Twisted

Twisted

Marjorie Brody

March 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-256-9

Sarah Hausman must hide a secret--even from herself. If she acknowledges the truth, it will destroy everyone she loves.

 
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Sarah Hausman must hide a secret—even from herself. If she acknowledges the truth, it will destroy everyone she loves.

Timid fourteen-year-old Sarah wants her controlling mother to stop prying into what happened the night of the freshman dance. Confess to the police? No way. Confide in her mother? Get real. The woman is too busy, too proud, and too jealous of Sarah to really care if her life disintegrates. Besides, her mother will say Sarah is totally to blame for what the boys did—which Sarah believes is true. So she doubly needs to shield the truth. Not just from Momma. But from everyone. Including herself.
Beautiful, confident, eighteen-year-old Judith Murielle lives the ideal life. She has college plans, respect from family and friends, and a fiancé she adores. But as a mysterious connection pulls her toward Sarah, Judith's perfect world unravels. Acting as Sarah's sole confidante, Judith gains the power to expose her secret. Will the truth be worth the sacrifice? Or will Sarah stop at nothing to keep Judith quiet?

Marjorie Brody, an award-winning short story author and Pushcart Prize Nominee, crafts a riveting debut novel of psychological suspense with a shocking twist. A former psychotherapist, she now writes fulltime. Visit her at www.marjoriespages.com.

 

Reviews

"Marjorie Brody comes to writing by way of psychotherapy, and she commands her characters with a smart and sensible application of her knowledge of the human personality. And, as if a compelling story and true-to-life characters weren’t enough, Twisted sets off several firecrackers toward the end that will bowl over even the most well-balanced readers." -- Red City Reviews

"Twisted is a compelling story… Beyond the thrill of suspense, Twisted also offers a glimpse of the resilience of the human spirit and our ability to heal even the worst hurts." -- Suzette Stoks, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist

"Marjorie Brody handles family dysfunction the way a top-notch surgeon handles a scalpel.” —Robin Allen, author of the Poppy Markham: Culinary Cop mystery series

"TWISTED is a stunning psychological suspense novel . . . The story illuminates the staggering twists and turns in seemingly ‘normal’ families of yearning teenagers and their equally yearning mothers and fathers.”—Lori Gordon, Ph.D., Founder of PAIRS, author of Passage to Intimacy and If You Really Loved Me

"Unforgettable." —Sharon Sala, New York Times Bestselling Author

 

 

Excerpt

 

Chapter 1

Sarah

"TEACHERS DIDN’T see you sneak out, did they, Sarah?” Howard Blake’s whisper reached out to me, coaxing me deeper into the darkness.

"Don’t think so.” My voice—thin as tracing paper—disintegrated in the night air. Maybe before it even reached the night air. What was I doing?

Evening had stolen all the blue from the sky, draping it in veiled shades of black. The lone glimmer of light, a slender, curved moon high overhead, dangled among sooty clouds. Pastor Johnson wouldn’t like me being here. He’d add this transgression to my growing list of sins. "We shouldn’t do this. Not here.”

"We have to. Please, Sarah.” The quiver in Howard’s plea reminded me of a bluegrass guitar, its strings vibrating long after being plucked.

Behind me, muffled chords from Faith Hill’s "There You’ll Be” leaked from the gym, tempting me back to the dance floor. Inside me, adrenaline bubbled like a shaken bottle of Dr. Pepper, its foam out of control, making me dizzy with risk. Dizzy—and excited.

"Please-please-please.” Howard pressed his palms together and held them in front of his lips. "You can’t leave.”

"Don’t worry,” I said to calm his nervousness. And mine.

Applause skidded into the night. New music. Louder. Faster. Matching my heartbeat.

"We can’t stay here,” Howard said. "They’ll find us.”

Sport jacket sleeves draped to his fingertips. Pant cuffs bunched in excess around his ankles. Poor Howard. Daddy had splurged on my strapless dress. Howard got stuck with his brother’s hand-me-downs. He fiddled with the longhorn bolo on his braided leather necktie, slid it up and down, the tarnished bull more confident than either of us.

"I know a good spot,” he said.

A thicket of clouds slid across the moon and masked its light.

"It’s too dark now,” I said, glad to have an excuse to go back inside.

"Don’t chicken out. You can follow the wall.” Howard slipped deeper into the night. Only his voice stayed close. "Come on, you promised.”

A promise was a promise, Daddy would say. Your word, your actions, reflect the honesty of your character.

I didn’t feel honest sneaking out like this, but I reminded myself of my goal. And, it was only this once. What could one time hurt?

Filling my lungs with the late spring air, I breathed in my resolve. I could do this. I would do this. I dragged my fingers along Canonville High’s prickly bricks, arched my feet and inched forward on tiptoes—Momma’d have a fit if my imitation Valentino heels sank into the dirt.

"Let’s dance right here,” I said when I reached the corner of the building. Field crickets sounded a Morse code. Chirp-chirp-chirp, scratch-scratch-scratch, chirp-chirp-chirp. My feet anchored with their call. "We don’t have to go farther.”

"We’re almost there, come on. I chose the perfect place. You’ll see.”

Who would’ve thought learning to dance would be so important to a guy like Howard, but fitting in, being accepted—geez, just to feel normal—I understood all that. If dancing was the answer for Howard, I had to help him.

"Wait up, Howard.” My toes crushed against the front of my shoes as I hurried to stay close.

Halfway along the back of the building, he stopped. If this was Howard’s perfect place to dance, he knew less than I thought. I didn’t expect strobe lights, and there weren’t any stars, but even the field lights along the west side of the running track offered no glow. Town vandals had once again used them as target practice, leaving each bulb atop its pole, exposed and shattered.

Thankfully, the moon peeped out from behind knobby clouds, providing pale—if unreliable—light. "We’ll start with the basics,” I told him. "You’ll pick up the steps faster than Mr. Nobel can give out tardy slips.”

"They told me you’d be special.” He turned his head down, his eyes unable to meet mine.

I hadn’t meant to embarrass him, but wow, I could do that to a guy? A warm haze replaced my shimmying insides. I lowered my chin, gave him a mock frown. "Who told you I was special?”

My tone came out way too flirty. I quickly added, "I’m curious, that’s all.”

None of the freshman girls talked with Howard. Except me. A little. So, if they said I was special, maybe I shouldn’t have worried about dancing with him in front of them.

Nope. Too risky. Got enough judgment from Momma. Didn’t need any from uppity classmates. But here? Behind the gym? Where nobody would see? I could be nice. I could be a friend. And not because my boyfriend—the real love-of-my-life—was at home, not even knowing how I felt about him, but because everybody needed a friend. A special friend. Even Howard.

"Didn’t think you’d really come.”

"Me neither.” Giddiness toyed with me. Kinda nice, kinda weird, relaxing my shoulders, stretching my smile.

He stabbed the ground with the point of his boot. "Glad you’re here.”

I was glad too, but I didn’t say that. I just hoped he didn’t step on my toes with those clodhoppers—how’d I explain that dirt to Momma? I didn’t say that either. "Should we start?”

Howard leaned up to give me a kiss. He smelled of licorice.

I turned my face—not from the smell, but because Pastor Johnson said it wasn’t right to let a boy have more than a cheek kiss.

"Hey, don’t be so selfish.”

"I’m not.” Leastways, I didn’t mean to be.

"Don’t pretend. You know you want to.”

Did I? Confusion formed like delicate dewdrops. "I... I... " Did I really?

Maybe.

No.

Yes.

No! I wasn’t like that. My throat constricted as I strained to keep my voice neutral. "You wanted to dance.”

"Just one kiss. One kiss won’t hurt.”

I touched my lips with my fingertips. How would it feel, a boy’s lips on mine? Gentle and sweet. Loving, like in the movies. Howard could be like a secret admirer. No one would have to know—but me, of course—and my kindness to him would change him from frog into prince.

He leaned up again, and the dewdrops evaporated. I let him kiss me.

Sloppy wet lips covered mine. Then a slobbery tongue dove into my mouth. Yuk. I pulled away. He pushed his hands against the back of my head, pressing it forward, and thrust his body against mine. My back scraped against the building, but I worried about my new dress more than my bare skin. If the rough bricks chafed the material, Momma’d be furious. She’d complain about Daddy spending all that money and me not being respectful of what he gave me.

I pushed Howard away.

He reached out and squeezed my right breast. "Wow, you’ve really got nice ones.”

I smacked his hand. "What do you think you’re doing?”

"Isn’t this why you’re here? To have a little fun?”

Pity for him vanished. "I’m going inside.” I adjusted the top of my dress. How dare he? A kiss was one thing, but a feel? He could stay a frog forever.

I spun to my right.

Three boys stood not a bus length away.

Heat radiated up my neck, stung my cheeks. I hoped they hadn’t seen us kissing. The guy on the left played on the Turnbull High football team. My friend Emily had pointed him out at the last game. He didn’t need shoulder pads to look broad-shouldered. Or tough. Being from Turnbull, he wasn’t supposed to attend our dance. The others didn’t go to our school, either. One wore a letter jacket, so he wasn’t even a freshman. The one in the middle wore a white dinner jacket with black trim. When it sunk in they weren’t from our school and wouldn’t know who we were, I breathed easier.

"Howard couldn’t satisfy you, could he, gorgeous?” The one in white poked the guy next to him with his elbow. "I told you he’d never pass the test.”

Letter Jacket spread his hands. "Guess you don’t get into the club, Howie-boy.”

"What club?” I glared at Howard. "You know these guys?”

His fists clamped at his side, and he ignored me. "I was just getting started and you shit-heads showed up.”

The football player cocked his head. "Who you calling shit-head, Howie-boy?”

"You didn’t give me enough time. Come oooon.” Howard whined like a cat in pain. "I copped a good feel.”

Copped a feel? Sparks of rage flew through my limbs.

"Her nipple got hard—I felt it. I was getting her hot. Hot. And she wanted more—I could tell.”

I punched my fists against my hips. "In your dreams.” Now I was hot.

The football player pointed a thumb over his shoulder. "Get lost.”

"But you promised,” Howard pleaded.

"Get the hell out of here.”

Howard slouched and lowered his head.

The football player stomped a foot in Howard’s direction. "Now!” The word smacked the air.

Howard scampered off, his steps slapping the ground as fast as my heart pounded. I shifted my weight to follow him.

