By the time I am twelve we are living in Haslett, Michigan, where I spend the summer bored, experimenting with blue eye shadow and giving myself hickeys in the hollow of my elbow as I practice kissing.
Over Labor Day weekend Mom breaks out in a rash so fierce she has to be rushed to a doctor. Her body is covered in hives. It's hard for her to breathe. Later we find out why. Without telling anyone, she has interviewed for a job in a doctor's office. Dad isn't making much money, the bills are piling up, we kids keep growing and needing clothes and shoes and ever more groceries, and besides, doesn't she deserve validation? Doesn't she deserve respect and a paycheck and recognition for her intelligence and training and skills?
Still, the anticipation of telling Dad has made her so anxious that she gets hives.
So I got the job, Mom says.
Wow, I say.
Cool, Steve says.
We all look to Dad.
Don't forget you still have responsibilities around here, he says.
I babysit for the Johnstons, who live down the street. Easy-to-entertain kids, an early bedtime, color TV, and a selection of snacks. Like a lot of families in the neighborhood, the Johnstons called my house to see if any of the Latus girls could babysit, and my parents told them I'd be happy to. They don't ask me first.
At ten 'til six I say good-bye to my mom and dad, who are in their room dressing for a party at the country club. Tomorrow I'm going to the mall with my girlfriends, where we will dip hot pretzels in mustard while we thumb through Partridge Family posters. I'm saving up for a glow-in-the-dark bead curtain that I saw last week in Spencer Gifts.
Bedtime is at eight, Mrs. Johnston says. They don't need baths, but you do need to help them with their teeth.
More quietly she adds, It's okay if you can't get them down until 8:30, and once they're asleep you can help yourself to anything in the fridge. And there are cookies in the breadbox. I got you some Coke, too.
I love these kids and want some just like them, plump and soft and adoring. They hold tight to my fingers as we walk around the yard looking at bugs and dandelions. We wave as their parents drive off, then go inside, where the kids tackle me and we fall to the floor, wrestling and laughing, playing Hide-and-Seek and Tag.
At eight o'clock I shepherd them into their bedroom and help them into their pajamas, then into the bathroom to brush their teeth.
Please, one more monster game, the younger one asks.
What? I say, rising up to my full five feet one. You want the monster?
And with that I stamp toward them, my hands high, my fingers clawed. They run away, screaming and laughing, and I chase them down the hall and into the living room. We are wrestling again when the door opens and Mr. Johnston walks in.
I am on the floor, flushed and disheveled.
I forgot something, he says, and walks past us to his bedroom.
The kids and I look at each other, and then they leap onto me again, and I flail and pretend to scream as they attack.
Mr. Johnston comes out of the bedroom and looks down at us.
I wonder if the babysitter is ticklish, he says.
He gets down on all fours and the children jump on their daddy's back, squealing, joining in. I scoot to the side to give them space, but an instant later he is on top of me. Pressing his erection against my pelvis, grinding it into me. I can feel his gin breath on my face, in my ear. He moves against me as a man does a woman, except I am just a girl.
For a second I am paralyzed.
He wants me, I think.
I cannot breathe, cannot get free.
I am going to hell.
I push against him with my palms, try to plant my feet flat on the floor so I can get traction to squirm out from under him. It doesn't work.
Copyright © by Janine Latus
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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