"Leslie, hurry up! You're going to be late!"

"We ought to get accustomed to it by now. The little rascal is always running late."

"Sam! Don't speak about your sister in such a way!"

"Look who's talking -"

"Honestly, Sam, Leslie is right. What is up with you today?"

"Nothing, Mom."

"Sure looks like something to me."

"Seriously, Sis, knock it off. Come on, let's get this show on the road."

"Isn't it pretty? Oooh, are we going to pass the lagoons?"

"Of course, dear, you know that's the shortest route."

"Where's Daddy?"

"Daddy ... needs to stay in today."

"What? Why?"

"He's not feeling well."

"That's queer. I had been with Dad all day and noticed nothing out of the ordinary."

"Wouldn't be the first time, Bro."

"Leslie, hush! No, Sam, it's not something you would've noticed."

"Hey, I resent that!"

"Please calm down, Sam, I'm not saying something negative about you. Just ... trust me, all right? Let's go."

"But how can we go if Dad is unwell? Ought we not stay?"

"Didn't I tell you, Leslie? Aunt Lisa is coming to check on him. Now get in the car, both of you."

Leslie woke up with a start.

As her panting breaths slowly evened out, she gazed perplexedly around. Since when did have to sleep on such horrid magenta sheets? And what was that smell in the air? It shouldn't be reeking of cinnamon cookies in the middle of June!

"Rise and shine, sleeping beauties!"

Leslie jumped.

"Have you all slept well?" cooed a bustling woman. Judging on her gray frock and beige apron, this lady was most likely one of the "nurses."

"Good morning" and "Well, thank you" chorused among the girls.

"Oh, sweethearts, I know you all did," she gushed.

Leslie tried to gag discreetly into her comforter.

The nurse plopped down a stack of folded white dresses on an ironing board.

"Here's this, freshly laundered. Get dressed quickly and go to the chow hall; breakfast is almost ready. Oh, and where's our new girl?"

Leslie's gagging abruptly escalated into a coughing fit. Fortunately, she inherited some quick-thinking skills and tried to smother the sound with her comforter. Unfortunately, a wriggling, coughing eleven-year-old under a blanket is anything but inconspicuous.

To make matters worse, somebody said: "Um... I think she's over there, ma'am."

"Why thank you, Jane," the nurse twittered, wrenching Leslie's cover away, "but I figured that out for myself."

Leslie squeezed her eyes shut, bracing herself for the onslaught of mocking laughter.

"Les," said a high-pitched, breathy voice, "Les, relax; nobody's judging you, you know."

Leslie's anxiety peaked, but silence assuaged her worries.

"Well, go on, girls; off to the bathroom, the lot of you!" the nurse exclaimed, ushering the still-silent girls out the door. "Leslie will be right behind you; how about you girls save her a seat?

"Now Leslie, dear," she added, "is there anything you want to tell me?"

The blonde found herself mute, gaping mouth yielding no words.

A knowing gleam entered the lady's eyes. "Anything you want to ask me, then, perhaps?"

The girls' respect flooded through her mind.

"Why didn't they laugh at me?" she mumbled.

The lady drew back, eyebrows arched. "Why would they?"

"I've made a fool of myself," she admitted morosely. "I began to have a coughing fit as if I choked on air and then tried to hide under the blanket with everyone staring at me."

"You've been through an ordeal, Leslie; don't be so harsh on yourself." The nurse softened with sympathy.

"Not everybody is that considerate."

"Not everybody went through an ordeal, but these girls did. Every one of the girls here lost someone to end up here - parents, a caretaker, a home. Some of their families died; others went to prison. But they know how it feels to be in your shoes because they feel it every day. It is true that people don't - can't - genuinely understand another unless they went through it themselves. Nobody's judging you here."

Leslie was half-impulsed to brush away that sympathy pridefully, but her dream left her terribly weak. Nodding, she rasped out, "You're very kind."

"I see your parents taught you your manners well," the nurse said approvingly. "Now, you have to hurry if you want to get any of that hot breakfast. It goes fast."

Thus the rest of the day was a whirlwind of advice, distractions, and familial nonsense that Leslie didn't take to heart. The pain-quelling distractions, however, she welcomed. The first one was a brief geography lesson right after breakfast. Leslie thought it odd that they had summer lessons until Cassandra said it was specifically for a field trip.

"What? What field trip?" she inquired.

"An interesting one," Cassandra said, throwing a devilishly mischievous smile. Given Cassandra's faultless behavior, this gave Leslie a jolt of surprise.

"Cass, do you know something about it?" Leslie demanded, instantly wary.

"I'll tell you if you don't tell a soul."

"Okay."

