Frantic, I drove home as fast as I could through sleeting rain, trying to make it home before my daughter got scared home alone. One of the things about being a single parent I hate is not being able to find a sitter on the days I find out at the last minute I need to stay and work. To be fair, they did tell me when I took the supervisory position there would be days where I had to stay at the last minute. The money was good, though, so I had to choose between survival or not. On those rare but panicky days, I flew like there was no tomorrow to my eight-year-old daughter’s side so she wouldn’t be frightened staying home alone for too long. I often laughed at myself for being as fearful as I was and wondered if it rubbed off on her. I’d heard of that.
The car bumped up into the driveway. The front screen door was closed, but the heavier door inside was wide open. Raindrops drizzled off the porch roof protecting the inside from the dampness. I wondered if Paisley burned the toast again and had to air everything out. It wouldn’t be the first time nor would it be the last.
The garage door opened and I parked inside. Even though everything appeared copasetic, there was something in the air hinting it was anything but normal. I found myself grabbing my purse off the seat, the stack of papers I needed to go over for work, and rushed through the garage door to the kitchen. No smoke hovered in the air inside, but the discomfort surrounding me thickened like a swarm of flies.
“Paisley?” I tried sounding like I wasn’t freaking out, but I failed miserably as I set my belonging on the counter. I got no answer. “Paisley?” I repeated a bit louder as I hustled through the kitchen into the living area. Still no sign of my curly headed, auburn-haired daughter with big brown eyes. No sign she’d even been here, which was odd. As much as I love my daughter, she’s a “Messy Marvin.” Clutter follows her wherever she goes like she’s some sort of a paper and crayon magnet, but not today.
The stairway separated the two rooms. After climbing to the top, I instinctively paused to listen. A scratching noise, like a mouse between the walls, captured my attention. My eyes shifted to the corner, and I cocked my head to hear the unusual sound. Was it the sad sounds of a puppy whining? A dank smell entered my nostrils and I picked up the indistinct scent of a wet and sweaty animal.
We don’t have a dog, and Paisley had better not brought one home—again. She had done it once before when she was playing with her kindergarten neighbor friend a few years ago. My heart was practically wrenched from my chest as I tried explaining all the reasons we couldn’t keep “Fluffy,” an extra large English sheepdog. Her eyes grew as large as fifty-cent pieces. They filled with tears and her little round cheeks turned red. I could barely handle this part. It was the trembling lower lip that almost caused me to join her. Thank goodness that day I’d explained the dog tags and that we needed to reunite Higgins with his owner. I hoped beyond all reason I wouldn’t have to go through that turmoil again.
“Paisley, you’d better not have a puppy in here. Remember the talk we had?” I said as I clamored to the top step.
Her bedroom door was cracked a little bit, so I administered a gentle push. I learned that trick a long time ago after flinging it open and nailing her forehead. She made sure to tell everyone about the purple lump between her eyes produced by her mother. She never explained it was an accident, and no one bothered asking. However, I could always tell right away who had been privy to the tale, because when I entered the room their eyes were always suspiciously searching me with taught pressed lips. I never had the balls to confront them, so I’d grab my daughter and leave embarrassed for no reason of my own. Now I’m extremely careful about opening doors if I’m unsure of where she is.
Beyond the door of the pink colored room, between her closet and under the blinds of the window, a balled up blanket quivered in the corner. Protruding from the top are two pom-pom ponytails of red curls. “Paisley,” I said her name as I yanked the blanket off her head in a peek-a-boo style, leaning in close to startle her. “There you are!”
Paisley screamed, cowering behind her hands. It wasn’t the playful “oh, Mommy, you found me” sort of scream—it was a terrified screech. Her arms shielded her face and she turned away. When she appeared to register it was only her mommy, my little girl threw her arms around my neck, sobbing into the strands of hair clasped between her face and my neck.
