Winner of the Joanne Harrison Hopkins Literary Achievement Award 2016
Where am I? Flashes, bits of memories, glowing like dying embers in the back of my mind. I could see faces, but not make out any features. Who were these people? I couldn’t make any sense of the images that were jumbled around in my mind. There was a picture of different people all huddled around what looked like a fireplace. The next image showed three different sized men walking through a snow covered forest with large sticks in their hands. One by one, they began to disappear. Whispers of screams, ringing in my ear, and as quickly as the images came, they disappeared.
Darkness replaced the blurry images and clouded my vision. What happened to those people? Why did they disappear? I tried to open my eyes, but when I did pain shot through my skull. Why does my head hurt so badly? I felt drained of all energy. I couldn’t feel anything. Not my arms or legs. Not my face. Not even my toes and fingertips. I felt numb. Numb to everything but the throbbing in my head.
Quickly giving up on trying to move or open my eyes, I tried my best to relax. It was much easier to give in then to try and fight against the pain. As I continued to lay with my eyes closed, I reached out with my other senses to try and figure out where I was. I breathed in a light breath through my nose. The air burned as it rushed into my body and a shiver ran up my spine. Cold. Wherever I was, it was cold. Once again the image of the snow covered forest flashed before my closed eyes. Am I laying in the snow?
Taking another slow breath, I held it so that I could listen to my surroundings. The faint sounds of a bird echoed in the distance. From what I could hear, it did not sound like a cheerful chirp, but rather the squawk of a crow. I let out the breath that I had been holding with a faint sigh. I was outside and it was cold. Perhaps I was laying in the snow in the forest that I saw in my mind. There was only one way that I knew I could be certain; I had to know.
A fire began to burn in my belly with the overwhelming need to see where I was. I’m scared. I used my fear to gather the strength to fight against the pain in my head to open my eyes. As I slowly blinked, another shot of pain ripped through my skull from the blinding light. I did my best to bite back the pain. Using fear as my strength to keep my eyes open. White was all around. The trees looked like mothers, cradling their babes in white blankets as bare branches held pristine snow. Mother…Where is my mother?
Carefully, I turned my head to the side and came face to face with more snow. White ice surrounded my form, chilling my body until I was numb to everything but the wind brushing against my face and the pain in my head. I was tired. Too tired to remember why I was laying in the snow. Too tired to try and fight the pain in my skull to keep my eyes open any longer. Too tired to fight against the death that I now knew was approaching quickly.
I closed my eyes and gave into the darkness I knew was not far off. Not knowing how long I had been in the snow, I knew that my body was already shutting down. That’s why I couldn’t feel my limbs. That’s why my head hurt so badly every time I tried to open my eyes. That’s why my breathing was beginning to slow. I was dying and I didn’t even have the strength to call out for help. Even if I did call out, there was no way for me to even know if someone would hear my cries. From what I could piece together, I was alone in this freezing forest.
How I wished the sun would break through the blanket of clouds and melt the snow away. I wished that it would warm my body enough to give me the energy to break free of my icy prison. I’m not ready to die. I want to go home. Home. I couldn’t remember where my home was. I couldn’t remember my mother and father’s faces. I couldn’t even remember my own name.
My eyes began to water, tears slipping out of the corners as I realized that I was going to die alone with no memories, only the blurry pictures in my mind. I’m scared. Please, I don’t want to die. Help, someone please help me. I could feel the tears freezing to my skin as I fell deeper into the darkness. My mind desperately searched for the images, willing them to come back. If I was going to die, I wanted to die at least pretending that I was not alone.
A single image appeared before my closed eyes. It was of two small figures standing in the snow. This scene was not one that I recognized from earlier, but I felt as if I knew these children. I held this image in my mind, not wanting to say goodbye to the two young ones just yet. Raelynn and Cole. I had no idea where those names came from, but they seemed to belong to the children in my mind. Once the names were thought of, their features started to become more clear.
