Pete is six years old. She has red hair and a snaggletooth Mom promises will fall out any day now; a name she hates and a nickname she loves. She lives in the smallest house ever, but at least it’s right next door to the Countrytime Diner. Mom works there almost every day. Some days she brings home leftovers.
Pete’s favorite food is burgers, or hot dogs with mustard and lots of relish, or raspberry-swirl cheesecake. Her favorite show is Knight Rider—Mom says she’s watched it over a hundred times, but Pete knows it’s closer to two hundred. She doesn’t have a favorite song because she’s heard too many.
She and Mom love music. When Mom gets home from work she’s too tired to do almost anything, so they flop down on her bed together and listen to the Awesome Mix. “Hooked on a Feeling”, “Fox on the Run”—songs that make Pete want to swing and dance and yell. Music that makes her want to fly, or at least bounce off the walls, but she doesn’t because Mom’s already fallen asleep.
Sometimes they sing along. And if Mom’s voice wobbles when they sing about Brandy and her sailor boyfriend (who in the end wasn’t her boyfriend at all, or at least not a good one), if she reaches over and grabs Pete just a little too tightly…well. Pete never notices.
She makes sure she never notices.
Pete is seven and school is nowhere near as awesome as Mom said it would be. Mom says it’s only been two years, but it feels like forever, and anyway Mom says a lot of things. She says Pete’s crooked teeth will fall out and they haven’t yet. She says Pete’s dad will come home but he hasn’t yet.
On the last day of school she brings home burgers and hot dogs and cheesecake—all of Pete’s favorite foods—and tells her that she’s sick.
“Sick in the head,” is what Mom says. Sick in the head means crazy. Mom’s not crazy, whatever Grandpa says.
Pete doesn’t get it, so finally Mom tells her about the tumor.
Mom says a lot of things. She says one day Pete will have a smile as straight as all the other girls’. She says Ricky Carmichael is just jealous that he doesn’t get to live next to a restaurant and eat raspberry-swirl cheesecake every night.
She says that Pete’s dad came from far away. From space. From the stars.
She says he’ll come home to them any day now.
Mom says a lot of things. That doesn’t mean Pete believes them.
She’s not going to live with Grandpa.
Grandpa smells like cigarettes and mouth wash and the only tapes he has are all Barry Manilow. And he calls her Petra. So what if it’s on her birth certificate; it’s not her name.
Pete is eight years old and her Mom is dead.
Pete is eight years old and for a second, a single second, she believes he’s coming back. She’s not like Mom; she never wanted him to fly down and stay with them in their tiny, tiny house. Pete always wanted to be carried away. Living in space must be ten times cooler than living on earth—that’s just science. They’re no Ricky Carmichaels in space.
It’s too late, though. Mom’s already gone.
Whoever her dad is, Pete knows he’s an idiot, and a bum, and a monster. It doesn’t matter if he’s an alien or a Jedi or what. He left her and Mom behind. She’ll never forgive that.
The Ravagers are no Jedi. They’re the worst kind of aliens: aliens with nubby, scarred skin and jagged yellow teeth. Aliens who sound like they drive pickup trucks barefoot and shuck corn with their teeth.
Pete screams until she throws up. She kicks, claws writhes, bites. Breaks two noses and at least three toes. She’s just grabbed hold of a weedy, tattooed neck and is squeezing as hard as she can when Yondu rips her off.
“Hey! Hey, Red.” He shakes her like a kitten. “You ever think about dying, Red?”
“You ever think about bein’ eaten?” His breath stinks five thousand times more than Grandpa’s mouthwash and cigarettes, and his teeth are the yellowest and sharpest of all. Pete whimpers. She can’t help it.
Yondu grins. “Not much meat on you, but my crew here’s hungry. Damn near starving.” He pokes her in the gut. “They’d spit you right down the middle. Roast you like a pig if they could.” He thrusts his ugly mug even closer, making an oinking sound.
She wants to throw up.
“You hear me, girl? You understand what I’m saying?”
She wants to go home.
Yondu shakes her again. “Well, maybe you do and maybe you don’t, but it’s time to settle d—”
Pete screams in his face. Then upchucks the last of the soggy hospital tater tots all over his shoes for good measure.
“Take me home!” Her face is burning and so is her throat and she can hardly breathe anymore; it doesn’t matter—she’ll keep screaming until someone listens. “I said take me home, you stupid blue fuck!”
