Famous Last Words(6)

By: Katie Alender



It was … a monstrosity.

It was a backpack, but instead of being made out of regular backpack material — I don’t know, canvas? — it was tan leather, printed with small interlocking G’s. It had a huge green-and-red-striped patch down the pocket, and a giant gold G logo.

“It’s Gucci,” Jonathan said, in the same self-satisfied tone of voice he’d used to brag about the door.

“Gucci,” I said. “Fancy.”

“It’s beautiful.” My mother reached out and touched it with the tips of her fingers, like it was a prize racehorse.

“There’s more.” Jonathan grinned at me and wrapped his arm around Mom’s waist. “Look inside.”

As I drew the zipper pull smoothly along its path (okay, the zipper was excellent quality, I’ll give him that), I was already cringing inwardly at the prospect of what I’d find inside. I pictured a hideous blinged-out watch or a designer fedora or something.

But it was a computer. A beautiful, brushed-metal, razor-thin laptop.

“I thought you could use it for school,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said. “I’m sure it’ll be really useful.” There was no point acting like this was the greatest gift anyone could have ever given me, because I knew enough about my new stepfather to know that spending fifteen hundred dollars on a computer was no big deal to him.

“Jonathan, you shouldn’t have,” Mom said. “Willa has a laptop.”

“That rickety old one she was using on the plane? The screen’s practically falling off.”

But my dad gave it to me, I didn’t say. My dad, who knew I was desperate for a computer of my own. My dad, who brought his old work laptop home for me when they were upgrading him to a new one. The night he gave it to me there had been joyous squealing and hugs and jumping up and down.

That was nothing like this night.

Jonathan was buying me nice things to keep the peace and make himself feel better about uprooting me. Not that it wasn’t a perfectly kind gesture, but make no mistake — this wasn’t about what I wanted.

Which was fine, because I didn’t want anything.

Nothing money could buy, anyway.



I woke with a start in the middle of the night.

The clock read 3:23, and I had a headache that felt like two sharp electrified sticks were trying to meet in the center of my head. Under my multiple layers of blankets, I was drenched in sweat.

I sat up and pushed off the covers. The room was too bright. I’d forgotten to close my curtains before falling asleep, and the ceiling was awash with rippling moonlight reflected off the surface of the pool outside. But that wasn’t it. There was another source of light….

The candle, flickering away on my nightstand.

Don’t be ridiculous. The candle can’t be lit.

But the candle was totally lit.

I searched for an explanation. Maybe Mom had come in and lit it…. You know, the way every safety-obsessed mother lights candles around the house in the middle of the night. Maybe it was one of those novelty candles that relights itself. Except it was the third one from a three-pack, and neither of the others had ever done anything like this….

Or there had been a trace of a spark burning on it all evening, and then it had gradually reignited itself.

That had to be it. Because any other explanation would be crazy.

And I was so not going to go crazy right now.

But I was unnerved, and a little wired. I wandered to the window, my head suddenly full of the Hollywood Killer and my lame new backpack and the earthquake and everything strange about my life now. The strangest thing, by far, being that I was here, in California. Everything I’d ever known was carrying on without me, three thousand miles away, on a completely different part of the continent.

I realized I was staring longingly down at the pool.

I love to swim. Even after what happened with Dad, I still love it. I feel more like myself in the water. It holds you together in a way that air doesn’t.

I found my swimsuit in a box marked SUMMER CLOTHES and grabbed a fluffy towel from the bathroom. I twisted my long hair up into a bun and secured it with two bobby pins.

There was no way Mom and Jonathan would hear me from across the massive house, so I didn’t bother to be particularly quiet as I found my way outside through the doors off the living room.

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