"Don’t even think about it.” Letter Jacket pointed at me. "Stay right where you are.” His eyes bored into me as he opened his jacket, reached a hand across his chest, and slid it into a vest pocket.

I swallowed hard.

He kept his hand there, a riveting grin unfurling across his face.

My stomach hitched, dropped to my feet like a pigeon after smacking a window. This was it. My life was over. Headlines would shout: Bullet Rips Hole in Dress. I stared at his hand, not daring to breathe.

In painstakingly slow motion—he knew he was scaring me—he removed his hand, turned his wrist, and showed me his weapon.

A flask.

A sigh of relief—a mere whisper really—tumbled from my lips, like a whimper bouncing down a steep flight of stairs.

He held up the flask in a silent toast, guzzled from it and passed it to the guy in white, never taking his eyes off me.

Cold, ripply tingles ran across my shoulders, up my neck and down my spine, toppling into each other like dominoes, splitting into separate paths, cascading down my arms, racing down my legs. I wanted to be inside, at the dance. With the loud music and the crepe paper and the streamers and the girls giggling and pointing out sexy dancers and the chaperones standing by the punch bowl, arms folded, satisfied smiles on their faces. Only, I wasn’t inside.

Tears huddled behind my eyes. I didn’t know how long I could keep them from falling.

"Don’t be afraid,” the football player said. "We aren’t gonna hurt you.”

His smile reminded me of another smile. Another face. A face I trusted.

I breathed again. I could handle this. Everything would be all right.

"Pretty night, isn’t it, Sarah?”

Another chill rushed across my shoulders, sank into my bones. "How do you know my name?”

"We’ve been watching you.” His lazy voice swayed in the air. Like a snake charmer. "A pretty girl like you stands out.”

The guy in white pulled on his lapels. "We even dressed up.” His crooked grin sucked up whatever hope his friend’s smile offered. "You should be honored.”

Honored nothing. That guy needed a kick between the legs. I ignored him and addressed the football player. "I need to go inside.”

"I need to go inside,” Letter Jacket mimicked. "And we need... a little taste.”

"Maybe a big taste,” the guy in white whispered.

Their laughter sounded like firecrackers.

I threw back my shoulders. "You touch me, I’ll scream bloody murder.”

"I don’t think so,” Letter Jacket said.

"Get out of here and leave me alone. Or you’ll be in trouble. Big trouble.”

"Your word.” Letter Jacket shrugged. "Our word.”

The guy in white crossed his arms. "And who would believe you?”

They took a step toward me. All three of them at once.

A breeze chilled the air and I thought I heard a sound behind me, but I didn’t dare take my gaze off them.

They advanced again, in unison, spreading out like feral cats. Their movements slow—almost graceful—deliberate. Their lips tight, unsmiling. Their eyes hard, uninhabited.

Eyes! I needed eyes. The windows by the dance floor around the east corner. Maybe twenty yards behind me. Everyone would see. I’d be safe.

If my heart had feet I’d be galloping to shelter. Instead, its stomping beat only shamed my paralyzed legs.

Move, I ordered my feet. Move.

I backed up.

Arms flung around me from behind.

"Let go of me,” I shouted, leaning forward. Where’d he come from? I whipped my head back, banged it against a body, caught a whiff of something. Something familiar. Baby powder? Fabric softener? I squirmed. "Help! Somebody help!”

"Shit,” the guy behind me yelled. "Get her down.”

"Let me go!”

"Quick, grab her legs,” Letter Jacket said.

"Oh-no-you-don’t.” I twisted, kicked, launched a fake designer shoe into a face.

The vise tightened.

Oh God. Help me. Please help me.

"Hurry up. The bitch is killing me.”

More arms, hands, grabbing me, pushing, pulling.

"Where’s that damn rag?” Another voice. A new voice.

My stomach shriveled. How many were there?

Cloth covered my nose and mouth—pushed sickening sweetness into my lungs. I flailed my arms. Fought for breath in short, shallow gasps.

Something dark covered my eyes.

Hands yanked my ankles, pulled me off my feet. I fell backward, free falling like at the carnival. Into hands. Lots of hands.

Holding me down, pushing against me.

Messing my dress. My pretty new dress. The dress Daddy bought me.

Grass stung my shoulders, the back of my neck... sweet cloth... fight, fading, slipping... down... legs... drifting...

In the distance... the Southern Pacific... chugged... through... town.

FIRE BURNED in the back of my throat. My tongue tasted like rubbing alcohol. My lips felt like cracked desert soil. Tiny blades poked my neck and I reached back to remove them. My fingers hit a patch of grass.

My eyes flung open. Still dark. I blinked. Blinked again.

Clouds crammed the sky. The moon hid his face. Fireflies scattered trails of light. I pushed up on one elbow. Heard faint notes spilling from the school.

A cold hand swept the back of my neck.

I flinched. I screamed. I covered my head with my arms. When would this nightmare end?

"I was just brushing off the grass.”

I peeked over my arm.

He kneeled forward. Howard. Howie-boy. The Hand-Me-Down kid. My secret admirer. "You okay?” He stood and offered to help me off the ground.

I stared at his hand a long time before I pushed myself to my feet.

"It wouldn’t’ve mattered what I did. I couldn’t’ve stopped them.” Howard stooped forward, brushed my skirt with quick, flapping motions. "I don’t think it got too dirty.”

My gaze dropped. Filth smudged the lace on my ripped bodice. Something damp darkened my hem. No pantyhose. No shoes covered my toes.

A gush of slime leaked from between my naked legs, no panties to catch it, and I had no idea what to do. It inched down my legs like sap on a tree.

Howard continued to swipe at my dress as I tottered forward. I wanted to swat his hand away, but didn’t have the energy. Wooziness filled my head. Shakiness filled my legs. Ice filled the rest of me.

"You’re all right, aren’t you? They told me to come back and make sure you don’t blab.”

His words made no sense. I staggered on.

He ran around in front of me and walked backward. "They said I should give you this.”

Howard reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a handful of cash. "Here. This is yours.”

I couldn’t go back into the gym, not with the dance still going on. I couldn’t walk home along the street, not unless I wanted everyone in town to see me.

"Go on, take it.”

Maybe the path by the railroad tracks. Or the stream by the paper mill.

Howard shoved the money in my face. "You have to take it, Sarah, or they’ll get mad.”

I concentrated. One foot in front of the other. Right, left, right.

"Well, I don’t want it,” he said.

Dollars fell like rose petals on a dying breeze.

Judith

"THOSE CLOUDS weren’t part of tonight’s plan,” I said. "How dare they lock away the stars and moon.” I lay next to my boyfriend, Carlton Powell, exemplar for the All-Texas Brightest and Sexiest College Senior, our comforter spread in the southeast corner of the Turnbull College football field, my head nestled in the crook of his left shoulder.

"On second thought,” my finger drew a lazy spiral on Carlton’s chest, "maybe I should thank them—for providing such delicious darkness.”

"Umm. Delicious darkness,” he said. "I like.” His voice carried a smile, but only a partial smile.

"You have something on your mind?” I asked. Desire tickled away my unwelcomed wariness, forcing me to keep my tone light.

"Hmm?”

"You seem preoccupied.”

He didn’t respond.

What a tease I was. Of course, he was preoccupied. It was my birthday and he was going to propose. He wanted to find the right words, the right moment. His internal pressure had to be mounting. Don’t worry, love, I wanted to tell him. Just hurry up, or I might propose to you.

The disk on the CD player changed. Carlton closed his eyes and his head lolled away from me, as if slipping into a faraway galaxy. That kernel of wariness planted an ominous foreboding in my chest. Intuition shouted, Things aren’t what they seem.

Josh Groban sang about the weight of the world, the need hidden inside each of us, our inner longing. I knew about that longing. It forced me to cover my uneasiness the way a gardener pats dirt over a seed, hiding it from view. Tonight had to be perfect.

"I love his voice,” I said. "He touches my soul when he sings. He’s so sensual.”

The music encouraged the Carlton I knew and loved to drop his voice and belt out words from the song. "Don’t give uuuup.” He raised his voice to an impressive falsetto, threw an arm theatrically into the air and sang, "You are looooved.”

"Bravo,” I shouted with my best trilled ‘r.’ "Bravisimo!” I patted his chest in one-handed applause.

"With your eyes closed,” he said, "bet you couldn’t tell whose voice was whose.”

We laughed and I awarded him with, "You’re so right, oh-you-with-the-sensual-larynx. Look. Even the moon peeped out to hear you sing.”

But just as quickly, the moon slipped under cover and Carlton’s chuckle fizzled. My comment didn’t even earn me an extra squeeze. That seed of foreboding sprouted troubling roots. My hand stilled on his chest. "Something’s wrong,” I said. "I feel it.”

He lifted my hand to his mouth. Warm, gentle breath floated over the back of my wrist when he spoke. "This is what I want you to feel.” He nibbled my fingers and covered my palm with tender, unhurried kisses.

A gust of wind blew across the field and whistled through the empty bleachers like a muffled whine from the Southern Pacific. Each time his lips brushed across my skin, my uneasiness grew. "It’s going to be bad, isn’t it?”

"What?”

"Whatever it is you’re not telling me.”

He lay my hand down. "Don’t spoil tonight with questions.”

"But—”

"No. Tonight’s about your birthday and you should enjoy every second of it. The only thing I’m gonna talk about is how much I love you. Romance is part of your birthday present, babe, so listen up.” He kissed the crown of my head and my lips drew into a smile, the tightness in my neck eased. "I want you to remember everything about this night. Even those clouds.” He sketched an arc in the air, without his previous drama. "Those big, fat, puffy clouds.”

"Big. Fat. Puffy.” I chuckled. "How romantic.”

"Hey.” He kissed my head again. "Give a guy a chance. I’m just getting warmed up.” His heart thumped harder against the side of my face.

"I’m listening.”

"Where was I? Oh, yeah. I want you to remember that when those big... beautiful... soft clouds open just a tad, a sliver of moon will reveal its face. Its light may be weak, but it shines for you, babe. How was that for romance?”

The tempo of my heart synchronized to his, slow and even. Mesmerizing.

"Remember this moment. This exact spot. Even this comforter—borrowed surreptitiously from the frat house, I might add—though I wish it were a bed of rose petals.”

"I want tonight to last forever.”

"If we make it a night to remember,” he said, "it can.”

