Me and my little girl didn’t live rich, but we lived well. We had a solid roof over our head in a navy-blue collar neighborhood filled with good, hard working people barely making ends meet. A nursing assistant and her elderly mother to one side, a bus driver to the other, a construction worker across the street. Our block seemed like one of the few left where people knew their neighbors and trusted each other.
I never worried about my four year old daughter, Maya, playing outside. Even if I did have time to be a helicopter parent between twelve hour shifts running an ambulance around the city, I didn’t need to be. Between my sister, Jessica, who was living with us while putting herself through school, and the folks around us, there was always somebody keeping an eye on Maya.
So I was surprised when I was on my way home one late afternoon to see a stranger crouched in front of my girl on the sidewalk.
I had just pulled up to the intersection that crossed over into my street and was stopped at a red light, staring idly ahead towards home, when I noticed Maya standing at the end of our walkway leading up to the house. A man was in front of her. From that distance, it was hard to tell if I recognized him, but an sudden chill brewing in my stomach instinctively told me I didn’t.
Almost everything about him was dark; his clothes, his unusual, tall hat, his skin, all contrasted by his bright white teeth, which became visible when he threw his head back and laughed at something Maya must have said.
My hands clenched around the steering wheel and I started to lift my foot from the brake, planning to speed through the light to get down to my baby girl. Just as I was about to do so, a large box truck rumbled past, both forcing me to remain in place and cutting off my view of Maya and the man.
When it finally went completely by, both had vanished.
A strangled cry wrenched itself from my throat and I laid on the horn and hit the gas, blowing through the intersection while the red light glared accusingly down at me. I skid to a stop at the curb and jumped out of the car, calling frantically for Maya.
Immediately, her little head poked around the porch railing.
“Daddy!” She squealed, and launched herself down the steps towards me.
I scooped her up and crushed her against my chest until she was squirming to be released.
“Everything ok, Sal?”
Behind me, my neighbor, Lance, was sitting on his own stoop with a beer in hand. I half turned towards him after he spoke, still holding tight to my daughter.
“You see that guy who was here talking to Maya?” I asked.
“Yeah, don’t worry, man; I was watching her.”
“Who was he?” I was trying to keep my tone neutral to keep from scaring Maya, but it was hard.
He brushed his movie-star quality blonde hair from his face and shrugged. “Dunno. I guess a relative of Tamara’s? He went down the alley next to her house, anyway. Seemed harmless, older guy, just told Maya she was a nice kid. If it got weird, I would have stepped in.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I gave Maya a noisy smack on her cheek and swung her on to my shoulders to head inside. As we went back up the walkway, I side eyed Tamara’s house, a two story brick building that had seen better days, same as mine.
Except mine didn’t have the sour faced old woman perched in one of the upper windows like she did.
It didn’t matter how I smiled or waved up at Esther, Tamara’s mom, she just stared with the same pinched, wrinkled expression. Tamara said it was because of a stroke, which had left her mute and mostly invalid, but I believed it was because she was just bitter over being made to leave Jamaica or Haiti or wherever she’d come from after she’d gotten sick. My own grandma had had a similar reaction when Dad made her move in with them towards the end, and that had just been across town from her old place.
As I gave Esther a nod, I found that I really did hope the man I’d seen had been a relative of their’s. Mostly because it would make it a little less sordid seeming, but also because a visit from family might help Esther’s mood improve.
Inside, my sister, Jessica, was in the kitchen cutting up vegetables while skimming an open text book on the counter next to her.
“Hey, if you say you’re going to watch Maya, I expect you to actually watch her,” I said after telling Maya to run upstairs and wash up.
“I was,” Jessica replied with a hint of defensiveness, although she didn’t look up from the book. “But I had to make dinner and Lance was out there. He said he’d keep keep an eye on her so I could get dinner started.”
“Thank God for Lance, huh?”
“Yep,” she said.
“There was a guy out there talking to her, you know.”
That did have her looking up. “Who?”
“We’re guessing a relative of Tamara’s, but we don’t know for sure. Lance said he seemed fine, but I don’t want strange old men talking to my kid, which is why Auntie Jessica is supposed to be babysitting her.”
“Sorry, Sal,” a guilty frown tugged at the corner of her lips. “Lance just offered and I’m swamped with homework and studying for midterms. I didn’t think it would be a big deal, he was right there and willing.”
