Authors: Delia Owens
Kneeling at her feet, without saying a word, he ran his fingers like a whisper along her left ankle up to the inside of her knee, slowly along
the inside of her thigh. She raised her body toward his hand. His fingers lingered at the top of her thigh, rubbed over her panties, then moved across her belly, light as a thought. She sensed his fingers moving up her stomach toward her breasts and twisted her body away from him. Firmly, he pushed her flat and slid his fingers to her breast, slowly outlining the nipple with one finger. He looked at her, unsmiling, as he moved his hand down and pulled at the top of her panties. She wanted him, all of him, and her body pushed against his. But seconds later, she put her hand on his.
“C’mon, Kya,” he said. “Please. We’ve waited forever. I’ve been pretty patient, don’t ya think?”
“Chase, you promised.”
“Damn it, Kya. What’re we waiting for?” He sat up. “Surely, I showed ya I care for you. Why not?”
Sitting up, she pulled down her T-shirt. “What happens next? How do I know you won’t leave me?”
“How does anybody ever know? But, Kya, I’m not going anywhere. I’m falling in love with you. I want to be with you all the time. What else can I do to show you?”
He had never mentioned love. Kya searched his eyes for truth but found only a hard stare. Unreadable. She didn’t know exactly how she felt about Chase, but she was no longer lonely. That seemed enough.
He pulled her close to him. “It’s okay. C’mere.” He held her and they lay under the sun, drifting on the sea, the
slosh, slosh, slosh
of the waves beneath them.
Day drained away and night settled heavily, the village lights dancing here and there on the distant shore. Stars twinkling above their world of sea and sky.
Chase said, “I wonder what makes stars twinkle.”
“Disturbance in the atmosphere. You know, like high atmospheric winds.”
“I’m sure you know that most stars are too far away for us to see. We see only their light, which can be distorted by the atmosphere. But, of course, the stars are not stationary, but moving very fast.”
Kya knew from reading Albert Einstein’s books that time is no more fixed than the stars. Time speeds and bends around planets and suns, is different in the mountains than in the valleys, and is part of the same fabric as space, which curves and swells as does the sea. Objects, whether planets or apples, fall or orbit, not because of a gravitational energy, but because they plummet into the silky folds of spacetime—like into the ripples on a pond—created by those of higher mass.
But Kya said none of this. Unfortunately, gravity holds no sway on human thought, and the high school text still taught that apples fall to the ground because of a powerful force from the Earth.
“Oh, guess what,” Chase said. “They’ve asked me to help coach the high school football team.”
She smiled at him.
Like everything else in the universe, we tumble toward those of higher mass
HE NEXT MORNING
, on a rare trip to the Piggly Wiggly to buy personal items Jumpin’ didn’t carry, Kya stepped out of the grocery and nearly bumped right into Chase’s parents—Sam and Patti Love. They knew who she was—everyone did.
She’d seen them in town occasionally through the years, mostly from a distance. Sam could be seen behind the counter in the Western
Auto, dealing with customers, opening the cash register. Kya remembered how when she was a girl, he shooed her away from the window as though she might frighten away real customers. Patti Love didn’t work full time at the store, allowing time for her to hurry along the street, handing out pamphlets for the Annual Quilting Contest or the Blue-Crab Queen Festival. Always dressed in a fine outfit with high-heel pumps, pocketbook, and hat, in matching colors demanded by the southern season. No matter the subject, she managed to mention Chase as being the best quarterback the town had ever seen.
Kya smiled shyly, looking right into Patti Love’s eyes, hoping they would speak to her in some personal way and introduce themselves. Maybe acknowledge her as Chase’s girl. But they halted abruptly, said nothing, and sidestepped around her—making a wider berth than necessary. Moved on.
The evening after bumping into them, Kya and Chase drifted in her boat under an oak so huge its knees jutted over the water, creating little grottoes for otters and ducks. Keeping her voice low, partly so she wouldn’t disturb the mallards and partly in fear, Kya told Chase about seeing his parents and asked if she would meet them soon.
Chase sat silent, making her stomach lump up.
Finally he said, “’Course you will. Soon, I promise.” But he didn’t look at her when he said it.
“They know about me, right? About us?” she asked.
The boat must have drifted too close to the oak, because right then a great horned owl, plump and cushy as a down pillow, dropped from the tree on reaching wings, then stroked slow and easy across the lagoon, his breast feathers reflecting soft patterns on the water.
