Charlotte is six years old when she stages her escape.
The backpack with her name sewn into the label hangs on her shoulders, the straps still too long, not yet grown into. Her feet plummet grass and gravel, her shoes scuff at the toes and lose some of their navy blue. She’s red in the face, from heat and exertion, by the time she reaches the border. She stops at the pylons and stares out into the no man’s land of forbidden territory, a plane of expectation and secret fears, and then finds the pylon with the little box that opens to a keypad of numbers.
Her fingers tremble as she opens the latch, her knees buckle and she lands in the dirt with grass reaching the end of her dress. She runs the numbers through her mind – 141, 171 – or maybe that’s not it at all. 141, 741, 147. Charlotte has always been good with numbers, but today they fail her. She pushes in a combination she knows is wrong and holds her breath, waiting for an alarm to sound.
No alarm comes.
She looks back the way she had come, finds the trail she had trampled through the grass, and clutches at the straps of her bag. Behind her, the pylons go on with their metallic whizzing. Charlotte wonders if she could survive the blast. She takes a step forward, towards the edge of the border. She holds her breath. She steps again.
Behind her, a noise unlike anything she has heard before, so loud that she feels it rattle through her body, expanding outwards into the jungle. It is not the boom that Charlotte will remember, but the complete absence of noise that follows it.
When she wakes up, she is face first in dark, dark grass.
She sits up dizzy, the sky is too bright and too still, and the ground where she’s lying is wet. She touches a hand to it and her fingers come back red. She is lying in blood, she realises, and swipes a sleeve across her face. The white cardigan comes back with a smear across it and Charlotte feels nausea thick in her throat.
She stands on shaking legs, her backpack still attached but off balancing her, hanging off her elbows like dead weight. When she looks back towards home, there is a pillar of black smoke rising into the sky. Charlotte tries to shout but the words reverberate around her skull, muffled. In her ears a high-pitched wailing.
She turns back towards the pylons, the open box with the grid of buttons inside, and wonders what fatal combination she entered. Panic comes in like a tide, washes her out of reason and feeling, and pushes at her heels until Charlotte runs.
She holds her breath when she passes the border and hopes for a shock that doesn’t come. She goes on running until she meets the jungle, and further still, until she stumbles past a river and trips on a vine.
Her white cardigan is muddy and grass-stained by the time she spots him, blood leaking into the collar of the dress she had watched her mother iron only hours before. Keep it clean, she'd been told as she was leaving, the words shouted behind her through the door that she hadn't even bothered to properly close, Keep it clean, and what a mess she's made of it now. She imagines her mother's disapproving pout and wonders if she'll ever see it again. The thought that she might not has her clumsy and faint. She stumbles through the jungle, footfalls heavy, staggered.
He had come out here expecting something, investigating something. Waiting for her. He hears her unsteady gait and turns, his eyes dark and his lashes darker, framing a look that is partly confused, partly sympathetic. Charlotte reaches out to him to confess to what she has done, her fingers stretched taut and red at the tips. What comes out instead,
“Help me,” and the light leaves her vision like a retreating tide.
Richard carries her body home, lays her on a bed and lets her be inspected. A damp cloth is ran beneath her nose, catching the blood that has dried on her top lip. He takes the backpack that she came with, fingers catching the keychain that has been linked to the zipper as he opens it up.
He finds her name inside of it, hand-stitched by someone with talent, guarding over a picnic blanket and half-melted chocolate bars. He zips the backpack up again and sits it by her feet for when she wakes up. Outside, a murmur of voices await his decision. He casts a final look over the girl and leaves.
Daniel’s hands shake with concentration as he carries the tray inside the tent. His mother holds the curtain back for him to pass under, presses on his back with a reassuring hand. He turns back to her once he’s a footstep inside. She nods her head, and Daniel proceeds. Behind him, the falling of the curtain laps a whoosh of cool air against the backs of his bare feet.
He approaches the bed where she’s lying, a year or two younger than him, hair as bright as freshly picked carrot, and so pale. There are freckles wherever the sun has touched her skin and a crease in her brow.
Daniel’s hands wobble when he notices the bead of red at the opening of one nostril. The tray dips and a spoon clatters against the bowl until he rights it. He holds his breath, looks at the girl, but she has not woken. Carefully, he sets the tray down and takes up the bloody cloth by her bedside.
