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A Secret Rage, Page 2

Charlaine Harris

  When I was a senior at Miss Beacham’s, my father died of a heart attack in his office. Six months later, my mother remarried. The tragedies were too close. I didn’t absorb either of them for years.

  I went home once following my mother’s remarriage. I hoped she needed me despite her new husband, Jay Chalmers. The second day I was home, my mother left to attend some bridge-club function. Thank God the builder had installed sturdy doors with sturdy locks. I had to stay in the bathroom for two hours, until Jay passed out. (He drank, too.) It was mostly dirty talk, and a clumsy attempt to kiss me; but quite enough, from an older man, to terrify a seventeen-year-old. Though he hadn’t managed to lay a finger on me, I felt dirty and guilty; I was very young. That evening, I packed my bags and made Mother take me to the bus station. I trumped up a story about having forgotten some school committee meeting for which I had to return early. When Mimi came back from her own weekend at home, I told her what had happened. Then I threw up.

  I’d always planned on going to Houghton College with Mimi. Since the college had been founded by her great-grandfather, naturally she had been enrolled from birth. But Mother and Jay were spending Mother’s portion of what my father had left as if there were no tomorrow; and since I wouldn’t inherit my share till I became twenty-one, I had no money of my own yet. His own shame and guilt having crystallized into hostility, Jay told me there just wasn’t enough for Houghton’s steep tuition. So I enrolled in an obscure, cheaper college, living carefully and earning a little extra from modeling for department stores and regional magazine ads, as I’d begun doing at Miss Beacham’s.

  One of the store buyers casually remarked that I should go to New York and try my hand at professional modeling. The idea took hold. I needed a change, and at that point college meant very little to me. I was about to turn twenty-one; and I’d be receiving a small steady income from investments my father had made in my name, plus a moderate lump sum.

  I vividly remember calling Mimi in her dorm room at Houghton to tell her about my resolution. She was stunned by my courage. I was, too. It was the bravado of sheer ignorance. Even now, it seems amazing to me that the city didn’t chew me up and spit me out.

  For the first two months, my heart was constantly in my mouth. Where I came from, New York qualified as a synonym for hell. It had the glamour of hell, though. Inadequately armed with a little money and a short list of names, I scuttled through the streets of the Big City.

  Luckily for me, two of those names on my list paid off. A former fraternity brother of my father’s helped me find a place to live, fed me some meals and some invaluable advice, and withdrew his hands when I shook my head. A connection of the buyer’s steered me to a reputable agency who liked my looks.

  And I caught on. Within a year, I was able to move out of the hole I’d been sharing with three other women, into my own place. I slowly acquired the most beautiful furniture and rugs I could afford: that was very important to me. I bought books. I began to write a little myself. I imagine I was trying to refute the ‘beautiful but dumb’ image that clings to models.

  That year was a golden year. I was given up utterly to the mirror.

  Toward the end of that year, which had been a big one for Mimi too, I returned to Knolls for her first wedding. The groom was a down-home good ol’ boy she’d met at Houghton.

  In a moment of absolute insanity, I picked an outrageous dress to wear to the rehearsal dinner. I was far too full of myself as a glamorous model. That dress was the most serious social mistake I had ever made.

  I brazened it out, though I almost began screaming the fifth time I heard Mimi’s mother murmur, ‘Well, you know, she is a New York model.’ (Elaine was defending Mimi, not me.) I realized that for years I would be ‘that friend of Mimi’s who wore that dress to Mimi’s rehearsal dinner.’ I knew my home ground.

  I drank too much that night, rare for me with Mother’s example before my eyes. And I alternated sulking with self-reproach all the way back to New York.

  At Mimi’s second wedding – the good ol’ boy had lasted eight months, Mimi’s mother talked the marriage to death – I wore a completely proper, even severe, outfit. Even after the passage of two years, I wasn’t about to forget my lesson. It did help a lot; I read that in the approving smiles and extra pats on the shoulder, the little nods the ladies gave each other. But my redemption had less exposure than my damnation, since this was a much smaller wedding, of course. It was ‘solemnized’ in the living room of Celeste’s big house.

