Two Years Ago
“Mom, Dad, I’m home!” Kayleigh said, arriving from school. “My birthday’s been awesome!”
It had been a great thirteenth birthday so far, Kayleigh thought, even with having to go to school. Her mom had woken her up with her favorite breakfast in bed—pancakes and waffles with bananas Foster and decaf coffee. Her dad had given her a gift card to buy some new songs, and already her Me3 page had over twenty congratulatory messages.
Kayleigh didn’t even mind that she only spoke with five of the twenty people who had left messages on her Me3. Most of her class had befriended each other online but didn’t ever speak in school. They would post messages, music, or photos on their pages and send stuff to each other but seldom actually hung-out.
Kayleigh dumped her leather backpack on the long wooden bench that ran along one side of the small mudroom. Water cascaded to the floor as she pulled off her purple rain hat, shook the water off, and let her wavy auburn hair tumble down her back. She hung her jacket on a small wooden peg above the bench, and she kicked off her boots. Her feet shoved into a pair of worn oxfords, she pushed open the door to the family room.
She paused midway, and her eyes widened. It looked like a tornado had gone through the house. The overturned couch partially blocked the door, its cushions strewn across the floor. Jagged cuts in the sofa’s fabric revealed its stuffing. She squeezed through the doorway and climbed over the back of the couch. Glass crunched under her feet as she took a step into the room. Her mother’s collection of delicate swan figurines lay in pieces on the floor, along with books, papers, and other knickknacks.
“Mom? Dad? What happened?”
A sharp pang of fear ripped through Kayleigh’s chest. She could barely breathe. The blood drained from her face, her head began to spin, and her knees started to buckle. She swayed against the wall of the family room.
“No, don’t. Deep breath.” She willed herself to remain upright, and she slowly walked through the tossed family room and into the hallway. The family portraits that had lined the wall now lay broken on the floor.
She paused at the base of the steps and listened for sounds upstairs, unsure if she should continue farther into the house. A pile of debris spilled off the second floor landing and onto the stairs. She turned and looked at the front door, which stood open several inches. A light mist had blown in and dampened the hardwood of the foyer. She grabbed the phone on the hallway table. Her hands trembled.
Nine. One. One.
“I need help…”
No sound answered her, and Kayleigh realized the phone was dead. She fumbled in her pocket and remembered she had left her cell phone in her backpack in the mudroom. Her heart beat out of her chest, and her breath seemed to roar in her ears. The acid rose in her throat, and a wave of nausea crashed in her stomach. She slapped a hand over her mouth and stifled the urge to vomit.
“Ka…Katherine.” A voice from across the house broke through her fear.
Only her father called her Katherine. Everyone else called her “Kayleigh,” a nickname from her first and middle names: Katherine Leigh.
“Katherine.” It was her father’s voice. Raspy and weak, it came from his study on the far side of the first floor.
A surge of energy propelled her across the hallway and into the living room. Kicking aside debris, she pulled herself around the corner to the dining room and crashed through broken plates and torn linens. She raced through the back sunroom towards her father’s study, dodging capsized flowerpots and upended armchairs.
Suddenly, her torso slammed into a hard object, which knocked her backwards onto the floor. She landed on her back, and the air whooshed out of her lungs. The left side of her chest throbbed with pain. A gurgle escaped her lips, and she couldn’t get enough air. She grabbed the leg of an end table and pulled herself up to see what she had hit.
She blinked her eyes, trying to focus. She didn’t see any large object blocking the way, but the light in front of the entrance to the study shimmered. A large patch of the room in front of the door was fuzzy compared to the space around it. The afternoon rays streamed in from a window and highlighted a small tree that sat next to the large blur. The edges around the leaves were hazy, and the entire plant and its pot seemed to be moving slowly out of the way. The branches cast no shadow but seemed to bounce the light off their surfaces. She looked back towards the dining room, and everything seemed flat and normal. When she looked again towards the study, the fern sat in the corner, still.
Kayleigh shook her head and wondered when her father had gotten that particular plant. The rest of the foliage in the sunroom was ferns, flowers, and other tropical varieties. She stood and wobbled on her feet before gaining her balance.
“Dad, Dad.” She burst into the study. The state of the room matched the rest of the house. Books had been swiped off the shelves, papers littered the floor, and the antique armchairs had been ripped open. She saw her father’s shoes sticking out from behind the heavy mahogany desk.
She ran to where he lay and knelt by his side.
“Katherine.” He sighed with relief and struggled to sit up. His face was swollen, and his bronze skin was purple on one side. He held one arm protectively to his chest. He grimaced, and he drew in ragged breaths.
“Dad, what happened?” Kayleigh said.
“They took…they took…” he said and then coughed hard, wincing from what Kayleigh thought might be a broken arm.
“Dad, don’t talk. I’ll get help,” she said, and started to rise.
“Wait,” he grabbed her hand. “You don’t understand. They took…” He coughed again, and red blood splattered across his chin.
“What? Who?” A cold shiver crossed the back of her neck, and she heard sirens in the background. A neighbor must have called the police.
Her dad struggled again to move, and his eyes filled with tears.