Crazy Comes in Threes: Chapter 5

Children raced around the basketball court. They screeched and laughed. Quinn winced. She wondered how anyone could be awake at eight in the morning.

“Okie dokie, Monkey,” she told Tara. “Have a good day. I’ll pick you up this afternoon.” They had slept at the house, but Quinn itched to return to the dorms. Her roommates were probably wondering where she was. She didn’t want to lose her dormitory privileges, and Juleyka, at least, seemed like the type to tell the resident assistant that Quinn wasn’t sleeping there. A glance at the gas gauge told her that she wasn’t commuting at all if she didn’t stop and fuel up.

Tara slid out of the car and ran into the throng of students. Quinn left the school grounds and headed to the closest gas station. It wasn’t the cheapest place, and their gas wasn’t great, either, but it would get her to campus. She pulled up to a pump. Without even looking, she opened the glove compartment. Her fingers closed on the thin plastic of her mother’s credit card. Biting down on her lip, she slid out of the car.

“This constitutes as an emergency,” she told herself. She swiped the card. The pump beeped shrilly at her. “Okay, jeez.” She went to press the regular unleaded button when she realized the screen wasn’t telling her to choose. The message flashed on the screen and then disappeared, but she read enough: Card Declined.

Sucking in a deep breath, she swiped it again. The screen gave her the same result.

“What the hell?” she demanded of the pump.

An elderly woman gassing up on the opposite side gave her a dirty look.

“Sorry,” Quinn mumbled.

“Should have paid your bill on time,” the woman said, sneering.

Quinn bit her tongue. She held the card up, as if to swipe again. Her shoulders slumped. No matter how many times she tried, it would just be a waste of time. Her mother simply hadn’t paid the bill.

“Or she went over her limit,” she said as she walked around to the driver’s side. Sometimes, late at night, Nancy sat on the couch watching home shopping channels. Every so often, packages arrived in the mail. Quinn never questioned them before. It was none of her business. But a real emergency was occurring and she couldn’t get gas. She squeezed the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white and her hands hurt. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the old woman shaking her head and climbing into her own car.

She relaxed her grip. Inhaling, she closed her eyes. She leaned back in the driver’s seat. Her chest rose and fell as she breathed slowly. It had been a while since she did any yoga. Maybe she should stop in for a class later. She had a couple punches left on her dance studio card.

Her shoulders tensed again. She wouldn’t be going anywhere unless she got more gas. She started the engine and headed home. There had to be change somewhere in the house. She only needed five or ten dollars to get to the university and then pick up Tara.

“I can’t miss any more class,” she said through gritted teeth as she turned into her street. She had emailed her algebra professor but he hadn’t responded yet.

She hopped out of the car before the engine fully shut off. The late summer sun beat down on the lawn. If things were different, she might be slick with tanning oil, laying out, trying to catch the last few rays for her tan.

Inside, the house was cool. She locked the door behind her. Standing in the living room, she tried to remember where her mother usually stashed her change. There used to be a jar on top of the refrigerator. She crossed into the kitchen and pulled a chair over.

“Jackpot,” she said, spying the jar. She pulled it down. Dust bunnies rained on her head. She sneezed. After hopping back down, she dumped the jar on the counter. It was mostly pennies, but there were some quarters. There was even a half dollar. She counted it out. When she finished, only five dollars sat on the table. It might get her to school, but it definitely wouldn’t get her all the way back to pick up Tara.

She left the change on the table and climbed the stairs. Her mother’s bedroom door stood closed. She hadn’t gone into it since her tour with Christopher, and even then, she only stayed in the doorway. She stood just inside the room. Nancy had made her bed that morning. It seemed strange, that her mother could be so normal and then so crazy.

She hung her head. That wasn’t fair, or nice. Her mother had a mental health disorder and needed help. She wasn’t crazy.

But the knife sliced through her memories. The stitches on her arm stung. She clutched her arm to her chest as though the wound was fresh.

Sighing, she turned her attention back to the hunt for change. Most people threw spare change on or in their nightstands. She checked the mismatched tables next to her mother’s consignment bed. Nothing.

She checked on top of Nancy’s dresser next. Only framed photos of her and Tara greeted her hands. Her fingers left faint trails in the dust. She would have to try to remember to give the room a quick dusting and vacuuming. If her mother came home to a dirty room, she would freak out.

Quinn paused. She wondered if her mother really would come home. She flopped down on the bed. Fifteen days seemed like such a long time, and she didn’t know how long a more permanent place would be. From what she gathered, it all depended on the judge and how unstable Nancy seemed. Her legs dangled off the edge of the mattress.

“The mattress,” she said. She jumped up. People kept money stuffed into their mattresses all the time. She lifted it away from the box spring, her arms trembling. At first, she saw nothing. Then her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She reached in with one hand and pulled the object out.

The mattress fell with a puff of dust. She coughed and slid backward, her find cradled in her lap. After blinking a few times to clear her eyes, she looked down at the leather journal.

She flipped through it, eyes scanning for loose dollar or five dollar bills. Tucked into the pages about halfway through was a twenty and some ones. It was probably her mother’s emergency cigarette money. Quinn slipped the bills into her pocket. The journal remained open on her lap.

She tried not to look, but words began jumping out at her. The handwriting was definitely Nancy’s. The words looped in wide arcs.

“I hate Stan for killing himself, and I hate myself because it was all my fault,” she had written.

Quinn blinked at the words. Before she could stop herself, she read more.

The words started off neat, the meaning behind them sharp. Further down the page, her mother’s handwriting became almost illegible, the loops more of a scrawl. The last sentence was Quinn’s best guess.

She bit down on her lip. If the judge or Nancy’s doctors at the hospital saw her journal, they would almost definitely put her away.

She rubbed at her temples. By right, she should turn the journal in immediately. Grief did funny things to people, though. Nancy blaming herself for Stan’s death wasn’t all that crazy. At least, Quinn didn’t think so. It might look bad to a judge, though.

Her fingers flipped through the pages. Nancy’s words blurred by on fast forward. Phrases lurched out at her: “not a loving wife,” “made him do it,” “should kill myself.”

Quinn stopped at the page after that last phrase. Her eyes scanned through. Tears singed her sinuses. In thick felt pen, Nancy had outlined a detailed suicide plan. She even wrote about how the girls—Quinn and Tara—would at least get her life insurance.

“I am a horrible mother,” she wrote. “I don’t even love them. How can I love them when I don’t even love myself?”

Quinn slammed the journal shut. The sound of the thick pages slapping against each other, sandwiched between leather, echoed through her mind along with her mother’s prose.

“She needs help,” she sobbed. Her cheeks itched. She pressed the pads of her fingers to them. Her hands came back wet. Using her tee shirt, she dried her face and eyes. She sucked in long, deep breaths to still her mind. If she gave the journal to Christopher, Nancy would be locked away in a facility for a long time. There would be no end to her current reign as Tara’s caretaker. She had no idea how she would be able to stay at the dorms if her mother were transferred to a more long-term facility. At least, as things stood, Nancy would be home in less than two weeks. It could all be over soon.

Maybe she didn’t have to turn the journal over. Maybe her mother was doing well. Maybe the doctors at the hospital had figured out a treatment plan. She didn’t know for sure. It would take one phone call to find out.

She swallowed hard. Maybe she didn’t need to know. There was a strong possibility that Nancy hadn’t improved at all. Knowing could only make things worse. The knowledge would force her to take action. Deep down, she wanted to keep the journal to herself. The thoughts in those pages belonged to her mother, and only her mother. Guilt festered in the pit of her stomach like acid eating at a battery. She felt like a voyeur.

On the other hand, if she called and Nancy was doing well, she could just tuck the journal back where she found it. Maybe someday, years later, she could find a way to tell her mother that Stan’s death wasn’t her fault. That task felt as impossible as getting Tara to stop listening to that stupid boy band, ESX.

The first step, though, was to find out how their mother was doing. Everything else would fall into place after.

“It is what it is,” Nancy always said. Quinn would have to let things play out the way they were supposed to.

She jumped to her feet and jogged downstairs, where she left her phone. She held it in the palm of her hand for a moment, then  dialed the behavioral disorder unit’s number.

A woman with a bored voice answered.

“Hi,” Quinn said. “I’m calling to inquire about my mother.” Her heart pounded in her throat. She had never called the hospital. She hadn’t even thought about it. If Nancy found out Quinn hadn’t asked to speak with her, she would be furious. At the very least, she would be hurt.

“What’s your mother’s name?” the woman asked.

Quinn gave her the information.

“Hold on a moment.”

A second later, elevator music kicked in. Quinn wrinkled her brow.

Luckily, the woman came back on. “You’ll have to call back.” Static nearly drowned out her words.

“Why?” Quinn asked. Her hands clenched into sweaty fists. What Nancy called gerbil thoughts wheeled through her head. She struggled to put them into words. Swallowing hard, she made herself ask. “Was she released?” Her voice cracked.

“No,” the woman said. “Your mother is currently in solitary.” The phone line crackled.

“Why?” Quinn said again. The living room seemed to close in on her. She sat down on the couch.

The woman’s words were garbled. “She’s been refusing to take her meds. She assaulted a nurse today. You can try calling back tomorrow.” The connection broke.

Quinn dropped the phone into her lap and stared at it.

Her mother was not getting better.

Nancy seemed, in fact, to be getting worse.

She squeezed her eyes shut. Bringing the journal to Christopher would seal her mother’s fate, but it might also help her get better. They only needed to prove that Nancy was a danger to herself or other people. The hospital record’s from Quinn’s stitches and the police report from the incident might not be enough.

She blew out a long breath, stirring her hair from her face.

Slowly, she stood. With the journal tucked under her arm, she left the house.

She drove to the gas station first, then headed to the Department of Children and Families offices. A secretary informed her that Christopher was currently in a meeting.

“Would you mind waiting? He’ll only be another ten or fifteen minutes,” the secretary said.

Quinn nodded.

As she sat outside of his office, she realized she was missing yet another full day of classes. Her mother’s illness was once again complicating her life. She swallowed back the bitterness. Nancy couldn’t help it, she reminded herself

Christopher rounded the corner. He smiled, then frowned. She tried to smile back, but instead stood shakily. She held out the journal.

“What’s this?” he asked. Then, seeing the expression on her face, he gestured to the interior of his office. “Come on in.”

They sat down. His office was small but tidy. A bonsai tree sat on the window sill. His chairs were worn but comfortable. She crossed her legs, and held the journal out to him again.

He took it. “What is it?” he asked again.

She told him. Tears drizzled down her cheeks as she repeated some of the things she read. Christopher passed her a box of tissues. She pressed one to her eyes, but continued talking. She left out the money and her desperate search so she could get gas. If he asked, she decided she would just tell him she was cleaning. DCF didn’t need to know that she was broke.

He listened without saying anything. When she finished, he nodded. “I know this was a hard decision for you to make,” he said. “Your mom will be better off in the long run, though.” He set the journal down on the oak surface of his desk. He pulled her and Tara’s folder from a filing cabinet. He slid a sheet of paper to her.

