The countryside was a frozen expanse of never ending white. The sun was shining, a blinding orb suspended in a shapeless blue vault. Elisabeth squinted into the distance. She could make out the skeletal branches of trees, corpses stretching their stiff barren limbs towards the light. It was going to be a cold day, the icy panes of her window already promising below zero temperatures.
Elisabeth inhaled deeply, appreciated the fresh scent of a new day. The house was still asleep, whispering with the soft sounds of cracking wood and ice settling. Elisabeth closed her eyes, found herself appreciating the perfect stasis. The silence deepened, her regular breathing and the beating of her heart adding themselves to the overall melody.
A door slammed.
“If just for once…” Elisabeth hissed in between gritted teeth. She turned to the closed door of her bedroom. Her hands closed into fists, and it took her a moment to regain the calm composure the silence had managed to infuse. Her brother, Akira, had evidently woken up.
Elisabeth forced herself to close her eyes once more. Yet, the peace had evaporated, and if she didn’t start getting ready, she was going to be late for school. She walked to the dresser, struggled to get the first drawer open and extracted a pair of socks. The dresser lay crooked against the wall. Two legs were missing. One of the drawers was bent, her brother had kicked it.
Elisabeth considered the broken-down piece of furniture with a frown. Irritation came back, accompanied by the brooding layer of repressed anger that characterized her existence. The dresser was just one of the many things that didn’t work in her life. It was a portrait of a reality she was tired to look at.
Elisabeth pushed the drawer, tried to force it to slide back in place. The wood whined, its weathered surfaces scraping against each other. It didn’t close. Elisabeth pushed harder, frustration infusing a bit too much vehemence in her actions. The entire dresser started moving, tilting towards her. She stopped pushing, before the piece of furniture toppled over.
Elisabeth sighed, passed a hand through her long, ashen blond hair. Her fingers got tangled in a few knots. She pulled unceremoniously and managed to free her hand. She then glanced at the alarm clock on the end table. Elisabeth was still perfectly on time, as usual. Nothing could break her clockwork control, not even a crumbling dresser.
Another sharp noise broke the silence. Elisabeth jerked, turned around. The drawer, which had stubbornly refused to cooperate, seemed to have decided to close on its own. A shiver traveled Elisabeth’s back: fear.
“Don’t be silly, it’s just a coincidence,” Elisabeth muttered, yet the words failed to reassure her. Her eyes darted around the room. It wasn’t the first time something like that happened. It was actually a few weeks strange things occurred, phenomenon she could hardly explain, but that she refused to acknowledge.
Elisabeth sat on her well-made bed, quickly put on the socks. Her eyes drifted to her worn-out sneakers. No matter how much she tried to make them presentable, her shoes desperately needed to retire. The irony was that she couldn’t grant them such a privilege. She had no other personnel to replace them.
Elisabeth put her sneakers on, her feet immediately finding the well carved shape time had created for her. She then rushed to the door, eager to get out of the house and forget about the stubborn drawer. School always provided the perfect distraction. It was a vacation from her existence at home. For a few blissful hours, she could leave her problems behind. She could leave her family behind.
Elisabeth froze under the pealing doorframe. She was forgetting her backpack. She turned around, made to retrieve it. Every night, before going to sleep, she left her backpack leaning against the foot of her bed. It was the ideal spot for her to take out books, if she wanted to do some last-minute reading. And Elisabeth always wanted to do some last-minute reading.
It was a habit she had taken on since her first years in elementary schools. Learning was her passion, and some people, like her brother, had even called it an obsession. Elisabeth read everything she could get her hands on. She read novels, essays, manuals, and even endless collections of reference books. It was like an addiction, a desperate need to fill a hole that nothing could replenish. Assimilating knowledge was her comfort food.
There was something else Elisabeth often did before going to bed. In the last few months, she had started working on a sketchbook. It had at first started as a hobby, but the white pages had soon turned into a diary of images and words. The sketchbook had become a confidant, a silent friend she retold her life to. Before switching off the light, Elisabeth would drop it inside her backpack, with all the other schoolbooks. For Elisabeth never left her sketchbook alone or unattended. Yet, that didn’t mean that it was safe.
