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Honor Cord

First Place Winner: 2021 Fiction Contest
Country Road with Sunset

It was not a hick town but rather a prairie town, one where there was often nothing for young people to do but drive around and attempt to reckon with the vastness of the land. The prairies, for example, made Violet Wells feel small. The grasses were high and pale, the flowers ragged the way prairie plants must be in order to survive, the fires that occasionally swept across the land were brilliant and terrifying in their ability to destroy.

Standing on the side of the road, the car parked just behind her, Violet closed her eyes, listened to the rush of the wind in the grasses, and threw up.

“Jesus,” she imagined Buddy saying to her through the open passenger side window of the car, “What’s that about?”

She put her hands on her knees and spit onto the ground, watching the saliva sink into the grass. She breathed in once before turning to look at the car. The prairie was reflected in the back window and she imagined the sun was a fire burning through it. She had heard that prairie fires were not always bad, that they burned the matted-down and dead grasses and let the sun reach the soil again; they kept trees and shrubs from growing and taking over the grasses; they killed invasive species.

“Did you know wild fires are sometimes good?” she imagined saying to Buddy. “They refresh the land, or something like that.”

Violet imagined him looking cautiously between the vomit on the ground and herself. “I guess,” he would say.

“They also kill things. When there are fires that burn too long or too often, too many things die.”

Imaginary Buddy coughed and made a motion for her to get back into the car and drive.

She did, imagining on the road as they drove the same lines of fire burning that she imagined on her ceiling at night. Paths of fire across the paint, blown across the prairie by the wind. They always burned clear until morning, something burning all throughout the next day and the next. There were no cities, no highways, no people on her ceiling. There was only prairie.

Buddy would not understand this—imaginary or not. She could see him slapping his knees, saying, “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. If that’s why you heaved back there.”

Violet clicked her teeth together. Her mouth tasted like old orange candy and her throat felt hot. She felt dizzy.

Out in the grass the cicadas chirped and the sun began setting, all pink in the sky.

I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.

She shook her head, trying to get the image of Carolyn Brommer walking through the parking lot on graduation night out of her brain.

•   •   •   •   •

By the time she was back in town the dizzy feeling had left and was replaced by the sort of calm that comes at night in the summer. She drove past Wayne’s, the OPEN sign glowing in the window, kids on the bench outside licking ice-cream cones.

“What do you think she’s going to do?” Violet asked imaginary Buddy. “Carolyn, I mean.”

“About what?” Buddy said. Even in Violet’s imagination, he was oblivious.

“About what happened.”

Imaginary Buddy shook his head. “You don’t even know that anything did happen to her. You saw her walking. That’s it.”

Violet clenched the wheel as she braked. The light had not yet fully turned red but she stopped anyway at the yellow. “Something happened,” she said out loud. “I just know it.”

She rounded the next corner and went the back way around the high school. In the summer it was humid and the sun beat down on the wrought iron fence surrounding the athletic fields. In June, July, August, the fence’s metallic sheen burned, and in the winter it seemed cold enough to freeze your skin. It was on the back part of the fence, the part pressed up against the woods that separated the high school grounds from Wayne’s, where Violet got the scar on the back of her thigh. Long and white, the scar was a thin reminder of the afternoon she and Buddy had climbed the fence as a short cut to the park behind the school.

“I don’t want to walk all the way to the gate,” Buddy had said. So they hopped the fence.

Violet had slipped and the fence had caught the back of her leg. Buddy carried her all the way home, forgetting all about the park or the rest of the afternoon, and she had gotten stitches.

“You were very brave,” Mrs. Wells told her daughter. And Mr. Wells clapped Buddy on the back and thanked him.

She lifted one leg and then the other as she drove, unsticking her skin from the leather seat of the car. She rarely thought about her scar any more, except for when she was unsticking her skin from leather seats or plastic chairs or metal piers. Then, she imagined her leg lifting away and the scar remaining on whatever surface from which she had just detached herself; she wanted to pick the scar up and hold it in her hand like a caterpillar.

Imaginary Buddy read her mind and shivered.

 

It happened on graduation night after the ceremony was over. 

At first it hadn’t bothered her—it never even occurred to her that something was odd about seeing Carolyn Brommer walking across the parking lot in the dark, shoes in one hand, graduation gown wadded into a ball in the other. Violet herself was doing the same thing, walking home. In the back of the lot, by the tennis courts and the field that lead to the small strip of woods, Assistant Coach Michael’s truck was parked; it was silver and shiny even in the dark, and it had stood out rather well as it was the only vehicle in the lot. She hadn’t thought too much of it at the time and instead nodded her head and said hello to Carolyn. But Carolyn had just kept walking. The lights in the school were on, but then they were always on. They burned all night long all year long, an outrageous energy bill racked up in an attempt to protect the building from vandalism and prowlers.

