illustrations by ana carolina maciel

Local Hero “Plunger Girl” Becomes Rallying Figure for Fighting Violence Against Women

[Katherine Johns, Northwest Post]

Crystal Valley attorney Sandra White never imagined that she’d become an Internet sensation. When alleged attacker Philip Hoffman appeared in her office, she’d had just one thought: how she and her fellow office mates would survive.

 

By now, you’ve probably heard of how Hoffman reportedly went on a rampage, attacking four women in the small town of Crystal Valley with a wrench before confronting White in her office bathroom. There, he found himself outmatched by an unlikely weapon: a simple toilet plunger.

“I just didn’t have anything else handy,” White replied when asked about her choice of weapon. “I wanted to carry some pepper spray with me in the office, but, you know, they never make women’s pants pockets big enough to hold anything, and it’s a little ridiculous to carry your purse everywhere you go in your own office.”

White disabled Hoffman by shoving the handle of the plunger into his stomach, knocking the air from his lungs and allowing her to escape. Unfortunately, her two officemates, Sally Andrews and Angela Miles, were not quite as lucky. White says she found them in their cubicles, bloody and unable to move. This prompted her to retrieve her pepper spray from her desk drawer, using it to protect herself and the two women in the office when it became apparent the attacker was not fully disabled. Fortunately, police arrived on the scene moments later to apprehend the suspect and assist the women to medical treatment.

Motives for Hoffman’s alleged attacks are still unclear as police continue to investigate the matter. White, however, has postulated her own theories.

“I think he thought that women would be easy targets,” she said when she returned to her office the following week. “But women aren’t easy targets anymore. I think we’re sick of being victims. And it doesn’t matter what we have, whether it’s pepper spray, or a toilet plunger, or just our own words. I think, no matter what, we’re going to fight back.”

Since the original report of the attack surfaced, the resulting news stories have been shared across social media platforms hundreds of thousands of times. The story has also spawned a number of Photoshopped images, in which White appears on a Rosie the Riveter background, altered so that she is holding a toilet plunger aloft. It has become the profile image for several popular feminist social media pages, and is already one of the most viral Internet memes to come out of 2019.

“I can’t believe you’re, like, Internet famous now,” my friend Meaghan said as we settled back into the comfortable chairs at the salon, tapping some buttons on the remote to start the massage cycles. I sighed, closing my eyes and dipping my feet into the warm, bubbling water in the tub below me.

“Yeah,” I mumbled, feigning disinterest. Truth be told, I was enjoying the attention, but too ashamed to admit it. Sally and Angela were still in rough shape. It felt wrong to bask in the limelight while they were still suffering from post-concussion episodes. But I couldn’t help imagining the possibilities. I was getting my fifteen minutes of fame. How would I use it? Book deals? A movie? I tried not to get carried away, thinking about it. It was just one article in the local paper, after all. Aside from the super viral Internet meme, of course. Oh, and the TV interview. Just those things.

“Oh, come on,” she chided me. I opened my eyes and glanced back over at her. She had a mimosa in one hand, the other one tended by a harried-looking manicurist. “Business has got to be off the charts.”

I glanced around. The only people nearby were the manicurists, and they were talking quietly between themselves, ignoring us while they worked on our feet and hands.

“Well,” I drawled, stalling, but unable to hide my smile. “It’s going to be a good quarter.”

Meaghan’s smile wrinkled her nose and she giggled, raising her mimosa in a toast. “Well, well, well. Look at you, Plunger Girl.”

I raised my own cocktail to clink glasses. “I have to admit, it has been kind of exciting,” I said, taking a sip of my drink. “I’m doing an interview with Big News in a couple days, they’re flying me out for it.”

“Seriously?” Meaghan exclaimed. “Damn, girl. You’re gonna need your own publicist soon.”

I allowed myself another smile. “It’s kind of a weird name, though,” I added, shaking my head.

“Yeah, it wouldn’t have been my first choice,” Meaghan admitted. “Now you’re forever going to be associated with a bathroom implement.”

I grimaced, sipping my vodka and orange juice as I tried to ignore what was going on in the vicinity of my feet. Pedicures always made me feel so ticklish.

“Um, hi, excuse me?”

Meaghan and I turned to find a small group of young women approaching from the other side of the salon. There were three of them, one of them a slim brunette who seemed to be their appointed leader.

