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"Pink Sneakers and Sycamores": Second Place, Family Circle Fiction Contest 2012

Secrets burned to be told, and she tried once to tell her brothers of the lake's changing moods, without giving herself away.

They laughed and knuckled her head until she howled. For them, who never got up much before noon, sunlight played off ordinary lake water. Any fool knew that, and little girls were chock-full of fancy notions.

She wasn't sure what chock-full meant, but it must be bad because they never heeded what she had to say. Not about the lake, not about her thinking Mama wasn't coming back. Not even about Ben.

But they should have listened about Ben.

The plaintive warble of a limpkin heralded a roll of thunder in the distance. A scurry in the underbrush triggered no fear. She guessed the rustling to be a family of brown rabbits. She shifted her eyes to the side, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bunnies, but thunder and bunnies never mixed well on the best of days. She was alone again. That was okay. She was in no shape to enjoy the best thing about bunnies. They didn't know how to run away like the crafty moms who bobbed and weaved and then disappeared. Mothers were like that. There one minute and gone the next.

She didn't want to think about mothers and chased the thought away by concentrating on the bunnies. So cuddly this time of year, she'd corner a little one and hold its fur to her cheek for a moment. Its heart would flutter and she'd release the squirming softness. You were always supposed to let go. Any fool knew that.

But Ben was worse than fool. He didn't let go out of sheer meanness.

She sensed something odd in him a long time ago. Maybe Mama knew it, too. Why she took up with Ben just to leave so soon, she couldn't figure.

He said she'd been making eyes at that truck driver who came through town, and maybe she got a hankering to go with him. She'd come crawling back. Bet your bottom dollar, yes, sirree.

Her brothers didn't say too much. They liked Ben. He brought fancy rifles and lots of things big boys used. No sense telling them he was creepy, and she didn't want to sit in his lap ever again.

She sighed, but the sound came out differently than she expected and the effort made her throat hurt more.

It was her own fault, she supposed. Ben hissed her to be quiet, but how could she? He smelled worse than the pack of hounds after a three-day hunt. She caught the whiff before he was on top of her. Before his whiskers scraped her face, and he touched where it wasn't right.

She gagged at the memory of his breath that pulled the scream from her throat. His hands went around her neck so hard she heard the hard pop more than she felt it. His eyes told her he wasn't aiming to let go, and one more thing -- he'd done this before, and Mama was never coming home.

Fear gripped her insides but she was smart. She played possum and he jumped off her. She held her breath, willing her body to be still. He stood over her, panting, and toed her hip back and forth. Stars danced in her head and she fought a queer floating sensation she feared he could see.