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THE taxi dropped Airi off just one house over from her own, something she always did just to allow herself a little time to prepare for going home. Five days out of the week she lived in a dorm—well, a small apartment—and going home took some adjustment. Sometimes it was absolutely wonderful and other times it was awful.
She walked slowly, counting her steps. Breathing. In and out. She was able to quiet her mind and not look at the patterns around her. Counting was obnoxious, but she had to give her mind something to occupy it or chaos reigned.
Wind teased her face. Once. Twice. Like the feeling of fingers brushing lightly but persistently over her skin to get her attention. She promised herself she wouldn’t look, but she couldn’t stop the compulsion. She glanced up at the clouds above her head. They swirled around, seemingly at random, but her mind pieced those puzzles together. Click. Click. The patterns fell into place and left her gasping. Sick. She pressed a hand to her stomach and shook her head, refusing to believe what she saw.
She was normal. Not at all like her mother. She wasn’t being eaten alive from the inside, her mind slowly turning in on itself. She refused to believe that could happen. Patterns in the clouds, or a lake or even on the walls of their home were figments of her imagination and nothing else. She wanted to believe that, but her body didn’t, and it took effort to force one foot in front of the other to proceed up the walkway to her home.
Music blared. Sounds poured out of the windows and through every crack. Loud, brass, a cacophony of noise that shook the panes and filled her mind until she was afraid it would bleed. Her footsteps slowed. Music that loud meant bad things. Very bad things. Her mother’s mind, like hers, refused to quiet sometimes and when counting or any of the other tricks didn’t work, she resorted to drinking to self-medicate. And when Marina was drinking . . .
Letting out her breath, Airiana reluctantly opened the front door. The music blasted her in the face, nearly pushing her back out of the house.
“For God’s sake, Airi, make your mom turn that off. It’s been going on for hours now,” Wanda, their neighbor, called. “I pounded on the door but she didn’t answer—as usual.” She paused, her expression turning compassionate. “Come over later if you want. I’ll have dinner. You can take some to your mother.”
Even the neighbors knew about Marina’s drinking. How could they not? The music was atrocious, and more often than not, Airi slept outside where it was safe. Sometimes, when her mother’s drinking was really bad, she had to take knives away from her to prevent her from doing harm to herself. Those were the worst times. She was careful never to tell anyone, especially where she lived and went to school. They would take her away from her mother if they knew just how bad it had gotten at home.
“Thanks, Wanda. I’ll probably take you up on that.” She liked Wanda. The woman didn’t have a mean bone in her body and she was particularly good to Airi and Marina. Although nearly seventeen, Airi still looked twelve. Her young looks might have contributed to Wanda’s compassion, but whatever the reason, Airi was glad Wanda was close by. She had moved into the neighborhood about four years earlier and Airi was grateful she had. She was a friend when times were particularly bad—one she could confide in when things were really awful and she needed someone safe to talk to.
Taking a deep breath, her stomach lurching, Airi walked into the living room. In spite of the music, the feel of the house was still and ominous, as if she’d just walked onto a horror set. She had taken four steps inside when the odor hit. Blood. Lots of it.
“Mom,” she whispered softly, her hand going to her throat. Her blood roared a warning in her ears. She didn’t want to move, wanted to stay frozen in time right there, no going back and no going forward. Just not move and nothing would be wrong. Her mother had threatened to kill herself many times, when she was drunk, but Airiana hadn’t believed she’d really do it.
The house creaked. The music blared. Her heart slammed a terrible rhythm of dread in her chest. She tried not to breathe in the coppery scent. She absently waved a hand toward the player, and the music abruptly ceased. Air circulated, but it didn’t relieve that appalling, frightening odor.
Pressing her lips together, she forced herself to walk into the kitchen. Dark coffee swirled in another pattern across the cheerful blue and white tiles, looking like a river of mud. Broken pieces of her mother’s favorite mug lay scattered like white islands through the dark spill. A drawer, wide open, tipped precariously downward and a chair lay overturned beside the kitchen table. Her mother was a neat freak. She would never, under any circumstances, have left such a disaster behind, not even if she was very drunk—or suicidal. Airi’s heart pounded harder than ever.
“Mom,” she called again, this time a little louder. Pain edged her voice. Fear. It was a child’s voice seeking reassurance, when lately she’d often had to be the adult.
There was no answer. She shook her head and forced her feet to move one step at a time down the hallway toward her mother’s bedroom. She pushed open the door slowly. It was empty and as perfectly pristine as her mother always kept it. The duvet was white lace, along with the abundance of pillows and shams. Marina loved white, that pure background that soothed her mind and allowed her to rest.
Airi leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. The scent of blood was overpowering now. Much stronger in the hallway. When she turned her head just slightly, she could see a thin line of red leaking out from under the door of her bedroom. Her body, of its own volition, turned away from the sight, a full flight response, but her feet remained frozen in place. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t leave.