Live Or Die

By McKay Gorse All Rights Reserved ©



When an act of violence shakes a community, sisters Stella and Ruby are eager for the change to start over in a new town.



The window at the foot of my bed is open just the slightest. I scoot to the end and shove down on the frosted windowpane. Back beneath my sheets, I pull them up over my head. Warm and protected, I reach for the little brown bear that’s tucked under the corner of my pillow. His matted fur feels rough against my shoulder.

A while later, my father’s voice comes from the doorway, “Are you up?”

I wriggle an arm out from under the corner of the comforter and give him a lazy wave. He leaves the door open and my sister’s laugh carries up the wooden staircase.

I’m running late by the time I get out of bed. I pull on a pair of black jeans that belonged to both of my sisters before me. They are slightly too big in the waist, but I like that they are ripped across the knees. The bottom hems are starting to fray from years of being walked on.

My mother calls from the bottom of the stairs, “Ruby honey, your ride is here.”

“Coming.” I head out of my room. The wooden planks of the stairs creak with age beneath me. At the bottom, I glance out the kitchen window. My house backs up to a lake and fog has set in, hanging just above the glassy water.

My oldest sister, Stella, is leaning against the white French counter, eating cantaloupe from a Tupperware bowl. She’s dressed in a pair of bright red cigarette-cut pants with a white collared shirt, ironed so the folds are crisp. She reaches up to gather her dark hair over one shoulder, twirling the ends as she reads from the Metro section of the newspaper. She doesn’t look up when I pass through. I do, however, catch a glimpse of my middle sister, Maeve, as I pass through the hallway.

“Those are my jeans,” the sound of her voice, loud and accusatory catches me as I pass. She can see me from where she sits on the couch in front of the television in the den, the news flickering on mute. She rises and struts toward me, her brown eyes narrowed. She stands before me; though I am younger she is shorter than me. Born thirteen months after Stella, and looking nothing like her, Maeve takes after our mother, short in stature. Her honey-blonde hair is pulled into a neat ponytail and tied with a white and green ribbon the way it is every Wednesday for spirit day.

“They were in my clean laundry pile a couple weeks ago,” I say. She’s seen me in them before, and I know she’s only choosing to be difficult now.

“So you thought: Hmm, these aren’t mine but I’ll wear them anyway?” she asks, brows pinched.

“Well I thought maybe with the few pounds you’ve gained recently they didn’t fit you anymore.”

She’s caught off guard and I take the opportunity to dart into the foyer where my book bag is sitting by the front entryway. I grab it by the strap and sling it over one shoulder.

The front door slams behind me as I jump off the last porch step. I run through the front lawn, because it looks too well manicured. Heavy metal music blares from inside the car before I even open the door and when I do I’m greeted by the singer’s throaty scream. I sink down into the passenger’s seat of his Honda Civic and wedge my book bag between my feet. He doesn’t greet me, just drops the car into gear and takes off around the cul-de-sac. I turn the music down and he cuts his eyes over to me.

“Hey Bud,” I tease. “Did you sleep well?” I reach over to pat him affectionately on the cheek.

“Your hands are cold,” he shrinks away.

“Speaking of cold, you left the window open this morning,” I say, folding my hands in my lap to warm them. “You were gone pretty early. Where were you anyway?”

“I had to take care of something,” he answers. He looks over at me, his blue eyes unemotional.

“Who were you with?” a question I already know the answer to but I want him to say it.

He picks up on my tone, and throws it right back at me, “You know who I was with.”

“Hmm,” I nod, lips pursed.

At the stop sign at the end of my street I see my neighbor, Darby, as she stands on the curb in the front of her brick house waiting for her ride to pick her up. She’s a tall, lanky girl, a sophomore; she is a year older than me. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her speak in the ten years we’ve been neighbors. She hangs out with the children of her parent’s friends, in one large group. It’s supposed to be a big secret that her parents host swinger parties at their house, but that whisper has already spread to all thirteen hundred homes in this subdivision. I see the cars that line the streets in front of their house every Friday night. The women gab loudly on the porch as they say their goodbyes, drunk on wine, on the arms of each other’s husbands. I always wonder if Darby knows. I would hate for my family’s secrets to be the talk of the town.

