The Dead of Night,
Monday the 16th, Lunar 3, Luka 16
Near the Fenn Family Home
Quail and Kipley and I headed back to Lumeria on a smaller cruiser, making sure we wouldn’t arrive until long after everyone was asleep and we couldn’t be detected. Despite how much I would’ve liked to talk to my parents in person, I knew they would stop me from coming back, so I had to just leave a note. We parked not too far away, and Quail and Kipley walked with me around the corner from our house. I had them wait there.
My mastery of sneaking out of the house paid off. I was still just as good at sneaking back in, too, using the hidden key from the front yard and knowing exactly where to step to avoid creaking boards. When I opened the front door, however, I did something I usually didn’t. Instead of sprinting right up the stairs to hide back in bed like I’d never been gone, I just stood there in the doorway for a second, closed my eyes, and breathed in.
It smelled so wonderful to me, and I’d never really noticed the scent before. There’s no words to describe home, or that smell, or what made it so unique. It wasn’t anything special. Maybe it was just a touch of Portia and Mom’s perfumes, or the foot stink from the row of shoes by the front door — I don’t know, all I know is that I cherished it. Everything still looked about the same–same furniture, same stack of coats hanging over the couch, pile of Portia’s school books left open on the kitchen table. Someone had left a pair of Duncan’s shorts out to patch; he must have tripped and scuffed his knee again.
I tiptoed upstairs. Everyone’s doors were closed, and the lights were off. Only my door was open, as if it had been waiting for me. I closed it behind me to shield any noise I might make packing.
My room was exactly as I left it when I left almost a week earlier — bed unmade, dress and swimsuit from that last day of school laying on the dresser. I took a seat on my bed, running my fingers over my sheet and comforter. Tears filled my eyes. What I wouldn’t have given to have just stayed there. I thought about it, too, just phoning Legato to say I changed my mind, to find another princess, and to say I’d pay back the rest of the debt myself, and just stay home…but I knew I couldn’t.
It wasn’t even official yet, but my life wasn’t mine anymore.
Beneath my bed was a duffle bag I used for swim meets. It wasn’t huge, but big enough to fit my pillow, sheets, and a few things from my closet. I grabbed a couple knick-knacks, too, a photo of the five of us from my nightstand, and a sand dollar necklace my parents gave me when I was small, one I hadn’t appreciated until now. Some of them were probably too ‘identifying,’ but even if I had to get rid of them, I wanted to keep them for awhile. There were plenty more things I would’ve liked to take, but my bag was full, and I couldn’t risk waking everyone up with a second trip. Taking one last glance around to say goodbye for now, I headed back downstairs, stopping only in the kitchen to leave a note.
Something taped to the fridge caught my eye. There were two letters for Portia, both type-written on some fancy-schmancy letterhead. One was from Lumena University, one of the best universities on our planet. She’d been accepted – a feat accomplished by few, and afforded by even fewer. Taped in front of it, however, was a different letter, one from a smaller, cheaper state college.
My heart dropped, realizing why she must’ve posted them in the order she did. She was going to pick the cheaper option for our family’s sake.
Typical fucking Portia.
I almost started crying again, imagining how ecstatic everyone must’ve been to get that first letter, only for the reality to later hit and for the awkward conversations to begin. She probably pretended it didn’t bother her — that college is college — and that she’d sleep better at night knowing they didn’t bankrupt themselves just so she could go to the bigger, better school down the street, but deep down, she must’ve been devastated.
She wouldn’t have to be for long. I’d take care of that.
A paper pad and pen were on the counter nearby, where we usually left notes to one another. The last on the stack read:
PLEASE PRESS SOME TOFU FOR DINNER – MOM
I tore it off and pocketed it, then wrote my own:
EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY.
It wasn’t a lot, but I didn’t know what else to say, and I didn’t want to keep the others waiting. I made my way back to the door. Just when I was about to open it, the light turned on. I froze, caught in the act, like so many times before.
“Petra?” It was my sister, Portia, in her nightgown, her hair ruffled and sticking up funny from her pillow. “Divine Lords, you’re back!”
I shushed her. “I have to go. I left a note.”
“Where have you been? Mom and Dad are worried sick,” Portia whispered, tip-toeing closer. “And who in the Worlds is paying that bill for you?!”
A weight came off my shoulders, hearing it was, in fact, being paid. “Don’t worry. I promise I’ll be home soon.”
“Divine Lords, you look so… different,” Portia said, eyeing me with a bit of curiosity. “The same but so not at the same time. And your hair…”
I probably didn’t look all that different from when she last saw me. My hair was just barely beginning to grow out again, the scabs and cuts finally healed, and all the little hairs poking through. The last time she’d seen me it was still dubiously long. I was wearing pants, again borrowed from someone else on the ship, ill-fitting, and worn, but even someone else’s clothes helped me carry myself better — closer to who I was meant to be — than anything at home. I didn’t think it would be so obvious, but maybe it was.
