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.
Kassandra dreamt about the garage again. The lights were off and she could just make out the workbench a few feet away. A stale smell lingered in the air, like the place has been locked up for too long. As she walked, one shoe slipped on a smudge of oil left from Dad’s truck. The place seemed so much more real than any dream she’d had before.
When Kassandra reached for the cord of the shop light, a fluttering sound came from somewhere off to the left. It darted around the garage, first above and then behind. She snagged the cord and the shop light flickered to life, rocking back and forth and casting crazy shadows like a lightning storm.
Kassandra scanned the garage for the source of the sound. Turning, she bumped into something. Instantly, her mouth filled with the taste of metal, cold and slimy. A pair of shoes dangling right at eye level. She jumped back.
Kassandra saw him from behind, his feet tilted at an odd angle. A yellow rope cut into the skin around the neck and then ran straight up to the rafters. The body rotated. Kassandra’s arms trembled, the muscles twitching out of control. She couldn’t do this again. His face came into view—the color of blue chalk. Kassandra tried to scream, but only a throaty hiccup emerged, cut short by her terror. She needed to run—just turn and bolt as far away as possible—but her limbs had gone numb, forcing Kassandra to witness everything. Dad’s tongue jutted out, dried spittle crusting the edges. She shook, heart hammering inside her chest.
A pair of hands gripped her shoulders. “Kassie, take it easy.”
It was Dad’s voice. Kassandra opened her eyes. (When had she closed them?) Dad stood by the workbench, the same salt and pepper hair as always. The rope and the body were gone. But she couldn’t have imagined them?
He smiled, thin laugh lines wrinkled together around his mouth, and then pulled Kassandra into an embrace. His massive arms folded around her slender frame, scenting the air with the smell of fresh cut lumber.
“It’s really you.” Kassandra collapsed into him, finally safe.
“I’m sorry I scared you.”
Scared her? Why would he say something like that?
He broke off the embrace, holding Kassandra by the shoulders. “I didn’t know you were here.”
She frowned. “How come I can hear you? Last time you couldn’t speak.”
“All I know is that you’re here. Really here.” He gave her shoulders a little squeeze. “Before, you were more like a ghost.”
Kassandra, a ghost? It sounded strange coming from him. She wanted to giggle, but held off. One slip would tumble her into a fit of crying. She needed to hold it together.
The fluttering sound still came from the rafters—like someone flipping through pages in a book. Something small zipped around up there, but the shop light kept swaying, making it difficult to see anything for sure.
“I don’t know why you’re here, but you can’t stay.” Dad placed a hand on her shoulder. “This place isn’t for you.”
“Where is here?”
He stared at the glob of oil staining the floor. “After the rope tightened, everything went dark. Then, I just sort of woke up in this place.”
“Why am I here? I was in my room…”
Kassandra glanced up. The swinging lamp spotlighted a tiny brown bird perched on one of the beams. Washed out feathers looked like driftwood worn smooth by the tide. The bird leapt into the air, its wings creating the fluttering sound as it flew. It landed on the workbench just a few feet away, fixing Kassandra with one black eye.
The bird’s song reminded her of a tiny jackhammer, filled with whistles and trills. It was a nightingale, just like from Keats’ poem. Where exactly had she stashed all those pages from the red spiral notebook?
“It shouldn’t be in here.” Dad frowned. “The birds always stay outside.”
Outside? Did he mean out in the old neighborhood?
Dad tapped on the garage door with a metallic thunk. “The flock gathers sometimes in the meadow.”
Kassandra had no idea what he was talking about. The bird hopped around on the workbench, attracting her attention. It pecked at a small cardboard box. The side read: 100 Single Edge Industrial Blades. Her gut tightened. It was the box. The one she’d swiped the razor blade from.
Kassandra remembered coming home from school. The house had felt oddly quiet. She’d slipped into the kitchen to fix a PB and J. Afterward, she went into the garage. There was no reason to go in there. She might have sensed it even then.
The lights were out. As Kassandra made the walk over to the workbench, jelly oozed from the sandwich and dribbled along one pant leg. She knelt to brush it off and heard an awful creaking—the sound of wood under too much strain, ready to snap.
Brushing the jeans only smeared the jelly. Kassandra stepped over to the workbench and grabbed the cord with jelly-coated fingers. The only thing on her mind was how badly it might stain her jeans.
Then she’d turned on the light.
Kassandra examined the cord over the workbench now. Bits of crusted jelly still clung to the string. A tightness filled her chest. This was no dream real. It was real.
She swiveled on Dad. “Why’d you do it? Why’d you leave me?”
He frowned and rubbed the back of his neck. “I was in over my head with debt. It would have pulled the whole family down.” Dad avoided her eyes. “I thought I was helping.”
“Things just got worse. Mom changed.” Those stupid tears threatened to break out again, but she stuffed them down. “I miss you all the time.”
