~ THE TWINS ~
My eyes fluttered open and I immediately groaned and closed them again, my one hand coming up to cradle my head that felt as if it or the entire world was spinning while the other apprehensively propped my body up into a sitting position.
I came to a sudden pause when I felt and heard a distinct crunching noise along with something poking me quite painfully on the tip of my thumb, something thin and sharp, yet not sharp enough to cut skin, sticking out of a coarse burlap-like cloth.
My finger tips grazed over it, despite them having memorized it already and so long ago. But I needed to confirmation that what I was feeling was true and my eyes flashed open at the unmistakable and very familiar lump on the left side of the straw mattress, a mistake in the lining that had always bothered me but could never be fixed, not even by my mother's deft hands.
Blinking rapidly and quite anxiously, I tried to force my eyes to see straight, squinting when I was met with so little light that I could barely make out my nose. I was about to cry out in frustration before finally my eyes began to adjust. Like thick curtains on a stage parting for a theatre performance, the darkness seemed to leave my eyesight from the inside and spread outward to reveal what my fingertips already knew, my heart swelling with nostalgia.
My eyes quickly scanned over the familiar space, my body suddenly shooting upright with my legs crossed over each other. It felt as if I was a child again and if it weren't for the weight of my breasts on my chest or the prickle of growing leg hair telling me to shave my legs, I would've mistakenly believed so. I would've happily believed so.
My childhood home was exactly as I remembered—the ancient rocking chair in the corner with a bucket full of multicolored yarn and string beside it, the cracked floorboards with loose nails, the smell of burning cedar emerging out of the brick fireplace in the center of the wall across from the rotting wood door, and my bed, which I was seated on, giving the same amount of comfort as a slab of cement would've. Not one dent or crack out of place, everything was exactly the same. Every single thing.
A single beam of daylight shone through the hole in the ceiling in the right corner, the cottage's only source for telling the time or getting some light because of its unfortunate lack of windows. The fireplace helped only a little but it could barely do its job in keeping the cottage warm, most of its heat escaping through the chimney, let alone assist in a way it wasn't built for.
Looking down at my hands with my eyes now completely adjusted to the dim lighting, I realized the only thing truly different within my childhood cottage was me. Dressed in a royal blue silk nightgown with soft, pampered hands and rounded fingernails, I was nothing like the little girl who'd grown up there, one so unfortunate yet full of so many dreams that she put the number of stars in the sky to shame.
Although my appearance and living conditions had improved immensely, I longed to go back so I could possess that level of naivety again even for just a moment and be able to have dreams and not feel stupid for having them.
A sound broke past the crackling of wood and the wind blowing through the hole in the ceiling, so faint and utterly eerie that it made my whole body go rigid within less than a second.
The hairs on the back of my neck rose and my whole body went cold. My breathing paused and my ears strained, my heart pounding against my skull as I tried to register the noise.
My eyebrows furrowed in confusion when I was finally able to hear it more clearly to where I could identify what the noise was: a woman crying, which seemed to get unmistakeable louder and louder as if all the other noises around me were fading away to where I could only hear her. Her cries were heart wrenching to listen to and her voice echoed throughout the old cottage unlike any noise had before.
There was a brief pause where I didn't know what to do. I thought about staying there on my old bed and trying to ignore the sound or leaving the cottage entirely, the cowardly part of myself making my stomach churn and utterly desperate to avoid confronting whoever was crying. But the more persistent part of myself, the truer one, told me I was better than that, that I should go and comfort a woman who was in obvious distress. And even if I wasn't better, I was stubborn and curious and wouldn't be able to live comfortably with myself if I didn't investigate.
So I stood, the floor creaking so loud under my feet that I was sure the gods could hear it, and brushed off the straw that had stuck to the back of my nightwear.
"Hello?" I called out, walking towards the direction of the noise and making an abrupt move to the side when the faint heat of the fire brushing against my side took me by surprise. My steps faltered when I realized that the cries were coming from my mother's room—at least, that's what she'd always called it. It was truly just a small section of the cottage that my mother had separated from the rest by nailing up an old quilt she was dissatisfied with onto one of the beams that held up the roof, its heavy red material seeming daunting all of a sudden as I stared at it. I could suddenly see why she was so unhappy with it. It was a dreadful thing to look at. "Mom?" I finally said when there was no answer, my voice quivering almost as much as my hands were.
