If the Sky Fell

If the Sky Fell is a 73,000 word Christian fiction YA novel. View this recent post in which I give more information.

View two sample chapters below.


Chapter One: Birthday

 

I had never really trusted in God. I figured perhaps there was one out there but—I don’t know, He just wasn’t for me.

Later I thought I would give Him a chance . . . but then He took my family away from me.

My birthday, June 5—A year ago

I had never been one for holidays, but I always observed my birthday and Christmas.

“Happy birthday!” My mother’s voice buzzed with excitement. I opened my eyes and squealed with delight when I saw the meticulously wrapped gift presented in her outstretched arms. I bounced off of the sagging green couch and snatched the present, then tore the paper off.

I already knew what hid inside. I’d been waiting for this present for the past fifteen years.

“What is it, what is it?” My redheaded friend, Lily, shrieked. Lily was the only friend I had. I’d been friends with her since preschool, and she was the only one who, in short, understood me. Her fiery red hair matched her personality perfectly. You had to have quite a persona—a brave persona—to rock red hair.

Lily was just that. Brave.

“Well, don’t act like you hate it!” My 18-year-old brother, Aaron, teased. I glanced over at him and playfully stuck my tongue out. As the polka dot wrapping paper fluttered to the floor, I ripped the tape from the box. I flung the flaps open and exposed a fluffy layer of red tissue paper.

Something crashed into my head, knocking me out of eavesdropping mode. My 12-year-old sister, Emily, had peeped her head over my shoulder, curious as to what would be revealed underneath the tissue. Carefully removing the paper, I disclosed the item beneath: a dainty navy box.

“Oh, a box.” Aaron teased. I disregarded his comment and instead removed the box carefully.

Popping the lid open, I revealed an elegant, golden charm bracelet.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I removed the bracelet from the box and clasped it on my wrist, a smile shining on my face.

“It’s perfect.” The bracelet shone with a strong and stunning luminosity—one could look at it and know immediately that it was not just any doodad.

It had history. Once upon a time, my mom was a pastor’s daughter. She and her family had relocated a lot, and I’d spent the past fifteen years of my life listening to the out-of-this-world stories my world-trotting mother had to share with me.

“Do you want me to tell you the story again?” My mother asked as I played with the globe charm.

“Yes, of course! But wait.” I zipped off through the living room and flung myself into my bedroom.

“Where is that camera?” The cluttered room perfectly symbolized my mind: muddled. I dug through a pile of clothes lying neglected on the floor. Spotting the silver glint of the camera, I swiftly grabbed it and rocketed back downstairs.

Lily and I scooted closer to the rocking chair in which my mother sat, waiting somewhat patiently for me to return so they could once again hear her marvelous story. Aaron leaned against the wall, acting as if he were indifferent to the upcoming story, but his slight smirk and sparkling eyes gave him away. He sipped a soda and then placed it on the table, quickly obtaining a reprimand from Mom spelling out the dangers of water rings.

“Put the soda in the fridge, Aaron.”

“I’ll do it after your story, Mom,” Aaron replied, but he picked his soda up.

As I plopped down on the floor, a grin perked up on my father’s face; he’d heard this same story for twenty years and yet it never got old.

I turned the camera on and pressed the record button as Lily let out a harsh cough.

“Okay, you can start now,” I said. My mother nodded and began.

“When your grandpa got an invitation to go to India and help develop a Bible institute there, he couldn’t refuse.” My mother wove her magical tale expertly. “We packed up and left New York in less than a week. When I arrived in India, the strange country surprised me more than any other that I had been too.

“Animals roamed the streets freely. Here was a bull, bells tied around its hooves and a plush blanket of silk on its back. There was a monkey climbing up an abandoned building, a chunk of apple hooked in its tail. Tiny cars and dinky bikes sped by. Horns honked as tandems zipped through traffic. There were hundreds of people all crowded in a tiny space. All of them were talking at once; the noise was deafening.” I closed my eyes, transported to India.

“Well, back in the states I had desperately wanted one of those chunky 80’s charm bracelets that were so in style. I thought I would get one for my birthday, but when I opened my present and found a sophisticated jewelry pouch, I knew that this trinket would be special.

“I opened the box and found that charm bracelet, made out of real sixteen karat gold.”

“You better not flush this bracelet down the toilet then,” Aaron laughed. I rolled my eyes at him.

