Normally, Bess liked how she could find a dark patch of weeds and scrub just off the side of a forgotten dirt road and look in any direction without seeing a single house, light or even a lone stanchion of tired wooden utility poles with black wires sagging between them.
Sitting in the passenger’s seat of Tony Halk’s matte black 1972 Trans Am gave her a different perspective. He was a twenty-year-old player and she was a sixteen-year-old girl who should have known better. Men like him didn’t pay attention to girls like her and so she had thought this was something different than the dark secrets the popular girls told each other, swooning with half closed eyes – stories Bess had always thought were more fantasy than anything else. Her fantasy, as it turned out, was far more dangerous.
Her breathing changed when his hand moved. She stared into his smoldering eyes a moment longer as the exhilaration of attracting his attention deflated and withered away in the swirls of wind just outside the car. Stubble that seemed to always be three days old peppered his brutally handsome face, framed by straight black hair that hung to his shoulders. Perpetually dressed in stone-washed jeans and a denim jacket draped over a plain white t-shirt, he always looked the same. He always looked hungry.
The sweat on her forehead and the exuberance of her panting turned sour and garish as she realized she was no longer a person. She was a target, a plaything. She was an anomaly in a parade of girls who understood what it meant to be sitting in Tony Halk’s car while his eyes gleamed and his hands moved towards them to clutch at their bodies. She was a different kind of trophy and her stomach churned at the thought of being that prize hunters bragged about the most: the one that is hardest to catch. She really wasn’t that kind of girl. And he didn’t care.
“No.” Her voice was a husky whisper, still harsh with the remnants of her own excitement, a hormone induced giddiness that was abating fast as her instincts for survival came to life and bellowed in her mind, Get away.
His lips parted in a lurid smile. “Come on now,” he said, “Don’t be like that.” She pulled her shoulder away as he reached for her. His smile faded. “We’re here now. Just go with it.”
“Like hell,” she said, unbuckling her seatbelt. Her hand was almost to the door latch when his fingers wrapped around her arm like a vice and jerked her body towards his.
“You don’t get it,” he said, almost snarling. A thin smile stretched beneath narrowing eyes as he moved in for the kill. “What did you expect?”
Bess’s face felt hot and her muscles ached as her heart hammered blood through her veins. She wasn’t anywhere close to being that kind of girl. A hard blush of power surged through her as primal fear took over. Somewhere deep inside, an ember ignited and she heard herself growl.
Without thinking about it, she lashed out with her free hand and slashed her nails across his face. Her hand came away from his face with thin coils of skin pressed against the underside of her nails. Tony shoved her back against the doorframe and she felt an aching burn in her shoulder as he jerked his hands back to protect his face. Bess knew she had just a fleeting moment, no more time than it took to take a single breath. It gave her just enough time to tug the latch, shove the door open and tumble onto the ground.
Bess leapt to her feet and started running. It didn’t matter which direction. Immediately, the cold from the desert night cut through her skimpy halter top and started to seep into her skin. She had never worn anything like it and she felt cheap and exposed as she ran, the wind whipping her long black hair to stream out behind her. “It’s what he likes,” the other girls had told her, squinting at her sideways, still not believing Tony Halk had actually asked her out. At least she had the good sense to wear black denim jeans, which kept her legs warm as they stretched out in long loping strides through the sea of weeds and scrub washing out over the desert.
She closed her eyes and silently admonished herself for getting mixed up with somebody like Tony Halk in the first place. She knew better. More importantly, she deserved better. Her father had made sure she understood that. Since she could speak her first words, everything he had said told her she was a girl to be admired, respected – a girl who deserved the best of everything. And God help anybody who didn’t understand that. Tony didn’t understand that.
Tears streamed down her face as she ran into the night. Then, a laugh rippled out as she thought of her father bearing down on Tony Halk and explaining it to him.
