"Mummy, somebody's watching us from the woods again."
Six year old Anna Garcia grabbed a handful of her mother's pale blue cardigan sweater as she whispered the warning. The angora knit was fuzzy and soft, and she hung on for dear life, bobbing along thirty year old Martha Garcia like the tail on a kite as she stayed fearfully at the dark shape she was sure she could see hiding in the undergrowth beneath the trees that crowded close to the gravel driveway.
A wind blew through the branches, making them whisper and creak. Anna looked away, shivering, and tightened her grip on the sweater. There were no lights in the house yet, no lights visible anywhere because the car headlights were off and they lived out in the country now, with no houses nearby. Only the moon peeped at them over the swaying treetops, a pale sliver of light that looked as thin as a white tissue paper pasted against a dark blue sky.
"There's nobody wants in the woods, baby." Her mother's tone was of patience stretched thin. Her arms were full of groceries, and she was walking quickly through the grass that was wet from the rain earlier in the day, toward the back door of their small brick house without even bothering to look around at the woods. She thought Anna was making things up. Sometimes.
But not now.
"Yes, there is." But Anna said it hopelessly, because she already knew nobody was going to listen.
"Anna's a baby, Anna's a baby...." That was her brother, Michael, who was almost eight. Swinging the grocery bag he was carrying over his head so that the cheerios and hamburgers buns and bag of potato chips inside threatened to fall out, he danced around, making faces at her.
"Stop Michael." Their mother was grumpy tonight, because they were late getting home. It was already full dark out, which means it had to be getting close to seven, and her dad got home at seven-thirty, and if supper wasn't on the table when he walked in the door, he got mad.
When her dad was mad, he scared her.
Sometimes, she knew it was bad to think it, but sometimes, she didn't really like her dad.
"Here, Anna, take this." Her mother thrust a grocery bag at her. Her mother didn't like her hanging on to her clothes. Martha was always telling her that, so Anna knew that her mother's giving her the grocery bag was a signal for her to let go. She did, letting go of the soft knit and taking the bag because her mother wanted her to and she always tried to be good, even if she didn't always succeed.
"I got put in time out today." Michael said as though he didn't care. He'd been getting into trouble at school and it worried mommy. Infact, a lot of things seemed to have been worrying mommy lately. She didn't smile much anymore. Not like she used to.
"Oh Michael, what did you do?"
Anna turned to her mother and Michael and concentrated on carrying her grocery bag, which had the eggs in it, which were important because her mother was trusting her not to drop them. Anna's other arm was wrapped protectively around Nina, the life size doll she had gotten for her birthday last week. Nina was so great, a my-best-friend doll that all the girls at home had and she'd been wanting so much but never expected to get because they cost a lot. Nina even looked like her, with the same black hair and clothes and everything, and getting her would have made it the best birthday ever, if they hadn't been living here. She hated this new house, hated her new school, hated the kids who called her fat even though she wasn't, she was healthy, Mommy said, hated that Daddy was living with them all the time now instead of usually being away. But most of all she hated the woods that rose up on either side of the house, looking like a big black chicken-claw hands all winter, and now that the trees had turned green, they cast a shadow over the house and yard so that even in the middle of the day it always seemed dark and scary. There were things in the woods, creatures with glowing eyes that she could see from her bedroom window at night, and lately there had been people. She had never actually seen them, not as anything more than dark shadows hiding in among the trees, but she knew they were there. She knew they were mean. She'd tried to tell her mother and brother before, but they wouldn't listen. Now one of the shadow people was back again. She could feel the weight of eyes on her, feel the person's dislike even across the distance that separated them, and she scrunched up her shoulders protectively as she hurried up the back stairs in her mother's wake.
As soon as the door opened, Mary came bouncing out, barking her head off and jumping on them all and then running round in circles because she was so glad to see them. Mary was their dog. She was big, brown and furry, a mutt, Michael said, and they'd had her for as long as Anna could remember. They'd brought Mary with them when they'd moved to Kentucky from Virginia last fall. Mary didn't like Kentucky, either, Anna knew. They had to keep her locked up in the house all day because this new house didn't have a fence and they didn't have enough money to put one up, and Mary liked to chase the neighbor's cows. What kind of place had cows living practically next door, anyway?
I want to go home, she thought, as they all, Mary included, piled into the small, ugly kitchen and the light was turned on and the door was safely shut and locked behind them, closing out the night and the woods.
Home was Virginia, a nice white house with lots of other houses around it and only one big tree in the yard. She missed it so much that whenever she thought about it, she felt like crying, so she tried not to. But tonight, because it was dark outside and they were late and her dad was probably going to be mad and there was someone in the woods, she thought about home again.
