The day I arrived at the Stricklands’, my mother lent me her cardigan. It was lilac with pearl buttons, a splurge from a department store with the previous year’s Christmas bonus. Sweat stains darkened the armpits as I walked in the sun. My hair was flat-ironed and clung to the nape of my neck. The area the Stricklands lived in was sparkly with gentrification, my mother told me. I’d need to dress professionally each time I went there. If I wanted to bring my schoolwork, it had to be held in my hands so everyone could see it. No backpacks. No purses—because none of her purses were nice enough.
The Stricklands’ automated gate opened after I identified myself. Their curvy driveway was ahead, steep like a hill, a triplet of cars at the top. Flowers freckled the grass, marigolds and poppies and pansies, with a wishing well and a gazebo, the front lawn its own garden. I stepped through it on purpose, collected grass stains on the toes of the sneakers my mother told me not to wear.
Mrs. Strickland answered the door with a plate of sandwiches. She was tall, tan, blue-eyed, honey blond. Tight-fitting dress, tennis bracelet, wife smile.
“You must be the sitter,” she sang.
“That’s sweet. You can call me Meredith, though that’s polite of you. Colt and I would love for our relationship to be as casual as possible, for Brooke’s sake.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
She gestured for me to follow her past the entryway, past the stairs and into the den. Another tall, tan, blond person sat in a recliner chair, a little girl on his lap.
She set the sandwiches on the coffee table.
Meredith Strickland smelled like the Hamptons, like tanning lotion and minty toothpaste, of perfume, mature and sultry like wine. She wore no age on her face like moms were supposed to. She had wrinkles, but they looked good, as if she had placed them herself. Her hair was shoulder-length and highlighted. I imagined it smelled like coconut and that she got it done every two weeks by a lady she met at hot yoga.
“We were so excited when you answered our ad. Not many people like to babysit the old-fashioned way anymore. It’s been really difficult for us, since Brooke’s grandparents live out of state and she isn’t really the type for daycare.” She stretched out her words with her smile: It’s been reeeeeeally difficult.
I had answered the ad against my mother’s wishes. We perpetually struggled with money. She worked two jobs, bartending and retail. I was sixteen. The ad read like Meredith’s voice and said nonsense about loving children, long-term commitment, twelve dollars per hour. Now they were talking. I called the number while my mother waved applications for the grocery store in my face.
“Are you sure?” she asked. She touched my hair, curly and frizzy. “That area is so white.”
“You’re white. It’s just a job.”
“You don’t know what they want from you.”
“They want me to babysit, that’s it. Not everything is such a big deal.”
My mother bit her lip. “It is, for girls like you.”
I slammed my bedroom door on her, let out a teenage roar. Sixteen. I wanted mall clothes, makeup that didn’t come from slipping drugstore products up my sleeve, a two-hundred-dollar ticket for the semiformal dance.
The little girl stood up with her father. He was red-cheeked with a long, square face. He held the girl by the shoulder and grinned at me, Ken-like.
“I’m Colt. It’s great to have you.” He was ugly and handsome at the same time.
I smiled back as a thank-you.
“We’re just so happy to give an opportunity to a young girl like you,” Meredith said. “I mean, I try to donate to as many causes as I can, but it’s different when it’s hands-on like this. And what luck that we get a little something in return, huh?” She nudged her husband and he laughed like reading off a cue card.
I bit the corner of my thumb raw as I stood under their smiling blond gaze. All I had to do was watch their little runt for a few hours every week and save up enough to go to the dance, to get a dress, to not have to hear my mother whine about the lack of pocket money.
“I’m really excited to help out your family,” I said, like I knew something they didn’t.
The first time at the house was a screening. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t insane, that I was who I said I was on the phone, that I still agreed to the times and days they needed. I went home starry-eyed at the thought of my future, the new one that included the Stricklands. Me in their house, me eating from their fridge while they were gone, me floating in their heated pool, me using the massage jets in their upstairs bathtub. My friends at school made fun of me for taking the job—they didn’t have single mothers—but I imagined their faces when I showed up with a designer wallet because I’d been such an amazing addition and the Stricklands were feeling generous.
