Trent Taylor sauntered into my life wearing faded blue jeans, dusty work boots, and an attitude I couldn’t take my eyes off.
We had a bumper crop that summer of ’99, so Daddy was able to hire a farmhand to help for a change. We were all so happy to have a little money in our pockets and another set of harvesting hands, we didn’t look a gift horse in his mouth. It was just like that story from the Trojan War. We all let him right in without looking first to see what was inside him.
It’s surreal to think that if the rains hadn’t fallen just right and the price of tobacco hadn’t been up due to a blight that seemed to be hitting every farm but ours, we wouldn’t have been able to afford to hire Trent. How much pain I could have been spared . . . but then I wouldn’t have you, Manny. I’d go through it all a million times just to have you.
Being late August, the air outside was steam and the smell of the roast Daddy insisted Mama cook every Thursday carried past me on what little breeze there was. As usual, our cat, Seymour, kept busy chasing the chickens around the yard. He loved to terrorize those poor birds. I yelled at him like I always did, but he never paid me—or anyone besides Daddy—any mind.
Until that afternoon, I’d never seen those chickens do anything but run from mean old Seymour, but that day the smallest one turned around and pecked him right between the eyes. I still laugh when I think of that cat howling in surprise and jumping back ten feet in the air, tail first, as if God himself had snatched him, only to drop him.
After Seymour tore off and the chickens returned to scratching dirt, I bent over my laundry basket and got back to work, humming something or other through the splintered clothespins tucked between my lips.
Even though we owned a dryer, your grandpappy hardly ever let Mama or me use it. He couldn’t see the sense in wasting money on electricity when the sun and wind would do the job for free. I would have offered to pay the measly expense myself, but in my father’s household, women were meant to be seen working, not heard complaining.
I bent down to pin up my daddy’s undershorts, doing my best not to touch anything but the outermost corner of the waistband, when I felt hot breath on the back of my ear and a rough hand cover my own. Paralyzed, I just stood there staring straight ahead at the dirt road leading from our driveway. I could feel my pulse pounding my temples as I held my breath.
Trent must have taken my lack of protest as encouragement because his other hand wrapped tight around my waist and he yanked me back against him. He whispered in my ear with a voice somehow both rough as sandpaper and smooth as whipped cream, “This better be the last time I ever see my woman touching another man’s underwear.”
I could barely breathe. At seventeen, I’d never been touched by a man except to have my tail whipped for disobeying. I’d never even held a boy’s hand, and here was a man, a grown man, staking claim to me. Just then, the screen door squealed open and your grandpappy’s heavy footsteps pounded across the porch.
When Trent stepped back, I finally got the courage to turn around and look him in the eye. He’d been around for a couple of weeks by then and I’d seen him dozens of times, but until that moment, I hadn’t noticed the crinkles around his eyes that made him look like he was always squinting against the sun, or the small scar cutting into the fullness of his bottom lip. His longish hair was a shade darker than my dirty blonde, and there was something about the way his nose flared just so that brought to mind a fighter plane. People might have said a lot of things about your father back then, but no one could suggest he wasn’t beautiful.
“What are you doing over there?” My father stood on the porch, leaning his hip against the column and holding a glass of water that was sweating as much as he was.
I yanked up my laundry basket, still half full, intending to bound inside, but didn’t make it a step before I felt that rough hand of Trent’s wrap tight around my wrist again.
“Just taking a break,” he said to my father, though he never took his eyes off me. He stared right through me, wearing a smirk. I would get to know that Cheshire grin real well in the years that followed. It was the look he wore when he knew he had won, or was about to. I wonder just what it was he had seen that gave me away.
“You best get on back to work.” Daddy’s voice was loud as thunder, and it shook me.
Trent’s grin only widened. “Now, don’t be that way to your future son-in-law.” His eyes wandered over the front of me like he was eyeing a ham steak he was getting ready to cut into.
Those roving eyes of his sent unfamiliar jolts through me.
Daddy slammed down his glass on the porch ledge. “Are you listening, boy? I ain’t going to tell you again.”
Trent put his hands up like he was under arrest. “Take it easy, man. I’m just talking to her.”
My heart felt like a butterfly caught in a mason jar. No one spoke to my father that way.
What an idiot I was to think Trent’s bravado was because he was so taken with me. In my mind I was the princess, Daddy was the dragon, and Trent, of course, was the knight who’d come to rescue me from the tower.
With my father’s eyes on us, Trent whispered I was the prettiest thing he ever laid eyes on. I twisted my mouth like he was crazy, but inside, I was done for. I’d never had a man tell me I was pretty.
I took the bait. With one pathetic cast of his line, I was snagged, swallowing his words happily as that hook dug deep into my flesh.
When Daddy’s face took on a shade of sunburn and he started down the stairs, Trent pretended to tip the hat he wasn’t wearing and leaned over to whisper that he would be waiting for me at the well at midnight and his woman had best be there. Woman, I repeated in my mind, liking the sound of it. He reeled me in that night, and before week’s end I’d agreed to elope.
At Trent’s direction, I left a note for my parents telling them they shouldn’t come looking for me.
Despite my fears, though—and eventually, my hopes—my parents never did come knocking to reclaim me. No one did.