When you first got to the place, it wasnt that intimidating. Small
brown house, off to the side of highway 16, it stood naked on the landscape,
without anything attractive or protective around it. No trees, no flowers.
Surrounded in tall grass half the year, and dead ground for the other
half, there wasnt anything inviting about the place. In fact, it
pretty much gave the air of careless neglect, as though the owners just
hadnt paid it much mind for the last several years or so.
She lived there. Funny that after all these years, thats all I can
think of her as: she. Her name was Kathy, but when I think of her, I never
call her that. Its as though its too plain for her. In my
minds eye, it doesnt give any idea to the girl that she was.
Her pa owned the place and the kids, but that was pretty much all that
he gave them: a house and his name. He was a drunk, the worst kind too.
He was sober from around eight in the morning to about two in the afternoon,
long enough to work off the night befores binge. Then, at two, hed
find a bar and stay there till closing, going home long enough to beat
the shit out of the kids or his wife or whatever got between him and his
bed. With six kids and several animals, that was a lot of beating.
Everyone in town knew the family, knew Ralphs problems. But it was
a small town, in a small time. Everything was so small back then. Looking
back, I know that the Robey family could get protection through dozens
of organizations these days, but back then, it just didnt happen.
We considered our neighbors on major holidays, weddings, funerals, and
christenings, and in between, ignored trifles like black eyes, red faces,
bruised legs. Nowadays, every person in authority would have to report
such things to the police or some state agency.
So I grew up knowing the troubles of the family across town. I never paid
it much mind, though. I was a kid myself that year, fifteen, with my own
troubles. My first girlfriend had dumped me right before the end of school,
and I was entering my sophomore year of high school. The prospects of
a good summer were pretty low at the beginning of June.
New England is normally a great place for summer, especially the part
I grew up in. Its as though the further you go north, the more the
summers are remembered. Most folks date their years by their summers,
like That was the summer of the flood in Jonesville, or you
remember the blizzard of 76. It was just before that summer when
Bob let the fireworks go too early! Its particularly great
if youre a kid, because you dont waste any of the good weather.
Once school starts, the weather starts turning cold again, so theres
not much chance of any more fun happening anyway.
At any rate, I remember that it was a pretty June morning. I was walking
to Lees Hardware, to pick up some penny nails for my mother, who
was in one of her decorating moods again. They hit her on sunny days,
when theres a hint of crispness in the air, and the birds are singing
I had been thinking of my ex-girl, Wanda, and how much fun Id been
planning on having with her and our friends, the things wed said
wed do together, and feeling pretty miserable. I was walking with
my head down, not really caring much what happened to me, when I ran smack
into someone. When I looked up I saw the oldest Robey.
I muttered something, Im sorry I think, and moved to keep on, when
I heard her breath catch, like it does when people are crying. Id
been brought up pretty good, and I knew that it was the polite thing to
do to ask if the person was all right. So I did.
Im fine, thank-you, she gasped, and I knew that there
was no way that I was going to be able to gracefully bow out.
I took her arm and led her over to the side of the sidewalk to sit down,
searching my pockets all the while, hoping to find a clean handkerchief
to offer her. Too late, she had her own, which was gray with wear, and
she was using it to blow her nose. I sat down next to her, trying to look
concerned, but feeling the whole time completely out of place. I barely
knew the girl, and I certainly didnt know her problems. I was terrified
that she would begin spilling it all on me, and then what was I going
She handled herself beautifully, however, with more grace than I. After
recovering sufficiently, she gave me a tremulous smile, and thanked me
for my help. Then she walked away.
I remember getting to Lees and asking for the nails. I took them
home to my mother, who in her flurry of tasks never noticed that I had
taken a few minutes longer than necessary.
But mostly I remember the feeling of pity for Kathy. It wasnt a
feeling that I was terribly familiar with. And I think pity is too shallow
a word. She was a tall girl for her age, reaching puberty faster than
other girls in our class, growing taller than most of the boys. We all
knew the rumors around town about her home life, but most of us were too
well brought up to tease her much about it. Besides, you never got the
idea that it really bothered her, her dads drinking, or the abuse.
She always carried herself with a dignity that you just kind of took for
granted. So to see her practically burst into tears in front of me took
me back a bit.
After dinner that night, I stayed in the kitchen to help my mom with the
dishes. That I stayed voluntarily says a lot for the state of my mind.
It certainly caught her notice.
Jeff, whats up? You cant be actually volunteering to
help me, can you? The look on her face would have normally annoyed
me, but I barely noticed tonight.
Yeah. You want me to wash or rinse?
Boy, she looked freaked out. Ill wash. You rinse.
