Devil’s Lake

Spring 2013 Issue

Winner of the Driftless Prize in Fiction Learn more >

Katie Moulton: Here Is the Steeple

In Wiltington, a girl has gone. She is blonde as late May. When they asked for eye color, her mother answered, robin’s-egg. Everybody in town knows her height and weight, both well below average. Everybody knows her name now, first and last, though in her school classes, she was never the only Ashley. Everybody knows her smile. Her image is reproduced so many times that it has begun to shed any original or peripheral meaning. She is the Mona Lisa of Wiltington.

A girl holds onto a boy. They lie on their sides in his twin bed, and she reaches her arms all the way around his torso, for tonight his body is long and wiry as the neck of his guitar. Someday, he will fill up his frame and be called handsome. Good bones, her mother says. The girl loves the boy’s bones, how barely-contained they are. When she faces herself in the dorm’s bathroom mirror—always waiting in the stall until it is empty—she digs her fingers into her pillowy cheeks. All the way in, until she hits the hard skull underneath. Now, in his room, she fumbles for fingerholds in the ribby rock-face of the boy’s back.

The worn radiator startles. In the corner, the boy’s lamp warms the desk. The boy has a single room, so they don’t have to worry about anyone coming in. The boy’s dad knows people. The boy has raggedy books stacked on his bedside table, books with names, like Chaucer. She opened one of them once, but she couldn’t make out a single word. She tilts her chin up to look at him. His eyes are closed, his arm dropped over her hip, his breath even. She wants him to wrap her tighter, collapse her until her breath burns in a ball beneath her ribs. But that’s where they get into trouble. That’s where she always stops. And that’s when he seals off, quiet like this, no matter how she tries to pry him open again with whispers and tears. She wants him, at least, to look into her eyes and tell her again how they’re clear as water, so clear that sometimes he can see straight into her brain.

Rae says she can see straight through her too. Rae is her roommate in the freshmen girls’ dorm on the other side of campus. Rae has copper-coated skin and smokes cigarettes in bed, her legs propped up on the cinderblock windowsill. When they met, the girl smiled and offered a shake, but indigo-lidded Rae had laughed at her freckled hand. “Well, how-dee-doo!” Rae said.

A girl is growing into a symbol, her silence on paper a rallying cry against the dark. So say the microphones: mayor, minister, dean. So say the thousand cupped candles, gathered and suspended above a fresh-mowed field, one night in August when the wax dripped like milk. Everybody saw it. Everybody heard. Everybody was there or felt like they were, in spirit.

One night during the second week of classes, Rae told the girl she needed the room to herself for a few hours and could the girl please get out. Now she tells her to leave every other night. Or else the girl returns to find the door closed, rubber bands thickening the knob. The other girls giggle. One midnight, the girl refused to leave, claiming homework, and Rae had shouted through their open door into the hallway, “Anyone want to swap roomies for her majesty? I’m overdosing on virginity!”

The girl flushes at the memory, a surge all the way through. She wonders if the boy can feel it. She nuzzles at the scattered sand of his upper lip, but he doesn’t stir. She wonders if he could ever hate her. When she was small, her mother told her that when two people love each other very much, they press together as tightly as they can. Her mother held the girl’s wrists and lined up her palms, face-to-face like prayers before bed. “That makes a baby?” the girl had asked. “God makes a baby,” her mother said, “but the act of love is more like this,” her mother said and interlocked the girl’s fingers into a basket. Here is the church, here is the steeple. By now, of course, the girl knows it’s not like that, but her knowledge is theoretical. She wonders if the boy will hate her soon, or if he will just grow tired of her, of the constant kissing.

Suddenly, his mouth opens. He yawns. “It’s late,” he says. “Guess you could get back in to your room now.”

The girl remembers what Rae said: “It’s not just that you’ve never seen a cock; it’s that you wouldn’t know one if it poked you in the eye.”

But Rae isn’t totally right. The girl did see one once.

She smiles at the people of Wiltington when they check out at the supermarket, bagging their groceries themselves. She smiles down campus hallways. She smiles, wrapped around the trunks of flowering trees lined up like cheerleaders holding formation. She smiles from a sidewalk, sporting a leaf as an illuminated crown. She smiles from the Waffle House on College Avenue. The black-lettered sign says, Welcome Back Wheres Ashley.

