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Without Merit by Colleen Hoover (3)

Chapter Three

I was hoping I’d never see Sagan again. I was hoping they’d break it off before she brought him around the family for introductions. That hope lasted twenty-four hours until it was diminished. And it’s been diminished for almost two weeks now.

In that two weeks, Sagan has been at our house more times than I can count. He’s here for dinner every night, for breakfast every morning, and most hours in between.

I haven’t spoken a single word to him since the morning he showed up at our house for the first time, a mere twenty-four hours after his tongue was down my throat. I walked out of my bedroom, still in my pajamas, and saw him sitting at the table. As soon as we made eye contact, I spun around and opened the refrigerator. It felt like my heart was a pinball bouncing around inside my chest.

I managed to make it through breakfast that morning without uttering a single word. Once everyone started to gather their things and leave, I breathed a small sigh of relief until I realized he was still in the kitchen and didn’t look like he was leaving like everyone else. I heard Honor tell him goodbye. I wasn’t facing them, so it made me wonder if they kissed goodbye. I didn’t wonder enough to turn around and witness it, though. I was curious why he wasn’t walking out with her. It was a bit odd that he’d linger in a house he wasn’t acquainted with after his girlfriend left for school, but that’s exactly what he did.

Once everyone was gone but him, I grabbed a rag to wipe down the counter. It didn’t need cleaning but I didn’t know what else to do with my hands or my eyes. He stood up and picked up the three glasses left behind on the table. He walked them into the kitchen and stood next to me while he poured the contents in the sink.

There was such a heavy silence in the room. It made the moment between us seem much more dramatic than it should have been.

“Do you want to talk about what happened?” he said. He opened the dishwasher like he had the right to be doing dishes in this house. He put the three glasses on the top shelf and then closed it. He dried his hands on a towel and dropped it on the counter while he waited for a response from me. I merely shook my head, uninterested in bringing it up again.

He sighed and then said, “Merit.” I made eye contact with him, which was a terrible idea because he dipped his head and looked at me apologetically, which made it impossible to hold on to any form of undeserved anger I held toward him. “I’m really sorry. I just . . . I thought you were her. I never would have kissed you had I known otherwise.”

He appeared to be genuine in his apology but as much as I tried to grasp the sincerity, I couldn’t help but analyze that last part. “I never would have kissed you had I known otherwise.”

Somehow, that felt more like an insult than an apology. And I knew the whole thing was stupid and it really was an honest mistake. Honor didn’t know it happened so I should have just been able to laugh it off. But I couldn’t. It was hard to laugh off something that affected me like it did. But I did my best to fake it.

“It’s fine,” I said with a shrug. “Really. It was such an awkward kiss, anyway. I’m glad it was an accident because I was about two seconds away from slapping you.”

Something in his expression faltered. I forced a smile as I turned and walked to my bedroom without looking back at him.

That was the last time we spoke.

We don’t speak at breakfast, we don’t speak at dinner, we don’t speak when he’s lingering in our living room, watching TV.

But just because we don’t speak doesn’t mean I don’t feel it every time he looks at me. I’m constantly trying to rein in my pulse because it makes me feel guilty that I’m even attracted to him. I don’t like being envious of Honor. I try to tell myself that it isn’t him I’m attracted to. It was the thought of a stranger desiring me enough to kiss me with as much passion as he kissed me that day. That’s what I’m envious of. The idea of it all. It has nothing to do with Sagan or who he is as a person. I don’t even know him enough to know if I would like him as a person. And I don’t want to know that, which is precisely why I avoid him.

But I do know that he doesn’t seem to be Honor’s type. And there’s absolutely no chemistry between them. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part.

I’ve been doing my very best to tolerate the entire situation, but it’s making me miserable. However, I have a feeling my tolerance won’t be as intolerable now, because misery loves company and the thing I am looking at is most definitely miserable.

Despite it being after midnight, I’m holding open the front door, staring down into the frightened eyes of Wolfgang. The very dog that terrorized my father through many of my childhood years.

What a delightful surprise.

My father hasn’t noticed, but I haven’t been back to school for a while now and my days and nights have been mixed up. I woke up a few minutes ago after everyone else had fallen asleep. I made my way to Quarter One in search of food but before I got to the kitchen, I heard what sounded like scratching against our double front doors. Since we have no animals of the four-legged variety, one would think my first instinct would have been to notify my father of a possible intruder. Instead, I immediately opened the door to investigate the matter myself. If my life were a scary movie, I’d be the first to die.