The school looms ahead, growing larger as we near. Having only been built six years ago, the building’s design is fairly modern; it is large, predominantly glass and fresh brick. The layout is a large square, a grassy courtyard enclosed in the middle, with tables set aside for us to eat lunch. The staircases at each of the corners are encased with large glass windows, and reflect a glare of the morning sunlight bright like a mirror. Nate pulls into the long line of cars fighting their way into the parking lot. Students flood from the cars, their parents calling goodbyes, as doors are slammed shut. We turn into the parking area designated for juniors, where Nate parks, and he pulls into his number-issued parking space. He emerges from the car and I meet up with him around the back. He carries his black book bag over one shoulder, his body hunched slightly so that he is smidge shorter. Nate towers over others; standing at six-foot three he’s uncomfortable in his height. It brings unwanted eyes in his direction.

We sit together at our claimed table inside the cafeteria where most gather before the first bell rings. Swarms of kids meet up with their friends, as the room echoes with laughter and conversation. Nate turns my book bag on it’s back to use as a pillow, wrapping his long arms around it and resting his cheek on the bag’s front pocket. He briefly picks his head up when the only other three people in the school we talk to sit down on the remaining stools. Nate nods toward Alec, a senior with whom I don’t get along very well. Alec is very opinionated and I don’t think he has the best influence on Nate. They like to cause trouble together. The other two are a couple, Joe and Deborah. Joe hardly ever talks, though I’m not sure if it’s because he’s shy, like Nate, or because Deborah never stops talking long enough to let him.

I keep my head down in the halls as I walk into my classroom, and through the rows of desks to the back. I sit in the corner, where I can look out the window into the mountains that encircle the town. It’s the last day of March, and the tops are still capped with snow.

The dismissal bell rings and catches me off guard so I shove my papers into my book bag and hurry from the room. I get swept into the current of students in the hall and head toward the front of the school.

The main subjects are grouped together in the square, the English, Science, Math, and History rooms lining each of the hallways. The floors are split by grade. Underclassmen classrooms are typically on the first floor so I only encounter my older sisters when they are on their way to lunch or if I go to the library, which is located on the second floor, in the large space above the cafeteria. Most of the time when I see Maeve, she pretends not to see me, too engulfed in conversation with whichever of her airhead friends she’s with. Sometimes she will catch my eye before turning her gaze the other way.

When I push open the door to the girl’s locker room, the voices of the girls chatting while they change into their gym uniforms echo off the tiled walls. I walk down the short hallway and between the last two rows of blue lockers. I drop my book bag onto the bench and put the combination into my lock. I shake out my uniform shirt, which was scrunched into a ball in the back corner of my locker. I keep forgetting to take it home to wash, and it smells faintly of sweat as I pull it on. I hope Nate doesn’t notice.

They let us play dodge ball today, which for me, means being the first one hit, willingly, so that I can sit against the bleachers and talk with Nate until the game is over. Only the athletes participate in gym class for fear of their teachers telling their coaches they were slacking off. The rest of us stand along the back wall. When the whistle blows I walk forward and get hit in the knee with a red, squishy, foam ball. Nate is the next one hit and I secure us a spot where I can lean against the bleachers. He sits down beside me and we watch the war of whizzing balls unfold before us.

“Did you stop by your house this morning? Was your mom there?” I ask. We sit close, my knee leans against his. As more kids are eliminated, the collection of sitting bodies grows.

“She wasn’t home. Got some stuff,” he mumbles. I wait for him to say more, but he just looks out at the others. He only allows me information in pieces. I stare at his profile; his wild hair, the way the end of his nose turns up slightly, his lips.

“When will you be over today? Are you just coming after school?” I ask. He shakes his head. I’m too used to these conversations that consist of my questions and his hem-hawed answers.


“I’ve got something to do. Probably won’t be over until late,” he gives me a little more.