“What’s this?” she asked, staring at it. She thought she already knew. She leaned forward. The edge of the desk bit into the soft and sweaty palms of her hands.

“Your temporary legal guardianship order,” Christopher said. “I told you my friends were fast. This grants you the ability to make decisions for Tara. Don’t abuse it.” He winked at her.

She only blinked back. They sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity. She watched the seconds tick by on the clock on the wall behind the social worker. Everything felt hazy, as though she were in a dream. Her mother was probably going to be locked away in a mental health facility, and she was going to become her little sister’s new mother. She pressed her hands even harder into the wood. The sensation brought her back.

Christopher gave her a gentle smile. “Do you have any questions for me?”

She swallowed hard. Her mind was as blank as a white board in the classroom of a ghost town. Suddenly she found herself thinking of the fake towns the United States government set up while performing nuclear testing. Everything was staged. Families at tables, employees at meetings. Mannequins stood posed in an infinitely soundless world while a mushroom cloud bloomed overhead. Then the dust blew everything away.

She shook herself. She needed to be careful. If she thought about depressing things, she might find herself not far behind Nancy. Then Tara would have no one.

She needed to be an adult. She needed to ask the right questions.

She didn’t know what the right questions were.

“It’s okay,” the social worker said suddenly. “I’m sure you’re overwhelmed. If you think of anything, you can call me.” He smiled.

She stood on legs that felt as bloodless as the oak of his desk. Her head nodded, but she did not remember wanting to nod.

He started to walk her out, but as they reached the hall, she stopped suddenly. The right question surfaced in her mind.

“What do we do now?” she asked.

He looked at her. The seconds stretched out. People walked through the hall behind them. An air conditioner whirred. Phones rang. The receptionist chatted with another DCF employee. A weeping woman with two small children careened through the doors.

Quinn noticed none of this. Every fiber of her attention was focused on Christopher.

He cleared his throat.

She thought of spiderwebs and dust under mattresses. She realized she hadn’t dusted her mother’s bedroom. She would have to remember to do it later. Maybe she could make her last class of the day.

Her mind raced, throwing shadows of doubt. Maybe she had asked the wrong question. Maybe she wasn’t cut out for this job. She placed a hand on the wall, steadying herself.

“Now,” Christopher said suddenly, his voice soft.

Her heart leapt into her throat. She held her breath.

He cleared his throat again. “Now we wait.”

Bad things always happen to Quinn in threes.

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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Crazy Comes in Threes: Chapter 4

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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Crazy Comes in Threes: Chapter 3

Quinn turned and stared. A girl with black hair wearing all black clothing stood in the doorway. The other students, having unloaded Quinn’s things, made excuses and left, the sound of the cart’s wheels on the carpet echoing through the hall. No piercings marked the newcomer’s face, but she scowled just as well as any goth kid Quinn had known in high school.

“Um, excuse me?” Quinn said. “I don’t see anything there.”

The newcomer strode through the room and plucked a Post-it note from the headboard. “See? This has my name on it. ‘Reserved for Zoleen. Getting my things. Be right back.'” She continued holding the note out.

“Are you serious?” Quinn said. “That is not how it works—“

“It’s all about first come, first served,” the girl said. “I had to wait for my parents, and now I have to wait for people to put my things into a cart, so I came up here and claimed my space.” She sat down on the bed. As she moved, Quinn noticed that the label from the back of her jeans had been taken off.

She sucked in her cheeks. “I’ll take the bottom bunk, then.”

“And I get top!” Tara said, her fist pumping the air.

Quinn’s new roommate smirked. “Juleyka said she wanted the bottom. You get the top,” she said, pointing.

Quinn tried to remember the names on the door. “So you’re Zoleen,” she said.

“Yes?” Zoleen stood and began rearranging the furniture. She moved one of the desks closer to her bed, straightening it until its edges were flush with the wall.

“I’m Quinn.” She held out her hand, but Zoleen ignored it.

“Honey, I’m home!” another voice rang out. A Puerto Rican girl with curly dark hair stood in the doorway, striking a pose. “Res life, here we are!”

Behind her in the hallway, two guys waited with two separate carts.

“You may bring my things in now,” Zoleen told one of the guys.

Quinn stood in the middle of the room as the guys carried everything in. Her little sister sat down at one of the desks, seemingly unfazed. When the guys left, she tried again. “Hi,” she said to Juleyka. “I’m Quinn.”

“Can you fucking believe it?” Juleyka said, shaking her hand. “Here we are!” She grinned and twirled through the room. “This is going to be awesome. We’re here!”

“Yes,” Quinn said slowly. “Here we are.” She gestured toward Zoleen. “Roommates, for the whole year.”

Zoleen sniffed and retrieved a roll of duct tape from one of her plastic bins. She began taping lines on the floor.

“What are you doing?” Quinn asked.

“This,” Zoleen said, “is my space. I’d prefer it if you didn’t come into it.”

“Okay,” Quinn said, “but you’re taping off the whole second closet, too.”

Juleyka put her hands on her hips. “Nuh-uh. No way. I need all the closet space I can get. If anyone gets a whole closet to herself, it’s me.” She pointed to her suitcase, which was twice the size of Quinn’s.

Quinn opened her mouth, but Tara tapped on her arm. “Yeah?” she asked, wincing at the sharpness of her tone.

“I’m hungry,” Tara said.

“Okay. Let me just get unpacked and we’ll—“

“I have to pee, too.”

Quinn felt the other girls’ eyes on her. She swallowed hard. If she left the room, she would lose. If she sent Tara on her own, her little sister might get lost. “Can you wait a couple minutes?” she whispered.

Zoleen snorted. “Is she your kid?” she asked.

Quinn gaped at her. “Dude, she’s eleven. I would have had to be, like, seven years old. Gross.” Her nose crinkled, and her forehead creased.

Zoleen shrugged. “Just saying.”

“Hold up. Let’s get back to this closet sitch.” Juleyka bent and began peeling up the tape.

“Stop!” Zoleen shrieked.

Quinn gaped in horror as the girl with the black hair covered her eyes and folded to the floor, rocking back and forth.

“There,” Juleyka said, balling up the strips of tape. She tossed them into Quinn’s laundry basket. Without another word, she unzipped her suitcase and began hanging her things in the closet.

“You know what,” Quinn said, taking Tara’s hand. “I’m hungry, too.”

* * *

“This sucks,” Quinn said as she stared down at her salad.

“It’s just a salad,” Tara said, dipping a chicken strip into some barbecue sauce.

Quinn rested her chin in her hands and sighed. “No, I mean my roommates. They’re nuts.”

“They’re girls,” Tara said, shrugging.

Quinn nodded. “True, but they’re exactly the kind of roommates I hoped I wouldn’t be getting.” She nibbled on a piece of grilled chicken. Her stomach churned and she put her fork down.

“I’m sure Mom’s roommates are even worse,” her little sister said.

She was about to tell Tara that she was sure their mother didn’t have roommates when she remembered movies she’d seen about mental institutions. She rubbed her temples, the nausea rising. “Yeah,” she choked. She thought of the way Zoleen had acted, and wondered whether her roommates needed psychological help. “That Juleyka chick has some kind of narcissistic personality disorder,” she said, “and I bet Zoleen is obsessive compulsive or something.”

“What?” Tara wrinkled her brow.

“Never mind.” Quinn crumpled her napkin. “Let’s go sign you in for the night.”

They collected their trash and left the food court. The walk back to the residence complex was more than Quinn was used to. Hunger pushed her forward to the student center before, but she dreaded returning to her room. She took Tara’s hand, and wondered how long it would be before her little sister objected to holding hands in public.

Bicyclists blew by them, and throngs of students and their families walked in clusters, probably also looking for something to eat. Quinn was glad she and Tara beat the food court rush. Maybe her roommates would be out when she returned.

“Are you ready for school, Monkey?” she asked as they stopped at a crosswalk.

“Wait,” the electronic box said, and beeped.

“Mom was going to take me shopping for clothes,” Tara said.

“I can do that,” Quinn said. She gently nudged the little girl. “Besides, I have better taste.” She winked.

Tara smiled back, but the corners of her eyes turned down.

Quinn wondered if she shouldn’t have told the police what happened. Nancy might have calmed down on her own. They might even be all walking together now, laughing about her horrible new roommates.

“Walk,” the crosswalk box said, and began beeping. A digital display in the box counted down the seconds. She grabbed Tara’s hand and led her across the street.

When they returned to West and her room, only Zoleen remained. The girl sat at her desk, arranging and rearranging her supplies and laptop.

Quinn tugged at her lower lip as she watched her.

“Is this your desk?” Tara pointed to the third, and only bare, desk in the room.

“I guess so,” Quinn said.

Tara opened the box containing Quinn’s school supplies. “Can I put your stuff away?”

“Knock yourself out, Monkey.” She turned to her suitcase and unzipped it. In the closet, Zoleen had duct-taped a line dividing it directly in half. “How did you do that without measuring tape?” she asked.

Zoleen did not glance up, but replied in a crisp, even tone. “The duct tape is 1.88 inches wide, offering perspective to the space it divides.”

Quinn blinked. “What are you majoring in?”

“Math,” Zoleen answered immediately. She did not ask about Quinn’s major.

“I’m journalism,” Quinn offered. “I want to write for Elle and the other big fashion magazines. I guess we’re total opposites, huh?” She smiled and hung up a shirt. “I think we got off on the wrong foot. We have to live together for at least these next two semesters, so we should make the best of it.” She smiled at Zoleen.

“Is she staying here tonight?” her roommate asked.

Quinn did not have to ask who she meant. “Yes,” she said slowly. “Just for the night, though. I didn’t think it would be a problem.”

“Well, it is,” Zoleen said.

Quinn pressed her lips together and took a deep breath through her nose before replying. “Okay,” she said, exhaling. “Why?”

“Why is she staying here? She’s not a student.”

A dull pain began thudding in the center of Quinn’s forehead. She took another deep breath. “Our parents are away,” she said. Her heart twisted at the plural word, and she glanced at Tara out of the corner of her eye. Her little sister seemed completely preoccupied with setting up her study area.

Zoleen said nothing. She opened another plastic bin and began pulling out plastic toys. Quinn leaned forward, her forehead creasing. She recognized some of the characters. There were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, some cult classic horror movie figures, and others she did not recognize. Zoleen lined them up along the back of her desk, leaning them against the wall.

“Cool,” Tara said, coming over to stand next to the girl. She reached out to touch the Rafael figure, but Zoleen snatched it away.

“No,” she said, setting it back in exactly the same spot it had been.

Quinn frowned. “She’s just a kid,” she said.

“She has no business being in a dorm room.”

Quinn bit her lip. Tara deserved to be at home, in her own room, with her own toys. If she brought Tara home, though, she would have to give up her dorm room, and the whole college residence experience. She would just be another commuter, and probably wouldn’t make any friends. Even if her roommates were weird, and potentially OCD, they were still familiar faces. She hadn’t had many friends in high school. Living on campus might be her only shot at a normal social life.