Brooke was teetering on nine years old. Her birthday was in two months, a summer baby, because that made sense for her. It made sense that the Stricklands would have a lot of sex in the fall, when it was too cold for the beach and their in-ground pool was covered. With their baby born in the summer, they could spoil her with Disneyland tickets and beachside house parties. Their family and friends would just be them in different forms: chestnut-brown hair instead of blond, ginger and pale with freckles instead of tan and sunspotted. They would all be white. I didn’t have to guess about that.
“You’ll have to help Brooke with her math homework, if that’s okay,” Meredith said on my first day. She wore a white tennis skirt that I decided she’d had since high school and still tried on every month to make sure it still fit. She took me upstairs to the bedrooms. The entire house was lush, open spaced and shiny, the wood floors without a scratch and the mirrors without dust. There were five bedrooms: one for her and Colt, one for Brooke, one they turned into a gym, a guest bedroom, and the last was an office and studio, for the book Meredith said she wanted to write. I loved to listen to her. I told her I would read her book, and she liked that. I wanted her to like me and to think I fit in with this life, that I could accompany them on family vacations to Mykonos, that I looked good in holy-looking blue water too, that my brown skin could tan too—I just didn’t go outside enough. My friend and I always compared arms during the summer—she’d say, Look, my tan makes me darker than you. I wanted to do that with Meredith.
We stopped by the guest room. The door was halfway open; I caught a glimpse of a royal-blue comforter and French windows. “I doubt it’ll happen often, if at all, but if we’re ever home too late, feel free to sleep in here. Colt can always drive you home or to school if needed.”
“Okay.” My blood felt carbonated, fizzy like Coke.
Meredith smiled. “You’re doing us such a great favor. You really have no idea.”
“Oh. That’s okay. I mean, you are paying me.”
“Of course. I’ve always believed that help should be paid for.” Her nails were long and painted milk white. “Anyway, Brooke is very easy most of the time. She likes to play outside. Sometimes too long. She likes to use the tire swing, swim, play in the back garden. She’s not allowed in the greenhouse, since she’s too clumsy and will knock everything down. If she swims, I’d like you to stay outside and watch her. Otherwise, she’s fine out there. She likes to draw, read, play with her dolls. Typical girl stuff. You should ask her to play makeup artist. She’d really love that.”
I nodded. Meredith continued down the hallway and led me to Brooke’s room. Brooke was lying on her stomach in bed, an open book in front of her and a candle lit on her nightstand. Her room was pink and lavish, with fairy lights and framed quotes printed in loopy fonts. I could tell Meredith had designed the room long before she actually met her daughter.
Brooke looked up when she heard us approach. She had big dolly eyes, cornflower blue, and her honey-blond hair was in pigtailed braids.
“Hi, Brooke.” I waved.
“Hi.” She blinked.
Meredith blew out the candle, her eyes narrowed.
Meredith and Colt needed me four days a week. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I’d pick up Brooke at school and bring her to ballet class, which was my favorite, because I was allowed to drive one of their cars. After, I’d watch her at their house until five-thirty, when they returned from work. Fridays were the same, except they both had something to do until seven. I’d watch Brooke until then and give her the food left in the fridge for dinner. Saturdays were my own, but Sunday mornings and sometimes afternoons belonged to Meredith and Colt—unless Brooke had a playdate, which they claimed was rare.
Brooke was mostly quiet. I decided I wasn’t too interested in upholding a relationship with her, so we only spoke when it was necessary.
“I’m hungry,” she’d say after school. Meredith said Brooke’s favorite food was turkey sandwiches. On Fridays I’d make two for her and help myself to the array of snacks from their lazy Susan. Meredith was semi-right—the girl did nothing but play outside and read. I never saw her play with dolls or makeup or dress-up, though in her room, she had hordes of princess dresses and Barbies. She even had one of the makeover Barbie heads, a toy I longed for when I was her age. She didn’t spend much time in her room. When I’d arrive, she’d smirk and march outside. I rarely followed.
Some Sundays I’d lie on a poolside bed while she swam. I started to pack my only bathing suit with me for the days it was really hot. The pool was extra-large and kidney-shaped, the deepest part of it ten feet, but Brooke swam on both sides with ease and never needed my help or my company in the water. Around lunch time, I’d go inside and put frozen chicken nuggets in the oven. At dinner, she’d ask for a turkey sandwich. She was only allowed sugary treats on Saturdays, so for dessert she ate strawberries in the garden. I watched her from the sliding glass doors with slight curiosity. She ate the strawberries whole, the stems and leaves included.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” Brooke asked one day. She was dressed in a pastel pink leotard and opaque tights. She swung her legs in the backseat of one of the Acuras as I maneuvered us through the tight streets of the city. We were on the way back from an extravagant dance recital that I had been ordered to film so the Stricklands could watch it later. Every kid Brooke’s age seemed to have a pair of parents there. The room had been full of suits and tight dresses, Rolexes and diamond earrings, heels and polished loafers.