“Yeah, well, in the future, could you at least wait until I’m home? Lance is a good guy, but he doesn’t know the first thing about kids. I’d rather someone who knows what they’re doing is responsible for her.”
Jessica promised it wouldn’t happen again and I let it go at that. After all, it wasn’t like she’d just left Maya beside the street on her own; she had someone watching over her. While she finished cooking, I went up to shower and then we all sat down for supper. Maya babbled about her day at nursery school and about the dog she’d seen coming home, and then she casually mentioned the nice papa who talked to her outside.
“He told you to call him Papa?” I asked with a slight narrowing of my eyes.
“Papa G!” She giggled. “He talked funny.”
“I dunno, his voice! Was funny,” she shrugged and then, bored of the subject, moved on to the spider she’d been following on the porch when I’d arrived home.
I pressed a little bit more for details about this “Papa G”, but there’s only so much you can get from a four year old who would rather tell you about her newest eight legged friend.
After our meal, we had our usual cartoon-bath-book routine and then I put her to bed with a kiss, bid Jessica goodnight, and went into my room to watch TV and unwind with a beer before I went to sleep myself.
I must have dozed off at some point, because I blinked and found a couple of hours had passed. The world outside my window had gone dark and the show I’d been watching had changed to something else. I had also managed to spill half of my beer across my lap. I muttered a curse and scuttled awkwardly out of my room, trying to keep myself from dripping too much on the floor.
Across the hall, Jessica’s door was shut, but her light was still on underneath. Maya’s door, however, was open, but dark inside. She never left her door open after bedtime.
I peeked in and found her bed empty. The little duck slippers she usually kept beside her bed were gone, however, and I figured she’d just gone to the bathroom.
With the beer seeping coldly through my shirt, a reminder that I was getting sidetracked from cleaning myself up, I continued downstairs, making a mental note to check the bathroom when I went up again to make sure Maya didn’t need any help. I made it to the kitchen, flipped on the light, and yelped in surprise.
My daughter was standing just outside the back door, staring off towards the alley at the side of our house. When she heard me, she spun around and blinked owlishly.
“What’sa matter?” She asked.
“What are you doing out there?”
The beer forgotten, I guided her gently by her shoulders back into the house and closed the door behind us. I must have forgotten to put the chain in place after I took the garbage out earlier and I was kicking myself. If I hadn’t gotten up, who knows where she might have gotten off to!
“You know you’re not supposed to go outside without permission!”
“But Papa G,” she said with a pout. “There were rocks on my window and then I looked out and there was someone down here and then I walked all the way down the stairs and I opened the door and it was Papa G, but he didn’t stay, he went away again!”
The sound of the strange man’s name set my teeth grinding. Who the hell did he think he was, tossing pebbles at a four year old’s window? The bastard ran around the house when he heard me coming, no doubt.
“Stay put,” I growled, and I charged outside in search of Papa G while Maya watched from the kitchen.
The faint smell of cigar smoke still lingered in the air and I followed it down the alley that Maya had been looking at when I turned the light on and out into the street. I looked both ways, back and forth up the dark row of houses, and didn’t see any sign of the old man.
Across the street, movement on Lance’s porch caught my eye and I ran over, convinced it had to be “Papa G” trying to hide. Instead, I found my neighbor fumbling with his keys. He jumped when I came up behind him.
“Jesus, man,” he said, relaxing the defensive pose he’d adopted. “What the hell?”
“Did you see that old guy out here again? The one from earlier, who was talking to Maya.”
“No,” his tone was still nervous and I felt a little bad for having snuck up on him like that. I probably would have started out with a swing if someone approached me like that at night; I was lucky Lance was less aggressive in his response. “I was out for a jog, didn’t see anyone.”
“Maya said he was behind our house throwing shit at her windows to get her to come down.”
“That’s messed up,” Lance curled his lips. “You want help looking?”
“Nah, I’m going over to Tamara’s, going to tell her to keep creepy relative away from my daughter.”
But when I slammed my fist against Tamara’s door and relayed the message, she just looked confused and a little frightened.
“We don’t have anyone visiting,” she said.
“No? Older guy, wears a lot of black? Lance said he saw him going down your alley.”
She shook her head. “No. You might want to call the cops, Sal. I have no idea who that is.”
