Chapter 28: Smiles and Tears

I was afraid that we were losing Rem again. He was probably spiralling back towards depression, and we all knew that it was mostly because his mind was in so much turmoil over our complicated family situation. Our parents felt awful about it, I knew, but they also didn’t want to risk letting Rem go back. They didn’t even seem to want to try mending fences with the fairies. Or then they wanted to, but didn’t know how to go about it.

Alvar and Kielo had visited only once after the argument. The visit was brief and tense, with a lot of clipped words and strained smiles. When they left, Alvar was nearly in tears and Rem locked himself in his room. Patrick looked devastated and mum tried her best to support him even as she too fought tears. Merrill was left among depressed and confused people, his eyes wide and going from one person to another until Patrick finally took him in his arms and hugged him tight. We didn’t even try to pretend that things were okay. None of us really knew what to do.

I lay in my bed that night, awake even as the clock struck four a.m. It was going to be a school day tomorrow, and I knew I’d be a zombie if I didn’t get any sleep. But my mind was too full of thoughts and problems to fall asleep. Sometimes I got up to write, but even that didn’t make me feel better. We were a mess. Again. Why couldn’t our lives ever stay fixed?

Maybe that was just how lives went; ups and downs and all that. Some had more downs than ups. I tried to figure out if we were just always going downhill or if we had enough happiness to balance it out. Maybe we did. But that was again one of those moments when I found it hard to see anything in a positive light. Maybe even us staying together as a family and loving each other was bad because that just made us feel like we always had too much to lose.

No, I decided then and would always decide. Us being a family couldn’t be a mistake. Loving and caring for others had to have something good in it. Always. Even when it backfired.

We just had to figure this out. We had to decide whether we could trust the fair folk or not. And we needed to decide what to do about Donna. She had suffered a lot and probably deserved none of it. Sure, she had acted horribly towards Rem back when we’d gone to see her, but I could understand her lashing out. I wasn’t a mum, but I could imagine that being one and then losing one’s child and no one doing anything about it was so awful that I didn’t even have the words for it. And I had a feeling that Donna had even less words for her pain; it was too close and too horrible.

I curled up in my bed, staring at the slivers of starlight that speared my window. The night was too beautiful for depression, I decided, and then frowned at the patch of night sky I could see. Why couldn’t the night be more fitting for the mood? It was an incredibly childish thought, I knew. But sometimes being childish and thinking silly thoughts was all I could do.

I dragged myself over to Sabine’s place the next day after school even though I – just as I’d predicted – felt like a zombie. We made some salad together and I managed to eat it even though I didn’t feel like eating. The salad was tasty and fresh, but it slid down my zombified throat like papier-mâché.

“Well, what’s the matter?” Sabine asked when we had sat down in her living room after dinner, “You look like your gears got stuck.”

I blinked.

“What?”

“Like you have too many things on your mind. Things that don’t fit together.”

I raised a brow.

“Wow. That’s a pretty good way to describe it,” I sighed, “I didn’t get much sleep. Family issues.”

“Ah,” Sabine nodded, “Those usually cut the deepest.”

There was a faraway look in her eyes, and I knew she was thinking about her own family issues. About Félix.

“What would you do if a group of people you want as a part of your family kept doing things that made you question whether they can be trusted or not?” I asked, trying to be vague or at least sound like I wasn’t talking about magical things.

Sabine frowned.

“I think trust is very important. Why would you want untrustworthy people in your family? Are they related by blood?”

“Sort of,” I said, “And they’ve been really helpful and I know they want us to be family too. And thanks to them my brother is dealing with his life much better. But… it’s… complicated.”

“Family matters often are,” Sabine said, “These things these people have done… are they very bad?”

I wanted to say yes. Because they were. But on the other hand, the ones who had made the worst mistakes had been Taru and Villia, and they were both dead. And Kielo… she had wiped Donna’s memories, yes, but I could actually believe that she had done so in self-defence. But the threat of them again doing something harmful was still there. I had come to realise that the stories about the weird morality of fairies had quite a bit of truth in them. Sure, they didn’t seem quite as twisted or fey as the fair folk in a lot of the stories, but there was still something… off about them. I hated thinking like that. It made me feel prejudiced. But the fair folk had sort of brought our doubts upon themselves by doing such awful and stupid things.

“I don’t know,” I finally said, “They’ve mostly just kept things from us. And told lies. But then again, they’ve also been protecting themselves because they’re a bit afraid. And I don’t want to disrespect that, but I also don’t want our family to get in trouble or broken.”

I shook my head.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to dump this all on you.”

“I don’t mind you sharing your worries,” Sabine said, “I feel like I’ve been dumping my fair share of worries on you too.”

She smiled.

“Well, you may not think I’ve said that much, but compared to decades of keeping everything to myself, it’s a lot. As for your problem, I’m sorry to say that I don’t have any readymade answers for you.”

“It’s okay,” I said quickly.

Sabine smiled, the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth making her face look surprisingly more alive.

“But I can tell you this: if you ever get a feeling that you will regret deciding something, then you should think very hard before you actually decide. And problems usually don’t go away unless you try to solve them. Even if it requires facing things and people that are painful.”

Her smiled became sad and almost bitter.

“I wish I’d have taken that advice so many years ago. Now it’s too late.”

I nodded silently. I didn’t really know what to say.

“So how’s the rest of your family taking this all?” Sabine asked.

“Not that well,” I said, “Rem’s especially pretty depressed. And my mum and dad are also… conflicted. We’re all torn.”

“Then I’d say you should figure things out,” Sabine said. She was sometimes so blunt that she sounded rude, but I really appreciated her direct comments. At least with her I didn’t need to dig out the true meaning behind her words.

“I know,” I said, “Thanks, Sabine.”

“You’re welcome. Giving a bit of advice is the least I can do when you waste all this time helping me.”

“It’s not wasting time if I like it,” I said for the nth time. Sabine let out a short, dry laugh.

“Maybe we shouldn’t start this old argument again.”

I nodded and we fell into a comfortable silence. I let my mind wander and looked out the windows. Spring was already here. It was always so fast in Sunset Valley. Something akin to winter shifting to blooming flowers in the blink of an eye.

“It’s really nice outside,” I said.

“Yes, it is.”

“When was the last time you got out of here?” I had to ask, “Other than to buy groceries?”

Sabine shrugged.

“I don’t remember.”

She looked at me with narrowed eyes.

“What? Are you planning on dragging an old woman out there into the world? Like that would somehow solve something?”

I looked out the window again.

“No. I’m not that idealistic,” I said, “But I might still drag you out someday. Because it would be fun for you too. A little change of pace.”

Sabine smiled and shook her head.

“I’m too old for changes of pace.”

“No one’s too old for that.”

“You just said you’re not that idealistic,” Sabine almost laughed, “Well, I’ll think about it.”

Even though Sabine’s words or almost-smile didn’t make my or my family’s problems disappear, they did make me feel a little better.


I think I managed to keep my mood pretty good for the next few days, by focusing on school and friends and sometimes talking with mum.

At the moment mum was the most level-headed of us about this matter. She was worried and maybe even scared, sure, but she wasn’t as livid as Patrick seemed to be, or as depressed as Rem.

“We just need some time to think,” she kept saying, “But we’re not going to just leave things hanging for too long.”

She glanced towards the yard, where Patrick was tending to his vegetable garden with a very preoccupied look on his face. He didn’t even seem to notice that it was raining.

“I really hope we can get this settled. Patrick wants Alvar to visit again. But it’s… complicated.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Tell me about it.”

Mum smiled.

“You know, I’ve been thinking that maybe we should try to invite them over. To talk to them.”

She frowned a bit.

“And I’ve been thinking about Donna as well… I don’t know her, and from what I’ve heard, she has done and said some unpleasant things to Patrick and Rem. But I understand her a little bit. One’s children being taken… it’s like being ripped apart.”

I nodded silently.

“I’ve been contemplating on calling her after all,” mum said, “Or letting Patrick call her. Maybe it’ll be a disaster, but I do think she deserves to know.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said, “But Donna was… I can believe she lashed out at Kielo. I… the fair folk may be ambiguous, but I think that a lot of them are trying.”

Mum sighed.

“I think so too. In this world… it’s sometimes difficult to do the right thing.”

She was definitely right about that.


The night after my conversation with mum, I woke up to muffled, distressed noises coming from Rem and Mer’s room. I fumbled for my cell phone in the dark and checked the time. Too early. Way too early. I buried my head into the pillow, but the noises continued. It was like Rem was shouting in fear or pain but trying not to be too loud.

Oh, hell.

Was he having Boogeyman nightmares again? I hoped not. That would probably mean that our lives weren’t getting easier any time soon.

I got up from the bed and walked across the eerily silent corridor to the boys’ room. I cracked the door open and my eyes immediately fell on Rem. He had thrown off in his covers and was tossing and turning in his sleep. His face was twisted up into a grimace and he was muttering unintelligible words and occasionally almost shouting. His hands clutched his pillow almost convulsively.

I sighed. I glanced at Mer, who was sleeping soundly and didn’t seem to be disturbed by his brother’s nightmares. Well, at least that meant that Rem really had got better at keeping some of his powers in check; he kept his dreams to himself now. I sneaked across the room and let my hand hover over Rem’s shoulder. Man, this was awkward. I’d never been natural about shaking people awake.

“Rem?” I whispered, “Rem? Wake up. It’s just a dream.”

No effect. I pressed my mouth into a thin line and then grabbed my brother’s hand and shook him.

All of a sudden we were in a white, empty room that had been decorated by a painter who was really into abstract expressionism. I squeezed my eyes shut so that I wouldn’t scream and wake the others. Rem’s eyes snapped open, and for a moment I could’ve sworn his pupils were gone again. Dark shadows surrounded us, and we both held our breath.

Then Rem finally relaxed, and we were back in Rem and Merrill’s room.

I let go of the hand I had been clutching and slumped onto the floor. Somewhere near me, Rem was breathing heavily, almost choking on air.

It took us several moments to calm down.

I couldn’t believe Merrill was still fast asleep right next to us.

“Wh-what the hell was that?” I finally managed to choke out. I looked up at Rem, whose haunted eyes almost glowed in the dark.

“I…” Rem said quietly, “I don’t know. Vision? They haven’t been this strong since…”

He sighed.

“They pretty much stopped after I started training with Lumi.”

A headache was building up behind my eyeballs. I leaned my back against the ladder of Rem’s bunk bed.

“We really have to take care of this all,” I said, “Maybe your powers are going haywire again when no one’s teaching you. Maybe even because you’re so messed up about that whole argument with the… your other family.”

Rem tucked his knees under his chin, hugging his legs and looking miserable.

“Maybe,” he whispered, “I’m sorry I woke you. And freaked you out.”

“Meh, I’m used to your weirdness.”

Rem managed to almost smile.

“Thanks. And thanks for waking me up.”

“Could you make any sense about your nightmare?”

Rem shrugged.

“Not really. I was just really scared. And I smelled antiseptic. Or dreamed I smelled that. It could’ve also been a flashback of the hospital from after I got shot. Maybe it wasn’t a vision at all.”

“I think I saw shadows when I was pulled into it,” I said, “Didn’t that mean death?”

Rem nodded.

“Yeah. But my visions have all been tangled together lately. I’m trying to sort them out. It’s like… when I get upset, they get more confusing. And now that I know where I come from… the confusion isn’t so… I don’t know…”

“Focused on one thing?” I suggested.

“Yeah.”

I ran a hand over my face. I was suddenly sleepy again. The white room and darkness flashed on my retinas, and I shook my head.

“Can you get back to sleep?” I asked, “Because that would be awesome. It’s way too early to be awake.”

“I can try. Thanks again, Lynn.”

“No problem.”

When I crashed back into my bed, I was worried for a moment that I wouldn’t be able to sleep that night. But I think I was out pretty quickly after settling back under the covers. My dreams were restless and sketchy and had a dark figure stalking someone. I didn’t know whom.

I figured it was Rem’s influence making me see things again. It was worrying and annoying, but I was fairly sure it would pass. It had passed in a few days before. I was prepared for about a week of weird visions at the corner of my eye now that Rem was older and probably more powerful.

I could handle it. A few dark shadows and maybe a messed up dream or two were nothing at this point.

What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was seeing Sabine two days later.

Sure, visiting her had been planned and there was nothing odd about that. I had agreed to help her clean the house again, and she was expecting me after school. I threw my backpack over my shoulder after a rather long school day and was glad I didn’t have homework for tomorrow. I could take my time at Sabine’s place. Clean up the place and maybe have some Sim Cola and a chat with Sabine. I rang the doorbell, and Sabine opened the door.

There was a shadow person standing behind her.

I almost screamed, but then I remembered Rem and the aftereffects of him pulling me into his vision. Sabine frowned.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

I quickly shook my head and smiled. The smile was probably fake as hell but it was the best I could do at the moment.

“Nothing. I just thought I saw something… weird.”

“It’s just my face,” Sabine said, and I had to laugh. I blinked furiously while I laughed, and the dark shadow flickered in and out of existence until I was convinced it wasn’t there. Sabine let me in and I started cleaning. I pretended I scrubbed the shadows out too.

