“Here. We can hide down here.”
I flip over the bright pink ruffle skirt on Melody’s Minnie Mouse bedspread before crawling under her bed. A cold breeze whistles through the cracks in the bendy floorboards, and it’s dusty and dark, but I can keep Melody safe down here like I pinkie promised her dad two days after we met.
Melody had never lived in the country before. She came from one of those towns with big buildings that go all the way up into the sky. My horses scared her. My dogs scared her. Pretty much anything that moved scared her… except my mom and me. That’s probably because we arrived to greet our new neighbors with freshly baked cookies. Only a silly person would be scared of peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies.
Melody isn’t silly. She’s really really pretty.
Madden thinks so too.
I hate that my brother wants to be Melody’s friend too, but Melody tells me I don’t have to be mad. She thinks Madden is weird. He kind of is. For one, he doesn’t like chocolate. Who doesn’t like chocolate? I love chocolate. Do you?
When Melody joins me under her bed, I get a pain in my chest when I see how much water is in her eyes. They’re so full, they’re about to burst like our water balloons did earlier today when I filled them with too much water. I don’t like when Melody cries. It makes me sad.
After balancing my sweaty head on Melody’s forehead, I cup my best friend’s ears with my chubby hands. Mommy says Melody has dolls eyes because they’re always twinkling. I think they’re one of the things that make her pretty. They’re as sparkly as the marbles digging in my hip and just as big.
I should have swapped sides with Melody, then she’d be better protected from the man chasing us down, and I wouldn’t have a sore backside tomorrow. Marbles hurt. Not as much as daddy’s belt when mommy goes to grandma’s house, but they make some of the gloss in Melody’s eyes to jump into mine.
I won’t cry. I’m too brave for that. Mr. Gregg tells me that very thing every time he sees me. I like his praise. He’s so nice to me, when I look up at the stars stuck to the ceiling in my room, I wish for him to become my dad. He doesn’t have much money, and he leaves his home for a long, long time to work, but he’s still a good dad.
Melody’s eyes shine with more wetness when the creak of the stairs in her family ranch vibrates through the gap in my fingers. According to my mom, I’m still carrying baby fat, so I should be able to block out the vibrations making Melody scared, but I’m not. I’m nose-bombing—again.
I’m still in trouble from pretending to be sick last week. Unlike two of my older brothers, Madden and Phoenix, I don’t like going hunting with our dad. Watching Madden burn the wings off butterflies with a magnifying glass makes my tummy feel yucky, so I don’t want to see what he does to the deer they catch. Just the thought has the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches Melody and I ate at lunch creeping up my food pipe.
Don’t they know what they’re doing is wrong? Melody and I watched a special show with Melody’s mommy one day that said even killing something as little as an ant can be catastrophic.
When you hurt something on purpose, you can cause a tornado. I don’t want to cause a tornado, they make a lot of mess, so every time my dad packs up his big truck to go hunting, I pretend I’m sick. It makes him not like me, and he calls me names when mommy isn’t around, but I’m sure once he realizes I’m stopping our house from being demolished by a tornado, he’ll love me again… maybe.
Determined to show my dad I am as brave as Mr. Gregg says, I wiggle closer to my very best friend in the world. Once Melody’s heart is felt thumping against my chest, I calm the fear in her eyes as her daddy taught me. “One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi…” By the time I reach five, Melody counts with me. She doesn’t speak the words I do, but her lips do mimic the movements mine make.
She is as brave as me. I just forget all the time because she’s so pretty. You can’t be brave and pretty at the same time.
I don’t think.
“Six Mississippi. Seven—” I clutch my ears to stop Melody’s screams from piercing my eardrums when her ankle is grabbed and she is pulled out from beneath her bed. She holds her arms out for me to grab her, but I’m too slow. She’s yanked away from me too quickly.