Chapter 2: A Brief Introduction to My Not-Life

Things only got stranger after we landed in Las Vegas.

Instead of heading out to the taxi stop, my dad steered us to the parking garage. He threaded his way through the rows of vehicles until he spotted the car he was looking for: a dusty, black PT Cruiser with severely tinted windows. After depositing his rolling suitcase by the trunk, he got down on the concrete and shimmied himself under the car's undercarriage.

What the hell is he doing? I thought.

I glanced at my mom, expecting her to look as bewildered as I felt, but she wasn't paying any attention to us. She appeared to be scanning the other cars, keeping watch. I was about to ask what was going on when my father slid out from beneath the car, brushed himself off, unlocked the doors and told me to get in.

I obeyed, even though intuition was telling me to dig my feet in and demand an explanation. Problem was, I hadn't bothered to develop a rebellious streak – the only things I had pierced were my ears and I never broke curfew, except when the subway was delayed or I passed out on Jenny's couch while she tortured me with rom-coms. My parents had always done their best to be fair and supportive, so until now, I hadn't exactly needed one.

I rolled down my window as Dad navigated us along the Vegas strip; the colourful cacophony provided a welcome distraction from all the things that weren't adding up. From the plane, Las Vegas had looked like a giant fairground, surrounded by tracts of patterned light and beyond them a vast black void: the desert after dark. In actuality, it was garish, full of looming billboards and flashing lights. Cheap and tawdry too; on the sidewalks, girls with too much makeup and clothes intentionally worn a size too small hung off guys who looked like a wild weekend in Sin City was all they had going for them. We drove by a bachelorette party with a halo-wearing bride clad in a thrift-store wedding dress adorned with cutlery. On the next block we passed a trio of overweight Elvis impersonators. It was exactly how I'd pictured Vegas. It was perfect.

I wondered what hotel we'd be staying at. Would it have its own on-site stage show? A pool? Did Mom even pack my swimsuit, or had she not bothered because we'd be spending all our time at the hospital? I hoped that wouldn't be the case. Las Vegas might be less an amusement park than a debauched playground for adults, but that didn't stop me from wanting to explore it. Anna and I had a ritual of bringing each other back the most ridiculous souvenir we could find whenever either of us went anywhere, and Vegas presented me with the perfect opportunity to outdo myself.

Too bad it wasn't our final destination.

All too soon I was staring forlornly out of the car's rear window as the hope of exotic entertainment and sightseeing dimmed, along with the city lights congealing in the distance. This was as wrong and off as my father fishing the keys for this car out from somewhere beneath it, while my mother stood guard like a suspicious night watchman.

Hospitals were in cities, not in the middle of the desert.

"What's going on?" I said, surprised by how loud my voice sounded in the closed confines of the vehicle. I was tired and my parents' unending silence grated on me. "Where are we going?"

When neither of them acknowledged I'd spoken, I leaned forward and dug my cellphone out of my backpack. I didn't need to rely on them for conversation. But as soon as I turned on my phone, it blinked a low battery warning at me and then shut off again. I cursed at it and chucked it back into my bag. The stupid thing barely held a charge anymore.

"How did you know to pick up this car?" I asked, deciding to take another stab at getting my parents to open up. "And why would someone just leave the keys underneath it? Also, you said Uncle Curtis was sick. If he's sick, wouldn't he be in the hospital? And wouldn't the hospital be back there, in Vegas?"

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