The one on the left was a girl. Raelynn. She had dark brown hair that was almost black and it was braided together over her shoulder. The child on the right, Cole, was a boy and had the same black hair as Raelynn. Both Raelynn and Cole had almost electric blue eyes that were a stark contrast with their dark hair. Twins.
Although, I did not remember who these two people were in relation to myself, I couldn’t let the image of them go. I held onto the two figures desperately. I studied their features even more closely and found that Cole had a faint birthmark that ran down the left side of his face. No, not a birthmark. A scar.
I looked closer at the scar, almost trying to examine it. Hate. Hate? Did hate bring about the scar? Did Cole feel hate for what happened to him? I had so many questions that I knew would probably not get answered. It’s all his fault. His fault? Whose fault? Cole? Someone else? I was beginning to become frustrated with my own mind from the lack of answers. I had to be making all of this up. There was no Cole or Raelynn, only an overactive imagination and my wish to not die alone.
As soon as I started to believe that I was making the two children up, quick bursts of different scenes flashed before my eyes. They were so quick that I could only pick out a few. One was of a cabin surrounded by wildflowers. Another was of a woman. She was beautiful. She had the same dark hair and blue eyes as Raelynn and Cole. The woman had a smile on her face, but those eyes, those beautiful blue eyes were sad. Why was she sad? I didn’t like the pain that I saw in her eyes. I don’t know why, but I felt the need to try and comfort her.
Once again, the scene changed. I was no longer looking at a woman, I was looking at a man. He was strongly built with dark hair, not as dark as the woman’s but still a deep brown color. He had a bushy mustache and his eyes, his eyes were not blue. They were brown and they were filled with anger. So much anger. Why was this man so angry?
Yet another shift in the scenes showed me the man and Cole together. They looked to be outside the cabin. I couldn’t fully tell what it was, but the man had something in his hand that glistened in the sunlight. He had it raised and Cole was cowering below him. Anger. It was the man who gave Cole his scar. But why? Why would he do that to a harmless young boy?
It was then that image shifted back to the cottage. But this time it was different. This time it was burning. Smoke was billowing from the wooden home into the night. Snow was on the ground as a woman ran screaming from the fire, flames licking up the side of her dress. But this was not just any woman, this was the same woman that I imagined earlier. I shivered as her screams echoed in my ears. This was no longer an image in my mind, this was a memory. An actual memory. That was when it clicked. The images from earlier became more clear and began to piece themselves together.
The woman who was on fire, the woman who had the same black hair that Cole and Raelynn did, she was their mother. Mother. No, not their mother, my mother. She was my mother. And the man, the strongly built man. The man with the bushy brown mustache who was standing over Cole. Father. He was my father. And then there was a young man. Taller and older than Cole had been in my last image of him, but when I examined his features more, the scar was plain as day. It was Cole, a much older version of him anyway. Twin. My twin. Cole was my brother. Lastly, there was another boy, older than Cole but his eyes were a deep brown and his hair was lighter. I did not recognize him from any of my pervious memories, but he seemed as familiar as Cole. Tristan. Brother. Another brother, an older brother. I watched as all of their faces stared back at me in my mind. Raelynn. My name was Raelynn.
My heart, which had once been slowing down, was now speeding up again. I’m scared. But why was I afraid? What had happened to my family? The image from earlier, the three figures walking through the snow covered forest came to mind again. This time I recognized each one as they walked through my memory. It was Tristan, Father, and Cole, and they were not carrying sticks, they were carrying guns. Hunting. I continued to watch the memory play out and soon, I wished that it had remained buried.
It started with me bending over and gathering firewood at the edge of the forest. I hadn’t gone far, staying close enough that the cabin was still in sight. I thought I was alone, until I heard the snap of a twig that pulled my attention away and made me drop the few branches I had already gathered. Before I even had the chance to turn around, someone grabbed my wrist. I jumped and quickly turned to face whoever had grabbed my arm.
