After what felt like an eternity, Emma forcibly lifted up her head as blood dripped down from a deep gash above her right eye. Her blurry vision revealed the massive, dark-haired wolf standing on its heavily muscled hind legs, locked arm-in-arm with a much smaller woman. While Emma was certainly concerned about the massive creature before her, her gaze was stolen by the woman with dark brown shoulder-length hair. Looking further, Emma noticed the woman's eyes as they glowed a fierce shade of blue. Lastly, Emma took in the woman's porcelain skin that seemed to move in a blur as she struggled to hold back the imposing wolf that was trying to lock its wide jaw around the woman's exposed neck. As Emma's vision slowly began to narrow, her fearful eyes focused on the woman's bloodied grin, and Emma was taken aback as she saw the excited grin begin to widen.
Vision fading to black, Emma's mind began to drift back to how her life had led her to this moment. With one last living breath, Emma thought, I guess your life really does flash before your eyes at the end.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – THE BEGINNING
On the day that Emma was brought to the Second Chance Orphanage by an overworked but caring social worker from the Department of Children and Family Services, Emma first glimpsed what was to be her new 'home.' The building itself was an eclectic shamble of wood work that appeared to be on the verge of collapse. The social worker shifted the rumbling car into park, exited the vehicle, and went around to open the door for Emma.
"Alright, dear, we're here. It's time to go now."
Not really understanding at only seven years old, Emma used her small hands to unbuckle her seat belt and climbed down from the seat of the car and onto the cracked sidewalk that had struts of grass poking up from below. The social worker held Emma's Mickey Mouse suitcase and went to wheel it to the curb, but found it had a broken weal and instead she moved carry it.
Emma looked up in time to see the great door in the center of the building with its flaking green paint slowly open to reveal a grim-faced older woman.
The severe looking woman coughed and pulled out a small white handkerchief from her full-bodied violet colored dress. The dress itself was accented with puffs of white lace at the woman's neck and hands. Around the woman's neck was a black satin choker with a well-polished gold pendant that had a radiant ruby at its heart.
Emma, who was frozen in place, found herself being gently but firmly pushed forward by the social worker's hand that was placed on the middle of her back. With her feet moving, Emma and the social worker made their way up the worn stairs and to the waiting woman.
With her eyes on the social worker, the old woman coughed once more into her handkerchief and replaced it into the fold of her dress, asking in a droll sounding voice,
"Another one, is it?"
Looking and feeling a bit more tired than the social worker had been before climbing the steps, she replied, "Yes, Ms. Sarah. This is Emma Swan."
Ms. Sarah shifted her gaze for the first time to the small girl and looked her once over as one would as if sizing up livestock to sell. Emma was small for her age of seven. Emma had neck length blonde hair that was a mess of curls and knots, and her face was thin and angular which matched her slight frame under the oversized clothes she wore. While Ms. Sarah expected her to have the vacant expression like the majority of the children that made their way to her, but Emma had her jaw set, and her hazel eyes were bearing down the older woman.
"My dear, the first thing you will have to learn is that it's not polite to stare, especially if you ever dream of finding parents one day."
Feeling taken aback, Emma's gaze suddenly found her white sneakers, that were provided by the state, as had the rest of her small wardrobe, very interesting.
Ms. Sarah smiled in victory and continued, "You many call me Aunt Sarah, Emma, and I treat all of my children fairly, and I love each and every one of them equally."
Emma found herself suddenly looking up to her new Aunt Sarah and she said with confidence, "You're lying."
Aunt Sarah took a sharp breath in and scolded Emma with her piercing eyes and said with a raised tone, "And that's the second thing you are to learn, never talk back to your betters, and on that note, if you don't have anything nice to say, then I suggest you remain quiet."
This time, Emma felt more than taken aback and contorted her body to make herself smaller than she really was.
Feeling the tension, the social worker interjected, "Yes, well, I can see that Emma has much that she can learn and that she will greatly benefit from your tutelage."
Aunt Sarah replaced her smile and she returned her gaze to the social worker and replied, "Of course she can, all my children are the better for my guiding hand. Come along, Emma."
Aunt Sarah took the suitcase from the social worker and strode inside with Emma.
As Aunt Sarah was about to close the door, she looked at the social worker and said, "I'll be looking for the additional check for this new lovely child," and then she shut the door.