It was later that night, after she lay down in bed and pulled the top sheet up to her chin, that a tightening feeling in Violet’s chest arose. She thought she had seen a bruise on Carolyn’s upper arm but when she played the scene back in her mind she could not be sure. Was it a shadow cast by the school, a trick of the light? She watched the prairies burn on the ceiling until she fell asleep.

When Carolyn pulled her aside outside Wayne’s a week later, Violet looked for the bruise.

“I wanted to say hi,” Carolyn said. “After graduation, in the parking lot, I was so tired. I had to get home. I came by to say hi now.”

Violet nodded and ran her fingers over the brick on the outside of the ice cream shop. Carolyn was wearing a pale-yellow t-shirt whose sleeves came high enough for Violet to see a red and purple mark on her upper arm.

“Hi,” Violet said.

The two stood in silence for a moment; Carolyn hitched her purse up on to her shoulder.

“Did you have a nice time at the ceremony?” Carolyn said. Her voice seemed to waver.

“Fine, it was fine. The speeches were nice.” A car on the street honked and both girls turned. “You should have come with Buddy and me,” Violet said, and then regretted it. They were not really friends, she and Carolyn. “We walked around the lake, he brought some beers.”

“That sounds nice.”

“It was.” An image of the silver truck in the parking lot flashed across Violet’s mind. Suddenly, brave, she asked what Carolyn had been doing at the school.

Carolyn looked towards the road and then looked back. “What were you doing there?” she said, forcing a laugh.

The girls smiled at one another, a father and two children pushed through the door to Wayne’s.

“I have to get home to dinner,” said Carolyn, and left. It was 3:45 pm, but Violet did not say anything about it.

 

Poor Ellen Smith. How was she found? Shot through the heart lyin’ dead on the ground.

So I poisoned that dear little girl on the banks below.

Met her on the mountain, there I took her life. Met her on the mountain, stabbed her with my knife.

Song lyrics in the American folk song book Violet’s mother had bought for a dollar at Goodwill.

Violet had walked past this song book—placed on top of the piano in the front room—nearly a thousand times, paying no attention to the stories inside for most of her life, to what they were really about. The songs in fact were based on real stories, stories passed down from generation to generation. Alterations had been made to the dates and names and details of the original stories, and there were fragments of truth that were lost to history now. But ultimately Violet knew that the stories were true. And they were all the same story.

Boy meets girl; boy kills girl. 

In mid-July Violet decided she was tired of sad stories and put the song book inside the piano bench where she couldn’t see it anymore. “Goodbye!” she said, closing the lid.

That night, she drove around the town with the windows down, observing. The air was cooling as the sun set, and she rested her arm on the open window of the car. There wasn’t anything good playing on the radio, so she turned the music off and listened to the whooshing sound the air made as she flew through it.

•   •   •   •   •

She thought of graduation night, how by the time the sun came up all the excitement of the ceremony had worn off. Buddy had pulled the tassel off his cap and spun it around on his finger, whooping and shouting into the night. She had covered his mouth with her hand and when he licked her palm she shrieked and the porch lights on the house across the street flicked on. The two of them had run down the street, the lake glowing a deep blue, and she felt as if the sun would never come up and her mother and father would wait patiently forever for her to come home. When she went to sleep that morning, the sun rising bright and orange on the horizon, she left her gown in a heap on the floor. Her stomach hurt from the warm beers they had drunk and she felt bad about not coming home sooner.

“Poor Ellen Smith,” she said, staring at the ceiling.

 

It’s an idyllic day today. Isn’t it idyllic?” Buddy said. They were up on the bluffs looking down at the lake below. “Idyllic” had been an ACT word, a joke, a word Violet could not imagine herself ever actually using. 

Buddy pointed down to the kayakers and the fishing boats. “Do you think they can see us up here?” he said.

Up on the bluffs you could see for miles, could see the trees and the lake and the buildings and all the little parking lots that dotted the town. Violet did not know if you could see up on the bluffs from any of those places. It had never occurred to her to look.

“No,” she said. “The bluffs are too tall.”

It only took a moment for her to find the high school and its parking lot.

