“And finally,” Jamie said as he pushed the door open, “we come to the main event. Your room.”
I was braced for pink. Ruffles or quilting, or maybe even appliqué. Which was probably kind of unfair, but then again, I didn’t know my sister anymore, much less her decorating style. With total strangers, it had always been my policy to expect the worst. Usually they—and those that you knew best, for that matter—did not disappoint.
Instead, the first thing I saw was green. A large, high window, on the other side of which were tall trees separating the huge backyard from that of the house that backed up to it. Everything was big about where my sister and her husband, Jamie, lived—from the homes to the cars to the stone fence you saw first thing when you pulled into the neighborhood itself, made up of boulders that looked too enormous to ever be moved. It was like Stonehenge, but suburban. So weird.
It was only as I thought this that I realized we were all still standing there in the hallway, backed up like a traffic jam. At some point Jamie, who had been leading this little tour, had stepped aside, leaving me in the doorway. Clearly, they wanted me to step in first. So I did.
The room was, yes, big, with cream-colored walls. There were three other windows beneath the big one I’d first seen, although they each were covered with thin venetian blinds. To the right, I saw a double bed with a yellow comforter and matching pillows, a white blanket folded over the foot. There was a small desk, too, a chair tucked under it. The ceiling slanted on either side, meeting in a flat strip in the middle, where there was a square skylight, also covered with a venetian blind—a little square one, clearly custom made to fit. It was so matchy-matchy and odd that for a moment, I found myself just staring up at it, as if this was actually the weirdest thing about that day.
“So, you’ve got your own bathroom,” Jamie said, step-ping around me, his feet making soft thuds on the carpet, which was of course spotless. In fact, the whole room smelled like paint and new carpet, just like the rest of the house. I wondered how long ago they had moved in—a month, six months? “Right through this door. And the closet is in here, too. Weird, right? Ours is the same way. When we were building, Cora claimed it meant she would get ready faster. A theory that has yet to be proved out, I might add.”
Then he smiled at me, and again I tried to force a smile back. Who was this odd creature, my brother-in-law—a term that seemed oddly fitting, considering the circumstances—in his mountain-bike T-shirt, jeans, and funky expensive sneakers, cracking jokes in an obvious effort to ease the tension of an incredibly awkward situation? I had no idea, other than he had to be the very last person I would have expected to end up with my sister, who was so uptight she wasn’t even pretending to smile at his attempts. At least I was trying.
Not Cora. She was just standing in the doorway, barely over the threshold, arms crossed over her chest. She had on a sleeveless sweater—even though it was mid-October, the house was beyond cozy, almost hot—and I could see the definition of her biceps and triceps, every muscle seemingly tensed, the same way they had been when she’d walked into the meeting room at Poplar House two hours earlier. Then, too, it seemed like Jamie had done all the talking, both to Shayna, the head counselor, and to me while Cora remained quiet. Still, every now and again, I could feel her eyes on me, steady, as if she was studying my features, committing me to memory, or maybe just trying to figure out if there was any part of me she recognized at all.
So Cora had a husband, I’d thought, staring at them as we’d sat across from each other, Shayna shuffling papers between us. I wondered if they’d had a fancy wedding, with her in a big white dress, or if they’d just eloped after she’d told him she had no family to speak of. Left to her own devices, this was the story I was sure she preferred—that she’d just sprouted, all on her own, neither connected nor indebted to anyone else at all.
“Thermostat’s out in the hallway if you need to adjust it,” Jamie was saying now. “Personally, I like a bit of a chill to the air, but your sister prefers it to be sweltering. So even if you turn it down, she’ll most likely jack it back up within moments.”
Again he smiled, and I did the same. God, this was exhausting. I felt Cora shift in the doorway, but again she didn’t say anything.
“Oh!” Jamie said, clapping his hands. “Almost forgot. The best part.” He walked over to the window in the center of the wall, reaching down beneath the blind. It wasn’t until he was stepping back and it was opening that I realized it was, in fact, a door. Within moments, I smelled cold air. “Come check this out.”
I fought the urge to look back at Cora again as I took a step, then one more, feeling my feet sink into the carpet, following him over the threshold onto a small balcony. He was standing by the railing, and I joined him, both of us looking down at the backyard. When I’d first seen it from the kitchen, I’d noticed just the basics: grass, a shed, the big patio with a grill at one end. Now, though, I could see there were rocks laid out in the grass in an oval shape, obviously deliberately, and again, I thought of Stonehenge. What was it with these rich people, a druid fixation?
“It’s gonna be a pond,” Jamie told me as if I’d said this out loud.
“A pond?” I said.
“Total ecosystem,” he said. “Thirty-by-twenty and lined, all natural, with a waterfall. And fish. Cool, huh?”
Again, I felt him look at me, expectant. “Yeah,” I said, because I was a guest here. “Sounds great.”
He laughed. “Hear that, Cor? She doesn’t think I’m crazy.”
