Four Years Ago...

"I'm home!" I announce as I drop my bulky backpack on the floor and kick it unceremoniously into a corner behind me. I lock the door to our apartment and wipe my mud-splattered tennis shoes on the worn mat, exactly like I've done for the past three months. My shoes are carefully carried to the rack in the closet, and my rain coat is hung near the window to dry. My umbrella is left open a small way from the door, hopefully decreasing the chance of someone tripping over it. I sigh. In the back of my mind, I know the umbrella will be skewed and my father will be sporting a shiny bruise by the time I finish my homework.

I enter the kitchen quietly, prepared to be overwhelmed by the mouth-watering smell of ravioli. My mother always cooks cheese ravioli on Thursdays, ever since I was eight years old and insisted I needed to know exactly what I was going to eat in advance.

It's been three years and I still don't like surprises.

But there's no cheese or tomato sauce in the air, just the sharp, clean smell of lemon soap. I frown. I can't even recall if we use lemon soap. Shouldn't I know that?

I finger my long, white-blond hair and twist it into a knot absent-mindedly, like I do whenever I'm trying to solve a complex math problem. She probably just got caught up painting again and lost track of time. It's happened before and it'll happen again. No big deal.

Reassured, I stride through the living room to my mother's art studio, treading softly so I don't disturb her. Just one look to make sure she's there, I tell myself. Then I'll go back and heat up some leftovers.

The door is slightly ajar when I get there. I don't notice; I twist the knob and put all my weight on it, causing me to stumble loudly as the door swings open. My back is to the rest of the room as I close it softly.

"Sorry," I say, turning around, "I just lost my balance and—."

The world stops and for the tiniest fraction of a second, I don't understand what I'm seeing. I just stare with a detached sort of curiosity, as this is a movie and any second now, she's going to laugh and ask me about my day. I wait. She doesn't move.

"Mom?" I whisper, my throat hoarse and parched. I'm going into shock, a little voice inside me recognizes. Because my mother is dead. I repeat it over and over again mechanically, like some sort of sick mantra. My mother is dead. But I can't believe it. I can't.

She's slumped against an easel in the middle of the small studio, her smock splattered with blues and yellows and greens. The paintings are the only thing in the room save for the small table she used for her colors. Her short, honey-colored hair is still in its neat, tight bun, a single black clip keeping her bangs out of her face. But she's not quite right. I squint and almost against my will move closer to see what it is.

I stifle a scream. The left side of her head is caked with dried blood, running all the way down to her neck. She's been shot. Oh God, she's been shot.

Then an insane thought: At least her eyes are closed.

A blue paintbrush lies on the hardwood next to her. She must have dropped it when the shot was fired. I try to swallow only to find that I can't.

I tear my eyes away from her face—so placid and indifferent it hurts—and study the canvas. She'd been in the middle of painting a cozy fireplace when she died. I can see where she ended the stroke abruptly; a piece of wood to the very left of the picture, not quite touching the red-bricked fireplace. My fingers follow the line lightly. They come away wet.

I'm wiping it away on my jeans when it processes. The paint is wet. It hasn't had time to dry. What if—

I'm out of the room and running to my father's study before I can finish the thought.

I burst into the office and scream when I see his dead body limp in his overstuffed easy chair. Not Dad, too. He shouldn't have been home. Why was he home? This can't be happening. It's all so wrong.

I try not to stare but it's impossible. He still looks like he did this morning, from his salt and pepper beard to the spectacles that rest lightly on his crooked nose.

I thought I was prepared for it, but I'm not. I don't know why I always pictured bullet wounds clean and bloodless, but it's nothing like the reality. His forehead is a mess of mutilated skin and blood and bits of what I think are his brain. It's enough to make me break out in a thin sheen of sweat. If I look at him for a moment longer, I'll be sick.

I want to sit down and cry until I'm exhausted. But the police need to be called, relatives told. The people who live in the downstairs apartment are on vacation, to Philadelphia or Chicago, I'm not sure which. So no one knows. No one knows they're gone but me.