Another breeze raced along the ground, flittered across my exposed arms and legs, gentle and sweet. Arousing me. Alerting me. Cradling his words with a breath of sorrow.

A firefly landed on the corner of the comforter, flashed a glow, then lifted into the night. I couldn’t determine its direction because it flew off without its light. I’d have to remember its visit. Remember, because it was gone. I sat up, swiped hair from my face, and turned to Carlton. Was he saying I needed to remember him? "Whatever it is, tell me.”

"Not yet, Jude. It’ll wait. Let’s not spoil your birthday.”

I bent my knees and dropped my chin to my chest. "Oh, God. It is bad.”

He sat up, swiveled my entire body around so we sat facing each other, and took my hands in his. His thumbs stroked my palms with the lightest of touches, back and forth. Back and forth. He searched my eyes, studied them, pleaded with them to let him have his way. Received my own plea in return. At last, he lowered his gaze and stared at our hands. "I got a call today... from my mom.”

My pulse accelerated. "Is she all right?” Concern for his mother erased other fears.

"My dad’s not well.” His grip tightened around my hands, clamping them shut, trying to contain the agitation he knew would come. "He’s... depressed.”

"And?”

"And... someone’s got to run the ranch. I’m going home.”

"This is your father’s idea, isn’t it?” He’d tie Carlton to that family property one way or another. I pulled my hands out of his.

"It’s only for a little while. It’ll hardly delay our plans.”

Pressure squeezed my chest, corralled my distrust of his father. "When?”

"Jude... babe. Think about now. Tonight could be so special. For the two of us. You, me, celebrating. Hell, now that you’re eighteen, you’re old enough to get married without parental consent.” He raised his eyebrows and dipped his head. "Right?”

My entire body fell silent, like the gasp after a firework launches, but before it bursts into a cascade of beautiful colors. Carlton was going to ask me—

Oh, damn him. He couldn’t sidetrack me. "When?”

He stamped a palm onto a loose fist. "God, Jude. Dad can’t do anything. Mom says he sits in his recliner—in nothing but his boxers—and stares at the ceiling. All day. That’s if he even gets out of bed.”

"I don’t mean to be cruel, but he does have a foreman.”

"He askedfor me,” Carlton said.

Such a simple, powerful, and deadly statement. His father needed him. I identified with that. Tears of frustration coated my eyes, blurred my vision. "When are you—”

"I’m already packed, babe. The gas tank’s full. I’m leaving. First thing in the morning.”

I smacked my palms against his chest, swaying him backward. "When were you going to tell me?”

He straightened his torso, knew better than to answer.

"What about your classes?” What about us?

"I already spoke with Dean Langley. He’s made the arrangements. I can withdraw for a semester or two.”

"A semester or two?” How could he put us on hold that long? I crossed my arms to keep from exploding.

"Yeah.” He mimed my attitude with his arms. "The faculty at T.C. understands.”

"The staff at Turnbull College can afford to understand. They don’t love you.” I paused and steadied my voice. "Do you have to go?”

"This is hard enough, Jude. Don’t make it worse.”

"Just tell me, what would happen if you didn’t go? Your parents know you have other plans. If you told them you couldn’t—”

"But I can.”

"But if you told them you wouldn’t.” My voice rose, demanded, escaped my control.

He gripped my arms. "Family takes care of family.”

I wasn’t deterred. "You’re so close to graduation. Less than five weeks. That’s this close.” I held my thumb and index finger an inch apart. "What about starting med school? All you need, all you need, is to finish at T.C.” His father couldn’t ruin Carlton’s future. It wasn’t right. "You don’t belong on that ranch. You deserve a better life than laboring—”

"Don’t go there, Jude. My dad’s worked hard his whole life. Hell, he deals on both sides of the border. You think that’s easy to accomplish? Well, it’s not. It takes someone special and my dad—”

"I’m only pointing out... first you sacrifice school, then dreams for a career, and soon you’re... trapped. Trapped being the family hero, rescuing your parents. You’ll get so consumed by your dad’s needs, the you I know, the you I love, will disappear.”

He stroked my thigh. "That’ll never happen.”

I placed my hand over his and stilled it. "He has his own plans for you, and you know it.”

"He won’t force me to give you up, if that’s what you think. He needs me—for a little while, that’s all.” He was either arguing with himself or censoring his thoughts because his head moved in small, side-to-side shakes. When he spoke, despair and disbelief doomed his voice. "He’s sick.”

My lungs deflated. Even in the darkness, Carlton’s blue eyes burned with determination. He couldn’t—perhaps wouldn’t—see what I saw in his dad.

"He’s my father. Don’t make me choose.”

"Then I’ll go with you.” It was an easy decision.

"The hell you will.” He fixed me in his gaze. "Listen, Jude,” his voice sounded corn-silk soft. "I know what I’m saying sounds hypocritical, but it’s not—well, maybe it is, but I don’t care. You’ve got to finish high school, get your diploma. Hell, you’ve been accepted to Penn State. You’re going to support me through my residency, remember?” He rested a palm on my cheek. "Go after what you want.”

"I want to be with you.”

"You will be. In the fall, I’ll come back and—”

"No. Next month. I want you here when I walk across that stage. Promise me you’ll come back for my graduation. Promise you’ll be there—that’s all I want for my birthday.” No proposal. Not tonight. Not when an engagement would be tainted by goodbye.

A smile teased his lips. "I had something different in mind for your gift, but okay, since you’re worth two birthday presents... Scout’s honor.” He held up two fingers. "I promise I’ll be at Canonville High when you graduate.” His warm lips met mine. "Okay?” His clear, direct gaze reinforced his words.

"I am sorry about your father. I really am.”

"I know.”

"One more promise.”

"A blood oath? My first-born?”

I jabbed him in the ribs and tickled him onto his back. He allowed me to pin his arms down, and I lowered my face to within inches of his. "That, too.” I pecked him on the nose. "If you stay with your dad too long—”

"That won’t happen.”

I placed an index finger across his lips. "Shhh.” Our eyes locked and my insides twisted with an ache, tender and raw. "Promise you won’t forget what’s real? That no matter what your father needs, you won’t lose yourself in it. You won’t forget what’s right for you.”

"And if I do?” He tried for a frown, but it morphed into an incredibly disarming grin.

"I’ll love you anyway.”

"In that case... I promise.”

Before I knew it, he rolled over and I was on my back beneath him.

He kissed my neck. "Now that that’s settled, let me . . ”

His lips nibbled my chin. ". . . show you . . ”

They detoured up my cheek. ". . . how much . . ”

He whispered in my ear. ". . . I love you.”

A tiny, disquieting whimper—at first I thought it was mine—floated on the breeze and seeped into my soul. I shoved the cry deeper inside, where I could keep it safe. Safe and hidden. Then, I kissed Carlton and renewed my prayer that tonight would last forever, knowing prayers were never answered.

Sarah

WHEN I GOT home, not knowing where else to hide my dress, I got onto my knees and shoved it under my mattress. My mind had deserted me on the long walk home. My energy deserted me now. I could barely get to my feet to walk into the bathroom. My arm felt heavy as a fallen tree when I reached to turn on the bath. Steam floated from the filling tub and moistened my skin even before I eased my way down into the water. I made the water as hot as I could stand. Hot water sanitizes, Momma always said. But no amount of hot water, no amount of scrubbing, would ever make me clean again.

I pulled a towel from the towel rack and spread it from neck to toe, letting it soak up the water and settle like a protective glove over me. I tucked the waterlogged terrycloth between my legs, but even that slight pressure hurt my pubic bone, and further down felt like a pit bull had torn me apart. Tears burned my eyes, sneaked down my cheeks, and disappeared into the water, making me cry harder. Why couldn’t I disappear like that?

By the time Daddy came home from his meeting, the water surrounding me had turned cold. "Hey, Princess. I thought you were going to call me.” His voice boomed from the stairwell.

Too exhausted for excuses, I prayed he’d just go away, but Daddy knocked on the bathroom door, opened it a crack. "What are you doing in the dark?” His arm reached in to flick on the light.

"No, Daddy. Don’t.” I didn’t dare look at my body.

His fingers hesitated on the switch. "Strobe light too much tonight?” His arm withdrew behind the door. "How’d you get home?”

My right foot twitched. I walked. The entire way. "Hitched a ride with a friend.”

"You should’ve called me. I was waiting.”

"Sorry.”

"Having too much fun to remember your dad? Sitting at his meeting, staring at his cell phone, waiting for it to ring so he could pick up his beautiful daughter from her freshman dance.

"Don’t tease.”

"Well, I was worried. I even stopped by the school, but couldn’t find you.”

What could I say?

"Come on out. Tell me all about the dance.”

I wanted to be in my father’s arms, held and comforted—protected—but then he’d discover what happened. I couldn’t let him find out—he’d kill someone. Worse, much worse, he’d be disappointed in me. He’d give me that look, jaw dangling, disappointment crumpling his shoulders, his eyes taking on a disbelieving haze, whisking him away, far away, until he’d be just a blotch on the horizon. How could I have let him down? "Can we talk in the morning?”

"Did you call your mother when you got home?”

Momma! I jerked forward. Water rolled toward my toes. Rolled back. Rippled. "I forgot. Will you do it?”

"She’d rather hear from you.”

I sank back into the chilly water, deeper. No, she wouldn’t. "I know.” A loud yawn stretched my mouth. My lips hadn’t even closed when another deep inhale widened them. "Please, Daddy. You call.”

"You do sound tired. Too much dancing?”

No movement across the surface of the water, yet its level rose and fell—a millimeter, but still noticeable—with each inhale and exhale.

"No answer, huh? Not keeping things from me, are you?”

I closed my eyes. Keep the secret, yes. From Daddy—his way of handling things would land him in jail. From Momma—she’d ground me forever. From Charlie, my love—he’d pity me, and I didn’t want pity.

"Well, my meeting was tiring, too,” Daddy said. "See you tomorrow.”

He didn’t say anything else, so I assumed he walked away. I returned to water-watching, mesmerized that my breathing altered the level yet kept the surface totally smooth.

"Pleasant dreams,” Daddy said.

Pleasant dreams?

I depressed the lever and sat in the tub studying the water escaping down the drain, circling backward, the tiny whirlpool sucking faster and faster, leaving me naked and alone.

