Keeping It in the Family

S. Miriam Merces

ONE – The Looking

When he looked at me–he looked at me–that was the worst part. The looking is what I can’t forget. It’s the looking. I can’t forget. The looking clings. I can’t forget. The looking.

I can’t forget the looking. I have to accept the looking. He looked at me. He looked at me, and I have been troubled by men looking with desire ever since. I wanted badly for men who I’ve known, desired, to look at me. See me. But I was scared.

I was four years old. There are pieces missing–thank god. I was four years old, and it was New Year’s Eve. I was four years old. It was New Year’s Eve. He looked at me. I do remember. Decapitated fragments float before the screen of my mind, which I reach out to grasp. Even though they are slippery and slither free twisting across my tongue, through my eyes, and away, I remember. My first memory is the day my brother was born. The emotion at the core is anxiety. My brother was born premature. I sense the small, busy hospital, waxed linoleum floor, sterile walls, dry air, two metal doors clamped shut, and the tension in the large bulky shadows beside me, and I am concerned. He has a hole in his heart, a hole for the love to slip through, a gap that will leave him hurting. He is fragile. As we grow up, protecting him is my duty. Stand back, or you’ll have to mess with me. Stand behind me, Purpose, while I see what all the commotion is about. I am strong enough to hold his heart pieces together. I was born to protect my brother.

I am dissociating again.

It was New Year’s Eve. My parents were at a party. My grandparents were at a party, too. We were with the babysitter at my grandparents’ house in town.

He is my babysitter.

He had been strange before.

Before. My brother lies with his back against the floor’s metal grate. Icy sleet patters the windowpanes, but the floor is hot. This is at my new house, in the country, on the farm. The wood and metal radiate heat bringing a burning to my hands pressed upon the floor. The wood burner is beneath us in the basement. My palms burn. My skin is dry. We burn wood to keep warm.

Purpose is on his back, and there are Lincoln Logs strewn around. An aureole of building blocks–red chimneys, green pine roof slats like large tongue depressors, brown rods with notches–surrounds his toddler’s body. The hot air rises through the antique metal grate, and I burn, as I watch my babysitter hover. A crooked finger elongated, a wooden rod gripped and pointed, traces the tender skin of my brother’s belly. The wood finger belongs to a gnarled witch from a children’s fable. Hee hee ha. He’s playing doctor. The floor is so hot. Will the floor and toy logs catch fire? Will my brother? The heat burns me outside and in, and the slipping of the finger transfers to me. It burns, sickens. Fragile. I am afraid. The hole is in his heart. Pain. My little brother!

“Ouch,” my brother says, as I push him from the grate and roll onto my back. I lift my shirt and smile. “My turn.” The shadow rolls in, spreading before my eyes like a thundercloud. The towering gray mass flashes a smile. Its rumble is a vibration. Desire? The smile’s teeth enjoy wounding my little body. They slash and cut. They perform their surgery.

He carries me up the stairs post-operation. I had fallen asleep. The shadow encases with a touch that stings, itches, crawls up my arms into my scalp. The touch is an alarm. Alien. Wake up. But I half-dream. A thing placed embeds in my fragmented insides. He holds me in his arms, as he takes me to bed.

Another. He is upset with me. I have been mischievous. I wanted to make the iced tea. It comes from a mix. The tea is a dusty powder that puffs into the air when the plastic lid peels off smelling so lemony sweet that it makes my mouth water. I dump the container’s contents into the pitcher and swirl the wooden spoon. The spoon thumps against the plastic. The water turns filmy and brown, murky. A tan frothing scums the top of the pitcher. He is angry. No!

This memory lingers with the others and bothers me almost as much. Why? When I stand to the left of an air-conditioned deli counter waiting for my order beside the drink fountains and happen to glance the scratched plastic tray with its lemon wedges the size of small tongues, the beige tongs for grasping them, I think about his frustration.

I must save myself.

After I have forgotten his violation and before I have recalled, I stand in my grandparents’ kitchen before a birthday cake. It is a two-tiered chocolate with white icing. The television in an adjacent room hums a football game. In another, there is a buoyant melody and the tink of ice in highball glasses. Distant laughter warms the room. I am happy. My mother has placed vibrant colored gummies around the cake’s edge. Bears wearing bow ties offer opaque, expressionless stares. They are bright, sweet, and without voice. Like me. My babysitter happens to be an older cousin, so he is present at my party. With no one else in the room, he tells me to trace my finger around the bottom of the cake to gather the stray icing. It is my cake after all. He puts a finger to his lips–shh. The sound in my ear deflates me of my heat. I smile mutely, as I tilt my head upward. He winks. A rotten shell, a poisoned seed, cracks within my center, and an ugliness flops out, contorts and writhes. The parasite slithers, and its phalanges grip onto the glow behind my ribs and tucked beneath my heart. The finger-roots pierce, stick through this light, as the icing-coated finger leaves my mouth.

