Authors: Melanie Rae Thon
“You drive,” Justin said to Marshall as we careened out of the Blue Moon. Marshall was a long ways from being sober but he was downright holy in comparison with his brother. Justin clung to Nina and lurched toward a truck that wasn't his, wasn't even the right color.
Marshall steered him in the right direction. “Yeah, I'll drive,” he said, his tone more self-righteous than a man in his condition deserved to use on anyone. Nina sat between the boys and I sat smashed against the door. Marshall rammed the truck into reverse, lifting his foot off the clutch before we'd slipped into gear; we might have been jolted off the seat if we hadn't been crammed in so tight.
Once we hit the main road and Nina's drunkenness was a private matter, Marshall seemed to like her well enough again. We plowed through the thick night. As soon as he jerked us into fourth, Marshall put his free hand on Nina's thigh. He didn't bother being sneaky, starting at the knee and working up: he clawed at her skirt and grabbed the inside of her leg barely an inch from her crotch. A skunk had just been hit. The smell filled the cab and stayed with us all the way home. Justin pawed Nina from the other side and sucked at her neck. I heard a slurping noise, bits of flesh being pulled into his mouth. I wondered how he felt, pawing this drunken woman, this Nina who was once a girl he would not dare to touch, remembering the days when putting his tongue to her flesh would have been sacred or profane. Surely this was not how he envisioned it in those dark hours of dreaming, those bleak early mornings when he woke, his sheets damp, his belly sticky. Surely in those dreams she kissed him back, tenderly or viciously, even fury was better than this numb response, these closed eyes, this slack mouth, like Jesse's mouth, watery and full of death. Surely her legs opened slowly, waves opening and closing around him, enveloping his body, lapping his thighs, warm, not the lake, not like that at all, a pool up the shore, water trapped behind a rock where the sun beat down on it all day till it was almost hot. But now, in the truck, the girl's legs twitched where he touched her, neither welcoming nor forbidding, the twitch of a drugged animal, a dog on its way down, a sick pig, his favorite one.
It was well past midnight when we turned into my cousins' drive. The truck was still a truck and the footmen hadn't turned to mice. But the beautiful girl was in tatters. Our bodies seemed to expand as soon as I opened the door of the truck, and suddenly there was no room for me on the seat. I nearly fell on my butt but caught the handle in time.
The boys pulled Nina out. I wanted to run inside, but I was afraid they wouldn't walk my sister to the door. She might sleep where she fellâin the gravel of their driveway or the pricker plants in their unmowed lawn.
Justin kept kissing her, sucking her mouth into his. Marshall took his turn too, and their hands never stopped moving, up and down her body; they rolled her between them, and I watched, too dumb to speak, too scared to take her hand and lead her away. I thought of Lewis Champeaux, how I'd watched the other boys steal his pants. I could have helped him sooner, spared him his humiliation. But I didn't speakânot then, not now. I told myself this was different. The Indian boy was afraid. But Nina didn't care.
I like to think I would have stopped my cousins eventually. But I can't be certain. I might have turned my back on my sister, marched across the yard, and climbed the stairs of my dark house. I might have pulled the covers over my head and hidden in the hot tent of my bed, where I could pretend I didn't know what the boys had planned. I'd tell myself they wouldn't fling her into the truck bed. I'd hum louder and louder, drowning her muffled cries, blotting out the image of their dirty hands over her mouth.
But I didn't have to face my own cowardice. Nina saved herself. Her limp body stiffened; her back arched. She whirled. Vomit sprayed against the truck, splattering yellow bile on the three of them. Marshall and Justin were too stunned to miss the first heave; but by the time she arched again, they were halfway to the house. Nina and I squatted in the drive, and I held her from behind while this night and countless others like it were torn out of her. She spewed them out on the sharp stones that cut into her knees. She retched herself dry and still she heaved till she was too weak to stand. I made her drape one arm over my shoulder and clutched her wrist tight. I wrapped my other arm around her waist and lugged her home.
