I remember those lazy summers; hot as the barrel of a just-shot pistol, the asphalt warping before your eyes. The days pile endlessly atop one another, punctuated only by Church on a Sunday, where my calico dress would scratch at my sweat-soaked back and my hair would curl up in damp protest by my ears. Every summer the same, as predictable as repeats of Casablanca, the nostalgic surety of moving pictures before Technicolor. It’s fair to say that up until the summer that I killed Jabez Chew, I could barely tell one from another.
I should probably tell you; the fact it was summer is desperately important. Had it been any other time of the year, I doubt I would have done what I did. You see, there is a certain silence that comes with heat, just like there is one that comes with snow; although I’ve never seen it. Snow, that is. But it’s true that you can’t see silence either. Or hear it. People say things like he heard nothing except silence but how can you hear something which by its very definition is absent? After some thought, I have concluded that silence is something that you feel in the same way as heat; a dampened pressure, the amalgamation of leaden air, the water in your ears blooming. But the silence, it encroaches on your mind whilst the heat steeps you in lethargy and those timeless days take that useless lump of organs and skin you have become, take your brain as it drifts in negligence, and cast you in to something and someone else entirely.
Jabez Chew had arrived in Munroville not long after school had closed for summer. Reason I noticed? Well, it wasn’t every day you saw a boy with hair the color of polished copper down to his shoulders. Not around those parts. He wore tiny, round wire-frames that did well to hide a crooked nose and he dressed in strange clothes; tweeds and oddly flared trousers, paisley neckties, blazers with fat lapels when it was ninety degrees out. You couldn’t not notice Jabez Chew.
The first time I saw him, he was lighting a long cigarette out the back of the Food Mart.
I stopped and eyed him skeptically. He looked older, maybe eighteen like my brother had been, and he reminded me of a cat, all slink and limber, one foot against the wall. The sun reflected off of the shaft of his polished boot. I got the distinct feeling that he didn’t need his glasses to see at all. His eyes ran the length of my body and, much to my annoyance, I felt a tiny, acute contraction between my legs. He smiled, like he’d felt it himself. Knowing.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Naw, not really. How about just your name?”
I held his eyes for a second before answering.
“Kitty. Or Kit. Both the same to me.”
“Well, Kitty. I’m Jabez. Jabez Chew. Just moved here. Up top of Dixie Farm Road.”
“I see,” I replied. His eyes felt like they were boring tiny holes in to all the parts of my body that they landed on, as if he was trying to look inside me. Despite the heat, I felt cold. He looked as though he was talking to somebody else in his mind, not to me.
“Well, welcome to Munroville,” I said, trying to flatten my voice, not to let him see he’d unsettled me. “You got here just in time for the good weather.” It’s what everyone said when the temperatures started pushing a hundred. “Your family here with you too?”
“Just me ’til my aunt gets back from England and then I’ll move out to start up at the college. Sure is quiet round here. You do anything for fun?”
I shrugged, rendered mute, whilst every nerve inside me fired over and over.
His smile became a smirk. He felt that too.
“Welp, see you around, peach.”
He blew out his smoke in a rolling, opaque cloud and disappeared around the side of the Food Mart. I stood, for a moment, after he left and it was as if the air had stopped moving around me.
A few days later, I was sat out on the porch. Down on the parched grass in front of me was a long-empty glass Coke bottle and I was trying to hit it using a penny and my brother’s old slingshot.
“You got nothing better to do?”
I looked up and saw my neighbor Casey Arnott leaning over her own porch, her blonde braid fraying. She swung off of the brass lantern, skipping all three steps.
“Got any of those chips I like? Ma didn’t leave any food this week and I didn’t bother to go down town.”
I’d only ever seen Casey’s mother once, years ago, and even then she’d been leaving. She’d slung a leather holdall in to the back of somebody else’s Buick, one hand fixing her bottle-blond beehive, yelling something at Casey. I’d been able to smell her perfume and Aqua Net all the way from my front yard. As she spun out of the street, I’d caught Casey’s eye as she flipped her middle finger up. We’d laughed like two parents with wayward children and Casey had rolled her eyes. “Mothers,” she’d said. I nodded my head in agreement, even though I didn’t – couldn’t – agree. My own mother was long dead and I’d never known her, but then I’d felt sorry for Casey because I realized I’d rather have no mother than a mother like Dotty Arnott.
