The following is an excerpt from Flight of the Monarchs, by M.H. Reardon, available now from Greenleaf Book Group.
PACIFIC GROVE, CALIFORNIA, 1956
Celia Lynch caught her stride. Grass tore from the earth beneath her shoes. The wings on her back, forged of welding wire and papier-mâché, dragged in the autumn wind, as did her delicate lungs. Sure, the boy was faster, but Celia refused to accept defeat.
Jeremy cocked his head back to shout, “You’re just a girl, Celia! You’ll never catch me!”
“I’ll catch you,” Celia sputtered, cheeks ablaze. “You’ll see.”
But the boy was right. He was impossible to catch. A fact that would be more easily swallowed if he weren’t such a loudmouth about it. Celia blamed his mother. If the woman hadn’t abandoned Jeremy years before, she might have hurled the filthy imp into a bath and taught him that it’s impolite to gloat.
“It’ll never happen!” Jeremy yelled. “You’re as slow as Droopy Dog, and I’m the Flash!”
“You hush, Germ-y Hill! You’re Pepé Le Pew!”
Jeremy Hill had only a father — a great big beast of a man with handsome green eyes and a fondness for bourbon.
Jeremy reached their destination first, with Celia well behind. Both collapsed onto a cool patch of earth near the eucalyptus tree that was shaped like an ogre with grotesque, flaking limbs.
“I touched one,” he said, still full of breath.
Celia, fighting to catch hers, looked up.
Against a clear blue sky, thousands of tiny black-and-orange wings fluttered. The swarm of monarch butterflies floated peacefully by, having migrated nearly two thousand miles from their summer home in Canada to overwinter in Pacific Grove.
Celia and Jeremy, their bony, prepubescent arms folded behind their heads, welcomed the butterflies back in silence.
At the jolt of his father’s voice, Jeremy jumped to his feet and dashed toward home.
Standing, Celia shimmied the leaves off her homemade wings. “Don’t be late tomorrow!” she called after him, then crossed the front lawn toward her own house.
The evening sun, as it sank into the neighboring Pacific, glowed a deep persimmon, casting wide, cottony streaks of pink and purple.
Charmed by the view, Celia trotted up the porch steps of her house — a yellow Victorian with white shutters and a wraparound porch — and got a grand idea as the mouth-watering aroma of pot roast and buttered potatoes filled her nostrils.
She threw open the front door. “Mama!” Celia shrugged out of her wings and kicked off her shoes. “Mama! Can we eat supper outside?”
“Quit your yelling,” Luisa, their mother’s helper, said while giving Celia’s ponytail a light yank. A laundry basket was tucked beneath one of Luisa’s muscular arms. “Your father’s resting. He had a long day.”
Celia fixed her ponytail and followed the older woman through the house. “But Luisa, it’s the perfect evening to eat outside. The sunset’s that bright kind, and it’s not too windy out.”
“That’s up to your mother, mija. Now go wash up for dinner.” Luisa’s nose crinkled. “You smell like a boy.”
Celia grumbled an obedient “Yes, ma’am” before darting upstairs in search of her mother.
“No running!” Luisa screamed after her.
“Why are you so loud, Celia?” her big sister complained as they passed each other in the upstairs hall. “And where’s Jeremy? I need to ask him something.”
“Home.” Celia peered into her sister’s frilly bedroom. It seemed to have barfed clothing. More evidence that her real sister — a gangly-but-affable tomboy renowned for her well-aimed spit wads — had been taken over by body snatchers sometime in the last year. Bianca was three years older and fast becoming an insufferable snob. Thirteen now, she was practically a woman and had recently grown two unwieldy lumps on her chest. Both hovered today like twin gelatin cakes beneath a tight pink sweater. Every day since her “change,” Bianca flaunted those lumps shamelessly, enjoying the reaction she got from the neighborhood boys — former spitball targets all.
But as annoyed as Celia was with her sister’s newfound vanity, she sort of understood it. Bianca had become a beauty, like their mother, with eyes like emeralds and hair a rich shade of molasses. Each morning, she unrolled her curlers to expose dark, shining ringlets that bounced when she walked. But what impressed upon Celia, more than anything, was that Bianca always — always — painted her nails red. Blood red. According to Vogue magazine, red was Elizabeth Taylor’s trademark polish color, and Celia was so jealous she could spit. She wasn’t allowed to polish her nails until she was thirteen, too. The whole thing was terribly unfair.
“Where were you earlier?” Celia asked her sister. “Some of the butterflies came, and you missed it.”
“Cool it with the butterflies, will ya.” Bianca blew a huge, pink bubble from between glossed lips. “I was fixing my face.”
“It looks the same as before.”