She collapsed on the couch and drew her knees up to her chest. I wiped the vomit from the corners of her mouth, washed the dirt from her legs, and covered her with a sheet. As I climbed the stairs, I felt her weight still on my shoulders.
to the smell. My fingers revealed me: mute witness, betraying sister. Just once, I wanted to believe in something enough to risk my life; I wanted to be as brave as Red Elk, ready to leap into flames to save the life of a foolish boy. The big Indian's faith in himself kept him alive. I wanted to love someone enough to plunge a plane into a lake. But I would not leave her. I would swim down and down into the dark trench and free her.
I was afraid to face Nina, to see her on the couch, her red silk blouse encrusted with spittle, her glance an accusation I deserved. And later her steady stare would demand the whole truth. Perhaps some small piece of the night had lodged in her brain, a shard of glass; she would recall my silence, the way I inched backward, ready to turn and flee. When she saw me today, the glass might splinter in her skull, and the night would pierce her a hundred times.
But Nina was not twisted in the sheet. She sat in the kitchen, smoking. “I've been waiting for you,” she said. “I thought you might fry up some more of those fine potatoes.” She was a devil to be hungry after last night. She'd washed and changed her clothes. Even Nina couldn't have ignored the bitter taste in her mouth, but perhaps she was more accustomed to it than I imagined.
My shame boiled up and turned to rage. What if I had left her? What difference would it make to a girl who could forget anythingâa girl who could leave home for five years and not weep or plead for our forgiveness? She cut her own head from our photographs. She left us to imagine her death day after day. And still she was not sorry.
Nina couldn't be satisfied. For breakfast she had three scrambled eggs, four slices of toast and the rest of those potatoes swimming in ketchup. She was ready for lunch at eleven and dinner at four. That gave her time for an extra meal at the end of the day. After each meal she fell asleep: on the porch swing, on the couch, in the bathroom, at the kitchen table. But she refused to lie down on a bed.
Somehow she managed to get Daddy out of his chair, and she walked him up and down the hall twenty times or more. By evening she had persuaded him to come downstairs. She brought him out on the porch to trim his hair. It was the only time in his life I'd known him to let someone else take a pair of scissors to his head. Their chatter rolled in through the screen door, mumbling through the living room. Nina said, “I never noticed what big ears you have.” And Father answered, “The better to hear you.” Their laughter bubbled into the kitchen, where Mother and I peeled vegetables in silence.
I saw Nina as a child of twelve, standing on Daddy's feet as he waltzed her around the room. They bumped into chairs, shook the cabinet of china. I had to dodge them, and Mother ran from the kitchen with a spatula still in her hand. She slapped at the air and told them to stop that nonsense before they broke her teacups.
But they didn't stop. They giggled just as they did now. Everything amused them today. “Oh dear,” Nina said, “I nicked you, Daddy.” And he laughed. I will never understand why. Then they whispered. Who knows what they said.
“It's hot today.”
“You have such coarse hair, Daddy.”
“Not like yours.”
“Mine's so dry it breaks off when I brush it.”
“You used to have such pretty hair.”
“Bound to break sooner or later.”
Perhaps that was all they said. But why, why did they have to whisper?
It was on the fourth day that Nina had another visitor, “another gentleman caller,” Mom said as she and Nina and I sat on the porch, and I thought of my gentleman cousins.
At first I believed the boy in the yellow Volkswagen across the street was Coe Carson, and I sat smug, thinking how surprised they'd be when they realized a boy was calling on me, not Nina. But this was a foolish thought. No boy had ever knocked on my door. No lover had thrown gravel at my window or sung to me in the dark.
My mistake was simple enough. The boy in the car was Rafe Carson, Coe's older brother, one of those boys in the trees during the long summer before Nina ran away, the boy in the woodshed with his hand stuck down Nina's bra, one of the dozen or so she left behind to pine for her, to imagine her golden hair in a hundred damp and hopeless dreams.
Rafe was almost as skinny as Coe, saved only by the fact that he wasn't as tall. His red hair was cropped close to his skull. His cheek and chin showed a sparse fuzz, a futile attempt to grow a beard. He wore a white T-shirt, yellowed at the pits, and faded jeans.