Aunt Sarah looked down at Emma, in more ways than one, and she dropped her suitcase on the ground beside the girl, and as the case landed, Emma could hear the side of the case spilt, and the bang that erupted startled her.
"Come here, child."
Emma shuffled her feet forward, and as she did so, Aunt Sarah's hand flew forth and landed across the girl's quickly reddening cheek. Emma looked up as the shock and pain spread through her. As Emma's hand clutched her accosted cheek, her mouth hung open in protest.
Aunt Sarah pointed one long nailed finger at the girl and said, "That is the last time I ever want to hear a word from your filthy little mouth. If I speak to you, then you will respond with all due courtesy afforded to me. You are in my home and you will do as you are told, or you will really find out what it is to be forgotten. Do I make myself clear, Ms. Swan?"
Emma nodded her head in compliance.
"What did I say you were to do when I speak to you?"
"Clear," was Emma could squeak out.
Aunt Sarah raised two incredulous eyebrows.
"Clear, Aunt Sarah," she said, through the searing pain in her jaw.
"Better. Now then, breakfast is served at seven in the morning and dinner is at five in the evening. If you're late, you don't eat. If you misbehave, you don't eat. If you don't like how I run things, well you can go and find yourself another place to live, and again you don't eat. Behave, and maybe, just maybe, one of the desperate parents that come through here will see you and take you home with them. Misbehave, and your pretty little face will never be seen by anyone, and the day you graduate high school, you're on the streets where the rest of the trash is kept. Any questions?"
Emma swallowed and tried to ignore the throbbing pain on the side of her face, and though she tried to be brave, the tears streaking down her face betraying her.
"Where do I sleep, Aunt Sarah?"
"Where ever you can find a bed. I don't really care. Now, if you'll excuse me, my dear, my stories are about to start."
Aunt Sarah turned from the child and strode into her bedroom and closed the door behind her.
Emma looked down at her broken Mickey Mouse suit case. Emma had never felt so alone in her entire life. Emma couldn't remember her parents. She had heard that she had been found in a wooden wardrobe in the middle of nowhere. Well, at least that is what she had overheard the from the social workers that had looked after her for the past few weeks.
Not knowing what else to do, Emma decided to try to find a bedroom, and she attempted to lift up her suitcase, but she couldn't budge it with her one hand. Reluctantly, she dropped her hand from the side of her face so she could use both hands to lift the case, but the most she could do was move it an inch or two. Feeling completely overwhelmed, Emma sat down and hugged her knees and began to rock back and forth as she cried. In between her sobs, she heard a faint sound approaching. Emma strained her ears to listen.
A small voice that was singing approached Emma.
"Little town. It's a quit village. Every day like the one before. Little town, full of little people. Waking up to say…"
Before Emma strode a small girl, about Emma's age. The girl approaching Emma had shoulder length brown hair that was tied in a neat ponytail with a blue ribbon. The small girl had a book up to her face as she was singing.
Hearing the sniffling tears, the girl shut the book and clutched it to her chest. Her eyes went wide with surprise. "Oh... Hello," she said, with her genuine sounding voice.
Emma pulled out one hand from her closed knees and waved shyly.
The girl, without fear, walked up to Emma and slowly knelt down beside her, saying, "Hi. My name is Belle. What's yours?"
With her tears slowing, Emma took in a breath and answered through her covering arms,
"Hi there, Emma," Belle said, shooting out a hand in greeting.
Emma just looked at the hand.
Seeing the other girl's hesitation, she attempted to disarm her with a smile and said, "It's okay, Emma. I won't hurt you. Not ever. I promise."
Emma saw no deception in Belle's eyes, and she extend a wary hand, and the two girls shook.
"See? There. Now we're friends," the brunette proclaimed.
The two girls smiled, and a giggle escaped them both.
"Whatcha doing in the hallway?"
Emma suddenly remembered that she had been abandoned here and began to cry again.
Alarm could be seen on her face and heard in Belle's voice as she said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you cry."
Emma wiped her tears away with her sleeve and replied, "It's not you. I'm—" but she couldn't finish the sentence. Still, Belle knew how the sentence ended as she often felt the same.
"You're not alone, Emma. I'm here, and friends don't let friends down, not ever. I'll be your friend forever," she said with excitement.