I again thought about Sabine’s fading health and Rem’s ominous words about her and the darkness. Now I saw it too. But Rem had told me he’d just seen sparks on darkness before. Maybe she had got worse. Or maybe I was losing it, overthinking things that could have been just random afterimages that meant nothing. I thought about what Rem had said about the shadows referring to death. To a goddess named Tuonetar, as the fairies called her.

I stayed with Sabine until it was getting dark and Sabine finally ushered me out.

“Your parents will get worried if you get stuck here for too long,” she said.

I stopped at the front door and hesitated for a moment before I said.

“Sabine, are you okay?”

Sabine sighed.

“How many times do I have to tell you? Yes! I am!”

“Right. Sorry.”

I bit my lip.

“Well, um… bye, then. I’ll see you later.”

“Sure.”

When I got home, I almost expected mum to ask where I’d been. I usually didn’t stay at Sabine’s for this long. But mum was talking on the phone and didn’t seem too worried about me.

She just waved her hand when I got inside and nodded at the phone to indicate she couldn’t talk. Then she turned her focus back to whoever was on the other end of the call.

“Yes. That would be great. I’ll see you later.”

She put the phone away. I had made it to the stairs, but mum called me back.

“Lynn.”

I turned. I had celebrated too soon.

“I was at Sabine’s,” I said, “I helped her clean her house.”

“Yeah, you told me you’d go to her after school,” mum said, “That’s not what I wanted to talk about. I just called Kielo.”

I raised a brow.

“Really? Their phone still works?”

“Apparently.”

“Huh, I could have bet that Kielo had taken it apart out of curiosity ages ago. So… what did you say to her?”

“I asked her and Alvar to come visit us again,” mum said, “To talk. They agreed to come in about two weeks. Apparently spring is busy for them… I think they’re maybe avoiding this whole thing too, but at least they didn’t completely say no to talking.”

“Oh. That’s good. Rem’s really messed up because of this.”

“He is,” mum nodded, “And Patrick isn’t doing so well either. He cries sometimes. Cries. That’s not right.”

It definitely wasn’t.

“Do Rem or Patrick know?” I asked.

“Patrick is at a parent-teacher conference. I’ll tell him when he gets back. Rem knows. He’s upstairs, doing homework, I think.”

“Okay,” I smiled, “Let’s hope this goes well.”

Mum nodded.

“However it goes, it’s better than doing nothing.”

“Definitely.”

Maybe things would get better again. Maybe. I hoped so.


I decided that I should do something to make things better too. Our family’s problems felt like something I couldn’t fix on my own, so I turned my attention to Sabine. Sure, I couldn’t fix her problems either, and she didn’t even seem to want my help about some things, but I wanted to do something that would maybe make her less… shadowy. I had asked Rem about Sabine and shadows and he had said that Sabine was indeed sick, but that she was also not doing a whole lot of living either.

“That whole house feels dead,” he said, “Maybe she’s been there for too long so the shadows are even worse than they’d be if she just went out a bit more. Maybe then Tuonetar would leave her alone.”

I wished he’d stop talking about death like it was an actual person. Soon I’d be imagining that too. Then I thought about Sabine for a moment and I had to agree with her house feeling dead.

Sabine’s garden may have looked much neater now, and the house was lovelier inside than it looked from the outside, but it was still a very quiet and sad home. It was beautiful too, but beautiful like frozen, dead flowers were.

I figured it was time to make a plan.

After some contemplation and spending some of my hard-earned cash, my plan was ready and I made my way to Sabine’s house dressed in somewhat presentable clothes. Telling mum about my plan had had the benefit of mum being all too happy to pitch in, so I could afford a really nice-looking vest that went well together with my black, ruffled skirt. I rang Sabine’s doorbell, and she answered quickly enough.

Bonsoir,” I greeted.

“Well, don’t you look fancy,” Sabine replied, “I like the vest.”

“Thanks!” I beamed at her, “You should get dressed up too, because I’ve got tickets to Sunset Valley’s symphony orchestra’s concert.”

Sabine looked at me as if I’d spontaneously sprouted deer horns.

“What?”

I took the tickets out of my skirt’s hidden pocket and waved them at her.

“I’m going to get you out of the house. Idealism or not, the weather’s awesome and you like classical music. I think today they’re actually also playing songs from some film soundtracks.”

Sabine stared at me blankly. All my previous confidence and enthusiasm about my plan started to fade away. I was suddenly sure that Sabine would say no. That she didn’t even want out of her shadow house and her memories. Her safe bubble where people didn’t think of her as a witch.

But then, after a moment of silence, she actually smiled.

“Oh, okay then. Let me go change into something fancier than these old rags.”

I almost let out a whoop of victory, but felt that would have been a bit too uncool.

Around five o’clock we were standing in front of the city hall, where the concert hall was also located. I’d always thought it was a neat way to give a nicer image to a usually very dull building filled with offices and bureaucracy. I smiled at Sabine, who looked much less dead and much more… well, radiant in an old formal dress and with her hair up even more neatly than usually. She was leaning quite heavily on her cane, but she managed to keep her back almost straight. She looked up at the city hall and then shook her head.

“Well, I guess we should go in, then. I can’t believe you talked me into this.”

“You’ll love it,” I assured her, feeling the confidence returning. I helped Sabine up the stairs and we walked into the world of light and music.

Sabine had liked it. I’d sneaked glances at her face during the concert, and her slightly bitter, tough exterior had melted away into smiles. She had closed her eyes at several points, her fingers quietly following some of the melodies as if she was playing some invisible instrument. I was so happy that I almost forgot to follow the concert. But it was good. I wasn’t usually that into symphony orchestras, but I liked good music and seeing people who were skilled at something using their skills. So it was definitely something I could get behind. And Sabine’s excitement kind of got me enthusiastic about it all too. So when the last notes were played, I wanted more.

We walked outside and ended up sitting at a fountain in the central park that was situated across from the city hall. Sabine took several deep breaths as if she had forgotten what fresh air smelled like. She smiled at me.

“Well, you were right,” she said, “It was a very nice change to the old routines.”

“I thought so,” I said.

“I hope you didn’t waste too much money on this. Those tickets aren’t cheap.”

“Hey, it’s my money. I earned it and I do what I want with it.”

Sabine sighed. She stood up and turned her back on me, walked up to one of the small ponds in the park, again breathing in deep.

I followed her to a skinny tree and heard frogs croaking drowsily somewhere near the lily pads in the pond. It was one of those perfectly picturesque Sunset Valley spring nights. The sun had set, but its warm, pink traces were still in the air. Spring flowers smelled sweet and were shining even in the falling dark. A cold breeze ruffled the grass and would have been a bit more pleasant if I’d remembered to pack some kind of jacket. My sleeveless top and vest weren’t doing anything against the cooling night.

But I didn’t care much about the cold at that moment. I was more worried about what I’d said wrong to Sabine now. She seemed tense, leaning to her cane and looking very fragile again despite her elegant clothes and proud air. A queen of a forgotten kingdom, who had spent too much time locked up in a tower.

“Thank you,” Sabine finally said, “For arranging all this. And I’m sorry that I haven’t been very appreciative of everything you’ve done for me.”

I didn’t say anything. I think Sabine knew that I knew that she really did appreciate what I did. And it wasn’t like I was just being altruistic; Sabine was a friend I liked spending time with.

“It’s just… confusing,” Sabine went on, looking into the distance, “To have someone who cares again. I don’t think I’ve had friends in years. Everyone else is already gone.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Oh, don’t be. That’s the natural way of life. We’re here for a while, and then we go… Some too early, and some maybe too late.”

She looked at me and smiled, and it was like years had vanished from her face in that moment.

“But really, Lynn. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Sabine’s smile lingered in the night even as we started walking back to my car and towards our homes.

I convinced myself then that everything would be alright. Kielo and Alvar would visit soon, and we could talk things through. That would hopefully make Rem and Patrick and everyone happier again. And it would make our family feel less tangled. I visited Sabine and spent some time with my other friends too, and school days went by as we waited for more pieces to fall into place.

It was all going to be alright, I dared to say.

And that was of course when the lingering shadows in my mind made my alarm bells ring one evening.

I couldn’t explain it. I got a bad feeling soon after school and dropped my homework and went to Rem’s room.

“Rem? You know that thing you do that makes you have premonitions?”

“Of course,” Rem said.

“I think the bit you accidentally transferred into me is acting up. I think something’s wrong.”

Rem looked at me with wide eyes.

“With Sabine?” he asked, “You’ve been worried about her, right?”

Pieces did fall into place, then. But not in the way I wanted.

“Oh, shit,” I said, “I have to go.”

I spun around and ran to our car and then sped towards Sabine’s home. As I drove, rain started ominously drumming against the car roof. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I had to be there. I thought about the shadows and cursed them in my mind. Sabine was more alive now. She had to be alright! She had to.

I parked the car clumsily when I reached Sabine’s waterlogged house and ran to the front door. No one answered when I rang the doorbell or knocked, and that made me worried. Sabine was never out of the house alone.

She had given me the keys to her place about a year ago, when I’d started helping her more and more. I fumbled with them for a moment before I got the door open with shaky hands.

“Sabine?” I said as soon as I stepped inside, “Are you okay?”

The house was silent except for the TV, where a cheesy cooking show was in full swing. I almost had time to think that I’d been silly and that Sabine was probably just taking a nap.

And that was when I saw her.

She hadn’t even been in good enough condition to change out of her nightgown or put her hair up. It was so weird to see her so… ungroomed. Or it would have been if I hadn’t been too preoccupied with the fact that she was lying face-down on the floor.

“Sabine!”

I froze for a mind-numbing second before I got my body to move. I crouched down next to Sabine’s unmoving form and shook her. She was probably having some kind of stroke. She was still breathing, but her limbs were stiff and her eyes were unfocused.

“Sabine? Sabine? Sabine!”

I realised I was just repeating her name like a mantra, like it would somehow help anything. I mentally shook myself.

Stupid! She needs an ambulance!

I scrambled back to my feet and called the emergency number. My voice was shaking and I was probably whining hysterically for most of the call – I don’t really remember. But the voice on the other end was calm and knew what they were doing, so they must have got the right answers out of me.

“The ambulance will be there shortly. Can you wait there with her?”

“Of course!” I almost shouted, “I’m not going anywhere. Just hurry, please!”

“We will, of course. Thank you for your help. You can now hang up.”

I stared at Sabine’s slack face when I ended the call. Apparently there wasn’t much I could do. Sabine was already on her side, so I just adjusted her a bit so that she was able to breathe for sure. Then I backed against the front door of the small house and slid down. I hugged my knees and tried to take deep breaths.

“It’s okay, Sabine,” I said to her, or maybe more to myself, “Help is on its way. You’ll be on your feet in no time. You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.”

I pressed my back against the door and tried to listen to the sirens that were no doubt on their way.

You’ll be okay. You have to be.

The calm voice on the phone had told me it would take a few minutes for the ambulance to get there. To me, it felt like eternities. The clock on the wall kept ticking, and Sabine kept breathing too slowly. The seconds seemed to stretch on forever. Shadows were gathering around me again, shaping themselves into people.

Get out, shadows! You’re so not wanted here!

They were the last thing I wanted to see. The echoes of Rem’s power had helped me get to Sabine in time, and that was awesome, but right now I didn’t want to see anything I didn’t need to. All I wanted to see was help arriving right on time.

“It’s fine… it’s just fine…” I whispered to myself, “You’ll be fine, Sabine. You’ll be-“

The shadows moved and solidified.

All of a sudden I realised I was looking at a pair of mismatched trainers and long, skinny legs. The legs were walking towards Sabine. I blinked.

…the hell?

I looked up and saw a woman. She definitely didn’t look like a paramedic.

Besides, the sirens were still in the distance. I could already hear them, but they were still on their way.

“Hey!” I managed to shout, “What the hell are you doing here?”

The woman halted and turned to look at me. My breath caught in my throat when my eyes fell on her pretty but somehow not-quite-right face and her too pale, moonlit eyes.

“Well, this is unexpected,” she said, her voice coming from somewhere far away.

I would have screamed, but I was too scared, too paralyzed to do anything for a moment.

I knew who she was.

“Please, don’t-“ I choked out, but the woman shook her head and turned back towards Sabine.

Then she was gone.

I never did figure out if she had been real. If I’d just been seeing things in my panic or if it was Rem’s powers letting me see what was normally hidden. At that moment, I was sure I’d been imagining her.

But then I forgot all about her for a long while, because I realised that Sabine had stopped breathing.

I had to get away. Nausea and terror and panic drove out all coherent thoughts, and before I knew it I was running.

I didn’t make it farther than the porch. My legs failed me, collapsed like a cheap folding chair. The sirens were closer now, but I already knew they were too late.

I started sobbing uncontrollably.

Author’s Note: I’m sorry guys! It took me way too long to get this out! I’ve been spinning this chapter around and around in my head and trying to make it work because… well, death. It’s tricky and heavy to write. And when I finally started writing this chapter, I was suddenly swarmed by so much schoolwork and other stuff that I barely had any time or energy to really sit down and finish this. So I’ve had to sit on this for days so I can edit it little by little. But it’s here now. It’s done. And I’m super tired.

