Pretend She's Here(6)

I stopped short, swallowing my breath. It sounded like Lizzie. Had her ghost come to help me? But no. There, sitting on the side of a steep hill, was Chloe.

“You have to come back with me,” she said in a low voice. “Back to the van.”

“I won’t,” I said. “I’m going home.”

“They won’t let you.”

“Don’t tell them,” I whispered. “Just let me go.”

“I can’t,” she said, her voice breaking, as if she felt sorry.

I stared at her—she was just Lizzie’s little sister, she wasn’t going to stop me—and took off in a blazing sprint, as if I was racing the fifty-yard dash. I heard her shout, “Mom, Dad, over here!”

That didn’t matter. I was on my way, up the hill, feinting around boulders and trees. Chloe was the least athletic person I knew. Lizzie and I used to encourage her, work with her to up her game so she wouldn’t embarrass herself on the field. I wasn’t exactly sporty, but theater can be pretty physical, so I stayed in shape.

I scrambled up the ledge, hoping there wasn’t a cliff in my future, and there wasn’t—just another stretch of pine trees with a row of house lights beyond the ridge. My salvation: Someone there would call 911 and this nightmare would be history.

“Yes!” I said. I put on the speed, and with all that adrenaline, I missed the narrow crevice.

My foot got caught in the rock. I tried to put out my arms to catch my balance, brace my fall, but my hands were still snagged behind my back. I went down hard, my ankle twisting so violently, I cried in pain. My head smacked the ground.

I would have kept going. I would have crawled to those houses, I swear. But I saw purple sparkles behind my eyelids and everything went black.


The next thing I knew, I was in someone’s arms, being carried like a baby toward the van, shoved into the back seat, buckled up.

“Her head’s bleeding,” Chloe said. “We have to take her to a hospital!”

“We’ll be home in half an hour; we’re almost there,” Mrs. Porter said. I realized that she was now in the back seat beside me, Chloe up front. My head throbbed, but my ankle hurt even worse.

The Porters, like my family, always had a first-aid kit in their car. Mrs. Porter clicked the plastic box open.

I felt her hands on my left temple, dabbing at a very sore spot with a piece of gauze. Then I smelled alcohol and felt the sting. She was cleaning the wound. I remembered that she was a nurse. When Lizzie and I were little, Mrs. Porter had worked at our school. Then she got another job, working privately for people who were sick at home. She said it was better because she had more time for Lizzie and Chloe.

“Okay, ten minutes to the exit,” Mr. Porter said.

“Got it,” Mrs. Porter said, carefully taping a bandage to my head.

“Give it to her,” Mr. Porter said.

“Not with a head injury,” Mrs. Porter said.

“You want to get caught?” he asked sharply.

“No,” she said after a few seconds.

“If we hadn’t stopped for that bathroom break, we’d have gotten through the toll and been home safe by now,” he said. “Just do it, Ginnie!”

I heard her rummaging in the kit. A bottle clinked. I turned my head, saw her lift a small vial in front of her face, insert a syringe into the rubber cap to withdraw liquid, and lightly pump the plunger so a tiny clear stream squirted into the air.

“Please,” I said.

“It won’t hurt, Lizzie,” Mrs. Porter said, her voice soft and soothing.

“I’m Emily,” I said.

“You’re my sweetie,” she said. She reached behind me to roll up my sleeve. She swabbed my upper arm with alcohol. I felt the needle prick, then a slow ache in my bicep. Almost instantly, I felt light-headed. I could taste the bitter drug in my mouth. The pain in my head and ankle dulled.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked. The medication made me feel so trapped and helpless that tears filled my eyes, splashed onto my cheeks.

“Shhh,” she said.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked, a sob bubbling up. “Mrs. Porter, I want my family.”

“We are your family, sweetie,” she said. She reached into a canvas bag, pulled out a black wig. She gently eased it onto my head, tucking my long, reddish-blond hair under the snug cap. I tossed my head, trying to shake it off.

I heard the van’s turn signal, and we veered right, leaving the highway. This was the exit Mr. Porter had mentioned. Up ahead I saw a brightly lit small building in the middle of the road. A tollbooth, twenty yards ahead! The sign on top said MAINE TURNPIKE. There was a man in the booth. Mr. Porter slowed down. He lowered his window, held out his arm, the ticket in his hand. Chloe slouched down in the seat, looking out the opposite window.

I fought the drug. I forced myself to stay alert. Mrs. Porter propped me up, an arm behind my back.

“Help,” I said. “Help me.”

My tongue felt thick. The words came out garbled, so I said them again, louder. “Help me!”

The toll collector was right there, so close, I saw his mustache, his bald head, the Maine Turnpike Authority patch on his shoulder. I heard a radio playing. He was listening to a football game.

“Please,” I said. “They’re not my family.”

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