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Very Wicked Things by Ilsa Madden-Mills (1)



“Emily Dickinson once said, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers.’

If that’s true, then my bird is dead.”

Katerina Dovey Davis, age 10


Dallas, Texas

Eight years ago




I woke up in gradual phases, stirring around, trying to find a warm spot on the floor of our apartment. Tugging my old quilt around me, I rubbed my socked feet together, wishing we had heat. Mama had forgotten to pay the bills. Again. Not that heat did much good in this rathole of a building in the middle of the coldest winter Dallas had ever experienced. January. I hated it.

But in the end, the cold didn’t faze me.

Because the only thought burning in my brain was Would I eat today?

Off in the distance, I heard the high-pitched wailing of a police siren. Meh. They roamed all over this neighborhood. Welcome to Ratcliffe Heights, a long-forgotten section of Dallas lined with industrial parks, pawn shops, strip clubs, and methadone clinics. A dirty place, the factories here belched out fumes that hovered over the area like a grey fog. It suffocated me most days, clogging my lungs with the scent of people who’d lost hope.

My days were spent inside Beckham House, a run-down residence built in the thirties, now turned apartments. It had a certain charm, but was bookended by a liquor store on one side and a row of dumpsters on the other where teenagers smoked pot and did whatever. Real classy. On the bright side, the house was owned by a nice older lady named Sarah Beckham who had a dance studio on the first floor. I spent hours there, nose pressed against the glass wall, watching her and the little ballerinas.

Ratcliffe wasn’t for wussies. You had to be vigilant because people disappeared and wound up dead every day. Sure, most of them were crackheads and hookers, but everybody had a target on their back, even a ten-year-old kid like me. But I was tough and I never left the house without a steak knife or a sock full of rocks.

The public library was my favorite place besides the dance studio. There I’d wander inside the stacks for hours, devouring the books. Every now and then, when the librarians who worked the circulation desk weren’t paying attention, I’d remove the magnetic strip inside the flap and tuck the book in my coat. Amateur work, really. Even a two-year-old could do it. Much easier than stealing a candy bar from the local gas station, which I excelled at by the way.

Books about brave women in history called to me and one about Joan of Arc was my favorite. There was something inspiring about her, about a peasant girl who’d led a ragtag army to victory. I bawled when I read the part where her own country betrayed her, letting the enemy burn her alive at the stake. At nineteen, she’d sacrificed herself for something she believed in. She’d given her life willingly for those she loved.

My mama was no Joan of Arc.

Most days, she barely tolerated me. Just recently, she’d taken me from my real home: school.

“Life can teach you more than books, Katerina,” she’d announced one morning this past October as I dressed in my city-issued uniform. The navy skirt and white shirt were dirty because she hadn’t washed it, but I put it on anyway. I should have been at the bus stop already, waiting for my ride to Oakfield Elementary, but we’d overslept. Thirty-six days into the new school year and I’d missed eleven.

Her words made my heart dip because at school at least I had hot food and playmates. Earlier in the year, I’d been selected to be part of the gifted program. Even the chess club had asked me to join their group. I couldn’t just stop going.

School was an opportunity to get out of here.

“But, I want to go,” I’d told her. “And, it’s against the law for a kid to not go to school.”

That day, she’d sat at her battered dresser, trying to cover up the bruises on her face, uninterested in my plea. “The school doesn’t even know where we live. Besides, aren’t you smart enough?”

She’d walked to her closet, selecting a pair of shiny pants and a halter top. “And I graduated from high school and look what it got me: nothing but a whiny kid and bills I can’t pay.”

I’d missed school that day. And the three months that followed.

But now, I forgot about those things when my stomach growled, reminding me I hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s can of fruit cocktail. I wished I had waffles drenched in butter and syrup, maybe with some strawberries and cream on top. I sighed. No point in daydreaming. I knew our cabinets were bare.

