Your daughter enters the kitchen wearing skinny jeans and a midriff-baring top. A flick of her neck sends her long hair over one shoulder. Emma grabs an apple, sinks her teeth in before you can nag her to wash it, and says through a fruited mouth, “Can I go to the mall with Kenzie? Her mom can pick me up.” The neon-lit hallways fill your mind, followed by images of heavy-lidded men molesting your daughter with their eyes. You’ve warned her not to let anyone touch her, but at thirteen can she understand some men can hurt without touching? That they may touch anyway? She’s chewing, her mouth working the apple, and with her rounded cheeks she’s a little girl again.
“Only if her mom walks around with you,” you say. “I don’t want you girls wandering the mall alone.”
You try to pinpoint the first time the shadow energy announced itself, crawling up your arms and up the back of your neck, making your tendons stiffen. You recall a time when you were about five at the Maine home of your parents’ friends. The only other thing you remember are the smooth gray stones along the water’s edge, so clean you had imagined eating off them. In the dim bathroom the hosts’ son, who is older, maybe ten or eleven, unbuttons his shorts. He drops his underwear to his knees, his shorts puddling on the floor. Something feels off but you do what he says. Your floral pants are around your ankles, the cool air on your pubis. He’s staring and you think he’ll reach out and touch. From the hallway your mother calls, “Martha, honey, where are you?” and relief floods in.
The dark energy returns when you’re a junior in high school. As your English teacher appraises you, it alights on your skin and skitters down your body. He rarely looks you in the eye. You disregard it because of the way he discusses the subtle humor in Jane Eyre and the dark dissembling in Crime and Punishment. He reads Chaucer aloud in Middle English. To you he’s a genius. He writes A’s in red on your papers until you get back an essay with a note that reads, “See me in my office.”
Later you hesitate outside his door, studying the “PhD” in bold letters on his nameplate. He’s jittery, moving and re-stacking papers, shelving books. You ask him if you should come back another time. He shakes his head, invites you to sit. “I asked you to see me, Marti,” he says, “because you should submit your essay for publication. It’s really quite good.” He names a few journals that solicit work from young authors. You’re so thrilled you pretend the sick feeling in your stomach is excitement. When you stand he holds the door but suddenly he’s closed it and pushed you up against the smooth wood. His mouth gropes yours, his moist hand slithers beneath your shirt and cups your breast. Your mind explodes with fear and disgust and self-loathing because you risked this by seeing him alone. Moaning, he pushes his hard penis against your thigh.
You’re saved again by someone calling, this time his name. A knock sounds on the door. Sending up a silent prayer you vow never again to discount its demands. Awash in shame you shove your humiliation into a tiny box, lock it, and toss the key. You move to the back of the classroom. You never submit the essay for publication.
Years pass. You marry. You feel its presence from time to time, but you believe you have the power to ward it off as if you wear a cat’s eye. You have a son followed by a daughter. Your desire to protect goes into overdrive. You install a home alarm system, put a metal baseball bat under the bed, a Maglite in the car.
When your daughter, Emma, is four, you enroll her part-time in daycare. The place is homey in its shabbiness and aroma of chalk and applesauce. Your daughter hated the day care center in the city so you’re pleased when she acclimates easily. The owner’s adult son appears occasionally. He’s loud, ebullient, and his white teeth take over while he moves through the room, greeting the children. He hugs some and pokes others in the stomach. Or he drops to a crouch and coaxes the kids to give him a high five. When confronted, each child leans back and dwindles in size, tight smiles frozen. The sinister force rolls off him in waves, and this time it’s directed at children.
He functions as the center’s official photographer, a fact that sends your mind in all directions. You want to withdraw your daughter but in the semi-rural area where you live options are limited. You hear the owner’s son is going on the field trip to the zoo, so you send your husband as a parent chaperone. When Emma goes to elementary school you’re relieved she’ll no longer be in the man’s reach.
Then the dark evil disappears. You’re sure it’s because you emanate your own vibe now, one that says, “Don’t fuck with me.” You should have learned by now.
This one enters the stage as the new commissioner for girls’ recreational basketball. You introduce yourself at evaluations. When you shake hands Jim glances at you and his eyes skate away. He doesn’t smile, his face slack. In response to your questions he tells you his children are grown. “I recently moved here and wanted to get back into coaching. I love working with girls.” His sausage-like fingers knead the basketball he holds. He stops talking every so often to clear the phlegm from the back of his throat, coughing the rattle up in short bursts, hack, hack, hack. Shifting his weight from foot to foot, he tosses the ball from hand to hand. A bead of sweat trickles down his temple. You stand next to him against the wall while the girls dribble, pass, and shoot, calling to each other and laughing. While he talks about his game philosophy, his eyes track the girls running up and down the court. You watch them, too, and suddenly they look heartbreakingly exposed in their short shorts. Is he tracing the curve of Emma’s new breasts? You want to take Emma home.
A couple of days later Emma’s making a snack of popcorn and grapes. You tell her she’ll be on Jim’s team with her seventh-grade classmates. You’d registered for the eighth-grade team, the one Emma has played on for the past several years. “Jim said he couldn’t make an exception to the county’s new rule to separate teams by grade instead of age,” you say. You don’t tell her that after Jim exclaimed, “I wanted her and I got her!” you immediately checked the sex offenders’ registry. His name hadn’t come up. Surely the county vetted him, you tell yourself. Then again, your teacher’s name hadn’t appeared in the letter from your high school reporting accusations of sexual misconduct against past and present instructors. It’s small consolation to know your teacher is dead, five years now, of lung cancer.
Emma lifts a shoulder in a quick shrug. As is often the case these days, she remains blank-faced. “Okay. Kenzie says he’s nice.” Emma won’t mind the change; she and Kenzie will be on the same team. Kenzie played for Jim on a summer league, now he follows her on Instagram.
You launch in. “I get a funny feeling from him, Sweetie. We don’t know him well yet, so just never be alone with him.” You busy yourself with the salad spinner. For good measure you review the list of family friends who can give her a ride.
“Okay, Mom, whatever.” Emma thumbs her phone, immersed in her own social drama. You decide you’ll go to every practice to keep watch.
To continue reading this story please consider purchasing this issue of Orca. Print $10.99. PDF only $3.
Amanda A. Gibson has transitioned to writing from a career as an environmental lawyer. Her work has appeared in The Common, Under the Gum Tree, Little Patuxent Review, Six Hens, and The Sunlight Press. She lives in Maryland with her husband, two children, their dog, Sadey, and their cat, Zoe.
Photo on Visualhunt