July 15, 1954. Duckett, Louisiana.
The waves crashed against the dock of Hangman’s Bay, sloshing water on its rickety edge. The sun had long gone down and now all that lit the way was a small star off in the horizon. Luellen Temperance and Tessie Sinclair screeched in freed delight as they ran faster than their ten-year-old legs could carry them. They bound for the old dock that held all their shared whispers and secrets. Some being of childhood fantasies like what they want to be when they grow up, and some being so deep and personal that only they and the waves knew what they shared. No one ever comes out to the bay at this time of night, and that’s why Luellen and Tessie love it so much. They can sneak out of their houses and dance on the dock and splash their feet in the water and no one will ever see them. To everyone else in their small Louisiana town including their parents, they’re invisible to the world at this moment and that’s just the way they like it.
There was a chill in the air that night, which was unusual for a summer night in July. That didn’t stop Luellen and Tessie, however.
As they ran, laughing and singing silly songs—Tessie sprang ahead, running at full speed, disappearing into the blackness.
“Come and catch me, Lu!” Her giggle floated in the air.
“Wait up!” Luellen shouted over the loud crash of the waves. She sprinted after Tessie, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. Suddenly, she caught a glimpse of sharp blonde hair and let out a laugh. “Found you! I’m gonna git you now!” She ran towards the blonde flash and picked up her speed only to run out of breath. She panted as she rested her hands on her knees, listening to Tessie’s laughter getting closer and closer to the dock’s edge. “Tessie! Wait!”
“Come on!” She heard her friend beckon in the distance.
“It’s too dark!” Luellen shouted. “Wait right there! I can’t see a thing!”
She started walking towards the sound of Tessie’s buoyant laughs until without warning, a shrill scream pierced through the night air.
“Tessie?” Luellen shrieked, her voice full of alarm. The adrenaline that had fizzled out surged through her body and she picked up her legs again, running towards the edge of the dock. Another scream. Luellen ran as hard as she could, her feet pounding against the cedarwood, until she reached the end. Luellen looked below. All she could see was the black pit of water splashing at the tip of her feet. “Tessie!” She screamed again. But no answer came. Tessie was gone.
July 6, 1974. Atlanta, Georgia.
I was almost finished with my shift when my boss, Clyde Blackwell asked me if I could stay another few hours. I looked over at a rowdy bachelor party coming into the small casino where I worked as a cocktail waitress. They were all dressed in cowboy hats and boots and looked like they had had a few already. I sighed thinking about my warm bed that I was looking forward to crawling into, once my shift ended in fifteen minutes. But money was tight, and I took whatever hours I could get.
“Luellen?” Clyde said with a tinge of impatience.
I simply nodded, holding on to my tray filled with whiskeys and beers.
“I know it’s last minute, but them boys over there look like they’re gonna give us a lot to deal with tonight.”
“It’s no problem.” I gave him a wave of my hand.
“Thanks, ‘ppreciate it.” He said before walking off.
I walked over to the boys who were hooting and hollering at a slot machine and put on my best, friendly voice.
“Would any of you boys like a drink?”
They turned to me. A bowl-cut blonde man who I assumed was the bachelor in question—as he was the only one wearing a plastic sheriff’s badge—smiled up at me.
“Sure, doll. What’cha got?” he said.
“Well, I got some whiskeys and beer right here,” I indicated to my tray, “but if ya’ll want anything special, I can have it whipped up for ya at the bar.”
The bachelor gave his friends a sly grin. “What do you suggest, doll?”
For a second, I stared blankly at them. It was unusual for someone to ask me for drink recommendations. I tried to think of some drinks at the top of my head.
“Uh, well—we make a good Rum and Coke, Whiskey Sours…Old Fashioned.”
“You know what, doll? We’ll just take a bunch’a beers.”
I nodded, swallowing my annoyance. I picked up a beer off the tray, and started to hand it to the bowled-cut bachelor.
“Is that a Coors?” he asked through his dimpled grin.
“I—no,” I said, staring at the bottle that said “Bud Light,” “but, I can see if we have any if you’d like.”
“That’d be swell, doll. Thanks,” he said.
I turned around, screwing my mouth into an irritated expression as I waltzed over to the bartender in the back room and brought out a few ice-cold Coors beers.
“Enjoy,” I said. “Good luck.” I walked away from them as quickly as I could, hoping I wouldn’t have to serve them for the rest of the night.
When I got home after midnight, I found my mail bulging out of the slot near my apartment door. I grabbed it and stuffed it under my arm as I fumbled with the key in the lock. During the Georgia heat, the door sticks, making it hard to open. I gave the door a good shove with my shoulder and nearly fell onto the floor. I put my keys in a basket on the side table and closed the door. After getting out of my sticky uniform and into my nightgown, I sat crossed-legged on my bed and went through the mail. As I tossed bill after bill aside, I came to an envelope with scratchy handwriting on it.
My breath caught in my throat. I knew immediately that it was my mama’s handwriting. Chicken scratch if it ever was, Mama had gone to school up until she was about ten years old when The Great Depression claimed her family. She dropped out and worked like a dog trying to help any way she could.
I was hesitant to open the letter. I hadn’t seen my mama since I left home when I was sixteen. We’d write here and there but something about this letter felt different. In some way I knew what it had to do with. It had been twenty years since that night on the dock. Twenty years since everyone but my family shunned me. Twenty years of images and sounds that still haunted me to this day. I turned the envelope over and opened it carefully. I unfolded the paper that was torn at the edges and read Mama’s words.
Marvin Sinclair is ded. You need to come home. There is sumthing you need to no. I under stand that its dificult for you but you have to come home. Please, baby. I love you.
As I folded the letter back up I was torn between two things—tearing it up and forgetting I ever saw it—or holding close to my chest as tightly as I could imagining that I was hugging Mama herself. I blinked back tears as I held it close. Marvin Sinclair is dead. The word dead flashed into my mind as I conjured up a million scenarios as to how that son of a bitch could have croaked. I tucked the letter under my pillow. Lying in my bed, I listened to the sounds of Atlanta hum outside my open window as the sweat from the heat rolled down my neck. Despite the fact that I missed my mama terribly, there was no way in hell I was going back home. I couldn’t go back knowing very well that if I did, everyone would just send me running again. I rolled over, my body facing the open window so I could let the light, stifled breeze billow on my face. I closed my eyes, trying to fall asleep. But every time I did, I saw Mama’s letter, beckoning, as if she could reach to me from hundreds of miles away.
The incessant gnawing of the letter kept grating at me like a fly that wouldn’t go away. Every time I walked by my bed, my eyes couldn’t help but fixate on the pillow where the letter lay under, just waiting for me to hold it again.
It even haunted my thoughts when I wasn’t at home. I would see Mama’s misspelled words, her pleading tone, the little heart she had scribbled after her name, flashing through my mind. No matter how much I tried to digress my thoughts, it always kept coming back to me. I even tried to put the letter in the bottom of my bureau, yet somehow, it only made its presence stronger. I actually started hearing my mama’s voice, reciting the letter, that timbre and softness that she always spoke with, begging me to come home.
You need to come home.
Her words pecked at me relentlessly. As I lay in bed that night, her voice only grew stronger, I covered my ears to block it out, but it was no use. I flung my thin sheet away from my ankles and staggered towards the bureau. I sat down; my legs tucked beneath me as I willed myself to open the drawer. I searched through the clutter of dresses, shirts, and the occasional bra until I got down to the very bottom. The letter was sitting there where I had put it. I took it out and unfolded it and read it again, my eyebrows furrowing poignantly at my mama’s attempt at penmanship.
I let out a long sigh and shook my head. I couldn’t go back. I didn’t want to go back. I untucked my legs and sat against my bureau, reading Mama’s letter over and over. I didn’t want to do this. But I was going to. I would put up with all the stares and whispers if it meant getting to see my mama again. To get closure on Tessie’s slime ball of an uncle. I would drive the eight hours to Duckett, Louisiana. I would finally go back home.
It wasn’t easy getting Clyde to give me a few days off work, but somehow, I managed it. He kept reminding how we were in the dog days of summer, and that people liked coming into our little casino for some fun and cold drinks. But when I told him it was a family emergency, he reluctantly let me go.
