The sound of her roommates arguing jerked Quinn out of a light slumber. She sat up in the bunk bed, blinking and looking around.
“I did not drink your stupid water,” Juleyka screeched.
“It smells like your perfume,” Zoleen said calmly.
Tuning out her roommates’ argument, Quinn looked around for Tara. Her heart thudded in her chest. “Tara,” she said, scrambling out of the sheets. “Tara?” She descended the ladder. “Have you seen Tara?” she asked the girls.
“Can you tell this freak I didn’t touch her water?”
Quinn stared. Juleyka wore a tee shirt, a pair of shorts, sneakers, and a sweat band. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Not a single drop of sweat gleamed on her forehead, and her hair looked as though she had just left the salon. “Are you—? What are you—?” Quinn sputtered.
Juleyka looked down at her outfit. “Oh. I went for a run this morning.”
She looked more like she were filming a commercial about running, Quinn surmised.
Juleyka waved a hand impatiently. “Tell her,” she insisted. She said something in Spanish that sounded like a swear.
“I need to find my sister,” Quinn said. Her heart thudded in her chest. Fear coursed through her veins. If Tara got lost, or hurt, it was all her fault.
Zoleen held an empty bottle of water up in the air. “It smells,” she said, “like Victoria’s Secret.”
The door to their room opened, and Tara tiptoed through. She wore flip flops and carried Quinn’s shower caddy. Her hair dripped water onto her tank top. She grinned when she saw Quinn.
“There you are,” Quinn said. She ruffled her sister’s wet hair. “Want me to braid it?”
“Oh my God, whatever,” Juleyka said. She snatched up her own shower caddy and marched out of their room.
Quinn glanced at Zoleen, but the other girl busily rearranged the action figures on her desk.
As she started braiding Tara’s hair, her phone went off. She stretched to reach it from her own desk, one hand holding Tara’s hair, the other pressing her phone to her ear. “Hello?”
“Quinn? This is Christopher Ramsey, with DCF. How are you?” the bubbly male voice asked.
Quinn’s mouth dropped open. She let go of the half braid and stood slowly. She walked to the other side of the room. “Yes?” she squeaked.
“Good morning!” he said. “I wanted to call to check in on you. How are you and Tara doing?”
“Um, good.” She paced the small open area.
“I know there’s a lot going on, and it’s confusing and crazy, so I’m going to try to make this as easy as possible on you. I have to stop by your mom’s apartment at some point, and make sure everything is five by five.”
“You what?” she blurted. Clapping a hand over her mouth, she squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t be in two places at once. If Christopher stopped by in the next hour, he would know they hadn’t been home. Her chest tightened, and she struggled for a steady breath.
“Never mind,” the social worker said, mistaking her concern for confusion at the phrase he used. She could hear the smile in his voice. Nothing fazed him, she mused. “Anywho, I’m here to take care of you and your sister. I have a few other appointments this week, but I’ll be stopping in sometime.”
“Stopping in?” she repeated, her voice squeaking.
“It’s routine. No big deal. Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you soon.” He hung up.
Quinn sunk into a chair.
“What’s wrong?” Tara asked.
Even Zoleen glanced her way.
She rubbed her temples. With a shake of her head, she forced herself to smile for Tara. “Nothing, Monkey.” She had no idea what she was going to do, though.
* * *
As they walked to Connecticut Hall for breakfast, Quinn tried to formulate a plan.
“You’re walking really fast,” Tara whined.
“Sorry,” she said, and slowed down. She and Tara could stay at the apartment and she could commute until Christopher made his visit, but she only had a half tank of gas and no money of her own. She hated to use her mother’s credit card, even though she was pretty sure she was officially in an emergency. She wished she hadn’t spent all of her babysitting money on clothes.
If she didn’t commute and missed classes, she would only be missing beginning of the year stuff, like going through the syllabus and all of that. It would be just like the first day of high school, only in air conditioning. She could always email her professors to see what she missed—or at least, she hoped so. She had to admit to herself that she really didn’t know. For all she knew, they would be diving into the material on the first day. Maybe it depended on the professor. Either way, she didn’t want to be that girl who showed up two weeks into the semester, expecting to catch up. She would also miss out on the first time introductions, and end up behind in her social life.
Not that she had much of a social life, she surmised as they neared the hall. She still needed to figure out how to trick her roommates into letting Tara stay another night.
She groaned in frustration.
Tara gave her a look, but said nothing.
They entered the hall. There were several buffet tables set up. Tara went straight to the fried dough line. Quinn wondered if she should make her eat fruit or something else healthy, but by the time she thought of it, Tara was already pumping melted butter and sprinkling powdered sugar onto her piece.
Quinn grabbed a whole wheat bagel and orange juice for herself. There was French toast and other delicious breakfast options, but she wasn’t entirely sure she would even be able to eat her bagel.
