Kelly Ann passed me the RC Cola and I took a big swallow, a chug as she called it.
I think she knew that word because of her Dad, who was a drunk.
I was nine and not quite sure what a drunk was. But Mom knew, and that’s what she called Rob Jenson, Kelly Ann’s Dad. The drunk’s been on a bender again, she’d say, shaking her head, coffee cup pressed to her lips, her eyes following Rob’s green Dodge Dart down the long dirt lane of our neighborhood. Hitting all the potholes, the car bobbed up and down like a boat. He’d turn onto Gravel Pit Road with a squeal, kick up a shimmering halo of gravel dust he’d disappear into. Mom would lower her cup, eyes somewhere else, like in a dream. “One of these days…”
She said that a lot about Rob Jenson. She never finished the sentence.
“Ooh, Meadow! Good chug,” Kelly Ann said, then laughed, throwing her fist in the air when I burped loud, long, and hot, right in her face. She’d taught me to do that, and she reveled in the pay off. I felt the same when, after days of practice, Kelly Ann finally read a chapter from Ramona the Pest without throwing the book against the wall, cussing and stomping out of our trailer.
Mom watched me teach Kelly Ann at the kitchen table, a small smile on her lips. “Meadow, I marvel at your patience. Kelly Ann has a hard time learning. She needs a good influence like you in her life. I have empathy for her.” That’s how I learned the word empathy.
What Mom didn’t know was, Kelly Ann taught me things, too.
In the old outhouse, next door to her trailer, on the other side of Goblin Forest – what we’d named the stand of pines, their claw-fingered silhouettes at night, scritch-scratching at, scarring up the face, of the moon.
We didn’t even know who owned that outhouse, the blue and yellow paint peeling away. Kelly Ann had christened it Schoolhouse. The first day of lessons, we’d crammed into the stuffy, putrid, pee-smelling darkness, sat atop the old rusty toilet seats alongside each other on a rotted wood bench. In the corner, a fat Sears Roebuck catalog curled into itself, yellowed and crisp. “Lesson one. You know what that’s for?” Kelly Ann had pointed at the catalog, leering.
“To read,” I’d said. Dad read books in the bathroom. Mostly the Watchtower. He even took a highlighter, studying every chance he got. He was a Ministerial Servant in our congregation, which meant stacking chairs after meeting and making sure the microphone worked before the Sunday talk. But he was on his way to becoming an Elder.
“Not to read, you dummy!” Kelly Ann had crowed, sneering in my face. She didn’t play the sweet school teacher. And she definitely wasn’t patient, or polite. “To wipe your nasty poop smeared assssss!” She’d leaned in so close, we’d nearly kissed. She’d stopped just short, hissing the bad word into my lips. Kelly Ann liked to show off what she knew, and most of what she knew, was forbidden to me. That’s what Schoolhouse was really about, I suspected, the thrill of making the Jehovah’s Witness girl next door gasp, recoil, which is exactly what I did. “Get away!” shoving her in the chest, her obnoxious laugh ringing in my ears. Kelly Ann embodied everything the Elders warned us about. Bad association, the kind that spoiled you, the way a little bit of mold ruined good bread, so the whole loaf had to be tossed. I couldn’t say I didn’t like it, the spoiling. The way she gave my blood a good old shock, set my heart galloping with a wilder kind of energy than a game of kickball.
Kelly Ann has her own kind of smarts, I sometimes, slyly, told Mom. She thought I was leading Kelly Ann to Jehovah, and one day, she liked to imagine, we’d be baptized together.
I handed back the can of RC, growing warm. “Chug a lug a lug!” I threw my arms in the air, shimmying atop the rusted out toilet seat, scratching up the back of my thighs.
Lesson Six. My first taste ever. Soda pop wasn’t allowed in my house.
Kelly Ann tossed her amply feathered red hair back and downed the rest with exuberant wet gulps and slurps. She lowered her head, crumpling the can in her fist. In the dark, her eyes shone, then her teeth, as her lips spread in a slow grin. Then buuurrrppp. She let it rip. The outhouse shuddered, I swear it did, and my jaw dropped.
“I win,” she said. She swished her hands together and jumped to her feet, shouldering the door ajar. She set her two balled hands on her hips, a heroic silhouette, hair flowing behind her like a cape. Standing that way on purpose to rub it in. Her need for victory set my teeth on edge.
