chapter one


"They said they'd call if they found the rest of them."

I frowned out the backseat window, tightly clenching the shredded bag in my lap.

"Well, at least they found one, sweetie," Ginny - or Mom, if you wanted to get technical - said, optimistically.

I sighed, stretching my legs as far as I could without hitting the back of her seat, knuckles whitening as I gripped the bag harder.

"Since when do you have to be thankful that the airline found one of your bags?" There was more venom to my words than intended; I paused, teeth set for a moment. "Is it too much to assume that all of your bags will make the trip?"

Peter looked at me through the rear-view mirror from the driver's seat, and I quickly tried to look away, to not meet his gaze, but failed. He smiled at me. "We have malls here in California, Sadie. Don't worry. We'll get you set up." Another smile.

Great. Another Minnesota joke.

I forged up a smile of my own and gave a fervent nod. "Okay. Thanks." My attention again turned to the scenery that was whizzing by. The view out the window of Peter's Saab wasn't all that bad, I allowed myself to admit. It was nighttime here. Only faint rays from the sun dotted the horizon.

Back in St. Paul, it would be two hours earlier.

With a sigh, I rested my head against the window, staring at the back of the passenger seat. Ginny was sitting back, blonde hair peeking just barely above the headrest, and it would disappear behind it altogether as she talked with Peter, motioning and gesturing. Having a grand ol' time.

So this was finally it. The big move.

"Oh, Sadie," Ginny said, and I felt her hand at my knee, "Peter had Eric fix up the guest room for you. Painted it and everything. Isn't that nice?"

Before I had a chance to reply, Peter spoke out,

"Although I have to admit, he and I don't know the first thing about what girls your age like, but we figured you could make it your own."

I nodded vaguely, brushing my fingers over the frayed edge of my only bag that had made it through the airport. "Great. Thanks." Eric? Peter's fourteen-year-old son? I'd only met him a handful of times over the past three years, and the thought of him painting anything was a terrifying one.

There was silence for a few minutes, then the sound of the radio being turned on. Ginny shifted in her seat a bit as she flipped through the stations, eventually settling on a 70s channel. Some disco song was pumped through the back speakers and I found myself unconsciously tapping my fingers to the beat.

It was hard to make out the scenery clearly. Darkness was closing in heavier and heavier by the minute, and now only a line of red could be seen where the sun was before.

For a moment, it looked like the sky was bleeding.

"Valacry, honey," Ginny said suddenly, and I was ripped from my thoughts. She turned around in her seat. "We're here."

I looked out the window again just in time to see the small green city sign lit by headlights.

Welcome to the city of Valacry. Population: 8,033.

Beyond the sign was some sort of crop field. Corn, probably. We passed by it in just a few seconds, and then the roadway turned from dirt to pavement. Houses lined the streets, each almost equal in size, and I couldn't help but notice that there were hardly any side streets.

Definitely not a good indicator.

We reached the house about five minutes later, the car pulling into a garage that was nearly the size of our old apartment. Ginny and Peter were still talking with each other, laughing about something, and I quickly undid my seatbelt and opened the door, bag in hand.

The house was shrouded in darkness and I could only make out the faint outline. A one-story. A ranch or something. Kind of at odds with the size of the garage. Closing the door carefully, I stepped away from the car, attention downwards, looking for the sidewalk.

And why weren't there any lights out here?

"Over here, Sadie," came Peter's voice, and I looked over to where he and Ginny were at the side of the car, walking towards the house.

Suddenly, a pathway leading to the house was lit with small lights that edged it.

Hm. Must be motion-activated or something. I'd have to remember that.

I followed after them, swinging the bag over my shoulder. The door opened just as Peter reached it, and he ushered Ginny and I inside, smiling congenially as he always did. He probably smiled the most of anyone that I'd ever met.

Ginny found it charming.

I entered the house after her, gaze immediately flicking over to Eric, who was holding the door open. His look was smug, expectant.

"Long time no see, Sis."

"They're not married yet, mind you," I replied, ignoring his cheesy grin.

