Fifteen

☼►two◄☼

Image


I hefted my bag further onto my shoulders, ducking my head at the inquisitive looks sent my way. Of course people would still be talking about Sophie’s disappearance. After all, it had only been a month since the seventeen-year-old vanished in the night without a trace. Officers had promised to keep up the searches, but the leads they had were rapidly turning unsuccessful, wild goose-chases that brought no results.

Sophie’s red, rusted Escort was found in the next city over two days after my parents reported her as missing, but there weren’t any clues to be found. It was disheartening, really, to listen to the cops hem and haw about the reality. I knew that the fact that the car was abandoned without any signs of struggle meant that my sister chose this path. Sophie was officially declared a runaway after that; her face was plastered on every news channel, all over the town, any- and everywhere that someone might have seen her.

Still no answers came.

My gaze scanned over the cafeteria, desperately searching for privacy to hide away from my classmates, and I hurried to the furthest corner. Whispers followed me, though nobody spoke to me. Of course they wouldn’t. Why would they say anything directly to me? I was just the sister of the runaway, which meant something was wrong in the family, and who was to say that there wasn’t something wrong with me?

“-think she was abducted,” Bailey was saying as I passed the Ag/FFA table, and Devin shook his head.

“Nah, there would have been some sort of ransom demand. Maybe she was murdered.”

My grip on the tray tightened, and I clenched my teeth until my jaw ached. All I wanted to do was drop the tray, turn, and punch all of them in the face for what they were saying. But fighting wouldn’t do anything but cause more stress for my parents. They were barely hanging on as it was, and having a call from the principal about their remaining daughter getting into a fight would only make things worse.

So I set my lunch at an empty space on the way to the corner, dropping to sit on the cold floor with my face pressed to my knees.

Mister Harper stepped into the cafeteria five minutes later, eyes scanning over the students at the tables. I knew who he was looking for - I’d intentionally skipped the meeting with the counsellor this morning. I had been going every week since Sophie ran away, and it was quickly turning out to be little more than a waste of my time. Talking about it wasn’t going to bring my sister back. Why even bother with the pretence?

Thankfully, the principal didn’t see me where I sat, and I couldn’t help but feel thankful that my classmates were useful at least one thing - obscuring me from vision. I almost wished for the days where I was invisible to everyone. Where no one bothered to give me a second look. I wasn’t popular, I wasn’t highly accomplished at the “smarter” topics, I was average. Blissfully, unashamedly average.

Until Sophie disappeared and I was left behind. Even a month later, I was still a novelty. A freak.

The months that slipped by provided refuge. I was an outcast, but people stopped talking about me. About Sophie. Topics turned to schoolwork and parties and extracurriculars. I was able to slip back into the background. I might not have had any friends left from Before, but I didn’t mind. It kept me under the radar and out of trouble.

The year finally ended, and summer began. Though memories lingered in the house, my parents steadfastly refused to move. My fourteenth birthday came and went, unacknowledged as something to celebrate. I could find no reason to have cake and ice cream and a house full of people I couldn’t care less about. Not when the one person I wanted to be there... wasn’t.

So I spent the day doing the same thing I always did: I read books, went for walks, listened to music. Most of all, I pretended I wasn’t still desperate for my sister to come back. Before I fell asleep that night, however, I made a wish on the brightest star that Sophie would be home by the next year.

It was easier to avoid reality, who I was and what my family had suffered, by the time the school year began. The influx of students from the surrounding four middle schools certainly helped. I didn’t try to make friends with anybody, and nobody tried to make friends with me. Everyone else was too worried about making it through the first year of high school. I was too preoccupied with getting away from the past.

Mister Patterson stood in the centre of the corridor, dark eyes scanning over the heads of the students that filed past. I stifled a sigh and shoved past him, but luck wasn’t on my side. His heavy hand landed on my shoulder, pulled her to a stop. I reluctantly turned to face him. The slight smile on his face wasn’t as reassuring as he might have anticipated.

“Mister Brooks would like to see you in his office.”

“Now?”

At Mister Harper’s nod, I adjusted my bag on my shoulder and pivoted on my heel. The guidance counsellor glanced up when I knocked on the door, waving me in. I knew what this meeting would be about - the same as it had been since Sophie left.

To my complete surprise, Mister Brooks didn’t ask how I was doing. He only held out a brochure once she sat. “Your old counsellor got in contact with me, said she thought this might be beneficial for you.”

“What is it?”

“The foreign exchange program. We’ve got a few students coming in from abroad, and Miss Sorento thinks you should be one of the ones going over.”

“You agree with her?”

“I think you’ve had a really shitty thing happen to your family,” Mister Brooks said with a sigh, and I blinked in the face of his frankness. “And I think that in this small of a town, you’re definitely under scrutiny from your peers because of it. So yes, I feel this might be good for you to do. Get yourself some space, some clarity.”

“What do I need to do?” I asked quietly, already reading the brochure for the program.

