I stare out the windshield blankly as thoughts rush through my head, the blinding pain in my stomach front and center. It takes me a moment to realise that Selena isn’t headed to school, but when I do I turn to face her, placing my hand on her arm.
“Sel, what are you doing?!” My voice holds a hint of panic and I grip her arm tighter, my hand almost definitely cutting half-moons into her arm.
“We’re not going to school today. Duh – weren’t you listening?” Selena’s tone is flippant and I pull back from her slightly, my hand still plastered to her arm as I prepare to argue with her.
“No. No, Sel. Neither Em or I want to, okay?” My stern expression turns her joyful one into a pout, and she turns pleading eyes towards me as she pulls over the car on the side of the road, haphazardly putting it in park as she turns her whole body towards mine.
“Pleeeeaaassseee?” She smiles at me so sweetly, widening her eyes and sticking her bottom lip out in a look that could kill anybody’s resolve. Well, anyone but me, that is. She flutters her lashes and I give her the look that says ’did you really think that would work on me.
“No.” I say sternly, and when she continues to look at me like that I sigh and release my grip on her arm, holding her hand instead.. “Why, Sel? Why do you want to ditch today?” Her expression turns thoughtful as she bites her lip, her gaze moving from my face to the window behind my head. I see a moment of anxiety on her face, an expression I might’ve missed if I was anyone else. It lasted only a moment; a moment that is too soon over as she turns to look at me.
“I don’t know. I just feel like…like we have to.” Her reply is so soft I almost don’t hear it, and I’m sure Em doesn’t hear it. I squeeze her hand and let my support rise in my eyes while a stern expression masters my face.
“Why, Sel?” My tone is harsh but I see recognition in her eyes as she throws up her hands eccentrically and glares at me with a sass and stubbornness that she’s patented within our little group.
“C’mon, Lay! Remember what you said, - I’ll help you let go. That’s what I’m doing.” My eyes go wide at the reference to the first words I said to her, words that haven’t been uttered between us for years, and for a second I can tell that Selena is afraid I don’t remember. I smile reassuringly and open my mouth to reply when Emily butts in.
“When did she say that? I don’t remember her saying that?” The jealous tone strikes a nerve and brings me out of my nostalgia; I nervously glance at Selena, who nods.
“A very long time ago.” I say softly, coming out of my memories from that time, long ago. After a long pause, I sigh in resignation. “Okay. Fine.” Selena claps her hands in victory and Emily glances at me in horror. “Don’t worry, Em, I’ll make sure we don’t get into trouble.” She accepts that and slumps back into her seat, disgruntled.
As I slump into my own seat, I think about the pain in our stomachs and that maybe skipping school won’t be so bad – that maybe it’ll make the perfect opportunity to discuss this morning’s events. “Guys, I’m driving.” They both stare at me in horror and I wonder why until I remember that I never learned to drive. I chuckle sheepishly, backtracking, “Okay, never mind. Em is driving. I’ll tell her where to go.” Selena pouts for a fraction of a second before she jumps on my lap, therefore vacating the driver’s seat. I give a little ‘oomph’ as she lands on my lap before wriggling to the side so we sit side by side.
Emily gets out of the car and walks around to the drivers seat, settling in and gently maneuvering the car as I direct her to the only place I can think of that will give us privacy, the only place where I feel comfortable.
“A park? Really?” Selena pouts, adding the melodramatic to our little group of three. She slams the door behind her and leans against the car as I head into the park.
“Just wait, you’ll see” I give her a secret smile and Selena immediately walks up to me, grabbing my hand with a little tug.
“Oh, Lay, my wonderful, amazing sister, Lay, what have you been hiding from your bestest friend in the whole wide world?” Her voice is dripping with honey and something a lot less sweet.
A little cough from Emily.
