I. Always With The Running
Locks of blonde hair spill across the floor in a semicircle, gold and sunrise and wheat in motion as the stylist spins my chair around for the reveal.
“I like it.” I’m not completely sure it’s what I want, but I like to start off on a good note. The haircut traces my jawline, shorter in the back and longer in the front, waves brushing asymmetrically against my neck. They itch. I tilt my head and study it again for a second. “Yeah, I like it. I think I look older but not too old. It’s just right.”
I look more like I remember Callina looking, and seeing so many parts of her face stare back at me makes my mouth taste like copper. Air rushes in my ears, like a bicycle careening down a hill, but I suck air in through my nose and push it between my lips. Forced breath. Forced smile. I haven’t thought about my sister for a long time, and I look amazing. There’s no room for history, of any kind, right now. Or ever.
The stylist fluffs the back of it with one hand, beaming. “This will be just the thing for you. It’s like no one will recognize you, but in that way that’s like, “Whoa, hey, how did she get so hot all of the sudden?””
“Lydia!” Mel’s already got her new shoes on, the brightest purple yet, and as she crosses the salon to me eyes follow her. She might be in her fifties, but she’s easily the classiest and most beautiful lady in the room. It shouldn’t still stand out, and I don’t notice it at home, but every so often when we’re out in public, I think about my mom and what a contrast they’d make if they ever had a reason to stand next to each other.
She reaches me and runs a hand lightly over my hair, settling on my shoulder. “That’s – wait, is it what you wanted?”
I run a hand through my hair, watching it settle back into place. It’ll hide the way my ears stick out so far and draw focus to my eyes instead. Eyes top ears every time.
“Yeah. I really like it, and it’ll be a lot easier to take care of.”
“Good, because I love it.” Mel plays with the ends for a second, then turns to the counter to pay.
The stylist hands me a little card, a screenprinted signature at the bottom. “This is your donation receipt, and you should get a note from Girls for Girls in a few weeks.” She tucks the length of hair into an envelope and seals it shut. I probably shouldn’t think it’s gross, because it’s for charity and if I was going bald because of some stupid disease eating my body, I’d be pretty grateful for it too, but that doesn’t make a chunk of hair no longer attached to someone’s head any less creepy.
“Thanks.” I drop the card into my purse and check my phone.
“COME HOME SOON DAD IS PUTTING SANDS OF IWO JIMA ON IN THIRTY MINUTES IF YOU’RE NOT HOME DON’T LET HIM DO THIS”
“LYDIA COME HOME NOW”
“TOO LATE. YOU’RE DEAD TO ME.”
Tilly’s panic would be hilarious if I didn’t also loathe war movies and if we had more than one TV.
“Tell Robert I’m eating all the bear claws unless he gives up the TV at 8.” A little smile sneaks onto my face as I type.
I have to scroll back past another half dozen earlier warnings about Robert’s pending TV takeover to get down to a single message from Fitz.
“Rehearsal changed to 6 hope you’re not far away.”
It’s 5:45 now. “Coming, save me a seat. Hate changes.”
Mel is waiting by the door and drops the keys into my hand as I reach her. “I thought you’d want to drive.”
“I do, but I can’t because we need to speed and I can’t afford the mark on my license this soon.”
Mel adjusts her sunglasses and plucks the keys from my hand with little reaction. When I first moved in with them she was so worried about making sure I got into things and tried new groups and found some friends, that now when my various crises arise precisely because I do too many things for any normal human being, she gets a gleam in her eye.
“Where is it we’re speeding to?”
“School. NHS Induction rehearsal got moved up I guess. “
I slide into the passenger seat and immediately flip the mirror down to check my hair again. “Can he come over after?”
Mel presses the gas and we roar out of the parking lot, narrowly missing a wide black sedan parked across from us and a maroon truck coming down the lane. She ignores the chorus of honking and peals out on the tail end of a yellow light, left to the shortcut over to my school.
“I thought Tilly wanted you guys to have a girls’ night tonight?”
“She doesn’t mind Fitz though. He’ll watch anything with us and when he gets tired he takes his glasses off and then he can’t see anything so we don’t have to worry about trying to look good.”
Mel glances over at me as she scans an intersection and does a slight hesitation at the stop sign. “Even Tilly? She’s not real comfortable around guys yet.”
“I know.” It snaps a little and I regret it. Even after two years, I forget sometimes that real parents, good parents, ask questions and want to know things. Most of the time I’m thankful, but here in the car, with my new hair cut itching annoyingly on the back of my neck and the clock saying I only have five minutes to avoid the embarrassment of walking into an honor society event – honor societies being for very responsible and high-performing people – late, it’s stifling.
“Tilly and I talk about guys all the time. But Tilly promised she’s okay with Fitz. She’s used to him now.”
Mel does the tight-shouldered shrug that floods me with guilt. The only thing wrong with this family is that I can’t get mad at anyone without them wondering if they’ve overstepped their bounds, if they should feel bad and try to fix it. I don’t need things fixed, I need to be able to get a little snippy sometimes without having to weight the benefits against the crushing shame.
