That’s what I see when I think of him. Rusty like his old red truck that growled through the streets of suburban Connecticut, brazenly followed by a thick black cloud covering everything in its path. The old leather seats were peeled and musty exposing a dirty cushion beneath. He was filth masked with small town charm and friendly greetings.
21 July 2004
It’s the peak of summer in New England. The trees are heavy and green, the sun bright and the air so hot it almost looks like the pavement is steaming. I am back in the old truck that I can’t help but despise. My thin, adolescent thighs keep sticking to the torn, flaking seats. His arm is pressed up against me, sweaty, and I wonder if that is really necessary. I try to scoot to the right, closer to my friend, but I let out a grunt as my legs peel off the leather.
“Sit still, will you, kid?”
I stop for a moment before trying again. He exhales as he glances out of the side window, ever-so-slightly shaking his head. I had attempted to walk the brief fifteen minutes it takes to get to their house, like I always do, but he insisted on picking me up, like he always does. And a few short moments later, we pull into the driveway, stopping only inches from the bright yellow wood of their house. Barbecue smoke soars over the rooftops, carrying old rock tunes and laughter with it. I climb, painfully, out of the truck on Jen’s side, turning back to find his eyes on me. I slam the door shut. The loud clash of metal on metal makes me wince. His gaze shifts as he follows the sound of his friends’ crude calls.
I wander around the party, dropping in and out of conversations until I make myself comfortable on the steps of the porch. Jen is next to me, twirling her mousey brown hair while mercilessly flirting with her neighbour Kyle, a jock from the local high school who is way too old for her. He walks away to grab a burger from the grill, leaving Jen to finally talk to me.
“I think he’s going to ask me out,” she says, dramatically fanning herself. I let out a chuckle.
“Jen, he’s turning sixteen next month. You’re six whole months away from even being thirteen.”
“That’s one month closer than you are!” She seems pleased with herself, but I couldn’t care less. I am in love with Will, the class clown with hair the colour of my mother’s mahogany dining table. I smile to myself and then look at Jen, who is practically drooling as she stares after Kyle.
“Well, if he does ask you, how is that going to work?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re moving next weekend… over an hour away. You’ll pretty much be in a different state.” Jen rolls her eyes.
“He drives, remember?” She switches her gaze from me to Kyle, biting her lip and stamping her feet in excitement. I go along with it and giggle with her. She might as well enjoy him while she’s still here.
“Hey sweetie!” Jen’s dad makes his way over to us. A tall, slim balding man is following closely behind him. They stop, leaning on the porch rail above us. I look up, but the bright sun shines over their shoulders, blackening out each face. I glance back down at the lemonade in my hands, focusing on the cold condensation dripping between my pale fingers.
“Kyle was asking for you, bun.” Her dad pinches her cheek and she squirms away. Jen’s face lights up as she hops to a stand and runs eagerly in Kyle’s direction.
“Ain’t young love grand?” murmurs the friend, taking Jen’s place on the step next to me. I nod with a forced smile and move away slightly. “I’m Bill.” He holds his hand out in front of me. I shake it, gesturing to myself. “Sam.”
“Sam is the family favourite. We love it when she comes for a play date.” I internally cringe at the term “play date”. Jen’s dad smiles down at me, his chin blocked by his wide beer belly. Nobody says anything for a few minutes and I suddenly feel awkward.
“I’m going to get some more lemonade,” I say as I stand, dusting dirt off the bottom of my shorts. Her dad nods, hovering above me, strong and tall, his stare unyielding. I look away.
“You know, you should really pull up your shirt. I can see right down it. Wouldn’t want some of these creepy fuckers staring at your boobs all day.”
Bill laughs, looking at me as he takes a sip of his beer, making a gross slurping sound against the aluminium can. I quickly pull my top up, keeping my hands folded across my small chest and shuffle away. My heart beats hard beneath my skin.
The sun shifts to a faint, warm glow. It’s been hours since I got here. I feel as though the heat has seeped into my skull, giving me a killer headache. I want to get home before it gets dark, but Jen’s dad is standing in the driveway, leaning on the passenger door of the truck. I try to sneak by, hoping he won’t see me.
