Tim couldn't tell them the story at first. He returned after being away for several weeks, surly and distant. It appeared that though he was at home in body, he was with Sophia in spirit. Frank had lost his patience with him on more than one occasion, saying that if it was such a chore for him to come back then maybe he shouldn’t come back at all. Tim’s sour mood infected the rest of the family; they squabbled and snapped at each other over the smallest of things.
Jane, being Jane, decided that this was not the way she wished to spend the remainder of her summer holiday and took it upon herself to fix the issue. She had persisted in following Tim around, asking him questions, trying to get to the bottom of his grumpiness. He had headed out of the door, saying that he was going to go and see if anything was ripe for unearthing in the paddocks but he hadn’t taken a spade with him and so Jane picked one up and followed him helpfully, or else he would have to dig up the spuds with his bare hands which just seemed silly.
“How is she?” she began by asking.
“Does she speak to you yet?”
“Does she speak to anyone else yet?”
“How much weight has she gained?”
“Does she sleep well?”
“When are you going back?”
“If you are miserable here why have you come back at all?”
“Have you kissed her yet?”
“Have you told her you love her yet?”
It was that one that did it.
“Stop it, Jane!” he shouted, turning on her, ashen faced.
“Did it ever occur to you that you might feel better if you talked about what was wrong?” Jane asked, hands on hips.
“And did it ever occur to you that your nose might not be wanted everywhere you shove it!”
She had never seen him like this before. He'd never responded to her in this way, generally the boys were all quite gentle with Jane. They tended to treat her as some kind of annoying pet. This anger was a new reaction.
“It must be bad,” she murmured to herself.
“Go home. Leave me alone now. I've had enough,” he sighed. She knew that if he were alone, he would probably be crying. Unlike Jane, Tim thoroughly believed in the practice of crying. Instead of leaving, Jane lowered herself onto the grass where she sat cross legged and waited.
“I can’t talk about it!” he yelled indignantly. “There is a whole side to this war that we are utterly oblivious of!”
He stormed away from her a few hundred paces where she could see him battling with something inside, almost like he was going to be sick but desperately trying to stop himself. He shouted, kicked out at the open air and lashed his arms around, batting away invisible demons. He has lost it, thought Jane. She wondered if maybe she had pushed him too far this time.
A while later, once he had himself under control, he walked solidly back to Jane and sat down next to her, choosing not to meet her eye.
“She has remembered. It's all come flooding back to her. From the stories, how she is still alive, it is not really possible.”
And so Jane listened to Sophia's tale. Indeed, how she survived would remain one of those miracles that happen every now and then. The story went like this.
Sophia had been lying in the sun in her grandparent’s garden with the book she was reading over her face, shielding her eyes from the sun’s rays. She remembered distantly hearing her grandparents milling about in the house, washing dishes, telling each other that they loved one another. It was a long time before Sophia realised she couldn't hear them anymore. She had pulled herself slowly from the floor and entered the house through the open kitchen door. There had not been time for her to shout out for help, she felt a vice like grip around her middle and then suddenly she was gone.
The Crookeds that had taken her, taken her because her parents had not deserved to live and neither did she, decided that they would not kill her straight away like they did with all of the others. They showed a little mercy, mainly because she was nice to look at, nice to have around for a while. They took her with them everywhere, not allowing her out of their sight, forcing her to travel the length and breadth of The Kingdom with them. They enjoyed watching her struggle along the perilous journey through dense undergrowth, crossing furiously raging rivers, clambering down the sides of rocky peaks and always beating her when she didn't keep up with their rapid pace. They would laugh mercilessly as she vomited after they poisoned the food they gave her.
After a while one of them had the rather brilliant idea to get her to do their dirty work. They forced her to murder any unsuspecting Hopefuls that they had captured along their travels. More than the cries of the dying, The Crookeds reveled in the torture they were inflicting on the girl. They have turned me into a murderer, she thought as she had stood there with a blackened soul. They are turning me into one of them, she thought.
She was unsure why they continued to keep her around at first; it did not take her long to understand why. She was a perfect object to rid themselves of their frustration. The Crookeds, being violent and volatile in nature, had started a rather dangerous habit of killing each other during heated disputes; their numbers were starting to suffer because of it. They found that using Sophia as a device of stress relief alleviated the need for so many arguments. Sophia had not gone into detail of what they did to her. But then, she had not needed to. The marks that were etched crudely into her skin told the story all too well.
After what felt like a lifetime of living this way, but was really only about a year, The Crookeds grew tired of carting her around. She made it harder for them to hunt undetected and she was beginning to lose her appeal. They had abused her too much, she no longer fought back. She hitched her skirts up for them.
