Karen Brewer stood stock still on the sidewalk. She stared at her house, not quite sure what she was looking for. Something was off. Something was definitely off.
The minutes ticked by and the chill in the air began to make her shiver. By the time she moved inside, she wasn't the slightest bit closer to figuring out what was wrong.
"Make it stop," she complained to no one.
Karen had a system for math homework, and it involved melodramatic complaining. She liked to imagine that she was being held prisoner in a dungeon, forced to do word problems against her will by an evil wizard. Sure, it was childish. But it was fun. Anything that made converting fractions to decimals fun, even a little bit, was worth the embarrassment.
She was halfway through a deliciously unpleasant daydream when, out of the corner of her eye, she caught a small shimmer. She immediately whipped her head to the right.
It was gone.
She sighed. It was far from the first time this had happened. If anything, it was happening more and more frequently - strange little glitters that seemed to wink at her through the window and disappear whenever she tried to get a good look. It never happened at Mom and Seth's house, or on the bus, or at school. But she'd seen it at her dad's place, the Kormans', the Papadakises'... all around McLelland Road.
She abandoned her homework and stood at the window. Her eyes raked the side yard for anything reflective, anything that could possibly explain what she'd been seeing. But there was nothing - just the frosty ground and a cold, leaden sky. Just like yesterday.
She frowned, and closed the curtains with a snap.
The Stoneybrook Academy bus was late. Again. Every day, it was at least ten minutes behind schedule. Hannah had long since given up getting to the bus stop on time, but Karen still wanted to be early. She liked hanging out with the Stoneybrook Day kids each morning. Even if it was cold - and it had been absolutely freezing lately - she was always there, smack in the middle of everything.
Today, however, she was distracted. She didn't hear a word of Melody and Maria's argument.
"You look like you made out with an eggplant."
"I like eggplant."
"On your face? Really?"
"Okay, maybe it looks a little weird. But that doesn't mean I don't also look awesome."
"In what universe?"
"In this one! The one where the drugstore sells Vicious Plumsicle for $3.99!"
"The second a teacher sees you, you'll have to wash it off."
"So why wear it at all? What's the point?"
"Because it's fun, Maria, jeez..."
Most days, Karen would have been in the thick of this conversation. But today, she stared into the sky. The air had a distinct buzz to it, that electric feel that usually preceded a big summer storm.
"Karen, be our tiebreaker. Purple lipstick, yes or no?"
Karen didn't answer. Her arms felt prickly, and she was running her hands over her coat sleeves. Back and forth, back and forth.
"EARTH TO BREWER."
Maria giggled. "What's wrong with you today? You're so quiet. Normally we can't get you to shut up."
"I don't know," she frowned, tugging at her coat. "Does... does the air feel weird to you guys?"
Melody rolled her eyes. "You feel weird to me."
"Hi!" she replied, shooting a grin upward. She liked having a bottom locker - it was cozy, sitting on the floor to rummage through her stuff. "Hey, you're wearing my Christmas present!"
Pam Harding's winter boots were tied with bright red glitter laces, sparkling in the florescent hallway lights.
"I love them so much," she said, wriggling her toes happily. "I hate winter, I get so sick of the same old boring shoes everyday."
"Could be worse," said Karen, scrambling to her feet. "At least we're not at SDS. We don't have to wear a uniform."
"I guess. Hey, did you finish that Math?"
"Most of it," she frowned. "I couldn't really concentrate."
"Yeah, me neither. I hate decimals."
"Mmm," she murmured, slamming her locker closed.
Karen barely made it to Science on time, and was stuck sitting next to Hank Reubens. Within five minutes of class starting, he was choking laughs into his closed fist while Karen tried valiantly to copy notes from the textbook.
Ignore him, she told herself, scrawling a rough cross-section of Jupiter. Ignore. Him.
Hank's giggles began to make the desk shake. As soon as Ms. James turned her back to the class, Karen poked him with her pen. Hard.
"Would you shut up? What's so funny, anyway?"
"Gas giants," he snickered.
She rolled her eyes. "Grow up, Hank."
By Math, breakfast seemed like a lifetime ago. Her stomach growled as Mr. Brandt droned on and on, something about percentages. She was pushing her glasses up her nose, mostly paying attention, when a sudden movement caught her eye. She snapped her head to the left and caught a distinct shimmer - the air outside the window seemed to ripple, just for a second, like the surface of a pond. She gasped.
"Terri," she hissed. "Did you see that?"
She sighed, already second-guessing herself.
"Never mind," she said, pushing her bangs out of her eyes.
"Intestines. Piles of gooey intestines."
Hannah rolled her eyes. "Good, Karen. Get it all out of your system before Sara gets here."
"Doesn't she have choir practice today?" asked Pam.
"Nah, it's cancelled. She's somewhere in the lunch line."
"If you could call this lunch."
"Stop it, Karen. If I wanted to be grossed out, I'd eat with Chris and Hank."
"Okay, okay. Sorry."
The girls began trading parts of their lunch and, somehow, Hannah wound up sweet-talking her way into keeping all three desserts. By the time Sara arrived, she was nearly finished with Karen's chocolate brownie.
"Hey," said Pam, inching her chair across to make room for Sara. "How'd your poem go?"
"Bad. I forgot half the words."
"Sara, you say things like that all the time. Then you always get an A, or maybe a B."
"Well, this time I really did do badly," she protested. "I hate memorizing dumb poems."
"I agree," sighed Hannah. "The only good part is getting to stare out the window during everyone else's stupid poems."
"Hey, that reminds me," said Sara, twirling spaghetti around her fork. "I saw your neighbor walk by last period. You know, the weird one."
"No! The one next door to you, Karen. You used to think she was a witch."
