I lay in bed, staring up through the darkness. Crumbly, popcorn-ceiling tiles stared back, echoing my emotionless gaze. I realized dimly that I should be sleeping, but I just couldn't seem to close my eyes. I had to work in the morning. It was going to be my first day back, and I needed the money now, more than ever.
Barely a week ago, I had found myself flung from the comfortable life I knew, hurled into the night with nothing but the clothes on my back and my 15 year old sister. It had started like any other night. I crawled home from my painfully arbitrary part-time job at the mall, wearily sat down to another dinner at the family dinner table. I remember complaining about being sick of everything my mother made for dinner. How the span of one night can change things. I would kill to taste her cooking just one more time.
I slunk off to bed far too early that night. I thought I might get some reading done, but I felt too apathetic to read, so I simply allowed myself to drift off. I don't even think I said goodnight to my father.
When I woke initially, I thought it was because I had caught a chill. Sleeping in a basement bedroom meant that I usually woke up freezing at some point in the night. To my horror, I realized that I had awoken to a haze of smoke drifting lazily down the stairs, and just beginning to curl into my room proper. An eerie red glow flickered from the top of the stairwell, and I was suddenly aware of a great creaking and groaning as the house above me was slowly consumed. Grabbing my blanket, I scrambled through the window above my bed and made a break for the street. Surely my family would be waiting for me there.
I stood in the street, solitary and alert, all my nerves spinning and firing. Where were they? Flames were shooting out a second-story window. My father's office. My sister's bedroom was pouring smoke. Sirens were wailing in the distance, but I wanted to tell them, shut up, it's too late. I had torn a hole in the knee of my acid-wash jeans. Why do I remember that? I was panicked, but paralyzed. Rooted in the street with legs like lead. Why hadn't the smoke alarms gone off? Didn't daddy test them, just like you're supposed to?
It was at that moment that my sister came riding up the street, mouth agape. As she pulled up alongside me, I turned dumbly to her. I stared at her uncomprehendingly.
"Where's mom?" She asked.
I was seized simultaneously with the urge to both throttle her and smother her in the tightest embrace I could. She had snuck out that night to smoke cigarettes at the corner 7-11 with her friends. My sister, whom I assumed was a charred wreck along with the rest of my life, was now standing next to me, fishing her lighter from her pocket. I was incredulous.
"Where do you think?" I mumbled, numbly.
It was at that moment that the fire trucks rounded the corner. Amidst the swirling lights, I swore I saw something akin to camera flash come from some place not far down the street, but my mind was beginning to collapse on itself, and things started to get hazy. I remember throwing a corner of my blanket around my sister's shoulders, and we stood there together, uncomprehending, as the roof caved in, and with it, any chance of returning to our safe, normal life.
Once the paperwork was processed and the smoldering wreck of our lives had been rendered an inert pile of ash, the question became what to do with the orphan sisters? I, as I have said, am 25, an adult, albeit a waste of one. But my sister was still a minor. We had no relations in California, just ourselves and each other, and I realized, sickeningly, that just as the fire had deprived me of my parents, the department of social services could easily deprive me of my sister. Fortunately, the caseworker decided to give me the benefit of the doubt. I would have one week's grace period, and then a month to find us a stable place to live. In the meantime, we were shunted off to the nearest facility that could hold us; a small hostel run by the Challenger's Boys and Girls club.
At 25, I would easily be the oldest and most responsible tenant in a collective of runaways, homeless teens, and recovering gang members. At 15, my sister would be impressionable, grieving, and angry. And I was overcome with the most powerful desire to shield her from it all. So here I was, at the end of my week, realizing that it was no more effective in dulling my pain than raindrops can dull a razor, knowing that tomorrow, I would have to get up and leave her to her own devices.
Phoenix Jackson had hated her job before the fire. And now that she needed it, needed every cent she could scrape, she loathed it. To add insult to injury, the donated clothing from the Challenger's Center had not quite stood up to her employer's brand-centric dress code, and she found herself grudgingly handing over the money she would have used for lunch in order to slide into a nicer pair of jeans.
"All this to fold clothes for eight hours?" She sighed, fidgeting with her long red hair. Her thoughts drifted as she dug into a pile of sweaters left in shambles by the 14-year-old delinquents now loitering just outside the door. She moved mechanically, flipping one sleeve in, then the second, smoothed out the creases, and stacked them back in a pile. Her thoughts were drifting to Robin, her sister. The fire had come just before spring break, and Robin still had three days before returning to school. It was agony for Phoenix to think of leaving her sister alone at the Challenger's club all day.
