Millie roughly brushed away a tear with her fist and rose from the dirty tile floor of the C-wing hallway. Her back was pressed against the janitor’s closet, tucked back between locker rows, so that if a teacher looked down the crowded, noisy hall they wouldn’t see her or hear Ben’s threats. Ben was a bully and a certified dummy when it came to classwork, but at simple torment, he was rather sharp.
He wiped snot from his nose with his forearm before he said, “Give it to me, smartypants, or next time I use my friend here.” He pointed at his clenched fist, and somewhere in the back of her head, Millie wondered what movie he’d gotten that line from.
“I won’t,” said Millie, eyeing the fist with a mixture of defiance and trepidation. “If you want to pass, do your own homework. I worked hard on mine; I’m not just going to let you copy.”
“Listen, you little bitch,” said Ben, grabbing Millie by the shirt collar and yanking her up so that their eyes were level, “I ain’t gonna fail. If I do …” His eyes lowered and his brow creased. He pursed his lips and said, “I just ain’t, you got it?” He shook her for good measure, making her teeth clack together. “I know you got the answers. Now hand ‘em over!”
“You just set her down right now and this bat don’t meet your teeth.”
Tears almost spilled from Millie’s eyes again, tears of relief, at the sound of Roquel’s voice. Ben dropped Millie and spun around. Roquel was gently spinning her bat at her side, the end clasped securely in her fingertips. She turned her baseball cap sideways with her free hand and grinned, popping her gum. Tucked behind her, her presence only betrayed by the pink sneaker and golden pigtail braid not quite concealed by Roquel’s body, was Dahlia.
Roquel swung the bat up easily to rest against one overalls strap as Ben assessed the situation, eyes squinted as his brain worked hard to consider his options. She cocked her head to the side, blew a pink bubble, popped it hard with her lips, and said, “We understand each other, hoss?” Hoss was her daddy’s word, used when staring down her older brothers after some misdeed. It had a similar effect on Ben.
The bully quickly scanned Roquel’s tight, trimly muscled arms. They weren’t nearly as big as his own, which were covered by a nice layer of fat, but they were lean and clearly powerful, especially for a twelve-year-old girl. Meeting the other end of a bat swung by those arms was a losing game.
“You ain’t gonna do it,” said Ben, as if convincing himself.
“Test me, hoss, and you’ll just find out.”
Ben looked around. The hallway was clearing. It was about time for class. There weren’t any teachers in sight. This was usually good for him, but now he wasn’t so sure. He hesitated, and Roquel smiled again.
“Go on and leave her alone, hmm?”
“Y-yeah, you leave her alone,” said Dahlia, her large blue eyes momentarily appearing around Roquel’s left elbow.
“Aw, forget you cunts anyway,” said Ben, swiping the air with a large hand in dismissal. He stalked off down the hall.
“What’s a … a cunt?” said Dahlia, her nose wrinkled in distaste.
“Never you mind,” said Roquel, patting the much shorter girl’s blonde head. “It’s not a pretty word. Don’t repeat it or you’ll get your hide tanned.” She looked to Millie. “You all right?”
“Yeah,” said Millie, more angry now than scared as she tugged on her shirt, readjusting the damage done by Ben’s sausage hands. “He’s been asking me to let him copy my homework for two weeks now. He finally cornered me. Thanks, Roquel.”
“You couldn’t just give him you’re homework and save yourself the trouble, could you?” said Roquel, her smirk saying she already knew the answer.
“No freakin’ way!” Millie flicked her bushy hair out of her face with dignity. It was frizzing in the heat and sticking to her face.
Roquel laughed. Roquel’s tight kinky curls frizzed, too, but she’d pulled them back into two pigtails at the back of her head where they looked like two cute, puffy black clouds. Millie yanked a ponytail holder off her wrist and began wrangling her light brown mane in a high tail.
“You two are both so brave,” said Dahlia, shaking her head and giving a mournful sigh. “I would’ve given him my homework the first time he asked.”
Roquel pointed the bat at her, making her flinch slightly. “He comes near you, you tell one of us.”
“Yeah, I’ll run and get a teacher next time. Miss Hammond will put him in his place,” said Millie with a sniff.
“I’ll run and get ole Delilah, here,” said Roquel with a wink as she stroked her bat.