"We'll go someplace we haven't gone to before," she whispered, her naughty smile working full-force.

Leslie was about to ask what that was supposed to mean, but Cassandra already had her nose stuck in a geography textbook.

Once lunch was over, Helena, Summer, and Cassandra decided to show Leslie the promised beach. After much pleading on Helena's part, who was a bit of a beach fanatic, the girls packed their veggie sandwiches and ventured out to the shore. As soon as the cool water hit Leslie's feet, she instantly felt at home. The beach was a major part of her family in many ways; in fact, the trip she dreamed about was real, and their destination was the sea. The sight of the salty sea lapping gently on the sand felt like a piece of her home returned to her.

"It's amazing!" Helena exclaimed, twirling clumsily in the sand.

"Helena, stop! You're making me dirty!" Cassandra cried.

Helena stuck her tongue out. "If you wanted to remain clean, you should've stayed behind!"

"Easy for you to say," Cass shot back. "You're not in charge of the laundry."

Leslie furrowed her brows. "What do you mean, Cassandra?"

"Oh, she's just foolish, Leslie; don't listen to her," Helena interjected, but Leslie ignored her.

"Cass?"

"As Helena said, it's nothing," the redhead returned, tossing a pebble into the ocean.

Leslie felt a pang of sadness. Why didn't Cassandra trust her with whatever they were going to say?

"Why don't you tell us a little about yourself?" Summer suggested. "That will be much more interesting than listening to Cassandra's laundry!"

"That will be your laundry, too, thank you very much," Cassandra sniffed.

Leslie hunched over from a sudden blast of iciness. Her eyes stung. Summer's inquiry was innocent, warranting nothing more than casual conversation, but the images which sprang unbidden caused Leslie to withhold a gasp of pain.

All that she could see were the grainy photos of her parents' and brother's battered bodies.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" Through the haze of pain, she felt Summer's hands reaching to her, pulling her into a hug. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said anything," she cried frantically.

"Leslie, are you all right? Leslie," gasped a second voice, laced with insecurity - Helena.

The blonde bit her lip, hard. "No," she moaned. "Please ... go away."

"And go where?" came a third voice. Cassandra, needless to say, was neither meek nor gentle.

"Cass, she needs room -"

"Helena, the last thing she needs is room."

"What are you saying -"

"Just let me be."

"Are you out of your mind?" she exploded. "Did you ever hear of the word privacy or grief - or respect, for that matter? Or have you forgotten how it feels?!"

Summer looked flabbergasted, Leslie felt like quaking, but Cassandra arched her brows.

"Is that all?" she asked bitingly.

"Oh, you want more?"

"Well, I'll take that as a yes. As answers to your question: one, no, I'm not out of my mind; two, I can recount all three definitions by heart; three, of course, I haven't forgotten how it feels."

The metallic bitterness in her tone gradually faded to empathy. Leslie found herself on the receiving end of her friend's arresting gaze: soft, tender, and profound. It was a look that would haunt her for many months to come, but Leslie was blissfully ignorant.

"That is why I say what I say," she murmured. "Bottling it up inside, holding it in, grieving endlessly and mulling every detail over - that is the recipe for prolonging the pain. If you can, Leslie, tell us about your family. We'd love to hear it."

"I - you - me - no!" growled Leslie.

"Cass," Summer whispered, placing a restricting hand on the blonde's quaking shoulder. "Leave her be."

"You're atrocious," hissed Leslie. "It's painful, don't you understand that?"

Cassandra blinked. "Aunt Lisa."

"What? What did you say?"

"I said nothing. Now, let's go; it's getting late," she said, gesturing to the sunset. Leslie numbly trailed her friends uphill. When they arrived at the orphanage, she sprinted past Summer and Helena and seized Cassandra's arm.

"You said Aunt Lisa," she insisted. "Why? How do you know about her?"

Cassandra frowned confusedly. "I just ... mentioned somebody I used to know. Why do you care?"

Leslie bit her lip.

"Do you know her?"

"It's ... queer."

"How so?"

Leslie shook her blonde head. "Doesn't matter. I don't know her."

Suddenly her heart was breaking, shattering into a million tiny shards, rupturing her lungs, urging tears to her eyes. Sam stood right behind Cassandra. His intense green eyes blazed into her baby blues. He shook his head twice in jerky movements.

Sam was angry. He was telling her to - stop. Sam was here.

"Sam!" she breathed.

Then a voice asked her if she was all right, asked her why sweat was pouring down her face, and when she turned around, Sam vanished.

"You look terrible," Cassandra cautioned. She took one of her arms, the nurse took another, and they gingerly helped Leslie to bed.

Before sleep consumed her again, Leslie heard the faintest murmur of a "therapist."