She stepped over clothes and pizza boxes and Leif’s old shoes. Paxton looked up at her, gave her a stoned smile. He showed her a piece of paper with scribbles written across it. She could tell by the handwriting how high he was.
“My latest,” he said.
She read the poem aloud, in a voice too quiet for anyone else to hear. “It is us … we two … alone in the dark, waiting, knowing … love is our salvation and our demise … no one sees us save each other.”
“Get it?” he said, smiling languidly. “It’s a double meaning.”
His romanticism spoke to her damaged soul. She took the piece of paper from him, studying the words as she had once studied Shakespeare in high school lit class, a lifetime ago. As he reached up, she saw the beautiful white scars on his wrist. He was the only person she’d ever met who understood her pain; he’d shown her how to transform it, to cherish it, to become one with it. Each of the people in this room knew about the fine lines a knife could leave behind.
On the floor, Sabrina lolled sideways, holding out the still-smoking bong. “Hey, Mar. You want a hit?”
“Yeah, sure.” She needed to draw the sweet smoke into her lungs and let it do its magic, but before she could cross the room, her cell phone bleated.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out the small purple Motorola Razr she’d had for years.
“My dad’s calling,” she said. “Again.”
“It drives him crazy that you’re your own person. Of course he’s going to check up on you,” Leif said. “It’s why he keeps payin’ your phone bill.”
Paxton stared up at her. “Hey, Sabrina, pass me the bong. The princess is getting a call.”
Marah immediately felt ashamed of the way she’d grown up, the luxuries that she’d been given. Pax was right; she had been like a princess until the queen’s death. Then the whole fairy tale had collapsed. The bleating stopped. Immediately a text came in. It read: Emergency. Call me. She frowned. She hadn’t spoken to her father in, what? A year?
No. That wasn’t right. She knew precisely when she’d spoken to him last. How could she forget?
December 2009. Nine months ago.
She knew he missed her, and that he regretted their last conversation. The trail of his messages and texts attested to his regret. How many times had he left messages begging for her to come home?
But he’d never claimed that there was an emergency. He’d never tried to trick her into calling.
She picked her way over Sabrina and around Leif, who had passed out with his guitar on his chest, and went into a kitchen that smelled of slowly rotting wood and mildew. There, she called her dad’s cell. He answered so quickly, she knew he’d been waiting.
“Marah, it’s Dad,” he said.
“Yeah. I got that.” She went into the corner of the kitchen, where a broken stove and rusted sink bookended a 1960s green fridge.
“How are you, Munchkin?”
“Don’t call me that.” She leaned against the fridge, blaming it for her sudden cold.
He sighed. “Are you ready to tell me where you are yet? I didn’t know even what time zone to count on. Dr. Bloom says this phase—”
“It’s not a phase, Dad. It’s my life.” She pulled away from the fridge. Behind her, in the main room, she could hear the bong bubbling and Pax and Sabrina laughing. The sweet smoke drifted her way. “I’m aging, Dad. What’s the emergency?”
“Tully has been in a car accident,” he said. “It’s bad. We don’t know if she’s going to make it.”
Marah drew in a small, desperate breath. Not Tully, too. “Oh, my God…”
“Where are you? I could come get you—”
“Portland,” she said quietly.
“Oregon? I’ll get you a plane ticket.” There was a pause. “There are flights every hour. I can have an open ticket waiting for you at the Alaska counter.”
“Two tickets,” she said.
He paused again. “Fine. Two. What flight—”
She snapped the phone shut without saying goodbye.
Paxton strolled into the kitchen. “What’s up? You look freaked.”
“My godmother might be dying,” she said.
“We’re all dying, Marah.”
“I need to see her.”
“After what she did?”
“Come with me. Please? I can’t go alone,” she said. “Please.”
His gaze narrowed; she felt sliced by the sharpness of it. Exposed.
He tucked his long hair behind one silver-beaded ear. “It’s a bad idea.”
“We won’t stay long. Please, Pax. I’ll get some money from my dad.”
“Sure,” he said finally. “I’ll go.”
* * *
Marah felt people staring at her and Pax as they walked through the small Portland airport.
She liked that so-called normal people were offended by Pax’s goth look and the safety pins in his ears and the tattoo on his neck and collarbone. They didn’t see the beauty of the scrollwork around the tattooed words or the ironic humor.
Marah boarded the plane, took her seat in the back, and connected her seat belt.
She stared into the window, seeing a shadowy reflection of her pale face: heavily lined brown eyes, purplish lips, and spiked pink hair.
A ping sounded through the aircraft and they were off, rocketing down the runway, rising into the cloudless sky.
She closed her eyes. Memories tapped on her consciousness like the raven from Pax’s favorite poem. Tap. Tap. Tap.