As the bustle of the big city slowly turned to the rolling hills of the country, I saw the drastic change of scenery. Large, looming buildings transformed into old houses that had been standing for centuries. Men in their finest work suits and Porter Wagnor style-coiffed hair, turned into men in wife-beater shirts sitting in their rocking chairs on their porches while watching the cars speed by. I drove the entire eight hours, stopping only for a burger and bathroom break. Suddenly, the giant words on the road sign came into view.
WELCOME TO LOUISIANA.
The greeting felt like a mockery. I swallowed hard as I drove past the sign. Driving past the exit for New Orleans, I rolled my window down. Stifling heat suddenly overwhelmed me. I felt as if I were being suffocated by the Devil himself. After fourteen years of being gone, I was surprised at how well I remembered my way back home. It was like visiting an old acquaintance and going through long lost memories together. The sign for my hometown came into view.
DUCKETT, LOUISIANA WELCOMES YOU.
Nothing had changed. As I entered the small town, the old giant statue of founder Leon Duckett whizzed past me. I began recounting my times in Picker’s Candy Shop where Tessie and I would take chocolate coins from and eat them until our stomachs betrayed us. I deliberately avoided the road that lead to the bay. I couldn’t go there.
As the cool, paved roads turned to dirt, I drove past the old Sinclair house. It was bigger than any of the other houses in town. The rich, red brick stood out against the white porch out in front and balcony on the second story—Tessie’s old bedroom. Although the Sinclairs weren’t wealthy, they were certainly considered rich by Duckett standards. The window to Tessie’s old room was open, making the white linen curtain flutter gently. I averted my eyes from that big, old house. I couldn’t bear to even take a glance at it. There were too many memories attached to that place. Too many awful stories that I wanted to forget. Not too far down the road, stood my little house.
I stopped my battered Buick just before turning onto the dirt driveway. Gripping the steering wheel, I took in my old home. The faded canary yellow paint had chipped long since I left, and the old porch where Tessie and I used to eat Mama’s cornbread had seen better days. Something started to well up inside me. Something I was desperate to keep hidden. I sucked in a deep breath as I put my foot back on the gas petal and pulled into the long, winding driveway.
I got out of the car and slammed the door. Holding the small suitcase in my shaky hand, I forced myself to walk towards the house. I entered the kitchen and shut the screen door behind me. I looked around the room. Everything was the same. The wallpaper, the table, the yellow and brown linoleum floor. It was as if the house were lost in the ‘50s and had yet to find its way out.
There were fresh magnolias on the kitchen table. Mama must’ve paid a fortune for those. I carefully put my suitcase down. The sensation that threatened to erupt out of me returned like a badger. I swallowed it down and managed to call out.
As if on cue, I heard feet shuffling about from the next room. After what felt like a lifetime, my mama appeared. She wore a blue gingham apron over a pale yellow floral smocked dress. Her dark blonde curls had now turned ashen, and what used to be of her lithe figure had gotten a little wider around the hips. But the minute she smiled, it was like I was a child again. She extended her arms and I fell into them. We held onto each other as tight as we could, fearing that a sudden gust of wind could rip us apart. I buried my face into her neck. She still smelled of cinnamon and honey. We stood there, not one of us wanting to be the first to let go. I could hear her hiccupping and sniffling.
Finally, we both let go of each other. Mama took my face in her hands and wiped my eyes the way she used to do when I was sad or hurt. I could tell she was trying to gather herself to speak.
“My baby,” she finally said. “You’ve come home.”
I nodded. “Yes, Mama.”
She took a rumpled tissue out of her apron pocket and dabbed her eyes.
“Sit down, honey. You must be plumb tired.”
I sat down at the kitchen table and ran my hand over the split wood. I wanted to touch everything in this house before having to go back to Atlanta. Mama handed me a piece of cornbread with drizzled honey on it.
“Eat,” she said, pointing at the cornbread.
Although I was still full from the drive thru burger, I knew better than to refuse my mama’s orders to eat something. I took a bite and nearly salivated all over the table. It tasted like a warm memory. The sweetness of the honey and the buttery taste of the cornbread danced in my mouth. I got a hint of Mama’s secret ingredient—lemon zest and closed my eyes and tilted my head back.
Mama set down two large glasses of sweet tea with lemon and sat across from me. We sat there in silence for a minute, not quite knowing what to say. I nibbled on the remains of the cornbread, and when I had practically vacuumed the crumbs off the plate, I pushed it aside.
“Your hair is darker,” Mama said, deciding to fill the void.
I nodded. My straggly dishwater blonde hair from childhood had darkened into a dusty brown with loose waves. I wore it half up with a giant hair clip holding it together.
“I cut it a while back,” I said awkwardly.
Mama took a sip of her sweet tea. “Just wish your daddy were here to see you come home.” Her voice caught a bit on the last word. “He would’ve wanted to see his baby girl all grown up, God rest his soul.”
I fought another set of tears that threatened their way up. My daddy had passed away not long before I left home. I felt terrible leaving my mama all alone. I even offered for her to come with me, but like a mule, she refused to leave. I cleared my throat.
“Does anyone—does anyone know I’m here?”
“No. I figured you could be the one to tell ‘em you’ve come home.”
I shook my head. “I’m not staying long, Mama. I can’t.”
“I know,” she nodded. “But, I think it would be best if they found out from you.”
“If they see me walking down the streets out of nowhere, it’s gonna cause a stir.”
“So, let them stir. This is still your home. No matter how long you’ve been gone, this place is still a part of you.”
I cast my eyes downward. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I knew she was right. I would always be connected to this place. Like a boomerang thrown against the wind, I would always be brought back here.
“I bet Alden Metcalf will be happy to see you,” Mama said. She took another sip of sweet tea, her eyes watching me over the rim.
“Mama,” I sighed. “I told you, I am not here for a big reunion.”
“Don’t you want to see him?”
Alden Metcalf had been my other close friend besides Tessie. Tessie used to tease us about getting married when we were older. And Alden and I, being the young children that we were, thought it was the grossest idea. But after Tessie disappeared, I shut him out. He tried so hard to get me to talk to him, but I just couldn’t. I can still see the heartbreak on his face the day I finally left home when I was sixteen. Even if I did want to see him, it was too late anyway. He probably had his own family by now.
I wanted to get off this topic. But the only way to do that was to finally confront the reason I was here in the first place. Mama’s letter.
“So—” I started awkwardly, “your letter—”
Mama let out a long sigh. “Yes. I figured you would want to know. I know this is a very painful thing for you to talk about, but there’s something I need to tell you.”
I nodded, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of my dress pocket. I put one to my lips and lit up, exhaling a long cloud of smoke out of my mouth.
“Well, as you know,” Mama said. “Tessie’s Uncle Marvin just died. He apparently had a heart attack. He was just devastated that night Tessie disappeared. When you came runnin’ into the house screaming that Tessie was gone, we had no idea you girls even used to sneak out at night. Marvin Sinclair was never the same after that. He loved Tessie as if she were his own daughter. He was always giving her hugs and kisses and playing with her hair while she sat on his lap.”
The pulse in my temple thumped as I listened to my mama, flicking the ashes of the cigarette onto my paper plate.
“Well, it turns out that—” she paused, trying to find the words stuck in her throat. “Marvin had been molestin’ Tessie for years.” She dabbed her eyes with her tissue. “He used to come in her room at night sometimes and rape her,” she sniffled. “That poor baby, all those times he was doing those awful things to her and she never said nothing.”
I swallowed hard. The back of my eyes started to burn. Mama thought she was telling me something new. But what she didn’t realize was, I already knew all of this.
“Apparently, he told Tessie’s daddy everything just before he had the heart attack,” Mama said. “He told him how sorry he was and how the past twenty years have been such a burden on him.”
I fought back a sardonic snort. A burden on him? What about his niece who was lying dead somewhere in the bay for the past twenty years?
A longing look crossed over Mama’s face. “It’s almost as if he knew the good Lord was gonna take him soon. He had to relieve himself of his sins.” Finally, Mama looked at me. “I am so sorry to tell you this, baby. I know it’s been so hard on you since that night and that everyone had blamed you for what happened. Those people drove you outta here. Sayin’ horrible things about you that made you just get up and leave.”
