The spires of Evelyn Goldworthy’s mansion clawed at the moon like the skeletal hands of a decrepit old man, casting long, twisted shadows over the walls and out onto the street. Darkness draped itself about the world as if trying to choke the very life out of it, and despite the sporadic enclaves of light encircling a few lonely streetlamps, the night was as absolute and impenetrable as death itself.
"Are you sure she's coming?" Raymond repeated for no less than the sixth time that night. The Amazon's fingertips danced a restless ballet on the steering wheel. Each blow to the leather was another blow to Cherry's frayed nerves. "Are you sure she's going to show up?"
Inwardly, Cherry sighed. They had been parked opposite Evelyn's front gate since an hour before midnight, and they had yet to see any sign of life in the darkness beyond. It was now approaching 1am, and they were both as tired and stressed as they'd ever been. Cherry refused to let her own exhaustion show, though; one of them had to remain strong, or they'd be second guessing their odds before they knew it.
As such, the lie came to her lips with practiced ease. "I'm sure," she answered for no less than the sixth time that night. She tore her gaze from the window to glare at the back of her roommate's headrest. "Have I given you reason to doubt me?"
Raymond glanced over his shoulder. He met his roommate’s eyes for a split second before pointedly looking at her bulging crotch.
"That wasn't my fault," Cherry huffed and slunk down into her seat. She didn’t need to be reminded that she had yet to be reunited her grown-up panties, even if the delay had been her own decision. As much as she’d hated doing so, the little had reluctantly sent Raymond down to the local pharmacy to pick up a pack of diapers earlier that afternoon. She’d made it to the toilet every time she’d needed to so far, but Cherry knew her luck wasn’t going to hold out forever. When the time inevitably came for her to have another accident, she didn’t want to be without absorbent undergarments. “And that's creepy. My eyes are up here."
"The last thing I said to you before you went off with Evelyn was to keep your head down," the Amazon sighed. He returned his attention to the world outside his window and quickly found something of interest in the nothingness beyond. "And you show up the next morning with your thumb in your mouth and a used diaper around your waist. You then proceeded to ruin what little was left of my relationship with Sylvia. Would you say that you successfully kept your head down?"
Her roommate wasn’t taking his abrupt return to the bachelor life well at all. "None of that was my fault either?" Cherry suggested with a wince.
"And yet, here we are."
He wasn't being fair. Sure, he was hurting over Sylvia, and sure, her abortion of a rescue hadn’t exactly gone to plan, but that didn't give him the right to hold everything against her the way that he was. He'd been sullen all day. Cherry had only managed to coax him out of the bathroom when her urge to pee reached crisis levels and had her banging on the door with one hand and applying pressure to her padded crotch with the other. Even after that, though, it had been an uphill fight to squeeze two words from her friend. Cold, hard logic evidently couldn’t dull the shards of a broken heart, and if she was being honest, Cherry couldn’t blame him for it. How long had he and Sylvia been together? Well before she’d entered the picture, that was for sure, and that had been a good five or six years ago in itself.
"I'm sorry about this morning," the little said slowly, navigating her apology through the rock-filled waters with care. "And yeah, maybe things didn't quite go to plan - especially what you had in mind for Sylvia with this trip - but you can’t start doubting me now, Ray. Not when the end’s in sight.” She glanced out her window once again, hoping to finally see a splash of colour upon the canvas of the night. Once again, she was disappointed. "Dawn will be here. You'll see."
"I hope you're right," was the answer she got. “Don’t make me regret this.”
They lapsed into a tense, nervous silence, unbroken save for Raymond’s incessant tapping on the wheel. It was a frightfully cold night, and the denizens of Thornbridge had all sought refuge in the comfort and warmth of their home, whether it be Evelyn’s neighbours or the birds in the trees. The world was as quiet as a tomb, and with nothing else to listen to Cherry found herself horribly conscious of the blood in her ears and her own nervous musings. What if Dawn didn’t show up? She’d look like a right idiot if her sister didn’t rock up after everything she’d said to Raymond. Cherry wanted to believe Dawn’s arrival was a foregone conclusion...but really, all she had to go on was one uncertain “sure,” and the confidence she desperately wanted to find never materialised.
