Tiffany Quay Tyson’s “The Past is Never” is the winner of the 2019 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction. Her first book, “Three Rivers” (Thomas Dunne, 2015), was a finalist for both that award and for the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction.
Though she grew up in Mississippi, she now resides in Denver, where she teaches writing at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
The following is an excerpt from “The Past Is Never.”
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2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Literary Fiction
Siblings Bert (Roberta Lynn), Willet, and Pansy know better than to go swimming at the old rock quarry. According to their father, it’s the Devil’s place, a place that’s been cursed and forgotten. But on a scorching hot Mississippi Delta day, they can’t resist cooling off in the dark, bottomless water.
From Chapter One
Pansy floated on her back, still as a log on the surface of the deep water. Her skin was tanned, as it was by the end of every summer. Willet and I burned and peeled and freckled, but Pansy’s skin soaked in the sun. Everyone wanted to be tan back then and I envied how easily it came to her. Everything seemed to come easy for Pansy. She could float for hours. Sometimes she fell asleep. I couldn’t float for ten seconds without lifting my head and looking around, worried I might miss something important. Willet would not be tamed. He hurled himself into the water again and again, all banshee cannonballs and Tarzan yells. Only Pansy seemed at peace on the water. She had faith the world would hold her up.
We splashed around for hours, and by midafternoon I was half starved.
“I could eat a gator,” Willet said.
Pansy didn’t open her eyes. “I’m fine.”
“We ought to call you Dandelion instead of Pansy,” Willet said.
“Someday you’ll just up and blow away.”
“Oh, shut up.” Pansy’s voice was as calm as the water.
“There’s wild berries across the road,” Willet said.
“What if they’re poison?” I was a worrier from birth.
“They’re just brambleberries, no different than the ones in the store.”
We told Pansy we’d be right back. We didn’t think twice about leaving our six-year-old sister alone in a deep pool in the middle of nowhere. She was a stronger swimmer than either of us would ever be. We figured she was charmed and, like most children—hell, like most people—we thought primarily of ourselves.
Willet led the way to the leggy bushes, which grew in a clearing a little further into the woods than I cared to travel, but my hunger was stronger than my fear. The black raspberries were plump and sweet, and we ate them as fast as we could pick them.
Willet wiped his hands on his shorts and looked over his shoulder. “I’ll be back in a sec,” he said.
“Don’t leave me here!”
“I’ll be right back.”
I followed him until he turned and told me I was acting like a baby. I hung back and waited. The sound of branches popping beneath Willet’s footsteps faded. The scent of smoke, sweet and smoldering, drifted through the air and I figured it for the lingering aroma of a fire built by Boy Scouts or some family avoiding campsite fees at the state park. The berries grew large and angry in my stomach. I rubbed my aching belly and wished for Willet to reappear. I closed my eyes and counted, telling myself Willet would be there when I reached ten, then twenty, then fifty, then one hundred. My too-small swimsuit dried and wedged in my butt. I tugged at it, angry with Mama for not buying me a new suit that summer. Clouds rolled in, sending the clearing into shadow. A swarm of gnats gathered around my face and I waved my hands to keep from inhaling the pesky creatures. The sky, which had been blue and clear all morning, turned gray and menacing. I’d had enough.
“Willet!” I shouted. “Willet, this isn’t funny!”
The tall trees swallowed up my voice. It was like one of those bad dreams where you scream for help but don’t make a sound. A hot wind traveled through the woods; the leaves on the trees quivered and quaked. Dark gray clouds blocked out the sun. The first fat drop of rain hit my bare shoulder. I called for Willet once more, then walked in the direction he’d disappeared. The sky let loose a roll of thunder. The rain swept through in heavy, blinding sheets and the dust beneath my feet turned to mud. It was an angry storm.
Up ahead, something moved. It was a person, darting among the trees.
“Willet!” I chased after the darting figure, already thinking about what I’d tell Mama when we got home. “You are in so much trouble!” I hollered.