That’s why Tilly is my favorite. Despite everything Mel and Robert have done for me, Tilly is the only one capable of a really good fight every now and then.
Fitz is waiting under the overhang outside the main doors for me. A rooster tail sticks up from the back of his head and he shoves his glasses over the bridge of his nose as I get out of the car.
“Thanks for my hair. Tell Tilly I said me and Fitz will stop for donuts and pizza on the way home.”
Mel wrinkles her nose. “That combination.”
“It’s not that weird. Carbs make the world go round.” I flutter my fingers as I slam the door and hurry down the sidewalk to Fitz.
“Nice timing. We have thirty seconds.” He draws up short. “Spin around.”
I turn, letting him take a good long look at my hair, and I hope a few other things too.
“Hot.” Fitz isn’t a big talker and never has been, but it works for us. He’s editor of the school paper, which has won three awards in the last year, and does all the publicity for the theatre program. I’m vice president of student council, a shoo in for president next year, and president of NHS. Neither of us have lots of time for all the talking everyone else seems to like so much.
He leans in for a fast kiss. It’s getting cooler out now that October has hit and the leaves are changing, and his mouth is warm and comfortable against mine. Maybe there’s supposed to be fireworks, but I like my love for the same reasons I like my new life. It’s quiet, and I’m not afraid of things, or people, blowing up in my face if I take a single wrong step.
I spin once more for him, enjoying the feel of my much lighter hair flinging out away from my face. It’s silly, because the president of National Honor Society should not be late to anything, let alone rehearsal for next week’s induction ceremony. But it seems just a little ridiculous to be rehearsing for something we do twice every single year. All the officers were officers last year too, it’s not like we have lots of fresh blood to get in line.
I’m finishing my spin, turning back towards Fitz, when I flinch sharply and catch myself hard against the brick wall.
“Wow. I definitely think you should do that move up on stage. It’s great.” Fitz catches my hand and pulls the door open for me.
I don’t want to look behind me, into the parking lot, but I can hardly help myself. Shivers break out over my arms as I steal another glance.
It’s still there.
Fitz frowns, his face relaxing into it as he gives my hand a squeeze. “You feel okay? Do you need something to eat before we go in? Mrs. Jacobs will probably talk at least five minutes before they start actually running through the ceremony. She’ll be a little pissed but it wouldn’t hurt anything.”
He looks back too, leaning to see better, and I jerk him back upright and through the door.
“Don’t look. I mean, it’s nothing. I thought I saw a…” My limited knowledge of animals fails me miserably. Dramatic enough to have been worth staring at, nothing so impressive he’ll want to go see. “I think it was just a turkey walking along the edge of the woods. But I couldn’t tell what it was at first.”
He doesn’t look convinced, but I give him a little shove down the hall. “I should eat something, though. A Snickers. That has protein.”
“Oh sure, I suggested it so I have to pay.” Fitz rolls his eyes but a smile sneaks onto his face as he walks over to the vending machine.
At the doors, I turn back for a second. It’s just a car. Just like it was just shadows of my sister’s face in the mirror earlier. Real things in the real world, reminding me of one that’s more like a parallel universe to the one I inhabit now.
But the burnt ash sportscar is still sitting alone in the second row, surrounded by empty spots, and sickness swirls in my stomach at the thought of the last time I sat in a car like that.
II. Honor Among Thieves
Callina always liked to go fast and no matter how many times the bodyguards and lawyers lectured her about pushing the limits of the things the local police were willing to overlook, or the possibility of attracting a state trooper who wasn’t connected to the Family, she went for speed. Lydia loved it when she was younger, but now that she was in middle school, almost up to high school, and the two years between them seemed like a smaller gap and the pedestal her sister has always been on wobbled more and more, it seemed more recklessness and less like adventure.
“Callina.” Lydia broke off and grabbed the handle of the door, hanging on for dear life as they careened around a corner. “Callina, we’re going to get caught. I just want to make it to school on time.”
“Who’s going to school?” Bright eyed, chestnut hair billowing around her pointed face, Callina looked unnatural. She might have been high or drunk, because she’d done all those things in the morning before, but her natural state was so amped up it was hard to know for sure. “I want ocean breeze on my face. We’re cutting and heading out to the beach, okay?”
“Not really.” Lydia’s protest had little energy to it. It wasn’t worth it when it came to Callina.
A sudden shriek sliced into the air behind them, and the red-blue-red sparked in the rearview mirror.
“Seriously?” Callina slammed her foot down on the gas pedal.
“No! Come on, I just want to go to school anyways. This is bad. Really bad. The faster and farther you go, the more Dad’s going to have to shell out and he’ll be pissed.”
“So? When is he not?” Callina leaned in close to the wheel, her bright gaze flashing between the mirrors and the road. “Let’s ride it out and see what happens.”
A second siren joined in, and two miles later, a third. Lydia was pale with fear, the palms of her hands sweaty as she clung to the door handle. She was mumbling Callina’s name like a prayer under her breath. Callina was all blossomed out in thrill and defiance and passion.
“Please!” Lydia yelped finally as they screeched through another turn.
