This is a Young Adult story tackling issues of self-harm and suicide. It is intended for teen readers or older. If you want to read from the beginning, click over to chapter 1.
The blue Beetle pulled into the drive and Kassandra and Auntie Jo burst through the front door to escape the rain. The iPhone sat charging on the counter with no sign of Mom, probably holed up in her room. She was kind of like Bigfoot. There was proof she existed, but sightings were rare.
Auntie Jo kept Kassandra busy in the kitchen, cleaning up olive pits and tomato scraps, and wiping down the counter. The knife was off limits, even though Kassandra had chopped veggies hundreds of times before. Did Auntie Jo really think she’d pull down her gloves and get started right there? But there was no room to complain. At least Mom was still in the dark.
With dinner ready, Auntie Jo called everyone to the table. Kassandra cringed. Mom hardly ever joined in—usually opting for the room service option. Auntie Jo must’ve hoped for a family meal bonding experience, where everyone shared what they did that day. All smiles and giggles. Well Mom revoked her family card the day she dragged Kassandra to this crummy town.
Mom waltzed in, phone in hand, and flopped into a chair. Not the least bit hungry, Kassandra curled one noodle around her fork and popped it into her mouth. Maybe she could chew this for the rest of dinner and not have to talk.
“The rain’s really coming down, wouldn’t you say?” Auntie Jo smiled, hooking the apron on the chair and sitting.
“Uh huh.” Mom positioned the phone next to the plate as if it were a new addition to the settings: spoon, fork, phone. If Kassandra tried the same thing, she’d find her phone locked up. Of course, she didn’t even have one to lock up.
A new message popped up with a chirp. Mom inspected the screen and giggled. She was texting her boyfriend—Jim or Mat? Shouldn’t that be a Kassandra thing? She was the teenager here. But if Mom stayed distracted, then there was hope for surviving dinner.
“How’s the pasta?” Auntie Jo smiled a little too wide. “I got the recipe from one of my clients.”
Kassandra enthusiastically chewed the one noodle in response.
Mom nodded. Though she could’ve been responding to the text. Her gaze was glued to the tiny screen.
This wasn’t how dinners used to be. When Dad was around, Mom wouldn’t shut up. She’d go on and on about her day. Sometimes it really bored Kassandra, but now she missed it.
“Everything we’re eating is fresh.” Auntie Jo mixed the sauce into the pasta. “Since Kassandra left school early, we rolled by the Co-op.”
Kassandra’s stomach twisted into new and interesting pretzel shapes and she shot Auntie Jo a look. Why had she let that slip?
Mom surveyed the dinner table as if it were some new restaurant. “Why’d you leave school early?” She wasn’t angry yet, but a motherly tone infected her voice. “You should have called me.”
Kassandra nearly laughed. Like Mom cared. “It’s nothing. Just got sick is all.”
“Oh. Must be this cold weather.” Mom forked an olive and popped it in her mouth. “You need to wear a jacket.”
Yeah, that was it. Because Kassandra didn’t know cold coming from Seattle. She liked Mom better when she didn’t pretend to care.
Mom twisted toward the phone, fingers making clicky noises as they tapped on the screen.
A wave of tension crested inside Kassandra, peaking at the base of her skull. What was Mom typing? Wish you were here? No, probably the other way around. Something like: I’m stuck here with my stupid family.
Normally Kassandra tuned Mom out, but tonight it felt like an insect burrowed just beneath the skin. Every time the phone clicked or binged, the bug dug an inch deeper.
“Would you stop that?” Kassandra tossed her fork down. Mom whipped her head up. “It’s ridiculous. You’re too old to be all gaga over some guy. Give it a rest.”
Mom stiffened. “I don’t believe I asked your opinion.”
“Listen guys.” Auntie Jo flashed Kassandra a look. “I know no one’s feeling top notch tonight.”
Kassandra squeezed the fork until the metal dug into the skin. “It’s rude. We’re having dinner and all you can do is text.”
Mom slapped the table causing her silverware to clank against the bowl. “Why can’t I have anything for myself? I work hard…”
“Yeah right. And who bought you that new toy?”
