I was seven years old the first time I wished him dead. I remember everything about that cloudless February day. The sky had a dazzling light to it, the kind that bounced off snowdrifts and caught the sparkle in the spider web frost on the school bus windows. It was the kind of light that made dreams seem possible. Even for me. The bus smelled like tangerines, wet wool, and half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches left in lunchboxes.
I scooted closer to the window so Nancy couldn’t see me slip my hand inside my book bag to finger the pink envelope where Wayne Stafford had printed my full name with a heart drawn around it. Robin Lee Carter. As soon as I finished my chores I planned to paint a snowman card with a heart, instead of a carrot, for a nose.
Nancy poked me in the shoulder. “You got a secret in there?”
I shook my head. Nancy Preston and I swore we’d never keep secrets from each other. But this was a new feeling and I didn’t have the words to explain it yet, even to my best friend.
When the doors swung open on Bear Hollow Road, a string of yelping kids hopped from the bottom step and raced toward the sleds they’d left at the crest of the hill. I caught up with Wayne and touched his sleeve. “May I ride your sled?” I was careful to use the proper verb.
Wayne grinned, but before he could say yes, Peggy Thompson, in her red coat with black fur cuffs, stuck her prissy face close to my ear and whispered, loud enough for him to hear, “Robin Lee is nothing but dirty junkyard trash.”
Wayne’s gaze settled on his galoshes before he turned and ran toward the hill.
I stood up real straight, lifted my chin like Momma always said, and pretended it didn’t matter. Although my clothes weren’t as new and fancy as Peggy’s, they were always clean and well-mended.
I wanted to brag about the card Wayne had given me, but instead I held my nose and glared at Peggy. “You have cooties and your breath smells like dog poop.”
She gasped, stuffed her hands into a fur muff that hung from a braided cord around her neck, and marched away, her finger curls bobbing with each step.
Nancy slapped her palm over her mouth to hold in the giggles, but she couldn’t hide the sparkle in her blue eyes. Her mom worked on Tuesdays and Thursdays and paid my momma to babysit after school. I loved those two days better than any other. Even my daddy seemed happier. But today was Wednesday. I waved to Nancy, then ran toward my house, anxious to get the laundry hung so I could paint the snowman card.
Halfway up the drive, I spotted Daddy’s pickup truck parked at a funny slant, its front tires in the flowerbed Momma had covered with pine needles for the winter. Right away, I figured he’d been drinking. My heart thumped, but not in the good way it had when I found Wayne’s valentine. Daddy’s drinking moods were dangerous, like someone sprayed poison into the air. I knew my life was different, and sometimes knowing that was like skin pinched inside the teeth of a zipper.