Please, sis, the little ruminated in the backseat. Don’t let me down. Not now.
Another full half hour passed before a light finally appeared on the front porch.
She heard Raymond's sharp intake of breath. His drumming stopped. "Finally," he muttered, pressing his face against the window for a better look.
They watched as a second light materialised to the right of the first, and a moment later the sound of a dirty, rundown engine pierced the veil of the night. Twin beacons flickered between the trees, fading in and out of visibility as Evelyn navigated her way down her driveway, and then the monstrous gates that barred Dawn’s prison were swinging open. The noise was like the wail of some unspeakable horror in the throes of death.
“Get down,” Cherry hissed, but Raymond hadn’t needed any prompting. Little and Amazon bunkered down out of sight as Evelyn’s headlights swept over their own vehicle, waiting with baited breath to find out whether or not the giantess would take any interest in their presence. That’d be just their luck, after everything that had happened; to be discovered as their week-long rescue attempt reached its climax.
They weren't, though.
“And now we wait,” Raymond breathed to himself, straightening back up and watching the gates swing shut again. The portal closed with a titanic, shrieking clang loud enough to wake the dead. His finger tapping immediately resumed where it left off. “She better show up, Cherry.”
As it turned out, the wait was much shorter than either of them anticipated. Even before Evelyn’s lights had rounded the corner at the end of the street, the gate was swinging right back open, revealing a small shadow huddled in the driveway. A huge weight rose from Cherry’s chest at the sight. “That’s our cue,” she remarked lightly, fighting the sigh of relief that threatened to escape her lungs. It wouldn’t do to let Raymond know how little faith she’d really had in her sister’s emotional fortitude. She was the strong one, after all. “See? I told you.”
Her roommate didn’t favour that with an answer, although his grunt told Cherry all she needed to know about his thoughts on the matter. Raymond shook his head as he started the car up again, and then they were rumbling across the street and across the threshold of Evelyn Goldworthy’s manor.
“Fancy seeing you here,” Cherry sang as her sister scrambled into the backseat next to her. Raymond was off and pacing again before the chubby little had the door closed. “Look at you, sis.”
Dawn’s face was the colour of week-old milk. “I told you that you could rely on me, didn’t I?” She was wearing the same flimsy nightie as last night, and Cherry noticed that she was shivering as she sat back in her seat. Evelyn hadn't dressed her for the climate outside, and Dawn had evidently been in too big a rush to rectify that detail herself. “I have to help you to help myself.”
Truer words were never spoken. Cherry gave her big sister’s bare thigh a reassuring pat. “It’ll all be over soon,” she promised with as much conviction as she could find. “Tonight’s your last night in this hellhole, sis. You’ll be a free woman a few hours from now.”
Dawn's smile was strained. "I hope you're right, sis," she said weakly. "I hope you're right."
The garage was still open when they finally made it around the last bend in the driveway, and the very first thing Cherry noticed was that the gas bottles hadn’t moved. Dozens upon dozens of canisters had lined the wall that morning, and there they sat still, glimmering beneath the fluorescent lights despite her assumption that Evie had taken them out for a top-up. Her unease, previously simmering at a comfortable temperature, began to bubble and steam. Why were they still here? Wasn’t Evelyn’s midnight rendezvous reliant on having them with her?
Relax, girl. It doesn’t matter. She’s gone, that’s the important part.
She didn’t like not knowing these things, though. Not when so much was at stake. Cherry frowned, wishing she'd stayed downstairs and eavesdropped for just a little longer last night. What was Evelyn's delivery, then?
Cherry wasn't left to her musings long enough to puzzle it out. Sitting atop the bottle closest to the door was a familiar little in a pale blue onesie, his crotch very noticeably bulging from the effort of containing the padding within. Lucas looked up as their car trundled to a halt before him, and for someone that was outfitted like an infant in temperatures approaching zero, the perpetually cynical teenager looked uncharacteristically enthusiastic.
“Tyra!” he exclaimed as they evacuated the car. He slipped off the bottle and landed with catlike graces on all fours. He seemed utterly unperturbed by the cold concrete beneath his hands as he began to crawl towards them, gushing, “Am I happy to see you. Can you believe that - ”
“Keep your voice down.” Raymond’s voice was as sharp as vinegar. He cast a sour glance into the wilderness that surrounded Evelyn’s manor, obviously wondering whether or not the neighbours could hear the entourage's arrival. “I haven’t come this far just to get thrown in prison.”