“You know …” said Millie, a finger coming to pat just beneath her lips, “Ben lives on the next street over in my neighborhood.”
Her eyes met Roquel’s, and the two girls exchanged devious looks.
“How about we teach him it’s not very nice, or very smart, to pick on girls?” said Millie, waggling her eyebrows.
“Sleepover?” said Roquel.
Dahlia, who had been watching her two friends with curiosity and a bit of fear, lit up. “A sleepover!”
Millie nodded, her eyes still locked with Roquel’s. “Sleepover.”
The three friends giggled madly as they ran through the backyards connecting Ben’s street with Millie’s. Even Dahlia joined in, though her laughter was a bit more hysteric, and every now and then she got a look on her face that said she was either going to puke or pee in her pajama pants. Ben scared her something awful, with his loud voice and mean eyes, like her grandpa. But Ben would be in bed where he couldn’t hurt her. And she had Millie and Roquel, and they weren’t scared of anything.
The girls had armed themselves with a can of white spray paint swiped from Roquel’s garage; eggs, toilet paper, and a baking sheet taken from Millie’s house; and a voice changing bullhorn that, at her friends’ prodding, Dahlia had snuck from her brother’s toy chest.
“That’s the one,” said Millie, pointing to the smallest house on the street.
“You sure?” said Roquel.
“Yeah, he and his brothers are always running late for the bus,” said Millie. “I see them come running out of that house almost every day.”
Ben’s house had perhaps once been nice, like the others on the street, but no longer. The yard was unkempt and devoid of any flowers or bushes like the girls were used to seeing outside their own homes. The white and green paint was peeling. The trashcans had tipped over in the yard by the mailbox, scattering cigarette cartons, milk jugs, beer bottles, and other debris, but no one had bothered to pick them up.
Roquel pinched her nose as they tiptoed into the yard, past the piles of trash. Millie hopped gingerly over food-covered wrappers and plastic utensils. Dahlia raced right through the trash in her attempt to keep right behind the other girls with their longer strides.
“How are we supposed to know which window is his?” said Roquel as the three girls crouched together behind the trunk of the solitary large oak in the yard.
“We look in,” said Millie.
“What if the blinds are closed? What if we can’t see?”
“We throw a rock or an egg at it and see who comes to look out.”
“What if it’s his parents?”
“We run,” said Millie with a shrug. “That’s why we do the TP first.”
“This is nuts,” said Roquel. “Why can’t we just do the TP and the paint? If we leave the message, you know they’ll make him clean it up. Isn’t that enough? Why do we have to try and scare him?”
Millie held the baking sheet up and wiggled her hands in opposite directions, bending the thin metal to create a ghost-like sound. “Because, he likes scaring people so much; it’s time to get a taste of his own medicine.
“You know how to work that thing. Right, Dahlia?”
With Millie’s sturdy gaze on her, Dahlia gave her best attempt at a mischievous grin as she fiddled with a knob on the bullhorn.
“Right,” she whispered into it, and a garbled, growly voice echoed out of the machine.
Millie smiled. “Good. Now let’s start TPing.”
Roquel swung her backpack onto the ground and unzipped it to reveal a mound of fluffy white paper rolls. Each girl took a roll, and then their eyes met, sending them into another fit of nervous giggles.
“You go first, Millie,” said Dahlia.
Millie rocked her head back to look into the branches of the massive tree. She held the end of the roll in her left hand and cocked back her right. She let it fly, and it arched over one of the larger, low-hanging limbs like an odd bird with its long tail flapping in the breeze. The roll thumped into the grass, and a bluish spotlight hit the girls.
They whipped around in unison, hearts fluttering, hands raised to see passed the glare of the flashlight probing them from across the street. The beam came closer, but none of the girls seemed able to make their legs move.
“Millie?” squeaked Dahlia, her hand reaching out to grip the other girl’s arm with her small pink-painted nails.
The light raised above their heads, reaching into the tree branches, and the form of a woman materialized in the back-glow. The three girls blinked, only able to make out a black silhouette as their eyes adjusted.