Her chest started to feel all tight, like it did sometimes when she remembered.
"Here, quick, let's get dinner going, Anna, you can set the table. Michael, get Mary's leash and take her out in the yard and put her on a chain." Her mother was already ripping off a package of hamburger meat and dumping it into the big silver frying pan on the stove. From that, and the box sitting on the counter beside the burner, Anna knew what they were having.
It was okay, but not her favorite.
"Be careful. There's somebody out there in the woods," she told Michael as she started to get some clean plates out of the dishwasher, and he took Mary, clipped to a leash now, so she wouldn't go running off after old cows, back out into the dark. She'd propped Nina in a corner so the doll could watch. She would have liked to have her sit on the table, but Michael would have made fun of her, and Daddy wouldn't have allowed it. Only her mother understood her.
"There isn't anyone out there, stupid," Michael said and her mother sighed.
"I got an award today," Anna told her mother when they were alone. She didn't like to tell things like that in front of Michael, he would feel bad because he never got any awards and that would make him be bad, and then he would get in trouble, and that would make her feel bad, so she just didn't do it. The award was a big silver medal that hung from a blue ribbon around her neck, and she lifted the metal disk for her mother's inspection. "For being a blue-ribbon reader. See, it has my name on it."
Her mother stopped stirring the hamburger stuff to look at the medal and then smiled at her. "Wow, Anna. Good job. I'm really proud of you, baby."
Anna smiled back. Sometimes, when she was alone like this with Mommy, it was almost as if they were at home again. As if nothing had changed.
"Dad's home." Dragging a trail of mud in with him, Michael stomped into the kitchen, letting in a cool, damp smelling breeze that fluttered the blue-checked curtains over the sink before he slammed the door. The kitchen was already smelling like cooking hamburger stuff with a whiff of gas from the leaky burner, so the outdoor scent just kind of mixed in.
"Oh." Looking harried, her mother grabbed a can of green beans and a can of corn from the bags that hadn't yet been emptied and jammed the can opener into the top of the beans. The sound of it creaking around the lid joined the sizzle of meat and the thud of Michael's muddy shoes as he kicked them off and, from outside, Mary's barking. "Go put your pajamas on, Michael, you've got mud all over your jeans. And wash your face and hands while you're at it."
"Mary kept jumping on me. She got me muddy."
Mary didn't like being left outside all alone in the dark. She didn't like being fastened to a chain either. Like Michael and herself and Mommy too, Anna suspected, Mary just wanted to go home.
The beans and the corn were in pans, the pans were on the stove, Michael was nowhere in sight, and Anna had just picked up Nina when Tony Garcia came in through the back door. He was wiry, and he wasn't all that tall, but in his jeans and flannel shirt and boots, he looked huge to Anna. A baseball cap was jammed on his head and, beneath the brim, his mouth and eyes were tight.
She could tell as soon as she saw him. Clutching Nina tight, sticking her thumb into her mouth, she sidled close to her mother, and never mind that she'd been told time and time again not to get too close to the stove.
"God, I've had a hell of a day." Looking from Michael's muddy tracks to the grocery bags crowding the counter, and shaking his head at what he saw, he shut the door, then walked into the middle of the kitchen to dump something on the table. Pressing back against the cabinet by the stove, close enough to her mother now so that she could smell the nice scent Mommy always wore to work, Anna clutched Nina closer and sucked harder on her thumb. "Supper isn't ready yet? You've got to be kidding me."
"I just got home myself." Her mother never acted mad at her dad, never yelled. She simply got quieter when he was around, as if she was trying to stay very calm. Anna guesses that sometimes her mother was afraid of him too. "It'll be just a minute."
"What's that you're making?" He looked at the pans and frowned. "That crap again?"
"Money's tight, Tony."
"You blaming me for that?" He sounded so angry that Anna's throat went dry. She would have clutched at her mother's skirt if she'd had a free hand. But she didn't, so she could only stand there and try to be invisible. "We moved down here to hicksville because of you."
Trying to be invisible didn't work, Anna discovered. All of a sudden her dad's eye focused on her. Anna's heart lurched. When he was in a bad mood, he had to take it out on somebody. Usually it was Michael, because Michael was so much noisier and bigger and harder to miss. But Michael hadn't come back from putting on his pajamas yet, probably on purpose. So that left mommy and her.
"Get your thumb out of your mouth," he barked, so loudly that Anna jumped, and he drew back his hand as if he was going to smack her. It scared her so much that she almost wet her pants. She pulled her thumb out of her mouth, then stuck the hand with the wet thumb behind her back. She knew sucking her thumb was bad. He'd told her before.