Was the ugly not forced upon but planted at my beginning always waiting to be born?

Years later, my father says, “If you say anything, you could ruin his life. He is married and has a family. Young men lose control. They make mistakes.” I stand in the farmhouse kitchen. I am in high school. What? I think. My long, straight hair frames my face like curtain panels. It falls past my cheeks, brushes my navel, and covers my back. I enjoy reaching behind and tugging the smooth strands, twirling them in my fingers, a comfort. “You said nothing happened.” I am sixteen years old. “When I was four? Or the night I remembered?” This man who I loved offers his back, and the curtains draw shut. I retreat into the dark where there is little sound beyond my private thoughts. Don’t look at me!

On New Year’s Eve, my babysitter wishes to play a game. Purpose sits on the couch beside the television. The program absorbs him. His too-large socks dangle from his feet above the dark green carpet. He is a munchkin with a hole in his heart. Thump-slosha. He holds his hands in his lap. His head framed with its Dutch boy haircut tilts toward the brightly flickering glass, as I fade into the bulky shadow–there is dread, but I want to trust; I do trust, but this act feels wrong. The shadow conveys me up the stairs and into the bathroom behind the door. Shut.

I know I am four years old because a white undershirt rests beneath my regular shirt. I lift my outer shirt and reveal the little kid shirt beneath. The undershirt is cotton, dingy from wear and wash. May I have turned five a few days before?

My babysitter wishes to play a game that involves a coin. Abraham Lincoln’s copper profile flips revealing and concealing itself, and I must guess which way is up. I make mistakes. I take off one sock at a time feeling clever. I smile after I remove each one.

Then, with skin-often-hidden exposed, his presence beside me is more obvious. He is larger. He is older. There’s a musky smell, his hot breaths reach out to stroke my face. I grip my ankles above my bare feet and stare at the floor. No socks left. This person is a protector, so I shouldn’t be scared. I am scared. I feel sick. I am not supposed to be, but I am afraid. What is this shadow? I am afraid I am unsure.

Flip a penny. Heads or tails. A penny for your thoughts. A lucky penny flips to the wishing well.

“I don’t want to,” I say.

I see myself. Little Sarah has retreated to the back of this narrow room and stands before the sink and mirror. The toilet sits behind her. She is four years old. Cotton undershirt stretches across her rounded baby belly. Her hair, dirty blonde with streaks of gold, is so fine it breaks off at the shoulders. Her eyes are large, becoming larger. Shame and anxiety fill their pools. Dread pours.

The shadow remains on the floor. It has a form. Its back is against the tub. One leg is cocked. The other leg, a hurdle, extends to the wall. It is seventeen–a boy, teenager, young man. He wears a plaid flannel. His jeans are stretched in the thighs and ground-in with dirt. His gut hangs over the fly and zipper.

“Just a little,” he says. He looks up from the floor. I am smaller, and he is bigger, but in this moment, I stand taller. The floor tilts beneath this illusion of power. Still, he wants. I am afraid. What does he want? He wants. I don’t want to give what he wants. I am mine. I will withhold. His leg is stretched before the door. If I run, he will trip me. He will hurt me. I will be hurt. “You don’t have to all the way.”

sliding door at the side slams shut, the vehicle screeches around a corner, and two small palms press against the back window.

My palms press against my desk. I am in the bathroom at my grandparents’ house, and I am scared. My skin is cold. “Good touching.” I feel sick. “Bad touching.” I am afraid. The shadow is at the window. “Good touching.” The shadow is in the classroom. “Bad touching.” The shadow is within me. I remember.

Kerplunk.

Am I as stupid as the little girl with blonde pigtails, pink dress, and scream? Disgust creeps up my skin. A shadowy hand against my hair coats me in greasy intentions. A desirous breath greases my ear canal. Disgusting, ugly shame fills me, and empties me of most everything else.

Let me leave! His hand goes to his fly-button. I am sick, frozen cold. I’m stuck!

Back on the stairs, a sticky breath coils around my ear. “You are special.” This is my fault. A hand clasps my shoulder. “Don’t tell your mom or dad. Don’t tell anyone.” Another grips my waist. “You’re such a big girl, special girl.” I’m a stupid little girl. “This is our secret.”

TWO

Think about it.

My babysitter grew up and dug graves for a living. Could it be any worse?

THREE

In the second grade, I remember. A woman wearing a misshapen sweater with pompoms like clown noses positioned down her front shows my class a videotape. There is a bad man, a kid, and a van. The man lures the kid with an oversized lollipop. When the little girl takes the bait, he traps her. The big sliding door at the side slams shut, the vehicle screeches around a corner, and two small palms press against the back window.

