Chapter 24: Family Ties

I’d formed a new routine when winter had started. Every Saturday I woke up so early that the others were still asleep. I quickly shovelled down a hastily made omelette, brushed my teeth, got dressed and tried to fade out my scars with makeup before I headed out. The morning air was frosty and stung my nostrils in that peppery way chilly air tended to do.

I trudged through the freshly fallen snow and got into our car, driving through a by now familiar route towards the local witch’s house. Sabine was of course still not a witch. I mean, that would be silly because the only real magic was fairies who used their powers to hide and switch up babies. In all seriousness, I wouldn’t be surprised anymore if there was a whole world of all sorts of magical creatures out there. But Sabine Bellechance wasn’t one of them. She was just an old woman who had a lot of compassion and wisdom underneath her bitter and aloof shell.

I’d worked on her garden until it was cleaned up, and then proceeded to maintain it. But when the winter rolled in, I of course wasn’t needed. Not until this year, when Sabine had asked me to help with her groceries and cleaning too. I hadn’t needed to think about it much; I’d said yes almost immediately. Not just because it meant more money. I’d done it mostly because I really liked Sabine.

She was getting older. I noticed it from the way her walking had got slower and of course from the fact that she needed a cane to walk long distances now. But despite that, she kept her back as straight as she could and insisted on walking to the store with me. She looked very snazzy in her sleek coat and her awesome purple bowler hat. She didn’t even seem to mind the cold or the people who occasionally stared at her with suspicion because of the witch-rumours.

“Oh, they need to have their gossip,” she said nonchalantly when we were making our way to the EverFresh Delights Supermarket and a couple of people had started whispering when we’d passed by, “It makes life feel more interesting than it really is here.”

“I guess…” I said, “It’s not nice, though.”

“Well, no. It’s not. But then again, I don’t care enough to let it hurt me.”

She kept her head high, and I secretly wished that I too could grow old as gracefully as she did. Sure, she came off as rather cold sometimes, but maybe it was the coldness that had preserved something important in her soul. Maybe. Whatever it was, it seemed to work for her.

But I had a feeling she didn’t think it would work for anyone else. Especially for me. She talked about it several times when we got back to her house and took a moment to sit down and chat. She especially talked about how people shouldn’t be so apathetic and let life pass them by.

“I don’t mean to point fingers, especially at you,” she said today after I’d helped her with cleaning the house and we’d gone outside to sit in the beautiful snowy afternoon, “I mean, I don’t know everything that has happened to you, but from what I’ve heard, you’ve been taking steps to live a life the way you want despite all the hardships.”

She smiled.

“Although, you’re also spending time with an old woman like me.”

“Maybe that’s also a part of the life I want,” I replied, idly poking the frozen plastic daffodils on Sabine’s garden table, “I like talking to you.”

“And I’m glad about that. But I also think I’m not the most uplifting company.”

“I’m not uplifting either.”

“You don’t give yourself enough credit,” Sabine smiled, “You see a lot of beauty in the world. I read the short story you sent to that contest. You know, the one that got published on the web.”

“Really?” I blushed, “You didn’t tell me that.”

“It wasn’t too long ago. I liked it. Dark but beautiful. I especially liked the bit about the two worlds.”

I smiled shyly.

“Thanks.”

Sabine returned my smile with her own.

“Just don’t let life get you down. It did that once, and I never really got over it.”

I pondered her words when I finally started to drive back home. Sometimes I spent the entire day at Sabine’s, and this was one of those days, but I was still almost surprised to see how dark it had got. I wondered if Sabine thought that I spent time with her out of pity. Because it felt like she really had no one in her life other than me now. She at least seemed to think that her presence made my depression worse or something. It didn’t, really. I really felt like we could become good friends once she finally accepted that I did enjoy spending time with her and respected her despite – or partly because – of the slightly sour, mysterious aura that surrounded her.

I tried to remember when the last time I’d thought about the letters we’d dug up with Min had been. I was still way too curious about them, but I knew enough not to pry. It was Sabine’s secret, and a big part of me had already accepted that she didn’t want to talk about it. I convinced myself that after all this wondering, the actual answers would just be anticlimactic anyway.

When I got back home I was met with a happy greeting from Rem. He and Merrill had braved the cold weather – which to be fair had got considerably less cold during the day – and got out to build a snowman. The snow had become just sticky enough once the weather had warmed up a bit, and Rem had already rolled up most of the snowman while Merrill occasionally took a break from eating snow to pat the snowman’s sides where he could reach them.

“You wanna help us?” Rem asked excitedly, “I think we’re going for a traditional touch with this one!”

I thought about wasted time I could instead waste on reading or surfing on the internet. Then I thought about silly cheerful things that made the blanket over my mind thin.

“Sure. Why not.”

“No man snowman!” Merrill sang in response and punched the snowman’s side with his small fist.

“Merry, what have I told about mistreating other people’s work?”

“It’s bad?”

“Exactly. Don’t worry, you can still stick the carrot-nose on no-man-snowman’s face, okay?”

I grinned at my brothers and joined them.

“Kielo and Alvar are going to visit tomorrow,” Rem said once the snowman was done and he had flopped onto his back into the snow.

“Really?” I asked and picked up Merrill, who was starting to complain about the cold, “They got their phones finally working again?”

“Nah. I saw them. I’m really trying to see little things so I can then maybe see the more important things without messing them up.”

Rem moved his arms and legs to make a snow angel – or a snow fairy – and didn’t seem to care that the sticky snow was quickly soaking his jacket.

“Sometimes it’s easy…” he said, “Seeing… but a lot of the times I still don’t get it.”

“Are you going back to Twinbrook again, then?” I asked, “For some more lessons?”

“Probably, yeah. Maybe tomorrow for a quick visit. I asked mum and dad and they said it was fine as long as I was back before the night.”

I remembered a time when mum and Patrick had been really uncertain to let their son go alone to study with fairies, but things had changed. It had taken a lot of visits from Kielo, and she’d even had to show mum and Patrick the forest until they’d been happy. She’d been a bit hesitant to do it, but in the end she had agreed. Now it almost felt like a devastating family secret had become a hobby of sorts. Like evening classes about wonky magic.

“You wanna come with us?” Rem asked, “Kuura especially has been asking about you a lot.”

I shrugged.

“Maybe later. I’ve still got some schoolwork I want to do.”

“I wanna go!” Merril suddenly said.

Rem smiled.

“Sorry, Merry. Not until you’re older.”

Merrill scrunched up his nose and then turned to whisper into my ear:

“Rem is stupidhead.”

“Hey! I heard that!”

I laughed. There really was a lot of sense in not letting life get to me. Sometimes I thought that I already had, but then I found these little moments when I felt light and happy. That was when I knew that I wasn’t a completely lost cause yet.

Sure enough, Kielo managed to call us that night with her cell phone, which she had excitedly figured out about six months ago, but which kept breaking because she tended to experiment with it too eagerly. She and Alvar arrived early in the next morning after they got permission to take Rem away for a day. They looked almost convincing in their winter clothes, though I was pretty sure the clothes had been either scavenged or stolen from somewhere. They kicked their shoes off as soon as they got in, but they didn’t even have time to take off their coats before Patrick was there, hugging his biological son and welcoming them to the house.

“I guess we should visit more often and not just come here to take Rem away every once in a while,” Alvar said, and then seemed to realise how wrong his words sounded in light of what had happened all those years ago, when the fair folk really had just tried to take him away, “…sorry.”

“Don’t be,” said Patrick, “But yes, you should visit more often!”

They shed their winter clothes, and then it was time for more hugs. It had become a ritual whenever Alvar visited. Lots of hugs and pleasantries followed by Rem often leaving for the day and then returning at night. This time was no different.

“Hey there, little guy!” Alvar said as soon as he got a hold of Merrill and lifted him high into the air, “You’re growing so fast! I don’t think I’ll be able to toss you around like this much longer. Soon you’ll be wrestling all your siblings to the ground!”

Merrill giggled and flailed his arms wildly. He’d really got attached to his half-brother, and seemed to always remember him even after a longer break from seeing him. That was quite remarkable for a pretty self-absorbed three-year-old. Rem and Alvar had also developed this very natural sort of camaraderie that made me smile. Though I had a feeling it wasn’t without its tensions. They were simply very good at hiding their problems. Or then I was just being pessimistic again.

We traded news about our respective lives, and mum and Patrick asked slightly stern questions about what Rem would be doing among the fair folk this time, like they always did. Usually the anwer was more of the same: practising. Rem had been very eager to learn how to control his fairy magic powers, and he really had made good progress with it during his visits.

“I think Lumi has planned some focus training or something,” Kielo explained this time when Patrick asked her about it, “You know, practising the… doing what you want to do with magic stuff. I’m not really good at the academic terms for magic, you know. I can barely pull off my glamour.”

“I think it looks fine,” I said, “Especially the fauxhawk.”

“The what?” Kielo frowned.

“Your haircut.”

“Oh, is that what you call it? Cool!”

“I just hope there’ll be some time to do stuff together too,” Rem told Alvar, who was trying his best to chat with him while holding a wiggling Merrill, “We can maybe try to finish building that treehouse for the kids.”

“Yeah!” Alvar laughed and then winced when Merrill tugged his dreadlocks a bit too hard, “Kuura, Halla and Marras have been pestering me about getting it done for weeks now!”

“It sounds like things are really going well for you,” I said, “You know, despite the pestering kids.”

Kielo smiled.

“We always pull through.”

“Is the winter rough for you, though?” asked Patrick, “It’s much colder than last year. Don’t you do a lot of gathering and farming?”

“Oh, our winters are always really mild,” Kielo said, “It’s a part of having magic hiding us; it also gives us pretty good shields against the frost and snow.”

“I love the snow here, though,” Alvar said, “I wish we had more of it in the forest. It’s so beautiful.”

“And fun, right?” Rem added, “If it were a bit warmer, we could build snowmen and have snowball fights again!”

“Well, maybe next time.”

“Right…” Rem glanced at the clock on his cell phone, “Hey, I think we should be leaving already. I’ve got school tomorrow.”

“Exactly. Remember to get back in the ten o’clock bus,” mum said for the fifteenth time that weekend. Rem nodded and dashed upstairs to cram his backpack full of essentials like muesli bars, sketchbooks and pens.

They were always gone so quickly. We had a quick chat that didn’t tell anyone much about anything, and then dad was standing on the porch, waving goodbye to an excited Rem and our new-ish relatives. He always smiled after them until they were gone. Then he stood on the porch a bit too long and his expression changed to a forlorn one.

I had a feeling I knew what he was thinking. He was maybe afraid that someday Rem wouldn’t come back. That Rem would want to stay among his people instead of us. I knew that was a totally irrational fear. Rem had chosen us long ago, and I doubted a few visits were going to change that.

Especially considering that the visits were like attending school on weekends. Rem had told us in detail how it all usually played out. It involved quick hellos to the other fairy villagers, and maybe some time to spend with Alvar and Kielo before Rem had to go see the Matriarch’s adviser Lumi, who was the resident magic expert and healer. She always had a magic lesson planned for Rem, and she was stern and demanding.

Usually it began with her leaving Rem to meditate by the river for an hour while she was finishing up her chores for the day. After that came the actual teaching. Sometimes she taught illusions and magic that the fair folk could do. It was apparently essential to survival.

“If you can’t master it, you could be killed, or kill someone else with an ill-timed magic surge!” was what she’d said. Her motivational speeches were usually more on the terrifying side.

Sometimes she tried her best to teach Rem how to control his gift of clairvoyance. Because Rem’s mum had been the only actual clairvoyant in the village, there was no one there who could properly teach him that anymore. But Lumi was apparently doing pretty well with what she knew. She explained the importance of focus and of not getting lost into the visions, which I recalled had been what had killed Rem’s mum. She also told Rem about the most common symbols in visions.

I had thought that Rem’s visions were just personal things, just his way of getting glimpses of something he then usually interpreted through fairytales. But apparently there were some universal details in weird psychic powers too. Rem had once excitedly told me about what some of the things he saw could mean. About how animals often represented people and how a stormy weather in visions usually meant that something bad was about to happen.

I was especially fascinated and horrified by his description of the shadowy, silhouetted figure that was apparently an omen of death. The fair folk, influenced by their matriarchal society, had at some point decided that it was female despite not having enough characteristics to tell for sure. They had named her Tuonetar, who was apparently a benevolent if morbid figure in the fair folk’s mythology. The death goddess or something. Someone who ferried the souls of the dead to the beyond.

It had all been interesting, sure, but all I could think about when I heard the description was the black figure I had seen in my dreams after the fire. Rem had mused that it must have been because he had linked his dreams with mine, and because he had seen death. My near-death, probably. The mere thought made me feel dizzy. I also remembered the shadowy figures we’d sometimes been surrounded with back when we’d been little. Maybe Rem had been seeing them a lot and then just accidentally made me see them too. He had been so close to death when he had been born, after all. It was unnerving to say the least.

I wondered what his lessons would be like today. Maybe more of the same. Or maybe he’d be learning about fairy dreams this time. About how he had been able to link his dreams with me sometimes. Before this, Rem had done all those things mostly without knowing what he’d been doing. Now he had the chance to actually learn it.

It was hard work, definitely, and Rem often returned half-asleep and with a headache that made Patrick regret his decision to let his son go on fairy field trips even more. But the next morning he’d again be happy and jumping around like he always was. And he was always so excited about finally learning how to control the visions and powers that had previously manifested as confusing fairytale-esque metaphors. So I figured it was just good for him.

But while Rem was away, I spent the day mostly writing and doing schoolwork and helping mum and Patrick around the house. And because of that I had plenty of time to catch glimpses of Patrick’s worried face and quiet moments of regret.

In those moments I really hoped that he was worrying for nothing. And I also hoped I could have said something to make him feel better. But I could never come up with anything convincing.

But Rem came back, like he always did. He was tired and went straight to bed, and the next day he was skipping through the snow into the school bus as if nothing weird had happened. And Patrick could sigh in relief and our week could properly start. Happy. Safe. And normal for us.

After school I came home to find Rem outside on our swing set. That wasn’t anything new, really. However, he wasn’t really swinging, but instead just sitting and staring wistfully into space. He was even ignoring the awesome igloo Patrick had built for us while trying to think happy thoughts before Rem came back from Twinbrook.

“Hey, you okay?” I said.

Rem looked up at me and smiled weakly.

“Hi. It was a long day.”

“You were home long before I was.”

“Yeah…” Rem leaned his forehead against one of the swing’s chains, “Yesterday… Lumi told me that I was making a lot progress. That I wasn’t completely hopeless with magic anymore.”

He fell silent for a while, and blinked a few stray snowflakes from his eyelashes. I slowly sat on the other swing and waited.

“She told me that I might be ready to start officially becoming a shaman… their new clairvoyant.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Really? Already?”

“That’s what I wondered too,” Rem pursed his lips, deep in thought, “She did say it would mean a pretty long process of studying and practise and rituals and all… but… I still don’t know. I think they just want someone who can see the future into their village again. And I think…”

He hesitated, and I dared to finish his sentence with what Patrick was secretly fearing:

“That they want to make you stay?”

Rem nodded.

“I think they want me to feel like I have to,” he said, “They’re being nice about it, though.”

“Well, what do you really want?” I asked, “Would you want to become their shaman? I have to admit it would look awesome on a résumé.”

Rem laughed, but the laugh was clipped and not natural like it usually was.

“I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, really,” he said, “I don’t think I even have to know yet. But I… I do know that I want to stay here. But I want us all to be happy. Them too. My other family, I mean.”

I nodded slowly.

“I think that sounds like a plan. We should be able to work with that somehow. And don’t worry; we’ll all make sure no one will break us apart again. Not even if they’re being nice about it.”

Rem laughed again, this time sounding much more like himself. He kicked the ground with his feet and quickly worked up speed as he swung back and forth, back and forth. His smile lingered in the air amidst the snowflakes.

“You’re right,” he said, “At least I want to think that.”

I watched my brother trying to reach the sky and thought about how far we’d come. I wasn’t sure if I could keep my spontaneous promise of us staying together no matter what. In fact, my pessimistic, usually overpowering side said it was unlikely. But I forced myself to silence it, and closed my eyes and let the lazy snowflakes fall on my face.

Even if it was unlikely, I’d definitely do everything I could to keep us all together and safe.

“No… no…”

“Nathaniel…”

“It was all a lie… You… YOU ALL KEEP LYING TO ME!”

“Please, ma’am. Calm down. What is-?”

“IT WAS REAL! YOU CAN’T CLAIM HE WASN’T HERE! THE FAIRIES TOOK HIM!”

“…They took my son…”

Author’s Note: Yeah, this is another sort of set-up chapter. I could have merged this and the previous one together but ehh… I wanted to get something out sooner so the previous interlude-thing was born. So… setting up possible conflicts and other things and desperately trying to make sense of the very random shadow-people comment in the prologue that really went nowhere because I changed my mind about the nature of the story quite a bit in the beginning. That’s what I get for not planning ahead enough!

But let’s talk about something more positive now… uh… I love how cute everyone looks in their winter hats! Yeah! And winter in general looks gorgeous. I could just take endless screenshots of the snowy scenery!

Also, Tuonetar is a death goddess in old Finnish mythology, though not exactly what I described the fair folk’s version of her being like. I figured that since I’ve used gratuitous Finnish to name every fairy in the story, it stands to reason that their gods/spirit guide-creatures also have Finnish names. I apologise for cramming my native culture down your throats… or then I’m not, because I figure I’ve done it mostly tastefully so far. Feel free to complain if it’s too much.

I’ve been having some trouble with loading some of my Fey saves. I think it’s because the saves are getting too big. I’ve been trying to clean them up and so far I’ve managed to at least get them working. Let’s hope I can keep things functional. So far my TS3 has been very kind to me so we can hope it will keep doing that.

I hope you enjoy! I’ll start working on the next chapter as soon as I have time and energy. Right now I’m pretty busy with school and all. Have a lovely time you all!

PREVIOUS Chapter: One And a Half Years

NEXT Chapter: The Princess and the Pixie

Chapter 23: One And a Half Years

Excerpts from Simbook, one year after what the Monsoon-Farley family has dubbed simply “The Incident”:


Lynn Farley
14 July
Finally getting on a plane towards Shang Simla. It’s been way too much waiting.

Margaret Farley
Remember to be careful!

Rem Monsoon
😀 Mum’s thinking you’ll try to bungee jump off the plane.

 Lynn Farley
😛


Lynn Farley
14 July


The accommodations could definitely be worse. It’s really close to the centre, and the building is super cool! Also the picture I took is proof that we survived the flight, with just some numbed muscles and major jet lag.

Jace Herring
The place is awesome. I’m calling the fancy bunk!

Lynn Farley
Jace, I’m right next to you. You can just turn your head and talk to me. 😛


Lynn Farley
15 July


Went for a walk in the centre. It’s really beautiful. Behind Bree and I you can see the Halls of the Lost Army.

Rem Monsoon
Nice! Can you take lots of pictures on pretty scenery? I wanna paint EVERYTHING there.

Margaret Farley
hi lynaöaflk paskxliw llkasöd.

Margaret Farley
Sorry. Merry wanted to say hi too. He can almost type already!

Lynn Farley
Mum, there are such things as delete and backspace…

Bree Vasquez
😀


Lynn Farley
16 July


Got to visit the famous Scholar’s Garden. It really is as peaceful as the websites claim.

Min Han
Not pictured: Michel falling into the pond.

Michel Faroffington
Hey! 😡

 Jace Herring
lol


Lynn Farley
18 July








Okay, here’s some scenery pics. Shang Simla is amazing.

Rem Monsoon
Yay, thanks!


 Lynn Farley
19 July
The time to get back home is getting closer, but there’s still plenty of time to do stuff. Today was a shopping day, but I’m hoping we’ll get to see the terracotta army later.


Lynn Farley
19 July


Aaaw, yeah!

Rem Monsoon
Did they look like they might wanna come to life and attack people?

Lynn Farley
Stop watching so many movies.

Rem Monsoon
Been raiding your bookshelf, actually. 😛

Lynn Farley
As long as you don’t destroy anything…


Lynn Farley
July 20


One of the last times we visited the centre. I’ll be missing this place later.

Min Han
Me too. It’s been amazing.


It really had been.

I sighed wistfully and logged out from Simbook and from my trip down memory lane. It’d been over half a year since we’d visited China. I’d been wanting to get out, to explore the world, and I’d asked my closest friends to go with me. After some planning and meeting up together several times, Jace, Bree, Michel, and Min had all said yes. And then, a year of working between studies and saving up every Simoleon I made had done it. Barely. To be honest, we couldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been for Michel being rich and helping us all. I hadn’t been a fan of the idea of him paying a bit more than the rest of us, but he didn’t seem to mind. Neither had Mrs. Faroffington, who had volunteered as our chaperone and then stayed out of our way as much as she could to have a holiday of her own. We’d had so much fun, and I felt like it had helped my depression more than a year of therapy and pills could. Not that it had magically cured it; it was still there, a blanket on my mind, but not as suffocating as before.

After that, it had been back to the everyday life. But even that hadn’t felt that bad. Things had changed, and I’d say the changes were for the better.

We’d done some renovating in the house, making the cold white walls a bit warmer with some wood panelling and brown paint. Mum and Patrick had loved fixing up the house, and Rem had always been the first to wake up to paint the walls. I’d loved carrying around the new stone tiles that were then put over the kitchen walls, and just helping things come together. Merrill had loved trying to paint everything in sight until we took the paints away from his reach. Oh boy, had he screamed.

Despite his occasional primadonna antics being mostly unchanged, Merrill had grown. He was talking a lot more, and his walking was much better. He could even draw, write some of the alphabets, and do something resembling very basic maths. And when he played his xylophone, it almost seemed like he knew what he was doing. Not that it made the sounds of him violently pummelling the notes out of the xylophone any less cringe-worthy.

Mum had enrolled on an online university course on computing and media to make her blog better. She had even bought a dorky university shirt and liked to walk around in it like she was the queen of the world. She seemed to worry a bit less too. I liked that. And she liked her studies, especially because studying and working mostly from home meant that she could still spend a lot of time with Merrill. She kept talking about how fast he grew, and how soon they’d all miss these days when Merrill was cute and little instead of cute and slightly less little. I suppose that made sense.

Patrick was… well, Patrick. I don’t know if even the apocalypse could change him. He still liked hugging trees and making responsible consumer choices. He spent most of his free time in the garden, until frost attacked it and he had to let it fall dormant for the rest of the year. Then he moved back indoors to be himself. He still loved teaching and kept his mostly calm, warm nature intact even when paying therapy bills and seeing me sit in my room with a blank expression on my face. But now, when I did the blank staring much less, I noticed that he smiled a little more.

Rem was also still his own, kind of childish and definitely creative self. He’d been shaken by everything that had happened, sure, but he seemed to get over it much better this time. I’m sure that seeing his other family helped a lot too. Sometimes Alvar would visit us, and sometimes Rem would take the bus to Twinbrook and then walk beyond that. It made him less confused, at least, and I think he was slowly finding his identity. I’m sure the doubts about him not being Patrick’s kid had kept it on shaky grounds. Sometimes it was weird how having one’s fears confirmed actually made things easier. But only sometimes.

I could say that I was annoyed or embarrassed by my brother’s childish antics whenever he tried to cheer me up or just felt like being an idiot…

…but I had to admit that I’d learned to love that. Probably way before we’d started to become closer as siblings.

I think that one of the best things about facing all that awfulness in the past was that the smaller hurts felt… well, smaller. I could face difficult things with more bravery because I’d already been so scared and broken and yet managed to get over it. Almost.

Maybe that was why I was having a peaceful nostalgia moment instead of worrying about the upcoming spring that would surely be hell for anyone my age who wanted to have a future.

The pushy society dictated that I should already start to worry about graduating high school, even though this was only my second-to-last year. Not to mention how I was about to become eighteen years old. Almost an adult, legally responsible enough to be held fully responsible for screwing up. And Rem was on his way to high school now. I figured I should at some point start to mentally prepare for studying overloads and shattered dreams.

But not right now. Right now I was happy to just look out the window, at the gentle snowfall that had finally covered Sunset Valley after a too-long, dark autumn. The New Year was upon us, and Snowflake Day was already enough in the past for us to have eaten most of the festive food. I felt like I should go for a jog. I’d been eating way too much in the last few days.

I thought about it for a while, and then called Min and asked her if she wanted to challenge her lungs with the frosty air. She said yes, as long as she could first finish the video call she was having with… someone.

I had a feeling I knew who she was calling, even though she didn’t say it. Even I hadn’t missed the looks Min and Jace had given each other when we’d been in Shang Simla. And Bree had been gushing about the two endlessly after the trip. It was oddly cute, I suppose.

I stood up from my chair and didn’t make it far until Rem almost ran into me.

“Hey, Lynn! I was just practising in my room!” he said excitedly, “Look what I can do now!”

He lifted his hands, and light started to form between them. He scrunched up his forehead, and the light turned into a flower.

“See?” he said, “Look how precise my illusions are now!”

I smiled.

“Yeah, it’s awesome.”

Rem beamed back at me.

“Thanks!”

Then he ran downstairs, probably to either paint or to go outside and frolic in the snow. I realised I was still smiling. Yup, things had definitely turned out for the better in the last year and a half.

I tried my best to ignore the feel of a phantom gun in my hand and walked downstairs after my brother.

Author’s Note: Yay for a short interlude-ish thing that probably shows that I don’t use Facebook or the actual Simbook or anything like that… and it also shows my unwillingness to use chatspeak, since all the characters are surprisingly eloquent in their “Simbook-comments”.

For this story I now have a bunch of events that are out of order and kind of disjointed and I’m trying to weave them together into a logical plot-like thing. So I’m not sure how long it’ll take for this arc to really get going, but I’ll do my best to not leave you hanging for too long.

Have a lovely time!

PREVIOUS Chapter: Rebirth

NEXT Chapter: Family Ties

Chapter 22: Rebirth

I didn’t know how long I sat there in the emptiness. All I saw was blackness broken apart by an occasional flash to dead bodies. My breath was coming out in strangled gasps. After I realised I was still clutching the gun in my hands, I threw it away in frantic disgust, but I could still feel the cold metal like a phantom limb.

I faintly sensed someone moving next to me. First it was Rem, who curled up near me. Then it was Alvar, who scrambled to his feet and ran to Villia. Through the slimy darkness that obscured my vision, I saw him shaking her unmoving body and yelling her name in a heartbreakingly young voice. I barely heard through the loud thud-thud-thud of my heartbeat when Laketon of all people called for help on his phone. My hands were still shaking.

I had to…

I…

I k-

No.

Yes…

He would have killed us!

I…

I had to…

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, my voice shattering and tears I hadn’t noticed before spilling again. My throat was sore from my scream, but I didn’t care. I deserved all the discomfort I felt.

I’m a…

I k-

No!

I didn’t!

I…

I didn’t want to k-

Kill…

Murder.

I’m a murderer.

When that word finally formed in my mind, I felt my world shattering again.

I had killed someone.

I had…

My hands shook so badly that I had to clench them into fists and smash them into the sand to keep them still. I hit the sand again and again until it hurt. Then I stopped and would have screamed again if I had had a voice anymore. I sunk back into the darkness, let it into my mind and my lungs and my heart. Tears splashed on the sand in front of me.

When the sirens invaded my ears, I didn’t feel anything anymore.

I didn’t know what happened after that, other than that we were surrounded by all sorts of emergency personnel, and then later our parents, who had again had to suffer a shock because of us. They fussed around me after Rem had been carted away into an ambulance. I noted all of that through some kind of thick haze. Even the fact that Alvar sat next to me and cried or the shouts of surprised paramedics that discovered Villia’s body that had by then shed its disguise weren’t snapping me out of it. I was empty, or then I was just so full of shock and emotions that they couldn’t get through anymore. The people tried to ask me questions, but some other people ushered the questioning ones away. I didn’t even register who was asking what.

One of the paramedics gave me something. A pill, or maybe something to drink. Maybe both. I couldn’t remember. The blanket of darkness thickened and wrapped around me, turning from cold and suffocating into warm and almost comfortable. It weighed me down into a dreamless sleep.

I struggled awake in a warm bed and looked up at mum and Patrick’s faces. They were so worried and so relieved at the same time. I blinked up at them and managed to pry my dry mouth open:

“I… Did… What-?”

“Oh, thank goodness!” mum breathed, “Are you okay?”

No. I wasn’t. I struggled to sit up. The room was vaguely familiar. Maybe because hospital rooms always looked basically the same.

“Where…?” I trailed off. I didn’t even know what I was asking. Patrick interpreted it pretty well, though.

