The stitches on her arm reminded Quinn of Frankenstein. In less than a day, she became a girl she didn’t recognize, tossed into the sea of uncertainty. She tucked Tara into bed, left the little lamp on and the big light off, and left the door open a crack. She tiptoed down the stairs and found herself in the kitchen. Glass crunched beneath the soles of her sneakers. Yanking open the pantry door, she glanced about the tiny room for the broom and dustpan. Only shadows greeted her. Quinn flipped on the light, but the broom was not in its usual spot.
Frowning, she moved further into the pantry. It was about the size of a closet, and she didn’t actually need to go all the way in to see everything, but the broom being out of place was just so wrong. She turned and went back into the kitchen, eyes scanning like those of a feverish man looking for water. All she saw was the broken glass and ceramic littering the floor.
The broom wasn’t on the porch, either, and soon she found herself walking down the stairs to the basement. She flipped the light on and stood at the bottom of the stairs. At first glance, nothing looked wrong. After a moment, though, she saw the dried drops of blood on the neatly swept concrete floor. Her knees buckled, and she collapsed onto the floor, scraping her knees. Tears ran down her cheeks, and she wailed like a five-year-old. Her fingers clutched at the blanket in a pile of dirty laundry, and she dug her nails in. Clasping her injured arm to her chest, she doubled over. Her body went limp.
Her tears soaked the blanket and she gasped for air, but still the sobs came. The abyss pulled her in and cradled her, and she gave herself to it. All Quinn could think of was what might have happened if Tara had gone down into the basement with her, or if their mother had found them in the closet.
She cried out, and clasped a hand to her mouth. She did not want Tara to know she was so upset. Quinn snorted. “Upset” seemed like such a lax word for how she felt. Slowly she worked herself into a sitting position. Wiping her eyes with the pads of her fingers, she blinked into the dark. She squared her shoulders and took a slow, deep breath, practicing what her old yoga instructor taught her. She did not move her body. Instead, she focused on her breathing, until the panic and fear and other emotions swirled away, and all she could sense was the soft in and out of her breath, the air whooshing through her lungs.
Composed, she got to her feet, still maintaining the slow breathing. She brushed the dirt from her hands. As she stared at her palms, she remembered why she came into the basement in the first place. Forehead crinkling and eyebrows knitting, she searched the small laundry room. She even looked in the garage, where her mother’s car still sat. She realized with glee that she would have free reign of the car while her mother was away. A pit of guilt knotted itself into her stomach, and she brushed away fresh tears. Closing the basement door behind her, she returned to the room they used for laundry, and went back upstairs.
The broom, it seemed, had vanished along with her mother’s sanity. Quinn bit down on her lip, staring down at the glass glittering in the light. It would have to wait until the morning, when she could drive down to Walmart or something and get another one, or she could go to a neighbor’s and ask for one.
Grimacing, she leaned against the refrigerator. Their neighbors had to have heard the noise or at least noticed all of the emergency vehicles that morning. Whoever she went to would have questions, or they would stare at her, or say something stupid. Still, she really didn’t want the mess to still be there when Tara got up in the morning. Her little sister needed some semblance of normalcy, and Nancy always kept a clean house.
At the thought of her mother, fresh tears pricked at Quinn’s eyes, and the pit of guilt grew. She swallowed hard and straightened. Pushing off from the refrigerator, she grabbed her zip-up hoodie and pulled it on as she walked through the front door. Standing on the front porch, she surveyed her neighborhood.
Directly next door in the adjoining duplex apartment, Donna would have heard everything. Plus, Quinn surmised, her seventeen-year-old son was really creepy. She suspected that he tortured the stray cats that wandered into their yard. No, she would not ask them for help.
The Na sisters lived in the house directly across the street, but they mostly kept to themselves, and Quinn didn’t think they spoke English, anyway. She heard they came from Cambodia to escape the sex trafficking trade. Quinn didn’t know if that was true, but with the language barrier, it would take entirely too long to ask for a broom.
She sighed and began walking across the lawn to the other house next door, a three-family home. The elderly man on the first floor usually swept the stairs and front walk at least once a week. Quinn suspected this had more to do with boredom than some strange generational fascination with dirt, but he kept the broom and dustpan on the porch. She could just borrow it for a few minutes, and then return it before anyone noticed, or asked her questions about that morning.
