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  • Going Back to Plum Island
  • Jill Christman (bio)

The decision to return to the island began with the dreams. Ted was back, and this time he hadn’t come just for me. He was after my nine-year-old daughter Ella.

Part of me had always known this would happen.

In my twenties and thirties I had tried to write Ted, if not into complete obliteration, then at least into insignificance. Here are the facts: as close as I can align the memories and the photographs with the markers of time—birthdays, moves, my mother’s sequential boyfriends and waitressing jobs—Ted molested me, regularly and sometimes violently, from the time I was six or seven until age twelve, when the arrival of my period and the fear of pregnancy scared me so much I finally made him stop. I locked myself in the only room with a phone and I hissed through the crack that I would tell if he didn’t stop. I would call my mother at the restaurant if he didn’t stop.

And he did. He stopped.

Was it that easy?

Ted was our neighbor and a regular fixture in our home—seven years older than me and twice my weight. He carried his wallet on a chain and a folded knife in the pocket of his saggy jeans, which is the [End Page 29] feature I remember most about Ted’s body. He had no hips, no ass, nothing to hold up his pants, and so he wore a thick, brown belt with a buckle he’d forged himself (it had something menacing on it—a serpent? a skull and crossbones?), cinched tight on the bones of his pelvis. When I think of Ted physically, I see two things: first, his hands, which were never clean because of the work he did on engines. Even there, I feel the hands more than I see them, sandpapering the soft skin of the child’s body I inhabit in deep memory, scratching audibly across the denim of my overalls—and in close-up, the black whorls of his fingerprints, as if he’d come, every time, from a booking at the station.

And I see him walking away. I think this is from all the times he’d cross the sandy field between his garage and our house, a straight view from my bedroom window, and I would hide in my room while he knocked on the front door, hide without breathing, a rabbit in the grass, and then, when I thought it was safe, I would peek out from the lower edge of my window.

I wanted to watch him go.

I don’t know how tall Ted was, but he loomed, a shambling Lurch from The Addams Family, shoulders hunched forward, pants hanging in a straight line from his belt down to his dirty sneakers, long legs moving in pendulum swings across the sand. He could cross a lot of ground with what appeared to be very little effort. Is there such a thing as an ambling lope? A stride both low-energy and efficient? Yes, I think so. This is the locomotion of a wolf, or a big cat—a predator.

Watching Ted walk away in memory, I see the animal in him, and from this perspective, and the supposed safety of over thirty years, I can almost find a fragment of empathy. He looks so broken and lonely, barely more than a kid himself.

And then I remember that the sag in his shoulders is disappointment. He hadn’t found me. Now what would he do to get off? The empathy is gone and the rage is back.

Once, when I was in graduate school, a fiction-writing professor said to the class: You should know everything about your characters. You should know what your characters look like walking away. And in that seminar room in Alabama, the lemony smell of azaleas drifting [End Page 30] in through the cracked windows, so far away from that cold island in Massachusetts, the image of Ted walking back across that field hit me like a blow to the gut. Yes, I thought, Okay. I...