Callina glanced over at her sister. Lydia tried to look brave, but could feel the terror lying over her face like a mask, blocking her ability to move the muscles into anything but a grimace.
The air crackled between them as the sirens’ wails blasted.
“Fine. Only for you, though. Screw them. You say you want to stop, we stop. Okay?” Callina screeched the car to a dead halt right in the middle of the road, ignoring the squealing tires and burning brake smell streaking through the half open windows.
“Thanks. And sorry.” Lydia could hardly uncurl her fingers from around the handle. When the cops made them get out of the car, her legs shook so hard she couldn’t stand up straight, and when the ambulance arrived it took two officers to keep Callina from climbing into the back with Lydia.
It was just her blood sugar, plummeting like it always did before she learned to snack regularly and often to try to make it behave. She was taken off of observation before anyone from the Family even made it to the hospital, but Lydia’s disappointment at seeing Chen instead of her mom or even her dad was strong enough to spark hot tears behind her eyes as they drove home in silence.
Callina was nowhere to be seen, and Chen refused to say anything about what the verdict was on this latest episode. “Family business is handled by your mom and dad. They’ll talk to you about it when they get here. They just want you separate in case you thinking making up something to get out of trouble is a good idea.”
Lydia shivered. She already knew it wasn’t. Liars were just as bad as rats in her dad’s book – no one got to play with the truth except him, and nobody got to decide who should know what except him either.
Her parents didn’t get home until well after midnight. She had fallen into a doze across Callina’s bed, and when the door opened for some reason it sounded like a gunshot. It sent her flying off the bed into a crouch on the ground, only to realize she was bent down in front of her own parents.
“Sorry.” She straightened automatically. It never served anyone well to look scared or weak in front of her dad.
Callina slunk in behind their parents, sour expression already cued up for battle.
“Do you know how much this has cost me?” Their dad was the same age as their mom, but he wore his better, like a coat of wisdom instead of a shameful secret all slathered in makeup and fashion.
Callina sighed and dropped onto her bed, curling up in the exact spot Lydia had been. “Every single person in this room knows you can afford it, no matter what it was. So what’s the problem?”
“It wasn’t money alone.” Their dad managed to spear them both with his gaze. Their mom sat gingerly on the chair in front of Callina’s desk and studied the mess on top of it with clear disdain.
Lydia and Callina exchanged glances. Callina’s expression didn’t flicker for a moment, but in the depths of her eyes Lydia could see the fear building. Fear and shame, both.
“Getting rid of the body wasn’t a problem, but taking care of the questions, and trying to get ahead of this thing before it can spread or get in the damn newspapers is a problem, Callina.” Their dad rocked forward on his toes then back onto his heels. It was his only nervous habit and seeing it made things so very much worse. “You’ve gone too far before, and we’ve reigned you in, but that was nothing compared to what I am prepared to do if you’re not able to handle being part of this family.”
Shock lanced across Callina’s face. Lydia dropped heavily onto the bed next to her sister. Their mom’s eyes snapped over to their dad and stayed there. Somewhere behind Lydia’s fear it occurred to her that maybe their mom didn’t always have as much knowledge of Family affairs as it seemed. Certainly not when they had to do with her children.
“Don’t even think that what we have here is worth more to me than you are.” Their dad might have been conducting one of a thousand business transactions. There was nothing in his voice or eyes to hint that he was talking to his own flesh and blood or that what he was saying was anything more than casual conversation. “I don’t see any point in pretending things are different than they are. The Family comes first. It always has.”
“I’m family!” Callina snapped. Her cheeks were flushed and her hands knotted in her lap.
Lydia couldn’t look at either of them. She fixed her stare on the lush white carpet under her feet and tried not to cry.
“You’re blood. You’re not Family. Not until you pull yourself together and quit turning everything to shit.” Their dad paused by the door, not leaving room for either of them to speak. “Both of you are old enough to decide if you’re Family or not. And to prove it. Or get out of my house, before I’m forced to make other arrangements.”
He was gone before Lydia even finished processing that she was included in his final statement. Callina grabbed her hand and started to say something. Their mom shifted, standing from her chair, and both girls jumped. They’d forgotten she was there.
“Please choose wisely.” Their mom hesitated, a sparrow with streaks of silver and a face so accustomed to playing a role it was incapable of changing. “Your dad isn’t someone to play games with. You’ve pushed him enough. It’s time to think about your place in the Family.”
Then she lifted her chin and squared her shoulders, and she wasn’t their mom anymore. She was Family.
The girls didn’t talk about any of it at first, not until they were both in pajamas and under the covers. Neither of them turned the lamp off, and Lydia was glad because she couldn’t possibly have slept with the shadows creeping long over them and the thought of other arrangements billowing black and spidery in her mind.
Callina sat up abruptly. “Come on.”
“We can’t leave. We’re supposed to be sleeping, and I think it’s pretty clear doing anything else is a really bad decision right now.”
“You know there’s no choice!” Callina snapped. She slammed her fist into her pillow twice, three times, before running a hand through her hair and yanking it back away from her face viciously. “We don’t have options. We join the Family. Like everyone else. But if I’m going to do that, I’m going to raise hell first.”
