It was warmer than Rory expected when she stepped out of the airport. It had already started snowing back home in Oregon, but here, she was practically sweating in her gray peacoat and knit scarf. The humidity trapped in the pickup tunnel didn’t help. She sighed as she unwound the scarf from her neck, stuffing it into her blue carry-on bag. The jacket came off next, which she kept draped over her arm. She stepped up to the curb and glanced at the line of waiting cars, ready to relax after traveling all day.
“Where’s Aunt Kathleen?” Celeste’s melodic voice demanded. Rory glanced sideways at her younger sister and frowned. Celeste’s dark jeans hugged her long legs and the sleeveless white peplum top overly-accentuated her chest. Her short blonde hair fell in easy waves around her face, which was half-covered by a pair of oversized sunglasses. She looked like she’d just stepped out of a fashion magazine, despite being only fourteen. Rory could just imagine the lecture their mother would give Celeste for trying to grow up so fast. It was always a hot topic that ended with their mother pulling out Celeste’s baby photos and lamenting lost time.
Rory quickly shut down all thoughts of her mom. It had only been a week since the accident that had left her and Celeste alone; the pain was still too raw. Getting ready for this move to New Orleans had been enough to occupy her mind for the last few days, but now...
She bit back the sudden wave of tears and focused on Celeste’s question. “I’m not sure. I told her that our plane was landing at six, so she should be here. Do you want to call her? My phone’s at the bottom of my bag.”
Celeste’s dark blue eyes narrowed infinitesimally, and Rory had to fight back her own eye roll. Celeste was turning into a surly teenager, and all the changes in their lives weren’t helping things. But it’s not like Rory was inconveniencing her; her cell had been glued to her hand since the plane had touched down twenty minutes ago. With another petulant look, Celeste’s fingers flew over the screen before she brought it up to her ear.
“She didn’t answer.”
“She’s probably driving. She should be here soon.”
Soon, it turned out was thirty-five minutes and two more unsuccessful calls later. Rory had been considering the safety of a cab when the pale pink VW bug pulled up to the curb. Rory eyed it, and then their suitcases. The trunk might be able to fit hers, but no way would it hold all of Celeste’s luggage. She groaned. A cab might have been better.
“Well? Let’s go,” Aunt Kathleen snapped impatiently, as if she’d been the one waiting.
Celeste glared at the tiny car and its driver. Rory tugged the handle on her bag and wheeled it up to the trunk before her sister could say anything to Aunt Kathleen. They weren’t close with their aunt, but she was the only family they had left, so Rory wanted to make sure that everyone played nice, especially if they were going to be with her for a while.
Rory did most of the work and it took the better part of five minutes to fit everything in. Most of Celeste’s bags took up the back seat, which Rory took. The wheels of one of Celeste’s bags dug into Rory’s side, but she ignored it as the bright pink bug finally pulled out of the airport. She stared out the window and watched the scenery go by. Extravagant cemeteries and church spires dotted the landscape and the Superdome loomed in the distance. Rory had expected swamps and brick buildings with wrought iron balconies, but it looked like any other city as they drove along the freeway.
A shiver raced down her spine. Something about the place had knots forming in Rory’s stomach, an uncomfortable sense of anxiety. Maybe it was just that she was new to town. She’d get over that nervous feeling in her gut soon enough. She swallowed back the feeling of dread and watched more of the city fly by her window for the remainder of the tense car ride.
The house that Aunt Kathleen pulled into was small and almost rundown. Most of the surrounding houses looked to be in various stages of disrepair. The lot across the street was overgrown with tall weeds, probably empty since Katrina. Rory knew that some neighborhoods and never recovered, and while that made her sad, she wouldn’t have pictured her aunt living in this kind of area. Her hunter green pant suit and perfectly coiffed chestnut hair screamed money, but her home didn’t reflect that.
“Your rooms are going to be upstairs. Get everything out of my car and then I have to go.”
