When I wake up my body is on fire. Every bone feels cracked, every muscle torn and every part of my skin feels scorched. My mouth is bone-dry and I think my tongue could cut my mouth. My hair plasters uncomfortably to my neck and for a moment I smell something faintly; sea salt.
I jolt up, as the memory of water surges into my mind. My eyes are puffy, no doubt, but wide open. The room spins and everything is a blur. I rub my temples and squeeze the bridge of my nose to relieve some of the pain.
The sun's rays brilliantly touch every surface with a shimmer, making it all seem like a big, golden mirage. The window is wide open, the breeze blows the curtains and makes them flutter gently.
What happened last night? I feel like my body was rolling around in an oven all day. Was it a dream or did I really plunge into the water with a motorcycle? Was it all true?
I begin to shake violently and it has nothing to do with the wind. If it was real, then what am I? How can I explain the things that I did? What is wrong with me?
I blow away a loose strand of hair from my face and pull on my earlobe, trying to think. Gently, I touch my palm and it doesn't feel heavy anymore. I sigh in relief and close my eyes, only to get flashing images of Hugo and Amitra, the strange boy, the water, the lights, the race, the loud rumbling of the engines. I gasp and flutter my eyes open. Maybe it was a dream after all. If it was true, then how did I get home? And where is Amitra?
I laugh under my breath at how silly I am. Of course none of it was true, because it's bizarre. It was all a very bad dream and I would never sneak off during the night to do something illegal, or would I?
"Morning, sunshine," I hear a voice and whirl around. Staring at me are two golden eyes that are round like almonds. Oscar is propped up on one elbow in his bed, his blonde hair is in a messy tangle of curls, his grin is wide that shows his dimples clearly.
Girls would call my cousin handsome, but he has never had any interest in them much. He walks through he corridors oblivious to the pointing and the giggles and the looks girls give him. A few have tried to become my friends, just so they could talk to him, but I'm not stupid.
He yawns widely like a lion and scratches the back of his head. His cotton blue shirt crumples upwards, the colour almost faded.
"Hey, Ozzie," I mumble and look to the mirror in from of me. I try to stifle the gasp, when I see my reflection. Down my cheeks run two parallel faint lines, as if I was cut by a knife. Suddenly, the memory of the tears burning me seems so real. I bite down hard on my lip and try to smile to cover up my worries and I dismiss it, trying to convince myself that they are crease marks.
"Tor, are you okay?" Oscar's voice drops and his eyebrows rise up high, "You seem...on edge,"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just thinking," I mumble and hear him plop back down on the bed, pulling the pillow over his head. This is still too early for him, because his routine consists of reading until his eyes pop out and then waking up at midday. He's what they call the 'owl'.
"Aren't you always?" he asks in a muffled voice from underneath the pillow. I look around our room and flinch. Aunt Maggie would probably make me do chores today, because Oscar and I have made this room into a dump, literally. We are equally messy and careless, resulting in books being piled up in dangerous heaps around the table, apple cores all over the window sill, empty mugs from tea or coffee lining our beds and the table, wilted flower pots, clothes strewn across the floor and unwanted things pushed under our beds.
If my aunt was to come in, she would skin us alive. As if on cue, I hear her voice boom loudly through the walls, "Torrance Cartwright Adler!" she yells, "If you won't get yourself out of bed and come down here this instant, then I swear that I will drag you down if the stairs!"
I smile, imagining her infamous scowl and the way she crinkles up her nose when she is angry. Oscar chuckles from under the pillows and I scramble out of bed, tripping over my black Chucks, "It's not funny," I snap. He pulls his head out, his hair even messier than before.
"Of course it's not. She'll take it out on me too, so you better get moving," he warns, as I look around for something to wear that is clean, which isn't much, considering I put on one of Oscar's shirts, "Hey! Get your own clothes! I don't want to smell like a girl!" he protests.
"Ozzie, you already smell like a girl," I snicker, earning a pillow to the face, "Don't deny that you use my shampoo, because you reek of honeycomb," I point out and he blushes.
"Okay, I use your shampoo, so what? Hang me; I like how it smells. They don't make them for men," he begins to get defensive, but I can't stop laughing.
I strap my greasy hair in a messy bun and throw the pillow back at him. He leans away, making me miss my aim, "That doesn't mean you have to lather half of the bottle onto your head in one go," he only shows me his tongue and makes faces at me.
"Oh, and brush your teeth," I add, "They stink like a dead animal," and I quickly rush out of the room, before he gets time to throw something else at me. Just as I close the door, I hear a loud thud against it. Chuckling, I run down the stairs, taking two at a time.
I almost fly into the door at the bottom step and I swerve around the corner of our small house, nearly tripping on the rug. I bombard through the kitchen doors, making my aunt shriek in surprise.
