Molly Hanover lifted her chin. The pain was so sharp her head slammed down onto the muddy gravel. Her teeth gashed her tongue and the copper taste of blood filled her mouth. She closed her eyes and the thump of her heartbeat pounded in her ears.
This wasn’t happening. She had to get up and find him. She needed to tell him something—something important. And her mother. She had decided she would tell her mother, too. They would help her.
At the edge of the field where she had fallen, a few unharvested corn stalks jutted skyward. Late autumn grass sprouted in the weedy undergrowth. She lay splayed facedown, her arm twisted behind her back, raw pain searing through her right shoulder.
Where was he?
Again, she tried to raise her head and tiny spurts of light exploded against the darkness. Chilly rain stung her cheek and blurred her vision. Her hair, matted with bits of glass, dirt, and blood, stuck to her neck.
“Help,” she whispered.
It was hard to concentrate, but she listened carefully and heard the soft ping of rain hitting her nylon jacket.
Stay awake, she warned herself. Don’t sleep. She rolled and saw the wet road sparkle in a vehicle’s headlights.
Maybe it was a bad dream. But the pain, the pain was real. Hot blood burned through the cut in her cheek.
Her mind raced. The sharp edge of panic pierced her memory. There was a secret, a thing unspeakable.
But it was gone.
Whatever she wanted to tell them had vanished. Then her world went black.
Four Months Earlier
Molly Hanover was not a liar, but she had started to make up stories so her mother wouldn’t worry. She told her how she spent her days with her new friends, how cool the town of Millington Valley was, and how much it didn’t bother her to start a new school in her senior year.
Still, every day she forced herself out of the house. She convinced herself summer would end soon and school would fill her time. The band would be fun. Maybe she really would make some new friends. She didn’t let herself think about all that she’d lost and about how lonely she truly was.
And she never let herself think about her dad.
One hot August morning, as she’d done every day since they’d moved to Millington for her mother’s new job, Molly packed her phone, a water bottle, and her AP-required summer reading East of Eden. Before leaving the stuffy cramped apartment, she turned on the kitchen faucet to a trickle for her fat, orange Persian cat Derby.
On Main Street, the air was sticky and humid and her thick curly hair turned heavy within minutes. She stopped and brushed off the damp strands stuck to her neck, then looked both ways. The town was quiet and the front porches were empty. At the post office, she went inside to check the community board. A new flyer read: Babysitter Wanted. She pulled the phone number tag and tucked it into her book bag. Outside, she cut through the cemetery and hopped the chain that blocked the narrow gravel road, leading into the fairgrounds.
Flanked by clusters of old oak trees, the amphitheater sat low, its white dome bright in the dark shade. Molly found her favorite spot on the stage steps in the trees’ cool shadows. She opened her book and leaned against the concrete wall, her legs resting on a lower tread. Millington Valley High School sat on a small hill across the street, its second story windows half covered in plywood. It looked as if it was about to shut its eyes.
She heard the boys before she saw them. Three football players emerged from behind the livestock building. They were headed straight for her, jostling with each other, their voices growing louder as they drew closer. She pressed her back against the wall, attempting to disappear. They paused in a sloppy huddle and dropped their gear.
“Friday night. Jimmy’s house,” a big, almost fat, kid said, a little out of breath. “His ID’s for real now. Turned twenty-one last week.” His blue practice jersey crunched up, revealing his belly. He was at least 6’4” and 260 pounds. His face was bright red with patches of acne. His legs were bare from his knees down and he wore flip-flops. “He’s getting two cases.”
“That’s not enough,” said a black kid wearing mirrored sunglasses. He was the only black person Molly had seen in Millington. “Everybody’s coming.” He socked the big kid’s shoulder. “We’re going to need more booze.”
A slightly smaller guy with defined muscles and spiky blond hair said, “Goddamnit, Tank.” His lips barely moved. “I’ve been sneaking up to the quarry every night and collecting twigs and branches, getting molested by mosquitoes for this bonfire, and we can only get two cases?” He chucked his helmet onto the pile of bags. “Are you kidding me?”
