At the beginning of a street in a run-down neighborhood, there’s a blue house with an oak tree in the front. I used to live in that house with my sister.
I was four and Izzy was ten when our dad died from a heart defect. Our mom became a quiet alcoholic after that. I say “quiet” because she never drank a sip in public. She kept it hidden at home.
Izzy was only six years older than me, but when I was young she took care of me. She brushed my hair, did my laundry, and every day before the sun rose, made lunch for each of us and packed it into paper bags.
The year Izzy turned thirteen, Mom promised her she could have a birthday party. The week leading up to it, Izzy reminded Mom each day to get pink streamers and yellow balloons and a chocolate birthday cake. She had tried chocolate cake at a friend’s party once and had loved it ever since. I remember Izzy carefully decorating sheets of spiral-bound notebook paper with a purple marker, her tongue sticking out slightly as she concentrated on each loop of every letter. She used those as her party invitations.
Finally, her birthday arrived. Izzy woke me up earlier than usual that day and led me into the bathroom, humming happily the whole way there. I wished her a happy birthday and yawned as water splashed into the tub. She washed me using a star-shaped sponge and soap that smelled like cough syrup. Then she wrapped me in a towel and guided me onto the step-stool in front of the sink, where she tied my hair into a ponytail with a pink bow. She smiled excitedly at me in the grimy mirror and told me all about her friends and how she couldn’t wait for me to meet them. I smiled too, thinking about all the board games we would play and all the cake we would eat.
After we’d dressed, Izzy and I went into the kitchen where Mom was drinking a cup of coffee out of a blue mug. The sunflower Izzy had planted days earlier in the window was now lifeless, its petals sagging. Mom watched us enter the room with baggy eyes.
“Mom, do you have the streamers and balloons? I want to start decorating,” Izzy asked.
Mom shut her eyes and sighed, turning her back to us. “I’ll get them when I pick up the cake today.”
I glanced up at Izzy, whose smile was slowly being replaced by a worried expression. “Well…when are you going?”
“I’ll go when I go!” Mom snapped, turning back to glare at us. She slammed the mug down in the kitchen sink, and it burst into shards. One piece flew into Izzy’s arm, cutting her. She winced slightly at the pain but didn’t move; instead, she looked down at the floor where the shard lay untouched.
Mom grabbed her car keys, threw open the garage door, and slammed it behind her. We stood without talking and listened to her start the car. Izzy wrapped her hand around my own as we heard the car back out of the garage. I looked up at her, and she bit her lip. The house was very still for a few moments before Izzy smiled down at me, Mona-Lisa style. This was the kind of smile I was used to getting from her.
“Let’s get ready for the party,” she said.
We spent the next three hours getting the den ready for her party. Izzy vacuumed and filled bowls with potato chips and popcorn, and I put her favorite board games and movies on the coffee table. She dusted the silver frame of Mom and Dad kissing in front of a snowy mountain, their cheeks and noses red from the cold. Izzy lingered there for a moment, staring at that picture while I pulled the white lace curtains back from the windows and sunlight poured into the room. Then, before we knew it, the doorbell was ringing.
One by one, all five of Izzy’s friends arrived at the house. A group of giggly girls in dresses, all in honor of Izzy’s birthday. Izzy introduced them to me and then we all piled into the den. For a little while, Izzy and her friends gossiped while a romantic comedy played on the TV. Then we all settled into a few rounds of Clue. I was too young to really play, so I sat snuggled into Izzy’s side as she played with her friends. Izzy laughed and laughed, genuinely happy, and she seemed to have forgotten the missing streamers and balloons. The fact that we were almost out of party food didn’t seem to faze her either.
Just as Izzy was about to roll the dice again, the door to the den burst open and there was Mom. Her short frizzy hair was especially wild and her eyes were wide and glossy as she looked at all of us.
“I think it’s time,” she said slowly, each word slightly slurred, “that you all went home.”
Izzy quickly got to her feet and said in a trembling voice, “But we haven’t had cake yet, Mom. Can we please just have some cake before they have to go?”
“And Izzy hasn’t opened her presents,” one girl spoke up in a confused voice.
“There is no cake. They closed early today so I couldn’t get it.”
