Sometimes, on hot summer nights, when my mom kept the windows open, hoping for a breeze to float through after dark, I heard it. Hidden in the symphony of crickets and tree frogs echoing across the fields, I could hear Grace’s stepfather raping her. At least that was what I thought I heard.
I’d climb out my bedroom window onto the trellis and scramble down, running across summer grass, cool and wet on my bare feet. When I got close to her house, I’d crouch down and listen. And I swear that’s what it sounded like. Whimpers, grunts, a mattress squeaking, the occasional slap of hand against cheek. Then I’d see his six-foot hulking frame rise up, a monstrous shadow on the wall, and leave her pink bedroom.
And right then and there, I decided one day I’d marry Grace. And one day I’d kill the bastard. I never said anything to her. But in my mind, I’d told her and I convinced myself she heard me.
In August, I heard her cries traveling in Morse code on the backs of a flock of cawing crows. I did the same thing, climbing down, sneaking to her house, sitting on the grass and trying to conjure the nerve to get my granddad’s rifle. Then, like a wild angel in a white nightgown, she came tearing from back door, running straight for me and crashing into me.
“Shit,” I said. Blood spurted from my nose where her kneed landed square on the bridge.
“Shh!” she whispered. Then she squinted her pale gray eyes. “What the hell are you doing here? You spying on me, Joe? Is that what you’re doing?”
I scooted away, wiping my bloody palm on the grass. “No!”
“Come on,” she urged. She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the grassy fields where the old horse owned by Mr. Morris—a sway-backed mare a step from glue—grazed.
Behind us, I heard a screen door crash open, and a man’s voice calling out, “Grace Ann! Grace Ann, you get home now before I bust your face wide open.”
I stared at her in the moonlight. “You going back?”
She shook her head, her face streaked with tears and dirt from our tumble. “I’m not ever going back.”
“What if he was dead? Would you go back then?”
She shook her head. “Nope. I’m leaving here, Joe.”
“In a nightgown?” Her blonde hair reflected moonbeams. “Where are you going? You got any money?”
“I have a hundred and ten dollars in a savings account.”
“Hmm.” Even I knew that was only going to get her just so far. “What about going to the sheriff?”
She looked at me like I was the stupidest boy in the whole town. Maybe even the whole world.
“Oh. Yeah,” I breathed. Her stepfather was a deputy. “All right then, I’ve got a savings bond for $500. You can have it.”
I heard the old mare whinny. I sat down, out of breath from fear and from being so close to her. She sat down next to me.
“I hate him.”
“I do, too,” I whispered. “You think he’ll come chasing you?”
“Nah. Too drunk.”
“What about your mother?”
“She’s just plain crazy.”
I ran my fingers along the grass. “What if they were both dead? Would you get the house? Would you get their money?”
“I suppose. But I don’t want nothin’ from them. I just want to get away.”
She flopped back on the ground and stared up at the night sky. “I wish I was a shooting star.”
I leaned back. I didn’t know what I wished.
The two of us whispered all night. I don’t even remember what we talked about. Everything and nothing, until a pink-gray wash chased the moon away.
“You better go home,” she said. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Thanks, Joe.”
“Why don’t you come home with me? My mom will help you. I swear she will.”
Grace jutted her chin out. “I’m going home. I’ve got things to do.”
She rose slowly, and gave me a half wave, then walked toward the house.
The next night, there was a fire.
Supposedly, her stepfather fell asleep, drunk in bed, and his cigarette lit the mattress on fire.
He and his wife died, their bodies charred to blackness.
And Grace Ann was nowhere to be found.
Now, on hot summer nights, through the open window, I just hear the sounds of crickets and tree frogs. I shimmy down the trellis and run, barefoot, to the house. I sit on the grass and smile, and I like to think Grace Ann is somewhere else. A shooting star. An angel in a nightgown in a grassy field.