“Hi,” she repeated, giving me a shy smile. “Um, did you say… are you Plunger Girl?” she asked, eyes lighting up.

“Oh, uh,” I fumbled, caught off-guard. “Well… yeah, I guess I am.” I grinned ruefully, embarrassed. “I haven’t, really… I mean, nobody’s really recognized me out and about before, I guess.”

The young women all exchanged looks and giggled. They could not have been more than twenty.

“That is so cool,” the leader said, shushing her other two friends. “We saw your story and stuff, it’s really cool how you stopped that guy. Um, hey, could we maybe get a picture with you?”

I looked over at Meaghan, who rolled her eyes at me and laughed, taking another swig of her mimosa. “Yeah, okay, little miss celebrity. Here, do you want me to take it for you?”

To the mild annoyance of the manicurists, the women clustered around me, smiling like movie stars as Meaghan swapped out their phones, getting a handful of pictures each. I felt outclassed, wearing a salon robe with my feet in a soaking bath, but they seemed happy.

Meaghan shook her head at me as the three women departed, all of them laughing as they examined the pictures on their phone screens.

“Ugh, you’re so lucky,” she muttered, watching as they left. “Most people would kill for this kind of free publicity.”

Two days later, I wiped my sweaty palms on my pants for the tenth time as I stood off to the side of the sound stage, waiting for my cue to slide into the guest seat next to where the talk show host, “Evening Jeff,” operated behind his desk. His blond co-host – Mina? Mira? – sat next to him, scrolling through something on an iPad she was holding. I watched everything in a bemused sort of daze. How could anyone tell what was going on? At least three people had whisked past me in the last thirty seconds, all of them appearing to have animated conversations with themselves. I shifted from foot to foot and tried to walk the fine line between staying out of the way and not getting lost in the shuffle.

“Plunger Girl,” a woman materialized at my side, causing me to jump out of my skin.

“Um, yeah,” I mumbled, smoothing my pants again and trying to recover some dignity.

“You’re up, come on,” she said, putting a hand on my elbow and guiding me to the guest chair.

Jeff gave me a perfunctory nod as they settled me in, equipping me with a microphone that clipped to my shirt. The man who had done my hair and makeup emerged out of nowhere, making me jump. He ignored my startled reaction, giving my blond locks a quick spritz and final scrunch, and swiping a little extra powder onto Jeff’s face before vanishing as enigmatically as he had arrived. I sat, staring into the bright studio lights, frozen solid.

“Hey,” a woman’s voice brought me out of my daze. I looked over at her – Mira, that was her name, I was sure of it now. She smiled at me reassuringly. “We talked, remember? We’ll stick to what we went over together. You’re gonna be fine.”

I felt a knot loosen in my chest and gave her an answering smile. Jeff glanced between us, then looked up as someone wearing an important-looking headset started gesturing. I followed his gaze and saw a hand counting down: five, four, three, two…

“Alright, well, you may have heard of her,” Jeff announced as his face reappeared on a couple of monitors positioned around the sound stage. I quickly looked away before I got absorbed in reading the headlines. I didn’t need to be distracted, especially if they were showing my face any second now. I hated how I looked on camera. “Sandra White, an attorney from Crystal Valley, Illinois, now the latest Internet sensation, Plunger Girl, after surviving an attack at her office two weeks ago and disabling her attacker with none other than… a toilet plunger. Welcome, Sandra.”

illustrations by ana carolina maciel

Jeff turned to me, and I felt my jitters melt a little more. It was just a conversation, that’s all. It just happened to have a bunch of cameras around it. “Thanks Jeff, Mira,” I said smoothly, pleased with how professional I sounded. “Good to be here.” Not the most original line in the world, but following a certain rote seemed to soothe my nerves.

“So, did you ever wake up one day and think you’d have that kind of nickname, ‘Plunger Girl?’” Jeff asked, shooting me a dazzling, white-toothed grin.

“Definitely not,” I replied, laughing. “I’m just as surprised as anybody.”

“I’ll bet,” Mira chimed in with an answering smile. “Why do you think your story has garnered so much attention?”

I relaxed further, feeling my shoulders loosen. While I was far from rehearsed, Mira and I had talked for several minutes that afternoon, discussing possible questions and giving me a chance to mull them over before the segment. This was an easy one.