THE SMELL of coffee woke me from a fitful sleep. A familiar Saturday smell. Promising a normalcy to the morning. Momma must be awake. I heard her come home this morning, heard her open and close my bedroom door. At least I thought I heard those sounds, but I couldn’t swear to it. Sometimes it felt like sleep bumped me along a shallow, rock-filled stream. Other times it felt like sleep dropped me, lost, into the depths of the ocean.

Hawkweed yellow light entered my eyes, and I rolled onto my back. Last night’s terror rushed at me. Pounced into my brain. Ousted familiar Saturday smells. Set up residence.

Raw, searing heat flashed between my legs, shot to my skull. A scream jumped from my throat before I caught it. I bit my bottom lip and squeezed my eyes closed, willing the fire to ease. Downstairs, the vacuum cleaner groaned, as if commiserating, then continued to suck up crumbs of dirt.

I needed to get up, to move, but when I rose from the bed, my muscles felt like fine clay left out overnight, hard and dry, too stiff to move without breaking.

The alarm clock on my desk said eleven AM. A new record. Momma never let me sleep late on Saturdays. I gathered my clothes and carried them into the bathroom.

Drowning myself under the shower didn’t take away the flame between my legs, the tightness in my limbs, or the ache in my back. It didn’t help me think, either. As the water fell over me, I tried to consider ways I could tell Momma what happened, but all I could think of was, I had asked for it. I shouldn’t have left the dance. It was my fault.

"You have to take it. Or they’ll get mad.”

"Get away!” I jumped out of the shower, my heart pounding like hail against ceramic tiles. I grabbed my towel and fled the room, wincing with each step. The voice sounded real, so real, I expected someone to jump out behind me. Someone with savage arms, locking around me. Someone forcing sleep, an unnatural sleep, sweet in a cloth, to blanket my vision, thrust me into blindness.

In the hallway, the words echoed in my ears, a quieter version, in my own voice. You have to take it. Shaky hands clutched at the towel and its scant protection. Or they’ll get mad. Mad. I must be mad. Crazy to be shaken by a nonexistent voice. I stuffed my lungs with air, lifted my shoulders, and marched into the steamy bathroom.

Like duh, of course no one stood in the shower. A rocky confidence teased my chest. At least I could control the water. I punched the nozzle with a fist.

My towel slipped to the floor. I picked it up. Bruises blotched my thighs. Three dime-sized reddish imprints lined my right bicep. Two bluer ones marked my left arm. My breasts strained with tenderness. I patted myself dry with care, terrified of releasing the anger flaming under my veins. I wanted to lash out, hurt someone. Hurt someone bad.

My clothes lay in a pile on the counter, and I dressed with purposeful slowness. My mind refused to be pushed around by that warning echo. My body? My fingers fumbled with buttons, needed three tries to snap the waist on my jeans.

I dragged a comb through my hair, yanking tangled brown curls into place. I brushed my teeth and gargled with peppermint mouthwash. Its sweetness, its sickening sweetness, turned my stomach. Nausea threatened. I spit it out, wiped my lips with a guest towel. The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the closed toilet lid, head in my hands, towel against my forehead.

Drip. Drip. Drip-drip.

The shower head dripped for a moment, then a gurgle of water fell from the lower faucet. Afterward, all was quiet. Except from downstairs.

I put on my everything-is-normal mask and marched down the steps.

Late morning sun filtered into the living room through the sheers. Shade from the old live oak tree cooled the day’s brightness. Momma said the picture window didn’t need real drapes, that no one could see in with that tree blocking the view, that money could be spent better elsewhere. I used to argue with her about it. Now, my objection faded. It no longer mattered. What privacy did I have to protect?

Momma turned the vacuum off and rested a hand on her hip. "Sleeping Beauty awakens.”

"Morning, Momma.” I avoided eye contact and kissed her cheek.

"Couldn’t budge you this morning.”

Even on housecleaning Saturdays, Momma looked like she stepped out of Glamourmagazine. Whether her clothes came from Dillards’ seventy-five-percent-off sales or from Target, she combined them with a designer’s flair. They conformed to her trim figure as if custom made. Short nutmeg hair fell in waves around her oval face, highlighting pale brown eyes. Eyes beautiful with or without makeup. The only flaw was her mouth. Her perfectly shaped lips didn’t smile enough.

"Must have been some dance. Have a good time?”

"Not really.”

"Not really?”

I couldn’t read her face, but I definitely recognized the tone.

"You didn’t dance with anyone special?”

No, Momma. I was the special one. They said so, didn’t you hear? "I danced, but not ‘with anyone’.”

"So how come ‘not really’?”

I cut off her prying. "The DJ was funny. Emily and her new boyfriend won for country dancing. Beverly and Juan won the salsa trophy.”

"Anyone compliment your new dress?”

What she meant was, Did people notice how much money your father spent on your dress? We’d been through this a zillion times. "Everyone had new clothes.” Everyone except the Hand-Me-Down kid. Nausea rolled in my stomach. Bitterness hung in the back of my throat. Howie-boy would be the first slimeball I’d hurt.

"I bet yours was the most beautiful.”

"All the girls loved my dress, Momma.” I couldn’t keep the bite from my tone.

"Make sure to hang it in the dress bag it came in.” She turned on the vacuum. Pushing and pulling the machine in front of the couch, she shouted over the noise, "Don’t eat too much breakfast, we’ll be having lunch soon.”

I hadn’t even reached the kitchen when she yelled, "And I could use some help around here.”

I ATE A BOWL of Trix at the kitchen counter, keeping the chewed pieces in my mouth as long as I could before forcing them down my throat, a throat that this morning preferred gagging to swallowing. I ate standing—Momma didn’t like to be kept waiting (and my bottom hurt less)—and studied the kitchen. Appliances shined with their Saturday polishing. My No-Mess-Momma had put everything in its exact place. Neat and tidy. Even the magnets holding the family calendar had been squared with the sides of the refrigerator.

Roses and daylilies stood tall in a glazed, terra cotta vase on our round antique table, offering a faint scent of summer. Three placemats with matching napkins sat ready for lunch. Momma might not have the crystal vase or linen tablecloths she longed for, but she made what she had look nice. Some people might admire that ability. Not me.

I carried my bowl and spoon to the sink. The sunlight entering from the window above it provided a welcome warmth as I gazed outside. Momma had spent years turning the backyard into a Home and Garden showcase. Our land was cursed with caliche clay, making it hard to grow anything of beauty. But for months on end, she’d dig, bring in top soil, plant and water. If she could turn something so formidable into—

A flash of color. A body moving behind me.

I screamed and spun around. My bowl and spoon clattered into the sink.

"Didn’t mean to scare you.” Daddy touched my arm. "You okay?”

My heart zoomed like a hummingbird’s. Even knowing it was Daddy, I couldn’t slow the fluttering.

"Come on, Princess, relax.” He rubbed my cheek with a bent finger. "I said I was sorry.”

I pushed his hand away. "I don’t like anyone sneaking up on me.”

Daddy held his hands up in surrender, then backed away. "Okay, okay.” He poured a cup of coffee. "You don’t have to be so—Yuk.” He spit the mouthful into his cup. "This tastes like mud.”

He wiped his mouth with a paper towel as his eyes scrutinized me. Their edges expanded, contracted, softened. "Princess, you’re shaking.”

His powerful arms formed a wall around me. A wall that both protected me and reminded me of last night. I sank into his embrace and cried.

"Ah, baby. What is it? Tell Daddy.”

We swayed together, Daddy and I. He gently patted my back, and I searched for words in between sobs.

"Hate to interrupt this father-daughter moment,” Momma said, "but Rob Talbert’s at the door for you, Jake.”

The warmth of Daddy’s arms evaporated. "I’ll be right there, Lily.” He leaned down, bringing his face level with mine. "We’ll talk later, okay? Keep your chin up.” He winked and flicked my chin.

I kept my back to Momma and wiped my tears.

Before he left the kitchen, I heard him whisper, "Go easy on her today, Lily. Something’s up.”

"Sarah?” Momma said, her voice soft as a feather duster. She placed a hand on my shoulder. "What’s going on?”

I cringed.

She turned me to face her. Her brow scrunched. "Honey?”

The worry in her eyes unsettled me. What could I tell her? It had been hard enough to get her to let me go to the dance. If I told her what happened, she’d lock me away for life. My chance to date Charlie would be as likely as me acing the trig final. Worst of all, she’d blame me, like always. Might even say God was punishing me for leaving the dance, for meeting Howard, for letting Howard kiss me, that I deserved what I got. And I’d have no defense. I did walk behind the gym. On my own two feet. I did let Howard kiss me. Momma’d be right. I did deserve it.

"Nothing’s the matter.”

"Nothing?” She cocked her head. "You sure?”

I pushed my lips into a smile the way Momma pushed the caliche soil into shape. The result might be a little stiff, but it looked good. "I just got a little weepy, emotional. It’s nothing.”

Her sigh was audible, like she had expected something dreadful. "Emotional. Of course. I should have seen it coming. I’ve been telling you that you were doing too much, studying for exams, preparing for that dance. The shopping. The hair appointment. Your nails.” She shook her head. "I don’t know what that school board was thinking. Freshmen are too young for fancy dances. Too much pressure. Not to mention the financial expense.”

She rubbed her palms against her slacks. "All right, now. It’s over. It’s all over.” She glanced toward the ceiling. "Thank God for that.”

Momma thanked God for everything. If she appreciated me that much, and I were God, I’d be nicer to her, grant her more wishes, but then, God and I don’t often see eye to eye.

"You’re experiencing a letdown, Sarah. Some women become emotional after so much chaos. It’s nothing to worry about. It’ll pass, you’ll see. Things will settle down now. Our lives will get back to normal.” Her words bubbled out. Since I had nothing terrible to tell her, her relief had turned to... well, almost... joy.

I nodded. "You’re probably right, Momma.”

"And you know the best solution for feeling emotional, don’t you?”

Here it came.

"House cleaning.”

Momma’s solution for everything.

As I followed her to the cleaning supplies, I prayed that this time, this one time only, she would be right, and I hated myself for once again wanting to trust her.

WHEN MOMMA went to Piggly Wiggly with her overstuffed coupon organizer and Daddy went next door to help Mr. Talbert wallpaper his den, I took an empty thirty-three gallon trash bag up to my room. Trash day wasn’t until Monday, but if I had any hope of sleeping ever again, the remains of my new dress couldn’t stay in my bed. I yanked the damaged fabric from under the mattress and shoved it into the black plastic, pressing the air out and tying the opening in a double knot. I sat on my bed then, cradling the bundle on my lap. The bundle. A plastic coffin for my mutilated dress. The dress I loved. The dress I’d searched weeks for, before I found the perfect one. The dress that made me feel pretty, confident, and above all, normal.

