“NO, NO, HE CAN’T,” I babble incoherently, gripping Dennis’ shirt. He frowns in annoyance. “You have to stop him. Go. Stop him!”
“Woah, calm down,” Dennis says, pushing me off. “It’ll be fine.”
“You don’t understand,” I say desperately. “He’s got—he has to—Ash has—”
“Has what, East?”
Something is changing in his face. His eyes are on mine, intent, searching for something. Then they slide to the side, to my…wrist?
A memory comes back to me. Ash, asking about the bracelet. What if…
I swallow. “Ash has—um, a temper.”
“A temper, eh?”
His voice is too soft, too knowing. What does he know? Slowly, I back away.
Then Dennis smiles, and gives a laugh that sounds too contrived. “Don’t worry about them,” he says easily, throwing an arm around my shoulder and pulling us back into the house. “Come on, let’s see what’s on TV.”
I fidget and squirm, but then ice slithers down my spine as I remember the fire in Ash’s eyes and I can’t take it.
“I just don’t… I just… I’m worried… if they fight… I’m worried my brother will get hurt,” I try.
To my surprise, Dennis’ face darkens. He comes up to me. “You have no right to say that.”
I blink. “Huh?”
He doesn’t say anything, just glowers at me. For the first time I notice how much taller than me Dennis is. He has Dad’s height, or maybe Mom’s; she was close to six feet, too.
The rumbling of an engine finally breaks his trance. He glance sat the door, and says sourly, “There’s your brother.”
I’m already out the door, flying towards the truck. “Jem,” I gasp.
Jem gets out, but he doesn’t move any more, so I have to go all the way to him. There’s an indecipherable expression on his face. “Jem?”
He doesn’t look at me. “I’m right here,” he says slowly.
“What… What happened?” I try to breathe as subtly as I can. I don’t smell smoke, at least, and nothing seems to be singed.
“Oh.” I try to study his face. “Are you mad at me?”
“What?” A pause. “No.”
“Are you s-sure?”
He finally deigns to look me in the eyes. “You’re shivering,” he says instead, and jerks his head at the house. “Get back inside. Can you tell Denny to come out?”
Jem shrugs. “We just need to talk about some things.”
I feel unsettled, unsure, confused. “Ok-kay,” I say finally, and head back into the house.
Dennis is waiting. “He wants you to go to him,” I say.
I feel a burst of irritation. “I don’t know. He just wants to talk to you.”
Dennis grumbles something under his breath, but he does leave the house. From my bedroom window I watch as he stalks to the truck, rubbing his arms in the cold, and says to Jem, so loudly even I hear it, “Make it quick, it’s fucking freezing out here.”
Dennis stops moving. He says something back.
They both turn and look up, right at my window. I wave, but neither of them waves back. Dennis says something, then they both get into the truck, and then they drive off.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I sit in the house a long, long time waiting for them to come back. With each passing minute it feels colder and colder. An hour, two… Four…
The phone rings once, but it’s only Dad calling to say he’ll be late. I say, “Okay” and can’t bring myself to tell him about the boys. I’m probably just being paranoid.
The expression on Jem’s face, when he finally raised his head… I couldn’t read him. And he wouldn’t look me in the eye.
When steps sound on the porch, I’m so relieved that I sprint for the door and wrench it open. “Jem—” I start, and freeze.
“My apologies. I was just about to knock,” the man, who is most definitely not Jem or Dennis, says. “Good evening.”
I’m staring, but I can’t help it. He has beautiful cheekbones and smooth, white skin. When I don’t respond, he smiles slowly, and a sudden storm of alarms all flare to life inside my head.
“Is this the Winters house?”
“Who’s asking?” I say.
He throws his head back in a laugh. The sound rings out loudly in the night; the road behind him is empty, dark, empty. I try to shut the door. But he puts his hand out to stop me, and I push harder and he pushes back. I’m not strong enough. I look at him. He’s still smiling at me, full lips, no teeth, but my chest is so tight I can’t get a single wisp of air in and my hands are shaking. “I-I’m busy,” I try to say, and his smile grows.
“Don’t be afraid,” he says, touching my arm with one finger.
I jump. His skin is ice-cold. He laughs again. “Sorry, it’s a bit cold out here.”
He doesn’t look cold. “What do you want?” I breathe, finally, when he continues to smile and look at me without saying anything.
“Are you good with secrets, little girl?”
“An old friend…”
But that’s as far as he gets. The soft purr of an engine sounds, and he turns to look into the darkness. Within minutes, a familiar truck is rumbling up the road. Suddenly it speeds ahead—I cry out—it squeals to a stop by the curb. The door on the passenger side bursts open and Dennis storms out.
“Always so impatient,” the man says with a chuckle. He turns back to me. “Will you invite me in, little girl?”
