THE THEORY OF RELATIVITY
Physical laws have the same mathematical form when expressed in any inertial system. The velocity of light, for example, is independent of the motion of its source, and will have the same value when measured by observers moving with constant velocity with respect to each other.
WINTER, PRESENT DAY
Ruby Roscoe, née Ruby Roscoe, having lived the first thirteen years in the center of downtown Providence and having spent a life being polite and kind and only somewhat precocious, awoke one December morning and discovered she wished to live differently. She was quite certain the sentiment had been there all along, but having just turned thirteen the night before, and having just really let herself realize that she had been in love with Donnie Price since she met him that first day in kindergarten despite the fact that they regularly terrorized one another, and having realized that despite what her mother said, it was certainly time to start wearing a bra, and despite having been told that her application for the speech team had been denied, that she wasn’t that good at algebra, that she could try a little harder in art, and despite that she could run a little faster in gym, she decided she was tired of hearing no and that getting a yes out of people and organizations and dark-haired crushes. She began the day by jumping out of bed, curious if it is actually possible to put on pants both legs at a time. It was, for the record, she just had to either be sitting when she did it or jump directly in to them. This decision to challenge the system had directly impacted the rest of her day and, for the sake of argument, her life. For breakfast, her mother ritually prepared mini waffles and two pieces of sausage. Ruby decided this morning she wanted eggs, and that she would be happy to prepare them for herself. Her mother had been shocked that Ruby had taken interest in the kitchen all of a sudden, and while she warned her that the eggs would undoubtedly burn because she had no clue what she was doing, she let her carry on. Ruby had burned the eggs, of course, setting off the alarm and filling the room with an ungodly stench of sulfur and regret, but she had made that decision herself and for that, she was pleased. She ate the waffles anyway, because the eggs were a disaster, but she liked that her mother couldn’t touch her plate. She relished that her mother sat at the end of their unnecessarily large table for just the two of them and watched her, stared really, wondering what had happened to her daughter and if this was a phase or the beginning of what the women in her widows’ support group called “The Change.”
To Ruby, it had not mattered either way, though she secretly suspected it was this dreaded “Change.” This new found authority over herself and her actions and her decisions had freed her from the person she had been told to be, she was finally untethered to color in the lines of the person she was actually meant to be. Shortly thereafter, she began tearing holes into her clothing. Knees, thighs, sleeves, poking her thumb through the hem of sweatshirts. She sought out iron-on patches and pins and leftover pieces of ribbon and lace to sew onto the polite clothes her mother had spent far too long picking out in the clearance bin at the Bargain-Mart one town over. Many of the girls in her class had been annoyed or alienated by the sartorial decisions, but this did little to stop her.
The patches, a collection of throwback icons from the 1990s before her parents had even met, had been ironed on to her baby blue sundress and garnered the attention of the group of kids who were renown for being trouble makers, though no one really ever saw them engaging in any trouble. On Wednesdays, the met underneath the fiberglass bleachers at the baseball field behind the gym. Two of them just picked at the whiteout they’d painted over their nails during an earlier class. The rest of them would tug at the cords in their hoodie sweatshirts and complain about their parents. Ruby could not contribute to this end, as one of her parents was just fine, and the other had gone missing a few years ago. She didn’t really talk about the latter of those two, as the town had been pretty familiar with the incident.
Her father, Everett Roscoe, had been family man and a god-fearing citizen who disappeared one day while out on his day job, fixing the plumbing at the milling factory the next town over. It had been a big job, one that the family was certain would help them get through the rest of the year worry-free, but when he had not come home that night, their worries had only just begun. There was speculation that Everett had met a grisly fate in one of the milling machines; others argued he was into some bad business with a drug ring; his family, Ruby’s mother, on the other hand, refused to imagine the worst. She refused to hold vigils. She refused to go to church and pray. She refused donations or food or comfort from their neighbors. “He’s finding his way home,” her mother would say, and the townsfolk tended to just shake their heads in pity and disbelief. “That poor family,” they would say, “That poor little girl.”
Ruby had rejected the notions that there was anything poor or little about her, and so when the group of misfits introduced the idea of graffiti-ing public structures, she had willingly volunteered to be the first to pick up the paint bottles and give it a try. What she had imagined would be her rise in the group as their unofficial leader had simply been her ousting. Her antics, that she would act on them, had been too daring for the group that met under the bleachers. They feared backlash, authority, and enforcement. Ruby Roscoe was quickly cast out on her own once again with three paint cans and patch that kept peeling off her messenger bag.
This sort of alone-ness had started to feel all too normal, and so Ruby Roscoe had no choice but to embrace it. And so this is how August Conrad first found her, on her haunches in the middle of the night behind Eugene General spray painting an impressively large and yet to scale illustration of the clitoris onto the vinyl siding. August had chucked something dense at Ruby, which shocked her and ruined much of the image.
“Hey, asshole!” August yelled, marching closer to Ruby, who slowly stood. Her palms were sweating.
“Watch it, carpet muncher!” Ruby shouted back. There were grass stains on her stone-washed skinny jeans, and she lamented the futile scrubbing in her future to pretend to get them out before having to just own the look and shrug it off.
August burst out laughing at the insult. “Holy shit,” she said with a smile.
“The fuck are you smiling about, grandma?” Ruby snapped, going on full attack.
“Oh man, you called me grandma! What else have you got in that arsenal? Are you going to call me a glue-sniffer? Do people even do that anymore, like is that a thing? Or how about bat shit crazy cunt? That’s a good one. Haven’t been called that one in a while.” August’s laugh grew more jovial.
“The hell is wrong with you?” Ruby took a few steps back as August got closer, legitimately concerned for her safety as no adult, not her mother, not her teachers, not her principle, had ever attempted to match her.
