Trigger warning - contains descriptions of sexual violence
My Sophie was sensitive to the cold. The wheeze of her breathing grew worse whenever a chill tinged the air, and tonight the frosty nip of winter was hard to ignore. It was unfortunate that we had to venture out, but sometimes necessity dictated unwelcome circumstances.
Layers was the answer. A onesie, followed by a shirt and pants, topped with a woolen blanket provided just the right amount of warmth. I gently placed her into the carrier strapped to my chest. Shared body heat brought a rosy tinge to Sophie’s cheeks. Downy hair nestled a face round with the fullness of mother’s milk. Pink lips rested in a serene smile. She was the image of perfection.
The rhythmic pulse of gentle breathing let me know my girl was resting comfortably. I wrapped a scarf around my face and grabbed the handful of bills I had collected throughout the week. We were ready to leave.
Rather than burdensome, the mile to the store was a joy. Buoyancy marked each of my fulfilled steps and a lighthearted hum escaped my lips to fill the frozen air. The gray evening shimmered with shades of promise; never before had dirty snow glistened with such brilliance.
The approving nods of passing strangers affirmed my elation. I had finally gained entrance into the elite club of motherhood and it seemed as though everyone was supporting my inclusion. Maybe coming outside hadn’t been such a bad thing after all. It was a treat to be seen with my girl.
The first weeks of an infant’s life were often the most difficult, or so I had read in the dozens of parenting books and articles I had poured over before Sophie’s arrival. But the demands of a newborn were tame compared to the countless tears shed over the unfairness of an empty womb and the pointed questions from others that were aimed at my inability to conceive the child who would make living bearable.
What’s wrong with me? I just wanted someone to hold and to love. Maybe those boys were right, Mary Ellen. Maybe you’re so ugly that no baby would ever want to come out of you. Fat and stupid. Worthless.
I never did figure out the issue. Sophie’s presence had quelled my troubled thoughts. Her every cry occupied my time and left no space for self-pity. For that I was grateful.
A coo startled me out of my reverie. Sapphire eyes, showing a level of alertness uncommon in a one month old, gazed up adoringly. Perhaps my negativity had awakened her from her slumber. I would have to learn how to control my emotions. Babies sense these things, another tidbit I’d picked up while reading, and unnecessarily upsetting my daughter was not a very motherly characteristic. There was so much room for improvement.
The notes of Sophie’s favorite tune spilled from my mouth to her ears. A song I remembered from my early days in the hospital. The evening nurse had hummed it while she had helped me get ready for bed, tightening the straps on my wrists for my own protection.
What had worked to pacify a younger me, also worked to calm my daughter. Her wizened eyes closed with the weight of sleep. In our short time together, I had already learned the most effective technique to soothe my wee one’s worries. Confidence rose with each successful attempt. Pretty soon I would be a pro.
Town was but a block away. I increased the pace of my steps while controlling the movement of my body. It wouldn’t do to jostle the precious bundle I carried; to abruptly depart from the land of dreams was never a positive experience. But we were approaching the bad place, and I wanted to hurry through as quickly as possible. Getting caught up in the bad would change the course of this lovely evening, and not in a pleasant way.
Since Sophie’s arrival, I had been consumed with nurturing her growing mind and body. With little time for leisure, occasions where I ventured outside my home had drastically decreased. I had grown used to the comfort of remaining inside my domain and gotten used to being safe with my sweet girl.
But on this frigid night we were exposed to the elements, and what was certainly worse, to the monsters who only wanted to harm me. What if they found us? What if they hurt Sophie?
My thoughts raced while my pace began to slow. Rather than the almost trot that had sped my body along just a moment before, heavy thoughts weighed down my pace, coating my feet in the cement of fear.
Mary Ellen, you need to stop this nonsense, right now!
I couldn’t fail at being a protector this early in my daughter’s life. I pushed the thoughts of their cruel faces out of my mind and focused on our goal. The brick building was finally in my line of sight.
The neon glow of the store beckoned, called out to me in my haste. The light grew larger and larger as my steps became more hurried. We were going to make it. We were going to be okay.
An electronic beep announced our stumble over the threshold. My sigh of relief echoed down scuffed linoleum aisles. Frantic heartbeats decelerated until the thumpthumpthump quieted from frenzied to serene.
Sophie hadn’t budged during the not-quite-sprint. Her eyes were contentedly closed and her perfect lips were pursed serenely together. Success was mine.
I unwrapped the scarf from my face and grabbed a basket.
“Good evening, ma’am. Is there anything I can assist you with?”
A polite voice caught my attention, and I swung around to face the inquirer. A young woman, sporting the blue vest of an employee, was waiting for me to reply.
“Oh yes, please! I do need help. My sweet girl has a cold and I’m out of milk and diapers too. . .”
I recognized the stare. Most strangers can’t control their automatic response to the red scars that covered my forehead. Or the ones that ringed my eyes. Or the ones that slashed across my lips. Disgust, blended with shock, mixed with pity. The stare.
What had started as a helpful inquiry had rapidly deteriorated into a freak show where I was the main exhibit. I mumbled a quick thank you and darted to the back of the store. Scurried away from the helper-turned-gawker. Seems I would have to locate the items on my own, something I was used to doing.
It took twenty minutes to complete my shopping adventure. The store is quite small, but looking downward, hiding my flaws, always added time. Scanning the floor for the telltale signs of a too-close human, only gazing upward when size 7 sneakers, or size 12 boots, or size 9 flats had departed, barely breathing, not drawing attention to my visage.
Through it all, my daughter remained sleeping.
The downward cast of my eyes did have one advantage. I could gaze at Sophie’s face unfettered. Absorb her exquisite profile in all of its glory. Enjoy the sight of my own flesh and blood nuzzled against a down jacket. Avoiding fellow shoppers allowed me to indulge in the sublime beauty of my girl.