Wolfgang is whimpering at my feet, covered in mud, shivering from the rain, and from the looks of it, terribly lost. There were several loud claps of thunder that shook the house and woke me up a few times when the storm began to roll through earlier tonight. He probably got spooked and started running until he ended up at the only other place he knows.

I’ve never actually touched the dog before, since we were ordered to stay away from him as children. I reach my hand out, but I do so with hesitancy. Our father once told us he witnessed Wolfgang eat an entire Girl Scout. I realize now that it was a lie, of course, but with Wolfgang’s visit tonight and the ominousness of the moment being heightened by the dark, I’m a bit nervous Wolfgang might assume I’m hiding Thin Mints in my pocket.

But Wolfgang doesn’t eat me, not even partially. Quite the contrary, in fact.

He licks me.

It’s a quick swipe of his tongue that catches my pinky and then releases it, as if it’s more of a peace offering than an appetizer. I open the door a little wider and Wolfgang recognizes it as the welcoming gesture it is and he scurries inside, immediately walks through Quarter One and goes straight for the back door. He then proceeds to paw at the back door as if he wants access to the backyard.

I’ve always assumed Wolfgang was an ignorant dog, so it surprises me he found his way back to his old stomping grounds. But it surprises me even more that he’d rather be outside in the backyard than here inside where it’s dry. I would ask him why he’s making such a poor choice, but he’s a dog.

I open the back door and Wolfgang whimpers once more and then pushes against the screen door until it opens, as if he’s on a mission. I flip on the light to the backyard and watch as Wolfgang descends the steps and rushes through the rain to the doghouse that hasn’t been moved or used since he was evicted by my father years ago.

I want to warn Wolfgang that there could be spiders or other occupants who have since taken over his old residence, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He disappears inside the old doghouse and I watch for a moment to see if he comes running back out, but he doesn’t.

I close the screen door and then the back door and lock the deadbolt. I’ll return him to Pastor Brian in the morning. That is if he doesn’t figure out how to scale the backyard fence and get home on his own.

I make myself a sandwich and turn on the TV but by the time I’m done eating I still haven’t found anything interesting to watch. I slept so long tonight I feel completely energized and I’m hardly even thinking about Honor and her boyfriend. I decide to use my unusual burst of energy to clean my room.

I pop in my headphones and start to clean, but it’s surprising how many songs talk about forbidden love or kissing someone. I change the song every time my mind goes there in hopes it will spark an unrelated memory. I skip songs until I get to Ocean and then I grab an old T-shirt to wipe down all my trophies. Every time I buy a new one I dust them and rearrange them. The new bowling trophy I bought a couple weeks ago will go front and center. I reach to the back of my shelf and grab the football trophy I stole from Drew Waldrup. I set it aside for when I change Jesus Christ’s outfit later tonight.

I spend the next several hours enjoying a house of solitude while everyone sleeps. I take an uninterrupted shower. I watch the first ten minutes of eight different shows on Netflix. I might have an issue with my attention span because I can never make it through an entire show without getting bored. I do one and a half crossword puzzles before I get stumped on a four-letter word for word. When I notice the first tease of sun shining through one of the stained-glass windows, I decide to change Jesus Christ’s clothes before anyone wakes up.

I gather all the stuff I need. Once I have the ladder set up in the living room, I climb it with my stolen football trophy in hand. I slide the roll of tape off my wrist and place the trophy in Jesus’s right hand, then secure it there with the tape. I readjust the cheese-hat on top of His crown of thorns. When I finish, I descend the ladder and stand back to admire my creation.

I normally give Jesus a temporary nickname, depending on the theme of his outfit. Last month, He was referred to as “Holy Ghost” for obvious reasons. And now, considering He is currently dressed as a Packers fan, complete with a home-team jersey, a Wisconsin cheese hat, and now Drew Waldrup’s missing trophy, I think I shall deem Him Cheesus Christ.

“Dad and Victoria are going to be pissed when they see that.”

I turn around and a freshly showered and dressed Honor is staring up at Cheesus. I smile, because that’s precisely why I went through all this effort. My father is a huge Cowboys fan and he’s been talking about tonight’s game between Dallas and Green Bay incessantly. He’s only going to be mad that I dressed Him as a Packers fan.

Victoria, on the other hand, will be mad that I dressed Him at all. Unlike my father, Victoria believes in God. And Jesus. And the sanctity of religion. She hates it when I dress up Jesus. She says it’s sacrilegious and disrespectful.

