Kylee leaned against her bedroom door, her heart beating erratically. Even from here, she could hear Bill swearing and yelling in the living room. She squeezed her eyes shut. Why was he still going on? He should have forgotten about her by now.
“Please stay in the other room. Please stay in the other room,” she chanted to herself. She glanced down at her throbbing arm, noting the small rivulet of blood collecting in the corner of her elbow.
Her mom’s shouting mingled with Bill’s, and something large crashed into a wall. The single-story house rattled as Bill’s thundering footsteps approached.
“Kylee!” he roared, the full extent of his fury echoing in the one word.
She whimpered. Her eyes landed on the chair scooted against the wooden desk next to the closet. She lunged for it, intent on propping it under the doorknob like she had so many times in the past.
Barely had she vacated her spot by the door before it banged open, slamming into the opposite wall with its force. Kylee shrieked and spun around.
“I’m sorry,” she sputtered, her hands splayed out in front of her for protection. “I should have stayed out of it. I—”
He cut the rest of her apology off with a left hook to her jaw. Kylee stumbled backwards and went down to her knees, a little surprised she hadn’t seen that coming. Bill was angrier than usual.
“What did I—” she began, but this time his punch knocked her into the desk. A searing pain lanced through her forehead. The sudden instinct to flee powered through her limbs. She had to get out. Bill blocked the exit to her room, which left her window as the only retreat.
Kylee shot forward, putting all her effort into getting to the window before Bill could get to her. But he was faster. His hand closed around her ponytail, whipping back so hard her head spun.
“No!” she cried as Bill grabbed her shoulders.
“Shut up,” he said.
“Let me go.” She squirmed under his hands. “Please.”
“I said shut up,” he said before slamming her head into the floor.
All Kylee got out was a small groan before blackness claimed her.
The sun had already dipped low on the horizon of the Virginia sky when the black car pulled into the neighbor’s driveway. Kylee didn’t know anything about cars, what body went to which brand, but she knew just from the sound—or lack of it—as the vehicle came to a stop that it was one of the nicer ones.
A man stepped out of the driver’s side, but Kylee’s view was blocked by the moving truck that pulled up beside the car. She sat up taller on the crumbling porch step. Neighbors. No one had lived next to the Mansfields in years.
Kylee glanced over her shoulder, through the screen door that barricaded the flies from entering her mother’s house. She could hear the slurred drone of her stepfather’s voice from the living room, her mother’s tepid responses. No one was paying any attention to her.
She pushed herself off the porch and stepped through the knee-high weeds that choked the front yard. The sun silhouetted the men as they stood behind the moving truck, blocking out their features. Still, it wasn’t hard to make out the tailored suit the driver of the car wore as he directed the two men in t-shirts and overalls.
Kylee wanted another look at that car. So far, they were too busy unloading the moving van to notice her. She stole a glance at the house sitting at the end of the long driveway. It was a gorgeous, white-washed building, full of character and history, like many of the houses in Pungo. Unfortunately, some idiot missed the memo and built a two-bedroom bungalow not fifty yards away.
No wonder no one wanted to live next to them. As if the weeds threatening to go native in the yard, the run-down, rusted blue pick-up, and Bill’s beat-up clunker weren’t enough, the roof of the house sagged in the middle. Paint peeled from the sides and the gutter had come loose. It now dangled precariously over the concrete steps.
A mosquito buzzed in her ear, and Kylee slapped her neck before it bit her. She’d somehow escaped the summer with not a single bug bite. Probably because she spent almost every moment trapped inside.
Her mother’s voice carried to Kylee’s ears. She jerked away from the split-rail fence separating the two yards and hurried back to the house before her mother could call again. Last thing she wanted was for the new neighbors to notice her. She pushed open the screen door and entered the living room. The whirling ceiling fan did nothing to ease the humid heat clinging to the walls or disperse the twisted trails of smoke floating from the living room. Kylee resisted the urge to step back outside. “Mom?”
Her mom sat at the kitchen table, head in her hands. She was always sick these days and rarely lugged herself out of bed. She lifted her head, her eyes darting to the screen door behind Kylee. “Were you outside?”
“Just on the porch.”
“Bill doesn’t like you out there. Did you do the dishes?”