“Oh my goodness,” I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this happy to see me.” I wrangled her off of me and pulled her chin up with a finger, but her eyes cast downward. “What’s wrong, my little Paisley girl?”
That particular moment was when I noticed that not only was she not wearing the jeans she had on this morning, her underwear was blood-soaked and the waistband ripped. Speechless, I couldn’t look away, but gawked with my mouth hanging open.
A stranger’s voice crept out of my throat in a raspy whisper. “Oh my God,” the sound edged out of the depths of a mother who didn’t really want to know, “Who did this to you?” I wanted her to tell me it was a joke, and then I could tell her I changed my mind about Fluffy. I would have said “yes” for this to be a prank.
Paisley didn’t provide any answers. In fact, she didn’t utter a word. Her eyes, hollow with black hole pupils sucking at the light in the room, penetrated my lids with a psychic heat every time I blinked. I could hear her voice in my head asking why I had to work late today—why today?
I gathered my baby up in my arms and rose to my feet, stumbling to the stairway. My arms held the blanket tight around her so she could feel more secure. I snatched my purse from the couch ensuring my cell phone was in the pocket as I made my way out the front door. The screen door slammed hard behind me, but I left the heavy door wide open. Everything that mattered to me had already been violated, and there was nothing left of value to take. All I could think about was getting to the hospital. But I wasn’t thinking clearly myself. The car sat behind the closed garage door, so I used the keypad to gain access. The creaking garage door slowly squeaked upwards to reveal the car I’d been seated in just moments before all hell broke loose. It only takes the blink of an eye for our worlds to be ripped out from under us with what we value gone forever.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, repeatedly, as I loaded her into the front seat.
I had to pry her hands from around my neck in order to strap her in. “It’s okay now, Paisley,” I said, well aware that she was anything but okay. The treacherous journey of doctors and police testimonies was on the horizon, not to mention the court hearings. My little girl’s innocence was ruined and only this shaking little shell of a frail child remained in the center of chaos.
The cloudy sky was nothing short of a reflection of how she must be feeling, cold and muddled, dark and dreary, falling down on the windshield. People would expect her to “get over it” the way wipers smeared the rain from the window. The garage door closed and we were on our way. My knuckles gripped the steering wheel so hard it’s a wonder my bones remained inside my skin. I released my right hand and placed it on Paisley’s thigh, and she jumped. Her red curls flipped about when her face connected with my own. “I’m here, baby. I’m here now,” I tried to reassure her.
Ahead, the streetlight flashed from amber to red, and the car rolled to a stop. My stomach churned acid up into my esophagus as I witnessed the blood drain out of my little girl’s face. Her eyes were once again glued to the window as she sank back into the seat, placing her thumb in her mouth. She hadn’t done that since she was three and I convinced her there weren’t any boogeymen. Coincidentally, the closet she was afraid of is where I’d discovered her.
On the other side of her window, a man on a bicycle waited for the light to turn green. With a quick glance, he cast a smile in my direction. Paisley’s knees drew up to her chest and she encircled them with her arms. Her face bowed down hiding behind her bent up legs, covering her eyes. The man’s teeth gleamed, and he pedaled smugly away without a care in the world. He actually seemed to enjoy the heavy rain pelting his shirt like some sick masochist.
My attention was captured at that moment, turning toward my daughter who sat crushing her face into her knees even harder and rocking. “Paisley,” I said, “Do you know that man?” Without lifting her face, she nodded her head with her kneecaps jammed into her eye sockets.
My little girl raised her head, with a crimson face full of hatred, and filled the car with her voice, “He touched me! He hurt me! He—he—he…” Her face collapsed back against her legs and she muttered incoherently, rocking even harder.
The man pedaled only a few yards away, so I stomped on the gas and the car lurched forward. We darted beneath the green light to catch up before he escaped. I honked the horn and he leered over his shoulder at me. His expression changed from carefree to a clearly panicking state.
