Another quiet night had befallen Chestnut Street in a tiny corner of rural America. As unfortunate as it is to say, it wasn’t a peaceful one for Melody Quill. She sat alone huddled under the pale cone of light at her family’s breakfast nook table. She swept a stray mousey brown curl from her cheek and peered off into the ghostly hue that lay over her yard. The world felt better this way. A far cry from what the young girl had just experienced.
The door at the far end of the hall creaked open. A pair of bare feet padded across carpeting in her direction.
It was Melody’s dad. She nodded.
Mr. Quill took up the oaken seat across from her. “Wanna talk about it?”
Her green gaze lifted to meet his brown one. Melody wanted to tell her dad everything, to not hold back any secrets, but this recurring nightmare made it difficult.
“Nope.” Her skinny chest deflated a little.
Mike Quill chuckled. “You remind me so much of your mom, and not just those sparkling green eyes either.”
Her dad was an honorable man who worked hard to provide the cozy life that Melody had grown accustomed to. Mike toiled away as a Senior Vice President of Something-Or-Other at one of the local big banks in town. Right on Main Street, in fact. Every day, local businesses like the Dairy King on East Main, Crazy Willie’s Car lot, and the Book Nook Used Bookstore met with her dad to discuss loans for their companies and making them smaller somehow.
How could she tell him about this? Almost every night for the last few months since spring break, Melody had been having the same dream. She found herself walking on a grassy knoll high up in the mountains. A thin wispy fog always rolled in and covered her feet. Tiny voices chittered and chattered from their secluded bastions. Some distance off, a small tree appeared, and the mists receded. Melody would walk up to this tree and reach out a hand to touch it. Before her fingers could pluck a leaf, the ground would crack and open up under her. Glowing blue light radiated from the raised chunks of earth and stone. She scurried back on her bottom across the grass. From the chasm rose a shimmering blue wand broken into two pieces. As the two merged to form the whole, a towering apparition materialized, looming over the cowering girl. The deep, hollow cackle of a hag filled every available space. As her boney arm stretched down to grab Melody, she would wake in a cold sweat.
No, she had to keep it to herself. If her dad caught wind of this debacle, he might declare that she was just as loony as her mom and throw her into some mental hospital, too.
“You hold your secrets like your mom did.” He rose from his chair and made for the sink on the other side of their kitchen. “Want a little water?”
Melody bobbed her head of brown hair again. “Thanks.”
He slid a glass tumbler from its cabinet above the toaster oven and turned on the faucet. “You can talk to me about whatever’s bothering you. You know that, hon.”
“I know.” She fidgeted with her still clammy index finger. “It’s not that I don’t. It – it’s -”
Mike returned with the glass half full. Being the epitomic optimist, her dad would have never said it was half empty. Never. “Boy troubles?”
Mel scoffed. “No, dad.” She was eleven, but getting all mushy over a boy was the farthest thing from her mind.
He sat back down and set the glass in front of her. “Well, whatever it is -”
“Why is mom there?”
Mike rubbed the crud from his eyes with the heels of his palms. “Why is she where?”
Melody downed her gulp of water. “That loony bin place.”
Her dad grumbled, running a hand through his disheveled brown and gray hair. “We’ve been through this, Mel.”
“You thought she was crazy, but why?”
He lowered his forearms to the table and closed his eyes. “Your mother – she thought that… well, she had all sorts of delusions.”
“Thought she could what, dad?”
Mike slumped back into his chair and crossed his slender arms over his matching stick-like chest. “Elinor, your mom, thought all sorts of bizarre things.”
Melody leaned in over her side of the table. “Like?”
Another sigh. “Like she could talk to animals. Like her remedies could cure illnesses or make her invisible. Like when I found her the last time on top of a building.”
“What happened then?”
He rubbed his eyes with his fingers. “She thought she could fly.”
Melody took another drink from her glass. Her eyes narrowed in deep thought. “I can see her face.” She lowered her head in defeat. “I can’t remember anything else about her.”
Her dad leaned in over the tabletop and sat a soft hand on hers. “You were still little, sweet pea. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”
Mel looked him in the eyes. “What was she like?”
Mike grimaced. It was only for a split second, but long enough for her to notice. “You mom -” he cleared his throat “—when she was well, was a wonderful lady.”
“What made her go crazy?”
Her father’s head shook. “Can’t say for sure, hon. Any number of things might have led to it.”
He rose from the dinner table and rubbed the back of her head in gentle strokes. “Better get back into bed. I’ve got a long day at the office, and you’ve probably got a million adventures to go on tomorrow.”
“Maybe you guys can meet me in City Park tomorrow after I get off work, and we can watch the fireworks together.”
“You mean it?”
Mike bobbed his head. “Yup.” He let out a long yawn. “Off to bed with you, then.”
She took his waist in a tight hug and squeezed. “Love you.”
