May by Marietta Miles is an atmospheric, utterly heartbreaking noir about a woman with a sordid past who's caught in the midst of evil as a destructive nor'easter makes its way towards her island home (available January 8, 2018).
May, lonely caretaker and small-time weed dealer, has spent years trying to hunker down and hide from her damaged past. As a destructive nor’easter takes aim at her sleepy island home of Folly, May tries to hunker down once more after the island is evacuated.
But death is in the air—not just from the storm, but from others on the island driven by darker demons—and May finds that this time, there’s nowhere to hide.
Before the Storm
Folly Island, North Carolina
May has one fist in her pocket, messing with the change and lint at the bottom, pulling little tufts apart with her rough thumb and forefinger. She holds a six-pack of Pabst in the other hand.
The young man in front of her, as old as her blue jeans, takes his sweet time. Distracted. Scattered. He looks at the register, counts his money, and stands still. Reads the register again, counts his money again. May squeezes her eyes shut. Hurry up. Got nothing to do but I want to get on with it.
“How much did you say?” The tall kid lurches to the left, leans against the counter, wobbly. He smells like a dirty laundry bin and May thinks he seems more than just drunk.
“Two dollars twenty-five cents,” snaps Pete, owner of Prickly Pete’s Hot Nuts and General Store. He whistles through the wide space in his teeth and holds the Marlboros tight in his crinkly hand. Holding on until he gets his money. There’s a transistor radio on the floor behind him.
“Record breaking Nor’easter—” The announcer fades in and out, static buzzes then hums.
“Jesus.” Impertinent, the outsider rolls his eyes. “Rip off. Cheaper in Harbinger.” Harbinger, tucked on the mainland, is a small do-nothing town on the other side of Pocahontas Bridge, last stop before Folly.
Done making a stupid face, he throws money on the counter toward Pete. The five-dollar bill floats across the cracked wooden counter, falling then landing on the floor. He reaches quickly, jerks the cigarettes from the old man’s hands.
“Then, maybe you should go back to Harbinger.” Pete steps on the cash so it won’t float away and his ensuing grumble becomes a damp cough. He slowly counts the change and gives out the complimentary matches.
May shifts from one foot to the other. The plastic tabs cut into her fingers and she stares at the floor. She moves her attention to the empty suntan lotion display. Back to the floor.
“Can I get a couple more?” The boy flips his long black hair from his eyes, pockets the cigarettes, and nods his head toward the cup full of matches.
“Nope.” Pete, still recovering from his hacking fit, bends down to pick up his money, leaving no room for niggling. “Almost out myself.”
Quickly, like a snake, the smelly thug shoots his arm around the empty bubble-gum rack, snatching a handful of matches. Loot tucked in his pocket before Pete stands back up.
May can’t help but watch. Out of the corner of his eye, the boy sees her observing, pretends to ignore her but she knows she’s been caught and sinks a little further into herself.
“I can only give out one per customer. That’s it. That’s the deal.” Pete shakes his head. “Not made of matches.” Spit lands on the register. The old man always sounds angry.
“Whatever.” Done dealing with the old man, the boy bounces on his feet and turns around, running smack into May. Shoulder to shoulder. Chest to chest, his head lowered, and looking shifty.
“Watch it,” he says, shoving her. He rubs his arm hard against the soft of her breasts. She steps back and covers her chest with her free hand. He laughs, the noise carrying across the store.
May turns, watches him leave, he’s out the door in a heartbeat, down the steps and yelling at whoever waits in his car. She tries to disappear, rolling her shoulders even lower, humiliated.
“Anything else?” Pete stifles a yawn when she steps up. Unfazed and unruffled, Pete has dealt with his share of drunken teenagers.
“No.” She puts her beer on the counter and rummages through the pockets of her wool jacket for cash. He rings her up and she gives him exact change. “Thanks.”
Outside, the kid stands next to the bed of her truck, his back to her. The screen door falls shut and he looks behind, shaking his hips and zipping up his pants. May stays put, hoping he doesn’t see her.
