Karina leaned against her window, the cool glass refreshing amid the heat building inside her; watched the elms lining the sidewalks whip by; and contemplated a jump out her door at forty miles per hour. Surely, it would prove less painful than what otherwise awaited her.
She had promised herself that she wouldn’t do it again—that she would take whatever Elle dished out. She had gotten through the morning, but then Elle, surrounded by her omnipresent cloud of minions, had bumped into her in the lunch line, spilling chocolate milk all over the white blouse she’d spent a month sewing. Though surely able to see the tears burning her eyes, Elle had gestured the sopping, stained top and quipped, “Well, at least it distracts from that face.” As she and her minions cackled, Karina had dropped her tray and sprinted to the bathroom. Before she reached the window, however, a teacher, apparently aware of her previous transgressions, had followed her in and caught her red-handed. A week of out-of-school suspension. A vacation—if, by some miracle, her mother didn’t render it otherwise.
They pulled into the driveway. Wordlessly, they filed out and into the house. Karina started toward her room, but her mother said, “You think you’re gonna get off that easy?”
Karina wanted to ignore her and bolt to her room. But she knew that her mother would follow, thwarting any attempts at escape. So, instead, she followed her mother into the dining room, where they both took seats at their scratched walnut table. Karina shifted, feeling as if she’d sat on a LEGO. Her mother speared her with a glare. “I’m gonna give you one last chance to tell me what’s going on. Is this about Preston?”
Her stomach lurched at the sound his name. Her mother’s must have done the same.
Try as they might, it seemed that they would never manage to cut that monster out of their lives.
* * *
As they pulled into the driveway, her mother tugged her sleeves down to cover the purple clouds on her arms, as if Karina had not come to know of them at all, let alone witnessed Preston putting them there. The crease between her brows had deepened, and, though she didn’t say so, Karina knew what had caused it.
“We should just go,” she told her for what seemed the millionth time. “Get Elle and take off. Screw our stuff.”
Her mother sighed. “We’ve been over this.”
“You don’t love him,” Karina asserted, hitching her chin out.
“Yes, I do. He’s a good man. He just gets a little…carried away when he’s angry.”
“Like he’s gonna do when he finds out we couldn’t get his turkey?”
“It’ll be fine,” her mother insisted, but, even in the darkness, Karina could see her flinch. She wished that, rather than going to her friend’s house, her sister had come with them. Then, he might have gone a little easier on them; he always had liked Elle best.
They stepped out of the car and, wordlessly, made their way up the path to the porch. Her mother opened the door, and they entered.
They screamed in unison.
Preston hunched on the couch, above Elle. Both naked; both as pale as dough.
Karina’s stomach heaved. She turned just in time to vomit into the bushes flanking the porch. When she looked back, Preston had jumped to his feet, glaring at their mother, who had blanched and started trembling like drumsticks playing a drum roll.
“Too stupid to run a simple errand, huh?” Preston snapped.
Her mother shook her head. “You can’t really be—“
“Don’t you dare lecture me, Laurie.” He stepped closer, but her mother didn’t back away, as she usually did; instead, she squared up.
Meanwhile, Elle had started crying, horrible, wracking sobs that speared Karina’s chest.
“I’m not lecturing you,” their mother said, hitching her chin out. “I’m leaving you.” She nodded at the victim. “Come on, Elle.”
Elle shakily climbed to her feet, grabbed her sundress, and slipped it over her head. They went. Preston didn’t stop them. Rather, he scrambled to grab his clothes. He would be a speck on a fifty-foot mural by the time the police got there.
They piled into their mother’s car. She started it and floored it. As they zoomed through the streets, she said in a trembling voice, “I’m so sorry, Ellie. I’m so sorry.”
Elle didn’t respond, staring out her window with quivering eyes.
“Is this the first time, honey?” their mother asked.
Elle swallowed with an audible gulp. “No.”
Bile surged into Karina’s throat again, but she swallowed it, knowing that they couldn’t afford to stop. With a trembling hand, she pulled her phone from her pocket, dialed 911, and faltered through an explanation of what had happened.
By the time she hung up, Elle had started crying again. Karina leaned over and draped her arm around her, but she shook her off. Her sobs stabbed Karina’s gut.
He always had liked Elle best.
* * *
“Nothing’s going on,” she said, forcing herself to look her mother in the eye.
Her mother’s scowl deepened. “Well, then, I have no choice. You’re gonna stay with Aunt Holli for a while.”
Her breath left her in one fell swoop. “You…you can’t be serious. Do you know what she could do to me if—“
“Again with the fairy tales,” her mother groaned, rolling her eyes.
“It’s not fairy tales.” She had proof. The day when, as a child, she’d accidentally broken one of Aunt Holli’s vases. That night, she’d suffered the worst stomach flu of her life. The next time she’d seen Aunt Holli, she’d asked her, “How’re you feeling, Karina?” with a twang in her voice that she could not mistake, absurd though the conclusion it led to seemed.