“I was three when I did that, and it was a bracelet from a cereal box,” I chuckled. I would never live that down.

My mom continued her story. “The bracelet came with fifteen charms. I’ve collected the other ones. Some of them were given to me by your father, others by my friends.”

I filed through the different charms. I touched a miniature bicycle, a petite flower, and two exquisite sparkly hearts, just to name a few of the ornaments on the bracelet.

Lily let out another cough, jolting me out of my mom’s story. I gave her a look, mentally pleading with her to stop. The beauty leaked out of my mom’s story due to Lily’s reality-jerking racket.

Lily gave me a sorry look, and I turned my attention back to my mother.

“That bracelet has been through a lot. The great thing about gold is that you can wear it in the shower or when you’re swimming, so you never have to take it off.” My mom glanced over at the bracelet on my wrist. I could practically see her mind rolling with recollections of moments with that bracelet.

“I even wore that bracelet when we came to the states so I could go to college.” I glanced over at Lily, whose mouth was open in a perfect “o,” her silver eyes wide as saucers.

“I wish my mom was as cool as yours,” she whispered.

“She is,” I laughed. Lily and her mom owned a bakery downtown called The Cupcakery. They specialized in anything with extraordinary amounts of sugar, and I loved both mother and daughter because they always smelled like frosting.

“That bracelet was given to me by parents with love,” my mother said. “I’ve kept it in prime condition for about twenty-five years.” My mother’s dark brown eyes, so similar to mine, seared into my own. “I hope you will take good care of my bracelet, Samantha. Now it’s yours.”

She then opened her arms wide. I handed the camera to Lily and hopped up from my seated position, soon being wrapped in a warm hug embellished with my mother’s signature perfume—Silver Bells. It was an indescribably delicious scent, slightly sweet yet earthy.

“I love you, Samantha. You are such a wonderful girl. Never forget how good God is.” Her words stung me. The subject of Christ had always been a little iffy for me. My whole family spouted with steadfast Christians, but I’d never been sure if the way of God was the path I wanted to go. It seemed too stuffy to me.

But it was my birthday. I didn’t want any bad memories to mar the otherwise perfect day, so I just smiled at my mother’s comment.

“Who’s up for Pictionary?” My dad suddenly wielded the red box, a sparkle in his eyes.

“Ooh, me!” Lily shrieked.

“Aw, come on, Lily! You know that’s no fair!” Not only was Lily an amazing baker, she was also a fabulous cartoonist. When she touched a pencil, the boring writing utensil suddenly became as magical as a fairy godmother’s wand. There was no way I would win against her.

“I’ll be on your team,” Lily promised. I quickly agreed and, as we made our way to the dining room, I noticed Aaron had set his soda back on the table and forgotten about it.

I sighed. Brothers.

Soon the whole group stood around the dining room table, rolling dice and attempting to draw dragons and skateboards. My dad’s doodles were particularly painful to look at, but Emily gave Lily a run for her money. However, my team ended up winning.

The rest of the night flew by. We snapped pictures and recorded videos. Aaron gave me a big old hug because I made sure Mom ordered him a pizza all for himself, three meat with extra cheese.

“It’s your day, squirt,” he told me. “You didn’t have to do this for me.”

I didn’t like getting mushy, so I just shrugged nonchalantly. “Well, I don’t know. You’re a good brother. You kept me from doing jumping jacks in the middle of the road and played dolls with me back in the olden days.”

Aaron winced. “Don’t tell anyone about that. I mean, if you like seeing the light of day.”

I playfully clouted him in the stomach for that comment, and he countered by throwing his arms around me and holding me captive.

“Let go!” I giggled, but he just held me tighter. He only let go when Mom called out that the cake was ready.

We ate dinner without interruption, but when Lily felt a strange stifling sensation in her stomach she burst into tears and claimed that she had some kind of rare disease.

I know I shouldn’t have, but I laughed at her. Poor Lily had always been a hypochondriac. Back when we were in fourth grade together, she always went ballistic when we got into the health chapter in our science books. Lily was certain that she had every disease highlighted in the book.

I had learned long ago how to cure her of her hypochondriasis.

First, I would tell her to take deep breaths. Then, using a slow and reassuring tone, I would convince her that she wasn’t dying of cardiovascular shock. Finally, she’d begin to breathe again, and we were fine.

I used this procedure now. “Lily, you drank three glasses of Coke and stuffed yourself with pizza, ice cream, and cake. You’re just cramping up because you had too much food. You’re fine.”

