Valentine King dragged the heels of her Chucks against the pavement, squeezing the glossy red handbrakes of the bike as it squealed to a halt. Her heavy backpack had slunk off from one shoulder, full of campaign pamphlets that were crumpled and bent in an array of angles. Sweat collected where her box braids met her forehead and she shielded her eyes from the hazy afternoon sunlight to get a better look at the magnificent, tanned beach house. Last stop, she thought, and then it’s done. I should be getting paid for this shit.
East Erie Avenue was one of the nicer neighborhoods in Folly Beach, which wasn’t saying much. It was slightly less cluttered than the rest of the packed South Carolina shoreline; this particular street boasting fresh green lawns and newly painted docks that extended far out into the marsh. Valentine had spent all day traversing the rugged roads on her bike, flashing an artificial grin, handing out colorful pamphlets that would likely be thrown in the trash as soon as she closed the door. It was all a show: recite the script, do a dance—known as, being likeable—and make your exit. In this case, Valentine was a professional.
This was the last beach house on the street, a tall white gate separating its lavish porch of purple azaleas and palms from the rest of the world. It was remarkably well kept in the dizzying swell of summer, and Valentine couldn’t help but marvel at the way the sun bathed the mansion in gold—God’s gift for a long day’s work—as she lowered her kick-stand. Stonework the color of oatmeal was built as a grand archway over the glass doors and the various bay windows presented clean, fluttering curtains. Valentine readjusted her backpack, fishing a pamphlet from the bag’s partially open zipper, and pushed past the gate.
“‘Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Saunders,’” Valentine rehearsed on her way up the lengthy driveway to the front door, “‘how are you on this fine evening? Good. I am here to kindly ask for two minutes of your time in discussing Mayor Rockwell’s reelection in 2021.’ Wait, shit. ‘In 2020…’”
Her father, an enthusiastic member of the City Council, had volunteered her for the task of campaigning around the beach. The initial excitement of summer had gone down, and Valentine’s hours of relaxation were being perceived as inactive. Mr. King thought it would be a good opportunity for her to make connections before college started, though Valentine insisted that her loner older brother Davie would need them more than she. Nevertheless, she was the one here on East Erie Avenue delivering stupid political pamphlets and sweating her ass off.
The wooden steps creaked under Valentine’s shoes as she came to the glass double-doors. Silver wind chimes jingled from the ceiling, dancing in the salty air. Valentine jabbed the doorbell with her knuckle and tied her denim jacket tighter around her waist, waiting for her grand entrance.
“Someone’s at the door!” someone called from inside the house.
“Harper, I’m trying to keep this filet from burning—can you grab it?” Another woman’s voice answered, farther away. Harper? Valentine listened intently. These aren’t the Saunders…
“Ugh, why can’t Lex do it?”
“Harper!” The sudden and violent outburst made Valentine flinch, crinkling the pamphlet into a fist.
A shuffle of heavy steps came down the stairs from inside. “Fine!” And then: “Bitch.” A shadow swam behind the glass and one of the double doors swung open, where a tall white girl leaned halfway out in an attempt to catch herself. Startled, Valentine stepped back. The girl—Harper, she assumed—brushed back strands of her damp blonde hair; her dazzling blue eyes the only interesting feature above a dull grey tracksuit. A striped towel lay about her angular shoulders.
“Uh…” Valentine stammered, the script coming up dry in her throat. “The Saunders…?”
“Nah, they moved.” Harper snapped, uninterested. She looked down at the pamphlet in Valentine’s hand. “You selling something? We don’t take solicitors in this neighborhood.”
“No, I…” Valentine frowned, taken aback by her attitude. She closely measured this ostrich of a girl and reached an indignant point of authority. “Okay. You’re new here, right? This isn’t a private neighborhood.”
“So?” Harper had moved on.
Valentine bit back an equally rude response and exhaled through her nose, a tired smile forming on her wide lips. “Look, my name’s Valentine. My dad works for the city council and his boss is up for reelection so…here.”
She handed the pamphlet to Harper and it dangled lifelessly from her fingers, an imprint of a sweaty thumb creasing the lower half. Harper stared at it, scrunching the ends of her stringy hair into the towel. “We’re Republicans.”
Valentine sneered, still holding out the pamphlet. “I guess that’s why I’m here.”
“Harper, who is it?” the other woman called out from inside the house.
“Some girl!” Harper yelled back, paying no attention to how unnecessarily loud she was being. Valentine sighed, tucking the pamphlet back into her backpack as a mess of commotion unveiled itself from the back of the house.
Stumbling over, in one fuzzy slipper, came the second occupant; delicately balancing a glass of red wine in her left hand. She was an attractive middle-aged woman, dressed in a soft blue housecoat, with bouncy yellow waves that fell to her shoulders. She laughed—a flittering, bird-like laugh; a strange greeting—and practically pushed Harper back from the front door, taking in their new guest. Valentine was at a loss for words, bewildered by the odd nature of the pair.
“That is hardly some way to address our first guest, Harper—” The woman swatted at her daughter with her free hand, but still kept her balmy smile on Valentine. “—Why, hello there! I am so sorry about that. I’ve been meaning to come down to the city council and introduce myself…”
“It’s okay.” Valentine said, wiping the sweat from her brow. “I was just dropping off flyers for—”
“Yes, yes!” The woman plowed through, haphazardly taking a sip of her wine. “You know what, I love talking politics. I do. Why don’t you come by sometime later and we can have a real chat? I’m sorry this wasn’t the best time, Miss…what’s your name?”
Valentine glanced back at Harper, who was glaring at her from behind the glass of the other door. What did I just walk into? She cleared her throat. “Valentine, ma’am.”
The woman’s face lit up like the fourth of July. “Valentine! How cute! Well, I’m Daisy Bridges! Our family just popped into town a little over a month ago. My dinner’s probably a hot mess by now, so I gotta go but…please do come by again! We don’t get visitors down here!”