Bess crested a hill where she could see the glimmer of suburban lights in the dust-drenched valley below. She stopped and bent over with her hands on her knees as she gulped for air. She figured she was about five miles from home. Surveying her immediate surroundings, she didn’t see or hear any signs of Tony Halk or his Trans Am. He didn’t seem to want to actually chase her down and force himself on her. But she didn’t feel like standing around long enough to test that theory. She gripped her side as a runner’s stitch clawed at her, and started walking towards the lights.
Just beyond the lights lay the darkened glassy surface of the lake where she and her father would go sailing the next day. Bess gritted her teeth and shook her head at the incongruity of being her father’s prim daughter during a boat race the day after playing harlot for a scumbag in a Trans Am. Except you’re not a harlot. You’re a girl running for her life. There’s a difference.
As she walked towards the lights, the tears came back as she thought of her father scowling at her, dismissing her with a wincing glance as just another wayward girl who had forgotten she wasn’t trash. The thought of losing his trust, his belief in her, even his love, coalesced in a nauseating ache and erupted from her in a plaintive wail. The wind caught it, tearing it to shreds of silence before anyone could hear. “I’m sorry daddy. Oh God, I am so sorry.” She sucked in a deep breath, fighting for control.
She couldn’t let him find out. Hiding something from the only person in her life who actually understood her would be her penance. Not being able to tell him would be torture, but losing him would be unbearable. She would throw it into a deep well of shame and confusion until it finally died and drained away, fading into the recesses of memories she never talked about. This is what it meant to have a terrible secret and she promised herself it would be the first and last time anything like this ever happened.
Her shoulder throbbed with a sickening ache and she chanced a peek. She sucked in a sharp gasp when she saw the deep purple of a bruise engulfing her entire shoulder from where Tony had slammed her against the doorframe. How the hell am I going to hide that?
As she closed the distance to the lights, the indomitable comfort of being close to home settled over her as the adrenalin that had made her heart feel like it was going to burst subsided and the dull haze of fatigue ebbed into her muscles. She took a deep breath. Her tears stopped. A distant cousin of normalcy draped itself over her mind.
It would be alright. In time, the bruise would heal and her dalliance with Tony Halk would be remembered as a foolish mistake – a first clumsy step on her journey to becoming a woman. She let out a long sigh of relief as she realized that nothing had actually happened. She could have come away with something far more shameful than a bruise, something permanent and dreadful that would haunt her in the long nights to come. But it wasn’t like that. She hadn’t lost anything. She hadn’t given anything away. She hadn’t let him take anything away. An ember of pride dared ignite at that thought and Bess jutted her chin out as she stepped onto the sidewalk bordering her neighborhood and the expanse of desert where she had left Tony Halk behind.
What Bess didn’t know, what she couldn’t know, was that her life had changed that night. She didn’t understand the nagging voice of a girl cowering in the corner of her mind that kept telling her this. She didn’t understand, because the voice said just one word, repeating it with every breath she took. Bess consigned it to the urgency that came from fear and adrenalin, waiting for it to fade away. It had been necessary at first and she understood the urgency of its mandate. It had saved her. But now, the voice was annoying, absurd and over wrought with fear she knew was no longer necessary. Still, it persisted. She could not free her mind from the echoing refrain of the girl looking at her, wide-eyed as she said the word over and over.
Bess slowed her pace and let her breathing calm as she ambled along the sidewalk under the yellow wash of light spilling down from tall aluminum lamp posts. As she approached her house, she tried to think of how she was going to get to her bedroom and cover her bruise without he parents seeing her.
As far as they knew, she was at a friend’s house. She had ridden her motorcycle there, changed her clothes and ridden off with Tony. Now, she was coming home without her motorcycle, wearing a halter top and her face encrusted with dried tears.
She still hadn’t figured it out by the time she was traipsing up the cement walkway to her front door. She would just have to improvise. Somehow. She wasn’t used to sneaking around, hiding things and lying. She wasn’t that kind of girl, either.
Bess stepped through the door and stood at the end of the hallway leading to the living room, where her mother sat in a chair reading a book. The side hall to Bess’s bedroom was only a few steps away. As she started to pad her way down the hall, her mother looked up, catching her eye with a withering glare.
