Lying in bed, it all gets whirled around in my head. Over and over I replay the scene in my mind, as if torturing myself with these images and thoughts will somehow make it all ok. As if I can convince myself it was just something I’d dreamed, something not real.
I close my eyes and the images return, her coming around the corner and nearly running into me, my own voice, did I really sound that angry?
“Marissa Lauren what are you doing here?” She was looking behind her, over her shoulder and her head jerked around to face me so fast it must have hurt, looking up at me, her father, her protector, the one she was actually seeking to save her, and there was nothing but pure terror in her eyes.
Her eyes, I cannot forget that look in her eyes. She wanted to run to me and bury her self in the shelter of my arms, but she didn’t. Maybe it was the fact that I was standing there with my hands on my hips and glaring at her, the look had registered, but at first I thought it was just because she had been caught away from the toy section where she should have stayed until one of us went to collect her and her brother. Then somehow, that very real fear cut through my fatherly annoyance at my child not obeying and I knew something was seriously wrong.
She stood there with her hands at her sides, unsure of what to do looking up at me, not knowing what to do. It occurs to me now, she only had in her mind to get to her Daddy, that he would make everything alright, and once she found me she simply shut down, unable to continue.
“What’s wrong?” The fear was radiating off her in waves, and it was all I could do not to allow it to gain control of me. Did I kneel to her level? I can’t remember, of all the things I can recall of this horrible night, why can’t I remember kneeling to comfort my daughter?
“There was a man” God her voice, where was my boisterous daughter, this is not her voice so small, so fragile. “He showed me his pee-pee.”
A great roar filled my ears, my entire being consumed by a flaming combination of fear and anger. Suddenly I had her in my arms, almost shaking her in my terror.
“He didn’t touch you did he?” I don’t think I yelled it, I thought I had the roaring lion under control, yet she flinched as if I’d struck her.
“N-no.” Nearly whispering, “He followed me.” The roaring in my ears was nearly deafening now, that had to be the reason my normally exuberant child was sounding so far away, talking without emotion about what had happened.
“I tried to find you. I went to the back of the store, he followed me, he asked me if I liked it, if it was pretty.” The words flowed out of her without emotion. The terror seemed to be gone now, at least that’s what I told myself at the time. So what ever had happened it wasn’t as bad as my first imaginings.
“Why didn’t you go to the front of the store and tell someone! Why did you go to the back of the store he could have kidnapped you or worse!” I railed all the way to the customer service desk at the entrance to the store. My wife was just behind us; she’d shown up sometime during the monologue of events from Marissa. She had our son in tow, and the four of us went to the service counter and I demanded to see the manager.
All the while Marissa continued her story, “He followed me past the tools and the car aisles and then when I couldn’t find you, he-“ She broke off, looking around her blankly as if she had just become aware of her surroundings and wasn’t certain how she’d gotten there.
I still had her in my arms when the manager approached and I told him what had happened, demanding that they call the police right away. Later I realized they never did call the cops, just handled it all internally.
“He left.” Marissa said, “When I got-“Her voice seemed to catch in her throat, “When I couldn’t find Daddy and came up front he followed me and then walked out the front door, then I saw Daddy.”
They’d locked down the store anyway. Marissa looked about her vacantly as she went over the events again with the store manager, and again with the store detective. She insisted the man had left just before she saw me, and maybe she was right, but they still locked the doors of the store and made her watch people as they were let out one by one to make certain he hadn’t doubled back after she’d turned off the main aisle way. Then the store detective came up to us excitedly, this must have been the biggest deal to him, and I wanted to deck him, getting all excited about some pervert exposing himself to my daughter. He said he thought he’d found the guy and wanted to take Marissa to spy on him so she could identify him. I almost laughed when he described the guy, some older man with a fedora and tan trench coat, said the guy had a mustache too. What did he think the guy dressed like a flasher from TV? I wasn’t too keen on him taking Marissa to look at the guy, especially if it was him, but the detective said it was the only way to identify him. Marissa was shaking her head slowly, “Its not him.” She said, convinced before she’d even seen him, “He didn’t wear a long coat, and he didn’t have a hat, and he didn’t have a mustache.” She was certain. But kids can be wrong, so at the detective’s insistence I let him lead her away, despite my every instinct screaming at me to never let her go again. When they came back she almost looked bored, and the detective looked disgusted, you could tell he’d wanted that guy to be the one so he could “bust” him and I wanted to deck him all over again. After the manager and detective talked it over for a while they decided to unlock the doors and after we’d essentially swore not to sue the store we left. During the long car ride home I felt that roaring fill my ears again and I couldn’t help myself, all the fears and possibilities swam through my vision, I still don’t know how I was able to see the road through the images of my broken daughter lying in a gutter somewhere, or worse, lying beneath that whacko pervert in a dingy bed somewhere. The images kept coming and before I knew it the dam burst and I started railing at her, as I ranted I could see her in the rearview mirror shrinking further and further within as my words buffeted her. But I couldn’t stop, my words grew louder and she grew smaller. It was so painful. “Why did you go to the back of the store?” Was the main chorus, but the rest of the medley consisted of a lot of “You should have done this…” or “You should have done that…” My wife joined in on the chorus once in a while but in reality it was a one-man show. Part of me, the one tiny part that wasn’t obliterated by the roar of parental anger was questioning myself, “When had we ever taught our children what they should do if something like this happens?” It was a legitimate question, this never happened, why should my seven-year-old daughter know what to do if a man showed himself to her in a public place. Thank God he didn’t try to do anything or to take her, she wouldn’t have known what to do in either of those events. Why was I acting as if she should have known what to do? It’s not her fault, she did what any kid does when they know there is something that is scary going on, she tried to find Mommy and Daddy, she tried to find Daddy, her protector. Some protector. The roaring grew, drowning out these small thoughts, “and another thing young lady…. you and your brother can forget about ever being allowed to hang out in the toy section alone while we shop again.” Cries of protest from my son, he didn’t fully understand what was going on, just a year younger than Marissa, we told him that a man did a not nice thing and that Marissa had left the toy section to tell us about it. Again that tiny part of me spoke up, “He’s going to think its something Marissa did wrong and she’s being punished as well, better explain it to them, that its for their protection.” How do you explain to your children that there are people in the world who would hurt them, that could kill them? No. The roaring was subsiding, the worst was over, she’s safe and that’s all that matters now, right? I looked in the rearview mirror again; she was looking out the window, resting her forehead against the glass. I could see even from here that her eyes were shining with tears, yet she wasn’t crying, just staring out at the darkening sky. So quiet, so unlike her. I spoke her name, “Marissa”, she looked up at me dully, “Are you-“ I wanted to ask her if she was sure the perv had never touched her, but the words just wouldn’t come. “It’s over” I said to her firmly. “No reason to be carrying on about it. Just forget about it and it will go away.” I am still uncertain whether or not these words were really for her or for me. Now here I am in bed, my wife sleeping beside me and I can’t sleep, unable to shake the uncertainty, is my baby girl really going to be ok? There is this nagging feeling that there is something more, something in this whole incident that I’m missing but for the life of me I just don’t know what it is. As I finally drift off to sleep a final image fills my mind and I smile at the memory. Putting Marissa to bed she’d slipped her arms around my neck and hugged me, “I love you Daddy.” She’d whispered in my ear. She was going to be fine, and I’m sure I imagined it, hearing her whisper again just as I’d shut her door, “I’m sorry I was bad.”