Izzy’s friends exchanged puzzled looks with each other. I picked at a hangnail on my finger and then bit on it. Izzy stared at Mom, her face unreadable.
Mom sighed loudly and walked closer to us, but on her way over she lost her footing and tripped over a lamp cord. She fell face-first into the carpet and a few of Izzy’s guests screamed while others laughed.
“I’m fine girls, no need to panic!” Mom shouted as she lifted her head. She grinned perversely, and now she was close enough for me to smell the liquor on her breath.
Izzy rushed over and helped Mom get off the floor. By now they were the exact same height so it wasn’t difficult anymore for Izzy to put Mom’s arm around her shoulder and guide her out of the den.
The girls each told me goodbye, whispering to each other and giggling nervously as they gathered their things and left our house. After I closed the door behind the last girl, I walked down the hallway to Mom’s room where Izzy was tucking her into bed.
I stood in a slight crack in the doorway, peering into the room. Mom had been looking up at Izzy, but when Izzy started to make her way to the door Mom’s eyes followed her until they found me.
“Babydoll,” Mom called out in a sing-song voice. “Babydoll, come here.”
Izzy shook her head at me fiercely, denying Mom’s request even though I hadn’t moved closer. She ushered me back into the hallway and closed Mom’s door.
That night, Izzy and I built a pillow fort in the small pink room we shared. This was the way we slept most nights, safely guarded under our canopy of pillows. We always made up stories about happy families with parents and grandparents and kids who didn’t know anything else. Our imaginations didn’t long for dragons or princesses or pirates—we dreamed only of normalcy.
“When we get older, we’re gonna run away,” Izzy whispered to me at some point that night, her big green eyes shining with excitement.
“Do you promise?” I whispered back.
Izzy pulled me in for a hug and squeezed me tight. “I promise. I will never lie to you, Ava. I will never be like Mom.”
I never forgot that childhood promise, not even when Izzy hit puberty and met a boy she claimed she was in love with. I believed our plan would happen one day, even as Izzy stopped whispering her dreams across the pink room at night. No matter what happened, Izzy would never give up on me. I just knew it.
* * *
I discovered Izzy’s secret one day while I was reading her diary.
Izzy and Kyle met during their first year of high school, and slowly over the years Izzy stopped telling me things. By the time I was eleven, I had begun sneaking a peek at her diary everyday while she was at her part-time job. It was the closest connection I had to my otherwise silent sister and former best friend.
Even though she wrote about what she was going to do, the exact time and date wasn’t there. So I had to guess. I got lucky in the end, because the day she ran away, Kyle came over in his big white SUV to pick her up for what they said was a date to the movies. I knew better though. Izzy had been acting oddly sweet and clingy the whole day, offering to help me do homework and asking repeatedly if we could sit on the couch and watch TV together.
When the doorbell rang, Izzy glanced at the front door anxiously. “Kyle’s here. I guess it’s time to go!”
“Have fun,” I murmured as I kept my eyes on the TV, trying not to give away that I knew too much.
Izzy practically danced to the front door, she was so happy. She grinned when she opened the door to reveal Kyle standing there in his baggy jeans and collared shirt, his SUV rumbling behind him on the street. He picked her up and twirled her, and they both giggled like children. I watched them with what I hoped was a neutral expression.
When Kyle put her down, Izzy opened the closet door to grab her ballet flats. “Can you go get my purse? It’s in the den,” Izzy asked him.
Kyle disappeared down the hall, and we watched him go together in silence. He practically tiptoed past Mom’s open door, where she was most likely sleeping open-mouthed with a bottle of vodka on her nightstand and nothing but the glow of a television screen to keep her company.
“I think I’m going to go to bed early,” I said suddenly, careful not to meet my sister’s eyes.
Izzy tucked a brown curl behind one ear and glanced at the rose-gold watch Kyle had given to her. “But it’s only six-thirty, Ava.”
“I’m just really tired,” I lied.
Without another word, Izzy pulled me in for a hug. She squeezed me tight like she did when we were younger. “I love you.”
“I love you,” I whispered.
