Family Ties: mysterious summer morning

The deep cupboard was still empty, despite Tamy staring into it. She stepped back and sighed at the other cupboards above the counter. Surely their mother had cereal somewhere.

The tile prickled coldly against her feet, so she hopped onto the counter. But then that was cold against her feet too, so she jumped back down. She opened all the cupboard doors, just because, and sat on the kitchen island to inspect all of the contents together. It puzzled her. Like, for example, why did they have three different saltshakers? And why was the knife set hiding behind the flour bin? And where was the stinkin’ cereal?

Stairs creaked, and Tamy ducked under the counter, heart hammering, and then felt ridiculous. Mrs. Aterak’s reflex training must have finally gotten to her after a year.

“Tamy?” Tara’s voice floated from near the front door. “You down here?”

“Yeah,” Tamy stood up. “I was…um,” she opened the cupboard by her foot. “Looking for cereal.”

Tara stretched her upper body across the counter, peering down into the cupboard. She glanced at Tamy quizzically. “With the muffin tins?”

Tamy shrugged. “Everywhere. I can’t find any cereal.”

Tara stretched past her. “It’s empty!” she exclaimed, peering into said empty cupboard.

“I know,” Tamy bent down and riffled through clattering muffin tins and metal pots. “What do we do?”

“I can’t not have cereal!” Tara exclaimed, elasticking the rest of herself across the island. Tamy took the chance to set her armful of kitchenware there. She bent back down, even though she already knew, logically, there weren’t any cereal boxes hiding behind the gallon pot.

“What is going on?”

Tamy froze, halfway kneeling.

“Hi mom,” Tara said. “We were…looking for the cereal.”

Legs walked around the edge of the island, slippers scuffing the tile. “We don’t have cereal,” she said slowly. “Tamy, what are you doing in there?”

Tamy glanced up. “Looking for cereal?”

Their mother stared. “In–in there?”

Tamy shrugged. “It wasn’t anywhere else.”

Their mother rubbed both cheeks, muttering. Tamy was pretty sure she caught “just one day” and frowned. “Tell you what,” their mother finally said. “I will run to the store this afternoon and get cereal just for you. But please, make sure you tell me what you want first.”

Tamy sighed as their mother walked away. Tara sighed too. “This afternoon?”

“I’m not waiting until this afternoon,” Tamy stood up, and slowly began putting the pots back.

“I miss the cafeteria,” Tara said.

“Me too.”

***

Tamy picked at her piece of toast, glancing over at Tara. Who was also picking at her toast. “Where do you think Alex went?” Tamy asked.

“Shush!” Tara hissed, tilting her head at the stairs. “No one knows she’s here, remember?”

Tamy pressed her lips together and nodded. “I knew that,” she whispered back.

It had seemed odd that when they’d woken up, Alex was nowhere in sight. The three of them had slept on the rug last night, since even Alex agreed the bed was too soft to be comfortable. Tamy had woken up several times in the dark, terribly out of place in that bedroom, but she wasn’t quite sure when Alex had left. She had no memory of peering over and not finding two silhouettes curled under the blankets.

Tamy took another bite of bland toast. Then slurped her milk. It just wasn’t the same as cereal.

“Did they already go to school?” Tara asked.

Tamy shrugged. “Do they have school? It’s the middle of summer.”

“Oh yeah,” Tara glanced at the sink, then back at her toast. “I don’t think I’m hungry.”

Tamy drained the last of her milk. “It’s only for two weeks, right?”

Tara sighed, and stood up from the counter. Tamy absently prodded her plate back and forth as Tara dumped her toast in the trash and grandly poured her milk glass into the sink. How late did Quinn and Nick usually sleep in?

“I’m going to shower,” Tara announced.

Tamy stood, chair squealing. “I’m going to see if Nick’s awake.”

Tara paused in the archway, turning to her. “Check on Quinn first.”

Tamy stared at her, puzzled. “Why?”

“If he’s not awake, you can talk to Nick more…directly.” Tara’s gaze slid away and then she darted towards the stairs.

“What’s that mean?” Tamy called after her. Tara didn’t answer. Tamy sighed, but dumped her toast in the near-empty trash. “I just wanted to see if he was awake,” she muttered.

***

Tamy twisted Quinn’s door handle slowly, wincing as it rattled. It clicked open softly, so she pushed it open just enough to peer inside. Quinn was a lump under the covers, breathing softly. Tamy slowly eased the door shut again. She exhaled in relief, then ran back down the steps. A door opened behind her and she jumped, legs leaping from the steps, skipping approximately half the stairs. Her feet thudded on the carpet.

“Tamy!” Tara exclaimed. “Did you–what was that?”

Tamy spun around. “Tara, I thought you were Quinn.”

Tara glanced at Quinn’s door, then whispered, “Sorry! Was he asleep?”

Tamy nodded, and strained to hear. A car buzzed somewhere outside. Some steps creaked. “I don’t think that woke him,” she whispered.

Tara slowly nodded, clutching a change of clothes to her stomach. She ran down the stairs, skipping three at a time. “Sorry,” she repeated.

“It’s fine,” Tamy tried not to rub her stinging feet together. “Just hurry up and shower. I hate espionage.”

Tara rolled her eyes, and led the way down the hall. She slid into the bathroom, which left Tamy standing alone, studying the way her hands’ shadows moved across the walls and Nick’s doorway. She took a deep breath and stepped inside, staring up in confusion at the glowing stars stuck all over the ceiling. Since when had Nick put up glowing stars in his room?