The woman who had spoken upon my arrival was the employee who checked me out. It seemed as if she'd had the time to process my appearance, to come to terms with it. A slight smile marked her lips as she accepted the crinkled dollar bills from my gloved hand.
“I’m glad you found everything you needed. It’s a cold one out there. Try and stay warm.”
“Um, thank you. I live close by, so Sophie and I should be okay.”
“How old is she?” The cashier bent over the counter, hoping for a glimpse.
“Just a month. And she’s the sweetest thing! Would you like to see her? I can fold the carrier down.”
“A month? Oh my goodness! I have a nephew that age, and I miss him like crazy. I’d love to see her.”
The plaid fabric peeled back easily. I turned my body so the cashier could have an unobstructed view. The gasp I heard was not surprising. People always reacted with delight when they first saw my girl.
“I’ve been at peace since she’s come into my life. I prayed for years and years, asking for a baby, yearning to hold a tiny body in my arms. And now my prayers have finally been answered.” I paused, happy to be talking about my sweet girl.
“Thank you for offering to help when I came in. I’m sorry I ran off like I did. I'm not used to people being polite."
As I grabbed my bags off the counter, the cashier stuttered a reply.
“Oh, yes. I’m so gl-glad that, you know, your wish came true. I’m sure th-that you’re a great mom.”
“I really feel like it’s my true calling. There’s not much else I’m qualified for, so I’m happy that I found my role in this world. You have yourself a nice night.”
Curious eyes followed me out of the store. At least she wasn’t staring this time.
Back into the chill we ventured, huddled over, quickly striding. The bad place measured twenty-five sidewalk cracks long. I knew the route well. Maintaining sight of the ground allowed me to keep track of how many concrete imperfections were passed over. Never stepping on one of course. That would be asking for bad luck.
At the halfway point, my optimism began to build. Another successful journey was well underway.
Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. . .
My counting was interrupted by a familiar voice. I recognized the sharp tone immediately.
“Marrryy Elleennnn. What you doing out right now? Ain’t it past your bedtime?”
The hard edge that marked each word shattered the burgeoning hope that had been blossoming in my chest.
“Leave me alone, Jimmy! I needed some stuff for Sophie and now I’m heading home. She’s not feeling well and this cold weather is awful for her. Can’t you just let me by? Please.” I tried to keep the pleading out of my voice, but it slipped in nonetheless.
“You know we can’t do that, Mary Ellen. You know you’re in our space. Can’t have our turf getting a bad rep ‘cause crazy bitches like you hang around.”
A ring of shoes now surrounded me. Scuffed up shoes. Footwear as neglected as the six teenagers who wore it. These boys didn’t have loved ones or homes to check into. There was no one who missed them or who could keep their behavior in check when it got out of hand, like it so often did. They were alone in the world and they took their loneliness out on whomever crossed their path. I was the unlucky person who had entered their realm tonight.
I swallowed my dread, knowing Sophie needed her mother to be strong. I looked Jimmy in the eye, and projected power into my words.
“I’m not crazy! Stop saying that!”
Laughter pierced the frosty air.
“Not only are you nuts, but you’re stupid, too. No matter how many times we tell you to stay away, you always come back.”
A second voice chimed in. “She must like us, boys. Let’s have a good time tonight. I ain’t got laid in a long time.”
I fled. Ducked out of their circle and sprinted as fast as my legs would allow; darted down allies, holding Sophie to my chest, wishing for an end to this torment.
The sound of their pursuit faded as I closed in on my safe haven. A minute more and I would be beyond the gang’s reach. Sixty seconds until freedom.
I rounded the final corner and fell into Jimmy’s grasp. He threw me on the asphalt and advanced with menace in his eyes.
“Listen, when I want to have my way with you, I’ll have my way with you. Got it?”
The drops flowing down my cheeks slowed my nod down by mere microseconds. Their weight burdened my movement infinitesimally. But the delay was enough to enrage the predator.
Grabbing arms pulled the flannel carrier from my chest.
“NO! Don’t do that!”
There was no hesitation in Jimmy’s movements. Sophie was flung to the ground where she bounced without crying out.
“My girl! What did you do to my girl?”
Sobs made the words difficult to form. Approaching the discarded bundle was even more grueling. But I inched forward until I approached my darling and scooped her into my arms. There was a little dirt on her face, but other than that she seemed unharmed.
I looked into Jimmy’s eyes, ready to battle for my family. What I saw startled me.
He was laughing. Laughing so hard that he was doubled over.
“What’s so funny?”
A few moments passed before he composed himself enough to speak.
“When I called you a crazy bitch, I never knew how true it was. Now I know you’re off your rocker. Going gaga over a fucking baby doll. Who does that?”
Jimmy shook his head. “But it don't matter. You can lay there 'til I'm done with you”
My voice stumbled through the familiar strains of my girl’s favorite tune. I hummed it over and over again, until the grunting had stopped. Sophie slept in pure contentment the whole time, unaware of the danger that had crossed our path.
After he left, I counted slowly to one hundred, pacing myself, giving him enough time to leave.
Ninety-eight . . . ninety-nine . . . one hundred.
When it was safe, I crawled toward the entrance of my home. Toward walls that had protected me from the lurking danger in the night. Toward cardboard that had seen me through countless ordeals.
Once inside, I gently dabbed the smudge on Sophie’s forehead. It came off without resistance. She was clean. Cleaner than I had been in a long time.
I placed my sleeping girl in her bed, covering her with blankets, cocooning her from the cold. The events of the evening had not permanently left their mark.
After I tucked her in, I began the nightly ritual. I had picked up three sharp pieces of glass today, and they would make for good cutting.