“Not yet.” She bit her lip to keep from complaining. Her mom needed her. Bill made their lives miserable; the least she could do was help her mother out.
Last year, when Kylee was still in school and still had friends, she’d gone to Jessica’s house for a sleepover. Many high-tech gadgets furnished the house, but the one that most amazed Kylee was the dishwasher. Jessica’s mom simply cleared the table, stuck everything in the white box, and pressed a button.
Kylee would never talk about the white box in front of her mom and stepfather again. After the fourth time of bringing it up, Bill had grabbed Kylee by the hair and held her arm under the faucet until the water grew so hot that she screamed.
“We’re not good ’nuff for you, that it? You deserve something better? Think you don’t belong here?” he had snarled, his rancid breath hot on her face.
Kylee pleaded and sobbed until he released her. She never went to a friend’s house again. And heaven forbid she mention any electronic appliances.
A bird screeched outside, startling her. The dish in Kylee’s hand slipped from her fingers and crashed on the scuffed linoleum floor, shards of cheap ceramic flying under the stove and into the vent.
“Kylee?” her mom said groggily from the kitchen table.
Kylee was already on the ground, gathering up the sharp pieces. “It was nothing. You can go back to bed.” The sounds of the television still blared from the other room, and she didn’t hear the creak of the chair that would indicate her stepfather had lifted his body up. “He didn’t hear anything.”
“Theresa!” Bill hollered from the living room.
Her mom gave a low moan. Kylee grabbed the broom and cleaned up the last of the pieces. She closed the trashcan and shoved the broom back into a corner.
Bill wouldn’t care about one less dish. She picked up the next one, holding it with more careful fingers.
“Get in here, Theresa!” Bill yelled.
The chair shuffled back from the table, and her mother stood with a loud exhale. Her shoulders hunched forward and her head lowered.
“Don’t go to him, Mom,” Kylee said, watching her mother shuffle down the kitchen corridor that led to the living room.
“Finish your job,” Theresa said. “And stay in here.”
“Right,” Kylee sighed.
The low murmur of her mom’s voice carried into the kitchen. She heard the guttural grunt of her stepfather’s response, and then a high-pitched cry. Kylee flinched.
“Kylee!” Bill summoned.
She put down her towel, bracing herself.
“No,” her mom said. “Keep her out of this.”
She straightened her shoulders and hurried toward the living room. Fear shivered along her spine. She stepped down into the darkened room, the blue-ish light from the television and the sunlight filtering through the blinds the only thing to show her way. It took a second for her eyes to adjust, but she made out the shadowy figure of her mother next to the reclining chair. Kylee’s eyes could just see where she pressed a hand against an ugly red mark on her cheek.
“Always sticking your nose where it don’t belong,” Bill growled, rocking his chair and taking a swig from the long-necked bottle in his hand.
“Kylee, go back to the kitchen,” her mom said.
Kylee didn’t budge. Her heart pounded hard, the blood thumping behind her ears. It took all of her courage to say, “Only if you come back with me.”
“Worthless, just like your mom.” Bill pushed himself to his feet. His full height of six something towered over her, and he twisted his head around to pop his neck. As if he needed anything else to intimidate her. “You got something to say, girl?”
Kylee’s insides turned to ice, and she felt herself wilting beneath him. “No, sir,” she said, trying to maintain eye contact. “I just need my mom’s help in the kitchen. With the dishes.”
“Don’t you dare talk to me that way!” he snarled.
“Go to your room, Kylee,” her mom said.
“Yeah, Kylee,” Bill sneered, slurring her name. “Go to your room so I can take care of your mom.”
For a heartbeat, she forgot her own need for self-preservation. “You leave her alone!”
He stumbled toward her, but her mother’s arm reached out, gripping him around the waist.
“Kylee,” she said, her voice forced and even, “go. Now.”
A warning prickled the skin on the back of her neck, and Kylee knew that this was not the time to disobey. She turned and ran through the kitchen before swinging a left into the dining room. Her hip collided with the table, but she kept going. Gasping for breath, she closed her bedroom door and leaned against it.
She could predict what would happen next. It was the same scene, over and over. Her parents would yell and throw things and get physical before her mother made it to her bed and Bill passed out in the living room. She heard him roar her name, and the house shook with the impact of his footsteps.
