Authors: Kate Larkindale
annah was waiting for me by the last bank of lockers on the second floor corridor. My shoulders dropped away from my ears and for the first time that day, I smiled. The news of Jules’s illness had spread, and the trek from bus stop to locker had been an exercise in avoiding ‘that look’. I hated the way faces changed when they saw me, an ‘oh, poor thing’ expression altering their features.
“Am I glad to see you!” I glanced at Hannah as I spun the dial on my locker savagely, jerked it open, and tossed my books inside.
“Oh, Livvie! There you are. I was beginning to think you weren’t coming today.” Hannah moved toward me, her bony hips jutting through the skin-tight jeans she wore.
“Had to come,” I grunted, checking my schedule to make sure I had the right stuff in my book bag. “Anything’s better than sitting at home by myself.”
The silence at home was deafening. Mom must have left at the crack of dawn because she was already gone when I staggered out of bed around six-thirty. Our little house felt huge and abandoned, yet I couldn’t find anywhere to escape reminders of Jules. Her gym clothes hung on the line in the laundry room. Her shoes lay tumbled in piles by the back door. Her creams and cosmetics littered the bathroom counter, and the tea-tree oil scent of her shampoo trickled through the air halfway down the hallway. It was not until the doors of the bus eased closed behind me that I felt as though I’d left her behind.
Hannah rose onto her toes, waving madly. “Mel! Over here.”
I looked up and saw Mel shouldering through the throngs toward us. The sea of people parted easily for her, and a stab of jealousy pierced my gut. Changing direction, I veered toward her.
“Watch it, jerkwad,” somebody said, shoving into me.
“Are you going to tell her?” I whispered to Hannah just before we met, ducking into a doorway.
“Tell her?” Hannah’s brow knotted in confusion for a second, then smoothed out as she shook her head. “I haven’t decided what I’m doing yet.”
“Where have you two been?” Mel stood, hands on hips and glowered at us. “I’ve been waiting at the top of the steps since eight.”
I frowned. “Didn’t we say we’d meet at the lockers?”
“Did we?” Mel’s cheeks blazed pink and her eyes shone. “I forgot, I guess.”
“Forgot?” Hannah’s eyebrows lifted so high they almost touched her scraped back hairline.
I studied Mel. Something was going on. Excitement vibrated from every pore. “What’s up?”
She flushed, her face and neck turning a delicious shade of scarlet. “Oh, not much… I was just talking to Sam.”
The bell rang before either Hannah or I could reply. We exchanged a glance as we pushed ourselves out of the alcove and hurried through the hallways to our different homerooms.
Mel still looked pink when I walked into the lunchroom. She couldn’t keep the smile from her lips, and she kept sneaking peeks at the table near the door where Sam and his posse held court. It had been a long time since I’d seen her so happy, yet my stomach churned. This couldn’t end well.
“Hey!” Hannah swung herself onto the bench next to me and pulled a plastic container of salad out of her book bag. “What’s going on?”
I shrugged. “Nothing much. I’m just watching Mel moon over Sam.” I tossed Hannah what I hoped was a pointed glare. Mel had it bad.
Hannah glanced over at Sam’s table, then turned away, her brilliant red ponytail swinging behind her. “So, what did His Highness have to say this morning?”
Mel dragged her gaze away and focused on Hannah, her green eyes glowing like a cat’s at night. “Nothing much. But I think he’s going to ask me out. Maybe even this weekend. He kind of hinted at it. I swear, if he does, I’ll never ask for anything ever again.”
“Don’t make any promises you’re not going to be able to keep,” I said, staring at the tray of food before me. I had no desire to eat it. The greasy scent was enough to set my stomach on edge.
Mel turned her eyes on me, frowning. “How’s your sister?”
“Sick.” I didn’t want to talk about it. I was all too conscious of the way Jenna and the other girls at the cheerleaders’ table whispered and glanced my way every few seconds. Maybe I needed to give up eating lunch.
“I’m sorry, Liv.” Mel set her fork down on the table and really looked at me for the first time. “You must think I’m a total airhead. Here I am going on and on about Sam Taylor, and I never even asked about Jules.”
