I was 18 years old, and my life was over.

My folks and I moved to this small town in the rural South called, of all things, Watley. I should've been pissed off about that move. I was heading into my second year in junior college, turning 19 soon. Most of my friends had already left for big universities; if I'd bothered to get better grades in high school, I probably would be off on my own somewhere, too, I guess.

The first days there, I was in total culture shock. I admit that the Decatur, Illinois suburban area is not New York City, but compared to Watley it's a metropolis. I wasn't leaving much behind, but I was still pretty stunned. Everything happened so suddenly, so quickly that I didn't really have time to be mad. In less than a month I was in a different state (really different), with a new house, new room, new college coming in September (we moved in June), and a very new town. I felt like I was a tourist, and if you'd asked me, I might've said I was expecting that after we were done visiting that we'd be going home. That's what it felt like: I was just a guest. What I did and how I acted didn't matter very much, because I was going home, somewhere else.

The first weeks, I didn't do much. I read a lot, and I wrote a lot, mostly diary-style essays about moving and the town, just to try and stay sane. I watched satellite TV sometimes, once we got it installed. I didn't have a working cell phone, or I'd have talked to my friends. (There was no cell coverage; my Android phone had just become an expensive MP3 player with a few game apps.) My dad couldn't get us Internet, for some reason.

I stayed in my room a lot with the door locked. I did have my laptop, so I spent a fair amount of time surfing the porn collection I kept on it, and fapping. Outside it was unbearably hot, and the humidity made Illinois air seem dry. The Suicide Girls, whose nude images I'd collected over the years on the laptop, seemed like angels of deliverance.

There was a big sign at a street corner that I noticed one day during one of our trips into "town." Our house was actually about a mile outside of this so-called town, and apparently, a lot of other people's houses were as well. Anyway, I saw this sign about a holiday picnic, and my mom saw it, too, and was going on about how nice and quaint it was that a place like this would have a thing like that. I didn't have anything to do—I would've been on the Internet full-time by that point, but even three weeks after we moved, we still didn't have a connection—and I was going crazy sitting in my room. So, I quietly decided to myself that I was going to that picnic. I have no idea why, but it seemed better than doing nothing, and if I went without my parents, maybe it would actually be cool. Maybe.

The picnic was on the day before the Fourth of July. I remember getting up that morning, and it was humid before it was 9 AM. And I was thinking: it's amazing that we actually have air conditioning in a buttfuck town like this. Jesus Christ, population 378?! How is that even a "town"?

I got up and got dressed—if you call a t-shirt and some old cargo shorts "dressed"—and just started walking. I didn't tell my parents anything. I just left.

What surprised me was the size and the commotion of this picnic. Yeah, maybe there weren't even 400 people living here, but apparently they were all in the downtown park that day. There was music—at first I thought it was just someone's iPhone playing through a P.A. system, but actually it was a live bluegrass band—and all sorts of activity: impromptu games, clusters of people in earnest conversation, big, sweaty men tending grills on wheels. I was standing there, trying to figure out if there was any organized activity or what, when I noticed this one group.

They were mostly female. They were at the left edge of the park, and they got my attention because they were loud and they were all in these really pretty dresses. All the women in Watley (and the whole area) wore the same style of really old-fashioned-looking dresses, but these women stood out. I don't really know what a "pretty" dress is supposed to mean, at least officially, but I do know that these girls and women looked especially nice. They were all playing with balls, tossing them back and forth, screaming and whooping and laughing, like they had the biggest party at the party. And yet it was obvious that they were not really trying to attract attention; they were just having a really good time.

That was the thing: they were having a good time. They, themselves, obviously family, were having fun, together. I'd never had that, not even close. I liked my parents, but we'd never really, uh, partied.

They had picnic blankets laid out, and I noticed that there were lots of smaller kids there, and some babies. I moved closer to where they were, nonchalantly.

Right about then, a ball came rolling up near me. I didn't pay it much notice, but then a little girl, about five years old, trotted up, looked at the ball, looked at me, and said, "You could've thrown it back."

It took me a second to answer her. She was a pretty little girl, in a nice miniature-sized blue dress, blonde hair sweeping over her shoulders, with a serious look on her face.

"You're right," I said. "I should have. Sorry."

