Why is it so quiet? Where is Martha? I’m upstairs in bed, but I’m not asleep. It’s too hot, I’m too scared. I pluck my nightgown out of the crack in my bottom and listen hard. Before there was the noise of the television, muffled conversation, little spurts of laughter, but now—nothing. I freeze myself to the bed and try to think ahead to when my parents will come home. Midnight? One o’clock? I turn my head a degree or two so I can see the glow-in-the-dark clock. Ten-thirty, that’s all.
I picture them, Mommy and Daddy, walking in like they always do, sort of sleepy and careless, and then finding us dead, sprawled out in puddles of our own blood: Martha and her boyfriend downstairs, my brother and me upstairs in our separate rooms. I think about Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, who are still on the loose. They just keep killing, it’s been on the news for days. Everyone thinks they’re headed West, but what if they’re not, what if they’re headed this way toward us? An unprotected farmhouse like ours, it might look good.
Martha is my cousin, who’s in high school. My mother only gets her when she can’t find anyone else. She thinks Martha is boy-crazy, for one thing, and way too pretty for another. I don’t know about the boy-crazy part (probably), but Martha is pretty, with big blue eyes and reddish-blonde hair that she sets every night in pincurls. My mother says she’s trouble, though—trouble with a capital “T.” She’d die if she ever found out Martha’s boyfriend comes over every time she babysits us. Martha’s never said for me not to tell, or my brother either, but some things you just know.
Martha’s boyfriend is named Jack. She says he looks like James Dean from the movies, but since my parents never take us to movies, I have no idea what that means. Actually, I think he’s sort of creepy-looking, slouching around smoking his cigarettes, propping his big greasy boots on my mother’s nice coffee table. Martha says he was in Korea and came home with battle fatigue, and that’s why he can’t get a job. I’ve never heard of a grown-up man who didn’t have some sort of job, but Martha doesn’t seem to mind. She says it’s nicer to stay in and play cards or listen to music than go out all the time. Sometimes she even gets Jack to play cards with us, Crazy 8s or something, but the way he sits there, looking bored and dribbling ashes all over the rug, you can tell he doesn’t really doesn’t want to. “Isn’t it time for them to go to bed?” he’ll say, but Martha’s nice, she always says, “No, not yet. They can stay up a little longer.” In my opinion, she’s way too sweet for him. She’s jolly almost all of the time, but he always seems mad about something.
A thin breeze pushes the curtain into my room, and I hear the far-off bark of a dog, the clank of a hog-feeder. Then it hits me: they could be down there doing things, kissing and stuff. I don’t like to think about that, but I know it’s what teenagers do. I’ve seen them out at the lake, the way they nuzzle and touch each other. Once, when I was little, I asked Mommy why, and she frowned and said, “Well, I guess they think it feels good.” The way she said it, though, made it sound like the opposite.
Martha is a majorette, which means twirling a baton at football games. She wears a sparkly white bathing suit with long white gloves and a pair of white cowboy boots with tassels. She has a helmet, too, which looks like a top hat. Her reddish-gold hair peeks out from underneath it. When she marches by, tossing her baton, everyone watches. They can’t help it, their eyes are pulled right to her.
My mother, when she talks on the phone to Aunt Flo, says Martha had better watch it, if she goes too far she may just get into trouble. I don’t know what my mother means, not exactly, but then, sort of, I do. It makes me nervous, the same way I feel when I stand at the end of the dock and look down at the lake, which is so dark blue and cold it makes your heart shrivel up. You know when you hit that water it’s going to slap you hard.
From downstairs I hear a snicker, a gurgling sound, something. I listen some more, hoping and dreading at the same time—and, then, there it is again, except this time it’s different, a stomp, sort of, and then a tight little sound like a squeak. A shiver flickers up my spine. I try to imagine what the sound could go with, but nothing comes to me. The minutes tick by. I breathe in and out, waiting, every part of me stiff. I think about waking up my brother next door in his room, but he’s only six, practically a baby.
I start downstairs, holding on tight to the railing. Why is it so dark? Shouldn’t there be a light on in the living room or kitchen, or somewhere? They could be out on the porch looking at the stars, but I doubt it. Or maybe—the thought hits me like a blast of cold freezer air—maybe they’re not here at all. Jack is always trying to get Martha to go skinny-dipping in the creek behind our grove. I’ve heard him, lots of times. Or maybe he ran out of cigarettes and they both went into town to get more.
My knees turn wooden. They don’t want to bend, but I make them, pushing down hard, one step and then the next. In my everyday life, I fly down the stairs, my feet barely touching, but now I’m like my crippled-up grandma, just inching along slowly, so slowly. When the bottom finally comes, I hang onto the newel post and make myself breathe through my nose. I peer into the dining room, fuzzy with darkness, the everyday furniture crouching like beasts. This is my house, but everything seems so different at night. It’s quiet, not a noise, but then, from the couch in the living room, I sense something. A movement, a snuffling sound—something!
On the other side of the dining room is the arch leading into the living room. That’s where the light switch is. I fasten my eyes on the spot and streak forward, swatting the switch with the side of my hand. Light explodes into the room, and in a single quick flash I see them. Martha sits on Jack’s lap with her blouse off, and her boobies are huge, like balloons almost. Jack’s head is buried there, his mouth smashed right up against her, sucking and slurping.
“What the hell?” he says, his head coming up, and I switch off the light. He sounds more confused than angry.
“Susie?” Martha says, but I flatten myself to the wall without answering. It is not so dark now. I can see her reaching behind to fasten her bra, then lifting up her arms to pull on her T-shirt. She doesn’t even hurry. “Susie?” she says again. “Susie, is that you?”
I press myself closer to the wall. I don’t want to talk to her. I don’t want her to see me. What had he been doing to her anyway? Her back had been arched, her head thrown back like she was tossing a baton and waiting to see where it would come down. Did she actually like that? Did she want him to suck on her? Did she think it felt good?
“Susie,” Martha says again, reaching over to snap on the lamp. She is still in his lap, as lazy and limp as a cat. “Did you want something?” she asks, her smile lazy, too.
I pull myself away from the wall and come out where they can see me. Jack has his pants and his boots on, but his shirt is off and I can see the hairy patches on his chest. He pulls out a cigarette and lights it. Martha smiles like we’re still the best of friends.
“I—I was thirsty,” I say, my voice coming out small and squeaky.
Jack gives a quick snort and lets out a stream of smoke, but Martha gives him a look. “Who wouldn’t be?” she says, climbing down from his lap. “It’s as hot as Hades tonight.”
She leads me off to the kitchen and I drink two glasses of water just to prove how thirsty I am. She tells me about being a majorette and how this year, since it’s her last year in high school, she’s going to go all the way and try out one of those batons you set fire to.
I picture the baton tossed up in the air and then falling, a stick of fire hurtling straight for her. “But what if you get hurt?” I ask. “What if you get burned?”
She looks at me, her face calm and sweet-looking. “That will never happen,” she says, giving the tip of my nose a small swipe with her finger.
“But how can you be sure? How do you know?”
She turns and looks at me hard, and I can feel myself shriveling up. “Because I do,” she says, her blue eyes turning darker and colder. “Now get back to bed where you belong.”
Confrontation, Louisville Review, Other Voices, and Fourth Genre. She has also been a Nelson Algren finalist. Gates, a retired high school
English teacher, grew up on a farm in Iowa. She now lives in Riverside, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where she and her husband raised two sons.