"Oh. Mrs. Porter." Karen frowned. "That's... strange. What do you mean, you saw her walk by?"
"Um... I mean I was looking out the window, and I saw her walk past. What do you think I mean?"
"Are you sure it was her?"
"Positive. I've been to your house enough times, I know what she looks like."
Karen turned to Hannah. "Does that sound weird to you?"
Hannah swallowed a mouthful of pudding. "Should it? Our neighborhood isn't that far."
"It's far enough, and it's freezing outside! Who would go for a walk today?"
"Mrs. Porter would?" Hannah shrugged. "She's kinda weird, Karen. You know that."
"Yeah," said Karen, playing with her milk carton. "Yeah, I guess."
Karen stood in the bitter cold, gazing nervously up the driveway. She felt awful. It was more than just the cold weather; she was utterly miserable. She'd had a fabulous time at her play rehearsal after school, and she'd felt light and buoyant when she left the drama studio. But the happiness of the afternoon vanished at some point during the bus trip, replaced by a winter chill creeping through her veins. She shook herself. Get a grip, Karen. It's just January being January. Slowly, she began to trudge across the front yard.
Without meaning to, she cast a few sideways glances at Mrs. Porter's house. Why are her third floor curtains closed? Is that normal? She came to a dead stop, frowning. Why the sudden interest in Mrs. Porter's windows? Come to think of it, she didn't even know if her own third floor curtains were closed. "Idiot," she muttered at herself.
She shoved the front door open.
"I'm home!" she bellowed, grateful to break the icy silence.
She felt ridiculous.
If anyone saw her, if anyone figured out what she was doing, she'd die of embarrassment. And if Dad or Elizabeth saw her, she wouldn't even need to die of embarrassment. They'd kill her. They'd absolutely kill her. She's not seven anymore, she's twelve for crying out loud. She's far too old to be doing this.
She can't see anything anyway. It's nighttime, all the curtains are closed. The ones she can see, at least. And even if they weren't, she'd be too busy feeling self conscious and stupid to take much notice of-
She jumped, and David Michael flicked the lights on. "What... what the hell are you doing?"
"Uh..." she glanced frantically around the study, trying to think of some logical reason to be crouched in a dark room, staring at your neighbor's house. "...I don't know. It's, um... just kinda nice in here."
"In the dark?"
Karen shrugged. "Don't you ever come into the study?"
"You should. It's nice. Peaceful."
"...Okay. Um, Watson said you have to go to bed. Now."
"Alright... thanks, David Michael."
"No problem... uh, want the light back off?"
"Um, no. I'm fine."
"...'Kay. Night, Karen."
His footsteps faded, and Karen's face burned red. Dammit.
When Karen woke up on Saturday morning, she kept her eyes completely averted from any west-facing window; she left her bedroom curtains closed, she showered in Kristy's bathroom, and she ate breakfast with her back to the picture window.
"What're your plans for the day, Karen?" yawned Elizabeth. "Going to Hannie's?"
"Right, of course. Sorry." Elizabeth rubbed her eyes. "I haven't been sleeping well lately, I'm not thinking straight."
"Are you okay?" frowned Karen. She hadn't wanted to mention it, but Elizabeth had been looking haggard the past few days.
"I'm fine. It's just the cold." She smiled ruefully. "I can't seem to turn my brain off at night."
It was very chilly, even inside the house. Karen swallowed a hot mouthful of oatmeal. It burned her throat, but she didn't feel any warmer.
When she crossed the road, miniscule lights twinkled in her peripheral vision. She pretended not to notice.
"Aw, c'mon, you're cheating!"
"I am not. Besides, you're the one who demanded I let you put TV characters on your husband list. That's cheating."
"All the boys we know in real life are gross. I don't wanna marry any of them."
"Too bad," smirked Hannah. "'Cause you're gonna marry Chris Lamar and have fifty kids."
"Fifty!" shrieked Karen. "I never said fifty!"
"Yeah I know, I added it. Your numbers were boring."
"That's cheating, Hannah Papadakis!"
"And you're driving the Batmobile."
Karen grinned. "Well, that's okay."
"And you're living in a shack. Ha!"
"I don't care, I'll live in the Batmobile." She swiped the notepad from Hannah's bed. "Chris can have the shack."
"What about the kids?"
"I'll take the good ones. Mold them into a crime-fighting team, or something. He can take the loser kids, the ones that look like him."
"I don't care what you say," snickered Hannah. "You're still married to Chris Lamar."
"Shut up." She grabbed the nearest pen. "Your turn."
By the time she left Hannah's house, darkness had long since fallen. It was bitterly cold, and Karen crossed the road fast to keep her blood pumping. These temperatures were getting ridiculous; why on earth wasn't it snowing?
When she stepped onto the sidewalk, a blast of icy wind hit her ear. She gasped, tugging her hat down lower, but nothing could stop the intensity of this cold. The sound roared in her ears, her brain, her lungs, her bones... "I can't believe she did that!" Mom's voice echoed angrily through the swirling chill. "Excuse me? Raising a brat? I'm not the only one raising Karen and Andrew. You're raising them too, you know." Despair swelled inside her, white and suffocating, dragging her down...
She groaned. Her head hurt.
"Karen, are you alright?"
Her eyes flickered open. Mrs. Porter crouched over her, anxiety lining her face.
"I'm okay, I think. What happened?"
Karen climbed to her feet, shaky and embarrassed, with Mrs. Porter's help.
"I'm so cold."
"I know. Let's get you inside, you need some chocolate in your system."
Karen hid a smile. Mrs. Porter might be crazy, but did that really matter? She liked her. She was sweet.
Karen stepped gingerly through her front lawn. Mrs. Porter gave her a hand, glancing nervously over her shoulder.