So yeah… um… well, I hope you enjoyed even though there’s character death. And even though I may not be at my best because I’m really worn out because of all the stress and work. Maybe things’ll get a bit less busy soon. I hope.

Also yes, Tuonetar who may or may not have been there might prove that this story happens in a universe that’s not exactly the same as my Tango -universe, but somewhat close to it? I do think it’s a different universe, because the magic rules are different and there’s not as many supernaturals. Also no, she was totally not needed there but this whole scene was stuck in my head like this for so long that I had to keep it this way.

I’ll see you later and try to get some updates done when I have time and energy. Thanks for your patience, people!

PREVIOUS Chapter: Clash

NEXT Chapter: Grief and Closure

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.

PREVIOUS Chapter: Recoil

NEXT Chapter: One And a Half Years

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 7: Rise

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I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling. It was a very dull ceiling, just white and slightly bumpy. Then again, that was what ceilings usually were around here, weren’t they? It was almost soothing, actually. It had become a sort of morning ritual. I’d wake up from nightmares about fire and then proceed to lie on my back and try to calm down before I’d start the day.

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It was getting frosty outside. Sparkling ice ferns grew on the ground, but then melted away quickly when the day got going. Soon the sun would lose against the ice again. For a few months anyway. I thought back to the winters before, when Rem would jump into the sticky snow to play, and how we’d make snowmen until our fingers were numb. Or how Jace would want to go sledding and Bree and I would go with him. And we’d laugh and scream when the icy slope took us down way too fast. I tried to get excited about it. Normally just the wait was enough to make me happy. Now it didn’t have quite the same effect. I sighed. Maybe it was because of growing up as well. Or maybe something inside my head was permanently broken because of the trauma.

I hoped it wasn’t the broken-thing.

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I got up slowly and listened. The house was quiet. The rest were still asleep, but that was to be expected. I checked the time, and it said 5:34 in the morning. I had to get more sleep. It was a school morning, too. It had been a few therapy-filled weeks after I’d been let out of the hospital, and now they’d told us that Rem and I could get back to school if we wanted to. The police had given us the green light ages ago as well, seeing how there was no sign of anyone else targeting us. Rem had nodded mutely, and I’d said yes after some consideration. I couldn’t just hide in the house forever. School wasn’t scary. Well, okay, it was a bit. Mostly because that would mean more stares at my face. I wondered if it would be worse or better when it was someone I knew staring. Bree and Jace had tried to keep it to a minimum, but I’d seen them do it too mostly with sympathetic looks on their faces. Mum and Patrick had already learnt not to do it – not while I could notice at least. Rem stared, but he stared at nothingness, not at me.

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That was another thing that worried me. Well, just the nothingness bit. Rem was taking longer than any of us to climb back into life. I mean, I couldn’t say I was on the most solid ground with my traumas right now, but at least I had managed to patch myself back together into some semblance of Lynn. But Rem… he was still the same husk he’d been ever since that horrible night. It was obvious he blamed himself, because Laketon had taken us because of him, or at least that was what he thought. According to the police Laketon hadn’t said much of anything about why he’d wanted to take us. Someone had told him to, but no one could prove it. He’d met someone in a bar. A pretty lady with curly hair. No one else in the bar remembered any ladies talking to him that night he’d been there. I figured that Laketon was just trying to worm himself out of trouble with his lies, but Rem apparently disagreed. Maybe that was why he was still taking this worse than any of us. I mean, mum and Patrick were shaken too, but they still pressed on. Though I think it had a lot to do with how they felt they had to be strong for us. It was what parents were supposed to do. To be.

I felt another sigh coming up. Right now, I just wanted everything to be normal. Like it had been before all this. I missed home. I missed the laughter in our house, and I missed Rem’s silly fairy tale interpretations of things. I missed my own more careless thoughts. Nowadays I could only feel careless when I was lost so deep in books or writing that I couldn’t even realise when I got hungry. I hoped time would fix that. Except time was always so slow with the maintenance. It mostly just made things wear out. Maybe it would wear the trauma out as well. Maybe going to school would speed it up. Make me feel normal again. Make me pretend nothing bad had ever happened.

Even as I wished it, I knew I could never really pretend it didn’t happen. And I knew it wouldn’t even be healthy to try. Sometimes I hated my reasonable side.

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I reluctantly climbed back into bed, trying to focus on not letting the nightmares back in. I knew it was possible to train oneself to have some control over dreams. Or at least to know when one was dreaming. After that one could do anything in the dream. Rem had done it when he’d been in my dream – and that was something I should have questioned more, but it was also the last time so far I’d seen him anything close to what was normal for him. Maybe I could control my dreams too, even though I didn’t have weird pixie powers. I’d have to read up on it more.

I closed my eyes and focused. The nightmares returned.

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We biked to school like we had done for some time now. There was no reason to start isolating us from normalcy any more than we already were. The streets that rolled by under the wheels of my bike felt unfamiliar, though. Even Twinbrook, which had been my hometown for so long, felt strangely alienating right now. It wasn’t enough that our house didn’t feel safe, apparently.

Our school was pretty close to us, and Patrick left at the same time so he’d get to the school he worked at. We reached Stary Community School and Rem and I stopped there, while Patrick waved us goodbye and continued on. I adjusted my sweater so that the long sleeves covered the burn scars on my arm and tried to smile at Rem, who barely smiled back.

“Have fun,” I said quietly. Rem didn’t reply.

I knew I should have talked with him. But I had to admit that I didn’t really know what to say.

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We had geography, led by Mr. Deryl Franklin. He was a very no-nonsense kind of teacher, whose cold professionalism usually came as a surprise to new kids because the man seemed to have a naturally warm smile. Still, I liked him. He’d taught us in a few subjects, mostly science, and he was very good at it. And he didn’t ask questions when I changed my seat to the farthest corner and tried to be as discreet as possible when I piled all of my books on the table so I could hide behind them.

I heard my classmates whispering. They’d no doubt heard a lot about what had happened to our family because of those damn news people who’d wanted our story for the papers. At least they hadn’t got pictures. Mum had been adamant and furious at the reporters who’d tried. But now everyone was trying to get a secret glimpse at me, especially after someone actually realised that my face was burnt. I inched further back on my seat, catching probably a third of what Mr. Franklin was saying.

I felt awful. School was scary right now. But I didn’t want to go back to hiding in the house that was only barely home either. I’d just have to suck it up and get through the day. The next one wouldn’t be as bad. Or at least I hoped so.

I tried to keep my hands from clenching into fists and focused on Franklin’s lecture about our dwindling natural resources. Okay, at least it was a topic I was pretty well-versed in thanks to my environmental nut of a stepdad. I was free to zone out for a bit.

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The breaks between classes were harder. Then there were no excuses not to talk to the other students. I knew they’d want to, sooner or later. They’d want to hear all about what had happened to us in that basement. And I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to revisit being locked up and scared, and I definitely didn’t want to revisit being on fire. They wouldn’t understand that, though. I had to admit that I probably wouldn’t understand how painful it was either if I hadn’t been the one to experience it.

I sat back in a couch that nobody usually sat in, because it was right next to the stairs and tucked away from the lockers and the more social sets of couches. I saw my classmates looking at me again, and tried to ignore it. It would only be fifteen minutes before the next class. If it got too bad, I could go downstairs and pretend I wanted to see Rem. To be honest, I was kind of worried about him. How was he dealing with school now? The psychiatrists had said he too was fine enough to go out, and that the presence of his friends should help him get out of his funk. At least it should be tried first, but to me it just seemed like a bad idea. Maybe the adults saw it differently, but to me it looked like Rem had closed all doors into his head, when before this they’d all been open, even if they did open up into a confusing maze. Out of the two of us, I’d never have imagined him to be the slower one to bounce back. Before this, it had been like nothing could really shake him for long.

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I stared idly at the other students. They were talking and laughing. Bree and Jace were with them too, and I wondered briefly if I could scrape together enough courage to join them. I almost got up, but then my hands curled around the couch cushions almost reflexively. All right. So I couldn’t. That was fine. At least no one was coming here to talk to me either. Maybe I could do my geography homework right here and have more free time in the afternoon…

Bree and Jace got up and started walking right at me. I stiffened, but at least the others weren’t following them. I could handle Bree and Jace. They were my friends and they already knew what had happened. Well, at least as much as any of us had wanted to tell them. I kept telling that to myself to keep myself calm. It seemed my shyness had got a power boost from the fire.

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“Hey, Lynn,” said Bree, “You’re not gonna join us? We were just talking about the school’s bake sale. I’m gonna be in the organising committee.”

“Well, of course you are, you’re pretty much the class president,” Jace said, “If we had one, anyway.”

I smiled with some effort.

“Sounds nice, but I’ll pass. Maybe you can tell me all about it after school.”

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Bree’s face fell a little. I tried to act natural, but she noticed my discomfort right away. There was no hiding much from her. Darn.

“Hey, you okay?” she said, “I mean… of course you’re… not… but… I mean, sorry.”

I stared. For all of her speech skills, Bree seemed to be clueless about what to say right now.

“I’ll be fine. Eventually,” I sighed, “Right now, I just don’t want anyone asking questions because I don’t want to explain all… this.”

I gestured at my messed up face, and by extension, to the events behind said messed-up-ness. Jace nodded.

“Yeah, I guessed you wouldn’t.”

He smiled and sat down next to me.

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“Well, how about we sit right here with you now? I mean, the bake sale thing can wait.”

Bree hesitated just for a second before she sat down to my other side.

“Yeah, he’s right. Maybe we should talk about… uhh… something you want to talk about.”

There were many things I didn’t want to talk about, but my mind kept pushing them to the surface anyway. Like fear. Like our home not feeling like a home. Like my little stepbrother being scarily silent. I took a deep breath and then smiled.

“So, is anyone going to bake a gooseberry pie for the bake sale? ‘Cause Patrick can bake a seriously delicious one.”

Bree looked unimpressed by my attempt at casual conversation, but nodded nonetheless.

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“I’ll add that to the list. It’s gonna be great!”

“Yeah, it is. Hope someone brings cupcakes,” my fake smile shrunk, “And… I’m really glad you guys are here with me. Could you… could you tell the others that I don’t want to talk? Maybe they’d understand.”

I felt Jace’s hand on my arm.

“Sure. We’ll do that.”

“Thanks,” I whispered, “Maybe we should do something together again. Something normal. You know, after I get through this day.”

They both agreed, and I’d never felt so happy about having friends.

The day passed in a blur, mostly because I forced it into a blur in my mind. A couple of classmates asked me about my face and about what had happened, but I just mumbled something about not wanting to talk about it, and most of them understood. Or at least they knew it was bad to try to keep pressing me. Mostly they just acted like I was made of glass, and it was annoying but I tolerated it because it meant I would be mostly left alone. One kid said something mean about my face, but he was quickly silenced by both teachers and students alike. There were some lines even bullies shouldn’t cross here at Stary. We weren’t big enough of a community to completely shut out anyone.

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The days after that blended together too. Bree and Jace always came up with something to talk about with me. Something to keep my mind off the more depressing things. It was like with mum and Patrick back at the hospital. It had helped then, and it helped me now too. Sometimes Bree would even follow me home so we could continue talking “girl stuff”, as she said.

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The talks never ended up being anything girly, just the normal best friend talk that didn’t go into any deep psychological traumas, which I was really grateful of.

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In a couple of afternoons the three of us got together to play video games, or a board game, or just to sit together in the park before it got too dark. The first weekend after starting school I’d wanted to go to see a film with them, but mum and Patrick were adamant about us visiting Patrick’s parents then. When the weekend approached, I wasn’t happy about it, but later I’d had to admit that the visit had been good for us all.

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Patrick’s parents lived in a small house in Twinbrook, not too far away from us. Patrick joked that they lived too close for us to remember to visit regularly, but there was a hint of sadness in his voice when he said it. I had to agree with the sadness part, because I loved to visit them. They were the kind that I’d like to call cool grandparents. I’m pretty sure they’d been hippies at some point, and later they’d just wandered around the world together before settling down and starting a family. Now their travelling hippie days were over, but it was still showing in their compost, their herbal teas, and Grandma Brandi’s distaste for shoes – something Rem had clearly inherited from her. Their house was a cute second hand jumble that went more or less well together with souvenirs from their travels. I loved watching the samurai swords on their walls and running my hand across the backs of old books.

They told awesome stories too, even though they were also complaining about their aching bones in between the tales. I guess that was an elderly folk kind of thing.

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This time was no different. After heartfelt greetings Grandpa Lórccan – they’d insisted that I’d call them Grandpa and Grandma even though we weren’t really related, and somehow it had become a habit even though some strange block still stopped me from calling Patrick “dad” – went to brew some tea that filled the small house with a spicy aroma. I took a quick look at the walls out of habit, even though I knew they hadn’t changed.

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The adults’ voices started talking somewhere in the background. Grandma and Grandpa were asking questions about the basement and Laketon. Questions we wouldn’t answer to anyone other than Patrick’s parents and each other. Mum and Patrick kept their voices low, as if it would help in the small space. I tried to ignore it and sat down on a couch that had probably been recycled at least twice and repaired who knows how many times. I switched on the TV, and it flashed into an old black and white film. I changed the channels until I found something more interesting. Or at least something I could switch my brain off for. Snippets of the adults’ conversation got through the home décor programme host’s over-enthusiastic voice.