She didn’t want to remember the past, not ever. For years she had buried all of it—the diagnosis, the cancer, the goodbyes, the funeral, and the long gray months that followed—but it was all coming up again, clawing its way to the surface.
She closed her eyes and saw herself as she’d been on the last ordinary day: a fifteen-year-old girl on her way to school.
“Surely you don’t think you’re wearing that to school?” Mom said, coming into the kitchen.
Across the breakfast table, the twins went suddenly silent and stared at Marah like a pair of bobbleheads.
“Uh-oh,” Wills said.
Lucas nodded so fast his mop of hair shimmied.
“There’s nothing wrong with my clothes.” Marah got up from the table. “This is fashion, Mom.” She let her gaze sweep her mom’s outfit—cheap, pilly flannel pajamas, tired hair, out-of-date slippers—and frowned. “You should trust me on this.”
“Your outfit is perfect for Pioneer Square at midnight with your pimp. Unfortunately, it’s a Tuesday morning in November and you’re a sophomore in high school, not a guest on Jerry Springer. Let me be more specific: that jean skirt is so short I can see your underwear—pink with flowers—and the T-shirt clearly came from the toddler department. You are not showing your stomach at school.”
Marah stomped her foot in frustration. This was exactly what she wanted Tyler to see her in today. He would look at her and think cool instead of young.
Mom reached for the chair in front of her and clutched it as if she were an old, old lady. With a sigh, she sat down. Then she picked up her coffee cup—the one that said WORLD’S BEST MOM—and held it in both of her hands, as if she needed to be warmed. “I don’t feel good enough to fight with you today, Marah. Please.”
“Exactly. I’m not fighting. You are not going to high school looking like Britney Spears on crack. Or showing your crack. Period. The cool thing is that I’m your mother. That makes me the CEO of this house. Or the warden. Point is, my house, my rules. Change your clothes or face the consequences. Consequences, I might add, which begin with being late for school and losing your precious new phone, and go downhill from there.” Mom put down her coffee cup.
“You’re trying to ruin my life.”
“Ah, you have uncovered my master plan. Rats.” Mom leaned over and ruffled Wills’s mop of hair. “You guys are still little. I won’t ruin your lives for years. No need to worry.”
“We know that, Mommy,” Wills said earnestly.
“Marah’s face is all red,” Lucas observed, then went back to building a Cheerios tower.
“The Ryan family school bus leaves in ten minutes,” Mom said. She placed her palms on the table and pushed slowly to her feet.
I don’t feel good enough to fight with you today.
That had been state’s evidence #1. Not that Marah had collected it or even cared. She’d gone on doing what she did—working it at school, being popular, making sure that everyone who was anyone wanted to be her friend. Until that first family meeting.
“I had a doctor’s appointment today,” Mom said. “There’s nothing for you to worry about, but I’m sick.”
Marah could hear the boys talking, asking stupid questions, not getting it. Lucas—the mama’s boy—ran up and hugged Mom.
Dad herded the boys out of the room. As he passed Marah, he looked down at her and there were tears in his eyes and she felt her knees give out. There was only one reason he would cry.
She looked at her mother and saw her in detail—the pale, pale skin, the dark circles under her eyes, the chapped, colorless lips. It was as if her mom had been dunked in bleach and come out as this colorless version of herself. Sick. “It’s cancer, isn’t it?”
Marah was shaking so hard she clasped her hands together to try to still them. How was it she hadn’t known this was possible, that your whole life could tilt sideways in a split second? “You’ll be fine. Right?”
“The doctors say I’m young and healthy, so I should be fine.”
“I’m going to the very best doctors,” Mom said. “I’ll beat this thing.”
Marah released her breath. “Okay, then,” she said at last, feeling that terrible tightness in her chest ease up. Her mom never lied.
But she had. She’d lied and she’d died, and without her, Marah’s life had lost its shape. In the years afterward, she’d tried to get to know a woman who’d disappeared, but all she could remember was cancerville Mom—the pale, frail, birdlike woman with no hair and no eyebrows and thin white arms.
The horrible “celebration of Mom’s life” had been unbearable. Marah had known what was expected of her that night. Everyone had told her. Dad had said tiredly, It blows, I know, but this is what she wanted; Grandma had said you can help me in the kitchen—it will be easier that way. Only Tully had been honest and real. All she’d said was, Good God, I’d rather poke my eye out than do this. Marah, can you hand me a serving fork?
October of 2006. Marah closed her eyes and remembered. It was when everything had started to go so wrong. The night of the funeral. She’d been sitting at the top of the stairs at home, staring down at a room full of people …
dressed in black. Every few minutes the doorbell rang and another woman carrying a foil-covered casserole dish came inside (because, really, nothing made you hungrier than burying someone you loved). The music was a version of death, too—jazzy stuff that made sixteen-year-old Marah think of old men with skinny ties and women with beehive hairdos.