It was just another New Year’s Eve for Melody. Her thirteenth one to be exact and completely unremarkable. Her mother stuffed her into a dress two sizes too small, accompanied by the furrowed brows of disapproval and invasive pokes and prods over her tummy.
“Have you been stealing chocolate from the candy jar again?”
The accusation stung quick and sharp. Trying not to furrow her brows in anger in response, Melody sucked in her stomach as far back as it would go in an attempt to escape the judgmental fingers as they inspected any and all perceived imperfection — every critique another weight to hang off her rounded shoulders. Melody knew arguing would only escalate the situation, so in order to protect the delicate balance between calm and chaos, she shut her eyes and did her best to take it.
“The last thing you want to be is fat. No one will love you if you’re a two-ton Tessie.”
Melody bit her lip hard to keep from back talking as her mother started listing everything wrong with her growing body, accentuated with a knowing, “I’m telling you all this for your own good." Then dug her teeth in harder still at the horrified remark that her teenage pimples looked like a bomb had gone off in a war zone all over her face. Her body was jerked this way and that as the dress that had fit fine when she was twelve continued to fight back. The zipper snagged painfully on her ponytail and tugged out a few wavy strands of thick black hair.
“If you would just hold still for once, we wouldn’t have to struggle every time we had guests over so you could look presentable.”
Her step-father’s boisterous laugh from the living room broke the tension, shaking the yellowed wallpaper of their tenement flat. The drunken rabble of his coworkers from the automobile factory, all dressed in blue jeans and wife beaters, filled the cramped living room with the thick stench of cheap cigarettes and the clinking of glass bottles while they shuffled poker chips around on the coffee table.
With a final tug, the zipper slid into place. “There, now that wasn’t so bad, was it? I’ve got to feed your brother, Xavier. Try not to have a pity party this year in front of the guests.”
As soon as her mother left the room, Melody sighed, loosened the back of her dress zipper and threw on the bulkiest, most shapeless sweater she could find in her tiny bedroom. Not that she had much. Just her bed, her clothes, and her well-worn fox plushie, Sir Kit the Great, knighted with a toy wrench when she was five, and who she loved more than anything else in the world. His button eyes and frayed seams adorned one of the last reminders of her real dad. Sometimes at night before she fell asleep, she would hold Sir Kit close and if she took a deep breath and imagined really hard, she could even smell a hint of the motor oil and aftershave that had perfumed most of her childhood.
Shuffling over to the window, the cold glass greeted the palm of her hand. The condensed landscape of Atom City sprawled out before her. For a moment the hubbub from the party guests faded into the background while heavy drops from the low-hanging clouds pounded against the windowpane in a steady tattoo.
Melody barely reached waist-high to the window ledge, a late bloomer and the shortest one in her class. She traced the outline of her tawny brown reflection from the lashes lining her rust-colored eyes to the wrinkles coalescing over her navy sweater.
Through the torrent, row after row of concrete apartment blocks towered over a tangle of industrial factories and smoke cylinders. Docked cargo ships buffeted over the inky water of the port. On this night, the usual beat of grating metal and heavy machinery were absent in lieu of the celebrations of another year of fantastic growth for Atom Motors Corp, and everyone got an entire three days reprieve from the usual one. Lights from other apartment windows lit up the residential towers like a thousand flickering eyes peering out from the hulls of great upturned ships. Melody made a series of faces and stuck out her tongue.
“Mom’s right, my face does look like a war zone.” She squeezed her stomach and turned to Sir Kit, perched on her bed, with a despondent look on her face. “And I’m getting fat. I hate how she’s always right.”
Sir Kit stared on impassively as she started to mirror the poking and prodding from only moments earlier.
“Get yer dad a beer!”
A gruff voice of one of the guests followed by the pounding on the paper thin wall bordering the living room pulled Melody back to the present. Her mother peeked her head in the doorframe, rocking her baby half-brother in her arms.
“Melody, be a good girl and do as your father says.”
“He’s not my dad,” she muttered under her breath.
“What was that?”
“Nothing, never mind.”
Melody shook her head and dragged herself out into the thick smoke of the living room and coughed. Oldies scratched out from an antique record player.
Her step-father reclined on the sofa and opened his arms. His ginger hair was greased back and a pile of empty beer bottles and cigarette butts lay at his feet. A fresh coat of alcohol-induced pink painted his pale cheeks, and a fresh cig bobbed up and down in his mouth when he spoke.
“Ay, my baby girl! There you are.”
“I didn’t know you had a daughter,” said a coworker sporting an impressive jowl and not a strand of hair on his bald head.