He pulls on the crotch of his jeans, runs across the lot, and jumps in his car, the motor already running. The Trans Am pulls out of the parking lot and tears onto the street, leaving a black smudge on the roadway. The passenger’s arm hangs out the window, flicking a cigarette. She walks to her little pickup, parked in front of a long-forgotten johnboat and trailer.
A gust of wind cuts at May’s face. Through sand and grit, she turns, watches the car’s taillights, glowing and devilish, shrink, and speed away. The faint smell of gasoline and urine blows against her. There’s a shiny, wet spot slicing through the dust on her back tire. Of course. Scowling at the insult, scowling at herself, she slides into the driver’s seat.
May turns the key and the truck can only cough. She tries again. There’s a spasm, a tired grinding noise followed by absolute nothing. She leans over, resting her forehead on the steering wheel, and tries once more. Come on. The engine sputters, kicks, and jerks to life. Thank Jesus.
She heads off in the same direction as the Trans Am, turns on the radio. Folly only pulls in two stations, one is country and one is oldies. Neither is very good, too much talk, but it doesn’t matter. Anything’ll do, she just wants to hear something other than her own thoughts.
Instead of music, the canned sound of typewriters working all at once fills the cab. A very serious sounding announcer breaks in excitedly and she shuts it off.
She makes the turn onto Bay Avenue, heading south. Bay is the main road in and out of town and it follows the length of Folly. There is a narrow strip of land and sand on one side of the street butting against the sound. Here is the trailer park, storage depot, and an empty lot where people sell used boats and cars. Motels and hostels, restaurants and arcades line the other side of Bay with neighborhoods behind, framed by beaches and then the Atlantic.
The ferry terminal, sound-side, marks the halfway point between north and south. The northern end ascends, following a sharp slope that leads to clear vistas of the ocean and mainland, pockets of pine trees and myrtles. North is where most folks would rather be but South Bay is where most end up.
North Bay is high ground, up and away from floods and surges. When it rains so much and the island swamps, Bay Avenue becomes a rushing, white-capped river, the collecting rainwater barreling south. South, where the vacation houses rent by the week and occupants bring their own linens, where every house smells like fried fish and the carpets are stained with whiskey and beer. South Bay is where May lives.
With summer over and only a handful of locals remaining, the avenue is empty. The trees, the houses, even the street signs tainted blue in the pale light of fall’s early evening. Folly is, for the most part, a ghost town.
This time tomorrow though, anyone remaining will be shuttered up and watching the sky. The sheriff and his deputy, after making rounds through neighborhoods, running announcements over the loudspeaker, and checking on old people, will hunker down. It will be quiet on the island, calm before the storm. May thinks about how much she has to do before she can reach the quiet.
She sees the inlet open to the right of her, the dark gray heavens hovering over the milky waters of the sound. The black towering clouds are still far off and not top of her mind; May barely considers it, she’s been through storms before. Her fingertips tingle and tickle, she taps them to make the prickly feeling go away. It’s not the weather or its damage that has May on edge. She worries the boy in the loud car might be looking for her.
The First Break
May looks over from the passenger’s seat. Ben Parish is something, all arms and shoulders, tall and gangly. Fine brown hair skims his collar and he smells like shampoo. Brown eyes, shiny like glass, close tight when he laughs. He has a small gold chain around his tan neck. She sees the pulse pumping in his throat. Lumbering and eager, his heart beats fast, hard. He wants May Cosby with a force that only comes at seventeen. She wants him, too.
She leans over and spreads her fingers over his knee. He taps the loose gas pedal with the toe of his sneaker making May slide forward then back against the leather seats. Wrecked springs squeak. His blue Mustang Fastback cruises down Broad Street. Kids are jawing and joking through open car windows. WRVV counts down the most requested songs of the night.
May’s favorite song comes on the radio: “Lookin’ Out My Back Door.” Ben reaches forward, turns it up louder, just enough. She squeezes his knee. A black pickup passes them on the left and beeps. A familiar-looking boy waves from the passenger’s seat. The October night is full of stars and electricity. Sons and daughters are on the prowl, restless and fearless.
