That night, long after she'd been tucked in, there was something she wanted to ask her mother. She went to her parents' bedroom and pushed the door open slowly, expecting them to be in bed, but the beds were empty, the covers pulled back and messed. The house was dark. Was she alone? She thought she smelled roses, the strong sweet scent of her mother's perfume. Then she noticed light from the bathroom and heard the medicine cabinet clank shut. The door was half open and she peered in, the rose scent powerful now like a cluster of blooms. Her mother stood at the sink in a nightgown, white with light, dark where it touched her skin, blurring the softness of her. She was putting on lipstick, first outlining the edges with a pencil, hand steady, eyes fixed as though the world had disappeared, then the filling in, deep dark red, such a sharp contrast to the sleepy haze. Kim rubbed her eyes and watched. How careful she was, such purpose. Suddenly her father came into view. He'd been behind her mother the whole time. He was wearing his blue pajama bottoms with no top. The skin on his arms was tight. He put his hands on her mother's shoulders and slid them down her arms. He shut his eyes and pressed his mouth to the slope of her neck. Her mother rolled her lips together and kissed the air. Her lips were perfect. Kim found herself dashing back to her room. She scampered under the covers and pulled them up. She heard the light in the bathroom click off. She'd forgotten what she'd wanted to ask her mom.
Butch Sullivan was bigger than the other boys in class, thicker in the head and chest. He liked to pull the wings off butterflies and shoot BBs at dogs. He'd shot a bird once with a friend. Kim had found the two boys laughing, the bird flopping at their feet, broken and bleeding. There was nothing she could do, and burying it only felt worse. She tried to forget. A few months later, after school, she saw him take Jason Cooney's bicycle. Butch started riding it in circles, laughing as Jason screamed for him to give it back. Jason was something of a bully himself, with freckles and a gap in his front teeth. Every time he got close, Butch would accelerate, keeping a foot ahead of Jason's outstretched hand. A crowd of children was gathering, kids from her class and some older kids. They laughed at Jason, his clumsy attempts, his wet cheeks.
"Jay-Jay wants his bike back," Butch called.
Kim found a stone no bigger than a walnut. She waited until Butch circled around and stopped; then she threw it. It hit him on the side of the head and he went over like a carnival duck. The jeering stopped. Jason grabbed his bike off the ground. He swung his leg over the bar and pedaled off, hiding his face.
Butch lay on the ground. Everyone could hear that he was crying. The older kids began to laugh. Then Butch jumped up and ran away. It all happened so quickly. No one seemed to notice that it was Kim who'd thrown the rock.
But someone had. That evening Kim heard a knock at the door from her bedroom. Her mom called to her dad to see who it was. Footsteps moved through the house. The front door rattled. Kim stepped from her room to hear muffled voices on the stoop. Then: "Kim, get out here. Kim!"
She could see his dark form through the screen, standing on the step. The aluminum door squeaked when she pushed it open and stepped out. Her father waited with his arms crossed tightly as though holding himself back, struggling to swallow his rage. Mr. Sullivan was taller than her father, but not as well proportioned, a wide trunk of a torso sitting atop two toothpicks. He was a larger version of his son, with a round veiny nose and shiny cheeks, and he put a hand on Butch's shoulder. Butch had a bag of ice strapped to his head.
Her father's glare bored into him.
"You got nerve coming here to accuse a girl," he said.
Mr. Sullivan leaned forward, his shoulders rising and falling, deep barrel-chested breaths.
"Some girl," he huffed.
Her father's hand smacked Mr. Sullivan's cheek. Butch jumped.
"Don't ever talk like that about my daughter again," her father said.
"Dad," Butch whined. Dazed, Mr. Sullivan turned slowly and headed down the walk, Butch in tow.
Her father watched them go.
"Rotten apples grow on rotten trees," he said. "Dick Sullivan's a little man."
He looked at Kim.
"Did you throw that stone?"
"That was a hell of a bump."
He poured himself a drink, then another, never fully emptying the glass, each refill more generous. The neck of the scotch bottle knocked the glass rim as he poured, wobbled, then dinged it again. He touched Kim's nose. His finger was sticky. He settled into the leather armchair in the living room, and she crouched at his feet, leaning her chin on his knee as she spoke. He laughed, and the more he laughed, the more animated she became in her telling, jumping up, holding her hands out as though gripping handlebars. Her father called her mom out to listen and made Kim repeat the story. She tried to get Butch's look of surprise right-that moment the rock hit him.
"And he was moving," her dad said, gulping his scotch.
Kim didn't correct him.
"Not an easy shot."
"You shouldn't throw stones," her mother said.
"That boy had it coming." He got up to fill his glass. "The father too," he said, coming back, dropping into the chair. "You should have seen Sullivan's face. You saw it, Kim. Was that the face Butch made?"
Kim nodded. Her father laughed. Her mother didn't smile.
"Imagine, a girl standing up to that bully."
He pulled Kim to his knee and ran a hand through her hair.
"Your mother's right. We don't throw stones. Understand?"
Kim looked at her mom, who was frowning.
He put a finger under Kim's chin, coaxing her to turn back. He was all smiles and glassy eyes.
