In September the twin towers fell. I’d never heard of them until they were gone. Then I watched as planes sank into them, and I stared, bewildered, at the TV as the unimaginably tall structures swayed, then buckled. Dad stood next to me. He’d come in from the junkyard to watch. He said nothing. That evening he read aloud from the Bible, familiar passages from Isaiah, Luke, and the Book of Revelation, about wars and rumors of wars.
Three days later, when she was nineteen, Audrey was married—to Benjamin, a blond-haired farm boy she’d met waitressing in town. The wedding was solemn. Dad had prayed and received a revelation: “There will be a conflict, a final struggle for the Holy Land,” he’d said. “My sons will be sent to war. Some of them will not come home.”
I’d been avoiding Shawn since the night in the bathroom. He’d apologized. He’d come into my room an hour later, his eyes glassy, his voice croaking, and asked me to forgive him. I’d said that I would, that I already had. But I hadn’t.
At Audrey’s wedding, seeing my brothers in their suits, those black uniforms, my rage turned to fear, of some predetermined loss, and I forgave Shawn. It was easy to forgive: after all, it was the End of the World.
For a month I lived as if holding my breath. Then there was no draft, no further attacks. The skies didn’t darken, the moon didn’t turn to blood. There were distant rumblings of war but life on the mountain remained unchanged. Dad said we should stay vigilant, but by winter my attention had shifted back to the trifling dramas of my own life.
I was fifteen and I felt it, felt the race I was running with time. My body was changing, bloating, swelling, stretching, bulging. I wished it would stop, but it seemed my body was no longer mine. It belonged to itself now, and cared not at all how I felt about these strange alterations, about whether I wanted to stop being a child, and become something else.
That something else thrilled and frightened me. I’d always known that I would grow differently than my brothers, but I’d never thought about what that might mean. Now it was all I thought about. I began to look for cues to understand this difference, and once I started looking, I found them everywhere.
One Sunday afternoon, I helped Mother prepare a roast for dinner. Dad was kicking off his shoes and loosening his tie. He’d been talking since we left the church.
“That hemline was three inches above Lori’s knee,” Dad said. “What’s a woman thinking when she puts on a dress like that?” Mother nodded absently while chopping a carrot. She was used to this particular lecture.
“And Jeanette Barney,” Dad said. “If a woman wears a blouse that low-cut, she ought not bend over.” Mother agreed. I pictured the turquoise blouse Jeanette had worn that day. The neckline was only an inch below her collarbone, but it was loose-fitting, and I imagined that if she bent it would give a full view. As I thought this I felt anxious, because although a tighter blouse would have made Jeanette’s bending more modest, the tightness itself would have been less modest. Righteous women do not wear tight clothing. Other women do that.
I was trying to figure out exactly how much tightness would be the right amount when Dad said, “Jeanette waited to bend for that hymnal until I was looking. She wanted me to see.” Mother made a disapproving tsk sound with her teeth, then quartered a potato.
This speech would stay with me in a way that a hundred of its precursors had not. I would remember the words very often in the years that followed, and the more I considered them, the more I worried that I might be growing into the wrong sort of woman. Sometimes I could scarcely move through a room, I was so preoccupied with not walking or bending or crouching like them. But no one had ever taught me the modest way to bend over, so I knew I was probably doing it the bad way.
SHAWN AND I AUDITIONED for a melodrama at Worm Creek. I saw Charles at the first rehearsal and spent half the evening working up the courage to talk to him. When I did, finally, he confided in me that he was in love with Sadie. This wasn’t ideal, but it did give us something to talk about.
Shawn and I drove home together. He sat behind the wheel, glaring at the road as if it had wronged him.
“I saw you talking to Charles,” he said. “You don’t want people thinking you’re that kind of girl.”
“The kind that talks?”
“You know what I mean,” he said.
The next night, Shawn came into my room unexpectedly and found me smudging my eyelashes with Audrey’s old mascara.
“You wear makeup now?” he said.
He spun around to leave but paused in the doorframe. “I thought you were better,” he said. “But you’re just like the rest.”