“Sam…” He says coolly. Damn it. I look up and press my lips together into a closed smile.
“Thanks for having me over, Mr. Garrity. I think I’m gonna head home now.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? Call me Chuck. Come on, get in. I’ll give you a ride.” He turns and opens the door. I don’t stop walking as I pass him.
“No, no, I could use the walk. I’ll see you later.” My steps turn into a jog as I make my way down the driveway onto the main road. I can feel his gaze on the nape of my neck, but I don’t look back.
16 January 2005
The birthday cake is perched heavily on my legs as I sit in the car with my mother. The thin bare trees pass in a blur as we drive north to Jen’s new house, further and further away from the sleepy town centre.
I haven’t seen her since she moved away. Her mom wanted Jen to settle into school and their new life before I came to visit. “It’s been hectic with the holidays”, she said when I finally got my invitation. I even missed her birthday. I look down at the cake I’ve baked her, lifting up the plate to make sure I haven’t ruined the pattern in the pretty pink frosting.
“Don’t worry, honey. The cake will be fine,” says my mother in her soft English accent. She looks at me and smiles. Her green eyes are almost blue against the white snow outside, cheeks pricked with rose in the chilled air. I breathe out and see a cloud of frost float from my lips.
A loud screech from the van in front of us startles me. My mother’s arm shoots out across my chest, attempting to hold me back. The van struggles as it slips violently on thick, black ice, swerving in and out, left to right. My chest falls forward knocking mom’s arm away, squishing some of the perfect frosting into the corduroy of my coat. The seatbelt hits me hard like a rod and I let out a gasp. We jolt and skid onto the side of the road, fighting for control of the car, stopping as the tire hits the curb.
We sit in silence, both of us a little breathless.
“You okay, Sammy?”
I nod. We wait for a minute before slowly rolling back into the lane.
“Jeez. Probably not the best day to drive an hour and half, huh? Make sure Chuck drives slowly when he takes you home. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to my little baby.” The words slip through a goofy grin as she messes up my dark blonde hair, quickly returning her hand to the wheel.
She tries to hide it, but I see the worry in the lines that mark her face. I am her life, complete and compact in my five-foot-two frame. With no family near and an ex-husband that is probably as far as China by now, I’m all she’s got. I lean over the armrest and give her a quick kiss on the cheek.
We are getting close. The endless wood leads the way with crooked, strangled branches curving with each turn of the road. There hasn’t been a house in miles.
We slow the car down to search for any sign of a driveway, but there is just snow.
“Is that something? Over there?” Ma finally mutters. I lean forward for a better look. It’s Jen sitting near the peak of a high snow bank, marking the beginning of her unploughed driveway. She’s waving excitedly. A smile spreads across my face as the car comes to a full stop and I climb out of the seat, careful not to drop the cake. I attempt to wave goodbye to my mom with the plate in my hands.
“Be careful!” She yells after me. Her voice echoes softly as she slowly turns the car around, disappearing into the trees.
It’s almost a mile’s walk in the deep snow. The only markings are Jen’s footprints from earlier. My asthma is kicking in as I lift my legs above the stiff surface and back down again. I wiggle my numb fingers, gripping the plate as I stop to catch my breath. It feels like ice is filling my lungs and I shiver. My feet are wet and cold and I quickly realise I need new boots.
“Hey, there it is.” Jen nods toward the house. It’s old and a little run down with white chipped siding and dark brown moulding. There are large boards of muddy wood and blue tarp piled up near trash cans on the west side. The rusty pickup truck sits untouched, adding a dull splash of colour to a bland scene. The only sounds I hear are the crackling of frozen trees and the faint bark of a dog. I glance back toward the hidden main road. I listen out for a sign of passing cars in the distance, but find nothing. I wonder just how far away their neighbours are.
“Told you it was bigger than our last place,” Jen smiles proudly as we walk up the front steps. She holds the door open for me as I step out of the snow into the warmth of their living room. It smells like stale coffee and campfires. Her dad is sitting on the couch with a can of bud light, the bright red numbers of the clock glowing next to him. 11:06am.
