Karen was calling her, but Lara didn't want to hear. She was lying on her stomach on the guest bed, her head facing the wall. Her long black hair fell over her face, trapping her breath, but she didn't care to brush it away. She stared through the stands of her hair at the grainy texture of the flowered wallpaper. It was supposed to give the room a rustic quality. Lara was imaging that she had shrunk, that she was a tiny speck of a girl, climbing over the grains on the wall on a journey to nowhere.
It was early in the morning and the ruddy sunlight was just starting to spill into the room, over the back of Lara's legs. She had hoped the night would never end, but the universe didn't seem to care. The earth kept rotating, trapping her in the continuum of time and space. She hated both.
"Lara!" Karen Bennett called again. She was closer this time, probably standing at the top of the stairs at the end of the hall. "Are you awake?"
Of course she was awake. She was always awake. In her human behavior class last year, she'd learned that a person could go insane after a prolonged period of time without enough sleep. Lara was well on her way. At least it would be interesting.
Karen knocked softly on the door to the guest room and then opened it. "Hey," she said. "I'm sorry, but it's time to get up now."
Lara didn't answer, but Karen came over and sat down on the foot of the bed.
"Your aunt is waiting downstairs," she said. "She's ready to go as soon as you are."
"Then she'll be waiting a long time," Lara grumbled.
"She seems like a nice woman. Why don't you give her a chance?"
The truth was that it didn't matter to Lara how nice Paige was. The woman could be Mother Theresa or she could lock her up in the basement and feed her scraps of bread and water, for all she cared. Lara just didn't want to move. It was hard enough for her to get up to use the bathroom for Christ's sake. How was she supposed to get showered, dressed, and move a few hundred miles away with some woman that she hardly knew?
"I want to stay here," she mumbled to Karen. It was an effort to say it.
"I know. And you know that we'd love it if you could stay. But it was up to your parents to decide what they felt was best for you and they decided to leave you with Paige. She's your family."
At the mention of her parents, Lara was reminded that she didn't deserve what she wanted anyway. No, she deserved her scenario of being locked up in a dark basement. The thought gave her the drive to turn over and sit up.
"Fine," she snapped as she pushed herself off the bed and grabbed some clothes from her duffel bag. Her legs were weak under her, after lying down so much during the past two weeks. But she ignored the way they trembled as she stormed into the bathroom, locking the door behind her.
She cranked up the hot water in the shower and sat on the tiled floor as the water slowly heated up. As soon as her legs were stretched in front of her, her back leaning against the tub, she knew that it had been a mistake to sit down. She was exhausted already and she didn't know how she was going to get up. Staring at the black and white checkered tile, she felt herself falling into space.
"How is she?" a female voice on the other side of the door asked. Her aunt, Lara realized.
"About the same," Karen Bennett answered.
"At least she's taking a shower today. That's a good sign, don't you think?"
"I honestly don't know any more. It's been two weeks and she's still like a zombie. I've never seen her like this."
That, Lara thought, was probably true. Outwardly, she had always been cheerful and confident, but since her parents had died, she didn't care about the façade. She didn't care about anything.
"Thank you again, for letting her stay here while I took care of the house and everything," Paige said now.
"It was no trouble. I only wish that Lara had been well enough to help. It probably would have been good for her, to pick out some things to remember her parents by. It might have given her a sense of closure."
"No, she's much too young to be dealing with details like that."
"She's nearly seventeen," Karen said. "She's going to have to deal with this whether she's old enough or not."
The women continued to talk, but Lara tuned them out. Steam had clouded up the bathroom and she was beginning to sweat. She'd better get in the shower and get out of here.
As the scalding water rained down on her, she wished that it were somehow possible to hold the water, to hug it. She settled, instead, on hugging herself. Swaying on her feet, she let her head fall back into the spray and then let it beat down on her aching neck.
Some time later, there was a knock on the bathroom door. "Lara, are you all right?" Paige called. "You've been in there for forty-five minutes."
It would have taken too much energy to shout an answer, so she just quickly finished washing and turned off the shower.
The Bennetts had large, fluffy towels from Pottery Barn. Well, the couple was in their forties and had no children, so Lara supposed that they could afford to spend their money on things like that.
The air outside of the bathroom seemed frigid after she'd spent so long in the steamy heat. Her teeth chattering, Lara got dressed and pulled her dark hair into a long, wet ponytail. It was the first time that she'd worn something other than her pajamas since the funeral. She felt like she was violating something, moving on somehow when she had no right.
It was the beginning of summer, so she wore a tee shirt and shorts, but she still felt cold after her shower. The Bennetts loved to crank up their air conditioning as soon as the temperatures outside reached eighty degrees. She didn't want to seem ungrateful by asking them to turn it down, so Lara threw on her gray fleece.
