“Sébastien, stop.” I giggled. “My parents are in the house this time.”
He grinned. His cold, chapped lips connected with my chin and then lingered on my forehead. “You so beautiful, Corinne,” he whispered in broken English.
“Stop!” I commanded, this time more sternly. “We’ll get into big trouble.”
An hour-and-a-half ago, I had snuck out of the house and raced down to the barn to meet an overly eager Sébastien stretched out on a mounting haystack with a single strand of hay dangling between his lips. My parents thought I was secured in my twin bed, tucked away and fast asleep under the covers. If they found out, I would be in more trouble. This would make the second time Sébastien and I were caught together. The first time I had skipped history class to meet him behind the schoolyard, but when Mistress Gaielle spotted us, she immediately notified my parents and I was banished to scooping horse excrement for three weeks.
“What do you expect me to do?” Sébastien whispered. He blew tiny puffs of smoke in the frosty night air. “You’ve been my girlfriend for eight months, no? I thought you loved me.”
“Of course I love you. I thought I proved that before.”
“I need more.”
Sébastien LeFevre was the most popular boy in our colored school. His fútbol ability outmatched any of those white boys in the bigger schools. They knew it, too. His superior athleticism was met with many enemies as well as admirers, one of them being Claudette Beauchamp. At the white schoolhouse, Claudette was one of the prettiest girls with her sun-kissed hair and naturally rosy cheekbones. She also had a corseted waist that was smaller than any girl’s I had ever seen. I thought it a crime for a girl to be that petite. All women in my family, with the exception of Momma, had the same features—full bosom, thick waist and an even larger backside.
“I don’t know,” I told him. “But—” But what? I had no reason aside from the fact that I was scared, the same way I was scared to stand in front of my intermediate French class and not speak my native English, even though as a child, my French mother had taught me the language. As Momma had said, “La confiance d’une fille vient de ne pas la façon dont elle regarde, mais par la façon dont elle parle”—“A girl’s confidence comes from not how well she looks, but by how well she speaks.”
“You know I care so much for you, so please—” he begged, this time locking his fingers behind my waist and pulling me closer to him.
I didn’t want to lose Sébastien the same way I had lost Arnaud six months ago or even Frédéric the year before that. Those were just boys. Now, at fifteen, I understood that I had to do more in order to keep Sébastien. If I didn’t, plenty of girls waited for the smallest opportunity to be the one to keep his body warm in some cold, dank barn well after daylight.
We had only lived in Cherbourg, a tiny city just outside of Paris, for four years. Daddy had brought the family over from Canada in search of better job opportunities. Leaving Winnipeg and Emma, my best friend since grade three, was the hardest thing I had ever done. I had cried for three days straight. That was the last time I had shed a tear for anyone.
“Come on,” Sébastien pleaded, suddenly serious. “We’re both fifteen, Corinne. We need to be together as often as possible or else. . .” He pulled me closer. His dry lips lightly brushed against my cheek and his large hands fumbled around, finally resting on my shoulders. Slowly, he pushed me downward onto the haystack. The sharp edges of the hay poked me in the back.
“Une belle femme, you are, with your long hair and light-brown skin. Do you know how beautiful you are?” His voice was barely above a whisper.
My arms held my body upright as his strong hands pushed against my shoulders, trying to force me onto my back.
“Sébastien, wait. Please.”
Frustrated, he threw his hands in the air. His narrowed eyes seared right through me and I felt a cold chill travel down my spine. He was almost unrecognizable, but then he took a deep breath and softened his expression. He hesitated a moment, then calmly stood up and brushed the hay from his trousers. “I must leave.”
“Don’t leave just yet,” I begged. “My parents are still in the house. They don’t even know I’m out here. I can stay for a little while longer. There are other things we can do.”
“I don’t understand you, Corinne,” he said, pulling up one suspender. “One minute you want me to leave and the next, you want me to stay. Which is it?”
“I just want. . .” I began, not sure of what I wanted. “I. . .”
He stood there staring at me, waiting for an answer. I had none.
He shook his head. “No, not really, but if you do not want to be with me tonight, then yes, I will wait for another time. I had only assumed you would take no issue considering last time, but if you say no, then no it shall be.” He reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a tiny leaf. He pinched the stem and held it up to my face, only inches from my nose. “This is for you, ma belle femme.”
“What is it?” I gently took it from his hand.
“It’s a leaf from the tree we sat under,” he said. “Remember? The first time we met?”
