I was cruising in K-Mart on a Saturday afternoon looking at the toys while Mom and Dad shopped for towels or something else that would completely bore nine-year-old me. We had already hit up the Christian bookstore where Mom had bought me The Music Machine, which had a song for each fruit of the Holy Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control were the nine “fruits” that should be evident in every good Christian’s life if they are walking with God. I was lucky to be good enough for even one perceptible trait on a decent day. I couldn’t fathom exemplifying all nine fruits at once unless I was asleep, or perhaps unconscious, but then it probably wouldn’t count. I suppose Mom thought that my listening to the songs would rectify the situation. Maybe it would, but as I stared at rows of new games and gadgets that would keep me, the only child, entertained on long afternoons, self-control naturally went out the window. I wanted all of them. It would have been different if I had had a brother or sister to play with for hours at a time, but given Dad’s frequent business trips, and a certain coldness that had grown between him and my mother over the past few years, such a possibility seemed slim. Very, very slim. I always tried to stock up on toys and games when I could and made mental lists for Christmas and my birthday. Easter, too. No holiday—religious or otherwise—was exempt from me trying to finagle a toy out of my parents.
The new Spirograph with its infinite design possibilities and four different colors to work with immediately caught my eye; it would be both fun and educational, as well as improve my hand eye coordination (which is how I landed an Etch A Sketch last year). I barely noticed the man walking up to look at the same set of toys until he was right beside me.
He pointed to the Spirograph. “That’s very cool. Do you have one?”
I shook my head no, thinking perhaps he was looking for his son or daughter, so it caught me off guard when he causally slipped his arm around my back, his palm coming to rest on my bare shoulder. “Would you like it? I could buy that for you if you want.”
His hand was large, but rested lightly, as if not to add pressure to the situation. Still, he was a stranger, and strangers weren’t supposed to touch me. “Don’t even talk to them,” my mother had said. It was 1979, and life was dangerous. Women out West had been abducted and found dead in the woods. Just this summer, two black children in Atlanta had been kidnapped and killed. Charlotte was only four hours away. “If anyone approaches you,” she had added, “run and find help.”
But the man had his arm around me. Was I quick enough to get away? I had always been the first person to get caught during freeze tag at recess, and that was with a head start. Maybe that’s why he picked me, because he could tell I was slow. Or was I marked in some way, invisible to most adults except for predators? Predators like my grandfather, who was also a very nice man. He had offered candy instead of toys. This time, though, I knew it was bad to say yes.
“I need to ask my parents’ permission first. They’re around here,” I said, not looking up at him in case he could tell I was lying. The towel section was all the way across the store, so my parents could’t even hear me if I yelled. There was no one else in our aisle. Lying was certainly not among the fruits of the Spirit, but it was all I had to help me, unless the angels came to my rescue like they did in the Bible stories, like our pastor said they would if we prayed hard enough. Mom had never suggested to pray in a situation like this, just to run, but I was running out of options.
“I don’t want to get you in trouble,” the man said. He slowly withdrew his arm. “I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, but I understand if you need to ask.” Then he walked away. I wasn’t sure if he smiled or not since I only glanced at him, just enough of a glance to notice he was handsome. Not scary looking. Nothing that screamed monster. And he did leave, which meant he was probably just nice, but weird.
I let out a long breath. I didn’t want to stay there, yet Mom and Dad had told me not to wander away from the toy section so they could find me. Besides, they could have moved on from the towels. I walked a few aisles over to where the Barbies were lined up in rows of bright pink boxes. Already, I felt a little better even though there were still no other kids or parents around. The store felt oddly empty, but there was the new Color n’ Curl Candi doll head with makeup center. I was hooked. Technically, I wanted to be a scientist—I even had a microscope and a chemistry set at home—but there was nothing wrong with learning a few hairdressing skills on the side. I was looking at what accessories came with Candi when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. The same man walked by at the other end of the aisle. I held my breath as he paused, looked my way, and kept walking.
Then it clicked. He hadn’t really left. He was just waiting. I wasn’t fast, even with a head start, but a head start was all I had.
I shoved the box back into place and broke into a run in the opposite direction, flying past the pink-drenched shelves and making a hard right at electronics. I didn’t know if he was behind me or keeping up with me, perhaps even ahead of me, trying to cut me off. I wove my way through the furniture section, a blur of brown, black, and grey,not even bothering to ask another adult to help me. Who could I trust? Everyone was a stranger. Finally, I saw neat stacks of blue, green, and burgundy ahead—the towels. I slowed down, expecting to find Mom or Dad, but they must have already moved on. They could be anywhere in the store now. The man, too. I sprinted towards bedding and made the special whistle our family used to find each other in crowded places. It took a couple of attempts because whistling when running and terrified wasn’t easy. A moment passed, then another, until finally, a similar whistle answered. I sped towards it until I ran smack into my father, which was basically like running into a tree, he’s so wide and muscular.