“I think you did that already. And almost got us actually sent there.” But Lydia was sitting up now too. Something hot and fizzing had burst in her belly and her hands roamed anxiously over the blankets. She didn’t want trouble. And she didn’t want to die.
But the thought of doing something, anything, that might erase her mom’s cold stare for even a second or send her dad back on his heels just one last time was inescapably good.
“What are we going to do?”
Callina crawled off her bed and waved Lydia into step behind her.
They crept through the house together, hugging the walls, dodging the armed men that roamed the house and the security cameras in every corner. It was a house that should have made invisibility impossible, but they were blood and they were Family. Invisibility lived in their bones.
They made it to the winding depths of the house and by the time Lydia relaxed enough to realize where they were, they stood at the door to their dad’s wine cellar – the rarest vintages, the bottles so expensive they could sometimes cover a life-size debt.
“We can’t,” she whispered.
Callina’s smile was equal parts victorious and vicious. “But we can. We have nothing to lose.”
Lydia wasn’t sure it was true, but after all it was her fault they had stopped driving earlier, and there was a secret something in the back of her mind that colored everything with a guilt she could hardly handle.
“Fine. Let’s do it.”
They made short work of it. The bottles they didn’t smash they popped open and guzzled from. The wines were cold and sharp and thick, coating Lydia’s tongue and throat in cotton and settling into a swirling sick sourness in her stomach. The floor was soaked and littered with blinding shards of glass like a deadly snow had fallen and they were both drunk, hardly able to speak.
Callina rolled over the top of the now-empty display table, laughing as she flung the final bottle against the wall. It burst apart, glass slicing through the air and the bitter soft scent of wine worth more than either of their lives swirled up into the cacophony of aromas choking them both.
“I love you so, so much. Who needs Family? You’re blood and that’s what counts. That’s what counts every time.”
Lydia let Callina smash a sloppy wine-soaked kiss into her cheek. The bottoms of her pajama pants were drenched a shade of red that would never come out and her fingers were cold and sticky.
“I love you too. Blood is forever.”
Two weeks later, she ran away and left the Family, and the blood, behind.
III. The Breaking of An Already Broken Heart
When I step out onto the sidewalk, arm looped through Fitz’s so his body heat can spread to me and protect me from the bite of smoke-scented October air, there’s no cars in the lot except his. Relief shudders through me and even though I knew the whole time there was nothing to worry about, I feel limp with gratefulness.
“If I had to recite my lines one more time I was going to break that stupid chalice and give the peace out.” Irritation ruffles Fitz’s hair along with an icy breeze. The moon is full and white, streaked with gunmetal clouds and the trees that have already lost their leaves are skeletons traced across the parking lot pavement.
“No, you weren’t. But I appreciate the thought because this whole night was dumb. And I can’t even believe we spent three hours. It was supposed to be 45 minutes, tops. She’s never made us do all this before. I don’t know why this year is the one she picked to start being fanatical about every tiny thing.”
Fitz yanks up the collar of his coat and tugs me in closer against him as we walk around his car and he unlocks my door. “Don’t know, don’t care. Just want it to stop.”
I slide into my seat and pull the door shut as Fitz comes around the front of the car. But as I reach across his seat to pop the lock, something crinkles under me. I tug it loose as Fitz drops into his own seat and a wave of ice careens through my body.
“What is that?” Fitz asks. He reaches over to take it and I yank it away, stuffing it down into my purse.
“Nothing. My notes. It fell out of my bag.”
Fitz sighs. “Why are you off tonight?”
We pull onto Westchester and Fitz stops for the yellow light.
“I’m not off.” I give the note another shove into the depths of the bag and make a conscious effort to rest my back against the seat, adopting the most relaxed posture I’m currently capable of. My muscles ache with sudden tension.
“You’re definitely off. We’ve been in the car for an entire minute and you haven’t made one comment about how slow I drive.” Fitz smiles, but it slides off his lips when he looks over at me. His hand finds mine again, even though he hates driving one handed. I clutch his and realize all over again how broken I’ll be if – when – this has to end.
“I’m just distracted. It’s no big deal.”
“I’m not going to drag it out of you. But you can text me later if you want. I’ll be up.”
My hands are shaking and I hope he doesn’t notice it as I weave my fingers through his. “Aren’t you still coming over? Donuts and pizza? Starting Once Upon A Time with us?”
Tilly will be mad if he ditches us. Mel may still be worried about it, but Tilly adores Fitz and has already decided we’re getting married. And when she got the first season of OUAT for her birthday, the first thing she did after screeching so hard it hurt my teeth was ask if Fitz could come over to watch it with us.
Fitz stops at yet another yellow light and this time even though I can’t get the note out of my head, I have enough free space to remember how incredibly annoying that habit is.
“Do you still want me to?”
I lean over almost into his lap, widening my eyes extra far and batting my lashes. “I’m not off. I want you and I want donuts and I want to kiss on the end of the couch when Mel isn’t looking and Tilly’s making popcorn.”