Pop! Bianca rolled her eyes as her tongue collected the sticky, pink goo from her lips. She grabbed Celia’s hand. “Maybe I’ll paint your nails when you and Daddy come back from your walk.”
Now she was talking!
“But if Mommy asks, you stole my polish. Got it?”
Bianca wrinkled her nose. “Go take a bath first. You’re grody.” She twisted to slip back into her room, but returned, curls bobbing deliciously. “Then I’ll make you look just like me.”
Celia squealed with delight. “While I’m washing up, convince Mama to let us eat outside!”
Twenty minutes later, Celia emerged from her bath smelling of bubble soap and Lustre Crème. She wrenched on her night clothes and hurried downstairs where she found her family outside seated around the patio table.
Skipping over to join them, she kissed her mother on the cheek, then her father. “Hi, Mama. Hi, Daddy.”
“And where have you been, young lady?” her father asked before his teeth sawed through an ear of corn. Thomas Lynch, to his youngest daughter, was the most magnificent man in the history of the world. He was owner and editor in chief of a small publishing company in nearby Monterey, but the stress of deadlines gave him horrible headaches. In the evenings, her mother, lead bookkeeper at Lynch Publications, would pause everything to sit with him in his study. When Celia should’ve been in bed, she would often spy through the slit of the door frame to watch her mother massage her father’s temples while he railed about lazy employees or the contemptible quality of some new printing ink.
But then the kisses would come. Gentle, quieting kisses. His forehead, his eyes, his mouth; her mother neglected nothing. But occasionally, the kisses became more. The way her father’s hands would knead her mother’s breasts or the private place between her thighs, her mother’s responsive moans, or worse, the whispered vulgarities that spilled from her father’s sainted lips, never failed to make Celia blush and run away. The next day, she’d deliberate with Jeremy, who would request the strangest of details.
“Did he touch her there again?” he’d ask with concern. The answer varied, but it was news of her mother’s keen response that seemed to trouble Jeremy most.
At the patio table, Celia took a seat across from her sister. “I was washing up for supper, Daddy.”
“Where’s Jeremy?” her father added as an afterthought. “I have something for him.”
“Dennis called him home.”
Her father blew an encumbered breath. “Well, bring him inside tomorrow afternoon. I have the plumb bob I promised him.”
Celia tried not to make the ugly face that Luisa often scolded her about. Stupid plumb bob. Daddy had lit up when Jeremy requested the bizarre tool, impressed that the boy knew of it. Daddy had always wanted a son. Well, girls could like plumb bobs, too. Whatever they were.
“I will, Daddy,” Celia said, forcing a smile. “Now, he can start on my tree house.”
Across the table, Bianca scoffed. “You’ve got that poor kid building you a tree house now?”
“He wants to.”
“Sure he does.”
“How was school today, Celia?” her mother interjected, prying her glare from her sister.
“Oh, Moose brought a frog to school,” Celia answered, grabbing a warm roll while trying to ignore the snotty look her sister was giving her. “He named him Elvis Aaron Presley. They sent him home, though, because he jumped on Patty Pierson’s head.”
“Moose jumped on Patty Pierson’s head?” Bianca asked. “No, stupid, the frog!”
Her mother rapped at the table.“Celia Elizabeth Lynch! Language!”
Just then, her father belched an impeccable ribbit, prompting giggles around the table.
The following morning was Friday, Performance Day at school and the day that would become one of the worst of Celia’s life.
Bianca, an eighth grader, had already caught her morning bus. But Celia, in fifth grade now, was forced to wait with veiled impatience on her front porch for Jeremy.
There was a croak with each rock of the porch swing and every rise of her heels. Her fingers, now polished the deep crimson of Elizabeth Taylor, lay gracefully across her lap. The dress she wore — a red number trimmed at the waist with a belt of black-and-white polka dots — made her feel pretty and dignified. On her feet were saddle shoes to match the belt. To complete the ensemble, her strawberry-blond hair had been woven into two pigtail braids, each tied with one red ribbon and one white. On the outside, Celia was the very picture of ease and feminine poise. But on the inside, she was a tempest of angry thoughts, making not-so-nice threats on Jeremy Hill’s life.
Celia whipped her head toward the sound of his voice and stood to see him below the porch, squinting up at her. “You were almost late,” she said, grabbing her book bag.
“But I wasn’t late.” As she stepped into the morning sun with him, Jeremy grabbed her left hand, gave it a brief once-over, then dropped it again. “Since when do you paint your hands?”
“Since last night.” Celia posed, spreading her fingers across her cheeks like the glamorous women in her mother’s magazines.
“No. It looks like a wild animal gnawed your fingers bloody.”
