Chapter One - Amalia, August 1984
“I didn’t raise no harlot, Amalia. When you’re done with softball practice today, you will go directly to the hardware store and help your father manage that cash register.” The stagnant air, sealed tightly like an old glass jar of long-forgotten jelly, refused to dissipate in the Graeme family home—even it was afraid of Janet’s wrath.
“But Momma, I’ll be home to cook dinner before sunset.” The strains in Amalia’s voice weakened with each of her mother’s refusals to let her live the normal life of a teenager.
“Didn’t you hear me the first time, child? Only little whores go to the lake.” Janet’s stern voice emptied through thin lips stained from devouring a blueberry cobbler before they’d started cooking breakfast. “Are you a little whore, Amalia?”
Retribution for daring to break any of her mother’s rules was always swift and fierce. Amalia had obeyed every word since her mother locked her in the storm cellar for ten hours when she was a toddler —punishment for spilling juice on an antique lace tablecloth. “No, I’m sorry. I thought you might let me celebrate just this once…”
The plea had barely escaped Amalia’s hesitant lips before the clammy grip of Janet’s bony hands shoved her down the hallway. “Stop your sass talk, girl. We can take another trip downstairs if you don’t care to mind me.”
Amalia’s left arm grazed the wall when stumbling from the kitchen into the dark mudroom. Dingy white paint chips rained to the floor and clung to her favorite new red blouse while passing through the dilapidated archway. She cradled her elbow, flicked off the last few flakes of her mother’s venom, and firmly held her ground. “It’s not fair. You let Greg hang out with his friends all the time.”
“Leave your brother out of this conversation. Your responsibility belongs first to this family and then to the hardware store. Who said anything about friends? Now get yourself off to practice.” Janet’s one good eye stubbornly left behind after diabetes stole the vision in her other glared while Amalia reluctantly marched toward the back door. “You’re a spiteful little child.”
“I’m taking out the trash, Momma.” Her voice carried the defeat of a soul unable to find the words or summon the strength to defend herself anymore. As she leaned over, the scoop neck on Amalia’s blouse revealed the slightest hint of cleavage between her ample breasts.
“Stop right now. What are you wearing?” Janet’s tone lingered thick over such insubordination. A special brand of disdain had been developed by watching her daddy preach to his Southern Baptist congregation for nearly forty years before he anxiously married her off to Amalia’s father.
“It’s just a pretty shirt I found at a yard sale. I’m not showing too much skin.” Amalia dropped the trash bag on the mudroom’s gray linoleum and recalled the similar, previous lectures. She refused to turn around to face the woman. “I’m not a child anymore, Momma.”
Janet stampeded through the kitchen and kicked the garbage into the far corner. Though the vinyl flooring had peeled away from the walls as the house settled, it was still not one of the more noticeable improvements desperately needed in their home. “It’s lesson time, girl.”
Amalia yelped and dashed to safety after a cast iron frying pan full of hot grease collided with bare skin on the back of her arm. “No, Momma, please…” She dropped to her knees, scooted across the mudroom floor, and cowered behind the pantry door to protect herself from any further blows. An acrid burnt plastic odor from a fiery singe on the linoleum beneath her wafted through the air as she shuddered in pain. The nerves in her forearm and elbow convulsed when the wound began to blister from the impact of her mother’s lesson.
“Someday you’ll learn how to behave yourself.” Janet grudgingly placed the frying pan on the washing machine and lifted Amalia by the curls of her hair. She tightly squeezed her daughter’s breasts while trying to raise the blouse over Amalia’s head. “I don’t know where you got these girls from. You’re hoping to entice all the boys to put their dirty little hands where they don’t belong.”
Amalia pushed away her mother’s sticky fingers willing to risk more punishment if she kept them off her trembling body. The putrid smell of Janet’s three-day-old sweat and decaying teeth littered the air between their lips. “Leave it. I’ve got a bra on underneath to keep them strapped down. I know the rules.”
Amalia’s breasts had begun to develop when she turned eleven years old. By thirteen, a custom-size bra was bought to contain them. Dresses were never allowed given the attention they’d drawn to her body’s hourglass shape. Though Janet’s words were enough of a rebuke, reduction surgery was still threatened should Amalia’s breasts grow any larger.
