Homefree

By Nina Wright

Chapter One: Gone

"Future perfect, please. Hello? Are you with us, Mademoiselle?"

Madame Papinchak frowned at me from the front of the room, her heavy black glasses making her look extremely serious. All around me students were whispering.

Good question, I thought, and cleared my throat. "Je serai venu, tu seras venu, il serai venu—"

"Cette fille, elle est trop bizarre-oh," boomed a voice behind me. Translation from the Bad French: "That chick is too weird." The class erupted in laughter. Lame jokes in a second language get results.

Mme Papinchak rapped a small wooden mallet against her desk. She used a gavel to keep order in the classroom. A pearl-handled gavel. I figured once upon a time she must have wanted to be a judge or at least a lawyer. Somebody important. Yet she'd ended up here, teaching high-school French. What went wrong? Another example of an adult who didn't turn out too good.

"Order!" Mme Papinchak said, rapping her gavel. "Attention, s'il vous plaît!"

When the room quieted, she asked me to start conjugating all over again. This time nobody interrupted. But when the class ended, and students were exiting, I could hear them talking about me. I hadn't made many friends in the two weeks since I'd transferred to Fowler. Okay, I hadn't made a single one. I wasn't sure I wanted to. This school was full of kids I'd never hang out with.

"Could I speak to you a moment?" Mme Papinchak motioned for me to approach her desk. When the room had cleared, she said, "Easter, are you all right?"

"Fine. Why?"

She cocked her head. "For a few minutes there, you seemed very far away."

If you only knew, I thought. But I just waited.

"What I mean is—" Madame hesitated. "Well, you seemed . . . gone. Are you sure you're all right?"

That was code for "Are you sober?" Which ticked me off. I didn't get high.

Mme Papinchak tugged on a strand of her straight shoulder-length hair like she was trying to pull out the right words.

"I know it's stressful to move to a new school when the term's almost over," she said finally. "Perhaps you'd like to talk to a counselor?"

I had to strain not to roll my eyes. "I'm fine."

"I'm not prying, Easter." Of course she was. "But it was like you were—I don't know—off the map. To be honest, you scared me."

I had scared myself. Madame was right. While conjugating, I went off the map, and I couldn't begin to explain what had happened. Right in the middle of fourth-period French class, I was suddenly standing in the downstairs half-bathroom of the house where I used to live when I was twelve.

I was sixteen now and living in Tampa, Florida. Yet that was my face, my current face with the new emerald nose stud, gazing back at me in the mirror at 47 Monarch Street. In Muncie, Indiana. I lived there four unhappy moves and more than a thousand miles ago. . . . How could I be in Indiana when I was also somewhere else?

I studied the half-bathroom as it came into focus. The new owners hadn't bothered to replace the crimson-foil wallpaper Mom hated. I used to secretly like the tacky, almost Christmassy way it brightened the windowless room. Now it just looked shabby, as if the kids who came along after me had taken turns peeling the paper from what used to be an invisible seam.

What is this, I wondered. A dream? A hallucination? A memory twisted by wishful thinking? I blinked twice but remained standing on the stained gray linoleum of my family's former bathroom.

My eyes wandered to the wood molding around the bathroom door, where Dad used to measure me on birthdays. Nobody had bothered to repaint. The dark pencil marks were still there although it looked like somebody had tried to erase them. I stepped closer. The highest one barely came to my shoulder. Next to a thick dash were the blurred words, "EASTER HUTTON, age 11."

Tears burned my eyes. This was the only home where I had ever been happy—a house I hadn't been near since I was twelve.

I studied my trembling hands. All jewelry accounted for, including my favorite and newest treasure: the pewter armor ring Andrew gave me as a parting gift when I left Atlanta.

Footsteps in the hall shot a ripple of panic through me. I leaped back against the sink. How could I explain to a stranger what I couldn't begin to explain to myself?

"Hi. You don't know me, but I used to live here. Don't worry, I don't have a weapon. Or a clue how I got here from Florida. Last thing I knew I was conjugating the verb venir. . . ."

The door, already ajar, swung toward me. I tensed for a screech of fright. Women scream. Men yelp—or start throwing punches. I looked around for a way to defend myself. The plunger we used to keep by the toilet might have worked, but it was gone.

Somewhere in the house a phone rang. The door froze in mid-swing. A voice on the other side cried, "If that's for me, I'm already gone!"

It was a throaty voice, more like a loud purr than a shout. The door opened the rest of the way, and in stepped a big blonde, maybe a year older than me. The bathroom was tiny. I had no room to move.

"I won't hurt you!" I declared before she could react.

But she didn't react. She didn't seem to notice me. She just peered into the mirror, tilting her head from side to side, fluffing her tousled hair. I stared as our reflections overlapped. The blonde was standing where I was standing. We were in the same place at the same time. Or were we? Our faces blurred and separated and blurred again.

To steady myself I grabbed the towel bar, which felt rubbery and unstable. I was really there, in that bathroom. But the blonde couldn't see me.

"Amber called!" a man's voice thundered. "She said she'll do what you told her to do."

The blonde stopped primping. She studied her reflection—what I saw as our combined reflections—with satisfaction, her lips pulling up at the corners in what would have been a smile if her eyes had played along. They stayed dark and hard. In her furry little voice, she muttered, "She'd better. Amber better do exactly what I say."

To the man somewhere in the house where I used to live, the blonde shouted, "I'm leaving!"

Then she was gone, and so was I—back to Fowler High and my totally screwed up life.

Now I faced Mme Papinchak, who looked as worried as I was trying not to feel.

"I'm fine," I repeated and walked away.

