Chapter 1 in Tooth for Tooth novella — A story of child abuse based on a true story
Dumped into single parenthood, Heather Williams has found a part-time job as a dental receptionist and a cozy apartment with her four-year-old daughter. Life finally looks safe and secure until her daughter reveals a terrifying secret that she’s been molested by her own father.
My daycare provider’s apartment always smelled like a combination of applesauce and baby powder, and my daycare provider, Donna, smelled the same. She had hair highlighted red and a goldfish face with eyes set wide. When I knocked on her door, she shouted her familiar, “Come in. It’s not locked.”
I let go of Caitlin’s hand and gave her a tight hug before releasing her to join the other kids at the toy chest. Donna sat on the edge of a kitchen chair, feeding a toddler some banana goop out of a jar. Two boys played with dinky cars on the pale taupe carpet.
I reminded Donna, “I’m working till four again today, so I should be back to pick Caitlin up around 4:30.”
Donna looked up and smiled, revealing small white kernels of teeth. “We’ll be here.”
“Bye, Caity-Cat. Have a good day,” I called to Caitlin.
Caitlin looked up from her puzzle. “Bye, Mommy.”
I blew her a kiss and then signaled for her to take her thumb out of her mouth. Although she never did it as a baby, she’d recently started sucking her thumb.
Once outside our apartment complex, I zipped up my coat to protect myself from the biting wind. Usually, I didn’t mind the walk to work but days like this reminded me that winter was on its way. Twenty minutes later, I was glad to step into the warmth of the dental clinic.
From the cloakroom, I called to my co-worker, Connie, “There sure is a nip in the air.”
Connie’s brow wrinkled. “Yeah, it’s a change from last week. That’s what I hate about September. The weather changes from one day to the next. By the way, your mom says hello.”
I smiled and nodded. Mom and Connie talked on the phone almost daily since I started at the clinic. I think Mom must feel more in tune with my life when she can talk about me with Connie.
Today, Connie had pulled her unruly brown hair into a braid. She wore a tight jean dress with one gold bangle wrapped around her left bicep.
I took off my jacket and walked through the waiting room. That’s when I saw the petite, blonde woman sitting with her back straight, and both hands in her lap, twisting the handle of her purse.
She looked up and smiled. “Hi. I’m a little early.”
I continued past her and sat at my reception desk. I looked to the appointment book to see her name was Sarah Dowe and she was indeed twenty minutes early.
“Can I get you a cup of coffee while you wait?” I said and handed her a clipboard with the standard dental forms to fill out.
Taking the paperwork she answered, “No, thank you. I just brushed my teeth.” She smiled brilliantly. “I’m a little nervous. No offense to Doctor Mott, but I don’t like dentists.”
As if on cue, Dr. William Mott entered the room. His tall frame filled the doorway. He had full lips, high cheekbones and slightly sunken sea-gray eyes. Carrying a motorbike helmet and leather jacket, he wouldn’t be mistaken for a dentist.
“Bill, your ears must be burning,” Connie said.
Bill’s face creased in a smile. “Hmm. Three women talking about me? Please don’t stop.”
I could feel the heat rising up my neck.
Connie wagged her finger at Sarah and me. “These two were saying how they don’t like dentists.”
Bill’s smile faded, “Oh.” His eyes found mine. He looked like a pierced puppy. Sarah sat up straighter. “Oh my, no. I like dentists. You come highly recommended. It’s just that I don’t like dentist appointments. I mean, I don’t like dental work.”
She seemed flustered so I tried to rescue her. “Dr. Mott, Sarah is a new patient and will need a preliminary exam.”
His smile returned so that both dimples showed. “Well then, let’s get her set up with some x-rays.”
The hygienist, Gail, walked with purpose down the hall. In her late fifties, she wore her slate-gray hair in a tight bun. I turned to Sarah and said, “Gail will take you to the room.”
“Thanks.” Sarah stood, handed me her paperwork, and followed Gail down the hall.
Bill winked as he passed my desk and again I felt my face flood with color. I was relieved to have a solidly booked afternoon to keep me busy and focused on work. I picked up the receiver and dialed.