“Hey, I’ve got some names for you, too. How about Punk? Drop out? Brooding antsy graffiti ‘artist’ who has identity crises on the sides of buildings? What’s the matter, does mommy not understand you? Are you pained by your privilege? Did some boy stomp your heart out and now you want to ‘lash out’ and ‘teach him a lesson’? Please.”
“Your nick names suck.” Ruby crossed her arms across her chest. “God, you’re so old.”
“I’m 30, okay, back off. It’s not that old.”
“Holy shit, you’re like practically dead already,” Ruby crouched down to the side of the building again with paint can in shooting position. “Hey, how about this one: what the fuck are you doing outside in the middle of the night creeping around buildings and assaulting teenagers? Are you so lame that your friends won’t even party with you?”
August glanced across the street to Mark’s second-floor apartment, shadows in the window made out the silhouette from those within. “As a matter of fact, yes. I am.”
Ruby, disarmed, lowered the can. “Oh. Like I thought you were going to like come back and give me some shit about like you’re just here to get more booze from the Cellar, and like why am I out here alone, and I the one who’s actually the pariah in this situation, but shit. Um, I’m sorry.”
The two women looked around awkwardly for a moment, August rocking back on her heels, Ruby shaking the beads in the spray paint can back and forth. “That probably would have been a more appropriate come back,” August offered.
Ruby grinned and turned back to the wall where she rounded out the edge of her masterpiece.
“Hey!” August ran over to snatch the can out of her hands. “Come on! Seriously! Fucking, God, that wasn’t an invitation to keep doing it! I thought we were going to bond or something. I have to clean that off, you know? It’s kind of a pain.”
Ruby snorted, standing up and dusting off her grass-stained knees. “Man, you’re such a loser.”
August grinned. “At least I’m not scrawling genitalia on the sides of buildings that literally no one would ever see unless they walked around back here. Where did you even learn to draw that?”
“Our public education system is shockingly progressive,” she lied. The truth was she had been stuck with the one lunch block none of her friends were in, and quickly discovered that she preferred to take her lunch among the scent of bleach and that faint post-flush stench in the bathroom to having to share the end of a cafeteria table with the crew of girls who had ousted her last year when she participated in and won the regional Mock United Nations competition. It hadn’t mattered that she had completely changed her perspective on life, her wardrobe, or her extra-curricular activities, what had mattered was on the first day of 8th grade, she’d looked like and acted like a massive dork, and that was not the kind of reputation some extra eyeliner could erase.
“Well, I guess we’re at an impasse,” Ruby conceded.
“It appears that way.”
“Well, fellow Loser,” Ruby threw her backpack over her shoulder. “This has been great, but I’ve got a few more buildings to deface before sunrise, so… thanks for the chat, and can I please have my paint cans back?”
August turned back toward Eugene Cellar. “Not a chance in hell,” she tossed over her shoulder before disappearing into the basement. Ruby waited around for another half hour when August exited. When she noticed her new foe hauling a shovel and several small wooden spikes over her shoulder, she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all, but she was sure as hell going to find out.
On Christmas Day, August stood on the edge of the front porch in her father’s old robe and slippers. For the first time in a decade, she had foregone any partying, having suffered through enough of Mark’s “shindigs” to know she’d rather sit at home and pour whiskey into her coffee cup at 6am than crawl home with hangover at the same time of day. It was also a convenient excuse to not run into Abigail again under the guise of ‘good Christian spirit’ and eggnog.
When the siblings were younger, they had driven to the Christmas Tree farm in the next county, August and Mark singing Christmas carols in the backseat of the truck, Mitchell balancing a thermos of something warm while trying to maneuver the vehicle. Abigail always looked like she had a headache, which only made the siblings sing louder. They always picked up the tree on Christmas Eve, they were cheaper that way, and they’d spend most of the evening dressing it, serenading the tree, chasing each other around the house with broken ornaments and tree toppers and jingle bells. August and Mark usually missed a portion of the tree with the lights, and when they plugged it into the wall, there would always be a dark spot somewhere within its sappy branches. It didn’t bother them, though, they had already turned their attention toward the carefully wrapped boxes beneath the tree, the empty stockings laying out on the back of the couch. They hadn’t had a fireplace in the house, so the back of the couch was the unofficial hearth for the occasion. August always wore snowman pajamas. Mark ran around in his father’s camouflage sweatshirt. It was simple and loud and perfect.
In the end, after Abigail had left them, after August disappeared to New York, Mitchell only had an artificial tree that he dragged out of the basement and left sitting on the kitchen counter, undressed, until New Year’s Day when he would pack it up again for the year. August now couldn’t help but feel guilty. Here she was in his house on his land and the whole reason why wasn’t to see him, to help decorate that tree. She was there to find the money.
August unfolded the tattered map from the pocket of Mitchell’s robe, and wandered out to the yard. Frosty grass melted on contact with her bare ankles. She walked in circles initially, trying to orient herself with the map, its indecipherable legend. After several turs, she finally recognized where on the scribbled paper the woods began. Taking a few steps closer to the tree, she sucked in her breath. According to the map, the woods had to be at least twice the size shed remembered, and even from where she stood, it looked thicker than she recalled. It was way too cold to start hunting, she decided, folding the map, way too early to do anything else without more coffee. Besides, she had to get to Eugene General in a few hours.
Though the rest of Caswell County had shut down for Christmas Day, Flo insisted on taking inventory and restocking the store, which ultimately meant August, too, was doing the same. She headed back inside to wash her hair with a harsh soap, throw the DayGlo community service penny on top of her winter coat, and struggle with Mitchell’s old truck for the 45 minutes into town. When she arrived at Eugene General, cranky from not being able to spend her holiday loafing around her dead father’s house in her dead father’s robe while drinking way-too-weak coffee with a splash of whiskey in it, coming up with great excuses why she couldn’t yet search for the buried inheritance, she saw Jordan Hall leaning against the wall with a thermos and something wrapped in a paper towel.
“You’re never up this early,” she greeted him coolly, her pulse picking up.
