Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, California is crowded with people. They stride by easily, hair whipping in the nippy breeze. I stand on the deck, and feel the wooden planks creak beneath the soles of my joggers as I shift my weight from one foot to the other. I put my palms on the railing, leaning forwards slightly to get a better look. Below, the sea lions lie sprawled out, a chain of thick, shining dark metal-grey bodies.
The sun keeps playing a game of hide-and-seek with the clouds. When it peeks out of the layer of fluffy white, the sea lions seem to glow brighter. Their large exteriors seem to glisten hotly under the sun, the shine intensifying. As the sun is obscured again, a dim gloom falls, and the sea lions appear as a darker mass that is close to black. I stare avidly. I’ve never in my entire life seen creatures that look like these. They fascinate me; I can’t tear my eyes away. They’re disgusting and blubbery and mesmerizing all at the same time. The air reeks with their heavy stink. There are so many; I’m in awe at the number. I’ve never seen even one sea lion before. Seeing dozens and dozens of them flopping before me languidly, as though they have nothing to do but lounge lazily forever, is amazing.
The smell is irritating my mother and my siblings. They move off the pier, and I follow reluctantly, stealing a last glance. We go to In-N-Out burger, slide into booths and eat hungrily. Out of all the new fast food chains I’ve recently tried in America, In-N-Out is my least favourite. The buns aren’t as soft as I prefer, nor the beef as juicy. Wiping our fingers, we exit and start walking outside. Night has fallen, and the air is chilly. My father calls to say that he has left his office and will pick us up from Fisherman’s Wharf in fifteen minutes.
We’ve walked a good portion of the way before my brother declares that he needs to use the toilet urgently. My mother sighs in frustrated exasperation at the thought of trotting all the way back, but she knows they have no choice. My brother isn’t one of those people who can control their bladders for extended periods of time. I can, though. It’s a capability that’s been tried and tested on several occasions, for I refuse to use public toilets unless they are absolutely sparkling clean.
“Your father will be here soon. He’s expecting us, and there’s no point in all of us walking all the way back. You and Ayzal stay here and get in the car when he comes,” she instructs. “Tell him Zoran and I will be back in twenty minutes.”
I nod my head, though I feel a bit nervous. At the age of twelve, I wasn’t a very confident girl. Standing alone on a deserted pavement in the middle of a blustery night with my ten-year old sister scared me. I didn’t even have a cell phone. But my mother is already turning back, walking away without giving me a chance to voice my concerns. I stand there, hugging myself, numb fingers digging deep into the pockets of my jacket.
There is a waist-length pole nearby. Bored, my sister latches onto it, clambering atop and spinning herself in slow circles. There is nothing driving her movements except the feeling of boredom, and the restlessness to do something. A homeless African-American man lurches up, looming up and springing out of the darkness like some kind of perverse Jack-in-the-box, as though scooped up and conjured from thin air. His shoulder-length hair is greasy, his clothes creased and spotted with mud, his eyes red and bloodshot. I’m properly terrified.
His squinty eyes focus on my sister as she spins away, oblivious. “You’re gonna want more of that, honey!” he calls out harshly. “When you’re older. Trust me, you gonna want some.”
My sister looks at him blankly. She is only ten and she has no idea what he is talking about. But I do. This man is referring to sex. He’s referring to the women who twine their legs around poles and grind against them.
He stumbles forward blearily, his mouth pulled back into a leering grin. “How old are you anyways? Not so little. Nuh-uh. I can see little titties. I can see ’em.”
It feels like all my nightmares have come true at once. Every horror I’ve ever dreamed has morphed together into a grotesque bubble, trapping me and my sister inside effectively. There is nobody around. The darkness swallows me, the night engulfing until the only thing that is left is this man, my sister and I. We are shrouded together in a veil of black. The entire world shrinks down to this moment, right here, right now. I wish I had a cell phone, I wish I had a cell phone. My heart is hammering. I want to call 911, and tell them there is a man harassing us, but I can’t because I don’t have a cell phone. If he attacks my sister, I will not be able to push him off.
A man and a woman walk by quickly, glancing at us. I glare at them. Too afraid to speak, I will them with my eyes to look at us, to realize something is wrong and help us. I plead with them through my pupils. I can’t tell if they understand or not. But they don’t stop, and they’re gone, gone, fading away into the open jaws of the endless night. The hope of being rescued by someone flickers inside my breast and dies.
Ayzal inches towards me. Out of the corner of her mouth, she whispers, “What do we do?” I look at her. Our eyes meet. Grabbing her by the arm, I suddenly propel her forwards with me.
“Run!” I scream, and we dash down the street faster than we’ve ever sprinted before in our lives. We don’t look back to see if he is following us, because neither of us has the courage to turn our heads. Our feet slap against the pavement, hard and fast, as we speed in the direction of the In-N-Out burger joint, not slowing down until we’ve pushed open the door and sunk into the softness of its yellow glowing interior.