I pulled the quilt back slowly, giving myself enough time to change my mind and run the other way if I needed to, remembering my last encounter with the woman. But my curiosity had yet again won and I found my head peeking around the quilt, my eyes widening when I saw my mother sitting on her own pile of straw for a bed, her bright blonde hair a tangled mess, her eyes red and puffy staring at me from two sunken sockets, and her whole body as thin as the day she'd died with her wrists thin enough to wrap my hands around twice. I doubted she would even have the strength to lift a finger in that state. She wore her old nightgown but, unlike my last dream, it was the exact way I'd remembered it, brown stains and holes that were sewn back together by dark stitching that stood out against the white fabric.
"Mom, what's wrong?" I asked walking towards her hesitantly, fully aware that I could barely the floor underneath them as if there wasn't one at all.
I'd known since the moment I'd felt the straw mattress under my hands that I was dreaming, but the worry and fear I felt as I stared at the woman was very, very real.
My mother looked up at me with her glassy eyes, her mouth open in a silent sob—or perhaps it was a silent scream. But she didn't make a move when I sat down next to her, looking as tiny and frail as a newborn mouse and not just because of her loss of weight.
I wrapped my arm around her shoulders as she used to do to me when I was upset, rubbing my hand up and down her back and ignoring how I could feel every bone underneath frail skin through her thin nightgown, every vertebrae my fingers ran over causing the lump in my throat to grow.
Her cracked, pale lips, which looked like they weren't receiving any blood at all, wobbled and her uneven voice was barely recognizable when she replied, "Child, you don't love me anymore." My mother's voice sounded weaker and raspier, like she'd been crying for days without rest.
Even her breathing came out in short gasps now, as if she couldn't catch her breath, and I was suddenly reminded of how useless I felt when she died and Oriana's father had to practically rip me out of her cold arms. I'd put up a fight, screaming, crying, kicking, and crying some more, but I'd known she was gone the moment her eyes went unfocused at the ceiling and I couldn't hear the gurgling of her lungs anymore.
"What?" I said in both shock and horror that she would ever claim such a horrible thing. She was my mother, the woman who'd taught me everything that mattered and who'd cared for me when others didn't and worked harder than anyone I'd ever known.
For her to make this statement, its untruth not only hurt but insulted me, belittling the complete agony I underwent for years following her death. The agony I still experienced everyday when I watched Ingrid sew, smelled certain scents that reminded me of her, or heard people's comments that would make me think of how she would have laughed if she'd been there to hear it. I'd spent an entire year barely talking or doing anything else but crying and hiding underneath my bed covers before I finally was able to get myself together somewhat at the age of thirteen. If it hadn't been for Oriana, Tylem, and Taylium and their families supporting me, both financially and emotionally, I knew I wouldn't have been able to function ever again at all.
"Of course I love you, Mom. How could y—"
"No, you don't love me," she interrupted, her tone strained with disappointment and agitation. My mother shook her head. "You love that monster now!" she cried, her tired voice cracking as she screamed, looking down at my left hand in horror as if I held death itself in my palm. I followed her line of sight and stared at my engagement ring, which was so light and fit so perfectly that most of the time I didn't even realize I was wearing it. My hand went still on her back and my breath hitched in my throat. "You've broken my heart," my mother wailed, clutching her chest as if the said organ was causing her physical pain. She violently shrugged off my arm and slapped it away as if my very touch burned her. I brought it to my chest, my eyes wide at her actions. I could hardly believe I was staring at my mother, but I wasn't really. Not truly. "You were supposed to be better than the others," she hissed, her voice suddenly all too clear.
I was shocked into silence, not knowing what to say or let alone what she meant by that statement. Before I could even muster the courage to get a single word out, a voice spoke from behind me, shattering the silence and its shards pierced me right in the heart, making me gasp as the breath left my body, a pain consuming me so evil and foul that I couldn't think.
I shook my head, watching as my mother seemed to fade and my vision flickered from pitch black and to her face, back and forth and forth and back, as if all the light of the world was a dying lightbulb threatening to give out at any moment. And it got faster, and faster and faster until—
"Raena?" The voice whispered again, a soft blow of breath against the shell of my ear.