“Aren’t you going to say hi?” He mutters.
I open my mouth to say hello, but no sound comes out. I nod and hastily follow Jen into the kitchen. The room is darkened with cherry wood and stained linoleum. The coffee pot is full of old grinds and there is a pile of dishes in the sink with dried suds stuck to each one. Jen walks over to a cupboard in search of clean plates and cups, but settles on two bowls and a couple of mugs with pictures of pugs on them. We help ourselves to a slice of cake and run up the narrow staircase to her room. The floor creaks beneath our feet, almost as if the old house is sighing against the weight. A yellow glow from the lamp downstairs creates rays through the cracks between the floorboards. We walk into her bright room, whitened by the light shining through her tall windows. We sit and chat about her new school and the friends she has made. The hours quickly fade as if they were just a few, short minutes.
My feet are cold against the hard wood as I sit on the floor, leaning against Jen’s bed of fluffy blankets and turquoise pillows. The grandfather clock in the living room rings as it strikes five o’clock. I hear the springs of the couch squeak as Chuck stands up, thumping against the old floor with each step. He’s barely moved all day. My eyes follow his path beneath me. The stairs creak and the vibration travels over the boards as he approaches Jen’s bedroom.
“Knock, knock.” He opens the door. “Ok girls, time for Sam to go home.”
Jen lets out a dramatic sigh. “No, why does she have to go? I never get to see her anymore.”
“Stop whining. It’s a long drive and I want to get home before the storm gets worse.”
Jen rolls her eyes in defeat. “Well then, I call dibs on the radio!”
“No, you’re staying here.” I snap my head up, looking at Chuck.
“What? Why isn’t Jen coming?” The words stumble out awkwardly, almost as if I said it out of order.
“Jen needs to study for her test tomorrow.” Chuck darts a look at Jen as if he’s disappointed in her. “Getting a D on your math test won’t cut it, young lady. You’ve wasted enough time chatting, you don’t need to be riding in that truck all damn day, too.”
Jen runs downstairs to convince her mom to let her go, leaving me alone with Chuck. I try to rush by him to follow Jen, but he blocks me.
“Best to leave them alone. You know what Jen’s like when she doesn’t get her way.” He is tall and leaning into me. Something in the pit of my stomach tightens and I find myself stepping back. His eyes travel up and down my body, the corner of his mouth gently twitches.
“Has anyone ever told you how pretty you are?” The smell of beer escapes his lips as he exhales.
“Thank you,” I whisper. My heart is beating so fast that my body feels numb and I wonder if I will be able to move. His hand reaches up and strokes the top of my arm. His fingers are calloused with uncut nails, sharp and caked with dirt. I step back slightly, moving towards the door.
“Hey, where ya goin’?”
“Uh, I’m just going to wait downstairs.” I leave, walking down to the kitchen.
“If your father said no, then no.” Jen’s mom, Tina, is standing against the counter with an old rag between her fingers and one hand on her hip. She looks tired and exasperated from whatever argument she was having with Jen.
“I think Jen should drive home with me.” The words slip boldly from my mouth. Tina’s eyes lock onto me.
“That’s not your decision, sweetie.” She tries to come off gentle, but I can tell she’s pissed.
I stand silent in the hallway. Jen is leaning against the fridge, sulking. Tina hasn’t looked away from me. I hear Chuck, dropping his feet heavily on each step as we walks down the stairs, stopping behind me. Close. His arm reaches past me, grabbing his oil-stained denim jacket off the coat rack. It smells of sweat as he swings it over his shoulders. He spins his keys around his finger, catching them in his palm, over and over again. There’s a knock on the door.
“Come on in.” It’s his friend Bill. My stomach churns. It feels as though my legs might buckle. Something’s not right. I place my hand gently on the wall to hold myself up, hiding any sign of weakness.
“Time to go, Sam.” Chuck walks over to the front door, giving a subtle nod to Bill, but I don’t move.
“I’m not getting in the car.”
