By the time I made it to the school bus, there was one seat left, the one next to Candy. I scanned each row again until Freddy the bus driver, pink and patchy face fuzz, yelled “Take a seat!” Then, a little lower, “Next time you better hustle, girl, or I’ll leave your ass.” The bus started moving, and I was flung forward, towards Candy.
That mass of bright red curls was a mane of rusted springs around her pale face. She was wearing her Mötley Crüe t-shirt, the one that was too-tight, they were all too-tight, faded red letters wrapped and straining around her chest. Some kids called her Dolly Parton behind her back. She was only in seventh grade, but even Freddy took a couple of eyefuls when she got on and off.
Boys poured over their seats and across the aisle to get at her. Up against the window, she made this fluttery kind of noise, could be mistaken for a giggle, but reminded me of a flock of tiny birds startled and scattering. I held on to the seat backs to keep from falling over—the bus twisting and jolting through the apartment complex—and the boys scattered when I finally reached her.
One, in a Carolina Gamecocks shirt, who looked like he should’ve been on the high school bus, said, “Told me you were saving that seat.”
“I was.” Candy moved her backpack to her lap. The boy side-eyed me with icy blues, then fell back to jabbering with his friends.
I knew she wasn’t saving the seat for me, but I sat down anyway. We’d never said two words to each other since the first day of school, when we were paired up and made to share something interesting about summer vacation. Candy said she’d hitchhiked downtown one night to sneak into a bar for a concert. I told her my family moved from one side of Columbia to the other, again, but left out the part about leaving Dad behind.
“Sucks to be the new kid,” she said.
“I went here for a week last year.”
Candy popped her gum like a firecracker. “That doesn’t count.”
I knew it didn’t but I was sick of being new. We were all the time moving—Millie didn’t know how to stay put, and that was why she and Dad were splitting. Said Millie. Dad said, “Your mother doesn’t love me anymore.”
Gamecocks Shirt hung over the seat back, bill of his sideways cap poking me in the face. “Hey, Candy,” he said. “That gum smells good. How bout you let me get a taste?” He started cracking up, along with all the other boys around us, a pack of hyenas.
Candy sent her little birds flying, put her headphones on and turned the music so loud it leaked from the foam against her ears. I was trying to read about Athena and Arachne, but couldn’t focus under all the stares, like when I first showed up at that good school, every white face turned to me, deciding on my story before I could tell it. I scooted to the edge of the seat, away from Candy. Her eyes were closed, the orange crest of her bangs bobbing slightly to the music, the bumps in the road, every now and then a little firecracker pop.
Pepper Mill Middle School still had that new smell. It had been a year since it sprang up in the field across from the elementary school, but the milky walls, shiny checkered tiles, and imitation dark wood tables, without a stain or scar, seemed like they’d come straight out of the box for me that morning. But before I could get to my spot square in front of the chalkboard, Mrs. Whelan announced there were new assigned seats. She liked to stir the pot from time to time, see what rose to the surface.
I was at a back-corner table with Candy. I looked over to where I used to sit, near Courtney and Stacey, still together at the front of the room. They stole a glance and put their heads close in whispering. Behind them was Mason, feet propped up on my old chair, making sound effects after each name while Mrs. Whelan called attendance. She just smiled and shook her head like always.
Halfway through the Civics lesson, Mrs. Whelan had to leave the room. She put poor Preemie Kelly, small and stringy-haired, in charge. Travis made like he was drinking from an invisible bottle, then staggered around. Half the class laughed their heads off, and Kelly shushed the room, spit spraying.
Candy was drawing something on her arm with a pen, a snake, which started me thinking about when I wore my hair in braids the first week of school, and some eighth grader yelled, “Look out, it’s Medusa.” I wish I had turned him to stone. After that, I kept my hair pulled back all the time, or hanging dead-straight.
Then I couldn’t see the snake for the shadow—Mason standing over the table. “What’s going on over here?” He reached for a book and brushed against Candy’s chest.
“Hey, what?” He flashed those perfect white teeth. “Too bad you’re stuck over here, Candy. Sure smells different.” His face got close to her, like he was sniffing her hair. “Hope it don’t rub off on you.” His hand brushed up against her again. She didn’t say anything, just slapped his paws away, and laughed along like they were in on the same joke.
I turned away to face the chalkboard, squinting my eyes, pretending I couldn’t see. Stacey mouthed something to Courtney, and I knew the shape of it, easy to recognize the way she drew out the L, bit down on the T. Candy looked at me as Mrs. Whelan came in. Maybe she wasn’t a slut, but I didn’t let her catch my eye for a second.