“Let’s just serve the juice in Dixie cups,” the black kid said and toed his duffle, sending up a puff of dust. “Maybe Tank can get his Nana’s china, too.”
“Shut up, Shady.” The huge kid pinched a zit on his chin. “Wade’ll score more.”
“Stop picking your zits, Tank! You’re so gross.”
Tank turned bright red and wiped his hand on his pant leg. “Sorry,” he said.
Molly felt bad for him. Then he saw her watching him and she felt worse. All the guys stared at her. She looked at her book, letting her curls fall over her shoulders to hide her face. She read and reread the same sentence: All great and precious things are lonely. All great and precious things are lonely. Her heart pounding, she sat perfectly still, pretending she hadn’t seen them. Maybe they would go away. But no, they walked toward her, dragging their bags over the stone path, a haze of dust following them.
“Hey, you new around here?” the black kid pushed his sunglasses onto his forehead.
She looked up at the big kid, the one they’d called Tank. The friendliest looking one.
He smiled, his eyes kind, his face flushed, and a pinprick of blood on his chin. “Just that we’ve never seen you around.”
She nodded vaguely and closed her book. Say something, she told herself. Heat started in the back of her neck as she reached for her bag.
“Don’t go,” the spiky-haired kid said. He was good-looking up close with bright blue eyes and a dimple in his chin. “Me and my compadres can show you around.” He stepped closer and did a little bow. “I’m Tommy, but everyone calls me Legs. And, that’s Colin,” he said and slapped the black kid. “But we call him Shady. You know, because he wears the sunglasses all the time and he’s black.”
“She’s not blind,” Shady said. “Excuse this ignorant a-hole.”
“And this guy,” Legs patted the big kid’s stomach. “This here is Tank.”
Molly smiled, blushing, tongue-tied. She felt stupid because she could see that they were the cool kids, and she wanted them to like her.
“What’s your name?” Legs casually hooked his hands together and straightened his elbows so that his triceps contracted.
“I’m Molly.” Her cheeks flushed again as she tucked her book into her pack and stood.
“Pretty name—” Legs nodded towards her book. “And smart. AP English? My sister has to read the same book.”
“We’re having a party Friday night at the quarry,” Tank said. “There might not be much to drink,” Shady said.
Legs smiled—the kind of smile that was used to getting whatever it wanted—and said, “I’d be happy to take you. Introduce you to everybody. Everybody who’s anybody, that is.”
She hesitated, her fingers tightening around the railing. They watched her.
“What’s your number?” Legs reached for the phone that was tucked into his white compression pants. “I’ll text you about the party.”
“Um . . . I have to ask my mom.” Oh my god! What a stupid thing to say!
“She has to ask her mom,” Legs said, perplexed. They all looked dumfounded for a moment. But Legs said, “Sure. Okay. So can I have your number?”
“Sure,” said Molly, and then she told him.
Shady dropped his sunglasses over his eyes. “We’re meeting in the stadium parking lot around eight to ride up together.”
Tank pointed across the street. “Behind the school, that’s where the stadium is.”
“No shit, Sherlock.” Legs winked at her. “Don’t mind these dummies!” He laughed and ran his hand through his spiky hair. “Move it.” He whacked Shady on the back.
“Hope you can come.” Tank smiled.
“Keep the booze part on the down low,” Shady said. “I mean, don’t tell your mom.”
“No. No, I won’t.” Molly couldn’t help but grin.
They picked up their gear and walked away, their voices fading.
Halfway across the fairgrounds, Legs turned around and waved with a big smile. Molly waved in return. The guys passed through the shade of the trees and back into the sunlight. They stopped on the curb, their silhouettes distinct against the school.
She was invited to a party.
Maybe she should go. Stop being the shy girl.
Maybe she’d make some friends, then she wouldn’t have to lie to her mom anymore.
Molly picked up her bag and stepped into the sun. She raised her hand over her brow and squinted into the brightness. The school’s plywood windows looked as if they had double-winked at her. The eyes seemed frozen mid-wink, uncertain whether to open all the way or shut completely.