My heart sank. He actually remembered. I reached for the precious memento and held it close to my heart. It was so beautiful, not so much the crumpled-up dried leaf, but rather the symbol of our togetherness. I looked up to thank him, but he was already headed toward the barnyard doors.
“Where are you going?” I asked, pulling away loose strands of hay from my hair. “Please don’t leave.”
There was a very quick but uneasy hesitation before he responded, “I have to go to the market for ma mère before it gets too dark. I’ll see you at the schoolhouse tomorrow, yes?”
“But—” Before I could protest, he passed through the barn doors and headed down the dirt drive.
I looked down at the leaf in my hand. I pulled myself up from the haystack and followed. I peeked out of the double wooden barnyard doors and when he was far enough down the road, I followed, making certain to remain at least ten paces behind as he strolled along the dusty path and toward the market. The strong winds carried his soft whistle and his strides picked up pace. Dark clouds partially concealed the half moon as thunder roared off in the distance.
It was about a quarter of a mile before he turned down a side dirt road and made his way through Fresca Fields, clomping down on every flower in his path. Without a care, he glided into the grocery store like a drink of cool water would down your throat on a steaming, hot, sunny day.
A feeling of relief washed over me immediately followed by a feeling of guilt. How could I have ever doubted his fidelity? Sébastien LeFevre was probably going to be my husband and the father of my children some day. It didn’t feel right not trusting him. If I wanted to be with him, I had to believe he was faithful.
Before I turned to make the trek back up the dirt path and to my house, the tiny bell fastened to the store handle chimed. A shadowy figure entered the store. As the person entered the market, she turned. That was when I clearly saw the heavily made-up blue eyes.
It was Claudette Beauchamp.
Her blonde hair was tied in a ponytail and she wore a full, poufy skirt that somehow managed to add curves to her otherwise emaciated figure.
As Claudette disappeared further into the dimly lit store, I crouched behind a bush and patiently waited.
This has to be a coincidence, this has to be a coincidence, I kept repeating to myself. It had to be. Tears stung my eyes as I squatted in the dirt, brushing away the ants and bugs making their way up my skirt. Tiny droplets of rain started to sprinkle down.
I took the back of my hand and swiped at the falling tears. No way was I going to cry over the likes of Claudette Beauchamp, but the tears kept rolling and that frustrated me even more. The more I watched and waited, the angrier I became to the point where I wished I could snatch out every single strand of her hair and shove it down her boyfriend-stealing throat. And no way was that two-timing Sébastien going to get away with this either. I was going to make sure of that.
I glanced down at the bald dirt holes and realized I was yanking out patches of grass. The tiny droplets fell harder and faster and soon my hair was matted to my forehead. Tears continued to roll down my cheeks as I slowly stood up, preparing to gather up what dignity I had left and return home.
Before I had the chance, the store bell chimed once again and Claudette emerged. She wasn’t alone. Her arm was locked in Sébastien’s. Outside the store, they embraced passionately, with him giving her a long, wistful kiss as he had me only minutes ago. With the back of my hand I wiped my lips and then leaned over and spat out any lingering germs of his betrayal. That cheat!
The mixture of rain and tears trickled down my cheeks as I stomped up to both of them. They were so engrossed in their embrace they didn’t even notice me. When Sébastien’s gaze finally lifted, he saw me—fuming and with balled fists—standing in front of him. My heart pounded in my chest and I struggled to keep focus on the disloyalty in front of me without getting sick right there in front of the store.
He pulled away, practically shoving Claudette into the bushes. “What are you. . .I mean, I thought you—”
I lunged at a stunned Claudette, knocking her to the ground, which by this time had turned into a cold pile of mud. I smashed her face into the sludge. She reached around and grabbed my hair. With my left hand, I tugged at her blonde ponytail while with my right, I jerked at the sleeve of her white blouse. Riiiiiiip! I pulled away, but I was still clutching the sleeve of her mud-stained blouse. I attacked again, this time preparing to strangle her with her own sleeve.
“L’arrêter!” Sébastien shouted. “Stop it!”
I felt his hand on my shoulder, but I shook it off. I bent down, reached for a handful of the cold, dirty mud and smeared it into his face.
“Descendre de moi vous le gros cochon!” Claudette screamed.
“I’ll get off you after I make you choke on this!” With my extra twenty pounds, I could have strangled her with my bare hands. Instead I took her dirty, torn sleeve and shoved it into her mouth. We rolled around for a few minutes until Sébastien finally pulled me off her.