That and that alone has never failed to take Fitz’s eyes off the road or his homework or whatever super-serious thing he’s focused on. “Why not now?”
A horn echoes from behind us and I laugh, the top layer of fright washing off of me. Fear still nestles in my bones and my purse is a magnet dragging me toward the note, but something strong and fierce is also boiling in my blood. The longer I put it off, the longer I push back the need to look at the note, the more it belongs to something hazy and so long past it’s hardly even important anymore.
Two years isn’t enough. A hundred years wouldn’t be enough. But I can make it be more than it is if I fight hard enough. I was terrible at fighting the Family when I was with them. But I can succeed now, with time and room to breathe.
Just the same, the instant we pull up in front of the bakery and Fitz jogs inside, his breath funneling out in soft white steam as he goes, I lunge for my purse and yank the note out. My fingers shake as I tear it open and pull the notecard from inside.
It’s a shiny metallic blue the color of a still ocean. It might be a birthday party invitation, or a little gift passed between two friends.
Callina has been diagnosed with stage four lymphoma. She has a matter of weeks to live. If you want to see your sister again, I suggest you return home immediately. Do not tell anyone where you’re going, and do not speak of family business to anyone. We only hope you have better sense now than you did two years ago.”
My heart splits in two, right down the center of my chest. There’s more written below, scribbled in a different hand, but I happen to glance up and there’s Fitz, his cowlick flapping in a sharp gust of window, clutching his coat with one hand and the white paper bag of donuts with the other.
I gasp and shove the note into the depths of my bag, fighting tears and the hot choking rock that’s formed in my throat.
He pulls open the door and I look up guiltily, cheeks flaming with the work of holding back tears and all kinds of demons.
Fitz slides into the car. “They only had one bear claw left so you and Robert will have to fight for it. But I got them all 50% off since it’s late, so.” He turns the engine on and opens his mouth to say something more, but freezes when he sees my face.
“I can’t,” I start, but I burst into tears before I can say anything else or pick up the pieces of this horrible night.
Fitz doesn’t ask questions or try to fix anything. He just puts his arm around me and pulls me in, my tears wetting the scratchy wool of his jacket. I haven’t cried for any of it. I always told myself it wasn’t worth crying for, all the people I left behind who’d as soon have killed me as finished raising me, and the Family business all doused in blood and secrets, and the only future all those things could have possibly led to. I haven’t even cried for Callina, though I’ve wanted to, because she had the chance to come and she didn’t, and she didn’t have anything more tying her there than I did except the wanting to.
But now it all comes out, every pushed-back tear and every breath so ragged it tears my chest open. And Fitz just sits there.
When I can handle it again, I let bits of the world beyond the black wool surface against my hot skin in. First I notice the wind, blustering against the sides of the car and rocking us just a bit, side to side. Then the sound of Fitz’s heartbeat, muffled and distant through his layers but comforting and solid. Then the smell of him, cold air and licorice sticks, and the textures of the wool on my cheek and his jeans, soft and chilled, crisp over the muscles of his thighs under my fingertips.
“Okay?” Fitz asks.
I lift myself off of him, putting both hands on my face. I haven’t cried, and certainly not in front of anyone, for such a long time I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do or say next.
Fitz has a crease between his eyebrows and tight lines at the corners of his eyes. His mouth pulls crooked and he looks half silly, half worried. “You don’t have to tell me about it.”
I study him, the way the lights along the border of the parking lot reflect orange and gold off his hair and glint on his glasses. I don’t have the slightest idea what he’s been thinking about while his girlfriend sobs her eyes out and it makes me uncomfortable. I think we work because we’ve always had an even balance of power. We like each other, we don’t need each other.
I can’t need him and ruin all of that.
“I won’t. I mean, I just think it’s better that way. Don’t you?”
He hesitates. I hold my breath for a second and I don’t know if I’m hoping after the silence comes agreement or disagreement.
“I don’t know about best, but honestly, that kind of crying is probably about something I can’t fix anyways. That’s the way my mom cried when my dad died.” His lips thin the way they always do when his dad comes up. “I couldn’t fix that, I probably can’t fix this either. And if you’re not even sure you want to talk about it, let’s not yet.”
I sniffle, wiping my nose on my mitten because I can’t really embarrass myself more tonight. Fitz pulls slowly out onto the road, taking a right towards the pizza place. It’s a good thing it’s no-call carryout because if we’d actually ordered one, it would be stone cold by now.
“I squished the donuts,” I say mournfully. New tears somehow still spring to my eyes, even now after I must have cried all of them out, but these are the kind I’m very good at holding back.
Fitz shrugs. “At least then you and Robert won’t have to fight over bear claws half the night.”
I don’t look at the note again until we’re home. Fitz and Tilly set up the TV and get the pizza situated next to our paper plates and root beer floats on the coffee table as she talks thirty thousand words per second about the part she just got in the play and asks if her face can be on some of the publicity posters.
Mel and Robert are in the kitchen playing gin with the next door neighbors. Before I came here I thought board game nights and card playing happened only on black and white TV shows, but Mel and Robert have other couples over two or three nights a week for various games. I would never tell them, because there are things you just don’t talk to your foster parents about, but I think it’s a little bit cute.
