Andrea Price Berthot

The New Dress

This year Lorn has pierced all ten of his fingernails with safety pins, and as I watch him haul his parents’ ice chest beneath the tarp canopy that separates our families’ RVs, it is all I can do to keep the lawn chairs I am carrying from slipping through my sweaty fingers and landing right on my freshly-painted toenails. They are indigo blue, Lorn’s favorite color, though I do not think he has noticed. He hasn’t spoken to me since we arrived this morning, but I haven’t spoken to him yet either. My orthodontist parents slapped braces on me two months ago and while I actually enjoy how they make me look more like a teenager and less like a kid I don’t know if Lorn will feel the same way. He is fifteen and in high school now, living in a different world.

I often wonder what people think of Lorn back in North Carolina where he is from. I only know him in the context of Bluegrass, our local name for the Walnut Valley Festival, a week-long, outdoor, twenty-four-hour-a-day musical extravaganza that thousands of people journey from all over the country to come to our small Kansas town every September. Lots of the travelers are musicians who come for competitions such as the National Flatpick, International Fingerstyle Guitar, Bluegrass Banjo and Old Time Fiddle Championships, but just as many, like us, could care less about who can pick, pluck, and strum above the rest. My parents and Lorn’s parents, who have been friends since their college days at Wichita State, have camped together at this festival since Lorn was an infant and I was negative-two because of what they call “the atmosphere.” Even though we live in town, my family spends the entire week living in the crowded tent-city of the Pecan Grove, a temporary, secluded world that is part Appalachian ho-down, part redneck beer-fest, part hippie commune, and that is the reason I have no idea whether or not Lorn is considered strange where he comes from. In a place where grizzled-looking mountain men sit alongside gangly, pink-haired emo kids as they listen to impromptu jam sessions between Irish fiddlers and Cajun tin-can percussionists, the definition of “normal” is a little fuzzy.

The weird thing about Lorn is not how he looks; with eyes so pale green that they’re almost as yellow as a cat’s and cheeks that are always flushed like he’s been running for a mile in the cold, he would be considered beautiful no matter where he was. His odd trait is that he likes to wear objects that are not meant to be worn, or at least not in the way he wears them. Two years ago he came to Bluegrass with silver forks duct-taped to the inner and outer sides of his tennis shoes, last year he wore a pink baby’s shoe tied around his neck by the laces, and this year, in addition to the safety pins, he has removed the foot from what must have been a long, white sock and is wearing the rest of it stretched over his left forearm like a disembodied sleeve. As I watch him unravel the cord for our electric generator, the shimmering metal at the tips of his fingers adds to the air of adornment about him and makes the sock arm-warmer seem like a badge of distinction.

“Do you know where your Mom is, Lorn?” my mother asks him, unfolding our checkered tablecloth and spreading it over the Amos’ card table.

“No, ma’am. Haven’t seen her for a while.”

Did I mention that he speaks with a soft, dulcet drawl and that every time he says the word “ma’am” I forget to breathe?

“She probably went to get an early peak at the crafts. You want to go check them out with me, Miranda?”

“Sure,” I say, checking my peripheral to see if Lorn looks up. He doesn’t.

“You should probably grab your jacket. It looks like rain.”

During the day at Bluegrass, my parents are regular parents, reminding me to wear a jacket, telling me to clean up after myself, making sure I say “please” and “thank you” in front of other grown-ups. At night, however, these forty-somethings who solder metal to teeth for a living and monitor my every move morph into twenty-somethings who get drunk with their friends and forget that I even exist. When we were little, Lorn and I would stick together after our parents’ transformation, following the orange light of campfires through the sleepless Pecan Grove, tasting food, listening to music, and skipping stones across the Walnut River. The last few years, however, he has gone off with the teenagers from neighboring camps without me, but I have promised myself that this year will be different. This year, I will be the one who transforms.

It does look like rain; the noon sky is overcast and a dense fog blurs where the river meets the bank only a few yards away from the arts and crafts vendors. As my mother had guessed, Mrs. Amos is there, hovering between a booth boasting beer bottle wind chimes and another exhibiting retro, eco-friendly clothing.

“Is that for Jason or for Lorn?” my mother asks, gesturing to the woven hemp necklace she is examining.

“I’m thinking for me,” Mrs. Amos smiles. “A girl actually gave Lorn a necklace just like this over the summer. Of course he cut it up and wore the pieces as toe rings instead, but I was just surprised he got a present from a girl. He is so shy around them.”

I find this hard to believe, since last year Lorn spent most of one night making out with the fourteen-year-old Florida State Mountain Dulcimer Champion after just meeting her that morning. When I saw them crawl into a single-occupancy tent after her show, I crept closer to eavesdrop on their conversation, but heard only the sounds of parting lips and panting breath from behind the nylon wall. The memory stayed so warm in my brain over the next year that whenever I thought about those low moans escaping from his mouth I ached, the kind of ache that feels so good the only better feeling in the world is the burst of supernatural heat that floods my body from the top of my head to the tips of my toes every time I push that ache to a place beyond the secret silence of my bedroom.