The sound of tinkling music reached my ears, and I grinned from my bed on the floor. Sarah was starting her Saturday morning ballet class in the studio below. Eager to hear more, I pressed my ear to the hardwood, listening for her melodic voice. With her ballet skirt and beribboned shoes, she’d be down there dancing like a real live fairy princess, like Princess Odette in Swan Lake. And the little girls? They’d be in their usual black leotards and pale pink tights, twirling around the spacious wooden floor, like ballerinas inside a music box.


But dancing wasn’t for me though because we didn’t have money. The sign on the studio door said lessons were fifty dollars a month, and I’d tried to save up all the change I could find, but I always ended up spending it on the vending machines downstairs when I got hungry.

More than hunger though, the loneliness ate at me, and on dark days when it threatened to swallow me up, I’d sneak into her vacant studio and play her music softly so no one would hear. I’d dance around and pretend I was a ballerina.

Someday, I’d take lessons.

Someday, I’d get out of Ratcliffe.

The music stopped, reminding me I should check on Mama. See if she’d made it back from her night out. When I’d gone to bed at midnight, she still hadn’t been home, making it almost two days since I’d seen her. Although this wasn’t the longest she’d left me alone. Being stuck in this apartment with me drove her crazy, I know. She’d get all jittery and pace the living room with hard eyes, like she wanted to punch something. I avoided her on those days, hiding in the studio until I heard her feet thud down the wooden stairs and leave. Sometimes when she returned, she’d have a roll of cash. It gave me shivers to think of how she got it, so I never asked. But I knew what her occupation was. She crawled into strange cars with men she didn’t know; she did things for them.

“I’m alone,” I announced to the dingy apartment, after checking all the rooms and not finding her. I sat down at the kitchen table, wrapped up in my quilt, bouncing my legs to stay warm. I told myself she’d probably be home soon enough, and if she had money maybe we’d go down to Lulu’s Diner and get a hamburger. Lulu’s boasted they had the biggest burger in Dallas, and I thought about that burger a lot, about how juicy it would be, how the tomato would be fresh and the pickle tart. My mouth watered.

I prayed mama came home soon because if she didn’t, then my father would show up. He always did when she’d been gone for too long. He rarely saw me otherwise. A handsome man with black hair and blue eyes, something about him made me edgy. He smiled easily enough, probably because he’d had dental work done—veneers Mama called them. But, no matter how wide he smiled, his face remained hard, like granite. Nightmares about him were common, where he hid under my bed, lying on the hard floor underneath. He’d wait for me to fall asleep and then he’d jump out, wrap his hands around my neck and drag me under.

He’d do to me what he did to Mama.

Mama hated most things, but she loved to fight with him. Or perhaps she just liked his attention, no matter what form it came in. He doesn’t love us were her words when I asked why he didn’t live with us. When he did come to the apartment, they’d go in the bedroom and not come out for a long time. I’d watch television while her bed banged the wall to a rhythm I hated. Later they’d come out, gentler versions of themselves. But it never lasted. Mama would pull out the vodka and start drinking, and he’d slap her around. He’d curse and rail, calling her a lazy, no-good chuchka derganaya who deserved nothing. Never one to be defenseless, she’d scream and fight back, her fists beating at his barrel chest in vain. Most times, a black eye decorated her face after one of his visits, but he wouldn’t leave unmarked. Angry claw marks were his usual battle scars although once she’d hit him with a kitchen chair and broken one of his ribs.

I’d hide in the closet and listen to the sounds of fists meeting skin. It doesn’t make a lot of noise like you’d think it would. He’d hit and she’d grunt; she’d hit and he’d laugh. Through the slats of the door, I’d watch them hurt each other over and over. Sometimes it turned into sex, and I’d want to scream because it was sick. I should have covered my eyes, but I couldn’t, just as I never turned off the horror movies I watched late at night.

I called myself a coward for not helping her.

Why couldn’t I be more like Joan of Arc?

I’m no good for anything.

One particularly bad day last year—because mama had been gone for three days straight—my father had walked in the apartment with his key, his hands full of market bags. His keen eyes had watched me as I stared at the sack, the possibility of nourishment keeping me in the room with him, fear not allowing me to get too close. He’d never hurt me with his meaty hands like he did mama, but there’s always a first time. I had visions of him whipping off his jacket and cracking his knuckles before he went to work on my face.

