Sister Golden Hair Surprise (novel excerpt)

Photo: © Genn McMenemy. All rights reserved.

Hope Robinson stood on the front porch in the late afternoon, stack of resumés in hand, and waited to catch a ride downtown. She might have been eighteen years old, but she didn’t have a car of her own and she preferred not to walk downtown if she didn’t have to. The blocks in between were rough territory. Grown men rode bicycles on the side of the road, the seats too low and the frames too small, crunching over the broken glass of liquor pints. Scratch-off cards wafted up from the gutters and caught in the spokes of their tires. Money Bags, Junior Jumbo Bucks, Tic Tac Ca$h. The sound of their rusted, squeaking chains was the sound of going nowhere very slowly. It was May of 2009, well into the Great Recession, and the national unemployment rate was 9.4% for adults and 22.7% for teenagers. The world Hope had grown up in was not the world she was becoming an adult in.

She called, “Are you ready yet?”

Her mom called back, “One second,” but what she really meant was, Hold your horses, sister, I’ll be out in a minute.

Fine, Hope thought. Lollygag.

She twisted the stack of resumés into a telescope and brought the telescope to her right eye. When viewed through a tiny window, the familiar landscape became strange and new. Clouds listed to the west, as if being pulled toward a drain, and the old water tower stood guard over the entire neighborhood of renovated mill houses. Across the street, a hawk perched on the rim of the neighbor’s basketball hoop. It was focused on an apple-headed chihuahua in the middle of the road, recently run over, definitely dead. Hope watched it not moving. The only thing that moved was the shape of light over ridges of blood. She didn’t need an omen to tell her that things were bad, but this would have been a good candidate for one. A good bad omen, that is.

Her mom emerged, finally. She wore a dress tie-dyed shades of blue and a pair of sandals with a modest hemp heel. Radiating from her skin was the smell of peppermint oil, which must have been heat-activated because Hope could have sworn it was more potent in the sun than it was indoors. Instead of buying perfume, her mom went for the more economical option of dropping oil into her grocery-store lotion and rubbing it in circles over her arms and legs. The scent created a forcefield liable to stun any insects that wandered too close.

Hope had been waiting for fifteen minutes because her mom had been getting ready for dinner with a man she’d met on a dating website called Rich in Love. Since getting laid-off, she’d come to believe that finding a rich man would solve all of their problems. When she first introduced the idea to Hope, she’d said, “I know what you’re probably thinking, but don’t judge me. I’ve been independent for most of my life and it’s time somebody took care of me for a change.” Hope’s parents had divorced when she was eight years old and while her father had moved to Texas and gotten together with a jewelry designer named Maribel, her mom hadn’t dated anyone for longer than a couple of weeks. Hope kept her judgments to herself.

She pointed at the hawk, then the chihuahua pulp.

Her mom made a fluttering gesture with her fingers, as if to say, Dust in the wind. She always got like this before a date. The anticipation made her nerves act up.

As they went down the driveway, her mom said, “That’s what you’re going to wear?”

An old, reliable barb.

It wasn’t like Hope’s wardrobe was a surprise. Who bought most of her clothes, anyway? Her mom did. Chuck Taylors was the only brand of shoe Hope had worn since the fifth grade, mostly because they had flat soles, which was exactly what you were looking for when you were the tallest kid in the entire elementary school. Her current pair of Chucks had brown laces from school hallways covered with sand, leaves, hair, weave, spilled hot dog chili from the cafeteria, bits of onion, broken nails, exploded mayonnaise packets, and the occasional fake gold hoop earring torn loose in a fight.

She also wore a black t-shirt and a pair of cut-off shorts. The t-shirt rode up to show her bellybutton, which was typical of most clothes because she stood six-foot tall, and screen-printed on the front of the shirt was a green alien head. It was the employee uniform at a laser-tag place called Invasion. She’d gotten the shirt for a dollar at Thrift On Main and wore it more than anything else, which was how she ended up being named “Most Likely to be Abducted by Aliens” in the school yearbook, a thing she didn’t even order because it had cost seventy-five dollars.