Her excitement crushed, Celia opened her mouth, ready to bruise his unwarranted little ego, to point out the obvious disparities between them. Jeremy stunk of old sweat and cigarette smoke. He wore dirty
brown slacks, two inches too short, and a white undershirt with distress holes peppered along its seams. He looked destitute, as usual, and though she knew it was hardly his fault, acid words squatted on the tip of her tongue, geared to strike.
“Daddy bought you that ridiculous plumb bob thing,” she spat instead, unable to strike today. Not when his lip was split like that, his eye freshly bruised. Last night they had been nearly healed.
Flashing his battered smile, Jeremy took her hand. Together, they walked down the long dirt drive until they reached the main road leading to the school.
It was a quiet morning, aside from the sharp cawing of seabirds and the hiss of ocean surf. But having lived on the coast all their lives, they hardly noticed those sounds anymore.
“I’ll get started on your tree house tomorrow,” Jeremy said, rolling his tattered buck knife between his fingers, another gift from her father.
Celia frowned. “But tomorrow’s the butterfly parade.”
“So? I don’t care about that dumb parade. Everyone prancing around, dressed like butterflies, it’s enough to make a man sick.”
“Good thing you’re just a boy then.” Celia couldn’t help her flippant attitude. She knew good and well that she was too old to wear wings for the parade, but she didn’t care. Neither did her best friend, Angie. The pair of them would prance around like silly, wing-wearing freaks forever. Dash it all!
The school bus passed as Jeremy rolled his eyes, but both he and Celia ignored it. They couldn’t ride it anymore since the day Jeremy was barred for fighting on it (for winning was more like it; he hadn’t been the only one fighting).
Even as the bus rolled past, some of the boys — the bullies! — hung from open windows to jeer at him. Celia wished she could ride it (she wasn’t barred), but her father insisted she be led to school by Jeremy like an inept toddler. Protesting was of no use either. She’d already tried and gotten herself lectured on the importance of loyalty and sympathy.
Celia was positive he just loved Jeremy more.
“So, what’s the getup for?” Jeremy asked, examining her outfit.
“It’s Performance Day,” Celia reminded him. “I have to be the prettiest. I’ll die if I’m the last girl asked.”
Jeremy shot her another smile. And though Celia would rather eat dirt than admit it, she liked it when he did that. It made him seem like an ordinary boy, if only for a moment. She even smiled back as encouragement.
“Celia!” At school, Angie ran over, her red ponytail swinging. “You polished your nails,” she said, cutting between Jeremy and Celia. “My mother would never let me paint mine this God-awful color. Hi, Jeremy.”
As he did with most people, Jeremy ignored Angie and walked off on his own.
“Come on,” Angie went on, unfazed. “You need to help me with my wings.”
“Wait.” Celia set her attention on Jeremy’s route through the schoolyard. As he walked, he kept his head down in subordination, his cagey gait resembling that of an ill-treated animal. He had to get through without rousing the attention of Kevin Donahue or any of Kevin’s despicable friends.
“He made it,” Angie proclaimed once Jeremy safely passed between the two giant palms that marked the end of Bully Alley and disappeared around the corner.
Once in class, Celia sat down beside Angie. Their surnames, Lynch and Martin, fell consecutively on the attendance list, allowing for the ideal seating assignment each year. They’d been best friends since the second day of first grade, when Betty Jean Finnegan, Celia’s previous best friend, threw dirt in Celia’s face over rights to the class recess whistle. In a brief fit of anger and retribution, Jeremy had shoved Betty to the ground. That was when Angie, playing hopscotch several yards away, having witnessed the entire ordeal, shouted something to the effect of, “That’s what you get, Betty Jean!” Celia was to later discover that Betty had made more enemies than Rome in kindergarten, including one Angie Martin. Nonetheless, Celia was devastated, and while Betty ran off to tittle-tattle on Jeremy, Angie lugged Celia to the girl’s restroom to clean her blubbering, muddied face.
Celia claimed Angie as her best friend an hour later during reading lesson.
A piece of chalk click-clacked against the fifth-grade blackboard. Today, they were learning how to multiply decimals.
Angie nudged Celia. “See if Fletcher has my paste.”
“Fletcher,” Celia whispered to the head in front of her. When the boy failed to respond, Celia jabbed her finger into the nape of his freckled neck. “I know you hear me.”
Fletcher spun around, his Browline spectacles steaming over as he huffed his hostility. “You’re going to get me in trouble, Celia.”
“Mister Fletcher!” Ms. Pratt’s voice sliced through the classroom like a freshly sharpened blade. “Is there something you’d like to share with the rest of the class?”
“No, ma’am,” Fletcher muttered, turning to face forward.
After giving him a distrustful squint, Ms. Pratt returned to her click-clacking.
