"I hate you!"
She sat outside the frame of the locked door and tried not to cry. Nerves worn thin, grated on steel wool, she was tired. She ached with every fiber in her body.
"I just want mom and dad back!"
Her muscles hurt, her head hurt, dinner was overflowing on the stove. She wanted to scream, cry, shout anything.
"I know," she said again.
Then nothing. Silence, perhaps a muffled sob into a pillow or perhaps it was imagined.
"I know," Lena said quietly, rubbing her temples softly with fingers raw from scrubbing the floor. She picked herself off the floor, one bone at a time before checking the stove. Burnt. Wasted food. Would have tasted like ash anyway to her. She didn't care anymore. But Sarah needed to eat.
"Do you want me to make you chicken soup?" Lena called out to the locked door, receiving more silence in return. Chicken soup tasted good, even if there wasn't much chicken, but after all there was still some meat left on the bones frozen from when she could afford to buy a rotisseries last month. And the bones would make a good stock, and maybe that would give her strength for another day.
Finally, "Yes," came a tentative sniffle. The door clicked as it unlocked and swung open, and as the water bubbled, Lena felt Sarah embrace her from behind, burying her face into the middle of her back. She still hadn't had her growth spurt yet, only age ten, and yet had already faced so much more than her classmates in fifth grade. Lena felt a rush of pity, and kissed the top of her sister's head.
"You and I are going to be just fine," Lena said, in a surprisingly calm voice, as though she was trying to convince herself of the fact.
"Do you think there's chicken soup in heaven?" Sarah asked, suddenly solemn.
Lena smiled for a moment before replying.
"Yes. I think so. And I know mom and dad would be eating it with us right now if they could." That seemed to satisfy Sarah, who ran off to the laptop to watch Hannah Montana.
Crisis dealt with, thought Lena. For the moment, at least. She tied her once-lustrous hair behind her back and stirred the stock for a moment.
While Sarah had been in school, Lena had driven out to their graves and said goodbye again in between her two afternoon classes. It had been a full three years since the thing they never really spoke about had happened. Still, it was plain as the shadows on the wall that they were still here and their parents were gone. No time to fret. This was reality. She had bills to pay and school to graduate from, and a little sister to take care of.
Sarah began screaming as she watched a live version of One Direction performing their latest hit. Lena rolled her eyes a little before breaking into a slight smile as she added the completed stock to sauteed carrots and onions. Sure she thought their hair, manicured to careless perfection, looked ridiculous. Not to mention their voices autotuned, songs trite and overrated. But if it made her sister smile on a day like this, who was she to judge?
"How was school, sweetie?" she asked.
"Shhhhh," hissed Sarah, air escaping like a helium balloon. "It's my favorite song!"
Lena allowed herself a small half-smile. Letting the soup simmer, she approached the second-hand laptop on the trash-picked desk.
"Look, look look!!" squealed Sarah, giving Lena the first real smile of the day. "It's Louis Tomlinson! He's sooooo hot!"
"Look at you," said Lena, amused. "First crush."
Sarah had the grace to blush, before changing the subject.
"When's dinner? I'm staaaarving."
"In a moment, sweetie. Just wanted to see what you were up to."
"Nothing Leeeenaaahhhh. Lenny lenny Leeenahhh." Sarah dragged out the ending, smiling with her snaggle tooth poking out on the side. Lena couldn't afford braces for her, even though she herself had received them. And they were uninsured still. Her gut twisted at the thought of god forbid another accident or an ER visit.
"Let's eat. Can you set the table?"
"I don't want to," said Sarah, still glued to the screen.
"No table-setting, no eating."
"Can't I just drink it straight? From like, a cup?" pleaded Sarah.
"Nope," said Lena firmly. "We sit and say grace as a family."
Sarah huffed at that, but sat down and said it anyway, said the small tradition that Lena had kept alive in the home even after all the things that reminded her of them had been sold to make rent.
Later that night, after the homework was finished and checked and the teeth brushed squeaky clean, Lena sat in the yellow-lit bathroom as always, door tightly shut, the light off in the rest of the apartment so Sarah could sleep. She flipped through the pages of physics, did a couple of problems, and when she was satisfied, crawled through the dark into the bed next to her sister.
Sarah's snores weren't loud, but Lena stayed up listening to them for almost half an hour in the calm of the night. They were a reminder that it would be ok. She rolled over onto her side and slept.