1. The Woods
If people ask me about the thing I love the most in the world, I won’t know what to answer. Maybe it’s our house, or the beach, or my distant father, or even my step-sister, but it’s not going to be me.
I don’t hate myself, no. I just don’t think I’m notable enough to receive such affection from others because of my nature. They say I’m precarious, awkward, and living in my bubble. While most people believe I’m asocial, some depict me as a shy girl. Those labels might be correct except for the last part. I’m by far from shy; if only they knew.
On the other hand, I find others intriguing and always full of surprises. Maybe because it’s hard for me to understand why they react the way they do. It’s always been a puzzle to me, and sometimes, the uncertainty triggers my anxiety. However, my father always says I just need to keep my head from going under and trust those who care for me: my family. Because they’re the ones who make sure I have what I need, I eat my meals every day, I get enough sun and fresh air, and the most important part is, they make sure I remember to take my medicines.
“Hurry, Gretta, we need to go home now!” Lola says as she props herself up, her high-pitch voice piercing my bubble of thoughts. We’ve been spending our lazy Saturday afternoon at the beach, lying on our picnic blanket after stuffing ourselves with pastries we brought from home. Our mother forced us to go get some sun on the beach since it shines quite generously today.
“Why?” I ask, peering at her from behind my sketchbook.
My step-sister points at the sky. “The weather will change soon, and I have a date with Damien. I need to get ready.”
“Can I just stay here? I promise I will be back before dinner.” In all honesty, I just don’t want to meet her boyfriend. Something about him makes me feel uneasy despite his charming nature. And every time I try to figure out why I feel that way toward him, my mind flips and in the next seconds, I’m trapped in jumbled thoughts.
“You said you were going to bake something for dessert. Your aunt is coming for dinner, remember?” Lola pulls the blanket, prompting me to roll to the side. “Now, let’s go. Move your butt.”
I lay flat on my back and squint at the vibrant blue hues up above that are staring down at me. The summer sun is still glaring unmercifully, allowing the heat to caress my face. Only a few streaks of cloud adorn the afternoon sky, and from the lack of wind, it’s unlikely that the rain will come anytime soon. Maybe I can stall a little bit more.
Screaming birds crack the stillness on the shores, followed by a flock of seagulls swarming in the sky, heading in the direction of the mainland. Yes, the summer is almost over, and it’s time for those robust birds to leave their nests and migrate to the south, hunting for food.
Soon, Lola also needs to pack her bags and head to the mainland as the new term in her uni is about to start again, while I stay put in my spot with my sketches and books. Sometimes, Lola comes home to spend the weekends with her boyfriend who happens to run a family business downtown. And she might spare a little time for me too if I’m lucky.
“Get up, Gretta!” Lola’s voice pulls me back to the current moment.
“But look at the sky. I don’t think–”
“It will rain. Trust me. I saw the forecast,” she cuts me. The stern in her voice shuts me up at once.
“Okay.” I decide to listen to her and quickly gather my stuff before shoving them into my ratan bag. As I jump up, I swat my skirt a few times to get rid of the sand grains while glancing at the shore. Maybe another day then.
With a picnic basket in one hand and my bag in another, I jog to catch up with my step-sister who is already ten meters ahead. We walk home through the woods that separate our house from the beach. It’s only a fifteen-minute walk by distance, but going back requires climbing the hill and it surely slows us down.
People on this island rarely stroll around this place because they believe the forest is cursed. Our house caretaker once told me that a man was murdered here back in the day, mutilated into five pieces. No one knew who the killer was, nor why the person deserved such a horrible assault. Well, of course, a few theories went around but none of them was proven.
As we go deeper into the woods, the sun gradually loses its intensity, blocked by the thick foliage of the pine trees above our heads. The light manages to go through the gap between the leaves and creates a few glowing sun rays, but they barely reach the forest floor.
We walk quietly as we always do. I don’t know how to strike a conversation, and she’s probably not in the mood to make one right now. Not that it bothers me; at least, not anymore. Despite our connection as step-siblings since five years ago, we haven’t built a bond, but I understand why she finds hanging out with her friends more enthralling than spending time with her awkward sister. She did try once —God bless her soul— to take me with her when she went to a party during her high school years, but it didn’t end well. And that was the first and the last time she brought me to hang out with her friends.
Who can blame her? With that long and shiny jet-black hair complimenting her big blue eyes, pointy nose, and full lips, she didn’t need me to introduce her around the town when she first moved into our house. The way she brought herself already screamed fame. What kind of favor would a boring skinny step-sister do to her? Even I hate my dull brown hair and my pale face every time I see myself in the mirror.
I keep my eyes on the ground, making sure I won’t trip from stepping on an uneven surface even though I know this path like I do the back of my hand. Then we hear someone scream, followed by hurried footsteps approaching us. Before I can make sense of what on earth is going on, a woman who I recognize as the storekeeper downtown sprints in our direction. She’s wearing a white and red summer dress, while her feet are bare, making me wonder why she walks in the woods without shoes. Her movement is clumsy and she clutches her abdomen as she slows down toward us.
I freeze when I realize I misjudged the colors. It’s not a white and red fabric, but it’s blood covering her white dress. A lot of blood.
She runs to Lola as she weeps and chokes. “Please...help me...someone is...” before she finishes her line, she falls on her knees, slumps forward, and lands on the ground.
Lola drops her bags and rushes to the woman. “Mary! What happened?”
The next few seconds are a blur to me. My vision starts to show double sights, my heart thumps wildly against my chest, and I have trouble breathing. I try to inhale as much air as I can, but it’s no use. My rapid breathing is in the way, yet it’s the only source of my survival. Every second, I feel the air leave my lungs as my surroundings turn darker. I want to run. I want to escape this, but I barely feel my legs.
“...ta! Can you hear me? Gretta! Pull yourself together and run to the house. Oh God, I think Mary is dying! Hurry, go tell Mom and call the ambulance!”
“I...no...she...” My lips are moving but I can’t assemble any coherent sentences.
“Oh no, no, no. Shit! We lost her! Go, Gret–”
That’s the last thing I hear before the blackness swallows me whole.