Ernie and me were just finishing dinner when Dad showed without notice. I told him, “There’s leftovers if you’re hungry.”
“You make all this?” he asked.
“Dad…Dad…Dad,” Ernie circled all around him, tugging his pants leg.
“It’s only Jiffy cornbread and frozen lima beans. Meat’s from yesterday.” I started the sink filling with hot water, squeezed the last of the dish soap from the bottle in a sputtering green stream.
“When you learn how to cook?”
“Dad, let me show you something,” Ernie tried to pull him into the living room, but his scrawny eight-year-old body couldn’t budge our father.
“Millie’s working closing tonight,” I said.
“She still letting you call her that?”
“It’s her name, isn’t it?” Soap bubbles bloomed on the surface of the water, mixing swirls of rainbow grease and floating crumbs.
“You gonna stop calling me Dad?” Half a smile was carved in that wooden face.
“Dad…Dad,” Ernie climbed all over him. “Wanna play Mario? Livi won’t play with me cause I’m too good.”
“Oh, hush.” I left the dishes in the sink, fished around in the coin jar above the refrigerator for quarters, and told Ernie he better not still be on that Nintendo when I got back.
“Where you going?” Dad said.
“Gotta wash the sheets and towels. Company’s coming tomorrow.”
He brushed Ernie off, took a step toward me, screwing up his eyes. “Company, huh? Who the hell—”
I was out the door, balancing the laundry bag, detergent, my book of Greek myths, pockets heavy with quarters.
I meant to keep company with the gods and goddesses while I waited on the sheets to dry, but the fake mountain breeze and spring rain smell trapped in the close heat made my head hurt. That, and I couldn’t figure why Athena, wise and powerful, would care about that stinking apple, or whether some boy thought she was the prettiest. I’d rather be fierce than good-looking any day.
Last time Millie’s boyfriend, Denny, came to visit, it was just after we moved in, and she’d told Dad it was over for good. An old friend passing through, she told me, but right off I could tell Denny wasn’t a friend and aimed to do more than just pass on through. He looked around at everything like he was deciding what to keep, what to throw away. He won Ernie by playing video games all afternoon, and Millie, just by being there. I kept to myself.
Denny was supposed to be sleeping in the living room, but when I heard noises in the middle of the night and got up to check, the couch was empty and Millie’s bedroom door shut tight. I couldn’t get back to sleep and couldn’t stand his grinning face in the morning.
“How old are you? Thirteen?” he asked.
“Twelve.” I practically whispered into my cereal.
“Almost a teenager.” He shook his head, ran his hand over his short buzz cut, the dark hair just a suggestion. “You ever been on a date?”
I sunk down in my seat. “I’m twelve.”
“You should start acting like it,” he said. “Twelve’s not so young in a lot of places.” He promised to take me on a practice date next time he came through. I pushed back from the table so fast his coffee spilled onto his lap and I wasn’t a bit sorry.
It was late, and Ernie should have been in bed instead of dead-eyed in front of Super Mario. There were crushed Schlitz cans on the kitchen counter.
“What took you so long?” Dad was at the table, sipping a can and smoking, which he wasn’t allowed to do in our new place. I opened a window.
“One of the dryers is broken. Had to run the towels twice.”
Another hour before Millie would be home. His waiting was like a storm cloud.
“I had to stay. We can’t leave our stuff anymore. Not since—”
“Yeah, somebody used a washing machine as a toilet.” Ernie jumping to tell the story. “It was so nasty. There was—”
“Ernie, hush! Nobody wants to hear about it.”
“Fucking dump.” Dad shot up, nearly knocked the chair over. “I don’t know why she moved you here.”
“Got stuff to do.” I dragged the laundry bag down the hall into Millie’s bedroom, and Dad was right behind me, smoke trailing him.
“Like get away from me.” Talk pinched around the cigarette in his mouth. “Just like her. Think I don’t know that? Huh?”
I started making up the bed with the satiny sheets still warm from the dryer and honeyed in the light. I stretched them over the lumpy mattress with springs pushing through.
Dad was on a roll, yelling, arms waving, dropping ashes wherever. “Company coming. Shit, think I don’t know what that means?”
I saw a burn spot growing.
“She’s still my wife. This is still my family.”
I ripped the sheet off the bed, dumped it in the tub and blasted the shower.
