Fifteen

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The plane smoothed out as it slowed, and I reluctantly released the tight grip on the armrests. The flight itself was fine; it was just the taking off and landing that I detested. The tiny old woman sat next to me patted my hand gingerly, giving me as comforting a smile as possible.

It did little to assuage my fears of the aeroplane suddenly exploding into a fiery blast. Thankfully, the aircraft came to a stop, still in one piece, and I swallowed thickly as everyone around me stood. I managed to grab my carry-on from the overhead compartment and followed the throng of people out of the terminal. The old woman smiled at me before disappearing into the crowd.

I remembered suddenly that I didn’t know much about the family that would be hosting me for the year - I hadn’t read the file or looked at the pictures, so I could only hope they weren’t awful humans. Nervous fluttering started up in my belly the further I walked from the gate, but I kept pushing on.

Tugging my bag more securely onto my shoulder, I stared around at the clusters of people inside the airport. Dozens of groups held up signs bearing names of who they were waiting for, cheering and crying whenever they found their loved one.

It wasn’t long before a bright yellow-poster board caught my attention, the name Sara written in enormous, sparkly-painted letters with my school photo pasted just below. I grimaced at the four letters and pushed my way through the people.

The woman caught sight of me first, her face splitting into a wide smile as she nudged the man next to her. When I got close enough, the woman hesitated then opened her arms. I shifted awkwardly but allowed myself to be wrapped up in a tight hug, one that was somehow simultaneously uncomfortable and reassuring. I forced a smile when the woman stepped back.

“Hi, I’m Anne. It’s so great to finally meet you.”

I cleared my throat quietly, but no words would come. So I gave Anne the most real smile I could dredge up before focusing on the man who asked how the flight was. I was only able to shrug in response - it was long, bumpy, and tiring. What more could be said?

Anne draped her arm over my shoulders, steering me toward the baggage claim, and her family followed closely behind. She introduced the others on the way, but I hardly heard her; my mind was racing far too much to comprehend the names being recited.

Robin waited patiently as I looked over the bags on the conveyor, searching for the blue-striped luggage. Once I pointed to the two that were mine, he grabbed them up quickly and carried them while Anne lead the group to the exit. I hunched in on myself as we walked, and Anne rested a hand gently on my back, thumb stroking gently along my shoulder-blade.

The drive back to their house was unsettling. The parents stayed mostly quiet, occasionally piping up with some comment about the buildings they passed, and the few questions the daughter asked were pleasant, not intrusive at all. I was still uncomfortable with the attention.

The lack of any speaking from the boy was far more discomfiting, however. His green eyes darted from the world outside the window to me every so often, and his brows twitched slightly, as if he were preventing himself from expressing his curiosity. I forced herself to sit still even under his scrutiny. The last thing I wanted to do was draw his focus to where I sat between brother and sister.

Anne’s hand was soft yet firm against my lower back, and I went where I was guided, down a short hall and through a doorway. I heard a quiet click before the room was bathed in a soft glow. I blinked in the sudden illumination - though the lamplight wasn’t overly-bright, it was an abrupt change from dark to light. Anne gave me a comforting smile before stepping out of the way.

Robin set the suitcases on the floor against the wall, dipped his chin succinctly, and walked away as quickly as he came. Anne stared after him with an expression on her face, one that I hadn’t seen on my parents’ faces in a long time. I looked away, stomach twisting with something uncomfortable that I couldn’t quite name.

“We’ll let you get settled in, love. If you need anything at all, I’ll be right out in the front room.”

I nodded slowly, letting Anne embrace me again. Once she was gone, I pushed the door shut and breathed out slowly. The room was spotless when I turned around again to examine the space I would inhabit while in the program.

Tiny flowers dotted the bedspread, pinpricks of pink in a sea of white; the ruffled hem brushed along the carpeting, and pillows in matching cases lined the headboard. The bookcase was stuffed with novels of all sizes and colours, but I ignored them. I wasn’t in the mood to investigate what kind of stories interested Gemma.