Not that Phoenix thought for an instant that Robin would actually stay indoors all day. No, Robin usually escaped on her bike, to freedom, her friends, and the questionable distractions of the life of a high-school girl. Still… Phoenix knew that her sister wasn't the typical high-school kid The Breakfast Club would have had you believe. She had friends, but not a best-friend. Lots of kids liked her, but she was quiet. She didn't have a boyfriend. Phoenix wondered how she would cope without having someone close to talk to .
Phoenix herself was somewhat of a loner. She didn't have a lot of friends left in L.A. Most of them had gone off after college, to bigger and better things. A strange mix of pride and shame kept Phoenix pushing them away, ignoring their letters. She, though, wasn't worried about coping on her own. She was too familiar with the feeling.
By the time her eight hours had passed, Phoenix was exhausted. She slunk to the bus stop, dropped her quarters into the basket, and started the journey home.
To say that I was astonished at what I found upon returning to the Challenger's Center would be an understatement. I expected to find my sister just loping up the drive, same as myself, her trusty bike in tow. I expected her to be hastily stashing her cigarettes in the pocket of her denim jacket, hoping the staff wouldn't notice she'd been smoking. She knew better than to hide them from me, I had always known about her questionable habits. I… I'm not sure entirely what I had expected, I suppose, but it surely was not what I found.
I dumped out the contents of my pockets on the creaky bed in my room, then hastily shut the door and made my way down the hall to where Robin had been put up. Robin was sharing a room with two other girls, so I knocked. It was silent for a moment, and I thought perhaps that the three of them were all out somewhere, not unusual considering the time of day and the weather. But then the door handle clicked, and the door swung open, and my heart felt that heavy lurch that only happens when the hand of fate is steering and you're just along for the ride.
The man on the other side of the door was not tall. In fact, I could look him almost square in the eye. His hair was a little long, but carefully arranged, and his eyes were dark, strangely dark and hollow, and at the moment, they wore an expression equally as astonished as my own.
"You're the sister, I presume?" I noted when he spoke, he held his whole face with a peculiar sort of control, all the while those strange eyes smoldering. His whole being radiated an air of something completely, overwhelmingly uncontrollable, wrapped in a gauze of inhibition.
"You're… not from around here." I said lamely. "Who are you?"
"Look, I'd love to keep playing the 'let's-not-answer-each-other's questions' game, but…"
"I said come in." The words held dangerous weight, but his face had been arranged in something resembling imploring. He stepped aside as I entered Robin's room, and I took a seat on the edge of the bed. Robin looked at me, a little guiltily.
"You mad at me?" She asked quietly.
"Not yet." I said, forcing a smile.
"You were gone all day, I needed someone to talk to."
The stranger in the doorway wheeled around, pulling one of the rickety looking chairs from against the wall, and seating himself, appraising the two of us. At length, he held out his hand to me. I took it, expecting a handshake.
Instead, he raised it to those strange, tense lips, and kissed my knuckles, like some sort of medieval heroine.
"It is a pleasure. Your sister speaks very kindly of you." He said, releasing my hand. I withdrew quickly, unaccustomed.
"My name is Murdoc, and it seems I've stumbled into your lives at the most inopportune of moments." His carefully metered speech betrayed some sort of higher-class, and he was dressed well, if not a little shabbily.
He went on to tell me that he had sat with my sister for the better part of the day, while she poured out all the horror of our past week, letting it spill into his life, and positively sweeping him away. I listened to him as he began weaving some tale of how he once had a family of his own, a lovely, redheaded wife, he said, looking at me so strangely with those dark eyes. A redheaded wife, and a beautiful daughter, who had barely turned 12 when it happened. They were missionaries, he said, in some unpronounceable country in the far East. The convent they had been staying at had been burned to the ground by Communists, and with it, his beautiful, redheaded wife, and his daughter, and his life. As he continued on, I was dimly aware of my sister fishing through her pockets for a tissue. I, on the other hand, was not crying. I was attempting to arrange my face into something resembling empathy, but I was registering nothing. He was lying, I could see it in those empty eyes.
Eventually, however, he took his leave of us, disappearing down the hall with a strange, affected fluidity, liquid and feline, but with a tiny hitch. An artifact from barely making it out of Asia alive, he said. I turned to my sister.
"You won't chase him off?" She asked me, still rumpling a tissue in her hands. I sighed.
"I don't trust him, Robin."
"You don't trust anyone." She murmured. "He's not going to hurt me, he was here all day with me, and all we did was talk."
"It's not you I'm worried about." I said, cryptically. I didn't give her the chance to ask more.
"We'll be late for dinner. Come on."