The backpack wasn’t where she had left it. Elisabeth inspected the spacious room. The discolored wood floor stared back at her. A pool of sunlight danced under the windowsill, glittered in tiny specks of floating dust. Her twin-size bed occupied the left side of the room, the light blue comforter almost gray. An end table stood at its right, where a small lamp, an alarm clock, and a pink quartz sat on its weathered surface. The end table had also been blue, once upon a time. Yet, life had carved heavy lines through the wood, eaten the paint, lined it with white.
Footsteps echoed in the corridor, and once again a door slammed. The bang was even louder this time, but Elisabeth ignored it. She threw herself on the floor, lay face down. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the shadows underneath her bed. Dust clouds were the waves of a silver ocean. Elisabeth sneezed, and her eyes started watering. She rubbed her nose, tried to contain a second explosion.
The backpack wasn’t there.
“Fuck,” Elisabeth mumbled, pushed herself to her feet. A gnawing feeling tightened her stomach. Her sketchbook was in that bag. Her life, her secrets, and her fears were inside that sketchbook.
“Liz, if you don’t move, I’m leaving without you,” Akira’s voice boomed down the corridor. It echoed, reverberated in the silent, crumbling house. There was nothing friendly about Akira’s voice, and Elisabeth wasn’t surprised. Her brother was never friendly. Yet, in that moment, Akira’s attitude failed to concern her. Her backpack was more important, and it was still missing.
“I’m looking for my backpack,” she whispered, not caring whether Akira heard her or not. Rushed footsteps descended the staircase, faded to the lower level. For a moment, Elisabeth wondered if Akira was actually going to leave without her. It would have been the first time. He was usually the one late. Elisabeth had left the house on foot more than once. Akira would catch up with her half way to school, driving down the country lanes too fast for anyone’s safety.
A loud sound came from downstairs.
“Oh, for god’s…” she growled. Akira was one of the most silent people she had ever had the displeasure to meet. It was a miracle if he uttered a word a day. Yet, he seemed to enjoy making a lot of noise, particularly in the morning. Slamming doors and kicking the furniture were just some of his favorite pass times.
“Your backpack is here!” Akira’s voice reached Elisabeth’s ears muffled.
Elisabeth froze, her entire body tensing. A myriad of questions flashed through her brain, too fast for her to grasp them. Yet, they were all asking the same exact thing. How had her backpack descended the staircase on its own?
Elisabeth rushed out of the bedroom, descended the stairs. The steps creaked underneath her feet, the stairwell a dark tunnel of spiderwebs. The entrance door was bright in sunlight, the dusty glass shining golden and white. Rainbows refracted through the layers of glass, prisms that diverged one from the other.
A tall, young man entered the hall. His hair was black, spiky, but prone to fall over his forehead. Deep dark eyes darted to meet Elisabeth’s blue ones. Predictably, Akira looked exasperated. He extended his hand, an old black backpack hanging from his fingers.
Elisabeth didn’t move, held onto her brother’s indifferent gaze. Staring Akira down was like trying to get a piece of ice to react to an insult.
“What were you doing with it?” Elisabeth asked, the sharp edge in her voice barely concealing the anger that threatened to explode. She hated when people touched her stuff, and she particularly detested when her brother touched her belongings.
“Nothing.” Akira opened the entrance door. Elisabeth put her hand on the glass, the crystal as frozen as the outside landscape. She pushed the door closed. It was the fourth loud bang that morning. Akira took a step back.
“What did I do now?” he asked. His voice was low, monotone, yet no less on edge. Elisabeth crossed her arms over her chest.
“I thought we had discussed the meaning of privacy, Akira,” she said, each one of her words vibrating in the attempt to remain steady, controlled.
“Ah.” Akira’s lips twitched. For a moment, he looked amused, before his face sank into an even deeper frown.