  Since Mimi was coming down the stairs alone, having vetoed attendants altogether, I sat with Celeste. We skirted our fears for Mimi (we didn’t like Richard, we had decided after a little conference) by laying bets on how long the marriage would last. Celeste bet on Richard’s doing something unforgivable in the first two years. I laid my money on Mimi’s pride and gave it three.

  The marriage dragged on for almost four years; and when Richard decamped to Albuquerque, Celeste post-humously owed me five dollars.


  AS A CHILD, I’d always imagined that the Memphis airport looked like champagne glasses cast in concrete. I still thought of it that way, though I was now far more familiar with champagne glasses.

  It was a pleasure to be in it again, a delight to see Mimi waiting for me as I emerged from the gate. We held each other tight with a pure joy I had almost forgotten.

  When I stepped out of the terminal, I knew I was home. There’d been tinges of fall in New York. It was hot as hell, full summer, in Memphis. I began sweating as we loaded my bags into the trunk of Mimi’s Chevrolet. The sweat became the signal of homecoming. I took a deep lungful of the heavy humid air that clings to the skin like a soggy body stocking.

  After the initial shrieking and hugging and inquiries about my trip, Mimi and I were a little shy with each other. To get past the inevitable period of adjustment to each other’s physical presence, Mimi told me about the changes in Memphis. The Peabody Hotel had been reopened. The population had grown. The crime rate was up. Elvis Presley’s death had gradually made Whitehaven, suburban site of Gracelands, a traffic nightmare and a tourist trap. But Memphis would always be dear to us from our years at Miss Beacham’s.

  ‘And Knolls?’ I asked. ‘How many Seven-Elevens now?’

  ‘One bona fide and two imitations. Quickie Snackie Pickies, or Stomp ’n Grabs, or some such abominations,’ Mimi said sadly. ‘And a Burger King, and a Hardee’s, and two McDonald’s – I guess because of the college. But they can’t come close to the campus,’ she said in clear triumph. ‘It’s all residential for blocks. Zoned, by God! Signed, sealed, and delivered!’

  Getting Knolls zoned had been Mimi’s latest battle. No one had ever seen the need before.

  ‘Maybe a little inconvenient for students without a car,’ I suggested, pokerfaced.

  ‘Tough luck,’ said Mimi callously, scanning her entrance to the expressway with care. And quite rightly: Memphis drivers tend to have very individual styles.

  She expanded on the zoning battle when we were safely heading east. The whole brouhaha had been set off – the gauntlet flung down – when Mimi had discovered a restaurant owner was trying to buy one of the very few rundown houses close to Houghton College, with the vile purpose of converting it into a so-called student hangout.

  ‘With an amusement arcade,’ Mimi told me grimly.

  When I laughed, she stared at me indignantly before she began laughing too. At that moment, I felt we’d never been apart.

  Mimi is a sort of hybrid, like a lot of young southern women. Like me. She is part carefully bred elitist, though she tries very hard not to be, and she is also a partisan who believes fervently that women are equal to (or better than) men in most ways. The clash and combination of these two parts of Mimi have produced an unpredictable woman. I never knew which half would win out in any given internal argument between the two parts of my friend. I only knew that the partisan side had an awful habit of vanishing when Mimi cared for a man. Mimi was alway
s the most traditional bride and wife imaginable. Blushes, deference, hot suppers every night. In one of my stupider moments, between husbands one and two, I had – gently, I thought – pointed this out to Mimi. It took her three weeks to forgive me.

  ‘Did my furniture get here okay, really?’

  ‘Very few scratches,’ she reassured me. ‘One broken bowl, one dented tray. Duly entered on the little form. They like to have never found the house, though. The driver told me that everyone he asked kept telling him it was “just down the street a little bit look for the big magnolia.” He’d never seen a magnolia, can you believe it? I went on and arranged all the furniture, so you’ll just have to tell me if it doesn’t suit you.’

  ‘I imagine it will.’ The thrill of saying ‘I imagine’ again! And Mimi had actually said, ‘They like to have never.’ I couldn’t stand it, I was so happy. Superficial, I know, but signs I was home.