“I admit to my sins, oh great people! Forgive me from keeping this place from my bestest friends.” I make sure to include Emily. “Sometimes when this world seems too god-awful for me to cope, I retreat to this safe place. I hope my friends can forgive me because, oh, if they can’t then I fear that I may not be able to share this special place with them.” I gaze out into the distance dramatically, as if waiting for an answer from the heavens, holding the back of my hand currently not attached to Selena to my forehead.
Emily giggles and I break out into a big grin, turning back to face them.
“C’mon, gals. It’s time I show you my place.” I hook my arms in each of their elbows before Selena pulls back.
“Wait – when did you come here? Like…when…what…?” Selena’s confusion is evident and I feel a little pang of guilt in my stomach, remembering the times when I would escape from Andrew’s house in recent years and come to the park; the times when I wished I could show her, but I just didn’t”
“Not very often in the past couple years but…sometimes, you just need some fresh air” I smile sadly at her and squeeze her hand. She smiles at me in reserved acceptance and I link our arms.
“Okay – let’s go!”
“What?” I frown at Selena.
“We need to call the school and tell them we’re sick.”
“Oh right.” I say. “Lead the way, governor!” My crappy British accent makes them crack up in a round of giggles and we hold our stomachs as we wait for the giggles to subside.
After we call the school and are reassured by Selena that no one will find out, we re-form our line with big grins on our faces. I lead them through a well-worn path in the wet dew of the park. The trodden-on grass beneath my shoes feels comforting as always, but I stop and remove my shoes with a little smile. My friends stare at me as if I’m crazy as I sigh when my bare feet touch the wet grass. My grin goes from ear to ear and I continue through the park. By the time we reach the end of the park both of my friends have also removed their shoes, releasing similar sighs of contentment.
“Um, Lay?” Emily’s hesitant voice reaches me just as I’m about to step into the canopy of deep green trees. I turn back around to face my friends, who have remained behind me. “Are you sure that’s safe?” The confusion falls from my face and I laugh heartily. My friends stare at me and I realize this is probably the most relaxed they have ever seen me, and I smile inwardly at the change which I am probably enjoying too much.
“I’m sure. Don’t you guys trust me?” My face transforms into a pout and they smile wearily at me. I very much appreciate the effort.
“Okay. We’ll go.” Selena smiles at me confidently, not wanting to tarnish her reputation as adventurous.
“Yay!” I leap forward and hug her, smiling. “Now, be careful only to step on the path. It takes a while to get to it but I’ve worn it through well. I’ll tell you if anything is going to trip you up or bite your feet.” The look of horror on Emily’s face is so worth the lie.
I push through the trees, choosing the most well worn path for them to take. As we start walking I tell my tale, knowing that the details I provided earlier weren’t nearly enough and that the question will come sooner or later; I don’t want to destroy my place with petty questions.
“I’ve been coming here since I was about five. My mum used to drop me off at the park and tell me not to leave while she worked. I never left the park, but I got bored with the monotonous nature of the park, as you can imagine. So one day I went exploring in the forest.” A gasp from Emily brings a smile to my face. Always so cautious. “I wasn’t stupid, I marked the way back to the park and when I got to the end of my little trail I found it. And don’t ask, I’m not telling you anything about it.”
Sighs of resignation form from the mouths of my best friends and make me chuckle silently. “It took a little while, actually, for me to work up to the place. The forest was so full of wonders that I barely got ten meters the first day.” I smile to myself at the memory, seeing child sized hands touching the forest with deep wonder. “I explored every meter of this wood until I knew it back to front and I was never afraid of the animals, thanks to my five–year-old brain. So anyway, after a while I found the place. I wanted to keep it a secret, so I walked a path to it so I could always find it, but after a month or so of walking into the forest I found that I had almost created another path, so I stopped walking in the same way.”