“I pray every night for them to stop getting bigger and for God to teach you some morals. It’s like you’re rubbing my great Aunt Tilly’s rose garden’s Miracle Grow on those dirty pillows. Tramps like you get themselves into some mighty trouble when they don’t protect their bodies.” Janet stomped back to the kitchen with the now-emptied frying pan and quickly snapped her fingers. “Cover yourself up or forget about going away to college this summer.”
“Yes, Momma.” Amalia heaved herself from the floor with the help of the door handle and collected the remains of her veiled dignity.
“And put out the trash already. It smells like a sewer in here,” snickered Janet.
Fighting back the tears brimming on the surface of her weary eyes, Amalia sighed with relief upon noticing the frying oil hadn’t ruined her blouse. In a rush to tend to her wounds while running through the living room and up the flight of stairs, Amalia crashed into her father, Peter. At sixty, he’d begun to settle into a grandfatherly presence contented by a quiet and ordinary life. He’d aged quickly in the Graeme household. Everyone did.
“Daddy, I’m so sorry. I was…” Amalia hugged her father, rested her head against his narrow chest, and listened to his enfeebled lungs wheeze with exertion.
Peter fell toward the wall and knocked over the family portrait they’d photographed during Greg’s high school graduation. “Oh, my pet, what’s wrong?” He pulled Amalia closer with one hand and adjusted the brass picture frame with the other. A thin layer of ashen skin on his face failed to cover years of misery being married to Janet. He’d long-accepted divorce would never be permitted by the daughter of a Baptist preacher and that his life would be fraught with reproach. “Did you have another squabble with your mother?”
Amalia sniffled and concealed her burns, desperate to splash cold water on the pain. “She hates me, Daddy. Momma never loved me the way she loves Greg.”
“That’s not true, honey. She’s tougher because you’re leaving later this month.” Peter brushed away a few loose curls from Amalia’s face and smiled with a fatherly love that hadn’t receded over the years. “What happened this time?”
A cherubic expression brightened her pale face with the hope he would understand but disappeared once she remembered begging had never helped before. “I asked if I could go to the lake today with the rest of the softball team for Brant’s town fair, but Momma says I have to work at the store like I do every other day.”
The population of their hometown, Brant, Mississippi, founded in 1784, hovered around five hundred inhabitants, the majority born and raised in the surrounding isolation. The Graeme family, still considered outsiders, had arrived in the mid-1800s settling about a half mile from Lake Newton—the livelihood once used to transport goods to the neighboring settlements. Over the years, as the county paved new roads to share crops more efficiently among all the nearby villages, the lake became a gathering place for the local families and visitors to enjoy each summer. Store owners had organized a bicentennial celebration for the upcoming weekend where all the citizens would barbecue ribs, hold square dancing lessons, and play various outdoor games. Amalia looked forward to it every year believing she always had the chance to find a new friend who might make the rough days pass by a little easier.
“Your momma knows best, honey. We need to be available for our customers.” Every penny was important to Janet Graeme, especially with two kids attending college—they could never close the store early. Janet often reminded them how pitching in around the house or store was impossible on account of her many illnesses. Peter nudged Amalia away and kissed her cheek. “You can leave work early to meet your teammates at tomorrow’s picnic. Will that make you happy?”
“It helps, but I’ll be the only one not going tonight.” Amalia buried her flushed cheeks into the crook of his left arm. He always smelled of Old Spice. She’d bought him the same cologne for Father’s Day every year since shopping on her own.
If Peter noticed the stinging red color or the slight favor of her left arm, he either ignored it or thought she’d injured herself in a recent softball game. He adhered to an insulated belief that his wife’s normal way of parenting didn’t include hurting or abusing their daughter. It wasn’t the first time he’d misjudged a situation. Peter once took Amalia to a movie theatre as an early birthday present telling Janet they’d stayed behind at the store to count inventory and order stock, but she found a few popcorn kernels on the floor of the family Dodge the next morning while driving to church. Janet waited until Amalia arrived home from school later that week to teach her daughter a lesson about lying. Though Amalia had only been trying to catch a schoolboy’s attention by lightening the color of her hair with lemon juice, it was a vengeful wrath she’d unexpectedly invited as Janet took a pair of shearing scissors to her daughter’s golden mane. The emotional scars from an abusive homelife were profound, but Amalia never regretted sneaking off to watch the movie. She was proud of being a daddy’s girl. He was her hero, the father she’d always treasure, the man who made it easier being the daughter of the wicked Janet Graeme.