“I’m supposed to sit in some cell across town while my wife lets another man in our bed?”
The sheet was a wet tangle and water splashed out, stinging my legs with cold, dripping down between my toes till I was standing in a puddle and going numb.
When it was time to rise and say the Pledge of Allegiance next morning, I was still a little numb—my mind back at home, stuck between the night before and the evening in front of me with Denny there.
“Olivia, we are waiting.” Mrs. Whelan was at the front of the room, foot tapping away. I had to concentrate to stand, face the flag, raise my hand to my heart, and for the first time I was thinking about the words. I remembered the field trip downtown to the South Carolina statehouse, the Confederate flag on top of the Capitol dome, waving under the same one I was making promises to.
“Thank you, class.” Mrs. Whelan turned to the board and wrote Allegiance in big chalky script. Another thing owed I couldn’t pay. Sometimes felt like I was in one of Ernie’s games, in every direction a wall popping up, blocking my path before I’d even decided where to go.
I tried to will the world into slow-motion, but the day sped towards three o’clock in a blur, so that all I caught were flashes of scenes, scraps of sound. “Thank God it’s Friday.” Stacey picking the lettuce out of her taco salad, making a pile on her tray. “Gosh,” Courtney corrected. Travis making faces in the window outside of Pre-Algebra, waiting on Mason. “How’d she get in the smart classes anyhow?” Mason shrugging past, knocking the books out of my arms. “Who knows.” A flock of tiny birds flying around the corner, sending me in the other direction.
When I got home, Denny was already there on the couch, speeding a little red race car around a track on the TV.
“Where’s Millie?” I said.
“Hey yourself.” He looked up just long enough to make me cross my arms in front of my chest, and wish I’d worn my baggy sweatshirt, even if it was too warm still. “She went to get your brother.”
I tried to slip out of the room when he said, “You wanna play?”
“Nah, I got stuff to do.”
“Stuff,” he said. “Come on, keep me company ‘til your mom gets back. I’ll even turn this off.”
He let his car crash into a wall, turn to flame and smoke, then switched the channel with the remote till he landed on Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. “You like MTV?” He patted the cushion next to him.
I sat at the far end of the couch but could still smell his aftershave or cologne or whatever. Kind of woodsy, like pine needles, and it made my head hurt.
“Man, see how she’s sitting there,” he pointed to the TV, to Lisa Lisa sitting on the steps under flashing neon. “Her knees together all sexy.”
I felt his eyes on me but instead of making me squirm, they locked me in place. He shifted in his seat, and I jumped up.
“Hey now,” he said. “You gotta relax. Sit back down here.”
“I have homework.”
“It’s Friday.” He grabbed my hand. It disappeared in his. “I haven’t forgotten about that date I promised you.”
“It’s fine. You’ve only got a couple days to spend with Millie.” The more I tried to loosen free, the tighter his grip, until I just stopped trying altogether.
“Oh, I got time.” His lips were shiny from licking, but the corners of his mouth were cracked. “I got plenty of time for you.”
Before I could think what to say, Ernie burst through the front door, Millie behind him on the stairs.
“Denny! What’d you bring? Mom said you got a new game.”
Denny let go my hand, and Ernie barreled past me to get to him. By the time Millie showed, I was clear down the hall, a burning ring around my wrist.
“Livi!” She called after me, but I was locked behind my bedroom door, tearing the curtains closed, crawling up under the covers, making a cave for myself to wait out the rest of the day.
The phone screamed murder the whole time Millie and Denny were off being teenagers. It was Dad calling, said he was checking on us—“Doing alright? Need me to come over?”—like being left alone was something new for Ernie and me. We were playing Trouble because I got tired of dying in Mario, and clicking the plastic popper over and over made a good sound.
“She back yet?”
“She forget she got kids at home, waiting on her? I got half a mind to tell her what I think about this whole mess.”
“I’ll tell her you called.” I left the phone off the hook.
The morning smelled like bacon, and Millie was in the kitchen humming along to the sizzle and snap. It had been a while since she’d made breakfast on a Saturday, since I’d found her smiling so early in the morning. She painted the day for me—a drive out to the lake, a picnic, the four of us, which I noted did not mean what it used to.
“Please give him a chance, Livi. You’ll like him, I know it.” She set a plate in front of me, smoothed my hair.
I wanted to tell her I’d already given him too many chances, but, Please—when did Millie ever say please? “Dad called about a million times last night.”
She turned back to the crackle of bacon, the silence of scrambled eggs.
