I got up the morning of December twenty-first anticipating a four-day weekend for the Christmas holiday. I went to a snotty private prep school that took breaks the way most people went to the dentist—?only when they really, really had to.
Which was why I had school on the twenty-first, my sixteenth birthday. My parents refused to let me skip. It was a typical, normal day. For me “normal” meant that my stomach churned so much I swallowed Tums by the roll, and never went anywhere without Advil. I used Visine to keep my eyes clear; without it, looking in the mirror meant seeing the eyes of a lifetime alcoholic. I kept a stash of Ace bandages and braces in my locker at school.
I coped. I studied. I kept up the facade, but I desperately needed a break. Time to sleep late. Time to eat too much and catch up on painting my nails with glitter. Time to stop faking it and be myself, even if no one noticed. Time to dye my hair again—currently it was the obnoxious red of tomato juice. I figured black would be a nice way to start the New Year. It fit my mood. There were also a bunch of new DVDs I wanted to watch. Movies about girls my age having crushes and friends and being absolutely, completely normal.
I tucked my requisite white cotton blouse into my perfectly pleated tartan skirt. I applied thick black eyeliner and three coats of mascara, as if I could make the bruises beneath my eyes an accessory, then painted on clear lip gloss. I tugged at the opaque tights I wore, pushing our dress code to the limit. I didn’t mind uniforms. At least I was part of a group for once in my life. But I hated looking like a little Lolita. I stared at my reflection, hoping to see answers. Wishing I saw the solution to my life.
The phone shrilled: once, twice. I tossed my toothbrush into the sink and grabbed the hallway extension. The phone never rang for me, but I always answered it, hoping.
Silence. Breathing. Murmuring.
“Hello?” I repeated.
Mom appeared at the top of the stairs. “Who is it?” Concern deepened the lines on her face, aging her.
I shrugged at her, shook my head. “Hello?”
She yanked the phone cord out of the wall, breathing fast, suddenly wild-eyed and pale.
Dad raced up the stairs, clearly just as upset. “Another one?”
Mom’s fist clenched the cord and she fiercely wrenched me into her arms. What the hell?
“What’s going on?” I let her hold me as she caught her breath. My dad kept petting my hair. For the last five years, they hadn’t touched me except for accidents or unavoidables. Now they didn’t seem to want to let go.
“It’s started.” Dad was the first to step away.
“What’s started?” I pushed away as the downstairs phone rang.
“We’ll talk more after school. You have a big test today.” I recognized the stubborn expression on Mom’s face.
Dad pressed her shoulders, rubbed her neck like he always did when she was upset. “I think we should—”
“No, not yet. Not yet,” Mom chanted.
“What is going on?” I felt fear sizzle in my spine.
“Rosie?—” Dad cradled Mom’s cheek with one hand and reached for me.
“After school,” Mom said firmly. “Be careful today, extra careful.”
“Why don’t you tell me why?” I asked. “Is this about turning sixteen? I can wait to get my license for a few months. I mean, I’d like to drive, but if you’re this scared we can talk about it.”
Mom smoothed my hair, shaking her head. “After school.”
I shrugged and looked to my father for guidance. His expression told me he wouldn’t break rank. “Is it boys? I’m not dating; it’s not like there’s a guy—”
Mom cut me off. “Do you want pancakes?”
I never eat breakfast. “No, that’s okay. I should catch the bus or I’ll be late.” What else can there be? My grades are excellent.
“Mer-D!” Sammy launched himself at me. As a toddler he’ d given me a nickname that stuck, so even now that he was six, I was still his Mer-D. “Happy birthday! I got you a presie. I got you a presie. Wanna know? Wanna know?” He danced with a maple syrup–covered fork, Jackson Pollocking every surface with stickiness.
“Later, Sammy. After school, okay? With cake?” I adored him. Loved him with the unconditional love I’d never received, except from him. He wasn’t afraid of me. He’d pretend to blow up the dead things with his Lego men or pose them in little forts, like caricatures of life.
“Cake, cake, makey-cakey.” He pranced around, his face split in a grin.
Turning back to my mom, “Why are you so freaked?” I dropped my voice so Sammy wouldn’t hear me.
Dad answered for her. “There is something we need to discuss when you get home, but it can wait.”
“Are you sure?” I pressed. I hadn’t ever seen either of them this anxious.
“You don’t want to miss your bus.” Mom hovered. She’d been swinging from overprotective to distant for the past few months. There was an almost tangible distance between us. I’d catch her scrutinizing me, like she was trying to memorize my DNA.
“You have everything you need?” She stared at me, patted my hair, and tucked an errant curl behind my ear. She always made me want to shake my head and mess up my curls even more. Mom gave me a pathetic, sad smile. She didn’t say anything else.
“Fine. Yep.” I shrugged her off, marching out of the kitchen feeling like a kid at an adults-only party, pissed that they wouldn’ t just tell me what was going on. Secrets made me feel small and insignificant. There was a vibe I couldn’t place. I slid my backpack on.
Dad strode out from the kitchen. “Meridian, wait.” He drew me to him, hugging me so tight that breathing was a challenge.
“Dad?” I leaned away, confused.
At least Sammy wasn’t acting strange. He was playing with the Lego set he’d opened the day before, on his birthday. My mom, brother, and I were all born within a day or two of one another.