At ten minutes past the usual time, the school bus rolled to its usual stop, opened its doors, and coughed out a girl. Her sneakers landed in the gravel with a crunch.

The girl paused, looking right for any cars coming up the tall hill-all clear-and crossed in front of the bus's flashing red lights. She hurried up the slope on the other side of the road, but as soon as the grassy ground evened out, her steps slowed.

She did not turn to wave at any friends as the bus grumbled along to the next stop. She didn't run to the door of the big white house, or even smile as she approached it. She hunched her shoulders, hooked her thumbs through the straps of her backpack, and braced for what she would find inside.

Two red-breasted nuthatches chirped on a nearby branch. "That poor girl," one said. "That poor, unfortunate child."

The other bird hopped closer. "She'll be all right."

"Will she?" the first wondered.

They tilted their heads and watched.

Lily stood in the entryway and let the screen door bang shut behind her. She held her breath and listened for a reaction but was greeted only by silence. She sputtered her lips, making a sound like an impatient horse, and dropped her bag to the floor with a thunk, just to fill the enormous quiet.

Four months ago, if Lily let a door slam like that, she'd be scolded or given an eye roll. Four months ago, if Mom was busy when the twins got home from school, she'd still call out hello and give snack instructions, and come hear about their day in a minute. Four months ago, Lily rarely got off the school bus alone. A lot could change in four months.

Lily used her foot to nudge her backpack out of the way and went into the kitchen. "How was the last day of school?" she asked aloud, because someone should, and the only sign of her mom was the half-eaten breakfast abandoned on the counter.

Lily dumped the soggy cereal and put the bowl and spoon in the sink.

"It was fine," she answered, keeping her tone light and easy. "Nothing exciting until the end, when some fuzzbutt pulled the fire alarm, so we were late getting onto the buses."

There was a new stack of mail on top of the old stack- evidence Mom had gone at least as far as the mailbox that day- and Lily riffled through it. Junk, bill, junk, junk, condolences, bill, all unopened, and a mysterious plain envelope addressed to her, Lily Neff. She stared at it, almost expecting the name typed above the address to change. She never got mail.

Lily tugged the envelope out of the pile as gently as if she were playing a game of pick-up-sticks. Her heart buzzed with curiosity as she slid her finger under the envelope's flap, ripped it open, and pulled out a letter. The tower of excitement building in her chest collapsed.

She tossed the form letter into the recycling and wondered how she got on that mailing list. Surely credit card companies weren't supposed to solicit eleven-year-olds.

"Would you like a snack?" she asked herself, forcing the cheer back into her voice, and opened the fridge to see the options. She deliberately did not glance at the freezer.

Before Lily's twin, Anders, got sick, the last day of school- which he called the first afternoon of summer-meant popsicles. Lily always had strawberry and Anders chose orange or lime, and they ate them outside, sitting on the cover of the old well, even if it was chilly or raining.

Wishing Season, Anica Mrose Rissi