They sat down at a table, Tara munching on her fried dough before she even fully sat. A guy walked by carrying a tray piled high with brown scrambled eggs, and Quinn wrinkled her nose, glad she had gone with her bagel. She was sure the people cooking were certified, but she didn’t want to take any chances. The thought of having some kind of stomach flu or food poisoning gave her goosebumps.
Her eyes widened.
“That’s it,” she said, the plastic butter knife she held in midair. “Food poisoning.”
Tara cocked her head. “Do what now?”
Quinn leaned forward. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Listen, Monkey, today we’re going to pretend to be actresses.” She told her little sister what she needed her to do. When she finished, she spread a layer of cream cheese on her bagel and took a big bite.
Then she got into line for the mystery dish.
* * *
An hour later, she trudged into her room. “Oh,” she moaned, holding her stomach. “Oh, God.”
Juleyka looked up from where she sat drying her hair. She raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong with you?”
Zoleen glanced at her, then looked away. She kept her nose close to the screen of her laptop, and typed furiously.
Quinn wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “I just shit my brains out.”
“Ew,” Juleyka said. “What the hell is wrong with you? TMI!”
“I think I ate something bad,” she moaned.
Tara rubbed her back. “Do you want a ginger ale?”
“Ugh,” she said, and slowly began climbing the ladder into her bed. “Conn has some scary food.”
“If by ‘scary,’ you mean ‘potentially hazardous,’ I agree,” Zoleen said. “Their meat loaf last night was slightly gray.”
Quinn’s stomach turned. For a moment, she thought she might actually be sick. Maybe she would have to watch which foods she ate in Conn hall. She lay down and pulled the covers up to her chin. Turning on her side, she wiggled until she could see the TV. A reality show played across the screen. She forced a moan, hoping she wasn’t overdoing it.
“What did you eat?” Juleyka demanded, turning to Tara.
“Fried dough,” the girl said. She retrieved Quinn’s student ID and flashed it. “I’ll go get you a ginger ale.”
“Be careful,” Quinn moaned. She hated to let Tara go off by herself, but it was a necessary part of their plan.
The minutes dripped by. Quinn tried to concentrate on the reality show. Two sisters with fake hair and breasts argued about which dress would go into their new fashion line. She closed her eyes and groaned. If she had to watch the show for the rest of the afternoon, she might actually need to go to the infirmary.
“Have you been to the infirmary?” Zoleen asked, as though she read Quinn’s mind.
“I think it’s food poisoning,” she said, “and I’m on my mom’s insurance, anyway.” She swallowed hard. That wasn’t even true. Her mother made her buy a plan with the school. Quinn suspected that, in reality, their health care plan had lapsed.
“They would just send you back to your room,” Juleyka said. “I hope you’re not contagious.”
“Food poisoning,” Zoleen said, “is not contagious.”
“But apparently water theft is,” Juleyka said. She pointed up at Quinn. “You stole one of her waters.”
Quinn blinked slowly at her. She bit her tongue to keep her snarky response to herself. Instead, she looked at Zoleen. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep.”
Zoleen only gazed back at her. It was almost as if she knew every one of her secrets.
“Bullshit,” Juleyka said. “You berate me, but she gets nothing?”
“She,” Zoleen said, “is sick.”
At that moment, Tara burst through the door. She held a bottle of ginger ale, a soda, and some chips. She handed the ginger ale up to Quinn.
Quinn wrinkled her nose. Drinking the stuff would be the hardest part of her plan. Ginger ale tasted awful to her, and usually made her gag. She uncapped it and took a small sip, trying hard not to grimace. “So you made it back okay?”
Tara wiggled her student ID in the air. “This thing is handy,” she said, and winked.
Relieved, Quinn sank back into her pillows. Tara was officially checked in for the night. She suppressed a victory smile. All she had to do was convince her roommates that she couldn’t drive home.
“So are your parents home? When are you bringing Little Q back?” Juleyka asked.
Quinn pressed her lips together, glad the other girl couldn’t see her.
Tara spoke before she could. “I don’t think she can drive.”
“Food poisoning can be quite debilitating,” Zoleen said. “I once had an aunt who had to be hospitalized, because she was vomiting uncontrollably.”
“Ew,” Juleyka shrieked. “What is with you people and the TMI?”
Quinn pressed her lips together to keep from laughing. She made a mental note to over share more often.
The girls lapsed into silence. Quinn hoped Juleyka would just let it go. On the television, the celebrity sisters argued about a guy they had each known for about a week. She felt the bed shaking, and glanced over to see Tara climbing the ladder. She smiled and wiggled over so her little sister could sit.
Juleyka sighed loudly. “I guess it’s okay for Little Q to stay over, again.” She made a few more dramatic sighing sounds.
Quinn rolled her eyes, but said nothing. She winked at Tara. “Little Q?” she mouthed.