"Good Heavens!" she yelps, leaning on one hip. Steam curls around her from behind like serpents and the windows are wide open, ventilating the hot air. She holds a whisk in one hand and a flowered apron is tied around her waist.
Traces of flour are smudged across her delicate rosy cheeks and her warm brown hair is up in a neat bun. She wears her usual scowl on her face and her eyes narrow in irritation. I plant a kiss on her cheek and embrace her into a hug, "Morning, Aunt Maggie," I smile, but she only sniffs and turns back to the steaming stove.
"About time," she says, "You might as well hibernate like Oscar," she mumbles in an angry voice to herself. I smile and sit down on a chair at the kitchen table. The colour in my cheeks begins to rise from the heat and I lean closer to the window.
My aunt is a small, petite woman, but very strong at the same time. She might seem stern at most times, but she has a heart that is softer than a child's. She would give up anything for her family and I know she loves us, even though she doesn't say it often enough.
Aunt Maggie throws four waffles onto a plate and places it in front of me, giving me that look which says "If you don't eat it all, then you will not get out alive". I grin up at her and grab the golden syrup, pouring it all over my steaming waffles.
If it's one thing that my aunt is well known for it's her cooking. She can whip up anything ranging from a mean curry up to a meringue pie. She knows every recipe there is and she has won almost every cooking prize. Aunt Maggie told me once that she was thinking of opening her own bakery, but we don't have enough money.
"Aunt Maggie, I've been meaning to ask you something," I say with my mouth full of waffles and syrup dribbling down my lip.
"Swallow first," she says sternly, turning around, her arms crossed. Another thing about my aunt is that you have to have good manners. She would have you on her enemy list if you slurp your drinks, wipe your hands on your clothes, forget your 'please' and 'thank you' or anything else that "civilized people", as she puts it, do or say.
I gulp down the hot waffle and swipe my mouth with a tissue, "Was I...was I here last night?" I say uneasily, as if there is a needle jabbing into my stomach. Cold sweat begins to run down my palms and my knees bounce up and down. Why am I so worried? What is wrong with me?
I hear a clatter and she drops something by accident into the sink. The water is running, but my aunt doesn't seem to notice. She stays silent for what seems like a very long time and then she regains her posture and turns around, her back straight.
"You were here the whole night," she answers coolly, "I checked up on you several times. You had a temperature. Why do you ask?" he chin is up high and her eyes flicker with something - fear. But it is gone the moment I see it.
The clock ticks thunderously and I don't know if it's my imagination or if it's the pressure of my aunt's glare that makes the sound of it amplified by ten times. I clean out my ear, as if the sound will go away, but nothing happens.
"I just...It's nothing. A bad dream, that's all," I give her a wobbly smile. Her chest rises and falls heavily and I can see the blood pulsing in her vein at the temple. What is she so stressed about?
"A bad dream?" she repeats slowly and I nod, "About what? What do you remember?" her voice is tight and I can sense a note of urgency in it. I think I'm beginning to get scared of my aunt, because never have I seen her this tense. She looks like she has seen someone die right in front of her.
I feel a lump rise in my throat, as I debate mentally whether I should tell her what I have seen or not. But I am saved from my interrogation, when the door flies open and the twins barge in. Aurora's light brown hair flaps behind her in a plat and her bright yellow dress is already stained. Teddy, the younger of the two, runs behind her, shrieking and laughing.
The twins are the most devilish of children that I have ever met. Every day they either break something, harm others, harm themselves or cause panic in our neighbourhood. Once, they decided to make a love potion for Aunt Maggie and they used orange juice as one of the ingredients. It was left in the fridge, so everyone drank out of it and as a result, we all ended up in red splotches around our legs and arms. I never had the nerve to ask what else they used.
"I told you no running in the kitchen!" my aunt booms and her face contorts into a vivid crimson colour. She hopelessly tries to catch them, as they circle around her and the kitchen table. Teddy distracts her, while Aurora grabs for the cookie jar off the counter and heads for the exit. Teddy follows suit, leaving my aunt livid.
I stifle my laughs, because I don't need another lecture. She throws her hands up in the air, panting from all the running, "Those two...I swear will be the end of me one day," she breathes and fixes her bun into place.
She must have forgotten about me, because she goes back to washing the dishes and I sit silently, waiting for her to address me. I hear the kettle rumbling and come to the boiling point, just as the door opens again and Oscar shuffles in. This time, I let out a laugh.
Oscar is barefooted and still groggy from bed. His covers drape over his head and his shoulders and drag behind him on the floor. Only a stray strand of gold is visible and his nose that pokes out from the duvet.
"What is wrong with the world?" my aunt sucks in a breath, when she catches sight of Oscar, "My God, why can't his be a normal family?" she prays to herself and sighs heavily.
