My boom box teetered on the limestone boulder next to the pigpen. Cousin Libby put it there, unconcerned by my catch of breath when metal scraped rock. The boombox, my only birthday present when I turned thirteen last week, was now scarred by scratches.
“Why didn’t you put it on the grass?” I asked before I saw the puddle beside the boulder, a spray of rust-colored dots on the dirt.
“So that’s what all that ruckus was about.” Libby skimmed her pinky over the surface of the puddle, then tried to trace a heart on the faded wooden plank of the pigpen. But she only had enough on her pinky to draw a backwards question mark.
From the other side of the pond, a holler, a girl waving with one hand, shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun with the other. A boy slouched in her shadow. Libby waved back. She hit play on the boom box. A howl escaped from the speakers, so different from my Michael Jackson tapes that I worried the scratchy voice would infect Michael’s smooth croon. Libby’s cassette case had an electrified man on it, his hands were wire tentacles. She hated Michael Jackson. In her room, she had ripped my tape from the deck and tossed it onto her bed.
“He’s a wuss,” she sneered. “And he’s—” She stopped herself, narrowing her brown eyes. “Never mind.”
The pigpen sat next to a pond on the farm neighboring my grandma’s property. “Not much of a farm,” my mom corrected when I called it that. I never saw the people who lived on the not-farm, wondered if they watched us feed scraps to their pigs and skip stones in their pond. My grandma’s land was twenty acres of forest, slashed with an apple orchard, and her house nestled in a clearing that reminded me of a shaved spot on a dog. The girl across the pond yelped, pumped her fist in salute before she and the boy in her shadow sauntered around the pond. The girl was lean and tall, the opposite of Libby who spilled in rolls out of her faded jeans and flowered peasant blouse. The girl’s blonde hair fell in a Dorothy Hamill curtain over her ears while Libby pulled her scraggly brown hair into a ponytail, which left a halo of frizz around her face.
“Why’d you bring her?” The girl asked.
“Had to. She’d rat me out. Delle would kill me.”
Libby called her grandmother, our grandmother, Delle. She had lived with Delle full-time since I could remember. I used to think Delle was Libby’s mom until Libby corrected me.
“Duh. She’s my grandmother, just like you,” she had said.
More evidence to add to Libby’s stockpile that I was hopeless, dumb, more naïve than our three-year separation in age would indicate.
I asked my mom why Libby and my uncle lived with my grandma in her cigarette smoke-choked one-story house. My mom’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Her mom’s sick. She doesn’t live here anymore. You don’t mention it to Libby, you hear?” When we visited Delle, my mom sprouted a southern accent, peppered with “I reckon so” and “Ain’t that something.” When returned home to our cookie cutter suburban bi-level, Mom’s accent flaked away like Delle’s red lipstick. The smell of Delle’s smoke clung to me for days, souring on my t-shirts and jeans until my mom jammed my clothes into her hamper and erased the evidence with Downy.
This weekend Mom had dropped me and my new boom box at Delle’s, chirping about a “romantic getaway” while my dad slumped against our minivan parked in the gravel driveway, his hands buried in the pockets of his khaki pants.
As soon as my parent’s car turned back down the gravel driveway, Libby squirreled me away to her room and made me play Ouija Board. Our fingers grazing the plastic planchette, she asked, “When will Heather get kissed?”
When will Heather get felt up? When will Heather get fingered?
Heat crawled up my neck. The board wrinkled and swam under my gaze. I blinked hard. I didn’t want the weekend to start with Libby dismissing me as a crybaby. The piece of plastic flew around the board landing on “No” over and over again.
“You’re such a prude,” Libby said.
Her one question about herself: When will Libby get a car?
The board answered in gibberish, a string of letters and numbers, that made Libby toss it across the room in frustration. “Bunch of bullshit,” she said.
I thought of my Magic 8-Ball at home, how it had gotten stuck on the most unsatisfying answer: Better not tell you now. I opened my mouth to tell Libby, but she was already gone.
The first night at my grandma’s house, I woke up crying in the middle of the night, my mom’s name slipping from my lips. Libby reached across the aisle of worn pink carpet between the two parallel twin beds in her room and grabbed my hand from under the covers, holding it until I fell back asleep.