Hope looked down at her shirt and said, “It’s me.”

“Well, honey, they’re not looking for you. They’re looking for an employee.”

Hope retaliated with, “And that’s what you’re going to wear?”

They got in the car. Her mom plucked the dress away from her stomach. She said, “Unlike a job opening, going on a date requires you to be yourself. Supposedly. This says things. It speaks. I like piña coladas and walks on the beach.”

Hope muttered, “Like we even go to the beach…”

Her mom didn’t miss a beat. She smiled and cocked her head to one side like she was posing for a glamor shot. When she smiled and looked you in the eye, even if the look was purely sarcastic, she looked young again, like she did in the old senior portrait that hung in the living room, with long silky hair and cheeks like two pieces of sun-soaked fruit. She’d told Hope how back in high school, she and her friends had gone on long drives and smoked pot in abandoned general stores, gas stations, and barns. They stopped at country stores and bought Sugar Babies and did Richard Pryor bits. They made fun of their fathers for watching Hee Haw while craving their mothers’ potato salad. They wore shirts that said “I’m a Pepper” and rolled the windows down and listened to the band America at 100 mph. They loved America. They couldn’t get enough of it.

That’s why, when Hope made the comment about them not going to the beach, her mom smiled and replied, “That’s because we’re in financial straits, Sister Golden Hair.”

Sister Golden Hair was Hope’s nickname, taken after the 1975 song by America.

Hope knew that she had sounded like a brat. She started to say something but her mom, lifting her hands to ward off any smart aleck comments, said, “Nobody said you had to change clothes. Let’s just drop it.” She twisted around in the seat as she backed out of the driveway. The ligaments in her neck rose. Her hand was on the back of Hope’s headrest, fingernails filed into perfectly smooth half-moons. Hope looked at her own hands. They looked just like her mom’s, except neglected.


They parked in a free lot downtown and agreed to meet back at the car at nine o’clock.

Her mom said, “You could go out sometime, too, you know.”

Hope slumped against the car, not wanting to talk about it. The last guy she had hung out with was named Pierce Mullins and he’d dropped out of school shortly after taking her virginity. She felt herself hardening ever since then, like a lemon that had been cut in half and left uncovered on the counter.

“I can see that I have struck a chord,” her mom said. “If you’re just going to shoot lasers at me, I’ll see you back here at nine o’clock.”


“I’ll call you if I’m going to be late.”

“I heard you.”

“I just want to make sure we’re all clear, so nobody is unclear. I don’t want anybody stranded downtown with all the freaks on the loose, and don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about. The freaks could survive a nuclear attack and they’d still be scurrying over the rubble and spreading their shit like cockroaches. There’s something about it on the news every night. Gangs stealing cars, shooting people, breaking into houses. They’ll probably try to kidnap the mayor’s baby for ransom.”

“Does the mayor even have a baby?”

She stared into the distance. “I don’t know.”

Hope knew her mom was stalling. Maybe she didn’t really want to go on the date because she’d been on a bad streak lately and was worried they might keep getting worse. The last guy, a supposed circuit court judge, went to use the restroom right before the waiter dropped off the check and never came back. The one before that had been a web designer, which sounded stable enough, but when he showed her one of the websites on his cell phone, boasting about mobile compatibility, it turned out to be a gallery of gore porn photos. It was all decapitations. He said there were other websites, too. One for car accidents. One for severed limbs. One for train stuff. He actually said that. “Train stuff.” Hope’s mom went straight home and reported him to the dating website, saying, “Take this guy OFF.” She so believed in her crusade for a rich man that she was going on another date after seeing a photo of a decapitated head on a birthday cake platter.

