orrow weighed down the lifeless morning sky and pressed heavy in the pit of Paige’s stomach. Five dark toenails tipped a porcelain foot at the end of leggings the same shade of black as the polish. She scrunched her fingers into her second grey sock, not quite able to advance putting it on from concept to action. Cloud shadows crept across the wall in front of her, over posters of two bands she’d forgotten why she ever liked. Melissa’s distant laughter at another one of Mom’s lame jokes brought on a wave of blah that made Paige flop back on her bed. She didn’t want to move. She didn’t want to go to a new school. She didn’t even want to leave her bedroom.
“You’re gonna be late for school,” said Amber.
Paige let gravity pull her head to the left and stared up through a tangle of jet hair at the sideways figure of her older sister and her Penn State sweatshirt. “So?”
“So… You’re sixteen. You have to go to school.” Amber walked around the corner of the bed, her jeans swooshing. “Come on. Don’t do this to yourself.”
“I don’t like it here. Why did Dad have to move us to Shadesboro? I miss Ardmore.” Paige let her grip on the sock loosen, and her arms flopped limp at her sides. “It’s not fair.”
“How can you miss Ardmore? I don’t mean to sound harsh, but you didn’t exactly have friends. You hung out with my friends.”
Paige sighed. “Yeah. They didn’t want me around after you left for college.”
“Please. For me?” Amber leaned over the bed, her long brown hair draped free. “I hate seeing you like this.”
“Whatever.” Paige sat up and pulled the sock on before reaching for a pair of gothy black boots with extra buckles.
“Jesus… why did you get those?” Amber blinked.
Paige stuffed her feet into them. “Because Mom wouldn’t let me get the thigh-highs.”
“I mean… what’s with all the”―Amber waved her hand around―“dark eyeliner and morbid stuff lately?”
“I dunno.” Paige zipped the boots and let her head sag into her hands, hiding from the world behind a wall of dense black hair. “Why do they have to start school so damn early?”
From downstairs, Mom yelled, “You need to be out the door by six-thirty.”
“Thank you alarm clock,” muttered Paige. She sighed. “Mom won’t let me dye my hair and I’m whiter than the damn Pepsi bear. Everyone thinks I’m Goth already; why not go all the way.”
“It’s not you.” Amber reached to fuss with Paige’s mane, but pulled back. “You’re not this girl. And isn’t the bear Coke’s thing?”
“I am now.” Paige looked up. “You see how Mom is… it’s like it’s only her and Melissa in the world, and Dad’s a damn zombie. I can’t believe they didn’t take his gun away.”
Amber folded her arms. “Dad’s not the one who wanted to―”
“No!” yelled Paige. “Stop. Fine. Alright, I’ll go.” She covered her mouth with one hand and cried. A few seconds later, she sniffled. “Dump the guilt trip already.”
“I’m sorry.” Amber stared at the beige carpet around her sneakers. “It’s my fault Dad’s being so distant and Mom’s gone off the deep end with Mel. I wish I―”
“Will you stop?” Paige glared up at her. “It’s not your fault. Not like you wanted to die.”
The door squeaked open as Mom peered in. The small, glossy pink backpack in her hand provided the perfect accent for her beige sweater and black yoga pants. “Get off the phone, Paige. Good grief. Who are you screaming at this early in the morning? You don’t have time. Get moving.”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that.” Paige scowled at the wall, wiping away tears. Bet she’d notice Mel crying.
Melissa appeared in the doorway, dolled up in a pink dress, purple leggings, frilly pink socks, and silver ballet flats. The girl’s long, wavy red hair made her look like a tiny version of Mom, only with green eyes instead of blue.
She doesn’t even care we left our home. Paige frowned off to the side so her little sister didn’t see. How can she be so… cheerful.
Melissa crept up to the door until the tips of her shoes almost touched the color change in the rug. “I’m not in your room.”
Paige drew in a breath to yell ‘go away’ or something similar like she always did, but swallowed it at a baleful stare from her older sister.
The little redhead bounced on her toes and swayed side to side. “Come on, Paige. We’re gonna be late. Don’t you wanna see the new school? Mom says my school is right next to yours. We can see each other at lunch.” Pure glee radiated from her face.
“Yeah.” Paige bent forward and raked both hands up through her hair. Gotta deal with her at home and at school? Shoot me now. “Great. Be right down.”
Melissa darted off. Seconds later, the thump thump thump of soft shoes on carpeted stairs faded to silence.
“Don’t say it,” muttered Paige.
“You know Mel looks at you the same way you idolized me.” Amber sat on the edge of the bed. Her arm settled like a cloud of cold mist around Paige’s shoulders. “Don’t take it out on her because Mom’s not coping well. It’s not Mel’s fault. She’s eight. She’ll grow out of it. Every time you scream at her to get lost, she crawls under her bed and cries.”