“You sure?” Her huge eyes gazed into mine, the fear slowly dissipating.

“Absolutely.” Lily rubbed her stomach, the hysterics beginning to fade away. Lily was consoled, and the evening progressed without any further frenzies. When the doorbell rung shrilly, reminding me that Lily had to leave, I nearly burst into tears.

“Today has been such a good day!” I moaned as I hugged Lily within an inch of her life. “Before you go, I wanted to give you this.”

Lily’s eyes widened when I handed her my hundred-count color pencil set. Long ago, I went through an artsy faze and my grandma bought me the expert-level pencils. I never used them, except for coloring books.

Every time Lily came over she eyed the pencils. I had finally decided she could use them better than I could.

“Aw, Samantha! You’re the best.” We hugged again as my mom opened the door and exchanged formalities with Mrs. Fox, Lily’s mom. Lily and I snapped a quick picture together, her holding the pencils proudly.

Then she had to hop in her car and zoom away. As the car melted into the horizon, I waved so hard my arm nearly fell off.

When I came inside, I found my whole family gathered in the living room. Mom picked up wrapping paper while Emily messed around with my presents. Aaron sipped soda and Dad studied his family thoughtfully.

“It’s finally here,” Aaron said, wiping beads of liquid from his can. “This time tomorrow, I’ll be at Ohio State.”

I grinned. Aaron was a rising senior in high school and already checking out potential colleges. He was an amazing soccer player, and he desperately wanted to play for Ohio. This was the third college he would be visiting.

I honestly wasn’t looking forward to the eight hour drive, but I knew that this was important to Aaron. Super important.

Everyone’s attention shifted from me to Aaron. I didn’t mind—I’d had enough spotlight for the day.

That night I fell asleep with my mom’s charm bracelet hooked securely on my wrist. The chilly metal felt good against my skin. Sleep came easily for once, and I willingly drifted off.

I awoke at around one in the morning. My head burned and a searing pain rocketed down my throat. I was quite sure that someone had sneaked into my room and stuffed tissues up my nose; I could hardly breathe.

No! This was terrible. For the second year in a row, I was sick the night of my birthday. Last year, the stomach flu pounced on me and wrangled me to the ground. I didn’t make it to the bathroom on time.

Let’s just say Mr. Fluffles found a new home in the trash compactor.

I attempted to get out of my bed, but a dizzy spell sent me plummeting back into my sheets. I tried once again. Stumbling across the floor of my bedroom, I barely made it into Emily’s room across the hall.

The darkness created a foreboding inkiness that oozed through Emily’s normally bright and cheerful room. It had been painted an eye-blinking shade of aqua that I thought would’ve been visible even in pitch black. I staggered to Emily’s bed, every step taxing.

“Emily!” I moaned in her ear. The aching in my throat stung and I winced. I closed my eyes, hoping it would soothe the pain. Emily stirred in her bed, and I patted her on the shoulder, attempting to wake the sleeping beauty.

“Mmph!” Emily sprung up in bed, terror in her voice.

“It’s me, Samantha.”

“Oh. Samantha, it’s one thirty! What are you doing? We’re not leaving until seven.”

“I feel awful.”

“How? Is it your throat?” I nodded my head. It revolted against the movement by throbbing.

“Yeah. And my head. And my nose.” To validate this, I gave a pathetic snort of my clogged nose. “And I feel like I’m about to pass out.”

I hoped Emily would volunteer to go get Mom for me even though the dark frightened her. The room lay in silence for only a moment.

“I’ll go get Mom.” I let out a relieved breath at Emily’s statement. “You get back into bed.”

“D’you need a flashlight?” I mumbled, every word scorching down my throat.

“No, I’ll be fine.” Her words were valiant. I nodded even though I knew she couldn’t see me, and then lurched back to bed, each step exhausting.

I had nearly fallen back asleep when footsteps padded into my room.

“What’s wrong, honey?” My mother’s voice queried through the darkness. A peace rippled through my aching body when I heard her familiar, reassuring voice. Somehow, the sense of my mother’s presence numbed the aching in my head.

I was safe.

The bed shifted, and I figured she had sat on it. As she bent over my face, a few stray locks of her brown hair tickled my cheeks, and I swatted at the strands.

