Chapter Two

My sister is a kleptomaniac. In other words, she likes to steal from people. Little things, nick-knacks mostly. Unfortunately, no matter the size or significance of the item stolen, stealing is stealing. Emma, however, doesn't quite grasp this concept.

"It's mine!" she screams at the top of her lungs. Thank God our house isn't nestled up against the neighbors, otherwise I sincerely doubt anyone in their house would still be asleep despite the fact that it's only 7:52AM.

"No, it isn't!" I yell back. When I started this argument, my voice was steady and level. I promised myself that I wouldn't raise my voice at Emma today. It didn't last. "Give it back to him!"

What an seven year old needs with a protractor I have no idea, but Emma will not let go of the metal instrument she is clutching in her pale fist. She's in second grade, she should be coloring pictures and learning how to add, not dealing with geometry. Of course, it isn't actually her protractor. It belongs to an angry Samuel, who refuses to let Emma leave the house with it.

Exasperated, I turn to my brother. "Samuel, are you absolutely sure you need to use this protractor today? Can't I just lend you mine?" I'm pleading, and I don't like it. For the umpteenth time, the thought pops into my head that this isn't my job.

"No! I want mine!" Samuel's yelling too, now. I take in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Just relax, Nell. You can do this.

"Emma Margalit, you have three seconds to put that protractor in my hand or else." My voice is stern and deeper than usual. It's the voice that means business, and Emma knows it. "One…" I start. She doesn't flinch. "Two…" No movement. "Th-" Just as I'm about to say three, and wracking my brain to think of an 'or else', she lunges forward and drops the protractor in my open palm. I hand it to Samuel, who glowers at Emma.

"You can't leave," He says.

"What are you talking about? I have to leave. Emma's going to be late for school."

"You can't leave. You aren't allowed to leave me here by myself." Breathe, Penelope, I tell myself. Just breathe. I am never having children.

I inhale heavily and exhale slow through my mouth. Okay. Samuel's right – I never even thought about the fact that I have been explicitly forbidden to leave either Samuel or Emma alone in the house.

But I told Laurel last night about Samuel's suspension. She's supposed to stay home with him today. She promised me that she'd be here, so where is she?

"Have you seen Mom?" I'm not allowed to call her Laurel to the kids – she thinks that it'll make them respect her less. I don't see why she deserves their respect in the first place.

Samuel shakes his head, and I look over at Emma. She is concentrating hard. "Mommy was in the bathroom when I got up. She was wearing lipstick. She said she had to go to work, and that she loves me," Emma says. I close my eyes in frustration. How could she just leave her son like that? What kind of parent does that?

"Only babies say 'Mommy'," Samuel says, flicking Emma's ponytail. She scowls and whines my name.

"Samuel, smarten up. Emma, don't whine," I say, hardly hearing the words come out of my mouth. What am I going to do? I can't take Emma to school and leave Samuel at home by himself, and I know Samuel well enough to know that there is no chance of my getting him into the car to drop her off with me. I have two options – perhaps only one, really. I can keep Emma home from school today, or I can call Mrs. Shelley across the street.

The problem is, Mrs. Shelley can't stand me. Ever since I ran over her garden gnome when I was learning how to drive she has been absolutely horrible to me.

However, her son Clarence (I know, what a name) is the same age as Emma. They get along well enough, and occasionally have play dates after school and on weekends. To this day, I have no idea what that gnome was doing in the street anyway.

"Emma, can you go get your backpack out of the car, honey? We're going to see if Clarence and his mom have left for school yet," I hurriedly tell my sister while scurrying into the kitchen in search of the phonebook (and the phone). As quickly as I possibly can, I locate the Shelley's phone number and plug it into the phone.

"Hi, Clarence Shelley speaking," Oh God, the woman's got him sounding like a maitre de answering the phone, at seven years old. I would kill myself if that shrew were my mother.

"Clarence, can I talk to your mom please?" I ask, hiding my feelings towards his mother behind a sugary sweet tone. My fingers are tapping nervously on the phone book in front of me.

"Mommy says that I have to ask who it is before I give her the phone." Clarence says.

"Oh! It's Nell, from across the road." Like they know any other Nells...