Why, oh why, hadn’t she thought to bring the phone? Not that it helped. By the time the police made it from town to the farmland in Pungo, the altercation was usually over. She stuck her desk chair under the doorknob just in case Bill tried to come in.
Falling to her knees in front of the bed, Kylee’s hand searched under the pillow. Her fingers grazed a sharp knife, but that wasn’t what she wanted. She kept searching, gingerly lest she cause an unwanted injury.
There. She pulled out an extendable razor blade. Yanking her sleeve up, she made a tiny cut in the crook of her elbow, gasping at the sharp pain that skittered up her arm. She could still hear the sounds of the fighting, but her attention was held by the blood that pooled in the joint of her arm.
From her peripheral vision, she saw a light flick on next door. She scooted around the bed to get a better look. She saw the silhouette of a boy as he walked across the lit-up room on the second floor. He disappeared from view, then reappeared briefly before turning off the light.
Bill’s shout jolted her back to the present, but Kylee ignored it. She made a deeper cut next to the first, and the white pain made her gasp. She put the razor blade away and curled up next to the bed. She closed her eyes and focused on the throbbing ache in her arm.
Saturday. Kylee flung the covers off and grabbed up a change of clothes. She streaked into the bathroom to shower and change before Bill could notice her. The worst part about the weekend was knowing he would be here, all day for two whole days.
She ended her shower before the running water could attract his attention. She stepped into her room and found a pair of jeans and gray hoodie to put on.
The kitchen was empty. Kylee began working on the dough that would be part of their dinner later. Pausing, she listened for Bill. Nothing yet. Last night’s fight must’ve really done a number on him. She needed to check on her mother, but she didn’t want to bump into him. She tiptoed into her mom’s bedroom. Only her mother lay on top of the covers.
“Mom? Do you ever leave this room?” Kylee placed a mug of coffee on the nightstand. The only response was a soft groan.
“You need to get out of the house.” Kylee took a sip of the coffee. “We could go meet the neighbors. Take them some fresh bread.”
“Too much light,” her mom whispered.
Her mom got awful headaches that sometimes left her vomiting. Kylee closed the blinds and left the room. She needed to get the eggs.
The cool morning air blew her wispy blond hair away from her face, and she took a moment to breathe it in. As always, the briny smell of aquatic life carried over the earthy aroma of farm life and woods. Less than an hour away the Atlantic Ocean crashed against the Virginia shore.
Twenty miles from the Virginia Beach boardwalk, but Bill absolutely forbade her to go.
Come to think of it, she hadn’t heard him yell yet this morning. In fact, she hadn’t even heard the television blaring. Where was he?
She unlatched the door to the chicken coop. The chickens plucked at her hands until she dumped enough feed into the house to distract them. The eggs now unguarded, Kylee carefully placed each one into the basket.
On the other side of the house, she heard voices calling back and forth. The neighbors. She picked up the basket of eggs and scurried into the front yard.
A big dog with shaggy reddish-yellow fur ran around their yard, panting as he ducked in and out of the legs of an adolescent boy and a young girl. The man stood in the moving truck, handing boxes to the two children.
Kylee slowed down. The girl’s brown hair was in a messy ponytail, as if she had slept on the hairdo. The boy’s hair was a similar color, but spiked upward in a trendy style Kylee recognized from television commercials. He had his back to her, so Kylee couldn’t see his face, but judging from his height, he had to be about her age. Fifteen, at the oldest. She felt a rush of energy. Having a neighbor her age, especially a boy, was more than she could hope for.
As if sensing her stare, he turned around and met her eyes across the fence. For a heartbeat, neither of them moved. Then Kylee smiled and waved. She’d been right. He couldn’t be older than sixteen, at the most. “Hi. I’m Kylee.”
He didn’t smile back. He just stared at her another moment, then turned his back on her and said something to the man in the van.
Maybe he didn’t hear me, Kylee told herself, the familiar coldness of disappointment seeping into her limbs. He could’ve at least smiled.
He swiveled around and met her gaze again. He took two steps backwards, his eyes not leaving hers. And then he disappeared around the side of the van. Kylee heard his footsteps as he ran into the house.
“So much for making a friend,” she sighed. All the excitement about having new neighbors rushed out of her. Drained, tired, and wanting to do nothing more except go back to bed, Kylee pushed open the screen door and went into the house.