Millie stood up straighter and flicked back her hair, ready to talk her way out of the situation. Adults were easy, if you just knew how to smile pretty and talk polite. Roquel’s knees bent like well-oiled springs, ready to run back to Millie’s and drag the other two girls along behind her if she had to. Dahlia’s knees bent, too, but so did her head. She moved closer to Millie and wondered how in the world she’d ever thought she could get away with something like this. It was not really the woman that made her quail, but the thought of what her grandpa would do if this woman told on her.
“You girls really oughtn’t do that,” said the woman. Her voice was calm and kind, maybe even a bit conspiratorial. “Mr. McClain is not a very nice man. He won’t be very forgiving if he catches you.”
“Oh, um.” Millie had expected a scolding, not a warning, and she was momentarily lost for words as her brain whirred to figure out a new strategy. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am. Uh, we were just trying to pull a little prank on our friend, Ben. He, uh, he got us real good last week, and we just wanted to get him back. But, uh, we never met his daddy before. We didn’t know. We’ll … we’ll just go on back home. This … this was silly. Sorry if we woke you.”
The woman clicked off her flashlight, and in the soft light of the moon and the streetlamps posted one house down on either side, the girls were finally able to get a good look at her. She wore an ankle-length pink cotton nightgown that looked to Millie like the one Lucy wore in the black and white I Love Lucy episodes that came on channel 52 on weekdays after school. She did not look grandmother old, but not quite as young as any of the girls’ mothers. Her hair was long and reddish and unbrushed. Her face had soft wrinkles around the eyes and mouth that became more pronounced when she looked down at the supplies scattered around the girls’ feet and gave them an odd grin.
“That’s quite a stash you’ve got there,” she said. “Looks like I’ve interrupted a good bit of fun.”
“Uhhh …” Millie’s mouth fell open.
“You’re not gonna get us in trouble?” said Dahlia. The odd turn of events had shocked the words out of her, but as soon as they left her lips, she clamped a hand over her mouth like she’d said something dirty. Now that she had reminded the woman, she was sure to get them in trouble.
“No, honey,” said the woman. “I’m sure Ben deserved it.”
Millie drew in a breath to protest, but the woman held up a hand.
“I know that kid’s a bully. I’ve seen him in action with the younger kids in the neighborhood.” She looked toward the house and put her hands on her hips. She sighed softly and said, “Though, it’s not entirely his fault. I don’t think that boy’s daddy ever taught him anything but hate.” She looked back to the girls and smiled sadly. “Like I said, Mr. McClain’s not a very nice man. Just last week he walked over and kicked my cat for no good reason.”
“Really? You’re cat wasn’t doing nothin’?” said Roquel with a shocked look.
“Nope, but Mr. McClain said he’d been going to the bathroom in his yard. Don’t see what difference it makes. He leaves this trash all over the yard, he shouldn’t mind about a little cat poo.”
The girl’s exchanged glances and had to stifle giggles at her use of the word poo.
“He does those boys worse, though,” said the woman, her eyes back on the house. She put her hands back on her hips and drew a resolute look across her face. “You know what?” She jabbed a finger at the carton of eggs by Roquel’s feet. “Give me one of those things, would ya, hon?”
But none of the girls’ moved right away. All three of them stood transfixed by the woman’s pointing hand. The fingers were abnormally long and spindly. The knuckles were large, swollen orbs, like knots on a tree branch. The nails were well-kept but very long. Her face may not have looked like a grandmother’s, but her hands sure did. There were liver spots dotting the backs, and the skin was wrinkled and almost translucent.
The woman bent deftly and got the egg herself, oblivious to the girl’s faces, now showing mild hints of disgust. Millie’s lips curled back on one side. Roquel’s nose wrinkled. Dahlia shuddered.
Their expressions changed to shock as the woman cocked back her hand, egg nestled in her palm.
“Take that, you mean old bastard,” she said, and hurled the egg right against the front door with beautiful form.
“Wow, lady, that was some throw!” said Roquel, her face aglow with disbelief and respect.
Millie put her hands over her mouth and laughed. “I can’t believe you—”
A light came on in the left-hand window. Four sets of eyes bulged with fear.
“Run, girls, run!” said the woman, nudging them toward the street with her hands.
At her touch, Dahlia feared once again that her bladder might give way.
“Oh, wait! Get your things!”