I carried the flimsy casket into the laundry room like it was some sort of offering to the gods. There, I repositioned the bag, holding it by its knot, grabbed a bottle of bleach, and left the house by the back door.

Three-wheeled trash cans stood next to the tool shed. I forced myself to walk calmly, as if taking a leisurely stroll. Even whistling. Didn’t everyone whistle when dumping trash? No one spied from the rear windows of the house to my ri—

"Hey, Sarah. Wanna help?”

A jolt surged up my body, as if I’d stepped into a puddle of water carrying a live wire. It sizzled through my veins, ducked the hand with the bleach behind my back and twirled me to my left.

Charlie stepped from inside the Talbert’s shed, a stepladder propped easily in his strong arms. "It’ll be fun, kid. Messy, but fun.”

Yesterday morning I would have jumped at the chance to work with Charlie. Geez, do anything with Charlie—even wallpaper his den, just to be side-by-side. "Can’t, Charlie.” I held up the trash bag. "Got chores to do.”

Geez, yesterday morning I’d have eagerly switched places with the ladder he carried in his arms.

"Hey, kid. Hate to inform you, but none of us has a fairy godmother.” He kicked his shed door closed. "No sense frowning over it.”

Frowning? I tried to curl my lips up, to give him a no-matter-what- happened-to-me-I’ll-always-love-you smile, but the weight of the trash bag, light as it was, prevented my lips from moving.

His Matthew McConaughey body strolled across the lawn and disappeared around the far side of his house, where I assumed he’d deposit the ladder into their den. I waited a minute or two to make sure he stayed inside before I turned my back on their house.

I found the fullest trash can and dropped the bag into it. With the handle of a rake, I poked it under three days’ worth of newspapers, waxed food cartons and empty tomato puree cans, wet paper towels and coffee grounds. By the time I had all the black plastic out of sight, sweat had beaded over my skin. I drizzled a cup or two of bleach over the mess, turning my nose away from the stinging fumes. I didn’t know what I hoped the bleach would do, maybe stink enough to keep people from investigating deeper—it just seemed like a good idea. I replaced the lid on the trash can, carried the bottle back to the laundry cabinet, and returned to my room.

Not knowing what to do next, I paced beside my bed, remembering how Momma had dragged me from discount dress store to discount dress store, insisting that style wasn’t about money, as if I didn’t know that. She might be a smart dresser for herself, but I wouldn’t be caught dead in what she wanted me to wear. "Don’t you get it, Momma,” I’d wanted to scream. "I want to feel grown-up and you want me to stay your little girl.” No frills. No ribbons and bows.

Ribbons and bows!

It hit me. That’s what I could do—Answers.

I closed my bedroom door, wishing for the umpteenth time it had a lock, and rummaged in my closet, through boxes of elementary school projects and black and white composition books, pen pal letters and movie star cut-outs, hunting until I found my leather journal. Answers by Sarah Hausman. Every time I wrote in it, I buried it deeper.

At my desk, I flipped to a blank page, picked up a pen, and wrote a new story:

Why My Dance Dress Was Important To Momma

Seven-year-old Lily knew her mother spent a lot of money on pretty material, money they didn’t have, but she didn’t care. So what if the pink pinafore took her mother five whole days to sew? Bad enough her classmates teased her about not having a father—which she did, although he only showed up a couple times a year. It wasn’t even worth getting into fights about not having a real father. She pretended his absences didn’t matter and that solved everything. She’d gotten good at pretending.

I stopped writing and nibbled the end of my pen, thinking, She’d gotten good at pretending, and just this morning telling Momma, "Nothing’s the matter.” And Momma asking, "You sure?” And me saying, "It’s nothing.”

She’d gotten good at pretending.

But... but... this situation was different. I pulled myself back to my story.

But this situation was different. All the other girls were going to wear store-bought dresses to Megan’s birthday party. Store-bought. Lily’s dress had fancy ruffles, a smooth pink sash, and whirly petticoats that fanned out her skirt when she spun. If she bought it off a store mannequin, she’d think it the most beautiful dress in the world. But it didn’t come off a store mannequin, and if her friends teased her about wearing a homemade dress, Lily would die.

She daydreamed about stealing a new dress—and would have—but couldn’t figure out how a seven-year-old could get to a department store on her own. So, that night, while her mother slept, Lily took her dress out of the closet, crept to the laundry room, and laid it in the wash basin. She climbed on the dryer and took a bottle from the cabinet. She poured stinky liquid all over the dress, tiptoed back to her bedroom, and slept until morning.

Her plan worked. Sort of. Her mother kept her home from the birthday party. Only, Lily hadn’t planned on her mother’s silence. Her mother never asked Lily about the pink pinafore.

She didn’t speak to Lily about anything.

Ever again.

I reread the story, making only small changes. Momma and Daddy told me so little about their childhood, I let my imagination fill in the missing pieces. Making up stuff about them gave me a family history. My parents seemed so different from each other. I had to make sense of why they married, why they stayed together. I figured, if I knew who they were back then, who they were now would make sense. And maybe, just maybe, creating a past, creating Answers, would help me predict how I’d turn out. If nothing else, the little stories I created made me feel more connected to my parents, as if we had something in common. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, then crossed out the title and wrote: How Momma Learned To Avoid Conflict.

 

Chapter 2

Sarah

"YUK.” MY THUMB squooshed into a heap of soft food inside the Piggly Wiggly sack. "Something must’ve leaked,” I told Momma as we unpacked groceries, forcing my hand not to retreat.

"Stop with the faces already,” Momma said. "Just take it out.”

My fingers slid under the square, wet container while my face contorted in a slide show of grimaces. "Eeeeew,” I wailed when the slippery Styrofoam tray turned out to be a bright pink, worm-like mound of meat. Surrounding it, a scarlet puddle. Dripping. Dripping blood.

The package dropped onto the counter with a thud. Red liquid jumped against the cellophane and ran off my fingertips. A sour taste clotted in the hollow of my throat.

"That ground beef needs to be repacked.” Momma thrust a box of baggies at me. "And sanitize that counter when you’re done.”

I turned away from the scarlet mess. "I can’t, Momma.” My life was the scarlet mess, could never be repacked. I stuck my hands under the faucet.

"What do you mean, you can’t?”

The sight of raw meat—short, slender curls, red with blood—made my stomach collapse like a sinkhole. The smell of raw meat—thick, metallic, and gross—made me want to vomit on the floor. Raw meat. Last night. Me.

I turned up the water flow and rubbed my hands together like two pieces of flint.

Emily flashed into my mind. Emily!

She could help. We’d sit on her bed and flip through Entertainment Weekly, or People, or Seventeen, or gossip about classmates, or complain about how Canonville was such a hick town, a time warp. Without my saying a word about last night, Emily would sense something—we were tuned in to each other that way. She’d say, "Spill it,” and I’d say, "I don’t want it to be real.” And she’d say, "You can handle it,” and I’d tell her the whole story. The whole truth. I’d never hold back from my best friend. And it would make things better, just knowing someone else knew.

With my friend, I could remove my cellophane. Not with Momma. Momma didn’t like mess. Wanted everything sealed. Sealed tight. Nice, neat, and sanitized.

"I told Em I’d be over already.” I quickly dried my hands. "I’m late.”

"Five minutes won’t kill you.”

"Gotta go, Momma. Bye.”

"Oh-no-you-don’t.”

She grabbed my arm, fingers indented over dime-sized bruises.

Stinging needles raced through my arm. Pain shot between my legs.

"Listen, young lady, you’re going to—”

I hunched forward. Yanked free.

Not this time. They won’t get me this time.

I spun around. Arm raised. Raised high.

"Don’t touch me,” I shouted.

My arm powered down. Down.

Momma!

Horror widened her eyes, opened her mouth, dropped her jaw.

I froze. Fist an inch from her face.

She froze.

Oh-God-Oh-God-Oh-God. Tears filled her eyes, or maybe they filled mine. Light from the window over the sink blurred the space between us.

The refrigerator motor hummed.

A bird chirped outside.

Scarlet flecked Momma’s face. Sweat glistened her forehead. She took one step back, whipped a hand toward the door, pointed an index finger. "Get out. Now.”

Judith

I LOWERED the phone to my nightstand.

"Nothing seen or unseen,” Carlton had said, "nothing big or little, nothing or no one will stand in our way. Not even my Dad.”

Now I needed the courage to tell my Dad about our plans. No Stay-In-My-Own-Backyard College. No Attend-Where-Dear- Old-Dad-Teaches College. No Turnbull College, period. Penn State for me. Penn State Med School for Carlton.

The mattress eased as I lay back across it, hand on my neck, warming the locket under my palm. I applied pressure, pushing down to make a stronger connection. "You’d like Carlton, Mom.”

Dr. and Mrs. Carlton Powell. Together. Forever. Till Death do us part.

Mendelssohn’s wedding march popped into my head. The halting steps, the stirring sounds, excited my imagination. The music was playing for me. Dad would walk me down a white carpeted aisle. Carlton would stand proud and tall, a single white rose in his tux lapel, waiting for me to join him and link our lives into one.

My gaze wandered to the closet where, in an extra-long, sealed box, my mother’s wedding gown awaited my special day. Growing up, I often stared through the protective cellophane window in the box, eager to see inside, yet hesitant to break the vacuum seal. Time passed. I waited, never ready to expose the contents. Until today.

"Your mother wanted you to have this,” Dad had said when he presented the keepsake to me on my twelfth birthday. "And I think you’re old enough to understand the meaning of this gift from her heart.” That was what he’d called it. A gift from her heart.

Whether Dad thought twelve was the perfect age to present such a treasure, or whether he chose that moment to atone for a binge—a house-bound binge that kept me home from school, scared to my eyelashes he’d pass out and never wake up—the gift had thrilled me. Mother would be wrapped around me when I walked down the aisle. I strolled to the closet, slid open the door, and pushed aside thoughts of what I wasn’t telling Dad.

The box felt light in my hands, perfectly balanced. I carried it, cradled across my arms, to the bed. Flutters rippled in my stomach. Small concentric waves drifting wide. Fading. Beginning again.

