Rory was still tired when she pried her eyelids open the next morning. The unfamiliar room closed in around her and it took a minute before she remembered where she was. Her back hurt and all of her joints cranked when she stretched. The hard bed hadn’t been the most conducive to a good night’s sleep. Plus, damn time zones had screwed up her internal clock. She felt more tired than she had when she went to bed.
The thin carpet gave little cushion as Rory shuffled down the stairs in her turquoise slippers. The rest of the house was still quiet. Maybe she could cook up a quick breakfast for everyone to start the morning on the right foot. She had seen some eggs in the refrigerator last night and hopefully they were still good. It shouldn’t be too hard to make some omelets. Then maybe Aunt Kathleen could take them grocery shopping later. It would give them a chance to bond with her. Rory started compiling a list of necessities in her head as she pulled the long layers of her hair into a ponytail and got to work on breakfast.
Celeste didn’t look any more rested than Rory when she made her appearance. Her hair was a dirty- blonde tumbleweed and her eyes were bloodshot. She made a beeline to the fresh coffee and pulled in a lungful of the warm scent before going to the table to sip it. She still had on her little flannel shorts and black tank top and shivered when the tops of her thighs hit the cold chair. Rory watched her for just a second. Celeste would never go out in public looking like that, but it was nice to see the young girl Rory remembered make an appearance over the supermodel wannabe. She smiled, despite everything, to see her sister without the mask she showed to everyone else.
Aunt Kathleen came in just as Rory turned off the stove. She looked much more put together. She wore another pant suit, this one navy with a black blouse and royal blue silk scarf. Her hair was curled and pinned back so that the yellow streaks shone in the light. In all honesty, she looked like a flight attendant. Rory wasn’t sure what their aunt did for a living, but she doubted that was it.
“Morning,” Celeste yawned, adding salt to her scrambled eggs.
“Yes, good morning.” The words sounded forced, like their aunt wasn’t used to saying them. She’d lived alone for a while, but that didn’t explain why she would have trouble with such a simple greeting.
“I didn’t know how you like your eggs, so I just scrambled the whole batch. I was thinking that we could go to the store later to get some stuff.”
Aunt Kathleen frowned a bit. “I guess.” She glanced down at the thin gold watch around her wrist. “We’ll have to make this quick, though, because I have a meeting this morning. Let’s go.”
Celeste’s wide eyes looked up, her mouth half full. “But...”
Rory interrupted, “Just finish up and throw something on. You don’t have to look great. We’re just going to the grocery store, CC.”
A small smile touched the corner of her little sister’s lips for the first time in days. It turned bittersweet. “I hate that Mom let you call me that.”
Rory’s answering smile was equally tinged with sadness. She was too young to remember when her sister was born, but she remembered how hard it had been to say Celeste. It had been their father that had suggested the nickname. It was one of the few memories that Rory had of him before he’d left them. The nickname had stuck around long after he had gone. And now, their mother was gone, too.
She cleared her throat and pushed away from the table, dropping her dishes in the sink. She didn’t want to give in to the tears so the best thing to do was move, just like she’d been doing since the cops showed up at their door. Staying busy kept the pain at bay. Rory raced up the stairs to her new room and leaned against the wall. She took in the small space. There was a six-drawer dresser, twin bed with her purple bed set, and a desk, all mismatched. The sliding doors to the closet where she’d shoved her suitcase was closed. It smelled musty, neglected, like no one had bothered to visit since the house had been built. Nothing about this place felt like home and Rory had to fight to stay standing.
“Right,” she muttered shakily, “time to get dressed.”
Most of the clothes she brought with her were more suited for cold weather; everything else was still on the way. She chewed on her full bottom lip before deciding on a pair of black yoga pants and a pale-yellow V-neck sweater. She pulled the elastic from her hair and brushed through the straight strands. When she got to the bathroom to brush her teeth, she saw that it was already strewn with the small collection of makeup their mother had allowed Celeste to have. Rory frowned. Why her little sister needed makeup was beyond her. She piled it at the edge of the sink and finished up her morning routine.
The closest store was half a mile away. Rory memorized the route so that next time they wouldn’t have to wait for Aunt Kathleen. It was an average-sized store and Rory took a minute when she walked in to familiarize herself with the layout. Back in Bend, she knew the Fry’s Foods so well that she could walk right to whatever aisle she needed. Today her goal was to fill the kitchen and get a sense of where each department was. She’d learn the shelves in time.
“So, what do you two even eat?”
Rory and Celeste looked at each other. Rory almost felt sorry that her aunt had become an instant mom, but there had to be at least a small degree of common sense; it’s not like they ate radically differently from anyone else. “We’re not too picky. And I can cook, too, so we can always make something work.”
Celeste rolled her eyes skyward and grabbed a cart. “We’ll go find everything and just meet you at the registers. Rory, divide and conquer?”
Rory grabbed a sanitize wipe and cleaned the handle of her own cart. “Yep. I’ll start to the left. You go right; it looks like produce is over there. We’ll meet up in the middle then come back up front. Any requests, Aunt Kathleen?”
“Yeah, hurry up.” She pulled out her phone and her fingers started flying. The tiny clicks of her keyboard sounded in rapid succession.
Celeste turned her shopping cart quickly, her white sundress dancing around her knees. Rory smashed her lips together to hold back the tart reply on the tip of her tongue and went toward the far end of the store. She was trying to make things easier for her aunt, but it seemed like nothing could please the woman. And if she was honest with herself, Aunt Kathleen kind of made her uncomfortable. Rory couldn’t put her finger on it, but her nerves seemed to be in fight or flight mode around her. Even now she could feel the tension leaving her shoulders the further she got.
She was nearing the halfway point with her full basket when a shiver raced down her back. Her head shot up and she looked around, but there was no one else in the aisle with her. “Get a grip,” she told herself, turning her attention back to the can of spaghetti sauce in her hand. She knew there wasn’t much time before Aunt Kathleen’s patience ran out, so she wanted to be quick. She tossed it in and the can clattered in her basket. She only made it a few steps before that eerie sensation of being watched crept up her spine again. She froze. Something wasn’t right. The air felt thick, heavy, and the world around her seemed to hold its breath.
The shelf to her left creaked and her gaze snapped to it. It wobbled dangerously and like a bad wreck, all she could do was watch as it swayed toward her. Heavy soup and sauce cans started to crash to the floor, reminding her too much of blood as they spilled on the concrete floor. Rory knew she needed to move before she was caught in the middle of the avalanche- how embarrassing would that be, death by can?- but she was completely frozen. Instinct screamed at her to protect herself, so Rory threw her hands up and shielded her head. She could handle bruises along her arms better than a concussion. Hopefully, she could get through this relatively unscathed. Her eyes squeezed shut.
Rory waited for the pain. The clattering made her ears ring and she could feel the liquid soaking into her white sneakers, but she wasn’t getting bombarded by flying canned food.
“Rory!” Celeste screeched.
Rory’s blue eyes opened. People had congregated on both ends of the aisle. They looked stunned and she finally let herself take in her immediate surroundings. Dented cans littered the floor around her, most spilling their contents. It was a miracle that she hadn’t been buried alive by them, but now that she looked at it, a small circle around her had been spared. Everywhere but where she stood was a disaster
Confused, Rory looked up to find her sister and aunt staring with everyone else. Celeste looked worried and someone that looked to be a store manager was making sure she didn’t wade into the mess. Aunt Kathleen, for her part, simply looked calculating.
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