“You’re still here?” asked another patient in a cell she passed.
“Not for long,” she smiled happily. “I’m going to get out today. My baby brother is picking me up.”
Her soft-soled moccasins padded down the hallways, each step lighter the closer she got to the end of the ward. They grew quieter and more careful, as if afraid that at any moment the strong hands, nurse and doctor hands, would grip her arms and hold her down for the straps. The straps, the cold leather that was clapped on until she couldn’t breathe, and passed out from hours and hours on the table-like cot…
But no hands came. Aika’s slow, hesitant journey to the glass front doors was unhindered. She shuffled along as she followed the beige-clad orderly, spirits gently swelling, allowing herself hope. Then the bubble popped, with a wet smack. A gob of saliva hit her under the eye. She stumbled against the wall, wiping the spit from her cheek with the back of her hand.
“Whore!” came the whisper from the last cell. “Saaaaarah, pretty little whore, painted up to touch him, I know you touch him when I can’t see, I know, I know…”
The orderly was suddenly at the door, commanding Edith to settle down. For a moment Aika thought she’d be able to contain the sick thoughts and the retort, but the years of torment came up like bile. She seized the bars on the tiny window despite the orderly grabbing her around the waist, and told her, “Fuck you, you old bitch. You’ll never touch me again. I’m going to be free… and you’re going to rot in here.”
The door rattled with the weight of the skinny woman behind it, and the orderly was finally able to pull Aika back with the screech of fury.
The sun was warm on her exultant face when she broke through the front doors. The light alone felt like it washed away two years of grime.
“She’s still in our home,” Bran frowned, his eyes leaving the taxi’s window to catch Aika’s expression. “The police were there last week for further investigation, but nothing came of it. It’s still labeled ‘natural cause’.”
“Did you call them there?” she asked, searching her brother’s face.
“She killed mom. The evidence is there, I know it…”
The cab was silent for a few minutes, and Aika began pulling at the frayed threads of her sweater.
“I know you feel like that, but… she’s our guardian now. At some point this chase has gotta end. I can’t trust her either, Bran, but Moira won. She’s there. That’s it. Even if she did kill mom.”
It was hard for her to speak in such blunt terms about the incident. But Aika suspected their aunt of murder too. It was hard for her to convince her younger brother when she had yet to convince herself.
Bran’s face was cold and Aika was sure at that second, for the briefest second, he hated her. It made her shrink from her own opinions. “You don’t know what it’s been like, living with her. Alone. Maybe I should have tried to kill myself too, gotten thrown into a cozy fucking asylum life.”
Aika froze, balking at the image of Bran’s charred body in that room, seared black and emaciated. It chilled her heart and her stomach dropped.
“Stop the car,” she said quietly.
The driver glanced up, but continued. Bran seemed to realize what he had said, and she could see his mouth opening and closing, in an attempt to form an apology that would make up for the offense. “Sis…”
“Stop. The car.”
“Aika, we’re not even halfway to–”
“STOP THE GODDAMN CAR.”
The driver finally rolled to a halt, and as soon as it rocked back with the finality of braking, the door was open and she was out. She stormed down the highway for a good ten meters or so before Bran caught up to her, and she knew the car was following slowly.
“Aika,” Bran called from behind her, in his pleading kid voice she hadn’t heard in years, since she’d been nineteen and he’d been fifteen, and she had been committed by their father. She finally stopped and turned to him. His shoulders slouched, his eyes were exhausted. There was a maturity and dead hopelessness to his features that she never wanted to see. He’d had to deal with their mother’s death alone, a kid, and she had been blind to it during his visits to the mental ward.
“Why did dad leave?” she asked. His shoulders raised in a shrug and she shook her head. “No, Bran. Don’t protect him. What stopped him from visiting more than once? Why did he leave us to Moira? Why did he let my kid brother pick me up in a cab, from a prison?” Bran remained quiet. “Why is he living God-Knows-Where instead of with us? Was Moira stopping him?”
Slowly he shook his head. Her eyes closed. “He was afraid of me, and afraid of seeing me in that place. Of taking care of me afterwards because he knew how bad it was there. And he was too damaged by mom’s death to take care of anyone but himself.”
