Sometimes you can't say no to someone. I sit upright in bed in the middle of the night thinking this. It must have been a dream that made me do it, and when I lie back down I have to work to steady my breath. Outside there's the dull thud of an oak branch beating against the house in breeze. Thick, fogged light comes through my window, and if I squint, it looks like the leaves are floating ghosts. My digital reads 4:15.
The thought of Bo Dickens wakes me up like this some nights. During the day he is on my mind all the time, when I am driving to school or standing at Elsa's store with Daddy, eating lunch with Gwyneth or riding Daisy through the backwoods.
Before I was born, when Bo was just eighteen, he beat another man so bad his head swelled to the size of a pumpkin and he was left a vegetable the rest of his days. That man had raped a girl Bo once loved. Bo served jail time for it. I always think of that girl and wonder where she is now and what she must have felt like to know a man like Bo was that crazy for her. Who wouldn't want to be loved like that?
Bo is tan as a saddle, with gray-blue eyes that won't quit looking at you as if you are naked in front of him and he loves what he sees. He tells the funniest stories of any man at Elsa's store and is one of Daddy's very best friends. He has been named the finest horse trainer in Fresh County, maybe in the whole of Mississippi. And he is in love with me.
He wants me so bad, he says he can't help himself with what he does when he can't have me.
The first time he touched me was this past March, just three days after my sixteenth birthday, the night we buried the black man in our woods while Daddy lay passed out on the den couch.
After we did the burying, I was going up the porch steps and Bo reached for my waist, took two steps toward me and put his mouth on my neck. He kissed it long, like a last thing you do before you die that you don't ever want to forget. His breath was hot. Mine went still inside me.
You did a good thing tonight, little lady, he said into my ear. Your daddy won't remember a lot of it, that guy hit him good in the noggin. We're not going to bother your daddy about it, either. Let's let bygones be bygones, there's no use sweating something you can't change. I'll tell him I've taken care of it, and if you need a person to talk to, you talk to me.
He touched my bottom. Now go on up, he said. Get some sleep before your daddy wakes up.
From behind the screen door, I watched his taillights retreat down the street and take a left onto Highway 12. The yard was misted with the hazy light of first dawn.
In the den, Bo had cleaned up the blood and pulled the rug toward the rocker so it hid the place where the black man had been. Daddy was sprawled across the couch with his arms slung in back of his head and his mouth open. His forehead was growing a knot the size of a pecan. I put my hand on his heart. It beat steady against my palm. Even though Daddy didn't move, I could tell by how hard his heart pounded that he was going to be all right.
Pouring blood and torn fists and swelled eyes, pistol shots and knife fights and whiskey brawls are normal as breathing to Daddy and his friends. But this was the first time I'd been privy to it and that night a kind of patient thrill entered me. It was a feeling I had finally arrived.
The next day Bo came to me while I was in the back tack room. He stood next to me and asked me how school was and would I like to ride his new stud. He didn't say word one about the night before. I shook while I hung the saddles and tried to keep my voice steady when I answered his questions. And then he touched me. It was just a small touch on my elbow. When I turned, his mouth was on mine. He kissed me like he was hungry. All of me went watery with it. He said, Shh, Haley. And then I was kissing him back and my hands were in his hair. I was being held by a man, not a fumbling boy, and he was saying, Haley Ellyson, sweet Jesus, I want you. I can't stop. Don't make me stop.
You couldn't have stopped it better than lightning finding metal in a field. It was the steam off Daisy's body and the smell of hay and the sound of bats flapping in the rafters and the quiet of the stables, Bo's black hair, and the way he said my name. It was the secret we had of the body in the woods and the way he'd trusted me with it.
After that I waited anxious for those moments when I could see Bo, when we would catch eyes in the dust and work of the stables and the air would go wiry between us. An untamed pulling passed through me every time. Life took on a kind of heightened feeling in want for his attention. What I don't understand is why he comes to me sometimes and not others. I hate the waiting and the wondering when he will decide to find me in the stables and ask me into the private of his truck cab or to some other place he knows of where we can be alone.
Before Bo touched me I was going out with boys who were cigarette-smoking, whiskey-drinking replicas of their daddies. They told me they loved me and some were fixing to marry me after school. All those boys ever do is fish on Saturdays and skip church on Sundays. They love only their mammas' cooking, talk bad on blacks and dirty on women, and think being free is having their own pickups and getting drunk on Old Charter Road. Their whole world is Houser Banks, Mississippi. More than one of them has been chased off our land by Daddy's shotgun firing in the air because they took me in later than curfew or tried to kiss me on the front porch while he was watching from the window. They are as afraid of my daddy as I am of winding up married to one of them.
