I spent my childhood in a town that had a nuclear power plant. We lived under the very real possibility that at any given moment, there might be a meltdown. In the event of an emergency, deafening sirens would sound from tall poles placed all around the town. They would alert us to the danger and give us a few minutes to collect ourselves before we were thrown into the chaos of an evacuation. Given our surroundings, the people in town were either incredibly jumpy or entirely unfazed by the world around them. I’d say I was in the latter category… but I’d be lying through my teeth.

Every Friday, exactly at noon, the warning system was tested with a short, deafening blast. Wherever you were in town- at home having lunch, taking a test at school, or hanging out at the mall- you couldn’t miss it. There it was, every week, like clockwork. I think that was what helped me develop such a good sense of timing. I do everything on instinct now.

And right now, what I need to do is get a new apartment. Truthfully, I’ve been desperate to move for while but after finally getting a proper job, I can actually afford to do so. Two weeks into the hunt for a new place, I stumbled upon a listing that I found irresistible. So here I am, in the middle of an afternoon, taking a last look at the apartment. You can never be too careful, after all. Unless of course careful leads to an apartment being snatched out from under you while you’re still in the midst of debating its pros and cons.

“It’s just what I’ve been looking for, Mrs. Marsh,” I finally tell my soon-to-be landlady. I hand over the contract, my security deposit, and the first month’s rent, in exchange for a set of keys.

“I’m sure you’ll be very happy here…” She trails off with the sort of uncertainty I instantly recognize.

“Ace,” I tell her, with a hand on my chest. “You can call me Ace.”

“The rent is due on the first of the month, Ace, without exception. You can stop by the main office for a parking sticker to put on your car.” She pours over the contract through thick glasses to be sure I initialed every clause.

“Actually, I have a motorcycle, but there’s a spot where a sticker will fit.” It’s right where I have the decal I won’t need anymore for the College of Southern Maryland parking lots. This will be a much better solution than covering that up with a ‘community college dropout’ sticker. Mrs. Marsh purses her lips and gives me a skeptical look when I mention my bike, but she says nothing. This isn’t the time to mention my distaste for those gas-guzzling SUV’s she allows her residents to drive, so I say nothing in return. Besides, if I can stand the apartment, she can stand having a motorcycle in the complex.

The apartment isn’t bad, per se, but it doesn’t exactly have a lot going for it, either. It’s an efficiency with a full bath. Both the bathroom fixtures and the kitchen appliances were probably already outdated back in the eighties when they’d been installed. There is a dilapidated wardrobe and an old iron floor lamp, both of which Mrs. Marsh said I could put out with the trash, but which I’ll probably end up keeping. The floor is covered in a thin layer of tan carpet, except in the bathroom and the kitchen area where dark grey linoleum is present. It’s a brick building and looks the same on the inside as it does on the outside, with no pretenses like paint to get in the way.

The selling points for me are the unbelievably low monthly rent and the security features. The door to my apartment has three locks- a regular doorknob, a deadbolt, and a chain. But the door to the apartment building has another set of locks and no buzzer system to get in the way. The apartment complex, which consists of twenty-three buildings and plenty of parking spaces, is surrounded by a hefty rod iron fence with gates that require pass-codes for entrance and exit. The whole place is patrolled day and night by a private security force.

I feel safer already as I speed out on my Harley. In a perfect world I would have moved in today, but I have work in a half an hour. And as I’m the new kid at the restaurant and still in my probationary period, a shift change is out of the question.

“Well, well, Ace McCarty. Nice of you to finally join us.” My boss, Mr. Leroy, is under the impression that even if you show up to work early, you still run the risk of being late.

“My shift doesn’t start until five,” I remind him. I give him a charming smile. “I made you a promise when I started here and I won’t be late.” I decide against discussing how time is a manmade concept created to enslave the masses in menial, meaningless jobs. Thankfully, he leaves the room so that I can get ready.

I stand in front of the mirror in the break room, staring closely at my reflection. Despite the chaos the sea of freckles brings to my face, I look pretty much in order. My short brown hair falls neatly into place from just licking my palm and running my fingers through it. There isn’t a wrinkle to be seen in my black slacks and white dress shirt. I dig a rolled-up tie out of my pocket and step through the motions to make a tight Windsor knot at the base of my neck.

It’s a uniform a waiter should wear. I’m not a waiter, but the boss thinks it’s easier if we all wear the same thing. Luckily for Mr. Leroy, he doesn’t bother himself with our complaints about the patrons mistaking busboys for waiters. That’s what I am, by the way. Five days a week, I bus the tables and on three of those days I also do a shift washing dishes. It’s not glamorous work but it pays the bills and I’m not too proud to start at the bottom and work my way up. In fact, I rather like the mindless work. It’s a lot harder to fuck up, pardon my language.

