My name is Virginia McCullough. I am an author…and a rape survivor. Although my attack occurred many years ago, in the ‘70s, the ripple effects of that single incident remain with me today. That’s why I am donating a portion of proceeds from my book, Amber Light, to The National Sexual Violence Resource Center to help end domestic abuse and sexual assault.
Why this book? Amber Light, my fourth novel, is dedicated to those who have survived this kind of assault and in memory of those whose lives were stolen. But it is also a tribute to those who devote their careers and volunteer time to helping the victims of sexual assault with the process of healing and moving forward in their lives.
Amber Light is the fictional story of Sarah, a young woman who becomes pregnant after being sexually assaulted. In this book, I follow Sarah from age 18 to 26, chronicling her journey of healing to once again embrace life.
I once spoke to a survivor who had finally told a counselor what had happened to her almost 20 years earlier, when she was still a teenager. This woman had carried that secret all those years. Sadly, that happened far too often—I hope less so today, because of increased attention and public awareness.
Note from the author: I consider this section not only a pivotal part of the book, but in a very real way it’s my homage, a tribute, to the staff and volunteers at the Rape Center in Asheville, North Carolina, the facility where I was an on-call volunteer for several years. It’s also a tribute to the women who broke their silence and told their stories.
Setting the scene: Eighteen-year-old Sarah Whitmore works as a pool attendant at resort on Hansen’s Island, but so far she’s refused to talk about the father of her baby. That’s about to change…
“You must tell me what happened—today,” Lillian said. “Who is the baby’s father, Sarah?”
I could have argued with her, but I didn’t bother. I knew I couldn’t keep my secret forever. But even the nurse-midwives at the Beaufort clinic didn’t know the truth. I stepped aside to let Lillian in. Then, without thinking too much or even bothering to sit down, I blurted out the short version.
She closed her eyes for just a second. Then, she wrapped her arms around me and rubbed my back while she held me in a tight hug. When she let me go, it was only to grab the phone book.
Lillian found the number she was looking for on the first page. She took her cell phone out of her pocket and I stood back as I watched her punch in the numbers. I listened while she asked the person who answered the call if she could bring someone in right away.
Lillian didn’t give me a chance to say no. She took me by the hand and said we would take her car. When I asked where we were going, she told me not to worry, that it would be okay.
Thirty minutes later, I was in a quiet office, sinking into the cushions of an overstuffed chair. A woman named Wanda handed me a glass of water and then sat in an identical chair opposite me. I drank half the glass of water before I told her a boy named Josh was my baby’s father. Then, in a voice barely above a whisper, she started asking questions.
“I only wanted to belong,” was my answer to the first one. I gulped down the rest of the water in the glass and wondered why I’d said that.
Wanda leaned forward, folded her hands across her knees, and searched my eyes. Her nails were the color of cranberries, her skin a warm brown like walnuts. I nearly giggled out loud about comparing the way she looked to food, but since I liked both cranberries and walnuts, I considered it a compliment.
“So, you’re saying you were an outsider?” Wanda asked.
I nodded, but I wished I’d started the story in some other place. The question she’d asked was how I happened to be with Josh the night I got pregnant. My answer popped out before I thought about it.
Wanda grabbed a yellow legal pad and pen off the end table and looked prepared to write. “So, being with him was part of belonging? Was he a real popular guy at school or something?”
I shrugged and shook my head. “Not so much. My friend Teresa fixed me up. I didn’t date, you see, because my dad wouldn’t let me until senior year, but by then, all the kids had paired up or were part of a group. Except for Teresa, I didn’t know my classmates all that well. Going out with Josh gave me a chance to belong to a group, even if they weren’t the most popular kids. I thought I could be part of a crowd until we graduated.”
I crossed my arms and pulled them tight under my breasts. The air conditioning blew cold air at me, making goose bumps rise on my arms. I started shivering and couldn’t stop.
Wanda grabbed a white crocheted shawl out of the basket next to her chair and handed it to me. “I think I understand,” she said.
I shook out the folds and wrapped it around my shoulders. “But he didn’t rape me on that first date. That came later.”
Like Lillian, Wanda closed her eyes for a second or two. Then she let out a long sigh as she put her clipboard and pen back down on the table. “Why don’t we back up for just a minute. Maybe you could start by telling me how you happen to be down here in Beaufort with your aunt and uncle rather than in Wisconsin with your parents? You’re a long way from home. We can work back to what happened.”
“My Aunt Lillian invited me to come down and live in the apartment over her garage. She’s the one who made me come here today.”
I’d never have gone to the Crisis Center on my own. I’d avoided talking about Josh for as long as I could, and Lillian let me stay silent about it for most of the summer. But in the car on the way to the center she’d said, “It isn’t good for you to keep this locked up inside you.”
“I’m glad your aunt brought you here today,” Wanda said. “She mentioned you’d never told anyone about this—not even your mother?”
“No, I always knew I would talk about it one day, but I wasn’t ready.” I wrapped the long fringe of the shawl around my fingers. “I try not to think about it—I don’t want to scare the baby with bad thoughts.”
