I find myself increasingly alone these days- I slept in late this morning so when I wake up, everyone is gone. I send a few texts around, asking the whereabouts of my siblings, and when I'm satisfied with the replies I get I allow myself to relax a bit- or at least I try. I feel strained inside, tensed like an elastic band stretched and on the verge of snapping back any second. But there's no real reason to feel like this; I should be happy because things are okay with Abby and Rob is coming home any day now. My attempts at banishing my worries are wasted, because they soon morph into nausea, which has me running to the toilet within a minute. I press my face against the cool tile of the bathroom wall and try to decipher whatever's going on. I had said to Mrs. Keller that perhaps the thought of moving back to our old house had unsettled Abby- is it possible that I was actually referring to myself?
After a second bout of vomiting I manage to bring my stomach under control, and decide to take small sips of water rather than actual food, fearing that any eggs I eat might quickly make their way back up again. I progress to tea, not braving coffee. The mug is warm in my hands and I'm ready to sip when the buzzer sounds. I groan and wait a moment before forcing myself up and trudging to the intercom. Holding the button down, I wait.
An unexpected, staticky voice sounds back through the small metal box.
"Hello, Annabelle. It's Dave. Could you buzz me up- I have someone for you to meet."
The message is vague but I allow him entry; he knocks a few minutes later.
"Hey, Dave," I greet him as I open the door, baffled. "I wasn't expecting you for quite a while, to be honest."
Dave stops by every few months or so to check up on us- his main interest is in those of us under eighteen, so only Abby and the twins now. His last visit was fairly recently, which is why I'm surprised to see him again so soon.
Dave laughs, but it's a tense sound. "It's not really a check up, per-say."
Then I notice the woman standing a bit behind him. She has a razor-sharp bob and an equally sharp suit. "This is Helen," says Dave. "She's from the Agency."
At once something resembling a boulder lodges itself in my throat. I give a stab at (and don't believe I succeed) a polite smile, when I'm sure my heart and the boulder are about to collide.
"Adoption?" I repeat, looking from Dave to Helen and back again.
Helen speaks with what I think she thinks are assuring words, "It's nothing bad."
They don't assure me.
"Can we come in?" she asks. I nod, and open the door wider, stepping back.
It's only then that I notice the third member of their party. A little girl. Dave closes the door and I stare at him and Helen. My confusion begins to approach impatience. They stare back at me, equally expectant: they want me to talk to the child. I crouch down to her height and smile. Helen and Dave look relieved, like I've passed a test I didn't know I was taking.
I take a closer look at the girl- she's extremely gorgeous- more spritely than human- but she can't be older than seven. In spite of that she stands like a little lady: knees together and hands clasped behind her back. With her head tilted downwards she looks painfully shy.
"What's your name?" I ask her, holding out my hand. She shakes it delicately, only for a second, but she doesn't reply. Helen chimes in.
"Her name is Anabel," she says, pseudo-excitement coating her voice.
"No way!" I say, way chirpier than is normal. "That's my name, too!"
If Anabel knows I'm trying too hard she doesn't let me in on it. Instead, she insists on looking at the carpet. For the briefest moment, she reminds me of Abby that day in Mrs. Keller's office. My sister had stood like this, too.
I look over her once more. I notice that, proportionally, our hair is the same length; hers even has a slight curl to it, too- falling to the middle of our backs. But on her, the mahogany of my hair is replaced by a radiant blonde, a colour that's almost gold.
Even though I'm pretty much at her height, I can't see her face, and I find myself battling with a strange need to do so. I give up and will her silently to look at me. I focus on her intensely, probably worrying Dave and Helen, but she finally looks up- just for a split second. That split second is enough.
I rise slowly, not feeling the ache in my thighs from squatting, and find myself staring at a wristwatch- I'm so stunned that it doesn't matter whose it is.