"Maybe not, but it's all just a matter of time."

"All right," Peter said suddenly, enthusiastically, brushing past us. "How about a quick tour of the house?"

Eric rolled his eyes. "I'll be in my room."

Peter didn't make any indication that he had a problem with that, and Eric disappeared down a long hall that branched out from the room.

"This is the foyer," Peter said, gesturing, and I realized he was talking more to me and my mom, "and it's basically where we welcome people and whatnot. But we don't really spend time here. It's just a meeting place. Kind of like," he paused, expression growing serious for a moment. "Like, for example, Sadie, if you were to be going out with a friend, and they arrived here to pick you up, I would have them wait here, in the foyer." He gave me an expectant look and I nodded.

"Okay," I mumbled, putting on a faint smile as Ginny squeezed my shoulder. "Got it."

He then turned into the hall that was on our left side - not the one that Eric had went down. "This hall leads to all of the living and recreational rooms," he said, glancing at us over his shoulder as he talked. "There's the living room, the kitchen, the dining room, the den, the office, and the sun room. The deck in the back goes along that entire side of the house, but the only entrance is from the sun room." We were entering a larger room now. One with bright orange walls and dark hardwood flooring. "And this is the living room, obviously."

I glanced around, unaware that I still clenched my bag tightly in my hand. There was an L-shaped couch, a recliner, a couple of chairs, and a television, which was set into a stand had a DVD rack incorporated into it. It was filled to capacity with DVDs.

I couldn't help but wonder why, if there was only the two of them living here, they had so many chairs.

"These are just windows." He tapped large panes of glass that made up the outside wall. The view outside was nothing but pitch black. "Not doors."

Again, I felt like the comment was aimed at me and not Ginny, so I nodded.

"Okay." Hands clasped together, he gestured towards the next room. "Moving on."

It wasn't until forty-five minutes had passed that Peter had finished with the tour. It ended at the guest room, which was now my room, and from there, he left me to me to settle in.

About four or five boxes sat near the doorway - the things that I had packed up in St. Paul that had been sent over ahead of time. Not my important things, like clothes and CDs and books and soccer cleats. Nah. Those were lost somewhere at the airport still. And that was only the tip of the iceberg.

The walls were a bright pink. An in-your-face pink that screamed out into the hallway, almost like a warning sign.

What was with that? All of the other rooms were orange, or green, or yellow, or red. . . Okay. So maybe this wasn't that much of a stretch after all. But still. Pink was my least favorite color. And it wasn't even a muted shade, like fuschia. Cotton candy was the only thing that came to mind, really.

It was a pretty big room, though, I had to admit. Much bigger than my old one. There was a bed positioned by the lone window, and a nightstand beside it with a lamp that was already on. The closet was open and empty, and aside from that, there was a desk and dresser, and then a small bookshelf.

After a moment of staring, I heaved up one of the smaller boxes and set it on the bed, only to have it practically sink into the mattress as if it were quicksand. There was a sloshing noise, and I flipped back a corner of the comforter that covered the bed.

A waterbed. Things were just getting better and better.

With a sigh, I moved the box to the floor again and sat down, knees folded beneath me, and opened it up.

"So? What do you think?" I looked up to see Ginny standing at the doorway. "This is awesome, right?"

I shot her skeptical look, brow raising. "Pink walls?"

She shrugged, appearing perfectly content. "He's trying."

Absently, I grabbed at the first thing that my hand came into contact with inside the box, then pulled it out. "Yeah. Everything's awesome."

"You've been here for less than an hour, Sadie," she said, leaning against the threshold. "It's not Peter's fault that the airport lost your bags. It happens to people all the time." She sighed. "Besides, we'll probably get a call tomorrow morning about it. Things just don't disappear."

"What if they don't find them?"

"Then we'll get you new stuff." Shrugging, she stood upright, hands in the back pockets of her jeans. "Eric's making dinner; it'll be ready soon, so come on out."

I gave her a reluctant nod in response and she turned on her heel, flashing a smile before she vanished from the doorway.

Wait. Eric? He was making dinner?