Aika took his silence as a ‘yes’. She inclined her head. “Please don’t talk about that place like that. I can’t think of you dead and I can’t think of you there. You only saw a sliver of life there.”
Bran slowly nodded, and then rushed at her, tears wetting his eyes. Her arms quickly slipped around his neck and gathered his thin frame against her. She breathed in his sweater, the smell of cigarette smoke and his obnoxiously teenage cologne. She could hardly describe the feeling after not being allowed to touch anyone for too long.
“Thank you for saving me,” she murmured, full of relief and disbelief that she was finally free, out of that hellhole. “Let’s go home.”
“Aika? Are you dressed?” The question was muffled against the thick wood of the door, but she knew who was calling.
“Yes, Auntie. I’ll be down in a bit.”
There was no reply except the footsteps leaving, and she turned back to the mirror. It was painful to get dressed still, even when her burns had completely healed. The stretching of the tight skin grafts was still uncomfortable. The mottled scars still shone down more than half of Aika’s body, ending at her jawline and ear. The ward’s liveries hadn’t covered the burns, and she’d gotten used to seeing them a lot. But being at home, among normal people, was bringing up old insecurities.
She slipped on a turtleneck and a full-length skirt, hiding what she could. She carefully combed her hair down over one shoulder, and it curled around her burned neck. Almost normal.
“And that’s the way it is,” she heard from the small television. Bran was at the table with Moira, no father in sight. Her aunt smiled a tight smile; Aika knew the woman would be nervous around her for a while. She offered a cup of coffee but Aika ignored her and went to the coffee pot herself. She fetched two mugs, making Bran’s the way he liked it and then her own. Her stepmother gave her a hard look when she slid it across the table, but Aika ignored that as well. Bran smiled at her in thanks.
The silent picture was bothering her. “What are we doing today?” she asked blandly as she took the seat across the table.
“I thought we could go down to the lake,” Moira nodded, turning off the television. “I invited some people over tonight to welcome you home.”
The panic button in her mind pressed, and Aika shook her head frantically. “No. Please, no party.”
Bran rolled his eyes. “Can you leave her alone for ten minutes? Jesus.”
Aika watched the lips purse. “Alright. No party. I suppose the lake is a stupid idea too.”
The tone stung. Aika swallowed and tried to think of an activity that involved no socialization. “I just … want to be alone for a bit. Maybe … we can go to the pictures tonight?”
Moira nodded curtly. Aika excused herself and left the kitchen to breathe. When she turned back to the kitchen, Moira had Bran’s cup of coffee in hand. Aika watched as she poured the black liquid down the drain, and Bran scowled at her.
“She’s filling out the final papers to claim insurance,” Bran informed her a few months later, sitting on the couch beside her. “I think this is why she chased dad away. I think if it wasn’t for us, mom’s money would be lining her pockets already.”
“You’re being crazy,” Aika complained, using her feet to push him back off the couch. The thing was… he wasn’t being crazy. These exact thoughts had plagued her the whole time she was put away, and she knew exactly where he was going next.
“I know you’re thinking it too. You’re thinking that she’s going to try to ki-”
“Quiet, Bran,” Aika ordered. “Stop. I’m home now, I don’t want to think about this.”
“Why did she want to take us to the lake?”
She paused. It was a valid question. She knew her aunt hated the lake, and her aunt knew that she hated water. Bran was the only one who would enjoy it.
But she couldn’t give him validation for his paranoia. So she said the most sisterly thing she could think of. “Shut up, turd.”
Bran was stunned for a second, before his face broke into a sheepish smile. Then he sighed. “I just want mom and dad back.”
“I know, kid. It’ll be okay.”
She left Bran and moved upstairs. For the first few weeks, she’d avoided the library wing. Today she moved through it like a ghost, through the completely reconstructed rooms. This entire section of the house had been destroyed in the fire. With the new walls and flooring and lack of books, she hardly recognized the room her mother had died in.
The truth was, Bran’s suspicions were beginning to wear on her. Every night she woke up to her aunt standing over her bed, a huge kitchen knife in hand. When she screamed and fell out of bed, unable to get up from her burns, Bran would help her and sit with her until the dream went away. He murmured all the time how he saw her too. Aika panicked whenever she couldn’t find him right away, or when she saw a window thrown wide open. Her worst attacks came of smelling smoke off of the neighbors’ flues. It always smelled like burning flesh.