She turned away from Zoleen, and continued putting her clothes away, but she felt the other girl’s eyes on her back.

* * *

“Your little sister is what?!” Juleyka asked. She stood with her hands on her hips.

Zoleen sat demurely at her desk, her hands folded. “Their parents are out of town.”

Quinn ran a hand through her hair. Tara sat on the top bunk amid the new comforter and throw pillows, her eyes glued to her Nintendo DS. With her headphones on, she probably couldn’t hear a thing—or so Quinn hoped. “I’ve already signed her in for the night,” she said, crossing her arms.

“Without consulting us?” Juleyka waved her hands. “Oh, no, no, no. That ain’t gonna fly. I’m calling res life and complaining.”

“Wait,” Quinn said. “What’s the big deal? It’s not like I brought a guy.”

Juleyka’s eyes glinted and she smiled. “Fine. If you get to have your little sister stay the night, then I get to have Nick.”

“Who’s Nick?” Quinn asked, but her roommate was already on her phone.

Juleyka spoke quickly, but it wasn’t English or even Spanish. Quinn heard her say “ciao” and a few other Italian words she recognized.

She turned to Zoleen. “Are you comfortable with some strange guy staying the night?”

Zoleen remained very still. “I don’t want anyone staying the night, but my parents said I have to broaden my horizons and get used to sharing space.”

At that, Juleyka snorted.

Quinn rubbed at her temples. “Look, I know Tara is a kid, but she’s not a baby. She won’t get in the way. I’ll have her sleep up on the top bunk with me. It’ll be like she’s not even here.” She locked eyes with Juleyka. “But no guys are staying in this room, ever.”

“Unless they have friends,” Zoleen added.

Quinn glared at her. “Whose side are you on?”

Zoleen shrugged. “I’m still a virgin. I’d like to change that this semester.” She spoke as though she were talking about improving her GPA.

Quinn gaped at her.

Juleyka lowered the phone from her ear. “Who says we can’t have co-ed sleepovers? There’s no rule for it. We just can’t have alcohol unless we’re twenty-one—“

“I’ll be twenty-one next June,” Zoleen said.

Juleyka grinned. “Nice! Maybe we can be roommates next year, too.”

Quinn tightened her fingers into fists and pulled in a deep breath through her nose. “What can I do,” she said through gritted teeth, “so that Tara can stay over?”

Juleyka raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you just go home for the night?” She still held the phone, her wrist bent. The sunlight glinted off her French manicure.

“That’s an excellent observation,” Zoleen said.

Quinn glanced up at Tara, who still had her headphones on. “Listen,” she said in a low voice. “I don’t want to hurt her feelings. She thought it would be fun to stay the night. Don’t you have siblings?” she added.

Zoleen shook her head.

Julekya said, “I’m the youngest of six. Puh-lease. No special treatment around here.”

Quinn wanted to ask her why she got the second closet all to herself. “It’s only one night,” she said instead.

Juleyka cocked her head, a sly smile spreading across her lips. “If she stays tonight, you both owe me a free night without either of you sleeping here, so that Nick can stay over.”

Zoleen said nothing.

Quinn shrugged. “Sure, whatever,” she said. “I’ll be home over the weekend, anyway. Is that a deal?” She held out her hand.

“Deal,” Juleyka said, grinning. She shook hands and pressed the phone to her ear again, lapsing back into Italian.

Quinn closed her eyes. Tara could stay for the night, but she had no idea what she would do for the next fourteen days.

* * *

Soft snores floated around her. The time on the microwave read quarter past one in the morning. Every time Quinn tried to lay down next to Tara on the top bunk, her heart started pounding and her mind raced with her worries. She wondered how she could keep Tara in the dorms without anyone noticing. She desperately wanted to know how her mother was doing.

She thought about calling the hospital to at least ask the staff about Nancy, but her mother might know she called without talking to her. The thought twisted her stomach into knots.

She sat in the bean bag chair Juleyka brought. It reeked of fruity perfume that at first gave her a headache, but Quinn had long stopped noticing. Her laptop sat open in her lap. Nothing was happening on Facebook or Twitter, and her email inbox was empty for the first time in months. She tapped her fingers on the mouse track pad, and then typed in “bipolar disorder” in the search engine bar.

She had never really researched it before. She knew her mother was bipolar. Nancy talked about how that was one of the few things she and Quinn’s father, Stan, had in common. Her father’s mental illness had taken him away from her. She shook her head. She did not want to think about him. She needed to focus on her mother.

She read through the list of symptoms with little attention. She already knew them from firsthand experience. She wondered, suddenly, what caused the disorder. She clicked through the website. Her eyes scanned the links. An article about psychiatric genetics jumped out at her. Before she could think about it, she clicked on it.

She did not understand the first paragraph or so. As she scrolled through, though, a new pit of dread began to attach itself to her stomach like a parasite. She went back to the search bar and typed in “is bipolar disorder hereditary?” As the search engine results loaded, her stomach seized with cramps and her hands shook. One article said that the disorder was eighty-percent hereditary.

She licked her lips and closed the laptop, her heart pounding in her chest. She needed some air, but she couldn’t just leave Tara. She got up and pulled a bottle of water from the mini fridge instead. She doubted Zoleen would notice, but if she did, Quinn would replace it.

She drank half the bottle in one shot. For a few minutes, her world shrank to just the simple act of relieving her thirst. When she could swallow no more of the cold water, she capped the bottle and returned to her laptop. She typed in “both parents bipolar,” and those search results were even worse. She closed the browser and shut down the laptop.

Research, she decided, was not helping.

Instead, she leaned back in the bean bag chair and tried to figure out where she would keep Tara the next night. She could just drive them both back home, but then she would have to drive back Monday morning for class. There wasn’t much gas left in her mother’s car, and if she was going to drive Tara to and from school, she would need to conserve it. She could always use her mother’s credit card, she decided. Her shoulders tensed at the thought, though. Maybe she should save it for emergencies.

For the first time ever, she wished she had grandparents that were still alive. They would know what to do. They would let Tara stay with them. Maybe, with their guidance, her mother wouldn’t even be sick. Her father might still be alive, too.

Quinn blinked away tears. She glanced at the clock again. It was almost two in the morning. She needed to get to sleep soon. Maybe, in the morning, things would look different. Maybe her roommates would forget their suspicions and invite Tara to stay another night.

She snorted. Maybe pigs would fly.

She climbed the ladder and settled into bed next to her little sister.

She did not sleep that night.

Bad things always happen to Quinn in threes.

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Crazy Comes in Threes: Chapter 2

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.

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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Crazy Comes in Threes: Chapter 1

Quinn wrapped her arms around Tara’s small body and held her breath. Even from inside the small closet, she could hear glass shattering as their mother threw dishes around their kitchen. Nancy Parker screamed obscenity after obscenity, and Tara trembled in Quinn’s arms.

“Is Mom going to . . . ?” Her eleven-year-old sister let the question hang in the air. She didn’t have to finish it. Quinn knew exactly what she meant.

“I don’t know,” Quinn said softly.

Their mother’s next words carried all the way up the stairs: “I’m going to kill you both!”

Tara broke into heavy sobs, her tears soaking Quinn’s shirt. Quinn clutched her phone in her hand, her finger prepared to press the emergency services button on the screen. Enough was enough, she decided. She loved her mother, but Nancy obviously needed help. Tears pricked at Quinn’s own eyes, and she blinked them away. She needed to stay calm and cool, if not for Tara’s sake, then to keep their mother away from them.

“She doesn’t know where we are,” she told her little sister. She didn’t say “yet,” but both the girls knew it was only a matter of time. Quinn exhaled softly and strained to listen. Downstairs, her mother was oddly silent. Quinn shifted, meaning to extract Tara from her arms, but her little sister only clung tighter. “Let go,” she whispered.

“I don’t want you to go down there,” Tara pleaded.

Quinn bit down on her lip. She didn’t really want to go downstairs, either, but Nancy was surrounded by broken glass, and in one of her moods. She didn’t have to try very hard to imagine her mother laying in a pool of her own blood, her wrists slit courtesy of a handy shard of champagne flute. She could wait it out. Nancy’s moods sometimes changed so quickly, they reminded Quinn of the Connecticut weather she had known her whole life.

She nodded to herself, relaxing. She hugged Tara and smoothed the younger girl’s hair. “It’ll be over soon,” she promised, but didn’t really know, and she knew Tara knew that. Still, she had nothing else to say. If she said “I’ll protect you,” it would only frighten Tara more.

“Why is she so quiet?” Tara whispered.

Quinn again thought of all the things their mother could do to herself. There were knives in the kitchen, and there was a bottle of bleach in the downstairs bathroom. Quiet and unattended, Nancy was more of a threat to herself than to them. She had read somewhere that something like fifty percent of bipolar people tried to kill themselves. Quinn had defended herself and Tara from their mother more times than she could count. Something felt different that morning, though, and Quinn worried that someone might get hurt.

She slowly began to unwrap Tara’s arms from her body.

“What are you doing?” Tara tensed.

“Going to check on her.”

“No,” her little sister begged. “She’ll stab you.”

“Stay here.” She pressed her phone into Tara’s hand. “If anything goes wrong, I’ll scream. Call 911 right away, give them our address, and stay in the closet.”

Tara whimpered. “Okay,” she said, and loosened her grip.

“Okay,” Quinn repeated. She slowly opened the closet door. The house sat in silence. She could not even hear the tick of the grandfather clock in the hall downstairs. She crawled out of the closet, pushed through a pile of shoes, and stood. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she stitched together a plan. She would go down the stairs, but not all the way. She just needed to get a glimpse of Nancy, and see what her mother was doing. For all she knew, Nancy had curled up on the couch and, in a state of exhaustion from her episode, fallen asleep.

Quinn wedged the closet door shut, shoved the shoes over, and took a deep breath. Then, she left Tara’s bedroom.

The stairs creaked under her feet, and she winced with each step. If Nancy was awake, she already knew Quinn was coming. She held her breath as she neared the landing. The stairs were embedded between two sections of wall. One side of the wall was cut out, so that as she got closer to the first floor, she could see into the living room. No one occupied the couch and, aside from a few framed photos and throw pillows strewn around, the room looked normal. Her heart thudding in her chest, Quinn descended the last four or so steps, glad her feet were bare, preventing any sound from her footfalls.

She stood in the living room and gazed into the kitchen. She could only see the kitchen table. Overturned chairs and shattered glass littered the floor. Where the living room rug met the cool linoleum, Quinn saw a few small splatters of blood. The red stood out on the white tile. She padded toward the kitchen, ears alert for any sound indicating an attack from her mother.

Rain pattered against the windows. The door to the back porch stood ajar. Ignoring it for the moment, Quinn turned to the rest of the kitchen. Shards of ceramic plates and glass cups glittered in the gray gloom. The set of knives her father bought years before he died was strewn across the floor. She counted them. One was missing. She closed her eyes for a moment and clasped a hand to her chest. She needed to find Nancy.