I disagree. It would be disrespectful if the actual Jesus Christ were in our living room and I forced Him to change clothes all the time. But this Jesus is fake, made out of wood and plastic. I tried to explain that to Victoria. I told her one of the Ten Commandments is not to worship false idols. Dressing this idol of Jesus up for fun, rather than worshipping it, is actually following the commandment.

She didn’t see it that way. But her opposition obviously hasn’t persuaded me to stop.

I grab the ladder and take it back to the garage. Dad should be waking up any minute now, so I get rid of the evidence, even though it’s a given that I’m the only one in the house who makes an effort to dress Jesus Christ anymore. Honor hasn’t seemed to care about eternal life since she became obsessed with the terminally ill a few years ago.

Honor and I may look identical, sound identical, and share identical mannerisms, but we couldn’t be more opposite. Most identical twins finish each other’s sentences, know what each other is thinking, and share common interests. But Honor and I confuse the hell out of each other. We tried our best to live up to the identical twin standard, but once we hit puberty, we just kind of gave up.

Then when she started dating Kirk, his death put an even bigger wedge between us because up until that point, we had experienced almost everything together. But after Kirk died, she had experienced things I hadn’t. Being in love, losing her virginity, experiencing grief. We no longer felt like we were on the same level after that. Or at least she felt she was on a different level than me. And the more time that passes, the more we drift apart.

I walk back into the kitchen from the garage and my steps falter at the sight of Sagan.

His back is to me as he sits at our kitchen table. In our house. At a highly inappropriate time of day. Who visits their girlfriend at seven in the morning? He’s becoming a constant fixture in Dollar Voss, which makes me feel less and less envious of my sister every time he chooses to be here. Who in their right mind would willingly return to this house? Has he not met my family? Is he that blinded by his unrequited love for Honor?

He’s hunched over, focused intently on his sketch pad in front of him. When I realized he actually was an artist, I laughed at my luck. I had hoped he was an artist right before he kissed me, but it’s only fitting that the more I’m around him, the more perfect he seems. It’s karma for being attracted to my twin sister’s boyfriend.

Moby walks into the kitchen and shuffles over to the table. Moby is quite possibly the only part of this family that brings me joy, but four-year-olds are fairly liked across the board. There’s still plenty of time for Moby to disappoint me.

“Morning, buddy.” Sagan ruffles Moby’s hair, but Moby is not a morning person, despite his age. He shifts his head away and climbs into the seat next to him. Sagan tears off a sheet of blank paper from the sketchbook he’s been hunched over. He slides the piece of paper in front of Moby and plucks a crayon out of a basket in front of him, winning Moby over instantly. There isn’t a four-year-old on earth who doesn’t love a crayon and a sheet of paper. Moby is always trying to copy the things Honor’s boyfriend sketches. Which is humorous considering the morbid themes her boyfriend is always sketching. Just yesterday I found a picture he sketched of Honor. She was sitting in an empty grave, putting on lipstick. On the back, he had written “Till death do us part.”

I never know what any of his drawings mean, but they fascinate me. I just don’t want him to know that. I also don’t want him to know that every time he draws a sketch for Honor and she leaves it lying around like it doesn’t even mean anything to her, I steal it. I have several of his drawings now, wrapped in a bathrobe and stuffed in the bottom of my dresser drawer. Sometimes I look at them and pretend they’re pictures of me and not Honor.

I’m sure the one he’s sketching now will end up at the bottom of my drawer as well because Honor doesn’t appreciate the artistic side of him.

Moby glances at me and covers his mouth with his hand, mumbling something intended for only me to hear. He always puts his hand flat over his mouth when he’s telling someone a secret, rather than cupping his hand around his mouth. It’s so adorable, we don’t have the heart to tell him we can never understand a word he’s saying. But I don’t have to understand him because I know exactly what he’s asking for.

I wink at him and grab the box of donuts from the top of the refrigerator. There are two left in the box, so I put one in my mouth and walk the other one to Moby. He takes the donut from my hand and immediately crawls under the table to eat it. I don’t even have to tell him to go hide from his mother. He already knows that anything that tastes good to him is off-limits to Victoria.

“You realize you’re teaching him to hoard junk food, right?” Utah enters the kitchen in his usual holier-than-thou mood. “If he grows up to be morbidly obese, it’s your fault.”

I disagree with his theory, but I don’t say anything to defend my actions. It would ruin my three-day streak of not speaking. But despite my lack of a rebuttal, Utah is wrong. If Moby grows up to be morbidly obese, that’s all on Victoria. She’s eliminated entire food groups from his diet. She doesn’t allow him to have sugar, carbs, gluten, or any ingredient that ends in ose. The poor kid eats steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast every day. Without butter or sugar. That can’t be good for him.