“I mean it,” Elisabeth hissed.
Akira looked down at his wristwatch, mumbled something under his breath.
“What did you say?” Elisabeth raised her voice. Akira spent his existence muttering under his breath. In contrast, Elisabeth could have spent her life screaming to the top of her lungs.
“I was, politely, considering the fact, that, for once, I was on time,” Akira replied. Their eyes met again. Akira’s irises shone, the inky blackness brighter than before. It was as if a spark had ignited inside him, a dangerous fire that always loomed under the surface.
Elisabeth opened her mouth, but Akira interrupted her.
“I didn’t touch your bag.” He, once again, reached for the entrance door. Elisabeth slid in front of it. Akira swore.
“Politely?” Elisabeth cocked her head. It was her turn to smile. Akira leaned against the wall. His eyes darted to the door, got lost outside. From that perspective, they could see the icy yard, the empty road, and the white expanse of fields behind. The door rattled. Cold wind picked up snow, transformed the still air in a wild dance of evanescent ghosts.
“OK, I don’t mind being late,” Akira exhaled.
Elisabeth glanced outside. The sun was rising higher, the sky turning an even lighter shade of blue. Her eyes got lost in the distance. The road was a gray snake, appearing and disappearing under layers of drifting snowbanks. It seemed to go on to infinity, fade into the horizon, the sky and the snow becoming one.
“Me neither.” Elisabeth spoke in between gritted teeth. Akira stared at her blankly. It was an even colder look; an expression Elisabeth would have given anything to match. She looked outside a second time, tapped her foot on the floor. She was never late. Her routinely perfection risked being interrupted. Yet, she wasn’t going to give up.
“I never touch your stuff, Liz.” Akira broke a long stretch of silence. Elisabeth looked down. The wood floor looked especially battered in that part of the house. The door had scraped the smooth surface. It was now a tangle of infinite semicircles.
“I don’t…” Elisabeth started saying, met Akira’s eyes again. Akira’s expression had shifted. If a few minutes before he had appeared foreboding, he suddenly looked concerned. Elisabeth closed her mouth, the words fading away. Akira wasn’t lying, and if he wasn’t lying, it meant that someone else had taken her backpack.
“That woman!” Elisabeth growled. Anger sparked once again, yet this time, it was accompanied by another feeling: dread. There was no telling what her mother was going to do to her, if she had read what Elisabeth had written in her sketchbook. Vivian had already stolen Elisabeth’s sketchbook once, a few months before. She had explicitly forbidden Elisabeth to keep on writing down lies.
Elisabeth had challenged the order. The things she wrote down weren’t lies. They were a truthful account of her life, and there was nothing pretty about her existence. Vivian was one of the main reasons why her life was a living nightmare. Since Elisabeth could remember, Vivian had never behaved like a mother would. She was mean, manipulative, and hyper-controlling. Akira had often compared her to an army general, a heartless monster that should have never had kids. And that was one of the other things Elisabeth had challenged in her sketchbook. Elisabeth had never been sure Vivian was really her mother.
Elisabeth made to rush back upstairs, but Akira’s expression caught her attention. He was staring out of the glass door, his eyes fixed. There was something wrong. Elisabeth turned around. A massive black pickup truck was coming to a full stop in front of their yard. It looked like it was about to pull inside, invade the sleepiness of their house. Elisabeth made to dismiss it. It could have been anybody about to make a U-turn. Yet, Akira’s eyes were glued to the black vehicle, as if searching for something the darkened windows concealed.
The pickup truck slowly turned around, paused a moment longer in front of the house, and then turned left. Before Elisabeth could do or say anything, Akira grabbed her wrist.
“What are you…” she started to protest. Akira didn’t let her finish the sentence. He dragged her out of the house. Freezing wind caressed the bare skin of Elisabeth’s arms. Elisabeth didn’t flinch, the air’s icy kiss always a comfortable touch.
Akira pushed Elisabeth to their rusty sedan, hurriedly opened the door for her.
“Get in,” he ordered.