I looked down at the circle again, then back at my sister. She’d come into the room, although not that far, and still had her arms crossed over her chest as she stood there, watching us. For a moment, our eyes met, and I wondered how on earth I’d ended up here, the last place I knew either one of us wanted me to be. Then she opened her mouth to speak for the first time since we’d pulled up in the driveway and all this, whatever it was, began.
“It’s cold,” she said. “You should come inside.”
* * *
Before one o’clock that afternoon, when she showed up to claim me, I hadn’t seen my sister in ten years. I didn’t know where she lived, what she was doing, or even who she was. I didn’t care, either. There had been a time when Cora was part of my life, but that time was over, simple as that. Or so I’d thought, until the Honeycutts showed up one random Tuesday and everything changed.
The Honeycutts owned the little yellow farmhouse where my mom and I had been living for about a year. Be-fore that, we’d had an apartment at the Lakeview Chalets, the run-down complex just behind the mall. There, we’d shared a one-bedroom, our only window looking out over the back entrance to the J&K Cafeteria, where there was always at least one employee in a hairnet sitting outside smoking, perched on an overturned milk crate. Running alongside the complex was a stream that you didn’t even notice until there was a big rain and it rose, overflowing its nonexistent banks and flooding everything, which happened at least two or three times a year. Since we were on the top floor, we were spared the water itself, but the smell of the mildew from the lower apartments permeated every-thing, and God only knew what kind of mold was in the walls. Suffice to say I had a cold for two years straight. That was the first thing I noticed about the yellow house: I could breathe there.
It was different in other ways, too. Like the fact that it was a house, and not an apartment in a complex or over someone’s garage. I’d grown used to the sound of neighbors on the other side of a wall, but the yellow house sat in the center of a big field, framed by two oak trees. There was another house off to the left, but it was visible only by flashes of roof you glimpsed through the trees—for all intents and purposes, we were alone. Which was just the way we liked it.
My mom wasn’t much of a people person. In certain situations—say, if you were buying, for instance—she could be very friendly. And if you put her within five hundred feet of a man who would treat her like shit, she’d find him and be making nice before you could stop her, and I knew, because I had tried. But interacting with the majority of the population (cashiers, school administrators, bosses, ex-boyfriends) was not something she engaged in unless absolutely necessary, and then, with great reluctance.
Which was why it was lucky that she had me. For as long as I could remember, I’d been the buffer system. The go-between, my mother’s ambassador to the world. When-ever we pulled up at the store and she needed a Diet Coke but was too hungover to go in herself, or she spied a neighbor coming who wanted to complain about her late-night banging around again, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door, it was always the same. “Ruby,” she’d say, in her tired voice, pressing either her glass or her hand to her forehead. “Talk to the people, would you?”
And I would. I’d chat with the girl behind the counter as I waited for my change, nod as the neighbor again threatened to call the super, ignored the proffered literature as I firmly shut the door in the Jehovah’s faces. I was the first line of defense, always ready with an explanation or a bit of spin. “She’s at the bank right now,” I’d tell the landlord, even as she snored on the couch on the other side of the half-closed door. “She’s just outside, talking to a delivery,” I’d assure her boss so he’d release her bags for the day to me, while she smoked a much-needed cigarette in the freight area and tried to calm her shaking hands. And finally, the biggest lie of all: “Of course she’s still living here. She’s just working a lot,” which is what I’d told the sheriff that day when I’d been called out of fourth period and found him waiting for me. That time, though, all the spin in the world didn’t work. I talked to the people, just like she’d always asked, but they weren’t listening.
That first day, though, when my mom and I pulled up in front of the yellow house, things were okay. Sure, we’d left our apartment with the usual drama—owing back rent, the super lurking around watching us so carefully that we had to pack the car over a series of days, adding a few things each time we went to the store or to work. I’d gotten used to this, though, the same way I’d adjusted to us rarely if ever having a phone, and if we did, having it listed under another name. Ditto with my school paperwork, which my mom often filled out with a fake address, as she was convinced that creditors and old landlords would track us down that way. For a long time, I thought this was the way everyone lived. When I got old enough to realize otherwise, it was already a habit, and anything else would have felt strange.
Inside, the yellow house was sort of odd. The kitchen was the biggest room, and everything was lined up against one wall: cabinets, appliances, shelves. Against another wall was a huge propane heater, which in cold weather worked hard to heat the whole house, whooshing to life with a heavy sigh. The only bathroom was off the kitchen, poking out with no insulated walls—my mom said it must have been added on; there’d probably been an outhouse, initially—which made for some cold mornings until you got the hot water blasting and the steam heated things up. The living room was small, the walls covered with dark fake-wood paneling. Even at high noon, you needed a light on to see your hand in front of your face. My mother, of course, loved the dimness and usually pulled the shades shut, as well. I’d come home to find her on the couch, cigarette dangling from one hand, the glow from the TV flash-ing across her face in bursts. Outside, the sun might be shining, the entire world bright, but in our house, it could always be late night, my mother’s favorite time of day.