  I took a deep breath. ‘How are you all doing?’ I asked proudly.

  Everyone in New York had felt obliged to say that to me. They had completely misunderstood the term, always using it as singular. I’d corrected people at first until I found they thought that was even funnier. After a few such laugh fiestas, I had omitted it from my conversation consciously.

  ‘We’re all fine,’ Mimi answered casually. ‘Daddy had a summer cold last month, but he’s okay now. Mama’s joined the DAR, which I should’ve expected, I guess . . . at least it keeps her busy and out of my hair. And Cully’s settled in okay. All he could find was a weentsy garage apartment, but he flat refused to move in with our parents. Which was smart of him.’

  My smug contentment vanished. ‘Cully?’ I said stiffly. ‘Settled in where?’

  ‘In Knolls.’

  ‘You didn’t tell me.’

  ‘Well, with all my own news, I guess I just forgot. He’s been back about a month now, I think.’ Her voice was overly casual.

  With an effort, I closed my lips on more questions. I would find out about Cully later. It was ridiculous of me to react so strongly.

  Now, I wanted to look out the windows at the fields rolling by; cotton and soybeans. Some rice – that was a new development. I soaked up the sights like a sponge: the chickens loose in the yards of the tenant houses, the earthen sidewalks lined with Coke bottles or tire halves, the horizon unbounded by concrete and brick, the late-summer limpness of the foliage.

  We whizzed by a grove of pecan trees that abutted a beautiful house. Its front yard would have contained my apartment building.

  The landscape grew more and more familiar. I grew easier with every mile. Every sentence began, ‘Oh, there’s . . . !’ The John Deere place, the bait shop, the wonderfully named Maubob Motel (Maureen and Bob Pitts, proprietors), Grandma’s Sizzlin’ Steaks, Grace Funeral Home . . .

  By the time we were into Knolls, any doubts I had had were gone. When we pulled into the driveway of Celeste’s old home, our new home, I had put them behind me, along with New York City.

  * * * *

  ‘A girl got raped here this summer,’ Mimi said suddenly.

  I looked over at her. I had been stroking the cats in perfect peace. She was sprinkling oregano into the pot of sauce bubbling on the stove.

  ‘Here?’ I was surprised.

  ‘Yes, here. On the campus.’

  Since Mimi was a Houghton, no doubt the location of the attack seemed almost as deplorable to her as the fact that it had happened.

  ‘At night?’ I saw a snag on my index fingernail and rummaged in my purse for a file.

  ‘Yes, of course.’ It was Mimi’s turn to sound surprised. Knolls might endure the shame of an occasional rape, but certainly not in broad daylight, I gathered.

  ‘White girl?’ And I pinched myself, hard. I’d fallen right into the same old pattern. The first question, always the first question, when anything had happened to anyone, be it wreck, kidnapping, assault, sudden death, or a win in a sweepstakes: Are they white? Is she black?

  ‘Yeah. A freshman student named Heidi Edmonds. She wanted to get in a few courses before the fall semester began.’ After tasting the sauce, Mimi added a pinch of salt.

  ‘I don’t know why a crime always seems so much more evil if the victim is virtuous,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘but it does, doesn’t it? Heidi was everything in her high school, Nickie. Valedictorian, Honor Society, National Merit Scholar. The kind of student we love to get. Since I’m on the admissions board, I’d seen her application. And I’d met her at one of those punch-and-cookies receptions.’

  So Mimi knew the girl. Heidi Edmonds’s little tragedy began to have flesh. I shifted on the breakfast-nook bench to make more room for the cats; Attila and Mao praised me with purrs for my intelligence. Mimi, finally satisfied with the meat sauce, turned and propped one hip against the stove.

  ‘It’s so good just to see you sitting there,’ she said.

  ‘It can’t look as good as it feels.’

  But the warm moment passed when Mimi’s face tensed again. She really wanted to finish her story. ‘She was on that sidewalk that meanders through the gardens. It goes indirectly from the library to the women’s dorm area – you remember? It’s been years since you were on campus; I keep forgetting.’

  I did remember, vaguely. I nodded.

