Word count 2777
By Mackenzie Littledale
Something was wrong. My skin prickled and ears itched. I recognized the sounds coming from my daughter’s room and burst in just in time to see Cuties on the TV screen. Tory scrambled to turn it off, but my husband and I had already seen the film the night before. I saw enough.
“What in the hell do you think you’re doing watching Netflix without permission?” I demanded. “Mature adult means not for you.”
“Mom!” Tory protested.
“Don’t ‘Mom’ me.” I took the remote control with no intention of returning it anytime soon. “You couldn’t hope to understand the societal message of that film, young lady. You’re ten years old. Neither adult, nor mature.”
“That’s not fair.” My brown sugar baby girl pouted.
This back and forth continued for no good reason. She had to have the last word. Ludicrous for a child without any means of providing for herself.
“I’m gonna be a dancer in rap videos when I grow up. And I’ll never have to do what you say again.” Tory folded her arms and plopped on her bed, glaring at me.
The lit fuse reached my dynamite and exploded. “You wanna grow up to be a whore? Nobody aspires to be a hoochie mama in a rap video, or a pole dancer, or a stripper. That is not for you. You are going to maintain high grades, do your schoolwork, and eventually go to college so you can have a worthwhile future.” A wave of epithets came out of my mouth like sludge, bitter to taste and immediately regrettable. I was talking to her as if she was already a whorish junkie sleeping in the gutter with a mangy mutt beside her shopping cart.
“I hate you!” she screamed with tears and every ounce of her being.
“No television. No boys. No sleepovers for a month.” I slammed the door shut and stormed a trail of fire to my room.
I tried knitting booties for the baby growing in my belly to take my mind off the fight. Over, under, loop. The repetition normally put me in a peaceful state of mind, but the words kept coming back. We both spoke so many cruelties to each other. I had no idea she could be so shitty at ten years of age. She pushed all my buttons, and a river of acid had flowed out of my mouth. I meant all of it in the moment, but the moment after each poisoned wound was followed with the salt of and shame. I’m the adult; I’m her mother for God’s sake. Her one and only mother-- terrified of rehabilitation centers, terrified of seeing her in mug shots, terrified of pimps, but still. How could I have spoken to her that way? My profanity and fear couldn’t create or erase her future.
Needle over: revised conversation. Needle under: I wanted a do-over. Loop: I’m sorry, Tory. The endless repetitions of the needles weren’t putting my mind in a meditative state like I’d hoped. No amount of knitting could repair the past.
Knitting until my fingers cramped, I took a closer look at my handicraft. The booties were two radically different sizes. I sighed. Knitting was hard anyway. Trying to distract myself wasn’t working and my heart felt disassembled from the torrent of barbed words still taking turns in my head. I’m a lousy mother. I should flush myself like vomit or shit. Piss and vinegar. My own mother’s words came to me at precisely the most infuriating moment. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. True, and it was too late for honey.
The house phone rang. “Hello?”
“It’s me,” said my husband. “I’m getting off work in a few. Do you want me to pick up anything?”
His thoughtfulness raised my spirits a bit. “I had a fight with Tory. Do you know what our daughter was watching?”
“How could I?” he asked.
“Cuties on Netflix. She said she wants to be rap video dancer when she grows up.” My blood began boiling on the fires of fear all over again, but regret tamped it down. “We’re canceling Netflix, Alphio. I’m serious.”
“How does that solve anything?”
“It just does,” I said, heat warming my face from the inside. My mind flashed forward a few beats. “I think I fucked up. I said such horrible things to her.”
“How horrible are we talking?”
I told him the filth that had poured out of my mouth.
“Eliza! You shouldn’t be getting into it with anyone while you’re pregnant, you know that.”
“No lectures, okay?” I got a good look at my reflection in the mirror over the dresser. The baby bump barely showed if I turned at the right angle. Even though Alphio was right, I didn’t want an impassioned sermon on minimizing stress during pregnancy. I’d smooth it over. Too bad I had no idea how.
“I’m thinking some ice cream might help open the lines of communication again. I’ll pick up mint chocolate chip. How does that sound?” he asked, totally the voice of reason.
I sniffled. “Ice cream sounds crazy enough to work. Maybe you should be the one to talk to her to calm things down and then I’ll come in, too. I’ll apologize, but we’re her parents. We have to guide her away from skid row.”
“That sounds like a ‘yes’,” said Alphio. “I gotta jump off now, but just stay clear of her if you can’t keep your temper in check.”