Her feet tapped lightly on the wooden stairs, and the boards creaked underneath her weight. The broom rested against the mailbox. She reached out to grab it.
“That’s not yours,” a cigarette choked voice said.
Quinn turned to find the third floor tenant, a single mother of four children. The woman smoked at least four packs a day, probably because her kids never stopped running around. In the two years Quinn, Tara, and Nancy had lived next door, she had never seen any of those children doing anything quiet, like reading a book. They screamed and yelled even when they were supposed to be sleeping.
The woman raised an eyebrow at Quinn and inhaled, smoking half her cigarette in one breath. Smoke curled toward Quinn, and she brushed it away with her hand.
“I’m sure Henry wouldn’t mind,” Quinn said.
“Henry doesn’t get a say in this, because that’s my broom.” She jabbed a thumb into her own chest. “His broke.”
Quinn bit down on her lip. She didn’t know her neighbor’s name. “Can I borrow it from you, then?”
“Nope.” The woman finished the rest of her cigarette and tucked it into an overflowing ashtray. She immediately lit another. “That’s my good broom.” Dark circles underlined her eyes.
“I’ll bring it right back,” Quinn promised.
The woman snorted. “A guy said that about my car once. A week later, I found out I was knocked up, and didn’t have a car.”
“I’m sorry?” Quinn said, unsure of what else to say. “I’m not going to steal your broom, though.”
The woman pointed at Quinn’s house with a yellowed fingernail. “You live over there?”
“Yep. I’ll bring it right back over—“
“You’re the one that went in the ambulance, huh?” her neighbor asked. “What the hell happened?” She pointed at the stitches.
Quinn groaned. “I really don’t think we should—“
“If you tell me, I’ll let you keep the broom.” The woman smiled, exposing yellow teeth. She finished her second cigarette and lit a third.
Crickets chirped as the moon rose in the sky. A light evening breeze ruffled the small hairs on Quinn’s arms and brought a fresh stream of smoke into her face. She crinkled her nose. “I’ll tell you if you stop blowing smoke at me.”
“That’s not how it works,” the third floor creature said, but she turned away the next time she exhaled.
Quinn gave her the short version of what happened that morning. The woman’s eyes fixed intently on her the entire time she spoke. She left out that her mother had been getting worse and worse.
“Poor thing,” the woman said. She lit yet another cigarette, and held the pack out to Quinn. Quinn shook her head. “Suit yourself.” She pocketed the cigarettes and eyed Quinn for a moment. “So what are you gonna do?”
Quinn closed her fingers around the handle of the broom. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” she said. She bent to pick up the dustpan.
“I didn’t say you could take that, too,” her neighbor said.
“Are you serious?” Quinn stamped her foot.
“If you tell me what you’re gonna do, I’ll let you take the dustpan.”
Quinn rolled her eyes and left the dustpan on the porch. She hurried back across the lawn. When she got into her own house, she locked the door behind her. “Nosy freakin’ nut job,” she muttered. As she began sweeping the mess in the kitchen, though, she realized she had no idea what she was going to do.
She worked the broom through, the glass scraping against the floor as she swept. Her mother had one sister, who lived all the way in Texas. Nancy and Mary Lynn despised each other. Quinn doubted her aunt would take Tara, and even if Aunt Mary Lynn did, Texas was a long way from Connecticut.
Pausing, she took stock of her progress. Most of the glass sat in a pile, but there were smaller pieces. The vacuum would make too much noise, and it was heavy, anyway. She could just vacuum first thing in the morning, but she wanted everything clean before she went to bed. She had a long day ahead of her. Eventually, she would even have to sort through all of her things for her college dorm, and either return them or put them to use in the apartment.
She froze, her fingers tightening around the broom handle. During orientation a couple weeks before, she discovered that her dorm room really was just one room. The resident assistant who led orientation and the tour said that students could have guests stay over or until two in the morning. There was no limit to how many times a guest could stay, except during finals week, when overnight visitors weren’t allowed. Her heart pounded in her chest. She had her mother’s car. She could easily drive Tara back and forth to school. Waterbury was only forty-five minutes away from the university. No one would have to know that Tara never actually left the dorms otherwise.