I turned down the radio. “Um, no. I don’t.”
She hummed. Her face was all her mother’s. “I thought you were in high school.”
“I am.” I looked at her in the rearview mirror. Surprisingly, she stared right back. Her eyes were so blue it was almost off-putting. Her skin was much paler than her parents’, too young to tan. One of my responsibilities was to lather her in SPF 55 before she went outside. I watched her with intent, waiting for more of her questions. I noticed her whiteness was different than my mother’s, than my friends’. Theirs was interwoven with our lack of money, with our developing neighborhood, with me. The Stricklands were a new kind of white—the rich white. I wondered what Meredith would think of our small apartment, my public school, my mother’s many boyfriends, my real hair.
“High school means boyfriends,” Brooke said.
“Oh yeah? Says who?”
“The movies. Ariel is sixteen. Sleeping Beauty, too. And Belle.”
“Well, yeah. Those are cartoons, they’re not real. Do I look like Ariel or Belle to you?”
She smiled a tight-lipped smile. “No. Sometimes on TV there are high school people getting married and yelling at boys to be their babies’ fathers.”
I spit out a laugh. “What? Are you talking about Jerry Springer? Or, like, Dr. Phil?”
“Your parents let you watch those?”
“No. The house is big. They’re busy doing stuff.”
When we pulled in, she darted ahead of me. She spent the rest of my time there in the garden, pulling out flowers, burying them, tying stems together like shoelaces. I watched until she caught me. She stared blankly until I looked away, my cheeks red.
The Stricklands started to occupy most of my thoughts. I thought about them while getting ready for school. What would Meredith be doing? She was probably curling her hair, spraying a cloud of hairspray, pulling up skin-colored nylons. What did they do at work? I imagined them surrounded by perpetually ringing phones, their assistants running around with trays of coffee. I wondered if their offices were next to each other, or if they both had the same one and spent their lunch breaks with their tongues in each other’s throats. How did they meet? When did they fall in love? What did they love most about each other? I thought about them while I watched television with my mom, eating dinner off paper plates with fancy silverware from Goodwill. What would they think of her? Would they deem her unlikable because of her sallow skin and undyed hair and plain clothes? Or would they accept her like they had me? If I asked, would they invite her as a housekeeper? I thought about them in school, in the cafeteria line while my friends babbled gossip and secrets in my ear, during art class. When our assignment was figure drawing, I drew a tall, lean, honey blonde.
I started to straighten my hair all the time. Our flat iron was cheap and sizzled when I used it, but it made my hair smooth. I wondered if I would look good with blond hair. I could afford dye now that I had extra money. I had already started spending a lot of time at the mall, spending money on clothes that would violate my school’s dress code but maybe Meredith would wear. Short skirts, bustier tops, lacy bras to replace my unlined Walmart ones. I went to Macy’s and bought Mac makeup and wore it every time I left the house, on the off chance Meredith would comment on it.
“Is that lipstick?” she said, her teeth bright white behind her pink lips. “How pretty. I’m way too pale for a shade like that.” We were at the dinner table. To my dismay, she and Colt had gotten home earlier than normal. I’d started to pack up my schoolwork, when Meredith stopped me and told me I was more than welcome to stay.
Brooke loudly chewed her food. Her mouth was wide open, revealing mushy pieces of carrot and potatoes spread on her tongue. I grimaced. She stuck her tongue out farther at me. I glanced at her parents, but they were both focused on their own plates and their cell phones. They muttered to each other about upcoming meetings and something about sales.
She put up the middle finger at me. I wanted to laugh.
Meredith looked up and Brooke sat on her hand.
“Honey, you have to eat the peas, too,” she said to her daughter.
Brooke got stranger. Or, rather, I noticed her oddities more the more I watched her. She almost never played in her room, never played with her dolls. Once, when she did, I caught her lighting her makeover Barbie head’s hair on fire. I ran in and seized the lighter from her hands.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled at her. “Are you crazy? You’ll burn the fucking house down!”