On this day, he’d scooted my chess set to the side of the kitchen table, put down the bags and straightened to face me. He talked to Sarah sometimes, so maybe she’d told him mama was gone. Maybe he knew where mama was. I don’t know. Yet, he always knew when I was at a breaking point although I’m not sure why he cared. Perhaps it was guilt because I was a mistake, an unplanned pregnancy like they taught us in fifth grade health class.

We’d faced-off like gunslingers that day, our identical blue eyes never wavering from the other. He’d studied me like I was an odd insect, and I returned the favor, my heart flying in my chest. We stood there nearly five minutes, assessing each other. I know because the clock hung on the wall right behind him. He ran his eyes over my faded jeans and T-shirt. I shot daggers at his finely-creased pants and silk shirt.

Worlds apart yet connected by blood.

Stuck in our frozen tableau, I recognized we were a lot alike and not just in looks. Both of us were survivors. He’d crawled out of the mud and made something of himself. I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth, but someday I would leave this awful place.

But what if I didn’t?

“She’s not here,” I’d said, trying to make my voice big.

He pushed one of the sacks toward me.

I shook my head and backed away.

“Don’t be stupid like your matshuka. Eat,” he demanded, his ringed fingers pointing at the table with emphasis. A man used to having his orders followed immediately.

My body roared with need, but I shook my head again, this time harder, the oily strands slapping me in the face.

Like a junkyard dog, I trusted no one.

He chuckled, making me shiver. “Ah, a girl with backbone. I like it,” he said in his lilting accent.

Just leave. Let me eat.

Finally, he turned to go but spun back around, making me jump. His eyebrow lifted. “You can come with me if you want?”

Chills raced down my spine. He’d never once offered to take me with him. Not one time. I swallowed, sensing danger.

“No,” I said. “She’ll come back.” My hands clenched. “I can take care of myself anyway.” Hadn’t I been doing so?

He leveled his eyes at me, and they gleamed. Was it with pride? Or anticipation? Whatever.

“Your mama? She’s a junkie and a drunk. She will die in the gutter.” His body shifted closer to me, and I eyed the kitchen utensil drawer, calculating how fast I could get there and wrench it open. My hands twitched, and I prepared myself to run for it. We had exactly three knives, two were crappy, but the steak knife…

But then he laughed, even though he’d said nothing funny. I forced myself to meet his eyes him, trying to hide my fear. I sensed he liked it when I was scared.

He’d strolled unhurriedly to the door, paused and called back softly, “I won’t forget you, dotchka.” His words had sounded like a promise.

But, I had never been his daughter.

And that incident had been months ago.

I wondered if he’d bring me food again. This time, I think, I was hungry enough to eat whatever he brought, right in front of him.

The soft music from the studio below started back up, snapping me back to the present.

I shook off those memories of my father and opened every drawer, cabinet, and hidey-hole, looking for something to eat or some change for the vending machines. I’d made the same search the day before with no luck, but I couldn’t just do nothing.

Survival drove me.

Having no luck in the kitchen, I went to mama’s bedroom again.

Jackpot. Behind a bag of pills, I discovered a roll of quarters, tucked into the very back of her make-up drawer. She might get mad and yell at me if I took it, but my hunger didn’t worry about the consequences.

Truthfully, these past few months, I’d become desperate, shoplifting more and hanging out at the park with the older kids. Perhaps I’ve given up. Because even at my young age, I recognized the truth: my somedays were killing me one dream at a time. I was never getting out of Ratcliffe. I was never going to dance.

I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror on the way out the door, doing a double take at how my jeans sagged. Just needed a belt, that’s all. I peered in closer, seeing my skinny face, touching the dark circles under my eyes. “You need a make-over,” I said aloud, thinking of the mindless shows I watched on television.

And so what if I wasn’t beautiful like mama? My movements were graceful, and my eyes were a pretty blue with hints of green around the iris. The hue wasn’t a pale color like the sky but deeper and more mysterious. Like indigo.

