The man smiled. It wasn't a nice smile.
It wasn't a particularly mean smile either. It was instead the look of a man who was far from pleased with circumstances that had arisen, but was far too polite to frown or gripe about it.
Considering what he'd given me, I wasn't surprised.
"I assure you, ma'am, everything has been checked and verified."
He wore a dark suit and tie with a white shirt underneath. His glasses were dark and squarish, with an overcoat and hat protecting him from the pouring rain. His skin was pale, and hair a dark brown, but there were the faint hints of dark rings at the edges of his glasses. All in all, he resembled FBI agent from the 80's who'd been running some big case with nothing but coffee for days.
I frowned, looking down at the piece of paper grasped in my hands once more, as well as who sent it.
I sighed, letting my hand fall back down to look at him again.
The letter certainly sounded like it was the real thing. The content was definitely how He talked.
Still, I thought, looking down at the precious packet held by his side.
"…Does she know?" I asked.
"…yes." He hid his grimace well. Given what I'd learned, I felt the same way.
"You piece of shit." I cursed under my breath. "Fucking warned you."
Pushing those thoughts away, I focused on what really mattered.
Crouching down, I brought myself down to eye level with the girl at his side. She had curly, frizzy brown hair and freckles splashed across her face. Red, wide eyes stared at me as she clutched the man beside her like he was her lifeline.
She couldn't have been more than seven, and already her life was torn asunder.
"Hey, Amelia, sweetie, do you remember me?" I smiled, trying to will the clear sadness, the fear, from her form.
She paused, biting her finger in a way that'd be adorable if it wasn't so heartbreaking.
"…Mrs. Ann?" She guessed.
Close enough. "Yes!"
I glanced up at the man who brought her to me. He looked down at the two of us with that same forced polite smile,but I could see it. Swimming behind his eyes, a storm of loss and rage.
Looking back down at Amelia, I brought that same smile upon my face, forcing levity into the situation. "Hey, it looks like you're going to be staying with me for a while. Is that ok with you?"
She hesitated, glancing up at the man beside her. He wasn't her father. No, he was just a go-between. A man with many jobs who worked for the one in charge.
Just a man following orders.
I grabbed her attention. "Do you remember Taylor?"
Her eyes lit up, her head snapping back to me.
"Uh…" she said inelegantly. But I saw it, that spark in her again.
"You know, I was going to make brownies with her tomorrow, you can help us if you want."
She opened her mouth, once more glancing at the man she clung to. He gave her what passed for an encouraging smile.
"I-I would very m-much like that, M-Mrs. Ann," she said, straightening her back as she drudged up half-remembered memories of her father and his lessons.
The all too clear pain nearly broke my heart.
I invited her out of the cold rain. "Why don't you come in?"
"O-okay," was all she said, still glancing at the man who brought her here for approval.
Still, with his nod, she took my hand and stepped up to the porch.
I glanced behind me. The man gave me one last smile, this one genuine, before he slipped back into the shadows of the night. In moments, the torrential downpour had consumed his form.
I sighed, realizing I'd probably never see him again.
"Alright, Amelia. Let's get you out of those wet clothes."
But even as I followed behind, those fateful words ran through my mind.
"My dearest Annette…"
"If you are reading this, then I am dead, or otherwise lost to this world. For all intents and purposes, I am gone."
"In my passing, I ask only that you care for my most prized treasure as if she were your own."
"You are one of the precious few I trust to do so."
"I've outgrown you, Taylor."
"Get out of here. No one wants a baby like you for a friend."
"Oh man," an African-American girl chuckled, reclining on the bed. "I can't wait till I take you out there, show you the real world in person."
"Y-yeah," her redheaded counterpart said hesitantly. She swallowed, trying to force courage into herself. "I-it'll be great."
"Damn straight," the first grinned. "One day you might even learn to knock some heads."
The redhead gulped.
"Hey," the black one nudged her, "don't worry about it, Emma. You're a natural." She grinned. "A survivor, just like me."
Emma sat up a little straighter, a measure of confidence filling her. "Yeah."
"A-and now that I got rid of Taylor, I can move on!" she cheered.
Her friend shrugged. "Yeah, I guess she did seem like kind of a wimp."
"Y-yeah!" Emma perked up. "I'll be stronger than her. I'll prove it to you, Sophia!"
"Hey, hey," Sophia said as she held her hands up, "calm down. Take this one step at a time."
She smirked. "I already know what kind of girl you are. You don't need to prove anything yet."
"Yeah…yeah." Emma calmed down. "I just…"
Emma didn't know what it was, but something inside her, ever since that day, burned in her heart. A desire, no, a need to be…more, better, stronger.