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“…so what have you planned to do now?”

“…it’s still all kinds of confusing…”

“…and wow, I just love this cow print wallpaper!”

“…we don’t know… maybe we should… I don’t know.”

“You’ll do what’s best for all of you, Patrick. And you too, Margaret. We both know you’ll do right…”

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I looked at Rem, who’d come along quietly and obediently like a timid puppy. He was doing the same rounds I’d been doing a moment ago, inspecting the walls and the bookshelves, the paintings and silly stuffed animals. He stopped at his favourite table, which had a model ship and an old music box on it. He softly stroked the model ship and then almost reverently opened the music box. It was so… normal of Rem that I felt a flicker of hope in my chest. Rem took forever winding the music box to life. Then he set it back down and watched the tiny gnome doing its slow pirouettes. He closed his eyes and began swaying with the old, plinking melody.

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I stared, the serious conversation in the background and the home decoration on TV completely forgotten. There was a smile on Rem’s face, as if he’d forgotten everything that had happened lately. I had a feeling it would soon pass, but darn it, it was a start. I felt a smile on my own face too. Was that really all it took to get Rem back to us? A dancing gnome and a monotone jingle? In that moment I realised that despite my worrying, in all this time I had barely even tried to talk to him. I hadn’t even asked how he felt in a long time. I’d somehow assumed that mum and Patrick would take care of that, because they did. They talked to both of us before going to bed, read bedtime stories as if we were still five, and just held us when everything had been especially dark. But Rem had never sought any comfort from me, so I’d just let him be on his own, because I sure wasn’t one to take initiative in these situations. But now…

Now I thought that maybe I should really just stop worrying and do something about all this.

The couch shifted, and I looked to the side to see Grandma Brandi smiling at me.

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“So, Lynn, how are you. You’re looking just as pretty as ever. You must be getting that from your mother.”

I stiffened, and if it had been anyone else saying those things, I’d probably have snapped at them. But Grandma Brandi’s voice was so gentle and her smile was so genuine that I believed her every word and blushed.

“Thanks,” I muttered.

“So, how are you?”

“Fine.”

“That’s good. I heard you went back to school. How was it?”

“Fine.”

Grandma Brandi chuckled. Her voice had been worn down by the years, but her laugh was still warm and almost musical.

“Don’t let anything anyone says get you down. Kids are curious and they can’t know how others feel. Not that most adults are much better.”

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I stared. Sometimes I wondered if Grandma Brandi had got psychic powers from some of their herbal teas. Or if it was something she’d always had and Rem had somehow inherited them. Then again, all she did was read people really well, and nothing like what Rem did.

“I don’t know how you always do that,” I said, “But thanks.”

“It’s called life experience. Something you’ll get when you get older,” Grandma Brandi ruffled my uneven hair.

I smiled again.

I heard Grandpa Lórccan standing up as well and going to talk to Rem. Before he could speak, however, Rem asked in a very low voice:

“Grandpa, do you remember when I was born?”

Grandpa Lórccan didn’t miss a beat.

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“Of course, sonny. You were a little trooper back then. I know you still are.”

He leaned over with a conspiratorial grin.

“In fact, your dad was quite the trooper himself. He got a fit every time when the nurses tried to take him away from Brandi for anything. Punched one of the nurses right in the nose with a tiny fist, although I’m sure that was an accident. My boy’s never been that violent after that.”

He had mirth in his eyes, and Rem couldn’t hold back a chuckle.

“No way! Dad really did that?”

“I swear, it’s true. Now you, Remmy, you just made my son here the happiest man on Earth when you were born. He had the silliest adoring smile on his face for days.”

“I did not!” Patrick said indignantly, “Adoring, yes. Silly, no.”

“Son, we have pictures,” Grandpa Lórccan said.

Rem just laughed harder, and there were tears in his eyes. I wasn’t sure if he was crying or just laughing so hard. Either way, it was the first laugh I’d heard him in what felt like ages.

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We ended up all sitting in front of a TV, watching the news together. There was something about drought somewhere far away. Something about politics. And the weather was going to get steadily colder in the following days. I didn’t care much. I looked at the faces that surrounded me, and the spark of hope I didn’t dare believe was there started burning a bit brighter.

I’d have to talk to Rem. Soon. Maybe tomorrow. Right now I just wanted to bask in the moment.

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My decision to properly talk to Rem didn’t hold for a few days. Somehow I didn’t know where to start. And he seemed a bit better. I’d seen him painting again. And according to what the teachers had said to mum and Patrick, he was doing well at school as well. So I left with him to school in an awkward silence again. We parted ways at the main doors and I climbed upstairs for my classes. Out of the corner of my eye I saw some of Rem’s friends. Which ones, I didn’t remember; Rem had so many of them. He said hi to Rem, and Rem said a shaky greeting back. Another of his friends scowled at him, and Rem didn’t seem to care.

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Weird.

I would have thought about it more, but I was then met by more discreet stares from the people upstairs, so I forgot about it for the rest of the day.

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We’d agreed that whenever our school days were over at the same time, I’d pick up Rem and we’d bike home together. Today was one of those days. Our last class was art, led by Bree’s mum. Mrs. Vasquez’s sunny presence was pretty much the only thing besides Bree’s snippy comments that made the art class tolerable for me. I was, to put it simply, still pretty hopeless at putting colour on canvas or shaping clay or whatever was required. Okay, gluing stuff together was kind of fun, I guess.

“Okay, kids, time to wrap it up,” Mrs. Vasquez’s voice made me look up from the not-so creative mess I’d managed to put together, and I sighed in relief.

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“Hey, it’s not that bad,” said Bree, “That almost… looks like a boat.”

“It’s supposed to be my inner darkness,” I replied dryly, surprised at my own words. I was almost carefree at that moment.

“Really?” Jace asked.

“No. It’s a blue panther. And I’ve got to pick up Rem.”

I waved goodbyes to my friends and to Mrs. Vasquez, who reminded us to wash our brushes before leaving. I did so and watched the watered down yellows and blues spinning down the drain. Somehow they painted a prettier picture into the sink than I’d managed on the canvas.

Maybe I could make a living selling custom painted sinks.

My hands were still colourful from paint despite my efforts to clean them when I left the art class and steered my steps towards Rem’s classroom. Most of the jackets were already gone from the hall, and Mr. Bob’s classroom was quiet. Well, mostly quiet. I stopped near the door for a while when I heard Mr. Bob’s voice coming from inside.

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“Well, as long as you’re sure you’re okay…” he was saying, “When was your sister supposed to pick you up?”

“…now,” was the very quiet answer, “I’m fine. I just don’t want to go out in the hall.”

“Are the other kids picking on you, Rem?”

“…no.”

“You sure? Normally you’re always hanging with Alvin, and Ben, and the others.”

“…yeah.”

“Yeah what?”

“I’m sure.”

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I chose that moment to enter Mr. Bob’s classroom. He greeted me with a nod, as if he’d known I’d been listening behind the door. Then he looked back at Rem, who was still sitting behind his desk even though everyone else had left.

“Lynn’s here,” Mr. Bob said, “Time for you to go.”

Rem stood very slowly. He looked so tired. Maybe he was having nightmares too.

“Go get your jacket,” I said, “I’ll catch up with you.”

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Rem nodded and walked past me. When he was gone, I looked again at Mr. Bob. He was standing calmly near his desk, but I could almost hear his worry. I made a quick decision, then, one that had been brewing in my mind when I’d told Rem to go ahead of me. I walked over to Mr. Bob.

“Is he alright?” I asked.

Mr. Bob looked mildly surprised.

“I think you’d know that better than I,” he said.

I sighed, feeling my cheeks redden. Yeah. I probably should have known.

“We’re worried about him at home,” I admitted.

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Mr. Bob nodded.

“I was thinking of calling your parents about him. He’s been quiet and distant from his friends.”

He wiped his hand over his face, looking pretty tired himself. It was probably some kind of weariness by compassion. Patrick got it sometimes, when he was feeling especially bad about the environment or about oppressed people, and mum got it when she was feeling too bad about other people’s smaller sorrows.

“I’ve just heard what the news said, and what little your parents told me. What happened to you… well, I’m sorry. Not that it helps any.”

“Thank you,” I said automatically.

“If there’s anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask your parents to call.”

“I will,” I said, not sure if I meant it. Then I kept talking even though my rational side said it was none of Mr. Bob’s business, “Do you think it’ll be alright?”

“What? You? Rem? All of you?”

“Yeah.”

Mr. Bob sighed.

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“What happened will never be alright. But you can be. I think you all have more strength than a lot of people do. Have you talked with people?”

“I’m trying. It’s hard,” I admitted.

Mr. Bob smiled a bit.

“You’ve still got your stories? Do they help?”

I nodded.

“Good. I knew they would. Sometimes tragedies make the most beautiful art.”

“Thank you.”

I really meant that.

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Rem was waiting for me in the hall, the bright yellow jacket that had once been mine looking still a little too big on him. I tried to manage a smile. It was getting easier and easier every day.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Rem didn’t reply.

I really had to talk to him.

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I did it that night, just before we had to go to bed. Mum and Patrick were talking quietly in their bedroom, and I was pretty sure it was a serious conversation too. They had those hushed tones they used when they were planning something that would affect all of us. I knew those conversations had been going on more often ever since Laketon. They’d be at it for a while before they’d remember to order us to bed. So I went up to Rem’s room and found him standing with Candinsky under his arm, his eyes staring into dark, cold space again.

“Hey,” I said, “Can we talk?”

Rem’s eyes barely focused, but he eventually nodded.

“Sure.”

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He set Candinsky to the bed and hopped to sit on it as well. I didn’t know where to sit, so I just stayed standing awkwardly. Rem’s room had always been a place I never felt perfectly at home in. It was his little kingdom of hand-me-down toys, and paintings that were almost too good to be painted by someone his age. Going into a kid’s room was always like intruding, even if it was just my brother. Now it was necessary, though. I’d put this off for too long. Any later and it could be too late. There was already a rift between us. We’d never been inseparable, but now we were drifting alarmingly in the sea of uncomfortable silences that would eventually land us in a place where we were strangers to one another.

“How’re you feeling?” I asked.

Rem shrugged.

“Good. Why?”

“’Cause you’re not really ‘feeling good’. Everyone can see that.”

Rem studied me, his eyes suddenly too attentive. And creepily enough, at the same time they were almost shimmering, like they were when he was in his little fairy worlds.

“Why do you care?”

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I blinked.

“Why wouldn’t I? You’re my brother, and like I’ve said before, I like you.”

“Really?”

I frowned at the surprised tone.

“I repeat: Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because… because I’m not trying to make you like me.”

This was once again going nowhere, and this particular nowhere was a really confusing place. I put my hands on my hips.

“Okay, I can’t talk to you unless you at least try to make sense. What do you mean? I mean, sure, you haven’t been your usual chirpy self lately, but that’s kind of to be expected when we’re all… all… you know…” my voice faded into a hoarse whisper, “…messed up.”

“Yeah,” Rem admitted, “But you’re so strong.”

I thought about my nightmares. About my insecurities and my desire to start wearing a mask for the rest of my life to cover my scars.

“I’m really not,” I said.

“You rose from the ashes,” Rem paused and thought about it, “Well, you will, at least.”

Right now, I didn’t feel like rising from any ashes. Or that I could ever get over all this. I didn’t want to talk about it either.

“What did you mean?” I said again instead, “About not making me like you?”

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Rem seemed to deflate, tuck his mind into a tiny ball. He looked even smaller than he usually did.

“I think that’s why everyone likes me. Because I make them. With… you know, powers. Magic.”

I stared at Rem for a long while.

“Rem. I think you’re a bit too old to believe in magic. Like, really believe.”

Rem’s eyes were wide. His fingers had entwined together at some point, and he was wringing his hands so nervously I thought some joints would soon start cracking.

“What else can you call it?” he asked, “I went into your dream. I see things. I can… I think I can make people see things too… maybe I just make them see me nicely. Now I’ve tried not to, and a lot of the others at school… they don’t like me anymore.”

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He really believed it. And why not? He was right about the other times he’d done weird things I couldn’t explain. I took his hands when he looked like he was going to cry, because I didn’t know what else to do. I did not want my stepbrother bawling on me. I was terrible at comforting people.

“Or maybe they don’t like that you’re being really distant and staring into space,” I suggested and winced at Rem’s pretty offended expression, “Well, you are. All the time. It’s weird.”

“I am weird,” Rem said, “You always say that. And… I think you’re right. Remember when you used to call me a fairy? I think you were right then too.”

I squeezed his hands, not knowing what to say. It was all too bizarre. And it was all kind of making sense in its bizarre way.

“Rem, this is crazy…” I tried again, but then trailed off, because maybe it wasn’t too crazy in our crazy life right now. Rem looked at me steadily, hauntingly calm all of a sudden.

“Is it? I could make you see things right now, I think. But I won’t, because I don’t want to… I want to be just me. Someone who doesn’t bring bad things to our home.”

“What happened with Laketon wasn’t your fault,” I said firmly.