“That color really brings out your eyes,” he replied, nodding to her reflective vest. He held out a thermos and paper towel for her, and she tried not to stare at the ring on his finger. “It’s coffee. And bacon. I thought maybe you wanted some coffee and bacon, because I woke up and I definitely wanted coffee and bacon, and no one was there to make it for me so I made too much for myself, and I was just around, so… yeah, so here’s some coffee and bacon. Merry Christmas.”
Cautiously, August accepted the treats. “Thank you?”
“You’re welcome!” he perked up. “It looks like maybe you’re going to need it. Your vandal has returned. I can honestly say that I’ve never heard of ‘clit tease’ before. Gotta admit, though, I do not hate it.”
August clenched her fist, crushing the bacon within. “God damn it,” she seethed as she stalked into Eugene General.
“So tonight then?” he asked as the door closed between them.
Flo was already pacing around the store, zipping and unzipping that fanny pack. “So you’ve seen it?” she asked when August slammed down the tartan-printed coffee mug. The two women went outside to examine the damage.
“And ruined my bacon,” August muttered. “It’s like she’s just doing it just to fuck with me,” August groaned. Flo had already brought out the bucket of industrial-strength soap water.
Flo was next to her, reaching for the phone in her fanny pack to snap a picture of the vandalized wall. “She? You know who did this?”
“Well, first, what dude is going to draw a clit on the outside of a building? They never take the time to find it in a bedroom, why glorify it on vinyl? And second, yeah, I ran into her a few weeks ago in the middle of the night. I managed to confiscate the paint cans, but I guess she got her hands on some more… her grubby tiny tween hands.” She leaned in a little closer to the artwork. “At least she’s started experimenting with shading.”
Flo shook her head. “Bless Pat. What is the world coming to?”
“She’s got a sense of humor, that’s for sure,” August conceded, dragging the bucket of soap across the dirt.
“That’s exactly what I said!” August began to scrub away at the drawing first.
“So who was it? What did she look like? Was she young? Did she have a lot of eye liner on? Those kids with eye liner are always causin’ such a stir, I tell you what.”
August set the sponge down, her hands already freezing. “No eyeliner. Blonde, big bouncy blonde curls. Scrawny. She wore this pink jacket with a bunch of patches on it with band names and political movements that were cool when I was a kid.”
Flo’s eyes shut tight and she made a strange humming noise August had never heard from her before. She marched around the side of the building and yelled over her shoulder, “I’ll be back. You man the store, now, y’hear?”
There were two things everyone knew about Flo Masters, known to her late mother as Thelma Florence Masters. First, she was the only person in town who could keep a secret. Second, she made a mean pecan pie. Flo Masters was also the only woman within a 90-mile radius who could supply the alcohol you needed to get through the week. So three things, then.
Flo was the kind of woman raised by a traditional, two-parent patriarchal family in the fifties with one car, one dog, and a knack for being at the right place at the right time. For all intents and purposes she was the most normal, vanilla person in Providence, North Carolina, but anyone who met her as an adult would argue she was the only woman who could ever “get shit done.” How she came about the county’s only supply of alcohol was the subject of much speculation among those who visited her basement shop, but usually by the second round of questioning, her visitors were three sheets to the wind and losing their train of thought. Flo usually patted them on the back and reminded them to come back the next week. “Not without a punch first!” they’d say.
A year ago, Flo introduced loyalty cards to Eugene Cellar, not that she’d needed them, not that she had any competition, but she thought her customers might enjoy the concept of being card-carrying members of the biggest secret that side of the Dan River. Everyone was assigned a membership number. The cards had become so popular, some townspeople would fight with each other in public places about whose number was lower and who had known about Eugene Cellar longer. Some people had even asked if they could buy their way into a lower membership number. Everyone in Providence knew the lower your Cellar number, the citizen they were.
And really, it was that kind of insight into who the townsfolk were and what kept their clocks ticking that led Flo Masters to such success. That and the secret keeping.
Flo Masters was the kind of woman, the kind of girl, who kept her mouth shut. It had started early on in childhood when she found herself rambling at the table over Thanksgiving dinner and her grandmother had let her know quite plainly she was disappointed in how her mother had raised her. Garrulous. Chatty. Insolent with an utter disregard for her elders. “Children should speak only when addressed directly by an adult. Otherwise, they a’int got nothing worth saying.”
Immediately, Flo had buttoned up her lip and started listening. Without talking, without contributing, she began to notice people opening up around her. The act of simply nodding and smiling, of extending a sympathetic touch to the shoulder or hand, had unearthed a wealth of knowledge. Her father, who initially had just needed some help in the stock room at Eugene General, and who was short all the sons needed to carry it out, had invited Flo to work with him over the summers between sixth and seventh grade. After a month, she was balancing the books. By the end of the summer, she’d learned why the books weren’t quite balancing the right way.
Flo Master’s father, Eugene Masters, who opened and ran the only grocery and convenience store in the tri-county area, had fallen in with a group of buttoned-up men who claimed they could keep the area safe. They brandished guns. They always tucked in their shirts. They always gave her the side eye and muttered under their breath when they noticed Flo doing a man’s job.
Tagging along with her father everywhere that summer, she wound up one evening at a miniature country-fair. So thrilled with the availability of baked goods and goats at the petting zoo, she’d nearly missed the games, pamphlets, and live music. Eugene happily fed her a hot dog twice as big as her face with a squeeze mustard and ketchup on each side, and he had patted her on the shoulder as she snuck a taste of his beer to wash it all down.