Roquel snatched up her backpack. Dahlia grabbed her brother’s bullhorn while Millie retrieved her mother’s baking sheet. The woman scooped up the egg carton and the three loose rolls of toilet paper.
“Across the street, to my house, quick!” said the woman as the girls got their feet in gear and pounded onto the pavement.
Roquel reached the door first, flying up the short porch steps in two leaps, and yanked it open. As soon as the door was shut behind them, the girls dropped their things unceremoniously on the carpet, ran to the window, and peeked out from behind the curtains. A man’s head was sticking out of the window across the street. He looked through the yard at the trash scattered there. Then he turned and stared for a long moment at the toilet paper banner flapping in his tree. The girl’s hardly breathed. The man’s head turned back to the overturned trashcans, then to the tree. He did this twice more, and then the window closed.
“That was a close one,” the woman whispered just behind them, making all three girls jump.
The woman winked at them, her face still very close to theirs. “That felt good,” she said.
Somehow this struck the girls very funny, and they collapsed into fits of laughter on the shaggy carpet of the modest living room.
“You’re crazy, lady,” said Roquel, wiping at tears. Then her face sobered a bit. “No offense.”
“None taken,” said the woman with a chuckle. “Though, no need to keep calling me lady. My name is Maud. Maud Haverty.”
“I’m Millie, and this is Roquel and Dahlia.” Millie got up from the floor and held out a hand. “Very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Haverty.”
“Oh, I’m not a missus, and you can call me Maud,” she said, shaking Millie’s hand.
“Okay,” said Millie, a little perplexed. She pulled her hand away and unconsciously wiped it on her pants. The only adult who’d asked her to call her by her first name was Millie’s mother’s friend Janie. Her father called her Crazy Janie, and this woman didn’t seem anything like her. “Thanks for not yelling at us, Maud.”
“You’re very welcome, Millie. What a polite, mature girl you are. You’re probably very smart, too, aren’t you?”
Millie threw back her shoulders and said, “Oh, well, I do pretty well in school, I guess.”
“She’s the smartest girl in our grade,” said Dahlia.
“I knew it. Just something about you,” said Maud, never looking at Dahlia.
“Where’d you learn to throw like that, Maud?” said Roquel, and a slight frown crossed Millie’s face at the intrusion.
“Oh, my daddy taught me way back when. We used to play ball in the backyard all the time, him and me, and my brother and sister. You like baseball, Roquel?”
“Oh yes, ma’am,” said Roquel, fiddling with her ball cap while she nodded. “I wanna go pro someday.”
“You want to play for the Women’s National Team?”
“Nah, I want to play in the regular pro leagues with the boys, like Toni Stone.”
“Ah, a very worthy goal. You a pitcher or a hitter?”
“I like both, but I’m best at bat.”
“You hit a lot of home runners?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Now it was Roquel’s turn to stand straighter. “I can hit just as good as any boy. My daddy says they won’t know what hit ‘em.”
Maud chuckled. “I like a girl with drive and confidence.” She swiveled her head to where Dahlia had pulled herself into a large armchair. “What do you want to do when you grow up, Dahlia?”
“Oh, uh,” said Dahlia, twirling the hem of her skirt in her hands and looking down bashfully, “probably something with animals. I … I wanted to be a vet, but my grandpa says you have to do a lot of school for that, and I just don’t … well, I’m not smart like Millie.”
“I see,” said Maud, and her mouth pulled down into a frown as she looked at Dahlia down her nose with clear disappointment. “Well, two for three’s not bad.”
“Huh?” said Millie, unsure she’d heard the last muttered bit correctly.
“Would you like some cookies, dears, before you go back home? I baked them just yesterday. Chocolate chip.”
“Ooo, yes please!” said Roquel.
“That’s one. Anyone else?” said Maud.
“Well, as long as we just have a few,” said Millie, the confusion on her face giving way to a small smile. “I want to get back pretty soon, though. My mom sometimes comes in and checks on me at night if she gets up to go to the bathroom.”
“My grandma says … well, she says I shouldn’t accept food from strangers,” said Dahlia quietly.
Maud gave her a sour look. “Well, I wouldn’t exactly call us strangers. Would you, Dahlia? But if you don’t want any, fine. I’ll just bring two glasses of milk.”