“Yes, it was! He wanted to take me somewhere. I think it was the Tree Lady who wanted me.”

I found myself staring again.

“What tree-lady?”

“The one who talked to me sometimes,” Rem said, “She wanted to take me home, but I told her I was already home. I don’t know who she was. All I know is I don’t want her coming here.”

“She’s not going to,” I said firmly, “Rem, this is stupid. You can’t blame yourself for some creep deciding to want to hurt you. You’ve never done anything to Laketon, or the tree-lady-whoever-she-is, right?”

“…right?”

“So stop all this guilt nonsense!” I snapped, sounding way ruder than I’d intended, “It’s just eating you up inside and you’re hurting for no reason… Well, not for no reason. I mean, it was awful, but it’s over now! We have to get through this!”

Rem sniffed.

“That’s what daddy and mum keep saying. But I just… I can’t just stop feeling all this. I wish I could.”

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“Yeah,” I whispered, “I wish I could too. But maybe we can make something good out of it.”

Rem smiled.

“See? You are strong. Phoenix.”

I smiled stiffly.

“Rem?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Oh, okay. Sorry.”

“It’s fine. Now stop sulking.”

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Had it been a good talk? I had no idea. My thoughts were buzzing like flies when I went back to my room and clutched a pile of books I’d picked up on the way there. I’d have to go to mum’s computer to do some internet searches after mum and Patrick stopped their serious talk, but for now the books would have to do.

I changed into my pyjamas, sat on my bed and opened the first one. It was a tale we’d have to read for school… when? Too long ago. Maybe years, or just weeks. It was the changeling tale I’d barely paid attention to because I’d been too excited about the sleepover with Bree and Jace. Now it suddenly intrigued me much more. A baby taken by trolls and replaced with a troll baby that would grow up pretending it was human. It was a silly tale, but I tried to see it like Rem probably did. Like a true story. It was still silly. I couldn’t do it.

I sighed in frustration. What did it matter anyway? We were family. Rem was family just like I was. So what if he could do weird things and had tree-ladies after him. It wasn’t like what I’d left behind was anything better. Boogeymen that weren’t just in closets were not something I ever wanted at my doorstep. And yet one was my biological dad. Life sucked. We’d have to get over it. Rise from the ashes, as Rem put it.

Mum and Patrick were almost arguing. There was a decision hanging in the air; I could sense it. A couple of weeks later, it turned out I was right.

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Mum and Patrick took us both to the gazebo, because it was probably the last warmer day of the year. They both looked serious, almost official. I sat stiffly in my chair and felt the cool, almost wintery breeze at my back. Rem’s eyes were wide, as if he was trying to figure out what was going on but whatever it was that made him sometimes almost see the future apparently wasn’t working right now.

“Kids,” Patrick started, but then cleared his throat, “Your mother and I have been thinking… this town… well…” he fumbled with the words. It was weird. Patrick was usually very good with talking.

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“This town hasn’t felt like a proper home for a while, has it?” mum said.

I felt cold all of a sudden, because I had a hunch about where this was going.

“No, it hasn’t,” Rem said quietly, “You know that.”

“Right,” Patrick said, finding his words again, “So, we’ve been talking, and we’ve… well…”

“Are you saying that we’re moving?” I asked. It shouldn’t be that hard to say. Everyone stared at me, and finally, mum and Patrick nodded stiffly.

“Would you like to move?” he asked.

I opened my mouth to say something, but then I realised I had no idea what I wanted. All I wanted was to stay home. But this house hadn’t been entirely a home for a while. But how would running away fix that in any way? I didn’t know.

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Rem spoke before I could get my thoughts in order.

“That would mean getting away from here.”

“Yes, it would,” Patrick said, “I know it’s not something we have to decide now, but with all that has happened, we-“

“I want to leave,” said Rem very firmly, “I don’t want the Tree Lady to find us.”

By the looks on mum and Patrick’s faces I knew he’d told them about the tree-lady as well. Patrick nodded gently, even though there was a look of surprise hidden behind the gentleness.

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“Just like that?” I asked, and looked almost accusingly at Rem, “This is our life! We made this house. Before us it was just a rundown barrack with potential, as mum and Patrick called it. And now we’d just leave?”

“Yes,” Rem said, completely unfazed by my outburst, “I want to leave.”

“How about you, Lynn?” said mum, “You want to stay here? If you do, I understand. This… it’s not going to happen right away. If we decide this, there will be a lot to do. But we don’t want to make it all ready and then spring it on you when it’s too late to stop.”

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I looked at mum’s sad eyes, and then at Patrick, who’d lived here all his life. Patrick had been born here, and now he was ready to leave it all. There was a sadness in his eyes that told me that he didn’t really want it, but he was still ready. I thought about it. I didn’t even remember the town where I’d been born, and that didn’t matter because Twinbrook was home for me anyway. And I’m sure it was home for mum as well. She was ready to leave her job, and her beloved house and gazebo she’d got married in, just because she thought it would probably be best for us.

And maybe it was.

Because despite the protests I’d forced to the forefront of my mind, I knew that our home here was lost. We could either try to paint over the trauma and pretend it was okay and always know that Laketon was sitting in jail just an hour’s drive from us. Or we could go somewhere else and try to make a new home. We’d done it before with mum, even though I didn’t remember it very well. And Patrick had done it with Rem, even though Rem really didn’t remember it.

I sighed and pushed aside all the parts of me that wanted to hold onto the past.

“I just want a home.”

“We all do,” Patrick said, “And we’ll build one.”

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We sat in the gazebo until it got dark and cold outside. When we went back inside, arms around each other for warmth and comfort, we’d decided that we’d be moving in the next spring.

PREVIOUS Chapter: Ashes

NEXT Chapter: Flight

Chapter 6: Ashes

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There was nothing. Well, darkness was probably something, but it was not something I wanted to see right now. Something about the darkness was bad, like it was trying to hide something awful. But what? I didn’t know. Or remember. Not remembering felt more accurate. It was annoying, though.

What had happened to me?

Fire

The darkness parted to give way to orange light. It was warm, too much so. Flames? Yeah, they looked like sketchy flames painted with watercolours, and that was weird because fire and water didn’t mix well. I would have found it more amusing if the flames didn’t make me feel incredibly hollow all of a sudden.

I heard a crackle that could have been wood bursting because of the heat of fire. There were screams, and some of them sounded like my own. A dark figure shimmered to view from the suffocating smoke that had invaded my personal space faster than I could register.

I wanted out, but I couldn’t move.

What was wrong with me?

I tried to call out to the figure in the dark, but it shattered into ashes before it could reach me.

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I woke up with the feel of dewy grass under me. I shivered, but then I realised I didn’t really feel cold. I had just expected to feel it because mornings were almost always cold in Twinbrook. I opened my eyes and realised I was probably not in Twinbrook at all.

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The forest was everywhere, and it was filled with the weirdest trees and giant mushrooms. It should’ve been autumn, but none of the trees had got the memo. The colours were bright enough to make my head spin. I looked down and saw flowers all around my bare feet. And… wait… that was weird; I was wearing a black dress with leaf print, a dress I’d seen on a store window and wanted but never got. So really, what was going on?

I again thought of the forest I’d seen so many years ago. This was different. The forest from before had been like a painting. This one felt realer. Too real, actually.

A shiver went through me before I could dwell on it more. It still wasn’t because of the cold, because there still wasn’t coldness here. It was just a feeling. Like I really shouldn’t be here.

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Like I should really be somewhere else. But that somewhere else was worse than here so I didn’t want to go.

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I smelled the air, and there was a faint odour of burning meat, but a non-existent wind drove it away quickly. Okay, this was getting really freaky. As if it hadn’t been already freaky enough.

“Lynn? You have to listen to me.”

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I almost jumped at the familiar voice behind me. Rem was sitting on a stony fairy tale bench, dressed pretty ridiculously in what looked like vines and hemp shorts. At first I thought it was as fake as a similar costume he’d worn one Halloween, but then I noticed the waxy plant texture and concluded that it was like a fake costume made out of real plants.

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“Rem?” I asked and my voice came out all quiet and raspy, “Where are we? Is this one of those weird tricks you do?”

Rem looked a bit confused, but his eyes were shining even more than normal.

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“No, this is your dream, and I just came here to get you back,” said Rem, spreading his arms up to encompass as much of the strange forest around us as he could, “But I did change your dream to be like this, so I could enter it better.”

“What?” I asked. His explanation made even less sense than his usual stories.

“I get it now, Lynn. I’m in a cold place but it helps me understand. I knew I could get to you because you could really see me. You and your Boogeyman-father both knew I wasn’t like the others, and that made it easier to connect. And it makes it easier for you to see through it too.”

“Through what?”

“The illusions. Or dreams. Or memories. I think this is a memory. My memory, even though I don’t remember it properly. Whatever it is, you have to get out and wake up.”

“Why?”

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“Because if you don’t wake up soon, you will not wake up at all. You’ll probably die, and no one wants you to die.”

I heard the words, but I didn’t really register them. It was all muffled, not real. Like nothing that could happen to me really mattered.

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I blinked, and suddenly we were standing on mushrooms. I had heard that some mushrooms could make people see weird things, but I thought they should normally be digested first. These just appeared under our feet and grew until I could see the strange fairy forest far below and stretching as far as I could see. And as the mushrooms grew, the air became colder and frost started spreading on the pale blue.

“Do you see now?” asked Rem, who was sitting even higher up than I was, “None of this is really here. It’s a dream and I could change it because I knew what it was.”

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I nodded slowly, pretending to understand. I did get the point, at least. Snow started falling, but it didn’t feel like real snow. It wasn’t cold and it didn’t melt. It was like tufts of feathers from newly born ducklings.

“I believe you,” I said, “But how do I get out?”

Rem’s warning of dying if I didn’t get out finally managed to have some impact on me. Everything was still too much of a blur, though. The air was light, and I was reminded of Rem’s episode when he’d been sick so long ago. But this time the air was also warm and made me want to wrap it around me like a blanket.

“Don’t try to go further into the dream,” said Rem from somewhere far away, “Think of mum, and dad, and even me, if it helps. But not me as in the fairy me here. Think of the me that’s waiting for you in the hospital and is close to falling into scary emptiness. Think of waking up.”

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And then the fairy forest was gone. I lifted my hand and caught some of the feather snowflakes that piled onto my hand. There it looked more like sugar.

Focus, Lynn! I reminded myself. Rem had told me to wake up. This wasn’t real. And I needed to be where it was real or else I would never be anywhere at all.

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I looked up at the sky, focused on how wrong it looked. The stars were too bright and too colourful. The snow was too soft and too dry, and it wasn’t really even winter. And I was wearing a dress I’d most likely never have for real. It was a dream, and dreams could be controlled.

I grabbed a hold of the sky, and tore it aside, along with my dream.

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There were beeps and whispers. My head and cheeks and arms hurt, and everything felt wrong. Now I saw only darkness, and it was just as uninviting as before. I pried my eyes open and felt as if they were instantly scrubbed with disinfectant. Everything was so… clean. Sterile. Mostly white but with a little bit of light blues and browns to break it a bit and calm the glaring whiteness. A vase full of pink fake roses gave me something to focus on when I tried to get my bearings.

A woman dressed in a doctor’s coat looked at me. She said something about me being awake and asked a bunch of questions in a sweet but business-like voice. It got all lumped and mixed together like cotton candy in my head, but I thought I managed to at least mutter something through my unbearably scratchy throat. I still wasn’t clear on where I was – except that all clues pointed to a hospital – or what had happened. Something about a basement… and phoenixes. Did I even want for it to come back?

The doctor did some tests, called over a few nurses, and asked more questions and looked at several monitors while I lay on the hospital bed, too weak to move and too confused to ask anything that would clear things up.

“…a minor carbon monoxide poisoning, but that should be better now… The worst part were the burns, but even they should mostly heal… time and some minor skin grafts… Most are well on their way already… Some scarring will stay, but we’ll do our best to keep it minimal… the important thing is she’s awake. She was very close to slipping too far into a coma… mostly shock and trauma, as far as I can tell…”

It was mostly said from one doctor to another, but a couple of times the doctor looked at me, explaining the same things she told the nurses to me in simpler words and adding in some encouraging smiles. As if I didn’t understand the horrible things from the more clinical talk. I just stayed on my back, staring at the ceiling even when the doctor talked to me. Everything returned in a sluggish flow. Like tar. Just as unpleasant, too. Laketon, the kidnapping, the fire… It couldn’t have happened really. It had to be a nightmare, because these kinds of things didn’t happen to us. To someone else, maybe. In books, or on TV, or in wildly exaggerated news stories.

Finally, finally, the lady doctor smiled at me and said:

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“All right. We’ll let you rest for a while and then your family can come in. They’re pretty anxious to see you.”

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She left, and after a while the door slid open and my mum’s face was the first thing I saw from the gap. Said face went through very deep sadness and apology before getting overshadowed by pure joy. Mum had always been enthusiastic about things, but now she looked like she could explode into confetti. Behind her in came Patrick and Rem, who flashed me a dead smile before his eyes glazed over. At least they all seemed to be physically just fine.

