I grew up in the small town of Greenville – a catacomb of high school beauty queens, football stars with knees that never stopped popping out of place, wasted potential, and nameless skeletons. I saw it as a spiderweb, with every resident inexplicably connected to his or her neighbors in a shiny, silky string that functioned more like a conveyer belt than anything else. Everyone hatched the same babies, carried them on their backs to the same places, and ate the same flies as everyone else – the ubiquitous experience of anyone born in a small town anywhere.
There were the exceptions of course. There were child geniuses who graduated and went to Ivy League colleges. There were sports stars who didn’t ruin their shoulder within the first year and resign themselves to coaching their replacements. There were average and less-than pretty girls who managed to escape, losing only a foot to the bear trap of Greenville, and blossom under better conditions. There were boys who wound up working in fancy offices instead of manning the gas station or turning grey in factories.
Helen Marie was not one of these exceptions. Being just a year younger than me, I was able to simultaneously grow up with her, as well as observe her from afar. She had so many names. The gas station clerk, with his acne scars and yellow teeth, called her “Angel” and gave her menthol cigarettes and warm six-packs of beer in exchange for glimpses under her shirt. The female teachers in school, with cavernous wrinkles and veiny legs, called her anything from a “waste of potential” to “Brat,” depending on the day. Her mother called her “Daisy,” an understated nod to her beauty – probably tinged with the jealousy that only a woman named Rose could have towards a “Daisy” in the field, knowing that they were one in the same but beautiful in different ways.
In fact, I think everyone had a name for Helen Marie that wasn’t her own – something forged from admiration or jealousy – and she answered to them all without a second thought. Rose passed on many things to her daughter, but the most important attribute she was able to gift her was the ability to build walls ten-feet high. When Rose got pregnant out of wedlock by one of her many, unnamed suitors, she constructed a shield that grew alongside her belly – refusing to let their stares and whispers and gossip elicit even a bat of her lashes. Helen Marie was able to muster the same defenses out of thin air – protecting her at times, and, at others, giving her a wall to crash into when she felt the pang of self-destruction.
The circumstances of her birth were ordinary. Her mother drove herself to the hospital, announced that she was in labor, and Helen Marie entered the world several hours later, weighing and measuring and sounding average to the fullest extent of the word. Rose had earned the favor of the town by the time she was born - courageously embracing her unplanned pregnancy and newfound “single mother” title with pride. The women from church turned their whispers and gossip into shouts of praise, visiting her in the hospital and taking turns holding Helen Marie, promising to aid her in any way possible. The men in the town, coaxed and goaded by their wives, had started tending to the small repairs at her house, patching the holes in the roof and taking care of her dilapidated porch.
Rose toted Helen Marie around on her hip, brazenly daring someone to give her a cross or sideways glance. While many of the women made finding Rose a husband and Helen Marie a father their main priority, Rose seemed to want to cling to her “single mother” status, cherishing it as the last unique thing about her. Rose had been the beauty queen of her high school years, with boys falling and tripping over themselves to take her to dances and football games; and, like all high school beauty queens, she was dethroned after graduation, becoming a tired waitress with a stringy bun and lipstick always smeared across her teeth. She frequented homecoming games, scouting out her replacement among the cheerleaders and girls hidden under the bleachers.
So, in a fashion true to the nature of those high school goddesses who ruled the school with their looks, Rose getting pregnant was really just the manifestation of the footsteps she was following and had been following as soon as the crown was placed on her head. The only unique factor she had was her “single” status, considering most of her predecessors married men who drank too much and worked too long. They turned themselves into walking baby factories in an effort to rekindle the attention they had lost.
As Helen Marie grew up, our paths crossed many times. Rose was friends with my mother, attending book clubs and choir recitals together, leaving us to our own devices to play and make friends. Even then, she was pretty. I remember her ringlet curls – blonde, almost see-through. Her eyes were a shade of blue that rivaled the sky on its best day. Her laugh was infectious, and, as a young boy in the presence of such beauty, I went to great lengths to make her laugh – we all did. The boys in our town pulled her hair and pushed her out of the swing, hoping to catch her favor with their gimmicks and misguided affections.
When her mother finally married, it was, expectedly, to the wrong man. Helen Marie was the flower girl, and her new father, Justin, stared at her as she twirled and whirled down the aisle, looking at her like she was a puppy he couldn’t wait to kick – and, he did. Maybe not physically, but Rose and Helen Marie became his punching bag after the wedding - losing their collective light and turning into recluses. Rose stowed away in her house, hiding Helen Marie behind its walls. The few moments they emerged were marked by their smallness, both of them having been sapped beyond their years.