I punctured the Heirloom Gown Preservation seal on the viewing window and a soft spray of air—a whispered breath—rushed out. Mom exhaling. I closed my eyes and filled my lungs with a slow, deep breath. "I love you, too, Mom.”

The tape peeled easily from around the bottom of the box. I lifted the attached lid and folded it back.

The flutters in my stomach stilled. Replaced by calm. A solid, blue, comforting calm.

In slow motion, I reached out and stroked the pearl beaded bodice, the satin and lace confined since her wedding. "It’s still white, Mom.” Awe drenched my words. "Gardenia-petal white.”

I eased the dress from its snug home, held it to my nose and breathed in, willing the scent of my mother to unlock from the threads and fill the air around me. But her scent had faded through the years. Disappeared. Like my childhood memories. Her long blond hair, long, delicate fingers—those details a photo preserved. But her essence I had to imagine. So I imagined sweet. Vanilla and country fair candied apples and wild honeysuckle in bloom.

I unfurled the dress and brought it to my neck, letting the long filigree sleeves fall loose and free, the tiered lace skirt flow to the floor. Something warm and as magical as sprinkles of pixie dust spread through my body. I pressed one hand over the beading and another over the waist and swayed to a Josh Groban refrain in my head. My mother’s gown. I’ll be wearing my mother’s wedding gown. I lifted onto the toes of one foot and twirled in a joyous circle. The long skirt rippled and spread wide, a silky lace sail billowing around my legs.

A slip of paper shot out from the dress and flicked across the room.

The melody vanished. I laid the dress on the bed, arranging it from pillow to footboard, smoothing out its folds, posing its sleeves, fluffing its skirt. I paused at the hem. The unchafed, spotless hem.

A twinge caught in my belly, tugged at my chest. Mom and Dad had married outdoors, danced in the grass, yet the hem remained pristine. The twinge repeated, lasted a second, and then—poof—gone. Forgotten.

I fell to my knees, patted the floor, looked under the bed, under my desk, along the windowsill. A corner of white stuck out from under the bureau. An envelope.

A vague familiarity wove itself around the loops and lines of the blue handwritten script.

For my beautiful daughter, Judith.

My heart hitched before taking its next beat. I held the envelope, my precious envelope, in both hands, staring at it as if I had X-ray eyes, preparing myself to receive Mom’s wisdom. Would she lament not being in my life, seeing me mature? Would she provide pointers on love, advice on marriage?

Glue, secured with age, resisted when I pried a shaky finger under the flap. Slipping the note from its pocket, I unfolded it and... a voice from years ago, when childhood’s gate closed. A soft voice. A caring voice. The voice I heard with my heart.

Her voice.

Sarah

I FLED FROM the kitchen, out of the house. Away from scarlet meat. A scarlet face. A scarlet shame. Out. Out in fresh air. The sweltering May air. Filling my lungs. Exhaling the scent of slaughter.

Street tar heated my thin soles, and the back of one sneaker rubbed against a heel, but it didn’t stop my flight to Emily’s house. I needed to tell my best friend about last night.

Tell her. Tell her. Tell her. The words kept time with my steps.

Tell her? My throat snapped shut, caught by an invisible hangman’s noose. Words would make it real.

Yet it wasreal.

My stride lengthened, picked up speed. I often jogged the two miles between our houses. I loved running. Wanted to join the cross country team next year. At least twice a week, I’d jog to the paper mill—over four miles away—just for the high of running. Running toward something. Today, in the heat of afternoon, no high. My legs felt robotic, not mine, as if moved by remote control. They had no feeling, except for the blister forming on my heel. They had to have no feeling. The bruises I saw up and down my thighs this morning would prevent me from running if I felt them. So I didn’t feel them.

I stopped at the mailbox at the end of the Galbreith’s driveway to catch my breath. The mailbox looked like a replica of their house, only without the swimming pool and detached garage. Emily’s older brother, Frank, made it in shop class last year. I’d asked him to build one of our house—I wanted to surprise Momma with it. I even gave him the money for the supplies—how stupid was that?

Frank stalled and stalled. I asked him several times for the money back, but he ignored me every time and the next thing I knew, the school year ended.

Geez. No sense thinking about a frickin’ mailbox that never happened. No sense thinking about making Momma happy. No sense thinking about money I’d never get back.

My skin prickled—money. Howard tossing dollar bills. Green wings falling around me, flat and soulless, toxic and evil. Forget about it, a voice shouted in my head. Forget about it.

My legs wobbled.

Yes, of course. I had to forget about it. To think of something else. Emily. My best friend Emily. The freckles she hated dotting her pug nose and underlining her cheerful cocoa eyes.

Sweat dripped between my shoulder blades and down the back of my neck. Without thinking, my fingers swiped the dampness.

Grass. On my neck.

A shudder chilled my body, my heart sprinted. I jerked my hand away.

No. Grass belonged in the past. The distant past. The far, far distant past.

The last-nightpast.

Forget about it. Tell. Forget about it. Tell. The competing thoughts fought like rock groups at a battle of the bands. I hurried up the drive.

Mrs. Galbreith greeted me at the door and put her arms around me. It wouldn’t have mattered if I came in and out of her house five times a day, she’d hug me each time. She was the kind of mom every girl wanted. She let Emily host big parties at their house, and she loved to talk with us girls over chips and queso around the kitchen table, genuinely interested in what happened in our lives. Emily didn’t know how lucky she was to have her for a mother.

Now her father, after surviving three tours in Iraq, was another matter. Talking with girls made him cough. It also made his eyes squint, like he was examining everything anyone said. Talk about making people feel exposed. Emily’s father might’ve been a smart guy in the Army, but in terms of making people feel comfortable, he could learn a lot from Daddy.

"I’m kinda sweaty,” I said, wiggling out of Mrs. Galbreith’s hold. Too soon for a hug to feel safe.

"Well, I should hope so, walking over here on a day like this. Hot, hazy, and sticky-humid—and it’s not quite June. Bodies should sweat plenty on a day like today. Come in, come in.” She closed the door and reflections from the stained glass panels moved along the wall behind her. "Emily’s at the store with Frank, but they should be home any minute. Come back to the kitchen and I’ll fix you a lemonade.”

I didn’t want lemonade. I wanted my friend. "I guess I should’ve called before I rushed over.”

"Is everything okay?”

Was I frowning? I’d better watch myself. Mrs. Galbreith could pick up non-verbals the way a magnet picked up iron filings. Guess that was where Emily got the gene.

"Couldn’t be better, thanks.”

She hesitated, challenging me with clear, inquisitive eyes.

I scratched my calf, pretending it itched, so I could avoid her scrutiny.

She waited for me to stand straight. "All right, then.” I doubted those were the words she’d been about to speak, because a touch of disbelief crept into her voice. "Come with me.”

The aroma of fresh baked bread spilled out of the kitchen before we entered the room. The bakery smell seeped into my nostrils and wrapped around my belly like a cashmere snuggy. A tiny growl reminded me I’d only eaten a bowl of cereal and half a turkey sandwich all day. "Smells good.”

Two crusty, golden loaves sat on a cooling wire on the counter. Bread pans stuck out from a sink full of soapy water. Dishes heaped in the dish drain. A mixer, its blades caked with dried ingredients, sat on a sideboard waiting to be cleaned. Clothes formed a multicolored mountain on the kitchen’s center island.

No perfect, tidy kitchen. How refreshing.

A spike of guilt jabbed my chest. Did enjoying the contrast to Momma’s kitchen make me a traitor?

Momma. Her eyes, like in a horror flick, I caused that. My fist inches—inches!—from smashing her face. What if she tells Daddy?

"You okay, Sarah?” Mrs. Galbreith asked.

"Oh, yeah, sure,” I said, searching for something else to think about. "It’s nice and cool in here. Our house drips in sweat when Momma bakes. Guess that’s why she stopped baking.”

Maybe I should bake Momma a cake. A vanilla cake. With daisies and a great big SORRY squiggled in yellow icing.

"I’ve got the AC set extra low. Let me know if you get too cool.” Mrs. Galbreith took a plastic pitcher from the fridge and poured me a glass of lemonade. "Hungry?”

"I ate earlier, thanks.” My stomach growled again, louder, and I draped my arms over my belly to silence it.

The light in the bright room reflected off Mrs. Galbreith’s eyes, and she gave me a playful smile. "Eleven minutes until my pie is done. Bet hot peach pie will change your mind.”

I let my shoulders relax. "Maybe a little piece—when Em gets home.”

She refilled her own glass and sat on a stool by the island. "Have a seat. I was just folding laundry.”

Folding clothes beat twiddling my thumbs waiting for Emily. "Let me help.”

"I don’t know how four people can generate so many dirty clothes.” She snapped a pair of jeans against her legs. "If Frank thinks I’m going to starch and iron his jeans after he graduates, he’s mistaken.” The curl of her lips let me know she was bluffing. If Emily’s brother wanted stiff jeans, she’d iron them. She was that kind of mom.

I glanced at the clock.

"She’ll be home soon, Sarah. Don’t worry.”

"Oh, I’m not worried,” I said automatically. Geez, she was good. Wish Momma tuned in to me that way. I took my glass, sat next to her, and picked up a cotton T-shirt.

A chill like melting ice filled my veins. Heat like a sudden rash flamed my skin. That smell. That familiar smell. Fabric softener. Vomit surged to the top of my throat, burned in retreat. Last night. Arms clamping tight. My head butting back.

Numbers on the wall clock blurred. Spots swarmed into view.

The shirt fell from my hand.

I pushed off the stool and the room rotated, gained speed. My legs... where were they?

"Sarah?”

. . . spinning... falling.

Mrs. Galbreith grabbed my arms, lowered me to the floor, leaned me against the island. "Stay put.”

My eyes tingled, went numb. The kitchen became a sauna. Sweat poured from my face, my hands.

My heart hammered against my rib cage, as if frantic to escape. Pounded loud. Pounded hard. Pounded ready to explode. I was dying. Dying.

"Nooooooo,” a voice screamed. A little girl’s. Mine.

I needed to tell Momma—

"Easy now, baby,” another voice said. Mrs. Galbreith’s. Near me. On the floor.

Coolness stroked my forehead, blotted my face.

"Breathe, Sarah. That’s right.”

