I have been quite quite gone, and I apologize. If people want to contact me or bug me about lack of updates, feel free to email me. There are always reasons and excuses. Life has been absolutely nutty bars.

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The letter was confusing. Months could pass without any contact from Amanda, and then she would send a box with seven long letters and two pairs of wooden shoes. Then several more months would go by without so much as a postcard. The recent letter, clutched in Emily's shaking hand, was not very out of the ordinary, in the context generally associated with Amanda. However, its contents included an upsetting couple of lines, which was not usual. Emily read them again, and then set the letter down on the kitchen counter.

It was seven o'clock, the night before the last day of school. She hadn't seen or talked to any of the others—aside from Lyra, of course—for a few days, and didn't feel prepared to stand up to the confusing news by herself. But she would have to, or it would loom over her all night. Hands still shaking, she walked down the hall and into Gran's bedroom. "Are you busy?"

Gran turned her chair around and reached up to take off her reading glasses. She tired, but every day was a long one for her. Emily sat on the bed and folded her hands in her lap. "Not too busy for you, sweetie. What do you need?"

The letter wasn't necessary, although presenting it might have made the situation even more difficult to handle. It was only the newest in a culmination of signs. Emily stared at her hands and felt terribly small. "Are you sick?"

At first there was no answer. She looked up and saw that Gran had set her reading glasses on the desk and was getting up. Silently, save for a whispered exclamation and the odd mutter, she walked over to join Emily on the quilt-covered bed. "Whatever put that idea into your head?"

"I got a letter from Amanda. She wanted to know if you were having any problems with your medication."

For a moment, an expression of uncharacteristic anger crossed over Gran's face, but it passed quickly, replaced by a deflated frown that scared Emily more than anger ever could. "Your cousin has always been a bit too nosy."

"Why didn't you tell me?" It was a question with many obvious answers. Emily could feel her head beginning to throb, the subtle yet gripping pain pooling in her nerves like viscous liquid. Gran was always pale, rubbed her joints often, and sometimes failed to eat more than a bird's share of meals. Pride or worry must have kept her quiet, at least one of them was making her cringe and make several irritated faces now. Emily left the question free to crawl back into the dark and said, "Will you tell me what it is?"

Gran let out a sigh, followed by a small shake of the head. "I didn't want to worry you. Amanda is so far away… I didn't think she would even read the letter when I sent it."

"It's too late for things like that, Gran. I am now officially terrified. You have to tell me what it is."

Another sigh, although this time, it turned into a chuckled near the end. "Baby girl, if I knew for certain, I would have already told you. It's just that this isn't something I want to leap ahead and decide is so."

They were just words, but Emily was cowed enough by the tone that she assumed her Good Girl self until it seemed it was her turn to speak. "So tell me what you think it is."

Her carefully pointed gaze didn't waver or lift, even after Gran had slumped and looked away. "Dr. Turner thinks it may be cancer."

Emily's entire set of internal organs shifted centimeters out of place. "What kind?" she asked automatically.

"Does it matter?" Gran laughed, and somehow it sounded genuine and somewhat relieved. "They are all unpleasant."

"Some less than others…"

At this, the laughter disappeared, and silence fell once more. Emily took her grandmother's hand and rubbed her thumb over the smooth, if wrinkly skin. Nothing was definite, she told herself. It rang true, what Gran had told her about that. She didn't like to worry herself or other people, particularly Emily. And she was tough as nails.

They sat there for a few moments, and then, by unspoken agreement, they started talking about nothing at all. It began with a dissection of Amanda's consistent flakiness and just how long she had been at it, then moved on to Emily's plans, how she felt about the school year coming to a close, and finally ended with how late it had gotten.

Emily retreated into her room, feeling light in a disagreeable, empty way that suggested gravity had been turned off somehow. Her room was as vacant as it ever got, but as soon as she closed the door, she was overwhelmed with the feeling that she was suddenly being crowded by football stadiums full of people. She sat on her bed and crawled into a corner, than huffed at the nearest stuffed animal.

A few moments later, she realized she was throwing them all at the opposite wall as hard as anyone could throw something that was filled with synthetic fluff. As soon as the last the last stuffed animal was lying on the carpet smiling blankly at the ceiling, she sat down hard on the floor and hurriedly stuffed her face into the mattress so she could sob. She cried so hard that she banged her elbows on the metal bed frame, her heart pounding like an insane hamster trying to headbutt its way out of her chest. She felt like she had been hit by a mack truck.

The window in her room didn't open, but she found herself looking up at it anyway, wishing someone would climb in and take her away from herself. Someone who could make this not be happening. She wiped her eyes with her sleeves, then stood up to compose herself and change for bed. Who would come? Who would she want to come? Dice? No. Roman seemed to know what to do all the time, or at least to come up with something that sounded good. She shook her head, impeded by her own actions as she took of her blouse. It was a metaphysical question anyway. No one would come, and no one would be able to help anyway.

She jumped, thwacking herself in the head with her arm and then dropping her nightgown. The phone by her bed continued to ring, a good sign that Gran did not intend to answer it. Emily wriggled out o her skirt, then pulled the nightgown over her head. It could go on and ring until—well, until it stopped ringing. She wiped her eyes again, then stood still, staring at the phone.

After chewing on her thumb for a second, she picked up the phone and held it to her ear. "Hello?"

"Emily, it's Roman. I'm sorry to call you so late, but I… I had a feeling that you needed someone to talk to."

Something inside her dissolved at the sound of his voice, and she was barely able to hold in the soft whimper until he was done speaking. "I-I do…" She was sobbing again before she could anything more.

It took some effort on both of their parts, but she cut herself off and took a shaky breath. She didn't apologize. She just told him Gran had told her and waited for him to try and fix it.