From so far away she could not see it in any real detail. The school looked like a beige brick with an expanse of green on one side and blacktop on the other.

Violet knew suddenly what she wanted to do, and she imagined being brave enough to speak it.

“I want to break into the school,” she would say, if she were brave enough. “I want to go into the assistant coach’s office. I have to see if there is evidence.”

Buddy would blink his big, dumb eyes—knowing to what she was referring—and nod. He would look like Scout Finch in the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird, when she first sees and knows Boo Radley, hiding behind the door.

“I’m in,” he would say, and would kick his legs out in the grass. 

 

One Saturday morning when they were nine, Violet stepped on a broken bottle on Buddy’s front porch. A shard of glass stuck into the sole of her foot, and Buddy crept up to his mother’s room and took a pair of tweezers from her vanity. They sat on the back porch, her foot in his hand, while he examined the wound in the mid-morning sun. She squirmed when he poked at it with his fingernail, and the robins in the trees around them chirped.

“You have to hold still,” he said, and to keep her from yanking her foot away he cupped his hands around it and pressed. His hands were cool, and after a minute of sitting like this, staring up at the mottled and molding ceiling of the back porch, he dug the tweezers into her foot and pulled the glass out. It bled and after Buddy slipped the glass into his pocket, leaving the tweezers on the floor, there were little drops of Violet’s blood on the indoor-outdoor carpet.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to just dig it out like that,” she said.

Buddy scuffed his bare foot against the floor. “How else could you get it out?”

•   •   •   •   •

This memory played over in her mind as she walked to Buddy’s house late in the summer. 

Buddy’s mother was on the back porch in her bathrobe, her feet up on a glass patio table, when Violet arrived. On the walk there, she passed a group of kids by the donation drop-off box, lighting cigarettes and putting them out against the bin. Only one girl was smoking; she had to have been older than the rest, she was so tall and bored looking. Violet guessed she was sixteen, and she watched as the girl alternated between smoking and sucking on a red lollipop.

The walk was short but it was humid and the air felt thick and wet. When Violet appeared behind the house, Buddy’s mother hardly moved, only turned her head to see what was invading her periphery.

She said hello, tightened her bathrobe.

Violet swatted at a mosquito on her arm.

“Buddy’s not here. He’s at the lake—some basketball thing.”

There were no basketball courts at the lake, and Violet told her so.

“I don’t know what he’s doing. He never tells me where he is. Never tells me what he’s doing, just does it.”

Violet shrugged.

“You don’t do that. You always tell your parents where you’re off to, always make sure someone knows where you are.”

Violet shrugged again and scanned the floor, searching for what she had really come for. While Buddy’s mother was investigating a chip in her nail polish, Violet found it, the spot of blood on the carpeting. She felt grounded and real—though she never did not feel real, but sometimes felt more real than other times and could not explain it—and told Buddy’s mother that he probably didn’t know what he was going to the lake for, just went because his friends were going.

“You’re his friend. Why don’t you go down and recreate?”

“I told my mother I’d be here.”

“Exactly,” his mother said, though Violet was no longer listening, was focused on the blood on the carpet.

On the glass patio table was a ceramic mug with ladybugs painted across it. Carved into the bottom, Violet knew, was the name Laura. She had once asked Buddy’s mother who made the mug, who Laura was, and she had shrugged. “I bought it at the Goodwill.”

Violet blinked at the mug and the image of Carolyn walking across the parking lot in the dark blinked back. 

“Jesus,” she said aloud, and Buddy’s mother coughed.

 

So she had made an imaginary pact with Buddy to break into the school. As the summer progressed and the days got hotter and the air more sticky, she concocted the plan of how it would go. 

In the evening, when the sun was freshly set and the cicadas were humming in the trees, they would climb over the fence by the woods and set out across the field. They would walk confidently and stop to say hello to whoever they passed, as if this night were just like any night. 

How they would get into the building was not important. She knew that they would walk down the foreign language hall and then turn into the science hall, avoiding windows whenever they could. They would walk silently for what would feel like a long time before she would stop and catch Buddy by the sleeve of his t-shirt, jerking him back. 

“Wait,” she would say, peering in through the glass window on the door to the geography room. 

Sophomore year they learned about the formation of the Great Lakes, how thousands of years ago glaciers had covered the Midwest, compressing the land beneath them so deeply that when the glaciers melted, they filled the basins they had created. The lake beds were now rising as they were no longer compressed. The pressure was taking fifteen thousand years to release. In that time Lake Superior had risen eighteen hundred feet.