She grinned at me, suddenly, then grabbed the ball and ran off.

And that's about when everything changed for me.

I looked over to see where the little girl went, and she was with a woman. Well, OK, she was a girl about my age, but it's kind of weird to call a five-year-old a "girl" and then call someone who's about 18 a "girl," too. The little girl was talking to this, um, young woman, and pointing to me. The girl/woman stood up straight and looked right at me, and I had never been so stunned and smitten in all my life.

Her hair might've been the first thing I noticed. Or maybe it was her face: soft and sweet and beautiful, slightly round and kind of heart-shaped. She was serious when she looked at me, but she had the kind of face that would seem to smile even if she was frowning. Her long, blonde-brown hair drifted over her shoulders and across her face in the breeze as she stared at me.

I noticed that she had on a light blue country-style dress—pretty much just like all the other girls and women around, but I really liked the way it looked on her. It was obviously supposed to make her look modest, but it didn't completely succeed. It didn't hide the swell of her hips, or her slim waist, or the pronounced curve of her bust. And, though it was a long dress, it didn't entirely hide her ankles the way the other women's dresses did. Somehow, that tiny bit of exposed skin was sexy. The lower part of the dress had a light flower pattern, very fetching on her. I noticed that her sleeves ran past her elbows.

I wouldn't have thought that I would ever like that sort of long, country dress seemingly from a century ago—but I did, on her, at least.

"Hey!" she shouted at me, suddenly, and I remember actually feeling frightened, like I'd done something wrong. I started to point to myself, but she was already shouting, "You playing?"

"I'm Lila," she said to me. I'd walked over her direction, having no idea what to do otherwise. "This is Shirley," she told me, indicating the little blonde girl.

I bent to shake the little girl's hand first. "Hi, Shirley," I said, kindly. "My name is Billy."

"Hi, Billy," said the little girl, and for the first time, I recognized how Southern her accent was. Shirley pointed, announcing, "That's my Auntie Lila!" Then she grabbed the ball and ran off.

Lila was laughing as she turned to me, saying, "Sorry, yeah, I'm 'Auntie' Lila." Although she pronounced her name "Lie-luh," her cute, slightly slow drawl made it sound kind of like "Lah-luh."

"Billy," I told Lila. It seemed polite to introduce myself to her directly.

"Hi, Billy." Lila was smiling, holding out her hand. I reached out and shook it, looking her in the eye. Her grip on me was firm, but her skin felt soft and warm. It was like a moment from eternity, like one that I suddenly recognized but was utterly unprepared for. Lila was beautiful, she was my age, and she was paying attention to me. I could scarcely believe it.

"So," I started, nervously. "What're you guys playing?"

"Oh," said Lila. "'Ball', I guess. Whatever." Her smile was a bit demure. She played with the ends of her hair.

Then I met her entire family. Now, I could lie to you and give you some kind of narrative about how I remember meeting Lila's mom, and all her relatives that were sitting and laying around their picnic blankets. I don't really remember, though; there were faces smiling at me, and kind, quiet Southern voices, and the next thing I knew, I was playing "ball", and then we were sitting on blankets, eating kettle corn. There were several generations here in the sea of blankets. Lots of little kids, sure, but there were quite a few young mothers in their 20s, older matrons who were probably 40+ (I couldn't really tell ages for the post-30 set), and a handful of grandmotherly types who were gathered up on one blanket playing some kind of card game, laughing among themselves. I noted that the only males were children.

Lila was one blanket away. Already, I was entertaining paranoia: was trying to get away from me, or maybe she was just playing a courtship game, acting a little unavailable? I watched her soft hair blowing across her face as the wind picked up again.

Right about then I began to realize that I hadn't seen a single dress that showed any shoulder skin, or any part of a woman's back, not here, not anywhere in town. The dresses actually looked really nice, and so I hadn't really thought about it. But: every sleeve in sight went down near to its wearer's elbows, or even further. There wasn't a sleeveless dress or blouse to be seen, not even for the little girls. And it was hot that day.

Lila scooted over to my blanket to ask: "So, where are you from?"

I asked her how she knew I wasn't from Watley, and she just gave me a knowing stare. Duh. Everyone knew everyone here.