Steeling my spine against the crushing loneliness, I lugged her suitcases onto the bed and unzipped them. The clothing inside mocked me, reminded me again this was the only way I could ever get away from my sister’s disappearance. I shuddered and pushed away the thoughts, focusing on unpacking.

There was only so much to fold and place in the drawers, though, so I was sat on the end of the bed within minutes. I stared down at the floor and tried to breathe steadily, struggled to ignore the aching in my chest.

I thought I wanted this, to be far from my hometown and free from my past. So why was it so hard to deal with now that I had taken that chance? A small voice in my head whispered that I was doing exactly what Sophie had done. Like my sister, I left my parents behind and took off for a different world.

My breath came out in a shaky gust as I wiggled my toes, desperate to get feeling in them again. Belatedly, I realised I was still wearing my shoes. I leaned down to unlace them and pull them off, tucking them under the edge of the bed frame, and sniffled when a tear slipped down my cheek.

A knock on the door dragged my attention away from my patterned socks, and my head snapped up to see the boy stood in the doorway. Harry gave me a slight smile, shrugged jerkily.

“It’s time for dinner.”

I hesitated. I wasn’t hungry, and I couldn’t see how being around other people would possibly be pleasant. Not right now. My mother’s voice echoed in my mind, reminding me to be on my best behaviour and make a good impressions. So I silently followed him down the hallway. My footsteps were barely quieter than the pounding of my heart.

Harry pulled out the chair between Anne and Gemma, waiting until I sat before making his way to his own seat. Anne smiled, patted my hand, and as if a choreographed dance, everyone moved to fill their plates and pass platters back and forth. Though everything looked and smelled delicious - if slightly unfamiliar - I couldn’t force myself to eat more than a couple of bites.

The flight had worn me out; twelve hours and sprinting through an airport to make the connection was hell on a person, especially one who was already struggling to maintain composure. The worst part was that I was homesick for a place in which I was utterly miserable. And there was nothing I could do to make it make sense to myself.

Robin asked about my life back home, and my mouth ran dry, tongue growing heavy in my mouth. I squirmed under their attention as the others listened to me talk about my parents. The small town. The nosey neighbours who meant well but pried too often. It took more effort than expected to consciously avoid speaking about Sophie.

Her existence had been an enormous part of my life for the last fifteen years, and her running away was no different. In fact, it was an even bigger piece of my history, considering how often I was accosted by everyone talking about it. But now, I was studiously refusing to say a single word about my sister. If I didn’t speak of her, I could pretend she hadn’t changed my entire world so quickly.

Mortification welled up as tears pricked at my eyes, and I ducked her head and tried to sniffle as quietly as I could. Unfortunately, Anna heard, anyway. The woman reached over to pat my hand gently. Her smile was comforting, and I appreciated the thought even though it didn’t help me feel any better. No less confused and mixed-up and broken into pieces.

“You can go to bed if you’d like, love. I know you’ve had a long day.”

“Are-are you sure? I should help clean up first.”

Anne waved off my protest, and with nothing else to do, I made my way back to the bedroom. Their voices filtered through the walls as I changed into a pair of pyjamas. It was awkward, I thought, to be taking over the bedroom of a stranger while she and her family were just on the other side of the door. It put my inner turmoil into stark contrast, the easy chatting and laughter so different than the mess inside of me.

Gemma was nice, though, and had rushed to assure me on the drive that she didn’t need her room any longer anyway. Evidently, she would be off to university next week, so I was free to make her room into my own. I knew I wouldn’t. This would never be mine. None of this.

At least the moon is still the same, my brain whispered as I stared through the gap in the curtains. The watery glow in the sky painted heavy shadows on the ground, and stars dotted the stretch of black, twinkling down onto the world below. Sighing, I closed my eyes and curled into a tight ball. Sleep came slowly, but when it did, I was swallowed whole and ripped into a land of dreaming.