“Savage”

by Laine Cunningham

After that year, she put away the things of childhood. The bike she had ridden endless miles to escape her family was stabled like a broken-down mare. The action figures she’d chosen over Barbie dolls met their end in the charity bin. Her collection of glass animals, grouped together by species, accused her with their teardrop eyes.

***

As she had so many times before, Melissa started eighth grade at a new school. Her dad’s latest orders had deposited her family in Oklahoma. The nearest town hosted stockcar races on Friday nights and demolition derbies on Saturdays, with the occasional rodeo to break the monotony. Mel had lived in five places by then, one of them overseas, but she’d never seen the southwest. The sagebrush that spiked the shortgrass prairies, herds of beef cattle pestered by rangy dogs, pickups sporting longhorn racks and the sunburned men who drove them were as exotic as geodes.

The boys at school mimicked their cattlemen fathers. They wore ballcaps rather than Stetsons and their faces were less scalded, but their bootheels had rounded down and their snuff tins rubbed a white circle into the pockets of their jeans. They sized Mel up as closely as their daddies did. They took in her short hair, her glasses, and her lanky frame before turning back to the girls worth impressing.

The girls—their hair acid-bright from peroxide, their toenails painted peach—didn’t dismiss her as quickly. When she went to homeroom, they stopped filing their nails to mutter gawd or cracked their gum loudly. They cut their eyes at her as they touched up their lipstick and asked if her mom picked out her clothes. She did her best to ignore them. They owned every crease and seam of the classroom, and their days would be spent making sure she knew it. In a couple of years, though, she would leave them behind. Her life would change. Theirs never would.

First period, science. The teacher said they would dissect a frog, which sounded cool, and the classroom had microscopes, which was even cooler. Then came gym, where Mel did better at sports that didn’t require team effort. Third period was English. The teacher, Mr. Groshek, looked goofy with his buzzcut and bowtie, but he was in charge of the annual play. Mel signed up right away.

She was good at becoming someone else. Every time her family relocated, the Army covered the cost to move only so many pounds of household items. Her dad had to pay for anything over the weight limit. After her mom loaded the station wagon with the pots, dishes, and clothes they would use until the boxes arrived, everything else was sorted with ruthless efficiency. As Mel decided what to take and what to give away, she thought about who she no longer was. She imagined who she would become.

At least, that was her intention. The transformation worked, a little, anyway, when she made new friends. At home, she was only allowed to be Melissa.

***

Mel stood on stage with the rest of the acting club performing a warm-up exercise. A girl flung open the door to the auditorium and dropped her binder as she hurried down the aisle. Mr. Groshek kept rolling his shoulders and nodded for Rose to join the circle. Two seniors, girls with sparkly eye shadow and spidery brows, closed the space between them. She slipped in next to Mel carrying the faint scent of sweat, a mineral odor like sunbaked pebbles. Her blouse rode up as she swung her arms, and the seniors whispered to each other before smothering their giggles.

The play was cast a few weeks later. The seniors ended up with good parts…not leading roles, but ones with enough stage time to flaunt. A black girl, a sophomore who took acting so seriously the real world melted away as she rehearsed, got the lead. Mel played a bit part and helped build the stage set. She was better with a hammer than the skinny boy, who turned out to be a master at pratfalls. Mr. Groshek asked Rose to paint the backdrop, a huge sheet of canvas, to look like a brick wall. The lines she applied wobbled so much he decided it would be a stone wall.

Mel often completed her tasks early. Rather than wait for Mr. Groshek to assign her to work with the mean girls, she helped with the canvas. Rose dunked the brush deep into the paint can and dripped cinnamon globs on her skirt. If Mel went home with a stained shirt, her mom yelled at her for ruining her clothes, for making her spend money they didn’t have, for looking like they were poor. Rose shrugged whenever Mel handed her a rag and showed up the next week wearing a new outfit.

Rose’s family wasn’t military, but they’d relocated when her dad found a better job. “We got here in the summer,” she said, “so I don’t know anybody.”

