“Mommy, somebody’s watching us from the woods again.”
Five-year-old Marisa Garcia grabbed a handful of her mother’s pale yellow cardigan sweater as she whispered the warning. The angora knit was fuzzy, and soft, and she hung on for dear life, bobbing along behind twenty-nine-year-old Angela Garcia like the tail on a kite as she stared 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. Marisa looked away, shivering, and tightened her grip on the sweater. There were no lights on in the house yet, no lights visible anywhere because the car headlights were off and they lived out in the country now, with no other houses nearby. Only the moon peeped at them over the swaying treetops, a pale sliver of light that looked thin as white tissue paper pasted against a dark purple sky.
“There’s nobody 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 towards the back door of their small brick house without even bothering to look around at the woods. She thought Marisa was making things up. She always did, because Marisa did make things up. Sometimes.
But not now.
“Yes, there is.” But Marisa said it hopelessly, because she already knew nobody was going to listen.
“Marisa’s a baby, Marisa’s a baby....” That was her brother Tony, who was almost seven. Swinging the grocery bag he was carrying over his head so that the Cheerios and hamburger buns and bag of potato chips inside threatened to fall out, he danced around making faces at her.
“Stop, Tony.” Her mother was grumpy tonight, because they were late getting home. It was already full dark out, which meant it had to be getting pretty close to seven and her dad got home at seven 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, Marisa, take this.” Her mother thrust a grocery bag at her. Her mother didn’t like her hanging onto her clothes. Marisa knew that because Angela was always telling her, so she knew giving her the grocery bag was supposed to make her turn loose. She did, letting go of the soft wool 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.” Tony said it like he didn’t care. He’d been getting in trouble at school a lot, and it worried Mommy. In fact, a lot of things seemed to be worrying Mommy lately. She didn’t smile much any more. Not like she used to.
“Oh, Tony, what did you do?”
Marisa tuned her mother and Tony out and concentrated on carrying her grocery bag, which had the eggs in it, which was important because it meant her mother was trusting her not to drop it. Marisa’s other arm was wrapped protectively around Gina, the nearly life-sized doll she had gotten for her birthday last week. Gina 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. Gina 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 big black chicken-claw hands all winter and now that the trees had turned green casting 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’d been people. She had never actually really 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 scrunched up her shoulders protectively as she hurried up the back stairs in her mother’s wake.
As soon as the door opened, Lucy came bounding out, barking her head off and jumping on them all and then running around in circles because she was so glad to see them. Lucy was their dog. She was big and black and furry, a mutt Tony said, and they’d had her for as long as Marisa could remember. They’d brought Lucy with them when they’d moved to Kentucky from Maryland last fall. Lucy didn’t like Kentucky either, Marisa 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 Lucy liked to chase the neighbor’s cows. What kind of place had cows living next door anyway?
I want to go home, she thought as they all, Lucy 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 Maryland, 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. Marisa, you can set the table. Tony, get Lucy’s leash and take her out in the yard and put her on her chain.” Her mother was already ripping the plastic off a package of hamburger and dumping it into the big silver frying pan on the stove. From that, and the red box sitting on the counter beside the burner, Marisa knew what they were having: Hamburger Helper.
It was okay, not her favorite.
“Be careful. There’s somebody out there in the woods,” she told Tony as she started to get some clean plates out of the dishwasher and he took Lucy, clipped to a leash now so she wouldn’t go running off after any old cows, back out into the dark. She’d propped Gina in a corner so the doll could watch. She would have liked to have her sit at the table, but Tony would have made fun of her and Daddy wouldn’t have allowed it. Only her mother understood about Gina.
“There is not, turd-brain,” Tony said, and her mother sighed.
“I got an award today,” Marisa told her mother when they were alone. She didn’t like to tell things like that in front of Tony, because 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 made 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 disc 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, Marisa. Good job. I’m really proud of you, baby.”
Marisa smiled back. Sometimes, when she was alone like this with Mommy, it was almost like they were at home again. Like nothing had changed.
“Dad’s home.” Dragging a trail of mud in with him, Tony 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 in with the sizzle of meat and thud of Tony’s muddy shoes as he kicked them off and, from outside, Lucy’s barking. “Go put your pajamas on, Tony, you’ve got mud all over your jeans. And wash your face and hands while you’re at it.”