She left the kitchen and checked the back porch. Only drying laundry on the line greeted her. A railing wrapped around the porch, which stood twenty feet above their yard. She did not see her mother’s broken body below, so Quinn turned around and went back into the house. She surveyed the kitchen for a moment, thinking. Then her eyes went to the basement door, and she swallowed a knot of fear.

Quinn returned to the mess on the floor, carefully avoiding the glass, and picked up a small paring knife. She did not want to hurt her mother, but she couldn’t be sure that Nancy didn’t want to hurt her. She tiptoed to the basement door, put her hand on the knob, and slowly opened it.

Darkness swam up at her. The basement smelled of fresh laundry with a hint of stale cardboard. She said a silent prayer, then descended.

She dared not turn the light on, so she took the stairs slowly, feeling for each step with the toes of one foot. All it would take was one slip, and she would tumble into the void. She gripped the railing with one hand and continued until she arrived at the bottom.

Pale gray light shone in from the small rectangular window. Her mother stood motionless next to the washer and dryer, the knife clutched in her hand, her back to Quinn. The blade pressed into Nancy’s palm, and blood dripped onto the floor.

“Mom?” Quinn called softly. “What are you—?”

Nancy turned, a sneer breaking out across her face. She lunged toward Quinn, the knife raised.

Quinn blocked with her elbow, using her free arm to push her mother away. Nancy stumbled back but recovered quickly, and darted at her again. Quinn moved to the side. The knife slashed the air by her face. She held her hands up. “Mommy,” she said. “It’s me. It’s Quinn.”

“You,” Nancy snarled, and came at her again.

Quinn backed into a rickety old shelf. Several canned goods fell to the floor. Her feet tripped over them and she went down, instinctively blocking her face with her arms even as her tailbone smacked into the concrete. “Stop,” she screamed, but the knife sliced into the flesh of her forearm, and she felt warm blood dribbling down.

She looked up in wide-eyed terror at Nancy, who stared back at her, the knife poised. Her mother staggered back and fell to her knees, sobbing. “I’m sorry,” she wailed.

Quinn could only see the cut and the blood oozing out of it. Tears filled her eyes but did not fall. The world around her spun, went gray, tilted, and for a moment she almost fainted. She barely noticed. Only the crisp red made any sense, pulling her in until everything was the same hue. A moan escaped from her lips, and slowly it turned into a growl of frustration, until she was screaming. She threw words she never thought she would call her mother at full blast. Nancy flinched with each one, but did not move. Tears streamed down Quinn’s face, and she dropped the paring knife she had brought with her, her hands shaking.

Soon her whole body shook, and her screams died down, her throat aching. A wintery chill overtook her. The little hairs on her arms stood straight up. She tried to see through the icy fog that enveloped her. There was something she was supposed to do. She groped through her terror, but the fog thickened.

“Police! Come out of the basement, hands up,” a rough female voice shouted from the top of the stairs.

Quinn continued shaking. Goosebumps popped out along her skin, and her eyes darted to the blood pouring out of the tender flesh of her arm.

“I’m coming down. Weapons down, arms up,” the police officer called. A flashlight beam hit the wall opposite the stairs. Distantly, Quinn heard Nancy scrambling back into a corner, but the room began to gray again.

A female cop with brown hair pulled back into a ponytail emerged from the stairs, her male partner at her heels. Both pointed weapons and flashlights around the room.

“Stay right where you are,” the male cop told Nancy.

Quinn’s eyes focused on the female cop, who knelt in front of her.

“Are you with me?” the woman asked. To her partner, she said, “Get the EMTs.”

Quinn felt herself nod.

The police officer, whose badge read Trisha Barton, pressed white gauze to the cut on Quinn’s arm.

“Tara,” Quinn croaked. “Closet.”

“She’s the one who called,” Officer Barton said. “She’s upstairs with another officer. She’s fine.” Trisha smiled, but Quinn did not return it.

Instead, she watched as the other police officer put handcuffs on her mother and marched her up the stairs. “Where is he taking her?” she asked.

Officer Barton’s eyes hardened. “We’ll need a statement from you,” she said. “Your sister says your mother has become increasingly violent.”

“She’s sick,” Quinn said. “I need to—”

Two paramedics came down the stairs. One carried a medical kit and the other a gurney. They erupted into action, applying more gauze and pressure.

“She’s going to need stitches,” one of the paramedics said.

“I need a statement,” Officer Barton insisted.

“My mother,” Quinn reminded them. “I need to make sure my mother is okay.”

The paramedics and police officer shook their heads in unison.

“We’re going to take you to the hospital,” the other paramedic said. “Can you walk?”

“Absolutely not,” Officer Barton thundered. “We need to lock her up.” Her voice sounded choked. Red splotches decorated her otherwise unblemished face, and her eyebrows furrowed. “Child services have been called. This cannot be delayed.” Her voice was crisp but laced with urgency and distaste.

“Are you blind?” the first paramedic asked.

“Excuse me,” interrupted a new voice. Quinn, the paramedics, and Officer Barton turned to see a tall man wearing thick black glasses and a pink dress shirt. He extended a hand to the police officer. “I’m Christopher Ramsey. I’m with the Department of Children and Families.” Before anyone else could speak, he continued, looking directly at Quinn. “Let’s get Ms. Parker to the emergency room, and then we can sort the rest of this out.” He smiled, his brown eyes warm.

Quinn nodded, and allowed the two paramedics to help her up. They led her up the stairs slowly, Officer Barton clomping up behind them, muttering under her breath.

In the kitchen, Tara sat in a chair that someone had righted. When she saw Quinn, her eyes grew large and wide, and she stood. “What happened?” she asked, tears threatening.

Quinn hesitated, unsure of what she should tell her little sister.

Christopher spoke first. “Everyone is okay,” he told Tara in a soft, soothing voice. “We’re just going to go visit the hospital really quickly, and get your sister bandaged up. Would you like to ride in the ambulance?”

Tara eyed him suspiciously, one eyebrow raised. She put one of her hands on her hip. “I’m not a little kid,” she said.

“It’s okay,” Quinn said, and held out her hand. “Come on, Monkey.”

Her little sister brightened at the old nickname, and ran over to Quinn. She wrapped her arms around Quinn’s waist and squeezed.

Quinn smiled and put her uninjured arm around Tara’s shoulders. Whatever happened next, at least her little sister was safe.

* * *

Quinn watched in fascination as the plastic surgeon made tiny, precise stitches in her arm. The red of her blood and brown of the iodine they used to sanitize the area had mixed until she could no longer tell them apart. The surgeon, whose name was Oscar Torres, had insisted on doing her stitches.

“It’s either me or the interns tonight,” he said, laughing.

She watched as he made the final stitch, then tied a tiny knot that she couldn’t see. His thick fingers moved as nimbly as a ballet dancer’s legs.

“All done,” Dr. Torres said, rolling back on his stool. He stripped off his gloves with a an elastic snap.

Christopher Ramsey thanked the doctor, then led Quinn and Tara into a private room. “Here, have a seat,” he said, pointing to the comfortable chairs.

Quinn sat, cradling her arm and wondering whether this was the room doctors used to let people know their family members died. “Where’s my mother?” she asked.

“Right to business,” Christopher said. He sat opposite the girls and pulled a folder from his briefcase. “Your mother is currently at the Waterbury police station.” He scanned through the paperwork.

“What? Why?” Quinn slammed a fist down on the table. Next to her, Tara jumped. “Sorry, Monkey.” She put an arm around Tara’s shoulders.

The social worker lifted his eyes from the papers in the folder. “Because she assaulted you,” he said calmly, “and because there are several reports of violent outbursts from various people.”

Quinn frowned. “Who?”

Tara tapped her good arm. Quinn turned to her. “I told,” she whispered.

Quinn bit down on her lip. With every second, the situation spun further out of her control. She couldn’t exactly blame Tara, but she wished she had been able to stop her sister from incriminating their mother any more.

“Neighbors, some of your mother’s coworkers, and yes, Tara.” He smiled kindly. “I know you love your mother, Quinn, but she’s dangerous.”

“She needs help,” Quinn said. “She’s bipolar. She can’t go to jail.”

Christopher nodded. “I agree. Do you know what your other options are, Quinn?”

She wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to keep using her name, but she pressed her lips together instead, and gave her head a shake. She felt off balance, as though she had fluid in her ears and a fever.

“We can go down to the police station and press charges. Not only will your mother get an assault charge, Quinn, but she’ll also get endangerment of a minor.” He straightened his glasses. “If we don’t press charges, you could file a restraining order, but that won’t help much, other than to keep you girls safe. The only alternative is to have your mother involuntarily hospitalized.”

Quinn frowned. Her little sister squeezed her hand. “Against her will? Is that even legal?”

Christopher took a deep breath. “Your mother would have to stay for fifteen days. She would be medicated, fed, and cared for. She would be safe, and so would you.”

“And what about after that?” Quinn asked. “I can’t just abandon her. She’s sick.”

“In the meantime, we would file a restraining order. We have to move quickly, though, Quinn. Right now, her assaulting you is the best chance we have. The mental health system doesn’t give us much room.” Christopher pushed his glasses up on his nose again.

Quinn’s head thudded. She rubbed her temples. “I don’t know. Where would she go? What would she do?”

“We can get her moved to a more long-term facility that can take care of her,” the social worker said. “I need your cooperation, though, Quinn. We need to keep you and Tara safe.”

At the mention of her little sister, Quinn’s shoulders sagged. “Do I have a choice?” she asked herself, more than anyone else. She thought of all the times Nancy had raged at her and Tara, threatening to kill them or herself. She looked at the tiny stitches on her arm, then at Tara’s unmarred arms.

“I know this isn’t easy,” Christopher said.

She wanted to tell him that he had no idea, that her mother had been completely normal. Nancy had made them breakfast, and then something snapped. It was as if something possessed her, and the episodes were getting more and more frequent, and longer. Quinn looked down at her stitched arm.

“It will be much worse next time,” Christopher said gently.

She swallowed and blinked away tears, then sucked in a ragged breath.

“You’re in control now,” he told her. “You just turned eighteen, right?”

“In February,” she said.

“You don’t have to deal with this alone anymore.” He tapped the papers in the folder. “Let me help you.”

She nodded, afraid to speak. Tara slid out of her seat and climbed into her lap. “You’re getting heavy, Monkey,” she told her, but did not push her off. She took another deep breath and hugged her sister with her good arm. “Okay, what’s next?” she asked Christopher.

* * *

Tara’s head rested on her shoulder. They sat in the back seat of a plush taxi cab that Christopher had called and paid for. He knew a judge who could speed things up for them. She was pretty sure that as she and Tara headed home from the emergency room, Nancy was on her way to the behavioral health section of the hospital. She closed her eyes, trying to imagine two weeks of peace. In two weeks, she would be packing to move into her dormitory at Southern Connecticut State University, putting all of this further behind her.

She jolted in her seat, heart thudding. If she went away to college, there would be no one to take care of Tara. They did not have any family. A hand flew to her mouth and her eyebrows wrinkled. Tara would have to go to a foster home.

