I ran my hand over the black cotton; the small fibers tickled my fingers. The dress was faded but not torn. “This will have to do,” I said to myself. Nothing mattered anymore anyway.
Especially not whatever I’d wear to Mom’s funeral. Hopefully, no one would judge my choice of attire.
“Or would they?” I whispered.
Rotating the hanger, I studied the dress more closely. In the end, I didn’t care, so I gathered it from the hanger and slipped it over my head. Then I shuffled through the shoes in my closet until I touched the smooth leather of the not-so-high heels Mom had bought me for my seventeenth birthday last month… before she had disappeared. Before they found her body floating in the Chicago River.
Once I lined the heels up side by side in front of me, I closed my eyes and willed my left foot to move. But nothing happened. My foot wasn’t part of my body anymore. My brain had been holding back my emotions for too long to control my physical movement now.
I stared at the shoes instead. They were lifeless, like Mom. These shoes would never lose someone they loved. They’d never have to move far away from their home or their friends.
They’d never be left alone without their mother. That last thought pierced my heart and echoed in my head, pulsing over and over until it was hard to ignore.
“Damn it,” I mumbled, wiping away a tear that had escaped
my eye. I’d been doing so well, keeping my emotions intact, letting them bubble under my blank facade. “Stupid shoes.”
Somehow, I mustered the strength to slip on the shoes. Then I looked in the mirror, fixed my smudged eyeliner, and grabbed my coat from the bed. Breathing deeply, I reclaimed my indifferent demeanor before glancing around the room—the bedroom that wouldn’t be mine for much longer—and shutting the door behind me. It was time to put the most wonderful person I’d ever known into the ground and throw dirt on her.
The drive back from the funeral was long and exhausting. People were getting ready for Halloween, which was next week. My mom and I had planned to go to my school’s annual festival dressed as Thelma and Louise.
Now, the clock on the radio read noontime. The limo driver would drop me off at the apartment so I could pack as many of my belongings as possible into four bags. That was all I could carry onto the 3:00 p.m. train to Louisiana that afternoon. Mrs. Shelby, a social worker I’d met a few days earlier, had promised to take me across town to the train station to catch it. Good thing I’d started packing yesterday—I dreaded finishing it.
The limo pulled to a stop. The driver opened my door, flashing a half-hearted smile. He must have felt sorry for me. I didn’t want his pity, but I smiled back anyway.
Mrs. Shelby was waiting on the sidewalk. She patted my shoulder softly. She seemed genuinely nice, but I didn’t care. I liked nothing about this.
I scrambled around the apartment and gathered what I could. At one point, Mrs. Shelby said, “Don’t worry about the rest of your belongings, Lilly. I’ll make sure the state ships them to Louisiana.”
I didn’t believe her, though. So I took the picture of me and Mom from the end table in the living room, wrapped it in a blue shirt, and put it into one of the suitcases. “Okay,” I said. “I’m ready.” Then we left for the train station.
As I waited on a wooden bench in the train station, I pretended that the other people there were buzzing along the white tile floors like worker bees. They zigzagged around, diligently hurrying to get to their destination, not even noticing the huge archway above them that was made completely of glass. On any other day, the view of the sky would have been beautiful. The same went for the massive columns that featured carved golden statues. The architectural details would have blown my mind. It was more like a colosseum than a train station, but it was wasted on me. I’d miss those bees, though, and the busyness of the sort-of hive we shared. Chicago was the only home I’d known. Leaving it now wasn’t my choice. Before, it had been me and Mom against the world. So, imagine my surprise when I’d learned I had a family she’d never mentioned.
“Boarding call for train fifty-nine, the City of New Orleans, bound for Louisiana,” the voice from the intercom announced. “All passengers proceed to gate thirteen.”
It was my turn to be a bee, buzzing toward my train. I pulled my boarding pass from the pocket of my cream-colored popcorn cardigan. The conductor would probably ask for it right away. But he didn’t. Instead, I was corralled into the nearest train car and pushed inside along the aisle. No one offered to take my ticket. Wasn’t the conductor supposed to do that? Where was I going to sit, for Christ’s sake? Was this even the right train? My body stiffened, and my throat closed. I struggled to even out my breath so I wouldn’t hyperventilate. Where was I going?
