East: Chapter 1

EAST: Chapter 1
By Pyr


MY BAG HITS THE FLOOR WITH A LOUD THUD. Thud, thud, thud. The sound reverberates almost endlessly off the walls of the house.

Out of habit, I call, “I’m home.”

Nobody answers—not that I was expecting anyone to. In the first few weeks after we moved, I did; as soon as I got home all I wanted was to find someone. I know why I did it. Somewhere deep in my mind, I always imagine that it’s not my own voice echoing back to me, but Mom’s, greeting me, asking me about my day…

I head to the kitchen to fix myself some dinner, but the fridge is even more miserable than usual. Probably shouldn’t have put off going to the grocery store for so long…

I grab the keys again, scribble a quick note that Dad probably won’t even see, and head out.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

“You should go organic,” a voice insists.

I jerk back from the frozen meats, startled. “Uh—sorry?”

“Get the organic one. From Murphy Farms,” she repeats impatiently when my face remains blank. “Don’t you realize how much pollution the food industry produces these days? Imported food…”

I zone out. I’m staring at her hair. She has golden red hair tied back in a bun, and my chest aches just from looking at it. It’s so familiar.

“…carbon emissions will be so bad in five years that the world might have to resort to—”

She freezes in the middle of handing me a packet of meat. She’s staring at my right cheek.

I lift my chin and tilt my head questioningly. “The effects of…?”

“N-Nothing,” she says. All the irritation is gone from her expression. She still stares.

The bright green label on the packet in her hands blinks at me eagerly. MURPHY FARMS: ORGANIC FOODS FOR OVER FIFTY YEARS.

I swallow a sigh and grab the packet. “Sounds great,” I hear myself saying. “Thanks.”

The girl blinks. Earth to stranger. “Huh?”

“Thanks for, you know,” I say again. “Uh, you were talking about health and pollution and—oh, never mind,” I mutter under my breath, making a show of putting the packet in my shopping basket. “See, I’m taking it. You convinced me.”

She finally unfreezes and says, “Oi, aren’t you that Winters girl who—”

I turn my back on her, inch behind a family of four, and duck into the next aisle. I can hear the girl making a sound of disbelief when she realizes I’d given her the slip. “Bitch,” she mutters.

This is why I don’t like to go out.

“Hey!” The checkout girl perks up when I get to her. She has shiny black hair and glasses and looks about my age. “How are you today?”

“Fine,” I say. “You?”

“Great!”

Beep. Beep.

“You go to Edgecliff High, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Awesome!” She says it like you or I might say Merry Christmas! Hallelujah! School’s over! “What year are you? I don’t remember seeing you around before!”

“Twelfth,” I say.

“Oh! I’m a junior. So you must be really busy right now?” Beep. The Murphy Farms meat packet gets dropped into a plastic bag. “I heard it’s just crazy the first term!”

I shrug, too tired for conversation. She rambles on for a bit. Beep. Beep.

“…I’m sorry, but what’s your name again? I really don’t remember seeing you at school.”

It takes me a second to process the question. “You wouldn’t know it.”

“You’d be surprised! I know a lot of people.” She grins at me, sort of invitingly. “I’m Ciara, by the way.”

“Uh—I’m Jem Winters’ sister.” I nod at the bag full of groceries before she can think about that. “How much is it?”

“Oh! Jem! Oh, oh yeah…” She frowns at the display, brows scrunching together. I can almost see her brain working furiously overtime, trying to remember if she’d ever heard of Jem’s sister—Jem’s sister—wasn’t there something in the news awhile ago— “Twenty-two sixty, please.”

I count out the cash, she counts out my change, and hands me the bag and the receipt. In the middle of saying “Bye! Have a nice ev—” her eyes suddenly widen and I see the exact second it registers in her mind—the scar, the name—and her smile becomes frozen, forced, and her eyes dart to my face nervously and then away again.

“—um, have a nice evening,” she finishes in a squeak.

I try to smile—but I think that terrifies her even more, so I just turn and leave.

When I get home, the house is still silent. But I’m surprised to see a new Sticky note on the fridge that wasn’t there when I left less than an hour ago. I got off work early today. I need to take care of something but will be back soon, so eat without me. Love, Dad.

Eating alone isn’t anything new; ever since the boys left for college, Dad’s been working later and later, and except for the big holidays, I always end up making dinner for one. What is unusual is that he’d come home between projects and leave me a note when I normally wouldn’t expect him back so early anyway.

I eat on the couch, flipping to a random channel on TV to counter this suffocating silence. It’s a movie in French. Russian? No, it’s in France, but everybody is Russian, chattering in Russian—then in French—Russian—oh, whatever.  By the time it ends, the kitchen clock reads 22:26.

Dad’s been gone nearly three hours. A chill runs along my spine; I breathe in deeply. Wait. Don’t panic yet.

I bring down some blankets and make myself comfortable on the couch. Even so, I can’t help but glance at the door every now and then. A new film plays, and the music is soft and repetitive… Soft… The couch is fluffy, soft… My head feels heavy…

Creak.

My eyes snap open. I bolt upright. The porch creaks once, twice, under the weight of two people. My fingers clench as a soft tinkling sound reaches my ears—metal brushing against metal—a key turns in the lock and the knob shakes and someone is wiping their shoes on the mat outside. I’m tense and ready to spring, and then Dad is stooping in and under and through the low doorway.

