Her name had been Kenlee, and she had come from a place called Eufala. A city on a bluff, overlooking a lake, and the view from the houses Kenlee cleaned with her mother, and sometimes her sister, was beautiful. She had imagined how magical you must feel, to live in one of these enormous, cavernous houses, with surfaces Kenlee could not name—honed marble, glittering quartz, scored concrete—and wake up each morning and see, instead of your sister’s heavy back or the popcorned ceiling of your cheap room, an endless, sparking, deepening blue.
Kenlee had been smart. Once. She had studied like a maniac, and when the email from the University of Alabama had come, she had kissed the filthy computer screen at her high school’s library.
What had separated Kenlee from her mother and sister is that she knew how to pretend she was not trash. She had moved to Tuscaloosa at the beginning of the summer and worked three jobs so she could pay rent. The jobs were mindless—waitressing, hostessing, babysitting—but Kenlee’s real purpose had been observation. Even the rich girls, who drove Land Cruisers and charged their meals to thick credit cards, wore athletic shorts and sorority t-shirts. Their money was in how they carried themselves: their expensive, even tans, their blonder-than-blonde hair.
The sun had been free. The athletic shorts had not cost so very much. She found the little boutiques where the girls bought dresses. She layered gold-toned bracelets on her right arm, because she was left-handed.
Before school started, she had rushed sororities and joined a very good one. Phi Theta. They had all believed she was not trash. When her scholarship money kicked in, she had quit all but the babysitting job. A lot of girls babysat. It was not really considered a job. She had made friends. But she wanted a girl who did not want her. Mary Morgan Bales, who was from Birmingham; who drove not a Land Cruiser but a Range Rover; who skied every January with her family, but who otherwise barely left the state; who was tall and sleek and who seemed to Kenlee the embodiment of everything she had ever desired. Mary Morgan was not unkind to Kenlee—not exactly—but she ignored Kenlee in a way that seemed pointed. Kenlee had felt that if Mary Morgan liked her, then she would be a success. She had felt that in her heart.
Kenlee’s days were a whirl of attending classes and eating soup in the student center with whatever sisters were free. In Eufala she had been marked as trash; since she was smart and overcame obstacles, teachers liked her, but she had never had real friends. She thought she had real friends now. She had mistaken the sight of her sorority’s shirts—the pink and green Ps and Ts, hung as they were over tanned bodies and perfect breasts—as affection, as love. She had felt warmth in her throat when she’d seen a Theta and they had waved and hugged and made a fuss. They had loved her. She had felt that.
It was football season, and Kenlee, raised by women, had not been taught to care about football, but, my, how she had grown to love it. The helmeted men, the glittering cheer squads, the knee-to-knee camaraderie in the bleachers. Mary Morgan loved football, too. She understood the technical details Kenlee was trying hard to grasp. At games, she watched with a clenched jaw, one hand holding a white-and-crimson pom pom, the other wrapped awkwardly but somehow elegantly around her slender stomach.
Mary Morgan had been in the group of girls that went to Sigma Delta’s house after the Ole Miss game. Alabama had lost by a field goal in overtime, and there was a rancor in the air that disturbed Kenlee. Kenlee could have driven with another girl, an easier girl, but she had chosen to go with Mary Morgan, and for the rest of her life she would regret that decision, wonder about it. For Mary Morgan had waited until they were all in the car, their sweaty thighs sticking slightly to the leather, and then she muttered—under her breath but still loud enough for everyone to hear—”Must be nice to never drive.” And she had not said a name, but she had met Kenlee’s eyes in the rearview mirror, and the shame that Kenlee had been able to tamp down since she’d come to Tuscaloosa and started her new life—it rose up like bile. The other girls had gone quiet, and Kenlee understood that Mary Morgan knew everything about her. Saw right through her to the caddy of cleaning supplies her mother kept in the third seat of their old minivan, belted in like a child.
At the party Kenlee was miserable, and she drank beer after beer when she was usually more careful, and then she switched to a sickly-sweet punch when a cute boy named Robbie handed it to her in a red cup. Sometimes it was easiest to accept what was right in front of you. They stood in front of a giant Alabama flag, marked by the familiar red X, pinned to the wall. Kenlee had observed boys like this, from a distance, all her life. Confident, with shaggy hair and winning smiles. They had never before taken an interest in her, so when Robbie took her hand and guided her through the bowels of the house and into a room with a bed and a computer and a pyramid made of wine bottles, Kenlee had felt vaguely flattered.
He started by pushing her onto the bed and kissing her, and it was then that Kenlee knew she did not want to be there. She did nothing to stop Robbie. It would not matter if she had.
When she was little and scared, her mother would tell her to think about the happiest she had ever been and hold that happiness in her mind. She tried. Robbie shoved her skirt above her hips, and Kenlee thought of the bluffs, of the satisfaction of a house well cleaned. But that hadn’t been happiness. She thought about the time at the noodle house Mary Morgan had driven them to, and how all the girls—including Kenlee—had threaded noodles onto their forks until their plates were clean. Robbie moved about and over her, preparing, and Kenlee settled on this: the feeling of fullness, the slick of oil on the white, white plates.
She lay there, unmoving, because it was simpler, but mainly because Mary Morgan had singled her out earlier that evening. Marked her.
It did not take long. Five minutes. Eight. One time they had cleaned a house with cameras in every room, and their mother had warned them to be careful about their breaks. Time them to the minute, she’d said. Kenlee had been young. The phrase had stayed with her.
He left the room when he was finished. Kenlee stayed very still. Her name had been Kenlee, she thought, and she had been a virgin. Not so much by choice as by circumstance. She would have slept with a boy she loved. But no one had loved her.
Her name had been Kenlee, and she had come into this room and not protested.
After a while—she had lost track of time by this point—the door opened and Kenlee felt frightened, truly frightened, because she had known Robbie, and now she wondered if he was sending another, unknown boy in. She did not move a muscle.
It was Mary Morgan. Kenlee recognized her scent.
Mary Morgan sat down by Kenlee, barely depressing the bed at all even though she was tall and slender but sturdy.
“It happens,” she said, and smoothed Kenlee’s hair from her forehead, like a mother.