Fifteen

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Monday morning dawned bright, though clouds edged the horizon. I stayed burrowed under the covers and squeezed my eyes closed against the sunlight pouring in through the window. Maybe if I stayed quiet enough, still enough, I could wake up three years ago, and this would all turn out to be a dream. Sophie would be coming in and jumping on my bed any second.

Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed by a quick knock on the door. My sister would never have such respect like that. Anne’s voice came through the wood, reminding me that it was time to get ready for school. I threw back my blankets and stared at the ceiling. School. Right, the reason I was even here in the first place. I slowly forced myself out of bed, padded across the room to where she had hung my uniform on the closet door.

“Sara? Are you up?”

“Uh, y-yeah, I’m getting dressed now.”

Her smile was evident in her voice when she told me that breakfast was on the table, then her footsteps faded away. I turned back to the clothes, grimacing. I had no other choice, though, so I changed quickly into the outfit I was forced to wear every day of the school-year.

The sleeves of the white button-down were uncomfortably tight around my wrists, and I detested having to wear tights. Looking in the full-length mirror, I sighed and fidgeted with the hem of my jumper. I looked ridiculous. The urge to dress in my normal jeans and T-shirt was almost impossible to resist.

My fingers tugged at the collar of my shirt as I headed down the hallway. Harry was already halfway through his breakfast by the time I stepped into the kitchen. I swallowed thickly and sat in the chair across from him. He nodded in my direction but didn’t speak, so I took that as my cue to remain just as silent. Anne cocked her head to the side, her chin cupped by her palm as her elbow rested on the table.

“Would you like some help with your hair?”

I ran my fingers through my hair and winced - I thought I’d managed to get the tangles out. “If you don’t mind, please?”

“Of course not.”

Thankfully, she waited until I’d eaten my fill before she went to retrieve a hairbrush. Harry took my plate with his when he stood, and I stared after him, confused. He’d not said a word to me since I arrived beyond telling me it was time for dinner; I couldn’t figure out what I had done so wrong already.

I didn’t have time to dwell on it, however; Anne came back after a moment, an obviously-unused hairbrush in hand, and I sat still as possible while she brushed out the knots left in my hair. Her movements were gentle and methodical, and soon enough, she was stepping back. I reached up to touch the end of the plait.

“Thanks. I- I appreciate it.”

“Anytime, darling. Now, best go brush your teeth and head to school. Harry, you’ll walk with her?”

“No, Mum, I’m going to make her go alone.”

Anne swatted goodnaturedly at her son’s head, and I was unable to stifle my giggle at the scene in front of me. It was so unlike home, so different to the silence and disconnect that permeated every inch of the house I grew up in. He grinned widely, ducking past his mother, and I wondered why life had to be so unfair.

It took ten minutes, but then Harry and I stood on the front step. Out there in the world, I couldn’t focus on anything other than the absolute panic and nervousness that was devouring me. I knew what to expect back in Indiana, no matter how unpleasant it was to deal with, but here… I had no idea what I was walking into.

I drew in a steadying breath and followed dutifully after Harry as he ambled down the short walk. He glanced over at me then tugged on my arm; I stumbled at the abrupt stop, and his lips twitched, though no smile fully formed. He moved slowly enough to give me warning, and I scarcely breathed as he adjusted the knot of my tie, smoothed it down beneath my jumper.

“Nervous?”

My laugh was manic, breathy, and I nodded vehemently. “Incredibly so.”

“You’ll do okay.”

“What if nobody likes me?” I whispered after we’d walked for a few minutes in silence, and he turned his head toward me, brows furrowing. “I mean, I’m a new student. An American one, at that.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about it. People are generally nice here. Some advice?”

“Please?”

“Just… know who you are, and nothing they may possibly say can matter.”

I dipped my chin in a jerky nod, and we fell quiet again. Our shoes scuffed against the pavement, the only sound between us, and I dragged in breaths that do nothing to steady me. I still felt a split-second away from throwing up all over my feet. I wasn’t sure if it was the sunshine overhead or my fear that was making me sweat so badly, but I tried not to think about it.