“You’re not giving me that answer again,” I say, “What do you keep doing with him?”

“I don’t feel like arguing right now,” he mumbles, resting his elbows on his knees, dismissive. I could push, but he’ll only grow irritated and me frustrated.

“Fine. I’ll just bring it up later,” I say. He cuts his eyes toward me. It’s not a look I from him often.

We sit in quiet for the remaining twenty minutes of class and then he sulks into the boy’s locker room. I’m glad I won’t see him until lunch because he is moody today, and so am I.

I enter my science class just as the bell is ringing and hurry to my seat. I toss my book bag under the lab station. There is a substitute teacher standing behind my teacher’s desk, an older woman, proudly wearing a name sticker. Our teacher left a movie for us to watch; he’s too lazy to make up an actual lesson plan for the day. I spend the hour doing my math homework in the dimmed classroom while the substitute falls asleep at the desk. When the bell rings, I’m in the hall before the crowd.

After Photography, I meet Deborah to walk out the doors to the courtyard where we eat lunch every day. The boys usually buy their lunch and it takes them a few minutes to get through the lines. I sit down on the bench and take out the brown paper bag that holds a turkey and cheese sandwich and a water. I break the seal on the bottle of water and take a long sip. Deborah talks as we wait for the boys to join us. Nate appears over my shoulder, and gently nudges for me to scoot over. I slide down the stone bench and he takes his regular seat beside me. I take interest in the two small containers of French fries that he has stacked on top of one another. I reach my hand over his arm to take a fry and pop it into my mouth. When I reach for another, Nate picks up the container and slides it over to me. I try to mask the smile that’s turning up the corners of my mouth. He knows they are my favorite. I don’t know if he is as taken with me as I am him, but I do know he doesn’t share his food with anyone else. Joe and Deborah sit angled toward each other, their faces just inches from one another as they talk quietly. Thankfully, Alec has another lunch period. Nate and I crack jokes and shoot straw wrappers at each other. He even musters a rare smile. All tension from early morning has seemed to pass.

My English and Math classes pass without notice. As the final bell rings, I turn my attention away from the brewing storm out the window to gather my books and zip them into my book bag.

When I push open the door to the staircase, the clouds outside the large windows are low and a deep gray. They move quickly, rolling and rumbling darkly above. I descend the staircase and duck out into the senior parking lot. Raindrops begin to fall, peppering the ground around me as I jog to locate my sister’s car. It’s a far walk, she parks along the chain-link fence that lines the football field. I yank on the handle of the passenger’s side door and climb inside. The rain is now showering down, pelting against the windshield and running down in blurry streams.

I’m still settling into the seat when Stella says, “How was your day,” so soft that I almost miss it.

I look over at her, “It was okay. How was yours?”

“It was okay,” she nods and then we both fall silent again to the raindrops bouncing like marbles off the roof.

I have little interaction with my sisters, and sometimes I find it hard to hold conversations with either of them. I don’t mind Stella most of the time, what little one-on-one contact we do have is at least cordial. Maeve appears around the car and she pulls open the door beside me.

“Move, get in the back,” she orders. She’s holding her notebook over her head, in attempt to shield her hair from the rain.

“Why can’t you sit back there?” I ask.

“I have to talk to Stella. Now move, it’s raining.”

I look to Stella but she only shrugs and I feel stupid because I know she would never take my side. I climb to the back because it’s easier than fighting.

“So I have this test tomorrow and I still have no idea how to do it. Will you help me,” Maeve asks Stella, showing just how quickly I can disappear from the conversation. I sink back into the seat and put my knees up against the one in front of me.

“Yeah, but I don’t want to wake up early,” Stella answers.

“What about lunch? My test isn’t until the end of the day, we could go to the library,” she says.

“I guess I can do it at lunch,” Stella answers. They talk to one another freely, joking and making each other laugh as they talk about the people in their days. I look out the window as we pass the houses in my neighborhood. There are only so many designs that the homeowners association allows to be built and the same house repeats every couple lots and I pick out every model that’s the same as ours. Cookie-cutter, that’s how you describe these subdivisions of families that are just the same.

