Iremember the plane going down. Not the crash exactly, but the moments before—and while it must have been only moments, when I look back, it takes much longer.
I was sitting with my forehead pressed against the tiny window, looking through the cloudless air at farms and settlements passing below me, when the engine exploded, rocking the plane into a crazy tilt that tossed me back and forth in my seat. The actual blast was surprisingly quiet— muffled by the insulated fuselage, I imagine—but the billowing clouds of coal-black smoke pouring off the wing were impossible to miss.
Every nerve in my body clanged, but my eyes stayed riveted to the roiling smoke that streamed back from the engine just feet from my window. My aching fingers clung to the armrests to hold myself steady as the plane dipped forward, then plunged, the momentum forcing me against my seat.
The pop and hiss of hundreds of oxygen masks, springing from the ceiling like venomous snakes, startled my attention away from the smoking wing. Reflexes honed by dozens of droning safety speeches sent hands darting out to grab the oxygen masks, the adults securing their own masks before assisting others.
But I didn’t bother with mine.
Not even when my mother pushed it at me, her eyes dancing with terror as she gripped my father’s arm so tightly I knew her fingernails must be drawing blood.
It was the flight attendant who made me understand. Two of them were standing in the aisle, trying to get everyone’s attention, demonstrating the crash position—like that was going to help. But I focused on the third one. He wasn’t attempting to buckle up or help the passengers; he just stood, his body strangely still amid the chaos, looking out the window, two tears rolling down his cheeks.
That’s when I knew we were all about to die.
And in that moment, my fear melted away and I felt completely at peace. No life flashing before my eyes or sudden aching regrets. Just an overwhelming peace.
I relaxed, stopped struggling, and watched out the window as the ground rushed up to swallow me.
I stare at the photos in horror. It has to be true; there’s no other explanation.
The timing couldn’t be better.
“She’s gone?” I ask in my iciest voice. I’m not mad at him; I’m mad at myself for not seeing it sooner. I should have. Everything balances on a knife’s edge and this could destroy it all.
Or save it.
“We’re doing everything we can.” He’s nattering on about their efforts, but I don’t have the patience to listen. I walk over to the window, arms crossed over my chest, staring down at the lush garden below, seeing nothing.
Not nothing. Seeing her face. That face I’ve known since almost before I can remember my own. That face I thought I was finally free of.
Except now I can never be free. I need her. We need her. It’s difficult not to choke on the bitter irony that after everything she’s done, I need her. Without her, everything will fall to pieces.
Worse than it has already.
And I almost killed her.
Therapy is the epitome of the best and worst of everything in my life. I sit ramrod straight on the couch, tears threatening to spill. I blink, forcing them back. Not because I’m embarrassed—I’ve cried gallons in front of Elizabeth. I’m just sick to death of crying. I don’t like to talk about my parents, but it’s Elizabeth’s job to make me once in a while. Like today. She tried to focus on happy memories, but this time all that did was remind me that they’re never going to happen again. That chapter of my life is over. Gone. Forever. A huge, gaping forever. “Hey,” Elizabeth says, startling me back to her office with an audible gasp. “It could be worse. You could be a brain-injured orphan with a weak leg and be having a bad hair day.” For just a second I stare at her, wide-eyed, trying to decide if the joke is funny or not. But her expression—melodramatic concern with just a hint of true sympathy behind it—cracks through my shell and I start to laugh and swipe at my eyes at the same time.
I have, I admit, kind of a weird relationship with my therapist. I theorize it’s because neither of us thinks I’m crazy.
She doesn’t even let me call her Dr. Stanley—which is what the diplomas hanging on her wall say—just Elizabeth. At first I thought it was one of those cheap shortcuts adults try to take with teenagers to get them to relax and spill their guts, but Elizabeth seriously squirmed every time I called her Dr. Stanley and after a while I finally switched. Now it comes naturally.
“Seriously, Tavia,” Elizabeth says, her voice soft and sober. “It’s not supposed to be easy. I think you’re very brave and that you’re handling things extremely well.”
“It doesn’t feel like it,” I admit, shrugging into a black hoodie. I’ve always liked sweatshirts in general, but these days, anything that covers my head—and with it the scar beneath my still-too-short hair—is a distinct preference.
“Then trust my professional analysis,” Elizabeth says with a smile as she escorts me through the darkened and empty waiting room. “You’re not walking home, are you?” she asks once we reach the exit. We had to reschedule our regular appointment, so it’s after hours and her secretary—Secretary Barbie, I call her, because her face looks like plastic and she basically never talks to me—has already gone home.