“No, no, she’s not mine, but she’s definitely her mother’s.”
“Jenny?” The bald guy piped up again, “She don’t look nothin’ like her.”
Melody pretended not to hear them, grabbed a lukewarm beer from the cooler next to the sofa and handed the amber bottle up to her step-father.
“That’s because she looks like her father,” her step-dad dabbed out his cig on the sofa arm, popped the top off the bottle with his calloused hands and took a big swig. “Johnny Brown, don’t you remember him? Had the big afro. He’s the one who had the accident with the parts compressor. Forgot to reboot the computer after maintenance and went splat.”
A laugh passed through the men gathered there.
“Oh, yeah, I remember him! He’s the guy used in safety what-nots. At least they salvaged enough of him to fuel the economy.”
More laughter and drink flowed. Inside, Melody fumed like a chimney stack, her cheeks heating up to incendiary levels, but outside she did her best to quietly slink away back to the safety and solitude of her bedroom.
“Wait, Melody,” her step-father’s booze-saturated breath filled her nose, “Aren’t you gonna eat some Nut’n’Bolt cake?”
Melody stared at the frosted cake on the table with discarded gambling chips piled around it. Every year, the tradition of sharing the cake and seeing who got the lucky nut or bolt always excited Melody. Whoever found the metal nub could make a wish, and the cake was good too. It used real eggs and fresh milk instead of the dehydrated boxed stuff. But now all she could imagine was the entire baking tin being taped onto her stomach or hanging under her arms like loose skin. And if wishes could come true, then she wouldn’t be a stranger in her own home.
“I don’t think I should.”
“Aw, see, boys, I told ya, she’s just like her mother. Pecks at her food like a bird too.”
“You’re a twig,” belched out another man. “Put more meat on yer bones, girl!”
Embarrassment splotched at her skin and blurred her vision. Obscuring her face with her hand, she quickly showed herself out to the chorus of jeers as tears started streaming down her face.
“Why does it always end this way?”
Melody picked at the faded wallpaper of her room and stared out the window with puffy eyes. The rain had reduced to a gentle drizzle while she counted down the time until the guests left or passed out drunk to give her some peace and quiet.
She could hear her mother apologizing for her poor behavior and coos of approval as baby Xavier crawled around and cheers when he reached his hand into the cake and pulled out the lucky bolt.
“He’s gonna grow up to be just like daddy. Head mechanic of Sector Five.”
The conversation got rowdier the closer the clocks ticked to midnight with no sign of letting down, so Melody decided to set out into the night to get her bearings.
Throwing on a raincoat and rubber boots, she unlatched the window and squeezed out feet-first onto the fifth-floor fire escape. Figuring the adults would be occupied for a few hours, she allowed herself to relax while she descended. Her feet clanged on the metal stairs and despite the cold, it was the warmest she’d felt all night.
Jumping off with a splash into a puddle on the ground level, she wasted no time heading down the sleeping streets to her favorite spot.
Great husks of eighteen-wheelers lined the shipping truck yard like sleeping giants. Melody weaved between them, brushing her hand over the familiar rigs, until she reached the railing overlooking the sea. Being mostly landfill, Atom City lacked sandy beaches, but the gentle slosh against the buoys never failed to enchant. Breathing in the salty spray, she let the wind ruffle her hair, held back another sniffle, and gazed into the endless ripples.
“Hey, dad,” she said. “I wish you could celebrate New Year’s with us. I’m thirteen now; not that I did much for my birthday.” Her stomach tightened as she absently kicked some gravel into the ocean. “After your cremation, mom didn’t even wait a week to marry that other bozo.” Her fist clenched. “I hate him. He smells bad. And he’s not you.”
A dark figured moved in her peripheral.
A black girl around her age, sporting a full bed of tight auburn ringlets, had joined Melody at the railing and peered inquisitively at her with deep umber eyes. She was barefoot in just a grey hoodie and swim trunks. The girl clasped her hands behind her back and perked her head to the side. But before Melody could even say hello, the girl had disappeared.
Scuttling sounds under one of the trucks drew her eye and for a moment Melody thought she saw a bushy tail but when she blinked, she saw the girl again, now running away from her. Every few paces, the girl stopped to look at Melody with a big grin plastered over her face like she was waiting for Melody to follow her.
Melody scrambled after her. Every time she thought she lost her, she would spot an orange glow swish over the glistening concrete, sandwiched between two layers of sheet metal, or what appeared to be a little paw beckoning from over a rubber tire before the girl would appear again and give Melody a wink before setting off in another direction.