That awful bursting sensation started coming to me again. I tried to keep it down. I stiffened, my chest becoming tight and restrictive. I started breathing quickly through my nose. How could I tell my mama after all these years that I had always known what Tessie’s uncle was doing to her? That I never told anybody because Tessie swore me not to? That the reason we snuck out at night was because I was just trying to get her away from that bastard? That those times when she and I were together, just playing, that those were some of the only happy moments in her life?
I couldn’t take it anymore. I pushed my chair from the table causing it to make a loud, scraping sound against the floor. I hastily stood to my feet, snubbing my cigarette out.
“I, uhh—I need to get some air,” I said, trying to hide the shakiness of my voice. “I need to get out for a while.” I started walking towards the door.
“Where are you goin’? Are you coming back?” Mama asked worriedly.
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t—I don’t think it was a good idea for me to come back.”
Mama walked over to me. “Listen. Get some fresh air. I know this is a lot to hear. Go cool off a bit. If you can, why don’t you go down to the country market and get some stuff for me to make us a chocolate pie? You just got here. You can’t leave yet.” Mama’s voice was soft and pleading.
I nodded my head in response. Mama kissed me, and I walked out the door and into my car.
I found myself driving aimlessly. I passed by the familiar stores and corner barber shop. Without realizing it, I had driven onto the road that led to Hangman’s Bay. The gravel crunched underneath my tires as I drove on autopilot. I stopped my car and saw the glistening of the bay over the old, rickety dock. I got out of my car and as if I were in a trance, started walking over to it, slipping off my sandals in the process. My chest felt heavy, as if the sand my toes coursed through had filled up inside of me and buried my heart beneath thousands of tiny grains.
As I stepped onto the dock, the boards creaked under me. The sound bringing back a wave of memories. The wind felt fresh against my face, blowing my hair back and causing my pale blue linen sundress to flutter against my knees. It was cold. The same kind of cold that was in the air that night.
I walked as close to edge as my feet would allow. A gull’s screech snapped me out of my haze. The water below lapped gently against the posts of the dock. Its murky darkness holding more than the sinister secrets it possessed. Was she still down there somehow? As I looked at the water, I was pulled back to that night.
The crash of the waves.
A flash of blonde hair.
The dam inside of me broke. The tight knot that dwelled in my throat throughout the day, ballooned. The lump rose and threatened its way up, trying to burst itself through my lips. I covered my mouth with my hand and let out a stifled cry. The tears that had only just sprinkled on my face when I saw my mama, now poured out of my eyes like they had been imprisoned and locked up. I sank to my knees and keeled over as I wept openly for the first time in years. Even though I’ve been haunted by those images and echoes for twenty years, today I felt like I was there again. I was once again, that ten-year-old girl standing helpless in the dark as she heard her best friend scream for her life until the only sound left in the air was the waves.
For twenty years, I have felt nothing but guilt. I couldn’t help but believe the townsfolks when they called me a horrible child for letting Tessie drown like that. Some folks accused me of pushing her into the bay because I was jealous of her and how well-off her family was. I tried desperately to convince them that I didn’t do anything to her, but no one believed me. I finally stopped trying to fight back and just let everyone spread awful rumors and say horrible things about me.
At sixteen, on the sixth anniversary of that night, people hounded me and my mama at the country market. They threw eggs at us and told me that no matter how many times I went to church to beg God for forgiveness, I was still going to Hell. I decided I had to leave. I knew I was turning my back on my home, my family and most importantly, the memory of Tessie. But, I couldn’t take it any longer. I pleaded with my mama to let me leave. I sobbed into her lap as she told me running away would not make anything better and how upset daddy would be if he were still alive. But, she said she couldn’t stop me from leaving and made me promise to write and keep in touch with her as much as possible. I promised. She also tried to make me promise to come back home someday. I didn’t say anything to that. I just gently kissed her tear-stained cheek and loaded myself onto the Greyhound bus, not knowing where I was going, or where I’d end up, and watched her out the window as her figure slowly moved away from me until it was nothing but a speck in the distance.
As I lay hunched over, sobbing on the dock, I screamed my prayers to Tessie into the cracked, wet wood.
“I’m so sorry, Tessie,” I wept wretchedly. “I’m so sorry! Please forgive me. Please!”
I told her how I never should have taken her out that night, and how I never should have kept her secret. Even though I thought I was doing something good at the time, it just ended up with her dead. I swore that I if I could go back to those times and tell someone what was happening to her, I would. I would give up my soul to have her back.
After begging Tessie for forgiveness, I did what I hadn’t done in over fourteen years—I begged God. I clasped my hands together and wailed and begged and pleaded for forgiveness, then I begged him to erase the last twenty years and bring me back to that cold July night so I could do everything all over again, and make it right. I cried and begged until I didn’t have any words or tears left in me.
By the time I had got back to my car, I was emotionally and mentally drained. It was suddenly hot again, and I found myself sweating, my light dress stuck to my skin. I put my head on the steering wheel and took a few deep breaths before putting the key in the ignition and driving off. I had almost missed the country market, remembering Mama’s request for ingredients to make chocolate pie. I turned into the small parking lot. The sign above the store was chipped and the old saloon style wording had faded a bit.
I walked in, the little bell above the door ringing. I grabbed a basket and made my way down the aisles grabbing the necessary ingredients as if I had never left. Everything was still in place. Although the prices had gone up a little, it was still quite cheap.
I walked by the small refrigerated case that was stocked with ice cold bottles of Coke. I opened the case up and took one, putting it in my basket.
“Luellen?” a voice said, startling me. I whipped around and discovered that I was face to face with Alden Metcalf. He looked exactly the same. Even though he was now thirty like me, he still had that bashful teenaged boy look about him.
His sandy blonde hair was still messy; he never did see the use in combing it properly when he figured it would just get tousled again. He wore a plaid shirt underneath a white apron and his jeans were stained with what looked like coffee.
“Lu,” he said again, his Louisiana drawl so familiar to my ears, “is that you?”
“Yeah,” I said slowly. “Hi Alden. How are you doin’?”
“I’m alright. How are you?”
“I’m alright,” I shrugged.
“It’s been a while,” he said softly.
“Yeah,” was all I could say. I shifted my eyes awkwardly. “Well, I should get running. I’m just pickin’ some stuff up for my mama.” I started to walk away.
“Wait!” Alden called out, causing me to turn back and face him. “Well—since you’re back, would you want to I don’t know…grab a bite to eat tonight? Catch up on some things?”
“Oh,” I said. I shook my head. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. It’s just—I’m not supposed to be here too long. I have to go back to Atlanta. I just came to see my mama.”
“Well, if you could make some time, that would be great,” he said. “I haven’t seen you in…God, I don’t even know how long.”
Fourteen years, I counted in my head.
“Just, will you think about it?” he asked wistfully. “Please?”
I stared into his big, brown eyes and looked away quickly, fearing it would make me vulnerable again.
“I—I don’t know,” I stammered, looking off to the side. “I’ll think about it, but I can’t promise anything.”
“Alright,” he said. “Fair enough. If you change your mind, you know where to find me.” He gave an awkward little wave of his hand and walked off. I discreetly peered at him, letting my gaze linger as he walked to the back of the store.
“Thank you, baby,” Mama said as I planted the bags down onto the table. She peeked through them, making sure I got everything she asked for. Although I had added in the bottle of Coke and another pack of cigarettes, she seemed pleased. She took my face in her hands and brushed her thumbs against my cheeks, a look of concern washed over her face. “Darlin’, your cheeks look flushed, and your eyes are red. Is everything okay?”
I hastily pulled out of her grasp. “Yeah,” I said, my voice squeaking a little. “Just, it’s damn hot out.”
“Language,” Mama warned.
“Sorry,” I said.
“We may not be debutantes, but we’re still ladies.”
“Sorry,” I said again. Fourteen years of being gone still couldn’t stop my mama from scolding me when she wanted to. And that little thought made a small smirk curl at my lips.
“So,” Mama said, taking everything out of the bags. “Did you run into anyone?”
I hesitated for a moment, not sure if I should tell her. “Not really,” I said. “Just Alden Metcalf.”
Mama dropped the tub of whipped cream topping on the table. “That’s not exactly not really,” she said.
“Well, I mean, it wasn’t a big deal,” I said, opening the chocolate. “We exchanged pleasantries and moved on.”
“Exchanged pleasantries?” she repeated.
“Yes, Mama, pleasantries. Y’know, ‘hi, how are you?’ ‘Good? And you?’”
