Chapter Two: A Quiet Evening

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The bus dropped Tori off at the end of the small dead-end cul-de-sac and left in a fading cloud of diesel fumes. She stood silently for a long moment, looking around at the small, nondescript houses, half-screened by overgrown patches of almost-forest that were now mostly tangles of gray and brown trunks and twigs, bare in the biting November chill.

She sighed and shoved her hands in her pockets, then winced as she touched the envelope she had stashed away. She bit back the urge to pull it out and rip it into so many pieces of confetti... but that would just make things worse, wouldn't it?

The walk to her house seemed longer than usual. It was at the furthest end of cul-de-sac, once white but now gray, with a weed-ridden yard and a mailbox that leaned forward with its door open like a yawning mouth.

There was a car in the driveway, a sedan that had seen at least a decade of service but was nonetheless polished and pampered, gleaming beside the house, each making the other stand out the more for the contrast. There was no sign of her father's sleek black coupe, which was both a disappointment and relief.

Unlocking the front door, she entered and dropped her bookbag under the coat hooks in the foyer. Everything smelled like chicken and cooking bread, warm and wonderful, and from the kitchen came a woman's voice.

"Victoria, is that you?"

Tori couldn't help but grin. It was the same question every day. Never mind that she came home from school at the same time five days a week—Mrs. Miller always sounded surprised, like Tori was a favorite guest dropping by for a visit.

"Yes, ma'am."

She toed off her shoes and went into the kitchen, where Mrs. Martha Miller, housekeeper and mother hen, was just pulling what looked like chicken pot pie out of the oven. She set it off to one side atop a pair of potholders and turned to Tori. She was frowning slightly, which made Tori jerk to a halt and consider making a run for the stairs.

"There was a message from the school on the machine when I got here."


The urge to bolt merely grew when Mrs. Miller looked at her with an expression of gentle worry.

"Are you okay, dear?"

Tori ducked her head. The old kitchen tiles had seen better days, despite Mrs. Miller's efforts to scrub them at least bi-weekly. And the toes of her shoes were getting a little ratty, too.


Suddenly, Mrs. Miller was just there, wrapping her arms around Tori's shoulders and pulling her into a warm, flour-dusted embrace. Tori resisted for all of 0.5 seconds before melting into it. Mrs. Miller's hugs weren't the best—there was always a little too much perfume, and they just seemed to be missing something—but hugs weren't something in the offing every day, and Tori took what she could get.

The hugs were short, too. It seemed like only a moment before Mrs. Miller pulled back, hands on Tori's shoulders, and peered into her face as though she could read the answer to some great question written on Tori's forehead.

"So," she said. "Another computer, hm?"

Tori nodded silently.

Mrs. Miller sighed, patting gently with both hands before turning back to the stove.

"You think they'd learn, wouldn't you?" she said. "What happened this time?"

"Substitute teacher."

When Mrs. Miller motioned for her to continue and went back to tending something boiling on the stove, Tori slid into a chair at the breakfast table and leaned on her folded arms. The story didn't take long to tell, especially since Tori didn't spend any time over the particulars. She finished with, "And they sent another letter home for dad to sign."

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