“Look at this, Honey,” my mom says, pulling from the eco-friendly rack a folksy, peasant dress that seems about my size. “You should try it on.”

I do, and when I look into the patchouli-scented saleswoman’s mirror, I glow, because I am beautiful. The empire waist gives me the subtle illusion of breasts, and the grassy green fabric contrasts brilliantly with my hair. I am a redhead, like my mom, and even though some kids make fun of me for it, I see how many women walk around with orange and burgundy hair resulting from botched attempts at replicating mine, and I see the way men, even total strangers, look at my mother every day. No one has ever looked at me that way of course, but right now, in this dress, the idea seems almost possible.

“Oh Wendy, you just have to get this for her,” Mrs. Amos gushes, and I suddenly love her as much as I love her son. The thickening moisture in the clouds above us finally reaches capacity and, just as the saleswoman hands my mother her change, a violent downpour sends us sprinting back to camp.

The rain continues steadily throughout the afternoon and the sky remains so dark that the only signs of evening’s approach are the increasing volume of music and chatter and the emergence of brown bottles and silver flasks among the camps. I am still wearing my dress even though the hairs on my arms are standing on end and Lorn has not noticed or looked at me any differently. I, however, have noticed that Lorn is no longer wearing the safety pins or the arm-warmer. It is strange and even upsetting to see him suddenly looking like everybody else, but when our parents start laughing louder than they should and he pulls up the hood of his sweatshirt and abandons the shelter of our canopy, I still grab my jacket and follow him.

He is heading toward the west end of the river, away from the huddled cluster of people, light and noise. I do not have any idea where he is going or why but I do know he cannot hear me following; the rain is pounding louder than my heart, crashing against the earth so loudly that I can’t hear the sound of my own bare feet as I stumble and splash through the mud, thankful at least that my dress falls no lower than my knees. Lorn continues along the riverside until the land begins to rise above the edge of the water, forming a broad overhang, like a natural canopy over the bank. When he disappears beneath it, the air disappears from my lungs, because the image of us alone together in the secret intimacy of that little cave has entirely engulfed my brain. After a few moments, once I have forced a few breaths in and out successfully, I begin my trembling decent to the water’s edge.

I do not know what I expect to find Lorn doing in the hollowed-out shelter beside the river, but I do expect him to be alone, so when I step inside and see him seated between two other teenage boys, my heart catches in my throat. All three of them stare up at me in silence as the deafening rain clobbers the earth above our heads.

“Hi,” I say, my voice sounding absurdly high-pitched.

“Who are you?” the boy on Lorn’s left asks me. His face looks younger than Lorn’s but he has a lip ring, which makes him seem older and, for some reason, scarier.

“Her name’s Miranda,” Lorn says, and my pulse races faster at the sound of my name being spoken by his voice, caressed by his smooth drawl. “Our parents are friends.”

“I was bored,” I explain, though no one has asked.

“Oh,” Lorn replies, returning his attention to what he was apparently doing before I arrived, which I now see is rolling a joint. Weed isn’t something uncommon to see at Bluegrass, but I have never seen Lorn do it before. His earlier decision to remove the safety pins from his fingernails, however, suddenly makes a lot of sense. As he continues rolling, Lip Ring stares past me out into the rain, and the boy on Lorn’s right takes a drink from a bottle of Southern Comfort, or SoCo, as my mother calls it.

“The river might flood if it keeps raining like this,” I blurt out, terrified of the silence but not sure why.

“Whatever,” SoCo snaps, reaching across Lorn and handing the bottle to Lip Ring. “A few inches won’t cause a flood.”

The pounding rain and the river, rushing furiously only a few feet behind me, are once again the only exceptions to the silence. Lorn has removed a lighter from his back pocket but every time he successfully produces a flame a gust of wind sweeps through the cavern and obliterates it. When he finally stuffs the joint into his pocket and reaches for the bottle instead, I finally get up the nerve to stop hovering and take a step inside.

“Can I have a drink?” I try to make the words seem natural, but the more they echo in the cave and in my head, the more contrived they sound. I do not know if Lorn buys my artificial nonchalance, but he does hand me the bottle after finishing a gulp of his own. I steel myself for the fiery taste that I remember vividly from when my father gave me a sip from a flask last year, but the burning in my throat still shows up on my face, and when I open my eyes the boys, including Lorn, are laughing. A hot wave of shame washes over me for a moment, but when Lorn meets my eyes and gives me a smile, the shame quickly melts into a much more fervent and pressing sort of heat.

After only a few more drinks, the entire cave seems warmer and more hospitable. My muscles feel velvety underneath my skin and the sound of my own laughter is resonating in my head. Lorn is laughing with me, staring straight into my eyes as I talk, and even Lip Ring and SoCo seem to be in much better moods than before. With cheeks flushing as deeply as Lorn’s and confidence growing as rapidly as the storm outside, I pull back my hood and slip off my jacket, revealing my exquisite new dress.

SoCo, however, only notices my hair. “Hey. You’re a redhead.”

“So?” I say, tossing my hair over my shoulder and smiling in a way I have always dreamed of smiling.