I don’t need to answer; Dennis gets to him first, grabbing his shoulder with one hand and spinning him around. “What are you doing here?” he demands, trembling with rage.
The man’s smile widens. “I was just… In the neighbourhood.”
With a start, I realize that Dennis’ face is pale. He isn’t angry—he’s afraid.
I take a step back.
Dennis shifts from foot to foot, eyes darting between the man and me, biting his lip, writing his hands. In contrast, the man continues to watch me with that eerie, serene expression. “It’s cold out here, isn’t it?” Dennis says shakily. “Isn’t it, East?” He says again.
“Uh—yeah, we should…”
In the blink of an eye the man moves. I gasp, and back away, but he takes my hand in his own cold ones, almost cradling it.
I look up at him and my body is filled with fear. No, not just fear. Not just fright. Not shock, either, exactly, just some sort of sudden icy calm that descends over me and sends my heart racing and screams at me to run, run, run.
His eyes are black. Black as bottomless pits. “Devil’s eyes,” I breathe unconsciously.
“Yes, little girl.”
Just as quickly, he releases me. I snatch my hand back and rub at it; the skin feels numb, as though his fingers had really been ice. Without his touch the fear turns to terror and terror to recklessness and I say, “Who the fuck are you?”
Dennis yells, “Wait, don’t!” but the man only narrows his eyes at me. I stare at his beautiful cheekbones until the silence suffocates me and in a moment of weakness my eyes fly to his. He smiles again.
“I’m just a friend,” he says, and turns and walks off the porch. My brothers and I watch silently as he steps out of the light, into the night, into a patch of shadows, and seemingly disappears.
Suddenly I feel warm again, and I shout at Dennis, “What was that?”
His face fills with anger and he opens his mouth to retort, but Jem comes up the path—“Watch your tone,” he says sharply.
I gape at him. “What?”
He ignores me. “Come on, get inside, it’s fucking freezing out here,” he barks, pushing me towards the house. I stumble, then grasp the doorframe, glaring at him.
“What do you mean it’s—watch my—weren’t you looking? Didn’t you see that creepy guy?” I persist, hurt by Jem’s harsh tone, but he just pushes me aside again. When Dennis tries to follow I grab his arm. “What’s going on?” I hiss. “Where did you take him? What did you do to him?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Dennis says distractedly.
“Who was that man?”
“Oh, shut up, East,” Dennis says, snapping back to normal. “Go to bed.”
We turn around. Jem stands there, brows furrowed, looking tenser than he’d ever been. In fact, the last time I saw him this angry…
Suddenly I remember why he’d gone out in the first place, and my eyes widen. “Did… Did he say anything?”
“Oh, he said plenty,” Jem snarls.
It’s such a foreign sound that I take a step back, and my back meets the wall beside the door. He’s wearing ferocious expression that looks like hatred, but it can’t be, can it? Ash couldn’t have told them the whole truth… Could he?
Jem takes a deep breath, closing his eyes. Then he walks to me, and puts his fingers around my neck.
“James…” Dennis mutters.
My eyes are wide, my pulse thumping wildly against Jem’s hand. His touch is absolutely clinical and his gaze is detached, cold. He looks over every inch of my face, up and down, up and down. When his eyes make their way to my chin again something in his own face seems to fall—collapse—
His eyes meet mine. Bright blue, the blue of summer. And then they darken.
He pushes himself away from me so fast I flinch, and Dennis steps forward. “Woah, hey, chill,” he says, putting a hand on Jem’s shaking shoulders. Neither of them look at me. “Wait until Dad gets back.”
I frown. “Wait until Dad gets back… Then what?”
“Then,” says Jem, “we’ll talk.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I’m exiled upstairs. Well, they were brooding in the living room when I tried to leave, and Jem barked, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m tired,” I said tiredly, hurt, and then all the tiredness and irritation and fear and hurt of caught up with me, and I said more harshly, “I’m going to my fucking bedroom is where I’m going.”
I added a glare for good measure and Jem seemed to falter. Something changed in his eyes—then changed again, and he hardened. “Fine, but you better not sneak out,” were his last words.
“And how would I do that? Fly?” were mine.
I climb onto the windowsill and press my face to the cold glass. It’s starting to rain; droplets of water stick to the glass, clinging to the surface, and slowly slide downwards as if reluctant to let go. Outside, the woods are a dark mass far, far away in the distance. Everything is dark, and rustling noisily.
No—not everything. A sudden flash of light, and then a burst of orange explodes right in the middle of the woods. I press harder against the glass, gasping. The sparks linger in the air and then drift down, and then another explosion follows—then another—
“Jem!” I yell, forgetting myself for a moment. I race out of the room and downstairs. “Jem, look outside, the woods, something’s going on.”