Tara shrugged. “Monkey,” she mouthed back, winking.
* * *
After driving Tara to school, then all the way back to campus, the gas gauge dropped down to a quarter of a tank. Quinn parked in a visitor’s space in the back of her dorm building, and scrambled out. She had ten minutes to get to class. She would have to figure out her gas situation later.
They could probably just sleep at the apartment, she decided as she speed-walked to Engleman Hall. With Christopher promising to stop by, it just made more sense. She peeled a soaked strap of her tank top from her skin, and wished she had bought a bottle of water or something. It would have to wait until class. She ran down the hall and slipped into her classroom. A quick glance at the clock told her she was lucky she walked fast.
The room was more like an auditorium. The seats were built into stairs and long tables. The room was full, so she had to climb the stairs to the only available seat. She shuffled through the thin space between the backs of people’s chairs and the table in the row above her. Finally she reached the chair, but it was attached to the table and only swiveled slightly left or slightly left, so she had to sidle into it while dropping her bag to the floor at the same time. The students to either side of her shifted uncomfortably. She squeezed in and sighed.
She would have to remember to arrive early next time. She hoped the rest of the class would go smoother, and faster.
* * *
She emerged from the classroom in a daze, the syllabus still clutched in her hand. None of her classes were even remotely related to her major yet, but she had hoped English would be fun. Fat chance. She already had a twenty-page essay to read, and a paper on its theme due the next Monday. Even worse, she only had five minutes to get to her Elementary Algebra class, and she had no idea where it was.
During orientation, she had slipped away to search for some of her classrooms, but never made it to her math class.
“I really didn’t want to be that idiot who gets lost on her first day,” she muttered under her breath.
A few passing students threw her curious glances, but she ignored them.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket.
She pulled it out, and frowned at the display. It was the DCF social worker. She brought it to her ear as though it were a live grenade, her arm stiff. “Hello?”
“Quinn!” Christopher nearly sang. “How are you?”
“I’m, uh, good,” she said. “You?”
“I’m on my way to your apartment now.”
Her blood thudded in her ears. “Now?” she repeated.
“I’ll be there in,” he paused for a moment, “about thirty minutes. This was my only available appointment.”
She curled her free hand into a fist. Pressing her lips together, she resisted the urge to yell at him. He could have given her a heads up, but she had heard that DCF social workers liked to surprise their cases. Her eyebrows furrowed, and she clenched her hand into a tighter fist. She wasn’t a bad person. Her mother wasn’t even a bad person. There was no real reason for DCF to investigate them.
“Quinn?” the social worker asked. “Are you there?”
“I’m here,” she said through gritted teeth. “Is this really necessary right now?”
“It’s okay, Quinn,” he said. “I just wanted to meet with you while Tara was in school. You’re not in any trouble. This is routine,” he added.
Her hand relaxed. Her shoulders dropped. “Okay.” She sighed. “I’m not home, though. You’ll have to wait.”
“No problem,” the social worker said.
Quinn ended the call and ran. As she raced through the hall, she groped in the pocket of her backpack for the car keys. She could not remember if there was milk in the fridge or even bread in the pantry. Groceries had been the last thing on her mind when she and Tara left for the weekend.
She burst out into the heat and pushed herself faster. A twinge of guilt twisted through her stomach for missing her class. She reminded herself that it was only the first day, and she wouldn’t be missing very much. At least, she hoped so. Math was not her strongest subject.
When she reached the car, she threw her backpack onto the passenger seat. She started the engine and pulled out of the parking space without waiting for the air conditioning to kick in. Sweat plastered her hair to her forehead, and she realized that by the time she got home, she would look like madwoman. She braked to a stop before pulling out into the street.
“Okay,” she told herself, glancing in the rearview mirror. She brushed her hair out of her face, and pulled it back into a ponytail. “Relax. You’ll be fine.”
She lurched out into traffic.
The speed limit on Route 69 was forty-five miles per hour. She pushed her mother’s car to sixty, grateful for the lack of traffic and the few lights between New Haven and Naugatuck, the next major city. Farm houses and trees already turning color whizzed by her. She barely noticed them. She did not turn on the radio. Instead, she drove to the wild beating of her heart.
It felt like forever before she pulled into their driveway. A black Jeep sat parked in the street. She hadn’t taken Christopher for a Jeep kind of guy. She hopped out of the car and waved to him.
He got out. “Hello,” he said.
“Sorry,” she breathed. “I was at school.”
He frowned. “Why didn’t you say so? We could have rescheduled.”
She bit down on her lip. “I guess I didn’t think of that. Well, come on in.”
She sucked in a deep breath and led him to the house, hoping nothing was too horribly amiss inside. For a moment, she wondered if it was okay to be alone with a man she barely knew. Hesitating, her key in the lock, she glanced over her shoulder at him.
