“don’t know when i’ll be back again”

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. The coral-colored suitcase open on the bed, the clothes hanging ready to be packed, the car come to take her away. The sun streams through the window, illuminating the pictures on the wall, reminders of a happier time. Outside, birds are chirping and children are playing in the park across the street. By all rights, it should be a beautiful day.

Marina sits cross-legged on the floor, halfheartedly sorting her possessions into heaps. In front of her is the pile for keeping, to the left a pile for charity. To the right, trash — all the things that are too worn out, too painful, too personal to give away. It’s a numbing process, most things easily separated. Near the end of her things, she picks up a picture of two girls, laughing and holding hands. They don’t have a care in the world, firmly convinced that everything will work in their favor. The hand holding the snapshot shakes a little and wavers over to the right, before Marina places it carefully in front of her.

When she’s finished, the items to keep go in the bottom of her suitcase. Zoe’s promised to take the charity pile to Goodwill — Marina doesn’t intend to stay around long enough to do it herself. She shoves the trash items into a bag and tugs it down the polished stairs. Marina’s just put the bag in the kitchen trash when she’s accosted by a very energetic ten-year-old, with Zoe right behind him.

“Marina!” her brother says, coming to a halt in front of her. His bright smile usually lights up whatever room he’s in, but today it doesn’t provide any comfort.

“Hey, Peter,” she says, absentmindedly reaching out to ruffle his hair. He looks up at her with big brown eyes, the very picture of innocence, and she finds herself wishing for that simpler time.

“Why are you leaving me?” he whines.

She sighs. “You wouldn’t understand.” Sometimes, she’s not even sure she understands why. Sometimes she thinks it would be easier to stay here, stay where she’s lived all her life.

“But I do understand.” He crosses his arms. “It’s because of her, because of… ” Whatever he was going to say is cut off.

“Peter,” Zoe warns. Marina’s stepmother has one hand covering Peter’s mouth, with the other on his shoulder. “What did I say about manners? It is Marina’s choice, and she doesn’t have to tell people why.”

Marina fingers her necklace as she watches them. People always expect the fairytale stereotype of stepmothers, but she’s never resented Zoe, even when she first came to live with them over a decade ago. Marina was five and couldn’t understand why this strange woman lived with them instead of Marina’s mother, but Zoe never forced Marina to accept her. Instead, she was lovely and kind and caring, until Marina couldn’t help but love her. Zoe taught her all the things about being a woman that Marina’s mother, far away in a little apartment, couldn’t. They celebrated the highs of life together, and Zoe held her when she came home sobbing that horrible night.

“Sorry, Marina.” Peter’s sheepish voice brings Marina back to reality.

“It’s okay, Peter. I just… it’s hard to explain,” she says. Her words hang in the stillness of the kitchen for a moment.

“Why don’t you run along?” Zoe says, mercifully breaking the tension. “Go outside and play with your dad or something.”

“Okay,” he chirps, running off to find their dad.

With Peter gone, Zoe turns the full force of her attention to Marina. “How are you holding up, honey?”

“I’m… fine,” Marina says, though they both know she’s lying. She hasn’t been fine since that Saturday in May. “I’m holding up,” she corrects herself.

“Do you need any help packing?” Zoe asks. “I’ve got nothing better to do than chase Peter around.”

“I think I’m good, thanks,” replies Marina. She’s not sure she’s ready to let another person handle all the memories contained in her things.

“I’ll be ready to help you if you decide you want it. Just shout,” says Zoe. They both know that this isn’t just about packing. It’s about Marina starting a new life where she knows nobody but her mother instead of ‘working through her problems in a familiar setting’ like her therapist says she should.

“Will do,” Marina says curtly, turning to go upstairs. She still has a few more things to pack.

The suitcase is almost full and the afternoon sun beginning to set when Marina senses someone enter the room. She turns around to face the door, and sure enough, Lise is leaning against the doorway. Marina forgot how pretty she is, how everything seemed to revolve around her the minute she entered a room.

“Hi, Lise,” Marina says, aware of how pathetic she sounds.

“Hey,” Lise says, coming over to sit next to Marina on the bed. “You’re really leaving, huh?”

“Yeah. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I needed to get away from you.” If Lise is upset by Marina’s candidness, she doesn’t show it.

“We had a good run though, didn’t we?” It’s a rhetorical question, one they both know the answer to, but Marina still replies.

“We’re still best friends forever,” she says, reaching out to touch Lise’s necklace. Marina is wearing her matching one, with the inscription xoxo Lise still visible but slightly tarnished. When they got them for Lise’s 14th birthday, they both promised to wear them forever, and Marina supposes they both will.

“Are you sad to leave?” asks Lise.

Marina mulls the question over. “I’ll miss Zoe and Peter and Dad, but I think staying here would make me even sadder,” she finally replies. “People here are too concerned about me. I want a fresh start.”

“Come back to visit, will you?” Lise asks, and Marina entertains a brief fantasy where she leaves and never comes back, but she knows that could never happen. She’s tied to this place, like it or not.

“Of course,” Marina says instead, because what else can she say? How can she leave this girl she’s known for almost her entire life?

“Alright then, goodbye,” Lise says, and Marina wants to tell her not to go, but her throat goes dry and she can’t force the words out. She closes her eyes.

“And Marina,” she hears distantly, as if Lise is suddenly very far away. “Don’t be sorry for living.”

Marina opens her eyes just in time to see Lise standing in the doorway again. She watches as Lise becomes less and less real, until Marina is left alone again. She stands up, needing to clear her head, and feels something crinkle under her foot. It’s a balled up newspaper, wrinkled and ripped but with the headline still intact.

Local Girl Killed in Car Accident, it reads. Marina must have crumpled the article up and thrown it across the room when she read the headline. It was too painful to even think about Lise at that point.

She tenderly smoothes the article out and places it at the top of her suitcase, then closes the bag and zips it up. She touches her necklace once for good luck, then pulls her suitcase to where her father is waiting. She’s ready to go.


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