In this riveting, heartfelt debut, a young woman assumes a new name to escape her dark past and find the redemption she desperately seeks.
Venus Black is a straitlaced A student fascinated by the study of astronomy—until the night she commits a shocking crime that tears her family apart and ignites a media firestorm. Venus refuses to talk about what happened or why, except to blame her mother. Adding to the mystery, Venus’s developmentally challenged younger brother, Leo, goes missing.
More than five years later, Venus is released from prison with a suitcase of used clothes, a fake identity, and a determination to escape her painful past. Estranged from her mother, and with her beloved brother still missing, she sets out to make a fresh start in Seattle, skittish and alone. But as new people enter her orbit—including a romantic interest and a young girl who seems like a mirror image of her former lost self—old wounds resurface, and Venus realizes that she can’t find a future while she’s running from her past.
In this gripping story, debut novelist Heather Lloyd brilliantly captures ordinary lives thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Told through a constellation of captivating voices, My Name Is Venus Black explores the fluidity of right and wrong, the pain of betrayal, and the meaning of love and family.
I could swear I’m in some weird dream or movie, but that can’t be true because the burning sensation between my legs is way too real. Now I know how babies feel when they don’t get their diaper changed. I’m trying to hide what happened beneath my winter coat, but how long can I last?
A female cop and a cranky older detective in plain clothes are trying to interview me, but I’m sobbing so much it’s not going well. They keep saying things like, “Calm down.” “Take a deep breath.” “We can’t understand what you’re saying.”
But I can’t calm down. A bubble of horror has enveloped my brain and left me hysterical.
I make it about five more minutes before pain trumps pride. “I think I wet my pants,” I sputter, looking at the female officer.
She’s blond and prettier than my idea of a woman cop. She stands up. “Let me take Venus for a few minutes,” she says to the man. I don’t get up until she is standing by my chair. I feel like a small child as she leads me to a ladies’ room and tells me to wait inside for her.
The door locks behind me. I use one of the metal stalls, which remind me of the ones in my junior high. When I’m done, I go to the sink to wash. In the mirror, my face glistens with tears and mucus, my eyes are swollen half shut, and my hair is flying everywhere in an enormous black tangle. Then I remember I’ve been madly pulling at it.
Pretty soon, the female cop returns, holding a pair of blue pants that look like pajama bottoms with ties in the front. They’re way too big, but it’s a huge relief to get out of my soaked jeans.
When she leads me back to the interview room, calmer now, I see that Inez is seated off to the side. Has my mother been here the whole time? “I want her out of here,” I say, trembling with anger. And then louder, “I want her out! She’s the one you should arrest!”
Inez looks white as a sheet, like she’s seen a ghost, which I guess isn’t too far off. She exchanges whispers with the male cop and then leaves the room.
After she’s gone, the police try again. They start out with easy questions about my friends at school. I try to cooperate. I admit what I did. But when they want to know details and why, I clam up. “I can’t remember,” I say.
“You mean you don’t want to,” says the old guy.
In the morning, I wake up at Denney Juvenile Justice Center. I’ve heard of plenty of kids getting sent here, but they were always rough, older, criminal types. The kind who dropped out of school, sold drugs to kids, or stabbed each other and stuff like that. The kind who scare me.
When I learned last night that I’d be locked up here, my knees shook like Mexican jumping beans. “I’m only thirteen,” I pleaded. “I get straight A’s! I’ve never gotten drunk, or smoked pot, or even skipped a class. At school I hang out with the smart girls’ group.” But even my biggest achievement—“Last year I was Citizen of the Week a record six times!”—didn’t change anyone’s mind about where I belonged.
At Denney, breakfast is served in a small cafeteria that reminds me of our school’s. I go through the buffet line and then find the table with the fewest people and try to send out a vibe that says, Don’t even think about sitting here.
While I eat, random, bizarre details from last night flash in my mind. Like how good it felt when one of the cops gently laid his hand on my head as he guided me into his police car. For a second there, it seemed like he was rescuing me instead of arresting me. And this one: When the car I was riding in pulled away from our house on Rockefeller, I saw the garage door wide open, lit up like a giant TV and neighbors gathered around like someone should make popcorn.
