Since published books only have a dedication and maybe a few words of wisdom, I'm not going to write author's notes for every chapter. Just know that this story is about how some things just don't work out, and it's not anybody's fault even if it hurts. That's when it hurts worst, because then you can't even blame, and you have to bear all the weight alone. Also, for some reason, fictionpress won't let me view this in anything but html, and I don't actually know how to format in html, so for this chapter and the next (I had to make some revisions), the line break will be replaced by ****. Thank you.

Cwen, this is yours. You know why. And Cwen, if you're reading this, thanks.

Chapter I: Perfect

"My mother's perfect," her son told his boyfriend.

Perfect. She never wanted to hear that word again.

She put down her newspaper. "Son, come in. I have to tell you a story." And then you'll never call me that again. ****

Catarina carried the laundry basket across the street and downstairs where the Laundromat didn't charge for use of their older machines before she finally relented and turned around to face her brother. Chin length crimson hair framed her face, and wide, bright blue eyes peered out behind large circular wire frame glasses.

"What do you want, Mike?" the purple bruise showed out clearly against her pale, clammy skin. Michael actually flinched away from it.

"I wanted to say I'm sorry I wasn't there last night. I knew she was in a bad mood. I should've been there," he whispered quietly. "I won't let it happen again, Kitty, I promise."

Catarina sighed and put the basket down. She walked a few steps forward and Mike copied her until they finally embraced. "You deserve to have a life too," she reminded him. "You can't always save me."

Mike shook his head, embarrassed by the tears in his eyes. "I'm your big brother." He held out a bag for her and she recognized the duffle bag that held her few possessions in the world. A dull roaring started in her ears and increased in volume.

"It's only going to get worse," Mike said above the pounding in her head. "The doctor says she should probably be put in a hospital, but how can we afford that?"

Catarina stared at the bag uncomprehendingly until Mike shoved the straps in her hand. "Kitty, you have to run, like we promised," he said.

"We promised we'd run together," Catarina argued.

Mike shook his head. "Mom needs one of us, and I'm the only one who can pick her up," he said. He hugged his eighteen-year-old sister one more time before she slung her bag over her shoulder and walked to the bus stop on the way to Billy Hartell's house.

Billy, a handsome blond with bright blue eyes, lived with his parents on the good side of town. Actually, they lived in the best part of New York, the part where extreme wealth was the norm and girls with bruises certainly never were. But Catarina had gotten into Billy's private Catholic academy on the North shore of Long Island on a scholarship, and there was nothing the parents could do to keep them apart. Somehow, the same world that made coked-up private school pupils could also make married high-school sweethearts.

"I'm glad you're here," Billy said, kissing his girlfriend. He rubbed her hands and was pleased to feel his promise ring still on her fingers.

"I'm glad I'm here too," Catarina held up her bag and Billy immediately knew what had happened.

"Oh, honey, I'm so glad you're safe!" he pulled her close and kissed her. Their lips met desperately and they wrapped around each other as if his parents weren't there.

Billy's mother cleared her throat. Billy shot her a dirty look but stopped kissing his girlfriend. "Mom, Dad, she can't go back home."

"She can't stay here," in this house, Billy's father's word was law, unless you were Billy and knew you could get away with it.

"What about our lake-house in Cliffside?" Billy asked hopefully.

Mr. Hartell rolled his eyes. "Go ahead," he muttered, turning back to his newspaper. "You can take the plane."

Catarina was struck by how different Billy's life was. She never even heard her mother say, "You can take the Jeep," never mind a small private plane. But Billy didn't even look awkward as he hoisted her over the side. "Don't you need to pack too?" she asked, seeing that he didn't bring anything.

Billy shook his head. "I've got plenty of stuff back at the lake-house. It's no problem," he said, rubbing her hair back from her face.

"I don't ever want to go back there," Catarina leaned against Billy's chest, only marginally softer than the side of the plane.

"Then we won't," Billy promised, not sure whether she meant New York, his luxury apartment in Queens, or her mother's apartment. Regardless, he decided he wouldn't make her move back to any of those places.

The only part of that promise he would keep was the third; she would be the person who broke that one.

Their wedding was rushed. Two signatures, and it was done. There was no beach, no violin, no friends or family. It was a Vegas chapel; what did they expect? She should have been grateful that she wasn't expected to go back home.

But she spent the rest of her life resenting the fact that she never really got the loving reception she wanted from her husband. ****

"You know she can't get to us here, right?" Billy asked.

Catarina continued to stare out the window. Billy sighed.

"I'll install some security cameras," Billy validated her paranoia.

"Are you alright?" Billy asked, sitting on the foot of the bed next to his wife.

Catarina refused to lean against her husband. "I don't understand why I'm not pregnant yet. We've been trying for weeks!"

"These things take time," Billy shrugged.

"I guess so," Catarina didn't look happy about it.

"We can go see a doctor," Billy said.

Catarina smiled and this time, she leaned in when Billy drew his arm around her shoulders.

She was slim, with straight-as-a-stick sandy hair and marble hard almond eyes.

The week after, fifteen-year-old Calanthe Rush became fifteen-year-old Calanthe Hartell. Of course, almost immediately after her adoption, Catarina became pregnant, as new parents were wont to become. Billy helped her plan nine months of eager anticipation.

As it turned out, they only needed seven months and a week. ****

"Your baby could have birth defects that won't manifest until she's older," said Dr. Kim. "Do you know what you want to call her?"

"Dulcibella Cyanne," Billy thought about his graceful mother and handsome father.

"Ceinwen Azalea," Catarina said, thinking of her mother, who was beautiful and had a green thumb when she wasn't drunk.