I twisted my hair up on top of my head. Heather-Lynn, one of the renters, called my hair color mink-brown which sounded pretty. Maybe later I’d find some pins and play with fixing it up into a bun like a ballerina. Maybe she’d be home and show me how. Maybe she’d offer to make me some of her tomato soup. It came from a can, but it was good, especially with a grilled cheese sandwich. My belly growled again.

With the roll of quarters in my hand, I walked out the door. If I thought our apartment was cold, the hallway outside was freezing. Someone had cracked a window at the end of the hall, probably to smoke. I tip-toed down the hallway and stopped in front of Heather-Lynn’s apartment and pressed my ear to her door. Eavesdropping, I’d decided, was a beneficial skill and surprisingly easy. Lately Heather-Lynn and her live-in boyfriend were fighting. Mostly about money—he didn’t have any—and men—Heather-Lynn flirted too much. I suspected he’d be moving out soon. Couldn’t say I’d miss him, but I loved Heather-Lynn.

But today, all I heard was silence.

All was clear, so I took off at a dead run and then leaped high in the air like a gazelle, spreading my legs apart mid-leap, landing with a triumphant grin. Yep, it may not have been a true grand jeté—one of my favorite ballet jumps—but in my head, it was spot-on.

Once on the first floor, I eased around the corner, my eyes automatically landing on the glass wall where I could see into the studio. Sarah stood at the barre, leading the dancers into their final cool down before they left to go home.

I got some cookies and chips from the vending machine and sat on one of the old wooden chairs that faced the dancers. Front row seats, baby. I devoured the chips in less than a minute, dragging a sleeve across my face to wipe the crumbs. Breakfast.

What school did those pretty girls go to?

Did their mamas leave them alone for days at a time?

Feeling guilty for my disloyal thoughts, I opened the Oreos, took out two and crammed them in, chewing nosily. At least I had a mama because some kids didn’t. I should be grateful for what I had.

Sarah caught my eyes and waved, her face bright like the radiance of a thousand suns. She reminded me of an Emily Dickinson poem, the one about how hope is like a bird and perches in your soul. We’d read it in class—before I quit—and I’d immediately thought of her, mostly because the bird is joyful and never stops singing, even through the coldest land.

I wanted to be that bird that never gives up, that endures; I wanted to be like Sarah.

But at this rate, I wouldn’t make it.

Because my future loomed, where, like my mama, I’d be alone and bitter and angry.

Perhaps I’d end up with a man like my father.

Perhaps I’d sell my body for money.

Perhaps I’d end up in a gutter or a dumpster or an alley.


I looked back at Sarah. Why couldn’t I dance? What was stopping me?

Forgetting my hunger, I dropped my cookies to the floor and stood.

It’s corny, but I believe only a few moments in your life possess special magic, and I believe each person is given only a handful. Not sure I’d seen any yet. Until now.

And as the life I yearned for literally danced in front of my eyes, the dreams I’d let go came roaring back to the surface. I suddenly knew that if I didn’t plunge headfirst into this moment, this opportunity, I’d regret it forever.

In that cold hallway, my lost hope came back.

It was time to make my own someday.

I wanted to fly and now was my chance.

The hinges on the wooden door squeaked when I opened it and walked in the studio. The little girls stopped their exercises and openly gaped at me. I hadn’t even brushed my teeth or my hair in days, but it didn’t matter. I made my way to her, a fire burning in my chest.

“I want to dance,” I said fiercely, stopping in front of Sarah, close enough to see the fine lines that feathered out from her eyes. “I’m tall and skinny. I can do fifty push-ups. I can outrun a grown man. Even my gym teacher says I’m flexible, just like a rubber band.” I stretched my ams up high, leaned over backwards and did a backbend kick over. Hey, it wasn’t ballet, but it was a pretty cool move.

My shirt had ridden up, so I tugged it down. “Can’t pay you, but I can take out the trash. Maybe do your laundry in the basement? It’s creepy down there, but I’m brave.” I held my breath for a moment. ”Wanna teach me?”