I should be too upset to eat, but I’m starving. The toast is spread with what I’m pretty sure is real butter, not margarine. I wolf down the scrambled eggs even though they come in a square that leaks water.
While I eat, I wonder what my friends are thinking—or if they’ve heard what happened yet. Who is my best friend, Jackie, going to sit with at lunch today? I’m dying to call her, but I’m sure they won’t let me.
Since I might be here for a while, I hope they’ll let Jackie pick up all my assignments from school and bring them to me. I don’t want to fall behind.
It hurts to think of my teachers, because I know they won’t understand. Over the years, I’ve always been teacher’s pet, and now I can just hear them saying, “Venus Black? But she was one of my favorite students! And always such a nice girl.”
Inez would probably beg to differ with nice. She likes to remind me that smart isn’t the same as nice. She also insists that I have two personalities, one for school, and one for at home. Every time she comes back from a parent-teacher conference, she tells me how surprised she was to hear what a pleasure I am to have in class.
So maybe I’m not a pleasure to have at home. But did she ever think there might be a reason for that?
After breakfast, a guard brings me to a room half-filled with toys. My mother is seated in one of two blue plastic chairs situated next to a messy desk.
Part of me wants to rush into her arms and plead with her to get me out of here. I want her to comfort me and tell me it will be all right. But a bigger part of me wants her to know how much I blame her for what happened.
She must feel the same way, because she doesn’t get up or try to hug me. All she says is, “Venus.”
“Inez,” I say right back.
Before I sit down across from her, I make a big show of scooting my chair farther back from hers. Like she smells bad or something. Right off, I notice how horrible she looks. Her eyes are red and raw, and her face is all puffy like mashed potatoes. She’s clutching a white hanky that belonged to her father back in Greece, which she knows I think is super gross. It’s the eighties! Who still uses a handkerchief?
At first, she is all motherly and worried. She asks how they’re treating me, if I’m okay, and if I got breakfast. For a second there, she’s my old mom again, and her seemingly genuine concern threatens to crack my anger.
“Aren’t you going to talk to me, Venus? Are you really just going to sit there?”
That’s when I realize she’s suggested a good strategy. Just because you put me in a room with Inez doesn’t mean I have to talk to her. Which is something I never thought about before, how you can force people to do a lot of things, but speaking isn’t one of them. You can’t grab someone’s jaw and move it up and down and make words come out.
Eventually I hear her say, “How could you do this, Venus?”
How can she even ask that? She already knows the answer. Clearly she’s planning to act like she has no idea, so people won’t realize how easily she could have stopped this.
I continue trying to block out her words, but it’s hard to miss when she refers to Raymond. She’s trying to explain, trying to defend herself. “You didn’t give me a chance, Venus.”
What is she talking about? I gave her all the chance in the world. I manage to tune her out again for a while, until I can tell she’s getting angry. “You better smarten up right now, young lady,” she scolds. “Damn it. I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me.”
It’s a ridiculous thing to say, because she didn’t help me when she could have. I glare at her, hoping she’ll guess what I’m thinking, but she’s looking down at her hands.
I used to think Inez was pretty, in a Cher sort of way. I was always jealous of her straight black hair because I hated my wild curls. When people said we looked alike, I thought that meant I was beautiful, like her. But now I know it only means we both have black hair, the same Greek nose, and the same darkish eyelids.
Sitting here watching Inez’s mouth move, I notice she’s been chewing on her lips again. Small pieces of flesh stick up like bits of plastic in her bright-orange lipstick. The lipstick flashes me back to when I was little and she’d ask the Avon lady for lots of those tiny white tubes of lipstick samples so I could play with them later. But that’s a happy memory, so I squash it.
“Okay. Be that way, Venus,” I hear her say. “That’s fine if you’re angry at me. But for your own sake, we need to discuss your defense.”
I want to scream, My defense? What is your defense?
How does Leo do it? My little brother is so good at ignoring people that he should be in the Guinness Book of World Records. But they’d probably disqualify him, because he has something wrong with him that makes it easy for him to pretend you’re not there.