Clearing my mind, I focused on finding a seat. There was an empty one by the closest window. I beelined for it, squeezing in ahead of a bitter-faced old lady wearing a horrid red hat that sat crooked on her enormous head.
“Hmph,” she responded, her cheeks flushed as she squinted at me.
I refused to feel bad for getting there first. After all, I’d been faster, fair and square. But I still waited for the lady to find a seat across the aisle before putting my luggage away, in case she was plotting her revenge.
Once I was seated, I took off my cardigan and curled my aching legs toward my chest, covering them with my sweater. The train began chugging away from the platform, and I watched through the window as other passengers rushed off in different directions. I missed my smartphone. It would’ve occupied my mind for the next eighteen hours, but my service was cut off after Mom died. Without a distraction, it was hard to stop my thoughts from wandering into the darkness I was trying to hold at bay. It was coming, but I didn’t want it to happen in public.
I was off in my own world, fighting my demons, when the conductor finally got my attention. He seemed familiar somehow. His eyebrows were furrowed, and his haunting blue eyes held mine captive for a moment. He was an attractive man, maybe in his late forties, with well-groomed salt-and-pepper hair. He forced a smile, no doubt trying to be polite.
“Ticket?” he asked, probably for the third or fourth time. He held his hand out expectantly.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, searching for my cardigan. It had fallen to the floor. “I thought I missed you when I boarded. Or that you weren’t coming at all.” Bending down, I pulled on the cardigan. Somehow, it was stuck between the bottom of the seat and the floor. I tugged on it until it ripped, sending me backward into the conductor. We landed on the other side of the aisle—right on top of the grim old lady. Her screech rang out in my left ear.
“Oh my gosh!” I exclaimed. “I’m so sorry!”
The conductor’s smile seemed real now. He sighed, stood up, and straightened his uniform. The old lady, however, glared as she picked up her squashed hat.
The ordeal had become too much for me to handle. I used my now-torn cardigan to wipe away tears from my warm face. Then I reached into the cardigan’s pocket and handed the conductor my ticket.
He patted my shoulder gingerly. “It will be okay, Lilly.”
“How do you know my name, sir?” I asked.
He pointed to my name on the ticket, neatly typed at the top.
I threw the ripped cardigan onto my seat, not daring to look back at the old lady. Then I sank beside the sweater, pulled my knees up to my chin again, and hugged myself into a warm, comforting ball. My mother’s locket was hanging around my neck, so I stuck its pendant in my mouth, tasting its metallic flavor. This couldn’t have been real. I was still here, left behind. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I’d become a freaking sprinkler. And since I couldn’t stop the tears, I let them fall, hoping no one was witnessing my monstrous behavior.
Outside the train’s window, there was nothing to distract me. My red eyes and puffy cheeks peered back at me through my reflection. It was nighttime. I turned my attention to the other passengers’ reflections. The bright lights of their phones beamed along the train car’s windows. Everyone seemed to be enthralled by their electronic devices: talking, texting, playing games, taking pictures. Avoiding in-person contact at all costs. I couldn’t say I blamed them. I didn’t feel the least bit normal that day. My heart was numb and shattered. No amount of glue could repair it.
My mind snuck back to the dreadful last couple of days. I tried to redirect it and wonder what my new home and my mysterious grandmother—who I’d never known existed until recently—would be like. But my thoughts kept stepping back toward the darkness. It beckoned me, begging me to remember the funeral.
I hadn’t wanted to see Mom like that, but I’d had no choice. What would people have thought if I hadn’t gone? Or if I hadn’t had one last look? I couldn’t recall the faces of the well-wishers and the I’m-so-sorriers, but it wasn’t Mom who was lying there in the casket. It was a shell of who she used to be, the husk of the woman who used to sing me to sleep. Her color no longer glowed. Her light was put out, smothered. Her flame had blown away too soon, and her smile no longer brightened her face. The world was dimmer for it. Her body had laid empty, like a wax version of itself.