Chase reached out and took Kya’s hand, wringing the doubt from her fingers.
For weeks, sunsets and moonrises followed Chase and Kya’s easy movements through the marsh. But each time she resisted his advances, he stopped. Images of does or turkey hens alone with their demanding young, the males long gone to other females, weighed solid in her mind.
Lying around near naked in the boat was as far as it went, no matter what the townspeople said. Although Chase and Kya kept to themselves, the town was small and people saw them together in his boat or on the beaches. The shrimpers didn’t miss much on the seas. There was talk. Tittle-tattle.
The shack stood silent against the early stir of blackbird wings, as an earnest winter fog formed along the ground, bunching up against the walls like large wisps of cotton. Using several weeks of mussel money, Kya had bought special groceries and fried slices of molasses ham, stirred redeye gravy, and served them with sour-cream biscuits and blackberry jam. Chase drank instant Maxwell House; she, hot Tetley tea. They’d been together nearly a year, though neither spoke of that. Chase said how lucky he was that his father owned the Western Auto: “This way we’ll have a nice house when we get married. I’m gonna build you a two-story on the beach with a wraparound veranda. Or whatever kinda house you want, Kya.”
Kya could barely breathe. He wanted her in his life. Not just a hint, but something like a proposal. She would belong to someone. Be part of a family. She sat straighter in her chair.
He continued. “I don’t think we should live right in town. That’d be too much of a jump for you. But we could build a place on tha outskirts. Ya know, close to the marsh.”
Lately, a few vague thoughts of marriage to Chase had formed in her mind, but she had not dared dwell on them. But here he was saying it out loud. Kya’s breath was shallow, her mind disbelieving and sorting details all at the same time.
I can do this
, she thought.
If we live away from people it could work.
Then, head low, she asked, “What about your parents? Have you told them?”
“Kya, ya gotta understand something ’bout my folks. They love me. If I say you’re my choice, that’ll be that. They’ll just fall in love with ya when they get to know ya.”
She chewed on her lips. Wanting to believe.
“I’ll build a studio for all yo’ stuff,” he continued. “With big windows so ya can see the details of all those dad-burned feathers.”
She didn’t know if she felt about Chase the way a wife should, but in this moment her heart soared with something like love. No more digging mussels.
She reached out and touched the shell necklace under his throat.
“Oh, by the way,” Chase said. “I have to drive over to Asheville in a few days to buy goods for the store. I was thinkin’, why don’t ya come with me?”
Eyes downcast, she’d said, “But that’s a large town. There’d be lots of people. And I don’t have the right clothes, or don’t even know what the right clothes are, and . . .”
“Kya, Kya. Listen. You’d be with me. I know everything. We don’t have to go anywhere fancy. You’d see a lot of North Carolina just driving over—the Piedmont, the Great Smoky Mountains, forchristsake. Then when we got there, we could just go to a drive-in for burgers. You can wear what you have on. You don’t have to talk to one soul if you don’t want to. I’ll take care of everything. I’ve been lots of times. Even to Atlanta. Asheville’s nothing. Look, if we’re gonna get married, ya
might as well start gettin’ out in tha world a bit. Spread those long wings of yours.”
She nodded. If nothing else, to see the mountains.
He continued. “It’s a two-day job, so we’ll have to stay overnight. In a casual place. You know, a small motel. It’s okay, because we’re adults.”
“Oh,” was all she said. Then whispered, “I see.”
YA HAD NEVER
driven up the road a piece, so, a few days later, as she and Chase rode west out of Barkley in his pickup, she stared out the window, holding on to the seat with both hands. The road wound through miles of saw grass and palmettos, leaving the sea in the rear window.
For more than an hour, the familiar reaches of grass and waterways slipped by the truck’s window. Kya identified marsh wrens and egrets, comforted by the sameness, like she hadn’t left home but brought it with her.
Then abruptly, at a line drawn across the earth, the marsh meadows ended, and dusty ground—hacked raw, fenced into squares, and furrowed into rows—spread before them. Fields of paraplegic snags stood in felled forests. Poles, strung with wires, trudged toward the horizon. Of course, she knew coastal marsh didn’t cover the globe, but she’d never been beyond it. What had people done to the land? Every house, the same shoebox shape, squatted on sheared lawn. A flock of pink flamingos fed across a yard, but when Kya whirled in surprise, she saw they were plastic. The deer, cement. The only ducks flew painted on mailboxes.
“They’re incredible, huh?” Chase said.