He grips the cloth too hard and his hand shakes as he nears her, hovering just above her nose. He can feel her breath on his knuckles as he dips the cloth down, collects the bead of blood, and waits for more to come.
The cold touch of the cloth wakes her, and she opens her eyes in a squint at the boy with the hair in his eyes and dirt beneath his nails. Charlotte blinks up at him, but he hasn’t seen her yet. He’s concentrating, holding the cloth just so, twisting it around to a clean patch as more blood than he had anticipated comes out. The red of it leaks into the space between skin and nail, leaves a stain there that he'll have to scrub out before dinner.
Finally, the flow stops. He cleans her top lip with a careful swipe and is drawing the cloth away when he catches sight of her eyes. It’s that pre-dawn blue that stops him, makes his breath twist inside of his throat like a thick knot of rope. He brings his hand away in a panic, drops the cloth on the tray and rattles the spoon again.
“Hello,” she whispers, and Daniel runs out of the tent.
His hands are still shaking as he washes her blood from his fingers.
Charlotte is seventeen years old when they take her back.
She knows about the little yellow houses up on the hill, and the pylons that surround them. She heard there were people up there once, but all that remains of them exists within the ghost stories that keep her awake at night.
Their camp comes and goes between them, but there is always a reason for why Charlotte must stay behind. Sometimes, she walks them halfway, trailing behind her people until they reach the edge of the jungle. She’ll toe the line sometimes, stand with her heels in the grass and watch as they climb the hill. She sees the row of pylons and imagines a little box on the opposite side, still open, a set of ear buds inside. A headache soon follows the image – a memory from a dream, perhaps – and then she turns around and heads back the way she had come.
Today is different.
“You can come along, you know. I won’t stop you.”
At seventeen years old, bravado comes easily to Charlotte. She turns back to Richard with a smirk. “As if you could.”
When she turns around again, the smile is gone. Her eyes ghost over the pylons and the village on the other side that she has no memory of being in, but sometimes dreams about, right down to the redheaded woman who irons her dresses. A pain begins to pound behind her eyes again, but Charlotte stands her ground against it.
“This is where I came from, isn’t it?”
She turns to Richard and he turns to her. It's not so much an answer that she's looking for - it's not confirmation that she wants. She wonders, vaguely, if she'd believe him if he told her 'no'. Richard holds her gaze a second longer, considers the same, and apparently finds the answer before she does.
“Those pylons,” her breath shudders past her lips, “they used to keep people out.” She turns to Richard. “They used to keep you out.”
Richard inclines his head until the sun touches the bridge of his nose. He closes his eyes and nods.
“What happened to the people there?”
“There was an accident.” Richard opens his eyes, turns his head just-so to evade the sun again. “An unstable bomb.”
Charlotte thinks she remembers the boom, remembers the wave of it passing through her body, flooring her. She closes her eyes and the air is so still and so quiet, she has to speak just to prove to herself that the ringing in her ears is a phantom noise.
“Did I do it?”
There’s movement beside her, footsteps in the grass and then two warm hands on her upper arms. Charlotte opens her eyes and feels them fill with water until Richard is just a watery imprint in front of her.
“No,” he tells her, shaking his head. “No, Charlotte, you didn’t do it.”
She follows him past the pylons after that, clutching her hands into fists. By the time they scale the hill, she’s no longer following Richard, but leading him. Beneath her feet, the grass turns to dirt, dry and cracked as it slopes into a valley that Charlotte doesn’t remember. She looks down at it and frowns.
“After the explosion, we came back here,” Richard tells her, following her gaze. “We rebuilt a lot of it, but some things couldn’t be repaired.”
“Did it kill them all?”
She looks to Richard when he doesn’t answer, and Richard nods his head but he does not meet her eyes.
“Yes, all of them.”
Charlotte looks out to the little yellow houses that don’t quite fit her dreams and leaves Richard behind. With every step, the air around her seems to shift, grow denser, as though she were walking further and further into the heart of a long forgotten memory. By the time she reaches the swing set, there’s a faint throbbing at the back of her skull. A wind blows through her hair, captures a handful of it and drags it back over her shoulder. If she closes her eyes, she's convinced she'll feel that sudden plummet in her stomach as the swing curves through the air, but there is no swing set beneath her and Charlotte keeps her eyes determinedly open.
