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The sounds of squealing and feet pounding back and forth across the deck assaulted Jonathan’s ears as he sat at the desk in his bedroom. His head was pounding, and he couldn’t seem to concentrate on the sermon he was working on. He had asked Luke and Jacob to stop running on the back deck twice already. He massaged his temple with his left hand, as he scribbled notes in the margin of a sermon outline he had written in seminary. He didn’t like recycling sermons, but he had never preached this sermon in Little River.
At the sound of a loud crash, Jonathan shoved back his desk chair and stalked over to the window on the outside wall of his bedroom. Sliding the window up, he called through the screen, “I told you boys to settle down! What are you doing?”
“Luke did it!” Jacob said quickly, his eyes wide.
“It was an accident.” Luke shrugged. A large planter was knocked over, dirt spilled out around it, and one of the long stalks of the plant was bent in the middle.
“An accident that would have never happened if you had got off the deck like I told you to.” Jonathan reached up and massaged his forehead. His headache was getting worse. “Fix the plant, and get off the deck. Go play in the yard.”
“Fine,” Luke grumbled.
“And lose the attitude!” Jonathan barked, as he pulled the window down and returned to his desk chair. Reaching into the desk drawer, he retrieved a bottle of aspirin. He tossed three white tablets into his mouth, and washed them down with the tepid water still sitting on his desk from the day before.
As he thumbed through his Bible looking for a particular passage, Abigail came in the room, and shut the door behind her. Jonathan looked up when he heard her turn the lock.
Abigail’s face was pale, and her hands trembled as she sat on the bed near her husband. “We need to talk.”
“What’s wrong?” Jonathan wasn’t used to seeing his wife look so stricken. Not much got to Abigail.
“Emma?” Jonathan echoed. “What’s wrong with Emma.”
“She was crying yesterday, and I meant to check on her.” Abigail rocked slightly, causing the bed to creak. “I got distracted because of the stuff with Luke and Caleb. I was worried about Titus. I just completely forgot about Emma. I feel so terrible. Livvie told me she was crying, and I didn’t even check on her.”
“It’s okay.” Jonathan tried to keep the impatience from his voice, as well as the irritation he felt at the bed creaking. His head felt like it was going to explode. “You meant to check on her.”
“I went to put her clothes away a few minutes ago. I thought she was outside with the other kids. She was sitting on her bedroom floor, just staring at the wall.”
“Abby, just get to the point. What’s wrong with her?”
“She didn’t want to tell me,” Abigail looked at her husband with tear-filled eyes, “but I finally got it out of her.”
“Carly’s uncle touched her.”
Jonathan’s heart clenched inside his chest, and he felt the blood drain from his face. “What do you mean he touched her? What happened?”
Tears were slipping down Abigail’s face. “When she went to Carly’s house last Sunday. Emma said she was in the kitchen, getting a snack. She said he came up behind her and stood right against her. She said he put his hand on her breast, and told her he thought she was very pretty.” Abigail stopped talking, her face ashen.
“Is that all?” Jonathan prodded.
“Emma said he tried to put his hand under her skirt, but she pushed him away and went to Carly’s room.”
“That’s the day you had to go get her? Because she was sick?” Jonathan felt like the room was spinning. His temples were pulsing with pain.
Abigail nodded, wiping her eyes on the back of her hand. “I don’t know why she didn’t tell me!” she wailed.
Jonathan went to his wife and pulled her into his arms. He held her close, trying to comfort her, but his mind begged for more information. As Abigail’s sobbing quieted down, Jonathan rubbed her back and asked, “It was just what happened in the kitchen? Nothing else?”
“I think so.”
“Carly’s uncle…that’s Nathan Bates? Kevin’s brother?”
Jonathan could picture the young man. He had been attending church with Kevin and Stephanie Bates for the last couple of months. He was in his early twenties. Jonathan remembered thinking Nathan was awkward, not making eye contact when he greeted him in church.