One night the band of frightful travelers settled down to camp in The Dark Wood, unbeknownst to Sophia. She was lying on the ground, pretending to sleep whilst really listening in on their discussions. Crookeds, not really being of this earth, no longer spoke the language of man. Their dialect consisted of hissing, spitting, guttural sounds. But having spent so long in their company, of course Sophia had been able to tune into their words.
“I think we should take her back to her old house. Let her have a glimpse of it and drag her away again,” one laughed. She did not know their names; they did not have souls so they did not have names. She simply knew them by the pitches of their voices, the distorted, monstrous features that their faces possessed.
“She can't find out how close we are. She might try to make a run for it,” hissed another. This one that had spoken was the ring leader, the most disturbing of them all.
“She has tried to run before. We've always caught her,” laughed another.
“This time she might really try,” the leader responded. They were right; she really was going to try. Sophia had spent long enough with them to know their ways. She knew them well enough to defeat them from the inside.
She waited and waited until they fell asleep. Knowing that even this was not much help, she lifted herself slowly and cautiously. She stepped as lightly as if she were walking across the surface of a balloon. They made a mistake in trying to make Sophia like them; she was able to move without making a single noise now. She was some distance off before she dared to run. And then she flew, faster than anyone would ever have imagined possible for someone so broken, so ripped into pieces. She ran, not knowing where she would find herself but knowing it would surely be better than what she was leaving behind.
Then she emerged. She burst out of the woods onto a dusty path. A path it appeared she had trodden before. For there, facing her, reflected in the moonlight, was a house she knew very well. A small cottage with nothing fancy about it, resplendently draped in ivy. She gasped heavily as she looked up into the windows of the house and spotted one that she was sure she had thrown stones at a long time ago. There was a light flickering behind the glass. The light of a candle it must have been. He couldn't sleep. She stared up at that window for much longer than she should have done. He must have sensed her presence there, the kind of feeling that twins feel when one of them dies somewhere far from the other. Or the feeling a mother gets when her son is about to arrive home but he hasn't yet walked in the door.
He appeared at his window. At first all she could see was his silhouette. He had gotten taller and broader; it had been a while after all. But she knew that it was him, without a doubt. He came closer to the window. She spotted the bridge of his nose, that delicate dip above his upper lip. His expression was one of disbelief. He did not look happy to see her or like he recognised her at all. Their eyes met for a few moments. He opened his window to get a clearer look.
“Sophia?” he whispered, not daring to think it might be true. If only he had believed his eyes when he saw her staring up at him. If only she had rushed forward and knocked the door. But he did not and she did not. And swifter than a snap of fingers, The Crookeds grasped her and tugged her back through the darkness, returning her to the life she thought she had at last escaped.
She was deposited in The Crooked’s prison a few days later. Where she spent a total of four more years locked away. Why hadn't they just killed her? They had gotten close enough to it; one big push would be enough to see her over the edge. She decided that death wouldn’t have been a big enough punishment for her. Only the very worst of the offenders ended up in the prison. The place was not something Sophia could really talk about. She did not know where it was, “Underground” was all she could say.
Though she lost her mind somewhere in amongst the torture there was a picture that never left her. It was of a man, silhouetted in a window, bare chested and with outstretched hands. It had felt like holding onto that image would be enough to save her. She could not remember who it was or why it was important to her but she never forgot that it was important nonetheless.
Then out of nowhere, salvation arrived. She was pulled from the ground, not roughly as it usually was but with something that felt like care and concern. Although it had been such a long time that she wasn’t sure she remembered what that felt like.
“It’s over,” a voice had whispered to her.
Sophia had felt herself think “finally” and then slipped into the beauty of an unconscious mind.
That was the end of the story Sophia had told him.
“I remember that night when I saw her outside. I had thought I was dreaming. I used to dream about her a lot but she was always the healthy, whole girl that I knew. This image was different, she seemed translucent almost. I will never forgive myself for not running down those stairs and taking her in my arms. I will never forgive myself,” he sobbed.
“You must. She's alive and the reason she is alive is because of you. She said so herself. You can make up for this. You've got to go to her and remind her how to talk and laugh and then one day when she is better you can marry her, like you've always wanted to. You can live in the village or if she doesn't want to, you can build your own house and a garden somewhere else and start the whole thing over again. You can make her happy and in turn, you will be happy. It doesn't have to be complicated all the time,” Jane said, pushed on by her belief in the words she said.
“After all that time inside, I think she'd like a big garden,” Tim smiled through his tears after a while.
“Well then, give her the horizon,” Jane said, casting her hand across the vast acreage of land before them.