Libby was fifteen and wanted her driver’s license more than she wanted to kiss David Cassidy. His poster, half-faded from the beam of sun that came through the window by the bed where I slept, was the only decoration in her room. But the music crackling through the speakers at the pigpen didn’t match David Cassidy’s face or the swoop of hair winged back from his face. He was not the man with wire tentacle hands grimacing from the cassette case. Libby’s friend turned the knob on my boom box until the music distorted into blobs and punches. She pulled a skinny cigarette from her pocket and waved it seductively between them. They whispered to each other under the cover of the music.
“Git!” The friend shooed the boy in my direction.
“Jesus Christ,” the boy muttered. He pulled at a puff of my shirt sleeve. “Come on.”
The boy was about my age, maybe older, with shaggy brown hair and a solemn nose. He was a beanpole like his sister, all angles and bones draped with faded jeans and a striped tank top that sagged under his arms, revealing a tuft of hair.
Libby’s friend teased him, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
He yelled, “What don’t you do now, girl?” The blunt edge of his accent sparked in my stomach.
“Don’t do anything I gotta tell momma about,” she said, then whispered something to Libby.
Libby’s eyes glinted in the sun. “Heather ain’t gonna let anybody get up to any mischief.”
She sounded like Delle railing against Libby. Libby’s talent for finding mischief was the reason we weren’t allowed out of the house in the first place, why we had to find fun with the Ouija board and performing pretend concerts in front of the hall mirror.
This afternoon, after Libby found Delle snoozing in front of an episode of Hee Haw, she had grabbed my boom box and motioned to me from the door. We tiptoed out of the house then sauntered fake casually across the front yard until we broke into a run at the edge of the driveway, careening down the gravel road and gulping the suffocating summer heat into our lungs. Even though Libby had little use for me, I would follow her anywhere, even to the pigpen to meet the girl whose narrowed eyes let me know she wanted me there less than Libby.
I followed the boy around the side of the pigpen, my eyes finally peering over the top of the splintered wood to see mounds of dirt, the crusted trough where yesterday two speckled pigs had nuzzled slop. Today, instead of pigs, blood. Pools of blood, smears, and splatters on the sun-bleached planks of wood. Crusted spots of blood where it had already soaked into the dirt.
“You hear ‘em?” the boy asked. “They was loud at my house.”
This morning, when I nudged Libby awake after being woken by the shrieks coming through a crack in the window by my bed, the screams that sounded like women, she didn’t open her eyes. “Go back to bed. It’s nothing.” That ruckus.
“Yeah, I heard,” I told the boy, swallowing the sour taste in my mouth. “My grandma lives up the hill.”
The boy snorted. “I know where she lives. I know Delle.”
Did everyone call my grandma by the second syllable of her name but me?
The boy led me to the outside corner of the pen diagonal from Libby and her friend. The two of them were coughing, laughing, honking like the pigs when we had tossed them scraps the day before. A skunky smell floated towards the boy and me. We slid onto the ground beside each other, making sure to find a dry patch of grass where the blood spatters hadn’t reached. Two weeks before my birthday, my own blood had soaked my pants so thoroughly my mom tossed them in the garbage, a lost cause that even Downy couldn’t save. Like a stuck pig, my mom told my dad when she thought I couldn’t hear.
“What?” the boy asked.
We watched flies swarm a small hunk of flesh, an island in a pool of black blood, through the slats of wood.
I wondered if Delle had discovered Libby and me gone yet, had pushed up from her threadbare throne in front of the TV to look out the front window. If Libby’s dad, my uncle, was driving down the gravel road that connected Delle’s house with the pond, to bring us back. Last time he let us ride in the bed of his pickup truck. He accelerated over the bumps in the road so we hopped into the air, our stomachs filled with laughter.
The boy’s hand started to walk over the patch of grass between us, his fingers navigating the blades like a spider. They stopped by my knee. His eyes met mine. A fleck of gold glittered at the corner of his blue eye. The same thing sparked by his accent fluttered in my stomach. I stepped my fingers towards him, pausing at the curve of his calf. We stopped. A silent dare passed between us. We leaned towards each other, our gaze suddenly running away from each other, hiding in the carnage of the pigpen. He moved first, his hand crawling up my leg, fingerprints soft on the ripples of my thigh until he jammed into the v of my crotch, which was still sweaty from the run from my grandma’s house.