“I think part of it has to do with how unusual it is,” I answered. “I mean, it’s not every day a wrench-wielding maniac gets disarmed by a woman with a toilet plunger.”

Jeff and Mira both chuckled as if on cue, and I continued. “But I think the other part of it is because it’s empowering. I mean, here you have this guy, he was specifically targeting women in the area. He attacked five of us– two women the night before on the jogging trail, and then the three of us at my office. But he didn’t get away with it, because we fought back, and I don’t think he was expecting that.”

“A number of—“ Mira started to speak, but Jeff spoke up, cutting her off.

“Why did you use a plunger, anyway?” Jeff asked.

I glanced between the two of them, caught off-guard. Mira’s expression was mostly serene, but I caught a hint of agitation in her eyes. I hesitated before replying.

“I got cornered in the bathroom,” I answered, trying not to shift uncomfortably in my chair. We had not really discussed the attack itself; recalling specific details from it still caused me to flinch. “It was the only thing within reach, other than a toilet paper roll.”

“And I guess you probably wouldn’t want a nickname like Toilet Paper Girl,” Jeff said, glancing between me and the camera with a smirk. I squinted at him, feeling my temper spark somewhere in my gut. Was he mocking me? Before I could pursue the thought, he continued, “But the police said you had some pepper spray, too, didn’t they?”

I frowned, glancing over at Mira before replying. “I had some in my desk. I got it after I escaped from the bathroom, so I could make sure he couldn’t hurt my co-workers again before the police got there.”

“He definitely deserved a face full of it,” Jeff commented, leaning back in his chair with a practiced kind of nonchalance. “I hope you really let loose on him.”

I held myself still, but I wanted to look away, clear my throat, and shift awkwardly. This was not part of what we’d talked about. Anyone with a law degree – which “Evening Jeff” had, just like half the cable news anchors at any television station – knew better than to ask these kinds of questions with a court case pending. My shoulders tensed up again, and an uncharacteristic anger made my face feel warm. Who did this guy think he was?

Mira gave Jeff a look before speaking up. “A number of feminist social media presences have picked up on your story, helping to popularize the meme and holding it up as a sign of the times, fighting back against people who would commit violence against women. Do you have any plans to work more with those organizations to promote that kind of message?”

I felt incrementally better as I focused on Mira, giving her the same answers we had discussed off-stage. As the interview progressed, Jeff interjected periodically, talking over both of us in a way that caused me to stumble a few times. Each time he spoke, I felt my vision darken just a bit more. By the time the segment was done, my fists were clenched in my lap. I had to restrain myself from backhanding him.

“Good job,” Jeff said in his perfunctory way, glancing at me before looking back to his iPad.

“No thanks to you,” I mumbled, sitting up to allow someone to unclip my microphone. I gave him a dark look.

He glanced at me again before waving a dismissive hand, ignoring the look Mira gave him.

“Thank you,” Mira said pointedly, extending her hand over the desk to me. “You did well. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.”

“Thank you,” I replied, shaking her hand and feeling guilty that I had forgotten her name before. “Thanks for having me. I’m sorry you have to put up with that.”

I gestured at Jeff before one of the production assistants appeared to escort me off the stage, a flurry of activity indicating they were ready to move onto the next segment. Mira shot me another quick smile before I was led away, Jeff still tapping idly on his iPad before he disappeared from view.

Fresh from my flight back from New York, I found some unpleasant messages awaiting me. The first order of business was setting up an appointment with the State’s Attorney. I dreaded it. They would ask for as much detail about the attack as the police had. I was in no hurry to relive the event.

That was why I dragged my feet all the way to their office a full three days after my return, having put them off for as long as I could. A smartly-dressed woman named Erica Zimmerman greeted me; she looked about my age, maybe a year or two younger. We shook hands, a greeting among equals.

“I know you’re probably not looking forward to this,” she said, offering me a sympathetic look as we settled into a small conference room together. I leaned forward on the table, trying not to hunch my shoulders as I held my coffee in front of me like a shield.

“I’m not,” I admitted. “It’s still kind of raw. I know you need to, I just wish the police reports would do for now.”

Erica cleared her throat, obviously feeling awkward at my candor and looking down at her notepad. “Yes, well,” she murmured. “There are just a few things we need to clarify. Can you tell me, in your own words, what you remember from the attack?”

