A Once-Safe Place

Fiction / Christine C. Heuner

:: A Once-Safe Place ::

The first time I came to his house, it was 1981, late spring. I was sell­ing Girl Scout cook­ies. Back then, it was accept­able to sell door-to-door, par­ent­less. I and my friend Sarah, who loved to read even more than I did, had cov­ered three blocks of small ranch-style homes before arriv­ing at his house, coral col­ored with white shut­ters. The lawn had just been mowed; the gray­ish, fuzzy chaff of expelled grass streaked the weak green beneath it. Long sprays of grass shot out from the bases of lawn chairs and walk­way lights. Weeds lit­tered the planter, the plants over­grown, brown­ing at the edges.

It was Sarah’s turn to ask about the cook­ies (I’d solicit­ed the pre­vi­ous block), but as soon as the man opened the door, she said, “We’re sell­ing cook­ies, the mint is the most pop­u­lar, and can I use your bath­room?”

The man fixed upon her the light­est green eyes I’d ever seen and raised an eye­brow either in hes­i­ta­tion or sur­prise. “Sure. If you real­ly need to. It’s down the hall.”

I stood at the door, sweat­ing so bad­ly my shirt was stuck to my back. I could feel the chilled air behind him.

It’s a hot one today,” he said. “Do you want to come in for some water?”

I shook my head. “No, thank you.”

Maybe juice?”

I denied him again. I might have won­dered if, some­where inside the house, he had a wife, chil­dren. It seemed so qui­et.

I should have asked him to buy cook­ies, but I felt inept with­out Sarah beside me. Plus, I’m an awful sales­per­son when I have to pawn off a prod­uct I don’t believe in. The cook­ies were noth­ing spe­cial. They were too expen­sive, some peo­ple said. I also took every­thing per­son­al­ly, so when some­one said no to the cook­ies, I thought it was because I was ugly.

I felt him look­ing at me as if wait­ing for me to speak. He had light skin, the kind that burns eas­i­ly, and his lips were a deep pink, almost as if he were wear­ing lip­stick. He had a mus­tache so slight it looked like a shad­ow.

So, are you going to sell me cook­ies?” he asked.

Why? Do you want to buy some?”

He shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

I turned to my clip­board, picked up the pen, and start­ed to read the fla­vors. He stopped me after Do-si-dos. “Just pick out three box­es for me; dif­fer­ent fla­vors,” he said, not impa­tient­ly.

Don’t you have a favorite?” I asked.

I’m not much for cook­ies,” he said. “I usu­al­ly like cake.”

Me too,” I said. “If we had to sell pound cake, I’d win an award.”

*

I went back a week or so lat­er, alone, to deliv­er the cook­ies. I was in charge of two of the blocks where we’d sold them. I had sold so many box­es I made two trips, clat­ter­ing my brother’s old wag­on down the side­walks, sweat­ing in that Flori­da heat so sti­fling it shim­mered and craft­ed mirages on the black­top. It must have been a hun­dred degrees that day because when I arrived at his house and he asked me if I want­ed water, I said yes.

We sat at his round table in the gold­en­rod kitchen. The sun was bright and hurt my eyes. He had a pear-shaped crys­tal sus­pend­ed from a piece of twine over the sink. The sun shot through it, splash­ing cir­cu­lar rain­bows on the floor.

The air con­di­tion­er was heav­en­ly at first, but then I felt too cold.

I drank down the glass of water, packed with ice cubes, quick­ly; he refilled it.

You want some­thing to eat?” he asked.

Like what?” I asked. I wasn’t hun­gry but was curi­ous about what he’d offer me. He had scrawny arms and legs with a small paunch. His light yel­low Izod shirt was tucked into pants with an elas­tic waist­band.

He list­ed for me all kinds of snacks. He added, “I guess we could have cook­ies, but you don’t like them.”

His recall­ing this detail from our first meet­ing sur­prised me. He also remem­bered that I liked pound cake and he told me he had some. “I have this lemon sauce I put on it. I make it myself. It won’t take long.”

I told him I had to go. My Taga­longs were prob­a­bly melt­ing out­side in the heat.

What do you like to do?” he asked even though I was stand­ing and mak­ing my way to the door. “I mean, besides Girl Scouts.”

He stood up, too. His shoes were the kind old peo­ple wear with the thick soles and chunky laces. I must’ve won­dered how old he was, but I had no sense of people’s ages. Any­one over twen­ty fit into that amor­phous realm of an adult.