“Anyway, I got too much homework to go all the way out to the lake.”
“Today’s a family day. You do your homework tomorrow.”
“He’s not family,” I mumbled on my way out the kitchen. I was staring at my monster feet, growing too fast like everything else, and didn’t see him turn the corner. I crashed right into him. He put his hands on my shoulders—“Whoa, whoa,”—let his fingers stray past my collar to my skin all covered in goose bumps.
“Denny? What you doing, baby?” Millie called.
In one smooth sweep, his hands from my shoulders to running over his head. He whistled as he walked away. I leaned into the wall, waited for my breaths to come natural, my legs to still, and tried to block out the sound of Millie giggling and humming along in the kitchen.
Picture a family. A man, a woman, a girl, and a boy, on a checkered blanket by a lake, under a cerulean sky. Cerulean is about the prettiest word the girl has ever heard. There’s even a boat on the water. The girl watches it make a line into the distance. The man tells stories that make the boy and the woman laugh. Perched, invisible, in one of the many trees surrounding the lake is a mockingbird listening and laughing after them. When the boat is nothing but a white speck on the horizon, and the mocking and laughing bleed into one unending noise, the girl rises.
“I’m going for a walk.”
“Don’t go too far,” the woman calls.
The cool of the green is a relief after baking in the sun. The girl takes off her sweatshirt, rolls the legs of her baggy jeans. She can smell her sour sweat. Among the trees, each step is lost in the cushion and muffle of fallen needles. She goes faster, racing the light streaming in between the pines. She is Artemis, maiden of the wood, huntress.
She stops to collect her bow and arrows, and someone sneaks up behind her. She nearly jumps out of her skin.
“Just me,” the man says. “Your mom sent me looking for you.”
“You scared me.”
“Cause you’re way too tense.” He moves closer, so close she can see flecks of steel in his dark eyes. He rubs her shoulders. “What you need is a good massage.”
He turns her around. His hands are heavy, fingers like a vise, and only her mind races off. Her heart bangs around in her chest, a clamor in her ears, and he’s pressed up against her, his hands reaching around and under her shirt, and the mockingbird is laughing in the trees and the light is shifting with the breeze and refusing to be caught and the speck of a boat on the other side of the lake sprouts wings and flies past the edge of the shore into the sky, and the girl can see it going for the sun.
I told Millie I was sick, and it wasn’t a lie—my head about to split, and my stomach a nest of snakes. No fever, but it was enough to convince her I needed a rest. I stayed in bed—and away from Denny—all the next day. Millie came in once to tell me he was leaving and wanted to say goodbye, but I kept my eyes shut, my breaths slow and even until I heard the door click, and footsteps down the hall.
By Monday, my head was mended, the snakes were calm, but my skin was all prickles.
“Feeling better?” Millie reached over the stretched telephone cord to feel my forehead.
“Guess so.” I ducked underneath. I heard Dad’s voice on the other end.
“Gonna miss my bus.”
Every look, brush up against me, sound of chairs screeching across the floor in the classroom, sent me into shivers. Candy raised her eyebrows at me. “What’s your problem?”
“What’s yours?” I snapped back.
Before either of us could answer, Mason parked himself at the edge of the table, next to Candy, and Travis leaned over on the other side. She was caged in, but only rolled her eyes, gave a little giggle. I was so sick of those damned birds.
“Hey, Candy, I was thinking we should work on that Civics project together,” Mason said. “I could come over to your house after school.”
“House?” Travis was like a chipmunk, always chattering, pale cheeks puffy. “More like a trailer, right Candy?”
“Think you spilled something on your shirt,” Mason said. His hand reached out, was on her. I wanted her to do something—yell, spit in his face, shove him over that wormy, rotted stump into the dead leaves and dirt—but she just scooted her chair, didn’t say a word.
Then Travis reached over. “You missed. It’s right here.”
They were back and forth grabbing at her, and she shifted side to side in her seat, then finally was on her feet, running around the room. It was a game, and they were all three howling, but for an instant I caught Candy’s eye, panicky and green. Some of the boys were laughing, clapping, one was cheering, “Ma-son, Ma-son.”
The bell rang, and the commotion died as Mrs. Whelan entered. It was time for the pledge. Everyone rushed back to their places. Candy gulping air and swiping strands from her sweaty face. Me clenching my jaw, my whole body tight to keep my teeth from chattering. The two of us stood there, not saying the words, just looking at each other, hands over our hearts.