“The houses. You’ve never seen anything like ’em, huh?”
“No, I haven’t.”
Hours later, out on the flatlands of the Piedmont, she saw the Appalachians sketched in gentle blue lines along the horizon. As they neared, peaks rose around them and forested mountains flowed softly into the distance as far as Kya could see.
Clouds lazed in the folded arms of the hills, then billowed up and drifted away. Some tendrils twisted into tight spirals and traced the warmer ravines, behaving like mist tracking the dank fens of the marsh. The same game of physics playing on a different field of biology.
Kya was of the low country, a land of horizons, where the sun set and the moon rose on time. But here, where the topography was a jumble, the sun balanced along the summits, setting behind a ridge one moment and then popping up again when Chase’s truck ascended the next rise. In the mountains, she noticed, the time of sunset depended on where you stood on the hill.
She wondered where her grandpa’s land was. Maybe her kin had kept pigs in a weather-grayed barn like the one she saw in a meadow, creek running by. A family that should have been hers once toiled, laughed, and cried in this landscape. Some would still be here, scattered through the county. Anonymous.
The road became a four-lane highway, and Kya held on tight as Chase’s truck sped within feet of other fast-moving vehicles. He turned onto a curving roadway that rose magically into the air and led them toward the town. “A cloverleaf exit,” he said proudly.
Enormous buildings, eight and ten stories high, stood against the outline of the mountains. Scores of cars scuttled like sand crabs, and there were so many people on the sidewalks, Kya pushed her face to the window, searching their faces, thinking surely Ma and Pa must be among them. One boy, tanned and dark-haired, running down the
sidewalk, looked like Jodie, and she spun around to watch him. Her brother would be grown now, of course, but she tracked the boy until they turned a corner.
On the other side of town, Chase booked them into a motel out Hog Mountain Road, a single-story row of brown rooms, lit up by neon lights the shape of palm trees, of all things.
After Chase unlocked their door, she stepped into a room that seemed clean enough but reeked of Pine-Sol and was furnished in America cheap: fake-panel walls, sagging bed with a nickel vibrator machine, and a black-and-white TV secured to the table with an impossibly large chain and padlock. The bedspreads were lime green, the carpet orange shag. Kya’s mind went back to all the places they had lain together—in crystal sand by tidal pools, in moonlit drifting boats. Here, the bed loomed as the centerpiece, but the room didn’t look like love.
She stood knowingly near the door. “It’s not great,” he said, putting his duffel bag on the chair.
He walked toward her. “It’s time, don’t you agree, Kya? It’s time.”
Of course, it had been his plan. But she was ready. Her body had been longing for months and, after the talk of marriage, her mind gave in. She nodded.
He came toward her slowly and unbuttoned her blouse, then turned her gently around and unfastened her bra. Traced his fingers across her breasts. An excited heat flowed from her breasts to her thighs. As he pulled her down onto the bed in the glow of the red and green neon lights filtering through thin curtains, she closed her eyes. Before, during all those almost-times, when she had stopped him, his wandering fingers had taken on a magical touch, bringing parts of her to life, causing her body to arch toward him, to long and want. But now, with permission finally granted, an urgency gripped him and he seemed to
bypass her needs and push his way. She cried out against a sharp tearing, thinking something was wrong.
“It’s okay. It’ll be better now,” he said with great authority. But it didn’t get much better, and soon he fell to her side, grinning.
As he passed into sleep, she watched the blinking lights of the
EVERAL WEEKS LATER
, after finishing a breakfast of fried eggs and ham-grits at Kya’s shack, she and Chase sat at her kitchen table. She was wrapped snugly in a blanket after lovemaking, which had improved only slightly since their first attempt at the motel. Each time left her wanting, but she didn’t have the faintest notion how to broach such a subject. And anyway, she didn’t know how she was supposed to feel. Maybe this was normal.
Chase stood from the table and, lifting her chin with his fingers, kissed her, saying, “Well, I won’t be out much in the next few days with Christmas comin’ up and all. There’s lots of events and stuff, and some relatives comin’ in.”
Kya looked up at him and said, “I was hoping maybe I could . . . you know, go to some of the parties and things. At least maybe Christmas dinner with your family.”
Chase sat back down in his chair. “Kya, look, I’ve been wantin’ to talk ta ya ’bout this. I wanta ask ya to the Elks Club dance and stuff like that, but I know how shy you are, how ya don’t ever do stuff in town. I know you’d be miserable. You wouldn’t know anybody, ya don’t have the right clothes. Do ya even know how to dance? None a’ those things are what you do. You understand that, right?”