She stared out the window as the taxi driver got onto the highway, her shoulders tensing once more. With her mother gone, and her father dead, Tara was all she had, and vice versa. No matter what happened, she could not allow them to lose each other.

Bad things always happen to Quinn in threes.

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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A Touch of the Flu, a Touch of Depression

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It’s been a full week since I last posted here, which is weird for me because I’m usually a font of word vomit. I managed to come down with another flu virus, though, so I’ve been busy napping. This bout was particularly nasty and, from what I understand, it’s been going around. I didn’t even bother to get swabbed, because the second my eyeballs started hurting and my temp started climbing, I knew.

Still, it’s been rough. For several days, I had muscle, joint, and skin pain. Yes, skin pain. It’s a thing I sometimes experience with my Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease, but it’s never a big deal. This? Was hell. I couldn’t move, because every inch of my upper body felt like it’d been badly sunburned. Showering and toweling off after? Hell, I tell you. The muscle and joint pain were nasty, too. On its own, the joint pain would’ve been a 6/10 and the muscle pain a 4/10, but the three together were damned near unbearable.

I decided not to call my doctor because A) Tamiflu only shortens the flu by like two days and B) I kind of currently don’t have a primary care doctor. My doctor’s office has been blowing me off ever since I sent in my letter of complaint, and I honestly didn’t have the energy to talk to them about my concerns and explain my symptoms—especially since they don’t listen in the first place.

I just toughed it out, and I’m still recovering. At this point I just have a runny nose and dry cough, and I’m still easily fatigued. I do feel better, though, so I really can’t complain. However, I’ve also come down with a touch of stupid depression.

It’s not easy for me to admit this. I kind of thought, once I’d worked through my PTSD, that I wouldn’t have to deal with this shit anymore. But there’s been a lot going on in my personal life lately that I haven’t really talked about. I’ve been overwhelmed and dealing with a lot of anxiety, and it’s apparently turned into depression.

Granted, I think anyone in my shoes would feel this way. I’ve been through a lot lately, and things pretty much suck in my country right now. For the past several weeks—months, even—I’ve been in survival mode, reacting as I need to and staying on my feet. It’s not at all surprising that I got the damned flu again. In emergencies, I’m always the one to panic after it’s all over. Today I burst into tears and had to remind myself that Mike is okay, I’m okay, everyone’s okay, we got through it all, we’ll get through everything else.

I guess I just haven’t had the time to process everything.

So while I’m recovering from the stupid flu, I’m also working on processing the past few weeks and the things that I know are to come. I’m also working on easing up on myself; I put a lot of pressure on myself, and tonight I realized it’s time to let it go. Writing has been really hard for me lately. I had a lot of plans for 2017 and the only one dictating what I “need” to do was, well, me. I’m working on clearing my plate a bit and giving myself room to recover, as well as room to just be, and then room to grow.

I’m also working on my author website this week, so if it goes down for a while, don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.

Sometimes, you just need to pause and practice breathing—and that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Self-Care for Writing Through Trauma

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Note: This blog post is a raw, unedited chapter from my current work in progress, Writing Through Trauma. Part memoir and part inspiring instruction, Writing Through Trauma aims to help you write your way through difficult events in your life. Click here to join my email list to get notified when I post new chapters.

I’m scared, and overwhelmed, and I can’t fucking think straight—and it’s okay.

I just broke down in tears after 30 minutes of trying to write this post using the built-in speech-to-text software on my Mac with the damned thing not picking up half of what I fucking say. I’d hoped that talking through it would help me focus better, but I ended up completely frustrated.

If that’s not a micro example of some of the side effects of writing through trauma, I don’t know what is.

I’m stressed. Shit is falling apart in my country. I’m scared for myself and my family and friends. My health is a bit better thanks to Prednisone and Plaquenil, but my neck and lower back have been fucked up for weeks and the more stressed I get, the worse they are. I’ve fallen behind on my production schedule. I’m months behind on beta reading for my CP. Every time I try to write fiction, I feel blocked or too brain foggy to focus.

I thought I’d just buckle down today and write the next chapter of Writing Through Trauma that I’d planned—”Why Writing Helps You Through Trauma”—so that, at the very least, I might help someone who’s struggling right now too. But the truth is, sometimes it’s a double-edged sword.

Sometimes writing through trauma brings it all back to the surface and paralyzes you.

Writing has never been my enemy. For almost two decades, I was my own enemy—thanks to trauma. But I could always escape through writing. On the page, I could always be myself and speak my truth.

Right now, my truth is fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.

My biggest fear is how debilitating my chronic illness is if untreated.

My chronic illness is a trauma. For the first 18 years of my life, I was healthy. I came down with colds, strep, and the flu occasionally, but other than that I was strong. I played softball. I went hiking. I worked. I went to school. I went bowling. Then, suddenly, I came down with mono.

It crippled me. My life came to a screeching halt for months. I only had the strength to move the 100 feet or so from my bed over to the couch. For weeks, my doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I had severe throat and joint pain, plus debilitating fatigue and muscle weakness. I felt like I was dying. They tested for strep twice and both times it came back negative. My mom had to push for them to test me for mono. It came back positive. I started Prednisone and Tylenol with codeine, but it took weeks for me to recover. I nearly missed our family vacation to Florida. Even when we came home, I was still relatively weak.

A year later, the joint pain and fatigue came back. This time, it never went away.

It’s an autoimmune disease called Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease. It attacks the tendons where they connect into my joints, causing joint pain. It attacks my eyes and mouth, making me perpetually dry-eyed and thirsty. It affects my energy. It impairs my thinking, making my thoughts foggy; it’s hard to think of words, names, and places. UCTD can be pre-Lupus or pre-RA, especially if your disease has changed over the years. Mine has.

With the Affordable Care Act under attack, I face losing my health insurance and therefore my healthcare. I’m finally feeling better for the first time in a decade, thanks to my rheumatologist, Prednisone, and Plaquenil. Without my Medicaid, I cannot afford healthcare. Period. I can’t work outside the home due to my disease; most days, it’s a struggle to work from home. Mike works full-time, but everything he makes barely covers our rent and utilities. His company’s health insurance plans are outrageously expensive and we couldn’t afford them before the ACA was passed.

Mike is now finally dealing with his own health issues and, if they continue to go untreated, he won’t be able to work much longer. All I can think about lately is what will happen to us if—when?—the ACA is dismantled.

A two-month supply of Plaquenil costs about $800 out of pocket. I don’t even make $800 a month. We rely on SNAP for groceries, getting only the bare essentials and cooking everything from scratch—even when I can barely stand.

Whenever the inflammation in my body gets out of control, my joints become too stiff for me to even get out of bed. Never mind the pain. I can’t physically move. I’m utterly helpless, which is downright terrifying for a 28-year-old who was healthy 10 years ago.

Living with a chronic illness is traumatic.

I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to come to terms with my disease. I don’t know what is going to happen as it is. Facing losing the ACA takes away even more control of my life.

Trauma is anything that disrupts your sense of safety and trust in the world—your sense of normal. Anything can be traumatic, and the effects of an event vary from person to person.

With so much on my mind, it gets in the way of writing—especially when I try to write about writing through trauma. It reminds me of how much I struggled when I first began writing my trauma stories.

My therapist Erica told me, in our first session, that the end goal was for me to tell my stories. I had to pick three traumas and write about what happened. Picking three was difficult, considering I’ve been living with multiple traumas for so long, and had just experienced a fresh one.

Bullying. Assault. Rape. Miscarriage. Chronic illness. Unexplained death of a loved one. Forced hospitalization.

Every time I started writing about what happened to me, I’d get overwhelmed with anxiety. Writing about it only seemed to aggravate my anxiety, depression, and flashbacks. I kept having to stop and put it away because I just couldn’t deal.

When that happened, I had to practice self-care.

When writing through your trauma, it’s imperative that you allow yourself to write at your own pace. Recognize when you need to take a break or stop. Give yourself permission to stop. Be gentle with yourself.

For me, it had to be a gradual process. Some survivors might be able to rip off the Band-Aid, but I could only write a little at a time. First I was able to mention both of my rapists, for example, while writing in my journal. Before, I’d suppressed the bad memories; I never wrote about either of the men who raped me because I just knew that I despised and feared them. I could barely recall other things from the time that they’d each been in my life. Large black clouds comprised most of my memories, even devouring good things, leaving great wide holes.

When I was a teenager, I dreamed that a black oily substance was eating the sky. In the dream, my family and I were trying to figure out what was happening and how to stop it. Bit by bit, the sky—and world—disappeared.

I’m still trying to reclaim much of my own sky.

Since trauma survivors often suppress memories in the brain’s attempt to keep you alive, it made sense that I had a lot of digging to do. And the more I dug, the harder the flashbacks hit me.

My nightmares intensified. The panic attacks came more frequently. I was constantly snapping at the people around me—usually Mike. I knew that it was going to get worse before it got better, though, so I kept trying.

The more I wrote, the more I remembered. Even though I didn’t really want to remember because I knew it’d be painful, I really wanted to get better. I wanted to stop having panic attacks, to become motivated and productive again. I wanted to actually feel happiness, to grow stronger. To reclaim my life and my voice.

So I took my time.

I started a new bedtime ritual: Benadryl to make me so drowsy and calm, my anxiety couldn’t keep me awake; one ASMR video on YouTube or a round of Bejeweled to clear and calm my mind; one chapter of a familiar audiobook read in a soothing tone that I could drift off to; stuffed animals to hug tight while I slept. It’s been over a year and I still go to bed like this every night. Someday, I’ll be able to let go and fall asleep on my own. But for now, I give myself permission to continue this ritual for as long as I need it.

I carved out a strict workday for myself. Monday through Friday, I only work from 8 or 9 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. I don’t work weekends. Evenings are for my “me” time—reading, watching TV or movies on Netflix, or playing Sims. If, during the workday, my body needs some rest, I take a short 30- or 60-minute break just to sit comfortably, maybe read a book or watch Netflix.

I got myself back into a healthy sleep schedule. I’ve always been a night owl, but letting myself stay up all night and sleep until noon was hurting my productivity and affecting my mood. I use my iPhone to remind me to go to bed by 11 p.m. and wake me up at 8 a.m.

I eat three meals a day, plus snacks—no matter what. Since I’m hypoglycemic, skipping meals can make me very sick or very anxious. Even if I don’t have much of an appetite, I eat something small.

I take all of my meds on time. I use a weekly pill box with morning, noon, evening, and bedtime compartments, and Alexa to remind me to take my pills. Right now my meds are: Prednisone, Plaquenil, Tramadol, Flexeril, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Benadryl. I take them religiously.

When I’m not too sore, I do yoga. It’s been a while, to be honest, and I’m feeling it. I also meditate, practice deep breathing throughout the day, and write in a journal. Up until recently, I couldn’t hold a pen in my stiff, sore fingers long enough to write down the date, so had to give up journaling—which was really hard to do, and I’m really glad I can write again.