“Lucy kept jumping on me. She got me muddy.”
Lucy didn’t like being left outside all alone in the dark. She didn’t like being fastened to a chain, either. Like Tony and herself and Mommy too, Marisa suspected, Lucy just wanted to go home.
The beans and corn were in pans, the pans were on the stove, Tony was nowhere in sight and Marisa had just picked up Gina when Michael 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 enormous to Marisa. 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 Gina tight, sticking her thumb in her mouth, she sidled closer 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 Tony’s muddy tracks to the grocery bags crowding the counter, 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, Marisa clutched Gina 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 just got quieter when he was around, like she was trying to stay very calm. Marisa guessed 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 on the stove and frowned. “That crap again?”
“Money’s tight, Mike.”
“You blaming me for that?” He sounded so angry that Marisa’s throat went dry. She would have clutched at her mother’s skirt if she’d had a hand free. 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, Marisa discovered. All of a sudden her dad’s eyes focused on her. Marisa’s stomach lurched. When he was in a bad mood, he had to take it out on somebody. Usually it was Tony, because Tony was so much noisier and bigger and harder to miss. But Tony 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 Marisa jumped, and drew back his hand like he was going to smack her. It scared her so much she almost wet her pants. She pulled her thumb out of her mouth, then stuck the hand with the wet, glistening, tell-tale 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. “Marisa, go get Tony, would you please?”
Marisa nodded, edged around her mother, and, with a last, big-eyed look at her dad, 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, Mike. I’m not going to stand for that.”
She could just hear her mother’s low voice as she went into the hall that led to the three small bedrooms and their one bathroom one way, and, the other, 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 it.”
“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 any sense to Marisa, and she didn’t hear anymore because she found Tony. 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 real low, because he didn’t want to do anything that might attract their dad’s attention unnecessarily.
“Supper,” Marisa announced, then added in a confidential whisper, “He’s mad.”
“He’s a dick,” Tony said bitterly, and Marisa’s mouth dropped open in horror. They weren’t allowed to say bad words. But then, Tony never seemed to care about what they weren’t allowed to do.
“Tony! Marisa!” their mother called.
Tony 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, Tony,” Marisa said humbly, because it was true. Daddy had already yelled at her about it and he got really mad if he had to yell about the same thing too much. She carried Gina 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 Marisa 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 Tony did his homework with them in the kitchen, and then her mother fixed her bath. She was just getting out of the tub and her mother was just wrapping her in a towel when they heard Lucy barking outside.
“Your daddy must be home,” Mommy said with a sigh.
Marisa’s stomach got a knot in it.
A moment later came the sound of the kitchen door opening and slamming shut.
“Angie! Angie, 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 Marisa saw fear flash into her eyes.
“Get your nightgown on and get into bed. Tell Tony I said go to bed, too.” Her mother’s voice was quiet.
“Mommy.” Marisa wanted to hold onto her mother, but she was already gone, her skirt swishing as she moved fast down the hall. By the time Marisa had her nightgown pulled on over her head she could hear her dad shouting, yelling loud, nasty things. Her heart started beating really fast. Goosebumps 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 Gina. Hugging the doll close, she started for Tony’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. Marisa’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, Marisa found herself standing in the kitchen doorway, her eyes huge and her mouth hanging open as she looked at the most terrible 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, like something was blossoming on it, some awful flower that was getting bigger by the second as it gobbled her up from the inside out.
Mommy. But Marisa was so terrified now that, although her mouth opened and her throat worked, no sound came out.
“Run, Marisa,” her mother shrieked, her face white and terrible. “Run, run, run!” There was another person in the room, Marisa saw as beyond her mother something moved. Instantly she knew in her heart that it was one of the shadow people from the woods. Seized by mortal fear, she whirled around and ran like a jackrabbit with her mother’s screams echoing in her ears, darting through the living room, bursting out through 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, she ran into the woods.
Excerpted from SHATTERED © Copyright 2011 by Karen Robards. Reprinted with permission by Putnam Adult. All rights reserved.