My muscles unlocked as my breath deepened, slowed, and as my muscles unknotted, relaxed, my heartbeat steadied. A damp cloth dabbed my chin and the pounding in my ears faded. More coolness moistened my lips, wiped my eyes, covered them—

"No!” I yanked the cloth from my face. "Don’t. Don’t cover—” I gasped for air. I couldn’t finish the sentence. My heart pounded like a thunderstorm against a tin roof, quaking my limbs, pelting my chest, echoing in my head.

"Okay, baby, I won’t.” Light fingertips stroked my temples.

"I’m dying,” I whispered. "Oh, God. I don’t want to die.” I closed my eyes and a new dampness touched my face. Tepid. Trickling.

Tears.

"No, baby. You’re not dying.” Arms cradled me, soft and soothing, rocking me sideways. She rocked me and ooohed. Rocked me and aaaahed. Rocked me until the room returned.

My heart still thrummed, but its beat no longer deafened me.

"Just a little panic attack, sweetie.” She pushed wet hair away from my face. "You’ll be fine, I promise. I see this all the time at the clinic.” She stroked the back of my head. "Has this ever happened before?”

A panic attack? Wasn’t that something that happened to grown-ups?

I shook my head and the ground spun under me. A jittery moan startled my lips.

Emily’s mom continued to hold me and stroke my head. She asked nothing more.

I drifted, my body sinking into a twilight sleep.

A high-pitched shrill pierced the silence, ripped open my cocoon. I jumped.

So did Mrs. Galbreith. "The timer,” she said, her voice high, as if caught with a forgotten guest ringing her doorbell. She unwrapped her arms and propped me against the island, scurried to her feet and spun the dial over the stove.

Heat rushed from the oven when she opened its door, forcing her to lean back and turn away. She slid on cooking mitts and gingerly removed the pie. "Just in time.” She set it on a cooling rack. "Another minute, it would’ve bubbled over.”

The pie could bubble over. I couldn’t even boost myself up. My muscles ached like I’d completed a triathlon.

"Wait, Sarah. Let me help you.” Mrs. Galbreith tossed off her gloves and hurried to my side. "Come on, baby. Let’s go into the family room. I want you to rest.”

Rest. Yes, I needed to rest. I fell asleep the second I touched the leather couch.

Judith

THE LAWN MOWER sputtered. I almost didn’t hear it between the keyboard and violin strings in the earbuds of my iPod as I listened to the new Josh Groban album Carlton had given me for my birthday.

The handlebar jerked. The engine coughed, gasped for breath, spewed a cloud of white smoke that curled around my ankles. Oh, please, now was not the time to stall out. I mimicked Carlton mimicking Josh. "Don’t give uuuup,” I sang. "A little further,” I coaxed the mower. "You can do it.”

Pfffth-pfffth. Another indignant sputter. Another plume of smoke belched from the exhaust pipe. Pfffth-pfffth-stop.

My turn to sputter. Damn machine. The obstinate gas cap fought against my grip, but I added a burst of stubbornness and—voilà— succeeded in wrenching it open. Pungent vapors rushed my nostrils, coated my mouth with the harsh, oily taste of gasoline. I held my breath and peered inside the tank. Liquid filled to one inch below the rim. Double damn. If it didn’t need gas, that did it for me. The extent of my mechanical abilities. I whipped my heel back and gave the rear wheel an encouraging kick. As if that would fix it. Double-double damn.

I shoved the handlebar with both hands and forced the machine toward the garage. I’d finish the job with the weed whacker. The remaining grass might get an uneven haircut, but at least when Dad returned from the TC campus, he’d have one less chore to worry about. That would put him in a good mood. In a good mood, he wouldn’t drink. In a good mood, I’d finally tell him about being accepted to Penn State. Prepare him for my departure. Try to ease the disappointment he’d feel with my leaving. Even without reading Mom’s request to take care of Dad, I knew I had to tell him. Soon.

Just as that thought crossed my mind, Dad’s Touring Sedan, that unmistakable black 1939 Plymouth, came rumbling down the street, growing larger and louder. Two hours earlier than expected.

So much for my lawn-mowing surprise. I popped out my earbuds, stuffed them into the pocket of my shorts, and switched off my beloved Josh Groban.

Dad pulled his car into the driveway. His fondness for that relic escaped me. The car was older than he was, for crying out loud, but Dad tended to focus on the past. Me? My past was as far away as last night. Last night and Carlton. Carlton and his scent, cypress and cedar wood. Carlton and his touch, bold and confident against my body. "Remember,” he had said, and I remembered. And remembering, my skin ached with longing.

Dad strolled up to the garage wearing pressed jeans and a sport jacket, his standard tenured-professor attire. His tanned face accented intelligent, sky-blue eyes. At six feet, one-and-a-half inches, Dad lacked an inch-and-a-half on my boyfriend, but with his strong shoulders, firm chest and biceps—and cute, tight tush—he could pass for an older version of Carlton.

I could see why my girlfriends teased about wanting to date Dad. They saw the attractive widower, the loving man, the adoring father. Only I understood the real John Murielle, the loss that filled his soul, the loss he numbed with cases of blood-red wine.

Numbed, but couldn’t erase—the shared loss that cemented us together.

"You’re home early,” I said, kissing his cheek.

"The Dean wants summer lesson plans by next week.” His free hand swept in front of him. "Lawn’s looking good.”

"Sorry it’s not finished.”

"Told you I’d get to it this weekend.”

"I know, but I wanted to do it.”

"Appreciate that. Now I’ll have time to revise my syllabi.” He placed his briefcase on the ground. "Heard Carlton had to drop out of school.”

My heart fluttered like a bird entering a storm. "His family needs him. His father’s sick.”

"That’s what the Dean told me. Don’t look so glum, hon. Dean Langley’s keeping him enrolled. Carlton’ll be back.” His eyes darkened, waves creased his brow. "That the reason you were out so late last night? Making up for future lost time?”

Not ‘making up.’ More like ‘making out.’ I draped the end of my ponytail across my upper lip and gave my best sinister villain’s laugh, "Muu-ha-ha-ha-haaa.”

"Judy, Judy, Judy. You’re so young. Finish college first.”

I let go of my hair. "I intend to.”

"Just not at Turnbull College.” Not Turnbull. Not Turnbull. His words fell down a well, echoing. "You turned down your scholarship, didn’t you?”

I returned his stare. "The Dean told you?”

"He sent me an email. Thought I knew. ‘What’s with your daughter rejecting us? Nothing personal, I hope.’”

Not his words falling down the musty well, but me. Plummeting a long, dark, embarrassing hole. I should’ve been the one to tell him. "How’d you respond?”

"I stopped at the Canonville Bar ‘N Grill, downed a few, then drove home.”

My face tensed, hard and immobile, my eyes studying his, deciphering his words.

The corner of his mouth twitched. Once. Twice.

"You did not!” I said, calling his bluff. "You told him your daughter was a mature eighteen-year-old. Mature past her years. Mature enough to know what she wants, and if she turned Turnbull down, she had a very good reason.”

"Not a bad answer,” he said. "Except . . ” Lips pressed tight, he rubbed a thumb and index finger along his chin. "A mature daughter wouldn’t be afraid to talk with her dad about her future.”

I softened my voice to the consistency of butter cream. "Dad, I’m going to Penn State. Carlton’s been accepted to their med school.”

"So you’re ready to fly off with him?” He turned away and looked out over the lawn, smooth and trimmed in parts, unfinished and wild in others. "Where’d the years go? Eighteen feathers on the wings of time.”

The despondency in his voice snagged me. Triple damn. I knew what lay behind his tone, but I didn’t want to talk about it. Not now. Not today. An itch crawled under my skin, around my waist and up my back. I had to move. "The mower stopped,” I said.

"Oh?”

"I already checked the tank.”

"That’s my girl.” His lips extended, just a smidgeon. "Let me see what I can do.” He stooped by the engine. "You can bring me a drink.”

"A drink? You jest.”

He waved me off.

I took his briefcase into the house. By the time I returned with an iced tea, Dad was mowing the rest of the lawn. "Here. I added extra sugar.”

He raised an eyebrow and stared at the tea. I held the glass immobile, my arm extended, while he contemplated his next move. He gave me a wry glance, put the engine in neutral and took the glass from my hand. "A poor substitute, my dear.” He lifted the drink to the sun. "Clear, bronze color.” He twirled it under his nose and sniffed. "I believe I detect a hint of mint.” He sniffed again. "A delightful, fruity aroma.”

"That’s not funny.” I clamped my teeth together, tightening my jaw, and shot him a you-know-better glare.

"Just a minute.” He drained the tea and presented me with the empty glass and a ridiculous grin—sheepish, apologetic, endearing. "All gone.”

"You’re impossible.” I turned so he couldn’t see my smile. "I’m going inside.”

"When I’m done here,” Dad shouted, "let’s go to dinner.”

I gave him a thumbs-up over my shoulder.

"And Judy,” he called. "You’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”

Sarah

VOICES MURMURED in the distance. Indistinct. I heard Daddy in a dream-like whisper: "Relax, Princess, relax.”

My eyes sprung open. Drawn curtains across the family room windows blocked the time of day. I peeled my cheek from the smooth leather of the Galbreiths’ couch and wiped a bit of drool from the corner of my mouth.

"You sleep like stone.” Frank pressed his back against the family room wall, shoulders hiked high, arms down straight, palms back, as if he wanted to disappear into the glossy paneling.

A hint of mesquite, smoky and dry, entered the room.

I pushed myself up, glanced past Frank, through the arch to the game room, to the sliding screen door. Night. I’d slept into the night. I looked at my watch.

"It’s nine fifteen,” he said, tilting his head toward the arch.

"Nine fifteen? How’s that possible?”

"Shhh.” He sent the sound floating to the ceiling like cigarette smoke. "Keep your voice down, will you?”

"Why?” Uneasiness tainted the word.

"I’m listening,” he whispered. "Hope to learn something.”

Beyond the screen door, four adults sat around a patio table, their bodies silhouetted by flickering candles. "Those kids keep vandalizing school property, our taxes will skyrocket.” Momma’s chair faced the swimming pool. "Where’s their respect for other people’s property?”

"Those punks don’t have respect.” Mr. Galbreith’s tone carried more sharpness than usual. "They don’t care if their actions impact others. They’re thieves. Stealing what doesn’t belong to them.”