I suddenly feel a tang of guilt towards my aunt. She is such a fragile creature and I am the only one who seems to notice it. Oscar may help her out once in a while and she has a soft spot for him, but he never really sees her as being a weak little woman. She has endured so much and now that I realise it, I haven't exactly made things easier for her either.
She took me in after my parents died and because she can't have children, she adopted my cousins; Oscar, Prudence, Aurora and Teddy. She takes care of us like a mother would and it can't be easy.
"Earth to Torrance," Oscar snaps his fingers in front of my face. I slap them away and scowl at him, "What is bothering you?" he asks and I am aware of my aunt watching us. I decide not to worry her with my problems, because I don't want to put extra pressure on her.
"I'm just worried about school," I lie and Oscar makes a face, scrunching up his nose.
"Why? It's not like you're particularly bad," he leans back on the chair, popping my unfinished waffle in his mouth.
"Yeah, yeah," I roll my eyes, "We can't all be so carefree like you," I say in an annoyed tone.
Oscar, even though he might not seem like it, gets top grades in class and he is the smartest person I know. He told me once that he wanted to become a Creator, because if his records stay as good as they are now, he might be offered a scholarship in the city, which is a big deal.
I get good grades as well, which helps because Oscar and I understand each other and when one of us needs to study, we don't question it and give each other peace. Even though I might get a scholarship too, I don't think I'd accept it, because only one in the family can go to study in the city. Also, I don't know what I want to do when I finish my education and now that I look back, I don't see the reason I should study at all.
I guess I could do medicine, but what's the point if no one gets sick anymore due to the scientists having cures for everything now, even cancer? Still, the lower classes can't afford those and they on the other hand, need doctors.
I snap out of my thoughts and stop pulling my earlobe, when I see Prue trudge through the door. She is her usual depressed self; dark, sleek hair that falls down like a curtain over her left eye, a jumper with long sleeves that are torn and shaggy, a sulking face and a slouched back. No one knows what the problem is with her, but Aunt Maggie says that she had a tough childhood.
She is always quiet and only talks to Oscar, for reasons I don't know. I guess he seems trustworthy. She used to be bullied at school and it still happens occasionally, but she never seemed to pay attention anyway. I do my best to protect her, but what can I do if she pushes me away?
"Morning, Prue," Oscar greets her cheerfully and ruffles her hair. She slaps his hand away, grumbling under her breath. She sits beside me and stares at the square pattern of the table cloth, as if it's something phenomenal.
My aunt pours everyone tea and the minute Oscar's cup is full, he slurps it so loudly that he earns a thwack from my aunt, "Manners!" she hisses and he almost chokes on the drink. His mug is the largest with the words SLEEP IS MY ENTERTAIMENT on it. He likes his tea without sugar or milk, just like me.
"Prudence, why aren't you eating?" my aunt chews on her lip, seeing that Prue's waffles are still untouched and her tea is getting cold. Prue doesn't look up, but pokes the waffle distastefully and makes a face.
"I'm not hungry," she says so quietly that I wonder if she really said it.
"Come on, honey. We talked about this before, eat up. You need to be healthy and strong," my aunt says softly, which is rare. Prue looks up at her and a wave of confusion passes over her face.
"Stop acting like you're my mom, because you're not. You never will be," she says flatly and slowly glides out of the chair.
"Prudence!" Oscar calls after her in a stern voice, "Get back here and apologize!"
From the corner of my eye, I see Aunt Maggie sigh in desperation and her hands shake violently. Oscar is annoyed; I can tell by the way he taps one finger on the table. If he's furious, he taps three.
"Don't worry mom," Oscar breaks the silence. My aunt wipes away a tear from her cheek and sniffs. She straightens up and begins to collect the cups and plates from the table. I don't protest that I am not finished, because she is upset enough as it is, "I'll talk to her," Oscar takes her wrists and kisses them, before leaving the kitchen. I hear him mount the steps in huge strides.
My aunt crumbles when he is gone and falls into the chair opposite me. I don't know what to do, because I have never seen my aunt show her weak side. I want to comfort her and tell her that everything will be okay, but I hate doing that, because it's giving false hope.
Instead, I reach for her and gently stroke her hair, as she softly sobs with her arms on the table.
"I don't understand," she blubbers, "What am I doing wrong? Am I really doing a bad job?" she says in hiccoughs.
"No," I say softly, "You're doing a great job, Aunt Maggie. Prudence is just going through a rough patch. She'll come around. You just have to give her time,"
We stay like that for a few minutes, until she pulls up her head and rubs away her teary eyes. Her face is red from crying and her hair comes out in loose strands. I smile shakily at her, but she looks at me forcefully.
"You be careful today, Torrance," her voice is grim, "Be careful who you trust; the devil was once an angel too,"