Rory climbed from the cramped back seat and stretched. “Okay, thanks Aunt Kathleen. How long do you think you’ll be gone?”
Aunt Kathleen raised her brows, the already high arches almost disappearing into her hairline. “I don’t know, whenever I get back.”
Celeste shoved her thick blonde hair, a couple of shades darker than Rory’s golden tresses, away from her shoulder. “So that’s it?”
Aunt Kathleen narrowed her hazel eyes and made an impatient noise in the back of her throat. She leaned onto the roof of the bug and crossed her arms. “What else do you two want?”
A tension headache started to pound in Rory’s temples. She pressed her fingertips to her forehead in an attempt to ward it off, but she knew it was useless. The headaches had been getting more frequent since her mom’s accident and only sleep would get rid of it. Unpack first and then she could nap.
“We’ll unload right now and put things away while you’re gone. I’ll make something for dinner tonight. Do you want us to save you some?”
Aunt Kathleen’s thin, pink lips puckered. “Just do whatever you want. I’ll see you later, or something.”
Rory furrowed her brows. Aunt Kathleen had always been distant with them, bur Rory had thought her sister’s death would have softened her up a bit. Dismayed, she turned back to the tiny car and started pulling out bags. Her sister huffed before doing the same.
Celeste growled and plopped into a chair an hour later. Rory looked up from the pantry. Celeste glowered at the wall with her arms crossed over her chest and her mouth pulled into a pout. “This sucks, Rory. That room is so damn small none of my stuff even fits. And there’s nowhere in the bathroom for my makeup. How am I going to get ready in the mornings?”
The tension headache that had faded while Rory chose a room and started to unpack was back in full force. She didn’t disagree with Celeste, but she was trying to make the most of what they had to work with. She’d spent the last hour trying to put laundry away and make the cold, dreary room more welcoming. It needed some paint to make the gray-tinged walls cheery, and some air freshener would help get rid of the musty smell. But still, it didn’t feel like it would ever be home. “I know. It’s going to take some getting used to.”
Celeste exploded out of the chair. It squealed across the tile and crashed into the wall behind her. “Take some getting used to? Rory, our mom just died. Our lives were uprooted, and Aunt Kathleen doesn’t even care enough to be here. How will we get used to that?”
The headache spread down to the base of Rory’s skull. No, Aunt Kathleen didn’t seem to care. She hadn’t even cared enough to go to the funeral. Rory and Celeste hadn’t seen their aunt often growing up, but she and their mother had always seemed like such opposites. It was hard for Rory to understand how their mom, a happy, vibrant, loving woman could be sisters with such a cold, dismissive hag. And now they were stuck with her. Tears burned the backs of her eyes and her throat felt like it was closing. She couldn’t breathe. “I don’t know,” she managed to croak, “but we have to.”
Celeste sniffled and wiped under her eyes, catching any tears before they could fall. Rory pulled her sister into her arms and Celeste collapsed into her. A shuddering breath shook her shoulders and Rory could feel the tears seeping into her shirt. “It’s not fair, Rory! It’s not fair.”
It was close to midnight and Rory couldn’t sleep. A spring from the ancient mattress dug into her side. She tossed over, the bed squeaking in protest. The creaking of the house and hum of the water heater played a symphony in the darkness. She was exhausted from traveling, but Celeste’s words still rang out in her mind to keep her awake. It’s not fair. No, it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that some stupid drunk driver had plowed right through her mom. It wasn’t fair that she’d died, sprawled out in that crosswalk. It wasn’t fair that she was gone, and that Rory and Celeste were left alone. None of it was fair. But since when had life ever been fair?
Tears sprang unbidden into her bright blue eyes. She had tried so hard to be strong, but memories of her mom and of saying goodbye made her break down. Her mother had been her lifeline in the chaos of her life, her compass to navigate any issues, her source for advice and unconditional love. And now she was gone. Silent sobs wracked her body until she could barely breathe. All she could do was wait for sleep to overtake her and hope that her dreams were more peaceful than her waking moments.