In the old one-bedroom apartment, I was accustomed to sometimes being awoken from a dead sleep, her lips close to my ear as she asked me to move out onto the couch, please, honey. As I went, groggy and discombobulated, I’d do my best not to notice whoever slipped back in the door behind her. At the yellow house, though, I got my own room. It was small, with a tiny closet and only one window, as well as orange carpet and those same dark walls, but I had a door to shut, and it was all mine. It made me feel like we’d stay longer than a couple of months, that things would be better here. In the end, though, only one of these things turned out to be true.
I first met the Honeycutts three days after we moved in. It was early afternoon, and we were getting ready to leave for work when a green pickup truck came up the driveway. A man was driving, a woman in the passenger seat beside him.
“Mom,” I called out to my mother, who was in the bedroom getting dressed. “Someone’s here.”
She sighed, sounding annoyed. My mother was at her worst just before going to work, petulant like a child. “Who is it?”
“I don’t know,” I said, watching as the couple—he in jeans and a denim work shirt, she wearing slacks and a printed top—started to make their way to the house. “But they’re about to knock on the door.”
“Oh, Ruby.” She sighed again. “Just talk to them, would you?”
The first thing I noticed about the Honeycutts was that they were instantly friendly, the kind of people my mother couldn’t stand. They were both beaming when I opened the door, and when they saw me, they smiled even wider.
“Well, look at you!” the woman said as if I’d done something precious just by existing. She herself resembled a gnome, with her small features and halo of white curls, like something made to put on a shelf. “Hello there!”
I nodded, my standard response to all door knockers. Unnecessary verbals only encouraged them, or so I’d learned. “Can I help you?”
The man blinked. “Ronnie Honeycutt,” he said, extending his hand. “This is my wife, Alice. And you are?”
I glanced in the direction of my mother’s room. Although usually she banged around a lot while getting ready—drawers slamming, grumbling to herself—now, of course, she was dead silent. Looking back at the couple, I decided they probably weren’t Jehovah’s but were definitely peddling something. “Sorry,” I said, beginning my patented firm shut of the door, “but we’re not—”
“Oh, honey, it’s okay!” Alice said. She looked at her husband. “Stranger danger,” she explained. “They teach it in school.”
“Stranger what?” Ronnie said.
“We’re your landlords,” she told me. “We just dropped by to say hello and make sure you got moved in all right.”
Landlords, I thought. That was even worse than Witnesses. Instinctively, I eased the door shut a bit more, wedging my foot against it. “We’re fine,” I told them.
“Is your mom around?” Ronnie asked as Alice shifted her weight, trying to see into the kitchen behind me.
I adjusted myself accordingly, blocking her view, before saying, “Actually, she’s—”
“Right here,” I heard my mother say, and then she was crossing the living room toward us, pulling her hair back with one hand. She had on jeans, her boots, and a white tank top, and despite the fact that she’d just woken up about twenty minutes earlier, I had to admit she looked pretty good. Once my mother had been a great beauty, and occasionally you could still get a glimpse of the girl she had been—if the light was right, or she’d had a decent night’s sleep, or, like me, you were just wistful enough to look for it.
She smiled at me, then eased a hand over my shoulder as she came to the door and offered them her other one. “Ruby Cooper,” she said. “And this is my daughter. Her name’s Ruby, as well.”
“Well, isn’t that something!” Alice Honeycutt said. “And she looks just like you.”
“That’s what they say,” my mom replied, and I felt her hand move down the back of my head, smoothing my red hair, which we did have in common, although hers was now streaked with an early gray. We also shared our pale skin—the redhead curse or gift, depending on how you looked at it—as well as our tall, wiry frames. I’d been told more than once that from a distance, we could almost be identical, and although I knew this was meant as a compliment, I didn’t always take it that way.
I knew that my mother’s sudden reaching out for me was just an act, making nice for the landlords, in order to buy some bargaining time or leverage later. Still, though, I noticed how easy it was for me to fold into her hip, resting my head against her. Like some part of me I couldn’t even control had been waiting for this chance all along and hadn’t even known it.
“It’s our standard practice to just drop by and check in on folks,” Ronnie was saying now, as my mother idly twisted a piece of my hair through her fingers. “I know the rental agency handles the paperwork, but we like to say hello face-to-face.”
“Well, that’s awfully nice of you,” my mom said. She dropped my hair, letting her hand fall onto the doorknob so casually you almost would think she wasn’t aware of it, or the inch or so she shut it just after, narrowing even farther the space between us and them. “But as Ruby was saying, I’m actually going to work right now. So . . .”
“Oh, of course!” Alice said. “Well, you all just let us know if there’s anything you need. Ronnie, give Ruby our number.”
We all watched as he pulled a scrap of paper and a pen out of his shirt pocket, writing down the digits slowly. “Here you go,” he said, handing it over. “Don’t hesitate to call.”
“Oh, I won’t,” my mom said. “Thanks so much.”
After a few more pleasantries, the Honeycutts finally left the porch, Ronnie’s arm locked around his wife’s shoulders. He deposited her in the truck first, shutting the door securely behind her, before going around to get be-hind the wheel. Then he backed out of the driveway with the utmost caution, doing what I counted to be at least an eight-point turn to avoid driving on the grass.