“What’re you still doing down here?” He exclaims when he sees me. “I thought you’d be in bed by now!”

“I was watching something,” I say, voice garbled from sleep. I clear my throat. I’m still staring behind him, at the darkness, curious. I heard two sets of feet.

“Hmm.” He kicks his shoes off in a weirdly neat way that makes them land perfectly in place. “Well, that’s good, actually. I told him we might have to wait until morning, but since you’re up anyways…”

Dad steps to the side. A tall figure steps into the faintly bluish light. His light brown hair is sticking out in all directions, and there’s some day-old stubble covering his face.

“Hey, Eea,” Jem smiles.

I jump off the couch, laughing and crying, and run into his open arms. He picks me up in a bear hug and I squeeze him tightly as if that means I’d never have to let him go. I breathe him in. Smoke-free, a hint of that stale airport scent, a detergent I don’t recognize. Jem’s shoulders are shaking under my cheek and Dad’s head is shaking at us with a smile on his mouth and a smile in his eyes.

When I can’t hold him anymore I slide back and he sets me on the ground carefully. He puts his hands on my shoulders and looks me in the eyes. I stare at his bright blue irises, so much like Dad’s.

“I missed you,” I blurt out.

Jem’s smile widens. “Well, let’s see. Did I really miss having to put up with you stealing my food, hogging the bathroom, doing your chem homework…”

“Shut up!” I whack him in the arm. Then I hesitate, wondering if it’s a good idea to ask. “Can we go diving?”

He bursts into laugher.

I look at Dad, who’s chuckling, too. “Not tonight,” he manages to say mock-sternly. “It’s past your bedtime—don’t look at me like that, I know exactly when you like to go to bed. You two can go tomorrow.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I burst out of the water, swipe a hand across my dripping cheeks, and look westward. There’s just enough light that I can make out Jem’s silhouette; he hasn’t moved at all and is still standing at the top of the cliff, watching me.

It’s barely sunrise, but the clouds are already out in full. His figure is a black imprint on the bleached winter sky. Even from this distance I sense his concern. It’s there in his stance, the tightened set of his shoulders.

“I’m fine!” I call loudly, waving for good measure. I don’t get it, really; we’ve been diving together for years and years yet he still worries about me every single time.

Jem nods back, tilting his head as if checking me for injuries that he knows he won’t find—as if he can see anything from that far away—then finally relaxes. He stretches, carefully rotating his shoulders, then bends and flies off the cliff.

I watch as he slips beneath the waves, his body becoming one with the ocean—it’s quick, seamless, fluid, to the point of being mesmerizing. I don’t understand how he can be so graceful all the time; I always tell him he’s a freak of nature. Then he just points out that I’m the only clumsy one in the family.

Suddenly his head shoots out of the water barely an arm’s length away. Startled, I shout and spin with too much force and find myself submerged again.

By the time I push back to the surface, Jem’s there, smirking at me. “Scaredy-cat.”

“Squid.”

He splutters with laughter. “What?”

“You’re a squid. A big, ugly, squi—oof.

I wince as the salt of the ocean stings my eyes, but he streaks away from me before I can retaliate. After a while he comes back within arm’s reach, still shivering. “It’s freezing,” he protests. “How do you not feel anything?”

I shrug. “You’ll warm up soon enough,” I say.

We stay there for another half-hour or so, just swimming, talking, and drifting in the water. Letting the ocean wash away our worries. It’s strangely therapeutic, and always has been.

“So,” Jem says suddenly.

I turn in his direction. I’d been watching the seagulls. “So,” I mock.

He pushes a baby splash of water at my face. “How’s life been?” He asks.

Jem’s tone is conversational, but I catch the undertone. I pause to consider my reply. “Fine.”

He hums. He’s so much like Dad. “School okay?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I mean, winter break is soon. And… The concert.”

“Ah.” He watches as I drag a pattern in the water, watching it swirl. “Has anyone…done anything?”

I shake my head. “You got Kieran Thomas suspended last year, so nope.”

He isn’t quick enough to hide the smug grin on his face, and I give him a look. Jem ignores it and says, “Served him right.”

I flip onto my back, because I don’t quite agree with him, but I don’t want to disagree with him. But he doesn’t push the issue and I’m grateful for it…until he moves on. “What about Dad?”

“He’s getting better,” I say.

“So you haven’t been eating alone every night?”

I blink, forgetting to tread water for a moment. “How—”

“The fridge is covered with your Stickies to each other,” Jem says dryly. “From which I deduced that you and Dad are hardly ever in the house at the same time and, from the sheer number of notes about where and what dinner is, that you probably don’t even eat together often, either—”

“Alright, Sherlock.” I roll my eyes.

We float. I think Jem’s waiting for an explanation, but I keep quiet.

“He talks to me, too, you know,” he finally says. “I’m the bigger, older, wiser brother, after all.”

I snort. An irregular wave catches him full in the face and he coughs, and the force of it rolls him underwater. Much as I did a few minutes ago.

We stay in the sea all morning. At one point I simply close my eyes and enjoy the feeling of liquid freedom, of the sea everywhere around me like a massive, planet-sized cocoon; of weightlessness, timelessness; of both the warm and the cold all at once. Knowing that Jem is close by, someone I love, even though he can’t do anything in this great big ocean. It’s just me versus the water, but I’m safe. And I’m okay.