“Well, you’re not staying here. Let’s go.” His voice is getting angry. His body is half way out the door, turning slowly to face me, fists clenched. His eyes are squinted as if he’s trying to figure out my next move. I notice the phone is sitting on the table to my left, next to the bathroom door. Tina watches me map out my plan and raises her finger as if to punish me like a puppy that is misbehaving.
I swallow hard, but my tongue is dry like a heavy brick and I’m somehow sweating in the middle of a snowstorm. I know how this story ends if I get in that car. It’s like every murder mystery movie I’ve ever watched and I’m suddenly thankful that my mom always ignored the PG-13 rating on the back of every DVD case. I can see it now. Eerie music starts to play, hinting that something bad is about to happen. He’ll slam the door behind me as I climb into the truck. We’ll drive down a quiet, dark street, away from the main road. He and Bill will take it in turns and I’ll scream but nobody will care because nobody will hear me. The camera pans out, the dramatic music intensifies and the screen goes black.
Jen is looking at me like I’m crazy. I clench my teeth and hurl myself towards the table, grabbing the phone and pulling it into the bathroom. I shut the door and twist the lock. The cord is squished tightly between the frame and tile and I dial my mom’s phone number as fast as I can before Tina can unplug it.
“What a little bitch,” she says. The words are like spitting on a pavement, dirty and harsh.
“Jen, go to your room,” Chuck says as he slams the front door. I can hear Jen stumbling up the stairs, stopping in the middle. “Get!” She rushes up the last steps and down the hallway above me.
“Open the door, Sam,” He says, but I won’t.
I can barely hear the dial tone. The line cracks and I hold my breath. “Hello? Hello?”
“Hello? Who is this? I can barely hear you.”
“Mom? Something’s wrong.”
“Sam? Honey, are you ok?”
“No, please come get me.” I’m starting to cry and my voice gets shaky. “He won’t let Jen drive home with me. I’m locked in the bathroom and he is really mad. I’m scared.” The line cracks, muffling my mother’s words.
“Who? Chuck? I can’t hear you. What’s going on? Did he do something to you?”
“No, but I’m scared. Can you pick me up? Something’s not right.” I hear her breathe in deep.
“I’m leaving now. Do not come out of that bathroom, you hear me? Stay in there.”
I hang up the phone and crawl away from the door. My heart is thumping so hard against my chest I can feel it in my throat. Their voices are loud as they shout, shaking the doorknob. I bring my hands to my ears and squeeze my eyes shut. I hear Jen walking around above me and realise she’s coming back downstairs. There’s a light tapping on the bathroom door.
“Hey. Sam. It’s me, Jen. Open the door, this is silly.”
“Will you at least let me in? I’ll sit with you.”
I hesitate. Chuck grunts as he watches me open the door slowly and let her in, quickly shutting it behind me.
It feels like we have been locked in there for hours when I finally hear a loud banging on the front door.
“Sam?” I can hear my mom shouting.
“Hi Kate. You really didn’t have to – ”
She pushes past Chuck before he can finish, rushing down the hallway. “Where is my daughter?” she shouts. “Honey, you can come out now.”
I open the door and she pulls me into her, stroking my hair as she ushers me out of the house. We make our way down the snow-covered driveway, not letting go of each other. I let out a deep breath when I see the car. We slip into the seats and blast the heat, rushing out of town as fast as we can.
Once we are a few miles away we pull over into a quiet parking lot outside of a gas station. Without saying anything, we sit in silence for a moment, hugging each other tightly, tears streaming down our faces.
“You did the right thing. I am so proud of you.”
13 September 2009
The bell rings and the stampede of students rushing to their next class fills the hallway. When I reach my room, a group of four girls are huddled next to my desk, whispering about some gossip. A chorus of disbelieving comments bounce from student to student. “That is so creepy.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Her dad did that?”
I shimmy between bodies until I make it to my desk.
“Jen? Jen Garrity? Wow. I wonder how she is handling it.”
My book slips out of my hands, slamming loudly against the peach-coloured floor. The girls jump and simultaneously shoot glances in my direction. My heart stops.
“I’m sorry, what did you say? About Jen?” I didn’t want to know, but I don’t think I even needed to ask. I knew exactly what they were going to say.
