Mindy Ashenbach sat in the middle of her quilt-covered bed, yanking red yarn from her Raggedy Ann’s head. “Bastard,” she muttered with each pull, feeling bittersweet satisfaction in using a swear word that would have made her grandfather mad. She tugged another clump, then squeezed her eyes shut. “Rotten bastard.”
She sat quiet a moment, half-holding her breath, half-waiting for punishment. But the room was silent—the whole house was silent, the same way it was after school every day when she came home from helping at Menemsha House. What made her think today would be different?
What made her think that even if anyone knew what had happened, they would have cared?
She flung the now hairless doll across the small room. It bounced off the windowsill and landed with a thud beneath the slant-roof dormer. It wasn’t as if she needed the dumb doll anymore. She was ten, after all. Too old to believe that I-love-you-heart crap.
She sucked in her lower lip and folded her arms. Then somewhere inside her a tremble began, like the rumblings of a volcano she’d seen on TV. It started in her belly, the place where it ached sometimes when she was scared. It started in her belly and stuttered its way up her chest to her throat. Then she opened her mouth, and out it came: one big wailing cry.
“Bastard!” she cried out. “Bastard! bastard!” She wondered if this was what it felt like when you died, if your insides ended up coming out, if all of your hurt ended up on the floor, facedown and alone like Raggedy Ann.
Suddenly, the door opened.
“Mindy? What the hell are you doing?” It was her grandfather.
She clutched her aching belly and tried to lick the wet places that were on her cheeks.
“You were supposed to make meat loaf for dinner,” he snarled. That’s when she smelled his familiar sea-scent, the warning that he’d been fishing today and he would be tired. “The last time I checked,” he continued, “meat loaf takes more than an hour. Now quit your daydreaming and get downstairs.” He started to close the door, then stopped, as if sensing something was not right. “What’s the matter with you, girl? You hear from your mother again?”
Anytime Mindy was upset, Grandpa figured it was because her ne’er-do-well mother, as he called her (his ne’er-do-well daughter-in-law, reckless widow of his flesh-and-blood ne’er-do-well son, Mindy’s father), had phoned or sent a postcard from an exotic port-of-call like Exuma or Caracas or wherever the yacht she was captaining that week or that month or that year had taken her now.
But no, it was not her mother who had upset Mindy.
It was that bastard. Who hadn’t ended up caring about her any more than anyone else.
Grandpa stood at the half-open door, waiting for an answer. If Mindy said yes, Mom had called, she knew it would end the conversation: Grandpa would groan his grumbly, cigar-smoked-up groan, and go away. All she would have to do was lie. Then everything would be back to normal.
But her belly ached.
And throat had closed up.
And her doll no longer had hair.
“Ben . . . ,” she said quietly.
Grandpa sighed and stepped inside the room. “I can’t hear you, girl.”
She sniffed. God, she hated that she’d sniffed like Lisa Pendergast, the crybaby of the fourth grade. She closed her eyes. “Ben Niles,” she managed to say.
He grabbed her shoulders. Her eyes flew open. Grandpa’s face was all of a sudden in her own. “What about Niles?” he barked.
It was no secret to Mindy or half the damn world that Grandpa and Ben were not friends. But the way Grandpa’s steely eyes bored into her now was as scary as the night she’d come face to face with a big ugly possum.
She wondered if Grandpa was going to have a heart attack like he did last year after the bluefins stopped running. He shook her a little. “What about Niles?”
She tried to swallow. She wanted him to let go. “Nothing,” she whispered.
His grip grew tighter. “What about him?” he shouted. “Did he hurt you?”
Mindy lowered her eyes, thinking that, yes, Ben had hurt her. Not the way Grandpa was hurting her now, but he’d hurt her. Her eyes were filling with tears again. She blinked. The tears fell on her jersey.
Grandpa began to pant. “Did he touch you?” he hissed. “Did that son of a bitch touch you?”
And then she realized why he was so upset. She’d seen those movies at school, the ones about sex. The ones that warned you not to let yourself be vulnerable, and what to do if some man (or woman) touched you there. She looked at her grandfather but did not respond.
The hissing grew silent. Then Grandpa said, “Where, girl? Where did he touch you?”
She looked up at Grandpa. He didn’t look like his heart was going to attack. Instead, he looked almost as if, like her, he was going to cry, like he was sad and worried and afraid all at once. All for her. For half a second Mindy thought he was going to hug her. The only one who’d ever done that was Ben. And he hated her now.
“You can tell me,” Grandpa said. His voice was softer now, his grip less intense. “Please, Mindy. Just tell me. Goddammit. Where did he touch you?”
She looked across the room to hapless, hopeless Raggedy Ann, then back to her grandfather, who waited for an answer. And in that instant she decided that even though Ben hated her now, maybe Grandpa did not. Maybe somebody loved her, after all—her grandfather, her own flesh and blood.
Mindy slowly put her hands on her chest, on top of her red-and-white-striped jersey, right where her nipples were trying to grow breasts. “Here,” she said quietly. “He touched me here.”
Excerpted from Off Season by Jean Stone. . Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.