Our street only has three houses on it. Mine is that last, a white two story, shoved onto a half-acre lot with a uniform tree in the front. The front door opens under a covered porch to a foyer, sided by formal dining and living rooms that we only ever use on holidays.

My sisters disappear into the kitchen and up the staircase, the echo of their conversation disappearing as they do. I linger in the study at the foot of the steps and glance out at the lake, the water rippling in small waves as the wind howls.

My parents won’t come home until dinner. I do my homework in the family room draped in a thick blanket, watching television from the squashy leather couch. I flip through the channels, landing on Nickelodeon, which is playing the newest reruns of Rugrats. On a commercial, my gaze flickers to the portrait hung over the fireplace. I can’t help but feel the eyes of the people inside it. The bulky frame is intricate and gold, and is even lit by a small lamp that’s on a timer switch at night so that I can always see them. Here in this town it only matters how you look. Posed and smiling we have it all together. But I bet there’s a lie for every chemically whitened tooth in this family of fake smiles.

After my father comes home, he calls us all in for dinner. He likes to think eating together makes us a family, and makes us eat together at least three times a week. It’s the same routine every time, asking about our days while watching the clock to be sure he’s done on time. Fifteen minutes of making polite conversation. Today, he asks my oldest sister, Stella, first. She and my father are two peas in a very well systematized and structured pod. I spoon in a bite of mashed potatoes as I await the polished and well-articulated answer she’s been preparing all afternoon. She smiles broadly. Despite the whole day, her shirt collar remains crisply folded and I wonder if she sits like a doll in class, with perfect posture. She announces her essay has been selected to represent the school in some esteemed competition. My mother brings her hands to her mouth, impressed. My sister relishes in it, loving every second of their approval and the way father leans over to pat her gently on the shoulder.

I shovel in the peas that roll across my plate. The only person enjoying Stella’s gloating less than me is Maeve, who has a hard time hiding her emotions. My father now asks her about her day. She as well, looking too proud of herself, announces her news. She’ll be starting in her soccer game on Friday over a senior she beat out in practice. They clap for her and I try not to choke, holding in a laugh while sipping from my glass of water.

I’m prepared, and my plate is cleaned when my father finally asks, “And what about you Ruby, did anything interesting happen in your day today?”

I look back at him, his tie still straightened. He hasn’t even bothered to take off his suit jacket. My parents, lawyers, both of them working for the same firm, spend most of their time at the office, sometimes coming home for a dinner break before returning until long after the stars have appeared.

“No,” I say, “May I be excused?”

I push back my chair, taking my plate and glass to the dishwasher.

Sometime after I’m showered and everyone else has gone to bed, Nate appears at my window. Crouched on the roof outside, he taps quietly on the pane. I climb off my bed and hurry to open it. He hands me his duffle bag of clothes, and I drop it to the floor as his gangly body unfolds before me. He isn’t wearing a jacket, and he shakes out his blonde hair, darkened with water. His shirt clings to his skin and he is shivering. I unzip his bag, quickly digging through the few t-shirts and a pair of jeans to find the black sweatpants he sleeps in. Nate peels off his wet clothes, standing before me in only his boxers. He doesn’t bother covering his chest from me. It’s slightly caved in and the boys in the locker room tease him. He is so pale, and I can see each of his ribs. His skin is stretched taut over his shoulder blades and hipbones. There is no meat on him. I toss him the pants. He pulls them on and immediately slips between the sheets of my bed for warmth. He makes himself comfortable as I change into my pajamas, his eyes watching my every movement. I flaunt it a little.

I shoo him over as I climb under the covers beside him. He is longer than my bed and doesn’t mind taking up more than his half. I don’t mind sharing. I reach over to extinguish the lamplight.

“You feel like talking now?” I ask.

“No,” he says. We’re in complete darkness as his voice comes quietly, “Tomorrow.” I let it go because I’m tired, and he’s stubborn.

I’m cold and he lets me cuddle into the crook of his back, his skin bare and warm against my forehead. He smells like soap and I feel safe.

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