While she'd been in the bathroom, Karen had seized the opportunity to strip the guest bed of all the blankets and sheets. After Lara had lain there for two weeks without showering, they needed to be washed, but she also had the feeling that Karen had done it to keep Lara from falling back into the bed once she'd gotten out of the bathroom.
"Hey," said a voice from the doorway. Lara turned to see Paige standing there—a living, breathing replica of her mother. Same light brown hair. Same blue eyes. The only obvious difference was that her aunt's skin was darker, probably as a result of too much tanning. The sight of her made Lara want to throw up.
"Do you need any help?" Paige asked her.
"No," Lara replied. "I have everything."
"Okay. Why don't you come downstairs for some breakfast before we leave? Karen made Belgian waffles for you. She said they were your favorite."
Lara bit her lip. Karen had been trying to lure Lara out of the guest room for days with promises of her favorite foods, but everything tasted like dirt to her now. It was just as well because her throat felt too tight to swallow anything anyway.
"I'm not hungry," she said to her aunt. "I'm going to go over and see my house."
"Sweetie, I don't think that's such a good idea. Everything is gone and—"
"I'm going," Lara interjected belligerently. She pushed her way past Paige.
She didn't listen to her aunt as she ran down the stairs and out the front door.
Once she'd stepped out of the air conditioning and into the thick, summer heat, she pulled off her fleece. She wondered if it would be this hot where Paige lived. Virginia summers were always brutal, but Lara knew nothing about the weather in Pennsylvania.
Her parents' house was right next door to Karen and Thomas Bennett's. It was part of the reason that the couples had become such good friends. Lara remembered years of barbeques, gardening, and shoveling snow with the Bennetts. With no children of their own, they had treated Lara like their daughter. Paige may be related to her by blood, but Karen and Tom had been a part of her life since they'd moved to the neighborhood twelve years ago. Losing them now, on top of everything else, was unbearable. Lara wouldn't let herself think about it.
The door to the two-story white house was locked. That was what Paige must have been yelling as she'd run out.
She dug in her pocket for her key. Paige had asked for it so that they could give all of the keys to the realtor, but Lara had said that she'd lost it in the accident. She would never give up it up, certainly not to her aunt.
The electricity had been turned off the day before, so the house was hot and stuffy as Lara wandered through it. Without all of her family's furniture and paintings and rugs, the house was hollow. Her steps echoed off the bare walls as she walked up the stairs; it made the place seem unfamiliar.
She felt like she was searching for something, but didn't know what it was. Her parents, maybe. It seemed impossible for her mind to accept that she would never see them again. She kept conjuring her mother's voice, her father's laugh.
Lara walked into her parents' bedroom and her heart fell when she found it dead and empty, just like everything else. There were imprints on the carpet from where their bed and dressers had been, but those were the only signs that they'd ever been there. She wondered how Paige had gotten rid of everything so fast. It had taken them more than sixteen years to acquire it all.
She opened the walk-in closet, but there was nothing in there either, except for the mirror that was attached to the door. Lara looked at her reflection and saw the painful blend of parents in her features: her mother's blue eyes and fair complexion, her father's black hair and hollow cheeks. They used to tell her that she was pretty, but right now she thought she looked monstrous.
Suddenly a face appeared in the mirror, just over her shoulder. It was a man with dark hair and black eyes. Lara blinked, but the face was still there. Spellbound, she reached out to the mirror and put her hand on the man's cheek. He smiled and the movement startled her.
She whipped around, her ponytail slapping her own face, but there was no one behind her. No man with heartbreaking smile. Still, her skin pricked the way that it did when someone was watching her.
Swallowing nervously, she tried to slow her breath. It was just a hallucination; that sort of thing happened with sleep deprivation. She really was well on her way towards insanity.
Beads of sweat started to drip down her back. It was too hot to stay in here, but Lara lingered, running her fingers over the scratches on the walls—marks of the years her family had spent in the house, marks of their life together.
This house was sacred to her; she had never lived anywhere else. As she walked from room to room, she could see her parents playfully dancing together in the living room, watching Orioles games in the den, kissing at the door before her father left for work, arguing in harsh whispers as they sat across from each other at the dining room table.
She shook her head in a single, sharp motion, as if she were trying to fling those last memories from her mind. She didn't want to think about them fighting.
Finally Lara went into her own room, but she couldn't really recognize it. She walked around and tried to imagine it as it had been, but her mind was frustratingly blank.
There was a full-length mirror on the back of her bedroom door as well. Hopelessly compelled, she looked into it, trying to see the man's reflection again, but all she saw was her own gaunt self. She should have been relieved, but she realized that she was disappointed.
The floorboards in the hallway creaked and Lara froze. She opened her bedroom door and looked down the hall, but there was nothing there.
Part of her wanted to call out, demanding to know who was there, but she was too afraid of the answer. She crept down the hall towards the living room, holding her breath.
