A cream apron over a buttermilk calico print dress, black shoes, dark brown hair in a short ponytail, and mascara to make blue eyes pop: that was my uniform at the diner in Avera, Georgia. When it suited me, I also added a daisy to my hair and cherry lipstick.
The Dixon Diner was a cute mom and pop operation close to the woods. Vinyl wood planked floors and the sky blue walls reminded me of a vintage home. We served pancakes, French toast, eggs, sausage, and bacon in the morning. Lunch was a variety of different sandwiches and soups, generally with sweet tea, water, coffee, or soda. There was generally one or two of us working at one time, and I always closed after lunchtime.
Every waitress seemed to have an older gentleman or two who made a point to come in when she was working. It was almost always harmless – just older men without anyone to talk to at home who had sense of community with the waitresses and one another. Mine was closer to maybe forty or fifty than the rest of them. He had hazel eyes and sandy hair, and he often came in during lunchtime for a sandwich and several cups of coffee. Then he stood outside and smoked as I closed up and left.
Margot always said I should be leery of him. I always said he was just a lonely bachelor who enjoyed the company.
He started coming in earlier and earlier and leaving at the same time. He asked me about the area where I lived, how I enjoyed working at the diner, and often said that I looked pretty. I asked him about his family, but he said he had none. I asked him about work, to which he replied that he was unemployed. Then I said it was nice chatting with him, and then he left.
There was one afternoon when Margot left early to pick up her sick daughter from kindergarten. I assured her that I would be all right and started to close up. The man I often chatted with was long gone today, and I suspect that was the only reason she agreed to leave when she did.
When I locked the door and started toward my car, the man, who called himself Bentley, came around the corner with a small handful of wildflowers and a large grin.
"What's this for?" I asked with a smile as I received the flowers.
"Our six-month anniversary."
My blood ran cold. The hair on the back of my neck prickled.
"Since I first met you at the diner. I want to take you out someplace where you can wear something a little prettier to show how pretty you are."
I swallowed deeply and sneaked a glance at my blue Subaru, alone in the parking lot aside from his white truck.
"I have plans tonight," I forced a polite smile and started toward my car. "But thank you."
"Wait," he grabbed my arm. I reached into my pocket to retrieve my keys again. I had a small can of mace that my mother convinced me to carry. But when he pulled my arm again, my hand came out of my pocket. "What about our anniversary? We have to celebrate somehow!"
"No," I pulled away. "I don't think so."
"Stop," he wrenched me back. "Stop!"
And before I knew it, he threw an arm around my neck and hauled me away.
Because of my clear description of the man and his truck, and because of the science of DNA, he was arrested almost immediately for what he did to me that day. I called in to work early and requested a couple days off. Mrs. Lucy Dixon's reply is something I will always remember:
"Aly, you take as much time as you need. We are here for you when you need us."
The man was really Steven Powell. His arrest was all over the news, but his victim remained anonymous. Excuse me – his survivor remained anonymous. But as it would turn out, I was not the only survivor in that attack.
Two months after that afternoon, I came home to the upstairs apartment I lived in above my parents and threw myself down on my bed. Strange to be twenty, laying in the same bed I slept in as a child and teenager, soon to become a mother of my own child.
My own child. Those words sent a chill down my spine. I was more violated than ever. That man made me keep part of him with me. Tears streamed down my eyes when I lay my hands on my stomach. My older sister had looked me in the eye at that appointment and said she understood if I scheduled an appointment to abort the pregnancy.
But here's the thing: every decision we make starts us down a particular road. We do not get to choose what happens to us in this life, but we always have the decision as to how we handle the situation. Even someone who has chaos thrown at them can handle it poorly in their panic. And I knew I couldn't handle a procedure like that.
"That is not a solution," I answered her. "That is trying to heal one would with another, and putting the punishment on someone who is innocent."
The next thing I did was considered insane by my family, but I knew it was right. Small towns are notorious for rumors and gossip, and the visions of stares and whispers I would receive were unbearable. So I logged into Facebook and made this my status:
"That rapist that has been on the news attacked me. I am the reason he was caught, and he is the reason I am going to have a child. This is not about pity or anything else other than the truth. I do not want to be accused of something I'm innocent of."
Even so, there were a number of people who sneaked glimpses of me at church and at school. I could see people eyeing my midsection at the diner. Some seemed enthralled that I was in public with my secret in the open and with my expanding midsection. Others were clearly skeptical of my story, although I was not known to have been in a relationship at the time.
But you know what really got me through?
The men and women at my church who embraced me and promised to stand by me and support me, whether or not I put my baby up for adoption.
And then there was that decision.
I remember curling up on a beanbag chair in my sitting room, hair braided over one shoulder, arms crossed over my stomach. My parents were seated on the azure couch behind me as we watched sitcoms and anything else that had the reputation of making me laugh. But all I could think about was what I should do with my child. I remember praying, "Lord, is this child meant for someone who could not conceive on their own? Or do You have other plans?"
I could not bear the idea of my child resembling the attacker. Such a cruel, constant reminder seemed impossible to manage. But could I really base my decision on what my baby looked like? What was the alternative? Someone could raise this baby with deep love. Or, someone could raise him or her without that deep love, and without a guiding hand. Who could I trust with my own child?
My father eventually asked me what I was going to do. Without a second thought, I said, "this baby was put in my responsibility, so I will raise it."
He looked startled. So did I.
Seven months in, the corner room was redone for my child. Several members of my church came over when I was at work, and my parents had told them what I wanted to do. After a week, they let me in. I pushed open the door to see waves painted on the walls in a variety of blues. Starfish dangled against the walls, and the crib was loaded with blankets and stuffed sea creatures and shells. The carpet was a soft, textured sandy color.
I perused the room with several people standing in the doorway, expecting some reaction. I had none. What could I say or do to express my gratitude? How could I express the fear and anticipation that came with this visual confirmation of what I knew to be true?
"I love it," I said eventually.
Applause. I smiled for the first time since I could remember after the attack. I returned to my family and friends and embraced them. Some traces of beauty were starting to appear amidst the struggles, like the sunlight that frames a storm cloud. That was the first moment when I started to think that with the love of God and people, I could get through this.
After that, the planning became more fun, although it was still daunting. Acquiring cute clothes became enjoyable, and purchasing stuffed animals became exciting. Some of the people who had stolen glances at me earlier that year softened and started helping me gather the supplies I needed.
Despite some of the rumors still floating around town, I wanted to stay in my hometown.
But what about him? What sort of rumors and stares would he face all his life?
These considerations dampened my freshly discovered excitement. I was too scared to speak them out loud. Ideas swirled around me like the waves of a stormy sea.
It wasn't until July 27th that I was rushed to the local hospital. And it wasn't until July 29th that Gabriel John Parker was born. I stared down at his rosy cheeks and the sandy hair that seemed more his own now than the attacker's. When he yawned, I smiled. I decided to stay right where I was, with family and friends. Gabriel was set up to master some steep challenges. He was about to battle for the recognition of his own identity, to overcome the prejudices of everyone in town same as he beat mine.
Now came the real battle for me: raising my son in a world where such a ray of sunshine can have such a dark origin, where public opinion of him would be grounded in his heritage, and where even his mother would sometimes wonder what their future would hold.
But I knew I could do it.
"Blowin' Smoke" by Kacey Musgraves – working at the diner
"Fortress" by Dala – exploring the nursery
"Home" by Phil Phillips – going to the hospital and delivery