Rest Easy *Valentine's Day Entry*

*I'm submitting the first part of a novel, as it is still underway, but almost complete! I began it in January and the majority of it was written after the opening of the competition, but I had to re-upload because of the original upload date*

*Based on Prompts #1 and #2*

In Arizona, two teenagers spend a summer attempting to decrypt the life of an elderly woman with dementia, who had gone missing over forty years ago and cannot recall to anyone where and how she lived. This ongoing mission keeps the teenagers occupied all summer, bringing them closer and helping them to avoid the rough times they have been going enduring in their lives, and the pasts they just want to forget. As the pair grow a bond, it eventually appears that the world around them wishes against it. The price of overcoming the obstacles that stand ahead of them is hefty, but only they can determine whether it is worth the risk.

For those on desktop - I've added thematic songs to some of the chapters :)

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12. CHAPTER TEN | WHITE DRESS

“What was the name of that one?” Marie asked Dudley, drinking an iced tea on a chair out on the grass. An hour had passed since lunch, and Naya was lounging by the water fountain speaking to Lionel, one of the residents. He had just recently been admitted after his daughter moved out of state and couldn’t take him with her. He didn’t have any mental ailments, and was extremely invigorating to speak to. He did however, use a wheelchair. He had been a paraplegic since a car accident in his forties.

“It’s called The White Dress.” Dudley closed the poetry book up after reading out the last verse.

“By whom?”

“A writer called Violet Marie Winslow.”

“Oh. My former self! Gorgeous. A little sombre though, don’t you think, Will?”

Dudley smiled. “Yeah. A little. Do you want something happier?”

“No, I’m good for now. I think I can read something on my own. Is Wuthering Heights still on my bookshelf?”

“I don’t know, I’ll check.”

“No. Wait. I can read it later. Tell me a story. One of your own, not something you’ve read.”

“I don’t have any.”

“We all have stories. Every single one of us! I could go on and on about mine, but I don’t want to wrangle the spotlight into my hands. Take the stage. Tell me something.”

Dudley scratched his head, looking around. He caught sight of Naya, laughing and joking with Lionel. “I really have nothing to say.”

“Have you not lived a life before today?”

Dudley shrugged. “Yeah, I have. Just nothing significant.”

“There is significance in life. There are stories in our breaths, on the tips of our tongues, always. Always.” She paused. “I’ll give you the time to find yours.”

But creating a story meant walking back through the past, and that was not something he wanted to do any time soon. It was onwards and upwards, he’d wait until he had a better story to tell. Until then, he couldn’t think of anything to say that didn’t hurt to escape his throat.

 

After the shift, Dudley decided to do something he hadn’t done in a long time: drive down to the desert out of town. Instead of turning back into Harlow, he took his pick-up to the gas station and bought a bunch of snacks, with Naya waiting in the passenger seat. The late afternoon sun was boiling, and she had to wear extra sun screen and convert from glasses to shades. Their lunchtime conversation had shrunken into silence, leaving a throbbing awkwardness between them. Naya knew better than to try and revive it at the time, and the pair went on their way until the end of the day. She wasn’t expecting Dudley’s proposal to visit the desert, and she wondered if it was his way of showing her that he wasn’t angry, at least not anymore. He was letting her into a slither of a world he only ever kept to himself, after all.

 

“I didn’t mean to snap earlier. I was being a dick. I’m sorry.” Dudley said, smoking in the back of the pick-up. Naya sat adjacent, knees tucked under her chin. She looked out at the vista ahead.

“No worries.”

Yeah, worries. I’m better than that, I promise. I need to work on my attitude. My brother’s antics rub off on me sometimes.”

“Why? What’s he like?”

“He’s the human equivalent of a headache.”

“For real?”

“I couldn’t be any more honest. Sometimes he’s a big brother, and other times… I don’t even know. He’s a tornado.”

