“Mom! I can’t breathe!”
“Mariah! You only have to wear the hood for a few minutes—ten at the most,” Mom had said. “You’ll be fine.” Putting a robe and a masked hood on a seven-year-old and a torch in her hand was not my idea of “fine,” but then nobody ever really asked for my opinion. If they had, I’d have told them, I won’t be fine, but I’m going to live through it. Truly, I think that’s what Mom meant too.
In the nine years since, I’d learned to cope with feeling suffocated behind the mask, but I could do nothing about the heat. Sweat trickled down my scalp and into my eyes, and it burned. I blinked rapidly, which didn’t help, so I scrunched my eyes shut, which actually made it worse. With my torch in my left hand, I reached up under my mask with my right and swiped at my eyes, trying to relieve some of the stinging. It didn’t help. I sighed. I hated these damn rallies. Where the hell was Dad and what was he waiting for? I wished he’d just light the cross and be done with it. I wanted to swim.
All at once, the others standing with me around the cross began to chant. Dad must be making his appearance. My peripheral vision was next to nothing, thanks to the hood, and I stood opposite the cross, so he approached from behind me and to the right. I couldn’t see him until he’d already passed me, but I’d begun chanting with the others. Looking like evil ghosts in our pointed hoods and long white robes, torches blazing in our hands stretched out in front of us, we threw our voices into the night, spears of intolerance.
“White power! White power!”
One year, when I was fourteen, I didn’t yell. I’d stood there, torch held high, and watched Dad in his robe—his special robe trimmed in green braid—light the cross on fire. He never wore a mask and the fire danced and glinted in his eyes. He’d thrust his torch high, grimacing as he yelled, and I’d stood silent and wondered, Who is he? How can he be my dad? How can Mom be married to him? Why on God’s earth does he believe all this bullshit? Why can’t we just be a normal family?
Gideon stood beside me that night. He gave me the creeps, even then. He made me wish for a turtle’s shell that I could shrink myself into whenever he was around. He was the one who told Dad I hadn’t yelled, and Dad beat me for it that night, in our tent within earshot of everybody else. I cried and I know I whimpered some, but I took it as silently as I could. I’d disgraced the grand dragon and I had to be punished. I knew the drill and so did Gideon. Dad drew Gideon closer to him after that night. I think that’s why he made me date him. Gideon was the picture-perfect Klan boy—surely he’d bring me to heel. We’d been together for almost two years, and he still made my skin crawl.
So tonight, and at every rally since the one two years ago, I yelled with the rest. Dad touched his torch to the gasoline-soaked, sheet-wrapped cross and the flames swooshed up the spire. With his torch burning in his outstretched hand, I saw a demon in Dad’s robe when he spun around to face us. I shivered. I yelled. I extinguished my torch. The August night had already been thick and humid before the cross burned, and all I really cared about was stripping off the robe and running for the pond. I couldn’t tell where Chloe, my best friend, had gone, but I knew she was here somewhere and probably just as eager to swim. If I could find her quickly, she’d be the buffer between me and Gideon. She’d gotten good at it.
There was a slight breeze tonight, and it brushed lightly against my skin once I stripped off the hood and robe. It felt so good that I just stood there for a minute in my shorts and halter, my eyes closed, my feet apart, my arms stretched wide, drinking in the cool air, the Klan paraphernalia on the ground at my side.
“God, babe, you look amazing.”
Gideon. Shit. My quiet little moment to myself was gone.
I opened my eyes and there he stood, his blond hair sweat-soaked and sticking up in odd tufts all over his head. His blue eyes—so like my own—drilled into me then raked my body with his gaze. He licked his lips and inwardly I cringed.
Remember, Dad likes him. That means you like him—for another two years and two months until college—you like him.
“Thanks,” I said, swiping my robe and hood off the ground as I turned away from him. “I’m taking this stuff to camp and then I’m going swimming. Chloe’s meeting me,” I added, hoping he’d get the hint that I didn’t want to be alone with him. He’d been pressuring me a lot lately to let him go further when we made out. It was hard enough just kissing Gideon. The idea of letting him … of his hands … of his … anything else anywhere else on my body made me sick to my stomach. I didn’t know how I was going to keep him off me for two more years. I shivered as I made my way across the field to my family’s camp because I knew I might not be able to stop him.
“I’ll meet you over there,” Gideon called after me. “I need to talk to your dad.” I shivered again and kept walking.