“Hello, it’s Heather Williams from Lakeside Dental Clinic. I’m just calling to get some insurance information for one of our patients. Paula Wagner.” I waited for their response. “Yes, she did give me some primary insurance numbers.” I read the numbers to the woman on the other end of the phone. “But you’re not showing anything? Okay. This must be really new. I’ll have to call her to get the right information. Thank you.” The numbers are probably from her dog license. I smiled.
I continued with my work but my thoughts returned to Bill and my regular daydream. I imagine us walking barefoot along the beach, with the sun streaking the sky brilliant blues, oranges and pinks. He’s wearing a white shirt that flutters in the warm wind. A lone seagull calls in the distance. The waves crash onto the beach erasing our footprints as we walk. He takes my hand and turns me to face him…
“Hi again,” Sarah said, her words jolting me from my thoughts.
“How’d it go?” I turned my chair to face her.
“No cavities. I need to book another appointment for a proper cleaning though.”
Looking up at Sarah, something about her smile twigged my memory. “Did you used to go to St. Anne’s High School?”
Sarah leaned over the counter. “Yeah, I did.”
“Was your last name Kinsey?”
She raised an eyebrow in amusement. “Yes! Dowe is my married name.”
“I’m Heather. Heather Williams.”
“Oh, my goodness! Heather! I didn’t recognize you with the dark hair. You used to have blonde hair and braces. How are you?”
“Good, good. I’m working here now.” I smiled sheepishly. “Well, obviously.”
I’d known Sarah since we were “minor niners” in high school together. On the first day, she told me that although her teeth were perfectly straight, she wished she had braces like me. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to have to wear the ugly metal contraptions and immediately felt a warm bond with this new friend. She was shorter than me, with bright blue eyes and fair skin. Pretty and petite while I was athletic and tanned we looked like an experimentation in opposites. Later that same year, I dyed my hair blonde to look more like her.
The phone rang and I excused myself to answer it. After I hung up the receiver I asked, “Listen, do you have time to visit for a tea after work? I’ll be off at four and just live a short walk from here.”
“I’d love to. I have some errands to run and then I’ll return.”
“See you then.”
With two emergency appointments, the afternoon passed by quickly. By four o’clock I felt rushed to get my paperwork done. Sarah returned at ten past four. I held one finger in the air and called to her, “I’ll only be a few more moments.”
On our way home the earlier bright skies had clouded over and the chill was still in the air. I was happy for a drive in Sarah’s mini-van.
“I’ll have to wear an extra sweater to work tomorrow,” I said.
“Do you always walk to work?” Sarah asked as we drove past the commercial area. Next to the garden store was a patch of field, Bath and Body Works, the Bargain Dollar discount store, Holland Video, the pizza joint, and the computer store.
“Yeah, that’s why I moved close to work. You remember I used to be on the running team? I don’t run anymore, but I do love walking and hiking.”
“There are some lovely trails around Holland. But I admit I don’t get out as much as I probably should.” She laughed, a nice lilting sound.
We both giggled as we drove past the Lighthouse Christian Assembly Church outdoor billboard. It read:
Don’t let worries kill you.
Let the church help.
I asked, “So what have you done since high school?”
“Oh, I went to Hope College, got married, had a baby. The usual. You?”
“About the same.” I didn’t feel like getting into the fact that my marriage ended only last year. We caught each other up quickly on parents, siblings, and our jobs.
“Here we are.” I pointed to my apartment. Sarah parked on the street in front.
When I opened the doors to the building, I was surprised to find Donna waiting in the hallway.
“Heather, we need to talk,” Donna said.
Her amber eyes, normally bright and animated, were clouded and wrinkles creased her brow.
What is she, the time police? I thought as I looked at my watch. “How’s right now?” I offered, a lump rising in my throat.
“It’s good. I have a sitter.” She exhaled.
“I should go,” Sarah said, twisting the ring on her left hand.
“No, please stay.” I grabbed hold of Sarah’s arm. As we ascended the stairs, Donna’s ominous announcement made my heart race with a surge of adrenaline. Had Caitlin hit another child? Kicked that little curly-haired boy? I hoped she hadn’t bitten anyone. But if it were any of these things, wouldn’t Donna have just told me? Why the secrecy?
I could never have imagined what Donna would tell me that day. The very thought made me want to retch.