Then she stood in the large, empty room and strained her ears as she listened as hard as she could. Every sound—the wind rustling the leaves outside, the birds chirping, her own heartbeat—made her more anxious. She was just too edgy.
The front door opened and Lara's heart leapt into her throat, but then she heard Karen Bennett call her name.
"I'm up here," she answered, struggling to shake off the shock.
Karen came up the stairs and looked around sadly. "How did you get in here? Paige said the door was locked."
"Ah, I see. Are you going to give the key back?"
"What's the point?" she asked dully. "The new owners are probably going to have the locks changed anyway."
Karen gave a soft laugh. "Okay. Well, I won't tell Paige if you won't, but we'd better get back. She's going to wonder what you've been doing all this time if you couldn't get into the house."
"Tell her to mind her own damn business," Lara said.
"You are her business now," Karen said gently. "I'm sorry, but you are."
She shrugged. "You reap what you sow, I guess."
It surprised her when Karen grabbed her shoulders and made Lara face her. "Nobody blames you," she said insistently. "Nobody. Accidents happen. I'm a nurse; I see it every day. What happened to them was not your fault."
Lara nodded, but she knew that Karen was wrong.
"Come on, let's go back. You need to eat some breakfast. You're wasting away."
Oh, if only the woman knew just how true that was.
They walked outside and Lara locked the door behind her. She glanced back at the house as they started to cross over the lawn and the man was there again, standing outside the door, dressed all in black. He was watching her intently.
"What's wrong?" Karen asked.
Lara realized that she had stopped walking. She quickly glanced at Karen, but when she looked back at the house, the man was gone. "Nothing," she murmured.
Back at the Bennett's house, she choked down half of a Belgian waffle. It was ludicrous that her parents were dead and yet Lara was sitting here eating one of her favorite foods. But then the world didn't seem to give a damn about what was right or fair.
Paige was blathering on about the lovely drive from Virginia to Pennsylvania. Right, because a seven-hour drive was just delightful. What was wrong with this woman?
"Tim is almost finished with the work on the house," she said. "The place was practically falling apart when we moved in, but now it's gorgeous. There's a balcony on the third floor and he installed spa bathtubs in our bathroom and the one that you'll be using. Oh, and he renovated the basement into a home theater…"
So much for Lara's fantasy about being chained up in some dank, dark basement. She'd had no idea that Paige and her husband had that kind of money; her mother had never said anything about it. But then, Lara's mother had never really said much about Paige at all. The two sisters hadn't been very close and hadn't talked to each other very often beyond the obligatory phone calls on holidays and birthdays.
"…and the town is very cute. It's pretty suburban, not all that different from this town. I think you'll like it."
Paige finally seemed to notice that Lara wasn't listening as she poked at the remains of her breakfast. "Aw, are you thinking about your parents?"
Lara nearly snorted. When was she not thinking about her parents? It was the most ridiculous question she'd ever heard. Out of spite she answered, "No."
Then the silence stretched on. Karen Bennett was in the kitchen washing dishes, so there would be no help forging through this awkward moment. They were on their own. Oh god, Lara was going to have to live with this every day.
"Why don't we just get going," she said tiredly as she stood up, taking her plate and silverware. "It's a long drive."
Paige nodded, tears glittering in her eyes.
Lara supposed that she should feel bad about that, but there was simply too much to feel bad about. Paige was going to have to take a backseat. There was no way that Lara would let herself be held responsible for the feelings of a forty year-old woman.
"I'll go finish packing up the car," her aunt said thickly.
Lara took her dishes into the kitchen and handed them to Karen, who was still standing over the sink. "I guess we're heading out now," she said.
Karen turned the water off and dried her hands. "I'm not going to say goodbye to you," she said. "I hate goodbyes and we've said too many of them already. But before you go, I wanted to give you something that I found at your house while Paige and I were going through everything."
She went into the dining room and came back with a strand of black pearls. "These were your mother's," she said with a sniff. She pressed the necklace into Lara's hand. "I know that she would have wanted you to have them."
They were beautiful, but Lara doubted very much that her mother would want her to have anything now. Still, she took the pearls and dropped them into her purse.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Karen walked Lara to the car and gave her a final hug. Lara had anticipated that she would feel like her heart was being ripped out again, but strangely, she felt nothing at all. A coldness settled on her as she got into the car and laid down on the backseat, pressing her face into the soft leather.
She heard Paige shut her door and adjust the mirrors. "Don't you want to sit up here, sweetie?" she asked.
"No," Lara replied. "I want to be left alone."
"Oh, okay," Paige said, trying to hide her disappointment. She put the car in gear and backed out of the driveway.
It was inevitable. The human body could only take so much stress before it crashed. In spite of her best efforts, as they drove away from everything Lara had ever known, she fell into a deep sleep.