I sighed and settled back into my chair, resigning myself to another recitation of the events that had transpired.

Erica listened thoughtfully as I told the story, jotting down notes, her face impassive. When I finished, we sat quietly for a moment as she looked them over, then glanced at a folder in which I spotted a copy of the police report.

“When you went to get the pepper spray,” she said. “Did it seem like he was about to follow you?”

I thought back, frowning. “I mean, I wasn’t sure, I guess. I didn’t know if he would or not.”

Erica looked back up at me from her notes. “So you went to get the pepper spray, and then you specifically sought him out?” she asked.

I stared back at her, blinking. “I mean, not exactly. I saw Sally in her cubicle, unconscious, and I knew I couldn’t lift her, but I didn’t want to just leave her there.”

“So you went back to where he was?”

“Yes.”

“And you wanted to disable him completely, even though he wasn’t specifically attacking you or the other women in the office at the time?”

I pressed my lips together for a long moment, staring down at the tabletop. “He came at us with a wrench,” I said quietly. “When I went back to make sure he wasn’t able to attack us again, he was getting to his feet.”

I could see Erica out of the corner of my eye, watching me, though I refused to look up at her. She cleared her throat, and I glanced in her direction but did not meet her gaze. “Miss White,” she said. “The defense is going to have a lot of questions of this nature, and I need to make sure I fully understand. Was Mr. Hoffman attacking you when you pepper sprayed him?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

I rubbed a hand across my forehead, then pinched the bridge of my nose and closed my eyes. “It feels like everything happened at once,” I replied. “I got out of the bathroom, and then I saw Sally in her cubicle, face down, with blood on her head. I was scared he would get up and attack her again if I left. She’s in the hospital with a concussion, you know.”

The room fell silent again as Erica jotted down more notes, her brow furrowed. She glanced at the folder again, turning to a different page.

“The medical report says here that he had a punctured ear drum,” she noted. “They had to cleanse a significant amount of the pepper spray out of his ear.” She looked up at me. “Can you comment on that?”

I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from speaking immediately, giving myself time to think. I spoke carefully. “I’d heard about people who can just shake off pepper spray. I had some friends who used to be police officers, or worked in security, and they told stories about people that it just didn’t affect. But I’m not really strong enough to break someone’s knee cap to keep them from walking. I figured, if he couldn’t get his balance, he wouldn’t be able to get up and attack again, and I know your ears play a big part in being able to stand up straight. Vertigo, that sort of thing.”

“Was he attacking you when you sprayed the pepper spray in his ear?” she asked.

I paused. “Miss Zimmerman, do I need to obtain defense counsel?”

Erica lowered her notepad and regarded me across the table. She tapped her pen absently against the paper, pursing her lips. “Miss White, we might have a trial to conduct here,” she said at last. “The more I know about what happened when the suspect was apprehended, the better prepared I am to deal with the Public Defender.”

I frowned at her. “He came at me with a wrench. He attacked four other women besides me. I stopped him from attacking me by using a toilet plunger shoved into his ribs. Then I stopped him from getting up by using pepper spray so he couldn’t do it again.”

Erica leaned forward, propping her elbows up on the table and lowering her voice. “And believe me, there’s a part of me that gives you a standing ovation for that,” she said, meeting my eyes. “But the other part of me has to be ready to deal with the defense attorney. And if he’s going to claim there was excessive force used, I need to know about it so we can decide how to handle that. Everything is a bargaining chip with these people.”

I took a few breaths, drumming my fingers against the tabletop nervously before looking back at her. “I’m sorry, but I can’t continue with this until I’ve talked to a colleague with more experience in this area than I have.”

Erica’s lips pursed in a frown, but, after a moment, she nodded. “I guess I can understand that. Please have them contact me when you’re ready to continue.”

I got up and left, my coffee going cold on the table behind me.

The following weekend, I woke to the chimes of the alarm on my phone. I stretched, reveling in the warm covers, then groped around for the chirping device, lifting it to my face and squinting at the sudden brightness. I swiped the alarm off quickly, then tapped a few icons, rolling onto my side and propping myself up on my elbow as I scrolled idly through my social media feed, yawning as I tried to let my brain wake up.