At least I sneak him sweets in moderation.

Utah walks past me, heading for his smoothie. He takes it from Honor’s hand and leans in to give her a quick thank you kiss on top of her head. He knows not to come near me with his cheerful sibling affection.

If the proof weren’t in our DNA, I would say that Utah and Honor seem more like identical twins than she and I do. They’re the ones who finish each other’s sentences, share inside jokes, and spend the most time together.

Utah and I have nothing in common, other than being the only two people in the Voss family to know its deepest, darkest secret. But since it’s something we’ve never once discussed since the day it happened, it’s barely a common thread between us now.

And we look nothing alike. Honor and I look more like our mother. Or at least like she did when she was younger. Her hair used to be a more vibrant blonde, much like ours is now. But she hasn’t seen the sun in so long, I’ve noticed that the color has dulled. Utah looks like our father, with sandy brown hair and pale skin. Honor and I also have a paler shade of skin, but it’s not to the degree of Utah’s. He has to wear sunscreen if he’s going to be outside for more than half an hour or he’ll burn. I guess Honor and I lucked out, because we tan fairly easily in the summer.

Moby is just a mix of all of us. Sometimes he looks like our father, sometimes he looks like Victoria. But most of the time he reminds me of this bird off a Dawn dish soap commercial I saw last year. It’s not a bad resemblance. It was a cute bird.

Utah takes a seat and bends down to look under the table. “Morning, buddy. You excited about today?”

Moby wipes sticky glaze from his mouth with his shirtsleeve and nods. “Yes!”

“How excited?” Utah says.

“So excited!” Moby says, grinning from ear to ear.

“How excited?”

“The most excited!” Moby yells.

There’s nothing significant about today worth being excited about. This exchange is a daily occurrence between Utah and Moby. Utah says it’s important to get kids pumped up for their day, even if there’s nothing significant about it. He says it helps foster a positive neurological environment, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Utah wants to be a teacher and already has his entire college schedule planned out. As soon as he graduates high school in six months, he has a two-day weekend and then begins classes at the local university the following Monday. Honor also signed up to start classes two days after graduation.

Me? I’m still debating on going to class today, much less college six months from now.

It’s unusual to have three siblings who are all seniors in high school at the same time. My mother gave birth to Utah in August and then got pregnant with Honor and me one month later. Apparently it’s just a rumor that breastfeeding prevents a woman from ovulating.

When it was time for Utah to start school, she and my father decided to hold him back a year so they could have us all in the same grade at the same time. No sense dealing with different schedules when you can have one schedule for all three of your children.

I don’t think they thought far enough in advance to consider having to pay for three college tuitions at the same time. Not that it would matter. My parents don’t have the kind of money to pay one college tuition, let alone three. Once we start college, it’ll be student loans or nothing for me. Honor and Utah won’t have to worry about tuition because as it stands, they’re several points ahead of anyone else in the class when it comes to vying for valedictorian and salutatorian. There’s no question a Voss sibling will be in the top two spots in the class and will land the coveted scholarships that accompany the awards. It’s merely a question of which one of them will come out the most victorious. My vote is on Utah, simply because he runs less of a risk of becoming preoccupied with the terminally ill between now and graduation.

I’m not a competitive person by nature, so grades have never meant as much to me as they do to the two of them. I used to fall somewhere in the middle of the class when it comes to grade point average, but I’m sure my GPA has taken quite a hit in the past two weeks. I haven’t been back to school since the day I left early and went to the town square. I might go back but I’m more leaning toward not.

Utah is moving out in a month or two, but it probably won’t affect his GPA. Utah isn’t the type to party and let his grades slip. Besides, he’ll probably still be here most of the time since he isn’t going far. He’s redoing the floors in our old house—the one located directly behind this one. As soon as he finishes them, he’s moving over there. If anything, the peace and quiet will give him even more time to study. And clean. And iron his clothes. He has to be the most impeccably dressed high school senior I’ve ever encountered at a public school with no required uniform. Honestly, I’ll be glad when he moves into our old house. There’s been a lot of tension between us for a while now.