I shower regularly, do my makeup to boost my mood, and get dressed even when I’m not leaving the house. Sometimes I just let myself stay in my pajamas all day, though—whatever makes me feel best.

For you, self-care might mean different things. What’s most important is that you take care of yourself. Treat yourself as if you were your own sweet child. Be kind and gentle, but firm when necessary.

What are your favorite self-care tools? Leave a comment and tell me three of them!

Note: This blog post is a raw, unedited chapter from my current work in progress, Writing Through Trauma. Part memoir and part inspiring instruction, Writing Through Trauma aims to help you write your way through difficult events in your life. Click here to join my email list to get notified when I post new chapters.

Read More: Chapter 1

Writing Through Trauma: What is Trauma?

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Note: This blog post is a raw, unedited chapter from my current work in progress, Writing Through Trauma. Part memoir and part inspiring instruction, Writing Through Trauma aims to help you write your way through difficult events in your life. Click here to join my email list to get notified when I post new chapters.

Up until November 2015, I had no idea that the events I’d experienced were considered traumas. In fact, I was so determined to believe that they were no big deal, I’d repressed them almost completely. Any time you bottle something up, though, it almost always explodes on you.

And explode it did.

It wasn’t until I started seeing Dina*—a trauma-certified therapist—in November 2015 that I realized the things I’d experienced were not only traumatic, but also the root of the depression and anxiety that I’d been fighting for the past 15 years.

Trauma is any event that shatters your sense of safety and what you thought you knew about the world. Trauma is subjective, meaning that what might be traumatic for me may not affect you the same way, and vice versa. Examples of trauma include:

  • being bullied as a child
  • becoming sick with chronic illness and/or pain
  • getting into a car accident
  • having your area hit by a severe storm
  • being sexually or physically assaulted
  • serving in a war
  • having a miscarriage
  • the death of a loved one
  • and more

None of these examples are more or less traumatic. Everyone responds to stress in different ways.

Trauma develops into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when a person who has experienced one or multiple traumatic events becomes stuck in the brain’s natural fight/flight/freeze response. Most of us react in some way when something bad happens, but are able to calm down—especially once you realize that you’re safe.

For example, if you’re driving during a snowstorm and slide on ice, doing a complete 360° turn and nearly hitting a wall, you feel afraid. Your hands shake, your breathing and heart rate speed up, and your brain kickstarts the fight/flight/freeze response to help you get through the incident.

If you’re able to process the event—driving, snowstorm, icy roads under snow, spun, stopped before hitting the wall—you’ll realize you’re safe and your brain will shut off the fight/flight/freeze response.

If you’re not able to process our example event, though, you may start having nightmares about the incident (re-experiencing symptoms, or flashbacks). You refrain from driving yourself anywhere whenever it snows (avoidance symptoms). You snap at the people around you for seemingly no reason and have a hard time sleeping (arousal and reactivity symptoms). You may even completely forget that you nearly hit a wall while driving in the snow, but still believe that you’re a terrible driver when it snows (cognition and mood symptoms).

For years, all of these things were happening to me, and I had no idea why. I experienced recurring episodes of severe depression and anxiety. I saw nearly a dozen mental health professionals, who repeatedly misdiagnosed me. Many of them asked questions about my past, such as “Have you ever been raped?” But none of them ever mentioned that my past traumas could be causing my present symptoms.

I tried medication after medication—all of which affected me adversely, either intensifying my depression and anxiety or causing unusual side effects. One antidepressant, Viibryd, caused waking dreams, extremely vivid nightmares, and severe anxiety and depression. Still neither my therapist at the time nor the APRN who was prescribing me the medication ever realized that my problem was not chemical, which explained why antidepressants were not helping.

I hit my lowest point in October 2015 when, against my will, I was hospitalized under a physician’s certificate.

My APRN had recently taken me off one of my antidepressants, Wellbutrin, without weaning me, and I had a really hard time coming off them due to rapid withdrawal. Within days, I become barely recognizable.

I’d walk into a room and, unable to move, burst into uncontrollable tears.

I couldn’t do anything I loved—like writing my rockstar romance, the South of Forever series.

I kept having weird thoughts that were not my own, like “I wonder what would happen if I filled the tub, got in, and then threw a toaster in with me? Wait. Where the hell did that come from?!” The thoughts freaked me out, because I did not want to die.

I wasn’t able to eat, sleep, or shower and I spent every day on the couch watching TV shows and movies that I later wouldn’t remember.

It was absolutely terrifying, because I knew this wasn’t like my usual depression and anxiety.

I told Grace* (the therapist I was seeing at the time), and she told me there was nothing more she could do for me. I also told the APRN who prescribed the medication, and he decided I should also come off Abilify, the other antidepressant I was taking. When I asked if I should wean off, he insisted that I should be fine.

I wasn’t.

Note: This blog post is a raw, unedited chapter from my current work in progress, Writing Through Trauma. Part memoir and part inspiring instruction, Writing Through Trauma aims to help you write your way through difficult events in your life. Click here to join my email list to get notified when I post new chapters.

*Names have been changed for privacy.

Just One More Minute: Chapter 5

Just One More Minute, by Elizabeth Barone

The house fell silent all around Rowan. She stood in the entrance, eyes adjusting to the darkness. She’d forgotten to leave a lamp on. Groping for the light switch, she took several deep breaths in through her nose. It was bad enough, sleeping in Katherine’s house, knowing her aunt was dead. Leaving the lights off was like asking for her imagination to run rampant.

She swallowed hard. She knew she was being ridiculous. She didn’t believe in ghosts. Even if she did, Katherine wouldn’t haunt her. Finding the switch, she flipped the light on, bathing the entryway with light. Sighing, she moved toward the stairs.

After leaving Elli’s, she’d driven around aimlessly. The thought of going back to Katherine’s empty house weighed her down. In New Jersey, in her apartment building, there was always someone around. She could count on the squeak of the floorboards above her head or the soft sigh through a wall to placate her loneliness. Katherine’s closest neighbors were visible from any of the windows, but far enough away that Rowan might as well be on a deserted island.

If she kept the house, she was going to have to find a roommate.

Trudging up the stairs, she replayed her conversation with Matt. No matter how hard she tried, he kept slipping into her thoughts. The last thing she wanted to do was analyze everything he’d said to death. Yet his words—Give me two weeks—looped through her mind. It was almost as if he was trying to woo her. Those bright green eyes had burned into hers, charming her, willing her to give in.

Reaching the landing, she went straight into the bathroom, ignoring the bedroom on the left. Katherine’s room. Eventually she’d have to go in there. Once again she found herself thankful that her aunt hadn’t passed away in the house. There was no way she’d be able to even hang out there, never mind sleep.

She still couldn’t believe the house was hers. She turned on the shower and grabbed her caddy from one of the cabinets under the sink. It felt wrong to take her aunt’s shampoo bottle out of the shower and replace it with her own. At some point, she was going to have to get over that, too. Katherine didn’t need to shower anymore.

She burst into tears. Stripping off her clothes, she stepped into the stream. The hot mist sprayed her face, washing her grief and makeup away. Still, she scrubbed at her face for several long minutes, shoulders absorbing the impact of the water. The heat pounded away at the knots in her muscles, loosening her up. When she was clean and all cried out, she shut off the water and stepped out, wrapping a giant fluffy towel around herself.

Her aunt had always had the best towels.

She dried off quickly, then retreated to the guest bedroom. Her long hair sent droplets sluicing down her belly. Shivering in the central air, she dove under the covers. Before she drifted off, she set her alarm for the morning.

* * *

Dawn came too soon—if she could call it that. The sky outside the house was still dark. Rowan groaned as the alarm on her phone pierced the thin veil of sleep. Swearing, she crawled out of bed and turned it off. For a moment, she considered just going back to sleep. Matt couldn’t exactly force her to meet him. She did need to figure out what to do with Elli’s, though. The sooner she wrapped things up in Connecticut, the sooner she could get back to her life.

She sat up. Her hair cascaded down her back as she moved. A frown tugged at her lips. Her life. She barely had friends. Most of them were people she’d met and hung out with in college. Sure, she had Sean. He was more like her boss, though, no matter how much he looked out for her. And just before she got the news about Katherine, she was trying to figure out what to do with her life. It was true that she didn’t want to work at the diner for the rest of her days. Technically, her blogging could support her—and she could take that with her back to Connecticut.

Nothing actually held her down to New Jersey.

There wasn’t much for her in Connecticut either, though.

Give me two weeks, Matt’s voice sauntered through her thoughts. A tingle ran down her spine. If he meant more than training, he could be her reason for moving back home. She squeezed her eyes shut. He’d already hurt her, though. Letting him back in would be reckless. Then again, it wasn’t as if she’d ever really let go. Those green eyes were still haunting her.

Throwing the blankets off, she climbed out of bed. She was being ridiculous, but she owed it to herself to check out all angles of the situation. And she wouldn’t let him get too close, she vowed. If anything, he could be a fun distraction while she figured things out. Maybe she would even find some closure and finally stop thinking about him.

There. Her logic was totally sound.

Traipsing through the guest room to the bathroom, she grabbed clothing. Then she started the shower and got ready for her day. Her makeup became her war paint. She drew her hair into a messy bun and surveyed herself in the mirror. Her tank top, capri leggings, and sneakers were okay for a morning in the bakery, but something was missing. She took a deep breath.

Then, she made herself walk into Katherine’s room.

Ignoring everything else, she marched straight to the closet. She tugged open the double accordion doors. Amidst her aunt’s blouses and dresses, Rowan spotted what she needed. She clutched the pastry chef’s jacket to her chest and fled the room.

Properly outfitted, she left the house.

On her way to Elli’s, she stopped for a hot latte and a bagel. After a moment’s hesitation, she doubled her order. It would be rude to walk in with nothing for Matt, she told herself.

Despite her pit stop, she arrived before him. She didn’t have keys to Elli’s, so she perched on a chair at one of the outdoor tables. Sipping her coffee, she checked the time on her phone. It was 4:55am.

She didn’t wait long. A pickup swung into the parking lot, pulling abruptly into a slot. Matt jumped out, two coffees and his keys balanced in one hand. He strode toward her and her heart skipped a beat. As he neared, he hesitated, glancing from the coffees in his hand and the goodies on the table in front of her.

He laughed nervously. At least, he sounded nervous. Maybe she was projecting. Joining her, he set his coffees down and unlocked the door. “I guess we won’t be short on caffeine.” He pushed the door open, plucked the two styrofoam Dunkin Donuts coffees from the table, and nodded for her to go in.

Gathering her own things, she stood. She moved past him, chewing on the inside of her cheek as she dredged up an equally light response. “If you’re trying to sway me,” she said, “you should’ve stopped at Starbucks.”

“I’ll remember that.” He set his things down on the checkout counter and flipped on some lights. Leaning against the counter, he surveyed her pastry jacket. “I didn’t think you were coming.”

“Well, I’m here.” She opened the paper bag and handed him a bagel. “Cheers.” She tapped her bagel against his, then took a big bite. “So,” she said between swallows, “do you guys still make the ciabatta first?”