I stood next to her for a while, the two of us working in silence. I was
trying to figure out how the hell I was going to start a conversation
with her, and get around to what I wanted to talk about when she started
Come on, you didnt stay and help because you were feeling
guilty. Whats on your mind, hon?
A better opening I wouldnt ever see. I told her. When I went
to get you your nails today, I ran into Kathy Robey. I mean, I really
ran into her. And then the weirdest thing happened. She started crying.
Ive never seen her cry. And she didnt tell me why either.
She stopped eventually, and thanked me for helping and then she left.
She didnt say anything for a while, but I got the idea that she
knew more than she was going to tell. When she finally did say something,
it was as though she were speaking in code.
Kathy Robey is a good girl. Shes going to need some friends
I went to bed that night a very confused young man. It didnt make
any sense, my mother saying that. Everyone in town knew that for all Ralphs
faults, his eldest daughter was a good kid. There wasnt any question
about it. The grocer and the meat man were always saying how polite she
was, and how she kept the little kids in line when the family went to
the store. Old ladies from the church were always blessing her and saying
that she was a real help to her ma. And if anyone mentioned an oversight
in the care of the children, someone else would invariably say that she
did the best she could under the circumstances, all the while shaking
Kathy was a pretty good student, not a shining star, but certainly toward
the front of the pack. Id had her in a couple of classes the year
before and she was pretty sharp, picking up on a lot of details the rest
of us missed. Teachers were very concerned that she be able to go to college
when it was time, and I just knew that they were secretly plotting a way
to get her there.
So what could my mother mean? I stayed awake a while, trying to figure
it out, then finally gave up in frustration.
It was another beautiful day, and Id taken off on my bike after
lunch, ready to ride until sundown, just to burn some energy and get my
mind off Wanda. That girl had entangled herself in the membranes of my
brain, and I was pretty sure that nothing short of a hurricane was going
to dislodge her. Little did I know, I was riding straight for it.
I rode toward the end of town, heading past the Robey house. Highway 16
turns to some incredible dirt roads a few miles past there, and I wanted
to discover another hidden sanctuary out back. As I made the bend right
before the house, I nearly ran into a car that was careening wildly on
the road, weaving back and forth. It was driven by a madman, and I tore
through the brush toward the drain ditch, nearly blinded by terror.
I landed spread-eagled on the ground, and nearly every bone in my body
hurt. Nothing too sharp, which I took for a good sign. I waited a few
minutes, just to make sure no serious harm was done, and then ventured
a look at my bike. It didnt fare as well as I had.
The front wheel was bent into a very painful shape, and both tires had
been punctured. There was no way I was going to be able to get that thing
home without a car. I got up, brushed myself off, and uttered a few choice
cuss words to begin to express the anger that was beginning to burn toward
the idiot driver whod nearly killed me, and for sure ruined my bike.
The guy hadnt even had the decency to stop, which only served to
feed my furor.
I dragged my bike the twenty feet to the road and, leaving it on the side
there, began my long walk home. My dad had taken the car to work, so there
was no hope of even getting the bike into a shop that day. Not that I
had the money to fix it anyway. Even though I was fifteen, I was still
on an allowance from my parents, and for reasons that I didnt understand,
they werent letting me get a job until I was sixteen. The lack of
money had driven me nuts all last year, but this really took the cake.
I hadnt gone more than a hundred yards when I heard a voice
call out to me.
Hey, are you all right?
I turned around, but no one was there. I waited, not sure now whether
I had been hearing things or not. But, sure enough, I heard it again.
Are you all right?
I still couldnt see anyone, but the voice was coming from across
the road, somewhere in the woods there.
Whos there? I called.
Its me. Kathy. She was quieter now, as though she didnt
really want to give her name away. I saw what happened. Are you
I nodded, relieved that it was someone I knew. The woods werent
a bad place, but its unnerving to have someone call to you, and
not be able to see them.
I walked over to where she stood now, on the edge of the road. She was
holding a few daisies in one hand, and with the other, she was fidgeting
with her skirt.
I was picking flowers when I heard the car, she said, feeling
like she had to explain for some reason.
I remember that my mothers words kept echoing in my head, and suddenly,
in a way that Id never felt in my life before, I wanted to be friends
with this girl. I didnt know her troubles, but now I wanted to.
Id led a pretty sheltered life, and I didnt know much about
the genuine ugliness of people, but at that moment, I didnt care.
Somehow, I was sure that Kathy needed me. And I wanted to help her.
I think I made some comment about the flowers, probably something
pretty lame, but she laughed gently, and we walked back toward town together,
talking about basic teen stuff: school, friends we both knew, petty gossip.
