I MANAGED TO SURVIVE THE REST OF THE DAY WITHOUT being hospitalized or committed, and, after school ended, Mom was waiting for me at the cul-de-sac exactly as Daniel said she would be. She excelled at those small “mom” moments, and didn’t disappoint today.
“Mara, honey! How was your first day?” Her voice bubbled with overenthusiasm. She pushed up her sunglasses over her hair and leaned in to give me a kiss. Then she stiffened. “What happened?”
“You have blood on your neck.”
Damn. I thought I’d washed it all off.
“I had a nosebleed.” The truth, but not the whole truth, so help me.
My mother was quiet. Her eyes were narrowed, and full of concern. Par for the course, and so irritating.
“You’ve never had a nosebleed in your life.”
I wanted to ask “How would you know?” but, unfortunately, she would know. Once upon a time I used to tell her everything. Those days were over.
I dug my heels in. “I had one today.”
“Out of nowhere? Randomly?” She gave me that piercing therapist stare, the one that says You’re full of it.
I wasn’t going to admit that I thought I saw my classroom fall apart the second I walked in it. Or that my dead friends reappeared today, courtesy of my PTSD. I’d been symptom-free since we’d moved. I went to my friends’ funerals. I packed up my room. I hung out with my brothers. I did everything I was supposed to do to avoid being Mom’s project. And what happened today wasn’t remotely worth what telling her would cost.
I looked her in the eye. “Randomly.” She still wasn’t buying it. “I’m telling you the truth,” I lied. “Can you leave me alone now?” But as soon as I spoke the words, I knew I’d regret them.
I was right. We drove the rest of the way home in silence, and the longer we went without speaking, the more obviously she stewed.
I tried to ignore her and focus on the route home, since I’d be driving myself to school in a few days thanks to Daniel’s long-overdue dentist appointment. It was only mildly comforting that Mr. Perfect had a penchant for cavities.
The houses we passed were all low-slung and blocky, with plastic dolphins and hideous Greek-style statues dotting their lawns. It was as if the city council convened and voted to manufacture Miami to be utterly devoid of charm. We passed generic strip mall after generic strip mall, all proclaiming Michaels! Kmart! Home Depot! with their collective might. I couldn’t for the life of me fathom why anyone would need more than one set of them within a fifty-mile radius.
We arrived at our new home after a gut-wrenching hour of traffic, which made my stomach roll with nausea for the second time that day. After pulling all the way into the driveway, my mother exited the car in a huff. I just sat there, motionless. My brothers weren’t home yet, my dad definitely wouldn’t be home yet, and I didn’t want to enter the lion’s den alone.
I stared at the dashboard, melodramatically stewing in the juices of my own bitterness, until a knock on the car door made me fly out of my skin.
I looked up and out at Daniel. The daylight had dwindled into evening, leaving the sky behind him a deep royal blue. Something inside me flipped. How long had I been sitting there?
Daniel peered at me through the open window. “Rough day?”
I tried to push my unease aside. “How’d you guess?”
Joseph slammed the door of Daniel’s Civic, then walked over with a huge smile on his face, his overstuffed backpack hooked between both arms. I got out of the car and clapped my little brother on the shoulder. “How was your first day?”
“Awesome! I made the soccer team and my teacher asked me to try out for the school play next week and there are some cool girls in my class but there’s also a really weird one who started talking to me but I was nice to her anyway.”
I grinned. Of course Joseph would sign up for every extracurricular activity. He was outgoing and talented. Both of my brothers were.
I compared the two of them, walking side-by-side toward the house with their matching gangly strides. Joseph looked more like our mother, and shared her stick-straight hair, unlike me and Daniel. But the two of them inherited her complexion, while I had my father’s Whitey McWhiterson skin. And there was no family stamp of similarity in our faces. It made me kind of sad.
Daniel opened the door to the house. When we moved here a month ago, I was surprised to discover that I actually liked it. Boxwood topiaries and flowers framed the gleaming front door, and the lot was huge. I remember my father saying that it was almost an acre.
But it wasn’t home.
The three of us entered together, a united front. I could hear my mother stalking in the kitchen but when she heard us come in, she appeared in the foyer.
“Boys!” she practically shouted. “How was your day?” She hugged them both, pointedly ignoring me while I hung back.
Joseph rehashed every detail with juvenile enthusiasm, and Daniel waited patiently for Mom to lob questions in his direction while he followed them to the kitchen. Seeing an opportunity for escape, I detoured down the long hallway that led to my bedroom, passing three sets of French doors on one side and several family photographs on the other. There were pictures of my brothers and me as infants and toddlers, and a few obligatory, awkward elementary school photos too. After that were pictures of other relatives and my grandparents. Today, one of them caught my eye.
An old black-and-white photograph of my grandmother on her wedding day stared back at me from its gilt frame. She was sitting placidly with her hennaed hands folded in her lap, her shining, jet-black hair parted severely in the middle. The flash in the photo made the bindi sparkle between her perfectly arched eyebrows, and she was swathed in extravagant fabric, the intricate patterns dancing on the edges of her sari. A strange sensation was there and gone before I could identify it.
Then Joseph came running down the hallway, two inches from knocking me over.
“Sorry!” he shouted, and raced around the corner. I tore my eyes from the picture and escaped into my new bedroom, closing the door behind me.
I plopped down onto my fluffy white comforter and pushed off my sneakers using my footboard. They fell to the carpet with a dull thud. I stared back at the dark, bare walls of my bedroom. My mother had wanted my room pink, like my old room; some psychological nonsense about anchoring me in the familiar. So stupid. A paint color wasn’t going to bring Rachel back. So I played the pity card and Mom let me choose an emo midnight blue instead. It made the room feel cool and my white furniture looked sophisticated in it. Small ceramic roses dripped from the arms of the chandelier my mother had installed, but against the dark walls, it didn’t overly feminize the room. It worked. And I had my own bathroom for the first time, which was a definite perk.
I hadn’t hung any sketches or pictures on the walls and didn’t plan to. The day before we left Rhode Island, I dismantled the quilt of photos and drawings I’d tacked up, saving a pencil sketch of Rachel’s profile for last. I stared at the solitary picture of her then, and marveled at how serious she looked. Especially compared to her giddy expression in school, the last time I remembered seeing her alive. I didn’t see what she looked like at the funeral.
It was closed-casket.