Yondu looks down at his boots. Looks up. Chuckles. “Aw well,” he says. “At least you’ve got some gumption.” And then, cool as a cucumber, he backhands her into the wall.
That leaves Pete with a tongue bitten almost in half and a knot the size of a peach pit. It doesn’t stop her screaming. Finally Yondu grabs her up again, by the back of her T-shirt, and drags her to the brig.
“Bawl yourself to death, if that’s what you want.”
Pete yells for three more hours. She’s working up to a fourth when the bars slide open and Yondu comes in with the gray-haired, tattooed guy she tried to strangle. It takes them five minutes, and the grey-haired guy sitting on her, to get the needle in.
Her eyelids start to droop right away, but as she’s drifting off Pete hears the grey-haired guy snap, “Thought you said she could yell herself to death.”
Yondu snorts. “He ain’t gonna pay for damaged cargo, dickhead.”
She gets good at dodging blows and curling up in tight spaces. Expert. A month into her journey Pete’s jammed into a shaft, listening to the yelling and cussing going on underneath it. It’s all about her—big surprise.
“I ain’t making the trip to that weird-ass planet again,” Yondu’s saying. “Now that’s final.”
“And what are we supposed to do with the girl?”
“Don’t you worry. She’ll earn her keep.”
There’s a silence as thick and nasty as the B.O. that’s even wormed its way up into the ducts. Ravagers aren’t huge on showering.
“She’s quick,” Yondu snaps. “Scrawny. Good for wormin’ into places. Good for thieving.”
“Good for clawin’ and bitin’,” one of the others grumbles. “I say we drop her off on the nearest planet.”
Pete bangs on the floor of the shaft. “Take me to Terra!” she yells. “Take me home!”
The shaft vibrates as Yondu thumps it from below, snarling about he’s going to tan her hide once he gets hold of it.
“Come on up and try!”
Of course he doesn’t. And since Pete’s stocked up a good supply of water and protein bars, she doesn’t have to climb down and face him for two more days. Yondu’s right about one thing. She is good at thieving.
She dreams about Mom, every night, for months and months. Mom sick and withered, Mom bald and rasping like Darth Vader in her hospital bed. Mom reaching for her hand, and Pete running away.
She’s a rotten person. Sick and selfish and evil. Not as evil as Yondu, who, Pete’s pretty sure, was born as mean as he is blue, but close. She’d never take Mom’s hand. Not even if she got a time traveling DeLorean (still not as cool as KITT). Not even if she travelled back two hundred times.
Maybe it’s because of the dreams, maybe something else, but one day Pete wakes up and realizes that she doesn’t want to go back to Terra anymore. She wants Mom. Without her, no place is home.
Pete is nine years old. The universe is bigger and weirder than any movie, ever, even Star Wars. She’s zipped through asteroid fields and visited cloud cities. She’s stolen money, jewels, batteries, vintage collectible baseball cards, and troll dolls. Yondu says they’ll be making a four-course meal out of her if she doesn’t stop pestering him about those lightsaver doodads.
“Lightsabers, old man. Lightsabers.”
Yondu bristles. “So what’s a lightsaver?”
“How the hell should I know?”
She’s still an expert at dodging. But the blows are a little friendlier than they used to be.
It’s not that Pete doesn’t hate the Ravagers anymore. They’re gross, mean, and dumb as posts to boot. Well, okay, Yondu’s as dumb as two posts. So on this ship he might as well be Einstein.
Anyway, she still hates them. But even disgusting, kidnapper space hillbillies can be nice sometimes.
Her snaggletooth finally starts coming loose after she gets clonked in the head during a job gone wrong. (But come on, when has a job ever gone right? How did these guys steal anything before she came along?) Pete wiggles it until it hangs by a thread, but yanking it out, blood, skin, and all, is too gross even for her. So she searches out someone grosser.
“No way am I sticking my hand in that mouth. You’re on your own, little girl.”
“Come on,” Pete whines. “I won’t bite.”
Yondu glares at her. She smiles back angelically.
“You think I’m some kind of idiot?”
“Yeah,” Pete says, insulted. “I’ve told you so, like, a billion times!”
Yondu does his Snort of Absolute Disgust and turns away.
“Come on, old man!” Pete yells. And then, before she can stop herself, she lets it slip. The one thing she swore she’d never, ever say to him.
