What They Don’t Know EXCERPT

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February 13 Dear Ms. Tilson,

You probably think you know who I am, but I’m here to tell you that you don’t. I used to be a bright star of a girl, but that girl burned out of existence, like a fire swept through my life and left nothing but ash and smoke. That smoke is the memory of what I had, so thick I can smell it and feel it in my eyes and ears and nose. But I can’t touch it. Smoke, like memories, will slip through your fingers and disappear as if it never existed at all.

I keep thinking that if I could write down how my life used to be, maybe I could capture that smoke, keep it from drifting away. That’s what made me finally crack open this journal you gave us at the beginning of the semester. Could these pages be some magical vessel to contain that gone-girl? All those bright memories preserved in this one place?

I would write about how on Sundays, after the long hours spent at church, we’d pile into the truck, exhausted, and my mom would say, “I’m too tired to cook,” which is the greatest sin for a woman on a Sunday in our church, but my dad would smile indulgently and order a pizza. “God rested on Sunday; why shouldn’t you?” he’d joke. Then they would kiss, and I’d be reminded that I’m one of six kids, so they must’ve had sex at some point. Which is gross to think about but also comforting because it means there’s some order to the world.

I’d write about how when my youngest sister, Joanie, was a baby and would wake up crying in the middle of the night, I was usually the one who got there first with a bottle of warmed-up breast milk from the freezer. Some nights I’d rock her for hours even after she’d fallen asleep, watching her tiny eyelids flutter as she dreamed. What is she dreaming about? I’d wonder. Sometimes I’d place her gently in her crib and get my sketchbook, draw her in soft, black pencil. Those nights were magical. They seemed to exist in their own dimension, the spell broken only by the rising sun.

I’d write about the day after my older sister, Hannah, got her license. She picked me up from school, and instead of going straight home, we drove and drove and drove. We rode over the mountain passes, twisting along back roads until we came to this hole-in-the-wall dive in the middle of nowhere called the Wooden Nickel. Hannah had read about it in Sunset Magazine, how it supposedly had the best bison burgers in America. We ate them with their secret special sauce dripping down our chins, washed them down with small-batch root beer, and got home hours after dark. Mom and Dad yelled their heads off, and Hannah lost her license for a week, but after they sent us to bed, Hannah turned to me and said, “Worth it.”

I’d write about how I had everything I wanted and didn’t know it. I had a family who surrounded me with love and acceptance. I had a father and mother who stood on such high pedestals that the sun blinded me when I looked up at them. They loved me unconditionally, or so I thought. I never imagined there could be conditions under which they would not love me.

Every night I thanked God for my parents’ love and for my family’s abundance, and yet every day I took each of those things for granted. Now I’m left with the memory of what I once had.

No. These pages can’t contain that smoke, those memories. They’re gone now, destroyed in one irreversible moment.

Maybe I should stop here. Let you go on believing everything you think you know about me. That would definitely be easiest. I could record what I ate for breakfast, what time I went to bed, which TV shows I like to watch. All those myths you have about me can stay intact. You can go on thinking I’m the perfect daughter of Mayor Rivers, the shining example of the family values he talks about in speech after speech after speech. Believe that I never cause any trouble and I’m always a good girl. I’ll probably get a C, but you’ll never know my innermost thoughts. I’ll stay safe.

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Except I can’t stay safe anymore.

As of December 21, nowhere is safe.

I would give anything to redo that day.

But I can’t.

And the only place I can talk about it is in these pages.

So let’s start with a pop quiz. True or False: Mellie Rivers is a virgin.

False. As of December 21, at 3:30 in the afternoon, on the floor in the basement of my house, I am not a virgin.

True or False: Mellie Rivers would never have sex before marriage.

True. I made a promise to God and my family, and I wear the ring on my left hand, where, presumably, one day, my husband will place a different, more permanent ring. I would have kept that promise. But the choice was taken from me.

True or False: Mellie Rivers would never, ever get pregnant out of wedlock.

False.

Signed, Mellie Rivers

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