I hate Girl Scouts. My mom makes me go.”

He smiled at that, rais­ing the left cor­ner of his mouth. I noticed his mus­tache again, so slight a nap­kin might erase it.

What do you like, then?”

I liked to play with my dolls, build hous­es for them with blocks, read and write sto­ries, watch TV, dance alone in my room. I sought any­thing that took me out of myself. At age eleven, I knew it would be baby­ish to admit that I played with toys, so I told him I liked to read.

He smiled, both cor­ners of his mouth raised. He had a slight dim­ple on one cheek. His teeth were all uneven and one was dark­er than the oth­ers.

I love to read,” he said. “I have hun­dreds of books. You want to see?”

I did, but I told him I real­ly had to go. My cook­ies were melt­ing, and my par­ents would be wor­ried about me.

He said okay; before I left, he said, “We haven’t been prop­er­ly intro­duced. I’m James, but my friends call me Jim. Call me Jim.”

I’m Jen­ny.” He reached out his hand and I shook it. He had a tight grip, a quick clutch that held me and quick­ly let go.

*

Not long after that, just before school let out for the sum­mer, I end­ed up at his house again. I hadn’t intend­ed to go there, but my aunt for­got to pick me up at my bus stop. I stood at the cor­ner for almost an hour, fear­ful she’d show up and I wouldn’t be there. I was going to walk the six blocks back to my house when a car pulled up, big and brown, long as a boat.

The pas­sen­ger win­dow rolled down and Jim leaned over. “Hey,” he said. “Jen­ny. What are you doing here?”

I told him what had hap­pened. He told me he’d take me home; I said I could walk, but he insist­ed. I got inside the car, its wel­com­ing cool­ness, and put on my seat­belt.

It’s smart you wear your seat­belt,” he said. “Though I assure you I’m a safe dri­ver.”

My mom works with lawyers,” I said. “They have court cas­es with peo­ple in car crash­es. She tells me sto­ries that scare me.”

Well, that’s not very nice.”

I’d nev­er thought of my moth­er as being any­thing but nice. I was a lit­tle annoyed at him then.

I’ve just been to the library,” he said, ges­tur­ing toward the back­seat where three thick books were stacked on one seat like a pas­sen­ger. “You sure you don’t want to come and see my books? Maybe have a snack?”

For some rea­son I don’t under­stand even today, I said yes.

He had an entire room filled with books, stuffed in those wall-to-wall book­shelves with very lit­tle space for more. A love seat in the mid­dle of the room made me feel small, sit­ting in the cen­ter of all that majesty: the palette of col­ors, font shapes and sizes on the thick or thin, new or worn spines. The plas­tic blinds on the tall, nar­row win­dow emit­ted a weak light. He turned the wand on the blinds and dust-flecked light entered the room. The car­pet was pea-green with gray balls of dust gath­ered at the edges of the book­shelves. It smelled like an old library and I loved that.

Take what­ev­er you want,” he said. He turned to one shelf. “Let’s see. You might like this one.”

He hand­ed me a book with a group­ing of girls gath­ered around a piano on the cov­er. The black spine read: Lit­tle Women.

Take it with you,” he said. “Let me know what you think.”

With­in a few pages, I rec­og­nized that I was in the pres­ence of genius. Sweet Val­ley High and Judy Blume books, my usu­al fare, were a snack com­pared to the meal Alcott spread before me. I read the book over Memo­r­i­al Day week­end. My moth­er made me come out of my room, and I resent­ed her for it. “Come up for air,” she said. “You’re like a her­mit.”

She asked what I was read­ing, and I showed it to her.

For school?” she asked.

I told her yes. Even though I didn’t feel odd about going to Jim’s house, I knew she wouldn’t approve of it.

I went there again after I fin­ished the book, knocked brazen­ly on the door one day after school.

Do you have any­thing else for me to read?” I asked. “I loved this one.”

We sat at his kitchen table eat­ing pound cake with lemon sauce, the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of tang and sweet. He’d just giv­en me anoth­er book, To Kill a Mock­ing­bird. I want­ed to go home and read it but didn’t want to be rude, so I sat with him, squirm­ing a lit­tle in my chair as I fin­ished my cake.

You prob­a­bly do well in school,” he said.

Math’s a killer. I’m good in Eng­lish.”

I’m good in math,” he said. “I could help you.”

I con­sid­ered this. We had a math final the fol­low­ing week. I had a C in the class. I was hop­ing for hon­or roll, but it wasn’t look­ing good.