By then, though, my mother had long left the door and returned to her room, discarding their number in an ashtray along the way. “‘Hello face-to-face’ my ass,” she said as a drawer banged. “Checking up is more like it. Busybodies.”
She was right, of course. The Honeycutts were always dropping by unexpectedly with some small, seemingly un-necessary domestic project: replacing the garden hose we never used, cutting back the crepe myrtles in the fall, or installing a birdbath in the front yard. They were over so much, I grew to recognize the distinct rattle of their truck muffler as it came up the driveway. As for my mom, her niceties had clearly ended with that first day. Thereafter, if they came to the door, she ignored their knocks, not even flinching when Alice’s face appeared in the tiny crack the living-room window shade didn’t cover, white and ghostly with the bright light behind it, peering in.
It was because the Honeycutts saw my mother so rarely that it took almost two months for them to realize she was gone. In fact, if the dryer hadn’t busted, I believed they might have never found out, and I could have stayed in the yellow house all the way until the end. Sure, I was behind on the rent and the power was close to getting cut off. But I would have handled all that one way or another, just like I had everything else. The fact was, I was doing just fine on my own, or at least as well as I’d ever done with my mom. Which wasn’t saying much, I know. Still, in a weird way, I was proud of myself. Like I’d finally proven that I didn’t need her, either.
As it was, though, the dryer did die, with a pop and a burning smell, late one October night while I was making macaroni and cheese in the microwave. I had no option but to stretch a clothesline across the kitchen in front of the space heater I’d been using since the propane ran out, hang everything up—jeans, shirts, and socks—and hope for the best. The next morning, my stuff was barely dry, so I pulled on the least damp of it and left the rest, figuring I’d deal with it that evening when I got home from work. But then Ronnie and Alice showed up to replace some supposedly broken front-porch slats. When they saw the clothesline, they came inside, and then they found every-thing else.
It wasn’t until the day they took me to Poplar House that I actually saw the report that the person from social services had filed that day. When Shayna, the director, read it out loud, it was clear to me that whoever had written it had embellished, for some reason needing to make it sound worse than it actually was.
Minor child is apparently living without running water or heat in rental home abandoned by parent. Kitchen area was found to be filthy and overrun with vermin. Heat is non-functioning. Evidence of drug and alcohol use was discovered. Minor child appears to have been living alone for some time.
First of all, I had running water. Just not in the kitchen, where the pipes had busted. This was why the dishes tended to pile up, as it was hard to truck in water from the bathroom just to wash a few plates. As for the “vermin,” we’d always had roaches; they’d just grown a bit more in number with the lack of sink water, although I’d been spraying them on a regular basis. And I did have a heater; it just wasn’t on. The drug and alcohol stuff—which I took to mean the bottles on the coffee table and the roach in one of the ashtrays—I couldn’t exactly deny, but it hardly seemed grounds for uprooting a person from their entire life with no notice.
The entire time Shayna was reading the report aloud, her voice flat and toneless, I still thought that I could talk my way out of this. That if I explained myself correctly, with the proper detail and emphasis, they’d just let me go home. After all, I had only seven months before I turned eighteen, when all of this would be a moot point anyway. But the minute I opened my mouth to start in about topic one, the water thing, she stopped me.
“Ruby,” she said, “where is your mother?”
It was only then that I began to realize what would later seem obvious. That it didn’t matter what I said, how care-fully I crafted my arguments, even if I used every tool of evasion and persuasion I’d mastered over the years. There was only one thing that really counted, now and always, and this was it.
“I don’t know,” I said. “She’s just gone.”
* * *
After the tour, the pond reveal, and a few more awkward moments, Jamie and Cora finally left me alone to go downstairs and start dinner. It was barely five thirty, but already it was getting dark outside, the last of the light sinking behind the trees. I imagined the phone ringing in the empty yellow house as Richard, my mother’s boss at Commercial Courier, realized we were not just late but blowing off our shift. Later, the phone would probably ring again, followed by a car rolling up the drive, pausing by the front window. They’d wait for a few moments for me to come out, maybe even send someone to bang on the door. When I didn’t, they’d turn around hastily, spitting out the Honeycutts’ neat grass and the mud beneath it from behind their back wheels.
And then what? The night would pass, without me there, the house settling into itself in the dark and quiet. I wondered if the Honeycutts had already been in to clean things up, or if my clothes were still stretched across the kitchen, ghostlike. Sitting there, in this strange place, it was like I could feel the house pulling me back to it, a visceral tug on my heart, the same way that, in the early days of the fall, I’d hoped it would do to my mom. But she hadn’t come back, either. And now, if she did, I wouldn’t be there.
Thinking this, I felt my stomach clench, a sudden panic settling over me, and stood up, walking to the balcony door and pushing it open, then stepping outside into the cold air. It was almost fully dark now, lights coming on in the nearby houses as people came home and settled in for the night in the places they called home. But standing there, with Cora’s huge house rising up behind me and that vast yard beneath, I felt so small, as if to someone looking up I’d be unrecognizable, already lost.