“I know what pleasantries are,” Mama said, playfully swatting at my arm.
“It wasn’t anything,” I said. “He asked if I could have a bite to eat with him and I told him I wasn’t going to be here long—”
“He asked you out?” Mama gushed. “Why didn’t you say yes?”
“Because, Mama,” I said, starting to get heated. “I’m not here for long. I only came because of your letter about Tessie’s uncle. You’ve told me. He’s dead. He’s gone. He was terrible. Can we drop this?” I tossed the chocolate onto the table and walked out of the kitchen, leaving my mama standing there, holding her rolling pin ready to make the crust. I walked back in, pained by her confused and hurt expression.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to burst like that, but I told you—I’m not here for a big reunion. It was hard enough getting into my car and driving here, now I have to see everyone from my past and bring back more painful memories? Can’t I just leave and I don’t know…come back in another fourteen years?”
Mama wiped her hands on her apron and took my hands into hers. “If that’s what you want, then go,” she said. “Walk out that door and don’t come back for another fourteen years. Hopefully I’m still around then. But let me tell you somethin’, if you walk away again, I’m not waitin’ for you to come home like I did the last time. I can’t take that feeling anymore, not knowing if you’ll ever come back. It hurts too much. Go ahead and walk out, leavin’ the people who truly care about you behind again. It’ll almost be like you never came home. Dear God, I don’t want to say this, but if Tessie were here, she would be heartbroken. You, leavin’ like this? It’s like you’re throwin’ away every memory you and Tessie had together. Good and bad. So, it’s up to you. You can walk out and leave if you want. Or, you can stay here a little longer, see that poor boy, and help me make this Godforsaken pie.”
I couldn’t prevent the tears that had welled in my eyes, nor could Mama prevent hers. I just stood there, my hands gripped in hers and nodded stiffly as my cheeks became wet. She let go of my hands and we both quickly dried our eyes. We silently went back to the pie making as if our conversation never happened. My mama rolled out the crust as I stirred the chocolate.
When I had phoned Clyde to tell him I’d be in Duckett longer than expected, he was audibly annoyed but told me to take all the time I needed. My mama, bless her heart, finally convinced me to see Alden. When I agreed, she couldn’t stop swooning around the house like a teenaged girl at prom. I told her not to hold her breath, that it was only a night to catch up.
When I went back to the country market the next day, Alden was working behind the cash register. I told him I would see him that night for dinner. He happily told me he would pick me up at seven and we would go over to Earl’s Chuck Wagon Diner.
That night, as I got ready and as my mama once again swooned around the house, I felt the compulsive need to call it off. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. But, seeing my mama so happy, I decided to just go with it. One night wouldn’t kill me.
I wore a pale yellow dress with small rosebuds on it and my brown sandals—the only shoes I packed. Alden had upgraded his former plaid shirt to a nicer one, and even made an attempt at combing his hair. We sat in a booth at the end of the diner, so we could hear each other talk. I inhaled the smells of homemade biscuits, fried chicken, and cheesy grits, my senses bringing me back to childhood for the second time since arriving.
“God,” I said, looking around the place, “it doesn’t look a bit different.”
“Yeah, Earl Jr. has kept the place runnin’ nice since Earl Sr. passed,” Alden said.
Earl Jr., who was now running the diner, took over for his daddy when he died. Earl Jr. had been just a fry cook the last time I’d been here; he was only a few years younger than my mama.
I noticed Earl Jr. walk over from the corner of my eye. I looked up at him. He had definitely put on some pounds, and his hair was receding. But he still had that jolly expression on his face that I could easily see from a mile away.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said when he reached our booth. “Luellen?”
“Yup!” I said, giving him a polite smile.
“My God, girl, I haven’t seen you since you was a skinny lil’ thing. Now look at you, you’re—”
I raised an eyebrow at him.
“Taller,” he said swiftly.
I let out a small chuckle. “It’s nice to see you too, Earl.”
“So, what can I get you kids?”
“I’ll have the fried chicken special,” Alden said.
“I’ll have the same,” I nodded.
“Comin’ right up!” Earl said. “Hey, Luellen, it’s good to see you again, lil’ darlin’,” he added before walking away.
For a moment, there was an awkward silence between Alden and me. We would often glance at each other, smile nicely, then look away.
“So,” Alden said, breaking the silence. “Atlanta?”
I nodded. “Uh, yeah. It’s really nice.”
“How did you end up there?”
“Well, I don’t even know.” I let out a laugh. “I just went wherever the Greyhound took me. When I got there, I stayed at motels for a while until I had a steady enough job to buy myself an apartment.”
“So, what kind of big city job do you have up there?” He smiled.
“Cocktail waitress at a casino,” I said, a faint smirk curling at my lips.
“Fancy,” he said playfully.
I laughed. “It’s alright. It’s no Caesar’s Palace, but it’s a paycheck. I see you’re still working at the country market.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Again, it’s a paycheck.”
I nodded. We went back to awkward silence.
“How’s your mama?” I asked.
“She’s fine,” Alden said.
“And your daddy?”
“He passed away last year,” Alden said, a sad expression crossing his face.
“Oh no, I’m so sorry,” I said, sadness overcoming me as well.
“Thank you. He was working on the plumbin’ at the market, and his heart gave out. He hadn’t stopped working since he was twelve years old. I guess he just…overdid it. And your mama?”
“She’s good.” I nodded. “I just saw her for the first time in years yesterday.”
“I hope you don’t mind,” Alden said, lowering his head sheepishly. “I kind of go to see her from time to time. Y’know, just to check up on her and things.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. It made my heart sting with both sadness and relief. I was grateful that he made sure my mama wasn’t completely alone, but felt guilt that I was the reason he made sure she wasn’t lonely.
“You don’t have to do that,” I said.
“No, I wanted to.” Alden nodded.
“Well, thank you,” I said appreciatively. “Thank you for looking after her.”
“Any time,” he said, a longing gaze on his face. “I’m just happy you’re finally back. To be honest, I wasn’t sure it was you at first. I thought my mind was playin’ tricks on me, you know how the Duckett heat can do that to you.” He added a soft smile, then let it fall. “But when you turned around, I knew it was you. It was your eyes. I’d recognize them anywhere.”
I shifted slightly in the booth, unsure of how to react. I didn’t know whether to smile or what. His voice and gaze were so longing, so aching, it made me strangely uncomfortable.
“Bluer than the Mississippi,” he said softly.
Things were getting sentimental way too fast. I couldn’t help but feel my cheeks heating up. I wanted to change the subject desperately, but didn’t know what to talk about.
“So, how long you stayin’?” Alden asked, his tone brightening a bit.
“Oh, not long.” I shook my head. “I was going to leave today, but I decided to stay a few extra days to be with Mama. And, to take you up on your offer, of course. But I really have to get back soon.”
“Yeah, cocktail waitressin’ is a cut-throat business,” Alden said at an attempt to be good-natured. However, it only made me feel worse. I lowered my head, slightly offended.
“Oh, gee, I’m sorry,” he said, trying to take back his words. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I was just tryin’ to make a joke. Y’know like old times.”
I shook my head.
“It’s alright,” I said, trying to put on a humble smile. “I’m just—tired. It’s been a long few days.”
“Do you want to leave?” he asked, his face concerned. “I can ask Earl Jr. to wrap up our food—”
“No, no, no,” I said, shaking my head and waving his suggestion off. “It’s okay. Let’s stay.”
His shoulders untensed a little. “Alright,” he said. “If you’re sure.”
I nodded and gave him a smile as reassurance.
“So, have you run into anyone else?” Alden asked.
“No. Just you, and Earl Jr.” I cocked my head over to the kitchen area.
“So, I’m guessin’ your mama told you about Marvin Sinclair?”
I felt a prickle at the back of my neck and a chill run down my body. I don’t know why I was so surprised, the subject was bound to come up at some point, I was just hoping hard enough that it wouldn’t.
“Uh, yes, she did,” I said slowly.
“Damn,” Alden shook his head. “Y’know, I always had a funny feeling about that guy. I wasn’t sure what it was, but now it makes a lot of sense.”
I nodded, hoping he would change the topic.
“To think he was doin’ all those horrible things to Tessie, and we never knew about it!” he said. He shook his head again. “Had I known, I would’ve roughed up that bastard real good.”
