CHAPTER 4

Most of the houses on their street looked a lot alike except Cora’s. Hers had intricate trim and detailing in bold white, and so many roof levels that the house looked more like a castle. Two staircases led up to two red doors on either side of the porch. Her parents got a kick out of watching people decide which one to approach, even though they both worked.

They stepped through the door on the right and the warm scents of cinnamon and vanilla danced around them.

“Hi, Mom!”

Their foyer carried the theme of the exterior, making Abi feel like she had stepped through a portal to the 1800s. The hallway and sitting area were filled with antique furniture, polished to a high shine with fragrant orange oils. They hung their jackets from two glass doorknobs that had been rescued from a condemned house before it was demolished.

“Hey, girls. I’m just starting the icing,” Mrs. Robins called down the long hallway.

Cora’s boots clacked loudly on the wood floors as they stepped into the bright kitchen. “We’re going to go to that party with Graham later.”

“Oh okay.” Cora’s mom didn’t take her eyes off the cake, smoothing out an unseen bump before taking a satisfying breath.

“Looks great, Joy.”

“Wait until you taste it! It’s caramel cinnamon cake with a crisp pastry middle layer and light buttercream frosting.” Joy gave the cake an affectionate look before she came out of her trance, shooing them out of the kitchen. “Go get ready, girls. You’ll have a piece before you go. You don’t want Graham to leave you again!”

They raced up the stairs and headed back toward Cora’s room, passing dozens of family photos hanging on the walls.

Cora’s room was actually two rooms connected with a large archway. One side had a bed and the other smaller room had a comfy Victorian seater next to the closet door.

Abi distinctly remembered the moment she realized that Cora’s room was larger than hers—they were in the third grade and Abi looked around her, seeing for the first time what Cora had and what she didn’t have. When Abi had asked Cora why that was, Cora had responded, “That side is yours, silly.”

Before Cora was born, her dad had launched an app that Google offered an outrageous amount for. Her parents then traveled the world together before settling down in the smallest town they could find and having Cora. Although the house looked like an old home, it had been purposely built to look like that.

A few clicks on Cora’s phone and music hummed low throughout the room. Abi changed in the closet and came out to find that Cora had already applied dark makeup to her eyes. The smoky look made the blue in them pop even brighter.

“Your turn!”

Abi did her best to put makeup on her eyes but Cora quickly intercepted.

“Oh girl. Put me out of my misery. Please.” Cora took the makeup brush from Abi and sighed dramatically, batting her lashes like she was holding back fake tears. “You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for this moment.”

Abi laughed. “Oh yes, I do.” She closed her eyes and let Cora fix whatever it was she had done so wrong.

“Open!”

The girl in the mirror looked years older and…attractive. Like a woman.

“You look so good!” Cora fluffed her hair briefly before giving Abi’s shoulders a quick squeeze.

The door opened and Graham stepped halfway into the room. He wore a dark red sweater that fit well on his slender frame, his blond hair combed and gelled.

“I told you to knock, loser!” Cora grabbed an empty handbag and threw it at Graham, who stepped behind the door to dodge it.

He popped his head back into the room. “I’m leaving in ten.” A makeup brush flew at him but the door shut just in time.

Cora huffed and strode into her closet. She and Graham didn’t have the same relationship that Abi had with Ben. When they teased each other, it seemed playful, and ended with both still in happy moods. Abi could never find the fun in getting teased by Ben and never reciprocated. Sometimes she thought it was because of her mom. The family was always so tense and serious after her mom had gotten sick, like a dark cloud loomed not just over her mom, but over the entire house.

“Celebratory toast.” Abi spun the chair around to face Cora and her chest froze over. Cora held two small glasses with a brown liquid at the bottom of each. “I know you haven’t had liquor before, so I want you to try it in a safe place first.”

Abi’s hand reached for the glass without her permission.

“Of course, that’s not to say we won’t be in a safe place later, but you know what I mean. Just hold your breath, throw it back, and exhale through your mouth. Easy. Cheers!” Cora clinked their glasses together and motioned for Abi to lift hers.

