Releasing September 9

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Know Your Place

 

 

“It’s probly ugly, Stuffins,” the agitated voice mumbles from the backseat. “Stinky and ugly and…ugly.”

I stifle the sigh of frustration crouched in my throat. “No, baby. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

That’s not a total lie. The mountains of southern West Virginia are gorgeous. I haven’t laid eyes on the town of Martins Landing in over five years, but the last time I saw it in my rearview mirror, it was the posterchild for poverty-stricken Appalachia.

I’m not about to admit that to my petulant four year old though. She’s not speaking to me as it is.

“Stuffins, you’re my only friend,” she whispers as she strokes the matted fur of her favorite teddy bear.

“Aren’t you at least excited to see Grammaw and Pappy? We’ll have so much fun living with them in their house! You’ll get hugs and kisses in person instead of on the phone! It’ll be great! You’ll see!”

I’m rewarded for my lies with a glare in the rearview mirror. She’s not buying what I’m selling, no matter how much I paste on a smile and cheer up my tone.

It is remarkable how sensitive a preschooler is to bullshit. They have some built-in radar that tells them exactly when adults aren’t being fully truthful with them. She hasn’t figured out the Santa Claus ruse yet, but…time to come clean on this matter, I suppose. There’s no turning back now anyway.

“Sweetie, I know you’re upset about leaving Chicago and all your friends, but Mommy got a new job. My old job wasn’t a good fit, your old school was too expensive, our old apartment wasn’t safe, and our old life just wasn’t working anymore. It’s time to try something new.”

No response.

“You were born in Chicago, but I was born in Martins Landing. We’re going back to my hometown to be with Grammaw and Pappy, okay? I know it’s going to be a difficult adjustment to our routine, but I want you to grow up with family nearby. Is that so bad?”

The only sound is the air whooshing against the windows of our beat-up old Chevy Impala.

I try again. “Just imagine… Instead of waiting for the mailman to deliver your Christmas presents from Grammaw and Pappy, you’ll be able to open them up on Christmas morning! For your birthday, it won’t just be you, me, Auntie Liz and the cake. We’ll have our whole family there. Grammaw makes the best Thanksgiving dinners. No more Chinese take-out because Mommy didn’t have time to cook. Pappy used to hide all kinds of Easter eggs all over the backyard. You’ve never even been to an egg hunt before! We’ll have chickens, a few goats, some cows, and all the kittens you could ever want. There’s a big field you can run through until you almost feel like you’re flying. I’ll teach you how to fish in the creek that runs at the edge of the property. It’ll be so great. Just give it a chance.”

I don’t mention the treehouse even though it would make a stellar selling point.

“I don’t wanna go!” she screams in the back seat, kicking her feet in a terrifying display of the temper I have no one but myself to blame for. 

“Anne Shirley Wheeler,” I grit out, “know your place.”

The tantrum blessedly stops. It’s not often I break out her middle name, far less common for me to slip back into my old Appalachian dialect. On the rare occasions both happen? She knows I mean business.

A conference between my daughter and her stuffed animal flies under my radar as I merge onto I-64 East.

When traffic eases up, I check the rearview mirror again only to find my mini-me’s chin puckered beneath her pout, the verdict apparently reached.

“We still don’t like it.”

“Me neither, kiddo,” I mumble under my breath. “Me neither.”

Of all the ways I imagined returning home, it wasn’t with my tail tucked between my legs. Certainly, never with the most precious cargo I could have imagined along for the ride.

“Mommy?”

“Yes, baby?”

“I’m bored. Tell me a story,” she demands, suddenly forgetting she wasn’t speaking to me minutes ago.

I’m terrified I don’t have any fairy tales left in me.

Eleven Years Ago

 

“Let’s play pretend, Jesse.”

He gives me the look. It’s the same one he’s been giving me since kindergarten. The one that says he can’t believe those words just came out of my mouth. “Aren’t we a little old for pretend? I’m fourteen. Men don’t play pretend.”