I pour myself a cup of juice and sit at the table across from Sagan. He doesn’t acknowledge me but he does shield whatever he’s drawing with his sporadically tattooed arm. I take note of a few new tattoos I haven’t noticed yet. There’s some sort of shield, a tiny lizard with one eye. Or maybe it’s winking. I would ask him what they mean, but I’d have to speak to him. I just keep my mouth shut and try to sneak a peek at whatever it is he’s drawing. I lean forward and try to get a better look. His eyes dart up and meet mine. I ignore the flutter of energy his eye contact gives me and force an unwavering expression. He arches an eyebrow and picks up his sketchbook as he leans back against his chair. He’s still looking at me as he gives his head a slow shake to let me know I’m not getting the privilege of watching him sketch.

I don’t want to see it anyway.

His phone vibrates and he practically lunges for it. He flips it over and looks at the screen but his face falls flat. He silences the call and flips his phone over. Now I’m curious who makes him so anxious to answer his phone if Honor is sitting right here. Sagan glances up at Honor and she’s staring at him. There’s a silent exchange between them and knowing they probably have inside secrets burns a hole in my stomach.

I move my attention to Moby, who is still hiding under the table. He’s managed to get more of the donut on his face than inside his mouth. “One more?” he mutters with a mouthful. I shake my head. Moderation. Also, we don’t have any more.

Victoria enters the kitchen in a rush. “Moby, come get your oatmeal!” She yells this loud enough to spread across all quarters of the house, but if she’d pay closer attention to her child instead of her makeup, she’d notice he’s already awake, dressed, and fed.

Victoria grabs a knife from the drawer and a banana. She wipes the blade of the knife across her pink scrubs, judging its cleanliness. Or lack thereof. “Whose day was it to wash dishes yesterday?”

None of us respond to her. We rarely do. Unless our father is in the room, Victoria is of little importance to us.

“Well, whoever unloaded the dishwasher, make sure the dishes are clean before you put them away. These are disgusting.” She puts the knife in the sink and pulls another knife out of the drawer. She glances across the kitchen at all her stepchildren sitting around the table. I’m the only one looking at her. She sighs and begins peeling the banana.

I have no idea what my father sees in her. Sure, she’s cute for her age, having just turned thirty-five. A good ten years younger than my mother. But that’s the extent of Victoria’s qualities. She’s an overbearing mother to Moby. She takes her job as a nurse way too seriously. Not that being a nurse isn’t a reputable career. But the issue with Victoria is she doesn’t seem to know how to separate her work life from her home life. She’s always in caregiver mode to Moby like he’s ill, but he’s a very viable four-year-old. And she always wears pink scrubs, even though she’s allowed to wear any color or pattern she wants.

I think her pink scrubs annoy me more than anything else about her. I might even be more willing to forgive her for the atrocity she committed against my mother if she’d wear a different color just once.

I remember the day she started wearing pink scrubs. I was twelve, sitting at this very table. She had emerged from Quarter Three, back when Quarter Three was shared by my father and ailing mother. She had been my mother’s nurse for about six months and I actually kind of liked her. Until that particular morning, anyway.

My father had been sitting across from me reading the paper when he looked up at her and smiled. “Pink looks really good on you, Victoria.”

I know I was young, but even kids can recognize flirting, especially when that flirting only involves one of their two married parents.

Victoria has only worn shades of pink scrubs since that day. I often wonder if their affair began before or after that flirtatious moment in the kitchen. Sometimes the curiosity consumes me so much, I want to ask them the exact hour they began ruining my mother’s life. But that would mean we were discussing a secret out in the open, and we don’t do that in this family. We keep our secrets buried deeper than the grave Victoria wishes my mother would go ahead and fall in.

They kept the affair quiet for at least a year. Long enough to realize my mother’s cancer wasn’t going to kill her after all, but not long enough to prevent Victoria from getting pregnant. My father was stuck between a rock and a hard place at that point. It didn’t matter which decision he made, he’d still come out the asshole. On the one hand, he could choose not to abandon his wife who had just beaten cancer. But if he chose his wife, that would mean he was abandoning his new pregnant mistress.

It was so long ago, I’m not sure how he came about making the decision he made. I don’t have much recollection of any fighting taking place between the adults. I do, however, remember when my mother and father discussed where his new wife and child would live. She suggested he move to our old home behind Dollar Voss and leave her here to manage us children. He refused on the grounds that she wasn’t mentally or physically competent enough to manage us children without his help. And sadly, he was right.

My mother had been in a car accident when she was pregnant with my sister and me, and she never fully recovered. To us kids, she’s the same person she’s always been, considering we didn’t know her before the accident. But we know she changed because of how our father references things. He would say, “Before the accident when your mother could . . .” or “Before the accident when we would take vacations . . .” or “Before the accident when she wasn’t so ill . . .”