After clambering through the scrapyard and reemerging in one of the narrow back alleys of the factory sector, the girl stopped and turned to face her with big, bright eyes. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but just then, the fizzing sound of rockets shooting into the air pulled both of their attentions away.
Panic began to well up in Melody’s chest as the annual explosives showered the city in a crown of sparks and dazzling colors.
“Oh no, not the fireworks. I have to get back.” Her breath quickened and fogged in the late night air. “My mom will kill me if she finds I’ve snuck out.”
Melody gazed up at the residential towers until she spotted the one with the number thirty-two painted on the side, lit up by the light show of the pops and rockets overhead.
What happened next was all a blur. Her vision narrowed. Her feet bounded forward. Her rubber rain boots caught on an open manhole cover. Her eyes locked with the mysterious girl in slow motion — whose eyes went wide, and whose hands clasped over her mouth. Then she fell down. Straight down.
Melody was too shocked to scream. Her body froze as she plummeted. To her surprise, the smells of the sewers and the maze of pipes that lined them weren’t what greeted her. Instead, she found her fall cushioned by soft, spongey earth and the unfamiliar scent of fresh mountain air. Humidity clung to the walls in an array of translucent water droplets. An otherworldly iridescence lit up the rocky walls. Great formations jutting from the ceiling like pillars of melting icicles made the whole place look like it came straight from one of the fairy tales her father used to tell her when she was little.
“The palace of the fox,” she whispered while gazing up at the pinprick of an entrance where she had tumbled. A deep, full voice echoed from the cavern depths.
“Sir Kit always gets all the credit. They always forget about the rest of the merry band that protected the land.”
Looking around the cave, twinkling with the green glow of mosses and mushroom caps, she spotted movement low to the ground. A rotund, four-legged creature waddled towards her. The closer it got, the more she could make out the ringed tail and masked eyes of a raccoon.
“Sir Kit, my stuffed animal?”
Melody hadn’t seen many real animals before. Her neighbor, Mrs. Rodriguez, owned a poodle, but she hadn’t seen much else save for the occasional city rat, and even then, the city’s Pest Management Board had managed to eradicate most of them, too.
The raccoon gave its fur a quick preen, stood on its hind legs, and began to transform. Before Melody could process what was happening, a dapper man with a pencil mustache stood in front of her wearing a dashing silver tailcoat. His face was taut but regal with dark circles under his icy blue eyes and ghost-white skin. He slicked back his jet-black hair with his fingers and held out his hand.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Melody. Sir Sylvester at your service.”
“How do you know my name? Have we met?”
“Sir Kit and I are best of friends. He’s told me all about you, your hopes and dreams. How you’re getting on in apartment block thirty-two, your troubles at school.” Sir Sylvester’s pencil mustache wiggled like a pair of whiskers as he dropped his gaze to her feet. “And it seems you’ve met Dawn, too.”
Something warm and soft brushed over her calves. Looking down, she saw a flash of fiery fur and pointed ears.
The fox at her feet flicked its white-tipped tail and grinned before growing taller and taller until the girl from earlier stood in front of her. Bright orange streaks highlighted her curls. She smiled sheepishly at Melody.
“I’m Dawn. I was gonna introduce us properly, but you fell down into our den before I could. Glad you didn’t bump your head or anything. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“This is a lot to take in. Shapeshifting animals? And I really need to get back home before the firework show ends.”
Sir Sylvester cleared his throat, “Just stay a moment. There’s a lot of us down here and even more up there.” He gestured vaguely towards the open manhole cover. “Our animal form is just an extension of ourselves. Our true selves. We all had a choice to make, when we were like you with just our human form, and choosing this path gave us all a second chance to live our best lives.”
“I didn’t want to grow up,” said Dawn. “Adult stuff scared me. So much responsibility and so many changes. Then when I was out one night, a little birdie led me down here and showed me how to keep my playful spirit forever.”
“I’m not sure I completely understand. Do I get to choose what animal I become? Like a wolf or a tiger?”
“Not exactly,” Sir Sylvester procured a small glass vial hanging from a string from his inside coat pocket. Powder inside sparkled like a spoonful of crystals. “These are moon shards. They only work if your wish is sincere. You can change one thing and start anew. Just one from the deepest place in your heart. Hold the vial close, and once you’re ready, drink the contents and you will reawaken in the best form to grant your truest desire.”
“You can’t take it back, though,” chimed Dawn. “It’s permanent.”
Sir Sylvester tied the vial around Melody’s neck. “You have some good people looking out for you, Melody, whether you can see them or not. Now let’s get you home.”
“Aw, I was hoping she could stay longer,” pouted Dawn.