“Rem’s in surgery right now,” he said, “The doctors are optimistic about it. Still, he…” he swallowed, “He had a bullet in his shoulder…”

I pressed my mouth into a thin line. Mum gave both Patrick and I one-armed hugs.

“Everything’s going to be just fine,” she said quietly.

I buried my head into my hands and burst into tears.

I couldn’t remember what exactly happened. It all was a haze in my head, partly because of the shock and partly because of the medication they had to occasionally give me to calm me down. I remembered people introducing themselves to me, but their names slipped my mind almost as soon as they got there. I remembered people asking Alvar about Villia and about his family, even though Alvar was in a similar state of shock as I was, I think. I saw his blank face and how he curled up in a ball and couldn’t answer most of the questions directed at him. Sometimes I wanted to open my mouth and tell Patrick: “That’s your son! Go to him! Take care of him!” But I couldn’t. Not now. It definitely wasn’t the time nor the place.

I wasn’t sure how long it took for the worst of the chaos to pass. I wasn’t even sure how long Rem was in the operating theatre. It had to be less than what my mind stretched it into. I was in a fog, or in the same darkness I had tried to leave behind years ago.

I didn’t know if I could do that this time.

I was a murderer, after all.

When I managed to surface from the cold, dark thoughts for the first time to at least get some air, I was sitting on a white, modern chair and breathing in the scent of hospital. Mum, Patrick, and I were waiting outside of the room where Rem was slowly waking up in.

“Lynn?” said mum very quietly, “Are you awake?”

I blinked sleepily, realising that my brain was sluggish and relaxed at the moment. I nodded and watched numbly as Merrill played in a kids’ corner across the hall. He didn’t seem to have a care in the world. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Alvar sitting a few doors away from us. His clothes had got soaked with Villia’s blood when he had clung to her, and he was now wearing an old university hoodie and too big jeans from the hospital’s lost-and-found box. He looked so lost that I wanted to hug him. I really hoped someone would come looking for him.

“Lynn?” mum asked again.

“I wish I could be like Merrill,” I answered, although it wasn’t a real answer. I bit my lip, “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to be,” said Patrick.

They had told me so many times already that what I’d done had been in self-defence. That all I was going to get for it was some therapy to help me get through it. According to them, Laketon of all people had been quick to tell the police that I was not a murderer. And then he had disappeared from our lives again.

I wondered idly where he was now.

I heard Alvar let out a quiet sob. The fog in me lifted just enough to let my heart ache for him again. Patrick looked at Alvar worriedly.

“Poor kid,” he said, “No one’s been picking him up.”

That’s your son. Go to him.

I stood up and excused myself for a while. I sat next to Alvar. He jumped slightly when he realised I was there.

“Hey,” I said quietly.

Alvar nodded, and then wrung his hands.

“Are you… how are you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said in a monotone, “I… I think they took Aunt Villia away… They shouldn’t see her like that. It’s against the rules.”

The ache in my heart got worse.

“I don’t think that matters right now,” I said.

“It always matters,” Alvar sniffed, “She… I don’t get it! She was always telling us about her adventures and how she got through all the tight spots. And I knew how awesome she was. I just…” his voice broke, “I always thought that she was invincible.”

I thought about her lying on the sand in a pool of blood. It had been so sudden. So… unceremonious that it made me sick. In a way I too had thought of Villia as a mighty force. And she had been that. The Tree Lady. The mystical schemer from the leafy shadows. But now… to be taken out like that… It wasn’t fair. And I couldn’t even imagine how Alvar felt. He’d already lost so much. And on top of that he was sitting right next to his long-lost biological dad and couldn’t even approach him.

“I’m so sorry,” I managed to say. We fell silent. Alvar sniffed a couple of times, and his tears made his eyes shimmer.

“Is… is anyone coming for you?” I asked after a while. Alvar shrugged.

“Aunt Kielo, maybe. I’m sure she’s worried about me, at least.”

He sighed.

“How did it go so wrong?” he asked, and I was sure he was asking that from the universe rather than me. But since universe remained cold and quiet, I answered for it:

“It was bad luck. Terribly, terribly bad luck.”

Alvar nodded.

“Is Rem going to be okay?” he asked.

“I think so.”

Alvar glanced at mum and Patrick again. His eyes lingered on Patrick’s face. His breath hitched, and he shook his head.

“Shit…” he muttered, “This… I don’t know how to deal with this.”

“Neither do I,” I hesitated before adding, “You should talk to him, though.”

“I know. But I… I’ll wait until Rem wakes up.”

I nodded. I saw mum and Patrick look at us worriedly, and stood up. The darkness threatened to push me to the floor.

“Hey,” Alvar said after me, “You’re a hero. Don’t… don’t be too hard on yourself.”

I froze. The darkness wavered, but became suffocating again.

“I… I’m not,” I said, “I’m not… anything.”

I hurried to sit next to mum again. Mum and Patrick looked at me questioningly.

“Have we met him?” Patrick asked, “I mean, it’s of course nice of you to talk to him. But it’s just that he… looks familiar.”

I hesitated before nodding.

“You’ve met him. Don’t be surprised if you don’t remember it properly, though. It was… a long time ago.”

It just made them more confused, but I wasn’t about to say more. We sat in silence, or maybe it was just me who was silent, until we were invited in to see the now awake Rem.

He looked terrible, but at least he was alive. For a while, there were no words. Just us lining up to give him very careful, teary hugs.

The next few days blurred together. I rested a lot, mostly because of the sedatives I’d been given. My waking hours were spent forcing myself to function and getting a lot of hugs that were slowly trying to chip away the blanket of dark around me.

At some point I was taken to a psychiatrist, who had a warmly decorated office and a very naturally friendly smile. I filled some forms and talked about my guilt and about me being a murderer. I don’t remember what I said. All I remember was the feeling of something having got stuck in my brain. Like the gears had slipped out of alignment and were struggling to move. Sometimes it repeated the murderer-mantra on a loop. Sometimes I was so tired I didn’t want to think anymore.

In the end the visits to the therapist did help, a little bit. It was still too early to say anything final about my recovery, but at least the feelings of being stuck let up somewhat already by the third visit. After that the thoughts started flowing again, and there were too many of them.

I cried a lot after that. Again. I cried because of what had happened. I cried for us and for Alvar and Villia. I cried because of secrets and mysteries and deadbeat dads. And then the tears stopped coming for a long while. I was all cried out. Mum was there most of the time, hugging me like I was a little kid – because I was – and I would often hug Merrill, who still probably only had a vague idea of what had happened.

In-between that we visited Rem as much as we could, and when we couldn’t visit him we asked the doctors for some updates on his condition. He was slowly recovering. He was as exhausted and sleepy as I was, and he barely spoke a word even when we were there with him. He looked at me with a very gentle look sometimes, though. As if to say “Stop doing that to yourself.” Alvar visited too sometimes. He looked so lost in his borrowed clothes and with a police officer with him. He was under police protection until someone would pick him up. The police sometimes asked me questions too. I tried to answer in ways that wouldn’t make me break down again.

It was maybe the fourth or the fifth day after the incident when Kielo showed up. She came in with a pair of police officers, who thankfully stayed back and let her bring Alvar to us without asking too many questions.

At first I didn’t recognise her. But then I saw the yellow eyes and the pointy ears and made the connection. She presented herself as Alvar’s aunt named Lilian Fern and wanted to speak to us. Mostly it was just to say: “Thank you.”

When she asked to see Rem, however, Patrick stepped forth.

“I’m sorry, miss,” he said, “But my son’s not feeling very well yet.”

His eyes added: and we don’t know you well enough.

The door to Rem’s room cracked open, however, and Rem peeked through.

“Dad…” he said in a scratchy voice, “They can come in. And… you and mum too.”

He shifted his feet and clung to the door handle.

“I’ve got something I really need to tell you.”

I looked at Rem with raised brows.

“Are you sure you can deal with this now?” I asked.

Rem nodded fiercely.

“It has to be now. Hiding… hiding things has just got us here. I’ll be fine.”

“Rem? What’s going on?” asked mum.

“It’s… it’s fine, mum,” Rem said, “Just… you really need to know this.”

I was left in the hallway with Merrill, then. When Kielo walked into Rem’s room, I noticed the air wavering around her, and I assumed she was doing it so possible outsiders wouldn’t hear what was going to be said in the room.

It didn’t stop people from seeing the doors fly open after half an hour, and Patrick’s quiet, trembling voice ordering Kielo and Alvar out.

Alvar looked blankly at the floor.

“Well, that went about as well as I feared,” managed to say.

Kielo patted him on the shoulder.

“Give him time,” she said, and then she looked up at me and smiled sadly.

“This is really going to take some explaining, isn’t it?” she said. She sighed, “This shouldn’t have gone this way at all…”

“No,” I said, “It shouldn’t have.”

I glanced at Alvar, who looked ready to cry.

“But I’m glad someone came for Alvar.”

Kielo smiled.

“Of course I did! When he didn’t come home, I started looking for him at once.”

She wrapped her arms around Alvar.

“We may be running out of family, but that just means we have to stick together even better.”

“Yeah,” I managed to say through the sorrow that was stuck in my throat, “I’m so sorry about all this.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Kielo said firmly, “None of it was.”

She had to know about the shooting. I gave her a faint smile. Maybe one day I could believe when people said that.

I wasn’t sure how long Rem, mum, and Patrick spent in the room, talking and explaining and occasionally yelling. It had to be hours. But finally Patrick opened the door again.

This time there were no words anymore. At least not many. Patrick hesitated for a moment, but then his eyes started to shimmer with unshed tears.

“Nathaniel?” he whispered.

Alvar nodded.

“If that’s what you used to call me, then yeah. But… I’m Alvar now.”

Patrick nodded and smiled through his tears.

“Yes. Alvar. Of course.”

Then they hugged. Father and son. For the first time in days I felt something warm in my chest. It was so close to happiness that I felt like we could maybe survive this set of traumas as well.

Together.

In the end, nothing changed.

Well, that wasn’t true. Because almost everything changed. Our perception of the world, to begin with. But in the end, Rem stayed a Monsoon and Alvar stayed an honorary member of the fair folk. What changed on the surface was the link that was probably the first friendly one between humans and the fair folk in centuries.

It was a tentative start, really. I was sure mum and Patrick weren’t yet fully ready to accept the fact that their sons were changelings and that magic and fairies existed. But when a couple of fairies were standing right in front of them, it was pretty hard not to believe it. And I saw some kind of enchantment in their eyes at times. Like they… loved the idea of magic on some yet unrealised level.  They were less thrilled about the being lied to and having a child stolen -side of things. But even with that… it went much smoother than I’d expected. Maybe they figured there had already been enough anger and abuse around us lately.

So they were friendly and ready to listen. And Alvar even got the permission to hold Merrill. He was so amazed, and his large hand curled around Merrill’s small one, and there was maybe a quiet connection between Merrill’s slightly muddled babbling and Alvar’s delighted, one-worded answers.

Even Kielo seemed to be overjoyed, and actually relaxed after that. She somehow managed to wrap all the people in the hospital around her finger during her short stay.

Maybe it was magic, maybe it was her charmingly sarcastic and slightly mischievous personality. Maybe both. All I knew was that the people in the hospital loved her and she made them smile. I think she even affected me a little. Or maybe my head was realising that it really needed some smiles. In the end, Alvar and Kielo left the hospital with a promise to keep contact, and a promise to return once things had calmed down a bit and once it was easier to really talk things through.

I had a feeling that the real reason why they left wasn’t really not wanting to intrude on an already chaotic situation for long. For soon after they had left, Villia’s body disappeared from the hospital’s morgue, and it caused a buzz for about a day until everyone just seemed to forget about her. All that was left were vague images of bodies that weren’t real after all. The only ones who remembered Villia in the hospital after that were Rem and I. Or at least that was what we concluded. Meanwhile, Kielo and Alvar quietly disappeared from Twinbrook as well, possibly walking into the mist of the swamp like a fading dream.

Rem started to recover rather quickly after that. And I kept going to therapy that turned from talks about guilt to talks about the future. I didn’t know what that had to do with the fact that I had just… killed a man… but it made me feel better, at least. I sat on a cream-coloured couch and slowly started to realise how long a journey I had ahead of me. There was a glimpse of the horizon I had always kept in sight and what had recently been obscured by guilt and depression.

The air around me became lighter again, and this time it wasn’t because of fairy magic.

Around the same time when Rem was about to be discharged, the police informed us that the redheaded woman they had arrested on the beach had talked. That they knew which criminal gang she and the other thug worked for. They told us that with the recent events backing them up, they could arrest the higher-ups of the gang in no time. I felt like I was free to breathe again. Like we were all free to breathe.

Rem got properly out of the hospital under police protection about two and a half weeks after the incident. Grandma and Grandpa were waiting for us with pie and some of our old Twinbrook friends. Bree and Jace greeted me with relieved smiles, and we gathered into a group hug. There had been a bit too many hugs in my life lately, but I realised I minded them much less than before.

Jace looked rather embarrassed when he talked to me, though, so I sighed and put my hand on his shoulder.

“Look, Jace,” I said, “I know things went weird between us, but I just shot a guy who tried to kill me and my family, so… let’s agree that an awkward kiss is like nothing and move on.”

Jace burst into a relieved laugh, and Bree beamed at me.

“Well, I’m glad to see you’re taking this all really well.”

She narrowed her eyes after she’d said that, though.

“Well, you aren’t, really. Are you?”

My smile faded.

“I’m getting there,” I said to reassure her. And because I wanted to think that I really was.

We returned to Sunset Valley a couple of days later. Our home was waiting for us, and I realised just now how much I’d missed it. It wasn’t quite the same, of course, but it wasn’t as bad as when we’d gone through trauma before. I knew that we still had to follow the police case of the criminal gang for a while longer, and I knew that I’d still have to go to therapy, but at least it still felt like home.

The rest of the summer went quietly, like it wanted to slip out of our lives as quickly and unnoticed as possible. Given what had happened during it, I couldn’t really blame it.

Towards the end of the summer I received an email that said I’d actually won one of the writing contests I’d spammed my stories with. It was a decent amount of money. A couple of months ago I’d have been ecstatic. Now the darkness that – despite it being less thick than before – had settled in my head just allowed me to smile gently. I saved the money I’d earned and thought about my tattoos. But I also thought about horizons, and an idea tried to break through the darkness. I went to sleep that night with a buzzing in my mind.

“You want to leave,” Rem said one day when we sat on the porch. It had become a good place to talk. It had fresh air and a chance for Rem to trace the smooth, wooden steps with his bare feet.

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“The fact that you want to. Don’t you?”

I thought about the horizons again.

“Just for a little while,” I said, “And not yet. I mean, I’m only just adjusting to taking the depression meds so I think I’ll wait for the worst to pass.”

“I think it’s a good idea.”

“Mm-hmm. I was thinking of saving up some more money and asking some of my friends if they’d want to travel abroad with me. I’ll be going to university or wherever I’m going in just a couple of years. This could be my last chance to actually see the world without too many other things messing it up.”

Rem nodded.

“Before this we were too afraid to go.”

“Yeah.”

Rem studied his hands.

“I was thinking of visiting Alvar and the others soon. I promised, after all. And I really want to learn to use my magic properly. Do you want to come with me?”

“I don’t think mum and dad will let you go yet. Twinbrook’s police is still hunting those criminals.”

Rem nodded quietly and then smiled at the slowly setting sun. It made his hair look like it was catching fire.

“Well, there’s still plenty of time.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Who knows what will happen.”

Who indeed? We sat in a comfortable silence, brother and sister. Because for the first time ever, there was nothing so-called about our bond as siblings.

I had to admit that I liked that.

The horizon turned pink, and I knew that soon it would be red like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Full of promise and mystery and hope. I smiled through the shadows.

“In the end, I think we’ll be alright,” Rem said as if he was reading my thoughts.

“Yeah,” I said, “In the end.”

The sun seemed to agree, or then it was just my imagination. Probably the imagination.

“Are you sure you want to do this, Alvar?”

“…Yes. I’m sure.”

“Alright. Then… I’ll be right behind you.”

“I know.”

“Hello?”

“Hello, I’m sorry to bother you, but are you Donna Brooke?”

“Yes, I am, who… oh my gods!”

“Nathaniel?”

“You… you recognise me?”

“I… of course I do! You’re my son!”

“I’ve… I’ve missed you so much!”

“Mother… I’m sorry.”

“Shhh… It wasn’t your fault! You were just a baby. Those… howwhere have you been?”

“Um…”

“Go on, Alvar, that’s why we’re here, right? Closure.”

“Okay… well, it’s a bit of a long story…”

“Well, that didn’t go nearly as well as with father.”

“I was afraid this would happen. Villia told me that your mother was very obsessed with your loss.”

“I wish we didn’t have to… do all that, though.”

“I hoped so too. But… she… I hoped we could have trusted both of your parents with the truth. Don’t worry. She’ll wake up with no memory of this.”

“I guess… Sorry, mother.”

“Hey, cheer up! At least you have a dad now! And us! We’ll be perfectly okay.”

“Yeah. It’s better to be safe than… pursued by a grieving mother, I guess.”

“Exactly. Now, come on. Let’s go. I really want to get the hang of this cell phone -thing!”

“…Nathaniel…”

Author’s Note: Well, this is what I call the end of the first long story arc. Yay! It just took a bit over a year and over 100 000 words. 😀 But this is not the end of the story. I still have another story arc planned, and I have to tie together those subplots, like Lynn’s work as Sabine’s gardener and stuff. Also I think I should do something about Donna and the fair folk and… yeah, things will still happen. The arc I’ve planned should follow Lynn and Rem to adulthood, or at least young adulthood, but I’m not sure what I’ll do after that. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Thank you all who have stopped by to read, like, comment, or even just given this a passing glance. I really appreciate your support, and you guys are awesome!

Have a lovely time, and I’ll see you after a little break that I’ll take now because I need to plan the next story arc a bit better before I continue. In the meantime, stop by on my other story if you feel like it. I seem to have too many ideas for that too.

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Chapter 21: Recoil

WARNING: This chapter contains violence, guns, and some pixel blood.

My thoughts had got stuck in a huge, tangled knot. Laketon’s cold, light blue eyes burned through my head even though he wasn’t even looking at me. Images of fire and fear went through my head in an endless loop. Next to me, Rem was frozen, and Alvar just looked at us in utter confusion. I faintly noticed that Villia moved to stand in front of us. The air became lighter, and I saw that it started to waver around us. I managed to tear my eyes from my father and looked at Rem questioningly, but he just nodded towards Villia.

“She hid us,” Alvar whispered, “That man shouldn’t be able to realise we’re here.”

I blinked. In a way I was glad that I was probably shielded from my awful dad, but in some other, strange way that I couldn’t fully explain, I wanted him to see me. I wanted to yell at him for hurting our family. But he was much more frightening than Villia, who hadn’t really existed in my mind until pretty recently. Laketon had for so long been very, very real.

But now, his full attention was on Villia, who cocked her head and kept her cool.

“Hello, Laketon,” she said, “Fancy meeting you here.”

Laketon sputtered as if her cold but courteous response was the worst insult in the world. His hands clenched into fists, and he took a very threatening step forward.

Fancy?!” he roared, “Yeah, fancy that! I sat in a cell overnight for no reason because people thought I’d been after those fucking Farley brats again! You ruined my life once already, and now you show up here!”

Villia sighed. The air around us wavered barely noticeably, but it held together. If I hadn’t been so apprehensive about Laketon standing there, I would have been more intrigued by the experience of being inside an illusion. Now I mostly just hoped it really worked. It was clear that Villia’s illusions were much more sophisticated than Rem’s wild and in-your-face ones, at least. So maybe they were also more convincing.

“Well, I’m sorry,” Villia said without sounding very sincere, “Yeah, I lied to you, but you were the one who really screwed it up. And right now I don’t have time for this.”

She turned to leave, but Laketon actually grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. Now I noticed something else in his eyes. Desperation?

“Well, neither do I!” he snapped, “You know why? Because I really needed that money! I’ve got debts I really need to pay!”

Villia pushed Laketon’s hand from her shoulder.

“Look, Laketon. I don’t have any money. Like I said, I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”

Laketon gritted his teeth. He raised his hand as if to hit Villia, but then he lowered it, and something broke behind his eyes.

“I… I’ve got to get that money!” he stuttered, “If I don’t… Mr. Harris will…” he trailed off, apparently shocked that he’d said too much.

Villia shook her head.

“I really can’t help you.”

Laketon opened his mouth, but then he looked around and his eyes fell on something in the community gardens.

“Shit,” he whispered.

The man who had been loitering in the garden had at some point climbed over the fence and was now standing calmly in front of us. He had a shaved head and a very unnervingly calm look in his eyes. Laketon’s eyes widened so much that they looked more like marbles than eyeballs. I felt a shiver going down my spine. Rem suddenly gripped my arm.

“He’s a bad person,” he whispered.

“No shit,” I managed back.

“He’s worse than…”, Rem’s eyes widened at nothingness, “Laketon’s not the Boogeyman this time.”

The man looked towards us, but didn’t seem to see us. So Villia’s illusion really worked. Hopefully.

“Hello, fancy meeting you here,” he echoed Villia’s words in a much more unpleasant tone, “Laketon. And your… friend here? Is she the one who was supposed to get you the money? It sure sounded like it.”

“She was,” Laketon said, his voice quiet and completely terrified.

“And she totally fooled you,” the man chuckled, “And now you went and told her about Mr. Harris. He’s already been impatient with you, and now you’re really becoming a liability.”

Villia narrowed her eyes.

“Well, you certainly keep good company,” she deadpanned and glanced at Laketon, “I assume this man was waiting for you here all along. Isn’t it in rather poor taste to have shady meetings in the community gardens?”

Laketon shook his head, but the man silenced any words he was about to say with one cold look.

“We were told to keep an eye on you once you were called to Twinbrook. The last time you were here, you got yourself stuck in prison for years, with no way to pay your money back. And you know you’re running out of time. Mr. Harris really wants his money.”

“I’ll get it, I swear!” Laketon said hastily, “Just… give me a chance!”

“You already had it. Way too many times,” the man said, “And we’ve always stressed that this should be kept under the wraps. You certainly blew that this time.”

“I thought she was going to pay-!”

“Give it a rest, Laketon,” Villia said, her eyes hardened into shards of emerald ice, like she had finally really understood the seriousness of the situation, “There’s no way you can talk your way out of this.”

She closed her eyes for a second.

“I think we’ve both screwed up big time.”

The man didn’t speak anymore. He pulled out a flash of metal, but Villia’s eyes snapped open, and she struck with dizzying speed before he could do more.

The man lost his balance, and Villia continued with a knee to his stomach. Then she turned and swept the air with her hand. The man let out a startled scream.

“Go!” she shouted, and I knew the order was meant for us.

I knew I was in some kind of shock, but I managed to turn around and push Rem into moving. The air rippled around us like water, and the illusion dissolved when we started running. Alvar followed us, still looking totally confused. I heard Laketon shout out a startled:

“What the hell?” and I wasn’t sure if it was because he’d seen us or because of Villia’s sudden burst of ninja skills.

We all ran towards the police station as if out of some silent agreement. That included Laketon, whom I saw following us with some kind of wild fear in his eyes. The quiet streets of the too-early morning felt far too long now when one was running away from a clearly murderous criminal. The part of my mind that wasn’t in fight-or-flight – or more like flight-or-flight – mode tried to understand how in the hell this morning had gone downhill so badly. Weren’t people supposed to have some sort of breaks before the next intense thing? Well, no, of course not, my now rather shoddily functioning rational side said. Life didn’t work that way.

My lungs were hurting, but now all I cared about was the relative safety of the police station and the fact that Rem, Alvar, and Villia were still with me. I quickened my steps even further, so glad that I’d spent so many hours jogging for fun. The police station was close to the gardens, but it wasn’t close enough when Laketon suddenly hit his personal brakes and said:

“Wait!”

I didn’t want to wait, but the distress in his voice made me reconsider.

“What’s going on?” Villia asked impatiently. Laketon pointed at the nearby diner and more specifically, a woman who was sitting at the table there.

“That’s got to be one of them.”

“Oh, come on!” Villia snapped, “This has to be a small-time criminal gang at worst, right? They don’t have big-scale operations for insignificant debts!”

“I’m not gonna risk it! I know she looks familiar! Feel free to go past her if you want, but I’m not gonna.”

“We have to keep moving,” said Rem, “Just… we need to get the police. Now.”

“Nobody asked you, mutant brat!” Laketon hissed, “Why are you people even here?!”

I risked a look at the woman at the table. She didn’t seem to have noticed us yet. She had bright red hair and an equally red biker jacket. Her cell phone rang, and she started to dig it out to answer it. Villia sighed.

“Alright,” she said, “We’ll go around.”

At once, Laketon started running to the way that would take him farther from the woman. Which meant he was going towards the beach. I followed, and the rest caught up with us a bit later.

For a second it was just me and my estranged father who didn’t deserve to be called a father. It was a chilling moment. I slowed down my steps just a bit.

“This is a small-time gang, right?” Villia whispered when she caught up with Laketon. For the first time there was slight uncertainty in her voice.

“It’s not a big one, but it’s big enough so that they can take care of mysterious deaths,” Laketon replied, too scared to realise who he was speaking with and how much he hated the company he currently kept.

Villia bit her lip. I wondered why she wouldn’t just hide us, but I supposed it had something to do with the fact that Laketon was with us. He probably wouldn’t take having spells cast on him very well especially after they’d got him in this mess in the first place. Well, no, that wasn’t true. He’d got himself into the mess on his own first.

We reached the beach. During daytime it was full of people, especially around summertime. I remembered our trips there, and the talks about Krakens and thoughts about horizons. Then it was all washed away by the emptiness and fear and by Villia’s shout not to linger there.

“This is way too much in the open,” she said, “We have to get into better cover and to a place with more people!”

“I can see you’re an expert on this,” Laketon managed to snark, and for a moment I felt a strange sliver of kinship with him.

Villia didn’t answer. We headed towards the staircase that led back to the street. The sand was too light and soft under my shoes. My feet kept slipping, but I kept my pace steady. We were already relatively close to the police station. To safety.

We’ll make it.

It’s not that bad.

She didn’t even notice us.

We’ll make it.

We’ll-

Alvar shouted, and I heard a thud. Then there was a loud bang in the air. I let out a yelp and saw Villia stopping and turning around. All of my instincts told me to keep going, but then I realised that Rem and Alvar weren’t with us anymore.

I turned and saw them both on the ground, with Rem’s shoulder staining red with blood.

My own blood froze, and I could barely see the man Villia had downed moments ago standing farther away, with a gun pointed right at us.

Villia cursed unintelligibly again, and moved her hands so quickly I just saw flashes.

“Oh, screw the masquerade,” she muttered, “We’ll so mind-wipe them later!”

The gunman shouted in surprise, and Villia was moving so quickly I could barely see it.

“Keep moving!” she shouted over her shoulder right before she reached the man and kicked him in the stomach with a kick my Sim Fu teacher would have called very sloppy. It was enough to work, however, and Villia continued by grabbing the man’s gun-hand and wrenching it into a very painful looking angle.

I tore my eyes from the mesmerizingly frightening sight of Villia fighting a gunman, and rushed to Rem and Alvar’s side. My knees hit the sand, and I grabbed Rem’s good shoulder.

“Are you okay?” I asked, “Okay, stupid question, but whatever. Can you stand? Crawl? We’ve got to keep moving!”

“He should be fine,” Alvar said in a shaky voice, “I’m sorry I couldn’t push him out of the way faster.”

Rem’s mouth was moving, but no words came out. His thick sweater was absorbing most of the blood, and I could only hope it also slowed down his bleeding in general at least a little bit. I shook him carefully.

“Come on!” I whispered. Next to me, Alvar got to his hands and knees, but froze when another gunshot hit the ground and sent a burst of sand towards us. This time it came from the opposite direction than where the gunman was. I couldn’t help another small scream leaving my throat.

I instinctively hugged Rem, shielding him and cursing myself for being so helpless. A few martial arts lessons meant nothing when faced with guns. Hell, thousands of martial arts lessons would most likely be useless now.

I dared to peek behind me and saw the red-headed woman near the stairs, blocking our other escape route. She too had a gun, but her face had frustrated confusion on it.

“Come on, I know you’re here,” she said, “Where are you?”

I blinked. We were right there, in the open. My morbid side told me that we should be dead by now. Then I noticed the waver in the air.

“Villia’s hiding us again,” Alvar whispered, “But we have to move. She can’t focus on this too much when she’s fighting that… other guy.”

I nodded and tried to get my legs to move. But I was frozen, not trusting the air to hide us. Especially when Laketon was standing in front of us with shaking legs, breathing such panicked, loud breaths that I swore they could have been heard from space.

The woman approached us, her gun trained in our general direction, but she didn’t fire it.