Bleary-eyed, I pushed my nose closer to the screen, frowning. “What the hell?” I mumbled.

“Plunger Girl Faces Scrutiny Over Possible Excessive Use of Force In Assault Case,” a headline declared. One of my friends had shared it with me, including her own angry emoji-filled commentary on my behalf.

illustrations by ana carolina maciel

I tapped through and skimmed the article, which was only a few short paragraphs. Before I could stop myself, I scrolled to the end and glanced through the comments readers had left.

“I thought she saved everyone with just the toilet plunger, this is lame,” one person had written.

“It’s kind of freaky that we’re all glorifying someone who basically engaged in vigilante justice,” another one read. “She needed to stop attacking the guy when she had him disabled, this is disgusting.”

“Um, hello, the guy was going to kill her with a wrench, I hope she kicked his ass too lol, the guy deserved it.”

“Actually, it does raise questions under the right of self-defense. If she reasonably defended herself the first time, then went back and attacked the guy after a sufficient cooling-down period, and wasn’t just reacting to a further attack from him, she might be guilty of battery in her own right. Plus, it depends on if they view it as reasonable. Even if she was defending herself when she pepper sprayed his face at first, the whole ear thing seems like it might be excessive. Just my two cents as a law student studying crim law.”

“Thanks so much for mansplaining that to me. Would you be questioning what she did if she were male? Probably not. You’d be cheering her on for being manly enough to defend herself. Hypocrites.”

I quickly backed out of the article, skimming the rest of my social media feed. A number of people had shared similar articles with me, each expressing disbelief, annoyance, and anger on my behalf. My friends’ support reassured me, but I felt uneasy. I switched over to my email app, tapping out a quick message to the criminal law attorney I had been consulting with, sending her a link to one of the articles. I crossed my fingers that she would get back to me soon.

A few hours later, I settled in at my office. I knew I would be there for the entire Saturday, catching up on paperwork, so I flipped open my laptop and opened my email. There was no response from my attorney. I hesitated, then opened my social media pages again.

A few more articles with the same types of headlines had popped up. I clicked through the notifications, skimming them. A few people had started coming to my defense, at least, though I was far from comforted. Their primary premise seemed to be that the attacker deserved it, after what he had done. That might work in guiding public opinion, but I knew it would be less than convincing to a judge if the defendant tried to make an issue out of it. I tried to remember what I recalled of self-defense doctrine from my classes. It was no good, though; I had been about as far from criminal law as I could get since I had graduated nearly ten years ago.

“It doesn’t matter,” I mumbled to myself, closing the browser window. My hands twitched, wanting to grab my phone and look at everything on the smaller screen, where it was somehow not quite as bad. But I shook my head, turning my attention determinedly to my work. It didn’t matter if a few people were second-guessing me now; it was bound to happen, and I’d already had some nonsensical hate mail from all of the stupid Internet memes, anyway. But, if I were being honest with myself, this was a little different. People were criticizing me. Criticizing me. For defending myself, when someone had tried to kill me.

The more I thought about it, the more it rankled. But I persevered. I had deadlines to meet, and clients to serve. I dove into my work, immersing myself for several solid hours. I only cheated and checked my phone twice, for about two minutes, before I dragged myself away and forced myself to focus.

I had just about managed to forget about the whole fiasco by the time the end of my work day rolled around. I looked up, rubbing the back of my neck, tired from being hunched over my laptop for several hours. It was still eerily quiet around the office; Sally and Angela hadn’t returned to work yet. I didn’t blame them. I barely wanted to be there myself.

Glancing at the time, I saw it was still a little early. I considered heading back to my place, but on a lark, I grabbed my phone and tapped Meaghan’s number on my screen.

“Hey,” her voice greeted me, sounding a little harried.

“Hey girl,” I replied. “Wanna grab dinner?”

There was a brief pause. “Umm.”

I frowned, hearing her hesitation. “What’s up? Is something wrong?”

“Have you not been online today or something?” she asked.

“What, you mean the articles about the pepper spray thing?” I replied. “That’s just stupid debating, people making a big deal out of nothing. I’m trying not to think about it.”

There was another pause. “I didn’t really see those,” she said after a moment. “I think you need to check the post that Katie tagged you in a couple hours ago.”