More tears rolled down Paige’s face. “I’m sixteen and I still…” She tried to cling to Amber, but fell through her and wound up kneeling on the floor hugging the mattress.
“I made a bad choice.” Amber let her arm drop. “I believed Eric when he said he was sober enough to drive. You tried to warn me, but I ignored you and… I’m sorry.”
Paige sniffled and stood. “It’s not fair.”
“Hey, don’t be like that. I’m here now, aren’t I? Not away at school.”
“It’s not the same.” Paige tried to put a hand atop Amber’s, an intangible cloud of cold. “You’re like icy mist.”
“Paige?” yelled Mom from downstairs. “Enough with the stalling. You’re going to be late. Move it, young lady. Right now.”
Paige held two middle fingers at the floor, twisting them around like radio dials. “Ugh, the sound of her voice is like razors on glass.”
Amber smiled. “Like the way she yelled when I got caught sneaking out for that party when I was seventeen.”
Paige giggled despite tears. “Yeah. She was so pissed.”
“Go on. I’ll be here when you get home.”
“Yeah.” Paige sighed, grabbed her empty backpack, and trudged out into the hall.
She pulled her door closed before plodding down the stairs to the living room, hooked a hard left, and crossed the dining room to the kitchen. Despite the grey outside, the décor had enough white and yellow to seem almost bright. Dad perched at the far side of the basic wood Ikea table, lost in something on his laptop. A plain white tee shirt announced his probable freedom from work today.
“Morning.” Paige flopped into the seat across from Melissa.
Her little sister attacked a bowl of Lucky Charms like a pink wood chipper. She paused a second to peer up at her with an adoring look while making an ‘mmm’ noise through a mouthful of cereal. The overabundance of cheer made Paige want to throw her into a closet.
Amazing there isn’t milk all over the wall.
Mom leaned over the sink, pouring water in a flowerbox outside the kitchen window. Paige glanced from the blank table in front of her to Mom, and grumbled. Her pet black cloud popped out and hovered over her head. She let the backpack slip off her shoulder, stood, and went about collecting a bowl for herself. You’d think a work-at-home Mom could spare ten damn minutes to make breakfast. She’s up at the butt-crack of dawn. A lump grew in her throat. Mom hadn’t cooked breakfast for ‘the family’ since the accident. Every so often, Melissa got pancakes if she begged. I can’t even get a ‘good morning.’
Paige fell into the seat and set her bowl down. Melissa made funny faces at her. A tiny hint of a smile squeezed out from under the black cloud.
“I’ve decided that I’m willing to help you get your own car when you turn seventeen, but there’s a condition.” Dad looked up from the screen. “I don’t want you riding in any car with a boy your age driving… If you can agree to that, we’ll talk car on your birthday.”
“Wow.” Paige stared at him, frozen with a dripping spoon inches from her mouth. “That was… like actual conversation. To what do I owe the pleasure of existing today?”
Dad frowned. “I don’t appreciate the snark.”
She fumed. Melissa seemed to sense the mood in her eyes and shrank in on herself, staring at her cereal. Paige bit back the urge to shout for the second time that morning. “Snark? You’ve barely said six words to me over the past eleven months. Today I get a whole sentence. It’s not attitude; it’s shock.”
Mom swooped around the table behind Melissa and fussed over her. “I forgot to do your hair… Oh, sweetie, it’s all over the place.” She set to the task of fiddling with every detail of her sister’s outfit. “You’re adorable. It will be nice when I have two daughters again, but your sister never much cared for pink… or frills.”
Melissa un-shrank and glanced at Paige, as if asking for permission to smile.
“I’ve had a lot on my mind.” Dad returned his attention to his computer. “We all have.”
Paige stared at the pristine skin on the inside of her right wrist. How much could it possibly hurt?
“Maybe someday your sister will outgrow all that doom and gloom nonsense.” Mom gasped. “Where are your earrings?”
“I’m right here, Mom. Stop talking about me like I don’t exist.” Paige stabbed her spoon into the cereal, scowling when it didn’t cry out in pain.
Melissa shrugged before grabbing her earlobes. “I dunno.”
Mom zoomed down the hall, headed for the stairs. Paige turned away so the dagger-eyed look chasing her mother off didn’t stab her kid sister.
“Well?” asked Dad.
Paige munched three spoonfuls of Lucky Charms. “What if I don’t like boys? Does your condition apply to girlfriends?”
“So you agree?” asked Dad.
Wow. Not even a raised eyebrow. Paige gave Melissa the ‘just kidding’ wink, setting off a milk-spraying giggle fit. “Would you even notice if I died too?”
Melissa went stone-still, staring, lip quivering.