When I told her, trying not to sound sheepish about being from central Illinois, she immediately started asking me questions. What was it like there? Did it seem really different from here? What were the people like, and what did they wear? What did the girls wear? What did the landscape look like? How was it different?

I was happy to tell her, but I started to wonder if she'd ever watched TV or seen a movie. I asked her as such.

"Well, yeah," she said, "I've seen stuff. But I like hearing about places more than seeing pictures."


She pursed her lips and thought for a moment. "Pictures aren't as real."

Lila asked me about some more stuff, about high school and whether I had traveled much—she especially wanted to know if I'd been to other countries. I had been to Europe with my parents when I was 10, and I remembered it well enough, so I tried to answer her rampant questions about it patiently and politely. The truth was, though, I didn't recall as much detail about Spain or Portugal or France as she would have hoped. I tried to make it sound as romantic and rich with detail as my childhood memories would allow.

I had just finished telling her what I remembered about the Languedoc when she looked me in the eyes: "You gonna stay to watch the fireworks with us?"

I didn't realize there were going to be fireworks on July 3rd in the middle of nowhere, but I managed to stay cool and just say, "Yeah, sure." She was just starting to smile when I said, "If you'll watch them with me."

Her answer was confident and easy: "Yeah, of course." She was smiling and looking right in my eyes. Her breath drifted past my face, a gentle cinnamon.

Now, the sun hadn't gone down yet, so we had a while. I didn't have much trouble talking to Lila, and we had a pretty good conversation for a bit. She was going to be taking classes at Shiloh Junior College, about 50 miles away, and that was the one I was going to in the Fall, too. (It was the only college in 300 miles, so that wasn't a stunning coincidence.) Her dad, and her brothers-in-law (she had at least two, apparently) and her male cousins were all out fishing "on the river." She felt the need to tell me that it was "nice to have a man around" that day. Her family certainly had a lot of females, so I think she meant that at face value.

So there I was: suddenly at home. One minute I had felt like a loner in some tiny town, an observer from another land, and then I had been made to feel that I belonged, practically a member of the family. I had spoken with Judith, who was the eldest daughter, and Mrs. Summerall, mother to Lila and several of the other young women, and Esther, and Eliza, mother to the little girl Shirley, and cousin Deborah (she had a little boy and a baby girl), and cousin Abigail (three kids with her). All of them made sure I knew I was welcome. I met others, but I can't remember whom, or in which order.

I do remember meeting Esther especially because of her big boobs. I mean, all the Summerall girls I'd met were on the thin side and kind of busty, but Esther's tits were particularly big, almost the size of melons or something. She laid on a blanket and opened her blouse and bra and dumped out her bare breasts, and then she put one of her giant nipples into her baby's mouth. She did this right there in public, and no one blinked. Lila, Shirley, all the girls acted like nothing at all was happening, what with Esther's large naked breasts out, her baby sucking at one intently.

I'd never been around breastfeeding before, so this was a pretty big shock to me. I mean, I knew it existed, but I'd understood this to be something that happened behind closed doors. Instead, here was Esther exposing herself in public, and no one—not even the townsfolk wandering around us—seemed fazed by it.

I wouldn't have expected Lila to realize how freaked out I was, but out of nowhere, she suggested that we go for a walk.

"Yeah," I said.

In retrospect, I should've been pretty fucking excited by this beautiful girl asking me to go for a walk, but I think I was having shock within shock. Anyway, I do remember how it felt when she took my hand.

After we'd walked for a bit, Lila said, "Sorry about that. I could tell you were getting uncomfortable."

"Yeah," I said, nodding, trying to seem casual. "A little."

"Esther is one of those that just likes to fly free in public. We've got a few of those kind around here."

We walked a little further, and Lila spoke in a quieter, candid voice. "Like, she gets those 'nipple orgasms' when she's feeding sometimes, you know?"

I had no idea what she was talking about, but she had my attention.

"I mean, lucky girl and all, sure, yeah. Pastor even calls it her 'mother's blessing.' It just, you know, it happens sometimes. But when it happens in public, she just completely lets loose with it. Talk about making people feel uncomfortable."

She shook her head and rolled her eyes. "It's just that if I was that lucky, well, I wouldn't make a public spectacle out of it."