“Congrats, by the way,” I whispered, pointing to the fridge. “You weren’t even gonna tell me, were you?”
Portia looked away, sadly. “What’s there to tell? I’ll probably just–”
“Just go,” I said. “We can figure it out later. I can help.”
“Easy for you to say,” Portia whispered. “Do you have any idea–”
I shrugged. “I’m almost done paying off my thing, right? Next I’ll work on your thing.”
Portia let out a quiet gasp, her eyes glistening. She covered her face. “D-do you really…you can’t be serious.”
“I am,” I whispered. “It’s the least I can do… Mom and Dad probably would’ve just had the money to begin with if I wasn’t such a…mess.”
“You’re not a mess! You’re…” Portia shook her head. “Why do you have to leave? Please just stay. Please.”
“Aw, and here I thought you hated my guts,” I said, grinning. “Love you too, Porshy-Worshy.”
“Wait!” Portia said, holding up a finger. She quietly tip-toed into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and ran back with something in hand. “Take this.”
“Your lunchbox?” I asked, until I caught a whiff. “Wait… is that?”
Portia nodded. “Yeah, bubble and squeak. Your favorite, right?”
I bit my bottom lip, trying not to cry, and threw my arms around her. “Why can’t you always be this nice?”
Portia hugged me back, tight. “Just try not to get into too much trouble…or do anything too illegal.”
Pulling away, I was just about to ask her if puking my guts out after drinking a bunch of stolen Corps wine with some space pirates qualified as trouble when I heard something move upstairs. I bolted for the door, and Portia waved at me as I went.
“Be safe,” she whispered. “And come back soon.”
I walked quietly until I was back on the boardwalk, then ran to Kipley and Quail. Both were waiting down by our mailbox.
“Ready?” Quail asked.
“That’s all you took? We came all the way across the galaxy for that?” she asked, looking at my bag. She sniffed. “Hm. At least something smells good.”
I glanced out to the waters, the bay, still and calm at night. It wasn’t the same now, now that I knew what was underneath the water… but there were still some things here that I loved.
ψ ψ ψ
Late that night when we got back to the ship, all the lights were out, and most folks were long since asleep. Snoring radiated down the cabin halls, and though it might have been futile, I walked as quietly as I could back to my room, my pillow slung over my shoulder with the rest of my things shoved in it, except for Portia’s lunchbox. I slid through my door and closed it behind me, waiting for the lights to turn on before I started sitting things down and trying to make the place look a bit more homey.
I was looking away when the door slid open again, sure I must have just somehow gotten something stuck in it until an Ahem startled me so much I flailed, almost falling over.
It was Jane, her hair freshly back in its typical knot style. She was still in the same blue bathrobe, but it looked like it’d been cleaned since this morning. Beneath it she wore a silk nightgown covered in an ornate lace trim, one that accentuated her curves well enough to make me realize that I might’ve been starring a little. It was the kind that back home you wouldn’t see someone parading around in outside of their bedroom.
I glanced away, a little embarrassed. “Feeling better?”
“Getting there. Just woke up to pee, saw your light on.” Jane yawned, stretching her arms back behind her head. She leaned back in the doorframe, holding one foot up against the other side. “You’re awful late. How was Tianjin?”
Memories of the day came rushing back. Isi and her mother. The fate of her father. The baby. What Kipley told me. Her scars. The operations. What I agreed to. Portia, and my family’s home. Being so close but so far away from my parents, and not being able to say goodbye.
I breathed out through a deep sigh, my shoulders slumping a bit. I looked her straight in the eyes. “Every time I think it can’t get worse, it does,” I whispered, shaking my head. “And I get the feeling I’m not even at the tip of the iceberg yet.”
Jane folded her arms across her chest, glancing away. “So Kipley showed you…?”
I nodded. “Believe it or not, that wasn’t even the first thing that made me cry today.”
Jane yawned again. “Need to talk?”
I didn’t, for once, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have kept her up over it. “Nah. I just need to do something about it,” I said, going back to unpacking my things. “I can’t just sit by while all of this is happening. I just can’t.”
When I glanced over, I caught Jane giving me the cheekiest of little wry grins, her hand pressed up beneath her chin. She looked positively devious about something.
“What is it?” I asked.
She looked away, that smile still plastered on her face. “Nothin’.”
“Did I say something funny again?” I blinked. “What now?”
“Err, no,” Jane murmured, still beaming away. The way she tried to hide it made me think she really was making fun of me, but her face didn’t say humor. It was more awe. Joy. Pride, even. “I just get the feeling you’re a very different person than you were a few weeks ago already, Pietro, that’s all.”
“How so?” I asked, but went back to unpacking my bag.
“Just different,” she said, into another yawn. “But I’m going back to bed. Night.”
We waved at each other when she left.
I didn’t feel that different, but if both Jane and Portia saw it, maybe I was. Maybe I was changing–for the better, I hoped.