She did. Cinnamon hit her nose before the alcohol hit her belly, exploding with warmth. She didn’t even have a chance to exhale before she started coughing, her eyes tearing up. Cora laughed and before she knew it, Abi was too.

Ugh, it’s awful!”

“Come on. Cake and then a party!” Cora grabbed Abi’s hand, pulling her along.

Abi’s face hurt from smiling so much. Her head was airy and her cheeks warm, but in a way that made her feel alive.

Mrs. Robins was doing the dishes when they came down to find two pieces of cake already cut and on plates. Abi’s mouth watered. It was rich and sweet and each bite tasted even better than the last. They were nearly finished with the cake before Graham came downstairs.

“Ready?” he called, staring at his phone as he walked into the kitchen.

“Born ready, baby. Abi’s coming with us this time.”

Graham’s eyes shot up, his mouth dropping open as he stared at Abi. “Wait, she’s actually coming? You’ve really done it, Cora. You have corrupted the brilliant.” He held his hand up to give Abi a high five and adrenaline swept through her. She was embarrassingly bad at high fives but managed to make contact with his hand.

He stole Cora’s plate and popped the remaining bit of cake into his mouth.

“Help yourself,” Cora grumbled.

“You kids be safe. I mean it!” Mrs. Robins kissed each of them on the forehead. “Now go have some fun.”

It was so strange. An adult not only allowing them to go out, but seemingly supporting the idea. Mrs. Robins was raised in an Amish community, where it was normal for the teenagers to be allowed to “sin” and party as much as they wished. They would get it all out of their systems before typically choosing to be baptized within the Amish church.

Joy had chosen to leave the community but still believed in this party phase.

“It’s about a thirty-minute drive,” he said, glancing from Abi to Cora. “Try not to kill me with your music this time.”

Psh. He claims he doesn’t like my music, but I caught him dancing in his seat last time.”

He paused then unlocked his rusted and dented old car. “That wasn’t dancing. That was a seizure.”

Mmhmm, sure.”

Graham climbed in behind the wheel and Abi automatically took the back seat. Cora slid in next to her. “Drive on, chauffeur!”

He gave an exaggerated sigh and Abi could feel his eyes rolling. The car roared to life, and they were on their way. Abi had never been in Graham’s car before. It was scuffed and beat up on the outside, but the interior was spotless and, unlike his room, the car smelled nice. His dash glowed with greens that faded to red and blue around the sound system.

Cora played music that Abi knew and they both sang. Abi was conscious of Graham’s presence in the front seat but as she sang along with Cora, her voice grew louder. She was glad she’d decided to go out. This publication was an achievement she would remember for the rest of her life.

They had driven east, toward Louisville and the college closest to their town. Graham turned right on to a street where girls in high heels walked beside boys with drinks in their hands. They were all headed toward the same place.

A house towered brighter than the rest and appeared to be the only place with a party. Abi’s heart thumped so hard it distorted her vision. What was she doing?

Graham parked the car, and Cora looped Abi’s arm through her own as they walked down the street.

As they got closer, Abi could see the girls that had been outside through the windows. They looked so much older and here she was, a mask of makeup and clothes that screamed imposter.

“Here.” Cora held up a flask. “For the nerves. It’s going to be fun, trust me!” She took a quick swig before passing it to Abi, who choked a gulp down. The same warmth spread through her body, but this time she didn’t cough.

“Have you been here before?”

Cora gasped. “Graham, what time is it?”

He hesitated before peeking at his phone. “11:43…why?”

She swung her arm over Abi’s shoulder. “I’m happy to report, you made it two hours and twenty-three minutes without asking a single question. Good job, girlfriend.”

Graham rolled his eyes and walked away.

Cora took another swig. “And yes, I have been here before.”

They ascended the porch stairs, stepping around a couple as they exhaled thick clouds of cigarette smoke. Music vibrated through the floorboards, making them buzz rhythmically below her feet.  The first two rooms had dozens of people crowded around tables filled with cups, Ping-Pong balls bouncing toward them.

 

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