When I got home from school, I told Granny about Bubba Higgins.
“Terrible thing to lose a child,” she said. “A body shouldn’t have t’put their babies in the ground. . . ain’t right. I know how it feels.”
We prepared supper in relative silence, and after sitting down to our meal, ate only a few bites.
The wrinkles on Granny’s face looked as if they had been chiseled deeper, her eyes more faded and less focused. Most likely, her thoughts had traveled to the past, to Daddy’s dead brother.
As for me, my mind had taken a disturbing turn. Ira’s strange smile kept floating to the surface of my thoughts. I recalled how furious he had been on the bus yesterday afternoon, the violence seething in his eyes. And Granny’s words kept echoing in my mind: He stares at a body like he’d just as soon kill you as t’look at you.
Was Ira capable of murder? The Ira I knew, that he allowed only me to see, I didn’t think was. But what about that other Ira who showed a stony, arrogant face to the world? God help me, I didn’t know. I had to see him, had to talk to him.
The minute I was certain Granny was asleep, I left the house. Running all the way as I had that first night almost a year ago, I raced to the bridge. For an interminable time, half sick with apprehension, I paced back and forth, crossed arms hugging my trembling body, waiting for him.
Should I ask if he had anything to do with Bubba’s death? What would I do if he had? And most importantly of all: did I really want to know?
Ira emerged out of the darkness, his boots clomping slowly across the old boards of the bridge. “Something’s wrong, ain’t it?” he asked when he reached me. “What is it?”
Now that he was right in front of me, I didn’t know how to begin. I turned away, looking off in the direction where Bubba’s body had been found.
Ira stepped in close behind me and slipped his arms around my waist. His voice a husky whisper in my ear, he asked, “What’s wrong, little girl?”
“Y—you know w—what’s wrong,” I stammered. “It’s B—Bubba.”
His body stiffened. “What about him?”
“I k—know I shouldn’t even be thinking what I am, but I can’t help it. The look on your face yesterday, like you wanted to kill him. D—did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Did you kill him? D—did you kill Bubba?”
He gently turned me to face him. Eyes as black as the night surrounding us bore down into mine with a ferocious intensity that was almost frightening. “I ain’t gonna lie to you.” His voice was soft, but I could feel the coiled tension in the grip of his hands on my upper arms.
“Don’t ask me no questions if you ain’t prepared for the answers.”
I settled my hands on his chest, felt the steady beat of his heart against my palms. “I have to know.”
“Yes,” I whispered, my fingers clutching the front of his T-shirt. “I’ve got to know the truth.”
“All right, Chloe.” His eyes continued to hold mine. “But remember, you wanted it.”
Trying to swallow down the knot that had lodged in my throat, I acknowledged that fact with a nod.
“I’ll tell you this once, then I never want to talk about it again.”
Once more, I nodded.
“Yeah, I did it. Are you happy now? Does it make you feel better knowing?”
I couldn’t speak, only shake my head. Tears welled, spilled down my cheeks.
“You want to know how I did it?”
I shook my head, my hair flying with the force behind it, half-blinding me.
But he told me anyway. “I killed him with this.” He held his right hand in front of my face, then lowered it, palm resting on my collarbone, thumb and fingers lightly caressing my throat. “I don’t think old Bubba knew what the hell was going on when he saw me coming in the water after him. I held his head under till he quit fighting and was still. Then just a little while longer to make sure. You’d think a big sonofabitch like him could’ve put up more of a fight than he did.” He smiled. “But before he died, I made sure he knew why.”
I was shaking both inside and out, like I was naked in the middle of a snowstorm. My blood was ice, my mind frozen.”Why, Ira?” I whispered.
“He touched you, Chloe. That low-life motherfucker put his hands on you. No one touches you but me. You’re mine, you belong to me.”
My teeth chattered. I couldn’t speak.
His hand shifted, cupped my chin and tilted my face. His eyes met my horrified gaze. Black seas swallowed my soul.
“Don’t you know how much I love you, little girl?” he murmured. “I’d kill anyone who hurts you.”