Dudley explained how Dylan became his legal guardian after his mother died, and how it had been hard, and for whatever reason, was just getting harder. Sometimes the brothers would go days without talking, or they’d spend a whole evening drinking or conversing, or Dylan would go full-on asshole mode and spew radioactive insults at Dudley, whenever he was in a bad mood. Dudley noticed that he was starting to do the same thing - bite when he felt unease. He didn’t want to become his brother. Most importantly, he didn’t want to become his father.

“There’s gotta be an element of freedom though. He’s only in his twenties. He’s still kind of fun, right? My parents are both in their late fifties, and they’re stiffer than flagpoles. I still have a curfew, I have to tell them every single place I go, and back in Texas, I’d go to church twice a week. All of that may have been bearable if I had a sibling to suffer through it with.”

“I don’t know about that,” Dudley furrowed his brows in doubt. “Sharing childhood trauma doesn’t really make it any less traumatic.”

“I know, I know. It’s just… I leave the house, and I put on a face, and I can’t really vent to anyone about how toxic the household can get, because nobody would get it. And I don’t wanna throw my parents under the bus, either, right? I could only tell someone who knows what I’ve been through.”

“Jesus. How bad are your parents? Should I be afraid?”

Naya chuckled. “I swear they’re OK. They’re not bad at all. They’re just conservative Christians. They’ve set a certain standard for me, and I can’t break it. I already have, though.” She looked down, twiddling her thumbs. They were painted lime green. Dudley remembered something important - the text she sent him in the hallway on the day of their first interaction. She was bisexual. She was bisexual, and her parents must have found out, somehow. He thought about how lost he had felt in his world, with his distorted and dysfunctional family, saturated with drugs and alcohol and trial hearings and death, and how he’d sometimes do anything for a nuclear home, one where the heart could lay peacefully. God-fearing, married parents who showed no signs of looming divorce; a clean home without an over-flowing trash can or un-mowed front lawn. He thought hard about that, and he looked at Naya, and realised that she was paralysed by that. She was kooky and colourful, loved both boys and girls, didn’t connect strongly with the Girls at school, and she was constantly under surveillance by her parents. She was a prisoner to the norm, to the regular, and she tried so hard not to be. He yearned for something normal, she yearned for the opposite.

 

“It doesn’t matter that you like girls. Like who you want.” Dudley tried to give consoling advice. It came out flat, short-sighted, and funny. Naya couldn’t stop laughing.

“I need that on a t-shirt. Please. Repeat that.”

“What? I’m serious. Like who you want.”

“If I could like who I wanted, I wouldn’t  like the people I like. I’d like someone simple, someone who doesn’t cause difficulty in my life.” She slid her hands down her face, still grinning under a mask of light frustration.

“Am I simple?” Dudley asked. He didn’t know where the question from; he drew it out of his mouth like a rabbit out of a hat. Was he flirting?

“No. You’re a hot mess. You’re not ideal. Remember, we’re talking ideals here. But then again, I don’t get to like who I want. I like who the universe hands me.”

“What was her name?”

“Huh?”

“The person who the universe handed to you, before you came here. There had to be someone.”

Naya almost made up the name, but she wasn’t sure why she’d do that. There was nothing to hide. It was more so the materialising of someone who was long-gone that startled her. She almost choked on the thought of it.

“Haley. That’s what she was called.”

“Haley.” he repeated the name in a more hushed tone. “Haley. Exes, amiright?”

Naya brought out a smile. “Shut up, fool.”

“You don’t want to speak about her, do you?”

“I don’t mind, actually. Things didn’t end that badly. My parents just found out, that’s all. Then I moved out of town.” Half-truth, half-lie. She was lying, because she couldn’t get herself to tell the nude truth, skin bare, no armour. She was bisexual, her family and the community didn’t agree with it, and they had to move out. That was it. That was all.

“Do you still speak?”

“Sometimes. Not really. It’s hard to keep in contact. Especially when you’re still trying to adjust to a new place.”

“Sometimes you’ve just gotta keep it moving. Start fresh. Which reminds me, actually.”

“What?”

“I read a poem to Marie, called The White Dress. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I feel like it could help us create the third theory.”

“…Which is…?”

“It’s probably the most simple. She wanted to get away and start fresh. She was frustrated with her life and the person she was, so she decided to start again under a new name, in a new place.”

