This story is by Kristine Donahue and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Daddy, why do you hunt? What did the animals ever do to you?”
“Nothing, smartie. It’s nature, predators and prey, the circle of life. Some animals hunt, and some animals are hunted.”
He left for his Saturday morning hunt, shouldering the shotgun he’d placed by the door like he did every Friday night, leaving me in the capable hands of Mrs. Bumblehouser from next door. Those mornings were painfully dull, but Saturday afternoons Dad always made up for it. Our tradition was hiking into the woods for a picnic on a grassy knoll next to the river. Each week the rich smell of pine trees, the soft dirt path, and the lazy babbling stream welcomed us. We’d lay our blanket and spend the afternoon chatting, fishing, and exploring the different facets of the woods.
One afternoon as we ate our sandwiches in the late spring sun, Dad dug into his pack and pulled out a small box.
“Smartie, I have something for you. I think you’re old enough now to have it.”
“What is it, Dad?”
With clumsy fingers I wrestled with the bow, then flipped the top open.
“A key to our house. You’re 12 now. You don’t need a babysitter anymore.”
I flung myself into his arms, ecstatic. When Dad confirmed this wasn’t just for Saturday mornings, that I’d be allowed to stay home alone after school and during the summer, I knew I’d taken my first steps into adulthood.
“You’re not scared to read your book alone in the woods?”
“No, Dad. I love it up at our spot.”
He kissed me on the forehead, ruffling my stringy hair before leaving for work.
“I love you, smartie.”
“I love you too, Dad.”
I washed our breakfast plates, then grabbed the bag I’d packed the night before: peanut butter sandwich, blanket, and water bottle. I reached my familiar grove next to the stream, intoxicated by the smell of flowers and damp earth. With my blanket spread beneath me, I kicked off my shoes and dove into my book, becoming so engrossed that I didn’t hear the footsteps behind me.
“What are you reading?” The deep, husky voice startled me.
“Um, The Three Musketeers.”
“That’s a very grown up book. Mind if I sit with you?” The man sat against a rock a few feet away without waiting for my answer. “My name’s Leonard. What’s yours?”
“Pretty name, Daphne.”
The man was tall and lanky, a shock of messy brown hair flying in all directions. His baby face seemed far too young for his body but was friendly and open. I watched as he settled in, offering an explanation I hadn’t asked for.
“I help dads by watching their little girls when they aren’t around.”
“I’m not a little girl.” I was defiant and indignant. I’m out here alone. What could be more grown up?
“No, you’re definitely not a little girl.”
“So then why are you here?”
“I saw a pretty young woman reading in the woods and I couldn’t help myself. I had to know what you were reading. Would you read your book out loud? I love stories, but I don’t get to experience them often.”
“I can’t read.” He lowered his eyes and put his hands in his pockets. His shame made me want to give him a hug.
“Yes, I’ll read out loud.”
As the sun dipped in the evening, I told Leonard I had to go home.
“Will you read to me again tomorrow?”
“Daphne, can I ask you something?”
“Can we keep this a secret? I don’t want anyone to know.”
“Thanks. It’s kind of fun having a secret with a new friend, don’t you think? It feels very grown up.”
“Yeah, I guess it does.”
That’s how it started, and that’s how it went. I read, Leonard listened. And I proved my adulthood by keeping our secret.
One day I brought a children’s books and started teaching Leonard to read. He sat next to me and we worked through Good Night, Moon and Dr. Seuss. Afterwards I’d read to him from my grown-up book, Leonard laying on my blanket twirling my hair in his fingers or gently rubbing my back or leg. When it was time to leave I went home and he disappeared into the woods.
The summer brought more than a new friend, it brought a new body. I suddenly had breasts and hips, and Dad asked Mrs. Bumblehouser to take me shopping for undergarments, a wholly embarrassing and awkward trip. But the next day I trekked into the woods, my new bra filled with tiny breasts and adult pride, and I waited for Leonard. When he showed up he knew immediately.
“You look pretty today, very womanly,” he said, his voice gravelly. My heart thumped, and my face flushed. He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me into a hug. My sudden urge to draw back confused me.
“You’re a beautiful woman. You should know what it’s like to be treated like one.” He cupped my face and looked down into my eyes. “Do you want to know what it’s like?”
Something in me tightened. I did want to know, but something felt off. Without waiting for an answer, though, Leonard leaned down and kissed me, hard and rough. I tried to pull away, but he held me still. When he finally let go, emotions ran through me so quickly that I couldn’t speak. Some part of me was excited to have my first kiss. Some part of me was angry and didn’t know why.
“I’ll teach you how grown up women are treated. It’s the least I can do since you’re teaching me to read. But we’re adults, so it’s our secret.”
I didn’t know why adults had so many secrets, but I agreed. Somehow, the way he said it, it made sense.
Our lessons continued as the summer went on. At first, it was just kissing and confusion. Then Leonard started touching me in different places beneath my clothes and instructed me do the same to him. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t want him to think I was a baby.
“Everyone feels this way in the beginning,” he explained.
One day, instead of our usual kissing and touching, he laid on top of me. I didn’t understand what he was teaching me, but I went home feeling disoriented, sore and dirty. I cried into my pillow that night for reasons I couldn’t name.
“It’s a beautiful day for the woods, isn’t it smartie?”
I stirred my cereal, staring at it, unable to eat.
“Daphne? Is something wrong?”
Tears overflowed my eyes and I shook out of my control. Dad rushed over and wrapped me in a hug, one that felt so much different than Leonard’s.
“Daddy, can you stay home today?”
He startled against me. I hadn’t called him Daddy in years. Grown ups don’t call their fathers “daddy”.
“Daphne, what’s wrong?” His eyes were full of warm love. Wasn’t that how Leonard once looked at me? Why did this feel safe and comfortable and with Leonard it was hard and scary?
“Leonard teaches me things.”
“The guy who watches girls for their dads.”
Everything came out in a torrent. When I finished, Dad was silent and furious. I knew I’d done something wrong, that I’d failed as an adult. Guilt, shame and confusion paralyzed me as Dad rose and went to the backdoor, grabbing his shotgun.
“Stay here, smartie.” He slammed the backdoor and sprinted into the woods. Why is he going hunting now?
When the answer made its way through my muddled thoughts, I scrambled for the door in a panic, desperate but unable to catch up to him. The memory of Dad explaining nature flashed through my mind. Some animals hunt, and some animals are hunted.
As I approached the stream Dad’s voice boomed through the woods.
“You sick bastard! She’s a child!”
I burst through the tree line and froze, horrified. Dad and Leonard stood ten feet apart pointing guns at each other. I didn’t even know Leonard had a gun.
“Dad! Leonard! Stop!” I shouted. Dad ignored me. Leonard faltered.
“How could you? You promised to keep our secrets.” His voice was thick with accusatory anger. Shame blossomed on my cheeks.
“Don’t you dare talk to her you monster!” The definitive chick-chick of the shotgun loading a shell into the chamber punctuated Dad’s fury.
What have I done?
There they stood, guns aimed, my childhood and adulthood at war with each other. I realized I’d lost something unnamed, the summer now tainted by confusion, anger, guilt, and filth. All I wanted was to again be the child Dad declared me to be, babysitter and all.
“Please, stop. Both of you!”
Leonard let out a ragged breath, turning towards me with eyes I did not recognize.