She stared up at me with her wide eyes. “I’m bored.”
“You’re bored?” I laughed. “Look at the size of this house. Look at all your toys. Entertain yourself if you’re bored. Ask me to do something with you. Don’t set the fucking house on fire.” I couldn’t shake the idea of the house in flames with both of us in it, what Meredith and Colt would think.
She shrugged. “Okay. It’s just really hot today.”
I caught her a second time outside. She sat underneath the Japanese maple that hovered over the glass roof of the greenhouse. The sun blared onto the maple leaves. The red was so vivid it looked like Brooke was being swallowed by fire.
A lighter was in her hands again: a different one, a longer one. She held the flame over a pile of Sports Illustrated magazines. She didn’t look up, even when she saw my feet planted in front of her.
“You’re here to yell more,” she said with a smirk.
I guffawed. “Duh. You’re setting shit on fire. You’re eight. Forget that?”
She shrugged. “I like fire. We learned about it in science. Fire is really cool.”
“The house is going to catch on fire and your parents will kill me. Probably hate me forever. Arrest me, maybe.”
“That would be sad.”
“If they hated you. That would make you sad.”
She shrugged again and poked at the magazines with the end of the lighter.
“You can’t burn any more stuff while I’m here,” I told her. I stuck out my pinky like my mother did when I was a little girl. Pinky promise, a regular promise in gold.
“I’ll do it anyway,” she said, blinking her doll eyes at me. “When you’re not here, I do it. When you are, I do it. You never noticed. They don’t notice. I don’t hurt anyone.”
“If you burn another thing, I’m gonna tell them you’re a pyro, for your own good. I’ll tell them you’re ruining the garden and need help. Yeah. That’s what I’ll do.”
She swatted my hand away and stomped past me. I brought the lighter and the magazines back inside.
I started to stay for dinner more often. Even when the Stricklands came home on time, they asked me to eat with them. I bought more clothes I thought Meredith would’ve worn: skin-tight dresses and ruffled blouses and bangle bracelets that clanged together when I moved my hands. I donated my grass-stained sneakers and baggy jeans and started using the shampoo I saw in their shower. Smooth Infusion. It made my curls heavy and droopy, but I didn’t wear them out anyway. I always straightened them. My hair was as smooth and shiny as Meredith’s.
I wondered what it would’ve been like to live like her, to live without effort. To be easily lovable in the eyes of those who weren’t my family. Colt wasn’t a model; his nose was crooked, and he had a scar on his lip that I only noticed in the fluorescence of the kitchen lights. His money talked for him. He was a golfer, the photo albums told me, and grew up in a tropical state, palm trees towering over him and his family as they smiled at his graduation. He rarely talked to me. There were more important things on his cell phone and the downstairs television. Our conversations were curt and businesslike. Thank you. See you tomorrow. Here’s your payment. You’ve been great, thanks.
“You can’t be in their room.” Brooke’s small voice made me gasp.
I was sitting on Meredith and Colt’s satin-clad bed with my back to the door, admiring another one of their photo albums. Startled, I threw it onto the floor.
“I won’t tell.” Brooke grinned. “If you won’t.”
On one of my days off in July, Colt called my house. School was out and Brooke’s birthday approached. When I answered, his deep voice caught me off guard. Had they found out about Brooke’s hobby? Was I going to be fired? Was he calling to invite me to Brooke’s birthday party? Meredith had been planning a surprise party. She’d hired an ensemble of Disney princess impersonators. I’d even caught a glimpse of photos of inflatable castles open on her laptop. These plans excited me, even though I wouldn’t be involved and would probably not be needed for a while. Brooke’s grandparents would be in town.
“I was wondering if you’re available today,” Colt said.
“Uh…” I looked around my house to make sure my mother couldn’t hear.
“It’s all right if not. Brooke and I are here alone. Meredith is out. I just have a lot of work to do. Lots of contracts to sift through. I was hoping to get these done before dinner.”
“Yes. I’m available.”
He sighed. “You’re a lifesaver. I definitely owe you one. The door will be unlocked.”
When I got to the house, Colt was upstairs with his laptop and Brooke was waiting for me in her room. I was prepared to spend the afternoon in it with her, playing my own game of pretend. Maybe I’d wave a doll around and get her to show me her Belle costume, as if that was what we did when her parents weren’t home. I wore a new dress, white and flouncy, my hair down and blush spread on my cheeks like I’d spent too long in the sun. I felt pretty. I could’ve been a Strickland.