Cole stood in front of me, his eyes serious as he looked over my face. “He did it again didn’t he?” I adverted my brother’s gaze, not wanting to answer. When I didn’t, his grip on my wrist tightened more. “Rae.” Looking back up, I sighed softly. I was a great liar. I could hide anything from anyone, but not from my twin. With another sigh, I nodded.
Yes. I watched as Cole’s eyes iced over. The scar making him look terrifying. Although I would never admit it aloud, Cole shared our father’s temper. It was moments like this that Cole actually scared me.
“Raelynn, he can’t keep doing this. He can’t beat us every time that something doesn’t go his way. It’s not right. A father should never hit his children, especially for no reason. He needs to be stopped.” I had seen Cole lose his temper before, but this. This was different. Cole wasn’t angry, he was furious. Cole and Tristian had always been protective of me, taking my beatings whenever they could. Especially Cole. That’s how he got the scar on his face, by trying to protect me from our father.
Cole, no. Don’t. But he didn’t seem to hear a word I said. Cole let go of my wrist and walked off, leaving me alone in the forest.
The memory then shifted back to the burning cabin, but this time, I was inside the fire. Mother? I coughed against the smoke that was slowly filling my lungs. Mother? Mother where are you? Mother? I stumbled through the flame kissed room, searching through the thick black smoke, desperately searching for my mother. My eyes stopped on a shadow hidden in the corner of the room. Mother! I screamed, reaching out for the figure.
“Raelynn!” Turning around, I saw Cole standing in front of me, his eyes panicked. “Come on, we have to get out of here!”
But what about Mother?
“I’ll come back for her, but I need to get you out first!”
No! No, I won’t leave her! Mother! Just as I was about to step towards my mother, a large supporting beam fell from the ceiling and almost landed on me. Almost. Cole must have seen the beam beginning to fall and wrapped his arm around my waist, picking me up. He threw me over his shoulder and carried me out of the burning house as I protested; kicking and screaming. Mother! Tristan and Father were already outside of the cabin, watching as the flames licked up the sides of the house.
“Where’s Mother?” Tristan yelled, looking directly at Cole.
“She’s still inside,” Cole responded as he carefully set me down. I coughed violently, trying to expel all traces of smoke from my lungs. Tristan rushed to our sides. I stumbled forward, trying to make my way back towards the cabin, but Tristan grabbed my arms and held me in place. Cole turned to run back into the cabin, but before he even took his first step, a bright light came out of the cabin. I blinked back the tears that clouded my vision and stopped screaming and struggling against my brothers. I tried to focus my attention on what had come out of the cabin, but before I could get a good look at whatever it was, Cole grabbed my one arm and pulled me into his chest. “Don’t look Rae.” At first I was confused. Why wasn’t I allowed to look? And then I heard it. I heard the screams of my mother as she burned alive. “I’m sorry Rae. I’m so, so sorry.”
She was dead, my mother was dead. A cry ripped through my throat as I felt my legs collapse from underneath me. I thought I would have fallen to the ground, but Cole had supported me, holding me protectively.
The scene faded and shifted into another. We had been hunting, looking for the culprit who had set our cabin on fire. Cole had told us that he had seen someone run into the forest as he had been helping me out of the fire. My father, filled with rage at the loss of his wife had decreed vengeance on the murderer. Snow was falling from the sky as we walked through the forest that had once been our home. Now it had become a battleground.
After we had made some distance, Cole said that he thought he saw something up ahead. He had convinced my father to go with him to look while Tristan and I stayed behind. In the distance, a gun fired, scattering the crows in the nearby trees. Tristan turned to me and told me to wait for him to return. Don’t go. Stay. He ran off, calling for Cole and our father. I stayed where I was, underneath an old oak tree. I’m scared.
I don’t know how long I waited, but when I heard the next gunshot, I ran after my family, calling everyone’s names. Go back. Stop. I followed all three of their tracks deeper into the forest. My legs were shaking, but I continued to run. I ran until I saw it. No. Blood splattered the once pristine snow. Hide.