“It’s okay.” I still didn’t want to talk about it. If I did, I might never stop. “You’ve been hung up on Sam for months. I get it. I just don’t think you should get your hopes up too much.” It was on the tip of my tongue to tell her about Hannah, but no. It wasn’t my place to do that. Hannah would hate me. But, if I didn’t tell and Mel found out I’d known all along,
might kill me.
A strange hush fell over the room. The clatter of trays and cutlery and the dull roar of voices didn’t stop, but a wave of quietness moved across the space. I turned toward it and saw Bianca Mattheson, head down, crossing to the door. I’d never seen her in the lunchroom before.
Someone made a crow call as she passed, and I saw her lips tighten. She didn’t slow down though. Her boots made a dull, mud-colored thud with each step.
“Freak,” someone hissed.
“You gonna suck my blood?” someone else added.
“You can suck something.” This one was a boy’s voice, deep, the words spilling across the room in a wine-colored rush.
A wave of laughter punctuated the words, followed by the sound of hand slapping from a table behind me.
“That was a good one,” Mel whispered, leaning across the table toward Hannah and me. How could they enjoy this?
I turned just in time to see Bianca’s black-clad back slip through the doors. Loud catcalls followed her, the loudest coming from Sam’s table. I shook my head. I didn’t like Bianca and her spooky black clothes, but she didn’t deserve that. No one did.
In Art, I snuck a peek at Bianca as I walked in. Her head was bowed, black hair curtaining her off from the world as she sketched. I wanted to say something to her, tell her I was sorry for the way she’d been treated in the lunchroom, but I didn’t know how to do it. It wasn’t like I’d said anything, anyway. I slid into my seat and flipped open my sketchbook. Still life. Oh, joy.
“Olivia!” Mrs. DeWinter’s perfume engulfed me. “Oh, my dear. I just heard about your sister. I’m so sorry. If there’s anything I can do—”
“There isn’t.” My words severed hers, cutting her off with a single teal snip, louder than I intended it to be.
Heads bobbed up, Bianca’s among them. My face burned as I dropped my eyes to the sketchpad before me. “Sorry…” I mumbled. Why couldn’t they just leave me alone? Did everyone have to be so damned sorry for me? It’s not like I was the one with cancer.
Mrs. DeWinter straightened to her full height. “It’s quite all right, dear,” she said, the words stiff and white as starched napkins. “It can’t be easy. Julia is such a vibrant young woman. I just hope she’ll be better soon. The school won’t be the same without her.”
“Thanks.” I fumbled for my pencil and began sketching the outline of a pineapple. Sketching fruit wasn’t exciting, but just making lines on paper was enough to start calming the chaos in my head.
“Continue with the still life.” Mrs. DeWinter moved away from me, taking the heavy, flowery scent with her. My cheeks still flamed, and I could feel eyes on me from all corners of the room. I wondered how many of them even knew Jules and I were sisters. It wasn’t obvious. We didn’t even look alike.
I found myself sketching Jules on the side of my page, her face appearing next to an oversized orange. Her long dark hair twined around the fruit and mingled with the stems of the flowers protruding from a thick-bottomed vase. I moved on, sketching in her shoulders, her firm breasts, the pinch at her waist and the gentle swell of her hips. Her legs stretched downward, long and shapely, her calves muscular.
To balance the composition, I started drawing another figure on the other side of the arrangement of flowers and fruit. This one was smaller and straighter, had fine, light-colored hair that hung to her shoulders. Me. I finished the sketch and studied it, comparing myself, as I so often did, with Jules. She had curves where I didn’t. She was tall; I was short. Her hair was thick and dark; mine was fine and pale, almost colorless.
And those were just the physical differences. Jules and I couldn’t have been more different if we tried. Everything came effortlessly to Jules—school, friendships, boys, sports—whereas I had to work for everything. The only thing I had ever slid easily into was art. It was the one thing that soothed me, where my synesthesia was not a distraction. Yet here I was—distracted.
I tore the page from my sketchbook, crumpled it, and tossed it into the wastepaper basket by the door. Gripping my pencil, I focused my attention on the still life and drew.