She’d liked the music, and almost lost the group while she was tapping her foot to the fiddle in the bluegrass band when she noticed Eugene stepping into the shadows of the pine trees with the buttoned-up men. He’d handed them a thick wad of bills, thicker than Flo’s hotdog had been, and in turn, they gestured for him to follow. Flo carefully ran after them, keeping a safe distance to avoid any suspicion. Eugene walked up to one of the trucks, a deep forest-green Ford pickup with several wooden boxes in its trunk. The men pried open the boxes, Eugene shook hands, and he hauled the box over to his own car. They lit cigarettes together and walked back to the fairgrounds. “You’ll make double by the weekend,” one promised. The men were laughing and joking and talking about distributors when Flo saw a cross go up in flames in the center of the fair grounds and the attendees gathering around it to watch and sing and celebrate. Someone took a microphone and started preaching.
Flo got a knot in her stomach. She knew what was happening was wrong, and she was horrified that her father was taking part in it, participating in it, doing business with them. But they had not asked how she felt about the situation. They had not asked her what she thought, so Flo Masters kept it to herself. They went home that night, and Flo went straight to bed, the scent of kerosene-soaked rags and smoke seeped into her hair, her clothes, her soul.
The men started making frequent visits to Eugene General, and as the school year wore on, she noticed more and more boxes being delivered, more and more rolls of money being handed over. “Good margins,” Eugene had told her as she erased and rewrote numbers in the books. “Gotta get those good margins.”
The following year unraveled like that, more boxes, more visits and handshakes, more nighttime county fairs that were anything but wholesome. Flo cooked the books, and her father started selling bourbon out of the back of his truck. Alcohol hadn’t been banned at the time, but there was something special about buying it from your neighbor, he argued, there was trust there. Eventually, he would build a proper shelf for the alcohol and they would sell out each week. Eventually the men stopped coming around as much. But once Dunphey’s opened in the mid-sixties and townsfolk realized they could pay a fraction of the cost to have a watered-down beer and get away from their families for a few hours, business ground to a halt. The boxes piled up; Eugene’s hair started to gray; the mean reappeared. Flo kept her mouth shut. She listened to them talk about distributors. She heard them complain about their own margins. She learned about their plans for the rallies that night. As Eugene grew more and more nervous around the men, she found herself attending more rallies, more meetings, all the while carrying the large notebook with the cooked books, the fudged numbers, the clumsy eraser marks across the sheets.
As they had more and more run-ins with the men, Flo tapped into a fountain of information: who was cheating on which wife, who hated which kid, who had started putting rum in his wife’s tea so she’d do the weird things in bed. She took notes in the margins of the numbers book while she pretended to double check the numbers.
The summer before eighth grade, Flo and Eugene attended a rally in one of the tobacco fields at the edge of town. It had been a dry summer, and by July, the tobacco had already started wilting, dying off the stalk. Her mother had instructed her to put zinc oxide on her nose before heading out, so Flo arrived with a white nose, a yellow sleeveless button-up that was tied at her belly-button, and a bright blue A-line skirt that she’d outgrown months ago. She was already uncomfortable in her own skin, but in the heat, her thighs had started sticking together, and an hour into the rally, she’d had enough. She threw on a pair of her father’s britches.
She noticed neighbors and kids from school pulling up fold-up lawn chairs and sharing lemonade and hotdogs and home-made banana bread. Younger kids ran through the tobacco stalks and danced in front of the bluegrass and gospel bands that had joined the affair. Dads got too drunk and gathered together in one corner of the space, talking about what they hated about their wives, talking about what they’d change, talking about how the sex was never the same after the baby. Moms gossiped about how much they disliked their husbands, their sons, their daughters. They talked about the best ambrosia recipes, the best wine for dealing with Tuesday mornings.
Flo spotted Abigail Clay across the field, her arms crossed as she chewed at her lip. Her eyes kept darting back and forth. When they made eye contact, Abigail glared and shook her head.
As night fell and Flo had suffered six mosquito bites up and down her legs, one of the men who always showed up at the store took the stage and the microphone and started talking about trust and safety and purpose and the outsiders who were threatening everything they stood for. Several men joined him on the stage, donning white cloaks, white hats that obscured their faces. They pointed to the south, and four men appeared hauling a rag-wrapped cross on their backs. One of the men from the stage had found her father and was shoving him toward the cross. Her father had not been dressed in white. “Dad?!” Flo called out, but he did not look toward her.
They marched to a residence, a tiny little white house with brick stairs and little shrubbery. William Carpenter’s house. They shoved the cross in the ground, grunt after grunt, and Flo’s father lit the cross on fire.
She stumbled backward as she heard herself screaming toward him again. She watched as her father fell to the ground at the feet of the burning cross. She watched as one of the men in white struggled to stand him up. She watched as Eugene kicked the man off, rolled over, and cried in a way that left her unsure, uncomfortable, and exposed.
Enraged, she chased after the men who had carried the cross. Blinded by rage and naiveté and good, she ripped off one of their white hoods and pushed one of them to the ground. You sack of shit, she had screamed, you fucking coward.
Having never spoken in their presence before, the men themselves were startled. Two laughed.
“What are you going to do, heifer? Eat me?”
Flo had never considered had the shape and size of her body would mold the perceptions others would have on her, and so at that moment she considered herself to be quite large, and therefore powerful. She shoulder-checked the guy until he stumbled backward and hit the ground. She towered over him, accounting notebook in hand.
“You fucking wish all I were going to do is eat you, you sniveling pile of ape shit.” Flo shocked herself with the foul language spilling out of her mouth, but it felt so natural. She placed her swollen, sweaty foot on the man’s chest. Gesturing to her father, she said, “That man back there? He’s a better man than you. He’s done with this bullshit.”
The group chuckled again. “He’s not done until we say he is. He’s tens of thousands in the hole, little girl.”
Flo stepped off the man on the ground and brought her face perilously close to the one who had just spoken. “First of all, I wasn’t even speaking to you, you ego-centric shit, and second of all,” Flo squared her shoulders. “Second of all, nothing about me is little, so the next time you address me, you can at least stop using my size as a way to belittle me. I’m bigger than you, fuck face. From now on you’re dealing with me. I’ll handle your distribution, I’ll handle your payouts, but you are fucking done bothering my father, my family, my home.”
