Chastity Britton had never met Ralphie Zimmer, but she knew who he was. The kid was the most famous person in the backwash town of Knob’s End. His presence was everywhere, from his gap-toothed portrait on dust jackets at the bookstore down to the little green ribbon pinned to her backpack.
Ralphie had been diagnosed with leukemia at the age of seven. His second-grade class, his teacher, and the principal all shaved their heads in solidarity. When he donated his Make A Wish to remodel the pediatric long-care wing at Mercy, the story got picked up by local news. His positive and charitable spirit had captivated the town and sparked a wave of volunteer and charity work, revitalizing playgrounds and community centers, running a soup kitchen, and starting a foundation in his name.
Then the story got picked up by the national news. Next thing you know, little Ralphie was on Oprah plugging his book of inspirational poetry. His words seemed far wiser than a nine-year-old could craft, and Chastity silently wondered if he’d had help. Silently, because to question his gift was like asking a revivalist pastor if the Virgin Mary had maybe had sex with her husband.
On every appearance and on his book cover, Ralphie always wore this Ninja Turtles beanie over his bald head, and soon green ribbons spread through Knob’s End like, well, a cancer.
Ralphie became a sort of town mascot. Every pep rally was dedicated to him. He rode alongside the mayor in the Mardi Gras parade. He went into remission three years later, and the town hailed him as the Miracle Boy. That was the title of his second best-seller. His national fame died down but to everyone in town, Ralphie was legend.
So, yeah, she knew who he was.
Unlike Ralphie Zimmer, Chastity wasn’t special. She was a sophomore at Whitman High, a solid B student somewhere in the lower third of the social pecking order, and she’d never had a real boyfriend in her sixteen years. At home her parents barely noticed her, thanks to her overachieving little sister Katie soaking up all their attention with her award-winning orchestra.
Chastity had never liked her first name. It felt like something from a time when women were batons passed from father to husband. She saw herself as Zooey or Quinn, maybe Harper.
She dressed as if she’d streaked through Hot Topic and Goodwill, and now wore whatever clung to her thick frame. Thrift-store-goth-quirk could sum it up. In any weather you could see her in flannel tops with ripped jean shorts, fishnet stockings, combat boots and a scarf. Her black nails polish matched her chopped hair. Bangs cover her too-high forehead (five-head they’d called her sin middle school) and she smiled with her mouth closed to conceal her prominent teeth and fat gum line. No amount of sit-ups could burn off her jelly roll, and her boobs were a nice size but they sagged like a thirty-year-old.
The first time Jarrod Belt approached her with his varsity letter jacket and thousand-watt smile, she thought maybe his friends had put him up on a dare. He had this air about him like he was doing community service walking her to class. Out of your league! her brain screamed. The thought was reflected in the eyes and sneers of the cheerleaders and preppy girls they passed in the hall.
“So I was thinking,” he said, leaning against her locker. “Would you want to hang out sometime this weekend, or like, after school?”
“I don’t know,” she said, and his brow knitted at this. She knew what the other kids would call her. It was too easy. If Chastity Britton marries Jarrod Belt, her name will be… and they’d giggle and snort. But he was persistent even though she couldn’t understand why. He was cute and popular and could have had pretty much any girl in school. But why me?
The next time he asked her out, she said yes.
Jarrod was a perfect gentleman on their first night out, despite rumors of his grabby hands. They took it slow. A kiss on the cheek. A kiss on the lips. An open mouth. And then, well, he was captain of the baseball team, so rounding the bases was his expertise.
After school, Chastity started waiting for baseball practice to end so she could see Jarrod and delay going home. Sometimes they’d hang out with his teammates, and occasionally someone passed around a joint or shared a few cans of room temperature Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Their baseball team was one of the worst in the county, and became clear why. These were Louisiana swamp rats, born and bred. Baseball wasn’t nothing but an excuse to hang out, get high, and drink. No one dreamed of attending some fancy university or ever escaping Knob’s End. They would get their girlfriends pregnant, become fishermen or work on the oil rigs, and move to little shacks down the road from where they’d grown up.
