Chapter One

The view outside my mother's window was truly spectacular. The miles of rolling hills dotted by young trees just beginning to bud was one of the things that made it so great. Once the last vestiges of snow melted and spring truly bloomed would the view be even better. The dense foliage from the trees would hide the ugly, cement walls for one thing and make Stalward Institute seem more like a fancy hotel or a day spa.

"Eva, darling, would you like me to feed you some pudding?"

I turned away from the window to watch my grandmother try to coax my mother into eating a cup of chocolate pudding. I hoped she succeeded this time, although if the past was any indication, she'd fail. But no one wanted Mom to snap out of it more than Grandma and I.

"It's chocolate fudge, darling," Grandma cooed. "It's your favorite. Gillian prepared it especially for you."

Grandma made tight, circular motions with the spoon in front of my mother's mouth. I clamped my lips together to prevent the giggle that was dancing on my tongue, from escaping. Not only would it be inappropriate to laugh but also, there was entirely nothing funny about the situation.

"Oh, for goodness sake, Cassandra," Grandpa said in a huff. He sat stiffly in a plastic chair, watching the scene in disgust. "Making airplanes or choo-choo trains will not convince her to eat."

This time I could not stop the slight giggle/snort. Although he did his best to seem poised and formal, Grandpa still managed to shoot me a discreet wink. He loved my mother just as much as the rest of us but after years of watching her sit and stare at the walls, he'd pretty much given up on her jumping up to hug him much less eating a bite of pudding.

"I will never give up on my daughter," Grandma snapped. She glanced at me, waiting for my nod of solidarity. I gave it to her. "See, even Talia agrees with me."

I didn't want to listen to them argue about what was best for Mom and what was best for me so I resumed gazing out the window, hoping Dad would hurry back.

"Eva, darling, you need to eat something substantial," Grandma continued. "We need to get you well so you can get home to your family."

Wasn't that the truth? Wouldn't it be nice to have Mom home again? I could barely remember what it had been like when Mom had been home - it'd just been me and Dad for the past eight years or so.

I rested my forehead on the window and blew out a puff of air, fogging the glass. Using the tip of my index finger, I drew a crooked circle, adding dots and a curvy line.

"Don't draw on the glass, dear," Grandma said, giving up on the pudding. "Even after you wipe it away, it's still there. The housekeeping crew will have to wash that window."

Properly chastised, I scooted into the corner of the window seat, running Grandma's words over and over inside my head: Even after you wipe it away, it's still there. That was true in more ways than one.

Finally, my dad burst into the room.

"Is the doctor coming in to talk to us?" Grandpa asked. "Or is he off golfing again?"

"It is Saturday, Peter," Grandma said as she moved closer to Dad. "Most professionals take the weekends off."

"What if I'm a professional who must work during the week and the only time I can visit my daughter is on the weekends?" Grandpa argued. "He's a doctor and should allow weekend hours for families like ours."

Dad held up his hands, stopping an argument. "The doctor is here today and will speak to us shortly."

Great, more medical terms and doctor talk that I don't understand. I slipped out of the window seat and approached my father.

"Dad, can I have some money for the pop machine?" I held out a hand while Dad fished his wallet out of his back pocket. He placed three singles in my palm with a smile. I bolted out of the room before any of the adults could insist I stay and listen. I didn't need to - Dad would explain everything to me once we got home.

Stalward Institute was beautiful - there wasn't really any other way to describe it. The halls were carpeted and impeccable. Framed art prints hung on the earth-toned walls. Soft, soothing music drifted from speakers hidden in potted plants on window sills. The high windows enticed sunlight to stream through not only brightening the halls but warming them, also.

But my favorite was the mini chandeliers that dangled at each hallway intersection. The imitation crystal caught the light and hurled it into every single nook and cranny, chasing away darkness from what should have been a dreary building. It was a nice place - perfect for my mother. Well, that's what my grandparents and my father always said.

I tiptoed through the halls toward a little alcove housing several vending machines. I'd long ago lost interest in peeking into all the rooms. Other people's problems didn't concern me - I had my own.

Once I'd purchased a lemon-lime soda (pocketing the remainder of the money), I decided to wander around a little bit. Even with all its elegance, the place still sort of frightened me and I'd never wandered far. I did my best to avoid other patients after one visit when I'd ventured farther than usual only to be confronted by a skinny man in a hospital gown with Einstein hair blabbering about his lost pig. After that episode, I tried to stick close to Mom's room.