“Where are you?” she yelled, “Don’t think I didn’t see you run here! You haven’t had enough time to get away!”

On the other side of the beach, Villia punched the man so hard he fell, and she immediately jumped on top of him and latched onto his throat.

The woman’s head snapped up at the man’s strangled cry, and she started walking towards the fight.

“Oh, no you don’t, bitch,” she muttered, and there was something very unhinged in her eyes. Then she was only a couple of feet from Laketon, and her eyes focused. Alvar drew in a hissing, panicked breath.

“She’s seeing through it!” he whispered, “Rem… now would be a good time to help Villia with distracting those guys…”

In my arms, Rem nodded, or maybe he just twitched.

“I… I’ll try,” he said in a barely audible voice, “But I… I’m not good at controlling it…”

“I don’t care, just do something!” Alvar snapped.

The woman’s blood red lips twisted into a smile.

“There you are, Laketon”, she said, and aimed her handgun right at Laketon’s chest, “I don’t know how you hid from us, but it’s over now.”

She glanced at us.

“Oh, and so many eyewitnesses,” she sighed, “And this was supposed to be such a smooth taking-out-the-trash -kind of thing.”

Rem closed his eyes, and I saw a spark of a flame out of the corner of my eye. The woman turned to look at the spark for a split-second, which was all it took for Alvar to jump at her like a cornered mongoose. His elbow smashed against her chin, and when her gun left Laketon’s chest, even my no-good deadbeat dad’s survival instincts activated, and he joined the wild teenager in restraining the woman.

We’ll make it.

We’ll make it.

“It’s okay,” I said out loud, “They got her, Rem.”

Rem didn’t look up. His shoulder was worryingly red. The woman hit the ground, and Laketon twisted her arm behind her back. Alvar pushed her gun away from her.

We’ll make it…

*BANG*

*BANG*

I almost choked on my own breath. I didn’t know where the first shot hit, but the second one almost got me in the leg. Rem yelped when I moved, and he tried to drag himself away from the bullets. It had to be the gunman. But hadn’t Villia-

The thought was too terrible to finish.

But when I looked at the man who now knelt next to Villia’s unmoving, bloodied form, I had to finish the thought anyway.

For several seconds, I couldn’t breathe.

“No…” Alvar whispered.

The man wasn’t talking. He was aiming, and his eyes told me that he wasn’t going to miss next time.

Rem drew in a deep breath, and screwed his eyes shut again.

Plants shot out of the sand all around us. Trees, flowers, bushes, weeds… all familiar from both Rem’s dreams and previous illusions, and from the real fairy forests. Laketon yelped, and I heard the woman grunt when he smashed her head against the sand. The gunman gasped, but then he spoke, his voice annoyed more than anything:

“I really don’t know what this voodoo’s supposed to be, but you’re just delaying the inevitable. You should have just paid that money, Laketon!”

I scurried backwards, further into the fake bushes, until my hand hit something cold. A shot rang out, and I forced myself to stay quiet. We couldn’t stay here. Magic trees or no, we had to move. But the second we ran, he’d see us, unless Rem could somehow extend the forest everywhere around us to confuse him. One look at him told me that he couldn’t do that. He was barely conscious. Another bullet flew over my head, and Alvar ducked under it with panic in his eyes.

My hand curled around what was behind me.

“There’s no escape,” the man said, “Just give up now, and maybe I’ll let the kids go!”

Like hell you would.

That was my last coherent thought before the next shots rang out.

I didn’t even hear them. But I heard Rem’s shocked yelp, and felt rather than saw the forest around us dissipate when Rem didn’t have the strength to hold it up anymore.

All I really saw was the plants giving way to the shocked face of the gunman when three dots of red blossomed in his chest and he doubled over before he collapsed on the sand.

He didn’t get up.

I stared at the woman’s gun that was clutched tightly in my hands. It was now lighter, blindly emptied towards the threat. My hands were still shaking from the recoil.

The realisation of what I’d just done made my heart stop. Emptiness flooded my lungs and my stomach, and darkness overtook my vision.

I screamed.

Author’s Note: Well, that just happened. And at least I got this one out quickly. I’ll get to working on the next chapter after a little break. Pay no attention to the sky that changes from morning-ish to night and back. Doing photoshoots during in-game nightfalls/dawns are the worst.

You guys are awesome! Thanks for your support!

PREVIOUS Chapter: Return

NEXT Chapter: Rebirth

Chapter 20: Return

Villia seemed to be in a rather optimistic mood when she led us through the thicket of fairytale plants and real-life weeds. She seemed to think that talking to this matriarch could clear up all possible problems. Or then she was just glad to be back home. It was clear that she spent quite a lot of time among us humans, after all. She kept proudly pointing out little details around us, like the fairy lights – and I had actually been smart for not following them – and what looked like a maypole.

When we got past the thicket and to another larger clearing, Villia gave the scenery a very content smile.

“Well, what do you think?” she asked, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

I had to admit that yes, it was. There were more tree trunk houses and more spirally trees around us. But there was also a larger building that looked like a mix of a small castle and a gazebo. Villia started walking towards it, and Rem and I followed with much less confident steps. Rem kept looking around in amazement, but he cringed when he met the eyes of some passers-by that stared at him rather angrily.

I wondered what their problem was.

At the entrance to the gazebo-castle stood a white-haired woman, who had to be Kuura and Halla’s mother. Lumi? Yeah, that was her name. Villia walked up to her and started talking. Lumi seemed to be rather apprehensive about all this. They talked in hushed voices, but I could make out phrases like “against the rules”, “very questionable”, and “are you sure you know what you’re doing?”. That didn’t really make me feel very confident. Not that I’d been bursting with confidence before this either. I glanced at Rem again, but he kept his eyes directed at his feet.

Finally Lumi led us inside the gazebo-castle without speaking more than a short, clipped greeting at us. Inside there were stone benches that Villia motioned us to sit on. There was also a simple throne – really, the only way I could tell it was a throne was that it was placed like one – and a statuesque woman who sat on it.

Her eyes were as green as Villia’s, and she was dressed like a proper fairy queen – and that’s what she was, kind of. I felt a pang of envy when I looked at her gorgeous, long red hair. After some patient growing I had come to the conclusion that my hair would never reach past my shoulders again. It was probably because of the fire. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that The Matriarch’s hair could have been an illusion. These people were a bunch of fakes in many ways, after all.

Rem and I sat on the benches – they were much more comfortable than I would have guessed by their appearance – and Villia stood in front of us. She gave a light bow of the head to The Matriarch.

“Honoured Matriarch Milia,” she said formally, “I have finally brought the changeling home.”

The Matriarch nodded.

“Greetings, Villia,” she said, her voice melodious like a pan flute, “You may sit. We have a lot to discuss.”

Villia sat next to me, probably so The Matriarch and Lumi would have a clear view to scrutinise Rem, who looked both impatient and uncomfortable under their gazes.

Finally The Matriarch spoke again:

“I’ve heard that you have been getting reacquainted with your family.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Rem said shyly, “I… it has been good to know. To have answers.”

“Of course. And are you happy here?”

Rem nodded.

“It feels like home, in a way. I’d love to get to know it better.”

“And that you shall,” said The Matriarch, “If you decide to stay, that is.”

Rem blinked. I realised my shoulders were tensing. My Sim Fu teacher, Mr. Nyqvist had always told me not to tense my shoulders. Right now I couldn’t care less about that. The Matriarch smiled her gentle yet somehow too-friendly-to-be-true smile.

“I know this has to be a lot to handle, even after having some time to think about things. But I will be direct, seeing how we haven’t been that with you very much. We want you to return here. Home. You are one of us, despite growing up apart.”

“And despite bringing an outsider here,” Lumi said, her freezing eyes narrowing, “Matriarch, are you sure it’s safe to let her walk around here? Shouldn’t we at least wipe her memory of this little trip?”

“What?” I blurted out.

Villia frowned.

“We are not drugging anyone or fiddling with their memories! We’ve made a mistake, and we have to face the consequences!”

“I heard Kaita doesn’t even want to stay!” Lumi argued “I’d say even he should forget, then! He has already talked to Alvar and tried to convince him to return! What then? His birth parents will no doubt demand him back, or react negatively, or at the very least want to know where he has been! It’s too dangerous to let humans know about us!”

“Lumi, calm down,” said the Matriarch, “We’ll discuss this matter later.”

“No, wait a minute!” I said before I could stop myself, “Go back to the drugs and mind wipes! You’re not really planning on doing that, are you?”

“Of course they aren’t,” Villia said, her voice tense as a bowstring, “Lumi is just being her overly worrying self.”

Someone has to be!” Lumi snapped.

“I should point out,” The Matriarch said slowly and clearly, “That young Rem here hasn’t even given us his answer yet.”

They all turned to stare at Rem again. I did too, even though I noticed that all the stares were making my brother nervous. I noticed I was stressing the brother in my head a bit too much. Was I really worried he’d decide that he wanted to stay? I mean, of course he wouldn’t. Right? I really, really didn’t want to think about how our family would break again if he did. And how I would have to somehow explain it to mum and Patrick.

“I like this place,” Rem said after an agonisingly long silence, “And I’m glad to know where I came from… even though it’s all filled up with sadness and lies.”

He bit his lip.

“But I think you all know I can’t stay here just like that. I have a home, and a family. Just like Alvar does.”

I let out a breath I’d apparently been holding. The Matriarch’s shoulders slumped. I almost scoffed. I mean, what had they been thinking? That Rem would just jump at the chance to abandon the people who’d raised him? Please, Rem wasn’t quite that fickle.

“I feared you would say that,” The Matriarch said, “We are really in need of a new clairvoyant, and according to Villia’s reports you have shown much potential for that. And then there is the matter of both our laws and the safety of you and the people around you. You have noticed your powers are more unpredictable than before, yes?”

Rem nodded reluctantly.

“We could help you with that,” The Matriarch smiled again, “It’s a part of growing up for all of us. You don’t have to be lost anymore.”

Rem fidgeted in his seat. I tried to make eye contact with him and maybe give him a questioning look, but he kept staring at The Matriarch, his face such a mess of emotions that it was totally unreadable to me.

“I… I would like to get help with all that,” he finally said, “And I’d like to help you too. But you have to understand that… our parents are probably already super worried about us, and we should leave.”

“If you wish, we can make sure they won’t think about you,” The Matriarch said. She smiled at Rem’s mortified expression, “But I can see that you don’t. It is a rather difficult and questionable procedure.”

“It definitely wouldn’t be right,” Rem said firmly, “Besides, I want to go home. I… I could visit you if you wanted, though. Would that be okay?”

“Of course,” the Matriarch said.

“Milia, you can’t be serious!” said Lumi, “We can’t just let them walk away! How can we trust them not to spill everything about our village?”

“You brought us here,” said Rem, suddenly so defiant and different from the previous him that I almost thought for a second he’d been replaced with an alien twin, “You all did… by believing my mum. And then by not being clear with us. If you would have just talked properly to begin with, things might have been different.”

“Exactly,” Villia said, “And since it was mostly my fault, I’ll take responsibility for everything that might go wrong.”

“Blaming someone when we get discovered and possibly killed – or worse – isn’t going to help much,” Lumi muttered, but then she sighed, “Fine. But we can’t just leave this be. Kaita… I mean Rem must be taught control if he wants to stay safe.”

“I know,” the Matriarch said, “That’s why I’m proposing a compromise: you can go, but you must keep this a secret. You can only tell your… family, and no one else. And I also propose that you visit us again once you have sorted things out among… humans. You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. But we do hope that you could keep a link open to us.”

I frowned. That was oddly generous of people who had just talked about mind wipes. I honestly couldn’t tell if the Matriarch was being sincere or if there was something else behind it.

Rem was smiling, and his eyes shone with familiar excitement.

“That… that sounds great!” he said, “It’s like… everything would work out that way.”

“It requires work, of course. Your home is quite a long way away from here. But with your transportation system it doesn’t take that long.”

“Milia, are you sure this is wise?” Lumi asked without much enthusiasm.

“Yes. I am. We have already caused enough damage.”

“Let me at least teach the boy the very basics of controlling magic surges before they go.”

“Of course,” the Matriarch nodded, and then smiled again, “It would be great if you could stay for a couple of more hours. Lumi can help Rem, we can all eat something, and Villia can then guide you back.”

“And no mind wipes?” I asked cautiously.

The Matriarch’s smile widened.

“No mind wipes. I promise.”

Rem finally looked at me. His smile was from ear to ear.

“Isn’t this awesome?” he asked.

I could only nod.

It turned out that some of the fairies had been cooking like crazy while we’d been talking. There was a banquet waiting for us, like straight from some stories that always ended badly for anyone who tried to eat from the fairy buffets. But we were invited, so it should be okay, right? I hoped so. I was starving.

Even the Matriarch joined us for dinner, and we dug in to the wild vegetable salad and what looked like roasted fowl. We chatted, or more like the fairies chatted. Rem and I mostly focused on eating and occasionally looking at each other as if to make sure we were both still in the same state of reality. Rem smiled at me reassuringly, and I smiled back. I think I was finally starting to accept that yes, this was indeed happening.

The food was delicious, and definitely called for. The paleo-picnic felt like it had happened ages ago. I tried my best to just focus on eating and forget about all the apprehension and worries that my surroundings and the thoughts about the future gave me.

I couldn’t stop thinking about my wish that everything would be the same once we returned, though. It didn’t take any clairvoyant powers to know that no, it wouldn’t be the same.

After the dinner I was basically forgotten for a moment again when Rem was led to the shore of the river.

I’m not sure what exactly Lumi did, but it was apparently some kind of ritual most of the fair folk took part in sometime during their teens. While that was going on, the other fair folk busied themselves with what I presumed was their normal evening activities. Kuura and Halla wanted to play with either Villia or I, but were instead ushered out of the “grown-ups’” way. They ended up disappearing into the bushes with a black-haired girl who was apparently named Marras.

So I was left alone in the unfamiliar world again. I leaned against a giant mushroom and waited. As I stood there and watched the evening chores of the fair folk, I started to feel like the village was slowly becoming less unreal. The flowers weren’t quite as bright in the darkening evening, and I was getting used to the faintly glowing, curly trees. Even the occasional, mystical lights didn’t feel so surreal anymore.

“Hey,” said a voice that made me jump.

I spun around and saw Alvar standing behind me. Damn it, why were these barefooted people so sneaky?

“Hey,” I said warily. Alvar smiled uncertainly. He looked almost sheepish when he extended his hand.

“Um… so, it’s nice to meet you. Properly.”

I gave him a tight-lipped smile and shook his hand. Alvar glanced towards the shore of the river, which was barely visible through the flower bush thicket.

“So your brother’s getting his first ritual, huh?” he said, “It’s usually done around the twelfth year, so it’s a bit late.”

“Really,” I said. It wasn’t a question, but just something to keep the silence filled.

“Uh-huh. So hey, can I ask you… stuff?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

Alvar shifted his weight from side to side. Like a very nervous, broken metronome.

“So I’m actually your… brother, right?” he finally asked.

“Stepbrother,” I corrected, “Not blood-related. Your dad and mum both have more kids, though. They’re not together anymore.”

“Right. I did know something about them being separated… So, how’re my parents like? Rem told me something, but it was… I didn’t want to ask too much. It’s much less awkward to talk to you, somehow.”

“Really? Usually I’m the more awkward one of us.”

Alvar chuckled. I managed a slightly more believable smile than before.

“Well, alright” I said, “I’ve only met your real mum once, though. She obviously cared a hell of a lot about you. Your dad’s a teacher, and he’s really into helping the environment and stuff. He’s really nice. He doesn’t want to talk about his ex-wife. But he loves my mum now. And he loves Rem and me and our little brother, Merrill.”

I paused, hesitating for a moment before adding:

“And I’m sure he’d love you too.”

Alvar was quiet for a long time. He chewed his lip, and I only now properly noted the scar near his eye.

“Where did you get that scar, if you don’t mind me asking?” I asked when the silence got awkward again.

Alvar touched the scar automatically.

“I was dumb,” he said, and actually laughed a little, “I was playing in the forest and saw some people… humans, you know? I went to investigate, and they noticed me. I was ten or something. They thought I was lost and wanted to take me to civilisation. I panicked because I’d been told that I should never talk to humans without supervision. That they should never find us. I ran, and I was so scared that I ran right into a tree. Almost got my eye gouged out. Mother was so worried, but Lumi healed me right up. Well, except for the obvious.”

“Oh.”

“So what about you? I can see some scarring on your face too.”

I bit my lip. I smoothed my hair to cover my scars even better.

“Alright… I guess it’s only fair,” I said, “There was a fire, and Rem got trapped. I pulled him out but got burned instead.”

“Wow. So you’re a hero.”

“Not really. I was just a stupid, reckless girl who didn’t want to lose a brother.”

I crossed my arms.

“We’ve never been the closest of siblings,” I said, “But we’re getting there, and we’ve always cared about each other. I’m not going to lose him to you people either.”

I cringed at how callous my words sounded.

“No offence,” I added quickly, “It’s just… these people have been trying to get him back for years. Now they have him. I can’t help but think that… they won’t settle for actually letting him go just like that.”

“Yeah. I know.”

Alvar was quiet again. He had the same, pondering look Patrick often got before he was about to hand out some advice.

“I don’t think they’re going to force him or anything,” he said, “Villia’s been really strict about that ever since she… since things went wrong in your town. That whole mess really hit her hard. And I’m sure Aunt Kielo would be furious if they did anything to hurt either of you. She’s always been the most pro-human person I know.”

He sighed.

“At least Aunt Kielo just wants our family to scrape together what we can, and move on. The rest… I’m not sure.”

“The Matriarch said we could go if we wanted,” I said, “But she wanted Rem to come back.”

Alvar nodded.

“Makes sense. The higher ups really want Rem to stay, so I’m sure they’ll be nice to him in hopes that he wants to do just that. The clairvoyant is an important part of both tradition and our safety. They’ve always helped us hide and stay protected.”

“Why do you want to hide so badly anyway?” I asked.

“All I can tell what I’ve been told,” Alvar shrugged, “Long ago the fair folk didn’t really get along with humans, and their ancestors thought it best to break away from them. I think it had something to do with war and them taking the fair folk’s land and all. You know, what the stories usually say. Aunt Kielo has been insisting that we should at least try to bridge the gap between us and humans again. But… well, she’s told me that by now it has become more of a question of pride than anything else. When things get that far, it can be increasingly difficult to change.”

“Yeah. I guess you’re right,” I mused.

“I wished it wasn’t like that,” Alvar said, “I mean, I don’t think I’ve questioned it before all that much, but now… after everything I knew was turned upside down… I really wish I could just go and see what my real parents are like.”

I looked at Alvar for a long, conflicted moment. Then I smiled at him.

“Well, I can certainly relate to that… bro.”

“Bro?” Alvar frowned, “That sounds odd.”

“Yeah. You’re right. I guess I’ll just stick with ‘Alvar’.”

“That’s okay… uh, Lynn, was it?”

“Yeah.”

“It was nice to meet you.”

“You too. Even if it involved all of… this.”

“I get it,” Alvar laughed, “This has all been pretty rough.”

“Tell me about it.”

When Rem finally returned, he seemed just the same as he had been before. When I asked him if he felt any different, he just shrugged with an unsure expression on his face. The others assured us that it wasn’t anything that was easy to notice, and I asked if we could finally go back. As if on cue, Villia appeared from among the trees, wearing clothing that wouldn’t look out of place among humans, and smiled. It was only mildly creepy.

“Yes. I think it’s time for you to really leave. Lumi made me promise that I make sure you keep your end of the bargain, though.”

“Don’t worry,” Rem said brightly and looked only a little bit nervous at the mention of the stern, sceptical woman with chilling eyes, “I promise I’ll come back when I can.”

When Villia began leading us out of the glade and towards the edge of the village, Alvar followed us. He chatted innocently and brightly, asking questions about our lives and wishing us a good journey back. I could see a hint of something in his eyes, though. He had almost the same look as I probably did when I set my mind on something. Once we had got past the village’s borders and the still rather frowny Myrsky, Villia stopped and turned to Alvar.

“Okay, Alvar, it’s time for you to turn back,” she said, “I’ll take it from here.”

Alvar hesitated and glanced around as if to see if Myrsky or some other guard was within earshot. Then his eyes got steely. Now he reminded me a lot of Donna and her intimidating anger.

“Don’t I deserve some better answers too?” he asked.

Villia massaged her temples.

“Alvar, you know the rules, and you know your mother-“

“Mother lied to me!” Alvar snapped, “Don’t get me wrong; I love her! But I too want to know what’s really going on!”

He pressed his palms together in some kind of parody of a prayer.

“Please, I don’t need to necessarily talk to them, if that’s too bad. I just want to see…”

He trailed off. Now Villia was pinching the bridge of her nose.

“Oh, I’m going to get so much crap for this… Fine! You know, at some point even my guilt is going to run out and you’ll stop getting special rule-breaking enabling from me!”

Alvar jumped up and down. At that moment he looked so much like a little kid on Snowflake Day that it was hard to believe he was already fourteen.

“Thank you so much, Aunt Villia!”

Villia frowned.

“I have a feeling I’m going to be disowned for this or something, so use that title while you can.”

It took us hours to get back. I sensed the light air of the fairy forest shifting into the more humid, chilly air of Twinbrook’s swamp at night. My legs started aching by the time we caught the first glimpses of the ramshackle houses at the edge of the town. They were a most welcome sight. When we passed the first house, I caught a glimpse of Villia’s hair that was again blonde and immaculately curled. When she looked back at us, I saw she was again wearing her human face.

Twinbrook was sleepy, which was no surprise considering it was half past midnight. Some cars passed us by, and I could see some of the townspeople walking either home or towards a bar. The air was chilly, and I shivered. I noticed I was getting dead tired, but I stubbornly refused to walk back to Grandma and Grandpa’s looking cross-eyed and ready to collapse.

I was so happy to see their house. I was a bit less pleased to see that their lights were still on. They had to be worried sick by now. Rem and I shared a look and then turned to Villia and Alvar.

“I think you should stay back a bit,” I said, “I mean… they don’t know either of you, and I think we should only tell Patrick and mum about this at first.”

“Who lives here, then?” Alvar asked.

“My…” Rem trailed off and then cleared his throat, “Or actually your grandparents.”

Alvar’s eyes widened.

“I have those too? Awesome!”

He thought about it for a moment.

“But yeah. Maybe we should talk to them in the morning. Or what do you think, Aunt Villia?”

“I’d say we should definitely lay low until this whole thing is sorted out,” Villia said, “We’ll seek you out tomorrow.”

“Are you going to be okay?” Rem asked worriedly. His eyes stared through emptiness, and he blinked rapidly, “I… I think something’s… something’s about to go wrong. I can see the… blood… I don’t know.”

“We can stay hidden when we want to,” said Villia, “Don’t worry. As for your visions, you’re probably still just getting used to the aftereffects of the ritual. After I got my first ritual done, my hair was changing colour at random for the next three days.”

Rem nodded slowly, but didn’t seem too convinced.

“Just be careful,” he said. He looked worriedly at their retreating backs until they disappeared among the bushes.

After Villia and Alvar were out of sight, we walked up to the front door. Before I had time to ring the bell or knock, the door opened cautiously, almost hopefully.

“Who’s moving out there?” asked a voice I probably should have expected.

My eyes widened.

“Mum?” I asked.

Mum almost screamed in surprise and relief.

The door was thrown open, and Patrick, Grandma and Grandpa poured out as well. Rem and I found ourselves in a sea of relieved hugs.

I knew we were going to be in so much trouble once we’d explained where we’d been – to the extent we even could explain it – so I definitely clung to the love we were surrounded with at the moment. And when we got inside, the commotion woke up Merrill, who had been sleeping and whom mum and Patrick hadn’t apparently dared to leave in the care of a babysitter when they had rushed to Twinbrook.

He was grumpy at first, but Rem quickly and happily picked him up and twirled him around, gushing about how great it was to see his little brother again.

But the happiness had to end soon, because as I’d expected, after the relief and the hugs came the fury.

“Where have you been?!” mum almost shrieked once we had sat down on the couch, “We’ve all been worried sick! We called the police and they’re already looking for you!”

I cringed. I’d been hoping my milk carton scenarios had been an exaggeration. I guess I’d been wrong. Rem and I shared a look again. I realised we’d been doing that a lot lately. This time our look was more like a mutual agreement. Then we turned back to our parents and grandparents and started to lie. Or at least to omit certain things.

We had agreed not to tell about the fair folk or changelings or anything before we had actual proof in the form of Villia and Alvar. And before any proof could be presented, we needed to lay our parents’ worries to rest and get Grandma and Grandpa out of the picture. I knew they could be trusted, but the fair folk certainly didn’t, and they also didn’t seem to want to risk it. Just the permission to talk to our parents had been given very reluctantly. It was best not to push it. I wasn’t still perfectly ready to trust them not to do something messed up again.

So we told them we’d got lost in the swamp after needing a place to talk in private. Rem confessed that we’d gone to see Donna, and that the meeting had caused him to flee for most of the day. Patrick looked shocked at that, and then mumbled that they would talk about it later. I was mostly quiet, only backing up Rem’s story when needed, and watched the family drama stew behind the worried gazes and the quietly sombre questions. I could only imagine what this would turn into once we actually told the rest of the story.

After mum couldn’t stop asking questions – most of which were along the lines of “are you sure you’re alright” – and Patrick had fallen into some kind of silent shock because of the news that Rem had gone to see Donna, Grandma Brandi clapped her hands together.

“Alright, everyone,” she said warmly but in a tone that allowed no arguments, “The kids are obviously exhausted. And so are we! We should let the kids wash up and sleep, and we can call the police and call off the search. Would you do that, Margaret? I’m sure the police will be glad to hear the kids are okay, and no doubt want to see them tomorrow. And I’m sure Laketon will be glad to be let off the hook as well.”

“Laketon?” I repeated, “What’s he got to do with this?”

Mum shifted nervously.

“Well, once we informed the police that you were gone… we of course thought about Laketon. So the police went to talk to him and… apparently he was suspicious enough to be arrested for further questioning.”

“What?” I blurted out, “So he’s here? In town?”

Mum nodded.

“But he’ll be gone very soon. He… he didn’t cross paths with you, right?”

“Of course not!” I snapped, “I would have said if he had!”

“Of course, sorry,” mum mumbled, “I’m just… I’m just so glad to see you’re okay.”

I only now could get a better picture of our parents’ worry. The last time we’d been gone… Oh, wow, and I thought I had overestimated their worry. I let mum hug me and Rem again, and I hugged her back with all my might.

After we’d managed to get our folks to calm down enough to really let us go to sleep, I took a long, warm shower and felt amazing after getting a few days’ worth of gunk off me. By the time I got into my nightshirt, everyone seemed to have calmed down. Mum was sleeping on the couch, and I caught a glimpse of Patrick in yet another sleeping bag in Grandma and Grandpa’s room. Even Merrill had his own tiny bag, or “cocoon”, as he insisted on calling it. I crawled to my resting spot next to Rem, who also looked a bit less haggard after a shower and some late-night herbal tea. He was tossing and turning in his own cocoon, and I closed my eyes and hoped we’d both get some rest despite the troubling thoughts that kept chasing each other in my and no doubt his head too. I fell asleep almost immediately.

I woke up to Rem shaking my shoulder. I blinked furiously and squinted at my brother, who sat agitated in the never-very-dark summer night.

“Rem?” I mumbled sleepily, “Wha-?”

“Shhhh!” Rem hissed, “We can’t wake up mum.”

I looked confusedly at mum’s sleeping form. She shifted, but didn’t wake up. I looked at the time.

“Rem. It’s like… four a.m.”

“I know,” Rem said. I noticed only now that he had already thrown on some proper clothes, “It can’t wait.”

Still confused and more than a little cranky, I sat up. Rem slid my backpack towards me and motioned me to put on some clothes.

“What’s going on?” I whispered.

Rem looked around nervously and then leaned it, his eyes unfocused.

“I saw… I saw Villia and Alvar. They were in trouble.”

“You saw, as in…?”

“Yes.”

“You sure?”

Rem had already stood up. He looked at me very solemnly.

“This is the clearest… vision… premonition… whatever that I’ve had in years. It’s like with the Boogeyman and the Phoenix. I don’t know what it is, but it’s bad. We have to find them and help!”

There was such real distress in Rem’s hushed voice that I finally shook the last of the sleep from my eyes. I’d ignored Rem’s warnings before, and all that had got us was pain and grief.

Things just seemed to refuse to go smoothly for us.

We snuck out into the town. It was early, those dead hours of morning when usually even the hardiest of partiers were at home or passed out or both. We called out for Villia and Alvar a couple of times, but got no response.

