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When the police officer knocked on the dingy apartment door, she looked through the peephole and knew.
She invited him in, brewed herself a cup of coffee, and sat stiff and unfeeling on the couch while he gave her the news, scuffing her shoe on the dust-covered floor.
The officer said, “Are you alright, kid?”
She forced her face into a smile and nodded. “Yes, officer. I’m fine.” She walked him to the door, where he tried to convince her to go to the police station and she, in turn, convinced him that she was eighteen, a lie that was only off by a year or so, and slammed the door when he left, defeated.
Returning to the sofa, she sat and stared at a large black stain on the wall.
So it had finally happened, just as she’d known it would when Dad left. Her mother, the only one who had loved her, the one who took care of her and fed her and went to all her games no matter how tired, was dead.
Composing herself to this fact, she got up and went to the landline, where she dialed the number and waited.
Her mother’s friend’s voice burst into her ear. “Hello?”
She spoke, calmer than she might have expected. “Carla, Mom’s gone. Hit by a drunk on the way home.”
A gasp from the other end.
She went on: “They’re saying I have to go to the police station while they try to locate relatives to take care of me. Can you-”
Carla interrupted, her sobs audibly filling the phone. “I’ll be - right - over.”
Hanging up, she went down the hall. Her feet echoed, like they were screaming, “She’s not coming back!” On the outside, however, she was completely serene.
No signs of weakness. No absolute desolation.
Her bag took only moments to pack before she was ready. She had taken pains to garner only as many material possessions as she could not live without, and these were few.
She pulled the strap over her shoulder and carried it to the door of the apartment. There she paced, and continued until Carla arrived.
Carla’s son Alex was the one who knocked so sharply she jumped twenty feet in the air. He was seventeen, a year older than she, and they’d been friends since they were two. He was the only boy she had never even thought of having a crush on. His arms went out as soon as he was in the room and he pulled her against his chest. She took deep breaths and swallowed the lump in her throat.
Carla walked in behind him. Spending no words on the two of them, she walked out of the room, probably to see if there was anything to fetch before they left.
She leaned against Alex for a moment longer and then, ashamed of showing such weakness, bent down to fix her nonexistent shoelaces.
The room that Carla set up for her at their house was small, but much nicer than their entire home apartment. The whole place was pink and frilly, and had once belonged to Carla’s daughter, who was now in college.
The only thing that was going to get her between those pink sheets was an emergency. As this was just such a thing, she snuggled into the bed and turned to face the wall, letting her thoughts roil in her mind.
No tears stained her cheeks, no sobs shook her body. Tears were the only things that could shake one’s sanity; the oath she had taken at the age of ten to never again cry still held. Why make yourself so vulnerable like that?
A knock on the door made her shoot up. “Come in,” she called, swinging her legs around to sit up. Lying down was almost as bad as crying, unless you wanted to sleep.
It was Alex who entered, whose eyes were sad when they rested upon her. “Are you okay?” he asked, sitting down beside her.
She turned away, putting her back towards him. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Carla’s light tap could be heard on the door before she too entered. “I’ve heard from the police, hon, and they said your mom’s will was very clear. You’re going to have to go live with her sister in Minnesota.”
Minnesota. Was that even a real place?
“They’ll be coming to pick you up in three days, so your apartment can be leased and they won’t have to pay the next quarter’s rent on it.”
She could not be hearing this correctly. “Three days? So they can avoid rent money? Sounds like some real charmers.”
“You’ve never met them?” asked Alex, horror clear on his face..
“Of course not.” She lay down and sighed. It was too much. Too, too much. “Mom’s relatives hated her.”
“Honey, I would take you if there was any way.” Carla fled, leaving her alone with Alex. There was silence for a long moment, before she sighed and made her body as stiff as was possible.
Alex spoke first. “It’s going to be okay.” He scooted closer to her.
She snorted through her nose. As though in a dream she heard her own voice. “Okay? How can it possibly be okay? We’re going to have to live with relatives we’ve never met, and they don’t sound like pleasant people at all. I wanted to go to college, but I don’t think I can. Mom’s gone. No college for me. I’ll never amount to anything. And you just say everything’s going to be okay.” A bitter laugh escaped before she could suck it back. “I’m very reassured, Alex. Very.”
He sighed and scooted even closer, so close their hips were touching. “I don’t know what you’re feeling right now. I’ve never lost a parent, never had my dad walk out and leave nothing behind. But I do know this. You’re going to survive. It’s all going to be okay. I promise. I don’t know how, but you’re going to be okay.”
She stared at the wall. There were no chips in the perfect pink paint for her to focus on. She tried not to let her frustration translate to her voice. “I don’t know how you can know that. I’m not sure I’ll ever be okay.” The lump began to grow in her throat again, but she swallowed it back down before it was able to escape.
He sighed and put his arm around her. She sat stiff and tried to be unfeeling. There was no way she could maintain this silence, but he seemed determined to make it a contest: who could go longer without replying?
The lump grew larger and larger in her throat. She swallowed hard. Hot tears began to burn in her eyes and she fought for that sense of power that control offered her. It wasn’t working. It had always worked before. Panic rose like a fountain. Why wasn’t it working?
The sob burst out before she could stop it. She covered her face with her hands, too mortified to look at the boy beside her, afraid of his rejection.
But it was a mark of his own chivalry that he didn’t try to cuddle her or anything like that. Instead, he said, “Let me get my mom.”
And when Carla came running, sat down on the bed beside her, and held her, she melted against her and let the pain flow out of her body. It was the most painful experience she had ever had.
Her mom, her guardian, her protector, was gone. Forever. And she could cry about it.
There would be no funeral. There had never been enough for even movie tickets once in a while, there would be nothing for a funeral or wake or anything like that. Her mom would be cremated and they would scatter her ashes on the river in the middle of town, the place she had specifically asked for in her will. And yes, it would be up to her to take care of herself. There could be no trusting of the cousins.
But for now, Carla was holding her up. She would have to do it alone very soon, but she wasn’t alone right now. It was, as Alex had said, going to be okay. She took a deep breath and let it out slow, shudderingly slowly.
She didn’t know how, but she was going to be okay.