My mind feels hazy and tangled, filled with pure nonsense. I have a pounding headache and my fingers can't stop twitching, like I'm on a sugar high. Everything is too bright, too loud. Too real.

I turn to leave, but a sound makes me pause. Almost like…footsteps. I freeze, and my mind replays everything I've done since I entered the apartment. I said I was home the minute I was through the door. My mother was shot only ten minutes ago, at the latest. It dawns on me in an instant. He's still here. And he knows I'm here.

I rush back to the desk and tear through the drawers for the antique pistol my father hid for emergencies. I don't think this is quite what he had in mind.

"Come on, come on," I mutter under my breath. Where is it? Finally I locate it in a bottom drawer beneath a stack of discarded papers. But it's too light. I swear under my breath. Who hides an unloaded gun to use for emergencies? What am I going to do? Yell bang and hope he magically falls over?

I find some cartridges in the next drawer and load them in. I hurriedly flick the safety off. My father taught me how to shoot last summer. I hope I still remember how.

I step out into the hall noiselessly. It's pointless to be quiet, especially since he already knows I'm here. But if he wanted to kill me, he would have already done so, a little voice says rationally. He's had more than enough opportunities. I shut it out.

Somehow, the apartment seems sinister now, trapping me in rather than keeping me safe. I chew on my lip as I hold the pistol out in front of me with both hands, my fingers curled around the cold metal awkwardly. It feels too heavy, too alien. I'm a little girl. Little girls don't go around waving loaded firearms, trying to avenge their dead parents.

As far as I know.

I gasp involuntarily. I slap my hand against my mouth, a useless gesture. I saw him. I actually saw him. Right around the corner, in the kitchen, pocketing a banana. I press myself against the wall and pray he didn't hear me.

His hair needs to be cut, the stubble on his chin shaved. He's wearing tattered jeans and a dirty tan trench coat that reaches all the way down to his knees. Sunglasses cover his eyes, though it's raining outside. He looks to be in his late twenties or early thirties. But my eyes are drawn to the object sticking out of his coat pocket. A handgun.

My eyes narrow. I inhale deeply, trying to steady my fried nerves. I step out of the shadows.

He doesn't notice me at first, intent as he is on pilfering our refrigerator. I bite the inside of my cheek. Am I seriously going to do this? I'm eleven. Much too young to have a criminal record.

Much too young to be an orphan, something whispers into my ear.

"Stop," I say, hoping to grab his attention. But it comes out as a whisper, too soft even for me to make out the words. I clear my throat, slightly embarrassed.

"Hey!" I yell, "Knock it off!" There. Ignore that.

The man freezes, his back to me, like he's unsure of what to do. But he's listening. That's a start.

"You heard me!" Confronting someone is so much easier when you have a gun, I think hysterically. "Turn around, hands where I can see them." Great. Now I'm quoting cheesy cop shows.

Slowly, his back straightens, and his hands rise to his eye-level. Warily, he turns around to face me. His eyes widen in surprise when he sees me, and I instantly realize how ridiculous I look. I'm half his height and carrying an antique pistol, which he probably doubts I even know how to use.

"Arms higher," I say, voice steady. My pistol never wavers.

He grins but does as he's told.

"Aw, come now," he smiles, showing me a full set of yellowed teeth, "You can't be more than eight. You won't actually shoot me."

"You killed them," I say, expressionless.

His gaze hardens slightly. "It was gonna be simple. Kill the man, kill the wife, get out. Ain't said nothing 'bout a little girl."

"But you knew I was here."

"I don't like killin' kids," he shrugs, "Thought you'd run away. Wasn't gonna chase you down, swear it."

"Nice to know you have a conscious."

"I'm not heartless."

I snort in disbelief.

"But now," he says in a slightly apologetic tone, "now you seen me. Boss said I can't leave witnesses. Sorry, kid. Nothing personal, you understand."

What happens next is pure instinct. My eyes are watching him reach down for his gun, horrified at how out of control the situation is getting, but my body is a step ahead. My fingers have pressed the trigger, and the man is slumped against the fridge, staring at his rapidly reddening shirt, before I can process what's happened.

