Pretend She's Here(12)

“No!” I said, sliced with horror. I jumped up, and pain shot through my ankle. “Mrs. Porter!”

“I don’t want to hear you call me that again,” she said.

“Take it back,” I begged. “Say you didn’t mean it! Please!”

“But I do,” she said. “I hope you never find out how deeply I do mean it. Do you want to test me?”

I couldn’t speak. How could this be Lizzie’s mom, the woman I’d felt so close to for so long? I shook, unable to believe this was happening.

“You would never do this, Mrs. Porter,” I said. “I know you—this isn’t you!”

“I don’t want to do it,” she said, her voice cracking. “But you don’t know what it’s been like—her seat at the table empty. Her bed unslept in. You can’t imagine how much I want to hold her, get her back … There is nothing worse, Emily!”

There—she’d used my real name. We were back in reality, and my whole body shaking, I gave her a hug. I rested my head on her shoulder, remembering the old kindness and warmth between us.

“That’s right, I’m Emily,” I said.

She pushed me away, shook her head violently.

“I need you to be Lizzie. I’ve thought this through. People will think it was an accident. That you disappeared, and your mother started drinking again and fell. Hit her head. It’s so easy to do when you’re unsteady—you should know, it happened to you, on the hillside. And who would blame your mother for going back to the bottle? Her youngest daughter runs away.”

“I would never do that again.”

“She doesn’t know that. Not for sure, not after last time. She has no clue where you are.” She paused. “But it doesn’t really matter. Whether you left on your own or some other way, you’re gone. At first, that will be painful. And it will be worse if you force me to hurt her. Murder her.”

“Don’t say that!”

“I’ll do it without thinking twice.” She sounded resolute, and even though I couldn’t believe it, I knew she meant it.

I closed my eyes and saw my mother’s face. The look in her blue eyes was pure anguish—an imprint of the last time I’d seen her. Why had I fought with her? Why had the last words I’d said to her been see you never?

“Do you understand the situation now?” Mrs. Porter asked. “How serious I am?”

“Yes,” I whispered.

“Then let me see you eat the soup I made you. Made you with love. A sip at least.” She dipped the spoon into the soup, lifted it to my mouth. “Eat the soup so I won’t hurt your mother,” she said.

I opened my mouth and tried not to gag while she fed me like a baby.

“Another,” she said.

“I can do it myself,” I said, taking the spoon from her. I ate until half the soup was gone.

“There,” she said. “Now, one more thing. The most important.”


“Are you sure you understand that I mean what I say? That if I have to, I will go to Black Hall and do what needs to be done?”

“Yes,” I said, terrified.

“Then say it. Let me hear you. Call me by the right name. If only you knew how much I need this.”

I knew what she meant, but I couldn’t open my mouth.

“What is my name?” she asked, a hard edge in her voice.

All I could think of was putting a shield between her and my family, the people I adored. It was one word. A single syllable. I thought of it as saving them from being hurt, my mother from being killed.

“Mom,” I whispered, feeling sick.

Mrs. Porter hugged me.

That night, my mind raced and my eyes felt zapped by a thousand tiny electric wires. Lying awake, staring at the ceiling, I realized that they’d been drugging my food before. That had to explain the deep sleeps.

Now, because I had called Mrs. Porter “Mom,” they must have felt they didn’t have to control me that way anymore.

I used to lose sleep over three things: homework, the play I was writing, and boys. Namely, Dan Jenkins. I would obsess over him, and when I got to school, I’d tell Lizzie everything I’d been thinking about. But right now I was too scared to even think of Dan, and Lizzie wasn’t here to tell anyway.

Now my eyelids were glued open because of what Mrs. Porter said she would do to my mother. I veered back and forth between refusing to believe she really would and remembering the sharp tone in her voice when she’d said the word murder. Besides, I had never imagined she could ever do this: take me, lock me in a dungeon. So maybe she was capable of other terrible things.

Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. The cinder block room felt so claustrophobic I thought I would pass out. I nearly wished for the drugs so I could sleep through this horror, but I didn’t really. I needed my head to be clear so I could escape, or at least hear the voices when people came to rescue me.

I wanted my cell phone so badly, I felt crazed. I imagined texting my brothers and sisters. And Jordan and Alicia: I thought of how I had turned my back on them that last day at school. What would have happened if I’d gone with them? My fingers clenched hard, and my whole body ached with the desire for my phone.

I was having a panic attack. I clawed the blankets off me, jumped out of bed. I turned on the light and walked around and around the room, my hands on the walls, feeling for any opening, a way out. Was this how a tiger, newly captured from the wild and thrown into a zoo, felt? I wanted to roar.

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