I don't want to go back to those boys, but lately I have come to feel like Bo isn't a choice for me, he is a shaking need. It is a feeling people must have who crave liquor or cigarettes.
My sheets are damp with sweat, and I pull them back and get out, wrap the top sheet around me and kneel at my closet. I keep a chest in there I bought from a dead lady's house when her family had a tag sale. When I feel lonesome, I get it out and touch the things in it. It is like finding another Haley sitting in a lone, secret place. In it I have put the words of songs I wrote down because they were beautiful enough to make me cry and butterfly wings and bird feathers and scraps of notes people threw away that I picked up so I could copy the handwriting. There's a stack of letters Mamma has sent me over the years and the sapphire she gave me before she left, which is the first thing I'll save if the house ever burns in fire. On the bottom is Frey Little's photo album Gypsy let me have when he died. I believe he and I would have been wild in love if I had been born in his time. Sometimes I study his pictures and speak to him in my mind.
When I have looked long enough, I hide the chest under clothes and blankets on my closet floor and get up to dress by the first coming of dawn light. My door makes a whining sound as I open it. Every time Gwyneth stays here, she sleeps to Crystal Gale singing Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue over and again on the forty-five record player Daddy has set up in his room for her. It sounds faintly when I pass his door. I go slow on my way down the stairs because they creak if you step too heavily.
Under the sink in the kitchen, we keep a big flashlight in case the electricity quits. I go out the back sliders with it and circle the house until I come to the old mess of cypress roots. Then I follow a faint animal trail to the east of the house. The woods are alive with tree frogs and insects and the hollow, quick sound of woodpeckers. Dew covers everything, and moist May heat films my body. The sky is a faint pink and the moon's fading to the texture of cloud. I only turn the flashlight on when the day's light is hidden by straps of kudzu and the shadows of catalpa trees grown huge.
Once I lose the way and then find it again by the stumped live oak, just north of the river, where saplings and cedars grow along the sloped bank. On that crest of hill I see the freshly placed pile of dirt and leaves, built there as a hidden grave.
When Bo did the burying, he told me, Next hunting season won't find this, all of it'll be grown over. Anyway, hounds want new meat, not the bones of some old body. He was breathing hard and cording string, shoving the body from its metal carrier and dumping it on the ground.
I get on my knees and look at the copper-colored rocks and the thrusting of pebbles, the round, knotted branches and rotted twigs. Layers of leaves and sticks and red mud are wet from night.
That man's body is buried under four feet of mud and wood scrapings, so the smell is only a faint, rancid one of clumped and dirty clothes laying around too long.
A black man's buried there and the only two people who know about it in this whole world are me and Bo.
The dizziness comes quick as storm, and my mouth goes dry. I try to spit twice and breathe as deep as I can. When I stand up and back away, the leaves and twigs swirl before me and black outlines everything like it will when you walk inside from a strong sun. In that half blindness I think I can see the short stub of his arm straight out from his grave like a limbed weapon.
Turning quickly, I head back to the path, swallowing gulps of air while I go. Crawling vines and Virginia creeper threaten to trip me. I am running too fast to keep an eye out for coiled snakes. My legs feel like pieces of rubber and my chest can't keep my breath, so a choking, hoarse sound comes out me. I like the scared, though; it's the reason I want to visit this place. The going makes me feel like the secret is part mine, to fool with however I want to.
By the time I get back to my house the sky is opening up to purple morning, and the sun is just putting its nose over the woods. I wait inside the sliders until my breath calms, then climb the stairs quiet as I can. After passing Daddy's door, I step across the hall so I can look at myself in the medicine cabinet mirror.
My face looks different nowadays. I can't tell if it's my eyes or my mouth or what, but mostly it is something you couldn't ever name. A kind of mystery. Bo is right, it is the things that happen to you that no
one else knows about that make you important in life. When you hold secrets, people can somehow sense it, and they respect you more because of it.
I turn off the light and go into my room. White streaks of early morning lie across the bedcovers. Climbing onto my bed, I let the tired burn my eyelids and leak out my body.
Before I fall asleep, I think of how the house smells different now. It is deeper than sweat. Daddy may never say if he smelled such a thing and Gwyn probably wouldn't notice. But I know what the house is doing. It is holding the memory of death, and since it can't speak, it will tell in some other way.
Copyright © 2002 by Suzanne Kingsbury
The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me
A pitch-perfect first novel rich with unforgettable characters, mesmerizing prose, and smoldering sexual tension, The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me captures the exhilaration of first love and the consequences of rebellion in a place resistant to change.