My palms press against my desk. I am in the bathroom at my grandparents’ house, and I am scared. My skin is cold. “Good touching.” I feel sick. “Bad touching.” I am afraid. The shadow is at the window. “Good touching.” The shadow is in the classroom. “Bad touching.” The shadow is within me. I remember.

Am I as stupid as the little girl with blonde pigtails, pink dress, and scream? Disgust creeps up my skin. A shadowy hand against my hair coats me in greasy intentions. A desirous breath greases my ear canal. Disgusting, ugly shame fills me, and empties me of most everything else.

Most of the students seated at their desks laugh at the girl. The video is a 1980s PSA where all races join together to wear Polo shirts and khakis and share handshakes, a vision of Ronald Reagan’s dystopia. But I do not laugh.

The woman, the school district psychologist, holds her hands before her. She speaks calmly. “And what do you do after you run away?” The sweater morphs before my eyes. The pompom noses move. The sweater ripples. It is alive.

“Get help. Call the police,” the innocent children say.

There are one or two others who are quiet. They hang their heads and tug at the neck of their t-shirt or pull at their jeans, nervous fidgeting. We commiserate with the girl trapped in the monster’s van, lured by promises of sweet things that could not possibly hurt her. The woman suggests keeping our wits about us and memorizing the license plate number. I am so ashamed. I am the stupid little girl.

I remember what feels like everything but is not. And this is the terror. Knowing but also forgetting. There is so much darkness swirling.

What a nightmare.

I have nightmares. He is a monster.

If my mother bundles up my brother and I in our winter coats and scarves for the grocery store, I resist when I used to beg. Now, I beg to stay in the car. “All right.” She shakes her head. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”

My babysitter works at the grocery store. He is a bagger. He will know if I tell.

While I wait, the monster arrives to bang beneath the truck. I check the locks. There is a tapping. My jeans catch on the braided bench covering as I slide to the middle and listen. He is beneath me and the undercarriage. He knows that I remember. He knows! Claws scrape the axles. He gnaws on the muffler. I look to the doors yawning open with the cheerful people exiting the grocery store with brown paper bags in their arms. He might charge out any second. My hand grips the door handle. I pull it tight in case he tries to break in and eat me. He knows! He is inside me. Get out. Get out of my mind!

In one dream, I hide in a forest. The dark shadow is beneath and above, and I am a squirrel. I flee from the gray shadow mass infiltrating the limbs. The dark cloud mutates a smoggy arm and gropes for my feet. I grasp hold of sticks and pull and dart. But the shadow is everywhere. The shadow has darting hands that switch and flicker like the dance of a butterfly knife. It has large teeth. I am stuck in a middle ground.

I startle myself awake. He stands in the cornfield beyond my bedroom windows. I sit up with wide eyes. I see the shadowed figure of a man with feet splayed apart. The rectangular window frames him and must also frame me wrapped in bed covers. The breath listens. He smells my fear. His eyes extend like hands. I can feel the finger-eyes upon me. He can taste that I am afraid because I recall, and he will punish me. “Don’t tell anyone. You promised.” I hold my knees. “Go away. Leave me alone.” The small light from a far-off neighbor’s porch glints between the bare tree’s limbs. Is that a lantern that he holds? Is it an eye? Does the monster see all? Like God? Like God, he will know if I break my promise. And what will he do to me then? What will he do? I press my lips against my blanketed knee. I close my eyes. “Please go away. I’m a good girl.”

The desire to tell my parents overwhelms me. But I do not tell. Oh my god.

FOUR

My father admits that he knew something had gone wrong that night with the babysitter. He says that I was awake when they got back. He says that the babysitter grabbed his jacket and bolted out the door. He says that I tugged on his arm to whisper, “Cousin shouldn’t watch us anymore.” He says that these words chilled him. He rests on his heels to look me in the eye. “Why?” I shake my head. I will not say. My parents exchange glances, and my mother places her paper tiara with golden glitter upon my head tucking my hair behind my ears.

FIVE

“Did he touch you?” they say. “Did he touch you?” Two years after remembering, I ran to my parents in the middle of the night. Wake up! I cannot hold this any longer. My babysitter did something that was wrong. I believe I said that he had me play a game. I think I said that I did not like it.

“Did he touch you, Sarah?” Their eyes are wide. Electric waves pulse within them.

I shake my head. I can’t remember. What is touching? Can a person’s hand on your arm be “touching?” Would he have to penetrate my skin? He did not touch me. He did? I cling to my mother on my parents’ bed. I cannot tell them everything. I took off my clothes for a sort-of stranger. The lampshade beside their bed burns with orange light, and my father paces. For a penny. My father’s boot-steps echo through the house. The door downstairs slams, and truck tires hurl gravel. I cling to my mother who holds me. “You can tell me.” She pats my hair.