“Sorry,” Celia whispered, sucking on the insides of her cheeks to keep from laughing. Fletcher — Thurston Halford Tiberius Fletcher, to be precise — was just too sensitive for words. But she liked him very much. A shy, awkward boy, he was frequently picked on and pushed around. Curiously, though, whenever anyone gave him trouble or called him by anything other than his requested “Fletcher,” they came fist to face with Jeremy Hill, his silent but faithful bodyguard.
“Hey,” a voice whispered. “Celia.”
Celia felt a hard tap on her shoulder.
“What do you want, Moose?” she whispered as she spun around.
Anyone else, and Celia might’ve ignored the interruption, but she felt sorry for Moose. He was very sweet and very fat and sometimes got stuck under his desk during duck-and-cover drills. He was also half-Mexican, and the mean kids called him “half-breed,” along with other puzzling names Celia didn’t understand. His mother worked in the school cafeteria, and Moose spoke to her in Spanish, which got him endlessly teased. But with all that, his bright mood never dimmed, not even a little.
“Wanna see a trick?” Moose whispered to Celia.
“You’re going to get us both in trouble.”
Wincing, Celia faced forward. “Yes, Ms. Pratt?”
“What is going on back there? Do we all need to stay in for recess and write sentences?”
The whole class groaned. Celia was mortified.
“It was my fault, Ms. Pratt,” Moose announced through his agreeable smile, his dark eyes large and blameless. “Celia dropped a penny from her pocket. I was just returning it to her.”
Ms. Pratt smiled. She was a homely woman. “Well, that was very gentlemanly of you, Mr. Mousseau. The next time, though, you will wait until recess.”
“Of course, ma’am. Thank you.”
Celia sunk into her seat and sneaked a peek over at Jeremy to weigh his reaction. But he was staring out the window, and she realized that even watching him daydream made her melancholy. It was common knowledge that she associated with him outside of school, but her chronic excuses and skillfully feigned hatred of him also made her schoolmates pity her for the misfortune. Jeremy seldom acknowledged her schoolyard betrayals, but on occasion, he would crack and rage at her for being weak, for caring so much what others thought. He would swear hatred for her until she cried, then he would bury his face in her belly, wailing that he didn’t mean it, that he loved her more than steak and potatoes, more than life itself.
By gym class, Celia had forgotten her math-hour disgrace. Their class was learning to ballroom dance, and it was Performance Day. The gymnasium was lined with two distinct rows of grumbling children, divided by gender. All were on edge, especially the boys, who were required to choose partners the way a proper suitor would, to bow with an extended hand and make the genial request. The girls were far more excited, whispering and bickering over who preferred whom.
Celia’s own excitement dithered, however, at the sight of Jeremy. Before gym class, Ms. Pratt had cleaned his wounded face, slicked his dirty hair, and thrown a brown tie and tweed suit jacket (many sizes too big) on him since he had not come to school in the “appropriate attire.” As usual, he stood beyond the crowd, sulking in a corner, glancing occasionally at Celia.
As she dissected his strange smile from that morning, it occurred to Celia that he might be planning to ask her to dance. When Ms. Pratt gave the signal to begin, that fear manifested into reality. Jeremy’s greased head and tweed chest rose. A bat of Celia’s eyelids, and he was crossing the gym toward her, the first from the boy’s side to brave the twenty-yard expanse. She prayed for him to change course and choose another girl, any other girl.
Celia knew she should feel sympathy for him, but she felt only sympathy for herself. Very soon, she would be humiliated. The hammering drumbeat of her heart sent her into a panic at the prospect. Jeremy, with his disheveled appearance and standoffish behavior, had made himself a pariah, and thus, every day, she spent all her energy disassociating from him, trying to preserve what little good name she had.
The gymnasium full of students, realizing what was about to transpire, began to hum with murmurs. As Celia had feared, Jeremy stopped squarely in front of her. Eyes trained on her, he drew a deep, shaky breath, then bowed and extended one filthy hand.
A whiff of his unwashed skin made her recoil.
“May I have this dance, Miss?”
He’d worded the request precisely as every boy had been coached, like the perfect gentleman.
The gymnasium fell silent. All eyes were on her. “Go away,” Celia whispered as quietly as possible. Gasps echoed from every direction.
Jeremy straightened up. “Please, Celia,” he begged softly. “I don’t want to wind up with the teacher again.”
“Ask someone else.”
“They all hate me.” He looked ready to cry. “Please.”
Celia managed a step back, her nose stinging with oncoming tears.
She shook her head. It was then that she witnessed what disenchantment did to a bruised face.
But Jeremy wouldn’t look away, even as several girls giggled. “Germ-y wants to dance,” they sang.