My body jumped around, a small screech leaving my lips, and I shuddered, suddenly being consumed by an unearthly cold and my head spinning again, realizing somehow I was now standing. I looked up and squinted, dots appearing in my vision as the winter sun glared down at me full force through the snow-covered tree branches. When I looked all around me, spinning in place, the cottage, the sweet smell of burning cedar, and my mother were gone as if they were never there at all. My brain felt as if it could burst.
"Raena?" The voice now sounded louder and clearer and as if its source was right behind me, giving me the opportunity to finally identify for certain who'd spoken.
There was no mistaking that voice and I realized how wrong my memories had been in trying to recreate it, having made it far too smooth and not nearly as sweet as the real thing had been. Hearing it again for the first time in so long brought tears to my eyes and when I turned, my knees felt so wobbly that I was sure they'd collapse at any moment and bring me down with them.
When my eyes saw their familiar brown, heavy boots, which were as dirty and ratty as they'd been the last time I'd seen them, they flickered upwards and immediately I took a step back, horrified, disgusted, terrified, and saddened all in one. I couldn't even think of what I was feeling. My emotions overwhelmed my senses until all I could focus on was the sickly feeling that entered my stomach and the scorching tears that burned my eyes. My eyes stretched wide and my hands slapped over my mouth as I began screaming, completely unfiltered and wild. But I still didn't look away. I was too horrified to do so.
In front of me, barely a few feet away, were Tylem and Taylium except they weren't themselves. They were the epitome of my nightmares, looking like the undead monsters we'd read about as kids. Their shirts and fur jackets that I'd made them for their birthday hung off of them as nothing but strips of bloodied fabric, revealing the open caverns of their chests where I could see and count every rib.
Tylem's organs were hanging out, his small intestines dragging against the snow, and he was missing an arm but his brilliant green eyes were aware which was more than what I could say for Taylium, whose neck was barely still hanging onto his body and his jaw hung loose from his skull, his pink tongue dangling limp against his lower lip.
"Raena?" Tylem asked again, his voice cracking. It was the most human thing about him. His eyes became red as they watered and he looked down at himself, crying out in horror as if just being made aware of his appearance. Scrambling, he tried to pick up his organs but his hands were too shaky and there was so much blood that they slipped out between his fingers. I cringed and ground my teeth together, trying to keep the bile in my throat from rising too high. "Raena, where are we?" His voice was loud, seeming to echo off of every branch in the woods. "What is this?"
I sobbed and I didn't care as snot made its way onto my face. I didn't even try to wipe it away. It didn't matter.
Taylium made a completely unintelligible sound, blatantly having no control over his tongue, but the desperation in his slightly higher pitched tone was a clear cry for help. A cry for me to help them. His one eye began watering, his other too damaged to open at all, and I wondered if there was even anything at all behind that single closed eyelid.
"Raena, I want to go home!" Tylem wailed, tears running down his face. He looked as if he was trying to move but he couldn't, like his feet were frozen to the snow, which just made it even worse.
I crumbed to my knees, crying with and for my friends, my hands burning against the snow and I welcomed the pain with open arms. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" I repeated as a beg, my forehead falling forward onto the ground. "Please forgive me," I sobbed, my fingers burrowing themselves in the snow.
Hearing their cries was worse than nails against a chalkboard or their dying screams or anything at all. It was the worst thing I'd ever experienced in all my life because again, just like when they and my mother had died, I was completely helpless to do nothing but watch.
I screamed when I felt a hand on my shoulder, the sudden pressure making my body feel as if it was being pulled backwards at a very fast speed. The woods, my friends, my mother, and my cottage passed by in one, large blur and when I opened my eyes—my real and physical eyes—with my chest heaving as I awoke from what I deemed the worst nightmare of my life, it took me a couple seconds to feel confident that I was back in reality. It wasn't until I saw the black hair looming above me, almost brushing my face, that I felt relief relax my body.
"Raena, are you alright?" Callie asked, hovering over me with concerned eyes. Her eyelids were painted with warm colors that complimented her gold eyes and even her lips had been dusted in the center with a few flecks of yellow. She flipped over her hand that'd been resting on my shoulder to press the back against it and she hissed through her teeth, her eyebrows furrowing. "Gods, you're freezing!" she exclaimed then reached for my burning cheeks, which I knew must've been flushed a bright red.