She deposited the basket of eggs on the counter, then thought better of it. She better wash them first. She turned on the warm water and worked the soap into a lather, all the while cursing her family for being a blight on the community. She didn’t know what the rumors were, but she knew people talked about them. She remembered the looks when she’d gone to school. She felt the whispers even from her room, the way people pointed and hurried past.
She hadn’t expected the new family to hear them already. Maybe the Realtor warned them when he sold the house. It was only fair, right? They should know what they were getting into. Maybe they got the house for a song and a dance because of the crazy neighbors.
She’d find a chance to talk to the boy. She could show him that not all of the Mansfield family was crazy.
The egg she held in her hand slipped between her fingers. Kylee grappled for it, performing a desperate dance before gravity won the battle. It cracked open on the linoleum, the sound louder than a gunshot to Kylee’s ears. She held her breath. Maybe Bill hadn’t heard.
She went to the front window and lifted the slanting blinds. Where she expected to see the dented, rusty car, the driveway was empty.
“Bill’s not here,” she whispered.
Kylee gathered the white laundry basket in her arms and headed outside with the wet clothes, suddenly anxious to talk to her mom. She strung up the wet items and started pulling the dry things off the line as quickly as she could. She stopped short when her mom walked into the yard, holding one hand against her head.
“Mom? Are you well enough to be up?”
“We have to hurry,” Theresa said, stopping next to the line. “I heard on the radio that we’ll be getting rain this afternoon.”
“I wanted to talk to you,” Kylee said, swatting at a gnat that buzzed near her eyes. “Is Bill working today?”
“Not good enough. It’s just not good enough.”
Conversations with her mom were frequently like this. Sometimes Kylee feared her mother was losing her mind.
“We need more money, is that it? So he’s working?”
Her mom slid the clothes along the line to make room for more. Maybe she doesn’t know the answer, Kylee reasoned. So she’s not sure how to respond. Lame excuse, but it was all she had. She spotted her bra on the line and jerked it off, dropping it into the basket. “A boy moved in next door.”
Her mom took down a shirt, smoothed it, and pinned it back up. “Careful, Kylee.”
“Careful of what?” Kylee snapped, irritated again. “Is there something wrong with talking to a boy?”
“Yes. Always trouble.” Her mom began to hum.
Kylee hated the sound of it. It usually meant she was checking out of reality. Kylee finished with her laundry basket and sighed. “Thanks, Mom.”
In just three short years, Kylee would be out of here. College was on the horizon, and she didn’t care where she went, as long as it was too far away to visit. She’d run away if she had to. Bill couldn’t keep her here forever. She had dreams, plans, so many things to do with her life. Maybe she’d study art, or literature. Maybe she’d become a great cook who could make something that didn’t involve chicken or rolls.
And she’d have friends. So many friends and admirers that she would have to carry a pocket calendar everywhere she went.
She pictured herself as an adult, strolling down the sidewalk in a glamorous dress, stopping to greet all the people who adored her. All the handsome men who wanted her company. “I’d love to do dinner, Andrew. Oh, Friday? I’m so sorry, Friday doesn’t work for me. Lunch is taken on Saturday, also. I can do dinner on Saturday!”
She giggled at the idea. “I’m going in now.” Kylee picked up her basket again. “Mom?”
Her mother sat down in the grass. “I’m so, so tired.”
“Come on, Mom.” Kylee took her hand and helped her up. “Back to bed.”
Theresa stood. She looked a bit steadier on her feet now. She let go of Kylee’s hand and walked in front.
Kylee put away the folded clothes, checking that her mom had made it back to bed first. The dough was rising. She had some time before she needed to roast the chicken. She picked up the phone and dialed Jessica’s number.
The line made a funny clicking noise, but it never rang. Bill probably hadn’t paid the bill. Irony. She put the phone down and locked herself in her room, settling on her stomach on the bed, textbook in front of her.
She read back over the information about the Spaniards settling the Americas, but before long her mind started to wander. Homeschooling expected the student to be self-motivated, to learn the concepts without someone handing out homework assignments. Maybe that worked for some people, but Kylee struggled with it. She needed the accountability of a grade, the competition of her peers.
She tossed her textbook aside and fished under her bed for The Story Girl. The title had worn off, she’d read it so many times, but Kylee never tired of the main character and her stories and travels. The library had given up trying to get it back years ago, and Kylee just kept reading it.