“Where do you think they went?” I asked.

Rem looked around almost frantically.

“I don’t know. But I doubt they just hid in the bushes all night.”

“Right. How about places with lots of trees? They seem to like those.”

“Good thinking,” Rem’s eyes brightened, “Let’s go to the community gardens.”

“Right.”

When we reached the community gardens, they were empty. Well, mostly. Some guy was walking towards the gardens and stopped there among the free vegetables. He lit a cigarette that glowed in the dark. We called for Alvar and Villia in quieter voices, and I felt a shiver going through my spine when my voice echoed. The situation was eerie, especially with Rem’s visions or whatever they really were.

“Hey!” I whisper-yelled, “Villia? Alvar? Come out!”

“What’s going on here?”

We spun around, and I let out a sigh of relief. Villia and Alvar stood there by the road, looking perplexed and maybe a little sleepy. Villia crossed her arms.

“I told you we can take care of ourselves,” she said, “What are you doing here? And why are you yelling when there’s people around.”

I glanced at the man farther away. He kept his eyes either on the ground or at the street somewhere behind us and didn’t seem to pay us any notice. Rem looked a bit embarrassed.

“Well, I had a… vision? I thought you guys would be in trouble. I just thought you should know. To be careful.”

He sighed.

“Of course, I can’t really know when these things happen. Sometimes it can take years, so…”

Villia nodded and smiled.

“I’m sure it’ll get better with practise. So… how did your folks take this all?”

I opened my mouth to answer something a bit snarky, but it all got caught in my throat when I saw a figure over Villia’s shoulder. The figure froze when he saw us, and there was a moment of chilling recognition. Villia frowned and turned around, and it was only then when the figure spoke:

“It’s you! You bitch!”

I almost stopped breathing. Rem let out a small squeak, and Villia blurted out a word that sounded something like prkl. Judging by her tone and the situation, the word wasn’t a very friendly one.

For in front of us stood Nils Laketon, rage very apparent on his worn-out face.

Author’s Note: Whew, sorry about the wait, guys! I had a lot of problems with this, mainly the problem of thinking that this story is utter crap (again). And also the problem of pulling the threads of this story arc together. That’s right, we’re nearing the end of what I call the first big arc of the story. Of course some of the subplots are still wide open and all, but the main mystery has been mostly solved and all that. And now things are coming together on Laketon’s end too. So I hammered out this and the next chapter too. All I need to do is edit that and I can get it out, so it shouldn’t take that long. And for now I’m feeling pretty good about this too, so that’s something.

Thank you so much for your patience, and if you feel like telling me what you think, then that would be awesome!

The Finnish names in this one:

Marras: A not often used word for dead/dying person or an omen of death. The Finnish word for November, marraskuu literally translates to “the month (or moon) of death.”

Milia: A more English-friendly form of the Finnish name, Milja. It’s a variant of Emilia, which is a feminine form of Emil (which comes from the Roman name Aemulus – challenger). Can also be from the name Ludmila.

The random frowny teenaged fairy wasn’t named in story (yet), but his name is Aarni.

Aarni: A variant of Arnold, which can mean “ruling like an eagle”. Aarni is also a word in old Finnish mythology that refers to a spirit creature, a guardian of treasures.

Also the word Villia muttered at the end was perkele, which is a Finnish swearword that is nowadays used as yet another name for the biblical devil, but it most likely originally came from Perkūnas, which is the name of an old Baltic thunder god.

Have a lovely time, people!

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Chapter 13: Crashing

I did get the job as the local witch’s gardener even after talking to my parents about it. Patrick and mum thought it was a good idea, especially since Patrick had been a bit reluctant to let me do the gardening in his vegetable patch. Not because he didn’t trust my weeding skills, but because he loved to take care of his garden himself. I had to applaud him for giving up even a part of something so dear just so I could have an excuse to ask for money. Now, though, I had another patch of land to clean up and water, and it was going to take a lot of work before that patch would start resembling anything other than something a dryad had thrown up.

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Patrick actually went to see Sabine with me, and talked with her about the finer points of gardening for what felt like hours. She seemed pleased, and didn’t mind when Patrick ended their pleasant chat by making her swear not to overwork his precious stepdaughter. Embarrassing? Oh, yeah. I sat there quietly with my face and ears red and felt like I now really understood the other teens when they told about how embarrassing their parents could be. Sure, Patrick occasionally stood on soapboxes – metaphorically, thankfully enough – and always walked around in decade-old second-hand clothes, but I didn’t mind. He was mostly cool. But this… I could have done without.

Still, we got all the details on my unofficial job sorted out, and I promised to start right after my schoolwork wouldn’t demand so much of my time. The essay on owls was done, but now the teachers had thrown a whole new pile of reading assignments, writing projects, and even a dreaded presentation our way. I didn’t mind a small delay, though. The secret of the letters had waited for this long; it could wait a bit more now that I knew I actually had a chance of finding it out. Also, Sabine’s backyard was in such a terrible shape that it couldn’t get any worse in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile there was the party to worry about. The party at Faroffingtons’. I had never been to their fancy house, if one didn’t count the time when I’d sneaked to their yard to scare Carla with ladybugs. It felt odd to be actually invited there, although I had a feeling that the rest of us had been invited just so mum wouldn’t complain about it. Not that she would; she was too nice for that kind of thing. I still wasn’t too happy about going, but I didn’t really have any allies to back me up about it.

When Rem was asked if he wanted to go, he had simply said yes and only frowned when mum had told him he would have to wear his dress shoes. There was even a small argument about the shoes, but in the end mum won and Rem promised to wear them. Rem’s distaste for shoes was a bit funny to me, actually. I personally liked how grounded shoes made me feel. I stomped around in our house in my combat boots, and even though mum usually insisted that we shouldn’t wear the same shoes outdoors than we did indoors, she had caved in to my boot-wearing habits long ago as long as I took good care of cleaning the soles whenever I got inside.

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After mum was done with approving of Rem’s formal clothing, she turned her attention to me. I didn’t have a proper formal dress, so she took me out clothes shopping. It was brave of her, because I knew finding a formal outfit I’d say yes to would take a lot of time and disappointments and complaints. Almost everything was too girly or too uncomfortable or too short-sleeved. And the suits didn’t feel right either. And the clothes in the men’s section were too big for me.

“You know,” I said after we’d exited the sixth or seventh shop – we weren’t fancy enough to go to boutiques – empty-handed, and a spring shower had caught up with us, “I could just stay home in my jeans and hoodie and look after Mer while the rest of you go.”

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Mum seemed to think about it for a while, or at least pretended to. I had a feeling that she had already decided that I should go, though.

“You could do that, sure,” she said slowly, “But then you’d miss a chance to try something new.”

“I’m good, trust me.”

“And,” said mum, with her special “mum” tone of voice. I’m pretty sure that all mothers had their own version of it, and it always demanded people’s attention, “This could be your chance to show one of your classmates that there is no ill will between you.”

“What?” I blurted out, “That’s what this is about? I’m fine with Carla! I haven’t clashed with her in ages.”

“That tends to happen when you avoid someone,” mum said.

“Has Patrick been feeding you info about the school’s relationship messes?” I asked in a surly tone, “Because it’s weird that the teachers who are supposed to be old and not in with the times actually know what’s going on.”

“It’s normal. You kids just think they are clueless.”

“Yeah. I know.”

Mum smiled.

“You don’t have to be the best of friends, just… trust me, it’s better to not leave things like this just hanging.”

“You make that sound like there’s someone out there that you have an eternity of bad blood with,” I said, “And that’s even weirder. Because you’re you. You never get into fights with anyone.”

“Oh, believe me, I wasn’t always this friendly. And I’m sure you can guess that a quiet young writer with glasses and tons of freckles is a good target to be picked on.”

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I stared at mum and tried to see a nerdy young woman instead of the slightly nerdy middle-aged mum she was now. I couldn’t, but I knew she was somewhere in there. Maybe. I’d seen a bit of her in old pictures.

“Oh,” I just said, “Look… just, well… fine. I’ll go. But don’t expect me to have a tearful hug with her.”

“Just being there is enough,” said mum, “Now let’s see if we can find something for you to wear. I’m not ready to give up, yet.”

In the end we did find a long-sleeved outfit that I liked. It was a bit short at the hem, and mum frowned at it a bit, but I promised to wear thick leggings and the matter was settled. I wasn’t one to show off my body anyway. Firstly, there was nothing to show off. Secondly, I really didn’t see any point in it.

I did have a bit more of a point in actually going to the prissy party at the Faroffingtons’ estate now, though. Even if it was just for mum. It would do.

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We didn’t get a babysitter for Merrill. Usually a girl Rem’s age named Candy Ashleydale was our go-to sitter, but she was busy with other things on the day of the party. So Patrick stayed home, just like Mr. Faroffington had hoped, and assured mum that it would be for the best.

“You know me,” he said, “I’d just end up in an argument with the big shots of the town.”

He actually probably wouldn’t. But it was a good enough excuse. So he and Merrill waved at us when we packed into our car and drove off. I couldn’t help thinking that Patrick had got the easy way out. Apparently mum didn’t think there was any bad blood he needed to sort out by attending.

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The Faroffingtons’ house looked pretty much the same as before: kind of like a very modern castle. When we got inside I noticed that the downstairs space, which had been pretty empty from what I’d seen through the windows a few years ago, had now been transformed into something like a ballroom, or at least a very big dining room. I think a part of it consisted of an old garage that had been very expertly merged with the rest of the space. Maybe the Faroffingtons’ had tried to appear greener by getting rid of their third car or something. Anyway, the place was elegant, I guess, with its light colour scheme and the grand piano in the corner. It was also full of people in formal clothes, most of them probably very important folk. I could recognise some of the Altos, and at least one Landgraab. It was a bit intimidating, being there in the midst of so many people I’d heard about but didn’t really know.

“Okay, kids,” said mum, who actually blended in really well in her new black dress and the fact that she probably knew all of the people at least somehow. Despite all that I could see even she was a bit nervous about being there, “Here we go.”

“Margaret Farley!” said the voice of Sindy Faroffington, who strolled to greet mum like the hostess of the evening was supposed to, “And your children made it here too! How lovely!”

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She had a surprisingly real smile for a member of the family I usually associated with pretentiousness. Mum smiled back at her.

“It’s exciting to be here, Sindy,” she said, “Patrick couldn’t make it, though. We didn’t find a sitter for Merrill.”

“I’m sure we’ll manage,” Sindy said pleasantly.

Mum gave Rem and I a look that told us to enjoy our evening and go talk to the other teenagers who were present. Or then it said “sorry I dragged you here. Try to make the most of it and don’t mope in a corner.” I wasn’t sure which. I detached myself from the wall and made it to the buffet tables at the back of the room. There was some good-looking salad there, and I ate a little of it. I tasted the sugary cocktails – after making sure they were non-alcoholic because mum would freak out if I got drunk there – and then somehow ended up sitting in the same table as Carla’s brother Michel and Carla’s boyfriend Mark Jones. I guess that was better than actually talking to Carla, who was exchanging pretty pleasant words with Rem of all people. I sat there awkwardly and waited for either of the two guys to start the conversation because leaving the table randomly would just be too weird.

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“So, you were the notebook girl?” said Michel suddenly, “From Carla’s class?”

“Yeah,” I said, “Lynn Farley. That’s me. That’s old news, though. Get in with the times. Now the laugh of the day is the guy who fainted in biology when we were dissecting frogs.”

“Oh, I know of him, too,” Michel said, “Bob Preston?”

“Yeah, that’s the one,” said Mark, “It was hilarious!”

“Didn’t he hit his head a bit?” I asked, “That part wasn’t so funny.”

“Oh, right, ruin my fun.”

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“Well, sorry,” I said, “But hey, schadenfreude doesn’t suit you anyway.”

“What’s that?” said Mark, frowning like a monkey trying to figure out advanced coding.

“It’s happiness derived from others’ suffering,” said Michel.

“Oh, gotcha,” Mark glanced a bit angrily to the side, towards Carla and Rem, who were still hitting it off pretty well, “Hey, look. You guys have fun with your fancy words. I need to go there and make sure Lynn’s brother doesn’t completely steal my girl.”

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“Don’t worry about it,” I said when Mark stood up, “He’d be too good for her anyway.”

I saw Mark flip me off covertly and wondered if I’d gone too far. Well, what was said was said, and at least Mark didn’t start a scene. He just walked away and slipped into Rem and Carla’s conversation actually kind of smoothly.

“Well, there he goes,” said Michel, “Hey, are you as bored as I am?”

“What?” I turned my attention back to him, “Me?”

“Yeah, you sure look like it.”

“Depends on how bored you are.”

“Very. Dad insists I have to be here, but I’d much rather shut myself upstairs and play video games or something.”

“What kinds of video games?” I asked. The conversation had turned interesting immediately.

“RPGs, shooters, and survival horror,” Michel listed quickly, “My favourite right now is Mass Effect.”

“Ooh, I love it too! Especially the second one.”

“That’s the best one, naturally.”

Michel thought about it for a moment.

“Hey, mum took my controllers so I can’t sneak upstairs to play like I’ve done sometimes, but there is a foosball table up there they didn’t account for. Wanna play?”

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“You have your own table soccer?” I gasped, “That’s awesome!”

“Yeah. I guess it is.”

“All we have is an actual soccer ball. And I never play with it. I suck at soccer.”

“Well, then this should be an easy match, then,” Michel said.

“Don’t get too cocky,” I grinned, “Foosball has absolutely nothing to do with soccer.”

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Michel laughed. He got up from his seat and led me upstairs. As we got there– to the third floor because these people apparently needed one – it turned out that Michel hadn’t been kidding. There really was a foosball table in there. I immediately took a side and grabbed some of the handles.

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“Wow, this is so great!”

“You play table soccer often?” Michel asked.

“Nah, but it’s a lot of fun,” I hit one of the handles so that it sent the entire row of blocky players into a dizzying amount of somersaults, “There’s a table at this old café and I always take it over whenever I’m there.”

“So, are you really any good?” Michel asked, “Oh, wait, don’t answer. We’ll see that soon enough.”

I wasn’t very good, to be honest, but I didn’t care. Soon we were laughing and pushing the little players around with randomly changing tactics. The sounds of our voices and the table’s mechanics were enough to mostly cover up the sounds coming from downstairs. I thought I recognised Rem’s slightly agitated voice at some point, but I pushed it from my mind. I was sure it was nothing really bad. Maybe he was just as bored as I was and didn’t get an escape into the world of small plastic people, who had been enslaved into playing endless soccer.

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“Rem, stop running! We don’t want to start an incident in a nice party, do we?”

“Okay, fine! You win! You wanted to talk, then talk!”

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“I’d show a little more respect if I were you! Especially since I have the answers to all the questions you keep asking yourself.”

“Okay, first of all, I don’t even want to know how closely you’ve been stalking me. Second, maybe I would be more inclined to listen to you if you hadn’t messed up our life first!”

“I said I was sorry! And besides, I tried asking you to come home before…”

“You think sorry is enough? And I was ten! And in a loving family! What the hell did you expect?!”

“Yes… yes, I know. And that’s why I left you be after… after it all went wrong. Now though, things have changed again. First of all, you’re becoming an adult. You will need help in order to keep control of you magic.”

“Wait… so…”

“Yes! That should be obvious now! Gods, you can be stupid!”

“Hey, either stop insulting me, or leave.”

“Sorry, sorry. I didn’t… the other thing is more difficult. But you do need to know. Your… your mother passed away a few months ago.”

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“…What? I… you knew her?”

“Of course! I was her friend.”

“And she…”

“She’s dead, yes. I’m sorry. She was dear to us. She was our clairvoyant. And now we need a new one.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You, Rem. You can see things before they happen. That’s just one of the skills you need to master if you don’t want to end up hurting these people. And to do that, you have to come with me.”

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“Oh, there it is again. What, you just come here, casually tell me my mum’s dead and then still want to kidnap me or whatever? I’m trying to believe you, but… but I just want you to stop hiding things from me!”

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“Well? Are you happy now? I mean oh no, you’ve got through my glamour! The shock and horror.”

“I told you to stop mocking me!”

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“Look, I can see this is a lot to take in, so I’ll give you some time to think. And you should really stop trying to tear down my defences, it’s just going to wear you down, and…”

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There was a screech, like something out of a horror movie. It sounded inhuman, closer to a machine coming to a forced halt than anything living. I gasped when a series of pictures scrolled rapidly through my head. Forests and fairies and boogeymen, melting into a watercolour sketch and then sharpening up into an almost realistic image. I gasped and shook my head to clear my vision.

“What the hell was that?” Michel exclaimed.

There was a shout of pain, and I paled when I realised that I recognised the voice.

“Rem?”

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“Now look what you did! Stop that! I realise you’re trying to keep control, but you are just creating illusions willy-nilly and it’s not helping!”

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“Rem. Rem, listen to me.”

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“Rem! Kaita!

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I rushed downstairs with Michel, but only made it to the second floor when I spotted a blonde woman in a nice dress standing over the huddled form of…

“Hey!” I snapped when I saw the pained expression on my brother’s face, “Leave him alone!”

I barely registered the trees and weeds growing from the floor, and I had no idea if Michel saw them too. I was ready to push the stranger away from Rem, but another shout stopped me, or at least slowed me down a bit.

“Kids? Are you okay?” it was mum, followed by a:

“Vivian? Wait… what’s going on here? Who the hell are you?”

That voice belonged to a very perplexed Sindy Faroffington. The woman in front of us growled something incomprehensible and, when Sindy threatened to call the police, turned towards her only viable escape route. She rushed to open a glass door to one of the many balconies of the Faroffington estate.

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“Hey!” I shouted, “Wait! Stop!”

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But she was already going. She vaulted over the balcony’s railing and jumped impressively high before landing with only a little bit of stumbling because of her high heels. Then she ran, so fast I could barely keep up with her with my eyes. Before any of us could stop her, she was already gone.

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I stared at the scene, not really knowing what to do. I really didn’t even know what had just happened. Sindy stepped aside to call the police, leaving mum to comfort a very badly shaken Rem.

“Sweetheart, what happened?” she said in an almost too gentle voice she had used more often when we had been younger, and especially when we’d been in the darkness, “Did she hurt you?”

“I… no. I don’t know,” Rem mumbled. His eyes were misty, and I was again reminded of the time when his pupils had disappeared. At least the place wasn’t filled with not-real plants anymore, “I don’t know what she wanted.”

“I’m really, really sorry about this,” said Sindy when she had been given permission to hang up her phone, “I don’t know what happened. I could have sworn she was an old friend of mine, but… I don’t think that was right.”

“It wasn’t,” Rem said very quietly, staring at the floor like that was the answer to all of his problems, “She tells lies, and she can make people think they’re not lies. At least… I think that’s what she does. She lied to me too.”

I looked at the still ajar glass door and shivered. I had a feeling we’d just met the Tree Lady Rem had once been so afraid of. I glanced at Michel, who clearly didn’t know what to do or say about this all. Not that any of us did. I felt like we were standing in a dream. And the most surreal part of it all was that downstairs, the party was still going like nothing had happened.

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We got home later than intended, because we had to wait for the police and give them our reports. They didn’t seem too worried about the situation. Not that I blamed them. We didn’t have proof that the woman had done much more than scared one teenager, and then run off admittedly suspiciously. However, Rem had been convinced that she had tried to do something bad, however. Like take him away. The police had then launched into a full-blown third degree about why Rem would think that, and I could see his panic levels rising until mum told the police very sternly to back off and stay in the subject.

The whole interrogation felt endless, and I could only imagine what it had felt like for Rem, who had again retreated into the creepy corner of his mind that was probably just darkness. I remembered that place from my own mind and hoped that Rem wouldn’t slip back there. Finally we got home, and mum led Rem inside and told Patrick what had happened only after Rem had calmed down enough to go upstairs to sleep. I stood near the living room, momentarily – and understandably – forgotten, when Patrick fought to keep his voice down while taking in the news of what had happened.

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What? Who the hell was she?” he was saying, “The police will catch her, right?”

“I really hope so,” mum said, “But I doubt they think that she’s all that dangerous. I mean, according to Rem she just talked to him, and the police isn’t convinced she was actually trying to hurt or kidnap him. We have no idea who she was. Sindy told us that she claimed to be named Vivian Kenson, but Rem said she was called Vilya… or something.”

She sighed.

“I had hoped that Sunset Valley would be a new, safe start for us. That we’d never have to worry about anything like that. I know it was silly to think that.”

“Maybe it was,” Patrick said, “But I hoped that too, so I guess we were silly together.”

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Mum wrapped her arm around Patrick, and I really didn’t know which one needed the comfort more. Maybe both. Even I felt a bit like hugging someone, so I wrapped my arms around myself and quietly retreated upstairs to my room. Or tried to. I found Rem sitting in front of his door, and it was kind of hard to just walk past him when he had clearly been crying.

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“Hey, Rem?” I whispered, “Are you gonna be alright?”

Rem nodded slowly. I sat next to him on the floor.

“It was quite a night, huh?” I said, “So… hey, I’m sorry I’ve been dismissive of the whole Tree Lady -thing. That was her, wasn’t she?”

Rem nodded again.

“She’s the one who told Laketon to… take us.”

I opened my mouth, but no words came out. Rem had said something about that before, sure, but now I actually thought about it. I had a new face to put into that trauma. A pretty, very hard to read face that was attached to someone who had just hurt my brother and jumped off a balcony.

“Wow,” I finally said, “Just… yeah. Bitch.”

It felt like a weak thing to say. Hell, I felt weak. I unconsciously touched my scarred cheek that would never look even remotely pretty and remembered the darkness again. I hoped Rem was wrong. But he had turned out to be right about the strange things too often.

“I don’t think she meant it, though,” Rem said, “I thought she did at first, but then… I doubt she lied about that.”

He sighed, and more tears fell on his cheeks.

“She didn’t even hurt me, really,” he said, “I did.”

I frowned.

“What?”

“With magic. She told me that it would be hard to control it, because I’m becoming an adult. I think she was right.”

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“So you’re going through magic puberty too, now?” I said, and couldn’t help the doubtful tone that crept in, “Right.”

“She’s not coming back,” Rem said, “Not for some time. The police has her scared, and now that people saw her, it will be harder for her to hide.”

He sniffed, and pressed his cheek against his knees.

“I think… maybe it would be better if she did get me. Or if… if I’d never been a part of this family.”

Okay, that was getting way too dark.

“Hey, don’t say that,” I said, “You’re awesome. And mum loves you too. Mer absolutely adores you. And Patrick… well, he’s your dad and loves you more than anyone.”

“Yeah,” Rem said weakly, “Yeah, I guess so.”

It wasn’t convincing. Rem suddenly stood up, thanked me and then went into his room, leaving me alone on the floor.

A few days passed and we didn’t hear anything from the police. Rem seemed to get a bit better after his shock, or at least to not care anymore. I hoped it would last, but by now I knew that it wouldn’t.

If there was one good thing that had come out of the party, it was that I’d made a new friend.

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I now regularly played video games with Michel Faroffington, and occasionally fawned over the old arcade machine he had in his room. We played foosball too, and sometimes we even went outside to play actual soccer, even though we both sucked at it. It reminded me a bit of my time with Jace in the park back in Twinbrook. The few times when I managed to arrange something to do with both Min and Michel at the same time I almost felt like my old friend posse was back together. Except it was very different, because of course it was. Still, I loved it, and I don’t remember ever having so much fun after moving to Sunset Valley. When I told Bree and Jace about it over the Internet, they sounded a bit jealous, but I knew they weren’t really serious about it.

And then I finally had time to start working for Sabine, too, and I could again focus of her mysteries. And money. At this point, though, it was mostly to forget what had happened at the party, and how Rem seemed to be jumpier than before. About how I wasn’t sure if our family could take another incident like what had happened in Twinbrook.

Author’s Note: My old acrylic painting returns with a vengeance! I should paint more stuff I could use to spice up my pics randomly. I mean, symbolically, and to give this story a unique feel. Yeah. I’ve been drawing mostly portraits and other pics with people in them lately, so more fairytale landscapes would be a welcome change.

I had soooo much fun shooting this chapter. And I’m really excited to start working on the next one. Just goes to show how much easier for me it is to get things done when the story gets less happy. And it will go even more downhill for a while again. Sorry, my darling Sims!

I think I’ve said some time that I don’t want to put many obvious real-life references into my Sims stories, but it is pretty clear that the EA Games -titles exist in the Sims -world (because product placement), so I figured I could name-drop Mass Effect because I needed something to make the video game conversation seem a bit more realistic. Also Mass Effect is one of my favourite game series so why not?

Also, I managed to go on a pointless bit about shoes. I myself find the thought of shoes indoors very uncomfortable and just a very good way to mess up the floors, but I hadn’t really thought about starting to switch the shoes on and off all the time before I was in chapter 10 or so. Oh, well.

The tear makeup is from http://dd709394.pixnet.net/blog/post/37143673.

PREVIOUS Chapter: Witch

NEXT Chapter: Breadcrumbs

Chapter 12: Witch

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Min and I went jogging about three or four times a week. Although I really liked running on my own too, with Min it was even more fun. She was maybe a little faster and could have run a bit longer than I, but she always matched my pace and didn’t seem to mind. That also left her some breath for conversation, and I could just listen and throw in an occasional comment. The best part, however, was that we tended to spontaneously find new routes to run in the town. There were so many places I hadn’t even realised existed in Sunset Valley, from the unpleasant, like landfills, to the pretty, like the ancient stone circle near the edge of the town. Sunset Valley was starting to feel more and more like home. And sometimes, like one late spring day, the trips would turn up something really interesting.

“So, how’s your report for school going?” asked Min.

“It’s going. It’s just about birds, and it’s easy to find info on owls and whatever. I’m not a big fan of birds, though.”

“Oh? What’s wrong with birds?”

“I don’t know, they’re just not all that fun.”

“I think they’re cool. I’d love to be able to fly all over the place.”

“Uh-huh.”

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“What? You wouldn’t like it?”

“Well, sure. But I’m pretty happy on the ground too.”

“You think the ability to fly would be counted as cheating in soccer? Or badminton?”

“Probably.”

“Darn,” Min grinned.

“Do you want to go to the library and finish the reports together?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure. I’ve got time the day after tomorrow,” Min said, “But enough about school stuff. Wanna go to the waterfall?”

I glanced at her.

“There’s a waterfall in Sunset Valley?”

“Yeah, sure. It’s been there always. Longer than the town. Not many people go there, though. It’s just sort of there.”

“An awesome natural place with likely no people around? Sign me up!”

Min smiled again.

“I knew you’d like it.”

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And I indeed did. It took almost an hour of running to get there, and by then my legs were feeling appropriately tired and I was feeling great. The waterfall was gorgeous, bigger than I’d imagined. I listened to its impressive rush and looked up at the top where the water came down like something from another world. I closed my eyes and walked close enough to feel droplets of misty water on my face.

“It’s great, isn’t it?” Min said, “Well, I probably don’t even need to ask.”

“No,” I said, “You don’t.”

We sat down at some rocks to take a break before our inevitable run back to our homes. It was nice to just stop for a while, to relax with the sound of the waterfall as background music.

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“We definitely need to come here more often,” I said, idly kicking the grass under my feet and drawing circles into the ground, “This is even better than trying to spy on the science lab.”

“Really?” asked Min, “Because dad told me that they got some new weird fish in there.”

She thought about it for a moment. I kicked the dirt I’d dug from beneath the grass with my shoe. To be fair, spying on the science projects got pretty boring after a while, cool fish or no.

“Although,” Min went on, “Maybe we shouldn’t push it too much. Dad would be in so much trouble if the people at the lab found out his daughter was loitering near their secret backyard.”

Oh, right. There was that too. Mr. Han was really nice, and even though Patrick had a thing or two to say about the Landgraab Industries Science Facility Mr. Han worked in, it would still suck if Mr. Han lost his job.

“I think this beats fish anyway,” I said and kicked the dirt again. Then I suddenly stopped, not because I remembered that Patrick would seriously reprimand me if he knew I was being mean to grass, but because my shoe struck something hard and sharp that was buried just a couple of inches under the soil, “Wait, what’s that?”

Min looked.

“A rock? No, wait, it looks way too… geometric.”

My curiosity immediately spiked and I was on my knees in the grass.

“Well, let’s see what it is, then!”

Min rolled her eyes.

“Really? Birds and fish are boring but cubes in the dirt aren’t?”

“Exactly. You don’t have to help me if you don’t want to.”

“Hey, I’m so helping! I wanna know what it is too!”

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We dug until our hands were aching and our fingernails would take days to get clean. The thing was bigger than I’d thought, but not actually huge. It was stuck in such an angle that we had to shovel a lot of bigger stones and what felt like tons of dirt out of the way. But finally it was out, and I brushed as much dust off of the lid of a beautifully carved wooden box as I could.

