The Truth About Keeping Secrets(8)

Underneath the roses and the picture, of course, were the patient files.

I could have opened the files right there, spilled the contents, turned the endless sheets into wallpaper so everyone could get a look. Maybe Dad had left some freaky cassette tapes behind for me so I could avenge him. Maybe me rifling through the patient files would have distressed Dad so completely, as he watched from the afterlife, that he might have actually been shocked back into existence.

Maybe June Copeland was there.

I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. Ransacking your dead dad’s sock drawer is one thing but his confidential documents seemed another thing entirely. He wouldn’t have wanted me to. I couldn’t do it.

So I just sat there, let the room bring back a flood of memories, and dipped myself in.

The spring after I turned six, a robin had built its nest in the cluster of trees behind our house. Dad was completely elated, paternal, and guarded it vigilantly until the eggs arrived. He’d hoisted me on to his shoulders to get a look; four of them, speckled and cyan, looking impossibly fragile and wonderfully smooth. I’d fantasized about how satisfying they would have felt to hold.

We checked every day to see if they’d hatched, careful not to intrude on the mother, as per Dad’s request. But there was a storm a couple of weeks later. And afterwards, I was back under the canopy hunting for worms to roll between my fingers when I saw them: the eggs had been discarded from the nest and sat in a heap, lodged between the tree’s roots.

I looked around to make sure nobody was watching and picked up an egg, one hand on top of the other, the way I would eventually hold my first communion wafer. It was heavier than I imagined – I only had experience with the plastic, Easter variety of egg – but also smaller than it had looked before, its shape dwarfed by my palm. I turned it over to find a crack running along the length of the shell, wide enough in the centre that you could just about see inside. And I don’t know what possessed me, but suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to know what secrets it held.

I picked at the fracture. The shell chipped away easily, and the being underneath began to take shape: not quite embryo, not quite creature; wet fluff that would never grow, or feel the sun, clinging to sickly, pallid robin skin; a bruised, bloated eyelid; the fleshy beginnings of a beak. Just a blob of vaguely biological matter. It was horrible, and ugly, and I wanted to see more! But the chipping away meant the egg was no longer structurally sound, and it crumbled in my hand. The sharper fragments of shell sliced through the little blob like it was paper. Crimson blood crept from inside it on to me.

Dad had seen it all. He washed away the evidence. Let me cry in his office. There were no accusations; he didn’t scold me. But I wasn’t crying because I was afraid of the repercussions, but because I knew I had held death and that it wouldn’t come off just by washing my hands.

On Sunday, Mom entered my room without knocking and informed me I’d be going to school the next day.

‘Seriously?’ I asked.

‘Mm.’ She perched on the corner of my bed. ‘Having a routine again will be good for you.’

‘Did one of your mom forums tell you that?’ I regretted the taunting question the moment I asked. It was too much.

Mom set down the bottle of water she’d been holding on my nightstand, gentler than the protruding veins in her neck might have suggested she wanted to. I wasn’t really looking, though; I was busy pressing my fingertips into my eyelids until the darkness flexed underneath. This was the tunnel, the one back to normal, and if I could just let go, let it take me, then maybe, maybe …

‘I understand it probably feels early. I do. But you can’t afford to fall behind. Not this year.’ She put a hand on my head – it made me jump – and smoothed back my hair. ‘You still have a whole life to lead. We both do.’

‘I don’t.’ Saying the words gave me goosebumps. I guess I’d been thinking it this whole time but hadn’t actually said it: that I wouldn’t do anything substantial for the rest of my life except feel this way. I was buried too and there was no point pretending otherwise.

Mom sighed, then did that mom thing where she kissed my head and inhaled at the same time. ‘Go take a shower.’

Chapter 3

Olivia and I sat in the commons, waiting for the morning bell to ring, as we always did, and I swore people were staring at me.

They tiptoed round me as if I were a dandelion that had gone white-tipped and any misjudged breath could blow me to smithereens. They were scared of me, I assumed: a bad omen with legs, contagious bereavement. And the staring. God. I’d worked to cultivate the image I’d had since freshman year. All I wanted to be was a girl who kept her head down, but nothing I did would be enough to conceal the body chained to my ankle.

Maybe I was being paranoid, which meant I was also being egotistical. Anyone who’s paranoid has to be, a little bit, to think that you matter enough for anyone to care about you, or gossip about you, or sneak looks at you. But even though I’d recently felt crushed by the weight of my own unimportance, I couldn’t help but think that, after two long weeks without me, the leeches of Pleasant Hills High couldn’t get enough of my blood.

I leaned in across the table to Olivia, speaking quietly but loud enough to be heard over the low roar of conversation. ‘You’re noticing, right?’

A crumb of muffin tumbled from her lip to the ground. Something about it grossed me out. ‘Noticing what?’

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