“Prostituée sale!” I screamed.
Claudette, still on the ground, sobbed as she brushed herself off and picked pebbles from her blonde mane.
“And you!” I whirled around to face Sébastien. “Je vous déteste.” With the same ferocious tenacity, I lunged toward him. My fingers were inches from his broad neck.
I felt warm palms pressed against my shoulder, holding me back.
“Quittez s’il vous plaît mon magasin!” Mr. Brousseau, the shop’s owner, commanded. In heavily accented English, he repeated very slowly, “You. Kids. Leave. My. Store. Or. I. Will. Call. The. Police.”
I turned and sprinted down the dark road, each step angrier than the last. As I ran, I listened for a second set of footsteps behind me.
There were none.
I continued racing through the fields and toward home. With each choppy step, I thought of revenge. She was not my concern anymore. Watching her squirm in the mud like the sneaky worm she was was enough. Like others, I had entrusted Sébastien with my heart, only for him to stomp all over it as if he was squishing a bug. I never asked for much from him, only loyalty.
“Lord, please get me away from here, s’il vous plaît!” I yelled, running faster and harder.
Tired, my fast run had turned into a jog and then into a hasty walk. Heated tears stung my eyes, making it even more visually difficult in the darkened night. I tripped on a stone, fell to the ground, got right back up and continued. Each infuriated step brought on a painful sting in my right knee. I looked down and saw a tiny trickle of blood.
When I reached the edge of my driveway, I hunched over and caught my breath. Each deep breath brought the cold evening air into my lungs. When I looked up, I saw two police cars at the top of the drive, parked side by side. Inside, I heard loud muffled voices. When I heard the sound of crashing glass, I pushed open the door.
Two brash-looking police officers in full uniform stood over Daddy, who was lying on the floor, bleeding from his mouth. One of the officers stepped on Daddy’s neck while the other repeatedly jabbed at Daddy’s leg with his large, shiny black shoe.
“Daddy!” I screamed.
“It’s all right, Corinne!” Momma yelled from the corner of the room. She was crying hysterically while a police officer held her back.
“You live here?” one of the officers asked. He had an English accent and was fat. Not just a few pounds overweight, but extremely obese. He smelled like cologne and cigar smoke.
I wanted to shout, Why else would I be here? But instead, I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
The two officers holding down Daddy folded their arms across their chests and glanced at each other. The one securing Momma in the corner released his grip and in French, he commanded her to leave the room. She did not comply immediately, so the irate officer grabbed her arm and forcefully removed her from the room. When they disappeared into the kitchen, the portly officer turned back to me.
“You a Negro, too?” His neck fat jiggled when he spoke. “Well?” He turned to the officer in the corner and mumbled something in a language I did not recognize. The other officers laughed.
Scared, I looked down at Daddy.
“What are you doing here?” the officer asked. “You don’t look like a Negro.”
My heart pumped faster. I glanced around at each one of the angry-looking officers. The one with his foot on Daddy’s neck eased his hand toward the black, shiny gun in his holster. The other glared down at me with such hate, I thought he would have killed me right there if he had the opportunity.
“Does this man speak French?” the officer asked, motioning his head toward Daddy on the ground. “And if you lie, girl, I will see to it that both of you are punished severely.”
I swallowed hard while glancing at Daddy. He blinked twice. “Yes,” I mumbled to the officer.
“Speak up, girl!” his voice boomed.
The officer narrowed his eyes. “He is a citizen then?”
Slowly, I nodded. In my mind I pictured the officer asking for proof of citizenship, which we did not have.
To my surprise, the burly officer did no such thing. Instead, he turned toward the men holding Daddy down and in his English accent said, “Permettez-lui d’aller.”
The men removed their feet. Daddy slowly stood up.
The first officer called back to the man in the kitchen holding Momma. One-by-one they shuffled out of the house, with the last officer slamming the door behind them. As soon as they were gone, Momma burst out of the kitchen. “Joseph, are you all right?”
“What happened?” I asked. “Why were the police here?”
“Corinne,” Daddy said. “Please go to bed. I need to speak with your mother.”
I turned and headed toward my bedroom. Daddy escorted Momma into the kitchen. I could hear Daddy’s voice whispering, “Those policemen will be back and next time, I don’t think they are going to be as polite.”
Excerpted from Unsinkable: A Novel
by Nicole Bradshaw
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are
provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or
distributed without the written permission of the publisher.