“Okay.” My shoulders drooped in concession. “Now I can hardly wait for you to get home. This is important.”
“I love you, too.”
Back to knitting. But my mind wouldn’t cooperate and get into that blissful meditative state. Time was ticking too slowly and the concrete wall of tension between Tory’s bedroom and mine seemed impenetrable. I switched on the television and surfed channels. Characters kissed--switch. Comedians told jokes--one laugh, switch. Nincompoops babbled on--breeze on by. Politicians made promises of how much more integrity they had over the opposition--please, switch. Bad guys blew things up, detectives chased the bad guys. Before I knew it, I was in the foreign language channels. I just wanted the ice cream savior. The baby kicked. He must have wanted some, too.
A half hour later, Alphio called again to say something came up and he wouldn’t be able to stop for the ice cream after all.
Unable to focus on anything but the memory of sharp words between Tory and me, I tried unknitting the oversized bootie, but everything I did made it worse, which made me wonder if I’d just fuck it up further with Tory. But I was her mother; I had to try. I threw the needles and shapeless mess of yarn to the loveseat and got up. I grabbed my purse and stepped out of my bedroom. The silvery flickers of TV light shone from under Tory’s bedroom door. So she wasn’t too lazy to use the controls on the television after all. Rhianna blared into the hallway.
“Honey, I’m gonna run out for ice cream. We can talk when I get back, okay?” I called out. She couldn’t have heard me. No matter, I’d be back soon enough with a peace offering.
I pulled my blue down jacket close against the damp wind and headed to the convenience store a half mile away to get the ice cream. I could hardly wait and the baby kicked over and over. I rubbed my belly, telling him silently that we’d all get to enjoy it soon enough. Patience, little guy. I got the treasure and headed toward check out, when suddenly four other people jumped in line before I got there. My foot tapped restlessly. I could use a little patience, myself.
While waiting, I considered Tory’s points. Perhaps I could give her a bit more freedom to meet with friends. Maybe take on an extracurricular activity so long as her grades held up. But had she really meant it when she called me a monster? I had to apologize for cutting her meat like she still wore diapers, and for saying I couldn’t wait for her to go off to college. I didn’t believe she would grow into a whore, so why had I said it? The thoughts collided in my brain while the baby kicked in my belly. I needed to use a restroom, but I’d wait until I got back home to a toilet I could trust.
With the ice cream loaded in the passenger seat, I left the convenience store, heading south. I had the right of way to turn left at the next intersection, but a driver pulled out in front of me. In the blink of an eye, I realized he couldn’t clear the intersection in time, and reflexively, I jerked the wheel to the left, crashing into his hood. My head whipped forward and the brief but searing heat of the airbag cushioned the blow. My head pounded with sharp throbs and tiny white lights spun around a carousel before my eyes.
“Oh my God.” Metal crumpled like discarded paper, cracked windshield, blood. That was the other driver’s car. I couldn’t tell what damage had been done to mine. I put my car in park and got out. The sky sent down a misty rain in the disappearing light. All I could think of was my baby and Tory. If Tory came out of her room and didn’t find me, what would she think?
“Mister, are you alright?” I asked, standing by the driver’s door. His face was obscured with blood, his head lolling against the headrest.
Panic set in. He was moving, but I had no way of knowing how badly he’d been injured. Headlights came on as cars passed slowly by. They didn’t stop, as though an ocean separated us. I reached for his door handle, just when I heard a thump coming from his trunk. My eyes opened wide. Did this asshole have a dog in his trunk? That’s absurd, Eliza, I said to myself. It must be a bowling ball come loose or something. I walked to the rear of his car and heard another thump.
“Hello?” a muffled voice asked from inside. “Hello? Help me, please.”
My heart stopped and then started beating overtime against my breastbone. The voice was too familiar, too surreal.
“Tory, can you breathe? How in God’s name did you get trapped in some man’s trunk?”
“Mom, please, get me out. He’s a monster!”
I ran back to the driver’s side and opened the door. His eyes opened, dazed, head still rolling. He moaned. Under any other circumstances, I would have taken pity on him and tried to help him. My eyes narrowed, slits of frosty fury. Never before had I anticipated looking at a kidnapper live in the flesh. His nostrils flared and his eyes rolled sideways, backward, sideways again.