“Sure.” Valentine put on her best smile, vainly trying to hide her confusion over the contrasting characters of the mother and daughter. “Have a nice—”
“You’re lovely, by the way.” Ms. Bridges stopped her, gesturing up and down with her wine glass. “Seriously. Strong and…healthy. Love your hair! You should meet my son Lex—he’d have a lot to learn from you; doing your work around town!”
Valentine didn’t say anything, her smile fixed. Strong and healthy? What’s that supposed to mean?
Ms. Bridges chirped: “Oh, I smell the filet!” Valentine did too. “I have to run! Please come back to see us. We’d love to host you.”
“Uh, yeah. Nice to—”
The door slammed shut and the wind chimes clattered against the wooden post supporting the porch. Valentine rolled her eyes, humming. Interesting.
She walked back down the steps and down the long driveway, the gentle sea breeze tugging at the ends of her braids. She kicked her bike-stand up and settled in the seat, squinting against the four-o’clock sun to get another look at the fanciful beach house. Flanked on two sides by palm trees and wildflowers, the four-floor building stood tall against the watercolor sky and flat wetlands. The highest floor’s window was open, letting the wind flicker against the curtains inside.
Valentine, in a moment of spontaneous curiosity, found herself staring up at that top window. An alarming yet familiar feeling raised the hair on her arms—a feeling that someone was watching. It didn’t feel intrusive; it was just there. She waited, eyes trained on the window.
And there, barely—when the light caught the window just right—was a shadow of a man. It was fixed on her, unmoving; a hand having pushed back the curtain. After a moment too long, someone yelled “Lex! Get down here!” from inside the house and the shadow dropped from view, leaving Valentine alone again. Rapt, she lifted her feet and began to pedal. She and her shiny red bike picked up speed along the avenue, leaving behind a single crumpled pamphlet.
“So the Saunders are gone.” Valentine announced casually as she hooked her elbow around a strawberry soda, using her free hands to grab an order from the bar. Her older brother Davie was waiting, straddling the seat of one of the picnic benches outside of Chico Feo, a local Caribbean joint. The moon was barely visible through the thick, green canopy of trees, fairy lights strung across their unruly branches. Although the night had cooled down, the muggy air was like molasses against Valentine’s skin. She plopped down across from Davie, sliding over a greasy helping of fried pickles. “Did you hear me?”
“Yeah…” Davie wasn’t listening, his curls wilting over his furrowed brow. His thumbs flurried over the screen of his phone, which glowed a bluish-white. “Sorry, let me finish this text…”
“Who the hell are you texting?” Valentine laughed, stabbing a fork into her salad. “With your antisocial ass.”
“Shut up, Val. It’s the same girl I told you about earlier.” There wasn’t too much vigor in Davie’s delivery. He slipped the phone into the pocket of his jeans.
“Wait. Your college study buddy?” Valentine stifled another laugh, waving her fork about. “Dude, this has been going on for months and it hasn’t gone anywhere!”
“Well, if you could’ve let me finish, maybe it would.” He rolled up the sleeves of his floral beach shirt, revealing the only area of his mahogany skin that hadn’t touched the sun. He took a swig of his Smirnoff Ice. “Anyway, she’s in town so I might be out for a bit later this week.”
Valentine hummed in response, still amused by her brother’s mysterious antics. Davie, while very intelligent and generally pleasing to the eye, was not a people person. It wasn’t like he was shy either, but his natural tendency to push away potential relationships and friendships always put him at odds with the kids of Folly Beach growing up. Valentine always assumed that Davie was the same way amongst his engineering peers at Caltech, but this instance was slightly different. With nothing else to glean from the topic, she came back to her own: “But you heard what I said about the Saunders?”
“Yeah, did they move?” Davie asked through a mouthful of his food. “What’s that about?”
“I have no idea. I was handing out those flyers and some white family lives there now.”
“Maybe Mr. Saunders finally retired? He said he was planning on it last time I ran into him at the pier.”
Valentine shrugged, the music from the restaurant’s outdoor speakers warbling between them. She kicked off her sandals, digging her toes into the sand below the picnic table. “They’ve lived in that house for as long as I can remember. It’s just kinda weird.”
“Sure, it is.” Davie swatted at a mosquito.
Valentine sighed and looked up at the fairy lights in the trees, pursing her lips. She could still see the guy’s shadow in the window from earlier in the day—still feel the weight of his unseen gaze on her. Lex. Why am I so hung up on him? Valentine saw new people all the time. Folly Beach was, as its name indicated, a beach; visitors would come and go seasonally. If anything, the anomaly was she. Locals to beach towns were an interesting bunch. Stuck in paradise.
“You have plans tonight?” Davie then asked, tittering into his drink. “Mom and Dad won’t be home until, like, two.”
Valentine did have plans. “Two’s kinda generous, don’t ya think?”
“That’s when Mom said the function would end. Museum folks love to drink and talk about art shit.”
Valentine tilted her head with a crooked smile, as if to say seriously? But she had already made her plan: Kitty and some of the girls would swing by in her Jeep around eleven and jimmy the gate to the county park. A few boys Valentine didn’t know were also invited to this bonfire, which made it even more exciting.
“Whatever the case, make good choices, Val.” Davie raised an eyebrow.
“Sure.” That could change.
Valentine’s phone buzzed, interrupting her steady playlist of Megan Thee Stallion. She grumbled, blindly searching around her crowded nightstand as she tried to hold an eyelash steady against the glue on her eyelid. Finding it finally, she swiped right.
“I’m, like, a minute away!” Katherine ‘Kitty’ Lupine was already speaking, her southern accent nearly obscuring it. “Get out here!”
“Hold on, girl. Damn.” Valentine checked her reflection once more, feeling somewhat proud of her makeup. She had swiped on some metallic eyeliner, resembling daggers that pointed away from her eyes, accentuating her round face with something sharp. She popped her lips—a bright citrus orange—and slid on her sandals at the top of the staircase. “You said eleven!”
“We have to run by the liquor store before it closes.” Kitty reasoned, and Valentine could already hear the Jeep’s engine running outside of her house. “I’m here.”