Bill was gone again before Kylee got up on Sunday morning. She couldn’t believe her luck. He must’ve picked up a weekend shift at the shipping yards at the docks. If he wanted to beat traffic, he had to leave early. Kylee spied on the new family as they drove away in their fancy black car, everyone dressed for church. With nothing else to do, Kylee focused on getting through her history homework.
The rooster crowed, and Kylee opened her eyes to a dark room. The pinkish glow of sunrise filtered in through the naked window. Morning already? She couldn’t even remember falling asleep. Her book lay next to her, folded open where she’d been reading.
Kylee stood up with a yawn. At least Mondays were predictable. Bill would be at work by now. She picked up the egg basket and headed outside.
The sun was up, a mellow orange coloring the sky as the yellowish orb started its climb on the horizon. Down the road, the bus’s air brakes squealed. Kylee paused by the chicken coop to watch the long vehicle pull to a stop. Kylee waved at her old school friends Amy and Michael, trying to catch their eyes, but neither looked at her.
“Lisa! Move it!” a male voice hollered.
Kylee turned her head to see the new kids running down the road.
“Wait!” the boy shouted toward the bus, stopping it just before it started to pull away.
The hens were clucking at her, anxious to get their feed. She forced her attention away from the departing school kids and focused on the small feathered animals.
Kylee kept her eyes on the oven clock while she peeled potatoes. The afternoon bus would be here in five minutes. Four.
She put down the potato and wiped her hands on her apron before grabbing the laundry basket.
The bus had already pulled up to the stop sign, and kids scurried around the front and down the street like ants leaving the anthill. Kylee went to the edge of the yard next to the mailbox, still holding the basket. She hesitated when she saw Amy, her brown hair pulled into a high ponytail while she strutted down the street in short white pants.
“Just say hi,” she murmured to herself. It could only help her to look friendly. More like a normal neighbor instead of a recluse. “Amy,” she called.
Amy turned her head, and Kylee’s heart skipped a beat. But instead of looking at her, Amy shouted, “Hey, Michael. What are you guys talking about?”
Kylee followed her gaze and narrowed her eyes at the two boys who approached behind Amy.
Michael called back to her. “Just telling Price about that house.”
Amy shuddered. “I can’t even stand looking at it.”
“Which house?” Lisa, the younger sister, asked, swinging her backpack and turning her small face up to her brother.
“That one,” Michael said, pointing at Kylee’s house.
“It’s haunted?” Lisa squealed.
“No,” her brother said, shooting an annoyed look at Michael. “It’s just an ugly old house.” His eyes darted toward the yard and then landed on Kylee. He jerked to a standstill.
Kylee held his gaze a moment, hoping he felt thoroughly embarrassed for being caught talking about her house. Her own face burned. She lowered her eyes and walked away from them. Let them talk. She didn’t belong with them, anyway. Maybe Bill was right to keep her away. They were better than her.
She waited until she was at the clothesline behind the house before she let the tears fall. Her whole life, she and Amy had walked to and from the bus stop together. But Amy had stopped responding to Kylee’s greetings, even avoided looking at her shortly after Kylee started homeschooling. Instead, Amy scurried past Kylee’s house, head down, as if she thought no one would notice her if she didn’t look up.
“Stupid people,” Kylee sniffed, folding a shirt and dropping it into the basket. Stupid neighbors.
Kylee ate her chicken and potatoes quickly, blocking out Bill’s complaints about the meat being overcooked and the potatoes too salty. Her mom murmured apologies and nodded along with his words.
“I’m done.” Kylee pushed back her chair, anxious to escape before Bill landed her an assignment that would take several hours to do. Like clean the bathroom and dust the molding. She hated that one.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Bill dropped his fork, letting it clatter against the wood table. He leaned back in his chair and glared at her. “We all work in this household, little girl. I’m not breaking my back for nothing.”
Kylee blinked at him, not bothering to contradict or point out all the housework she’d done that day. He didn’t care. She knew from experience that the best thing to do was play submissive. She tried to think of the easiest task she could do that would make her look busy. “You’re right. I’ll go get the mail.”