Looking at the floor, she said, “Yes, and all that’s true. But, well, I have to start fitting in with some of your life. Spread my wings, like you
said. I guess I have to get the right clothes, meet some of your friends.” She raised her head. “You could teach me to dance.”
“Well sure, an’ I will. But I think of you and me as what we have out here. I love our time here together, just you and me. To tell you the truth, I’m gittin’ kinda tired a’ those stupid dances. Been the same fer years. High school gym. Old folks, young folks all together. Same dumb music. I’m ready to move on. You know, when we’re married, we won’t do stuff like that anyway, so why drag ya into it now? Don’t make any sense. Okay?”
She looked back at the floor, so he lifted her chin again and held her eyes with his own. Then, grinning big, he said, “And, man, as far as having Christmas dinner wif ma family. Ma ancient aunts come in from Florida. Never stop talkin’. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. ’Specially you. Believe me, you ain’t missin’ a thing.”
She was silent.
“Really, Kya, I wantcha to be okay with this. What we have out here is the most special thing anybody could hope for. All that other stuff”—he swiped his hands through the air—“is just stupid.”
He reached over and pulled her into his lap, and she rested her head on his shoulder.
“This is where it’s at, Kya. Not that other stuff.” And he kissed her, warm and tender. Then stood. “Okay. Gotta go.”
Kya spent Christmas alone with the gulls, as she had every year since Ma left.
WO DAYS AFTER
, Chase still hadn’t come. Breaking her self-promise to never wait for anyone again, Kya paced the shore of the lagoon, her hair woven into a French braid, mouth painted with Ma’s old lipstick.
The marsh beyond lay in its winter cloak of browns and grays. Miles of spent grasses, having dispersed their seeds, bowed their heads to the water in surrender. The wind whipped and tore, rattling the coarse stems in a noisy chorus. Kya yanked her hair down and wiped her lips with the back of her hand.
The morning of the fourth day, she sat alone in the kitchen pushing biscuits and eggs around her plate. “For all his talk of ‘
this being where it’s at
,’ where is he now?” she spat. In her mind, she saw Chase playing touch football with friends or dancing at parties. “Those stupid things he’s getting tired of.”
Finally the sound of his boat. She sprang from the table, banged the door shut, and ran from the shack to the lagoon, as the boat chugged into view. But it wasn’t Chase’s ski boat or Chase, but a young man with yellow-gold hair, cut shorter but still barely contained under a ski cap. It was the old fishing rig, and there, standing, even as the boat moved forward, was Tate, grown into a man. Face no longer boyish, but handsome, mature. His eyes formed a question, his lips a shy smile.
Her first thought was to run. But her mind screamed,
NO! This is my lagoon; I always run. Not this time.
Her next thought was to pick up a rock, and she hurled it at his face from twenty feet. He ducked quickly, the stone whizzing by his forehead.
“Shit, Kya! What the hell? Wait,” he said as she picked up another rock and took aim. He put his hands over his face. “Kya, for God’s sake, stop. Please. Can’t we talk?”
The rock hit him hard on the shoulder.
“GET OUT OF MY LAGOON! YOU LOW-DOWN DIRTY CREEP! HOW’S THAT FOR TALK!” The screaming fishwife looked frantically for another rock.
“Kya, listen to me. I know you’re with Chase now. I respect that. I just want to talk with you. Please, Kya.”
“Why should I talk with you? I never want to see you again EVER!” She picked up a handful of smaller stones and slung them at his face.
He jerked to the side, bent forward, and grabbed the gunwale as his boat ran aground.
“I SAID, GET OUT OF HERE!” Still yelling but softer, she said, “Yes, I am with someone else now.”
Tate steadied himself after the jolt of hitting the shore, and then sat on the bow seat of his boat. “Kya, please, there’re things you should know about him.” Tate had not planned on having a conversation about Chase. None of this surprise visit to see Kya was going as he’d imagined.
“What are you talking about? You have no right to talk to me about my private life.” She had walked up to within five feet of him and spat her words.
Firmly he said, “I know I don’t, but I’m doing it anyway.”
At this, Kya turned to leave, but Tate talked louder at her back. “You don’t live in town. You don’t know that Chase goes out with other women. Just the other night I watched him drive away after a party with a blonde in his pickup. He’s not good enough for you.”