Today was different, although I don't know why. Today I just didn't feel like sitting in the room while my grandparents and father tried to convince my mother to snap out of the zombie-like state and join the human race. Today I wanted to chill out like most teenagers did on Saturdays.

I slipped past Mom's room and followed the hall to the lounge. I stopped in the doorway to peek inside - searching for any unattended patients. It was safe. The only occupant was a kid about my age slumped on the sofa, flipping through the television channels. He was dressed in baggy black sweatpants and a gray tee shirt, not the usual hospital garb, so I took my chances. I snatched a magazine from a rack near the door and scurried to a cushy chair. Carefully setting my soda on an end table, I opened the magazine, very much aware of the boy on the couch.

"Hey," he said.

I glanced over the top of the magazine. "Hi."

"Visiting someone?"

I snorted. "Obviously, since I'm not a patient."

His smile was magnificent, drawing out dimples in his cheeks and bringing a shine to his dark eyes. "Obviously not."

Not knowing what else to say, I lifted the magazine, staring unseeingly at a page while commercial jingles rang in my ears. I strained my brain in order to come up with something witty to say, but nothing jumped out at me. Sighing, I slumped. I had the same problem at school which is why I had so few friends.

I curled the right side of the magazine in order to sneak a quick peek at the boy before hiding once more. He certainly was cute - as cute as Jack Conrad from school. He had thick, slightly curly, dark hair and what looked like brown eyes, although it was hard to tell from where I sat. He was slim and not overly muscular as though he'd recently discovered weight lifting but wasn't very good at it yet.

"So, who are you visiting?"

"My mom," I blurted as my eyes rushed back to the magazine. I realized that the page I'd been staring at was a tampon ad. My cheeks burned.

"I'm sorry to hear that. Will she be okay?"

Shutting the magazine, I set it in my lap. "I don't know. I think so, but who can tell?"

"That really sucks."

"Yes, it does," I agreed. I sipped my soda just to have something to do. "Are you visiting someone?"

An easy grin slipped across his face, making his dimples almost dance. "Why? Don't I look like a patient to you?"

"Not really," I said, smiling in return. How easy it was.


"Talia? Are you in here?"

I jumped from the chair, dropping the magazine. "Yeah, Dad."

"We're leaving," Dad said as he stood in the doorway. His face was washed of emotion.

"Okay," I said as I bent to pick up the magazine.

"It's okay," the boy said. "I'll get it."

"Thanks," I said as I grabbed my soda and hurried after Dad. At the doorway, I chanced one last glance at the boy. He rolled the magazine in one hand and waved with the other. I returned the gesture before jogging to catch up to my dad.

At least the visit hadn't been a total waste.

The ride home was mostly silent, just the low hum of the talk radio station Dad had programmed in the truck. I spent my time staring out the window, watching the trees slowly morph into houses and buildings. I'd grown accustomed to the forty-five minute drive over the years and could tolerate it for the most part. Usually, we stopped for dinner somewhere along the way - sometimes with my grandparents but mostly without. When we got home, Dad would disappear into his home office while I either watched TV or chatted with my best friend, Megan. Sometimes, he'd drop me off at Megan's to spend the night or we'd pick her up and bring her home with us - depending on our moods. But the visits with Mom rarely differed from week to week so our moods were usually somber.

"What did the doctor say?" I asked as I continued to gaze out of the window.

"Nothing much," Dad said. "Her condition hasn't changed."

It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. Her condition never changed - at least not anymore. I could remember a few times when she'd still been home with us and how she'd been happy and singing one minute and a paranoid wreck the next. It used to frighten me so much when I was home alone with her that Dad made arrangements for me to go to Megan's house every day after school until I was old enough to look after myself. By the time I was able to be a latch-key kid, Mom had been comfortably ensconced in the Stalward Institute.

"Did he say how much longer she would be like that?" I asked, not daring to look at Dad's face. I closed my eyes, knowing that at that moment he was tightening his jaw as his words wriggled through his clenched teeth.

"No idea."

Nodding, I rested my forehead on the cool glass. The thrum of the tires on the asphalt lulled me into a light doze while home movies played in my head. Scenes of happier times flashed on the screen, depicting childhood memories that were truly wonderful. Christmases, Easters, birthdays - all the warm fuzzy holiday feelings wrapped around me like a magical cloak. Presents, laughter, and good times - things that refused to be overshadowed remained firmly in my mind. The horror films would play later tonight when I was in deeper sleep whether I wanted to see them or not. They always played on Saturdays after a visit with Mom. Always. Sometimes they were mild - like a PG-13 rating, but mostly they were rated R due to frightening scenes and adult language.