The group chuckled again.
“I swear to the fucking Grand Dragon or whatever the fuck you call your leader of hatred, I will burn your own fucking yards down if you come anywhere near our store again. From now on we meet on Wednesdays in the store. We’ll do business like proper fucking professionals. And that’s it. When we’re paid off, we’re done.”
The one on the ground had stood up by then, “We’ll decide when we’re done.”
Flo turned to him, shoving him so that he fell back to the ground. “Which one is better in bed? Your wife? Or the nanny who looks after your kids?”
The chatter fell eerily silent.
“I know everything. And unless you want the rest of Providence to know, too, you deal directly with me from now on.”
She walked away from the group, the accounting book held tightly against her chest. She passed her father, throwing over her shoulder that he needed to pick himself up and figure out his own way home. Flo Masters, age 13, drove the Chevy the five miles home and never looked back.
In the seventies, the KKK had shrunk to only 500 people across the state. The bourbon business had slowed significantly in Caswell County, and with the opening of Dunphey’s Pub around the corner from their store, their shelf of bourbon sat and accumulated dust. Flo started taking bottles home, year after year, and turning them into pecan pies that she would sell at church functions and school bake sales. The townsfolk weren’t sure what made the pies so sweet, and when they asked, Flo would only wink. Had they known the sweetness, the richness, had come for the bourbon made by a group of men who hated humanity and only put themselves first, it would have soured the pie. But Flo had dedicated her life to sweetening whatever stepped in her path, and she wasn’t about to let that bourbon go to waste.
As the decades slipped by, she’d forged relationships with the distributors of the alcohol herself, started playing poker with them for boxes of bourbon, gin, vodka. When Dunphey’s closed, when the dry laws were set into motion, she’d already had stock enough to last the town a year. It wasn’t long before everyone in Providence, North Carolina flocked to Flo’s to pick up a box of “soaps” or a crate of “fresh milk” from the Cellar.
Providence and the surrounding counties knew Flo Masters was the only person who could get you what you needed. So that made four things everybody knew at Flo Masters. And she never had any trouble after that, at least until that graffiti started popping up on the back of her building.
If memory served, and Flo Masters’ memory was in peak condition, the description of the girl perfectly matched that listless Roscoe girl up the street from her store. Flo didn’t care if it was Christmas, she marched across the street in her sneakers, the snow caking on top of them, and slammed the knocker on the front door until somebody answered.
Mrs. Roscoe, god bless her soul, answered the door in a robe and pajamas. “Flo!” She’d sounded shocked, and pulled her robe tighter. “Merry Christmas! What can I do for you? It’s a little early, don’t you think?”
Flo apologized for the unannounced house call, but carefully stuck her foot in the threshold of the door so Mrs. Roscoe couldn’t close it on her. “Are you aware of what your daughter has been doing in the middle of the night?”
“Ruby? Well I imagine she’s sleeping, of course,” Mrs. Roscoe laughed uncomfortably.
Flo spotted Ruby peeking out from the stairs. She shot her a little glare, and Ruby scampered back to her room. “I think you better check under her bed. It seems your little precious daughter over there is quite the artist. She’s been leaving calling cards and feminists messages on the back of my building.” Flo raised her voice, hoping Ruby would overhear. “And while I appreciate the gesture, because who doesn’t love to support the local arts community, I would very much appreciate it more if she chose something a little less provocative the next time she slips out in the middle of the night to vandalize the community.”
Mrs. Roscoe gasped and looked over her shoulder. When Ruby wasn’t there, she turned back to Flo. She hadn’t been prepared for this sort of parenting. The hard talks, the rules, the punishment, that had all been her husband’s area of expertise. Mrs. Roscoe simply apologized, said she would talk to Ruby about it, and that she would look into grounding her for a week or so, maybe two, after the holidays were over.
Flo nodded respectfully. “I have a better idea.”
Within a matter of minutes, Ruby was dressed, covered in winter wear, and marched out the front door and back down Main Street. Ruby felt betrayed, of course, yelling over her shoulder at her mother for agreeing to let this crazy old bat drag her out of the house on a holiday to clean up her shop, but her mother had long since shut the front door to shake her head as she sipped her lukewarm coffee at the kitchen table. When Flo parked Ruby in front of August, who was already laughing behind the cash register, Ruby let slip a slew of curse words that neither Flo nor August had heard before.
Flo grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her, just once. “Now you listen to me, little girl. I worked too damn hard to keep this place afloat to deal with some little lost shit like you scrawlin’ all over the back of my building. You will work here – totally unpaid – today, tomorrow, and frankly the rest of the school year if I feel like it and you will learn to respect what people have earned. Do you hear me?”
Ruby grimaced. “God, your breath is horrible.”
Flo shoved a mop into her hands and looked to August. “She’s your problem now. Consider this community service two-point-oh.”
“Oh, God, it’s you again.” Ruby groaned.
August couldn’t wipe the smile from her face. “Oh, you bet your ass it is.”
Having identified the vandal, August Conrad was no longer the social pariah in town: there was a better villain, a more interesting piece of gossip. August was eager to pass down the judgment and teasing to Ruby, who begrudgingly showed up every day during her winter break to do the odd jobs that had once belonged to her. August found she quite enjoyed delegating to the teenager, and caught herself skipping to the truck at the end of her shift the following week.
“We have to stop meeting like this,” Jordan said, causing her to trip. He was leaning against her truck with a familiar grin on his face.
“I could say the same to you,” she tried playing it off cool and reached around him for the door handle.
He persisted. “What are you doing this evening, August Conrad? New Year’s and all, you know, you should be up to something.”
She were up to absolutely nothing besides trying to manage her blood pressure in that moment. “A little something here, a little something there. My social calendar has been packed lately. Maybe you heard? I’m basically the town hero, wrangling in the graffiti artist and all. I’m kind of a big deal.”