"Okay." I can hear him hold the phone away from his face. "MOMMY!" he yells. Ooh, she's not going to like that. Shelley's don't raise their voices, Clarence, I'm sure she'll scold him.

A moment later, Mrs. Shelley's nasal voice is yapping in my ear. "Penelope Jacobsen, how nice to hear from you. I'm afraid this isn't a good time, dear, I'm just leaving to take Clarence to school."

"Mrs. Shelley, wait! I was wondering if you could do me a huge favor? I can't take Emma to school today, some stuff's come up with Samuel. Do you think – I mean, would you mind taking her when you drop Clarence off?" I let the error in my name slide.

"Yes. Of course I can take Emma to school, though you should really try to keep some order over there. Send her over as quickly as you can, please. We're about to leave." She says snootily. I wish she would just come out with it and be a bitch, instead of just being snarky and conniving.

"You should probably talk to my mother about the order over here," I say. "Emma'll be there in two minutes." I hang up the phone without waiting for another backhanded insult to come my way.

"Emma, you're going to school with Clarence today! Are you ready to go?" I yell down the hall. Instead of a reply, I am given a monstrous hug and a wave as she runs out the front door. I guess that means she's ready.

Rolling my eyes, I go after her. I'm tempted to just let her go over by herself, but I know that I'd never hear the end of it from Mrs. Shelley if Emma arrived there by herself. It would be a different story if our driveway was shorter and less winding, but as it is the neighbours' houses are all obscured from our view by strategically placed trees and shrubbery. Tobin is very insistent about his privacy.

Thus, I slip my feet into my thongs, though its really far too cold out for such skimpy footwear, and sprint after my anxious little sister.

I catch up with her in good time, and slow my stride to hers. She doesn't say anything as we walk, and neither do I. The silence is rather pleasant. We reach the road, and I remind Emma to look both ways before crossing. I let her cross the street by herself, and watch as she stops on the sidewalk and looks back at me once more before going up the Shelley's lane to knock on their door. When Mrs. Shelley opens the door she ushers Emma inside quickly and nods to me, giving me just the slightest recognition, before retreating back into her house and closing the door behind her. I walk slowly and alone up to my house.

I've never considered the house in which I live to be my true home. It is a house in which I reside, but it isn't mine. It isn't comfortable, the way I remember our house before to be. Before being when my parents were together, when they were Mum and Dad, not Laurel and Dennis. Before Laurel met Tobin and my life became chaos. Before Dennis left me to live with them. I was only seven, and it broke my heart.

I didn't understand it all – why Mum and I were moving into a big, white house with a strange but kind man who Daddy didn't like. Why Dad wasn't coming with us. Why he went away, and then we never spoke of him. Mum wouldn't allow it.

She's still like that. She refuses to speak of my father, when I now know that it was her who broke the vows they made when they married one another. She clams up when I mention his name, and closes off. She leaves the room, avoids the confrontation that she sees coming. I know that she sees it coming. She's been hiding from it for ten years. And to be honest, I don't really want to talk about it either. I don't like her. I don't want to hear her side of the story – I have no interest in her excuses. She ruined my life, and that is all there is.

The day passes unbearably slowly, and Samuel and I both are feeling it. He's been whining about his boredom for the past hour, and I can't seem to think of anything for him to do to get him to leave me alone. He doesn't want to watch TV. He's already done his homework. He isn't hungry, doesn't want to bake or read or do a puzzle or watch a movie. He even refused video games. Never before has Samuel Jacobsen refused video games.

"Samuel, please," I am at the end of my leash. I don't think I can take much more of this. It's not even noon, and he's being so uncooperative. "I need you to go do something so that I can finish this essay. It's really important."

I spin the computer chair that I'm sitting on around to face him. The essay, due tomorrow, is making me just as frustrated as my brother is. It's a dry, boring subject that is exceedingly difficult to write about and it's not going as well as I'd hoped. For all that having a genius brother can be really great, they get bored incredibly easily which doesn't really help my homework.

Samuel flops down on my unmade bed and moans.

"Okay. Fine. Twenty minutes of Mario Kart?" I offer. Trying to get him to go away isn't getting me anywhere, so maybe bargaining will. "I will play with you for twenty minutes, and then you will let me do my homework in peace of twenty minutes."