When she was twelve and starting middle school, she still ran around with the neighborhood boys, playing Capture the Flag in the patchy woods and fields, swimming to the floating platform in the pond. One day she found herself in a rowboat alone with the tallest boy. He rowed them away from the others and into the tree-choked end of the pond where the houses disappeared from view. He stuck the oars in their slots, and the boat drifted in and out of the sunlight. He was a sarcastic boy who usually teased everybody, so she wondered at him now as he squinted up at the trees, humming. She remembers wondering whether he liked her, if that’s why he brought her down here.

“Hey, I got an idea,” he said then. “Hey, you wanna see something?” When she looked, he was smirking, standing up in the boat, holding a fleshy fish in his hand. He shook it at her and she knew what it was. She looked away, her skin burning inside and out. She heard him sit back down. “So,” he said, pointing vaguely at her body, “can I see that?” She didn’t know what to do so she crossed her arms. She managed to whisper, “You are such a child,” and sounded just like her mother. As he rowed them back towards the other boys, somebody shouted, “Catch anything, Shawn?” and “See a little something? Two little somethings?” and everybody was laughing, and everybody knew, or thought they knew, and so she said, “I didn’t feel like it right now!” She stayed up to her neck in the water all afternoon. None of the boys tried to get her alone again, and she tried not to wish they would.

Everybody knows her smile, which they begin to read as both shy and knowing. Everybody knows there must be one word that means both of these things, but they can’t remember right now. It’s hard to remember everything they asked to; it’s hard to hold it all. They even forgot to bag the milk. The evening clouds are already rubbing out the sun, and they have to walk through the parking lot carrying the milk in one hand. They worry that somebody will see them this way, see the tendons straining out of their wrist.

Strange and smooth, the thing had looked—animal and ashamed. It is the same now, she thinks: She wouldn’t know what to do with it. If she were to hold it in her hand. If it were to poke her in the eye.

The girl imagines Rae and the boy are right, imagines the other side of her eyes as the bottom of a pond, full of minnows darting and scattering behind stones. She doesn’t know anything. But Rae knows. She hears her on the phone every night, gossiping and teasing, the dark dare of her laugh.

The boy shifts his weight and groans as he moves his arm out from beneath her. “Totally lost feeling,” he says.

The girl decides to invoke Rae’s power. Quick. “Somebody,” the girl whispers, “somebody knows.”


“Somebody knows where that girl is,” she says to his chin. “They’re just not telling.”

The boy’s muffled. “What girl?”

That girl. She was a good girl, you know,” she says, “but she fell in with a fast crowd. You’ve seen them around. She was with them the night she disappeared.”

All is still, but she can tell the boy is listening. “And how do you know?” he asks.

“Rae knows. She told me. She knows that crowd. She’s screwed all of them.” The girl half-wishes she hadn’t mentioned screwing.

“Oh yeah?” the boy cracks an eye.

“Yeah.” She smiles. “So the night the girl disappeared. They’re all partying on Main. Drunk before they got there. The girl gets in with a fake, but no one’s checking. Not really. Mixed drinks, straight shots, the whole nine. And she is feeling good. And people notice. She’s—” The girl blows a stream of cool air onto the boy’s collarbone. “—magnetic.” His arm tightens around her. “Then, she goes into the bathroom, and they, they do lines.”

“Have you ever even seen a line?” He smiles at her. He is awake now.

Anyway,” the girl says and digs her chin into his chest, “she takes some hits. Lines. Bumps. Whatever. Then she starts feeling really good.”

“How good,” the boy murmurs, and she can feel his breath on the crown of her head. His hands slide slowly over the fabric on her skin, warming her up.

