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The first time she sees her again, it’s six in the morning and Dave is still asleep. It’s only in a glimpse through the frost on the window, as she looks out into the white woods. Her coffee mug shatters as she jumps; the dog barks and the phantom disappears, whisked away in the icy wind.
She can hear the bed creaking upstairs, and it’s a rush to clean up before someone gets hurt from the broken pieces. It’s Friday, which means the children will be more inattentive than usual, ready to bolt for a two-day reprise from school. She fixes some eggs, puts out the dog’s breakfast, writes an appropriately sentimental note for Dave, and is closing the door just as the clock strikes seven.
The face in the school bathroom’s mirror glares at her.
She looks away before anyone notices, staring instead at her hands as they scrub away the dirt. She has three hours and seventeen minutes, including lunch, until the end of school, and then she could finally leave. So she pins her stray red hairs back into her bun, brushes the lint off her blouse, and smiles politely to Mrs. Smith, the math teacher, as she vacates the washroom. The students will be asking for her, made anxious by her absence.
She’s surprised to find, upon returning from her weekly book club meeting, a bath already drawn for her. There are red roses scattered in the tub. She’s suddenly off balance, struggling to find her breath when Dave appears behind her. He kisses her softly on the neck, and she shivers because he’s her husband.
He whispers into her ear about how tense she seemed this afternoon, the way she had been perfect these past months, and how he is so happy to be with her, his dear Jenna. She lets his words wash over, comforting her far more than the water lapping at her neck. She paints her answer in similar hues, and the words are so familiar now that she almost forgets it’s all a lie. Six wonderful married years together, he tells her, and she allows an ironic smile to grace her lips when she asks if it has really been that long.
People never mention Lila to her. It’s as if the name of her dead sister is the key to breaking her and regressing her back to before when she was irresponsible and erratic and not in control. She does hear regretful murmurs, sometimes; what a waste, they sigh, she had such potential before throwing it away with that man, and she wants to laugh because what do they know. Except the laughter would come out more hysterical than scornful and she can’t let her image split open after all the hard work she put into this. So she shuts them out and retreats back into the house, quiet and cozy and loving (isn’t that the reason she did it?).
Everything from that day is like crystal, preserved in her mind for eternity. She remembers driving in the heart of winter to the lake, her sister sleeping in the back seat with her red hair splayed out. This was their second time together in six months, only the third time in six years. Their paths had diverged many years ago, seven summers perhaps, after college and innocence and love had faded into bitter reality.
She climbed to edge of the frozen lake, the snow staining her new boots. She heaved the axe over her shoulder and down onto the ice, and their meeting resounded like a gong. She started at the clamor, before remembering that she was alone in the darkness. It didn’t take long then, six strikes and the ice ruptured to reveal the freezing water. She grabbed her sister, tugging her along to the edge of the shore. She hesitated for a moment, caught in the last gasp of a submerging consciousness. It was little more than a slight tinge, though, and the water soon bloomed red.
“Turns out I was wrong,” she breathed, repressing the anger that matched her new hair, “but I’m fixing it.” Withdrawing from the lake, she walked towards her new life, filled with second chances. It didn’t matter that they were stolen. She just needed to get it right, this time around.
“Farewell, Jenna,” Lila said into the vacant space, “and thanks for the life.”
“You ready, Jenna?” Lila asks, leaning back so that her dark hair seems swallowed by the night. “To enter the real world after college?”
“I’m the one who has a job offer and a fiancé,” Jenna responds. “I think I can deal with anything. You’re the one without a plan.”
“Perhaps,” Lila responds, lips curled around her martini glass. “I don’t need one.”
Jenna laughs. “That’s what you think. In eleven years, when you’re alone and working all the time, don’t look for me.”
“Never be too sure of the future, Jenna. It can surprise you.”