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“Lynn! Honey, we’re so glad you’re awake!” mum gushed, barely letting me get out of bed before tugging me into a fierce hug. It was desperate and relieved and loving and almost made me cry. I hugged back, wishing I could just stay there forever. But a nasty sting of pain in my cheek made me pull away sooner than I’d wanted.

“What happened?” I managed to ask, “I… there was a fire.”

It sounded feeble and confused, but I just couldn’t do better.

“The fire… yes,” mum sniffed, “It was awful… but we’ll be okay now, won’t we? How are you feeling? The doctor said we shouldn’t be here for long today. You still need plenty of rest.”

I really did feel like it, too. My legs could barely support me, and I was hurting all over. At least I wasn’t plugged into any machines now, but apparently I had been before waking up. None of this still answered my questions, though. The things wrong with me that the doctor had told me about had only cleared up that I was badly hurt, but I just couldn’t really process it all yet.

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“What happened?” I said again.

Mum glanced at Patrick, who sighed.

“Lynn, you don’t have to go through this right now,” he said in a low voice.

“Go through what?” I asked, “What happened? Where… oh, damn, where’s L-laketon? Did he…?”

“He didn’t hurt anyone else,” Patrick said reassuringly, “He ran when the fire started, but detective Douglas and the police who just got there caught him. He’s in jail now. And your mum and I pulled you out of the fire before… well, before things got really bad.”

The edge in his voice told me that things actually were really bad. And who the hell was detective Douglas?

“So… how bad was it?”

“Bad,” said Rem, and I looked at him in surprise. His voice was flat, quiet, and in every way nothing like the bubbly, happy Rem I’d grown up with so far, “You were awake, but mostly not when they healed you. They said you might not wake up yesterday.”

“Rem,” mum said gently, “Lynn doesn’t need to hear that.”

“I’m alright, mum,” I said, “What’s wrong with me? And Rem? Is he okay?”

Mum and Patrick exchanged a look again. It was getting unnerving.

“We’ll be fine,” mum insisted.

“No! Don’t start doing this to me! I want to know what’s going on! The doctors said I was… I burned.”

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“I…” mum started, “Don’t… oh, honey…”

“Well, yes,” Patrick said when mum started dissolving into sniffles, “You have a lot of injuries, as… as you can probably feel. But the doctors had made it much better already. And it wasn’t… well, it could have been very bad, but we got here in time.”

My cheek stung, and my skin felt a bit too small there. I lifted a hand to feel it.

“Wait, don’t,” mum said gently, “There’s a burn there. Quite bad. Let it heal.”

A burn? One of them was on my face? How bad was it? I immediately located a mirror near the sink that was in the room and dragged my feet over to it despite my parents’ protests.

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I looked at the mirror, first blankly, and then felt ice sinking into my stomach.

I looked terrible. The gauze that covered most of my right cheek did nothing to hide the fact that nearly the entire side of my face was charred. My hair was messily cropped short, and I could imagine it was because at some point it had been on fire. I slowly lifted the sleeve of my hospital clothes and saw bandages around my arm as well. I didn’t have to look under them to know what they were hiding. My breath caught in my throat.

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“Lynn?” I heard mum say cautiously, like I would break if she said it any louder. And maybe I actually would.

It all just crashed down on me then. It was all real. The things that didn’t happen to us but to some other people had really happened. We’d almost… we’d almost…

I couldn’t even finish my thought. I breathed out, and with the air came the tears.

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Mum held me again, for I don’t know how long. I didn’t care, though. It was as close to forever as we could get in that moment. And that too was over too quickly, because then another eternity would start, and it would be awful. The doctor had called it “recovery”. Right now, I didn’t even want to think about anything else than the fact that we were all in the same room, and it was not on fire, and we were safe, if broken.

Because that’s what we were. I heard mum sniffing and then crying. I felt the void that Rem’s quietness was filling the room with. I knew Patrick was trying and failing to be strong when he gave us whispered words of encouragement in the background.

My eyes were shut, and I saw darkness, but this time it was welcome, because there I didn’t have to think about what was outside it and my mother’s arms.

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I didn’t care to count the days that followed, when I had to stay in the hospital and go through all kinds of procedures and check-ups. I didn’t care about most of them, as long as they just made the hurts and the scars go away. The worst scars were in my head, though, and that was where the psychiatrists came in. I went to several sessions with a man who was kind of friendly but not too much, and was actually very good at making people pour their hearts out and making them feel better. I guess he was supposed to nudge me away from the dark pit I’d dug myself in just to escape the fear and the horrible memories, but I couldn’t tell if it was working. The darkness was safe; forgetting didn’t hurt. It dulled the pain, and even though it dulled everything else too, it was a sacrifice I was willing to make.

I hated my burns. I had never been the prettiest girl in class and I didn’t even care to be, but I sure as hell didn’t want any visible reminders about the awful events that had happened in Laketon’s basement. And yes, they did look awful, which bothered me too. The worst part was knowing that they made people stare at me, and I hated being stared at. My only consolation was that the treatments were making them look better bit by bit. Some of them faded away entirely, as they had been only first or second degree burns. The ones on my face and right arm had gone to third degree in several places. I was told later that that amount of burns had been life-threatening and that I was really lucky to be alive. I didn’t feel so lucky, and I certainly didn’t feel like I wanted to hear anyone say those kinds of things to my face when I was still in a pit of trauma.

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In between the treatments, I sat in my room, with my family around me. They usually stayed for as long as they could. Mum and Patrick talked to us, telling about how things would be better. A lot of the times we just sat together in silence, though. We were drawing even closer than before. In a way, I think our family was knitting tighter together to compensate for the fact that each of us was so close to falling apart at the seams.

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I wasn’t the only one getting therapy. Mum and Patrick had a couple of sessions too, but they didn’t discuss that too much. Instead they focused me, and Rem, who was seeing the psychiatrist as much as I was. Rem scared me even more than anything else did, and that was saying a lot in this situation. He didn’t talk much, and when he did, it came out in quiet, short sentences, lacking all his joy and dreaminess. He was like a Rem-shaped husk, a zombie going through the motions of life. I really hoped the psychiatrist could fix that. It just wasn’t right.

We heard about Laketon a little. Mum and Patrick had been in contact with the police, who had wanted witness statements from them and who had wanted to talk to us too. They weren’t let in for more than a few minutes, though, and even that only after some serious waiting and complaining about disturbing already disturbed kids. Rem and I told the police what had happened the best we could. Well, I forced myself to talk because Rem barely spoke. Later we heard that Laketon would spend a long time in jail, and I thought he deserved worse. We were assured that we would be safe, but I couldn’t really believe it anymore.

There were other visitors too. Our grandparents from Patrick’s side, because mum’s had cut most ties to us after mum had become a single mother. Mum and Patrick’s close friends visited too, as did some of Rem’s buddies, and Jace and Bree. Our story made the news, so some more curious and distant acquaintances tried to barge in as well, but mum and Patrick didn’t let them near Rem or I. All of those visits just seemed to come and go, with only Bree and Jace sticking in my memory because they were my friends and cared enough to not care about my hideous face or the fact that I didn’t want to talk much. But even their visits were over soon, and then replaced by the dark that wanted to slowly break away and expose me to the world again. I wondered if Rem was in similar darkness. Or if mum or Patrick felt the same. We talked about it a bit, but I still didn’t have an answer. I’d never be able to feel what they did, but that was fine. I had plenty to deal with in my own jumbled feelings.

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It was Patrick who finally started to turn the conversations to a more normal direction. Things like school, mum’s writings, books, pumpkins. At first I didn’t really want to go there, because I was afraid that after this, there would be no normal for us. But Patrick insisted on talking, day after day, and little by little, mum joined in. She was smiling a bit more genuinely than before, and her voice wasn’t so quiet anymore. It tore apart the darkness and I clung to the shreds, but finally realised my mouth was moving and I was asking if mum or Patrick could be bothered to bring me something to read. Mum smiled and nodded enthusiastically.

“What would you like to read, Lynn? I remember you have a Where’s Bella? -book unfinished at home.”

I nodded slowly.

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” a thought occurred to me, “Hey, Patrick, how’re our apple trees?”

“It’s almost winter. They’re nearly hibernating.”

“Darn, I’d really like some apple sauce right now.”

For some reason, mum beamed at me, then, as if I wanting apples was the best thing ever. And seeing how I really hadn’t cared about eating much of anything lately, maybe it was. Where had that even come from, anyway?

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That was probably when I climbed back over the edge the therapy and time had pushed me towards, and I managed to smile and feel like there was something other than hiding. It was a start, and when I watched Rem’s still passive face that had become only a little less zombie-like, I knew the start wouldn’t mean the end was anywhere in sight.

It was so easy to break something. It was almost always harder to put it back together.

Sometime later the doctors started to talk about letting me go. I was confused. I still had the scars on my face and my arm, even though they didn’t hurt anymore and the doctors said they would just fade to some extent with time and treatment. That couldn’t be right. They were supposed to heal me, not leave me looking like a comic book villain with a split personality. And I knew I was still treading on thin ice with my mind too. I was getting there, but I still didn’t feel like I could find anything lasting to keep me safe. My parents weren’t all-powerful. They were scared human beings who wanted to protect us even if it killed them. Our house wasn’t safe, and my chirpy brother had closed himself off and sunk into depression. I was only twelve, and the world was dumping things that I felt I wasn’t yet old enough to understand on me. And now they were going to let me go out there?

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Mum and Patrick assured me that our home was fine and waiting for me. They also said that Rem and I would have to come back for therapy sessions and some more check-ups later, but that things could go back to normal. Yeah, right. But despite my doubting, I did quite soon find myself sitting on a chair with an old hat mum had found for me because I didn’t feel like attracting looks right away after stepping out of the hospital. The doctor was talking to mum and Patrick and looking at her computer before finally saying that yes, we could indeed leave. Mum practically whooped with joy, then dissolved into gushing about how our home had missed me.

I’d missed it too. Even if it wasn’t as safe as before.

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The ride back home was quiet, and when we stepped out, I just stood there, staring at the old industrial building turned home as if seeing it for the first time. It was different than I remembered. Less inviting. But it was also where I really did want to be, or at least it was where I wanted to be more than anywhere else. I felt my parents’ encouraging smiles at my back, just like I felt Rem’s sad stare. I looked across our front yard, past the small garden fountain and the almost obsessively groomed flowerbeds. I wondered if Patrick had been gardening like crazy to get his own traumatised mind back into normal. The vegetable garden looked perfect as well even though it was so cold nothing grew anymore, so I was probably not far off.

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I swallowed through my thick throat.

“Home, sweet home,” I said weakly, not really feeling it.

Together, we took the steps to our front door.

Author’s Note: Well, that was pretty difficult to write. The painting of a burning man is again done by me.

A very special thanks to BILLABONG_ on The Sims Resource http://www.thesimsresource.com/downloads/details/category/sims3-makeup-costumemakeup-scarswounds/title/bloody-faces/id/902173/ for the bloody faces CC that I’ve used here (with slight photoshopping in the photos).

PREVIOUS Chapter 5: Phoenix

NEXT Chapter 7: Rise

Chapter 5: Phoenix

CONTENT WARNING: This chapter contains somewhat intense scenes and kids will be in peril and frightened. One scene depicts what could be considered domestic abuse (kind of), but that is between two adults. Still, reader discretion is advised.
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“Wow, I can’t believe someone can talk so much about courgettes.”

“Well, that’s what these meetings are for. Hey, Rem! Lynn! We’re back! I hope the house is still intact!”

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“Lynn? Rem?”

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The basement we’d been locked in was damp and cold. There was an old heating oven in the corner, but it wasn’t heating anything at the moment. The whole place smelled like mould and gasoline, and I could see some half-empty tanks in the corner and greenish blots on the floor so those explained both smells. I shivered, but not just from the cold. Laketon had locked us in here and left us alone, thankfully enough, but I couldn’t stop fearing what would happen when he came back. I knew enough about people to know that I didn’t want to know about the things some were capable of.

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Rem had fallen asleep at some point, probably due to sheer exhaustion, but it was fitful, and his face twisted in a nightmare every once in a while. I wanted to wake him up, so that I didn’t have to be so alone, but on the other hand, I wanted at least one of us to be able to get a bit of rest. I looked at Rem’s bare feet and wondered if he was as cold as or even colder than I was. I wouldn’t know that, though, not until he woke up. Meanwhile, I was there just with my scared, worried thoughts that kept slipping back to mum and Patrick.

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I didn’t know how much time had passed, but they had to be home by now. It had been hours, at least, but I’d read and seen enough TV shows about the police to know that they wouldn’t start looking for us right away, so mum and Patrick would have to wait until then. I kept imagining them all torn up with grief and worry, crying in our empty house. I felt like crying myself, but I didn’t want Laketon to hear me, so I tried very hard to keep it down.

The only noise I allowed myself to make was to start speaking when Rem finally woke up.

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He was groggy, but the cold, scary reality crashed down on him very quickly, and his lip started to quiver. I got up from the rickety chair I’d been sitting on to ward off most of the cold floor and rushed to pull Rem to his feet. He was shivering like I was, and there were tears threatening to spill from his eyes.

“L-lynn?” he whimpered, “Is he gone?”