"This other boy, Jason," he said. "Was he worth it?"
He grabbed her mother's hand and pulled her onto his lap, nuzzling her hair.
"You're worth it, Charlie," she said.
Kim looked at her. "We're talking about Jason Cooney, Mom."
Her dad laughed.
Kim wished his good moods could go on forever. He walked her to her room and set his drink down on the dresser. He tossed her, giggling, onto the bed. She crawled back to the edge where he stood and jumped up, throwing her arms about his neck, dangling like a monkey. He backed away from the bed, turning so that her feet swung out and the room whirled.
"You're getting heavy," he said. "Okay, okay."
He kissed her on the forehead.
"Sleep tight, Princess," he said, his finger grazing the tip of her nose, and left.
She sat staring at nothing. What she'd done had made her father so happy, and she pictured his eyes when he raised his voice to her, acting like she was in trouble. She lifted her shirt over her head. She wrapped it around her fist and stared down at her white stomach, ran a hand over her ribs, counting them, two, three on one side, three on the other, more. She touched her nipples, the skin around them all twisty. She wrapped her shirt around her fist again, tight like a thick plaster cast, and thought how she'd never seen her father hit anyone else besides her mom. How strange it looked-the shock on the man's face, the sudden turn of expression. Was he scared? She hugged herself and glanced over her shoulder. Her father was standing in the doorway, leaning against the jamb. He straightened quickly.
"Forgot my drink," he mumbled, then stepped over to the dresser.
"Look, Dad." She held up her tightly bound hand. "Someone shot my paw."
He smiled and left.
She lay awake, the covers pulled up to her chin. She could hear her parents talking, her father's voice a warm hum. And she thought she heard her mother laugh. She listened, fighting to keep her eyes open, not wanting the night to end.
Bobby Streeber was older. He lived in the house across the street. Her father didn't like him. He had a motorcycle, and she'd sit and watch him working on it in the driveway. His hair was black and cut so short she could see his tanned scalp. He always had grease under his fingernails and a cigarette pack rolled into the sleeve of his T-shirt. "Just like the old son-of-a-bitch," he'd say. That was what he called Bobby's father.
Sometimes Bobby would give her a stick of gum. Sometimes he'd let her fetch him a tool from his tray. He'd ask her questions about her parents, and if she answered him honestly he'd get mad. When he saw bruises on her arm, he would kick the curb or throw a stone or spit. "Next time he does that, give me a holler," he said. "I'll nail the son-of-a-bitch." One time he was so mad he wheeled around and shattered his soda bottle off the side of a passing jeep. It screeched to a halt and the men who jumped out hauled him like a prisoner up his walk and rang the bell. He turned to see her before the door swung open. The mother stepped aside for the men to drag him in. Another time he put his hand on her back and took her hand and spun her. He winked as he backed away, cocking his thumb and firing his pointer finger.
The boys her age made fun of her bony legs and pudgy cheeks. Bobby never did. "Hey, Big Eyes," he'd call her, because big eyes were rare and big eyes were beautiful, and big eyes had brought down countries, he said.
"Mommy, how come I don't have a brother?" Kim said.
"You want a brother?"
Kim watched her mother at the sink. She finished the dishes and dried her hands on a rag and folded it over the handle of the stove.
"Maybe because you're everything we ever wanted," she said, coming over.
"If I had a brother, he'd stick up for me."
"You never need anyone to do that. Don't ever think you do."
"But he would. A brother would."
Bobby Streeber's mother was not his real mother, and his little brother was not his real brother. Their yard was always littered with toys. Kim heard Bobby's father yelling at him one time, screaming at him to clean up the lawn. It wasn't his mess, she thought. The mother never seemed to do anything. Supposedly she was pregnant. Kim wondered if Bobby ever hit his father back.
One afternoon he pulled his wallet from his back pocket and took out a narrow strip of paper. He flipped it over to reveal three tiny photographs of him in a row.
"I thought you might like one," he said. "Which one do you want? You want all three?"
She nodded, and he gave her the strip. It smelled like vinegar.
"If anyone ever bothers you, tell 'em to quit or else. Then show 'em the pictures."
He stared at her, then slipped a pale blue card from an inside pocket of his wallet. He held it a moment.
"I want you to have this too. It'll help," he said, and handed it to her. "It's okay. I got a new one."
The card had his name and address on it, and a long number with letters mixed in that didn't spell anything. There were smaller numbers and scattered letters typed in a series of boxes.
"Someone bothers you, show 'em this. Say I'll track 'em down. Okay? 'Cause you know me. The number's the same. That's proof."
When she went in for dinner, she hid the pictures and the card under her pillow.
The night Bobby Streeber's motorcycle went off a bridge, police cars and military jeeps lined up in front of the house. Kim watched from her living room. The red lights of the sirens went round and round. A small plastic wheelbarrow sat on the lawn in the flashing light. A woman began to wail.
"I knew something was wrong with that boy," Kim's father said.
Her mother put a hand on her shoulder.
Excerpted from Because She Is Beautiful by Cameron Dougan. . Excerpted by permission of AtRandom, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.