“Can we talk about somethin’ else?” I said, a disturbed expression crossing my face.
“What? Why?” Alden said, confused.
“I just—we shouldn’t be talkin’ about Tessie like this, it isn’t right.”
“We’re talkin’ about her uncle and what he did to her. I thought you might want to talk about it.”
“Well, I don’t!” I exclaimed. “Can we please just talk about somethin’ else? Please?”
Alden looked at me, confusion in his puppy dog brown eyes.
“Alright,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry. I thought you might want to—”
I looked away from him. Earl Jr. walked over with our food. He set it down on the table, completely oblivious to the tension before him.
“Dig in, kids!” he said happily as Alden and I sat in stewed silence. He walked away.
“Let’s just eat,” I said, stabbing my fork into the mashed potatoes. I suddenly wasn’t hungry anymore. The thought of eating made a pit the size of a watermelon swell in my stomach, but I was raised to never let food go to waste no matter what, so I dug in. I forced myself to take bites of the fried chicken and mashed potatoes. I nibbled on the green beans, choking them down begrudgingly.
We ate in silence. A night that was supposed to be for catching up and friendly conversation was now spoiled. Neither of us wanted to say anything anymore. I would often see Alden steal glances at me as I kept my gaze away from him.
The car ride home was equally awkward and silent. I quietly mumbled a thank you for the ride as I got out of his truck. As I walked up the porch steps, I watched him drive off, his tires screeching as he moved farther and farther away from me.
I had come home to discover Mama had bought me three new dresses. Since I had only come with two, the one I wore when I came and the one I had on, she brought it upon herself to have a little shopping trip.
“Mama,” I said completely exhausted, “you really didn’t have to do that. I told you, I’m not stayin’ long. I can always just wash the two dresses I brought with me.”
“Hush,” she said, swatting her hand. “They’re not much, but they’re practical. You can take them back to Atlanta with you. A girl can never have too many linen dresses.”
I kissed her cheek as a thank you and looked at what she had bought. They were three pretty linen frocks—a staple for a young Southern woman. One was an eggshell color sun dress with tiny flowers on it, the other two were plain house dresses, one burgundy with small white polka dots, the other a light robin blue with a gingham pattern. I folded them up neat to bring to my old room, which Mama never changed.
“So,” Mama said, sitting at the kitchen table. “How was it with Alden?”
“It was alright,” I said, my voice drained.
“Any sparks?” she teased.
“Mama,” I sighed.
“Oh, come on, Lu,” she said.
“No sparks. Not even a glimmer. Just, small talk over fried chicken.”
“Small talk?” Mama said, her ears perking up and her eyes brightening.
“Nothing major,” I said. “I’m sorry, Mama, I’m just really tired. Can we talk tomorrow?”
“Sure,” she said, her tone hinting that she didn’t completely buy my words. I kissed her cheek and thanked her again for the dresses.
When I got into my old room, I closed the door behind me and stood against it, holding onto the dresses in one hand. I choked back tears as I replayed the image of Alden driving away over and over.
The next day, Mama had a field day convincing me to go to church with her. After prodding and henpecking me, I finally relented. I wore the polka dotted burgundy dress she had bought me and kept my hair down, with Mama giving me a bobby pin to swipe my long bangs to the side.
I looked as nervous as I felt as Mama and I walked up to the small church house. It was still tiny as ever. The reverend was standing outside as he normally did, greeting the patrons and exchanging friendly banter. Mama went ahead of me; he nodded to her and I saw her walk in and sit down in the very last pew.
A knot formed in my heart. Ever since Tessie’s drowning, the town had forced my family to sit in the very back of the church. While many of them petitioned to have us banned from church services, Reverend Hammel forbade it, saying that while everyone had the right to be upset with us, he still couldn’t turn away patrons, no matter how horrible the sin was. He made us sit in the back from then on. My mama, who prided herself on being God’s number one believer, was heartbroken to be ostracized in such a terrible way. This, of course, didn’t help with the deep-seated guilt I had already been feeling at such a young age. I slowly started distancing myself from the church, faking illness or just plain throwing tantrums until Mama defeatedly left the house as I kicked and screamed inside.
I hesitated, finding it difficult to move my feet forward. It was as if my toes were hammered into the ground. I looked ahead at the church, what had once been a welcoming haven in my early childhood, was now a place of coldness and discrimination.
“Luellen?” I heard someone say. I looked over and saw Reverend Hammel standing before me. He was holding his bible close to his chest.
“Hello, Reverend Hammel,” I said quietly.
“Well, well,” he said. “Didn’t think we’d be seeing you around here again.”
“Uh, to be perfectly honest, neither did I,” I said. “I just came to see my mama.”
He nodded. “I see. Well, nice to have you back.” The words were horribly forced. He looked like he was in physical pain just saying them, but I bit my tongue and nodded at him.
“Thanks,” I said.
He pointed to the church house. “You remember where to sit, don’t you?”
I wanted to smack that smug expression off his stupid, pointed head. He looked at me through his rounded glasses, his nose perched so perfectly in the middle, I could just punch it. But I forced myself to shake the thought out of my head and nodded politely again.
“Yes, Reverend,” I said.
He walked away, greeting others with enthusiasm and handshakes. I was about to walk towards the church house when I heard my name called again.
“Luellen?” The soft, breezy lilt said. “Luellen Temperance?”
I froze in my tracks at the sound of the voice. I swallowed hard as I willed myself to turn around. When I did, I saw Connie Sinclair—Tessie’s mama standing before me.
My throat suddenly felt dry—as if I hadn’t had water in weeks. I stood there staring at her, taking her in. She was still a tiny woman. Her hair was still styled in a ‘60s bouffant, and she wore a peach colored Sunday outfit—a chiffon jacket with a matching flowy skirt.
“Luellen Temperance?” she said again.
“Mrs. Sinclair,” I said, my voice husky.
“I thought I heard rumors that you were back in town, but had yet to see you, I thought folks was just seein’ things.”
“Uh,” I stammered, forgetting the English language for a moment, “yeah.”
“So, you’re back?”
I gulped, trying to maintain moisture in my mouth.
“Not for long,” I finally said. “Just—just visiting.”
She put on a tight smile and waved like the Queen at the folks who walked by. She turned back to me.
“Well, you’re back!” she said, her voice unnervingly enthusiastic. “Isn’t this a blessin’?”
I was troubled by how chipper she was. I remembered enough to know that this was just her painted-on façade. I knew what lay beneath her Doris Day smile and Queen wave. I’d seen her at her ugliest. I could tell that her sunshine demeanor could chip away at any moment.
“Mrs. Sinclair,” I said, trying to keep my voice low and wringing my hands, “I just wanted—”
“Oh!” she said lightly. “Come over here, Luellen. Over here, so we can talk better in private.” She let out a sunny laugh and walked me over to the picnic bench out of earshot from everyone.
“Mrs. Sinclair,” I tried again, “I just wanted to tell you…” I trailed off and tried desperately to force the next words out of my mouth. I felt sick just thinking of saying them. “I’m sorry to hear about Marvin’s passing.”
“Oh, well, it was a terrible thing,” she said breezily. “But I guess it was his time.”
She seemed so cool, so placid, that I truly started to wonder if she had changed over the years. I couldn’t stop wringing my hands. I felt like a poor child who was about to beg for more scraps of food.
“So,” she said. “What brings you back here? Just visiting, you say?”
I nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I just wanted to see my mama.”
“Well, isn’t that nice. Lord knows that poor woman needs some company in her life.”
“But—but Alden Metcalf said he’s been checkin’ up on her from time to time,” I said confused.
“Oh yes, well, he does go home at night,” she chirped. “Goes home, then leaves her all alone in that house with no one to talk to or anything.”
My guilt at leaving my mama came back as I pictured her sitting all by herself at the kitchen table with a cup of tea just wasting away as she just sat there, wishing for someone to be with her.
“Thank goodness nothin’ has happened to her in the middle of the night yet,” she prattled on. “Lord knows what with her gettin’ up in age and all.” She must’ve seen my wounded expression, because a satisfied smile curled at her lips. “When are you goin’ back?” she added.
I shook my head, heartbroken at my mama’s loneliness. I couldn’t bring myself to look back up at her. She had me right where she wanted.
“I should get in the church to my mama,” I said meekly, starting to walk away.