“No,” I whispered, hoping I could say something different, “He’s upstairs, but still here. Don’t worry, mum and Patrick will call the police, and they’ll come and get us.”

Rem nodded, but then his lip quivered again. I hoped he wouldn’t start crying. I wasn’t good at comforting, not even when I didn’t have to worry about freaking out myself.

“This place is dangerous,” Rem said, “We need to get out quick.”

Before I could say anything else to calm him down, the sound of footsteps made me freeze. I backed away, sitting back down on the chair because Laketon had ordered us to stay put. Rem stood still next to me, flinching away from the door and taking small, scared breaths. The door creaked open, and Laketon stood there.

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He cast a pretty hateful glance at us and then just turned to light a fire to the old heating oven. I heard him mutter something about freezing up there. I held my breath, but he didn’t even look at us anymore, and that made me calm down a bit. He was standing stiffly like before, and even though I didn’t know him well – or at all, to be honest – I still couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off about him. Well, other than the fact that he was obviously crazy and scary as all hell.

Before I could even really think about what I was doing, I opened my mouth:

“Why did you take us?”

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Laketon looked at us with eyes that were strangely dull compared to what they’d been when he’d shown up on our doorstep for the first time, all fake-humbleness and asking for money. Somehow that gave me even more courage. He looked more confused than anything. Confused wasn’t very scary. I stood up.

“Is this to get back at my mum?” I asked, “She didn’t give you money, and you then do this? If so, then it’s stupid!”

Laketon’s face twitched a bit, as if searching for the proper reaction.

“This is how I take care of my money problems,” he finally said in a monotone voice, “I was told to bring the freak boy home.”

“What? Me?” Rem asked in a tiny voice, “I was home.”

“Apparently someone disagrees,” Laketon shrugged.

“But Lynn’s not me. Why did you bring her here too?”

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Laketon’s eyes narrowed, as if his brain was finally catching up with who he was talking to. Suddenly he was scary again. His ragged voice turned into a growl:

“Okay, well, yeah, I did want to screw with your bitch of a mother, too. Now be quiet, ‘cause you really don’t want to piss me off even more than I already am!”

Rem gasped behind me and I instinctively stepped in front of him, even though I really just wanted to hide and curl up into a tiny ball somewhere where mum could find me. Laketon glared at us for a few terrible moments and then stormed out, leaving us in a steadily warmer but still unbelievably lonely basement.

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After the door slammed shut and the telltale click of a lock had faded, Rem sniffled. I turned around and wrapped him into a hug that was the best I could do to comfort both him and me. Rem took a few deep breaths, and then he seemed to relax.

“Hey, It’s gonna be alright,” I said, not really sounding convinced even to my own ears.

“Yeah, maybe… I think so too,” said Rem, and I didn’t need to see his eyes to realise he’d got that faraway look again. I couldn’t blame him. I would have paid good money to see something other than this world right now.

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I sat back down on the chair, trying to think about getting out. So far I hadn’t done more than tried the door to see if it had somehow miraculously unlocked itself. The fear of Laketon had kept me from trying to bash in the door with something heavy – which I knew would probably fail anyway because I was, after all, a twelve-year-old girl with the measly strength to match. And I had to admit very quickly that the courage I’d felt a moment ago had dwindled to almost nothing again.

I just really wanted to go home.

“We will get out, won’t we?” said Rem in an airy voice. He’d been quiet for a long moment and spoke so suddenly that I started in my seat.

“What?” I asked, “I mean, yeah, sure. Don’t worry.”

“I’m not worried. Well, maybe I am. I know I’m scared at least. But I know… I think…” Rem fell silent, trying to find the right words, “Can you tell a story?”

“What?”

Rem’s eyes were still not quite seeing the basement.

“You told me stories all the time when I was little. Especially when I was scared or… that time when I was sick. I don’t remember much of that, but I remember your story.”

I sighed.

“Rem… sorry, but I really don’t have any stories right now.”

“Oh…” Rem stared through the walls, “Well, then I can tell one.”

And before I could say anything to that – although, what was there to be said? – Rem started to tell his tale.

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“Once there was a man. He was a hunter… well, not like a guy who shoots deer, but still in a way like the guy who saved the Little Red Riding Hood in the nicer versions of the tale. This man hunted for information instead of animals, though. He was sad because he didn’t have much money. You know, because a lot of people didn’t need to get hunted knowledge from him. But then he got a job, and he took it, because that job would give him enough money for his house and food. All he needed to do was find one person, so he did.

“It took some time, but finally the hunter had everything he needed, and he got his money for a job well done and was happy again. But something about the man who’d given him the money felt wrong, so he kept thinking about it.”

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I listened half-heartedly. Rem wasn’t the most eloquent of storytellers, that was for sure, but right now, his uncertain words and rather boring storyline were very welcome, because it almost made me feel like we were back home, doing something Rem insisted on wanting to do with me even though he had more than enough friends to play with to ever really need my company. Rem paused, searching for something from beyond the bricks, and then went on:

“The hunter got worried, so he called the man who’d paid him. He didn’t know the man he’d got the money from was a boogeyman, but he was smart enough to feel his evilness. The boogeyman was angry yet happy. He said too much, and the hunter got even more worried…”

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“He thought about it and realised that if something really was wrong, it would be his fault because he’d been the one who’d lead the man to the person he didn’t know but whom he’d found. So he finally got up, and got into his car.”

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“He drove into the dark and didn’t stop ‘till he arrived in Twinbrook, the place he’d been hunting in.”

“Twinbrook?” I couldn’t help but repeat, unimpressed, “There are other towns than our hometown, you know.”

“Yeah, but this story takes place here. Now. Soon.”

I fell silent, feeling an extra shiver going through my spine. Rem didn’t sound scared or teary anymore. He sounded… sure of himself. Like all those times he started babbling about princes or phoenixes. Could this be… like those times? Where was it going to go now?

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“The police still isn’t going to do anything! It’s been almost twenty four hours! What are we supposed to-“

“We’ve got to stay calm.”

“And how’s that working out for you, mister?”

“…Not well. I… where could they be? Their cell phones are here, and they’d never leave home without them.”

I know! And I- Was that the doorbell?”

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“The hunter was nervous, and scared, but he knew he would never have peace unless he asked…”

“…Evening?”

“Uh… hi?”

“He was greeted by saddened faces, and he feared the worst even though he didn’t know what the worst could be.”

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“You don’t… uh… you don’t know me, but my name’s Brent Douglas, and…”

“Hey, I do remember you! You were the one my son talked to in the library some time ago.”

“You do?”

“Yes, but… excuse me, this isn’t the greatest time for us.”

“Really? Has something happened? Shit… did that creepy guy do something after all?”

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“What creepy guy are you talking about? Do you know something about our missing kids?”

“Margaret, please…”

What? Your kids are missing? Shit! I knew something was wrong… Look… there’s something I need to tell you…”

“The hunter confessed leading the boogeyman to the house, and the parents were angry at first, but then the hunter promised to help them. They were hesitant to trust him, but the hunter told them he could get the police to help, because he knew people.”

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“Wait,” I said, “You’re talking about this? You know, this situation? Are you seeing things again?”

Rem’s eyes focused for a second.

“I… I hope so. Because that means mum and daddy are here soon.”

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“The hunter knew where the evil man lived, because he found out things like that about his clients. So… sooner than the parents had hoped for, they were at the door of the boogeyman.”

“The police should be here soon. If we’re wrong about this, I’ll take responsibility.”

“But if you’re right, Mr. Douglas… That’s our kids in there. With my… with a very angry, unstable man.”

“Yeah, I know. That’s why we’re checking.”

“What? Shouldn’t this be left to the police?”

“Like I said, my responsibility. Now stay back, both of you. I’m about to do something really stupid.”

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“Finally! Do you realise I’ve had to listen to those kids whimpering for hours already… wait… Douglas? What the-?”

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“What? You weren’t going to invite us in, you bastard?”

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Rem stopped talking when we heard a loud thud from above. I looked at the worn out ceiling and hoped with all my heart that the thud meant rescue and not something bad.

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“Lynn?” Rem asked, “What was that?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “But I hope it’s the cavalry.”

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The sounds of a scuffle grew louder and then fainter, and then there were footsteps. The door was bashed in and creaked open, and the faces of mum and Patrick greeted us.

Suddenly, everything was going to be all right in my head.

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I ran into mum’s arms and heard Rem do the same for Patrick. Mum clutched me to her chest so tightly I could barely breathe, but I didn’t care. I hugged back just as tight.

“Come on, kids,” said Patrick, “Let’s go home, okay? The police will be here soon.”

I rushed to hug Patrick as well, and Rem hugged mum, and then we turned to the door. The door had been broken and now meant freedom. We could leave, and Laketon wouldn’t hurt…

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He was standing right there. He’d come in and seemed far too big and imposing while blocking our only escape route. His eyes were blazing with fury, and it seemed to just get worse when they fell on mum.

“You bitch! I knew you’d never leave me alone!”

Mum stepped in front of all of us, and I was reminded of documents about mother bears that protected their cubs. Normally mum was gentle and fussy, but now she was all rage.

What? You took our children! And why? If this was revenge for me refusing to help you, then you’ve gone way too far!”

Half of my mind cheered for mum, the other half hoped with all its might that she wouldn’t tick off the furious and obviously unhinged guy standing between us and freedom. If Laketon hurt mum, or any of us, I…

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There was a slap that sounded louder than anything I’d ever heard before in my life. Mum staggered back, disoriented from the strike to her face. I felt my blood freeze, and heard Rem and Patrick shouting somewhere in the background. I think my own voice had stopped working.

My dad had just hit my mum. And even though my “dad” had never been around, it still made everything much worse. It was still something no kid wanted to see.

And then it got worse. My shock had slowed time down in my head, but in the end, it happened way too fast. Mum fell against the ancient heating oven, sending burning coals on the floor. I heard Rem gasp and remembered the smell of gasoline and hoped it really did come just from the half-full tanks I’d seen.

It didn’t.

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The flames built up almost instantly. Their deafening crackle and roar filled the room almost as effectively as the slap. I saw the chair I’d spent the last who-knows-how-many hours on being consumed by fire, and I faintly heard Laketon cursing and stumbling back out of the door. Patrick yelled, and so did mum. The flames leaped all the way up into the ceiling and reached for the walls.

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We backed against the door, but Patrick leaped forward. Mum shouted after him, but I knew she couldn’t and wouldn’t really stop him. Because while the way to the door and to safety was clear, the flames had barred one of us from it.

“Rem!” Patrick shouted, “Hold on, son!”

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I saw Patrick cough when the burning air made him slow down. I saw Rem’s wide, panicked eyes among the flames. He was cornered, and I didn’t want to know what would happen if the flames ever reached the gasoline tanks. I saw it all in a strangely numbed way that probably meant my brain wasn’t working right because of the fear I was now drowning in, and I realised something that may have been partly because I’d been around my strangely clairvoyant brother:

Patrick was too slow and too big to reach Rem in time.

My feet were moving before my mind could catch up.

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I flattened against the wall that was quickly heating up and took a deep breath I almost immediately had to cough back out. Rem was screaming at me to turn back, and Patrick tried to reach out to stop me. I was too quick and too determined to care. I crossed the wall of flame from a spot that was still remarkably not on fire, and hopped and jumped and crouched to get to my weird little stepbrother, who definitely shouldn’t be burnt to a crisp because of my stupid dad. I saw Rem’s wide eyes again, and he reached his hand towards me. I grabbed it and pulled, heading for the narrow path to safety that was getting narrower all the time.

“Phoenix,” Rem whispered hoarsely, and I was sure his mind had fried because of the panic. I hoped he’d be at least somewhat alright.

I really, really hoped we’d all be alright.

I pushed Rem in front of me and leaped through the gap in the flames.

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I saw Patrick catching Rem and could almost smile, because we were going to be alright after all. I forced my legs to move even though I knew I was trembling so much I could barely stand. The air was so thick it was almost solid. Breathing it was like breathing in tar. But it would soon be over, and we’d all be together and safe.

I still kept thinking that when my hair caught on fire.

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Someone yelled. Maybe it was me, maybe it was mum or Patrick or Rem. Maybe it was everyone. My shouts died when I started coughing. My throat burned, and then my arm burned as well. I screamed for sure, then, with soot-covered lungs, and felt my foot slipping. I was falling, and everything was burning.

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And then… nothing.

Author’s Note: I wish I could say that no Sims were hurt in the making of this chapter, but I’d be lying. Pretty much everyone at the lot suffered burns and possible psychological trauma. But… uh… I didn’t save my game that time, so it doesn’t count?

PREVIOUS Chapter 4: Boogeyman

NEXT Chapter 6: Ashes

Chapter 4: Boogeyman

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I loved Twinbrook, especially in the autumn. Yeah, sure, it was located partially in a swamp and it had some real shifty people living in way too nice houses, but I had read and seen enough to guess that most towns had those anyway. It was the unfair natural order of things. But Twinbrook had a rhythm to it that I liked. I liked the people, even though I didn’t like talking to most of them because that was just the way I was.

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I liked knowing a little bit about their lives, to know they passed through ups and downs just like ours. I liked getting glimpses of stories I knew I’d never hear the conclusion of. And I liked being a part of it, albeit a small, quiet part that would probably be shoved into the end credits as “Blonde girl #4”.