“Well, that was boring.”

“Oh, sorry. Didn’t realise we could only run with X-Files or CIA shit.”

“Shut up,” she punched him lightly on the shoulder. “It’s a plausible theory. Just boring. Come on, you know it is.”

“It is the most plausible.”

“Yet everything she remembers and seems to treasure is everything that happened before she went missing.”

“Yet she prefers to be called Marie, and not Violet.”

“So?”

“She remembers nothing of her new life but her new name. It all ties down to her identity. She’s aware of her past self, but she holds onto her present self. I don’t mean the last forty years, but more so her current self. She remembers the person she chose to be, and she is that person. She’s Marie, with Violet’s memories. The transition between the two selves is irrelevant.”

“You’re so much more profound than you let off, Dudley. You know that?”

“I told you I was selectively passionate.”

“You can have dinner at my place tomorrow, if you wanna meet my parents for yourself,” Naya switched the topic pretty quickly. Either she was trying to steer the conversation, or she was expressing her enthusiasm towards him by putting out such an offer. There was no real reason for Dudley to turn it down, so he said sure, why not.

“I have a feeling they make better food than my brother does.”

Naya laughed. “I won’t lie. They make some good ass food. At least my mom does, anyway. You’ll love it.”

 

 

Naya lived on the other side of New Eden, closer to central Harlow. Dudley had to take a bit of a detour into town in order to pick her up for volunteering, just to drive back out again. It made more sense for her to walk down to his place and they go on from there, but he had insisted from day one that she needn’t bother. There was no bother in the act, no strain. In reality, he didn’t want Naya to have anything to do with his world, or at least his home. Yet here he was, walking into the foyer of hers, shaking the hands of her parents after hanging his jacket up on the rack.

“How are you, Dudley?” Naya’s mother beamed, teeth glinting pure, like nothing ungodly had ever passed through them. Her hair was nicely curled and her attire prudish vintage, pastel church colours like she was ready for a sermon at all times. Naya’s father looked like her mother’s perfect match, same Colgate-white teeth and modest dad-clothes.

“I’m good, thank you, Ma’am.”

“You can call me Latoya. My husband’s just Terrell. No formalities needed here.”

The smell of dinner filled up all corners of the house; something warm and full of zest. At nearly every angle, Dudley’s sight was met with a framed family photo or some sort of religious ornament. There was a large painting of Jesus Christ hung above the mantelpiece. It was bigger than the wedding photos and Naya’s childhood pictures. It drew every eye towards it - a spectacle within the home.

 

Naya’s parents both met at church many many years ago, back in a small community town in Texas. They did everything perfectly; courted with dignity, loved purely under the Lord, and waited until marriage to start a family. They didn’t realise that it would take years and years before their child was to arrive, and they leaned on prayer like it was a never-ending trust fall. They prayed daily and nightly for a baby, a daughter or a son, and they prayed until praying became their lifeline. People in the Community gave them looks, questioned their pasts, wondered why they couldn’t live as a fruitful family. It hurt them to watch people pass judgment, because it was only the Lord’s mercy that mattered. It was going to be His salvation, His love that saved them from years of inconspicuous wrongdoings, such as their phases of adultery, phases that ebbed and flowed like the fullness of the moon.

It was only once Naya’s mother reached her forties that she successfully became pregnant. It was a miracle of Jesus, all the way through the healthy and unexacting germination of her child until her birth. Of course, she was born a such a sight; she was unique, something that her parents had never seen before - something the Community had never seen before. Rumours flew around like ghouls in the night air, doubts shrouded everybody’s minds. The paper-white girl born to a black couple, that couldn’t be possible. But no, she is black, you can tell by her hair, by her nose, her lips, you can tell she’s black. God just had a plan for this girl, God made her different from the rest, and whether it is a blessing or a curse, that’s for God to decide. Still, they prayed for Naya, they prayed that she be shielded from harm, from sin, from the unrelenting world that they lived. They prayed. They breathed words from Psalms, Proverbs, Corinthians, Romans, rubbed their prayers all over their daughter in the hopes that she would be as pure as her skin, as the lashes atop her eyelids. But then Haley came along. She came charging through like a bull into the MoMa, and nothing was the same again.