He stopped calling me Siddle Lister. “Let’s go, Fish Eyes!” he shouted from across the theater one night. Charles looked around curiously. Shawn began to explain the name, so I started laughing—loud enough, I hoped, to drown him out. I laughed as if I loved the name.
The first time I wore lip gloss, Shawn said I was a whore. I was in my bedroom, standing in front of my mirror, trying it out, when Shawn appeared in the doorway. He said it like a joke but I wiped the color from my lips anyway. Later that night, at the theater, when I noticed Charles staring at Sadie, I reapplied it and saw Shawn’s expression twist. The drive home that night was tense. The temperature outside had fallen well below zero. I said I was cold and Shawn moved to turn up the heat. Then he paused, laughed to himself, and rolled all the windows down. The January wind hit me like a bucket of ice. I tried to roll up my window, but he’d put on the child lock. I asked him to roll it up. “I’m cold,” I kept saying, “I’m really, really cold.” He just laughed. He drove all twelve miles like that, cackling as if it were a game, as if we were both in on it, as if my teeth weren’t clattering.
I thought things would get better when Shawn dumped Sadie—I suppose I’d convinced myself that it was her fault, the things he did, and that without her he would be different. After Sadie, he took up with an old girlfriend, Erin. She was older, less willing to play his games, and at first it seemed I was right, that he was doing better.
Then Charles asked Sadie to dinner, Sadie said yes, and Shawn heard about it. I was working late at Randy’s that night when Shawn turned up, frothing at the mouth. I left with him, thinking I could calm him, but I couldn’t. He drove around town for two hours, searching for Charles’s Jeep, cursing and swearing that when he found that bastard he was “gonna give him a new face.” I sat in the passenger seat of his truck, listening to the engine rev as it guzzled diesel, watching the yellow lines disappear beneath the hood. I thought of my brother as he had been, as I remembered him, as I wanted to remember him. I thought of Albuquerque and Los Angeles, and of the miles of lost interstate in between.
A pistol lay on the seat between us, and when he wasn’t shifting gears, Shawn picked it up and caressed it, sometimes spinning it over his index like a gunslinger before laying it back on the seat, where light from passing cars glinted off the steel barrel.
I AWOKE WITH NEEDLES in my brain. Thousands of them, biting, blocking out everything. Then they disappeared for one dizzying moment and I got my bearings.
It was morning, early; amber sunlight poured in through my bedroom window. I was standing but not on my own strength. Two hands were gripping my throat, and they’d been shaking me. The needles, that was my brain crashing into my skull. I had only a few seconds to wonder why before the needles returned, shredding my thoughts. My eyes were open but I saw only white flashes. A few sounds made it through to me.
Then another sound. Mother. She was crying. “Stop! You’re killing her! Stop!”
She must have grabbed him because I felt his body twist. I fell to the floor. When I opened my eyes, Mother and Shawn were facing each other, Mother wearing only a tattered bathrobe.
I was yanked to my feet. Shawn grasped a fistful of my hair—using the same method as before, catching the clump near my scalp so he could maneuver me—and dragged me into the hallway. My head was pressed into his chest. All I could see were bits of carpet flying past my tripping feet. My head pounded, I had trouble breathing, but I was starting to understand what was happening. Then there were tears in my eyes.
From the pain, I thought.
“Now the bitch cries,” Shawn said. “Why? Because someone sees you for the slut you are?”
I tried to look at him, to search his face for my brother, but he shoved my head toward the ground and I fell. I scrambled away, then pulled myself upright. The kitchen was spinning; strange flecks of pink and yellow drifted before my eyes.
Mother was sobbing, clawing at her hair.
“I see you for what you are,” Shawn said. His eyes were wild. “You pretend to be saintly and churchish. But I see you. I see how you prance around with Charles like a prostitute.” He turned to Mother to observe the effect of his words on her. She had collapsed at the kitchen table.
“She does not,” Mother whispered.