It was a lot of fluff, but it was a beginning. And it was all either one
of us could handle right then.
She turned back at the beginning of Main Street. She said she had to get
home, and as she walked away from me, I looked after her, hoping for a
look, a wave, anything to say that she had enjoyed our time together as
much as I had. I was rewarded with both.
By the time I reached my house, all thoughts of my near-death experience
had fled my mind. It wasnt until my mom asked me point-blank what
had happened to my bike that I remembered everything. I spilled it all,
and by the end of it, she was ready to murder the guy.
We sat in my room, on my bed, and she was sputtering. My mom was one amazing
lady. She was filled with grace and light, almost always cheerful, and
caring for anyone who passed through our doors. But there was nothing
in this world I feared more than to get her angry. God, Ill never
forget the look on her face when she heard that day. I was sure glad that
it wasnt because of anything I did. She patted my leg, and thanked
God I was alive, then went to the kitchen to start dinner, and maybe to
cool down some too.
We went through the whole story again that night over dinner, and afterwards,
my dad and I went back for my bike. I dont know why, really, but
I kept looking for Kathy while we were there, and on our way home.
Shed really started to get to my thoughts.
I didnt see her again for a few days. I was bored again, something
that was happening a lot lately. Most of my friends worked during the
day, except for the younger ones who spent their free time playing ball
or looking at girlie magazines, two things that didnt really interest
me. I enjoyed sports mostly, but I never could swing a bat that well,
and as for girlie magazines, my moms face tended to swim in my eyes
whenever I saw the cover of one. I never could escape the guilt that
would overwhelm me when I was in the same room with one of those things,
so I pretty much avoided them now.
Anyway, I was out walking that day. My apparent destination was Happys
Soda Shop, but I wasnt real eager to get there. I was feeling real
aimless, and it was starting to affect my sanity, I was sure. Id
taken to reading those travel books, and right now I wanted desperately
to go to Egypt. The Nile, the pyramids and mummies and everything about
the place really. It all was screaming Jeff come explore!.
Damn it, today was the day. Id sell myself into conscripted service,
work my way over on a third-rate boat, and live out my days discovering
My brain was working out some ridiculous scheme to make my dreams come
true when I noticed Kathy sitting on the side of the sidewalk. She wasnt
crying, but she looked desperately sad. Egypt was forgotten, and I sat
down next to her.
There was a long silence, and I wasnt sure shed answer me.
Maybe she hadnt even heard. Just before I asked again she spoke.
Has your life ever ended?
Where that had come from, I had no idea, and I wasnt real sure what
to say next. Yes? No? How the hell did you answer that question? So I
waited, hoping that she was going to give me more to go on. Sure enough,
My mom took off last week or so with some guy, I dont know
who. Dads been raging drunk every day since, and theres no
money for food for the kids. She wrapped her arms around her knees,
with her chin resting on top. Her voice frightened me somehow, as though
she had spent all her emotion already, and couldnt bear the thought
of crying anymore. Jeff, theres no way out. Im fifteen
years old, and theres no place for me to go.
I had been well brought up, trained to be polite and considerate and all,
but I was lost on what to say. As much as I hated to see girls cry, I
was sure that would be better than this: watching someone without hope
face their doom. It was awful. So I said the first thing that I could
Well, Im sure that you can go to college. All the teachers
think so. They think youre a real good student and everyone likes
She gave me the look you give some kid whos positive that the impossible
can be done. It was patronizing and condescending, and tragic.
Jeff. Come on. We dont have money for food, for rent. My dads
not going to work, and Im gonna have to quit school just to support
us. And I cant imagine how Im gonna do that.
It had never occurred to me that she would quit school. I started giving
her options, things maybe she hadnt considered, and one by one,
they were tossed aside. She wasnt leaving the little kids. She couldnt
work a part-time job and support them. It wasnt possible to ask
relatives for money, since they didnt have any, relatives that had
money, that is.
We sat there for a while, me racking my brain for other solutions, and
her quietly explaining why they wouldnt work. Finally, I got to
my feet, and asked her to go to the soda shop with me. She seemed to like
the idea, and we went.
Its funny that I had only really known her for less than a week.
I mean, we had only had two conversations. But I really liked her. She
was different from the other girls at school. She was tall, for one thing,
but she seemed older somehow. Looking back, I know that it had a lot to
do with her home life. There was a gap of five or six years between her
and the next oldest child, and so shed been shouldered with a lot
of responsibility from an early age. There was always this quietness about
her, as though nothing could really disturb her. That was just a front
I asked her over chocolate floats why shed been crying that first
day I saw her, and she told me about finding the note from her mom.