To never be weak again.
"I just like trimming the fat," she said as she smiled even as a deeper, older, part of her asked why?
"Well, trimming the fat is important," Sophia considered. "And if she's as weak as you said, it's not like anything will really happen from it."
She snorted. "She'll probably just go back home and cry herself to sleep."
Emma forced a laugh. "Yeah, it's not like her dad's in any shape to take us on."
Even as she tried to reassure herself, that voice deep inside whispered one question, something she desperately tried not to think about.
The two girls shot up, Emma's blood running cold at what sounded uncomfortably like her mother.
"Come down here right now!"
Emma couldn't get to the door fast enough. Sophia, an unsettling feeling in her gut, followed behind. What she found downstairs shook her to the bone.
"Emma, would you care to explain?"
There stood her mother, giving her a distinctly unamused look. Her narrowed eyes held Emma with a piercing gaze. Her mouth set into a firm line. Her arms crossed, her posture stiff, and her whole body hovering over the sobbing mess she once called a friend.
For a moment, Emma allowed herself a foolish kernel of hope. As she and Sophia stepped into the kitchen, she felt she could see a glimmer, the light at the end of the tunnel.
"Oh, I'd love to know too."
Slowly, she dared turn around, her eyes taking a frightened peek at what her ears already knew.
There she stood leaning against the back wall of the kitchen, standing in the shadows. She wore dark clothes, a long brown skirt that reached her ankles and a white dress shirt under a brown vest. The long sleeves and gloves hid her skin from sight. The only bare flesh on her person was her pale and freckled face. Long frizzy and brown hair sat above equally brown eyes. And yet, for all its blandness, there was a certain wrongness to it.
Her eyes were dead and hollow, and yet they seemed to shine with an unearthly light. Her lips were pulled into what even a blind man couldn't rightly call a smile. Her teeth glimmering a bright white in the dark and her fists clenched tight in her crossed arms. There was an itch in her form, like a spring wound tight just waiting to be let loose.
"Well hello, Emma," she said in what could have been mistaken as a friendly tone, "it feels like it's been too long. I hope you remember me. Aunt Zoe certainly does."
How could she have forgotten about Taylor's older sister?
Emma gulped, "I-I don't…uh…what happened to Taylor?"
"Oh?" her mother challenged, a dangerous look in her eye. "You don't know? Because Amelia here has some questions. And, quite frankly, so do I."
"Yeah," Amy drawled, her lips curled in amusement. "You see, Taylor had quite the interesting tale to tell, and, well, I just had to come here myself."
"I mean, I told myself, 'Oh, Emma couldn't have possibly made Taylor cry.'" Her grin turned ever more sinister, sadism leaking into every inch. "'Not after we promised to keep her from crying again.'"
"I-she's lying," Emma faltered, her words crumbling around her.
The girl she admired behind her, the woman she feared in front of her, and the girl who confided in her by her side. All unraveling from at the gleeful hands of the twisted sister.
"Emma," her mother scowled, "come here."
Her tone brokered no argument.
Trapped, Emma glanced behind her, looking to her protector for aid.
All she found was a wide-eyed girl out of her depth.
"The next words out of your mouth better be the truth, young lady."
Emma stared wide-eyed at her mother. Never before had she seen such anger in her. Never before had she seen such anger pointed at her.
"I-I-I…" Emma didn't know what to say.
It would never pass, not with her mother's knowing gaze boring holes into her soul. Emma felt like she was being put under a microscope, her every movement, every twitch, every breath up for examination.
And I deserve it, her darkest corners thought.
Tell the truth?
Burning, crushing, tearing, shame. It would be to admit defeat. To admit weakness.
I'm not weak!
She couldn't be. She had to be strong. She survived, right?
I'm ok, she told herself.
"Is this that new friend of yours?"
No no no!
"Did she put you up to this?"
"No!" Emma shouted. "No, she, I, no no no."
Emma was treading water, the realities of her actions rushing up to meet her.
"Oh?" Her mother stared her down.
She can't take this from me!
"Please, no, I-I'll make it up to you."
"So you admit that you told Taylor off?"
"Yes! Just…" Emma bit her lip, "S-she's…I j-just got tired of hanging around with her. S-she didn't take it well."
"Tired of-?" Her mother recoiled. "Emma, you two have been the closest of friends for as long as I can remember, what on earth brought this on?"
"She's just…a kid, you know?"
"Yes." Her mother looked down flatly at her. "She's a kid, like you."
"Y-yeah, but she's a…a…baby, you know."
"A…baby? What?" She looked incredulous.
Emma, her mind seeing an opportunity, taking confusion over anger, leaped.
