There was nothing. Well, darkness was probably something, but it was not something I wanted to see right now. Something about the darkness was bad, like it was trying to hide something awful. But what? I didn’t know. Or remember. Not remembering felt more accurate. It was annoying, though.
What had happened to me?
The darkness parted to give way to orange light. It was warm, too much so. Flames? Yeah, they looked like sketchy flames painted with watercolours, and that was weird because fire and water didn’t mix well. I would have found it more amusing if the flames didn’t make me feel incredibly hollow all of a sudden.
I heard a crackle that could have been wood bursting because of the heat of fire. There were screams, and some of them sounded like my own. A dark figure shimmered to view from the suffocating smoke that had invaded my personal space faster than I could register.
I wanted out, but I couldn’t move.
What was wrong with me?
I tried to call out to the figure in the dark, but it shattered into ashes before it could reach me.
I woke up with the feel of dewy grass under me. I shivered, but then I realised I didn’t really feel cold. I had just expected to feel it because mornings were almost always cold in Twinbrook. I opened my eyes and realised I was probably not in Twinbrook at all.
The forest was everywhere, and it was filled with the weirdest trees and giant mushrooms. It should’ve been autumn, but none of the trees had got the memo. The colours were bright enough to make my head spin. I looked down and saw flowers all around my bare feet. And… wait… that was weird; I was wearing a black dress with leaf print, a dress I’d seen on a store window and wanted but never got. So really, what was going on?
I again thought of the forest I’d seen so many years ago. This was different. The forest from before had been like a painting. This one felt realer. Too real, actually.
A shiver went through me before I could dwell on it more. It still wasn’t because of the cold, because there still wasn’t coldness here. It was just a feeling. Like I really shouldn’t be here.
Like I should really be somewhere else. But that somewhere else was worse than here so I didn’t want to go.
I smelled the air, and there was a faint odour of burning meat, but a non-existent wind drove it away quickly. Okay, this was getting really freaky. As if it hadn’t been already freaky enough.
“Lynn? You have to listen to me.”
I almost jumped at the familiar voice behind me. Rem was sitting on a stony fairy tale bench, dressed pretty ridiculously in what looked like vines and hemp shorts. At first I thought it was as fake as a similar costume he’d worn one Halloween, but then I noticed the waxy plant texture and concluded that it was like a fake costume made out of real plants.
“Rem?” I asked and my voice came out all quiet and raspy, “Where are we? Is this one of those weird tricks you do?”
Rem looked a bit confused, but his eyes were shining even more than normal.
“No, this is your dream, and I just came here to get you back,” said Rem, spreading his arms up to encompass as much of the strange forest around us as he could, “But I did change your dream to be like this, so I could enter it better.”
“What?” I asked. His explanation made even less sense than his usual stories.
“I get it now, Lynn. I’m in a cold place but it helps me understand. I knew I could get to you because you could really see me. You and your Boogeyman-father both knew I wasn’t like the others, and that made it easier to connect. And it makes it easier for you to see through it too.”
“The illusions. Or dreams. Or memories. I think this is a memory. My memory, even though I don’t remember it properly. Whatever it is, you have to get out and wake up.”
“Because if you don’t wake up soon, you will not wake up at all. You’ll probably die, and no one wants you to die.”
I heard the words, but I didn’t really register them. It was all muffled, not real. Like nothing that could happen to me really mattered.
I blinked, and suddenly we were standing on mushrooms. I had heard that some mushrooms could make people see weird things, but I thought they should normally be digested first. These just appeared under our feet and grew until I could see the strange fairy forest far below and stretching as far as I could see. And as the mushrooms grew, the air became colder and frost started spreading on the pale blue.
“Do you see now?” asked Rem, who was sitting even higher up than I was, “None of this is really here. It’s a dream and I could change it because I knew what it was.”
I nodded slowly, pretending to understand. I did get the point, at least. Snow started falling, but it didn’t feel like real snow. It wasn’t cold and it didn’t melt. It was like tufts of feathers from newly born ducklings.
“I believe you,” I said, “But how do I get out?”
Rem’s warning of dying if I didn’t get out finally managed to have some impact on me. Everything was still too much of a blur, though. The air was light, and I was reminded of Rem’s episode when he’d been sick so long ago. But this time the air was also warm and made me want to wrap it around me like a blanket.
“Don’t try to go further into the dream,” said Rem from somewhere far away, “Think of mum, and dad, and even me, if it helps. But not me as in the fairy me here. Think of the me that’s waiting for you in the hospital and is close to falling into scary emptiness. Think of waking up.”
And then the fairy forest was gone. I lifted my hand and caught some of the feather snowflakes that piled onto my hand. There it looked more like sugar.