Dahlia looked to her friends.
“It’ll be okay, Dahlia,” said Millie, but she was suddenly glad she’d said that thing about her mother going to check in on her. She began to look around the living room uneasily. Last year when she’d gone around her neighborhood selling candy bars and frozen pizzas to win a prize at school, her mom and dad had told her never to go into anyone’s house, even if they were friendly.
Maud shot them all a sugary sweet smile. “I’ll be right back. You girls just make yourselves comfortable in here.”
“Okay, thanks,” said Millie, moving slowly toward the couch. She sat down gingerly and crossed her legs.
Roquel plopped down beside her and flung her arms over the back of the couch. “She’s pretty cool for an old lady,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Millie, her eyes narrowed in a contemplative look. “It was pretty cool of her not to rat on us. And I never would have guessed she’d throw that egg.”
“Yeah, but that almost got us in big trouble, too,” said Dahlia.
“Don’t be such a worry wart,” said Roquel. “You have to learn to have fun more often.”
Dahlia fiddled with her skirt some more. Millie watched her with sympathy. Dahlia had never invited them over to her house in all the years they’d been friends, and Millie had long ago wondered if she was ever even allowed to have fun there.
“We really should be getting back soon, though,” said Millie, looking toward the door. Something in the corner nearby caught her eye. Her heart skipped a beat. She rose to her feet, dreamlike and began moving toward it.
“Here kitty, kitty,” said Roquel, not realizing Millie had gotten up.
“What are you doing?” Dahlia asked. She was looking at Millie, but Roquel answered.
“She said she had a cat. I thought maybe it might come out and let us pet it.”
“She might let it out to hunt at night,” said Dahlia, turning to Roquel, distracted by the mention of an animal. “Cats are most active at night.”
“Guys.” Millie’s voice shook slightly, and she spoke barely above a whisper. The fear hidden in it made the other two girls rush to her side. “What’s that?” Millie pointed to a large, dark stain on the carpet just below the window. Smaller droplets of the same color fanned out from the center. Dahlia’s nails were suddenly piercing the skin of Millie’s arm again. “It wasn’t there when we were looking out the window, was it?”
“It’s.” Roquel swallowed hard and started again. “It’s probably nothing. It just looks bad. Probably juice or something. Grape juice is real hard to get up. One time Terrence spilled grape juice on the—”
“Shh, keep your voice down,” said Millie. She looked to her friends with wide eyes, but she drew in a deep, calming breath. “Let’s just tell her we have to go. Say we’re sorry but I’m worried my mom’s going to figure out we snuck out.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s good,” said Roquel, her poufy pigtails bobbing as she nodded.
“Come on,” said Millie, signaling for the others to follow. She pried Dahlia’s hand from her arm and held it instead. Dahlia squeezed tight. Roquel put her hand on Millie’s shoulder, and the three of them moved slowly toward the kitchen.
Maud was humming, but just as they reached the doorway, she spoke, and Millie pulled the other girls up short and signaled for them to hide up against the wall.
“You got to take time to enjoy yourself on these ones, Maud, ole girl.” She spoke softly, but the girls were holding their breath.
They exchanged confused looks, and Millie threw up a finger to make the hush gesture.
“Maybe just a little pick me up, hmm?” said Maud.
Millie peered around the door jamb just in time to see Maud pull something out of the fridge. She threw both hands over her mouth to stifle a scream.
In the kitchen, Maud turned the small, severed arm from side to side, inspecting it. Still looked good. It was ripped off just below the elbow, and a little bracelet made of purple beads was still wrapped around the wrist. It would help pack some extra punch, make sure the full personality came through. It even had the girl’s initials on it. Perfect. Maud opened her mouth wider than should have been possible and stuffed the treat down whole. Her throat expanded and contracted as she worked the piece down, her head thrown back for a better angle. She shut the fridge and stood still for a moment, letting it work its magic. She could feel the sense of adventure, the big hopes and dreams, the confidence, the resolve. Yes, little Bridget had been a good one. But this was the last piece. Warmth tingled in her hands. The liver spots faded. The muscles filled out so the knuckles were not so knobby. She held them up and flexed them. Much better. Now she could focus on the task at hand.
