It was over dinner on a Tuesday that Mum had first said we all needed to have a chat. I had noticed that things weren't all rosy when I returned home from school that day, but I didn't want to ask. Instead, I waited until someone told me what was happening. Dad said that he was going to clear away the table and do the dishes, and then they would call me down and we could all talk. I offered to help clean up, but he told me to get my homework done. I explained that I had done it already. This was a lie, but I didn't want to miss out on anything. I wanted to know what was going on, why my Mum looked so sad, and why my Dad was so quiet.
I was sitting upstairs in my room when my mother called me down. I came down slowly, not sure what to think. I had wanted to race down and demand that I be told what was happening, but if the news was so bad- which I could assume it was at this stage- then I didn't want to appear too enthusiastic. She had sounded serious, and that wasn't like her at all. My mum was very light-hearted, and was never serious unless she had to be. I hoped everything was OK.
"Sit down, Abbie," she said to me, and I slipped into the nearest seat. Mum sat opposite me at the dining table, and Dad sat the other side of her. My little brother Marcus was nowhere to be seen. But he was six years old, and I didn't expect him to be invited into a family chat such as this anyway.
"What's the matter, Mum?" I asked, when nobody said anything. I was a little worried now. Mum's eyes had red rims around them as though she had been crying. I looked towards Dad for some reassurance, but he kept a straight face, and his eyes wouldn't even meet with mine. He gave nothing away. Immediately, my mind began to work overtime. The atmosphere in the room could have been sliced with a knife. Mum and Dad looked sad, and neither of them were talking to each other. In my usual style, I jumped straight to the wrong conclusion. "You're not getting a divorce, are you?" I blurted out. "Tell me! I have a right to know!"
"No, honey. We're not getting divorced. Your father and I love each other, and you know that," Mum told me, but her voice still sounded very unhappy.
"Then what it is?" I asked again, and Mum sighed unhappily, knowing that she had to answer my question.
"You remember your Aunt Belinda and her husband Clive?" she asked.
"Yes," I nodded slowly. "I know I met them when I was about seven. But we haven't seen them since."
"No. My sister Belinda and I didn't get on so well, so we didn't see each other much. I feel so guilty for that now..." Mum's voice shook a bit, and Dad placed his hand over Mum's to encourage her to go on. "Well, there's been a fire. A house fire at their home, and unfortunately, your aunt and uncle were both killed. Choked by the smoke fumes." Mum began to cry again, and I felt awful for her, for losing the sister whom she seldom saw. Dad went on explaining things to me, because Mum didn't seem able to carry on speaking.
"Your aunt and uncle had a daughter, the same age as you. Her name is Chloe. You remember meeting her, don't you?" Yes, I could just about remember my cousin Chloe. The cute little blonde thing, who captivated all the adults and made them think she was some sort of angel. Then as soon as they turned their backs, she transformed into a malicious little beast, pinching and punching, name calling, breaking the toys I had brought from home because I thought she might have liked to play with them.
"I remember her," I said, softly.
"The poor child has nowhere to go now," my father told me. "We're her next of kin." I knew what Dad was going to say next, so I could prepare myself and try not to look too disappointed. "She's coming to live here. She stayed with a friend last night, but I'm picking her up tomorrow, so she'll more than likely be here when you return home from school."
"This is OK with you, isn't it?" Mum asked me, with a sniff. I looked from her to Dad, and saw the warning in his eyes, telling me not to upset my mother further. "After all, you always wanted a sister," Mum added.
Yeah, I thought. When I was five years old. But I wouldn't have said that out loud.
"Of course it's alright, Mum," I said, standing up and putting my arms around her neck, hugging her from behind. "After all, we're her family."
"I told you she would be good about this, Vernon," Mum said to Dad. "She's more grown up than you give her credit for." Dad nodded at me with approval.
"Um, I told Sal that I would go over there tonight. We're working on a project for school. I'll be back by nine at the latest, if that's alright?"