I’ve always thought it would be nice to have my very own personal warning siren system. Something to let you know that trouble is coming, even if it’s too far off for you to see it at the time. Something to make you look up and take notice in enough time to avoid complete and utter disaster. I suppose over time most people learn to build their own such systems, bit by bit. A scare will lay the foundation firmly in the ground. A series of mistakes will build the pole tall in your mind. Situations you look back on with regret will install the speakers. And then it’s just a matter of learning to listen when the alarm goes off.

My system now doesn’t amount to more than a few cables and a bag of concrete sitting around in the recesses of my mind. Therefore, I hear nothing at all when I finally decide to approach the woman at the bar after a whole evening of admiring her from a distance. Even if my alarm were going off now, telling me I’d be a fool to try something with her, I wouldn’t have paid it any attention.

She’s a classy thing, and beautiful too but in an understated way so that you wouldn’t know she spent hours deciding which shoes go with which necklace. In this case, she went with conservative black pumps and a string of pearls. Her choice tonight of a simple black dress is nothing short of artistic brilliance, from the slit at her thigh to the cut showing off just a hint of cleavage. She’s been driving me wild all night, though I couldn’t do more than cast a glance her way every few minutes as I gathered up dirty dishes and wiped off tables.

I interrogate the bartender when he takes a cigarette break. I stand out in the darkening night, a hand over the lower half of my face to act as a rudimentary filter. He laughs at this, but answers my questions because what the hell else has he got to do? From what I manage to piece together, she’s drinking alone at the bar at eight o’clock because a date was supposed to meet her at seven. I’ve got to say, it should be illegal to have a woman like that and stand her up.

Never mind that she’s the sort of woman who wouldn’t usually give me the time of day, my gaze is drawn to her. Besides, I’m not the sort of person to deny my feelings. In fact, I find myself walking right over to her just as soon as my shift officially ends. I don’t know which of a zillion ways of saying ‘no’ she might use on me, but I go ahead with what I’d rehearsed. “The easiest way to get over being disappointed is to move on to something better,” I tell her, leaning against the bar as if it makes me look suave and casual instead of simply just tired.

“Someone like you, I suppose?”

“Well, I’m here and someone else isn’t. I think that’s a pretty good start, wouldn’t you agree?”

She looks up from her glass of ice cubes coated a few last drops of scotch. I can see the rejection on her lips, but her eyes meet mine, and she swallows instead. Her eyes are gorgeous, a light blue-gray with midnight irises. They probe and pierce. Suddenly she sees right through me. She smiles.

I pass her my business card. Like a good scout, I’m always prepared. Really it’s just a cocktail napkin upon which I’ve already written my contact information. Bar napkins should really come pre-printed with name and phone number blanks; maybe I’ll submit a patent. “Ace,” she slurs slightly. “Won’t you buy me a drink?” She is gorgeous and intoxicating… but also intoxicated.

I believe it would be in poor taste for an employee to buy a patron a drink, but I don’t tell her this. Instead, I say, “I think I would prefer to call you a cab tonight.”

She folds the napkin and slips it down between her breasts for safekeeping. My eyes linger on the spot, then I reach over the counter for the phone. I dial slowly, to prolong our time together. We make small talk as we wait for the taxi, and she plays with my tie just to let her fingers knowingly brush against my chest. She invites me back to her place. I’m tempted, I won’t say I’m not. However, I don’t want to be a one-night-stand; when I said I’d be better for her, I meant it.

It’s almost painful when I put her in the cab and wish her a good night. She promises to call me and, for some reason, I actually believe she will. Will I never learn?

When I was about five years old, and a mess of tangled brown hair, grass-stained hand-me-downs, and an embarrassing number of freckles, there was a false alarm. The warning sirens were so loud and shrill that I dropped my softball and mitt right then and there. I clapped my hands over my ears and I squeezed my eyes closed tightly, as if either action could block out the situation. When I opened them again, I expected to see half the town ablaze or people dashing out to their cars with suitcases and pets in hand. Instead, I saw the neighborhood just as I’d left it, with its bare grey sidewalks and front lawns growing wild. The houses with their sloppy paint jobs sat silently in their lots, doors closed and windows open. And as quickly as the sirens had begun, they ended. I learned later that a news broadcast had cut into every local radio station and television channel, announcing that the wrong wire had been tripped somewhere along the way to set off the alarm. Like the good little American town we were, everyone had been inside, within distance of some electronic device, with absolutely no reason to panic.

I often wonder if there were even one other person in the town who panicked the way I had. One other person who, for just one moment, believed the warning of danger. And if there were such a person… I wonder if he or she had reacted in the normal, expected way, by collecting up things and making a dash for the town border. Whereas I just stood there, pretending not to acknowledge it but nonetheless being ready to take whatever would happen. No strategy or desire to save myself, thinking that it was all too late for me anyway by then. What’s the point in running if you’ve nowhere to run to?