That’s where Daniel finds her, sitting in the dirt with her hands clutched around her ankles, staring out into nothing. He lowers himself to the ground beside her, matches her stance, and looks around. There’s movement in the houses behind them, eyes trained on the backs of their heads and the sound of footsteps on wooden planks, but Charlotte is oblivious to it.
“There used to be a swing set here,” she says, and Daniel turns to meet her gaze. “I remember that now, but everything else is just… it’s so foggy.”
“It’ll come back,” Dan says, but Charlotte shakes her head.
“I don’t think I want it to.”
When she’s twenty one years old, Charlotte is given her own little yellow house.
She dumps her meagre box of belongings on the bed and pulls at the net curtains until she rips them from the rail. Sunlight filters in, too strong and too hot, and Charlotte holds a hand above her eyes and grins into it. She takes a deep breath in of pine and fresh paint and thinks, it smells like home. She's backing away from the window when she catches movement, the faint grey smudge of a body walking past her doorway. Charlotte follows after it, pokes her head into the bathroom and then the kitchen, calls, "Richard, is that you?"
Answer comes in the form of footsteps, heavy, heavier than she's used to hearing. She imagines steel-capped boots and the smell of shoe polish, the two long brushes that leave black smudges on her dress and a rollicking on her mother's tongue. The memory has its usual effect, a punching headache behind her eyes as she stumbles back into the bedroom.
"Richard?" she calls again, but the footsteps have stopped and her bedroom is bare.
Charlotte holds her breath and listens out for them. She feels a coldness in her chest, a sensation that grows stronger with each pounding thrum of her pulse, and presses her fingers against her eyes. Eventually, they're joined by louder thuds, heavy thuds, the footsteps returning. Charlotte keeps her eyes closed, listens as they near her, as they stop in front of her with all the certainty of a real body.
"I won't do this," she whispers. "This isn't even your house."
When she opens her eyes again, the room is empty.
The footsteps don't return.
(She sleeps fitfully that night, dreams of a dark figure leaning over her bed and a woman with red hair who smells of antiseptic and lavender.)
There are few people among their group that Charlotte can speak frankly with without evoking a look of pity in their eyes. (Richard is one of them. More than anything, this unnerves her.) It's Daniel that she finds, the quiet physicist whose classes she's shared since she can remember. She finds him hunched in the dirt, scribbling into his journal. Charlotte tries to glance at the words over his shoulder.
"Your handwriting's bloody awful."
He starts when he hears her, looks up with an instant look of apology, until he realises who it is and his lips twitch into a hesitating smile. Charlotte lowers herself into the dirt beside him, crosses her legs and gathers her hair up in both hands. It's cool and damp with sweat at the back of her neck as she fixes it into a high ponytail. Daniel's pen twitches in his fingers. Slyly, he returns to his journal, scribbles ink over the page in a rush to finish whatever he's started before Charlotte pulls him into a conversation.
He reaches the bottom of the page, circles his answers, and stops. Charlotte is quiet beside him, introspective, watching the way his fingers move. When Dan looks up at her, she barely seems to notice.
"Charlotte," he says, and again, until startled blue eyes flit to his. His lips twitch, not quite a smirk because Charlotte still hasn't spoken and he's beginning to worry. He starts to ask her something, but she cuts him off before he manages more than a syllable.
"Do you believe in ghosts?"
Daniel blinks back at her. That smirk forms properly, now, and Charlotte's piercing eyes are drawn to it.
She huffs a sigh, looks away and shakes her head.
"I saw something. I think I saw something, anyway."
Slowly, Daniel closes his notebook. "What do you think you saw?" he asks, slowly straightening out his spine, wincing at the audible crack that follows.
"I don't know." She's staring off into the distance again, eyes trained and unmoving. Daniel follows the line of her vision out into the treeline, wondering what she's seeing now. "I was alone," she starts, drawing Dan's gaze back. "I caught a glimpse of something and thought someone had walked past my door, but there was no one there. Then I got a headache and started hearing footsteps." She turns to Daniel with a look of forced amusement, but her voice wavers when she adds, "The island's finally getting to me, eh?"
Her eyes aren't any less intense than before, staring back at him, searching for something that Daniel doesn't know how to give her. He fumbles for his journal, thinks of ghosts and paint fumes and scientific fact - of explanations that she isn't looking for. He puts the journal down again and takes her hand, instead. His palm sits over hers, clammy, shaking a little when he realises that he hasn't held her hand like this since they were kids.
