That Saturday I woke before dawn to the sounds of sirens, the doorbell ringing, and Mattie crying. I sat up, glanced at Sarah’s empty bed, and then the door creaked open. Meg stood there in her polka-dotted pj’s and fuzzy slippers, framed by the light from the hallway.
“What’s going on?” I murmured.
“I don’t know. They won’t tell me.” She flipped on the light.
“God, Meg!” I shielded my eyes. “Turn it off.”
“Sorry.” She flicked the switch and the room went dark.
“Is it Old Mrs. Sawyer again?”
“I don’t know.”
I grabbed the robe hanging off my bedpost and wrapped it around me. The house was chilly, and the cold only added to my exhaustion. I thought about going back to bed, but Meg was still there, staring at me expectantly. Below, our parents’ voices grew louder. A door slammed, and the sirens started up again. I peeked out the window just as the ambulance rushed away.
The street was bright with porch lights. A few neighbors huddled together in front of Mr. Lumpnick’s yard, talking. I scanned the group, looking for Sarah and her best friend, Ellie, but wasn’t surprised when I didn’t find them. Just because I had spent last night moping didn’t mean they hadn’t spent it partying. They were probably passed out somewhere.
Meg peered over my shoulder. “Mom said to come get you.”
I followed Meg down the stairs and thought about the possibilities for that ambulance. Since most of our other neighbors were standing in Mr. Lumpnick’s yard, I decided it had probably come for Old Mrs. Sawyer.
Mattie was wrapped in a blanket on the living-room sofa, sucking her thumb as she watched her Dora the Explorer
DVD. Mom stood a short distance away, in the kitchen, her back visible from the hall. She was talking on the phone. I gave Meg a reassuring smile and said, “It’s okay. See how calm Mom sounds?”
Meg leaned forward to grasp her tone, which was steady enough for such an unexpected morning. “Go on.” I nudged her toward the living room and watched as she curled into the couch, covering her lower legs with part of Mattie’s blanket.
In the kitchen, Mom stood quietly beside the phone, her hand still holding the receiver to the base. There was something about her stance that made my numbness fade. “Everything okay?” I asked.
She turned to me, her skin blotchy from crying.
“Jess.” She came to me, grabbed my shoulders, and pulled me close. She whispered in my ear, “Sarah’s been in an accident, and I have to go meet your dad at the hospital. Okay? But it’s going to be fine. I just don’t want to upset your sisters. So let’s talk quietly for now.”
She stepped back and took my hands. She searched my eyes, offering me a shaky smile, but I saw the tears waiting.
A lump formed in my throat. I imagined Sarah in the role of Old Mrs. Sawyer, slipping in the shower, breaking her collarbone or something, the ambulance rushing her and Dad to the hospital while Mom sat in the kitchen, writing speeches about the perils of underage drinking. And there was little doubt in my mind that my sister and Ellie had been drinking.
“Is she really going to be okay?” I asked, because parents had a way of lying to you so you wouldn’t freak out. I wanted to know the truth. “Seriously, Mom.”
Mom nodded, dropping my hands to push the hair from her face. “We think so. She was still coherent when Tommy found her . . . found . . .” She put a hand to her mouth and looked out the kitchen window that faced Ellie’s house. I followed her gaze. The lights were on there, but the driveway was empty.
“Tommy was there?” Tommy was another kid from the neighborhood. The scenario changed again to include him: Sarah still in the shower, drunk, but now Tommy with Ellie, his hands crawling over her body. “What did Ellie say, exactly?” My voice turned sharp, the suspicion so strong it made my skin tingle. “Is she at home? Can I talk to her real quick before you go?” I wanted answers that I knew only Ellie could give, and I wanted to tell her she was an awful person for misleading me and betraying Sarah. I wanted to tell her that we would never forgive her.
Mom was at the window now.
She sank onto her knees and buried her head in her hands.
“Tommy found them, but he wasn’t there. The accident, Jess . . . it was Ellie, too . . .” She turned to me, tears streaming down her face.
And again the scenarios shifted until finally I understood. I gripped the edge of the table, willing the room to stop spinning, my breath to return.
“It’s not good, Jess,” she said. “Ellie . . . it’s not good.”
The heat clicked on, and a warm burst of air flowed across my calves. The room spun quickly now, flashes of colors that disappeared when I closed my eyes. Every noise in the world was silenced.
Then a small, cold hand slipped into mine. A soft voice whispered my name. I opened my eyes. Mattie stood beside me, her eyes curious but absent of fear.