Quickly, I squelched the flood of thoughts that the idea brought to mind. My attention turned to the contents of the first box again and, realizing that I was still holding it, I set down my freshman yearbook. It was only a week ago that I had received it; only a week ago that school had let out for the summer. I'd spent the last seven days hanging out with my friends, trying to make meaningful memories that would stand the test of time, if only because I knew that the chance of actually staying friends with them after moving across the country was zilch. The realization had came to me that it's only when you're trying to create something meaningful that it backfires. Too forced.

My fingers left the edge of the book, and I focused on the pile of knick-knacks within the box. Trinkets and souvenirs that Ginny had given me from when she used to travel, before I was born. I took each of them out carefully, and each clinked against the mahogany floor. Damn. I kept forgetting that it wasn't carpet.

Within minutes, I had the box emptied. Various small objects, along with the yearbook, my collection of Tolkein books, and a bicycle pump were scattered across the floor. Standing, I stretched, grunting a little, and pushed the now empty box towards the wall with my foot. It was enough to get started, I decided. The essentials were still in the one bag that had made the trip over, and I would unpack it later and leave the rest for tomorrow.

I made to the doorway, stepping over everything, then stopped. There was no lightswitch by the doorway. Pivoting, I looked into the room again, attention falling to the two lamps. One was on the nightstand, the other on the desk.

There was no overhead light, I realized.

I went to the lamp at the desk, reached to switch it off, but it turned off just with the contact. A touch lamp. With the other lamp, I touched the base softly, and the light vanished.

Trying to remember the layout of the house, I headed towards where I thought the dining room to be, and ended up in the kitchen. Nobody was there. Not even a pot on the stove; no sign of it having been used at all lately. Everything was neat and orderly. Clean.

With two guys here, I wondered how they managed it.

Continuing through the room, I found the dining room, but it was empty, too. A light from outside poured in through the windows, and I could hear murmurs. Familiar voices. They were out on the deck.

Reminding myself where the sun room was, I reached it eventually and carefully slid open the sliding glass door there, stepping into an enclosed area of the deck.

"There she is," said Peter, glancing at me over his shoulder as he stood by Eric, who had his back towards me. Ginny sat at a picnic table, running her fingernail against the rim of a can of beer.

"See? I knew she'd find her way," she said with a smile.

I closed the door behind me, pasting on a slight smile of my own. Crickets chirped in the distance; the temperature had cooled down considerably, and I felt a chill creep over my spine. Ginny patted a space on the bench beside her, and I sat down there as she started up a conversation with Peter.

The smell of smoke was strong in the air, and I spent a few moments watching Eric before realizing he was at a grill. He was piling hot dogs, hamburger patties, and chicken wings onto the plate that Peter was holding, with an exact precision each time that seemed unfitting for him.

"What'll you have, Sadie?" Peter again. "Hot dog? Hamburger? Steak? Rib? Chicken wing?"

"Just a hamburger," I mumbled in return, sitting up straighter. Then, remembering my manners, added, "Please."

"And Ginny?"

She answered, and I tuned it out, staring down at my fingernails. They were getting long. I hated it when they were long. Unconsciously, I brought my hand to my mouth, chewing at the end of my middle finger's nail as I surveyed my new surroundings. Only this portion of the deck was screened and canopied. To keep the bugs out, I guessed. From beyond the thin side doors was a mere walkway with railing that travelled far on both ends. There were some lights within the enclosure as well, and light from inside the house helped to brighten the area.

I wondered if they always ate out here.

The sound of rushing water tore me away from what small comfort I had eased into. My heartbeat quickened for a moment, and I bit down on my finger harder, forcing my gaze to the tabletop.

Water crashed, and the others' voices quickly drowned it out.

A plate was set in front of me, and the table shifted as Peter and Eric sat down across from us. They had the same eyes, blue. The same hair, too - black, only Peter's was gray at the temples. And you couldn't see much of Eric's, anyways, because he was wearing a bucket hat, like he always did. I wasn't sure if it was a trend out here, or if he was just weird. I was leaning towards the latter, though.