“So good.” His hands linger in places she’s never noticed before: the back of her neck, her second rib, the dip and swell below her belly button. “Like she doesn’t care about anything.” She is so soft. “Like she just wants to dive off a cliff.” The seam of her legs comes unstitched. “Drive a million miles.” The girl’s thigh rubs against the boy’s thigh. He pulls and pulls her waist. “Dance till her heart explodes.” She can feel the beating of his heart below his belly button. He presses and she presses back, into the rough front of his jeans. The girl can hear her heart—because that’s what it is, isn’t it?—beat yes yes yes, and her hands slide up and down the boy’s back and she wonders when their bodies will be close enough for the thing to happen. Until he grips her wrists with one hand. Then he is holding her wrists, pushing them down. Cock, she thinks and cups her hands around the warm lump between them. The boy makes a soft, short sound. She wonders how it will happen and she hopes it just happens and when will it happen—


She startles. “Huh?”

“What happens then?”

“Oh,” she keeps her eyes squeezed tight, “I don’t know.” His hands are on the back of her neck now, pushing her forehead down to her palms and she thinks, stupidly, he is showing her how to genuflect. Here is the steeple. “She runs away.” The feeling, that certainty, is already receding like a wave. “Or goes off with a guy.” Like a ripple. She pulls back so she can see him. “She passes out and nobody notices till morning.” Her hands rest limp on his stomach. “That she overdosed. They can’t call the cops so they, uh, hide her body and tell everybody she’s missing.”

The room is silent. She can hear dust on the record player.

“Babe.” The boy pulls back, looks into her eyes. “You know, you can trust me. I promise.”

“I believe you,” the girl says. “I swear.”

“This—that’s what people in love do. They make promises to each other. You know?”

“I know. I do.”

He sits up slowly. She does too, and he brushes her long bangs to the side. They fall back.

“And I promise to respect you, and I promise to make you always feel really good.”

“I promise that, too,” she says. “To you.”

“So, do you wanna try this again?”

She becomes aware of her zipper, her hair. “Please,” she says, “next time?”

“Okay, next time we see each other,” he wraps her scarf around her neck, “would you please,” up to her chin, “show me.”

She nods again, opening her eyes wide.

“Promise me,” he says, “you’ll get home safe.”

Every month, a girl is found. The newspaper doesn’t print anatomical details, the finders’ guesses at blonde, blue. Always, at the heart, what every body boils down to, is female. In Wiltington, every girl is given the same name: Not Her.

In Wiltington, the dark has edges. The dark stretches broad and tall, arms wide. Still, the girl crossing the fields can make out a ridgeline, the far-off outline of the shallow valley that holds the town. She thinks it must be light, but she doesn’t know where it comes from.

In Wiltington, a girl has gone ghost. She fades white like a blown-out photograph. Her cheeks sag, and her eyes go blue like a cloudy basin, but there is still something of the once-girl in her bob, her voice, the swish of her knees. She appears at the library in the evenings to begin her work.

The girl tucks her chin against the cold. She decides to walk the half-mile to her room in a straight line through the empty fields. The school owns them, but there are no buildings yet, no lights. She pulls her scarf up over her nose and breathes into it. Her mother will be so furious when she tells her. But she will defend her decision: better to take the shortcut than to go the long way—empty sidewalks and streetlamps, more minutes dragged out in the night? Her mother will still be furious. She will ask why the boy couldn’t be bothered to escort the girl to her door. Then she will ask why the girl was in the boy’s room at night. She can’t answer that, so maybe the girl won’t say anything at all.

Her steps pound through her ears. Her breath is loud and white in the space. The woods sneak up on either side of her. She hugs her arms across her chest, gripping her shoulder blades. Next time, she thinks, she will do it. Next time, the boy will walk her home. Under the high moon, she watches the shadow at her heels. It catches up to her own shadow, merges, falls back.

Soon, she knows, she will see the library beacon and she will know she doesn’t have much farther to go. She is familiar with the home-stretch. She clutches her key between her knuckles like a blade.

She wonders if Rae would walk home alone. If Rae’s mother told her this is how girls get snatched. The longer she walks, the cold seeps further, holds tighter. The air is cold water hardening in her lungs. She doesn’t turn to look behind her. She can hear her heart—because that’s what it is, isn’t it?—and she knows the heart’s first word is to the dark, and the heart’s first word is no no no. She releases her arms and she runs.