That’s what Mr. Wenton said anyway.

Violet had asked in class what that meant for the lakes. “One day they won’t be there anymore? Is that what you’re saying?” She had visualized the Edmund Fitzgerald rising out of the water, the bodies of the crew preserved perfectly in the ice water. She had wondered if they would be buried. 

Mr. Wenton had smiled without his teeth, trying not to laugh, and said, “Not for thousands of years. They’ll be more or less the same for the rest of your life.”

“More or less the same for the rest of your life” had not cut it for Violet. She wanted “completely the same for the rest of your life.”

Buddy would have sighed at the detour to the geography room. “What are we doing? I thought we were going to the gym.”

“Not the gym,” Violet would say. “The athletic offices.”

Buddy would kick at the linoleum, leaving little streaks of tread from his shoes, and say, “Well this isn’t either of those,” and Violet would squint her eyes against the brightness of the fluorescent lights on the ceiling.

When they reached the athletic offices, Violet would be suddenly afraid to touch the doorknob of Assistant Coach Michael’s office door.

“What do you think you’re going to find?” Buddy would say, “And what are you going to do if you do find something?”

Violet would not respond, would just open the door and step inside.

The athletic offices all looked the same, clean not in a tidy way but more so in the way that all athletic spaces are clean—meaning empty, plain, disinfected. On the desk was a computer, a small daily calendar, and a mug with a stash of pens of wildly varying quality. Behind the desk was a filing cabinet that was filled with a lifetime’s worth of fitness reports and weigh-ins. The only object in the room with a personal sense about it was a photograph of two men, one young and one old, tacked to the wall with a metal push-pin. The faces of the men looked so common, so much like anyone, that the photograph seemed almost fake.

Violet knew all this because she had once been asked in the middle of gym class to retrieve the fitness files from the assistant coach’s office. They had been watching a film about eating disorders, about a girl with bulimia who threw up into empty peanut butter jars and hid them in her closet until her mother found out; the mother screamed whenever she found another jar but also would not stop pulling sweaters off of shelves or dresses off of hangers. Violet had volunteered to get the fitness files, and thus knew where everything was, where the fitness files for the general students ended and those of the student athletes began. She could walk in and point at the specific cabinet, the specific drawer, where they met. She had studied the files in depth in lieu of going back to finish watching the rest of the film.

With Buddy, she would step inside and he would follow, neither of them touching anything. They would stand just inside the doorway and scan the room in silence.

Violet would see it first, the yellow honor cord balled up on the floor like a secret peanut butter jar.

She would pull the cord out from under the desk with her foot. Buddy would blink his big dumb eyes and then look away, and she would wind the cord around her fist.

 

Carolyn Brommer.

Violet had never been able to figure her out. She was not catty, was not stupid, was not geeky. She was not loud or funny or shy. She just was. Once Violet had seen her running laps around the football field after football practice had ended, a single pair of cleats left sitting on the bench on the sidelines. Carolyn passed the cleats over and over and over as she ran until Assistant Coach Michael, tall and young and dark haired, came out to collect them. All Carolyn did when he came over to the bench was point, and all the assistant coach did was pick the shoes up and nod his head.

Violet thought this interaction summed Carolyn up very nicely, though she didn’t know exactly what it said about her, if anything.

 

She began planning how the conversation about the honor cord would go with Carolyn.

She would see Carolyn walking by Wayne’s and would call out to her.

Carolyn would turn around and wait for Violet to catch up to her.

“I think this is yours.” Violet would hold the cord out, messily looped around her fingers, and Carolyn would look blankly back at her.

“That’s not mine,” she would say.

“I found it in the athletic office. In the assistant coach’s office.”

Carolyn, with her dull blonde hair and her penchant for solitude, would have suggested that it belonged to one of the athletes, that they had maybe stopped by after the ceremony to say goodbye to the place where they had spent so much time. How Violet had gotten into the office would not be questioned by Carolyn, and why the student athletes would be particularly fond of the place they went to be disciplined by their coach would not be questioned by Violet.

Violet would be left holding the cord, would throw it into the lake the next time she was there and would watch it sink down and down and down into the blue-green water.

No, try again, Violet thought. Take it from the top.

She played the scene over again, stopped before saying where she found the cord, and sighed.

What she would say next was this: “You know, if something happened, I can help you.”

“What are you talking about? If what happened?”

Violet would choose her next words very carefully, and then she would say softly, so no one else could hear, “If Assistant Coach Michael did something to you, there are things we can do, people we can tell.”