When I got to the campsite, Mom was there with Sandy Thompson. I heard them laughing before I actually saw them, and I smiled when I heard them. Mom didn’t laugh much at home. Sometimes, if we watched something really funny on TV, she’d smile, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard her really laugh like she was doing now with Sandy.
As my relationship with Gideon dragged on, I’d been thinking more and more about Mom’s relationship with Dad. Gideon idolized my dad—he mimicked Dad’s walk, he repeated things he’d heard Dad say, and he’d started treating me the way he saw Dad treat Mom. One night, about a week ago, he’d been over to our house and all of us were watching a movie in the living room. It was the middle of an important scene, and Dad told Mom, “Leah, go get me another beer.” He never looked away from the TV. He never said “please” or “thank you.” He’d just noticed he was out of beer and wanted another one.
Without a word or a sigh, without even rolling her eyes, Mom got up, went to the kitchen, and got Dad his beer. Although I’d seen Dad tell Mom thousands of time, “Get me a beer,” and I’d seen Mom do it thousands of times, I really noticed it that night because Gideon noticed it too.
Once Mom came back in the room with Dad’s fresh beer and sat down again to try and pick the movie back up, Gideon tried Dad’s trick out on me.
“Mariah,” he said, “go get me another Coke.” He’d tried to do it just like Dad, without looking at me, without breaking his concentration on the movie. But he couldn’t. He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye to see if I’d actually leave my place beside him and run and fetch his Coke. I was dumbfounded.
I just stared at him for a minute as my cheeks grew hot. I looked across the room at Mom. At first, she only stared at the glass of iced tea she held in her hands. But she did eventually raise her eyes to mine, and in her eyes I saw only pity and regret. She shrugged her shoulders and looked away.
I looked at Dad, who seemed oblivious to everything and completely engrossed in the movie. I looked back at Gideon, who had also returned his attention to the TV, though I knew he felt me staring at him.
“Mariah, you heard your man. Go get him a Coke.” Dad hadn’t shifted his gaze, but I knew better than to argue. I left my seat, grabbed Gideon’s empty can from the coffee table in front of us, and marched from the room. The recycling bin was on our back porch outside the kitchen, so I slammed the kitchen door as I went outside. And then I slammed the empty can against the wall, splattering myself with the last few drops of Gideon’s soda, and threw the can as hard as I could into the yard.
I stood there shaking for a few minutes. I think I was hoping that Mom would come out and tell me … something. Something that would give me some hope. Maybe she spits in Dad’s dinner before she serves him, I thought. I just wanted her to come out and tell me something that would make me believe that being a Klan woman wasn’t as horrible as it seemed. I think I stood on our porch for at least five minutes, and maybe even ten, but no one else came out that door. Neither Dad nor Gideon came out to yell at me for taking so long. And Mom didn’t come and offer me any hope. It was then that I began to realize, there wasn’t any hope to offer women like us.
I was thinking about that night when I got close enough to camp to make out Mom and Sandy in the dark. They sat close together in lawn chairs behind a small fire they’d started, and with their heads bent together and their laughter on the breeze, they looked like Chloe and me. Mom really confused me at times like this. She could be happy—I was seeing it right in front of my eyes. She could laugh. She could relax. Why did she stay with Dad? Why didn’t she take me and Jeremy and leave?
I knew the Klan’s beliefs weren’t her own. A year ago, I’d been rooting around in her closet for something to wear to the movies. I’d finally hit the stage—at five feet eight and 125 pounds—where I could wear Mom’s clothes. Her closet was a treasure trove of “new” stuff, even if it was old to her. I just called it “vintage” and put it on.
As I swiped hangers along the rod in the closet, looking for a blue shirt I’d had my eye on for a while, I came cross Mom’s Klan robe. I realized I’d never seen her in it.
“Mom?” I called to her, my face still buried in the closet. I pulled the rest of the clothes farther away from the robe and looked at it closer.
“Mom!” I called again, a little louder this time, still not bothering to take my face from the closet. Her robe looked almost as new as mine. I’d gotten a new one that year because I’d grown and the old one didn’t fit anymore. After wearing it twice, it was already stained in a couple places—grass stains on the back where I’d stepped on it accidentally (because I liked to throw it on the ground when I took it off) and iced tea on the front (because I was also so damn hot and thirsty when I took it off). Mom’s, I saw, was pretty much spotless.