Jordan crossed his arms with a smile. “So that’s a ‘nothing?’ You’re up to nothing tonight? That’s unacceptable, August Conrad.”
“I hate New Year’s,” she resolved, trying again to reach for her door handle. “And anyway, where’s your family? Don’t you guys have some elaborate Tuesday House situation with lamb and black eyed peas and champagne? Fireworks, probably?”
Jordan chuckled, “Not this year, my friend. So what do you say?” She’d started to reply, but he interrupted, waving at someone passing by. “Hey there! Happy New Year!”
August looked over her shoulder, “Do you know that person? I don’t even know that person.”
Jordan shrugged. “I don’t think so? I just like confronting people with basic human fellowship. No harm in saying hello. People are so afraid of it, and I fully blame technology.”
Of fucking course he’d turned into that person. August rolled her eyes.
“So,” he continued, “We’re going to have dinner, you and me, and we’re going to have dinner tonight, but we aren’t going to do it at Edna’s, your place, or my place.”
“Where’s your family, Jordan?”
He barreled on. “In college, I taught myself how to pick locks after being locked out of my dorm room more than five times. My roommate was pretty upset that I was out every night and was trying to teach me a lesson, and he did! But not the one he was aiming for. Pretty sure about that. I’m pretty great at it, actually. Anyway, you and me, we’re going to have dinner inside of Dunphey’s.”
Crossing her arms over her chest, she stared at him for a solid beat. Was he full of bullshit? Was he just bored at his house and fascinated by this blast from the past? His grin never broke – it rarely did. “Okay, I’ll bite. With what?”
“Yes!” He cheered, picking up the backpack sitting next to his feet on the ground. “With this.” Plastic cups, champagne, turkey and cranberry sauce mixed together in a Tupperware dish, a bowl of pumpkin pie mix, a can of aerosol whipped cream. “I realize it probably looks like Thanksgiving, but truly, what’s the difference? A feast is a feast!” She peeled open the lid on the pie mix and inhaled. Allspice heaven.
“I’m going to insist you remove that vest, though,” he added. Quickly, she peeled it off and tossed it at his head.
The sun had long since crawled behind the horizon, and the only light left downtown came from the few streetlights that stood and the glow from Jordan’s cellphone as he led August by hand the back way to Dunphey’s. She held his back pack while he dug into his pocket for a credit card and a paperclip, expertly unlocking the door that had been shuttered for nearly twenty years – since the last time they broke in. The space, dusty, wooded, dank, still reeked of spilt beer and sugary alcohol. They would have opened the windows, but they had been sealed shut with paint decades ago. Jordan took the sack from August and swiftly unpacked its items, first laying out a wool blanket across the sticky floorboards before setting out the plastic utensils, the packaged food. He’d brought part of a sawed-off fir tree branch that he’d hot-glued it to a tiny wooden base as a makeshift centerpiece. There was a tiny gold sticker on the top of it. They took their spots on the blanket facing each other. Jordan offered up a toast.
“To shirking family responsibility on New Year’s Eve,” he held up a plastic cup.
“I’ll definitely toast to that,” she said, happily meeting his cup midair.
They sipped at the same time. The liquid was viscous and sweet, and together they coughed and frowned and forced themselves to swallow. “Oh my God,” he said, “Oh my God that’s fucking horrible!”
“I thought you got the good stuff!” August laughed between coughs. “Who brings the bad stuff to a holiday! Diana Hall surely taught you better than that. Plus, hello, I have the hook up!”
“Next time,” he stared down into his cup with a grimace. “Oh God, next time, I promise I will like you supply the alcohol. I’m so sorry.” Jordan took her cup and placed both his and hers off to the side. “There’s probably something old and fermented back here, right?”
Fifteen years ago, they’d hidden a bottle of silver tequila in the back corner of the bar where they’d hoped no one would find it. Jordan rushed to the corner, moving boxes and chairs out of the way. Much to their surprise, the bottle remained. “Jackpot,” he said, dumping out their cups and filling it with the tequila.
They drank, they laughed, they drank more. They only eat half of the feast before they resorted to taking shots from the whipped cream can. Sitting across from each other, the feast between them, their stance quickly evolved into leaning against each other, body parts, offering the only source of heat in an otherwise chilly and blustery space.
Jordan lay his head down into August’s lap. Buzzed, she didn’t think twice as she let her fingers get twisted into his hair.
He nestled in. “I’ve started making a bucket list,” Jordan fished around his pocket for a folded piece of notebook paper. “Of stuff we should do before we die.”
August snorted with laughter. The “we” was not lost on her, though she played the intimacy off as nostalgia.
“Okay, okay, hear me out. I started it twenty years ago, but I still have it. I’m adding to it.”
“What’s on this list?” She reached for the paper, snapping it out of his hands and fighting to keep it away from him as she read aloud the items on his list. “Jordan Hall, after twenty years, there are still literally two things on this list. ‘Have sex,’ and ‘Find a ghost.’” August crumpled the back and chucked it a him. “First, I hope to god you’re still not a virgin because, yikes, and second, you’ve got to do better than that. There’s more to life than pussy and poltergeist.”
Jordan rolled back onto the floor as he laughed. “Is there though?”
The two went back to squeezing whipped cream shots into each other’s mouths and laughing at how absolutely disgusting it was. The bucket list lay out on the ground. It felt so normal. It felt like home. They were not 30, a trail of poor decisions and wreckage and success behind them. They were 15, at least for a moment, 15 and careless with limitless potential ahead of them.
Jordan sprayed some whipped cream on a piece of turkey and shoveled it into his mouth. “Do you remember when I thought this place was haunted?”
August agreed, “You thought everything was haunted. We both did. We suited up every afternoon for Ghost Hunters Club. Your mom packed us a snack-bag of goldfish crackers and gave us plastic light sabers to fight the ghosts. Your dad found some dickies from the factory. You looked like such a dork.”