Elli’s had the best sandwiches—mainly because of their bread. Some of her best memories were lunch breaks during that first summer working with her aunt.

Matt nodded. Grasping the bagel with his thumb and forefinger, he turned his hands so his palms faced the ceiling. “These hands have rolled out some serious ciabatta.”

Her eyes fell on his hands, square and broad. They were perfect for kneading dough. And other things. Heat flushed her cheeks. She knelt, pretending to search for a fallen crumb. Her bowed head hid her face, thankfully shielding her from his view. Around him, she could barely control herself. She needed to get it together.

Straightening, she took a deep breath. His eyes met hers and she came undone all over again. Those green eyes were bright despite the early hour, studying her. His full lips twitched. Pressing her thighs together, she looked away and focused on finishing her bagel.

“Rowan,” he said, breathing her name.

She dropped the bagel. Annoyed with herself, she glared down at it.

“I’ll get it.” He closed the space between them and bent to retrieve the bagel. Brown curls caressed his forehead. The muscles in his arm rippled as he dropped the bagel into the paper bag. Then, slowly, he stood. Barely twelve inches separated them. He tilted his head down and peered at her through his lashes. With his eyelids drooping, he looked like a sex god.

Her throat made a strangled sound and she pushed past him, breaking the spell. He was messing with her, she realized as she burst into the kitchen. Even worse, she was going to lose this game.

She bent over the stainless steel counter in the middle of the room, gripping its edge. Part of her wished he would come up behind her, arms encircling her waist. She could practically feel the heat of his body. Her breath came out in ragged gasps. She needed to remember that he’d broken her heart. Not to mention the job he’d stolen. Her eyes narrowed as her thoughts cleared. Yes. She needed to harness that anger and wear it like a shield. Otherwise, she was done for.

At least he had the decency to give her time to collect herself. By the time he strolled in, she had already pulled out ingredients for the ciabatta and was sifting flour into the giant industrial mixer. She patted the machine appreciatively. She’d missed having such an appliance.

“I’ll just start on the cannoli, then.” His fingers brushed her arm as he passed. Heat seared through her nerves. She glared daggers at his back.

Forcing herself to focus, she got back to work.

“Did you give any thought to my proposal?” he asked as he added flour, cinnamon, and sugar into the smaller mixer.

Rowan had to admit, she’d missed this world of sweets. Though she loved serving guests at Sean’s, there was something special about working in the kitchen, getting her hands plastered in dough.

“I barely slept,” she confessed, going for honesty. “I just don’t know what to do. This used to be my dream.” Lifting a hand, she gestured to the gleaming kitchen.

“It can be your reality,” Matt said in a low voice. Their eyes met across the kitchen.

She slanted a delicate eyebrow at him. “You have no idea what you’re asking.”

“Then make your case.” He smirked. “What’s so great about New Jersey?”

“My apartment is closer to New York City than Katherine’s house is,” she said, turning the mixer on. “And that means more Junior’s cheesecake.”

He lifted a shoulder. “I should care because . . . ?”

She gaped at him. “You’ve never had Junior’s cheesecake?” Jabbing a bench scraper toward him, she shook her head in dismay. “I thought Katherine took you under her wing.”

He shrugged. “What’s the big deal?”

“Nailing their recipe has been her life’s work,” Rowan chided. “At least, it was when I worked with her.” She frowned. So much had changed.

“I’m sure it was still important to her,” he said gently. A heartbeat passed. She heard him draw in a breath. “What happened between you two, anyway?”

She dropped the bench scrape. It clanged off the table and onto the floor. Stooping to pick it up, she tried to calm down. He had a lot of nerve asking that. She couldn’t figure out what game he was playing. Maybe he enjoyed torturing her—on more than one level. “I thought we came here to discuss Elli’s.” She tossed the bench scrape into the pot sink.

“Fair enough.” He finished mixing the dough for the cannoli shells. With a practiced hand, he divided the dough, flattening each into a disk. He swaddled them in plastic wrap and carried them to the walk-in cooler. When he returned, he joined her at the large mixer.

“So let’s talk. What did you decide?” He crossed his arms.

“You act like it’s so easy.” She dumped the ciabatta dough into a bowl coated with olive oil, covered it, and set it aside to rise.

“Isn’t it?” His eyes bore into hers.

“Are you trying to intimidate me?” She scowled at him.

Matt’s eyes widened and he took a step back. “No.” He held up both hands, palms facing her. “Well, okay. I’ll lay out my cards.” His arms dropped to his sides. “For me, it is simple. I need this job.”

She crossed her arms. “I’m sorry, but this is the last thing I need right now.”

“So what do you need? Maybe I can give it to you.” His eyes were steady. He meant what he said, she realized.

Throwing up her hands, she whirled around. She leaned on the counter. “I need time,” she muttered. “Everything is happening so fast. I can barely keep up. Last week, I had the whole summer to figure this out, maybe even longer.” More importantly, she’d had a lifetime to make up with Katherine. She’d taken her aunt for granted. Dipping her chin, she closed her eyes.

“You said this used to be your dream.” He indicated the bakery they stood in. “What’s stopping you?”

“My family, for one.” She snorted. “I left to get away from them. Coming back . . . it feels like giving up, you know?” She shook her head. He didn’t know. She’d seen him with his mother at the wake. Without having to hear their conversation, she could tell they were close. At the very least, his mother wasn’t grilling him about his life choices or pressuring him to give a new and especially potent strain of weed a chance. Her entire childhood had been a precarious balancing act of proving to her parents she was a good hippie child and secretly planning her escape as soon as she turned eighteen. Her parents weren’t bad people. They just weren’t her people.

All throughout high school, especially, she’d felt like a weirdo. She wasn’t a prude or goody two shoes. If she hadn’t been constantly bullied into trying different drugs, she might enjoy a joint now and then. In her adult life, she enjoyed a nice full glass of wine every once in a while. She wasn’t twenty-one yet but it wasn’t too hard to buy a bottle. It just depended on which package store she went to.

But no. Her first—and only—high had been a nightmare. She’d had a panic attack and her entire family had just laughed at her, told her to suck it up, and tried to force her to take another hit. She would feel better, they insisted.

She shuddered at the memory.

So no, Matt couldn’t possibly understand. She knew next to nothing about him, but she’d never read any of his family members’ names in the police blotter.

He touched her arm gently, but she jerked away. She’d had enough. She couldn’t run Elli’s with him. It had been stupid of her to even entertain the idea. Her place was in New Jersey, away from the rest of the Ellis family. Maybe she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life yet, but she knew she didn’t want to waste any more time in Connecticut.

Without a word, she shrugged out of the pastry jacket and dropped it into the laundry bin. Her sneakers squeaked on the floor as she strode across the tiled kitchen. She could hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears. The front end—and the door—felt so far away. Suddenly she thought she would just leave Connecticut that day. No need to wait any longer.

“Where are you going?” Matt called after her.

Ignoring him, she sprinted through the front end, weaving around tables. She burst into the hot summer morning. Despite the muggy air, she felt better at once. She slowed as she neared her car, pulse thrumming in her throat. A quick glance over her shoulder told her that Matt hadn’t bothered to follow her.

Good. She’d had enough of him.

She slipped into the car. Though the vents almost immediately pushed cold air into her face, she shut the air conditioning off and rolled down the windows. She needed real air. Guiding the car out of the parking lot, she relished the feeling of the breeze on her skin.

She may have botched her weekend home, but from this moment on, she was going to do better. She owed it to herself.

A plan formulated in her mind. She’d stop at Katherine’s, pack her things, and lock up. There wasn’t any real tidying that she needed to do. The place had been spotless when she arrived. Her aunt had never let the house get even slightly dirty.

Then she’d make for New Jersey, stopping for nothing. As soon as she got back to her apartment, she’d call Sean and find out when she could pick up her next shift. She’d get in touch with her aunt’s lawyer later in the week and find out what she needed to do to sell the house and Elli’s.

She nodded to herself.

As she stopped at the first red light on the way to Katherine’s, though, she wondered when she would stop running.

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A down-on-her-luck waitress inherits a bakery with the man who stole her dream job—and broke her heart.


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Just One More Minute: Chapter 4

Just One More Minute, by Elizabeth Barone

Matt pushed open the door to Elli’s and slipped inside. Usually, on a Monday morning, they opened much earlier. That morning, though, he’d attended Katherine’s funeral, and now he had only a few minutes to himself before the post-burial reception.

He was still trying to sift through his feelings. He’d spent the night before and part of that morning before the funeral prepping for the gathering. Mostly, though, he’d tried to figure out how he felt about Katherine leaving Elli’s to him.

He had no idea how to run a business. Since hiring him, Katherine spent less and less time in the kitchen, and more time on the administrative end. She’d taught him how to make mini cheesecakes and perfect bread for sandwiches, but she’d never showed him how to order ingredients or balance Elli’s bank account. After all, he was only a baker—and not even a trained or safety-certified one, at that. He’d been lucky to get the job at all.

Walking through the dining area, he straightened tablecloths and double checked that every setting had flatware. Realistically, there was nothing else for him to do, but standing around and waiting would only put him more on edge. He leaned against a wall and loosened his tie. The suit he’d worn to Katherine’s funeral had been his father’s. It felt more than weird to wear his dad’s clothing, but his own suit hadn’t fit in years. Daniel Sr.’s suit fit him like a glove—more testament to just how much had changed.

It made sense that he was thinking so much about his dad, he mused as he gave the room a final once over. What wasn’t fair was that he’d lost two people in almost exactly the same way. The familiar burning sensation ripped through him, his chest growing tight. Clenching his fists, he turned toward the wall, meaning to hammer one against the cool, smooth surface.

The bells on the door jingled. He turned, eyes widening in surprise as Rowan stepped inside. He should’ve had a few more minutes to himself before everyone arrived.

“I ditched the procession,” she explained. “Took a shortcut.”

A smile tugged at his lips. He would’ve done the same, in her shoes. He started to say so, then stopped. After their last conversation, he should probably say something to smooth things over. There wasn’t anything he could say, though. She was right. He shouldn’t have kept Katherine’s secret. Though it seemed not to bother the rest of Katherine’s family, it had definitely hurt Rowan. If they were going to work together, they were going to have to find a way to put it behind them.

“So what did you make?” she asked, crossing the front end and glancing around.

Or maybe he didn’t need to say anything. Maybe they just needed to keep moving forward. “A bunch of sandwich platters.”

Her eyebrows lifted. “No cheesecake?”

Matt smiled. “Do I look like I want Katherine to come haunt my dreams?” He motioned for her to follow him, and led her to the walk-in cooler. Opening the door, he pointed to a cart stocked full of Katherine’s favorite recipe, Elli’s famous mini cheesecakes. He gestured to another cart. “And some of the staples.” He mentally ran through his checklist: cannoli, cupcakes, and cookies. Combined, they made up Elli’s top-selling items—what Katherine referred to as the Super Cs.