Celia thought she might vomit. Her heart pounded painfully inside her throat.
Then Jeremy’s eyes finally released her, and he fled the gym. Ms. Pratt ordered him back. But of course, he didn’t listen.
Performance Day resumed without Jeremy Hill, making the gender ratio even. Celia partnered with Fletcher by accepting his trembling hand. How she could have so much mercy for Fletcher, and none for Jeremy, she didn’t know. But Fletcher waltzed her round and round as she sobbed silently against him, not speaking a single word, the perfect partner.
By lunchtime, Jeremy reappeared. Forgoing food, he sat alone at the table regularly occupied by Kevin Donahue and his awful friends, a place no kid — no kid who liked the position of his own nose anyway — ever ventured. Jeremy was hunting for a fight, and Celia knew it was her punishment for hurting him. It was his way of hurting her back.
To her relief, though, Fletcher and Moose sat down on either side of him and soon had him laughing.
Kevin and his bullies left the three boys alone for no reason that Celia could see.
By recess, Jeremy seemed himself again, playing jacks with Fletcher against the wall that housed the equipment closet — “the ball wall,” as it was aptly nicknamed.
It was a cloudless day. A perfect cerulean sky. The sun saturated the blacktop with heat as children played ball and joined in jump rope games. In the middle of it all, Celia made her finest attempt at beating the current Pacific Grove Elementary School Double Dutch record. Her braids soared, acting as switches against her back as they came down hard. Betty Jean Finnegan, the current record holder, would finally eat her words.
“Cinderella, dressed in yellow, went upstairs to kiss her fellow, made a mistake and kissed a snake; how many doctors did it take? One, two, three . . .”
“Fight! Fight! Fight!”
The ropes fell, and Celia wheeled around.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!”
It was the siren call only children could hear. The play yard came to a halt except for one blot of asphalt, where all energy converged into a maelstrom of chaos.
Still as a statue, Celia stood, the ropes dead at her heels. Her eyes shifted, and her heart plummeted into her stomach. The ball wall was bare. Children, rows thick, circled like vultures around the commotion. Fists pounded the air. Celia’s feet began to move.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Dozens of saddle shoes and hush puppies thudded against the blacktop around her.
“Out of my way!” Celia demanded as she breached the pandemonium, shoving aside her shouting classmates. “Move!”
When she reached the heart of it, she found Jeremy on the ground, wrestling with Kevin Donahue. Both were grunting and maneuvering with furious desperation, looking determined enough to kill. To make things terribly unfair, one of Kevin’s fifth-grade cronies, Tommy Russo, kicked Jeremy while the crowd urged the scuffle on.
“Leave him alone!” Celia shouted. Before another boot could strike Jeremy, she kicked Tommy Russo in his knee, a move her sister had taught her. Celia found herself reveling in Tommy’s pain as he doubled over. “Miscreant! Bully!”
At this, the merciless grade-school mob roared.
Then, at Celia’s feet, Jeremy received a vicious blow from Kevin’s fist. His head met the pavement with a crack. The crowd stopped its shouting. Somewhere amid the ferocity, a conscience had been found. Celia dropped to her knees, grasping at Kevin’s arms, hoping to stave him off, but took an elbow to the face instead as he reared back to strike Jeremy again. She fell back onto her bottom and covered her stricken mouth. The pain was incredible. She couldn’t imagine what Jeremy was feeling. In fact, it hurt to imagine, and she started to cry.
“Do something, you ignoramuses!” Angie shouted behind her, and it was only then that several boys, including Moose, pulled Kevin off Jeremy.
“What’s going on over here?” Mr. Bennett, the school principal, tore through the crowd, which dissolved instantaneously. “Everyone against the ball wall!” he yelled. “Now!”
“C’mon, Jeremy.” Celia rested her cheek on the warm asphalt next to his head. “Get up.”
He was spent, his eyelids drawn. Blood stained his teeth. He didn’t utter a word as he climbed to his feet alongside Celia.
“Jeremiah?” Mr.Bennett’s face was wrought with concern. He secured Jeremy’s chin between his fingers. “Did Kevin start this? Or was it you?”
Jeremy furnished no response.
“Answer me, young man. I’m not going to ask again.” At Jeremy’s continued silence, Mr. Bennett grew frustrated and, with a discouraged sigh, transferred his attention to Celia. “Miss Lynch, please escort Mr. Hill to Nurse Margaret’s office.”
Celia did as she was told.
When she and Jeremy rounded a corner near the front office, she stopped and jabbed a finger into his chest. “Are you happy now? Have I been punished enough?”
Jeremy scowled. “He started with me.”
“Liar.” Feeling a hot tear drop from her eye, Celia swatted it off her cheek. “Why can’t you be normal like everyone else? I hate being your friend. It’s embarrassing! I wish I’d never met you.”
