As soon as I saw my sister’s blue car in the driveway of a detached house in a beautiful neighborhood, I knew in my heart that I’d be happy there. For the whole car journey from my old home to my new one, I tried to imagine what it would look like. I’d been crossing my fingers for big windows and a secure front door. Nothing could have prepared me for the picturesque reality.
I’d known my sister had money–Kate always wore matching suits to our visits, and she was the only one in our family that had a full-time job – but I didn’t realize how much money. Lace-curtains-and-fresh-flowers-in-the-window, kind of money.
Her last visit was three months ago. She picked me up from school and took me out for hot chocolate and cake to talk about how I was getting on. We didn’t know at that point that I would be moving in with her.
“You wanna go knock, and I’ll get your bags?” my social worker asked from the driver’s seat.
“Yeah,” I murmured. But I wasn’t listening. I was inspecting the neat-cut hedge between Kate’s house and the neighbors’ and the triangle roof that looked like something a primary schooler would draw. I’d never lived in an actual house before, only apartments or spare rooms.
The social worker turned the car off and took the keys with her to open the boot. I remained in my seat, staring at the house, making smudges on the window with my nose and fingertips. I didn’t hate the social worker, but she was hard to like. Her presence had been almost constant for two weeks, and I looked forward to our permanent separation.
“You got the right house number, yeah?”
“Pretty sure. You gonna get out and help?”
I unfastened my seatbelt and opened the car door. Cold air hit my bare legs. I wiggled my toes in my flip-flops – they gave me blisters but they were the only shoes I could get on.
“Welcome home,” Kate’s voice rang out as she opened the door.
She stood there in blue sports leggings and an oversized knitted cardigan, diamonds sparkling in her ears and on her wedding finger. The house was really hers? It couldn’t be real.
“Hi, Nicole.’” Her voice was bright, but her eyelids drooped. How could she be tired sleeping in a house like that?
“Do you want me to get my shoes and help?” she called in the direction of the social worker.
“Nope, I got everything!”
The social worker dragged two black bin bags of clothes, books, photos – everything I owned – up to the front door. It cluttered the space I used to live, in the corner of my mum’s friend’s spare room. Now it looked like nothing.
Kate ushered me with her hand. “Come in,” she said. “You must be freezing! Why are you wearing a skirt without tights when it’s zero degrees?”
I pulled my sleeves over my hands and wrapped my arms around my chest. I bit my lower lip, joining the social worker on the doorstep. Kate moved aside so I could step in. The smell of perfume, lavender, and macaroni cheese immediately overwhelmed me. The house was heated like the radiators had been on all day. Warmth smothered me like a blanket.
“You really live here?”
Kate grimaced in response. Her lips were shiny with a pink gloss.
The social worker put her hands on her hips. “You guys want me to stay, or”’
“We’re good,” Kate said quickly. “I think we’re good. Do you think we’re good?” She turned to me.
I nodded at them both.
“Alright,” the social worker said, clapping her hands. “Someone will pop in next week, check everything’s going okay, but otherwise you guys have fun.”
“Will do. Thanks!” Kate waved.
As the social worker turned her back to us, tears of relief welled up in my eyes. Kate grabbed the handle of the first bin bag.
“I can do that,” I said quickly, sniffling.
She stepped back without protest. I noticed right away how their black-plasticness clashed with the beige carpet and wooden shoe rack.
“How come your stuff’s in bin bags?” she asked.
“I dunno,” I mumbled. “We don’t have any other bags.”
“Your mum didn’t have any other bags. I’ve got a suitcase you can have.”
She always said that: your mum, like she wasn’t Kate’s mum too. It’s because our mum was a drug addict. She couldn’t provide for me, and that’s why they took me away from her. Kate agreed to take me in so I wouldn’t have to go into care. Looking around at the cream wallpaper, pastel welcome mat, and marble door handles, I realized it might have been the best thing that ever happened to me.
I hoisted the second bag inside.
“Leave them there,” Kate said, tossing her head. “I’ll show you around. You might not want to keep all that stuff anyway. It’s probably mostly rubbish. Is it mostly rubbish?”
I hesitated, thinking about our dad’s black t-shirt – the only proof he ever existed, even if it was so ripped and worn that the social worker tried to throw it out – but I nodded anyway.
“Right, well, um, as you see, this is the front door,” she began, shutting it to avoid letting in cold air, “with the shoe rack, coat hooks…”
I stroked the sleeve of the nearest coat – dark red with a velvety texture. It had a collar, like something the Queen would wear.
“This is the little table where we put the mail and the keys. You’re in… what year are you in at school?”
