Chapter 1 – Matthias
Deedee shoved the last bite in her mouth. She chewed and counted, chewed and counted. Eight, nine, ten. With an audible glock she swallowed her bread.
“Gross, Dee,” her brother said. “Really gross.”
She ducked away in her chair, tried to make herself invisible, but she couldn’t dodge Matthias’ look. His eyes glimpsed at the kitchen door while he silently barked, his hands folded behind his head like dog-ears.
“You spend way too much time with that dog from next door,” he said. “You’ll change into one, soon.”
Deedee swirled her glass around on the oilcloth that covered the table. The milk whirled along. Matthias was an idiot. “Cut it out,” she said.
“What d’you mean?” Matthias looked at her with his innocent, almost luminous, blue eyes. “You’re always with that old fart and his dog. I know exactly when you’ve been there, because you stink like an animal.” He squeezed his nose shut.
Annoyed, Deedee tapped her foot against the leg of her chair. “Teddie doesn’t stink.”
“He does, too,” Matthias said, “and he’s vicious.”
“Teddie’s not vicious!” An angry ball bounced in her head. Where did that idiot get that?
“He’s way vicious. Yesterday, I was walking by when he almost bit me. They should…” Matthias was silent for a moment.
Deedee glared at her brother. She hated him if he was lying like that. She took a deep breath and tried to control her anger. Matthias was the vicious one.
“…off him,” Matthias finished his sentenced.
The bouncing ball in her head exploded into a violent flash of anger. She leapt up. “Teddie’s not mean. You are mean. You hit him with a stick.”
“How d’you know?” Matthias asked. “You weren’t even there.”
“I don’t need to be there. Teddie told me.”
Matthias rolled with laughter. “Yeah, sure. You’re talking to that animal? Another reason to off him, if you ask me. We can’t have that animal drive you nuts, right? That would be too much.”
“They should off…”
“Don’t fight.” Mom’s voice floated in from the kitchen. “Please.”
Deedee swallowed the rest of her sentence. She plopped down in her chair, squeezed her eyes shut and tried to shut out Matthias. It was no use fighting him, she told herself. The pestering would only get worse. And it was no use to explain to him that she could see in Teddie’s face if he was happy or not, that she understood what he wanted when he barked or howled or snarled. Matthias wouldn’t understand. He wasn’t like her, and certainly not like Uncle Tom. Matthias only listened to himself, was only interested in himself. Being tough and causing trouble was all he could. And never, ever did he leave her alone. She almost crushed her glass. Why couldn’t he leave Teddie and her in peace?
“I don’t get why they haven’t taken away that animal in the first place,” Matthias continued. “That old fart can’t take care of it anymore. You know dogs become nasty if you don’t keep them on a tight rein. A beast like that should be kept inside, or on a leash.”
“Teddie’s not a beast. He’s an animal. And Uncle Tom can take care of him perfectly well,” she hissed.
“Not! He can’t even keep the beast, oh I’m sorry, animal with him. That dog wanders the streets day and night. Way dangerous. They should lock him away in a pound.”
“They should lock you away,” Deedee yelled. “You can’t lock up or leash a border collie. They have to be able to run and race. If you lock him up. He’ll die of grief.” Anger whacked the insides of her temples. Teddie couldn’t be locked away. He and Uncle Tom were her only friends.
“Aw, he’ll die of grief? That is so sad,” Matthias sneered. He pretended wiping tears from his face. “Good riddance, if you ask me.”
Deedee leapt up again and kicked the chair out of her way. She stormed out and stamped up the stairs, two steps at a time. Every step, even muffled by the thick carpeting, made her more furious. Stupid Matthias. Stupid, lying Matthias. The words droned in her head. She fled into her room and slammed the door shut as hard as she could. The clap vibrated in the air and rattled the large pane of glass of her window.
“Dee!” her mom called after her, “be gentle, baby.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she muttered.
Within the protecting walls of her room her anger died down. The red-hot haze before her eyes cleared. She drew a deep breath. He was a horrible pain, Matthias. She sank on to her bed. Why did she always let him get to her? He was like a leech that hooked his fangs into her skin. He sucked and sucked and sucked until he had drawn out every ounce of patience. And when she exploded, she always got the blame.
She slumped back into the soft pillow and snatched her old cuddly toy, Beautiful Dog. Countless tumbling in the washer had cracked his glass eyes. The plush, once a soft brown and white skin, was now threadbare and gray. She caressed its long and consoling ears. “I wish Matthias was right, Beautiful Dog. I wish I could change into an animal.”
The cuddly dog looked at her understandingly with his cracked eyes. She brushed his ear past her cheek.
“At least animals are sweeter than people. You can trust animals,” she whispered.
Beautiful Dog snuggled up in the hollow between her shoulder and neck, half-hidden in her hair, where he liked it best.
She put him back on his spot next to her pillow, sprang up and walked over to the window. She climbed on to the radiator and the windowsill, and tipped up the latch. She threw the window wide open. She shoved her feet into the corners, grabbed hold of the window frame, balancing in the open window. The summer air brushed past her arms and legs and warmed her face. She reached out further and looked to the neighbor’s house. Was Uncle Tom home yet? The kitchen door was closed, just like the windows. She bent back and checked her alarm clock: it was only half past one. He would still be in the hospital. He said he would be back late afternoon.