In a murmur, she added, "Wouldn't breastfeed bare-chested in public to begin with."

We ended up on the bank of the river—I'd not really realized that there was this big river in town, and how the town was sort of organized around it—and we ended up sitting together on the bent trunk of a nice, shady tree. We were alone. I remember clearly how I was looking into Lila's eyes, seeing her smile at me. I remember feeling: me? You like me?

"I wanted to show you this," she was telling me with a smile, indicating the view. "And, I wanted something else."

But then we were kissing.

That there were butterflies in my stomach: obviously. Lila was so beautiful; her wonderful light-pink lips pouted at me (when they weren't kissing mine), and her soft, round face near mine was so disarming. When she made an aggressive move, like turning to kiss me, it was almost too much.

We kissed for a while.

"We're gonna make ice cream tomorrow," she said to my lips, in between kisses. "I'm sure my folks wouldn't mind if you showed up."

"Uhm-hm," I said, because we were already kissing again. In pauses between the kisses, I could feel her sighing.

Finally, she shook her head. "We'd better get back," she said, her lips still at mine. "Fuckin' shame." She gave me one more peck and then stood up. Lila looked so pretty in her dress.

I took her hand.

The fireworks turned out to be a home-rigged setup by some local townie by the name of Earl. "He does it every year!" sister Judith said.

I was alarmed that he wasn't trying to shoot his glorified bottle rockets over water. The only sizable body of water around was that river, and it wasn't a huge river, but no one else seemed the slightest bit concerned about fire. Apparently nothing bad had happened in previous years.

They were nice enough to watch, I admit. Earl waited until it was truly dark before he started shooting them off—appropriately enough because his "fireworks" weren't all that big or impressive even in the dark. Lila and I took the opportunity in the shadow of night to snuggle, eventually wrapping ourselves in the blanket we were sitting on when the air grew slightly chilly. The other family members had also snuggled up for warmth. At one point, I noticed that Eliza had Esther's baby wrapped up with her in a blanket, snuggled up to her chest. It sort of looked like the baby's face was pressed up against Eliza's big boob, and her boob looked like it might've been bare under the blanket—that seemed a little weird. I figured it might be just the way she held babies, or something. I tried not to look that direction anymore.

The bright, flashing lights were mostly pretty. The crowd gathered gave its obligatory "oohs" and "ahhs," although I was pretty sure that Earl, camped a few hundred feet away, couldn't hear—the sound of his little rockets taking off and the bangs they made in the sky probably drowned us out. I liked the way the explosions would light up Lila's face a little; I just liked looking at her. And I really liked being snuggled up with her, warm and cozy. The fact that we were together like this in public, even in the dark, was kind of a thrill, too.

And, maybe watching these small but potent explosions in the sky reminded me of feelings I was having, feelings that were new and sudden but somehow comfortable and welcome.

I woke up the next day wondering: how long until 11 AM?

11 AM was the time that the "family ice cream social" was going to officially start, and Lila had been insistent about my invitation. I had been a little concerned about the fact that I hadn't met her dad and possibly some more sisters or cousins, but she didn't seem to care at all.

So now it was 10:30 AM, July 4th. I didn't bother saying anything to my mom. I got through my shower routine, put on shorts and a t-shirt, and headed out.

It's amazing that I found my way to the Summerall homestead. Sure, Lila had given me directions—as had Esther, and Mrs. Summerall. But still: they were using names I didn't know, directions that didn't make complete sense to me. I remember walking in the morning sun for what seemed like quite a while. Finally I found myself approaching this one particular farm-looking sort of property and saw a sign on a fence confirming I'd found Summerall Ranch. (Later, I was admonished that there is a clear difference between a farm and a ranch, but I'm from the suburbs, come on.)

Esther was the first one I recognized. Her sister Eliza was with her too, but Esther, with a smiling face, waved me in. "I'm so happy you're here, Billy!"

I was urged to just walk into the main house, an old ranchhouse kind of building. I met Mr. Summerall, and Judith's husband, Elijah. They were friendly enough, but they seemed intent on smoking cigars on the back porch and staring into space, only occasionally uttering a phrase or two about hunting. I could smell traces of horse manure (though I didn't actually see any horses) and other faint animal smells.

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