I’m also flu­ent in Span­ish,” he said. “I bet you didn’t expect that. I used to trans­late for the FBI.”

I didn’t know what the FBI was but pre­tend­ed to be impressed.

You want me to say some­thing in Span­ish?” he asked as if I’d nev­er heard Span­ish before. We lived in South Flori­da not Wyoming.

Sure.”

Tu eres muy boni­ta y inteligente y sim­páti­ca.”

The fix­i­ty of his gaze con­firmed that he was speak­ing about me. I told him I had to go home; he told me to come by Tues­day after three if I want­ed help with tutor­ing. My par­ents told me I could get the Nikes with the rain­bow swoosh if I made hon­or roll, so I went back. He helped me with long divi­sion. We ate Ring Dings and shared an orange to make our snack healthy.

At five o’clock, he told me I should prob­a­bly get home, that my par­ents would be wor­ried about me. I told him that they came home late. My old­er broth­er was in high school and stayed after school every day for sports, so I was only respon­si­ble for myself. No one arrived home until after six, usu­al­ly.

You must get lone­some,” he said, try­ing to catch my eye. I wouldn’t look at him. “I know I get lone­some.”

I like to read,” I said. “That pass­es the time.”

He didn’t ask me if I had friends, and I was grate­ful not to have to report that I only had two: Sarah and Michelle.

Do you want to see some­thing?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure and told him so.

It’s okay,” he said, reach­ing for my hand. “Come with me.”

It didn’t occur to me not to take his hand. One action seemed to fol­low the oth­er in a nat­ur­al pro­gres­sion. I was not scared.

I fol­lowed him to the part of the house I’d nev­er been in, a hall­way off the liv­ing room. In one of the rooms in that hall­way, two couch­es of dark fab­ric clut­tered the space, ensconced with side tables cov­ered with doilies and match­ing flow­ered lamps. It smelled vague­ly of oranges in the ear­ly stage of rot.

He dis­ap­peared into a clos­et and returned with a dress, white lace with a shiny belt adorned with a clus­ter of three tiny ros­es.

Do you like it?” he asked.

I did. It looked like my size.

You can have it if you want. Try it on first.”

I had no idea how I’d explain such a gift to my par­ents. Last week, he’d giv­en me a rhine­stone bracelet my moth­er asked about. I lied and told her Sarah gave it to me.

For no rea­son?” she asked.

I said not real­ly.

Well, that’s a fan­cy gift for no rea­son.”

In the dark room, I held the dress up to my tor­so and asked, “You bought this for me?”

Not exact­ly. It was my daughter’s.”

You have a daugh­ter?”

He nod­ded, a quick shake. “She’s gone now. That’s all I want to say about her, okay?”

I agreed by nod­ding.

Why don’t you try it on?” he asked.

I couldn’t deny him. The bath­room was pink every­thing except for the toi­let, which was white. I imag­ined that he’d once lived in this house with his daugh­ter and maybe a wife, too.

The dress wasn’t as white as it had seemed in the room’s dull light. A slight yel­low patch stained the dress just below the belt, and it smelled musty. It fit, though, and when I came out of the bath­room his eyes widened. 

You look so pret­ty,” he said. “You should take it home, wear it to one of your school dances.”

I didn’t tell him that the dress was more of a First Com­mu­nion vari­ety and that we didn’t have school dances.

He came toward me and touched me on the shoul­der.

I stood there, my under­arms start­ing to itch—the dress wasn’t as good a fit as I thought—and to sweat. The room was warmer than the rest of the house.

Are you okay?” he asked, remov­ing his hand from my shoul­der and star­ing at me.

I told him I need­ed to get home and thanked him for the dress. I wore it home, the sweat mak­ing it more and more itchy. I hid it in my clos­et toward the back so my moth­er wouldn’t find it.

*

I some­how got a B in math and made the hon­or roll. I wore my new Nikes to Jim’s house. I vis­it­ed him once a week or so once school let out. I went to sum­mer camp for a few weeks, which I hat­ed except the days we went to the movies. I tried to con­vince my moth­er that I was too old to attend camp, but she told me I need­ed struc­ture to my day and to “get out and enjoy the weath­er,” but the weath­er was so hot we near­ly wilt­ed on the play­ground and couldn’t take much more than an hour out­doors.

At Jim’s house, I would prac­tice my math for at least a half hour. He con­vinced me that it would help me make hon­or roll next year, sev­enth grade, and that meant gifts.