“You, too.” He lumbered back into his bedroom. “Sweet dreams, pumpkin.”
Melody tiptoed back down the far hallway past her stepbrother and stepsisters’ rooms (if she woke them, she’d never hear the end of it), and slipped back into her lukewarm covers. As she rested her head on the crumpled pillow, her eyes drifted out the slits in her blinds to the moonlight.
Why can’t I remember her?
Mel closed her eyes and forced her imagination into a happier place.
Try! Try to find at least one good thought in there.
Images and sounds flew past her mind’s eye in blurs. Birthday balloons of bright colors, trick-or-treating around their neighborhood, and sparkling gold and silver rings on the branches of a Christmas tree.
Come on! Dig deeper. Morning’s coming soon.
And come, it did.
CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!
“Rise and shine!”
Melody knew that condescending voice. Angela, his wife.
“These dishes aren’t gonna clean themselves, kiddo.”
Mel grumbled and heaved the bedsheet up over her nest of knotted brown curls. “Another fifteen minutes.”
The snuggly sheet and blankets came off her in a flash. “You’ve got fifteen seconds, Miss Thing, to get yourself in gear before I add more chores to your to-do list for the day.”
She popped up at the hips. “What? I was going to go over to Stephanie’s house later.”
Angela left her bedding in a pile at the foot of her sleigh bed and meandered back down the hall toward the kitchen. “That’ll have to wait until after your chores are done.”
Melody groaned and slapped her bed on either side. “This is so unfair.”
“What was that?” Angela’s voice came from somewhere in their kitchen.
Mel swung her slender legs over the side of the bed. “Nothing.”
Once she had dressed and made herself presentable, Melody lumbered down the hall toward the kitchen. Although it was eight in the morning, the midsummer sun already baked the interior of their split-level home.
Her stepmom stood in front of the stove, one middle-aged hip cocked out. “Anytime you’re ready, sweet pea.” Angela pushed the egg carton across the countertop in Mel’s direction. “These eggs aren’t going to scramble themselves.”
Ever since this feminine monstrosity had entered her life, it had been the same thing. Since her dad worked every day at a big bank in town, it left Melody alone to fend for herself with not only Angela, but her new stepsiblings, Chad and Megan, as well. Being outnumbered, she thought it best for now to bide her time.
Mel took up an egg in her hand and cracked it into the hot skillet. The sizzling white mass stalled and sizzled. Three more of its unlucky cohorts joined it around the circumference of the cast iron pan. A smattering of salt and pepper later, Chad and Megan decided to grace the world with their existence.
“Ah, there you two sleepyheads are!” Angela’s tone had taken on a more chipper tone with her flesh and blood. “We were just whipping up some breakfast for you.”
Mel sneered and flipped the first egg over.
“Can you speed up the process a little?” Chet jabbed. “I’m starving.”
Mel tilted her head to her left shoulder. She knew her slightly older stepsister couldn’t go more than two breaths without getting in on a shot at her.
“Yeah, Mel. What’s taking so long?”
“They’re almost done,” Melody said. “I just got up a little while ago.”
Megan slumped back in her chair; her strawberry blonde curls fell over her green glare. “Then, get up earlier.”
If Mel’s teeth had clamped down any tighter, they may have snapped. A ten year old kid shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of torture. She flopped two of the eggs onto another porcelain plate. No, this is child abuse. That’s what this is. She slid the other two eggs onto separate plates and handed them out around the kitchen table.
Angela escorted her steaming cup of smelly coffee over to join her children at the small table. “Once you’ve cleaned up that mess, you can get yourself something for breakfast.”
Melody flipped the wheel to the front burner off and let her emotions go numb.
“And, when you’re done eating,” her stepmom continued, “you can weed the flowerbeds outside.”
The pan dropped out of Mel’s hand to the sink basin with a loud clang. “It’s gotta be a hundred out there!”
“It is not.” Angela scoffed and rolled her eyes out the bay windows. “Even if it was, they would still need cleaned up.”
Mel squirted a shot of dish soap into the pan and turned the water on. One of these days, you guys will get what’s coming to you. She plucked a rag out of the drawer beside the sink and dove into the duty at hand. Maybe not today, but one of these days.
Outside, Melody’s work didn’t go any smoother. The sweltering July sun baked her shoulders as she toiled over the bed of tulips and perennials. She detested this sort of thing. It had nothing to do with the flowers. In fact, their blue and lavender petals gave her one of a few happy respites from her summer doldrums. No, the dirt and stagnant heat. Those things made her question her sanity on days like these.
As midmorning passed and the shadows of their tall oaks grew toward the house, Mel made her way to the bed under the front window. She took a break, wiped the grime from her forehead, and set her gardening claw in the soil.
“Let’s just see what you do with your precious time while I’m out here baking in the heat.”