  ‘Then of course you remember how tall those camellias are? They’re old as the hills, and just huge, and they grow on both sides of the sidewalk there. She had a big armful of books, because she’d been studying at the library until it was about to close; nine or thereabouts. It hadn’t been dark that long – you know how long it takes to get dark in the summer. But it was dark.’

  It was dark outside now at half past seven, with the season coming to a close. The secret night outside the bay window suddenly made me anxious. I got up to close the three sets of blinds covering the sections of the window. I didn’t want to hear any more. But Mimi, I decided, would think I was selfish and callous if I cut her off.

  She had always been a good storyteller. Her thin hands and dark eyes worked together to illustrate her narrative.

  ‘. . . he was in the camellias, or just beyond. He came through the bushes and grabbed her from behind. She dropped all her books and papers, naturally. That’s how they found her – a couple looking for a place to smooch. They wondered why there were books all over the side-walk.’

  ‘She was dead?’ I thought of gray hair and red blood against a dirty sidewalk. The woman had not crossed my mind since Mimi’s phone call. I felt goose bumps tighten the skin of my arms.

  ‘No, no. Unconscious. Evidently, when he grabbed her, she fell and hit her head on the concrete. He’d dragged her off the sidewalk into the dark. And raped her. And slapped her around a little bit.’ Mimi’s voice had gotten crisper and crisper, as it does when she’s talking about difficult things. ‘Maybe – I think – he was trying to bring her to, so she wouldn’t miss anything. Her face was pretty badly bruised.’

  The muscles of my own face tightened and pinched. Beaten in the face. What if someone had done that to me in New York, when I was just starting out?

  ‘I went to see her in the hospital – representing the college, you know. The dean of women was out of town. Jeff Simmons – you won’t remember him, he’s the college president now – he kept saying that since I’m a woman, it would be better for me to go than him.’ Besides pity and anger, Mimi’s mouth showed a certain distaste. ‘A dirty job he just dumped on me.’

  I made a face, to show I’d registered the cowardice of Jeff Simmons. Yet I thought that he might have been right.

  I started to ask Mimi what had happened to Heidi Edmonds afterward; if the police had been kind to her, and so on. I was curious, finally. But alerted by the hiss of the boiling water, Mimi had turned back to the stove to break up the vermicelli.

  ‘To tell the truth,’ she said over her shoulder, ‘I kind of wondered if her folks would sue the college for negligence.’

  ‘Did they?’

  Mimi dropped in a handful
of pasta. ‘Never even mentioned it,’ she answered absently. ‘Her father turned out to be a minister. I’ve gone over and over it, the whole incident, trying to see how Houghton could have prevented what happened. But I swear I just can’t think of anything we could’ve done, Nick. The sidewalk was well lit. The actual distance the girl had to walk wasn’t that far. And she could’ve called one of the security guards to walk her back to the dorm. That’s in the brochure for freshman women. Not that I think any of them have ever done that, because this has always been such a quiet town. But it is possible to have an escort if you want one.’

  I mentally filed that fact. I would begin attending Houghton in a few days. Maybe I would be working late at the library some nights.

  I had to ask one last question. ‘She couldn’t identify the guy?’

  ‘She never saw his face,’ Mimi answered tersely.

  The goose bumps spread to my chest. Celeste would have said someone was walking on my grave. I lifted the orange tabby, Attila, and hugged him for the comfort of his warm fur. He wriggled indignantly out of my arms and stalked to the kitchen door, loudly requesting that Mimi let him out.

  And I watched Mimi double-lock the door behind the cat’s retreating tail.

  That one small act told me how much Mimi had taken to heart what had occurred in the late-summer darkness on Houghton campus. I could not remember a house in Knolls ever being locked, all the years I’d visited Mimi.

  * * * *

  We talked half the night. We’d faithfully written and called each other during all the years of separation; but even communication as constant as ours didn’t equal face-to-face conversation.

  Mimi rehashed Richard’s defection. I decided that though she was sincerely grieved, mostly her pride had suffered. Mimi had always been the leaver, not the left, even when she’d had to scramble to get out the door first.