Justin’s unexpected death three years into their marriage was met with the same reaction among most residents – pure glee. My mother called to check on her after the funeral, offering food and condolences, but there was a tinge of happiness in her voice. There was hope for the pair yet, with Justin out of the way. By that time, Helen Marie had started kindergarten, and we passed in the hallways like strangers. The small friendship we had formed behind the pews as our mothers sang off-key had been replaced with anonymity. Helen Marie had lost the only father she had known, and she carried weight that children our age shouldn’t have to bear for many years. In the same respect, her mother had lost her husband, and she wore the face of a widow before her time. The hope the town held onto for Helen Marie and Rose quickly turned into worry, as they continued to shrink despite his absence.
Helen Marie was an angsty child – picking fights and talking back to her teachers. The slack they had given her due to her circumstances was quickly pulled tight when her teachers realized that their sympathy was wasted on her. She didn’t want friends. She wanted attention, and it was a dull ache that could only be quenched by acting out towards her peers. I passed her sitting in the principal’s office with her arms crossed and her pout, and I felt a little jealous of her spirit. What Justin had tried to break, she had turned into something else – albeit a little chaotic – but it was still hers, and she seemed to hold onto it so tightly that her knuckles were always white, and her jaw was always gritted.
Rose, after mourning the death of her husband, spiraled downward. She went back to her job at the diner and back to nights at the bar, entertaining new men who didn’t seem bothered that she was a widow with greying hair. The formidable years of Helen Marie’s life were spent watching her mother crumble, and everyone couldn’t help but watch. She was a train wreck, and Helen Marie’s teachers were harder on her for that fact – trying to dissuade her from following the same path.
I was gifted with the role of an observer. I watched her, a year behind me, punch and fall and kick through school. She was a bully, and her lack of friends was unsurprising but heartbreaking. However, despite her meanness and anger, she blossomed. By the seventh grade, Helen Marie had gone to sleep a small, wiry girl and woken up a full-fledged woman – with deep curves and hips and a full chest to match. It was astounding, and no one had seen anything like it. My mother, while on the phone with her friends, would comment on Helen Marie’s “development,” calling it an absurd twist of nature. Other girls in her class would boil with jealousy – caking on eyeshadow and staining their lips red in an effort to keep up.
The year before she entered high school, Helen Marie had already become exactly what her mother had been – a small town beauty queen. She had come into the crown far too early to understand its weight. Her looks, while breathtaking, became her weapon. She noticed the boys and men who gawked at her, and she smiled at the girls who rolled their eyes when she passed. It was a confidence that she had not had since she was young – since she was the flower girl at her mother’s wedding, twirling and whirling and stealing the show.
The incident happened when I was a senior and she was a junior, but it all started her freshman year of high school. She waltzed in on her first day, and her throne was secured. She was the prettiest girl in the school – by a mile at least – and she basked in the glow of royalty. Her status had given her friends for the first time, attention which she desperately craved, and a sense of belonging in the town that had become foreign to her. My friends would drool over her, and I caught myself wiping my own chin, amazed that we were all privy to such an exceptional beauty.
As with most high school goddesses, she started dating her social equivalent – the god of the football team. Together, they paraded their puppy love through the hallways. It seemed like a match made in heaven, between their devastatingly good looks and crowns that clinked when they kissed. He was a senior, so there was hope among the other boys that their relationship would be cut short – never leading to marriage or children or the white-picket fence – and they would have a chance to hold her hand next year.
Except, they didn’t. On the last day of school that year, Helen Marie was locked in the bathroom. Everyone was sure it was due to the end of her relationship, but, as I found out from my mother that evening, her breakdown was due to an unplanned pregnancy – a pregnancy her mother was forcing her to terminate. Her then-boyfriend graduated that night, as Rose scheduled an appointment for her daughter’s abortion. His parents petitioned for him to leave early for college, given the stress of the situation, and Helen Marie didn’t see him again. The gossip flew – with most of it revolving around Helen Marie’s “promiscuity” and her mother’s decision to terminate the pregnancy. They became pariahs once again; except this time, it wasn’t by their own hand. Helen Marie’s reputation was tarnished, and her mother was seen as a “failure.”