Emma couldn't help but smile at Belle's optimism.
"Emma, would you like to share my bedroom? I mean, there's other rooms here, but they've all got kids in them. It's just me in mine."
"Why is it just you in yours?" Emma asked with genuine curiosity.
"I dunno. I guess the other kids think I'm rather strange."
Emma sat up a little straighter and said, "Well, I don't think your strange."
Belle smiled and replied, "Come on, Emma. Let's go to our room."
Belle stood up and extended a hand to her new friend and Emma took it and the each carried up the suit case to the stairway that lead to the hallway that was lined with various bedrooms.
As the two girls were making their way up the stairs and awkwardly carried the suitcase between them, two Siamese cats came down with the long thin tails intertwined.
"Watch out for those two, Emma."
"Those are Aunt Sarah's cats. Their names are Si and Am."
As a staple of the orphanage, the two cats would often roam the halls of the building. While Aunt Sarah felt her precious babies could do no wrong, they would both terrorize the children, and they would often scratch at the meager furniture of the home. If a child got too close to either cat, they usually walked away with a deep scratch or two for their trouble.
As the two cats approached the two girls, the felines unlocked their tales and went gracefully around them with their small heads held high, as if they each smelled something they didn't like.
"Come on, Emma. They're just stuck up."
Hearing Belle speak, both cats turned back in unison with their slim and agile forms and let out a screeching unified hiss which sent the two girls scurrying up the final steps. As if satisfied, the two cats bumped heads and relocked their tales and they each let out echoing meows, before they made their way down the stairs.
Belle led the way down the narrow hall, and they passed the various open and closed doors, all of which Belle walked past. Not a one said 'hello' to Belle. Seeing this began to endear Belle to Emma.
Approaching the last door in the hall, Belle stopped and said, "Here we are. Home sweet home."
Emma looked at the door, and like the rest that they had passed, they were all painted with varying shades of brown. As Belle turned the handle of the door, it swung open to reveal a small bedroom with four beds. Three of the beds had a sagging mattress on top of a rusted metal frame, and the fourth, though it had the same features, was covered in a thick quilt of brown and red fabric that was neatly tucked in at the corners. The only other items in the room were a small and beaten wooden desk with an oval mirror and chair; a three-layer bookcase that had one busted shelf being propped up with tape and book acting as a splint; and a single doored closet. The only light in the room came from a window with a view of another building.
"So, what do you think, Emma?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, it's our room. Do you like it?"
Emma gazed around the room and looked at Belle, then hugged her new friend, her only friend.
As Emma settled into the orphanage, Belle began to show her the ropes. Together, they walked around the block of their neighborhood.
"So, when we're at meal time, it's best to sneak food into your pockets. but nothing wet. Things like crackers, things in packets, or fruit with thick skins, like bananas."
Looking incredulously at Belle, she asked, "Why?"
"Well, sometimes Aunt Sarah runs out of food for us, or we don't have enough to eat, which honestly is most nights."
"That's not right."
"Well, thanks, Belle. You've been a really good friend. Belle, can I ask you a question?"
Feeling cheerful to change the subject, as Belle's stomach began to grumble, she answered, "Sure."
"How did you end up here?"
Sensing her friend's unease, Emma quickly added, "We don't need to talk about it; I was just curious is all."
"No, it's okay. It's just hard to talk about."
Without thinking about it, Emma grabbed for Belle's hand, and she took it.
"My father was an inventor, and it was just me and my papa. Momma died when I was born."
At hearing that, Emma reassuringly squeezed Belle's hand and encouraged her with a warm smile.
"And so Papa was always inventing something. He was always so clever but couldn't afford to pay anyone, so he did it all while running his business. One night, he needed to make a delivery out to some rich guy's house, and he had an accident."
Belle began to cry and she found herself choked for words.
"I'm so sorry, Belle. We don't need to keep talking about it. It's okay."
Belle breathed out an unsteady breath and continued, "Papa was attacked by wolves. At least, that's what the police told me."
Emma stopped her friend from walking as they talked. Then, she spun Belle around and just hugged her until she calmed down. When Belle was able to pull away from the embrace, Emma saw her friend's tear streaked face. She wiped away Belle's tears before kissing her forehead.
"Thanks, Emma," Belle said with a small but growing smile.