“No one’s going to hear us.” Lucas shrugged as he followed his saviour’s gaze into the darkness. There was nothing to be found but twisted trees and strangling weeds. “No one here hears you scream here. Trust me, I’d know.”
“Maybe we should have just called the police.” Dawn evidently took Raymond’s concern to heart, because when she stared out into the night, her expression was markedly more agitated than her companions’. She clutched the hem of her nightie and wrung it restlessly between her hands. “Ma - Evie could be back at any minute,” she began in a quivering voice. “Surely we could just - ”
“We will call the police. Just not right now.” The scowl on Raymond’s face dispersed any and all arguments. “Later tonight, once we’re as far away from here as possible. If you’re with her when the police come, they’ll just throw you in an orphanage after they arrest her.” He shrugged a small, stiff shrug, a gesture that was so on edge it made Cherry anxious. “She’s your legal guardian, after all. She did all the paperwork. They won’t just hand you over to us.”
“Ok, but – ”
“No buts. We’re here now.” The Amazon turned his attention to the cheerful boy on the ground. His expression turned thoughtful. “Remind me what your name is, kid.”
“Lucas.” The little favoured the giant towering over him with a Cheshire grin. The traces of hope Cherry had sighted in her sister’s eyes ran as rampant on his face as the weeds did in his adoptive mother's garden. Cherry was pleased to see it. God knew he deserved it after everything Evelyn had put him through. “The one and only.”
“Right. Well, Lucas the One and Only, how useful do you think you are to us?”
Lucas the One and Only’s smile faltered just as it threatened to slice his head in half. “Well,” he began uncertainly. “I don’t – ”
“ – have legs. That’s right. You can wait out here and scream out if you see lights coming our way.” Raymond ran a hand across his scalp and took a deep breath before turning to his female accomplices. “You two, with me," he ordered with a sigh. He looked back down the driveway as if expecting to see Evelyn's headlights rounding the bend at any second. "Let’s tear this place apart.”
A panicked look lanced across Lucas’ face. “Don’t I get a say in it?” He shot a frantic look Cherry’s way in search of aid. “It’s cold out here, and if she comes back...well, I’ll be all by myself. What if she - ”
“Suck it up, Princess. That’s the price of freedom.” Raymond wasn’t inclined to hear anything further on the topic. He grabbed Cherry’s wrist and immediately took off at a brisk pace towards the front door, leaving a stricken Lucas grumbling in the garage. Cherry offered him a sympathetic smile as she passed by, then all of her attention turned to not tripping over her own feet as she stumbled along behind her roommate. Raymond wasn’t wrong, after all. Without the use of his legs, Lucas was more useful as sentry than a thief. That was just the harsh reality of it.
Dawn had left the front door ajar in her haste to open the gate, and they hurried inside without a backwards glance. “Where are we going?” Raymond asked as they stopped, looking about the manor for direction. Shadows clung to every nook and cranny of the entrance hall despite the chandeliers best efforts, bestowing upon the manor a spooky, ghoulish quality that reminded Cherry far too much of a haunted house. “I hope you have half an idea, Cherry, because if we’re going in blind – ”
That was eerily similar to Lucas’ comment yesterday morning. It had rankled her then, and it rankled her now. “The basement,” Cherry interrupted curtly. Why did everyone assume she had no idea what she was doing? “That’s pretty much the one place I couldn’t get into yesterday, so they have to be down there.” She turned to her sister. “Although with that said, there's also the door next to your room. I couldn’t get in there either. What is that?”
Dawn had been looking about the hall as if Evelyn might jump out of the shadows at any moment doing her best Jack Torrance impression. She flinched at her sister’s question. “I don’t know,” she admitted, scrutinising a particularly deep shadow in the doorway to the living room. After confirming its distinct lack of axe-murderers, she turned her attention to Cherry. “I’ve never been in there. I don’t even think Ma – Evie has, at least as long I’ve been around.”
“Basement it is then. Where is it?” Raymond wasn’t wasting any time.
