Seven-year-old Dani sat shivering in her bath. The light above the tub was off. It should have been on, but it was off, leaving the bathroom dimly lit, enough to see her body, just enough to make her feel naked and alone. Nothing is worse than being alone… except not being alone.
Her arms were hugged around her legs in vapid, listless indecision, afraid to move, afraid not to. She had stopped washing. It wasn’t because the water had grown cold, and it wasn’t cold water that made her shiver so. He was watching her, perched on the edge of the toilet seat, cigarette smoke rising up like heat waves around a desert vulture waiting for its carrion to perish.
Dani hated Rick from the beginning. She didn’t really understand why. She was too young to comprehend the drugs her mother’s boyfriend brought into the house. But he said mean things, especially about her little sister, Carly, and he only said them when Sandy wasn’t there. Rick smoked a lot. He yelled a lot. He smelled like burnt tobacco and ineffective Tic Tacs ®, and she didn’t like the way he stared at her from the toilet while she bathed. She was shivering because she was frightened.
Moments seemed like hours in the protracted silence. Finally, Rick crushed out his cigarette and stood.
“You ain’t gonna get any cleaner huggin’ yerself like that, Cricket,” he said.
Dani squeezed her legs even tighter in her arms. She couldn’t help it.
“Come on,” Rick coaxed. “Your ma said to make sure you cleaned real good. You know how mad she gets when you ain’t done what she said. You wouldn’t want me to tell her now, would ya?”
Rick stood looming over Dani now at the side of the tub, unbuttoning his shirt. Dani turned her head away, but it was no use. Her mind painted its picture of him as the smell of his rancid armpits reached out to stab her sinuses, and the painful reminder of his image danced through her head uninvited. Rick was skinny, all limbs and no body, like a hungry spider – no, like a venomless Daddy Longlegs, creeping about looking like a spider, pretending to be a spider, more poisonous than any real spider. He scared the shit out of her. He would somehow paralyze her with fangs that didn’t exist, and suck the life from her wrinkled, raisin skin.
His rank body odor shriveled her in defiant cooperation.
“You gonna make me wash you, Cricket?”
Every fiber of Dani’s body screamed at her to wash herself, to prove to him what she knew was the truth, but she was petrified. She couldn’t stop hugging her legs closed to clamp the truth – the other truth – out.
In the long, slow silence that ensued, Rick dropped his shirt casually to the bathroom floor and reached into the tub. Fear tore Dani’s skin painfully from her body, flogging her tortured, bared nerve ends with it, as Rick picked up the sponge from the tub water and squeezed the venomless venom into the safety of her bath. Carefully, he dipped it back into the water and then tentatively, trying to gain her trust, he caressed it gently against her back to clean the places he knew she couldn’t reach.
Dani could only cringe as the lukewarm water seared her flesh, trickled, quickly cold, down her back. She shivered. Hugged herself tighter.
“I got your back, Cricket,” Rick laughed gently to ease her fear. “Don’t I always say that?”
Dani hated herself for nodding.
Rick scrubbed up and down. Rubbed up and down. She could feel her tears pushing themselves from her eyes even as she could feel his perversion pushing through her helplessness… the vulnerability where her skin used to be. Each cleansing stroke made her feel dirtier and dirtier, as he washed more and more the places she knew she had already washed…
“Don’t be scared of me, Cricket…”
Reality stabbed Dani to death, over and over again, the real spider stinging its prey. It rent her heart into tattered, numbed absence. It proved her worthlessness… afraid of him… just what Sandy said she was, a worthless little bitch. She felt his anger grow at her resistance.
“What are scared of, Cricket?” he finally growled. “What? I’m not the one you’re going to be in trouble with. You think I might touch you or something? Where? Here?”
Dani’s tiny, malnourished legs offered no real resistance as he pushed the sponge between them. Eternity begged her to force him away, but did nothing to help her – time being as impotent and meaningless as she was.
“It’s okay for me to touch you, Dani. I’m the adult.” The personal use of her name pierced coldly through her like an icicle fallen from a high place.
Somewhere in the distance, Dani heard herself scream. Frozen momentarily in Hell, she could only find gratitude that terror prevented any real memory of what had happened next. It wasn’t a sponge she felt touching her…
Spidery, freckled arms clutched at her and she slapped at them, clawed at them in catatonic frenzy. It was as if her movements were only imagined. Dreamed. The arms wrapped around her, held her tight, stilled her flailing… wrapped her in invisible web…
“Babe, you okay?”
Slowly, the freckles faded and the terrible desire to struggle receded with them. The bathroom was lit. The voice was familiar. It was Brendan’s. Little by little, Dani let go. She struggled to nod her head.
“It was just the power, Babe,” Brendan said. He paused for a while and she could feel him staring intensely at her now. “The lights were only out for a couple of minutes.”
She nodded more easily.
Dani could finally relax a little as she nodded this time. She turned and leaned into Brendan’s arms.
He laughed nervously. “You’ve never been afraid of the dark before.”
“I’m not,” she said just short of cutting him off. There was no way to explain without telling it all.
Brendan let go his hug a little. He reached for the washcloth and dipped it into the tub. “Want me to wash your b…?”
Dani’s hand was on his wrist like lightning.
They stared at each other in confused silence. Dani’s head raced with questions she couldn’t ask. What did I do wrong? Why would she leave me alone with him? And they faded, walled off by the concrete denial that had saved her for nearly two decades…
“Babe, you gotta tell me. I can’t help if I don’t know.”
Dani nodded and she began to cry softly.
© 2013 Anne Schilde