Jeremy gave her the wounded expression she’d been seeking, then he walked off.
“Walk away then,” she cried, wishing she hadn’t said those things. “See if I care!”
After a lonely walk home from school, Celia eventually found Jeremy lying on his side beneath a giant eucalyptus at the farthest corner of his property.
She approached, then patted the ground with the ball of her foot. “Does your face hurt?” she asked him. “I know mine does.”
Jeremy plucked blades of grass from the soil.
Celia hated when he did this. The silent treatment from him was excruciating. “I got an A on my dioramas,” she said lamely. “Ms. Pratt said using your toy soldiers was clever. I let her know it was your idea.”
Jeremy ripped free another blade of grass.
Celia stamped her foot. “Jeremy! Talk to me!”
“Just beat it, Celia.” He rolled to his other side, facing away.
Celia walked around him in a huff. “I’m sorry, okay?” She sunk down into the soft, cool grass to sit beside him. “Please stop being mad at me.” Up close, he looked a fright. Dried blood snaked out of his hairline. As she brushed her thumb across the knot it welled from, hidden beneath his dark-brown hair, he winced in pain, and she did, too. He had bruises over bruises. “I hate when you’re hurt.”
His expression turned surly. “Why do you care what happens to me?”
“I don’t know. I just do. Kevin and your dad, they’re not supposed to hit you like that. I asked Mr. Bennett about your dad, and he said it’s complicated — ”
Jeremy slammed his hand against the ground. “Butt out, Celia! One day, I’ll be bigger than them, and they won’t be able to touch me. I’ll kill them all!”
His mouth formed a hard line, and Celia backed down.
After several minutes of his silence, she wiggled her way into his stiff, unwelcoming arms. “Can I lay with you?”
His tone was bitter. “Sure you’re not too embarrassed to be seen with me?”
She shrugged. “Nobody’s around.”
Jeremy narrowed his eyes at her but nevertheless allowed her head on his shoulder. Quickly thereafter, his arm curled around her, his cheek coming to rest atop her head.
Relieved, Celia closed her eyes. He never stayed angry for long.
Celia thrilled at this style of dream, whimsical and malleable, the kind in which her consciousness threaded illogically through bizarre scenes, where benevolent tongues spoke in senseless whispers. She could hear them now, deep and tender, urging her to wake and yet lulling her back to dream. A breeze spun a cool web through her hair, lifting the tiny strands off her neck. The smell of grass and soil chilled her nose; then a soft prickle awakened her lips.
Her eyes snapped open.
Jeremy’s eyes, green and wide, were a mere inch away.
Her lips itched as if they had been touched with the lightest pressure. Had Jeremy kissed her as she slept?
Celia had never been kissed before. Her classmate, Mona Bradley, had been kissed once, but not Celia. Was this what a kiss from a boy felt like: warm and soft and tickly? Or had she dreamed it? Jeremy looked guilty, and she grew livid at the thought of having missed her own first kiss.
Celia popped onto her elbow. “Did you just kiss me?”
The fury laced within her words was intentional, but Jeremy appeared unmoved by her anger and remained silent.
Celia squinted. “Jeremiah Patrick Hill, you answer me this instant. Did you kiss me?”
Arrogantly, he assessed her. “Maybe I did.”
Celia gasped. How could he?! The mongrel! “Well . . . do it again!” “Why should I?”
Celia gritted her teeth. “Because that was my first kiss, you toad, and I missed it!” She poked Jeremy hard in his chest, drawing from him a startled look. “And since you took it from me without my permission, you will at least give me something to remember. Now kiss me. And make it good.”
Without delay, Celia shut her eyes. Nervous butterflies began to flutter through her stomach. Her lips zinged in anticipation of the moment Mona Bradley had described with such superb detail: a boy’s wet, squishy mouth. Oh, let it come! She waited and waited, her heart racing, until — finally! — a pair of lips touched hers.
Ohhh. Fleshy soft, warm, electric panic was what it was. The jarring but not unwelcome invasion that was another living, breathing mouth pressed clumsily against hers. After an abrupt flare of terror, she puckered against it, remembering every fable, every legend ever recounted in the girls’ bathroom. This was what men and women did with each other. How marvelous to finally feel it for herself !
A puff of air from Jeremy’s nose tickled hers.There was a faint pop, and then his lips were gone.
“So,” Jeremy murmured as she opened her eyes. “How was it?”
“It was okay.” Celia lowered her gaze, embarrassment stoking a fire in her cheeks. “Did you like it?”
“It was okay,” he echoed quietly, his throat bobbing.