By this point we have almost reached the path so I turn sharply to the left and head for the tree. When I reach it I climb up the tree and hook my shoes around a branch before climbing higher into the tree. I climb back down as an afterthought, grabbing my friends’ shoes and quickly scurrying back up the tree before they can protest. Once I reach the top and my bag nestled between the branches, I peer down at their surprised faces before chuckling in delight and throwing down their bikinis that they respectively left in my room. Their surprise quickly turns to anger followed by understanding before returning to confusion. I grab my bikini and climb down, grabbing their hands and dragging them towards the path again.
“Okay, now get changed.” Their faces remain blank for a moment before realization lights their eyes. I slip on my bikini under my clothes with practiced precision, stifling my mirth while they struggle. I hand them each a light dress from the bag I retrieved from the tree before placing my bag in a smaller tree nearby. I step onto the well worn path and walk at a leisurely pace, watching with joy as my friends overcome their fear of the forest and recognize the beauty that never ceases to amaze me.
The green grass squishes under my feet and while it used to annoy me to no end, now it relaxes me and I revel in the feeling of being free. The blue dress Melayna gave me floats around my body and allows me to feel at one with the world, like I am finally at home and where I’m meant to be. As I’m led down the path, I pay close attention to every single flower and notice things that I’ve never noticed before.
The texture of each petal seems so precise and different, as individual as human fingerprints. Some petals appear waxy and bright, while others are pale and fragile. The colours range from a bright yellow sunflower to a deep red gerbera, a white gardenia and a midnight blue colossus, just to name a few. The scents infiltrating my nostrils range as well, and inhaling them sends a flurry of thoughts and emotions to my brain. Just as I am about to lean in closer and examine a blue flower I have never seen before, a rainbow lorikeet flutters past me and steals my attention. Returning my gaze to the blue flower, I grab hold of the stalk and gently rescue it from its hold in the ground and place it lightly behind my ear.
My eyes return to the path of the lorikeet and I see my friends’ backs as they walk in front of me. I remember the bitter tang of jealousy that I felt in the car this morning and I breathe deeply, allowing the feeling to leave me as I sigh in relief. I notice my friends’ dresses matching their bracelets that never leave our hands, and they both have flowers in the same shade as well. I look down at myself lazily and smile as I realize that I am similarly attired, the baby blue dress and flower matching my blue topaz bracelet. Weird, I’m sure that when I put on the dress, it was pale yellow. The thought flitters straight out of my brain almost as soon as it enters as the beauty of the lush trees captures me.
It seems to take an eternity, yet also no time at all, before Melayna brings me out of my reverie by grabbing my arm in one hand, and Selena’s in the other, and dragging us down the path.
“Lay!” Selena complains, “I was enjoying that walk! Why did you drag us away?” The pout is evident in her voice and I notice Melayna’s soft glare before she answers.
“I would love to let you, but we have some other pressing matters to discuss, and we’ll barely be there tomorrow at this rate.” Melayna’s voice has a hint of a growl and both Selena and I recognize her temper rearing its head. I look back at the path once with longing before eventually giving in, using my own legs to propel myself forward rather than letting Melayna pull me along.
As we come to a stop I’m still staring behind me at the path, but I wrench my eyes away from the view at the sound of Selena’s gasp. My eyes quickly drink in the picturesque scene of bright blue waves and golden sand. My eyes scan the scene before me, noting how the trees seem to bend in the direction of the flowers at their base, as if protecting their children. I take an unconscious step toward the scene, longing to become a part of it, but Lay’s arm comes out in front of me, effectively stopping me before I stepped off the edge of the cliff I’m standing on, the cliff that just seems to add to the cliché-ness of the picture in front of me.
I take a deep breath as I attempt to accent the fact that a place I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams is literally in front of me. I reach out tentatively and hold my breath, imagining that my fingers will come in contact with a canvas full of paint, but I release my breath when I just encounter more air. A big grin breaks out on my face and I’m suddenly glad for my bare feet as I anticipate the feeling of the sand between my toes. I start to break into a run and make my way down the rough cliff face when Melayna stops me with a hand on my arm.