Valentine hung up, throwing her phone into her woven tote, and raced down the stairs. Davie, watching TV while slouched over the couch in the living room, said nothing but waved his hand, bidding her farewell. They both had a system for sneaking out; so much that it didn’t faze them anymore.
A matte black Jeep waited just past Valentine’s overgrown lawn, speckled white with dried ocean water. The night was clear, stars peppering the uncanny darkness. Kitty leaned across the girl sitting in the passenger seat and stuck her head out, her dyed-platinum Afro barely making it out the window. “C’mon, c’mon!” Valentine couldn’t contain her excitement, squealing as she squeezed into the backseat with her two other senior friends. They peeled off into the night, leaving tire tracks in the sandy curbside.
After securing the alcohol and some liters of soda, the Jeep was alive with bass and singing and gossiping. One of the girls, belting out Lady Gaga, started mixing the
drinks into empty plastic water bottles. Valentine was amazed at her concentration, hugging the back of the front passenger seat and stealing a Twizzler from a communal bag on the center console.
“So who exactly is coming to this thing?” asked the ginger-haired occupant packed in the middle of the backseat, sucking on a cherry lollipop. The girls called her Lolly, fittingly.
“Kasey, Luke, Isaiah—the cute Isaiah from Physics, not the other one.” Kitty chirped, one hand on the wheel and the other draped out the window, raking the summer breeze with her fingers. “They’re bringing a few friends, too. Some new guy from out of town.”
“Really?” Valentine tucked a stray braid back into its bun. “College guys?”
“Maybe, girl, I don’t know.”
The girl mixing the drinks broke from her karaoke party to chime in: “I think they said his name was Lex or something.”
Valentine fell silent, feeling the hair on her arms rise again. The shadow.
The girls finally made it to Folly Beach County Park, the gate already slightly open from when the boys came through before. Lolly got out of the Jeep to push it all the way open, allowing for them to pass. It was pitch-black as they entered the naturally forested enclosure.
“Hold on, girls.” Kitty said, turning down the volume of the music. “We ‘bout to go off-road.”
Just as she announced it, the wheels of the Jeep dipped down into a small ditch before gaining traction on the coarse hummock. The ride was bumpy, scaling over mounds of fallen trees and high grasses. The headlights didn’t reveal more than three feet of clearance; cattails, saltmeadow, and oyster grass—stripes of taupe and green with yellow buds—gave way to the start of the shore, where the dark sky met an even darker line of sea. Immediately, the girls spotted the blaze on the beach. The brilliant flames licked the air, and a small group of boys and their pickup truck already awaited them. A red Bluetooth speaker sat on a lawn chair.
Kitty, Lolly, and the other girls toted the drinks and snacks from the Jeep, whooping and hollering at the boys. Valentine slowly followed them, her eyes locked on a boy she didn’t recognize. It’s him. It had to be. Dirty blond hair pushed back and wavy, knife-like jawline, and a strong nose. His blue eyes—a shock of lightning, polarizing like his sister’s—sparkled in the light of the fire as they found her, and Valentine’s heart leapt to her throat. Why are you staring for so long? Why are you—?
“Val, this is Lex! He’s an old friend of Kasey’s who…” Someone was introducing her, but Valentine didn’t notice or care. The sweet, hypnotic smell of hemp clouded her senses. Lex was turned facing her, his dazzling smile becoming one of realization. He was wearing a mint button-down and matching shorts, the wind rippling the thin silver chain that rested against his collarbones.
Valentine shook her head. “Um…uh, sorry. Hi, I’m Valentine.”
“I know.” He reaffirmed. “Lex.”
Valentine examined him. “What do you mean you know?”
Lex chuckled, pulling a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. It was one of her campaign pamphlets, looking less patriotic in its sad, wrinkled state. Valentine, embarrassed, laughed softly: “Yeah, that’d be my doing.”
“Sorry about my mom. She’s been a mess since we moved here.” Lex put the pamphlet away, gazing out at the ocean. “Hope she didn’t scare you away.”
Trying to match his casual demeanor, and uncertain of her own, Valentine looked toward the ocean too. “Your mom invited me back, actually.”
Lex opened his mouth to say something and thought better of it. Valentine watched him curiously, the heat of the bonfire simmering against her bare back. She fixed the straps of her halter top and whipped back around to the party, shouting: “Kitty, can I get a hit?”
Kitty danced over, wrapped tightly in the arms of a boisterous man Valentine didn’t know. She shot a playfully suspicious glance at the two of them—in which Lex pressed a fake smile and Valentine harshly mouthed, “stop”—before handing a lit joint to her. The bubbly pair sauntered off and Valentine took a drag from the joint, a new warm feeling coming over her; a little more confidence. “Welcome to Folly Beach, Lex.”
“Thanks, I guess.” His maddening blue eyes bore into her soul, neither comforting nor threatening. He crossed his arms over his minty fresh shirt. “So can I expect a second visit?”
Smoke shot out of Valentine’s nose like a dragon and she gloated. “What? You want me to?”
Lex inhaled, taking in the world and Valentine’s breath with it. “Well, you’ve got my attention now. I’m sure you’d have no problem persuading my mom to vote for your guy.”
Smooth. Valentine’s heart fluttered and she felt emboldened now—his electric blue eyes, the crashing waves, the smoky aroma, and the orange glow of the bonfire creating an ever-moving, intoxicating atmosphere. It almost felt as if she was floating, but tethered still to Lex. She grinned. “I see. I’ll think about it.”
Lex grinned back, and suddenly he was stunning. In the reverie of midsummer darkness, he seemed to think the same about Valentine and the yearning coming to a boil beneath her surface. He remained coy, though his features expressed something less innocent.
“So…” Valentine continued, her eyes narrowing to inspect him, “what’s your deal, Lex? What do you like?”
He leaned in a bit closer. “What do I like?”
“Yeah, hobbies or whatever. I don’t judge.”