They would have to be careful. The Department of Children and Families would be checking in with her periodically, especially as her mother’s trial progressed. Quinn couldn’t remember exactly what the social worker said, but her mother would be in the hospital for fifteen days, and then a judge would decide what to do with her. If Nancy got better and came home, Quinn would only have to hide Tara for two weeks.
Quinn finished cleaning up the kitchen, her mind organizing a list of things to pack for Tara.
* * *
Sunlight streamed through the windows. Quinn shut off the vacuum just as Tara came down the stairs. Both the living room and kitchen were free from glass, but she made Tara keep her flip flops on, just in case.
Her little sister pointed to the two suitcases on the living room floor. One was large and fit most of Quinn’s summer and fall clothes. The second was much smaller and decorated with Tinker Bell and other Disney fairies, and only held a few changes of clothing for Tara. “What are those for?”
Quinn took a deep breath, took her sister by the hand, and led her to the couch. She explained her plan, carefully emphasizing how important it was to keep everything a secret.
“So, I’m going to college?”
“Well, no. I mean, sort of.” Quinn pulled her dark brown hair back into a ponytail. “You’re not going to be a student.”
“I get to stay at my old school?” Tara twirled a strand of hair around her finger. In the last five years, they had moved at least ten times. Getting used to a new school every time had been hard on Quinn. She couldn’t imagine what it had been like for Tara.
Quinn gently pulled her little sister’s hand away and began braiding her hair. “Yes. But you can’t tell anyone what we’re doing.”
“What about Mom? Where will she stay?”
Quinn bit down on her lip. Sweat broke out along her palms. She did not really know how to explain that their mother would be away for a while, possibly for a long time. “Mom’s going to get better,” she said finally. Tara seemed to accept the answer, and let her finish braiding her hair.
Less than an hour later, they sped down Route 69, all the windows of the car down. They passed farm houses and acres of meadows full of horses. Tara watched, wide eyed, through the passenger’s seat window. There weren’t any horses in Waterbury.
Between New Haven traffic and getting turned around, it took them about an hour to get to the university. Once they got on campus, Quinn ended up in the wrong parking lot. An old man wearing a blue jacket embroidered with the words Parking Lot Attendant halted them at the entrance.
“I’m sorry,” Quinn said. “I need to get to West.”
He mumbled directions that Quinn didn’t quite understand, then allowed her into the lot so that she could turn around.
In front of her, a minivan full of plastic storage bins did the same. She decided to follow the minivan. They seemed just as new as her. Both cars eased back out into traffic. The minivan zipped in and out between cars, though, and she lost them at the next light. Tears stung her eyes. If she couldn’t even navigate the university, she would never be able to get Tara to school on time.
None of the buildings resembled the dormitory she had visited weeks before. She continued up a hill. Slowly, the brick buildings became shingled houses. Frowning, she slowed. A car behind her honked its horn. She turned her signal light on and pulled over. As soon as they passed, she pulled back onto the road, crawling.
When she crested a hill, she spotted another building. The sign out front announced it as a magnet school. She squeezed the steering wheel to keep her tears at bay. She eased the car into the parking lot and made a U-turn. Then, she drove back the way she came. She pulled back onto Fitch Street, where a caravan of other cars filled with plastic bins slogged through traffic. One of them let her in, and she followed the rest. They went up the street and turned onto Wintergreen Avenue. She spotted the West campus dormitories and, following other cars, found her building.
Finally, she pulled into a visitor parking space in front of the dormitory. She shut off the engine and unbuckled her seatbelt. Her hands shook.
“Are you okay?” Tara asked, taking off her own seatbelt.
Resident assistants ran back and forth from cars to the building with new students’ items in rolling carts. Someone had brought a whole book case. Two resident assistants lifted it from the ground and tried to fit it into a cart. The cart rolled away, and the students dropped the book case. One of them swore loudly. The owner of the book case put her hands on her hips and screamed right into the resident assistant’s face. His eyes widened and he flinched backward.