Wanda nodded as if she understood and then asked me questions for a while, in order, she said, to get a fuller picture of what happened. She was a clinical psychologist, so she could help me like a therapist would. I could talk to her more freely once she assured me that everything I said would be confidential. But describing what happened was harder than I thought and I stumbled over my words.
“Why don’t you begin at the point you think is most important,” Wanda said.
For me, it started the day the whole school heard about Josh and his girlfriend, Heather, breaking up. A few days after that, Teresa asked him if he’d like to be fixed up with me. I agreed to go out with him because I never went out on Saturday nights and wanted a chance to see what I’d been missing.
I met Teresa, her boyfriend, Keith, and Josh at the pizza place downtown. When we all walked in together, other kids stopped what they were doing and watched us pass by. They lowered their voices and the room filled with a low buzz. It felt mysterious somehow. No one had ever gossiped about me and a boy before. I tried to enjoy it and feel important, but then Heather, Josh’s old girlfriend, came in with a group of girls. They watched our table and suddenly, I wanted to go sit with her.
“Josh was boring,” I said, “and with Keith around, Teresa didn’t act like herself either. I didn’t know Heather, but it looked like she and her friends were having lots of fun. Josh watched her table the whole time. Turns out, going out with another girl’s ex-boyfriend wasn’t much fun.”
“But you went out with him again?” Wanda frowned and twisted her mouth to one side to show that she was perplexed.
“Uh huh. I was that stupid.”
“Let’s not do that, Sarah. Whatever happened, you weren’t and aren’t stupid.”
“Maybe so, but what I did was dumb. I went out with Josh again just because he asked me. I didn’t like him very much, and when he kissed me on that first date while we were standing at my car, I really didn’t like him. His mouth was wet and tasted like onions.”
I explained that Cedar Lake High School wasn’t very big. Everyone knew my dad didn’t let me go out. I worked at the store, and that job, getting good grades, and swimming were my life. I drew pictures when I was alone in my room, but I never told anyone about that.
“This is going to sound really silly, but I thought I’d have a few pretend dates before I left for college—where I was going to start, you know, my real life.”
Wanda smiled. “Lots of young people think going away to college is the beginning of their real life. You weren’t alone to think that.”
I sat up straight and took a deep breath. “But that’s over now. I have a different life because I went out with Josh a second time.”
“A life here—with your aunt and uncle?”
“And the baby.”
On the second date, I’d met Teresa, Keith, and Josh at a burger place high school kids liked to go to outside of town. After we’d eaten, Josh asked if I’d like to go to his house for a beer. His parents had gone up north to their cabin for the weekend, and he said they wouldn’t notice if a few bottles were missing. Drinking with friends was another thing I hadn’t done during high school, and I figured one beer wouldn’t hurt. I’d still be able to drive home.
When I finally got to the important part, I wrinkled my nose because I could almost smell the lavender again. Josh and I had been sitting next to each other on the couch and I took gulps of beer out of the bottle to give myself something to do. I liked the taste of beer, so it wasn’t hard to stay occupied with it. We weren’t talking about anything in particular, and Josh opened a second beer before I’d finished my first. He drank it fast.
The whole thing started when he set his second empty bottle on the coffee table and grabbed mine out of my hand even though I wasn’t done. He turned quickly and with one hand he gave me a quick push back on the couch and jammed his mouth down on my lips. I twisted away from him, but that’s when I breathed in the scent of lavender coming from the couch cushion. I turned my head away from the smell but then my mouth collided with his. The cold wetness of him made me want to throw up. I tasted beer coming up from the back of my throat.
I told Wanda how much it hurt when he grabbed at me under my sweater and pinched my nipple through the thin cotton of my bra. I pushed at him, but he dragged his mouth back and forth across mine and tried to get his tongue between my teeth. Every time I escaped his slimy lips, the stink of the lavender got in my nose and I’d struggle to get away from it.
I stopped to take a breath and looked at Wanda. “I don’t remember how he smelled, but I get nauseated if I get the faintest whiff of lavender in my nose. That probably sounds silly.”
“Not at all,” Wanda whispered, “not at all.”
“I can’t get that smell out of my mind, or how cold and wet his mouth was, either. But maybe kissing is just something you have to get used to.”
Wanda shook her head. “We can talk more about that later. You said you tried to get him off of you. Did you yell at him, tell him to stop, tell him no?”
“When he wasn’t pressing down on my mouth I managed to tell him he was hurting me. I wasn’t thinking that he’d rape me. I wanted him to stop kissing and pinching me. I didn’t think beyond that, but all of a sudden he reached up under my skirt—that was another stupid thing, you know, wearing a skirt.”
Leaning in closer, Wanda spoke in a reassuring voice. “We’ll talk about that later, too. Tell me what happened next?”