“August Conrad, exactly no part of me has ever resembled nor has embodied a dork.”
Reluctantly, August placated him. This sort of nostalgic, flirtatious muscling had been missing for most of August’s adulthood, and the virtual visit back to the past, back to a simpler time, was better medicine than the tequila ever could have been. Boldly, August reached out to touch his hand, to grab it, really, and entwine her fingers with his. It felt natural, it felt as if twelve years hadn’t past since they’d been there last.
His incessant laughter quieted, the gravity of the situation slowly weighing down.
“So I have to ask, Jordan Hall… you’ve been here a while,” August started. “What’s going on?” Her heart raced wildly behind her ribcage, the blood desperate to reach her extremities faster, as if asking to be let out, as if it had run out of places to go, to make alert and aware. The potential, whatever his answer could be, was thrilling.
For a moment, the two locked eyes. Jordan was at a loss for words.
August prompted, “Because I don’t have a choice. I’m stuck here. But you, you’re… well, you’re you.”
Jordan pulled his hand away from hers. “I’m remembering what it feels like to be myself,” he said, shrugging.
“What’s that like,” she asked quietly, so far removed from the person she might have been, that she could barely remember the person she was. And anyway, that was what the tequila was for, remembering and forgetting the inconvenient artifacts of life. “I’m happy you’re here,” she said, “You’re the only thing making this sentence bearable, but, Jordan, it’s been more than a month.
He didn’t refute her. “I’m, ah,” he searched. “I’ve decided to stay. For a while. For the time being.”
August had not been expecting this answer. Who would volunteer to stay in Providence, North Carolina? Who would choose to tolerate the backwards social laws and dried paint and Christian overtones? Nevertheless, she could not stop the smile that crept onto her face. For the first time in quite a long time, August Conrad had a beginning to something.
“I’ll toast to that,” she said.
“Happy New Years, August.”
- - - -
Half a life ago, August had taken up residence in the main Hall House for a brief handful of months. They had been fourteen, ravaged with hormone and a sense of adventure and injustice. August and Jordan spent Sunday nights shoveling in stove-top popcorn and classic black and white films at the Hall home base with the entire family flanking them. Hannah usually passed out in the first ten minutes, Diana never made it to the end, and Zac and his father fell asleep right before the climax. August and Jordan, however, remained attentive through the credits. Positioned on opposite ends of the couch, they would quietly stand up and drape blankets over his unconscious family members, working from the outside in until they met in the middle. This was always exhilarating, as she got the rare glimpse of Jordan in sweatpants and a holey tee-shirt, his hair just a little messy after having burrowed into the plush leather couch for the past ninety minutes. After tucking in the Hall brood, they would silently high-five, and venture off to their respective bedrooms. These were the nights she slept for a solid eight hours. No rousing. No waking. No nightmares. Just a blissful sleep directly from the center of the mattress, surrounded by a fortress of overstuffed pillows.
August and Jordan were barreling toward the phase of their friendship where they weren’t quite sure who they should be to one another, but they were certainly interested in pushing the boundaries between friends and flirts. Several concerted efforts were made to separate themselves from a larger group or a chaperoning eye, and so they begin to explore more of the space around them, around each other. That fall, they camped out in the basement of the Hall House, sharing a couch cushion and a blanket while a movie neither of them watched played out in front of them. There was an elaborate dance of shifting and turning so small it looked habitual, natural, but each micro-movement was carefully calculated to bring parts of their bodies perilously closer together. A cough, a sneeze, a stretch, an itch, their hand lingering ever closer and closer to the other’s arm or elbow or knee or foot. Jordan once managed to work half of his hand over August’s, and the two sat still as rocks for the rest of the movie, not speaking, not budging, until the credits rolled and Jordan had to change the input so they could put on MTV and resume their tango, their progress ultimately undone.
How to breach the blurry line of confidence between friends who had slept in the same room, occasionally the same bed, August had little clue. Significant exposure to early teen mini-dramas and a loose grasp of late-90’s third wave feminism suggested if she wanted to move the needle on their rapport, she would have to do it herself. This sort of DIY independence, this lack of faith in others to similarly control or impact her life, to do what she wanted them to do, would have lasting effects on her social development. But that portion of history will be covered elsewhere.
They started taking the long way home from school in the afternoons, stopping at Eugene General for Diet Cokes and a pack of peanut M&M’s. On no particular afternoon, August casually asked what Jordan was doing Saturday. To Jordan, this question was bizarre; the two had spent nearly every single afternoon and evening together over the past several years. He mistook it as a suggestion they should explore somewhere new, which in Providence was quite the challenge. This gave him a small pang of anxiety.
“Like, you want to find a new spot by the creek?” He laughed nervously, fidgeting with the M&M’s pack.
August was bombing it.
“No, I mean, like, what if we grabbed dinner somewhere. Like not at the other one’s house?”
They never spent money when they hung out. The concept of allowance was still quite new, and Jordan was pretty sure he’d just blown half of it on Diet Coke and snacks. He was consumed by tallying what was left of his modest allowance, wondering what might be leftover for some such Saturday evening outing, when the growing silence became too much for his counterpart.
“I mean, we don’t have to, I just thought maybe we’d try something that didn’t involve mosquitoes or bodies of water or stars. Or crustless sandwiches.” She fidgeted. “Not that I don’t love crust.”
It occurred to Jordan what was happening, and he broke into a large smile. “August Conrad. Oh, my God. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re trying – and failing – to ask me out on a date.”
“Shut up, Jordan.” August shrugged off the suggestion, though it had been precisely what she was trying to do.
“You’re blushing! I can’t believe it.”
She snatched the M&M’s out of his hand and popped a few in her mouth. “You’re absolutely ruining this for me.”
Jordan laughed out loud. “You’re ruining this all on your own.”