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Somehow the trees being painted orange by the powers of biology made everything stand out even more, and even the rain that always seemed to come from the swamp felt like it belonged. Yep, it was probably my favourite season out of them all. Well, besides summer.

The autumn was sadly also the time of the most schoolwork, especially now that the teachers had started to think that we’d have to be prepared for more serious studying and deciding what we wanted to do when we grew up, as if anyone could tell that at the age of twelve. So most of our days went by doing homework and trying to cram some free time into the midst of it. How someone like Bree managed flute lessons and three other after-school clubs in her life on top of it all was anyone’s guess.

I clapped my locker shut and stretched my neck muscles. I’d spent the entire previous class staring at a paper on my desk and writing like crazy. It had been a literature class, and I’d been in a hurry to finish my book report so that I didn’t have to worry about it at home. I glanced about in the hallway. We’d had our classes mostly in the top floor now that we were older; maybe they thought the older kids needed the exercise of climbing the stairs all the time because we didn’t run around so much like the younger kids did.

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Jace’s voice caught my attention and I saw him walk out of the classroom as well. He’d at some point stopped caring if his hair was neatly cut and focused more on things like soccer and rollerblades. He was also a bit less shouty nowadays.

“Hey, Lynn,” he said almost shyly, “You got the book thing done?”

“Yeah,” I said, “You?”

Jace sighed.

“No. And Uncle Bob’s going to be at our place today. He’s so going to force me to finish it in the evening.”

“Wow, how horrible. Your teacher-uncle is going to give you free hints for writing a super book report,” I said flatly. Jace grinned, but the grin quickly faded in the face of the depressing reality he seemed to be stuck in right now.

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“Well, okay, fine… but we’ll have a big game later and I was going to practise in the park today. But my friends have to leave before it gets too late. So I’ll be kicking my soccer ball all alone with my mum, who hates playing soccer. Awesome.”

He was looking deflated, and I reached out to punch him lightly in the shoulder.

“Hey, I’ve got time after school, and mum and Patrick will let me be at the park until a bit later especially if your mum’s around. I could help you practise your kicks.”

Jace looked at me with a mix of boundless gratitude and certain dubiousness.

“You’d do that for me? But…”

“But what?”

“But… you suck at soccer.”

“Hey, it’s either me or nothing. Unless Bree’d like to…”

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“What are you two talking about?” Bree’s voice cut in like a very gentle knife made of sounds, “If it’s about Jace’s obvious crush in…”

“It’s about soccer!” Jace said a little too quickly, “Lynn just offered to help me practise soccer in the park tonight. Want to join?”

Bree pursed her lips.

“Sorry, but you guys know I suck at soccer. Even worse than Lynn.”

“Hey, I’m not that bad!” I protested.

“You kicked Seidi in the shin in the last sports class,” Bree pointed out, “Twice. And she was just standing still.”

“Only one of them was an accident! She was being a jerk!”

“Yeah, because that makes it better,” Bree smiled, “I think I’ll still pass on the soccer. You two have fun on your date.”

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I rolled my eyes. For some reason Bree had started obsessing over romance in the last few months. I didn’t get it. She was still the same, nice Bree who liked maths and working hard and dreaming about greatness, but now giggling and syrupy books had come into play as well. She sometimes giggled with the other girls in class too. It was pretty annoying, so I usually ignored it, as I did now.

“It’s not a date!” Jace said rather vehemently, “We’re just playing ball.”

“Right, right. Have fun, anyway. Are you coming outside before the teachers start whining again?”

That evening, like I’d promised, I asked mum for a permission to go out to the park and changed my clothes into a bit more sporty ones. I was on my way outside when Rem stopped me, trying to share his worries about a nightmare he’d had.

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It was something about boogeymen behind doors, which I thought was kind of stupid considering Rem didn’t even have the traditional closet that monsters could jump out of. He still insisted one would get in and grab us, and didn’t calm down until I promised to punch the monster in the face if it did get in.

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I tried to ignore the haunted look in his eyes when he finally at least pretended to calm down. I wasn’t in the mood for dealing with these things right now. If Rem wanted a more thorough talk about closet-monsters and the lack of their existence, he could talk to Patrick. I jumped on my bike and pedalled into one of the last pleasantly warm autumn evenings of the year.

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Some of the trees had lost almost all of their leaves, but bunches of them were still clinging to the branches like leafy flames. Some trees were still boasting a nearly whole set of foliage, too stubborn to let go until it started snowing and the leaves would be brown and crispy. I breathed in deep, smelled the dewy, fresh air. At times like this I really understood Rem’s love for the great outdoors.

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Jace was waiting for me at the Twinbrook Town Centre -park, and I saw his mum sitting nearby, trying to pretend she wasn’t really there. There was always a soccer goal set up there in the park before the snowing started, and the park was close to our house as well as Jace’s. So it was perfect for our unofficial soccer practise. Jace looked excited and was dressed to the clothes he and the school team wore in their practise matches. He waved at me wildly.

“Check it out, Lynn! They’re already decorating the park for Spooky Day, even though it’s almost a week from now!”

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I looked around and saw that the place had indeed been already set up for the annual harvest festival that had become a memorial day, a scaring others day, and nowadays also a dressing up and begging for candy day once agriculture had become less and less of a common profession. The traditional pumpkin patch had been set up, along with balloons. There was even a small, ramshackle shack that played the part of a haunted house for Spooky Day until it was probably shoved into some sort of storage or redecorated to be a gingerbread house for a summer theatre or something. It looked quite impressive, even though Spooky Day had never been my favourite festival. Jace loved it, though.

“Are you gonna dress up this year?” he asked, “I’m gonna be a Roman soldier. I got a really awesome costume too.”

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“That sounds cool,” I said, “I’m going as a cowplant. You know, those really big, carnivorous ones? Although I’m not that big on putting on a costume and hiding my face…”

“Awesome! You think you’d like to come to the festival here?”

Jace sounded a bit shy again, and I could have sworn he was blushing. I ignored it and shrugged.

“Yeah, I guess my family is going. Rem loves the festival.”

“Would you like to… to meet up there?” Jace asked awkwardly, and now he was definitely blushing.

“Yeah, sure. Hey, you okay? Your face is all red.”

Jace shook his head.

“Oh, yeah. I’m fine. Hey, you ready?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said again, not sounding nearly as excited as Jace was. Even though I had readily offered to help Jace – because he was a friend and it was a nice thing to do – I had to admit that my friends were right to belittle my soccer skills. I was really hoping Jace would just settle for penalty kicks. I could handle playing the part of a goalkeeper decently. Jace smiled, probably seeing my reluctance.

“What, getting cold feet, Farley?”

I rolled my eyes.

“I’m here to help you, Herring. So be nice. We’ll just do penalty kicks, right?”

Jace laughed.

“That works. Then you don’t have to worry about kicking me.”

I aimed a half-hearted kick at his shin, missing deliberately.

“Don’t count on it,” I said playfully.

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We sought out the soccer goal that was tucked to the sidelines for the festivities. It was still usable, though, and I quickly took my place in front of it to fend off any others who might have a mind for some autumn soccer. I braced myself for possible hits to the face, and swore to do my best.

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The next hour or so was a blur of kicks, catches and a soccer ball that bounced between the goal and Jace. I knew I was not the best practise partner for someone who played in the school team, but it seemed to be enough for Jace at the moment.

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He was smiling like crazy and laughing and shouting triumphantly whenever he scored a goal – and also whenever I managed to protect the goal particularly well. By the end I was sweating and getting tired, but I had to admit that it had been fun.

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“Thank you so much about this!” Jace said when we finally wrapped up our practise. His face was tomato-red from the running and kicking, but his smile was wide.

“Well, glad I helped,” I said, wiping my forehead, “I think it’s time to go home, though. It’s almost dark.”

“Yeah. So, uh… I’ll see you at school.”

“See you.”

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Jace and I parted ways at one of the entrances to the park, and I wondered idly why Jace was being so awkward nowadays. Maybe the reasons were along the same lines as what there was behind Bree’s sudden giggling. I wasn’t feeling giggly, though. I was just feeling less and less excited when playing kids’ games or thinking about trick or treating.

Maybe we were all growing up. If that was the case, growing up was strange.

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Because autumn was harvest time, professional and amateur gardeners alike would have all sorts of get-togethers in Twinbrook, which despite the surrounding swamp had a pretty thriving gardener community. Patrick wasn’t the most active member, but even he and his little vegetable garden wanted to take part in some organic farmers’ get-togethers every once in a while. So he spent his free time picking out the perfect vegetables out of his garden and carving jack-o-lanterns out of the pumpkins that weren’t prime quality. Rem loved to help him, even though he was way less handy with a knife than he was with pencils or a brush. Patrick loved to spend time with him, however, even if it meant our front yard would have some lopsidedly grinning lanterns on Spooky Day.

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It was a couple of days before Spooky Day when Patrick and mum left us alone so they could spend a night together with some gardening hippies and talk about vegetables and herbs. It mostly sounded unbelievably boring, and I was so glad Rem and I were left home without questions.

The sun was setting earlier and earlier in preparation for winter, and Rem was painting spring colours into the shapes of dragons. I was reading the newest novel in a series about a young wizard. The armchair was nice and cosy and the house was warm, keeping out the cold night air. It was one of those moments of perfect relaxation.

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So of course that was when the doorbell had to ring. I sighed. Had mum and Patrick forgotten their keys? That almost never happened. Why did it have to be now when I was about to reach something close to a Zen state?

“Rem? Can you get that?” I asked, carefully setting my book aside.

“My hands are covered in paint,” Rem said, “I’ve got to wash them first.”

The doorbell rang again. I slid down from my seat.

“Oh, fine, I’ll get it. Hold on!”

I walked to the door and heard Rem turn on the tap in the bathroom. My hand reached the handle just when the water stopped flowing and Rem shouted:

“Wait, Lynn! Don’t open that!”

My hand had already pushed the handle down. And I was gripped with a rather unpleasant sense of déjà vu.

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Nils Laketon, my deadbeat dad, studied me from behind dark aviator glasses. His leather jacket was dirtier than before, and there was something very different about him. He stood like a statue at our door, nodding stiffly at me but not saying a word.

“Laketon?” I said, “I mean, dad? Nils? What are you doing here?”

Nils Laketon said nothing. I was starting to feel seriously creeped out.

“Mum’s not home,” I added uneasily, “So… uh… sorry?”

Laketon’s mouth twitched. I heard Rem’s bare feet slap against the floor.

“Lynn? Is it the boogeyman?” his voice was agitated. What was going on? I looked at Laketon’s stony face and listened to Rem’s tone and made my decision.

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I slammed the door shut. To my horror, it didn’t go all the way. Something pushed it back open with a force enough to tip a bear, and I staggered out of the way. I caught another glimpse of a snarl on Laketon’s face before a strong arm wrapped around my waist and lifted me off my feet.

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I struggled against the grip, but it didn’t yield. Laketon stepped into our house, and I could barely see from the tears that now clouded my vision.

“Rem! Get away from here!” I shouted, “SOMEONE, HELP US!”

The front door slammed shut behind me, blocking my calls for help from the neighbours. Fear and panic clouded everything. One of my strongest thoughts was to keep yelling at Rem to run. Rem, who stood frozen in place in our living room.

“Run! Just GO!”

“Or don’t,” said Laketon in a cold, even voice, “If you come with me nicely, kid, I won’t hurt your sister. How about it?”

“Don’t listen to him!” I shouted and tried punching the steely arm around my waist. Laketon’s grip just tightened and he shook me painfully. Rem wasn’t running. His eyes were wide and brimming with tears. And my muddled thoughts realised in one fleeting moment that Rem’s nightmare had just come true.

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“Come on, freak!” Laketon snapped, “Do I have to grab you too? Either way, we’re all getting out of here.”

Rem took slow, zombie-like steps towards me and Laketon. I shouted again at him to run. He didn’t.

“I’ll come with you,” he said in a barely audible voice, “Just don’t hurt her.”

“No!” I snapped, “I’ll be fine, Rem! Run and call the police!”

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Rem shook his head. He walked obediently next to Laketon as he dragged me kicking and screaming into a truck he had haphazardly parked on the road near our house. The neighbours’ houses were mostly dark, but I still shouted in hopes that somebody would hear us. Laketon shook me again, quickened his steps and shoved me into the car without any problems despite my struggling. He was strong. Scarily strong. Rem sat next to me, stiff with fear and crying silently. Laketon sped to the road, destroying any chance of escaping. I wrapped my arms around Rem and Rem buried his face in my shoulder. I had screamed for help outside, but now it was no use. Our house was left behind, and we were headed towards the swampy outskirts of Twinbrook.

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We could only watch as our house disappeared into the gathering dark.

I had never been so afraid.

Author’s Note: Yeah… Stuff gets a bit intense in this one… One of the reasons I haven’t updated for a while was because I was debating with myself whether to start this part of the plot yet or keep putting out filler, but then decided that filler wouldn’t do anything… ugh, pacing is haaaaard. Anyway, hope you guys like it! I tried to make it possible for anyone to comment. Not sure if it worked but if it did, then great!

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