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"He took gas, the kind you use to fill up a lighter, and sprayed it all around me. Then he lit it." And he walked up the hill.
It had rained a few days earlier, and the leaves were still damp. A few caught on fire, the ones that were on top.
"I really thought that was it. I thought, I'm gonna die down here. Then I thought, No, I'm not gonna die down here. I felt a piece of glass behind me, so I started sawing. It was that thin white cord, so it didn't take long." She stops and takes a few drags from the Echo. "I stomped at the fire with my feet. It burnt me on my legs," she says, swiveling her calf forward. "Right there. You can still see the dark spot it left."
She pulls at the Echo and looks at the steep, trashy slope. "You try running up that hill — trying to get up there with rope around your hands and ankles, tearing the tape off your mouth and the rag he shoved in your throat so you don't scream while you're burning alive."
She ran to her brother's house on St. John. The two of them and a friend hopped in a truck to look for the man. They spotted him and gave chase, but he disappeared into a thick stand of trees behind the Salvation Army at Ninth and Bellefontaine.
A few months after the attack, she saw him at a Truman Road bus stop. The hair on her arms stood up. They both boarded the bus, and he sat a few seats behind her. She moved forward a row. Then she heard a low voice in her ear. "Those men who were chasing me," he said, referring to Darlene's brother and friend, "one of them fell, and they never caught up."
Darlene got off at the next stop. She figures the man with the dishwater-blond hair is still around.
When she finishes telling this story, she lapses into a long silence. It lets in the sound of distant trains. Then she begins: "The only thing you're thinking is, I didn't get to tell my kids and my mom and my dad that I love 'em."
And then she starts to cry.
Thinking about her family, and about being alone and vulnerable and full of regret, overpowers her toughness.
"When you're a tough bitch, you do not show emotion about any of this," she stammers as the tears slip around her scarred nose. "If you show any emotion, then you're a soft bitch." She looks away and down and lets herself sob.
Bright plastic flowers punctuate the white tables in the Salvation Armys Beacon of Hope Café, a soup kitchen at Ninth and Bellefontaine. A line forms at the service window where workers distribute 150 meals every weekday. Today it's taco salad.
Darlene doesn't have her own apartment. She and a few other girls stay with a friend. She's happy to have the room, but it's often abuzz with late-night activity and a phone that won't stop ringing. If there's a sanctuary from Darlene's daily hustle, it's the Salvation Army.
It would also be a sanctuary from SOAP and SODA, which would make it illegal for her to hang around outside. This is where vigilant neighbors call 911 whenever they see her heading toward the Salvation Army building, and SOAP and SODA would ensure that they only needed to call once to get Darlene jailed and off the street.