I stood, shorts sticking to my thighs, and followed her out. She jammed the door closed and the rotted wood splintered, fell apart at the bottom. I could still see, etched in the door, where Kelly Ann had tried to carve Schoolhouse with a rusty nail, but she couldn’t spell it. Skuul was still there, crossed out in vicious X’s. I hadn’t said anything or tried to fix it or laughed. I’d pretended not to see. Now I fought the temptation to point it out, put her in her place.
Kelly Ann stood back and gestured to the cut out of a moon in the door. “Lesson seven. You know what that moon means?”
I did. “It means butt!”
She curled her face into a freckled sneer. “Butt? Are you two-years-old?”
“Asssssss,” I said, hissing it, the way she had. I got my reward.
Kelly Ann’s eyes popped. She stepped back. “You cussed!” She looked me up and down, lit up with shock, and a pride she couldn’t contain. But my pleasure was fleeting. A strong wind kicked up, blowing my hair back fierce, and I flinched, eyeing the sky, the dark tumble of clouds rolling in over the woods.
The most recent Watchtower featured an illustration I couldn’t shake. One of Jehovah’s angels riding a war steed out of heaven, poised to take vengeance on unbelievers and the wicked. The sky looked the same way as in that picture, great rolling mansions of cloud, beautiful, terrible, eerie, flashing with light and storm. That angel – he tore through those clouds on his horse, straight down to earth, lips wrenched away from his teeth. In his hand, the longest, sharpest spear I’d ever seen. And it was on fire.
I looked for that angel now, war stallion galloping, that flaming spear, driving straight toward my gut, roiling with soda. I pictured Sister Jenkins. She arrived to meetings after the opening prayer, and sat by herself in the very back row. No one turned to look at her. The one time I had, mom had grabbed my arm, hissed, “Do not look.” She’d jerked me around, forced me to sit straight. Sister Jenkins left meetings before the final prayer, as instructed by the Elders. She could sit and listen to the talk, but she was not allowed to be part of the congregation’s prayers. She was disfellowshipped. Once, she’d been an Elder’s wife, respected and loved. Now, she was no better than dead. It was sin, mom said, done in secret. But Jehovah could see through every locked door.
I forgot, every time, that swiftly following the sheer pleasure of Schoolhouse, was this agony of fear, and remorse.
Kelly Ann tilted her chin up. She said, “Good cuss. But you’re still wrong, little miss smarty who’s-it. The moon means womanhood. Babies.” Then, into my ear, “Sex.”
I reeled, made a gagging sound. “No, it doesn’t! You’re making that up!”
She tugged her denim cut offs out of her butt, one short, sharp jerk. “Am not. Mom told me so. My Mom’s not a religious prude. She talks to me about everything. Grown up stuff.” She even wagged her head. I hated it most when she compared our mothers. Hated her. I wanted to knock her block clean off.
Instead, I pointed at her face, laughed out loud. “You have an RC Cola mustache.”
She stuck her tongue out. “So do you!”
My hands flew to my face. “I can’t! Mom’ll never let me play with you again.”
She took me by the hand and pulled. We ran together, shrieking as we always did, straight through the Goblin Forest, the dark, the needles, the sharp pine scent, into the pure, blazing sun of her front yard.
Kelly Ann’s trailer was a long white single wide.
My family lived in a yellow double wide, and that made us richer.
We dashed past the row of sparkly stones Kelly Ann had collected in small piles, memorials to the stray cats she’d adopted, loved for a short time, then lost. Every time, she’d knock on our door, broken down sobbing into Mom’s arms, when one of her babies ran off. Those cats, I tried to tell her, weren’t meant to be tamed, could never be tamed. Didn’t matter. Never stopped her from trying. Those cats were the only thing I ever saw her cry over.
We scampered to the water hose, laying loose and curvy, like a slap dash snake, on the patch of concrete where Kelly Ann and her brother, Pat, duked it out in some unruly version of basketball. The game almost always disintegrated into Pat holding the ball over Kelly Ann’s head, dodging and taunting her until she screamed and they fell to the ground, punching and pulling hair. I could hear every profanity, loud and clear, in my own room across the dirt lane. Sometimes Rob Jenson burst out and put a stop to the squall, turning the water hose on both of them. He screamed and cursed louder than the two of them put together. And oh, I learned what a father could say to his kids.
