Ice crusts my brain, my heart, my veins, squeezing so tight I can’t breathe, I can’t think, I can’t…be. I can’t see. There’s nothing but dark and cold, frost in the wind. I can feel it through the ice inside me, but I can’t break free.
A burst of cold and everything slows, stops…ends.
No beat, no breath, no being.
My eyes snap open, wide and panicked, my hair slick with sweat. A dream. I shudder. Just a dream, but I don’t dream. I can’t even remember the last time I did. Always good to start back with a bang, though, isn’t it? I choke on a laugh and unwind the sheets from my hands, finger by finger. Everything under me is wet with sweat and I wrinkle my nose, turning to the passenger side of my bed in anticipation of Rachel’s glaring brown eyes over her half-cocked elbow. “Sorry I woke—”
I blink at the empty pillow, the pristinely made bed. “Ray?”
No answer, but I know she slept here last night. Bathroom? Breakfast?
I bite my lip, staring blankly out the window and listening for sounds, any sounds, from the rest of the house. It’s light out, but there’s nothing—no smell of bacon or bagels, no singing from the kitchen, no frantic footsteps as Ainsley runs from one side of the house to the other, no cursing as Dad trips again over one of the toys left scattered in her wake. No, there wouldn’t be that anyway. It’s Papa’s day today. Dad’s still at work, or sleeping.
I blink, finally seeing what it is I’ve been staring at out the window. I didn’t notice the sky before, only the light coming in through the open curtains, but not…the sky is wrong. It’s not blue, or even gray and clouded. No, the only clouds are bare streaks of white in the distance, and the sky is the purple of last night’s bruises.
I stand up and throw on the long t-shirt—one of my dads’ old ones—and black yoga pants crumpled on the floor beside the bed, and I take a step forward, then two, then I stumble and clutch at the window sill, sprawling half out a window I don’t remember leaving open and staring down at lank grass, brown and crusted with ice. Not frost, but actual ice. It’s September in southern California and there’s ice on the ground. The fence is gone, vanished like it never was, leaving the woods behind it naked to my eyes. I can see mist writhing through the trees, so thick that I can’t see anything about ten feet in.
I stumble back and take off running through the house, popping open every door I pass. “Li-Li,” I choke out, shoving my head into her room. Everything is gone like she doesn’t even live here anymore. The twin bed is stripped bare to the mattress, no toys on the floor, no drawings taped to the wall. Even Goodnight Moon, which always sits on the nightstand lest a bedtime panic rise up to terrorize the house, is missing, and the lamp along with it.
“Papa? Ray?” I scramble down the hall, but Daddy and Papa’s room is just as empty, save for one blank picture frame hanging crookedly beside the bed. Ray’s still here somewhere. She has to be. She can’t drive, and Papa wouldn’t take her home. There’s no one there. And Ainsley…is it a school day?
No, it’s Saturday.
“Papa?” I’m yelling now. “Where the hell is everyone?” I’m in the living room, but there’s nothing here. No couch, no television, not even logs in the fire place. Empty counters in the kitchen and only streaks of dirt on the floor where the refrigerator sat yesterday. I yank open the front door and throw myself out into the yard, but the neighbors’ houses don’t look any better. There are no cars, no bikes, no little red wagons or abandoned baseballs lying in the grass. The windows are dark and empty, and the sidewalks are choked with weeds. They’re everywhere, even growing up through cracks in the street’s faded asphalt.
“Okay,” I mutter, biting my lip again. “Okay, don’t panic. Go back inside. It isn’t what it looks like. Just go inside.”
Icy wind slices across my face and I shiver, stepping inside and closing the door softly behind me. I lean against it with my eyes closed, breathing and listening for a sound, any sound in the silence but there’s nothing. Phone. I need a phone, but it’s gone too.
I crack my eyes open and I see it now, in its place on the counter. I missed it before when I was walking by. I dial Dad’s extension at the hospital, but it rings and rings and no one answers. Same with his cellphone…doesn’t even go to voice mail. Papa’s either. Aunt Leah. Ray. Ray’s parents. In desperation I dial 9-1-1, but even they don’t answer and the short, clipped rings match the breaths I’m struggling to take.
“Okay,” I say for what I think might be the thousandth time, heading for my bedroom again. I’m dreaming still. I have to be, like I’m making up for the past fourteen years of life with almost no dreams, or at least none that I can remember. If I lie down on my bed and close my eyes again, it’ll be an actual morning. Ray will be glaring at me for waking her up early on a Saturday. Ainsley will be standing on her tiptoes on the step stool in the bathroom, brushing her teeth, probably with my toothbrush, and Papa will be in the kitchen, cooking and singing off-key as loud as humanly possible.
I glare at the bed and head straight for the closet, yanking down the baskets of rarely used winter clothes and pulling out pale yellow sweatpants and a red hoodie, grabbing a t-shirt that actually fits from a drawer right in front of me.
I yank on the clothes and a pair of sneakers, then head for the front door again. Screw lying around waiting to wake up. Even in a dream I refuse to do nothing while sister, my fathers and my best friend are missing. I press my forehead against the front door for a second or ten, feeling the cool wood against my skin, and then, yanking my hood up over my bare inch of kinky hair, I open the door and step outside again.