“In the kitchen.” Dawn grimaced and cast a distasteful glance up at her rescuer. The Amazon's gung-ho approach clearly didn't sit right with the nervous little. “But – ”
Raymond had as much time for buts then as he’d had all night. He was on his way before Dawn could finish formulating her protest, marching across the hall, into the kitchen, and coming face to face with their first problem of the night.
The kitchen was even darker than the entry hall. Shadows clung to shadows that hung from shadows, and it wasn’t until her eyes had a moment to adjust that Cherry began to take stock of her environment. The same checkered tiles met her gaze, as did the same table, the same cooktop, the same ceiling fan...and yet, something was different. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what, not straight away, but something was different.
Should I be concerned?
Cherry bit her lip, running her eye over everything in sight for that elusive something. Everything seemed to be in its rightful place...and yet, there was that something niggling at her subconscious, some tiny detail that wasn’t as she’d left it that morning. Was there something on the cooktop that hadn’t been there before? It didn’t look like it, but –
The flowers were gone.
Cherry hesitated, eyeing the empty vase on the tabletop as if it were a bomb poised to explode. Did that matter?
“It’s locked,” Raymond grunted from behind her, interrupting her anxious musings. Cherry turned to find her roommate interrogating her sister. “Do you have the key?” he asked in a voice that revealed more of his frustration than he’d undoubtedly intended. A muscle in his cheek twitched as he shook his head. “Please tell me you have the key.”
Dawn’s hands returned to wringing her nightie. “No,” she began, her voice as small as a mouse. “But – ”
“Fantastic.” Without further comment, Raymond shook his head, cursed, sized up his opponent, and promptly kicked the door into smithereens.
“Ray,” Cherry breathed as the door exploded before the waiter. It bounced off the wall behind it with a sickening crunch before swinging back against the frame, coming to a quivering rest somewhere in the middle. Where the lock had once resided now remained a vacuous ruin of splintered wood and displaced metal, looking for all the world like the bloody, jagged maw of shark. Giant fracture lines radiated out from the point of impact like a spider's web. “You just...Jesus, Ray – ”
“She could be back any minute,” was the answer she got. Raymond shook his foot experimentally to see if he’d damaged anything before hesitantly putting his weight back on it. “I’d rather do that to the door than her face.” A hint of his normal persona resurfaced. “I’m already looking at kidnapping and trespassing charges. Let’s not heap anything more on top of that, okay?”
With that, he disappeared into the gloom that rose from the yawning entrance to the basement. His footsteps steadily grew fainter and fainter as he delved deeper and deeper into the underbelly of Evelyn’s manor.
The littles shared an uncertain look.
“He’s got angry since I last met him,” Dawn observed uncertainly, glancing after the frenzied Amazon. She hugged herself, although whether it was from the cold or out of self-preservation Cherry wasn’t sure. “He wasn’t like this when I was last in Hearth.”
He wasn’t, Cherry agreed sadly. She watched as a light sprang into existence from somewhere down below. It was followed almost immediately by a startled curse. And it’s entirely our fault, sis. He’d still be happily at home with Sylvia if it wasn’t for us.
They found Raymond utterly gobsmacked in the midst of Evelyn Goldworthy’s drug lab.
If one was to ignore the pungent smell of chemicals, the basement might have been mistaken for a kitchen, at least at a glance. The walls were lined with bench-tops and cabinets, and in the middle of the room sat an enormous, scarred table surrounded by a smattering of matching stools. It would have been a very gritty and very dark kitchen – as the only source of illumination was a single dirty light bulb hanging from the ceiling on a rusty chain – but Cherry had seen worse in her time. It wasn’t until her eyes adjusted to the darkness that she noticed the beakers and scales and burners, not to mention the gas canisters beneath the stairs. There had been a good thirty to forty in the garage alone, and here there was at least that again, stacked one on top of another against the wall. She felt her heart sink as she glanced from sight to sight. She hadn’t said a word of untruth to Sylvia that morning; Evelyn really was brewing drugs beneath her house and by the looks of it, she must have been brewing enough to satisfy the demand of all Thornbridge’s entire consumer base.