But Hope wondered if her mom was actually stalling because she was afraid that she might find a job. If she did manage to find a job, that meant she would be working all summer. Her mom would be at the house by herself, which could lead to doing some mental and/or emotional donuts. After getting laid off, her mom had tried to find another job but only ended up doing something administrative in a nursing home for a brief stint, which she claimed to have quit because the staff abused the elderly, flicking them and leaving bruises like leopard spots on their thin-skinned arms. Hope knew the real reason why she quit. It was because the job felt lowly. “Lowly” meant that all of her coworkers wore powder blue uniforms and tended to old people reeking of death, a smell like soft cheese that built in the back of the throat and permeated the entire facility. Maybe she was stalling because she didn’t want to be alone. Well, it didn’t matter what her mom wanted. Things were going to play out the way they were going to play out. Hope tucked the stack of resumés against her side and started walking.

She felt a small amount of excitement rising up, like maybe she’d get lucky and find a hostess position somewhere casual, where they wouldn’t care what clothes she wore. She thought that if she had to be either the hawk or the chihuahua, she was probably the hawk. She was on the hunt.

Her mom called, “Good luck.” It was the voice of someone who was trying to mean what she was saying.


Downtown was about twelve blocks long, with stone and brick buildings lining Main Street. Trees rose to the height of the buildings and in an attempt to inspire friendliness they were strung with Christmas lights year-round. Shoes were thrown up there, too, living among the branches like birds, and Hope had heard from one source that the hanging shoes marked a drug deal spot and, from another source, that depending on the brand of shoe, they marked gang territory. She started at the north end of Main Street and worked her way south, looking at the shoes overhead and wondering if she was going to accidentally walk under the wrong pair and get cursed. She passed two pigeons fighting over a cigarette butt.

Her high school wasn’t that far away and while some kids were always skipping class and wandering around downtown, she didn’t see the point because there wasn’t anywhere to hang out, except beneath the sketchy bridges that crossed the Reedy River where perverts lay in wait, jerking off, and the bedrolls of homeless people were tucked away, their versions of burning bushes tangled with gray plastic bags reading THANK YOU COME AGAIN. The record shop and bookstore and vintage clothing store had all shut down. There was an underground coffee shop, with acrylic paintings of bell peppers on the walls, but more and more it was being overrun with middle-aged professionals. Aside from the typical office spaces for attorneys and real estate firms, there wasn’t much left except a handful of restaurants, mostly international ones. The Thai, Italian, Mexican, and Greek places were all family-run businesses that wouldn’t have welcomed an outsider, especially not during those times. Hope figured they had managed to hang on during an economic crisis because many of them had already experienced hardship, whether it be immigrating to America or already being American and looking different or talking different or acting different, “different” being something as big as praying in a language other than English or as small as kissing an acquaintance on the cheek instead of shaking hands.

Although Greenville, South Carolina, was mostly white people, then black people, then Hispanic people, she could have been tricked into thinking the city was a real melting pot based on the smells coming out of vents, the garlic and ginger and oxtail. As Hope walked, she saw cooks leaning against brick walls, smoking, with cotton caps tucked under their armpits.

She stopped in front of one and asked, “Hiring?”

He said, “My life’s one long smoke break.”

“In case anything changes,” she said, “I’ll give you my resumé.”

“When it ends, I’m dead.”

She held out her resumé, which only had three bullet points on it, including volunteer work for the Special Olympics, which she did when her mom still worked there; her short-lived involvement in the school photography club, which she quit because members only took pictures of powerlines or feet; and her expected graduation date, which was only a few days away. Hope figured a bare-bones resumé would normally be a bad thing but thought it might give her a competitive edge in the current climate, considering that an employer could pay somebody without any experience a lot less money.

The cook looked at the end of his cigarette, going cross-eyed as he inhaled, and the burning cherry was reflected deep in his pupils. She imagined tiny mice in his head burning trash fires.

A door in the alleyway opened, steam flooding out, and somebody said, “Get your skinny ass in here. Or would you rather me call your mother and tell her what a lazy son of a bitch her son turned out to be?”