The boy rummaged around by the seam of my shorts. I opened my legs a little wider, wondering what I was supposed to be feeling as he poked at the swell of me underneath the canvas.
The boy started to breathe quickly. He grabbed for my hand and pulled it to his lap with such force, I almost fell onto him. A cry escaped my throat, but he didn’t notice. I hesitated at his hip, not sure what my hand was supposed to do once it reached the lump beneath his zipper. I had never been kissed, never been touched by a boy except under the spinning lights of the fall school dance when Kenney pulled me onto the gym floor and planted his hands on my hips for the last slow dance of the night. Girls pretended to bite back their laughter while they called, “It’s a dare, Heather. It’s a bet.”
This boy was no Kenney. He had no name. He was an orange and brown striped tank top, a nose, all the pieces that made a person but he became nothing but hands, fingers jabbing and pulling at me at the same time. I moved my hand away from the bulge in his pants, let it move up the rungs of his ribs, feel the tight muscles of his shoulder. I found the places on his body that made his touches start to melt into me. A tendon, a ridge of bone. He smelled of dirt and sour sweat. For a moment our breaths rose and fell in unison, even as our bodies contorted to accommodate our clumsy gropes.
I didn’t hear the crackle of tires on gravel. I didn’t hear footsteps. My uncle stood between us and the sun, a sudden eclipse.
“Girl, what are you doing?” He asked.
He didn’t wait for an answer. He grabbed me by the arm and yanked me to standing. Outside the far corner of the pigpen, Libby and her friend were bent over laughing, unfazed by my uncle’s red-faced presence. The music blared from the speakers.
“Turn that shit off!” My uncle yelled.
Libby slapped a hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter. Her friend glared at us, suddenly sober. The boy slumped beside my feet. He rolled onto his hands and knees and made a grunting noise that made me suddenly regret letting him touch me, letting him feel these new corners of my body.
My uncle marched around the perimeter of the pigpen, fists clenched. He glared at Libby and her friend as he swatted my boom box off the rock. It landed in a puddle of pig’s blood, still as noisy as before but now coated with blood.
“That’s not even mine,” Libby said, her fingers digging into her hips.
The drive back to Delle’s took a minute. The bench seat of my uncle’s truck stuck to the back of my legs. Even though there was plenty of room for the three of us, I felt squeezed between Libby and my uncle. I held the boom box, still spotted with a sticky film, on my lap. I wondered if it would leave stains, mementos marking my shorts. My fingers traced the scratches in the plastic from the rock.
In one ear, Libby whispered, “What did you do?”
On the other side, my uncle barked warnings. “Wait’ll Delle hears about this. Your momma’s gonna kill you.” The words whirled around me like objects picked up in a cyclone while I remained the steady center. My uncle didn’t seem to care about Libby, about the strange smoke that had encircled her and her friend.
“Delle thought she could trust you, Heather. Why did you go messing around with that boy?”
I knew they wouldn’t tell my mom anything. If they did, she would look at them in the way she had when she first arrived, the way that said she had left them behind and found a better life away from the country, away from them. A country mouse turned suburban mouse. My mom blinked it away quickly, but I always saw the edge of superiority in her eyes before she settled into our visits, and let her old accent find her mouth again.
That night Libby clicked off the light but we lay awake staring at the ceiling.
“That Ouija board don’t know shit,” Libby said.
I wasn’t ready to open the door to being the chummy cousins that seemed to exist for everyone but me. Before the pigpen I would have given her everything.
Outside the window, crickets chirred. A branch cracked in the forest where we weren’t allowed to play because of snakes. I could swear that the pigs cried in the distance, but it was probably another animal, still alive.
“What’s that boy’s name?” I asked.
“You don’t know?” She said.
“Curtis,” Libby said finally. “Dumbass Curt.”
I rolled his name around in my mouth, alternating Curtis and Curt. A strange relief that this feeling that had taken root in the pit of my stomach, that welled up like a sob before I could swallow it, had a name.