It was absurd to think that this was the thing that fazed her. Jordan Hall knew intimately all the things about her. He had been there when she got her first period, even lent her the extra dollar she needed for tampons. But this sort of honestly, vulnerability, the kind that led to heartbreak, this was new territory.
That summer everything about their dynamic changed. They had been out at the creek, and Jordan sat up from his drying rock and suggested they stay the night, right there, wake up with the sunrise and eat the rest of the dried fruit August packed. The sky was clear, the air was still, and they lay opposite of one another, the tops of their heads touching, as they wondered why they never thought of this in the first place. Jordan conceded that he was not a fan of North Carolina. August conceded that she was not a fan of the South. They both agreed that they should do this more often. It had not taken much shifting and stretching that night; their hands had found each other. Navigating the situation, nebulous as it was, had become easy, pleasant, blissful.
Just outside of Jordan’s window was a massive oak tree, the kind that refused to let its leaves brown, the kind that held onto it leaves until the bitter, blustery end of fall. It must have been hundreds of years old by the time the Halls built that house. As the nights grew cooler with the approaching autumn, Jordan and August finagled a way to climb out his bedroom window, shimmy along the edge of the roof and hoist themselves up into the tree. Eventually, it would become their escape route for evenings when they felt like sneaking out, not that the Halls would have cared much either way.
One such evening, August found herself awake. It was cooler then, and she shook off a chill as she walked barefoot down the hallway to his room. She rapped gently on the door and was shocked to find him lounging in bed reading through a magazine.
“Can’t sleep?” he asked, setting the magazine aside. They’d just seen each other in their pajamas an hour earlier during movie night, but in this darkness, in this late hour, they both were embarrassed to be so exposed and under-dressed. Neither moved from their positions.
“I legit thought you might still sleep with a nightlight,” August quickly joked as she stood in the doorway. Crossing the threshold into his room was daunting, indeed.
“Just thinking about stuff,” he offered to no response. Eventually, he asked, “Hey, do you want to get out of here?”
The pair threw on jackets and headed off through the woods towards the creek. August hopped onto Jordan’s back, welcoming the warmth, the closeness, the foreignness of it all. “You’re not too light these days, huh?” Jordan teased, jostling her weight around to the right position. “Jerk,” she muttered, wiggling a wet finger into his ear. He yelped, they laughed, and he kept on, carrying her on his back the rest of the way to the water. When she finally hopped off, the two looked around, searching for kindling, and eventually made a haphazard stack of twigs between them.
“I probably should have paid attention in Boy Scouts,” Jordan commented, tossing another stick into the pile.
“Of course you were in Boy Scouts,” August laughed and squatted next to the kindling with the box of matches. She pulled out a journal, running her hand over the faux leather cover. She’d been carrying it, writing in it for months, but it all felt so hackneyed, everything that happened before.
“What’s, uh, what’s that you’ve got there?”
August rapidly flipped through the pages, revealing a series of small colored photographs stuffed within. She pulled them out, one-by-one, and stacked them neatly in front of the firewood. She struck a few matches and left them to catch fire. A few flames climbed up the twigs, and as the fire began to grow, she dropped each photo in, letting it brown and curl and melt before moving on to the next.
“Old journals,” she said with a smile. “If you’ve ever kept one, and yes, I know, you ‘ve never kept one, they’re so sad to go back and read later. What happened in the past? It doesn’t matter. We’re here, we’re now, and I never want to remember a time when I felt differently.” She watched Jordan shift uncomfortably, uncertain how to answer. “Plus,” she winked, “I have to burn the evidence of childhood indiscretions if you ever turn on me and want to blackmail me.”
The two sat in silence until August had torn through the entire hand-written journal. She tossed the binding into the fire as well, but it didn’t light as quickly as she’d hoped. Jordan made a pillow out of her bag and her jacket, and leaned back into it. She followed, taking residence in the crook of his arm pit. The sky was coated with clouds. In an unexpected gesture, he reached over and pulled out the rubber band around her pony tail. August loosened her hair, spreading her auburn waves across his arm, his shoulder. The fire popped as it infiltrated the thicker branches they’d placed at the bottom of the pile.
Jordan combed his fingers through the ends of her hair. “By the way,” he broke their silence, “if it weren’t cloudy, I’d tell you to look over there,” he pointed with his free hand toward the East. “I bought a star for you last Christmas, kind of forgot to give it to you. You know, you guys were gone for a week, and then it got so late and it would have been weird to give it to you in March, so I thought I’d hold on to it until the next year and pretend like I’d just had this brilliant idea and bought you a star! But now kind of seems like a good time to tell you. So, yeah, congratulations, you now have a star named after you. Also, I probably need some more ideas for what to get you this year for Christmas.”
She turned towards him, finally resting a hand against his chest. “You bought me a star?”
He laughed. “Technically, I think I just named it after you. And really, I’m somewhat suspicious it was all a hoax and they just keep selling the same stars to the same suckers like me over and over again every year, because what are you going to do? Are you going to go to NASA and argue about the ownership of one star over another? Could you even find it every night of the year? But yes, yeah, yep, I bought you a star.”
“Jordan Hall, you bought me a goddamn star,” she whispered, unable to hold back a smile.
He turned toward her, leaning in to the hand she kept on his chest. They were face to face, the fire glowing against their boots. “I thought you might be offended by lip gloss or underwear.” He ran his hand along the side of her face, his fingers getting tangled in her hair. He chuckled a bit, and pulled her in just a bit closer. She closed her eyes. He kissed her cheek, her nose, and finally her mouth. He lingered long enough that he needed to take a breath. She shivered. They lay there until the fired died down, the pages of August’s history reduced to ash, before she hopped onto his back and he hauled her back through the woods to the Hall House where they would fall asleep next to each other, hands clasped. When he woke in the middle of the night for a glass of water, he kissed one of her finger tips.