Even on the train, I couldn’t shake the sight of her casket closing. Or how it had been lowered into the ground, into the darkness alone. Wouldn’t Mom be cold and scared down there? I knew it sounded silly. Her soul was gone, but maybe . . .
Anyway, I hadn’t wanted to watch it, but my stupid feet had refused to let me leave. I’d been frozen.
As the train headed south, my brain continued rambling in places I no longer wanted to go. Plus, I was beyond exhausted. So, I reached in my jeans pocket and pulled out Dr. Jensen’s nifty sleep aids. Dr. Jensen, the psychologist recommended by the Cook County Bureau of Human Resources, had prescribed them so I could “rest” during the stress of my mom’s missing persons investigation. I picked up my complimentary bottle of water from the train, swallowed the pills, and fell asleep.
The train’s bumping and screeching as it stopped jolted me awake. Groggy, I wiped the slobber from my mouth. It was the next morning.
Panic set in. I’d slept the whole night. Where was I? Was this my stop? I hoped I hadn’t missed it. Most of the seats in the train car were empty now.
“Excuse me,” I said, waving to get the new conductor’s attention and ignoring the knots in my stomach.
He looked up from the card he was writing on. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Where are we?”
“Almost to New Orleans.”
My heart sank into my stomach. I needed to throw up. Was Brighton before or after the New Orleans stop?
The conductor stuck the card he’d been writing on into the side of the seat in front of me. It read Brighton, LA.
“Excuse me,” I called out. “Is this the Brighton stop?”
The conductor smiled. “No, ma’am. It’s the next one. We’ll be there in about thirty minutes.”
Two people sat down in the seats in front of me. My breathing returned to normal now that I knew I hadn’t missed my stop. Then I pulled my backpack down from the carry-on compartment. Taking a seat, I found my brush in the backpack and gathered my unkempt raven-black hair into something resembling a ponytail. “You know what they say about first impressions,” I mumbled to myself.
When I stepped off the train, I discovered the platform at the Brighton station was made completely of wood, not concrete like the one at the Chicago station. The depot itself was a brick building with round arches on both sides and double glass doors in the middle. I was in a place I couldn’t remember to go live with a lady I’d never known. I’d thought Mom had been joking when she’d said she’d given birth to me in a Louisiana parish. But here I was, in my birthplace, and I didn’t recognize it.
I took another step into the unknown, toward the man in a glass box who seemed to be selling tickets. He wore a navy blue uniform with gold buttons. His red hair peeked out from under his conductor’s hat, matching his red mustache.
“Sir?” I asked.
“Yes, ma’am?” he replied.
“Where is the luggage claim?”
The ticket agent smiled. “Well, ya see, ma’am, we don’t really have one of those.” He pointed to the right side of the platform. “They unload the bags over there, and you pick yours out. There’s nothing inside but bathrooms and vending machines in case ya need a snack.”
I walked toward the “baggage claim” area. In the Chicago station, there was a conveyor belt for luggage like at an airport. Granted that it took longer to get your bags that way, so this was fine, too. Everything here in Brighton wasn’t as fast-paced. People seemed to take their time. I looked for my bags, especially my oversized green army duffel bag. Mom had always joked that I could hide a body in it.
I must have been smiling as I remembered this, because I accidentally made eye contact with a tall, green-eyed boy. He smiled back. I averted my gaze but continued to watch him after he passed. He looked through the luggage that was being unloaded from my train, snuck into the luggage compartment, and jumped out with a cardboard box. Then he ran away so fast that it was like he’d disappeared.
Strange. Had it even happened at all? I gathered my things and settled onto a bench to wait for my long-lost grandmother.
After two hours and no grandmother, I picked a direction and started walking. Granted that it wasn’t easy with two suitcases, a backpack, and a duffel bag as big as myself flopping all over the place. Nevertheless, I was determined and highly upset. Luckily, after dropping my army bag for the thirteenth time (no lie) and before I threw them all down and kicked the crap out of them, I heard the crackling of gravel behind me.