“A man … stranger,” I gasped, “offered to buy me a toy.” I gasped.
My father looked around as if half expecting to see someone chasing me. When he realized I was alone, he whistled once, then twice, until my mother appeared with a shopping cart.
“What’s going on?” Mom looked irritated. She didn’t like her errands being interrupted. “We told you to stay in the toy section.”
“A man approached Nancy Lee,” Dad said in his calm and collected way. Always calm and logical, even when he found out that his dad had molested me and other kids. My father never raised his voice about any of it, or cried in front of me, from what I could remember. Maybe he hid all other feelings.
“What the hell!” Mom shouted and grabbed my hand. She had no problem getting angry. “What did he look like?”
“He was tall, like six feet or more.” What else? I didn’t remember much, just his palm resting on my shoulder as if it belonged there, as if there was no question that he have should placed it there. I had let him get too close, had been too trusting. Again. “He wore jeans and a t-shirt.”
“Did he hurt you?” Mom pulled me to herself, as if to defy anyone who would snatch me away. She was only 4’9” tall but I was convinced that any man would need to call every demon of Hell to help defend himself against her wrath.
“I’m going to look for him.” My father walked off in the direction of the toy section, his short, powerful strides taking him quickly out of sight. While my father had more girth, the man was much taller. I don’t know who would win in a fight since they both seemed like such gentlemen. A duel would make more sense in their case. Pistols and swords at dawn, perhaps.
“Did he do anything else to you?” Mom’s question brought me back into the present, then to a place of what could have happened. She made me look her in the eyes because she knew I sucked at lying. “You can tell me.”
“I’m okay,” I said, even though I was angry at myself for being so easily duped into talking to him. He wasn’t a gentleman, just as my grandfather wasn’t really a grandfather, or a missionary, or any good identity he wanted us to project to the world. Those were erased in the peach guest room where I slept on weekends, where there was an eye scratched into the wall just opposite the bed. It marked me, that eye, and what it saw go on between us, and now other predators could find me, too. But I didn’t want my mother to worry about all that. Her jaw was already clamped tight, eyebrows raised in a way that indicated she was ready for battle. I wanted to ask her about the angels, if they would have rescued me. Certainly Mom prayed enough for them to protect us every night as well as throughout the day, and yet there was no mention of them now. Perhaps they only helped if you had enough fruits of the Spirit, say, seven out of the nine. Or maybe together they wrapped a blanket of invisibility around you, so that no predator could ever find you again. I doubted we needed any of this right now since Mom had that wary, fierce expression all mothers get when they believe their family is under attack. No man wants to mess with that look.
Dad returned within ten minutes. “He wasn’t around the toy section so I alerted security. I think he might have left the store.”
“Let’s check out, then,” Mom said,finally letting go of my hand again so she could push the cart. “I don’t want to stay here.”
I figured asking for the Spirograph now would be pointless.
Once in the car, Mom reminded me again not to talk to strangers, no matter how nice they were. My grandfather was downright charming. He got a lot of kids that way. He had gotten me that way.
“It was good that she told him we were nearby,” my dad offered as a kind of compliment. “That was quick thinking, Nancy Lee.”
“Next time just run and get us,” Mom said, standing firm.
I wanted to remind them that we lived in the South now, not Philadelphia, and being nice to everyone was basically the unspoken eleventh commandment. More importantly, why did there have to be a next time? No other girls in my fourth grade class talked about men approaching them in stores or the park. Maybe it was something that wasn’t discussed, just experienced and dismissed as an unpleasant fact of life, like visits to the dentist. Besides, people disappeared under horrible circumstances all the time—I thought about those terrible stories of the missing kids and women. Okay, maybe not all people. Maybe not men. The rest of us, though, we had to be careful. I had to be careful, maybe more careful than most, given that predators seemed to find me rather easily. Maybe the demons told them where I was. Mom has been listening to Pastor Kenneth Copeland’s sermons about binding evil spirits and casting them out before they can accomplish their dirty work. Go on the offensive. I wondered if I had prayed hard enough, really prayed and believed, could I have silenced the voices in that man’s head, turned their dark whispers into tongues of fire like on Pentecost? How much faith would that take?
In two years, something like this would happen again. Except it wouldn’t be a stranger. It would be a teacher at my private Christian school. And he wouldn’t touch me because predators are creative, if nothing else in this world of next times, this world of angels and demons and broken men. But as we pulled out of the parking lot that Saturday afternoon, my only thought—my only thought, which eventually became a prayer—was to grow so strong nothing would ever break me again. I had yet to understand that brokenness was already carving out of a remote space inside of me that accepted both humanness and monstrosity as a fact of life, a place that wouldn’t necessarily keep me safe from every seductive voice, but from where I might one day cry out to the angels, and make them finally listen.