I lock myself into the bathroom and perch on the edge of the tub. Mel saw me bring my purse in and the worry in her eyes settles heavy on my shoulders but she won’t ask unless I give her a solid reason not to trust me. And that won’t happen. When I’m ready to make my move, I will, and nobody is going to see it coming. Just like last time.
I pull the note out and have to prop it against my knees to make it readable in my nervous hands.
The script at the bottom flows more smoothly than the rest but pierces even deeper.
“We can find you anywhere, Lydia. Whether you choose to see your sister or not doesn’t matter, but who you choose to tell about any of this matters significantly. Family will always come before blood. When you left you severed your blood ties, but you can’t leave the family. Whatever you decide, know two things: your sister can hardly take a breath, but she asks if anyone’s heard from you every day. And your dad carries Fitz’s address in his wallet.”
Neither part of the note is signed. A fist grabs my heart and squeezes, pressure building up inside of me like a scream.
It was stupid to think I could keep any of it from intruding here. Much older and smarter people than me have tried to leave the Family at various times, and I know right where their graves are. It’s only a matter of time before somehow, something I do looks like betrayal.
And no matter how we parted, I have to see my blood at least once more before the Family does me in.
IV. Body, Blood, Belief
Callina was the only person Lydia dared to tell she was going to leave, and even that was pretty risky. Callina wasn’t to be trusted, generally, but at the same time Lydia had learned before she was in preschool that the number of people she could trust completely would never equal the fingers of one hand, and sometimes it was better to trust people who were fundamentally untrustworthy because you could at least trust that they would fail you in some way.
“You should come with me.” Lydia sat on the bottom step, her knees pulled up almost to her chin. Her back was to the wall so she could see everything, because in a house built on secrets it was smart to never ever have your back to open space. “We could leave together. We’d be a good team and we could figure out how to blend in with everyone else.”
Callina rolled her eyes, tossing her hair over her shoulder and swinging backwards from the railing along the steps. She was too old to do that kind of thing anymore, but it didn’t seem like she’d really noticed.
“I’m not leaving, are you insane? What would even be the point of it?”
Lydia hadn’t understood the disdain scribbled across Callina’s face. Her sister hated everything as much as she did. Wasn’t she in just as much trouble over the wine incident? And didn’t she think all the rules were as dumb as Lydia did – dumber, since Callina was always getting into trouble and Lydia was at least smart enough to keep her head down?
“To get away. To have a new start, somewhere away from everything. So we don’t have to turn out just like the rest of the Family.”
“You’re just a kid. You’re supposed to be having fun and spending Dad’s money and not caring at all how you turn out.” Callina popped a piece of gum into her mouth and chewed aggressively, turning out a massive bubble in short order. “Leave that stuff for some other day. When you’re as old as me.”
Lydia pulled her knees even closer to her chin and tried to understand. The backpack under her bed, stuffed with stray money she’d found around the house and three days’ worth of canned goods and underwear, called her name. No matter what she did, no matter where she went, all she could think about was leaving. And the perfect day for it was so close.
“But if you’re old enough to worry about it, why aren’t you?”
Callina dropped onto the step next to Lydia so hard the whole staircase shook. Anger scribbled across her face in sharp v-ing lines and not for the first time a bit of fear swirled in the bottom of Lydia’s stomach.
“I’m not you. I’m smarter and stronger. I know what I was basically born to do and just because I want to have fun and do whatever I want for a while doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s almost over. Why do you think they even had us, if not to keep the Family in the family.” Callina snorted and Lydia wondered if she was using drugs again.
“And that’s okay with you? Even after seeing what Mom and Dad are like, to everyone else and when they’re alone with us, and what they do and how they act and what they think is okay, you’re good with all of that? And you want to be just like them?”
Callina leaned in, her breath hot on Lydia’s cheek. Her eyes were very bright. “I want to be better than them.”
Lydia curled down over her knees and studied the grain of the wooden steps as Callina patted her head in that infuriating way and charged up the stairs to play a videogame.
She and Callina were blood. They were supposed to be forever stronger than Family, stronger than everything else around them. Callina had promised it herself.
But how could Lydia ever keep a promise to be blood to someone who wanted to be just like the people around them? Because maybe Lydia was stupid or too young, but maybe she wasn’t. She was smart enough to know that a lifetime of plots and Family and bodies buried in unmarked graves side by side in long lines in the cavernous depths of the unfinished parts of the basement was nothing she wanted any part of. It was her inheritance, but she was more than ready to squander it. Let Callina be the example, the older sister everyone adored. Lydia was taking as little as possible, and she was going to start a new life, no matter the cost.
Three nights later, Lydia left the Family behind for good. Or so she thought.
V. A Prodigal’s Returning
I leave in the pitch black corner of morning before the sky turns gray and purple. The streetlights are still on and the road is wet in the aftermath of a harsh October rain. I’m going for good, and this time I’m not making the mistake of telling anyone ahead of time.