Bess stopped cold. Her mother glanced sideways. Bess couldn’t see the door to her father’s den on the other side of the living room, but guessed that’s where her mother was looking. Her mother’s head swiveled back around and she fixed her eyes back on Bess.
Wide-eyed, Bess slowly shook her head. No. She tilted her head to the side, signalling to her mother as she edged closer to the side hall. Her mother knit her brow and Bess nudged her head to the side again. Her mother put down her book and watched the door to the den as she stepped quietly towards the hallway.
Bess slipped into the side hall and winced as she leaned her bruised shoulder against the wall. She pulled her head back as her mother rounded the corner and flipped on the light. Her mother stopped dead in her tracks, staring.
Being humiliated in front of her father was something Bess couldn’t bear. Being humiliated in front of her mother was something she was long used to. It was a familiar and uncomfortable feeling she had learned to cope with over the years. She pulled away from the wall and turned her shoulder towards her mother.
Her mother gasped and sucked in a seething breath. She glanced over her shoulder and then looked back at Bess, glowering with a practiced sternness that had etched its own wrinkles around the corners of her mouth.
Just as her mother started to herd Bess back to her bedroom, her father stepped around the corner. Bess turned and quickly pressed her shoulder against the wall, wincing as a bolt of pain shot down to her elbow.
A solid man standing six feet even with prematurely graying hair and a kind face that betrayed his physical stature, Mason Kincaid asked, “What’s going on here?”
Her mother closed her eyes and let out a sigh before turning around to face him. “Nothing,” she said, in a gentle June Cleaver kind of voice that both Bess and her father knew was just her clumsy way of dismissing the obvious tension in the air.
“Mary?” he said. He tried to peek over her shoulder at Bess, but her mother moved sideways to block his view. She put her hand on his chest, stroking it gently.
“Mother daughter stuff,” she said, her voice dripping with a soothing tone that caused more alarm than anything else.
Her father spoke sternly. “Alright, what the hell is this? Bess?”
Her mother held him back, stiffening her arm to keep him from moving forward. She wasn’t that strong and Bess wondered absently how she could hold him back like that.
“I’ll handle this,” her mother said firmly. “This is my department.” She stroked his chest with slow pawing strokes.
Her father settled back and nodded, his brow still furrowed with the look that only a father of an only daughter can master. “Alright,” he said, a gentle sigh washing out of him. “Let me know if -“
“It’s fine, Mason,” her mother said, now using the cooing tone from before. “It’s fine.”
Her father nodded gently and turned to walk back to his den.
Her mother whipped around and grabbed Bess’s arm just below the bruise. Bess sucked in a sharp breath as her arm throbbed under her mother’s grip while the woman hustled her down the hall and into her bedroom.
Still holding Bess’s arm, she quietly closed the door and then flung Bess onto the bed. “What the hell happened to you?” Bess felt like she was staring into the bright beam of an interrogator’s flashlight as her mother’s glare burned through her.
Bess put her face in her hands, fighting to hold back her tears as her chest swelled with a throbbing ache. “Oh God,” she said.
“Answer me,” her mother said.
Bess rubbed her forehead and then turned to look into her mother’s eyes. Her skin prickling with the anticipation of her mother’s wrath, she said, “Tony Halk.”
Her mother gasped and took a step backwards. “For the love of…” Her hand flashed out towards Bess and then stopped. “Are you kidding me?” Her mother closed her eyes and bowed her head, lowering her trembling hand to her side. “Half the girls at that trashpit you call high school would be pregnant with his progeny if it wasn’t for birth control.”
Bess watched her mother’s face as she stared at Bess’s bruise and she furrowed her brow in a way Bess didn’t expect. Her tone was, as she had expected, demeaning and angry, but her eyes told a different story. She was worried.
Bess narrowed her eyes, unable to hide a sudden swell of indignation. “Nothing. Happened.” She kept her eyes steady as her mother stared at her. Then her mother’s face softened to reveal a look that seemed forlorn. The fact that something nearly did happen, and against her will, was something Bess decided not to get into.