He gave her a curt smile.
She sighed and unlocked the door, then pushed it open.
The scent of garbage slammed into her. Her eyes widened and she stepped slowly into the house. She had forgotten to take out the trash. Swallowing hard, she blinked back tears.
Christopher cleared his throat. “So, we’re going to do the investigation part of this first, and then we’ll talk a bit about you taking temporary custody of Tara, and what’s going to happen with your mom.”
She nodded. Her throat constricted as the smell permeated even further. She wondered if she could change the bag without him noticing. If he did the tour on his own, she could do it rather easily. If he expected her to show him around, though . . .
“Why don’t you show me where Tara sleeps?” he said, smiling.
She sucked in a deep breath. “Sure.” She led him up the stairs. At least they were away from the smell.
The tour of the bedrooms felt like it took forever. There were only three, and their mother had the smallest, but Quinn suspected where they slept mattered the most, where the state was concerned.
She showed her mother’s room to Christopher first. On the morning that Nancy had been taken away, she had started to strip her sheets to wash them. The bed remained in a permanent state of half undress. Biting her lip, Quinn assured Christopher that she hadn’t had time to change Nancy’s sheets, but Tara’s were fresh.
He merely nodded and scribbled something on the notepad he carried with him.
She took him to Tara’s bedroom next. Toys and half-finished art projects cluttered the floor and desk. An ESX poster took up most of the wall space over Tara’s bed. She had been obsessed with the boy band since their first single hit the radio waves. Quinn didn’t understand what she saw in them, but then again, Tara hated the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They were the same in a lot of ways, but in others, Quinn surmised, the Parker sisters were completely different.
Laundry from the last time Tara had gotten dressed in her room littered the floor. Blushing, Quinn stooped to scoop up the dirty socks and jeans.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “She knows the hamper is right here.” She cleared her throat and deposited the clothing into the basket.
Christopher said nothing.
She brought him to her bedroom last.
Photographs from all of the concerts she had attended over the years covered the walls like wallpaper. Despite their gypsy lives, Nancy had always made sure to take Quinn to all of her favorite bands’ shows. A vintage Vivienne Westwood blazer hung from a coat rack Stan had made when Quinn was a baby. She smiled at both the rack and the blazer. She had worn the jacket to her first Perpetual Smile concert, and Jett Costa had complimented it. The rack had harbored all of her collected pieces over the years. In a way, Stan was still taking care of her.
Despite the tidy condition of her room and the years worth of mementos proving a happy life, the social worker remained silent. He made notes, and she wondered what he was writing.
He looked briefly at the upstairs bathroom, peeked into the hallway linen closet, and then they went back downstairs. She wished she had offered him a drink. It would be so much easier if he had to use the bathroom. She didn’t want to call attention to it, but she couldn’t stand the smell of it much longer.
“Excuse me,” she said, and crossed the kitchen. She removed the lid of the stainless steel can and tied up the bag. She brought it out to the back porch. When she returned, she sprayed the inside of the can with disinfectant and put in a fresh bag. “Sorry,” she said.
Christopher said nothing, but he scribbled something on the pad he had been taking notes.
“Well,” she said, “are we all set here? I have another class.”
“Is that the door to the basement?” Christopher pointed.
She sighed. “Do you want to see it?” She did not add again, though she wanted to. The last thing she wanted to do was go back down there. Perhaps, she admitted to herself, that was the real reason she hadn’t finished changing her mother’s sheets.
He nodded, and she led him down.
As they reached the landing, she saw that the dried droplets of blood where still there. Unconsciously, her hand went to the stitches on her arm. She jerked her arms to her side and stood taller. If she drew attention to what her mother had done, she might incriminate her more.
She glanced at Christopher out of the corner of her eye. He, too, noticed the blood. His pen became a blur as he wrote something she couldn’t see. It felt as though her heart had become permanently lodged in her throat.
The social worker poked around a bit, took some more notes, then nodded. They went back upstairs.
She sank into a kitchen chair. “Please, sit,” she said gesturing. “Do you want anything to drink?” Her voice was raspy, and her throat was dry, but she did not trust her legs. She hoped he said no.
He shook his head. The chair creaked as he leaned on it, but he did not sit. He opened a folder and began walking Quinn through her mother’s case and her custody of Tara. “Because you’re eighteen, we can make you temporary legal guardian of your sister.”
She nodded. She already knew that. What she wanted him to say was something like, “You passed. Everything is good.”
“I’ll file my report,” he continued, “and we’ll go from there.”
She swallowed hard, but the lump remained. “So . . . ?”
“I’ll be in touch,” he said. He gathered his things. “I can show myself out.”
The social worker strode out of the house without another word or even a smile. Quinn stared after him. Her heart hammered in her ears. Her hands shook. The house pressed around her, empty and yet too big.
Bad things always happen to Quinn in threes.
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