Melody didn't want a party at Nina's. That was for little kids. But the party at home turned out worse. Everyone exclaimed over the cake the moment they came in the kitchen. "You've outdone yourself," Nina said. "You're catering my next party," Sarah said. This was Melody's day, but everyone was talking about her mother. So the cake was beautiful: four layers, shavings of chocolate that looked like rose petals, and a horse made of frosting on top. So? So the two of them had been fighting more and more. Her mother didn't like to bake, but she had, to make peace. She asked Melody to invite all her friends, but Melody refused, because she wasn't in a mood for whatever correction her mother might give in front of them. Maybe her mother would understand why they weren't there; more likely she wouldn't. Melody hadn't brought anyone home in months except Pilar. Pilar knew how things stood. Pilar sympathized. Pilar was always on Melody's side, because Pilar loved Melody.
"Do you like the cake?" Ada asked.
"It's too big. It'll go stale before we can eat it all."
Her father handed her a glass of wine.
"Wyatt!" Ada scolded.
"One glass," he said. "It's her seventeenth birthday. She's old enough." He said, "You're more beautiful every year," to his daughter.
"Daddy." She stood on her toes and put her left arm, the one without the wine glass, around his neck and kissed him on the lips. He raised the glass, she raised hers, and they drank.
"Only one glass," Ada said.
"Oh, mom." Melody looked at Pilar and lifted her eyebrows, implying, "You see? You see what she's like?" Pilar glanced at Ada. Melody glanced at her mother, who looked away.
"Let's eat!" Nina clapped her hands. "There are so many good things."
They observed a minute of silence, according to her mother's custom. Melody shifted and sighed. When Ada looked up Melody said, "Why aren't Gabriel and Julia here?"
Her father spoke. "Not again. You know how the schedule was set. They had to go. They called."
Nina said, "Would you give me some of the ham, please? I love honey-baked ham." She handed her plate to Wyatt.
All Melody's favorite foods were on the table, but everything else was wrong: her mother, irritating as always; her father's mountainous quiet; Sarah beaming; Nina smoothing over the silences with talk. Melody was glad she hadn't invited the Larsons or Tim, so she wouldn't have to be angry at them, too. She looked at Pilar. Pilar said, "Happy birthday". Melody mouthed back, "I wish." She looked down; the food on her plate seemed unfamiliar.
She fell into one of her recurring daydreams, of a picture she'd seen, an ocean inlet in Canada. Rocks, seashells, seaweed. Great firs right down to the water, their roots exposed on the crumbling dirt embankment. A small cabin stood on a spit of land, its shingles weathered to gray, a woman hanging laundry on a line strung between the cabin and a tree. A fishing boat in the foreground. It had always seemed to Melody a picture of otherworldly tranquility, but she could never remember where she had seen it, or when. For years it had been as clear in her mind as if she'd lived there. She could count the trees. She saw the few little patches of pale blue paint that hadn't yet weathered off the cabin walls. In the left window a table was visible, an unlit kerosene lamp sitting on it.
"Mel?" her father said.
He was holding out the vegetable plate. She passed it to her right.
"Do you have any classes with Melody next school year?" her mother asked Pilar, though Pilar was a grade ahead of Melody.
"We want to take American history together," she replied.
"Maybe you could help -- "
"Mom." Melody glared at her mother. "Can't you ever stop? Even on my birthday?"
"That's okay," Pilar said. "I'd like to."
Ada stared. Melody heard a thudding bass approach from the street. The sound grew in volume, diminished, and faded to nothing.
"Mel," her father said. "Don't ruin your own party."
"It's not my party," she cried. "It's hers! Everyone praising the cake. She has more friends here than I do."
Her mother opened her mouth, then closed it. She set down her fork. She climbed the stairs. Her father said to Melody, "You didn't want to invite your friends," and followed his wife.
During the minutes they were gone the only sounds were silver against the plates, and chewing and swallowing.
Ada and Wyatt returned.
"I should go," Nina announced. "I'm sure you have things to discuss." She folded her napkin and set it next to her plate. "Should I wait?" she asked Sarah. They'd driven down together.
"No. I'm ready."