Ginny handed me the ketchup bottle and I took it without even really thinking. The paper plate before me held a hamburger on a bun and corn still on the cob, slightly blackened in some spots.

My fingers played with the edge of the paper; I could still feel my heart pumping faster, a shudder still coursing through me, and I pretended to be interested in the unimaginative design that was printed onto the border of the plate. Just a couple of curving lines that crossed over one another, each a different color.

Who the hell bothered to put designs on paper plates, anyways? They were disposable. Use for ten minutes, then in the trash. Nobody ever looked at them really.

Picking up the hamburger, I took a bite and chewed slowly, vaguely listening in on the conversation.

" - had him help get the room cleaned up - "

It had been cleaned up well. I had to give Eric credit for that.

" - a nice flight - "

Except for the whole losing the bags thing. But then again, that had nothing to do with the actual flight.

" - is starting high school this fall, so he can help her get acquainted, if she needs it - "

I looked to Eric, who didn't seem to be paying much attention to them, either. Instead, he was focused on the food, head downwards, face mostly hidden by the brim of his hat.

"This is good," I said to him, a bit lowly, because I didn't want to catch Ginny or Peter's attention. "I didn't realize you were the one that did the cooking around here."

Eric's head raised up; he stared at me for a moment, an amused expression on his face as if he was contemplating something. He swallowed, then said, "I bet you can cook, right?"

My answer was hesitant. Reluctant. "Not really."

"Why not?" His tone was a mixture of inquiry and playfulness. "Isn't that kind of pathetic?"

"I can boil water and stuff," I said quickly, shifting on the bench, "but I can't - " I gestured with the hamburger a little, "I can't do this."

His brow raised and he took a drink from his styrofoam cup. "It's not that complicated."

I stayed quiet.

The meal continued on, and the awkwardness that I was feeling didn't shake. Ginny, though - Ginny looked right at home. As if this was the place where she had belonged all along.

I was happy for her.

It was nearly ten by the time I returned to my room. The time of night when my friends and I would just be getting started. Ready to have fun. Even so, right now, I was exhausted. All I wanted was some good sleep. And some proper exercise tomorrow morning. Hopefully, they wouldn't try to keep me cooped up in the house or anything. I knew that Ginny wouldn't; she didn't believe in stifling things. Peter, on the other hand, seemed a bit more like a helicopter-parent. I really hoped that wasn't the case, but it was the impression that I had been getting so far.

Gently, I shut my bedroom door with my foot, then turned on the nightstand lamp and grabbed my bag. Sorting through it for a moment, my hand finally closed over my pajamas - loose shorts and a tank top - and I pulled them out, bypassing the fuzzy lime green slippers. Chances were, I wouldn't need them here.

After changing clothes, I pulled out the lumpy pillow that had been jammed into the bag. I looked it over for a moment. Where the pajamas had gotten away scot-free, the poor pillow hadn't. The blue case had been frayed a little, edges tattered. Well, it was still a pillow. Cases could be replaced. I hated the color blue, anyways.

With a heavy sigh, I tossed it onto the bed, then reached a hand up to my head, sliding out the hairtie. Auburn hair fell over my neck, tips just barely resting at my shoulders. I smoothed it back and slipped the hairtie onto my wrist.

Movement caught in the corner of my eye, and I looked towards it, starting slightly. The window above the bed threw my reflection back at me. Nerves cooling, I carefully kneeled on the bed, reaching over for the strings that I was assuming controlled the blinds mounted a few inches above the window. I stared out it for a moment, wondering what the view was like in the daytime. It looked like a house was there; a lone window was lit in the distance, as if it was floating. A flickering glow, like candle light, illuminated a silhouette, a shape that was too blurry to make out. The sharp yellow and orange bit into the night.

The water mattress shifted suddenly, and I put a hand against the wall to steady myself, then gave the string a tug and the blinds descended. Turning the little stick on the other side of the window, the broad strips of plastic turned inwards, erasing any view of the outside entirely.

I touched my fingers to the bedside lamp and darkness consumed the room.