“Holy shit.” Raymond was as dumbfounded as his companions. He held his head as he crossed to the table for a closer examination, leaning down till he was face-to-face with the arsenal of beakers and jars. The one closest to him was filled with a nameless, neon-green substance, and he looked it over for a long moment before shaking his head and standing back up. “Christ, Cherry, what have you got me into?”
Again with the blame game. Cherry grimaced and looked to her sister for an explanation. “You're asking the wrong person."
The right person wasn't interested in divulging Evelyn's secrets, however. Dawn had wandered to the far right of the room, where – oddly enough – there was a child’s playpen set up against the wall. There were a number of toys scattered about inside, and even a pink blanket emblazoned with Dora’s grinning face, but it was otherwise more of a prison than somewhere a child might be entertained.
Most prisons provide better accommodation, though. “No time to reminisce,” Cherry remarked dryly, watching her sister grasp the bars closest to her. “We have a job to do.”
“Reminisce?” Dawn looked shaken as she stepped away. She glanced at her sister. “I’ve never been down here before. That...that’s not for me."
"Lucas, then?" Cherry moved to stand with Dawn, peering curiously through the bars of the playpen as she did so. What kind of twisted individual left a child to play in a dark, underground drug lab? The little felt her heart sink as she surveyed the play-space, wondering if she really had gone into this blind after all. It seemed like more and more mysteries were arising with every step they took, and there really wasn’t any room for mysteries in their great escape. There was too much at stake for there to be wildcards. "Who else could it be for?"
"I've got no idea, but it's not Lucas." Dawn was transfixed by Dora's smiling visage, horribly out of place amidst its clandestine surroundings. "He didn't find out about all of this till you told him last night, and I've been with him for all of today. He's never been down here."
“Should we be concerned?” Raymond glanced up from the drawers he was rummaging through. The impatience on his face implied he thought they had more pressing issues to contend with. “Whose is it, then?”
Dawn was silent for a long moment. “I don’t know,” she said at last. She tore her gaze from her beloved cartoon companion. “I haven’t got the faintest idea.”
Raymond looked at Cherry for direction, who could only shrug in response. She was an architect, not a detective. How was she expected to know the answer? Telekinesis? Osmosis?
The Amazon quickly came to the same conclusion, because he left the matter with a grunt and got back to work.
They abandoned the mystery of the playpen then and proceeded to spend a long, harrowing period of time searching through all manner of illicit things. The minutes flew by with dizzying speed, inevitably bringing them closer and closer to Evelyn's return, but to the trio’s dismay their best efforts all seemed to be for naught. The giantess hadn't left her keys on the tabletop, and she hadn't hidden them in any of the drawers, either. By the time they'd turned the place upside-down, they'd achieved the impossible feat of making the basement even more of a mess than when they'd found it...but they hadn't achieved the one thing that mattered.
Freeing two unfortunate littles from a life of imprisonment.
This isn’t good, Cherry fretted.
“Cherry,” Raymond at last spoke up in a strained voice. They'd reconvened at the foot of the stairs, and the little could see that both of her companions were beginning to panic. Raymond was breathing heavily, his face drenched in sweat despite the frigid temperature, and Dawn's hands were poised to receive friction-burn from her nightie. “We don’t have time for this. I thought we weren’t going into this blind.”
“We’re not,” the little shot back, but if she was being honest with herself she was beginning to stress too. She’d built this entire plan on the premise that the keys were down here – it was the only place she hadn’t searched, after all – so what did they do now? What were they going to do if they left empty handed? It wasn’t even like they could just pretend that they were never there, because they’d kicked the fucking door down. At this point, there was no possible way that Evelyn wasn’t going to come down on them. “Okay, so they're not here. There's still upstairs, though. The locked door next to Dawn's...right?”
"You're telling the story."
"Upstairs," Cherry repeated, trying to inject a conviction she didn't feel into her voice. She glanced from Dawn to Raymond and back again, abruptly realising that she was the only one holding this charade together. Both of her companions were approaching a nervous breakdown. She took a deep breath, forced a smile to her lips, and said, "And if they're not there, then you can do to Evelyn what you're about to do to your second door of the night."
For a second, Raymond just looked at her. Then he groaned. "Second door?" The Amazon winced and glanced at his foot with regret. "Cherry, you're killing me."
"You spend half your life at the gym. You'll be fine." She shrugged. "This is what you've training for your whole life, tough guy. Come on, let's get moving."
