The balloons on the staircase should have been a giveaway, but Grace had other concerns. Her mum’s house was the only other place she could have gone. She still had a house key, so she texted ahead to check if they were in; they were all out for the day.

Recounting the list in her head, she paced slowly up and down the hall, trying to smother her racing breath with pointless relaxation techniques. Most of the stuff she needed was back at home, but her mum’s work gear was in the utility room. Grace glanced up the staircase. Did she want to save anything from her old room? Probably not, that could be left for her parents. It was unlikely they would want anything from it though.

The keys for the utility room were in the kitchen drawer, which she began scavenging through. It wasn’t until she sliced her fingers on the potato peeler that she noticed how much her hands were shaking. Cradling and shushing them like a child, she watched the blood from the cut crawl down her palm. She lunged at the keys hiding at the back of the drawer, shoving them into the lock.

The utility room had everything she needed. The buckets and cloths were stacked in the kitchen ready to be loaded into her car. Grace exhaled deeply and inspected the kitchen. The front of the house had glowed in a golden haze from the evening sun, but the back of the house was lacking this warmth.

“Grace, is that you?” her mother’s voice called from the garden. “Can you come out here to help me for a moment?” The palpitations in Grace’s heart skipped as she steadied herself on the kitchen surface. They weren’t supposed to be home.

“Yeah, coming mum… give me one sec.”

She needed to leave soon. One last goodbye, then she would go. She opened the back door.

“SURPRISE! Happy Birthday Grace!” in unison, a crowd of relatives, friends and neighbours chanted, simultaneously exploding confetti guns and toasting her with filled champagne flutes. Balloons and banners littered the bushes. The smell of BBQ and freshly cut grass lacerated her face. The confetti clotted into multi-coloured blotches on the grass.

“Oh bless her, she looks absolutely shell-shocked!” her grandmother purred, perched on an armchair that had been brought outside for her. Her mother came over, took Grace’s hand and squeezed it firmly.

“I know you said you didn’t want a fuss, but you’re going away tomorrow and we’ve missed you! Besides, this is the first time in years we have celebrated your birthday together.”

During this time, Grace had been physically unable to speak or utter a word. She found her voice, although hoarse and broken, and said, “Mum, my plans have changed. I’m leaving today.”

Grace’s dad sauntered over, a beer in one hand and a BBQ spatula in the other. He wore the ridiculous topless man apron they got him for Christmas over ten years ago.

“You surprised, love? We like to be unpredictable sometimes, even if you do think we’re a couple of old fogeys! Glad I got a photo of your face when you came outside, just wish I’d filmed it! Is that new fella of yours not coming then?” He kissed his daughter on her forehead, seemingly oblivious to the layer of sweat slowly dripping down it.

“She has to leave, Sam,” Grace’s mother hissed to him, glowering at her daughter. Grace couldn’t interpret this look after so little interaction with her mother in the past ten years, but she assumed it was meant to convey disappointment.

“Rubbish! You can stay for one burger, I even made those veggie ones because you were vegetarian last time you came, right love?”

“Yeah dad, thanks. But I really need to –”

“One hour Grace, come on,” he pleaded, “everyone here came especially!”

Grace had forgotten about everyone else. They had splintered into little groups and were glancing at her, whispering. When she caught some of their eyes, they grinned and beckoned her over to chat. To catch up. To tell her about their new jobs and houses and husbands and babies. What would she share with them? She would be coming into a lot of money soon… promotion at work… currently single.

She needed to detract attention away from herself. Invisibility first, slip away later, unnoticed.

“Okay, I’ll stay for a bit.” She even forced a smile. Both parents embraced her, lovingly crushing her between their chunky, middle-aged bodies. That moment of warm love, something she had contractually sworn to leave behind, flooded through her, filling her organs and extremities until she couldn’t breath and she just choked on her tears instead. They released her, and before she could say anything else, a glass of prosecco was pushed into her hand. She wiped away the tears and downed her glass.

“Where’s Hope, is she here?” Grace asked. She longed to say goodbye to her sister at least.

“Oh crap, I forgot about Hope! She went to your flat to get you, but I’ll ring her and let her know you’re here now. She was so excited to see you!” Her mother shuffled away into the kitchen. One of the guests cackled, slicing the air.

Grace swore loudly. Everyone turned towards her, then instantly away from her, pretending not to hear.

“Blooming heck Grace, calm down, she won’t be long!”

“When did she set off? Did she say she is already there? Jesus Christ dad, when did she set off?”

“Half an hour ago, love! It’s fine, she will realise you aren’t there and come straight back. She has the spare key to yours anyway so it won’t take her long to figure out what’s happened. Now, more prosecco for the birthday girl?”

Grace dropped her glass and turned towards the house. The evening sun blinded her eyes, casting shadows on the side of the house, obscuring where the steps were. She tripped over a cluster of balloons tied to the base of the porch; feeling eyes pressing into her back, she stumbled into the kitchen.

Hope and her mum were in there. Hope was staring at the cleaning equipment Grace had stacked outside the utility room. She had doll-like eyes, wide and enchanting. She looked like the porcelain dolls they used to play with. Grace noticed the blood on her sister’s hands. Hope had been inside her flat.

“I saw what you did” was all Hope managed to say, eyes still transfixed on the buckets, putting the pieces together. There was a wailing siren from outside the house which stopped as soon as it started.

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

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