"Love," Callie said, looking at the little girl inside the tube. Eleven ounces heavy at twenty-nine weeks, and she was still breathing. "Or Pearl," she said thoughtfully, "it'd be metaphoric."

She didn't realize just how metaphoric that name would end up being.

"Who are you talking to?" Billy asked as Catarina stared out the window and started to yell obscenities.

She turned to him like he was and idiot. "You don't see him? You don't see Damien?"

Billy's heart sank. The next day, the security cameras were turned inward, which was the only reason he managed to find his daughter Pearl Dulcibella Cyanne Love Ceinwen Azalea Hartell being bathed in scalding water before she was burned to death.

The funny thing was: she didn't struggle or sweat.

"Your daughter has CIPA," said Dr. Kim. "She can't feel pain, differentiate between hot and cold, or sweat."

"That's a good thing, right?" Billy was stressed to the snapping point.

"If you think good is your daughter frying from the inside out after playing at the beach on a hot summer's day, then yes." Dr. Kim shook her head. "I have a daughter her age. This is when she should start learning that the stove is hot."

Pearlie learned the ins and outs of sneaking out of the house very quickly.

Callie understood she would be pushed aside after Pearlie was born, but she never expected the level of neglect she would suffer after Pearlie's diagnoses.

"You suck," she'd come into the girl's room late at night and say.

"You suck," her boyfriend would tell her when they got together. Jackson (Sonny) Cale wasn't someone you wanted to disobey. ****

Pearlie wasn't outside much. But she was smart; she figured out that the further she went, the more time she could spend outside since her parents would have to spend more time looking for her and taking her back inside. So she went all the way to the shade of a Buttonwillow tree before she was so tired, so had to lean against it and fell asleep. When she woke up, it was because a boy had tripped over her.

"Sorry," he said.

"It's dark," she shrugged it off. "What's your name?"

"Keefe Cale," said the boy.

Pearlie knew the Cale family. They were considered the scourge of the neighborhood, with the way Cerberus was always drunk and Lilith just didn't give a shit. As if he knew what she was thinking, Keefe looked down. "I know what everyone says about my family," he said quietly. I'm not like them, I swear. What's your name?"

"Pearlie," she answered. "Do you like stargazing?"

Keefe nodded, looking relieved, and lied down on the tree next to her. "That one's Orion's Belt," he named it proudly.

Pearlie's eyes were big and round as she regarded him with admiration. "That's really cool," she said. "Do you know any others?"

Keefe's face scrunched up in concentration. "Um, I think that's one's the Little Dipper," he pointed.

Pearlie smiled and pointed to a different one. "And that one's Cassiopeia."

Keefe smiled too. "You're smart," he said. "You're probably five."

Pearlie giggled. "Four," she said, pleased. "You're the first person who's ever thought I was older. I like you."

Keefe grin got bigger. "You like me?" When Pearlie giggled again and blushed, he grinned even harder. "Do you want to get married?" he asked shyly.

Pearlie shrugged. "Sure," she said, even though she thought boys were icky. "Um, I think in marriages, people exchange jewelry."

Keefe looked around and started to pull up daisies. He tied the ends together and made a daisy chain to put around Pearlie's neck. Pearlie took the gold clip off her hair. It was supposed to represent the sun, sunbeams curving away from the center. In the middle, the gold made a delicate web around glittering round diamonds. For some reason, when Pearlie took off the clip, she felt a marvelous sense of loss, but also a marvelous sense of relief. She put it in Keefe's hair, even though she didn't know any boy who wore sparkling jewelry in his hair.

"It's so pretty," he said, looking at his daisy chain forlornly. "Mine's not as good."

"Yours is just as good. You worked hard to make it. It's beautiful," Pearlie said gently. She let him carefully loop it over her head. They looked at each other for a while.

"I think we kiss," Keefe said nervously.

Pearlie leaned forward and kissed him. The sparkling gems reflected something more than moonlight, something she thought might be the future. She was standing next to a man who wasn't this boy but still reminded her of him, a boy with curly hair standing next to her as the ring-bearer, another boy with dark hair as the flower girl. She wanted that shimmering, not quite real future. Then she heard her mother calling her name and the vision slipped away. She looked at her mother and swallowed.

Catarina didn't seem to notice. She took Pearlie's hand and they walked back home. Mommy didn't tell anyone where she found Pearlie, and she didn't even seem to have seen Keefe. Billy didn't press, but he looked a little sad.

The next day, someone named Deputy Oleksander Gadhavi was told to guard the house from one of the residents inside. Cliffside didn't get much crime.

Pearlie hated taking out the trash more than she hated any other chore she had to do. Callie was cleaning the floor because Catarina was too busy walking in a circle and hitting her own head to do anything. She hated how the place smelled. She hated how the lid would fall on her arms and made it all stiff and weird-feeling and loud, and then her parents would yell.

She was in first grade when it first happened. She heard a mewling sound from next to the dumpster. It smelled worse than usual that day. Walking to the side, she saw a skeleton boy wearing a hair clip. She knew him. "Keefe?" she offered her hand and he took to stand. He could barely move, and his chest was heaving with the exertion of having moved a few feet. "Where's your mommy and daddy?" she asked. She saw a bag of rotten spaghetti next to him. A bug crawled out of it and she cringed. It looked disgusting.

At the mention, he started to trembled. It looked like he was too tired to cry like he wanted to. "They threw me out with the food and said I had to leave for a couple days," he said.

"Oh," Pearlie didn't know what else to say. She was in first grade. All she knew what that this wasn't where she would want to do her homework. She took him home so he could get some of his homework done. Adding was hard!

When her parents refused to let him in the house, she started to cry and they relented long enough for him to take a shower. And then they sat next to each other and she helped him with his homework. He lamented his idiocy, she rejoiced that she wasn't as dumb as she felt.