It was surprising how self-conscious she felt now, naked almost, in his presence. She lay back down against him to hide. Had she known what would happen next, she would have asked him to kiss her again. Perhaps she would have kissed him the way they did in the movies or the way her mother sometimes kissed her father, with passion and drama.
Instead, she fell back to sleep in the grass.
For the second time that evening, Celia woke with a start. Seeing only darkness, she sat up and crossed her arms to rub the goosebumps away. The crisp symphony of cricket calls and swoosh of crashing waves reminded her that she wasn’t in her bedroom.
“Oh, Jeremy, wake up.” Celia shook his sleeping body. “Look,” she said as his eyes stretched open. “The streetlights are on. We’re in so much trouble.”
Jeremy sat up. “Go home.”
“What about you,” Celia said, growing alarmed. “Dennis is going to beat you for this. Oh, God, he’s going to be so angry.”
“Calm down, will you?” Jeremy stood, pulling Celia up with him. “He’s probably already passed out.”
“What if he’s not? Come home with me.” Her eyes brightened. “It’ll be just like the Fourth of July.”
“No,” he said, his trepidation finally showing. “I should get home.”
Celia took hold of his hand. They didn’t have time to argue. “Then I’ll come with you. I’ll tell him it was my fault.”
“I said, no, Celia. You’ll only make things worse. Go home.”
But she insisted, and after a quick back and forth, Jeremy gave up and headed for home, Celia stubbornly marching at his heels.
Once Celia and Jeremy reached his house, it became apparent that Jeremy had presumed wrong. His father was not passed out but instead pacing the house at a furious rate. The bulky silhouette behind the curtains looked like a leviathan in search of accursed sailors to eat, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out who those sailors were going to be.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Jeremy said, watching that agitated shadow. “Go home.”
“No.” Celia’s tone was petulant. “I’m coming with you.”
Jeremy stalked toward his front door. “You never listen to me!” Celia trailed at his heels again, feigning gallantry with her walk until a thought occurred to her. “He’s not going to hit me, is he?” she asked, thinking of the bruises.
“I’m going to the parade tomorrow.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Jeremy said, always in perpetual defense of his father.
Celia’s natural inclination was to challenge his watered-down accounts of life in the Hill household, but she decided against it tonight. On plenty of occasions, she’d witnessed Dennis Hill behave like a respectable man. She’d even seen him treat Jeremy the way a father should treat his son. On the previous Fourth of July, at the Cleary picnic, Dennis spent an hour helping her and Jeremy fill water balloons, then another hour chasing them around, pelting them with water grenades until they were soaked and gasping with laughter. He was abominably scary, yes, especially during the chase, but it was reasonable to deduce from the experience that he wasn’t always a bad man.
It was the drink. It brought out the leviathan.
That same night of the picnic, after Dennis had soaked himself silly with spirits (which were illegal in Pacific Grove), he became belligerent, disrupting the festivities and upsetting the neighbors with his offensive language. Celia’s father helped Dennis home and insisted Jeremy spend the night at the Lynch house. Although the night was viewed with disgrace by the adults of Pacific Grove, Celia remembered it with fondness. Once the lights had gone out, Jeremy had slipped into her bedroom and crawled beneath her covers. Brandishing a weighty, green flashlight, they told ghost stories and sneaked butterscotch candies from the foyer bowl downstairs. It was a scream. Her favorite memory.
Jeremy stepped toward her now. “Do not move from this spot.” Though he was a full three months younger, he had a few inches on her, and his eyes, though light in color, could be dark and menacing, especially when he was being serious. “I’m serious, Celia.”
Leaving her alone on the porch, Jeremy stole past the front door and disappeared inside the house.
The night grew frightening in his absence. Something dreadful brewed in the air that cold autumn night, but Celia waited dutifully with her arms wrapped around herself. That half minute of charged silence was followed by Jeremy’s muffled voice, then Dennis’s deeper, louder one.
Seeking out a window, Celia peeked into what appeared to be a family room. She had never been inside, but it had the typical furnishings — a couch, a few low tables, and a small television console airing The Adventures of Jim Bowie. The mess and drabness of it were depressing, though, and she felt sorrier than ever for her friend.
Then Dennis began shouting from somewhere inside the house. Celia’s heart flew into a panic at his tone — thunderous and angry, the words merging into a single, sloshing tirade that made no sense.
A crash shook the house.
Celia ran to another window, where a view of the kitchen and what transpired within put a stain over everything she thought she knew. She watched Dennis Hill shove his only son against the refrigerator and strike him in the face with a tightly balled fist.
A sob bubbled up in her throat as she backed away from the window. She would get her Daddy. He would help Jeremy.
“Jeremiah!” Dennis hollered.
Celia jumped when the front door flew open.