“Mom!” I hollered, turning around out of the closet to go find her and jumping back into the closet when my nose bumped hers at the door.
“Geez!” I said, laughing. “You scared the crap out of me!”
“What are you doing in my closet?” Mom wasn’t laughing. Or smiling. I sobered up.
“Looking for that blue shirt,” I began. “I want to wear it tonight to the movies with Chloe.”
She didn’t say anything. She just stared at me.
“Um … I mean, can I wear your blue shirt to the movies tonight?”
“Yes,” she sighed a little. “But you’re supposed to ask me before you go digging around in my closet.”
“Yes, Mariah! Yes, you are.” She sighed louder and shook her head. “I deserve that much respect from my daughter at least, don’t you think?” I blushed and nodded.
“Sorry, Mom.” I stepped away from the closet. “I don’t have to wear it tonight. It’s okay.” I started to leave her bedroom.
“Mariah?” I turned around and looked at her. “It’s right here, right in front of your face. You couldn’t find it?” She offered me a small smile, so I smiled back.
“Oh, I guess I didn’t see it.” I walked over to her and took the shirt from her outstretched hand. “Thanks, Mom. You sure you don’t care?”
“No, I don’t care. Don’t spill anything on it and wash it for me tomorrow.”
“I will,” I said. “Thanks again.” I turned around to leave and she called me back again.
“Is that why you were yelling for me? You’re hopeless, Mariah.”
“Oh!” I remembered the robe. “No, Mom. That’s not why I was calling you.” As I turned to face Mom again, I looked at the lines around her eyes and her mouth. I took in the perpetual gray shadows that surrounded her eyes. I thought about not asking. I thought about leaving it alone.
“I found your robe.” I’d never been very good at leaving things alone.
“Yes.” She straightened her back and crossed her arms across her chest. I fidgeted with the shirt in my hands for a minute, dropping my gaze to the crystals that lined the V-neck.
“Well,” I said, still not looking at her, “it’s just that I’ve never seen you in it. I didn’t even know you had one.” I looked up at her and asked, “Why don’t you wear it? Why don’t you stand with us for the cross lightings?” What I really wanted to know was why Dad let her get away with it and how could I do the same.
“Your dad and I have an agreement about it, Mariah. That’s all you need to know.”
Shit. That’s not helpful, I thought. But I didn’t push. I decided I could leave some things alone.
“Thanks again for letting me wear the shirt, Mom. I’ll wash it tomorrow.” I left the room and we never spoke again about her robe.
Sandy saw me approaching first and broke away from the conversation she and Mom had been having. “Hey Mariah,” she said.
“Hey Sandy.” Mom turned to look at me. She glanced at the robe slung across my arm and the hood dangling from my hand.
“Any stains tonight?” she asked. I shook my head.
“Shouldn’t be. I was careful.”
“Good,” Mom said. “Put it in the tent.” I walked across the campsite to where our family tent sat in the shadows of their small fire.
“I’m going to the pond. That okay?” I folded the robe and hood and tossed them into the plastic tote we kept them all in—mine, Jeremy’s and Dad’s, anyway—at the rallies. “I’m so stinkin’ hot,” I added as I zipped the tent flap back into place.
“That’s fine,” Mom said. “Jeremy’s there already, I think.”
“Cool. I’ll avoid him.” I bent down and kissed Mom’s forehead. “See ya later. Bye Sandy,” I added.
“See ya,” Sandy responded.
“Not too late, Mariah,” Mom told me.
I waved in affirmation, watching the two of them bend their heads back together to continue their conversation.
I’d hoped to run into Chloe at the campsite so that we could cross the field to the pond together. It was pretty dark and I didn’t know where Gideon was.
“Wait up, babe!” And there he was, somewhere behind me. I didn’t stop. I didn’t turn around. I increased my speed as much as I could without turning my walk into a jog—which would only piss him off—and he caught up to me easily anyway. At six feet tall, Gideon was Jeremy’s size and almost exactly the same age—eighteen. And they were both excellent young Klansmen.
Chloe, where are you? I thought as Gideon loped up beside me and draped an arm across my shoulders.
“Gideon! It’s too hot!” I shrugged off his arm and tried to walk a little faster. It was useless. His legs were longer than mine. And I thought he was enjoying the chase just a little too much, so I stopped and glared at him. There was just enough moonlight that I could see the hunger in his eyes.