 

“Naya talks plenty about you. Is this the first volunteering project you’ve participated in?” Latoya said to Dudley, once they had settled down for dinner. She was dishing out soul food; mac and cheese with collard greens, sweet potatoes, fried chicken and grits. It was enough to keep one satiated  for the remainder of the summer. Dudley didn’t realise how much he missed wholesome family food; since Dylan moved in, it was take-out practically every other day. Where there wasn’t take-out, there was a five-minute meal, or nothing at all.

“Yeah, it is my first, actually. I’ve never been the greatest at school, so I wanted to have something to show for myself.”

“Well, that’s great. What are your plans after you graduate?” Terrell chimed in once they were all sat. Neither parents lifted a finger to utensil, nor did Naya.

“I’m not sure. I’m still trying to figure out what interests me.”

“Ah. One moment. Let us pray.” They had to say Grace before their meal. So, just like that, Naya’s mother went into verse, speaking effortlessly, yet still with passion. Everyone’s eyes were jammed shut at the table, bar Dudley’s. He watched both in wonder and discomfort at what was happening in front of him. He thought to himself, I am about to eat dinner in Naya Stephen’s house, with her parents. He was… meeting her parents. No big deal, of course. He’d met all of his friends’ parents. But it was just that whilst he peeped at Naya’s facial expression, closed lids and straight, noble posture, he found himself looking for too long. She was wearing a pastel pink tank top, one that seemed to blend into her skin. The marvellous  glass chandelier suspended above them sent shards of sharp light through the crystal prisms in all different directions, one of which landed on her collarbone. His eyes bounced between the space between her lips and her chest, but nowhere lower or higher. The piece of light was the only thing he could focus on, even once the prayer was over. It took the sudden animation of everyone on the table to snap him back to the now. I’m about to eat dinner in Naya Stephen’s house with her parents. It shouldn’t have felt weird at all, but it did.

 

“Naya’s participated in so many things over the years, haven’t you?” Latoya smiled. Yes, she had. Like being senior supervisor of the infant group in Summer Church camp the year prior, or spending weekends helping with church services, including christenings and baptisms. She’d spend hours baking for the church community, helping to set up celebratory events and dismal wakes for the Community’s beloved. She didn’t mind it all, but she wondered what it would be like to live daringly, without thinking, without seeing ahead. She was always seeing ahead.

“Yes,” She replied softly to her mother. “I’m a philanthropist at heart, after all.”

“That’s my girl. Dudley, are you a believer of God?” she turned her head over to him.

“Uhh… no. My family never really practised religion. My dad was atheist and my mother was more of the spiritual type.”

“Spiritualism is just one step closer to the ultimate recognition of the Higher Force that works within the universe.”

“A long-haired blonde dude?” Dudley pointed to the framed picture of Jesus, in an attempt at a joke. Naya’s parents sat silent for a second before letting out laughter.

“Don’t worry, we’re know that there has been a lot of Western influence on Jesus’ depiction,” Terrell chimed in after finishing a mouthful of his plate. “But His physical image has always been the least of our concerns. He exists everywhere at once. There is no image of God. Just an image of His likeness, which we should all strive toward.”

“I’m sure that’s true, but I guess I’m just not fully convinced,” Dudley answered truthfully. “I don’t mean to offend you, or anything. I’ve just never been exposed to religion much.”

“It’s never too late, Dudley. Just the same as how you found your footing in goodwill; you can find a place in faith.”