"She shot me," he says to himself in wonder, "That little bitch actually shot me."

I'm crying now, the tears leaving behind salty tracks that I don't bother to wipe away. The man tries to get up, but stumbles. He looks hurt, so, so hurt. Hurt by me. By what I've done.

Blood isn't the color you'd think it would be. That's all I can think as I watch it drip from his stomach onto the tile floor, more of his life ebbing away every second while I simply stand at the other end of the room, paralyzed.

It's not bright red, like that fake vampire stuff you can get at Halloween. It's darker, a sort of burgundy shade. It's thick, too, and there's so much of it. I never knew one person could have that much blood inside them. It just doesn't seem possible.

"I'm so, so sorry," I whisper, but I don't think he can hear me. He looks off in his own world. Maybe that's for the best. I fire again.

This time he stays down. I don't need to move closer to know he's dead.

I glance down at the gun in my hand. I should feel something. Shame at killing a man, satisfaction at having my revenge, but I don't. I just feel empty.

I lift my fingers to my cheek. Completely dry.

I flick the safety on and wedge it inside the pocket of my sweatshirt. I look to the kitchen table involuntarily. Just this morning my parents and I ate breakfast there. Can that be right? Yes, just this morning.

It feels like another life.

I lick my chapped lips. I can't call the police, not now. God, I just killed someone. There are consequences for that sort of thing, even for an eleven year old kid. I really didn't think this all the way through.

I grab the landline and dial Uncle's number. He's the only relative I have that lives in New Jersey, only fifteen minutes away. He's my father's brother and makes a living operating an antiques store. I only ever see him at Christmas. He's practically a stranger.

But he's all I have, I think as I listen anxiously to the dial tone. If he doesn't pick up, I don't know what I'll do.

"Lina?" Uncle's gruff voice asks in greeting. I nearly faint with relief.

"Yes, Uncle, it's me." My voice cracks and to my utter horror I start sobbing. I can't believe what's happened in the past half hour. I've been orphaned, become a murderer, and now I need to hide from the police. My life has fallen apart in the space of thirty minutes. Amazing.

"What happened? Are you alright?"

I start to shake my head, but then I realize he can't see me. "No. I-I'm not. It's Mom and Dad. They're…dead," I whisper the last part.

Uncle doesn't answer for a moment. "Murdered?"

"Yes." My voice is light and breathy, too high, not mine.

"And the killer? Was he gone?" Uncle's tone is steely.

"Dead," I say in disbelief, "I shot him."

"Have you called the police?" he asks immediately.


"Lina," Uncle says urgently, "I will be there in fifteen minutes. Lock all the doors, all the windows. Pack everything you need. When I arrive, I will knock on the door four times. That's how you'll know it's me. Don't open the door to anyone else."

I take a sharp breath, about to agree, but he hurries on.

"And stay strong. Do not break down Lina, do you understand? You need to stay level-headed. Don't call the police and take that gun with you. I'm going to hang up now. Don't call me again. I'll come as soon as I can."

"Okay," I say, "I-." But he's already hung up.

I put the phone down in a daze. Then I walk around the apartment, locking all the windows and doors like Uncle told me to. He'll be here soon, I remind myself. Just fifteen minutes, and I won't be alone anymore. Soon.

I grab my backpack and empty it of my textbooks and homework. I stuff my laptop, a photo album of my family, and as much clothes as will fit inside. I don't need anything else.

I finish all too quickly. There's still ten minutes left and nothing for me to do but wallow in self-pity. I grit my teeth. Food. That's what I need. I re-enter the kitchen, trying not to look at it.

I'm too frightened to go anywhere near the fridge, so I end up getting a chocolate-chip cookie from the pantry. It's a poor excuse for a meal, especially since I haven't eaten in three hours, but it's the only thing that looks remotely appetizing. I choke it down with a glass of water.

It sticks as it slides into my throat. I want to cough it back up, but I stubbornly chase it down with more water. A stupid cookie isn't going to get the best of me.

Then I double over and gasp.

Everything suddenly hurts. My vision is blurred, distorted by black spots. My stomach has cramps within cramps and my legs are shaking so bad it's hard to stand. I feel like throwing up whatever I have in me and then some.