Her eyes widened. She sighed at our thirteen-year age gap, nodding. “When you get to Sixth Form, we’ll give you your own set of keys. Until then I’ll pick you up.”
She furrowed her eyebrows at the mention of her husband. “He works in the afternoons.”
“Is he working now?”
“How should I know?” She tugged her cardigan tighter around her shoulders.
“I dunno.” I stared at the carpet. I’d never met him, but he was all Kate could talk about when they started dating. I was quite young then. She’d shown me photos of their wedding. He looked like a prince in his blue suit and white tie, staring at her like she was the most important thing in the world.
“Well, probably. He has an office upstairs, but he doesn’t like to be disturbed. You’ll see him at dinner later.”
“We’re going to have dinner together?”
“Dining room’s through here.” She opened the door to our left.
The smell of macaroni cheese intensified. It reminded me of the free Christmas dinner I got once a year from the school canteen. I was half expecting to find paper crowns and Christmas crackers on the table. Instead, there were three table settings with napkins and drink coasters and a lace tablecloth.
Kate headed towards the corner of the room, and I began to follow.
“No,” she said, holding out her hand. “Stay there, I’m just cleaning up.”
She knelt before a bookshelf to scoop a bunch of papers into a cardboard box.
“What are they?” I asked. “Photos?”
“Yeah. No. They’re nothing,” she dismissed. She picked up something that looked like a letter and paused, gazing at the typed writing on the page.
“What’s that one?”
She folded it and shoved it in the box with the others. “They’re just photos of my wedding. You’ve seen them before.” She fumbled with the lid and jumped up. “Kitchen is through there.” She gestured toward a doorway. “Pretty self-explanatory. Let me show you the living room, and then we’ll go up to your room.”
She took me back through the door we had entered and through the door to the other side of the house. I smiled at the wall paintings on the way–they were of streets and landscapes, old buildings and monuments, mountains and market stalls.
‘Have you been to all of these places?’
She rubbed her eyes and didn’t respond. “Here we have the living room. Sofa, DVD rack, TV. You’re welcome to use it whenever, but there’s a TV in your room too.”
“There is?” I inspected the white sectional sofa scattered with throw pillows and blankets. The pillows all had quotes on them: LIVE, LAUGH, LOVE; FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS; BELIEVE IN YOU. At that moment, I did believe in myself. If I could live here, I could do anything!
“You want to go upstairs now?”
I tore my gaze away from the sofa to nod. I ran my hand along the smooth paint of the banister, daydreaming about waking up here, running downstairs, eating pancakes with syrup in the dining room… I would get A’s in my GCSEs, go to a real university, and get a good job. I would be just as perfect as Kate.
“All these rooms are private.” She gestured at the doors along the wall. “Mine and Peter’s rooms and studies and-” She cut off, shutting the next door. It was the only one painted baby pink instead of white.
“Who’s room is that?” I asked hopefully.
“It’s empty,” she said. A flicker of a shadow leaped across her face, hardening her eyes and ironing out her smile.
I furrowed my eyebrows. “Whose did it used to be?”
“It was… never anyone’s, unfortunately. This one—” She pointed to the door at the end of the corridor. “This is yours.”
A massive bed—more than double, kingsize—sat in the middle of the room covered by a floral duvet and matching quilt. I reached toward it, then faltered. How could I touch it? Me? With my dirty hands? Where I lived before, I didn’t have a duvet, only a thick blanket that Mum covered with her own duvet cover when the social worker came.
“This is for me?” I whispered.
Kate played with her hair, twisting it into a bun. “All yours. I was thinking we can go shopping tomorrow morning? For clothes and an iPad for school.”
I gasped and clamped my hands over my mouth, excitement bubbling within me.
“Do you like the room?” she asked.
I took a proper look around. It had a desk and an office chair – the kind that spins – and a bookshelf with four actual books. There was another desk-looking thing on the other side of the room that had a mirror lined with lights, like something from a celebrity’s dressing room. I opened the wardrobe door, and when I closed it, the magnets clicked together so that it didn’t bounce back open. The hinges didn’t even squeak.
I threw myself at Kate for an embrace. She smelled like rose shampoo and perfume, too pretty for me to touch. I tried to let go but she wrapped her arms around my shoulders.
“I’m glad you’re here, Nicole,” she said. “Do you want to shower before dinner?”
“Yes, please,” I murmured into her shoulder. “That would be perfect.”
It was all totally, completely perfect. Just like a fairytale.
Deborah Rose is the Managing Editor for Hey Young Writer. She is the author of YA, fantasy novels Dragon Pearls (2019) and Crown My Heart (2020). You can follow her on Instagram at @authordeborahrose or visit her website, deborahrosegreen.co.uk!