“Wait, Em. Sel.” She grabs hold of Selena with her other arm and pushes us both lightly to the ground. I sit down with little effort, staring at her blankly. “I know you guys want to go but we have to talk first. There’s something going on, something important.” I stare at Melayna silently, waiting for her to continue as I remain in a state of shock. Her eyes stare to my right and soften as she starts to talk. “So, this morning we all had this weird feeling in our stomachs. It’s something I’ve never felt before and…god, guys, it can’t be a coincidence that it happened to all of us.”
My head clears a little as I focus on her words, and nod in affirmation. There could be no way to deny the weirdness of this situation, but one look at the beach behind her and I can’t hold myself back anymore. I glance down at my feet that are itching to get up and move, gripping the moist soil with my hands as if that will ground me. Soon enough I loose my resolve, racing towards the cliff edge with a determination I didn’t know I possessed.
My feet find holes in the rock and, with a skill foreign to my mind but obviously not my body, I propel myself down towards the sandy beach. The instant my feet hit the sand, my toes curl inwards before releasing as I run as fast as I can until I’m in the middle of the beach, ignoring the snickers from Melayna on the top of the cliff. I spin in a circle and tilt my head back up to the sky, thrusting my arms out to either side of me.
I keep spinning and I feel all of the negative feelings I normally suppress leave my body, freeing my soul from its confines. I feel at once as if I could fly away and yet like I’m tied to this spot, but it’s a comforting combination unlike one would imagine. I laugh joyously and the sound is like the tinkling of bells, just like it is in my dreams. The strange feeling that I felt this morning in my stomach reappears but at this point it feels welcome and like it belongs, like an important part of me that I’ve been missing. I feel whole. That, coupled with the release of all negativity, makes me never want to leave.
I hear a giggle and watch as Selena approaches me, her dress flowing out behind her along with her hair. She looks as free as I feel and she skids past me, barely managing to stop the momentum of her body. She ends up on the sand next to me, giggling like a maniac. I look back at Melayna to see her shake her head in disappointment but a small smile curls the edge of her lips.
I reach out a hand to Selena and pull her to her feet. She grabs my arm and spins me in a circle before pulling me back to her body, as if we were dancing at formal. “Sing me a song, Em,” she says breathlessly as she spins me out again. I laugh by comply and we dance around in circles to whatever nameless tune pops into my head. She laughs every time we fall down but we pick ourselves back up again and continue where we left off until we are too tired to continue.
We collapse in a heaping pile of giggles and just lie there, feeling the energy of joy surrounding us. I turn my head in surprise when I hear a splash and Emily crawls up the beach, as if afraid of what’s in the water.
“LAY!” Emily screams, pointing to the spot my sister had just occupied moments earlier. I put two and two together and make five, hoping I’m right.
I laugh at Emily and lay back in the sand once again, snickering in my head at the horrified expression on her face. I get up and run towards the cliff face, not looking back, and scale the rock, my rock-climbing skills coming in handy. As soon as I reach the top, I bomb off the rock into the frigid water. I remove the sundress I’m wearing and let it float to the top of the water as I move around to a cave at the side of the base of the cliff.
I peer around the edge of the rock to see Emily’s reaction and almost jump out of my skin when someone grabs me from behind and holds a hand over my mouth. I start to fight against the grip when I look into Melayna’s eyes, glittering with humour.
“I knew you’d find me,” she whispers and I smile, thinking of the mischief we have caused over the years. I smile back at her, knowing that the mischief we normally cause is glittering in my eyes, and as she grins back at me she confirms my suspicions.
She removes her hand from my mouth and walks towards the back of the cave. She beckons me forward with her hand and I tentatively follow her into the darkness that seems to saturate the air around us. She walks towards a wall and I stumble behind her, trusting that she wont lead me into anything awful down here. I hear a click as she flicks a switch and a small light appears with her hands. Glancing down I see the flashlight, and turn to walk besides her, following the path of the light. As we keep walking through the dank cave, the once pleasant breeze stats to become violent and I shiver involuntarily.
