Tenleigh – Seventeen Years Old
The first time I really noticed Kyland Barrett, he was swiping someone's discarded breakfast off a cafeteria table. I'd looked away, attempting to preserve his dignity, a gut reaction on my part. But then I'd looked back as he walked in my direction toward the doors, stuffing the small portion of leftover food in his mouth. Our eyes met, his flaring briefly and then narrowing, as again, I looked away, my cheeks heating as if I'd just intruded on a deeply personal moment. And it was. I should know. I'd done it myself. I knew the shame. But I also knew the achy emptiness of a Monday morning after a long, hungry weekend. Evidently, Kyland knew it, too.
Of course, I'd seen him before that. I'd bet everyone who was female had let their eyes linger on him, with his strikingly handsome face, and his tall, solid build. But that was the first time I really saw him, the first time I felt a throb of understanding in my chest for the boy who always seemed to wear an expression of nonchalance, as if he didn't care much for anyone or anything. I was well acquainted with men who couldn't give a rat's ass. That was trouble I didn't want any part of.
But apparently not all the girls in our school had too much of a problem with trouble, because if he was in the company of anyone, it was always someone female.
It was a large school, housing students from three towns. I'd only had a few classes with Kyland over the three and a half years we'd been in high school, and he'd always sat in the back of the room, rarely uttering a word. I always sat in the front so I could see the blackboard—I guessed I was probably nearsighted, not that we could afford an eye exam, much less glasses. I knew he got good grades. I knew he must be smart despite his seemingly careless attitude. But after that day in the cafeteria, I couldn't help looking at him differently, and my eyes always seemed to find him. I looked for him in the overcrowded hallway—packed with teenagers moving slowly to class like cattle being herded to greener pastures—in the cafeteria, or walking ahead of me. Most times I found him with his hands stuffed in his pockets, and if outside, his head down against the wind. I liked to watch the way his body moved, and I liked that he didn't know it. I was curious about him now. And suddenly that look on his face seemed more wary than immune or removed. I only knew a little about Kyland. He lived up in the hills like I did. And apparently, he didn't have enough to eat, but there was no shortage of hungry people around these parts.
In the middle of rolling green hills, breathtaking mountain views, waterfalls, and quaint covered bridges, lies Dennville, Kentucky, a part of the Appalachian Mountains that would put any urban slum to shame, where hopelessness is as commonplace as the white oak trees, and unemployment is the rule more so than the exception.
My older sister, Marlo, said God had created Appalachia and then had promptly left and never come back. Something inside me suspected that more often it was people who disappointed God than the other way around. But what did I really know of God anyway? I didn't even go to church.
What I did understand was that in a place like Dennville, Kentucky, Darwin was the one who had his facts straight: only the strongest survived.
Dennville hadn't always been as bad off, though—there was a time when the Dennville coal mine was open and families in these parts made a decent wage, even if some had to supplement with food stamps. That's when there had been at least a few thriving businesses in town, jobs for people who wanted one, and people who had a little money to spend. Even those of us who lived on the mountain in a sad collection of small houses, shacks, and mobile homes—the poorest of the poor—seemed to have enough to get by on in those days. But then the mine explosion happened. The papers called it the worst mining tragedy in fifty years. Sixty-two men, most with families relying on them at home, were killed. Kyland's father and older brother both lost their lives that day. He lived in a tiny house a little ways below mine on the mountain with his mother who was an invalid. What she suffered from, I wasn't sure exactly.
As for me, I lived with my mama and sister in a small trailer nestled in a grove of pine trees. In the winter months, the wind would come howling through and rock our trailer so violently, I was sure we'd tip over. Somehow it had managed to hold its ground so far. Somehow, all of us on that mountain had managed to hold our ground. So far.
One late fall day, as I walked up the road that led to our trailer, pulling my sweater around me as the wind whipped through my hair, I spied Kyland walking a ways ahead. Suddenly, Shelly Galvin went running past me to catch up to him, and he turned and nodded his head at her as she walked beside him, acknowledging something she'd said. I lost sight of them as they turned at a bend in the road, and I got lost in my own thoughts. A few minutes later when I turned around the bend, they were nowhere in sight, but as I passed a grove of hickories, I heard Shelly giggle, and stopped to peer through the brush. Kyland had her pressed up against a tree and was kissing her as if he were some wild, untamed animal. Her back was to me so I could only see his face. I don't know why I stood there, staring at them, blatantly interrupting their privacy rather than moving along. But something about the way Kyland's eyes were closed, and he wore a raw, heated look of concentration as he moved his mouth over hers, made me clench my legs together as heat flooded my veins and lust gripped me. He moved his hand up to her breast, and she made a moaning sound in the back of her throat. My own nipples pebbled as if it were me he was touching. I reached out to grab hold of the tree right next to me and the small noise of my movement must have caught his attention because his eyes popped open and he stared at me as he continued to kiss her, his cheeks hollowed slightly as he did something with his tongue I could only imagine. And imagining I was. Hot shame moved up my face as our eyes locked, and I was unable to move. His eyes narrowed. As reality came flooding back, I stumbled backward, filled with humiliation.