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“Whoa, that’s nice!” Min said excitedly as soon as I got a hand-painted picture of a swan unearthed from the dust, “What’s in it?”

I didn’t waste any time lifting the box from the hole we’d dug and putting it on the nearest big rock. The box really was pretty, and for a while I just savoured the promise of secrets and mysteries it could hold. Who knew how long it had been there? Why had someone wanted to bury it? And what was in it? That last one was easy to answer, at least. I opened the small latch holding the box closed and lifted the lid.

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“Letters,” I said, “A whole pile of them.”

Min’s excited smile grew even wider.

“Awesome! What do they say? No, wait. We probably shouldn’t.”

My hand had already been tugging at the corner of the topmost envelope, but I stopped it there.

“What do you mean?” I said, “If someone didn’t want to keep them secret, they wouldn’t have thrown them away.”

“Yeah, but the fact that the box was buried underground might be a sign of secrecy. Besides, the secrecy of correspondence is sacred! You have no idea how seriously dad takes it!”

I sighed, my fingers hovering over the letters longingly.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I said. Darn. Then, my mood brightened with a new idea, “But wouldn’t it be okay to find out who they belong to? I mean, there’s names and addresses here and everything. Okay, it’s all faded, but we’ll figure it out.”

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Min thought about it.

“I guess that’s fair. Although… don’t you think that if someone buried a bunch of stuff here, they wouldn’t want them to show up on their doorstep?”

I looked at the fine pink ribbon that the letters were neatly tied with. If someone really wanted them gone, would they have taken such a great care of them? Besides, I had to know something about this. It was a mystery right out of a story, but one that I could actually solve in real life instead of just trying to figure out plot twists in advance.

“Look,” I said, “we have no idea who buried these and why. Who knows, maybe they were stolen! We’d be doing a good deed!”

“There’s really no convincing you otherwise, is there?” Min asked.

“No.”

She smiled again.

“Well, yeah, it’s alright, I guess. Even if it is just to sate your curiosity. I’ll just pretend this is a totally selfless deed and be cool with it.”

“Deal!” I grinned, “Let’s take a better look at these when we get indoors.”

We ran back home a bit slower, because now we had to carry a wooden box with letters with us. Or more like I had to carry them. It had been my idea, after all. We said a quick ‘hi’ to Patrick, and then climbed upstairs into my room.

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“Okay, let’s see what we have here…” I glanced at Min, “Don’t worry, I’m not opening them.”

“Yeah, I trust you,” Min said. She was trying to appear cool and collected, but I could see she was just as curious as I was. Or at least almost.

I put on my reading light and squinted to make sense of the name that was written on the topmost envelope. The ink was so faded that I could barely see it. But there were imprints that formed a curly name, like distant memories left by an old pen. I wondered if the owner of the letters would mind if I used a bit of Rem’s charcoal on one of the envelopes to see the name better. That could be a last resort. The name was there, and I could almost see it.

“It starts with an ‘S’. Sa… Sandra? No, that’s not it. Sabrina? Why did people write so curly in the old days?”

“I think the last name looks like Bel… Belchange?” Min said slowly, “That sounds kind of French. I don’t know any French people who live here.”

“How about descendants of some? Hey!” I jumped up from my chair in excitement, “we could check out the town records!”

“Don’t you need a permission for that?” Min asked.

“Yeah, but we could get one. Say it’s for genealogy studies. That’s all the rage nowadays according to mum.”

“Isn’t that lying to the authorities?”

“It’s a harmless lie. To the authorities.”

Min rolled her eyes.

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“Still, that’s where I draw the line. I’m not taking this that seriously. Besides, shouldn’t you ask your mum first? Doesn’t she know pretty much everything that’s going on in the town?”

I sighed.

“Alright. If you want to be boring.”

“I’m just being sensible. Besides, I’m kind of too busy to go snooping around in dusty archives. The soccer season is on right now.”

“I know, I know. Still, isn’t this interesting?”

“Yeah. It is. Just don’t overdo it.”

“I won’t.”

“And just remember that they can belong to someone who’s already dead, too.”

“Yeah, I know.”

I looked at the letters again. They were almost whispering to me. Secrets. Mysteries. I wanted to know more about them. And I wasn’t sure if my and Min’s definitions of overdoing curiosity were the same.

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I didn’t have time to ask mum about the letters until the next day, when she had gone out early to take care of some things and then skipped back indoors while the rest of us were eating breakfast. She was bursting with excitement and could barely stand still.

“Ohmygoshyouwillneverbelievethis!” she squealed, and the rest of us exchanged questioning looks.

“What is it, honey?” Patrick asked when mum had settled a bit.

“You know the Sunset Smile -award the town council hands away every year for someone who does good work for the community?” mum asked breathlessly.

“Yes,” said Patrick, “What does that- wait, you won it?”

“Yes!” mum said with barely contained glee. She started bouncing on her heels again, “I got a call about it two days ago and today it’s confirmed! They said my blog and my articles about the town have really brought out new interesting insights about Sunset Valley to everyone and even made people more interested in the town in the social media! You have no idea how hard it was for me to keep this a secret all this time!”

“We can guess, mum,” I said, “So they awarded you for the free publicity you give the town.”

“I’m pretty sure the Landgraabs had something to do with it,” Patrick said, “They take advantage of anything that’s free to them and good for business.”

He cast one look at mum’s suddenly cold expression and quickly smiled at her.

“I mean, that’s amazing, honey! I don’t care what their reasons are, because they’ve really picked the right person for the award.”

“Yeah, congrats mum. If anyone deserves some recognition for their work, it’s you,” I said.

“I heard someone say your words were like butterflies in their stomachs, and like postcards,” added Rem, “Well, not exactly with those words but that’s what they seemed to think. They were kind of… flowery.”

Mum gave us all a tiny bow.

“Aww, thank you so much! I just… I’m so happy about this!”

She quickly made her way to Merrill, who was trying to figure out why randomly hitting his xylophone didn’t produce proper music, and swept him into her arms.

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“Did you hear that too, sweetie? Mummy just won her first award ever! I’m getting a plaque and everything!”

“Mummy winning!” said Merrill.

“That’s right! Mummy won!”

As I listened to mum and Merrill’s combined giggling, I figured I wouldn’t get a good answer from mum before she was a bit down from her victory high. By afternoon mum had calmed down with a cup of hot cocoa and was relaxing on her bed with a good book, so I deemed that a good time to strike.

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“Hey, mum,” I said.

“Hey,” said mum, “What’s up?”

“I have a Sunset Valley -related question. Now that you’re an awarded expert on it.”

Mum chuckled.

“Only kind of. Okay, shoot.”

I bit my lip and, with a silent sigh of wistfulness, showed mum the letters that had before this been a secret I’d liked keeping.

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“Min and I found these near the waterfall,” I explained when mum leaned over to take a better look at them, “We’ve deciphered that they’re probably for someone named Sadie or Sabrina or something Belchange. Are there many French people here?”

Mum adjusted her glasses.

“Hmm… well, there was a small wave of French speaking immigrants who came here around forty years ago. Wow, you found these?”

“Yeah, they were buried in a box.”

Mum looked at me with excitement and curiosity.

“Ooh, a real life mystery!” she said.

“I know, right?”

Mum studied the letters even closer.

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“These are remarkably well preserved, but they look pretty old too. Hmm… well, I know a Bellechance who lives here. Sabine. She’s around seventy years old.”

Sabine Bellechance? That made sense. It also sounded vaguely familiar.

“Who is she?”

“The old lady who lives in that old house,” mum said.

“The witch,” said Rem’s voice from the door.

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I started, and then turned my head to see Rem’s innocent smile.

“Were you eavesdropping on us?” I snapped.

Rem shrugged his bony shoulders.

“No. I just walked by when you mentioned Miss Bellechance.”

“It’s not very nice to call people witches,” mum said with a frown.

“I know,” Rem said, “But that’s what people call her. She’s not really a witch, though. Just lonely. She bought cookies from me a couple of times when I was in the boy scouts. She has a sad smile.”

Ah, so that’s how I’d heard of her. The old witch lady who lived in a ramshackle little house near the edge of town. Everyone knew her. Or at least of her. I suppose every town needed to have a witch or someone to attach mysterious rumours to. I guessed she was really only a harmless old woman who didn’t like to come out of her house because a lot of old folks just were like that.

“So these letters do belong to someone who’s still alive,” I said out loud, “Just when I thought this couldn’t get any better!”

“What letters?” asked Rem with a hint of laughter in his voice, “Did you steal someone’s mail?”

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I grabbed a pillow from mum and Patrick’s bed and smacked Rem with it.

“Of course I didn’t! I found them fair and square.”

“Now, kids. Stop throwing things. I just cleaned the floor,” said mum, but her heart wasn’t really in it. She was smiling as well.

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I told Min about Sabine Bellechance as soon as we met in the library, where we’d agreed to finish up our school reports on animals. To my surprise she wasn’t nearly as excited as I’d thought she would be.

“The witch?” she said, “Those are her letters?”

“Yeah, most likely,” I said, “You do know she’s not really a witch, though?”

Min shrugged her shoulders.

“Hey, the world can be really strange sometimes.”

I thought about my stepbrother and couldn’t argue with Min’s words.

“But no,” Min said after a while, “I don’t think she’s a witch. I just think she’s kind of scary.”

“Why?” I asked, “She’s just a harmless old lady.”

“She almost never comes out of that crappy house she lives in,” Min explained, “And when she does, she always has this… unapproachable air about her. I know that sounds mean, but that’s just how it is.”

I picked out a book on owls and Min grabbed something about sea mammals, and we sat down on comfy armchairs in one quiet corner. I liked the library. It was quiet and spacey and had a good collection. Right now its usually calm atmosphere didn’t put me in the mood for reading, though. My thoughts were in the letters I still hadn’t opened, and in the witch lady who locked herself up in her house. Maybe that was where the rumours had come from. Loners were usually considered freaks in one way or another. I didn’t like that way of thinking. I mean, I was kind of a loner, and I was pretty normal, right?

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“So you don’t want to come with me?” I asked, “I mean, we found the letters together; we should finish this together too.”

Min let out a sigh.

“Look, I’m still not even sure we should return them. What if she threw them away? What if she just gets mad at us or we dig some old trauma back up?”

True. Buried things could just as easily cause pain as they could cause joy. I knew she kind of had a point, but my point felt sharper to my own brain.

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“Well, what if we don’t?” I said, “If we do make her feel bad, we apologise and she doesn’t have to see the letters. But what if she really misses them? Or if she’s never read them at all? We don’t know.”

Min’s resolve was wavering. I could see it.

“We should take that risk,” I said, “What if we really make her happy?”

Slowly Min’s face melted into her gentle smile that I found really pretty.

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“Oh, fine. I’m in.”

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We planned to visit the mysterious witch’s house the next week. I could hardly wait, and the letters were almost burning with anticipation of getting back home.

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I spent my free time – the little time I had between school, sports, and earning money by babysitting and helping Patrick with his gardening – making sure there were no other Bellechances or similarly named people in Sunset Valley. According to what I could find on the internet – though I had a feeling it wasn’t the most reliable source with this kind of thing – there wasn’t. Of course, the letters could be older than we thought, and belong to someone who was already dead, just like Min had suggested. I didn’t want to think about that possibility too much, though.

I didn’t know why I was so obsessed with them. Or I did know, at least kind of. They were a mystery, and I was curious. And it was an approachable secret that probably didn’t involve too much danger. They were something I wasn’t allowed to read, but with a chance I could somehow circumvent that. And there was something so sad about lost letters that had been hidden near the waterfall. Thinking about it made my resolve to help them find their way home even stronger. It had to be the right thing to do, right? I didn’t want to think I was just selfish and wanted to know the secret behind them. I knew what I wanted to be, and what I didn’t want. I was a good person, and not some childish snoop who didn’t respect other people’s buried secrets.

…Right?

Mum officially got her award the next weekend, and we celebrated it by dressing up and going out to eat in the fanciest restaurant in Sunset Valley. Mum was beaming and I could almost imagine her lifting up from the ground and flying up into the sky with the power of sheer happiness.

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And I was super happy for mum, too. She really deserved something for all the near-obsessive writing and interviewing she had done in the recent years. She hung the plaque right under her school diploma near her bed, and I could sometimes catch her admiring it and doing tiny victory dances. It was silly, but it was what my mum was like, so it was mostly just adorable.

And finally we were making our way towards the admittedly rather unattractive-looking house of Sabine Bellechance. It was situated in swampy terrain that reminded me of Twinbrook, and not in a good way, and even the mailbox was rusty.

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Suddenly the idea of going there and starting a conversation with a total stranger – a witch – about things she had possibly buried to forget didn’t feel so great after all. Min nudged my arm.

“Well, here we are,” she said in a tense voice.

“Yep. We sure are,” I replied.

“Don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet now!”

“Me? No, of course not!” I looked the house up and down again. I could imagine the second floor crashing down on us once we got in, “Let’s go quickly before I change my mind.”

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I rang the doorbell only to find it broken, and then took a few deep breaths and knocked on the door. My hand was shaking a bit, and I told myself it was probably just because I was still a bit nervous about talking to strangers. And I also realised that I had no idea how to start talking about the box in a way that it would sound natural and not invasive. The box felt too heavy in my pocket, and I imagined for a moment that it would pull me through the ground. Then the door opened and a surly pair of eyes looked at us behind thick glasses, and I actually hoped the box would indeed push me into the ground.

“Yes?” the witch said in a slightly high-pitched, but at the same time oddly rough voice, “What do you want?”

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“Uh…” I said, and it wasn’t even a real word and I felt my cheeks burning. Min nudged me again, “Are you Sabine Bellechance?”

“Yes,” said Sabine Bellechance in an irritated tone, “What do you kids want?”

I didn’t mean to be rude. I really didn’t. But the recent years had apparently wired my brain to automatically respond to rudeness with some kind of snide comment.

“Well, some friendliness would be nice, for starters.”

I heard Min slapping her hand to her face in a very long-suffering facepalm. Miss Sabine Bellechance frowned and I saw the door start moving closed again.

“Wait!” I said, grabbing the door handle on the outside, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to be rude! I… we have something to ask you.”

Miss Bellechance sighed, and it sounded like she was trying to expel years’ worth of annoyances and kids on her lawn out in that sigh.

“What?” she asked.

I bit my lip and then dropped all possible strategies to be natural and not invasive.

“We found some letters near the waterfall. We think they have your name on it.”

“We didn’t read any of them,” Min said quickly, and I glared at her. Now Miss Bellechance was totally going to think we did read them.

Miss Bellechance didn’t seem to have much incentive to start nagging about the secrecy of correspondence, though. As soon as I’d mentioned the letters, I saw the lines on her face smoothing out considerably, and her mouth opened in shock.

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“You… what? You… and you just… took it?”

“I told you this was a bad idea,” Min whispered.

“We’re sorry,” I said, “We just… well, I thought that you could have… lost them?”

Miss Bellechance was still reeling from the news. I had no idea if that was a good or a bad thing, but it seemed to be leaning more on the bad side. Damn. Come on, box! Drag me under! Now!

“Were they in a box?” Miss Bellechance finally asked, “With a swan on it?”

Her voice had softened just a bit. I hoped that was a good sign.

“Yes,” I said, “So they do belong to you?”

Miss Bellechance let out another decade-long sigh.

“Yes. They do. I… do you have them with you?”

I took the box out of my pocket without any further ceremonies. I showed it to Miss Bellechance, who seemed to be holding her breath. I hoped she wouldn’t keel over out of sheer… whatever state she was in.

“It’s right here,” I said.

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Miss Bellechance extended her hand, but then stopped as if the box had been a very scared kitten that might jump into a frenzy if she moved too fast. She herself seemed to be in fight-or-flight mode too, and her clouded eyes had become almost impossibly wide. Finally she snagged the box from my hands and cracked the lid just a bit ajar. Then she lowered it slowly and managed a hint of a smile.

“I… thank you,” she said, “This… I don’t know what to say, really.”

“So I take it finding those was a good thing?” I dared to ask, “Is… everything alright?”

Miss Bellechance nodded slowly.

“Yes. I believe so. I don’t have much to pay you for this, but…”

“We didn’t do it for money,” I said immediately, “Just… well, curiosity, to be honest.”

Miss Bellechance actually chuckled faintly.

“Alright, then. So how about some creamy cinnamon rolls and Sim Cola?”

Min and I exchanged glances. Taking food from strangers was fine when it was you who surprised them with a visit and not the other way around, right? Besides, Min’s eyes had immediately sparked at the mention of cinnamon rolls. She had quite the sweet tooth, but I guess she could afford to have one with her athletic lifestyle.

“That would be nice,” said Min when I didn’t speak up, “Thank you!”

And so we stepped into the house of the local witch.

The inside of the house was nothing like the outside. Instead of the peeling wallpapers and rotten floorboards I had been expecting there were antiques and spotless corners. The place was neat and very elegantly decorated, with old bookshelves filled with novels and encyclopaedias – and no trace of spell books or preserved lizard parts in sight – and the kitchen smelled like freshly baked goods. Miss Bellechance quickly stacked some of said freshly baked goods onto an awesome cat tray and pulled three glass bottles of Sim Cola from her fridge. She seemed to have an entire six pack of those things, and I wondered if many old people were such fans of soda.

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We sat down on clean white couches and Miss Bellechance laid the tray on an old trunk that served as a coffee table. Very cool. In fact, everything about the inside of the old house was classy in a kind of sophisticated way. I felt a bit out of place in my bright colour scheme that Rem had once described – with a great deal of artistic admiration, mind you – as madness. I hoped Miss Bellechance wouldn’t mind, though.

Miss Bellechance took her own seat near the box she had set on the table earlier, gently as if handling something fragile. And maybe she was. The box was sturdy for its size, and the letters were remarkably well preserved, but maybe the things they contained weren’t so sturdy and stable.

She looked at the box for a long while, and then she smiled a withered smile.

“So, what were your names?” she asked with the kind of awkward air that came from not talking to people very much, “I am Sabine Bellechance, but you knew that already. You can call me Sabine. People usually find that easier to pronounce.”

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“I’m Marilynn Farley,” I said, “But you can call me Lynn. This is Min Han.”

“Farley?” Sabine repeated, “That sounds a bit familiar.”

“You may have heard of my mum. She writes a blog that’s pretty famous around here. I think she was on the paper because she just got an award for it.”

“Ah, yes,” Sabine nodded, “Margaret Farley. That’s right. Good. Then you aren’t someone I have just forgotten. It tends to happen at my age.”

“Oh no, we’ve never met,” I said quickly, “But you did apparently meet my stepbrother, though. His name’s Rem. He’s pretty hard to forget. Red hair. Pointy ears.”

“Oh, he’s your brother?” Sabine asked, “Yes, I remember him. He was with the boy scouts. He’s such a nice lad.”

“Yeah. He is. Nicer than my other brother. He’s like two, though, so I guess I shouldn’t be comparing yet.”

“No, you shouldn’t,” Sabine smiled, and I had a feeling I was going to like the old lady. There was a good attitude behind the worn-out face and general world-weariness that lingered around her like the dusty smell around old books.

“So, uh,” I glanced at the box over the yet untouched cola bottles and mostly untouched cinnamon and cream rolls. Min had already snagged one and was now busy both chowing it down and complimenting Sabine for the taste. I knew I shouldn’t pry, but the box was still as much a mystery as before. There was a story in it, I knew. In the letters and in how they were buried. I wanted to know it, like I always wanted to know when there was an interesting story in my reach. The problem here was that a big part of me knew that this story wasn’t for me. I’d done my part in it and delivered the lost letters.

Right?

Yeah, that was what the reasonable side of me was saying in my head over and over, but my curiosity was just homing in on the box of letters and demanding to know more.

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“So, can I ask who those letters were from?” I managed to say, “I mean, it’s not every day we find stuff like this buried underground.”

Sabine smiled a bit, but the smile was very thin, like a film someone could easily punch through with a few carelessly chosen words.

“They are from my son. And that’s… all you need to know.”

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It probably was. It wasn’t all I wanted to know, though.

Stop that! You’ve violated an old lady’s privacy enough already!

I reluctantly tore my eyes from the box, and they fell on the surprisingly nice, arched windows that were mostly covered with blinds. Through the blinds I could catch a glimpse of an overgrown backyard, and some kind of invasive light bulb went blink in my head.

“Oh, hey, are those azaleas?” I asked and stood up briefly to peer outside, “Nice.”

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“Glad someone likes it,” Sabine said, “I don’t have enough money or leg strength to do any gardening anymore, so the old flower bushes are all covered up in weeds. But you didn’t come here to listen what you’re going to have to give up when you get old, were you?”

“I’ve been doing some gardening for my stepdad,” I said quickly before I could back out with my plan, “I could clean up your yard too, for a few simoleons. I’m saving up money… for the future.”

I wasn’t sure what kind of opinion Sabine had about tattoos, so I left out that part of my savings plan. Elderly people were usually less understanding about the desire to stick needles into one’s skin to get permanent pictures on one’s body. Sabine looked at me calculatingly, as if she had known why I really wanted to do an old lady such a favour. That I was just curious and hoped she would tell me about the letters if we got to know each other better. And maybe she really did know. A part of me felt horrible. Another part argued that I would still be doing a favour to someone, even if I was being a bit selfish about it.

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“Well, alright,” Sabine said after an almost uncomfortable moment, “Just be warned, though, I really can’t afford to pay much more than a few simoleons. And I want to talk with your parents so that they won’t accuse me of using child labour.”

“Yes!” I blurted out a bit more excitedly than I probably should have, “I mean, yes, that’s fine. I’m sure they won’t mind. And I won’t mind either. About the pay, I mean.”

“Yeah, real smooth,” I heard Min mutter under her breath.

I had a feeling she too knew how obsessed with the letters I’d become.

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She stayed quiet about it until we were safely outside the house, thankfully enough.

“Wow, I can’t believe you,” she said in an almost annoyed tone.

“What?” I asked, but then dropped the innocent act when Min raised her eyebrows, “Okay, okay, I know I’m horrible! But… Look, I’m not going to ask her about them. If she wants to tell me, she can…”

“Which likely won’t happen.”

“…but if she doesn’t, all that happens is that I help a nice person with her garden and get some more tattoo money. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Min sighed.

“You know, Lynn, you have this gift of rationalising slightly bad things into good things. I’m not sure if that’s awesome or… awesome in the other meaning of the word.”

“Hey, I’m a good person,” I said defensively, “Right?”

Min laughed.

“Hey, don’t take it too seriously. Of course you are. We’re all a little selfish sometimes.”

“So you’re not mad I dragged you in there?”

“Why would I be? It was a good thing in the end. And now we know a bit more of Sunset Valley’s very own witch.”

We laughed, and walked home together. Something heavy that I hadn’t noticed before fell from my chest. The curiosity stayed, though, like a very persistent itch.

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When I got home, there was a car in front of it. I was definitely not an expert on cars, but even I could tell that the car was expensive enough to belong to some of the upper class families in Sunset Valley. At first I wasn’t actually all that surprised. Like I said, mum had by now acquainted herself with almost everyone here. But then I realised there was something very familiar about the car. Then I saw the permafrowning face of Carla Faroffington’s father. Now that was unexpected. I stopped a good way away from the front door, hoping this had nothing to do with me. I had steered clear of Carla lately, so this had to be something else. I hoped.

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I looked at the woman standing next to Carla’s dad. She looked a lot like the airhead trophy wives on TV, but I knew that Sindy Faroffington was more like a substantial, very active trophy wife. She seemed to be everywhere where some kind of sports event needed organising, and she also worked very actively in several charity foundations. She even had a probably important job in the Faroffingtons’ enterprise that sold some design furniture too expensive and nice for our family – which was good because then I didn’t need to make any effort to boycott them out of some rather childish spite.

“Okay, so you’ll be there, then,” Sindy was saying to mum, who smiled to her like she smiled to pretty much everyone.

“Of course. I’ll get a babysitter for Merrill, and we can come.”

“Oh, I’m sure your husband can watch the little one,” said Carla’s dad, whose name was Maxim if I remembered correctly, “If you can find no one else, that is.”

There was a clear disdain in his tone, and I figured it had a lot to do with the fact that Maxim Faroffington didn’t much care for Patrick. Possibly because Patrick was just a school teacher, and not an award-winning journalist like mum. I would have liked to point out that Patrick was a school teacher in a school that taught Maxim’s kids, but that would have meant that I’d have to talk to the man who had probably shaped – however unintentionally – Carla into the bitchy little princess she was. So I just waited until the two were done talking and hoped mum wouldn’t invite them inside for tea. She didn’t, and I doubt they would have said yes anyway. They drove away in their too expensive car, and I was free to get home.

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“What did they want?” I asked as soon as I got inside.

“Oh, hi honey,” said mum, “Mr. and Mrs. Faroffington? They invited us to a party. It’s something they throw every six months and invite all sorts of important people there.”

“Oh,” I said, “How are we important? I mean, in their eyes? Is it because you won the award?”

“Probably,” said mum and tried to act nonchalant, but I could see she was super excited and flattered about it. She might not have been the biggest fan of the Faroffingtons either, but she liked them well enough. I had to tip my hat to her ability to be friendly with everyone.

“So, we’re going there?” I asked, “All of us?”

“Yes. I hope so, at least. I mean, you don’t have to if you really don’t want to, but I’m sure it’s nice for their kids to have some guests their own age there too.”

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I would have wanted to say that I’d never be on Carla’s guest list, and I didn’t know Carla’s brother Michel that well either. I hadn’t spoken to him after the ladybug incident, and I figured he didn’t even want to see me after I’d talked to him just to get help for pranking his sister. Still, mum was so excited that I didn’t have the heart to say no.

“Great,” I said, “I guess we’ll be there, then.”

I hoped nothing would go too wrong with that.

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Mythical Atlas.

The Fair Folk.

Mythical Creatures and the Science of Them.

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“Sindy? Sindy Faroffington?”

“What? Who are you?”

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“Oh, come on, don’t you remember me? It’s me, Vivian Kenson!”

“Uhh…”

“You know, from college! I can’t believe you’ve forgotten me!”

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“I… uh… V… Viv? Oh my goodness, it is you! For a second I didn’t even remember your name. I’m so sorry!”

“Oh, that’s fine. We’ve all been busy. How are you?”

“I’m doing great. I’ve had my hands full with arranging one of our dinner parties. Again.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that you’ve really moved up in life. Congrats! And hey, looks like I’m lucky too. I just got here and I’m already meeting old friends!”

“Oh, I’ve just got to hear what you’ve been up to, Viv. I feel so bad for neglecting you!”

“Well, friends come and go. I understand. And now there’s a good chance for us to catch up. But of course, if you’re busy, I understand that too. You know, party and all.”

“Well, you could come to the party too! We have plenty of room, and… and no high society guest is more important than old friends!”

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“Really? You’re inviting me? Aww, thank you so much!”

“So you’ll be there? It’s on Saturday night, in two weeks. The dress code is formal. Maxim – my husband – is very strict about that.”

“Don’t worry. I promise I’ll put on my best dress.”

Author’s Note: Happy holidays everyone! I finally got this in order, and look, more subplots! That’s life for you, it just throws things your way.

I like writing Villia because she’s so ambiguous, but I promise we’ll actually soon get to see why she’s really doing what she is. And also maybe more about what she is and how her powers work. So stay tuned!

PREVIOUS Chapter: Bones

NEXT Chapter: Crashing

Chapter 11: Bones

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A few weeks after Merrill came to our home we held a naming ceremony for him. It was mostly just an excuse to get Grandma Brandi and Grandpa Lórccan to visit and to buy gifts for little Merrill. The actual naming had happened without any ceremonies, when mum and Patrick had sent an official looking piece of paper to the city hall. It had been boring, and mum and Patrick had been smart enough to leave us out of it. Now it was time for cake and gushing about how cute the baby was. And yes, Merrill was pretty cute now that he was dressed in neat overalls instead of the caterpillar cocoon of a blanket. He was crying most of the time, and I was glad mum and Patrick had decided not to invite anyone besides our sort of grandparents. The house was already loud enough with Merrill crying. It didn’t need to be crowded as well.

Merrill managed to at least stay quiet when mum and Patrick stood in our kitchen and proudly presented our new family member to Grandma and Grandpa. Congratulations and visits from mum and Patrick’s friends had already been frequent, and gifts had been coming in before today, but this moment was for us family alone.

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Grandma and Grandpa had already seen Merrill through mum and Patrick’s video calls, and they had immediately pegged him as a potential future musician because of… well, I don’t know how they did it, actually. Right now, Merrill didn’t do anything but slept, ate, pooped, and cried. Maybe it was the crying. At least it was noise that could with some – or a lot of – imagination be translated into singing. So they had bought little Merrill a tiny xylophone he could practise with when he had grown enough to properly reach for things.