Since that day, we’d stuck together every summer, and we’d ride our bikes down to the lake or bug my brother, Derick, and his friends to take us down to Lucy’s Diner for shakes. Well, that’s what we did before all the boys went out to ‘Nam. We ended up getting a telegram back in place of Derick, but looking at the way some of his friends are now, I reckon that paper was the better option.
I shrugged. “Sure, come on in.”
She followed me through to the kitchen and I tossed her the chips.
“When does your Pa get back?” she asked, tearing open the bag. Reflexively, I glanced up at the clock – some hideous 1930s relic inside a chipped glass dome – and counted. “Not for another four hours or so, I guess.” Above the clock was a wooden cross that my Pa had put up. Reckoned we needed reminding about Jesus more than the time.
Casey came towards me and put a Frito between her teeth. I took it with my own and then we were kissing; salty, sharp pieces of corn chip crunching between us, sticking to our lips. Her hands cupped my breasts, soft then hard, and I could smell her; she’d been out in the sun, her skin damp. My hand found its way between her legs.
It was a practiced routine that had begun with the urgency that comes with the unknown and I couldn’t tell you whether it had started last year, the year before, or maybe even before that. Like I said, though; that summer heat gets to you, preying on your inertia, and you start to do things that aren’t you. It was getting to me as I moved my mouth down towards Casey’s shorts (the button long since lost) and felt my knees hitting the cool linoleum. And then – unexpectedly – I thought of Jabez Chew.
I stood up.
Casey hoisted herself up on to the counter top and reached for the Fritos. “What is it, Kit?”
Just like that, we were back to our other roles; neighbors, friends, two teenage girls gossiping in the kitchen. Clothes back where they should be, flushed cheeks cooling, breathing slowing.
“You ever feel like – like – you’re playing a part in your own life? Like an actor? And you’re just – going along with a script?” It sounded so flat to my ears as if words weren’t enough to give life to what was going on in my head.
She looked at me, chewing on her lower lip, her eyebrows drawn tight in concentration. It was a while before she answered me.
“Naw. But I wish I could wake up tomorrow and that be the truth, Kit.”
I mulled over her answer for a moment. Wanted to tell her that it was the truth.
“You seen that new guy?” I asked. “Red hair?”
I conjured up an image of Jabez, but I couldn’t seem to see him properly. Sure, the hair, the glasses, the weird confused clothes; that part was easy. But what I wanted to explain to Casey was the way he had looked at me, like he had peeled back my skin and taken out my tongue and my eyes and claimed me. The look on his face that gave his features their edges. Hard to explain but picture the difference between black and white, and color. That’s what I wanted to say to her.
When my Pa came home later that night, I tried to ask him the same question I’d asked Casey. Maybe he felt like he played a part sometimes, too. He blinked a couple of times and ran a hand through his thinning hair. He was a tired looking man with two deep vertical lines running from the sides of his nose to his chin.
“Why, sugar. Don’t know I’ve got enough time to be thinking about big questions like that. Why you askin’?”
I shrugged. “Sometimes I just feel like I might be somebody else, Pa. That’s all.”
“Maybe it’s your age, doll. Sixteen is tough. I wish your Mama was here. God rest her soul.”
Maybe he was saying something as I clattered my bicycle down the front steps, but I chose not to listen.
The sun was going down as I pedaled furiously out away from town. Sweat beaded and collected on my eyebrows and my legs and lungs burned. I felt like I was breathing in steam. Passing the sign for McCluskey’s stables, I had taken the turn onto the Dixie Farm Road without thinking, my body propelling me along the asphalt until the road ran out. The sky was purple and streaked with silver, the sun so low it glowed red. Empty fields stretched out forever into the dusk and my breathing sounded unnaturally loud. I stopped riding. My legs almost gave way as I started to push my bicycle along the dusty track up towards the farm at the end.
Sure enough, there was Jabez out the front of the farmhouse, hunched over a twisted mass of metal by the shell of an old Cadillac which was rusting and missing a tailfin. Bottles and cans and dirty rags were strewn all over the yard and his white vest had a dark line of sweat that followed the curve of his spine and pooled at the top of his jeans. They were black and tight; not made for a man. At least not in those days. The dwindling sun made his shoulders shine like an oil slick. At the sound of my bicycle, he put down the wrench in his hand and turned. I swear he already knew it was me. There was no surprise on his face.
He came towards me and I felt that electricity again rippling down through my stomach.