Everybody knows the ghost of the library. Her haunting, jokes the older staff, rolling their carts over the linoleum. They will tell you this is where the ghost has her mail delivered. She shuffles inside with her cloth bags and rain hat. She places an order at the cafe. Steamed milk, she whispers.

The ghost visits the circulation desk to retrieve the books she has requested. Anglo-Saxon. Sanskrit. Ancient Greek. She studies dead and dying languages. She observes to the clerk how languages dry up like rivers. Nothing like the people who speak them, she says: no, people get clipped like buds. Her laugh is soft and high. The clerk doesn’t quite hear, leans in. The ghost becomes suddenly solemn and waves a hand at the flyer Scotch-taped to the counter. The missing girl smiles at the ceiling. For a while, she saw the girl’s face everywhere, but not anymore. The ghost believes somebody is systematically removing the flyers, throwing them in the trash. Terrible, terrible, she whispers to the clerk. Vandals, you know, and she walks away to begin her work.

A girl holds onto her knees. She can’t catch her breath. Her skin is burning inside and out. Finally she has stopped running. In the yellow light of the dorm lobby, she holds her knees and heaves. Next time, she thinks, she will tell the boy how scared she was. Next time, she will say, show me.

She turns her key, and to her surprise, the room is dark and empty. She leaves on her long wool coat, still buttoned, her scarf circled twice, and climbs under the covers. Before she falls asleep, she wonders where Rae is.

From the second floor of the library, the ghost watches the sun set spectacularly over the flat town. Everybody in Wiltington complains about the hills, the frost-cracked sidewalks, but that’s because people in Wiltington are on the ground, are inside. She watches the sun bleed out. Drops of it land on the pages in front of her, the words whose meaning must be dug out of the earth. She thinks about how there are no words, new or old, alive or dead, to describe a sunset. It is self-evident, self-resolving. It is a pity, the ghost thinks, that people in Wiltington try to find meaning in a sunset when it is so unlike themselves.

When the girl wakes, the door is already swinging shut again. The column of light compresses into darkness. She calls out to Rae, but makes no sound. It’s not Rae. It’s not just Rae. Somebody has walked her home. Somebody has come in. They whisper, and on the other side of the room, shoes or bricks drop to the floor, and the mattress creaks on its metal springs. They don’t know the girl is there, so small and still. Rae, she whispers, but the bodies and bed make a great rusty ruckus. She knows the silence of kissing, and now she can’t say anything. She will fall asleep, and in the morning she will continue to pretend.

But the bodies on the other side of the room insist. The man begins to bark and groan. Rae’s voice joins in, swearing, and to the girl it sounds like a struggle, an orchestrated fight. She can hear seams ripping. It is so ugly and so near, and the girl has been dragged into this, dragged under, but the thing that is happening on the other side of the room is as dark as the other side of an explosion. There is Rae’s voice, and it is not Rae’s voice. It is Rae’s shadow, filling the room.

Her cheeks flush with tears. She presses her fingers into her wet face, ironing the skin. She will request a new roommate. She will ask the boy to ask his dad. He knows people. He promised.

The ghost drifts through the hushed stacks. She feels the pages crowded on either side and imagines herself as a float in a secret parade. When she comes upon a waste basket, she peers into it. Finally, she reaches down into one and traps a piece of paper between her palms.

Everybody in Wiltington has to learn to use the Xerox machine, and so does she. She pushes dimes into the slot and flattens the sheet against the glass. She stares as the spectral light, runs and returns, runs and returns. The machine casts both of their faces in green. She gathers the warm sheaf and borrows the roll of tape from the circulation desk. She moves through the halls, floor by floor. She pauses, sets her bags on the ground, pulls out a flyer. A girl smiles at her, but she doesn’t smile back. She doesn’t question her work. She wouldn’t even know what to ask. She seals the page to the cinderblock wall.

A girl holds very still and listens. Somewhere in the dark, she heard somebody whisper her name. She would swear on it. Somewhere in the dark, somebody knows she’s there.

a photo of the author, Katie Moulton KATIE MOULTON’s stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Post Road, and the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. Her work is supported by fellowships from Indiana University, where she serves as editor of Indiana Review. She’s from the Lou and she’s proud. More from this issue >