Vicki tucks her chin harder against her knees, and she waits. The pantry floor is hard, the smell musty. Above her loom the darkened shelves, mostly empty except for one case of canned chili, because Matt likes chili.
“C’mon, Vick. I know you’re in here somewhere.” He’s closer now, only a couple of rooms away. Living room, probably.
It was all he brought home, last grocery trip: a half-gallon of milk, a box of Honeycombs, and a case of chili. That’ll teach her to give the ten-year-old the grocery money, but the cashiers at Zippy Foods think he’s cute, and sometimes the bakery lady gives him a cookie.
God, Vicki’s tired of chili.
“You’d better goddamn be in this house.” Vicki shivers. Matt doesn’t swear, not like she’s already learned how to do, and the sound of his still-boyish voice rising on the profanity adds another nauseous tickle in her stomach.
This was a stupid hiding spot. She hasn’t hidden here in years; she can’t think what made her do it now.
“Victoria Marie Donovan,” he says, and suddenly, bizarrely, Vicki wants to giggle. He doesn’t sound anything like Mom in a rage, hard as he’s trying.
But the swallowed giggle turns into a hiccup that turns into a sob. She catches her breath, trying to hold in the sound, and then Matt’s pushing the pantry curtain aside.
“Don’t look at me,” she says, burying her face against her legs.
Clumsy ten-year-old fingers pry at her fingers, gripped around her knees.
“Go away.” Her words are muffled.
“Tyler said he saw something, one of the girls...?”
She pulls her head up to face him. His eyes widen, which just confirms what she knew: her face is a goddamn mess of wet, red eyes and racoony mascara. “One of the girls what?” she snarls, only her throat’s so clogged and gross that the words sound a little less fierce than she meant.
“I don’t know,” Matt says. He looks bewildered. Scared, even. The sight of it makes Vicki want to take another swing at Lori Corrigan.
“It wasn’t anything,” Vicki says. God, he’s only ten. “Bitch was jealous because my skirt was so awesome.” Only sluts wear skirts that short, Lori said. Sluts like your mom. What about you, Donovan? Are you a slut?
The skirt – her only birthday present this year, three weeks late, something her mom snagged off the clearance table at Teen Rack – is already in a garbage bag, and the garbage bag is already in the can.
It was after doing that, when she was crying so hard she couldn’t see straight, that she’d stumbled into the pantry.
“Oh.” Matt’s kneeling in front of her, still looking a little lost. “So you punched her?”
“I pushed her,” Vicki says. “And it was stupid. And I better not ever catch you doing it, you get me?”
Matt’s a good kid, a lot better than she’s ever been. People like him. No way she’s letting him follow her example.
“Okay,” Matt says. Staring out the pantry door, carefully nonchalant, he adds, “You figure Mom’s coming home for dinner?”
He's a good kid, innocent, and Vicki’s going to keep him that way as long as she goddamn can.
She sucks in a breath. “Probably busy,” she says. “You want chili?”
His eyes light.
Stiff, awkward, Vicki pushes to her feet. “Yeah, okay, let’s make some chili.”