I start to wish that I had brought a sweated and close my eyes, imagining the warmth that would come from my favourite wool sweater that Melayna bought me, the sweater that’s hanging in my wardrobe. I’m so caught up in my daydream that I stop looking where I’m going and trip and fall with a loud oomph!
“Are you okay?!” Melayna’s voice echoes back to me from a few meters a head with concern. I sit up and start to reply to her, but stop suddenly when I see what I tripped over. “Sel?” Her voice is louder as she walks back to me. “Selena. Are you okay?” She annunciates every syllable very clearly, her face marred by confusion as she stares at me with my wool sweater clutched tightly in my hand.
“Sel. Please, answer me.” I just continue to stare at her, clutching the sweater for dear life. Her voice slows and she crouches down so she’s at eye level with me, as if I’m a toddler. Her gaze drops to my hands before returning to my face. “Selena. Where did you get that sweater?” I look down at my hands and open my mouth, waiting for the answer to fall out. When nothing happens I close my mouth.
My sister gazes at me in concern before placing her hands on my face, presumably to examine me for any injuries. As soon as she touches my face, a bright light appears from her hands. I close my eyes instinctively in order to save my retinas and drop the sweater in surprise. The light coming from Melayna’s hands pours into my skin and I absorb it eagerly. I feel rejuvenated just from the touch of her hands, but it raises a whole load of questions that are ready to burst from my mouth.
I pull away from Melayna and she falls to the floor in front of me. The light recedes, leaving Lay powerless and me powerful. I gasp in horror and shock, reaching out to cradle her head in my lap and wipe the hair away from her pale face. She barely moves, and I sit with baited breath and tears in my eyes waiting for movement from her. She slowly opens her eyes and smiles weakly when she meets my gaze.
“Well, catching me wasn’t in the job description, was it?”
I choke on a laugh as tears stream down my face as I attempt to reply through my sobs. “I hate how you can make me laugh when all I want to do is cry.” She smiles at me and closes her eyes, her breathing evening out. I freak out at the sudden silence and feel my heart beating a hundred kilometers a minute. I place her head gently on the rock and make sure she’s comfortable before grabbing the flashlight and running back to the opening of the cave. I jump into the water and swim back to the shore where Emily is pacing the sand.
“Ohmygod! Sel! Where did you go? I thought you had died!” She runs to me and grabs me in a bear hug.
“No – time – to – talk!” I pant as fast as I can. “COME!” I grab her hand and pull her towards the shore as fast as I can.
“Wait!” Emily digs her heels into the sand and pulls me to a stop. “What’s wrong?” She puts her hand on her hips sternly. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what happened.” I don’t have time to argue so I take a deep breath and start.
“So I knew Lay had jumped into the water, so I followed and she led me to a cave and we were walking through the cave and it was cold and I wished I had a sweater and then I tripped on the jumper and so I was, like, catatonic and then Lay came up to me and put her hands on my face and this blinding white light burst from her fingers and I closed my eyes then I started to feel like I had just slept for days and I opened my eyes and Lay fell down and her face was all pale and she looked like she was about to die and so I freaked out and swam to shore and – and – and!” I stop in desperation and take the huge breath that my lungs are aching for. “WE HAVE TO GET HER!” I scream, loosing all the air I had built up in my lungs. Emily’s face still conveys confusion, but she can obviously understand enough to comply.
She strips off her dress and jumps into the water next to me, following as I swim around to the cave. It takes me a moment to find the entrance to the cave, but when we do I grab the flashlight and start to make my way through the cave. We have barely been walking for three minutes when the flashlight blinks once before dying. “Oh, great,” I mutter, “Just what we need,” and we continue to stumble through the darkness, looking for my sister.