“Man, you’ll think I’m crazy. I have no aspirations whatsoever. Everyone in my family expects me to go to college and do big things but…” Lex shrugged, not breaking from her. “…I have no idea what I want to do.”
Valentine took another hit. “Me neither. I totally understand. But there has to be something you like, right?”
“Hmm. You?” His delivery dipped. It sounded hungry, if that were possible.
Valentine rolled her eyes, but felt hotter than before. “I don’t count. But you know what?”
Valentine pursed her lips, tilting her head up so that her nose barely reached Lex’s sharp chin. “We have the whole summer to ourselves. We can figure it out; we can try new things, or nothing at all. We can do whatever we want.”
“How about right now?” Lex purred. He was exhilarating, taking command of the space. Their lips were just a breath away from each other. Valentine was lost for words, submerging in the weight of his gaze and how everything else fell around them. There was no bonfire, no ocean, no music anymore—just Valentine and Lex. He smiled softly. “What do you want to do now?”
Valentine arrived at 616 East Erie Avenue two days later, her hands full with a large plastic bowl of pasta salad made by her mother. Lex, dressed neatly, greeted her at the door—but did so in a polite, introductory manner—as if she had not spent the night at his house after they met at the party. That was the story they kept up.
Valentine situated herself in the family’s magnificent dining deck, a clear glass barrier surrounding an expensive-looking wooden table with eight chairs. An extravagant display of wildflowers bloomed from a Mason jar as the centerpiece and maroon cushions lay on every seat. There were stairs that led to the dock, stretching out into the wavering marsh. Valentine squinted in the white light of the sun.
Lex leaned against the railing. “It’s pretty out here.”
“Yeah.” Valentine agreed, noticing something in the corner of her vision.
Harper had come into the kitchen; hawk-like gaze trained on the black girl as she slowly slid the screen door open. Something particularly hostile was evident in the way her voice cut through to Valentine’s ears: “Mom’s coming in a sec.”
Valentine stared at her pointedly, but didn’t give herself away. “Thanks.”
Harper hung around for a second too long, and then disappeared back into the house.
Lex spoke up immediately, discreetly popping off the lid of the pasta salad to check its contents: “Don’t worry about her. She’s kinda weird around strangers.”
Valentine turned to him. “Does she always—?”
Suddenly, Ms. Daisy Bridges burst onto the deck, yet another wine glass in her hand, a half-empty bottle in the other. Her soft waves were like clouds, buoyantly placed on the shoulders of her white satin gown. She laughed that ridiculous laugh again and came to the table, fawning over Valentine: “There she is! Our special little visitor!”
The patronizing tinge to the greeting slid under Valentine’s skin and she forced ignorance, knowing it’d be better to appear harmless for these people. “Hi, Ms. Bridges. I came with some food. My mom made pasta salad…”
“Stunning!” Blinding teeth, though tinted red with wine, flashed between perfect pink lips and the matriarch nodded to confirm her own gayety. “You really didn’t have to do that. Thank your mother for me. She should definitely come by with you next time.”
How many times does this woman think I’m coming over? “Definitely.” Valentine glanced back at Lex for help and he, assuming the role they had agreed upon, did nothing.
“I’m so glad you and Lex have finally met, Valentine.” Ms. Bridges continued, gesturing her wineglass to her son. “Harper’s made tons of friends around town and that boy’s as boring as he can be, cooped up in the house.”
“I mean…” Valentine sighed, “it can be hard moving to a new place.”
“Why, Harper even has a boyfriend, but won’t bring him around. I guess we’re pretty far out from the center of things.” Ms. Bridges rolled her head back, which looked awkward from Valentine’s angle. She yelled towards the door: “What was his name, Harper? David or Davie or something?”
Valentine froze, digging her nails into the flesh of her thigh. You’re being crazy. There’s plenty of David’s here. It’s not him.
“Anyway, I’m talking too much.” Ms. Bridges was still going. “I’m just glad you came by. What was it for again? Campaigning? I love talking politics, but I usually end up in some pretty hot debates. You’re a different demographic, so you’d understand.”
There it was. Something was off. It was creeping up Valentine’s spine, making her heart beat a little faster. She straightened herself in the cushioned chair and feared that she might fall through completely. “Demographic?”
“Democrat, you know?” Ms. Bridges shifted her weight. “We once had a lovely young housekeeper who was a Democrat. Made the best fried chicken a woman could ask for. We had a few heated moments before I realized that her chicken might’ve been the only thing she was good for. Shame.” Her smile dropped as if she had been smacked, and the abrupt contrast was like a jolt of lightning. “I didn’t mean anything else by that.”
“Of course.” Time to go. Valentine looked at Lex and his calm face had descended, or flattened rather, into apathy. The feeling in Valentine’s gut shouldn’t have been as wrong as it was, but the Bridges’ vehemence was tugging at her. They knew Davie and they knew her too. A myriad of possibilities spun in her head, but she tried to shut them out and focus. It’s nothing. Just make an excuse to get out of here. “I, uh, I actually think my dad’s trying to call me. Probably needs some help around the office.”
“So soon?” It was more of a statement than a question. Ms. Bridges’ sunny expression was still absent. “You wouldn’t like something to eat? A drink? At least for coming all this way.”
Valentine stood up, checking the home-screen of her phone for affect. “You’re too kind. Really. I’m sorry.”
“I am too.” Ms. Bridges said plainly. “I guess I can’t expect you to stay here forever.”
Valentine cleared her throat, looking back at Lex for something, anything. He seemed to survey the scene and take it all in before extending a hand toward the backdoor, somewhat mechanically. “Want a ride?”
“Sure.” Valentine muttered, quickly slipping between them to cross the living room to the front doors. She couldn’t hide her miffed expression now, catching a glimpse of Harper’s long body hanging over the banister of their stairs, watching her leave. Lex followed Valentine out, keys in hand.
He had his own pick-up truck, gray and scuffed from age. The two got in and Valentine drummed her fingers against the car’s door handle, impatient. Ms. Bridges and Harper stood behind the glass of the front doors like some modern version of the American Gothic painting.