Yondu stiffens. “What?”
Stupid, stupid, stupid! But what the hell, she’s already humiliated herself. “Please.” Pete swallows. “It really hurts.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” He turns back around and squats in front of her, hooking two fingers into Pete’s mouth. “You ready?”
His fingers taste like engine grease. Pete nods.
“Bite me and I’ll spit you myself,” says Yondu, gripping the tooth. Pete feels a sting, hears a nasty fleshy ripping sound, and then the tooth’s out of her head and gleaming between Yondu’s fingers.
“There you go.” He drops it into Pete’s hand. “Don’t you count on a visit from the tooth fairy, now.”
Pete sucks at the gap that’s left. It tastes bloody.
“Thank you,” she mutters.
She already said “please”. It’s not like she can sink any lower.
Pete glares at him. “Are you going deaf or something?”
Yondu’s face splits into a ragged yellow grin. He ruffles Pete’s hair before straightening, his knees popping and cracking like a hundred-foot roll of bubble wrap.
Two hours later they’re screaming at each other in the galley, but Pete can’t forget that. She sure tries. Still. The only time Yondu ever touched her head before was to slap her upside it.
Pete is thirteen when the nightmares come back. She’s almost forgotten Mom’s face, and bam! There it is, slap-dab in the middle of a dream about mowing Yondu’s crew down with her pet Abilisk. Mom pretty and laughing, smiling down at Pete while “Fox on the Run” blasts from the radio.
“What was he?” Pete’s asking. “Tell me, tell me!”
They’re back in the tiny bedroom of the tiny, tiny house next to the Countrytime Diner. The diner that makes the best cheesecake in the entire galaxy. Pete should know.
“He was a king,” Mom tells her. “Better than a king. He ruled the stars.”
Pete giggles. Keeps giggling as Mom rolls over, whispering in her ear, “Just like you will one day.”
“I don’t want to be a princess!”
“Who said anything about princesses? You could be like—”
“Sure! Exactly like Han Solo.”
That’s when Pete wakes up, her pillow already damp, snot clogged all the way up her nose. Somehow seeing Mom alive and happy is even worse than seeing her sad and almost dead. She gets up—no way will she wake these bozos with her crying—and wanders until she finds a dark, tight corner to pack herself into.
But find a completely private place to cry? Yeah, she should be so lucky.
“What you doing out of bed, Red?”
The tears keep blubbering out. She can’t stop them. “Shut up, Yondu.”
Of course he had to be on watch. What’re the odds? Pete sniffs, rubbing snot off with the back of her hand, and glares up at him. The lights are all dimmed, so she can barely make out his face. That’s just fine with her.
“Shit.” His teeth wink out at her in the gloom. “You crying again?”
“I thought you got all that crap out of your system when we picked you up from Terra.”
“Wrong again,” Pete sniffs. “Big whoop!”
His eyes are on her, but she can’t tell what’s in them. It makes her cry even harder; who knows why. It’s not like she’s ever cared what Yondu thinks of her. Even if he just realized that his prize thief is a pathetic crybaby who he’s better off eating.
Through her tears, she hears something an awful lot like a sigh. But Yondu never sighs. He’s pretty much exclusively a yelling and cussing type of guy.
“I said—what the hell.” He bends down, grabs her arm, and hauls her to her feet. Pete doesn’t make it easy for him.
“Jesus, what’ve you been eating?” he puffs.
She flashes him her nastiest smile. “Maybe you’re getting old.”
“Don’t be ornery. I’ve got something to show you.”
The last time Yondu had something to show her she ended up stranded on some backwater outpost for two weeks while the rest of the crew partied in a whorehouse. Because that’s no place for a kid, but a tent with bullet holes blown through it in the middle of nowhere? Just peachy.
Pete taps her foot while he roots through the drawers in his cabin, throwing out a ratty pair of underpants and his dorky, huge-ass prototype fin.
“I swear I…here we go.”
Pete’s foot stops tapping. “What the hell, Yondu!”
He scowls. “What?”
“I thought you threw it away!”
He makes a fist around her Walkman. “You want it or not?”
“Give it to me!”
She turns it over, sure he’s broken it, but nope—everything looks okay. Inside is Awesome Mix, Vol 1. Mom never did get around to making a Vol 2. Pete’s just stopped crying, and she almost starts right back up again when she sees Mom’s handwriting, spiky and faded, on the peeling sticker. She traces a finger over it, looks up at Yondu.