He ground out his cigarette with the vulcanized heel of a black rubber shoe.

He said, “I’m dead,” and went inside.

Hope didn’t want to be dissuaded from her mission by one depressing encounter, so she kept stopping in places that were still open. And people kept turning her away. They were weary-eyed owners, managers, and shift leaders. They glanced at the door, saying with their eyes, “Get out,” and saying with their mouths, “Good luck.”

The dark came over the horizon and rolled down Main like a gas leak. Hope twisted up her stack of resumés and threw them into a trashcan, knowing that her mom was going to cluck like a self-righteous chicken when she found out that Hope hadn’t gotten a single interview. She would blame it on Hope’s clothes, saying she didn’t look professional, saying she didn’t put in enough effort, saying that she radiated immaturity, but the truth was that there was a lack of opportunity. In the display windows of closed businesses, she saw stepladders and dust bunnies and cardboard boxes full of mannequin parts. Their eternal plastic gathered dust. Their blank faces seemed to say, “I have never lived, so I will never die.”

Hope was frustrated to have spent a few hours wandering downtown without anything to show for it and would have liked to go home already. She was almost finished with high school and the summer was her last chance to save up money before going to the University of South Carolina next fall. She didn’t know if a degree even mattered anymore. Teachers claimed the experience was good for figuring out who you really were, but Hope knew college was only good for killing time. It bought you four years, maybe five if you switched majors. It was everything you could ever ask for, except for the fact that it would end and all of those people you’d marched with, hand in hand, heads lifted, would suddenly let go and wander aimlessly like chickens with their heads cut off. Your head would be cut off, too, and those feathers on the ground would be your feathers.

She felt like she’d been sitting at a desk for most of her life, with her heart at rest, unable to feel it working or trying or fighting. What Hope really wanted, without even realizing it, was to feel her heart at unrest.


She decided to walk back to the car early and passed a chain-link fence that blocked off a jilted construction site. There was a big banner held to the fence with plastic zip-ties. The banner was the city’s response to an economic crisis, an attempt at psychic healing. It had a picture of school children holding hands and above the children it read: HOPE IS ALIVE AND WELL

It was strange to see her name used that way. Sometimes people thought her name was supposed to inform her personality or have some larger significance, but that didn’t seem fair at all. Her chemistry teacher was always asking why Hope didn’t smile more and she thought, Because I hate this class, and flipped him off in her mind.

It had been her dad’s idea to name Hope after his grandmother, Ina Hopewell Robinson, a woman who’d lived her entire life in the Blue Ridge mountains, just forty-five minutes north of Greenville, where the hills amplified into something bigger and bluer. Hope’s dad had given the entire name, the first and the last, the Hope and the Robinson, and he wasn’t even around to see what became of her, his only daughter. Ultimately, she thought names in and of themselves didn’t carry significance. It was the sound of the name that mattered because it was that familiar sound you always turned toward, even when called from the unfamiliar dark.

As Hope walked, she heard someone say her name: “Hope!”

She turned and saw Pierce Mullins, the guy who had taken her virginity at a party and then promptly dropped out of school a few weeks later. He was wearing an undershirt with yellow armpit stains tucked into a pair of black jeans. Stuck into one side of his braided leather belt was a 6-inch knife sheath, black, embossed with a rose. It was strange to run into him now of all places, in this dead zone, and looking like he was ready for a saloon fight.

“Wow,” he said. “Your hair’s gotten long.”

She touched the bottom of her hair and curled it around her finger, feeling the ends that she combed with conditioner each night to keep them smooth. She had already been charmed by him once. She wasn’t going to let it happen again. She had gotten other romantic offers before, mostly from guys on the basketball team who had been attracted to her height, but she had turned all of them down. She had this idea that basketball players had enormous dicks, to the point of being dangerous, and she also imagined that they were dumb as rocks. Pierce was different, though. She had started hanging out with him in the parking lot after school, where he practiced the art of the slingshot. His friends threw A&W bottle caps in the air and Pierce targeted them with a small piece of gravel. He almost always missed but there was one time when she had been looking at the perfect moment, when he hit his target dead-on and the bottle cap shot across the parking lot like a tiny UFO.