He never said any of those things out of spite, I don’t think. They were just matter-of-fact. There is the Victoria Voss “before the accident” and the Victoria Voss we now have as a mother. If you don’t count her bad back, her two-year fight against brain cancer, a slight limp in her step, a severe social anxiety that’s kept her in the basement for over two years, a few scars on her right arm, and her inability to make it through an entire day without at least two naps, she’s relatively normal.

We used to try to get her to leave the basement and interact with us all the time. The last time she left the basement was to attend Kirk’s funeral, and that was only because Honor sobbed and begged her to come. But after that, when the first year of her seclusion came and went and our mother seemed to be functioning just fine with her life in the basement, we had no choice but to accept it. With Utah, Honor, and me, she’s checked on daily. My father still buys all her groceries and Honor and I make sure her mini-kitchen is fully stocked. She doesn’t have any bills because my father covers utilities on the whole house.

The only issue that has come up in the two years since she’s been secluded is her health. Fortunately, my father found a doctor who does house calls if he’s ever needed. And since she refuses to see a psychiatrist for her social phobia, we have no other choice but to accept it. For now. I have a feeling after all three of us kids are out of the house next year, Victoria is going to demand my mother move out. But that’s not a battle anyone wants to confront prematurely, especially when my siblings and I will be the first to come to our mother’s defense.

Victoria has just resigned to pretending my mother doesn’t exist. The same way my siblings and I pretend Victoria doesn’t exist. We don’t see the point in befriending a woman we despise, simply because she’s the mother of our little half brother.

Since the day Victoria entered our lives, our family hasn’t been the same. And while we do hold our father accountable for half of our family issues, he is still required to love us. Which makes him harder to blame than Victoria, who doesn’t even like us.

Victoria scoops up the bananas and layers them over the top of Moby’s bowl of oatmeal. “Moby, come eat your breakfast!”

Moby crawls out from under the table and stands up. “I’m not hungry.” He wipes glaze off his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt. There’s no hiding that he just inhaled a donut, and there’s no sense in trying to hide that I’m the one who gave it to him.

“Moby,” Victoria says, taking him in. “What in the world is all over your . . .” Here we go. “Merit! I told you not to give him donuts.”

I look at Victoria innocently just as my father walks into the room. She turns her attention to him, waving the knife in the air that she was just using to slice bananas. “Merit gave Moby a donut for breakfast!”

My father gently slides his fingers around her wrist and grabs the knife. He leans in and kisses her on the cheek and then sets the knife on the counter, finding me in his crowd of children. “Merit, we talked about this. Do it again and you’re grounded.”

I nod, assuming that’s the end of it. But Victoria doesn’t stop there, because a donut for breakfast is the equivalent to Armageddon and it deserves all the panic.

“You never ground them,” she accuses. She grabs the bowl of oatmeal and walks it over to the trash. She angrily scoops the contents of the bowl into the trash. “I’ve never seen you actually follow through with a single punishment, Barnaby. It’s why they act like this.”

They being my father’s three oldest children. And it’s the truth. He’s full of empty threats and very little follow-through. It’s my favorite thing about him.

“Sweetie, lighten up. Maybe Merit didn’t know she wasn’t supposed to give him a donut today.”

Nothing irks Victoria more than when my father takes our side over hers. “Of course Merit knows not to give him a donut. She doesn’t listen to me. None of them do.” Victoria chucks the bowl in the sink and bends to pick up Moby. She sets him on the counter near the sink and wets a napkin to wipe donut remnants off his face. “Moby, you cannot eat donuts. They are very bad for you. They make you sleepy, and when you’re sleepy, you can’t perform well in school.”

Never mind the fact that he’s four and isn’t even in real school yet.

My father sips from his coffee cup and then reaches over to Moby and ruffles his hair. “Listen to your mother, buddy.” He carries his coffee and newspaper to the table, taking the seat next to me. He gives me a look that says he’s not happy with me. I just stare at him with the hope that he demands I apologize, or asks me why I broke one of Victoria’s rules again.

But he doesn’t. Which means my no-speaking streak is looking good for day four.

I wonder if anyone will notice my taciturnity. Not that I’m giving anyone the silent treatment. I’m seventeen years old. Hardly a child. But I do feel invisible in this house most of the time and I’m curious how long it will take before someone notices I haven’t spoken out loud.

I realize it’s a bit passive aggressive, but it’s not like I’m doing it to prove a point to them. It’s simply to prove a point to myself. I wonder if I can make it an entire week. I once read a quote that said, “Don’t make your presence known. Make your absence felt.”