Later that night, in my living room, my mother paced the floor. Her short hair, which looked more salt than pepper, swayed with her nodding head. “How could this happen?” Tears streamed down her face.
My father, a heavy-set man with graying curly hair, sat quietly, arms folded across his chest. Through clenched teeth he muttered, “If I ever see the man again, I’ll kill him.”
Still in a daze, I reached for the phone and dialed the number scribbled on the notepaper.
“Children’s Aid Society answering service,” a voice on the other end snapped.
“H…Hello,” I stuttered, my lips stiff with the strain. “I got this number from a friend. Is this the correct number for reporting child abuse?” My mother let out a loud moan. I shot her a look to remind her that Caitlin was sleeping.
“This is the Children’s Aid Society answering service. Name?”
Did she want my name or my daughter’s?
“Name?” she repeated, louder this time.
My mother leaned over to my dad and remarked, “At least she kept her own name.”
“Address? Phone number?”
I gave them to her.
My voice caught in my throat. “Um, well, I’m separated.”
As if on the phone with me, Mom added, “She never should’ve married the man.”
“Married,” the voice on the phone countered, clicking away at the form.
“No, no. I’m not married. We’re separated.”
“So you’re divorced, then.” Her tone was flat, final.
“Then you’re married.”
“No, I’m not. I’m separated. I no longer live with this man. I’m not married,” I said, sharper than intended.
“You’re either married or divorced. Which is it?” she retorted.
“Neither!” Who am I dealing with here? The blood rising to my face thumped in my temples. She has all the compassion of a boy stabbing a worm with a dull hook. I could see my parents exchanging looks of confusion.
“Fine. I’ll check off married. An advocate will call you tomorrow.”
I hung up the phone with a small whoosh of relief and shared with my parents the full conversation.
“This whole thing is such a nightmare!” my mother cried.
After many tears and hugs, my parents returned to their own home. Before leaving, they asked permission to tell my sister, Janice, and although I wanted to tell her myself, I agreed. I didn’t have the energy to go through it again. I assumed they would tell their pastor and the prayer people at their church, too.
Closing the door behind them, I sank down to the floor as tears poured down my cheeks. My cat, Blue-Casey, sensed my distress and hopped into my lap, circling twice before finding the right spot. I stroked his silver-blue furry back absentmindedly and began sobbing.
I awoke the next morning to the phone ringing. It took me a moment to realize I had fallen asleep on the living room couch. Blue-Casey lay curled at my feet.
“Hello?” I answered hoarsely.
“Is this Heather Williams?”
“Yes,” I admitted in a small voice.
“My name is Megan Schwartz, an intake worker from the Children’s Aid Society.”
“Yes.” I sat up, still groggy.
“Can you please tell me why you called our service?”
With some measure of reserve I said, “My daughter. My daughter told the daycare provider that she was touched in her private parts. She’s been sexually assaulted.”
“Has she been to the hospital?”
I bit my lip. “No, I only found out yesterday and was told I had to call you. Do I need to take her to the hospital?”
“Yes. I can give you the number of a clinic where your daughter can be seen.”
“Can’t I just use our family doctor?”
“Yes, fine. I also need to meet with you. I have an opening on Thursday, September 5 at 9:00.”
“I can be there,” I said.
She hung up. I put my head between my knees. I felt as if a rush of wind had just burst into my apartment and taken my breath away. Was I having an out-of-body experience? Or a nervous breakdown? Everything seemed surreal. How could Rod have done such a thing? Questions thrashed around in my head like cod caught in a fishing net.
I reached for the phone and dialed Dr. Carmen’s office. I explained my reason for needing an appointment and the receptionist booked me for 3:30 the next day.
My bottom lip quivered. Now, what to do? What day was it anyway? I looked at the clock, then at the calendar.
I could hear my daughter stirring in the room down the hall. Tears welled in my eyes. How can I take care of this precious little girl when I can’t even focus? I went to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face.
Looking in the mirror, I didn’t recognize the person staring back at me. I turned away.
“Mommy?” Caitlin called from her bedroom.
“Yes, Caity-Cat. I’ll be right there.”
My instincts kicked in and I moved into autopilot-mother.