After seeing that, she had agreed to go to his friend Cole’s party with him. Forties, or bottles of forty-ounce malt beer, were smuggled in backpacks and smoke was blown into the faces of two greasy pet ferrets. Hope went into a bedroom with Pierce and locked the door. She’d felt things that she’d never felt before, good and surprising waves of adrenaline that rippled to what felt like the end of the earth. Her first orgasm came from Pierce’s hand and it brought the world into sudden clarity, or maybe not the world itself but, rather, her role in the world, completely clear and present, just for a moment, as if she was holding a sign that could be seen from space, a sign that said THIS IS ME, and then the feeling faded away, like watching a paperboy ride into early morning fog, and afterward she could barely remember what it had been like, wondered if she would ever feel it again.

That pleasure seemed even further away now, like a thing she might have imagined rather than a thing that really happened. There were specific moments of their intimacy that she’d replayed in her head more than others, like how he’d said, during sex, “You’re so pretty,” and how afterward he’d brought her clothes to her, so she didn’t have to get up naked. He had a thick trail of hair starting at his belly button and going down, a sharp V that was both beautiful and aggressive. It wasn’t that she loved him—she wasn’t like those girls who fell madly in love at the drop of a hat, because, if anything, she resisted all that sentimental stuff—but she still would have liked to think fondly of that night instead of letting it turn sour like it had. The memory seemed like a copy of a copy of a copy and she didn’t trust it anymore.

The magic had run out.

His hands were in the pockets of his jeans. He grinned and asked, “Are you on the prowl?”

“No, I was looking for a job, actually. Pretty stupid.”

“It’s kind of late for that, isn’t it?”

She didn’t know if he meant late in general or late in the day. She guessed the latter. “I started earlier,” she said and then, awkwardly, “I’m going this way.”

He said, “I can go that way. This area can be kind of sketchy, you know.”

“That’s what my mom says.”

“How is she?”

Hope rolled her eyes and said, “She’s looking for a rich man.”

“I bet those are hard to come by these days.”

“Yeah. There’s no more child support since I turned eighteen, so I guess times are kind of tough.”

“You’re lucky.”

Hope didn’t know what that was supposed to mean. What in her life resembled luck?

“Not the child support thing,” he said. “I mean for your mom to be there at all. I remember her being really nice. She asked if I wanted banana bread or something? You remember that?”

Hope said, “Yeah,” and felt herself slumping from the weight of the encounter, the awkwardness. Her shoulders rounded. She would rather not have run into him, but if she was forced to walk with him for a little while longer, she was going to ask the question that she really wanted to ask: “Why did you drop out of school?”

He never seemed like one of the kids who would say screw it and not come back. Some of them joined the Army, while others were just burnouts who figured their lives would turn out the same whether they got a high school diploma or not. They had living rooms with beige, fake leather couches and ashtrays stolen from Waffle Houses and toddlers sleeping in dog beds. They broke into the half-finished housing developments that sat just outside of the city limits and took the copper wiring out of the ceilings and walls and sold it for scrap. They drank energy drinks for breakfast. They thought cheese puffs tasted like real cheese. That wasn’t him. Or, more accurately, that wasn’t who she thought he was.

He said, “Funny you’re asking now. You could have asked before and you didn’t.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“It just would’ve been nice if you’d reached out back then, that’s all.”

“I didn’t know I was supposed to.”

“Like, for instance, if you noticed I wasn’t at school anymore and you thought, Oh, he’s not in class. There must be a reason. I wonder what it is? And then you called.”

“I didn’t know you wanted to talk to me.”

“What, you thought I dropped out just because we had sex or something? Like I couldn’t face you? Like some little bitch baby?”