"That's fine hon," Mum said, and relieved, I left the room, glad to be out of the uncomfortable family circle. I didn't want Chloe to come and live with us. I knew how selfish I was being. My cousin had just lost both of her parents. But I still didn't want her to come and ruin my life. Maybe she wouldn't be the spoilt brat that I remembered her as? After all, I had been seven when I met her, and now we were both fifteen. She had probably grown up and with any luck she would be nice. Perhaps she would be good fun, and we'd like the same things. All of these possibilities swam around my head, but for some reason, I was still dreading the next day when my home life was to change forever.
I slipped on my denim jacket, and briskly walked the five minutes around the corner to Sally's house. She was my best friend, and had been for three years ever since she had moved around the corner from me and started the same school. She began half way through the first year. Her father had died and they had had to sell up their old home, which from what I could gather had been rather large, and buy somewhere smaller. Sal had coped with it really well and I knew that if the same thing had happened to me, I would have been in pieces for a lot longer. As these thoughts ran through my mind, I thought about my cousin again, and felt guilty. She had lost both her parents, not just one, and I couldn't even be slightly understanding, because I was too busy thinking of myself. I made up my mind then and there that I would make Chloe feel so much at home that she would think of me as a sister, and not just as a cousin.
I got to Sal's house, and knocked smartly on the door, then opened it and went straight in. I was there so often that it was like a second home to me, and her mum had told me to come right on in. I would still knock on the door though, to give them warning before I entered. Some days, when I knew that Sal wasn't there, I would still go over anyway and I would spend a couple of hours drinking coffee with her mum in the kitchen. Lee-Anne was a really wonderful woman, and I enjoyed her company. I could talk to her about anything. My own mum was good as well, and I knew how lucky I was to be so close to both of my parents and such good friends with someone else's.
"Hello, Abbie!" Lee-Anne called, when I came into the hallway, and slipped off my jacket and shoes. She came out from the living room, a book in her hand. "Sally is just having a shower, she should be done shortly. Come and sit down." I sat down, and she poured me a cup of tea quicker than I could blink. "How was your day, then, dear?" she asked me. I found myself telling her all about my cousin, and how selfish I felt for not wanting her to come and live with my family. Lee-Anne nodded as she listened, and then thought for a moment before she spoke.
"It's only natural that you might feel, well, a little bit threatened by this other girl. But remember that she's going to be scared as well as miserable. She's lost everyone she holds dear, and from what you tell me, your family are as good as strangers to her. This might be a big change for you, Abbie, but it's a bigger one for her."
"Yeah," I nodded, seeing her point. "You're right, as usual. I just have to try and remember that she's in a harder position that I am. Thank goodness I have you to help me out!" Sal came downstairs at that point, her short bob of hair clinging damply to her head.
"Ready to get some of that project done?" she asked me. I nodded, and we went to her bedroom to get out the work that we needed. A few minutes passed and Sal flung down her pen. "The industrial revolution is so boring," she said, looking at me.
"Hmm?" I murmured, not paying the slightest bit of attention. I had told her about Chloe, and she had said much the same as her mum had done.
"What's with you?" Sal asked, snapping me out of my daydream. "You're on another planet altogether tonight. I know that you've got a lot to think about, but all you've done is chew on that pen and doodle on the front of your exercise book." I glanced down at my history book, realising she was right.
"And I assume you've finished the Chemistry essay for tomorrow?" Sal added, knowing full well that I probably hadn't even started it.
"Chemistry essay?" I asked.
"The one on transition metals that we were given to do last week. Mr Lambert will skin you if you haven't done it, you know he will."
"I forgot," I said humbly, and Sal sighed. "Take mine home tonight and copy it. But not word for word, because Mr Lambert will notice. And for God's sake, try and return it in one piece ready for the lesson in the morning."
"Sally Jones, you are my saviour," I told her.
"I know," she said, smugly, "now help me with this project."