They exploded into a room as silent as the grave.
For a long second, Cherry thought they must have broken into Dawn’s room by mistake. A little’s girl bed dominated the right half of the room, just as Dawn’s did, and the carpet was littered with an assortment of toys and dolls, just as Dawn’s was. It was only upon closer inspection Cherry discovered that although the frilly sheets and pillows were a similar shade of pink, it was a generic ballerina that pranced across the fabric, not Dora’s grinning mug. Similarly, the toys all seemed to be ballerinas and princesses of some description rather than cartoon mascots. The left wall boasted an enormous mirror above a set of elaborately carved drawers the colour of fairy floss, and the curtains were thin enough to admit beams of lilac moonlight through them. The rosy glow bathing the room was as eerie as it was gorgeous.
“What is this?” Cherry carefully picked her way through the debris of the door, looking about the room curiously. She wasn’t entirely sure what she’d expected to find behind the locked door that had defied her last night, but it certainly hadn’t been this. “You really didn’t know this was here, sis?”
“I didn’t, but...” Dawn's voice trailed off as she trudged into the room behind her sister. There was genuine interest in her voice when she picked up the thread. “I mean, I’ve always had a hunch this is what it was. It wasn’t anywhere else, so I figured it must have been her room. Guess I was right.” She sniffed the air and wrinkled her nose. "It smells like something died in here. Man, she really hasn't opened this place up in a while."
“Her room?” Raymond crossed the threshold, and after pausing to take stock of his surroundings made straight for the drawers. He ran a finger across the top, and when he held it up for inspection Cherry could see the layer of dust that clung to his skin. He wiped the digit clean on the side of his jeans. “Whose room?”
“Her daughter’s,” Dawn answered simply. She'd made it all the way to the bed, and now she glanced back at Cherry. “Annabelle’s.”
“This is the daughter Evie was talking about this morning,” Raymond asked uncertainly, looking from little to little as Cherry frowned. Even after her investigation of the house yesterday, she hadn’t thought to wonder why Annabelle’s room had remained conspicuously non-existent. It seemed stupidly obvious to her now – what else could this room have been, after all? – but she hadn’t made the connection. Her lack of thoughtfulness irritated her. We deserve to get caught, at this rate, she grumped to herself. “The one she got all emotional over when Sylvia started talking about parenting?”
Dawn nodded thoughtfully. “Mama never really talks about it, but she had a big falling out with her hubby. He took Annabelle with him when he left.”She stepped further into the room and knelt down to the carpet, carefully taking one of the dolls in hand as she did so. Her face was unreadable as she examined the ballerina she held. “At least, that’s what I’ve been able to work out. I don’t have a lot to work with.”
“You know more than we do,” Cherry said, glancing about uncomfortably. If Dawn was to be believed, this room had been shut tight for at least as long as she’d been captive here, likely longer. She couldn’t help but feel she was intruding on something horribly private, as if they’d broken down the walls of time and space to enter a memory they had no right to enter. It was silly, of course – it was just a little girl's living quarters – but there was something about this pink room that filled her with dread. “Come on, let’s get to work. This place gives me the creeps.”
Raymond’s expletive was quiet and uncharacteristically subdued. He was holding a monstrous leather book that he had presumably found on top of the drawers, a tome so large that he was forced to hold it with both hands. His face was incredulous as he looked Cherry's way. “It’s a photo album,” he said in answer to the question on his roommate’s face. “And...well, you might want to see this.” He glanced at Dawn before lowering himself to the carpet so he could share his finding with his smaller friends. “You too, Dawn...especially you.”
At first, Cherry wasn’t sure what had startled her accomplice. There were three pictures to a page, and with six before her at any one time she found herself recognising many of the photos from downstairs. The same elephant picture she had noted yesterday was among these, as was the one with Annabelle rugged up on an icy tundra with her father. There were plenty she didn’t recognise, too – there was one with Evelyn, her husband and daughter standing in front of a small cottage in the snow, for example. The giantess had scrawled “S.b.P, ’95” beside it, a reference that held absolutely no significance to Cherry whatsoever. Many of the others featured Annabelle in a leotard and a tutu, prancing about a stage alongside similarly-dressed girls. Combined with the theme of the room, it wasn't hard to see what Annabelle's hobbyhorse had been.
