The girl stood amongst her classmates. She was the farthest to the right as she was the shortest. Her teacher was giving a speech to the parents in the small audience. It was probably very touching and affectionate, but the girl's eyes were trained on her mother, who was staring into the surrounding farmland with her eyebrows knitted close together. Overall, she looked quite unhappy.
The girl wiped her sweaty hands on her dress. Her light blue frilly one with a flowery pattern swirling at the bottom. Skinny as she was, the dress squeezed the girl around the middle and itched furiously around her shoulders. It was her best dress, though.
She hadn't gotten a new dress in a long time.
Sudden clapping alerted the girl that the ceremony had ended. The kids to her left began wandering into the crowd to look for their parents. The girl followed suit, shuffling to her mother, who gave her a funny little smile as she approached.
"Where is Papa?" the girl asked, entwining her fingers with her mother's. "You said he would be here."
Her mother sighed. She got a sad look on her face as she so often did.
"I thought he would. I guess he was too busy." The girl nodded. Her father was always busy. He was always working.
"Meredith!" the girl called to the dark-haired child walking with her parents. Meredith turned around. "I'll race you home!" The girl released her grip on her mother's hand and started running, hearing her friend's footsteps in close pursuit.
The two girls beelined for their side-by-side houses. They sprinted along the dirt road between the backs of town homes and the vast fields of browning wheat. They jumped gracefully over puddles of mud with their expensive dresses flowing behind them. Meredith began to overtake her friend, who watched unsurprised. Meredith's long legs seemed to beat her every time.
Their houses approached. The smaller girl willed her feet to move faster, but it was hard to run in the poofy dress and stiff shoes. She was concentrating so hard on the yellow ribbons of Meredith's dress that she misjudged the distance over the next puddle. Her hard shoe splashed and slipped, and the girl with it.
Her best dress was ripped and splattered with mud. One of her shoes had gone flying into the field. Her hands were scratched and dirty from using them to break the fall. Her mother would be furious.
Meredith was jogging back to her friend on the ground.
"Are you okay?" She pulled the fallen girl to her feet.
"Yeah. . . Just scratched," the girl replied, attempting to brush some of the dirt from her dress. She looked around and spotted her mother jogging toward them.
As the woman neared, the girl braced herself for a harsh talking-to. Her mother grabbed her arm roughly. She was still panting from her run. Her nails dug fiercely into the girl's skin, but she said nothing. The girl braved a look at her mother's face. She was staring with a hard face in the direction of their home. Several tan colored tents erected on the fringes of their property. Men in matching colors mulled around them.
"Meredith, go home," the girl's mother said evenly, tonelessly. Wordlessly, Meredith turned and jogged toward her house. Wordlessly, the girl's mother started back to their home, her grip still tight on her daughter's arm. The girl felt both anger and protectiveness in it. They gave their yard a wide berth as they made it to the front door.
The entry of their small home led directly to the kitchen table, where the girl's father along with a strange man sat in conversation.
"Go to your room, dear," her mother said in that same flat voice. She didn't take her eyes off her husband as the girl kicked off her muddy shoes and trekked upstairs.
Over the course of the year of the girl's eighth birthday, her small town had changed. It wasn't physical, and it was so subtle that the girl hardly noticed at first. People became agitated for no apparent reason. Mothers held their children on a shorter leash. Pantries filled with non-perishables. One ominous word seemed to hang over every ordinary conversation: war.
The girl wasn't entirely sure what the word meant, but it must have been something bad. She tried asking her parents, but they always found an excuse to not answer.
"Mother, why did the Berkins move?" she had asked. Her mother got that faraway look in her eyes.
"Maybe their house was too small for all those kids," she replied with a false smiled on her face. That was her lying face. Her that's-a-bad-drawing-but-I-have-to-say-I-like-it-anyway face. The girl knew better than to push it, to say that there were plenty of bigger houses in the same neighborhood, but her parents were both grenades always on the verge of exploding.
The children in the eighth year class didn't seem to know much either. One boy said that war meant fighting, but how could that be true when there was no fighting at all? The girl was kept in the dark, and it ate at her continuously.