Jim bought me gifts, too, those that I could eas­i­ly hide or pass off as bequeathed from a friend. I even made up a friend, Leslie, inspired by Bridge to Ter­abithia, who liked giv­ing me things. I told my moth­er that she gave me the tiny hoop ear­rings with the dan­g­ly hearts and the Guess t‑shirt with the inter­wo­ven hearts. I asked Jim how he knew Guess was “in.” He squint­ed his eyes—his expres­sion of confusion—and said that he hadn’t looked at the brand at all. He just thought I’d like the hearts.

And all the books he loaned me? I got them from the library of course. My par­ents didn’t notice that the call num­bers weren’t taped onto their spines and they weren’t cov­ered in plas­tic.

I didn’t tell any­one about Jim since there was no rea­son to, and I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to go over there if I did. He was my secret friend, some­one who I didn’t have to talk to very much. Some days, I’d just sit in his library room and read. I’d take a break for cake or Cream­si­cles. We ate a lot of straw­ber­ries, too, to be healthy. He said I need­ed my vit­a­mins.

*

And then in July, Adam Walsh, six years old, went miss­ing from a Sears not ten miles from my house. My moth­er didn’t like that mall, so we didn’t go there often, but my Gram­mie took me there some­times; she liked the Woolworth’s, which she called the “five-and-dime.”

They found Adam’s body in a canal. Head­less.

My par­ents bare­ly watched the news but did so on this occa­sion, care­less that I took in the grue­some­ness of this real­i­ty. A reporter claimed that most chil­dren are abduct­ed not by strangers but by some­one they know.

Great,” my moth­er said, near tears. “Now we can’t trust our neigh­bors.”

*

The next time I went to Jim’s, he pre­sent­ed me with anoth­er gift: a bathing suit, elec­tric blue with one neon pink stripe from shoul­der-to-hip.

Try it on,” he said. “See if it fits. This looks like your size.”

It was a per­fect fit. I want­ed to change back into my clothes, but knew he’d want to see me in the suit.

I put on my shorts over the suit and came out of the bath­room.

It fits,” I said.

Take off the shorts,” he said. “I want to see how it looks on you.”

I felt dizzy. “I need to go home,” I said.

He came toward me and put his hand on my head. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Why are you cry­ing?”

Are you going to hurt me?” I asked, snot drip­ping from my nose. “You’re not going to hurt me, are you?”

I imag­ined myself in a canal: bloat­ed like a dead frog; head­less.

He looked at me, squint­ing as if to see me bet­ter, to under­stand this new girl I’d become. “No, Jen­ny, I’m not going to hurt you. Why would you say that?”

I don’t know,” I said, my voice thick. “I just need to go.” I pushed past him and ran out of his house. I ran the three blocks home, my san­dals smack­ing against the con­crete.

*

That was the last time I saw Jim. I threw out the bathing suit and the dress, pushed them to the bot­tom of the garbage bin. I still wore the Guess t‑shirt and jew­el­ry he gave me, though. After all, they came from Leslie, my invis­i­ble friend.

Today, fif­teen years lat­er, all of the gifts Jim gave me are gone save the rhine­stone bracelet whose stones have fall­en out. I keep the bracelet and loose stones in a bag­gie in my jew­el­ry armoire. The med­ley of col­ored gems reminds me of the sus­pend­ed crys­tal in his kitchen, how it caught the after­noon light, the dots of rain­bow splayed across the floor like con­fet­ti. He turned the crys­tal for me, spin­ning it, so I could see the span­gles dance.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I came to this sto­ry through a reflec­tion upon the vio­lence against chil­dren and young adults that occurred at dif­fer­ent points in my life. I am a Flori­da native and grew up in the after­math of Adam Walsh’s mur­der, which occurred less than ten miles from my home. I also attend­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da a year after ser­i­al killer Dan­ny Rolling claimed five stu­dents’ lives. In writ­ing this sto­ry, I want­ed to con­sid­er how the media’s pub­lic­i­ty of vio­lence affects the psy­che of a child, exac­er­bat­ing her fear of attack and death at the hands of some­one she once con­sid­ered an ally.

 

Chris­tine C. Heuner has been teach­ing high school Eng­lish for over 19 years. She lives with her hus­band, in-laws, and two chil­dren in New Jer­sey. Her work has appeared in Philadel­phia Sto­ries, The Write Launch, Flash Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. In 2011, she self-pub­lished Con­fes­sions, a book of short sto­ries.