Ira’s arms enfolded me, pulled me to his warmth. His hands stroked my hair, my back, and gradually, I stopped shaking, his touch melting the ice inside me.
“What are we going to do?” I burrowed my wet face against his chest.
“Not a damn thing. Everyone thinks dear Bubba had a tragic accident, we’ll just leave it at that. You know what’ll happen if you tell: I’ll die or go to prison. I can’t hold you in there . . . can’t touch you . . .” His voice dropped to an anguished whisper. “Don’t say anything, Chloe. Please . . .”
The pleading in his voice sealed my fate. I wouldn’t say anything. I couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from him. I would pay any price, no sin was too great if it kept him with me. I pulled back and looked up into his face. “All right,” I agreed, dooming myself along with him. “I won’t say anything.”
Something had changed. I saw it in his eyes—they burned.
And something had changed inside me too.
I reached up and trailed my fingers down a stubbled cheek, lightly traced his bottom lip. He captured my hand, and palm up, brought it to his mouth. Eyes locked with mine, he nipped the fullness at the base of my thumb, then kissed it, his mouth open and wet. Molten heat rippled up my arm, and washed throughout my body. A soft moan escaped my lips.
Ira yanked me to him, and slowly, ever so slowly, he lowered his lips to claim mine. At first, the kiss was a tentative thing, then built in intensity, becoming hot and wild, consuming me. He slid his tongue into my open mouth. What little control I had snapped, and of its own volition, my body molded itself to his. I reached out with my own tongue, lightly brushing his. He groaned, clutched me tighter.
Ira’s lips left mine, raining feather soft kisses over my face. His hands cupped my small breasts. My nipples hardened at his touch. I heard soft whimpers and vaguely realized they was coming from me.
“My sweet Chloe . . .” he breathed, his lips burning a scalding path down my neck. “So sweet . . .”
The bridge rails pressed against my back, supporting me. My head was thrown back, my hands tangled in his silky black hair. I was oblivious to anything and everything but the overpowering, new sensations pouring over me.
Through the thin material of my T-shirt, I felt his lips close around my nipple. He drew it inside his warm mouth and sucked, kindling a liquid heat low in my belly. Crying out, I arched against him.
The sound of tearing cloth brought me to my senses. I looked down at Ira’s hands sliding in the opening he had made by ripping my T-shirt down the front. I gasped as his large hands closed around my naked breasts.
Stop him now—while you still can! my mind screamed
I pushed his hands away. “Don’t, Ira. We’ve got to stop. We shouldn’t be doing this.” I turned my back, rested my fevered brow against the cool steel of the rails. My body ached for his touch, ached for more.
He laid his hands on my shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze. “It’s all right. I don’t want you doing something you ain’t ready for.”
“It’s wrong, Ira. It’s a sin to do it before you get married. It’s a sin to even think about doing it, Reverend Jones said so. And so did Granny.”
“Your grandma’s an old woman and the preacher’s an old man. They’ve forgotten what it feels like to want someone so bad it hurts, how hard it is to stop.” His hands slid inside my torn T-shirt to once more find my breasts.
“Oh God, Ira, don’t.” Pressing back against him, my body gave lie to the words.
“It’s okay, little girl. I’m just gonna touch you, nothing more. Shh . . .” He kneaded my breasts. “I’ve been watching you, watching you grow up, watching all the boys watching you. Sometimes it seems like I’ve been watching and waiting forever. Please don’t make me wait much longer. I want to love all of you . . .” His voice a husky murmur in my ear, his hands continued working their magic on my body. Gliding down my sides, they came to rest on my hips, grasped them, and pulled me tight against his lower body to feel the hard evidence of his desire.
I had never kissed a boy before, let alone had one touch me as Ira was doing. I knew about sex, but never in my wildest dreams had I imagined it would feel like this. I wanted him desperately, not really understanding exactly what it was I wanted. Knowing the mechanics didn’t translate into knowing what it would feel like. I wanted to experience all of Ira’s love, but I had been raised to believe that nice girls didn’t let boys “do it” to them. Why, nice girls didn’t even have those kinds of feelings.