Nina retrieved her handbag. She embraced Ada, then Melody. "Try to have a happy birthday," she whispered.
Melody kissed her cheek. "I love you, Muddy. Thanks for coming. I'm sorry I made a scene."
"Here." Nina reached in her bag and pulled out an envelope. "Don't spend it all." She pressed Ada's shoulder in passing, on her way out.
"Oh!" Nina exclaimed. Someone was standing in the doorway. "Excuse me, I was just leaving."
"Tim?" Melody said.
"Come in," her mother said to him.
"No." Melody went to him on the porch, closing the door behind her. "I'm sorry I didn't invite you. Things are really bad." She waved goodbye to Muddy and Sarah as they were getting into Muddy's car. She hugged her sweaty boyfriend. The day had been hot and humid, and though it was evening, the air was still unpleasant. Buzz's car was nowhere to be seen, so Tim had walked.
"I got you this for your birthday." He handed her a package.
They sat in the porch chairs and she stripped off the paper. Inside the paper was a velvet box, and inside the box, a ladies watch, with a silver band. "Oh, Tim, it's beautiful." She kissed him.
"Here." He fastened it around her left wrist, and she turned her arm so they could admire it.
"It looks expensive," she said. "It's gorgeous. I feel shitty for not inviting you." She wrapped an arm around his neck and whispered. "I love you, Timmy. I'm so unhappy. I feel bad because I didn't invite you, but I hate it when you see us all unhappy together. That's the only reason. I wish it was just you and me."
He was looking at his feet and shaking his head.
"Please," she said. "Please understand. I'm just too miserable."
"I wish you'd invited me. You always do."
"This year's different. You'll see."
"What do you mean?"
"Just remember I love you. Don't forget, okay?"
"What do you mean, 'forget'?"
"You'll see. Soon you'll understand. I have to go now. Okay? Call me tomorrow. Please?"
"Sure. I always do."
"Thanks." She kissed him again. "The watch is beautiful. I love it. My old one broke."
"I know," he said. "That's why I bought this."
"It's perfect. I'll always wear it."
Inside, she showed off the watch and everyone admired it. Her father asked why Tim hadn't come in, and Melody ignored the question. She asked, "Can Pilar spend the night?"
"Yes," Wyatt said.
"I think -- " Ada began.
"It's her birthday," Wyatt said. "Lighten up."
"We've discussed this. You know what this girl wants to do with our daughter," Ada said in French. When Clover wasn't around French was the secret parental language, the way Ada and Wyatt concealed from the children what they were saying.
"No. You're wrong," he replied, and poured himself another glass of wine.
"No French," Melody said. "No fair. Use Spanish."
"It's okay," her father replied. He spoke to Pilar. "Call your parents. Let them know."
Every time Melody looked up, Ada was watching her, and looked away when Melody caught her eye. Melody had the creepy feeling that her mother knew she was planning something.
The ceremony took too long -- lighting the candles, singing the birthday song, cutting the cake, opening the presents. There was even a saddle from her mother, an implied promise: you can use this at the Larsons', but bring your grades up, and you can have a horse of your own. Melody no longer wanted a horse. She wanted to be free. She wanted a life of her own.
"Happy birthday," Pilar said again when they were alone in Melody's bedroom.
She fell on her bed and groaned. "I'm always wrong, with her."
"She's not bad." Pilar sat next to her, on the edge of the bed. "Your mom's nice. Really. Mine's a total bitch."
Melody rolled sideways and propped her head on one hand. "Want to trade? At least she isn't on you about every little thing all the time, every little mistake and bad grade. I can't do anything right. She's all over me every day. I'm glad Clover's gone, finally. She makes it worse. She snoops around and tells mom everything I do. Daddy can't stop it. And Gabe's no help. All he does is moon about Julia, or play baseball, or practice piano. Are you listening to me?"
"My mom's always trying to get me to date boys," Pilar said. "I think she knows."
"Did somebody tell her?"
"She just knows."
Melody lay on her back and pulled Pilar down so her head rested against Melody's belly. She stroked Pilar's hair with her fingernails on the crown of her head, the way Pilar liked. "It's okay," Melody said. "I bet she doesn't."
