Some days, Meredith, I just . . . I just wish it was me who
died,” my sister said that Tuesday morning in early September.
I stared at Heather. At sixteen she was a younger version of
me, with darker hair and browner eyes. I was only ten months
older than her but some days felt like a decade older.
I must have heard her wrong. She talked so softly now, I
was always hearing something other than what she reallysaid.
“You . . . you what?”
“I just said I wish it had been me. That’s all.” Heather
shrugged. Then she poured a crapload of Cocoa Pebbles into
the new white bowls Mom had bought the week before.
They were ridiculously giant bowls. One day my mother
brought them home and, two seconds later, threw out all
our old dishes. The ones I reallyliked,the yellow ones with
the blue flowers, the same ones I’d been eating out of since I
That’s what she did now. Spend money. In the past six
months she’d bought a lot of things we didn’t need. I was sure
her Visa was going to start smoking at any second. A psychiatrist
would have a lot of reallygood
analysis for why.
Too bad the only shrink my mother went to see was
named Neiman Marcus.
Our Aunt Evelyn, my mother’s older sister, had moved in
six weeks ago with her twin sons and taken over as mom. She
was the one who made dinner, who did the laundry, who
pecked over us like a worried hen all day. Her twin boys — Ted
and Tad, but we called them Tweedledee and Tweedledum
because we were pretty sure they shared a solitary brain cell —
didn’t do much more than go to school and play basketball.
They were both seniors and already had full rides to some
midwest university that liked them dumb, tall, and able to
dribble. They had already left for school that morning, probably
for one of their early scrimmages.
“Pass the milk, will you?” Heather said.
I held on to the two-percent.It was pretty much the only
thing I had a hold on right now. My life, which used to seem
so perfect, had become totally distorted. Everything I’d thought
meant something — my friends, yearbook, school — now rang
empty and cold. I kept waiting for some normalcy to come
back, like the tulips my dad and I had planted in the front
yard last year. Except the squirrels stole the bulbs, and only
three of the twenty pink flowers encored.
Maybe it was a sign. Like those big yellow billboards on
the highway screaming at you to lose fifty pounds or quit
smoking. The signs you ignore until it’s too late and all of a
sudden, you’re lying in a hospital bed, on the wrong end of
I pushed away my cereal. Wished Aunt Evelyn hadn’t
gone to her Bible study this morning so we could have had
bacon and eggs instead. Maybe then Heather wouldn’t have
been in such a weird mood. “Heather, you can’t just say
something like that. I mean . . .”
“What?” She let out a sigh and sat back, turning her face
away. When she did, the long curtain of her brown hair
shifted slightly, exposing the scar that ran from her forehead
to her chin, as if her face had been cut in half.
It almost had. By a four-door sedan that had crumpled
like a tuna can.
Leaving Heather a bloody mess, and killing Dad.
In two seconds, the Willis family had gone from being
typical suburbanites — mom,dad, two daughters, living in a
four-bedroomranch — to a tragic statistic. The psychiatrist
we talked to would quote numbers at me and Heather, as
though that would make us feel better. As if being part of a
group of one point five gazillion kids whose parents had
been killed in car accidents in the past two decades was some
kind of top one hundred Facebook group we should join.
“What were you going to say?” Heather asked.
I opened my mouth, but nothing wise came pouring out.
If I’d had anything smart to say, I’d have said it six months
ago, when Heather was lying in a hospital bed and my mother
was standing in a funeral home picking out a casket.
So I passed the milk. We sat there and ate in silence.
Ever since the “incident” — which was what everyone
called it, as if one innocuous word could turn the crappiest
day of our lives into something more palatable, like throwing
cheese on broccoli — Heatherhad fallen into a dark pit.
The perfect student had to be dragged to school. To soccer
practice, where she was about as useful as a shrub in the
middle of the field.
I’d become the star student. Me, the one who had barely
passed Geometry, and that was only because I’d begged Mr.
Sanders to have mercy on me. Instead of my mom pushing
us to be on the honor roll, my crappy C average became the
new norm in our house. Yearbook layouts became the talk
around the table, because I was the only one talking about
what I did. Not that Mom plugged in any better than a
faulty toaster, but at least we were all here.
Yeah, that was what I’d call it. Existing in a bubble of silence,
punctuated with the scraping of spoons against stupid,
What we needed more than anything right now was
something new. Something big. Something to wake us up.
A movement outside the window caught my eye. A flash
of red. The roar of an engine starting. I put down my spoon
and crossed to the window. In the next driveway, gray smoke
curled out of the exhaust pipe of a cherry red Camaro, one
of those sports cars that screamed, Look at me! I hated those
things because they made stupid people drive too fast and
take risks that caused accidents that shouldn’t have happened
otherwise. Behind the wheel sat a guy dressed in
black, tall and thin, wearing sunglasses. White ruffle-
edged curtains that hadn’t been there yesterday hung in the windows
of the two-story Victorian, and a wicker rocker sat on
the porch. “Hey, when did someone move into the house
“Mer, that place has been abandoned for as long as we’ve
lived here. Mom can’t give that place away.” Our mother
was a real estate agent. Her trademark sign said Bringing
You and Yours Home, now wasn’t on the lawn next door
anymore. The house next door had been one of her few
failures. Old and rundown, left to rot by the old lady who’d
lived there for, like, five hundred years, the place hadn’t sold
or been rented in years. “Who would want that piece of
“Well, somebody did. And now they’re living there.
Look.” I pointed out the window.
Heather let out another sigh — sighing had become her
thing lately — and got to her feet, slowly. She shuffled over
to the window, pretended to look, then turned away.
“You didn’t look.”
“You didn’t.” I grabbed her arm, spun her around, and
held her at the window until she actually raised her head
and looked past her wall of hair. “Look. People.”
“Not ‘people.’ One person.” She huffed. “Big deal. I’m
going to school.”
Again, she’d shut me out. I shouldn’t care or let it bother
me. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have my o...