"Talia, are you still with me?"

My head jerked upright and I gaped at my father, realizing that I'd fallen into a deeper sleep than I'd thought. I quickly wiped the drool off my chin as I nodded.

"Still with you."

"Good," Dad said with a strained smile. "How about we stop at the Jolly Burger for some grub?"

"Okay," I said as I ran fingers through my hair in an effort at controlling it. I blinked several times, hoping to get the sleepy fog out of my eyes, and took a good look at our surroundings. We were still a few miles from town but our favorite burger joint was coming into view.

Dad turned into the lot and parked near the door. Although it was still early for a Saturday, there were few cars in the parking lot. The Jolly Burger wasn't the most hopping place to hang out at on the weekends but it was still a great place to eat

We ordered our usual and then sat back, eyeing each other as inconspicuously as possible. It almost seemed as neither of us wanted to be there - neither of us wanted to face what our lives had become.

"Any plans for tonight?" Dad asked. "Do you want to use the truck or anything?"

It's a sad, pathetic thing when your dad has to offer you his vehicle on a Saturday night - that you don't have to ask. It signals that, once again, you'll more than likely be sitting at home. My only hope was that Megan had waited around for me and not left to join any of her other friends.

"I don't think so," I said before sipping from my straw, slurping up that heavenly lemon-lime flavor.

"Maybe it's time we look into getting you a car," Dad said as he stared at something over my head.

I dreaded this topic more than any teenager on the face of the earth only because my grandparents had offered to buy me the car of my choice the day I'd turned sixteen but Dad had vehemently refused. I guess he hated the fact that my mother's parents were loaded and wanted to do things for me that he couldn't.

"I can get a job, you know," I said, broaching the subject carefully. "And help pay for a car."

He shook his head. "You need to concentrate on school right now. You have too much on your plate already and don't need to be worrying about work. I paid the truck off two months ago so I can just use that money to get you a car. A suitable car. Nothing brand new, mind you, but something dependable."

There was no use arguing with him. My father was pretty fair-minded on most things but once he decided on something you couldn't budge him.

Our food arrived and we ate in silence - me thinking about cars in order to get my mind off of my mother and my jacked up life; Dad most likely thinking about how he'll swing the car payment and insurance.

Once we finished, we continued toward home. I thought about Jack Conrad, the cute baseball player from school. I'd had a crush on him for as long as I could remember. Maybe I'd do as Megan suggested - get off my ass and flirt with him a little more. She claimed that he liked me and that if I'd only encourage him a bit that he'd ask me out. I had my doubts but Megan seemed to know more about this sort of thing than I.

I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket, smiling apologetically at my dad as I sent Megan a quick message. Dad hated seeing teenagers constantly texting. He always told me that he'd rather see my beautiful face than the top of my head bent over a phone. I tried to limit my texting for in my room or when he wasn't around.

"What is Megan up to?" Dad asked, a touch of amusement in his voice.

"That's what I'm trying to find out."

I waited patiently for her to respond as we pulled into the drive of our modest two-story home. I glanced up at my window automatically, smiling at the pretty purple curtains. Dad had let me redo my room - he'd given me several home improvement store gift cards for Christmas - and I absolutely adored it now. I'd surprised even myself with my talents. It made me think that it might be something I'd want to pursue in college and later in life.

Dad unlocked the door but before I could mount the steps to the second level, Megan responded:

At the arcade in the mall. Jack is here. He asked about you. Get her now!

My heart lifted as I turned to my dad with a smile.

"Looks like I will need the truck, if that's okay," I said.

"Sure," he said, tossing me the keys.

I smiled wider before running up the stairs to get ready. Maybe this was it. Maybe I'd finally get Jack to ask me out. Maybe life was looking up for me now.

I certainly hoped!

A/N: Sorry, sorry, sorry! I am not abandoning the music story but I'm just not all that into it at this time. When I'm not into it then I don't do a good job (it's like pulling teeth to write a chapter). I'll leave it up for now because I'll probably go back to it sooner or later.

This story, however, I started writing over the winter and I'm really interested in where it will go. I do have a rough outline already completed so hopefully I can get on track and get it done.

Once again, I apologize!