iExcerpted from In the Lonely Backwater (Regal House, 2022)
Way past time.
It had been way past time to be heading for home.
The heat lightning that had flared as we sat at Old Trinity was becoming streaks on the horizon; the wind was gusting from the east, smelling of salt and sea storms. Sometimes the air was full of petals from the dogwoods and scales cast off by newly opened leaves. The trees groaned overhead, and I listened for the ominous crack of a limb breaking. The trail was an uneven path gouged by dirt bikes, but after I reached Wisteria Lodge I’d have an easier walk.
The house appeared before you realized it, the worn-out white of it thinning the darkness a little at a time until you were right there. Four brick chimneys still stood, but the front porch and part of the roof were caved in by the wisteria that crawled everywhere, thick ropes and masses of purple blossoms from the peak down to massive azalea bushes just as old. Flowers were everywhere, on the ground, in the air, and when the wind let up for a minute, the wisteria smell wound itself around you like cheap, strong perfume.
And when the wind eased, I could hear Charisse.
“Maggie! Maggie, wait!”
I turned around and saw her weaving down the path. Limping, and I realized she still was barefoot. It made my feet curl to think about the rocks and sticks I’d walked over in solid running shoes, and she was barefoot.
“Maggie! Oh, damn!” She staggered to a stop.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to catch up with you.”
It almost made me laugh, the princess with her black mascara smeared all around her eyes so that she looked like a raccoon, but there was something regal about her too, not just pitiful, in her gorgeous destroyed dress. Lace was coming out of the rip like stuffing out of a doll, and a safety pin held the two halves together. She stood up straight, like she was willing herself to be elegant even though she was a mess.
I stayed apart from her, but she wasn’t trying to get close now. She settled onto the stone steps of the fallen-in porch, her back to a pillar. I went and sat on the opposite side. Thunder grumbled and the lightning showed the color of the flowers for a moment, red azalea blossoms and the wisteria dripping over everything.
“I’m sorry, for earlier. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Yeah, well.” I couldn’t help staring at her, like she was some new species that had just popped up, fascinating and repulsive like that kiss. More than the taste and smell, the looseness, the way her mouth opened all the way and her lips were soft.
“Really, really, really sorry.” She rocked back and forth. “Really, really sorry.”
I hate that word. Useless word. The word people when they refuse to be responsible for themselves. When they want someone else to do the hard work of being an adult. I got up, but then she stood too, though she was breathing hard and looked worn out. I didn’t know if she would start chasing me again, so I sat back down.
“I wanted to make it up to you. I don’t want you to be mad at me. You don’t understand how it is with boys.”
“Thanks, yeah, I know all about what you think I know.”
“No, it’s not that. Not the Fletcher thing. Really, I don’t care—about me—but you. You. Be careful. I know. They are always after you with their hands and tongues, just like you’re a piece of meat.”
“Boo-hoo. I feel for you.”
Charisse leaned forward and nearly fell on her face. She grabbed the step and leaned against the pillar again. Her head was tipped back and her eyes were closed. “My date tried to rape me,” she said, and it sounded like she was in a séance or something, her voice strange, or maybe just because she was speaking up into the vines.
“I’m a virgin.”
“I know you think that’s crazy, because I date a lot. But I never let anyone—my parents would just die. I was raised to keep myself pure until I got married.” She held up her left hand, where she always wore a ring. It was silver, or maybe platinum, set with diamonds. “My dad took me to a purity ball when I was eleven. I had a white dress and a crown. A crown. Flowers in my hair, a crown of flowers. We heard a speech about how God has an intense desire for us and that we need to stay true to the Lord and our future mates.”
That sounded truly bizarre. God and desire.
“And then we signed a pledge and Dad put a ring on my finger. For God.”
“Not just once. Eeeeeevery year. Every birthday Dad asks for the ring and I take it off and give it to him and we recite Matthew 5:8. It’s inscribed in the ring. Every every every every. He gives me a new ring and something else. Last year it was a gold bracelet. This year it was St. Simon’s Island.”
“So you’ve never?” I thought of all the guys she’d dated, the older ones that she went out with—the VCU guy wasn’t the first college man.
“Never. Never had sex. I. Am. A. Virgin. I mean, I’ve done some other things, but that doesn’t count.” She let her head fall forward and then sat up straight and folded her hands in her lap and crossed her feet at the ankles. All proper, except that her feet were filthy and I could see, when the lightning came, the cuts and the blood.
“I let them see my breasts. It’s okay. And they want me to touch them, their dicks, and so I would, stroke them off or suck them off. I kinda don’t mind if I’ve been doing Ecstasy because then they are soooo so happy and that makes me happy.” Her voice was very bright, now, as though she were introducing herself for a pageant. “If I’ve been doing X then I feel so good.”
She seemed to lose her train of thought. Maybe she was going to pass out. I thought maybe I could drag her into a sheltered place.
“But then I wake up. It’s just a sticky, nasty mess, and I remember. I’m so ashamed all the time, because I made a vow and I’m keeping the vow, but then I want to feel good and make them feel good, but when I do it’s just—wroooong.” The last word just dragged and disappeared into the thunder.