“We don’t want to get her into trouble with her caretakers, and I think she needs time to think everything through. We’re not allowed to influence her choice. It’s the rules.”
Melody tucked the vial underneath her raincoat and sweater as Dawn and Sir Sylvester led her up a staircase hewn into the stone walls until they reached street level.
“This is where we say goodbye,” said Sir Sylvester.
“I don’t know how to thank you.”
“No need. I’m sure we’ll meet again.”
“We better meet again. Could use more friends,” said Dawn, a hint of melancholy pulling at the edges of her smile.
Waving goodbye, the last thing Melody saw were two pairs of furry ears and two pairs of eyes peeking out at her over the open manhole cover while she walked back home with a new skip to her step.
Melody did her best to be quieter than the purr of a new model motor as she tip-toed up the creaky fire escape. All the lights were out when she reached her fifth-story window. Listening for any sound, nervous sweat pricked at her forehead as she carefully crawled back through the open window.
Seemingly safe and alone in her darkened bedroom, she tossed off the boots and raincoat and went to get under the covers of her bed, but there was already someone there, wrapped in her blankets and staring straight at her.
Melody yelped and jumped back.
“How dare you.” Her mother spoke in a low rumble, quiet enough so only Melody could hear. Venom hissed between every syllable.
Melody took another step back. Her body began to freeze while her inner gears began to spin out of control. Her mother continued to speak in a calm, controlled voice, the slightest purse at her lips.
“How dare you sneak out like a criminal.”
“I-I’m sorry.” Melody’s legs turned to rubber. She could barely form the words as her blood rushed away from her face and extremities and formed a tight ball in her center.
“Do you know how worried you made us? I’ve had to leave Xavier in his crib, alone, because of you. And think of your poor father, you embarrassed him in front of his friends.”
By this point, Melody had frozen into a statue. All she could do was avert her gaze and repeat, ‘I’m sorry’ over and over again.
“Look me in the eye while I’m talking to you.” Her mother sat up, holding Sir Kit by his fabric scruff over her lap. “Come here. Hands by your side.”
It’s not like she had a choice. She never had a choice. Discarding Sir Kit over the mattress, her mother stood up and started to pat down Melody’s arms and midriff. Melody’s face seared with humiliation as her forehead wrinkled and tears began to silently flow and glisten from her tawny cheeks.
Her mother tugged the string tied around her neck that held the moon shards.
“Huh, don’t want to answer me? I’m your mother.” She yanked the string so hard, the yarn snapped in two. “Ah, so we do have a little criminal, don’t we?”
Her mother dangled the vial filled with the shimmering substance in front of Melody’s shocked face.
“This is why we always need to check. Druggie.”
“But I’ve never done drugs,” said Melody.
“It’s a horrible path to go down. You’ll be made an example of by more than just me if you get caught with illegal stardust or whatever it is you kids are calling it these days.”
Melody trailed her gaze off to the side to look just behind her mother as the tirade began to pile on thicker and thicker, and looked at Sir Kit and tried to imagine a world where they could play together. Maybe as two foxes in a big open field.
“It’s because your dad died, isn’t it? They say it’s hard for kids who lose a parent, but honestly, it’s been more than a year already. Just get over it. I got over it.”
Or maybe Melody and Sir Kit could join Dawn and Sir Sylvester down in the den and dance around a campfire and eat toasted marshmallows.
“He’s dead, Melody. Dead. Never coming back. The faster you move on, the faster we can all be a family again.”
And then Sir Kit could knight Melody and they would live happily ever after in the forest while going on adventures with the other talking creatures.
“Are you even listening to a word I’m saying?”
Melody’s mother snapped her fingers in front of her, pulling her from her trance.
“Just like I thought.” Melody’s mother sighed and picked up Sir Kit from the bed. “Is this fox what’s holding you back? He’s just a toy. And you’re getting old for toys.” Sir Kit dangled precariously in front of Melody’s nose. “Sometimes people just need an extra push to move on.” Her mother shook her head and gripped Sir Kit’s throat with one hand and his body with the other. “Just remember, I’m doing this because I love you.”
The horrible ripping sound tore right through Melody’s heart. Screams and sobs burst forth as Melody dropped to her knees. Cotton stuffing littered the floor as Sir Kit the Great was beheaded.
“Are we having a pity party now? Seriously?” Her mother studied the button-eyed fox head in her hand and rolled her eyes. “I’ll throw this trash out in the incinerator tomorrow. You’ve got to grow up some day. We’ll talk punishments tomorrow.”