But Chastity wasn’t thinking about the future. She was thinking about Jarrod and what they would do once everyone else left them alone. Each make out session in the backseat of his car, he inched a little closer—a baseball player scooting away from first to steal second.
She could feel his thing through his dusty shorts, and she took it in her hand when he pulled it out. He leaned back and moaned, running his fingers through her hair and gently, oh so gently moving her head. She knew what he wanted; she wasn’t dense. But she’d never done it before and felt a little nervous. Plus, not to be rude about the smell but he had just come off the ball field.
“Come on, yeah baby, do it,” he moaned. His pink-tipped thing waggled inches from her face. She flicked her tongue at it and Jarrod put his other hand into her hair, gripping her head and guiding it downward. Her head buzzed from the joint and the beer. Before she knew what was happening, he was in her mouth.
“Yeah, like that.”
Chastity tried to pull back but his hands forced her head down. She tried to make a noise to protest and he hoisted his hips, triggering a gag reflex. She bit down and Jarrod yelped, releasing her.
“What are you doing? Just suck it.”
He forced her back down, and she bit even harder.
“Ow, what the fuck?” Jarrod smacked the side of her head with the meat of his palm.
“Get off me!” she screamed. Then the tears came.
“What the hell? You’re just gonna stop?”
Chastity opened the door and snatched up her bra and top.
“You’re serious,” he said. “You’re gonna tease me then leave me here with blue balls?”
She touched the side of her face. Her cheek was on fire. “You hit me.”
Jarrod’s face twisted in anger. “I did not! It was a reaction because you bit me. Jesus, who the hell taught you how to suck a dick?”
She turned and started to her car. She heard his car door open and she doubled her pace.
“Where are you going?” he yelled.
“Leave me alone.”
“Fine, go. Maybe I’ll call one of your friends.”
She got in her car and locked the doors before a sob escaped. As she pulled out of the school lot, her body shook with anger, shame, and a swirl of emotions she couldn’t identify. She filled her mouth with orange Tic-Taks to cover the musty taste in her mouth. Eyeliner blurred her vision and snot dripped from her nose.
Chastity wiped a sleeve across her face, and her phone chimed with a text. She glanced at the passenger seat where the message appeared on the screen.
~idk y I wasted my time with u.
~ur not even hot and ur pussy stinks
A white-hot fury blazed behind her eyes. Tears streamed down her face, and she hated herself for letting this happen and being stupid enough to think he was nice. She picked up her phone and bashed out a reply.
:ur DICK stinks and it’s little. Fuck u.
She’d barely dropped the phone before it chimed again.
~nasty skank ass bitch. I wasted good beer and weed on you.
Don’t respond. Just let it be.
~u can’t suck dick for shit. U left teeth marks. The whole school is gonna know what a whore u r. Bitch.
Her jaw locked, and she started typing
:ur lucky I didn’t bite it off.
Chastity stared at the message, her thumb hovered over the send button. This wasn’t who she was. This wasn’t what had happened. It was like mouth rape, or assault or something. She wasn’t sure, and there probably wasn’t anything she could do about it, but still—
Something smashed against the grill of her car. The tires jumped with a thump followed by a screech. Her heart slammed against her chest and she stomped the brake and dropped the phone. A deer. She’d run over a deer.
She put on her emergency blinkers and pulled off to the shoulder, feeling something drag underneath. It made her stomach turn. She got out and looked at the hood. The grill was cracked and smeared with blood.
Her shaky hand went to her mouth as she crouched to see under the car. A tangle of twitching limbs and bent metal had wedged beneath the undercarriage.
“A-are you—” She tried to speak, but only a hollow croak escaped. She swallowed and tried again. “Are you okay?” The words sounded ridiculous.