Because the idea of trying to stretch across the split here, trying to keep both feet in this world without losing my last fingertip in Family business, that’s never going to work. I’m not dumb. I’ve seen people try to do it before, cops who want to make their families wealthy without selling every last ounce of their souls, businessmen who think they can funnel a few things under the table or around the back door without letting the Family creep into their legit side, even the occasional informant dumb enough to think he can work both sides, play the info against itself and leverage it for some kind of power. I know where their graves are, too, because grave lessons are as much a part of my childhood as blanket forts and peanut butter and jelly seem to be part of everyone else’s.
It’s sheer stupidity to think you can fit the Family into your world and not yourself into the Family, but knowing it didn’t stop me from trying.
Maybe that’s why I never even made it out of the Family’s state, because some little part of me has always known there’d come a day when I’d have to go back. And once I do, they’re not letting me go again.
I get on the bus three blocks from Mel and Robert’s house and tuck my bag in next to me. A few essentials, just the things I came with. I can’t take anything from home, not without knowing I’ll have to fight tears every time I see it. I drafted a thousand versions of a goodbye note and they all failed. It’s better to let the silence speak for itself, and let them interpret it however they need to. I like Mel and Robert, maybe even love them, but it’s Tilly who breaks my heart and it’s Fitz I’ll never really get over. I’m sure I’ll have another boyfriend, if I even get to stay alive, but he’ll be a Family man and he’ll be into me because it’s his Family duty and it’s Family business. It’ll really have nothing to do with either of us.
Downtown I hop the lightrail across town, and before the sun is in its home along the edge of the horizon, I’m on a train headed towards the Family.
The trip is long, and no matter how much I try to sleep every nerve in my body sings with the awareness of Family, Family, Family coming closer all the time. I left my phone on my bed, so there’s no escaping the chatter inside my own head or the way my heartbeats echo in my ears. No one pays that much attention to their own cardiopulmonary system, or their own breathing, but I’m pressed in on all sides by a hyperawareness of every muscle movement, every basic function. It won’t be that much longer.
When the train pulls into the station, I squeeze down the narrow steps and throw my backpack over my shoulders. Rain-wet seeps up from the pavement through the bottoms of my Converse, and my leggings are too thin for the chill in the rising night. I’m wearing the oversized chambray shirt I just bought at Target last week, and for a second I wish it was large enough to hide in like a turtle tucking into his shell.
There’s a charcoal sportscar at the end of the line of cars awaiting passengers.
Of course they knew I was coming. Everyone knows it’s impossible to surprise the Family. Well, surprise them more than once. The day I ran away was it. So my return is more like the inevitable.
A man I doesn’t recognize sits behind the wheel, but it’s a slightly grayer Chen who steps out of the passenger side and opens the back door.
“Where’s Callina?” I ask immediately, tossing my backpack into the back ahead of me.
“She’s hardly able to drive.” Chen’s expression doesn’t change but his tone is far less friendly than I remember. He’s never been the soul of comfort but the dark cast to his words strikes an unfamiliar note of fear in my chest.
The scenery outside hasn’t changed. We pass broken down brick storefronts and graffittied plaster, garbage littered streets slowly morphing into smooth-paved avenues lined with scarlet-hued trees and dusted with fallen leaves, smooth-shaped topiaries on either side of the wide gated roads leading off in orderly lines from the avenue.
And at the end of the line, the Family waits. Namely, my dying sister. A sister with whom I share a history so complicated I can’t even begin to sort out the pieces, and now will no longer have the chance. A sister I’m giving up everything for, even though I may only get goodbye.
I can’t call it home anymore. Home smells like blueberry pancakes and Mel’s fresh linen flameless candles. It’s small and dark in the way only a house built in the seventies can be, and it’s all fake wood paneling and the ugly mold green carpet in the basement they keep saying they’ll rip out and never get to.
The Family inhabits a shrine. The house is grand and white, the gates swinging wide in front of the car as we pull in the drive. It’s sweeping and circular, leading up to the seven marble steps I used to sit on sometimes in the summer, just to get away from the echoing silences inside.
Chen escorts me into the front room and leaves me there, standing awkwardly in my chambray and Converse, my backpack slung over my shoulder and the messy strands of my newly shorn hair teasing along my jawline. My reflection eyes me cautiously from the front hall mirror through the doorway and I can’t meet my own anxious gaze.
“Finally.” Callina struts into the room. Her makeup flares at the edges of her eyes, turning them into the green impartial stare of a cat, and she’s shorn her hair into a pixie cut, though the brilliant blonde is still the same as mine. She wears a cowl-necked black top and tight black jeans that taper to her narrow ankles and draw the eye towards her flaming four inch heels.
She’s never looked better. Or more terrifying.
She laughs, but it echoes empty against the false brilliance of the room and the space between us. “You could say something. You’ve certainly done enough with your life in the last two years, I’d think you’d have some small something somewhere in you that would be worth sharing with your only sister in the world.”
“You’re dying?” I’ve gone numb, separated from the world by a silvery haze hanging over my eyes, over my skin. I want to wrap myself in it like chain mail against the sword Callina wields with her eyes and lips.