To my left was a large tree. As quietly as I could, I hid behind the trunk. On the other side, I could hear the sound of grunting. Don’t look. Peeking around the side of the trunk, I saw Tristan and my father laying in the snow. Their eyes were wide open and blood was pooling from their chest, turning the snow around them a dark crimson.
A scream escaped my lips as I stumbled backwards and ran into something hard. I turned around with tear soaked eyes to Cole who held me tightly to his form. I cried into his shoulder and he told me that we had to leave, but I refused. It was then that I noticed the blood covering Cole. Run.
I stepped back from Cole and watched as panic filled his eyes. He had been caught. “Rae. Rae, no,” Cole pleaded with me. “It’s not what you think.” I took another step back from Cole and saw the panic turn into anger. “Raelynn, please. You have to believe me. I’m your brother.”
For each step I took backwards, he took one forward, and with each step his anger grew from my mistrust of him. I had never had any reason to believe that Cole would hurt me. He and Tristan had always been my protectors. But Cole had tasted blood and there was no coming back from that. We should know better than anyone else.
I tried to turn and run from him, but Cole took ahold of me and threw my form to the ground, my head connecting with a rock, buried in the snow. Darkness surrounded the edges of my vision as I felt Cole lifting me onto his shoulder. The last thing I remember before giving into unconsciousness was my brother and father’s eyes staring up into the sky.
A cry sounded in my throat as I tried to shake away the memory. Everything was starting to make sense now. Who I was, why my head hurt, and why I was here. The sound of crunching snow sounded beside me. Fighting against the shooting pain in my skull, I opened my eyes to find Cole staring back at me. No. Run. Fight. Live.
Cole sat down in the snow, his blue eyes had lost all the anger from earlier. Now they were just sad, but there was something wrong about the sadness in his eyes. They almost looked blank. “I never meant for any of this to happen Rae. It was an accident. You have to believe me.” I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry for help, but I knew that it was no use. No one was around to hear us. No one was coming to my rescue. It was just me and Cole. He growled in frustration and grabbed his hair at my silence. “It was an accident! All an accident! It was Father who was supposed to die in the fire, not Mother! He had to be stopped! He was a monster! He couldn’t be allowed to continue to hurt us! Not anymore!”
I knew I shouldn’t have been surprised since he had murdered my brother and father, but I still had trouble processing it. It was Cole. Cole was the one who set fire to our cabin. He was responsible for my mother’s death. “Rae, please? You are all that I have left in this world.” I wanted to believe my brother, but there was a hidden darkness in his eyes. Behind all of the sadness, there was something else. It was the same bloodlust that I would see in my father’s eyes right before he would hit me. He didn’t regret what he had done. Not really. Just like our father never regretted it. Cole was just like our father. A monster. You’re next.
Somehow, I found the energy to respond to my brother. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. “No.” His eyes that once reminded me of ice, now looked as if they were on fire as rage filled his body.
“Father would have killed me if he would have ever figured out the truth, and Tristan…Tristan would have turned me in, Rae. I had no choice! I did what I had to do to survive.” I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe that Cole really had no choice, but his eyes. The bloodlust still lingering in his blue eyes reminded me that he had a choice. He always had a choice, and he chose to murder our family. My heart shattered at this realization. I was alone in the world with a monster as my only companion. I shut my eyes tightly and turned my head away from my brother. My twin. This only made him even angrier. He grabbed ahold of my shoulders and began shaking me. Screaming, begging for me to understand. My fingers gripped at his arms, trying to make him stop, but it was no use. I was too weak.
My head slammed against the frozen ground over and over again until the all too familiar darkness was creeping back into my vision. Cole stopped and let my body fall limp. He cried out in what sounded like pain and lay down beside me. He whispered my name over and over again, telling me how sorry he was. That he had never meant to hurt me. All he wanted was to set us free from the monster that was our father. But you’re the monster now. I wanted to forgive him, but I couldn’t. Not after what he had done.
I was more tired than I had been before. Opening my eyes, I looked up at the tree branches above me. I let out a long breath and let the darkness take over, my body finally going limp. The last thing I heard was Cole screaming my name into the empty forest.