My mind still occupied with Jules, I decided to go to the hospital after school. Hannah had ballet and Mel had track. I wondered why I had never found any kind of extra-curricular activity I wanted to take part in. As I wandered toward the bus stop, I thought about the various things I’d tried out over the years—dance, soccer, swimming, gymnastics—and how much I’d disliked all of them. Jules loved them all. Maybe that’s why I’d ducked out at the first possible moment. I couldn’t compete. Or maybe I never wanted to. Jules was born to shine. I was quite satisfied following in her wake, never making any ripples of my own.
She was alone when I walked into the hospital room. She stood in front of the tiny mirror on the wall, braiding her hair.
“Hey, where’s Mom?” I glanced around, certain she’d be there.
Jules turned, dropping the half-formed braid that unraveled and sent dark curls tumbling over her shoulder. “Hi, Livvie.” She smiled. “Mom went home. She was kind of tired. I’m glad you’re here. I could use your help.”
Alarm bells jangled in the back of my skull. Something about Jules’s smile, the way her eyes burned with uncontained energy, made my stomach clench. She had a plan.
“What?” I asked, trying to keep the note of suspicion out of my voice. I could see it though, the words lavender as they fell from my lips. “What do you need?”
Jules crossed the room and plopped herself down on the bed. It was littered with magazines, and she shoved a few aside, patting the mattress to encourage me to sit next to her.
I stood where I was, studying her. She wore an old pair of pajamas that hung off her slender frame. Her skin was pale and appeared dry and papery. Blue veins traced across her jaw, trailing down her throat to disappear into the open neck of the faded pajama top. Her hair, usually glossy and sleek, hung limply to her waist. She kept running her hands through it, lifting it from her neck, piling it on top of her head, then letting it drop.
“It’s not catching, you know.” She thumped the empty space next to her again. “Come and sit down, Livvie.”
I shuffled across and sat down. “What do you want me to do?” I asked.
“Can you cut my hair?” She lifted it again, dragging the heavy mass over her shoulder so it hung down over her breasts.
“Cut it?” I knew I sounded stupid, but I couldn’t grasp the meaning of the words. Jules couldn’t cut her hair. Jules
“They’re going to make me do chemo again.” Fear painted the words purple, and they lay quivering in the bedclothes between us. “I’m not going to let them take my hair. If we cut if off now, I can keep it. Otherwise it’s going to fall out, bit by bit, until I’m bald all over again. I don’t want that.”
I understood. Control. Jules knew too much going into this. Her body might be betraying her, but she’d take charge of whatever she could. If anyone could beat cancer into submission, Jules could.
“Sure,” I sighed, helpless against her will. Mom would no doubt have some kind of fit when she found out, but by then, what could she do? “You got scissors?”
“Yeah. They’re in the bathroom. In my make-up case. Can you get them?” Jules’s eyes were huge in her hollow-cheeked face. When had she lost so much weight? It couldn’t have happened in the few days she’d been here, not all of it. “I’m so glad you’re here. I can’t do it on my own. I’d make a total mess of it.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask her why it mattered if her hair was a mess, but I bit the words back. Maybe it didn’t matter in the long run, but to her it would be important. I didn’t want to cut her hair, yet my feet moved me toward the bathroom. I found the scissors and brought them out, the steel cold against my palm.
“I knew I could count on you!” When Jules grinned, she almost looked like normal—only normal Jules wouldn’t be seen dead in those old pajamas.
The scissors snickered loudly as they chomped through the long, dark strands. Drifts of hair piled up at my feet. I cut close to her scalp, leaving a ragged cap. When I’d finished, I tried to even out what remained, but succeeded only making it more moth-eaten. It looked like something had chewed on her head with blunt teeth.
“Finished?” Jules craned to look in the mirror, but couldn’t quite manage it from the chair I’d dragged into the center of the room.
“Maybe.” I fingered the choppy mess, unsure what to do. “It’s kind of a mess, Jules. I’ve never done this before. I’m sorry.”
“Let me look.” She stood up and crossed to the mirror, brushing hair off her arms, shoulders, chest and back. There was so much of it. I swept the strands escaping across the floor into a pile with my foot. It looked like so much more than it had on her head.
For a long time she stood there, ducking this way and that as she studied her reflection. Without that thick mass of hair, she looked smaller. Her neck was longer than I’d thought, slender and too fragile-looking to hold the weight of her head. My feet tapped rhythms on the floor, and I was powerless to stop them. My heart sped up to beat in time.