Dad looked up from the screen. Paige had expected no reaction at all, or anger if anything, but he looked… broken. “That’s not the kind of thing to ask, Paige. We’ve all suffered because of what happened. Can you please stop feeling so sorry for yourself? There’s more than you in this family, you know.”
“Yeah.” She dropped her spoon in the cereal, no interest in finishing it. “I guess I’m being selfish for wanting, I dunno, maybe a ‘good morning’ once in a while… or a ‘hi.’ You should get the bolts on your neck checked soon. I think you need a recharge.”
He grumbled and went back to whatever he was doing on the computer.
Melissa focused a stare on her that seemed to say ‘please don’t hate me.’
Mom glided in, her hair in a scrunchie she didn’t have before. She helped Melissa put on two cheap, plain gold earrings. Paige thumped her left elbow on the table and braced her head in her hand while stirring at her cereal. Black draped over half her face, blocking one eye. She teased at her naked earlobe, replaying several screaming matches her twelve-year-old self had with Mom over hating being too ‘girly.’ Her hair hid the scowl she directed at Mom as the woman doted on her little sister. She’d been almost as clingy with Amber since she was ‘the first,’ and now Melissa got special attention for being the youngest. Paige… well, Paige just was. At least Dad ignores Mel too.
Melissa finished her cereal and Mom took the bowl to the sink, almost pulling it out of her grip before the child could slurp up all the milk. Paige forced herself to finish off the last of her breakfast, but didn’t bother drinking the sugary mess at the bottom. She stood and grabbed her backpack.
“Don’t leave your dishes on the table,” said Mom.
“Oh, so I exist when it’s nagging time.” Paige fired off a spiteful look and started for the hallway, ignoring the bowl on the table. “I’m gonna be late, remember?”
“Give me a minute.” Dad flipped the laptop closed. “I’ll drive you two.”
Melissa shivered. “I don’t wanna go inna car. I don’t wanna crash.”
Mom rolled her eyes out of Melissa’s view. “Oh, sweetie. Your father’s a State Trooper. He’s not going to crash.”
Melissa sniveled, lapsing into a pattern of breathing that preceded crying.
“I was gonna walk, Dad. I can take her with me.” Paige paused at the door. “It’s not too far.”
Melissa let out a squeal of glee. “Can I can I can I can I?”
“Is it safe?” asked Mom. “That’s almost a half-mile of woods. She’s only eight.”
“Along a road,” said Paige. “Dad moved us to East Bumblefart, but there’s still roads.”
Melissa zipped out of her chair, grinning from ear to ear, and took Paige’s hand. “Mom? Please? Can we walk?” She bounced, causing her hair to fluff and fall.
“Better get going now then.” Dad leaned back in the chair and stretched. “It should be safe, Andrea. The worst thing to happen in this place is a couple of kids spray-painting the stores downtown. That’s why I picked it.”
“That’s exactly what I’m worried about.” Mom grabbed Melissa by the backpack. “It’s always the ‘towns where nothing happens’ where a little girl walking to school alone doesn’t come home.”
“Alone?” yelled Paige. “What is wrong with you? I guess I am invisible. Fine. Drive her. Maybe I’ll disappear and you’ll find me in a shallow grave next month. Not like Mom would notice.”
“Paige…” Mom reached, but Paige ducked her shoulder away from the grasping hand and ran to the door.
She stopped at the bottom of the porch steps, where a gravel strip about fifteen feet long connected to a two-lane rural street. Dad’s State Police car, a white Ford, tucked up so close to the blue family Suburban the push bars on the front touched it. Walking alone? “I don’t believe you, Mom. Really? Say that right in front of me?” A quick glance back at the house revealed the animated silhouettes of a parental argument. Whatever they said, they kept too low for her to hear them outside.
Melissa ran out onto the porch behind her. “Pay…”
“What?” asked Paige, not looking back.
“Can I still walk with you? I don’t wanna go in a car.” She bounced down the steps. “Dad said it’s okay.” Melissa bared her teeth in an expression part hopeful grin, part fear.
Now I know how sharks feel with those little fish clinging to their ass. Paige looked away from the empty window. “Fine.”
She took Melissa’s hand and crunched down the driveway until gravel met paving. The road running past their house formed a veritable tunnel of trees; to the left, it led downhill toward Shadesboro downtown, the other direction held about three or four more miles of houses before hitting open farmland. Mom’s worry something would happen to them precisely because this was the sort of town where ‘that kind of thing didn’t happen’ made her hesitate. She stared at the wavering brown-orange leaves while listening to the faint hiss of the breeze. Maybe Dad had a good idea for once; the place did strike her as peaceful. She glanced up and back at a second story window―the parents’ room―and made eye contact with Amber. Her older sister, her face half hidden behind a curtain, offered an encouraging smile, and faded away.
Paige took in a deep breath filled with the fragrance of damp woodlands, pulled her backpack up on her shoulder, and set off down the road.