“Wait,” Mrs. Sinclair said, her voice suddenly taking on a different tone. I looked over at her, her face was now long, and her true age showed. Her lips were set in a clipped expression and her eyes had darkened. “Why did you really come back?” she asked, her iciness making my spine shudder.
“I told you,” I said as evenly as I could, “I’m here to see my mama.”
“No, you’re not.” She shook her head slowly. She took a few steps towards me. It looked as if she were moving on wheels. “I know why you came back. You think that if you come back so close to the twentieth anniversary of Theresa’s death, then everyone can just forgive you and welcome you back with open arms?”
I shook my head, my mouth unable to conjure words.
“No,” my voice finally squeaked out, “I just—”
“Don’t you lie to me,” she spat, her perfectly manicured finger pointing right in my face. “If it hadn’t been for you, my Theresa would still be here. If it hadn’t been for you, Theresa would’ve actually made somethin’ of herself rather than galivantin’ around with hick trash like you. If it hadn’t been for you, Theresa’s daddy would still come to church, but because of you, and your selfish need to bring Theresa out at night, she is dead. She will never get to grow up like you did. She will never have a family, she will never grow up to be a nurse as she always dreamed of—”
“Teacher,” I whispered before I could stop myself. I couldn’t help but speak for Tessie and her desire to work with little kids and not in a hospital like her parents made her believe she wanted to. “Tessie wanted to be teacher,” I whispered again.
The look in Mrs. Sinclair’s eyes was enough to send the Holy Ghost running for the hills. All the hate, contempt, and grief possessed her hazel eyes and I could see her mind snap with rage.
“You little tramp,” she hissed in a clipped voice. “You think that just because you and my daughter used to run around town like free chickens, and used to go to the bay at night to do God knows what—you think you know everything about my Theresa? You don’t even know half of anything about Theresa.” Her words shot at me like daggers. Her eyes bore through me, and for a moment I thought she could see right through my soul. “Did she ever tell you what was happening to her? Hm?” she said, her voice now carrying a disturbing lightness. “Did she? Did she tell you that her beloved Uncle Marvin would go upstairs into her room at night and molest her? Did she ever tell you that? Of course not.” Her tone changed back to hatred. “She never told you that because she never told us that. We had to hear it from Marvin, as he lay dyin’ of a heart attack on the floor.” Her eyes filled with tears and it took everything in me not to shed my own. I bit the inside of my lip to keep it from trembling as I watched Mrs. Sinclair’s grief overpower her.
“I had to learn that my baby was being molested by a monster who I thought I trusted! She was raped! She was sufferin’ as she went along with you acting like you had no care in the world, and she was sufferin’! She never got to tell us what was happening to her! She never got that because you took that away from her! You took her from us! You took away her voice! And now you come back here after so many years, expectin’ to pay respects? To be forgiven? You will never be forgiven!”
I couldn’t hold the tears in anymore. I let them fall as I covered my mouth with my hand, shaking my head vehemently. Mrs. Sinclair smacked my hand away.
“No!” she screamed. “Don’t you dare cry! You don’t deserve to cry! You don’t deserve anything! I deserve to cry. My husband deserves to cry. Theresa deserves to cry, but she can’t because you took her away!” Her entire body shook and inched closer towards me, her face so close to mine I could smell her breath. “Leave,” she said, her voice completely hoarse.
I turned around and tried to run off, but everyone had seen what happened and looked at me like I was a leech at the bottom of their shoe. Everywhere I turned, I ran into someone who just stared back at me with scorn. I pushed my way through everyone and darted towards home. I didn’t stop until I was completely inside the house. I went into my old bedroom and gathered my things, shoving them into my suitcase, and struggling to close it shut. I put the suitcase next to the kitchen door. I couldn’t stay any longer. To hell with what I told Mama, I was leaving today. I just wanted to say goodbye to her one last time.
When Mama came back home, I was in the kitchen, cleaning dishes in the sink. She looked out of sorts and hurried over to me.
“Luellen? What on earth happened to you?” she asked. “I was worried sick. Why didn’t you come into the church?”
“I couldn’t,” I said, keeping my attention on scrubbing.
“Well of course you can,” she said. “You missed a wonderful sermon. There’s going to be a special memorial for Tessie tomorrow. You’ll come to that.”
“No, Mama, I won’t,” I said.
“What do you mean? Of course, you will! Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary—”
“I know what tomorrow is!” I snapped, splashing drops of water onto my dress.
Mama walked over to me, confused and hurt. “Baby, what’s gotten into you?”
“I saw Mrs. Sinclair,” I said.
“Oh,” her voice lowered. “Luellen, don’t let that woman scare you off. You’re a part of this community too. You have every right to be—”
“No, I don’t,” I said, my voice shaking slightly. “I don’t have a right to be here. I never should have come back. Why did you have to send me that letter? Why couldn’t you just leave me be in Atlanta?”
“I’m sorry, darlin’,” Mama said shamefully, “I thought you might want to know.”
“I don’t want any part of this anymore,” I said. I shook my head. “I’m sorry, Mama. I can’t—I can’t stay. I have to leave. I just wanted to say goodbye to you.” I took a small stack of dishes in my hands and walked towards the cupboard, but Mama stood in my way. She grabbed my arms.
“You’re not goin’ anywhere,” she said defiantly. “I’m not letting you.”
“Mama, let go,” I said, my shoulders tensing up.
“No.” She shook her head. “You’re stayin’ right here.”
“No,” I said, growing agitated. “Mama, let me go.”
“Luellen, listen to me!” Mama said, growing impatient as well. I tried to get out of her grasp but she tugged on my arms, holding me tighter. “Just listen!”
“Let go of me! No!” I screamed, my words overlapping hers.
I threw the plates to the ground. They crashed, breaking on the linoleum floor. I yanked myself out of Mama’s grasp and got down on my knees, starting to gather up the remnants of the plates. I felt my head start to swirl, and my throat close up. My hands became sweaty and tremored as I hovered over the pieces struggling to keep a steady grasp on them. The feeling of tears came to my eyes, making me blink at them furiously. The beating inside of my heart thumped wildly, and I chucked the pieces of the plates down to the ground in defeat. I slumped against the cupboard and buried my face in my hands and sobbed, curling my knees underneath me, desperately trying to make myself as small as possible. I let out horrid and guttural cries as my mama quickly fell onto her knees and pulled me towards her, holding me in her arms.
“Baby!” Mama cried as she rocked me back and forth. I could barely make words. All that came out of my mouth were moans and wails that eventually escalated into tormented hysteria.
“Tessie!” I finally screamed out. “Oh, God!”
“Oh, Luellen!” Mama stroked my hair, holding on to me tighter.
“It’s my fault!” I shrieked.
“No, no!” Mama tried to soothe. “No, it’s not! Don’t you think that!”
“I knew—” I cried through deep, desperate gulps of breath.
“You knew what, baby?” Mama cried.
I shook like a leaf, opening my mouth to say the next few words that came out of me a like a siren.
“I knew about Tessie! I knew what was happening to her!” Mama held onto me tighter, and I wrapped my arms around her waist. I couldn’t see her expression. I didn’t want to, so I buried my face into her chest. “She made me swear not to tell anyone. I shouldn’t have listened to her! I should’ve told someone! I shouldn’t have taken her out at night! I should’ve just said something! But I didn’t! I didn’t say anything! I didn’t say anything!” The words poured out of me like water out of a faucet. I gripped onto my Mama’s dress tightly and wailed into her chest. She sat there, holding on to me as I curled my body into hers, the fragments of the plates scattered around us.
Mama had managed to move me from the floor to the kitchen table. She sat with me after cleaning the broken plates off the floor.
I sat smoking a cigarette with shaky hands, completely ignoring the glass of water Mama had placed in front of me. Mama was patiently silent as I sucked on the tip of my cigarette and blew the smoke out.
“Luellen,” Mama finally said, her voice soft and comforting. “How long did you know about…” she trailed off, trying to get the words out.
“Since the first time he did it to her,” I said, my voice now completely hoarse. “She told me when we were at the bay one afternoon. We were sitting on the edge of the dock, kickin’ our feet, eating ice cream. We were seven. She didn’t understand why he did it to her. She thought maybe it was a one-time thing, but he just kept comin’ back into her room late at night.” My eyes filled with tears again, and I let them fall. “He forced her to stay silent about it. Whenever she would talk to her mama or daddy, he’d be there, peerin’ at her to make sure she didn’t say anything.”