Every nightmare a parent could ever have flashed before my eyes. I pictured Tory hurt, at his mercy, afraid for her life. No one with pure intentions puts another human in the trunk of their car. I pulled my right hand back into a fist and punched him in his cheekbone. “You animal.” My fingers throbbed as I took the keys from the ignition, went back to the trunk, and popped it open.
My daughter’s face was pale against her black hair. She was wrapped in a greasy, torn blanket that had probably been used to work on the car. “Tory!” I helped my daughter get out and we crossed the street as the rain came down more heavily.
I called 9-1-1, shaking, waiting for help to arrive. “Tory, are you hurt, did that man hurt you?”
“He put something over my head so I didn’t see much. I never saw his face. I thought I was going to die and then there was a crash. That must have been you.” Passing headlights lit her up, pale, bluish. Streaked with rain, tears and scratches. My God...
“I thought you were in your room. What are you doing out?” Future Tory waiting on line for her driver’s license passed through my mind, then her as a graduate in cap and gown, and as a bride walking down the aisle on her father’s arm toward the love of her life.
“Mom, not now, please.” She ran the back of her hand against her face, smearing a line of blood.
The force of nature took over me, a Goddess of Justice and Truth maybe. “No, you have to tell me,” I said with my voice rising, and took her by the shoulders. “I didn’t even know you weren’t safe at home.” My mind flashed images of her soaring on a swing to get the adoring attention of God, as a two year-old in footies cranky at bedtime, and an earlier infant Tory tossing her spaghetti over the edge of her highchair.
“Jonathan texted me, so I sneaked out the window to meet him at Baker Park. But when I got there, that man started talking to me. Asked me if I wanted to see the new prototype for X-box. I told him no, but he jumped out at me and put something over my head....” Her voice cracked and she threw her arms around me. “I was in the dark and it smelled like tires. I thought I was going to die. I was just waiting to be killed.”
Sirens pierced the night, louder and louder, bringing swaths of relief. I needed the police to know the victim was my daughter and not the driver. His injuries paled in comparison to the horrors he surely had in store for Tory.
The police and paramedics showed up on the scene, parked haphazardly so traffic had to get re-routed. I explained the situation and the police ran the driver’s license and registration.
“James Kane is an alias,” said the officer, returning from his cruiser. “He’s a prime suspect in a sex trafficking ring. Targets girls under the age of sixteen. You’re really lucky.”
“I am.” I turned to Tory. “I am so very lucky to have you. I didn’t mean anything I said earlier.” I tugged her closer, feeling her shiver in my arms. There was something hollow about the way she felt, like part of her was elsewhere--in that godforsaken trunk. “I will definitely press charges and testify, whatever I have to do to put that piece of shit away.”
“Mom, can we just go home?” asked Tory.
I stroked her unruly hair and looked into her dark brown eyes, so relieved she didn’t become a statistic. “We can if the police say it’s okay.” I remembered why I was out. “I have mint chocolate chip ice cream for us.”
“I don’t want any right now.”
Did I believe ice cream was appropriate at this moment? “It was silly.” My thoughts wandered back a beat to the anticipation of the ice cream, how utterly important it had seemed as a symbolic gesture. “I thought it would be a peace offering and we could talk it out.”
“We don’t need ice cream for that, Mom. I’m sorry, too. I just wanna go home.”
“I want to go home, too, honey, but we should go to the hospital first.” The ice cream was surely ruined, a thought vaporizing into nothingness as I looked at the priceless young life before me. My Tory could have wound up anywhere, maybe never been found, so I counted my blessings in seeing her alive.
On the way to the ER, Alphio’s question over what problem would be solved in canceling Netflix echoed in my mind. What would I have accomplished if we canceled Netflix? It wouldn’t have brought her back or spared her. Canceling wouldn’t have brought any relief if that monster had hurt her and gotten away with it. Granted she was too young to process the dangerous nature of Cuties. My temper put her in danger. My anger sent her through the window and into a predator’s primetime for hunting. With or without Netflix, nothing could have returned my daughter to me but savvy investigators and detectives. I’d never been so grateful for a car accident in my whole life.
Please visit these fine nonprofits and donate as generously as you’re able to further their missions.
Organization aimed at preventing sex trafficking - Radical Empathy
Twitter: @reefcares, Website: www.reefcares.org
Organization for empowering women and girls who were the victims of sex abuse - Gwyneth Montenegro Foundation
Twitter: @ThisIsGwyneth, Website: www.gwynethmontenego.foundation