The girls give each other a look as if they aren’t supposed to tell me. It doesn’t take long before one of them gives in. “Her dad was arrested for sexual assault. The police said he was driving home the little girl Jen babysits and attacked her down by the old Miller house. You know the one with the long dirt road next to it? She got away though. Thank God.”
I feel like I’m going to be sick. “I think I need to… I’m sorry, excuse me.” I get up and run out of the classroom, hearing my teacher calling my name behind me. I stumble into the girl’s bathroom, bump into the stall door and throw up. Two girls chatting near the sink screech in disgust and rush out of the room. I sneak into the hall, embarrassed, and walk through the exit door.
I wake to find myself sleeping in my bed, eyes swollen and so nauseous it’s as though I’m seasick. I slip out from my covers and make my way to the living room. I pick up the remote and turn on the news. An update about some political event is on as my mom walks through the door.
“Hey Sammy, I’m home. What a long day.” She sees me standing in front of the TV as she makes her way over to me.
“How are you feeling?” I look into her eyes, unable to find words. The image on the screen changes and I can see the blur of rust in the corner of my eye. I turn to face him. His skin is so pale it’s almost grey against his bright, greasy hair and the orange jumpsuit. I turn up the volume.
“In other news, a Connecticut father, Chuck Garrity, aged 52, has been charged with sexual assault of a minor after a 10 year old girl called the police saying she was attacked by her babysitter’s dad around 9:30pm on Wednesday night. Shortly after his arrest, Mr Garrity and his friend Bill Howard were also charged with the 2006 rape and murder of two girls, Sadie Greyson, aged 11, and Jackie Hart, aged 13. Mr Garrity’s wife, Tina Garrity, was also connected to the crimes. She has been charged with three counts of conspiracy and two counts of accessory to murder. All parties are due in court in October. Stay tuned with Channel 3 News.”
A few weeks later, the confirmation of their convictions is the trending topic around town. The whispers fill the aisles at grocery stores, the playground and school pickups… every square inch of this once suburban sanctuary. It doesn’t take me long before I need a break, even if it’s a few hours of solitude away from the chaos. I pack a bag, get in my car and head to my cousin’s home upstate. As I approach the border, a mere two miles away from where it happened, the memories tumble back to me and I realise I may not be able to hide away after all. I pull over and park in front of the local coffee shop, stepping out into what you’d call a ghost town, one destroyed by a curse. There are two mothers holding their children, hovering by the newspaper stand.
“I always thought this town was safe. But they lived here… around our children. I can’t imagine what those girls’ parents are feeling.”
They continue to make their way down the path, moving away from the evocative headlines. As I go to read the horror I so slightly escaped, I hear footsteps behind me. It’s Jen. She stands there, dark and silent, as if an urban legend has walked out from the shadows into broad daylight. A person you hear about, but never see. I stumble back a step in shock. My gaze rests on her face as I search for the words, but they won’t come out. She looks like she hasn’t slept for a hundred nights, her eyes are puffy and red. She pauses and stares at me.
“This is why we stopped being friends. Isn’t it?” She gestures to the newspapers.
I didn’t know what to say. I stood there blankly, awkward. Heartbroken for her.
“He didn’t… did he?” Her voice cracks.
“No, no.” The words slip out from my lips with a reassuring tone, hiding the fact that he almost did. He could have. He would have.
A loud truck pulls up. It’s a bunch of boys from school. They look at Jen and evil smiles creep across their faces. Concern deepens in Jen’s eyes.
“I have to go.” She runs back in the direction she came, looking over her shoulder nervously.
“Wait! Jen!” I reach out after her, but she’s out of sight.
“Ah, damn it. The freak is gone. Better luck next time.” The boys let out a snicker and go off into the other direction.
It doesn’t take long before the next piece of news is about Jen. About how she ran away. But something tells me it was simply a sweet escape. That she snuck off to a town where nobody knows her name and she isn’t haunted by the actions of her family. At least that’s what I tell myself.
I glance down at the newspapers. The big bold letters are dark against the white paper.
“ARE YOUR CHILDREN REALLY SAFE?”