Rowan stepped past him into the cooler. She lifted the lid of a tray of cookies and stole a peanut butter blossom. Taking a bite, she gave him an approving nod. “She’d be proud.”

“Thanks,” he said softly. Taking a deep breath, he surged forward. He wasn’t going to get another chance. “Look, about last night—”

She held up her hands. “I was totally out of line.”

“No,” he said firmly. “You were right. It wasn’t fair of us to keep you out.”

Hugging herself, she looked away. “I probably deserved it.”

Matt frowned. “You? No way. Katherine loved you.” He drew her out of the walk-in and shut the door behind him. “Why would you say that?”

Her lips parted, and the front door opened.

His shoulders slumped. It was show time. Giving her shoulder a squeeze, he moved past her into the front end. He recognized all of the faces from the funeral, except for his mother’s. She’d probably decided that she’d had enough. Still, he wished she’d come to Elli’s. It would ease his nerves to have an ally. Then again, his mother hadn’t been anyone he could rely on in years. His job was to take care of her, not the other way around.

Steeling himself, he let habit take over. He guided people into seats and rolled out the carts. He spent an hour alone hopping from table to table, serving coffee and replacing finished goodies. It wasn’t until he stopped to brew more coffee that he realized he was exhausted. He wished Katherine had hired some more help before she died.

Tears pricked his eyes. He blinked them away angrily. He shouldn’t feel guilty for thinking that. It was the truth. He needed help. If he and Rowan actually took over Elli’s together, the first thing he was going to suggest would be to hire a couple of high school kids for the afternoons and weekends.


He glanced around, but didn’t see her anywhere. Moving toward the front, he peered through the double windows. Her car was still parked outside. He rubbed at his cheeks, freshly shaved that morning but rapidly becoming more stubbly as the day dragged on.

He made his rounds again, refilling cups of coffee. Then he filled two mugs and slipped into the hall.

First he checked the office. It sat dark and empty. His shoulders relaxed. Maybe she’d just gone to the bathroom. But no, he hadn’t seen her since she first came in. Something told him that she was hiding. Suddenly he realized that Noah Ellis and the rest of Rowan’s family hadn’t come. He shook his head. They were strange people, he mused. Just like he wished his mother had come, he was sure Rowan could use her family’s support.

After determining that she definitely wasn’t in the walk-in cooler or freezer, he found her in the much warmer store room. She sat on an upside down milk crate in a corner, her elbows resting on her knees. Tears streamed down her cheeks. When she saw him, she buried her face in her hands.

“Go away.”

Matt hesitated. He was by no means an expert on women, but he didn’t think she actually wanted to be alone. Maybe she just didn’t want to be around him, he mused. If he left her, though, there was no one else. He pulled up another milk crate and squatted in front of her. “Thought you could use this.” He held out a mug of coffee.

Lifting her hands, she peeked out at him. The redness in her eyes made them startlingly blue. It was probably totally wrong for him to think so, but she was so pretty when she cried.

“Wanna talk about it?” he asked in a low voice.

She accepted the coffee and sipped slowly. After a few moments, she shrugged. “What’s there to talk about?” Her eyes remained on the floor, though.

Taking a sip of his own coffee, Matt watched her. Maybe it was because he’d already let her down, but he felt compelled to cheer her up. He supposed it was the “fix it” male genes in his DNA at work. Stretching out a hand, he lifted her chin until their eyes met. “Your parents didn’t come.”

She snorted. “Of course they didn’t. They’ve made their appearances. It was time for them to go back into their dark living room and spark up, maybe snort up a couple of Percs while they’re at it.”

His eyebrows lifted. Stifling the urge to comment, he took her hand in his. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” she said, but she squeezed his hand back. “It was dumb of me to hope they’d changed.” Sighing, she glanced away, withdrawing her hand.

“So they’ve always been like that?” He was starting to understand exactly why Katherine didn’t get along with her brother.

“Aunt Katherine told me it’s family tradition. Their parents were the same way. She used to say she and I were the ones who broke the cycle.” Rowan’s lips twisted wryly. “Not really, though.”

He tilted his head. “Why do you say that?”

“She didn’t have kids, and I won’t, either.” She set the coffee mug down and started dabbing at her face with a tissue.

Unable to help himself, he blurted, “Why not?”

“Because it would be totally unfair to subject them to this.” Rowan pulled her hair up into a messy bun at the top of her head.

He watched her, mesmerized. The scent of her hair floated to him, a subtle hint of coconut. “This?”

She rolled her eyes at him. “My family.”

“You could always cut off all ties with them.” He thought of his own mother and little brother. He couldn’t imagine never speaking to them again. Then again, his and Rowan’s families were very different.

“They would love that. I’ve always been such a disappointment.” She reached for her coffee.

“You’re not a disappointment to me,” he said before he could stop himself. Immediately he wished he hadn’t said anything. The tops of his ears burned. It was such a cheesy, rom com thing to say. Her face darkened and she looked away. He bit his lip, perplexed. He felt embarrassed, but she seemed almost angry. Running a hand through his curls, he tried to figure out how to save the conversation. If it could be saved. He cleared his throat. “So, Elli’s. What are we gonna do?”

Exhaling through her nose, she continued avoiding looking at him. “Good question.”

“You live in New Jersey, right?” He took a sip of coffee.

“That’s half the problem right there. I have a job. I have friends, sort of.” She muttered that last comment under her breath. His heart twisted in his chest. She really had no one left in the world.

He needed to convince her to run Elli’s with him. It was the only way he could keep a roof over Danny’s and their mother’s heads. By doing so, though, he would be tearing Rowan from the only thing she really had. It was selfish, but he didn’t have much of a choice. He doubted she would be moved by his situation. Still, he hated the thought of suggesting she leave her life behind and move back into close proximity with her family.

He ran his fingers back and forth over the stubble on his chin. Anything he said to convince her would be manipulative, and he didn’t want to be that guy. With barely a high school education, though, he’d never be able to find such a good job. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to look her straight in the eye. “Katherine trusted us to take care of this place.”

Rowan nodded. “I know. I can’t bear the thought of letting her down, but I don’t think I can do this.” Dropping her gaze, she drained the remains of her coffee. “I guess we could sell it, split the profit.”

His gut clenched. The money might take care of his family for a little while, but eventually he’d need to find something. “She’d hate that,” he said, struggling to keep his voice even.

“She would,” Rowan agreed. She sighed. “Maybe I could run the place remotely, like a long distance relationship.” Her cheeks reddened and she stared at a spot on the floor far away from him.

His eyebrows furrowed. Something teased at the back of his mind, then slipped away the second he tried to chase it.

“But I’d burn out really quickly. I’m a waitress and a blogger,” she explained.

“Oh, the dessert blog?” He grinned. “Katherine said you’d invented some of the recipes we use.”

She nodded. Tapping her chin, she finally looked at him. “Maybe you could run most of it and I’d just take less profit?”

Matt felt the corner of his mouth twitch. “I have no idea what I’m doing. I’d run the place into the ground.” The only solution was for her to stay. She had to see it. He gritted his teeth together, silently imploring her to figure it out.

“What if I teach you? I’m here for another day. It can’t be that hard.” She frowned, glancing toward the hall and Katherine’s office. “She taught me a lot of what she does. I’m sure her lawyer could fill in the blanks after I’m gone. He’s a business lawyer.” She shrugged.

Absorbing her words, he stared into his empty mug. He didn’t think he could just wing it. Make the recipes, sure. He’d been baking for Katherine for two years. Keeping the lights on and making sure they had enough on hand was a totally different story.

He needed Rowan. She’d gone to business school and she was a baker. She’d worked with Katherine for four years. No one in the world was more qualified. Actually, he surmised, he was lucky she wasn’t fighting him for the place.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. His mind whirled. He needed to come up with a much better argument than that. She knew all of this, though. He needed to give her a reason to stay.

If things were different and she didn’t hate him for whatever reason, he could probably seduce her into staying. He smirked. He’d never had any trouble snagging girlfriends in school. His mother still chided him all the time for the phone calls she’d gotten, when he was in kindergarten, about him trying to kiss girls on the playground. And in high school he’d been somewhat of a player. He’d never taken any of it seriously, but he still occasionally got emails from his exes, offering to “Netflix and chill” next time they were home from college.

He wondered if he could actively seduce a woman who hated him.

Then again, she didn’t hate him entirely, he realized. That magnetic attraction he’d felt—she had to have felt it too. It would explain her rapidly alternating warm and cool attitudes toward him.

“Give me two weeks,” he blurted.

She raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m leaving after tomorrow. I only asked for a couple days off—”

“I’m sure your boss will understand. Tell him you’ve got family business to take care of.” He stood and, taking her hands, pulled her to her feet. Though he had to duck his head a bit, he leveled his gaze with hers. He willed his eyes to smolder, to do whatever sexy trick they’d been doing his whole life. He wasn’t completely sure he could do it on command.

She yanked her hands away. “Excuse me?” Putting her hands on her hips, she cocked her head at him. Her eyes glinted, burning into his.

He fought the urge to kiss her.

“Spend two weeks with me. You’re going to love working with me. I can juggle balls of dough and I make a mean cupcake.” He brushed a stray curl off his forehead. “So? What do you say? Do you accept my challenge?”

Rowan stared at him. Several heartbeats passed before she answered. Tilting her head back, she lifted her chin. “Cocky, aren’t we?” she asked quietly. Pain flickered in her eyes. His hands twitched. He wanted to take her face in his hands and kiss the hurt away.

His pulse quickened in his throat. “More like confidence,” he whispered, not breaking eye contact. For a moment, he had a vision of hoisting her up onto the stainless steel table and kissing her until the moon rose in the sky. Screw the crowd of people in the front end. Forget the fact that he needed to convince her to stay. He wanted her to stay.

From the way she looked back at him, she might not even resist.

She looked away abruptly. Turning her back, she picked up her mug. “I don’t know about you, but I’m beat. How about we revisit this tomorrow?”

His shoulders slumped. Maybe he should have just kissed her. So far he was doing an awful job of convincing her. Then again, she hadn’t said no. “Sure,” he said with a sigh. “What time?”

Rowan crossed the room, pausing in the doorway. “You guys still come in early to start baking for the day, right?” He nodded. “I’ll see you at five, then.” She turned to go.

“Wait.” He had no idea how long they’d been in the store room and whether anyone had noticed their absence. “If we walk out of here together, people will probably think . . .” His ears and the nape of his neck burned. He cleared his throat. “I’m sure you don’t need your name in any more people’s mouths. Wait. I just realized how that sounded.” He held a hand up. “I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant.”

She stared at him, an amused expression crossing her features. He noticed that the slight dimple in her chin deepened when she smiled. If he remembered correctly, she hated her chin. The cleft was subtle, though, and he thought it was more endearing than anything else.

She laughed softly. “What makes you think we’re walking out together?” With those parting words, she turned on her heel and left him in the store room, gaping after her.

Now Available

A down-on-her-luck waitress inherits a bakery with the man who stole her dream job—and broke her heart.


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