"Yeah, she's always crying and babbling and whining-"
"Emma!" Her mother cut her off sharply.
Emma winced, her psyche cracking from the stress of failure.
"Her mother died."
"Are you trying to say you wouldn't cry if I died?" her mother challenged. "Because, well, 'that's what babies do', or have I gotten something wrong?"
What could she say?
"God, I raised you to be better than this."
Her world was crumbling around her.
"You've been so different since that day."
No, I survived!
"You've been so…"
I'm a predator!
Emma's world shattered.
I closed the door behind Taylor after she walked through. She looked tired. Hardly surprising considering the day she'd had.
"You home?" I called out.
And if I'm lucky…
"Yeah…" he called back, sounding somewhat distracted. Straining my nose, I could sense the faint waft of tomatoes and meat. "Just setting up dinner."
Yes! I nearly pumped a fist in victory.
A faint "oh," escaped her lips as Taylor shot up like a squirrel.
She blushed, shrinking back down again.
I was happy for her. Sure, dad's lasagna couldn't really compare to mom's, but considering the day Taylor'd had she'd need the comfort food.
When we finally sat down on the couch in front of the coffee table, arrayed around the TV, dad was still fixing stuff in the kitchen.
I glanced at my sister. "You gonna be ok?"
"Yeah," she sniffled, rubbing her runny nose on her too-long sleeves. "I just…"
She trailed off, either unable or unwilling to think of the words.
"You want to know why?" I offered.
"Yeah." She turned those big watery green eyes to me. "W-why'd she do it?"
I sighed. I'd heard everything that Emma and her mom were saying, but Emma didn't actually tell Aunt Zoe the whole story. Knowing Aunt Zoe she'd probably call us, or hell, come up to our door with an apology dessert and explain the whole story. She was good like that.
As for what I'd picked up on…
"It just…" I blew a hot breath out of my mouth, trying to put the words in an order that didn't upset Taylor even more. "She was just…in a bad place, and Sophia, the other girl, was there to kind of…pick up the pieces."
At her trembling lip, I worried I'd said the wrong thing. "Pick up the pieces? B-but that's what friends are supposed to do!."
She looked down, her hands shaking in her lap. "I-I left her. I was the bad friend. I wasn't there when she needed me."
Oh, fuck fuck fuck.
"No, no!" I pulled her into a hug. "Look, you were at summer camp-"
"What kind of terrible person abandons their friend for summer camp?"
"You just wanted something else. And you had fun, right? Emma would understand."
"But she didn't. And now she's hurting because I left her."
Oh god, now she's spiraling! I start to panic.
To be honest, I kind of want to deck Emma in the face, knock out a few teeth, and leave her in the street. If she was willing to jump into throwing away my sister's friendship, her sisterhood over a few scratches and a new girl, then she didn't deserve Taylor.
But that's not necessarily a healthy outlook or a response any of my parents would approve of, so I instead focused on helping Taylor.
Because frankly, she needs it.
I'm glad I nipped it in the bud now. Sure, Taylor will probably cry about it for a week or two, feel like complete garbage, but, she'll bounce back. Just like when mom died. It'll be rough, it'll be hard, but she'll recover, stronger than ever. She always does. I just have to keep her from feeling all the pain she doesn't deserve in the meantime.
"Hey," I say as I grab her sobbing face and pinch her cheeks, "you're too cute to worry about this."
"But nothing. I'm your big sister, which means I know more than you, right?"
"So, if I said you didn't do anything wrong, that means you didn't do anything wrong."
"But I left her!"
"Are you saying I'm wrong?"
"Good," I pull her head into my bosom, pressing her ear up against your heart. "Do you hear that?"
"This heart beats for you."
She squirms in my grip so you turn her so I can look her in the eye while she listens. "Everything I do is to ensure my precious little sister's happiness."
"So please don't cry," I plead as I wipe away her tears. "Smile. Smile and show us that little sun mom made."
Cheesy as it is, it works. From out of the dark clouds of Taylor's despair shines the bright light of her earnest, if watery, smile.
I look up to see dad carrying one large pan of lasagna, plates, and utensils stacked on top. In turn, he's looking down at us with a questioning look on his face.
"Oh!" Taylor sits up, eyeing the food hungrily.
"Here you go," he says slowly, eyeing my sister carefully as he places it on the table.
Fortunately for the two of us, she's got eyes only for the food. While she's busy, I give dad the universal silent signal for "Don't ask now, tell you later." Which is to say, I give him a grimace of a smile while making a chopping motion across my neck.
