I woke to the sound of clattering pans and a splitting headache. Late afternoon light filtered into my room from the partially closed blinds. Hadn’t I just been in school? Oh, heavens, not again.
Headaches and I were well acquainted, so I knew my way around pain relievers. I walked over to my bookshelf, took the bottle of medicine from the top, and popped two pills in my mouth, as prescribed. It’d kick in soon.
I sighed and rubbed my eyes, then decided to venture downstairs to see what Andrew was cooking. Judging from the smell, it was potatoes and pot roast with gravy. My mouth was already watering.
My room is on the smaller side, but I like it that way. We moved here when I was six or seven. Andrew had helped me decorate it to feel more like home. The walls were light green, my favorite color. We’d painted specific trees, plants, and flowers over it. I remember watching Andrew write the common and scientific name next to each one with a black marker. By now, I don’t need the words, but I like having them.
My bed was in the corner; stuffed animals, blankets, and pillows strewn across it. They all contain so many memories, and I can’t throw something that valuable away. Under the single window in the room, I have my desk and a flickering lamp on top of it. There’s my small built-in closet, and my bookcase, which takes up most of a wall. It’s jammed with books. I can’t remember the last time I read some of them, but there’s no way I’m throwing them away when there’s a chance I might want to read one of them.
I walked down the stairs and into the kitchen. Our condo was small, but the perfect size for two people. Upstairs, there were two bedrooms, a full bathroom, a closet, and a workspace. Downstairs, there was a kitchen, living room, and a half bath. Since we don’t have company over very often, it’s perfect.
The kitchen isn’t that big either; there’s the part where you cook, and then there’s a counter top with three stools at it. We usually don’t have more than one person over, so it works pretty well.
I walked past Andrew to the cabinets and pulled out two plates, two cups, and some silverware. I’d been right; mashed potatoes, pot roast, gravy, and Caesar salad.
While I was setting the table, Andrew came over. I got a call from your school today, he signed. You missed all your classes after lunch. That’s the second time this week, Ali.
I shrugged and set down the glasses. There’s not much to it, I replied. I was bored, so I left. Pass the pitcher, please.
He handed it to me, his brown eyes warm. Your grades are dropping in those classes.
Yeah, well, I’m doing fine in the other classes, I signed angrily. I sighed and ran a hand through my thick, dark brown hair. It wasn’t Andrew’s fault I was missing classes. The headaches are back, I admitted. They’re worse than last time.
Andrew’s face instantly changed. Concern etched his features, and his brow furrowed with worry. You could’ve told me. I would’ve written you a note, so they didn’t count you absent.
I tapped my fingers against the counter, looking at a spot on the wall. Yes, I could’ve. I just hadn’t thought of it. I’m used to solving problems without anyone else’s help.
That’s cheating, you know, I said, cracking a smile. Using my connections to get out of school without being counted absent.
Andrew grinned. Are you saying you don’t want me to let you out of class?
No, I’m just saying it’s illegal, I signed. Like, this much. I held my thumb and index finger a millimetre apart.
Let me serve dinner, and we can call your mother, he said. She told me to call her whenever we were eating, so we’d all be having dinner at the same time.
“Mom’s calling?” I asked aloud as Andrew turned back to the potatoes. She married Andrew when I was five, and after that, my mother pursued her law degree. It turns out she’s pretty good at winning arguments, so now she travels around the country for her clients. Although we don’t get to see each other in person often, she’s always been supportive of whatever I want to do.
I sat down on one of the stools and dumped some salad onto my plate, thinking. When was the last time I’d talked to mom? It had to be over two months now. We’d emailed back and forth, but that wasn’t talking. Her emails were long and full of answers for the questions I asked, but nothing could replace the thrill of a real conversation.
Pass me the plates and grab the tablet, Andrew signed. One at a time, I handed him the slightly scratched white plates, then put them back down when he gave them back. They’d belonged to my dad—my biological dad, not my stepfather—and were one of the only things we still have of his.