Dad drew Kassandra into another hug. His body felt warm and most of all safe. Nothing could go wrong with him holding her.
“I’ll find a way to get you out of here.” She squeezed him. “I promise.”
Dad pulled away, gripping her face with both hands. His calluses pressed against Kassandra’s cheeks.
“There is no way out.” He spread his arms to indicate the garage. “This is all I have left. This, and now you.”
The nightingale launched into the air, shooting straight for Kassandra. She raised her hands to keep it away, but the tiny bird slipped through, diving for her chest.
Kassandra burst out of bed, rolled onto the floor, and cracked onto one of Auntie Jo’s bookcases. Her forehead throbbed. She rubbed at it with one hand and looked around. Light streamed through the window, but it was different—not afternoon light. The bed sheets were still pulled up and the Death card sat propped up on the pillow.
“Kassandra!” It was Mom’s voice, close by. Outside in the hall.
Kassandra snatched up the card just as Mom barreled through the door. Of course she doesn’t bother to knock.
“You’re up, good.” Mom inspected Kassandra for a moment. “You need to do something with your hair.” She breezed past, diving into the dusty trunk-closet. “Let’s see what we have.”
Kassandra shoved the Death card into one pocket as Mom pawed through the new clothes. “Wow, you actually have some decent things in here.”
“Hello, Mom.” Kassandra injected enough sarcasm to kill a buffalo. Mom ignored it, dumping more clothes onto the floor. She must’ve really be in her own world. Normally a response like that would’ve sent Mom into a frenzy.
The light outside the window looked more like morning than afternoon. Kassandra blinked. Had she slept the whole night? It felt like only a few minutes.
“We have to get you presentable. There’s not much time.”
“Am I late for the bus?”
“You’re walking today.”
Kassandra frowned. Since when did Mom make that decision? Or even care?
Mom held up a blouse. An impulse buy. Not really Kassandra’s style. It figured Mom would choose it. Then she plucked out those eighty-dollar jeans. “This should do. Now get changed, quick.”
“What’s going on?”
Mom’s eyes widened, barely able to contain the excitement. “There’s a boy named Luke and he wants to walk you to school.” She reached forward and caressed Kassandra’s cheek. For an instant it felt like the old Mom again. The one who actually talked with instead of at her.
“Now hurry up before he changes his mind.” She headed out the door.
Ouch. Did Mom think Kassandra was so pitiful?
She surveyed the blouse. A little on the revealing side, but that was Mom’s secret to recovery. Find another guy and everything turned out peachy. Well, Kassandra wouldn’t replace Dad so easily.
After dressing, she had to submit to a Mom session of lipliner and mascara. Kassandra didn’t dislike make up. It’s just Mom wore it like a badge of honor—always perfect, never smudged. After multiple reminders of the time Kassandra finally escaped more face painting. As they tromped down the hall toward the living room, Mom adjusted Kassandra’s ponytail.
In the kitchen, Auntie Jo leaned on the counter, sipping a cup of tea. She talked to Luke, whose back was to the hall.
“Well, here she is.” Mom flourished her arms as if presenting a prize mare at a horse show.
Luke spun around. He wore another white T-shirt and jeans. No wait. The spatter of brown had to be the coffee from yesterday. So he didn’t change his clothes. That seemed a bit grungy.
“Hi,” Luke said and hit her with his grin. “Sorry to barge in, but I thought I could walk you to school.”
“Oh, don’t worry.” Mom flashed a smile. “She’s excited to go.”
Kassandra winced. Maybe Mom should ask him out. She seemed eager enough.
Luke gave an uncomfortable chuckle. “We should get going.” He started toward the door.
As they left, Kassandra caught a glimpse of Auntie Jo, who gave a weird look. Was there something she needed to say?
But Mom hustled the pair to the door. “Bye kids. Be careful walking to school.”
“Yeah, Mom.” Kassandra power-walked around the curb, putting distance between her and super-mom.
“You have a sweet family.”
“Don’t get me started.” Kassandra glanced back. Once they were far enough away, she slowed to a reasonable pace.
“Your mother seems to really look out for you.”
“And then some.”
“What about your father? What’s he like?”
Kassandra stopped, recalling last night’s dream. The details still clung to her like Mom’s cigarette smoke, everything vivid in her mind—the oil stain on the floor, the smile on Dad’s face. It felt like traveling back in time. Back home to Seattle.
“You don’t have to say it. I can already tell.” Luke turned to face her. “You have that look.”
“What do you mean?”
“The look of someone who’s lost everything.”
Kassandra stared into his eyes. They were distant and detached—the copper flecks in his irises seemed dulled in the morning light. He’d lost someone too.
“He doesn’t have to stay gone, you know.” Luke looked her dead on. “We can bring your father back.”