“My throat is sore, I have a headache, I’m dizzy, and my nose is congested.” My mother’s soft hand caressed my boiling forehead as I spouted out my symptoms. Boy, did I sound pathetic.

“Hmm. You’re burning up.” I’ll say. “Let me go get the thermometer and some medicine. I’ll be right back.” As my mom left the room, so did my comfort. The throbbing in my head developed once again and I fought to breathe.

The scratching in my throat increased until it was nearly unbearable. I considered getting up and searching for Mom . . . but then footsteps entered my room. Unexpectedly, the light on my nightstand table flashed on. A blanket of light stretched across my room, and I blinked as my eyes attempted to adjust to the blinding light.

“I brought you some Nyquil and a humidifier,” my mother announced. Good. I would be able to sleep and breathe at the same time.

My mom plunked the humidifier down on the carpeted floor of my room and plugged the machine in. Soon a peaceful whirring oozed from the humidifier, and moist air filtered into my nostrils.

My mother measured a copious amount of Nyquil in the plastic medicine container. Then she handed the murky green liquid to me. I extended my hand and grasped the medicine, pulling myself into a sitting position as I sniffed the medicine suspiciously.

“Just drink it,” my mother laughed. I raised the container.

“Cheers,” I said. My mother’s smile almost noticeably retracted. She didn’t approve of drinking, and I occasionally used the expression simply to see what she would do. The strangely sweet liquid slipped down my throat, and I was surprised the taste wasn’t as revolting as I had thought it would be.

“That’s a good girl.” My mother removed the medicine from my hand as I slowly squirmed back into bed. She kissed my forehead and then halted, staring at my face carefully.

“What?” I laughed. She merely smiled and then turned the light out, once again enveloping me in darkness.

Five minutes eased by and soon I traipsed about dreamland. Darkness pulled me into slumber, and I dreamed happy dreams about colorful charm bracelets and delicious birthday cakes.

Chapter Two: Death

 

If this was what death felt like, I should’ve made my birthday wish a request for immortality.

When I woke up the next morning, my sickness had only ripened. Through the night, I had crossed the cusp of mere unpleasantness and now drowned in snot and a sore throat.

“I’m so sorry, honey!” My mom said when she found me snorking up a storm. “Didn’t you get sick after your birthday last year too?”

My grin was laced with remnants of irony. “Yup.”

“Well . . . let me go get Dad.” She swept off to summon my dad, and I already knew what he would say. And when he came into my room five minutes later, I was right.

“You’ll be fine.”

“No, she won’t,” my mom argued for me.

“It’s just a little cold,” my dad rebutted. “When I was in college we went on a music trip and I was congested the whole time.”

My mom rolled her eyes. “That was because of allergies.”

“I don’t have allergies.”

Mom left him to his ignorance. “Anyway, Samantha might give it to one of us. We’re going to be in the car together a lot. What if Aaron gets sick? Then he won’t be able to tour the campus.”

Mom glanced at me lovingly. “I don’t think an eight-hour car ride would be good in her condition. Maybe we should just cancel the trip.”

Oh no. There was absolutely no way! Aaron had been chattering on about this trip for months now. I never knew guys were capable of talking so much.

“Mom, we have to go. I won’t ruin this for Aaron. He deserves it.”

“Well, what do we do then?” Dad asked. I could tell he was eager to finish packing and hit the road from the way his eyes kept flitting to the hallway.

“I know!” Mom shrieked in brilliance. “Why don’t we leave her with the Hahns? It’s just for three days, and Mrs. Hahn loves Samantha. We could even leave Emily with her. She’d take care of Samantha and Mrs. Hahn wouldn’t have to worry about anything but feeding them.”

My eyes grew large at the mention of our good family friend. I did enjoy being around Mrs. Hahn, but I knew she would coerce me into playing Mexican Train all day whether I was a snot volcano or not.

But . . . well, what other choice did I have? I loved my big brother. I loved seeing him get starry-eyed about being a big scary college guy.

“Yeah, let’s do that,” I agreed. Dad stared at me hard as he ran the idea through his head.

“Okay. Yeah, I guess that’ll work.”

Everyone finished packing and chucked their luggage into our car. I was so proud of my dad—he didn’t even flinch when Aaron asked if he could drive on the way to the Hahns house.

I stood outside while everyone bustled around. Aaron held his phone in his hand, reading every page of the Ohio State website aloud. The humid southeastern air seeped effortlessly through my thin t-shirt. I shook my head, attempting to remove the stickiness from my hair. I hated clammy weather.