Back inside, I opened up the duffel that had been delivered to me at Poplar House; Jamie had brought it up from the car. It was a cheap bag, some promo my mom had gotten through work, the last thing I would have used to pack up my worldly possessions, not that this was what was in it anyway. Instead, it was mostly clothes I never wore—the good stuff had all been on the clothesline—as well as a few textbooks, a hairbrush, and two packs of cot-ton underwear I’d never seen in my life, courtesy of the state. I tried to imagine some person I’d never met before going through my room, picking these things for me. How ballsy it was to just assume you could know, with one glance, the things another person could not live without. As if it was the same for everyone, that simple.
There was only one thing I really needed, and I knew enough to keep it close at all times. I reached up, running my finger down the thin silver chain around my neck until my fingers hit the familiar shape there at its center. All day long I’d been pressing it against my chest as I traced the outline I knew by heart: the rounded top, the smooth edge on one side, the series of jagged bumps on the other. The night before, as I’d stood in the bathroom at Poplar House, it had been all that was familiar, the one thing I focused on as I faced the mirror. I could not look at the dark hollows under my eyes, or the strange surroundings and how strange I felt in them. Instead, like now, I’d just lifted it up gently, reassured to see that the outline of that key remained on my skin, the one that fit the door to everything I’d left behind.
* * *
By the time Jamie called up the stairs that dinner was ready, I’d decided to leave that night. It just made sense—there was no need to contaminate their pristine home any further, or the pretty bed in my room. Once everyone was asleep, I’d just grab my stuff, slip out the back door, and be on a main road within a few minutes. The first pay phone I found, I’d call one of my friends to come get me. I knew I couldn’t stay at the yellow house—it would be the obvious place anyone would come looking—but at least if I got there, I could pick through my stuff for the things I needed. I wasn’t stupid. I knew things had already changed, irrevocably and totally. But at least I could walk through the rooms and say good-bye, as well as try to leave some message behind, in case anyone came looking for me.
Then it was just a matter of laying low. After a few days of searching and paperwork, Cora and Jamie would write me off as unsaveable, getting their brownie points for trying and escaping relatively unscathed. That was what most people wanted anyway.
Now, I walked into the bathroom, my hairbrush in hand. I knew I looked rough, the result of two pretty much sleepless nights and then this long day, but the lighting in the bathroom, clearly designed to be flattering, made me look better than I knew I actually did, which was unsettling. Mirrors, if nothing else, were supposed to be honest. I turned off the lights and brushed my hair in the dark.
Just before I left my room, I glanced down at my watch, noting the time: 5:45. If Cora and Jamie were asleep by, say, midnight at the latest, that meant I only had to endure six hours and fifteen minutes more. Knowing this gave me a sense of calm, of control, as well as the fortitude I needed to go downstairs to dinner and whatever else was waiting for me.
Even with this wary attitude, however, I could never have been prepared for what I found at the bottom of the stairs. There, in the dark entryway, just before the arch that led into the kitchen, I stepped in something wet. And, judging by the splash against my ankle, cold.
“Whoa,” I said, drawing my foot back and looking around me. Whatever the liquid was had now spread, propelled by my shoe, and I froze, so as not to send it any farther. Barely a half hour in, and already I’d managed to violate Cora’s perfect palace. I was looking around me, wondering what I could possibly find to wipe it up with—the tapestry on the nearby wall? something in the umbrella stand?—when the light clicked on over my head.
“Hey,” Jamie said, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. “I thought I heard something. Come on in, we’re just about—” Suddenly, he stopped talking, having spotted the puddle and my proximity to it. “Oh, shit,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I told him.
“Quick,” he said, cutting me off and tossing me the dishtowel. “Get it up, would you? Before she—”
I caught the towel and was about to bend over when I realized it was too late. Cora was now standing in the archway behind him, peering around his shoulder. “Jamie,” she said, and he jumped, startled. “Is that—?”
“No,” he said flatly. “It’s not.”
My sister, clearly not convinced, stepped around him and walked over for a closer look. “It is,” she said, turning back to look at her husband, who had slunk back farther into the kitchen. “It’s pee.”
“Cor—”“It’s pee, again,” she said, whirling around to face him. “Isn’t this why we put in that dog door?”
Dog? I thought, although I supposed this was a relief, considering I’d been worried I was about to find out some-thing really disturbing about my brother-in-law. “You have a dog?” I asked. Cora sighed in response.
“Mastery of a dog door takes time,” Jamie told her, grabbing a roll of paper towels off a nearby counter and walking over to us. Cora stepped aside as he ripped off a few sheets, then squatted down, tossing them over the puddle and adjacent splashes. “You know that expression. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
Cora shook her head, then walked back into the kitchen without further comment. Jamie, still down on the floor, ripped off a few more paper towels and then dabbed at my shoe, glancing up at me. “Sorry about that,” he said. “It’s an issue.”
I nodded, not sure what to say to this. So I just folded the dishtowel and followed him into the kitchen, where he tossed the paper towels into a stainless-steel trash can. Cora was by the windows that looked out over the deck, setting the wide, white table there. I watched as she folded cloth napkins, setting one by each of three plates, before laying out silverware: fork, knife, spoon. There were also placemats, water glasses, and a big glass pitcher with sliced lemons floating in it. Like the rest of the house, it looked like something out of a magazine, too perfect to even be real.