“And what about when she told you? What did you say?”
I shrugged. “I didn’t understand it as much as she did. When she told me it hurt her, I was going to say somethin’. I was gonna go tell one of her parents, but she made me promise not to. She was really scared of him. I could see it in her eyes. I thought if I told, he was going to hurt her really bad. So, I kept my mouth shut. When she started becoming afraid of going home and going to bed, I told her we could go to the bay at night. He wouldn’t say anything about Tessie being gone, because that would give her parents a reason to ask why he was in her room in the first place. I just thought I was helping her. I just wanted to keep her safe.” I sniffled and wiped at my eyes. “That night when she drowned was no different from any other night, except that it was cold. It was strangely cold for a July night, but we didn’t let it stop us. We just ran towards the dock like we always did. It was dark, and I couldn’t see a thing. Tessie ran ahead of me. I could hear her laughin’ and shriekin’. She was happy as ever. But then, I heard her scream. I heard her scream and I ran towards the edge of the dock, but when I got there, she was gone. It’s like she had just disappeared into the air. I couldn’t see her beneath the surface of the water. She was just gone.” I started crying again. Mama held my hand in hers and squeezed it.
“I’m sorry you had to carry that for so long,” she said, her voice thick. “You can’t blame yourself, though. You were just a child! You were only doin’ what you thought was right at the time. You just wanted to protect your best friend. But what happened at the bay wasn’t your fault either. You never could’ve known that was going to happen. I know you’re haunted by the last twenty years but—Lu—you have to forgive yourself.”
I shook my head tearfully. “I can’t,” I whispered. “I can’t.”
“You have to,” she said. “It’s the only way you can truly heal.”
I shook my head again and sniffled, taking my eyes off my mama.
“You should come to Tessie’s memorial tomorrow,” she said.
My head snapped back towards her. I shook my head again, this time vehemently.
“No,” I said. “No, Mama. Nobody wants me there. I’m not welcome. I don’t deserve—”
“Yes, you do,” Mama said firmly. “You deserve to be there. You deserve to honor Tessie.”
“No, I don’t! Nobody wants to see me! I don’t deserve to be forgiven.”
“Luellen Mae Temperance,” Mama scolded. “Don’t you dare say you don’t deserve to be forgiven. You’re lucky you’re a grown woman, because if I heard you say that as a child, I would’ve taken you over my knee and whopped you another one. Don’t your ever say that again. You need to go to that church tomorrow so you can heal.” Mama shot at me as I shook my head desperately over and over. “Yes, young lady, you need to go. You need to sit in that church—I don’t care if it’s in the back—you need to sit there next to me and Alden and his mama, and honor Tessie’s life.”
“Mama, please.” I begged tearfully. “Please don’t make me go.”
Mama got up from the table. She walked over and took my face in her hands and kissed me on the forehead.
“Make the right decision,” she said. “I’m going to go to the market and pick us up somethin’ to make for dinner. Make the right decision. I know you know what it is.”
Mama let go of my face and walked out the door, leaving me sitting at the table all by myself.
I was still sitting at the table when someone knocked on the kitchen door, startling me, and causing me to jump and drop a freshly lit cigarette into my lap.
“Shit,” I said under my breath, brushing the ashes off my dress. “Who is it?”
The door opened and Alden walked in, his white apron still on from work.
“Oh, Jesus,” I said exasperated.
“No, just me,” Alden said sheepishly.
“Jesus, did Mama tell you to come over here?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Alden said, closing the door behind him and walking over to me. “She told me you’re refusing to come to Tessie’s memorial tomorrow. What the heck’s gotten into you anyway? This isn’t you.”
“You’re right,” I said, looking up at him and nodding. “It’s not me. I haven’t been me for twenty years. And guess what? I’m not ever goin’ to be, so get used to it” I ground my cigarette aggressively onto a napkin and got up from my chair. “In fact, you don’t have to, because I’m leavin’.”
“Lu!” Alden called out, as I picked up my suitcase and walked out the kitchen door. He ran after me.
“Tell my mama I said goodbye,” I said over my shoulder.
“Lu, wait!” he called as I got closer to my car. “Stop, dammit!” He grabbed onto my arm and pulled me towards him.
“Let go of me!” I demanded, trying to get out of his grasp.
“No. What is wrong with you? You come home after so many years being gone, so close to the anniversary of Tessie’s death, and then you just leave?”
“That’s what it looks like,” I said, trying to get away, but he pulled me back towards him again.
“God damn. When did you become so selfish? If you really cared about Tessie, you wouldn’t be acting this way. You don’t even give a shit about her memory, do you?”
I looked at him, my eyes locked down on his. I chucked my suitcase to the ground and snatched my arm out of his grip. I slammed my hands against his chest, making him stumble backward a little.
“Don’t you ever say that again!” I screeched through gritted teeth as I slammed my hands against his body repeatedly. “You don’t know! You have no goddamned idea!” I pounded my fists against his shoulders, as he tried to hold my wrists together in an attempt to restrain me. “You weren’t the one who tried to keep her away from that bastard!”
“Wait, what?” Alden exclaimed. “What do you mean?” He gripped me by the elbows, and shook me lightly to make me come to my senses. “Lu, what are you talking about?”
“I knew what her uncle was doing to her!” I yelled, tears pouring out of my eyes once again. “I knew about it, and I didn’t say anything. I would take her out to Hangman’s Bay at night just to get her away from him! But that one night, she fell off the dock and drowned. She drowned because of me. Because I couldn’t just say anything!”
I buried my head into his chest and cried. I felt his hand come to my head, and his arm wrap around my body, holding me closer. I couldn’t help but weep into him. I had cried so much since I got here, and now, I don’t think I would ever stop. I stopped trying to hold everything in. I stopped trying to keep everything hidden in the most bottom part of me.
“Hey,” Alden said softly, stroking my hair. “Lu, come on. It’s alright.”
“No, it’s not. It’s all my fault,” I said, my voice muffled.
Alden gently lifted my chin, forcing me to look at him the eyes. He brushed tears away from my face.
“It’s not.” He shook his head. “I never blamed you for what happened. I still don’t. I never will. I bet that in those moments with you, Tessie felt safer than she ever had in her life, because you vowed to keep her safe.”
“But I didn’t keep her safe,” I said. “She died because of me.”
“No, that just happened. It was a horrible accident.”
I leaned my head against his chest, my tears finally subsiding.
“I’ll never let go of what happened,” I said.
“I know,” Alden said, rubbing my back. “But you can come to the memorial tomorrow, and remember all the good times you had with her. I know you’ll never forget what happened that night. But tomorrow isn’t about how she died, it’s about how she lived. You were closer to her than anyone. You knew her better than you knew yourself.”
“I can’t.” I shook my head. “I can’t go with all those people lookin’ at me like I’m a monster.”
“To hell with those people,” Alden said. “If you show up, you’ll be shovin’ all the hate and bitterness they threw at you in their faces. If you don’t show up, then you’re just letting them win. So, it’s up to you. Are you gonna give those people the satisfaction of carryin’ on with all their hate? Or are you gonna give ‘em the old middle finger by showing up and being there for Tessie’s memory?”
I didn’t answer. I just laid my head against his chest, listening to his heart beating as I tried to decide once and for all: was I truly ready to face these people and just maybe forgive myself for all the guilt I’ve been holding on to for the past twenty years?
People piled into the church house one by one. I stood behind a tree watching as everyone went in. I didn’t want anyone to see me. Mama didn’t even know I was still here. Alden had let me stay at his place, so I could figure out what I was going to do. We stayed up and talked until well after midnight. I had left Mama a note, apologizing and saying I had gone back to Atlanta, that everything was just too hard to confront again. Before Alden left for the memorial, I still had cold feet. He told me to remember what we had talked about yesterday, and that he really hoped I showed up.
I waited a few minutes until his truck was completely out of sight. Then, I got dressed in the eggshell colored dress Mama had bought me, put half my hair up in my clip, and drove my car to the church house, parking a few blocks down. I froze when I saw Mrs. Sinclair—and her husband—who I was shocked to discover had lost a frightening amount of weight since I last saw him fourteen years ago. This made my heart ache terribly. I watched as Mrs. Sinclair guided him into the church house, and sit in the front pew.