“What’s your address?” Lex asked, relaxing against his seat. He was completely unaware of the whirlwind in Valentine’s mind. “Val?”
Valentine, unnerved, couldn’t pull her attention away from the Bridges ladies’ shadows. “Hm?”
“What’s your address?”
She shook her head. “Uh, I’ll just direct you.”
Lex studied Valentine for a moment, smirking. A swoop of wavy blond hair fell over his forehead. “All righty then.” He started the pick-up truck, backed out of the long driveway, and started their commute back to Valentine’s house. She gave modest directions along the way, but appreciated the silence so she could collect her thoughts. She had never encountered a vibe like that before.
The drive was only ten minutes, and Lex pulled onto the side of the street. Before Valentine could say her prearranged goodbye, he lightly placed a hand on her thigh. “I’m sorry about my mom. Really.”
Valentine laughed without humor. “You really left me hanging back there. ‘Demographic?’ The chicken thing? Has she never met a black person before?”
Lex sighed, running his other hand through his hair. “The place we lived before was…really different. She’s still getting used to it, I’m sorry.”
“I mean…” Valentine rolled her eyes, skeptical, but heat began to crawl up her neck at the sensation of Lex’s hand on her thigh. She cleared her throat, crossing her legs. “It wasn’t exactly okay.”
“I know,” Lex whispered, his thumb pressing against her skin, “Let me make it up to you.”
Valentine found herself enraptured by his blue eyes, a gravitational force sucking her in. Lex was hot; there was no denying it, and she felt bubbly and hesitant all at once. It’s a summer fling. No harm, right? She simpered, finally opening the door of the pick-up. “Well. You have my number.”
Lex watched Valentine saunter through the yard and bit his lip, amused by the way in which she put a little something extra in her walk. “I’ll call you tonight.”
Valentine wiggled her fingers in a dainty wave and climbed up the stairs. The smell of a shrimp boil slammed her nose when she opened the front door to her house. Her stomach rumbled in response and she followed the heavenly scent. Mrs. King, whom the residents of Folly Beach affectionately called Mama, was humming in the kitchen; forehead knit and slick with concentrated perspiration. A wooden ladle spun in a trance in her hand, stirring up the taste of the South. Valentine leaned against the wall of the
corridor outside the kitchen, inhaling. It smelled so good that it couldn’t have been for a family dinner.
She said so: “Smells good, Mama.”
Mama’s short curly bob shook as she giggled, “Thank you, sweets! I’m bringing this over to the girls at the museum later.”
Valentine nudged a loose floorboard with her shoe. “You’re really going out again?”
Mama put a glass lid over the crockpot and swept over to plant a kiss on Valentine’s forehead, her peach-colored frock smelling like shrimp boil. “Duty calls. It’s a big week for me.”
“What am I gonna eat?”
“There is plenty of food in this house, young lady.” Mama chided playfully, stopping right in front of her. She was barely taller than Valentine, sporting big hoops and maroon lips that drew the eye away from a magnificent bust. She was a sturdy woman, singing more than she spoke; an earthly balance to the political-savvy Mr. King. She didn’t give Valentine time to respond, moving back to the crockpot to set its timer. “Why don’t you learn to cook? Can’t be livin’ off me for the rest of your life.”
Valentine pouted, coming with her to hover over the crockpot. “I’ll just ask Davie to pick something up for me.”
Mama rolled her eyes. She reached up in the cupboard for a plastic cup, a faded NASCAR logo on the side, and filled it with water from the sink. “Did you give my pasta salad to that new family?”
“Yeah. I think they’ll like it.”
“Of course! Everyone loves my cooking.” She sipped her water. “Anyway, I heard you stayed at Katherine’s two nights ago.”
Shit. Right. Valentine acted nonchalant, not looking at her mother. “Yeah. She says hi.”
“Text me the next time you go out, okay? You’re lucky your brother told me.”
“Oh, crap. Sorry, I forgot.”
“Mm-hmm.” Mama checked the bronze antique clock on the windowsill, bathed in hot afternoon sun—probably cooking just as the shrimp boil was. “I need to freshen up before I go into the city. Dad’s in his office. Don’t touch my masterpiece.”
Valentine mockingly saluted and Mama resumed humming, dancing down the hall and up the stairs. The kitchen was empty, though its character was full of life. A breeze tickled Valentine’s neck, having drifted from the open windows through dozens of leafy plants hanging from the ceiling beams. A rustic pot-rack swung slightly, squeaking as it did. The crockpot of food sat in all its glory on the counter, steaming, enticing Valentine and her stomach.
She wasn’t alone.
“Good, she’s gone!” Mr. King’s gruff voice broke the idyllic scene as he brushed by her to the cupboard. He grabbed a small bowl, whisking away the crockpot’s lid, and looked at Valentine; his thick glasses fogged. “What you waitin’ for?”
Valentine snickered, stealing a bowl of shrimp boil for herself and rushed to the front porch of the house. The screen door slammed and Mr. King joined her, his grin wider than the ocean’s horizon upon his thin face.
“Where’ve you been?” He asked through a mouthful. “I missed my girl.”
Valentine tried to wipe the image of Ms. Bridges’ red-stained smile out of her head. “I was at Kitty’s. We hung out for a bit. I was also running errands earlier.”
“She dyed her hair recently. Like super blonde. It’s cool.”
“That girl changes her hair every other month.” Mr. King joked, but he wasn’t joking. He had known Valentine’s friends since they were all babies and he usually made digs at Kitty for being a bad influence. “I’m glad she’s found a new alias.”
“Oh, whatever.” Valentine rested her elbows on her knees; bowl in hand, eyes roaming over the palm-riddled street. “I finished your exciting campaign trail a couple days ago. Got a lot of enthusiastic reactions.”
“I’m sure you did, Val. You’re doing your civic duty.”
“Your thirty-something, sneaker-wearing, kale-eating boss doesn’t need paper handouts to pump up the retirees of this town.”