“Finally,” Brooke said, when she saw me. “I am so bored.”
“Missing your life of crime, huh?”
She giggled, a girly sound that didn’t fit her. “Race ya!” she yelled, already sprinting far ahead of me down the hall. I sighed, toeing off my sandals to follow her.
“Don’t run so fast!” I stopped by Colt’s office. “You’ll get hurt!” I figured he would like that sort of thing, the reassurance that I cared about his daughter’s safety, that I played with her but was careful at the same time. He sat at his desk, his laptop open, with papers splayed beneath it. He’d donned casual clothes for once, a burgundy tee and dark pants. My footsteps must have caught his attention, because he looked up.
“Hello.” Meredith would’ve gotten up to hug me and air-kiss me, offered to let me use her credit card to take Brooke out. I wished she was home instead.
He smiled. “Hey. Thanks for coming so last-minute. I’m sure Brooke is even more grateful. You’ve been awesome with her.”
“It’s nothing.” Was this how teenage girls acted? Shy, feminine, polite. That had never been me. I wasn’t allowed to be. It wasn’t the expectation.
He stood. He towered over me, much like his wife, but he was broader, not as soft. I waited for him to shake my hand or slap my shoulder. A rough, fatherly gesture.
“We made a great choice.”
My face felt warm. “Thank you.”
“Really,” he continued, leaning against the doorframe. Up close, his face was peppered with stubble. “A lot of girls your age were contenders, even some from our neighborhood. But we made the right decision choosing you.”
I couldn’t help my smile. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you. You’ve been a huge help.” His hand reached out to tuck my hair behind my ear. Then it snaked under my chin, held it, tilted my head up to look directly at him. “And you’ve gotten so pretty.”
My heart felt uncontrollable, like a cartoon, like it was bulging from my chest. I couldn’t connect that his hand was touching me, that the hand was his, that he and his hand were one thing. Surely it was my own teenage foolishness, my own misunderstanding.
“Thank you, again.” He dropped his hand. I took a step back, and he returned to his desk.
Outside, I watched while Brooke set toy after toy on fire. Barbies, Bratz, Polly Pocket. The plastic stank as the dolls melted into grotesque puddles of goo. We buried the evidence together. It was the garden’s secret now.
“How’d your parents meet?”
Brooke’s leg swung back and forth, her body snaked through the tire swing. Her feet were black from the dirt, and there were blades of grass in between her toes. Together we ate peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches, our skin roasting under the sun.
“Don’t know,” she answered with her mouth full.
“They never told you?”
“Nope,” she said, popping the P. Her chews were slow and full of intent. “You can find out. Look in their drawers some more.”
Later that day, I let myself into her parents’ bedroom. I was quiet, even though she was awake in the next room, plucking more useless toys to burn. The room smelled of Meredith. It was neat and orderly—the house cleaner made sure of it. Occasionally I’d spot one of Meredith’s bras or her panties sticking out of a drawer. Would she even notice if I nicked a pair? They had so much of everything.
On the dresser, Meredith’s tennis bracelet sat in a heart-shaped dish. Her collection of makeup and body lotions took over the vanity, but there were two colognes that belonged to Colt. I uncapped one and sprayed it onto my wrist. The smell of him stiffened me, let me hear my heartbeat. Inside the last drawer was the photo album I liked best. Each page was full of the filmic blues of Polaroids and disposable cameras. Meredith in a high school cheer uniform, her hair sleek in a ponytail; Meredith’s college model shots, taken in what looked like a dingy dorm room, her collarbones and small breasts on display, her lips pouted. There weren’t many pictures of Colt and his square face, but I stared at one I liked—it must’ve been from college. He had longer hair, shaggy and wilting in his eyes. His smile reminded me of Brooke, that same wide mouth and big teeth.
He was handsome. He was any boy at my school if you cleaned him up, if you dipped him in privilege. What would it feel like to be wanted by a man this successful, this wealthy, this white? I opened all of the drawers and snatched three of Meredith’s bras. Her tits were smaller than mine, and I was younger than her. If I wore them, would he reach for me again? Did it excite him that I was becoming prettier? That I had straight hair and tight dresses and made sure his child didn’t bother him? I thought of his hand on my chin, on my cheek, on my thigh. What a rush it was, to be wanted by a white woman’s husband.