I turned to see a baby blue Buick the size of a bass boat pull up. The driver opened the door in such a hurry that my fight-or-flight reflexes sprang into action, and I popped into a runner’s stance.
“Lilly!” a short old lady yelled, jumping out of the driver’s seat. “Lilly Claire Masterson! Is that you, sweetheart?” She wore a purple sundress with a hideous blue floral print, a forest green T-shirt underneath, and—even though it wasn’t raining—black rain boots. A pastel pink straw hat sat on top of her curly gray hair, which still held onto a few auburn strands. “Lilly? Am I late? You know, I think the train was running early. Anyway, I’m so sorry, dearie.” She motioned for me to bring my bags.
I took a few short breaths, counted to ten to calm down, and assessed my situation. The old lady looked harmless enough. “It’s okay. Are you Pearl Masterson?”
“Yes, ma’am. Every day of the week, and sometimes on Sunday, but not always on Saturday night. That depends on how much hooch I get into.” She giggled. “But you can call me Granny. Come on, hun. Let’s get ya something to eat.” She opened her trunk, threw in my bags, and slammed it shut.
As we drove to Granny’s house, I’d never been so grateful for an empty stomach. If it had been full, I probably would have lost its contents all over the dashboard on the way there. The blue boat of a car sloshed back and forth, especially around the curves. My nerves were on edge as I gripped the door’s inside handle and stared at my grandmother. Had she known about me this whole time? Why hadn’t she ever visited me and Mom in Chicago? I should’ve asked her, but it was awkward; and her driving scared me because, despite her age, Granny had no problem pushing the gas pedal. Luckily, she lived only thirty minutes away from the train station. No way would I have taken much more than that.
After we pulled into the driveway, I scrambled out of the baby blue death trap, almost kissing the ground in appreciation. But that would’ve been dramatic, and I wasn’t sure how Granny would have reacted. Honestly, I wasn’t sure about anything, except that Child Services had made her take me. What if she didn’t like living with a teenager? And I ended up alone?
Granny popped open her car’s ginormous trunk. I couldn’t tell if the look on her face was one of shock or humor. When I made my way over, I found my two suitcases had popped open, the belongings that had been neatly packed inside were tumbled everywhere. I shook my head and held back my tears, then grabbed the blue shirt and unwrapped the framed picture of me
and Mom. It wasn’t damaged.
Relief filled my soul. With a long “I-hate-my-life” sigh, I stuffed what I could back inside the suitcases.
“You look a lot like your mom,” Granny said, her eyes fixed on the ground. But she quickly recovered and looked up with a smile. “They don’t make suitcases like they used to, huh?” She chuckled. “They pop open so easy nowadays, strowin’ ya stuff every which way. Don’t worry, buttercup. I’ll help ya.” She grabbed the remaining clothes.
“No,” I said. “I got it.”
I shuffled across the gravel driveway in my Converse tennis shoes, prolonging my entrance into the 1920s-style white bungalow. Its long, wide porch protruded out like arms, inviting me to the front door. The burgundy color of the garage standing next to the house matched the shutters outlining the house’s windows. An ivy-covered fence seemed to dance around as it enclosed the front yard. A black-and-white long-haired Chihuahua peered through the gate’s opening, jumping and wagging its tail. Once I crossed the threshold, I would be home, whether I liked it or not.
“Stop dillydallying, child!” Granny called. She’d walked ahead of me and into the house. “We’ve got to get supper going.”
Without protest, I walked through the screen door Granny was holding open—but not before noticing an incongruous gold-framed mirror hanging by the door. “Okay, I’ll worry about that later,” I whispered to myself. I needed to unpack and deal with this mess.
While refolding and putting away my things, I surveyed my new bedroom. Granny must have harbored a fondness for pink —it was everywhere. Pink wallpaper with dainty little daisies decorated the room. The iron bed hosted pink sheets and a handmade quilt of pink and white lace squares. Despite the color scheme, the plush mattress was all too alluring. My eyes stung from exhaustion, and the yawns wouldn’t stop. I placed the picture of me and Mom on the nightstand and resolved to finish unpacking later. Then I curled up under the quilt that must have been mine in another life. The last thing I noticed before falling asleep was the letters LCM—my initials neatly sewn into one corner of the quilt.