Focus, Lynn! I reminded myself. Rem had told me to wake up. This wasn’t real. And I needed to be where it was real or else I would never be anywhere at all.
I looked up at the sky, focused on how wrong it looked. The stars were too bright and too colourful. The snow was too soft and too dry, and it wasn’t really even winter. And I was wearing a dress I’d most likely never have for real. It was a dream, and dreams could be controlled.
I grabbed a hold of the sky, and tore it aside, along with my dream.
There were beeps and whispers. My head and cheeks and arms hurt, and everything felt wrong. Now I saw only darkness, and it was just as uninviting as before. I pried my eyes open and felt as if they were instantly scrubbed with disinfectant. Everything was so… clean. Sterile. Mostly white but with a little bit of light blues and browns to break it a bit and calm the glaring whiteness. A vase full of pink fake roses gave me something to focus on when I tried to get my bearings.
A woman dressed in a doctor’s coat looked at me. She said something about me being awake and asked a bunch of questions in a sweet but business-like voice. It got all lumped and mixed together like cotton candy in my head, but I thought I managed to at least mutter something through my unbearably scratchy throat. I still wasn’t clear on where I was – except that all clues pointed to a hospital – or what had happened. Something about a basement… and phoenixes. Did I even want for it to come back?
The doctor did some tests, called over a few nurses, and asked more questions and looked at several monitors while I lay on the hospital bed, too weak to move and too confused to ask anything that would clear things up.
“…a minor carbon monoxide poisoning, but that should be better now… The worst part were the burns, but even they should mostly heal… time and some minor skin grafts… Most are well on their way already… Some scarring will stay, but we’ll do our best to keep it minimal… the important thing is she’s awake. She was very close to slipping too far into a coma… mostly shock and trauma, as far as I can tell…”
It was mostly said from one doctor to another, but a couple of times the doctor looked at me, explaining the same things she told the nurses to me in simpler words and adding in some encouraging smiles. As if I didn’t understand the horrible things from the more clinical talk. I just stayed on my back, staring at the ceiling even when the doctor talked to me. Everything returned in a sluggish flow. Like tar. Just as unpleasant, too. Laketon, the kidnapping, the fire… It couldn’t have happened really. It had to be a nightmare, because these kinds of things didn’t happen to us. To someone else, maybe. In books, or on TV, or in wildly exaggerated news stories.
Finally, finally, the lady doctor smiled at me and said:
“All right. We’ll let you rest for a while and then your family can come in. They’re pretty anxious to see you.”
She left, and after a while the door slid open and my mum’s face was the first thing I saw from the gap. Said face went through very deep sadness and apology before getting overshadowed by pure joy. Mum had always been enthusiastic about things, but now she looked like she could explode into confetti. Behind her in came Patrick and Rem, who flashed me a dead smile before his eyes glazed over. At least they all seemed to be physically just fine.
“Lynn! Honey, we’re so glad you’re awake!” mum gushed, barely letting me get out of bed before tugging me into a fierce hug. It was desperate and relieved and loving and almost made me cry. I hugged back, wishing I could just stay there forever. But a nasty sting of pain in my cheek made me pull away sooner than I’d wanted.
“What happened?” I managed to ask, “I… there was a fire.”
It sounded feeble and confused, but I just couldn’t do better.
“The fire… yes,” mum sniffed, “It was awful… but we’ll be okay now, won’t we? How are you feeling? The doctor said we shouldn’t be here for long today. You still need plenty of rest.”
I really did feel like it, too. My legs could barely support me, and I was hurting all over. At least I wasn’t plugged into any machines now, but apparently I had been before waking up. None of this still answered my questions, though. The things wrong with me that the doctor had told me about had only cleared up that I was badly hurt, but I just couldn’t really process it all yet.
“What happened?” I said again.
Mum glanced at Patrick, who sighed.
“Lynn, you don’t have to go through this right now,” he said in a low voice.
“Go through what?” I asked, “What happened? Where… oh, damn, where’s L-laketon? Did he…?”
“He didn’t hurt anyone else,” Patrick said reassuringly, “He ran when the fire started, but detective Douglas and the police who just got there caught him. He’s in jail now. And your mum and I pulled you out of the fire before… well, before things got really bad.”
The edge in his voice told me that things actually were really bad. And who the hell was detective Douglas?
“So… how bad was it?”
“Bad,” said Rem, and I looked at him in surprise. His voice was flat, quiet, and in every way nothing like the bubbly, happy Rem I’d grown up with so far, “You were awake, but mostly not when they healed you. They said you might not wake up yesterday.”
“Rem,” mum said gently, “Lynn doesn’t need to hear that.”
“I’m alright, mum,” I said, “What’s wrong with me? And Rem? Is he okay?”