“Did you know she was dying?”
The light’s a little better here, but she still can’t figure out his expression. Is it the regular amount of pissed, or more than regular, or something completely different? Something sad?
“Naw, Red. I never knew nothing about your momma.”
She was just another job to him, lucky they decided to keep her on and not eat her; same old, same old. Except it’s not. Yondu clears his throat like he’s about to hawk up a loogie. Instead, he says, “But I’m sure she was a pretty lady.”
“Not at the end,” Pete snaps.
Who is, numbnuts?
She knows that’s what he’s thinking. He doesn’t say it, though.
“I shouldn’t have left her.” If she hadn’t chickened out, if she hadn’t run into the parking lot—
Apparently two seconds of being understandingly silent is all Yondu can take. “You think you’d still be there today? You think some flimsy as shit Terran hospital would have stopped us?” He laughs, sharp and sly. “Listen here. Once I got my sights set on you, there was nothing you or your momma could have done.”
Pete’s stomach burns like she’s swallowed battery acid. “That’s not true.”
Another chuckle. She’d rip it out of his throat if she could. “And you ain’t that stupid.”
“Yeah. I’m not that stupid.” She doesn’t mean to, but Pete stomps forward, grabs his jacket. She pulls him toward her, and if she weren’t so angry she’d realize two things: One, he’s letting her, and two, there’s probably another backhand in her future.
She still wouldn’t give a fuck.
“I figured it out,” Pete snarls. “You were supposed to take me to my dad, but you didn’t because you know what? I can steal anything. And I can do it faster and better than you can. You’re lucky you found me when you did. ‘Cause I’m the best thief in the galaxy, and you? You’re just fucking lazy.”
She might not be able to read his face, but Pete knows what’s beaming off of hers, loud and clear. She hates him. Ten times more than Ricky Carmichael. A hundred times more than Barry Manilow. She hates him more than she ever hated her dad.
A muscle in Yondu’s jaw twitches. Very slowly, he grabs her hand and pries it, finger by finger, off his jacket. He smiles that smile that’s not even a grin, just stretched lips and bared teeth.
“That what you’re going with, girl?”
She hopes he feels the same burning she does—throbbing behind the eyes, acid in the gut. “That’s what I know.”
“Well why not. You never got to your daddy ‘cause I found a better use for you. And now he’ll never find you, even if he were looking.” He has her hand in his now, squeezing until the bones grind together. Pete squeezes back.
“He ain’t.” His breath stirs her hair. “Didn’t ever want you that much.”
Yondu pushes her away, so hard and fast that it might as well be a backhand. Pete slams into the wall, stomach burning and ready to scream again. Nothing’s changed. Nothing ever will.
When she went to grab him she dropped the Walkman. It lies on the floor between them until Yondu kicks it toward her.
“Thought some music might help you get to sleep,” he growls. “Get going.”
Pete’s smarter than she was five years ago. Now she knows that screaming her head off in a ship full of sleeping Ravagers won’t end well for anybody. She bends down to pick up the Walkman, hands shaking. When she straightens Yondu’s not even looking at her anymore. Too busy making sure she didn’t rip his shitty secondhand jacket.
She could charge him. But she’s also smarter than she was five minutes ago. He’s letting her get off easy.
Yondu wiggles his finger through a hole in the pocket. “Best thief in the galaxy? How’d you cook up that crock of bullshit?”
When he does look at Pete, his eyes are blank and cold. “Move your ass before I kick it.”
She snitches a pair of earbuds from someone’s pocket. The tape’s stopped at “O-o-h Child” by The Five Stairsteps. Pete remembers every word (Mom would always hum it on the days customers skimped on tips). None of them stop her from crying into her pillow.
Years later, when it’s almost too late, she’ll remember this and know what Yondu was doing. He couldn’t have her running off to comb the galaxy for her dad. He couldn’t let her learn the truth, either.
So he gave her someone else to hate.
Pete is six years old and her dad is coming home any day now.
Pete is eight years old and Mom can’t be dead.
Pete is thirteen and the best thief in the galaxy.
All these years she’s been waiting for her father, and Yondu is all she gets. Pete is thirty-four years old and the biggest idiot in the galaxy.