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Wil awoke with a start, scattering the pillows and sheets with their smell of an unfamiliar fabric softener. His surroundings were dark and featureless, as if someone had wrapped black construction paper around his head.
He moved his hands to his eyes, but there was nothing.
His fingers realized this, and his mind slowly remembered where he was. It all came back in a sickening lurch that made him feel as if the entire bed was plummeting from a great height.
I'm at Aunt Peg's house .
Maddie's in the other room .
We live here now because Mom and Dad are dead .
It was a curiously flat word to Wil, like pancakes, or jeans or television. Just a normal word that he used many times now during the course of a day, often without even knowing it.
Wil took a deep, shuddering breath, squeezed his eyes shut.
In fact, it seemed as if all he'd done during the past two weeks was think about death and talk about death. How adults liked to talk about death. Except to them, it wasn't death, it was a "loss." They told him what a great "loss" it was; as if his parents were like misplaced keys or a billfold that would turn up sometime soon in an unexpected place, none the worse for wear.
This was no "loss." It was more permanent than that.
If those same adults weren't discussing your "loss"-or if you didn't want to join them-they were eating and forcing food on you. Wil hoped that it would be a long while until he saw another baked ham, potato casserole or bowl of ambrosia salad.
Living with Aunt Peg was not his choice, but at least she didn't seem likemuch for talking, about anything much less the loss of her sister and her brother-in-law. Peg was a professor of mathematics, single and taciturn. She'd no children of her own, and knew little of raising them.
But it wasn't all bad. She didn't press them to talk or try to comfort them or hover over them in any way. And she wasn't forcing ham and green bean casserole into them. In fact, since they had come into her house, she'd pretty much left them to their own devices. And her house, once a sorority house, was big enough to get lost in.
The room Wil slept in had, at one time, been home to four girls and their amazing array of stuff-clothing and makeup and shoes and books and posters of long-forgotten boy bands. Now, it was largely empty, with only Wil's twin bed huddled against one wall and his dresser and a few cardboard boxes to fill it. During the day, his possessions barely made an impression on the room. Now, with the room in early morning twilight, they made no impression at all.
In fact, the room was so large that, here in the dawn, Wil had no definite idea where the walls were. For all he knew, he could be dead, too; somewhere dark and unbounded and featureless, with his parents cold and silent somewhere close by.
He shivered again.
A faint smell came to him, winding its way through the room.
Maddie was downstairs making toast for breakfast because, he still couldn't believe it, Aunt Peg didn't know how to cook.
If there was one thing that his parents' death had hammered home to Wil at the young age of just 12 years, it was that death wasn't fair. As with so many things in life, there were rules without end for the things that meant little, yet no rules governing the most important things.
Will drew a hand through his hair, tossed the covers off, got out of bed.
Wil's footfalls resounded through Aunt Peg's cavernous house, echoing off the polished hardwood floors of the hallway as if he were inside a school gym playing a pick-up game of basketball.
Today was Peg's first full day back after the summer break. She would leave this morning to get her office in order, review her class load for the term and-more important, Wil guessed-to get away from him and Maddie.
Copyright © 2006 John F.D. Taff.