She went to the passenger side and tugged at a tire, but it was stuck tight. From this angle she could see denim, a small shoe, and a green cap, all blood-spattered.
“Oh God! Oh God, I’m sorry,” she cried.
The kid made an awful moan in response.
She knew you weren’t supposed to move someone, but he could be suffocating. She couldn’t drive the car and drag him.
Call. She couldn’t remember the number. Couldn’t find her phone. She shouted at a passing truck. “Help!”
She found her phone beneath the brake pedal. Five unread texts. She’d forgotten about Jarrod until this moment, but it all came flooding back.
Another car came, and this time she stood in the lane and waved her arms, screaming hysterically. They slammed the brakes and blared the horn. A window lowered and shouting followed but she drowned it out with her frantic pleas. The driver, a leathery man with dirty skin, got out and looked under her car.
Chasity stood helplessly as more cars stopped and people got out to help. There seemed to be a whole team of men lifting one side of her car until it rolled over and rested on its roof.
She couldn’t turn her eyes away from the horror underneath. The boy and the bike were one hideous thing. The twitching had stopped.
A police car arrived, red and blue flashing. An ambulance. More police. She was vaguely aware of someone calling her ma’am and asking questions.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t…” and then a blanket was wrapped over her and she sat on the road, crying and babbling. She realized she was clutching something. A green knit cap, stained with dark blood and a black smear of grease. A band of orange wrapped around it with a pair of cartoon eyes—a ninja turtle.
A policeman asked if she was driving, and she nodded. “Is he going to be okay?” The cop looked down and said they were doing everything possible, then he asked if she’d been drinking. The world blurred through her tears.
The day after her arrest, Ralphie Zimmer once again made national news. This time, his beaming smile was paired with Chastity’s glaze-eyed mugshot beneath bold headlines that read: ‘Miracle Boy Slain by Teen Driver.’
The galley was full at her arraignment; people jeered and raised signs that read “Justice for Ralphie.” Flashbulbs blinded her as she left court with her mother. People threw eggs at their minivan.
Chastity stayed home from school, left to imagine what rumors Jarrod and his baseball buddies were spreading, not like any of that mattered anymore. Her entire life felt like a dream that was fading away now that she’d woken up to this nightmare.
Her mom wouldn’t let her look at her cell phone, or go online or watch TV, but there was no way to protect her from the tide of hatred. Mom disconnected the house line after slamming the phone on several callers. Outside, reporters hovered like vultures, and so they kept the curtains drawn—prisoners in their own home.
None of that compared to what Chastity felt when she looked in the mirror. She hated that girl as much as the world did, if not more.
Throughout the trial, the prosecutor dragged out every detail of her life for the world to see. Chastity, who had never kissed a boy before Jarrod, became the whore of Knob’s End, getting high in the school parking lot, giving blow jobs to the baseball team in exchange for beer and weed. Texts with Jarrod were printed on big boards and propped up on an easel: Ur pussy stinks. Ur DICK stinks. I wasted good beer and weed on you.
Her lawyer told her to show more emotion and to make eye contact with the jurors. They looked at her with so much disgust. By the time of closing arguments, her own parents couldn’t look at her.
One by one, they read off the charges. Vehicular manslaughter: guilty, driving while impaired: guilty, distracted driving: guilty. Guilty, guilty, guilty. The prosecutor asked for thirteen years, Ralphie Zimmer’s age, dragging out her texts once more at sentencing but displaying them beside passages of Ralphie’s poetry.
They gave her five years. With good behavior she could be out in three.
The cell door closed and Chastity’s world shrank to six by eight feet with a bunk bed, a tiny window and a metal toilet with no lid.
In three years, all her old friends would be out of high school. She’d be on probation, checking the convicted felon box on applications, just in case anyone had forgotten.
In three years Ralphie Zimmer would still be dead.