Something snapped, and she glanced down. “Oops,” she muttered, kneeling in front of a broken…wood sculpture thing. Nick was apparently into abstract art as well as glow in the dark stars. She glanced over at the bed. Nick still had his eyes closed, but she was pretty sure he was frowning. “Nick?” she spoke softly. She set the snapped wood object aside and tiptoed to his bed. “Nick? Are you awake?”

“I’m still sleeping,” Nick said.

Tamy smiled. “Oh, now I can tell. It’s because your eyes are still closed.”

“Yeah,” he nodded.

Tamy sat on the bed rail. “I accidentally stepped on your…thing,” she said, grimacing.

“I know,” he said.

“I could try and fix it–”

“It’s okay,” he said.

Tamy twisted to face him. His eyes were still closed, except now he was faintly smiling. “Are you sure? Did you build that?”

He nodded, making the sheets rustle.

Tamy prodded it with her toe. “I’m sorry I stepped on it,” she repeated.

“Okay,” he said, pulling the covers over his face.

Tamy scooted closer to the corner of the bed. She hesitated, then slipped onto the blankets bunched at the base of the mattress. “Remember yesterday, when I asked you who Alex was?”

Nick nodded.

“Well, I was wondering if she was…” she trailed off, thinking. “Nick, you know how I’m super strong, and Tara’s really flexible and stretchy?” She rushed on, not waiting for Nick to reply. “Well, did you ever see Alex do something…weird?”

Nick didn’t say anything. Tamy finally turned to face him. He was staring at her. “She talked to you, didn’t she?” he said softly.

Tamy’s mouth flopped open. “Uhhh…” she said. The door creaked, and she spun around. “Tara!” she exclaimed. “Hi!”

Tara eyebrows furrowed, gaze flicking between the two of them. “Hey Tamy. I, um, Nick, do you know where the soap is? Or the towels?”

“No,” Nick said.

“I’ll come with you!” Tamy hopped from the bed, leaving it bouncing. She narrowly avoided stepping on the wood sculpture thing again and practically stumbled into Tara’s arms. Tara opened her mouth but Tamy pushed her into the hall first, pulling Nick’s door closed.

“What is going on?” Tara asked.

Tamy pushed her sister back into the bathroom. She glanced at Nick’s door again. “Tara, he asked if Alex had talked to us.” She bent closer and hissed, “he knows too much.”

Tara dragged the door shut, cornering Tamy by the sink. “What did you tell him?”

Tamy squeezed free, plopping onto the toilet lid. “All I did was ask if he thought Alex might be like us. You know, doing weird stuff.”

Tara pursed her lips. “Are you sure?”

Tamy nodded vigorously. “I walked in, and accidentally stepped on something, and then I asked if he was awake, and then I asked if he’d ever seen Alex do any weird stuff. I promise, that’s all that happened.”

Tara opened the cupboard under the sink. Then she walked to the shower, disappearing behind the leafy curtain.

“Tara?”

“I don’t know where the soap is,” she said. “And the only towels in here smell used.”

Tamy wrinkled her nose. The only towels were directly across from her, and they were usually a pale blue. One single shade of pale blue. Or, the last time they were here the towels in this room had been pale blue. “When was the last time mom washed them?”

Tara reappeared, holding a dusty bottle of shampoo. “Am I supposed to wash my hair with this?”

Tamy shrugged. “Who uses this bathroom?”

“Not Mother, clearly,” Tara muttered, disappearing again inside the tub.

“Anyway, what do we do about Nick? He thinks we talked to Alex. And we did!”

“I’m still thinking,” Tara muttered. “Why would he think we’ve talked to Alex? She wasn’t supposed to be here at all, right?”

Tamy stared at the ceiling, trying to remember. “Did anyone actually say that? Or are we just assuming that, since we’re staying in her room, she’s not supposed to be around?”

The curtain rustled. “How about you go ask him when Alex is supposed to get back.”

“Why don’t you do it?”

Tara’s face rose above the curtain, staring down at her. “Because I’m still looking for soap.”

Tamy stood up. “You’re standing in the shower. I don’t think you’re going to find anything in there you haven’t found yet.”

“Okay, fine,” Tara’s face disappeared. “I’ll go look in Mom’s bathroom.”

Tamy harrumphed, but walked to the door and yanked it open.

“Eep–” their mother, still in her bathrobe and slippers, stumbled into Tamy’s arms. By reflex, Tamy pushed her away, halfway tossing her into the opposite wall. She thumped loudly.

Tamy froze. “Mom, I’m sorry–I didn’t know you were–what were you doing outside the bathroom–I mean, sorry–

Her mom grimaced and rubbed her elbows. “I haven’t hit my funny bone in a long time,” then she grinned. “I heard you two mentioning soap. I have some extra in my room, and there are towels in the closet. I’ll go get them for you.”

Tamy gaped as her mother strolled down the hall.

“Okay, what just happened?” Tara whispered.

Tamy quickly slid the door shut again. “I just threw our mother into a wall. And then she offered to get us soap. You don’t think I broke anything, right?”

Tara shook her head. “The wall wasn’t even dented.”

Tamy sighed. “I just freaked. All the martial arts, the weapons, the Mad Murder Mayhem…what was she doing at the door?”

Tara leaned closer and whispered, “do you think she heard what we said about Alex?”

Tamy’s eyes grew wide. “I hope not.” She hesitated, then added, “but possibly.”

***

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