Once everyone was inside, I pried myself from the tree, walking so slowly over, I was afraid my pounding heartbeat would give away my presence. I stood at the door—which Reverend Hammel kept wide open during the summer months—and watched as he recited a short prayer. Mrs. Sinclair went up to the stand and gave a tear-filled speech about Tessie. I had to bite down on my fist to prevent myself from crying too loudly, still not wanting anyone to know I was there. When she finished, everyone sang a song.
“Would anyone else like to say anything before we continue?” Reverend Hammel said, looking out at everyone. After a few beats of silence, Reverend Hammel cleared his throat. “Alright—”
“Excuse me,” my voice called from the back of the church. Everyone turned around and faced me. My mama looked like she was about to fall out of her seat. Alden and his mama, who sat next to her, smiled lightly at me. The other faces, however, were set in mixtures of confusion and anger. “I’d like to say somethin’,” I finally said after a moment.
I slowly stepped into the church house and began walking forward, looking straight ahead as people screwed their faces in disgust and whispered about me.
“What’s she doin’ here?” a few people muttered.
“The nerve of her showin’ up like this,” a few others jeered.
When I got to the front, Mrs. Sinclair charged out of her seat and grabbed me by the wrist, twisting it. Her eyes and the tip of her nose were red, and her hand felt ice cold on my skin.
“What do you think you’re doin’?” she hissed at me in a hushed voice. “Get out of here. I thought I made it clear to you that you’re not welcome.”
“Mrs. Sinclair,” I whispered back, “I just want to say somethin’ about Tessie. Then I’ll leave, I promise.”
“Absolutely not,” she said, desperately trying not to make a scene in church. “You are not welcome here. I am not goin’ to allow you to disgrace the memory of my daughter.”
I looked at her, my eyes full of pleading and grief.
“Please, just let me do this,” I whispered before taking my wrist from her hand and walking up to the stand.
She stood there, her mouth hanging open, and her body ready for a fight. Mr. Sinclair gently took her by the shoulders and forced her to sit down. She quaked in her seat, her mouth trembling as she looked back at me with pure hatred.
I swallowed deeply, and looked out at everyone before me. All of their eyes were on mine, waiting for me to talk. Some people shook their head in disdain, others looked genuinely curious at what I was going to say. I cleared my throat and began to speak.
“Umm, I know that a lot of you don’t want to hear me talk. I know that y’all don’t even want to see my face but…I just—I just wanted to say some things…about Tessie,” I stammered out. I lowered my head for a second, taking deep, shuddering breaths before looking back up. A lump formed in my throat, and I could feel my eyes start to water.
“Tessie and I did everything together. We would run around town, eating chocolate coins from Picker’s Candy Shop until we were sick. We’d eat my mama’s cornbread on the porch, trying to see who could eat theirs the fastest, we would go to the bay—” my voice caught on the last words, but I cleared my throat and continued, “we would go to the bay, and eat ice cream on the dock, enjoying the coldness on our tongues as the hot sun beamed down on us. We would go treasure huntin’ in the sand.” A pensive smile crossed my lips as all the warm memories came flooding back to me. “We did everything. And, even though we were just kids, we talked about everything as well. School, boys, even what we wanted to be when we grew up. Tessie always wanted to be a teacher. She always loved playin’ with the little kids in town. She would always drop whatever it was she was doin’ to play a game of hide and seek or jump rope with them. Tessie was…the sweetest person ever. She was my best friend,” I broke off, starting to cry. “Sorry,” I said, shaking my head. I took my eyes off everyone for a moment, trying to collect myself. When I looked back up, my vision was blurry, and I could barely make out who was who anymore. However, I sniffed deeply and continued through my tears.
“She was my best friend,” I said again. “Not a day goes by where I don’t think about her. I miss her so much. I will always remember Tessie. I will always think of her. And…” I paused for a second, my face starting to crumple as I breathed out the next words, “I’ll always love her.”
The silence that followed in the church was deafening. Not a whisper, or a rustle in a pew could be heard. After saying what I had come to say, I cast my eyes down and walked down the aisle, not wanting to look at anyone—especially Mrs. Sinclair. I walked straight ahead, stopping for a moment at the pew where my mama, Alden, and his mama sat. I glanced up at them, and my mama stood up, took my wet face in her hands, and hugged me. I wrapped my arms around her tightly, crying silently into her neck, then I let go, and brushed my fingers across her own wet cheeks.
“Thank you, Mama,” I whispered.
Mama nodded in acknowledgement, unable to say the words, but the look on her face spoke for itself. I gave her cheek one last brush with my thumb before walking out of the church.
I let my feet dangle above the water as I sat on the edge of the dock at Hangman’s Bay, kicking my feet back and forth like I used to do when I was a kid. The soft wind blew my hair back, and the sound of the water lapping against the dock brought a peacefulness to me that I thought I would never feel again.
After speaking at Tessie’s memorial, I fought with myself on whether I should come back here, as my last visit was just too much for me to bear. When I came to the conclusion that not returning would be hypocritical after vowing to always remember Tessie, I went back. This time, as I walked onto the dock and looked out at the endless blue in front of me, I closed my eyes and sent Tessie a silent message. I told her how I hoped she heard my words in the church, and that although I would give anything to have her back, I would always cherish the memories we had together. When I opened my eyes, I swear I felt a tickle on the back of my neck. I allowed myself to sit on the dock, and take in this place for the first time all over again.
As I sat, listening to the wind, a pair of footsteps sounded behind me.
“Lu?” Alden’s voice said.
I turned around to face him and stood up. I walked over to him.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Alright,” I said. “It still hurts. I mean, it always will, but I don’t feel haunted anymore. I think speaking at Tessie’s memorial really helped. Even though I know I was the last person all those folks wanted to see—I’m glad you and my mama brought me to my right senses again. I was plagued with the worst possible feelings I could ever think about myself for the longest time. I let them make me believe that I was a monster. That I was undeserving of forgiveness or anything good. I was too stubborn and caught up in my own self-loathing to think otherwise.”
“You are stubborn as hell,” Alden said lightheartedly, causing both of us to let out a chuckle.
I chewed on my lip, nervous to ask the question that was prying on my mind.
“Did anyone—did anyone say anything? After I left?” I asked slowly.
Alden paused for a second. “Well, what do you want to hear?” he asked.
“Oh God, Alden. Don’t do that to me. Just tell me,” I said, bracing myself for the worst.
“Well,” he rubbed the back of his neck. “Mrs. Sinclair is still a little rattled. Although, not as much as she was when you showed up. Some people are still angry though. But others are startin’ to think differently. I think you really got to some people with your words about Tessie. It was kind of silent for a while. Nobody knew what to do or say.”
I let out a sigh. “I just said what I’ve wanted to for the past twenty years.”
“And they heard it. Look Lu, some of these people are as stubborn as a mule. They’re not gonna come around overnight. Hell, it may take another twenty years. All that matters is that you’ve forgiven yourself. Tessie wouldn’t want you to torture yourself this way.”
“I know she wouldn’t,” I said softly. I brushed my long bangs away from my face. “So, how did you know I was here?”
“I just knew,” he said. “I told your mama I would check here to make sure you hadn’t gone back to Atlanta.”
I looked away for a minute, knowing very well that my suitcase was in my car all ready to head back to the city.
“Are you?” he asked, becoming serious.
“I don’t know,” I said shaking my head. “I mean I did what I came here for. My life is in Atlanta now.”
“Well, if you do go back, don’t wait another fourteen years to return.”
I grinned. “I won’t.” I shook my head.
“But I hope you do consider stayin’. Even if it’s just a little longer,” he said, his voice full of wistfulness.
“I think I can arrange that.” I smiled at him.
He stood beside me, and put his arm around me. I rested my head on his shoulder as we looked out at the bay, the smell of the clean air and salt water tickling my nose. I let out a placid smile.
“Do you think she can see us?” I asked.
Alden rubbed my shoulder, his hand warm on my skin. He let out a dreamy sigh.
“I think she can,” he said. “And you know what? I think she’s smilin’. Smilin’ at us with that big, dimpled grin of hers.”
I felt my eyes well up for a minute. But then I smiled myself knowing that Tessie was up there looking down on us as the sun-kissed bay glistened ahead, and the sound of her laughter floated into the air and up to the clouds.