Leo is seven but acts more like he’s three or four. He has what Inez calls “developmental issues,” probably because he was born too early. My stepdad, Raymond, was super disappointed when Leo didn’t turn into a regular little boy. But Leo’s always just been Leo to me. So what if he makes weird noises and doesn’t want to be touched? He likes things to stay the same, and sometimes, he throws big tantrums. But really he’s the sweetest thing, which is hard to believe when you think about where he came from.
When I trace my life back to make it so Inez never met or married Raymond, I always get stuck here. Because what would I do without Leo?
By this point, Inez is actually crying and pleading with me to talk to her. I’m not used to seeing her this way, and it makes me uncomfortable. It’s like I have more power than she does. And in a way, it’s true. Here I’ve gone and done the worst thing in my life and she can’t even ground me.
No wonder she’s so upset.
After a while, she stops crying and begins staring at me in this weird way. When she gathers her purse off the floor, I think she’s getting ready to leave and I’m so relieved because it takes a lot of work not to talk to somebody.
Instead, she leans forward in her chair and whispers to me like it’s a secret question, “Venus, are you even a little bit sorry for what you did?”
When I don’t answer, she gets this frozen look on her face and makes a strange little gasping sound. Then she stumbles from the room like she’s drunk or blind.
Or like she can’t wait to get away from me.
Leo wakes up in a bed that is not his bed. The bedspread is the wrong color of green. Where is his blue bedspread? He can’t stop seeing last night. His mother is crying. She makes him get in a strange truck with the lady called Shirley. He knows Shirley, but this time she has pink plastic things all over her head.
Soon the woman called Shirley comes into the room where Leo is, only now she looks different. The plastic things are gone and her hair is curly and the wrong yellow.
“Good morning, Leo!” she says too loud. “Remember me? From when I came to your house and babysat you.”
“I want my mom,” Leo says.
“Remember? She had an emergency and asked me to watch you for a while.”
Leo doesn’t know the word emergency. He ignores the lady and her talking until she asks if he needs the bathroom. He does. After he is done, he washes his hands like he’s been taught. The towel is the wrong color. Shirley is waiting for him when he comes out.
He goes back to the room with the bed. So does the curly lady.
Leo asks, “Where is Venus? Where is my mom?”
He might have what his mother calls “a big tantrum.” He had a big tantrum last night.
“I’m sorry, Leo,” the lady says. “You will see your mom soon. She’s going to stay here for a while, too. She’ll sleep right out there in the living room on the couch. She’s not here now, but she will be. And, look, she gave me some of your favorite things. See?” She points to the floor by the bed. Leo sees some of his toys. “Your mom even brought your blanket,” she adds, holding out his purple blanket. He needs it to ride in a car or when he wants to be in his closet.
He takes the blanket, sits on the bed, and rocks while the lady keeps talking. He blocks out her voice. He puts his head between his knees because he hears the scary sounds from last night. The fire trucks hurt his ears. So many people were yelling and there were red feelings everywhere.
My cell has white cement walls, a plain metal cot, and a small wooden cupboard for clothes. Obviously, someone—a cop, or Inez?—has raided my dresser at home and picked out a small wardrobe for me. Seeing a bra and undies in the mix makes me angry. The thought of someone pawing through my drawers.
When I look for my shoes, I can only find a pair of ugly white sneakers with Velcro, like my little brother, Leo, wears, since he can’t tie his shoes. They’re the right size, so I put them on.
We’re also given a notepad and a few pencils without erasers. I don’t know why. Do they think I might want to write home like I’m away at summer camp?
It turns out they let you leave your cell during the day and hang out in what they call the common area, where there are couches, tables, and a TV. I plan to just stay in my room, though. I already know I don’t want to make any friends in here.
But instead of sitting in my room all day, all of a sudden it’s like I’m this important person with lots of meetings to attend. Everyone wants to talk to me—including a geezer guy with enormous nostrils who is my lawyer, a woman doctor named Barbara, and a young-looking caseworker who asks me to call him Officer Andy.
Excerpted from My Name Is Venus Black by Heather Lloyd. Copyright © 2018 by Heather Lloyd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the Author
Heather Lloyd, who has spent many years working as an editor and writing coach, lives with her husband in New York City. My Name Is Venus Black is her first novel.