He raised his eyebrows and he smirked. “I knew you’d find yourself out here,” he said, his steps measured and even. He laid one hand on the handlebars of my bike like it belonged to him. His other hand reached up towards my face and he took a sweat-curled piece of hair between his fingers. “Hot day,” he whispered.
My blood jack-hammered in my ears and he twisted that piece of hair hard around his fingers, pulling my face towards him, covering my lips violently with his own. I couldn’t decide if he tasted like gasoline or paint stripper or oil or if the smells had just wormed their way into my throat. His silver ring dug into the hollow space behind my ear.
He released me almost with a push and as I stumbled back, he laughed. My whole body was pulsating, even my fingernails seemed to fizz with desire. I wanted to kiss him again, let my hands push up the dirty cotton of his vest, lick the gritty dust from his forearms. I wanted him to put his mouth on me again and again. But he knew it. I could tell. His lip curled up at one side; a caricature of benevolence.
“Gotta run, peach. You know where to find me.”
But he didn’t run anywhere, he just watched me as I wheeled my bike obediently back the way I came. When I finally reached the asphalt and sat on the saddle, the pressure was a sweet torture all the way home.
I tried to click the lighter again but it just continued to let out a pathetic spark. Casey rolled the packet of Kools between her hands. There was a thin line of dirt under her fingernails. It annoyed me. She annoyed me.
“No, really. All this disappearing in the night on your bike, smoking, sleeping all the time. What’s going on? Where do you even go? It’s been weeks.”
I sighed and tried to sound indignant but it lacked conviction.
“The hell, Casey? Are you watching me?”
She threw the cigarette packet at me.
“You know I don’t sleep. You know my window is open. You know you need some goddamn oil on your bike, it squeaks to high heaven.”
The mention of oil made me think of Jabez and his hands. His hands on me, his hands in me. Outside in the gasoline-soaked yard, in the scratchy remnants of the cornfield, up against the warm bricks of the barn. My body grew hot. I hadn’t been able to stop myself from going up to the farm. I went almost every night. Sometimes he’d come out to meet me, but sometimes he wouldn’t and I would stand there in the still caress of the velvety night with the cicadas – one hour, two hours, who knew – until I’d admit defeat and ride home, slipping in through the porch door, creeping past my Pa’s room and into my own, my hand already making its way down to the waistband of my underwear.
Casey didn’t miss a beat.
“I know that look. Your cheeks are shiny. Who is it? You got yourself a boyfriend?”
I tried to smile the same way Jabez would smile. Confident. Mysterious. I didn’t want to answer her question because I honestly didn’t know whether or not Jabez was my boyfriend. But Casey just raised her eyebrows and burst into a machine-gun peal of laughter, her eyes delighted.
“A fucking boyfriend! You sucked him yet?”
I tried to match her laugh with one of my own, but it rattled in the cavity of my mouth.
“Of course I have!” I lied. I’d eagerly tried once, dropping to my knees by the rusty Cadillac, mimicking that seductive face that women always make in movies, looking up through my eyelashes with my tongue behind my teeth. But Jabez had stopped me, told me he didn’t like it and I hadn’t tried since.
“It’s good isn’t it? They love it.”
“You’ve done it? You never told me. I thought-”
“Oh, Kit. If this is about you and me, I’m sorry. I thought we were cool. Y’know, just trying it out. You didn’t think -”
Her brows knitted in a question mark. She’d got it all wrong.
The lighter finally flickered in to a flame and I brought it to the leafy tip of the cigarette.
“No, I know that Case, I just didn’t know you had a boyfriend, that’s all,” I replied. The conversation sounded awkward to my ears, as if we were grappling to say something but didn’t know the words.
“I don’t, Kit. Look, it’s just how I get money when my Ma skips town. Most of the boys will pay you a few bucks if you ask ‘em. Older ones pay a bit more. Learned that from Dotty.”
I coughed as I inhaled the acrid smoke into my lungs. “Seriously?”
Casey mistook my disbelief for awe and nodded smugly. I smiled, trying to make it convincing. I wanted to be back on solid ground. I thought of her flicking through a wad of filthy, curled dollar notes, counting out rancid, jangling quarters, sticky from being passed around. In my thoughts she wiped her mouth and ran her tongue over her teeth. Did daughters really talk about those things with their mothers?
“Yeah. That new kid? Paid me ten. You know, that one with the orange hair, weird glasses? Rich parents is my guess.”