I tend to think that the secret of my survival to date is my ability to excel in the act of avoidance. If I’m always early with the rent, I don’t have to worry about being kicked out of house and home on a rainy day. If I’m never late to work, I’ll never have to endure one of those screaming sessions from Mr. Leroy that I’ve heard so much about from my coworkers. And if I just keep walking with my head down past these guys on the street corner, maybe they won’t notice me long enough to harass me.

Tonight, there are a handful of them, standing between me and the garage where I parked my bike when it was still light out. From across the street, I can’t tell if the puffs from their mouths are their breaths in the crisp night air or if they’re smoking. But I can tell that they’re looking in my direction now. My skin prickles and a shiver starts between my shoulder blades.

Strangers always stare at me a little too long. They try to figure me out when it should be clear that’s the last thing I want. Do they see someone scared, vulnerable, and feminine? Or someone tough, rough, and manly? Frankly, I mind the staring and judging a whole lot less than I mind the interaction. I don’t know what I’d do if one of those guys grabbed a pipe and charged across the deserted street towards me. I know I probably wouldn’t throw my helmet at him and run away, and I know that I wouldn’t get my keys out and aim them at his eyes, even if the thought occurred to me in time. And I know that, if I had my own personal alarm system, it would be going off now so loud I’d have a headache in the morning, if the beating alone didn’t do the damage first.

I can almost sense the men discussing me, deciding what to do, drawing closer. It might be knives or guns… maybe even just steel-toed boots. My footfalls sound louder than usual on the pavement. My wallet sits noticeably heavy in my back pocket. My already racing heart seems to slide up into my throat so that I can barely breathe around it. Is this the moment I’ve been expecting for the last eleven years? I fix my gaze on the parking garage. I center my thoughts on my motorcycle. Just a few more paces and if it’s going to happen, it will happen now.

Tonight, it seems, there’s another false alarm. The men lose interest in me before I even reach the garage, and my drive home is blissfully uneventful. Still, my hands tremble as I let myself into my sparse and soon-to-be-vacated apartment. Maybe it’s from excitement or maybe it’s from fear. I’ve never felt comfortable living on this side of town and this building could just as easily collapse from shoddy construction as go up in flames from a badly-tended basement meth lab. All I know is that I lock the door right behind me, toss my helmet at the bed, and go straight into the bathroom where I’m alone with four walls.

My reflection has a blank sort of stare, but eyes meet eyes and hold the gaze even as I slowly undress. Jacket, tie, belt, shirt, undershirt— they form a pile on the bathroom floor. But my fingers pause when they get to the bandages wrapped around my middle that gave me my nickname. As routinely as I breathe, I unwrap, unbind, breasts breaking free. I set the bandages beside the sink to use again tomorrow.

When I lie down on my mattress, wearing pajamas but naked for all intents and purposes without my pretenses, I hear sirens loud and clear. I pause a moment, alert and trying to place them. Police? Paramedics? Firefighters? Perhaps all three at once. Wrapping a blanket around myself, I pad over to my only window and stare out into the night, searching the scene for the danger. Even squinting and straining my neck, I could not make it out.

I was thirteen years old when the danger sought me out. I remember it was in the dead of night, but I couldn’t have told you the exact time. I can’t even remember if it was the spring or the summer. What I do remember was the clink of glass and the soft squeak of the door to my bedroom, which was always open a crack when I slept. I opened my eyes, expecting to see one of my parents sneaking in to watch me sleep, and instead saw a stranger.

The man stood in my bedroom, a duffle in one hand and a flashlight in the other. For a split second, he looked startled, but then he grinned a wide, sick grin. He had clearly been there to rob the house, but his intentions changed when he saw me… and moreover when he saw that I’d seen him. The next few moments were filled with equal amounts of screaming and thrashing about, but I’m sorry to say both were short-lived. I refuse to rehash the way he fondled me, but I can still recall the sting of the flashlight against my temple. And all I could think about was how my parents had decided bars on the windows would be better than an in-house alarm system.

Tonight, the sirens begin to fade away just as quickly as they’d made themselves known, heading away in another direction. In two minutes, all that’s left is my own fast breathing. I crawl back to my mattress and sit on top of the covers, knees tucked under my chin and arms wrapped around them tightly. I’m not rocking yet, but that’s right around the corner.

I consider throwing on some clothes and hopping back on my motorcycle. Logic tells me that moving targets are harder to hit, but like I said before, I’m not the type to run. Then there’s the option of phoning one of a handful of friends who would gladly stay up talking with me until I fall asleep. However, I’m not the sort of person to spook a friend by calling in the middle of the night. After all, there’s not much difference between a sudden siren and a startling phone call.

There are all kinds of alarms, for all kinds of things. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they’re for shit. For me, the hardest part isn’t listening, it’s learning to relax when the sirens aren’t sounding. Right now, all I hear is silence ringing in my ears.