Lorene’s mama found her out behind the barn, under the sweet Betsy bush. She was laying there with her eyes closed. It was May, a pretty afternoon, the sun was shining, and the birds were singing. But Lorene couldn’t stop crying, she said she felt trapped and her mama didn’t know what to do. The doctor in town said maybe a change of scenery would help her. This was 1958. Lorene was fifteen.
So, she went to live with her sister, Jane Ann, in Rocky Mount. Jane Ann was a seamstress and married to Billy, a photographer for the paper there. They had two children, Baby Barbara and Tom. It was nice in Rocky Mount, the trains were always running. And Lorene could walk to the library, check out all the books she wanted about Mexico.
Lorene was shy. She didn’t talk much. She wasn’t close with her sister or brother-in-law, Baby Barbara or Tom. And she still cried from time to time. But at least she won’t on the farm anymore still having to use an outhouse, waking to miles and miles of fields and nothing.
In Rocky Mount all she had to do was help with the children and wonder if the kids at her new school would like her blouses. She shared a bedroom with Tom. She hung out the laundry, gave Baby Barbara the bottle and dusted every week. She read about Mayans and Incas and Aztecs. She looked at pictures of The Goddess of the Dead drawn on walls and pots and jewelry, her mouth was always open, she ate the morning stars.
And then one night at supper there was a moth fluttering at the screen door trying to get in. And Lorene felt she was the only one that saw it. So she got up from the dinner table and stood at the screen and pressed her face where it was fluttering on the other side. She wanted to feel how soft its wings were, like powder on her cheeks.
But Jane Ann called her back to the table.
And then that’s when Billy said it. “Lorene you’ve got quite the eye — quite the eye for detail,” he said.
Billy was eating a chicken leg clean.
She sat down and looked at her lap, “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just wanted to see it real close.”
Jane Ann was holding Baby Barbara. She was gnawing on her hands.
Then Tom piped up. “We’ve got to catch it,” he said. He slammed his hand flat on the table. Everyone ignored him, but the ice in Lorene’s tea clinked.
“Ain’t your birthday coming up soon?” Billy said.
Lorene could feel him looking at her. It felt like a bolt of lightning.
“Yes,” she said into her lap. “In a couple of days. August 20th.”
Billy was tearing up his roll, sopping up the last of his sweet corn juice. “Well, we’ll have to do something,” he said.
Jane Ann sucked in real quick then, Baby Barbara had bit her with growing teeth.
When it came time for Lorene’s birthday, Billy gave her a camera. And she brought it with her everywhere. She saw how in the late afternoons the camellias hung with heavy blossoms and the holly bush reached through the fence.
And then during the night, Billy started slipping notes under her bedroom door, with instructions on how to capture light. Then close-ups. Then texture. Then “I always think of you.”
So, when he asked Lorene to run away with him, she did it gladly.
She dreamed of Jane Ann re-marrying a mail man with a small belly, one who’d make the children pancakes from scratch. She dreamed of visiting temples and mountains on assignment for National Geographic and Time.
But what happened was Billy took her to Acapulco and strangled her with beautiful silk scarves. She gasped and gasped into the morning. She lost her virginity and took care of what would have been the baby. And then Billy left her too.
But Lorene kept the camera he gave her, it sits on the shelf. She got a job cleaning at a hotel. She was shy. She didn’t talk much. She walked on the beach at night, pretended she saw dolphins. And sometimes, while washing mirrors, she looked at herself and opened her mouth.
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips grew up on her family’s farm in Woodland, North Carolina. She wants to thank you for reading her work. Please read more in Hobart, The Nervous Breakdown, Show Your Skin, drDoctor, and Bull. Follow her on instagram/twitter: @woodlandraised