If I did, I would turn on my heel and run for the nearest airport or shipyard and find a way back home.

By the end of the day, I had introduced myself to dozens of people, half of them uninterested in my presence. The other half asked about living in the US so many times, I lost count. I’d even tried talking to someone without them initiating the conversation; it hadn’t worked out, but at least I could say that I made the attempt.

Harry had been an absolute angel - he guided me around to my classes and let me tag along with his friends. None of them had given me a second glance, but they weren’t outrightly rude, even if they had ignored me for the most part. Harry had even offered to sit with me during lunch, but I hadn’t wanted to draw attention to the fact that I was uncomfortable being on my own.

Anne greeted us at the door, and I let her wrap me in a warm embrace. It was disconcerting to be hugged so tightly, so unhesitatingly. She was such a sweet woman, and I found it difficult to be in her presence. She made me wish for a time long gone, when my mother and father were actually happy and my sister was home. For the hours spent as a family, instead of strangers bound by blood.

I choked back the sob that was building in my chest, forced a smile, and headed to the bedroom to change. Once I was dressed in a pair of pyjama pants and a George Strait concert T-shirt, I sat cross-legged on the bed with a notepad in my lap. The rhythmic tap-tap-tap of the eraser bouncing off the paper did nothing to bring coherence to my thoughts, the words desperate to be heard. I blew out my breath and decided to just write.

Mom and Dad,

Sorry. I would have started this sooner, but I’m still recovering from the long flight. The weekend has helped a bit. It’s nice here. The family is nice. The school is weird but nice. It’s… nice. I have to wear a uniform. I’m not sure I like it. I miss my jeans already.

The son - his name is Harry - is really nice. He helped me find my way around the school, and he’s letting me hang out with him until I can make my own friends. The daughter is at college. Or I guess it’s called university here, and I'm the one who’s in college. It’s weird. I don’t know. See, Dad - cultural differences between two English-speaking countries.

I miss my bed. I miss you guys. I’m glad I did this, though. I think it could be nice to learn about a new place like this. Reading about a different part of the world doesn’t compare to actually being there. Know what I mean? I don’t know. I’ll probably send this out tomorrow.

How’s home?

Love always, Seren.


I set my pencil aside and reread the letter. A grimace twisted my lips at how many times I used the word ‘nice’. But it was the only positive adjective I could think of that didn’t imply that things were perfect. I sighed, tossing the notepad onto the nightstand.

Because nothing was perfect. I was almost four thousand miles away from my hometown. Everything was still so unfamiliar here - the furniture, the smells, the people - and I could only hope that my discomfort would ease as time went on. I didn’t want to imagine spending an entire year here just to leave feeling as awkward as the end as I did at that moment.

Harry was again the one to come get me when it was time for dinner. If he saw anything on my face that gave away what I was feeling, he didn’t speak of it. Either he was clueless to it or he was considerate enough to not acknowledge it. No matter what, I was grateful for it. I knew I’d fall apart if he tried.

No one seemed to mind that I didn’t say much at the table. They chatted to each other as I forced down bite after bite. Soon enough, my stomach threatened to expel its contents if I continued, even though I’d barely eaten half of what was on my plate. The guilt wasn’t enough to make me eat more, though.

Anne grabbed up the dirty dishes, carrying them to the kitchen, and Harry followed close behind with the rest. My fingers tapped lightly on my thigh as I watched them go. What was I to do? Robin cleared his throat and gestured toward the family room with an inquisitive look on his face. I swallowed back the hesitation and nodded.

My attention strayed from the television show within minutes; I had no idea what it was, and I didn’t care much for the characters. I stared around the room at all the photographs on the walls. Family portraits, pictures of all four of them at Christmas, school photos of Harry and Gemma. I chewed on my lower lip to stifle a laugh at the picture of Harry as a young child; his smile was the same, though his hair was much curlier as a teenager.