People reinvented themselves all the time, right?
Maybe she could be somebody different here.
Maybe she could even forgive herself about what happened to her dad. Maybe.
“I’ll work the tables tonight.” Thelma Wilson tucked a small receipt book into her back pocket and adjusted her red apron. “I feel some heavy tippers coming on.”
“Good luck with that.” Mr. Robinson laughed. The jolly school bus driver sat with his forearms on the bar, nursing a beer, his Millington Valley baseball cap pulled low on his brow.
Ann squatted and pulled out a heavy milk crate packed with different vodkas. She found the Grey Goose bottle and pushed the container into place.
“Hey,” a deep male voice said. “Don’t I pay you enough?”
She shot up as she turned around, jamming her thigh into the keg lever. Her heart skipped as if she’d been caught doing something she shouldn’t.
Peter Vitullo, a partner of the law firm where she worked during the day, sat down next to Mr. Robinson. She rubbed her leg and pushed her hair behind her ear.
“Doesn’t look good for me if you’re moonlighting.” He snapped his chewing gum and brushed his chin; the diamond chips in his shiny Rolex watch caught in the light. His brown hair was thick and wavy, combed tight against his head, with strands of gray in his sideburns. He had a deep tan, and his teeth had been obviously whitened.
Mr. Robinson turned toward Peter. “Sponsoring the Vet Night at the Eagles game was just great. Nice of you, thanks. Me and my sweetie sure had a good time.”
“My pleasure,” Peter said.
Mr. Robinson swigged the last of his beer and set it on the damp- ringed coaster. “I best get going before Mrs. R starts with her texts.” He nodded to Ann, touched the brim of his ball cap, and then headed out. Ann set the bottles on the countertop and retrieved the half-empties from the shelf under the counter.
“That’s the rumor: that I work for the best law practice in Millington.”
He chuckled. “I’ve got the only firm around.” He pointed at the
Grey Goose. “I’ll take one of those, straight, on the rocks.”
Ann turned over the tumbler and it made a soft thud on the wood counter. “Come here a lot? I just started last week.”
“Try to.” He opened a manila file and shuffled through some papers. Pulling out a sheet, he glanced up and caught Ann looking at him. Quickly, she turned her attention to the drink and scooped a cupful of ice into the glass.
“Can you post this on the bulletin board?” He pushed the paper across the bar. It was a flyer with a photograph of a white Cape Cod house with a For Lease banner across the top.
“Looks nice. What’s the rent?” she said, sure she couldn’t afford it.
“A thousand.” He smiled and tipped his glass toward her. “But for an employee, I’ll discount it.”
She leaned against the bar and crossed her arms; a cool blast from the overhead vent fell on her shoulders. Maybe she could make that work. It would be much better than the claustrophobic, third floor attic apartment she had rented. She touched the flyer and then wiped her hands down the front of her jeans. “I’d love to take look at it. I could run out on my lunch hour.” She hesitated. “I mean, if that’s okay with you, for me to leave the office for a bit.”
“It’s fine. How’s noon tomorrow?”
They agreed to meet and then Peter placed a twenty on the bar and left, his drink unfinished.
Thelma whizzed around the end of the bar. “Give me two Rum & Cokes, and a ginger ale. I see you caught Mr. Bigwig’s eye.”
“He dropped off a flyer about a house he rents.” Ann turned a glass over.
“Sure, sure.” Thelma raised her eyebrows and smirked. “I haven’t seen that man with his wife in a decade. The word is she stays with her mother upstate a lot.” She tightened her apron around her waist. “He never comes in here. Now, he stops by to drop off a flyer? He was here for a reason.” She poked Ann on the shoulder. “You.”
Ann stuck cocktail straws in the Rum & Cokes. She had Thelma figured out. As much as Ann liked her, Thelma was a drama queen— gossiping, matchmaking, and generally stirring things up—a first class busybody.