Just as I thought this, I heard a loud, rattling sound. It was like a noise your grandfather would make, once he passed out in his recliner after dinner, but it was coming from behind me, in the laundry room. When I turned around, I saw the dog.
Actually first, I saw everything else: the large bed, covered in what looked like sheepskin, the pile of toys—plastic rings, fake newspapers, rope bones—and, most noticeable of all, a stuffed orange chicken, sitting upright. Only once I’d processed all these accoutrements did I actually make out the dog itself, which was small, black and white, and lying on its back, eyes closed and feet in the air, snoring. Loudly.
“That’s Roscoe,” Jamie said to me as he pulled open the fridge. “Normally, he’d be up and greeting you. But our dog walker came for the first time today, and I think it wore him out. In fact, that’s probably why he had that accident in the foyer. He’s exhausted.”
“What would be out of the ordinary,” Cora said, “is if he actually went outside.”
From the laundry room, I heard Roscoe let out another loud snore. It sounded like his nasal passages were exploding.
“Let’s just eat,” Cora said. Then she pulled out a chair and sat down.
I waited for Jamie to take his place at the head of the table before claiming the other chair. It wasn’t until I was seated and got a whiff of the pot of spaghetti sauce to my left that I realized I was starving. Jamie picked up Cora’s plate, putting it over his own, then served her some spaghetti, sauce, and salad before passing it back to her. Then he gestured for mine, and did the same before filling his own plate. It was all so formal, and normal, that I felt strangely nervous, so much so that I found myself watching my sister, picking up my fork only when she did. Which was so weird, considering how long it had been since I’d taken any cues from Cora. Still, there had been a time when she had taught me everything, so maybe, like so much else, this was just instinct.
“So tomorrow,” Jamie said, his voice loud and cheerful, “we’re going to get you registered for school. Cora’s got a meeting, so I’ll be taking you over to my old stomping ground.”
I glanced up. “I’m not going to Jackson?”
“Out of district,” Cora replied, spearing a cucumber with her fork. “And even if we got an exception, the commute is too long.”
“But it’s mid-semester,” I said. I had a flash of my locker, the bio project I’d just dropped off the week before, all of it, like my stuff in the yellow house, just abandoned. I swallowed, taking a breath. “I can’t just leave everything.”
“It’s okay,” Jamie said. “We’ll get it all settled tomorrow.”
“I don’t mind a long bus ride,” I said, ashamed at how tight my voice sounded, betraying the lump that had risen in my throat. So ridiculous that after everything that had happened, I was crying about school. “I can get up early, I’m used to it.”
“Ruby.” Cora leveled her eyes at me. “This is for the best. Perkins Day is an excellent school.”
“Perkins Day?” I said. “Are you serious?”
“What’s wrong with the Day?” Jamie asked.
“Everything,” I told him. He looked surprised, then hurt. Great. Now I was alienating the one person who I actually had on my side in this house. “It’s not a bad school,” I told him. “It’s just . . . I won’t fit in with anyone there.”
This was a massive understatement. For the last two years, I’d gone to Jackson High, the biggest high school in the county. Overcrowded, underfunded, and with half your classes in trailers, just surviving a year there was considered a badge of honor, especially if you were like me and did not exactly run with the most academic of crowds. After I’d moved around so much with my mom, Jackson was the first place I’d spent consecutive years in a long time, so even if it was a total shithole, it was still familiar. Unlike Per-kins Day, the elite private school known for its lacrosse team, stellar SAT scores, and the fact that the student parking lot featured more luxury automobiles than a European car dealership. The only contact we ever had with Perkins Day kids was when they felt like slumming at parties. Even then, often their girls stayed in the car, engine running and radio on, cigarettes dangling out the window, too good to even come inside.
Just as I thought this, Jamie suddenly pushed his chair back, jumping to his feet. “Roscoe!” he said. “Hold on! The dog door!”
But it was too late. Roscoe, having at some point roused himself from his bed, was already lifting his leg against the dishwasher. I tried to get a better look at him but only caught a fleeting glimpse before Jamie bolted across the floor, grabbing him in midstream, and then carried him, still dripping, and chucked him out the small flap at the bottom of the French doors facing us. Then he looked at Cora and, seeing her stony expression, stepped outside himself, the door falling shut with a click behind him.
Cora put a hand to her head, closing her eyes, and I wondered if I should say something. Before I could, though, she pushed back her chair and walked over to pick up the roll of paper towels, then disappeared behind the kitchen island, where I could hear her cleaning up what Roscoe had left behind.
I knew I should probably offer to help. But sitting alone at the table, I was still bent out of shape about the idea of me at Perkins Day. Like all it would take was dropping me in a fancy house and a fancy school and somehow I’d just be fixed, the same way Cora had clearly fixed herself when she’d left me and my mom behind all those years ago. But we were not the same, not then and especially not now.
