Shelby: Chapter One
Fiction: Young Adult
Ruth squinted to see the old mailbox at the end of the worn, weeded path that led from her home to the dirt road, an amber evening sun electrifying the glints of gold in her eyes. A storm was coming. Ruth stopped to admire the hide-and-seek game of mountain peaks and mist that played out over the landscape before her—a horizon that felt at once near and far away. She couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful. How long ago had it been that she actually believed it possible to walk on those clouds? As much as she’d outgrown her childish fantasies, she could still reconnect with the excitement of imagining she might one day reach the cottony mountaintop, find her prince, and live a charmed life far from the doldrums of her family’s tiny cabin in the woods. But as she was no longer a child, she rarely afforded herself the luxury of daydreaming about princes in far away, floating kingdoms. A flash of lightning warned that she’d better get on with her task, and quickly. If MeMa was right (which she most often was), this would be one of the worst storms of the year.
Ruth had not been allowed to retrieve the mail until her last birthday, when MeMa and Papa, with pride in their eyes, told her that they felt she was, at the age of twelve, mature enough to entrust with the responsibility. Up until then, it was a job reserved only for the adults. Fetching the mail was a high duty, as its daily delivery was the only connection the Smith family had with “the outside world” (as Mema liked to call it).
To Ruth’s surprise, the rusty mailbox opened with ease. It usually resisted, as if stubbornly withholding whatever secrets it contained. Ruth clutched the letters tightly in her arms and turned toward the house. The wind blew strongly that evening, knotting strands of her never-cut fine hair. On her nose, she felt the faint ping of a droplet of water. She knew she hadn’t long before it really started coming down.
The scent of Mema’s fried catfish wafted through the air, seeking out Ruth’s already grumbling stomach. Her mouth watered knowing she’d satiate her hunger soon. Mema always served supper at six o’clock sharp.
As she neared the wooden front porch, Ruth caught sight of the boys, crouching behind a bush next to the house. They were enthralled in something—perhaps a game, Ruth thought—and she approached cautiously, knowing full well that Rocky wouldn’t want to let her join in. “Hey, ya’ll know supper’s going to be ready soon! If Mema knew you two were getting dirtied up before eating, she’d make you both find switches. What’re you two doing anyway?”
Rocky scowled, his charcoal eyes burning right through her. “What‘re you going to do, tell on us? Buzz off or I’ll make you sorry.”
Jimmy eyed the ground, helpless to the situation. Ruth didn’t blame him. She knew he loved her and wanted to stick up for her. He couldn’t help but be small and weak—“runt,” Papa called him. As she looked him over, his knobby knees protruding disturbingly from legs that looked inadequate to hold up even his bird-like figure, her heart ached for him. She knew the family thought of him as the lesser of the two twins, but in her mind he had gotten all the heart, Rocky all the brawn. Heart, to her, was infinitely more important.
“No, I won’t tell if you show me what you’re doing, but hurry up. It’s going to rain,” she said, ever more curious as to what her cousins were up to. Rocky looked protectively from her, to Jimmy, then back to her. “Alright, but if you tell, you better start sleepin with your eyes open. Got it?” Ruth nodded, acknowledging that she understood. Rocky pushed some branches to the side, making room for her to sit on the dirt ground. Squeezing in next to Jimmy, in-between the leafy brush and the cobweb-lined house siding, she sat, knees to chest, being sure to protect the family’s mail.
“Well,” Rocky began in a low gruff voice, eyes squinting, “Today Jimmy and I were playin down by the road when the mail truck came by. I told Jimmy let’s hide behind a tree and throw rocks at the mailman, ya know, get a laugh.”
Ruth lowered her head to hide any distortion of disgust on her face.
“So, the truck pulls up next to the box and this old geezer starts tuggin on the handle, ya know how it gets stuck together, tryin to open it. Next thing he knew he was bein' stoned. Ha!”
Ruth adjusted her weight, hoping it would prompt Rocky to finish his story. He should have known she wouldn’t find any of it very funny. She was actually sickened by the thought of him making Jimmy participate in such an act. And how would that explain them hiding out beside the house?
Rocky sneered at Ruth, annoyed at her apparent impatience. “Anyway, the ol’ man squealed like a little girl gettin her cherry popped and dropped all the mail to the ground. He started to pick it up, but one more hit and he was off, fast as he could go. Ha! He didn’t even know what hit em.”
Ruth couldn’t help but feel sad for the mailman and confused by some of what Rocky had said. What did he mean, “gettin her cherry popped?” And how could he be so proud of this horrible story? She grabbed Jimmy’s arm to leave when Rocky pulled something out from behind him.
“I put everything back in the mailbox except for this.”