Carolyn would take a step back. “We? Who is ‘we’? Me and you?”

Violet would nod.

Carolyn would get a look in her eye that Violet had never seen before—one of fear and distrust, but also one of anger.

“I barely know you,” she would say, and neither of the girls would know what to do with this heavy fact. 

 

In late August it rained for four days straight, the rainfall totaling over seventeen inches. The river leading to the lake overflowed, and ducks swam over grass on what had until a few days prior been the shore. Run-off from the fertilizer factory made its way into the water. The sun couldn’t shine through the clouds. The combination of these three seemingly independent occurrences made the conditions right for an algae bloom.

And the algae bloomed.

It settled over the lake and turned the water bright teal. Tiny green dots spread across the surface and fish jumped to get oxygen. A dead duck washed up on shore.

“It looks so pretty,” Violet said.

She and Buddy were standing on the shore of the lake where the water had receded. The ground was still wet, still spongy under their feet. It did not occur to either of them that the poison water had not gone away; it had sunk into the dirt and roots of the grass. As far as they were concerned, the algae was only in the lake, inside the perfectly formed boundaries the water had receded back inside of.

“It’s deadly,” Buddy said, as if they did not both already know this very well.

Down the shoreline a group of children stood on the rocks in their bathing suits. They were daring one another to jump into the water, and, whenever anyone got close to doing so, they all screamed with laughter. The algae was not particularly thick in this area of the water, but it was still there, permeating the entire lake. Violet worried for the children on the rocks and hoped they would not swim. The moment she looked away, she heard a splash and more laughter filled with screaming.

“Come on,” she said, and motioned for Buddy to follow her to the moss-covered rocks where they usually sat. 

The rocks had been put along the shoreline to dam the marshes and keep the lake contained many, many years ago, before even her grandmother’s time. It was difficult for Violet to imagine that far into the past, the same way it was difficult to imagine so far into the future that the Great Lakes were the depth of a puddle.

The sun was bright and it made Violet’s eyes water. When Buddy turned around to look at her, tears were welling up around her lower eye-lids. He squinted at her.

“What’s wrong? Are you crying?”

“Sun’s too bright.”

He took his baseball cap off and reached precariously across the jagged rocks between them, the hand he used for support slipping as he did so. Violet leaned forward just enough for him to set the hat onto her head. It was partially lopsided, but she didn’t adjust it.

“That better?” Buddy said, and she began to cry.

“What’s wrong? What’s the matter?”

Violet shrugged, thinking suddenly of the mug with the name Laura carved into the bottom. She didn’t think that she could even begin to explain what she was crying for, so instead she scratched at her eye as though a bug had flown into it. Buddy looked at her expectantly.

“I can’t stop thinking about prairie fires, and handmade objects at the Goodwill, and dogs sent to outer space to die alone.”

Buddy was silent.

The cicadas were not buzzing yet but would be soon. Among the trees the robins chirped and hopped around on the soggy ground. She wondered if the rain had drowned the worms, if the robins would be able to find any, if birds even ate worms at all.

“Can I do anything?” Buddy said eventually.

“I don’t know,” Violet said. “Can you?”

He sighed, as if to say “Probably not, no,” and Violet looked away.

She wished she knew where it all was leading, what it all was supposed to mean. She wondered if it did indeed mean anything—the cigarettes being lit and put out against the donation bin; the children swimming in the algae bloom; the fires burning across the prairie. Carolyn Brommer walking with her shoes in her hand on graduation night. She wondered if any of these things even warranted notice or if she were simply making something out of nothing. It worried her, the fact that she did not know and the fact that she did not know what was worse: to be making something out of nothing or to be right.

Over by the rocks all but one of the children were now swimming in the algae. The only one not in the water was a girl with her knees pulled up to her chin, perched on the rock closest to shore. Her hair was short, not even down to her jawline, and her shoulder blades stuck out bony and sharp from beneath her swimsuit straps. Each time one of the children screeched, she seemed to pull herself in tighter and tighter, her shoulder blades sticking out like knives. The rest of her was all soft, Violet noticed, round. Violet had, suddenly, the inclination to hold the girl in the palm of her hand the way she wanted to hold the scar on her thigh. Something not to be studied, but something to be loved.

Contributors

Allison Uselman is the first-place winner of the Wisconsin People & Ideas 2021 Fiction Contest. She was born, raised, and currently lives in Madison. Uselman attended Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she graduated in 2019 with a degree in English and with a studio art minor.

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