I want to laugh, but I know better. That’ll only hurt his feelings. Jesse always tries to act tough, but inside he’s proud and sensitive. “Fine. No pretend.”

I drag my toes through the cool creek water. The weather’s been hot and humid as all get out. My cotton sundress sticks to my back uncomfortably. The fishing pole in my hands keeps slipping, thanks to my sweaty palms.

“Can I ask ya somethin’?”

He shrugs, never turning his attention away from his own pole. “Sure.”

“Have ya… Well, have ya had your first kiss yet?”

He snorts. “Now how do ya go from talkin’ about wantin’ to play pretend to talkin’ about kissin’? I swear, your mind’s jumpier than a coon dog on the hunt.”

“Nuh-uh!”

“Yuh-huh.” He laughs. “You’re like a jackrabbit in there. Hoppin’ around from place to place, never stoppin’ long enough to know what’s good for ya.”

“Well, my daddy says that’s why jackrabbits are so hard to catch.”

“And your point is?”

“Ya just can’t keep up with me, Jesse Yates.”

“If anyone can keep up with ya, Lenore Wheeler, it’s me.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I spy the smug grin on his dirty, sweaty face. He’s got me right where he wants me, and he knows it. Darn it all.

“Anyways, I heard Bobbi Sue tellin’ Ruby Mae that Billy Joe kissed her under the big oak tree in town yesterday after school.”

“Ya know…” He scratches his chin. “For someone who claims to not like them girls much, ya sure talk about ‘em an awful lot.”

“Well, I couldn’t help but overhear ‘em! It was in the locker room after gym class. All the girls started talkin’ about who done kissed ‘em already.”

“And your point is?” He gives me the look again.

“My point is they all done been kissed already! Bobbi Sue said all the boys in our class been kissin’ girls since last year.” I throw my pole down beside me with a huff. The fish ain’t biting anyway. “So, I was just wonderin’… Who’d ya kiss already?”

He sighs. “Nora…”

“All right, fine! Don’t tell me. Must be nice ‘n all. I’m probably the only person in our class never been kissed. No one likes me. No one ever has.”

“Well, that’s just ‘cause you’re such a load to handle. Ya gotta know your place.”

I’ve been hearing that same line since before I can remember.

As silence descends between us, I listen to the woods. Bullfrogs croak from somewhere in the distance. The creek gurgles around the rocks on the bed. An occasional mosquito buzzes by my ear. I always think it’s funny how the old folks in town say they like to stroll through the woods for some quiet time. The woods are never quiet.

“No one, all right?”

My gaze snaps to Jesse’s sullen face. He’s still staring at the creek.

“No one, what?”

“I ain’t kissed no one. Bobbi Sue was lyin’ like she always does.”

My chest feels a might lighter now. I was sorely afraid of who he’d name. If Jesse finds a pretty girl to kiss on, he won’t have no more time for me. He’s my only friend.

“Probably most of them girls were lyin’,” he hedges.

“Bobbi Sue weren’t lyin’. I saw with my own two eyes Billy Joe kissin’ her after school.”

“Well, that’s Bobbi Sue and Billy Joe for ya. Always tryin’ to get a leg up on everyone else. Don’t pay no mind to ‘em. I don’t.”

If he don’t pay ‘em no mind, then why does he look so upset?

“Can I ask ya somethin’ else?”

“I’m shakin’ in my boots over here after your last question.”

“Ya ain’t wearin’ any boots.”

He sighs again. “Ya know what I mean.”

Sometimes, I think Jesse only tolerates me because he’s lonely. If he had a boy to pal around with, he wouldn’t be my friend no more. He only likes me for the books I give him to read.

“Never mind.”

“Come on. Out with it.”

“No.”

“Nora, stop bein’ so willful. Just ask me already.”

I let him stew for a few minutes as I watch the water bubbling downstream. Maybe I shouldn’t bother.