Ruth looked on, not sure what she was seeing. It was a magazine, but not the kind she liked to read. It took a few moments for it to sink in. She was staring at a picture of a naked girl, legs spread apart, empty eyes staring out, begging for attention. Ruth immediately blushed. “What . . . who’s is that?” she asked, horrified at what she had just seen.
“It’s your dear Papa’s. Betcha didn’t know he was such a pervert.” Rocky sneered with satisfaction. Just the sight of Ruth cringing was worth whatever punishment he had risked by stealing the magazine.
“Stop lyin Rocky,” Ruth said, her eyes wet with shame that she was somehow drawn to stare for longer at the girl on the cover. The ragged-looking thing could not have been much older than Ruth. “Papa would never look at somethin like that! He’s not a pervert!” Ruth knew that she had to be right, although she wasn’t sure she knew what a pervert was.
Rocky continued, oblivious to the hurt look in Ruth’s eyes. “It is too your pop’s. It came wrapped in paper with his name on it.”
Ruth’s heart dropped to her stomach. Rocky wasn’t lying after all. She had hand-delivered those paper-wrapped packages to her Papa for months, not ever guessing the sickening reality of what was inside. She was no longer able to hide her repulsion.
Rocky continued, fueled by the look on his cousin’s too-pretty face. “You’re such a goodie goodie . . . stupid girl. You think you’re better than us, all sweet and innocent, but one day someone’s going to show you. One day you’ll know you’re not any better than the rest of us!” Obviously content with what he had said, Rocky licked his lips and turned back to the open magazine, immediately entranced by the display of young nude girls letting men do unspeakable things to them.
Rocky’s words made Ruth shudder. Sometimes she sensed that he really meant the things he said to her . . . that he would someday take any chance he could get to “show” her. Why did he hate her so much?
Jimmy sat hunched in-between Ruth and Rocky, too afraid to look at anything but the sole of his sneaker, which he nervously pulled on, ripping it even farther away from the worn-out and holey upper. Ruth swallowed hard, trying to force down the lump in her throat. “Come on Jimmy. Mema’s going to be callin us for supper any minute. You don’t want to get caught out here with Rocky.” With that, she grabbed Jimmy’s clammy hand and pulled him up from behind the bush. He let out a sigh of relief. Ruth was just as relieved, for she knew that she had rescued him from whatever Rocky’s fate would be. Nothing ever got past her Papa.
“Dear Heavenly Father, please accept our gratitude for this night’s supper. Please, dear God, help make us worthy of the many blessings you have bestowed upon us. As we were created to be of your likeness, please guide our intentions to more resemble yours. Deliver us from our sins so that we may avoid eternal damnation, and so that we may spend all of eternity at your feet, Father, in the Heaven you lovingly created for us, your children. Amen.”
Ruth sat at the dinner table next to Papa in her unspoken, designated spot. As Papa said his usual pre-dinner blessing, she peeked through squinted eyes at the rest of the family. To her it was far more interesting to watch the others than it was to listen to Papa’s prayers, which usually scared her far more than they inspired. Ruth looked across the table at Jimmy, next to Peggy, his tiny hand in hers and his head hung low in humble anticipation of dinner. His slender figure commanded no notice; it had always seemed to Ruth that, if not for the love she felt for him, he would have faded into the background and been forgotten.
Rocky sat in the chair on Peggy’s left, next to Mema, his jaw clenched and eyes rolling. She could tell it was just killing him to hold his mama’s hand, and that he had not even bothered to wash up before coming to the table, as his fingernails housed a day’s worth of dirt. Ruth couldn’t help then but to feel sorry for him. Although older than her by two years, he seemed so lost, almost like a little child. As Papa’s prayer came to an end, Ruth mouthed her own, silent prayer, for Rocky.
Reba shook her hand loose of Ruth’s, signaling that Papa was finished and it was time to make her plate. Supper on Saturday nights was a feast: fried fish, southern-style creamed corn, black-eyed peas, rice, and fried cornbread. Although starving, Ruth waited patiently as Reba stretched her long, freckled arms across the table, greedily grabbing her choice of cornbread patties from the center platter. Reba then fixed her onyx eyes on the fish, picking at each piece in order to decide which she thought was best. Papa cleared his throat, resting his cold stare on her. She quickly got the message and settled on the filet closest to her.
Mumbled expressions of thanks . . . “good meal Mema” . . . “love the fish” . . . “supper’s delicious” . . . gave way to silence as the family consumed their meal as though they had not eaten for a week. By the time they had nearly cleaned their plates, the night’s storm had reached its full potential. The dim lighting of the small house flickered, the way a candle flickered when starved for oxygen, threatening to cease. Strong currents of wind slammed the kitchen’s flimsy screen-door open, then shut again, each time making Ruth jump in her seat.
Papa sipped down the last of his tea and sat back in his chair, loosening his belt as he always did after such a meal. Ruth, Reba and the boys licked their fingers, savoring every last morsel. They were not to have as hearty a meal until the next Saturday.