"Of course, Belle. I'm your friend."
Looking to change the subject once more, Belle said in a happier tone of voice, "Oh, and this is where I wanted to bring you. It's the public library."
Emma looked away from Belle and took in the library. Emma could see the library was once held in a higher stature, but now it harbored boarded up windows, graffitied sides and defaced statues of what were likely lions at some point.
Belle, seeing her friends face, said, "I know it doesn't look like much, and they don't have a lot of books, but it's the best we have, and honestly, it's loads better than the orphanage."
"Wanna show me around?" Emma asked.
Belle's eyes went wide as she exclaimed, "Do I ever!"
Emma couldn't help but laugh as the two girls walked into the library.
As each of the girls grew up in the orphanage, they saw fellow children come and go. Perhaps the hardest thing about living in the orphanage was lining up for inspection for potential parents. Every few weeks or so, couples would tour the orphanage and pick out a kiddo or two to take home. As with all of the forgotten children, Emma and Belle would stand in front of their rickety beds and prepare for presentation with their chins out and their hands in their pockets. Emma and Belle came to think of it as the 'dog and pony show,' and neither one of them were ever picked. As each of them got older, they knew the likelihood of them ever being adopted grew slimmer and slimmer with each passing year.
It was not uncommon for Emma and Belle to be found together, huddled in a closet, wearing various stained and altered clothing. They would often cry together in one another's arms after taking part in yet another showing, and once again coming away unchosen.
"It's not fair," Emma would cry. "They only want cute babies."
Emma had begun to ball her hands into little fits and would hit herself in the sides of her head. Belle quickly took hold of her so the small blonde could no longer hurt herself.
While Emma was being held tightly by Belle, she suddenly felt her friend's breathing first begin to quicken then grow shallow.
"Belle?" Emma asked with concern.
When Belle didn't answer, Emma pulled back slightly, but she found that Belle had clamped tighter around her middle.
"Okay, Belle. It's okay. We didn't get chosen this time, but who knows? Maybe next time we will."
"It's not that," Belle said in a rush.
"Okay, well what is it then?"
But she didn't answer. Belle felt as if she couldn't answer. It started as it always did. She felt her heart begin to beat faster, as if her it had grown to just under her throat, and then she began to get a little scared. After the fear settled in, her heart rate went faster, which only served to intensify the fear and the sweat began to pour. With her fear boiling over, Belle's right arm began to hurt from the top down until her fingers started to tingle and then go numb. At this point, Belle's breathing from her mouth was so fast that it came in hard and shallow breaths. As Belle tried to close her mouth and get her breathing under control, she began to get the taste of copper in her mouth, as if it was full of old pennies. By now, all that Belle could think was, This is it. This is how I die. Oh my God, I'm going to die. I don't want to die. I can't die. Her thoughts only quickened and spiraled from there.
Since Belle had her first panic attack the night she was sent to the orphanage, she would have them on a seemingly random basis, and it was the randomness of the attacks that would frighten her the most; she couldn't predict them, and she felt powerless when they came on. The attack would begin then last for hours, and Belle would be left spent and scared for the remainder of the day, until the panic became a memory. Now there was a difference: Emma was there with her.
Running on instinct, Emma hugged and gently rocked Belle and repeated to her, "Shhhh... It's okay. I'm here, you're here, and there's nothing we can't handle together. I'm right here." After a few minutes, Emma had an idea and told Belle, "Bells, I want to try something."
Emma could feel Belle shake her head, but Emma continued, "I want you to try to match my breathing, and I want you to remind yourself that I'm right here, and that we're okay as long as we're together. If this is dumb, we don't have to do it again, but let's give it a shot, okay?" Emma didn't hear a response, so she asked patiently, "Belle, please."
Belle nodded her head into the hollow of Emma's neck and tried to do as she was asked. Slowly, Belle started to mirror Emma's breathing and she told herself over and over, slower and slower that, Emma is right here, and there is nothing we can't handle together. After a few more minutes passed, so did the anxiety.
As Belle loosened her hold on Emma, Emma whispered, "It's okay Belle. We have each other. It's you and me against the world, and the world is fucked."
Hearing Emma curse always brought a small smile to Belle's face, as Emma rarely did so, and she knew the effect of her words on the other girl.