Her tiny feet slapped the pebbled road. Her pigtails swayed wildly. Her rasping throat felt parched, and her lungs burned. The back of her neck was coated with a sheet of sweat. If she focused hard enough, she could feel a drop trickling down her back. She ran like a bullet leaving a barrel, like a lioness chasing her meal. A simmering ache burst in her thigh. The modest two-story house came into view. Mackenzie Price came to a grinding halt. Nestled in a corner plot, Mackenzie’s home was not spectacular. It was ugly and pitiful. It was all they could afford in the strange town of Lakemore. She stood, catching her breath. She looked at her flip-flops, dangling from her fingers caked in mud. Her mother would be mad.
But she could handle her. It was her father that made her hesitate and say a silent prayer before she entered the house. The lights were out. Were they not home? They never went out. Were they asleep? It was too early. Unless Dad had too much to drink again, and Mom cried herself to sleep. The little garden outside their home was a reflection of how their life was inside. Messy and dry. The front yard was inconveniently small, with patches of overgrown grass in an otherwise barren, brown land. The potted plants had long wilted.
Only a small tree had survived in the disaster: a Douglas fir. It was the only thing cared for. Mackenzie’s first memory was watching her father bending down in the garden. She was behind him, but saw his cheeks lifting, like he was smiling. The light breeze ruffled his brown hair. His strong hands planted seeds in the soil. Now, those hands beat her mother. The thick cloud of brown hair had fallen off. That smile had collapsed into a constant sneer. She reached the porch and stood in front of the door.
Her heart raced faster than it did when she ran. She considered going back to Fiona’s house and spending the night there. Two hours ago, she had been giggling because Fiona had kissed a boy. She had also been blushing because her crush, Dylan, was going to ask her out on the next field trip. But now she was trembling. Sighing, she opened the door. It creaked loudly. The dark and silent house felt eerie and uninviting. The air was stuffy with the smell of alcohol. “Mom?” No answer.
She was expecting her mother’s shrieks from behind the closed door of the master bedroom, like every other night. But all she heard was the echo of her own heart. “Is anyone home?” The living room on her right was empty and clean. Stairs were leading up in front of her. She clutched the railing with her damp palm. A sound came. Shrill and abrupt. She jumped. It came from the kitchen, behind the living room. She noticed light seeping under the closed door.
Someone was home. “Mom? Are you here?” It must be her mother. Why wasn’t she replying? Mackenzie placed her muddy flip-flops by the door and made her way to the kitchen. Something made the hair on her arms stand up. Something made her scalp prickle. When she opened the door to the kitchen, she froze. Melody was perched on a chair. A thick mane of curly black hair crowned her head. Her gray eyes were round like saucers. Her lips were puffy and slightly parted.
Her long, fragile fingers clutched her blue dress tight enough for her knuckles to whiten. She stared at the floor—Mackenzie followed her gaze. A body lay there, covered in blood. Mackenzie blinked. She blinked again. Again and again and again. But the scene before her didn’t crack. A whimper came, like a strangled cry. She realized it came from her. She felt it in her bones first—the sparks and shivers.
They traveled through her body, trying to yank it out of its frozen state. “M-m-Mom?” Mackenzie whispered. Her eyes turned glossy against the soupy air. Melody looked at her. No one said anything. Her heart pounded against her ribs painfully. She heard its thumping in her ears. Her toes started wiggling wildly. Her fingers began to quiver uncontrollably. “Mackenzie! Mackenzie!” Melody’s voice was distant, like it came from the end of a tunnel.
“Look at me!” she demanded. Mackenzie looked. Melody’s lips moved. But Mackenzie couldn’t understand anything. A fuse had blown in her brain and shut it down. Melody wrapped her hands around Mackenzie’s shoulders and pushed her down on a chair. Finally, Mackenzie looked at Melody. Her hair was disheveled. Her lip was cut and bloody. Her left cheek was flaming red and double the size of her right cheek.
An old bruise from last week on her chin had turned purple. Mindlessly, Mackenzie raised her hand and touched her mother’s cheek. Melody winced. “I’m so sorry!” she cried. “I’m terribly sorry. I don’t know what happened! Sweetheart, I can’t believe I did this!” Her teary eyes darted to the dead body. Mackenzie followed her gaze once more. Her father lay on his stomach, facing away from them. Splatters of blood covered the floor. Blood pooled next to his head.
The color was darker than she had expected. Next to his feet was a large frying pan with smudges of blood on it. “He came in. He was mad,” Melody sobbed. “He was shouting at me, rambling about God knows what. Drinking as usual. He smashed a bottle over the table. Look! Look!” Melody cupped her chin and forced her to look at the table. Pieces of glasses were scattered all over it. A foul-smelling brown liquid had run across the once-sleek surface.