I turned back to my laptop, opening my browser and navigating to the dreaded social media site one more time. I had several notifications, and I scrolled through until I found the right one. Katie had posted it to my timeline, with her comment, “Um this isn’t really you is it?” appearing above the headline: “PLUNGER GIRL SYMPATHIZES WITH COLUMBINE SHOOTERS, VICTIM-BLAMES AND CITES BULLYING AS CAUSE OF SCHOOL VIOLENCE.”

I stared, dumbfounded, my mouth hanging open. “Uh. What the hell?”

“Yeah,” Meaghan’s voice came over the phone. “Hey, listen, I gotta go, I can’t go out tonight, ‘kay?”

With that, the phone disconnected. I sat, the headline peering out at me accusingly from my computer screen for several moments before I clicked on it.

Plunger Girl Blog Post Victim-Blames School Shooting Casualties, Suggests Violence is a “Mental Health Issue” [Allison French, Town Tribune]

            Fresh on the heels of achieving social media stardom, recent scrutiny into “Plunger Girl” – who is really Crystal Valley attorney Sandra White – unearthed some disturbing blog content.

            In an undated blog post maintained at Internet relic Geotowns, a web hosting service that was popular from the mid-90’s up until around 2009, Sandra White purportedly sympathized with Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, stating, “There were times I got bullied so badly in middle school that it’s a wonder I didn’t do something similar.” She goes on to write, “When will schools do something about the widespread bullying that takes place throughout the United States today? Maybe if the stupid popular kids had just been a little nicer to the freaks and the outcasts, they[sic] wouldn’t have snapped and gone on a rampage.”

            These sentiments fly in the face of recent analysis focused on the string of school shootings that have occurred in the United States in the last several years. While it’s become a highly politicized issue, there is without a doubt a greater emphasis on curbing gun related violence by controlling the availability of firearms, rather than suggesting the victims themselves are to blame for bringing the violence on themselves.

“I just think it’s a really irresponsible viewpoint to take,” Anna Bennett, gun control activist and survivor of a 2016 school shooting in Alabama states in response. “It’s the same thing as saying a woman was asking for it when she’s sexually assaulted. We’re giving a free pass to white men to commit crimes under the guise of it being a mental health issue, but we’re not giving that same concern to any other demographic.”

In the wake of this recent discovery, a number of vocal feminist groups have taken down the memes in support of White as “Plunger Girl” and have denounced the views expressed in the blog post. It was not clear when the blog post took place, and White was not immediately available for comment. Some analysts have speculated whether this backlash resulted from further scrutiny of White following inquiries into her possible use of excessive force in using pepper spray, sprayed directly into the ear of her attacker, during the incident three weeks ago that spawned her nickname.

“Sandra,” the voice of my attorney came through the phone line.

“Hi, Alysse,” I replied. “Whatcha got for me?”

It had been three days since the damning article from the Town Tribune. It was a struggle to sound jovial, truth be told. I had been trying to do damage control, but I found the Internet to be a difficult place to get heard. For every person who saw my social media posts denouncing my former blog post – a product of my angsty teen years that I’d quickly removed upon its discovery – there were still many more who continued to decry me, either not hearing or not caring about my replies. Worse still, people were cancelling their appointments with me. The flood of new business I’d gotten had changed into a drizzle. Meaghan had also been suspiciously busy and unable to chat for the last few days.

“Well, it’s not great news,” Alysse replied. “Are you sitting down?”

I looked down at my sweatpants clad legs, stretched out in the recliner I had not left since that morning. Getting dressed had seemed a little superfluous, given my lack of clients. “Yep.”

“They’re raising an affirmative defense for excessive use of force in self-defense,” Alysse told me.

I felt my lips pinch together, and a distinct throb began somewhere in the back of my head. “Excessive use of force?” I asked, almost choking on the words.

“I know. It’s ridiculous. The guy was swinging at you with a wrench,” Alysse said. Then she paused.

“But?” I prompted her when the pause lasted just a beat too long.

“But, I think we need to spend some time pinning down your timeline,” she responded, her tone bordering on apologetic. “I don’t think they have a leg to stand on for just using the pepper spray, but… it’s what got into his ear that they’re trying to make an issue of.”

I sat quietly, my thoughts racing. There was another long pause before she spoke again.

“I mean, it was a whole can of the stuff, Sandra. It’s going to be a tough argument.”