Mum and Patrick exchanged a look again. It was getting unnerving.
“We’ll be fine,” mum insisted.
“No! Don’t start doing this to me! I want to know what’s going on! The doctors said I was… I burned.”
“I…” mum started, “Don’t… oh, honey…”
“Well, yes,” Patrick said when mum started dissolving into sniffles, “You have a lot of injuries, as… as you can probably feel. But the doctors had made it much better already. And it wasn’t… well, it could have been very bad, but we got here in time.”
My cheek stung, and my skin felt a bit too small there. I lifted a hand to feel it.
“Wait, don’t,” mum said gently, “There’s a burn there. Quite bad. Let it heal.”
A burn? One of them was on my face? How bad was it? I immediately located a mirror near the sink that was in the room and dragged my feet over to it despite my parents’ protests.
I looked at the mirror, first blankly, and then felt ice sinking into my stomach.
I looked terrible. The gauze that covered most of my right cheek did nothing to hide the fact that nearly the entire side of my face was charred. My hair was messily cropped short, and I could imagine it was because at some point it had been on fire. I slowly lifted the sleeve of my hospital clothes and saw bandages around my arm as well. I didn’t have to look under them to know what they were hiding. My breath caught in my throat.
“Lynn?” I heard mum say cautiously, like I would break if she said it any louder. And maybe I actually would.
It all just crashed down on me then. It was all real. The things that didn’t happen to us but to some other people had really happened. We’d almost… we’d almost…
I couldn’t even finish my thought. I breathed out, and with the air came the tears.
Mum held me again, for I don’t know how long. I didn’t care, though. It was as close to forever as we could get in that moment. And that too was over too quickly, because then another eternity would start, and it would be awful. The doctor had called it “recovery”. Right now, I didn’t even want to think about anything else than the fact that we were all in the same room, and it was not on fire, and we were safe, if broken.
Because that’s what we were. I heard mum sniffing and then crying. I felt the void that Rem’s quietness was filling the room with. I knew Patrick was trying and failing to be strong when he gave us whispered words of encouragement in the background.
My eyes were shut, and I saw darkness, but this time it was welcome, because there I didn’t have to think about what was outside it and my mother’s arms.
I didn’t care to count the days that followed, when I had to stay in the hospital and go through all kinds of procedures and check-ups. I didn’t care about most of them, as long as they just made the hurts and the scars go away. The worst scars were in my head, though, and that was where the psychiatrists came in. I went to several sessions with a man who was kind of friendly but not too much, and was actually very good at making people pour their hearts out and making them feel better. I guess he was supposed to nudge me away from the dark pit I’d dug myself in just to escape the fear and the horrible memories, but I couldn’t tell if it was working. The darkness was safe; forgetting didn’t hurt. It dulled the pain, and even though it dulled everything else too, it was a sacrifice I was willing to make.
I hated my burns. I had never been the prettiest girl in class and I didn’t even care to be, but I sure as hell didn’t want any visible reminders about the awful events that had happened in Laketon’s basement. And yes, they did look awful, which bothered me too. The worst part was knowing that they made people stare at me, and I hated being stared at. My only consolation was that the treatments were making them look better bit by bit. Some of them faded away entirely, as they had been only first or second degree burns. The ones on my face and right arm had gone to third degree in several places. I was told later that that amount of burns had been life-threatening and that I was really lucky to be alive. I didn’t feel so lucky, and I certainly didn’t feel like I wanted to hear anyone say those kinds of things to my face when I was still in a pit of trauma.
In between the treatments, I sat in my room, with my family around me. They usually stayed for as long as they could. Mum and Patrick talked to us, telling about how things would be better. A lot of the times we just sat together in silence, though. We were drawing even closer than before. In a way, I think our family was knitting tighter together to compensate for the fact that each of us was so close to falling apart at the seams.
I wasn’t the only one getting therapy. Mum and Patrick had a couple of sessions too, but they didn’t discuss that too much. Instead they focused me, and Rem, who was seeing the psychiatrist as much as I was. Rem scared me even more than anything else did, and that was saying a lot in this situation. He didn’t talk much, and when he did, it came out in quiet, short sentences, lacking all his joy and dreaminess. He was like a Rem-shaped husk, a zombie going through the motions of life. I really hoped the psychiatrist could fix that. It just wasn’t right.
We heard about Laketon a little. Mum and Patrick had been in contact with the police, who had wanted witness statements from them and who had wanted to talk to us too. They weren’t let in for more than a few minutes, though, and even that only after some serious waiting and complaining about disturbing already disturbed kids. Rem and I told the police what had happened the best we could. Well, I forced myself to talk because Rem barely spoke. Later we heard that Laketon would spend a long time in jail, and I thought he deserved worse. We were assured that we would be safe, but I couldn’t really believe it anymore.