At eleven, the movie house on the corner of Broad and Cary shuts down for the night. Tired patrons, bleary-eyed from the dark, inch their way out of the parking lot, joining traffic on Broad. Cherry muscle cars with spoilers and fins, jacked and lifted pickups or borrowed family wagons parade to the very end of Broad. Eventually, the swarm of young ones sets down at Lowell’s. Kids eat fries and nurse chocolate-strawberry milk shakes. Talk football. Listen to the radio.
They fight. Boys roll around on the blacktop, agitated and hot for no good reason. John Lowell stomps out to break up the mess. Girls cry in the bathroom, confused and excited by the overwhelming show of animal instinct.
Football players, cheerleaders and their manicured friends head home early. They are committed and unwavering in their loyalty to team. Practice is every day except Monday plus two games on Saturdays. Tonight, they make tracks home to Mom and Dad. Some will stay out, the less than perfect ones. May and Ben sit in the front seat of his car, facing each other, leaning close.
“You wanna go with the others? Down to the creek?” Ben asks May. “It’s all dried up and they have a bonfire most Fridays.”
Her mother’s endless nagging continues to interrupt her sweet thoughts. Don’t ride in cars with boys. Good girls don’t do that. Boys don’t really like those girls. People will see. People will talk. May isn’t sure why mother cares so much about what other people think. Her mother hates most everyone.
“And it’s cool enough, there won’t be any mosquitos.”
“Sure,” she says.
The tidy, perfect Mrs. Cosby doesn’t matter right now but Ben sure matters. May blinks her mother’s voice away. Just hush up, Momma.
“Good. That’s good.” He looks out the front window and back to her. “You drink?”
“I mean, I have.”
“They’ll have a keg.” He looks concerned.
“It’s okay. I still want to go. I’ll be okay.”
“Good.” He turns and starts the car, revving the engine, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel.
A brown pickup is parked cattycorner in a ditch, near an old fence covered in kudzu. Music is playing on the radio and the doors to the truck are open wide. Clutches of high schoolers spread around the makeshift fire pit. Some are seniors from East Shreveport. Some are from Bossier City. They are all outsiders, the ones who think right now is probably as good as it gets.
Ben leads May through the crowd. They find the keg chilling in a trashcan filled with ice, protected by sturdy members of the senior class. There’s a tall skinny kid, wearing glasses and a black T-shirt. He’s tapping the keg, taking the money. Ben pays him a few bucks, takes the cups, and nods his head coolly.
Having only stolen a few sips from errant cocktail glasses at Christmas parties, May isn’t sure what to expect and she brings the beer to her nose for a sniff. She thinks it smells like the laundromat on base, wet and mildewy. Gritting her teeth, she takes a drink. At least it’s cold.
Arm in arm they walk across the clearing to the outside of the gathering, the air around tinged with smoke. They take a seat on a broken oak. He puts his arm around her shoulder, drinking his beer with ease.
Across the way, May spies a boy and girl kissing. Heads tilt back and forth, lips open, shiny in the firelight. He moves his hand from under her sweater, searching then slipping slyly between her legs. Her mouth opens and she leans back. May flushes bright, her neck hot and blotchy. When she turns away, she sees Ben watching her.
His smile is quick and wide. “Come here.” He takes her by the hand, looking around, making sure no one sees. They head away from the fire, away from all the people, to a stand of three magnolias. Grown together the old trees look like a cave or small house. Ben walks in first and guides her over the roots and seeds. They sit close to the trunk, in the cool, soft dirt.
It’s different among the branches, the moon peeking through the waxy, green leaves. May sits in the quiet, holding her knees in front of her, suddenly chilly. Ben spreads his jacket on the ground and slips off his shirt, rolling it up like a pillow. He leans May back to the ground.
He’s so close, she feels his breath against her cheek. They kiss like the boy and girl by the fire. When May pulls her sweatshirt over her head, Ben wraps his arms around her, feeling her warm, bare skin. With the last of their clothes beside them, he settles between her arms and legs.
“I think it’s supposed to hurt,” he whispers, their mouths touching while he talks. “Now. The first time, I mean.” He shakes his head. “Not always.”
“I’ve read that.” She whispers and shivers all at once, not afraid but not entirely brave.