“He was trying to kill us,” I replied, enunciating every word.

“I know,” Alysse said, and I hear her shuffle some papers. “We’re gonna work on it, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, preparing to hang up the phone. There was another pause, though. My stomach, already clenched, went rock hard. “What is it, Alysse?”

“The other attorney let slip that they’re probably going to file a civil suit against you for the pepper spray in the ear.”

I closed my eyes, letting my head fall back against the recliner. “You have got to be kidding me,” I muttered. “You have got to be fucking kidding me.”

“I told him it would be a bad idea. They might be able to mitigate some of the charges in the criminal suit, but for a civil suit? The judge is just going to throw it out as soon as you counter-claim the assault, especially if you can get the other victims brought in,” she said, in what I was sure she felt was a reassuring tone. “I’m sure we can work out a joinder.”

I let her talk me down, though my stomach still roiled when we hung up the phone. I started to understand why people hate attorneys. Regardless of her reassurances, I knew what all of this meant: it could be months, maybe even years, before everything could get resolved. For every motion we could file, they could file six more. That was the trick: spinning things out for as long as possible, until someone, sick of all the legal fees and stress, eventually gives up.

I looked around at my home, at everything I had built over the last ten years of my career. I thought of my small office, just big enough for the little law practice that I loved. I wondered what would be left, when all of this was over.

It had been three weeks, and I didn’t really need to get anymore fast food.

That was what I told myself as I slid my feet into my shoes and dug my car keys out from under a pile of dirty laundry. I had food in the fridge that was just going to go bad. But the odds of me cooking it were exactly zero. I gave myself a cursory look in the mirror, smoothing down the rougher patches of hair before stomping out to my car. I didn’t bother changing out of my sweatpants. Chances were I would use the drive through, anyway.

I cranked my music up as I drove, watching despondently as the familiar storefronts slid past my line of vision. I had barely been out of my little condo in the past week, too afraid of being recognized. Most of my clients had cancelled their appointments. The few that had met with me seemed less than interested in working with me after just a few minutes of conversation. I was distracted and weepy, constantly shifting back and forth between staring despondently at the stream of angry messages flooding my inboxes and completely isolating myself from all forms of human contact for days at a time. My explanations – that damning blog post had been the brain droppings of an angsty, immature sixteen year old girl – had fallen flat across the board, and my name was officially mud in all venues that mattered. Meaghan wasn’t even pretending to answer my text messages anymore. I had never felt so unutterably alone.

As I neared my grease-filled destination, I passed by my office. I reflexively glanced over at it as I drove, then did a double-take, tapping my brake. What the hell?

The morning traffic was sparse, so I managed to avoid an accident as I swerved over into the turn lane unexpectedly, then pulled into the parking lot. I did not even bother to slide into one of the parking spaces, throwing the car in park as soon as it came to a full stop and flinging myself out of the driver’s seat. I stared in shock.

Scrawled across the windows in bright orange spray paint were the words: PLUNGER GIRL IS FULL OF SHIT.

I leaned back against my car door, my legs suddenly feeling too weak to support me. How long had this been there? I hadn’t been to the office in days. Surely, if Angela or Sally had seen it… but no. They weren’t coming back to work anytime soon, at least not at this office. There was no one to clean up the mess except me.

I don’t quite remember getting back into my car and turning around. I know it must have happened, because within moments I was in the parking lot of the hardware store just a few blocks away from my office, my hunger forgotten. Paint thinner, I thought. Brushes. Rags. Buckets. Numbly, I walked in, too late remembering my unfortunate wardrobe choices, then not caring about the strange stares I received from clerks and customers as I stood, staring at the aisles that laid out before me.

“Excuse me, miss?”

I turned to look at the vest-clad retail worker as he approached me, a smile on his face that bordered on a smirk. “Can I help you find anything today, little lady?” he asked. His eyes flicked down to my ragged, hole-filled sweatpants, then back up to my greasy, disheveled hair before settling on my face. Was there a flash of recognition there, among the condescension? Those people who were standing in the checkout line, glancing over at me and whispering between themselves, did they know who I was? Was there no way to escape?

I looked back at the clerk, readjusting the strap of my purse on my shoulder. Taking a deep breath, I answered calmly, “Can you show me where to find the wrenches?