“So…” Lip Ring leans in closer, glancing down at my lap as he speaks. “Does the carpet match the drapes?”

All of the blood that has rushed to my face immediately drains away. I look to Lorn, expecting him to tell these guys to shut their mouths, but he just laughs uneasily and shifts his gaze to the ground.

“What?” SoCo asks, glancing between us and then abruptly smacking Lorn on the shoulder. “Do you know?”

As Lorn’s silence continues to swell, my chest begins to cave in on itself, because I realize why he isn’t answering. He doesn’t know which answer they want to hear. I pull my jacket back up over my shoulders, shivering. “He doesn’t know,” I hear myself say.

“Well,” Lip Ring says. “If none of us know, then why don’t you show us?”

The sound that abruptly escapes my throat resembles a laugh but feels more like a scream. “What?”

“Come on. We’re just curious.” SoCo places his hand on my shoulder and my whole body clenches up like a fist.

“I have to go.”

“Just give us a peak. Please?” Lip Ring coos. “Lorn wants you to. Don’t you, Lorn?” My eyes fly anxiously back to Lorn. Now he will surely say something, do something to stop this.

“Come on, Miranda,” he says after a moment. “We won’t tell anybody.”

The walls of the cave seem to be crashing in around me. I start to stand up but SoCo’s fingers tighten against my shoulder. “Don’t go yet, Baby.”

The word “Baby” ignites my veins with panic. I jerk away from SoCo but he grips me hard and yanks me backward, pinning my shoulders against the rocky ground.

“I am so getting a picture of this,” Lip Ring laughs as the blue glow of a cell phone appears above me.

“Come on, Lorn,” SoCo hollers, and while I know what he is telling him to do, I do not believe that Lorn will actually do it until I see his strained smile and evasive eyes hovering above me. I clutch my skirt between my legs but within seconds Lorn has pried my fingers loose and is shoving both of his hands beneath the fabric. I dig my nails into the top of his head and scream loud enough to shred my vocal chords but my fighting only makes the other boys laugh harder and my cries are lost beneath the roaring of the river and the pounding of the rain. Just as Lorn manages to get a good grip on my underwear with one hand, however, the other freezes against my inner thigh and his laughter abruptly stops. The change is such a shock that I actually quit struggling long enough to watch him remove his hands from beneath my skirt, and when Lip Ring shines the light from his cell phone on the hand that had frozen against me, I am too stunned to even breathe.

“Blood.”

I am not sure if I actually say it out loud, but I am sure of what it is. The blood my mother, teachers and friends have always said would be coming, the blood that will now continue to come for most of the rest of my life, the blood that finally, miraculously, makes me a woman.

“Oh my God!” Even in the darkness, I can see that Lorn’s face has paled. Lip Ring and SoCo back away from me in horror.

“Gross, man!”

“Holy shit!”

“Oh, my God!” Lorn cries again, and as he staggers over to the riverside and plunges his hand into the rushing water, I quickly but calmly rise to my feet, straighten my dress, and step out into the rain.

Back at the Pecan Grove, our parents’ party has transitioned from the open area beneath our canopy to the seclusion of our RV, so I climb inside the Amos’ empty camper and flip on the light. I do not find what I need among Mrs. Amos’ toiletries and, certain neither she nor my mother is currently in any state to help me, I realize I must improvise. Then, on the countertop adjacent to the sink, I see Lorn’s safety pins and beside them, the arm-warmer. Two of the pins are enough to secure the folded cotton where I need it, and the Amos’ sofa and quilt are enough to secure my comfort throughout the night.

In the morning, festival officials and the Winfield Police announce an emergency evacuation due to the flooding of the Walnut River, which has risen from five to thirty feet overnight. I notice Lorn watching me as we are tearing down our tarp and pulling up our stakes, but as soon as I meet his eyes with my own he quickly looks away. He does not ask me about the arm-warmer or the pins and I do not explain to anyone why I am smiling and serene amid all the disappointment and distress. Some campers require tow-trucks to haul their vehicles out of the mud and some are simply forced to leave certain items behind, but within a few hours the grounds are cleared and the people are on their way. That is what you do when a flood comes: salvage what you can, abandon what you can’t, and see it as an opportunity to discover higher ground.

Bluegrass will come again next year, and again every year after that, and for most people it will always be the same, because they will always be the same. But as our familiar camper pulls into our familiar driveway, I think about the brand new ache within me and realize that a brand new Miranda will be walking through our familiar front door. Every year Lorn wears something conventional in a new and different way, but he will never actually be new or different. For a moment I wonder if he knows this, if his insides throb with emptiness and yearning for what they will never know, but my own insides are too warm and full for me to ponder the question for long.

Andrea Price Berthot's fiction has previously been published in Room magazine and Luna Station Quarterly. One story, “Prairie Madness,” won first place in the 2006 Kansas Author’s Club Literary Contest, and another, “The Plains,” won second place in the Kansas Writer’s Association’s Between Fences Poetry & Writers contest in 2007. She currently teaches Creative Writing at the high school in Arkansas City, Kansas, and resides in the nearby town of Winfield.