Mr. King laughed, picking at the sausage and corn left in his bowl. “He’s going all-out for this reelection. Didn’t I tell you? He teaches yoga on the beach on Wednesdays.”
Valentine scoffed. “Geez. That’ll increase voter turnout.”
“It better. Besides, I met with a woman today that is interested in funding the rest of election pre-planning during the summer, so you don’t have to go house to house anymore.” Mr. King said.
“Thank God!” Valentine nearly dropped her meal, raising her hand up to praise the heavens from her perch. “I must know the name of the hero who hast relieved me of this duty!”
Mr. King pushed his glasses up. “You’re impossible. If you must know, she goes by the name Dr. Bridges and she’s got old money, so calm yourself.”
Dr. Bridges. Valentine’s smile waned and Lex’s blue gaze stung the inside of her eyelids. She stuffed her face with more food to avoid overthinking. Nope. Shut up, Val. “Gotcha.”
Mr. King set his bowl down on the porch, breathing in the overwhelming scent of cactus flowers from the yard. Even in this brief time, dampness was growing under the arms of his white golf shirt. His Parks & Rec nametag had wilted a little. “I appreciate you doing the rounds for the campaign, though. Better than sitting in the house all day.”
Valentine shrugged. That odd, off-colored feeling returned—like déjà vu, or the many smells you can’t exactly describe, something at the tip of your tongue that you couldn’t name. It was a subtle discomfort, which—though Valentine had tried to tune it out—hadn’t gone away since knocking on the Bridges’ door. She wasn’t much of a detective, either, but things were lining up in an eerie fashion.
“Yeah?” The twang in Mr. King’s voice snapped like a guitar string.
“Do you remember the Saunders? Lived on East Erie?”
“Oh, sure. The husband used to volunteer on the park cleanup days. Very nice couple.”
“Right.” Valentine said softly. “Well, I went by their house when I was handing out pamphlets…and a new family lives there. I guess the Saunders moved.”
“Ah, so they did leave…” Mr. King clicked his tongue distastefully. “The bank’s been trying to get that beach house for a while. The Saunders have lived there for almost twenty years—it sucks that they couldn’t keep it.”
Valentine looked at her father quizzically. “Wait, why?”
“I heard it was a historical property or something. My department didn’t handle that, but the word was that the family or estate in relation to the property wanted it back.” Then Mr. King shrugged. “I hope the Saunders got a fat check before they left. That’s sad to hear.”
He stood up, stacking their two bowls and opening the screen door. “I’ll get rid of the evidence before your mom comes back. No snitching. I also gotta go back out to the office later—need some money for dinner?”
“No, I’ll just starve.” Valentine flashed a small smile. “It’s okay. I can heat up something.”
“All right, kiddo.” Mr. King winked and disappeared into the house.
Valentine took a deep breath, hung up on a number of confusing matters. Lex’s promise to call sounded less inviting now. Do I say anything to him? She racked her brain. Do I ask why his family kicked an old couple out of their home? Why is a beach house historical property?
Valentine changed into an oversized Stranger Things tee and shorts, deciding to lounge around on the living room couch. The orange afternoon turned to a purple dusk, Valentine’s chin tucked into her chest as she refreshed her Instagram feed to no avail. Time had become nothing and so had the drone of the air conditioner without the voices of her parents, both off attending to their business. This was what really killed Valentine during the summer. Between the parties and blistering days and the adults still deep in their jobs…there was this. Was it boredom? Was it restlessness? Or was it that immeasurable stretch of time alone in the house waiting for some emotionally-distant white boy to call—
Suddenly, Valentine’s phone buzzed.
She stared at it, the text notification bringing up Davie’s name and a brown peace-sign emoji.
Staying out tonight. U home?
Valentine text back:
I am now. Thanks for covering for me for the party. Why is everyone so busy?
The three gray dots bounced for a minute before his reply came:
We still got lives. My college friend’s here, remember?
Valentine sat up, frowning. What’s her name?
Davie what’s her name
The three dots reappeared and then went away. No response. Valentine tapped his name on the screen and called him.
Davie picked up promptly: “Val, I’m in the middle of—”
“Who are you with, Davie?” Valentine demanded, frustrated.
“The girl I told you about—what the hell is wrong with you? I’m on a date!”
“You text me.” There was nothing but sea wind over the phone and Valentine waited, listening intensely. “Davie. Davie.”
The call ended. Valentine sucked her teeth, looking at her phone and then around the dark living room. What is going on? She rolled off the couch, considering calling him back, gaze shifting from the kitchen’s clock that read 8:37 to the left window facing the street and the car parked in front.
Valentine stopped in her tracks, lips parted. “What…”
It was a pick-up truck. She couldn’t see the color, as it was soaked in the shadow of the trees, but she knew one person for sure who had a pick-up truck.
Then her phone rang. She jumped, breath panicked, stomach dropping at the unknown number on the screen. It kept ringing and vibrating, an earthquake in her hands. She pressed her back against the wall and swiped right to accept, holding the phone to her ear. She said nothing. Her heart and her dinner threatened to leap from her mouth.
“What you so quiet for?” Lex’s voice laughed.
Valentine exhaled shakily. “Oh, I—shit, Lex, I didn’t save your number—”
“I figured. Can I come over?”
“Um…” She squeezed her eyes shut, praying this lie would work. “My dad’s home right now.”
“No, he’s not.”
Chills ran down Valentine’s spine and she asked lowly, “Are…are you at my house?”
“I was in the area. Thought you’d want some company; your whole family being preoccupied and all.” He sniffed, as if this was normal. “I brought snacks.”
“You know…” Valentine tread lightly, slowly moving up the stairs to her bedroom. She fought to keep her voice even. “I thought we were gonna be a casual thing. You, uh, you really don’t have to keep this up if you don’t want to.”
“Oh, this is casual.” Lex sounded like he was right outside the front door, or maybe Valentine’s senses were overwhelmed. “I’ll be out before sunrise. Your brother could cover for you again, I’m sure.”