She glanced at Raymond, confused. “What am I looking at? These are just pictures of her daughter.”
“It’s an entire fucking book of pictures of her daughter,” Raymond said hoarsely. He reached over Cherry and flipped forward to a random page, and sure enough, they were greeted by even more photos of one Annabelle Goldsworthy. Sometimes she was with her father, and sometimes she was with her mother, but that same smiling girl was in every last one of them. “There’s hundreds of the fucking things.”
“And,” Raymond enunciated that one syllable with microscopic care. “This was tucked into the front page.” He produced a piece of paper from nowhere and passed it to Cherry. “Hold onto your butt.”
It was a newspaper clipping, only a few lines long and apparently not even important enough to warrant a picture. The date at the top was from October 25, 1996. Curious, Cherry glanced at her sister to see if she had any idea what was up. Dawn looked as perplexed as she did.
“Well. Okay.” She turned her attention back to the paper before her and began to read out loud for the sake of her audience. “Thornbridge Shooting Horrifies Locals?” She looked up. "Huh?"
“Keep going,” was all Raymond said.
She did. “On Saturday afternoon, a little girl was shot to death outside her family home in Thornbridge. Annabelle Goldsworthy, 5, was gunned down in broad daylight – ” Cherry’s eyes grew huge. “What?”
“Give me that.” Dawn snatched the clipping from her sister’s hands and picked up where she'd left off. “Annabelle Goldsworthy, 5, was gunned down in broad daylight while her horrified parents looked on, shot no less than four times through the passenger window of a passing vehicle. The Goldsworthy family had been returning home following a walk to the shops when the killer, driving a white, unmarked van, came up from behind and proceeded to mow down the victim. Ms Goldsworthy died on the scene.” Dawn’s voice was shaking as she concluded, “The murderer and their motives have yet to be identified. Anyone with information is urged to contact CrimeStoppers immediately on the number provided. ”
Stunned silence descended upon the group.
“We should leave,” Raymond at last suggested. He was shaking his head as he clambered to his feet. “What she’s done to you is horrible Dawn, but I’m not digging through this room. We shouldn't be in here; she’s made this place into a fucking shrine."
Cherry’s sister didn’t seem to hear him. “What kind of asshole murders a five year old in front of her parents?” Dawn looked ready to cry, and she hurled the paper away as forcefully as she could. It fluttered in the air with a life of its own before coming to a rest at her feet. “No wonder dear Mama is so fucked up; she literally watched her own daughter die.”
It was only then that Cherry noticed that there were a number of other papers clutched in her roommate’s hand, presumably found alongside the newspaper clipping. “What else is there?” Cherry asked numbly, gesturing at his collection. She felt like she should be surprised, but right then she was simply annoyed with herself for not figuring it out sooner. In hindsight, it really should have been obvious; the hints had all been there, but she’d allowed her own assumptions to blind her to the truth. Evelyn’s obsession with her sister, the photos, the psychotic rants, the everything suddenly made a lot more sense than they had five minutes ago. Even the roses from yesterday tied into this, she realised with a start. What was it that Evelyn had said on the phone last night? She’d be paying her respects in the morning? “Do I want to know?"
“Death certificate." Raymond chucked a laminated piece of paper at his companion’s feet. It hit the carpet on its side and bounced away with a comical boing, landing gracefully in Cherry's lap. Sure enough, the obituary confirmed everything written in the paper; Annabelle Goldsworthy, daughter of Evelyn and Harrison Goldsworthy, had died at the age of 5, October 24, 1996. “And this one's for you.” He handed it to Dawn. “Adoption certificate.”
The look on Dawn’s face was as ghastly as the events surrounding Annabelle's demise. “This was in the book?” she breathed, flipping the page over and reading what she found. Her face paled even further. "She kept my adoption certificate in there?"
“She sure did.” Raymond turned back to drawers, and although Cherry couldn’t see what was up there from her vantage point on the floor, she heard something creaking open as her roommate began investigating. “Front page, in fact.”