Shawn was still turned toward her. He said she had no idea of the lies I told, how I’d fooled her, how I played the good girl at home but in town I was a lying whore. I inched toward the back door.
Mother told me to take her car and go. Shawn turned to me. “You’ll be needing these,” he said, holding up Mother’s keys.
“She’s not going anywhere until she admits she’s a whore,” Shawn said.
He grabbed my wrist and my body slipped into the familiar posture, head thrust forward, arm coiled around my lower back, wrist folded absurdly onto itself. Like a dance step, my muscles remembered and raced to get ahead of the music. The air poured from my lungs as I tried to bend deeper, to give my wristbone every possible inch of relief.
“Say it,” he said.
But I was somewhere else. I was in the future. In a few hours, Shawn would be kneeling by my bed, and he’d be so very sorry. I knew it even as I hunched there.
“What’s going on?” A man’s voice floated up from the stairwell in the hall.
I turned my head and saw a face hovering between two wooden railings. It was Tyler.
I was hallucinating. Tyler never came home. As I thought that, I laughed out loud, a high-pitched cackle. What kind of lunatic would come back here once he’d escaped? There were now so many pink and yellow specks in my vision, it was as if I were inside a snow globe. That was good. It meant I was close to passing out. I was looking forward to it.
Shawn dropped my wrist and again I fell. I looked up and saw that his gaze was fixed on the stairwell. Only then did it occur to me that Tyler was real.
Shawn took a step back. He had waited until Dad and Luke were out of the house, away on a job, so his physicality could go unchallenged. Confronting his younger brother—less vicious but powerful in his own way—was more than he’d bargained for.
“What’s going on?” Tyler repeated. He eyed Shawn, inching forward as if approaching a rattlesnake.
Mother stopped crying. She was embarrassed. Tyler was an outsider now. He’d been gone for so long, he’d been shifted to that category of people who we kept secrets from. Who we kept this from.
Tyler moved up the stairs, advancing on his brother. His face was taut, his breath shallow, but his expression held no hint of surprise. It seemed to me that Tyler knew exactly what he was doing, that he had done this before, when they were younger and less evenly matched. Tyler halted his forward march but he didn’t blink. He glared at Shawn as if to say, Whatever is happening here, it’s done.
Shawn began to murmur about my clothes and what I did in town. Tyler cut him off with a wave of his hand. “I don’t want to know,” he said. Then, turning to me: “Go, get out of here.”
“She’s not going anywhere,” Shawn repeated, flashing the key ring.
Tyler tossed me his own keys. “Just go,” he said.
I ran to Tyler’s car, which was wedged between Shawn’s truck and the chicken coop. I tried to back out, but I stomped too hard on the gas and the tires spun out, sending gravel flying. On my second attempt I succeeded. The car shot backward and circled around. I shifted into drive and was ready to shoot down the hill when Tyler appeared on the porch. I lowered the window. “Don’t go to work,” he said. “He’ll find you there.”
THAT NIGHT, WHEN I came home, Shawn was gone. Mother was in the kitchen blending oils. She said nothing about that morning, and I knew I shouldn’t mention it. I went to bed, but I was still awake hours later when I heard a pickup roar up the hill. A few minutes later, my bedroom door creaked open. I heard the click of the lamp, saw the light leaping over the walls, and felt his weight drop onto my bed. I turned over and faced him. He’d put a black velvet box next to me. When I didn’t touch it, he opened the box and withdrew a string of milky pearls.
He said he could see the path I was going down and it was not good. I was losing myself, becoming like other girls, frivolous, manipulative, using how I looked to get things.
I thought about my body, all the ways it had changed. I hardly knew what I felt toward it: sometimes I did want it to be noticed, to be admired, but then afterward I’d think of Jeanette Barney, and I’d feel disgusted.
“You’re special, Tara,” Shawn said.
Was I? I wanted to believe I was. Tyler had said I was special once, years before. He’d read me a passage of scripture from the Book of Mormon, about a sober child, quick to observe. “This reminds me of you,” Tyler had said.