“Now Kassandra…” Auntie Jo tried to assume a parental tone.
Mom gave Kassandra a look that sizzled the air between them. Then the phone buzzed and Mom glanced down.
“Jesus, Mom. Did you just forget Dad?”
“Kassandra!” Auntie Jo half stood out of her seat.
“I’d sure like to get over him as quickly as you did. Can you give me your secret?”
“Go to your room!” Mom’s whole body trembled.
“Not a problem.” Kassandra shoved her chair out. “Dinner was great Jo. Save me some.”
“You’ll go now!” Mom jabbed a finger down the hall.
“What’s the point trying to talk to you? It’s not like we’re even a family anymore.” Kassandra marched down the hall and into her room.
Leaning against the door, she sucked in a long breath. It did nothing to calm her. Kassandra’s body felt tense and jittery. The argument with Mom jabbing at her brain.
She spied the purple Doc Martens in the corner and knelt by them, pulling out the sock. Red lines marked the places where blood had stained the fabric. She cradled the razor in her hands. Such a small thing. Yet it had caused so much trouble. The handle of curved metal was flecked orange with rust. Kassandra held the blade over her arm. No intention of actually cutting. Just a familiar action, long ingrained in her memory. The length of the razor seemed the perfect size for the scars peeking through her fishnet gloves.
Kassandra looked at the door. Auntie Jo had been too gung-ho about dinner to search in here yet. But it was only a matter of time. Just as soon as Mom left red alert status.
“I need to stash this.”
Options around the room were limited. There was the bed, the massive trunk coated with dust, and the books lining the walls. Sweat beaded on her forehead. She should have thought of a place earlier. Everything looked so obvious. Kassandra glanced at the door, fingers rubbing the handle of the blade. Just a few minutes was all she needed.
Back to the book shelves again. Auntie Jo hardly touched them since Kassandra moved in. Though she’d probably tear the place apart during school tomorrow.
Dust caked most of the shelves, but some spots were disturbed where Auntie Jo had removed books recently. Kassandra kept scanning until finding a section blanketed in dust, and spied three books on poetry, nestled on the end of one shelf. Two were thick anthologies, but the third was a slim volume tucked into a cardboard slip case. Perfect. The case could hold the blade during inspection. Unless Auntie Jo decided to tackle the books page by page, the razor would be safe.
Kassandra gingerly lifted the book out without disturbing the dust and then slid it from the case. Flipping it open at random, Keats’ name appeared smack at the top of the page. Only the last two lines of the poem were there, but it was one Kassandra had read hundreds of times: Ode to a Nightingale.
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
A trembling sensation spread into Kassandra’s arms and legs. Everything felt mixed up now, like a nightmare, except she was wide awake. It all used to be so simple. Poems weren’t loaded with meaning. And she had been a normal girl. Back when Dad was alive.
Kassandra wedged the razor near the binding. Just before snapping the book shut, she noticed some red from the blade rubbed off on the page—a scrawl underlining the last line. She wiggled the book back into its slip case and positioned it on the shelf to match the dust footprint.
Then the sock went straight into the purse. Kassandra couldn’t risk throwing it out here. She’d have to toss it at school. Her hand brushed the Tarot deck. In a moment, she had the deck out and found the Death card. Lying on the bed, Kassandra set the card on the pillow. It was good to see Dad, even if it was only a picture that looked like him.
“I wish you were really here,” It felt weird saying this out loud. Kind of like she was speaking to a person and not some rectangle of paper. “When you were around, Mom was still Mom.”
Chin settled on the bed, she stared at the illustration, waiting for Dad’s head to move again. Drowsiness curled around Kassandra, willing her eyes to shut. If she was patient enough, Dad’s head would move.
Her fingers tingled as if falling asleep. But then the tingling picked up in her toes too. She tried to shift positions, but couldn’t let go of the card. Her arms prickled as if someone had dragged a comb lightly along the skin. Sleep tugged at her eyelids. The world faded away and her mind switched off.
Just before Kassandra dissolved into slumber, something shifted on the card. The room darkened, but the illustration glowed. A bitter coppery taste filled her mouth. Then Dad turned his head to stare.