I walked to our room slowly, trying to look casual. As I walked, I traced my hand along the wall, feeling for the cracks that had deepened over the years. Once inside my room, I hurriedly closed the door and locked it. I knelt beside my bed and grabbed the small backpack I had stashed underneath. Then I pressed my ear to the door, waiting for Izzy to join Kyle in the den. Once she did, I ran to my front window, edged it open just enough to slip outside, and then made a dash for Kyle’s car. The sky was a mixture of pinks, oranges and reds as I shut myself in the car and lay flat across the floor along the second row of seats. I held my backpack close to my chest and waited.
Five minutes later, Kyle and Izzy opened the trunk and put her duffel bag inside.
“Oh my god, I can’t believe it!” Izzy squealed right before they shut the trunk. A second later, I heard two car doors open and then close as they each got inside.
“We’re doing it! We’re finally doing it!” I heard Izzy say at the sound of two seatbelts snapping into place.
“I’m so happy I get to save you,” Kyle replied in a cheesy voice. I rolled my eyes as a loud smacking sound filled the small space while they kissed.
“What’s wrong, baby?” Kyle asked after a minute.
“I just feel bad about Ava,” Izzy said in a soft voice.
Kyle sighed. “It’s time you started putting yourself first.”
I closed my eyes as Kyle started the engine. As we drove farther and farther from the blue house I’d known all my life, leaving behind our hollow drunken mother, I wondered why Izzy was running away a week before her eighteenth birthday. At eighteen she wouldn’t have had to be so secretive about her plans. But then I realized that if she had waited she would have had to face me.
* * *
Kyle and Izzy took turns driving every two hours and they stopped after five hours to use the Arizona state rest stop. Izzy’s diary said that the idea was to drive to Kyle’s aunt’s abandoned vacation home in California and live there until they’d saved up enough for a place of their own.
When I finally reached a point where I could no longer hold my bladder, I decided it was time to reveal myself. I picked myself off the floor slowly, stretching my arms, back, and legs as I climbed up onto the seat.
“Baby, can you do me a favor and grab a water from the cooler?” Kyle asked Izzy as I leaned my head back on the seat. I could see now that we were driving along a mostly empty highway, and the sky was dark with a sprinkling of stars. There were no trees in sight—just flat and endless dead grass.
Izzy turned around in her seat and immediately our eyes met. Her eyes widened and her face scrunched up in horror. “Ava!”
Kyle looked at Izzy, then followed her gaze and saw me. “Fuck!” he shouted as he almost swerved off the road.
“What the hell are you doing here?!” Izzy shouted at me, enraged.
Kyle pulled over to the side of the road and cut the ignition, and then they were both twisted in their seats, staring at me.
I sat in silence for a moment, my eyes never leaving Izzy’s. She was breathing heavily, and her face flushed as her green eyes filled with rage.
“You promised me,” I said slowly, trying to keep my voice steady, “that we would run away together one day.”
Izzy opened her mouth to speak, but I quickly spoke over her.
“You said you would never lie to me like Mom,” I continued. “And then here you are, running away with Kyle.” I shifted my gaze to Kyle, who was suddenly looking at the floor in shame, and then looked back at my sister. “And lying to me about it.”
Izzy was now shaking her head. “You have no idea how many sacrifices I made for you growing up,” she said through her teeth. “Couldn’t you just let me have this one thing?”
My eyes widened in disbelief. “The one thing you want is to leave me to rot with Mom?” I could feel the anger melting away and being replaced by something I didn’t want to face just yet.
Izzy pressed her palms to her face and sighed. “God, Ava, I don’t know what to do now…”
Kyle shrugged from where he sat. He was facing the road again, reading something from his phone. “Why don’t we just go to a motel and sleep on it? I see here that there’s one like five miles away.”
Izzy nodded, slowly peeling her hands away from her face. “Okay, that’s a good idea.” She motioned for me to come to the row of seats directly behind her. “You might as well sit closer.”
The Sunrise Motel was nothing like a sunrise. I think of sunrises as being warm and inviting because they start the day. This place looked cold and bleak and seemed to attract most of its visitors at the end of the day. There was only one lamp post, and its bulb flickered wildly at us.
