration.
Beer does not numb their bullshit, and no matter the bottles I drink, the spectres of this experience will linger. Later, after packing my bags, I open the bedroom door to the garden, ready to go. On the porch is a ghost. I wonder if it’s meant for me or the man who might have hurt me. No matter its meaning, I know long after I leave, this horror story will haunt me.
Hannah Storm writes flash and creative non fiction. Her work has been recognised in Best Microfictions, the BIFFY 50 and placed second at the Bath Flash Fiction Award. Her debut flash collection is published this year by Reflex Fiction and she has recently completed her memoir. When she’s not writing, Hannah works in media and as a mental health advocate. Her Twitter handle is @hannahstorm6.