Her mother left with Sir Kit’s remains and the vial of moon shards, leaving Melody to anguish on her own. All her fantasies and hopes and dreams were crushed in an instant. Tucking her knees close to her chest, Melody didn’t even bother changing into her pajamas. Curled under the blankets, she fell into a restless slumber, salty trails dried over her face, and listened to Mrs. Rodriguez’s poodle bark until morning.
“Eat your damn canned bread.”
Melody ignored her step-father and continued to pick at the round slice of dense brown bread crumb by crumb on her plate of reheated beanie weenies.
“Isn’t it so wonderful to have all of us at the table for breakfast together?” smiled her mother while Xavier giggled and smeared his mashed carrots over his bib in his baby-seat.
“I’m thinking of going on a diet,” muttered Melody.
“I think that’s swell,” said her step-dad. “You really are just like your mother, you know, always keeping up with your figure.”
Melody winced at the comparison. Everyone’s cheerful attitude contrasted with the previous night’s events.
“And we can have lots of mother-daughter time now that you’re grounded for a week,” beamed her mother.
“I’m not hungry anymore.”
Melody excused herself to her room and shut the door and stared off into the smoggy morning light reflecting off the buildings.
Why does it have to be this way?
It’s always my fault.
And Sir Kit…
Melody absently picked at her nails as the brooding thoughts began crashing against her empty stomach. She almost didn’t notice a familiar pair of pointy ears at her windowsill.
The fox wagging its tail on the fire escape shook its head, jumped on its hind legs, and grinned. The next thing Melody knew, she was eye to eye with Dawn.
“Hey, Melody!” Dawn waved excitedly from the other side of the glass.
“Shh.” Melody lifted a finger to her lips and checked to make sure no one had heard. Opening the window just a crack, she whispered, “What do you want?”
“I was just wondering if you made a decision yet. I mean, I’m not supposed to ask, but I really want to play again. We can play tag, or hide and seek, or leapfrog…”
“Well, it’s not gonna happen.”
Dawn’s face dropped like a deflated balloon. “What? Why?”
“My mom found the moon shards. She probably threw them out already. Called me a druggie. Can’t you see I’m stuck here? Best not try and pull any more antics for a while.”
“No, no, no. That can’t be. They’re for you. You have to get them back.”
“Look, I don’t have time for your games right now. I just want to be alone.”
Dawn looked dejected, but transformed back into a fox and sulked back down the fire escape.
Outside, Melody could hear her step-father getting into a heated conversation over the telephone.
“I’m telling you, Tony, my baby girl ain’t the type to do drugs. This is different. Could be diamonds. Could even sell for a pretty penny.”
She silently cracked her door open and peeked into the living room.
“Now listen here, Tony, this could pay off that loan I took for the races plus interest. Who names their prize vehicle The Destroyer when it’s not gonna destroy all the competition. Horse Power was an underdog; no one bet on him, so give me some slack here.”
The telephone receiver sat nestled between her step-father’s plaid shirt and stubble chin. Cigarette smoke swirled from the ashtray on the coffee table. From his left hand, the glass vial dangled from the end of a string. Every time he stomped around while thundering into the receiver, the vial would swing precariously and glint in the yellow of the gas lamp next to the telephone stand.
“No, it’s definitely not that magic powder we took to get through trade school. I promise ya.”
Melody slinked back into her room. A wave of relief washed over her. The moon shards hadn’t been thrown out after all, but how to get them?
She waited, ear glued to the shared wall with the living room, for the phone call to end. Then she waited some more for her step-dad to yell out that he was off to the corner store for a fresh six pack of beers.
Once she was sure he was gone, she snuck back out into the living room and held her breath.
The vial sat next to the ashtray with a handwritten note folded next to it reading, ‘For Tony, after lunch.’
She quickly snatched the vial and held it up to the light and watched the granules sparkle.
“It really does look like diamonds.”
Giving a last cautionary check over her shoulder she rushed back into her bedroom and shut the door. There wasn’t much time to make a decision before she got caught. She opened the window and stared out over Atom City. Streaks of blue broke through the monotone sky.
Uncorking the vial, she held the moon shards close to her chest and focused on the one thing she wanted to change. Her parents? A life granted the ability to choose, or a life with the freedom she never felt she had? It was difficult to mull over, but she took a deep breath and decided on one, just one that would connect her past, present, and future with the string of hope.
And when she was ready, she tilted the vial to her lips and drank the jeweled powder. It tasted like liquid gold and flowered with the aftertaste of a bouquet of roses. Warmth resonated from inside her as the world shrank and shrank until her awakening.
From the fifth-story window of apartment block thirty-two, a beautiful blue butterfly fluttered out and lit up the city with a brilliant flash of color.