“No,” Hope said. “I didn’t know why, that’s why I asked.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Hope said, “You could have gotten in touch with me.”

He said, “I did.”

She didn’t know what he was talking about. Then she remembered back to when he’d first dropped out of school. She had thought about calling, to see what was going on with him, but she didn’t want to seem desperate or needy. Pierce had been the one to call her about a week after disappearing from the school hallways, but by then she’d talked herself out of liking him and didn’t answer. She thought, That’ll show you. She hadn’t expected to see him again. She hadn’t expected that there would be any consequences for that decision, or that she would ever have to face them.

Pierce stuck his thumbs through his front belt loops, pulling up his pants. He said, “If you really want to know, it’s because my mom was sick. That’s why I dipped.”



Hope said, “Well, I hope she’s doing alright now,” and the words felt insufficient as soon as she said them.

Pierce said, “I thought about you.”

She didn’t respond.

He said, “I did.”

From then on, he avoided the subject of his mother. She avoided his eyes.

They reached the end of the chain-link fence that they had been walking along, which stretched around the huge construction site. There was an alley in between the fence and an empty brick building whose façade was covered in the old flaking paint of a Pepsi advertisement that read “Born in the Carolinas.” When Hope lifted her head again, she realized that Pierce had stopped walking. He was extraterrestrial beneath the streetlights, skin yellow, eyes black, hands large, fingers swollen like he had been walking for a long time. They stood that way for a moment, apart, waiting for the other to speak or to move, and then finally he came to her. She took a deep breath and waited for what would happen next. It was funny how her mom was on a date at this very moment, and now Hope was talking to Pierce. Maybe funny wasn’t the right word. She thought he might try to kiss her. She tried to think how she would respond. Would she turn away? Or let it happen? She didn’t even know. She would wait to see what instinct kicked in.

Instead of kissing her, he put a hand over her mouth and pulled her into the alley between the chain-link fence and the old brick building. The hard-packed gravel and dirt crunched beneath their feet as he pulled Hope into the dark corridor that was, in her imagination, endless. In reality, Pierce only pulled her about ten feet into shadow, so they would be out of the way in an already out-of-the-way place. Dust swirled around their feet. It rose and hugged them and then passed in front of the hideous orange and yellow lights with the elegance of noxious gas.

Hope was taller than Pierce, but she couldn’t overpower him. There was a part of her that expected to break free, that she was entirely capable of breaking free, but she felt weaker than she had ever felt in her life. She was tall and slender and at eighteen years old her arms were merely long bones. Pierce had strong hands, maybe from the slingshot or from who knows what else. It was clear there was more to him than Hope could have ever expected. He was cold to the touch, like a creature that needed to lie out in the sun each day to thaw out the blood. He hadn’t felt like that before. Before, he had been warm and the warmth had spread to her.

She started to scream into his hand, her lips burning with the sweat and salt of his skin, but then she heard the knife whisper as it was pulled out of its sheath. She felt the blade against her neck. She realized that it was in her best interest to go along with this thing, whatever it was, because that was the only way it might turn out okay for her. “Okay,” of course, meaning not dead.

Pierce said, “Relax.”

In a letter Hope’s dad had written a couple of years earlier, he’d described how one of his dogs had alerted him to a rattlesnake in the scrub behind the house, barking its head off, and how her dad had cut the snake’s head off and brought the body inside. His girlfriend Maribel cut the meat into strips and dipped them in buttermilk, flipped them in a bowl of flour, and fried them in a pan. Her dad wrote that Maribel knew all kinds of tricks like this, that she could make a good meal out of almost anything, and in the garage, which doubled as her jewelry studio, she had a whole bunch of rattles spread across her desk.

Hope wished she could have been like a snake just then, wished she had access to the venom that bubbled deep within. It was produced by all living beings and some tapped into it and others didn’t. The girls who fought at her high school had found their venom, the girls who got on top of a long table in the cafeteria, kicked off the pizza and Pepsi, and swung switchblades at each other, saying, “I’m ’bout to unzip you, bitch.”