I didn’t need to strain to hear their conversation, I only needed to pay attention. Their words traveled through the game room, through the family room, right up to the couch, as if blown by a fan.

"I don’t know about calling them thieves,” Momma said, "but their behavior hurts the entire community. And, they get off scot-free. That’s the part I resent.”

"Oh, they’ll get caught.” Mr. Galbreith dished out that assurance as if he had insider information.

"How can you be so sure, Doug?” Momma asked. "They’re sneaky.”

"Doesn’t matter. Canonville’s an upstanding community. Anyone who violates the law will be punished. It’s a matter of timing.” Either I stopped listening for a second and missed something, or his voice carried an undertone I didn’t understand. "That goes for anyone. Anyone.”

"Punished how?” Mrs. Galbrieth asked. Her silhouette leaned back and disappeared behind Daddy’s. "They pay a fine? Big deal.”

"Army men—even retired Army men—know how to handle people who don’t play by society’s rules. I thought you knew that by now, Carolyn.”

"So, you put them into the military and hope they change?” she asked.

"The Army has ways.”

"I’ll bet it does,” Daddy said. "The old learn-discipline-or-else method. I know it well. My second set of foster parents invented that technique.”

I glanced at Frank. Daddy’s stay in foster homes would make good school gossip—I couldn’t believe Daddy talked about it so lightly—but Frank had his eyes closed. Not a muscle moved on his face.

"The Army’s a foolish option, Doug.” Mrs. Galbreith said. She reached for something on the table. "You’d never get those kids to enlist.”

"Oh no? It’d be a cinch,” Mr. Galbreith said. "You sit the perps down. Show them videos from hidden cameras.”

Cameras? The word jolted me like a cattle prod.

"There they’ll be. Shooting out the lights. Caught red-handed.” He rested his hands behind his head and leaned back. "Doing things illegal—or immoral? There’d be the camera, providing its own truth serum.”

The air turned stale and heavy. I could hardly breathe.

"Then?” he said. "You give the culprits a choice. Jail, the Army, or exile from Canonville. Not so foolish after all, is it, Carolyn?”

"The school has cameras on the field?” Momma asked.

My question exactly. Cameras on the field? Behind the gym? The space in my throat shrunk. Momma, Daddy, the whole town. Watching. My shame made public. I fought for breath. Staggered to my feet.

Frank peeled off the wall. "What’re you doing?”

"I’m going home.”

"Doug’s answer for everything,” Mrs. Galbreith said. "Cameras.”

I teetered across the room, on a floor that felt like marshmallows.

"They can’t desecrate other people’s property, Carolyn,” Mr. Galbrieth said. "They need consequences—pay with their hides. It’s the only way to teach respect.”

The floor hardened in the game room, and my balance evened, my footing stabilized.

"Jake, what do you think?” Mrs. Galbreith asked Daddy. "I bet you have a solution that’s a little less... extreme.”

I opened the screen door. "Take me home.”

Chairs pushed back.

"Sarah!” Mrs. Galbreith started forward, but stopped and let Momma reach me first.

"We were just about to wake you,” Momma said. "How’re you feeling?” She would’ve hugged me—or at least touched me—if I’d been a resident in the nursing home she worked at, but I wasn’t, so she didn’t.

"Can we go home now?” I asked.

Daddy appeared at my side and put a protective arm around me. "Of course, Princess. Let’s go.”

He led me through the house, talking as we walked. "Thanks for taking care of our daughter, Carolyn. And for dinner, you’re very kind.” At the front door, he offered his hand to Emily’s father. "Doug.”

Mr. Galbreith flicked on the front flood lights. "Watch your step out there.”

Daddy lowered his hand. To me, not shaking Daddy’s hand seemed a deliberate slight, but Daddy’s smile didn’t alter in the least, so I must have been mistaken.

Momma addressed Mrs. Galbreith. "I’m sorry if we’ve caused you any trouble.”

"No trouble. No trouble at all. It’s been way too long since we’ve invited you for dinner. This just... made it happen. Night, Sarah.”

I could feel it in Mrs. Galbreith’s voice, the desire to give me a hug, but not knowing if it would be all right with Momma. I solved the dilemma for her. I stepped away from Daddy and threw my arms around her. "Thank you.” My squeeze was brief, but she got the message.

"Are they leaving?” Emily shouted from upstairs. "Sarah, you’re not going, are you?” She charged down the stairs. "Hey, girl,” Emily said. "You were out like the dead.”

Frank followed behind her. The nod he gave me barely moved his head.

I wanted to grab Emily’s hand, take her to my hideout, tell her why I came to visit. Instead, we locked pinkies. We’d probably be locking pinkies when we turned into gray-haired old ladies—if I made it that long.

"Sorry I missed the excitement,” she said.

"Talk to you tomorrow.” I’d have to keep my secret until then. I gave her little finger two tugs with mine, telegraphing: It’s important. Call me.

As soon as we got into the car, Momma’s inquisition started. "What happened, Sarah?”

Last night? This afternoon? Tonight? "When?”

"Don’t get wise. You scared the living daylights out of us. When Carolyn called and said . . ” Momma turned toward Daddy. He must have tapped her leg or something.

"Let her tell it her way,” he said.

I glanced at the rearview mirror. The interior made it too dark to see his reflection. Tell it my way. What was my way?

"All I know is, one minute I was fine.” I guess my way was to lie—I hadn’t been fine. After last night, I’d never be fine again. "I was minding my own business, and all of a sudden I got clammy and shaky and I thought I was having a heart attack.”

That wrapped it up well, I thought. My recollection for the incident started out spotty, and with each passing minute, became hazier. I did remember my heart racing, the room twirling, Death standing in front of me. I never wanted to experience that again. Ever.

"I’m going to make an appointment with Dr. Perchek,” Momma said. "First thing Monday morning.”

Dr. Perchek would see my bruises. He’d ask questions. He’d tell Momma. She’d tell Daddy.

Just thinking about my bruises made them ache.

"I have school on Monday.”

Momma turned in her seat and looked at me, her face blank. "I know you have school on Monday.” She measured her words, took her time.

"But my perfect attendance? I haven’t missed a day of school all year.”

"The doctor will give you a note,” Momma said. "It’ll be an excused absence.”

I tried not to whine. "You always tell me to keep a routine. Routine’s the backbone of life, you said. What about my school routine?”

"One change won’t kill you, Sarah.”

"But there’s nothing wrong with me. It’ll be a waste of our time.”

Momma rolled her eyes.

Daddy pulled into our driveway. No one made a motion to leave the car. He kept the engine running, thankfully, for the air conditioner. My skin smoldered like embers. I hoped I wasn’t coming down with something.

I switched to a surefire strategy. "It’ll cost money.”

"It’ll be worth the expense,” she said. "Dr. Perchek will find out what’s wrong with you.”

"There’s nothing wrong with me!”

"I’ll believe that when the doctor says so.”

"Great,” I mumbled. "Don’t believe me.”

"When you have enough backbone to tell the truth, that’s when I’ll—”

"You wouldn’t know the truth if it bit you.”

"That’s enough, Sarah.” Daddy snapped.

"Oh, sassing your mother gives you a spine?” Momma whipped forward and threw her arms across her chest.

"Lily.” Daddy dug the word from deep inside him.

Ooooh, she made me mad. She was the one who needed a spine. What I’d give to tell her a thing or two, but Daddy meant his warning to me. If I sassed back now, Daddy would defend her. He always did when the three of us were together.

Tomorrow I’d talk with him alone. He’d understand my not wanting to skip classes. He’d get Momma to delay the appointment, better yet, change her mind altogether. He had his ways. He definitely had his ways. Yes, tomorrow, Daddy’d come to my rescue.

THE SOUTHVIEW Court area of Canonville couldn’t compare to Emily’s housing development. If you blew on the walls in our house, you could see sheetrock buckle in the next room. Not really, but almost. A little after midnight—I couldn’t sleep because of my nap at Emily’s—I heard my parents talking in their bedroom.

"A psychiatrist would be more like it,” Momma said. "Whoever heard of a fourteen-year-old having a panic attack?” I sat up in bed and pressed my ear against the pink and white flowered wallpaper. "And just this morning, she admitted she’s been moody. Emotional, remember?”

"Maybe it’s hormones.”

"Jake,” Momma warned, "don’t go there.”

"Carolyn knows what’s she’s talking about,” Daddy said. "I trust her.”

"I’m glad you do. Personally, I wouldn’t care if she was the Royal nurse for the Queen. This is our daughter we’re talking about, and I want to know what’s going on.”

"I know you do, Lily.”

I couldn’t hear the next exchange, but I could tell they were still talking. Then, ". . . normal, sweetheart. She’ll outgrow it, just like I did,” Daddy said. "It’s probably in her genes. I had panic attacks myself when I was a kid. I understand.”

"Well, I don’t.”

"I know.”

The bed creaked, and I knew what would follow. I put on my robe, took my Answers journal from its hiding place, and tiptoed downstairs. Daddy had had panic attacks? Wow. I bet they started in foster care. No one to confide in. No one to soothe his scares. Poor little boy. He must’ve felt like he was dying—just like I did.

Panic attacks—powerful words. Powerful and horrifying.

Panic attacks. Another link between Daddy and me. A link that made me feel even closer to him. I wrote:

Why Daddy Understands My Scares

I closed my eyes, let the ideas grow until the story rushed through my fingers and burst from my pen.

The closet walls crept inward, shrinking five-year-old Jake’s hiding place, trapping him with the smell of stinky shoes and his own whimpering. His eyes leaked. He couldn’t help it. His heart pounded like a tom tom. Boom-boom.

Boom-boom.

Boom-boom.

The sound terrified him—and, he wanted it louder. Wanted it to drown out the other sounds. He pulled his knees against his chest, pressed his palms against his ears. He begged without words, Make it stop. Pretty please. Pretty, pretty please. Make it stop.

But it didn’t stop. It never stopped. And he could do nothing but let warm pee seep through his pants and form a puddle beneath him.

I tiptoed upstairs and hid Answers between two sweaters in a plastic bin in my closet. On my way back downstairs, I stopped in the hall by the door next to mine. No movement. No sounds. Maybe Daddy’d already convinced Momma not to take me to the doctor’s on Monday. Maybe I wouldn’t even need to ask him.

The bed creaked. Momma cooed.

He probably had more persuading to do.

I returned to the family room and spent the rest of the night curled in front of the television, the volume on mute.

 


 

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