The whole of that week, my bicycle tires did not travel one single inch up Dixie Farm Road. I told my Pa to tell Casey I had the stomach flu. I knew she’d come asking.
“I sure don’t like tellin’ no lies, sugar,” he murmured, his eyes pea-like and gleaming anxiously behind his spectacles. “Lord’s always watchin’.”
I looked him square in his face. “Okay then, Daddy. You go tell her I got my monthly and I’m not comin’ out.”
He made a noise like a car engine that couldn’t turn over and his face turned a strange shade of puce. Pushing his glasses firmly up onto his nose, he cleared his throat. “I guess this one time won’t hurt. Flu?”
By the time Sunday rolled around though, I knew there was no avoiding her. I don’t think my Pa had ever let me miss Church for anything. Not no sickness, no birthday, no nothing. And sure enough, as I walked out onto the porch, my hideous clogs clopping on the slats and my calico dress scratching already, there was Casey, hanging over the balustrade of her own porch chewing gum with her mouth wide open.
“Feelin’ better?” she called out, sucking the white plasticky bubble inside her mouth before popping it with a loud crack.
I nodded. “Sure am.”
The next bubble she blew reached her nose before it burst. “Then how ‘bout we go for a ride later?”
I shrugged, hoping that she’d sense my reluctance. When she raised her eyebrows in the silence, I relented. “Fine by me.”
“You want to join us in Church today, Miss Casey?” asked my Pa. “Sure will do you the world of good.”
He was looking at her like he always did, sort of half over her head, half at a spot on the grass behind her. Her shirt was tight across her chest and you could see the line of her panties just poking out from above her shorts.
I got in to the car and slammed the door closed, the damn calico scratching at my shoulder blades.
The Church was hot and smelled of ripe bodies and warm wood. Every sound was amplified; every cough, every shuffle, every flick of a tissue-paper thin page of a worn-out Bible. It had always set my teeth on edge – the noise – for with it came the inexplicable idea that if sounds could be amplified so drastically, then surely my thoughts could be heard too, and right now they were probably the most ungodly they had ever been. I closed my eyes and pretended I was down by the river, picking at the clay for crawdads, like I used to do with my brother. But it was useless; the pastor’s voice drifted, heavy and cumbersome, through the thick air.
“Consider your words and think from where they’re comin’. The tongue is a world of evil that corrupts the whole body. Who now here be guilty of not thinkin’ before they let they tongue loose? Before they curse another?”
I thought of Casey and her loose tongue. Her loose tongue that had earned her ten whole dollars from working its way around Jabez Chew’s cock. I felt a burn of shame and a shiver of excitement and a stab of guilt all at the same time.
“Well, that tongue is a fi-yah! It sets the course of our lives on fi-yah! And in turn, it! is set on fire by hell!”
A chain reaction of a-mens rippled throughout the congregation. I fiddled with the hem of my dress and shifted my thighs to stop them sticking to the pew.
That evening, Casey and I rode our bikes out to Lucy’s Diner. It was an unusually balmy night and when the wind whipped at my bare forearms I swear I could feel a chill. The diner was all lit up in familiar cornflower-blue neon and we took our favorite table by the window, the one where you could see everybody coming in and out.
“Two shakes please, Miss Lucy. One vanilla and one chocolate.”
Lucy harrumphed, her huge bosom heaving behind her apron and her dark eyes crinkling at the corners. “You girls. Be the death of me.”
Casey and I raised our eyebrows at each other over the table as Lucy plodded back towards the bar, her hips and ankles rolling outward with each step.
“Why does she say that every time? We’re payin’, aren’t we?” I muttered. Casey shrugged.
“You still mad about what I told you?” she asked.
“You sure? It was just for some money, I’m not hurtin’ nobody.”
Of course, I had to remind myself I hadn’t yet told her about me and Jabez. But that didn’t take away the fact that he knew about us. And he’d let her suck him and not me. Lied to me about it even. Paid her when I would’ve done it, hell, done anything he asked – for free.
“Case, I should tell you -” I began. But she cut me off.
“Kit, wait. I’m gonna stop doing it now anyway. Me and Jabez, we decided we’re going steady.”
I barely registered Lucy putting her tray between us. The milkshakes had frothed all down the sides and there was a pool of muddy milk against the gleaming steel. I felt sick.
“Vanilla for you,” she unceremoniously plonked the dripping glass in front of Casey, “and chocolate for you.” I’d just reached out to switch the glasses over, my blood pounding, when the bell above the entrance door jingled and in walked Jabez.
