by Leita McInnis
I have a weakness. Like ice cream. Sometimes I like chocolate, sometimes vanilla. Sometimes I like boys, sometimes girls. But always I like children.
When I see luscious children I cannot control myself. I want to lick their smooth flesh. I hate needing to. I wish I wasn’t born this way. But I was. Every time I pass a playground, every time I pass a school, every time my neighbour asks me to baby sit. I live with what my body wants; what my body gets away with before I can stop. It’s as if my body can sever itself from my head and go on without me. Touching, feeling, enjoying. All without me.
My neighbour, Cheryl. I often wonder what she would do if she knew what kind of games Alex and I play while she works double shifts. She trusts me. Because I’m a woman. I try so hard not to touch him. Some days I manage. But if no other children cross my path, I need to enjoy him. It’s so much easier, going out into the light of day, after I’ve had my fill. My time is spent on work, errands, shopping. When I am lonely, all I can do is hunt.
Today I’m lonely. I walk slowly down the street, conversations of people a constant hum. I feel as though my head weighs a hundred pounds. My neck aches and my temples throb. Then, I hear a tingling voice; a child’s voice. It makes my head
lighter, my thoughts clearer. My eyes lock onto the boy entering the diner to my left It’s been a while, so I follow.
Sitting across from the mother and child, I wait. Wait for something. I’m not sure what The mother asks for crayons, and when they arrive she smiles, kisses her childthe forehead and heads for the bathroom. The boy looks up at me and smiles. He wants it. This is my chance. I have only a few minutes. Deep breath. I must move quickly. My body stands. This is its chance. And just then my head kicks in. Alex. I am stuck in the middle of the diner. My head pulling one way and my body pulling the other. I inhale. I command my legs to move. They refuse. I take one huge breath and yank my legs from the floor. I run. Run as fast as I can, run out the door, run far away. Far from this place before my body takes over again.
I am standing in my apartment. I have no idea how I got here. The sun is still up, yet exhaustion floods my body. I collapse onto my single mattress, and I dream. My dreams are the only place I don’t feel guilt. Dreams are safe. The children in my dreams are not real: they don’t cry, they don’t hurt, they don’t protest.
My alarm jolts me from the protection of my bed. My body is wrapped in tightly wound sheets,and the sour smell of sweat lingers on my skin. I run my hands between my thighs, caressing the memories of my night time release. Although I am warm and safe, I must go to work and, at least, pretend to be normal. I missed three days in a row, but now I must make an appearance.
The summer that I turned thirteen, I began to baby-sit. Baby-sit for a family down the street. I had never noticed someone the way I noticed Abby. The way she moved, quick and joyful. The way she played, rough and carefree. The way she climbed up into my lap for a bedtime story. She wanted it. But no one believed me. Her mom called my mom, and soon the whole neighbourhood knew. I wished Abby would tell the truth; that she had asked for it, led me on, flirted with me. Her mom got a restraining order.
I miss Abby. Shaking off the memory, I hurry off to work. Every morning, on the way to the bookstore, I pass the Little Elephant Daycare. Eyes front and head high, I walk past the children as if nothing calls out to me. But of course the laughter does; it taunts me from all corners of the front yard. Unlocking the door of Tales and Trails I walk around, avoiding the children’s section. Avoiding the little tables, avoiding the beanbag chairs where they so seductively sprawl, avoiding the back comers.
I sit as far away from the children as possible. For the most part I deal with the questions of parents, and that suits me. I don’t want temptation. Not here.
I’ve learned a lot since Abby. Learned that I am a monster, that my family is repulsed by me, and that society hates me. But most of all I have learned how to not get caught. I am no longer a naïve teenager who believes that a child can keep a secret. I know how to cover my tracks. I never look at pom. I know that’s how they track you, I watch the Discovery Channel. And besides, all I have to do is open a magazine; there are always at least a few girls who look like they are twelve. Twelve is a little old for me but if it means not getting caught, I’ll take what I can get I tried going to counselling once. It was group, the kind where everyone sits in a circle and shares. Listening to everyone’s fantasies and experiences aroused me more than it deterred me. No one there seemed to think they were doing anything wrong. That’s how I’m different. I hate what I do, I just can’t help it.
There is a knock at my door minutes after I get home. My neighbour is frazzled; I can tell. The knock is frantic and desperate, like Cheryl. She has only been weeks without a new man in her life, constantly searching to fill the void left by her step-father when she was eight. Or so she told me
late one night, stopping by to pick up Alex after a double shift.