“No, Reese is coming.” I usually do walk—on the orders of my physical therapist—but since it’ll be getting dark soon, Reese insisted on picking me up today.
I guess that’s fine.
True to her organized, punctual personality, my aunt is already waiting for me, her BMW parked right in front of the door. She leans across the car, pushing the passenger door open and giving Elizabeth a little finger wave.
“Hey, Tave. How was it?” she asks as she pulls away from the curb, her eyes scanning the road.
“It was therapy,” I say, clicking my seat belt. “It was therapeutic.” I lean my head against the passenger-side window, not wanting to talk about it. Therapy is . . . well, it’s personal. And even though I’m immensely grateful to Reese and my uncle, Jay, for taking in a step-niece they hardly knew, they don’t really feel like family.
Luckily, Reese takes the hint and flips the radio on as we turn out of the parking lot. She has a never-ending well of patience. For me, at least. Clients on the phone? Not so much.
As we drive, I take in the streets around me—Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is one of the United States’ oldest cities and they do a really good job of preserving colonial sites. I’m a closet history nerd, and the first couple of months I was here, I would walk for as long as my injured leg would let me, exploring the monuments and markers and museums. It feels fitting, somehow—a city mired in its past, me trapped in my own.
And the whole city is so beautiful. I love old buildings—they just don’t build them the same way anymore. There’s a grace and beauty to them that society has lost. No matter how elegant the whole deco thing is supposed to be, there’s something in the hand-carved intricacies of colonial architecture that sets off a mourning within me for what once was.
My favorites are the occasional perfectly preserved eighteenth-century houses nestled amid modern homes in a normal neighborhood. Like a treasure, hidden in the sand, just waiting to be discovered. It’s hard to find them while driving around at the breakneck speed Reese favors, because they’re usually set back from the road and often sheltered by the leafy canopy of an ancient tree. But when I walk alone, I look for them. I’d love to know the stories behind them, but I’m too nervous to go knock on some stranger’s door.
I take pictures instead and make up stories in my mind. I swear I have about a thousand photos on my phone. I wish . . . I wish I could sketch them, paint them.
But I haven’t been able to draw since the accident.
Still, something about these old homes soothes me; calls to me, almost. I pull out my phone and scroll through to one of the pictures of my favorite house and zoom in, trying to imagine painting the wooden slats in watercolors, the hint of sheer curtains I can see through the windows.
“I got stuck on the phone until just before I had to pick you up.” My brain slowly realizes that Reese is talking to me. “I didn’t think you’d mind.” She looks at me expectantly.
“I’m sorry, I . . . what?” I shove my phone in my old red backpack. I’m afraid spacing out is my specialty these days.
I didn’t used to be like this.
“Do you mind if I stop by the store for milk? We’re out,” Reese repeats, turning the radio down a little lower.
I dolefully consider the snooty, locally grown, organic food store Reese frequents. Great. “Can I wait in the car? My—my leg is sore,” I lie.
Sort-of lie. It’s been three months since I got out of the cast, but shattered is the word my doctors used to describe the breaks both above and below my right knee. Something like that takes time to bounce back from, even without taking into account my decreased gracefulness since brain surgery last year.
At least that’s what the physical therapists keep telling me when I get discouraged.
A wrinkle appears between Reese’s brows for just a second before she accepts my excuse. “Sure thing—I’ll only be a few minutes.”
She leaves the car running. As soon as she’s out of sight, I turn the heater up and lean my head against the window.
The edges of the parking lot still have a few mounds of slate-gray snow that haven’t quite melted, but it won’t be long. Green blades are poking through last year’s crinkly brown grass and tulips are popping up all over town.
At least it’s not hailing, like yesterday.
It’s that almost-spring time of year—jacket weather, not overcoat weather. But the weather has been weird all year. In February all the snow melted and the newscasters were predicting drought and heat waves. But two weeks later three feet of snow dumped on us in a single night. Once the snowplows finally dug themselves out and cleared the roads, everything more or less went back to being winter. But still, it’s been a strange few months.
I pull my jacket a little tighter around me, remembering the couple days we had below zero—not to mention the killer ice storm right before— and hold my hands out in front of the vents. Other than the hoodie, I’m not really dressed for winter. I should probably wear something other than my old tank tops and screen tees, at least until summer, but that would require going shopping and I don’t like spending money that isn’t mine. Even if Reese says her money is my money. I’m going to have to break down and buy a new pair of jeans soon, though—these ones are pretty threadbare at the knees. Because I’m tall and fairly thin, but with very long legs, I always have trouble finding jeans that aren’t too short. So when I do, I wear them to shreds, which is about where this pair is sitting now.
