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Prologue

Twenty years ago…

I can hear them again.

My neighbors are fighting. The little boy screams for him to stop.

I kneel down by my window. Closing my eyes tight, I cover my ears and sing to myself.

I don’t like it.

Then, nothing.

I listen hard, then uncover my ears.

Turning around, I stand a little, peek over the edge of the window, and see him walking fast by the side of my house. He stumbles, falls, and crawls out of my sight.

He’s hurt.

My heart races.

I could get in a lot of trouble. Daddy would be real mad.

Kneeling down out of sight for a moment, I stand quickly and creep to the doorframe.

I listen. Hard.

The TV plays and I hear him snore.

Hope ignites.

Tiptoeing down the stairs, I sneak into the kitchen. Getting a chair from the small dining table, I stand on it and reach for the top shelf.

I get what I need, slide the chair back in, and make my way to the back door.

My hand reaches for the knob, grips it tight, then…I still.

I could get in a lot of trouble for this.

My heart beats out of my chest.

Turning the knob, it squeaks a little, and fear washes over me. Stopping, I turn it so slowly that it takes forever to make the rotation.

Finally, I feel the latch click over, and I pull the door open. Taking off my slippers, I put them in between the door and frame so the door can’t close.

Barefoot and dressed only in my white nightie, I tread softly through the backyard, the soft grass cold under my feet, following the sound of the heavy breathing and soft crying.

Finding him at the back of the property line under a tree, I see him cover his face with his hands. His body shakes.

Even hidden away in the dark, he doesn’t want anyone to see his tears.

He’s trying to be strong.

My heart hurts.

Slowly walking closer, I step on a twig. It breaks, and his face snaps up to look at me.

Jumping up like a jack in the box, he yells out, “Get away from me.”

Not coming any closer, I put down my supplies and whisper, “You’re hurt.”

He watches me carefully, looking between the things I’ve brought and my face, as if searching for some hint of this being a joke.

He scowls and says quietly, “I’m always hurt.”

Even in the dark, I see the hatred in his eyes. It shines bright as day.

I see his cheek become darker. Stepping forward with wide eyes, I tell him, “You’re bleeding.”

Reaching up to his cheek, he touches the wound with his fingertips, pulls it away, then looks at his blood. He rubs it between his thumb and middle finger slowly. Caressing the blood, as if in apology.

I stutter, “I- I can help you.”

Lifting his cold eyes to me, he spits, “No one can help me.”

He can’t boss me around.

Placing a hand on my hip, I glare at him and whisper-hiss, “I could get into a lot of trouble. My daddy would be real mad. And…and I came to help you.” Suddenly scared for myself, I say a hushed, “Please, let me help you.”

I need to get back inside before my dad finds out I’m not in bed.

My face must show my fear because his posture relaxes a little, and he asks, “Why would you help me then?”

I’m not sure.

I shrug. “You’re hurt.”

“No one else cares if I’m hurt.”

My heart races.

I whisper, “I do.”

We stand there, staring at each other a long time.

Finally, he comes closer to me and asks, “What’s your name?”

“Alexa. Alexa Ballentine.”

He nods, but says nothing.

“What’s your name?”

He kicks at a stone. “Doesn’t matter. You’ll forget it once I’m gone.”

My stomach aches. I need to know his name.

Stepping closer, I promise, “No, I won’t.”

Lifting his head, he runs a hand through his messy brown hair to keep it out of his face. He watches me a second more before he utters, “Antonio Falco.”

I want to say it’s nice to meet him, but it doesn’t feel right.

Shuffling around from foot to foot, I ask, “How old are you?”

He leans back on the tree trunk. “Eight.”

He seems older to me.

He asks, “How old are you?”

“Six.” Pause. “I’ll be seven soon,” I lie.

His brow furrows. “You look older.”

Wow. I just thought the same thing about him.

Not thinking, I blurt out, “Why does your daddy hurt you?”

His jaw steels and he explains, “He’s my step-dad.”

Hearing a noise in the house, I turn, and my eyes widen in terror. Turning back to Antonio, I whisper, “Please let me help you.”

Lowering his eyes, he murmurs, “Okay.”

Relief and joy swirl through my body.

He steps forward into the moonlight and I gasp. The top of his cheek is gaping.

I swallow hard, trying not to be sick.

Taking some cotton and antiseptic, I warn, “This smelly stuff stings.”

But when I dab it on his wound, he doesn’t even flinch. His eyes never leave mine.

Taking a band-aid, I open it and place it on the top of his cheekbone. It doesn’t do much. The wound is too big. But he still mutters, “Thanks.”

Another noise in the house makes me jolt. Looking into his brown eyes, I whisper urgently, “I need to go. I’ll see you another time, Antonio.”

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