“Well… What if–what if we kissed? Then we wouldn’t have to worry about it no more. Get it over with, like rippin’ off an old bandage. We’re best friends, so we wouldn’t have to be so nervous about it like if we were kissin’ on someone we really liked.”

Jesse’s answering laughter is so loud that several sparrows in the trees above us flit away in fright.

In spite of the heat, blood rushes to my cheeks in embarrassment and fury. Mama’s always telling me to hold my tongue. Maybe I should start doing that.

“Fine. Laugh all ya want.” I rise from the soft bank of the creek in a snit. “I knew it was a stupid idea. That’s why I didn’t wanna ask ya.”

Twigs snap under my feet as I stomp through the forest. I’m only about halfway to the field when I hear Jesse’s footfalls chasing after me, so I speed up. I don’t wanna talk to or look at him right now. In my hurry to escape, my long, auburn hair gets caught on some low branches and snaps me back into place like a gum band.

I’m still tryin’ to untangle it when he catches up with me. 

“Aww, girl. What’d ya do now?”

With his help, I’m soon free. Wasting no time, I turn on the ball of my bare foot to get away. His dirty hand grips my elbow, and he pulls me back, pinning me to the nearest tree. We’re the same height, but even for a scrawny boy, he’s a lot stronger than me. 

Fine. He can keep me here, but he can’t control my eyes. I won’t look at him.

“Ya mad at me now?”

He can’t make me talk to him neither. I bite my lip instead.

“I didn’t mean to laugh at ya back there.”

“Yes, ya did.”

“All right, I did.” He laughs again.

I try to kick him, but he just presses me into the rough bark more. It scratches at my back and legs and snags my dress. If I rip it, Mama’ll be fit to be tied.

“Lemme go!”

“Where ya need to be runnin’ off to so fast, little jackrabbit?”

“I wanna go to my treehouse, and ya can’t stop me!”

“Simmer down now.” He shakes me a little. “This is exactly what I’m talkin’ about. You’re always so hot headed ya never stop to think about things before they come spillin’ outta your mouth.”

He pushes his body weight on me until I can’t struggle anymore.

“There now. That’s more like it,” he mumbles when I still. “Now ya listen up, and ya listen good. Friends like you and me ain’t got no business kissin’ on each other. I laughed ‘cause it was a dumb idea. And you’ve had some dumb ideas in your day, but that one takes the cake.”

His words of dismissal reignite my anger. Since I can’t move, I lash out with words of my own. “The only thing dumb about my idea was wantin’ to kiss you! It ain’t no wonder ya never done kissed a girl before. No one wants to be kissin’ your nasty mouth anyhow! You’re all piss and vinegar, Jesse Yates, and sometimes I don’t even know why we’re friends!”

Blind fury rolls across his face just before his mouth crashes down on mine.

 He moves in so fast and hard that the back of my head hits the tree trunk with a dull thud. He forces my mouth open with his own then shoves his tongue into me so far, I nearly gag. It’s slobbery and wet and gross. I can’t breathe none the way he’s lapping at me like a dog that’s gone days with no water. He pushes me harder against the tree until I feel the rough bark breaking the skin at the back of my thighs open. Then he grips my waist so hard it hurts, and he pulls me tighter against him. Something hard presses against my belly. He grinds it against me.

I don’t know what makes him finally let go, but when he does I immediately dart away and wipe the slobber off my mouth with the back of my arm. “What in tarnation was that?”

He shrugs and shuffles his bare feet a little in the dirt. “Ya wanted me to give ya your first kiss, so I did. There. Ya happy now?”

“No.”

“Well why in blazes not?”

“That weren’t no kiss. That was disgustin’.”

He slowly blinks at me a few times, genuine confusion dulling his usually sharp green eyes. “Huh?”

“That’s not how you’re supposta kiss, Jesse.”

“That’s how all the menfolk that kiss my ma do it. What was wrong with it?”

I wrap my shaking arms around my tummy. I don’t feel so good just now. “Everythin’.”

This time when I run away, he doesn’t follow.

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