A little girl with a blonde pixie-cut riding a hand-me-down bike, tasselled with sparkly, blue streamers. Both of them a little scuffed up, but sturdy and fast. The girl has more energy than can rightly be contained in her little girl body; a live wire, a sprite, she can’t weigh fifty pounds. She bikes all over her small-town neighbourhood. Likes her own company. Fears nothing but birds.
On a hot day in June, she bikes to the zoo alone. Skips the animals, the buffalo, the ostriches sluggish with heat, hidden away in their dusty enclosures; they often make her sad. That day she heads straight down to the river. By the easy slide of cool water, she, who is always flying, slows down. Maybe she’ll drop her bike, there, on the bank, lots of shady spots beneath the trees. Maybe she’ll pull off her shoes. Wade into the water. See what the pebbles are doing.
Someone calls out. She turns her head. Standing beside a car in a clearing of far-flung trees, a man waves her over. Says he wants to show her something. Come here. You have to see this. Obedient child circles back. Dodges a few maples and one picnic table. Stops by the rear bumper. Weird. There are never cars on the grass in the picnic area. She plants both feet on the ground.
The car is fancy, long and black, much nicer than her family’s. Windows down, back door open. Shiny silver trim she’d run her finger along if the man wasn’t looking. You have to come closer, he says. He has dark hair. A dress shirt, like her father wears for work. You can’t see from there. He raises his eyebrows, waggles his hand into the backseat. The girl walks her bike forward, one two, one two, her sneakers slipping a little on the grass, hands squeezing the rubber grips.
Her front tire almost bumps the open door. Still, she has to lean forward, over the handlebars to see into the back of the car. There’s another man in there, sitting on the black leather seat, with his pants pulled down over his knees. Odd. It takes a moment to register. He’s staring at her and jiggling his penis.
She looks to the man who called her over. Hands resting loosely on the frame of the door, he smiles; this is no mistake. Finally startled, the girl pushes back, peddles spinning backwards, one catches her shin. Clear of the bumper, she flips her bike around and flies down the path by the river, too scared to look back, streamers crackling, heart a racket.
She is eight, maybe nine-years-old; she doesn’t tell anyone. Because things like this don’t happen. She’s never heard of something like this happening. She doesn’t have the words.
But whenever she thinks about those men, she feels scared. Like her parents would be upset if they found out, mad even. Like somehow it was her fault.
One evening at the table her mom reads from the paper: a story about a man being arrested for exposing himself to children in their neighbourhood. The girl’s belly clenches. There’s a brightness in her head, a neural sizzle. Things like this do happen. She pushes peas around with her fork. No one notices her quiet, she of a hundred questions, she of the constant chatter. Dinner ends. Red-faced, she helps her parents clear the table.
The girl stops riding to the zoo. Starts going places with other kids, moving in a pack. Less sure in a world capable of dark surprises, she pads her body with other bodies, draws in her borders, dims down her light. By the time she’s a young woman in college no one needs to tell her to walk with her keys between her fingers when she crosses a parking lot at night. And by then so many other things have happened to her, to her body, the incident by the river has become…what? An early lesson? An initiation of sorts?
Later she often feels lucky that the men she met as a child were still sniffing around the edges, teeth at the throat but not quite ready to bite. Maybe they’d never be ready. Maybe they weren’t rapists or killers, just plain old pedophile-exhibitionists. Who knows? It would have been so easy for them to toss her into the car, toss her bike into the river.
A couple decades later, on the same hot, dreamy kind of day, the woman is on a city corner with five or six other people waiting on the light. From every vehicle, the spill of radio music; it’s a good day for humming along. A car swings slow round the corner, all of its windows down. At each, a jutted elbow. The four men inside all stare hard at one spot in the small congregation, laser focused. Despite the heat, the woman feels a chill as she follows their eyes to her daughter, standing just next to her. Small for her age, years away from puberty.
That night at dinner, the woman tells her kids about the day at the zoo. Tells them that all these years later what really gets her is that there were two of them. Two men who talked it over, picked the spot, chose to spend a bright, summer day hunting down a child. Unbuckling their perversions–bold, but hidden—in the shade of old trees, by the cool of the river. Perfect shorts and t-shirt weather.