I apologized for making assumptions and scaring her and returned to my own house, where I did call the cops. By the time they arrived, Maya was asleep and I filled them in as best I could on what she’d told me and what I’d seen. They took my statement, spoke briefly to Jessica, who had joined me in the living room when she heard the commotion downstairs, and assured us they’d look into it before leaving. I didn’t get much sleep that night, I was convinced I kept hearing little pebbles hitting my daughter’s window.
I circled the house at least half a dozen times, but I never found anything.
The whole time, I could feel Esther watching me from her window with that lemon-faced expression of her’s.
Jessica and I took turns keeping a close watch over Maya, but I still felt like it wasn’t enough. Every so often, there’d be a distinct odor of cigar smoke outside our house and, a couple times, I found apple cores discarded along the walkway. I dreamt of a dark man in dark clothing, a large coat and a tall hat, dancing with my daughter. She was always smiling up at him, oblivious to any danger, and he was always smiling down at her, a cigar dangling between his lips. And then he’d look at me, and he would shake his head with a bout of loud laughter.
It didn’t help that Maya still told us she saw him around.
“Papa G was outside today,” she’d say, or, “Papa G watched me play”.
No matter how much I begged her to tell me where or when, she’d just gesture vaguely out towards the road and Lance’s house.
I kept Lance in the loop. He was between construction jobs at the moment and had a lot of time to kill at home. He was happy to help.
“You ever need anything, let me know. I can always watch Maya for you if Jessica’s busy.”
It was nice having a friend who I could rely on while I tried to pin down a would-be child molester, especially since Jessica was distracted by her schooling. My only other option was handling it pretty much by myself, and with how little progress I was making, that might have driven me insane.
As it was, I was becoming more and more paranoid about letting Maya out of my sight, especially since her Papa G sightings were becoming more numerous.
He’d been appearing outside the fence of her nursery school at playtime, she’d noticed him at the park when Jessica took her, near a little friend’s house up the street. She was always so pleased when she told me, beaming like seeing Papa G was the highlight of her day.
“He’s funny,” she would say, “he sings sometimes, and dances and makes me laugh! I like his hat, it’s tall!”
I went to the cops again and again and, when that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, I warned her school and the volunteer monitors at the park about him, telling them that they needed to keep an eye out for an old man dressed all in black with a cigar and a big hat.
But they all had similar answers.
“Nobody like that, no. Now that you mention it, though, I have seen this one guy pretty regularly…”
They described him as being around my age, a little taller than me, well built, with blondish hair and green eyes.
He’d been seen hanging around the bus stop just on the other side of the fence during the kid’s playtime at nursery school.
He’d been seen wandering the park near the playground, just kind of loitering. Watching.
He’d been seen around my neighborhood, walking slowly by Maya’s little friend’s house while they played outside.
The last bit made the most sense; there was a guy on our block who fit the description.
He lived right across the street from me.
I confronted Lance after hearing the same story from so many different people.
“Are you following Maya?” There were no hellos, no small talk, I just stomped up to his stoop, where he was sitting, watching the sunset.
“What?” He scoffed, shook his head, and when I didn’t back down, he scoffed again. “What are you talking about?”
“Come on, man, you’re being weird, knock it off.”
I recited the description I’d been given repeatedly, the entire time keeping my gaze firmly locked on his. He sat very still for a moment, and then pushed himself to his feet.
“Whatever. One minute you’re looking for a dark guy, now you’re after me? All I’ve done is offered to help.”
“Yeah, you’ve been mighty willing to do that, haven’t you?” I said coldly, taking one step forward. He took one back. “And wasn’t it convenient that you were outside the first time Papa G was there, just watching Maya? And that night, when he was throwing pebbles at her window, and you just happened to be outside, coming home from a jog.”
“Yeah, so? Back off, man.”
“Nobody’s seen Papa G except you, me, and Maya, but everyone’s seen you, Lance.”
“I’m going inside, get your crazy ass off my property.”
He started to turn towards the door and I raised a hand to reach out and grab him, I wasn’t done with him yet, but he jerked to a halt all on his own. His face went blank, expressionless, and suddenly he was moving. It was like watching someone who couldn’t decide if they were dancing or fucking. His hips gyrated, his arms flailed, he was making strange, moaning sounds. It was a graceless, rhythmless display that might have been funny if it weren’t so unexpected and vulgar.
“What the hell are you doing?” I demanded.