Quinn glanced at her own things in the back seat. She only had her and Tara’s suitcases, plus a pristine white hamper filled with toiletries and school supplies. She wouldn’t need any help.
Someone knocked on her window. A blonde wearing a white tee shirt that said ResLife Move-in Day waved.
Quinn opened the car door.
“Good morning!” the older girl chirped. She held a clipboard. A whistle on a string hung around her neck.
“Morning!” Tara called back.
The girl waved to Tara, then turned her attention back to Quinn. “Are you ready to move in?” She gestured to a muscular guy waiting behind one of the carts. He wore the same Move-In Day tee shirt.
“Oh, I don’t have that much—“
“We’ve got this,” the guy said, giving her a wink. He opened the back seat door and pulled out the hamper.
“Pop your trunk,” the blonde girl said.
Quinn opened her mouth to object, thinking of the Tinker Bell suitcase, but the guy was already loading her hamper and box into the cart, and the blonde tugged impatiently at the trunk. Sighing, Quinn pressed the button for the trunk and climbed out of the car.
The guy hefted Quinn’s suitcase out and into the cart. Only Tara’s little suitcase remained.
Her little sister reached for it, but Quinn caught her hand and began to close the trunk.
“Wait,” the blonde girl said. She pointed to Tara’s suitcase. “Is this yours, sweetie?”
Tara nodded, and Quinn felt her heart jump into her throat.
“I love Tinker Bell!” the older girl exclaimed.
Quinn let out a sigh of relief.
“Are you staying the night?” the blonde girl asked.
Quinn’s heart lurched into her throat again, and she groped for an explanation. She had never considered that she might not be able to have a guest during her first weekend on campus.
Before she could say anything, Tara nodded, a huge grin spreading across her face.
Eyes wide, Quinn cut in. “It’s just so she knows her big sister isn’t, like, moving away or anything.” She winked at the blonde girl.
“I get it,” the guy said. “My little sister and I are really close, too.” He smiled and lifted Tara’s suitcase easily, then put it on top of the other items in the cart.
The blonde girl took Quinn’s hand. “Let’s get your dorm keys!” she said, tugging Quinn behind her.
Quinn grabbed Tara’s hand, and they entered the building in a human chain.
The guy rolled the cart into the elevator, and pressed the button to keep the doors open. Quinn queued up with a few other freshman. When it was her turn, she flashed her student ID at the girl behind the desk, and was given a single metal key. For some reason, she had expected a plastic card key, like the ones that hotels used.
“Your student ID gets you into the building,” the blonde explained as they joined the guy in the elevator. “Your key gets you into your room, like a house key.”
Quinn pocketed it. She made a mental note to get a lanyard or some other keychain later.
Upstairs, she and Tara followed the two older students to a door decorated with hearts. Each heart held a name written in glitter: Quinn, Juleyka, and Zoleen.
“Go on, go in,” the blonde said, bouncing on her feet.
Quinn put her hand on the door handle, then hesitated. “Are my roommates already here?” she asked.
“You’ll have to go in to find out,” the older girl said.
Quinn turned the handle, but it jammed. She pulled her key out of her pocket and unlocked the door. Inside, only furniture greeted her. “We’re the first ones,” she told Tara.
“That means you get to pick your side of the room, and your bed,” the blonde said.
The guy rolled the cart up to the door and unloaded her things while Quinn walked around the room. It was small for a space that was going to hold three people for a whole year, but with the huge windows looking out over the campus, the room was almost airy.
A set of bunk beds lined one wall, and a single bed stood against the opposite wall. Under the bunk beds were two three-drawer dressers, and a third occupied the space under the single bed. Three desks sat at different angles along the walls, and two closets were cut into the walls next to the door.
“I get top bunk!” Tara said, and ran into the room. She started up the ladder.
Quinn put a hand on her back. “Sorry, Monkey. I have roommates. We’re going to take that bed.” She pointed to the single bed.
Tara jumped down, frowning. “You can’t take that bed,” she said. She chewed on her lower lip.
“Why not?” Quinn asked. As much as she loved her little sister, she wanted to pick her own bed.
“Because,” a new, cold voice said from the doorway, “don’t you see my shit on it?”
Bad things always happen to Quinn in threes.
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