The storm grew darker. My feet slipped on mud and slick fallen leaves. I put my hands out to avoid crashing into the trees surrounding the clearing. They seemed to pop up out of nothing. Thunder cracked and the ground shook. I’d been caught in bad weather before, but this was worse than anything I’d ever seen. The rain was so thick it looked like something you could grab by the handful. Clouds obliterated the daylight. It was dark as night until a bolt of lightning lit up the sky. In that flash of light I saw a dark creature lurch across the clearing. It hunched forward. It wore tattered, ill-fitting clothes, and in the lightning glow, the creature’s skin seemed to be the same color as the clay from the quarry—a slick greenish gray. It reminded me of the trolls from children’s storybooks. It carried something in its arms, something too large to be lugged through the woods in a storm. I stood very still, hoping to escape the creature’s notice. I barely breathed. At the next bolt of lightning, I tried to spot the creature again, but it was gone. I stood frozen in the downpour, afraid to move forward or go back. What had I seen? Was it a monster or a vagrant? Was it the Devil himself? Was Daddy right about this being Satan’s sanctuary?
Anything seemed possible in the midst of that dark storm. I thought of Margaret Halsey, a classmate who’d told her mother she was having a sleepover with a girlfriend but instead spent the weekend with her boyfriend at his family’s deer lease, not far from these woods. Margaret wouldn’t talk about what happened, but she’d come back changed and not for the better. Some people said a gang of rough boys had violated her with the barrel of a hunting rifle. Others said she got drunk and let her boyfriend and his friends do what they wished, and she enjoyed every minute of it. People avoided her, as if whatever had happened might be contagious. If it happened to her, it could happen to me. She’d been touched by evil, and I wanted no part of it. If I stood very still and remained silent, maybe the evil would pass me by.
The rain slowed. The violent stinging sheets became soft drops. Clouds rolled apart and soft fingers of light began to creep across the sky. Steam rose off the trees, the mist clearing away irrational fears. I told myself I was being silly, imagining things.
“Willet!” I called out.
When he didn’t appear, I turned back on the path to the quarry. Willet would be there, probably wondering where I was. Maybe I missed him in the storm or maybe he’d circled around and gone back a different way. I shook like a dog, water flying off my hair and skin. My hands were stained purple from the berries. Leaving the woods, the sun hit me with a blinding brightness. Any coolness from the rain disappeared, melted into sticky sweat between my thighs. The quarry water lay still and peaceful. I circled the lip of the quarry, looking for Willet to pop out of the woods or waiting for him to rise up from the deep water, gasping from holding his breath. Out of the rising heat, Bubba Speck appeared. I couldn’t figure where he’d come from; suddenly he was just there. Bubba was shirtless, and even at sixteen it was clear he would be a fat man someday. His pudgy belly sagged over the waistband of his shorts and his breasts were larger than mine, which had barely begun to announce themselves to the world.
When we were younger, Bubba and Willet were good friends. They shared a fascination with building things, mostly explosive devices fashioned from old car parts and match tips and household cleansers. In seventh grade, they set off a small bomb in the girls’ bathroom at the junior high school. The principal had told the sheriff and the woman from the local news that it was only by the grace of God no one was hurt. The grace of God was something a lot of folks believed in back then.
“What are you doing, Bubba?” I hollered.
Bubba tossed a rock into the still water of the quarry.
“Have you seen Willet?”
Bubba tossed another rock. It was like he couldn’t hear me, like I wasn’t even there.
“You got no right to ignore me, Bubba Speck!”
Bubba looked up at the sky, pointed a finger to some spot above his head. I looked where he was pointing, but all I saw were dissolving clouds and the bright, white sun. My vision filled with fiery spots that flared and went dark. By the time I could see again, Bubba was gone.
Between Willet and Bubba, I didn’t know what to think. Why were they treating me so mean? I couldn’t think of anything I’d done to deserve such treatment. I resolved to ignore Willet for the next week at least and to tell Mama how he’d abandoned me in the woods and hid when I called him. I was running down the long list of things Willet had done to make me mad when I realized something was wrong.
Pansy was not floating on her back in the quarry where we’d left her. Pansy was not sitting on the edge of the quarry with her feet dangling in the water as she sometimes did. Pansy was not walking on the path into the woods. Pansy was not climbing the oak tree with the swing. Pansy was not anywhere at all. The berries I’d eaten expanded and rose into my throat. I spewed out a hot mess of the sweet fruit, splashing my bare feet.
I yelled for Pansy. It seemed I’d spent the whole afternoon shouting for people who wouldn’t answer.
“Willet! Bubba! Pansy!”
I called their names over and over, but no one called back. I held on to the idea they were playing a joke on me. Any minute they’d burst from behind a tree and laugh at me for getting all worked up. But they didn’t come out, and even the birds seemed to have gone silent. The sun, bright and hot and unforgiving, dipped in the sky.
Excerpted with permission from “The Past is Never” by Tiffany Quay Tyson. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.