The only good thing about summer was the fact that it contained my birthday. Other than that, the season celebrated with neither presents nor fireworks, but with mosquitoes and sunburns.

I took my seat in the car wordlessly. The sound of Emily’s blubbering pierced through the air.

“What’s up, kiddo?” My dad snapped.

“Mrs. Hahn has a dog and I’m afraid of dogs!” Emily shook in terror at the thought of Mrs. Hahn’s demonic, yipping Chihuahua.

“You’ll be fine, good grief, it’s not a big dog,” my dad chuckled. But Emily couldn’t be dissuaded against her resolve to stay as far away from Mr. Yippers as possible. My dad finally sighed in defeat.

No one could argue against Emily; she got you every time with her goo-goo eyes and quiet determination. “Fine, you can come with us.”

Aaron zipped down I-85 as Mom prayed for safety on their trip. I didn’t listen or close my eyes.

Aaron took a quick turn and we wove through a darling little town. Dainty brick buildings dotted the sidewalks, selling jewelry, clothes, and coffee. My mom peered out of the windows, enthralled with dainty buildings and endearing downtown areas.

When we arrived at Mrs. Hahn’s, Aaron got out of the car to help me with my luggage. I hugged everybody in the car and said my goodbyes. Then I made my way to Mrs. Hahn’s humble abode. The old woman greeted us with a kindly hello, while Mr. Yipper’s irritating barks shattered the premises.

Aaron brought my bags in the house, tripping over the canine that jigged around his feet. I stayed out on the porch and chatted with Mrs. Hahn. Aaron soon came out, eyeing Mr. Yippers suspiciously.

“Well, bye, peewee,” Aaron said to me. I breathed in the familiar scent of my brother as he wrapped me in the strong manliness of his growing frame. “We’ll keep you updated.”

I carefully studied my brother’s face, noticing his charming freckles, crooked smile, and thick chocolate hair.

“Bye, Aaron. Make sure Emily takes lots of pictures.” I almost said I loved him . . . but that was too sappy.

Aaron said goodbye to Mrs. Hahn and then jogged back to the car, I watched him pull out of the driveway, carrying the rest of my family. I cast a limp wave in their direction. Aaron honked the horn and everybody waved, smiles on every face.

I entered Mrs. Hahn’s house and gazed at the interior of their tiny and cluttered living room. Rows of bookshelves stood at attention, proudly displaying numerous knick-knacks and works of literature. A red-and-gold plaid couch drooped in a corner with a side table holding a lamp and a box of tissues next to it. A wooden upright piano glimmered in a corner, and a prehistoric television with a pile of boxes next to it stood across from the couch.

“Um, would you like to go to sleep, Samantha dear? That’s the best medicine for a cold.” Mrs. Hahn asked.

I looked up into her face. It wrinkled delicately, surrounded by a halo of fuzzy brown hair. Her eyes and nose were exaggerated, but not ugly to look at. She wore a frumpy pastel green nightgown, closely resembling one I had seen in a Jane Austen movie. She exuded deep deposits of benevolence, and I knew I could trust her.

“Sure, that would be nice.”

Mrs. Hahn led me down a purple hallway. Mr. Yippers paraded in front of us, his tiny beige paws clicking daintily against the wooden floor. He led us into a vintage bedroom with the theme of teddy bears. I slogged over to the bed but couldn’t even find the strength to lower myself in. Instead, I simply flopped down, the ancient mattress creaking with repugnance.

I slept for a solid five hours. When I finally roused, the sun drifted through the closed shutters of the bedroom window, casting funny little spots of light on the tan carpet. Mr. Yippers pawed at the teddy bear wallpaper. He had already made a gash in the paper, and I was about to rebuke him . . . but then changed my mind. That teddy bear wallpaper had to be from at least fifty years ago. It was high time Mrs. Hahn redecorated the antique room.

I glanced around the room, fully taking in the appearance of the area. Scowling teddy bears covered the walls, their eyes black with emptiness, their arms stiffly poking out of their sides.

There was a wooden sidetable to my right, a dainty cream lamp and a brass clock poised on the top. To the left stood a bookshelf jammed full with various reading material. A dinky closet hid in a corner. I made a note to explore the closet later.

I checked the clock and was startled to find that it was two. Feeling like an absolute lazy bum, I pulled myself out of bed.