I can’t. I can’t.

My interpretation of the look in his eyes–sadness, guilt, weakness.

Her pats grow distant, fainter. She tells me of a man who owned a motorcycle. This new motorcycle was so shiny. The chrome sparkled in her driveway. “I’ll take you and your sister for rides,” he said. “Youngest first.” When it was my mother’s turn, they passed by his office. He pulled in the back, just for a minute. He was her father’s friend. She says that she was twelve, and she’s sorry something ugly happened to me.

SIX - The Cycle

At my grandmother’s funeral, I am triggered. Behind all the somber faces framed in black and relatives holding tissues to their eyes is my babysitter. He is forty and has creases in his flesh and a longish beard. His face resembles my own, my father’s, and others’ in my family. He still wears flannel and jeans. They are his good jeans, dark blue and pressed, and it’s a good flannel, too, for the funeral. A decade has passed since I was a teenager who worried that I should tell the authorities because he might hurt another little girl. What if he hurts someone else? What if he already has? He has children. He has children. It would be your fault!

Seeing my babysitter is strange. His face. Its weight. My attention keeps returning to him.

After the service, he scurries to a rear room behind the parlor, separate from the family. He never comes to gatherings; you might think this started after I told the first time, but no.

He stopped after I told my grandfather years later. I guess I wanted protected. I was desperate. In the receiving line, my grandfather did not motion him on, but from his chair, his heavy hands crisscrossed upon the knob of his shillelagh, he averted his eyes. No relatives spoke with him beyond his immediate family.

My interpretation of the look in his eyes–sadness, guilt, weakness.

There my babysitter goes through the arch of an open door, and in a daze, I follow.

He sits in the slumped center of a couch. His head angles toward the carpet. I tug at the hem of my skirt, as I cross the floor of this small box that, with each step, grows larger. I have on a forest green skirt, black sweater, heavy tights, and Mary Janes. At this time, my uniform is that of the schoolgirl. A headband holds back my hair. I must bend to hug him because he remains seated, his hands holding the lumpy cushions. As I bring my arms around him, he expulses a breath into my ear. As if curtains are drawn before my eyes, my vision darkens. The smell of him, the feel. He still desires things that he should not. The looking. I feel sorry for him. The looking. There is guilt and pain. “Love you,” I say rising quickly. Look, I am sorry. Shaken, I turn. The somber din of the adjacent room whispers through the shadows of my eyes. I told. I am sick. The looking. I need out. The shadowed thing within my chest constricts my lungs and threatens to burst through my fingernails, tongue, and teeth. The looking. Scratch, claw, bite, scream. There’s the door to the parlor.

In the room with the satin-cream casket, I weave through the persons granting pats on shoulders and voices sharing memories and condolences. Let me out. I love him as I do anyone. Give me a cigarette, a drink, a laugh. He is just a person like me. There’s the front door, push it open. Give me a goddamn good time. I need an outlet!

Where did my father go that night? My uncle and aunt’s? Nobody told me what happened. The withholding is meant to protect a young lady’s delicate senses, but the fog of mystery encircles the pain and creates phantoms from the wispy tendrils.

Then again, I wouldn’t say what happened. What were they to do? Go to the police? Get him counseling? Who was going to pay for that?

Life is horrible–misery and defeat. I stand in the dimming light of the parking lot. Curtained windows block views outside and in. Insiders stay with their grief. Outsiders cannot be voyeurs. Through the walls, I envision my mother apart from the family since my parents’ divorce. My brother stands with the man I will marry and divorce, too. My father stays close to his new family. My babysitter chains himself to that couch. My mother, in my parents’ bed, holds me near, as I refuse to say. My feet root into the concrete. What am I? My palms rise to press the sides of my face. I am stuck. A mute open mouth. I am in the memory. I am out.

Horror movies are outlets. They make monstrous what in real life only seems. I imagine pulling a cord and hoisting a chainsaw. WhirrR! Suck on gasoline fumes. I am the Final Girl, you motherfucking sonuvabitch child molester. Splinters spray onto the gathering, as I leap through the busted funeral home door. Shouts of dismay trail, as I sprint to that couch. Ah! I send the hot metal into his neck, and behind my maniacal laughter, blood splatters the wall, my face, the screen of my lids. His head–stuck in a distorted almost comical expression of shock–rolls past my schoolgirl shoes.

I feel so ug–

Hush hush now. My mother pats my hair. We want to assume the best, not the worst. “Shh.”

S. Miriam Merces returned to the small town she was from in the fall of 2016. There, she lost her mind and found herself. Her work is also at Redivider.