I can't get to the bathroom fast enough. Once there, I collapse, my arms barely stopping my head from colliding with the floor. All I can see is the white tile in front of me. I'm so close I can pick out every fleck of dirt, every crack. But I can't focus enough even for that.

I drag myself across the floor to the toilet and struggle into a kneeling position. I prop my elbows up on the seat as best as I can and immediately start to retch uncontrollably. I crinkle my nose in disgust but continue to heave until I'm light-headed from the lack of oxygen.

Finally, I manage to stand up. I flush the toilet and walk to the sink to wash my hands. The warm water soothes me, making me feel slightly less hollow. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I'm startled at how little I've changed. I still have the same long, white-blond hair, the same hazelnut-brown eyes. A light dash of freckles decorate my ski-slope nose. I blink. My reflection blinks. She looks determined and grim, but not at all sad.

I cross my arms. I should look sad.

Four quick raps jolt me out of my thoughts. I don't bother to dry my hands as I rush to the front door. I shoulder my backpack and make sure the floor is clear of blood. Satisfied, I turn the knob to reveal a large, bald man, at least six and a half feet tall, with broad shoulders and a small goatee. He's wearing light brown slacks with a white shirt and red tie. His work attire, I realize. I forgot it was only three-thirty in the afternoon.

"Is that all you need?" Uncle nods tersely to my backpack.

"Yes," I answer without hesitation.

"Good." I notice he's twitching, his eyes never staying in the same place for more than a few seconds. It's infectious, and soon I'm doing it, too.

"Let's go," he orders. A true man of few words.

He turns and I follow him down the flight of stairs and out the door. When I finally get outside, I stop in bewilderment. The neighborhood is still quiet and strewn with fallen purple leaves. Everything is exactly as it was half an hour ago. The world hasn't stopped, didn't even think to pause. After all, what are two more deaths, when we're all going to die eventually anyway?

I quicken my pace to catch up with Uncle. He, too, seems largely unaffected by the news. I file it in the back of my brain for questions to ask later.

He's crossing the deserted street now, with me only five steps behind. His black SUV is parked a couple of feet ahead, and he takes out his keys from his pocket. The car blinks, indicating it is unlocked. I get in the back and set my backpack down by my feet. Uncle is already driving by the time I fasten my seatbelt.

The whole affair has been conducted in complete silence, so I'm surprised when Uncle speaks up.

"Do you see that bottle of water in the cup holder?"

"This?" I ask, holding up the water. The car is ridiculously immaculate. It has none of the old coffee cups or random papers you would expect to find. It even smells new.

"Drink some. It'll do you good," he says. I don't think twice about it. I twist off the cap and gulp the water down until I've drained half the bottle. I see Uncle looking at me in his rearview mirror from the corner of my eye. Making sure I don't get dehydrated, I guess.

Immediately, my headache lessens and my eyelids start to droop. I feel better. Tired, yes, but better. The corners of my mouth twitch upwards. It feels foreign.

"Uncle?" I ask, my voice thick with sleepiness.

"Yes?" he says gently.

"I killed someone today." The words seem far away, like I'm hearing them from a distance.

"You told me."

"No," I persist. It seems urgent to me, for some reason, to tell him. "He wasn't going to shoot me. He was going to leave me alone. But I couldn't leave him alone. Now he's dead. Because of me. Does that make me a bad person?"

Uncle is silent for such a long time I begin to think he hasn't heard me.

"There's nothing wrong with protecting yourself, Lina. The apartment, the bodies—everything—will be taken care of. Don't worry."

"Okay," I yawn after a moment. "Thanks."

"Anytime," he whispers. "Rest a little."

I close my eyes and sleep for a long, long time.

AN: Thanks to everyone who has decided to read this! This was FOUR years ago, okay? I just felt like it was better to actually show the scene then to say "Oh, yeah, and my parents were murdered four years ago. I also shot the guy who did it. Interesting, isn't it?"

Thanks a bunch again, everyone, and REVIEW!

-Leslie Ann K.