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.”
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.
“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.