Charlotte looks down at where his fingers cover hers, her thumb twitching, curving around his knuckles. Holding him there.
"I saw something, Dan." She says it like a challenge, like she's hoping he'll reel off exactly why that should be impossible. "I felt it."
Daniel nods his head.
"I believe you."
The pseudo-valley that the explosion created fifteen years ago wakes up in spring and new grass shoots poke up through the scorched soil like green stubble. Charlotte imagines the entire plot will be covered in life by summer, imagines walking barefoot through soft grass and moss, enough wild flowers to cover the stench of yellow paint.
She finds him where they’d planned, pacing, his hair dishevelled from multiple fingers running nervously through it. He stands in the shade of a tree, melting into the darkness of 5:30am. When he sees her he sighs and lets his shoulders sag as though just the sight of her can calm him.
“Relax, Daniel.” She grins and prods him in the ribs. “I’ll have you home before breakfast.”
Daniel follows her out, past the rows of houses, towards where the greying sky is lightest. He falls behind when Charlotte takes off running, and is still breathing heavily by the time she picks out the tree by the cliff's edge.
“Come on, I’ll give you a boost up,” she says, and threads her fingers together to create a step. Once he’s up, he climbs a branch higher and gives her space to join him. She leaves her shoes on the ground and climbs further, until she can rest her feet on his knees, if just because she knows that it bugs him.
They sit in silence for a while, waiting. Dan knows better than to start a conversation, so he plays with the bracelet around her ankle until the cloud cover shifts and grey light turns to blue. He looks up into the sky and wonders if he’ll ever meet dawn without thinking of Charlotte.
(He doubts it.)
Charlotte watches as the rising sun scares the darkness out from the valley where their houses sit. Without the shadow hiding each dip in the land, she can mark out exactly where the explosion would have started. She pinpoints its epicenter, as she does most mornings, and imagines a rippling wave of destruction radiating outwards, grasping at the heels of all those caught in its wake. She never asked Richard where they buried them. She has no plans to start.
“Charlotte,” Dan murmurs beneath her, “when are you going to stop coming out here?”
She looks down at him, frowning, but doesn’t answer.
“It can still come back, you know,” he continues, because there's just something about Charlotte that makes him talk, makes him fumble through reassurance. “Amnesia is usually a temporary condition, unless there’s lasting damage to your hippocampus, but considering how you, ah, lost your memory—”
“I... I’m just saying.” He’s stopped playing with her ankle bracelet and has started holding her foot, gripping too tightly, almost desperately, without realising. “It’s more likely that what caused your memory loss was psychological damage, a kind of… repression of your—”
“Dan,” Charlotte sighs again. She stares at him, helpless, and Dan wets his lips.
“I’m just… trying to give you hope.”
He says it like an apology, as though he’s sorry that he can’t. Charlotte smiles and shakes her head. Her eyes prickle with tears, but it's a laugh that comes out, faint and incredulous. You idiot, she wants to tell him, wants to grip him by the shoulders and shake, you absolute bloody idiot. But it won't be enough, and she won't attempt it, not with this much space between the branch that they're perched upon and the ground.
Instead, she begins to climb, takes her feet from his lap and sets them on the branch that he's sitting on until rough bark is digging into her arches. Dan cranes his neck to watch her as she lowers herself from the branch, his hands out, one gripping fiercely to the tree and the other attempting to steady her, fingers shaking.
“Charlotte,” there’s little but alarm in his voice, “be careful.”
She’s smiling again by the time she’s on the branch with him, as good as sitting in his lap, his face flushed red as she presses a hand to his cheek. His voice wobbles and fails when he tries to say her name again, and he’s so afraid that moving will dislodge the both of them that he can scarcely bring himself to breathe.
She swipes a lock of brown hair back behind his ear, watches her fingers trail there, nails catching on the scruff of beard that he's allowed to grow through. Daniel stares back at her, allows himself this moment of captivation, gives into the thought that if he had to choose between the light of dawn and the light behind Charlotte's eyes, it wouldn't take him the space of a heartbeat to make up his mind.
Then she kisses him and every thought in his reeling mind quiets. Daniel swears he tastes the sunrise on her lips.
“You do," she pulls back to say, her breath on his lips, "you already do."