She lowered herself, straddling the windowsill. Leaning against the post, she let one leg swing outside. Except for the distant tinkling of a lawn sprinkler the heat had sucked up all noise. Like the sun had stopped all life. Sparrows, puffed up like pompons, lined up on the edge of the shed roof, shaded by the cherry tree. Even the ripe cherries couldn’t seduce them to move. She rested her gaze on the butterfly bushes in the back of the garden. The white and purple plumes were decorated with butterflies in all colors. She recognized bright yellow brimstone butterflies; tender garden whites and orangey tortoiseshells. Motionless and their wings spread open wide, they caught every sunray. Only the tireless holly blues fluttered from plume to plume.
Deedee closed her eyes.
A sharp flick against her knee woke her. In a reflex she pulled up her leg. The flick had left a sticky dark red stain on her knee. She glanced into the garden, but nothing moved. She searched the blue sky. A bird that dropped a cherry pit, maybe? A pigeon on the roof? She leaned out and inspected the gutter right above her window. It was empty.
She leaned into the post again, turned her face to the sun and was about to close her eyes again when an uncomfortable feeling, like ice water trickling down her spine, stopped her. Someone was watching her. Her eyes traveled through the garden. It was still dead quiet. Too quiet, actually. She tried to see past the thicket when her gaze caught at the bushes right next to the shed. Two tiny white circles protruded from the green, like the prowling eyes of a cat in the dark.
Deedee closed her eyes again. Of course. She should’ve known. She wouldn’t respond, though. Not this time. Not a split second later the next cherry pit hit her leg. And another one, and another.
“Cut it out, Matthias,” she called.
The peace fled the garden. The sparrows fluttered up, the butterflies flew away.
“Victory or death!” Matthias yelled and he launched a curtain fire of cherry pits into her and her room. When the attack was over he emerged from the bushes and high-fived his friend Peter with a hand reddened by cherry juices. “Way to go, Peter.” He grinned.
“Get lost!” Deedee shouted. She sprang back in her room. Immediately she told herself to calm down. Easy. Easy. She looked like a bottle of cola. All Matthias had to do was shake a little and her anger spouted out. Ignore them. If she ignored them, he’d stop harassing her.
“Shouldn’t you be out with the girls? Doing girly stuff?” He pretended to skipping ropes and tripping. He chuckled and slapped Peter on the back. “As if normal girls would want to hang out with a whacko like her. Did you know she talks to animals now? Must be that old fart next door that teaches her crap like that.
“So funny, Matthias,” she said, scolding herself for not finding a snide answer that would shut him up forever.
Matthias bent over to Peter and started whispering in his ear. Peter looked up to her every now and then, while Matthias continued talking, his mouth covered with his hand.
Deedee tried to listen in. What was her brother up to now? She wouldn’t let him push any buttons anymore. She slid back onto the sill and pulled up her legs. With her arms folded around her legs, she rested her chin on her knees and watched Matthias. Whatever it was, she would ignore it. She would just let them talk. She closed her eyes and turned her face back to the sun. Ignore them, totally ignore them, that would be best.
But the sun didn’t help. It beat down on her head, pushing its heat past her hair and her skull, heating up her brain. Instinctively she peeked through her eyelashes at the two whispering boys. Peter nodded zealously when Matthias shoved him forward. He stopped right under her window and looked up to her.
“You ask her,” Matthias said. “She won’t say yes to me. She doesn’t dare take me on.”
Deedee’s skin tightened. What didn’t she dare? She drove her nails into her skin. What was he whining about? She dared more than those two pests together.
“Uhr, Dee,” Peter said. He stood right below her, all legs and searching for words.
He wasn’t too bad. Sometimes she felt they could even be friends. But whenever she was talking to him, Matthias would butt in with his big blabbermouth and claim Peter. Now, bungling down her window, he looked friendly, sad almost. She knew he had a hard time at home. His dad was the boss of the military barracks down the road, and rigidly strict.
“What?” she bit. She hadn’t forgotten that it was Matthias who sent him. She wouldn’t make it any easier for him than necessary.
“Would you…Do you…”
“Forget her,” Matthias cut him short. He turned and pulled Peter along with him to the side of the house. “She’s too chicken,” he said, right before they rounded the corner.
“So not!” Deedee clammed her mouth shut, but it was too late.
Peter turned and walked back. “We’re going to the assault course,” he said. “Race each other. You wanna come?”
“Let her,” Matthias yelled. “She won’t win, anyway. Girls are useless. Let her stay inside. Crocheting, or whatever girls do.”
Deedee leapt up. “Crocheting? I’ll outrun you anytime!”
Matthias laughed, loud and shrill. “Yeah, sure,” he jeered. “Wimp.”
In an eye’s blink she stood on the sill. She clamped her hands around the big branch of the old peach tree next to her window and pushed off. Jumping from the sill to the tree, she landed not an instant later like a cat on the lawn.
“You’re a wimp yourself,” she panted when she stood dead ahead of her brother. “I’ll beat you anytime.”
She pushed away Matthias’ leer, like she ignored the alarm bells in the head. She would outrun them at the first obstacle. She just knew.