"She's always talking about grandchildren," Pilar complained. "She wants me to get married as soon as I finish high school. It's weird. It's like she thinks we're still living in Spain."
"Maybe you'd like boys. You could try."
"Gross." She sniffed.
"What about Tim?" Melody asked. "He's great in bed. He'd do it."
"He's in love with you."
"He thinks you're really hot."
"He's yours. You don't want to share him."
"Yeah, he's my boyfriend, but I don't own him."
"I'll ask him -- "
"Stick that dirty thing in me? No way. Disgusting."
Melody continued stroking Pilar's hair and pondered how to change the subject. The conversation had drifted off course.
"Does your mom know?" Pilar asked. "She hasn't let me stay over in a long time."
"Who cares? Why do you keep it such a big secret?"
"My dad would kill me. Actually, really kill me. I have to leave the room when he talks about queers and dykes. It's scary."
"Turn on the radio," Melody said, then, "Turn it up a little." She didn't want her mother to hear any noise, if something happened.
Pilar got back on the bed and rested her cheek where it had been.
Melody resumed stroking. "I wish I had hair like yours, so dark and thick."
"No you don't. I have to shave my legs and pits twice a week. Mom makes me. When I'm eighteen I'm moving and never shaving anything, even if I get hair on my lip," she said. "Besides, yours is prettier. Everyone wants to be blond. You're lucky."
"I'm not blond."
"Okay, strawberry blond."
Melody snorted. "Pink. Horrible." Brief silence. "Pilar?"
"How long have we been best friends?"
"Since I moved next door. We were seven. Ten years," she said. "Wow."
"Will you do something for me?"
"Don't think it's a big deal, okay? It isn't."
"Take off your clothes. I want to see your body."
Her friend sat up, and looked sideways, not quite at Melody. She stood, unbuttoned her blouse and dropped it on the floor. She turned away. The bra and shoes and socks and jeans and panties followed. She turned around to face Melody, staring down, hands pressed against the sides of her thighs.
Melody looked. Pilar's breasts were small. She was thin and tall, and her legs were long. Her waist and hips were narrow, her shoulders wide. She had a model's body.
"God you look fantastic," Melody said. "I bet you never have to watch your weight. I'll be fat when I'm old. Maybe when I'm thirty."
Melody turned down the sheets. Pilar slipped into bed and pulled up the covers. Melody pulled them back down.
"Sit up," she said. "I want to see you."
Pilar raised herself against the headboard and closed her eyes.
Melody locked the door. She kicked off her shoes. She pushed her friend's knees apart and knelt between them. "Show me," she said.
Pilar shook her head.
"Show me how you do it."
Pilar spread the lips of her vagina with her fingers.
"I just want to see," Melody said.
Pilar did it a different way. She used a finger inside herself, and the heel of her hand against her mons. Melody watched.
Melody lay on her side and drew Pilar to her, muffling the whimpers against her shirt, cradling the back of Pilar's head in one hand, the other around her shoulders. She felt the back of the hand bumping against her as Pilar masturbated. Then her friend shuddered and gasped, and relaxed against her. Melody stroked her hair, this time with the palm of her hand, and murmured wordlessly.
"I wouldn't do that for anyone else," Pilar said.
Pilar tugged at the top button of Melody's shirt. Melody pushed the hand away. "No."
Pilar nestled against her. "Why? Why won't you let me? You know I love you. I only want to make you feel good."
"I don't like girls that way. Not even you."
Melody guessed how long to wait, then said: "Maybe." She had to gentle her friend -- to make Pilar give up her own aims, and accept Melody's, willingly. "Help me, and promise not to tell."
"I'm going away."
"Away? Is your mom sending you somewhere?"
"No. I'm running away."
Pilar made a hissing like air escaping a tire. "Take me with you."
"I can't. I have to go by myself."
"I have to get away. Mom's destroying me."
"Why can't I come? My parents are worse than yours."
"I have to go by myself."
"Two would be safer."