“Your daughter,” he grinned, and it was a lecherous, dangerous expression. “I’ve been watching her.”
“Watch yourself,” I warned him. My hands had already balled into fists at my side.
“She’s so young, so sweet,” he let loose a high pitched giggle, all the while continuing his ridiculous gyrating.
It only took one swift uppercut to put an end to it.
Across the street, I heard a woman scream. Tamara had come out of her house in time to see me lay Lance flat. Above her, staring out of the second story window, her mother was also watching, and for the first time, I thought I saw something that might have been a smile tugging at her lips.
The police were called and arrived to find me still standing over Lance, who was, by then, coming to again. He claimed not to remember dancing or saying such crude things, but I didn’t buy it. I told the officers who questioned both of us that he’d been stalking my child and that I had a number of witnesses to back me up. Tamara also gave a statement, saying she had caught the tail end of Lance’s strange display and then saw me punch him.
My story was enough for them to obtain a search warrant. Apparently anything having to do with a potential child predator had them pretty motivated to move quickly. Lance was taken to a holding cell at the station for the night while they waited for the warrant to be finalized and I was told to return home and let them handle it now. Tamara met me in front of my house and offered to look at my hand for me.
“Ah, right, nursing assistant,” I said with a wince while she felt along the knuckles.
“Yeah,” she said.
I sighed and muttered, “One down.”
“What’s that mean?” Tamara paused in her examination and glanced up at me.
“Papa G is still out there.”
“Yeah, didn’t I tell you?”
“You described him, but never told me his name,” she said, and there was a strange note in her voice.
“What is it?”
“Papa G, you said he was a short, old man all in black, smoked cigars?” When I nodded, she let my hand drop and turned to stare up at the window her mother was sitting in. “Papa Ghede…”
“What?” I said again most insistently.
She slowly shook her head, sending her dark curls bouncing. “How much do you know about Vodou?”
Tamara’s mother, Esther, was from a small, rural community in Haiti where Vodou was the prominent religion. She had been raised on tales of Bondye and the Loa, practiced their rituals, partook in their beliefs, and was devout follower. Esther had tried to pass on that way of life to Tamara, but she had never taken to it and lost almost all touch with Vodou after moving to America when she was 18.
Tamara never forgot the stories, though; she never forgot about Papa Ghede.
A crass, rude spirit primarily responsible for helping the recently departed crossover, Papa Ghede was also the one that Vodou practitioners prayed to when a child was sick or dying. According to Tamara, in addition to cheap smokes and displays of eroticism for his own amusement that included possessing humans and making them do embarrassing, lewd acts, such as gyrating dances and dirty talk, he was an ardent protector of children and would not allow them to die before their time.
“Mama believed in Papa Ghede. Whenever I was sick when I was a kid, she’d pray to him and leave him offerings, sometimes rum or cigars or apples. I mean, I never believed in it, but…”
She trailed off and we both looked up again to Esther’s window.
Somehow, Esther had seen what I could not, she had recognized the danger that Maya was in, maybe from how Lance looked at Maya when I wasn’t around, maybe she’d seen him lurking, we’d never know, but she had done the only thing that a poor, sick woman with a failing body could do; she prayed.
Maya never saw Papa G again. She was a bit sad about it at first, she had been very fond of the funny man with the tall hat, but eventually, she seemed to forget all about him.
I didn’t, though.
I would never forget Papa G, who had heeded the call of his mute follower to protect someone that wasn’t of his own flock. I would never forget the spirit who had stayed by my child’s side, ensuring that Lance couldn’t get near her. I would never forget how he had protected my baby girl.
And I would never forget the old woman who had summoned him on my behalf.
Lance was arrested after child pornography was found on his home computer. There were also photos of some of the neighborhood kids among his possessions, including Maya. He was sentenced to twenty years and hauled off. I never saw him again. Lucky him.
I visited with Esther frequently after that. It was impossible to express my gratitude, but I tried every day. I read to her, I helped feed her, I brought my daughter to visit her, and I was with her when she passed away a year later.
I laid out extra cigars, apples, and rum that night, as an offering to Papa Ghede so that he would make sure Esther was able to pass peacefully into the afterlife. I didn’t really think I had to worry, though.
Somehow, I just knew the dark man dressed all in black, a cigar dangling from his lips, would be more than happy to escort one of his most devout in one, final dance.