There were other visitors too. Our grandparents from Patrick’s side, because mum’s had cut most ties to us after mum had become a single mother. Mum and Patrick’s close friends visited too, as did some of Rem’s buddies, and Jace and Bree. Our story made the news, so some more curious and distant acquaintances tried to barge in as well, but mum and Patrick didn’t let them near Rem or I. All of those visits just seemed to come and go, with only Bree and Jace sticking in my memory because they were my friends and cared enough to not care about my hideous face or the fact that I didn’t want to talk much. But even their visits were over soon, and then replaced by the dark that wanted to slowly break away and expose me to the world again. I wondered if Rem was in similar darkness. Or if mum or Patrick felt the same. We talked about it a bit, but I still didn’t have an answer. I’d never be able to feel what they did, but that was fine. I had plenty to deal with in my own jumbled feelings.
It was Patrick who finally started to turn the conversations to a more normal direction. Things like school, mum’s writings, books, pumpkins. At first I didn’t really want to go there, because I was afraid that after this, there would be no normal for us. But Patrick insisted on talking, day after day, and little by little, mum joined in. She was smiling a bit more genuinely than before, and her voice wasn’t so quiet anymore. It tore apart the darkness and I clung to the shreds, but finally realised my mouth was moving and I was asking if mum or Patrick could be bothered to bring me something to read. Mum smiled and nodded enthusiastically.
“What would you like to read, Lynn? I remember you have a Where’s Bella? -book unfinished at home.”
I nodded slowly.
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” a thought occurred to me, “Hey, Patrick, how’re our apple trees?”
“It’s almost winter. They’re nearly hibernating.”
“Darn, I’d really like some apple sauce right now.”
For some reason, mum beamed at me, then, as if I wanting apples was the best thing ever. And seeing how I really hadn’t cared about eating much of anything lately, maybe it was. Where had that even come from, anyway?
That was probably when I climbed back over the edge the therapy and time had pushed me towards, and I managed to smile and feel like there was something other than hiding. It was a start, and when I watched Rem’s still passive face that had become only a little less zombie-like, I knew the start wouldn’t mean the end was anywhere in sight.
It was so easy to break something. It was almost always harder to put it back together.
Sometime later the doctors started to talk about letting me go. I was confused. I still had the scars on my face and my arm, even though they didn’t hurt anymore and the doctors said they would just fade to some extent with time and treatment. That couldn’t be right. They were supposed to heal me, not leave me looking like a comic book villain with a split personality. And I knew I was still treading on thin ice with my mind too. I was getting there, but I still didn’t feel like I could find anything lasting to keep me safe. My parents weren’t all-powerful. They were scared human beings who wanted to protect us even if it killed them. Our house wasn’t safe, and my chirpy brother had closed himself off and sunk into depression. I was only twelve, and the world was dumping things that I felt I wasn’t yet old enough to understand on me. And now they were going to let me go out there?
Mum and Patrick assured me that our home was fine and waiting for me. They also said that Rem and I would have to come back for therapy sessions and some more check-ups later, but that things could go back to normal. Yeah, right. But despite my doubting, I did quite soon find myself sitting on a chair with an old hat mum had found for me because I didn’t feel like attracting looks right away after stepping out of the hospital. The doctor was talking to mum and Patrick and looking at her computer before finally saying that yes, we could indeed leave. Mum practically whooped with joy, then dissolved into gushing about how our home had missed me.
I’d missed it too. Even if it wasn’t as safe as before.
The ride back home was quiet, and when we stepped out, I just stood there, staring at the old industrial building turned home as if seeing it for the first time. It was different than I remembered. Less inviting. But it was also where I really did want to be, or at least it was where I wanted to be more than anywhere else. I felt my parents’ encouraging smiles at my back, just like I felt Rem’s sad stare. I looked across our front yard, past the small garden fountain and the almost obsessively groomed flowerbeds. I wondered if Patrick had been gardening like crazy to get his own traumatised mind back into normal. The vegetable garden looked perfect as well even though it was so cold nothing grew anymore, so I was probably not far off.
I swallowed through my thick throat.
“Home, sweet home,” I said weakly, not really feeling it.
Together, we took the steps to our front door.
Author’s Note: Well, that was pretty difficult to write. The painting of a burning man is again done by me.
A very special thanks to BILLABONG_ on The Sims Resource http://www.thesimsresource.com/downloads/details/category/sims3-makeup-costumemakeup-scarswounds/title/bloody-faces/id/902173/ for the bloody faces CC that I’ve used here (with slight photoshopping in the photos).