Tears prickled at my eyes when I thought of the frames that adorned the walls back home. The last photo of Sophie we would ever have again had been taken on her sixteenth birthday. She was in the middle of laughing, bright grin frozen for eternity, with her arms wrapped around her friends’ shoulders. We had no clue at the time that within the year, she would be gone in the dead of the night, leaving behind a gaping hole where she belonged.

I scrubbed at my cheeks with the hem of my shirt before anyone could see me crying. An audience wasn’t what I needed right now. I just needed a second to get control over myself again. Unfortunately, my tremulous breathing drew attention to the fact that I was hardly hanging on.

Anne sat next to me on the couch, her hand soft on my head as she stroked my hair, and I turned my head to give her a wobbly smile. She seemed to understand. Her fingers, warm and strong, laced with mine and offered comfort that I didn’t hesitate to soak in.

Wispy clouds obscured the stars, though the pale glow of the moon broke through and covered the town. I leaned my head against the cool glass of the window, staring out at the dark night. It was well after midnight, but I was still awake. Though I’d tried so hard to sleep, all I succeeded in doing was tossing and turning for hours until I gave up.

Thinking about Sophie earlier had apparently opened the door for the rest of the thoughts. Every memory since waking up to finding her gone, all the Hell my parents and I had gone through in the aftermath, all the friends I’d lost because I couldn’t bear the thought of being abandoned again. Or they thought I’d turn out to be like Sophie. Goodbyes were too hard, harder still when it was my sister who did the leaving.

Since the night she left, missing Sophie had been a bone-deep, perpetual ache that I’d not yet learnt to dispel. I still woke up hoping desperately, despite myself, for answers, and every night, I went to bed praying g that tomorrow would be the day she came home. I knew without a doubt that it was a hopeless wish, that she wasn’t going to show up some random day and we would pretend she never left. That she hadn’t missed out on two whole years of my life or caused a rift between our parents.

It didn’t stop me from trying, though. How could I not, when I’d witnessed the death of the love my mother and father had for each other. I watched them grow to resent each other, blame each other, hate each other because of what Sophie had done. It was a juvenile way of thinking, about me I had the maturity to know that, but what else could I do other than hope for her homecoming to fix everything that had gone wrong?

A sob bubbled out of me, and I squeezed my eyes tightly shut to stop the tears from slipping down my cheeks. The efforts were in vain, hot wetness sliding down my cheeks as I gasped aloud. Everything hurt - the pain spread from my heart to consume my entire body. It wasn’t fair, and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do to change it.

The door creaked as it swung open slowly, and I nearly fell off the windowsill at the unexpected sound. Harry poked his head into the room, and though it was dark, I could see him frowning. He blinked once, twice, then the sleepiness cleared from his eyes. I turned back to the window. I couldn’t let him see me like this.

“Are you all right?”

I shrugged, an awkward jerk of my shoulders, and my mind raced in its search for an excuse that could explain my crying in the middle of the night. “Just missing home.”

“Do... do you want to talk about it?” he asked, glancing back over his shoulders as if to make sure his parents were still sleeping.

“No.” The word was sharp, sharper than it had any right to be, and I sighed and met his concerned gaze. “No. I’m okay. Thanks, though.”

His expression told me he didn’t believe me. My heart hammered in my chest, tattooed a painful rhythm against my ribs. I struggled to breathe properly through the tears and the fear that he would call me out on my lie - and that’s what it was. A lie. No matter how much truth was in it, because I did miss home, it wasn’t what was affecting me so fiercely. It would never be mere homesickness that tore me to shreds like that. His lips curved into a soft smile that shouldn’t be so comforting, and he nodded succinctly.

“I’m just down the hall if you change your mind.”

Harry pulled the door shut before I could reply, and I stared at the white-painted wood for a long minute. My lungs constricted at the consideration he had shown me. Shaking my head, I went back to gazing out at the night sky. And if more tears slipped free now that I was alone again, only the moon and I would know.