“So I...I was her daughter's replacement?" Angry tears began to leak down Dawn’s face, and for a terrifyingly long moment Cherry thought her sister might actually puke. Her complexion was as pallid as a corpse as she came to the realisation that she’d been nothing but a coping mechanism for her adoptive mother, a fact that very clearly did not sit right with the pudgy little. Cherry could almost see the gears ticking in her sibling’s head, and sure enough, Dawn’s next comments confirmed her suspicions. “All this time I thought she was just looking out for me in her own way, that she actually loved me...and at the end of the day, I’m just a stand-in for her daughter.” She laughed a bitter, humourless laugh. “If it wasn't me, it would have been the next little she found an excuse to hijack. What a load of shit.”
Cherry smiled sympathetically. “I’m sorry, sis,” she attempted to console her sibling. “I can’t even imagine – ”
Something crashed into the little’s chest.
She'd been so absorbed in her sister’s reaction that she hadn’t noticed Raymond doing his thing. Startled, Cherry glanced down to see what he was offering her. It was a sizeable, wooden jewellery box, the paint chipped and faded with age. Puzzled, she looked up at her companion. “What am I meant to do with this?”
A hint of a smile dawned on Raymond’s face, but all he said was, “Open it.”
She opened it. The inside was lined with a brilliant red felt that was smooth and pleasant to touch, and despite the box’s size, it was occupied by only three items of note. The first of these was a necklace that was clearly meant to look like it was made of pearls, although further investigation revealed that they were actually plastic. It was sized just right for a little's - or a child's - neck. Cherry turned it over in her hands before putting it back where she’d found it, feeling distinctly uneasy as she did so. This must be what grave robbing feels like, she mused uncomfortably, shuddering at the thought. This box was obviously where Annabelle Goldsworthy had once kept her treasures, and in light of everything that had happened to Evelyn’s daughter, Cherry didn’t take any joy going through her possessions. It felt wrong. Sorry Annabelle. Blame your mother.
The second item was a tiny, plastic tiara. The ‘ruby’ set in its crown was perhaps the cheapest accessory Cherry had ever seen on just about anything, although it having earned a place in Annabelle’s jewellery box implied that its owner had loved it all the same. Cherry didn’t doubt that for a second – it was just tacky enough to win the heart of any prospective princess. She brushed it aside, wondering what it was that Raymond wanted her to see...and that was when she saw the glimmer of gold at the bottom of the box. Her heart leapt into her throat.
Please, God, let this be what I think it is. She reached for the sparkling object half-obscured beneath the tiara, suddenly nervous enough to faint. She shouldn’t be getting her hopes up, she shouldn’t, and yet...
She emerged with a tiny, golden key.
"I feel fucking violated," Dawn was saying to herself. She'd wondered across the room and thrown open the curtains, seemingly with the sole purpose of inspecting the full moon. Her back was to her companions, but Cherry could still see that her big sister was physically shaking. Her voice wasn’t any steadier. "All these months she spent telling me she loves me, she was actually – ”
The little broke off mid-sentence and looked over her shoulder. Her cheeks were flushed and streaked with tears, and Cherry abruptly realised that her sibling hadn’t crossed the room with the intention of checking out the moon. Smiling sympathetically, Cherry held up her discovery between her thumb and forefinger.
A peculiar change came over her sister’s face. As if in a dream, she wondered back over to where her companions stood by the dresser, breathing heavily and wringing her nightie. "Is that what I think it is?" she breathed, not daring to raise her voice above a whisper. She unhanded her dress only long enough to wipe at her eyes, clearly embarrassed at having been caught crying. “Is that...”
"I don't know," Cherry admitted. She gestured at her sister's nightie. "I know one way to find out, though."
Without a word, Dawn raised the offending article of clothing out of the way, exposing her bare legs, tummy and training panties to anyone that cared to see. The pudgy woman blushed and turned her face away, but she remained quiet as her little sister knelt down to examine the reason they were standing where they were. Dawn's padlock glimmered in the moonlight, protruding just far enough out of her belly-button to be viewed side on. The sight filled Cherry with both disgust and a wild, desperate hope.
Here goes nothing, the little thought nervously. With no small amount of trepidation, she slotted the golden key inside her sister's tracking device, praying she hadn’t got her sister’s hopes up for nothing...
...and heard a tiny, answering click from deep inside the mechanism.