t’s cold in the house. Vasara climbs wearily to her room — a cluttered pile of antiquated artifacts shoved in a corner, a rickety bed frame for company. Two threadbare duvets serve as a mattress, and a thin pique blanket for warmth.

Fighting off a fluey head and an angry stomach, she gropes beneath the duvets for a spare cigarette. Her search comes up empty. She sits cross-legged on the duvets and hugs her knees, reviewing every hiding place she has ever made use of. Cubbyhole behind the stairs. Brick pile in the garden. Broken gramophone above the kitchen sink. And… the trusty duvets. It’s no use. She’s tried them all. She heaves onto her left side and curls into herself, still hugging her knees. The need for a Marlboro clouds her senses, driving all else away. The pique blanket is pooled at her feet, but lacking the willpower to reach for it, she lies in the cold and moans.

“Aaaallo! Daina? Vasara? Anyone ’ere?”

A loud slam brings her back to herself.

Shaking her hair into place, Vasara comes down the stairs as fast as her shaky knees will allow. When she sees who it is, she stops mid-staircase. Aunt Morta.

Vasara takes her in through lidded eyes. “What is your business here?”

“Ooh…” Crossing her heart with a pudgy palm, Morta flutters her fake eyelashes and sends a coy smile.

“Thank you for welcoming me with open arms! I always said Zenia brought you up well.” Morta sucks in her cheeks and spits on the floorboards.

Vasara’s hand tightens over the banister.

“I’ve come for the money.”

“Which money?”

“Come on. I don’t need to spell it out.”

Vasara stares at Morta in disbelief. Mama always claimed she has a few eggs missing in her nest, but this is insane. Swinging her left arm wide open, Vasara gestures at the hollow hall behind her. She points to the cracks in the ceiling. Every downpour, raindrops seep through these cracks. Stains of moldy gray spread relentlessly, conquering the ceiling.

“Money, huh? Welcome to the castle of Jonas Goštautas! You make me laugh.”

Morta sneers and spits again. “Don’t play games with me. My sister was fantastic at hiding things. I know there’s money somewhere.”

Before Vasara can reply, Morta walks past her into the kitchen. She rummages through a basket of empty tin cans Vasara was hoping to exchange for cash.

“Hey! Leave off! You’ve no right to be here!”

“Really?” Morta crouches on the floor, feeling for loose floorboards. “I have far more right to be here than you do. You’re not even real family, remember?” She pauses, lifts herself up off the floor and takes a good look at Vasara, whose face remains blank. A slow smirk spreads over her face.

“You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”

Vasara shakes her head and sends her aunt a pitying look. She’s nuts. Misery whips into her. Ma would have never put up with this.

“Look, Morta. I don’t know what your problem is, but you’re poking up the wrong chimney. I have no money. None at all. And making up stories won’t get you nowhere. Now get out.”

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 606)