She had never been stung before. Her skin was pure, untouched by much of anything. Which is saying a lot for any girl of seventeen, usually by this point blemished and tainted in every way, whether as a result of tattoos, piercings, dalliances with men, bug bites or otherwise. There’s very little to protect a girl from the ravages of time once that long descent into disrepair called aging past sixteen occurs. And in a town like Las Vegas, where the younger you are, the more bankable you are (or at least more likely to get free bottle service), it’s even more harrowing to experience the sensation of “getting older” as a female. Tamara LaMaze had perhaps managed to prolong and protract the appearance of her youth as a result of spending most of her days in the sixty-five and older Del Webb community her not-grandparents lived in, so much as godparents that were of a grandparents’ age. They had ended up raising her after Tamara’s birth mother, Joy, fell prey to a standard drug and prostitution habit and was never to be heard from again after simply not showing up with the cake she had promised to bring to Tamara’s fifth birthday, some twelve years ago now, back when Las Vegas was less Dubai and more all-out seediness, even on the Strip. Tamara knew the second that her mother was just one minute late that this was the end for her. She would have to be self-sufficient. It wasn’t the most harrowing epiphany a child of Las Vegas could have. Neither she nor her mother was aware of who her father was, so that was out. All she had in the world was Tilly Ann, a sixty year old (in 2005) who owned a series of bars throughout the city that had made her very rich. For some reason, she was friends with Joy (maybe because Joy was her most loyal patron), and the only maternal favor Joy had ever done was see fit to make Tilly Ann the godmother of Tamara, in spite of the fact that Joy had never set foot in a church in her life.
When Tilly Ann, thus far never having married in her life, took up with Joe, an affable middle-aged man about fifteen years younger with a streak of silver in his greasy black hair, he filled in the role of godfather for Tamara. She didn’t mind him really, even ignored it when she caught him looking at her a little too long in her white bikini as she spent the days–all summer in nature regardless of season–by their pool soaking up as much sun and Tom Wolfe as she could. She had just started on Bonfire of the Vanities, but The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was still her favorite. The librarian, who she surmised to be a lesbian, paid especial attention in directing her literary absorption, insisting that she would like Bonfire of the Vanities best of all his work. Because of their sequestered location, perched high atop any of the sins of the city, Tamara maintained this illusion of innocence that made most mistake her for no older than fourteen. Joe tried to talk Tilly Ann into allowing her to go to a regular school, but Tilly Ann wouldn’t have it. Used all her money instead on the best tutors to come to Tamara and teach her what she would need to know to get a GED and go to a college far away from the temptations and perversions of Vegas. Tilly Ann even made it a point only to hire female tutors in their thirties so that Tamara couldn’t be corrupted by talk of boys from those tartish college girls at UNLV. “More like University of Venereal Disease,” Tilly Ann would joke to Joe as she set the table for dinner.
It was never quite clear to Tamara what Joe did for a living, though he did seem to be out of the house rather often. All Tilly Ann would ever say was that he was in business. In the business of what was as good a guess as any. It was only when Joe came home late one night and Tamara happened to espy him from her perch behind the refrigerator as she gathered a late night snack that she intuited something was very wrong with whatever his profession was. He hobbled in covered in blood, which looked like ketchup against his marine blue-colored blazer. She froze stock-still behind the refrigerator, hoping that if she didn’t move, he wouldn’t notice her. But he did, naturally.
“Tamara,” he slurred. “What the shit are you doing awake at this hour? Go back to bed.”
With that, he careened up the stairs to Tilly Ann’s bedroom. Tamara didn’t look at him the next day at the breakfast table. Tilly Ann picked up on it right away. “Anything wrong?” she asked, seemingly to both of them.
Tamara shook her head vehemently. Joe added, “Why should anything be wrong?”
“You two sure are quiet, that’s all.” She raised her brow as she went to the stove to add more pancake batter to the griddle. Slapping a demented oval shape onto it with her spatula, she warned, “I don’t like not knowing what’s going on in my house.”
Tamara had never felt so uncomfortable in her life. She wanted to confess all to Tilly Ann, the only person who had ever been there for her in any real way, but the glint in Joe’s eyes kept her from doing so. So she bit her lip and went about the day as usual, throwing herself into the assignments of her tutors and retreating to the pool at about 4 p.m., when she could catch one of the heights of the sunlight. Just as her eyes fell upon the line, “Vulgar, but not as vulgar as Louis Vuitton,” Tilly Ann came outside with just such a bag slung over her arm and Fendi glasses the size of giant saucers. She drummed her acrylic nails on the outdoor table as though pondering just what she wanted to say to Tamara, lazily tucked into the chaise lounge with a fortress of lemonade and snacks around her.