Jeremy grabbed her arms, pushing her down the steps. “Go! Run!”
A chill ripped up Celia’s spine, while inches away, blood oozed from Jeremy’s mouth.
Catching her gaping at it, he sucked his bottom lip inward to wash the gore away.
He was ashamed, Celia realized. But they were connected now, weren’t they? She and him. A first kiss forever binding those bloody lips with hers.
“If I have to go lookin’ for ya, you little shit stain, you’re gonna get it!”
Celia gripped Jeremy’s fingers snugly against her palm and ran with all the blind determination she could muster.
To her relief, Jeremy gave no resistance and was soon ahead of her, pulling her forward.
Together, they crossed the tree line into the dark, open orchard, an earsplitting slam echoing behind them.
“I’m trying.” Her legs and lungs burned from her effort. But as always, she was slower, less agile than Jeremy, who had the running grace of a cheetah.
Despite her shortcomings, Jeremy handled her with patience as they plowed through both properties at record speed, her hand tethered to his. They were going to reach her house and get her daddy. They were going to escape the inescapable because in this place, on this night, dashing in vain across the playground between her heaven and his hell, they were invincible.
Up ahead, the lights of her house came into view.
“Hurry, Celia. We can make it.”
It was dark, though, and Celia tripped. Dry leaves crunched painfully against her elbows.
Jeremy hoisted her to her feet. Heavy footfalls echoed in the shadows behind them, growing louder. “We have to hide,” he whispered. Changing direction, they ran for a thin shelter of Monterey pines. Celia struggled to keep up, the sweet exhilaration of racing for fun a distant dream, replaced now by fear and the murky boost of adrenaline. The leviathan was coming for them.
“Jeremy,” she whimpered, desperate for his assurances. “I can’t breathe. I’m scared.” Pure dread had her sniveling, and she knew she was being too noisy. But the sound was impossible to contain. All her hopes fell on him. He was so brave, so clever and strong.
Pulling her close, Jeremy hushed her and leaned back against a tree, his head falling on the bark with a dull crunch. “When he gives up, I’ll take you home.”
Celia pressed into him, tucking every exposed part of herself inside the warm cocoon of his protection while she fought to control her breathing. And like that, they waited. It was impossible to know exactly how long, but when Jeremy began to whisper, Celia felt like she was being summoned from another deep slumber.
“When we grow up, I’ll never hit you or our kids. I promise.”
There was a crush of pine needles; then a thick, calloused thumb hooked deeply into Jeremy’s left cheek while the other four fingers dug into his right, forcing his jaw into a wide part, his lips into a misshapen pucker.
If Celia had breath, she would’ve screamed.
“Boy,” Dennis Hill slurred, reeking of liquor. “I told you to stay in the goddamn house.”
As the words dribbled like sludge from his father’s lips, Jeremy was winched off his feet by his cheeks.
Dennis turned to Celia, who felt as though she might never breathe again. “You get on home, girl. Your dad’s looking for ya.”
He released Jeremy and smacked the back of his head with such force that the boy stumbled forward, nearly falling. But Jeremy caught himself and, without faltering another step, set off for home.
It was then that Dennis Hill kicked his son so violently in the back that the boy flew forward through the air before crashing chin first into the ground.
Celia’s mind retreated, inexplicably, to a memory of her parents in their study, comforting each other with tender, deferential kisses . . .
“Stop it!” she screamed out, launching into a sprint. She rammed her right heel into Dennis Hill’s knee as he spun around to face her. With a bellow, he doubled over, and the rush of adrenaline gave Celia a deceptive sense of power. “Stop hitting him!” she screeched, slapping wildly at his head. “Stop it! Stop it! St — ”
A large, adult hand clutched her throat. Celia clawed at this new, unexpected source of distress: thick, rough fingers that wouldn’t budge. Seconds passed, and she was losing her rational mind as rapidly as she was losing the oxygen from her already-troubled lungs.
The leviathan was going to kill her.
“You don’t do that,” Dennis growled as he rose to loom over her. He tightened his hold on her windpipe and shook. “You hear me?”
Then she was free, gasping for air from her knees. One of her palms slammed to the ground as the other moved to shield her throat. There was a racket all around that concluded with a thud.
Celia twisted around. There, against a pine several yards away, clutching at his flannel shirt, sat a wide-eyed Dennis Hill. The terror distorting his handsome features instilled in Celia the very same terror, and her feet pedaled at the ground, readying to run.
The only barrier between her and the threat was Jeremy, who stood with his buck knife clutched tightly in his fist.
Celia rasped out his name, but he never turned. Instead, he dropped to his knees, one after the other, watching as his father exhaled a slow, listless breath, then slumped face-first into the dirt.