“He hit me, and I snapped. I didn’t mean to, darling. I promise. I swear!” She pleaded with frantic eyes and gripped Mackenzie’s shoulders. “I didn’t stop. I had the frying pan in my hand, and I just kept hitting him. I… I didn’t realize how much I was hurting him. I-I’m sorry.” Mackenzie shrugged off her mother’s hold and stood up. Feeling Melody’s eyes on her, she stepped over the body.
Her legs wobbled like jelly. When her toe accidentally grazed over the blood, she lost her balance. She dropped to the floor next to her father. His face was bashed in. His nose was crooked. His teeth were chipped and broken. The side of his head was curved inward. His left eyelid was swollen to the size of a golf ball. Blood matted his skin—hiding the birthmark on his cheek that Mackenzie remembered kissing as a child. Tears rolled down her face.
She lurched forward to touch him, to comfort him, but Melody held her. Mackenzie felt like bursting. Her twelve-year-old heart couldn’t handle the grief or the confusion. Her sobs scratched at her throat. The pain choked her veins. She cried into her mother’s arms for what felt like a lifetime. “Mackenzie. Please listen to me.” Melody’s voice was firm. “You must help me.
” “We have to call the police.” “No!” Her voice boomed. “We can’t call the police. They’ll arrest me!” “They’ll understand! They have to!” “They won’t!” Melody glared at her. “There will be an investigation. It will take forever.” “I’ll tell them he used to hit you,” she argued. “They’ll know that it was in selfdefense.” Melody gritted her teeth. “They won’t.
They’ll ask me why I never complained that he was violent with me. They won’t believe a child! Either they’ll blame me for not seeking help before, or they’ll say I’m making up lies to justify what I did. You don’t know how cruel this world can be to women.” Mackenzie’s breath turned shallow as her mother’s words washed over her. Her eyes ached with exertion. Snot dripped down her nose onto her lips. “Sweetheart, if we call the police then I’ll spend some time in prison,” Melody said. “They’ll either charge me with murder or involuntary manslaughter. You’re twelve! There is nobody else to take care of you! They will throw you in foster care, saying your grandmother is too old. Do you know what happens to young girls in the foster care system?” Mackenzie knew.
She didn’t want to be separated from her mother. Her mother was all she had—even before what had happened tonight. She stared at Melody blankly. A thick cloud of numbness cobwebbed her mind. “They are assaulted and harassed!” Each word out of her mother’s mouth stung sharp. “Girls are not safe anywhere. Do you want that life? Do you want your mother to go to prison? I know what I did was wrong, but do I deserve to spend my life in jail?” Mackenzie shook her head. “That’s my girl. You have to help me bury him.” Mackenzie tore herself away from Melody and marched to the other side of the kitchen.
She wanted to run. The muscles in her legs twitched, ready to leap into action. Could she go for a run now? Melody stood on the other side of the center table. “Sweetheart. I know how it sounds. But there’s no other way. I don’t want to do this either. But we have no choice.” The light fixture hung low over the table, illuminating Melody’s face, pinched in desperation. There was frenzy in her eyes.
Mackenzie had seen in old pictures how her mother’s skin was like milk. Now, no inch of it was pristine. Bruises covered her face— some purple and some green. Melody spent all her hard-earned money on three things: groceries, electric bills, and makeup. “He hasn’t been a father to you for many years, darling. It doesn’t make this right, but it does make it less wrong. You must help me. Otherwise, we will lose whatever we have left.” Is this right? Mackenzie’s neck was stiff, but she nodded. Melody released a long-drawn breath and nodded back.
“Thank you, darling. We’ll take him to the woods behind the house and bury him there.” She checked the clock. “Let’s leave in around twenty minutes. Doris goes on a walk in the evening, but she should be back around now. I want to make sure we don’t run into her. You know how prying that woman can be.” Melody tied her hair up in a bun, took off her apron, and left the kitchen. Mackenzie’s eyes flitted everywhere else in the room. She hadn’t noticed until now that the walls were lime green.
The floor tiles were dirty yellow. The kitchen cabinets were painted a darker shade of green, with pictures of fruits and vegetables on a white strip stuck across. The place looked old, like something from the eighties she’d seen on television. The body on the other side of the kitchen had a jarring presence. It took all Mackenzie’s strength to keep her eyes glued on the clean stove and the cracks on the walls above it. She began counting them. Why didn’t they ever fix the wall? Why didn’t they ever renovate the kitchen? Why was everything in this house falling apart? Why did Dad start drinking? Numbness was oddly powerful. It lasted longer than shock and fright, and it came quicker than guilt and sorrow. It was a shield. It kept everything at bay.
But it was a silent killer. It bit into the soul without leaving any marks. Mackenzie was rooted to the spot. She waited for her mother. Her mother would tell her what to do. She was always an obedient daughter; she always did the right thing. She never caused any trouble. She always listened to her mother. Whenever Melody told her to stay in her room no matter what she heard, she did just that. She always sat on her bed and watched the tree outside her window while her mother begged and her father yelled.