The counsellor walked me through the steps of filling out the application, and I managed to forget, just for a minute, about Sophie’s selfishness and how my family had been trying to come to terms with it ever since. Mister Brooks promised that he would get a response sometime during the summer and that he and Miss Sorento would do everything in their power to get me that spot. I stopped at the door, stared out at the rest of the office staff.

“What happens if we can’t afford this?”

The counsellor sighed and tapped his fingers on his desk. “We’ll figure it out.”

June found Sophie’s room still empty, still closed off, even as I counted another year gone. Fifteen now, and I was tired. Bone-deep and stealing away the last bit of my hope, the tiredness was unrelenting. The worst part of it all was that I kept everything bottled up so as not to bother my parents. They were struggling enough. I couldn’t be selfish like my sister was.

Beads of sweat slipped down my forehead and spine, dripped into my eyes. I would be less miserable if the heat wasn’t so drenched with moisture, even with the sun beating down and nary a breeze to be felt. I blew out a breath and shifted to get more comfortable on the hard ground beside the shed.

I picked this spot simply for the shade it offered and the distance from the house. My mother was off work today, which meant that I stayed outside. I couldn’t handle any more of her crying, the haunted glaze in her eyes or the way she would stare up the stairs at Sophie’s closed door. It was too much.

The rumbling of an engine neared, and I leaned forward enough to see the white truck coming to a stop at the end of the driveway. The mailman deposited the post into the box, the metal door clinking against the frame, then the truck was gone down the road. I waited until I could no longer see the truck before pushing to my feet.

“Post is here,” I announced as I dropped the stack of envelopes onto the kitchen table in front of my mom.

She nodded slowly, despondently, and I bit back a sigh. This had become the new normal, but that didn’t make it any easier to deal with. I made her way to the refrigerator while my mother reached for the post. It wasn’t until I had poured a glass of juice and drank half of it that I realised that the room was far too silent.

I turned from the fridge and frowned. My mother was staring down at a letter, eyes wide and swimming with tears.

“Mom? What is it?”

Theresa cleared her throat and finally met my eye. “The, uh, the foreign exchange program… You were accepted.”

“Really?”

“It says you were selected as one of the district’s four students to be a participant and they’ll send more information once they have some.”

“I’m - I actually got in?”

“Seren. You got in.”

Though she smiled, I could tell it was forced. The edges of it were tinged too much with sadness, and it didn’t quite reach her eyes. But I knew better than to mention it. It would only serve to sever the tenuous joy that we both felt.

So I shoved herself to my feet, rounded the table, and hugged my mother as tightly as I could. I pretended I couldn’t feel the way her shoulders were shaking, just slightly. Grabbing up the letter, I kissed my mom’s cheek and headed up to my room.

The door at the top of the stairs was closed as it had been for a little under two years. It hadn’t been opened - none of us had the heart to open it - since the police examined the room. I wasn’t going to be the one to change it. Heart heavy in my ribs, I pressed my fingertips lightly to the cool wood as I passed.

It might have been the wrong choice, but I gave up long ago on expecting any new information about my sister. Wasn’t that what most true-crime shows said, anyway? The case would go cold after a certain amount of time, and the lack of leads meant that the officers had to put their efforts toward other cases that could be solved. I was only glad for the chance to leave, to get away from everything that Sophie had put us through.

I sprawled across my bed, stared at the ceiling. Being so far away from my parents would be hard, but the opportunity was just too good to pass up. It signified a reprieve from the small-town life that was full of gossip and noses in business where they didn’t belong.

It would be worth the pain, I thought, to be free.

The next few weeks flew by. My mother took me shopping for enough new clothes for at least three weeks, pyjamas and underwear and outfits for all weather. She wanted me to look my best for the host family, and most of my clothes had become rather shabby with use. My father hadn’t said a word about the upcoming departure, but I hardly expected him to - he didn’t speak much any more unless he was drunk.

“Which country did they say you’d be going to?” he questioned as my mom folded another sweatshirt, and I reached for the paper that had come a few days ago. “England. Why England?”

“Because it’s still a different culture. Sure, we speak the same language, but they have different customs and stuff.”

His face twisted up, but he stayed silent. After a few minutes, he walked away, his footsteps thumping against the stairs on his descent. I rolled my eyes when my mother sighed and packed another pair of pyjamas.

Their marriage had become strained since Sophie left. Too often I had dealt with neither of them making an effort to talk to each other. More nights than not, I had found my father sleeping in the guest bedroom, though nobody spoke of it. I found the entire situation awkward, uncomfortable. I just couldn’t understand why they would stay together if they were so miserable.

My mother stopped in the doorway once the suitcases were packed up and set against the wall, awaiting the day I left. Her eyes glimmered with unshed tears, but she didn’t let them fall.

“I hope you have fun, Sare. I really do. I hope you have fun and learn a lot and make lasting friendships, but… Most importantly, I hope you come back.”

“I will, Mom,” I promised on a whisper, but it had to be enough.