“Bran, I’m scared all the time,” was her most uttered phrase, when she gave in to her brother’s fears.
“I know. Me too.”
She spent more and more time in the death room. It should have sent her to pieces, but it somehow comforted her. This was the room her mother spent the most time in before the disease finally took her. “She was getting better, wasn’t she?” Bran had asked on his first visit. “Walking, singing. She dropped dead in the middle of a miraculous recovery.”
Mom had been getting better. The day of her death she’d even walked to the kitchen with Aika and made tea, before Moira had taken over and finished up.
Aika left the room and moved down the hall, steps silent in the moccasins. She wanted to go to her mom’s room; smell her perfume, nap in her bed. The door was ajar, and she paused. Her aunt was staying in the guest room, and her dad had stopped staying in there when her mom did. Aika tentatively pushed the door with her fingertips, and it swung open.
Moira. With Mom’s jewelry in hand, holding the chain up to her neckline and admiring it.
Aika knew for sure at that moment that everything Brannon had said was true. Everything; the poison, the insurance scam, the inheritance that she was willing to kill for. The times she woke up to her aunt’s knife. Everything.
Moira caught her eye in the reflection. “Aika,” she said in surprise, then smiled unsurely as if she knew she was caught. “Would you come do this up?”
She hesitated, and then stepped into the room and behind Moira, her fingers trembling as she took the clasps. “Your mom was a great woman,” Moira said quietly, admiring the gem at her throat. “I miss her everyday.”
“I do too,” said Aika, her sentiment angry and strangled. She did up the necklace and moved away from her aunt swiftly, and then noticed the open window. It was a frigid night, and the window was vast. There was no reason for it to be open more than a crack.
Carefully nonchalant, she moved to the window. Her aunt was saying something about the jewelry, how she thought Aika should take anything she liked. Aika wasn’t listening. Her eyes were trained on the ground below, unmoving, as they fought to make out a crumpled shape on the ground. It was in a shining crimson puddle. Too big to be an animal. Too broken to be…
“…Bran.” Her heart stopped. Moira turned, studying her, expression inscrutable. Aika couldn’t move from the window, couldn’t run, couldn’t scream. Her moccasins were glued to the wooden floor. She watched her aunt, waiting for her move before doing anything.
“Sweetheart,” she finally murmured, standing from her seat at the vanity and approaching Aika with open arms and an unhappy look on her face.
Aika panicked. “Get AWAY from me, you fucking murderer!”
Moira stopped, shock etched on her features. Her eyes slowly moved down, down her front, down to the large kitchen knife that was fixed in her stomach. Aika’s hands firmly held the black plastic handle. Moira stepped back, the blade slipping from her with a schlick, moving in slow motion. Her eyes were empty before her back hit the windowsill, and she tumbled into the dark of night.
Aika fell to the floor, breathing heavily. She didn’t know how long she stayed there, the panic thick in her throat. Her scars burned heavily, cripplingly, and when she finally moved she yelled out in pain. It was a process to pull herself to the hall, down the stairs. Red and blue lights flashed hypnotically against the wall. The neighbors must’ve called the police, she thought blankly.
The front door fell open to her, and she stumbled past the emerging police. Moira was lying in blood, but Bran was no longer there. “Where’s Bran?” she whispered.
“What happened here?” asked an officer.
“My … my aunt. She killed my brother. Bran Slater! She killed him! Where is he?”
“Aika … what did you do?” demanded the neighbor in shock, trying to approach her. Aika didn’t remember his name. “You killed her!”
“My brother … my baby brother…”
But she knew. As soon as she saw the neighbor’s terrified face, the police who took her arms without resistance. One face stood out. She knew him.
“Ma’am… Brannon Slater has been dead for two years. He died pulling you out of that fire.”
She didn’t hear him through the deafening silence that crushed her eardrums. The earth collapsed around her and she descended into hell.
In her familiar ward. Moccasins on feet. Sitting cross-legged on her bed.
A shadow passed her door and her eyes drifted upwards. Edith peeked through the bars. “You’re back where you belong,” the old woman crowed.
Aika smiled languidly. “Not for long,” she said quietly. “I’m going to get out today. My baby brother is picking me up.”