She picked up the big plate of cookies and balanced the three glasses in the other hand and headed for the living room.
“Oh now, now girls that’s very rude,” she said. “Trying to leave without saying goodbye?”
Millie stopped trying to turn the knob. It was no use. But Roquel began slamming her shoulder against the door, shooting glances back at Maud.
“Let us go!” said Millie.
“No, I’m afraid I can’t do that, Millie.”
“Why won’t it open?” said Dahlia through her mounting hysteric sobs. “Open it, Roquel! Why can’t you open it?”
“I invited you in, remember?” said Maud. “But I didn’t say you could go. The door won’t let you go unless I say so.”
“Please, please, let us out,” said Dahlia. She could barely see Maud for tears.
“Shut up, you little coward,” said Maud with a sneer. “Not even sure what I’m going to do with you. Timid, yellow-bellied meat is no good.”
While Maud’s cruel gaze was turned on Dahlia, Millie grabbed a heavy wooden lamp from an end table. She chucked it against the window, but the lamp was all that shattered. There was not so much as a crack in the glass. Millie shook her head.
“It doesn’t make sense. None of it makes sense,” she said, hope draining from her face. She turned to her friends, her chest rising and falling in heavy gasps. “I … I don’t know what to do.”
“Aw, don’t fret, Millie. Milk and cookies makes everything better,” said Maud, holding out the plate.
“Run!” said Roquel, and she bolted for the stairs, grabbing her friends’ hands and pulling them along for the ride.
Cookies and milk covered the carpet as Maud dropped the cutlery and charged after them. The girls ran wildly up the stairs, down the hall, and into the first open door. Roquel slammed it shut and turned the lock. Maud’s body smacked against it a second later.
“Girls,” she crooned, “I can keep you locked in, but you can’t keep me locked out in my own house. This is silly. I thought you were smart, Millie. I thought you were brave, Roquel. Why don’t you just open this door?”
“Why don’t you go screw ya mama?” shouted Roquel.
“Huh?” said Millie, her brow scrunched up.
“I dunno,” said Roquel with a quick shrug. “Terrence said that to a bully once. He told me.”
“Open the door you little cunts!”
Dahlia gasped and renewed her sobs at the sound of the familiar unpleasant word. Maud was throwing herself against the door. Then it sounded like she was scratching her fingernails down it. Dahlia was hyperventilating.
“Do something, do something!” she wailed.
“We gotta find weapons,” said Roquel, her eyes whizzing over the room. “Gotta fight our way out.”
“We can’t get out!” said Millie.
The thumping and scraping ceased. They stared at the door and listened. They heard Maud’s footfalls on the hall carpet.
“Then we kill her,” said Roquel, her face hard.
“We … we can’t do that!” said Millie.
“We’re gonna have to,” said Roquel. “Like killing the witch in the gingerbread house. Same thing. It’s not bad. Can’t get punished in heaven for killin’ a witch. It’s her or us.”
Millie clenched her hands into fists, her eyes on Roquel, and nodded just once. Dahlia only continued to sob. She sat on the floor and put her hands over her ears and began rocking back and forth on crossed legs.
“He’s gonna get me, he’s gonna get me. I’ve been bad. This is bad. Gonna get me,” she said in a strange, chant-like tone.
“Dahlia, snap out of it,” said Roquel, snapping her fingers in front of the other girl’s face. “What are you talking about, he? She’s a she. Now stop that; it’s not helping anything.”
“Oh, he’s gonna get me, gonna get me. Bad, Dahlia. Bad girl. I been a bad girl.”
“Millie, help her,” said Roquel. “I’ll find us something to use.”
The room was an office of some sort, with a desk and a bookshelf and an old, ragged armchair in the corner. One of the legs was loose, and Roquel honed in on it as Millie bent down to cradle the still rocking Dahlia.
“Hush now, dolly,” said Millie, hoping the pet name would calm her, or at least bring her back to reality. Something was very wrong. “Come on. I know it’s scary, but … but we’re gonna be okay.”
Roquel went to work kicking at the chair leg with all her might. The damaged wood began to splinter.
“Oh, oh, he’s gonna get me so bad.”
“Dahlia, who’s he?” said Millie, hugging her friend tight.
“Oh, he’s gonna be so mad when he finds me.”
