“I’m not a teenager, Mom,” I said, as gently as I could.
“No, you’re not.” Her eyes hardened. “You’re six years old. I shouldn’t let you go. You’re too young for this.”
“Legally, I’m an adult.”
“Only because we never expected you to try something like this. We shouldn’t have stopped with the custodianship. We should have had you declared medically incompetent.”
Now it was my turn to react like I’d been slapped. My eyes widened. “You don’t mean that. You’ve always encouraged me to rebuild my life. To figure out who I was going to be now—”
“You’re not my daughter.” The words were calm, almost clinical. That made them even worse. “My daughter never woke up. She hit that bus, and she died, and you moved into her body. You’re a stranger. My Sally was a wild girl, and she was careless sometimes, but she would never do anything like this to me. She was a good girl.”
“Mom,” I whispered.
“Don’t you even care that your sister is sick? That she might die, and now I find out you did know more than you were telling us—you two, you’d gone off and put your heads together and figured out a way to test for this horrible virus, and you didn’t come home and tell us immediately. Maybe we could have found out sooner. Maybe she’d have a better chance. Did you even think of that?”
“I… you… you wouldn’t talk to me,” I stammered, floored. Of all the reactions I’d expected, this immediate, weeping offensive wasn’t among them. “I couldn’t tell you anything, because none of you would talk to me. You acted like I’d done something wrong. How was I supposed to tell you, when you wouldn’t talk to me?”
“Your sister could die!” she suddenly shouted.
Something inside me snapped. The sound of drums rose in my ears, distant and reassuring, as I said, “You can’t have it both ways, Mom. You can’t say I’m not your daughter just because I don’t remember growing up in this house, and then tell me my sister could die. If I’m not your daughter, Joyce isn’t my sister, and why should I care about her being sick? But I do care, because she is my sister, and that means I am your daughter. You’re being hurtful and mean because you’re scared. And that’s why I’m leaving. I have enough to be afraid of that I don’t need my family adding to the list. I’ve told Dad everything we know that might help them keep Joyce from getting all the way sick. I’ve been a good sister to her, even if you’re not being a very good mother to me. Now I’m going to go and get my things from my room, and get Beverly’s leash, and then Nathan and I are going to go, and you’re not going to stop us. I’m done being here.”
“Sally…” Her face fell like she’d just realized what she was saying. “Sally, I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I didn’t mean to…”
“Yes, you did. You wouldn’t have said those things if you didn’t mean to. But that’s okay, because you’re scared. At the shelter, they taught me that scared animals are the most likely to bite, and you shouldn’t blame them for it. They don’t know any better. You know what else they taught me?”
Mom didn’t say anything. She just shook her head, eyes wide and brimming with unshed tears.
“They taught me that once an animal starts biting, it’s time to take my hand away from them.” I squared my shoulders with as much dignity as I could muster, and turned to Nathan. “Will you get Beverly’s food and dishes, please?”
Nathan gave a very small nod. He clearly understood what I was trying to do.
If I hadn’t already loved him, I think that moment would have been when I fell for him. “Thank you,” I said, and walked down the hall to my room.
My bedroom was half decorated in things I’d acquired for myself since waking up in the hospital and half decorated in old things of Sally’s that I’d never been able to bring myself to get rid of. Not because they held some deep emotional importance to me—they didn’t, no matter how much I sometimes wished that they did—but because they were so important to my parents, and to Joyce. What was just an old brown hand puppet to me was Mousie to them, the stuffed animal that had been beloved to Sally until she was in middle school. Old papers I didn’t see the point of keeping were her few certificates for class participation or sportsmanship. I’d been renting space in her room, and with every piece of clothing I stuffed into my suitcase, I felt a little lighter.
Sally was gone. I’d been living with her ghost for six years. Now I was finally leaving, and I was leaving the haunted house to her. I hated to hurt my—our—parents, but I wasn’t sorry to be getting away from the girl I was never going to be.
I stripped, leaving the clothes I’d worn to USAMRIID scattered around the floor, along with whatever listening devices they’d contained. I even left my messenger bag, replacing it with an old backpack from the closet. I didn’t trust anything anymore.
After that, it only took a few minutes to pack up everything that I wanted to take with me. Some clothing, a spare pair of shoes, a few extra notebooks, the terrarium with my plants, and my computer: that was everything that actually mattered to me. The rest of it was Sally’s, and she was welcome to keep it as far as I was concerned. I turned off the light and closed the bedroom door, looking at it for a moment before pushing my hand gently against the wood.