“It could be hotter,” he said. He closed the space between us and clamped his hands on my sides just below my ribs. He squeezed and it hurt.
“God, don’t you ever think about anything but sex?” I squirmed, trying to get loose from his hands, but it was no use. He was bigger and stronger. And he knew it.
“Not when I’m with you, I don’t.” He moved his hands around my back and pulled me into him. “Come on, baby, don’t tell me you don’t think about it.” I could feel him, hard against me through his jeans and the thin fabric of my cotton shorts. He wanted me to feel him, I knew. I hated him so much at that moment, and I couldn’t deny it—I feared him too. I knew I could yell if it got too ugly, but I didn’t know for sure who would hear. And what was worse, there were few who would intervene on my behalf.
“Gideon, let—me—go!” I struggled against him and I saw it in his face—the excitement. He’s getting off on my fear, I realized and immediately stood as still and confident as I could.
“Please, Mariah,” he whispered, his lips brushing against mine, “please, I’ve waited so long. You know I love you.” He slipped his tongue between my lips and snaked it between my teeth. Before I even knew what I was doing, I bit down hard on it and immediately tasted blood.
“Shit!” he screeched, jumping away from me as I spit into the grass, trying to get the taste of his blood out of my mouth. “You bitch!” He came at me fast and slapped me across the face. I fell to my hands and knees, spitting blood again—this time my own. I hung my head and tried to think.
“You are just like my dad,” I murmured.
“You’re damn right I am, you bitch.”
I looked up in time to see him draw back his foot, and I knew he intended to kick me in the gut. I dropped to the ground, drew my knees up to my chest, and wrapped my arms around my legs, turning myself into the smallest human ball I could as I waited for the blow. It never came. Instead, I heard the sound of a solid punch, of flesh and bone meeting flesh and bone. I heard a crack and a grunt and a body hit the ground. When I looked up, I saw a shadow that looked and sounded a whole lot like Jeremy, but he’d never come to my rescue once. Not ever. What the hell was going on?
“Don’t you ever even think about touching my sister again! Hear me asshole? Not ever! Do you hear me?” I’d never heard Jeremy that angry, and I’d never been so grateful for his presence.
Gideon didn’t respond, and I saw Jeremy bend low over him. I thought I saw his hands go around Gideon’s throat.
“Answer me, boy!”
I heard muffled, frantic attempts for breath and then I heard Gideon’s voice, raspy like sandpaper. “Sucker punched me, dickhead.”
At that, Jeremy must have tightened his hold on Gideon’s neck because I heard Gideon cough and sputter. I stood and shuffled away from them.
Jeremy landed a couple more solid punches and Gideon stopped struggling and lay still in the grass. I couldn’t see them well from where I stood, so I didn’t know if Gideon was still conscious. I hoped not.
“Mariah?” Jeremy called to me quietly.
“Come here. Gideon has something to say to you.”
I crept through the tall grass to where Jeremy towered over both me and Gideon, who remained prone on the ground. Gideon’s eyes were open and he was breathing, though it sounded like every breath hurt him. I was glad of that.
When Gideon saw me standing over him, he clenched his jaw and narrowed his eyes, then grimaced again in pain.
“Say it, asshole,” Jeremy demanded, prodding Gideon in the ribs with his foot. Gideon winced, sucking in air.
“What else?” Jeremy punctuated his agitated question with another kick to Gideon’s ribs, eliciting another grunt of pain from the boy on the ground. Gideon swore and coughed for a minute until he was able to catch his breath.
“I’ll never hit you again, Mariah,” Gideon whispered. As Jeremy’s foot rose slowly one more time, he added, “And I’ll never make you do anything you don’t want to.” Jeremy lowered his foot and stood solidly beside me. I looked up at him, and for the first time, I looked up to him as well.
Regardless of how good it felt to have Jeremy’s protection, I had no words for either of them. I didn’t believe Gideon was sorry. I knew the only thing he regretted was the beating he’d just taken at Jeremy’s hands, and I was afraid I’d pay the price for that. If only Dad would let me break up with Gideon, I thought as I stood there staring at his miserable face. I didn’t see that happening, though, even after this fight. I knew I’d have to make peace with my situation and soon—at least for the next couple of years—until I could escape to college and more freedom than I dared dream about at home.