Want and guilt and fear churned around inside me, fighting amongst themselves. The guilt and fear tied, vanquishing the want and winning the battle—at least, this time.
Ira offered no resistance when I moved away. “I want to stop now.” My voice quavered, my legs were weak and shaky.
“Whatever you want, Chloe.” He sat down on the edge of the bridge and gazed out over the dark water.
I sat too, keeping a little distance between us. “Now I see what all the fuss is about.”
“Sex,” I answered. “It’s scary, I’ve never felt like this. I didn’t even know feelings like this existed. No one told me.”
“Well, now you know.”
“This changes things, doesn’t it? One minute you’re my friend, the next you’re what . . . what are you now, Ira?”
“More than a friend, but less than a lover, I guess.” He sighed. “But I want more. I want to be your one and only—forever. Now the question is: what will you let me be?”
He confused me. “You are the one I love, that I’ll always love.”
“I want every bit of you. I want your heart. I want your soul—you’ve already got mine, what there is of it. And I want your body.”
“It’s not that easy for me. Unlike you, I’ve never done it before.”
He laughed. “What in hell gave you the idea that I’ve ever done it?”
I was skeptical. “You haven’t?”
“No, I ain’t, little girl.”
“But you act like you know all about it. And the way you touched me . . .” Remembering, my mouth went dry.
“There’s a lot you can learn from books.” He chuckled again. “But all bullshit aside, with you it’s easy. I just say and do what I feel. It’s always been easy with you. Till I met you, I didn’t think there was a person on this earth I could love, and who’d love me back. I’ve loved you from the minute I first saw you sitting out there on that log. I think I would’ve died if you hadn’t loved me too.” He seemed so vulnerable tonight, not at all like the fearless Ira I was used to.
I reached across the space separating us and took his hand in mine. “And I do love you, more than anything or anybody. But it’s still wrong to do it. Reverend Jones says we would go to hell and burn forever.”
“You said awhile ago that even wanting to fuck is a sin,” he pointed out. “Looks like me and you are already on a downhill slide, little girl.” He wove his fingers between mine.
“You’re right, I did, but—”
“If you’re called the name, you might as well play the game.”
“Even if it wasn’t a sin, it still scares me, sort of. I’ve heard it hurts.”
“That’s only the first time, and it ain’t supposed to hurt bad, just a little.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re not the one who’s going to get hurt.”
I heard the smile in his voice. “You’ve got me there, little girl. Look, I ain’t trying to push you, and I won’t. I’ll wait till you’re ready, however long it takes.” His voice hardened. “But I won’t let some asshole take what’s mine. All of you belongs to me, no one else.”
“Only you, Ira. Always.” I smothered the apprehension trying to rise inside me. I refused to hear the implied threats in his words, only the love that I craved so fiercely.
I thought about Bubba Higgins. I thought about what the hand I held had done to him because of me, because of his love for me. It was a twisted love, I knew, but at least, it was love.
I knew what Ira had done to Bubba was wrong, terribly wrong, and so was my silence. But my sorrow and guilt were such small things compared to my love for him.
At the end of the week, Granny and I attended Bubba’s funeral. Underneath a cloudless blue sky, in the little cemetery in back of the church, we watched as his casket was lowered into the ground. His mother and sister wailed their grief, while his father, large and red-haired like the son, comforted them.
Seeing their pain, knowing I was partly to blame, was almost more than I could bear. But my knowledge of what would happen to Ira if I said anything kept me silent. And telling what had really happened to Bubba wouldn’t bring him back. All it would do was separate Ira and me.
My mind whispered to my conscience, Leave it alone, let sleeping dogs lie.
I told myself it would never happen again, that it was a one-time thing. It had been an accident; he had just meant to scare Bubba so he would leave me alone. Ira wasn’t a murderer.
We can convince ourselves of anything if we wish it to be true bad enough.
To be continued . . .