"Supper's ready." Frying pan in hand, her mother turned away from the stove to start dishing the food out on the plates. "Anna, go get Michael, would you please?"
Anna nodded, edged around her mother, and with a last big eyed look at her father, fled the kitchen. Only she walked, because she knew seeing her run away from him would make him madder.
"Don't you start on her Tony. I'm not going to stand for that."
She could just hear her mother's low voice as she went into the hall that connected the three small bedrooms and bathroom to the living room.
"You're going to stand for any damn thing I tell you to stand for, got that? After what you did, you owe me, and don't you forget that."
"I'm making up for it, aren't I? I'm here."
"You're here, all right. And we both know why."
None of that made sense to Anna, and she didn't hear any more, because she found Michael. He was in the living room, curled up in a corner of the couch, wearing his pajamas and watching TV with the volume turned down low, because he didn't want to do anything that might attract their dad's attention unnecessarily.
"Supper," Anna announced, then added in a confidential whisper, "He's mad."
"He's a dick," Michael said bitterly, and then Anna's mouth dropped open in horror. They weren't allowed to say bad words. But then, Michael never seemed to care about what they weren't allowed to do.
"Michael! Anna!" their mother called.
Michael got off the couch. "You better leave the doll in here. You know he doesn't like you to carry it around everywhere you go."
"Thanks Michael," Anna said humbly, because it was true. Daddy already yelled at her about it, and he got really mad if he had to yell about the same thing too much. She carried Nina to her bedroom, propped her carefully against the wall by the door, and went in to supper.
Nobody said anything much while they ate, and Anna finished as fast as she could. When it was over, Daddy said he was going out and left, and the rest of them gave a big sigh of relief.
She helped her mother clear the table while Michael did his homework with them in the kitchen, and then her mother fixed her a bath. She was just getting out of the tub and her mother was just wrapping her in a towel when they heard Mary barking outside.
"Your daddy must be home," Mommy said with a sigh.
Anna's stomach got a knot in it.
A moment later came the sound of the kitchen door opening and slamming shut.
"Martha! Martha, you get your ass in here!"
Her mother was still crouched down beside her, still rubbing her with the towel. Her hands stopped moving and she went really still as she looked toward the kitchen. Then she stood up fast, but not before Anna saw fear flash in her eyes.
"Get your nightgown on and get into bed. Tell Michael I said go to bed too." Her mother's voice was low.
"Mommy." Anna wanted to hold on to her mother but she was already gone, her skirt swishing as she moved fast down the hall. By the time Anna had her nightgown pulled on over her head she could hear her dad shouting, yelling loud, nasty things. Her heart started beating really fast. Goose bumps rose up on her skin with a prickle. Trying not to listen, she picked up her medal and hung it around her neck, then went to get Nina. Hugging the doll close, she started for Michael's room to tell him to go to bed. His door was closed. She thought he probably had it locked, which meant she was going to have to knock, which meant Daddy might hear and come into the hall and see her.
She felt all shivery inside at the thought.
A giant crash from the kitchen made her jump. Then her mother screamed, the sound so loud and shrill it hurt her ears and her dad shouted. Anna's heart lurched as a terrible fear gripped her. There was a sharp bang, then another, like firecrackers going off in the house. An icy premonition raced down her spine.
She ran for her mother. A second later, Anna found herself standing in the kitchen doorway, her eyes huge and her mouth hanging open as she looked at the most horrible sight she had ever seen. Her heart pounded so hard she could barely hear over it, and she had to fight to breathe. With one disbelieving glance she saw her dad lying face down on the floor in what looked like a big puddle of bright red paint and her mother turning to face her with the front of her yellow sweater turning bright red too, as though something was blossoming in it, some awful flower that was getting bigger by the second as it gobbled her up from the inside out.
Mommy. But Anna was so terrified now that although her mouth opened and her throat worked, no sound came out.
"Run Anna," her mother shrieked, her face white and terrible. "Run, run, run!"
There was another person in the room, Anna saw, as beyond her mother something moved. Instantly she knew in her heart that it was one of those shadow people from the woods. Seized by mortal fear, she whirled around and ran like a jackrabbit with her mother's scream echoing in her ears, darting darting through the living room, bursting out the front door as the cool night air whooshed past her into the house, leaping across the wet grass that felt cold and slippery beneath her bare feet, flying into the darkness as the shadow person gave chase.
There was nowhere else to go. Sobbing with fear and thinking about Michael, she ran into the woods.