Melody walked in with a white bed sheet. “Help me put him in this.” Mackenzie swallowed the lump in her throat. With shaking hands, she held the other end of the sheet and spread it on the floor next to her father. “You lift his legs. I’ll lift his shoulders.” Her chest tightened when she held her father by the ankles. She didn’t even remember the last time she had touched him. Call someone. Call anyone.
“Lift at three. One… two… three!” He was heavy. Mackenzie felt the strain in her lower back. They lifted him a few inches off the floor and dropped him on the sheet. She stepped back and watched Melody wrap it around him. Melody was breathless when she finished. Her greasy hair stuck to the sides of her face. She wiped off the sweat on her forehead with the back of her hand. “I’ll go out and make a scene in the garden so that the neighbors think he’s still around. You wash the frying pan with bleach.
Can you do that?” Mackenzie must have nodded, because Melody looked satisfied. “Then we’ll go outside and take care of this. Once we’re back, strip off all your clothes down to your underwear. I’ll put everything in the wash. Tomorrow morning I’ll go to the police station and report him missing.” With that, Melody left again. It was easier now that he had a cloth covering his battered face. But there was blood everywhere. Mackenzie tiptoed around the sprays of blood to the frying pan. She didn’t expect it to be so heavy.
She felt the pressure on her wrist and had to use both her hands to lift it. The blood on it had dried and looked like gunk. She stared at the depression in the pan for several minutes. A chill crept up her spine. Outside, her mother bellowed a fake conversation with a dead man. “Look what you did, Robert!” “Robert! Come out!” “I don’t know where that is!” She turned on the faucet and let the water rinse the pan. The scrubber didn’t remove all of the blood. She rubbed harder and harder. It felt peaceful to watch the pieces of dried blood fall into the sink. Some of it still stuck to the pan, and she had to use her nails to scrape it off.
She didn’t dare breathe. She didn’t dare think. She was cleaning. It’s just paint, she told herself over and over again. From the corner of her eye, she saw a pair of shiny black shoes by the wall, under the curtain. Since when did her father own such nice shoes? Why hadn’t she seen them before? She took out the bleach and soaked the pan in it. Then she cleaned the sink with bleach too. Melody returned, breathing hard. She held her daughter’s tiny face in her hands. “You’re doing the right thing, sweetheart.
You’re helping your mother. You are so brave. Very brave.” She kissed her forehead. “There’s a shovel here. I’ll do all the digging. I just need help with lifting. Are you ready now?” Mackenzie didn’t know what disturbed her more: her father’s corpse or her mother’s apparent calmness. Melody thrust the shovel under the layers of the sheet, on top of the body, and opened the door that led to the backyard. Together they lifted him and carried him out.
As Mackenzie carried the body, her mind wandered into dark places. What if they were caught? Would she be arrested too? Would her school expel her? Would the police allow her and her mother to stay in the same prison? As they entered the woods, her heart slithered further down her chest. The woods always scared her. It was where the bad men roamed. Now, they were just like them. She focused on the balmy air, the lingering smell of pine and cedar, the faint glow from the silver moon, and the sticks and stones digging into the bottom of her feet. She hadn’t put any shoes on. The woods were dizzying. Everything looked random and similar. She couldn’t tell where they were, but they were going deeper into the belly.
She counted their steps. They were both panting. They were both on edge. Occasionally, they looked around. They paused briefly after every crunch of twigs and flapping of leaves. What am I doing? I shouldn’t be here. The woods were notorious for teenagers coming to party at night. But it was a Tuesday. “This seems good enough.” Melody wheezed and lowered him.
They’d stopped after 317 steps. “Just sit there. I’ll do everything.” Mackenzie planted her butt on the wet soil and curled her knees in. She watched her mother start digging a hole. Melody’s arms were toned. When she flexed, her biceps jutted out. She didn’t break a sweat. She was tall and imposing. Couldn’t she have hit him back before? Would he have stopped then? Leaves rustled.
Crickets chirped. The mountain of dirt beside Melody piled up. Hours later, Melody dropped the shovel and rolled the body into the hole. It fell in with a thud. Mackenzie swallowed hard. What were Fiona and her mother doing now? Watching the television together? Eating dinner? Melody scooped the dirt back into the hole to fill it up. Once she had finished, they stared at it. The patch of disturbed land looked innocent enough. Mackenzie knew she would never forget the sight of her mother breathing hard over her father’s grave. Mackenzie looked down.
A sob clogged her throat. She curled her toes in to catch the mud between them and squeezed hard. It felt soft and thick like dough. There was a fleck of blood on her smallest toe. She rubbed it against the soil until her skin burned. “Sweetheart, you can never tell anyone about what happened.” Melody’s lips quivered. “No one. Not your friends, not your teachers, not the police, not your grandmother. It will put us in danger.
This is just between us. No one can know. No one will understand. They will see us as monsters.” “Yes, Mom.” Melody offered her a hand. Mackenzie grabbed it and stood up. Together, they walked 317 steps back to their house. She didn’t feel like a monster; she felt like a ghost.