I have never studied a milkshake so closely before in all my life. I counted the bubbles on the surface, inspected the layers of color, each shade of yellow etching itself in to my retinas. Across the table, Casey dipped her finger in to her glass and then brought it to Jabez’s lips. I realized she’d opened another button on her blouse.
“Hey, Kit,” drawled Jabez, his eyes on me from across the table. “You should come up to the farm one day with Casey.”
Casey beamed, chocolate between her teeth. I felt a hand on my thigh.
“You should Kit. It’d be real nice.”
I forced a smile in her direction, unable to look at Jabez. And then I noticed. She had one hand clasping her glass and the other twisting Jabez’s hair around her fingers. Which meant that the hand on my thigh –
All the heat from my body rushed between my legs. I stood up so fast that I caught the side of my hand along the table’s edge and it peeled back the top layer of skin off my thumb like a grater. I didn’t feel a thing as I watched the blood spreading. From somewhere, I managed to choke out an apology for leaving and the snapshot of their pair of faces stuck in my head all the way home. Casey’s pink little lips in a perfect O of confusion, and Jabez’s all too familiar smirk, framed by that halo of orange hair.
It wasn’t until I dropped my bicycle on the grass outside my house that I realized I’d been crying.
I stayed late on the porch that night, long after my Pa had gone to bed. Pinging pennies off of the Coke bottle over and over, I knew that things would never be the same between Casey and I. Our easy trust – our summer friendship – was over. Maybe I broke it first. Hard to tell. But the longer I sat there, the longer I stewed, the longer I pasted Casey’s face over my own when I remembered what Jabez and I had done. And I got so angry. I swung between wanting Casey to come home so that I could tell her about Jabez – have her cry and beg for my forgiveness – and not wanting her to come home so I could imagine the two of them together up at the farm and be vindicated in my anger. The intensity of it frightened me, like a heavy bowling ball barreling around in my chest about to rip me apart. And the more I felt it, the angrier I became about everything; my Pa, my dead mother, Derick lost to a war in a jungle, the endless Church, how Lucy always got mine and Casey’s milkshakes the wrong way around.
Barely thinking, I set off walking, fast, until I was passing the sign for the stables and starting up the now-familiar Dixie Farm Road.
When I got there, it was quiet. I could see all the stars in that inky sky, I was so far from the light of the town. I strained my ears to see whether I could hear them and as I crept around the side of the barn, I thought I might have heard Casey’s breathy giggle. I stopped. Pressed my ear closer to the wooden door. Sure enough, hushed voices carried through, punctuated by long pauses thick with sleep. I could picture them on the other side, entwined like snakes. Did snakes even entwine with each other? Or did they just keep themselves to themselves? Squeezing my eyes closed, I stepped back towards the Cadillac and plucked a Kool from the battered box in my pocket.
Well, wouldn’t you know it; of course that damn lighter lit first time. The wheel scratched painfully across the gash in my thumb and before I could even lift it towards my cigarette, I’d already dropped it. Of course, like everything bad, it happened in slow motion. A quiet whoomph of consuming flame, almost colorless at my feet, the bite of stale gasoline forcing its way into my nostrils, expanding suddenly and painfully like a balloon behind my eyes. And of course, I watched, with a dreadful certainty as the flame coiled towards the shell of the Cadillac, licking at it; slow at the base, then ferocious at the top. So fast; so pale and pastel at first, like you could put your hand inside it and it would be gentle to you. But then the heat, the tipping point of it. Beautiful then wild. Tame then animalistic. Safe then dangerous. A thin line of fire sprung towards the door of the barn, and I realized that I didn’t want to stick around to bear witness. I knew that barn and all of the straw inside it where Jabez and Casey were lying. How it smelled so strong and was already so dusty that by the time they smelled any smoke it’d be too late to find that iron latch in the darkness. What once were windows were boarded up and nailed shut against the tornados that gutted the landscape every few decades. Brittle defenses against new disaster.
I backed away, step by step, my eyes stinging until I was back on the dusty Dixie Farm Road. By the time I got to the asphalt, that yard was lit up blue and orange. Blue like Lucy’s Diner. Orange like Jabez’s hair.
And then, I ran.
Sally Bosson lives in the cultural melting pot that is the Middle East, where she constantly finds inspiration for her short fiction. This is her first published story, and she is currently working on her first novel.