Sarah let out a tiny puff of air, as if I’d surprised her. She opened her mouth to speak, but paused as if she was thinking and reevaluating. This was the most I’d ever said to her at one time.

“Please,” my voice thickened. “I’ll give it everything. You’ll never have a better student than me. And I already know ballet.” I didn’t mention that I frequently picked the lock to her studio and made full use of the facilities. I didn’t mention that I’d stolen numerous ballet DVDs from the library. Juvie was probably in my future.


“My name is Dovey. Like the bird.” Only my father used the Russian name.

She nodded. “I’ve already let you and your mother live here rent free for the past two months. Look around,” she said, waving her arms at the peeling paint on the walls. “This place is falling down around me because I don’t have the money to repair it. I can barely afford to fix the plumbing in my own apartment.”

I stared at her.

“And I don’t have time to teach a beginner,” she added.

“The stairwell’s a mess. There’s trash everywhere. Maybe I could pick it up for you?”

Silence from her.

Didn’t she know that once I set my mind to something, it was a done deal? Mama said it was the Russian in me. I think it was just me. Failure was not an option.

I would dance. I would, I would.

“I will die here.” Truth. “I want out. I want something better than what I have.”

She gazed at me with a pained expression, knowing my circumstances.

“Don’t want your pity,” I said, thrusting my chest out. Pity is for losers and weaklings. “I want somebody to believe in me.” I backed up, bumping into one of the other girls, who quickly gave me room.

My body was cold, but I forced my limbs to work. “Look at this,” I said, attempting a simple plié. Giving my best, I did the duck-feet thing and bent my knees, keeping my heels on the floor, but in the end, my jeans were too thick to get a proper position, and I weaved. I powered on and tried again, this time keeling over and busting my butt.

The little girls snickered.

Red-faced, I stood, refusing to give up so easily.

To their astonishment—if their open mouths were anything to go by—I unsnapped my pants and jerked them off, throwing them across the room. Standing in my old underwear and sleep shirt, I put my feet in the proper position and did the plié again, this time without stumbling. This time summoning every scrap of control I had to stay put.

Sarah didn’t look impressed.

Fear of winding up like my mama spurred me on. “First position,” I said, executing the movement. “Second position, third, fourth.” I moved my arms and legs how I thought they should go, yet it felt awkward, my limbs not cooperating like the videos.

I needed lessons.

“And here’s my favorite, fifth position,” I said, lifting my arms up and rounding them out over my head. I tried to align my feet, praying I resembled a ballerina inside a music box.

Silence for at least a minute as she stared at me, her eyes lingering on my limbs. Taking advantage, I did a pirouette and stumbled, probably resembling a drunken Tasmanian devil.

She gave me a quizzical look. “Your form is off. But you’ve had lessons?”

I shook my head.

“Then how do you know ballet?” she said, waving her arms at me.

I tapped my noggin. “I’m quite gifted.”

She assessed me. “I’m not surprised.”

“My mama says I’m different.”

“It’s good to be different,” she added.

I nodded. Sure.

“Do you love ballet?” she asked me.

“More than anything.”

She sighed, her eyes wary. I’m no mind reader, but I recognized hesitation when I saw it. Being near me—teaching me—was dangerous because of who I was. No one wanted to associate with the little girl who belonged to the hooker and the rich man.

Her face softened. “Don’t make me regret this, Dovey. Extra ballet slippers are in the basket by the door. Oh, and put your pants back on, please.” She smiled.

I practically skipped over and grabbed a pair, elation erupting inside me. “Yes, ma’am,” I said.

She knelt down to face me. “Today, we’ve been working on embracing our roles when we do ballet. Dance lets you be anything you want to be, Dovey. A snowflake, a toy mouse, a witch, a forest fairy. Who do you want to be today?”

“I don’t know.” It was all so much to choose from, and it was my first day.

Squeezing my shoulder, she said, “Whoever you become is entirely up to you. Remember that.”

I blinked up at her. “Someday, I will be a dancer.”