"I'm fine," I said a bit too sharply and turned my face away before she could ever make contact with it, subtly wiping my eyes with the back of my hand while hoping she hadn't seen their unshed tears. "What are you doing here?" My voice was horribly raspy, the result of my dry throat.
"Well, Mary and her team are here to fit you for your dress and get your head measurements for your crown," Callie told me, staring at me like a mother would to her child who'd slept in too late, her hands on her cocked hips with an eyebrow raised. I realized it was a look Henrik used a lot.
"But they're not supposed to be here until three," I said breathlessly, still in a haze, quickly sitting up and swinging my legs over the edge of the mattress.
When the air met the back of my neck, I realized that my whole body from top to bottom was covered in a thick and sticky layer of sweat. My nose crinkled in distaste at the sensation, feeling as if I was the most disgusting thing in Trellomar at that moment.
"Raena," Callie said slowly, sounding hesitant to say anything at all, "it's a quarter past two."
My head shot up. "What?" She gave me another one of those looks. "Shit," I cursed under my breath and ran to the large wardrobe Henrik had placed in exchange for his dresser a few weeks ago. It was the largest piece of bedroom furniture I'd ever seen and had enough room to fit all of our clothes, a wooden slab placed in the center so we each had our own even sides.
I swung open the right door to open my section and frantically searched for an appropriate dress for the day's events, my hands skimming over every single one. There were so many different colors and trims that in my half awake state it was so hard to choose five let alone one.
"You're lucky I convinced Henrik to let me wake you," Callie said with a laugh. I ignored her as I practically ripped a simple, loose dress from its hanger that I knew I could easily pull off and on over my head. "Hey, Raena?" Callie called out as I reached down and opened my undergarments drawer, discretely moving my body in a way so Callie couldn't see inside. If she'd known what I was doing, I knew she would've laughed at my stuck up human ways and begun listing how many naked backsides she'd seen in her life. "Were you having a nightmare?" Her question was quiet and hesitant, two things that Lady Calandrea were not.
I stopped and turned around to face her, my whole body defensively stiff and my spine too straight to be natural. "Why do you ask?" My voice wobbled and I cursed myself internally for being so quick and easy to upset. There Callie was just asking a simple yes-or-no question and I suddenly felt ready to completely fall apart until I was fragments of myself on the floor, my legs feeling completely immovable. Just like Tylem's and Taylium's, my thoughts reminded me and an image of their torn up bodies flashed through my brain, making my stomach want to expel everything it held inside.
"I've had enough myself to know when a person's had a nightmare," Callie replied honestly and vulnerably, making me go quiet with thought.
Callie always seemed so positive and happy that I never considered it could be a mask of something quite dark underneath. I knew about Henrik's parents but I didn't have a strong enough heart to ever ask about hers or the rest of their family, for that matter. There was a large part of me that suspected they all shared the same fate, but living in the Cursed Kingdom had long ago taught me that my assumptions were almost never right.
Staring at her worried face, I felt the wall between my emotions and my body break until they merged into one, my eyes filling with tears. Not thinking anymore, my shaky hands dropped my dress and came to cup my mouth as if to muffle any sounds that escaped it although they were silent, all painfully building up in my throat. For some reason, when I looked down and saw the beautiful purple fabric laying on the floor, it only made me cry harder and I suddenly could barely breathe. The coolness of my engagement ring against my lower lip made me want to toss it across the room and bring it closer all at the same time.
"Oh, Raena," I heard Callie say. Her heels clicked against the ground until her arms were around me, drawing me in close to her and engulfing me in her body heat. It was a different warmth than Henrik's, not nearly as comforting, but I appreciated having it all the same. I appreciated her being there. "It's ok," she cooed, her breath tickling my ear and when her hand began rubbing my back in circles, finally my body released an audible sob that had my whole body shaking. "Everything will be ok."
I wished I could explain to her how wrong she was, how utterly wrong everything had been feeling recently. But instead I cried all my fears, doubts, and sorrows into her collarbone, wishing to forget I'd ever fallen asleep at all.
It was just a dream, I tried telling myself.
But even I, a human, could sense it wasn't true.