What? Valentine steadied her racing heart, crouching just below her bedroom window to take another peek at the pick-up truck. It was still there. She tied her braids up while cradling the phone with her shoulder, jamming her feet into some sandals. “Now that we’re on the topic of families, why did yours suddenly pop up here? Is your beach house a historical landmark I should know about?”
Lex groaned and Valentine could hear crickets filling the void. “It’s not a flattering story,” he said, “My mom’s not too proud about how it makes her look.”
“She doesn’t need help with that.” Valentine snapped, now texting Davie.
Call 911. Someone’s at the house. Shit. Cops were the last people she wanted on her case right now. Too late.
“Well, our family owned that land a long time ago. A lot more than that, actually.” Lex explained.
He’s busy. Davie’s text read back to her.
Valentine swore and text her dad instead, all while keeping Lex on the phone: “How long ago we talkin’?”
“A hundred and seventy years ago. We had land…” Lex paused. “…and people.”
The words themselves were simple, matter-of-fact. Even the way in which it was said was as plain as it could be. But that was not what Valentine wanted to hear. She frantically searched her room for anything of use to defend herself—hairspray could work, or her heavy mason jar of loose change. Where was the bat? “So, uh, after centuries, you thought it’d be a good idea to get it back?”
Are you okay?? Mr. King had text back.
Valentine was furiously typing: Yes. Please call. She peered through the window again and saw that the truck had its lights on; two terrifying blazes of light now piercing into the house. She couldn’t hear if the vehicle was running over the sound of her own heartbeat, but she knew she needed to find a better hiding spot without alerting Lex. His location remained unconfirmed, which scared her more.
“You could say that,” Lex replied. “Now we’re only missing the other half of our prize: you.”
There was a creak outside Valentine’s window and she whipped towards it again, eyes wide. “Lex…what are you talking about?”
“Your family’s from here. Why do you think that is, Val?” The ease in Lex’s tone put a sick edge to it, clear and sharp through the phone. “Come on. You’re smart. I just wanted to come make up for my mom’s behavior earlier—we don’t have to keep playing with this.”
“What do you mean playing with this?” Valentine was about to explode, striking the carpet with her palm. “What the fuck do you want?”
Suddenly, a rough hand seized Valentine’s neck from behind and slammed her forward into the window. She was barely able to let out a shriek before a lightning bolt crossed her vision and she was on the floor. Lights swam above her, pain blossoming from her brow to her nose. As the world washed away, a head appeared—electric blue burrowing into her deep brown. It wasn’t sinister and it wasn’t friendly. It was a blank, soulless gaze; the same blank soullessness that soon enveloped her.
Valentine found that opening her eyes was a weighty task, like pushing through tar. The gentle rustling of tall grasses attempted to hush her flurry of fear and confusion—but it was quickly replaced by jarring visuals. Jesus, my head hurts. Her senses were mixing and rearranging like a kaleidoscope; never quite feeling finished or put together.
Dehydrated, Valentine licked her lips, only to taste something metallic. She looked down at her tee shirt. It was covered in blood. My blood.
The world slowly came back and Valentine took in every blinding detail—the thick marsh on both sides of her, the fishing wire burning into her wrists, the glimmering water between the cracks in the dock that stretched longer and longer—it hurt to look at. Far ahead, past the morning mist, and up a sandy hill was the tan beach house. Three pairs of feet awaited Valentine and she squinted: a crumpled fishing jacket, a pale yellow housecoat, and a red speedo. The three faces of the Bridges family were revealed on each figure.
“Good morning, sweet girl.” Ms. Bridges’ tone didn’t match her body, a disjointed juxtaposition between mind and mouth. Her head was tilted up and she held another wineglass by her hip. “I never get tired of our visits.”
“Ugh…” Valentine’s throat felt like gravel. “What is this?”
Lex’s face remained emotionless as he lugged a hefty bag over his shoulder. He was wearing leather gloves—Valentine gulped, seeing that they were all wearing gloves for some reason. “You should’ve just let me in. I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Lex, what the hell?” Valentine interrupted.
Harper lowered to balance on her haunches, her body even more lanky in the long-sleeved speedo. There was a gleeful but predatory energy from her.
This sparked panic within Valentine. “Wait, where’s Davie?”
“He’s safe,” Harper replied, derisive. “Don’t worry.”
“Well, I’m tied to a chair and bleeding, so I don’t have much faith in what you consider safe.” Valentine snapped, glaring at them through her lashes. She could barely keep her head up, her mind moving a mile a minute. “Why are you doing this? What do you want from my family?”
“Times are changing, my dear.” Ms. Bridges crooned, sauntering forward. Her housecoat trailed the dock, suitable for a deranged Dixie matriarch. “Our family has lost a lot over the years and we intend to get it back.”
“We have nothing to do with you.” Valentine opposed.
“You come from people who do.” Ms. Bridges nursed her wine, thinking. “I heard your mother’s a great cook. Mamee, they call her? Or was it Mama? And I’m aware your father works with parks. I’m sure he knows land very well.”
Valentine couldn’t mask her horror. “What is wrong with you?”
“I won’t answer that, but since I enjoy your company so much, I am willing to give you a choice here.” Ms. Bridges nodded to her children, and Harper briskly moved past them further out onto the dock. Lex faced back towards the beach house, rummaging through his bag. Valentine forced herself to concentrate, surrounded on both sides. “You can stay here with us—do what you’re meant to do. You’d be a good companion of Lex. Or you can go fishing with Harper.”
Valentine craned her neck to take notice of Harper, who was standing in a simple wakeboard boat holding more fishing wire, a plastic bag, and a knife. The sun grew too hot and Valentine felt nauseous. The realization was sickening. They’re gonna kill me, they’re gonna kill me.
Lex cleared his throat, drawing back her attention. “It’d be a lot easier to choose the first one, Val. We still have to get to your parents.”