“Better get to clearin the table . . . won’t be much longer ‘fore we’ll have to light the candles,” Papa said in his usual, even tone, “paper said it’s going to be one of the worst storms of the summer.” With that, he rose from the table and headed to his bedroom to retire. Just as Ruth thought he might forget, he turned to her and asked, “Ruthie, where’s the mail? I didn’t see you bring it in.”
Ruth could feel the swell of anxiety in her stomach. “Sorry Papa, I was so hungry I left it in the kitchen before dinner.” She lifted her tiny hand and pointed toward the pile of correspondence, mostly junk mail. Instead of placing it in Papa’s lap as she usually did, she had left the envelopes on the kitchen counter, hoping to delay any punishment until after dinner. She couldn’t stand the thought of anyone having to miss a meal, even Rocky.
Papa eyed the countertop, clearly searching for the one thing that wasn’t there. “Where’s my package, Ruth?”
Ruth had never lied to Papa. Her head churned with the fear of what might happen and the secret disgust she felt for the look of panic on his face, which he tried to hide by placing his hand over his eyes, thumb and middle finger on his temples, circling round and round as if he had a headache.
Knowing full well that she would never be able to fool her father, she struggled to remain calm. “Papa . . . I . . .” Her lower lip began to tremble. In all her innocence, she was like an over-ripe peach, ready to burst at the slightest prod.
“Uncle Tom, it was me,” Jimmy mumbled in his small, timid voice, unable to bear seeing Ruth so uncomfortable. His eyes bravely found their way up Papa’s long legs, then to his waist, finally settling on his eyes, staying in place for what seemed like an eternity before retreating back to the floor.
Papa began to unclasp his belt. His eyes bulged, seemingly from the pressure that also made his normally pale face a blistering shade of crimson. “What was that, Runt? Speak up boy, I’m not sure I heard you right!”
Next to Jimmy, Papa looked like a monster, ready to destroy him with one swoop of his hand, or rather one thrashing of his belt. His dark features seemed almost inhuman, animated by an urgency and hate that Ruth not even dare try to understand.
Peggy stood in the kitchen watching her little boy, arm-in-arm with Mema, terror twisting her plain face. “Tom, don’t! He’s just a li’l boy, never done nothin to you!”
Papa whipped out his belt and redirected his harsh glare toward his sister. “Stay outta this Peggy! If you hadn’t run off with that lowlife, I wouldn’t have to be the one bringin yer boys up to be men! That’s what you get for bein a whore! Don’t you understand? They’ll have to suffer for your sins!” When he was angry, Papa’s voice grew deep and intimidating, wielding the power to send chills down Ruth’s spine. That night, its intensity was paralleled only by the thunder.
“I . . . said . . . it was me, Uncle Tom,” Jimmy stated more loudly this time, straining to sound brave, although his legs betrayed his guise, slightly shaking back and forth. “I took your . . . magazine.”
He never should have said that word. Upon hearing Jimmy’s confession, Papa’s face became a collage of rage and humiliation. Papa was a proud man who didn’t take well to being humiliated, especially in front of children. Thick, bluish veins arose out of his neck, seemingly ready to burst with each heartbeat. He lunged forward, his long, strong arms reaching for Jimmy’s shirt collar.
“NO PAPA!” Ruth screamed in spite of herself, “DON’T HURT HIM! IT WAS ROCKY! IT WAS ROCKY!”
By the look in his eyes, Ruth knew that Rocky would’ve killed her then and there if he had had the chance. But he had no time to make threats. In one split second he was being forced out the front door, into the lightning and rain, to find Papa’s magazine and receive his punishment.
Ruth rolled over to her left side once again, hoping it would somehow feel more comfortable than it had the last time. She pushed Reba’s bony elbow away from her head. How could Reba sleep through such a storm? In Ruth’s mind, the heavy rain pelted her window, demanding her attention. Each bolt of lightning was aimed at their tiny home, relentless in its pursuit to wreak havoc on the Smith family, in exchange for their sins.
It may have been only her imagination, but Ruth thought she could make out Rocky’s screams, in dreadful unison with the clamor and clash of the night’s thunder. Fingers placed in each of her ears did nothing to drown out the awful cries for help that she was sure would haunt her for nights to come. She closed her eyes and prayed that her mind release her body from its captivity.
She must have drifted off, for she was startled awake by a rustling in the room. What time was it? The rain was still pouring down, but not as violently as it had been before. Once she recovered from her disorientation, Ruth realized that she had been awoken by Rocky, who was settling into his and Jimmy’s bed, across the room. He must’ve believed everyone in the room was asleep. Ruth maintained her silence, knowing he would not welcome her pity. Faintly, Ruth could hear long, slow moans, muffled by a pillow. She listened to Rocky’s desolate cries for some time before drifting back off into an uneasy sleep.