 

After dinner was over, Naya cleared the table, and Dudley offered to help. Her parents relocated to the living room, where they watched a TV gameshow with glasses of red wine standing aside each other on the coffee table. Not much was said in the kitchen - it was just the sound of dishes, forks and knives clanking and sliding across marble worktops. Then Dudley said he needed to use the bathroom. She lead him down the hallway before turning into her own bedroom. She could hear her parents laughing heartily at something on the screen downstairs. She sat on her bed, suddenly feeling a whole load of anxiety. Firstly, the lamp on her bedside table had stopped working, so she only had her fairy lights on. Her heart stammered at the elevated darkness she was shrouded in, the darkness that came with her deteriorating eyesight. She tried to pretend that there wasn’t a boy currently in her bathroom, in her house, having just finished engaging an overwhelmingly Christian conversation with her immediate family. She felt like it must have disconnected him somehow, like he could see through all of the holes that they tried to patch up, and he didn’t want to be around it. She realised that the only way she could get him to feel less awful about whatever it was he was hiding behind was to show her that she was hiding, too. Hiding in the dark.

 

“Are you tired, or something?”

“Shit. You scared me.” Naya jumped off the bed, being met with Dudley’s silhouette at the door, against the hallway light. She wouldn’t have noticed the door open ajar, or the insandescce flood through. Her peripheral vision sucked.

“Are you? ‘Cause I can go home.”

“No, no. I’m just… pondering.”

“It’s dim in here.”

“I just need a little bit of dark and quiet right now.”

“Isn’t that what you’re afraid of? You said it yourself. You wanna live in colour.”

“I just don’t wanna see stuff sometimes, I guess.” The truth was, she wanted to see everything, and she was terrified of the day that she’d see barely anything at all. She needed to remind herself of it, to humble herself.

“Can I switch the light on?”

“….Ugh. Sure.”

“Are you OK?”

“Did my parents scare you? I feel like they did. Quoting shit from the New Testament. Trust me, it gets old pretty quickly.”

He turned the light on, still standing in the frame of the door. “That food was too good, man,” he grinned. “How can I be scared when my stomach is this happy?”

Naya almost smiled. “They signed me up to the programme, you know. I found out about it the second I enrolled to South Harlow, but I tried to lay low and keep it a secret. I didn’t want them finding out about it, because I knew it would be game over and I’d have no life all Summer, just like the last Summers. But they found out, and they grounded me for not telling them about it, and then I signed up the next day.”

 

Dudley stayed fixed, like a photo in a frame. Naya couldn’t bear to look at him, show him how embarrassing she really was. She lied in the office that day, said she felt like participating, but she was just as trapped as he had been. She had no choice, and because of that, neither did he.

“My brother laughed in my face when I told him I was doing this. We both don’t receive the treatment we want from the people who are supposed to look after us, love us unconditionally. We’re always battling adversity. It’s fine, though. We’re a month in, now. We have six weeks to go. Let’s just keep having fun with it.”

“How can I have fun when I’m doing this all to keep people off my back?” She said this in a hushed but frustrated tone, prompting Dudley to get inside the room and close the door behind him.

“I’m doing it for the same reason, Naya. We’re doing it for the same reason.”

“I just don’t wanna feel dirty anymore. I want to feel fresh, new, whole. I’m tired of repenting.” She wasn’t crying, but she could have been. Her voice was wavering.

“I know. And I know that you know I feel the same. You’re always trying to wean something out of me, I can tell. I know you’re trying to figure me out. But there’s one thing I can tell you, Naya.”

“What?”

“We’re both doing this, all for the same reason.”

 

 

I iron out all the kinks and the crumples in my pretty White Dress, over and over again,

But whenever I wear it, the moment I move, the moment I breathe, I see the fabric

Fold and crease and squeeze itself around my skin, like it is my skin, and I can’t breathe.

So I take off the White Dress, I hang out the sheer cotton and let it blow out in the breeze.

This is after I’ve washed it a million times over with detergent and softener.

I’ll get the iron out again, and I’ll straighten out the crooked hem, stretch out the material

So it fits a little looser, so it doesn’t strangle me alive.

See, I love this White Dress, but it keeps getting stained and messed up, it never quite fits right,

I need to keep washing it, starting it anew, un-crumpling it, stretching it as far as it can go,

Sometimes I try to wear it differently, like rolling up the sleeves or leaving a button un-done,

But when I look in the mirror, it is still me wearing it, Still Violet, I’m still Violet!

I’m still Violet!

I’m still Violet.

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