Despite my questions about spotting musical talent from infants, I could get into the joyous mood of the party and smile in my formal outfit that had been hastily put together from second hand store finds. I felt like my clothes were getting smaller each, day, but I could forget all that for now. The cake and pie we were serving tasted amazing, and we could talk about how great life was going to be instead of focusing on any worries we might have had.

Once we had eaten cake and listened to Patrick’s short speech about how we were awesome and would all be great family for little Merrill, Grandma and Grandpa were finally free to dote on the tiny bundle of joy they were grandparents to.

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“Oh, look at those big, brown eyes!” Grandma Brandi cooed when it was her turn to hold Merrill, “You’re cute as a panda! That’s right! A panda! And I so hope they’ll still be alive when you’re old enough to look at pictures of them and remember.”

Merrill’s chubby face twisted into something that was almost a smile, even as Grandma managed to somehow turn her baby talk into a lesson in the concept of extinction. Good thing he was small enough not to understand it. Guilt-tripping little kids with global problems didn’t seem like a good idea, and I hoped Grandma knew that. At least Merrill didn’t cry when Grandma Brandi started gently bouncing him up and down. Grandma looked at us and smiled.

“And you! I know you both will be great older siblings to him! Lynn, you show Rem how it’s done.”

I blushed at that. Compliments. When would they stop being so difficult to deal with? Well, maybe I’d get to that someday.

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I couldn’t say that a baby was an answer to any of our problems. In fact, he mostly created more of them with his nightly crying and erratic sleep schedule that kept at least a couple of us awake each night, and with the money mum and Patrick had to sink into taking care of the baby. But Merrill coming to our lives was still a source of happiness for all.

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We all loved him, and he inched all of us a little closer to feeling like our lives were back on the right track. Because in-between sleeping and crying with the kind of screaming, grating wail that babies somehow managed to produce with their tiny vocal cords, Merrill was looking at the world with admiration I found incredibly lovable. And he learned to smile pretty quickly too. After that he did it almost as often as he cried, and all of our hearts melted.

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There was something, well, wondrous about how such a tiny thing could wrap us all around his little finger. Because that’s what he did. At first I suspected it was magic, like what Rem had claimed he’d used to make friends before he had stopped. But no, Rem insisted that Merrill wasn’t like him. That Merrill was cute and amazing without any tricks. He was our Hope, he had said. I think there was still some shreds of fairytale logic in how Rem claimed that Merrill would be the happiest out of us all. Oh, sure, Merrill was the youngest child, and those were always the ones who went places in the stories. But in all seriousness, there was at least some truth to Rem’s guesses. Merrill wouldn’t remember the fire. And I… no, we would make sure none of us had to go through anything like that again.

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Merrill seemed to bring out the most change in Rem. He absolutely adored that baby, and was playing with him almost all the time. He wanted to help feed him and even – to my endless bafflement – change his diaper with mum or Patrick’s help. And when he wasn’t doting on his new baby brother he was busy running outside and painting his art, and he even joined the boy scouts because he had started to love the forest so much.

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It was becoming clearer and clearer that Merrill had been that last thing that finally got him out of the dark places he’d been in for the last couple of… years? Had it been years already? I could hardly believe it. But as my shoes decided to not properly fit me anymore, and I could feel my body starting to change in scary ways, I had to admit that yes, it really had been a couple of years since the fire.

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At first I didn’t notice it. I mean, it’s hard to notice your own growth when you can see yourself whenever you want. But soon it became evident that I wasn’t just getting taller; my body had begun some kind of transformation as well. I knew what it was, of course. It was the scary curse called puberty. I had had enough biology at school to know most of the basic changes, but to know they were happening to myself was a different matter.

I felt so clumsy sometimes, like my limbs couldn’t cope with the new centimetres added to them. Sometimes I watched my hands and imagined my bones being in such a hurry that they would grow through my muscles and skin, and the thought was definitely not a pleasant one. I think I even had nightmares about it once. It made even Merrill cry, or then he just cried because he was hungry, or lonely, or just felt like announcing his existence to the world.

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I had to stop thinking like this. It was stupid and just made me feel bad. In fact, there were other things I needed to stop too. I needed to stop just sitting around and still having this lingering fear of Laketon or some other dark stranger that was usually shaped like Laketon in my mind. I needed to do something. We had a new home now, and a partially new family. A new life. I needed to really start living it and not just watch it.

So, I made a plan.

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The most important thing I needed to do was to regain some control over my body, so on a whim I actually asked Patrick if I could enrol to Mr. Nyqvist’s Sim Fu class for kids. He and mum immediately said yes, and I started going to the local gym, where there was a small basement for a dojo, twice a week.

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At first I was hesitant and felt lost. I had never even been to a gym, and I was sure I’d meet some of my classmates in there. Min wouldn’t be there, I knew. So that would only leave the less nice ones. Thankfully Mr. Nyqvist was really helpful and welcomed me to the group with open arms even though I started two weeks after the spring’s course had officially begun.

Apparently my age of barely fourteen was one of the worst ages to start a new sport. It was usually the time when people lost interest in their hobbies at least for a while. I did see some of the people my age dropping out even during my first course. But to me, punching things felt good. And being assured that I still had some control of myself felt even better. So I stuck around.

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I also started going out a lot, to get the feel of actually being familiar with our hometown. We’d been living in Sunset Valley for over a year now, but I still only knew the main landmarks, and the basic day-to-day go-to places like school or the grocery store. I was almost embarrassing, really. Besides, my bones were growing and my legs needed to move.

So I ran, with the wind in my hair, freedom in my legs, and endorphins in my veins.

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And as the year passed and my bones finally slowed down and still hadn’t pierced my skin, I had become to love running.
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I wasn’t the only one growing. Merrill very quickly turned from a screeching caterpillar into a toddler, who unfortunately was still screeching and had by then learned new kinds of wails to torture our eardrums with. But his smile seemed to just get more radiant as he grew, so we couldn’t help but love him. It was actually kind of evil, really.

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Oh well, at least Merrill didn’t mean to be evil. Probably.

He was still a perfectly healthy, ordinary boy when he turned one year old and could already sit up, crawl, and almost talk and soon maybe even stand. Rem loved to play with him. He was shaping up to be an excellent big brother, just like I’d thought. I sometimes watched them play peek-a-boo and wondered if Rem took Merrill to the forest as well. Merrill was ecstatic and laughing, so at least he wasn’t seeing anything too scary.

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He let Merrill play with all of his old toys, except for one: Candinsky. For Merrill we had bought a new teddy bear, one that Merrill named Ninni. Or actually he had been so little when he’d got it that he had just pointed at it and made a noise that sounded vaguely like “ninnninnnninin”, so we’d had to do some interpreting that seemed to work for Merrill when he started talking a bit more. I supposed he could change it when he got older if he wanted.

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Whenever I saw him contently tear at the teddy bear with his few teeth, I had to admit that Rem had been smart when he had decided not to give his own beloved bear to Merrill.

When my bones had stopped growing – or at least slowed down again – I had hit another problem. And that was the realisation that I didn’t want to share a room with my brothers anymore. My body was turning into that of a woman, and I didn’t want anyone walking in on me while I was changing my clothes. Not that it had happened before either, but I really, really wanted my peace. I made my case to mum and Patrick and actually got my wish. I could return to the room that had been mine for a while before it had been turned into the baby’s room.

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Rem was so dedicated a big brother that when Merrill started to properly sleep through the nights, he wanted his crib to be moved to his room. It didn’t always seem to work, because Merrill still often cried at nights as well, and it would wake Rem up. Whenever he’d drag himself to the breakfast table, grumpy and tired, I knew it had been one of those nights again.

Mum offered to move Merrill’s crib to her and Patrick’s room a couple of times, but Rem had merely shaken his head.

“It’s okay. I’ll just have to dream nicer.”

Sometime after a series of particularly bad nights, when Merrill would toss his stuffed toys to the floor and throw tantrums even the rest of us woke up to, Rem was smiling more than usual at the breakfast table. He said that Merrill had woken up again at night, but that he had calmed Merrill down all by himself.

Mum and Patrick were proud of him. Merrill seemed happy too. I remembered I’d heard Rem talking to Merrill in a quiet voice, and could almost feel that strange feeling he sometimes gave me again.

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Maybe he’d shown Merrill the forest. If that was the case, then apparently Merrill had loved it.

Aside from Merrill and me, Rem was of course growing as well. He slowly turned from a pixie-like child to a… well, he was still pixie-like, but he became a lot taller and lankier, and his eyes turned even brighter than before. His freckles multiplied until I was convinced that his face would soon become just one giant freckle. He didn’t seem to have problems adjusting to his growing limbs, and at times I felt a bit jealous of that. He was still running outside and climbing trees like a monkey. I suppose I was too happy about him finally being permanently out of his funk to be too jealous, though.

Besides, I was getting back in control of myself too. I was in great condition physically and not too bad mentally either. There was only one more thing I wanted to do to fix my body. But for that I would need money.

When I’d told mum and Patrick I wanted to get tattoos to cover the scars on my arm, I hadn’t known what to expect. I knew mum and Patrick weren’t very old-fashioned or averse to new things, and tattoos were not that big a deal anymore anyway. I remembered them being mostly for crooks when I’d been little, but by now every other person had them. Still, I had been a bit nervous. It turned out I hadn’t had anything to worry about. Mum had just nodded and told me that it was fine as long as I paid at least a part of them myself, and Patrick had added that I had to make sure the designs were good and something I would want to look at years later too. So yeah, my parents were awesome, and after getting permission from them I had been saving up my money as much as I could so I could afford to ask the local tattooist to put ink under my skin to mask my scars.

My arm had actually healed up pretty nicely, all things considered. The scars were still visible, but not nearly as bad as before. I was still wearing long sleeves every time I went outside, though, and I was still really self-conscious about my body. That was why it was extra annoying that my face was still sporting a spider web of messily healed burn. It too had become a bit less prominent, and my skills with masking it had become better, but I still liked to grow my bangs long to cover it, even if mum sometimes commented it also covered my pretty face. I usually replied to her that it was my face and my hair and I did with it what I wanted. Mum usually let it go after that. I knew that she at least sort of understood me. And sort of was enough. As long as-

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“Lyyyy-yyyynn! Did you forget yourself in there?”

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I was startled out of my momentary reverie by Rem’s shout. I realised I’d been staring at my reflection in the mirror without seeing it for the last… how long? I didn’t know, but Rem made it sound like it had been years.

“Come on! Let me in! I need to brush my teeth, and I’m super hungry!”

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I smoothed my hair down and made sure it covered as much of my face as possible. It had become routine by now, and felt strangely comforting even when I knew it was like hiding.

“Then go eat breakfast while I finish up!” I said to the closed door.

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“You know I hate brushing my teeth after breakfast!” came Rem’s reply, “And Merry’s getting agitated in his crib.”

“Then go get him. You’re his favourite.”

“Weren’t you supposed to earn money by watching him while mum and dad are away?”

I sighed and washed my hands before opening the door so quickly that I heard Rem yelp when he had to jump out of the way. It wasn’t a real argument, and we both knew it. I suppose years and growing up had finally cemented our brother-sister-dynamic into something a bit more traditionally snappy. At least we hadn’t gone all the way to shouting, pranks, and slamming doors. I was glad about that. I didn’t want to think about what kinds of pranks Rem could pull off with his powers if he really wanted to try.

“Fine,” I said, “It’s all yours.”

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I hurried to Rem and Merrill’s room and found our two-year-old brother sitting impatiently in his bed. It was an early Saturday morning. Mum had an important interview somewhere in town, and Patrick had had to go to see a neighbour about a gardening emergency. I’d have liked to think it was an army of zombies attacking the garden, but alas, it was just too much water. Boring, and not worthy of the title of emergency. Then again, if I had listened at all during history, too much watering had managed to collapse civilisations. So maybe it really was that bad that Patrick had needed to fly to the rescue like a tree-hugging super gardener.

“What do you think, Mer?” I said when Merrill reached his arms up at me in anticipation, “Wouldn’t zombies be way cooler than too much water?”

“Thombie,” said Merrill, still not fully grasping the mechanics of Zs, “I’m hungry, Lynn.”

“Me too,” I said, “And so’s our brother, so we’re all in the same boat. What you say we do something about it?”

“Food!” said Merrill, with a tremble in his lower lip indicating that his happy mood was used up until he got it recharged with some porridge. I carried him downstairs and into the kitchen, where I set him down to his chair and hurried to mix up some food before he started to get really upset.

To say that Merrill had become less difficult as time went on would be a lie, in my opinion, even though mum and Patrick insisted that this was just a phase and that he would soon be happy and nice and become an upstanding citizen of SimNation. And I didn’t doubt that, really. Mum and Patrick had done a great job with us, so I was sure Merrill would turn out just fine too.

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The problem was that he was quick to anger, and expressed it with either a violent tantrum or some pretty talented sulking. It wasn’t what I’d call pleasant, and if he hadn’t been really wonderful when he was in a good mood I’d probably have considered moving out of the house even though I was only sixteen. I kept reminding myself of the amazing and adorable Merrill when his demands for food became louder and shriller.

“Hey, patience!” I said over the bubbling of porridge, “We’re all hungry, okay? And you’ve got to learn that in life things don’t always happen in the blink of an eye.”

“Hungry! Hungry!”

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“Oh, frick, fine! It’s done now! See?”

I put Merrill’s favourite bowl in front of him. It wasn’t any different from the rest of our bowls, except it was made of plastic and had a smiling teddy bear at the bottom so you had to eat the food in order to see it.

“There. Bon appétit, you little foghorn.”

Merrill looked at me with a grumpy frown, and I remembered that aside from Zs he hadn’t yet grasped the okay-ness of being lovingly mean to the people close to you either. I just hoped it wouldn’t be a start to one of his-

“BAD!”

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The bowl went down, spilling porridge on the floor and only barely missing my shoes.

“Son of a…” I muttered, “Merrill, that’s not nice!”

He started to cry. Or more like scream.

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“Wow, he’s being grumpy this morning,” said Rem, and I only then realised he had managed to sneak past me and grab a piece of leftover pie from the fridge without me even noticing him. He was really sneaky with his bare feet.

“Yeah, I know!” I said and turned back to Merrill, “Look, I’m sorry I called you a foghorn. I didn’t mean that. But you’re going to have to eat if you’re hungry. And it’s pretty hard to eat and scream at the same time.”

“Lynn is mean! Lynn is BAD!”

I could feel a groan building up in my throat. I tried to take deep breaths and calm down. This morning was going to really be a bad one. I hoped the rest of the day wouldn’t at least get worse. I tried to think of the money, and the tattoos that would adorn my arm soon. It didn’t help.

“Can I try to fix this?” asked Rem, looking like a freckled, pointy-eared saving grace at the moment.

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“Please, do!” I exclaimed, “He’s in one of those moods!”

“Aw, he’s not that bad,” Rem said and picked Merrill up from the chair, “Or are you?”

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I’m not sure how he did it, but in a few minutes Merrill’s crying stopped and was replaced by giggles. If I had tried to pick him up, I’d probably had just received a tiny slap in the arm for my trouble. Again, I might have felt jealous if I weren’t so glad someone got the job done. Besides, there were other things Merrill wanted me for, so I was definitely not useless. Like reading. I had read to Rem when we’d both been little, and now it was time for me to again open up the colourful, thin kids’ picture books we’d been hoarding somewhere in mum and Patrick’s hidden storage.

Once Rem set Merrill down and put a new plate in front of him, Merrill started eating peacefully, if messily in the way two-year-olds usually did.

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“Wow, that’s just… I still don’t know how you do it,” I said, “Are you sure that’s not one of your tricks?”

Rem looked almost offended.

“What? No! I’m not making him like me, if that’s what you think. That would just be unfair.”

He smiled at Merrill, who beamed back at him and even had some of that porridge-filled smile left for me. Rem sighed contently.

“I like to know you all love me just because… not because of magic.”

We hadn’t talked about “magic” for some time now. Nowadays Rem usually didn’t want to bring it up to begin with. I didn’t know why. Maybe he just really wanted things to be normal, even though I knew he used his… whatever his powers could be called… sometimes in secret. Sometimes we had dreams I knew came from him, somehow. They were colourful and strange and usually in a place of light and songs. But Rem didn’t mention them in the morning, so it might have just been my own brain mixing up memories and whatever else was stewing in my mind after the day. Might have. I doubted it, though.

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“Hey, don’t get too sappy now,” I said, “I should probably take Mer out for a walk after this. Wanna come with?”

“Oh, yeah,” Rem smiled brightly, “He loves that!”

And it makes him sleepy. That means almost two hours of peace when he naps. I’ve got an essay I need to write for school.”

I glanced at Merrill, who had managed to finish his breakfast all by himself and whose face would need a pretty thorough wash before we got out.

“So, what do you say, little guy?” I said, “Want to go for a walk with your big brother and sister?”

Merrill smiled and I almost forgot all about his tantrum. Damn, that little guy was naturally manipulative.

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Merrill stayed happy throughout our walk, which I was immensely grateful for. He pointed at things excitedly and named everything he knew how, and when he couldn’t either Rem or I were there to tell him what it was. Patrick had told us that naming things was very important for a child’s early lingual development, and I wasn’t about to question a guy who did teaching for a living.

“Balloon!” Merrill said excitedly, pointing straight upwards.

“It’s a hot air balloon,” Rem said, “It can carry people in it, too.”

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“Can it carry me?” Merrill asked.

“If you pay money to the guy who rents it.”

You pay money!” Merrill snapped.

Rem laughed.

“Sorry, I spent all my money on new paints. And Lynn wants tattoos with her money.”

He stopped walking suddenly, and I had to stop as well so I wouldn’t bump into him when he leaped in front of Merrill.

“But I’ll tell you what?” he said, “We can ask mum and dad to take us to the beach tomorrow!”

Merrill’s smile widened.

“I get to splash!”

“Yes,” said I, thankful I had already promised Min I’d go jogging with her tomorrow, “you get to splash all you want.”

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Merrill seemed to forget his disappointment of not getting to fly in a hot air balloon quickly, and started pointing at things again.

“Look! Kitty!”

“I see it. It’s really pretty.”

“Ice cream!”

“Not right now, kid.”

“Thombies!”

“What?”

I looked at where Merrill was pointing and saw Carla Faroffington and her newest boyfriend, Mina’s brother Mark Jones, looking indeed kind of zombie-like with the way they seemed to be trying to eat each other’s faces. I burst into laughter, and I heard Rem chuckle too.

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“No, Mer,” I managed to say between my giggles, “That’s two people kissing, not eating each other.”

“You know, like mum and dad sometimes kiss each other,” Rem chimed in, and then tilted his head, “Well, maybe not quite like that. They’re never that… thorough, at least when they think someone can see them.”

I looked at Rem with outrage because he had dared to even get close to the eternally disgusting subject of the intimate behaviour of parents. Rem just shrugged, unfazed by my glare. In the background, Carla and Mark pressed even more firmly against each other.

“Come on,” I said, nudging Merrill’s stroller forward, “Let’s go before those two accuse us of voyeurism.”

“What’s… vo… voyrisme?” Merrill asked, his tongue getting tangled with the new word.

“We’ll tell you when you’re older, kiddo.”

We left the two near-cannibalistic lovebirds alone, and continued on. At first realising that people were starting romantic relationships at our age had been a shock to me, but after being surrounded by it for a few years now I had become quite desensitised to it all. In hindsight I probably shouldn’t have been shocked to begin with.

I suppose I should have felt sad about the fact that I was slowly getting surrounded by amorous couples at school, with me still being single, but I honestly didn’t care. I was in no hurry, so what was the point to feel bad? I could focus on being friends with people, who were thankfully slowly getting over the notebook incident and started to catch on to the fact that I wasn’t quite as timid and easy to target as before. It probably helped that I was friends with Min, who had become our school’s top athlete in recent years. Even Carla had toned down her haughty looks and mean comments and gossiping about people she didn’t like. She seemed a bit more… genuinely happy occasionally too. Maybe she was too busy with dating. Or then she was growing up. Whatever the reason, I was glad she left me alone.

We stopped in a small park for a while, where Merrill could walk around and play for a bit. He was still not the steadiest of walkers, but he was improving.

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Mum especially had sacrificed hours and hours for teaching him how to stay upright, and he was almost there, in that phase when he looked really comical while stumbling about. He was also very persistent, and managed to walk from one place to another with only a couple of falls on his butt that were thankfully cushioned by his diaper. Sometimes he even wanted to bounce around, but that was when one of us needed to catch his little arms to steady him. Otherwise I’m sure he would have ended up faceplanting, and that would have sucked for everyone. I could just imagine the screaming.

“Make the forest! Make the forest!” Merrill squealed when Rem had caught him into his arms after a particularly excited bouncing moment.

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“No,” Rem said and his smile actually disappeared, “We’re here to enjoy real things.”

“But it’s pretty!” Merrill insisted and his lip started to tremble again. Rem wasn’t having any of it, though. His face was very serious and he held Merrill firmly under the arms.

“A lot of pretty things aren’t real,” he said quietly.

He said it with such severity that even Merrill didn’t push it anymore. We went back home soon after that, let Merrill nap, and then read books in the living room until Patrick came back home.

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Mum followed soon after, and they both seemed glad and proud that we’d managed to take care of our little brother so well. Merrill was giggling as if in agreement, though it was probably just because he was playing with the xylophone he – just like Grandma had predicted – loved.

The next day went just fine as well, just like a lot of days lately, now that I thought about it. There was Patrick, being happy and making French toast. There was mum talking excitedly over the phone about some writing related things. There were us, the three Farley/Monsoon kids who were probably a little bit broken – well, at least two out of three were – but getting happier and happier every day. I spent my day jogging with Min, and after that relaxing in my room with a good book. Rem drew a pile of drawings in his room and then went outside to meet some friends. Merrill tried to eat half of his toys. It was all so… normal. I loved it.

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I knew that happiness like this wouldn’t last. I’d seen it dwindle or sometimes just crash down, and I had come to a conclusion that it was inevitable at some points. But hey, I’d take what we could get. Right now, there was almost nothing that could make me feel too awful about anything.

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“I saw you in town yesterday. With Mark.”

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“Oh? Huh, I guess I hadn’t told you about him.”

“No, but that’s not really my business unless you want to tell me.”

“Well, now you know.”

“Is he nice?”

“Well, he’s way better than Zeke. Remember him? Damn, am I glad to be rid of him! At least I know Mark better. And he’s exactly the kind of guy I deserve.”

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“I don’t know if you’re saying that in a good or a bad way.”

“Don’t try to confuse me, okay? I don’t know either.”

“Okay. Well, I don’t know Mark that well, but I hope he makes you happy.”

“Uh… thanks. I don’t think I’ll ever get why you’re being so nice to me.”

“I like talking with you. And I like helping you sort out your thoughts.”

“Heh, well, I guess you are a pretty good therapist. Even if you are weird.”

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“You could go see a real therapist. Talk to them about your parents.”

“Pfft, that’s for the weak! Besides, I can deal with it. Sure, my folks are being a pain, but whose aren’t? And when I hit eighteen, I can at least move out on my own.”

“But they’ll want to pay for it.”

“Of course they will. And I’m fine with that.”

“Money can’t buy love.”

“For some it can. For me, no. But I do like the money.”

“That’s… I supposed you do need money to live. But… maybe that shouldn’t be all. They ask so much from you, and don’t give much back.”

“Hey, I’ve got used to it. It’s the classic way for rich, fuckup parents. I got my friends, and my future, and some awesome stuff. That’s all I need.”

“If you say so.”

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“Well, thanks again. I’ll see you later, maybe.”

“Yeah. I know.”

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“Hello, Rem! It’s been a long time.”

“…what?”

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“Don’t worry. I just wanted to say hi.”

“Y-you…”

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“No! Not you!”

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“You’re the Tree Lady…”

“Is that what you’ve been calling me all this time? My name is Villia. And I need to talk to you.”

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“No! You… it was you! You made Laketon come to our house and take us! It’s because of you that Lynn was hurt! I don’t want anything to do with you!”

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“Look, calm down. I know that I didn’t think things through, and that the situation with Laketon went out of hand, but you have to understand that I want to help you.”

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Help? You just want to take me away! I remember you! You were in our gazebo and told me you’d take me home when I was already there! Then you told me I don’t belong here!”

“That’s because you don’t. Just like I don’t. Now would you please not cause a scene here in the park?”

“You’re lying! I’m not like you! I for starters don’t steal kids!”

“Believe me, it wasn’t supposed to go that way. Rem, I have never lied to you.”

“Yes, you have! And now you’re lying about not lying. That’s not even your real face!”

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“And you think that the one you’re wearing was supposed to be yours?”

“I… shut up! If you ever come near our home, I’ll make sure everyone knows what you did!”

“As if you haven’t told anyone about me already. Rem, no one is going to believe a boy with his head filled with ‘fantasy’, as the humans call it. No matter what you do, you aren’t strong enough to unmask me. Hardly anyone is.”

“I don’t care! I know there are people who could see you! See us! And I’m not listening to this anymore!”

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“Wait-! Oh, damn it again!”

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“You’re not going to run forever! Sooner or later you will want to know what you are.”

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“Oh, hey, Rem. You’re late. We were getting worried.”

“…sorry.”

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“…are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired.”

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Author’s Note: Whew, this was one happy chapter! Almost… too happy… Oh, well, now I can start tearing that happiness down again. Mwahahahahahaaaa! As you can probably see, I had a lot of fun taking pics for this, hence there are a lot of them. And whoo, puberty! Now I can finally stop photoshopping Lynn’s face because there is actually a proper scar makeup for her! It’s from here: http://i-like-teh-sims.tumblr.com/tagged/download/page/4 along with other awesome scars.

Also Rem’s turtleneck shirt is from here: http://tamamaro.blog.fc2.com/blog-entry-206.html 

PREVIOUS Chapter: Merriment

NEXT Chapter: Witch

Chapter 10: Merriment

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Mum was working even harder than usual lately. I could hear the speedy tapping of her keyboard almost all the time, and I was sure that by now she knew everyone in Sunset Valley. She kept sending out even more articles, and her blog was full of insights about life and Sunset Valley. It had a nice following too, from what I could tell, and especially the locals seemed to like mum’s observations on their nice little town.

I figured mum was trying to make up for the upcoming maternity leave. I suppose that made sense, seeing how mum always wanted to do everything the best she could, but I just hoped she wouldn’t tire herself out. I wasn’t an expert on babies, but I assumed they required a lot of work too. It was a good thing Patrick would be helping, and we would be too, and after mum’s maternity leave Patrick would take his own leave to stay home with the baby. They’d told us that soon after breaking the big news on us.

I still wasn’t sure how to feel about it. About the baby, I mean. Even though mum and Patrick hadn’t planned for it, they seemed ecstatic, even though I heard them fretting over money when they thought Rem or I couldn’t hear them.  I was happy too, I guess. Many times I found myself wondering what the new sibling would look like, or if it would be a boy or a girl. I imagined playing with the kid when they got older. Not as a baby that much. According to my limited experience, babies were boring. Rem had already been a toddler when I’d first met him, and even he had been gratingly dull during the times when he wasn’t being creepy and weird and lovely.

Sometimes I wondered if the baby would become like Rem. Would I soon be surrounded by kids with vaguely magical powers of premonition and of making me see things? Or maybe the baby would have some other powers, like blowing things up with their mind. As awesome as that would be, I figured it would be way more disastrous in real life than in the comics or movies.

Rem himself hadn’t taken the news of the baby very well. At first he’d been confused, but once it had dawned on him that it was really happening, he’d snapped into some kind of silent rebel mode. I saw him sitting in the trees with a very un-Rem-like scowl on his face. His paintings became more aggressive for a while, with splotches of paint even on the floor.

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Once I heard a yell of anger from upstairs, when Patrick realised that someone had switched the herbal goo he used as shampoo with one of my bright pink dyes. At first I was worried that I would be blamed, because it had been my dye. But Rem had soon stepped up and confessed he’d done it. We were all baffled. Rem had never done anything like that. Patrick had stuttered with both anger and confusion when he had grounded his son and said they would have a serious talk about it after Patrick got the dye washed out of his hair.

I had no idea why Rem was reacting that way. Maybe he was scared. I mean, I think we all were a little scared. It was an odd concept, bringing someone new into our slowly untangling mess of a life. And it had become pretty clear that despite his normally cheery default setting, Rem reacted more strongly to unexpected happenings than I could have ever imagined of him. Even knowing this, I was surprised when the talk Patrick and Rem were having escalated into some serious shouting match. Their arguments had never gone to shouting before.