The ensuing years took their toll on both of them. Rose’s bar nights turned into days, which turned into weeklong stretches. Helen Marie, now dethroned and “tainted,” was afforded the ability to do whatever she wanted, and she still wanted the same thing - attention. She became wild, attending parties where she would chug lukewarm beer and disappear into back rooms with boys. She was still gorgeous, and she knew that boys didn’t care about her reputation. Her mother had proved this to her time and time again, filling her own bed with strangers and cigarette ashes.
The first week of my senior year, the upperclassmen decided to throw a bonfire in the woods as a sort of “welcome back” party. Helen Marie was sure to be in attendance, and I heard my friends talking about the possibility of finally getting a “chance” with her. I didn’t want to go, but my mother and father encouraged me, begging me to have a good time and enjoy high school instead of watching it happen around me.
The night of, I took my place on a log by the fire, counting down the minutes until I could safely return home without raising too many questions. My friends started drinking, but I refused – I never liked the taste of beer anyway. Had I been paying more attention, I might have been able to stop what would happen next, and I’ve kicked myself about the moments I wasted ever since.
I went searching for my friends after a few hours to tell them “goodbye,” and I realized that most of the party had dispersed. I could hear them, but they were no longer in my eyeline. I walked through the woods, and their sounds and cheers grew louder. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but they seemed to be huddled around something.
When I broke through the crowd, I saw Helen Marie – shorts down, eyes closed – laying beside a tree, with a lineup of boys all undoing and unzipping their pants. They climbed on top of her, one-by-one, and thrusted her limp body as the crowd cheered and recorded the event on their phones. I was dumbfounded, and, without thinking, I charged into the line of boys. They told me to “wait my turn,” but I started screaming – threatening to call the cops.
The next moments are fuzzy, but I remember one of the larger boys wrapping a hand around my throat and throwing me to the ground. Thankfully, my outburst had taken their attention away from Helen Marie, and, as they kicked and punched and tackled me, I caught glimpses of her, still motionless beside the tree. I blacked out, coming to right as they were finishing the job. Most everyone had fled the scene in fear I would make good on my threat, and the boys pummeled me until I was a bloody pulp – ensuring that I wouldn’t.
As they ran away, I crawled to her. Her eyes were open now, but, presumably due to rage at my attempt to ruin their fun, someone had carved three deep gashes into her face with a pocketknife. The wounds were dripping and gory. I tried to talk, but my jaw wasn’t working. It had been broken in the struggle. When she noticed me at her feet, she kicked away, begging me not to touch her. Her shorts slid off completely as she scrambled to another tree, so I grabbed her phone from the pocket and called my father, pressing it hard against my face and mumbling as loudly as I could before hanging up and texting him the address.
He rushed us both to the hospital, and I could hear Helen Marie screaming down the hallway as they tried to examine her. Along with my jaw, my nose, wrist, and a few ribs had also been broken. Since I couldn’t talk, I was forced to scribble on a notepad to communicate, and I asked everyone coming and going from my room about Helen Marie.
She had been torn apart from the inside-out, and they conducted multiple rape kits, as well as stitching up the gashes across her face. Her mother, upon seeing her daughter in that condition, had cried at her bedside before skipping town. My mother stayed with her, shooing away the police and holding her hand. I stayed there a week, and Helen Marie came to visit me in the dead of night just before I was released.
I heard her voice in the hallway, asking my name – her IV stand clattering behind her. When she realized I couldn’t talk, she sat at the foot of my bed, asking me questions and squinting to read my answers. She asked me the same question as my father – was I one of the boys who had raped her – and I wrote the word “no” so forcefully on my notepad that the pages ripped under my pen. The relief was evident on her face, under the bandages, and I could see a smile in her eyes.
She was also released shortly after, disappearing just like her mother from Greenville and the memories it held. I went back to school, jaw wired shut, and avoided questions like the plague. Some of the boys from that night were eventually found guilty of raping her, but without the victim present for the trial, they got off on lesser sentences. Everyone wanted to put the ordeal behind them. After my wires were cut and I regained the ability to talk, I wanted to find her – to make sure she was okay, to explain myself – but she was long gone. My nose is still crooked and my jaw pops when I open my mouth too wide, but her scars are deeper – I know it. Our combined souvenirs from that night suffice only as a landmark for a small-town tragedy - for her worst night - and I never brought myself to find her. Instead, I flip through our old yearbooks from time-to-time, pausing to admire the girl with see-through hair and sky for eyes, before turning the page.