It really flipped me out. I was so glad that none of the kids saw
it. God, they wouldnt have known what to make of it. I didnt
know what to make of it. I mean, I knew Ma was unhappy, well, miserable
would be a better word for it, but I never dreamed that shed abandon
us to that mon- She cut herself off, as though realizing what shed
I kind of stared at her. I mean, yeah he was rotten, but he was still
her dad. She continued.
I figured right then what would happen. Dad only went to work cause
Ma sorta made him, and now that he didnt have to, I knew he wouldnt.
But there was still the kids. And, God, I didnt want to give up
school. I mean, its the only time away I get. But I decided that
if I get a job, Ill still get that time away, only now Ill
be getting paid for it. She said that with a little bit of a smile,
as though she were trying to convince herself.
I nodded. It made sense. But where are you going to work? Theres
not much around here, is there?
She shrugged. I dont know. I have to still check that out.
I could tell that she was getting tired of talking about this, so I changed
the subject to my near miss the other day. That brought us to my bike,
and the daisies, and a host of other topics that kept us talking for almost
When we realized what time it was, we both needed to get going it. As
I left her, I was a bit in shock. Id never really had a girl for
a friend before, and I was really enjoying this. I mean, we talked for
two hours! And we hadnt kissed or held hands or anything. I had
never heard of such a thing, and I was pretty sure that none of my friends
at school had either. Growing up, Id gone straight from thinking
girls had cooties to thinking of girls as dates, with no stops in between.
That night I thought about it some more. I loved my bedroom, because it
was so easy to think in. My bed, which was next to my window, was in a
perfect position to see the moon at night, and since I normally took awhile
to fall asleep anyway, I would watch the sky and find constellations.
As I lay there, I tried once again to figure a way out of Kathys
situation. There just had to be something else that she could try. By
the time I fell asleep, I knew there was nothing.
The next morning, I went searching for my mom. She was in the living room,
arranging some fresh flowers from the garden. She looked so pretty standing
there that I just watched her for a while, moving around the room like
a dancer in a pretty yellow dress. She caught sight of me out of the corner
of her eye.
Well, good morning Jeff. How did you sleep?
Oh good. I have to go to the Ladies Aid meeting this morning,
and I should be back in time for lunch. If not, theres some bologna
and cheese in the fridge. What are your plans for the day?
I really need to talk to you at some point.
She was good, my mom. She never let a moment go by with something that
had to be talked about. I immediately had her full attention.
She led me to the couch. Tell me.
So I did. All about Kathys troubles and how wed tried to come
up with solutions, and how nothing was working. I told her about how I
felt about her, as a friend and all, and she smiled sweetly and patted
my knee. And when I told her I didnt know what to do, she didnt
I waited for a while and she still didnt talk. It was so sad, waiting
for her to say something, and somehow knowing that nothing was going to
be said. Finally, she said something about praying for the Robey family,
and then she left.
I felt really let down. My mom had always had the answer, and now, with
probably the most important problem in my young life, she had nothing
to say. I was growing up.
I went to town again, hoping to see Kathy, which I did. We walked all
over town together, and we talked about us. What we liked, what we didnt.
Who we admired, and places we wanted to go. It was wonderful, fantastical.
Finding out these things, these dreams that we each had buried inside.
Wanda and I had never talked like this. The only thing wed ever
done was neck, and then that was only the one time.
But I didnt want to neck with Kathy. She just wasnt the kind
of girl you did that sort of thing with. Not that she was prissy, just
that I respected her. Wanda was, well, she was the type of girl who would
be easy some day. I mean, you could tell that right now. Every boy knew
it, and thats why theyd been so jealous when I started going
out with her.
We were together every day that week. We packed a picnic lunch one day,
and went out by the pond to go swimming. We found some poles another day,
and went back to go fishing. We didnt catch much, but what we did
catch, we ate on the spot, cooking it over the fire.
By the end of the second week, I was gone on her. Everything she did amazed
me. The way she held her head, and the way she laughed. The light in her
eyes was enough to make my heart burst just to see it. There wasnt
a thing about this girl that I didnt love.
Thats when she told me shed found a job.
It was part-time, but there was the possibility of someday going full-time.
The pay wasnt great, but the Robeys had been living off of
charity for the last few weeks, so anything was better than that. She
wasnt jumping up and down with excitement, but she was relieved.
Anyone could see that.
We were walking down by the pond that day, and I reached for her hand.
It was the first time Id ever done so, and the touch of her fingers
sent an electric current through me that Id never felt before. She
curled her hand around mine, and we walked up and down the beach, her
head resting lightly on my arm.