The feral flicker in Aunt Holli’s eyes when a friend had told her that her ex-boyfriend—a man whom Aunt Holli had called “too dumb for a Darwin Award”—had died of a heart attack.
The book she had left on the coffee table a few months later. Karina had opened it and had just enough time to catch a glimpse of a diagram of an altar of some sort before Aunt Holli had snatched the book away and snapped, “Is your mother teaching you to put your mitts on other people’s stuff without permission?” Before Karina could answer, her skull had split with lightning-hot pain unlike any she had ever felt before or since, though nothing concrete had struck her.
She knew, however, that even those incidents had nothing on the worst that her aunt could, and would, if provoked, do to her.
“I’ll be good,” she promised her mother, stomach twisting. “I won’t do it again.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“I mean it this time.”
“Well, then, you can show your aunt.”
Not if I can help it.
She jumped to her feet, stalked to her room, and closed the door. Dropping onto her bed, she pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and hit the button for her aunt.
“Hello, dear,” she answered. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Tell my mom you’re not taking me.”
“Karina…” she chided, “What kind of sister would I be if I denied her help in her time of need?”
Heat flared in her chest. “Seriously, Aunt Holli. This isn’t gonna be good for any of us, so—“
“If you behave, you’ll have nothing to worry about.”
“And if I don’t?”
Aunt Holli took her sweet old time answering. “Well, then, I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“See you soon, deary.”
Before Karina could argue, she hung up.
Chest swelling, Karina grunted and hurled the phone at the wall. It thudded and hit the floor, possibly broken. It didn’t matter.
Where she was going, it wouldn’t do her a scintilla of good.
* * *
As they had as she had lain awake all the previous night, her stomach churned, and her pores gushed sweat despite chills snaking up her spine. She shoved the final items—a few pairs of socks she may very well not have the time to use—into her suitcase and straightened to see Elle standing in the doorway, smirking. “You’re gonna have so much fun, Kari,” she said, her words arsenic-laced honey.
“Can’t you give it a rest for once? Please?”
“That is,” Elle added, ignoring her, “as long as you do everything she says.”
“Go away, Elle.”
“Why? I just wanna say goodbye to my sister.”
“Fine. Goodbye.” And good riddance. Heat flared in her chest, but she tamped it down; no point in throwing a world she would soon leave into chaos.
Elle shook her head. “Come on, Kare, you can do better than that. After this, we might never see each other again.”
“She’s not gonna kill me.”
“Sure. Keep telling yourself that.” She turned and flitted off.
Karina froze, stomach burning and twisting, fists clenched so tightly that her nails broke the skin of her palms. Getting to leave Elle, she thought, would almost make throwing herself at her aunt’s feet worth it.
* * *
She stood on the platform, the whirs of distant trains acid on her eardrums. Her heart thudded, sweat plastering her blouse to her back. To her left, her mother shifted, flesh pale, arms crossed over her chest. Elle, on her right, maintained a straight face, but Karina recognized the all-too-familiar glint in her eyes.
A train approached and squealed to a stop.
Her mother turned and threw her arms around her. “Be good, Kari. I love you.”
Karina stiffly returned the embrace and pulled away.
By this time, a man who had been sitting on one of the benches on the edge of the platform had approached. He addressed her mother: “Excuse me, ma’am, do you know if there’s another station near here with a route to Darnell?”
Her mother turned to reply. Struggling atop wobbly legs, Karina grabbed her bag and headed for the open doors of the train. Elle followed. “Bon voyage,” she said, smirking.
She hadn’t noticed the tide rising to the brim of its banks, but those words added another gallon to it, and it spilled over, flooding her. She sprang forward without thinking about it; she hurled a fist at Elle’s jaw without thinking about it; she cackled as Elle screamed and slammed the concrete, without thinking about it.
The train’s doors closed, and the train shot away.
Elle lay motionless, a pool of blood swelling below her head.
“Oh my God, Karina, what’d you do?” her mother demanded, running toward them.
Panic shot through Karina. She glanced around as if expecting to see something that could help her take it back—as if anything could help her take it back. Her chest constricted, and she hugged herself, swaying. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
The man who had approached her mother had started talking. He’d called 911. They would come for her, and that would be it. She had done the crime; now, she would do the time.
“She was horrible to me—did you know that?” she blurted. She heard, as if from the outside, every last offense Elle had committed gush from her throat, her voice getting closer to breaking with each vehement word.
Her mother ignored her, dropping beside her injured daughter. She held her trembling hands above her motionless body, wanting but knowing better than to try to shake her awake.
Sirens sounded, at first soft but then crescendoing. Karina probably could have turned and dashed out of there before they got there. But she didn’t.
Medics rushed onto the platform, followed by police officers. The former attended to Elle. The latter approached Karina. They slapped on cuffs onto her wrists and shoved her toward the doors, reading her the Miranda Rights. She had the right to remain silent.
But she no longer had the will.