No one in this family notices my presence or my absence. They would all notice Honor’s. But I was born second, which just makes me a faded copy of the original.

“What’s going on the marquee today, Utah?” my father asks.

It’s bad enough all the ex-parishioners of this church still hold a grudge against my father for buying this house, but the marquee digs the knife in even deeper. I’m sure the daily quotes that have nothing to do with Christianity get under people’s skin. Yesterday’s quote said CHARLES DARWIN ATE EVERY ANIMAL HE DISCOVERED.

I had to Google that fact because it sounded too insane to be true. It’s true.

“You’ll see in five minutes,” Utah says. He downs the rest of his shake and pushes away from the table.

“Wait,” Honor says. “Maybe you should hold off on updating the marquee today. You know, out of respect.”

Utah stares blankly at Honor, which clues her in that none of us knows what she’s talking about.

She looks at my father. “Pastor Brian died last night.”

I immediately turn my attention to my father at that news. He rarely shows emotion, and I’m not sure what kind of emotion this will bring him. But surely it’ll be something. A tear? A smile? He stares stoically at Honor as he absorbs the news.

“He did?”

She nods. “Yeah, I saw it on Facebook this morning. Heart attack.”

My father leans back in his chair, gripping his coffee cup. He looks down at the cup. “He’s dead?”

Victoria puts a hand on my father’s shoulder and says something to him, but I tune her out. Until this moment, I had forgotten all about Wolfgang showing up last night.

I put my hand over my mouth because I suddenly want to tell them all about the dog showing up in the middle of the night, but I feel like I might choke up.

What does it say about me that I didn’t have any sort of reaction just now to the news of Pastor Brian’s passing, but realizing his dog came back to the only other home he’s ever known makes me want to tear up?

Honor called me a sociopath once while we were in the middle of a fight. I’ll make it a point to look up that word later. There might be some truth to that.

“I can’t believe he’s dead,” my father says. He stands up and Victoria’s hand slides off his shoulder and down his back. “He wasn’t that much older than me.”

Of course that’s what he’s focused on. Pastor Brian’s age. He’s less concerned about the death of a man he’s been warring with for years and more concerned that he was close in age to someone who is old enough to fall over dead from a heart attack.

Utah is still paused at the door. He looks like he’s in a state of disbelief. “I don’t know what to do,” he says. “If I don’t acknowledge his passing on the marquee, people will accuse us of being insensitive. But if I acknowledge it, people will accuse us of being disingenuous.”

What an odd thing to be worried about in this moment.

Honor’s boyfriend tears out his drawing and stares down at it. “Sounds like you’re screwed either way, so I’d just go with whatever you feel like going with.” He says all this without looking up from his drawing. But his words reach Utah anyway, because after a brief moment of pause, Utah walks out the front door toward the marquee.

I’m confused by two things. One being the constant and repeated presence of Honor’s boyfriend at our breakfast table. Two being the fact that everyone seems to know him so well that they’re perfectly fine with him joining in on the family conversation. Shouldn’t he be too nervous to speak? Especially around my father. He’s only been hanging around for a couple of weeks now. Meeting his girlfriend’s family seemed to sit really well with him. I hate it. I also hate that he doesn’t seem like the type of person who talks a lot, but the few things he does say have more weight than if anyone else were to say them.

Maybe that’s part of the reason I’ve decided to go on a verbal strike. I’m tired of everything I say not having meaning to anyone. I’ll just stop talking so that when I do talk, my words will count. Right now it feels like any time I talk, my words circle right back into my mouth like a boomerang and I’m forced to swallow them again.

“What’s a heart attack?” Moby asks.

Victoria bends and begins to help Moby put on his jacket. “It’s when your heart stops working and your body goes to sleep. But it only happens when you’re an old, old man like Pastor Brian.”

“His body went to sleep?” Moby asks.

Victoria nods.

“For how long? When is he gonna wake up?”

“Not for a long time.”

“Is he gonna get buried?”

“Yes,” she says, sounding a bit annoyed with the natural curiosity of her four-year-old. She zips his jacket. “Go get your shoes.”

“But what happens when he wakes up? Will he be able to get out of the ground?”

I smile, knowing how much Victoria hates telling Moby the truth. He asks all the normal questions about life and Victoria makes up the most bizarre answers. She’ll do anything to protect him from the truth. I once heard him ask her what the word sex meant. She told him it was a terrible TV show from the eighties and that he should never watch it.