I found Mrs. Hahn bent over a steaming pot in the kitchen, humming hymns to herself. The old woman heard my footsteps and glanced over at me.

“I made some soup since you’re sick,” she explained. A smile slipped onto my face at her kindness, but I was rather hesitant to actually eat the soup.

I knew better than to trust Mrs. Hahn with my lunch. The woman may be generous, but her cooking skills definitely needed help. I remembered one time when my family came over to the Hahns’ for dinner and Mrs. Hahn made broccoli casserole and steak.

The casserole was precisely as nasty as it sounded—the broccoli parched and slightly charred, the cheese leathery and sticking to the vegetable in goopy globs. And don’t even get me started on the steak. Tires didn’t have anything on that piece of meat.

Mrs. Hahn served me the soup and I gingerly raised the spoon to my mouth. I shoved the liquid into my mouth . . . and discovered it majorly lacked salt. Or any spices for that matter. Honestly, it just tasted like hot water. I swallowed the soup and shoved a few more spoonfuls in reluctantly.

Ah, the things one did to be cordial.

“Do you have any salt?” I asked.

“Oh no, honey. That’s not healthy for you.” Oh bah humbug. Healthy. “I can’t even keep it in the house anymore because Mr. Hahn will find it and douse it on his meals. He still manages to sneak junk food every now and then.”

“Oh. Bummer.” Slurp, slurp. The noodles had been cooked to mush. They practically evaporated on my tongue. It took every muscle of self control in my body not to spit it out. “My parents haven’t called, have they?”

“No, I’m sorry dear. They haven’t.” When Mrs. Hahn left the room, I shoved the rest of the soup at Mr. Yippers, who licked it up ravenously. After I placed my empty bowl in the sink, she challenged me to a game of Mexican Train as expected.

“Um . . . well . . .” The Hahn house wasn’t exactly kid-friendly, so my only other choice would be to dig through their box of ancient VHS’s and find something besides Dumbo or Bambi. With a sigh, I decided I might as well entertain Mrs. Hahn. “Okay, sure.”

She ushered me excitedly to the scratched wooden table in the kitchen, and there did the remaining hours of the day pass.

Mr. Hahn only appeared when food surfaced, which I had to remind Mrs. Hahn to cook. She was so involved with the game, it was scary. Dinner suddenly had no significance. Life took on a new meaning—beating a 15-year-old girl at a game whose name made no sense. Why was the train Mexican?

During Mrs. Hahn’s excruciatingly long turns, I contemplated what Mr. Hahn did all day. He was retired now that he had reached the golden age of seventy. Perhaps he built furniture or planted in the garden, or participated in other such old-person-y activities.

Finally, somewhere around level ten of Mexican Train, I asked Mrs. Hahn if I could use the phone to call Dad. I needed to clear my brain—I was beginning to see domino dots everywhere.

“The phone is sitting right there next to the water filter,” she directed. I walked from the table to the kitchen and located the bulky, corded burgundy phone.

I picked the heavy object up and dialed my dad’s number. The phone rang and rang without an answer. Soon it went to voicemail.

“Hello, this is Christopher Hunter. Please leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” My dad’s voice had been slightly distorted by the ancient phone, but I could still hear the familiar rich timbre of his voice shining through. The phone beeped, signaling that I was to leave a message.

“Hey Dad, this is Samantha. We’re playing Mexican Train and we’ve made it to level ten. I’m losing.”

I hung up and then dialed Aaron’s number. The phone rang, and I waited to hear his voice. But he didn’t answer either.

“What did they say?” Mrs. Hahn questioned when I returned, her eyes never wavering from the stack of dominoes standing in front of her.

“No one’s answering their phone,” I complained.

“They’re probably just busy, dear. Don’t worry.” I shrugged. They were probably just eating lunch. “Why don’t we go make dinner now? How does macaroni and cheese sound?”

I really felt like eating dinner, so I wasn’t so sure about entrusting Mrs. Hahn with it. “Why don’t you rest, and I’ll take care of it?”

“Well, aren’t you just so helpful?” Mrs. Hahn agreed and I gladly fixed it myself.  I was notorious in my house for not even having the capability of opening a cereal box, but I figured that, surely, my cooking could be no worse than Mrs. Hahn’s.

