I creep down the stairs, my rucksack clutched in my fist. I don’t want to wake Charlie. I’m not going to school, but she doesn’t need to know that – and I don’t want her to tell Dad. I make it to the front door and throw the rucksack over one shoulder, reaching for the door handle.
I freeze, holding my breath, my hand on the lock. She’s in the kitchen. I thought she was still in bed.
She steps into the tiny hallway, a mug of coffee in her hand, her short hair lit from behind like a halo. She leans against the door frame and checks her watch.
“Are you OK, Toph?” She glances at my rucksack. “Where are you going?”
I stare at the floor. I don’t want to lie to Charlie, but I can’t tell her the truth.
“School?” I manage to make it sound like a question. She smiles.
“At seven in the morning?” She puts a hand on my elbow. “Come on, Toph. What’s going on?”
Her voice is kind. She’s not shouting. She really wants to know.
And this is the problem with Auntie Charlie. She’s good at this. She’s good at talking to me, and helping me figure stuff out. I guess I’m lucky that I stayed here last night. That it’s not Dad I’m explaining myself to.
She has me cornered.
I drop the rucksack and lean back against the front door.
“She’s leaving. Today.”
She looks at me, and her face softens.
I close my eyes. “Yeah.”
She nods. “So you’re going …”
“… to the airport. Yeah.”
“You’re going to say goodbye.”
I nod, my eyes shut tight.
“It’s my last chance.”
She gives my elbow a squeeze. Her grip is firm and comforting.
She’s not arguing with me. She’s not telling me not to go.
This is worse than Dad. With Dad I could shout, and walk out. I could slam the door and leave him behind. I could catch the bus and get to the airport, and deal with the meltdown later.
But I can’t do that to Charlie.
“Have you had breakfast?” I shake my head. “Come and sit down. I’ll get you a cup of tea.”
She turns away and crosses the kitchen to the kettle, pulling a chair out from the table as she walks past.
I stand still for a moment, the door against my back. I can’t leave now. I can’t walk out on the only person who understands. I step into the kitchen, kick my rucksack under the table and drop myself into the chair.