Samuel lifts his head, and it reminds me of a dog's ears perking up when they hear something they like.

"Deal?" I ask.

"Deal," He says, rolling off of the bed and running out of the room with energy that I haven't seen him display in hours.

I follow after, though much slower, and when I get to the living room he's already got the Wii on and the game started. The kid works quickly.

I pick up the controller that he laid on the coffee table for me, and sink back into the couch, pulling my feet up under myself and draping a thin blanket over my lap. Samuel looks over at me, anxious to start playing.

"Simmer down, kid. I'm ready," I say. He presses a button and we're off.

"Penelope, I'm hungry." I was hoping that I'd just imagined myself hearing my brother's footsteps clomping into my room. Alas, when I turn my head from the computer screen Samuel is looming next to me, a frown across his face and his hands crossed in front of his chest.

"Ten more minutes, okay? Ten more minutes, and I'll make lunch," I rub my eyes – I should really be paid for this. Don't most babysitters get paid? I thought so.

"What are we going to eat? I want nachos." Samuel says, staying put right beside me.

"Samuel, can't this wait? I'm kind of busy here."

He makes an unpleasant noise and clomps back out of my room. I can only hope that whatever he's doing isn't something that will get either of us in trouble.

I finish my paper as quickly as possible, bullshitting my way to the requisite five hundred words with a lot of big words and re-iterating of things I've already said. It's not my best work, but it will get me a passing grade. That is all I need. As long as I pass, I graduate, and when I graduate I'm getting the hell out of here.

I save the document, press 'print', and spin around in my swivel chair. I sit back for a moment, rejoicing in the minor accomplishment of finishing this essay. One step closer to finishing the course.

On my way downstairs, I stop into Samuel's room to check on him. No Samuel. I check Emma's room – who knows what he could be doing in there, but you never know. No Samuel. Their bathroom door is wide open, so I know he isn't there, either. Strange. Samuel is usually relatively predictable in his haunts.

I check the kitchen, the living room, and Tobin's study. There is no sign of him.

"Samuel?" I yell. "Samuel, where are you?"

No answer.

"Samuel, I'm serious. It's lunch time." I say. "Don't you want to help make lunch?"

Nothing.

"You can even pick what we eat! No vegetables, if that's what you want. Just come here." I sigh. I'm not panicking. Nope, not me. Bribery usually works on ten year old boys, doesn't it?

"Samuel, come here please? This isn't funny! I'm not playing games right now, okay? We need to eat, and you need to listen to me!" Okay. Maybe I'm panicking. But it isn't like him not to answer when I call him. Samuel doesn't do things like that. Emma, yes. She likes to mess with me. But never Samuel. He's a brat, but he doesn't do stupid. He's too smart to do stupid.

Chewing mindlessly on my lower lip, I wander outside. It's freezing out here, but it could happen. He could be bouncing on the trampoline or playing with Strudel, the bunny that isn't allowed in the house because Tobin's allergic to it.

"Samuel? Are you out here?" I shout. When I'm greeted again by a lack of reply, I turn around and go back into the house, not even stopping to pet Strudel.

Where could he be? Oh my God, he was kidnapped wasn't he? Kidnapped in his own home. Laurel will kill me. Murder me. Slaughter me. They'll find pieces of my body in Strudel's cage where Laurel tried to feed me to the rabbit the way Robert Pickton fed his hookers to his pigs. Oh my God. I'm dead. I'm rabbit food.

Forget me, what about Samuel? He could be in the care of some psycho child-killer right now, and there's nothing I can do about it! Is this how parents feel when they can't find their children? Holy Shit, I'm really never having kids. I mean, if I live to the day when having kids would be a viable option for me, as opposed to being killed and fed to family pets.

"Mom, can we go to the movies tonight? I really want to see the new one, the one about the mutant ninja raccoons."

What?

"We'll see. I'm a bit busy tonight, but maybe tomorrow."

You've got to be kidding me.

It takes a lot of determination for me to put one foot in front of the other, walking down the hall toward my mother and step-father's bedroom, but slowly it happens. What I see when I reach the doorway at once settles my nerves and sets them aflame. My mother. My brother. Sitting on the bed. Talking.

I want to scream. How did I not notice them? How could Samuel not answer when I was calling him?