I felt my stomach clench, and I reached up, pressing my fingers over the key around my neck. As I did so, I caught a glimpse of my watch, the overhead light glinting off the face, and felt myself relax. Five hours, fifteen minutes, I thought. Then I picked up my fork and finished my dinner.
* * *
Six hours and fifty long minutes later, I was beginning to worry that my brother-in-law—the Nicest Guy in the World and Lover of Incontinent Creatures—was also an insomniac. Figuring they were the early-to-bed types, I’d gone up to my room to “go to sleep” at nine thirty. Sure enough, I heard Cora come up about forty minutes later, padding past my bedroom to her own, which was at the opposite end of the floor. Her light cut off at eleven, at which point I started counting down, waiting for Jamie to join her. He didn’t. In fact, if anything, there were more lights on down-stairs now than there had been earlier, slanting across the backyard, even as the houses around us went dark, one by one.
Now I’d been sitting there for almost four hours. I didn’t want to turn a light on, since I was supposed to be long asleep, so I’d spent the time lying on the bed, my hands clasped on my stomach, staring at the ceiling and wondering what the hell Jamie was doing. Truth be told, it wasn’t that different from the nights a few weeks back, when the power had been cut off temporarily at the yellow house. At least there, though, I could smoke a bowl or drink a few beers to keep things interesting. Here, there was nothing but the dark, the heat cutting off and on at what—after timing them—I’d decided were random intervals, and coming up with possible explanations for the weird, shimmering light that was visible at the far end of the backyard. I was just narrowing it down to either aliens or some sort of celestial neo-suburban phenomenon when suddenly, the windows downstairs went dark. Finally, Jamie was coming to bed.
I sat up, brushing my hair back with my fingers, and listened. Unlike the yellow house, which was so small and thin-walled you could hear someone rolling over in a bed two rooms away, Cora’s palace was hard to monitor in terms of activity and movement. I walked over to my door, easing it open slightly. Distantly, I heard footsteps and a door opening and shutting. Perfect. He was in.
Reaching down, I grabbed my bag, then slowly drew the door open, stepping out into the hallway and sticking close to the wall until I got to the stairs. Downstairs in the foyer I got my first lucky break in days: the alarm wasn’t set. Thank God.
I reached for the knob, then eased the door open, sliding my hand with the bag through first. I was just about to step over the threshold when I heard the whistling.
It was cheery, and a tune I recognized—some jingle from a commercial. Detergent, maybe. I looked around me, wondering what kind of company I would have on a subdivision street at one thirty in the morning. Soon enough, I got my answer.
“Good boy, Roscoe! Good boy!”
I froze. It was Jamie. Now I could see him, coming up the other side of the street with Roscoe, who had just lifted his leg on a mailbox, walking in front of him on a leash. Shit, I thought, wondering whether he was far enough away not to see if I bolted in the opposite direction, dodging the streetlights. After a quick calculation, I decided to go around the house instead.
I could hear him whistling again as I vaulted off the front steps, then ran through the grass, dodging a sprinkler spigot and heading for the backyard. There, I headed for that light I’d been studying earlier, now hoping that it was aliens, or some kind of black hole, anything to get me away.
Instead, I found a fence. I tossed my bag over and was wondering what my chances were of following, not to mention what I’d find there, when I heard a thwacking noise from behind me. When I turned around, I saw Roscoe emerging from his dog door.
At first, he was just sniffing the patio, his nose low to the ground, going in circles. But then he suddenly stopped, his nose in the air. Uh-oh, I thought. I was already reaching up, grabbing the top of the fence and scrambling to try and pull myself over, when he started yapping and shot like a bullet right toward me.
Say what you will about little dogs, but they can move. In mere seconds, he’d covered the huge yard between us and was at my feet, barking up at me as I dangled from the fence, my triceps and biceps already burning. “Shhh,” I hissed at him, but of course this only made him bark more. Behind us, in the house, a light came on, and I could see Jamie in the kitchen window, looking out.
I tried to pull myself up farther, working to get more leverage. I managed to get one elbow over, hoisting myself up enough to see that the source of the light I’d been watching was not otherworldly at all, but a swimming pool. It was big and lit up and, I noticed, occupied, a figure cut-ting through the water doing laps.
Meanwhile, Roscoe was still yapping, and my bag was already in this strange person’s yard, meaning I had little choice but to join it or risk being busted by Jamie. Strain-ing, I pulled myself up so I was hanging over the fence, and tried to throw a leg to the other side. No luck.
“Roscoe?” I heard Jamie call out from the patio. “Whatcha got there, boy?”
I turned my head, looking back at him, wondering if he could see me. I figured I had about five seconds, if Roscoe didn’t shut up, before he headed out to see what his dog had treed. Or fenced. Another fifteen while he crossed the yard, then maybe a full minute before he’d put it all together.
I was so busy doing all these calculations that I hadn’t noticed that the person who’d been swimming laps had, at some point, stopped. Not only that, but he was now at the edge of the pool, looking up at me. It was hard to make out his features, but whoever it was was clearly male and sounded awfully friendly, considering the circumstances.