As my fingertips warm, I scan the slowly darkening street, letting my gaze linger on a house across the road. It’s painted a cheery red and has a whole bed of maroon and gold tulips in front of the veranda. A little girl is sitting on the porch, playing with a doll. I smile when I see she’s dressed in a cute old-fashioned dress and pinafore—not unusual, here. In towns as old as Portsmouth, there’s always some kind of reenactment going on, usually of the American Revolution. This little girl looks great. Authentic.
Well, her clothes are probably a little too brightly colored and those curls are undoubtedly from a curling iron, not overnight curling rags, but hey—that’s what modern conveniences are for. A smile steals across my face as I realize the doll is even that old-fashioned rag type.
Her cute little chin jerks up and I see a man walk out of the house to join her on the porch.
Not a man, I guess. Too young to be her dad. I only see a wisp of his face, but he looks about eighteen, same as me. Maybe a tad older. Reenactments must be a family affair in the red house because he’s dressed in a navy-blue jacket and has a tall hat atop golden blond hair that’s pulled back at the nape of his neck.
He’s nice to look at; I won’t complain about that.
Sadly, his luxurious hair is probably a wig. Most people aren’t hard core enough to actually grow it out. And the ones who are; well, they’re a little scary in their own right.
As the guy crouches by the little girl, I wonder why breeches went out of style. Let’s just say they look amazing from the back. I arch an eyebrow in appreciation and squint to get a better look, glad the Beemer has dark-tinted windows and I can enjoy my little eye-candy feast in private. It seems like my moments of casual contentment are so few and far between these days.
The guy stands with the little girl’s hand in his. Showtime, I suspect.
As if sensing my laser-focused gaze, he pauses, then turns. My mouth goes dry when he stares pointedly in my direction.
He can’t see me, can he? The tinting on Reese’s car windows is almost a mirror from the outside. But his eyes stay focused and widen in an expression of surprise I can make out even from here.
He takes a few steps in my direction and I clench my fists as his eyes burn into mine. I’m certain he can’t know I’m here. How . . .?
On the second step he stops and looks back at the little girl, who’s gripping his hand and pulling him back. He pauses, hesitates. He looks at the girl for a moment, then back at the car, his expression conflicted.
I can’t look away, even though I feel warmth rushing to my cheeks. From this distance I can’t tell what color his eyes are, but they pin me in place and it takes a few seconds to realize I’m holding my breath.
A sudden chime from my phone shatters the silence and breaks the spell. I look down to see a text pop up labeled Benson Ryder.
“Perfect timing,” I mutter. But I can’t suppress a smile as I jet off a quick response.
I had friends back in Michigan—in my former life, as I tend to think of it—but they were casual. My art was my life, and friends tended to pull me away from that. At-school friends, I guess. When Reese and Jay told me I’d have to cut contact with everyone in Michigan to keep my location a secret from the media, I admit I wasn’t sad to give them up. They felt . . . frivolous.
Benson, is . . . well, it’s just different. I see him almost every day. We text a lot. Have long phone calls sometimes.
And he knows. Everything.
No one else does.
Being the sole survivor of a major disaster leads to attention. Questions. And that means having to remember—the pain, the surgeries, the shaky memories.
It’s easier to lie, to just tell everyone I broke my leg in a car wreck. No one questions it. Sometimes they tell me I’m lucky to be alive.
The people who say that have never lost anyone close to them.
My doctors know what happened, my physical therapist, Elizabeth, and of course Reese and Jay, but no one else. Fewer people to leak my location to the media, who would love to swoop in and grab an exclusive story, even months after the fact.
Well, I told Benson too. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say Benson worked it out of me. Not exactly unwillingly. The closer I got to Benson, the more I wanted to tell him. To stop lying. When it finally came out, it was a huge relief. It was nice to tell the truth. Especially to someone I chose.
I haven’t mentioned to Reese that I spilled it all to him. I don’t know if she’d be mad or not—it’s my life, after all—but the fact that I’m not sure is reason enough for me not to tell her.
Besides, Benson will keep my secret.
Sometimes I think I need him—need our easy camaraderie—and that scares me.
Everyone I’ve ever needed in my life is dead.
As soon as I hit send, my eyes dart back to the tall boy on the porch with the little girl, but they’ve gone in. I try to shake off the bizarre melancholy that has enveloped me. I stare at the house—wishing, I guess, for the strangers to reappear—and just as I blink, something flashes over the door. I open my eyes wide, but the flash is gone.
No, not completely gone—
Almost like a shadow in my peripheral vision, so faint I have to blink a few times to make sure I see it, a shape glitters just above the door. A triangle.
And for reasons I can’t comprehend or explain, my heart begins to race.