We were given a key for Room 16. The room had peeling floral wallpaper and a musky odor when we first walked inside. There was no TV—just a bed, desk, and couch. Izzy told me that she and I would get the bed, and Kyle would sleep on the couch.
I changed into the yellow pajamas I had packed while they changed in the bedroom. When I came out of the bathroom, Kyle was already lying on his back on the couch, and Izzy was facing him on her side of the bed, her head propped up on her hand while she whispered. The whispering stopped abruptly when I climbed into bed beside her and reached to turn off the lamp.
“Goodnight, Izabel,” Kyle whispered. Izzy leaned over to kiss him and then shifted on her side of the bed, getting comfortable.
I stared at the floral wallpaper in the darkness, my eyes adjusting to the fine details of the intertwining petals. I don’t know how long I stared at those flowers before Izzy nudged my toe with hers.
“Are you awake, Ava?” she whispered to me.
“Yes,” I whispered back.
Izzy was quiet for a moment. “Ava, I’m not mad at you anymore.”
“Well I’m still mad at you,” I replied stubbornly as I folded my arms.
“I didn’t think I could take you with me. You’re so young, and—”
“Stop lying to me.” I turned around in bed to face my sister and shot her a challenging look.
Izzy’s eyes never strayed from mine, but they did soften. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was running away. I remembered the promise. I was just being selfish. But one day when you love someone, you’ll understand.”
“I do love someone. I love my sister.”
Izzy’s face stretched into a tiny smile at the sound of that. “I love you too, Babydoll.”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t call me that.”
“Dad used to call you Babydoll,” Izzy said suddenly. Izzy had hardly spoken of our dad growing up. I listened intently and slowed my breathing, afraid this moment would disappear if I even blinked. “I remember he used to sing lullabies to you in that old rocking chair that’s in the attic. When you were old enough to sit on his lap, he’d have both of us sit with him in that chair and he’d read us ghost stories.”
I laughed quietly. “Ghost stories?”
“Yeah, he had a thing for horror.” Izzy laughed with me. “No wonder I don’t like scary movies, huh? He scared me to death as a kid!”
“And for some reason, I love them!” My body shook with the heavy laughter I was trying to conceal. Izzy’s body shook too, and we both pressed our faces into our pillows.
After we’d calmed ourselves, Izzy whispered to me, “We’re going to Santa Barbara. Kyle says the people there are laid-back like hippies, and the water’s bright blue and the sand is so smooth. It’s gorgeous.” She paused. “I think it will be a good place to start a new life.”
Izzy and I smiled at each other, and I realized this was the longest conversation we’d had since before she met Kyle. I put one arm around her and half-hugged her in the bed. “I can’t wait!”
Izzy pulled away, smiled at me again, and then turned on her side to face Kyle’s couch.
* * *
I woke up to the sound of a car engine rumbling outside the motel room. I squinted in the suddenly bright room, and stretched my arms above my head before sitting up. It was then that I realized I was alone.
My first instinct was to check the bathroom. Throwing the door open, I discovered it as neat as it had been when we’d found it. I pulled back the shower curtain to reveal an empty shower. There were no toothbrushes on the counter. I glanced back into the bedroom. No duffel bags, either— just my backpack. Even Izzy’s purse was gone.
I could still hear the car rumbling outside, and it filled me with hope.
It’s Izzy. It has to be. She wouldn’t leave me here! I thought.
I raced to the door and pushed it open. I ran outside in my bare feet, ignoring the pain as my feet hit sharp rocks.
The parking lot was bare. The rumbling belonged to a small blue car parked by my door. An elderly lady with pink-rimmed glasses sat inside, fiddling with the radio.
I ran back into the room. I fumbled inside my backpack with trembling fingers, and pulled out my cell phone. I swiped on my sister’s name and put the phone to my ear. The phone rang twice before an automated voice told me the number was disconnected, meaning my sister had changed her number.
I frantically searched for Kyle’s number in my phone. I pressed the phone to my ear and waited. The same automated voice came on the line. I wondered briefly if they had changed their numbers before or after deserting me at the Sunrise Motel.
I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. I breathed in, and then I breathed out. In, out. In, out. After a few moments, I opened my eyes. It was then that I noticed something on the desk.