When do you start?
Not until next Monday. Ill be getting paid every week, so
thatll be good.
We were quiet again, just enjoying this time together. Then, after a few
more minutes, she led me to a large rock in the shade. She sat down, pulling
me beside her, and putting my arm around her shoulder.
We watched the water for a long time. I was thinking about her, and how
very much I admired her for what she was doing, giving up her dreams and
future to feed her family. I turned to her to say that, only to find that
she was already looking at me. And, without thinking it all through, I
It was the sweetest kiss Ive ever known. She had turned her head,
and we melted together, caught up in the moment. My arm was cradling her
against me, and we were just pulling away when I heard someone say Lovers
in the most degrading and dirty way possible.
We practically jumped apart in shock, turning to find Ralph Robey himself
standing in front of us with his shotgun. He reeked of liquor and his
gun was loaded. I leapt to my feet, exclaiming how it was all my fault
and she hadnt done anything, when the barrel of that gun came up.
Back away boy. Shes had this comin a long time.
I had no idea what he was talking about, and by the look on Kathys
face, neither did she. Mr. Robey, Im sorry. It-
Shut up boy! I know who done what. He walked closer, his gun
trained on Kathy.
You, girl. You take after your mama. She a whore from the day I
met her. You bastard girl. How dare you disgrace my name.
I stepped toward him, ready to wrest that weapon from him, but he would
have none of it. Dead drunk, he still pushed me to the ground, leaving
Kathy there to face him alone.
Pa, its not what you think.
You tellin me I dont know whats happenin?
You think Im stupid, girl?
No, Pa. But, me and Jeff, we were only kissing. Theres nothing
wrong with kissing.
I couldnt believe that she was staring at that gun and arguing with
that drunk. I jumped to my feet and raced toward him, jumping him from
the side. I fought him hard, sure that our lives depended on it, but he
was stronger. He hit me on the side of my head with the butt of the shotgun,
and then turned back to Kathy, who in her shock, hadnt moved.
This be the last time you disgrace me, girl.
And he shot her.
To my dying day, I will never forget the look of absolute horror on her
face as she fell against the rock. Blood was everywhere, covering her
face, her hands, her dress. I heard someone scream Kathy,
and I ran to her, gathering her head in my lap. She looked at me in agony,
and in my delirium I was sure that she would be fine. I stroked her hair
and whispered to her, begging her not to leave me, and then, for one instant,
I regained my sanity. I looked right at those eyes, those beautiful blue
eyes, and said I love you, and the agony turned to peace,
and then she was gone.
Ralph was nowhere around. I stayed with her, stroking her hair, and whispering
to her. Folks showed up a while later, someone having heard the gunshot
and calling the cops for help. The police heard my story, and immediately
went to look for Ralph. I went with Kathy, determined not to leave her
for as long as I could.
My parents came for me at the hospital later, my mom sobbing uncontrollably.
My dad just kept looking at me, and hugged me and asked if I was okay.
I didnt really know how to answer that.
They took me home that night, and I lay on my bed, my mind completely
blank. They say that there are steps you go through when theres
a death; denial, anger, depression, acceptance. I know its true.
It all happened to me.
It took a long time for me to recover. For weeks, I couldnt even
grasp what had happened. In one fell swoop, I had lost my best friend
and my first love. I had been threatened with death and watched someone
die. It was impossible to fathom.
I wandered by myself a lot those first weeks. Everywhere I went reminded
me of her, but I couldnt even cry. It was as though the hurt was
too deep for tears. It wasnt until almost a month had gone by that
I began to really weep. And it felt like another month before I stopped.
I remember my parents sitting me down about four or five months later,
to tell me that Ralph Robey had been found on the day of Kathys
death. They said that his body had been found in the woods on his property,
and the cops had ruled it a suicide.
What was amazing to me was how much she had meant to me in so short a
time. We had only really known each other for a month, but she had been
the first girl I had ever loved. Even at the end, when she had been faced
with her death, she had stood brave and fought with the truth. There was
so much that I loved about her.
I ended up finishing high school, and I went on to college. I hadnt
ever planned to, but I knew that it was something that Kathy had always
wanted, and so I wanted to do it for her. Every day that I was there,
she was there with me. I could picture what she would say, how she would
look, and it made it easier somehow. My third year, I met a wonderful
girl, who I really thought I could fall in love with, if only...I remember
talking it over with Kathy in my head, asking her permission, as it were,
to love this girl. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, to even suggest
that there could be someone to take her place. I cried that night, like
I hadnt cried since the months after she died. And I heard her gentle
laugh, and I saw that look in her eyes as though she had to explain something
to a child.