As my vehicle careened around the corner, my daughter’s hands dug into the armrest on the door and the seat beneath her, pushing back. She lifted her head for a moment when the horn went off and then closed her eyes. If her eyes squinted any tighter, her eyebrows would have tickled her cheeks.
“What did he do, Paisley?” I asked, wondering what the chances were we would find him so easily? “Tell me!” Should I continue going to the police station and risk him getting away, even after the long judicial process? With him right in front of me could I ensure justice was – I cranked the wheel hard right, and he could see me over his left shoulder. My mind was reeling as I focused on his lips, imagining them touching my daughter with his long, thin fingers that gripped the bike’s handlebars. Those same fingers held my baby’s body down as she cried, too far away for me to hear her. The smell of the animal flooded my memory and I felt my nostrils flare, recalling the curdling scent of the room I’d found her.
I pulled halfway on the sidewalk beside him at the next light, pressing the button to roll my daughter’s window partway down. “You son of a bitch,” I spit the words out clearly and threw the car into park, rolling the window up and throwing my door open with a pop. The intensity of disgust burned in my cheeks, and I was sure that any moment my head would explode like a bottle rocket. When I got out, I half expected the rain to sizzle on my heated face.
The man’s cocky smile disappeared as he pedaled furiously racing along the sidewalk, out from between the buildings and toward the city bridge. If he made it over the bridge, into the downtown area, he’d get away for sure. The traffic lights flash so often it seems the cars are stopped more than they are moving. I had to get him before he slipped in between the shadows of the tall buildings and dumpsters, blending and leaving me behind to fight the parking lot.
The self-centered pedophile extended his legs to stand on the pedals as he pumped with all his strength. I jumped back in the car and slammed my door closed, turning to Paisley, “Don’t you worry, I’ll get him, sweetheart.”
Her tiny body cringed, stiffening and shaking. I gave the wheel a hard crank to the left and shot off the sidewalk toward the bridge with him in my sites. “Hold on Paisley,” I commanded and pressed down hard on the gas pedal, aimed at him.
The bumper clipped the bike’s rear tire hurling the rider on his bike down the side of the road into a stretch of weeds. Without wasting a breath, I bounced up onto the sidewalk. The wheels amply cleared the curb and slid to a halt.
My daughter huddled tightly with her head down to her knees and her hands covering her ears, silencing the rain drumming against the window. When I opened my door, her face snapped up. “Please, don’t leave me,” she begged with her eyebrows making a teepee above her nose. Paisley reached out and grabbed my arm. “What if he comes back while you’re gone?”
“Paisley,” I soothed her, “I saw him fall over the side. I just want to make sure he’s—he’s not coming back, that’s all.” I instructed her to keep the doors closed. The automatic locks slid down and I shoved the keys into my front pocket. With my palm pressed to my mouth, I drew it away blowing a kiss, but she missed it. She’d ducked her head as soon as the door closed. I could only imagine the fear of being alone after such a devastating event, but I intended on ensuring he never did again.
The whole thing with the judicial system sucks. I can imagine these pedophiles laughing as they exit after serving two years and getting out for good behavior. They wave good-naturedly to their friends and wonder when they’ll see them again.
Over the railing, I could make out the bicycle lying on top of the rocks by the river. It was mangled pretty badly. One wheel rotated in the air and the other had been ripped from the fork. Probably landed in the water and got pulled away. The weeds poked up from the ground, waving the long strands of grass in the air ever so slightly in the rain. Out the corner of my eye, I noticed a movement nearby.
“Don’t you move!” I commanded him without a second thought and practically toppled over careening down the side, over rocks and anthills. I hightailed it over to where the loser was curled up in a fetal position. Fear drenched his face beneath untidy hair as he searched for me out the corner of his eye. A trickle of blood dripped down his forehead as rain rinsed the blood away in rivulets. He blinked and tried to wipe the moisture away with his hand to no avail.