My heart skips a beat while I pull the deadbolt back and unlock the chain. Cheryl’s smile is wide and hopeful, but I only see it for a moment. Alex is snuggled in her arms with his teddy squished between his little fingers. He smells of a mixture of soap and toothpaste, even from this distance. His light brown curls reflect the light in the hallway and they shine beautifully. I can sense that Cheryl is talking, although I can’t really hear her. Alex smiles at me.
The need for young children has been with me since my first encounter with Abby. Nothing works – therapy, drugs, ignoring it. Nothing. Especially the last one, as my parents learned. After moving, they stopped talking about it. But they didn’t need to talk to let me know what they were thinking. I could no longer be trusted. With my neighbours, with my siblings, with my classmates. I was not allowed to go to sleepovers, baby-sit my sisters, or have friends over. It’s as if they confused preferring children with being some kind of sex maniac. As I get older, I guess I understand where they were coming from: they were scared and confused. But so was I.
They didn’t get me help, they didn’t support me and after that night with Abby, they never told me that they loved me ever again. And then, at the new house, the abuse started. It wasn’t physical. How could they beat me when they couldn’t even stand to touch me? At first they locked me in my room as soon as they got home. But after awhile, they stopped caring enough to keep me in my room. They never looked at me, and they never touched me. I think I would have preferred being locked up.
I ran away when I was fifteen. Living with various men, always looking for ones with children. I became a second mother to many of them. In their father’s eyes. To me, the men were just the pimps, the matchmakers, the middlemen. I moved from city to city, anytime there were suspicions. I was one step ahead.
The weight of my apartment pushes down around me. I gasp for breath. Lunging out the front door, I try to head towards work. I try to slow my thoughts, try to move deliberately and cautiously, try not to bring attention to myself as I gasp for air. I turn left when I should have turned right. My body is taking over. It knows where it needs to be. Before I know it, I am standing in front of a playground. I know this playground. I’ve been here before.
I have one. She tells me her name is Jenny. Pink jacket and white shoes. Little white shoes, the kind with flowers on the toes. She takes my hand willingly, smiling up at me, excited for an ice cream cone. We walk quickly out of the playground. Everyone around us smiles, thinking I’m her mother. But I’m not; her mother’s attention is focused elsewhere. Jenny and I are going to be special friends, I’m glad she understands. We get to the edge of the park and I let her push the button to cross the street. She squeezes my hand. I squeeze back. There is a puddle just below our feet, I lift her over it. I wouldn’t want her to muddy up those pretty white shoes. As I put her down on the other side, I smell something familiar. Soap. Alex’s soap. I turn suddenly, Jenny in hand, and walk swiftly back to the playground. Her mother has been looking for her. Cell phone in hand, she is running back and forth calling out. I make sure she doesn’t see me. I can’t ruin things with Alex. I’ve finally found the one.
Returning home, I feel better. I have everything I need here. Everything I enjoy and everything that makes me comfortable is wrapped up in these three rooms. I can breath easier. I haven’t ruined everything. Yet.
I wake to knocking. I am hopeful that Alex will be on the other side. My heart sinks when I see Cheryl there; instead of Alex in her hands she holds a newspaper. Shit. I’ve been confronted like this before. It all seems so familiar. I begin to panic, my throat getting tighter and tighter. She is obviously upset, swearing, with each word her voice is climbing higher and higher. She thrusts the paper at me. I exhale slowly and look down at the page. I’m surprised at what I see. I scan it, frantically. Looking for some condemning detail, anything. Nothing. I look up at her, questioning. She isn’t yelling at me; she’s yelling about the pedophile loose in our neighbourhood. She’s thanking me. Thanking me for being someone she can trust with all the child molesters out there. Confused, I tell her she’s welcome and close the door. I sit and read the article. It is me they’re talking about. But at the same time, it’s not. I’m lucky no one thought to ask Jenny if her kidnapper was a man or a woman. They assumed a man.
Cheryl is back. With Alex. She has been called into work at the last minute. Kissing her son on the cheek and tousling his curls, she hands me his backpack and scurries out the front door. She has packed everything he will need until morning including, I’m happy to see, his little train pyjamas. My favourite. The little engines chugging across his stomach make a trail for my eyes to follow. Down. Alex is already on the couch watching TV, he knows the routine. I like to think he feels comfortable here. I sit close to him, a blanket spread across both our laps. We fall asleep watching cartoons, and when I wake in the middle of the night he has his tiny little arms wrapped tightly around my waist. Sometimes it’s nice to just be held.