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It was surprise more than curiosity that stopped me outside mum and Patrick’s bedroom door, where the yelling was coming from. Or so I kept telling myself.

“…you’re being silly,” said Patrick in a raised, but forcibly calm voice.

Rem wasn’t even pretending to be calm.

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“SILLY? Dad, I’m not five! Or is that why you want someone else? Because I’m silly?”

“Rem, you know that’s not true. We’re not going to replace any of you kids! We love you, and-”

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“THEN WHY DON’T YOU EVER TELL ME ABOUT MOTHER?”

There was a heavy silence, and then Patrick spoke in a quiet voice. I had to strain my ears to hear him:

“Is that what this is about again? Rem, we’ve talked about this so many times.”

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“I just want to know…” Rem was also whispering, and his voice sounded almost broken, “Do you want this new baby to… to have a real kid of your own?”

Patrick sighed deeply.

“You’ve seen the birth certificate. I remember being in the hospital and seeing you being born. I don’t know why it isn’t enough. I don’t even know why it matters. I’d love you just as much even if you weren’t my son.”

“…really?”

“Yes. Really. Why do you even have to ask?”

“I… dad?”

“What?”

“Lynn’s listening in on us.”

I slipped back into my own room before Patrick could give me a stern talk as well. The argument kept bothering me even days afterwards, though.

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“Rem? Why do you keep doing it?” I asked him almost a week later, after Rem had calmed down somewhat. He’d been on our swing, and I’d joined him just to talk about it. The movement of the swing made the cool evening air rush through my hair in a way that I started to wonder why I didn’t use the swingset more often.

“Doing what?” Rem asked.

“Torturing yourself even with undeniable proof that you really are a part of this family?”

Rem swung his legs nervously and bit his lip. For a moment I thought he wouldn’t answer.

“It’s because of the Tree Lady,” he said finally, “She… she said I don’t belong here.”

I stared at him.

“And you believed that? Why?”

“I… don’t know. It just… I don’t know.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

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We swung up, and for a moment I imagined we’d keep going until we were up in space. At least then we’d have some more pressing problems besides this family drama I quite frankly didn’t want in a family that was still a bit too fragile.

“How about this?” I said, “You show me that stupid birth certificate and we can make sure it’s real.”

Rem looked at me oddly.

“You can tell if it’s real?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve studied it from your books?”

“No, you dummy! I just happen to have a functioning pair of eyes!”

“But mum and dad and I have working eyes too,” Rem said suspiciously.

“Exactly. I’ll show you it’s stupid of you to worry.”

Rem thought about it for a moment.

“Fine. Tomorrow,” he said then, and I could detect a spark of excitement in his eyes again.

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I was only mildly surprised at how easily Rem could find the boring but important documents from Patrick’s files. The birth certificate was just a piece of paper, but like so many other pieces of papers, it was proof of something. In this case, something very important. It occurred to me that I’d never seen a birth certificate before, not even my own. Not that it mattered that much. It was just a bunch of words and lines that had to be filled in with basic information. Some dates and times, and signatures. I stopped at the line for the baby’s name and did a double-take.

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Nathaniel Remus Monsoon?” I read aloud, “That’s your full name? I thought you were just Rem Nathaniel.”

“I am,” Rem said with a shrug, “The first one was an emergency naming. Because I almost died. Dad explained it to me.”

I vaguely remembered Patrick mentioning in some weak moment how Rem had been very sick soon after being born. Maybe it had been back when Rem had been sick as a kid.

“So why did he change it?” I asked.

Rem shrugged his shoulders again.

“Dad said he liked it better as something simpler and snappier and changed it soon after I got better. You know, because then they had more time to think about it. I like it better this way too.”

“Actually, there’s a bit more to it than that,” said a familiar, but a bit unexpected voice.

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We jumped up, and Rem almost freaked out at being caught. We turned to look at the door, and Rem slunk behind me as if I was the perfect human shield.

“Dad?” he squeaked, “I wasn’t looking at your papers!”

Patrick smiled.

“Those papers are fine. As long as you stay away from the papers I’m grading. I… I’ve thought about it and you’re right, son. You do deserve to know more about your mother. I suppose now’s a good time, seeing how you’ve started to dig up proof again.”

I stayed as quiet as I could so that Patrick would maybe forget I was there and I could hear the story too. My curiosity made my heart leap when Patrick didn’t send me away, even though he obviously glanced at me before we all sat down and he started talking.

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“Margaret already knows about this, and she’s been telling me to open up, but… it’s difficult, and after what happened with Laketon, I didn’t want to start any more family drama.”

“Dad,” Rem said, “You’re going to cause more drama if you don’t tell me.”

Patrick smiled.

“Maybe you’re right. Alright, the reason I haven’t talked about Donna… your mother, I mean, is because our splitting up was… very stormy. She had a very rough time after you were born and sometimes she… she even blamed us about it. I honestly don’t know what happened. She used to be so sweet.”

He took a deep breath. I heard his voice waver and I knew whatever had happened between him and his ex-wife had really shaken him.

“I tried to help Donna the best I could, but in the end she wanted nothing to do with us. I just… I didn’t tell you this because I didn’t want you to think it was in any way your fault that she isn’t here.”

Rem didn’t seem to understand it at all.

“But I’ve never thought of it that way.”

“And I don’t want you to start now,” Patrick smiled, “Anyway, it was Donna who thought up the name Nathaniel. After we split up, I changed it.”

“Wow,” I couldn’t help saying, “You used your kid’s identity to spite your ex-wife?”

“I know, it was childish.”

“It’s alright,” Rem said quickly, “I mean, you still kept the name. Just not as the first one. She must have been real mad at us if she just… left.”

Patrick nodded.

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“I’m sorry. It’s hard to talk about it. But Rem, what I know for sure is that Donna adored you the moment she first saw you. No matter what she said after that, I don’t think that will ever change even now.”

Rem was quiet.

“I… but if she loved me, then why did she leave?”

Patrick’s smile faltered, but to his credit, he didn’t back down.

“She didn’t love me, I suppose. I don’t even know where she is now. I do think she has a new husband, but that’s all I know.”

Patrick tried to sound reassuring, but I could tell there was something he wasn’t telling us. Rem was thoughtful again, but then he smiled.

“Well, I’m here right now. And Margaret is great. I love her. And I love Lynn. And you. And… maybe the baby too. I don’t really know yet.”

“I’m sure you will,” Patrick smiled, “Babies are way too adorable.”

“Actually, they’re kind of ugly at first,” I pointed out, “And loud.”

“They look kind of like balloons,” Rem mused.

Patrick burst into laughter. We both joined in. After that, Rem’s paintings became brighter again. Most of them were for the baby, he said. He didn’t ask about his name, or his biological mother again, but I could guess he hadn’t stopped thinking about it.

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Summer break came by surprisingly quickly after that. Once we were all free from school and work, we took a road trip to Twinbrook to see Grandma Brandi and Grandpa Lórccan. They were expecting us and would probably have made some space for us to sleep in their small house even though it would mean their floor would be covered with mattresses. But mum and Patrick reserved a room in a small hotel and we stayed there for a couple of nights.

The room was nice in a basic hotel room kind of way, with generic posters of vehicles on the walls, and with almost enough beds for the four of us. Grandma and Grandpa insisted on us at least eating all our meals at their place. I didn’t mind at all. They made awesome food, and their teas were always delicious.

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And they were so happy to see us. They hugged and laughed and congratulated us on the nice new home and especially the baby, even though the baby wasn’t even a bump in mum’s stomach yet. They sat us down and made us tell them everything about Sunset Valley and school and work and, well, everything. I let the others do the talking most of the time, and they more than made up for my quietness. Even Rem had snapped back to his usual talkativeness for the visit, and he was telling about bugs in trees and fairies in the sky, and it was actually refreshing to hear his nonsense so carefree again.

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“We have to visit your new house as soon as we can,” mused Grandpa Lórccan, “At least when the baby is born.”

Patrick and mum exchanged a happy look.

“Of course,” said mum, “We’ll naturally invite you for the naming ceremony.”

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“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Grandma Brandi said, “Even though Lórccan gets so easily tired nowadays, it will be interesting to travel again. I wonder how much Sunset Valley has changed from when we were there. It was such a long time ago.”

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“She used to play guitar in the park,” said Grandpa Lórccan, “There was this one day when almost all the people  there gathered around her to listen.”

“That must have been amazing,” Rem said, “Grandma Brandi is so… magical. She was a siren.”

“The kind that lures men in with her songs and then sinks their ships?” I asked, “No way.”

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“Oh, she lured men in, alright,” Grandpa Lórccan smiled and Grandma Brandi chuckled, “But in the end, it was I she kept.”

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“Which I’m happy about,” replied Grandma Brandi. They both looked at each other in a way old, super happy couples sometimes do. I hoped mum and Patrick would one day be like that. So far, they were on the right track.

The visit left everyone smiling, and that wasn’t even the end to the joy. Because while we were in Twinbrook I could see Bree and Jace again.

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We had called and messaged and planned a week before the visit already, and we met in front of the cinema where we could watch a film together. It was a pretty good fantasy adventure that we probably ruined to some other filmgoers with our hushed commentary and stifled giggling, but we couldn’t help it. It was way too much fun.

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After the film it was still light outside so we went to the park and ate ice cream we bought from a smiling vendor, even though the weather wasn’t the warmest for the early summer. We sat down at the pretty fountain in the park and just stopped to be there for a while, and to enjoy it.

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“It’s been nice,” said Bree, “Could we see each other tomorrow too? Before you guys leave?”

“Sure,” I said without even considering it, “We don’t have much planned with family. And even if we did, I don’t care.”

“Awesome!” said Jace, “We could go swimming. The water’s warm enough.”

“That’s a great idea!” Bree said, “My mum could take us to one of the less popular beaches.”

She glanced at me when she said that, and then quickly averted her eyes apologetically. I knew what she was thinking: that I wouldn’t want to go to a public place in a swimsuit that would let everyone see all of my burns. After the fire I’d only worn short sleeves at home where no one besides my family or friends could see my burned arm. My face was bad enough, but thankfully I didn’t have to be visiting doctors regularly anymore, which meant I could grow my hair back so it could hide my face. I appreciated that Bree had thought about it. She didn’t have to be embarrassed about it, though. I would have suggested the secluded beaches myself if she hadn’t beat me to it.

“I don’t think I’ve been swimming for at least a year,” I said with a smile, “Let’s do that. And it would be great to see your mum again.”

“She’ll be happy to see you too. No one draws blue panthers like you do.”

I splashed a bit of water from the fountain at Bree, who dodged it with a laugh.

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The next day we did go swimming, and Mrs. Vasquez drove us to a small beach a bit farther away, where we could swim and laugh and have the most gigantic splash war three people could cook up. Jace had brought an inflatable air mattress we could surf or lounge on, and laugh when we kept falling back into the water. I’d never been a fanatic swimmer, but splashing water on friends was always fun. And the water was pleasantly cool and swimming made me feel oddly graceful and carefree. Like a wannabe dolphin.

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Dolphins were happy, right? I would be, at least, if I were badass enough to punch sharks.

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The sun started to set when we got back to the hotel where we were staying. My arms were exhausted from all the swimming, but it was the good kind of exhaustion. We were all smiling when we said our goodbyes, even though we knew that it would probably be a while before we saw each other again.

Oh, well. It was a long summer ahead. There would be plenty of opportunities.

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It turned out that there wasn’t, after all. As the weeks went by, mum and Patrick started to worry about money and turn our house upside down to accommodate for the baby. I knew that a new member to the family would mean more expenses, but I hadn’t expected the baby to cause so much stress already when it was still months before they was born. With the stress and worries and renovating, mum and Patrick didn’t have time to drive me to Twinbrook more than a couple of times during the summer, and there was no way they would let me take the bus on my own at this age after what had happened to us in that town. It sucked, but it couldn’t be helped either. I focused instead on enjoying the few visits I got.

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The rest of the summer passed in a whirlwind of wallpaper and toys. Most of the toys were our old ones, but I had a feeling more would show up eventually. Rem’s room was transformed into a room for the baby, and Rem and I had to move together to the room that used to be just mine.

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Mum bought us a bunk bed to save some space, and I commandeered the top bunk with the divine rights bestowed upon me on the grounds of being the elder sibling.

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“It’s weird,” Rem said one evening,  when it was too rainy to properly go outside and we were stranded into our room and bored out of our minds, “Now we have a room with nobody in it.”

“It will be filled soon,” I replied, “Then you get to experience the joys of having a little brother or sister to order around.”

“You don’t order me around much,” Rem said.

“I know. I’m nice like that.”

“Do you think I’ll be a good brother?” Rem asked, a hint of uncertainty in his otherwise airy voice.

“Sure,” I said, “Why wouldn’t you be? You like to play with toys even in that age when other kids think it’s not cool anymore. And you painted those pictures for the baby’s room, so you obviously care about him or her already.”

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“Yeah, I do… It’s just, isn’t a baby supposed to be a good thing? But it’s just making mum and dad all stressed out. If having a baby is this difficult even when it’s not here, then it’s bound to be much worse once it is. The stories always make it sound easier.”

“You haven’t read the right stories, then. I’m sure all the dramas make it look way harder. Or not. I’m not that into dramas with babies in them.”

“But even those aren’t real.”

“Well, duh. Not even close. Real life babies are helpless and loud and disrupt everyone’s sleep schedule for at least a year.”

“Wow… That sounds like an adventure.”

“If you say so.”

We were quiet for a moment. The change was going to be a big one, and neither of us really understood what all it would mean for us.

“Lynn?” Rem said finally.

“What?”

“What do you think the baby will be like? Do you think mum and dad will let us pick names for him?”

“The baby could be a she as well,” I replied, “And like I said, it’s going to be all screaming and annoying at first, but after that… who knows?”

“We could name them Rain. Or River. Or Hale! That would be nice.”

“I don’t think mum and Patrick want to name their kids after things.”

“Everyone’s named after things.”

“True, but I meant like… regular non-name words.”

“They’re pretty, though.”

I thought about it.

“Yeah, you’re right. I wouldn’t mind naming kids like that.”

“It has to sound happy, though. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be right.”

“No,” I said with a fond smile in my voice, “I suppose not.”

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Mum worked even when her belly started to grow and she started to look like she carried a volleyball around under her shirts. Even when she wasn’t writing, she was reading something that I was sure would just help her write better. Sometimes she got snappy, and Patrick said it was because of hormones. I understood it, kind of, but I didn’t like it. Mum was always so excited and smiling that it was really out of place to hear her snap at us in an annoyed voice. I guessed it was also because a volleyball under the skin couldn’t be comfortable at all.

When she was being especially irritable, we would go outside, or Patrick would take us for a walk or a swim. Sometimes Rem wanted to stop and play at the nearby playground. He was already eleven, an age when I had already decided I was too old for playgrounds most of the time. But he still loved it. I usually got bored there, but at least it was pleasant to sit on the bench when the weather was warm. It wasn’t so pleasant, however, if unpleasant people happened to show up.

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It was the beginning of autumn, and we had already gone back to school. So far it had started as well as it could have. I avoided most of the kids, hung out with Min a lot, and occasionally talked with someone who was nice enough to smile. We got some new teachers that I liked, and some that I didn’t like that much, but I could get by in most subjects. Mum had again been irritable, and had shut herself in her and Patrick’s bedroom to work on her newest article. Patrick had suggested we go to the playground again, and Rem had been excited. I had gone along, because it was probably going to be some of the last days before it got colder again and trees would start to turn orange, and also because I didn’t feel like being alone with a grumpy mum and my unborn sibling. I sat on the bench, with Patrick, still in his work clothes, flopping down next to me. Rem immediately sprang to the sandbox, his bare feet sinking into the sand and his giggles getting caught in the breeze.

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“How was school today?” asked Patrick.

“It was… pretty nice, actually,” I replied, “We have that new maths teacher, and I think he’s making me like numbers more.”

“You mean Dan Nyqvist? Yeah, I’ve talked with him. He teaches plenty of Sim Fu classes in the sports hall too. He’s a bit fanatical about it, but he’s also very nice.”

“Really?” I asked, “We have Sim Fu here in Sunset Valley?”

Patrick smiled.

“Yep. Why? You’ve never shown interest in a sports class before.”

“Because it’s been football and dance and… things I don’t care about.”

“Martial arts could be very good for you,” Patrick noted, “It requires discipline and patience, and teaches self-confidence.”

“Are you saying I’m not confident?” I said, “Because… well, I guess you’d be right.”

“I was thinking more that you have discipline and patience when you put your mind into something. Like writing, or books. I remember you reading that difficult novel when you were ten. You didn’t understand half of it without reading some of the parts three times.”

“Oh, yeah. On the Margins. I remember. I was almost cursing at it the entire time.”

“But you got it done,” said Patrick as if reading my thoughts.

I thought about it. Maybe. Maybe then I wouldn’t have to be so afraid either whenever I happened to think of Laketon. And if Mr. Nyqvist was teaching the class, then it might actually be fun.

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I looked up at Rem, who was making an epic sandcastle. I saw him staring at it, lost in his own little world. He was still not quite there, but he was coming back. Maybe not exactly the same, but maybe… maybe. That was a lot of maybes.

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Rem finished his castle and then bounced off elsewhere. Soon he was on a tiny pirate ship that rocked with springs and imaginary waves. He was probably a pirate, off to do some of the less morally awful pirate things. Like digging up treasure. Or… scrubbing the deck. I couldn’t think of many nice pirate things to do. That was why Rem was the one on the ship, and I was on a bench. And hey, maybe there was also killing and looting involved in Rem’s pirate games. It felt like any other time at the playground so far, but then I turned my head, and my mood plummeted in a second.

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The reason for my sudden mood change was Carla Faroffington. She was walking by with her shoulders tense and her legs stiff, like she was really angry but tried to hide it. I sat quiet and still on the bench that was half obscured by the flower bushes around it and tried to make myself invisible. After the notebook incident Carla hadn’t been as bad as before, but I still didn’t feel like meeting her outside of school. Who knew what she would think up then?

She actually seemed to be thinking a lot of things. At least she didn’t notice any of us when she stopped at the playground and let out a sigh that was probably meant to calm her down. It came out clipped and ineffective, though, and I saw her hands clench into fists.

She noticed the sandcastle. That was probably the only thing she did notice. Or then she didn’t notice even that. All she probably saw was something she could take her frustration out on without breaking anything that was valuable to her.

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I jumped up when she kicked the sandcastle down. I heard her mumbling something about “stupid dad”, but I was too busy yelling at her to really care about what she had to say. My big sister instincts had kicked in, probably empowered with the knowledge that I would soon be a big sister for two people instead of just one.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”

Carla stopped kicking. She spun around in a move that was probably meant to be elegant. But the frown on her face kind of ruined the effect.

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“Who-? Oh, it’s you,” she said, “What? Was this your castle?”

“No!” I snapped, “But it was my little brother’s.”

She glanced at Rem, who had left his pirate ship stranded because there was an argument brewing among the landlubbers.

“Isn’t he a little too old to be playing with sandcastles?” she said.

“Aren’t you a bit too old to throw public temper tantrums?” I fired back.

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“Look, I didn’t even notice you were here,” Carla raised her hands, “Unlike what you may think, I don’t actually go around on walks and think ‘hey, how could I make people’s lives worse while I get some fresh air?’!”

I could feel Patrick observing the scene with his calm stare. I knew he was ready to cut in if some adult intervention was needed, but I also had a feeling he knew I didn’t want his help. Not yet at least. I opened my mouth for another retort, but Rem beat me to it:

“I’m sorry you’re sad. And in the tower.”

…and it wasn’t even a good retort. Darn. Carla eyed Rem suspiciously.

“What the heck are you talking about?”

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“I heard you were mean to Lynn,” Rem went on and was totally unfazed by Carla’s death glare, “And some other people too. But you’re sad too, and that’s why I said I’m sorry.”

He closed his eyes and opened them again, possibly seeing through the universe as he did.

“Would you want to make another castle? I could help. This one could be without towers, if you don’t like them. It could be nice, with a lot of open space where people could dance.”

Uh-oh. Rem was going to fairyland again. This was not the time. Not in this company. Carla would eat him alive.

Her glare softened slightly.

Wait, what?

“Ugh, whatever!” she huffed, “Sorry for breaking your stupid castle, you big baby! Weirdo!”

“Miss Faroffington,” said Patrick in a serene voice, and I almost jumped. I’d forgotten he was there, “That’s not a nice way to talk to others.”

Carla looked at Patrick, and at the widening of her eyes I realised she had never even noticed a teacher from her school was sitting right next to her. She recovered quickly, though, and stormed off with a last, hasty apology.

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“She’s lonely,” said Rem.

“She’s got tons of friends,” I replied flatly, “So I find that hard to believe.”

“I didn’t say she was alone. Just lonely. There’s a difference.”

“I know there’s a difference.”

“Good. Maybe you could talk to her,” said Patrick, once I had sat back down next to him.

“No.”

“Why?” asked Rem.

“Just no.”

“Oh…”

Patrick took us home after that, and Rem assured us both that he wasn’t hurt by what had happened. He didn’t skip as happily as usual, though, but something told me it was more because he was sad for Carla than anything else. Or maybe he was just reminded of our own sadness, when the home he had built out of sand had crumbled, kind of like our own home had figuratively done.

But he was happier again in the next day, and was thinking up baby names with the kind of enthusiasm that made it hard for me to not join him. He kept thinking them up as months passed by and weather got colder and my hair finally started to grow.

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“It could be just Alf,” Rem said one evening when he was getting his butt kicked in a video game, “Or Ward. Or… Windy. How about Winter? Because it’s going to be born in winter!”

“Winter isn’t very happy,” I pointed out, “Didn’t you say it should be happy?”

“Winter can be happy! With skating and snowballs and everything! Hey, how about just Happy?”

I thought about it.

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“Or Joy, if it’s a girl,” I finally said, “And Merry, if it’s a boy.”

“I like Merry,” Rem admitted, “It has double consonants, just like happy.”

“I know,” I said, “You know what would be even more awesome? Double double consonants!”

Mum, who was sitting next to us in an armchair in her rare relaxed moments, smiled.

“I think I like the sound of that. I love double consonants too.”

“When will he be born?” asked Rem, “I mean, I know it’s in winter, but exactly when?”

Mum patted her belly. The volleyball had been replaced with a basketball. It looked almost scary. Like an alien trying to nest in mum’s stomach. I wondered again if it would be a boy or a girl. Mum and Patrick had told us that the doctors could have already told it, but that mum and Patrick wanted to keep it a surprise. And as mum had said, there was no need to start labelling the baby before it was even born.

“We can’t know exactly when this one decides to come out,” mum said lovingly, “One never can.”

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It was the beginning of next year when we heard shouting upstairs. Patrick realised immediately that it was time.

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I barely remember anything about it. It was all such rushing and then a whole lot of waiting. Rem and I ended up sleeping at home when the waiting stretched on and on. In the end I think it took like ten hours at the most, but it had felt like days.

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Then we could go back to the hospital, and there it was. A baby boy, who looked like a crying, pink… thing with chubby limbs. Like baby animals when they’re still blind and hairless. He was weak and not very pretty, and wrapped up in a blanket that also made him look like a caterpillar on top of all the other things he looked like. But mum and Patrick obviously loved him. When it was time to take him home, mum and Patrick took him to our house that felt smaller already, showed him the places even though he didn’t care about much of it yet. They were mesmerised, and I could freely admit that I was maybe a little bit in love as well.

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“What’s going to be his name?” I asked for the fifth time after the baby had been born, “Have you decided yet?”

“Yes, we did,” said Patrick, “We decided it weeks ago.”

“What?” I exclaimed, “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“We wanted to wait until we were home. It’s more… you know, magical this way,” Patrick said defensively, “Rem, you understand, don’t you?”

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Rem nodded eagerly. His eyes were fixed on the baby, and I could see he adored him too.

“So, what is it?” he asked.

Mum smiled at the baby, and then at us.

“Merrill.”

We all agreed that it was definitely happy enough. Merrill let out a small burbling sound. Maybe it meant that he agreed too.

Auhtor’s Note: Whoooaah what’s this? An update?!? Yeah, I had some extra time and enough inspiration for this to do some photoshooting and polish up the chapter I’d more or less already written before November. And oh, look, a lot of pictures with not much point but that were super fun to shoot! As much as I love doing NaNo, I’m already excited to focus on this more again once November is over.

PREVIOUS Chapter: Ladybugs

NEXT Chapter: Bones

Chapter 9: Ladybugs

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There were moments when you could just feel a new chapter starting in your life. Sometimes it was only noticeable in retrospect. Sometimes it was obvious right off the bat. This was one of those obvious times. Our new chapter started with a spring that was further ahead than in Twinbrook, and with sunshine that didn’t seem like it would ever set despite the name of our new hometown. Sunset Valley peeked from behind the horizon like a picture in a postcard, and it looked too nice and too glossy to be a proper hometown. But it was a part of us now. It still felt unreal.

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Our new house was… different. It had never been an industrial building. It had just recently been renovated, and it was a wooden two story house in what had been advertised as a calm and happy neighbourhood. Its walls were covered with greyish blue planks that made it look pretty cosy, to be honest. I had seen it before, and I could – if I tried hard enough – imagine us there, with our stuff and Patrick’s vegetable garden on the spacey yard. I imagined the grass being tousled by Rem’s bare feet, and myself holed up in my room upstairs, where I could watch birds fly by and sometimes speculate where the people passing our house were going. There was no gazebo, though, and even though I’d never really got the appeal of one, it had been the selling point for mum. I wondered what she would find to love in our new house.

The moving truck was already there, and we got to work, dragging our stuff inside, and unpacking. It would be a few weeks living in a jungle of boxes because everything would seem to take its time to find its place. I’d heard mum and Patrick complain about it many times, and I knew to expect it. I didn’t remember if we’d had the same problem when we’d moved into our house in Twinbrook. Maybe.

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I unpacked everything I could as soon as we got the boxes in, and my room shaped up quickly. It was the only thing I could do to jumpstart getting adjusted to this new, unfamiliar postcard of a place. Even with my dedicated unpacking pace it took a few days before my room was presentable. It looked different, but to my surprise it was good different. Like it had shed the last layer of childishness that had been there back in Twinbrook.

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The laptop I’d got for my thirteenth birthday had been the first thing I’d set up after getting the desk under it. I’d sent a bunch of messages to Bree and Jace, telling them about our new home even though so far there wasn’t much to tell about. Mostly I just wanted to sit down and take it all in. Bree told me how she wanted to make a short film with some of the other students and asked me for story ideas. I posted some for her. Jace was enthusiastic about his new skateboard and sent me a video of him trying and failing to get it airborne. I laughed at the video in my otherwise quiet room. I missed them, just like I’d known I would.

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Aside from long-distance friends, what I’d taken from Twinbrook was memories and advice. One of the best advice was from Mr. Bob, about my stories. I’d always done a lot of writing, but in Sunset Valley I didn’t seem to be able to stop at all. I bought a notebook I could write my thoughts into, and I often turned them into little tales, most of which I’d probably never tell anyone because they weren’t thought out so well and had all kinds of stupid metaphors and bad word order in them. It helped me think, and I loved just writing and ignoring everything else. I had another frequent escape besides reading now. I was actually surprised I hadn’t thought about doing it sooner.

Better late than never, I guess. And I had a feeling I’d really need to sort out my thoughts into the pages of my new notebook very soon. Everything had changed now, and next we’d actually have to cement the change by starting in a new school.

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The night before the school started, I felt a sense of déjà vu, as well as the same dread as before. It felt like I’d had to be scared of returning to school just yesterday. Back then it had been just Stary, a place I’d known. Now it was a new place entirely, with new people who didn’t know our story. And Patrick would be a teacher there, just – thankfully – not in either of our class. I was a scarred new kid whose parent was a teacher. Awesome. I could just imagine the things they saw when they looked at me.

I sat on our new porch and watched the late night pedestrians pass by. I’d dipped my still mangled hair into some light blue dye soon after moving because I’d felt like going back to feeling a bit more like myself. Now I wasn’t sure if it hadn’t been such a great idea, but at least it would take some attention away from my face. The night air was pleasantly cool and I felt it on my face, where I could imagine it healing my scars.

Our house was still littered with boxes, but Patrick had been adamant that the vegetable garden needed to be set up right away after the most essential things had been unpacked. Now the skinny apple trees Patrick had bought from a nearby garden and the shyly growing bushes that he had managed to transport all the way from Twinbrook through some magic of environmental consciousness were swaying in the breeze. It was starting to feel like home. The house, at least. I watched the unfamiliar streets around us, and hoped they’d introduce themselves to us soon enough as well.