“Oh, honestly. I can’t believe that’s the best you could come up with for a reunion line. Or that you’re still on that.”
I shift to the side, keeping my back to my wall and my eyes on my sister, dropping onto the couch. It’s antique brass and velvet and keens under me as though completely unaccustomed to bearing weight. The cushions are hard under me and for some reason it’s this, the furniture, that makes me almost lose it, because at home the couch is so beaten up if I sit too fast I stab myself in the butt with a handful of broken springs and yet I’ll never be that comfortable again.
“But…but you’re sick.”
This time Callina’s laugh is a thousand icicles raining down from the ceiling, finding every chink in my hazy chain mail and stabbing me until I’m lifeless. “I’d say so, yes. But you don’t need to worry about me going anywhere anytime soon, not even the afterlife, if it exists.”
She drops lightly onto the coffee table across from me, her shoes making her knees almost even with my chin. Her skin is smooth as butter and her nails are talons the same shade as her shoes as she rests her chin in her hand and studies me.
“You know, I kind of thought life outside the Family would suit you a little better. You sounded so sure you’d be happier out there, but you look a little ragged. Maybe it’ll be better for you to be here than I thought.”
I’m still alive. Somehow, I’ve been on the Family’s territory for at least five minutes and I’m neither missing any body parts nor inhabiting one of a million graves carved into the floor a story beneath us, but I feel shattered into a million pieces.
“What are you talking about? I came because you’re sick and dying and I had to say goodbye.”
“No, you didn’t,” Callina snaps. Her posture remains relaxed but she’s like a tiger eying her prey. “You wouldn’t have given up everything you had out there if you thought the only thing you’d get out of it is a few precious minutes with the sister you didn’t even love enough to stay with.”
“I asked you to come with me.”
“And I refused to go, because it was bullshit. We both know you don’t leave the Family. Only one of us was stupid enough to waste the last two years trying.” Callina pushes off the coffee table and strolls around the room. Her arms are crossed over her chest and when she moves she looks as though she’s counting paces for a duel. She pivots at the far end and traces a path back to me, heels tapping sharply, slowly, marking beats to the finale. “Dad was the one who got sick. Don’t worry, I knew you wouldn’t want to come, so I let you keep playing your game. But someone had to step into his shoes, and we both know Mom would have been completely incompetent.”
“Wait, I don’t – where is Dad? And Mom?” I wonder now if the heartbeat raging in my ears is mine or echoes from the graves below.
“As far as I know, Dad’s in hell.” Callina smiles, her teeth white and sharp against her bright lipstick. “Not that anyone would be surprised. Mom’s still around, but she’s mostly paperwork now. I don’t need her the way Dad did.”
I stand up too, like a marionette, my legs already propelled by my sister’s invisible strings. I can’t process any of it, and yet it’s like hearing something I’ve always known would be. “You never did need anybody.”
“Which makes me the natural heir, wouldn’t you say?” Callina reaches out and brushes her hand over my cheeks, her nails scraping softly over my skin. “If only I really didn’t need anyone. That would make things much more convenient.”
I force myself not to flinch away from her touch. “What things?”
“What do you think?” Callina pauses for an answer, but the words are caught in my throat. A sudden fury lances through her eyes and she rips her hand away from my face, her nails leaving burning trails across my cheek, and sends a thousand dollar vase hurtling through the air until it bursts apart against the wall.
My heart rockets into my throat. “I don’t know!”
Her smile is vicious, her eyes hot and cutting. “It’s you. I might be Family, but I can’t do without my blood. Blood forever, remember?”
I thought I was ready for this. I steeled myself to accept rejoining the Family, cloistering myself in the world of bodies and feuds and secrets. But it was supposed to be a kind of sacrifice. Redeeming myself even though I’m returning to the old ways.
This is nothing like that. This is just madness and sin.
“We’re not Family anymore. I gave all that up. I don’t even want any part of it.”
Callina crosses the room and drapes an arm around my shoulders as she pulls me into her side. Her skin against mine is a snake ready to strike. “There you’ve been, squandering all your time away. Wasting it on foolish shit, while I’ve been here doing exactly what Dad always wanted me to do. But you know who’s ending up with the glory in the end?”
“You! You can have it, I don’t want anything to do with any of it. Go be the queen or whatever, just let me go back to my own life.” I try to duck out of her reach but the arm over my shoulders locks me in against her.
Callina sighs. “If only it were that easy. But Dad always liked you better. So even though you’ve wasted all your time and messed up the Family name, he had to have you come back here. Because unless you agree, in front of the lawyers and three Family witnesses, to give me leadership and take permanent position as my second, I don’t get anything.”
“Fine, I’ll say yes. Get the lawyers, so I can get out of here.”
She lets me go now, but the smile drawing her lips into tight painted lines prickles dangerously.
“Oh, the lawyers are already waiting. But it’s a condition of the will that you take the position permanently. Forever, in case you didn’t hear me right.”
The blood rushes out of my face and I sway on my feet, unthinkingly reaching for her.
Callina grabs my arm and pulls me into her, crushing me into a hug like a trap falling finally shut.