A week later, I was alone with Colt again. He arrived home from work before Meredith, which never happened. When I asked where she was, he grunted something about a book club before settling on his recliner, tablet in hand. I cursed myself for wearing only jeans and a sweater, my hair straight but plain and pulled back from my face. It was getting late. I thought of mentioning this to Colt. My mother would start to worry, or worse, she would take the bus to the house and kick down their door.
Brooke darted by with a handful of toys. Her shoes were off, and her dress was covered in dirt. The back door was wide open. The floors were muddy with Brooke’s blackened footprints.
“Your feet!” I exclaimed, my voice phony in my mouth. Colt remained focused on his iPad, unfazed. I stared, waiting for him to acknowledge me, to acknowledge how much I cared about his daughter and his house. But he did nothing but tap the screen with his index finger.
I looked back at the footprints, then back at Colt, then at Brooke. I clenched my teeth. Why should I clean them? I was not the house cleaner. I would sit here and wait for my ride home, if he was so unconcerned with me. Brooke slipped outside and burned her toys. I heard the muffled sounds of her hands in the ground digging tombs.
I ended up cleaning the footprints. I always knew I would.
On the Friday before Brooke’s birthday, I was awakened by a tap on my shoulder. When my vision cleared, I recognized the dark-blue bedding of the Stricklands’ guest room. I was sprawled out on my back, my dress tousled and riding up my thighs, my hair splayed out on the pillows. I had fallen asleep on top of the duvet. I hadn’t wanted to disturb the stillness of it.
Colt’s tanned face hovered above me. His hand was warm against my bare shoulder. I drank in the scent of him. If I sat up, would we kiss? Was this a trick of fate, that he’d find me in one of his beds, my legs showing, my makeup still on? I smiled.
“It’s getting late,” he said. “I didn’t want to disturb you, but I’m sure your mother will worry.” Did his hand linger before he pulled it away? “Meredith just got home, if you want to gather your things. I’ll drive you home.”
Our faces were inches away when I sat up. Meredith’s heels clacked against the floor down the hall. If I closed my eyes, I could feel his breath on my skin.
“I’ll leave you for now.” He stood. “When you’re ready, I’ll be downstairs, and we’ll go. No rush.”
“Wait.” I wasn’t ready yet.
I reached for his shirt, tugged on it. Want me want me want me. I am just as pretty as her.
I know you are, he’d say. You are even prettier.
He was pliant, this tall man, when I pulled him to me. Up close, I saw the young boy he was in his photographs. An added wrinkle, a thin layer of facial hair, but he was the same. His hand reached for my thigh, and I thought, giddy, that this was it. I’d done it. Did he know I wore his wife’s bra under my dress? Too small for me, so my tits spilled out.
“What the hell are you doing?” He pushed me back. He pulled away so quickly. “This is extremely inappropriate. You are a guest in my home. Employed by me and my wife.” He looked at me as if I were a wild animal, horror and disgust pulling at his face.
He left the room. But I stayed, my hands still reaching for his tie, his cologne nothing but a sour taste in my open mouth.
I ran from the room, acid swirling in my throat. I would never see the Stricklands again. Colt would tell Meredith of my actions, and they would denounce me as a bad endeavor, and then I would become nothing, a mistake never to happen again.
I had started to cry, my chest now a dull ache. They needed me, they said so. I was part of their family. This was my mistake. I sped down the hall and past their bedroom, where Colt slid his arms through his jacket, muttering to his wife. She looked at me, her beauty a plight, and opened her mouth to call for me.
Outside, the garden burned. The greenhouse was swallowed by orange, red, yellow, blue. I ran for Brooke, any sight of her. In the heat, I realized I had been tricked. By myself, by the Stricklands, by the glamour of white comfort. Please, Brooke, where are you?
“Here,” she said, standing barefoot by the fence, safe. I imagined I could love her like a sister.
“I won’t see you again,” I said. “Your dad. He won’t allow it.”
The fire roared and hissed. Inside, the Stricklands remained upstairs, the smoke creeping toward the sealed windows of the top floor’s hallway. Brooke grabbed my hand. She led me to the edge of the yard, to a loose plank in the fence that she slipped through like she’d done it before. I followed.
Through the gap, we watched the fire swallow up the garden. We stood back and watched it together.