I’m under the bed. They don’t know it. They think I’ve run away again. And I have. Only this time I’m under the bed.
I can see their shoes as they walk around my room. There are my mother’s small fat feet squished into a pair of blue Kmart specials. My father’s cowboy boots stampede across the linoleum floor. In the corner, my tiny sister, Lily, flutters her pink ballet slippers against the metal bed frame. She whispers, “Row, row, row your boat,” over and over.
My mother’s sneakers zigzag as she paces. “Where does she go? That kid will give me a heart attack!” My father doesn’t answer. My father doesn’t talk when he’s mad. He roars.
My mother shakes my little sister. I crane my neck, straining to see. She grabs Lily’s face. She squeezes her cheeks. She is angry at my father, but Lily gets it. Whoever is in the room gets their anger; this is why I’m under the bed. I want to yank my mother’s hands away, make her stop. “Where is she?” Her words are hot and Lily gets burned. “Where is Harley?”
My sister knows what’s coming. So do I. She starts to tremble. “I . . . I don’t know.” She speaks the truth. She doesn’t know. I feel bad that Lily is being tortured because of me. But although she is only five years old, she is a strong prisoner and does not break.
“Let me handle this, Peppy.” My father speaks softly. Not a good sign. Lily is caught in the cross fire; the battle is between the two of them. My father rumbles over to Lily. He removes his belt. It has a big silver buckle in the shape of Texas, even though we live in New Jersey. He never hits people with the belt, only furniture; it is a leather threat. He is a lion tamer and Lily is a kitten. “I’ll whip you, girl, if you keep lying like that. I’ll give you something to lie about.”
Lily wilts. She starts crying. “I’m not lying! I don’t know! I don’t know where Harley is!” I want to pop out from under the bed and rescue her. Like Superman. Unhand that child!
A pair of black Nikes bounce into the room. My brother, Bean. I hear the tap, tap, tap of Riley’s paws right behind him. Riley is a good hunting dog; I hope he doesn’t sniff me out.
An apple crunches. “Whatcha doin’?” Bean eats apples.
“Get out and mind your own business, Bean.” My father pulls in the reins when he talks to my brother.
“You gonna beat the crap outta her? Can I watch?”
“Come on, Dad. Let’s have some action. You go on and on about beating the little runt, but you never do.” Bean loves Lily, too.
I think about calling out to Bean. A daring res- cue. We transform ourselves into shining knights and capture the drunken dragon and his fire-breathing wife. We lock them in the dungeon in the basement and rule the house with peace and kindness. But although Bean is tall, he is not strong.
“Bean. Get out. Now.” My father puts on his Commander voice.
It works. Bean’s black Nikes hesitate, then shuffle out the door. “I’m goin’ over to Earl’s.”
I hear the drawer of my night table open. I turn my head quickly, silently, to the left. My mother stands right next to me. Those sneaky rubber soles have steered her over to my secret drawer. My safe place. My treasures. I try to breathe without making a sound. I could grab her leg and really give her a heart attack, I think. A monster from under the bed. I start to giggle. I force my mind to think of something else.
My mother is rooting through my drawer. She makes noises like a curious raccoon. My heart pounds. I know what she will find. “Roger, look at this!” My father’s boots turn away from Lily. I can see the tip of the belt dangling at his side. I peek up at my little sister. She is crying softly. I want to pull her under the bed with me and keep her safe.
“That kid is grounded for six months!” My mother’s voice is nails on a blackboard.
“Calm down, Peppy. What’s the matter?” Clomp. Clomp. Clomp. The cowboy boots join the Kmart specials.
“Look at these!” I know what she has in her hand. I keep my birth control pills hidden in my night table drawer under a pile of my drawings and my poems. My pills, unopened and waiting. I always thought they were safe there. My pills and my poems.
“Listen to this.” Papers rustle. My mother reads out loud. “ ‘My House,’ by Harley Columba. ‘My house is a place of pain/ A sea of shame/ A hurtful chain/ My house is awash in gloom/ A desperate room/ A dying bloom. . . .’ ” I hear a ripping sound. Pieces of white notebook paper sigh on their way to the floor. My poem. I blink away my tears.
“Where did she get them? Where does a fourteen-year-old girl get birth control pills?” My father seems bewildered.
“Well, you’re no help—”
“Damn it, don’t start! Don’t start in on me!” The lion tamer curls the belt in his hand.
My mother won’t stop. My mother never stops; she has no brakes. She is a man-eating beast that refuses to jump through the fiery hoop. “What are you going to do? Oh, ho, ho. Just try it.” I hear a scuffling sound and a shout. My easel in the corner crashes to the floor. I watch my oil painting of Strawberry Fields skid along the linoleum and stop inches away from my fingers. I want to cry.
I close my eyes and soar up to the quiet, peaceful place. Up, up, up I go. Their voices grow dim and hazy. The three-ring circus begins, but I can barely hear it. It’s safe up here, all flowers and rainbows. I stand in the middle of my painting of Strawberry Fields. In my mind, I paint a crystal-blue pond in the center of the meadow. Far away, I hear the crack of the belt as it cuts through the air and strikes the bedpost. I dip my paintbrush into a jar of yellow and sprinkle the meadow with sunshine. The man-eating beast growls; the lion tamer laughs. The pond. Into the pond. I try to dive into the smooth blue water, but it is canvas, not water, and I am falling. . . .From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Harley, Like a Person by Cat Bauer. Copyright © 2007 by Cat Bauer. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.