We washed off outside because I wasn’t allowed inside Kelly Ann’s trailer, ever, not even to use the bathroom. When she asked why, I told her it was because of the junk food, the bologna and Kraft cheese, the Wonder bread, the cupboards filled with Nutter Butters and Doritos. “Are you telling me your religion won’t even let you eat Doritos?” She’d bugged her eyes. “Can’t have birthdays. Can’t have Christmas. Can’t have soda pop or eat Doritos. Why, I’d punch that God of yours right in the face if I was you!”
I let her think that. The truth was, Mom didn’t want me in their trailer because she thought Rob Jensen would do something to me. What exactly, I couldn’t quite tell. But Mom told me, if I needed to go, I should come home and use the bathroom, no matter what. And boy, was her face serious.
We drank from the hose, warm water and rust in our mouths, let it pour right over our heads, shook our wet hair from side to side, squealed, water on our feet, dancing and prancing, leaving wet footprints on the concrete. Our own little party. Who needed birthdays? We dropped the hose and Kelly Ann walked me up to the dirt lane. I had to get back, change into my lacy pink dress and Mary Jane shoes for Kingdom Hall.
“Meadow!” Kelly Ann squatted. “I found one!” Pinched between her fingers, she held up a blackened shape, withered, shrunk, and hunched. It looked like a crumpled up garbage bag. We found these strange shapes everywhere. We played with them, pretending they were dead goblins from the Goblin forest. Aliens, burned up in a UFO crash. Demon souls, vomited up from the guts of hell. Kelly Ann came up with that one. I corrected her, told her no, the Bible didn’t preach hellfire. Hell was a lie, I said, spewed from the painted lips of that old harlot, Christendom. Now Kelly Ann cried, “A buffalo!” That’s what we called them ever since I told her they looked like the baby buffalo on my family’s trips to Wind Cave National Park, only shrunk, and hairless. Kelly Ann’s family never went on trips, so that was something I had over her, and ooh, did it make her jealous.
A few weeks later, I’d think of this moment with her. After the wreck that incinerated every last hair off Rob Jensen’s head, and melted his face, so he looked pink and terrible as a baby bird, with two holes where his nose should be.
Rob spun out one night, coming home from a bar, on a wooden bridge over a ditch. He was passed out cold, dead drunk, when the car went up in flames. Mitch Mueller ran out from his barn, where he’d been repairing one of his tractors. He pulled Rob from the flames, got burned bad, too.
Something about that story. When Mom told me the morning after the accident. Watch over Kelly Ann at school today, she said, handing me my lunch. Make sure no one says anything, or laughs. I know what it’s like, her bottom lip quivering, being the town drunk’s kid.
I don’t know what, as mom tightened up my backpack straps, brought the shapes to mind. I described them to her. Blackened, I said. Small, flaky. The shape of creatures. A mystery.
I told her how Kelly Ann and I played with them, like dolls.
Mom had stepped back, holding herself, looking sick.
Come to find out.
They weren’t goblins, or aliens.
They weren’t demons, or baby buffalo.
Rob Jensen, Mom told me, did something bad.
Secret, he thought. But the neighbors knew.
At night, drinking in the backyard, in front of the bonfire he’d made, he’d relive his best days. He’d reel back like the star baseball player he was in high school, and pitch them, wriggling and shrieking, right smack into the bonfire.
Not sure how they ended up scattered all over the place.
Kelly Ann’s strays.
Maybe the wind, rushing through the cornfields, lifting them from the ashes.
I recalled the way Kelly Ann had grinned up at me, squinting through strands of hose-soaked hair, water dripping past freckles bright and stark as she waved her trophy, in front of my face. “I’ve found five buffalo, and you’ve only found two!” Throwing a fist in the air, she’d tilted her head back, unleashing a whoop so loud, all the warrior angels in the clouds could surely hear.
About the Author
Summer Hammond grew up in rural Iowa, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She earned her MFA in Fiction from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Broad River Review, Texas Review, and StoryQuarterly. Summer and her husband, Aly, currently live in Wilmington by the sea.