“I need to talk to Emma.” Jonathan’s head was still pounding, and he found that his hands were trembling just as Abigail’s had when she came to tell him.
“I’ll go with you.”
They walked down the hall and knocked on their daughters’ door. “Come in,” a soft voice called.
Emma was lying on her bed with a book beside her, but she wasn’t reading. Instead, she was staring at the ceiling. She looked so little lying there. Her blonde hair was in pigtails. That fact struck Jonathan and he clenched his fists. How could any man touch a girl who still wore pigtails?
“Sweetheart?” Jonathan sat on the foot of his daughter’s bed, as Abigail pulled her daughter onto her lap. He couldn’t remember the last time either of them had held Emma on their lap like that. “Your mama and I need to talk to you about what happened.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Emma mumbled into her mother’s shoulder.
“I need you to tell me what happened once, and then we don’t have to talk about it again.” Jonathan’s voice trembled.
Emma told him the same things Abigail had reported to him.
After a moment, Jonathan asked, “Is that everything that happened?”
Emma didn’t respond.
“Sweetheart?” Jonathan’s heart was pounding against his ribcage. “Please tell me if anything else happened.”
Emma began crying, and Abigail hugged her closer to her chest.
“It’s okay.” Jonathan reached out a hand to stroke his daughter’s hair. “We just have to know what happened so we can do something about it.”
“He said,” Emma choked out, “if I told anyone he would hurt me.”
“That’s not going to happen.” Jonathan’s voice was firm. “You are safe. I promise you. We won’t let anyone hurt you.”
Emma reached her arms toward her father, and Jonathan gathered her in his. As he rocked his daughter, he thought, What the hell are we going to do?
After they had put all the kids to bed, Jonathan and Abigail collapsed on the sofa. “I feel sick,” Abigail told her husband.
“Me, too.” Jonathan put his arm around his wife, and she nestled against his side. His headache was gone, but a cold emptiness had replaced the painful pounding. He felt distanced from the man sitting on the sofa.
“What are we going to do?” Abigail asked. “Should we call the police?”
“I don’t know.” Jonathan hesitated before saying, “I wonder if we can just take care of it ourselves, since he just touched her outside her clothes. He didn’t do anything…worse.”
Abigail jerked away from her husband, and stared hard at him, “Just! He just touched her outside her clothes? Jonathan, that man violated our little girl! How can you say he just touched her.”
“Abby, please.” Jonathan regretted his choice of words as soon as he said them, and now his wife was angry. Once she got angry, she was very hard to calm down. “You know I didn’t mean it like that. I’m just trying to think about what will happen if we call the police. What will happen when Kevin and Stephanie find out? The Bates’ and their relatives make up half our church. They’re related to half of Little River.”
“So?” Abby challenged.
“So…” Jonathan’s headache was coming back, a slow throbbing at both temples, “I wonder if we should just talk to Kevin and Stephanie and Nathan. Tell them Nathan is not welcome in our church. Tell them Emma won’t be allowed to go to Carly’s house anymore.” He paused and then added, “We can make it clear that if Nathan ever comes near our family again or ever returns to our church, we will call the police.”
Abigail’s breathing had become slow and measured. Jonathan could tell she was seething. Finally, she spoke, “I don’t give a damn who the Bates’ are related to or if the whole damn church splits down the middle. That bastard hurt my daughter, and I’m not about to let him get away with it. Or do it to some other little girl.”
Jonathan felt so torn. He wanted to defend and protect his daughter, but he wanted to do it quietly. He didn’t want people to start rumors that worse things had been done to her. He didn’t want to hear people whispering about Emma. At the same time, he wanted to send the message that he was her daddy…her protector…and he wouldn’t let anyone get away with hurting her. He didn’t want to let her down.
Jonathan saw the disgust on Abigail’s face, and realized he had already let her down.
©2015 Rachel Holbrook
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, and various other literary journals. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.