I don’t know much about him, other than I get most of my looks from him. The only reason I know this is from a faded picture of my parents from when they were younger. Everything revolving around my dad has mysteriously disappeared over time. I would think it was Andrew, but I know he respects the fact that there was someone before him.
While my dad and I both have brown hair—his is darker than mine, almost black—my mom has sunflower blonde hair. My eyes are emerald green, he has ones the color of shamrocks, and my mom has eyes the color of the sky. We all have somewhat dark skin with my mom as the lightest and my dad having the darkest.
It always gets a little tense when someone asks about Andrew. I think he’s used to it at this point, but I’m not. Twelve years of people going if you’re family, then why don’t you look the same? I hate it, especially when it comes from strangers, from people who have no reason to know. Andrew always tells me it’s okay and that it doesn’t matter, but it does—to me, at least.
I walked over to the couch and grabbed the tablet, then propped it up between our plates. We’d just started eating when an invitation for a video call with Aria Tetra-Farrow popped up. I accepted.
“Hey, Ali.” My mom’s smiling face appeared on the screen, eyes alight with happiness. It was a few hours earlier wherever she was since the sky behind her was still bright blue. Even if it had been dark, the joy she radiated would be enough to light up the night.
“Mom.” I could barely breathe, choked with emotion. It took everything in me not to burst out crying. Stopping the tears is easy when you don’t have to look them in the face and hear their voice. It brought me back to when I was little, her telling me that everything was going to be okay.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
“Uh… I-it’s going great.” Don’t start crying, Ali. Don’t start crying. “Um, I… I can’t believe we’re talking right now! It seems like forever since…” My voice choked a little as I blinked back tears. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.
“I know, honey, and I promise I’ll be home soon.” My mom nodded, smiling reassuringly. “I have a day or two off coming up. I’m going to come home then, and we’re going to do everything someone can do.” She always said that before she came home. Even though we spent most of our time in the movie theater or at the little ice cream shop down the road, she never stopped saying that.
“I… Yeah, that—that sounds good.” I couldn’t hold it back any longer. Tears poured down my face, and I started sobbing. The empty pit inside me had opened, swallowing me. Longing filled me.
Andrew wrapped me in a hug, pulling me close. I buried my head in his shoulder, not bothering to worry that I was getting his shirt wet.
“Oh, Ali.” I could hear the sadness in my mom’s voice. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
“I… I just miss you so much, mom,” I whispered, a fresh wave of tears cascading down my face.
“Oh, honey. Me too. I’m going to be home soon.” She sniffled a little, her voice sounding a little choked. Please don’t start crying, mom. If she started crying, there was no way I was going to be able to stop the waterworks.
“Y-yeah.” I swallowed hard, sniffling. Pull yourself together, Ali. I turned away from Andrew and looked at the tablet again.
“How’s school going?” my mom asked, smiling a little. I could see that her eyes were wet, but she wasn’t crying. I knew she was trying to take my mind off how much I missed her.
“Good,” I managed. I cleared my throat and wiped the tears off my face. “Um, we’re studying the Divinist uprising in history now.”
My mom shook her head, disapproving. “I still can’t believe they’re making you guys do that.” We’d started the unit last month, and when I’d emailed her about it, she’d clearly stated her opinion.
“Yeah, a lot of kids came back the second day with excuses from their parents,” I told her. “They have to sit in the library and do worksheets on it.” In my opinion, it’s better to learn the material in a group instead of by yourself. Especially with something as horrible as this.
“I mean, I know you’ll be going to college next year, but this… It’s a sensitive topic.” My mom sighed heavily.
“We haven’t gotten that far into it,” I explained. “We’re supposed to have a discussion next Monday on the Divinists and their leaders.” Although I agreed that it was terrible, I found the subject fascinating.
“God, I remember hearing the reports about it on the news.” She shook her head. Andrew nodded in agreement. I hadn’t been that old when it happened; it had all gone down before my seventh birthday. “They weren’t allowed to show pictures or videos of the aftermath in some of those places. It was horrible.”