“What, East?” Jem says coldly.
I slide to a stop against the sofa. “Dad? When did you get home?”
“Just a few minutes ago.”
He sounds exhausted, and looks it, too, but it’s more the expression of deep, numb sadness on his face that makes my breath catch in my throat.
“Why didn’t you guys tell me?” I ask, turning to my brothers. “What’s going on?”
Nobody looks at me.
Dad gives a great, big sigh. “Honey, I—”
“Don’t call her that,” Dennis growls.
I swallow, and then irritation overcomes any semblance of nervousness I’d felt before. “Will somebody please tell me what is going on?”
“What’s going on,” Jem says, loudly, lifting his head, “is that you are a murderer.”
No. No. No, he couldn’t have—he couldn’t have told them—
“That’s not true,” Dad says harshly.
“Isn’t it?” Jem rounds on him. “Isn’t it? Can you look me in the eye, and tell me that it’s completely untrue?”
When Dad hesitates, Dennis snaps. “God, just get on with it,” Dennis says irritably. He rises from the couch, marches over to the kitchen and then marches back with two beers. He offers one to Jem, who, to my shock, takes it.
“You’re drinking?” I stare. “How could you—how can you drink, after everything that happened with Mom and Dad—”
“Everything that happened with Mom and Dad was your fault.”
“W-What do you mean?” I stammer.
“Do you even care about all the harm you’ve done to us? Do you?”
“Dennis, don’t,” Dad says suddenly, putting a hand on his arm. “Don’t do this. You’ll regret it. Don’t do it.”
“‘Regret it’?” Dennis laughs, a hysterical laugh, and shakes Dad off and stalks towards me and I back up back back back until I hit a wall and he keeps coming and then he raises a hand, and I cry out, and his fist comes flying—and lands on the wall inches beside my face. “The only thing I regret is not doing this sooner. Letting you lie to us. Letting you stay,” he spits at me, “and break our family.”
“WHEN DAD FIRST STARTED DRINKING, IT WAS BECAUSE OF YOU.”
“WHEN WE HAD TO GO HUNGRY FOR ALL THOSE WEEKS WITHOUT FOOD, IT WAS BECAUSE OF YOU.”
“What do you—”
“WHEN MOM USED TO STAY IN BED AND CRY ALL THE TIME, IT WAS BECAUSE OF YOU. WHEN DAD WOULD TAKE EXTRA NIGHT SHIFTS AND WAS NEVER AT HOME IT WAS BECAUSE HE COULDN’T EVEN LOOK. AT. YOU.”
“I didn’t know, I didn’t know,” I keep repeating, “please, please.”
Dennis ignores me. He’s screamed himself hoarse and his face is red, a bloated red, a furious sort of red. The light in his eyes is shinning and burning the same way, I imagine, a wildfire might: volatile, deadly, and out of control.
“THE FIRST TIME DAD WAS ALMOST SENT TO JAIL, IT WAS BECAUSE OF YOU. DO YOU KNOW WHAT HE DID?” Suddenly he turns to face Jem. “You don’t even know this part. He almost killed her, he took her out and left her there on the cliffs and came home like nothing was wrong—”
“Dennis!” Dad says sharply.
“—but Mom found out and convinced him to keep her. She saved her life. AND HOW DOES SHE REPAY THAT?”
No answer—save for Dennis’ loud, uneven breaths, each exhale shakier than the previous. His eyes glisten with something different now—are those tears?
Dad is white as a sheet but refuses to meet my gaze. He struggles to form words. “Dennis…” It comes out quietly, like a plea. “Denny-boy…”
“She goes and kills our mother.”
—silence, for one second, then—
My knees give out and I fall to the ground, kneeling. “No, no, no,” I moan. “No, please, I’m sorry, I didn’t m—”
“Dennis,” Dad says heavily. “You shouldn’t say that.”
“I’m only telling the truth,” Dennis snarls. “and that’s more than anybody in this room has ever done.”
I feel numb. My body is cold all over. It’s happening. It’s happening. It’s out.
“Is this why you wouldn’t save her?” Jem asks. “During the fire, when you wouldn’t let me go back in?”
My head jerks up and I stare at them. “W-What?”
Dennis is nodding. “Yeah,” he says hoarsely. “I didn’t think it was worth it to lose you… Over her.”
Does he hate me that much?
Of course he does. You’re a murderer.
Jem nods. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
I swallow, and watch as my brothers embrace each other, and smile at each other, and forgive one another for… An attempt on my life?
“How can you say that?” I cry out, unable to bear it any longer. “How can you—I’m your sister, how can you be okay with the fact that he tried to let me die?”
“See, that’s just the thing, East,” Jem says coldly, turning to face me. “You’re not my sister at all.”