She told me Louise wasn’t her real name, just something her mother had passed along. The name Louise had belonged to her grandmother, a gambler with a cigar habit that had killed her at forty-six. At the funeral, standing beside the coffin, the dead woman’s eldest daughter swallowed the name whole, and when she had a daughter of her own, the name spilled out with the afterbirth. Now my Louise, who was not Louise, carried the name around like a dead twin grown out of her hip.
She kept her true name nestled in her belly. It had come to her one night in a dream. Upon waking, she’d scrawled it onto a slip of paper then crumpled it up, popped it into her mouth, and washed it down with a glass of milk.
“What do I call you then, if not Louise?” I had known her since Kindergarten and had never called her anything else.
“Don’t gotta call me nothin’,” she answered, so I decided that I wouldn’t.
When I got home from school, I wrote my own name onto a Post-it note, folded it neatly, and slipped it between my lips. I gave a few experimental chews but soon gagged on the ink’s bitter taste and spat the paper into the kitchen trash, where it sank into a puddle of stew.
“Aren’t you afraid your name’ll fall right out of you?” I asked her the next day. “Like your granny’s name fell out of your mama?”
I’d waited for her outside the chemistry lab and offered to carry her books. In the old TV shows my mother loved, boys were always doing that kind of thing for their girls. I wasn’t a boy, but she’d let me do it anyway.
“Don’t plan on no babies,” she told me, “so it can’t fall out that way. Anyhow, I keep it locked up tight.”
She tapped one electric blue fingernail against the necklace she never took off: a chunky silver chain with a heart-shaped lock for a charm.
She used to keep the key beneath her mattress, she said, but it wasn’t safe there anymore. A year earlier, her brother had tried to steal it. She’d been outside, setting out milk for the one-eyed tabby that prowled the woods behind her house. When she’d discovered the key was missing, she screamed so loud that the tabby dropped dead – a heart attack. She wouldn’t know about that until later, though, long after she’d kicked in the door to her brother’s bedroom and rammed one righteous fist into his crotch. She’d fished the key from his pocket while he writhed on the floor.
After, she’d buried key and tabby both beneath a tree in the woods; only she knew which one.
In June, once the school year had ended, we met up at the county swimming pool twice a week then walked home together in our bikinis and flip flops. The path from the pool to my house was a straight shot down Willamette Lane, but one day she laced her fingers through mine and pulled me down the dirt road that led to the creek. We held onto one another as we explored the creek bed, dodging rocks and broken bottles, condom wrappers and spent firecrackers.
She guided me to a boulder overgrown with emerald moss and trailed her free hand across its surface. The moss came away like dust, staining her fingers. She drew her fingers to her mouth, greened her lips then pressed her lips to mine. I tasted earth and silt and sunbaked rock.
No one had ever kissed me before. When I told her so, she kissed me again and whispered, “They should’ve.”
All summer long we kept kissing. We kissed in my father’s toolshed, in my linen closet, in the bed of the broken-down truck parked in her front yard, under sun and moon, upright, on our backs, hands clasped or roaming, clothed, and then less so.
In August, I kissed her scabbed left knee and told her that I loved her. It was the hottest day of the year, and the leaves whose shadows glided over our skin belonged to a tulip poplar.
She didn’t reply but instead rolled onto her belly and began to dig. When a minute later she turned back, grubby fingers clasped tight around some treasure, I realized what tree we must’ve lain beneath. The thing she held, she pressed into my hands before unfurling her body over the poplar’s roots again.
“Go on,” she coaxed. “Try it out.”
I opened my palm. The key wasn’t brass or iron but plastic, a piece of a child’s toy. When I fit it into the lock dangling from her neck, it slid smoothly.
Her lips parted as I turned the key – only a little at first, like a gasp of surprise, but then they stretched wider and wider until there was just a hole, one like a rabbit might scurry down, where her face had been before. I reached my arms inside the hole and pressed my hands against its walls. It yielded further still, so on hands and knees I burrowed in.
The tunnel opened into a hollow chamber. Out from its shadows slinked the tabby, his one eye gleaming in the light from the forest above. He pawed forward, pressed his tiny muzzle to my ear, and purred a name: five letters, neither unusual nor ordinary but perfectly hers. I’ll never speak it to another soul.
Notes from Guest Reader Kate Gehan
In keeping her character’s secrets, Sutton Strather emphasizes the power of naming things (ourselves, our actions, our identities) as she explores how vulnerability can strengthen relationships. The use of metaphor and a touch of magic realism are delights.