Her green eyes crept up above the windowsill and bulged to the size of the eggs she had made a few hours ago. There in the cool comforts of her dad’s house sat his new wife.
“And, she’s still not even out of her pajamas!” She turned and flopped against the gray vinyl siding. “Clacking away on her blog, no doubt.” She slid off the house and took up the claw once more. “I don’t even have to see the other two to know what they’re up to.” She dropped to her knees and went about tearing out the weeds. “Chad’s in his room probably playing a video game, and Megan’s on her phone texting about one of the boys in school.”
Mel let out a tiny shriek and tossed her claw into the grass behind her. “A snake is the last thing I need right now.”
“Psssssst! Over here.”
She glanced down the length of the house and into the shadows of the trees. “Steph!” She hunched down under the view from the windows and snuck down to meet her neighbor and best friend. She slapped Stephanie hard on her left shoulder. “You scared the crap outa me!”
“Hey!” Steph rubbed her arm and shoved Melody back a step. “Well, you looked like you could use a break from over here.”
Mel nodded. “You have no idea.”
“They got ya on slave labor again today?”
Mel’s head bobbed.
An awkward silence grew between them. Stephanie knew what sort of hell her bestie was going through. Yet, she could do nothing more than watch it happen and console Mel when the situations called for it.
“Well, hey,” Steph said, “at least your birthday’s coming up soon, right?”
“C’mon.” Steph leaned over into her shoulder. “It’ll be awesome. Cake, presents, me.”
The duo chuckled.
“You’re finally going to catch back up to me,” Stephanie said. “The big ole one-one.”
Melody kicked at a passing grasshopper at her feet. “I suppose eleven isn’t awful.”
Steph climbed the first few steps of their treehouse. “Are you kidding? Eleven’s the best.” She set one knee on the floor of the house. “Just old enough to be on your own, but still daddy’s little girl.” She grabbed Mel by a hand and hauled her in.
Mel glanced up in appreciation. “Daddy’s girl is Angela, not me.”
“Oh, bull hockey!” Steph swept her long blonde bangs grom her hazel eyes and produced two Charms suckers from the hip pocket of her denim shorts.
Her pal held out a green apple and a pineapple sucker in a V in her hand. “Is not!”
Melody took her favorite, pineapple, and untwisted its wrapper. “Thanks.”
Steph nodded as she worked on her own. “You’ll always be his one and only.”
One of Mel’s brows raised.
“Blood before crud, my dear.”
Mel shared in a giggle and leaned back into the inviting shadows of their sanctuary. “You always know how to pick me up, Steph.”
“Meh. It’s a gift.”
Mel closed her eyes and sank into the tropical paradise of her sucker. She would give anything to be wisped away to an island right now.
“You gonna make it?” Stephanie tapped Mel’s Keds with her own.
Melody sighed. “Yeah. Just thinking.”
Melody rolled her sucker to the other side of her mouth. “Getting away for a while.”
“We’re going to the Outer Banks in two weeks.” Steph crossed her bird legs. “Wanna come along?”
Mel’s sideways grin said it all. Yeah, right.
Her friend shrugged. “I could hide you in my suitcase.”
Melody laughed so hard she almost lost her sucker. “You’re a goober, Steph.”
“Don’t say I didn’t offer.”
“And, what an offer!” Melody rocked forward onto her knees.
“Break’s over.” Mel scootched over to the ladder. “I’ve gotta finish these chores if I’m gonna meet my dad in the park tonight.”
Mel bobbed her head as she descended the rope ladder. “You going?”
“Eh,” Steph said. “Maybe.”
Mel hopped to the crunchy turf from the second rung remaining on the ladder. “Decisive, as always.”
Steph’s head poked out from the treehouse. “Talk to ya later?”
"“Hope so,” she said, trotting off in the direction of her flower beds.
By the time she had finished the gardening and the rest of her yardwork, the sun had relinquished some of its hold on the late afternoon. Melody had gone in to shower and get changed. I’ve been looking forward to this all day! She hurried to dry off and get changed. Memories of Independence Days past overwhelmed her imagination. The smell of popcorn and hotdogs. Bright bursts of multi-colored light.
“This is gonna be so awesome!”
She padded out into the living room -- to find it completely empty.
“Chad?” Melody walked down the far hallway. “Megan? Angela?”
She made quick work of the ground between herself and the front door. No shoes on the mud mat. Mel threw the door ajar and ran to the empty driveway.
Her hurt and rage found no proper voice. All that remained was to slink up into the treehouse and cry herself to sleep. The whistles and bangs woke her up from her tear-crusted slumber. A bright red streak of light chased after a green one in the humid night skies. Their majestic plumes peeked up over the hillside in the distance.
She wiped back another sniffle. “Hope he’s having a good time.”
Melody couldn’t tell for certain, but, through her welling tears, she swore that the last lavender plume resembled a barn owl.