You can find Muncie, Indiana on a map, but not the route I'd taken.

The second time I went "off the map" was during third-period geometry two days later. Mr. Rivera was droning on about something called a conic section when I found myself in the attic bedroom I used to share with my stepsister in Wheeling, West Virginia. And I wasn't alone.

The first occupant who came into focus had four legs. It was Rocco the tuxedo cat, who looked even fatter and scruffier than the last time I'd seen him, two years ago. I called Rocco "Serial-Killer Cat." He tortured to death about a thousand mice, birds, rabbits, and baby squirrels. And he always left their mangled corpses by the back door. Mom said they were supposed to be gifts for us, but they made me sick. Plus, Rocco had a habit of hiding under the decaying cars my stepfather collected around the yard. The cat would shoot out from under them and attack my ankles whenever I walked past. I had scabs on my legs the whole year I lived there.

Now Rocco looked smug and sassy, sprawled on the bed I used to sleep in. Was that the same comforter Mom bought me at Wal-Mart for my thirteenth birthday? It was so covered with cat hair I couldn't be sure. I leaned forward for a closer look, and suddenly Rocco turned to face me, his yellow eyes open wide. His tail snapped back and forth, and his back arched.

Yeeeooooowwwww, he screeched.

He could see me. I stumbled backwards against what felt from memory like the bi-fold closet door. Rocco yowled again.

"Shut up, you stupid cat!"

That was when I spotted the room's other occupant: my former stepsister Ronni (short for Veronica), lounging on the bed at the far end of the room. What time was it here? Shouldn't she be at school?

Rocco produced another threatening sound. He stared at me, ears flattened, lips curled back. All the hair on his round body stood on end. I held my breath, wondering how things worked in this version of the world. Could Rocco hurt me? And if he could see me, could Ronni see me, too?

Something large and hard thudded against the wall an inch from my right ear, then ricocheted into Rocco. The cat screamed, launched himself straight up off the floor, and was gone.

"Go kill something, why don't you?" Ronni shouted after him.

You almost did, I thought, my heart banging. I studied my ex-step-sib. Still skinny like when we were both thirteen, but now she had boobs so round they looked like implants. Clear skin, too. Wearing a sports bra and matching boxers, Ronni sat propped against a stack of pillows nodding to the rhythms of an MP3 player and painting her toenails purple. Her formerly shoulder-length ash-blonde hair was now spiked into inch-long tufts. She was still too cute to tolerate.

I checked the floor. Ronni had lobbed a running shoe, a huge running shoe, at the cat. No way it could belong to her dad, who was practically a midget. I winced at the memory of Short Ron with his pudgy arm around Mom's thin waist. Short Ron wasn't my nickname for him. It was the nickname he'd created for himself and his doomed used-car dealership. The marriage had been short, too. And doomed.

From downstairs, a guy bellowed something. Definitely not Short Ron, who had a squeaky voice. This voice was deep but muffled, like whoever was shouting had a mouthful of food. When Ronni didn't answer, the other person came pounding up the stairs.

I wasn't prepared for the guy with no shoes, no shirt, and what looked like a six-layer bologna sandwich who appeared in Ronni's doorway. It was my middle-school boyfriend, Cal. Only he wasn't scrawny anymore. At sixteen, he looked all grown up and totally buff. Cal launched himself onto Ronni's bed and tried to kiss her.

"Gross!" she shrieked. "I'm doing my nails, moron! Get away from me!"

Ronni's shrill voice could pierce your eardrums. Cal laughed, rolled off the bed onto the floor, and took another bite of his sandwich. Maybe he was a moron. When he turned his smooth, naked back toward me, I read the Gothic-lettered tattoo across his shoulder blades: WACKER. That was his last name, but not the smartest choice in tattoos. I recalled Mom's warning: "Cal's sweet, hon, but he'll always be one bottle short of a six-pack." Mom knew the ways men could let you down.

Even so, I was enjoying my private view of Cal's new muscles when I felt Mr. Rivera tapping my textbook with his pointer.

"I said, write the proof for Problem Six on the board. Now," he barked.

Cal's tattoo shimmered and faded. I was back in geometry class. Mr. Rivera leaned close to my ear.

"If you can hear what I'm saying, blink twice." He was trying to be funny, and it worked. My classmates yucked it up.

"You must be talented, Easter. You can sleep with your eyes wide open," Mr. Rivera said. "But that won't save your math grade."

"Or your social life," quipped the guy next to me, and the class roared again.

It was the same jock who'd told the lame French joke two days earlier. No more insults for free.

"How's your ex in St. Augustine?" I demanded. "The one you got pregnant last year? Do you even call her?"

I had no clue where the words were coming from. It was like someone had turned on a radio, only it was my mouth. And I couldn't turn it off or change the station.

"Do you support your son? Have you ever even seen him?"

Except for my voice, the room was totally quiet. I could hear people breathing.

"He's six months old, you know, old enough to have a personality. Old enough to recognize the people he loves. And he has your eyes."

The classroom swallowed a collective gasp, and the preppy girl in front of me whispered, "Dustin, you make me sick. You said Kayla lied about the baby being yours."

"She did!" the jock sputtered, but his face was scarlet. To me he said, "You're seriously messed up. You should keep your mouth shut."

Mr. Rivera rapped his pointer three times on Dustin's desk. Mme Papinchak's gavel would have been more effective.

"That's enough!" he bellowed. "More than enough! Back to geometry: Problem Six. Who has the answer? Katie, go to the board. You, too, Darnell. Write your proofs!"

And so I was spared the embarrassment of not knowing how to solve Problem Six. If only I could have escaped my real problems that easily.

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