“Hi,” I muttered back.
“Roscoe?” Jamie called out again, and this time, with-out even turning around, I could hear he was moving, coming closer. Unless I had a burst of superhuman strength or a black hole opened up and swallowed me whole, I needed a Plan B, and fast.
“Do you—?” the guy in the pool said, raising his voice to be heard over Roscoe, who was still barking.
“No,” I told him as I relaxed my grip. His face disappeared as I slid down my side of the fence, landing on my feet with mere seconds to spare before Jamie ducked under the small row of trees at the edge of the yard and saw me.
“Ruby?” he said. “What are you doing out here?”
He looked so concerned that for a moment, I actually felt a pang of guilt. Like I’d let him down or something. Which was just ridiculous; we didn’t even know each other. “Nothing,” I said.
“Is everything okay?” He looked up at the fence, then back at me, as Roscoe, who’d finally shut up, sniffed around his feet, making snorting noises.
“Yeah,” I said. I was making it a point to speak slowly. Calmly. Tone was everything. “I was just . . .”
Truth was, at that moment, I didn’t know what I was planning to say. I was just hoping for some plausible excuse to pop out of my mouth, which, considering my luck so far, was admittedly kind of a long shot. Still, I was going to go for it. But before I could even open my mouth, there was a thunk from the other side of the fence, and a face appeared above us. It was the guy from the pool, who, in this better light, I could now see was about my age. His hair was blond and wet, and there was a towel around his neck.
“Jamie,” he said. “Hey. What’s up?”
Jamie looked up at him. “Hey,” he replied. To me he said, “So . . . you met Nate?”
I shot a glance at the guy. Oh, well, I thought. It’s better than what I had planned. “Yeah.” I nodded. “I was just—”
“She came to tell me my music was too loud,” the guy—Nate?—told Jamie. Unlike me, he didn’t seem to be straining in the least, holding himself over the top of the fence. I wondered if he was standing on something. To me he added, “Sorry about that. I crank it up so I can hear it under the water.”
“Right,” I said. “I just . . . I couldn’t sleep.”
At my feet, Roscoe suddenly coughed, hacking up something. We all looked at him, and then Jamie said slowly, “Well . . . it’s late. We’ve got an early day tomorrow, so . . .”
“Yeah. I should get to bed, too,” Nate said, reaching down to pull up one edge of his towel and wiping it across his face. He had to be on a deck chair or something, I thought. No one has that kind of upper-body strength. “Nice meeting you, Ruby.”
“You, too,” I replied.
He waved at Jamie, then dropped out of sight. Jamie looked at me for a moment, as if still trying to decipher what had happened. I tried not to flinch as he continued to study my face, only relaxing once he’d slid his hands in his pockets and started across the lawn, Roscoe tagging along at his heels.
I’d just reached the line of trees, following him, when I heard a “Pssst!” from behind me. When I turned around, Nate had pushed open part of the fence and was passing my bag through. “Might need this,” he said.
Like I was supposed to be grateful. Unbelievable, I thought as I walked over, picking up the bag.
“So what’s it to?”
I glanced up at him. He had his hand on the gate and had pulled on a dark-colored T-shirt, and his hair was starting to dry now, sticking up slightly. In the flickering light from the nearby pool I could finally make out his face enough to see that he was kind of cute, but in a rich-boy way, all jocky and smooth edges, not my type at all. “What?” I said.
“The key.” He pointed to my neck. “What’s it to?”
Jamie was going into the house now, leaving the door open for me behind him. I reached up, twining my fingers around the chain hanging there. “Nothing,” I told him.
I shifted my bag behind me, keeping it in my shadow as I headed across the lawn to the back door. So close, I thought. A shorter fence, a fatter dog, and everything would be different. But wasn’t that always the way. It’s never something huge that changes everything, but in-stead the tiniest of details, irrevocably tweaking the balance of the universe while you’re busy focusing on the big picture.
When I got to the house, there was no sign of Jamie or Roscoe. Still, I figured it wasn’t worth risking bringing my bag inside, and since the balcony was too high to toss it up, I decided to just stow it someplace and come back down for it in a couple of hours when the coast was clear. So I stuck it beside the grill, then slipped inside just as the shimmering lights from Nate’s pool cut off, leaving every-thing dark between his house and ours.
I didn’t see Jamie again as I climbed the stairs to my room. If I had, I wasn’t sure what I would have said to him. Maybe he had fallen for my flimsy excuse, aided and abet-ted by a pool boy who happened to be in the right place at what, for me anyway, turned out to be the wrong time. It was possible he was just that gullible. Unlike my sister, who knew from disappearing and could spot a lie, even a good one, a mile off. She also probably would have happily provided the boost I needed up and over that fence, or at least pointed the way to the gate, if only to be rid of me once and for all.
I waited a full hour to slip back downstairs. When I eased open my door, though, there was my bag, sitting right there at my feet. It seemed impossible I hadn’t heard Jamie leave it there, but he had. For some reason, seeing it made me feel the worst I had all day, ashamed in a way I couldn’t even explain as I reached down, pulling it inside with me.