“Tamara. Has anything happened between you and Joe? If there has, I want you to tell me.”
But Tamara had committed to her complicity with Joe. She didn’t want to be the one to tell her godmother that he was probably no good. Not that she had any other man to compare him to. Maybe he was good, for all she knew. Maybe he had a perfectly viable reason for showing up last night covered in blood.
Again, she shook her head adamantly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about Tilly Ann.”
She sighed. “Then you won’t mind if I head to the hot springs for a few days? Tune myself up a bit?”
Of course Tamara minded. The thought of being alone with Joe sounded petrifying, made her stomach turn in knots. “I don’t mind.”
“You’ll be here all alone with Joe. Course he’ll be gone most of the time, too. He’s been having to work a lot lately.”
It was then that Tamara took the opportunity to once again attempt to figure out what Joe did. “Tilly Ann, where did you meet Joe?”
She looked with careful consideration at Tamara, wondering if she hadn’t made a mistake all these years protecting her so well from the outside world and all its dark vagaries.
“At a nightclub, honey. He, well, he runs a nightclub somewhere off the Strip. It’s a lot of work, but he’s good at it and it’s what he likes to do. Lord knows I can’t begrudge anyone their love of being their own boss. It’s how I’ve enjoyed my life so much.”
“Okay,” Tamara said simply.
Tilly Ann softened and approached Tamara to get closer. She sat on a bare patch of the chaise lounge and ran her fingers through Tamara’s hair as she had so often done when she was a girl. “Have you thought anymore about where you wanna apply to college?”
Tamara shrugged. “Can’t I stay here with you forever?”
Tilly Ann smiled. “Oh Tamara, that would be nice, sure. But it’s not healthy. I’ve already crippled you enough as it is. I want you to go somewhere where you can really live. Somewhere with nature. Maybe you’d like to think about going to France or Italy. Get your higher education abroad.”
“I’d be so far away from here that way.”
“That’s the idea, honey. This place is no good. And I want you to get out before you find out what it’s really like.”
Tamara nodded obediently. “Maybe Lyon would suit me.” She had just read about Lyon in her French textbook, a collegiate sort of town, from what her tutor had told her, and one where she could see herself fitting in nicely. This truly meant something as she could rarely, if ever, picture herself outside the confines of this very backyard, where all her contentment was contingent upon splashing in the pool and reading what the local librarian recommended to her.
None of the gritty works of literature she had read thus far, however, could have prepared her for what was to occur that night, with Tilly Ann for the first time out of the house in what felt like years. Tamara was going about her routine as usual, staying out by the pool as her long brown hair dried out one last time for the evening—roughly around eight o’ clock. Usually, once she had finished drying, she would go inside and make herself dinner in Tilly Ann’s absence. But as the darkness descended upon Tamara’s world, so, too, did Joe. He came outside blatantly soused, sweat stains on his white button-front shirt adding to the grotesquerie of it all.
As though everything was happening in slow motion and before Tamara could fully process the inevitable assault, he pinned her down on the ground, ripping her bikini bottom off so that it busted at both sides where the ties were. A lone bee descended from the sky, maybe it was confused about what time of day it was, where it was supposed to be. Tamara was always reading some new article about the damage to bees’ brains and colonies pesticides caused. Whatever the reason it was suddenly here, she was glad for its presence as it gave her something to focus on. A pair of eyes to fix on that weren’t Joe’s avaricious, terrifying ones. But when the bee got closer, she saw that its eyes, too, were filled with avarice. She screamed as it stung her square on the left side of her neck, like a vampire. Joe, for some twisted reason, took her scream of pain to mean she was enjoying herself and was encouraged further to keep carrying on joyously with his rape. In the next few instants, while processing that this was both her first bee sting and her first time having sex, Tamara apprehended that Tilly Ann had emerged, was home early from what she now gathered was her feigned jaunt to the hot springs. She had only wanted to see for herself what Joe was up to by pretending to leave. She pulled a gun out of her Louis Vuitton and shot just once at Joe’s back. He kept humping her like a deranged dog even after the shot penetrated his back the way he penetrated Tamara. It took a full ten seconds before that depraved look on his face fully froze and Tamara could push him off of her, so hard, in fact, that his dead body rolled right into the pool–a place Tamara would never look at with fondness again.
Tilly Ann ran to her and scooped her in her arms. Tamara, with nothing covering her bottom half, felt disgusted at being touched. Still, she let Tilly Ann hold her as she apologized, “Oh Tamara, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I let this happen to you. It’s your own fault for not just telling me about Joe. But I had to find out for sure, somehow didn’t I? Oh goodness, I never would’ve imagined he could…” But Tamara couldn’t hear her anymore. The words had been drowned out by the stinging apparition of what reality was supposed to mean to most people.