Still Ann smiled and pulled a damp rag from the slop sink and wiped the countertop. She liked the easy rhythm of the bar. Millington Valley felt good. She was a normal single mom here. Nobody pitied her here and that’s the way she wanted it. This was the place where things were going to turn around. She finally had her associate’s degree and a paralegal job. And if she could get this house, maybe she could give Molly the home she’d always imagined they’d have.
At 7:30 in the morning, the thermostat on the post outside the Millington Valley football team’s new state-of-the-art locker room read eighty-nine degrees. Inside, the cinder block walls gleamed glossy blue and bright white with a big blue MV stenciled onto the wall opposite the showers. The steel gray lockers were shiny new, each fitted with a placard that, if you were a starter, held your name and jersey number.
Wade sat on the wooden bench, in full gear, perspiration on his forehead, on his neck, and seeping through his pads. Too bad he couldn’t shake his headache.
“That party was fun last night,” Shady said, slamming his locker and then brushing his finger over his Keeser nametag. He adjusted his sunglasses. “Leggy said he’ll meet us at the field. Had to go to the trainer to ice.”
“Yeah, a little too fun.” Wade rubbed his forehead. “Take those damn things off. You look like a pimp.”
Shady smiled. “Maybe I am. That’s right, Shady with the ladies.”
Tank plopped down on the bench next to Wade, his thighs bulging underneath his compression tights. “Friday night’s booze is coming along.” His face was bright red from scrubbing it with the prescription acne wash he used religiously.
“Hope so.” Wade rooted into the bottom of his gym bag, digging through dirty socks and yesterday’s damp practice gear. He found the flask and pulled it out. “Hand me that Gatorade bottle, Shady.” Shady tossed it to him. Wade unscrewed the cap and emptied half the flask into it. Nobody spoke.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Already?” Tank shook his head. “We’ve got a three-a-day today.” “Bite the dog that bit you. Ever heard that?” Wade said.
“Legs isn’t going to like this.” Shady pushed his sunglasses onto the top of his head and grabbed his helmet, shaking his head.
“He’s not my daddy.” Wade waved his hand. “And who’s going to tell him?” He went to the sink and filled the rest of the bottle with water.
Screw them, and Legs too. He’d show them. Three practices—that was nothing. Every one of them: Shady, Tank, and even Legs once, had puked after Coach R had run them, but not him. Not Wade. No, he wasn’t a pussy. A little Captain Morgan never hurt him.
After the 4:00 p.m. team dinner provided by the booster club, Wade sat under a shade tree near the livestock building in the fairgrounds, sipping his lukewarm whiskey-laced water. He was spent; his legs and arms heavy, his clothing soaked, and his lips salty.
The band practiced on the school parking lot across the street, marching in formation, making a lot of racket. He burped, the spicy tang of marinara sauce climbing in his throat. The heat rose off the parking lot’s black asphalt. Mr. Franks, the bandleader, waved his little stick like a crazy man. He’d be in Mr. Franks’ English class again this year. The guy was pretty cool, but way too serious.
Coach R’s whistle blew followed by his command through the bullhorn that practice started in fifteen minutes. Thank God it was the last session of the day. Gathering his stuff, Wade slipped on his flops, took one last swig of his magic water, and started toward the locker room. Maybe he’d get pizza with the guys and play X-Box at Tank’s later tonight.
“Thornton, hold up.”
Wade turned around as Mr. Franks ran across the parking lot. The late afternoon sun was at his back. There was no way to dodge him.
“We need to talk,” Mr. Franks said, out of breath.
Mr. Franks stuck his baton in the back pocket of his jeans. “Coach told me you’re getting lots of looks. This year really counts, especially the first half.”
“Thanks, Mr. Franks, I’ll be fine.”
“That’s what you said last year and it was a struggle.” His face grew serious. “You have an opportunity for a free college education.”
“I’m just not into books.” Wade smiled and shifted, his bag heavy at his side.
“I know, but Wade, football doesn’t last forever; an education does.” The sweat dripped from Mr. Frank’s bushy eyebrows and he blinked. “I have an idea that might help you. See me at the end of the first week of classes.”