Mom tried to scoot me inside, but I sat on the porch swing, smack in the middle, staring at the two wicker chairs. If at some later time Rafe and Nina decided they wanted to sit together, they'd have to ask me to move my ass. Nina shot me a look, an old look that spun through the years to a time when I would have done anything to please herâwould have stood on my head in a corner till my face turned the color of a ripe tomato if it would make her happy. That look had sent me scuttling to my room night after night so she could be alone with some boy or another, but this time I just looked back at her with the blank eyes of a cow.
“Hey there,” said Rafe, putting his foot on the bottom step and waiting for an invitation.
“Hi yourself,” said Nina. She twisted a brassy curl around her finger.
“I heard you were back,” Rafe said, shading his face with his hand.
“Yeah, I'm back.”
“How long you staying?”
“Long as I want.”
“Mind if I get out of the sun?”
“I don't mind,” she said.
He took the chair to Nina's right, giving her a quick, sideways glance.
She rubbed her bare arms, and Rafe stared, his longing simple: he wanted nothing more than to touch those arms. Nina said, “Lizzie, honey, I'm about to drop from this heat. Be a sweet girl and get me a cool rag.”
I knew her, but how could I refuse?
When I returned with the damp cloth, it was just as I expected: Nina had moved to the swing. But Rafe still sat rigid in his chair.
Nina reached for the rag and read my mind, moving one leg onto the swing so I couldn't plop down with her. I had to take the chair next to Rafe, bound like him to watch Nina wash her throat and the back of her neck. She dabbed at her arms. Rafe Carson had to sit on his hands to keep himself from begging her to let him wash her knees. She made each part of her body precious, then closed her eyes, oblivious to the suffering she caused this boy.
“I can't remember a time I was ever this hot,” she said. “It wasn't this hot when we were growing up, was it, Rafe?”
“No, ma'am,” he said, “it wasn't.”
“Ma'am? Ma'am? What am I, your mama? Or some old woman on the street?” She leaned forward and the neck of her dress gaped, exposing a smooth white place the sun hadn't touched.
“I didn't mean that. I didn't mean that at all. You're still the prettiest girl who ever lived in this town.”
“That's not saying much.”
“In this county.”
“Thanks again. I feel like I've just been crowned Hog Queen at the state fair.”
Rafe Carson squirmed, thinking through his short list of compliments, tortured by his lack of words. “You know what I'm trying to say.”
“I'm tired of guessing what boys mean.” She stretched out on the porch swing; her eyes were slats. I wanted to warn Rafe that he'd better keep talking because Nina was apt to fall asleep the minute she got comfortable.
“I'm no good at talking to girls.”
“Well, it's time you learned.”
“I haven't had much practice.”
“What have you been doing for five years, living in a hole?”
“Something like that.”
“Join the Army?”
“They wouldn't take me.”
Nina sat up straight, truly looking at Rafe Carson for the first time. “They let anybody in the Army. Unless he's some kind of cripple. Are you deformed, boy?” Something in her tone made me think she liked the idea and wouldn't mind seeing a humpback or a clubfoot for herself.
“I've been in prison.”
“You mean that boys' school, that country club for delinquents? That was ages ago. I didn't think they even put stuff like that on your record.”
“They didn't. I've been in a real prison. Over in Washington. Three years for armed robbery.”
“Three years? That's all?”
“Well, the gun wasn't loaded. Actually it wasn't even a real gun, but the kid thought it was, crapped his pants, literally, said so in court. That's why they gave me three years if you want to know the truth, three years for scaring the shit out of some pimple-faced kid.”
“Another gas station?”
“How much you get?”
“Nothing. Damn fool wouldn't open the register. He was gonna die for minimum wage. How do you find a kid like that? Fifty lousy bucks, that's all I wanted.”
“I was trying to get across the border before anybody got the bright idea of drafting me.”
“Why'd you go to Washington? You could have
to Canada from here.”