“Wait! Wait, just tell me what you want,” he begged desperately. The scenario was certainly not one he’d ever considered himself to be in. He’s more used to playing commander in control. I felt powerful with this scum at my mercy.
“Grovel, you piece of shit,” I spat at him bending over the top of him with my hands on my knees. “Let’s see how you like it.”
His eyes shifted back and forth and he bit his lip. “Why are you doing this?” The dirty hand approached his eye and wiped it again as he lay on one elbow across the rocks.
“You know damned well why,” I said between gritted teeth. “Do you have any kids—any kids of your own?”
“N-no. I d-don’t have any kids.” His eyes widened and his legs barely moved. One of them was twisted on backward and blood drenched the rocks beneath it. Saying it was broken was an understatement. “I don’t have any kids,” he repeated, oblivious to the rock I’d picked up and rotated in my hand, feeling the sharp edges against my skin. The rock was about twice the size of my palm and cold—as chilly as his heart.
“That’s why you’ll never understand,” I screamed at him as I held fast to the rock and brought it down on the side of his head. A sickening smack rang out that seemed to echo under the bridge, but I couldn’t stop myself. I hammered the rock several more times until all that was left was a mangled semblance of a man from the chest down. I stood up tall and threw the rock as hard as I could toward his crotch.
I was shaking. I was so inundated with sweat, adrenaline, and relief that all hit me at once. But then an earth-shattering squeal echoed inside my car. The cry was Paisley’s. I hoped she hadn’t seen what I did to the degenerate. I had to come up with a believable story and quick.
As I neared the car, the rain ceased almost immediately as if sensing my presence and that the deed was done. I couldn’t see her inside. “Paisley?” I called. I could hear her muffled cries and realized she was on the floor in the back seat. “What’s wrong?” I asked her and prayed to the gods she wasn’t frightened of me.
“I saw him!” she said with tears rolling down her cheeks.
“I can explain…” I put the key in the lock and turned it, popping the door open.
“No, no! While you were gone. He walked right past the car!” she was tripping over her words and taking in large gasps of air between them. “Where were you? Why did you leave me?”
Stunned, I shook my head. “What do you mean he walked past the car?”
Paisley pulled herself up with a lot of deliberation and poked her head between the front seats. Up ahead was a mail truck pulled off the side of the road with his hazard lights on. “The mailman?” I asked her baffled.
“He’s not a real mailman,” she argued with tears streaming. “Look!” Her arm shot out between the seats pointing at a slightly overweight man who’d lost most of his hair to faulty DNA as he kicked one of his tires. He had a sub-sandwich in one hand and a soda in the other as he made his way around his truck, checking out the clouds above him as if trying to determine if the rain had stopped for good.
“That’s a mailman,” I clarified for her. Her face drew all the composure she had left and she looked me straight in the eye. “That’s the man who hurt me.”
Could she have been mistaken before? I almost peered over the cliff at the bicyclist lying on the rocks below, his head caved in, but I couldn’t bear to see the remains. Perhaps it was just a bad dream and now I’m awake.
I stuck my knee on my seat and reached between the seats to push Paisley’s hair back from her brow. “Honey, you need to be certain. You need to swear to God that’s him, okay? No mistakes.”
“Mommy, I’d know him anywhere. He hurt me!” she said, and the tears started again.
When I turned back, the postal vehicle was gone and a couple was coming toward us with a dog on a leash. “It’s going to be okay,” I tried soothing her, but her attention was on the couple with the dog, more specifically, the man.
“Don’t let him get me. Please, don’t let him get me again, Mommy!” Paisley’s eyes were focused on the gentleman holding the woman’s hand. When I did nothing, she whimpered and begged curling up on the floor of the backseat.
Paisley shrieked all the way to the police station where I reported seeing a man murdered at the side of the road. I explained the murderer’s friend, who’d assaulted my daughter and killed his friend, got away.