Peter patted Amalia’s back offering any chance to ease her disillusion. “I know, but tomorrow when you go to the lake, everything will be back on track. Bring some clothes to change into so that you don’t have to come back home in between. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I can’t wait. I love you, Daddy.” She hugged him again and raced up the stairs to change her shirt before her mother had another outburst. Amalia applied cream to her wounds, then chose a long-sleeve button-down sweater she fastened two inches above the dip in her neck. After checking the mirror and wishing a bit of foundation could hide the uneven colors, she splashed water on her face to erase the evidence of her pain. One of Janet’s more ridiculous judgments echoed among Amalia’s numbed thoughts. ‘Only the vile women in this town wear makeup!’
Amalia flew back down the stairs and searched for the trash bag she’d left behind, realizing it would mean another lashing if her mother had stumbled upon it first. As she rushed into the living room, her father handed her a banana and elbowed her out the front door. “I already put it in the outside bin. Get to softball practice, my pet.” His voice barely audible, his expression as loud as a parade.
Amalia smiled and released an uncontrollable giggle as her countenance relaxed for the first time that morning. Although the tense nerves in her neck retreated into partial hiding, her body remained hypervigilant and always waited for the next blistery strike from her mother. She left the house flickering with excitement for the town’s festivities over the weekend but frightened at what her teammates would say about her missing the lake party. No one ever declined their much sought-after invitations without hazardous repercussions.
Although she’d graduated high school two months earlier, Amalia continued playing in the county’s summer tournaments to keep her pitching skills primed for college games. Risking a loss of the unexpectedly received scholarship—as it was the only reason she could afford to go away to school—was not an option. After practice, where she conveniently forgot to tell her teammates about missing the upcoming lake party, Amalia worked side-by-side with her father for a few hours and avoided any further trouble with her mother at home. Once Amalia climbed into bed that evening exhausted from an emotionally and physically grueling afternoon, she drifted asleep clutching her pillow and wished things would somehow improve the next day.
The following morning, Janet took the family’s only car to the First Baptist’s services leaving Amalia and Peter to trudge the two-mile distance to the center of town. Graeme Hardware Store was part of the town’s original train depot when first built in the mid-nineteenth century. Shortly before World War I, the train line was re-routed to a larger city a few miles away. This prompted Brant’s town council to vote in favor of converting the train depot into a lunch café and expanding the footprints of local shops hoping it would draw more income from surrounding villages. The loss of the train station left Graeme Hardware Store with far fewer customers managing barely enough to keep afloat during a good year.
Peter unlocked the store and began his morning routine to review the previous day’s sales and prepare the inventory. While he dragged a rolling stand filled with buckets of nails and screws to the exterior porch of the store, Amalia brewed a fresh pot of strong coffee. She retrieved a starter till from the safe under the desk and counted a hundred dollars in small bills and coins, then placed it in the cash register atop the laminate countertop. She grabbed a few dollars to buy breakfast from the local café and strolled to the front of the store. The sharp clank of the bell loosely hung by a nylon cord on the door bounced off all the metal tools and reverberated throughout the building. Amalia held the outer screen door to prevent it from slamming shut and made a mental note to convince her father to repair the hinge that afternoon. Customers didn’t appreciate buying tools from a hardware store with a broken front door.
“I’ll be right back, Daddy.” Amalia bounded down three short steps and traveled the building’s main wooden pathway. Frustrated by the inability to meet the girls from the softball team the prior night, Amalia recoiled at how much of an encumbrance Brant had become to her over the years. She often daydreamed of leaving it all behind but remembered no one had ever escaped. She scoffed at her emotions, slid her fingers across the pathway’s splintered handrails, and ignored the desire to run deep into the woods.