Chapter 3: It's Not Paranoia If They're Really After You

It wasn't clear what time of day it was when I woke up. As expected, the small, filthy window kept the light largely at bay. All that leaked through was a dim, yellowish haze. Despite it being February, the cottage had grown stuffy as it cooked in the desert sun. It didn't help that I'd fallen asleep with my coat on. I groaned, sat up and wiped the sweat from my face with one of the bed's clean but discoloured white sheets. Next, I peeled off yesterday's clothes and left them in a crumpled heap beside the armoire. I was itching for a shower, but this place didn't have one, so I unzipped my suitcase and looked for something to wear.

Rifling through my clothes brought forth a fresh wave of tears. I'd been bracing myself for a ghastly assortment of frilly dresses. But that wasn't what was inside my bag. When I opened it, I was greeted by all my favourite things, including my repurposed T-shirts – ripped apart and then re-sewn, sometimes two or three times over. Estella said they looked sloppy, but I thought they were comfy and unique. She kept threatening to buy me sewing lessons so I could learn how to make things "properly," but I'd just laugh and tell her she didn't get it.

Estella had also included my black-and-white-striped arm-warmers and several pairs of jeans. There was even a second hoodie, so now I had a spare. I wondered whether Estella had packed these things because she understood what I felt most comfortable in or because she knew something I didn't – like just how long they were planning on keeping me here. Either way, I appreciated it.

Estella and I had some righteous blow-outs about fashion. Just because Fredrick and her were easygoing, didn't mean there weren't things they drew lines on. When I came home with blue hair right before the ninth grade spring dance, Estella was so livid she couldn't even form coherent sentences. She just sputtered at me, growing more and more red in the face. She refused to look at me again until I agreed to bleach it out. I ended up going to the dance with platinum blonde hair, which looked no less fake and stood out just as much as the blue. The dumb thing was, I hadn't even done it to challenge their authority or freak them out. I'd just wanted to try something different. Maybe she was worried Mikey would want blue hair too.

I settled on a pair of dark green cargo pants and a baggy black tank top. Estella had tucked my favourite necklace into the side pocket of my toiletry bag, so I put that on too. Anna made it for me last Christmas after I told her I didn't wear jewellery because it was too delicate and girly. It was a choker she'd woven out of hemp and three blood-red beads, and I loved it. I wore it almost every day.

Unfortunately, the necklace only reminded me I had no way to contact her, no way to tell her what had happened, and that upset me all over again. I collapsed back onto the bed and gave in to the sadness. It was crushing.

The inevitable was coming and I could only delay it so long.

Sooner or later I would have to open the door and face the people who raised me.

What would I say when that moment came? I knew I owed it to Fredrick and Estella to hear them out, but what I really wanted was the truth without all the pussyfooting around, even if it was ugly – which I expected it would be, since no one else I knew had family secrets resulting in impromptu trips to shabby cabins in the desert.

Once I'd pulled myself together, I decided I couldn't hide out in my room any longer. The throb in my gut had grown into a raw ache. If I didn't eat soon, I'd likely start gnawing on the armoire. So I got up, put on the bravest face I could muster and opened the door.

The first thing I saw was Fredrick sitting at the pine table, nursing a coffee, which he desperately needed, judging from the dark circles under his eyes. At the squeak of my door, he raised his head. His expression was grim.

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