Once I finished, I divvied the grub out in substantial portions. Mr. Hahn slipped into the kitchen within minutes, smelling the chow. I had already figured that Mrs. Hahn had him on some kind of diet from the way he snacked voraciously and practically sprinted at the smell of my carbohydrates-rich meal. I had caught him twice already sneaking a piece of cheese from the refrigerator and nibbling on it like a mammoth rodent, his mouse-brown hair adding to the effect.

The only other thing he seemed to do with such gusto was filling out crossword puzzles. I hated crosswords—staring at the seemingly random letters made my head swim.

After the meal, I washed the dishes. The soapy suds and nasty bits of macaroni clinging desperately to the china helped me forget the events of the past twenty-four hours. After that, I decided to excavate through the frighteningly high pile of VHS’s. Halfway through the mound, I uncovered an old Audrey Hepburn movie.

“Hey, Mrs. Hahn! You want to watch How To Steal a Million? ” I yelled out in the open air.

“Sure,” came her answer. “I’ll make us some popcorn.”

I slid the VHS in the player and grabbed the remote, flipping the television on. The movie loaded, and I paused it to wait for Mrs. Hahn.

She soon shuffled out of the kitchen with a bowl of popcorn big enough to feed the US Army. I gladly gorged myself and eased into the world of Audrey Hepburn.

Before I knew it, the credits were rolling down the screen and Mrs. Hahn was announcing it was time to go to bed. I sneaked into the kitchen and tried calling dad and Aaron again, but still there was no answer. I left another message at both numbers. Then I made my way to the teddy bear room, knowing that sleep would not come to me that night.

Sure enough, I had to be content with lying on the bed for four hours, staring at the tear Mr. Yippers had scratched in the wallpaper.

When I woke, a luminous Sunday greeted me. Wispy white clouds floated through the sky, balls of fuzz without a care in the world.

I hoped that the Hahns wouldn’t make me go to church with them. There was nothing like being toted around by elderly people, shown off to every old friend that passes their way, and then subjected to sitting in a drafty room for two hours.

I put on a pathetic-looking face and prepared to put on a performance. I was used to pretending I was sick so I could worm my way out of going to church. Back at home, I had to use it sparingly, or my parents would figure out and the jig would be up.

The Hahn’s house was eerily quiet, except for the buzzing of the television. I was so used to the sound of my mother humming while she cooked an egg for dad, or Aaron chattering about what he was going to do that day. I tiptoed out of the room, making my way to the kitchen.

Mrs. Hahn stood in the kitchen, whisking a pot of something that would probably turn out being foul. The television, set on the local news, chattered to itself from the living room. I snatched a tissue from the side table sitting next to the couch and crept into the kitchen. I prepared to say good morning to Mrs. Hahn, but a knock on the door startled me.

It was insistent and jarring, with an explicit purpose.

“Are you expecting someone?” I asked.

Mrs. Hahn peered at me as she terminated her flour-measuring. “No, I’m not. Mr. Hahn!”

The elderly gentleman materialized on command. “What?”

“Is someone coming over?” Poof! She chucked the flour into her mix in a way I knew my mom would never approve of.

“No.” Mr. Hahn looked as surprised as his wife. He wore a white T-shirt and some ratty old plaid pajama bottoms, Sunday crossword puzzle in hand.

None of us were ready for company. We looked like a collective wreck. I myself still had bedhead and bad breath, not to mention shaming cupcake pajama pants and a tennis camp T-shirt.

“Mr. Hahn, would you answer the door?” The old man sighed as he put down the newspaper. He then shuffled to the door.

I hopped over to the counter, a scorched aroma invading my nostrils. “What’s for breakfast?”

“Pancakes and oatmeal.” Aha. That explained the smell. “We have to get ready for church though, so we’ll have to eat fast.”

Or not eat at all.

A very deep voice rumbled from the front of the house. I wondered who the visitor was. Perhaps someone selling something?

I wondered if Mr. Hahn was the type of man to buy things from complete strangers.

Mrs. Hahn flicked a few pancakes onto a plate. I blew my nose and then tapped my hands against the counter, playing a classical piece with the fingers of my right hand.

Mr. Hahn appeared back in the kitchen. I spun around, putting my teasing face on.

“Was he selling . . . popcorn?” Mr. Hahn’s face shocked me. It had turned rather chalky, and his mouth hung half open like he Darth Vader was strangling him.

“Matilda . . . Samantha . . . would you please come to the living room?”

I glanced over at Mrs. Hahn in confusion. She appeared just as perplexed as me.

