Dusty, empty shoe boxes, stacked taller and wider than her slim body, wobbled as she pressed her back against them, tucking her bony knees into her chest.
Breathe. Just breathe. Breathe.
Wedged in the back of the dingy closet, she didn’t dare make a sound as she sucked her lower lip between her teeth. Focusing on forcing every grimy breath into her lungs, she felt tears well in her eyes.
Oh, gosh, she’d made such a big mistake, and Miss Becky was right. She was a bad girl.
She’d reached for the dirty and stained cookie jar earlier, the one shaped like a teddy bear that hid cookies that tasted funny. She wasn’t supposed to get cookies or any food by herself, but she’d just been so hungry that her tummy hurt, and Miss Becky was sick again, napping on the couch. She hadn’t meant to knock the ashtray off the counter, shattering it into tiny pieces. Some were shaped like the icicles that clung to the roof during the winter. Others were no bigger than chips.
All she’d wanted was a cookie.
Her slender shoulders jerked at the sound of the wall cracking on the other side of the closet. She bit down harder on her lip. A metallic taste burst into her mouth. Tomorrow there would be a hole the size of Mr. Henry’s big hand in the plaster, and Miss Becky would cry and she’d get sick again.
The soft creak of the closet door was like a crack of thunder to her ears.
Oh no, no, no...
He wasn’t supposed to find her in here. This was her safe place whenever Mr. Henry was angry or when he—
She tensed, eyes peeling wide as a body taller and broader than hers slipped inside and then knelt in front of her. In the dark, she couldn’t make out much of his features, but she knew in her belly and her chest who it was.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped.
“I know.” A hand settled on her shoulder, the weight reassuring. He was the only person she felt okay with when he touched her. “I need you to stay in here, ’kay?”
Miss Becky had said once that he was only six months older than her six years, but he always seemed so much bigger, older than her, because in her eyes, he took up her entire world.
“Don’t come out,” he said, and then he pressed into her hands the redheaded doll she’d dropped in the kitchen after she broke the ashtray and rushed into the closet. Too frightened to retrieve her, she’d left Velvet where she had fallen, and she’d been so upset because the doll had been a gift from him many, many months before. She had no idea how he’d gotten Velvet, but one day he’d simply shown up with her, and she was hers, only hers.
“You stay in here. No matter what.”
Holding the doll close, clenched between her knees and chest, she nodded again.
He shifted, stiffening as an angry shout rattled the walls around them. It was her name that dripped ice down her spine; her name that was shouted so furiously.
A small whimper parted her lips and she whispered, “I just wanted a cookie.”
“It’s okay. Remember? I promised I’d keep you safe forever. Just don’t make a sound.” He squeezed her shoulder. “Just stay quiet, and when I...when I get back, I’ll read to you, ’kay? All about the stupid rabbit.”
All she could do was nod again, because there had been times when she hadn’t stayed quiet and she’d never forgotten the consequences. But if she stayed quiet, she knew what was coming. He wouldn’t be able to read to her tonight. Tomorrow he would miss school and he wouldn’t be okay even though he would tell her he was.
He lingered for a moment and then he eased out of the closet. The bedroom door shut with a smack, and she lifted the doll, pressing her tearstained face into it. A button on Velvet’s chest poked at her cheek.
Don’t make a sound.
Mr. Henry started to yell.
Don’t make a sound.
Footsteps punched down the hall.
Don’t make a sound.
Flesh smacked. Something hit the floor, and Miss Becky must have been feeling better, because she was suddenly shouting, but in the closet the only sound that mattered was the fleshy whack that came over and over. She opened her mouth, screaming silently into the doll.
Don’t make a sound.
A lot could change in four years.
Hard to believe it had been that long. Four years since I’d set foot in a public school. Four years since I’d spoken to anyone outside a very small, very close-knit group of people. Four years of preparing for this moment, and there was a good chance I was going to hurl the few bites of cereal I’d been able to force into my mouth all over the counter.
A lot could change in four years. The question was, had I?
The sound of a spoon clanking against a mug pulled me from my thoughts.
That was the third spoonful of sugar Carl Rivas had tried to inconspicuously dump into his coffee. When he thought no one was looking, he’d try to add two more. For a man in his early fifties, he was fit and trim, but he had one mean sugar addiction. In his study, the home office full of thick medical journals, there was a drawer in his desk that looked like a candy store had thrown up in it.
Hovering near the sugar bowl, he reached for the spoon again as he glanced over his shoulder. His hand froze.
I grinned a little from where I sat at the huge island, a full cereal bowl in front of me.
He sighed as he faced me, leaning back against the granite countertop and eyeing me over the rim of his mug as he took a sip of the coffee. His dark black hair, combed back from his forehead, had started to turn silver at the temples just recently, and with his deep olive-tone skin, I thought it made him look fairly distinguished. He was handsome, and so was his wife, Rosa. Well, handsome wasn’t the right word for her. With her dark skin and thick, wavy hair that had yet to see a strand of gray, she was very pretty. Stunning, really, especially in the proud way she carried herself.