The storm was getting closer. Counting between the lightning and the thunder, it was within a couple of miles, and the wind was cool with rain. I wished she’d pass out, so I could leave her under the wisteria to sleep it off.
“It’s so nasty,” she said, rousing up. “You’re lucky, if you don’t know, or maybe it’s not like that for you. I know I’m going to have to do that someday, do whatever I’m told to do, get married and have sex whenever he wants and have kids and it all just makes me cringe. Doesn’t it scare you?”
“Never had the problem.” But what I’d heard of sex, and seen some too, wasn’t like that. I remember my so-called mother and my Dad laughing, just whooping it up. Their legs and arms and parts all tangled.
“Well, now, this guy,” she confided, leaning a little way forward but very carefully, keeping her balance. Her green eyes glittered and darkened with the lightning. “He wanted to have sex. Real sex. He said he had condoms so I didn’t have to worry. And I showed him my little ring and told him about the pledge and said I could get him off but I had to stay a virgin for when he married me. Aaaannnnddddd. And then he got REALLY mad and said he was going to take me up the ass first and did I think Jesus would be down with that? And I was trying to get away and he grabbed my dress and tore it, can you believe that, he tore it? But when he did he fell down and I got to the car and locked it and got away.”
She was looking at me, very serious, and then she began to smile, and then started to giggle, “Pretty slick, right? And I drove straight to OT because I knew you’d be there, the Three Musketeers.”
Great to be so predictable. I was getting jittery but there was something hypnotic about her, the shifts in mood, up and down, and I really wondered what other secrets she had to tell.
“I swallowed the X, all I had with me—I was ready to get through the night, you know? And I just wanted you all to hold me, just be with me, hold me tight because you all really like each other, not because you have sex, but because you like each other. And you’d help me, help me know what to do, what was the right thing to do. S-E-X, XXX, you understand.”
“Which one of us is supposed to know about sex?”
“Why, you! You and Fletcher, sitting in a tree.”
“Yeah, me, the ‘sad little liar.’”
Charisse tucked her chin down and looked at me with big wide eyes like a little girl who’s trying to con Grandpa into more candy. “I thought maybe you—really knew—even if this Fletcher is just bullshit, you knew how it’s supposed to be. You made it sound exciting and not nasty. You must have had sex sometime and liked it.”
“Not liked it?”
“No.” BOOM! The lightning cracked really close, and thunder shook the ground. “NO SEX,” I yelled. “Time to get out of here.”
She began twisting her hands and then she had the ring off, and was holding it out. “I don’t want this anymore. I can’t. Take it and keep it for me, please?”
The ring glinted and suddenly I really wanted it. Maybe it was just fear, or relief, but I took the ring and put it in the watch pocket of my jeans.
“So that’s it? I’ve got the ring. Now we gotta get out of here.”
“Oooh is there a boogerman?” She was back to little-girl stupid.
“Stay here and get hit by lightning, then, dimwit.” I’d had enough of her, of her crazy druggy talk. I took off.
The lightning cracked again, and the thunder, and I heard her yelling, “Maggie, don’t leave me,” but I wasn’t stopping. It was all too weird. I could taste her mouth again, I could feel her pressing against me, and I thought about sex and no sex and what it was like.
The first spatter of rain hit, but it didn’t last.
I was into the long lane that ran from Wisteria Lodge out to the road, huge cedars on each side, like a tunnel. I heard something, turned and saw something pale and thought that Charisse had somehow caught up with me. I was deciding if I could cut out through the cedars and get away from her, but then I saw it was one of the white deer that lived around the lake, and then it was past me and up the lane, bounding like a ghost chased out of hell. My heart thudded.
I was on the paved road now, headed to the marina. It was a road that had been there from before the lake, one that disappeared straight into the water. I ran down the white line in the middle, as the wind blasted into me, and now it was raining in sheets. I passed the sign for the marina and veered across the parking lot. The ground seemed to be melting under my feet.
I couldn’t see much but I could hear the smack of waves and clanging of halyards and shriek of the wind in the sailboat rigging. The water was rolling hard and the docks were heaving. Finally I saw the two pole lights, the dimmer one over by the storage dock and the one by the office.
I skidded across the deck of the houseboat and banged the door open. The lights were on and Dad was dead drunk and passed out in his underwear. He snorted when I turned off the light and slid past him and into my room.
I peeled my wet clothes off in a heap and got into bed. I hugged myself under the covers, feeling the sheet get wet and then cold and then warm against my skin.
Charisse. Now that I was safe in my own bed, I felt some guilt about leaving her helpless as a wet kitten. I shook off and on with a chill, first from the cold, and then with a feeling that I had not done anything, but what I hadn’t done was something very wrong.
Valerie Nieman has been a farmer, a sailor, a journalist, a teacher. To the Bones, a genre-bending novel about Appalachia, was published by West Virginia University Press in 2019, joining three earlier novels, a short fiction collection, and three poetry books. Her award-winning poetry and short prose have been published here and abroad. A graduate of WVU and Queens University of Charlotte, she has held state and NEA creative writing fellowships. Follow her on Twitter at @valnieman.