“What is it, Hobart?”

“Never mind that. Just come with me.”

The three of us drooped into the living room, a trio of drowsy bears. Mrs. Hahn was the mama bear, Mr. Hahn was the papa bear, and I was the dinky little bear dressed in pastry pajama bottoms. Two burly police officers greeted us with emotionless faces.

Well, I hadn’t expected this.

I considered running to my room to change, but I could sense a strange, slightly unsettling urgency.

One cop gave an undersized smile before opening his mouth. “Would you guys like to take a seat?”

I knew that wasn’t really a request. Mr. and Mrs. Hahn wedged themselves into a chair, and I secured a seat for myself. Then the officers plopped down on the sagging sofa.

If this had been a movie, I would’ve thought the picture of the two beefy cops on the tiny, dilapidated couch would’ve been rather comical.

But what was terrifying was the fact that two police officers were in the Hahn’s house.

I wondered why in the world they were here. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Hahn had been bank robbers in the 30’s (or from whatever prehistoric age they came from) and the officers had finally found their trail.

Or maybe that gum I had stolen when I was five finally caught up to me.

I bit my lip anxiously.

“Hello,” the bald officer greeted. He could’ve had a pleasant disposition, except for the hefty furrow running across his forehead. It gave him the appearance of being intensely upset. “My name is Deputy Phillip Gosset. And this is Deputy Reggie Laughlin.”

He gestured to the man sitting next to him. Reggie had a blonde mustache, which immediately made me feel even more edgy. I never understood what the purpose of a blonde mustache was—you could hardly even see it, except when the light glinted across it. And then it looked like you were shimmering in the sun.

Or had a caterpillar on your mouth.

“You’re Mr. and Mrs. Hahn, correct?” Reggie asked. His blonde mustache curved as his mouth moved, and I couldn’t help but stare at the thing.

“Yes, we are?” Mrs. Hahn’s answer came out more as a shrill question.

“And you are Samantha Hunter.” Phillip lasered his eyes into mine. They were very pleasant eyes—dark and furtive. I liked dark eyes.

“Um, yeah?”

“So what is this about?” Mr. Hahn inquired as I stole another tissue to blow my nose yet again.

Phillip stared straight at me and took a cavernous breath. “We’re sorry to have to tell you this. There was a traffic crash yesterday morning with a gasoline truck. We came here today to inform you that your family has died. We are so sorry.”

My mouth went dry and gaped open as I frantically gasped for air. My joints seized up and tears sprinted to my eyes.

I was at a loss for words.

“What?” Mrs. Hahn whispered as she snuffled her giant nose and looked at me with vast, puppy dog eyes. “Oh poor Samantha . . .”

A lump developed in my throat.

I couldn’t speak.

My mouth opened and closed but no words would come out.

“Are you sure it was Samantha’s parents?” Mr. Hahn managed to murmur.

“Yes. Christopher and Megan Hunter, as well as Aaron and Emily.”

Mrs. Hahn gasped. “All of them?”

The policemen nodded.

I finally succeeded in choking out a tormented, “What?”

Reggie stared at me with wide eyes as if surprised at my suffering. I wanted to punch something—the floor, a wall, the couch.

Maybe Reggie. So he could feel the pain I was experiencing.

As I shook tremulously, my world inclined. My nose discharged with snot, but I didn’t even have the strength to plug it with the tissue in my quaking hand.

All I could do was shake my head, back and forth. “No. No, no.”

The pressure in my ears shifted, and I balled my fists and held them over my ears.

“Samantha? Samantha?” Mrs. Hahn shrieked. Then to the police officers she yelled, “How dare you say such terrible things in front of a child!”

“We are very, very sorry, ma’am.”

I crunched my eyes up as the pressure constricted against my ear drums, as if they were enraged I had permitted them to hear such grave news.

I had never before felt my heart.

But I did now.

It throbbed, not from its cavity . . . but from the meridian of my chest. The inner core of my being slashed apart, bit by bit . . . each filament of red cardiac muscle snapped as the weight in my ears continued mounting.

More tears burst down my face, and I emitted a chain of aggrieved gasps.

This was a dream. Yes, a deranged, ghastly dream as an after-effect of that stupid Nyquil.

I pinched my arm, imploring myself. “Wake up, please, wake up!”

The truth stared me right in the eyes as the sting from my pinches registered on my traumatized body.

It was all too true.

My family was dead.