Book Excerpt: The Secret Life of Bees

I woke to the sound of someone thrashing through the trees. T. Ray! I sat up, panicked, buttoning my shirt. I heard his footsteps, the fast, heavy pant of his breathing. Looking down, I saw my mother's gloves and the two pictures. I stopped buttoning and grabbed them up, fumbling with them, unable to think what to do, how to hide them. I had dropped the tin box back in its hole, too far away to reach.

"Lileeee!" he shouted, and I saw his shadow plunge toward me across the ground.

I jammed the gloves and pictures under the waistband of my shorts, then reached for the rest of the buttons with shaking fingers.

Before I could fasten them, light poured down on me and there he was without a shirt, holding a flashlight. The beam swept and zagged, blinding me when it swung across my eyes.

"Who were you out here with?" he shouted, aiming the light on my half-buttoned top.

"No-no one," I said, gathering my knees in my arms, startled by what he was thinking. I couldn't look long at his face, how large and blazing it was, like the face of God.

He flung the beam of light into the darkness. "Who's out there?" he yelled.

"Please, T. Ray, no one was here but me."

"Get up from there," he yelled.

I followed him back to the house. His feet struck the ground so hard I felt sorry for the black earth. He didn't speak till we reached the kitchen and he pulled the Martha White grits from the pantry. "I expect this out of boys, Lily - you can't blame them - but I expect more out of you. You act no better than a slut."

He poured a mound of grits the size of an anthill onto the pine floor. "Get over here and kneel down."

I'd been kneeling on grits since I was six, but still I never got used to that powdered-glass feeling beneath my skin. I walked toward them with those tiny feather steps you expect of a girl in Japan, and lowered myself to the floor, determined not to cry, but the sting was already gathering in my eyes.

T. Ray sat in a chair and cleaned his nails with a pocketknife. I swayed from knee to knee, hoping for a second or two of relief, but the pain cut deep into my skin. I bit down on my lip, and it was then I felt the wooden picture of black Mary underneath my waistband. I felt the waxed paper with my mother's picture inside and her gloves stuck to my belly, and it seemed all of a sudden like my mother was there, up against my body, like she was bits and pieces of insulation molded against my skin, helping me absorb all his meanness.

The next morning I woke up late. The moment my feet touched the floor, I checked under my mattress where I'd tucked my mother's things - a temporary hiding place till I could bury them back in the orchard.

Satisfied they were safe, I strolled into the kitchen, where I found Rosaleen sweeping up grits.

I buttered a piece of Sunbeam bread.

She jerked the broom as she swept, raising a wind. "What happened?" She said.

"I went out to the orchard last night. T. Ray thinks I met some boy."

"Did you?"

I rolled my eyes at her.

"No."

"How long did he keep you on these grits?"

I shrugged. "Maybe an hour."

She looked down at my knees and stopped sweeping. They were swollen with hundreds of red welts, pinprick bruises that would grow into a blue stubble across my skin.

"Look at you, child. Look what he'd done to you," she cried.

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