The passage described the great prophet Mormon, a fact I’d found confusing. A woman could never be a prophet, yet here was Tyler, telling me I reminded him of one of the greatest prophets of all. I still don’t know what he meant by it, but what I understood at the time was that I could trust myself: that there was something in me, something like what was in the prophets, and that it was not male or female, not old or young; a kind of worth that was inherent and unshakable.
But now, as I gazed at the shadow Shawn cast on my wall, aware of my maturing body, of its evils and of my desire to do evil with it, the meaning of that memory shifted. Suddenly that worth felt conditional, like it could be taken or squandered. It was not inherent; it was bestowed. What was of worth was not me, but the veneer of constraints and observances that obscured me.
I looked at my brother. He seemed old in that moment, wise. He knew about the world. He knew about worldly women, so I asked him to keep me from becoming one.
“Okay, Fish Eyes,” he said. “I will.”
WHEN I AWOKE THE next morning, my neck was bruised and my wrist swollen. I had a headache—not an ache in my brain but an actual aching of my brain, as if the organ itself was tender. I went to work but came home early and lay in a dark corner of the basement, waiting it out. I was lying on the carpet, feeling the pounding in my brain, when Tyler found me and folded himself onto the sofa near my head. I was not pleased to see him. The only thing worse than being dragged through the house by my hair was Tyler’s having seen it. Given the choice between letting it play out, and having Tyler there to stop it, I’d have chosen to let it play out. Obviously I would have chosen that. I’d been close to passing out anyway, and then I could have forgotten about it. In a day or two it wouldn’t even have been real. It would become a bad dream, and in a month, a mere echo of a bad dream. But Tyler had seen it, had made it real.
“Have you thought about leaving?” Tyler asked.
“And go where?”
“School,” he said.
I brightened. “I’m going to enroll in high school in September,” I said. “Dad won’t like it, but I’m gonna go.” I thought Tyler would be pleased; instead, he grimaced.
“You’ve said that before.”
“I’m going to.”
“Maybe,” Tyler said. “But as long as you live under Dad’s roof, it’s hard to go when he asks you not to, easy to delay just one more year, until there aren’t any years left. If you start as a sophomore, can you even graduate?”
We both knew I couldn’t.
“It’s time to go, Tara,” Tyler said. “The longer you stay, the less likely you will ever leave.”
“You think I need to leave?”
Tyler didn’t blink, didn’t hesitate. “I think this is the worst possible place for you.” He’d spoken softly, but it felt as though he’d shouted the words.
“Where could I go?”
“Go where I went,” Tyler said. “Go to college.”
“BYU takes homeschoolers,” he said.
“Is that what we are?” I said. “Homeschoolers?” I tried to remember the last time I’d read a textbook.
“The admissions board won’t know anything except what we tell them,” Tyler said. “If we say you were homeschooled, they’ll believe it.”
“I won’t get in.”
“You will,” he said. “Just pass the ACT. One lousy test.”
Tyler stood to go. “There’s a world out there, Tara,” he said. “And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.”
THE NEXT DAY I drove to the hardware store in town and bought a slide-bolt lock for my bedroom door. I dropped it on my bed, then fetched a drill from the shop and started fitting screws. I thought Shawn was out—his truck wasn’t in the driveway—but when I turned around with the drill, he was standing in my doorframe.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Doorknob’s broke,” I lied. “Door blows open. This lock was cheap but it’ll do the trick.”
Shawn fingered the thick steel, which I was sure he could tell was not cheap at all. I stood silently, paralyzed by dread but also by pity. In that moment I hated him, and I wanted to scream it in his face. I imagined the way he would crumple, crushed under the weight of my words and his own self-loathing. Even then I understood the truth of it: that Shawn hated himself far more than I ever could.
“You’re using the wrong screws,” he said. “You need long ones for the wall and grabbers for the door. Otherwise, it’ll bust right off.”
We walked to the shop. Shawn shuffled around for a few minutes, then emerged with a handful of steel screws. We walked back to the house and he installed the lock, humming to himself and smiling, flashing his baby teeth.