“You sure about this?” he asks. A wind shakes the trees around them; they lie together, still, feeling every part of each other, pushing as close as they can. Hiding her face in his neck, she nods and squeezes her eyes shut.
“Maybe they’ll let you stay with someone. Isn’t your mom friends with that lady from the church? Just until winter break.” May and Ben are tangled up on his messy bed, arms and legs wrapped tight. She rubs her face against his scratchy sweater. “Your mom’ll listen. Won’t she?” May’s voice is speeds up, racing.
“Never has before.” There are boxes on the floor. His records and pictures stacked for packing. The walls are bare and the posters thrown in the trash. “It’s like I don’t even exist,” he says.
The Parrish family is leaving for Tinker A.F.B. in Oklahoma. Ben’s father, a captain, received transfer papers days before. May had counted six hours away and four hundred miles between them. Staring at the bright, freshly painted ceiling, she considers what her days will be like, alone, with only her family.
“All they do is tell us what to do.” He lays his arm over his eyes. “Never ask us what we want.” Their parents are the same, unaware of the life in their children. Pack up your things, everything that ever meant anything. Start all over. Again.
They stay together until his mother pulls into the drive, car full of cleaning supplies and fast food. When they hear the station wagon door close, May runs out the back door. She makes it home but walks around the block until her face is no longer red from crying.
“Stop pouting.” Her mother walks into the living room, a cup of coffee in her hand. “Boys don’t like girls who cry.” May tugs on the brown and red blanket thrown over the back of the couch. Boys don’t like this. Boys don’t like that. How does she know?
“What was he to you anyway?” Her mother sips her coffee, looking out the window. “You act like you were in love.” She waves her hand dismissively and heads back to the kitchen to call a friend or to read one of her books.
May wipes her face and walks to her room, closing the door. She turns on the radio and flops down on her bed. Pillow over her face, safe from her mother, May lets herself cry until she falls asleep.
There’s a letter in the mail, messy handwriting and wrinkled paper. She reads it repeatedly, feeling the paper for any hint of him, taking in the way it smells. Not wanting her mother to see, she hides it between her mattress and box spring.
May spends her allowance on pink paper with little flowers. She starts and stops writing so many times, nervous that she appears too eager or too sad. Still wondering if she wrote it just right, May drops it in the mailbox two blocks from home, on her way to school.
Another letter from Ben arrives. Four pages of everything that is wrong with Tinker, everything that is wrong with his family and school. Feeling only a little guilty, May is relieved, grateful that he hasn’t moved on. She carries the note back and forth to school, reading it when she’s lonely. Finally, she tucks it with the other. He sends another, it is short, he asks how she is and how school is going. He doesn’t send any more.
She reads his notes again. Not understanding, thinking she is not trying hard enough, she writes more letters on the pink paper and hopes he writes back, soon.
“Hello.” A woman answers, groggy, as if she just woke up. The line is faint, a fragile connection.
“Mrs. Parrish?” Ben had given her this number in one of his letters. “Hi. It’s May.” Silence. “I was wondering if Ben is around.”
“May?” Mrs. Parish asks, taking far too long to think. “From Shreveport?”
“Yes, ma’am.” There’s a long silence. May starts to feel embarrassed. Girls shouldn’t call boys.
“I’m sorry, May. He’s out right now.” The woman pauses, confused. “I don’t expect him back for a while, Friday night and all.”
“What’s your number? I’ll get him to call you.”
“Sure.” May gives her information, even though Ben had it written down. She twists the telephone cord. “Bye,” she says but Mrs. Parrish is already off the line.
Excerpted from MAY © Copyright 2018 by Marietta Miles. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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Marietta Miles’s short stories and flash can be found in Thrills, Kills and Chaos, Flash Fiction Offensive, Yellow Mama, Hardboiled Wonderland and Revolt Daily. Her stories have been included in anthologies available through Static Movement Publishing, Out of the Gutter, and Horrified Press. She is rotating host for Noir on the Radio, Dames in the Dark. Her first book, Route 12, was released February of 2016. Born in Alabama, raised in Louisiana, she currently resides in Virginia with her husband and two children.