He gives me a concerned look for a moment, before returning the grimace of a smile with a thumbs up. "I'll, uh, get drinks…"
Soon, Taylor's worries are forgotten as we enjoyed lasagna, soda, and watching some Sci-Fi about space marines fighting monsters together.
Once dinner and the crisis is over, Taylor is so emotionally exhausted she just shuffles off to bed without a word beyond, "G'night."
Once she's gone, dad gives me a sharp look. It's all he needs.
"Emma basically told Taylor to go fuck herself today," I explain in unflattering terms. Already, I can feel my blood churning.
Dad doesn't even blink at the profanity. "She what?" he says in a dangerously flat voice.
"I already brought it up with Aunt Zoe, who was pissed when she grilled Emma." I let out another hot breath and force myself not to snarl.
"I don't know what happened to Emma but…it kinda looks like she saw something that made her just snap, something her mom didn't know about. Aunt Zoe kept referring to 'that day'." I shrug, struggling to keep my casual air when every muscle in my body is writhing beneath the skin. "Whatever it was, it rocked Emma to the core."
"But, there was another girl there. I think her name was...Sophie," I said, recalling the unpleasant memories of our little exchange. My face nearly flashed into a sneer, but I quickly reined it in. "She might have had a hand in twisting Emma's mindset. She certainly seemed...off."
"Off?" Dad raises a lone brow that asks for more. "I'd rather you not go after someone for seeming 'off.'"
"I'm not going that far." I pout, then pause, reconsidering it.
"Ok," I admit, "I guess I kinda want to break her nose."
"But that's not the point." I shake my head. "I had a little chat with her. She didn't say much. She didn't exactly seem too happy about Taylor and I showing up to, uh, ruin her 'thing' with Emma."
"Her 'thing', is it?" he says, a second brow joining the first. "How much do I want to know about this so-called 'thing'?"
I wave my hand through the air to dismiss his idea. "Not like that. At least, I don't think so. More like Sophie was like a…a…" I reached for the words.
"Sports friend," I finally said, "Really into athletics and stuff. And Taylor was like the nerd friend to her, I guess. I think Sophie saw Taylor as the bookworm crybaby and convinced Emma much the same."
"I'm surprised you're so calm about it," he comments
I chuckle humorlessly. "Come on, dad. You know me better than that."
My ribs flex like the limbs of a bow inside me. An errant twitch I let escape shows the tension in my muscles. Dad grimaces at the sight and nods.
"Hmm," Dad grumbles, "I guess there's not much we can do about it now."
"Nope," I say, my expression riding the edge between a pleasant smile and merely barred teeth.
He sighs, raking a hand through his thinning salt-and-pepper hair. "I guess we can only wait till we learn more."
He shoots me a look, the ghost of a smile on his face giving him away.
"Right, well, it's been a stressful night for all of us. I'm heading to bed."
I smile brightly at him, previous worries pushed deep below. "Night dad!"
He snorts. "G'night Amelia," he replies as he ruffles my hair.
I turn to watch his inelegant and tired stride up the stairs, each foot thumping against the wood. The moment I hear his door close, I dash up them myself.
I don't really worry about dad hearing me, he knows what I'm doing. I just waited for him mostly out of courtesy.
Taylor, on the other hand…
I stop before the door to the attic, straining my ears beyond all limits. I search through the sea of sounds of the city, listening to the faint whispers right around me. I hear the shuffling of dad as he fiddles with the blanket. I hear the rustling of the trees outside. I hear birds, fluttering through the trees.
And I hear Taylor, breath steady, heart calm, as she lays in bed.
The coast it clear.
I slip into the attic, careful not to make a noise. I lock the door behind me, making sure that this time is mine. Turning around, I face the array of stuff shoved into the attic. A cryptic mess of order and chaos. Everything in its place and every place everywhere. If I hadn't been the one who organized it, I would have been lost. Since I am the one who organized it, I know exactly where to turn. With measured steps that leave not a creak, I stride right up to a certain chest. A large green box with golden trim, it sits innocuously with a large set of three locks.
It takes but a moment to unlock, the keys and codes coming to the mind and hand with practiced ease.
I lifted the lid, the oiled hinges not even making a whisper, and gaze at the precious contents. Reaching within with my arms outstretched, and with delicate reverence, I extract a precious piece.
Two golden eyes stare back at me. A head of mottled gray and brown. A twisted facsimile of a beetle's carapace made into a human head, monstrous mandibles made into a sinister smile. A ring of spikes in an insectile imitation of a crown.
For all its dark appearance and terrifying visage, there is a certain nobility in this helmet. A certain…air of nostalgia, of care with this hand-crafted item.
To some, it might inspire fear or awe.
To me, it brings back bittersweet memories.