“The documentary we watched had some pictures in it,” I informed her. My stomach lurched at the thought of it.
My mom scowled. “I have half a mind to send an email to the school district about that.”
Uh-oh. I didn’t want lawyer-mom to attack the board of education. “So, uh, what about you? How’s work going?”
“The usual.” She shrugged. “Talking to the client, gathering information, doing research, going to court.”
“What’s your score?” It was a running thing between us. My mom kept a record of how many cases she’d won and lost while she was away. When she returned, she’d bring me a cupcake for each one she lost. Regardless, my mom always brought home at least one.
“Well, I’ve won nine and lost two at this point,” Mom said. Two cupcakes! “I have one more case, and then I’ll be back faster than you can say I’m going to be home next week.”
I smiled. “I can’t wait to have you back.”
“Me too, honey.” She returned my smile and turned to Andrew. Sorry for taking so long, she signed.
It’s okay, Andrew assured her. Watching your face light up while talking to Ali makes up for it.
When I get home, we’ll go somewhere nice for dinner, just the two of us, my mom promised. Whenever she comes back, she takes him out for dinner or, during the winter, to an ice skating rink. I get to stay at home and watch TV until eleven o’clock at night, so it’s cool with me.
Maybe we can catch a movie, he suggested. A friend of mine told me that there’s a new theater downtown with subtitles.
We’ll definitely have to check that out. Then we can actually make fun of them. My mom smiled.
Sounds like a plan, Andrew signed.
I watched as they talked. I wasn’t that interested in what they were saying; their faces spoke for them. I don’t remember much about before Andrew, but my mom always seemed sad. After they met, she started smiling more, laughing, and doing things she didn’t do as often. Seeing her face brighten when she talks to Andrew always makes me happy.
After having seconds, I put my plate, silverware, and glass in the dishwasher. Since there’s only two of us, we have to make sure that we do our share or dirty dishes pile up fast.
I could tell that my parents were going to be talking for a while. I kissed Andrew on the cheek and told them good night, then went upstairs. Despite being unconscious for several hours, I was still exhausted. I changed into pajamas and curled up in my bed, drifting to sleep in minutes.
. . .
I was standing at the entrance to Overseer Memorial Park. A breeze floundered through the air, ruffling my hair. It was a beautiful day, only fluffy white clouds in the eye-aching blue sky. Against my will, my feet started moving, propelling me forward.
As I walked through the park, it was oddly quiet. No people were there, which was unusual, and no birds chirped in the trees. The usual thrum of cars was absent. A chill ran through me—where is everyone?
I eventually realized that there was sound. The same high-pitched squeal repeated at irregular intervals. And it was getting louder, which meant I was getting closer. I tried to stop myself, but it was like my feet had a mind of their own.
The source of the noise came into view. There was a swing set, and someone was sitting on it. They weren’t moving, letting the wind do the job for them. After a moment, they turned towards me.
It was a little girl. Her wide eyes were striking, the palest blue I’d ever seen, almost gray. She had straight white hair that reached her shoulders, drifting in the light breeze. Everything about her seemed pale; her pale skin seemed translucent in places like she’d just fade away. That wasn’t the unsettling part about her, though. It was the wisdom in her eyes, a pain that a kid shouldn’t have.
I stopped moving, just watching her. “Who are you?” I whispered.
She tilted her head. “I’m your friend, Alicia. Don’t you remember me?” Her lower lip trembled as she waited for my response.
My heart caught in my throat. “I-I don’t. I’m sorry.”
Tears filled her eyes. “You promised!” she shouted, standing up. “You promised, Alicia! You promised!” The wind picked up, going from a breeze to a full-force gale in seconds.
I shielded my face as dirt and rocks went airborne. “What did I promise?” I demanded.
“You promised!” the girl shrieked. “You promised you wouldn’t forget me!”
And then, suddenly, I was falling.