"Mom. You're home," I say in a monotone. I am not letting my voice betray my emotions, not this time.

"Penny," Laurel looks up from the crisp blouse that she's delicately fitting onto a hanger. "What are you doing here?" Her voice is the opposite of mine. It shows far more emotion that I knew her to possess.

"Samuel, can you go start on lunch please?" I ask. I don't want to have this conversation with him in the room. It's not his fault that his mother is an unfeeling bitch. He looks at Laurel, and she nods her head toward the door in approval.

I close the door behind him, and stand in front of it. Laurel hangs her blouse in her monstrous closet and then sits down on her luxurious silk duvet.

"Where were you?" I ask. She frowns, like she doesn't know what I mean.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Where were you? This morning." I say. "When I was supposed to go to school with Emma, but couldn't because that would mean leaving Samuel here alone for an unknown period of time."

"Oh. That. I'm afraid it completely slipped my mind. I had a mani/pedi booked for this morning."

"And after that? I can't imagine a mani/pedi taking all morning."

"Shopping. I got you a beautiful dress. It's Guess. You do like Guess, don't you?" I don't answer. It's a rhetorical question. She reaches into a bag at the foot of her bed and pulls out a black dress covered in beads and sequins. I wouldn't wear it if you paid me.

"It's… sparkly." I say. I don't know what else there is to say about it. "But don't change the subject, please."

"Penny, is it too much to ask for you to watch your brother for one day? After all, you're a much better playmate than I. I'm hopeless at those video games that he loves." She runs a hand through her long dark hair, bouncing the effortless curls that take hundreds of dollars to maintain, between salon trips and product.

"That's not the point. I have school. Not to mention, I'm not his mother. I shouldn't have to take care of him, he's not my responsibility!" My voice is rising, and I will it down, but it does nothing. I wish I could calm down, but there's just something about the way she doesn't care that makes me want to just strangle her.

"Don't be so melodramatic, Penny."

"Again with the Penny! My name is not Penny, for the eighty-ninth time! I am not Penny! Why can't you just give up and call me by my name like everybody else? You. Can't. Win." I'm ready to start pulling my hair out. My hands are bunched at my sides and my eyes are watering, but Laurel is just sitting there like she always does, pressed and groomed, ready for tea with the Queen should the opportunity arise. It just makes me madder.

"Your name is Penelope Louise Hannah, and I named you. What I call you is my prerogative, I am your mother. I will call you what I want to call you. And what I want to call you is Penny. Therefore, I will call you Penny." Her voice is lower, threatening. The heat behind my eyes is growing unbearable and I can't handle it anymore.

I turn around and slip through the door before she can say another word. I wish she didn't aggravate me the way she does. I wish I could deal with her better. But I can't. I don't know how. And it makes me feel weak and worthless, the power shift that she inflicts upon me. It hurts.

Her words are like clouds – they make everything fuzzy and soft around the edges, and it's harder to see when she speaks. To see what's right and wrong. She obscures it all. I don't know how she does it, but she makes everything different just by opening her vapid, collagen-injected mouth.

I hate her.

I wish I didn't. She's my mother. I shouldn't hate her. But I do.

Sometimes I wonder if that makes me a bad person. Surely normal teenage girls don't feel this way towards their parents. I've overheard my so-called peers complain about their parental disputes, but they are nothing like mine. Those girls want to stay out until one o'clock in the morning, drinking cheap beer with their boyfriends and not get in trouble for breaking curfew. I just want to not spend every waking moment (and some non-waking) worrying about my brother and sister. Did Emma squish her sandwich in her backpack again? Will Samuel find a friend to eat lunch with? Do they notice that their parents are never around?

It kills me.

I buckle into my car, and back out of the driveway. I'm allowed to leave now, Laurel can watch Samuel until I get back. I don't know when that will be.

I drive aimlessly, letting my instincts guide my car. I turn into the Thrifty Foods parking lot, and slide my car into a stall. I turn the key in the ignition, sucking power from the engine, and lean forward on my elbows.

What am I doing? I don't even know why I'm here.

My anger, though still present, is beginning to dissipate. I just wish I had someone to talk to. Someone who would listen to my problems and actually care; actually help me. And I don't mean a therapist. I've tried that.

I suppose I mean a friend.