She glanced at the other kids clustered in their usual spots. The seniors hovered near the leads and broke into their conversation any chance they got. The stars nodded as Mr. Groshek offered acting tips. Bit players swapped hats and coats from the costume wardrobe as the lighting crew debated which colored gel to use for the final scene.

“I’m new here, too,” Mel said. “We move a lot.”

“I never have. I hate it, and I want to go back.”

Mel stopped painting. “Why?”

“I miss my friends.”

Mel gripped the brush. She wanted to tell her that they could be friends, but the words felt dangerous. Just sitting next to Rose was like executing a new move on the uneven bars. Something about her hair, maybe, the way it crackled with static. Or the fingertip she ran around the part of her shoe that rubbed. She’d never felt so shy and stupid around a girl before.

“At my old school,” Rose sighed, “I knew my way around. I didn’t get lost.”

Mel turned back to the canvas. Her cousins always said they wouldn’t want to leave the volleyball team they practiced with every weekend or the band that played statewide. She usually shrugged. Every school had sports clubs and bands. Hearing Rose say the same thing, she suddenly understood that not everyone welcomed the chance to start over.

“Mom said you can come over this weekend,” Rose said. “For dinner, and to spend the night.”

Mel dipped her brush too far into the paint. She wiped the handle with a rag and squeezed the cloth, realizing too late that she’d coated her palm. She could wash it off. It would be all right.

“I’ll have to ask my parents for permission,” she said.

***

Even though Mel’s dad had never met Rose or her parents, he dropped her off without going inside. He’d grown up in a small town. Life on Army bases wasn’t much different, if you overlooked the deuce and-a-halfs chewing up the asphalt and the chop of helicopters overhead. GIs filled the pews at the nondenominal church on base. Officers in uniform didn’t draw a second glance at parent-teacher conferences. The world was what he expected it to be, right down to the crease in his dress blues.

Mel hauled her sleeping bag and an overnight tote up the brick steps. She’d never lived in a real house before. Her family had been assigned townhomes and apartments as stubbornly bland as a hospital. Her mom sewed curtains from fabrics she and her brother picked for their rooms, but permanent changes like painting the walls were forbidden. A new bedspread, a handful of books, maybe a throw rug shaped like a footprint—removable, disposable things—hinted at the person Mel sought in the mirror.

None of her grandparents lived in a nice place, either. Townhomes and apartments for the ones who had clawed a rung or two up the ladder, trailers for the rest, except for a great-aunt who nested in a decommissioned Quonset hut. Rose’s home towered over a tidy, sloping lawn. Dad must have dropped her at the wrong house. Maybe she should walk up the street until she found a smaller place with the same number. If she found a payphone, she could call home. She didn’t have a quarter.

The door opened. A woman wearing a sweater as plush as a bear hide swooped in for a hug. She flinched, expecting a slap or a shove. She felt only the tickling warmth of the sweater, which smelled of mint and something creamy, milk or white chocolate. Rose’s dad appeared, gently pried the bags from her hands, and carried them inside.

“Come in, Mel,” Mrs. Landers said. “Take your shoes off and come in.”

Adults never called her what she wanted to be called. They insisted on her “given name,” as her mom said. As if the person her parents had decided she was at birth was the only person she could ever hope to be. She had no idea who she might be when she got older, not yet. But the future her parents intoned, marriage and housework and dirty diapers, wouldn’t appear on her roster.

“Rose!” Mrs. Landers climbed the few steps to the main level. “Honey, your friend is here. Come say hello.”

The response was a thump, the bang of a door blown open, and a yelp followed by another door being slammed shut. Rose and her little brother were at war. “Stay out of my room!” she yelled. “Keep away from my stuff! I mean it!”

As Rose came down the hall, Mel inched back until her heel found the edge of the top step. Her brother never went after her when their parents were around. Theirs was a private skirmish, most often with her retreating from his ambushes. She never bothered to tell because boys outranked girls. Besides, her house was filled with enough shouting as it was.