Wade paused. “Sure. Anything for you, Mr. Franks.”
Mr. Franks smiled. “Good. Keep an open mind.” His eyes lit up. “And, go get ‘em! States or bust, right?”
Coach “R” Reifsnyder didn’t look like a football coach. He was 5’5” and weighed about 155 pounds. Every morning, he shaved and buffed his head until it shone like a tan bowling ball. He wore a blue and white bandana for practices and a Millington Valley baseball hat on game days. What he lacked for in size, he made up for in brains.
He knew how to win.
That’s why the bleachers filled up for the evening practices, the only one at which Coach R allowed spectators—old men, young dads with their sons, middle school kids, and most of the players’ fathers—half the male population in Millington Valley.
Wade’s father always sat apart from everybody else, top left side next to the press box. His dad still had the remnants of his former football player’s body and he was at every practice and game.
“On the goal line,” Coach R yelled through the bullhorn. Then he flagged the trainer in the golf cart. The team watched incredulously as the cart lumbered across the field. It was piled high with sandbags.
Wade adjusted his chinstrap, his wet hair plastered to his forehead and neck. The humidity was like a wall.
“We’ve got two days left. Saturday we scrimmage Lakeview High.”
The stadium was silent. “This is where you win. Here on the practice field.” Coach R’s voice echoed, his face bright red. “It’s about conditioning, coordination, and confidence.” He untied his bandana and used it to wipe the sweat from his cheeks. “On the line. Find a partner.”
Wade stepped next to Legs. “You and me?” Tank and Shady filled in on the other side of Legs. The rest of the team fanned along the end field line.
Coach R wiped his brow. “You’ll go back-to-back and hook arms elbow-to-elbow. Each of you will hold a sandbag against your stomach.”
The players tried to follow Coach’s instructions. Some fell. And worse, some laughed.
“Off your asses. This is not a joke!” He paused. “Fifteen suicides. One minute rest in between.”
“Hail Mary, full of grace.” Tank knocked Wade’s shoulder. “Don’t try to be a hero.” Tank like every other player on the team, knew that Wade and Legs would set the pace and it had been a hard day.
Wade turned his back to Legs. They leaned into each other and linked arms, their shirts wet, their stench a mixture of BO, dirt, and wet cotton. “Okay, we squat on three and pick up the bags,” Wade said.
“You reek,” Legs said. “Were you drinking?”
“That stuff has to stop during the day.” Legs’ voice was grave. “You need to be 100 percent at every practice.”
“Aren’t I always?”
The pairs lined up along the goal line. Half the crowd was on its feet.“On your mark. Get set. Go!” Coach R blew the whistle into the bullhorn.
Wade and Legs found a rhythm, matching each other’s strides. The bags were hard to hold with sweaty hands, and the gritty sand pushed through the burlap and stuck to the creases between their fingers. Their bare feet were covered in grass clippings and lime. Wade’s stomach jumped and he burped.
They ran, hard and slow, holding the heavy bags, working together—teammates, brothers. The world fell away. Wade didn’t see anything but the orange half-glow of the sun setting behind the school. His heart hammered in his chest, and his arms and thighs burned. At one point he felt Legs slip. He quickly shifted, throwing his weight in the opposite direction, stopping a fall.
They staggered across the goal line into the end zone and dropped the bags, the only two players still moving. The people in the stands stood, cheering. On the far field, against the backdrop of the mountain, the soccer team paused their practice to watch the commotion. The band lined the outside perimeter of the track fence. A kid lifted his trumpet and blew. Mr. Franks smiled and shot his arms in the air.
“Millington Valley,” Coach R roared through the bullhorn. “That’s what winning looks like.”
Wade gave Legs a high five and then nodded to his father in the stands.
So, there you go! The first three chapters of What The Valley Knows! You’ve met my main characters: Molly, Wade, and Ann. My hope is that you now want to read the rest of the book. You can find it on Amazon and Black Rose Writing.
“With strong prose and pacing, the pages turn quickly and easily . . . A taut, compelling family tale.” -Kirkus Reviews