She stepped outside, shutting the front door behind her. “Should’ve named me Cinderella,” she grumbled. Except their old single story house didn’t even have a fireplace. Plenty of cigarette ashes, if that could count. And no lack of mice, either.
Laughter close by distracted her, and Kylee turned her head toward the sound. She stomped through the weeds and walked to the neighbor’s fence. Both Price and Lisa were outside, running around the yard with their big golden dog.
Kylee glanced back at her house. If Bill looked out the window, he would see her. More than likely, he’d forget about her. He usually did as soon as she left his presence. She crossed to the front of the split-rail fence, hovering at the hinged gate. “Hey,” she called.
Neither one looked at her. Lisa kept on laughing and playing with the dog, holding his toy just out of reach so he continually jumped up and tried to get it. He was big enough to almost knock her over with each jump, which just made her giggle and laugh harder. Price didn’t take his eyes from his sister, though his smile seemed a little more forced.
Kylee cleared her throat. “Hello!” she said loudly, trying to maintain the chipper and happy tone in her voice. “So you guys just moved in?”
Still neither of them acknowledged her. Suddenly annoyed, Kylee yanked the gate open and stomped into their yard. Lisa looked up at the door swinging behind Kylee, her big blue eyes startled.
Finally. They were paying attention.
Price lifted his head, an expression of alarm on his face. He grabbed Lisa’s arm and moved her slightly behind him, as if to shield her.
“Oh, please,” Kylee said, rolling her eyes at his antics. “I’m not going to hurt you.” She stepped closer. The dog yelped and tucked his tail between his legs. Kylee squatted in front of Lisa. “Hi, I’m Kylee. I’m your neighbor. What’s your name?”
Lisa avoided her eyes. She threw her arms around the dog’s neck and kissed his masses of fur. The dog sat there with his tongue hanging nearly to the ground, panting heavily.
“Are you shy?” Kylee asked. What was wrong with these people? She straightened up, placing her hands on her hips and glaring at Price. He stumbled backward under her stare.
“Lisa.” Price spoke to his little sister. “Go on and take Sisko into the house. I think he’s done playing.”
“All right.” Lisa skipped toward the house, tugging the leash of the big golden red dog behind her. The dog resisted, his furry head lolling backwards to stare at Kylee.
Kylee frowned at Price. “What’s the big deal? I’m just trying to be friendly. Neighborly. That’s what normal people do, you know, when someone moves in—”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Price hissed. He kept his lips pressed tightly together, forcing the sound out of one corner.
“What?” Kylee’s confusion turned to anger. “Says who? Did my stepfather talk to you?”
“You need to go back,” Price whispered, making a shoo-ing motion with his fingers. “I’m not afraid of you.”
Kylee guffawed, her anger morphing into dark amusement. “You are so gullible. What did the kids on the bus tell you, anyway? Besides that my house is ‘haunted.’ Really. I’ve lived there my whole life, and I can tell you it’s not.”
Price took several steps backwards and glanced around. Beads of sweat pooled on his forehead. Kylee pulled her brows together, frowning. He really did look afraid of something.
“Are you gonna be in trouble because I'm here?” Kylee asked, reaching toward his arm.
He jerked away before she could touch him and stumbled against a tree trunk behind him. He regained his footing and straightened. “Stay away. I’m warning you. Just stay away from us.” He turned around and hurried back to the house, not looking back once. The door slammed shut behind him.
Kylee stood there a moment, trying to decipher that weird encounter. She strode toward her own yard. Tomorrow she’d try again to talk to Price.
She opened the gate and paused, noticing a long scar on her right arm. It was jagged and bumpy, like a new cut that had only recently scabbed over. She traced her finger down it, a bit surprised. When had she done that? Wouldn’t she remember making a cut that big?
It was too big. It bothered her, shook her up a bit. She was lucky to be alive after such a wound. Had she gone to the hospital? No, it hadn’t been stitched up.
She shut the gate behind her and hurried through the overgrown grass. She tried to push the strange wound out of her mind. It didn't hurt, and it couldn’t have been a big deal, or certainly she would remember it.
Still, it nagged, pulled at the back of her mind, and Kylee couldn't wipe the frown from her face. It was a hideous, jagged scar, and it bothered her to think she could do something like that. Maybe the cutting thing was getting out of control.
“I’ll stop,” Kylee whispered to herself. “I will.” At least, she would try.