I walked closer to the desk and realized there was a torn piece of newspaper on it, with a message written in thick black marker. In Izzy’s loopy cursive handwriting, it said: “I’m sorry but I need to do this without you. I love you.” Beside the slip of newspaper were two crisp one-hundred-dollar-bills.
I took a seat on the bed and scrolled through my contacts. I stared at three little letters on my screen – M O M – for a long time.
Finally with a shaky breath, I called her.
The phone rang four times before she answered. “H-hello?” Mom said in a groggy voice.
“Mom-” I started, but my voice broke on the first word. I squeezed my eyes shut. I pressed my free hand to my open mouth.
“Ava?” Mom mumbled. She sounded hungover. “Hello?”
My lips quivered and I could feel moisture pressing behind my closed eyes. I breathed in heavily and spoke in a whisper, “Mom, I need you to come get me.”
There was a long pause, so long in fact that I glanced at my phone to see if she had hung up. “You’re not at home?”
I opened my mouth to reply, but nothing came out. I pressed “End”, and then fell backwards on the bed.
I just needed to breathe. In, out. In, out.
She left me.
Even as I breathed, the air came in sharp and unevenly, as if my body was rejecting it.
* * *
After I packed Izzy’s money, my toothbrush, and pajamas into the backpack, I put on clean clothes and then walked outside.
The same elderly lady was still there in her blue car with the driver’s side door open. The license plate on the back read “NEVADA” in thick letters. I could hear an instrumental jazz song drifting from the radio. As I came closer to her open car door, I could see that she was peering down over her glasses at a crossword puzzle. She tapped a ballpoint pen against the paper as she considered it.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” I greeted her. She jumped a little at the sound of my voice and then stared at me, seemingly disoriented as I took her out of her train of thought.
“Oh, hello dear,” she said kindly. She had short curly white hair and her face was wrinkled in almost every place possible. She flashed a row of yellowed teeth at me. “Do you need some help?”
I nodded. “I need a ride, please.”
Slowly, she folded her crossword puzzle up and then placed it in the middle console. She then straightened her pink-rimmed glasses, coughed, and glanced back up at me. “Where do you need to go, dear?”
“Nevada,” I told her without even a hint of uncertainty.
Her smile grew wider. “How funny! That’s where I’m from!” She glanced around the parking lot. “Where’s your family?”
“I came here to see my sister, but she can’t take me home like she promised.”
The woman chuckled. “This is even funnier—I came down here to visit my sister too! She’s living in a tiny apartment though, so she put me up in this place.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Why haven’t you left yet?”
“When you get to be as old as me, you find that there’s no rush to get anywhere!” She patted the seat next to her. “Get in, sweetheart. I’ll take you home. I’m Marigold by the way. What’s your name?”
“I’m Ava,” I told her as I walked around the front of her car and then slid into the passenger seat.
Marigold drove faster than she moved. We sped at 80 miles an hour on an empty California highway under the blazing sun. I thought about what would happen once I was in Nevada. Maybe I could convince Marigold to adopt me, or at least let me stay with her until I figured out what I needed to do.
Marigold talked nonstop about her visit with her sister, Lucy, who was now battling some kind of cancer.
“Lucy and I were always best friends. We did everything together, and I mean everything. It didn’t matter that she was quite a bit older than me. We went on double-dates together. We got married the same year, had babies the same year, had grandbabies the same year. She saved my life once, you know. When I was real little, like maybe five or six, I fell out of a tree in our backyard. We grew up on a farm so we were pretty far out from the main house, and I screamed so loud for help and she ran right over, picked me up, and ran across the field without saying a word, just huffing and puffing. She carried me all the way to our dad. We were both covered in blood and he nearly fainted! But she saved me. And it’s so wonderful to have a sister like her, to know that no matter what happens, she will always be there for me. Now it is my turn to be there for her, now that she’s sick. There’s just something special about having a sister, don’t you think?”
I nodded and made all the appropriate listening sounds and asked questions in all the right places, but I never looked away from my window. I watched the world outside Marigold’s car turn into a never-ending blur of colors. I listened with a throbbing heart.