The next thing I knew, I was waking up to the wonderfully overwhelming smell of cinnamon. Determined to investigate the enticing aroma, I crept down the hall, the fuzzy beige rug tickling my toes as I did so. The smell led me to the warm, humble kitchen. Inside, I was surrounded by white geese—big ones, medium ones, and baby ones, all staring down from the kitchen shelves. They were even on the blue-checkered, country-style wallpaper.
Granny hummed while she was cooking. I thought I recognized the song, but it was hard to tell without the lyrics. So I slid into the white oak breakfast nook that was nestled between two large windows and realized it was morning. I’d slept all night without Dr. Jensen’s sleeping pills.
Granny had already set the table. She brought over the meal, balancing the plates like a seasoned waitress.
“Do you need any help, Granny?” I asked, trying to be polite.
She smiled. “Oh no, dear, I’ve got it.” She set the French toast on the table. “It was your mother’s favorite.” Her smile faded, and she turned away. “Now eat up.”
The French toast was heavenly going down. When I finished eating, I leaned back and scratched my full belly. Granny’s laughter was contagious. I couldn’t help but giggle, too.
“Did you have enough to eat, child?” Granny asked, clearing the table.
I nodded. “Granny, why do you have a mirror by the front door?”
She turned away from her dishwashing and grinned from ear to ear like she knew a secret punch line. “It’s to keep the devil away, dearie.” She paused as if she was searching my face for belief. I kept my poker face strong, though. “You see, Monsieur Diable loves to look at himself so much that he can’t tear himself away from the mirror. He’ll stare till sunrise, and then everybody knows he’s gotta turn tail and run when the sun starts shining.”
I swallowed slowly and smiled. “Okay,” I said before giggling quietly. Granny was an excellent cook and very sweet, but it didn’t seem like all of her electrical wiring was connected.
“Lilly, I’ll take ya by the school tomorrow to get ya signed up. But ya won’t have to start till Monday.”
“Oh, great,” I mumbled. “Not really.” Then I spoke louder. “I’m walking down to the park we passed yesterday on the way in.”
“Okay. Be careful, hun. Watch for gators.”
“Oh my God, for real? I miss Chicago.” I’d forgotten about school and everyday life. Now I’d have to go to a new school in the middle of my junior year. It was another reminder of my situation. Mom was gone. It had really happened. This was my new life in this Podunk swamp town in Louisiana.
Outside, the sidewalk was damp from the rain that had fallen earlier. A pleasant earthy smell bathed me, along with the scent of flowers. Red spider lilies grew along the sidewalk. I picked
one and put it behind my ear.
Suddenly a pungent odor assaulted me. It definitely wasn’t the flowers. There must have been a dead animal nearby. I scanned the street and the ditch. Nothing in sight could have produced that smell.
Then, out of nowhere, voices slowly vibrated in my ears like butterfly wings fluttering right by my head. Their words were unclear. The dead animal scent was gradually replaced with a potent rotten egg odor.
The whispering voices grew louder and more forceful. It sounded like millions of them were attacking me, all at different pitches. Some were as high as nails on a chalkboard, almost scratching at my eardrums. Others were so deep that they made my teeth chatter inside my head.
“Leave,” they said, their voices slithering between my temples. “Do it! Do it now! Join her! She’s waiting for you.” They kept whispering as a vision of blood running down my slit wrist invaded my mind.
I sat on the curb and put my head between my knees, counting and taking slow, deep breaths like Dr. Jensen had shown me. But the vibrations and agony wouldn’t stop. My ears kept ringing with demonic voices.
“Please!” I screamed. Or maybe that was in my head, too. “Please stop!”
“Is there anything I can do to help, miss?” asked a helpful sounding voice.
“Make them stop,” I said. Pain radiated from my head down my spine and into my calves. I couldn’t fight it. I had to survive it.
A hand touched my shoulder. The voices went silent. The mysterious symptoms vanished as quickly as they had come.
I raised my head to look at my savior. Their blue eyes were all I saw before they faded and disappeared.