The chair leg broke loose. Roquel tossed it up and down, feeling its weight. “Not as good as ole Delilah, but it’ll do.”
“Dahlia, who’s he? Who’s gonna get you?”
Millie and Roquel found each other’s eyes. There was half understanding in each face, something just as dark as any child-eating witch—they could feel it was true—but now was not the time to hash it out.
Bam! An axe head pierced the door. All three girls screamed, but Dahlia loudest of all. She tore at her cheeks with her nails and scurried backward on her butt, using her hands to propel her into a corner. The axe came down again. Roquel dashed to the desk and snatched up a letter opener.
“Here!” she said as she thrust it into Millie’s hands. “Hold it like this.” She manipulated Millie’s right hand so that the sharp end of the letter opener poked out between her middle and ring fingers. “Now, jab it, like this.” Roquel demonstrated the motion as the axe came down again.
They could see Maud through a large hole in the door. Her eyes were bright. Her mouth was open in a toothy snarl. She swung the axe with the same dexterity she’d used to throw the egg. Millie and Roquel took fighting stances side by side. Roquel held the chair leg poised like a bat. Maud saw them and laughed, high and mad. More like a cackle.
One more downward blow and the hole was wide enough for Maud to squeeze through. She raised the axe much like Roquel held her bludgeon.
“You girls are fun. A whole lot of fun,” she said, breathing heavy. “So brave. So strong. So clever. Yes, you’re just right.”
She never looked at Dahlia, though the small girl’s screams filled the whole house.
“Come on, you old whore,” said Roquel, bouncing up and down ever so slightly in anticipation.
Maud laughed as she charged. She swung the axe from right to left, but both girls ducked. Roquel spun out of her dodge into the swing of a lifetime. A game winner. Her chair leg smashed into Maud’s elbow with a crack like lightning, and the old witch howled like a wolf at the moon, the axe falling from her grasp, and she pulled her crippled arm into her side.
Roquel’s face lit with a smile and she let out one barking laugh before Maud’s uninjured hand whipped out with snakelike speed and yanked the makeshift bat from her hands. Roquel took one step backward, but Maud’s hand caught her by the throat and picked her completely off her feet, her nails digging into her soft neck hard enough to draw droplets of blood. Roquel’s mouth opened to scream in pain, but only a choking sound came out. With a strangled battle cry, Millie jabbed the letter opener into Maud’s side. Blood stained her nightgown almost instantly, but Maud reached out with her injured arm, grabbed Millie by her thick hair, and used it to slam her head into the desk. Millie hit the floor with a groan, her eyes shut tight against the blinding pain. Maud tossed Roquel next to Millie. Roquel shuddered and coughed and clutched at her throat as Maud pulled the letter opener from her side.
“Oh, you little bitches are going to pay for that. Yes, you’re going to pay for that dearly,” she said, bearing down on the two girls with her hands held out like claws. “You’ve been very, very bad. And bad girls need to be punished.”
“NO!” Dahlia’s cry was garbled, but it seemed to shake the whole room. “Leave them alone!”
Maud gasped, and blood trickled out of her mouth. She hit her knees as Dahlia tried to yank the axe free for a second blow to the back.
“No! Not them!” she cried, her eyes searching the floor when her efforts to free the axe failed. She scrambled on her knees to retrieve the letter opener near Maud’s feet.
Maud, her breath a terrible wheezing, snatched out with her long-nailed hand, grabbing for Dahlia’s braids. Dahlia drove the letter opener through Maud’s palm and didn’t stop.
“Not them! You leave them alone!” The letter opener went up and down, up and down. “Leave them alone! I won’t let you!”
Maud moved no more.
Exhausted, her chest heaving, her eyes glazed, Dahlia let the letter opener slip from her hand. Tears came to her eyes as she surveyed what she’d done.
Two warm bodies collided with her as her friends tackled her to the floor in a joined bear hug.
“Dahlia, you did it!” said Roquel. “You freakin’ did it!”
“You saved us, dolly!”
“I did?” Dahlia’s blue eyes searched her friends’ faces, and a smile began to creep onto her face.
“You did!” said Milly.
Dahlia blinked once, and the smile grew bigger, surer. “Yeah. Yeah, I did.”
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