"Are you going to help me? Or do I have to ask someone else?" There was no one else to ask, but Pilar couldn't count on that. Melody had to be careful. Too hard, or not hard enough, and Pilar would refuse to be led. Melody drew her friend against her, murmuring promises. "I'll write you. I won't forget. You're my best friend. The only one I can trust." She wished she could take back what she'd said -- Pilar was suffering. The front of Melody's shirt was wet with her friend's tears. "Don't cry. Maybe you can come visit after I get a place to live."
In the end she had to threaten a permanent break. No help would mean no communication, ever. Faced with this, Pilar agreed.
"Saturday," Melody said. "They're driving up to Lincoln. They'll be gone all day." She kissed Pilar and let herself be undressed and made love to. She owed Pilar that.
When they were finished Melody said, "We have to get dressed."
"My mom's going to knock on the door. She doesn't trust us."
"She does know!"
"Yes." Melody wondered whether Sarah had outed Pilar, but there was no way to find out. This wasn't the sort of thing her mother usually noticed, but somehow she knew. She definitely knew.
Pilar began to weep.
"I didn't tell her," Melody said. "She figured it out. She won't tell your parents." She stood over her. "Stop crying. She'll want to look in the room. You can't have red eyes."
Pilar wiped her eyes with the back of a wrist, and searched for the tissue box, and blew her nose, then dabbed at her eyes with a second tissue. She checked herself in the mirror. They dressed. Pilar sat on the beanbag chair, and they were silent. Melody was beginning to think she'd been wrong, when she heard a knock.
"Melody? It's me."
She opened the door wide enough for her mother to see Pilar.
Her mother said, "Would you turn the radio down, please? We're going to bed. It's time for you, too."
"Good night, Pilar."
"Good night, Mrs. Packard."
In the morning Melody almost needed a crowbar to get Pilar to leave, but she wanted to be with Tim. He called, and she went to his house. Because it was summer, and her mother was home, she and Tim had to have sex at his house. Buzz worked during the day, so they were alone. She made love with Tim so many times she lost count, and he complained that he was getting sore. Then she lay next to him and held him until her mother called and said dinner was ready, and she had to go home.
The next day was Friday, and Melody packed her rucksack in secret. She wanted to see Tim again, but he'd told her he had to work on his father's land, and she hadn't been able to talk him out of it. Saturday morning, as soon as her parents had gone, she called Pilar, who brought over a canvas bag with the supplies they needed. Pilar cut Melody's hair from smooth and shoulder length to spiky and short. They flushed the clippings down the toilet.
Melody admired the new cut in the mirror. "You're really good."
"What color do you want?" Pilar held up red, brown, and black bottles of hair dye.
"Brown. Some color of brown that's really ordinary."
Afterward, Pilar scrubbed the dye from the sink while Melody robbed the fire safe in her parents' closet. Her mother always left the key in the lock, trusting the children to take money only if they needed it, and leave an I.O.U., and repay when they could. Well, she needed the money now. Someday she'd send her mother a check.
Pilar was downstairs, waiting at the table.
"Did you go to the bank?" Melody asked.
Pilar handed her an envelope. "That's it. I only have twenty dollars left."
Melody opened the flap and counted the money. Five hundred dollars. "I don't need this much. You should keep some." She tried to hand her half the bills, but Pilar wouldn't accept them.
"Take it. For me. So you'll have enough." She reached in her canvas bag and pulled out a hunting knife. "I got this, too. In case, in case someone -- you might need it."
"Thanks." Melody put the knife in the top pocket of her rucksack. She embraced Pilar. "You are my true friend. Thank you." She kissed her.
Pilar fumbled with the snap on Melody's jeans.
"No," Melody said.
"Please. One more time."
"No. I have to get away. Now. I have to get distance."
"I'll drive you."
She couldn't refuse her friend. They went upstairs for an hour.
Pilar drove her to the Turnpike. Melody flipped a coin to decide which direction.
Heads; so west it would be. She crossed the road and stuck out her thumb.
The first car stopped. The driver, a middle-aged man, opened the door.
Melody got in, with the pack between her feet, easy to reach if she needed the knife.
She looked back and waved to Pilar, who was parked on the other side of the road.
The man's car accelerated up the ramp.