“I remember shivering some,” I said, pulling the shawl tighter around me. “His hand felt like an ice cube on my skin. And then I felt this sharp, cutting pain on my thigh. I pushed at him, but he wouldn’t get off me, and then he reached way under my skirt and yanked my panties down and pushed my knee up. Then he shoved himself inside me. That hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as that other pain on my thigh. I jerked around to get him off of me and I kicked at his leg with my free foot. I’m sure my big boot left a bruise, but he didn’t budge until he was, you know, done.”
I said all that so fast I could feel my pulse on the sides of my head, as if my heart had moved way up there. I looked down at my lap and stared at the inside seam on my white jeans. “But the worst part was the pain on my thigh. That, and the stinking lavender. I twisted away from the back cushion when he finally got off of me.”
Wanda winced and rubbed her nose, as if she could smell lavender in the air, too. But I kept on going and told her that when Josh pulled up his pants and went into the kitchen, I rolled off the cushion and landed on my hands and knees between the couch and the coffee table. When I straightened up, I felt a sticky liquid running down my leg. When I looked down at myself, I saw blood smeared across ragged, raw scratches on my right thigh. I assumed they came from the zipper on his pants. When I stood, one side of my panties was stuck around my boot, so I pulled them all the way off and wiped away the blood.
“I felt this big rush of…I guess it was relief. I figured that all the wetness was only blood, so I told myself he’d probably managed to put on a condom. Later I realized it had been a bunch of wishful thinking.”
I clasped my hands together to keep them from shaking. “Then Josh came back in the room with two more beers and held one out to me, but I said I was leaving. When he came toward me, I held up my hand and hollered at him to back off.”
He’d put the bottles on the coffee table and moved in closer. “Hey, don’t be so fuckin’ unfriendly. You wanted to be here with me—you know, alone.”
He’d reached out and grabbed at my arm. I yanked it free, but I lost my balance. I fell back and banged into the doorjamb. Thinking about it again made me rub the spot where my shoulder had hit the wood. It had taken a couple of weeks for the red and purple bruise to fade away.
“I yelled at him, asking him a couple of times why he hadn’t stopped when I kicked him. And I did kick him—hard.”
Wanda made more notes on the legal pad and then looked up again. “What did he say when you confronted him?”
“Nothing. But he had a sneer on his face when he put his hand above me and leaned on the wall, like he was trapping me. But I ducked under his arm and reached for my coat off the chair where I’d dropped it. Then I yanked the door open and ran out.” I told Wanda that I’d left a puddle of vomit under the tree next to the driveway before getting in my car and driving home.
“And you’ve never told anyone this before.”
“No, never.” I closed my eyes, but quickly opened them again, hoping I could shake off the memory of french fries and beer spewing out of my mouth and landing on patches of dirty snow under the tree. “I’ve never said any of it out loud before. Josh can’t ever know about the baby—ever. What if he tells his parents and they want to see the baby? That can’t happen.”
Wanda laid her cranberry fingertips lightly on my knees. Usually I flinched if strangers touched me, but with her it was okay.
“How do you feel now that you’ve finally put what happened to you into words and let the secret out?”
My arms and legs tingled and I heard buzzing inside my ears that got louder and louder. I wrapped one arm around the fattest part of my stomach and covered my eyes with my other hand. “I don’t know, but I still hate the smell of lavender.”
The force behind the burst of sobs doubled me over. I made a noise that might have sounded like a tiny scream. I covered my eyes and cried into my palms, then lifted my head and let out a long, low moan. And then I leaned forward and buried my face in my hands.
Wanda stayed quiet during the worst of the sobbing, and when I’d calmed a bit, she took my elbow and helped me out of the chair and led me to a couch where she gently arranged me on my side. I curled my knees as high as they’d go against my thick stomach. She handed me a wad of tissues and when I turned them into soggy shreds she handed me more.
Finally, I caught my breath and struggled to sit up. “I think I might be sick. My stomach feels weird.”
She looked around the room, then grabbed a vase filled with dried roses off her desk. After dumping the flowers into the wastebasket, she handed me the vase just in time for me to throw up the orange juice and whole-wheat toast I’d had for breakfast. I wiped my mouth with a tissue.
Wanda rubbed my shoulder and smoothed my hair. “You stay here and rest, Sarah. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Giving into the darkness behind my swollen eyes, I put my head down and sank into the comforting softness of the cushions.
Amber Light is available in both print and digital formats at Amazon and Barnes&Noble. Since the book’s launch in 2014, Virginia McCullough has used proceeds from her book sales to benefit assault victims. Her April campaign is a way to join the other individuals, groups and organizations working to educate the public about domestic violence and sexual assault.
About the Author:
Born and raised in Chicago, Virginia started her writing career when her family moved to the coast of Maine and she began writing articles on many topics, including family living, children’s literature, business, and women’s issues. Over the last three decades Virginia has written or “rewritten” well over 125 books and edited many more. Virginia is a long-time member of the Authors Guild and in the early 1990s, she served on the Executive Board of the National Writers Union (NWU). As a member of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) and several affiliate chapters, Virginia has held numerous service positions.
Learn more about multipublished author Virginia McCullough online at www.virginiamccullough.com.