She hated when people yelled. And she really didn’t want to watch her friend get in trouble. Mrs. Landers acted like nothing was wrong. She suggested the girls go to the playroom and then floated off like a puff of brown fuzz.

“I can’t stand that asshole,” Rose said. A disapproving noise drifted from the kitchen. “Asshole! Asshole! Asshole!” she yelled.

Mel clutched the banister as she followed Rose down a second stairway. She felt like she’d just stepped off a carnival ride. They wound past the laundry room to a large, windowless space painted periwinkle blue. The walls were blue, the floor was blue, and the ceiling, with fluorescent lights that hummed like contented bees, was blue. She felt like she’d been eaten by a flower.

A bookcase and a bench as weary as a plow horse huddled in the corner. Books sprawled open like birds knocked silly by a window. Legos littered the floor, and a gutted karaoke machine rested in a field of dominos. Mel stored her things out of sight. Anything left sitting out, including homework, was dumped in the trash and could not be retrieved. She picked through the minefield, afraid of losing her balance.

Rose kicked a spot clear of the biggest toys, plopped down, and raised one leg to sweep a chess pawn from under her thigh. Her brother, she said, was too young, too much of a pest, always in her way, always in her stuff. She hooked one finger into the handle of the karaoke machine and dragged it onto her lap. Mel fished a few batteries from under the bookcase and fed them into the back.

Even when they leaned close together, Rose’s voice echoed against the walls. Mel thought of a word her mom used: brassy. She knew it wasn’t a compliment, and it only seemed to apply to women. But Rose struck her as brassy in a good way. She was a dust devil spinning through the sagebrush, a dervish who created herself from dirt and motion. Hidden in the belly of the house with her, Mel imagined that the Cold War had ignited. This time, instead of sighing away the days waiting for a father who lived more in photos than her memory, she and Rose would ride out the end of the world.

Mrs. Landers appeared with a plate of cookies and two cups of soda. Mel didn’t dare a nibble or a sip until Rose insisted. The squirmy feeling in her belly gave way like a collar loosening notch by notch. Rose’s brother crept into the playroom, snatched up a truck, and scuttled out before any airborne Legos found the back of his head. Mel actually laughed.

Dinner was ready. The girls passed through a living room made arctic by a white carpet, a cream couch, and eggshell walls. Mel hurried across the snowscape, glancing back to make sure her feet didn’t track any dirt, and landed at the dining room table. Mrs. Landers set out platters of roast beef, skinned baby potatoes, and sautéed spinach that hadn’t come out of a can. Parasols of parsley decorated each plate, just like the steakhouse where Mel’s family went for special occasions. The meat leaked a puddle as bright as Kool-aide, which would have sent her mom into food safety fits.

After dinner, Mr. Lawrence wandered into the tundra to smoke a cigar. Even though Rose and her brother headed to their rooms, Mel helped clean up. She wanted to come back. Here, noise didn’t mean danger. Here, girls could be brassy. If her parents found out she hadn’t followed their rules, they might not let her come back. She couldn’t lose this place. She couldn’t lose Rose.

Bedtime. Sort of. As Mel unrolled her sleeping bag, Rose banged on the bathroom door until her brother was done. More yelling, some thuds, Mrs. Lawrence’s dovelike coos. After changing into their pajamas, the girls crept back down to the playroom. The house hovered silently over their heads. They sat in the shadows cast by the light spilling in from the hall. The walls were oceanic, their depths untouched by waves.

They talked. Rose talked, anyway. About her asshole of a brother, and how her bra straps dug into her shoulders. About the cramps that hit during her period, and the ski trips her family took over the holidays. Piano lessons, debate club, dance; it all seemed possible. When Rose moved closer to whisper something wonderful, Mel shivered. She felt like she was looking at the reflection of someone new. The squirmy feeling woke in her belly, yet the sweetness remained. She leaned into the mirror. She stole her first kiss.