She places her hands on Moby’s cheeks. “Yes, he can get out of the ground when he wakes up. They’ll bury Pastor Brian with a cell phone so he can call them when it’s time to dig him back up.”

Honor sputters laughter and spews juice everywhere. Utah hands her a napkin and whispers, “Does she think this is healthier than telling him the truth?”

We’re all watching this conversation with fascination. Victoria can sense it because even though she’s failing miserably, she’s giving it her best effort to put Moby’s questions to rest. “Let’s go find your backpack,” she says, pulling on his hand. He stops following her right before they make it to the hallway.

“But what if his phone battery dies while his body is sleeping? Will he be stuck in the ground forever?”

My father grabs Moby by the hand, sweeping in to rescue the desperate Victoria. “Come on, buddy. Time to go.” Right when they round the corner to the hallway, I hear Moby say, “Isn’t it time for your body to sleep, Daddy? It’s getting really old, too.”

Honor starts laughing, and I think her boyfriend does, too, but his laugh is quiet and I don’t want to look at him. I cover my mouth because I’m not sure if laughing out loud counts against my verbal strike, but Victoria’s mothering skills are humorous at best.

Victoria is staring at all of us with her hands on her hips, watching us laugh. Her face turns as pink as her scrubs and she walks swiftly out of the room, headed toward Quarter Three.

I would feel sorry for her if she didn’t bring this on herself.

Utah and Honor begin to pack up their things. I walk to the sink and pretend to busy myself, hoping they don’t ask me if I’m going to school today. I usually take a different car than the two of them because they both stay after school. Honor for cheerleading practice and Utah for . . . whatever it is Utah does after school. I’m not even sure. I go to my room, mostly to avoid looking at Honor’s boyfriend because every time I do I feel a little bit of his mouth on mine from that day on the square.

I wait in my room and listen for the front door to open and close and even then I wait several more minutes. When the house is finally quiet and I’m certain he’s gone, I open my bedroom door and slowly walk toward the kitchen to ensure the coast is clear. My mother is downstairs, but the chances of her coming out of the basement to ask why I’ve skipped school are less than the chances of the Cowboys beating the Packers tonight.

Speaking of. I’m a little disappointed my father or Victoria didn’t notice Cheesus before they left.

On my way into the kitchen, the marquee outside the window catches my attention. I squint to read the words Utah selected to display.

THERE ARE MORE FAKE FLAMINGOS IN THE WORLD THAN REAL ONES.

I sigh, a little disappointed in Utah. If it were me, I would have paid my respects to Pastor Brian. Either that, or I wouldn’t have updated it at all. But to update it without acknowledging the death of the man who erected that very marquee seems a little . . . I don’t know . . . like something people would expect from a Voss. I don’t like validating their negative perception of us.

I glance in the living room and then the kitchen, wondering what I’m going to do with myself today. Another crossword puzzle? I’m getting really good at them. I sit down at the table with my half-completed book of crossword puzzles. I flip it to the puzzle I finished on Friday and start on the next one.

I’m on the third question across before the doubt begins to seep in. It’s no big deal, this has been happening every day since I stopped going to school. A sense of panic rears its ugly head, making me question my choice.

I’m still not quite certain why I stopped going. There wasn’t a single catastrophic or embarrassing incident that influenced my decision. Just a bunch of small ones that continued to pile up until they were hard to ignore. That, coupled with my ability to make choices without giving them a second thought. One minute I was at school and the next minute I decided I’d rather be browsing antiques than learning about how terribly we lost the Battle of the Alamo.

I like spontaneity. Maybe I like it because Utah hates it so much. There’s something freeing about refusing to stress over stressful situations. No matter how much thought or time you put into a decision, you’re still only going to be wrong or right. Besides, I’ve accrued more knowledge this week by doing these crossword puzzles than I probably could in my entire senior year attending high school. It’s why I only do one puzzle a day. I don’t want to get too intellectually ahead of Honor and Utah.

It isn’t until I finish the puzzle and close the book that I notice the sketch left on the table. It’s placed upside down in front of the spot I was seated at this morning. I reach across the table, slide the sketch toward me and flip it over.

His drawings make no sense. What would possess him to draw a picture of someone swallowing a boat?

I flip it over and look at the back of it. At the very bottom, it reads, “If silence were a river, your tongue would be the boat.”

I flip the drawing back over and stare at it a moment, completely taken aback. Did he draw this of me? Was he the only one in this house to notice I haven’t spoken since Friday?

“He actually noticed,” I whisper.

And then I immediately slap the drawing on the table and groan. I just ruined my no-speaking streak. “Dammit.”

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