There was a reserve of it in everyone, but some people accessed it more quickly than others. Some never dared to dip into that part of themselves and they could either be called weak or brave, just like those dipping into the well could be called weak or brave. It was not one or the other. The hero held a switchblade and the hero was empty-handed. The hero was not real at all.

In the alley, Hope was thinking, Is this real? She saw everything with her own eyes and had no choice but to believe that Pierce really was holding a blade to her neck, saying, “You can’t imagine what it’s like. You don’t know.”

She said, “Pierce,” into his hand.

He spoke slowly, but there was an urgency beneath the surface. He said, “There are things you think you can imagine, terrible things, but it’s never like the real thing. Imagining is not understanding. You know what I mean?” His eyes glazed over with tears. “I’m living day to day. I don’t know what else to do.”

He took a breath. His jaw was set hard. “I’m going to move my hand,” he said, “and you’re going to be quiet as a church mouse.”

She nodded.

He moved his hand, but Hope couldn’t help herself. She said, “You don’t have to.”

His eyes darted back and forth, searching each of her eyes separately. He asked, “What do you think I’m going to do?”

She was thinking, Murder. She was thinking, Rape.

He said, “I’m not going to kill you, if that’s what you think. There’s already too many dead and too many dying.”

His thumb bounced on the handle of the knife. He said, “Take your shirt off.” Her chest shuddered. She dropped her purse and when it hit the ground, her cell phone bounced out. She glanced at the screen and saw that there was a missed call from her mom, who had been calling to say she was going to be late to the rendezvous. Pierce grabbed the phone and tossed the purse over his shoulder. He gestured for Hope to keep going. She took off the alien T-shirt and when it passed over her head, covering her eyes so that she only saw blackness, she was deeply afraid. She was hunched over, embarrassed to be half-naked and wearing a worn cotton bra. The knuckles of her spine were like the humps of a sea-dragon breaking water. It was the worst kind of nakedness that she could imagine. Pierce took the shirt and packed it into her mouth with his thumb. She gagged.

He spun her around and pushed her into the brick wall. He kicked her feet, so she would spread them more apart. What pair of underwear she’d put on that morning escaped her. Probably a pilled pair. A stained pair. An embarrassing pair. Hope closed her eyes and waited for it to be over. Maybe she could have done more. She could have screamed, at the risk of being stabbed or having her throat slit, or she could have tried to get away again. The truth is that there is more than one way to survive any given situation.

Hope felt Pierce grab her hair and wrap the long blond rope around his knuckles. Hope heard the hair being cut with a blade. The terrible surprise of it made her twist away without thinking. Pierce pressed his knee into her back, pinning her there, and said, “Just stay still.” He worked something up from the back of his throat, hawking spit in her hair. Hair was easier to cut when taut and wet.

Hope’s breasts were pressed flat against the brick wall, but her head was pulled back, skin stretched across her face, eyes watering. She felt cool air on her neck and knew what it meant. She tried to look at the ground but couldn’t see well because the shirt was packed half in her mouth and half hanging out, but if she could have seen the ground she would have expected to see the mound of hair there, expecting it to fall in chunks as he worked through it. The hair never fell to the ground, though. It was still in Pierce’s hand, wrapped around his knuckles.

When Pierce was finished, he released Hope and took a few steps back. He paused in the alley’s opening, his departure as imminent as full dark. He brought the hair up to his nose and smelled it. Then he was gone.

Wynne Hungerford‘s fiction has appeared in EPOCH, Subtropics, Blackbird, The Brooklyn Review, The Literary Review, and The Normal School, among other places. Her story “City of Angels” appears in Issue 10. She received her MFA from the University of Florida, where she began working on the novel that this excerpt comes from. “Sister Golden Hair Surprise” is the complete first chapter from an unpublished novel titled Please State Your Emergency.

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Issue 18

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