Any self-pity she felt over her situation ended with this thought. She deserved it all: being caged like an animal, the loss of privacy, the flavorless meals, stolen deserts, the leering and hostile glares of guards and other inmates.
A Latino girl slammed her face into a wall and cracked a tooth. She told the guard she’s slipped.
During weekly visitation, her mom kept glancing at the bruise above her eye.
“How’s Katie doing?” Chastity ventured when they’d run out of topics.
“Oh, your sister’s okay.” Her mom’s eyes gave away the lie. Katie was in seventh grade, the same as Ralphie.
“Her orchestra doing well?”
“Oh. Yeah, no. She’s not doing that anymore.”
Chastity didn’t have to ask why.
Over the coming months, Chastity shed thirty pounds, plummeting past her ideal figure. Her cheekbones drew sharp over her pale skin, which was always broken out due to stress and cheap soap. Her eyes were sunken and dull; her body was a shell of her former self. Her identity was defined by one tragic moment that replayed in her memories and nightmares. She was the girl who killed the Miracle Boy.
Power Positive, Ralphie’s book of poetry, once again topped all the best-seller lists. An unopened copy sat in the corner of her cell. A gift or a punishment from one of his legion of fans. A poet like Ralphie might call it her albatross.
One day, about a year in, she forced herself to pick it up. The sight of his innocent face, the slightly crooked smile, freckled cheeks and bright eyes made her cry. He was wearing his ninja turtles cap, the same one he’d died in.
She opened the book to a page in the middle and read.
A Room With A View
Outside my window, the sky is blue
Inside, the walls are white.
I’m hooked up to machines that keep me alive
Surrounded by doctors and nurses that keep me alive
I am only ten, but my body is old
But I choose to look out the window
Where the birds sing.
A tear plopped onto the page. Chastity wiped it away, smudging the ink. She closed the book, unable to finish. Ralphie Zimmer had always been so damn positive and perfect. If he’d survived, he probably would have forgiven her even though she didn’t deserve it. His blue eyes on that cover were the only ones that didn’t cast a grain of contempt. Even her mother had that look at her weekly visits. Life in a small town couldn’t be easy for Mom, and their church was a hornet’s nest of gossip and judgment.
She wanted to be dead, but the thought of killing herself felt like cheating out of the guilt she deserved. She had to wear this forever and somehow learn to live with it.
Chastity got her GED a year ahead of when she would have graduated. There wasn’t much else to do. When the education coordinator asked her about college, she laughed it off. She’d never dreamed of going to college, but they offered some courses and training, and she was bored, so why not. She’d also never dreamed of moving out of Knob’s End, but that now seemed like the only option. The town didn’t want her, and she didn’t want the town.
After thirty months, the court released her to house arrest for the remaining six months. She carried her little box of stuff out to her mom’s minivan. Katie gave her a stiff hug; they were the same height now.
The world moved on, and the past vitriol had faded, aside from an occasional hang-up prank call.
She started talking to a man online, a divorced car salesman named Sam from Iowa. She used a fake last name and kept her past hidden. But he was open and honest and had a kind voice on the phone, so eventually she revealed bits of her past. She had to explain why she couldn’t leave the state to meet him, and she knew once she told him her real name, he’d discover everything from Google, so she said hell with it and spilled it all out. To her astonishemnt, Sam didn’t stop calling her.
Sam flew to Louisiana to take her out on a date. They watched a movie in her basement and had clumsy sex in her twin bed. She didn’t tell him she was still a virgin—a nineteen-year-old virgin living in Knob’s End. Some of her old classmates were already pregnant with their second kid.
Chastity finished Ralphie’s book of poetry and even visited his grave with Sam. Each day got a little easier to move on, but she knew there were no happy endings in life, only endings. You live, things happen, and you die. Death is the ending we all share, but life keeps going.
So Chastity kept taking classes and kept seeing Sam. When he popped the question, she said yes. Her eyes spilled over. For the first time in a long time, they were tears of joy.