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Our new school was far away enough that we were told to get the school bus instead of biking. I think a part of it was also because mum and Patrick were worried we’d get lost in a new town. Or that Laketon would somehow jump out of a bush and attack us on our way to school. It really wasn’t likely, because we knew Laketon was in prison, a several hour drive away from here. Still, I couldn’t blame them for worrying. Sometimes I was afraid of that too.

But the school bus was too full of people to be scary. In fact, there were just enough people for it to be suffocating. I sat with my eyes glued to the speeding landscape in the window, my hand on my cheek somewhat casually but actually just to cover my scars. Mum had shown me how to cover them up pretty naturally with make-up, but doing it required a heavy layer of it and left my face feeling really stuffy. So I’d settled for fading them out a bit. Hopefully no one would ask too many uncomfortable questions.

I’d managed to blend in while in the bus, but the class was something else entirely.

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Our teacher was a woman named Fiona Glick, who bore some vague resemblance to Mrs. Vasquez, with the same motherly feel and all, but it was all just some kind of natural deception. When she spoke she sounded dry like sandpaper, and she called me to stand in front of the class and introduce myself to the others despite the fact that I’d clearly sat into the back row to stay out of sight and specifically said before the class started that I didn’t want me being there become a big deal. Apparently it was school policy or something. I hated it already.

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I stood there awkwardly, having trauma-filled flashbacks about my presentation back when I had been nine. I took a moment to let the faces of my new classmates to sink in. They were mostly well-dressed kids, and I figured some of them had more money than our family would ever have, not that I cared that much about that. A lot of them had sandy blonde hair, and I wondered if that was some kind of gene pool thing around here. Their faces looked expectant, and there was whispering and glances at my face. At Mrs. Glick’s prompting, everyone told me their names with varying disinterest. I tried my best to remember at least some of them. Then it was my turn. I sighed.

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“Okay. Hi,” I said, took a deep breath and decided to just talk as fast as I could so I wouldn’t get any second thoughts, “I’m Lynn. Nice to meet you. I moved here from Twinbrook and I like books and summer and autumn and my favourite colour is purple. And before anyone asks, I was in a fire and I don’t like remembering it so there’s no need to ask about my face.”

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I walked back to my seat before the teacher could stop me and ask me to elaborate on something I’d said. Her mouth was open in a way that suggested she had planned to do exactly that. I saw some of the students turn their heads and twist around on their seats to look at me. One of the girls glanced at me in a way that made me expect something would come up. Something like bullying or at least a few not so nice remarks.

Well, at least they didn’t laugh at me yet.

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They waited until the second break. Before that it had become evident that Sunset Valley’s Community School for the Gifted was ahead of Stary in some subjects, and that was pretty frustrating because now I had to do extra work just to catch up. I had taken my new history book with me and sat on a couch near our classroom and tried to catch up with what I’d missed by the simple act of changing towns. I was just trying to see the parallels between Sim Nation’s political and artistic development when the clop of designer shoes stopped near me and I could feel condescending gazes on me.

I looked up.

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The girl who’d cast me the odd look in class was standing there, with another girl from my class next to her. Judging by the way other people stopped what they were doing just to look at her, it was pretty obvious that she was the kind of girl others followed. Like a queen bee. She cocked her head, letting her strawberry blonde hair fall over her shoulders in the kind of way that looked natural at first glance, but that was actually just made to look naturally pretty.

“So,” she said, “You’re the new girl.”

So far it wasn’t anything unpleasant. I mentally allowed myself a small sigh of relief. But only a small one. I had no idea where this was going yet.

“Yeah,” I said, not putting down the book, “And you were… uh… Carla?”

“Yes. Carla Faroffington,” she said in a way that implied I should be impressed by the surname that to be fair sounded kind of pretentious. Like someone had made it up because they wanted to come off as fancier than they were. And failing at it too.

“Well, nice to meet you,” I said as politely as I could with my limited people skills, “I kind of need to catch up with history, though. Back in Twinbrook we didn’t cover this part.”

“I’ve heard Twinbrook’s a swamp,” Carla said, “Good to see you managed to move up in the world. If only to be a small, tiny fish in a big pond.”

I could have pointed out that calling someone small and tiny in the same sentence was pretty redundant, but I figured I didn’t need to make any enemies here. Not deliberately at least. In Twinbrook I’d managed to skulk by at school as the quiet kid who had few friends but whom everyone at least tolerated. I could keep it up here too.

“Well, it’s not all swamp,” I just said, “It’s pretty great actually.”

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Carla scoffed.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll change your mind when you get to live here for a while. Maybe soon you’ll have some respect for it.”

“I do already.”

I returned to my book. This Carla was obviously baiting me. I wasn’t going to fall for it.

“Well, walking around, showing your ugly face here really doesn’t scream respect to me.”

Yeah. There it was. Carla’s friend – Mina Jones, I think – had cracked up laughing. A lot of the others were laughing too. I contemplated between slamming my book shut and running and just chucking the book at Carla’s smug face. Or then I could sit down and calmly take it. Then people would see the tears that were threatening to well up, though.

I slowly stood up and started walking without a word.

“Hey, relax!” Mina said, “It’s just a way to say welcome the new kid. You know, get all the insults out of the way from the start.”

I stopped and turned, seeing Carla and her friend grinning like mad. The other students were either looking away or gawking. No one clearly wanted to get between Carla and her prey.

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“Well, that’s dumb,” I said in a threateningly quiet voice, “Maybe you shouldn’t start with that at all. Or is it in your school rules? Or did you just try to sound clever? I bet it’s the last one. Well, it’s not working.”

With that, I returned into our classroom and read there until the teacher chastised me and told me students were supposed to be outside of the classroom during breaks. If it had been someone nicer, like Mrs. Vasquez or definitely Mr. Bob, they would have understood. As it was Mrs. Glick, however, I didn’t even bother trying to explain. I mumbled a quiet “Yes, ma’am” and went all the way to the front yard. I spent the breaks of my entire next week there.

This had not started well.

I kept quiet about the cold welcome at school when mum and Patrick asked me about my days. They were having enough worries with their own with settling down, and with Rem’s still persisting depression. Patrick was doing well at his job, apparently, at least. He was well liked, and he could probably have done something to the nasty comments, but a teacher’s pet was a label I had managed to avoid so far, and I felt that would pretty much be the final nail to the coffin with these kids. Sure, they weren’t all bad, and most of them stayed out of it, but I really didn’t want to push it.

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Mum still sent her articles to Life & Sprouts for You, but she had said she wanted to broaden her horizons and had started blogging. A lot of her writing was about Sunset Valley. She was trying to get a picture of our new hometown in text form, I knew, and she spent a lot of time just interviewing interesting locals for what usually amounted to articles that didn’t fit either into her blog or Life & Sprouts, so she had to bounce them from magazine to magazine. I knew it was tiring, and watching her do it over and over again made me quietly question my dreams of becoming a writer myself.

At least she was slowly getting over her fear of Laketon. She hadn’t said anything about it and whenever we talked about him it was just to remind us all that he couldn’t touch us. Still, I could see the apprehension on mum’s face whenever an unknown number called or mum checked our mail. I hoped she would stop being afraid soon. It was eating her up, and it would be easier for me to stop worrying if our parents did the same first.

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Rem was quiet, but there was some bounce back in his steps still. His easel had been set up in our new, shiny and sunny living room and he spent most of the time there, painting on big canvases and ending up with dark pictures that slowly got brighter again. There were dark boogeymen and shadows, but also flowers and fairies and dragons. Once he painted a phoenix, despite my protests. He gave it to me, but didn’t mind when I shoved it into my drawer and didn’t want to look at it. He said I could take it out when I was feeling better about it.

What he seemed to have got over was the fear, thankfully enough. He wasn’t worried about Laketon or “the Tree Lady” anymore. In fact, he’s started adoring trees and climbed them whenever he could. Now that I thought about it, even with all the running around and playing outside, I’d never seen Rem be that much of a fan of trees. Now he could stay up in them for hours on end like an overgrown, freckled squirrel.

Sometimes I could hear him arguing with Patrick, which was weird because they almost never did that. It usually started when Rem asked him about his biological mum, and Patrick responded with the same vague non-answer he always did. Rem always left the conversations in tears. Sometime later Patrick would go find him and they would hug it out and everything went back to normal. I didn’t know what to make of it at all.

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My time at school didn’t get much better. Most of the kids avoided me, and those who didn’t just occasionally stopped by to make fun of me. I figured it had something to do with some rumours Carla or someone else had spread about me.  I didn’t even want to know what those rumours were, but they probably had something to do with our family. Or the fire.

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Once one of the students walked right up me and yelled at the top of his lungs that the school was burning. My heart skipped a beat then and for a moment I almost believed him. But as soon as it had come the moment of panic was over, and I realised I didn’t feel the heat on my face or smell the burning hair and flesh.

I lost my temper then and yelled right in the idiot’s face. It didn’t make me any more popular. Not that I wanted to be popular. I just wanted to be left alone.

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I found more good hideouts besides the yard of the school building as the weeks went on. Usually I sat in one of them with my notebook, or if I was really bored and tired, fiddling with my phone that had some games installed on it. Patrick sometimes found me, but he let me be when I said I wanted to do my homework early. The rest of the teachers left me in peace by default. Or then they just didn’t care.

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There were some kids who occasionally spent time with me and were actually nice. The nicest of them was a Chinese girl named Min. She’d lost her mother at an early age, which was not the first thing I would’ve liked to know about her, but I did anyway because that was how the other students talked; they looked for differences. Maybe it was normal. I know I did it too. Min was friendly, though, and made me want to know her besides the “no mother” -status. And she was happy. It inspired me in a way. If someone who’d lost so much could be so at peace, I knew I too had a chance. So we talked, occasionally, not enough to count as real friendship, but it was a start.

“I was bullied too at first,” she said to me once in the hallway, “Then I beat one of the jocks at football during a break. It was apparently awesome enough for it to stop.”

“Too bad I suck at sports,” I mused, “I’m okay at running, but that only encourages them.”

Min laughed.

“You’re funny. In a good way. I’m sure they’ll come around eventually. And if not, then I’m pretty sure you’ll become famous or something and get to show them. You know, when you grow up.”

“That doesn’t happen that often in real life,” I pointed out.

“No, but hey, it’s something to dream of. I dream of being a sports star, but not because I want to show anyone. Except myself.”

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I thought about it for a while.

“Hey, Min? Has anyone told you you’re really smart?”

“Not that often, no.”

“Well, you are.”

Min beamed at me. For a moment she reminded me a lot of Bree. Except Min was way more of a tomboy than Bree would probably ever be.

“Thanks.”

So maybe it was close to real friendship. And maybe it wasn’t all bad.

Even though I tried to keep my not so great school experience from mum and Patrick, they could see that something was wrong anyway. They were sometimes annoyingly smart, and I wondered if all parents were. Probably not. Some were pretty much blind when it came to their kids. Or everything else. I knew I shouldn’t complain. At least our parents loved us and cared. Still, I wasn’t very thrilled when Patrick sat next to me after one school day, still wearing his neater clothes he wore at work. It was always weird to see Patrick dressed up, because he usually changed right away into the ancient, ratty sweater or something else out of his very limited wardrobe when he got back home.

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“How was school today?” he asked.

“It was okay,” I said, “We had sports and I got a basketball in the head, but it was an accident and didn’t even hurt that much.”

“Ouch,” Patrick said anyway, “Are there bruises? Bumps?”

“No. I said it didn’t even hurt.”

“Alright. What about the other kids? Are they still nice?”

“They’re okay.”

Patrick nodded, with a pretty unconvinced look on his face.

“Uh-huh. You know, teachers aren’t deaf or blind. Or at least I’m not. Do you want me to do something about the bullying?”

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I sighed.

“If I said ‘it’s fine, don’t worry about it’, would you believe me and not meddle in this?”

Patrick chuckled.

“No, I wouldn’t. There’s no shame in going to a teacher, or us, about it. It’s better than just letting them do whatever they want.”

“How long have you known?” I asked, tugging at my shirt sleeves.

“Not long. I found out yesterday, and got confirmation today. I’m sorry it took so long.”

There was an unspoken “You should have told us” in between his lines.

“It’s not too bad. Just name-calling. I don’t want to make things worse by getting the tattletale stamp on me.”

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Patrick smiled.

“Yeah, I know. I was bullied too when I was younger. It’s pretty normal – sadly enough – with kids. And maybe later too.”

“I can take care of myself,” I muttered, “I think… I just have to stop caring what people think about me. It’s starting to feel like a chore.”

Patrick frowned.

“Well, as long as you don’t start making people feel bad on purpose. Not that you would. I know you well enough.”

“So you’re not going to…?”

“Oh, I’ll tell the other teachers and get them to pay more attention. From what I’ve seen, that kind of thing is a bit too widespread in that school for my liking. But I’ll be discreet.”

He smiled as if we had just formed a conspiracy of some kind. I couldn’t help but laugh a little.

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“Thanks, Patrick.”

“No problem. Hey, could you do me a favour in return and tell your brother to get down from the swing set? We agreed he could climb the trees but he’s pushing it a bit.”

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I got up and went outside. The air was getting warmer and summer was sauntering steadily closer to Sunset Valley. Soon the school year would be over and we’d have the whole summer vacation to get to know our town properly. The leaves were greener than in Twinbrook, and amidst them I could see Rem’s yellow jacket. Except he wasn’t in a tree. Like Patrick had said, he was on a swing set, but just now I realised how literally he was on it.

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“Hey,” I said, “Patrick wants you to come down from there. How did you get up there anyway?”

Rem shrugged.

“From the tree. Don’t worry. I won’t fall. You’ve been sad.”

I crossed my arms.

“Not really sad. Just a bit annoyed.”

“Daddy told me the kids at school aren’t nice to you.”

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“Oh, so now everyone knows? Great.”

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Rem smiled a bit.

“Not everyone. I’ve seen the girl who says the worst things at school. She’s a princess.”

I raised a brow.

“Like a real princess or your-way-of-seeing-things princess?”

“My way,” Rem looked into the emptiness, and his eyes were shining.

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“She’s in her tower a lot… I think she’s actually lonely. She’s got friends but her parents want her to be perfect. It’s sad, really.”

“Sorry if I don’t share your compassion.”

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Rem nodded slowly.

“Right. Well, just… don’t let her get you down.”

I grinned.

“I won’t, but I’ll get you down from there, squirrel!”

Rem laughed. Then he was back in the tree and then on the ground before I could make good of my threat.

I thought about what Rem and Patrick had said, and I was grudging to realise that both of them had a point. I didn’t have to just take the bullying, and I should probably remember that underneath the frigid glares, Carla Faroffington was a person too. I’d said mean things to others sometimes for sure as well. That was something I should just keep reminding myself of.

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But it all went out the window when one day I heard everyone laughing and realised they were laughing at me. The laugher had more power to it than usual, and I had no idea why until I asked Min about it and she said with a very uncomfortable look on her face that I should probably see the school’s bulletin boards. I did, and saw my notebook, or rather, its pages. They’d been torn out of the book so that my stories could be pinned all over the boards.

My hand flew to my bag and I searched through it only to realise my notebook was indeed gone. They must have swiped it during class, in a moment when I’d been especially focused on either the lecture or my own daydreaming. Now all the unfinished drabbles and tales I’d written to either figure out something about myself or just to pass the time were there for all to see. And judging by the laughter and the smug look on Carla Faroffington’s face, she had had a hand in it and she had made sure everyone knew that what was pinned on the boards like a half-hearted insect collection was my writing.

This was worse than yelling “Fire!” behind my back. This, aside from making fun of my family or friends, was the worst.

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And as I stood there with my fists clenched, I decided I really didn’t just have to take it. This had gone far enough to warrant some proper payback.

I’m sure that wasn’t what Patrick had wanted, and he might have actually said something about not trying to be nasty to others on purpose, but right now, all I cared were my secret thoughts that people were laughing at.

I swallowed down my tears and pretended not to hear people reciting my texts and calmly took down the pages. I gently folded them and stored them into my schoolbag. I knew the teachers would hear about this, and that meant Patrick would hear about it as well soon enough. They’d probably figure out who’d done it and punish them accordingly. Or what they thought was accordingly. My fists were still clenched when I marched away from the hallway and into the class. At least there the students would have to tone down their laughter a bit.

I could still feel their stares on me, again. This time it didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. Just mostly annoyed. I pointedly ignored them.

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“There’s got to be something that really gets to Carla,” I said somewhat innocently in one of our conversations with Min a couple of days later.

“What, aside from people who don’t do what she wants them to?” Min asked, “I think that comes from her parents, though. I’ve seen them. They act all high and mighty, especially the dad. It’s pretty stupid if you ask me. I mean, they’re not even the richest people here anyway, and the Goths and the Landgraabs and the Altos are way more ‘important people’ than them.”

“Yeah, I’ve got that,” I said, “And their kids are so much nicer than she is, too. But I mean, something that would really get under her skin.”

Min narrowed her eyes.

“Wait, are you going to do something bad to her because of that notebook thing?”

“What? Me?” I put my hand to my chest in mock hurt. Min wasn’t impressed.

“Yeah. You.”

“Are you going to stop me?”

Min thought about it.

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“Well, it’s not nice, and it’s all sinking down to her level and stuff. She wasn’t even the only one in it.”

“But she was the mastermind.”

“Well, yeah…” Min said slowly, “I’m probably going to regret this, but Carla has a big brother. If someone knows something to get to her, he does. He’s just a couple of years older than us, and his classes are on the other side of the school. Just… don’t do anything mean. I didn’t think you’d be that kind of person.”

I smiled, but for a moment my mind screeched to a halt. I really wasn’t that kind of a person. Sure, I could say some pretty scathing things when I got especially angry, but that happened so rarely… I’d never done anything too bad to other people.

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Then again, why should I keep being the quiet one when someone invaded my privacy and made everyone laugh at how I’d sorted out my life? It just wouldn’t be fair.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll be good. And I’m never going to ask you to do anything bad, at least.”

Min sighed. Maybe she had seen this kind of thing before. Maybe she really wanted to believe me, but couldn’t.

Not that I could blame her.

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Carla’s brother was named Michel, and he was pretty easy to find once I got to the place where the older kids hung out. He sat back near the edges of the schoolyard during the break when everyone had to stay outside unless the weather was close to the end of the world. He was listening to music on his cell phone, and had this detachedly bored look that according to Patrick was normal with older kids. He didn’t have friends surrounding him like Carla did. There was a girl doing her homework nearby, but even she was obviously not with him by any meaning of the word. He wasn’t dressed in designer clothes, but in what I suspected was from second hand stores like all of Patrick’s wardrobe and about a half of ours. There were some hints of money here and there, though, like the silver watch and the very expensive phone. I cleared my throat, the confidence I’d been gathering up the entire way to Michel evaporating at the prospect of actually having to start a conversation with a stranger. A stranger I was going to heartlessly use to get back at his little sister.

I was a horrible person at the moment. But I had already come this far.

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“Um… hi,” I said, “Is it normal for you older kids to hang around here?”

I mentally punched myself. Wasn’t that close to one of those awkward pick-up lines I’d heard on TV? Michel looked up at me and raised his brow. He tugged loose the headphones and actually paid attention to me. I wanted to flee, but this was definitely a point of no return already.

“What?” he asked, “Wait, are you the new kid? The one with the notebook?”

My face started burning. These people knew about it too? I hated this more and more.

“I… yeah. You’re… Carla’s brother? Michel? Are you going to laugh at me like she did?”

I was being rude, I knew, but it was the only way I could think of to go from there. I had to look like I was not trying to fish for info on Carla, and him mentioning the notebook might actually give me something to work with.

Michel had an amused smile in his eyes.

“Nah, she does those kinds of things to a lot of people. What, you want to use me to get back at her or something?”

“What?” I blurted out and then stopped talking because my brain had short-circuited. I was so confused I actually sat down next to him. I couldn’t have been that obvious, could it? “No! I…”

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“Hey, a lot of the braver kids have done it before,” Michel said nonchalantly, “I’m actually kind of interested in seeing if anyone ever goes through with it.”

I managed to regain control of my vocal cords at the sheer uncaringness of his tone.

“What? You want other people to do something mean to your sister? Isn’t that kind of cold?”

“I don’t exactly want that,” Michel said, “No one ever does it, anyway. They’re afraid, or something. I mean, our parents have made it pretty clear that whoever lays a hand on us will be tarred and feathered or something.”

He looked kind of embarrassed when he said that. He even shook his head, and I figured I’d found the black sheep of the Faroffington family.

“Well, I don’t like the sound of that,” I said, because it was the only thing I could think of.

“Me neither. It’s a bunch of… uh, well, you know. All talk. Maybe,” at this point Michel flashed me a creepy grin, “Well, if you’re feeling daring, Carla really hates ladybugs.”

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I stared at him.

“What? Really? Just like that? And wait, ladybugs? But they’re the cutest bugs ever!”

Michel shrugged.

“It’s got something to do with her accidentally eating one and it trying to fly around in her mouth when she was like five. Besides, have you seen the local ladybugs? They’re pretty big.”

I eyed him suspiciously. The whole situation was not going the way I’d pictured it. Then again, what had I pictured? Somehow fooling him with my awful small talk skills? If anything, I should be happy this was so easy. Too easy, in fact.

“You’re probably lying,” I said.

“Who knows,” Michel said and shrugged. It was irritating, “Maybe I’m just playing you. Maybe not. You’re the one who’s up to no good anyway. Even if I am lying, you can do all sorts of pranks with ladybugs, don’t you think?”

I hadn’t thought about that. And now when I did, I could think hundreds of things that were better for pranks than ladybugs. And then I thought – again – that this was probably not a good idea.

“Well, thanks, anyway,” I managed to say, “See you around. Maybe. Or not.”

“Yeah, whatever,” he said, but he was smiling. He put his headphones back in his ears and got back to his teenage boredom.

Patrick and mum were both upset about the notebook incident. They talked about it with me and I said I was angry and embarrassed. They told me they would deal with this, and I let them because that would probably be the sensible thing to do. We had talks with both Carla’s parents and Mrs. Glick, and it was awkward and coldly polite and Carla didn’t look sorry when she apologised. Still, everyone assured me we could be done with that. I wouldn’t have to be angry or alone with this anymore. The whole matter could be settled peacefully and I could let it go. I again reminded myself that Carla probably had problems of her own and she wasn’t being nasty just because she was bad. I shouldn’t harbour any vengeful feelings about it.

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So then why was I outside on one Saturday morning, catching ladybugs and feeling guilty?

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I’d decided to test Michel’s statement about Carla and ladybugs before actually bringing any to school to mess with her. It wasn’t difficult to figure out where they lived. Carla had advertised it enough, and I could spot the modern, big house with too many balconies about a block away. I’d told mum I’d be going out for a walk, and since it was still daytime mum had let me as long as I kept my cell phone on and was home for dinner.

I circled around the house, took note of a swimming pool and what looked like a whole story just for cars. Mostly I focused on finding Carla’s window, though. It was probably on the top floor, because Rem had mentioned a tower in one of his weird rambly moments.

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Nothing about the house was especially tower-like, just kind of towering. Still, I could see a lot of pink and princess-y white from one window and could guess that it was Carla’s room. I checked that there was no one around, clutched the jar of ladybugs under my arm and started sneaking towards the window.

It was so high up, and only slightly ajar. Getting a ladybug up there would be difficult, if not impossible. I couldn’t see any trees to climb that would get me high enough. I could just let the ladybugs out one by one and just hope one of them wandered in through the window, but that would take way too much time. I checked the time. I had only one hour before dinner. I’d have to think of something better. I glanced at the pool. I could just wait near the house and hope Carla decided to go for a swim before I had to go back. Or out. Or anywhere besides stay inside. It was a long shot, but it was a better plan than breaking into the house. That was a line I wouldn’t cross.

I lingered near a fence in a spot where I could see their house and pretended to be interested in the grass and the bugs I had with me. At the same time I tried not to feel too horrible. I reminded myself of what she had done to me, and to a lot of other people, by the sound of it. This would be nothing compared to that.

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I was lucky, because Carla did step into the backyard. I immediately sprung to action. Carla looked like she was heading out, so I had to be quick and sneaky about it. I shuffled behind the fence a bit better even though it wasn’t very concealing, my hands glued around the small box where I’d stuffed the admittedly large ladybugs. Carla walked towards the pool’s edge, seemingly deep in though. I shook my box and carefully took out one of my captives, aiming the ladybug right at her back and then ducked into cover.

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The red and black bug sprung to flight immediately after getting to freedom, and I was lucky enough on the first go that it headed straight for Carla.

She turned just when I was out of sight. And when the ladybugs were right in her face.

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I heard her scream. It was high-pitched and goofy and not something she’d ever let out in public. I heard her frantic running and the slam of the door, and I had to stifle a laugh. Michel had actually been honest about it. It was… kind of amazing, really. Amazing and horrible. That was pretty much how I felt. I knew what I’d just done hadn’t been nice, and if I’d take this even farther it would be even less so.

I stayed low until I got back on the street. When I passed the Faroffington’s house again I could see a still shaken Carla talking to a man I assumed was her father. The man looked mostly angry, and turned her away quickly. I frowned at that. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but it still didn’t look nice to me.

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Rem was probably right about princesses and towers. I started running so I’d get home on time.

That night I stared at the box that had a couple of more ladybugs in it, just waiting for a good prank. It would just take a couple of evenings hunting for them to get enough for something spectacular. I knew a couple of really good spots thanks to the internet and a couple of days of dedicated snooping. It would be so easy…

I emptied the box the next day, saving one ladybug in a terrarium I’d found from Patrick’s storage of things he never wanted to throw out. I decided it would remind me of my revenge plans. I was planning on naming it Carla, but it would be too obvious and I didn’t want to be reminded of her too much so in the end the ladybug became Carrie. Soon it would have friends that I could then use for the most epic ladybug prank in recent history.

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Carrie remained lonely and peaceful in its terrarium the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. A couple of weeks later I let it go and hid the terrarium into one of my drawers and vowed to do it all properly later. Maybe next week. Or the week after that.

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Three weeks after I’d hidden the terrarium mum and Patrick called both Rem and I to the kitchen for a family meeting. I felt a cold lump in my stomach. Did they know about my plans? Had Carla put two and two together and told her parents to tell my parents off? Or… an even worse thought made me freeze. What if it was Laketon? Maybe he’d somehow got out. Maybe…

“Mum? What’s this about?” I asked quickly before I could really start panicking about this, “Am I… Are we in trouble?”

Rem was looking calm but confused. Like his visions were sending him mixed signals. Or then he really didn’t know what this was about either. His clairvoyance seemed to be very sporadic anyway. Maybe these family meetings were the true mystery even for him.

My thoughts came to a halt when I realised mum looked nervous, but incredibly happy. She couldn’t contain her smile at all. Okay, so it couldn’t be Laketon, then. Nothing about him could make mum smile like that.

“Well, kids…” she started and then cleared her throat, “we… Patrick and I…”

“Mum, please just tell us,” I said, “Don’t do this stalling thing like you did last time. It just makes us more anxious,” a sudden thought occurred to me again, “Wait, we’re not moving again, are we?”

Patrick chuckled.

“No, we’re not. Okay, fine. We’ll be brief, but just a fair warning: this probably should have some build-up.”

“Daa-aaad,” said Rem, “Just tell us!”

“Fine, fine!” Patrick raised his hands in surrender, “We are having a baby. You’ll get a new baby brother or sister.”

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What?!

My mouth opened, but all that came out was a strangled:

“Huh?”

“It’s true!” mum said with barely contained excitement, “It was a surprise for both of us, actually, but it’s… wonderful. Isn’t it?”

Rem was staring at mum and Patrick with impossibly wide eyes. I probably looked no better, to be honest. A baby sibling? Since when had mum and Patrick ever wanted… okay, they had just said it had been a surprise, although how that worked I wasn’t so sure about. The birds and the bees had been covered for us both already, but it just made me even more confused about how one could just accidentally… wait, that totally wasn’t the point of this at all! The point was that… our family was growing, after all these years of getting used to it being the four of us. It was… strange. But it was also…

“Right,” I said out loud, “Wonderful.”

What I meant to say was: It’s going to be a new adventure.

I didn’t know if I was ready for one again so soon. But maybe this time it wouldn’t be so bad.

Author’s Note: I have no idea how I managed to somehow – without thinking about it at all – make most of the kids in Lynn’s class have the same skin and hair colour and only notice it after I’d taken the screenshots and demolished a part of the sets! I mean, it makes sense for Mina and the boy to match because they’re actually siblings, but… ugh. Oh, well.

Also, those ladybugs are pretty badly rendered compared to almost everything else. Hope you guys enjoy this chapter despite badly rendered bugs!

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