“I know,” her mother said softly. “You have too much of your father’s pride to let somebody hurt you like that.” She sat down next to Bess and studied the bruise. “But you didn’t get out of it in one piece.”
Bess tilted her head as she saw something in her mother’s eyes she had never seen before. The woman was scared. Bess stared, unblinking, unable to believe she was seeing her mother this way.
Her mother took her hand and leaned closer. Her voice hitched when she spoke next. “For God’s sake, don’t let your father find out.”
Bess’s mouth fell agape and she leaned back, incredulous. She hadn’t planned on telling him, but for her mother to hide something like this from him was beyond belief. She was about to ask why when she could see her mother gathering her thoughts to tell her something more.
“He has … a condition.”
Bess felt a flush of lightheadedness wash through her as her breathing stiffened in her tightening chest. Her father had always been a pinnacle of physical prowess. He went to the gym religiously, ate the most esoteric health foods and was an aggressive and accomplished sailor. The idea of him being anything less than healthy as a horse was an idea beyond her comprehension.
Except they hadn’t been sailing for six months now. True, winter always intervened, but it was late Spring now and they still hadn’t taken the boat out. But the race – there was no way he was going to miss out on that.
“It’s complicated,” her mother said, tapping her chest. She took a shallow breath and looked away, tears brimming in her eyes. “And he doesn’t have much time.” Bess blinked, beyond shock at seeing her mother vulnerable like this. Almost crying, her mother said, “I didn’t want him to go tomorrow. But I can’t stop him.” Her voice cracked on the last word and she had to look away so Bess wouldn’t see the tear she wiped from her cheek.
Turning back to Bess, her face was hard again. She wasn’t angry, but her words were adamant now. “You absolutely cannot let him find out about that,” she said, pointing at the bruise. “And you need to keep him still tomorrow. Keep him calm. Don’t let him exert himself. You understand?”
Bess blinked hard. How she could possibly keep her father sitting still during a boat race was beyond her. The man practically ran as he flitted from one place to the next, skipping over the deck to adjust the rigging, haul sails up and down and tug at the lines to trim the boat. Dad, sitting still?
But her mother’s eyes were pleading.
“I’ll try,” Bess said.
Her mouth quivering and unable to keep her face from sagging into a look of despair, her mother said, “Promise.”
Bess cupped her hand over her mother’s. They felt bony and unfamiliar. She couldn’t remember them ever holding hands. It was just something they didn’t do. Still, she said, “I promise.”
“And this is between us,” her mother said. “He doesn’t want you to know. Understand?”
Bess nodded slowly, reeling from the thought of her father being ashamed to let her see him being weak. She knew he saw it that way, too, not as an ailment beyond his control. He was a proud man and to be anything less than the father who had watched over her and protected her was something he couldn’t bear for her to see.
Her mother quickly pulled her hand away and stood up, smoothing the front of her dress. She resumed scowling at Bess and said, “Jesus Chris. Tony Halk? What were you thinking?” Then she turned and left the room, leaving Bess sitting on her bed, dumbfounded as her mind gyrated in a numb fog.
She stood up and stepped to the desk sitting under her window. She opened a drawer and took out a single piece of paper. Adorned with the crest of Columbia University, it formally announced her admission for the fall term, pending her early graduation from high school. She watched her own tears tapping gently on the paper, obscuring the words she had dreamed of seeing for over a year now.
She was hoping to surprise him with the news when the time was right. Now, that moment was gone forever. Now, she had to stay. She had to stay so she could wake up for all the tomorrows left where she could see his eyes, hear his voice, hold his hand and let him be the father of his only daughter for as long as he could. She had to protect him until he was ready to say goodbye. And after that?
Bess lay her head on her desk and closed her eyes. After wasn’t something she was ready to think about. All she could do was try to push it as far away as it would let her. Because the world without her father was a dark meaningless void of existence that she wasn’t sure would be worth enduring.