“I’m not going to be your slave, are you kidding?” Valentine’s voice cracked and her heart burst thinking of Davie, if he was even alive. She stared right into Lex’s eyes, hoping to see something. “Look…just show me where Davie is. Please. If you just do that…if you’ll let me see him…”
“Valentine King.” Ms. Bridges shook her head, bird-like laugh bubbling in her throat. It was the first time she had said Valentine’s full name and it was unsettlingly self-aware. “I’ve done this before: tracking down my properties, listening to their pleas and so forth. I’m trying to make this simple. You think seeing your brother will change anything?”
“Please.” Valentine begged, tears building. “Just tell me.”
“He’s in the boat, Val.” Harper announced.
Valentine whirled around, almost tipping her chair over. Her head pounded, throwing her eyesight into limbo—focusing and refocusing—so that when everything finally settled, she could identify another plastic bag in Harper’s boat. It was large and lumpy, yet smaller than a person should be. Red leaked from the bag, but amassed with the fishing tackle and buckets, it could easily be disguised as bloody bait. That was him; or rather, what was left.
Oh my God. Valentine squeezed her eyes shut, breathing heavily. Oh my God, what do I do? Lights and sounds swirled like lamps outside of a speeding train, flashing and blurring. Despair filled and suffocated her thoughts.
“So what is your decision, Valentine King?” Ms. Bridges knelt so that she was inches from Valentine’s bruised face. “Now that you don’t have anyone holding you back.”
Something torrid grew under Valentine’s skin—it wasn’t the blazing sun or her wire constraints—it was pure, austral fury. It sizzled in her veins, invigorating every asset that once seemed foggy, until Valentine held her head up to fully confront the avian woman. “I will not be your property.”
“That’s unfortunate. You were a strong and healthy candidate.” Ms. Bridges stood up and turned to Lex behind her. “Why don’t you help Harper load—”
Seizing her chance, Valentine threw her body to the left, swinging her chair into Ms. Bridges to knock her off balance. The woman toppled with a cry, her wineglass shattering on the wood.
“Mom!” Harper and Lex shouted at once, rushing forward.
Valentine thought fast, kicking herself out of the chair so that she was sitting on the dock, wrists still tied behind her back. She writhed toward the glass, hoping to snatch a piece to cut the wires, but Harper advanced and snatched a fistful of her braids. Valentine screamed in pain.
“Lex, what are you doing?” Harper screeched, pressing her knee into the black girl’s back, pinning her to the dock. “Get the gun!”
But Valentine rolled over, knocking her head back into Harper’s. White light crossed her vision—and Harper recoiled, holding her head. Valentine, feeling dizzy again, staggered to her feet and kicked the ostrich girl to gain more distance. Lex had retrieved a gun from his bag and was helping Ms. Bridges up. Go, go, go! Valentine bent down awkwardly to pick up the broken glassware and cut the wire around her wrists, backing up towards the boat.
“Where are you gonna go, huh?” Ms. Bridges crowed, her lovely wavy hair now disheveled. “It won’t look good if the police find you in that boat.”
Valentine seethed at the burns in her wrists as she yanked off the wire. She gripped the large glass shard in her fist, breathing hard. Harper picked herself back up and charged, raking her nails across Valentine’s face. They struggled, Harper nearly a head taller but scrawny.
“Lex!” Harper howled, her grip on Valentine unyielding. “Shoot her!”
Valentine reacted on impulse, jabbing her glass weapon anywhere she could—until all she saw was red. It was automatic and angry, as if this beast had been unlocked from deep within. Harper sunk to the floor, twitching; the gashes in her chest blooming. Valentine looked up, stunned by her own actions, and was met with Lex’s wild blue eyes. The gun was aimed at her but his hold was shaky.
“Lex, listen to me,” Valentine panted, throwing the bloody glass down. “I told my dad to call the police last night; they’re on their way. Just put the gun down.”
“The police haven’t been an obstacle before, and they won’t be now.” Ms. Bridges replied coolly. “Kill her, son.”
Valentine blinked a few times. Things kept spinning. Why is he hesitating? “It won’t make a difference—your own daughter is dead! Put the gun down, Lex!”
The time and space between them was agonizing—spreading the length of the marsh and forever past the horizon. But at the same time, it didn’t move. Cicadas rang from the damp grasses around them and Valentine held her breath, staring just past the barrel of the gun at Lex’s handsome but contorted face. Beads of sweat rolled down his nose, and for the first time she’d seen in their three-day courtship, there was an ounce of empathy. It was small, but there. A second thought. Valentine faltered, bewildered. “Please…”
Suddenly, there was a deafening pang and Ms. Bridges’ head snapped to the side. Valentine gasped, her hands flying over her mouth. Like spilt wine, red speckled the yellow housecoat—a horrifying and majestic image of the fall of supremacy—and Ms. Bridges collapsed, her upper body hanging over the edge of the dock. Valentine couldn’t breathe, gawking at Lex as he tucked his gun away.
“Fuck.” He ran a hand through his hair and laughed softly, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d done. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
“You…why did…?” Valentine whispered.
Lex sighed out through his nose, the amusement now going sour. A shadow fell over his eyes, a storm. “Now we’ve got the summer to ourselves.”
Sirens wailed in the distance from farther down the island, seeming to lull Lex deeper into his daze. Valentine could only watch him, aghast. She couldn’t take it all in: soaked in blood, the two bodies on the dock, her brother’s remains rotting in the boat, the fact that the Bridges had kidnapped and killed people like her many times. And Lex was just silent, waiting as the police came closer to the beach house on the hill. This is messed up. This is fucking messed up. Valentine didn’t have the ability to process everything spinning around her head then. The shock came and went, then anguish, but hottest of all—lighting the tips of her fingers—was the rage, the beast. Generations of pain and madness burbled up from the pit of her stomach—as if, in some surreal way, her ancestors had risen and wailed with her in ire. She curled her calloused hands into fists, observing Lex.
Now we’ve got the summer to ourselves. He was right, Valentine thought. She’d make him pay. She didn’t know how or when, but it was a primal need eating away at her from the inside; truer than anything she’d known before.
The silver mist rose over Folly Beach and the two teenagers waited on the dock as the police came hurrying down the ochre dunes.