Let me tell you what I learnt about young Anabel in the fleeting glance I received of her face: Anabel has lovely eyebrows- beautifully arched- and only marginally darker than her hair- just marginally. Her eyelashes, however, are quite a bit darker- verging on brown- but still enviable- long and curling. But what's really fascinating is the pair of eyes that these lashes frame. They're huge and doe-like, and seem to have a liking for looking downwards. What's absolutely exceptional is the colour of these eyes- a brilliant green... like shards of green glass or looking through a kaleidoscope with an emerald held at the lens.
Things are swelling and bursting, and coming alive and dying inside of me. They can't do this to me- to us. I stare numbly at the girl, willing her to go away. Leave, now. I don't want you.
"Annabelle," Dave says, or maybe it's 'Anabel'. Either way we both look up, and I feel seven years old again. I stare at Helen pleadingly, begging her not to say the words I already know are true.
"Annabelle," she says, and I know this time it's aimed at me. Don't say it, don't say it, don't say it. "Meet your sister."
But she says it anyway.
My heart and the boulder, they're both gone. The moment I saw Anabel's eyes they dropped, and merged into a balloon that was conveniently the size of my stomach. When Helen says the words, the balloon pops, and the explosion wreaks havoc on my insides. All of this happens through a blank stare that sticks to Anabel. I force the stare away- it lands on Helen.
"How old is she?" I ask, with words I can't hear.
"Seven," Helen replies- I guessed right.
There's movement and then I'm crashing into the coat stand. Abby's parka with the fur-lined hood falls on my lap. Someone holds a hand out- bigger than mine but with long, elegant fingers. Helen could be a pianist. I look up. It's Dave's hand, and I don't take it.
"Seven years ago," I say, stroking the soft fur with trembling fingers, "Mum was with Paul. She can't be-"
Movement again. I think Dave has pulled me up because I can see his tie- it's the colour of Jen's new room. I'm led over to the sofa, there's a light push and I'm sitting. Dave lets out a heavy sigh.
"Anabel isn't your mother's daughter, Annabelle."
I already know that, obviously, but what I know, what I want to say, and the few words that I do manage to say are worlds apart. Like me and Anabel.
"I don't even know my father," I say. I'm a child, looking for excuses.
"But you're Anabel's only family- you're her sister."
"I have two sisters: Jennifer and Abigail."
"And now you have three. Will you take care of her, Anna?"
Even though I know what they want me to say; even though Anabel is sitting right in front of me, I ask,
"Do I have to?"
Dave says, "We can't make you, Anna, but I want to believe you're still that girl who fought to keep her family together all those years ago."
"What if this tears us apart?"
"You're the glue, you keep your family together. Anabel is family."
Those three words bind the broken cord that had me gradually floating away from my own body. I nod, just once. "I need to know you'll look after her, Annabelle."
I nod again. "She's family," I say. "I'll take care of her."
Dave and Helen both stand up. I rise with them.
"Take care, Anna," Dave says.
Helen says, "Good luck," and squeezes my hand. They leave and I turn to my new sister, only now seeing the little blue suitcase next to her. She's still, a girl frozen in time, not even daring to look up. I walk past her to get to the kitchen and I pause. I should stroke her hair, put a hand on her head, but my fingers don't move. On the kitchen counter I see quite a thick file, numerous sheets protruding from it, and a piece of paper, probably left by Helen and Dave. Allergies, the paper says. None. I feel no urge to read the file so I walk past it and make Anabel a Nutella sandwich, cutting of the crusts and slicing it into near perfectly identical triangles. I place it on the coffee table in front of her and sit down, watching her take tiny, nimble bites. I pull my iPhone out of my pocket and dial the first number in my favourites list. Two rings and the phone is picked up. The voice on the other line is cheerful.
When I don't respond the voice turns concerned. "Annie, what's wrong?"
"Rob," I say, my voice almost cracking. My throat is dry, it hurts. "How quickly do you think you can get down here?"
"I can be there first thing tomorrow," he says immediately. "What's wrong, Annie? You're worrying me." Rob is the only one who calls me Annie.
I look at the four-foot, green-eyed, blonde knife that has just severed my world into two. "I have someone for you to meet."